Film #118: Glen or Glenda (1953)

film 118 glen or glenda

Rating: 3/5

“Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt, or even the lounging outfit he has on, and he’s the happiest individual in the world. He can work better, think better, he can play better, and he can be more of a credit to his community and his government because he is happy.”

It’s difficult to know where to begin. Glen or Glenda, Ed Wood’s feature debut and his most overtly personal movie, is easily one of the most (in)famous badfilms around – so much so that it has become something much more. Watching it without any knowledge of the filmmaker is an entirely different experience, but I can barely remember those days. Now my head is filled with Ed Wood trivia, anecdotes, interviews with his friends and colleagues, and all of these have inevitably, irrevocably altered my perception of the film. Let me clarify my position. Glen or Glenda is a bad movie. It’s inept and incoherent, obviously low-budget, and clearly spliced together from a mass of unrelated stock footage. Yet it’s also deeply personal, oddly progressive (with regards to certain groups of people; in contrast, the gay community are entirely vilified), and strangely fascinating. Ed Wood is not a good director in classical terms, but there is something about Glen or Glenda. In many ways, Wood is barely responsible for this re-evaluation – it’s the amount of extratextual information available that transforms way the movie is now viewed.

Viewers who are unaware of the conditions under which Glen or Glenda emerged will be understandably bemused by it. In the context of classical narrative cinema, it is truly inept – following the death of a transvestite, a police inspector (Lyle Talbot) visits a psychiatrist (Timothy Farrell) for advice. The good doctor relates two stories: the first follows Glen, a transvestite engaged to Barbara but afraid to admit his fetish to her; the second follows Alan, a pseudohermaphrodite who finally becomes Ann thanks to the wonders of medical science. So far, so boring, but this framing device is just the tip of the iceberg. As well as the doctor’s voice-over, horror star Bela Lugosi features as a god-like figure called The Scientist, sitting among voodoo totems and bubbling lab equipment, making powerful statements like “Bevare the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep!” and “Pull the stringks!” There’s a surreal dream sequence involving Glen, Barbara, and a devil (played by the wonderfully named Captain DeZita, who also intriguingly plays Glen’s father in one brief scene – whether the connection is meant to be noticed remains unknown). A whole host of off-screen voices make bizarre claims about transvestites, while the doctor continues with his scientific lecture, emphasising that Glen is “not a homosexual” and arguing that men suffer from receding hairlines due to their hats being too tight. At one point Barbara asks Glen what’s troubling him, and a herd of stampeding buffalo suddenly burst onto the screen. The story is entirely abandoned for some eight minutes towards the end, when a series of burlesque scenes involving scantily-clad females tying each other up interrupts the action. There’s no sense of time passing, no real narrative progression, no believable connection between the transvestite and the hermaphrodite. No wonder Glen or Glenda has been considered one of the worst films of all time.

And yet. Glen or Glenda doesn’t appear in IMDB’s Bottom 100 (indeed, no Ed Wood movie does, despite his fame). In badfilm writing, there’s a strange tension when it comes to Glen or Glenda. It has to get mentioned, because to not acknowledge it would be to imply a serious omission in knowledge, but the actual reviews are frequently far more sympathetic and supportive than one might expect. Much is made of the personal, biographical nature of the film: Wood was a transvestite himself, and he plays Glen. His then-girlfriend Dolores Fuller is Barbara. In one particularly iconic scene, recreated in Tim Burton’s excellent biopic, Barbara demonstrates her acceptance of Glen’s alter-ego by symbolically removing her angora sweater and handing it to her fiancé – as any Wood fan will be aware, the filmmaker had an angora fetish that pops up in many of his movies. So much of the film seems biographical: the doctor’s claims that Glen’s mother wanted a daughter and dressed her son up as a girl; remarks about soldiers wearing lingerie beneath their fatigues – these are personal touches, little insights into the filmmaker himself. Even the fact that the film’s message is one of tolerance, emphasising the internal struggle of men who cannot reveal their true identity to the world, is because of Wood’s own struggles – the film, produced by exploitation magnate George Weiss, was originally meant to capitalise on the scandal of Christine Jorgensen’s sex-change operation, but Alan/Ann’s story is completely sidelined, given only a brief mention towards the end of the movie.

The exploitation origins of Glen or Glenda are crucial also. Classical exploitation had its own distinctive style – anyone interested in reading more should check out Eric Schaefer’s excellent book. These movies eschewed the conventions of classical narrative cinema, positioning themselves as a lecture or documentary rather than fiction, as a way of bypassing censorship. By emphasising the “educational” and cautionary aspects of the film, exploitation filmmakers could show all the shock and scandal they wanted. If Glen or Glenda seems particularly incoherent and bad in the context of classical narrative cinema, when compared to other exploitation films of the period, it’s unexpectedly generic.

