Monday, July 6, 2020

The COVID Diaries--Part 8

Movies: various

Here is what I am watching (so far) during the quarantine for COVID-19.

Uncut Gems

Josh and Benny Safdie's Uncut Gems has proven to be a film that elicits strong feelings regardless of whether or not the viewer thinks the film is "good". I've seen people say they absolutely hate this movie, and others say it's one of the best films of 2019. Still others appreciate the craftsmanship of the film while also hating the film itself. It is a loud, nerve-wracking, edge of your seat film with a "protagonist" who is deeply unlikeable played by a talented actor (Adam Sandler) who is also deeply unlikeable (in my humble opinion). And yet, I fall on the side of enjoying the hell out of this wild ride of a movie.

Sandler, who is GREAT in this movie, plays Howard Ratner, a jewelry store owner in New York City and a gambling addict. He purchases a rare black opal from Ethiopia and plans to auction it off for $1 million dollars so he can pay off his gambling debts. His associate, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield, also great) brings basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) to the store and when Ratner shows Garnett the opal, mostly just to brag, Garnett insists on borrowing it as a good luck charm to help him play better. Ratner reluctantly agrees, asking for Garnett's NBA Championship ring as collateral. This triggers a series of events far too complicated to describe here, but suffice it to say that Ratner's insatiable greed, hare-brained schemes, and gambling addiction cause him to dig himself in a deeper and deeper hole, losing friends and making enemies along the way.

Uncut Gems is a fast-paced thriller where people constantly shout and talk over each other and the constant threat of violence hangs in the air. It is a complete sensory overload with characters that are not particularly empathetic. But it is also wildly entertaining, hilarious at times, and just a plain old masterpiece in my opinion. It's a rare film in which Adam Sandler shows off his acting chops and it's worth watching just to see whether you hate it, love it, or love to hate it.

Grade: A-

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

This artful, quiet, contemplative film directed by Joe Talbot takes the issue of gentrification and makes it feel personal. The semi-autobiographical story is credited to Jimmie Fails who also plays a semi-fictional version of himself in the film. Jimmie lives in Bayview-Hunters Point, San Francisco, in a small home with his best friend, Mont Allen (Jonathan Majors), and Mont's blind grandfather (Danny Glover). However, Jimmie's passion is taking care of a Victorian style home his grandfather built in 1946.

The only problem is that Jimmie doesn't own that home--a couple, whom Jimmie feels are letting the house fall into disrepair, own it. So Jimmie skateboards to the Fillmore District, where he is a rare black face in a sea of white faces, nearly everyday to sneakily do repairs to the home when the homeowners are away. They often come home to find Jimmie painting the house and threaten to call the police, but never do. After a death in the family, the homeowners move out temporarily as the wife and her sister get into a legal battle over who owns the home. After they leave, Jimmie and Mont move in and restore the house to its former glory, knowing that this dream of truly owning the home can't last forever.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is light on plot and heavy on feeling. It implicitly asks open-ended questions like "what is a home?" "Is a home the same thing as a house?". Jimmie is clearly more devoted to the house than the homeowners are, and he takes pride in making the house look beautiful. But is it really his "home"? Or is his home wherever he is with Mont--whether that's in Mont's tiny, overcrowded duplex, or the vast Victorian home the two take over.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco isn't the most exciting film, and it doesn't offer solutions to the problems of gentrification and racism, but it does put a human face on what is often seen as a boring or esoteric problem.

Grade: B


Directed by impressionistic director Josephine Decker, Shirley is a biopic about Shirley Jackson that plays fast and loose with the timeline and facts of Jackson's life in order to tell a juicy story. Taking place around 1950, Jackson lives with her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg, who is so good at playing insufferable academic types), a professor at Bennington College in Vermont. Jackson, played by the magnificent Elisabeth Moss, is not well. In 2020, we would diagnose her with agoraphobia and alcoholism. But in the 1950s, she was simply a strange woman (and probably considered a very bad wife) who got mean at cocktail hour and never left her home.

A young couple, Rose and Fred Nesmer, rent a room from Shirley and Stanley. Fred (Logan Lerman) is assisting Professor Hyman in his teaching and angling to get a class to teach himself. Rose (Odessa Young) is asked (told) by the men to help Shirley around the home. Essentially, she is to be an unpaid maid and companion to Shirley, who can barely tolerate the young woman she sees as an interloper in her home.

Meanwhile, Shirley is fascinated by the disappearance of a young girl, Paula. She decides that Paula's disappearance will be the subject of her newest novel, Hangsaman. As she writes, she falls deeper into a psychosexual madness and pulls Rose down with her. The film has strong queer subtext as the two women circle each other like a cat and mouse, with Shirley at times being cruel to Rose and at times treating her like the intelligent and vibrant young woman the men in her life fail to see.

Overall, Shirley is just ok. If the idea of a 1950s-set lesbian pyschodrama sounds like catnip to you, you'll probably enjoy it even if you don't love it.

Grade: B-

Sea Fever

Sea Fever is the perfect pandemic film, as it is about being stuck in a small space and being paranoid about infestation. Directed by Neasa Hardiman, the film is set on a fishing trawler off the Irish coast. Skipper Gerard (Dougray Scott) and his wife Freya (Connie Nielsen) just want to make their living by bringing in a huge haul of fish. They're not too excited to have Siobhan (Hermione Corfield), a graduate student studying the behavioral patterns of sea fauna, on board and even less excited when they see that Siobhan is a redhead, since redheads are apparently bad luck.

The crew run into problems when it seems that their trawler is caught on something. Siobhan, who brought her scuba gear, dives in to see what's up and what she sees shocks her: a giant animal, possibly an enormous squid, has taken hold of the boat. Its tentacles seem to be secreting a blue liquid that eats through the wood of the boat (and of course, everyone touches the blue goop because it's a horror movie and everyone is dumb!). Eventually, the "squid" or whatever it is lets go, but the damage is already done. The goop that it secreted turns out to be filled with highly contagious parasites that cause blindness (and eyeball explosion...yikes!) and eventually kill the person or animal unlucky enough to be infected.

Sea Fever sets up a conflict between the science-minded Siobhan who wants to make sure none of the crew are infected before they step off the ship and back onto dry land and the superstitious, salt-of-the earth crew who already don't like the redhead and are even more disinclined to like her when she suggests a temporary quarantine (see? Perfect pandemic movie). Sea Fever is a fun horror/sci-fi film that could have been even better in my opinion. But it's worth the rental fee of 5 bucks if you like scary movies in claustrophobic settings and don't mind a little body horror.

