52 Films By Women: Pariah (2011)

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IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

The 2011 Dee Rees film “Pariah” may be a coming of age film about a Black teenager who is also a lesbian, but her struggle isn't with her sexuality exactly. From the film's opening shots, it's pretty clear that 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) knows she's into women. As “Pariah” begins, Alike is staring in awe at a female stripper at a club with mostly Black lesbians while the very uncensored version of Khia's “My Neck, My Back” plays. So no Alike isn't in denial, but most of those around her are. Alike has to leave soon after, and her insisting that her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) leave the bus before her is the first sign that Alike doesn't feel. Sure enough, Alike sheds her preferred masculine clothing for a more conventionally feminine look.

The reasons why are soon clear enough. New York City is generally depicted as a bastion of liberalism and acceptance, where stand-up comics can confess onstage that they're pregnant and planning on getting an abortion the next day. Not so in Alike's Brooklyn neighborhood, a more conservative world where in seems most are happily in denial when reality doesn't suit their beliefs.

Alike's parents certainly are. They're not only in denial about their daughter's sexuality, but their marriage itself. “Pariah” never officially reveals that Alike's father Arthur (Charles Parnell), a police detective, is having an affair, but the late-night phone calls, the absences, his lack of interest in almost any kind of intimacy with his wife Audrey (Kim Wayans), and his general defensiveness, are all clear indications.

Alike's inclinations are just as equally clear. It's inescapable even in trivial moments, such as when Audrey buys Alike a pink shirt, and her coworker immediately assumes it's for Alike's younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), who is clearly interested in boys and what dress to wear to the school dance. Rather than accepting Alike, Audrey tries to mold her into the image she believes Alike should conform to, which backfires as such efforts usually do.

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IMDB

The really heartbreaking thing is that it backfires in a way neither Audrey nor Alike predict. Audrey disapproves of Alike's friendship with the openly gay Laura, and pushes Alike to befriend Bina (Aasha Davis) instead. Alike is at first reluctant, but quickly forms a bond with Bina, who proves to be more complicated than she appears. In a film where music plays such a large role, the two first bond through a shared appreciation of the underground rap Alike adores. This also gives her a welcome relief from the club scene that the studious Alike has never felt truly comfortable in.

It turns out though (if it needs to be said...spoiler alert!) that Bina is pretty deep in denial too. She's very aware that Alike is a virgin, and takes the initiative throughout their relationship. Bina is the one who makes the effort to get to know Alike, and is the first one to kiss Alike, invite her to stay the night, and take their relationship deeper. But the morning after Bina and Alike have sex, Bina is detached, picking up stuff around her room and not looking at Alike. Not good.

It gets worse, as Alike naturally assumes that Bina still cares about her, even telling Bina that last was amazing and thanking her. In response, Bina dismisses both Alike and the ramifications of their night together, telling her it was just playing around and that she's not “gay, gay, just doing her thing.” The only concern she has left for Alike is whether or not she'll tell anyone. It's basically every girl's worst nightmare of how your first time will be.

This can't leave Alike anything but devastated, but it seems to make her more determined than ever to live her own truth. When she hears her parents arguing, she decides to get involved and finally tell them the truth neither of them wants to hear. Far from being cathartic, Audrey beats Alike in spite of Arthur's pleas, and Alike retreats to Laura's house. Even though Arthur makes a feeble attempt to bring Alike back home, Alike decides to head to Berkeley for an early college program she's been accepted to. “I'm not running, I'm choosing,” she says defiantly. Even if Alike's mother still refuses to reconcile with her daughter at the end, Alike's loved ones, which include not just her father and her sister, but Laura, are there to see her off.

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IMDB

In a way, “Pariah” is a far more brave film than “Moonlight,” a far more iconic film directed by Barry Jenkins that came out in 2016. Dee Rees even utilizes many of the same techniques as Jenkins, albeit in a far more subdued fashion. Jenkins used a far more instrumental score in “Moonlight,” bathing its Miami neighborhood setting in far more sumptuous colors that spoke to Jenkins's influences, specifically Wong Kar-wai.

