Review: Dykes, Camera, Action!

Film Critic B. Ruby Rich shown in Dykes, Camera, Action!

New Queer Cinema is a film movement that I have researched for my academic work throughout grad school. It’s something that I have been interested in since college when I was first really exposed to more challenging queer cinema. Coming from a more rural area in Ohio, it’s not always easy to seek out LGBTQ-driven narratives at your local Cinemark. Growing up, I can’t even think of one film that played at our multiplex that was considered a queer story, but when I was in high school, our town was lucky enough to get a small independent movie theatre known as “The Big Picture,” which tragically closed after only a few years of showcasing independent and foreign films, as well as fun late-night horror film screenings. It was here that films like Brokeback Mountain were shown to our community. Even at this theatre, however, a film like that was still a rarity.

Caroline Berler’s documentary Dykes, Camera, Action! fuses the history of lesbian activism and lesbian cinema to weave the tales of these queer filmmakers that broke barriers to finally give voice to their experiences. Using very engaging interviews with key figures of lesbian cinema (Rose Troche, Cheryl Dunye, Lisa Cholodenko, Barbara Hammer, and Su Friedrich) as well as current lesbian filmmakers on the rise (Yoruba Richen, Desiree Akhavan, and Vicky Du), Berler shows just how drastic the impact of these earlier works have been on the younger generation of filmmakers. We see the transition from Barbara Hammer’s experimental lesbian films of the 70s to Rose Troche’s portrayal of realistic contemporary lesbians of the 90s in Go Fish to Cheryl Dunye’s search for classic examples of queer Black women in The Watermelon Woman and much more. This finally leads to the current state of lesbian portrayals in post-gay marriage society with films like The Kids Are All Right.

Iconic Lesbian Filmmaker Barbara Hammer

When looking at documentaries that focus on queer cinema, the majority of attention is generally placed on white gay male narratives. Caroline Berler more than succeeds in her goal of shifting that focus. In her film, Berler shines the light solely on queer women making films for queer women. Diving into an even more ignored population, the documentary deals heavily with queer women of color. Many of the interviewees in the documentary talk at length about how the main goal in their film work is to simply tell the stories of their communities that they were not able to see on the screen in mainstream Hollywood films. Hearing these stories from well-established lesbian filmmakers like Dunye and Troche makes the documentary all the more effective when you hear the younger lesbian directors speak about how these films made them feel seen and motivated them to pursue filmmaking as a result.

For someone who has a decent background in studying queer cinema, several films were discussed that I had not seen. Naturally, I was jotting down the names of these films to add to my watch list! If you have any interest in lesbian film, you’ll be doing the same. The documentaries and films that were made by the Lesbian Avengers, a queer and feminist activist organization, are just a few that I’m very excited to seek out.

Cheryl Dunye being interviewed in Dykes, Camera, Action!

Film history is ruled by the patriarchy. Male filmmakers are raised up on pedestals that female filmmakers simply do not have access to. But slowly, with films like this, that hyper-unbalanced system is beginning to change. With mainstream films made by straight men (Brokeback Mountain, etc.) so often drawing the focus away from these talented directors, we need more films like Dykes, Camera, Action! to showcase the work of queer filmmakers that have been pushed to the side and further marginalized. Caroline Berler’s documentary is necessary viewing for anyone hoping to learn more about queer women making films.

Dykes, Camera, Action! packs in such a wealth of information in its short 60 minute running time. This is a documentary that will have you seeking out all of the films showcased that you haven’t seen already, and even want to rewatch those that you have. I also really loved how the interview with film critic B. Ruby Rich (the creator of the term “New Queer Cinema”) was used to highlight the chronological history of lesbian cinema throughout the documentary. If you are looking for a documentary to explain the evolution of lesbian cinema, this is the one for you! It features great interviews with so many of the key lesbian filmmakers, clips from their films, and connects everything with the history of queer activism. My only complaint is that I wanted more when the film ended.

My rating: 4.5/5

Dykes, Camera, Action! is currently available to rent through iTunes and is distributed by Frameline Distribution. More information on the film can be found at: https://www.dykescameraaction.com/.

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Review: Malcolm and Marie (2021)

From the opening frame of Malcolm and Marie (Sam Levinson, 2021), it’s clear that the entirety of the film that follows will be beautifully shot as we get to know the titular couple. Director Sam Levinson is the creator of HBO’s Euphoria, a show that highlights the incredible performance and acting skillset of Zendaya who plays Marie here. Levinson’s third feature film is not heavily plot-driven. Instead, Malcolm and Marie is a tense character study of two people in a troubled and complicated relationship, relishing in their moments of bitterness and contempt, but also in the sensuality shared between the two.

