4 Forgotten Films To Watch On Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day and though there are plenty of newer films available to honor the day, why not celebrate the feminine with a few forgotten old school films? None of the films on this list were commercial blockbusters at their time of release but all of them are now highly respected and/or considered classics with the added benefit of having kick-ass soundtracks. Enjoy.

Season of the Witch (a.k.a Jack’s Wife) (1972) Dir: George A. Romero

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Image ©Arrow Video

The only film on the list written and directed without the input of a woman, this film nonetheless shows remarkable insight into the minds of aging housewives in the late 1960’s at the dawn of the women’s liberation movement. The plot concerns Catholic housewife Joan (Jan White), who has spent the best years of her life doting on her abusive husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst), and raising her very cool free-thinking daughter, who is now in college and no longer needs her. Despite having all the comforts of a suburban life, she regularly attends therapy sessions for her recurring nightmares in which she is tied up like a dog and left in a kennel by Jack. Eventually, she meets a practicing female occultist and decides to explore “the craft” in an effort to gain meaning and empowerment in her life. The question at the heart of the film is whether witchcraft is responsible for Joan’s ensuing emancipation, or her decisions. She casts spells, but she also initiates practical steps that are in no way supernatural and directly lead to her having an affair with her daughter’s boyfriend, breaking off her relationships with her older, more conservative-thinking female friends, and ultimately to the death of her husband. The power, it seems, was Joan’s all along and it is her decision alone who she will submit to. No irony is spared when we see her dead husband being carted away on a stretcher intercut with images of her kneeling down, completely nude for indoctrination into her local coven. Entirely happy with her new identity, the film’s conclusion is nonetheless haunting as it seems the rest of the world has yet to catch up with the new modern Joan as she is still referred to socially as “Jack’s wife.”

In the UK, Arrow Video will be releasing this film later this year on Blu-Ray. Definitely check it out.

Foxes (1980) Dir: Adrian Lyne

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Image ©Warner Home Video

Starring a young Jodie Foster and The Runaways’ Cherie Curie, the film follows the friendship of a group of girls in L.A. in their last year of High School in the late ‘70s. Although each girl has a coming-of-age storyline, the plot’s focus lies mainly with latchkey kid Jeanie (Foster), and her close relationship with her druggie friend Annie (Curie) who constantly parties to avoid going home to her physically abusive policeman father. Director Lyne is no stranger to drawing complex authentic performances from his female actors as evidenced by his excellent take on Nabokov’s Lolita (1997) and this film is no exception. Jeanie is not just a kid. She’s the smartest person in the room even when she’s with her mother or her teachers. She takes care of everyone and everything. Consequently, she has difficulty finding people who will look after her when she needs it. Her parents are divorced and both act younger than her. After tragedy befalls one of their group, Jeanie leaves them all behind for college and hopefully a better future.

Times Square (1980) Dir: Allan Moyle

Time Square

Image ©Network Video

This film is probably my favorite on the list. The development of the unlikely friendship between shy well-off Pam (Trini Alvarado) and volatile street musician Nicky (Robin Johnson) into the Sleeze sisters, who become beloved by all the young girls in the city for their take no bullshit attitude and music is only enhanced by the backdrop of decaying 1980 Manhattan, which almost becomes a character in and of itself with the age-old question of culture vs. gentrification featuring prominently. The changing city has an important impact on the way these divergent girls come together to understand each other, their sexualities, and the outside commercial world. In the end, the message is one of rebellion, self-expression and believing in yourself, even when at odds with those closest to you. As if those weren’t enough reasons to see it, the soundtrack rocks and Tim Curry plays a DJ.

Girls Town (1996) Dir: Jim Mckay

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Image ©Lions Gate Films

Not to be confused with the 1950’s Mamie Van Doren movie, this title is another film about the last year of high school, this time set in gritty urban New Jersey. The film follows a gang of four girls (Lili Taylor, Bruklin Harris, Anna Grace and Aunjanue Ellis) one of who is a single teen mother to a little girl, who must cope in the aftermath of the rape and subsequent suicide of one of their group. Feelings of rage, sadness and hopelessness cause the surviving three to act out towards in various ways, to just about everyone in their periphery despite the prospect of college and a better future. The girls become closer in their shared trauma but and they know in their hearts, that no matter where any of them end up in life, this will be the event that defines their friendship. The writing (with contributions from co-star Lily Taylor) is especially poignant when dealing with mother-daughter issues and the guidance or lack thereof provided after the incident. This one is hard to find as it was only ever made available on VHS, but it is worth looking for the occasional screenings on IFC, which is where I first discovered it. The performances are incredibly strong and the soundtrack features some great music from that era, including Queen Latifah’s U.N.I.T.Y., which is used to great affect as the girls patrol their neighborhood spoiling for a fight.

