HOMEMAKERS Lacks Direction But Speaks To Lost Souls

Readhead Review: Homemakers

Homemakers finds part-time Austin-based punk singer Irene McCabey, played by Rachel McKeon, off to claim her inheritance in Pittsburgh—after her grandfather passes away, she is left with an abandoned and dilapidated three-story house. She runs into a long-lost cousin (turned drinking partner) named Cam, and they attempt to restore the house together, or demolish it—it is, at least initially, troublingly unclear which, or what Irene really even wants. She says she wants to sell it, but she grows to enjoy the kind of domesticity she finds in the forgotten home.

This film may be a diamond in the rough, but it is too rough to ever truly shine to its fullest potential, not to mention that it requires quite a bit of patience and effort from the audience—so concerned with the act and angst of private destruction and debauchery, the film itself becomes strained, repetitive and eventually weary of its own rampaging. That is not to say this film does not have its positive qualities, and those qualities may be worth the viewing for many. It won the Audience Award at this year’s Independent Film Festival in Boston, and it may deserve that accolade—just with certain audiences far more than with others, perhaps.

McKeon is energetic and committed in the role of Irene and gives a multi-faceted performance, but for what that is worth, the character of Irene can come across as frustratingly childish and, above all, annoying. I found it hard to sympathize with someone whose shenanigans ranged so jarringly from things like drawing obscenities on the walls, spouting vodka from her mouth onto Cam like a fountain, and thrashing anything remotely breakable, to actually exhibiting real, raw human emotions. I respected that her status as a lesbian was not at the forefront of her identity as a character, but her human relationships were still more compelling than when she was putting on her rebellious acts—it’s respectful to see an independent, gay woman living her life freely, but not necessarily enjoyable once we see her struggling between doing what she wants to do and doing the opposite of what is expected of her just for the sake of doing so, especially because those two things do start to feel very disparate somehow as the film progresses.

For what little actual plot many such indie films boast, this film seemed all the more jumbled, disjointed, jagged and confusing, probably because we’re always left to wonder what Irene really wants, what she is truly motivated by. She is developed slowly but surely, and her greatest range of emotions does emerge more towards the film’s end—but even then, it is the rampaging, poorly behaved child inside of her that takes over once more, and the film knows no end to its own tendency to break things. What could have otherwise felt cathartic about that very act (particularly in those rare moments where it does seem like something that was pent up in Irene is finally being released), instead feels routine and uneventful and unsatisfying.

I did love the way Healey shoots and uses Pittsburgh though, and the city seems a perfect fit for Irene. The skyline and even some smaller, grittier aspects of this landscape are set to emotionally pertinent music. Between those shots, the soundtrack, and the set design, replete with crumbling infrastructures and Irene’s kitschy, haphazard construction attempts, if there’s anything I did love about the film, it would be how textured it feels—it is a film that is tangibly felt, physically and palpably, meant to be experienced as opposed to enjoyed, maybe. I merely wish that the film’s emotional resonance had matched more consistently and more early on than it did—for me personally it felt like too little too late. Irene is a character type we are all probably familiar with, and yet Mckeon makes her feel realistic and honest. But that wasn’t enough for me to get behind some of the film’s events (and thereby most of Irene’s actions) which never felt quite as justifiable or understandable.

The film opened yesterday at Brooklyn’s Northside Festival for its NYC premiere, and I think the film will speak to those audiences fairly well. I can confidently recommend the film to those who may be better suited to receive its messages of independence and desire, to those who have had to make similar choices as Irene has, or to those who perhaps have similar personalities, professions or desires, and who wish to do nothing more than to destroy and reconstruct and figure things out. For me, I felt that the film had its own sort of figuring out to do too; the film is no less stunted by its own immaturity, and yet it reaches mostly halfheartedly for something at least resembling stability. For many, the immaturity is enough of a journey, but for others like me, a little more stability could have gone a long way.

