Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio (2022)

When you have a catchy title like Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio, you know you have to deliver the goods. This gleefully schlocky suburban satire horror comedy (how many more adjectives you want?) is the follow-up from director/co-writer Kyle Rayburn, an unabashed genre enthusiast. I was granted an advance copy to review this new Ohio-made indie and I’ll try to remain as objective as possible, dear reader, despite the fact that Kyle is one of the nicest men on Earth and even allowed me to film an episode of my rom-com Web series in his own home. Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is more low-key than you may be expecting. Its chill vibes and relaxed, ironic humor are more indicative of a stoner hangout movie than something with demon figures and threats of damnation. I think plenty of viewers could latch onto the fun, weird wavelength of an undemanding silly comedy, although there are places I wish Satanic Soccer Mom had gone even further with its spirited sense of creativity.

Annie (Gracie Hayes-Plazolles) is trying to hold it all together in suburban Ohio. Her husband won the lottery and then vanished, and her suburban community is awash in gossip and speculation about what has happened to him. Annie is trying to raise her two kids alone, keep ahead of adult responsibilities like bills and soccer practice shuttling, and holding back from snapping at the clucking hens of the neighborhood, the Karens, lead by chief Karen Green (Valerie Gilbert). It all changes when she accidentally summons a horned demon, Balthazar (Brian Papandrea), who is willing to grant her three wishes at a price, as per proper Faustian bargains.

There is a breezy charm to Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio, a casual, shoulder-shrugging amiability that invites you not to think too hard about the proceedings and just have fun, and if you can connect on that wavelength, then the meandering nature can also be part of that unexpected charm. It’s easy to see the works of Kevin Smith as a reference for Rayburn, but I was also reminded of the hangout cinema of Richard Linklater, where you adjust to the rhythms of characters and their daily lives and interactive camaraderie. Of course, nobody had their boobs literally fall off in Linklater’s world (though there’s still time yet), but it’s that same relaxed tone and feeling that permeates Satanic Soccer Mom. There’s something most amusing about populating your movie with fantastic creatures but keeping a deadpan sense of mundane reality. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed the short-lived Adult Swim series Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell, a workplace sitcom set in an office literally in hell. If done well, the surprising triviality of the fantastic setup provides its own sly sense of humor. I enjoyed that the movie didn’t have apocalyptic stakes but instead illuminated conflicts very relatable to many: getting over a painful relationship, struggling to juggle the responsibilities of adulthood, fitting in but also knowing when to push back and assert your independence. Having the duplicitous neighborhood Karens be a bigger pain for Annie than an actual demon is a fun reversal. Same as Annie wasting her magically granted wish on ordinary adult requests, like a never-ending cup of iced coffee. The unblinking, roll-with-the-punches attitude of the characters made the movie entertaining even when little was going on from a plot standpoint, and that’s a big boon for an 80-minute indie.

I consider Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio to be a silly buddy film, and it improves greatly once Balthazar becomes entwined in Annie’s domestic drama. This is also because Papandrea (Feaster Sunday) is the funniest performer in the movie. I loved the bickering dynamic between Annie and her demonic little helper. They reminded me of squabbling siblings, cemented even further during a contentious and competitive game of Mario Kart. This is also the key character dynamic for the movie, the ordinary in conflict with the extraordinary, the protagonist suffering and the relief with the strings attached. The movie is never better when these two are sharing the screen. Plazolles-Hayes (Night Work) has a spunky Parker Posey energy to her, an incredulity to her wide-eyed stares and eyebrow arches that feels earned. She’s the straight woman in a series of crazy developments, and Plazolles-Hayes doesn’t get lost in the craziness. Papandrea is a natural hell-raiser, a mischievous performer who makes the most of his material and elevates it with a grinning desperation that makes it all funnier, like a failing comic on stage. Balthazar is also highly engaging when he’s pretending to be a “normal human,” and his obvious, schticky delivery and mannerisms reminded me of Vincent D’Onofrio’s physical performance in Men in Black. I can still recall the moment he was trying to quickly hide from Annie’s children and just lifted whatever objects were near to badly obscure him (“What are you… four?” Annie berates him). The casual shade Papandrea imbues the line, “Okay… sinner,” is simply award-winning comedy. It’s also a diverting commentary that Annie gets along better with a demon than most humans, though I’m sure there are many among us who could relate. It endears Annie to the audience and proves how unflappable she is despite her troubles, worldly and other-wordly.

I also want to mention a few other performances that made the most with their screen time. Gilbert (Straitjacket) is so amusingly self-satisfied without becoming a full-blown suburbanite caricature of “Midwest nice.” I especially enjoyed the few moments she dropped the act and revealed the curdled reality behind her sweet-smiling facade. Virgil Schnell (Night Work) is hilarious with how transparently desperate he is to be with another woman, even willing to whip off his shirt to help a woman clean up a slight dab of spilled wine. Ellie Church (Harvest Lake, Jessie’s Super Normal Regular Average Day) is well-acquainted with low-budget horror and provides a welcomed sense of easy-going camaraderie for Annie as her lone friend in town.

