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Below Her Mouth (2017)

It feels like the Below Her Mouth filmmakers watched Blue is the Warmest Color and its lengthy, explicit sex scenes and said, “Lesbians don’t have sex like that. There’s way too much scissoring,” and then decided to make their own Blue-style lesbian romance to showcase the frank reality denied to mass audiences. Well, the explicit sex scenes in Below Her Mouth definitely feel more realistic, and they don’t involve even one act of scissoring (just about everything else though). However, they kept the breathy, graphic sex and left behind everything else that made Blue such a phenomenal movie, namely complex characters, an emotionally engaging story, and genuine reasons why these two star-crossed lesbians would be drawn to one another besides the purely physical. To put it simply, Below Her Mouth is inelegant soft-core porn dolled up in indie film dross.

Jasmine (Natalie Krill) is a fashion magazine editor and engaged to her long-time boyfriend, Rile (Sebastian Pigott). Her life is privileged and wealthy but missing passion. This is awakened when she bumps into Dallas (Erika Linder), a love-em-and-leave-em lesbian. Something awakens within Jasmine, who can’t stop thinking of that chance encounter. She climaxes under the running faucet of her bathtub while listening to Dallas work atop a roof, nailing shingles. With Rile conveniently on business, Jasmine agrees to go out for a night with Dallas. They can barely keep their hands off one another, even against the exterior wall of a dirty alley. The two lose themselves in one another for days. Rile accidentally walks in on their activities and Jasmine must decide whom she truly wants.

Since the vivid sex scenes are grabbing all the publicity, let’s discuss them first. Whether it’s a masturbation scene, sex scene, or stripper lapdance, there’s generally something every ten minutes like clockwork, and that’s not even counting the casual nudity of the actors. The lovers get together at the half-hour mark and from there almost half of the next 30 minutes is some variation of the above (I clocked it). So there’s quantity but is there quality? Is the sex erotic? There is a ferocious carnality to it that radiates through the screen and it’s magnified by the kinship of Krill and Linder. They may not be the best actors but they can sell the earthly pleasures like pros. There are multiple instances of the use of a strap-on, which from what I’m told by my lesbian friends is far more prevalent than repeated hard-core scissoring. The sex is lengthy, sweaty, and explicit. I’m fairly certain at one point you see Krill’s inner labia (the movie is unrated, to the surprise of no one). If you’re here for the sex, you’ll leave fairly satisfied.

On the other hand, if you’re here for any other reason or curiosity, Below Her Mouth will leave you cold and indifferent. Because there’s so much sexual congress there’s very little time to get to know either character. Jasmine had a lesbian experience when she was younger that she never got closure from. Dallas has been a “tomboy,” a term she hates, all her life and identified as more masculine than feminine. She also has commitment issues. That’s about it. Neither of those back-stories is worthy of a deep-dive exploration. Without better understanding of the romantic pair we have further trouble identifying why exactly they would fall in love. Blue is the Warmest Color was three hours and explained in great detail why its characters would be attracted to one another and what would ultimately drive them apart. They came across as living, breathing, complicated, flawed, and achingly human characters. The sex in that movie was a bonus to a rich and heartbreaking character study. Jasmine and Dallas exist as ciphers that only exist to lust for one another. These are not interesting people and I think director April Mullen must have realized this. I would feel more passion if I felt more for these people. Even the character names sound soft-core-ish, and that includes Rile, a name I’ve never heard before in my life (#11,580 most popular name according to Baby Center.com).

The dialogue includes some doozies that might just take your breath away, further hampering any connection or engagement with the characters. There are the pseudo-intellectual, laughably poetic lines like, “Have you ever tried to count how many breaths you take in a minute?” There are the clunky, on-the-nose declarations like, “Even inanimate objects aren’t safe from you.” But I think the winner for most groan inducing goes to Dallas’ bit of nonsensical introspection: “I have no emotional stamina for intimacy.” If someone ever says something like that, walk in the other direction.

