Saturday, May 31, 2014

Siff 2014 Rumors and Hearsay

On the discussions tab, I heard Witching and Bitching, the new Alex de la Iglasias, was great, but I missed it. I hope it comes back. He's always a hoot.

However, the poorly titled movie Another (directed by Jason Bognacki) is supposed to be AMAZINGLY TERRIBLE. The midnight crowd was telling how the audience completely turned on the movie. It was about motherhood, witchery, eye makeup and stripper poles, with most of the movie being done in slow motion. It sounds awful...or great.

The voting was really kind to A Street in Palermo, about two cars that try to go down a one-lane non-one-way street and refuse to budge. The trailer looked like a brilliant movie that could ratchet tension until a breaking point. (Plays again Wednesday and I might have to catch it).

And the people seemed to like the multi-generational Holocaust movie A Place in Heaven with Israeli soldiers or something. It sounded terribly cloying and cliche to me, but people liked it.

The Skeleton Twins used the song Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now. Yes, that Starship song. No, it isn't excusable.

Mood Indigo, Michel Gondry's latest, had a relatively even range of reports from amazing to terrible.

Layover received a couple decent reviews from a couple of patrons who saw it on Friday night.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Gerontophilia (2013): Provoking with Maturity

Gerontophilia (2013)
dir: Bruce LaBruce

SIFF 2014 Film #4

Director Bruce LaBruce is now 50, and was 48 when making Gerontophilia. He wants to fuck a 20 year old.

Gerontophilia is about Lake, a young man (probably 19) who discovers he has a fetish for old men. He hadn't known he was gay, as he has a girlfriend, Desiree. The film opens with Desiree kissing Lake intensely as she rattles off a bunch of radical feminists while perhaps having an orgasm. It's her list of female revolutionaries. Men not allowed.

Lake is first seen with a job as a lifeguard where he's sketching old men floating when one old man is floating upside down. Lake rescues him by giving him mouth to mouth, but then discovers he has a boner and connects the two in his young mind.

Lake's single mother gets a new boyfriend who gets both her and Lake a job at an old folks home, where he starts out with bedpan duty and then gets upgraded to sponge baths. As time goes on, he befriends a firey old queen, Melvin Peabody, who is of sound mind when he's not being drugged, and they embark on a relationship that goes past friendship.

Bruce LaBruce isn't being his usual provocative self here, but that doesn't mean that he isn't provoking. He's just provoking differently. Bruce LaBruce isn't filling Gerontophilia with hardcore pornographic gay sex, as he is wont to do. He isn't filming with an ultra-low-budget aesthetic that is punker than thou. Instead, he is challenging what we think about youth and desires and robbing from the cradle.

To say there isn't hardcore sexuality isn't to say there is no sexuality. LaBruce's camera leers over both Lake and Melvin's bodies as objects to be fetishized. Lake is a traditionally beautiful object of youth, and Melvin is a traditionally attractive man of a certain age. To put them next to each other in such fetishistic manners challenges the current state of media of obsessing over youth as beauty.

Of course, LaBruce spends more time leering over Lake's body than over Melvin's body. Lake is frequently shirtless, and in shorts or underwear. But, when the time comes to leer over the older men, LaBruce doesn't shy away from it. In part because he wants us to see that they're all beautiful, and in part because he is hoping to lay young men himself as he gets older.

The style of Gerontophilia is that of the usual crop of indie films. The look is somewhat reminiscent of some cross between Winter's Bone, Short Term 12, and the music video for Dark Star, which is to say it is full of semi-lush but really cold imagery for the most part. There are slow motion shots, traditional montages, and some iconic LaBrucian images, such as Lake's bedroom has a gigantic wall image of Gandhi printed behind his bed, that's almost always in full frame. But, they all serve a much softer LaBruce feel than that of the VHS L.A. Zombie or even The Raspberry Reich which tended to feel overlit and under planned in a very punk manner. Even the acting and editing are softer and less overt than in his previous efforts. It's like LaBruce is trying to say that he can make a traditional movie that everybody will eat up because it's actually common.

But, the problem is that Gerontophilia is a cliche-ridden work that seems almost to loathe his fans. Desiree seems to be one of the people that LaBruce can't stand. She has her own older man fling with her boss at the bookstore, who has a bunch of feminist writers on his personal bookshelf that makes her all gooey with excitement. But, Desiree is all about revolutionary ideas and who and what is a revolutionary, at one point saying that Lake can't be a revolutionary because he's a man. If you replace female with queer in that list, then LaBruce seems almost to be pissing all over his fans who see something political in his overtly political movies. Kind of like he's been trying to piss off his fans for years, and by going through the montagey, cliche-ridden route and placing the words of his more ardent fans in the mouth of somebody he has utter contempt for, then he's testing to see if people actually notice what he's doing. He's provoking, and he's also provoking idolatry.

Gerontophilia is not what you expect from a Bruce LaBruce film. It's pretty, it's mannered, it's measures, it's typical, and it's mildly intelligent. It's not boring due to it's challenges. I quite enjoyed it despite the cliches and the usual plot developments.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013): Insanity begat from previous insanity

Why Don’t You Play In Hell? (2013)
Dir: Sion Sono

SIFF 2014 Film #3

I find it hard to believe Sion Sono’s claim that Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is based on a 15-year-old screenplay, which would originate it in 1998. There are so many parts of Why Don’t You Play in Hell? that steal from other films that came in the 2000s, to the point that it’s hard to believe they weren’t influences on even the first draft.

Why Don’t You Believe in Hell? is divided into three sections: about 10 years ago, the present, and the finale. About 10 years ago, we’re introduced to The Fuck Bombers, who are a bunch of teens whose dream in life is to make movies. They film using 8mm, and happen upon a fourth friend who liked to play as the Yakuza. But, they make him into a Bruce Lee story. We’re also introduced to Mitsuko, the daughter of a major Yakuza boss, Muto. Muto has been targeted by a competing boss, but all the assassins were foiled by Muto’s wife. The wife is jailed for killing the assassins and creating chaos, while Muto kills the competing Yakuza boss, letting a younger assassin take over.

In the present, Muto is trying to get Mitsuko into the movie business, while the competition is trying to assassinate Muto (again) and The Fuck Bombers haven’t become a success, and Mitsuko runs away and gets a guy to be her pretend boyfriend for the day. All these stories interweave in a way that can easily be imagined, but is still fun to play out, and ends with an anarchic blowout that is amazing!

The main problem with Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is that it is 127 minutes long, and completely drags in the middle acts of the film. The tangles of the movie just get overbearing with scenes that ultimately don’t even matter, and the film could stand with 20-30 minutes of the movie being chopped, easily. As a 90-100 minute grindhouse explosion, this would be a blast. But, at the full 127 minutes, the movie just has too heavy a middle, and cannot sustain its established pacing.

The minor problem is that Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a complete ode to Kill Bill and the movies of Takeshi Miike. There are fountains of blood, beheadings, dismemberment, and various other fun bits of ultraviolence. It’s very self-conscious about it too, with the score taking a lot of themes from the other movies, especially that of Santa Esmerelda’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” which played so heavily a role in Kill Bill Vol 1. Sion Sono is doing nothing interesting with the references, and is merely stealing the scenes and themes outright.

That being said…Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is really fun when it is fun. For all it’s pacing problems, and even in spite of (or because of) the rip off elements, Sion Sono knows how to turn on the insanity and make a compelling image. His visuals are frequently stunning (even when they’re ripped off from Tarantino and Miike), and the movie is completely hilarious. It feels like a snotty punk riff on the genres which while not entirely fresh is still fun as hell.

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is recommended for a lot of Japanese insanity reasons, but you may need to keep the fast forward button handy in order to skim past the scenes that don’t matter, of which there are plenty. In fact, just watch the opening act, and the final sequences and trust that the middle was middling.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Midnight After (2013): The Best Philip K Dick Adaptation that Wasn't

The Midnight After (2013)
(aka Lost on a Red Minibus to Taipo)
dir: Fruit Chan

SIFF 2014: Film 2

This is the second film I’ve seen that came from a web story/novel, the first being the rather insane John Dies at the End, which was a novel originally published as a web serial. The Midnight After is based on a web novel by Mr. Pizza on the internet forum HKGolden. And, yes, it’s as insane and episodic as John Dies at the End.

The Midnight After is a Hong Kong take on Philip K Dick’s book Ubik, with a lot of changes. A group of 17 people on a minibus go through a tunnel late at night and end up in a world totally devoid of humans except themselves. As they realize something might be amiss, suddenly they start dying strange deaths. A lot of spoilery things happen, including a spectacular musical number set to a famous David Bowie song. But, I don’t want to give away much more than that.

Half of the fun of The Midnight After is trying to figure everything out.  But, ironically, if you find it fun, you’ll also find the final scenes incredibly frustrating. The other half of the fun is the batshit insanity that is in The Midnight After. The characters include a spiritual psychic who sells insurance, a constantly bickering married couple, a couple of young punks named Airplane and Crazy Glue, and a druggie who is constantly on cocaine. They ping off each other, come back together, and gather to meet.

I found The Midnight After to be a helluva ride. I wanted more. The ending leaves you wanting more, in fact. It’s drama and science fiction and comedy and horror and musical and everything you could ever want in a movie all thrown in for a single experience. At 120 minutes, it almost runs a little long, and to be fair the movie could have a couple of minor edits where about 5 minutes might be removable. But, to niggle on 5 minutes when the rest of the movie is just a powerhouse rocket where the pacing ebbs and flows with a psychotic mastery seems petty at best.

The Midnight After doesn’t say anything deeper about life other than “Life can move pretty fast sometimes, and if you don’t appreciate it, you might miss it” and “Be good to each other.” But, that doesn’t matter because the film is all about the experience. It’s a blast, it’s fun, it’s something rather interesting, and gives you some stuff to chew on as you’re watching, so you won’t be bored. Puzzled, sure…but who doesn’t like a good puzzle?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Half of a Yellow Sun (2014): A movie not made for Americans

Half of a Yellow Sun (2014)
dir: Biyi Bandele

SIFF 2014: Film 1

For those of us who are under a certain age, the Nigerian civil war is almost culturally invisible. For me, personally, I only knew about one thing in my life that was even connected to the civil war, and I didn’t even know that significance: Jello Biafra. Biafra is a very short-lived state that was formed in Nigeria, which had been arbitrarily formed by the UK around a bunch of completely unrelated tribes.

You won’t learn much of that in this movie.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a soap opera romance about narcissistic people who push the sexual revolution, set against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War. The novel, I am to understand, is told in a fractured non-linear timeline where there are many climaxes that happen at once, and secrets are revealed in various orders. The film is a completely linear film which linearly tells a shallow-ass story, while negating everything interesting or important.

The central characters of Half of a Yellow Sun are two sisters, Olanna and Kainene, who have just returned to Nigeria from the UK where they received their education. They are rich as their parents seem to have ownerships of companies, or something. It’s kept kind of vague. Anyways, Kainene falls in love with Robert, a currently married white man, and pursues a career as a businesswoman. She all but falls out of the movie, actually.

The actual center of Half of a Yellow Sun is Olanna, who shacks up with a revolutionary professor, Odenigbo, who came from the tribal villages. Odenigbo’s mother doesn’t approve of Olanna, and gets him drunk to sleep with his betrothed. And, then Olanna finds out and sleeps around and it’s all one big soapy mess for the first half of the film, where we watch people travel around Nigeria to deal with their family and occasionally bullshit about politics that are foreign to Americans, but will become important in the second half of the movie.

