Saturday, January 9, 2021

The COVID Diaries--Part 13

Movies: various

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


Possessor is a science-fiction/horror film directed by Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg. Both Cronenbergs are notable for their emphasis on body horror in their movies, and Cronenberg Jr. here masterfully follows in his dad's footsteps while also making his own unique mark.

Andrea Riseborough plays Tasya Vos, an assassin who kills by taking over another person's (a "host") brain via implant. Her latest assignment is to kill CEO John Parse (Sean Bean) as well as his daughter, Ava (Tuppence Middleton), by using Ava's fiance, Colin (Christopher Abbott) as the host. Almost immediately, things start going wrong: Ava knows something is up with Colin and Colin's brain begins to fight back against Tasya's presence and influence. All of this leads to several intensely gory scenes. This film is not for the faint of heart.

All the acting is excellent, but special recognition of Chris Abbott is due, as he must play Colin, Tasya-as-Colin, and Colin-fighting-Tasya for control. 

Possessor shows that when it comes to talent, vision, and images that will get under your skin, the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree.

Grade: A-


Speaking of Cronenbergs, I watched Videodrome, which is Cronenberg Sr.'s defining film, for the first time this year. I was quite surprised at what the film got away with showing back in 1983.

It's hard to really describe what this film is about. Basically, James Woods plays Max Renn, the president of a UHF TV channel which specializes in sex and gore. He comes across footage from a show that appears to be out of Malaysia which is literally snuff torture porn. Upon researching the show, he discovers it is actually being broadcast out of Pittsburgh and it is indeed real footage of torture and murder.

It turns out that by watching the show, Videodrome, viewers become infected with a malignant brain tumor which causes hallucinations. This is an intended consequence of viewing the show, as its creators are actually political actors aiming to control people via the airwaves. 

Confused yet? I was, and still am. Videodrome is one of those movies that you need to watch more than once *and* read some commentary on in order to fully get it. But it's an undeniably seminal work from a visionary director as well as prescient commentary about manipulation through media. That alone earns this film an "A".

Grade: A


Oculus is a mediocre horror film from director Mike Flanagan. Two children witnessed something horrible happen to their family shortly after moving into a new home. Both parents died. 11 years later, the brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), is released from psychiatric care and is ready to move on with his life. He is startled to realize that his older sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillian), is still convinced that a centuries-old mirror is responsible for what happened to her and Tim's parents when they were kids. She believes the mirror has a way of influencing people and causing them to become violent. Tim is upset to hear this because he just spent 11 years in a psychiatric hospital "unlearning" this story and accepting the fact that he killed his father in self-defense.

Kaylie wants Tim to help her prove that the mirror is supernatural. She basically steals the mirror, which was auctioned off, and takes it back to the scene of the crime: their childhood home, which is still on the market 11 years later since no one wants to buy a murder house. She sets up cameras (to catch anything ghostly or suspicious), timers (to remind her to eat, check on the cameras, etc), and a "kill switch"--a boat anchor that will swing down and destroy the mirror if a timer is not re-set every 30 minutes. Her reasoning is that the mirror will not want to be destroyed, so it will avoid influencing the siblings who then may forget to re-set the kill switch. Uh, well, things don't go as planned.

I have to say I didn't really enjoy this convoluted story, which is pretty light on scares. Mirrors can be terrifying--just ask Bloody Mary and Candyman. But the way the mirror in Oculus works is by draining the energy of those around it and also making its victims go insane and become violent. I felt like the movie was trying to throw everything at the wall to see what would stick, but the final product is forgettable.  

Grade: C

The Secret: Dare to Dream

If you're wondering what this cheesy film, based on the best-selling "self help" book by Rhonda Byrne, is doing on here, well--it was a hate-watch. My friend and I watched it together (virtually) to make fun of it. And I have to give credit where credit is due: The Secret: Dare to Dream wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.

It was still pretty bad, though. 

Starring Katie Holmes as widow and mom of three Miranda Wells and Josh Lucas as Bray Johnson (brave choice, naming a character after the sound a donkey makes), The Secret: Dare to Dream is all about the power of positive thinking. The concept behind Byrne's book is that if you just visualize what you want in life, you'll naturally attract it to you. Now, readers, I am a believer in positive thinking. I personally believe that you can reframe the stories you tell yourself and, in fact, change your life. Meaning, if you're having a shitty day, you can think about the things you are grateful for in life and your day might feel less shitty. What I don't believe is that you can visualize pizza and a pizza delivery person will arrive at your doorstep, which is literally a thing that happens in this movie.

