Friday, April 9, 2021

Hell Hath No Fury

 Movies: Various, Rape-Revenge


Trigger and content-warnings foreveerrrrrr!!!

***

Let's talk about rape-revenge films. 

This divisive genre has been around for a long time. Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring was released in 1960 and serves as the inspiration for more infamous RR films, such as Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left. But stories about women in peril and other people avenging them have been around practically since humans began telling stories. Such stories allow us a double-whammy of enjoying the sick thrill of hearing/seeing violence (and sexual violence in particular) and also enjoying seeing the bad guy get his just desserts. It allows us to enjoy the rape AND the revenge while still feeling good about ourselves. Which is perhaps why so many people loathe this particular genre.

However, the rape-revenge film has been changing over the last few decades. More emphasis is being put on the revenge, rather than the rape. And more films let the women themselves take revenge, as opposed to showing the woman's family, friends, or partner dishing out justice.

There was a Tweet going around recently that basically said "there is never a good reason to show rape in film and TV". While I do agree that glamorizing and eroticizing sexual assault is wrong, I don't entirely agree with this Tweet. For one thing, I don't think that *anything* should be completely "banned" from film and television with the exception of stuff like child porn. Which is illegal anyway. But even with this extreme example, films such as Mysterious Skin have been able to "show" the sexual assault of a child without actually showing it and, in my opinion, have masterfully captured the horror of such an act. (Mysterious Skin is, by the way, an absolutely great film that I basically can't recommend to anyone because it is so intensely upsetting). 


I feel that there is a place in cinema to show horrific acts because to refuse to show them, regardless of how they are shot and what the context is, puts them in a category of taboo. And what happens when we are unable to talk about think about horrific things? Well, they continue to happen and we are able to ignore them. It is by confronting such horrors and staring them right in the face that we take power back and have the courage to say "this is wrong". Now, this isn't to say that anyone should be required to watch films that depict sexual assault, violence, etc. I believe very strongly in trigger and content warnings because it gives people a chance to exercise consent in their viewing choices. I personally think filmmakers should have a lot of leeway in filming whatever they want to (within legal bounds of course), but also provide strong warnings so that people can pick and choose what they are exposed to. The solution is NOT to "ban" depictions of sexual assault. And let's not forget that if we can ban depictions of assault and violence, that sets a precedent for banning depictions of healthy, consensual sex in film and TV. 

So back to the rape-revenge films. Why do I--and others--like this genre so much? Is it because we're sick and want to see people (usually women/femme persons) suffer? Au contraire! It's because we want to see rapists suffer. Films let us indulge in our wildest fantasies, whether that's a trip to Middle Earth, a flight on a dragon's back, or, well, seeing a rapist/abuser actually get punished--often brutally--for their crimes.

As we know, rapists often *don't* face adequate justice IRL. Many rapists never even see the inside of a courtroom, and those who do (example: Brock Turner) often get off with a slap on the wrist. Our society is inclined to put the burden of proof on the survivor of assault, and place additional burdens on them, such as justifying/explaining past sexual behavior, what they were wearing, why they were drinking, etc. We all know that the way our culture handles sexual assault is incredibly misogynistic and traumatizing. 


Rape-revenge films give us the much-needed catharsis of seeing a rapist PAY and pay dearly for their sins. Now, you might be saying "But Jenny, what we REALLY need is for more justice IRL for rape survivors! Not just the fantasy of justice that film can provide." And boy howdy, do I agree! I would trade the entire genre of rape-revenge films for even just 30% more justice for survivors in real life. If we had true justice, perhaps this genre of film wouldn't even be a thing because no one would need the catharsis. But we currently do not have adequate justice and it's something we need to keep pushing for and working towards. And I don't think that rape-revenge stories necessarily equate to *less* justice IRL. In fact, really good stories in this genre can perhaps inspire us to take action in reality.

So what constitutes a "good" rape-revenge film vs. a "bad" one. I have some thoughts.

A "bad" rape-revenge film focuses more on the assault itself, lingering on the victim's (again, usually a woman) body. The camera takes pleasure in the victim's suffering. The revenge is carried out by someone other than the survivor--perhaps a husband or father, a man whose job it is to "protect" the survivor. The film has no deeper message about sexual assault or gender politics.

A "good" rape-revenge films focuses more on the revenge. The rape itself is either not shown at all, just implied, or if it is shown, the camera does not linger on the body of the victim. Perhaps the camera shows their hands or face (which can be upsetting, but the point is that is DOES NOT eroticize the assault). The survivor carries out the revenge--with or without help from friends and family. The overall theme of the film is empowerment, taking back one's power/body, and clearly, boldly underlining that rape is a crime that deserves punishment. 

Now. Many films within the rape-revenge canon don't perfectly fall into either of these categories. Two recent films that come to mind are A Promising Young Woman and Violation. 

(spoilers ahead for both films)

Violation is a film in which the rape that occurs is a fairly common type of assault: the survivor knows the assailant (he's her brother-in-law) and the rape is not "violent" in that she doesn't have a gun to her head. Instead, she wakes up with him inside her and she is confused and scared. She says "don't" and he keeps going. The punishment she metes out to her rapist is...VERY extreme. Not only does she kill him, she drains his blood, dismembers him, and grinds his bones into dust. There is also a suggestion--though it is not explicit--that she puts some of his ashes in food that she then serves to his family. The film implicitly begs the question, "did he deserve to die?". Given that this is a rape-revenge film, the answer is "yes" because more often than not, death is the punishment for rapists in this genre of film. However, the fact that Violation is so realistic makes the punishment very jarring. Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left is ridiculous, over-the-top, and baldly exploitative, so it makes sense within the world of the film for the victim's mom to lure the rapist with a blow job and then literally bite his dick off. In contrast, Violation is so naturally filmed and the rape is not a super violent one, (to be clear, I don't think rape needs to be "violent" in order for the rapist to deserve punishment) so the audience is thrown for a loop at how intense and utterly gruesome the punishment is. 

Likewise, A Promising Young Woman could be viewed as a rape-revenge narrative that goes "too far" in that Carey Mulligan's heroine, Cassie, punishes people who didn't actually rape the victim, but didn't help her either. A Promising Young Woman is controversial because Cassie isn't a "good" heroine. She goes above and beyond to punish everyone who hurt her friend and does so by putting some of them in danger's way. The ending is also super controversial and unsatisfying for some people, despite being more realistic than other rape-revenge films (such as the excellent French film Revenge). 

But what both of these films do is honor the intense rage that a victim of assault--or someone whose loved one was assaulted--may feel. Another thing our society does is see rape victims as people to be pitied. Literally, people will say shit like "The rapist RUINED HER LIFE" as if rape is something that is so damaging, a person can never recover from it. There are even people who imply that rape is worse than death. Now, look, I am fortunate to have never been a victim of assault so far in my life, but if I were a victim of assault I'd be pretty fucking incensed at the implication that it would be better I had died than be violated. I trace this sentiment back to our culture's obsession with a woman's "virtue". That a woman is "ruined" or "damaged goods" if she--willingly or not--engages in a certain amount or type of sexual activity. Because we have this incredibly damaging and false narrative about women and sex, survivors of assault as assumed to be sad and scared more than anything else. But what about mad? We rarely honor the justifiable anger a woman might feel not just towards her assailant, but towards all the people who downplayed her assault or didn't believe her. These two movies honor than rage. 


