#52FilmsbyWomen

B is for Blue Steel (1990)

Trigger warning for rape and domestic abuse.

After an armed robbery goes awry, rookie cop Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) finds herself as the target when a witness (Ron Silver) becomes obsessed with her.

I went into this film knowing very little, in fact the reason I had a DVD of it was because it’s directed by Kathryn Bigelow and I’d been meaning to watch more of her films.

Blue Steel is a bit of a strange film in a way. It’s mostly framed as a typical cop action/thriller but as it progresses it almost becomes a slasher film – having Jamie Lee Curtis, Final Girl extraordinaire herself, as the lead sure does help cement that feeling.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Jamie Lee Curtis does give a great performance as Megan, showing her vulnerability as well as her strength, but it’s a bit difficult to understand Megan’s motivations for becoming a police officer. Anytime someone asks her reasons she makes a quip about shooting people or shoving them face first into a wall. It seems like she wants to have power and some of her actions are questionable. The villain of the film alludes to the fact that they aren’t so different and you can see some of those similarities he’s talking about. It makes her as a hero interesting, because sometimes it’s almost as if you want her to survive just because that’s how the general narrative of these sort of films usually work, not because she’s a character you become attached to.

The slasher element comes when Megan is being stalked by the witness. He makes himself a part of her life before showing her who he really is, though very few people believe her. He is suitably creepy and unsettling as you’re never sure what he’s going to do next. Plus, as bullets start flying, he almost seems to be indestructible as he shakes off injuries pretty quickly and just keeps coming after Megan. He puts her some mental and physical torture. The way in which he doesn’t stop is reminiscent of the slasher villains who never seem to stay dead. This kind of stretches the realm of plausibility as for the most part Blue Steel seems grounded in reality.

I in no way mean this as an insult but the score from Brad Fiedel is a great example of a 90s thriller/action score. The sound of it kind of encapsulates that time period and those kinds of films. It’s an unsettling score at times and compliments the action on screen, amping the tension well, but it also feels like a product of its time. It just instantly made me know what kind of film I was watching and when it was made. It’s quite the skill really.

Clancy Brown as the leading man is different (he played a detective and Megan’s reluctant partner) though I didn’t really believe in his relationship with Megan. It seemed to move too fast and was almost contrived. I think that’s the thing with Blue Steel, its ninety-minute runtime helps cover some of its flaws, as does the performances from the leads, but the story doesn’t really follow real world logic. If you think about it too long, you’ll probably like it less. 3/5.

As a side note, Blue Steel is one of those films I get enjoyment from just because of the cast. There were so many actors in this where I was like, “I recognise him” before realising that I was used to seeing them with white hair and looking 30 years older.

REVIEW: Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz), a WWII pilot, is travelling with a confidential package when she encounters an evil presence and mistrust from her fellow airmen on board the flight.

Shadow in the Cloud is one of those films that I feel is best to go into it knowing as little as possible, and that includes not watching the trailer. All I knew before watching was “Chloë Grace Moretz in a WWII movie and things go wrong” so how everything went wrong was always a nice and sometimes funny surprise.

Shadow in the Cloud is pretty much a single location film and it makes the most of the restrictions that offers and how fun filmmaking can lead to some interesting situations. The single location in question is the plane, and specifically the Sperry Ball turret, the spherical gun turret on the plane’s underbelly. Maude spends most of the film there and her only communication with the crew is via the radio. While the majority of the crew are crass and mistrusting of Maude, their dialogue via the radio only furthers Maude’s characterisation and Moretz give a great performance. Her Maude is capable and strong but also scared and reactive. She is a character who is easy to root for as you learn about her the same time the crew does. Plus, with the men being pretty sexist (and in some cases racist) and generally acting in an unlikable manner, it’s easy to be on Maude’s side.

Have to give a shoutout to composer Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper. A synth heavy, techno score is not something I’d expect in a WWII film but it ends up suiting the tone of the whole film perfectly. With the help of the score and having Maude in such a claustrophobic spot the tension amps up nicely and when Maude gets her big hero moment for the first time, the synths kick in and it’s a thoroughly entertaining sequence.

Shadow in the Cloud is a bit silly with its genre mash up of war drama with supernatural/horror elements but it does it well and entertainingly so thanks to being grounded by Moretz’s performance. The dogfights are thrilling, the supernatural presence is suitably creepy and overall, it’s just a really unexpectedly fun film.

If you like Overlord then I’d definitely recommend giving Shadow in the Cloud a try – plus it’s only 83 minutes long and that includes the credits. Director and co-writer Rosanne Liang definitely knows how to do a lot with little in the best possible way. 4/5.