Cinematographer Marcell Rév chooses to showcase the lengthy conversations between Malcolm and Marie with incredibly intimate camerawork. The beginning sequence where filmmaker Malcolm is telling Marie about the critics of his work that are stating that he will be the next Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Barry Jenkins, is one long take with the camera dollying from left to right and back again as the conversation goes on. Rév follows Malcolm as he walks throughout the living room and slowly returns to Marie as she smokes reflectively in the open doorway. This moment sets a tone for the couple’s dynamic throughout the film. We’re also given handheld camerawork that pits us right in between the couple as they talk, fight, and make love. The stark black and white images are used to devastatingly beautiful effect. Every image just pops.

Zendaya (Euphoria, The Greatest Showman), once again, proves that she is beyond capable of commanding a space. Her subtle expressions and slight inflections in her vocal choices escalate the tension between the feuding couple without her having to raise her voice and when it is finally raised, you really feel the intensity. In the middle of the verbal altercations, Zendaya will sit or stand silently for a beat, contrasting with the more vocal Washington. There’s a really fantastic quiet moment where Marie plays a song on her phone while she and Malcolm sit outside smoking that showcases all of her emotions without relying on any dialogue at all.

John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman, Tenet) is also doing strong work here as Malcolm, but relies more on volume increases and movement. That is the intent of the character, however. We’re able to read him fairly clearly throughout the film, while he is trying to decode how Marie feels after his forgetting to thank her in his film premiere speech. Washington also delivers very effective and emotive rants in several moments throughout the film. It’s incredibly impressive that Malcolm’s rants are shown in long takes, proving that Washington just truly inhabits the character.

Malcolm and Marie is a great example of a film that was safely shot during the COVID-19 pandemic. The entirety of the film takes place in one small location and Zendaya and Washington are literally the only two performers in the space. In the press kit provided by Netflix, they discuss just how careful they were with social distancing, testing, etc. It’s nice to see something creative and impactful born out of a pandemic tragedy. I’m definitely interested to see more work made during this time.

Malcolm and Marie premieres tomorrow (February 5th) on Netflix. If you’re looking for an emotionally complex film that shines a light on the flawed relationship between two people while utilizing stunning images to show us the true nature of both characters, definitely give this one a go. This is not simply a sensual romance, it is a gritty and troubling examination of a modern relationship. I also loved the many discussions on film, production, and social issues in contemporary cinema. It features a really great score that perfectly encapsulates the emotional and sexual tension in the film. Check this one out!

Rating: 3.5/5

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The Calming Power of 90s Nostalgia- A Look at The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story

The original cast of Nickelodeon’s All That

The world is a dark place right now. At every turn, we’re greeted with a new tragedy, violence, or people attempting to strip entire groups of people of their rights. And that’s not even including the plague that we’re living through. It’s hard to not think negatively all of the time. So, when something positive comes along, I think it is deserving of the highest praise. That is definitely the case with the newly released nostalgic documentary The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story. When I look back on my childhood, as I’m sure many who grew up in the 90s would agree, it is blatantly clear that Nickelodeon was a very critical part of my formative years. Watching TV was something that my parents and I did as a family and Nickelodeon was on nearly every night.

Stick Stickly- One of the many iconic Nickelodeon hosts

Enter Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney’s The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story. Coming in at just 102 minutes, this feature-length nostalgia generator sets out to highlight the origin of the children’s programming titan and how it was responsible for creating iconic television shows that serve as the backbone of an entire generation’s pop culture adolescence. Barber and Sweeney’s film is a broad overview of just how exactly Nickelodeon became the successful brand that it is, examining the early beginnings through the creation of the classic SNICK Saturday evening lineup. So, if you’re looking for a Spongebob Squarepants gush fest, this is not the documentary for you. Instead, we get a look at the earlier shows from the network like Hey Dude, Salute Your Shorts, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Clarissa Explains It All, Double Dare, and Guts, as well as the classic Nicktoons like Rugrats, Doug, and Ren and Stimpy.

The cast of Hey Dude

With so many programs and specific points to address, The Orange Years never gets too in-depth. But we get interviews with original cast members and creators of each of the shows highlighting how they came to be, how they contributed to the 90s Nickelodeon zeitgeist, and, in the case of some shows, how they were able to get away with some of the things that they did. The interview with former network head Geraldine Laybourne was a particular highlight here, because you can see just how much she cared about not talking down to kids as viewers and how she refused to see them as a consumerist opportunity, which the documentary goes on to note is a symptom of modern Nickelodeon. Overall, we’re treated to a few interviewees from each of the programs discussed. Highlights include: Marc Summers (Double Dare), Melissa Joan Hart (Clarissa Explains It All), Kenan Thompson (All That and Kenan and Kel), Lori Beth Denberg (All That), Larisa Oleynik (The Secret World of Alex Mack), Venus DeMilo Thomas (Salute Your Shorts), and many more. It’s legitimately a who’s who of my childhood.