Grade: B-

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The COVID Diaries--Part 7

Movies: various

Here is what I am watching (so far) during the quarantine for COVID-19.

Mrs. America

This Hulu original mini-series is about the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and the women involved on both the pro- and anti- side. In particular, the series, which spans the 1970s, focuses on Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative homemaker/lawyer/political wonk who fought viciously to stop the ERA from being ratified--and succeeded.

Cate Blanchett plays Schlafly to perfection. She perfectly captures Schlafly's mannerisms and her charisma. Schlafly was a hateful person, yet undeniably intelligent. She was also a person into "alternative facts" long before Trump was elected (her final book, published right before her death, is titled The Conservative Case for Trump). The series portrays Schlafly as a woman who wanted it both ways: she wanted power, influence, and to be acknowledged publicly for her work, while also fighting against women's equality in the political, economic, and social spheres. If you're a fan of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, Serena Joy is clearly modeled after Schlafly.

But the series also follows Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan in their efforts to push the women's liberation movement forward. Looking back, both Schlafly and the feminists had a huge influence on the women's rights movement. Even though the ERA was not ratified until 2020 (with my home state of Virginia being the 38th state to ratify the amendment) and still isn't enshrined in our Constitution, we have made great strides. We have a lonnnnng way to go, though, and conservative presidents such as Reagan, Bushes Sr. and Jr., and Trump have pushed back our progress.

Mrs. America is an almost perfect show. It fails to honor the full extent to which black and brown women, as well as queer women, contributed to the women's liberation movement. There is an episode dedicated to Shirley Chisholm (played wonderfully by Uzo Aduba), but all the other episodes focus on the white, straight women involved. I've read some criticism that suggests it goes easy Phyllis Schlafly, but I didn't see that. I think it shows her for the conniving, "want to have my cake and eat it too" woman she was. True, it portrays her as human with imperfections, motivations, and strengths. But most people who fall on the wrong side of history were not monsters--they were all too human.

Grade: A-


Sinister is a bad horror movie that came out in 2012. I watched it with a fellow horror-lover using Netflix Party, which is the only way to watch it because we tore it to shreds. Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt (I'm assuming the scriptwriter likes Patton Oswalt and Harlan Ellison), a true crime writer who hasn't had a bestselling book in a decade. He moves his family into a *murder house*, where an entire family--except for one daughter--was killed by hanging. Ellison doesn't tell his wife he is moving them into a murder house because he obviously doesn't respect her.

He discovers a box of film reels and a projector in the attic. As he watches them, he realizes they are essentially snuff films showing the murder of other families. After doing some digging, he realizes that all of these families were killed, leaving one child behind who went missing. He also discovers that the Stevensons (the family that was hanged) used to live in the house of one of the other murdered families.

So, it's pretty clear at this point that each family lived in the house of the previous murdered family, and there is some sort of being or curse following the families who move into the murder homes of the other families. So, in short, Ellison fucked his own family over: they now carry the curse.

I won't tell you what happens, but I will say that this movie is so full of cliches, it's bursting at the seams. It has: an alcoholic writer who wears oversize, knitted sweaters and lies to his wife; an older cop who tries to warn the family from moving in; a professor of the occult who tries to explain the weird symbology in the films to Ellison; and a young, annoying cop who ends up cracking the code and telling Ellison his family is the next set of victims for this curse. As my friend said "Are we watching a movie about a movie?" and "Is this movie fucking with us"? Sadly, it was not fucking with was just a bad, cliched movie. Feel free to skip, or watch while mocking.

Grade: C-

Little Children

Little Children is a movie I saw many years ago and recently rewatched. Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, it's about suburban ennui. Kate Winslet plays Sarah, a stay-at-home mom who clearly regrets her choices and resents her daughter and philandering husband. She meets Brad (Patrick Wilson), a stay-at-home dad whom the other moms on the playground dub "the Prom King". Brad and Sarah begin an affair.

Meanwhile, a sexual offender, Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley, excellent in this difficult role), moves back in with his mother after serving time for indecent exposure. Ronnie provides a convenient scapegoat for the neighborhood and in particular, Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), a washed up former cop who is looking for someone to hurt.

Fans of Perrotta's novels will enjoy this film, with its moral ambiguity and simultaneous empathy and disgust for the human condition. That's kind of Perrotta's jam: his books are filled with unlikable, but highly empathetic characters. Little Children is the kind of film that asks you to feel bad for a pedophile while still knowing he's sick and a danger to society. If you're not a fan of movies that live in the gray area, this isn't the one for you.

Grade: B

Groundhog Day

Here's another movie--a classic, in fact--that I rewatched. It's very appropriate for These Strange Times (tm) since it's about a man living the same day over and over, which is what like feels like right now.

If you haven't seen Groundhog Day, what are you even doing? Just go watch it. The only reason I'm not giving it an "A" is that it isn't quite as funny as I remembered it being when I was a kid. But the grade is sort of irrelevant here. It's Groundhog Day and it is required watching.

Grade: B+

Good Will Hunting

And yet another movie I felt compelled to rewatch. Good Will Hunting is what I call an "autumnal" film. It's set in/around a college, the color palate is filled with browns and beiges, and it feels as comfortable and familiar as an old, unraveling sweater. Elsewhere, I've referred to it as similar to mashed potatoes: warm, comforting, and hella white.

Probably everyone knows the plot: Matt Damon is Will Hunting, a 20 year old janitor from south Boston who grew up in foster care. He's also a genius. Like, the type who can solve impossible equations and also has a photographic memory. Stellan Skarsgard is Gerald Lambeau, a math professor at Harvard who realizes Will's genius and, as a condition of not serving jail time for attacking a cop, has Will agree to study mathematics under his tutelage and see a counselor.

The only counselor who is able to deal with Will's bullshit is Sean Maguire (Robin Williams, excellent except for his non-existent Boston accent), a warm, understanding therapist who has issues of his own. He was also Lambeau's college roommate and is someone Lambeau looks down on because he didn't live up to his potential.

