Sunday, May 02, 2004

Double Dare

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2004 at the Brattle (Independant Film Festival of Boston 2004) (projected video)

Jeannie Epper and Zoe Bell are cool chicks. Sure, I figure anyone willing to throw themselves off a building for my entertainment is probably pretty cool, but for Jeannie and Zoe, we've got it on tape.

Jeannie and Zoe were the primary stunt doubles for Lynda Carter on Wonder Woman and Lucy Lawless on Xena respectively. While the actresses were the pop culture representatives of female empowerment for their respective generations, it's Jeannie and Zoe who took the punches, flew through the air, and otherwise shouldered the risk of injury to make the action sequences work. While the roles they're best known for (if that's the right term) have a similar place in the public consciousness, the women themselves are an interesting contrast.

Jeannie's an old pro. Her family has been in the stunt business for about as long as there's been one - her father, brother, and daughter are only a partial list - and she's very well respected within the community. As the movie opens, though, she seems a little frustrated. She's cold-calling around town, reminding producers and stunt co-ordinators that she's out there. One of the themes that develops as the movie goes on is that not only is it hard for a sixty-year-old grandmother to find work doing high-falls and other risky tasks, but she feels that producers are reluctant to hire a woman as a stunt co-ordinator. She contemplates having some cosmetic surgery done, as stuntwomen often have to double for actresses younger than themselves, and whose costumes don't have the room for padding that then mens' do. And to top it off, her daughter is in the hospital after a stunt went wrong with a neck injury, so she's also watching the grandkids.

On the other side of the world, Zoe is facing unemployment for the first time, with Xena due to wrap production. The thought of going back to being a waitress doesn't appeal to the physical, energetic girl, but there isn't a whole lot of stunt work to be had in New Zealand's small film industry. Zoe realizes she'll probably need to go overseas to continue her career, despite not being anxious to leave her tight-knit family.

Director Amanda Micheli doesn't focus much on the how of stuntwork - we see scenes being shot, but mostly to show that even though Zoe may come off as somewhat impulsive and wild, she is methodical and disciplined when the cameras roll. There's also the obligatory "these people are nuts" shots, such as giving us Zoe's perspective when she first tries jumping onto an air bag from thirty-five feet in the air.

Micheli isn't looking to stir up controversy with this film; she likes her subjects too much. But, gee, how do you not like these ladies? They themselves bond pretty quickly; in the latter half of the movie, when Zoe comes to America to find work, she winds up in Jeannie's spare bedroom. That very week, Jeannie's getting her an audition for Quentin Tarantino, who is looking for a stunt double for some movie with Uma Thurman he's shooting in Beijing. Jeannie's donated a kidney to an actor friend, and if she's bitter about her lack of work, she still perseveres.

It's a truism that in Hollywood, getting work is more difficult than the work itself. You wouldn't think this would be true when the work is getting kicked in the stomach or falling off a building, but there's a group of people who line up to do it. Most of them seem to be pretty good folks, deserving of more recognition, which at least a couple get from this documentary.

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