Monthly Archives: September 2022
After receiving such blistering and excoriating responses, I went into writer/director Andrew Dominik’s Blonde with great trepidation. The near-three-hour biopic on the iconic Marilyn Monroe, played by Ana de Armas, is the first movie to earn an NC-17 rating since 2011’s Killer Joe, and as such, there’s a natural curiosity factor to any movie receiving such hostile reactions. Fans and critics have called the movie exploitative, navel-gazing, misogynistic, and redundant misery porn. One critic even said Blonde was “the worst movie Netflix has ever made.” I was a major fan of Dominik’s verbosely titled 2007 film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and less so 2012’s Killing Them Softly, though I recognized sparing artistic merit. It’s been ten years since Dominik has directed a movie, so surely Blonde, based upon the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, had to have some merit beyond all its hype and criticism, right? Well, no. I processed my general disgust for Dominik’s three-hour slow-mo car crash. This movie is so stupendously misguided and cruel and filled with bizarre, outlandish, and maddening artistic decisions. For my movie review, I felt I needed to break my standard formula, so I decided to give voice to my analysis and criticisms by writing a pretend conversation between Dominik and a stand-in for the Netflix production. Enjoy, dear reader, and beware.
Andrew Dominick sits in front of the desk of a very concerned Netflix Producer, who fidgets uncomfortably in his seat and shuffles papers in his hands.
Netflix Producer: So, thanks, Andrew for making time for this meeting. We’ve seen your full movie and we have some… well, concerns.
Andrew Dominik: That’s life, man. You can’t tell stories without risk. Break a few eggs.
Netflix Producer: Yes, sure, but, well, I guess one of our biggest questions is why did you need almost three hours to devote entirely to the lengthy suffering of Marilyn Monroe? This is supposed to be a biopic, but all we get, scene after scene, to a fault, is a moment of Marilyn being abused, or crying, or being generally exploited. It’s… a lot to take in, Andrew.
Andrew Dominik: Hey man, that was her life. She was this glamorous star, but behind the glamor is a lot more dirt and grime. Everyone wanted to be her, and I wanted to show the world how wrong that would be. This is a woman who was desired by the world and she was still a victim in the Old Hollywood system, which was a rape factory. I was just being honest, man.
Netflix Producer: I get that principle, but it really feels like the only version of Marilyn we get in this movie is the role of a long-suffering victim. It’s practically a passion play: The Passion of Marilyn Monroe. You’re cheapening her real-life suffering by making it so redundant to the point of self-parody, and also, if you were so concerned about creating an honest portrayal of what this woman went through, then why are you also making things up to add to her legitimate suffering?
Andrew Dominik: What d’ya mean? I adapted the book.
Netflix Producer: Yes, but you do know that Oates’ book is explicitly fictitious, right? It’s made up. Marilyn never had a throuple relationship with Charlie Chaplain Jr. and Edward G Robinson Jr. Marilyn had a positive relationship with her mother. Even worse, you’re adding fictitious suffering, like her relationship with her mother, or Marilyn being raped during an audition.
Andrew Dominik: Yeah, that might never have happened, but the rape represents the-
Netflix Producer: I’m gonna stop you there. You should refrain from sentences that include the phrase, “The rape represents [blank].” We don’t need literal sexual violence, of which we return to time and again, to stand in for a larger thematic message. Also, it’s quite disingenuous to add extra traumatic experiences when you’re purporting to tell this woman’s real trauma and conflict.
Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, then.
Netflix Producer: No, not really, but, okay, Andrew, can you tell me any personable impression you get of Marilyn from this movie? And-and you cannot say “victim.”
Netflix Producer: …Yes?
Andrew Dominik: Sexy?
Netflix Producer: Okay, sex symbol for nearly 60 years after her death, sure. What else?
Andrew Dominik: She was…. Um…. Uh… Can I look this up on my phone?
Netflix Producer: See, Andrew, this is our problem-
Andrew Dominik: Oh, she has daddy issues! There. That.
Netflix Producer: And for an hour you have her referring to all the men in her life as “daddy,” which is very uncomfortable especially when those men are literally abusing her.
Andrew Dominik: But, y’see, she calls ‘em all “daddy” because she has-
Netflix Producer: Oh, we get it. Thank you. You have 160 minutes and you keep hitting the same point over and over, bludgeoning the viewer into submission. It’s more than a bit gratuitous, especially when you factor that you’re adding even more trauma.
Andrew Dominik: What d’ya mean by “gratuitous?”
Netflix Producer: I have prepared several examples. For starters, it might be a bit much within the first twenty minutes of your movie to subject your audience to a mother trying to drown her child in the bathtub and Marilyn being sexually assaulted at one of her first auditions.
