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« Watch at Home: Never look away from ball culture while synchronized swimming | Main | Stage Door: A startling new take on "Oklahoma!" »
Tuesday
May142019

Bentonville: Fearless stuntwomen, retiring post-masters, and troubled schoolgirls

Part 2 of 3

Playing in traffic... (Captain America: Winter Soldier) one of the daily jobs of Hollywood stuntwomen

Aside from the very first opening night activities at Bentonville, the first film I attended was a work-in-progress doc called Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story. The director April Wright is still working on the final cut so there's still time to get more focused (it was easy to imagine this as an even fuller miniseries as it's trying to covering a lot!) but whatever it'll be in its final form will be entertaining...

THR recently did a short video on stuntwomen but this documentary, while approaching the same topic and making a few similar points, is much less of a puff piece and far more informative about the women who are drawn to and excel in this highly specialized field. The doc has a treasure trove of intriguing behind-the-scenes clips and even better it tracks a lot of film and television history from silent films through the current cinema and franchises like Avengers and Fast and Furious (which gets a lot of play due to Michelle Rodriguez, who narrates the doc and also appears to talk to some of her doubles).

Thankfully stuntpeople, at least if this doc is indication, have a great sense of humor so most of the interviewees are real 'characters' as they say and great fun to listen to. My personal favourite was the hilarious and outspoken double for Lynda Carter on Wonder Woman who gets a lot of screen time. (Amusingly she looks like a young Alanis Morrissette in her 1970s footage.) The movie smartly ties in multiple identity and representation issues including not just gender but body size and color. While the racial angle is smart and fits the doc's concerns like a glove it's a but vague given the brief running time (85 minutes) and the other topics being covered. The practice of using white stuntpeople for characters of color is called "painting down" and while it's largely frowned upon now, it has as much of a history in Hollywood as using male stunt doubles for female characters, but the doc rarely gets as specific enough about these two topics, at least in contrast to the delicious informative detail about stunt skills, career trajectories, injuries, and showbiz lore. I'd love to see the final product because the movie is already a good time at the movies.

Many of the narrative features at Bentonville, not unlike the docs, focus on gender and sexuality.  One of the Spotlight films was the black and white teenage period drama To the Stars from director Martha Stephens who previously co-directed the charming indie Land Ho about two elderly men on vacation in Iceland. Her new picture is another film about friendship but this time centered on young women. Kara Hayward (of Moonrise Kingdom fame) is a booksmart outcast in 1950s Oklahoma whose life is shaken up when a confident and rebellious girl (Liana Liberato from Novitiate) moves into town and upsets the social order of the town's Mean Girls and their boys. Coming of age dramas about lonely teenagers are, of course, not the freshest of subgenres but there's something about the contemporary female point of view married to the black and white visuals that spark this one to entertaining life. Its melodramatic Sirkian leanings do get a bit purple towards the finale, but the strong ensemble and its chief visual and narrative influence (you can see The Last Picture Show all over this one) result in a few dazzling moments. Though the young cast all acquit themselves well, particularly Liberato who really sells a very particular kind of teenage braggadacio, Jordana Spiro (Ozark) nearly walks off with the picture as Hayward's drunk and stifled mother; It was startling to hear in the Q & A after the picture that Spiro had had absolutely no time to prepare, having read the script on a Thursday as a possible last minute replacement, and was on set filming it by Monday. 

Karen Allen fading away in "Colewell"

Not all of the movies screening were from female directors but even the men put women front and center of their films. I was eager to take in Colewell by director Tom Quinn just to see Karen Allen onscreen again. She'd had a brief A-list run in the early 80s and was always so appealingly real onscreen, even in fantastical circumstances (Raiders of the Lost Ark and Starman being her most famous films) but she's been largely absent from Hollywood for quite some time now. Quinn gifts her a beautiful opportunity here as the post-master of a tiny town who is being forced into retirement by the shutdown of her post-office. I had seen a pullquote for the picture calling it a 'tranquil character study' or somesuch and was worried it might be a snooze. While it's definitely purely niche in its  appeal -- it is tranquil, to a fault -- but it has an unmistakably cumulative poetic beauty. Quinn is a sensitive director and next to invisible (as one should be with this kind of material) when observing the locales, using mostly non-actors from the town where filming took place too great effect. Sure, the movie could have used a bit more energy in its second act but it's hard to argue with the quiet mysterious magic accrued in the second act when Karen Allen's "Nora" and Hannah Gross's "Ella" work so lyrically in wordless communion.

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