The acting by our lead couple is rather stilted and unconvincing. I feel like the filmmakers just needed semi-competent actresses that would feel comfortable with the demands of the roles. Linder is a Swedish model making her film debut and she has many roles to go before she becomes comfortable with this whole acting thing. And yet she has a presence that draws you in; perhaps it’s the hunger in her eyes. Krill conversely has a lengthy resume of Canadian TV appearances (Rookie Blue, Wynona Earp). She’s far too emotionally aloof. That could be an acting choice to communicate her character’s funk, but even when she starts to light up from increased interaction with her sweetheart, Krill is flat. I was impressed with Krill’s abs and command of pelvic thrusting, for what it’s worth. Suffice to say both actresses are at their best during their love scenes. I thought the best actor was Dallas’ last ex-girlfriend, Joselyn (Mayko Nguyen, also of Rookie Blue, Killjoys), who has to reconcile that the woman she’s in love with cannot return her feelings. Hers was a character that had the most dramatic potential as presented.

Let’s get to a better question, which is whether or not simply being an erotic escape is enough to justify the film’s validity. Below Her Mouth is one of the few films to have an entirely female-lead crew, which lends it greater credibility with the handling of the subject matter. If you’re looking for a steamy way to pass 85 or so minutes, Below Her Mouth will definitely deliver some desired sensations. There is obvious merit to telling the stories of minority groups that have infrequently seen themselves represented on the big screen with care and normalizing their everyday lives and challenges. The 90s was an explosion of quirky, sexy lesbian indies, mainly rom-coms (Better than Chocolate, Go Fish, Show Me Love, The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love). While those movies broke ground in their own ways with gay voices, they also had the essential elements of story and character and didn’t rely upon a gimmick. People do go to the movies to feel turned on, but if you’re only there to watch the sexy parts, then the characters aren’t people so much as sexual objects for your personal gratification. If the sole purpose of a movie is to titillate then I think you’re in the realm of high-minded pornography. It feels like Below Her Mouth was made for the disposable consumption of the horny. This is a movie that’s only ever skin deep.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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50 Shades Darker (2017)

fifty_shades_darker_ver2I’ll admit not understanding the appeal of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. The introduction into BDSM was a worldwide sensation and the 2015 first film made half a billion dollars, the kind of money usually reserved for movies featuring muscular men in rubber costumes that use whips and chains for different purposes. I happily watched the first film to get a sense of what the big deal was and was unmoved. For a film designed to be titillating and provocative, I came away wishing it had more action (of any sort). With great success, author E.L. James asserted more authority in the film series. Out went original director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who at least provided a sleek sheen to the final product and sexual tension where able, and in came new director, James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross). Out went the original screenwriter Kelly Marcel and in came a new screenwriter, James own husband Niall Leonard, which could only mean the threat of the film hewing closer to the book was a guarantee. James is giving fans of her popular though critically savaged romance novels more of what they want, and I guess what they think they want are relatively bad movies, limp sex scenes, and an inert romance.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is trying to get back on her feet after leaving her ex, billionaire and bondage enthusiast Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). He’s got serious issues but won’t stay out of her life. He has to have her back, and rather easily the on-again off-again couple is back on and back getting it on. However, their sex life is threatened with women from Christian’s past and the question of whether he can settle down for good with such a plain Jane submissive like Ana.

fiftyThere is a mystifying lack of conflict in the movie that makes 50 Shades Darker feel aimless. There are occasional bumps in the road in the form of old girlfriends still looking for their turn, and Ana’s aggressively inappropriate boss (Eric Johnson), but they’re dealt with almost immediately and without larger consequence. One of these antagonists is foiled by nothing more than a stiff drink to the face like a full-on Dynasty parody. Dealing with Christian’s past seems like natural territory for a sequel. A character as cold and self-serving as Christian could very likely attract a host of dangerous women. Stalkers who cannot let go would present an organic threat to their relationship and Ana’s literal life. A deranged former lover would provide a substantive question for Ana to deliberate. Is she doomed to the same fate? Bella Heathcote’s troubled character is begging for attention but she is so unceremoniously sidelined to the point of hilarity, and then she’s never seen again. Why should the story provide any question that these star-crossed lovers might not magically work out in the end? None of the mini-conflicts last longer than fifteen minutes before being effortlessly overcome, including a helicopter death scare. The shapeless plot structure is tediously airy, leaving too much space for characters and a world that doesn’t warrant the consideration. You would think the extra time would be spent with lengthy, over-the-top sex scenes stripping away all inhibitions and pushing the boundaries of cinematic good taste, but that’s not so much the case (more below). I knew we were in trouble when a sequence of Ana sailing Christian’s yacht was as long as one of the so-called outrageous sex scenes.