“Moonlight” also has Chiron reconciling with his mother and finding love by the end. In contrast, diligent student Alike leaves by the end for a new life, still estranged from her mother and the classmate who was her love interest. Even Alike's closeness with the father who was far less interested in changing her remains tenuous. Yet Rees leaves us in no doubt of the bright future Alike has ahead of her. Her heartbreak has allowed her to delve deeper, leaving us with a poem that speaks of her brokenness, and defiance, the freedom she has found as the result of her struggles.

52 Films By Women: Desert Hearts (1985)

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Screenshot

By Andrea Thompson

Few things are more satisfying than a groundbreaking film that's actually good. And in 1985, lesbians were doing the Western romance way before “Brokeback Mountain.” So if you haven't heard of the 1985 film “Desert Hearts,” get familiar.

“Desert Hearts” isn't just groundbreaking because it's a lesbian love story that's written and directed by women. There's more to it than that, as director Donna Deitch is also a lesbian, so we're also seeing a queer love story as told through a queer female gaze, which helps explain why the love scene is sensual and appreciative rather than leering or objectifying.

Many films also love to claim they're subversive, but such claims are genuine in this case. “Desert Hearts” kicks off when 35-year-old New York academic Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) comes to Reno, Nevada in 1959 for some peace and quiet during her divorce. As she explains to her lawyer, there was nothing really wrong with her marriage. Her husband was good to her, and they had a good life together. It just wasn't the life she wanted, which is an honest one that doesn't depend on having the right friends and the right prints on the wall.

“I yearn for something you couldn't analyze or reason away,” Vivian explains. “I want to be free of who I've been.” She accepts that this might mean she's alone for the rest of her life.

Or not. Enter the 25-year-old free-spirited Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), who feels like a force of nature from the moment she appears on-screen, laughingly, recklessly driving backward to greet Vivian as she's arriving at the ranch where Cay is also staying. Vivian is immediately interested, if not quite consciously at first. From the first time the two actually meet and chat, the chemistry is off the charts. Blue really is the warmest color the way Charbonneau rocks that crop top and jean shorts. It's bodice ripper level of swoonworthy.

worldscinema.org

worldscinema.org

The setting for their slowly building romance also soon proves to be far more complicated than your typical repressive small town. Cay is pretty open about her numerous affairs with women, which her surrogate mother and ranch owner Frances (Audra Lindley) tolerates while simultaneously turning a blind eye to. She also has a true friend in Silver, an older woman who works with Cay, and who's happily engaged to a man, but also has a tenderly physical relationship Cay as well.

“Joe's in the kitchen, you're in the tub,” Silver sighs to Cay. “Jesus, I'm happy.” Unconventional to be sure, but it becomes one of the film's more beautiful portrayals, not only of love, but of female friendships, with Joe (Antony Ponzini) accepting of them both and unconditionally loving towards Silver. Silver is also the only one who seems to have Cay's best interests at heart, and offers her advice that is actually geared towards her betterment.

Cay does seem to have all the freedom in the world...until she finds that “somebody who counts,” as she puts it. As her and Vivian's connection grows, so too does the opposition to it. Frances kicks Vivian out of the house, but then, she might have done that with any connection Cay formed. Her lack of acceptance is also ironically born out of a deep need for Cay's love and presence. She was the mistress of Cay's father for ten years, even taking Cay in after her mother left her, and Frances desperately wants to keep Cay close to her.

It's indicative of Deitch's refusal to allow either women to be defined by the reactions of the straight women around then, and it's most likely why reactions to their tender love story were mixed. There are few things straight white men dislike more than such complete and utter dismissals of their perceptions and opinions. Deitch even had a difficult time finding actresses to audition, since fear of playing LGBTQ material was at an all-time high, especially when the script didn't involve suicide, heartbreak, or a love triangle with a man.

It is also the older, prim and proper Vivian (who actually wears a string of pearls) who is seduced by Cay, slowly and tenderly in the gorgeous desert landscape. I'm no fan of small towns, having hated the one I grew up in. But they do lend themselves to a kind of poetry onscreen, which makes certain one-liners sound wise rather than laughable, such as when Vivian tells Cay her marriage “drowned in still waters,” and Cay replies, “Say no more.” Even the country music is used to great effect. As Silver sings a love song and the two eye each other up, the heat they generate radiates off the screen.