The second half of the movie is marked by a bunch of military people coming into an airport and slaughtering anybody they deem is Igbo. Igbo, which isn’t explained in the film, are a tribal people who were persecuted by various militant groups, for some reason. That reason isn’t clear in the film, so when the military comes around, it’s a huge surprise. And the second half is the family running from the militant groups intent on killing everybody and taking over the country in an effort to reunite Biafra, which had been formed out of distress, with the rest of Nigeria.

Half of a Yellow Sun is not made for Americans. The novel is Nigerian. The movie is Nigerian. It is made for Nigerians. As an American, this movie is extremely rough unless you’re intimately familiar with the politics of Nigeria, and the history of the Nigerian Civil War. Bandele doesn’t care if you don’t know what’s going on. He doesn’t hold your hand. For example, the families move around Nigeria and reference cities in Nigeria, but only give a map of Nigeria during the first travel. But, then they travel and are given generic mapless points for the cities and general north/south/east/west arrows, but are otherwise not put on the map. Nigeria isn’t a large country smaller than Alaska but larger than Texas. So, when they put cities, if you’re a Nigerian, you probably know where they are in the country, but if you’re American, you’re lost.

To dismiss a film that is made for Nigerians because I didn’t know what the fuck is going on feels extremely nationalistic. If you’re going in to Half of a Yellow Sun to learn about Nigeria and the Nigerian Civil War, you’re going to be disappointed at best. If you just like historical drama and are familiar with the political history of Nigeria, you may enjoy this. Maybe. Perhaps there are political allegories or metaphors that I am missing because I don’t know everything. Perhaps the extremely soapy drama is some sort of deeper story that directly relates to Nigeria. I don’t know.

But, the soap opera seemed shallow and trite, the characters seemed boring, and, other than Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and John Boyega, the acting seemed passable at best. I was lost in the politics of the Civil War and not sure why I should be caring about these annoying people, one of whom kept being called a revolutionary. It’s because of my America-centric knowledge that I might not be appreciative of the film, but it wasn’t made for me. I feel inadequate to judge it. But, I didn’t like it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Die Screaming, Marianne (1971): Why Murder?

Die Screaming, Marianne (1971)
dir: Peter Walker

I'm going to say this up front. The whole review here is one big spoiler given the way that Peter Walker structured this movie so oddly that you have no idea what is actually happening for just about an hour. Things happen, more things happen, explanations and dialogue happens...but then you get the plot an hour into the movie. If you don't want to even know the basics, back out now because there is no way to talk about the movie without giving away the spoilers.

Die Screaming, Marianne opens with a hotel that has a sign out front. The sign has Marianne's name and face on it, as if she is a performer. This seems to be occurring some morning in Spain. Marianne has already realized she has to hightail it out of the hotel, and there are a couple of guys that are coming to look for her. She has to leave her lover of the night and leaves out a window in time to get away by running down a road, and a steep hillside, and almost getting run over by some guy, whom she then picks up.

There are no explanations given, this is just the pre-credits scene explaining that Marianne is on the run and has met some English guy with a sports car in Spain. After a credits sequence of Marianne as a go-go dancer, Marianne is then being forced into marrying Sebastian, the guy she met two weeks ago in a sports car, with his friend Eli and a flower lady as their witness. But, she gives the magistrate Eli's name, and so now she is legally wed to Eli. And, as she packs up and leaves Sebastian's place (with whom she had been living for two weeks), she tells him that his attempt was a really lousy attempt.

Eventually we learn that Sebastian is really hooking up with some girl named Hildegard and the Judge (who are living together), and everybody is out to get Marianne for some reason that is left semi-unexplained. It's vaguely about money. Marianne, now shacking up with Eli, tells him that they're both in danger but won't tell him or us what the hell is going on. Even after Eli has had an attempt on his life, and Marianne has run away to continue her career as a go-go dancer, and then returned to Eli, she still refuses to say what is going on.

Around the hour mark (give or take a few minutes), when Marianne and Eli have been invited to The Judge's house in Portugal, we finally learn that Marianne is the daughter of The Judge, and Hildegard is her half-sister. Marianne is wealthy because her recently-deceased mother was wealthy and left her a lot of money in a trust fund not to be touched until she is 21. Marianne is about to turn 21 in a few days, and will receive the money as well as a bunch of documents that will incriminate The Judge for some legal wrong doing. It's all explained in about 5 minutes, because even though this provides the whole basis of the movie, the movie is all about trying to kill Marianne for no good reason.

The plot of Die Screaming, Marianne seems to be an experiment to negate the need for the MacGuffin, but really emphasizes the need for purpose. By dropping the audience into the middle of an ongoing story, Walker is asking us to care about the welfare for this seemingly street smart and also seemingly perpetually chased young woman simply because she is being chased. Additionally, the MacGuffin in the middle of the movie is one of importance and one of non-import. Not only is the prize for killing Marianne just additional money for the rich people (non-import), but it is also one of self-preservation for the Judge and other people of power with the incriminating documents. One is a silly reason for murder but the other seems reasonable, and Walker seems to be asking "Is there a good justification for murder? If so, what is a good justification for murder?" His answer, by placing the MacGuffin in the middle, seems to be that there is no reason to kill this girl, and we should care about anybody in trouble simply because they don't deserve to be in trouble.

The final 45 minutes of Die Screaming, Marianne is taken up by various people trying to kill each other. Hildegard tries to kill Sebastian by taking out the brakes on his car, but the Judge takes it instead. Hildegard and Sebastian try to kill Marianne in various ways. Eli and Marianne try to kill Hildegard and Sebastian to save their life. It's all just a big jumble of who's killing who in what way. Although, I should note that this is now my earliest instance of death or torture by sauna.

Because the structure of Die Screaming, Marianne is so mixed up, the audience spends the majority of the first hour not quite knowing who they should be rooting for. It seems like we should be rooting for Marianne, but she acts like an overly street smart cold woman who doesn't care much for anybody but herself. But, we don't know if she's somebody on the lam or a mob girl or a squealer or what. She could have killed the wrong person, but we don't know. However, after the revelations start coming, then we figure out that we can root for Marianne and Eli and actually support their survival.

Which led me to wonder, "why do people watch movies with titles like Die Screaming, Marianne?" Not even as a judgment, because I watched it, but as a sort of thought game. Do we want to see somebody named Marianne die or just attempted to be killed? Do we want her to die because of some sort of character retribution and she deserves it? Or, do we want her to die because she's innocent? Or, do we just want to see her saved?

Die Screaming, Marianne is marketed as a horror movie, but it isn't a horror movie. It's a drama/thriller with all the pacing constantly cut off at its pass. It's all cat and mouse and who will survive. The meta questions that Die Screaming, Marianne are far more interesting than the movie itself, which is otherwise a poorly-paced, underacted, mundane movie of people trying to kill each other while wearing the worst of 1970s fashions and hairstyles. But, the questions it asks may be ones you might not know the answers to.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Video Girl (2011): The Formula of Faith

Video Girl (2011)
dir: Ty Hodges

Chick Tracts were once a common part of the Baptist experience. They told formulaic stories of people losing themselves and finding salvation in Christ. The formulas were passed down through the annals of time, and constantly updated to reflect the changing times.

One of the most common ones was a person from the small town going to the big city and losing themselves in sin before finding salvation back at home. This formula has been adapted through the ages, including Valley of the Dolls, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Mahogany, and now Video Girl. All of these movies are adaptations of the same basic formula through the ages, and only one is a satire.

The title character is Lorie, a young adult girl from Small Town Anywhere. Lorie is a mousy fragile student who works in an antique shop and is besties with Jason, a young handsome man who wants to make it to the NBA, despite not getting a college scholarship. Lorie has taken a break from college following a car accident that happened one party night. The car accident shattered her knee and her dreams of being a ballet dancer.

While out dancing with her sister, Lorie finds the attraction of the music video director, Shark (no, I'm not kidding), and is personally invited to be in the video he is shooting the next day. At the behest of her outgoing sister, she goes to the set and becomes a featured "video girl," as in the model who stands next to the rapper and does nothing but gyrate, getting paid $800 for the effort.

Shark then invites Lorie out to LA to be his girlfriend and personal video girl, but doesn't want her to have a career outside his own, making her a kept woman. After interactions with other more independent video girls, Lorie develops a coke habit, fights for her own dependence, becomes a wreck on the set, becomes just another video girl and has an encounter with the "director's couch" before ultimately ending up drugged and passed out next to a dumpster. After a stay at the hospital, Lorie returns home to find Jesus and peace with her mind.

Just to hammer home the idea that video girls are all shallow pieces of crap that need to be saved, Ty Hodges finishes the film with a during credits reel of interviews with other video girls who start to comment on other girls and how they're better than everybody else. You know, because a video girl may watch this, and be saved to find peace back home among family. Never you mind any of their back stories.

What this movie has in adapting for the times, it lacks in subtlety and quality. While Ty Hodges fills the frame with beautiful people, including Haylie Duff (sister of Hilary) and Dolce & Gabbana model Adam Senn, they're all merely competent as actors. The acting is the quality of a small community church play warning about the evils of the big city. Coming off worse is the central actress Meagan Good, whose transition from innocent fearful broken girl to coke-addicted ego-driven delusional semi-success is wracked with overacting that doesn't even go over the top enough for hilarity.

The problem with writing about Video Girl is that it is like kicking a puppy when it's down, except when you realize just how corrupt the vision in this movie is. Video Girl warns that Los Angeles will eat most small town girls alive, and that it will turn you into your most immoral self if you don't have a penis. Not one of the success stories in Video Girl is a woman. And, women can't help themselves. They will be turned into party girls by their friends.

Men, however, can be rappers or directors or producers or basketball stars (Jason eventually lands a position with the LA Clippers), and they will not kowtow to the corrupting nature of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the only successful woman is Nana, the hardworking teacher in a small town who has no ambitions to be anything bigger than a teacher. She doesn't dream anything but for her grandchildren, after their mother died somehow. Lorie's sister dies for her boyfriend's sins. Lorie becomes a drug-addicted broken woman who can be saved. The video girls are all shallow objects. And, even the radio host is a corrupting force who objectifies Lorie before she falls prey to the nature of LA.

The other moral that this movie doesn't want you to notice is that there are people who are successful in Los Angeles who aren't completely horrible terrible people. You don't actually have to fall prey to all of the various temptations that the new Babylon holds for good small town Christians like the viewers. But, we're supposed to think that Shark is an evil person because he hangs with a girl that he hung with when Lorie first met him 90 minutes earlier (though he spends the rest of the movie bashing her and her reputation). We're supposed to think all of LA is like the rapist producer who will slip you GHB just to get into your pants, and everybody there is corrupt. Unless you're a basketball star, because they're always honorable.

Video Girl is a deceptive film that is meant to be soothing to those who believe it. It is preaching to the choir, but it's low budget trappings (such as an over-dependence on handheld) and bad acting undermine any impact the movie actually has to the people who aren't already pre-disposed to hate on Los Angeles. It's totally judgey, really sexist, and overly silly. But, there aren't enough transgressively hilarious moments for Video Girl to stand up next to the likes of Mahogany. Not to mention, unlike Mahogany, Video Girl doesn't give Lorie any success to look up to, and instead says the best a black girl can attain is kept woman or an all-too-low-paid schoolteacher (they do need to be paid more). Which is a really really sad statement.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Violet & Daisy (2011): The Art of Stealing

Violet & Daisy (2011)
dir:  Geoffrey Fletcher

Violet & Daisy can be summed up in one sentence. Violet and Daisy is what happens when a gay black man makes a female-driven version of a Quentin Tarantino film on a low budget. And, it's not terrible.

