More Reviews From The 21st S.F Independent Film Festival

by on February 5, 2019

Rachel Carey’s rousing historical drama “Ask For Jane” can be called one of this year’s Independent Film Festival’s successful calls to make good trouble.  Despite its late 1960s to early 1970s setting, the issues raised by the film retain unfortunate relevance for present day America. Carey’s film also offers a group portrait of the often painful sacrifices made to achieve a better world.  Finally, it’s a warning about the awful woman-hostile America that the Religious Right and their GOP allies want to slowly revive.

The opening title sets the film’s most obvious dramatic stake.  It’s 1972 and abortion is illegal in America. That sobering truth is driven home by the opening images of the film’s heroines, the members of the Jane Abortion Collective, in jail thanks to a police raid.  Obviously, the film’s story concerns how Rose, Janice, and the other Jane members wound up here. But the abortion politics being given dramatic treatment take a deep dive beneath the slogans of “woman’s right to choose” versus the emotionally manipulative “baby-killing.”

Carey repeatedly and pointedly shows how abortion access concretely manifested women’s larger struggle against a society that accepted as natural denying them any meaningful control over their lives and futures.  After all, if a woman can’t control decisions related to the health of her body, what can she control?

Many examples of this point crop up in the film.  An apparently kindly doctor denies Rose access to birth control first by dismissing the idea that she could have a teacher’s career then by saying birth control access requires her husband’s permission.  The principal of a Catholic school refuses to allow his students to be taught scientifically accurate information about human sexuality. The most spectacularly galling sequence, though, comes when two male doctors prefer to discuss medical matters with an eventual Jane volunteer’s clearly overwhelmed husband rather than with the woman herself…who happens to be a trained nurse.

Scolds citing moral reasons for deliberately withholding information about abortion or access to abortion providers don’t help the women needing assistance.   One veteran student who remembers the Catholic schools’ version of sex education recalls that it was less about providing practical scientific information and more about giving morality lessons.

This status quo of deliberately promoted ignorance repeatedly results in terrible consequences.  A desperate woman who can’t force a miscarriage commits suicide. A Catholic school girl fatally thinks drinking a quarter of a cup of rat poison will safely induce an abortion.

Even supposedly simpatico men turn out to fall far short in the women’s support department.  The male leader of a group of University of Chicago radicals visibly devalues anything related to women’s issues.  Rose’s semi-sympathetic boyfriend Bill O’Brien leaves her when he values his political future over the good Rose and the Janes do.

Empowerment may be considered a cliche in some circles.  But “Ask For Jane” shows the real emotional force behind the term.  Abortion access gave women with unwanted pregnancies a second chance to pursue their careers or otherwise not have their lives derailed by societal predetermination.  For Rose and Janice, helping one fellow college student get an abortion inspires them to help others by creating the Jane service.

Another joy in “Ask For Jane” is its emotionally meaningful recreation of its late 1960s to early 1970s setting.  The Janes’ reactions to seeing a period answering machine (it’s probable this was bought used) will bring smiles. Being told that the current going price for an abortion is $1,000 may spark indifference in modern audiences.  However, once the viewer learns $1,000 in those days is the equivalent of a year’s rent, they will hiss at the men who profit off a woman’s desperation. This writer suspects some IndieFest viewers may even be inspired to play Patriarchy Punchout, which involves imagining particularly obnoxious sexist male characters receiving the therapeutic benefits of a fist to the jaw.

By the film’s end, the number of women’s lives saved by the Janes will have audience members cheering.  The Janes’ heroism understandably doesn’t come without such costs as broken relationships and parental disowning.  It’s no surprise that several Janes would happily risk arrest and even prison for the cause of abortion access. America’s present day shame is that way too many legislators’ methodical limitation of abortion availability may make it necessary for a new generation of Janes to rise up.

***

Viewers seeking cinematic tea leaves regarding next steps for LGBTQ film beyond the coming-out story should check out Amara Cash’s endearingly entertaining comedy-drama “Daddy Issues.”   Not only is it a sex-positive, candy-colored romance and family drama that will touch viewers’ hearts, but the film boasts some wonderfully chosen songs and a love triangle where the various points are entertainingly neither perfect nor completely flawed.

Cash’s Los Angeles-set film starts with Maya.  Two great passions drive her life: going to Florence to attend a prestigious Italian art academy and cyber-stalking Instagram fashion influencer Jasmine.  Maya’s decision to meet Jasmine in person leads to her becoming physically intimate with the influencer. But Jasmine hasn’t told Maya that her glamorous lifestyle comes courtesy of the largesse of sugar daddy Simon.  Or that this very successful doctor also has an age-related kinky relationship with Jasmine. The love triangle that develops among Maya, Jasmine, and Simon will throw all their lives into disarray.

Besides their emotional entanglements, all three members of the love triangle deal with different maturity issues.  Simon goes into fits of childish temper tantrums when he experiences prolonged frustration. Maya’s being in the throes of first love tamps down her reality check functions.  Jasmine’s sheltered existence means she lacks perspective to appreciate Simon’s generosity.

Cash takes her film into wider sexual territory by not condemning different sexual expressions beyond what’s currently socially acceptable.  Simon’s age-play kink gives him a chance to be the good father he’s denied the opportunity of being in real life. Jasmine is open about her sexual fluidity and has little use for people who make assumptions about it.

Also giving “Daddy Issues” a sense of currency is how modern communication methods allow for richer plot complications.  Maya’s text messages with a lesbian friend in Florence suggest another reason for her dream of going to art school there.  Phone text messages between Jasmine and Simon allow for the set-up of a couple of great plot complications.