Andrew Dominik: Okay. Okay. I get that.
Netflix Producer: Then there’s the ghastly POV shot from inside Marilyn’s vagina, which by God happens twice, and both times it’s during forced abortions. Did we really need that queasy angle that is literally invading her body against her will to accomplish what exactly?
Andrew Dominik: The purpose of any true artist is to go deeper-
Netflix Producer: I’m gonna stop you there again. It’s just bad taste, Andrew. Also, speaking of bad taste, maybe we don’t need the entire sequence where JFK rapes her and then hires government goons to abduct her and force Marilyn into an abortion. And then, on top of all that, she hears the pleas of her first aborted fetus calling back to her. Yikes. Can you at any point step outside of your position, Andrew, and realize how shockingly gratuitous all of that can be?
Andrew Dominik: It’s all designed to separate the person from the icon. Marilyn Monroe never really existed beyond the fantasies of the public, man. It’s about bringing back her humanity.
Netflix Producer: Separating the legend from the person would be a natural artistic angle, but that means spending time establishing the person, building her up through multiple dimensions, multiple opportunities to flesh her out. You only spend time seeing her as a victim, that is when we’re not meant to partake in the same sexualization of her that you seem to be criticizing. I mean the 1996 HBO TV movie managed by having two different actresses portray her, with Naomi Judd as Norma Jean and Mira Sorvino as Marilyn. That literalized the differences and even had Marilyn converse with her former persona as a plot device. You have none of that.
Andrew Dominik: I might not have that, but my movie has a cross dissolve that goes from Marilyn getting banged to the literal crest line of Niagara Falls.
Netflix Producer: I don’t think that really makes up for a lack of character substance.
Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, man.
Netflix Producer: You really can’t keep using that as a defense.
Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, man.
Netflix Producer: Your horror show of relentless trauma and bad taste might undercut your stated goal of humanizing this woman. She’s not a character but a symbol of abject suffering, a martyr, and you increase her suffering, and sometimes in grating, absurdly grotesque ways. Do you even care about this woman? You’ve devoted three hours to reanimating her as a powerless punching bag.
Andrew Dominik: Well, I did say Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is about “well-dressed whores” and that Blonde is “just another movie about Marilyn Monroe. And there will be others.” I also said that the most important part of her life was that she killed herself.
Netflix Producer: Exactly. That makes us question whether you have the passion and sensitivity for this project. Why does this movie even have to be NC-17? Will your three hour torture chamber be bereft of meaning if the audience doesn’t see two inner vaginal camera angles?
Andrew Dominik: How dare you even question my artistic integrity. If you remove those shots, you might as well be removing the soul of this movie. Why even tell this story?
Netflix Producer: Yes, why indeed?
Andrew Dominik: It’s meant to be disorienting.
Netflix Producer: Congrats.
The Netflix producer leans back in his chair and releases an extended, wearying sigh.
Andrew Dominik: So… after everything…. Are you going to make me cut anything?
Netflix Producer: Please. We’re so hungry for Oscar recognition, we don’t care. Go for it.
I want to cite de Armas’ (The Gray Man) performance as one of the few attributes to the movie. It’s hard to watch this woman suffer and cry in literally every scene, but I also just felt so sad for not just her character but for de Armas as an actress herself. She shouldn’t have to endure everything that she does to play this character. She is undercut by Dominik’s artistic antics and avarice at every turn, like the story jumping around incoherently so every scene fails to build upon one another. There is no genuine character exploration to be found here. It’s a cycle of suffering, and the movie wants to rub your nose in the exploitation of Monroe while simultaneously exploiting her. De Armas deserves better. Marilyn Monroe deserves better. Every viewer deserves better. Spare yourself three awful hours of pointless suffering in the name of misapplied art.
Nate’s Grade: F
Do we regularly invite strangers to view the picturesque and personal moments of our life like marriages, celebrations, and maybe even a handful of hastily conceived topless photos? Well we all do every time we drop off a roll of film for development.
Robin Williams continues his 2002 Tour of the Dark Side (Death to Smoochy, Insomnia) as way of Sy, your friendly photo guy working at your local Sav-mart superstore. Sy takes an intense artistic pride in the quality of prints he gives. He knows customers by name and can recite addresses verbatim. One family in particular Sy has become fond of is the Yorkins, mother Nina (Connie Nielsen), father Will (Michael Vartan) and nine-year-old Jake. The Yorkins have been coming to Sav-mart and Sy for over 11 years to have their photos developed. He tells Nina that he almost feels like Uncle Sy to the family. For Sy, the Yorkins are the ideal postcard family with perennially smiling faces and the happiest of birthdays. He fantasizes about sharing holidays with them and even going to the bathroom in their posh home.
