#52FilmsByWomen, Film, Reviews

#52FILMSBYWOMEN – FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH:

After watching Amy Heckerling’s Clueless as part of the #52FilmsByWomen pledge, I decided to revisit her debut, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which is considered a cult classic and launched the careers of many actors including Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Penn

Directed: Amy Heckerling

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Brian Backer, Robert Romanus, Judge Reinhold, Sean Penn, Ray Walston

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source: Youtube

Amy Heckerling is one of a very select group of women who has managed to forge a lasting career in mainstream cinema, and this is no doubt largely due to the strength of her debut. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a staple of the teen genre, featuring an ensemble of then up and comers who are now some of Hollywood’s most respected players.

The 1982 film, written by Cameron Crowe, is based on his non-fiction book of the same name, which he wrote after going undercover at Clairemont High School in California. The film has only a loose narrative, telling the tales of a number of High School students over the course of a school year.

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source: Born Unicorn

Characters include 15 year old Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is looking to lose her virginity and taking the advice of her older friend, the more experienced Linda (Phoebe Cates). Mark “Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer) admires Stacy from afar and takes dating advice from his own older friend Damone (Robert Romanus), whilst Stacey’s older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) navigates a series of part time jobs. The film also follows stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) as he gets engaged in a battle of wits with history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston).

Sean Penn is hilarious as perpetually stoned Jeff Spicoli and has no doubt inspired every similar character to appear in a film since, including Travis (Breckin Meyer) in Clueless, who is essentially just a more self aware and 1990’s variation of Spicoli. Even his stoner/surfer style has become iconic, with his character being largely responsible for the enduring popularity of Vans slip-on shoes.

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source: Oyster

It is Penn’s performance that remains the most enduring and popular, with stories of how he stayed in character throughout shooting and would only answer to the name Spicoli becoming popular trivia, but the excellent turns from the rest of the cast is not to be ignored.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is a standout as Stacy, communicating the dual sense of braveness and vulnerability of exploring sexuality for the first time, whilst Pheobe Cates is also amusing as the older friend whose every word is lapped up by Stacy in spite of the fact she clearly isn’t all that sure what she is talking about. Each character is relatable in some way, especially Mark, who was based on Andy Rathbone, who has gone on to become the successful author of the For Dummies book series.

Other stars to be to look out for include Nicolas Cage (credited as Nicolas Coppola) and Forest Whitaker in their respective feature film debuts, as well as Eric Stoltz as a stoner buddy of Spicoli’s.

It is a credit to Heckerling’s direction that the film never feels meandering in spite of the loose narrative, and we come out feeling like every character has been on a journey of some sort. The film doesn’t shy away from exploring serious issues such as sexuality and abortion, and it probably has more in common with the raunch-fest Porky’s (1981) than the John Hughes classics of the decade.

The film is so on the nose about these issues in fact that it has sometimes drawn criticisms for sexism – Roger Ebert gave the film one star in his review and described it as:

“a failure of taste, tone and nerve – the waste of a good cast on erratic, offensive material that hasn’t been thought through, or maybe even thought about.” 

Ebert also denounces the film as sexist and bordering on sexploitation, and it has been debated for years whether or not Heckerling’s film is sexist. There is a plenty to suggest that it may be – particularly the famous swimming pool scene starring Cates – but the film is actually a very rare example of sexuality as portrayed largely from the female perspective.

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source: Youtube

This is clear at many points throughout the narrative, but is most obvious through the character of Stacy. When she gets pregnant she decides to have an abortion and Heckerling explores this in a wholly realistic way. There is no judgement, or even any debate, it is merely shown and the film ends in a way that suggests that Stacy learnt something and moved on, as is the case with many teenagers.

In her book It’s A Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Enviroments, Amanda Marcotte argues that the film is a very positive and female orientated depiction of the High School experience, saying it:

“…doesn’t romanticise high school from the point of view of a middle-aged man, but shows it as it is in all it’s cringworthy, immature nonglory.” 

In spite of the John Hughes dig, Marcotte does raise an interesting point about the film – whilst we see Stacy explore her sexuality, her encounters are far from the overblown and unrealistic depictions of sex usually put to the screen, and are much more reflective of real life experiences as had by many.

The film, like any great teen movie, also boasts a fantastic soundtrack which serves as proof that a pop music can have just as much impact as a traditional film score. From the opening track We Got the Beat by The GoGo’s it is clear that Heckerling has a talent for encapsulating contemporary youth culture, and the soundtrack features an array of brilliant tracks from the likes of The Eagles and Stevie Nicks.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a time capsule to the 1980’s, infused with a little more grit than the sugary sweetness of John Hughes, but with enough brains to still be feel-good, it inspired generations and films such as Dazed and Confused (1993) and many more would not exist without it.