The best, most enjoyable exchange between the two actually happens right before their love scene, where Vivian is explaining to Cay what a respected scholar she is, and how fond she is of order and how unused she is to raising her voice, only to turn around and see Cay naked in her bed. “I wouldn't know what to do,” Vivian protests. Cay replies, “You can start by putting the do not disturb sign on the door.”

What happens after, when the two women leave the hotel room and spend time in the outside world, is difficult to watch. It's clear they love each other, partially because they both tell each other, and that Cay's feelings for Vivian make this a new experience for her too. Vivian is unused to having to defend herself and her relationship against the world, and feels exposed just sitting in a restaurant with Kay, resulting in their first fight. In another film, this is where they would part ways, and “Desert Hearts” would end in either a terrible accident or their declaration to love each other regardless of what the outside world thinks. When they do risk parting, it has nothing to do with any outside opinion, which must have set so many critical teeth on edge.

Indiewire

Indiewire

When the real suspense comes is when Vivian has to return to New York, and Cay's real insecurities swim to the surface. Vivian wants Cay to come with her and really commit to a new life, even if it may not work out. “If you want a sure thing, stay in Reno,” she tells Cay, who is hesitant to leave the comfortable world she knows. “Desert Hearts” likewise gives us no guarantees, only a glimpse of what could be a happy ending when Cay jumps on Vivian's train at the last minute, at least deciding to give Vivian another forty minutes to the next station. I can only hope she decided to take the ride for as long as it lasted.


52 Films By Women: Always Be My Maybe

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IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

I was less than impressed by “Set It Up,” the last Netflix rom-com I watched, so it was a relief that “Always Be My Maybe” is about as progressive as it thinks it is. The movie addresses race, a major blind spot in not only “Set It Up,” but of quite a few rom-coms in general, which tend to heavily rely on the trope of the black best friend. But “Always Be My Maybe” just doesn't have a cast that's mostly Asian, it's culturally specific in how it references the differences between the cultures.

Sasha (Ali Wong, who co-wrote) and Marcus (Randall Park) are definitely a couple worth rooting for. They meet as kids in San Francisco, where they're inseparable from childhood to their teen years, which at one point involves matching Wayne’s World Halloween costumes. Awww. Sasha's parents are always away at the store where they work, so she also finds a kind of surrogate family with Marcus's parents, especially his mother Judy (Susan Park), where she learns a love of cooking that will be the bedrock of her hugely successful career.

Sasha and Marcus fall out as teen, shortly after Judy dies. Shortly after, Marcus and Sasha have sex for the first time. The aftermath is a mutual awkwardness that can occur even under the best of circumstances, and feels way, way, too relatable. Much like teen years in general, people tend to forget how the first time can lead to even more weirdness rather than ending it. It ends up inadvertently ending the friendship between Marcus and Sasha.

Given the whole situation, which includes the recent death of his mother, it's understandable that Marcus would lash out at Sasha. And it's just as understandable why his anger would be so devastating to Sasha. They were both already on the precipice of major changes, and this comes just to in time to lead to an estrangement that lasts 15 years. By the present, they're both in very different places. Sasha is a hugely successful celebrity chef, while Marcus is still living and working with his father at their air conditioning company. He's also in a band called Hello Peril (a play on the term yellow peril, a period where Asians were seen as a threat) that has found some local success, but is reluctant to play outside his neighborhood.

When Sasha returns to San Francisco to open a new restaurant, she and Marcus reconnect. It's of course a bit awkward at first, but they quickly fall into old familiar friendship patterns, with the two of them even going to their favorite childhood restaurant after Sasha breaks up with her handsome and successful, yet detached, commitment-phobic fiance Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim). Marcus also has a girlfriend (Vivian Bang) albeit one he's only been dating for five months who's clearly wrong for him.

We all know where this is going, and it's refreshing that Marcus is pretty quick to realize that he is and always has been in love with Sasha. Less of the arbitrary rigamarole! Yay! This is still a rom-com though, and there's plenty of movie left, so we know it's not gonna be that easy. And sure enough, Sasha just happens to meet someone. And it involves one of the most hilarious celebrity cameos ever. Because the guy Sasha has been dating turns out to be...Keanu Reeves, who plays a demented version of himself.

