Black Swan review : so what was the hype all about again?

So it was one of those Saturday nights when I had nowhere to go and decided I’d watch “Black Swan”.

There was me, Irish housemate, single English housemate with ballet/dancing background dying to watch “Black Swan”, English couple, one half of which is the woman with the PhD and is published, the other half of which is the cook and overall houseperson.

See there was much hype about Black Swan, and well, I hate hype and wouldn’t have watched it for that. I did hear about the girl-on-girl scenes so I’d watch it for that.

In a nutshell: mentally stable, repressed, possibly virginal, ballerina (Natalie Portman) gets lead in “Swan Lake”and proceeds to have a very disturbing, gory breakdown which includes hallucinations, fears of splintering fingers and feet, fears of being followed by strangers, fears of losing lead role to hot, sexy alternate (Mila Kunis) with whom she may or may not have a night of drunken, brazen sex with, and imagining herself sprouting wings and what-not.

Let me just say – this is a load of unbelievably pretentious crap that is accidentally funny, unbearably tedious and torturous and overall, a waste of two hours of my life I can never get back. I’m still wondering what Portman won the Oscar for.

Darren Aronofsky – you owe me!

127 Hours – a study in existential transformation in the most unlikely of places

So, a former housemate of mine introduced me to “127 Hours” with the idea that it is about a guy who cuts off his arm when he is trapped in a boulder in a canyon for five days.

I didn’t think much of it, but I did copy his copy of it. I had heard it nominated for the Oscars (as of press time it had lost out to “The King’s Speech”) and that made my interest a bit more piqued. But not sufficiently piqued as to actually watch it. The thought of another film, much like “Castaway”(can you actually bear tw hours of Tom Hanks? I didn’t think so) and “Ladder 49” where someone is trapped somewhere and you watch two hours of the person struggling, just seems unbearably boring for me. So I held out on it til yesterday, when I was at home, having watched all of my movies and now ready for “127 Hours”.

After finally watching it, though, I had to kick myself for not having watched it sooner. The difference between this film and the ones that came before it, was director Danny Boyle’s trademark filmmaking style and James Franco’s gritty performance as Aron Ralston.

Boyle’s frenetic, kinetic, filmmaking style, fraught with MTV-saturated images, backed by an upbeat soundtrack that pushes rather than constrains the scenes and breathtaking cinematography of the Utah canyons, does not interfere at all with Franco’s intense depiction of a solitary, secretive man who is more at home in the wilderness than in the office, and who, moment-by-moment, manages to infuse this character with more life even without dialogue or other characters. The script is fast-paced and clean, and clocking in at one hour, 30 minutes, and proves that the age-old adage, less is more, is true in this case.

There is no Wilson in this movie, no elaborate flashbacks to stretch the drama. In fact, flashbacks are not treated as such, and are actually both memory and introspection and imagination for Franco’s Ralston, who imagines his treatment of past lovers, family and friends with casual indifference at first, but gradually, as the days progress, with much regret. But the most fascinating thing about this movie is the age-old theme of literatures past, man vs. nature and man vs. himself, when, stripped of all the trappings of everyday urban life, Franco’s Ralston comes to appreciate the daily routine only a man trapped in a boulder can appreciate: 15 minutes of sun on his toes, a bird flying overhead for eight seconds, water, camera, the luxury of memories, and also comes to appreciate the devastating realization that he was responsible for where he was in now and no other, and thus, being responsible for himself and his actions, his destiny and his future, Ralston is able to break free from his predicament by doing the one unimaginably harrowing thing anyone can do: cut off his arm with a cheap, dull, China-made knife. I think that was the most compelling part of this film – the idea of accountability and of personal responsibility, an amazing existential moment that seems unusual in post-millenium cinema.

I like this so much I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a great film to watch this year. If you are going to watch anything, watch “127 hours”.

Retro-review: All Over Me

Back from a long absence!

So I’ve been just reading (speculative fiction anthology edited by Ursula K. Le Guin, book by Terry Pratchett), or hunting for books to read (Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” – which was already sold at the bookshop where I normally go to for good bargains. I have book two, but what’s the point of that if I don’t have book one, dammit?!?), or watching (All Over Me, Mulholland Drive, Harry Potter and the Death Hallows Part 1, I Love You Philip Morris, etc.) or looking for ways to get movies without actually spending atrocious amounts of money. Well, I’ve come across a nice friend with a massive external hard drive who’s been kind enough to let me watch the movies in her  drive.

So I’m going to talk about, “All Over Me“.

File:AllOverMeIndieFilm.jpg“All Over Me” (1997) (directed by Alex Sichel, produced by  Dolly Hall and written by Sylvia Sichel)  is a movie about coming out, coming-of-age and coming to terms with the changes without imploding or disintegrating. The movie is less like the big, clean, polished, Hollywood studio produced films about coming out as of late, and more like the hardcore underground indie films where the coming out process is painful, and sometimes downright traumatic, like a bandage being ripped from a wound that hasn’t completely healed yet. Set to the riffs (and sometimes pluckings) of music by Leisha Hailey (The L-Word) and Miki Navazio, the movie effectively captures what’s it like to be 16 and to come out through the eyes of Claude (Alison Folland). Claude has an intensely close, almost unhealthy and increasingly codepedent friendship with bestfriend Ellen (Tara Subkoff), with whom she hopes to start a band with. But Ellen is in love with the abusive, macho Mark (Cole Hauser) and this makes Claude jealous and confused, and eventually realizes that she’s in love with her bestfriend. Ellen’s new relationship with Mark, and with the drugs he supplies her, makes her drift away from Claude and their plans for a rock band, ocassionally appearing only to have Claude make her feel better when she and Mark have fights. Claude meets pink-haired guitarist Lucy (Leisha Hailey), first in a music shop, then in a gay bar, and they start making out after. Claude freaks out though and realizes that she is hopelessly, irrevocably in love with her bestfriend. This is a heartbreaking realization for her, and even more heartbreaking when we see her casually confessing her love to Ellen and having Ellen angrily tell her never to tell her that ever again. Claude struggles to accept  her budding homosexuality, her separation from her bestfriend and a budding relationship with Lucy.