What do you think of Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Which films are you watching as part of #52FilmsByWomen? Share your views in the comments section! 

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#52FilmsByWomen, Film, Reviews

#52FILMSBYWOMEN – OBVIOUS CHILD

Directed: Gillian Roberspierre

Starring: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann

For my next #52FilmsByWomen viewing I decided to go for something recent and fell upon 2014’s Obvious Child, a female-centric comedy drama that I was drawn to because of Gaby Hoffmann’s involvement. I am a huge Hoffmann fan after seeing her in Girls and Transparent, so when I saw she was in Obvious Child and that it was directed by a woman it became essential viewing. 

Obvious Child began life as a short film and tells the story of twenty-something Donna (Jenny Slate) who finds out she is pregnant after a one night stand with Max (Jake Lacy) and decides to have an abortion. The premise alone is brave considering abortion continues to be a near-untouchable taboo in cinema. Even the more daring films such as Juno sort of skirt past the issue, making Obvious Child a breath of fresh air in its frank tackling of the subject.

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source: Youtube

In spite of the taboo subject matter, Obvious Child is surprisingly and refreshingly unpolitical. Sure, there is most likely a political message tucked in there somewhere, but it’s a subtle one and it is clear from the beginning that the film isn’t so much about peddling a pro-choice argument than telling the story of one woman’s experience with an unplanned pregnancy.

The first act isn’t great and the set-up is done to death – woman gets dumped, gets wasted, loses her job etc. – but once the plot has been established the film really hits its stride. Jenny Slate plays Donna with comic vulnerability and in a way that is sure to strike a chord with any woman who has found herself in a less than ideal situation. Jake Lacy is equally charming as Max, whilst Gaby Hoffman appears in a brilliant supporting turn as Donna’s best friend and room-mate Nellie.

The supporting cast are excellent, with David Cross even showing up for a hilarious extended cameo, but the film rests entirely on Slate’s shoulders. The humour is crude in a way that probably won’t sit well with every viewer – vagina jokes are commonplace – but there is a lot of heart beneath the vulgarity and the film finds more success in it’s dramatic moments than it’s funny ones.

In her review for The Nation, Michelle Goldberg argues that the film’s narrative is actually quite conventional in spite of its tackling of a sensitive subject matter, and this is true to an extent. The abortion route is different and little explored in film, but the rest of the story we are presented with is pretty standard indie rom-com fare. This is not a bad thing as such, but it can be easy to overstate how inventive Obvious Child is due to it’s brave tackling of abortion.

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source:In Bed

That said, there is enough going on here to make it feel refreshing and the film is a great example of how you don’t need overt political messages to communicate ideas. Obvious Child is a fun and charming film about a subject that is anything but fun and charming, so it’s certainly doing something right.

Obvious Child is available to stream on Netflix UK.

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#52FilmsByWomen, Film, Reviews

#52FILMSBYWOMEN – CLUELESS

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source: Plugged In

As part of #52FilmsByWomen I decided to revisit 90’s teen classic Clueless. Written and directed by Amy Heckerling, who is also behind 80’s hit Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982) and Look Who’s Talking (1989), Clueless is based on Jane Austen’s novel Emma.

Released at the same time as Disney’s Pocahontas and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, the film became a sleeper hit and is now regarded a cult classic. Clueless tells the story of Beverly Hills high-schooler Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) as she navigates her privileged life, taking new student Tia (Brittany Murphy) under her wing.

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source: Cinapse

Clueless is best remembered for its hilariously quotable dialogue, with the constant pop culture references being just as funny today as they were two decades ago. Heckerling’s script is full of soft satire, which pokes fun at the west coast and high school lifestyle in the way that a loving friend would.

The cast is full of familiar faces who were at the time relative unknowns – perhaps the most prolific being the even more baby-faced than usual Paul Rudd – and there is a real sense of comradery that runs throughout the film.

The untimely death of Brittany Murphy in 2009 tinges the film with sadness, with her adorable turn as Tia being one of the main highlights. Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash are brilliant as Cher and best friend Dionne,  and it is in their friendship that Clueless’ greatest strength lies.

In any other teen movie, Cher and Dionne would be the stereotypical ‘mean girls’. Heckerling actively inverts this expectation by making them likable. The characters are realistic within the hyper-realistic and slightly satirical world due to the fact that the dynamics between them reflect how teenagers really interact with each other – there aren’t heroes and villains like there are the movies.