So much has been written about Glen or Glenda, and so much has been repeated that it often feels as though there’s nothing new left to say. It has been “riffed” and mocked as a bad movie, praised as a deeply personal, if naïve, insight into a filmmaker struggling on the fringes of Hollywood, reclaimed as an avant-garde work of art. Personally, I struggle with the latter position – a work of art suggests something has been deliberately created. Through his own incompetence, somehow Wood has managed to create a film that is so incoherent and illogical, so cobbled together, that it encourages the audience (if they are so inclined) to actively search for justification, to find some way of explaining the weirdness on screen. Yet was Wood himself ever aware of his affect? Probably not. Was he trying to subvert conventions? Doubtful, when Glen or Glenda is so typical of the style of other classical exploitation at the time. Yet he was trying to get his message across. His plea for tolerance and understanding completely dominates the film, bringing a truly (if unintentionally) personal twist to the events on screen. For viewers who are so inclined (and many are), it’s this fact that makes the film so endearing, so sympathetic, so fascinating. Glen or Glenda originated as a generic exploitation film and became a bad movie. It’s still both those things, but such is the film – and filmmaker’s – reputation today that it transcends such seemingly reductive categorisation.

Bonus! You can watch Glen or Glenda in its entirety here!

Film #115: But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

film 115 but i'm a cheerleader

Rating: 3.5/5

“Oh my god… they were right. I’m a homo. Oh, my god!”

With its lurid colours and Stepford-style 50’s inspired kitsch, But I’m a Cheerleader revels in its campness. Although slightly quaint today – gay rights have come along in leaps and bounds in the last fifteen years – it tackles a serious topic in a overtly tongue-in-cheek manner, revealing the absurdity and hypocrisy of the entirely real schools and camps that promise to rid people of their undesirable homosexual tendencies. In doing so, the film takes a light-hearted satirical dig at the often Christian-based groups who believe that being gay is a lifestyle choice, with heterosexual living being the only desirable, “normal” way of living, while simultaneously downplaying the religious aspect of such camps. Although Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is openly Christian, and the facility her straight-laced parents send her is clearly inspired by the Christian “conversion camps”, once the girl’s lodged at True Directions, there is no real mention of religion in the rest of the film. While this seems slightly like a missed opportunity, it safeguards against possible backlash – despite the controversial subject matter, the film is inoffensive and entertaining, with the blossoming romance at its core often surprisingly tender.

Megan is first introduced living her normal life – she has a boyfriend, although she doesn’t appear to like kissing him much, says grace before dinner, is polite and well spoken, and is a cheerleader. Arriving home one day, she finds herself confronted with her well-meaning friends and family, who proceed to inform her of her latent homosexuality. She has to be a lesbian, because she’s a vegetarian. She has pictures of women in her locker, and posters of gay icons on her bedroom walls. Despite her insistence that she’s not gay, she’s packed off to True Directions, a Barbie-esque residential facility in the middle of nowhere, where she has to complete five steps before she graduates, a happy and well adjusted heterosexual. At the camp, she meets a small but varied group of other teens – an androgynous girl with a shaved head, a flamboyant boy, a Jew (further distancing the film from its overtly Christian inspirations), a goth, a varsity quarterback, and a girl called Graham (Clea DuVall), who seems certain to be ejected from the course due to her insolence and disdain for the whole project.

There are plenty of funny moments – the group’s admissions regarding what “made them gay” are particularly absurd, ranging from “my mother got married in pants” to “I was born in France.” Curiously, however, despite the film taking great pains to show that being gay doesn’t mean necessarily conforming to the expected stereotype, these are almost validated by Megan’s realisation that she is a lesbian – despite their “evidence” being entirely circumstantial, her family and friends are ultimately proved right. In contrast, True Direction’s methodology conforms entirely to heterosexual gender stereotypes. The girls all wear frilly pink dresses and practise childcare and cleaning, the boys dress in blue and learn mechanics and sports. All the tasks are, however, saturated in homoeroticism, which is particularly obvious with the boys’ classes – “accidental” pelvic thrusting during a car maintenance class, for example. It’s not exactly subtle, but it’s effective, bringing a surreal camp twist to everyday activities – in the end, the film seems to be saying, there’s queerness in everyone.

At its core, of course, is Megan’s relationship with Graham, and it’s a slowly developing romance that delicately reveals the intricacies of flirtation. Ironically, of course, if her parents hadn’t made her confront her unrealised gayness, Megan would quite possibly have lived out her days in precisely the kind of denial True Directions aims to teach, shacked up with her jock boyfriend in a sexless marriage. Instead, her incarceration at the facility enables her to finally stop living a lie – admitting her homosexuality is the first step, and a gay relationship is the inevitable conclusion. It’s in the conclusion that the film really falters – there are no surprises (except the discovery that Megan’s cheerleading abilities are thoroughly underwhelming), and it ends abruptly. Megan and Graham are the only characters who really find any kind of resolution, and it’s a shame that the fates of the majority of the True Directions camp remain unknown. Do the camp’s male mentor Mike (played by uber famous drag queen RuPaul) and the owner’s obviously gay son finally acknowledge their attraction for each other? Is the conversion really a success when only a tiny fraction of students end up graduating? Do the graduates accept their gayness, or do they live in denial? Is there a happy ending for anyone, really? Who knows. Yet despite the weak ending, the film itself is entertaining, revelling in campness and knowingly addressing the nuances of gender and sexuality in particularly unsubtle ways. Fun, light-hearted, flamboyant yet touching, But I’m a Cheerleader starts to wear thin in the end, and its satire might not be as biting as people might like, but it’s a welcome alternative to the traditional teen/ high school movies so prevalent in the late 90s.