Sy is an emotionally suppressed and deeply lonely man caught in his delusions. In one of the eerier moments of the film we see that Sy has an entire wall made up of hundreds of the Yorkin’s personal pictures. When Sy attempts to become closer to the objects of his infatuation that’s when things begin to unravel at a serious pace. The more Sy learns that the Yorkins are not the perfect family he yearns for the more he tries to correct it and at any cost.
One Hour Photo is an impressive film debut by music video maven Mark Romanek (best known for the NIN “Closer” video). Romanek also wrote the darkly unrepentant story as well. One Hour Photo is a delicate voyage into the workings of Sy’s instability with lushly colorful metaphors. Romanek’s color scheme is a lovely treat, with vibrant colors popping out and Sy’s life being dominated by cold, sterilized whites. His direction is chillingly effective.
This may be the first time we can truly say Robin Williams has not merely played a version of Robin Williams in a movie. Sy’s thick glasses and thinning peroxide-like hair coupled with an array of facial pocks allow us to truly forget that the man behind the mask is Mork. His performance is unnerving and engrossing. The supporting cast all work well. Nielsen (Gladiator) is a sympathetic wife even if her hair looks like it was cut with her eyes closed. Vartan (Vaughn on ABC’s wonderful Alias) plays understandably wary of Sy’s friendliness. The great Gary Cole has a small role as Sav-mart’s manager who grows tired of Sy’s outbursts and peculiarities.
One Hour Photo is rife with nervous moments and titters. Williams almost has an uneasy predatory feel to him when left alone with Jake. The greatest achievement the film has is that is depicts the scariest person youll ever see, sans hockey mask, and by the end of the film you actually feel degrees of warmth for this odd duck.
Not everything clicks in Romanek’s dark opus. A late out-of-left-field revelation by Sy feels forced and needlessly tacked on. The Yorkin family photos all appear to be taken by a third party, since the majority of them involve all three of them in frame. The climax to One Hour Photo also feels anything but climactic.
A compellingly creepy outing, One Hour Photo is fine entertainment with beautiful visuals and a haunting score. And maybe, in the end, it really does take an obsessive knife-wielding stalker to make us realize the importance of family.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I miss Robin Williams. I’m sure I’m not alone in this sentiment. I can still recall the visceral recoil I had learning about the news of his suicide in 2014. It’s one of the celebrity deaths that hit me hard, as I think many people have fond memories of their childhood linked to Williams and his litany of cherished comedy hits. As boundlessly hilarious as he was, I never felt he got his due as a dramatic actor. He was a four-time Oscar nominee, starting with 1988’s Good Morning Vietnam and concluding with a win for Best Supporting Actor for 1997’s Good Will Hunting, but I think his famous funny side always overshadowed the plaudits for his drama. Nobody could do what he did when it came to comedy; just being a good-to-great dramatic actor didn’t make him as unique in that field of performers, so I think his efforts were often discounted. Williams is one of several comedians who tried their hand at drama, to be deemed a Serious Actor, like Jim Carrey (The Truman Show, The Majestic) and Adam Sandler (Punch-Drunk Love, Uncut Gems) and Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls) and Will Ferrell (Stranger than Fiction.) and Bill Murray (Lost in Translation) and Sarah Silverman (I Smile Back) and Steve Coogan (Philomena) and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). After 2000, Williams had even more dramatic performances than comedic ones, and I termed 2002 his World Tour of Darkness where he co-starred in Death to Smoochy, Insomnia, and One Hour Photo all that same year. Revisiting the stalker thriller One Hour Photo, it’s easy to think of the time gone by, and it’s also easy to further appreciate just what an interesting actor Robin Williams could be no matter the project.
This is an intriguing character study of obsession, trauma, and perversion, but I wish it had even more material to better build upon the excellent unease and tension of Sy Parrish (Williams). We learn pretty effectively how lonely and sad Sy is, enough so that even a perceptive little boy can sense that this older man working for years at the photo department of a Wal-Mart-esque big box store is in need of some happy thoughts. He’s dedicated to his job and his regular customers, and that’s about the extent of his purpose because his happy home is so empty that he resorts to filling it with the personal pictures of the Yorkin family. He dreams about the Yorkins inviting him into their home, accepting him as “Uncle Sy,” and providing a welcomed belonging. This is a story of one man projecting all of his hope and envy onto a family unit that cannot live up to Sy’s unrealistic expectations of Hallmark bliss. Sy narrates early that our pictures are the moments we want to remember, the moments we want to treasure and share. “No one ever takes a photo of something they want to forget,” he intones. It’s a theme that bears even more relevancy in our modern age of curated social media versions of ourselves, presenting the best possible versions for consumption by our friends and family and various Internet strangers.
