Thursday, February 20, 2014

Women in Trouble: Loves Her Gun & Raze

Trieste Kelly Dunn in Loves Her Gun

A couple of small pictures that have begun knocking around in recent weeks illustrate some of the possibilities that, for better or worse, are out there on the fringe for actresses. Loves Her Gun which is set mostly in Austin, was directed and co-written (with Lauren Modery) by Geoff Marslett, who teaches digital animation at the University of Texas. Trieste Kelly Dunn plays Allie, a young Brooklynite whose with an especially lame version of that movie stand-by—the boyfriend who exists to be dumped, like sandbags from a hot-air balloon, so that the story can begin. Not much else of a life can be discerned from what the movie shows. One night, after enjoying the musical stylings of a wacky combo who play dress in kung-fu gear with fake hands raised high above their heads, Allie is assaulted on the street by a couple of thugs in animal masks who might have stepped out of the slasher movie You’re Next. The encounter leaves her with a black eye and a case of PTSD that the hang-loose Austin kids—with whom she impulsively hitches a ride back to their home base—are especially well-equipped to mistake for a sort of spacy, zoned-out joie de vivre.

Marslett has a sensuous understanding of film, and he’s done a fine job of partnering by casting Dunn, who has a captivating mixture of flintiness and lyricism, alongside Ashley Rae Spillers as the more open-hearted and emotionally readable Zoe. Zoe is a member of the band who has a crush on the leader, Clark (Francisco Barreiro), who has a light spring to his step and a dashing curl to his mustache. Picking up on Clark’s interest in the new girl long before Allie does, she feels that she can’t possibly compete. The party and club scenes have the busy, funny clutter of a Mort Drucker cartoon from Mad magazine, but with a steamy, relaxed vibe that perfectly nails the characters and their milieu. It also reflects Allie’s state of mind, especially when the hint of something possibly sinister registers on her internal radar—such as a jolly pair of neighbors with a believably improbable story about how they need help getting into their house. More than once, Marslett will set up a cliché situation, so that it seems obvious in which squirm-inducing direction the movie is going, and then put a twist on it. When a store clerk (Chris Doubek) who pisses Allie off by refusing to sell her beer suddenly tells her that he can tell—because he’s “taking a class”—that she’s tense and reaches out to massage her shoulders, it looks as if she’s going to go off on the guy for copping a feel. Instead, they end up doing tai chi moves together in the store aisle. The talent on display, that of Marslett and his actors (and his cinematographer, Amy Bench), keeps you watching, Loves Her Gun is underwritten, right up until the last few minutes, when it turns into a programmed tragedy with an obvious, predictable ending. (In case you missed the implication of the title, Allie acquires a gun.) The total effect is as if Marslett latched onto a character situation, improvised all around it, and then added a social-issue thread just so there could be an ending.

Zoe Bell in Raze

His movie’s strengths and weaknesses are at the opposite extreme of those on display in John C. Waller’s Raze, which is in the exploitation-movie end of the indie film store. A twist on the women-in-cages genre, it posits a sick “grabber” of a situation—a couple played by Doug Jones and Sherilyn Fenn are at the head of a shadowy organization that abducts strong women, locks them up, positions assassins close to their loved ones, and forces them to fight, one-on-one and bare-fisted, to the death on closed-circuit TV. This movie is nothing but its situation, and it’s so single-minded about working out its simple premise to its logical conclusion, while paring the cast down one at a time, that the women you might remember fondly from other roles—most notably, Zoe Bell, the likable stuntwoman/actress who appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and, as herself, in the documentary Double Dare—just come across as cogs in the machinery. (The one actress who stands out, in the role of the one woman who gets into it, does so by the amateurish, uninflected abrasiveness of her performance.) Yet Raze has gotten a few respectful notices, some of which credit it with making a clever statement on the exploitation of women. (The fact that Zoe Bell is listed as one of the producers may make it count as self-aware self-exploitation.) For some people, the great thing about the simplest, crudest kinds of exploitation movies is that the lack of art, or entertainment value, is that there’s nothing to distract from the messages that can be read into them.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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