 

 

Honoring Divine in the Month of March

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Image © 2017 The Criterion Collection

This month marks the 29th anniversary since the death of Divine, the actor, singer and drag queen most famous for the films he made with his friend and fellow Baltimore native, John Waters. Recently, a full six months after its release in North America, the United Kingdom was blessed with the limited theatrical release of the newly restored version of Waters’ second film 1970 Multiple Maniacs. On the 21st, The Criterion Collection will be releasing the title on DVD and Blu-Ray and for fans, it is essential viewing.

For mainstream audiences the 1988 feel-good Hairspray, its subsequent Broadway musical adaptation and then play’s 2007 cinematic re-adaptation are likely their first introductions to the duo. But, for those casual fans curious about the humble beginnings of Waters and his muse Divine (aka Harris Glenn Milstead) Multiple Maniacs is as good a starting point as any and perhaps a gentler introduction to the pair’s oeuvre than the more famous Pink Flamingos (1972.)

The plot of Multiple Maniacs concerns “Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions” where unsuspecting middle-class punters pay to see such late ‘60s American horrors as “real homosexuals kissing” in a Baltimore roadside carnival scam where everyone is eventually humorously robbed, humiliated or killed. Like all of Waters’ early work with Divine, the story is secondary to the visuals, which are indeed meant to shock and include simulated sexual acts with a rosary inside a church and a sexual assault perpetrated by a giant lobster.

Past reviews have referred to the film as “outrageous”, and “grotesque.” It is also agreed by many to be very funny and it was indeed, a hell of a good time to watch it with an audience at the BFI.

In the 47 years since its initial release, the one word that has probably never been associated with Multiple Maniacs is charming. Not charming as intended by a film like Marley and Me (which is arguably a more traumatic a viewing experience) but charming like your favorite nephew’s first student film that had monsters running around in it. Where the director and crew had not yet mastered the technical skills associated with good filmmaking but whose results made it abundantly clear that those kids put their hearts and souls into every frame.

Rather than being mean-spirited, the scenes of violence in Multiple Maniacs are frequently evocative of child’s play, with Divine’s knife strikes missing their intended targets by a good 18 inches. Compared to modern rebellious cinema, such as the New French Extremity movement, this film feels innocent. The missed cues, flubbed dialogue, out-of-focus zooms and awkward editing only add to the experience and more than once, I found myself rooting for Edith Massey (the egg lady from Pink Flamingos, 1972) to get through a whole take without missing a line.

Of course, as with all of Waters’ earlier works, Divine is the standout performer of the piece. He effortlessly recites pages upon pages of dialogue without missing a word, hits all of his marks perfectly and ultimately elevates the proceedings to new heights in his high heels. The camera loved him, whether he played men or women. Waters knew this and his instinct to showcase Divine’s talents whenever possible was part of what made him into the cult hero director he is today. Had Divine lived, he would have no doubt enjoyed the same enduring success.

As fate would have it, March 7th is the 29th anniversary of Divine’s death. He died of heart failure at the age of 42 in 1988 on the eve of starting work on what was likely to become a groundbreaking recurring role as the openly gay Uncle Otto on the American sitcom Married With Children.

Of his late friend and long-time collaborator, Waters once said “I think he changed drag queens forever. Ru Paul’s show wouldn’t be there. His legacy was that he made all drag queens cool. They were square then, they wanted to be Miss America and be their mothers.”

So, in honor of the great Divine, (and John Waters who was recently bestowed the Writers’ Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award) pick yourself up a copy of Criterion’s newly restored Multiple Maniacs on DVD or Blu-Ray, make some popcorn and have some friends around. Soon you’ll all be quoting such award-winning lines as “I love you so fucking much…I could shit!”