Astoundingly, “Always Be My Maybe” also knows when to stop. Keanu Reeves is fantastic, and game as hell, but it would also get grating if this were pushed too far. We'd respect Sasha less for sticking with a jerk, and even Keanu's act would probably get old. Instead of having this be the conflict for the rest of the film, it only takes a little time spent at Keanu's apartment for Sasha realizes Keanu is that much of a jerk and for Marcus to break up with his girlfriend. After they call out each other's bullshit, they fall into bed together and just...start dating.

Yet...there's still plenty of movie left. So what gets in the way? Marcus, really, and the difference in status between him and Sasha. While Sasha has her issues, she is savvy and aware enough to know what she wants and to go for it. Marcus, on the other hand, is stuck, unsure if he even wants his band to play in a bigger venue across town. So he does freak out when Sasha asks him to go to New York with her. Their inevitable argument and break up sucks, but it's clear that Marcus and his issues that are at fault, while allowing him to remain sympathetic. The really inspiring thing is how much Sasha stands up to him and lays it out. She is unapologetic about how her career, and about asking Marcus to support her. As she points out, “No one would question it if the situation were the other way around.”

When their disagreements causes them to part ways, it's also because Sasha lays it out and says she loves Marcus for the first time, that she always has. And that she wants to be with him, even when she recognizes he's being an asshole. But she refuses to keep him in her life if he can't accept the way she lives it. It's one of the best rom-com moments ever, where a declaration of love comes from a driven career woman who is allowed to be vulnerable, smart, and decisive.

We may all know how this is going to end up too, but the big romantic gesture where Marcus wins Sasha back feels earned in a way such moments rarely do. Hell, “Always Be My Maybe” manages to squeeze in quite a bit, especially for a rom-com. There's even a subplot involving Sasha's parents, who are trying to reconnect after being absent for much of her childhood, and are even present at the big romantic moment. Hilariously, their big gesture that wins Sasha over is paying full price at her restaurant.

Randall Park, who plays Marcus, actually helped write many of the songs his band plays, having been a part of a hip hop group early in his career. It's part of why the songs feel so fun, and why we feel just as invested in Marcus and his career as we do Sasha's. It also indicative how so many people from an array of Asian cultures were involved in making this film, from director Nahnatchka Khan to all THREE writers: Michael Golamco, Randall Park, and Ali Wong. Perhaps this will continue to be a trend among mainstream movies, as even Disney is beginning to hire creatives of color behind the scenes as well as in front. What can possibly capture the feeling of people besides straight white men FINALLY being allowed to tell their stories? Possibly only this gif, so I’ll leave it at that.

52 Films By Women: Wanda (1970)

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IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

It can be easy to lose patience with the title character and protagonist in the 1970 film “Wanda.” From the very first time we see Wanda (who's played by writer-director Barbara Loden), she's a figure of passivity, barely able to get off her sister's couch. This may be one of the great, underrated feminist films, but what frustrates so many about it is Wanda not only begins passive, she remains passive. She comes to no great awakening or revelation, and the fact that she's alive and free by the film's end is a matter of luck.

The first twenty minutes is more than enough to establish her helplessness. Wanda shows up to her divorce hearing late and relinquishes custody and all rights to her ex-husband. She tries and fails to get a job in a sewing factory, has a one-night stand with a man, then chases after him when he tries to leave in the morning. She manages to get in his car before he drives off, only for him to abandon her at an ice cream stand. Things only get worse from there, as Wanda gets robbed after she falls asleep in a movie theater and meets Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins) in a bar. She thinks he's the bartender, but he's actually robbing the place.

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IMDB

Wanda leaves with Norman, and he begins abusing her almost immediately. He hits her, and is openly contemptuous of her. He also sexualizes her, insisting she change the way she wears her hair, and dress in the clothes he chooses for her, even yelling, “No slacks!” as he tosses the offensive garments out of the car window. Yet Wanda meekly accepts her fate, referring to Norman as Mr. Dennis, and even stays with him after she discovers his criminal activities. It's hard not to believe at least some of this abusive, controlling relationship wasn't inspired by Loden's real-life husband, the filmmaker Elia Kazan.

If this film is hard to watch now, it also was for many critics at the time. Pauline Kael referred to Wanda as “an attractive girl, but such a sad, ignorant slut that's there's nowhere for her and the picture to go but down.” With all due respect to Kael, she's mistaken. In Loden's hands, Wanda is not merely a blank slate, but a woman with an inner life who yearns to escape from her bleak circumstances but lacks the tools to do so. “I'm just no good,” she laughs to Norman. “No good.”