The film feels a bit raw and would have benefitted from a bit more tweaking, but there is an honesty and accuracy to the film’s depiction of coming out that I liked. Coming out has never been easy, even though Hollywood likes to think it is. In truth, it’s messy, it’s painful, it’s heartwrenching, but as Dan Savage et.al. have said, it gets better. It really does.

Movies! in 3 lines or less!

This is escapism I know, but one needs something to cope with all the madness and chaos that is the Philippines. So here are the movies I’ve watched in three lines or less:

1. 17 AGAIN:

Mike O’Donnell (Matthew Perry) – or as we like to call him, Chandler: I want to be 17 again.

Mike O’Donnell (Zac Efron) – or as we like to call him, that guy Troy Bolton from High School Musical: I want to be a high school jock again!

Fans: Trying to suspend disbelief – how can somebody who looks like Zac Efron grow up to look like Chandler?!?

2. ANGELS and DEMONS

Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor): The pope is dead! Long live the Illuminati!

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks):  The pope is dead! Long live symbology!

Fans: Screw this! We’re just watching it for Ewan McGregor!

3. NEW MOON

(Ok this hasn’t come out yet, but I’ve read the book, so)

Edward: I can’t be with you. I’ll go to Italy and kill myself.

Jacob: I’m a werewolf and while Edward is away, I’ll make my move on Bella.

Bella: I will remain completely self-absorbed. Like I did in the last movie.

4. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT

Family: We will vacation in the woods, somewhere away from civilization where of course, a group of psycho criminals will find us and wreak havoc on our picture perfect family.

Criminals: We will take your daughter, rape, torture and kill her.

Family: You missed. Now we torture and kill you.

5. DARK KNIGHT

Bruce Wayne: I am a rich playboy with a lot of issues who has a penchant for bats and for wearing costumes.Oh, I have the hots for the district attorney’s girlfriend.

Joker: I am a crazy man with a lot of issues with a penchant for bats and waring costumes and lipstick.

District Attorney Harvey Dent: You killed my girlfriend! Now I have a lot of issues as well! Oh, and I’m going to kill you both!

6. THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS

German boy: I am a lonely young boy with no playmates whose father is the commander of the Auschwitz camp.

Jewish boy: I am a lonely young boy with no playmates and I am about to die in the camp.

German boy: Let’s be friends! And I’ll sneak into the camp and die in the gas chamber with you and end the movie.

7. FREEDOM WRITERS

Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank): I am young, privileged, naive, white teacher with an insecure (but really hot!) husband, intent on making a difference in my poor high school students’ lives.

Students: What the f*ck do you know about being poor?!?

Erin Gruwell: Let me tell you about Anne Frank.

8. CLOVERFIELD

Lily (Jessica Lucas): My boyfriend’s brother has been promoted to VP and is moving to Japan. I will throw a party, have my boyfriend video it, invite my boyfriend’s brother’s bestfriend who had a one-night stand with him and complicate things.

Lily’s boyfriend, Jason: I will ask my friend Hud to video it instead because I can’t be bothered with all this.

Hud the Cameraman: I am in love with one of the guests and will video her instead.

Lily’s boyfriend’s brother, Rob: A disaster just struck and I will drag you all over New York trying to rescue the love of my life.

Monster: I don’t care about your stupid storyline. I’ll eat you all and end the movie.

9. THE SPIRIT

The Spirit: I don’t know what I am, but I like saving people.

The Octopus: I hate The Spirit and I hate people. I’ll just make life a living hell for The Spirit and the people.

Moviegoer: I cannot believe this crappy movie ever got made.

10. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE:

Jude: I am a working class lad from Liverpool in search of my father who I believe works in Yale, save up to go to the US, find out my father is a janitor in Yale, befriend a Yalie drop out, meet his pretty (and really hot!) sister, Lucy, move to New York, get deported and try to win his sister back.

Lucy: I will just be the object of Jude’s affection. Oh, and get involved in anti-Vietnam protests.

Prudence: I am the token closeted Asian-American lesbian in love with the New York landlady with a promising storyline that suddenly quietly disappears.

Director: I’ll throw in some other characters and compress all the issues of the 60s into this one movie, plus add in the coolest Beatles music sung with psychedelic backdrop.

Moviegoer: Awesome! (at least for me it was. Who can resist a Beatles’ musical?!?)

11. MAMMA MIA

Sophie (Amanda Seyfried): I don’t know who my father is! I need to know who it is before my big wedding! I’ll steal my mom’s diary, find out my mom slept with three men, invite them all to the wedding and figure out who my father is.All the tune of Abba songs!

Donna (Meryl Streep): I don’t know who my daughter’s father is. I see all three of them before the big wedding and start singing Abba songs!