Director: Colin Healey
Starring: Rachel McKeon, Jack Culbertson
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 broken bottles of alcohol.

Sara majors in Film Studies and Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College. Her favorite genre is horror but she loves learning, writing and talking about all kinds of movies and all forms of entertainment. She has interned with Film Forum and Tribeca Film, both in her native NYC where she hopes to find work in criticism, marketing, distribution, or festival programming post-grad. Her blog and associated Twitter were created with the intention of being more involved and aware of happenings in the film and television industries, as well as to practice writing about pop culture in an academic but friendly and funny way. 

A COFFEE IN BERLIN: An Eccentric, Enlightening Journey

Redhead Review: A Coffee in Berlin

This German language film, originally titled Oh Boy, won 6 German Film Academy awards last year, including Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, and Outstanding Feature Film. It follows a day in the life of Niko Fischer, played by Tom Schilling. Niko is a slacker—directionless and unmotivated, but still likable and endearing despite his sometimes frustrating passivity. But, on this particular day that the film chronicles, he has a series of encounters that are in equal parts awkward, funny, poignant, and bizarre—endlessly entertaining, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, each event illuminates aspects of Niko’s mundane existence, knocking him down in the hopes of eventually waking him up and propelling him forward.

I loved A Coffee In Berlin and found it deeply satisfying on a number of different levels. Shot in dreamy black and white with a sometimes comically old-fashioned jazz soundtrack, the film works as a dramedy about this current generation—20-somethings who are spoiled, confused, restless and yet sedentary, unfeeling and dangerously uncertain. The black and white is breezily beautiful and utterly bleak at the same time, surreal and gritty and melancholy all simultaneously.

Having spent four months living in Berlin myself, I also found myself picking out locations and iconic images of the city, but even this is a wonderfully difficult task—there isn’t really a typical establishing shot in the film, at least not early on, but then again, this isn’t a typical city. In fact, the camera focuses upon the cranes and construction materials that mark the city far more than any one building ever could; there is no exact skyline to be discerned, and yet the film gives personality and preference to even the simplest street shots of apartment buildings, train stations and tram lines. Trains are, to me at least, a motif in the film that worked subtly and smartly, establishing Berlin’s vibe while also speaking to Niko’s meandering, wandering self—he cannot even drive because his license was revoked, which speaks to his lack of control over his own direction in life, and so he spends much of the film walking and taking Berlin’s subway system.

Berlin’s status—the incompleteness and sense of evolution— also parallels Niko’s own unfinished sense of self, making the city itself another aspect of the film that is thought-provoking, though only if you seek it out as such, perhaps. Just like the black and white of the film and its jazzy soundtrack juxtapose with Niko’s very modern, generationally-specific conflict (a conflict that is with himself over his self-prescribed circumstances), there are other dichotomies and binaries to be had by the film—past and future, history and present, most notably.

As the film progresses from morning to night, the tone likewise darkens somewhat, each encounter becoming more serious and thus threatening to Niko’s already crumbling complacency. Early on in the film, for instance, we see a cheesy, inauthentic World War II film being shot, and the sequence is clearly meant to be humorous. Later, we’re given the film’s most chilling, powerful encounter—an old man at a bar, talking to Niko about that very time period as he truly experienced it when he was a child.

This dialogue is, as much of the film’s script is, incredibly genuine and poised. This scene is as much of a wake-up call for us as it is for Niko—Berlin is always changing, and the city’s often-painful history is still with many of its inhabitants here in the present. Some of the most haunting shots of Berlin come in the dawn of the next day, giving the film a natural, refreshing pause before ultimately concluding, a moment of quiet stillness—for Niko to consider the previous day’s events, perhaps, and allowing us time to wonder if Niko will change and mature after all.