Geoffrey Fletcher is the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire, and is also the writer and director of Violet and Daisy, a throwback movie to the post-Pulp Fiction '90s and the pulp noir atmosphere that Pulp Fiction threw itself back to. He, apparently, decided that the time was right to attempt a reconstruction of one of the most iconic films on even less of a budget.

Violet and Daisy are a pair of young female contract killers who are contracted to kill Michael (James Gandolfini), who stole a truck from their boss. And, when they get there, Michael wants to be killed and that turns the whole movie on its head.

This is no ordinary post-Tarantino film, however. Fletcher is knowingly recalling Tarantino's Pulp Fiction steps, as he crafted Violet & Daisy by cutting Pulp Fiction to shreds and reconstructing it in some sort of nouveau pastiche. For what effort, I'm not sure as Violet & Daisy seems to be wanting to talk to Pulp Fiction but without knowing what it wants to say.

Fletcher opens his movie with Violet and Daisy dressed in nun costumes telling a bestiality joke while walking to a door. Then, they knock on the door, shoot up the place, then finish their conversation about the joke as they change clothes and walk past the cops. Its a scene that echoes the second scene of Pulp Fiction where Vincent and Jules have conversations about foot massages, Vincent Marsallis's wife, and McDonald's menus in foreign countries. But, what is unclear is why Fletcher lifts such an iconic scene wholesale, other than to suggest that this is the way he would prefer Pulp Fiction to be played out.

Perhaps that is what Fletcher is trying to accomplish with Violet & Daisy. Maybe he really doesn't like the emptiness of Pulp Fiction and is constantly critiquing it by being emptier than it, and also setting scenes right.

Another technique that Fletcher lifts from Tarantino (and also Clerks) are chapter divides. He numbered sections of the film 1-10, giving each section its own cute title, like Violet's Odyssey or Death's Door. The numbers are straightforward 1-10, like chapters in a novel. But, why Fletcher steals this from the same director is unclear.

Fletcher plays with time and information, like Reservoir Dogs constantly recalling things from the past, or even giving more details to scenes that he purposefully cut short not 10 minutes earlier. But, Fletcher's cutting around of scenes are without purpose other than to emphasize how purposeless this technique is to him. One such example is when they run out of bullets because Michael had moved from his chair when they emptied their guns into where they thought he would be. Violet goes to get bullets from the hardware store, but then the store is held up and the clerk shot dead...end scene. Later, we find out that Violet confused the robbers until the cops got there and it all ended in a bloodbath. Why? We don't care. It's just another part of the story.

Fletcher even steals Tarantino's obsessions with his fictional celebrity creations (K-Billy, Jungle Julie) by creating Barbie Sunday, some sort of pop singer that also has a clothing line for Violet and Daisy to obsess over. The creation of Barbie Sunday, as well as the shallowness of the name do nothing but emphasize how empty Fletcher thinks Tarantino's creations are.

By making Tarantino's testosterone-laden hitmen into young teenage girls, Fletcher is also making a comment on not only the frivolousness of Tarantino's characters, but also their masculinity. Fletcher allows Violet and Daisy to remain young girls throughout, and shows them enjoying cookies (made by Michael), playing patty cake, and desiring dresses and fixing elements of the past. In a more surreal moment, they also do things like jump on dead bodies in order to make the blood come out.

So, is Violet & Daisy merely Fletcher doing a really good read on Quentin Tarantino? Or, is he merely stealing whole heartedly? It's really unclear. At times, Violet & Daisy seems like a critique like the above, and at other times, it delves into surreal Precious fantasy moments, and at others, it seems like a genuine movie. The rapidly shifting tonality of Violet & Daisy either points to Fletcher not knowing his own material, or possible not thinking past the film as more than just a critique.

The problem with Violet & Daisy, for me at least, is that I'm not sure what Violet & Daisy without prior knowledge of Pulp Fiction. Pulp Fiction is a film that is in the American consciousness in a way most movies aren't. And, I can't wrap my head around Violet & Daisy without also including Pulp Fiction in the scenario. Would it stand up on its own? Probably not. It's shallow and silly full of digressive scenes that lead nowhere and have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. One of the best things about Pulp Fiction was that everything tied into everything else. All the digressions led to something important. Violet & Daisy just has the digressions be digressive.

Regardless (or because) of its rip off nature, Violet & Daisy can be a strangely entertaining movie attempting to make a Pulp Fiction for females. I can't say if you're sick of formula movies, try this one because it's like something you've seen before, but it is different than what normally is sold. It's only worth a watch if you really like the post-Pulp Fiction knockoff genre.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Odd Thomas (2014): The Infection of YA

Odd Thomas (2014)
dir: Stephen Sommers

Have you ever watched a film while knowing it was an adaptation of a book, but then wondered what the original book was actually like? That's the experience I had with Odd Thomas, a movie based on a book series by Dean Koontz. While watching the film Odd Thomas, I couldn't help but wonder if Dean Koontz, once a heavy hitter in the adult thriller section, had delved into the financially lucrative YA realm like so many had before him.

Oddly, this is a wrong assumption. Odd Thomas is an adult thriller, complete with rape and murder, that Koontz made into a series. Adult thriller/detective series are common now, and also lucrative, but the tonality and subject matter in the film Odd Thomas has been crafted to mimic a sort of ABC Family/Disney-esque show which feels like a backlot kids show rather than an adult thriller.

Odd Thomas, the title character, is a short-order cook who is also a psychic junior detective whose mother went insane and committed to a ward. He dates a girl whom everybody calls Stormy who also is a manager at the mall ice cream parlor. Odd's psychic ability is known to the police captain and to Stormy, but he keeps it a secret so he doesn't get locked away. That secret? He has psychic premonitions in his dreams, and he also sees dead people, and he also sees weird creatures called Bodachs, who apparently hang around the world anytime they smell an evil death.

Odd lives in a tiny town where everybody knows everybody else it seems. I don't know how else to explain the opening scene where Odd is haunted by a ghost who has been murdered by her boyfriend. Then Odd goes wandering around and runs into the boyfriend in his shiny old Chevelle and they both know each other, before Odd reveals he knows what happened. How do they know each other? I don't know. The movie barely explains because it is too busy revealing the psychic ability of Odd before making him chase the murderer through the neighborhood, crashing a pool party and knocking him out cold.

This is a scene of brevity because it has nothing to do with the plot other than serving as an introduction to Odd's psychic abilities and his relations to the police chief, who comes to clean up the mess. The real movie starts when Odd, while working as a cook, sees a man with fungus in his hair. Or something. Really, it looks like a goofy knit yarn cap. But, it's supposed to be fungus. This fungus man is Bob Robertson, whom they then dub Fungus Bob, and he's being followed by a LOT of bodachs because something bad is going to happen.

So, the main characters so far are Odd, Stormy, Bob "Fungus Bob" Robertson, and Police Chief Wyatt Porter. Later, we'll meet Ozzie P. Boone (for one scene). Throughout the movie there are many shootings, dreams of shootings, dreams of blood, and plenty of goofiness, and such...but the majority of the violence is toned way way down compared to normal thrillers. This is a movie which is toned for television. No swearing. Stormy, though she shows up in her panties, doesn't have sex with Odd, but they go on picnics. Backstories of strippers and drug-using ex husbands are glossed over in mere sentences. Odd Thomas the film has been sanitized for your pleasure...

...except for the finale. So, if you don't want to know the ending, skip the rest of this as there is some real world discussion that needs to happen with the finale. Just know, that Odd Thomas is a sanitized almost PG-rated version of a Dean Koontz novel. If you want that, then you might like it. If that's not what you wanted, then it's awful.

The whole plot of Odd Thomas revolves around a mass murder of some kind that Odd must find out based on a dream of a bunch of people in bowling shirts who carry Odd while they get shot. It turns out, that there is a satanic cult in this sleepy burg, and they were going to blow up the mall after shooting it up, because apparently if you shoot up a mall, the security locks all the doors or something? I'm not really sure about that logic, but what the finale does is prey on real life situations in recent past.

One whole part of Odd Thomas feels like an NRA recruiting video. One of the mall gunmen has an automatic weapon which he uses to kill a few people, but is killed by Odd firing a handgun at the gunman's head. This leads to the thought process of guns have the potential to do good and bad. The moral of this section of the finale is that the police don't have the time to get to the mall to have any real impact on the murders which happen quickly, so regular citizens could stop it to stem the actual number of deaths. Just as Odd, who isn't really a police officer, does.

But, Odd doesn't save Stormy, who is a casualty of the shooting. But, he shacks up with her ghost for a few days before his friends come and rescue him. The rescue and reveal of Stormy's death feels a bit tacked on to say that guns can actually kill the people we love, even if we think we stopped it in time.

Odd Thomas is directed by Stephen Sommers, who had helmed the first three entries of The Mummy reboot, before succumbing to Van Helsing and the first G.I. Joe film. Which is to say, Sommers loves family movies, and he loves guns. He loves family movies with guns. And, he made a family thriller out of an adult thriller with an emphasis on loving guns. Which kind of sums up the movie.

Odd Thomas is a family thriller that loves guns made out of an adult thriller that might have also loved guns. The darker and grungier material of a typical Koontz novel are worn away to give a more holistically wholesome feel to the character and, hopefully, garner more cash if the movie made it to the box office. But, it doesn't work. The movie has been worn down too far to give it much punch (there are a couple of goofily fun scenes with Fungus Bob), but the overall impact feels too clean for a movie that's about mass murder.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Sexual Chronicles of a French Family (2012): Skinemax, French Style

Sexual Chronicles of a French Family (2012)
dir: Pascal Arnold, Jean-Marc Barr

Are you wanting an erotic film but are tired of the pornified genre crap that populates Cinemax and Showtime after 2am, but are too uptight to actually watch porn? I have a sex-positive film for you! Sexual Chronicles of a French Family is a film that treats the subject of sex with a very French indie respectability, while maintaining a sex positive perspective.

Romain, the ostensible focus, is the baby of the family, and is also the only virgin of the family at the age of 18. His brother has dumped his girlfriend and is exploring his sexual outlets, coming out as bisexual throughout the movie. His sister got breast implants and is dating a bartender who wants to have sex in various weird places. His mother and father get frisky frequently. His grandfather, after his wife died, has sex with a prostitute twice a month.

Romain, however, gets caught videotaping himself masturbating in biology class on a bet organized by a female classmate. Which leads into the film exploring the various sexual outlets that everybody in the film has, in a completely eroticized softcore manner. At a brisk 75 minutes, the film still breaks every 10 minutes for a sex montage among the various participating members of the family.

Sexual Chronicles of a French Family is the natural outcome of films like Shortbus, except with a more straightforward intention. Where Shortbus emphasized communication, repair, and acceptance, Sexual Chronicles emphasizes connection, communication and acceptance. Because, Sexual Chronicles, much like Shortbus is told from a very specific point of view of keeping people together and sane.

Sexual Chronicles is never as explicit as Shortbus, and stays out of genital range. A lot of thrusting pelvises and erotic scenarios. It never shows penis or vagina naked, even flaccid. The movie makes sure that this can be shown on television, late night.

What it largely feels like is a group of sex positive friends got together and made the film they wanted to see but hadn't yet. It's a film which doesn't make judgments on any of the behaviors in the film: deviant sexuality, prostitution, plastic surgery, homosexuality, polyamory, virginity, etc. It makes rooms for conversations about good and bad prostitutes, various types of contraception, loneliness, and all sorts of taboo subjects. For all its positivity, the film stays frustratingly heteronormative.