Three possible fathers: We don’t know which one of us is Sophie’s father. But who cares?!? We’ll just have a ball singing and dancing (rather excruciatingly) to Abba songs!

Moviegoer (mostly me): Awesome!

12. MADE OF HONOR

Tom Bailey (Patrick Dempsey): I am in love with my bestfriend and of course it will take me the whole movie to realize this.

Hannah (Michelle Monaghan): I am in love with my bestfriend and of course it will take me the whole movie to realize this.

Director: Let’s throw in every other cliche into this movie and hope for the best! Oh, and throw in Patrick Dempsey in a really short, short tartan skirt!

Moviegoer (thinking): Wow…crap…but the leads are hot, so I guess I can forgive him/her!

Retro-mad film review: Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (US, 2006)

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Sheetal Sheth: The apotheosis of Hotness 🙂

I have a confession to make: I watched this film only because it had Sheetal Sheth in it. And the reason I watched it was because I was wilfing on the ‘net and I saw her interviews and I was struck with how articulate and passionate she was about things (which was in contrast to Lisa Ray’s mild, laidback, neutral interviews). She is actually much more fun in interviews than Lisa Ray (although Lisa Ray uses words like “existential” correctly, and any actor who can use that word in a sentence is hot to me!). If you want to check out Sheetal Sheth’s interviews, click here, here and here. By the way, I have discovered that Shamim Sarif has a blog which is hilarious and entertaining, so I guess I can forgive her for her films, haha! Click here for her blog.

Anyway, imagine my surprise when I watch this film and realize how funny it is! And how very underrated it is.

But I think it is because this subject matter of this film is very controversial and people and critics do not really know what to make of it. Is it making fun of Muslims? Is it poking fun at something else? Is it some kind of propaganda? Well, the best way to approach this film is to watch it first and to assume that it is a political satire – which it effectively is.

Albert Brooks plays a much more exaggerated, egoistic, spoiled bratty version of himself who cannot find jobs and is thus recruited by the government to do a research on what makes Muslims laugh, the end result of which is a 500-page report and a medal from the government. Preposterous, yes, but that is the whole point of the film – how some ideas sound brilliant on paper, but just sound preposterous when you start implementing it. Thus he goes to India fully expecting an entourage, a welcome party, everyone pandering to his every want and need but finds that nobody knows him and nobody cares. After being safely ensconced in his hotel, having two American agents with him, and a young, earnest Indian woman as his secretary (Sheetal Sheth) he sets out to find out what makes Muslims laugh, interviewing Indians on the streets, in clubs, in mosques, even stages a hilarious stand-up comedy show and finding out that he has no clue whatsoever about how to find out what makes Muslims laugh, much less how to connect with them. Finally, he goes to Pakistan illegally and finds an audience in a group of fledging stand-up comedians who does find his routine funny and he starts to get it, except he inadvertently starts World War III when India and Pakistan get wind of his research and mistake it for another meddlesome tactic from the American government designed to disturb the already fragile peace between the two countries.

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Sheetal Sheth & Albert Brooks looking for comedy in India

I liked this film. It is smart, understated, subtle and what shines through is the filmmaker’s recognition of the audience as intelligent beings capable of gleaning meaning from a seemingly innocuous film about comedy and Islam and then ending up as a hilarious satire and analogy of America’s seemingly well-intentioned but ultimately ridiculous, pretentious idea that it can call itself the world’s protector of Western democracy and freedom.  The fact that the analogy is so specific – Pakistan and India, for example (replace that with Iran and Iraq, or Iraq and Kuwait or Iraq and Afghanistan, or Palestine and Israel), or the looking for comedy in a Muslim world in a spiritually diverse India (replace that with looking for weapons of mass destruction in the wrong places) and this film makes even more sense! In both situations, the protagonist (Brooks/America) look for something which does not exist,since they are looking for it in their own socio-cultural and politically incorrect context.  Hence Brooks could not find the comedy, because he looks at it from a his perspective, not fully realizing that of course, comedy comes in different forms, and different people from different cultures find different things funny. Hence a joke about Gandhi and halloween in the same sentence to a largely Indian audience for whom Ghandi is much revered will not be a hit, but the same joke would be a hit in Pakistan, for example. Brooks’ realization that he is not the almighty god of comedy or the big celebrity that he is, is a humbling experience for him, and it reflects the kind of experience America probably has when, almost a decade after 9/11, there are still no weapons of mass destruction, nor Osama Bin Laden, anywhere near the countries from which they claimed both were. This is, by the way, effectively conveyed in the film with scenes of Pakistani and Indian diplomats and politicians drawing their own hasty conclusions from inadequate intel. Dodgy intelligence, suspicious distrustful leaders, recipe for disaster – oh,wait, that’s why we  had the Iraq war!

Some of the funniest scenes from this consist of Brooks just having quick verbal exchanges with the people around him. The random interviews with people on the streets, in clubs, in mosques and the hilarious exchanges between him and earnest, eager, secretary Maya (Sheetal Sheth) as he teaches her the virtues of sarcasm are comedy gem. Another funny scene is the one where he stages a comedy show in an auditorium. The conversation with the auditorium keepers (when he asks them to kill the house lights, and since the switches are not working – the person in charge kills the power for the whole auditorium, effectively engulfing them in darkness) is fun as well as the other bits in that scene. Since he is a proper diva, he demands a dressing room, and he instead gets a teepee outside the auditorium, he introduces himself as himself as one of the greatest comedians in the world, and of course, hubris being what it is, proceeds to have his ego dashed onstage when nobody laughs at him. In desperation, he turns to improv, which was an even worse idea, because nobody still gets it, which effectively tells us – he has no idea what he is doing. The improv, by the way, ends up being a bit of  a funny treatise on political correctness.