The only goal Niko has throughout the entire film is to have a cup of coffee—a seemingly simple goal that turns into a tragicomic gag by remaining unfulfilled time and time again. Yet, we cannot blame Niko himself for not being able to achieve it, making us wonder not about his capabilities but rather about the nature of the goal itself in some way; the one substance that should wake him up is never available to him, but he is given these other, arguably more effective and necessary wake-up calls instead. And I cannot neglect to mention that Schilling’s performance as Niko is amazing; there’s an intriguing, mysterious blend of dissatisfaction and laziness that twinkles in his expressive eyes, while his entire body otherwise exudes resignation.

The film could have been as aimless and unmotivated as its protagonist, and the film’s conclusion is at once ambiguous and hopeful. However, because Niko’s encounters are woven together against the thematically perfect and aesthetically intricate backdrop of a falsely colorless Berlin— a city which, again, serves as a complex character itself, a character who is, in certain ways, much like Niko— there is more substance here than it initially seems like there would be. So, instead of being given a typical slacker dramedy, we’re given something more engaging and more meaningful, but only if you want it to be—A Coffee in Berlin, like its protagonist, never tries too hard, but rather finds itself and its greater purpose by going through such an eccentric, enlightening journey.

Director: Jan Ole Gerster
Starring: Tom Schilling, Friederike Kempter, Marc Hosemann
Rating: 4 out of 5 missed coffee opportunities.

Sara majors in Film Studies and Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College. Her favorite genre is horror but she loves learning, writing and talking about all kinds of movies and all forms of entertainment. She has interned with Film Forum and Tribeca Film, both in her native NYC where she hopes to find work in criticism, marketing, distribution, or festival programming post-grad. Her blog and associated Twitter were created with the intention of being more involved and aware of happenings in the film and television industries, as well as to practice writing about pop culture in an academic but friendly and funny way. 

Hot Guy/Funny Guy: A New Comedy Dynamic?

With this month’s hilarious comedy Neighbors, starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, and next month’s 22 Jump Street (the sequel to 2012’s hit, 21 Jump Street), starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, my friends and I began to notice a kind of trend emerging. The duos at the forefront of these films exhibit a kind of hot guy/goofy guy dichotomy— a sort of binary between a traditionally funny actor and an actor who is, traditionally, considered eye candy.

I wanted to explore this dynamic a little further, but I found it difficult to think of films besides these recent ones that truly fit. In the past, I think it was more common to see a straight man/silly man dichotomy, more generally: Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) might be a good example of this binary. But more recently, I feel like the comic successes of such films are at least partially resulting from the very fact that one of these things is not at all like the others; one of these main players, in other words, seems too attractive to even be funny.

That should be a problematic assumption in itself. When Jonah Hill asked Channing Tatum to co-star with him in 21 Jump Street, Tatum replied that he wasn’t funny enough for the role. Hill allegedly told him to just play the part honestly and earnestly, and the result was indeed funny. This anecdote made me wonder if it isn’t so much a question of genre as it is a question of talent and star text. When I saw Neighbors last weekend, I didn’t know what to expect from Efron; not because he didn’t do comedies but because I didn’t deem him talented based on what I’d seen him do thus far. Both his and Tatum’s turns in these respective comedies then were all the more impressive to me; not only were these actors funny, but they could also actually act.

At first glance even in these comedies, it is the looks of these actors that seem to outshine their other merits. But, in a way that other genres do not allow for, these comedies allow their attractiveness to serve as the butt of the jokes, which seems to be more liberating than roles which highlight hotness as nothing more than a shallow selling point. Efron, in Neighbors, is hilarious, and Rogen’s character frequently brings up the frat boy’s fit body and model-like face, also conjuring gay readings of the film for some. Efron plays with his own image and somehow makes fun of it through his playing the character so genuinely and seriously.

Tatum’s character in the narrative of 21 Jump Street, meanwhile, finally experiences how hard life is for people who, like Jonah Hill’s character during high school, don’t fit in, the joke being that in today’s high school environment, being hot simply isn’t enough to ensure popularity anymore—cool isn’t what it used to be, and Tatum’s typical attractiveness no longer actually fits the new norm of what is attractive or likeable, whereas Hill’s character somehow suddenly does. The experiment is actually more interesting and poignant than one may think initially, the role reversal proving quite effective: not only is it the film’s source of humor, but it also gives the film equal parts heart and cleverness.