As one of those who previously watched Rayburn’s first film foray, 2019’s Men in Black-meets-True Blood caper, Night Work, I can see definite growth as a filmmaker. Both movies were made on shoestring budgets (only $5,000 total) and filmed primarily on a iPhone camera, though the low-budget look isn’t a big point of detraction for either movie. You can’t judge a small indie movie made for $5000 and filmed on the weekends by the same technical standards of bigger movies. You have to accept some tech shortcomings, like the absence of dynamic lighting or polished audio or complex camerawork. There’s very little visual coverage in Satanic Soccer Mom, many scenes composed of a closed shot-reverse shot circuit of edit choices, but it took me out of the movie only sparingly. The rough-around-the-edges DIY aesthetic can provide its own micro-budget charm too, and Rayburn and co-writer Ben Reger (Night Work) are aware enough to write around technical limitations and emphasize ideas and quirky character interactions. He even has a character joke in narration, “That’s what we could afford to show you.” Rayburn is also smart to cast well and get out of the way of his actors. The ensemble feel like they’re gelling on the same comedic wavelength, which is harder to do than most would think, and thus each performer feels in concert no matter the wild turns. The makeup effects for Balthazar are stylish and effective on a budget, and his whole denim jacket and button-heavy attire and punk rock attitude reminded me favorably of Viv from the short-lived but brilliant British comedy TV series The Young Ones, formative to my own burgeoning sense of humor.

However, even with the emphasis on the ideas, there are enough moments that left me wanting more. I can understand some viewers feeling cold to its blase tone with its fantastical characters. Some viewers will not be able to get over the fact that a woman has a demon wish-granting service and the creativity only goes so far, mellowing in shallow waters for its own good vibes. With all the wish-granting, reality-altering possibilities that a demon represents, it can be something of a letdown for the wishes to be so mundane and minute. One of Annie’s wishes is for her (minor spoiler warnings) to be able to go out in town and pretend to be someone else, so she magically transforms into a different actress (Nickii Rayburn, the director’s wife, so good husband points there) for one raucous night. I can understand that this wish gets at Annie’s distaste for the oppressive negativity of her town, but couldn’t she just have gone to a different bar in a different town where nobody would know her? She could also just wish for the idiots in town to forget about her. It’s the same for why Annie even chooses to hang out with the Karens if she despises their company so much. I understand why the scene exists from a plot standpoint, as another contrast between Annie and the suburbanites she doesn’t fit in with, but then why even bother spending time with these women? There are engaging character aspects with Annie that feel only briefly touched upon, chief among them her complicated feelings about being abandoned by her husband. There’s a nice moment where Balthazar confirms her suspicions and Plazolles-Hayes gets to emote, finally able to process a key point of grief, and it’s one of the few genuine dramatic moments of the movie. However, without prolonged comedy set pieces, the movie would have benefited with more scenes like this for balance. The movie coasts a bit too long without a larger plot direction, so it can feel very scene-to-scene. Then the end includes multiple deus ex machinas, which can make the preceding problems feel too slight.

While I chuckled throughout, the comedy felt too subdued and too easily satisfied creatively. I’m surprised, given the premise, that there aren’t really comedy set pieces. I suppose there’s one, Annie and her pal getting stoned and attending craft night with the Karens, but that’s it. Much of the humor is ribald banter, so much will rest upon the quality of the dialogue writing. It helps having such sharp contrasts for conflict. I laughed throughout but kept wanting the movie to go further, to build off its gags and complications and peculiar turns. One of the dunder-headed Karens flippantly remarks about what could have happened to Annie’s husband, saying, “become a horse man,” and this would have made a fine opportunity to have her continue this weird fantasy tangent, accidentally revealing her own strange sexual kinks, something to separate her from the herd and then shame her back into social submission. That could have been a running gag. Or Bathazar’s one runty horn being a source of insecurity, something he has to defend (“I’ll have you know, plenty of lady demons have referred to my horns as ‘more than adequate.’”). There’s a truly wonderful random gag about the Karens raising money for “Saxophones for the Homeless,” and I was pleading for a visual representation of this concept, with a homeless man shrugging at the useless gift. I often wish there were comedy scenes and jokes that pushed beyond the first idea, taking one joke and finding a deeper, more belly laugh-inducing bit rather than settling for a passing chuckle. I’m talking about scenes where Annie gets stoned and giggles, or the inclusion of a record scratch sound effect to really ensure that a punchline landed and was meant to be unexpected. I wish Rayburn and Reger demonstrated as much confidence with all their jokes as they do their final gag involving an angel and the selected color of her wings (it’s definitely a memorable exit).

Two movies in and Rayburn is starting to establish a penchant for establishing weird and wild worlds with goofy, profane characters, rich in crude banter and crazy ideas, but worlds that I wish to explore further. Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is an amusing and charming movie, especially if one can gel with its overall amiable tone and forgive the inevitable technical shortcomings. I’m far more forgiving of tech issues than I am with narrative and comedy shortcomings, because those are strictly on the creative brain trust fully developing their story potential and exploring the possibilities of their funny. It’s hard not to feel like Satanic Soccer Mom is a solid first draft of a story and could have benefited from a few more passes and polishes to really punch up the comedy and better explore the character dynamics. That stuff isn’t budget dependent. Again, it’s easy to feel the passion everyone had for this project and especially the good times. We need movies that can provide that level of entertainment, no matter their flaws, and Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is likely going to be the most feel-good buddy movie ever with this title.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Halloween Ends (2022)

If you’re a fan of the hallowed Halloween horror series, I can understand why Halloween Ends can be a disappointment, since it dramatically steers away from the formula that has carried this franchise since its beginning. However, if you are like me and find Michael Myers to be one of the most boring slasher killers, and too much of the slasher genre to be rote and repetitive, then this movie might actually be something of a welcomed surprise. Ends might be the least Halloween movie since the third film, the failed 1982 sequel that tried to establish life outside of the hulking menace that is Myers, and then the series shortly retreated back to its familiar bloody formula. Ends might be the least amount of screen time Myers has ever had in any film in the franchise, excluding the third movie; he doesn’t even get his first kill until almost an hour in.

