Thursday, February 16, 2023

Film Review: A Plein Temps (2021) and Emily the Criminal (2022)


Both these films feature single women facing the pain, drudgery, and precariousness of low-paid work in the service sector, and, while they're thematically linked, the two films highlight the differences between their two countries, in dramatic terms, of how working-class people are presented. 

A Plein Temps (Full-Time), the French entry, covers a week in the life of Julie, a single mother of two young children who's trying to juggle childcare, a long daily commute into Paris, a demanding job as head chambermaid in a five-star hotel, and an upcoming job interview with a marketing company (she has work experience/degree in marketing) that could significantly improve her finances. Her challenging life is made harder in this particular week thanks to a public transit strike which is making her late for everything, a child minder who's complaining about how long she has to supervise Julie's kids, and an ex-husband who's late with his alimony payment. This doesn't sound like a thriller, but it most definitely is, one of the best I've seen recently. The pace is relentless, as is Julie's busy, micro-crisis filled life, and we share her stress from the opening minutes of the film right to its final, satisfying, moment. 

Julie is a sympathetic character, but the film's smart enough not to make her a saint. We can see she's made some poor choices (living so far from Paris, for example), and it's even hinted that she might be more to blame for her failed marriage than her ex. More dramatically, when she asks/cajoles another chambermaid to help her fiddle her work hours so she can sprint off to a job interview, she ends up costing them both their jobs. What stands out about Julie is her determination to keep plowing on with her life, trying to do her best, even as the world keeps throwing knuckleballs at her. But in this regard she's like the vast majority of working-class people: she has no choice but to keep her head down and work hard and harder, because there's no easy or simple alternative. And what makes her character and story so powerful is the absolute relatability of the challenges she's faced with. Anyone who's ever experienced life with a crap job, not enough money or time, and the demands of parenting, will see parts of themselves in Julie. 

The title character of Emily the Criminal is in her late 20s, works as a food delivery person, has an art degree that's not doing anything for her, and a mountain of student debt. If Julie's extra burden is her kids, Emily's is an old felony conviction for assault that's a red flag for potential employers. And it doesn't help that she's got a flinty personality and a short fuse. Feeling desperate, Emily follows up a tip from a co-worker about some quick, if risky, money to be made as part of a credit card fraud ring. Before you can say WTF?, Emily becomes a sub-contractor for the credit card fraud ring, has an affair with one of the main fraudsters, and gets to take part in a car chase and a home invasion before ending up on the run in Panama, where she starts her own fraud ring. There's even a small dog in peril! So, not the most relatable example of coping with contemporary, ground-level capitalism.

Emily is a good film up until it abandons its look at life at the ragged edge of the job market in favour of a crime story. John Patton Ford, the writer and director, apparently didn't trust the audience to be engaged by a film about the challenges of the gig economy and decided to add sizzle with a wonky plot about petty gangsters. While Emily does have a few scenes about life on minimum wage that hit home, and a strong lead performance from Aubrey Plaza, the overall result is a bipolar film that wants to say important things, but self-sabotages with an attempt to provide generic suspense and action elements. 

American films that avoid examining working-class life through the lens of criminality are few and far between. Filter out the films that are comic, or biopics about individuals rising to the top, and you're left with only a handful of films that deal explicitly and realistically with working life: The Grapes of Wrath, Silkwood, Norma Rae, Matewan, Kudos if you can think of any others. European cinema has a better record in this regard, apparently confident that their audiences don't need the sizzle of crime in order to watch a drama about working stiffs. Another key difference between the two film cultures is the attitude to organized labour. In Temps, Julie's life is drastically complicated by strike action, but she doesn't complain about unions and their tactics, and a neighbour she gets a lift from one day is actually going into Paris to help support the strike action. In Hollywood, unions are usually portrayed as corrupt--see Blue Collar, Hoffa, and F.I.S.T. Norma Rae and Matewan are the rare films that take the opposite view. Both films share one weakness: their lead characters get "happy" endings for their stories. Julie's is more earned, but both seem more and more fantastical in this day and age. 