So, these two men basically go to war for Will's talent and soul: Maguire wants Will to choose the life he will lead and knows that forcing him into a box will push him away; Lambeau wants to essentially require Will to use his considerable talents in a high-paying government job. He is sickened at the idea of Will "wasting his talent" and being told "failure is an option". This is a tough movie for anyone with "Tiger parents" to watch. Hell, I felt some old resentment towards my parents rising up as I watched it and, overall, I have a good relationship with them.

Other than the fact that this movie is nearly 100% male and white, Good Will Hunting holds up relatively well. It's a bit cliche and over-the-top, but it still works well as a comfort food movie. And the soundtrack, featuring many songs by Elliot Smith, is bitchin'.

Grade: B

Friday, May 29, 2020

"Look at all these stupid cunts" -- a Ghost World retrospective

Movie: Ghost World

So, I randomly decided to rewatch Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World last night since it's on the Criterion Channel. Five minutes in, I knew I had to allot a special review just to this dark, hilarious, depressing masterpiece.

Ghost World is a movie that takes me right back to late high school/early college. A time where I was technically an adult, but still a naive baby. I loved cinema, I thought I was smarter than everyone else, despite the fact that I, to paraphrase Cher Horowitz, was a virgin who was too scared to drive on highways. Ghost World really speaks to the precocious and naive among us. As Enid and Rebecca move beyond high school--a mini-universe that allows them to gloat about being better than everyone else--to the real world, they are faced with the tough realities that actually no one is special and making fun of people doesn't feel all that good in the end.

For those who haven't seen Ghost World or read the graphic novel by Dan Clowes, it's a pretty simple plot: Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are best friends who graduate high school. They don't plan to go to college. Enid is one part hipster, one part punk, and two parts clearly depressed. Rebecca could be called "basic", but of the two she's more prepared to grow up, find a job, and become an adult.

Enid and Rebecca see an ad in the personals and decide to do the early-aughts version of catfishing: they call the guy who placed the ad and pretend to be the blonde he "had a moment" with. Then they wait and spy on the poor guy as he shows up at the restaurant and drinks a milkshake by himself before leaving. This is Seymour, a sad forty-something (or thirty-something? Steve Buscemi plays Seymour and the dude was born looking old so who knows how old this character is) whose main joy in life is collecting old blues and jazz records.

Despite the catfishing incident, Enid makes tentative steps to befriend Seymour. She buys a blues record from him and ends up loving it. The closer she gets to Seymour, the more she pushes Rebecca away.

But Ghost World isn't a romance and it isn't a happy movie. There are a lot of different messages to take away from the film. It's about the limits of non-conformity. It's about how life goes on whether you decide to participate or not. It's about how people who are hurt hurt other people, even if they ultimately feel shitty doing it. In short: it's a very misanthropic film that also captures some very true (if not flattering) realities about people. People are selfish, confused, lonely. People who are outsiders still think they're better than other outsiders.

In short, 20 year old Jenny was like "inject that shit right into my veeeeiiinnnns".

But there is a lot of beautiful moments in Ghost World as well: the opening sequence where Enid dances along to a wacky Bollywood movie. The dude with the nun-chucks who hangs out at the local convenience mart and says shit like "It's America, dude, learn the rules!" (I thought this was the funniest/best line in the movie back in college...still do). Josh, the sweet guy Enid and Rebecca like to tease--played by Brad Renfro, a promising actor who died too young. The CLOTHES everyone wears.

Ghost World, in my opinion, holds up twenty years later. Despite the fact that we have Tinder instead of personal ads, smartphones instead of the landlines Enid and Rebecca use, and that Thora Birch has fallen off the face of the earth while ScarJo is a superstar (a fucking crime, in my opinion), we still live in Ghost World. And even though I am no longer a virgin, no longer scared to drive on highways, and only *somewhat* think I'm better/smarter than others, Ghost World speaks to the person I am deep down inside--something essential that hasn't changed in 20 years. And if you're a fan of this film, I think you'll find that it still accurately reflects the sick, sad, yet beautiful world we live in.

Grade: A+

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The COVID Diaries--Part 6

Movies: various

Here is what I am watching (so far) during the quarantine for COVID-19.

Velvet Buzzsaw

This Netflix original film was a happy surprise for me. A friend of mine who is a fellow horror-lover recommended it and I was not disappointed. Directed by Dan Gilroy, Velvet Buzzsaw is a horror-satire set in the Miami's high art scene. Jake Gyllenhaal plays art critic Morf Vanderwalt, a man whose negative art review can make the difference between a piece selling for millions or gathering dust in a storage facility. Morf's best friend and sometimes lover, Josephina (Zawe Ashton) works for Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), owner of Haze Galleries. Josephina comes across an unexpected windfall in the form of hundreds of eerie paintings left behind by a resident in her apartment building whom she finds dead in the stairwell one night. The old man is Vetril Dease, and Josephina rescues (steals) his paintings from his apartment before the authorities can come and destroy them--which was the instruction Dease left in his will.

Both Morf and Rhodora are enraptured by Dease's artwork. Other art world folks, such as Jon Dondon, (Tom Sturridge), a rival gallery owner, and Gretchen (Toni Collette), an art curator, get wind of the Dease paintings and try to get in on what appears to be a winning lottery number in the art world.

But when strange occurrences start piling up (I'll leave it pretty vague), Morf begins to research Dease and his discoveries are shocking. Morf begins to lose his mind as he is drawn deeper into the horrific backstory and strange power Dease's art seems to have over others. Recommended for horror lovers, especially those of indie horror movies.

Grade: A-

The Green Inferno

*Loud sigh* Oh, The Green Inferno. More proof that Eli Roth can't direct for shit. I remember being really disappointed in Roth's Cabin Fever. Well, The Green Inferno is no better than Cabin Fever and arguably much worse. Inspired by the controversial cannibal films of the 1970s and 80s, such as Cannibal Holocaust, you can only imagine how the lives of indigenous people are handled in Roth's sophomoric and extremely white hands. I'll say it right off the bat: this movie is racist as fuck. It also, very interestingly, happens to be about white saviorism. So it manages to both condemn white saviors while also banking on the most extreme and unflattering stereotypes about non-white people.