The 2018 reboot was a mixed bag of a horror movie but it ended on the strongest note, with three generations of Strode women fighting together to end their torment. Unfortunately, the series had to continue because the 2018 movie made so much money for the studio, so we’ve been given two rather perfunctory sequels. It’s clear director David Gordon Green and his co-screenwriters, including actor Danny McBride, didn’t really have a desire to continue, and so they spent the sequels exploring other avenues of Haddonfield. I wasn’t a fan of 2021’s Halloween Kills, but the subplot about the mob of scared citizens becoming vigilantes was at least something new and added to a larger understanding of the trauma of this terrorized community. I can say the same with Halloween Ends, namely that the things that were most unexpected and tertiarily related to Myers were what I enjoyed the most. Halloween Ends is messy and disjointed but at least it’s interesting even as it strains to justify its existence and even seems slightly disdainful as well.

It’s Halloween time again in Haddonfield and the citizens are still psychologically recovering from the events of the prior year, as featured in Halloween Kills. Nobody has seen Myers since he killed Laurie’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) adult daughter. In fact the Myers’ estate has been demolished, at long last, and the town is trying to move on from yet another massacre. Laurie is trying to transition into domestic territory, watching over her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) as she works at an urgent care center. The real star of the movie isn’t Laurie but Corey (Rohan Campbell), a teenager who accidentally killed a child he was babysitting years ago. Corey is a pariah in town as he tries to get his life back on track, with the meager options that Haddonfield offers for someone with his baggage. He is befriended by Laurie, who introduces the lad to Allyson, and the two instantly connect as outsiders unfairly maligned by their town. These star-crossed lovers get more complicated when Corey begins to tap into his darker impulses and discovers the location of a recuperating Michael Myers. How far will he go?

Because Myers is such a colossal bore as a character, so readily deemed pure evil as to remove anything remotely interesting, I was grateful that Halloween Ends chooses to be something else for most of its running time, precisely the evolution of a killer. Characters that are just born as soulless evil don’t require much in the way of understanding or back-story. This movie decides to spend the majority of its time setting up a protégé figure for the big bad boogeyman, so much so that you could cut the scant Myers appearances in his subterranean lair and make the first half of this a completely different movie. It’s proof that Green and his screenwriters weren’t just coasting from creative inertia of delivering the same-old same-old. There is an actual story here that wants to explore elements of the franchise that have been dormant and chronicle how a young man can fall onto a dark path and lose himself. It’s the appeal of the dark side, and it’s personified in one young man’s journey. It’s the serial killer origin structure, and it mostly works. I was far more interested in Corey than anything else happening in Ends. The prologue establishes him as misunderstood and an outcast, blamed for an accident that nobody seems to think was actually an accident. It’s about how the ailing town treats this young man and how he tries to reform after tragedy, only to be met with suspicion and resentment. Getting to know Corey’s limited world and watching him succumb to his darker impulses, it’s like a little side story that you never would have known existed in the larger Halloween universe so often dominated by the endlessly wheel-spinning Laurie vs. Michael drama. I’m not going to say that the screenplay was nuanced and populated with three-dimensional characters, and the pacing of Corey’s descent is indeed rushed, but I appreciated the efforts to try something different.

Another issue I have is that first-half Laurie and second-half Laurie feel like two totally different characters. This version of Laurie Strode feels like a completely different character from the prior two Halloween movies that shaped her as a grizzled, obsessive, survivalist loner. This version is making awkward meet-cute small talk in grocery stores and burning pies she’s determined that her granddaughter will eat because of nascent Strode family traditions. Who is this woman? I know some time has passed from the previous movie, but where is the response or lingering grief over the loss of her daughter, the same person she spent years preparing to defend herself against the return of Myers and then was killed by him anyway. For all the weight given to this passing, it feels like an afterthought and that is bizarre. It’s as if Laurie’s daughter never existed for all the impact that her murder has on this story. Once Corey and Allyson become a romantic pair, that’s when something clicks over with Laurie and she recognizes the danger this boy represents, and then she becomes the overly protective mother (granted, her instincts are correct, but the characterization is blah). There was potential to explore the continued strained relationship between the different generations, but Allyson mostly comes across as the naïve child who just wants to run away with her dreamy new broody boy. Had the characterization for Laurie and Allyson been more coherent, and meaningfully tied to the past events in the new trilogy, I think it would have better aided the aims of the Corey examination.

Say what you will about the Halloween series stretching things out over its two lesser sequels, but Green and company add a definitive end note to their title. The degree to which the movie seeks definitive closure is almost comical. It feels like Green is saying to the studio, “Okay, this time it’s really, really over. There is absolutely no coming back from this. That’s it.” This sequence of finality goes so many steps beyond confirming its ending that I began to chuckle to myself at the absurdity of the movie telling its audience that this is the serious end. We go beyond beating-a-dead-horse territory into making the dead horse into a vase that is then shattered, and then the pieces thrown into a fire, and then the ashes launched into space. Of course, all of this will depend on the box-office viability of the movie and whether or not its parent company wants to squeeze even more money from the 40-year franchise (maybe an H50 in 2028?). After all, picking and choosing specific sequels to eliminate from franchise canon has become more popular, as evidenced by the 2018 movie blinking every sequel out of existence for its timeline, so all of these would-be definitive events can just be erased as easily by another sequel. That’s the nature of popular horror: everybody dies but nobody ever stays dead for long.