Friday, August 12, 2022

Film Review: Prey (2022)


I've seen plenty of online comments which describe Prey as the best Predator film since the original. That's a very low bar to set, and this iteration doesn't clear it. And I so wanted to like it! Comanche vs Predator in the 18th century? Pump that ultra high concept shit right into my veins. The fact that Disney sent this straight to streaming was an admission on their part that it wasn't something they were happy with, and it's easy to see why. It's a naked and clumsy attempt to monetize old IP by cobbling together a hack script with some really cheap and cheesy CGI. 

It's a toss-up which is worse: the script or the visuals. Aside from a couple of establishing shots of glorious mountain scenery, the rest of the film doesn't look better or worse than any random episode of a show on the Outdoors Channel, and the CGI critters (there's lots of them) are astonishingly inept. Uncanny valley bad. CGI this weak effectively breaks the fourth wall and makes the audience either laugh or groan. More digital attention is paid to the Predator, but the problem there is that it's on screen too much. The original film rationed out its appearances to maximize the creature's shock value--the same principle that made Jaws work so brilliantly. In this outing the merciless alien is constantly seen on the hunt, which ups the body count (animal and human), but makes the Predator less visually impactful. And why no close-ups of its face?

The script's dull, boilerplate dialogue could be swapped out with any number of generic action films and it wouldn't make a bit of difference. The writers even recycle the "If it bleeds, we can kill it." line from the first film, although here it's delivered with all the panache of a fast food server reading back an order at a drive thru. What with all the hunting and killing, there's no time for characterization. Naru, the heroine, is the standard-issue aggrieved teenager who feels they're meant for bigger and better things but mum/dad/older sibling don't believe in them. Amber Midthunder plays Naru, and I'll be charitable and say that the script doesn't allow her to show whether she can act or not. 

The action sequences, which are bloody and frequent, are weakened by off-the-shelf fight choreography. When Naru takes on a gang of French trappers you could be forgiven if you think you're watching Captain America or Agent Romanov taking on baddies from the MCU. The slick, polished, tightly choreographed fight scenes of the Marvel world are the template here, and it's rather jarring when it's used in this setting. Something grittier and less obviously choreographed was needed. 

The film's PR machine has made much of how Prey has lots of Native American representation in front of the camera. True, but the creative team then made the decision have all the characters speak like contemporary teens and twentysomethings. Similar to corporate greenwashing, the film indulges in what could be called Indigenous-washing. The beliefs system, language structure, and moral code of the Comanche of 1719, were, needless to say, light years from our world, and the way they articulated their thoughts would have reflected this. By making them sound just like the average North American, the film denies their difference, takes away that uniqueness. It feels as though the producers were worried that a female lead fronting an all-Native American cast would alienate viewers, so they decided to sugarcoat the pill by having them sound like any random group of people hanging out in a suburban Starbucks. It doesn't have to be like this. Phillipp Meyer's western novel The Son (also an AMC mini-series) manages the tricky job of making the Comanche sound both profoundly different and contemporary. 

Although this new direction for the Predator franchise flops hard, it offers a glimmer of hope for further adventures. I'd love to see the big guy take on medieval knights, but the one I'm really hoping for is Predator vs Shaolin Monks done in full Golden Harvest style. Tarantino would come out of retirement for that one.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Film Review: The Wanderers (1979)

Released in 1979, The Wanderers has always flown under the radar. When it came out it represented one of the last gasps of the mini-craze for looking back at the Eisenhower/Kennedy era through jukebox-tinted glasses that began with American Graffiti in 1973. This nostalgic sub-genre, which was, as far as I know, a peculiarly American obsession, bathed the fairly recent past in a rosy glow of bulbous cars, greased-back hair, torpedo bras, and lots and lots of doo wop music. TV's Happy Days was the most egregious example of the genre, with The Wanderers being the best. 

Philip Kaufman was the co-writer and director, and his body of work, which includes The Right Stuff, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was adept at showing men living the macho dream. The Wanderers of the title are a gang of Italian-American teenagers growing up in NYC in 1963, led by Richie, played by Ken Wahl. The Wanderers' world centres around their high school and neighborhood, which Kaufman fills with a constellation of rival gangs including the Baldies (all hairless, of course), the Wongs (Asian, all with the last name Wong) and the all-Black Del Bombers. There's really no male under the age of 20 who isn't in a colorfully-named, ethnically-defined gang. The boys spend their time taunting or fighting rivals, busting each others balls, drinking, and, of course, lusting after women. The plot is anecdotal, the only through line being Richie's relationships with two women, one his long-time girlfriend, the other from the wrong side of the tracks, in this case meaning a Greenwich Village proto-hippie played by Karen Allen. Secondary plot threads follow Joey, Perry and Turkey, fellow Wanderers who, by necessity, see the gang as a surrogate family. 