REVIEW: Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story (2021)

Documentary on pioneering scuba diver Valerie Taylor, who has dedicated her life to exposing the myth surrounding our fear of sharks.

Valerie Taylor isn’t a name or a person I knew of before watching this documentary. In fact, I was reading through a “Best Documentaries of 2021” list and Playing with Sharks appeared and as someone who enjoys nature documentaries, I thought I’d give it a go. As a Brit the two most famous nature/conservationist people I immediately think of are David Attenborough and Jane Goodall so it was interesting to learn about Australian Valerie Taylor and her husband Ron, their lives and their work with sharks and all marine life.

The fascinating thing to me that was mentioned by one of the scientists featured in Playing with Sharks is that it’s not uncommon for people who were hunters to become conservationists. It’s like those who can see the worst in how people treat nature can then strive to change that as they deeply know both sides of it. In the 1950s Valerie would go spearfishing and she, like everyone else at that time, just believed you could take what you wanted from the ocean as there would always be plenty there. Over time she changed her mind about that and killing creatures and from that she became passionate about learning all she could about them.

Using her camera rather than her spear Valerie captured amazing footage and the fact that she, a young pretty blonde woman, would be in these images too, touching sharks and swimming with them made the images all the more striking. It’s impressive that pretty much all the things we know today about sharks and their behaviour came from Valerie’s work with them.

Playing with Sharks is a bit formulaic with talking heads from different scientists and fellow divers but there’s something so wonderful about a female marine biologist saying that Valerie Taylor was her idol. The use of archival footage of Valerie and Rod going out to sea to take pictures and videos of sharks as well as the interviews they did after the release of Jaws follow the timeline of their lives while the Valerie today recounts what she remembers and how she felt about things.

Playing with Sharks is a really interesting and hopeful documentary. It shows how people wrongly fear these magnificent creatures and all the work Valerie Taylor has done in order to protect them and make people put aside their misconceptions about them. What she’s achieved in her life is inspiring and the footage they captured, in the 1960s and 70s especially is wonderful. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Seed (2021)

After being victims of gentrification Rainer (Hanno Koffler) moves his family to the outskirts of the city to a house that needs a lot of work. As he toils away at home and on a building site where his position as site manager is appearing more and more precarious, his thirteen-year-old daughter Doreen (Dora Zygouri) befriends neighbour Mara (Lilith Julie Johna) whose family is a lot richer than her own.

Comparisons to social dramas from Ken Loach can be easily made as Rainer and his family are put through more and more financial and emotional turmoil. However, while the cast is good in their roles – Koffler is especially engaging – the narrative they’re in is pretty simple. As more and more burdens are place on the family, you hardly ever see why this is happening. Is it their family specifically that’s hit a rough patch, or is it part of a wider social issue and they’re not alone in this struggle? Naturally as The Seed is a German film there could well be context clues that I as a Brit living in the UK did not pick up on but it does feel like a simple way to tell this story.

Rainer’s storyline can be frustrating at times as he, like many of his fellow workers, have worked for this company for years and feels some loyalty to it. This is exacerbated by company owner Klose (Robert Stadlober) who makes promises that from an outside perspective you can see he has no intention of keeping. Rainer’s situation shows how while companies may preach that they are a family company and any success benefits all the workers, in reality that’s not the case and no one is irreplaceable.

Doreen’s struggles are typical coming-of-age fare. She’s had to leave behind her friends and the new girl she befriends has a cruel streak. As she yearns for friendship, she finds herself in situations where Mara is convincing her to steal or play dangerous tricks on other girls and when she does stand up for herself, she becomes the target.

The parallels between father and daughter and their struggles couldn’t be more on the nose. While Rainer is having to deal with a cruel and two-faced boss, Doreen is spending time with someone who is more of a bully than a friend. The way their relationship troubles build mirrors one another until they both reach their breaking point. The cutting between Rainer and Doreen’s final confrontations with their tormentors is inevitable and while it’s unsurprising, the way these confrontations turn out lead to an interesting juxtaposition.

The sound design is one notable aspect of The Seed. Any time Rainer gets overwhelmed by his situation, it’s like his anxiety spikes and a high-pitched whining, rumbles of thunder and steady but foreboding drumbeat drown out everything else around him. The sound is suffocating and is a great audio-visualisation of his current emotional state. Continuing the themes of daughter’s life mirroring her father’s, while it doesn’t happen as often to Doreen, the same techniques are implemented when everything becomes too much for her too.