Sources:

http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/26962/1/john-waters-remembers-legendary-drag-queen-divine

https://www.criterion.com/films/28954-multiple-maniacs

5 Films in 5 Weeks – Halloween Edition

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It’s 5 weeks until Halloween. In the run-up to the big day, there will be parties, costumes, candy and decorations. Part of celebrating the season includes watching scary films. If you’re too busy to look through the longer lists available online, here’s a short tally of recommendations for your viewing pleasure, on per week in the run up to Halloween 2016.

  1. The Thing (1982) Dir: John Carpenter

THE GREATEST HORROR MOVIE EVER MADE. All the films on this list lose nothing with repeated viewings, but The Thing is so well constructed, that the mystery deepens each time. Details emerge that we didn’t notice the first (or fifth) time. Every shot, every edit and every plot twist are perfectly crafted to keep us guessing and on the edge of our seats. There is no waste. It is a lean, mean scaring machine with great acting, atmosphere, real in-screen special effects and creatures the way your wannabe Tom Savini loving cousin used to make. You haven’t seen it? “You gotta be fucking kidding me!” If you have, go watch it again. See if you can figure out if Doc was infected when he logged on to the computer.

  1. Halloween (1978) Dir: John Carpenter

The first of two films by John Carpenter on this list. Though the re-make by Rob Zombie gets its fair share of respect from audiences, I was not one of the champions. I threw my remote at the TV as the credits rolled. Then I re-watched the original classic to wash the bad taste from my mouth. Michael Myers was scarier when we didn’t know why he killed. He just did. That’s all we need to know. The story, though simple, is so well photographed, acted and scored that it still holds up 38 years later. Watch it with the lights off and if you’ve seen it, watch it with someone who has never had. It’s fun to see people jump the way we did the first time and it really brings home how effective Carpenter is as a director.

  1. The Exorcist (1973) Dir: William Friedkin

Lauded as the “scariest movie of all-time” it needs no exposition. Full disclosure: I was unable to watch this all the way through until I was 41 years old and yes, I had nightmares after.

  1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Dir: Tobe Hooper

Far superior to the 2003 re-make. I base my opinion on my experience of watching a restored print at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, CA with an audience of millennial film students. Initially, they were dismissive, chuckling at the bell-bottoms and astrology-driven dialogue. But, once Leatherface made his first kill with his handy sledgehammer, they became silent. They remained so through the continued mayhem until well after the end credits. When the house lights came they revealed expressions of traumatized dismay. 42 years later, it still packs a punch. Right in the gut. With the business end of a sledge.

  1. Evil Dead (2013) Dir: Frede Alvarez

In a sea of bad re-makes of horror classics, this one stands a mountain above the rest and deserves a place on this list. It respects the Sam Raimi classic while updating it smartly within the narrative. It increases the tension of the original situation by adding the specter of drug addiction and ramps up the pace and effects to such an extent that when it was over, I had all but forgotten all about my undying love for Ash and his boom stick. Of course, if this list were longer, I would honor that love and tell you to watch the original as well as its two awesome sequels. Groovy.

Got a scary film you’d think I overlooked or a list of your own? Please share it in the comments section! Happy Halloween and Happy Viewing!

Spotlight: Filmmaker Julia Marchese

Out of Print

 

This Thursday, London’s top revival independent cinema The Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square will be screening first-time-director Julia Marchese’s indie-documentary Out of Print, a fun and informative film that highlights theatres just like the Prince Charles. Those reasonably priced privately owned cinemas with double features, theme nights and old-school popcorn with real butter. There aren’t many of these places left in 2016 no matter where you live and that is why Marchese made this movie.

Although the film largely focuses on Marchese’s former employer, The New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, through the eyes of its employees and customers such as director Joe Dante, the broader theme highlights the consequence of the advent of digital formats on the little guys as well as the relevance of watching older films in their intended formats and the importance of film preservation in general.

The financial struggle for these cinemas is real. Especially in the light of a recent decision by several major studios to halt the striking and distribution of any 35mm prints for any films, new or old regardless of how they were originally made.

As a Los Angeles resident with for 15 years with a passion for film, I spent many an evening at the New Beverly. I remember Julia selling me tickets and wondered how she made the transition from behind the ticket counter to behind the camera. She was kind enough to answer my questions in an interview conducted via e-mail last week. This is the edited version. Julia herself will be on hand Thursday at the screening to answer more questions after the film.