Loden was an actress who was born into similarly hardscrabble circumstances as Wanda, but managed to leave them at age 16 for New York, quickly making her name in the kind of glamorous pictures she mostly despised. “Wanda” is a kind of meditation on the life Loden could have had if things had gone just slightly differently. The crimes in the film, especially the bank robbery, are also stripped of the fashionable romanticism that defined “Bonnie and Clyde” just a few years earlier in 1967. No one was going to be hunting for Barbara Loden's wardrobe the way many did for Faye Dunaway's Bonnie.

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IMDB

“Wanda” may have been rediscovered and praised far more lavishly in recent years than upon its release, but Barbara Loden would only direct two more shorts in 1975 before she died of cancer in 1980 at the age of 48. Today the film has been cited as an inspiration to artists such as Isabelle Huppert and John Waters. Loden may have been completely unsure of her own identity for much of her life, but her film “Wanda” lives on as her very personal declaration of independence.

52 Films By Women: Paris Is Burning (1990)

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IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

It's often remarked that great art comes from pain. Nowadays there's sort of an addendum, in that said pain is often co-opted by the those in power. This was already well underway by the time Jennie Livingston's documentary “Paris Is Burning” was released in 1990, which follows New York's drag scene in the 1980s, and the many peole who made it what it was.

Past tense is key here. By this time, voguing had become mainstream, with a prime example being Madonna's Vogue video that year. There's always going to be some sense of melancholy to any snapshot of the New York that existed in the 80s and 90s, fictional or otherwise. At least we have “Paris Is Burning” as a chronicle of this vibrant community, which mostly consists of LGBT people of color, and who have only barely been represented in mainstream cinema. Or for that matter, even acknowledged for their cultural contributions.

The first words spoken are from one of the film's subjects, who says, “I remember my dad used to say, 'You have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two, just that they're black, and they're a male. But you're black, and you're a male, and you're gay. You're gonna have a hard fucking time.' And he said, 'If you're gonna do this, you're gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.'”

The rest of the film is how various people in this cope with the truth behind these words in this particular time and place, which is a conversation that is also only beginning to be acknowledged (and more often than not, denied) by the mainstream. And the balls, which many have dismissed as spectacle, are an important part of life for many. Taking place in shabby rooms, they mostly consist of people of color cheering on those who walk, showing off the fabulousness of their outfits...or in some cases, their lack of them.

While many of the people on camera don't delve into too much detail about their backgrounds, stories of their vulnerability are rampant. Many of them ran away to New York City in search of a home, while others were thrown out by homophobic and transphobic families. The balls are where they can be with those who share their identity, passions, and interests. They can feel okay about being who they are, and they can also aspire to be who they want to be.

Those who have such hobbies are generally natural performers with the personalities to match. But time and again,, they are shown just how little place their ambitions have in America, especially in the 80s, where practically every form of media depicted white people as emblems of the ideal life, whether it was middle class or the more opulent one that was aspired to more and more as Wall Street became a force unto itself.

It's hardly surprising that such an ambitious exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality provoked controversy, which continues to this day. Director Jennie Livingston was able to capture so much of this world partly because she is a queer woman herself, but her detractors probably have a point when they state that her whiteness held her back. That said, while many of the people in the film have met ends both triumphant and tragic, Livingston has only made shorts since, and has only recently began developing another film. “Paris Is Burning” may have gone to win many awards, and even perhaps help change how documentaries are nominated for Academy Awards, but Livingston herself never became a prolific filmmaker. (If you really want the ultimate rundown of the film and everyone in it, check out out.com's ultimate viewing guide.)

Yet for all its flaws, the conversations “Paris Is Burning” raises continue to be relevant. “All minorities know it's a white America,” Pepper LaBeija person mused. “Any other nationality not of a white set knows this and accepts this till the day they day die. That is everybody's dream and ambition as a minority - to live and look as well as a white person.” One of the images used during this statement is a cover of Forbes magazine. One of the smiling men on that cover is Donald Trump.

52 Films By Women: Near Dark (1987)

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IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

“Near Dark” is a creative kind of genre fusion that absolutely works, but also tends to be unprofitable if it's not released at the right time. Even if 1987 looked like the right year for Kathryn Bigelow's now cult film, it just wasn't familiar enough for audiences to get behind at the time, resulting in a very familiar situation: positive reviews, but not much returns at the box office.