What sets The Wanderers apart is how Kaufman subverts the macho posturing and bravado that the gangs are all about. The Wanderers see themselves as fiercely independent knights of the mean streets, they even take their name from the song by Dion that's an anthem about freedom and independence, but the reality is that they're being exploited, deceived, abused, or controlled by their elders. By the end of the film the Baldies have been tricked into joining the Marines, Joey and Perry flee to California to escape turbulent homes, and Richie is forced into marriage after getting his girlfriend pregnant, which also means he'll have to work for his mobster father-in-law. Even the football game which forms the finale of the film, a sporting challenge between the Wanderers and the Del Bombers, takes place thanks to the patronage of Black and Italian gangsters who see it as a chance for gambling action. 

And this brings us to the most audacious and brilliant element in the film: the Ducky Boys. Yes, there's another gang in the story, but this one is presented as quasi-supernatural or mythic. They favour chinos, never speak, and hang around some outer darkness beyond the Wanderers' turf, a place that's always bathed in mist and steam. There's something vampiric about them, and all the other gangs are terrified of the Ducky Boys. They appear at the football game in their hundreds in the same way the crows assembled in Hitchcock's The Birds. The Ducky Boys attack the Wanderers and Del Bombers but are beaten back thanks to all the local gangs uniting against them. The Ducky Boys are more symbol than gang, but of what? A manifestation of the fear and ignorance the local boys have of the larger, more complex world outside their neighborhood? Or perhaps they represent the WASPy elites who control that larger world. Either way, the film's enthusiastic left turn into spooky surrealism is a masterstroke, visually and symbolically.

The only real flaw in the film is Karen Allen's character, Nina. Like the Ducky Boys, she's more symbol than living, breathing person. She's that sliding doors moment in Richie's life when he's offered an alternative to a circumscribed life with his gang and girlfriend. Her "meet cute" with Richie is awkward, and her immediate interest in him serves the plot, but not reality. Even worse, at the end of the film Richie catches a glimpse of Nina and follows her to a club in Greenwich Village where...wait for it...Bob Dylan is singing "The Times They Are A'Changin'." The scene is so on the nose it leaves a bruise. Aside from that, and some secondary characters who chew the scenery, The Wanderers stands as the best film of its genre because it imaginatively and critically dissects, rather than embalms, an era that gets more love than it should.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Film Review: Rat Fink (1965)

The title of this film does it no favours. The first thing some people will think of are the customized hot rods that go by that name. Everyone else will probably go...huh? It's also known by the title My Soul Runs Naked, which sounds like a volume of Beat poetry, but at least it's more apropos to the plot of the film. What we actually have here is a noir study of a pop star's rise and fall, done with b-movie brutality and urgency. 

The rat fink in question is Lonnie Price, a handsome, but psychopathic, young drifter who becomes an overnight sensation as a singer. We meet him as he hops off a freight train in Los Angeles and escapes from some railway cops, but loses the guitar he was carrying. He finds shelter with a lonely older woman, sleeps with her, and then takes off the next morning after emptying her purse. Lonnie wanders around and comes across a concert venue where a hot new star named Tommy Loomis is playing. Lonnie watches Tommy perform and is instantly jealous and envious at the sight of female fans swooning over him. Later that night, Tommy leaves the concert and suffers a fiery "accident" engineered by Lonnie. A few days later, Lonnie shows up at Tommy's manager's office and wows him with an audition. In no time flat Lonnie is living the decadent pop star lifestyle of the early '60s: whiskey! surfer dude entourage! Thunderbird convertible! His descent is just as swift, marked by boozing, statutory rape, rape, a murder, and ending with a fatal collision. 