I think I'll just end by reiterating a few opinions, as well as giving some recommendations.

1) No one should ever feel pressure to watch films, television, etc that contain content that is upsetting to them. 

2) We should not strive to "ban" certain acts from being shown on film, or for certain topics to not be addressed, because being able to confront and talk about taboo topics allows us to fight for justice IRL.

3) That said, websites like Does the Dog Die? are excellent resources for folks to consult before they watch a movie that might contain triggering content. Also, anyone who says "there are no trigger warnings in life!" to mock people or downplay the very real importance of trigger warnings can suck my butthole.

4) Rape-revenge films can be exploitative. They can also be empowering and cathartic. Most often, they can be both.

5) Here are some recommendations of not just rape-revenge films, but narratives that handled assault in a unique, often empowering, way:

I May Destroy You (perhaps one of the most nuanced TV shows about rape/assault that I've ever seen. I cannot recommend this show enough)

Teeth (a young, Christian woman discovers that she has teeth in her vagina. High-jinks ensue!)

A Promising Young Woman (literally nominated for an Oscar this year)

Revenge (a French film in which a young woman murders her attacker, as well as the men who stood by and did nothing)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the rape-revenge plot is more of a side-plot, but Lisbeth Salander is one of the most badass avenging angels in cinema)

Unbelievable (this Netflix limited series based on a Pulitzer Prize winning article about a serial rapist and the women who worked together to bring him to justice)


Monday, April 5, 2021

The COVID Diaries--Part 16

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

General spoiler warning for the whole post, as well as trigger warnings for discussions of violence and rape in a couple of the reviews.

***

The Last Blockbuster

This delightful documentary is about the last Blockbuster video rental store, which is located in Bend, Oregon. The film chronicles the rise and fall of Blockbuster, which for a couple decades was *the* dominant video rental chain in the world. The director interviews the manager of this relic and self-proclaimed "Blockbuster mom", Sandi Harding, as well as famous funny people like Kevin Smith, Doug Benson, and Paul Scheer, who all reminisce about the effect that video stores in general, and Blockbuster in particular, had on them as children and young adults.


I learned some cool stuff by watching this movie, such as the fact that VHS tapes would sell for nearly a hundred dollars when they first came out (and to think that you can't give them away now!) and that Blockbuster (allegedly) had the opportunity to buy Netflix and turned them down back when Netflix was a fledgling video-by-mail company.

I recommend this documentary to anyone who loves nostalgia and to all the film nerds out there who were undoubtedly effected by Blockbuster. Although I was always more of a Hollywood Video gal myself.

Grade: B+

***

Death Proof

I'm kind of shocked that it took me this long to watch Quentin Tarantino's half of the double-feature Grindhouse which was released in 2007 (I haven't seen Planet Terror, either, and weirdly--it's not streaming on the same platform as Death Proof). I am a devout, if sheepish, fan of Tarantino's (I say sheepish because I think the man himself is gross, even if his movies are...*sigh* unquestionably genius. I wish Tarantino had as much character as he has talent) so I've pretty much seen every movie he's directed multiple times. 

Well, Death Proof did not disappoint. It contains the mixture of pulp exploitation, gut-churning violence, and truly excellent dialogue that QT is known for. The film is split into two halves, and each half focuses on a group of young women. The first group include "Jungle" Julia (Sydney Poitier--yes, daughter of Sidney), an Austin-based DJ, Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito)--three friends who go out to a bar for a very extended drinking session before a friend meets up with them and they head out to a party. While at the bar, they meet "Stuntman Mike" (Kurt Russell, cast perfectly in the role), a stuntman with a "death proof" car (well, death proof for him anyway). But Stuntman Mike spends most of his evening talking with Pam (Rose McGowan), and he gallantly offers her a ride home at the end of the night. When Pam gets into the passenger side of the car, which has a metal seat, no seatbelt, and a glass partition, we know she's done for--even if she hasn't realized it yet.


Mike has a fetish for killing women using his car. After taking Pam on a brutal ride where he speeds up and slams on the breaks, forcing her to slam all over the interior of her side of the car, he finds out where the other ladies are driving and drives at them, full speed, with the headlights off. Even the ones wearing seatbelts are goners.

Cut to...MOTHERFUCKING LEBANON, TENNESSEE! I used to live there! It's not as cool at QT makes it look, but I also did not run into any murderous stuntmen while living there, so it's a wash I guess. The second group of ladies are all Hollywood folks: stuntwoman Zoe Bell (playing herself), fellow stuntwoman Kim (Tracie Thomas), hair and makeup artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), and actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Zoe sees an ad in the paper for a 1970 Dodge Challenger and wants to test drive it. She convinces Kim to play a dangerous game called "ship's mast" with her (and Abernathy, who begs to come along) which involves lying on the hood of car, using only belts to hang on to, while the driver speeds down a country road. Well, these ladies encounter none other than Stuntman Mike while on their joyride, who, unsurprisingly, tries to kill them. They escape him and end up hunting him down, and the film ends with Mike--broken, shot through with bullet holes, and probably concussed--being beaten to death by these women. Yay feminism!

I realize I just relayed the entire plot, but I highly recommend this fun and gory movie. If you like QT you'll like it. If you don't like QT, you probably won't. But if you want to see a bad guy do bad things and then be brutally punished for it, this is your movie. 

Grade: A

***

Violation

Uhh...speaking of bad guys doing bad things and being brutally punished for it. This movie is that. Big time. Violation is a rape-revenge film by Madeleine Sims-Fewer (who also casts herself in the lead role of Miriam) and Dusty Mancinelli. I found it to be very intense, compelling, and not like a lot of other rape-revenge films. For one, it's not exploitative in the way many films in this genre can be. But, more surprisingly, it suggests that in this particular case, the punishment that the victim metes out really does not fit the crime. However, it still honors the absolute, soul-destroying rage that a survivor of sexual assault might reasonably feel towards their attacker. 

In this movie, Miriam, who is raped by her brother-in-law, takes that rage to a grotesque extreme, plotting and carrying out revenge on him that looks like something that would occur in a slaughterhouse. It's violent, but not in a Tarantino sort of way--the violence looks real, not cartoonish. I don't know if that makes it easier or harder to watch. I mean, it wasn't that bad to me, but I watch some pretty extreme shit. 

I actually might write an entire blog entry about rape-revenge films because I have a lot of thoughts about them and how I feel that they often have something to offer beyond exploitation. Some people say that acts of sexual assault should never be shown on camera, but I disagree because sexual assault is part of so many people's lives, that to not show it, ever, no matter the circumstances or how it is shot, is tantamount to suggesting it is too taboo for people to contemplate. And you know what, people SHOULD contemplate it. Men especially. But more on that in a later post. 

Violation is a very good and interesting film, if not an easy one to watch. The most difficult scenes were not the ones of Miriam's assault (which is filmed in a very non-exploitative way, focusing on her eyes and hands, rather than on her body) or the ones of her sawing off Dylan's legs (don't worry, he's already dead. Whoops, spoiler I guess), but the scene of her trying to confront Dylan about what happened and him refusing to acknowledge it, as well as the scene of her trying to tell her sister what happened and, heartbreakingly, her sister suggesting that, in fact, Miriam "fucked up" and it's her fault. The victim not being believed is the true violation of Violation and makes it a difficult watch. Proceed carefully.