So, what can be said for this new comedy dynamic? Is it less of a trend and more of an anomaly, which only these specific films seem to exemplify? I think the self-referential nature of these films—the way they directly acknowledge and riff upon the appeal of certain actors—is a good thing, over all, for comedy cinema more generally but for the actors themselves especially. I think it’s another question worth exploring, after all, what genre a “hot” actor is meant to dominate: Romantic comedies, for women who want to be with them, or action thrillers, for men who want to be them? I think those options are horribly limiting and don’t allow the actors to flex any kind of muscles besides those that are perfectly sculpted upon their bodies. Comedy, on the other hand, and particularly playing against or alongside an actor who represents and even embodies the genre itself, gives these actors the room to have fun with and actually be free of the images Hollywood has assigned to them.

Sara majors in Film Studies and Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College. Her favorite genre is horror but she loves learning, writing and talking about all kinds of movies and all forms of entertainment. She has interned with Film Forum and Tribeca Film, both in her native NYC where she hopes to find work in criticism, marketing, distribution, or festival programming post-grad. Her blog and associated Twitter were created with the intention of being more involved and aware of happenings in the film and television industries, as well as to practice writing about pop culture in an academic but friendly and funny way. 

The Foreign Mainstream: Why Cinema’s Biggest Oxymoron Deserves More

When I was in Berlin, Germany for a few months last spring, I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to movies, despite my understanding that Berlin has always been, to varying degrees over time, a major European film hub. I was there for the Berlinale International Film Festival, and there were art house cinemas all over the city as well, showing everything you’d expect an art house movie theater to show regardless of location, really.

I saw a couple foreign films being shown at the festival, and they were good, don’t get me wrong, and I was expecting them to be good. But besides the art house, and the festival fair, and the American films dubbed into German (which played at every larger multiplex in the city), what did German audiences really watch, anyway? The question didn’t dawn on me until I was actually there and truly exposed to German films we’d never get to see here in America—at least not in theaters.

What I’m getting at is: Netflix is a great outlet for what I’m straightforwardly calling foreign mainstream cinema, but why should it be the only place? Maybe I’m generalizing, but picture your average art house cinema, again, regardless of location—a semi-rarity in itself by its very nature, implying higher quality cinematic works that you arguably can’t access otherwise. So, the marquee will probably list some independent films or documentaries, some foreign films that are acclaimed dramas (most likely) and maybe a little bit of repertory, usually organized into a series or category of some sort in terms of scheduling and programming. But isn’t this indicative enough of the common attitude that certain kinds of films are art and others are entertainment, that some cinematic works are of lower cultural value based on genre, budget or narrative?

When I was abroad, I saw a film called Schlussmacher, starring one of Germany’s most popular and promising young celebrities, Matthias Schweighöfer, who also directed and produced the film. It was a smash hit at the time, as far as I could tell based on my somewhat limited knowledge of the German language; but it didn’t take fluency to see the frequent television spots and magazine covers and other forms of advertising which highlighted and praised the film.

Schlussmacher, which translates roughly to “Break-up Man,” was a cheesy, predictable, but also incredibly fun and heartfelt romantic-comedy— silly, raunchy humor paired with incredible warmth and sincerity made this film the success that it was, in my opinion. It tells the story of a Paul, played by Schweighöfer, who works for a break-up agency of sorts, bonding with the newly-rejected significant other of a client—high jinx ensue as Paul learns about his own deeply repressed desires for love and companionship through various misadventures with this unlikely friend. I thought for sure that after I’d seen it once last February in a Berlin multiplex, I would never see it again, but then I remembered that Netflix does feature these kinds of foreign films, and recently, I was indeed able to watch the film again on this outlet.