As slasher thrillers go, there’s probably not enough going on here to appeal to your baser desires, as there is no real memorable or gruesome kill. As a character study, there’s not enough careful development and plotting to reward exploring an offshoot to this universe. It’s fascinating to me, at best a middling fan of the Halloween series, how this sequel seems to simply not care about being a Halloween sequel, hence the shelving of Myers for so long, as well as the inconsistent characterization of Laurie and lack of follow-through, and the shirking of extensive gore and terror. I loved the strange detail that the friend group that bullies Corey aren’t a group of roided-out jocks but… marching band geeks (granted, with unchecked privilege). I loved how the movie goes above and beyond to persuade its conclusive ending, even closing out on the “Ends” of the title. You can almost feel certain degrees of disdain that Green and company have to create this added content, a misshapen denouement to the better climax in 2018. I guess there’s nothing stopping anyone from pretending these sequels are non-canonical, and it’s likely only a matter of years before the studio does the exact same thing to reignite the series. Halloween Ends is a strange, frustrating sequel that struggles to be a Halloween movie, for better or worse.

Nate’s Grade: C

Catherine Called Birdy (2022)/ Sharp Stick (2022)

Lena Dunham is a controversial creator, even more so since the conclusion of her hit HBO comedy Girls back in 2017. I’ve been a fan of her creative voice from the very first episode of Girls, and I appreciated how well she could write self-involved, self-destructive, myopic characters and her directing instincts as well, all at the age of 25. From her zeitgeist-tapping TV success came Lena Dunham the brand, the industry, and with that her feminist newsletter, book deals, personal appearances, and a perennial case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. It makes it more difficult to carry that fandom when the figure says cringey things like she wished she had had an abortion to better understand the plight of those who have. Some of the early criticisms against Dunham were simply mean-spirited, like gross insults regarding her body and her penchant for nudity on her own TV series, as if women don’t exist who resemble Dunham’s shape. However, with each new public example of bourgeois entitlement, I began to wonder whether Dunham’s satirical skills at sizing up self-involved characters was maybe a little less satirical. I’ve been curious what creative projects Dunham would gravitate to next. Her first was Camping, a short-lived 2018 remake of a British comedy that was cancelled after one season. But aside from producing some more HBO shows, and occasional acting appearances like in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Dunham has been relatively silent. And then in 2022, she had two new movies as writer and director. I thought it would be telling to review them both together, as they share many similarities, and as further insight into Dunham as an artist still exploring her voice.

Sharp Stick was released first, though only a couple months before Catherine Called Birdy. Both movies are coming-of-age comedies about young women finding their place in a world that is all too ready to package them into tidy offerings for male desire. Both movies are about their plucky heroines pushing social boundaries and being exploited by lustful men, but one of these films is far better developed, more charming, and with clear ideas and consistent commentary. In short, watch the delightful Catherine Called Birdy and skip the rather dulled Sharp Stick.

Catherine Called Birdy is based on the 1994 children’s book by Karen Cushman and modeled as a young girl’s diary from thirteenth century England. Catherine (Bella Ramsey) is the only child of the lord of a small village. Her mother (Billie Piper) has suffered five miscarriages or stillborn births, and her spendthrift father (Andrew Scott) is bewildered at what to do with his headstrong daughter. She’s 14 and rejecting her father’s assembly of suitors, as he tries to marry her off and recoup some money to stabilize the family’s looming debt. Catherine narrates her very important year where she starts her period, hides it, and learns about love and life and finding her place.

Right away, I was taken with the sprightly energy and strong personality of our narrator, who would prefer to go by Birdy, thank you very much. We open with her literally slinging mud with the neighborhood kids and laughing and wilding out, enjoying the thrills of being young. The contrast of the movie will hinge upon the distinction of what is childish and what is mature, as these youngin’s are thrust into adult roles because society says that as soon as they can menstruate, they are ready to be married off and become baby factories. Birdy is angry with her mother for continuing to try and have children, especially after the painful recuperation of burying sibling after sibling. She resents the idea of being a mother, and especially so early into a life that still feels bound by the stirrings of being a child. Girls should be allowed to be girls, she demands, and by that she means running around, talking with her friends, and absent the pressures and limitations of adulthood. She’s defiant against the larger Medieval system of valuing women for their fertility. Dunham is smart enough to frame the movie in credible terms. It’s not like Birdy, through her tenacity, is going to overthrow an entire centuries-old system of gender norms, but the story is positioned in more personal terms, in breaking through to her father to see her on her own terms rather than as a convenient investment portfolio. That’s more achievable and will be more gratifying for us because of what winning him over will mean.

The movie is also fast-paced and funny, with Birdy’s casual and catty observations delivered in quick succession. In some ways this reminded me of a Medieval version of 2011’s Submarine, another charming indie coming-of-age movie with an eccentric pop-culture obsessed teenage weirdo. There’s Medieval covers of contemporary pop songs strewn throughout for a youthful energy, and lots of onscreen titles and graphics that have their own jokes. The disconnect between Birdy’s viewpoints of the world and the common ways of thinking provide snarky commentary and plenty of progressive attitude. It’s a constant entertainment to watch this precocious little lady tweak the gender and social norms, riling up buffoonish and fragile male psyches. She’s an upstart, and there’s joy in watching her upset those in power and privilege, though she too is reminded of her own privilege considering she is the daughter of the lord and not merely some dirt-poor peasant. If it wasn’t for the sharp character-focused writing, Ramsey’s performance wouldn’t achieve the same comic and emotional heights.