Kenan Thompson, as interviewed in The Orange Years

The documentary works hard to provide the viewer with fun anecdotes from the sets, Nickelodeon history, entertaining memories from the cast members, and insight into just how these things came to fruition in the first place. The Orange Years prides itself on reigniting your love for your childhood and greeting you with familiar faces from the past. There are so many genuinely sweet moments with cast members talking about their time at Nickelodeon without reverting to the disingenuous and overly saccharine, as is often the case with attempts at igniting nostalgia. My only complaint is that I just wanted it to keep going. This is definitely a documentary that could lead to a more exhaustive product in the future. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed. You can see just how excited the interviewees are as they speak about their shows and you know that they could just keep going if the time was given.

The cast of Are You Afraid of the Dark?

One element of the documentary that I really appreciated was the discussion on diversity at Nickelodeon at this point in time. Geraldine Laybourne talks about how they wanted all children to feel represented on the network. All That was the standout program for this, as it featured a very racially diverse cast from the beginning, as well, as highlighting Hip-Hop and R&B musicians in their music showcase every episode. Looking back, I remember this being the first exposure I had to so many of the iconic singers and rappers that were featured. The documentary also reminds us of Nick News with Linda Ellerbee and just how effective it was at communicating real world news in an accessible way to children. The example they use is the AIDS special with guest Magic Johnson. Host Linda Ellerbee introduces Magic Johnson, who had recently been diagnosed as HIV-positive, but goes on to ask the children in the program to raise their hand if they too have HIV. Two young children raise their hands. One begins crying as she explains how she just wants people to view her as normal. There is a truly emotional and heart-wrenching moment where Magic Johnson explains to her that she is normal and comforts her. With the AIDS epidemic still raging, the importance of this discussion simply cannot be denied. Nick News gave a young face to HIV and humanized the epidemic to a generation who had simply seen those suffering from it vilified in the press.

Magic Johnson speaking with children about HIV on Nick News

The brief Nick News segment of the documentary is one of the few emotional moments of the film. The rest are there to make you think fondly of the shows loved by 90s kids. As we’re nearing the end of 2020, I can’t really think of a time when a fresh and loving nostalgia trip is more vital. For these 102 minutes, I was able to escape from the negativity and bitterness of the world. And I am confident that if you grew up during this era, that you too will welcome the escape to a time when, as the creator of The Adventures of Pete and Pete states, ice cream was the most important thing in the world. The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story is a very welcome and incredibly pleasant time capsule; one that could not have arrived at a better time.

The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story is available to purchase on DVD and Blu-ray and is available to buy on iTunes.

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Review: Camp Twilight (2020)

Camp Twilight has been experiencing a string of missing campers recently. It’s nestled in a large state park. Naturally this is the place that Ms. Bloom (Sleepaway Camp icon Felissa Rose) and Mr. Warner (Barry Jay Minoff) decide to take their failing students for their extra credit class trip. Tensions between the students are high, as their phones are taken from them for the weekend and they are deep in some relationship drama. Will the weekend help them connect or will it be a blood bath?

One thing that really rang true here was Ms. Bloom’s enthusiasm as a field trip chaperone. I’ve been on many field trips where there have been parents and teachers that are just as excited as she is here. Felissa Rose is clearly just having a great time in this one and it shows. I also really loved her sundresses and her big sun hat (as shown below). Her performance definitely shines through and adds a layer of fun and humor to the project. The teenagers were a bit rough at first, for me, but I ended up liking some of them as the film progressed.

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Violence wise, the film is very limited in terms of blood. There are usually a few splashes of it with each death. But this isn’t a film that you’re watching to see high quality practical gore effects. One thing that is interesting, though, is the intimacy of some of the deaths. They give the actors a chance to really have some fun with their last moments on screen. That being said, a few of the students are far better than the others. There are also some fun references to famous horror films here, mainly a brief homage to Psycho and Misery. In terms of slasher character tropes, you’ve got the hapless park rangers, the randy students (and the randy teachers for that matter), and angsty drama that leads to murder. Honestly, there was less diversity in terms of character tropes than I was expecting. All three of the guys are jocks and two of the girls are considered “loose” by the guys, leaving the other girl to be the more virginal character.