There was more room to explore with this thematic contrast, the idealized versions of ourselves presented to the outside world and the real versions, often with more insecurity and flaws. Sy takes his simmering anger out mostly on the family patriarch, Will (Michael Vartan), and how he doesn’t appreciate what he has. I think it would have been even more intriguing if each member of the Yorkin clan was somehow failing to live up to Sy’s expectations and how this unraveled his delicate psyche and patience. He develops their photos for years, and the Yorkins seem like the happiest and healthiest family, at least to Sy, a family he’d like to call his own. It would have been more compelling if each family member had their own unique way of falling short. Imagine the mother having a secret drinking problem. Or maybe little Jakob is slouching when it comes to his studies, or he needs to learn how to play baseball better, or he’s bullying some kids. The movie would have extra conflict if Sy was having difficulty with more than one family member and inserted himself to resolve it, but the others skate by as Sy’s contempt is directed solely at the bad dad. There is a narrative reason for this, beyond mere plot convenience, and it relates to the ending reveal that gives the audience the biggest clue about what has driven Sy’s desperation.
I called the final reveal in 2002 to be a bit “forced and needlessly tacked on,” and it’s certainly handled in such a haphazard way that you feel like it’s more sleight than it should be. However, having re-watched the film in 2022, it’s this scene, and especially William’s performance, that clinches the movie for me. Sy is sitting in police custody and it’s this setting that establishes the movie’s question of what did this man do and who did he harm. The obvious culprit would be Will as he’s the one wrecking this family unit with his affair, so it’s a nice surprise when the movie subverts our expectations and it turns out Sy hasn’t killed anyone after all. And the pictures he took of Will and his mistress, naked and trembling as he ordered them to strike poses while he brandished a knife, are simply of ordinary objects and exteriors. Both of these mitigate the danger of our knife-wielding, unstable protagonist. Then Williams delivers a tragic monologue about Sy’s father taking pornographic pictures of him while he was a child. It’s never hinted at before but it’s a final puzzle piece that makes sense, especially his ire for Will. It’s a major reveal but it’s not sensationalized, and Williams’ angry yet weary performance feels absolutely in-character and also devoid of prurient sensationalism. While the movie is structured as a crazy person escalating their crazy and ensnaring others, it’s also a dive into a sad man’s tragic life brought about from a tragic past that made him eager for another family’s illusion.
This was director Mark Romanek’s second movie, though his first since gaining industry-wide acclaim as a premiere 1990s music video director (Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” to name a couple). It’s always interesting to me what projects esteemed music video directors decide to tackle for their big picture debuts. Very often they’re tasked with horror movies (Marcus Nispel, Samuel Bayer), as music videos are heavy on atmosphere and visually striking arrangements. Romanek chose to helm his own original screenplay about a sad, scary man at a photo booth who obsessed over another family. It’s a gamble, one that Romanek never was able to repeat. He began as the director for 2010’s The Wolfman before being fired and replaced by Joe Johnston. That same year his last film was released, the exquisitely heartbreaking Never Let Me Go. He hasn’t directed a movie since, returning to music videos, commercials, and TV pilots, and this is a shame.
Twenty years later, one-hour photo stations have also been relegated to the dustbin of history. The majority of Americans use their smartphone as their primary picture-taking device, and digital has overtaken film stock for its value and ease. In that regard, it’s also a time capsule of its own, including the humorous montage of Sy’s regular customers (enjoy a young Jim Rash as an amateur smut photographer). It’s just yet another reminder about the changes over time, and it made me reflect even more upon how many years it’s been since we lost Williams.
One Hour Photo is a good movie, elevated by one of the few Williams performances where he disappears inside the character, but it definitely could have been even greater. It’s solid, sleek, and effectively unnerving, but you can also wish it was a little more. The textured yet streamlined score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek stands out, as it should considering this is the same dynamic team behind Run Lola Run, Cloud Atlas, and HBO’s Deadwood, all sensational scores. The cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, has worked on three of the last four David Fincher movies. The editor, Jeffrey Ford, has since gone on to edit nine Marvel movies. The art director, Michael Manson, went on to work on Doctor Strange and The Mandalorian TV show. In short, there was a lot of talent here to help usher Romanek’s vision to the screen. One Hour Photo is a tantalizing movie that still entertains, especially watching Williams rock the role of a disturbed loner reaching his nadir. As I said in 2002: “A compellingly creepy outing, One Hour Photo is fine entertainment with beautiful visuals and a haunting score. And maybe, in the end, it really does take an obsessive knife-wielding stalker to make us realize the importance of family.”