Ramsey was a supreme scene-stealer on Game of Thrones, so much so that producers turned a one-scene part into a multi-season role, even giving her a badass death scene. Ramsey is the anchor of Catherine Called Birdy and perfectly in tune with her character’s feisty yet limited worldview. She’s such a winning character and represents our more modern worldview chaffing up against the very real reality of Medieval life. In some ways, she’s a case study in having to grow up too soon, and surely not the only woman to have done so. Ramsey is heartfelt and hilarious and headed for stardom (she’ll be co-headlining the HBO Last of Us series along with Pedro Pascal).

Attaching the audience to this character is a rewarding experience, and Dunham as screenwriter has balanced the adaptation of going from a first-person diary-based narrator into a film world where we can get outside viewpoints that complicate and challenge our perceptions. I appreciated the widened scope of the narrative. It’s not just the women who are expected to perform their social duties. Birdy’s beloved older uncle, George (Joe Alwyn), is definitely in love with Birdy’s best friend, but that marriage will not do. He’s expected to marry from an established pecking order to better protect his family. There’s a village boy who is also clearly gay but will never be allowed to marry whom he loves, again emblematic of plenty of people who would be left behind in this system. Sophie Ookonedo (Hotel Rwanda) appears as a widowed noble lady who speaks about the freedoms she enjoys having “played the game” and waiting her turn, speaking to a possibility for Birdy working within a broken system. She’s savvy but graceful, with the hint of sadness just on the outer edges of her words. Birdy’s mother, Lady Aislinn (Piper), is similar, hoping to make the best of limited options, and trying to ready her daughter for a life she knows she will be ill-prepared for. It’s what any parent feels, trying to ease your child for the reality to come while still holding onto their innocence as long as possible. She has some heart-rending moments especially during a difficult childbirth scene, and it’s that moment that really showcases Birdy’s father, Lord Rollo (Scott). Until this point, her father has been frustrated by his impetuous daughter, but it’s this moment where she, and by extension us, see the depth of his caring for his family. It’s wonderfully played by Scott, and it reminds us that even the stooges and fools of this world have their own hidden depth.

Catherine Called Birdy is also something of a Game of Thrones reunion, pairing Ramsey with David Bradley, Dean-Charles Chapman, Paul Kaye, and Ralph Ineson. It’s like Dunham used the HBO series as a quick casting cheat sheet since she’s already seen them in a Medieval setting. Special mention to Russell Brand (Death on the Nile) who also just kills it in one scene as a confused and easily swayed suitor. I would have loved more appearances from this man but having him continually foiled by Birdy and never learning from his gullibility.

Moving onto Sharp Stick, an original story from Dunham, you can see points of similarity immediately, framing the narrative around the self-discovery of Sarah Jo (Kristine Forseth). She’s 26 years old and still a virgin, a point she feels more uncomfortable about because of how open her half-sister Treina (Zola’s Taylour Paige) and mother (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) are about their own sexuality and their many paramours. Sarah Jo has her sights set on Josh (Jon Bernthal), a seemingly kind stay-at-home dad taking care of his special needs son that Sarah Jo babysits. If she’s going to lose her virginity to someone, she wants it to be him, but with this comes consequences as well as a steep learning curve for Sarah Jo on the realities of intimacy.

My issue with Sharp Stick is that it feels far more dawdling and confused about what it wants to say and explore with its brief 86-minute running time. This feels more like a handful of ideas or short story beginnings that Dunham inartly smashed together, and the proceeding movie has moments of levity and insight but is overall too messy and shambling and underdeveloped. Let’s start off with the main character who I would have assumed was a teenager by the way that she was acting. When the script tells me she is 26 years old, I was flabbergasted. She was behaving like a much less mature adult, not to say 26 is the height of maturity or that everyone matures at the same speed. Still, Sarah Jo comes across as very naïve and infantilized about adult relationships and human sexuality, which is confusing considering how open her family is about sex and pleasure. It’s not like she’s growing up in a conservative or repressive environment. She’s literally helping her sister record twerking videos for her social media account. The chief reason I think Dunham made an explicit reason for aging our protagonist 26 was to remove some of the ickier consent issues from coming-of-age stories about inappropriate relationships between underage teens and adults (American Beauty, Towelhead, The Diary of a Teenage Girl). She wanted to preemptively remove those criticisms, and so she made Sarah Jo 26, and she also had her uterus removed, something meant to make her seem more adult, at least on paper. Except this is the most childish 26-year-old I may have ever seen. The problem is that Sarah Jo’s naivete has shackled her character, so her sexual awakening feels more akin to a teenager’s than a mid-twenties adult.

Update: I did some research and discovered that Sarah Jo was originally written to be autistic, which would explain more of her social awkwardness. Dunham reached out to an expert on compassionate representations of autism and physical intimacy but then reportedly cancelled on her. I guess she just decided to make Sarah Jo neurotypical but didn’t change anything else. Needless to say, this was not the best decision and its impact is all over the oblivious sense of naivete that pervades the character and her choices.