Cinema Lottery #14

cinema 14 into the storm

Into the Storm; Two Days, One Night; Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For; Obvious Child

Into the Storm
Release date: 20 August 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Almost twenty years after Twister, it’s quite surprising that it’s taken this long for a new tornado-themed disaster movie to make it to the big screen. The trailers for Into the Storm looked mildly promising: trashy, no doubt, and clichéd, naturally, but with the promise of some full blown destruction. Yet what the trailers don’t show is that the whole film is shot as a found footage movie – a pointless, incoherent decision. Whether the footage originates from professional tornado-chasing documentary makers or by two redneck adrenaline morons, it all looks the same. Even worse, there are frequently unmotivated camera angles – conversations are framed in the classic shot-reverse-shot technique, despite there being only one cameraman in the scene, overhead shots come from nowhere. Ostensibly the “found footage” style exists to add tension, but it never achieves this.

The characters themselves are all nondescript, and subplots like a blossoming teen romance are abandoned quickly. At one point a character instructs another to look after the footage because the film “might save lives one day” – how it could ever achieve this is unknown, because the science is non-existent. Like Twister, the final setpiece involves characters seeing the eye of the tornado – as though this is something new, when it’s already been achieved by both professional and amateur storm chasers in real life. Yet this is a film with the most generic, uninspiring of screenplays, so it’s little surprise that the motivation is mundane. That being said, some of the destruction is pretty nifty. It makes no sense, of course – whether a tiny little spout or a mile-wide behemoth (all of which instantaneously appear), all the tornadoes cause the same amount of damage: total carnage. Yet although it’s no doubt fun (for disaster movie fans, at least) to watch an airport be destroyed, or to see a fire-nado (a real thing), the best bits are all shown in the trailer. There’s simply not enough in the rest of the film to be worth watching. Perhaps the biggest problem is it takes itself too seriously. It appears to actually have honourable, educational intentions, despite being little better than a SyFy original movie. Truth is, if you want a good disaster movie, watch Twister and, if you want a bad one, why would you watch this when you could watch Sharknado?

Two Days, One Night
Release date: 22 August 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

The latest film by the Dardenne brothers, this is a gentle drama following Sandra (Marion Cotillard) over a weekend as she attempts to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. It’s a simple premise but an interesting one, and there are no real villains here – just normal people, trying to survive in a difficult world where, unfortunately, being selfish is often a necessity. Cotillard is entirely convincing as Sandra, who is hoping to return to work following extended sick leave due to a bout of depression. Her problems are cited as one of the reasons why she should not be brought back – her work may be compromised by her mental state. And if there is a problem with the Dardennes’ screenplay it is that she doesn’t seem to be ready. She cries over the smallest thing, is clearly stressed and fragile, and seems to barely be keeping herself together. Gaining equal support and rejection, as Monday looms closer she takes even more drastic measures, surely indicating that there is still a long way to go before she is truly stable, but it passes by with almost as little ceremony as any other moment in the film.

Despite the film’s simplicity, it’s not boring, largely due to the variety of characters Sandra meets. Two Days, One Night adopts an almost segmented structure, as Sandra goes to speak to each of her sixteen colleagues, hoping to sway them to her side. Although some of the conversations become a bit repetitive (particularly her having to explain why the vote is being recast), such is the strength of the performances that it feels authentic rather than tedious. Although Sandra is the film’s focus, Cotillard is fully supported by the rest of the cast, all of whom bring the characters to life, if only for a scene or two. There are no real surprises, no significant twists (apart from the aforementioned, which seems to have been included for a moment of drama, but I could have happily done without) – it’s a gentle, simple, well-crafted yet quite unremarkable movie, one that is pleasant but, ultimately, largely forgettable.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Release date: 25 August 2014
Rating: 3/5

When Sin City was first released in 2005 it burst onto the screens, a grimy, dirty, adults-only noir the likes of which had never been seen. It’s a shame, therefore that, nine years later, the once eagerly awaited sequel proves to offer absolutely nothing new. Gone is the innovation of the first film; this one looks and sounds the same. Whether it could have done something vastly different is less the point than the fact that this is nine years later, and what was impressive in the mid-2000s is barely noticeable today. A Dame to Kill For, then, is in many ways the worst kind of sequel – outdated, unimaginative, uninspiring, routine. Yet for all that can be criticised about it, stylistically it still ticked the boxes for me. There are no complex characters or profound storylines here, of course, and anyone expecting them has been sorely misled. Instead, there is the usual bevy of hot, scantily clad, ass-kicking females, Eva Green in her typical vamp seductress role, heavy use of voice-over, and a bunch of actors punching well below their weight technically and well above their weight figuratively. Josh Brolin in particular is wasted in his role, while Joseph Gordon Levitt is adequate but largely irrelevant. I’ll always have a soft spot for Mickey Rourke, however, and despite the heavy prosthetics, he’s the only one who brings any life to his character – it seems he understands best of all that he need not take himself entirely seriously.

