Month: October 2016

Death Becomes Her (1992)

death-becomes-her

“En garde, bitch.” And with that, two undead rivals, forgotten star Madeline Ashton and spurned lover Helen Sharp, go at it with garden shovels, knocking each other around until one nearly loses her head. Death Becomes Her is a batty, ageless film in more ways than one. It’s a campy early ‘90s nod to the B-movie that boasts serious stars in truly captivating performances; it also features still impressive special effects, though one can only imagine what a filmmaker might attempt with a remake today; and it touches on a theme, eternal youth, that will probably never go away.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, this movie delights in its own silliness. Stars Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn ham it up as vindictive rivals for the affections of a lumpy and timid plastic surgeon, played with a very un-John McClane-like Bruce Willis. When Madeline (Streep) and Ernest (Willis) elope, Helen (Hawn) goes off the deep end, eating herself into obesity and landing in a psych ward due to her obsessive behavior. The years haven’t been kind to Madeline either though, and she eventually loses her career, good looks, and the love of her husband.

The three are reunited some years later when Helen launches her book at a glitzy party. Madeline is jealous to discover that Helen is thin, radiant, and most importantly, young. The change doesn’t escape Ernest’s notice. He’s eager to rid himself of his nagging wife and to recharge his career – he’s been reduced to a makeup artist for the dead. He and his former lover plot to rid themselves of Madeline, and, as usually happens, that’s when things start to get out of control.

Death Becomes Her takes our obsession with youth and youthful appearances to the extreme. It’s also a commentary on sexism and aging in Hollywood, issues that are as relevant today as they were twenty-five years ago. In this movie, the cure-all is a youth potion, conjured up by Lisle (Isabella Rossellini), a mysterious woman who prowls topless through her empty mansion and is protected by equally unclothed bodyguards. When Madeline gets a preview of the potion’s effect, she snaps it up without a moment’s thought. When Ernest gets the same opportunity, he hesitates, fearful of what immortality truly entails. Though he’s spent a lifetime helping people alter their appearances in life and death, he spurns the notion that greatness is achieved through youth or beauty.

Of course he might come to that conclusion as a man who looks like a bank teller and marries someone like Meryl Streep. But as Madeline and Hollywood’s actresses know, youth and beauty are a woman’s primary currency in an industry they don’t control. There’s great irony in that despite stopping time to spend eternity as they are, Madeline and Helen are still betrayed by their bodies. They need constant remolding and patching up just so they don’t walk around like melting mannequins. But the more work they get, the more unrecognizable they become, and doesn’t that sound familiar? Just Renee Zelleweger or Kim Novak.

Released: 1992
Prod: Robert Zemeckis, Steve Starkey
Dir: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Martin Donovan, David Koepp
Cast: Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Ogilvy, Sydney Pollack, Fabio
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

Little Witch Academia (リトルウィッチアカデミア) (2013)

little-witch-academia

It’s a stormy October afternoon in Hong Kong, and I’m housebound as a typhoon rages outside. Perfect time to watch whatever is next in my Netflix queue, which happens to be Little Witch Academia. This anime short is one of my few brushes with the genre so I don’t have much for comparison, but I found it a breezy little film that satisfies the Hermione Granger in me. I won’t be rushing to see the sequel, The Enchanted Parade, also on Netflix, but I appreciate this compact package about a girl who learns to have confidence in herself.

The message is wrapped in a story about witches and dragons and superstar chick magicians. A young Akko discovers witchcraft when her parents take her to see Shiny Chariot, a glammed up witch who puts on dazzling shows that leave her audiences in awe. When Akko is older, she enrolls Luna Nova Magical Academy, a muggle in a class full of magic-born girls. Though she has a few close friends, Lotte and Sucy, she is often mocked by the other students for her poor grasp of basic witch skills, like broom riding. She is teased most mercilessly though for her idolization of Shiny Chariot because while Akko is enamored with her conjurations, the wizarding world dislikes Shiny Chariot’s low-brow appeal to the masses. Akko’s classmates argue that her idol gives witches a bad name by relying on attention-grabbing illusions rather than real magic. But what’s real and what’s fake in the witch world? When a treasure hunting exercise results in the accidental release of a dragon, Akko relies on Shiny Chariot’s mantras to try to save her school.