I found it hard to take Sarah Jo that seriously as a character, as her education seemed to be obvious and a little too arch and twee in delivery for the rest of the movie. Once she has her sights set on Josh, Sarah Jo looks to Internet pornography to learn about what she may do to better please her partner. She is titillated by watching porn but less from the simple carnal activity and more from her fixation on one very commanding actor, played with nonchalant exuberance by Scott Speedman. Sarah Jo studies the annals of porn and creates a colorful construction-paper-heavy checklist of sexual acts she would like to experiment with, and she even alphabetizes it. It’s stuff like this that paints Sarah Jo as being infantilized. It’s not like we were shown her penchant for arts and crafts or taking larger tasks and breaking them down into cutesy checklists before. She even starts soliciting men online to better help her check things off her list, although this doesn’t come to any danger beyond a few lackluster men not living up to her expectations. And that’s the big takeaway here, that what porn promotes is more fantasy than reality, that actual intimacy between consenting adults is its own very different thing. This is too simple a revelation to rest the entire movie upon wuthout a more in-depth character, which Sarah Jo is not. Again, it’s confusing because this character will seem like she is ignorant to the world of sexuality and yet her family is so direct. The Sarah Jo character feels like she’s been ported from another story about a sheltered wallflower learning about her body and her pleasure versus how she’s been told to act to better turn on men.

I don’t fully understand what the entire storyline with Josh was meant to add up to. He’s her first sexual experience, and while he’s awkward and hesitant, he eventually gives in to this young woman’s ego-stroking infatuation, and then they embark on an affair behind the back of his pregnant wife (played by Dunham). I’m going to go into spoilers to better assess this storyline, so be warned dear reader. He eventually confesses to his wife about the affair and breaks down into tears, apologizing and saying he couldn’t help himself, and the moment is squarely to make us see Josh as a pathetic loser. His tears are performative, and he’s throwing around shifty excuses like that he did it for them. He admonishes himself but it’s not contrition we see but manipulation, meant to provoke forgiveness or at least mitigation of his actions by his wife. That’s when she shakes her head and talks about the many, many other women that Josh had had affairs with, proving that this tryst was not out of character. In fact, this seemingly “good guy” dad is actually a creep. Okay, but then Dunham’s character stays with him and they continue living their lives, obviously with the absence of Sarah Jo now. She even returns to them to yell to Josh that she’s getting much better at sex, like she will win him back as a lover. I suppose Dunham was setting up Sarah Jo’s object of desire being less than her expectations and instead as another scuzzy and coddled man-child. That’s fine. But then why does Sarah Jo still seem so determined to win him back? It’s like she hasn’t learned from this.

There are moments that work in Sharp Stick, little pieces that click together with insight or well-honed character writing. I enjoyed Sarah Jo’s mom going into full monologue mode to describe how she met and fell in love with Treina’s father. When Sarah Jo asks about her own father and her story about meeting him, her mom just shrugs and says her dad was just some guy. The disappointment is palpably felt. I also appreciated that children with special needs are presented in a straightforward and un-stigmatized fashion as just being kids. I thought the conclusion with life advice from Speedman was a great scene-stealing deluge of wisdom from the most unexpected place. I just wish it felt more earned for Sarah Jo and her awkward personal odyssey.

Dunham hasn’t directed a movie since her indie breakout in 2010, Tiny Furniture, and now she has two movies within weeks of one another. Catherine Called Birdy is the much stronger outing, allowing Dunham to adapt her voice and talents into a PG-13-firendly universe while still keeping her sharp wit and attention to character detail. Sharp Stick, in contrast, feels like several ideas that never fully coalesce, and the messy decisions with the main character makes the entire enterprise feel strange and lacking better-earned wisdom from her journey. After six seasons of Girls, I’ll always be intrigued about a new Dunham creative project, but they are not all equal. Catherine Called Birdy is Dunham flying far above the routine criticisms about her writing and her perspective, as well as showing her adaptability in an unfamiliar setting. Sharp Stick, sadly, is a reconfirmation of those criticisms and the sloppy execution of bigger ideas.

Nate’s Grades:

Catherine Called Birdy: B+

Sharp Stick: C

Bowling for Columbine (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released October 11, 2002:

Documentary filmmaker, political activist and corporate pot-stirrer Michael Moore prefaces his latest film Bowling for Columbine by admitting his lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association (NRA). He even received a marksmanship award as a teenager in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Bowling for Columbine is Moore’s sprawling and hilarious search for answers among America’s zealous gun culture and alarmingly high number of homicides. It’s the tangents Moore just can’t help but take along the ride that add some of the more fun moments.

He opens a checking account at a Michigan bank that’s offering a gun for new customer accounts. Moore astutely asks an employee, “Do you think it’s a good idea handing out guns in a bank?” Moore travels to Canada to find out what reasons exist that make our cultures so different when it comes to crime. After hearing from citizens about how they don’t lock their doors, Moore decides to go door-to-door and see for himself. Sure enough, he walks into half-a-dozen homes.

Moore is better at pointing the finger than fathoming real answers. He touches media sensationalism, our nation’s bloody history, corporate greed, past military involvement, and an environment of fear being developed by those who profit from such actions. The sobering truth is that there are no easy answers to be debunked. The film’s climax involves an impromptu sit-down with NRA president Charlton Heston. Moore questions the sensitivity of the NRA after it held support rallies days after the school shootings in Littleton and Flint. Heston becomes weary and walks out of the interview after five minutes.