While everything does slowly build to a crescendo, The Seed finishes with an open-ending. After everything that’s come before it’s hard to think of a conclusion that could be happy or even concrete while still being realistic. However, it does mean that you’re left feeling dejected and unsatisfied because as a people we tend to strive for some semblance of hope or light even in the darkest of stories, and here there is very little of that for this family. 3/5.

REVIEW: Salaryman (2021)

Comprised of interviews, animation and photographs, director Allegra Pacheco explores the concept of “Salarymen”. These are typically white-collar workers who work excessive hours, then go out late drinking or for meals with colleagues and bosses. The last train leaves at midnight and if they don’t make that train, they’re left to either find a bed for the night in the city or, far more commonly, just fall asleep on the pavement, their head lying on their briefcase.

Through interviews with historians, psychologists and with former and current Salarymen, past and present, Pacheco paints a picture of people being pushed to the brink. It’s interesting to hear the cultural and historical roots of Salarymen and while there’s some aspects that are distinctly Japanese – thinking of the collective rather than the individual – the implications of these long working hours and having to socialise after hours in order to help your career is something that can be seen in any capitalist society.

Likewise, it’s the Boomer generation that gained the most from this way of working. While they still lost time at home with their families, there was job security and the chance of progression and mentorship. Today the younger generation of office workers don’t have that, they are putting in long hours for little to no reward just because it’s the norm.

It’s not just men who are affected by this phenomenon. Women office workers also have long hours and the pressure to socialise with colleagues out of office hours, though there was no footage of women asleep on the street. And even if women aren’t living the life of a Salaryman, those who are married to a Salaryman are more like a single parent than in a relationship. Wives are put in a terrible position where they have no support at home, and children can grow up without their father being a conscious part of their lives.

One thing director Allegra Pacheco does is draw chalk outlines around sleeping men on the pavement, making it look like a crime scene and highlighting what is an anomaly to her (she says that being from Latin America she couldn’t imagine anyone sleeping on the street without being robbed or worse) but all other passers-by barely give them a second glance. While the chalk outline is supposed to show how these people are being worked to exhaustion or even death, it feels exploitative as she makes these men a part of her artwork without their knowledge or consent. While it ends up being striking images, it’s uncomfortable to watch.

Salaryman does get a bit repetitive in the middle, there’s only so many times you can hear about people’s dreadful work/life balance, but when it tackles topics of suicide it does so with care and sensitivity. Overall Salaryman works as a wakeup call to the extremes the workforce is pushed to and while there is no concrete solution to how to change this culture, there is a spark of hope coming from the most unlikely of places. 3/5.

REVIEW: A Cinderella Story: Christmas Wish (2019)

Kat (Laura Marano) dreams of becoming a famous singer-songwriter but it’s hard to imagine her dreams coming true thanks to her cruel stepfamily.

Not only does Kat have to clean and tidy their home but any money she earns from her job as a singing elf at Santa Land goes straight to her stepmother Deirdra (Johannah Newmarch). While naturally the evil step sisters and stepmother act can be repetitive (and the actors perhaps overact a tad), Deirdra does say some cutting things to Kat. They strike a chord but the moment is never left to be fully impactful before there is a joke or the plot moves swiftly on.

Kat’s best friend and fellow elf Isla (Isabella Gomez) fits in the fairy Godmother role and to be honest she’s more charismatic and charming than the lead which is good for her but not for Marano. Isla really is a great friend. She’s supportive and is always willing to listen to Kat moan about her family and the two of have great chemistry. The same can’t be said for Marano and Gregg Sulkin who plays her prince Charming in this scenario, Dominic the son of a billionaire who’s working as Santa so he learns what hard work and responsibilities are. They aren’t terrible together but there isn’t some great spark either.

Going into A Cinderella Story: Christmas Wish you know exactly what to expect and it certainly does hit all those Cinderella plot beats which does make it pretty predictable. There are some unbelievable moments, like how can Dominic not recognise Kat just because she’s got a pink wig and an elf hat on, but overall, it’s a pretty harmless adaptation of the well-known story. Though it is supposed to be a comedy and the jokes and slapstick humour didn’t work for me. However, it’s also a musical so there’s some cutesy pop songs about Christmas and falling in love in it too that aren’t too bad. So swings and roundabouts really. 2/5.

Part of me wonders how all the A Cinderella Story films compare to the original with Hillary Duff. I doubt any of them will be as good as the original, I do have a soft spot for it, but Christmas Wish is the fourth out of five “sequels” so there must be something to them in order for them to keep being made.

REVIEW: Everything in the End (2021)

Stranded in a small Icelandic town, a young Portuguese man named Paulo (Hugo de Sousa) seeks out human connections and intimacy during the Earth’s final days.

