Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Alexandra Dean, 2017)

Image of Bombshell

Bombshell begins with an arresting and hilariously pointed epigraph from the film’s subject: “Any girl can look glamorous; all she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” The black-and-white still shots that follow show Lamarr looking terribly glamorous and not at all stupid. As image after image of her startlingly beautiful face appears onscreen, ghostly renderings of her own hand-written scientific notations fade in and out of view in the black field framing each photograph. Without a word of dialogue, in its opening seconds the film has already powerfully established one of its key themes: that Lamarr’s role in developing history-changing technologies has, over the decades, faded from view, having unjustly—even shamefully—taken a back seat in the public’s imagination to her beauty and glamour, as well as the numerous scandals that pocked her life. The story that follows is rendered with narrative and cinematic artistry and intelligence; director Alexandra Dean creates a fitting tribute to a figure whose true accomplishments have been too long obscured by history.

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Last Flag Flying (2017, Richard Linklater)

NYC

Richard Linklater has cultivated a career based on two slightly clashing recurring interests: continual experimentation with the passing of time on film, and a love for the outsider and wanderer. As a result, Last Flag Flying is something of an anomaly because of its deceptively straightforward nature in the context of his oeuvre. A spiritual to Hal Ashby’s seminal The Last Detail co-written by the original novelist, the movie is at first glance a standard Iraq War drama. But this is first-and-foremost a Richard Linklater film, and through the lengthy, considered conversations that form its backbone the catharsis is generated naturally and truthfully.

I should note at this point that I haven’t seen the ostensible predecessor to Last Flag Flying, and while there are many seeming allusions to events that would logically have happened in The Last Detail, most of the references are apparently fashioned for the film or the novel it’s based on, and not the prior sources: the character names have been changed, their military branch has been altered from the Navy to the Marines, etc.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, Martin McDonagh)

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Discussing a film’s “timeliness,” regardless of what cultural and political climate it was conceived and produced under, is typically a foolhardy errand, prone to improperly deconstructing its complexities into a simple, digestible message or moral. And while these issues with the approach are only slightly less problematic when applied to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s hard to ignore the litany of long-delayed outrages that have arisen in between the movie’s premiere and release, beginning with the well-judged withdrawal from Fantastic Fest and continuing with the (at least temporary) downfalls of Weinstein, Spacey, etc. With these events in mind, it’s tempting to take the movie as a straightforward condemnation of sexual assault and the indifference with which it was too long received. However, for better and for worse, the film is concerned with a more all-encompassing and thorny critique of American heartland culture, with equal parts finesse and head-thumping obviousness.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri‘s premise is relatively simple, concerning Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) attempts to find the man who raped and murdered her daughter seven months prior. At the moment the film begins, the efforts on the part of the town and the police department have come to a standstill. In a ploy to draw attention to the case, Mildred rents the eponymous billboards that point the finger, in bold black text surrounded by red, at Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the head sheriff in a losing battle with pancreatic cancer. This in turn sets off a torrent of outrage directed at Mildred, triggering a shocking spiral of seething hatred and scorn in the small town.

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Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

(Authorship Note: We are pleased to publish this essay, written by Sarah Hunter, a fabulous writer and brilliant student of film. Formerly a student at Whatcom Community College, where she received the discipline award in film in 2016-17, Sarah will be entering the filmmaking program at New York Film Academy Los Angeles in 2018.  ~MT)