Grade: B+

***

Naughty Books

This cute--and at times, melancholy-doc is about women who write erotic fiction. The film follows writers C.J. Roberts, Kristen Proby, Laurelin Paige, and others (as well as, unfortunately, some commentary by noted fake feminist hack Katie Rophie) as they discuss how the were inspired to write books in the wake of E.L. James' success with her Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Many of these women ended up selling hundreds of thousands of copies of books that they published themselves--a phenomenon that would have been impossible before Fifty Shades of Grey. Criticize the fake-BDSM trash pamphlet all you want, but it helped a lot of women make bank, so...

But Naughty Books also shows how when the market is flooded, not as many people can turn a profit. Similarly, the fickle nature of readers means that authors are at the mercy of what readers want to read about--and if they write what THEY want to write about, they might not be able to live off of their sales. Also, a couple of the women find themselves in marriages that are now miserable because of their success. It seemed that no one interviewed had a truly supportive spouse, and, in fact, one woman found herself the victim of abuse once she became successful because her husband couldn't deal with her bringing in more money than him. She leaves him, and meets someone better, so--like the books featured in the doc--there is a happy ending after all. 

Grade: B

***

The Perfect Host

I just could not with this bizarre film. I went into The Perfect Host thinking that it would be a straightforward psychological thriller: a career criminal, John (Clayne Crawford), tries to escape the cops by showing up at a random man's door and pretending to be a friend of a friend. The man, Warwick (David Hyde Pierce), is the consummate host, and welcomes John in even though he is in the middle of preparing for a dinner party. But when John's scheme is revealed, it turns out that Warwick wasn't the simpering wimp that John thought he was. Ok, this sounds good: criminal ends up at the mercy of secret psychopath. I'm in.

Only...that's like one of about 25 tedious "twists" in the film, each more ridiculous than the last. Not only is Warwick a psycho, he also turns out to be THE POLICE LIEUTENANT IN CHARGE OF INVESTIGATING THE VERY CRIME JOHN COMMITTED BEFORE HIDING OUT. Come the fuck on, seriously?! Plus, there are twists (multiple) involving the actual crime (a bank robbery), twists (multiple) about whether or not Warwick is a serial killer...just twist upon twist upon twist until the movie barely made sense anymore. It's like someone had ideas for five separate movies and decided to cram them all into one. 

Though The Perfect Host starts out strong and has its moments, overall the damn thing is a disappointing mess.

Grade: C-

***

Badlands

Terrance Malick's first film, Badlands, is based on the true crime spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. In the movie, Martin Sheen plays Kit Carruthers, a 25 year old garbage collector who starts "dating" 15 year old Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek). Ok, look, this is definitely child grooming and statutory rape, but that's not really what the movie is about so I will simply point it out and move on. 


Holly's dad doesn't approve of their relationship--shocker--so Kit shoots him and burns the house down. He and Holly run off to the badlands of Montana where they hide out and live in peace and freedom until bounty hunters show up. Kit kills them. Then Kit's friend, Cato, shows up. Kit kills him. Then friend's of Cato's show up. Kit lets them go. Just kidding--he fucking kills them too! Basically, Kit is trigger-happy (although very sweet to Holly, thank God) and the ending of this movie is inevitable. It's sort of like Thelma and Louise except, you know, no one in this movie really had to die. 

Like Malick's other movies, the plot isn't really isn't the point. Badlands is beautifully filmed and the soundtrack is also gorgeous and dreamy. Spacek's voiceover narration infuses the whole film with a childlike sense of wonder even during the most chilling and violent moments. But just as every child must grow up, Holly eventually decides she's had enough and turns herself in. The movie ends on kind of a quirky note with Kit charming the hell out of the National Guard troops, who treat him like a celebrity, and then Holly's voiceover informing us that Kit was executed by electric chair while she, Holly, went on to marry her defense attorney's son. Which was not quite how it ended for Charles Starkweather's girlfriend. 

Badlands is considered an American classic. For me, it was much like Terrance Malick's other films which feel very "ASMR-y" to watch--like, they lull me into this state of calm and relaxation--but I never feel a strong desire to return to. However, I think of all the Malick films I've seen so far, this is my favorite one. Recommended for film buffs.

Grade: A-

Friday, March 26, 2021

The COVID Diaries--Part 15

 Movies: various


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

***

Feels Good Man

Can a meme be dangerous? Feels Good Man is an insightful documentary about Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe the Frog, and how his creation was eventually co-opted by the alt-right. If there is any lesson to be learned from Furie's experience, it's to copyright your shit. Furie is just an average comic book nerd, with no Nazi or alt-right leanings. Pepe was one character in Furie's comic Boy's Club. Furie shared his comic on MySpace, and folks took a particular liking to Pepe, the laid-back frog with an "if if feels good, do it" attitude.



But it was the infamous hive of scum of villainy, 4chan, that eventually turned Pepe into a symbol of all things nasty, racist, and misogynist. They were pissed that "normies" were sharing Pepe memes, so they began to create memes with Pepe as Hitler, Pepe as a terrorist flying a plan into the Twin Towers, etc. And by the time the face of American Neo-Nazism, Richard Spencer, was explaining his Pepe pin to a reporter when he got slugged in the face, the die had been cast: Pepe belonged to the alt-right.

Feels Good Man shows how Furie took back some of his power by suing various people and companies--namely, Alex Jones--for using the image of Pepe on merchandise (Furie has won dozens of cases). But more importantly, it answers the question of why the alt-right would even want Pepe as a mascot in the first place. The answer is simple: if they have a silly mascot, they can hide their repulsive ideas behind the thin curtain of "it's just a joke". Adam Serwer, a writer at The Atlantic, puts it best when he says, "They [the alt-right] want you to be scared of the threat, and be mocked for being scared in the first place".

Grade: B+

***

A Cure for Wellness

I so desperately wanted to like this Gore Verbinksi thriller. It just feels like it should be a lot scarier, cooler, and sexier than it actually is. The film takes place in modern day, but has a distinctly vintage feel about it. Dane DeHaan (aka "young Leonardo DiCaprio") plays a businessman named Lockhart (no first name, a trope in movies that annoys the fuck out of me) who is sent to the Swiss Alps to retrieve a senior member of his firm from a wellness spa that the older business man went to for a vacation and then just refused to leave.

After he is told that he won't be able to see the man he came for, Lockhart gets into a car accident on his way back down the mountain, and winds up basically a prisoner of the strange spa: with his leg in a cast, he has few options for escape. The spa is run by Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who believes in the curative powers of water--and the first minute he encourages Lockhart to drink up, we know something is wrong with the H2O. 

A Cure for Wellness starts strong but quickly falls apart when Lockhart discovers the secret of the spa (which is painfully obvious long before it is officially revealed). The film has beautiful and disturbing imagery, mixing a little body horror in with the psychological tension. But by the film's final third, it's more ridiculous than scary. I have a weird interest/possible slight kink (?) for the concept of medical spas where sinister treatments are performed for "your own good", so this movie seems made for me. But alas, I think A Cure for Wellness has more style than substance.

Grade: C

***

Sator

Sator is a low-key horror flick about a demon that haunts a family. Spoiler alert (or maybe not): the demon is a metaphor for mental illness. Sator is one of about 10 horror movies I can name off the top of my head where the subtext is all about what we inherit from our parents and what we pass down to our kids. It's a trend!