Sometimes you watch a film at exactly the right time and it hits you in a way it probably wouldn’t at any other time. That’s how I felt about Everything in the End. It’s a film that was made pre-pandemic but is one that is strangely relevant to our times now.

It’s a film about loneliness and isolation but also making connections with other people. Everyone is just waiting for the world to end. How and why this is happening you don’t know, there’s just an acceptance of what is coming and Paulo and everyone else he meets is just in a strange limbo as they live out their final days. As Paulo meets different people, sometimes multiple times, others just in passing, it’s little moments of connection that often feel bigger because soon they are never going to meet someone new again.

There’s a sense of both longing and acceptance throughout Everything in the End. The longing for more time, to have done and seen more things in what time they were given. But also, the acceptance that they don’t have that time, this is where they have chosen to spend their last days, with these people. That Paulo decided to travel to rural Iceland where he knew no one isn’t easy for some characters to understand but they take him at face value because what harm can anyone do now when the world is ending?

The fact that there’s no subtitles when characters speak Icelandic or Portuguese is really effective. English is the mutual language (some characters speak it better than others) so when someone tries to talk to Paulo in Icelandic before realising he doesn’t understand you feel as lost as he does. Likewise in one emotional scene where Paulo is rambling in Portuguese you just have to listen to the emotions and while I didn’t understand what he was saying, I knew what he was talking about due to context clues in previous scenes.

Rural Iceland looks beautiful yet haunting and it feels like the perfect place to wait for the end of the world. There’s a lot of wide shots of Paulo walking through fields or sitting on the shore perfectly encapsulating the loneliness he feels. Having those times where Paulo is alone makes the moments where he is with others more impactful.

Everything in the End is a really impactful film full of longing and grief and though things are undoubtable terrible for Paulo and the rest of the world, there’s still small moments of joy to be found. It’s those little sparks of light and connection that pull us through tough times and even though Paulo’s fate is inevitable, those connections still having meaning.

Everything in the End is one of those films where I was impressed as I watched it but then it’s one that I’ve been unable to stop thinking about since. It’s so melancholy but almost hopeful at the same time. Like I said, I think living during a pandemic where there’s been times I’ve felt isolated from loved ones and adrift has made Everything in the End take on new meaning and become almost strangely comforting. 5/5.

REVIEW: Schumacher (2021)

Documentary about seven-time Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher.

Formula 1 is not a sport I follow or know a lot about but it’s hard to not have at least heard of Michael Schumacher. It’s a name and person I was always aware of growing up as he first raced in the F1 a month before I was born and I remember seeing his ski accident featured in the news. Really that sums up my knowledge of Michael Schumacher before watching this documentary.

I found Schumacher to be really interesting and engaging. The balance between talking heads, voiceovers from various industry professionals and those who know Michael Schumacher, and archival footage was great. The filmmakers had a good understanding of when to let the footage speak for itself; whether that was a montage of photos and clips of Schumacher with his family, or letting key races play out.

The documentary seemed to balance the story of Schumacher the man outside of F1 and Schumacher the driver. It’s clear that they were very different people and while he was focused and put his all into both aspects of his life, his competitiveness when it came to racing was almost unparalleled. You get to see the highs and lows of his racing career and included are the times where he was probably in the wrong when it came to altercations with some of his opponents but it was clear that he’d never apologise for such things as in some ways it was almost like anything goes when on the track. Hearing David Coulthard talk about their relationship on and off the track especially highlighted Schumacher’s competitive-streak.

The documentary shows how Schumacher got into racing from humble beginnings of go-kart racing to almost pure chance that got him into his first F1 race. From there you see how talented he really was and how he loved a challenge. It was like as well as winning Championship titles, what he wanted to do was win them in ways other drivers hadn’t. Sometimes that meant going with teams and cars that were the underdogs – proving that while others may have a faster car, if Michael Schumacher was behind the wheel of a bad car it didn’t mean all was lost.

The skiing accident is mentioned briefly towards the end of the documentary and while you can make assumptions on Schumacher’s condition based on the thing’s family members say, it’s clear that the family is firm in keeping their private life private and the filmmakers respect that. At one point his wife Corrina says how before the accident and during the height of his fame Michael kept his private life private and now his family are committed to do the same.

I feel that Schumacher is one of those great documentaries that is enjoyable and interesting to both those who are fans of or are knowledgeable about the subject matter, and for complete novices (like me). It’s an engaging and thoughtful documentary about both Michael Schumacher the family man and Michael Schumacher the F1 driver and seems to cover both sides of his life with respect. 4/5.