Long story short: Miranda and her three kids live in Louisiana. Ever since her husband died in a plane crash, Miranda has been struggling emotionally and financially. The final blow comes after a tree falls on her house during a storm and she simply does not have the money to fix the roof. Random out-of-towner from Nashville, Bray Johnson, who met Miranda before the storm via a series of coincidences (yes, it's that kind of movie) offers to fix the roof himself. Miranda is not used to people being kind to her, so she is naturally suspicious (as is her rich boyfriend, Tucker, played to perfection by Jerry O'Connell). But Bray proves he is not fucking around. Also, he has a connection to Miranda's dead hubs. After a very severe misunderstanding (gotta have the Big Mis in any romance movie!), Miranda and Bray realize they are perfect for one another. 

As a romance movie, The Secret: Dare to Dream is fine. It's a typical "white, salt-of-the-earth, but not too salt-of-the-earth people falling in love" movie in the vein of Nicholas Sparks. In fact, my friend and I agreed that the final sequence, in which Miranda drives to Nashville to confess her feelings to Bray, only for Bray to already be back in Louisiana, trying to confess his feelings to her, and then the two begin driving back towards their respective states while talking on the phone and meet at a restaurant for breakfast in the middle, was actually really sweet. 

As a philosophy, however, the movie, like the book, is a bunch of mumbo jumbo and is insulting to the millions--scratch that--billions of people who live in poverty and oppression around the world and can't simply "visualize" a better tomorrow. The Secret is a load of crap based in a capitalistic mindset that is all about getting what YOU want, rather than actually working to make other people's lives less painful.

Grade: C-

Wild Things

1998's "erotic thriller" Wild Things is awful, just awful. Not only is the plot completely contrived and over-the-top with more twists than a balloon animal, the acting is shit and the sexual politics of the film cross the border from "taboo" to "unethical and possibly illegal". The only thing that redeems this film is how hilariously dumb it is, so the watcher can wring a few cheap laughs from it.

High school sex kitten Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) accuses the world's worst guidance counselor, Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillion), of rape. Her claims are backed up by local outcast Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell). However, in court Suzie renegs on her accusations and says, under oath, that the whole thing is a ruse to get revenge on Sam. Sam sues Kelly's wealthy mother and wins an 8.5 million defamation suit...

..and then it is revealed that the whole thing was a plot, concocted by Kelly, Suzie, and Sam so that they could split the money and bounce from their shitty little Florida town. This is only the first of like, 17 twists that happen in the film. I won't get into the rest of the plot because it's just too dumb and long to explain.

I will point out that Sam has a threesome with Kelly and Suzie, even though the girls are his students and *maybe* 18? Possibly 17. I mean, I know this is Florida, but come on. Wild Things suggests that this is sexy, but actually it's just gross. Hey, maybe I'm a hypocrite because one of my favorite movies, Call Me By Your Name, is about a 17 year old and a 24 year old who have sex, but I stand my my assertion that anyone who thinks Wild Things is sexy is a gross weirdo.

Grade: D+


When it comes to John Waters, I think I like the man more than I like his films. Don't get me wrong: John Waters is a genius. What he stands for ("filth is my politics, filth is my life") is greater than perhaps any of his movies. It's just that his movies are SO campy and SO over-the-top, I don't really enjoy them so much as enjoy being weirded out by them.

Cry-Baby, starring a young Johnny Depp, is one of Waters' more accessible (and family-friendly) films, as opposed to Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble. It's a satire of 1950s teen films, which often feature "troubled youth" who wear leather jackets and flip the bird at society. Depp plays Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker, the leader of a rebellious group of teens known as the "drapes" (basically, greasers). Cry-Baby catches the eye of Allison Vernon-Williams (Amy Locane), a good-girl "square". Can these two star-crossed lovers put aside their differences and come together to neck furiously in the woods? You bet they can.

Also starring Ricki Lake as Pepper, Cry-Baby's sister and teen mother of three, Traci Lords as another drape, Iggy Pop as Cry-Baby's uncle, Cry-Baby is intensely, unrelentingly campy. It almost has a feeling of pornography to it--everyone acts WAY over the top and the clothing and props (from the stereotypical black and white jailhouse outfit Cry-Baby wears while in prison to the gigantic syringes the nurses use to give the teens their vaccinations) are cartoonish. But that's just Waters. All his movies, whether X-rated or PG-rated are like this.

