Criterion Month: Nobuko Miyamoto, ‘A Taxing Woman’, and the Zany, Gendered Comic Body

This essay is by our guest writer Spencer Slovic.

The first part of Juzo Itami’s A Taxing Woman (1987) seen by most viewers is not its opening credits, but its Criterion Collection poster. Nobuko Miyamoto, star of the film, wife of the director, and the titular “taxing woman,” stares out at the viewer over a pair of reflective, leather-bound shades, framed by her flat-cut bangs and pristine white collared shirt. While the film itself, starring Miyamoto as a tax collector who ruthlessly pursues criminals and tax evaders, doesn’t fully live up to this vision of female spectatorship – Itami is too focused on the conniving yakuza and stifling bureaucracy to give the taxing woman the screen time she’s due – Miyamoto’s performance as Ryōko Itakura more than carries the load, at points strong and commanding, funny and absurd, and sometimes cuttingly perceptive into the machinery of Japanese society in the 1980s. Nominated for the Japanese Academy Prize for Best Actress eight times throughout her career, Miyamoto won the award only for A Taxing Woman, in a role described by Keiko McDonald as a “remarkably modern type of female lead” (166).

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Mackenzie Davis is the Eye of the Storm in ‘Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town’

This review is by our guest writer, Grace.

Chris Papierniak’s debut aims to be a hard-packed punch, but rather, is a flame that burns for too long – rising, subsiding, and threatening to fizzle out if not for its core performance. The pink-tinted dream sequence that opens the film seems ill-fitting and amateur, as does the narrative that’s been almost as roughly cut as our main character. Stylistically, there’s an evident attempt to appear more “punk rock” or “grunge” than is needed, but the film is certainly not a total loss. Mackenzie Davis’ lead turn as Izzy, our anti-heroine and the pulse of the film succeeds in knowing when to charge in and when to pull back, affecting the right tones and nuances of chaos.

Izzy is a mess. Reckless and aimless, she’s destroyed nearly all relationships in her life. The rest are hanging on by thin and ragged threads. An aspiring musician, her career has fallen to the wayside after her sister – played (and for too short a time) by the brilliant Carrie Coon – leaves their duo group. Broke and scrambling for shining pieces of her past as a performer and her past relationships, she curses, yells, schemes, and hustles her way the f*ck across town. She runs blindly, headfirst into the golden streets of LA, gambling with her friends and acquaintances, most of which are fed up with her antics or are about to be pushed to their limit of patience. Izzy wants to be a scrappy little somebody, but she’s really just scrappy as she wrecks her way through the day, marked in eight chapters with a ninth following (without any spoilers) the day’s conclusion.

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A Wild and Distant Shore: ‘The Piano’, Colonialism and Kiwi Gothic

This essay is by our guest writer, Laura Venning.

This month, Jane Campion’s The Piano has returned to UK cinemas for its 25th anniversary. It remains an incredibly powerful film that cemented Campion as one of the most important female filmmakers of all time, but also, as one of few New Zealand filmmakers to gain international renown. Years before audiences were awed by the landscape of Middle Earth in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or charmed by the brilliant comedic vision of Taika Waititi, they landed on a turbulent North Island beach with Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter).

Campion had previously enjoyed acclaim for her early work (Peel won the Short Film Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival), but it was the success of The Piano which elevated her to an unforeseen level of fame. Her erotic tale of female passion at the edge of the world made her the first female winner of the Palme d’Or (but shared with Kaige Chen for Farewell My Concubine) and only the second woman to be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards where she won Best Original Screenplay.

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The Body Eclectic: Blood, Guts, and Human Mortality

In David Lynch’s quintessential feature film, Eraserhead, a young man is faced with something both horrible and inescapable: his own impending fatherhood. And he doesn’t just become the father to any child, but to a mutated creature with a long, giraffe-like neck and skin that glistens as if covered in something akin to a mucous membrane. It has bulbous eyes, a face like a salamander, and a body that is never seen, hidden beneath taught bandages of swaddling. It groans, it screams, and it shrieks into the days and nights. It even refuses all food, haunting the young man, Henry, until he is compelled to kill it with his bare hands. But what is it that makes this child so particularly grotesque? It is unnatural, practically inhuman, and it defies all natural laws of what we believe human bodies to be.