The writer/director is James Landis, who also did The Sadist (my review here) two years before, a brilliant micro-budget thriller that's as cold-blooded as they come. Landis brings the same bleakness and nastiness to Rat Fink.  Lonnie is a psychopath before he becomes a star, due to, the film argues, a stern and unloving father who has no regard for his son even after he becomes a success. This dose of pop psychology isn't used to soften our view of Lonnie. He's a thorough bastard, and the film is unflinching (for its time) when it comes to handling scenes of sexual abuse and abortion. If the film has a point of view, it's that stardom doesn't turn people into monsters, stardom attracts monsters. Like many b-movies Rat Fink has a plot that's a bit too jerky, acting that's this close to being professional, and some regrettable dialogue, but it's dark, vicious tone is shockingly at odds with the way pop stars were presented at the time. It wasn't until That'll Be the Day and it's sequel Stardust came along in 1973/74 that there was a similarly grim take on pop stars. Another exceptional element in Rat Fink is the cinematography, courtesy of Vilmos Zsigmond who also shot The Sadist. B-movies aren't supposed to look this good, and the film owes much of its success to his artistry.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Film Review: Summerfield (1977)

According what little I could find out about this film on the internet, Summerfield was, it's claimed, one of the first of the Australian New Wave films; in fact, it was supposed to be directed by Peter Weir but he opted for The Last Wave, his follow-up to Picnic at Hanging Rock. It's easy to see why this project would have been a good match for his talents. Like Wave and Rock, Summerfield leans heavily into the eeriness of Australia's landscape and suggests more than it shows.

The central character is Simon, a teacher who's come to the small town of Bannings Beach to replace a teacher who's mysteriously disappeared. His introduction to the tiny school is a shocker as he interrupts some children engaged in a mock hanging. He then meets a young girl, Sally, who takes an instant interest in him. Simon boards at a guest house where the other residents run the gamut from standoffish to odd to the traditional lascivious landlady. He's given the former teacher's room and finds it still contains his belongings and what might be some clues to his disappearance. While out driving, Simon hits Sally after she darts in front of his car. She isn't badly hurt, and this is how he makes the acquaintance her mother Jenny, and Jenny's brother David. They live on the island of Summerfield, which can only be reached by a causeway which they keep gated and locked. Simon begins visiting Summerfield to tutor Sally while she recovers from a broken leg, and soon takes a romantic interest in Jenny, who seems to be torn over whether to return his affection. Simon begins to suspect that his predecessor's disappearance is linked to Summerfield. 

It's tempting to spoil the ending, which involves several fatalities and a big reveal, but as dramatic as it sounds it's something of a letdown. Summerfield is excellent in many ways: the acting is solid, the dialogue lean and effective, and it's nicely shot. The problem is that it starts out promising one thing (two, really) and then deflates into what could be called a gothic domestic drama. The chilling scene of the mock hanging, combined with the surly and sullen locals, seems to promise a quasi-supernatural story about evil children and/or a town with a terrible secret. Summerfield Island even feels like a reference to Summerisle of The Wicker Man. That narrative, however, soon disappears and is replaced with a possible murder mystery as Simon goes sleuthing in a sort of half-hearted way. The mystery eventually resolves into a shaggy dog story, and what we're left with is a romance that turns tragic.

Despite a finale that's relatively easy to predict, Summerfield is very watchable and a reminder that a small country, population-wise, could punch above its artistic weight with the right governmental funding support. By contrast, at that same time the Canadian government was trying to ignite the local film industry with tax breaks, but poor supervision of what was being funded turned the industry into Hollywood's B-movie branch plant, churning out forgettable films that offered fading American actors and Canadian stars filling quota requirements a quick and rich payday. The career of David Cronenberg is the only notable result to come from era. So, despite its flaws, Summerfield is still better than 90% of what Canada would produce through the tax shelter years.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Film Review: Il Demonio (1963)

In terms of critical comment and background information, the online footprint of this film is very meager, and what little there is misidentifies it, IMHO, as a horror film. Despite the title and some of the plot elements, this is primarily a neo-realist film of psychological horror that's underpinned by a forensic look at the religious/folk superstitions and poverty of deepest, darkest southern Italy. In other words, it has more in common with The Bicycle Thieves than The Exorcist. And on another level the film looks at the fate of women who are outsiders within their communities, a common theme in Italian cinema of that era.