Here’s a prime example of just how poorly 50 Shades Darker is plotted. While dressing up for the masquerade, Christian admires Ana in lingerie. “You just going to stand there gawking?” she asks. “Yes,” he replies. Later, she walks in on him exercising shirtless and getting all sweaty while practicing for the Olympics on a pommel horse. It’s a flip of the male gaze, for once in the movie’s two hours. This is obviously a prime spot to repeat the dialogue exchange for a clever payoff, have Christian ask if she is going to just stand there gawking and her answer be in the affirmative. This movie cannot even do that! 50 Shades Darker doesn’t just fumble the big things, like plot and character and tone, it fails to even achieve modest, easily reachable payoffs that can be as ludicrously obvious.

Devoting more time with Ana and Christian outside of the bedroom is also best not advised. These one-dimensional characters are also barely removed archetypes from late night soft-core porn. Ana is an audience cipher but she’s also one incredibly dense human being. Forget the annoyingly mousey acting tics that Johnson (How to Be Single) is instructed to never abandon, this is a lady who just doesn’t get it. She’s had sex with her dude like minimum a dozen times and she’s never noticed the array of scars across his chest? After her boss tries to force himself on her, she fights back and runs into Christian’s arms, and he gets the guy fired (because a woman reporting a sexual assault on her own is not convincing enough?). Hearing the news, Ana acts deeply confused, as if she cannot understand why her boss is now not her boss. Did she just forget the upsetting assault? Every man in this universe seems to find Ana uncontrollably irresistible. She’s the ultimate prize to be owned. Even her own friend, who clearly has a crush on her, creepily makes her the centerpiece of his photography gallery show without her consent. She can huff and puff all she wants about agency but Ana is still a woman looking for her prince to sweep her away to a land of exotic privilege. Her reason for accepting a dinner date with Christian: she’s hungry. That’s fine, not every romance needs to be progressive or healthy, but when that guy is as controlling and worrisome as Christian Grey, then the romance starts to sour and become an exhibit of toxic misogyny. And that’s before Christian reveals that Ana, as well as his previous subs, looks like his dead mother.

rs_1024x759-160913103027-1024-fifty-shades-darker9-kf-91316Christian is your dark, brooding, oh so attractive as the bad boy but he’s defanged, turned into proper boyfriend material, the kind of guy who would drop down for an old-fashioned proposal of a girl’s dreams. In other words, the movie makes him boring. He’s still problematic as a romantic partner. While he swears this time will be different and no finely worded legal contracts are necessary, he’s still a controlling jerk and a boor. Even during his “please take me back” dinner he’s attempting to order for Ana. He deposits money in her account despite her protests, he buys the publishing company she works for to become her ultimate boss even outside their relationship, and he’s constantly insisting she is his and his alone in the creepiest of declarations. The movie seems to think it’s found a palatable excuse to explain away his warning signs. His mother, depicted in a hilariously sad picture that looks like a Wal-Mart family photo from a refugee camp, died of a drug overdose at a young age and he was physically abused by his father. It’s a slapdash, simplistic cover for his bad behavior. Another strange discovery: the childhood bedroom of Christian Grey has a framed poster of 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick. I know Universal is trying to play some studio synergy here, but come on. How old is Christian supposed to be? Also, HE HAS A FRAMED POSTER OF THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK.