The plot: a bunch of "woke" college students, including protagonist Justine (Lorena Izzo), decide to travel to the Amazon to protest the bulldozing of a chunk of land inhabited by the Yajes tribe, which has pretty much been untouched by outside civilization indefinitely. They do this in the stupidest, whitest manner possible by following the lead of hot guy Alejandro (Ariel Levy) who essentially puts a bunch of lives in danger to make a name for himself. Once they do the protest, they get in a tiny plane out of the Amazon, it crashes, and the survivors are captured by the Yajes. This is where the fun (and racism) truly begin.

Surprise, surprise, the tribe is a bunch of violent cannibals. They also practice female genital mutilation, which Justine conveniently had a class about earlier in the film, making FGM the most inappropriate "Chekov's gun" ever. The first thing the Yajes do is is slowly dismember Jonah (Aaron Burns), the "fat guy" of the group, and roast the poor sumbitch and eat him.

I'll give The Green Inferno this: it certainly is effective at "horror". The grisly and creative violence makes one feel a sense of horror, as does the communication gap between prisoners and captors. But otherwise, the film is just a mess. The acting is terrible, the dialogue is inane, the racism is so blatant that one wonders if Roth was making a point (and then one remembers that this is just a shitty Eli Roth torture porn movie and the guy ain't a critical race theorist). The Green Inferno is just gross and has no payoff. While I could see someone making an argument that Roth uses gross stereotypes to actually mock and jeer at white people, he does so with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel. There are better horror movies and better racial satire films--seek those out instead.

Grade: C-


Todd Phillips' Joker is A Lot. Joker is basically the movie version of a very intelligent 15 year old boy who reads philosophy but hasn't had any actual life experiences or hardships. On the one hand, you're kind of impressed, but on the other you just can't help but roll your eyes.

There was no way to go into Joker without a pre-formed opinion based on the number of think pieces on this film. I will say that Joker wasn't quite the celebration of toxic white masculinity I thought it was going to be. It's a condemnation of rich, white men who keep "everyone" (in this case, a poor, mentally ill, white man) down. So, in a way, Joker's heart is in the right place. It's "politics" are correct. The movie says: rich people fuck over society and that leads to desperate people engaging in violence. Correct. But like The Green Inferno above, Phillips decides to hit you over the head with a hammer with this message instead of trying to say anything interesting that we didn't already know. This is a film that tells you rather than shows you. Despite its grittiness, Joker is *very much* a superhero/villain story in that its morals and worldview are simple and obvious.

Joaquin Phoenix is undeniably great in this film. He is the only reason to see this movie. Any fan of Phoenix knows that he plays men at the extremes of life very well, and his character, Arthur Fleck, is at the very edge. Arthur is extremely mentally ill, has no support system, little money, and a childhood filled with violence and rejection.  We are meant to empathize with Arthur and even root for him. He is a man "abandoned by society" who finally snaps.

Joker reminded me of a more nuanced and more high quality version of the 2004 movie Crash. This issue with Crash is that in its quest to explore complex race relations, it ended up having the depth of a required training module you might complete at work. It proposed the radical idea that sometimes good people do bad things and sometimes bad people do good things, while erasing any historical and cultural context that might serve to explain what racism is, why it exists, why it can only go one way (at least at a systemic level), and why it's so damn hard to overcome societally. Joker is the same, but with masculinity and class. But if you're looking for nuance, perhaps a super villain movie isn't the place to look.

I recommend Joker if you can see it for free/on streaming.

Grade: B-

But I'm a Cheerleader

I've seen But I'm a Cheerleader multiple times but have never reviewed it. I rewatched it the other day and it is a masterpiece. Directed by Jamie Babbit and clearly inspired by John Waters (it even stars John Waters' regular Mink Stole), BIAC is a queer cultural hallmark.

Natasha Lyonne plays Megan, a cheerleader who harbors a secret that she doesn't hide very well. Her parents and friends suspect she's gay since she has pictures of women in her locker and is vegetarian. She is packed off and sent to "True Directions", a gay conversion camp lead by Mary (Cathy Moriarty) and Mike (RuPaul, out of drag).

The girls and boys of True Directions are forced into comically stereotypical "straight" situations with the girls vacuuming and the boys trying to learn to fix a car. But secretly, as horny teens often do, they are hooking up behind the counselor's backs.

But I'm a Cheerleader is the rare film that fully embraces its campiness but also has a serious and heartfelt message. Megan gets very close to Graham (Clea Duvall) and both of them have so much to lose by being together, which makes their romance all the sweeter.

If you haven't seen But I'm a Cheerleader, this is not one to miss. Panned when it first came out, the film is now a rare cult classic that is also just a darn good movie. And I'm being straight with you there.

Grade: A


Sunday, May 17, 2020

The COVID Diaries--Part 5

Movies: various

Here is what I am watching (so far) during the quarantine for COVID-19.



You'd think a movie about an orgy that includes piss play, whipping, and rimming would be more scintillating, but as most people discover by their 30s, sex in a vacuum isn't all that interesting.

Director Albert Serra's Liberté is literally a 2+ hour film in which a group of libertines who have been cast out from the court of Louis XVI spend the night fucking in the woods. Reviews have fallen on two sides when it comes to this film: "provocative", "visionary", "the most explicit film ever made about the 18th century" OR "boring", "miserable", "pedestrian". I fall on the latter side of the camp: Liberté is boring as fuck.

Not only is there no plot, no character development, and minimal dialogue, the sex isn't even all that radical or explicit. I've seen more action in a stag film from the 1920s. There are plenty of dicks, but they're all flaccid and then men in this movie are ugly as sin (the women are gorgeous, of course). In a way, this film is truly a work of the Marquis de Sade come to life in that it's basically just disgusting and not titillating in the slightest (and I'm not judging. I have nothing against explicit sex or violence in films...but I loathe being bored by a movie).

As a small mercy, most of sex appears to be consensual, even the violent shit. There are discussions of raping animals (yep) and kidnapping women from convents and "making them feel Christ's abandonment" through sex, but thank god the stuff we see on screen (and it's hard to tell if the actors are really having sex or just simulating it) is punctured with verbal consent.

I do not recommend Liberté except to film buffs like me who are extremely curious. I can recommend 10 sexier films off the top of my head if you're looking for a thrill. Liberté is empty, soulless, boring, and a waste of time.

Grade: D (for limp dickz)


Behind the Burly Q

This 2010 documentary directed by Leslie Zemeckis (wife of Robert Zemeckis), looks at the "Golden Age" of burlesque, from about the 30s through the 50s. Stars of burlesque, such as Tempest Storm, April March, Dixie Evans, and Blaze Starr are interviewed, as are spouses and children of burlesque performers (including musicians and comedians).