But then, what about that is particularly scary or, perhaps, why does an unfamiliar body upset us? The Oxford English Dictionary defines “body horror,” a subgenre of horror film, as “horror elicited by the depiction of destruction or disfigurement of the human body,” but I like the Wikipedia definition better: “Body horror, biological horror, organic horror or visceral horror is horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the unnatural graphic transformation, degeneration or destruction of the physical body. Such works may deal with decay, disease, parasitism, mutation or mutilation.” So what does body horror say about how we view the human body? Why are our own bodies scary, and why is their potential mutation and destruction able to be exploited to incite fear and terror in us, other than for the obvious reason that it just looks, well, horrifying? I believe we fear our bodies, even hate them, because our physical forms are a constant reminder of our mortality. “Contemporary horror films play on the fear….of one’s own body and its potential destruction” (Ronald Allen Lopez Cruz). Body horror exploits our fear of our flesh, which will soon rot and decay and cease to exist.

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From ‘Bad Education’ to ‘Mulholland Drive,’ the Modern Femme Fatale Must Be Queer

This essay is by our guest writer, Cody Corrall.
The classic femme fatale is elusive. She is a film noir staple: Gilda and Honey West. She uses her sexuality as a weapon against the patriarchy, but is inevitably foiled for having challenged it. Since the creation of the femme fatale, however, there hasn’t been a modern version that holds up. This is because the femme fatale, while a beacon of sexuality, is inherently a political statement.
In the height of film noir in the 1940s and 1950s, the rights of the straight cisgendered white woman were the next to be fought for. While these rights may not have been fully achieved yet, the rise of feminism and liberation have weeded out the femme fatale from modern cinema. This archetype no longer fits the rebellion and desire for power of the femme fatale. In order for a femme fatale to work in today’s society, it must be queered. We see these modern depictions of the queer femme fatale in Pedro Almodovar’s 2004 film Bad Education, and in David Lynch’s 2001 cult classic Mulholland Drive.

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Why Aren’t We Talking About ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’?

This article is by our guest writer, Clare Ostroski.

The second season of Hulu’s most acclaimed original series, The Handmaid’s Tale, began streaming on April 25, 2018. Since then, I have been fixated on its antic pandering and refusal to acknowledge or rectify its glaring toxicity.

Reviews and commentary of season two have almost unanimously venerated the show, but few opt to mention its frivolousness. With just three episodes left, I feel it important to acknowledge these things now, before its finale deafens any criticism of the season more broadly.

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From left to right, Sydney Sweeney as Eden Spencer, Joseph Fiennes as Fred Waterford, and Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy Waterford, The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu (2018)

Season one of The Handmaid’s Tale posed the question: what if women were slaves? The country of Gilead is a not-too-distant United States, transformed into a religious autocracy that rounds up women to be raped and impregnated in the hopes of repopulating a broken society. Families are separated as women are enslaved to upper-class households, brothels, or labor camps. The problem with this story is that it isn’t entirely fictional. Slavery exists today, and it existed in America not so long ago. Families are currently being torn apart and abused at the United States border. Ethnicity accounts for incredulous disparities in American incarceration. Women have been there for all of it.

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Killer Queen: The Trouble with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

Trigger warning:  Bryan Singer, sexual assault, sexual abuse against minors.

This essay is by our guest writer, Lindsay Miller.

It was announced a few days ago that Bryan Singer would be receiving directing credits for the upcoming Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic, despite being fired three months into principal photography due to his “unexpected availability” on set.  And while his replacement, Dexter Fletcher, directly expressed not wanting the credits himself in an interview last month, this brings up yet another issue in the ongoing saga that I like to call: Bohemian Rhapsody Hell.

I was not planning on seeing this movie before this news was announced.  I love Queen and I love Rami Malek, but nothing about this project really seemed to spark my interest besides the awesome photos of Malek in that Mercury Mustache.  It just kinda seemed like the standard music biopic that comes out once a year to pretty good reviews but is then altogether forgotten in six weeks time.  It is rare for movies of this nature to transcend the border of mediocrity, either due to the film itself or because of poor marketing. When both elements are seemingly in sync, you get a hit like Walk The Line or Ray but when one of them fails, you get duds like CBGB.

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To many, Bohemian Rhapsody seems to be on the fast track to success thanks to Malek’s casting (“Somebody just give Rami his Oscar already”) and the overall attention the movie is getting from the media. But despite my overall apathy, I really cannot bring myself to support this film in theaters for one reason and one reason only: Bryan Singer.

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