There's a character who comes out as bisexual in the film after having a couple MMF threesomes, but we never actually see the men kiss or touch each other in any fashion. The bisexuality is accepted, and the character even has a boyfriend in the final family photo. But, the two men never actually get busy while we're subjected to like 20 different male/female pairings. Similarly, the movie intellectualizes all the sex positive interconnection, but the MMF threesomes where the men never touch each other is the closest we get to deviance. Everybody stays with their one or two partners through the course of the movie.

For all the salaciousness, Sexual Chronicles is merely a sex positive Cinemax film made to have on while you're either wanking or getting busy with your partner of choice. Beyond the complete intellectualization of sex positivity, there's nothing else to recommend Sexual Chronicles. Fortunately, the movie is blissfully short for if you want some quick titillation. It's really nice to see a sex positive softcore film. And, one that feels intentionally respectable. That's all it is, though.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Unhung Hero (2013): Let Me (Not) Show You My Weakness

Unhung Hero (2013)
dir: Brian Spitz

Fuck Morgan Spurlock.

He has nothing, whatsoever, to do with this documentary except that his style is the obvious inspiration for it. Morgan Spurlock, director of Supersize Me, was the new documentary darling of yesteryear, who inserted himself into the documentary process to make a movie that just wasn't about the topic at hand, but also about the documentarian. In a way, it became a flashy show that advertised Morgan Spurlock while also tackling its own topic.

Unhung Hero follows the same formula as Morgan Spurlock to create a documentary that supposedly explores the self-worth men attach to their size of their penis. In the end, though, it's really all about the star of Unhung Hero, Patrick Moote.

Patrick Moote tells us that his story began when he proposed to his girlfriend at a basketball game, and was rejected on their version of kisscam, which became a viral internet sensation and even made it onto news programs. What nobody knew, supposedly, was that his ex-girlfriend had rejected him because he has a small unit. As a result, Patrick goes on a quest to find out if his unit is actually small, and the various ways that one can grow their own unit.

There is a major absence at the heart of Unhung Hero. Patrick's penis. Without knowing the actual size of the penis, we're left to imagine whether or not he has a tiny little todger, or just a merely below average penis. He has scenes where he's confronting ex-girlfriends who all tell him it's rather small, and a scene with a urologist who tells him, behind closed doors, that he has "a handful" of penis. And, Patrick, dejectedly, says that it's the equivalent of a girl having an A-cup.

Which, in case you didn't notice, doesn't just admit his own insecurities but also, casually, puts body issues back on women. Because, an A-cup is bad, right? Apparently, Patrick doesn't think about the body issues he puts on women, but completely cares about the insecurities he has about his own penis.

The journey he leads us on becomes a travelogue of cock. There are penis pumps, penis pills, we go to sex shops and sex salesmen. We meet Annie Sprinkle (OMG! I LOVE ANNIE SPRINKLE!), who basically is like "I didn't get a PhD to tell this guy he's got a big enough dick." He goes off to Asia to explore their ways of growing their penis, which ranges from the normal to the strange. There's even one scene that is hugely creepy, which is when he goes to film a not-so-hidden camera scene in a Korean spa. Which, gross.

The end result of "accept what you have" is such a shallow and facile statement that the rest of the movie gets thrown into a backwash. Patrick gets a girlfriend (one whom he had suspiciously met twice previously in the making of the film), and it starts feeling really fake and forced. And, he never EVER shows his penis, which is one more final bit of insecurity he still retains.

If you're going to make a movie about your own insecurities about your penis size, you better be prepared to show it at least once so we know where your baseline is. Having your penis as the unseen MacGuffin not only cheapens the film, it throws the whole movie into doubt. How much is staged and scripted? How much is real? How much about your insecurity is fake and how much is real?

Dan Savage, who appears towards the end of the film, starts to get into the most interesting topic, though the movie never explores it. The exploitation of the human body and how it sets up expectations that people cannot live up to. Savage calls it the pornification of the American culture, in respect to the male penis. There's a whole section of the movie missing about how the commercialization of sexuality sets up people to have idealized partners, and how they lead to body issues in both men and women. But, instead, Patrick spends time wandering around penis parks.

Unhung Hero is the most vacant of films. Moote treats the subject with a very specific eye, and one which is completely Western and foreign. He's meant to act as a sort of cipher for the audience, but he doesn't listen to anybody (several times, he's told that he can compensate in other ways), and he approaches his Asian travels with a Western OMG perspective rather than something of curiosity and potentially respect. It is a semi-posed documentary that blurs fact and fiction as if that's something new and challenging but is really just annoying and full of itself. Much like Moote and Spurlock. Fuck them both.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Dirties (2013): The Elephant in the Room

The Dirties (2013)
dir: Matt Johnson

Even though high school shootings have been on the down low lately, mainly because there haven't been any single events with a significant toll, bullying is still a hot topic in North America. Previous films have attempted to take on the topic of the connection between bullying, isolation and shootings, including Gus Van Sant's Elephant, and Joey Stewart's The Final. But, most of these films haven't been nearly as close to the subject as Matt Johnson, whose first feature, The Dirties, masterfully tries to connect the hows and whys of school life in order to figure out student psychology.

The Dirties is about two geeks in high school who are the targets of bullying, and have been for most of their life. Matt and Owen are two best friends in high school and are also taking a film class that allows them to create a film of their own need. The film they make is a pop culture-filled landscape where they recreate famous film scenes in order to create a fantasy where they get revenge on the bullies of the school. When the film is deemed too violent and adult by the film teacher, and the bullying in school doesn't actually stop, Matt thinks that it would be cool to make a sequel...only a sequel that would be real instead of a fantasy. Meanwhile, Owen seems to be drifting to the cool kids as he tests the social formations of the school.

In order to recreate the reality of high school, Matt Johnson somehow got permission (or at least claims to) from the high school to re-enroll in a high school and film scenes in the high school in between class, and during as well. What The Dirties truly captures is the hand-off isolation that bullying creates. In many of Hollywood's fantasies, bullying tends to get crowds, or happen in secret. But, in reality, they can usually happen in the middle of the hall and everybody is too stunned to actually know what is happening. Or, they find it funny.

The style of The Dirties is in a pseudo-documentary that recalls Man Bites DogIn the Company of Men, and Hi, Mom! in the style of using handheld cameras and almost hidden-camera styles to create a compelling real life feel. Plus, The Dirties is also the student movie within the movie, which leads to having Matt and Owen adopt different acting styles for when they're acting and when they're acting like they're acting. The meta-realities within The Dirties adds a level of complexity that keeps it moving for the course of its almost too brief 90 minutes.

Matt Johnson, in capturing the teenage mind landscape, has created a movie about pop culture that doesn't bother ensuring that you'll get the reference or the joke. Everything is filmed with a nod and a wink to how teenagers process information, but it rarely cares if you get it. If you've ever been in a car with a teenager who rambles on about the things they care passionately about, this is the cinematic equivalent of that. If you're not in the culture, you just nod your head and let the information slip from your mind. And, in the case of The Dirties, what gets left in the cracks is the constant patine of bullying and association that can happen.

Exactly what Johnson is saying requires a dialogue by the viewer with himself and his own pre-conceptions. Johnson is commenting on bullying, media consumption, the corrupting nature of film, youth, social structures, awkwardness, growing apart, and life in general. The Dirties takes on the conception of the danger of pulp consumption head on, but it never lets you forget that it wasn't the pop culture that was the catalyst, but the bullies themselves. At one point, Matt is reading a book on Columbine, and commenting on his idolization of the two. Johnson isn't blaming the media, but he isn't wanting to completely dismiss it's effects either.

Unlike The Final, Johnson stops short of glorifying the final revenge. This isn't a revenge fantasy film. The film ends just as the revenge starts, on one of the most compelling judgments of the act that I don't think has been made in film tackling the subject before.

The Dirties is one of the most intriguing takes on bullying and revenge that has come in the years since Columbine. It's darkly comedic, complex, and surprisingly self-assured for doing an extreme tight-rope walk of meta-faux documentary and fictional narrative. It has a strong story and solid scene creation. And, it isn't a lecture on bullying either. It's kind of fun, but it makes you wonder why. It's a hidden gem.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

1313: Frankenqueen (2012): DeCoteau Goes Meta

1313: Frankenqueen (2012)
dir: David DeCoteau

The 1313 series is one of the best series on the internet to hatewatch. It's not good. It's not good for you. And, it certainly isn't all that watchable. But, the series is completely compelling because it's mysterious for why these movies even exist, nevertheless exist on Netflix. These are the streaming equivalent of straight-to-video VHS tapes in the 1980s that were made on the cheap and sold in bulk to fill the store shelves while the studios were trying to adapt.

With the second to last entry in the 1313 series, DeCoteau seems like he's had enough with making serious films, and decided to go meta. Because, Frankenqueen is all about the creation of a 1313 movie, or at least seems like it.

There is a half-story to 1313: Frankenqueen, as usual. A group of guys have been invited to a mansion (the DeCoteau mansion in Santa Barbara) by Victoria, a famous plastic surgeon. She wants to do tests on them and will pay them handsomely for it. But, one character, the smart one, is there to get some sort of laser that Victoria's late husband had been working on.

However, Victoria is there to watch the guys do whatever. Eat food, take showers, do workouts, roughhouse, etc. She also does tests on them and insults them periodically. And, she constantly talks about the boys like they're actually going to be sold as slaves or something. But, in the end, she is really creating the perfect guy with an amalgamated brain made from everybody and her dead husband. At least I think it's an amalgamated brain, and not body because there are no stitches anywhere.

Victoria is not unlike the audience watching the traditional 1313 film, especially as defined by the final film 1313: UFO Invasion. We sit, and watch a bunch of guys allergic to shirts walk around the mansion, do workouts, take showers, pose, walk some more, occasionally speak some dialogue, and then get bloodlessly murdered while we make fun of the characters and actors for being terrible. Victoria even talks about the characters like chattel, calling them "product." Which is odd because she isn't really selling them or their body parts.

The 1313 series, it has been rumored, isn't really meant to be a series of films at all, but a casting calling card of sorts for both DeCoteau, a talent agency, and the actors in the films. In the case of Frankenqueen, the acting is above the usual standard, and even the dialogue is a little better written than usual. Victoria actually gets in some decent one liners, and the acting for the boys' ham-handed dialogue is at least above boredom.

In the end, the 1313: Frankenqueen boys are generically nice to look at. They're all relatively cute, like flipping through an All American Boy catalog. But, that's always the case with the 1313 series. The metaness of the film actually gives you a little something extra to bite onto, much like Night of the Widow, DeCoteau's other actually not terrible entry. Is it good? No. But, it's not offensively bad (even when Victoria is scanning their bodies with a booklight), and it's kind of funny in an stock but intentional way this time.

Previously reviewed in series: Bigfoot Island, and Night of the Widow

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Teacher (2013): Ambiguous Morality...

A Teacher (2013)
dir: Hannah Fidell

There's something to be said for having sympathy for the devil. What if the devil isn't really a devil at all, but just an emotionally distraught person in a hard time? That's the question Hannah Fidell asks in her emotionally bereft A Teacher.

A Teacher follows the course of a female teacher/male high school student sexual affair. Diana Watts is a needy single teacher who is going through a rough time of some sort and has emotionally disconnected herself from her friends, her family, and her strife. Instead, she focuses all of her emotional output on Eric Tull, a senior in high school who simply found an older woman who is voracious in her sexual appetites and is willing to play the boyfriend role to get a bit of action.