Brooks’ character is properly belligerent and clueless and this works for the film, and makes it even more hilarious. Sheetal Sheth as the secretary is a great addition to the cast, and watching her match Brooks’ performance is a joy and a revelation: she is actually a good actor, in fact an even better one than “The World Unseen” and “I Can’t Think Straight” will lead me to believe. I like her more now – she seems to have more range (yay!). She also speaks in a passable Indian accent which  made me miss my Indian co-workers and classmates more (one thing I will miss about London – the Indians and Africans I made friends with). In interviews, she actually sounds very New York-ish and comes off as more confident and enthusiastic as well. I officially have  a crush on her now. Elaine Cassidy is so last month! 🙂

Anyway, I am encouraging everyone to watch this little gem, if you like comedies that are subtle and more intellectual. Plus it did not make money the first time it came out (a budget of $10M, which is not bad, considering how much money was needed to make crap like “Transformers 2”. “Looking for Comedy” made about half a million only on its opening weekend. For shame!), so I would like to promote it. 🙂

The trailer (the trailer alone should make you watch it. On the strength of the trailer alone I watched it):

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Indie film retro-review: Sunshine Cleaning (US, 2008)

Directed by Christine Jeffs, written by Megan Holley

The story:

http://bermudaonion.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/sunshinecleaningposter.jpgThe Lorkowski family is falling apart. Father Joe Lorkowski (Alan Arkin) is a fly-by-night businessman who sells things from shrimp to dodgy kids’ goodies. Daughter Norah (Emily Blunt) is living with him and has just gotten fired from her job. At the center of it all is eldest daughter Rose (Amy Adams) who is juggling her time with self-esteem busting cleaning jobs, a growing son, Oscar (Jason Spevack) that school officials deem a danger to the school and an even more self-esteem busting relationship with a married lover (Steve Zahn) with a spiteful wife who knows about their affair.

All these come to a head when the school officials catch Oscar licking everything, including his teacher’s leg, and the principal and his teacher inform Norah that they intend to provide specialized attention to him, with medications to put him under control. Norah resolves to pull her son from public school and into private school, prompting her to go into a job that pays more than her cleaning jobs: crime clean-ups. She pulls her sister into the business and as she begins to know the ropes about crime clean-ups, so also gains the confidence to leave her married lover and strike out on her own, whilst her sister also deals with the suicide of their mother.

The verdict:

Two words: Engaging  film.^^

If that were not enough, the fact that it has an impressive cast should give one pause: Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, My Summer Of Love), Amy Adams (Enchanted, Doubt) and Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine). Plus it has a strong supporting cast in dorky Steve Zahn as the married lover, Clifton Collins playing a one-armed, toy plane loving  shop owner and Mary Lynn Rajskub as the daughter of one of the dead victims that Emily Blunt’s Norah befriends and for a moment has an ambiguous friendship with (heh).

So what makes this engaging? Subtle, understated character development for one, the story that keeps you wanting to know what will happen next, and the acting that makes you emphatize with the characters.

Amy Adams is awesome as Rose. She perfectly combines vulnerability, determination and a sense of purpose and urgency into her character.  She shines most when she interacts with the people who make her feel less than herself – the school officials, her married lover, the uptight former high school friends who laugh at her clean-up business, and these scenes expose her vulnerability and that simplest of goals most people have: acceptance and respect.

She plays fairly well opposite Emily Blunt’s Norah, who projects a laidback, goth-inspired younger sister but who is, as revealed by later scenes to still be haunted by finding that their mother had committed suicide in their bathtub.

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Emily Blunt (hotness!)

I like that the dynamic between Rose and Norah is perfectly captured (as anyone who’s had a sib will testify)- the bickering, the one-line put downs (you can be the coolest, most famous dude in the world, but your sib will always know how to pull you down a notch), and the fights. I also like that Norah is such a cool aunt as well, and whatever happens she will babysit and tell funny lobster-man stories that keep her nephew, Oscar awake, most nights.  Alan Arkin is of course, always fun to watch as the clueless washed-up patriarch who just gets on with it even though the world has already moved on and does not need his services anymore. Little Jason Spevack’s Oscar is also a quirky little character who has his heartbreaking moments – as when he talks to the heavens on existential questions via  a radio comm to see if his questions will answered.

Overall, it is a good, solid film. I’d watch it again if I could. ^^

Final thoughts:

Let me just pause and gush over the hotness that is Emily Blunt.

Now I am off to scour the ‘ net for Harper’s Island stuff. ^^

Indie film retro-review: Blow Dry (UK, 2001)

The story:

The Allens is a family of hairdressers in a small Yorkshire town that have  not spoken to each other in 10 years, since Shelley Allen (the late Natasha Richardson) ran off with hair model Sandra (Rachel Griffiths), leaving husband Phil Allen (Alan Rickman) alone to carry on with the hair salon they have and to raise their son, Brian (Josh Hartnett). But Shelley has cancer and has only a few months to live and it is up to her to make sure her little family get along with each other before she passes on.

As in answer to her prayers, the British Hairdressing Competition come to the town and she convinces the whole family, including girlfriend Sandra, to compete. As the Allens muddle along in the competition, they manage to put aside differences, compete as a team and eventually become the family Shelley has always wanted to be with.