The film demands to be seen. It’s complex, challenging, and thought-provoking. Not only is Bowling for Columbine the most important film of 2002, it’s also one of the best.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I was a junior in high school when the horrific massacre at Columbine happened in April of 1999. I remember the shock that washed over the country. I remember the daze and sorrow. I remember students not coming back to school for days, some because they feared that our Ohio school could be the next site of the next tragedy because of how upending the Columbine school shooting had been for the general sense of security. “How could this happen?’ we solemnly asked. I remember exasperated politicians wringing their hands, grasping for solutions and scapegoats alike, and I most remember just the overall gravity of the whole situation, the sense of loss, and the sense that this meant something significant. Flash forward twenty years, and the Columbine school shootings, which snuffed out 15 lives that fateful morning, is now ranked fifth on the list of deadliest school shootings in the United States, having been gut-wrenchingly eclipsed by the 18 at Parkland in 2018, the 22 in Uvalde in 2022, the 28 in Sandy Hook in 2012, and the 33 in Virginia Tech in 2007. Since then, mass shootings and spree killers have become so common that the satirical news website The Onion keeps recycling the same condemning headline with the latest mass shooting: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” (this damning headline has been repeated 22 times in eight years time, and it’s only a matter of months at most before it gets repeated yet again if history is anything).

After each new tragedy, we’ve been inured to the reality of anything of merit being done in the way of reform; we move from “thoughts and prayers” to, “let’s not politicize this now,” to, “you’ll never solve every problem,” and then finally to a litany of social issues that conveniently are the real culprits, and never the guns mind you, of course. It’s easy to be cynical that, in our current day and age, no gun tragedy will ever move politicians to make real changes. After Sandy Hook, the most watered down of reforms, increasing background checks, was met with stonewalling from Republicans and those funded by the formidable National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby. After 60 people were slaughtered during a music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, the next hopeful reform was eliminating bump stocks. That didn’t happen. The patterns emerge and become their own tragic parody of performative action masquerading as meaningful action.

When people argue, “Well criminals will just ignore the new laws we pass anyway,” I’m dumbfounded by this logic, as if that is reason enough to cancel all attempts at law and governance. The oft-quoted axiom of a “good guy with a gun” being the only real solution to a “bad guy with a gun” is equally nonsensical to me. If that’s the case, then the rising presence of guns would better police these matters, mitigating their deadliness, and that is definitely not the case. The good guys with the guns aren’t working. The challenge is determining who is a good guy with a gun or a bad guy with a gun. This reflexive thinking never applies to other tragedies: “The only way to battle a bad drunk driver is with a good drunk driver.” It’s maddening for any citizen genuinely seeking common sense gun reform that’s supported by a far majority of voters.

America’s fixation with our gun culture was already a potent issue in 2002 when political muckraker Michael Moore elevated himself to new commercial and critical heights, and it’s only become even more essential to unpacking twenty years later. Moore had restyled documentary filmmaking with his searing and tragic-comic 1989 Roger and Me, his documentation of the fall of the American auto industry in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, where my mother grew up, and his search for answers with General Motors’ CEO, Roger B. Smith. Moore put himself front and center in his films, the schlubby everyman trying to hold truth to power, though he himself would have a slippery hold on it as well. Moore directed two more features in the 1990s, The Big One and Canadian Bacon, his only non-documentary film. But Moore catapulted into a new stratosphere of media attention and derision in the George W. Bush era, first with 2002’s Bowling for Columbine, which won him his first Oscar and set doc box-office records, and then in 2004 for Fahrenheit 9/11, which obliterated the box-office records Moore had just set and would have likely won him another Oscar but he refused to submit in Documentary and only wanted to submit for Best Picture (Born into Brothels won that year instead, so thanks I guess).

Bowling for Columbine is an aggravating movie by design and through Moore’s tactics. The issue of guns and violence in America has only become more central to American lives. Moore’s thesis is messy because it’s hard to find a single cause for the root of America’s gun violence, ignoring, of course, the sheer number of guns, though he even says Canada has a high guns-per-resident ratio from their culture of hunting but lacks our murder rate. The section on the media sensationalism driving gun sales is potent, as a nation constantly in fear will reach for protection that is abundant supply and access. As the murder rate has gone down over the 1990s and 2000s, the network news’ reporting over violent crime has increased, as well as gun ownership. It’s a brew of paranoia that benefits politicians, media, and especially gun manufacturers. Gun sales soared once Barack Obama swept into office, not because he said he would take people’s guns, but a section sure trumpeted those fears for monetary gain. The extended anecdote on the mother of the youngest school shooter, a six-year-old, is a powerful indictment on welfare-to-work and a system that forces people into unlivable choices. I wish Moore had touched more upon the mental health aspect of the gun violence equation, as the far majority of gun violence are suicides and not homicides. Many were quick to deduce that the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were victims of bullying, but millions are victims of bullying and do not shoot up their schools. In a 2017 TED Talk, Dylan Klebold’s mother, Sue, discussed her personal process of coming to terms with her son’s actions and realizing how essential his desire to die was to his infamous actions. When people make irrational, impassioned, split-second decisions, and guns are readily available, then bad things can be made even worse. Moore doesn’t explore this angle, unfortunately. Some of his larger connections can seem very reaching, like when he tries to say that kids knowing their parents work for Lockheed Martin, a military weapons manufacturer, would be less likely to value human life.