While this is all very interesting, this is very much a white and Euro-centered look at burlesque. There is literally one mention of a black burlesque troupe, which is dismissed as "it didn't last long" and a few details about female impersonators. This really annoyed me because even if there weren't many burlesquers of color during the golden age of burlesque (big if), the art form  borrowed (stole) from non-white, non-western cultures, which rarely get their due. Plus, you have folks like Josephine Baker who most definitely contributed to the art of erotic dancing. I mean, Baker's banana skirt act is more famous than any golden age burlesque act I know of!

So, while this is a fine and interesting doc, it is sorely lacking. It also relies heavily on personal anecdotes and feels a bit all over the place. I did appreciate the inclusion of comedians and musicians, in addition to dancers, as these folks played a huge role in early burlesque shows.

Grade: B-


Oh Hello on Broadway

Oh, Hello is not, strictly speaking, a movie. It's a recorded broadway show starring John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, who play septuagenarians George St. Geegland and Gil Faizon. Friends, roommates for 40 years in a rent-controlled Brooklyn apartment, and aspiring artists (George is a novelist and Gil an actor), the two men bicker, banter, and share a love of tuna fish and pronouncing words incorrectly.

If anyone ever asks "do white people have 'culture'"?, show them Oh, Hello. It's the whitest fucking thing I've seen in ages. It even includes famous white people Steve Martin and Matthew Broderick as guest stars!

Grade: A-


Killing Them Softly

I had heard that this neo-noir crime movie starring Brad Pitt was an exceptionally good film, but for some reason it was never at the top of my to-watch list. Well, I went ahead and watched it and it is a gritty, funny, violent delight. Not as epic as The Departed, but much more funny and irreverent, Killing The Softly is the kind of film that sucks you in and makes you forget time is passing (my favorite kind of film).

After two dim-witted criminals, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), hold up a mafia poker game, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a well-respected hitman, is called in to take out the men responsible. Cogan knows Johnny Amato, the mob guy who hired Frankie and Russell, and he has a rule about killing people he knows because "they beg, they piss themselves, they call for their get embarrassing". Cogan prefers to "kill them softly"--quickly, from a distance, and with no time for emotions to enter the picture. So Cogan brings in another hit man, Mickey (James Gandolfini in one of his final roles) to take out Amato. Unfortunately, Mickey is more interested in fucking sex workers and drinking all day, so it's up to Cogan to take everyone out himself.

Killing Them Softly is just plain entertaining, especially if you like mafia movies. Ray Liotta is exceptionally good as Markie Trattman, the guy who runs the poker game and who ends up being quite a tragic figure in the film.

Grade: A-


Blood Feast

1963's Blood Feast is considered to be the first splatter/gore movie. Directed by the infamous Herschel Gordon Lewis, the film actually has a somewhat interesting plot. Dorothy Fremont is planning a party for her adult daughter, Suzette. She wants something unique, so she visits "Ramses Catering" run by Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold). He suggests an Egyptian Feast, which Mrs. Fremont gets excited about because Suzette loves Egyptian culture.

Unbeknownst to Mrs. Fremont, Fuad Ramses is a fucking psychopath who has been killing young women and taking their body parts. He is collecting the body parts of young women to serve in a feast dedicated to Ishtar, the Egyptian goddess of war. So Mrs. Fremont has accidentally ordered a cannibalistic feast. Meanwhile, the cops are trying to figure out who is going around killing women and taking their tongues, brains, and limbs as souvenirs.

Blood Feast is a bad movie. As in, poorly made. The acting is ATROCIOUS. It's almost as if the actors were given to directions to act poorly on purpose. However, Blood Feast will forever have its place in this history books since the gore was so extreme when the movie first came out. In today's world, it's PG-13. The blood is all fire-engine red and clearly looks like red paint. The most gruesome scene is when Ramses pulls out a young woman's tongue, which I gotta say made me flinch a little bit. So, it's a bad movie, but you gotta respect what it was going for. Only recommended to horror aficionados.

Grade: D+

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The COVID Diaries--Part 4

Movies and shows: various

Here is what I am watching (so far) during the quarantine for COVID-19.

Bunny Lake is Missing

This 1965 film directed by the prolific Otto Preminger is about every parent's worst nightmare: what if your child disappeared? But it goes a step further than that: what if you child, along with all evidence that they ever existed, disappeared? Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) is a single mother who moves to London with her brother, Steven (Keir Dullea) and 4 year old daughter, Bunny. She drops Bunny off at her new school, but no teachers seem to be around, so the cook offers to keep an eye on Bunny until one of the teachers is available. Since Ann is late for an appointment, she begrudgingly accepts. Cleverly, we the audience never see Bunny during this interaction.

But later that day when Ann goes to pick up her daughter, not only is she not there, no teachers or students remember seeing her. The police are called and when they go to Ann's flat, all of Bunny's toys and clothes are gone. In addition, brother Steven lets it slip that Ann had a childhood imaginary friend. That friend's name? Bunny. So, by now the police are wondering if they should call for backup for for a psychiatrist.

Since the audience hasn't seen Bunny, *we* don't know what to believe either. And a shocking twist in the final third throughs the entire film for a loop. However, I have to say that Bunny Lake is Missing was both a little over the top and a tad forgettable for me. I sometimes struggle with enjoying "older" films because some (not all) of them feel stilted, both in acting and dialogue. So, I'm giving this film a solid, dignified B-. It wasn't bad, but I probably won't watch it again.

Grade: B-

Little Fires Everywhere

This Hulu series, based on the novel by Celeste Ng, is an intensely powerful examination of motherhood, race, class, and privilege. Artist Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) move to Shaker Heights, Ohio where they encounter Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) who offers to let them move into her rental property. Pearl becomes enamored with the Richardson's wealth and large family, with whom she becomes close. Mia is skeptical, especially when Elena condescendingly offers to pay Mia to be her housekeeper.

Things explode when Mia discovers that Elena's friend Linda's adopted baby is actually the same baby her coworker, Bebe Chow, had to abandon at a fire station the previous winter when she couldn't afford to feed her (and the baby refused to nurse). Mia decides to help Bebe go to court to win back her child, to the horror of Linda and Elena. Meanwhile, Pearl and the Richardson kids have their own drama going on.