While I do think this opportunity for streaming access is, without a doubt, a positive thing and a step in the right direction in terms of foreign film exposure, I do feel as though something more needs to happen to give us theatrical access to films from other countries that are more diverse than the films we are getting to screen from these international markets.

Maybe there are licensing and importation/exportation issues that exist on the strictly business side of the global film market that I have no knowledge of. But, I do know that back in 1998, Tom Tykwer’s massive German hit Run Lola Run made quite the impact here in America. Even in this case study, however, it is interesting to note that, while a popular success in Germany, it translated to a highly experimental art house hit here in the states, later becoming somewhat of a film school screening staple.

So then, perhaps we should not be asking ourselves what the film industry, internationally speaking, can do to rectify what I see as a problem; again, that problem being the unfortunate and unfair discrepancy between our high-art/art-house foreign cinema exposure in select theaters, and what aspects of foreign cinema are being ignored and relegated to the better-than-nothing streaming outlets like Netflix (due to their being more generically mainstream in their respective countries).

Instead, maybe we should ask ourselves what the implications of this discrepancy really are. As I mentioned, this kind of question didn’t dawn on me until I went abroad and came back to find that this discrepancy even existed, so it wouldn’t surprise me if others wanted to argue that there is no real issue here. But as someone who was taught to value omnivorous consumption—as one professor of mine once put it—I don’t see why our conception of foreign cinema here in America should remain so pretentious and narrow as to make the term “foreign cinema” automatically synonymous with high art or quality cinema. Because, in reality, every country has its own mainstream and this is a fact about cinema that cannot and should not be ignored.

While it is certainly true that not every country has the strict conventions that come with a “Hollywood” designation and the commercial practices and aims those films often have, it is still hard to argue that we in America are getting an adequate variety of foreign cinema, because we don’t seem to realize that such a variety even exists; but such untapped and entertaining variety does exist, and it is important for us here in America to break down the physical and conceptual borders that prevent us from seeing the cinematic proof of that.

Ten Years Later: Celebrating ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND

Everyone has that one movie that changed their life first. Even if many films thereafter astound, mesmerize and enchant you, you’ll always remember the first that made you capable of even seeing other films in those kinds of ways. For me, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, released in March of 2004, is that very film. When I first saw it, I didn’t necessarily get it—I understood it to some degree, but I didn’t get it, and yes, there is a difference. But, it hooked me somehow; it hypnotized me in a way that no other film had up until that point. It begged me to watch it again, and again, and again.

Ten years later, and I still watch it, with fresh eyes and a sense of wonder, of whimsy, and of intense admiration. But, I have never written about it until now. I sometimes wonder: had I been this present-version-of-myself back in 2004— would I be able to write about it? Even now, I feel as though the film shapes itself into something slightly different with each viewing as I grow and learn and change. The film remains stagnant on the other hand, though, maintaining its ever-rightful place as my favorite film, and it deserves its own kind of birthday/anniversary homage from me. This post will serve as not only a retrospective review, but also a consideration of what, if any, legacy has this film left us with.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry and co-written by Charlie Kaufman, stars Jim Carrey as Joel Barish and Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski. The story is a non-linear romance, a heartbreakingly plausible love story told in a highly stylized, science-fiction way, and it begs questions of memory and fate. I’m already getting ahead of myself, as the film often does anyway. It isn’t until the end, or perhaps even a second viewing, that one truly grasps the back-and-forth conception of time that the film operates within, the ebb-and-flow sense of fantasy and memory, alternating exquisitely with a present, though fictional, reality.

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Clementine is self-conscious but abrasive, quirky but complicated, and impulsive above all else; she uses the services of Lacuna Inc. to erase her memories of the far more introverted Joel, when their relationship turns sour out of boring complacency. Joel, upon learning this news indirectly, decides to have her erased as well. The film weaves in and out of his memories as he is reliving them, realizing through the procedure that he still loves Clementine and does not truly want to erase her after all.