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The film also features some well-executed drone shots that showcase the beautiful Florida terrain. The state park that they visit here looks really great. At about 45 minutes in, there’s a nice montage of the students and the faculty canoeing, speed-boating, and swimming that really highlights the location they chose. Aside from Felissa Rose, the setting is really the strongest element of the film. For horror fans, though, there are a bunch of fun cameos from the likes of Linnea Quigley, Vernon Wells, and Camille Keaton. 

Camp Twilight is not the best slasher film I’ve ever seen. But it is a fun time. It is very successful in the moments when Felissa Rose is on screen and while it does slow down a bit when focusing more on the students, it still features a decent climax and conclusion (no spoilers here). The build-up to the conclusion, however, can get a bit messy. There are moments that take you away from the main narrative for a bit, mainly in service of trying to make you guess who the killer is. The ending actually took a turn that I honestly wasn’t expecting. Overall, I had a fun time watching this one. If you’re looking for a slasher film that revels in the fun a bit more than in the kills, this is one to watch. Also, this is a must-watch if you’re a fan of Felissa Rose! It’s a film that you can just tell the cast and crew enjoyed making. While not scary, it was a fun watch. 

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Rating: 2.5 Stars out of 5. 

Camp Twilight is released digitally on November 1st. 

  • Directed By: Brandon Amelotte
  • Written By: Brandon Amelotte and Felissa Rose
  • Starring: Felissa Rose, Barry Jay Minoff, Brooklyn Haley, and Cougar MacDowall.
  • Running Time: 93 min.
  • Rating: Not Rated (at the time of review)
 
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Review: Love and Monsters (2020)

Love and Monsters (Michael Matthews, 2020) is the latest teen-targeted post-apocalyptic fare. I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t we done with that? Wasn’t the death of the Divergent franchise the nail in the coffin for the YA-focused movement? And I’ll be honest. I thought we were kind of done with it. I haven’t seen one that’s been really great in a bit. But, here we are. And once again, Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf, The Maze Runner series, American Assassin) is here to take us on a new post-apocalyptic journey.

I was actually a fan of all three of Wes Ball’s Maze Runner trilogy films, so I knew going in that O’Brien was more than capable of holding his own with this material. It turns out that by adding comedy and fun CGI-monster designs to the mix, we are treated to a film that takes a step beyond the popular YA trilogy. O’Brien’s Joel is your typical awkward and unsure twenty-something protagonist here, cooling off his intensity from the Maze Runner films. This is definitely the key to the success of this film. Joel is just such a likable protagonist. We are always rooting for him and we see him develop throughout the narrative of the film.

The film starts with the destruction of 90% of the population of Earth due to mutating creatures. Joel is living with his ragtag family of survivors, serving as the bunker’s cook. He is too nervous to go outside on any of their dangerous scavenging missions for food and he gets a reputation for not being the bravest person in the group. He is great at using the communications equipment though. We discover that he’s been communicating with Aimee (Jessica Henwick, Underwater, Iron Fist, and Game of Thrones), a girl that he had been dating prior to the end of the world. Once his bunker is breached by a monster, he decides to go out on his own and travel the 85 miles to her bunker to be with her.

The journey is one that will thoroughly test him and force him to prove that he is, in fact, capable and able to protect himself. Along the way, he meets Clyde (Michael Rooker, The Walking Dead, Mallrats, and Guardians of the Galaxy), young Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt, Avengers: Infinity War and Scoob), and a very good dog named Boy. His road is full of challenges, encounters with vicious monsters, and dangerous terrain.

Matthews has fused the perfect blend of comedy, action, and world building to create a film that is enjoyable but also heartfelt. It reminded me of the fun zombie-romance Warm Bodies (2013) in that regard. The monsters are threatening but not too terrifying for kids. Screenwriters Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson give us naturalistic dialogue and provide the characters with charm and wit alongside the weapons they wield.

Overall, this is just a really fun film that distracted me from the state of the world right now. Which, if it can do that, I think it deserves some decent praise. It works perfectly well on its own, but also has the potential to create a new franchise from this original and engaging world. If you’re looking for a film to watch on another night in because of Covid-19, look no further. It’s definitely worth the watch and is definitely much better than some of the other alternatives right now. Looking at you Hubie Halloween.

Rating: 4 Stars out of 5

Love and Monsters is currently showing in theatres that are open and is available to rent from Amazon, VUDU, Google Play, iTunes, and Fandango.

  • Director: Michael Matthews
  • Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Jessica Henwick, Michael Rooker, Ariana Greenblatt, and Dan Ewing.
  • Rated PG-13 for Action/Violence, Language, and Some Suggestive Material.
  • Running Time: 109 minutes.
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