The verdict:

I’ve always loved small, English indie films. They always have that quirkiness, that very Englishness about it that sets them apart from American ones. This movie is no exception. You have Alan Rickman as the hairdresser with an axe to grind, Natasha Richardson as the ex-wife dying of cancer who ran off with Rachel Griffith’s Sandra. But it’s the supporting characters that are fun to watch. Josh Hartnett’s Brian moonlights as the hairdresser for the dead and spends time talking to them while he styles their hair, the always intriguing and fun to watch Bill Nighy (who I adore since “Love Actually”) as Rickman’s Allen’s arrogant arch nemesis, Ray Robertson, the bumbling mayor who gains the town’smridicule for hosting the competition, but quickly gains their respect when he gains more confidence for hosting it. Other quirky characters include the sheep farmers with whom Bill Nighy’s team stay in, the “Kilburn Cutters” (Kilburn! I actually know where that is, yay!) a pair of brothers and a model who comes between them (when she suddenly and stupidly asks one of the brothers to dye her pubes red) and the pensioner, Daisy (Rosemary Harris), that Shelley strikes up a friendship with while doing her hair for free on her days  off. The only one who seems a bit two-dimensional is Rachel Leigh Cook’s character, who just seem to appear to provide eye candy (which I don’t mind) and a love interest to Josh Hartnett’s character (who by the way, is an underrated actor who does a pretty good English accent here). Anyway, this cast of characters provide the entertainment as the main characters figure out how to deal with each other, and I like that as the hairdressing competitioin heats up, the Allens’ relationships are also brought to the fore and they have no choice but to confront each other about it. I also like that the lesbianism in this movie is treated not as an issue in itself, but as just a regular part of it. When Sandra and Phil finally confront each other, Sandra quietly tells him she just fell in love with his wife and that was it.

Overall, this is an entertaining little film and makes me want to have my hair done pronto. ^^

Alan Rickman Phil Allen
Natasha Richardson Shelley Allen
Rachel Griffiths Sandra
Rachael Leigh Cook Christina Robertson
Josh Hartnett Brian Allen
Bill Nighy Ray (Raymond) Robertson
Warren Clarke Tony
Rosemary Harris Daisy
Hugh Bonneville Louis
Heidi Klum Jasmine
Peter McDonald Vincent
Michael McElhatton Robert
David Bradley Noah
Ben Crompton Saul

Retro-mad film review: Fingersmith (UK, BBC, 2005)

There is a line from Rupert Evans’ villainous character, Mr. Rivers, that sums up my whole experience of this BBC movie: “I cannot find the words”.

I know that’s being melodramatic, but it is true. I watched this yesterday, after months of ignoring it because I’d heard it was a) a Victorian drama with b) lesbians so I thought that c) it would end badly. Plus I’d read enough Victorian, semi/pseudo/quasi-Victorian books to know that anything with two women in it would not be good.

I digress. Lesbians in a Victorian London – I had low expectations about “Fingersmith”, and prepared myself to be disappointed, and be horrified at the fates of a pair of star-crossed lovers.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when this TV movie by the BBC, adapted from British lesbian author Sarah Waters’ novel of the same name, turns out to be good, nay, better than I expected. I was so taken by it that I almost didn’t want to review it, reduce it to an academic and/or technical dissertation. It felt like I’d discovered some treasure long buried in this movie and I wanted to hoard it for a little while longer, savor it, as it were. Mind you, I’d watched “It’s in the Water”, “Out at the Wedding” and “Desert Hearts” before this, so finding this little gem was like a breath of fresh air. Where the movies I’d mentioned previously were bad (on many levels) – this movie boasts of a stellar cast, led by Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins,Academy Award nominee Imelda Staunton and Charles Dance, so that also was kind of like icing on the cinematic experience as well. ^^
This is a three-part BBC TV movie series, directed by Aisling Walsh from a screenplay by Peter Ransley based on the book by Sarah Waters. So, here goes the review…

The story (Warning – spoilers!):

fingersmith1The movie opens on Victorian London in the 1800s (the London of Charles Dickens times), and begins with Susan “Sue” Trinder (Sally Hawkins). Sue has grown up an orphan and has been raised in the squalid, slums of London, in Lan Street, looked after by the crime ring leader, Mrs. Sucksby (Imelda Staunton). Sue is an illiterate, streetwise,  fingersmith, a kind of female version of Dicken’s Artful Dodger to Mrs. Sucksby’s Fagin. Life is hard, but Sue is comfortable and unambitious.

Enter Richard “Gentleman” Rivers (Rupert Evans), a young middle-class penniless gambler and swindler who has discovered that in the middle of countryside, in a place called Briar Court, a young woman is set to inherit some £40,000 from her long-dead mother, but only if she gets married. The young woman, Maud Lilly (Elaine Cassidy) has been plucked out of an orphanage by uncle, Mr. Lilly (Charles Dance), when she was a girl, after her mother died, and he has brought her up as his secretary and has effectively kept her isolated and hence perpetually single so she could not get her inheritance. Gentleman’s plan is simple: woo the naive girl, marry her, throw her in a mental asylum, and get the £40,000 for himself. For the plan to work, he needs an accomplice, an ally who would act as Maud’s maid, somebody who could convince Maud to elope with Gentleman. This is were Sue comes in – Sue will, for an agreed £3,000, be Maud’s maid. Her agreement to the plan sets in motion the events that follow.