I obviously can't get into everything here, but I will point out a couple things:

1) the show's plot differs somewhat from the book (I haven't read the book, but I read a plot synopsis), and in the book Mia is Asian and Elena is white. In the show, Mia is black and Elena is white, so there is still a race difference but it is tweaked to show the unique relationship between upper-class, "liberal" white women (Witherspoon is amazing in this sort of role) with less fortunate black women (Washington sears in a blistering performance).

2) the show is pretty good at making no one (and everyone) the "bad guy". We might think, "well Elena is just a privileged bitch"...and she is! But! Her backstory reveals the choices, good and bad, that lead her to be who she is today. Likewise, we might assume Mia is always in the right. But she's not perfect either, and has made some choices that jeopardize her relationship with her own daughter. Likewise, with the Bebe and Linda--it's easy to sympathize with both women, who are both in agony at the thought of losing the baby. I love these kinds of movies and shows that are able to explore explosive topics such as racism, classism, and motherhood without resorting to stereotypes and simple answers.

3) That said, the only thing keeping this show from a full-hearted "A" rating is that it gets a little over the top near the end (lots of screaming and tears). I feel that it could have been a little more subtle and still packed a powerful punch. Even so, I consider Little Fires Everywhere required viewing.

Grade: A-

The Plot Against America

Another series based on a book, The Plot Against America follows an alternative timeline in American history. What if American aviation hero (and anti-semite/Nazi sympathizer) Charles Lindbergh ran against and beat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election and then decided that America would not become involved with WWII?

The series focuses on the Levin family: Herman, Bess (Zoe Kazan, award-worthy here), Sandy, and Philip. They are a middle-class Jewish family who live comfortably among Jewish neighbors. But when Lindy becomes the populist president, their lives are shaken up. What's more, Bess's sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), becomes romantically involved with Rabbi Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) who is a supporter of Lindy and thus helps the anti-semite president soften his image among non-Jews (think about the few public people of color, like Candace Owens, who support Trump).

While the book by Philip Roth came out in 2004, during the presidency of a war-mongering conservative president, the series feels much more spooky and prescient right now during the reign of our very own populist president who gives Nazis and racists legitimacy. The episode about election night, when die-hard liberal Herman Levin listens to the radio as Lindbergh beats Roosevelt, brings back terrible memories from election night 2016.

This series is beautiful to look at, with all the details of the early 1940s on point. I have to say that series was a little more slow-moving and emotionally muted than I thought it would be, but it really picks up in the last two episodes, especially with a plot line about a young Jewish boy forced to move to Kentucky where he and his mother are vulnerable targets of hate. A scene where Beth talks to young Seldon (Jacob Laval whom you might recognize from John Mulaney's Sack Lunch Bunch) long distance on the phone trying to calm him down when his mother is late coming home from work is devastating and hopefully will net Kazan an Emmy.

Grade: A-

Lady Macbeth

Call it "Anglican Psycho". Lady Macbeth is about a young woman, Katherine (Florence Pugh), married off to a wealthy landowner who not only couldn't give two shits about his wife, he can't even fuck her properly in order to produce an heir. He also forbids her to leave the house, forcing her into a life of boredom and restlessness.

But Katherine is no wilting rose. Quite the opposite. In today's world, she might well be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, but in the time period of this film--1865--she's just a woman who will do whatever it takes, including kill in cold blood, to get what she wants.

I had mixed feelings about this film. Overall, it is good and well-made. But by the end of the film, you're kind of left wondering what the point was. I do think that, whether the film was intended to be this or not, Lady Macbeth is a sort of stylized horror movie. Because this woman does nothing but hurt and kill others, beyond the point where it would be justified because she's a woman in 1865 and has no other power.

What's more distressing is that there are a number of characters of color in this film: Anna, the maid; Katherine's lover, who has an ambiguous ethnicity (the actor, Cosmo Jarvis, is Armenian); and a woman and son who show up claiming that the young son, Teddy, is Katherine's husband's ward. And Katherine fucks alllll of these people over. Granted, she doesn't just hurt people of color--she harms people, men and women, white and of color, indiscriminately (basically, whoever gets in her way). But it's disturbing to see a wealthy white woman screw over people who have much less power than her without the film commenting on this. Unless, again, the point of the film is simply that Katherine is a psychopath. The title, referencing Shakespeare's infamous Lady Macbeth, suggests Katherine will do anything for power. But the way the film plays out reveals a woman who is far less calculating and just bored and lacking empathy.

Grade: B


When Alexander Payne's Downsizing came out in theaters, I think a lot of viewers were pissed that it pulled a bit of a bait and switch. The trailer promises a hilarious comedy that takes place in a not too distant future where science has found a way to shrink humans down to five inches tall. This is helpful for the environment, but also irresistible to average people who want to experience a life of wealth and leisure, since at that size, $1.00 buys $1,000.00 worth of stuff.

And that's exactly how the movie begins. Matt Damon is Paul Safranek, an occupational therapist in Nebraska who convinces his wife, Audrey (Kristin Wiig) to "downsize" after his buddy, Dave (Jason Sudekis) and his wife do it and Dave points out that a middle-class salary translates to millions of dollars when you "go get small". But when Paul wakes up after the procedure, he finds out that Audrey declined the procedure at the last minute and has decided to stay big and leave Paul.

This leads Paul to move into an apartment (albeit a pretty sweet one) since he can no longer afford his mini-mansion. There, he meets Dusan (Christoph Waltz), his upstairs neighbor and European party-boy, who, in turn leads Paul to meet Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), Dusan's cleaning lady. Ngoc Lan was a Vietnamese political activist shrunk against her will. Now she lives in the slums outside Leisureland (the premiere small community where Paul lives), works as a cleaning lady, and by night brings all the impoverished and sick people in the slums food and medicine (often stolen from the people she cleans for). When she finds out that Paul is an occupational therapist, she drags him back with her as "doctor" to help her sick friends.

Long story short, Paul, who thinks his life is ruined because he got small and his wife left him and he lost his license to practice occupational therapy, finds new meaning and joy to life in helping those less fortunate. Honestly, this is the most open-hearted and optimistic Alexander Payne film I've seen.

