Thursday, May 22, 2008

FOUR WONDERFUL WOMEN


By the time you read this, Georgiana Riedel’s directorial debut How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer will likely have been swept off of the few screens it is currently occupying (here in Los Angeles and, I’m presuming, elsewhere) on a tide of theatrical manifest destiny spearheaded by Harrison Ford and Sarah Jessica Parker. (And those few screens have been flickering to largely empty houses, if my Sunday evening screening, one which I was the sole patron, is any indication.) You are more likely to catch this 2005 Sundance entry, currently in a very limited release from Maya Entertainment, when it eventually makes its DVD premiere. Which is a bit of a shame, because it turns out that Riedel brings an oddly skewed visual sensibility to the Panavision frame she uses to linger over her story of three generations of females in a Mexican-American family discovering, or rediscovering, their sexuality during a sweltering Arizona summer. There are times when I was reminded of the unpredictable rhythms and candid observational perspective of as unlikely a kindred spirit as Takeshi Kitano, particularly the distinctly off-kilter visual diagrams of Sonatine. Now you can see why Garcia Girls took me somewhat by surprise. Riedel has talent and promise as a director; she is unafraid to let the camera drink in the details of the unassuming locales made fascinating by her curious eye. She is less successful with modulating the movie’ pace, and she could use a more ruthless editor; the movie’s pace is too unvaried, and that absorption in detail allowed by the lack of concern for swift exposition which at first is a virtue soon becomes a mite tedious (at two hours and eight minutes long, I started to understand the restlessness of the film’s characters).


But I was never made restless by the presence of Elizabeth Pena, who in Garcia Girls has a role worthy of her sweetly discombobulated comic timing and sharp-tongued intelligence. I have long been in love with Pena as an actress and it is a rare opportunity I couldn’t have justified missing to see her on the big screen in a movie designed to let her flower at her own pace; as the mother of a daughter (America Ferrara) flirting with sexual awakening, and the daughter of a somewhat rigid mother (Lucy Gallardo) whose purchase of a beat-up used car both sets the “plot” in motion and defines the director’s visual motif of vehicles as metaphors for the characters’ forward movement and as expressions of their interior lives, Pena draws us into the world of a lonely divorcee without the usual sentimental pleas for empathy. Her Lolita (an ironic moniker that seems less heavy-handed because we’re not conscious of it until late in the film) is a lovely woman confused by her loneliness, her sexual frustration and how much she values the opportunity that loneliness affords her in term of connecting with her daughter. She is utterly convincing, in the least showy way, as a woman pulled in several different directions by the people in her small orbit. Pena makes ostentation a dirty word, so natural an actress is she, and it’s a real treat to see her here in a turn as unlikely to garner Oscar attention as it is deserving of it. Her credits as listed on IMDb since making Garcia Girls some three or four years ago indicate that she is staying busy, and there are a couple of high-profile roles that appear to be coming up. One just hopes that she’s soon able to find another role as well suited to her talents, one that takes such full advantage of her comic and dramatic instincts, as this one does.

If you are as much in love with Elizabeth Pena as I am, then you must join me in genuflecting at the feet of Michael Guillen, proprietor extraordinaire of The Evening Class. I am here to report, not without some major envy, that Michael has recently posted a engaging and wonderful interview with Ms. Pena that is a complete delight to read. She talks about Garcia Girls, her long and varied career, and how she went up several notches in her child’s estimation by her participation in The Incredibles (she was the voice of Mirage). If you missed Garcia Girls, this interview will whet your appetite not only for the upcoming DVD, but for everything else you can round up (start with Lone Star, La Bamba and Shannon’s Deal) that can be said to be graced with the Pena presence.

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Speaking of interviews, it’s about a week old, but Film In Focus’s excellent ”Behind the Blog” conversation with Kimberly Lindbergs, creator of one of the best blogs out there, Cinebeats, should not be missed. Cinebeats chronicles “one woman’s love affair with ‘60s and ‘70s cinema.” If you’re like me that’s a come-on that just can’t be resisted, and given the site’s popularity I suspect I’m not the only one who feels that way. Here’s Kimberly on controversy Cinebeats-style:

“The most controversial post I've written was probably my brief appreciation of the Italian actress Edwige Fenech. In that post I mentioned that I was looking forward to seeing Eli Roth's film Hostel Part II, which she appeared in. The discussion that started on my blog was carried over to other blogs and I still occasionally get nasty emails or backhanded comments from people who seem to loathe Eli Roth and his Hostel films. I personally don't understand the negative response to Roth's Hostel films since I've been a horror film fan my entire life and there's nothing new in Roth's Hostel films that I haven't seen before and executed in a much more graphic fashion.”

And Kimberly on blogging as a get-rich-quick scheme:

“In my experience fame and fortune are usually the result of your family name, who you know, how many asses you've kissed and pure luck. I'm sure there are probably bloggers that currently are or will become famous and wealthy, but at the moment I'm not one of them.”

Get the feeling that she doesn’t care to mince words? Me too. Check out the entire interview and discover, if you haven’t already, why Cinebeats is a blog-happening-a-go-go (and it ain’t just because of Kimberly’s boots!)

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Neither is The Self Styled Siren one to water down her multifaceted considerations of classic Hollywood with a lot of hemming and hawing. The instantly accessible eloquence she provides her loyal readers is a constant delight. But she’s really tapped a vein with one of her latest posts (check out that epic comments stream if you don’t believe me), a doozy of a visual and textual presentation entitled ”I Do Not Like Them, Sam I Am” in which she flies in the face of her usual appreciative tenor and takes on a passel of Hollywood talent that doesn’t pass the muster of the siren song. You will be caught up in her witty takedowns as well as the ensuing conversation (give yourself a couple of hours to really enjoy it), yet one more reason why Self Styled Siren and its eloquent and erudite hostess, the incomparable Campaspe, is a daily read of which I hope never to be deprived.

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Finally, Dan Callahan heads up the new issue of Bright Lights Film Journal with a comprehensive and compelling essay on one of my all-time favorite actresses in a piece entitled “Fatal Instincts: The Dangerous Pout of Gloria Grahame”:

“Grahame lives on the edges of most of her films, too disturbing an image, too turbulent a consciousness to ever really play a lead role. She could look severe, even plain, when she wasn't overly made up for gaudy seduction. Almost always, she played tramps of some sort, but she was enough of an actress to make them very different kinds of tramps, and her filmography offers a sort of strumpet cornucopia. She is capable of turning up in anything, even It's a Wonderful Life (1946), where she's the flip side of the film's Donna Reed sweetheart: Violet Bick (how's that for a mean/sexy name?), boy crazy in a black satin dress, doing the Charleston with older men at a dance. Grahame gives Violet a comic sort of speed and cluelessness, but when we see what would have happened if Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey had never been born, we catch a glimpse of Violet as a wrecked, angry whore being dragged to a paddy wagon, screaming that she knows important people. It's possible to imagine a whole film about Violet Bick, but it wouldn't have been made in 1946, and it might make even today's sexually jaded art film audience flinch.”

This is a spectacular critical assessment of Grahame’s career that I am very grateful to be able to read. Anyone who holds dear Grahame’s performances in The Big Heat, In A Lonely Place, The Man Who Never Was, Human Desire and Odds Against Tomorrow, among many others, will want to get familiar with Callahan’s fine work right away.

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2 comments:

cinebeats said...

YOu're too kind Dennis, but I truly appreciate the positive stuff you've said about my blogging efforts. You truly rock!

Maya said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Dennis; much appreciated.