Mustang, 2015

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The spiritual cousin to The Virgin Suicides, Mustang, directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, is a stunning and haunting film that is currently my favourite release of the year. It takes place in a remote Turkish village and centres on the lives of five young sisters, who live with their grandmother, and the hurdles they face navigating life under the restrictive rules of patriarchy. At the beginning of the film the sisters are playing a game with some local boys, the consequences of which are dire and the catalyst for the rest of the movie: they are imprisoned in their own home, not even let out for school.

From here, the film is frustrating and freeing by turns as we see the girls rebelling, striving for freedom, but almost always thwarted by their family. It feels more like a series of vignettes, thread together both thematically and by pivoting around the sisters, than a traditional beginning, middle, end structure.

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The scenes of the girls playing, finding ways to entertain themselves (reminiscent of the previously mentioned The Virgin Suicides), protecting each other, growing frustrated with each other, and so on are lovely and very real. It is easy to empathise with the girls, not just because of the extremity of their situation, but because of the moments like these. All of the young actresses playing the sisters are fantastic, particularly Lale (Günes Sensoy).

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Unlike The Virgin Suicides, in Mustang we get very close to the sisters, we’re not removed by way of seeing them through someone else’s eyes. They’re not unsolvable mysteries here – they’re girls with all that entails. They’re real.

I like that some of the shocking moments and revelations play out offscreen or are just hinted at – it increases the uneasiness having to piece it together for yourself, having to speculate, think ‘is that what’s really happening?’ It also plays out this way because the film is largely seen from Lale’s point of view and so we are mostly privy to what she sees and hears. I wondered, at times, how much she understands, herself. (We do see scenes from other points of view, but not often).

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It does a good job of showing how sexualised girls’ bodies, girls’ actions, are, too. As previously mentioned, the girls are locked in their own home for playing a perfectly innocent game but, because they were sitting on boys’ shoulders, they are accused, among other things, of ‘pleasuring themselves’. The girls are mortified, indignant, at the accusation. It makes me think of all the times I’ve heard people say young girls shouldn’t wear certain clothes, shouldn’t dance certain ways, and so on, because they’re too ‘sexy’. How twisted is the world when it’s acceptable for adults to deem a child’s clothing or behaviour ‘sexy’ or sexual, often for the mere fact of her gender? But the film also shows that the girls don’t necessarily view their own bodies that way. For them, lounging in their underwear or bathers (as above) is just comfortable and playing a game is just playing a game. (Not to say that they are desexualised completely, either, but the point is still made that girls are sexualised, by the world outside, from a young age).

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I can’t write up a review without mentioning the cinematography and I have to say that it is breathtaking. I need to watch it again to appreciate it fully, as I had to concentrate on the subtitles, but it’s a beautifully photographed movie. There are a lot of tight shots of the girls together, highlighting their claustrophobic situation (both by being locked in literally by their family, and trapped by the rules of patriarchy) but it is not without breathing room.

The ending has been described as ‘too neat’ by some but after everything that happened in the film, it was more than welcome. I don’t want to give anything away, but it bothers me that hopeful endings are seen as unrealistic. I think they can be, but here it felt right and important (though it is not without its ambiguity, in my opinion). And it moved me, which is certainly not a bad thing.

If you haven’t seen Mustang, yet, it’s a must-see and currently screening in select cinemas around Australia.

 

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Jennifer’s Body, 2009

When I put the DVD for Jennifer’s Body (directed by Karyn Kusama) in the player and settled in to watch it, I was fully prepared for a terrible movie. This was because of the few reviews I’d read and general attitude regarding this film as a truly Bad Movie. I should’ve known better, from past experience, than to pay attention to the bad reviews: this was awesome.