Alicia in doorway

To many, famed director Alfred Hitchcock is known fondly as the “Master of Suspense,” whose enduring films have terrified and delighted audiences for decades (and who irreparably tainted the act of showering for an entire generation.) To others still, he is the quintessential auteur, a forefather of modern cinema whose methods have had a lasting impact on the craft of filmmaking – his disciples include the likes of Martin Scorsese and David Fincher. There is, however, another understanding of Hitchcock that, while perhaps possessing less of our collective consciousness, is no less significant or worthy of study: that of the capacity within his oeuvre for provocative and profound feminist analysis. In the words of scholar Tania Modleski, “Feminists have found themselves compelled, intrigued, infuriated, and inspired by Hitchcock’s works.” To be sure, feminist opinion of Hitchcock is undeniably split; many consider his persistent depictions of victimized women to be indicative of blatant misogyny. Yet others persuasively advocate for a more nuanced and open-minded examination, one which potentially suggests a richer depth to his representations of both women and men. Feminists, critics, and cinephiles alike would be remiss to ignore the subversive, oftentimes even progressive, approach to gender evident throughout Hitchcock’s body of work.

As Modleski argues in her seminal 1988 anthology The Women Who Knew Too Much, a number of Hitchcock’s films “reveal some of the difficulties for women in becoming socialized in patriarchy,” and that “despite the often considerable violence with which women are treated in [his] films, they remain resistant to patriarchal assimilation.” This indomitable spirit is best exemplified by Notorious’s brave, brazen Alicia; Shadow of a Doubt’s freethinking young Charlie; Rear Window’s daring, multifaceted Lisa; and Marnie’s titular bandit, a survivor of sexual assault. Furthermore, Modleski illustrates Hitchcock’s pattern of “putting the blame on violence against women where it belongs,” that is to say, on the male abusers and, by extension, the patriarchal system which enables them. This sentiment is echoed by biographer Donald Spoto, who points out that Hitchcock “describes the devastating effect of crime on the victim; his real contempt is for the victimizer, in every case a man.” Moreover, the men in his films (Notorious’ Devlin and North by Northwest’s Thornhill, most pointedly) typically can only achieve resolution by identifying with their female peers and gaining a more compassionate understanding of their struggles. Ultimately, it is incumbent upon the men to change – first themselves, and then the system.

This dynamic – the persecuted woman who boldly resists the patriarchal structure, and the unenlightened man compelled, both by transparent self-interest and a larger sense of justice, to empathize with her – is at its most distilled in 1946’s surprisingly sincere romantic-thriller Notorious. Unconventional leading lady Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is a binge-drinking Miami playgirl and estranged daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. A covert American agency interrupts her decadent lifestyle to recruit her for a unique mission: infiltrate a Nazi cell by seducing its ringleader, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains.) Their established history – Alex had once been in love with Alicia, though his advances were spurned – coupled with Alicia’s promiscuous reputation makes her, in the eyes of the exclusively male agency, the ideal candidate for such an unsavory assignment. “She’s good at making friends with gentlemen,” one operative explains suggestively. Continue reading

VIFF 2017: Top of the Lake: China Girl (Jane Campion, 2017)

Robin on beach

Jane Campion’s most recent project, Top of the Lake: China Girl, a follow-up to Top of the Lake (2013), is a 6-hour, episodic journey that premiered, variously, at Cannes, on the Sundance channel, and, played, most recently, at the Vancouver Film International Festival. It is, as its length and as its screening venues suggest, difficult to pin neatly into a category. Is it a gorgeously shot TV show? A very long film? Campion and her work, as usual, resist tidy classifications of all sorts.

Does her work represent “female annihilation in bonnets,” as BBC Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode once suggested, or is she definitely a feminist director, her work “emphasiz[ing] and almost perverse figuration of female strength” as Professor of Film Studies at University of East Anglia, Yvonne Trasker has said? Campion herself has championed women and women filmmakers, quoted as saying in an 1993 Cahiers du Cinema piece, “I think I know things about women that men cannot express.” And yet she “bridles” Virginia Wright Wexman notes in Jane Campion: Interviews, “at being narrowly identified as a feminist filmmaker,” and Wexman cites Campion as saying, “‘I think it’s quite clear in my work that my orientation isn’t political or doesn’t come out of modern politics.’” Continue reading

VIFF 2017: Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell, 2016)

measuring elle marja

Sami-Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell’s debut feature, Sami Blood, opens on a black screen and the sound of a lonely, whistling wind. Then, we hear a knocking, as the introductory credits, white on black, appear, and a man’s voice speaks: “Mom?” More knocking, then the same man’s voice: “Christina?” The first image appears, an elderly woman, alone, in close-up profile, lighting a cigarette, looking out a window, ignoring the voice.