Sin City was a triumph of style over substance, and its sequel is no different. It may not be as original as the first (obviously), but visually it’s still quite beautiful. Heavily stylised, it’s hyper-noir, deliberately fantastical, explicitly acknowledging its graphic novel roots. In a time when the primary goal of most comic book movies appears to be realism, it’s quite a relief to see a film that rejects any guise of authenticity so entirely. That being said, the 3D is completely pointless – in a film that’s deliberately flat, all the 3D does is dull the bright white of the contrasting monochrome. As a final point, it should be said that, while A Dame to Kill For is violent (stylishly so), it barely seems to warrant its 18-rating – though perhaps this says more about the relaxation of the BBFC’s rating system than anything else. At a time when even Saw films can be a 15, Sin City‘s violence barely even matches that of a post-watershed television show – indeed, with shadows conveniently covering people’s lower halves, and blood shed in pretty arcs of white light, this is actually tamer than many series. Perhaps this is the final nail in the coffin for the movie, proving that in the nine years separating it from its predecessor, the world has changed, but Sin City has failed to keep up.

Obvious Child

Release date: 29 August 2014
Rating: 3/5

There’s usually a wild card at these press days – the film that no one’s heard of. Today, this was it, a small indie “comedy” about womanhood and the issues that matter. Whether you like it or not will most likely depend on a few factors: are you a woman, are you a feminist, do you enjoy jokes about bodily functions, how do you feel about abortion. Personally, I find it tedious that these films by women, for women still seem to be incapable of thinking outside the box, instead focusing, inevitably, on relationships and pregnancy. Is that really all that matters to the female human? If this film is anything to go by, as a gender we reclaim our femininity by discussing stains on knickers and saying the word “vagina” a lot (literally airing our dirty laundry in public), we drunk-phone ex-boyfriends like lunatics, and believe that it’s somehow acceptable to make the decision to have an abortion following a one-night stand yet – this is the important bit – not feel the need to inform the man about any of it. Obvious Child, the title taken from a Paul Simon song, offended me in the way that Sex and the City offended me, with its crudeness and self-obsessed whining.

Here, despite a strong performance from Jenny Slate as Donna, the almost-thirty woman-child forced to grow up after discovering she’s pregnant, it was difficult to really empathise with anyone on screen. Gaby Hoffmann, once a child actor seen saving LA from a volcano in Volcano, is one of the only recognisable faces, and her choice of roles in recent years seems to be deliberately based on feminist ideals, but her tirade about “a woman’s choice” is uninspiring. It’s particularly annoying that the men of the film are given such a raw deal. Donna’s dad pops up briefly, but serves no purpose. The ex boyfriend, ditto. The most rounded male character is gay (but stereotypically so), while the one-night-stand-turned-possible-love-interest (despite Jewish Donna worrying that he’s too “obviously Christian” to date) is easily one of the blandest characters ever – having not been told about the proposed abortion, he learns of Donna’s pregnancy when she uses the entire tale (including the forthcoming abortion) as part of her stand-up comedy routine. Yet even this isn’t enough to rouse Max, who is infuriatingly placid, supportive, and doesn’t even think to question Donna’s decision. Surely he should be at least the slightest bit annoyed at learning something so important at a comedy club? Shouldn’t he demand answers, or an explanation? Well, apparently not. In this movie, it appears to be only the females that are afforded any depth or complexity. Yet in the end, the writers seem to equate female empowerment with discussions about farting and defecation, as though that’s somehow something to aspire to. I remain unconvinced, and unamused.

Film #111: She’s All That (1999)

film 111 shes all that

Rating: 3.5/5

“I feel just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. You know, except for the whole hooker thing.”

If any film could hope to challenge Clueless as the ultimate high school movie, surely it’s She’s All That. So filled with clichés that in some ways it’s difficult to figure out whether it was the first of its kind or just another lame copy, it’s stupid but likeable, with an impressive cast including Freddie Prinze Jr, Rachael Leigh Cook, the late Paul Walker (I always forget he’s in it), Anna Paquin, Clea Duvall, Kieran Culkin – even Usher pops up, proving the movie’s pop-culture credentials, and so does Sarah Michelle Gellar, for a split second, in homage to the fact that this was shot in the same school as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

To be honest, it’s quite difficult to review She’s All That without being constantly reminded of Not Another Teen Movie, which quite perfectly parodied the more ridiculous moments – and, the fact that it’s this film that forms the basis of the spoof’s plot indicates how popular and influential it was. Cook is Laney Boggs, an anti-social poor girl filled with inner darkness, as evidenced by her moody abstract art. She’s beautiful, of course, but has the misfortune of wearing glasses, never plucking her eyebrows, and wearing paint-covered dungarees (see, I’m already slipping into Not Another Teen Movie…) Nevertheless, she’s the one popular-but-recently-dumped jock-hunk Zac (Prinze Jr) is tasked with transforming into the prom queen – the result of a bet between him and his jock buddy Dean (Walker). To be fair, she is not considered a challenge because of her looks, really, but because of her personality – but, naturally, a makeover is imminent, thanks to Zac’s sister Mackenzie (Paquin), and it seems to be mostly a result of her newfound contact lenses that, overnight, inexplicably, she becomes the most popular girl in school.