Q: Independent filmmakers all face great challenges, from raising money in the beginning to distribution in the end. Which were the most difficult challenges to overcome and what are you the most proud of, looking back over the past 4 years? 

A: “I’m proud that I set out to make a film and I did. My motto (like Elvis’) is Taking Care of Business in a flash. I’m proud that I took this movie from an idea in my head to a 35mm print. The most fun thing about it was learning how to do everything. And luckily I had so many incredible people to guide me through every step.”

“The most difficult thing was getting fired from the New Beverly after the film was already complete. It was so bloody crushing to have a film that suddenly switches from a joyous one to a melancholy one. I have a film that promotes a place that I no longer wish to promote, so I feel like that has hindered my joy about the whole project a bit. Now I would make an entirely different film, of course. But the film has a bigger message – that EVERY independent cinema is important, so THAT I can be proud of.”

Q: When making Out of Print, where did you draw your inspiration? Were there any documentaries that you watched that inspired you? 

A: “Yes! The four that I repeatedly watched were Exit Through the Gift Shop, Grey Gardens, Cinemania and American Movie. All of these films treat their subjects with reverence and a sense of humor that I love. Each one is endlessly watchable and absolutely fascinating every time.”

Q: Who is your favorite filmmaker?  

A: “Alejandro Jodorowsky. His films absolutely blow my mind. He is unlike any other filmmaker out there, and he is still making such extraordinary work. Dance of Reality was terrific and I donated to his campaign for his new movie, Endless Poetry.”  

Q: Since your petition to preserve film prints, what positive developments have happened in the area of film preservation? 

 A: “Across the world, there are thousands of dedicated souls working in archives everyday to preserve film prints. They were there before I made Out of Print, and they will be there after, and I am so grateful to each and every one of them for choosing to spend their lives saving the past. No matter what the studio decide, we will always have these silent warriors fighting the good fight.”

Q: In Out of Print, one of the interview subjects drew a very apt parallel with the digitalization of music. Vinyl has had a recent resurgence, with many old classic albums being re-issued over the past 18 month and bands even releasing new material in both formats side by side. Do you see this as a trend that may happen with film? Why or why not? 

A: “…The thing about vinyl is that it is a medium directly available to the public – film prints are owned by companies. There are 35mm collectors, but they are few and far between, and were never meant to be owned by the public. …It’s tricky.”

Q: What other developments, technical or otherwise, do you potentially see happening in the future regarding film preservation?  

A:  “Sooner or later, the studios are going to realize that all films need to be stored on film. Hopefully that will cause them to up their production of it again – digital just isn’t permanent.”

Q: This film goes a long way at getting the word out on the importance of revival cinemas and film preservation. What do you think that revival and repertory theaters could do on their own to help the cause and improve their bottom lines? 

A: “Making every single customer feel comfortable and like they’re part of the community is so important. Try new things. See what others around you are programming, and ask for help if you need it.”

Q: You spent some time filming in London at the Prince Charles Cinema for Out of Print. What is the biggest difference in the film-geek culture that you saw in Los Angeles vs. London? 

 A: “I programmed a double feature of Fast Times at Ridgemont High & Night of the Comet at the Prince Charles Cinema, so I got to see those up on the big screen, and I caught a midnight screening of El Topo there too. (Jodorowsky! Yay!) The audiences for both were awesome. There really wasn’t much of a difference and that was what was so bitchin’. Movie geeks are pretty awesome everywhere you go – that’s what makes independent cinemas so cool! “ 

Q: What project or projects are you working on now?

A: “I am hoping to start a new project in the UK, filming a series of mini-docs. Each one will focus on a single cinema, and we will see it through the eyes of the employees and regulars – the people who love it most. I’m really excited!”

Tickets for Thursday’s screening with director Q&A are available here: https://www.princecharlescinema.com/performances/16661/

The Women of Star Wars

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A few days ago, the trailer for the latest Star War film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story dropped online. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frdj1zb9sMY

For those unfamiliar, it is a stand-alone prequel that takes place immediately before the events of 1977’s Episode IV: A New Hope and tells the story of the mission to retrieve the plans for the Death Star which ultimately led to its destruction by Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance. Remember the data that Princess Leia hid inside R2D2 for delivery to Obi-Wan Kenobi on Tatooine? That’s what the team in this film will be stealing. From the Empire. Before Darth Vader was killed. So, it’s a pretty important and dangerous errand. And from the trailer, it looks as though the task will be assigned to a woman by a woman. [Insert fist pump here.]