REVIEW: Black Widow (2021)

After the events of Captain America: Civil War Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run but soon her past catches up with her as she’s reunited with her sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) and learns that the Red Room she thought she’d long destroyed is still active.

After all this time Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow finally gets her own movie. While I’m certainly pleased that the character, and Scarlett Johansson who has more than a decade with this character, has finally gotten their time to shine, as a film it also feels a bit redundant. Having it set between the events of Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War means that there’s no real stakes for Natasha as we know we see her again. However, while her physical safety may be assured, Black Widow does allow more time to examine her psyche and she a few other characters certainly go through the emotional ringer – whether all those emotional beats land is another matter.

The fight sequences are great and having so many aerial shots make the movements seem fluid and helps these scenes standout more compared to other fight sequences in the MCU. The initial confrontation between Natasha and Yelena who haven’t seen each other for decades is a highlight. There’s the usual big explosions and car chases but it’s the one-on-one fight sequences which are the best and highlight how Natasha differs to her fellow superheroes.

With Natasha unable to turn to her Avenger family, she is forced to reconnect with a family from her past. Her dynamic with Yelena is interesting as while Yelena is clearly a more than capable spy and combatant, Natasha quickly falls back into the older sister role. Alexei (David Harbour) is the only Russian super soldier and Melina (Rachel Weisz) round out this family unit as the slippery scientist who you’re never quite sure where her allegiance lies. There’s an easy chemistry between the four actors but Florence Pugh steals just about every scene she’s in. Her Yelena is sarcastic and funny but she’s also hurting from her own experience in the Red Room. She’s also struggling to compartmentalise what this family unit means as she was so young when they were last together and to her, while it was a family of spies and double agents, it felt real.

Black Widow is a simpler MCU film. It’s Natasha facing her past and while the hundreds of Black Widows out there can certainly cause a lot of damage, it’s not framed as the end of the world type scenario. Instead, it’s about saving these young women from a life of trauma and control. However, the idea of the Red Room and these young girls being trained, and even brainwashed, to become master spies and assassins is a dark one and Black Widow never really goes into it more than at the surface level. Natasha’s past is dark and while Johansson does a good job at slowly revealing the layers of Natasha’s guilt and pain and love that’s all mixed together with her feelings for the Red Room and this unconventional family of hers, it often feels like something is missing.

Black Widow is an enjoyable action/spy thriller and there’s some good character work for Natasha and Yelena. While characters like Alexei are fun when they’re on screen (he’s much of the films comedic relief) they’re not particularly memorable afterwards. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Broken Hearts Gallery (2020)

Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan) can’t help but hoard past mementos from failed relationships, but after her latest breakup with her first proper Grown Up boyfriend Max (Utkarsh Ambudkar) her best friends convince her to start to try and let go of the past. In doing so, Lucy beings to curate an art space dedicated to past relationships with the reluctant help of wannabe hotel owner Nick (Dacre Montgomery).

The Broken Hearts Gallery doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of romcoms but what it does do his hit all the needed romcom beats very well and has a load of charm and a fantastic leading lady in Geraldine Viswanathan. Viswanathan is very funny, and she is the glue that holds this film together. She does a great job of showing the different sides to Lucy and make her sympathetic and believable. Plus, Viswanathan and Montgomery have great chemistry as their verbal sparring goes from friendly to flirty as they get closer.

The Broken Hearts Gallery works because it’s never cynical about romance or the type of genre film it is a part of. Yes, Lucy is a hopeless romantic and Nick is more closed off, but there’s something both satisfying and melancholy about the message of letting go to past relationships. That ability to be able to remember but also move on is important in the breakdown of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. Lucy curates this space in order for her to try and let go and it ends up snowballing into something so much bigger than she could imagine – because she’s not the only one who struggles with the what ifs and maybes.

Besides the romance aspect of The Broken Hearts Gallery, one of the key aspects of both Lucy and Nick’s lives are their friendships. Lucy lives with Amanda (Molly Gordon) and Nadine (Phillipa Soo), one whose been in a relationship for six years and the other that leaves behind a string of broken-hearted models. How they each think of love and commitment is different but then their friendship is so strong. They aren’t afraid to call each other out on their issues but they’re also very protective of one another and their dialogue, while full of quips and not particularly realistic, is often very funny. While it doesn’t get as much screen time as the girls’ relationship, Nick has Marcos (Arturo Castro), a friend/employee and his wife Randy (Megan Ferguson) and their relationship is often both funny and awkward.

The Broken Hearts Gallery is sweet, funny and heart-warming. It’s a film that’s made to put a big smile on your face and has relationships that are full of chemistry – platonic and romantic. It’s just a delightful film that makes you feel better if you’re feeling down. 4/5.