Fidell skips over the beginning of the affair, and we begin with the affair in full action. Then they go through a couple close calls and emotional whatevers. Finally, the whole thing breaks down, but Diana isn't done yet and can't leave it alone. Which is her own downfall.

Fidell is able to communicate the loneliness of Diana and how distraught she's getting, but Fidell doesn't give any specific reasons. Instead, she's just saying that Diana felt lonely and was getting an emotional connection with Eric, despite herself, her age, and her position.

The result is almost blank canvas on which the audience can thrust their own opinions. Is the point of the movie to exonerate Diana because of her need for human emotion? Or, is it to eviscerate her for her stupidity? Is this a case of oversimplification saying that women are emotionally out of control when it comes to sex? Or, is it saying that everybody is human?

Fidell doesn't necessarily pass judgement on Diana, ending the film with the affair being caught by the school and family. But, what she also doesn't do is make Diana out to be a predator. Even when Diana is being desperate, she's not necessarily preying on Eric, so much as acting out of her own desperation. A Teacher almost makes Diana out to be the victim here.

Which led me to wonder, constantly, as I was watching the film, "What would this movie be like if somebody were to do a shot for shot remake with a male teacher and a female student?" I'm talking keep the dialogue the same, the actions, shots, music...all of it exactly the same. Would we buy it? Would we be thrusting our opinions of predator on the guy instead of possibly indulging in the Harlequin-esque romance that turns into a dimestore novel?

This thought exercise is never ever addressed in A Teacher, which makes me wonder if A Teacher was merely a thought exercise of a woman who had read articles and opinions that chastised adult teachers for having affairs with their almost-adult students (an increasingly common occurance). It's fleetingly intriguing, but, even at a short 75 minutes, the lack of judgement or meat in the film makes it overlong. It's like a 2nd and 3rd act in a 5 act play that should, itself, total 75 minutes.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Axed (2012): Half-thoughts on the economy

Axed (2012)
dir: Ryan Lee Driscoll

One of the dangers of shoehorning social commentary into your movie is that you might get tired of the commentary, or lose your way and finish your movie with a bunch of cliches. It's happened to directors good and bad, on all types of budget. You think you're going in for something entertaining, then you get asked to think about something, and then the movie never finishes its thought.

This is the problem with Axed, a British horror movie which seems like its going to attempt to be about the economic landscape and ends up being a slasher horror movie. By the end of Axed, it loses its way.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

The central figure of Axed is Kurt Wendell, a married father of 2 who is fired in the opening scene before throwing a temper tantrum of despair in the parking garage. After being fired, he takes his family to the countryside in order to kill them.

This sounds promising. A man who could possibly be at the end of his financial ropes decides that it would be easier to kill his family than to try getting another job. It's happened in real life. It's a devastating reality that focuses on the everyday stress of regular working stiffs. The disappearing middle class.

But, Ryan Lee Driscoll tacks on a lot of extra baggage. Kurt Wendell is an overbearing abusive tyrant of a father and husband. He mocks his son for being bullied and beaten at school. He yells at his daughter for wearing a semi-revealing dress. He admonishes his wife for not teaching the children how to behave. And, that's all at the breakfast table. Kurt is an abusive man to begin with, and the whole family's behavior acknowledges this.

When Kurt unexpectedly takes the family on a countryside vacation that day, the day after he is fired, his family goes along with it to not make him mad, and they constantly walk on eggshells to try not to upset him. By the time we get to the country house, we can tell that Kurt was an asshole well before he got fired, and that he should have been ditched long ago.

Driscoll then adds on a lot of games to the movie. Kurt has already kidnapped and tied up his former boss, whom has been sleeping with Kurt's wife. He then plays cutesy abusive games with the family foretelling that the home life isn't so peachy keen after all. The financial burden of losing his job is just a final straw, and is barely mentioned outside of a couple conversations. The rest is just on a Funny Games esque scenario.

The biggest problem with Axed is namely follow-through. Driscoll has a dynamite concept about everyday finance that he abandons for family game playing that he abandons for slasher movie tropes that we've seen a million times. Even the small details of Axed lack follow-through. For example, Kurt collects everybody's cell phone, but the daughter has a spare for some reason, and uses it to call her boyfriend, but not the police. This lack of follow-through with a concept is just plain silly at best.

Another big problem is that the acting is pumped up to 11, though with the dialogue and scenario there's not much more that you can do to make it believable. Jonathon Hansler's Kurt Wendell is like a psychotic John Cleese, crying and falling apart constantly while storming around full of self-righteous anger. It's kind of fun watching him do it, but there is no ramp up. It starts at 11 and he has nowhere to go, really. Pretty much everybody stays on the same volume for the whole movie, and it's really just that nobody has much of an arc.

I do hope somebody remakes Axed. It's a concept that deserves far better treatment than this. It's not scary, it's been done before, and it isn't as fun as it thinks it is.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970): Using camp to dissect the woman's picture

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
dir: Russ Meyer


I think every review of a Russ Meyer film should begin with a word about breasts. Tits, mammaries, gazongas, huge tracts of land. Because, if there is one thing that Russ Meyer is obsessed with, it's breasts. Ok, well, two things because they do frequently travel in pairs.

However, to say Russ Meyer is obsessed with breasts is not to admonish him, nor to diminish his work as purely misogynistic exploitation. Far from it. Russ Meyer frequently enhances his love of the large chest with an equal love of the strong woman. His movies simultaneously exploit women in order to lust over their bodies and hold up women as stronger than life human beings who are very capable of surviving life without a man.

After the commercial success of Valley of the Dolls in 1967, 20th Century Fox commissioned Jacqueline Susann to write a sequel to the film, and she titled it Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. She had written the original novel, but had not written the screenplay...and both of her scripts failed to get published. Then, Fox looked to Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert to develop the film.

Ebert and Meyer didn't set out to make a straight-up drama like Valley of the Dolls was. Instead, they used the concept of camp in order to deconstruct Hollywood tropes that existed and would continue to exist in some fashion throughout. They're not subtle either. Making a sexy horror comedy musical drama that is also a satire, they just threw it all in and stirred.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a film about a female rock group from the sticks who go out to Hollywood in order to find success. As they become successful, they succumb to the various trappings of Hollywood, and everything crumbles and turns to shit.

That description is simultaneously an exact overview of the film and a vast oversimplification. All of the trappings of Hollywood they succumb to are generic stock scenarios that usually come with the woman's pictures.

The central rock band is initially called The Kelly Affair, named after the lead singer. The film opens with them playing at a prom, then taking a break to smoke some grass in their van in the parking lot. They come up with the idea to go to Hollywood to find Kelly's estranged Aunt Susan. Well, really, we find out that Kelly's mother was actually the black sheep of the family and was written out of her mother's will, leaving Aunt Susan to inherit the family fortune.

Aunt Susan is actually the editor of some high profile fashion magazine, and is into a really wild party scene. She invites the Kelly Affair to a party at Ronny "Z-Man" Bartell's pad. Z-Man is a rock producer, and takes the Kelly Affair under his wing, renaming them The Carrie Nations, and makes them famous.

Kelly ditches her boyfriend for the love of a muscled surf actor. Aunt Susan tries to give Kelly half of the fortune, but her lawyer really wants the money and tries to stop that from happening. One bandmate falls in love with a law student, cheats on him with a boxer who then beats up the law student. Kelly's boyfriend is seduced by a porn star, gets heavily into drugs and tries to kill himself but becomes a paraplegic. Another bandmate, sleeps with Kelly's first boyfriend, gets pregnant, an abortion, succumbs to drugs, and becomes a depressed lesbian.

The specifics could really have been filled any number of ways, but the result would be the same. The Carrie Nations all succumb to the horrors of their new locale and lose themselves before figuring out that true happiness isn't found in drugs or materialism, but in love. The details are only significant in how they take specific tropes and turn them on their head.

Roger Ebert was, at the time, a relatively new film critic out of Chicago. He had only been working for a couple of years, and seemed a strange choice for a million dollar sequel. But, there had been a shift brewing in Hollywood at the time.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, Hollywood had been working under the Motion Picture Production Code, or the Hays Code, which monitored what content it deemed appropriate for wide release. Depictions of out-of-wedlock sexuality, any homosexuality, cursing, violence, and a whole litany of questionable moral judgments were not allowed by the Hays Code. But, by the late 1960s, the code was getting more and more lax in its enforcement to the point where Hollywood came up with a new system entirely.

In 1968, the MPAA ratings system was born with G, M (which would become GP and then PG), R, and X. 20th Century Fox was eager to test the system, as the public was demanding more and more mature offerings, and hired the breast-obsessed Russ Meyer and the film critic Roger Ebert. At the time, Fox was losing money, and trying out some experimental films. In 1970, it released M*A*S*H*, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and Myra Breckenridge. All experimental films, especially for studio product. BVD and Myra were Fox's June releases, even.

With Fox being embroiled in bitter power struggles, Ebert and Meyer were able to do whatever the hell they wanted. In essence, Ebert and Meyer made the ultimate movie to close out one era of film history and usher in the next. They smashed together the psychedelic genre of the 1960s with the woman's soap opera of the 1950s and the fame picture of all the time, and then added in sex, drugs, violence, alcohol, and even queer sexualities...all amped up to 11. The movie opens with a scene from the finale where a girl is woken up by a gun being thrust into her mouth by an unknown assailant. And, the smash cut to the beginning is from the trigger being pulled.

Ebert and Meyer were satirizing what had come before, and ushering the new cynical genre that would come in the 1970s, as also shown by the X-rated Myra Breckenridge, which would come out the week after. The darkness of the media conglomerates selling false truths were to be explored and openly mocked, through the use of camp.

There is a direct contrast to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with Mahogany, as both of them use the same formula to different ends, but both ending up in camp. Mahogany doesn't realize it is going through camp, but ends up there due to the Sirkian subtexts that Berry Gordy consciously, or unconsciously, added in. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls actively subverts and mocks the formula with an intentionally campy tone inviting the viewer to actively dissect what they're watching as they're watching it.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls makes little sense to most people who don't actively have a sense of its origins. Those who haven't witnessed the tropes, nor seen the formulas, may think that BVD is just a bad movie without realizing it is intentionally over-the-top. However, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls persists to this day as an deep track for those who stumble across its titillating content.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Mahogany (1975): A Love-Hate Letter

Mahogany (1975)
dir: Berry Gordy

The first time I watched Mahogany with my mother, who had never seen the film, her main comment was, "Wow. This is a hate letter from Berry Gordy to Diana Ross." I've known people who say that Mahogany was an inspirational film for their situation, and that it was an honest, if soapy, film about a poor black woman finding success and then discovering that true happiness was actually at home. They're both right.

Mahogany is an undernoticed descendant of the Douglas Sirk Funhouse of Mirrors as soap opera film. While Douglas Sirk was truly an artist who mastered visual structure and irony in ways that still resonate through modern filmmakng, he was also a master at making his movies work on multiple levels and reflecting the real world in a barely distorted fashion that was emblematic of his stars' tabloid lifestyles. Sirk would create a soap opera that works for the audiences as a drama, then layer that with a patina of tongue-in-cheek irony, and blend in the soap opera life of his cast and crew in order to create a mixture that was simultaneously a comment on dramatic cinema, a comment on Hollywood life, and an entertaining work. Mahogany is a film that, while not as masterful as a Douglas Sirk epic, certainly plays with Sirkian levels of commitment.