Re-View Grade: B
Bodies Bodies Bodies is a darkly comic horror indie but the most horrifying aspect is being trapped in a house with these obnoxious Gen Z stereotypes. A gathering of drug-addled teenagers is interrupted by two major events: a hurricane isolating everyone inside the posh Floridian estate, and a hidden murderer among their ranks picking them off. The problem with this would-be Scream scenario is that its screenplay is hampered by tonal anguish; it’s not scary enough to unsettle, and it’s certainly not funny or satirically lancing enough to count. These cringe-worthy caricatures of Gen Z as over-stimulated, over-entitled, and over-offended are hacky and feel like somebody collected a lazy grab bag of generational complaints. Everyone in this movie is annoying or unlikeable or shallow or selfish or plainly insufferable. I know the movie wants to satirize the worst of modern social media-heavy teen friendships, but it feels written by someone who hates Gen Z but without deeper understanding of the foibles of Gen Z struggles. Cultural buzzwords will be thrown out (podcasts, ablest, gaslighting, feelings are facts, appropriation, triggering, etc.) with abandon but it all feels so phony and dubious. The central mystery has some appeal, and there are some performers who make the most of their sketchy characters, like Shiva Baby‘s Rachel Sennet and a well-cast Pete Davidson, but more often the actors are trapped from such limited material, especially Oscar-nominee Maria Bakalova (Borat 2) as our sheltered protagonist navigating this weird world of privilege. The horror elements feel entirely out of balance, utilizing the dark environment and rave glow band-lighting accents for most of its lackluster, murky atmosphere. Bodies Bodies Bodies has some shining moments but far too much down time with inauthentic yet very insufferable characters, and after 80 minutes, I didn’t care who survived because my patience had long been murdered.
Nate’s Grade: C
It’s no more, no less than its bald premise, but with the benefit of some nifty aerial photography to heighten viewer veritgo, some seamless special effects, and a streamlined story structure, Fall is serviceable survivor escapsism. The motivation is pretty inconsequential as to why these two young women (Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner) are climbing an old radio tower, but they do, they reach the top, and then the ladder crumbles below them, trapping them way up high. From there, it becomes a survival thriller that isn’t as dumb as its straightforward title and premise might have you believe. I recall 2010’s Frozen, not the popular Disney musical, but the small indie thriller about a group of characters stranded on an abandoned ski lift. It’s a similar scenario and becomes less of a question over whether they will get down and more how they will endure the elements and simply survive long enough to draw attention to their plight. If you have a fear of heights, there are several deft moments that draw out that anxiety-ridden tension; I even gasped a few times at the movement from teetering positions and leaps. There’s a late twist I wasn’t expecting that I think is handled well, and there’s just enough character introspection to keep things interesting without de-escalating the urgency and tension of the premise. Also, Fall originally had a lot more swearing and 30-some F-bombs and these were eliminated from the use of a Deep Fake A.I. software that swapped the actors’ mouths into contorting new PG-13-approved syllables. I didn’t even notice it, which is a sign of how remarkable the technology has become and how cost-effective (the budget for Fall was only $3 million). There’s little else to this than being a well-developed, well-executed 100-minute thrill ride (you get Jeffrey Dean Morgan for exactly two whole scenes) and when you’re looking for fleeting fun, that’s certainly agreeable disposable entertainment.
Nate’s Grade: B
I’m at a crossroads with writer/director Kevin Smith. Well, I might actually have already switched sides but don’t want to fully admit it yet even if it’s self-evident. I’ve written about this before but Smith was one of those major cinematic voices that helped shape my sense of indie film and even comedy during my formative teenage years. I became a diehard fan, watched every movie several times and had all their interconnected Easter eggs memorized, and I’ve seen the man in person three times, one time recorded for a college Q&A DVD release. In short, I was most definitely a Kevin Smith super fan. Then over the last five years or so, things began to change, or more accurately my perception of Smith’s movies began to change. The attempts at humor were strained, obvious, and gassed, and it felt like his biting wit and raunch had transformed into mawkish nostalgia. The man in his twenties who made comedies I identified with and loved became a man in his forties with different priorities and a different perspective. He evolved. However, I am no static creature, and I too was evolving, and my fanfare for Smith’s comedy sensibility has transformed into more of a pained grimace. I re-watched Dogma in 2019 and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in 2021, as well as its second-banana imitation Jay and Silent Bob Reboot in 2019, and my assessment was only reaffirmed with each movie: I’ve outgrown my old influence. As a big screen storyteller, Smith has become more and more insular, inaccessible, and beholden to eroding fan-service, almost like he too is trying to bid goodbye to his own universe of characters. Maybe that will be the big reveal, Smith putting all his toys back away while he still can.