I would say that Sator, which stars a bunch of unknowns, is effectively spooky, but ultimately forgettable. It opens on an elderly woman, Nani (June Peterson, the director's actual grandmother), discussing with surprising frankness, an entity named "Sator" who basically would jump into her head and tell her stuff, which she would then write down. The film hops between Nani's house, where family members congregate to help her out, and the little cottage out in the woods where Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), one of Nani's grandsons, lives. It becomes apparent that both Nani and Adam's mother had the "gift" of communing with Sator, and Adam knows he is next in line. He seems to be trying to avoid his fate by living alone in the woods. But just as family history tends to catch up with you, it's only a matter of time before Sator sinks his claws into Adam.

Definitely recommended for horror buffs, especially those who like the slow-burn style of horror, I would say that Sator is a fine but not great horror movie. 

Grade: B

***

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was a sweet surprise. It is your typical Hollywood biopic, but with more bondage and threesomes. So, even though it's about the creator of Wonder Woman, this is not a movie for the kiddies. 

Professor William Moulton Marston was a teacher of psychology at Radcliffe and Harvard in the early 20th century (which functioned as "his and hers" schools back when most colleges were single-sex). He and his wife, Elizabeth, invented the lie detector machine as well. Long story short: they both fell in love with their student assistant, Olive, and the throuple begin living and raising babies together. This leads the Marstons to being fired from their positions, which spurs William Marston to create Wonder Woman and sell her to DC Comics as a way to make ends meet, but also to get his propaganda before the eyes of children. Yes, Wonder Woman was--in her creator's eyes--propaganda designed to get little boys comfortable with the idea of female supremacy. Marston truly believed that women were the ideal sex to run the world and that we would all be living in a female-dominated society by now (ha. ha.) He also believed that in order for people to be comfortable with submission, submission needed to be pleasurable. Thus, all the scenes of bondage in the Wonder Woman comics (see the end of this blog post for a taste).

So Marston was a poly, kinky fucker who invented one of the most iconic super heroes of all time. Pretty wild story, right? What's perhaps even more surprising is that after Marston's death in 1947, Olive and Elizabeth stayed together until Olive's death in 1985. This truly was a triad-style relationship, by all accounts, and not just two women humoring their man. 

Although the movie is highly corny at times, it's a rare "mainstream" movie that completely normalizes poly relationships and kink. There are those in the poly and kink communities who don't want poly and kink to become "normalized" since the idea is to reject traditional relationship styles and the pressure to be monogamous, vanilla, etc. However, I tend to be of the mindset that so-called "non-traditional" forms of loving (between consenting adults) should be normalized because guess what--there is no such thing as normal! And I think it's good for people to be exposed to ideas like the concept of loving multiple people at once, or that ropes and pain can be a healthy form of sexual expression, because if these ideas are kept in the shadows, it's easy to dismiss them as wrong and sick. But the only "sick" thing is when adults are societally pressured into lifelong choices that aren't right for them.

So, the movie itself gets a "B", but I'll throw in the plus since it does God's work of making kink and poly a little less scary and a little more...intriguing.

Grade: B+

***

City Island

City Island is a pleasant little comedy about a family of New Yorkers (or New Yahk-ahs, if you prefer) who each have one or more secrets they're hiding from the rest of the fam. Daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) has dropped out of college and is working as a stripper--a revelation she knows would deeply upset her parents, neither of whom have college degrees. Son Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) has a secret kink for large women and starts spying on his plump neighbor when he discovers that she has a website dedicated to making and eating large feasts. 

Mom Joyce (Julianna Margulies) is dissatisfied with her marriage and feels like her husband, Vince (Andy Garcia), is keeping secrets from her. And boy howdy, is he. Dad Vince has two secrets--one, he's taking a weekly acting class but is hiding that from Joyce and telling her it's a weekly poker game. But the second secret is that two decades ago, he fathered a child. That child is now all grown up and... residing in the very prison that Vince works at as a security guard! Vince finds out that Tony (Steven Strait) is technically allowed to be out on parole, but has no family that will take him. Without revealing the secret of his parentage, Vince offers to take Tony in and give him a job fixing up an old boathouse in Vince's backyard. Vince does not consult his wife on this. Or tell her that Tony is, in fact, Vince's son. 


Obviously, all these secrets come to a head and are revealed in the final act, which brings the family closer together than ever before. It's a really sweet film and reminded me a bit of The Slums of Beverly Hills with its lived in, comfortable take on family relationships. It's nice to watch a movie where you just know everything is going to work on in the end. A nice palate cleanser after some of the nastier films I usually watch. 

Grade: B

***




These were in the original comics, you guys. 









Yeah, I know, right?

Friday, March 12, 2021

The COVID Diaries--Part 14

 Movies: various


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

***

Crip Camp

Crip Camp, which is a documentary by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht, gives the audience an inside glimpse into Camp Jened--a summer camp in upstate New York for teens with disabilities. Camp Jened opened in the 1950s and ran until 1977. It provided a place for teens and young adults who had disabilities such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and complications from polio to just be themselves during a time in which people with disabilities were at best treated like children and at worst social pariahs.



Watching Crip Camp did a rare thing for me: it made me cry. Not tears of pity (yuck!) but tears of joy at watching the archival footage of young people experiencing freedom, self-expression, romance, and much more possibly for the first time in their lives. The first half of the film mostly focuses on the freewheeling ways of the camp, which included campers smoking pot alongside their counselors, experiencing first kisses (and more), and expressing  themselves through music, arts, and sports. 

The second half of the film zeroes in on Judy Heumann, a former camp counselor who became a disability rights activist who was involved in so many fights for disability rights, that I'll just link her Wikipedia page and let you explore for yourself. It also followers some of the other former campers who worked alongside Judy to reach such achievements as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. 

I really can't recommend this movie enough. I didn't know a ton about the history of disability rights, so not only was it a joyful, fun, and funny documentary--it was also very enlightening and inspired me to want to learn more.

Grade: A

***

American Psycho

This was a rewatch for me, and I have to say that American Psycho just isn't my favorite. Believe it or not, it's really not that gruesome (I've seen horror films with MUCH more graphic carnage). Being a satire, American Psycho is more funny than anything else. I think the humor stems from the incongruity of Patrick Bateman being a complete dork (Huey Lewis sucks. What is wrong with this guy's musical taste?) and also a prostitute-murdering psychopath. 

I've only read chunks (pun intended) of the book and, look, it takes a lot to gross me out but I will give it to Bret Easton Ellis: you got me buddy. I couldn't read your damn book because it's fucking disgusting. Ya happy?! But director Mary Harron explicitly said that she wanted to excise some of the violence from the story and focus more on the dark humor, and I think she achieved her goal. 

I think people will mostly self-select into watching this movie. If you're the kind of person who would be interested in American Psycho, you've probably already seen it, and if you're the kind of person who is squeamish about violence, I don't think I'm going to convince you. 

Grade: B

***

Piercing

I was really disappointed in this 2018 horror-thriller. It was directed by Nicolas Pesce, who also directed the supremely creepy The Eyes of My Mother. The movie is based on a book Ryu Murakami who also wrote Audition. So, the horror pedigree for this film is flawless.

Sadly, I found the movie boring and unoriginal. Reed (Christopher Abbott), who is a husband and new father, has a fantasy of murdering someone. So, on a business trip, he hires a prostitute, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), to act out his demented dream (unbeknownst to her, obviously). Turns out, Jackie is kind of nuts and randomly starts stabbing herself in the thigh, forcing Reed to take her to the hospital. She then invites him back to her home, but discovers what he is up to and turns the tables on him.