Real History

In order to truly understand Mahogany, we have to go into the way back machine, because it all ties in together in the end. In 1959, Berry Gordy founded Tamla Records, which would soon become Motown Records, in Detroit, MI. In 1960, a girl singing group called The Primettes auditioned for Motown, but did not get signed. However, in January 1961, Berry Gordy finally changed his mind and signed The Primettes but changed their name to The Supremes.

The Supremes started off as a three girl trio founded by Flo Ballard, and also containing Mary Wilson and Diana Ross. But, somewhere around 1965, Berry Gordy and Diana Ross started having a long term love affair, during which Gordy tended to favor Diana Ross over anybody else. Gordy had people start referring to Diana Ross as Miss Ross, and not by her first name, Diana. Diana started taking over the lead of The Supremes by showboating through her routines. This led to a now-famous long term feud between Ross and both Mary Wilson and Flo Ballard resulting in Flo Ballard leaving The Supremes in 1987.

Over time, Diana, with the help of Berry Gordy, became increasingly difficult and entitled. She started feuds with people, developed an entourage to surround her, and was frequently condescending to almost everybody in order to make her look better. By the time she broke off from The Supremes to start her own show, she had become a full-on diva. Gerald Posner, relates a story from Raynoma Gordy, Berry's ex-wife and then-assistant to Diana. He writes that Raynoma almost quit "when Ross refused to spend a few minutes with 25 blind children who were begging to meet her." Ross stated, "I refuse to subject myself to being depressed by seeing a bunch of blind kids!"

Posner also relates another story, "Eddie Carroll, Ross's Hollywood hairdresser, remembered a small girl once asking the star for an autograph -- the next thing he knew, the child was running from the salon, 'sobbing like crazy.'" On top of those stories, Posner related stories of Ross screaming at people, and even complaining about Raynoma's salary of $250/week as being too high.

Simultaneously, Berry wasn't exactly an easy going man. And, at the end of 1970, Berry and Ross broke up, just as Berry got Diana pregnant. In January of 1971, she married Bob Silverstein, in order to have Gordy's kid in August without arousing suspicion of an extramarital pregnancy by the press. Simultaneously, Berry had been having affairs behind Ross' back, though Gordy later said, "this woman is as selfish as I am. I'm going to have to be kissing her ass all the time. I need somebody to kiss my ass." Still, Ross caught him in an affair and their personal relationship fell apart.

Meanwhile, Gordy had moved from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1967. Motown became a company split between the two cities. Gordy had all but abandoned the Detroit HQ and Motown started suffering for it. While in LA, Gordy decided to act on getting involved in movies, and had recently come across an offer to make the Billie Holliday story, which would become Lady Sings the Blues. Gordy, still infatuated with Ross, was able to make a deal with Paramount to make the movie with Paramount giving $2m of the costs, and Gordy having to pay the overages. Well, when he went over budget, Paramount refused to give him more money. So Gordy paid the $2m back to have creative freedom. Many of the overages were due, in part, to Diana Ross scrapping her wardrobe into production and throwing fits on set. She also didn't take any acting lessons at all for the role, instead launching into the life of Holliday and earned an academy award nomination.

Mahogany - Production

After Lady Sings the Blues, Berry Gordy had Diana Ross on cinematic retainer, paying her $1m per year FOR DOING NOTHING. No, I'm actually being serious. He wanted to keep Diana Ross from working outside Motown Productions, and so paid her $1m just to be ready for him should he find the right script for her to star in. Script after script passed by, and nothing seemed right. Finally, Mahogany shows up with its basic frame: A poor girl from Chicago wants to become a fashion designer and ends up in Rome as a model, only to discover happiness was at home. Berry Gordy hired people to do a heavy rewrite to custom tailor it to Ross in order to give her the perfect vehicle to premiere a non-singing role that accentuated her side desire to become a fashion designer. To that end, Gordy even let Ross design the costumes. On screen, Diana Ross has sole credit as costume designer.

Gordy had hired Tony Richardson to direct Mahogany. Richardson was a British director who had previously directed an esoteric library from A Taste of Honey to Tom Jones to The Charge of the Light Brigade. Richardson liked being in control of the set, and consciously avoided Berry Gordy on the set. However, they communicated via PAs, with the PAs usually resolving fights between Richardson and Ross.

One fight, however, ousted Tony Richardson from the set. Richardson and Ross had a disagreement over which actor would be selected to rape her in a scene. Gordy came in, and the actor read for all three of them, and Richardson initially went with Gordy/Ross' choice. But, then during the filming, he had brought in his choice of actor, which led to a fight with Gordy on set, and Gordy fired Richardson.

Of course, Gordy was now directing Ross directly, which he had never done before. Even as head of Motown, he had managers and other handlers to do the dirty work for him. Gordy and Ross, now broken up for several years, fought on set like cats and dogs. They were constantly sniping and basically being egomaniacs at each other. Gordy even stormed off the set at one point, to which somebody pointed out this was idiotic because he was the one who was paying for the production and he was merely punishing himself. Eventually, towards the end of the shoot, after being told to do another take of a scene, Ross walked off the set, packed her stuff, and left the movie, leaving Gordy to finish the movie with body doubles.

Mahogany - On the Surface

The actual movie of Mahogany is a tale of ambition and love, fame and destruction, and above all, success and happiness. In Mahogany's world, if you're a woman these pairings are actually opposites, but we'll get to that bit of nonsense later. Diana Ross plays the character of Tracy Chambers, a young black girl living in the ghettos of Chicago. Tracy works for a department store as a display assistant to a bitter white female manager with a racist streak, but dreams of becoming a world famous fashion designer. By night, she attends design school where stuffy teachers just don't get her creative genius. Her drawing of a rainbow wrap is obviously better than any simple cocktail dress would be.

When coming home late one night, Tracy happens to meet Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams), an upcoming alderman who is trying to save the neighborhoods from the evil developers pushing out the poor people and gentrifying the neighborhood.  At first she's not warm to his advances, but after inadvertently getting him arrested, she starts warming up to him.

Later, at her department store job, Tracy meets Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins), a world-famous photographer, while he's shooting a bunch of terrible models for the department store. When Tracy walks in with her manager, he wants her to model. Her manager won't allow it, because she's both an assistant and she's black, and the department store has institutionalized racism, don't you know? Still, in a later, illicit, shoot, Sean convinces her to show him one of her outfits. Encouraged by his appreciation of her outfit, Tracy starts pushing to further her career with other design houses. The design houses don't like her designs, and, after being discovered she was going on these meetings when she should have been at work, Tracy is fired from her assistant job.

Back in the city life, Tracy and Brian start seriously dating, and showing up to events as a couple. Brian sees her participation as essential to his career, even though its detrimental to her career. However, Tracy gets a call from Sean to go to Rome so she can become a model. Torn between her man and her ambition, she chooses ambition and makes it to Rome where Sean McAvoy, with the help of Gavina modeling agency, redubs her Mahogany and makes her into a superstar model.

Tracy, now renamed Mahogany, starts getting an ego and getting too deep into the jetset lifestyle.  She keeps trying to get her designs out in the world's view, but all the forces try to conspire against her and keep her as a simple manipulated model. Meanwhile, Sean pines after her, as he does with all his models, but, ultimately, can't have her. When she finally invites Brian out to experience the life, Brian rejects her lifestyle and she rejects Brian. However, noticing their love for each other, Sean flips out during a photo shoot and crashes a car with both of them. Sean dies, and Tracy survives.

Tracy is then, essentially, bought by an older man who bought her first outfit. The count moves her into his mansion and sets up a workshop in his backyard greenhouse for her and a bunch of seamstresses  so that Tracy can create a full fashion line. Of course, the count really wants a bit of action, but he'll bide his time until Tracy really feels obligated. She designs a whole floor show for her line, a huge endeavor, and then is told that it's time to seal the deal. When she expresses regret at the choice, he takes the high road and doesn't pressure her. Because, ultimately, she discovers that fame and success isn't what she wants. She really just wants love, and so returns home to Brian and, presumably becomes content as a politician's wife.

On the surface, even with all this detail, Mahogany is a tale of a poor black woman being able to make it in the outside world and even becoming a success. Mahogany is a tale of choices. Should Tracy stay with Brian? Should she sacrifice love for success? Is she happy doing what she wants? Many of these questions are asked in "Theme From Mahogany", which gets played twice during the movie: once during the opening credits, and once during the Rome montage.

The Academy Award-nominated "Theme From Mahogany" is subtitled Do You Know Where You're Going To?, also the chorus of the song. "Theme from Mahogany" constantly drills the audience with questions. "Do you know where you're going to? Do you like the things that life is showing you? WHERE ARE YOU GOING TO? DO YOU KNOW?!" This line of questioning is followed by even more prying from Miss Ross. "Do you get what you're hoping for? When you look behind you, there's no open doors. What are you hoping for? DO YOU KNOW?!"

Mahogany is all about asking the questions by putting Diana Ross in constantly compromising situations and seeing what she would do. And, it always offers her choices. Unlike most movies, Mahogany actually does provide clear and separate paths for Tracy to follow rather than sending her down a path of pre-determined fate governed by the authors' whims. Tracy could choose to be dedicated to her job at the department store and stay a humdrum life, or she could follow her ambitions. She could choose to stay with Brian, or she could follow her ambitions and go with Sean. She could choose to be a good model and destined to fade away like Sean's other ex-models, or she could push her designs. She could keep choosing to succeed at fashion design, or she could return to Brian. None of this is fate, though the authorial opinion does dictate the happy ending: that success isn't all that it's cracked up to be without love.

Many people have seen Mahogany as a complex movie about morals and ambitions, which asks the audience what they would do. It is a movie that gives ambitious dreams to poor women of color, and tells them that their dreams are achievable. They just have to dream and sacrifice. And, it's a movie which is about compromises in a world aimed to test you.

Berry Gordy also gives the world a political bent by using Brian as a voice of the oppressed. Brian constantly rails against the destruction of low-rent apartment buildings for the incoming construction of expensive buildings displacing poor black people. A whole scene is shown at the unemployment office, which has a full lobby full of poor people trying to collect after a factory was closed down. Gordy is intent on showing the change that is coming to in major cities and will keep the poor oppressed.

The biggest set piece of the differences between the oppressed and the rich is a photo shoot with Sean in Chicago. Tracy and Sean mix high end models with homeless people in a shoot on a dilapidated house that is ready for being torn down. Brian asks Tracy how much the models are being paid, and wonders how much they're going to be paying the homeless people. Tracy dodges the moral implication that they're exploiting the homeless people, and says that what they're doing is art. She's excited to be moving up in the world, and doesn't care about the moral implications of her actions, losing track of herself in the process.

This losing track of herself is the theme of the film, reiterated time and again. Never is it more obvious as when Tracy is told she will be named after an inanimate object, and accepts the name Mahogany. After this moment, Mahogany is set upon a pedestal before she is pulled down to moral levels and depths that she never thought she would be. Meanwhile, both Diana Ross and the score croons at her, "Do you know where you're going to?"Not only is the song played twice, but the score constantly re-picks up the theme to the point where it comes dangerously close to being the only musical phrase in the movie.

Mahogany, which opens with the Kabuki Finale, begins with Mahogany's highest heights only to show her questioning her own choices. However, since this is 1975, Gordy's ultimate choice for the happy ending is that Mahogany would have been better off staying with Brian. He doesn't necessarily judge Mahogany for her success, because he deems it OK for her to have experienced success so that she can settle down and be content with her station as Brian's wife.

