Viva

Clever cinematic pastiche artist Anna Biller has a great eye for the cheesy/sleazy details that make the late 1960s-early '70s sexploitation movies of Radley Metzger (THE ALLEY CATS), Russ Meyer (VIXEN) and Herschell Gordon Lewis (SUBURBAN ROULETTE) such trash-culture treats. But unlike Quentin Tarantino, who borrows what's good about grindhouse fare and...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Clever cinematic pastiche artist Anna Biller has a great eye for the cheesy/sleazy details that make the late 1960s-early '70s sexploitation movies of Radley Metzger (THE ALLEY CATS), Russ Meyer (VIXEN) and Herschell Gordon Lewis (SUBURBAN ROULETTE) such trash-culture treats. But unlike Quentin Tarantino, who borrows what's good about grindhouse fare and makes something better, Bilder's feature -- for better or worse -- is virtually indistinguishable from the largely mediocre source material.

Vivacious, raven-haired Barbi Smith (Bilder) is trapped in a dull, suburban Southern Californian existence that gets even duller when she's fired from secretarial job after her lecherous boss finds out she has a husband. Barbi is married to workaholic salesman Rick (Chad England), whose big dreams run to a fishing boat and cabin in the woods, and envies swinging neighbors, sexy Sheila (Bridget Brno) and Crown Royale-swilling Mark Campbell, Jared Sanford), a laid-off TV series actor who speaks in ad adages and likes to get naughty with his Nikon. Barbie just knows there must be more to life than sitting around waiting for Rick to come home; it is, after all, 1973. After glancing through a copy of Mark's Playboy magazine, Barbi considers becoming a model herself but has second thoughts after a make-over nearly ends in rape. She returns home to an even greater disappointment: Rick has cancelled their vacation in favor of a month-long business trip that will also include a few weeks of skiing. When Barbie begs him to taker her along, Rick storms out, threatening never to return. Coincidentally, Mark has also walked out on Sheila, and she suggests they might both actually benefit from their new-found freedom. This is, after all, the sexual revolution. So Sheila and Barbi take off their bras, put on see-though tops and hit the streets, where they immediately catch the eye of Mrs. James (Carole Balkan), who runs a classy call-girl service. Sheila has always dreamed of becoming a prostitute named Candy -- "It sounds so romantic!" -- and convinces Barbie to join her. For her new life, Barbi chooses the name "Viva" -- Italian for "to live."

Biller worked for several years on this project and the level of loving detail is, frankly, astonishing: The costumes and production design, all of which Bilder created herself, are meticulous and spot-on. But two-plus hours is a lot of camp pastiche, and when characters burst out into Bildlr's original songs midway through, it's hard not to feel she's overdoing things in a genre valued for its excess. Despite Barbi/Viva's dream of becoming a liberated woman rather than a "man's plaything," there's not enough of feminist perspective to make the film interesting on a revisionist level, and there's nothing here that can't be found in the originals, films that at least have the advantage of being revealing cultural artifacts. In the end, the greatest compliment you could pay this artful and admirably ambitious project is the one you almost hate to offer: Anna Biller set out to make a bad movie and succeeded.

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  • Released: 2008
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Clever cinematic pastiche artist Anna Biller has a great eye for the cheesy/sleazy details that make the late 1960s-early '70s sexploitation movies of Radley Metzger (THE ALLEY CATS), Russ Meyer (VIXEN) and Herschell Gordon Lewis (SUBURBAN ROULETTE) such t… (more)

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