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I’ve since read this has become somewhat of a cult classic, but I haven’t read extensively enough to know if this is true. I did read some good reviews on letterboxd after I watched it, including this one that seemed to capture exactly how I felt about the film as I was watching it. One of the things I noticed, as highlighted in the linked review, is the strong theme of (female) friendship, something I wasn’t expecting at all. This isn’t a typical teen horror flick and maybe that’s why it got so many bad reviews. It’s made more for (and by) girls and women and that made it pretty refreshing to watch.

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Cody’s script is a little weak at some points, I won’t deny that, but these characters – particularly Jennifer and Needy – are so well-written and so much more than the typical ‘nerd’ and ‘slut’ stereotypes they could easily be. Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried are brilliant in fleshing out the roles created by Cody in her script.

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It’s very well directed by Kusama and beautifully photographed, too. There are some really lovely shots in this film and the gorgeous colours are rarely seen in horror.

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I don’t think it was quite as subversive or feminist as it set out to be and this is largely because of the competitive undercurrent in Jennifer and Needy’s friendship as well as some parts of the ending. It’s a pity it didn’t take it’s subversion further but no film is perfect and I still thoroughly enjoyed Jennifer’s Body.

When I noticed there was a theatrical cut and an extended cut, I spent about five minutes agonising over which to watch. I went for the theatrical in the end because I like watching films as they were released initially for my first watch but I’ll definitely be watching the extended cut at some point.

On the subject of Kusama’s films, I also watched Æon Flux which I didn’t think was terrible, either. I’ve never watched the cartoon/animated series, which could have something to do with it but I don’t think it deserves the vitriol it receives. It was a little difficult to follow and the characters could seem shallow, I suppose, but it was very striking.

I now have Girlfight in my queue and I’m hoping to see The Invitation at some point so I can finish off my viewing of Kusama’s films. I have a feeling I’ll enjoy those two, as well.

Real Women Have Curves, 2002 (52 Films by Women #17)

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How dare anybody try to tell me what I should look like, or what I should be, when there’s so much more to me than just my weight!

Real Women Have Curves, directed by Patricia Cardoso, was number 17 for my 52 Films by Women pledge. The title had put me off when I saw a copy, many years ago, at my local video store. But then I found a copy at Savers and figured I may as well pick it up, for $2, seeing as it was right there. And I’m glad that I looked past the title and did so, because this is a lovely little film.

America Ferrera is fantastic in the lead role as the frustrated Ana, torn between loyalty to her family and wanting to forge her own way in the world. Coming of age tales may not be anything new, but as they’re generally told by/from a white perspective it makes films like this not only important, but refreshing.

Ana is an easy character to relate to – she and I have many similarities (including our bodies) but we’re from quite different cultures. I enjoyed the scenes with her family, especially with her grandpa, but there are some very cute scenes with her boyfriend that I liked, too.

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But the scene that really got me is when she confronts her mother in the factory about her body image double standards. When Ana strips down to her undies and says how she doesn’t really want to change, that there’s more to her than her body and her outward appearance, that she likes herself the way that she is, I practically cheered. The other women (except her mother) strip off too and it’s honestly one of the sweetest moments in the film, especially when Pancha says how beautiful they all are. It’s a very powerful scene, with a message that is still relevant, but it’s infused with humour that makes it heartwarming.

This is an engaging, funny and poignant film that’s well worth a watch.

The Bling Ring/Om Shanti Om (52 Films by Women #3 and #4)

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The Bling Ring, directed by Sofia Coppola, was the third film I watched for 52 Films by Women. I had meant to see The Bling Ring when it was out at the cinema as Sofia Coppola’s films have always interested me but I never got around to it. I love Coppola’s aesthetic(s) and the worlds she creates.

This is not a perfect film, but there’s so much to enjoy here that it overrides any flaws. The young cast is very good, particularly Katie Chang and Israel Broussard as Rebecca and Marc.

I was totally captivated by their escapades with and without the rest of the eponymous ‘Bling Ring’, and was a bit anxious waiting for them to get found out. It made me think of how easily I can get caught up in the cult of celebrity, myself. (Though definitely not to the same extent).