All of this can be moderately forgivable if the movie more than makes up for where it counts with fans, namely steamy and scorching sex scenes that were the hallmark of the lurid book series. While the first film was far from perfect, or even adequate, let it be said it still could constitute an erotic charge when it desired. With the sequel, the sex is shockingly lackluster. There are only four full sex scenes and they start to become weirdly routine. You anticipate that Christian will spend a little time here doing this, and little time there doing that, and then as soon as would-be penetration comes into being they oddly jump forward and spare the audience the sight of sexual congress. It’s different minor tracks of foreplay and then the movie seems to shy away from the sex itself. For something this supposedly kinky it becomes strangely mechanical, predictable, and boring. Another irritating feature is that every sex scene is accompanied by a blaring rock or pop song. It announces itself with what I call “sex guitar music.” It blares over the scene and makes it difficult for the viewer to better immerse in the scene. Some of the music is downright nails-on-chalkboard awful from a tonal standpoint, creating its own source of comedy. The absolute most hilarious musical pairing is Van Morrison’s “Moondance” while Christian is fooling around surreptitiously with Ana in a crowded elevator. Go ahead and look up the song and come back to this review, I can wait. The jazz flute playing over the scene is certainly… different. It might be the worst sex scene song pairing since Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Watchmen. I stayed until the end credits and counted 27 songs used in a 118-minute movie. Reportedly there’s a score by Danny Elfman in the film but I challenge you to find it (easiest paycheck of his career).

fifty-shades-darker-elevator-1481131638If you’d like to be spared the turgid two-hour experience, I’ll spoil the specifics of the sex scenes in this paragraph so you can see how truly tame the movie is for something so reportedly transgressive and kinky. The first sex scene is their reunion as a couple and he undressed her, goes down on her, then climbs atop, then it’s over. The second involves him spanking her, upon her request, then he goes down on her, climbs atop her, then it’s over. The third sex scene involved Ben Wa balls as foreplay reminiscent of the superior and far more erotic Handmaiden (seriously see that Koran movie like 1,000 times before this), or was that the second sex scene? As I type this, it’s only been mere hours since I left my screening and I can’t recall the general details of the third sex scene, that’s how boring it was. The fourth is more montage but it’s an unleashed exuberance of sexual id. Christian dumps an entire bottle of massage oil onto Ana’s breasts, which seemed impatient and wasteful to me, but I’m not a billionaire. I cannot overstate just how dull and lazily staged the sex scenes are in the film, extinguishing any kind of titillation and strangely demurring once things get passionate. The nubile bodies are on display, Johnson’s in semi-permanent arched back, though Dornan is often coquettishly obscured (sorry again, ladies). The word that seems most appropriate for the sex scenes is “anticlimactic.” Ana jokes that she’s a vanilla girl and trapping Christian into a plain relationship, and their big screen sex life typifies this (anyone remember Ana’s question about what a butt plug was?). It’s a world of kink where nipple clamps are giggle-worthy accessories to the participants and the go-to sexual position is missionary. This movie is not the daring dip into untapped sensuality it’s been made out to be. It’s much more conservative at heart.

Ironically, 50 Shades Darker is a curiously reserved romance that lacks serious heat. The actors have very little chemistry and are fighting losing effort to convince you just how sexy they find one another. Dornan still seems like a dead-eyed shark to me. I know people aren’t going to this movie for the story, but some better effort could have been afforded rather than false conflicts that are arbitrarily resolved one after another. It’s an empty fantasy with boring characters and timid sex scenes that register as sub-soft-core eroticism. I wrote of the original film: “Surprisingly boring and rather tepid, 50 Shades of Grey feels too callow to be the provocative film experience it wants to be. It needs more of just about everything; more characterization, more organic coupling, more story, more romance, more kink. It is lacking in too many areas, though the production values are sleek, like it’s the most technically accomplished episode of Red Shoe Diaries.” Every criticism is still valid and even more so. Whereas the first film was about the flirtation and exploration of the coupling, the sequel inevitably treads the same ground, watching pretty dull people get dressed in pretty clothes and then take them off. For a book series so infamous for its tawdry smut, I was expecting more smut or at least better smut.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Elle (2016)