Mahogany - The Sirkian Subtext

Just as Douglas Sirk created a funhouse of mirrors in Imitation of Life with the real life stars of Lana Turner Juanita Moore, and Susan Kohner, Berry Gordy creates a funhouse of reality in Mahogany playing with not only Diana Ross' life, but his own and also the life of Anthony Perkins. But, Berry Gordy is no Douglas Sirk, and the subtext of Mahogany rarely stays sub for very long. Still, there is no hiding that Mahogany is much closer to what Berry Gordy thinks about Diana Ross than he is caring to admit. In the next few sections, we see how the text and subtext intertwine to develop a Sirkian complexity that keeps Mahogany fresh even now.

Mahogany - Diana Ross, Humiliated

Berry Gordy directed Diana Ross in a dramatic role that he selected for her, rewrote for her, and intended to use as a Diana Ross vehicle. So, he made the role as close to Diana Ross as possible. By which I mean, Tracy Chambers is a driven young woman who starts off crazy and then gets driven to psychotic bouts of egomania. As mentioned before, the movie opens with the Kabuki Finale, which is Mahogany's ultimate fashion show. After she walks on the runway, she is accosted by Gavina, who raves and tells her that it was a big success! Mahogany shouts "SUCCESS!" Gavina talks about how this could lead to other options, and Mahogany looks more worried, and says quietly, "successes?" And, as Gavina talks about how they're going to make lots of money money money, Mahogany backs away and looks wide-eyed scared...freeze frame on Diana Ross looking...I don't even know.

In this opening sequence, we have egomaniacal Diana Ross, gritted teeth Diana Ross, and scared Diana Ross. And, by the time we get to the opening credits we see her acting in Mahogany is pitched psychotically over the top. The next words to come out of Diana Ross' mouth actually come after a scene in art school (where she's told she's not following directions) and a montage later. At this point, we're almost 7 minutes into the movie, and Diana Ross has only spoken "Success!" and "Successes."

In the next scene with Diana Ross speaking dialogue, Tracy Chambers is walking home at night, when she's followed by some guy who is looking to do something bad. Knowing how to scare him off, Tracy does a quick turn, and rants at the guy, saying "Hey mister, wanna buy a piece of ass? C'mon sucka, wanna buy some booty? Yeah, you man, I'm talkin to you. C'mon you, wanna buy something cheap? Yeah man what you want?! You got some money. Well, guess you can't please everybody." Then Tracy wanders off as the guy comments with exasperation, "A'int that a bitch. Goddamn ho!" And, in the next scene, she's harassed by Billy Dee Williams and has beer poured on her.

Reminder, Berry Gordy selected this film for his ex-girlfriend whom he had on $1m annual retainer, rewrote it, financed it, and directed it.

Diana Ross starts off as an egotist with bitchy tendencies. The next time she runs into Billy Dee, at a rally against a construction site, she pours milk into his megaphone and watches as he spills it on himself. He thinks it is the construction crew that pulled this prank on him and starts a brawl, during which she laughs and shakes the milk carton at him going "Wooooo-ooooo. Heyyy." She thinks it's hysterical.

She also bargains with her aunt to get her to make a dress for cheap rates. So, in 13 minutes, Diana Ross pisses off a design instructor, imitates a prostitute, starts a massive brawl, totally undercuts her aunt, and then her next act is to write a bad check and be late to work. This girl has problems. I'm not even kidding.

Tracy gets more and more egotistical as Mahogany goes on. Sometimes it is for good cause, like when Billy Dee tells her that she needs to accompany him to a dinner even though she needs to work on her designs for a fashion show the following week. But, other times it's totally unnecessary, constantly increasing through clenched teeth, exhaled snorts, grunts, and screams. Finally the whole attitude problem climaxes when she starts screaming at the Italian seamstresses and seething through her teeth.

As Mahogany's ego increases, she becomes increasingly unstable. Starting with Sean's seduction of Mahogany, she starts flipping out with increasing frequency. At a party in Rome to celebrate her, she karate chop dances, then pours candle wax on her naked body. She then extends this wax-based flip out to a post-party scene with Brian, where she hysterically shouts at Brian, "I'm a WINNER!" while she has white candle wax still stuck all over her face and upper chest. This flip out even extended to the next scene with the car crash sequence with Sean McAvoy.

Mahogany - Anthony Perkins

Before we get into the all-important car crash sequence, I need to make a quick diversion. We've been talking all about Mahogany and Diana Ross, and the intertwined nature of the two. But, we haven't talked much about Sean McAvoy and Anthony Perkins.

Anthony Perkins is a bisexual or gay actor who struggled with his sexuality for his whole life. While he certainly enjoyed the company of men, including that of Stephen Sondheim, Perkins knew that being perceived as out was lethal in the Hollywood system. This was all before Stonewall, you see. And, so it's almost fitting that his first role was in Psycho, about a slightly effeminate guy who struggles with his sexuality to the point that he kills people.

Perkins also had a bit of a twisted sense of humor and style. He and Sondheim would throw mystery parties on a boat for their friends in order to play fun games with them, that included solving murders or whatever. Perkins and Sondheim would go on to write a movie based on these parties, with the underseen but amazing Agatha-Christie-esque movie The Last of Sheila. Which is highly entertaining and quite amusing.

Berry Gordy and Tony Richardson, probably knowing this, hired Anthony Perkins to play the role of the famous photographer Sean McAvoy, who has a maniacal hatred of women founded in his sexuality. When we first meet Sean McAvoy, he doesn't think much of the models he is shooting for the department store. He tells models to "look horny" or "virginal" or tells them to finger a telescope or to say "shit." He dismisses all of them until he meets Tracy.

After his whirlwind business with Tracy Chambers, we meet up with Sean McAvoy again in Rome. The first images we see of his pad are a shrine dedicated to his last model, Crystal, which has blown up topless shots and a candids thrown in to the mix. When I say it is a shrine, it is literally a nook that you can walk in with walls plastered with the image of this model that McAvoy basically created.

The next image we see is of a giant blow up of Crystal with throwing darts on her face, and the print is scratched to hell. Tracy notices, and McAvoy dismisses it saying you can only be young once, but you can be immature forever (or something to that effect). Then, during the discussion, Sean comments that he names his models after inanimate objects, and will be dubbing Tracy Chambers, Mahogany after something dark and beautiful.

These introductory images of Sean McAvoy's personal life spell out that Sean has problems dealing with his sexuality. Later, when Sean finally gets around to seducing Mahogany (and ending up in a very Freudian position), he can't get it up. Obviously, his impotance is a sign of something else, but Sean decides to be angry at Mahogany, blaming her for his inability to actually have sex with a woman. The real reason for his inability to consummate the relationship with Mahogany, we discover, is his latent homosexuality.

Although his homosexuality is merely hinted at, at the same party where Mahogany flips out and pours candle wax on herself, Sean takes Brian to his back room to show him Sean's "private collection" which Mahogany "has already seen." During the course of this scene, Sean pulls an empty gun from his desk, and wrestles with Brian with each holding the gun and trying to point it at each other. If you'll notice from the collection of representative frames, first Brian holds Sean's gun by the barrel. Later, Brian throws Sean over his desk, so that Sean's legs are not in the air. Then Sean straddles Brian pointing his gun at Brian's face, while Brian grabs the barrel. Then they flip over, and Brian shoves the gun into Sean's mouth before pulling the trigger. The gun isn't loaded, but Sean certainly enjoyed the rather phallic scene. And, in the end, Brian leaves the room as Sean is lying down on the ground, laughing and smiling with his gun hanging limply from his shoulder. Obviously, Sean enjoyed this experience far more than he enjoyed even his semi-forced seduction of Mahogany earlier in the film.

Mahogany - Diana Ross, Egomaniac

Which brings us back to the car scene. Here, the twin psychotic natures of Diana Ross and Anthony Perkins come head to head, as Perkins takes the drivers seat during a photo shoot. After the party where Anthony Perkins gets a gun facial, and Diana Ross gets a candle facial, they have a tumultuous photo shoot together. When Mahogany isn't completely present during the shoot, Sean gets in the car and starts harassing her about her desires for Brian, as well as her complete look of exhaustion, commenting that she looks like death warmed over.

In the first two images presented at right, Diana Ross is really kicking Mahogany into high gear by this scene. Sure she already put candle wax over her naked body. That pales in comparison to the seething and kicking Mahogany that Diana Ross gives us following the party scene. The closest cinematic equivalent of Diana Ross' performance in the second half of Mahogany is Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls, where she's nothing but kicking and seething and screaming.

But, Diana Ross was here first. She can glower like nothing else. This is the scene where she picks up the odd trait of seething through clenched teeth while shaking her head. And, when Sean McAvoy starts driving the car without steering it, eventually steering it off the cliff, Diana Ross goes into overdrive, providing one of the single best frames of movie history.

Sean was taking photos throughout the experience, and capturing her fear and humiliation on film. When Diana Ross recovers in the rich man's house, we get a glimpse that we were not the only ones who notices Mahogany's exaggerated expressions, as her "friends" are looking at the remainders of the film on her bed.

The car scene is emblematic of the systematic character assassination that Berry Gordy had been building up throughout the movie. By the time you get to this bit of humiliation at the hands of the director, you begin to realize that this might be a bit of brutality on the hands of Berry Gordy himself. Perhaps it is a sort of revenge for taking him away from Motown Records in Detroit. Perhaps it is for dumping him after becoming pregnant with his kid. Maybe it was something unconscious. In any case, Gordy was unleashing his real attitudes about Diana Ross in this film, and the next scene to really showcase her diva attitude was in the Sewing scene.

At this point in the film, a mere two scenes after the car scene, Mahogany is now being "kept" by the older count, who has basically paid for all her medical expenses and has been letting her shack up on the mend in his castle. We had just seen her wrapped in a a blanket in a wheelchair being taken to a back shed where the count has set up a sewing studio so Mahogany can develop her line of "fashion" and have a bunch of seamstresses to make her designs into a reality.

Here is where the Diana Ross diva of reality really comes out. When the scene opens, she's on the phone screaming at somebody about something, but the topic isn't as important as her tone and the visuals of her about to explode out of her head. She's screaming at the top of her lungs, holding her hands in impatient gestures, and finishes by doing her clenched teeth seething.

Then, she starts checking on the seamstresses' work and starts yelling at one of them that something needs a double stitch. Then screams at the main assistant to help her get through to the first seamstress. This whole scene is pitched at the top of her vocal cords, and is as violently entitled as you can imagine. The only thing that keeps it tempered is the final bit of the scene where the count reminds her that HE'S the one paying for the seamstresses.

With the amount of entitlement that happens in this sewing scene, one can't help but be reminded of the real life stories I mentioned earlier of Diana Ross. Her not meeting up with blind kids, complaining that her assistant is making a grandiose $250/week, having an entourage and her own dressing room while in The Supremes, and using Berry Gordy as a level to get her way. It's almost that Gordy knew this about successful diva Diana Ross and decided to show the world just how bad Diana Ross could be.

Mahogany - Berry Gordy

Which brings us to the character creator of this fiasco. Berry Gordy? If Diana Ross is obviously Mahogany, who is Berry Gordy's cinematic equivalent? Honestly? Berry Gordy is in all three male characters, slightly. He really wants to be Brian, as the low-rent urbanizer politician who is out to do good for the minority community and the underrepresented. But, if Gordy is honest with himself, he is probably more like Sean, a womanizer who is selfish and immature to the core. Yet, much like Gordy, Sean is a person who can make and break a person who is an artist and a product. Gordy once said of Diana Ross that she wasn't a personality, but a product.