Clerks III is a return to the old QuickStop convenience store in Red Bank, New Jersey, last seen in 2006 with friends and malcontents Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) as the new owners. Clerks II seemingly ended on a moment of triumph, of the guys returning to their roots but also stepping up, assuming ownership responsibilities. However, many can also view the ending as a darker indictment on what the future held for these men. Sixteen years later, what have these men accomplished? That’s the thrust of this third film, following Randal’s brush with death from a heart attack (based upon Smith’s own life-threatening experience). He re-evaluates his life at 50 and yearns to make a movie about his life and his personal experiences, which just happens to be life in service at the QuickStop. He bands together with Dante as producer and they put together a ragtag crew, including old buddies now selling their own state-approved brand of bud, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), to make their movie.
In many ways, Clerks III is like a remake of Clerks with the characters of Clerks making their own version of Clerks only thirty years removed from the actual scenes of Clerks. There’s a bit of a snake eating its own tail feeling; many scenes are re-creations of moments from the original Clerks and with the same actors. It’s slightly fun to see even the smaller non-actors come back to recreate these moments, but it also makes the movie feel like an extended high school reunion (“Oh look, that guy lost his hair.”). If you were not a fan of Clerks, well you shouldn’t really be watching the third film in the series, but if you didn’t have an attachment to these characters and this odd world, seeing older versions of former fleeting characters, from the Chewlie’s Gum rep to the angry ruse-baiting video store customer or the woman who manually masturbates caged animals, would feel like flipping through someone else’s photo album, devoid of whatever nostalgic or emotion was intended.
As a lifelong fan of Smith’s filmography, or at least a former lifelong fan now transitioning to accepting a parting of ways, it’s neat to see this reunion of sorts, but it’s also ultimately pointless from a narrative standpoint. Smith is treading the same ground now with irony and distance. Actually, the irony gives way more to sentimentality. It’s not an insult to say that Smith has gotten increasingly softer as he’s gotten older, blunting much of his comedy edge. He comes across as a sincere man who really cares for the people in his life, including these very people that contributed their time and efforts in 1992 to help make a young man’s dream come true. I understand his desire to pay back all the little people, to check back with them one more time, and to have Clerks III serve as a love letter to those who were there from the very beginning. If you’re plugged into this universe, you might smile and you might also feel some of the love.
There are famous cameos to balance out the lesser known faces from the original Clerks. You’ll see Ben Affleck hamming it up, Justin Long doing a funny voice, Fred Armisen grasping for something to do, and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s first film role since 2012 and first live-action film role since 2009’s Possession (Gellar was a voice on Smith’s Masters of the Universe animated series on Netflix). The two big additions from Clerks II also return. Trevor Fehrman, returning as the socially awkward coworker Elias, is the funniest part of the movie as his character goes through a spiritual crisis. He feels let down by Jesus and commits himself to Satan, and his runway show’s worth of crazy outfits and cosplays throughout the movie is the funniest joke that never even bears mentioning, which only makes it funnier (he too has his own Silent Bob-esque quiet sidekick played with good spirits by Austin Zajur). Elias was the voice of a younger generation of Internet fandom in Clerks II, allowing Smith his opportunity to criticize modern geek pop-culture, like the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings. That doesn’t really happen in Clerks III despite 16 years of Dante and Randal’s cinematic absence. Smith doesn’t even nibble or good-naturedly rib any pop-culture landscape. Even the jokes about NFTs feel hesitant and wishy-washy and lazy. Smith was defined by his ribald wit and hyper-literate dialogue, and now his comedy has become inane slapstick and pandering nods meant to serve as a replacement for an absent punchline. It’s disappointing how little the comedy registers now.
The biggest addition to the Clerks trilogy was Rosario Dawson, now even more popular as she’s firmly solidified in the Star Wars TV empire. I figured she would have been written out of the franchise as her availability was going to be far more limited. It’s not a spoiler considering it’s revealed within the first minute or so, but Dawson’s character, Becky, who was pregnant with Dante’s child and this presented a new route for his future, is dead. Not only is Becky gone but she died in 2006 from a drunk driver, which means that her unborn child with Dante also died, though this is never touched upon and that seems truly bizarre because much of Dante’s characterization in this movie will be his prison of grief he’s been unable to break from. It’s been 16 years and Dante has not moved on, and I wish more of this was explored thoughtfully. He views himself as a man stuck, now in his 50s, and having missed his off-ramp to another and better life. Without more careful attention, it can come across like a schlub holding onto his grief as a mistaken form of identity. Even that description could be interesting, but you’re not going to get that level of drama in something like Clerks III. Dawson does have a few appearances as a ghostly memory trying to help Dante move on, though if this is the case, I feel like she should be reaching some kind of breaking point after 16 years of effort.
