Every month, A Place for Film brings you a selection of films from our group of regular bloggers. Even though these films aren’t currently being screened at the IU Cinema, this series reflects the varied programming that can be found at the Cinema and demonstrates the eclectic tastes of the bloggers. Each contributor has picked one film that they saw this month that they couldn’t wait to share with others. Keep reading to find out what discoveries these cinephiles have made, as well as some of the old friends they’ve revisited.
Jesse Pasternack, contributor | Sword of Trust (2019)
Lynn Shelton is an underrated filmmaker. Your Sister’s Sister is a fantastic mixture of comedy and drama. Laggies is a delightful movie with a hilarious performance by Keira Knightley. When I learned that she had directed a new feature film, I immediately went to see it.
Sword of Trust is about a lesbian couple named Mary and Cynthia in Birmingham, Alabama. They discover that Cynthia’s deceased grandfather left her a sword that he believed proved that the Confederacy won the Civil War. Aided by a cantankerous pawn shop owner named Mel, they go on a journey to sell the sword.
Sword of Trust fits well into Shelton’s body of work. It has the same warmth towards its characters and patient pacing in terms of its dialogue scenes as her earlier films did. In addition, it explores several themes — such as unorthodox passions and the ties that bind people together — that animated her earlier films.
But this movie is also distinctive from her previous work. The cast has more comedians than her other films (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins are particularly great), and this helps make it her funniest feature yet. It is also her most relevant film, as evidenced by its commentary on our current socio-political environment — in particular the erosion of truth and the presence of a more visible form of anti-Semitism.
Sword of Trust is a great addition to Shelton’s body of work. It explores her usual themes while being very funny and insightful. It makes me excited for her next film.
Note: trailer contains some brief adult language.
Michaela Owens, Editor | The Spiral Staircase (1946)
In a small Vermont town in 1906, a mysterious killer is on the loose, targeting young women who have disabilities. Although she fits the M.O. because of her muteness, Helen (Dorothy McGuire) doesn’t seem worried, despite the numerous warnings she receives from the police, her beau (Kent Smith), and everyone she works and lives with at the foreboding Warren estate (Elsa Lanchester, George Brent, Rhonda Fleming, and Ethel Barrymore). Set over the course of one evening, Helen slowly finds herself in incredible danger as the unknown murderer quietly stalks her, all of it building to a remarkable climax.
The Spiral Staircase is a film I’ll never forget. Within the first few minutes, you’re confronted with a woman being strangled in broad daylight, her horrified face reflected in her killer’s eye. This isn’t a gory film, though. The Spiral Staircase is all about dread and uneasiness. Mel Dinelli’s script and Robert Siodmak’s astounding direction bring in the clichés we know — isolated old house; crazed killer; numerous suspects; a beautiful ingenue for a heroine; a massive thunderstorm — but then uses those clichés to craft something much grander and unnerving than you were expecting.
As if the atmosphere wasn’t enough to stun you, Sidomak’s visuals and Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography are some of the most fascinating I’ve ever seen. The mix of candlelight, shadow, and lightning is gorgeous but also helps to make the Warren place a house of horrors, particularly in the evocatively shot death scenes toward the end. There is a lot that can be culled from this movie, such as its use of symbolism and the psychology of Helen’s muteness, but The Spiral Staircase is also just a straight-up masterpiece from the Golden Age of Hollywood, a fantastic piece of entertainment that is sure to make you check under your bed and in your closets at night before you can go to sleep.
Caleb Allison, contributor | Crawl (2019)
Crawl has no pretensions about what it is, and I couldn’t be more grateful. Forget about grand cinematic ambition and overstuffed narratives about saving the universe, this one is simple: man and woman vs. beast, and by beast I mean massive gators. As a violent hurricane pummels Florida, a father (Barry Pepper) and daughter (Kaya Scodelario) try to keep all of their limbs intact as they’re hunted by a pack of massive gators.
At just under 90 minutes, Crawl saves us pointless exposition and gets straight to the featured attractions, while balancing perfectly its gut-wrenching carnage with schlock bravado. It feels like a shot of summer adrenaline that almost ends all too quickly, leaving you jonesing for more ridiculous one-liners and limb-tearing gore. Fear not, though — there is a surprisingly deep reservoir of gator-inspired films, from Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive (1976) and Crocodile (2000) to Greg McLean’s Rogue (2007), and let’s not forget the perennial favorite, Lake Placid (1999), starring Betty White, Bill Pullman, and Bridget Fonda. And just in case you thought you could kick back and enjoy these reptilian delights free from danger, I thought you should know gators have popped up right here in Indiana in the most unexpected places…
Note: some brief language and violence.
Jack Miller, contributor | Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
My viewing schedule was admittedly a bit more eclectic and unfocused than usual this month: rather than looking critically at the work of a particular filmmaker or period, I hopped around gleefully between countries and eras. Among the fruits of my bricolage were The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami, 1999, which I discussed here), A Matter of Life and Death (Powell & Pressburger, 1946), and Phenomena (Argento, 1985). In some ways the most exciting discovery of the month for me was Brian De Palma’s exuberant, funny, and scary (though not always at the same time) rock opera of 1974, Phantom of the Paradise.
The rejection of this delightful early De Palma film by most mainstream American critics upon its release proves that many moviegoers (even the so-called “experts”) seem to care more about narrative or ideological coherence than they do about the formal, visual qualities of the cinematic image. With this film, De Palma is already experimenting with strange juxtapositions in the space of a single frame, both through his use of split screens and elsewhere. The wonderful music of Phantom was composed by Paul Williams, and it consistently seems to comment on the action of this post-modern Faust iteration in clever metatextual ways. Though nearly all of the performances here are deliriously ham-fisted or histrionic, it’s all part of the scary fun.
Laura Ivins, contributor | Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie (2018)
Barbie is one of those cultural figures that we know has problems, but many of us love it anyway. Growing up, I was a huge Barbie fangirl. In addition to owning a suite of Barbies and her friends, I had a dreamhouse, the pink convertible, a Barbie & the Rockers record, and a coffee-table book detailing the history of the franchise. As an adult, I acknowledge Barbie’s narrow representation of femininity, but as a child, she was a big part of my imaginative world.
So, I was very curious about Andrea Blaugrund Nevins’ documentary about the road leading up to “Curvy Barbie,” wondering what perspective the filmmakers would take. What Tiny Shoulders gives us is a surprisingly balanced narrative of why Barbie remains the focus of cultural critique, but also why generations of girls continue to gravitate toward her.
For me, the most powerful moment in the documentary is when the filmmakers include clips from young people’s (mostly girls) YouTube channels, reacting to the recently released Curvy Barbie. One girl relates that she chose Curvy Barbie (from among the four new body types) because she’s curvy. She went on to say Curvy Barbie had muscle and seemed strong, whereas the traditionally thin Barbie clearly had no muscle. Another girl was happy to see that Curvy Barbie had no thigh gap. I have to admit, I teared up a little watching these clips from girls’ reaction videos. They clearly illustrate the cultural importance of representation to young people’s self-image, and the importance of body diversity for fostering young women’s sense of self-worth.