The themes are pretty obvious (even though middle-class people who get small also get rich, poor people just get small and stay poor; no one gives a shit about the environment, they just want money and to party), but the concept is so unique that even the one-the-nose social messages seem fresh and interesting. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed (and was emotionally touched by) this film, especially since it got middling reviews when it came out. I highly recommend it!

Grade: A-

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci's pitch-black satire about, well, the death of Stalin, is hilarious and absurd. Starring a bunch of British and American actors playing Stalin and his inner circle, all while using their own accents, this film feels like a Monty Python joint (it even stars Michael Palin!).

Taking place in 1953, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) croaks, forcing his council, made up of Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and others (but fuck, these people's names are hard to spell, so I'm stopping there) to figure out how to carry on without him. They elect Georgy to step in for Stalin, but both Beria and Khruschev are hoping to pull power away from the other. Beria is true believer in Stalin (and also delights in rounding up traitors and killing them...and, uh, raping young girls. He's the Big Bad) and continues to threaten his comrades in the inner circle, even though technically the man who enforces such blind groupthink is dead. Nicky Khrushev, on the other hand, is the more liberal reformer who wants to end the round-ups and killings. So, he works with the other men in Stalin's inner circle to take out Beria.

The plot isn't too difficult to follow, although it is somewhat difficult to explain in a review, so I'll stop there and just say that The Death of Stalin finds a way to make light of the horrific monsters who were collectively responsible for the deaths of millions of innocents (Hitler always gets the glory of the worst genocidal maniac of the 20th century, but Stalin was a worthy competitor). Just as films like Four Lions, Jojo Rabbit, and The Interview take evil people and make it safe to laugh at them, The Death of Stalin walks that fine line between laughing at evil men and humanizing them. I mean, granted, they *were* all too human in their greed and power-thirsty ways, but movies like this need to make sure they never tip into suggesting that these men might be, you know, ok guys. I think Iannucci does a fabulous job walking this line--he always presents these men as inherently bad people, even if they're doing and saying silly things.

I honestly feel like I need to watch this film again to fully appreciate it. I was coming at it from the perspective of someone who knows almost nothing about Russian history, so I had some difficulty keeping up. Those who are more familiar with the history of Soviet Russia will likely enjoy it even more than I did. But the central idea that absolute loyalty to the party remains a relevant one today. Even folks who are on the left should keep in mind that revolutions don't stop with the killing of the "bad guys"--soon enough, you'll be the one facing the bullet or the noose.

Grade: B+

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The COVID Diaries--Part 3

Movies: various

Here's what I'm watching during the quarantine for  COVID-19.



[Trigger warning: discussion of violence, child death, and genital mutilation]

Anyone who knows anything about Lars von Trier's 2009 film Antichrist knows why the film is so infamous. In addition to a self-disemboweling fox that says "chaos reigns" and a scene where an unconscious man is masturbated to completion and ejaculates blood, there is a full-blown self-clitoredectomy via scissors--and yes, you see everything.

An average person may ask "Why!? Why, God, why!?" But cinema buffs will simply answer: Lars von Trier. This is what he does, man. Antichrist is perhaps his most extreme film in terms of showing violence, but it is par for the course in terms of showing extreme emotion, degradation of women, and taking the audience to their limits.

Here's the thing: I fucking love Lars von Trier. The man himself is a horrible piece of shit by all accounts, but his movies are, in my opinion, very good and unafraid to really make you feel something. I would only recommend his films Breaking the Waves and Melancholia to the uninitiated since they are *slightly* more accessible.

Von Trier's films focus on women suffering* and Antichrist is no different. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe (both amazing in this movie) play a couple (unnamed) who lost their toddler son (they were having crazy monkey sex and the kid fell through a window, which adds a layer of guilt to the whole thing). The husband is a psychologist and is convinced his grief-stricken wife will improve if they go out to a remote cabin in the woods called Eden where she spent the previous summer working on her thesis. Well, things don't go as planned and eventually the woman, and all of nature, turn on the man.

A big idea in the film is that women and nature are both inherently evil. The woman's thesis was on "gynocide"--basically, the torture and murder of women throughout history. But her work on the thesis convinces her that women ARE, in fact, evil...and eventually this plays out in reality as she attacks the man and tries to kill him. In addition, the film touches on severe depression and grief and the ways is can destroy a person if not handled correctly.

*You may be asking, "Jenny, why do you, a feminist, like the work of a director who focuses so much on women suffering?" I answer: because I personally feel that there is more to these films than the overlay of misogyny. I think by portraying extreme misogyny, von Trier (who is arguably a misogynist himself) reveals how evil such hatred and violence is and, ultimately, how women (as a group) cannot be kept down and will always prevail in the face of it. That said, I understand why some folks avoid von Trier's films like the plague. They are not easy things to digest.

In conclusion: Antichrist is a beautiful film that depicts ugly things. But if you can get past the actual imagery to the ideas they represent, I think you will find that this film is an intense meditation on grief, guilt, and healing. Also: don't watch it unless you know exactly what you're getting into.

Grade: B+


The Night Porter

[Trigger warning: Nazis]

Here's another movie that is very good, yet hard to digest. Italian director Liliana Cavani's 1974 film stars (a very, very good) Dirk Bogarde as Max, a former Nazi SS officer who works as a night porter in a hotel in Vienna. One day, a well-regarded orchestra conductor checks into the hotel with his wife, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling, also great). Lucia was the daughter of a socialist during the second World War and was sent to a concentration camp, where she became the plaything/lover/victim of Max.

Max is startled and terrified to see Lucia and she is shocked to see him as well. The film shows their "relationship" in brief flashbacks and reveals how Max tormented Lucia and then became her protector, in a way. The climax of the film is an infamous scene where Lucia, wearing only an SS cap, pants, and suspenders, entertains a group of SS officers by singing Marlene Dietrich's "If I Could Make a Wish". As a reward, Max gives her a box containing the head of a prisoner who had been bullying her.

Lucia and Max almost immediately fall back into the dynamics of their relationship, which could be called sadomasochistic but minus the "safe, sane, and consensual" part. Well, perhaps it is consensual (as Lucia argues to another ex-Naxi), but it is hardly sane.

Watching Lucia and Max's affair is, to put it lightly, difficult. The chemistry between Bogarde and Rampling is off the fucking charts, which causes the viewer to empathize with them and even root for them, against all reason and logic. However, the two lovers are doomed. Max is part of a circle of ex-Nazis who are keen on "filing" (i.e. murdering) any witnesses to their war crimes and atrocities and Lucia is no exception. When Max decides to choose her over them, he seals their fate.