First, we have Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), who was supposed to have made an appearance in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith as a Senator and one of the founding members of what would later become the Rebel Alliance, but was cut from the finished film. In Episode VI: Return of the Jedi she appeared as one of the strategic leaders of the destruction of the second Death Star. In the new film, Mothma recruits another strong woman, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who is described on the Rogue One Wookiepedia page as a loner with a criminal past who is “impetuous, defiant and eager to bring battle to the Empire.” Essentially, she is Han Solo with a vagina. She is also the first female within the Universe to have a checkered past and was the first action figure design to be released to the public. With this new progressive development, it seems relevant to take a look back on the evolution of the main female characters throughout Star Wars history, critically and commercially.

Jyn follows on the heels of the strength of other female characters in the Universe, beginning of course with Princess Leia Organa, the outspoken rebel leader who got caught as a spy and not only showed no remorse, but insulted Darth Vader to his face in his own castle and lived to tell the tale. She endured torture and watched her adopted home planet being blown up by her captors and still didn’t give up the location of the rebel base. There are those who argue that she wouldn’t have survived had it not been for Luke and Han rescuing her, but in the context of her knowing that the plans had been stolen, it only makes her stronger. She was ready to die in that prison cell should her cohorts successfully launch a run on the Deathstar while she was still on board. Then, she bagged Han Solo, the bad-boy with the heart of gold on her own terms, giving up none of her strength of character in the process. [Insert high-five here]. Not to mention rescuing him from Carbonite and choking Jabba the Hutt with her own slave chains while rocking a bikini. She was an icon for a generation of young girls. We embraced her in the form of readily available dolls and action figures and dressed up in the official Princess Leia Halloween costume. Generation X girls had it good.

Then came the prequels and arguably weakest female lead of the Universe. Although Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) in Episodes I-III is a morally strong elected leader on her planet Naboo, she talks more than she acts. She is very rarely pro-active in any way (other than with her hair and wardrobe) and simply allows things to fall apart around her. She voices her concerns to the Senate time and time again, but she spends most of her time hiding out, or sitting in her throne room lamenting the crappy future. Then, in the most baffling development of all, she falls in love with, marries and becomes impregnated by a whiny teen stalker-cum-serial-killer who later becomes Darth Vader. Why? What is likeable about this guy on any level? Yes, he can make apples float using the force. But he’s an asshole to the core, who only sees her an object of beauty and clearly has nothing in common with her. She is even denied a decently written death in childbirth when the robot OB-GYN rolls into the room and declares “We don’t know why. She has lost the will to live.” So, she would rather die and leave her unborn children parentless than envision a life without the serial-killer dude who just slaughtered 50 kids. This is the mother of Princess Leia? Seriously? Deep sigh. Despite the poor example she set on screen, Padme was graced with a rich and varied line of merchandise available to the kids of the ‘90s, which was consistent with the marketing of the original films.

Then came Rey, the sarcastic force-sensitive ace-pilot survivalist of last year’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Rey was reminiscent both visually and in terms of personality, of Leia Organa, who is represented now as a General. She was set up to the start of the next generation of Jedi. But the franchise’s new parent company, Disney, made the mind-bogglingly bad decision to exclude her from the first run toy line despite her being the MAIN character of the film. After a social media rebellion of its own, Disney had to reverse course and make her the star of the second line of toys. Something we took for granted in 1977 and again in the late ‘90s was now something young girls had to fight for. This showed a clear regression in the understanding of the appeal of such characters to young girls and their spending power by those in charge of marketing.

So, here we are 2016 with the trailer for Rogue One and the merchandise preview. So far, it looks like Disney, as the new guardians of the franchise, is taking its first step into a larger world. A world, that is old yet new again, filled with well-written strong female characters AND widely available connected merchandise. Let’s hope they continue this trajectory so that the young girls of today will have the same great memories 30 years from now that countless women have today. May the Force be with them. Always.