There isn’t anything spectacular about the animation. I wanted the school or the cave where they are looking for treasures to evoke something mysterious and otherworldly, but the artists stuck with boilerplate images. Luna Nova is a single towering column rising above a forest, and the cave is, well, a dark hole. But while that doesn’t bother me, I have always been disturbed by the way girls are depicted in anime. I can practically see up Akko’s school uniform, which stops pretty much where her butt does. Akko’s main nemesis is Diana Cavendish also intrigued me. Brainy, beautiful, blond, and more a woman than a girl, I couldn’t figure out if she was the stereotypical mean girl or the stereotypical hot girl.

Akko is a relatable, bright-eyed heroine though. She’s surprisingly well adjusted; though she knows she’s an outsider, she accepts that role and tries to get on without letting it bother her. Despite the other girls’ disdain for Shiny Chariot, she still knows what she believes. She just needs to put it to better practice. And that would make any Hermione Granger smile.

Released: 2013
Prod: Naoko Tsutsumi
Dir: Yoh Yoshinari
Writer: Masahiko Otsuka
Cast: Megumi Han, Fumiko Orikasa, Michiyo Murase, Yōko Hikasa, Noriko Hidaka, (English Dub) Erica Mendez, Stephanie Sheh, Rachelle Heger, Laura Post, Alexis Nichols
Time: 26 min
Lang: Japanese/English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

Love on the Sidelines (2016)

love-on-the-sidelines

If you like sexism in your lowbrow TV movies, you won’t mind Love on the Sidelines. If you prefer your female-targeted entertainment to be a little more supportive of women, however, you probably shouldn’t be watching the Hallmark Channel in the first place. That said, I clearly don’t take my own advice, which explains how I end up reviewing tv romances on a Friday night. That this one offers a few pleasant surprises doesn’t make it productive viewing – it ends up being of a dumping ground for gender stereotypes – but at least it’s not as boring.

Star Emily Kinney of The Walking Dead fame is a refreshing change from the usual crop of cardboard cutouts who front Hallmark’s productions. Though she is white and blond, she also has a bubbly Emma Pillsbury (the wide-eyed counselor in Glee) quality, minus the awkwardness. You might imagine a tamer version of an Anna Faris character as well. Either way, Kinney’s character Laurel is a woman who knows what she wants, and that is a job in the fashion industry. But the real world beckons and the only work she can find is with a personal assistant agency. She ends up as a last minute replacement, coming to the aid of injured footballer Danny Holland (John Reardon).

The sports arena is sort of untested waters as far as Hallmark is concerned. Usually love happens in a parade or a kitchen or on a bale of hay. The competitive atmosphere fits Laurel’s character, a woman who wants to do the best damn job at everything, even if it’s limited to being a footballer’s gofer. Her long-term anxieties, however, are focused on finding a job that satisfies her creative talents. She’s disinterested in love even when it hobbles towards her, and it’s nice to finally see this representation of women on this channel. It turns out we can be fulfilled without a romantic partner. That Laurel eventually gets one is just icing on the cake.

The wonderful world of sports also provides ripe ground for stereotype though. The movie pushes hard the narrative that despite being a complete outsider, nothing’s going to stop Laurel. It’s an admirable point and one that could be made without resorting to sexist clichés. She is a complete blank when it comes to sports, and though I accept that not everyone recognizes the name Knute Rockne, her cluelessness makes a parody of the reductive nerd vs. jock trope.

Danny, a star quarterback who is out with a leg injury, is insulted by the notion of a female personal assistant. “I’m a football player!” he proclaims, as if that bestowed upon him some magic powers. He can’t belch and walk around in his underwear with a girl hanging around, he reasons, and boasts eagerly, if somewhat sarcastically, that he can’t wait to go back to being a chauvinist. That wasn’t even the scene that disappointed me most though. When Laurel acts as a literal gatekeeper to give Danny a chance to rest, one of his teammates whom she doesn’t recognize asks to come in. She doesn’t budge and the hulking athlete simply picks her up and barges into the house. Still carrying her, he asks Danny if Laurel “belongs” to him, to which he replies that it’s up for debate. Boys, girls, Hallmark, women are not dolls. Is that too hard to understand?

Released: 2016
Dir: Terry Ingram
Writer: Judith Berg, Sandra Berg
Cast: Emily Kinney, John Reardon, Hayley Sales, Luisa D’Oliveira, Joe Theismann, Tommy Europe, Victor Zinck Jr.
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2016