Sue has initial apprehensions about pulling off being a maid – she is, afterall, only a fingersmith, a thief, but Gentleman trains her to become one. But she meets Maud and she realizes that it is going to be easier than she thinks: Maud looks properly naive, innocent, sweet, sheltered, that deceiving her would be easy.

fingersmith3Everything is supposed to go well – but Sue does not count on the unexpected: she actually likes the young woman, and as Maud seems charmed by her as well, they strike a friendship with each other. Sue becomes not only a maid, but companion and confidante. From nightmares, to toothaches, to learning how to dance, Sue goes through everything with her. Sue forgets that she is about to betray this girl that she has come to like, until Gentleman comes back to reap  what Sue has sown. This complicates matters for her and provides an interesting tension in the story. Sue admits that she hadn’t realized until Gentleman arrived, how happy she was, and how much she hated Gentleman.  As Gentleman woos Maud on the pretext of teaching her painting, Sue is wracked with guilt and doubts. As the impending marriage looms, the intensity and tension between Maud and Sue increase, culminating in a scene where Sue starts out teaching Maud how to kiss Gentleman, which ends up being a full-on love scene. It starts out funny, even amusing, but as the intimacy deepens, there is a tenderness and sweetness. There is nothing exploitative or sexy about the scene, but it is a very gentle scene and reveals much about how the two feel about each other. Interestingly, Maud responds to her as well. And thus is an already complicated situation made even more complicated, the balance of power, the relationship between the two has shifted, and makes what follows after even more unexpected. Sue already knows that she is in love with Maud. But the shame and embarrassment of failure, of being laughed at for falling in love with another girl, of going back to Lan Street empty-handed, pushes her to go through with the plan. She finds the heart to assist Gentleman and Maud in eloping.

The beginning of the second part shows Sue assisting Maud to escape Briar Court in time for her wedding with Gentleman. Before Gentleman’s wedding night with Maud, Maud and Sue have an intimate moment again. Sue is on the brink of breaking down. Gentleman arranges for pseudo-psychiatrists to evaluate Maud’s mental state and they interview Maud and Sue separately for this. Sue breaks down in the middle of the interview, revealing how much she cares for Maud and how horrible she feels at betraying her.

Gentleman and Sue bring Maud to the mental hospital, and as the carriage door opens, a second passes, and then it is Sue that is pulled out by the doctors and nurses, not Maud. When Maud speaks in Sue’s accent, it is revealed that she is in on the plan as well and had planned to betray her and put her in the asylum. It is this part that completely took me by surprise and had me hooked. I thought it was brilliant. ^^

During this part, Maud reveals her side of the story: Gentleman had come to Briar Court proposing a plan to Maud. Gentleman knew that Maud had a fortune that she can only inherit if she marries and he proposes they elope so that she can get her inheritance, in exchange for a portion of her wealth. In order to pull it off, they must get rid of her existing maid and replace her with a more compliant one: Sue. Maud is to become Sue, and she will be thrown in the asylum, so that Maud can escape to London. Maud is initially reluctant, but the thought of being stuck in Briar Court, with her stern, pseudo-academic uncle, reading pornographic books to him and his friends, forever, won over her need to stay, and she agrees to his plan. Maud is revealed to be manipulative, cold and calculating, which makes her an actually more effective villain than Sue. I find Elaine Cassidy perfectly cast as Maud Lilly – she has that perfectly innocent, naive, deer-in-the-headlights look, which makes her betrayal of Sue all the more compelling. While Sally Hawkins has gotten more critical praise for portraying Sue – and well she should, since Hawkins reveals an impressive acting range all in the space of a heartbeat, conveying a range of emotions from cockiness, to goofiness, to guilt, to doubt, and love. This is made more so as her feelings for Maud deepen and I found her acting to be quite excellent. But anyone who is familiar with Victorian society would know that the women of the middle and upper-classes are trained to be reserved, to be inscrutable . And hence, Maud’s portrayal of a reserved, inscrutable young Victorian lady who reveals herself to be cunning and scarily manipulative, is brilliant. Cassidy’s Maud is thus an effectively complex character, the more fascinating one of the two, since she is the one who pulls of a deception more.

fingersmith2But as with Sue, she does not count on liking Sue as well. Sue’s charm, the development of their relationship, gives her doubts about their plans. Sue’s presence in her life awakens something in Sue, and gives meaning even to the books she reads for her uncle. In the pivotal love scene, Maud narrates, “She has touched the life of me, the quick of me” (Ah! I’ve always loved how the British use words! that line always kills me) But her determination to leave Briar Court and be free of her uncle,wins over her love for Sue. And so, wracked with guilt, she betrays Sue.

When she gets to London, Gentleman brings her to Lan Street and it is revealed there, by Mrs. Sucksby, that their little scheme is part of an even bigger scheme, a plan that Mrs. Sucksby has been planning since Maud and Sue were children. Apparently Maud isn’t really the daughter of her uncle’s sister. Sue is the real daughter and her dying mother had not wanted her to be put in the care of her uncle. So, Mrs. Sucksby gives away Maud, a young orphan Mrs. Sucksby comes across and she takes in the young Sue. The mother makes a will where Maud and Sue both inherit money the minute they both turn 21, and Maud realizes not only that she is way in over her head, but the full extent of her betrayal of the woman she loves.

