by Troy Barber
Sadly, I wasn’t able to stand in heated tents while queuing for this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Instead, I had a mini-fest at home, renting titles that had won the Sundance Jury Prize (Drama) in the past. These three movies introduced film goers to fresh talent (two actors and a director) who would go on to become familiar names in Hollywood. The theme: “before they were famous.”
Join WONDER: Women of Fantasy and Science Fiction for our first session on January 24th, featuring Xanadu (with audience sing along participation) at Central Cinema!
Xanadu may seem like an odd choice to begin an intersectional feminist film series. And it is! Bear with me, though.Xanadu is absurd, it’s poorly edited, and it’s a musical. The Broadway adaptation makes fun of its source material by calling it a fairy tale for gay forty-year-olds. But that’s why we love it. The story is a mash-up of a dance film, a brief rollerdisco moment in pop culture, and outright Greco-Roman mythology, featuring some of Electric Light Orchestra’s best work. It’s a mess, but an adorable, charming mess.
Olivia Newton John plays “Kira,” who is actually Terpsichore, the muse of dance. She’s come to earth with her eight sisters (a multiethnic mix of principle dancers who start the film with plenty of close-ups) to inspire an artist. Why does the muse of dance pick a painter to inspire? Why does she hook him up with her ex-beau, Gene Kelly, a retired big band musician? Why does it take this combo of painter, musician, and muse of dance to open a rollerdisco?
Who cares? It’s Xanadu.
And now for the unpleasant content. Greco-Roman mythology and folklore, for the uninitiated, is really rapey. The Athenians were particularly misogynist, which extended into their same-sex relationships (much like in our culture). Xanadu updates this for 1980 in curious ways. The film begins with Sonny (Michael Beck), the frustrated artist. We can easily apply Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze to this character throughout the film, but particularly in the first act. He’s consistently ogled by women, invited on blind dates with a friend of a friend, and his first contact with Kira involves her skating up behind him, kissing him without consent, and disappearing. This is a charged sequence to consider in the #metoo era. If the genders were reversed, many of us would be quick to call it sexual harassment. Sonny doesn’t seem to mind, which absolves the behavior (on screen, that is).
But I digress: Sonny is the object. Soon, Kira becomes objectified as well, but for the first act, she’s more the subject, observer, and aggressor. On Thursday, we’ll talk more about who has agency and power—the human men? The demigoddess pulling their strings? The superior gods pulling hers?
We’ll discuss the screen time given to the femme/genderqueer, Black, male-bodied dancers, resplendent in makeup and giving Fosse vogue. We’ll talk about the tender chemistry between Michael Beck and Gene Kelly. We’ll also look at the interplay between toxic masculinity and capitalism, summed up by the line, “If I didn’t pay her, she doesn’t exist.”
Sound like something you’d like to discuss? Then join us.
Starring Olivia Newton John, Gene Kelly, Michael Beck
Subgenres: musical, dance, skating, mythology, romance
Directed by Robert Greenwald
Written by Richard Christian Danus and Marc Reid Rubel
Music: Jeff Lynne, John Farrar, and Barry de Vorzon (performed by Olivia Newton John, Gene Kelly, Electric Light Orchestra, The Tubes, and studio musicians)
Animation: Don Bluth
Bechdel Test: Kind of a pass. Three women discuss financial matters, but their characters are only named in the credits, not in the cut of the film.
Mako Mori Test: Fail. Kira has a narrative arc, but it’s used to support the arc of a male character.
Sexual Harassment: Low. Female strangers kiss, stare at, and flirt with a man (he doesn’t seem to mind). Male and female characters keep trying to set him up with their female friends and family.
WONDER: Women of Fantasy and Science Fiction presents XANADU
Thursday, January 24, 2019
opening talk & screening 7:00pm
Hosted by Evan J. Peterson and Abie Ekenezar
1411 21st Avenue
Seattle WA 98122
Sponsored by Scarecrow Video
For the love of wonder,
Evan J. Peterson
WONDER is a community class merging film with education and offering an accessible forum outside of academia. The goal is to offer low-cost opportunities to learn about film and women’s studies and to inspire more diverse filmmakers, especially women, to get involved as creators in the genre.
Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass opens this weekend, and it sees the writer-director reaching big: Not only wrestling with a cosmic explanation of how the universe works, but also tying together his previous films Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2017).
The strain shows, but this has always been an issue for MNS: He has moviemaking skills that surpass most of the directors of his generation (he actually understands that how you put the frame around an image matters, for instance), but his grander ideas sometimes get the better of him.
After Split came out, the film critics who make up Framing Pictures, filmed at Scarecrow, talked about Shyamalan’s skills in 2017. Check that out here.
I looked through my files and found my Film.com review of Shyamalan’s second feature (the first to receive wide distribution), Wide Awake. Some of his issues were already present in that one, as I discovered. Needless to say, if you want to explore of re-visit the work of this filmmaker, Scarecrow has his work in abundance (but seriously, stay away from The Last Airbender).
The one moment of honest revelation in Wide Awake comes when the movie’s heavy philosophical questions are tossed around by the fifth-grade heroes. Discussions about the existence of God are offered up, but one kid qualifies his ideas by observing, “I drink chocolate milk through my nose. What do I know?”