The concept itself is haunting, but only Gondry and Kaufman could have executed it so fluidly. The science-fiction elements of it feel as nuanced and feasible as the love between Joel and Clementine. As a romance then, the film does what no Hollywood romance could do as eloquently either. Joel’s memories are the kinds of memories we could easily have ourselves, somehow; memories of eating at the same Chinese food restaurant, of arguing at a flea market about having children, of suffocating each other with pillows as a game, of laying on a frozen river together, or even of going to a drive-in movie but adding their own humorous dialogue.

For someone who hasn’t seen the film, these things might seem banal but for the film itself, that banality is the very definition of its protagonists’ love, and it is what makes this movie accessible while also seeming fantastical. The balance is crucial, and it is achieved seamlessly. Every edit sucks us out of one memory and zooms into another. Every movement of the camera and visual concept manifests colorfully. The physical and the cerebral and the magical all blend and blur together in a way that never ceases to excite and fascinate me.

I still feel as though I’m not doing the movie justice. It needs to be seen, and it needs to be seen more than once, in my opinion. Its twists may be minor, but they are palpable and deeply affecting. If any themes are meant to stick with you, I’d say the question of whether certain things are simply meant to be is a huge consideration to start with. The film feels prophetic, but in an emotional way even if not in some larger philosophical way. And, is Lacuna Inc. ethical? The movie seems intent on splatter-painting a sort of modern-art portrait of memory and regret, and unpretentiously prods us to contemplate whether keeping our memories might be worth the pain of them, especially when the subject of those memories is already lost.

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Analysis and praise aside, I wonder if we’ve been given anything in the last ten years remotely similar to this film. Gondry’s last two films—The Green Hornet (2011) and Be Kind Rewind (2008)—were far less well-received and, having seen them both, I would argue that they were a bit of a downgrade in terms of his usual precision and originality in delivering mind-bending narratives and the matching aesthetics. I like Science of Sleep (2006), but that feels much more art-house and intimate in nature, which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing necessarily in comparing to Eternal Sunshine. Jim Carrey gives what I deem to be one of his best performances and since then, I don’t think we’ve seen enough dramatic work from Carrey, and he’s underrated in that realm as a result. Kate Winslet is always amazing, but this film seemed like such an intriguing role for her. Many of her roles since—acting talent notwithstanding—have been more predictable than the wholly-unpredictable, neon-haired Clementine.

Maybe I’m generalizing. But, my point is, I don’t think Eternal Sunshine has been reincarnated, not widely or effectively at least, because it simply cannot be done. Sure, 500 Days of Summer (2009) was an unconventional, non-linear romance told with musicality by Marc Webb, but with none of the same sci-fi to propel its offbeat nature in quite the same way. And yes, The Adjustment Bureau (2011) had romance and sci-fi and dealt with destiny and agency, but where was the musicality in its inconsistent tone?

Eternal Sunshine weaves in and out of so many conventions but also defies them and makes its own seemingly on the spot. It is singular and unique and that is why, I’d argue, it is so timeless. I think the film has aged gracefully over these ten years and will continue to do so, and if it isn’t considered a true classic already, I like to think that it will be remembered as such eventually. And as ever-evolving as my own interpretations have been of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind over these last ten years, I’d never wish for anyone to take away my similarly-evolving memories of the film. Because, nobody should forget the first film that made them love movies.

Sara majors in Film Studies and Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College. Her favorite genre is horror but she loves learning, writing and talking about all kinds of movies and all forms of entertainment. She has interned with Film Forum and Tribeca Film, both in her native NYC where she hopes to find work in criticism, marketing, distribution, or festival programming post-grad. Her blog and associated Twitter were created with the intention of being more involved and aware of happenings in the film and television industries, as well as to practice writing about pop culture in an academic but friendly and funny way. 

Reviews and commentary from an Austin cinephile.