Although Abbott and Wasikowska are excellent actors, their chemistry is far too dull to pull off what should be a cat-and-mouse game of a film. Instead, Piercing is a movie that really wants to be transgressive, but just feels derivative and a bit boring. Only recommended for superfans of horror.

Grade: C

***

Eyes Without a Face

The history of the French horror classic Eyes Without a Face is interesting. By today's standards, the film is more beautiful and atmospheric than anything else, but in 1960 it was pretty shocking--especially one scene in particular which admittedly I was surprised got past the censors in its heyday. 

The film was released in the United States under the name The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and marketed as a schlocky b-movie, which is wild because I've seen schlocky b-movies from the 50s and Eyes Without a Face isn't anything like them. It's about a young woman whose face is horribly scarred due to a car accident and whose father--a doctor--keeps attempting face transplants by kidnapping young women and removing their faces to graft onto his daughter's face. The "spooky" part of the movie is when the daughter, Christine, wears a custom mask that gives her face a poreless, expressionless appearance. Hence, eyes without a face (yes, the excellent Billy Idol song was inspired by the movie). 

While by no means a great film, Eyes Without a Face is pretty solid for early 1960s horror and is just a beautiful and strange film to watch. Classic cinema buffs should definitely add it to their queues. 

Grade: B

***

Wonder Boys

Another rewatch for me. Wonder Boys was my muthafucking JAM in like, 9th and 10th grade. I already loved the concept of "college" even though I wasn't there yet. So a movie about a pot-smoking English professor who drives around with baby gay Tobey Maguire was basically catnip to me (I was very into gay men at this time in my life). 

Rewatching this was fun, although some of the jokes don't land well in 2021, especially the entire subplot about Robert Downey Jr.'s "transvestite" date in the first third of the film. There's also some weirdness with RDJ, who plays a hilarious and naughty book editor, having sex with aforementioned baby gay James Leer (Tobey Maguire) despite being a lot older than him, but I'm going to assume everyone is over 18 and consenting. 

But other than that, the film holds up. The acting is phenomenal and how couldn't it be with a stacked cast including Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, RDJ, the Tobes, Katie Holmes, and Rip Torn? I will admit that some of the aspects of the film that felt intensely profound to me as a 15 year old now feel a little...cheesy? But in general the beauty and goofiness of Wonder Boys holds up.

Grade: A-

***

Terrifier

What's more scary than a clown? How about a chainsaw-wielding serial killer clown? Terrifier is an indie-horror film by Damien Leone that follows Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton), a clown that looks scary as fuck and doesn't speak. 

Tara (Jenna Kanell) and Dawn (Catherine Corcoran) are two besties out late on Halloween night. They stop at a pizza place for a slice so that they can sober up to drive home. At the pizza place, they see Art, who is in full costume. But that's not *too* strange since it is Halloween. When they go back to their car, they see that the tires are slashed. While waiting for Jenna's sister to pick them up, Jenna goes into an abandoned apartment building to use the bathroom. Clown terror ensues. 

Terrifier isn't particularly inventive: a clown chases a girl around and kills multiple people. One of the kills in particular is horrifically gruesome. But the movie isn't scary-scary, ya know? It's just your run-of-the-mill slasher that you'll gasp during and promptly forget about a week later (if you're me, at least). I would recommend it for horror aficionados looking for a couple hours of bloody entertainment. But otherwise, you can pass on this one.

Grade: B-

***

Hard Candy 

Talk about a feel-bad film. Hard Candy came out in 2006 and stars Elliot Page (acting under his deadname at the time) as Hayley Stark, a 14-year old girl, and Patrick Wilson as Jeff Kohlver, a 32-year old photographer. It opens on the two of them flirtatiously chatting online and deciding to meet in real life. 

The first chunk of the film seems like a straightforward story of a predator grooming a young victim--Jeff buys a gift for Hayley, lets her come to his apartment, and offers her screwdrivers to drink. But after the first 20 minutes or so, the truth is revealed: Hayley roofies Jeff's drink and he wakes up tied to a chair. She's more than a 14-year old girl--she's a hunter of pedophiles, and Jeff is fucked. 

The rest of the film is an incredibly intense cat-and-mouse game in which Hayley psychologically (and physically) tortures Jeff in order to find out his secrets and punish him for his behavior. While it's not easy to sympathize with a pedophile, the movie is a little hard to watch and really serves as a revenge or justice fantasy for people who, well, hate pedophiles. I think it's a testament to the acting ability of Page and Wilson that they make you really volley back and forth over whether you feel bad for Jeff--who is, in fact, a monster--or not. 

Hard Candy is a psychological thriller and is not for everyone, especially if violence and discussions of child abuse are triggering for you. 

Grade:  B

***

High Fidelity

And here's another rewatch. I've seen High Fidelity (the film, not the Hulu series) many times. I remember thinking Jack Black's character was so funny, that I would randomly think about his lines in the movie and start laughing uncontrollably. Upon rewatching, Black is easily the best part of the movie. His character, Barry, is as gregarious and offensive as ever. Speaking of offensive, High Fidelity wears its age like an aging hipster dad wears a nose ring: cringingly. What I mean to say is that while High Fidelity still has a general aura of cool, given the excellent performances and general coolness of a plot about a guy who owns a record store (not to mention the very good soundtrack), the sexism and condescension of the characters (and film itself) ages it quite a bit.

John Cusack plays Rob, a 30-something record store owner whose long-suffering girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), finally dumps him because 1) he won't commit and 2) she's going places whereas he's going nowhere. It's a movie about a man-baby years before Judd Apatow made man-babies de rigueur. Rob deals with his misery by revisiting his old "top five all-time breakups" and derives comfort by discovering that the women he once thought were so great are just kind of "meh" in retrospect. 

Let's just say it how it is: Rob is sexist. When he finds out Laura might be sleeping with the vegan hippy-dippy dude who used to live upstairs (Tim Robbins in a wonderful cameo), he flips out on her. When she tells him she has not, in fact, had sex with Mr. Vegan, Rob celebrates by...having sex with a new partner! Boys will be boys, right?! Rob also tells the audience about his anger at finding out that women only save the nicest pairs of their underwear for when they're going to sleep with someone. Oh, I'm sure your underwear is all super sexy and not just 15 pairs of hole-y tightie whities, ROB.

Still, the nostalgia factor is in High Fidelity's favor (heck, I loved the movie so much in high school I even read the book it was based on). It's a solid comedy, ok? It's not great, and it's not going to be one for the history books (The 40 Year Old Virgin, on the other hand? Stone cold classic), but if you can accept the imperfections, it's still an enjoyable movie. Not anywhere near my top 5 though.

Grade: B


Thursday, March 4, 2021

In Vino Veritas

 Movies: Another Round

"To alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems!"

~Homer J. Simpson

Films that deal with alcohol use tend to go one of two ways: either the booze is an accelerant for good/crazy times, like in any movie about college, weddings, celebrations, etc, or alcohol is shown as a crippling drug that ruins lives, such as in films like Smashed, The Lost Weekend, and Days of Wine and Roses. Another Round, directed by Thomas Vinterberg, is the rare film that takes a more balanced approach to alcohol. 