Cash recognizes that some romance film moments are still worth acknowledging.  Maya’s leaning out of a moving car comes across as an act of transcendence especially when accompanied by a song about defying gravity.  Jasmine’s support for Maya’s talent gives the latter the confidence to believe there’s something to her artistic dreams.

“Daddy Issues” will make the young and young at heart become determined to not let their dreams chase them forever.

***

Attempted reinvention both physical and emotional turns out to be the theme of the surrealistic Chilean stop-motion animated film “The Wolf House.”   Cristobal Leon and Joaquin Cocina’s animated feature takes the bones of familiar tales, particularly “The Three Little Pigs,” and adds the liquid flesh of a very-off reality.

The first reinvention comes from the film’s narrator.  He’s the leader of The Colony. A group of Germans living close to the Chilean land, they’re best known for a special honey they harvest.  However, sufficiently disturbing rumors about The Colony has compelled them to do a bit of public damage control. “The Wolf House” is supposedly an animated film dug up from The Colony’s archives.  This little bit of cultural exchange is intended to show the harmlessness of these German emigrants.

This resurrected film involves the classic fairy tale trope of a child fleeing into the woods to escape hostile adults.  The tale may not have the grotesque punishments of a Struwwelpeter tale. Yet by making central character Maria someone fleeing The Colony’s (implicitly rightful) punishment, the girl’s moral authority as a supposed innocent gets immediately undermined.  However, the specific nature of Maria’s crime is not clear. Did she physically abuse or injure the pigs under her care? Is she being punished for simply slacking off her caretaking job?

Further questions get raised by the house Maria finds in the woods.  Despite being a supposedly abandoned abode, it has such amenities as electricity for the television set and running water.  More relevantly, form turns out to be fluid within the house’s walls. Furniture sprouts from the floor and then disappears. Pictures emerge from the walls before sometimes swimming from one side of the room to another.  Two pigs gain hands and feet and become Maria’s children. Maria herself shifts from becoming a drawing on the wall to a figurine constantly reassembling herself. Finally, the building is not the refuge from the wolf Maria thinks it is.  The girl’s a virtual prisoner in her abode while the wolf patiently lurks outside.

Plot takes a back seat in Leon and Cocina’s film.  Instead, the movie floods the viewer with a wild cataract of surrealistic imagery.  However, none of these possibly symbolic, possibly just plain weird images startle or force the viewer to momentarily contemplate what they just saw.  That general absence of invoked reaction makes watching “The Wolf House” ideal for those with short attention spans. For those who can pay attention for far longer, the overwhelming stream of visual information will eventually be too much to process.

It’s only with the film’s final image that the nature of the sinister rumors about The Colony begins to be hinted at.  A figurative negative crushing offers a between-the-images description of Maria’s final fate. But these last moments do nothing to ensure a viewer’s approval of this movie.

***

Vivieno Caldinelli’s deliriously dark comedy “Seven Stages To Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through The Gateway Chosen By The Holy Storsh” (hereafter referred to as “Seven Stages” for obvious reasons) earns this year’s Indie Fest award for having the longest title in the festival.  But its strengths go beyond the long title to include literally being a successfully entertaining comedy where people die a lot.

Ohio couple Claire (the hilarious Kate Miccucci) and Paul (Sam Huntington) have relocated to Los Angeles to get a fresh start in life.  A nice apartment they score for really cheap rent in the Tabula Building seems a harbinger of good fortune ahead. That assessment changes rapidly when followers of the Storsh suicide cult commit practically nightly suicides in their apartment bathtub.  Curiosity about the Storsh cult leads Claire and Paul to apply some of Storsh’s teachings to their own lives, which takes them in such directions as building weird birdhouses and meeting a politically ambitious gold-digger.

What initially sells the weirdness of this insane premise is the first ritual suicide that Claire and Paul witness.  Once the viewer is disoriented by the cult member’s unexpected appearance, the mix of absurdity and boundary breaking that follows prepares the viewer to anticipate more weirdness to follow.  And “Seven Stages” definitely delivers. Throat-cutting with a cake knife gives way to such moments as a fight over who gets to commit suicide first and seeing heavenly light emanating from a bathtub.

Miccucci and Huntington serve as the perfect eye of relative normality for the storm of insanity that swirls around them.  Miccucci’s pop-eyes go over the course of the movie from wide-eyed innocence to a lunatic stare thanks to her character’s becoming more engrossed in Storsh’s teachings.  Huntington starts shining when a mock interview with himself leads to his getting rejected by his reflection. But the character’s comic highlight comes when he tells a cartoon bird what caused him and Claire to leave Ohio.  Involved in the chain of disasters are a melted plastic bottle, a water filtration plant, and a wave of mass madness that leads to a fight at a tire dump.

Other supporting actors help re-fuel the film’s insanity through their eccentric characters’ antics.  Dan Harmon’s Detective Cartwright is cursed with both an unclosable case and a cringe-inducing pretension of being a screenwriter.  Rhea Seehorn proves a hoot as a blonde gold-digger and political candidate whose policies make Ann Coulter look like a sober voice of reason.  And Taika Waititi truly runs with his canny cult leader.

The film’s titular seven stages may not make for life advice worth following.  But they do provide a useful hook for this insane comedy to truly go to town.

(“Ask For Jane” screens at 7:01 PM on February 7, 2019.  “Daddy Issues” screens at 7:15 PM on February 9, 2019 and 9:15 PM on February 12, 2019.  “The Wolf House” screens at 7:15 PM on February 8, 2019. “Seven Stages To Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through The Gateway Chosen By The Holy Storsh” screens at 7:15 PM on February 9, 2019 and 9:15 PM on February 13, 2019.  For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to www.sfindie.com .)

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