The neo-western “Near Dark” was part of a number of serious vampire films in the 1980s. “The Lost Boys,” “Fright Night,” “Once Bitten,” “Vampire Hunter D,” and “The Hunger” are all just a small sampling of the large proliferation of films that revolved around the undead. And while the smash hit “Interview with the Vampire” wouldn't be made until 1994, the book it was based on had hit shelves in 1976, followed by “The Vampire Lestat” in 1985 and “The Queen of the Damned” in 1988 to a very appreciative audience.

“Near Dark” flips many of the genre staples from the start. The first and most obvious is it is not a young woman who is victimized by a vampire's bite, but a young man. Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) is the quintessential good ol' small town boy. Hell, he even lives on a farm with his father Loy (Tim Thomerson) and sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds). One night, he meets a beautiful drifter named Mae (Jenny Wright) and gets bitten by her. He heads back home, but begins burning up in the sun. Just before he returns to the farm where he lives, the vampires Mae runs with pull up in an RV and kidnap him. During the rest of the film, Caleb is engaged in a battle for his soul. His nature now requires that he kill people to survive. “The night has its price,” Mae tells him soberly.

IMDB

IMDB

Once Caleb resigns himself to staying with his kidnappers for survival purposes, the movie gets into territory that was probably too uncomfortable for audiences. Colton's struggle to live without killing is constant, and there's genuine suspense as to whether he'll kill or not. Even when he refuses, with Mae giving him blood from her wrist in lieu of killing, there's no guarantee he'll stay on a non-lethal path, not just due to his thirst for blood, but the other vampires, who insist that he kill to prove himself.

It's not just Caleb's struggle, which is all too recognizable, that probably made audiences uncomfortable. It's the vampires themselves, which also include Bill Paxton as the most psychotic of them, and Joshua John Miller as Homer, a vampire child who is actually decades old. They quickly become the other protagonists of the story along with Caleb, and they're mostly unrepentant monsters, killing the evil and the innocent alike, and bear more resemblance to the truckers in “Alien” (directed by James Cameron, whom Bigelow was married to from 1989 to 1991) than our most iconic bloodsuckers. These are blue collar vampires, with no aristocratic bearing whatsoever. For the most part, they became vampires by accident rather than being carefully chosen by a darkly handsome psychopath.

Nor are they particularly smart. Their leader, Jesse (Lance Henriksen), is charismatic, but it's hard to imagine these idiots surviving in a non-digital age, and it's also chilling to see just how easy it was for people to disappear before that age hit. This is a group of vampires who just decide to walk into a bar and kill everyone there in the most sadistic ways possible, and are nearly killed – by the police of all things. These guys may have superhuman abilities, but humans still pose a major threat since they're unable to get far enough away from the crime scene before daylight. Humans also manage to put up a credible threat later in the film's final battle.

Over thirty years later, “Near Dark” is still one of the best vampire or horror movies ever made, even if the word vampire is never uttered. Bigelow herself went on to make other films that became even bigger pop culture staples. “Near Dark” isn't just a melding of genres, it combines many of the topics Bigelow became famous for: machismo and women who are making their own lonely way in a male world. Films like “Point Break” and “The Hurt Locker” are examples of the former, while “Zero Dark Thirty” is the latter. Mae bonds with Caleb because of the loneliness and isolation inherent in her life. While she is equal to the men in her lethal family, they are clearly the ones who rule. The film was also a subversive look at the politics of the Reagan Era, which villainized the poor to make the public more comfortable with the continuing erosion of their safety net.

In their own way, the vampires of “Near Dark” are a kind of found family that embrace the very values Reagan was espousing with their loyalty and devotion to each other. But in spite of their strength, they face a constant struggle for survival, and are constantly dependent on others for it. They're essentially a struggling white working class family who mostly gets away inflicting pain and death, mainly because people who being taught that other groups were responsible for such vicious crimes. It feels even more relevant now in our current age, which makes the happy ending even more of a relief. It may be a bit too unrealistic even for a vampire movie, but with hope in ever shorter supply, the possibility of a new, better day after such horror feels like a much needed ray of hope that doesn't burn, but heals.