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source: ET Online

Heckerling acknowledges this and there aren’t really any straight out ‘villains’ in Clueless. Sure, Amber (Elisa Donovan) and Elton (Jeremy Sisto) act negatively at points, but they are not straight out bad guys. It’s rare to see this in a teen movie, even today, and it one of the reasons Clueless has such an enduring legacies.

Another beloved aspect of Clueless is the fashion, with costume designer Mona May firmly shaking off the muted grunge style of the early 90’s to embrace something much brighter and adventurous. It is a credit to May that the costumes don’t look anywhere near as dated as they should – in fact, some of them look positively modern.

Clueless is timeless for many reasons, but the biggest is its huge heart. A perfect example of how female-centric comedies can be funny without making them all about men and bitchiness, it was also, in many ways, way ahead of its time.

Here are my top five quotes from Clueless… 

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source: Buzzfeed

“Dionne and I were both named after famous singers of the past, who now do infomercials.” 

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source: AustenBlog

“That’s Ren and Stimpy. They’re way existential.”

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source: Celeb Buzz

“You’re a virgin who can’t drive.”

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source: Pintrest

“Is Josh giving you shit because he’s going through his post-adolescent idealistic phase?”

“If I’m too good for him, then how come I’m not with him?”

What are your favourite lines from Clueless? Let me know in the comments section!

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#52FilmsByWomen, Film, Reviews

#52FILMSBYWOMEN – WAYNE’S WORLD

#52FilmsByWomen

Living in 2016 with knowledge of films like The Love Guru (2008) and there being more bad Shrek films than good, it can be easy to forget that Mike Myers can be funny. Lets go back to 1992, before I was born, when he made his big-screen debut with Wayne’s World.

Directed by Penelope Spheeris, I decided to watch Wayne’s World as part of my #52FilmsByWomen pledge. In terms of genre and thematic content, it’s a pretty far cry from Lost In Translation (read what I thought of that here) but, hey, variety is the spice of life.

It had been a long time since I watched Wayne’s World, which I generally hold fond memories of from childhood, and it was great to revisit it from a (slightly) more grown up perspective.

The film is based on a Saturday Night Live sketch – in fact, it is one of the only good movies with that origin story, the other being The Blues Brothers (1980) – and stars Myers and Dana Carvey as Wayne and Garth, two metalheads who perform their show, Wayne’s World, from Wayne’s parents’ basement.

The plot is pretty straightforward – the pair are noticed on Public Access TV by Benjamin (Rob Lowe), an executive who talks them into a deal to broadcast their show. Of course, nothing goes to plan, and all the pair are really interested in is getting chicks anyway, with Cassandra (Tia Carrere) stealing Wayne’s heart.

The thing is, the plot is secondary here, with the jokes and dialogue being the star of the show. It’s rare that a film can pull off having such a flimsy plot, but Wayne’s World not only handles it but actively embraces it, with hilarious results.

The film plays out like a series of sketches, with frequent breaking of the fourth wall and clear segments. They are ultimately a bit of a mixed bag – Bohemian Rhapsody and the product placement skits are hilarious, whilst others went over my head (this is probably a combination of being from the UK and not being born when it came out – some of the pop culture references are bound to be lost on me).

Take it at face value, and Wayne’s World is a fun and offbeat comedy where nothing really happens, but where you can revel in the comedic meandering. However, the film does play with themes of friendship and innocence, particularly through Garth’s character.

Whilst Garth may seem like a one note character, that doesn’t seem so bad when the note is played so beautifully, and Myers and Carvey play off each other brilliantly in one of cinemas great bromances.

Another highlight is of course the music – the in-movie band Crucial Taunt are led by Cassandra and deliver some of the catchiest tunes, such as a rendition of Ballroom Blitz. Then of course there is the Alice Cooper cameo, which sees him perform Feed My Frankenstein.

Wayne’s World proves that women can do comedy and they can do it brilliantly – the film is an enduring cult classic that was both critically and commercially successful when it was first released, so much so that it spawned a sequel the following year. So much for women aren’t funny, right?

Here are my top five quotes from the film (it’s hard to pick just five from such a goldmine of dialogue)… 

“It’s sucking my will to live!” 

– Garth

“I love you two months ago. Are you mental? Get the net!”

– Wayne

“Wayne, did you ever find Bugs Bunny attractive when he put on a dress and became a girl bunny?”

– Garth

“Benjamin is nobody’s friend. If Benjamin were an ice cream flavour, he’d be pralines and dick.”

– Garth

“I’d never done a crazy thing in my life before that night. Why is it that if a man kills another man in battle it’s called heroic, yet if he kills a man in the heat of passion, it’s called murder?”

– Glen

Learn more about #52FilmsByWomen here.