There are actually quite a few interesting possibilities borne out of this new popularity, but the film mostly ignores them. Honestly, if you scratch the surface of this movie, there’s mostly just more surface, and attempting any in depth analysis is a fairly pointless exercise. Laney’s nomination for prom queen doesn’t make her become a brat (a la Cady in Mean Girls, for example) but it does appear to bring all the nerds out of the woodwork – whereas the school initially seemed to be entirely populated by beautiful twenty-somethings (Walker was twenty-six; the only person even close to being actual high school age was Paquin, and she looks like a child in comparison; on a side note, realising this made me feel particularly old), following her nomination the student-extras more fully represent the less fortunate too. Yet this isn’t a “nerd-uprising” sort of film, and the likes of the Hygiene Club remain firmly in the background. There’s never even the slightest pause to consider how Laney actually feels about her makeover – she stops wearing her glasses but continues with her (more figure-hugging) paint-covered clothes, for example. What matters is not the exterior changes, but the internal ones – having avoided her classmates for years, she finally begins to realise that they’re not all as bad as she might have thought. Of course, some of them are precisely as bad as she thought: Dean has ulterior motives, while Zac’s ex Taylor will let nothing stop her from becoming prom queen. While Taylor is the pre-Mean Girls mean girl, her new flame, reality “star” Brock Hudson (Matthew Lilliard) is great fun – egotistical, self-obsessed and utterly deluded, his overly energetic moronics brighten up the film and provide arguably the best dance scene of the piece (sorry Usher, the prom dance is unexpected, but Brock’s fist-pumping worm takes the biscuit).

Seeped in pop-culture of the 90s, perhaps I’m again showing my age when I say that in many ways the film hasn’t dated as badly as it might have. Yes, there are several references to Hanson and yes, kids today might not know what The Real World is, but it’s by no means inaccessible today. Its biggest problem (if you can call it that) is the fact that, like I said earlier, everything seems so clichéd – and even that’s not really its own fault, but that of Not Another Teen Movie. Everything in this film reminds me of that one: the token black guy who features solely to react in exaggerated ways to the white kids; Laney contemplating her latest expression of artistic pain, which is really not particularly good, but we’re supposed to think it is; her father’s strange terms of endearment (“pumpkin nose”?!); Zac’s misunderstood rich-boy problems; Laney refusing to let anyone see her cry at the party… Every moment has been lampooned, highlighting the inanity of it all, and it’s really difficult for me to separate the two movies now. Yet I’ll happily watch She’s All That any time – its lead actors have a nice chemistry, its got a happy ending and, while I remember Clueless with great fondness from my childhood, it’s this film that captures the essence of my teen years. Besides, any film with a Buffy cameo gets my vote.

Film #108: Rebecca (1940)

film 108 rebecca

Rating: 3.5/5

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Based almost entirely faithfully on Daphne du Maurier’s book of the same name, this film adaptation of Rebecca is such a quintessentially classical Hollywood film – directed by Alfred Hitchcock, produced by David O Selznick, starring Laurence Olivier, shot in brooding, beautiful, gothic black and white. Its direction is impeccable, the acting equally so, and it deservedly won two academy awards (best picture and best cinematography) out of the eleven it was nominated for. My quibble is not with any the technical aspects of the film, but with a seemingly small change in the narrative – the result of the stringent Hollywood Production Code at the time, which stated that the murder of a spouse must be punished. Consequently (spoiler alert!), the whole point of du Maurier’s story is undermined: whereas in the novel Maxim de Winter is a murderer, shooting his first wife, here Olivier’s de Winter only thinks about doing so, and her death is an accident. These small detail changes the entire relationship between Maxim and his young new wife who, in du Maurier’s world, doesn’t care that her husband is a murderer. Instead, here Maxim becomes a version of Hitchcock’s classic “wronged men” – haunted by a memory and, later on, accused of a murder he didn’t really commit. It’s a shame, really, because Hitchcock was very adept at drawing out the more tortured side of his male leads – he brought out a darkness in everyman James Stewart, for example, and some of that actor’s finest roles were under Hitch’s direction. If anyone could play a ruthless, cold-hearted murderer and still be believably attractive, it’s Olivier, so it’s a shame that such a crucial plot point had to be watered down.

In contrast to Olivier’s roguish, charming Maxim, Joan Fontaine is superbly unassuming as the second Mrs de Winter. This poor girl (for she is young – visibly much younger than her husband) doesn’t even have a name of her own: first introduced as the paid companion of an older society woman, she is quickly smitten by Maxim’s charms (and who wouldn’t be?!) and, after a whirlwind romance, the pair return to Manderley, a vast, ominous manor house near the Cornish coast. Suddenly thrust into a world far beyond her station, the new Mrs de Winter has to not only adapt to her new social status, but try to fill the shoes of the seemingly perfect Rebecca – a figure so important that both the novel and film take her name, despite not even being shown in a picture or portrait. Rebecca is so dominant that her presence is felt throughout the film – the long corridors and vast, opulent spaces of Manderley seem filled with her, and Hitchcock approaches the story as though it were a true ghost tale. In many ways, of course, it is – the new Mrs de Winter is haunted by the spectre of Rebecca, this beautiful, perfect, urban, witty woman who, it appears, Maxim has never gotten over. Manderley’s housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) definitely hasn’t, and makes sure to remind Mrs de Winter of her inadequacies (as many other characters do) frequently.