The Bling Ring is a stylish, fun film and I can definitely see myself revisiting it at some point. Maybe I’ll have a Sofia Coppola marathon, one day.

om-shanti-om1The fourth film I watched was Om Shanti Om, directed by Farah Khan. I haven’t seen many Bollywood films – I think this makes number 3 in total – but I’ve loved the ones I have seen including this.

Om Shanti Om is so infectious. I really got swept up by the songs and acting and sets. It’s very easy to become emotional when watching this.

Even without much frame of reference, I could tell that it both pays tribute to and pokes fun at the Bollywood industry, while it tells the epic tale of love, reincarnation and revenge.

I liked the whole cast but Deepika Padukone was particularly charming as both Shanti and Sandy. Shah Rukh Khan was very funny as Om, too.

It’s left me wanting to see many more Bollywood films! (Recommendations are welcome).

White Bird in a Blizzard, 2014

Gregg Araki is one of my favourite directors, and has been since I discovered his work in my late teens (or early twenties). I prefer his films on the more bizarre end of the spectrum (Nowhere, The Doom Generation, Kaboom, etc.), but I still love his less strange films. So, I was excited when White Bird in a Blizzard was announced. The premise sounded interesting (I love mysteries!) and it was going to star Eva Green? How could that get any better. It wasn’t well received, but Araki’s films rarely seem to be (except maybe Mysterious Skin) and his work falls definitely in the Love or Hate category (or, perhaps, ‘get it’ or ‘don’t get it’). I think it’s hard to explain to those who don’t ‘get’ Araki’s work, why his films are so enjoyable and so great. (Maybe someone else has the capacity to describe their appeal beyond flailing and gushing, but I sure don’t).

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So I went into White Bird with caution, but I shouldn’t have because I loved it. It’s not surprising – usually when it comes to my favourites I’m rarely disappointed. I’m not particularly discerning or critical, especially when it comes to both mysteries and movies about teen girls. The story centres on Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley), whose mother, Eve (Eva Green), goes missing when she’s seventeen years old. The story is told in scenes from the present day (1988), flashbacks of Eve’s earlier life narrated by Kat’s voiceover, before taking us forward to 1991, with still no word of Eve’s whereabouts.

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It’s photographed beautifully, has a dreamlike quality to it, and the soundtrack is superb (as always). Araki definitely knows how to make a stylish film. I love that he is equally capable of crafting the absurd atmospheres of Nowhere and The Doom Generation as he is something less ‘out there’, but equally surreal in its own way, as White Bird.

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The performances were all fantastic, particularly Shailene Woodley and Eva Green (who always steals the show IMHO).  Eva Green really was the highlight of the film, playing bored, and deeply unhappy, housewife Eve, without being a cliche. Chris Meloni was really good, too. The changes in his character were so subtle. I like that the tone of the film was really different to most mysteries. It wasn’t particularly creepy, or unsettling in an overt way, and the sense of loss is quite subtle. The mystery itself is not particularly substantial, nor did I find it overly shocking, but that’s fine. The rest of the journey made up for it, for me. It’s not an edge-of-your seat thriller but I found beauty in its quietness.

There is definitely a distance, perhaps even a coldness to Woodley’s character, but as someone who finds it difficult to connect on an emotional level (to other people, anyway, no issues connecting emotionally to films or fictional characters), I didn’t see that as a bad thing. And with the way Eve treated Kat, it’s easy to see why she would block the way her mother’s disappearance affected her, just brushed it off as another ‘crazy’ thing her mother had done. (Instead of accepting it as a painful experience that actually happened to her).

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Once again, I’m fairly certain I’m in the minority with loving this film, but I’m OK with that (I’ve recently realised I have a tendency to fall for films that were panned by audiences and critics alike). But, as much as I loved this, I really do prefer when Araki goes for anarchic and absurd.