52 Films By Women: The Love Witch (2016)

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By Andrea Thompson

I don't normally write about films I've already reviewed, but there is so much to say and notice about “The Love Witch.” There are many hands that make a film, and I'm generally somewhat hesitant to hand all the credit to one person. In this case though, I'm willing to say that the brilliant way “The Love Witch” is able to provide all the lush aesthetics associated with the most romantic love and deconstruct them at the same time is probably due to Anna Biller. She not only wrote and directed, she's credited on IMDB for the music, film editing, production design, art direction, set decoration, and costume design. This also led me to a rather interesting fun fact: cinematographer M. David Mullen also worked on “Jennifer's Body,” “United States of Tara,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and the pilot of “The Good Wife.”

The movie follows modern day witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson), though you'd hardly know this was the modern world due to its aesthetic, which channels the sexploitation thrillers of the 60s and 70s through Biller's feminist gaze. Elaine has come to a small California town to start over after the death of her ex-husband Jerry (Stephen Wozniak). Though from the smirk on her face when she muses about “poor Jerry,” she may have had more to do with his demise than the police were able to prove.

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Screenshot

There's also an impossibly beautiful fragility to Elaine that doesn't make it hard for us to sympathize with her. When she muses about the nervous breakdown she suffered after Jerry left her, it's intercut with memories of very patriarchal-looking witchcraft rituals. And if Elaine wasn't enough to mesmerize, wait till you see her apartment in a Victorian home, which is a fantastically over-the-top tribute to witchcraft. There to greet her is Trish (Laura Waddell), a somewhat prim but warm British woman who befriends Elaine. Or at least thinks she does. Their conversation at the Victorian Tea Room, one of the most beautifully rendered spaces in a film full of them, reveals that Elaine is a woman who is obsessed with love. She isn't about to let anything get in the way of it, much less friendship. When Trish tells Elaine, “You sound like you've been brainwashed by the patriarchy!” she doesn't know the half of it.

As much as Elaine builds her life around men, she doesn't seem to think very highly of them. She routinely describes men as fragile and easily cowed, especially when women assert themselves. “Men are like children,” Elaine tells Trish laughingly. “They're very easy to please as long as we give them what they want.” According to Elaine, you have to give a man his fantasy, and she is determined to do. It's just that in return she expects men to give them hers and satisfy her endless, obsessive desire for love. It doesn't end well for the unfortunate men who happen to cross her path. Drawing them to her is easy, but when her charms (literal and otherwise) cause them to become vulnerable and needy themselves, it repulses her.

As director Anna Biller remarked, Elaine is a character who has been driven mad simply by being a woman. The expectations have crushed her, and she hasn't surmounted them so much as learned to thrive within them, thus reaping the rewards by faithfully recreating herself in the male image and become their ultimate fantasy object. There is a deep rage within her at the disconnect between men who are unable to respect neither the women they are attracted to, or seem to be attracted to those they regard as intelligent. Both Jerry and her father denigrated Elaine's abilities, her mind, and body, with Jerry only showing an interest in her and her pleasure once she lost weight and was considered worthy of love and attention.

Screenshot

Screenshot

Small wonder, then, that Elaine loses her mind when the man she's put the most faith in, who has played the role of her knight in shining armor, is immune to her charms. Movies about witches are nearly always an examination of female power, and just because a movie examines this with a cast made up mostly of women does not mean it is feminist or even feminine. Biller herself put it pretty well in her blog when she wrote that in order to be feminist, “a movie has to have the express purpose of educating its audience about social inequality between men and women (and, I would argue, not take pleasure in the voyeuristic degradation or destruction of women).” It's also noteworthy that “The Love Witch” passes the Bechdel Test, even if it's not by much. This movie's existence and the acclaim it earned also signifies something else about the greater freedom women have to express themselves. Women seem to feel less of a need to emulate the values, and especially the gaze, of men in order to succeed. Femininity is something women can embrace without feeling degraded, and “The Love Witch” is a promising sign that such a gaze can be as progressive as a more “traditional” one.

Anna Biller will continuing this theme in her upcoming film, which is inspired by the dark fairy tale Bluebeard, wherein a woman finds she is married to a murderous monster. Of course it'll be from a female perspective and be inspired by retro woman in peril films of the 30s-60s. If that sounds tantalizing, check out more on her blog here.