It is here that the film makes a further deviation from its source novel: while du Maurier imagined Mrs Danvers as having a maternal bond with Rebecca, here it is implicitly a romantic fixation. Mrs Danvers, prim, proper and utterly intimidating in her strict black dress, has evidently fetishised the memory of Rebecca – the scene in which she takes Mrs de Winter into Rebecca’s old bedroom and points out all the luxury has distinctively erotic undertones: “Did you ever see anything so delicate?” she asks, showing off Rebecca’s sheer negligee. “Look, you can see my hand through it!” Fittingly, all three actors mentioned received Oscar nominations for their roles – Olivier brings a darkness to his role as the charming Maxim, Anderson is rather terrifying as the cold, cruel Mrs Danvers, while Fontaine epitomises innocence and naivety. While Fontaine is undoubtedly beautiful, here she really seems plain – quite an achievement, considering. When Maxim finally reveals what he believes is the truth regarding Rebecca’s death (that it was his actions that killed her), Fontaine is superb. All she hears in this shocking confession is what she wants to: “You never loved her,” she breathlessly repeats, relief all over her face. In all that he has said, that’s the only thing that matters to this smitten, tormented woman.

Although the alterations to the narrative do mean that the power of the story is somewhat reduced, I cannot fault the film itself. The stage production is wonderful – the sets, particularly Manderley’s halls and rooms – are beautiful, expensive and expansive, while the music perfectly complements the visual elements. The score, by Franz Waxman, brings an eerie, gothic quality to the film, emphasising the horror and tension perfectly. Olivier et al are supported by a solid cast, including the delightfully caddish George Sanders, who injects some life into the film’s final third. It’s not all doom, gloom and atmospheric anxiety though – Hitchcock wisely brings some black humour into the narrative by way of some of the smaller roles. Just moments before one of the most devastatingly simple yet brutal cruelties imposed upon poor Mrs de Winter, for example, Maxim’s sister and brother-in-law parade around in ludicrous outfits, highlighting even further the nastiness that follows. As is now expected of Hitchcock, the director demonstrates his mastery of creating tension and, also, revelling in cruelty – yet it is Fontaine’s performance that truly demonstrates the consequences of such cruelty. The devastation is etched all over her face, her torment and agony clear throughout. It’s impressive, really, that we can still empathise with a woman who is such a shell of a person herself – in the end, we still don’t really know anything about her except that she is Maxim’s devoted wife.

Film #105: Easy A (2010)

Emma Stone as "Olive Penderghast" in Screen Gems' EASY A.

Rating: 3.5/5

“The rumours of my promiscuity have been greatly exaggerated.”

Although Jennifer Lawrence is currently Number One Sweetheart in Hollywood, arguably Emma Stone is a close second. After roles in Superbad and the stupidly hilarious The House Bunny, she burst onto the scene with Zombieland, took the lead in Easy A, and made females around the world jealous by smooching Ryan Gosling in not one but two films (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad). Safe to say now she’s a hot commodity. I’m not quite convinced – she’s likeable, of course, but even here she’s by no means the most interesting or funny person on screen, nor is she (in my opinion – I’m sure there are plenty who would disagree) the most personable. But Easy A‘s a strange film, self-aware yet oddly oblivious to its own problems, one that is perfectly entertaining while it’s being watched, but littered with inconsistencies in retrospect.

Stone is Olive, a clean-cut, presumably straight-A student who is invisible to the boys (and most of the girls) in her school. Despite this she’s beautiful, trendy, has a quick wit and no real evidence of any insecurities – to be honest, it’s really not clear why she’s not popular. She’s not particularly awkward (like, for example, Stone’s character in The House Bunny), she’s neither stupid nor pious, but for whatever reason, she’s somehow the outsider. Via online video chat, she relates her version of recent events, using click-baity intertitles to punctuate the various chapters of the story – most of the film consists of flashbacks to said events (in hindsight this implies that almost all the scenes involving her parents and adopted brother are entirely incoherent in this context – as sequences that do not progress or impact upon the main purpose of her testimonial, the reasons for their inclusion are unclear. They are, however, among the funniest scenes of the film). Olive’s story begins with an innocent white lie, which snowballs into school-wide rumours about her promiscuity; mirroring her assigned reading (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter), she becomes the school harlot and finds that infamy and notoriety – whether justified or not – is not necessarily as fun as it first appeared.