The central character is Purificata (Purif, for short), a startlingly beautiful peasant girl. In the opening scene she's making a love potion with her own blood and a lock of her hair. It's clear she's disturbed, and in the next sequence she stalks a man, Antonio, across the barren landscape of the Basilicata region as he goes to visit his future wife and mother-in-law. After this visit Purif waylays him and tricks him into drinking her potion. At this point we've guessed, rather than been told, that Purif and Antonio were once lovers, but he's rejected her in favour of the dowry and respectability of his dowdy bride-to-be. Antonio literally tosses Purif aside after she reveals that he's drunk her potion. From that point on Purif descends further into madness, resorting to folk curses against Antonio and continuing to follow him. She begins to have visions and hear voices, and soon the villagers think she's a witch or possessed by a demon. A priest attempts an exorcism, made riveting because of the understated way it's presented, and, as a bonus, it also introduces a very specific horror movie trope which lasts to this day. As Purif becomes more of an outcast, it opens her up to outright abuse; she's raped by a shepherd and the local shaman/folk healer, and is chased out of the area by a mob. She finds shelter in a nunnery, but by that point she's past helping and soon returns to her village to meet her inevitable and tragic fate.

Il Demonio smartly contrasts the beliefs of the villagers and peasants with the "madness" of Purif. As unbalanced as she is, the beliefs and actions of the locals, as shown in their religious ceremonies and folk customs, are equally insane to an outside eye. The main difference between the two, it could be argued, is that one madness is communal while the other is singular. And there's the rub: Purif suffers because her personal madness isn't in sync with the general madness. The title of the film seems to refer to Purif, but it can just as well be applied to those around her. 

Purif is presented as an outsider from the beginning by virtue of her looks and because, we can infer, of her relative sexual freedom. This makes her both an object of fear and desire to men. The first scene in the film shows Purif playing with a pair of scissors before she cuts her hair to make the love potion that she believes will put Antonio under her control. The allusion to the idea of the castrating female who dominates men couldn't be more obvious. Men are, of course, willing to use her body when the opportunity arises in secret, but are also eager to form up into a mob to chase her away. This hypocrisy is highlighted at the very end of the film when Antonio has sex with Purif shortly after leading a symbolic witch-burning procession through town. Antonio's, and by extension the town's, terror of Purif's independence and flaunting of traditions comes to an end when he knifes her to death after one final use of her body. 

Daliah Lavi plays Purif, and if she's remembered at all it's as eye candy in a few spy movies of the 60s. That's a shame, because this is an amazing, brutal, full-bodied performance that should have led her to much better parts. The film's success is largely thanks to her. There are only a handful of professional actors in the film, the rest of the cast being made up of locals, most of whom look as weathered as their land and are all at least a foot shorter than the pros. The other star is the cinematography. The Basilicata region is almost lunar in its starkness, and some of the shots of it are absolutely breathtaking. One of the locations used was Mantera, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2019 the European Capital of Culture, but in '63 it was still mired in medieval poverty. It says something about the quality of this film that it makes better visual use of Mantera than No Time to Die did more than fifty years later. The director/writer was Brunello Rondi, who didn't have a glorious career as a director but did co-write the scripts for some of Federico Fellini's most famous films.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Displaced Women: Three films by Antonio Pietrangeli


Add Antonio Pietrangeli's name to the long list of Italian directors of the 1950s and 60s who should be a lot more famous. In a career cut short by his accidental death in 1969, he made only ten films, three of which could be considered classics of Italian cinema. Like so many of his peers, Pietrangeli was fascinated with the swift and shocking changes taking place in Italy during this era. The economy was red hot and creating a vibrant consumer culture, the influence of the Church was on the wane, and women were no longer tied inextricably to hearth, home or, most strikingly, to one man. 

Pietrangeli's focus was on the changing role of women in this new Italy, caught between traditional Italian sexism and the more liberal attitudes that were sweeping the western world. In three of his best films, the female characters (women were almost always the protagonists in his films) find themselves adrift in a changed Italy, uninterested in traditional roles, but at the same time unable to find a secure foothold in a society with one foot in the traditional past and one in the liberal present.