Cavani's film is considered both a great work of art and a low-brow piece of exploitative trash. It is perhaps the Citizen Kane of Nazisploitation films which had a big moment in the 60s and 70s (and live on today in films such as Inglourious Basterds). I only recommend this film to folks who can parse the absolute evil of Nazis with a story in which a Nazi is still the bad guy, yet is humanized. Not everyone wants to watch that, for good reason, especially today. But in general, Cavani's The Night Porter is a challenging, well-acted film.

Grade: A-


Certified Copy

Now here is a film I really thought I'd like more than I did, especially since it consistently appears on lists of "top films of the 21st century" and "top films of the 2010s". Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami directs Juliette Binoche (never not great) and William Shimell in a story about two strangers whose relationship changes dramatically over the course of one day.

Shimell plays James Miller, a writer whose new book, Certified Copy, argues that authenticity and originality in art are meaningless since everything is a copy of something and that a well-done copy of a famous work of art is as good as, perhaps even better, than the original. He meets Binoche (not given a name in this film) in Tuscany during a book talk and the two meet up and go for a drive. They discuss the ideas in the book and even argue a bit.

While in a coffee shop, a woman mistakes the two for a married couple. Binoche plays along, saying they've been married for 15 years. She tells James about the confusion and he plays along too. But when the two leave, they continue to act and talk as if they in fact ARE a married couple. They argue about their son's behavior, about how he fell asleep on their 15th wedding anniversary, and about other things couples argue about.

That's basically it--that's the movie. It's really less about the plot and more about the ideas, which boil down to: truth is in the eye of the beholder. The mystery of the film is: are these two actually married and just playing a weird, flirtatious game pretending to be strangers? The answer is: it doesn't matter. The truth is what you make of it. Just as Miller argues in his book that a copy is no worse than an original since an original is copying something or someone else, the film Certified Copy argues that inauthenticity is the same as authenticity if others perceive it to be true.

The film is peppered with weird little examples of this. For example, there is a scene in which it seems like an older man is talking down to and being quite mean to a woman, his wife. But then he turns around and it is revealed that he is actually on the phone, yelling at someone, and not at his wife. Another example is when Binoche mentions offhand that her sister loves costume jewelry and then later, while freshening up in a bathroom, pulls some costume earring out of her purse and puts them on.

Overall, I enjoyed this film. But I also found it a bit boring and meandering. It didn't suck me in the way I thought it would. And, this will amuse my readers, even though I can watch movies about Nazi love affairs and genital mutilation, as shown above, I really struggle to watch couples fight. It grates on me in a way more extreme content doesn't. While the "fighting" is usually playful in Certified Copy, there was enough of it that it got on my nerves big time.

Grade: B


4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Day

[Trigger warning: abortion]

I'm just watching all the cheery movies during the quarantine, huh? Cristian Mungiu's 2007 film takes place in 1987 Romania--not a very cheery place to live given the Communist government's extreme restrictions on its citizens, but an especially bad time and place to live if you're a pregnant woman who doesn't want to be pregnant.

University students and roommates Otilia and Gabita are planning on procuring an illegal abortion for Gabita. Gabita is meek and weak, so Otilia ends up doing to bulk of the work: borrowing money to fund the expensive, underground procedure, trying to book a hotel, and meeting with the abortionist, Mr. Bebe.

Mr. Bebe is extremely unhappy to find out that the women couldn't get a room in the hotel he wanted (presumably he's known at certain hotels and can be assured the workers won't rat him out to the authorities). He's further infuriated to find out that Gabita is well into her 4th month of pregnancy and not, as she told on the phone, only two months pregnant. Because of these hassles, and because he's a fucking despicable pig, Bebe makes it clear he expects to have sex with both women in exchange for the abortion. They go along with it.

The movie pauses to follow Otilia to her boyfriend's house for supper while Gabita recovers in the hotel room. At dinner, the older guests talk about the "good old days" when younger people respected their elders. Afterward, Otilia returns to help dispose of the fetus.

Obviously, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is not a happy film. It's a movie that shows how a corrupt government which limits people's reproductive choices (as well as career choices and freedom of speech, as Romania did during the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu. Communism isn't all that fucking great, folks) forces people into dangerous and degrading situations. I'm not just shitting on Romania here, because *obviously* it can/did/currently is happening in the United States. Anyone who is anti-abortion should consider the lengths people will go to end a pregnancy and maybe rethink their strategies.

But it's also a film about women taking care of other women, no matter the cost. And not in a feel good "sisterhood" type way, but with a grim sense that this is how women survive: by fucking an abortionist so their friend's life isn't ruined. Otilia is exasperated by Gabita's lies and weakness. She is forced to be the strong one. But women before her and after her have done worse to help a friend in need.

Grade: B+


The Hypnotist 

Anna Biller's The Love Witch is one of my favorite movies. It's a sort of homage/parody of films of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, filmed in brilliant technicolor and with purposefully "classic" acting (I'm not sure exactly how to describe it, you just have to watch it). So I was delighted to see one of her earlier films on The Criterion Channel. The Hypnotist is a 45 minute film that is obviously parodying thrillers/film noirs of the mid-twentieth century. The set design, clothing, and use of technicolor could easily fool an uninformed viewer into thinking the movie was made 60 or 70 years ago.

However, unlike The Love Witch, which had a playful take on feminism and femme fatales, The Hypnotist doesn't really care to be anything but ridiculous and weird. Which still makes for an entertaining movie. An old, extremely wealthy man, Mr. Cooke, dies and stipulates in his will that in order to inherit his money, his three adult children--Charles, Beatrice, and William--must live together in the family mansion for the rest of their lives. Sadly, the Cooke children all hate each other, especially hard-drinking Beatrice and snide, effeminate Charles. So Charles hires one Dr. Schadenfreude ostensibly to serve as psychoanalyst to the Cooke's sickly mother, but actually to declare his siblings insane so that he, Charles, can commit them to an institution and keep all the inheritance for himself.

This overheated, intentionally poorly-acted (so, in a weird way, I guess it was well-acted!), cheesy short film was a hoot. Not nearly as good as The Love Witch, but it shows Biller's roots as a wildy creative visionary director.

Grade: B+

Dr. Schadenfreude at your service.