While the plot is fairly straight-forward, it’s Olive herself who is so incoherent as a character. Of course, this isn’t Stone’s fault, but that of writer Bert V Royal, who never seems quite sure whether his leading lady is a protagonist, antagonist, smart, stupid, worldly, or naïve. I find it very difficult to believe that, with such enlightened, laid-back and liberal parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, both excelling in their roles and stealing all the scenes they feature in), Olive would actually encourage a bullied gay kid to pretend he’s straight to fit in – surely she would oppose this kind of falseness? Yet this is where it all begins – he takes her advice, they pretend they’ve had sex, and in the blink of an eye she’s the local slut. And, rather than reject this new reputation, she embraces it (though never seems quite sure as to whether she enjoys it or not), accepting gift cards from fat losers and nerds as payment for their alleged sexual encounters, until it all starts going horribly wrong – her best friend Rhiannon (former Disney child Aly Michalka), another entirely incoherent character with hippy-dippy nudist parents and a penchant for calling everyone “bitch,” dumps her, the school’s born-again Christian students, led by Amanda Byne’s holier-than-thou Marianne, are determined to get her expelled, and the lies somehow end up threatening her favourite teacher’s marriage.

If I sound particularly negative towards Easy A, I don’t mean to be – it’s a perfectly engaging film, with some funny moments. Royal’s script attempts to situate itself within a broader group of well-respected school-movies – namely John Hughes’ 80s classics – and there are frequent references to other films, as well as self-referential moments (Olive’s voice-over comments on the clichés in the story, for example) and a whole host of pop-culture remarks. The script is snappy and quick, matched by equally snappy pacing that conveniently conceals the fact that so little makes sense. It’s got a great cast, for instance, but character development is severely limited, and some of the cameos are in desperate need of expansion. Malcolm McDowell’s principal, for example, has one scene in which he (rather inappropriately, it seems, but most of the adults speak to Olive in ways that seem particularly inappropriate) declares that “this is public school. If I can keep the girls off the pole and the boys off the pipe, I get a bonus” – then he’s never seen again, despite the apparent scandals that are rocking the school’s faculty and students. Other characters – Rhiannon, Marianne, dimwitted 22-year old Micah (Cam Gigandet) – have minor subplot stories that mostly lead nowhere. Really, Olive is the only character who grows at all, and even her lesson is a half-hearted one in the end, with the film’s eventual message getting lost beneath the weight of the screenplay’s need to conclude with a homage to better movies. In retrospect, these are the things that stand out the most: Olive’s dog is amazing and I want one; and “Pocketful of Sunshine” is undeniably, infuriatingly catchy yet becomes the most memorable bit of the whole movie.

Films #99-100: Crossroads (2002) & Burlesque (2010)

film 99 crossroads

Ratings: Crossroads, 2/5; Burlesque, 3/5

“All we have is now, and right now we have each other.”
“I will not be upstaged by some slut with mutant lungs!”

One hundred films watched, finally – and what better way to hit the milestone than to celebrate with a 90s-pop-star-to-movie-star-showdown? Yes, it’s Britney Spears in Crossroads versus Christina Aguilera in Burlesque, with a dash of Cher thrown in for good measure. It goes without saying these are cheesy movies but, despite the suggestively low-to-average ratings, they’re both great fun (if you’re that way inclined, I suppose).

First up: Crossroads. Britney is Lucy, virginal do-gooder and all-round nice girl with some abandonment issues thanks to her mother leaving her as a young child. She and her two childhood friends had buried a time capsule many years ago, but as the years passed, these three best friends have grown up, and grown apart. Lucy’s a smokin’ hot dork, Kit (Zoe Saldana, long before carving a name for herself in some of the biggest movie franchises around) is a rich bitch with mummy issues, and Mimi (Taryn Manning) is pregnant by some loser. But it’s finally their high school prom, and the three temporarily put aside their differences to open the box and remember their hopes and dreams. This, naturally, leads to the three embarking on a road trip to LA in a classic convertible with a handsome older man, Ben (Anson Mount) who may or may not have just been released from jail for murder. It’s a coming of age roadtrip movie – they’re all at the crossroads of their lives, you see?

The film is shoddy, to say the least. The plot makes little or no sense, and the characters react in ways that never consider the big picture: the girls find out that Ben may have killed someone while on their road trip, yet continue to antagonise him at every given moment. They may be freaking out in the motel bathroom that they’re going to be murdered and buried in the desert, but two minutes later they’ve apparently forgotten the entire thing. Mimi is planning on going to LA to compete in a recording contest, but develops stage fright the first second she has to sing in public, and almost instantaneously hands over the mike to Lucy and forgets her dream. Kit oddly switches between stereotypical black girl (saying things like “y’all” and getting shouty when drunk) and prim white rich girl. Lucy is a wallflower, but the second she puts on a denim mini-skirt she suddenly becomes a raunchy, pole-dancing showgirl. Ben has no personality whatsoever, but is generally pleasing to the eye so gets away with throwing tantrums in the desert. He also listens exclusively to heavy metal, but writes the music to one of the soppiest pop songs ever (Britney’s mediocre soulful hit, I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman). This does at least, lead to one of the most cringeworthy moments in the whole movie, when he plays the song to Lucy on a white grand piano, as she does that classic 90s, breathy “na na na na” singalong. Yes, there are plenty of moments to groan through and laugh at.