elle_ver2It’s been a long time since director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) has directed a movie, a whopping nine years since Black Book (my favorite title is the original Dutch – Zwartboek). In fact Elle is only the second movie of Verhoeven’s since 2000’s Hollow Man. Cinema needs more movies from men like Verhoeven. He’s famous for his penchant for camp and over-the-top violence and sex, but it’s his subversive streak, dark satire, and willingness to push an audience into squirmy situations that are missed most. Elle is a hard movie to describe and a hard movie to sell. It’s an uncomfortable viewing and that’s much of the point that Verhoeven wants to push the viewer into an uncomfortable world of a woman who makes others uncomfortable.

Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is a middle-aged professional woman who, in the opening scene, is raped on the floor of her home by a masked intruder. She tries to brush off the attack, refusing to report it and go to the police. She returns to her normal routine, which involves berating the employees at the video game company she runs, having an affair with her best friend’s husband, and asserting barely passive-aggressive control over her ex-husband and her adult son. Once Michele starts receiving taunting messages from her assumed attacker, she assess who in her life’s orbit may have been her rapist and how best to unmask their identity. There’s also the matter of vengeance.

elle-isabelle-huppertElle starts as a sneaky who-dunnit mystery and then blossoms into an engaging character study. Our first image of Michele is lying on the floor and being sexually violated by her attacker. It’s harrowing and upsetting and your sympathy instantly allies with the victim. However, the rest of the movie does not portray Michele with even the faintest glow of a halo. She’s a venom-spewing bully who sabotages the happiness of others around her and is having an indifferent affair with the husband of her best friend. Michele also runs a video game company that profits from the exaggerated sexual violence of the video game industry. She even lectures a programmer that the distressed cries of a rape victim should be louder and more orgasmic. Everything after the initial rape scene makes us question whether this character is worthy of our sympathies, and then that makes us question whether we should be ashamed to deny a rape victim sympathy at even a basic human level of empathy. There’s a happy moment where everything appears relatively settled, and she just can’t help herself and has to sabotage it with real ramifications with someone she genuinely cares for. It’s just her nature. It’s a complex crucible of self-reflection and it makes the movie an intriguing a unique experience to sit through.

About the half-hour mark, Michele becomes even more absorbing, and that’s when it’s revealed she’s the daughter of a notorious serial killer. As a young girl, she “assisted” her maniac father dispose of bodies into a large fire, and a picture of her looking dead-eyed and covered in ash is famous in French culture. There’s a lingering question of what her culpability was. As soon as this connection was revealed, my interest in Elle increased two-fold. It explains why she felt she couldn’t go to the police because she didn’t want the exposure, and certainly there would be a bitter few saying she got some sort of cosmic justice. Her relationship with her elderly and ailing father becomes its own mystery, and I started looking for parallels between Michele’s relationship with her father and her relationship with her screw-up adult son. Was she manipulating him like her father had done to her? Is her son’s penchant for not fitting in the adult workforce a sign of something more troubling? Is his temper and possibility for violence a hidden bomb thanks to grandpa’s DNA? I was even more observant and looking for connections.

The problem Verhoeven’s movie is that its story engine only takes you about two acts forward. From early on, the two things hanging over Michele are the prospect of finally coming face-to-face with her father one last time and discovering the identity of her rapist. Verheoven plays into the mystery thriller elements by populating Michele’s world with suspects that could secretly be her attacker. There’s the guy at her job that seems to loathe her and find her unworthy of her position. There’s the guy at work that has a little too close of an affection for her. There’s her friend’s husband, angered by being rebuffed when Michele ends their unfulfilling affair. There’s her neighbor’s husband who Michele covets and fantasizes over, who seems aware of Michele’s feelings. As the plot progresses and her attacker sends more messages, we get clues to the identity and who among our band of suspects is eliminated from contention. Then we find out and the movie has like a solid half hour left. That’s because the movie goes in an unexpected direction but one that makes enough sense knowing Michele as a character. Not all of the storylines hold the same level of interest, like Vincent’s one-note baby mama (Alice Isaaz), though you do understand why he might be attracted to abrasive women. The same with Michele’s mother (Judtih Magre) who seems too comically wacky as a sugar momma. Not all of the characters in the story’s sphere are worthy of the attention they receive, however, how Michele responds to them is worth our attention. The other storyline, a sense of closure with her father, is resolved around the same time in another unexpected manner. It’s a bit deflating and after both mysteries are resolved the movie feels like it’s abandoned its sense of direction. You’re waiting for the film to wrap up any moment but it keeps going, a tad too long at 130 minutes. It’s a small grievance but I definitely started feeling a sense of impatience during the final twenty minutes.

