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

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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

Harvest Moon (2015)

harvest-moon

There are two takeaways from this film. One is that “inside every city girl is a country girl aching to get out.” I don’t know that it works the other way around, at least not according to my knowledge of life based on Hallmark movies. The second, and perhaps more important, is that Buddy Lembeck is no longer the goofy best friend but a mature, and bankrupt, dad to a beautiful young woman. Check it out, Charles in Charge fans.

If you care for neither of these though, you hardly need to add Harvest Moon to your queue. It follows the plot of most Hallmark movies, which is to say it is predictable and unchallenging. You have your basic hot widowed father and blond city slicker. She crashes into the small town with her big city ways and finds herself at odds with the guy until both realize that opposites attract and they are kind of made for each other.

Harvest Moon spices up the story with the sale of a pumpkin patch owned by rich girl Jen (Jessy Schram) and managed by farmer Brett (Jesse Hutch). When she learns that her family’s broke thanks to her dad’s (Willie Aames) failed investments, she decides to check out her remaining asset. But first she has to figure out how those country folk live, like what constitutes appropriate footwear and when and where one should take selfies. The girl doesn’t even recognize the sound of a rooster though, so she’s got a lot to learn.

Jen figures she can sell the place for a higher price if she gives the pumpkin patch and farm a makeover. Brett, hoping for the chance to buy it himself and fearing what might happen to his family if they are forced to leave, tries to sabotage her project or at least make country life so unbearable that she gives up. It’s not a bad plan since Jen’s idea of an intense workout is limited to her yoga class. Brett, however, doesn’t count on falling for her over potted plants and stolen glances of her line dancing.

The city mouse country mouse dichotomy is unnecessarily strong, but stereotypes are what make Hallmark movies go round. Jen’s shallow, non-white best friend (Patricia Isaac) looks down at her friend’s fallen condition and wants to whisk her back to the city where you know you can’t trust anyone but where you can get a delicious fat-free latte. Jen’s not all designer heels and luggage though. She may be clueless but she’s not a bitch and earns the admiration of Brett’s daughter and the homely farm gals, especially when she gives the latter makeovers and treats them to facials and massages. The movie improves when Jen is shown to be more resourceful than her urban elite upbringing would suggest. If the country is characterized by hard work and community, Jen proves that she fits right in, and in fact, her transformation is the more appealing part of the story. The romance, tinged with dead wife melodrama, is just routine, never fiery.

Released: 2015
Dir: Peter DeLuise
Writer: J.P. Martin, Ron Oliver
Cast: Jessy Schram, Jesse Hutch, Willie Aames, Lynda Boyd, Rowen Kahn, Patricia Isaac, Lilah Fitzgerald
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2016

Autumn Dreams (2015)

autumn-dreams

Autumn Dreams has little to do with autumn or dreams but the fall colors sure make a cozy palette. Just splash some oranges and yellows across the screen, and they’ll warm up any old romance. That’s how Hallmark gets away with this treacle. Well, that’s how they get away with every romance, but comforting, bland sentiment is sort of the point. I have yet to do a deep dive into the network’s non-Christmas catalog, so I don’t know how this compares with similar fall fare, but it earns points for picturesque shots of corn, country sunrises, and a John Deere. (And my true Southern Illinoisan colors come out.)

The main character is a down-to-earth farm girl from Iowa, who also happens to have a masters in agricultural chemistry and is working on her Ph.D. That’s a woman I can cheer for. The movie starts a little further back though when teenage Annie and Ben, a farmhand, elope one night. Problem is, they didn’t go far enough, and Annie’s dad catches up with them just after they’ve said their vows. He forces them to sign an annulment, and the two part ways – Annie back to her dad’s farm and Ben off to a new life in New York City.

Fast forward fifteen years and both are engaged. Annie (Jill Wagner) finally decides to get hitched with Joe (Michael Karl Richards), who has been pining for her since before her first marriage. Her reluctance to wear her wedding ring while doing farm work is a sure sign that things aren’t going to work out though. Meanwhile, Ben (Colin Egglesfield), who is really nothing but a “country boy in a designer suit,” is one half of the social event of the season. His fiancée Jovanna (Tasya Teles) is an accomplished interior designer, prefers a minimal aesthetic, and probably shoots lasers out of her eyes. Besides incompatible personalities, the only thing standing between these lovers and wedded bliss is the fact that Annie and Ben are still technically married.

You can see exactly where this story’s going. Annie and Ben meet again when they have to appear in court to finalize their divorce and discover that despite some miscommunication that could have easily been solved with Facebook, they still kind of have a thing for each other. Even though Ben’s now some flashy businessman who has a corner office and a chauffeur named Hector (Bill Dow), he still has a little Iowa in him. He’s also, Hector points out, not an asshole investor. But because Ben’s not ruthless, he’s not exactly happy in his professional or personal life.

Thus is the moral of this and every other Hallmark movie. There’s nothing like a set of good ol’ rural values to guide the way. Annie arrives in the Big Apple like she’s just stepped onto Ellis Island, but unlike those wide-eyed innocents, the big city just isn’t where she belongs. After all, she treats Hector like an equal by sitting with him in the front seat, shuns the corporate suite that Ben’s arranged for her, and escapes in time to save her crop from a bad storm. I’m still holding doors for people in a city of 7 million, so I’ll give into simplicity and sentiment and give a polite nod to a movie that appreciates a more casual pace of life.

Released: 2015
Dir: Neill Fearnley
Writer: Laurie Stevens
Cast: Jill Wagner, Colin Egglesfield, Tasya Teles, Michael Karl Richards, Matty Finochio, Bill Dow, Rachel Hayward, Catherine Lough Haggquist
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2016