I enjoyed Cry-Baby, even if I didn't love it. There are some really funny moments and great musical numbers, including "Teardrops Are Falling. Like most of Waters films, I tend to be interested in watching them, but not particularly eager to rewatch them. But I do recommend Cry-Baby for its place in the modern cult canon. 

Grade: B-


Before the Wachowski sisters blew our minds with The Matrix, they directed this tight, sexy neo-noir starring Gina Gershon as Corky, an ex-con and handyperson and Jennifer Tilly as Violet, a mobster's girlfriend. The two women fall in love and create an intricate and dangerous plot to steal money from Caesar (Joey Pantoliano), Violet's boyfriend. Doing so would be tantamount to robbing the mob of 2 million dollars, so the stakes are literally life and death.

Bound takes place nearly entirely within the apartment Corky has been hired to paint and fix up and Violet and Caesar's apartment. I won't go into details about what happens, but the film will have you on the edge of your seat during the second half.

Great acting, a tight script, and heroines you want to root for--Bound is a treat of a film.

Grade: B+


Bombshell would get a higher rating from me if it wasn't about bad people. The film is based on real events at Fox News, in which Gretchen Carlson (played here by Nicole Kidman) sued Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) for sexual harassment. This plot entwines with the aftermath of Megyn Kelly (portrayed perfectly by Charlize Theron) squaring off with Donald Trump and Trump making the comment about "blood coming out of her wherever". Meanwhile, there is yet another plot which follows new girl Kayla Pospisil (a composite character, played by Margot Robbie) at Fox figuring out the lay of the land, which includes having to show Roger Ailes her panties at his request.

Here's the thing: Bombshell actually tells a very interesting story, and it's all the more interesting for having happened at Fox. A woman taking down a man's career (unfortunately, Ailes died like one year after Carlson won the lawsuit so he didn't suffer nearly as long as he should have) for sexual harassment is an inherently fascinating story--but when it happens at a workplace where the "work" is to systematically brainwash people into hating feminists, black people, queer people, immigrants, etc? I mean, personally I find that all the more intriguing. 

However, Bombshell is too easy on Fox and it's especially too easy on Kelly and Carlson, who while not the most rabid individuals working at Fox News, contributed to its culture of propaganda and bigotry. Especially now, in hindsight of just how extreme the damage Fox did was to our country, it's hard to sympathize with these women. 

I will say that I think it's still worth a watch if you're interested, if only for Theron's bananas-good portrayal of Megyn Kelly. There was a reason she was nominated for an Oscar for it. 

Grade: B-

Cape Fear

Up until a few weeks ago, I truly thought Martin Scorsese's horror/thriller about a man stalking a family of three was spelled "Cape Feare" because that's how the famous Simpsons episode spells it, which shows how great an impact that Simpsons episode had on pop culture.

Cape Fear stars Nick Nolte as Sam Bowden, a defense lawyer who purposefully withheld information* while defending Max Cady (Robert De Niro) on charges of the rape and battery of a 16 year old girl. After 14 years in prison, Cady is out and has learned to read in the interim. He has knowledge that Sam buried the information* and begins stalking Sam's family, including his 15 year old daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis). Sam must act to protect his family, since he knows Cady will likely kill him and then rape and kill his wife and daughter in order to get his revenge.

*the "information" is that the 16 year old child that Cady raped was "promiscuous". This fact threw the entire movie for me. Sam defends his choice to bury the information, which would have gotten Cady a lighter sentence, but his colleague (as well as, duh, Cady himself) both see what Sam did as wrong. The simple fact that "promiscuity" should have less than nothing to do with whether or not a CHILD was raped and beaten within an inch of her life is so glaringly obvious, that it even being treated like a serious impetus for Cady to stalk Bowden really made me not like Cape Fear at all. Even knowing that of course Cady, a sadistic psychopath, wouldn't see it that way, I still could not wrap my head around it.

In addition, there is a scene of sexual violence where a woman thinks she's going to have consensual sex with Cady, but is violently raped, as well as a scene where Cady kisses the 15 year old Danielle. I can handle a lot of violence in films, up to and including rape, but I just felt grossed out by this.

Cape Fear is a classic and if you feel you must see it, go ahead. But personally, I'd recommend sticking to the Simpsons parody. 

Grade: C

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