This Danish dramedy stars the incomparable Mads Mikkelsen as Martin, one of four friends--all male, all teachers at the same high school, and all middle-aged--who are finding life a bit boring lately. Martin, especially, is clearly depressed. At a dinner out to celebrate Nikolaj's (Magnus Millanj) 40th birthday, quiet Martin bursts into tears after a couple glasses of champagne. He is a mess: his marriage has lost its spark, he is no longer the inspiring history teacher respected by his students that he once was, and he's just tired and worn down. The other men agree and Nikolaj's suggests a rather wild experiment to see if the friends can get their collective groove back: he cites the work of Finn Skarderud, a psychiatrist who posits that humans are born with a blood alcohol level 0.05% too low, and actually function and work best with a glass or two of alcohol in them at all times.

The friends set down some rules for the experiment: they will *only* drink during working hours on Monday-Friday and will stop drinking at 8pm on weeknights and not drink on the weekend. Since they are only supposed to be operating with a BAC of 0.05%, they will aim for one unit of alcohol per hour, on average.

So, uh, this leads the men to bring water bottles of vodka to the high school (!!!) they work at and teach while ever-so-slightly inebriated. Man, only in Denmark! 

They discover that the experiment...works! Martin goes back to being the cool, loose, funny teacher he was before. Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), a gym teacher who coaches boys soccer outside of school, connects with one lonely kid--nicknamed "Specs" due to his glasses--and inspires him to play fearlessly on the field. Likewise, Nikolaj and Peter (Lars Ranthe) find that their lives are improving also. 

So they decide, "if a little alcohol is good, more must be better!". Because that's how alcohol works, right? This is where the movie starts to move into "after school special" territory. As the friends up their alcohol intake, they begin to face consequences. This culminates in an evening where they "experiment" by drinking as much as they possibly can to "see what happens" (I mean, did these dudes even go to college?). Well, Martin's wife kicks him out, Nikolaj pisses the marital bed, Tommy comes to work drunk, and I can't remember what happens with Peter because he's kind of the boring one of the group. But I assume he had a wicked hangover the next day.

This is where I had an issue with Another Round: not that it showed the consequences of drinking too much--in fact, I'm actually quite glad the film did that--but that it expected the audience to believe that four grown ass men wouldn't realize that drinking nearly every day, more and more, and while at work wouldn't lead to a dark place*. It's almost like these men are space aliens who are like "we are experimenting with the substance known as "alcohol" that earthlings seem to love. What will happen?" The entire premise of the film is pretty unbelievable in the first place--would all four men really agree that drinking at their job (A HIGH SCHOOL!!!) could be a fun experiment? Martin, in particular, seemed to be a teetotaler or only occasional drinker who jumped right into bringing booze to work. It just stretches the limits of believability.  

The film gets even darker than a night of drunken revelry before the end, and I won't go into what happens to avoid spoilers. But I found the final third of the film pretty jarring in how it went from very dark to the final scene of Mads Mikkelsen dancing (and drinking) alongside his graduating seniors in a moment of pure euphoria and lust for life. The final scene is a delightful one, but it comes so quickly after some really intense shit that it just feels like whiplash. I think Vinterberg really could have done a better job on pacing in this movie.

Overall, Another Round is a celebration of life and a reminder that you're never too old to change things up. It also has a message buried deep inside that you don't actually need drugs to get high. You can apparently get high on life, even in Denmark. Despite the somewhat implausible plot and pacing issues, I found Another Round charming--most of the credit goes to Mikkelsen who could read a phone book for two hours and still be a compelling actor. 

Grade: B+ 

*I want to be clear that I'm not saying it's implausible for someone to develop a drinking problem (at any age) without really even being aware that that's what's happening. That happens all the time, and is very serious (and nothing to be ashamed of!). In the case of this film, it's about four guys who by all accounts seem to be average-to-occasional drinkers who latch onto the wild idea that drinking at work will be a good thing and kind of peer-pressure each other into going along, and drinking more and more. It was as if they barely knew how alcohol worked. That was what I found implausible. 


Saturday, February 20, 2021

Betrayed with a Kiss

 Movies: Judas and the Black Messiah


I admit that before I heard about this movie, I had no idea who Fred Hampton was. I knew *this much* (holds thumb and finger slightly apart) about the Black Panthers, and certainly didn't know that Fred Hampton was spied on and then murdered by the FBI. But I can't say I'm surprised.

Shaka King's sophomore full-length film tells the fascinating story of Bill O'Neal (played by the ever-wonderful Lakeith Stanfield) and his betrayal of Fred Hampton (an electrifying Daniel Kaluuya), the Deputy Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.

O'Neal was a career thief, and the film opens with him pretending to be a Fed in order to steal a car. He is arrested and he is given an option by FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons, always excellent): go to prison for years or infiltrate the Black Panthers as an FBI informant.

It's important to note that O'Neal was still in his teens when this offer was made. Imagine being a 17 year old facing 5-7 years in prison, or having the option to spy for the FBI (and even be paid for it!). I know which choice I would have made.

Likewise, Fred Hampton was about 20 when these events took place. One criticism of the film is that they cast actors who are more than a decade older than the characters they play. I'm of two minds here: on the one hand, Stanfield and Kaluuya are a couple of the most talented actors working today. Kaluuya is especially riveting as the gifted orator and wise beyond his years Hampton. On the other hand, the director could have given an opportunity to a younger generation of actors to have breakthrough performances. In addition, younger actors would have really hit home the cruelty of the FBI in this story: they were manipulating and killing young people barely old enough to drink.

But it is what it is, and the movie was made with Stanfield and Kaluuya (as well Dominque Fishback, who played Hampton's partner and mother of his child, Deborah Johnson). 

Judas and the Black Messiah works well on two levels: for one, it is riveting in the same way The Departed is: movies about spies, moles, and backstabbers are inherently interesting since betrayal is just such an affront to humanity. There's a reason why Dante's Inferno puts betrayers in the deepest circle in hell. So, it's just a very (I don't want to say "entertaining") good film that keeps you on the edge of your seat even if you know how it ends.

The other level the film works on is an educational or "consciousness raising" level. It is the perfect movie for our current political climate, in which many white people are for the first time realizing that white supremacy has been baked into our country since the very beginning and that what we have been raised to believe is "fair" and "just" is actually complete and total bullshit. The police only "protect and serve" those with white skin, historically and today, and the FBI went out of their way to suppress Black achievement and advancement--usually through violent means. Chattel slavery may have ended in the late 1800s in the United States, but the American government continued to do its damnedest to keep Black people in poverty and out of the voting booths. This story is just one of many.

But what I really liked about Judas and the Black Messiah is that even though there are clear "good guys" and "bad guys", the bad guys are allowed some complexity. There are moments where both Bill O'Neal and Roy Mitchell realize that the project they're involved in is way more violent than they anticipated. But since they don't have the power to stop it (at least without facing consequences), they become more aggressive to those they *do* have power over. Far be it from me to excuse Roy Mitchell's role in the murder of Fred Hampton, but the film shows that he was caught in an intricate web of white supremacy and toxic masculinity. He contributed to it, but it was not solely of his making. Likewise, Bill O'Neal had the option to suffer the consequences of committing crimes, but chose the path of betrayal instead, thinking it would be an easier way out. His suicide at age 40 suggests he was haunted by his actions decades later.