Amusingly, Gordy is also giving Ross' husband a bit of shit by making her almost marry the count. You see, Diana Ross actually married a record executive when she broke it off with Gordy. Since Mahogany and the count never actually do the deed (it is a PG movie after all...despite the candle wax and nip slip), Gordy is seen here practically telling her new husband, "she doesn't really love you after all! She had sex with Brian, and with Sean...but she didn't have it with you. You gave her even more wealth and riches, and even married her and took care of my kid, but it isn't enough."

Berry Gordy was obviously still pining after Diana Ross, even though the relationship was toxic for both of them. He really wanted to be the good guy she needed, and gave both Diana and Berry the happy ending they both wanted. But, he was really Sean. He would self-destruct the relationship because he couldn't keep it in his pants, and was too egotistical himself, and she was too needy. Perhaps, there was a little bit of Gordy in the count as well, since both were incredibly selfish.

Mahogany - Feminist?

The three male characters all reflect different aspects of the men surrounding Diana Ross. Which all complicates the feminism of Mahogany. Mahogany is a story of a black woman succeeding, but it's all seen through aspects of Tracy's relationship with men. Brian doesn't want to allow her to have a career. Sean wants to have sex with something he doesn't respect. And, the count wants to own Tracy and make her relationship one of obligation to him. He wants to buy her love.

When Mahogany rejects her success to be a politician's wife, it's a patriarchal fantasy that puts egotistical women in their place. Though Mahogany succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, she ultimately couldn't be happy being successful without Brian. Meanwhile, Brian doesn't have that problem. He keeps going up and up in the world, as shown by his last rally, which has his biggest platform yet. He can do it without a woman, though a woman would make him happy.

That's not to say it's all a one-sided patriarchal fantasy. Carlotta Gavina, a side character, owns her own modeling agency, and is frequently seen profiting from men and women's success. When Mahogany is in front of the modeling agency's board, Gavina lets the men run the roost but she has the final say. Gordy doesn't let the audience off the hook by making Gavina into a lesbian, or even a spinster. She's never seen with a man, but we're not given clues that she prefers the company of women.

If one can point out the racial politics of Mahogany, the white characters of the film are all seen as toxic for Tracy and ultimately use her for their own success. The white characters of Mahogany are: the design teacher, the department store manager, her aunt's factory supervisor, Sean McAvoy, all of the fashion heads she visits, Gavina, the men on the board, and the Count. They all want to use other people for their own gain, including the Count whose gain is Tracy's love. Gavina represents the white world of Mahogany and, while complicating the anti-feminist message, isn't seen as a potential role model for the young impressionable black audience that Mahogany is aimed at.

Mahogany - Diana Ross, Bad Artist

Mahogany is a Motown Production. It's actually the second Motown Productions film, following Lady Sings the Blues. Berry Gordy produced it, financed it, and ended up directing Mahogany. It stars his ex-girlfriend, and, arguably, one of the most famous names to come out of Motown. Yet, she does exactly one song for the movie. ONE. The soundtrack for Mahogany, released on Motown records, is 15 tracks long, and all but one is score. "Theme from Mahogany" is the only non-score song on the soundtrack. While Mahogany was released after American Graffiti, Gordy wasn't making Diana Ross into a songstress, but making her into a dramatic star. Still, one would have expected Diana Ross to be singing more than one song on the album.

Instead of allowing Diana Ross to show off her assets as a singer, Berry Gordy focused on Diana Ross, the fashion designer. As previously mentioned, during the production of Lady Sings the Blues, Diana Ross scrapped an entire collection of period gowns because they were not glamorous enough. So, what better way to make a diva happy than by allowing her to live her dream as a fashion designer? Right? Then, she can't complain about the wardrobe. And, so, Diana Ross was allowed to design all of the costumes that Mahogany designed. Mahogany's success would be Diana Ross' success.


As you can tell, Diana Ross is insane. We have statue of liberties, disco space aliens, peacocks, and a renegade mushroom outfit that is straight out of the The Nutcracker ballet. And, that's just in the Kabuki Finale opening.

The outfits only get more bizarre later in the film. In the strip on the left, you'll find a selection of some of the costumes that Diana Ross designed for Mahogany. The first outfit is the first dress that Tracy ever designs in Mahogany. It's a rainbow cape over a simple yellow dress that looks like a colorful something or another when the dress is flat and the wearer is standing still. It's only when the model spins, as Tracy Chamber is doing, that the dress comes alive.

The second and third pictures come from later in the movie, as the dress is an outfit that Tracy has designed to wear on a runway at a charity auction. She is actually intended to wear an outfit by a famous designer, but decides to eschew tradition and try to sell one of her own pieces. The audience thinks it is ugly, because it is, and only after Sean humiliates her does anybody actually buy it for One Million Lire.

Pictures 3-10 come from a fashion montage directed by Jack Cole. Amongst other outfits, this montage features Mahogany as a low-rent Egyptian queen, an ostrich, a wombat, a 1960s psychedelic model, and as a Hitchcock heroine with birds flying out of her vagina. One could easily be forgiven for thinking this is a movie about drag queens with this litany of outfits. The wombat alone...

The final picture is a fateful outfit with Mahogany wearing a gigantic poof sleeve. It's fateful because this is the first sign that Sean is getting fed up with Mahogany and decides to push her into the fountain, turning the subsequent pictures of a shocked and drenched Mahogany into an advertising sensation. Which, of course, brings us back to the constant humiliation that Berry Gordy subjects Diana Ross to throughout the course of this movie. Also, what advertising agency would make Mahogany the largest name of the billboard? No, really, it seems like it is a billboard for Mahogany and not Revlon Touch & Glow. It's only a brief flash, but was this ever a thing?

There's one last jab I have to fit in of Diana Ross as a terrible artist, and this one seemed so extremely petty and hilarious, that I can't imagine leaving it out. It's a brief shot, of Tracy working on an hanging poster for Brian Walker. I don't even know what this actually is about. It seems this proto-poster has been signed by a lot of people, but that drawing is supposed to be Billy Dee Williams. Tracy Chambers is an accomplished sketch artist, at least when it comes to drawing outfits. Her sketches had a little more character in the face than this. Here though, we get an extreme closeup of a poster that looks like a 5th grader made it. And, maybe they did. I don't know. The story of this poster was left out of the film. But, I like to think of it as another sly jab that Diana Ross is a terrible artist.

Mahogany - Diana Ross, Actress

That's not to say that Berry Gordy was writing a complete hate letter to Diana Ross with this movie. During certain parts of the film, Diana Ross is allowed to shine. And, frequently she does. Berry Gordy gives Diana Ross a whole makeover montage, directed by Jack Cole (credit where credit's due), with parts that are ripped straight from Vertigo.

This is Berry Gordy telling Diana Ross that she is a beautiful woman, but also a product. Much like Vertigo was all about dissecting a woman into her beautiful parts for a man's visual pleasure, this montage is about dissecting Mahogany into her parts and making her a product for a man's visual pleasure. A beautiful product, but an inanimate object nonetheless.

Berry Gordy, throughout Mahogany, is constantly showing us how beautiful Diana Ross is. Not just Diana Ross being crazy, but Diana Ross being emotional, dramatic, and happy, frustrated and just plain gorgeous. She has bedroom eyes and pouty lips that makes her face iconic.

However, Berry Gordy made a movie where the high fashion beauty is actually loaded in the middle of the movie. By bookending her beauty as a model with lower-class fashion choices at the beginning and over-the-top hysterics at the end, it is easy to forget that Diana Ross actually is showcased gorgeously during the movie.

Her acting, when being over the top, is not that bad. She can say whole paragraphs with just her eyes. Sometimes she'll be telling people off, or communicating frustration. But, her eyes speak volumes for her. Billy Dee Williams was also in Lady Sings the Blues, and one of Berry Gordy's intentions was to make Ross and Williams a cinematic romantic couple that would do a series of different movies, much in the style of the 1950s pairings of Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Actually, Ross and Williams work extremely well together and have some chemistry. I think Billy Dee actually has chemistry to spare, and gave some to Diana Ross, but they seem to actually have sparks.

So, the fault of Diana Ross isn't that she can't act. It's that she was directed to shoot the moon, and she did that and more. She took the direction to make a superstar character and ran with it. The over the top parts of her performance actually overshadow all of the good work she does when she's not being over the top. Unlike Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls, Ross' quieter moments are fraught with emotions and understanding of the character. The rest of the movie is just turned up to 11.

Mahogany - Diana Ross, Superstar and Drag Role Model

I would be remiss if I didn't include at least a tiny section on how Mahogany is one of the main inspirational sources of modern drag queens. Hell, RuPaul even said that the video for crossover hit "Supermodel" was inspired by the makeover/fashion shoot of Mahogany, and that Mahogany is one of his favorite drag queen movies ever made.

My first experience with Mahogany was here in Seattle a few years ago at a bar called Re-Bar. There, about 4 times a year, they do re-enactments of movie scripts that are adjusted. It's done on the cheap (which makes for awesome attempts at blockbusters like Total Recall), and is done by a queer friendly group led by Ian Bell. It's called the Brown Derby Series. One of the movies they selected was Mahogany, with a fabulous local black queen, Adé, as Diana Ross. The way Adé chewed up the scenery, screaming at everybody at the top of her lungs, seething through her teeth and basically being an egomaniac from frame 1 was such a spot on characterization it barely counted as parody. Then I saw the movie, and saw everything about how it is a drag classic.

What is it about Mahogany that makes it a drag movie? And, not just any drag movie, but one of THE minimum requirements for drag queens the world over? Mahogany holds a place in drag culture that is just barely surpassed by Mommy Dearest. So, what is it that makes Mahogany such an endearing and enduring movie to this day?

Well, for one, it's about a Diva. And, not just any Diva, but Diana Ross, who literally made her face the haunted image of her 1976 album. This is a woman who was the height of ego and lived larger than life. She had entourages when her band mates had none. She threw fits of egomania and was able to keep her brand alive through it, and even because of it. This was a woman who was able to get people fired with waves of her hand. She was able to make her name in the business and ended up larger than life.

Mahogany is also about a Diva who throws fits, wears glamorous clothes, lives a larger than life existance and has constant bouts of egomania. Tracy Chambers is a larger than life personality, perhaps even larger than Diana Ross, herself. And, the fabulous self-designed clothes just enhances this perspective. Drag queens are all about magnifying the traits of women, namely superstars, to elevations that are beyond the realm of reality. It's all about superstardom and the ego that it takes to get to it.

Plus, Mahogany is batshit crazy. I mean, really. It has a wombat outfit. It has a car crash. It has insanely over-the-top outfits presented as high fashion. Diana Ross screeches through the last 40 minutes of the film to higher and higher pitches. Nobody ever looks down on Tracy Chambers or Mahogany. She makes questionable choices, but everybody goes along with and/or puts up with her crazyness in order to profit. The whole movie is a psychotic version of the melodramatic woman's fantasy turned up to 11. Plus, the outfits. Holy shit, I cannot mention the drag quality of the outfits enough.

Mahogany - Conclusion

If you've made it this far, congratulations. When I started writing this, I never expected to write 7000+ words on a movie who has two claims to fame: inspiring young black girls, and drag queens. Mahogany is a Sirkian classic that, while not as masterful as Douglas Sirk's famous works, is just as complicated. Some will dismiss it because it takes so many tropes from the woman's movies of the 1940s-50s that Sirk also used and abused. Others will say that Diana Ross is over the top hysterical in it. They're both right. But, Mahogany is practically flawless because of these things. It's a hall of mirrors that can be read in so many ways, it deserves to be reassessed.

Plus, so many many drag queens were created because of this movie. I shit you not.