But it’s the needless sleight-of-hand tactics with the truth that confound me with Moore, and these inevitably blunt the power of his message and ability to convert thinkers. This habit infuriates and flabbergasts me. Moore has so many good points already at his disposal, so many meaningful data points and heart-tugging anecdotes that he doesn’t need to stretch the truth to convey his message. I’ve since used Bowling for Columbine as an example in teaching credibility gaps and the concept of ethos with public speaking. This is epitomized in the handling of NRA president Charlton Heston. Shortly after the events of Columbine are replayed for us, including frantic 911 calls and security camera footage, Moore cuts to Heston defiantly declaring, “With my cold dead hands,” and informs the viewer that within ten days that the NRA held their annual conference in Denver, despite pleas from local leaders for distance and sensitivity. “Don’t come here? We’re already here,” Heston replies to applause. The problem is that Moore has stitched together two separate Heston speeches to seem as one, including the “From my cold dead hands” intro, which was given an entire year after the Columbine shooting. He also excludes pertinent details like the fact that the meeting in Denver was scheduled a year in advance, the NRA was required by law to notify all four million of its members ten days before a location change, and all other NRA events were canceled except for the meeting required by corporate law. When you look at the parts of Heston’s speech Moore picked from, anyone could follow the same approach and edit the speech to say whatever message they desired. The climax of the movie is Moore sitting down with Heston, but when he peppers him with questions about his speech days after Columbine, and Heston has no idea what he’s talking about, it’s because Moore isn’t playing fair. Then also take into account the aged actor likely going through the Althzeimer’s that caused him to step down from acting and the NRA in 2002. Look, I’m no fan of the NRA, and I personally believe their self-serving actions perform a genuine harm to the country, but this is just self-righteously badgering an ailing old man.

Moore is not the only documentary filmmaker to make use of selective editing, anecdotal evidence extrapolated, and narrative cheats for manipulative emotional purposes, but when you’re being provocative, you’re going to get push back, and when you use deceitful storytelling methods with your facts, you are a disservice to your cause and your message. There’s so much on this topic that Moore can effectively criticize, like the handy media scapegoats, the failings of zero tolerance and school resource officers, the obvious hypocrisy of do-nothing elected officials, the fear-mongering news seeking out consistent sensationalism, a deference to the military industrial complex, and the fact that the rest of the world watches the same movies, listens to the same music, plays the same violent video games, and yet, to paraphrase The Onion, we’re the only country where this happens all the time. Sadly, no place is safe in the U.S. from a possible mass shooting, and yet a good portion of this country will shrug and say that’s just the price we have to pay for living our freedoms. There are so many fallible arguments to poke apart, and that’s why I’m so frustrated with Moore’s misuse of his platform, giving his opponents the ammunition to dismiss his points.

Moore’s career has fallen quite a bit from his meteoric height in 2002 and 2004, last releasing Fahrenheit 11/9 in 2018 to warn about the lasting dangers of an inactive voting public and Donald Trump as president (it grossed $6.3 million, approximately five percent of the gargantuan $119 million gross of Fahrenheit 9/11). It feels like Moore’s style, once so revolutionary, prankish, and urgent, has now become stale. As I wrote in 2018: “If our country ever needed Moore, it would be now, but his time might have already passed as an influencer. The last time Moore was breaking through into the cultural conversation was with Sicko in 2007, years before the formation of the ACA. Since then we’ve seen the rise of social media, YouTube, and the instant commentaries of media old and new, all trying to one-up one another in expediency and exclusivity. Is Moore just another member of the old guard he laments has become obsolete?” It’s not uncommon for a filmmaker to lose their edge or passion after 30 years. It’s also not uncommon for the envelope-pushers to become part of an establishment that a younger public starts tuning out for lack of relevance. I don’t know if Moore has a real audience any more.

Re-reading my old 2002 review, I’m sure glad I kept a paper copy of each of my published film reviews for my college newspaper because it was the only surviving copy I could find. I could not find my review for Bowling for Columbine on any of the websites and blogs I’ve used over the years, so in 2022, I literally sat with my twenty-year-old newspaper and retyped my relatively brief review from 2002. Thank you, me, for stubbornly holding onto these yellowing papers. I remember being more taken with the film in 2002, so much so that I would brush aside criticisms from my other friends who made valid points about Moore’s larger thesis (they just “didn’t get it,” I’m sure I incredulously scoffed). My apologies, my put-upon and sensible friends.

In the scheme of Moore’s catalog of films, I still think Roger and Me is his finest work and much of this is because it’s the most personal of his movies, chronicling the decline of his hometown with his special access. It’s the one that feels most essential for him to be the face of the movie. Bowling for Columbine is a messy movie but all Moore’s films are scattershot entertainments in retrospect, each deserving of reflection but also outside verification. As a result, the movies never become more than the sum of their parts and floating ideas and interviews and stunts and his loose thesis statements rarely coalesce into anything definitive, like an Alex Gibney documentary. Moore can be hectoring and disingenuous, especially during his interviews, and most of all aggravatingly short-sighted in his techniques, but he is a documentary industry unto himself and with good reason. Bowling for Columbine is the start of a conversation, with many asides both illuminating and diversionary, and it’s still worth watching twenty years later, as gun violence has only gotten worse. I think it’s likely Moore’s third best film, after 2007’s Sicko, but maybe I’ll change my mind in 2027. Until then, I’m lowering the film grade from an A to a B.

Re-Review Grade: B

Blonde (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.” 

Andrew Dominik: She was…….

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: D-

One Hour Photo (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released September 13, 2002:

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 you’ll 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

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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 (2022)

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

Fall (2022)

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

Clerks III (2022)

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

Secretary (2002) [Review Re-View]

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

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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

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