In Adua and her Friends (1960), four prostitutes are left with an uncertain future after a new national law bans brothels. Adua (Simone Signoret), and three of her former co-workers open a restaurant in a rundown house in the country. Their plan is to serve food downstairs and turn tricks upstairs (this was actually what some prostitutes turned to). Instead of the restaurant serving as cover for their sex work, it immediately becomes a success on its own and the women don't have to work upstairs. Their respite from serving men in bed is only temporary. Two of them are betrayed or abandoned by their new boyfriends because of their former careers, and their landlord extorts them once he realizes how successful they are. They film ends with Adua now a lowly street prostitute being rejected by clients because she's too old. 

The Girl from Parma (1963) is about Dora, an orphaned young woman who's been raised by an elderly

female relative. Although she maintains a prim facade in her small hometown, Dora wants to see the wider world, especially the men in it. She has a brief affair with a seminarian and then leaves for the bright lights of Parma to live with her aunt. She soon becomes the object of desire for a succession of men, none of whom she really has any deep affection for. Dora finally ends up in Rome with Nino, a feckless and luckless commercial photographer who has big ideas but small skills. In many ways he's Dora's male equivalent, and she's the only guy she really seems to like. She finally agrees to marry a straitlaced policeman who's both frightened by and drawn to her easygoing sexuality, but dumps him with carefree abandon. She looks up Nino again, but he's surrendered to middle-class respectability by partnering with a woman who owns a small cafeteria. Dora leaves Nino with a look of contempt, sits down at an outdoor cafe, and with a smile on her face looks forward to her next adventure. Roll credits.

Two years later, Pietrangeli made I Knew Her Well (1965), which stands as a darker take on the themes in The Girl from Parma, which is mostly a comedy. Once again, his subject is a rootless young woman who's fled a dull life in the sticks. The woman is Adriana and she dreams of a career as an actress. In today's terms she'd probably be trying to become an Instagram or YouTube personality. She has no real talent, just a burning desire to not be a nobody. A brief glimpse of her childhood home, a shack in the middle of a dusty plain, tells us why she's set out on her chosen path. Adriana bounces around the lower depths of Rome's entertainment industry, getting small acting jobs, but making most of her money as an escort. Unlike Adriana, she isn't content to go with the flow, and when she recognizes that the future holds nothing better for her, she kills herself.

In all three of these films the female protagonists are adrift in a rapidly evolving society that seemingly offers new opportunities for women, but is still riddled with patriarchal and sexist attitudes. In Adua, as soon as the women are making real money from labour that's traditionally been done for free in the home, men move in to exploit them. They can sell their bodies, but not their cooking. In the other two films, the protagonists are only valued as eye candy and sex objects. In Girl Dora adapts to this situation and rides the wave, as it were. She has no goal in life, and seems to find her aimlessness pleasurable. Adriana, on the other hand, has her spirit eroded away by the many reverses she suffers, all of them coming from a male-dominated industry that treats her as a product.

In Pietrangeli's films, women are the main victims and beneficiaries of Italy's new economic and social order. They're given a taste of new freedoms, but almost all of these opportunities are booby-trapped by men. And the women don't quite know how to navigate this new terrain. It's interesting that the women in Adua, all of whom have lived outside the mainstream their entire adult lives, are fully realized characters. Dora and Adriana's inner lives are largely mysteries to us, which seems like a reflection of the mystery they have to face in finding a place for themselves in Italy. The male characters are unsympathetic to a man. The best of them can be charming, but inevitably they turn out to be craven, weak, hypocrites, or fools. The worst are exploiters and predators. 

Inasmuch as any male director or screenwriter of that time and place could be described as a feminist, Pietrangeli qualifies as one. Three of his other films, It Happened in Rome, The Magnificent Cuckold, and The Visit all feature women enjoying or experiencing new freedoms. Rome is a frothy rom-com about three female tourists visiting a picture postcard Italy, Cuckold is a farce about an unfaithful husband who ends up being betrayed through his own jealousy, and Visit is a partly comic study of a courting couple who can't quite figure out the rules of romance in the new Italy. All of these films feature good to great cinematography and production design, and, given their era, they seem far, far ahead of their time.