That’s not good enough for the protagonist, Joshua (Joseph Cross), who can’t seem to wake up in the mornings; his parents have to walk him through washing up and brushing his teeth, because his eyes won’t open. Joshua’s worried about the afterlife of his late grandfather (Robert Loggia), a kindly gent who pops up in flashbacks. Most kids would be terrified to have Robert Loggia as their grandfather, but little Joshua bonded with the old man, and now he wants to make sure that Gramps is truly in heaven.
Therefore he poses metaphysical questions throughout the film’s running time: to his parents (Denis Leary and Dana Delany), the priests at school, his fellow students, and especially to a plain-talking nun (Rosie O’Donnell). She’s the Barry Fitzgerald figure in the movie: twinkling and cute, she teaches class by filtering everything through her love of baseball: “If you were captain of the apostles’ team, who would you pick to bat cleanup?” Even the unflaggingly likable O’Donnell can’t do anything with a role like this.
The writer-director of Wide Awake is M. Night Shyamalan, a 26-year-old NYU grad with a little-seen debut film to his credit, Praying with Anger. Shyamalan’s style consists of ladling on the music, sweet sentiment, and heavenly light, all of which bathes the movie in a thick, sickly goo. Shyamalan is obviously sincere about engaging subjects that many children’s movies don’t tackle, but his innocent approach crosses the border into complete naïveté; or doesn’t he know that the sight of the 11-year-old hero going into the restroom with an elderly priest sets off all kinds of alarm bells these days?
I can’t remember much of the second half of the movie because I zoned out, my system crashing from the sugary sweetness of it all. There’s an irony: The movie’s called Wide Awake, about a kid trying to wake up, and it puts you to sleep. The kid actor, Joseph Cross, is amiable and natural (he also appeared in Desperate Measures). As for Denis Leary and Dana Delany, we can only assume they have the usual talk-show reason for taking such tiny, colorless roles: “I’d really like to make a movie my kids/grandchildren/nieces and nephews could see.” You sit there praying for Denis Leary to launch into some riff on the horrors of Catholic school, but all the adults in the movie are neutered. As for the kids, they speak in phrases and ideas far beyond their years, as screenwriters love to have them do. This movie needs less speculative philosophy and more chocolate milk going up its nose.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.
These judges — members of three different juries of the festival — will see more than 50 shorts and feature films selected for the competition, and then award prizes that are highly coveted by international filmmakers. Appropriately and best of all, the jurors are all children themselves, ages 8 to 16.
The festival bows on January 24 and runs through Feb. 9, with a heavy schedule of screenings at Northwest Film Forum. Throughout the duration of the festival, jurors will watch films, engage in spirited discussions, and nibble through a mountain of popcorn before they decide their prizes.
Becoming a juror itself is a competitive process — new jurors are required to an application process that includes submitting an essay describing one of their favorite films.
So what are these young people watching, and why are they so eager to see a slate of international films at Children’s Film Festival Seattle?
Sylvia Sargent, a 10-year-old who is getting ready for her first stint on the festival’s Catbus Kids Jury, suggested two animated films as among her favorites — Coraline and Song of the Sea, praising the “quirky stop-motion” of the first film and the “emotional storytelling” of the second.
Miriam Gaster, another new 10-year-old juror, wrote her essay about Miyazaki’s Ponyo, saying the film “has a beautiful story and is a work of art.”
Alice Barton, who is almost 11-year-old, cited a more grown-up film, Oceans 8, as her current favorite film, because of its female protagonists.
Another new juror, nine-year-old Norah McManus, included a fun and sassy fact in her essay, bragging that she has “never fallen asleep during a movie and I (unlike my moms) remember all the stories.”
The second-oldest group of jurors, The Fantastic Foxes, are 11 to 14-years old, and some essays submitted by new jurors revealed the sophistication of cinephiles much older in years.
Bianca Sennhauser, age 12, recommended The Hate U Give citing its powerful messages about police brutality and racism.
“It’s nice when films have cool morals, because I like when the film really sticks to you and when you immediately think ‘Wow, I want to watch that again, Right Now’’, Sennhauser wrote.
Another new member of the Fantastic Fox panel, Aryan Kollaram, recounted his experience, while growing up in India, of watching Bollywood movies as a qualification for serving on the jury. But he also made it clear that since moving to the United States, he’s fallen in love with American movies, including independent films.
“Clever writing, original action choreography, and realistic dialogue can greatly impact the success of an independent movie,” he wrote.
Another new juror, Simar Khanuja, said his experience playing different instruments and performing in musical theater was a reason that The Sound of Music was one of his favorite films — and one he had watched over and over.
But one new juror — 14-year-old Milo Bradley, won the heart of Festival director Elizabeth Shepherd, and his place on the jury, by recounting his long childhood experience attending Children’s Film Festival Seattle.
“I have been going to the film festival since I was two and a half years old,” Bradley wrote. “There are many films from around the world and you get to see the kids’ different perspectives. This year, I cannot wait to see Supa Modo!
Audiences of grown ups and kids alike can join the jury kids at this year’s Children’s Film Festival, and get globally aware with almost 150 films from 39 countries. The fun will kick off on opening night, at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24, with a singalong celebration of the 40th anniversary of The Muppet Movie, at SIFF Cinema Egyptian. For more information and tickets, visit www.childrensfilmfestivalseattle.org.