Another great thing about this film is that it highlights the contributions the Black Panther Party made on both national and local levels. It also doesn't water down the Communist theory and practice behind the party. I remember that scene in Forrest Gump where Jenny is dating a Black Panther who hits her, and Forrest has to come to her rescue. Only in recent years did I realize how fucked up that scene is and how it plays into the popular myth that the Panthers were violent and misogynist. While indeed, some Panthers had some fucked up views on gender, that is not the whole story, and it certainly shouldn't be the default way the Panthers are portrayed in media (esp. since it's not like white people weren't also sexist in the late 60s. Don Draper, anyone?).

Overall, Judas and the Black Messiah is a solid (perhaps a bit "Oscar bait-y"), heartbreaking film about historical events, but also about the choices people feel like the half to make in order to survive or thrive. White supremacy culture is complex, and works best when it hides in plain sight. A conversation where Mitchell tells O'Neal that he worked the Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner case in Mississippi as evidence that he is sympathetic to Civil Rights, as long as Black people don't "cheap [their] way to equality" is a good example of how white people tell themselves they are "good people" while in the midst of believing and doing racist things. It is all on our (white people's) terms, and if those impossible terms aren't met, we are given license to be racist while proclaiming innocence. Times, they are a-changin', but not fast enough.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a great film, and a real "of the moment" movie, especially if you're someone who is waking up to the lies we have been fed about the history of the push for Civil Rights. It's worth watching for the performances alone, but the message is incredibly important as well.

Grade: A-




Friday, January 29, 2021

Nostalgia Factory

 Movies: various

Throughout the pandemic, I've had the chance to rewatch some films that I love, but hadn't seen in a while. You'll notice that these films all came out between 1997 and 2006--a very critical period of growth in my life. I was between the ages of 12 and 21 when these movies came out, so they sort of stick with me the way the music you loved in college sticks with you. They feel quintessentially *me*. I was delighted at how well they hold up upon review a decade plus later. Enjoy!

Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich might just be my pick for the most unique film concept of all time. A man, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack in a creepy "nice guy" role), discovers a portal into John Malkovich. No, I'm not talking about Malkovich's butthole. This seemingly innocuous tunnel puts the person "inside" Malkovich's body, so that they see, feel, taste, and hear what Malkovich sees, feels, tastes, and hears. After 15 minutes, they are spit out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. After Craig blabs about this to his ice queen crush, Maxine (Catherine Keener), she immediately plots how they can make big bucks selling "tickets to Malkovich". But eventually, Malkovich (played by...John Malkovich) finds out and is not happy, to say the lease.


This film, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, simultaneously feels deeply philosophical and goofy as all hell. I am shocked they managed to not only get such a strange film released, but that the film is actually...amazing. It's amazing. It hits all the right notes of comedy, tragedy, darkness, and ridiculousness perfectly. 

John Malkovich was interviewed about Being John Malkovich and he stated, "Either the movie's a bomb and it's got not only my name above the title, but my name in the title, so I'm fucked that way; or it does well and I'm just forever associated with this character." Well, I'm glad he took the chance because "Being Tom Cruise" would have not been a fraction as wonderful as Being John Malkovich.

Grade: A+

***

American Splendor

American Splendor is a film that celebrates the average man and how interesting and beautiful a boring, even crummy, life can be. Paul Giamatti stars as Harvey Pekar, a real-life comic writer and creator of the comic "American Splendor". Ask 100 people on the street who Harvey Pekar is, and you'd be lucky if one person recognized his name. He's like a less-famous R. Crumb, and people *barely* know who R. Crumb is. 

Giamatti perfectly captures Pekar's grumpiness and contempt for all things phony. Movie scenes are intercut with casual interviews with the real Harvey Pekar, who gets to add his own commentary to the film and how he is portrayed. Hope Davis plays Joy Brabner, Harvey's wife, and a pretty salty gal in her own right. The film chronicles Harvey's younger years all the way up through his bout with testicular cancer, which he beat in the mid-90s. 


"Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff" is the film's tagline, and really is the sort of the motto Harvey lived by, and certainly is remembered by. Even as he gained success as a comic artist, he couldn't quit his job as a file clerk because he just didn't make enough money. Starving artists have been part of humanity since time immemorial and some of the most profound art in history didn't net the artist much money at the time. Hopefully, American Splendor will encourage a few people to check out Pekar's work, or at least remind viewers that it's ok to be ordinary.

Grade: A+

***

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

I actually reviewed this movie a few years ago when I did a mega-review of so-called "sick" films. The reason I included Tom Tyker's lush, intoxicating story of a serial killer with a superhuman sense of smell is because an acquaintance in college told me that it was a "disgusting movie with disgusting ideas". She also said "America isn't ready for a Black president", so I would take any of her opinions with a shaker of salt.

But maybe Perfume IS sick. So what? Who says sick movies are inherently bad? Guess what fuckos, LIFE is sick! *sunglasses emoji* Ok, ok, I think I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about that girl and her comment, the implication being that anyone who enjoys this ~unarguably amazing~ movie is "sick" themselves.

Ben Whishaw plays Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a baby born in a fish market in 1730s Paris. Although he is abandoned as a child, Grenouille survives against all odds and grows up to realize that he is not like other people. For one, his sense of smell is off the charts. He can smell EVERYTHING, and he can remember all smells and recall them from memory alone. But in addition to this talent, Grenouille is also a psychopath. He has no sense of guilt or regret, and he can easily murder when it suits him. 

After accidentally murdering a beautiful young woman whose smell is absolute heaven to Grenouille, he takes an apprenticeship with the perfumer Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) and eventually makes his way to Grasse, the epicenter of perfumery. After some trial and error, Grenouille realizes that he can capture a woman's scent by killing her, slathering her in animal fat, and then distilling that fat into an essence. Grenouille's goal is to make the most lovely, mind-blowing perfume of all time by distilling the essence of 13 young ladies, including the daughter of nobleman Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman). 

The ending of this film is one for the record books. Grenouille is captured and is sentenced to a terrible death by having all of his limbs broken on a public stage. But when he is brought to the platform to be executed in front of all of Grasse he whips his little bottle of perfume out and waves it around. The executioner proclaims "This man is innocent!" The crowd IMMEDIATELY begins to wildly fuck in an orgy of pure lust and bliss. And Richis falls to his knees and calls his daughter's murderer "my son". Damn. That's some good perfume.

Despite Perfume's wild plot, the film is really just a love letter to the senses. Smell is an especially powerful sense--one whiff and it can take us back in time, to grandma's kitchen, to the arms of our first lover, to the backyard where we played with a favorite pet. Smell is a time machine. And somehow this movie, based on Patrick Suskind's "unfilmable" novel, manages to capture scent through visuals and music. Truly, an amazing accomplishment. 

Also, word to the wise: watch Perfume after indulging in a little, uh, "Grasse". Really enhances the experience.

Grade: A

***

Boogie Nights

Speaking of sick movies. Here is a film I watched WAY too young. I think I first saw P.T. Anderson's homage to the 1970s LA porn scene when I was like, 15 years old. I was genuinely upset at the depictions of violence, particularly sexual violence, against women in the film.

Upon watching it in college, and then again in grad school, I appreciated it much more--but it still left a bad taste in my mouth.

Now, watching it at the jaded age of 35, I can safely say that this film is fucking hilarious and great on all levels. The acting, the music (THE MUSIC!!), the humor...it's just *chef's kiss*. Anderson knew what he was doing with each scene and each line. 


Mark Walhberg plays Eddie Adams, a barely legal kid who is "discovered" by adult filmmaker and producer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) washing dishes in a disco club. Jack thinks Eddie has something special. Turns out Eddie *does* have something special: a dig ol' bick. You know, a trouser snake. A baby maker. A meat loaf. What did people call dicks in the 70s? I need to find some vintage Cosmo magazines.