By the end of Clerks III, it’s clear that Smith intends for this to be the concluding chapter, sending off these characters as reflections of his own film history. The focus of the final act is far more dramatic, as the act of retelling one’s life story as a movie becomes its own way of sharing the love and admiration of a decades-long friendship. I don’t quite think Smith gets to the dramatic heights he’s reaching for, even when some pretty significant and surprising events play out. Too much of the movie is like watching a low-budget remake of Clerks thirty years late, and while I’m a sucker for movies about the making of movies, and those fun found families of creatives banding together, the structural vehicle and conceit for Clerks III left much to be desired. If you remember the scenes of 1994’s Clerks, watching Clerks III is like reliving them as a strange Lynchian dream where the edges are smudged and everything isn’t quite as it should be. At this point, a new Kevin Smith movie is made strictly for the most diehard of fans. I can see that ever-shrinking pool of fans warmly smiling and chuckling from the movie but more in nostalgic recognition of time gone by. It’s nice to revisit these characters, as I’ve been eager to see what life has dealt them since Clerks II. You can feel Smith’s affection for these people, the ones who catapulted him into fame, but the movie is too backward-looking and uninterested in its own comedy as Smith winds down.
Nate’s Grade: C
Originally released September 20, 2002:
Secretary is a new romantic comedy with a few kinks to it. It’s actually the most romantic S&M movie ever. It’s the first S&M romantic comedy since maybe Garry Marshall’s disastrous 1994 Exit to Eden. I’m still trying to get the image of Rosie O’Donnell in a bondage mask out of my ongoing nightmares.
Lee Halloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is fresh from a stop at a mental institution for her hazardous habit of cutting herself to feel relief. Her overbearing mother stashes the entire kitchen cutlery in a locked cabinet. The sheltered Lee resorts back to a kiddy make-up box stashed under her home bed. Instead of colorful brushes and arrays of lipstick, she has a selection of sharp objects. Lee goes job hunting to step back from her habit, and is hired as a secretary to E. Edward Gray (James Spader). He is a rigid taskmaster who delights in pointing out typographical errors with his red marker, his weapon of choice. Gray enjoys his dominance and Lee complies, even if it’s routing through garbage. He ticks away Lee’s flaws like a checklist of annoyance but also appears to have genuine concern for her. When he notices her wounds Gray confronts her and convinces Lee to stop cutting herself.
The turning point arrives when Gray orders Lee into his office one afternoon. He commands her to bend over his desk and then delivers a sound spanking. Lee stares at her purple rump with fascination, like something has been awakened inside her. Soon enough Lee purposely makes typos so she can re-assume her spanking position.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is a cinematic find with a fearless and breathtaking performance that is at once delicate, nervous, self-controlled, seductive and delightful. Gyllenhaal, with her heart-like face and pert lips, radiates star quality. She allows the audience into Lee”s head and we quickly fall in love with this peculiar yet charming heroine. If there is any justice in this world Gyllenhaal should at least get an Oscar nomination (she didn’t). Spader can do this left-of-center creepy character stuff in his sleep.
Secretary on the surface may seem like a fetish flick but it’s no different than boy (sadist) meets girl (masochist) and falls in love. Director Steven Shainberg treads carefully around serious subject matter, like Lee’s self-mutilation, to focus on these two very special characters. Secretary isn’t making any loud statements on sadomasochism or post-feminism, it’s just showing us that S&M is the route these two people take to find true love. It doesn’t judge them for their unconventional tastes and neither should we. This is one of the finest romances in recent memory and it seems to come from one of the most unlikely places.
Sadomasochism has been predominantly shown involving pain or some leather-masked madman evoking torture. Secretary may be the film that shows there can be pleasures with pain. Some people regard what Lee and Edward do as sick, perverted, or downright wrong. Secretary is a foot in the door to get people to understand what willing sadomasochism really is about. We all have fetishes and interests, and S&M is the number one fetish truth be told. This isn’t your everyday romance.