52 Films By Women: Wonder Woman (2017)

By Andrea Thompson

Since Film Girl Film will be helping to host a 70mm screening of “Wonder Woman” for International Women's Day, it seems only fitting that today's column would be about the 2017 film adaptation, which against all odds, did the character justice.

Wonder Woman is an amazing character, but let's face it, it's hard to do a character with a magic lasso justice. And DC Comics didn't exactly have a record of doing right by their other iconic heroes on the big screen. Wonder Woman herself has undergone many changes, which is to be expected from a character who's been around since 1941, but she's mostly remained a strong, capable Amazon warrior of compassion who is devoted to equality for all, especially for women.

This has made Wonder Woman controversial from the start, especially since her creator William Marston never hid the fact that he wanted his hero to stand for a new kind of woman, one who would make an ideal leader, and not only stand against oppression, but against prudery. Marston himself was involved in a polyamorous relationship with his wife and another woman. There was even a film around this time that delved into this relationship and how it affected Wonder Woman's creation, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.

IMDB

IMDB

So it makes sense that the 2017 film would also court controversy. It languished in development for years, beginning in 1996, with everyone from Ivan Reitman to Joss Whedon attached to the project. Such a long beginning generally doesn't bode well for a movie's chances, but the movie would become a critical and commercial success, topping many best of 2017 lists, and is also considered one of the best superhero movies ever made, with much of the credit due to Gal Gadot's incredible performance as the lead.

We meet first see Wonder Woman when she's still Diana, a young child on her utopian island Themyscira, populated solely by Amazon women. After some resistance from her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), she is also trained to be a warrior, which she embraces and excels at. After she completes her training as an adult, she learns of the brutal World War I conflict raging in the outside world when American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on the island. Feeling a strong sense of duty, she decides to leave the island and try to end the war, which she believes the god Ares to be responsible for.

What works about this movie is the fact that we see a rare fusion of the actor and the role. Gadot doesn't just play Wonder Woman, she becomes her, much in the way that we associate Chris Evans with Captain America and Robert Downey Jr. with Iron Man. Similarly, we get to see her journey, and watch her come into her own. Crucially, we also get to see this from her perspective, not from Trevor's which is what Whedon's script originally intended. On that note, Pine also does great work as the man who is essentially not only Wonder Woman's guide to the greater world, but to men in general. He is the first man she meets, and of course he becomes her love interest, one that is respectful of her and has to inform her about how his world works without coming off as mansplaining to the audience. He gets the kind of treatment that all superhero love interests should receive.

Wonder Woman's journey in the film is also deeply engrossing without the usual ingredients that seem required to make heroes, especially women, interesting. Diana is not conflicted about her goals, which are to end war and make the world a better place without forgetting about the civilians who are caught in the middle. This concern is what led to the iconic No Man's Land scene, wherein Diana puts on her superhero garb and steps out onto the battlefield to save the civilians on the other side, despite being warned of the dangers, both to herself and the mission, by Trevor. Director Patty Jenkins had to fight for this scene, and it's hard to imagine the movie having the impact it did without it. I myself was in awe throughout this scene, and have only remained in awe since. To this day, whenever I don't want to do something I know I need to get done, or I have a task that seems impossible, I put this scene on for motivation.

When Diana does become conflicted, it's for a heartbreaking reason. She has so much faith in people that she honestly believes that killing one villain will lead mankind on the road to peace. Her decision to continue the fight even though she becomes aware of the darkness at the core of humanity is genuinely inspiring, especially since it incorporates the stories of the people around her, who are often treated as less than.

While this film was undeniable success, there were those who not only found it too feminist, but not feminist enough. Wonder Woman herself was also criticized for her costume, which some found undermined the feminist message, or thought the movie objectified her. Then there were some of the ridiculous reactions to the women-only screenings, which some men were dumb enough to argue were discriminatory. Makes sense then that they apparently some of the best reactions to the film.

For myself, I find it deeply saddening that how a woman looks or dresses still takes precedence over her actions and any other admirable qualities she may have, even for other women. I myself can think of no better way to celebrate International Women's Day than a screening of a film that wholeheartedly embraces what Wonder Woman has come to stand for, namely, compassion, and the dedication to fighting injustice in whatever form it may take.