It’s a haunted space with that blackness, the wind, the disembodied voice, and the woman who is turned away, hiding from both the voice of her son and our public prying eyes. It’s a space that sets the stage for the film to follow, the story of the girl who becomes that woman, a woman who is, indeed, haunted, hiding, and alienated from those closest to her and from the larger world, too, a world, she fears, might stare at her too much and too long.

In the opening scenes, the elderly Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), reluctantly guided by her son and accompanied by her granddaughter, attends the funeral of her long estranged sister. It is a Sámi funeral, following the traditions of that complex and internally diverse people group indigenous to Sweden, and it is clear that Christina, living in Swedish dress and speaking the Swedish language, feels deeply uncomfortable within the Sámi community. She speaks to no one and shields her face with her hand while she sits silently at the post-funeral meal, apart from her son and granddaughter, who are eating and talking with ease with those around them. The intimacy of family-community bonds juxtaposed with the individual isolation of Christina, separate and silent, is what strikes us most immediately. It is one thing to feel alone among strangers, wholly another to be alone among kin.

Christina

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I Do . . . Until I Don’t (Lake Bell, 2017)

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Lake Bell’s comedy I Do . . . Until I Don’t opens with a God’s eye view of a funeral. Mourners hold oddly colorful umbrellas while a drizzle falls and, in voice-over, a woman with an English accent intones a jeremiad against the “‘til death do us part” prison of marriage. There are several visual and thematic cinematic nods here, from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Four Weddings and a Funeral to, winkingly, Bell’s own In a World . . . (2013), a film about a woman breaking into the male-dominated world of voice-over narration. The tone of I Do . . ., however, is different from any of these—at least at first. Among the funeral-goers are Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) and Harvey (Paul Reiser), a married couple who spend most of their time sniping at each other about petty grievances. They are soon to be among the subjects of a documentary by filmmaker Vivian Prudeck (Dolly Wells), whose voice we heard over the opening shot. Prudeck is determined to expose what she sees as the bankruptcy of the institution of marriage by filming unhappy married couples and contrasting them with one happy unmarried couple in an open relationship. And so, as the film gets underway, we watch married people take potshots at each other, make brittle wisecracks at each other’s expense, lie to each other, and generally prove Prudeck’s thesis. We will have to wait for anything like the joy, warmth, or melancholy of Cherbourg or Four Weddings—or even the oddball wit of In a World . . .—until after Vivian’s monomania has nearly wrecked several relationships. Fortunately, the payoff is worth the wait.

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Landline (Gillian Robespierre, 2017)

Benihana

Early in Gillian Robespierre’s new film, Landline, Dana (Jenny Slate), compulsively scratching a poison ivy rash contracted in a not-so-romantic encounter in the woods with her fiancé, sits across a desk from a co-worker discussing their dates from the previous night. Effusively, the co-worker describes a romantic, hours’ long “epic conversation on the rooftop.” Dana, pausing, responds that she and her fiancé, in contrast, had spent “three hours at Blockbuster.” “We got Curly Sue,” she adds. It’s the kind of specific, funny, and evocative moment that punctuates and defines Robespierre’s work, a moment that deftly situates us in the time and space of the film’s 1995 setting, in a character’s emotional landscape, and in the thematic framework. Continue reading

But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 1999)

