They

(USA / Qatar 2017)

“You’ll never be a girl. You’re not a boy. So you’re probably nothing.”

— J

Writer/director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s debut feature film They delicately tells the story of J (Rhys Fehrenbacher), a quiet suburban Chicago teen transitioning from male to female. Along with therapy sessions and physician consultations for “puberty blocking” drugs and “bone density” test results, J is processing the social and psychological implications of their change. We know it’s happening, but we see it in action when J puts on a dress and goes outside, or when he explains to others how to make an introduction to a stranger and which pronoun to use (“they,” hence the title).

The process is awkward, particularly when older sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), brings her fiancé, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini), home to meet the family. With mom (Norma Moruzzi) away caring for an aunt who has early onset dimentia, J is left to deal alone. Meeting Araz’s Iranian family in the suburbs seems to be a reckoning for J.

If nothing else, They is visually arresting, artfully shot with georgeous pans and closeups of buildings, walls, plants, and flowers. Ghazvinizadeh plays with reflections on glass and uses a muted color pallet that nicely underscores J’s fluid state of mind. It sets just the right tone: hazy and dreamy.

That said, both the narrative and the character development in They fall short. I’m not sure Lauren and Azaz are necessary, and I certainly don’t have more than a passing sense of who they are or why they’re here. The dinner at Araz’s family is dropped in clumsily, throwing off the trajectory of the story. The focus gradually and inexplicably shifts away from J, which I found strange.

Watching They feels voyeuristic, which isn’t a bad thing in itself. However, it feels like an obstacle — a transparent partition — keeps me from getting too close to the characters. That’s a shame because this is a film that demands an amount of intimacy that simply isn’t accommodated. On top of that, the actors’ naturalistic performances meander quite a bit, which made me zone out at times.

Overall, They could have been a much more powerful statement. Still, it’s a decent effort even with its shortcomings and a few dull parts.

With Diana Torres, Evan Gray, Drew Sheil, Leyla Mofleh, Mohammad Aghebati, Alma Sinai, Arian Naghshineh, Ava Naghshineh, Aerik Jahangiri, Farid Kossari, Kaveh Ehsani, Robert Garofalo, Eric Fehrenbacher, Vicki Sheil

Production: Mass Ornament Films

Distribution: N/A

Screening introduced by Anahita Ghazvinizadeh and followed by a live Q and A with Ghazvinizadeh, Rhys Fehrenbacher, and Rob Garofalo

80 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C-

Chicago International Film Festival

https://www.massornament.com/they

Spellbound

(USA 1945)

“The Fault…is Not in Our Stars,
But in Ourselves…”

—William Shakespeare

I’ve read enough online rankings of Alfred Hitchcock’s films to know that Spellbound often ends up in his top 20 or 30—sometimes higher than that—thank you. While certainly impressive considering the number of films he directed (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Hitchcock_filmography), I found Spellbound lackluster, comparatively speaking.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. In the grand scheme of all things cinema, Spellbound is a solid work—it’s just not a great Hitchcock film. Ingrid Bergman is psychoanalyst Constance Petersen, the only female doctor at Green Manors, a mental hospital in Vermont. Her male colleagues see her as detached and cold, which doesn’t bode well for her career—particularly for a woman in the 1940s.

The hospital’s director, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), is “retiring.” His replacement is young and handsome Dr. Anthony Edwardes (a young Gregory Peck), who catches Dr. Petersen off guard. Truth be told, she’s smitten—and who can blame her? Gregory Peck is gorgeous here. Anyway, Dr. Edwardes has a secret that becomes apparent: he’s not who he says he is. He’s actually John Ballantyne, a.k.a. John Brown, a dude with amnesia who says he killed the real Dr. Edwardes and assumed his identity. Dr. Petersen doesn’t believe him, and she sets out to find the real murderer—through psychoanalysis. It all leads to a fateful ski trip that comes full circle to Green Manors. Gasp!

Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht based their screenplay on the 1928 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by John Palmer and Hilary A. Saunders (as Francis Beeding). Clearly obsessed with Sigmund Freud, the story is clunky but cute and oddly entertaining even if it’s kind of stupid. Two things stick out in my mind about this film: one is Salvador Dalí’s cool dream sequence complete with random objects like big bleary eyes, scissors, a faceless figure, and wings; and that final scene where a gun is fired into the camera—I won’t ruin it, but it literally ends Spellbound with a bloody bang. Fucking awesome!