The third part shows Sue’s life in the asylum, how she escapes. It is also revealed that Mrs. Sucksby is Maud’s mother. The third part sustains the tension, culminating in the confrontation scene where Mrs. Sucksby, Maud, Sue and Gentleman confront each other. A tussle ensues, during which Gentleman is stabbed and killed. Maud attempts to confess, but Mrs. Sucksby takes the blame and is hanged. Maud and Sue part and that would have been the end of it, except Sue gets hold of her real mother’s will and finds out who she and Maud really are. Sue looks for Maud, finds her and find a way to forgive each other.

Whew!

What can I say? I love, love this film. I loved the story, I loved the plot, I loved the characters, I loved the costumes, I loved this film. ^^

The first part is a a delight to watch, a kind of guilty pleasure. It starts out slow, languid, demanding you to enjoy it, to savor everything. The  background, the characterization is laid out perfectly. The dramatic, sexual and romantic tension between Maud and Sue are so engaging you find yourself rooting for these two. It establishes the two main characters as emphatic and as victims, and what happens next, in the second part, is unexpected and thus compelling.

By the time I was watching the second part, when Maud’s thoughts are revealed,and she shows herself to be a clever, scheming young lady, I was fascinated! Why did I not see that coming? I think to myself.  And when Mrs. Sucksby reveals that she has always been a small part of Mrs. Sucksby’s bigger scheme, I thought it was positively diabolical. It was so wicked, I must admit I liked it. Imelda Staunton’s Mrs. Sucksby is f*cking diabolical. To have planned such an elaborate scheme that extends for 20 years- that’s just frigging remarkable.  And to be able to make her own daughter scheme with her unwittingly, that is even more fascinating – Maud is thus her mother’s daughter after all, even though she has grown up in a different environment.

I love how complex and complicated the two main characters, Maud and Sue,  are, how three-dimensional they are, how intense  they are. I love that this being the Victorian era, you have to rely mostly on their actions, their facial expressions, because even their voice overs don’t necessarily speak the truth.

I find myself invested in the two main characters. I’ve never had that feeling in a long time. I wanted to know what was going to be happen next. I was excited to know. It was a refreshing film. It is a testament to the writing, the acting,and most especially 2 relatively unknown actresses who turn out to be really good (Sally Hawkins moves on to win awards, including the Golden Globes for a movie in 2009).

I like the symmetry of this film as well. It begins with a hanging, it ends with a hanging, Sue’s mother was in the madhouse, and she is sent to the madhouse as well. I love the climax, in the third part – when Maud and Sue finally confront each other. It’s like some fucking brilliant lover’s quarrel. ^^ But that climax – is paradoxically anti-climactic as well. All that build-up and a brief tussle and Gentleman is dead.^^

This is excellent storytelling (I bet the book is even better), and I loved every minute of it.

I did, however, find the voice overs a put-off. I realize now why some critics don’t like them – they are a bit condescending and operate on the assumption that the viewers are idiots who need a step-by-step, point-by-point account of what is going on, when the 2 leads are talented enough to carry the movie without either the voice overs or the shrieking music: they succeed in creating a a sustained romance, chemistry that is deeply heartfelt.

But the voice over succeeds in one thing: establishing the difference between Maud and Sue’s characters. Maud is literate and more educated and therefore more articulate about how she felt. But she is also very good at justifying her actions. Sue reveals herself not to be as streetwise as she thought herself to be, and all the more innocent.

The other thing is the music. That annoying tinkling piano and the shrieking violin – I can’t take them seriously since reading Adrian Mole’s Cappucino Years (long story – suffice it to say that apparently this kind of music is typical of BBC productions). They are just so effing unnecessary.

Anyway, other than that, this is a proper story, with a proper ending, with the proper comeuppance for the proper villains – none of that villains-are-human- too crap from other films.

The reviewer at afterellen.com noted that this film would leave the viewer cynical about the world…I say, on the contrary. It actually restores your faith in humanity and your natural sense of order and justice: the evil ones get punished, the good ones end up together in the end.

It is an old-fashioned story with post-modern sensibility. One would find one’s life a bit enriched by the insight into humanity that this film provides. ^^

the voice overs are a put-off but other than that

Retro-mad movie marathon review: Out at the Wedding (US, 2007)

The story:

Cosmopolitan New Yorker (isn’t that an oxymoron?) Alex (Andrea Marcellus) is engaged to Dana (Mystro Clark), an Jewish African-American pilot. She has deceived Dana into believing that her whole family is dead, as the family is a typical wealthy small town family from the South whom she thinks are conservative and too embarrassing to introduce to her fiance (poor Southerners, always getting bad rap from lesbian movies. ^^ Please see “It’s in the Water” for similar setting). She is estranged from her distant father, and equally estranged from her younger sister, Jeannie (Desi Lydic) with whom she has a love-hate relationship, since the younger sister has a rep for always stealing her boyfriends (glad I don’t have that problem with my sib). However, when Jeannie gets married, Alex attends the wedding, dragging her gay best friend, Jonathan (Charlie Shlatter – whose film credits include “Police Academy: Mission to Moscow” – heheh I thought he looked familiar! I only remember him because that film featured a very young Claire Forlani – crush!) along. When Jonathan has a conversation with a drunken wedding guest who mistakes his coming out to mean that Alex is a lesbian and that Dana is a woman (stupid wedding guest!), the misunderstanding turns into gossip that spreads like wildfire and Alex finds herself being outed. Surprisingly, her fake lesbianism becomes a way to be closer to her father, who, though disapproving of it, grudgingly accepts her, and to be as close to her younger sister, who suddenly displays a sudden interest in her (and I quote) “lifestyle” (you can so see where this is going, can’t you?).  Alex doesn’t find the heart to tell them that she isn’t gay and that Dana isn’t a woman, but a Jewish African American man, because it’s the first time she’s ever connected to her sister and father. She thus hires, against her better judgment and at the suggestion of her best friend, a lesbian, Rissa, played by Cathy de Buno, who, in typical lesbian fashion, is an electrician by day, and an artist by night who doesn’t do coffee, processed food, processed sugar, meat or milk. Alex walks Rissa through her life and helps her to be more like Dana, while Rissa familiarizes Alex with the gay scene (lesbian actress Jill Bennett and lesbian stand-up comedian Julie Goldman make an appearance here). There’s an awkward scene where Alex tries to be more butch by wearing flannel shirts, jeans, a mullet and a neck choker – which is just not that good (I like flannel as well, I don’t know. It must be a gay thing). Anyway, things start becoming complicated when Alex’s future father-in-law runs into her while she’s with Rissa, and Rissa confuses him with her real family, which complicates things even further. Things get worse when Jeannie the sister comes for a visit and starts flirting with Rissa. Alex is horrified that Risssa is flirting with her as well. To make matters worse, the future in-laws start suspecting that Alex is hiding something and start investigating her “lifestyle”. An awkward scene ensues, where Rissa, Jeannie and Alex are in the living room trying to explain away the misunderstanding to the future in-laws which gets even me confused. To distract everyone from Alex’s deceitful ways, her befriend pulls them into a ballroom dancing competition, a bad idea, since Rissa and Jeannie become even closer – culminating in a kissing scene on the streets and a thwarted make-out scene in Alex’s apartment, thus effectively outing Jeannie and complicating things even further – effectively stretching my patience too much, as well. Of course, the future in-laws come, the fiance comes, father and Jeannie’s new husband come and oh, joy, more drama and complication! Suffice it to say that things get sorted out and everyone goes to bed with the one they really want and the wedding takes place as planned. The end.

Verdict: This is actually better than “It’s in the Water” – it’s a bit less awkward, the acting is a bit better, the storyline is a bit more plausible, but I find the complications, the ensuing lies (the lies that beget more lies)  that pile up one after the other to get tedious to the point of annoying. It feels a bit like it wants to be a Woody Allen movie, complete with the jazzy/bluesy soundtrack (it is, after all, set in New York), or at least wants to be its erstwhile, far superior sister film, “Kissing Jessica Stein”, but where “Jessica Stein” succeeds in its artsy, classy, intellectual approach to the idea of a single New York woman trying to find love in the Big Apple, “Out at the Wedding” feels like it tries too much to be something it’s not. However, it does gets points for trying and it is still fun to watch. 🙂

I am now off to watch another lesbian film. 🙂

Indie film retro-review marathon: It’s in the Water, Out at the Wedding (US)

Watched three lesbian movies today. Without further ado, let’s go to the first one.

In the Water – The story:

Pretty Alexandra is the only child of wealthy parents in a small southern town. Like a proper southern wife pre-recession times,  she fills her time with meetings with the other housewife socialites, volunteers at the local hospice for AIDS survivors, and is married to a big gorilla of a man who gives her a hefty allowance, bank account and a really, cool silver convertible.

Things start rolling when this same hospice becomes the subject of scrutiny and opposition from the conservative, intolerant town, made more so by the fact that a drunken gay man has spread a rumor that it’s the town water that makes people gay. The rumor prompts the town to start buying bottled water, demand that the water be tested, and close down the local hospice. As the small town becomes polarized, Alexandra is beginning to think how bigoted and homophobic her town really is. As family and friends insist she abandon her cause, she wholeheartedly embraces it, and quits the women’s league to prove her point. She strikes a friendship with one of the nurses, who just happens to be a childhood bestfriend of hers, and as the controversy intensifies, so do their friendship, especially when the bestfriend comes out to her and tell her she’s gay. When she gets caught kissing her bestfriend, in the closet (how apt), one of her friends catches her, and this sets off a string of events: her husband leaves her, he closes all but her personal savings account and gets her convertible back. But she remains adamant in her convinctions and the town has no choice but to accept her.

Two words: Semi-bad movie.

Explanation: When you’re gay, and you’re desperate for representation, you’ll watch anything. And I mean anything.

First off, this “it’s-in-the-water” premise is totally over-the-top and doesn’t really fly with me (it flew by me, yes), mostly because the underlying satirical and ironic tone isn’t as sustained as that of “But I’m a Cheerleader” and other social satires about lesbians. Also, this is I think early 90s, so the fashion is awful, lots of teased hair, high-waist jeans that taper down and hug the ankles, vests and other horrid clothing.

However, this film has a bit of charm  – it gets points for referencing all the classic lesbian films in one scene (as part of research), which I applaud, since I did the same thing (except mine was the artsy indie ones, like Patricia Rozema’s “When Night is Falling” – a personal favorite). It also gets points for casting attrative women to act as lesbians –  really just to distract us from the acting. Some of the dialogue is clunky,the acting is wooden, but there are really laugh-out-loud unintentionally funny lines:

Alexandra: I want to kiss you.

Bestfriend: You won’t like it. (Nyahahahaha! how cheesy is this?!?)

Stab me now. Stab me now. I have only myself to blame.