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Equal parts love story, social satire, and broad teen sex comedy, But I’m a Cheerleader has had an enthusiastic following among the LGBTQ+ set (and others) for almost two decades. It’s easy to see why: the actors are full of sweetly winning charm, the satire (of “reparative therapy” camps) is pointed and richly earned, and the story arc is mercifully non-tragic—a rarity for the longest time in queer cinema. For those of us who came of age with mopey, lugubrious lesbian love stories like Desert Hearts (1985), Claire of the Moon (1992), and High Art (1998), it’s impossible to overstate what a blast of fresh air this film was when it first arrived in theaters. (Even today, in fact, a quick Google search of “lesbian movies” gets you hits like “Why are all lesbian movies sad?” and “17 Awesome Lesbian Movies Where No One Dies at the End.”) As we revisit But I’m a Cheerleader well into the new millennium, the film feels every bit as fresh, funny, fun, and necessary as it did when it first came out.

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Friday June 9 – Thursday June 15

Featured Film:

The Seattle International Film Festival, Part Four

The never-ending festival finally ends this weekend, as SIFF 2017 comes to a close with a handful of anticipated films, including Nocturama, Mr. Long, A Ghost Story, The Door, Gook, The Feels, and archival presentations of The Witches and Taste of Cherry. Last week, we reviewed Columbus, Have a Nice Day, The Little Hours, Landline, Wind River, and The Dumb Girl of Portici. We’ll have more reviews in the coming week, along with another episode of The Frances Farmer Show.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

3 Idiotas (Carlos Bolado) Fri-Thurs
Churchill (Jonathan Teplitzky) Fri-Thurs

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Carlos Bolado) Thurs Only Remixed with DJ NicFit performing a decades-spanning all-Bowie score!

Central Cinema:

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962) Fri-Tues
Tommy Boy (Peter Segal, 1995) Fri-Tues

SIFF Egyptian:

The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage

Century Federal Way:

Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) Weds Only

Grand Cinema:

Obit (Vanessa Gould) Fri-Thurs
The Lovers (Azazel Jacobs) Fri-Thurs
Churchill (Jonathan Teplitzky) Fri-Thurs
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920) Fri Only
Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) Sat Only
Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi) Mon Only Our Review
Heal the Living (Katell Quillevere) Tues Only

Grand Illusion Cinema:

The Survivalist (Stephen Fingleton) Fri-Thurs
Resist, Rebel, Survive (Various) Tues Only

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Paris Can Wait (Eleanor Coppola) Fri-Thurs
Ami Tumi (Mohan Krishna Indraganti) Fri-Thurs
Raabta (Dinesh Vijan) Fri-Thurs
The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage
Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) Weds Only

Regal Meridian:

God of War (Gordon Chan) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Didi’s Dreams (Kevin Tsai) Fri-Thurs
Sachin: A Billion Dreams (James Erskine) Fri-Thurs

Northwest Film Forum:

Violet (Bas Devos) Fri-Sun
Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back (Maura Axelrod) Fri-Sun Only
The Maury Island Incident (Scott Schaefer) Sun Only Filmmakers in Attendance
The Short Films of Toshio Matsumoto Weds, Thurs & Next Sun Only
Last Men in Aleppo (Feras Fayyad) Starts Thurs
Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969) Starts Thurs

AMC Oak Tree:

Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (Joseph Cedar) Fri-Thurs

AMC Pacific Place:

Beautiful Accident (Wi Ding Ho) Fri-Thurs
Paris Can Wait (Eleanor Coppola) Fri-Thurs
The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Lowriders (Ricardo de Montreuil) Fri-Thurs
Raabta (Dinesh Vijan) Fri-Thurs
Hindi Medium (Saket Chaudhary) Fri-Thurs
3 Idiotas (Carlos Bolado) Fri-Thurs

AMC Seattle:

Middle Man (Ned Crowley) Fri-Thurs

SIFF Film Center:

The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage

SIFF Uptown:

The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage

Varsity Theatre:

A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies) Fri-Thurs Our Review Our Podcast
Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) Weds Only

In Wide Release:

Alien Covenant (Ridley Scott) Our Review
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (James Gunn) Our Review