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#52FilmsByWomen, Film, Reviews

#52FILMSBYWOMEN: LOST IN TRANSLATION

(2003) Sofia Coppola

35-leanI have begun my #52FilmsByWomen journey with Sofia Coppola’s smash-hit Lost in Translation. It’s a film that has long featured on my mental ‘must-watch’ list due to the fact that it starred the ever-excellent Bill Murray and has a pretty revered status amongst, well, everyone. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, daughter of Hollywood director Francis Ford who first made a name for herself with The Virgin Suicides (1999), my expectations were pretty high. The film was nominated for a total of four Oscars, of which Coppola won for Best Original Screenplay and became only the third woman ever (!) to be nominated for Best Director. Upon watching I think it’s clear the film would have had a real shot at taking home all four nominations had 2003 not been the year that Lord of the Rings: Return of the King stormed the Academy and took home statuettes for all 11 of it’s nominations.

58-boothMade on a budget of just $4 million, the film tells the story of Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an ageing actor who is in Tokyo filming a whisky commercial for the tidy sum of $2 million, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a recent philosophy graduate who is staying in the city whilst her husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is shooting on location. The pair, who are staying in the same hotel, form a bond over their mutual sense of isolation and sense of dissatisfaction with life. It’s an endearingly simple concept that transcends time, age, social class or any other distinguishing barrier – feeling alone is something that we all experience at one time or another.

Murray and a then 19 year old Johansson are perfectly cast as the central duo – Coppola reportedly said that she would never have made the film without Murray on board and that she wrote the part with him in mind. This is clear from the start – Murray brings just enough of his trademark sarcasm and aloofness to the role and is almost solely responsible for the comedic elements. Meanwhile, Johansson is mature far beyond her years and perfectly encapsulates that feeling of lacking direction. In an interview with Time in 2003, Coppola said:

“I liked that idea of juxtaposing a midlife crisis with that time in your early 20’s when you’re, like, what should I do with my life” 

16-in-crowdIt’s this idea that makes the film stand out – the two points in life actually have a lot in common with each other, from recklessness to feelings of dissatisfaction and confusion, and gelling them together proves to be much more effective than a narrative about two people of the same age would be. Coppola was inspired by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s relationship in The Big Sleep, and I know that with the film she intended to present a romance, but I personally perceived it as being much more grounded in friendship and empathy, with the characters finding refuge in each other from their own sense of loneliness.

Lost in Translation is rich with potential readings, and analysis of the film vary with interpretations including criticism of modernity, an example of ‘post-romantic’ cinema and a critique of the concept of monogamy. Whichever way you look at it, the sense of isolation and being ‘lost’ is the central theme of the entire film, and every creative decision points towards enforcing the idea. Setting the film in Tokyo gives the immediate sense of the characters being ‘lost’ in an alien culture. The film proved to be generally unpopular with Japanese critics, many of whom remarked that the film offered a negative portrayal of Japanese culture, but I think the point was not to accurately present the culture but instead to portray the way in which US tourists perceive and deal with the culture. Some have even gone so far as to argue that the film is actually a comment on the unwillingness of US tourists to engage with different cultures, but I’m not sure that is the case so much as it is using the location as a literal depiction of the characters prevalent feelings of being misplaced.

15-lunchCoppola shows significant insight into cultural differences, and in some instances she adopts a ‘turning of the tables’, best shown in the dryly hilarious commercial shooting scene. We see the Japanese crew place their perceptions of the West on Murray, asking him to channel the likes of Roger Moore’s James Bond – I see this as a pretty funny way of showing how Western cinema has been pushing its views on Eastern culture for decades.

I’m also a big fan of Anna Faris, who plays out the stereotype of a bubbly American film star, a significant contrast to the more thoughtful Charlotte. Coppola uses contrast constantly through eastern and western cultural differences, age and in this case personality, all creating the feelings of isolation that are so keenly felt by Bob and Charlotte.

As fantastic as the script and the acting was, my favourite thing about the film is without a doubt the stunning visuals. The cinematography is beautiful, with shadow and reflection being constantly used to again enforce the sense of isolation. The Park Hyatt Tokyo Hotel, where the film was shot on location, is engaging in it’s simplicity and modernity – the fact that they were only aloud to film in the middle of the night or in hallways/communal locations proving to be a benefit.

17-photoshootLost in Translation is a great film. It’s the sort of film you can watch repeatedly and, depending on your mood, come away with a different interpretation every time. It’s a film that was both thought provoking and wonderful to look at, and one that has made me really excited about continuing on my #52FilmsByWomen journey.

Find out more about #52FilmsByWomen here.

All images courtesy of FilmGrab.

 

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