There’s very little actually good about Crossroads – the acting is perfunctory at best (as the biggest name after Britney, Dan Aykroyd sleepwalks through his role as her dad), the narrative incoherent, and one important scene is marred by the constant disappearance and reappearance of a toothbrush in Mimi’s hair. The biggest problem, however, is that the girls are supposed to be eighteen – and therefore adults – yet look and act like they’re about thirteen. Meanwhile Ben is, admittedly, older, but looks a good ten years older than these teens, making the whole thing more than a little uncomfortable. It’s also a surprisingly dark movie – although the overarching themes are ultra-cheesy (friendship, family, finding yourself, growing up) the individual characters’ stories include parental abandonment, cheating, potential murder and rape, with pregnant Mimi in particular suffering a number of harrowing blows. It adds another layer of awkwardness to the movie, which seems to be confused as to who its target audience is: the tweens who love Britney as a pop star, or the young adults who are her actual age. Consequently, it fails to really appeal to either – but as a nostalgic throwback to a time when double denim was the height of fashion, it’s camp, stupid, unintentionally hilarious, and very entertaining. I’m Not a Girl is still a terrible song though.

film 100 burlesque

Next up: Britney’s rival, Christina, in Burlesque. Capitalising on the sudden resurgence of burlesque as a female-empowered, ultra-glamorous performance art, the film sees Ali (Aguilera) packing her things and leaving her small town for the lights and sights of LA – whereas Lucy’s journey ends at the City of Angels, Ali’s begins there. We learn nothing whatsoever about Ali’s homelife – she doesn’t appear to have any family or friends, for example. In LA she tries to make it as a singer-dancer, but isn’t having any luck until she happens upon the outwardly understated Burlesque club (that’s what it’s called, apparently) and instantly falls in love with the razzmatazz and spectacle of the whole thing. Luckily she walks in just as the club’s owner Tess (Cher) is singing a conveniently informative song all about burlesque and what it can offer you. Determined to make it, Ali becomes a waitress at the club, learns all the routines, befriends hunky (possibly gay) bartender/songwriter Jack (Cam Gigandet wearing some guyliner) and waits for her chance. Luckily the club’s lead dancer is an unreliable, spiteful alcoholic, and it’s not long before Ali is saving the day by singing live rather than lipsynching to songs.

Burlesque has one massive, glaring problem: it has almost no burlesque in it. The club is not a bump-and-grind venue, but a cabaret show – the girls don’t take their clothes off, because this is a 12A-rated movie; instead they perform vaguely risqué dance routines to famous songs, while wearing glamorous, moderately revealing showgirl outfits. It’s burlesque for the High School Musical generation – clean cut and harmless, inoffensive but slightly titillating. In many ways, Burlesque is most reminiscent of Coyote Ugly – it follows a very similar storyline and also makes the seedy reality of “making it in Hollywood” seem glamorous and empowering.

Where Burlesque works, however, is in its campness. It seems to embrace this wholeheartedly; it’s like Chicago, but cheesier, with Stanley Tucci stealing the show as Tess’s gay best friend/ right hand man, and Alan Cumming channelling Joel Grey’s compere character in Cabaret. Plus, it’s got gay icon Cher at the helm. She swans around in super high heels and high-cut leotards, sings heartfelt songs without moving a muscle in her face, and looks strangely younger than people twenty years her junior – it’s truly bizarre to think that she was sixty-four in real life! The shame of the movie is that she never gets to sing with Christina. Like her or not, Aguilera’s voice is incredible, and the second she opens her mouth to sing the star quality shines through – she puts Britney to shame, by the way. Meanwhile the songs are frequent – this is far more a musical than Crossroads – and energetic, with the whole movie taking on a far more light-hearted, upbeat tone than Britney’s soul-searching tour de force.

That’s not to say Burlesque is necessarily a good film – there’s plenty that doesn’t make sense. Like Crossroads the screenwriters seem to have a really strange grasp of time: events seem to take weeks, yet actually happen in an evening; others seem to take minutes but span months. Also like Crossroads, it involves the man-candy writing a song for the pop princesses, and like Crossroads the song sounds absolutely nothing like any of the other songs that man either listens to or plays. And, whereas Britney’s Lucy is saccharine sweet, Christina’s Ali is frequently a bit of a brat. But Burlesque works because it has more established actors who are clearly enjoying their roles and embracing the cheesiness, and generally the film feels less overwrought than Crossroads – it’s designed to be fun, and fun it is.

So, in the epic battle between these two former superstars, who comes out on top? Christina’s voice is better, Burlesque‘s narrative is marginally more coherent, the acting better simply because of its self-awareness, and the spectacle is definitely better. It also has one of the most outrageous seduction scenes. Yet Crossroads also has a ridiculous seduction scene, and it’s got Britney’s trademark cute-but-sexy thing working for it, and it’s so stupid and so incoherent, and the songs are pretty dreadful, and the characters equally rubbish… To be honest, it’s a tough call, but together they make for a truly epic double bill.