Obviously, this is a movie that will not appeal to everyone. The relationship between our leads is surprisingly complex but gentle and even sweet (if that’s the proper word for an S&M romantic comedy). Secretary shows that it truly takes different strokes and, despite an overly silly ending, is the most pleasing romance of the year. You’ll never look at red felt pens the same.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I’ll be honest with you, dear reader, because I think you deserve that. I didn’t recently re-watch Secretary. I did re-watch it a year or two ago, and the return experience was so jarring that I didn’t feel that I would greatly benefit from watching it so soon again, but I knew I would have to include it on my 2002 re-watch list when it was time. When I first watched it in 2002, I was smitten with its offbeat charms about an unconventional romance through the BDSM community and a young woman’s self-actualization through accepting her kinks. It was a star-making performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal (originally was going to be Gwyneth Paltrow) and as a sucker for quirky romances, it was one of my favorite films of the year. Nearly two decades later, I took out my DVD copy to share with my now fiancé, who is also a fan of quirky romances and who had never watched Secretary. Surely, I thought, she would be entertained. Dear reader, she was very not entertained. She was horrified. She was shaking with disgust. She was having a literal violent reaction to the movie and its onscreen display of what constituted romance, and I will say it struck me differently too. I understand that not every film will age well, as our sense of what is funny or acceptable or what is even compelling will change over time as our culture inevitably shifts. That’s art. But hoo boy has Secretary aged about as well as milk in the ensuing twenty years.
The very nature of the S&M relationship between boss and secretary was already problematic when it was released in 2002, but in a post-Me Too universe it is inexcusable and taints any charms the movie may have had. Mr. Grey (James Spader), the dominant boss and rigid stickler for rules, is the villain of the movie and not its Byronic hero, the brooding and damaged man that a pure-hearted woman just needs to find a magical way to reach and reform. He is not romantic. He is appalling, and the early critical praise, myself included, excused far too much of his behavior. While not condoning his excesses, critics may have given more leeway because the end result was framed as a happy ending, with Lee (Gyllenhaal) being cared for by Mr. Grey. However, he completely uses his position of authority in many inappropriate manners, and while they do develop a mutual relationship, eventually, the power dynamic is not equal at all. This takes away the agency of Lee and makes the romance feel like a false choice. Much of her relationship can be summarized by the awful moment he ejaculates on her back: she just has to take whatever he dishes and like it. That’s not romantic. That’s not cute. That’s toxic. It also hurts the overall movie that the way Lee proves her devotion as the film’s climax is to stay fixed at her boss’ desk for many days, to the detriment of her physical health. Yes, Mr. Grey gets Lee to kick her habit of self-harming but she replaces one need with another. He resembles a predator by most every definition, and to try and say, “Well, he’s just complicated,” is bad man excuse-making.
I tried imagining tweaks and alterations that could make this all work, but anything where he is her boss muddies the issue of consent. Maybe if he was a visiting businessman, but that would also offer a questionable dynamic. The core of Secretary is built upon the secretary/boss interplay and imagery. The tagline is, “Assume the position,” and depending upon the poster, you might only get a woman’s rear in fishnets as the sole imagery. Director Steven Shainberg (Fur) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Chloe, The Girl on the Train) are clearly veering into the obvious office power dynamics for provocation. They are very intentional about subverting romantic clichés and looking for something different for our heroine. We have a nice guy, played with squirmy energy by Jeremy Davies, who just won’t cut it. He’s too vanilla for her and afraid to be too forceful in his spanking. It’s like the filmmakers are declaring that Lee demands more, and her specific combination of qualities just so happens to align with this gross man. The movie wants us to hold our judgment, and I could in 2002 in a “love is love” declaration, but what I see on-screen in 2022 is not indicative of love. It’s obsession. It’s codependency. It’s sad.
The other problem, sadly, is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fragile performance. The choices she makes collapse Lee, greatly infantilizing her and magnifying all the icky feelings I had. She’s playing Lee less like an adult woman who is struggling to figure out her confusing life, and impulses, and more like a teenager who woke up in the body of an adult woman. Part of this is the screenplay but it’s not helped by the acting choices that Gyllenhaal engages with. I do really enjoy her as an actress, and it’s easy to see why she could captivate so many circa 2002 with this performance, but it plays so differently now. Today, she comes across as another young woman trying to remodel herself to please a man. Her little girl acting choices only make the courtship feel even more abhorrent. I wonder if they were trying to aim for the movie to be its own kinky fable, wherein the infantilization would harken back to older fairy tale tropes and Mr. Grey as the unorthodox knight in shining armor.
This is one of the biggest critical swings I’ve had since re-watching twenty-year-old movies and my initial reviews, and I’d say even one of my biggest changes on any movie I’ve watched. I do think you can make a funny and sexy S&M rom-com; for years I thought Secretary was it. Not so. I wouldn’t even recommend this movie and it used to be in my top of 2002. I suppose people who are curious could give it a chance, but I think the objections outweigh whatever positives can be gained from viewing. Oh well. That’s the nature of art. Not every movie or book or song will have the same power over time. They stay the same but we, the prism upon which art is judged and related, are constantly in flux. That’s just the way it is. This won’t be the last movie where my opinion changes dramatically. I just won’t watch Secretary again, and that’s okay.
And you’ll never be able to convince me that E.L. James didn’t take her BDSM character’s name from this film.
Re-View Grade: D