Anyway, Eddie can't act for shit, but he can fuck, come, take five, and fuck again. Oh, to be 18 again. Eddie, now going by the nom de plume "Dirk Diggler", quickly integrates into Jack's gang of porn stars. Among them are Buck Swopes (Don Cheadle), Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker), Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), and Roller Girl (Heather Graham). It's all fun, games, fucking, and sucking for most of the movie. But then drugs get involved and drugs always tend to screw things up. There's also a subplot about a porn financier who gets busted for child pornography! Yep, the Los Angelos porn scene in the late 70s/early 80s was as fucked up as it was glamorous. 

Boogie Nights is an epic dramedy that doesn't really serve up any life lessons (other than "don't bring a gun to a drug deal"), but it does humanize its semi-ridiculous characters. I have no idea what real sex workers think of Boogie Nights, but personally I find it to be a straight-up masterpiece.

Grade: A+

***

O Brother, Where Art Thou

This oddball film from the Coen brothers is loosely based on The Odyssey, but you need not have read Homer's classic in order to enjoy the movie. George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro play Everett, Delmar, and Pete--three escapees from a chain-gang in 1930s Mississippi. Everett is a smooth talker and has convinced Pete and Delmar to help him escape in exchange for a share of a treasure he hid before going to prison.


During their travels, the three men encounter unique people, such as a blues singer who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar skills (this character is based on the real life blues artist Robert Johnson), and a one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman). They also record a song at a radio station, purely for the quick money it nets them. But unbeknowst to the men, the song--"Man of Constant Sorrow"--becomes a hit and everyone in Mississippi is trying to figure out who the mysterious "Soggy Bottom Boys" are. 

O Brother, Where Art Thou is famous for it's excellent soundtrack, which deservingly won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2002. But in addition to its wonderful music, the film is also funny as hell. My dad loves it and quotes from it all the time: "I'll only be 82!", "this horse is startin' to turn". etc. 

O Brother, Where Art Thou is among my top Coen brothers' films. Basically, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and this one are all tied for first place. The Coens are masters at giving the viewer a strong sense of time and place. They are also masters at writing dialogue that is clever, hilarious, and memorable. O Brother, Where Art Thou is feel-good film that's a delight to return to time and again.

Grade: A+

***

Brokeback Mountain

Y'all, I was obsessed with Brokeback Mountain when it first came out. Just ask my college roommate! At the tender age of 19, the thought of Jake Gyllenhaal (bae) and Heath Ledger (rest-in-peace bae) making out in a tent was THE most erotic thing I could imagine and I was all-in. It is only with time that I really appreciate the second half of the film which has less kissin' and more cryin'. Because it's with time that you appreciate how lovely and rare a deep love connection is. 

Brokeback Mountain is as much a tragedy--one that effects not just the main characters, but everyone in their lives--as a romance. Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are supposed to be 19 years old when they spend that fateful summer on Brokeback. Just a couple of poor kids looking to make a buck through difficult and dangerous labor. They barely say more than a few sentences to each other, and then one freezing night they share a tent and frantically, almost randomly, fuck in the middle of the night. It's honestly not that romantic of a scene. I mean, it's just 19 year old horny dudes taking comfort in a warm body. "You know I ain't queer" Ennis says the next morning. "Me neither", replies Jack.

But what makes this liaison different than one of convenience is that it carries on for years afterward. It's clear that what Jack and Ennis have is more than just lust. Ennis clearly likes Jack more than his own wife, the long-suffering Alma (Michelle Williams) and Jack gently brings up the possibility of living together multiple times. But each time, Ennis shuts this dream down, citing the murder of two ranchers who lived together in his hometown. Sadly, it turns out that Ennis was right to warn Jack: months after their final weekend together as "fishing buddies", Jack dies. His wife (Anne Hathaway) tells Ennis it was a mishap with an exploding tire, but Ennis knows in his bones that Jack was beaten to death, just like those ranchers from his childhood. Jack was only 39.

Jack's sad fate begs the question: could his life had been spared if he and Ennis ran away together? The film ends in 1983, by no means a "good time" for queer men, but certainly a time where Ennis and Jack could have taken their chances and moved out of Wyoming to a more tolerant area. Alas, it was not to be, and the heartbreaking final scene that finds Ennis alone in his tiny home, cuddling Jack's shirt, will bring tears to your eyes. 

Brokeback Mountain holds up as a slow, beautiful portrait of queer love during a time and place where such a thing would 100% get you fired, beat up, or much worse. It's also a reminder to us all to "run at love" (as Patton Oswalt says in his latest stand up special). Don't waste time because tomorrow is promised to no one.

Grade: A-

***

A Clockwork Orange

Every so often, a film comes out that is not good, not great, but one of the greatest of all time. Kubrick's iconic adaptation of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange is one such film. Somehow, this film is excellent on *every* level: cinematography, acting, music, dialogue, story and is STILL greater than the sum of its very great parts. 

Following the misadventures of Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell, in a career-defining role), a "droog" in Britain in the not-too-distant future, A Clockwork Orange asks big questions such as "what is the nature of good versus evil" and "do we have free will?" Alex is the head of a gang of young men who rape women, beat up old men, and steal. These motherfuckers are supposed to be like, 16 years old. After murdering one of his victims, Alex is arrested and sent to prison. But when he hears about a new program that turns bad men good and gets people out of prison quickly, he signs up for the "Ludivico technique". You have to be living under a rock to have not seen the disturbing image of McDowell strapped to a chair with his eyes forced open as he is forced to watch violent and sexual films after being injected with nausea and fear-inducing drugs. The result is that at the slightest whiff of violence (and boobs), Alex--like Pavlov's dogs--has an immediate reaction of feeling violently ill. He would rather lick the boots of a man who punches him rather than punch back.


Two problems here. One: Alex is essentially a defanged, declawed cat--unable to fight back against a world that is still very cruel and uncaring. Two: the Ludivico technique inadvertently ruined the one thing that keeps sociopathic Alex tied to humanity and emotions--his beloved "lovely, lovely Ludwig van". The films Alex is forced to watch have Beethoven on the soundtrack (weird choice for a film reel about concentration camps, but ok) and so now upon hearing his favorite artist, he literally wants to kill himself. Was it worth removing Alex's violent instincts if it also removed the very thing that made him human?

But luckily (???) Alex's horrible fate doesn't last long. After being nearly killed by his old gang, who are cops now (LOL, even in the future all cops are bastards). Alex stumbles to the nearest home--which turns out to be the home of a subversive writer whose wife Alex and his droogs raped years before. The man is set on revenge and blasts Beethoven's 9th, causing Alex to attempt suicide by jumping out a window. In doing so, the Ludivico technique is reversed and Alex wakes up to discover "I was cured, all right!".

What are we to make of Alex? He is a violent rapist, lacking in empathy and regret. He is also a product of his violent society and his indifferent upbringing. A Clockwork Orange has never not been relevant, as our (well, our American) criminal justice system does more to perpetuate violence and apathy than it does to curb crime. Burgess' novel and Kubrick's film are both incredibly controversial as they ask you to consider the well-being and rights of a violent criminal. But if we don't see young men such as Alex as fully human, aren't we simply as monstrous as they are, if not more?

Grade: A+