The nitrate print used for this screening was gorgeous, shimmering with rich blacks and luminescent whites. It impressed me. Miklòs Ròzsa’s grand, sweeping score is fierce—no wonder he won an Oscar for it (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1946).

One extremely personal but annoying detail: the Siouxsie and the Banshees song “Spellbound” played in the back of my mind the entire time I watched this film. Yeah, I’m hearing voices, I guess…but it could be much worse (I’m talking to you, Paula Abdul).

With Michael Chekhov, Rhonda Fleming, John Emery, Steven Geray, Paul Harvey, Donald Curtis, Norman Lloyd, Bill Goodwin, Wallace Ford, Art Baker, Regis Toomey

Production: Selznick International Pictures, Vanguard Films

Distribution: United Artists

111 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) B-

Nitrate Picture Show

Who Killed Teddy Bear

(USA 1965)

“I don’t think you’re very amusing, Lieutenant…Whatever-Your-Problem-Is.”

—Norah Dain

Who Killed Teddy Bear is so far one of the more interesting films I’ve seen this year, which is odd because it’s more than 50 years old. A surprisingly good story and movie, everything about it shines despite its bleak subject matter and an obviously low budget.

The film opens with a little girl who seems to be getting away from something unsettling she just observed. She falls down a set of stairs in the dark. It’s a curious opening, but she ties into the story later.

Cut to mid-sixties Manhattan: Norah Dain (Juliet Prowse) is an aspiring actress who works as a “disc jockey” at a nightclub. She lives alone in a cute three flat. It’s bad enough that she’s getting obscene phone calls from an unknown weirdo, but what’s worse is that he implies he’s watching her.

Enter detective Lt. Dave Madden (Jan Murray) to investigate Norah’s case. His wife was raped and murdered on the streets of New York City. He comes off as part father and part priest, and he takes a special interest in Norah that verges on disturbing. Indeed, he drops in all the time, he secretly records their conversations, and he keeps telling her that he could be the caller. At home, he’s obsessed with “studying” pornography and perverts, which has a distorting effect on his 10-year-old daughter (Diane Moore).

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

We soon learn that Lt. Madden actually isn’t the caller; Lawrence Sherman (Sal Mineo), who works as a busboy with Norah, is. Lawrence has a lot of issues. Awkward and aloof, he lives in a sad, dank apartment with his younger sister, Edie (Margot Bennett). Edie has brain damage and hasn’t developed beyond a child. Their parents died, leaving Lawrence to take care of her. And he does, but he harbors resentment.

On top of all this, Lawrence is incapable of a normal romantic relationship because of his guilt over his sister. He deals with his sexual frustration at adult bookstores and movie theaters in Times Square, and it apparently works until Norah comes along. His obsession with her takes him down a road of murder and ruin.

Directed by Joseph Cates, Who Killed Teddy Bear has a high creepy-icky factor, and it’s absolutely wonderful. Mineo is brooding and sexy, and Lawrence is compelling in the same fucked up way as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Norah and Lawrence don’t have all that many scenes together, but she’s nice to him when they do. This makes their scenes percolate with tension, particularly one at a pool in a gym. We know the whole thing is not going to end well, and Cates slowly but steadily gets us to a nasty climax. To add to the perversion, screenwriters Arnold Drake and Leon Tokatyan drop in little bombshells like incest and lesbian passes. Joseph Brun’s camerawork is lovely, especially in the night scenes; shooting on location in New York City, he cloaks the actors in shadows and neon light in a way that nicely underscores their solitude.

Interesting trivia: a young Dan Travanty, who plays a small part as a nightclub employee, went on to star in Hill Street Blues.

This film has been cut and recut many times over the years, at least once for British television. I’m pretty sure the screening I attended was the original uncut version.

With Elaine Stritch, Tom Aldredge, Frank Campanella, Rex Everhart, Bruce Glover, Casey Townsend

Production: Phillips Productions

Distribution: Magna Corporation, BijouFlix Releasing

94 minutes
Not rated

(The Auditorium at Northeastern Illinois University) A

Chicago Film Society