There’s a surprising amount of dark humor to be had with Michelle’s caustic view of other people and her genial manipulation of others. There’s an award and dark comedy that comes from the interactions, which seems counterproductive or downright tonally unforgivable given the above admission of how rape-y the film comes across. It’s a squirming comedy, the kind that makes you laugh under your breath to break the tension of people behaving badly. Even the prospect of laughing given the serious subject matter somehow makes the film even more uncomfortable. The older ladies behind me in my theater were already chattering about how Elle was not one of the better movies they’ve come to see. To be fair this was after like the fourth rape scene.

Huppert (Amour, The Piano Teacher) is in every scene of the movie and she unleashes a performance destined to leave you talking. She’s 63 playing 50, which is usually the opposite of how Hollywood movies operate (if the women are even allowed to get to 50). Michele is a beautifully flawed and complicated canvas and Huppert seems to relish in her brusquely dismissive demeanor. She’s constantly testing the people in her world, mostly men, and sizing up the women. There’s a reason that she seems to revel in stomping out the happiness of the men around her whether it be an ex-husband, her oafish son, the husband of her best friend she’s having an affair with. Michele refuses to be defined by her trauma but she is still processing that, and Huppert is agile at showing the cracks in Michele’s armor to provide clues as to what is most important. She doesn’t care what we think of her and that adds a thrilling quality to an already bracing performance.

isabelle-huppert-en-elle-_816_573_1411039Does the movie cross a line into being tawdry exploitation? Because of the nature of its storyline and the past films of its director, it would be easy to slap the title of high-dross exploitation film onto Elle, but I don’t know if it applies fully. I cannot think of a more rape-y movie that I have ever seen. Full trigger warning to those out there, there are like six different rape scenes in the movie, though some of them are fantasy and some of them are violent role-playing, but all of them are disturbing. At its core, Elle is about power and even though our opening impression of Michele is one of victim it’s a title she does not want. She is seeking to punish her rapist, and when the identity is revealed, she transforms the power dynamic and reclaims a sense of her sexual autonomy. Does consenting to abuse and enjoying it undercut the abuser’s power or reconfirm it? I can’t say whether this is any less exploitative than say 1974’s The Night Porter, another movie about trauma where the victim and victimizer indulge in an unhealthy sexual relationship that blurs the lines between sadomasochistic role-playing and fetishizing personal abuse. I feel like there’s enough substance in the characterization and the wide berths that Verhoeven allows free of judgment to classify Elle as more than exploitation, or to classify it as a reclamation of the exploitation film, an exercise akin to what it feels like Michael Haneeke (The White Ribbon, Funny Games) does that I inevitably can’t stand.

I can’t quite grasp what about Elle spurred Verhoeven out of a nine-year absence from filmmaking (he experimented with a 53-minute farce in 2012 whose script was crowdsourced, so I’m discounting that). On the surface, I would make the connections to the film’s extreme sex and violence, staples of Verhoeven’s Hollywood career. But that’s too easy, and there’s no shortage of extreme sex and violence in other stories. What was it about Elle that drew the Dutch filmmaker out of seclusion? I think it was another opportunity to be subversive, this time in the realm of art-house French cinema. Verhoeven has always enjoyed proving people wrong, exploring our baser instincts, and telling damn fine entertaining movies for adults. His subversive streak is renewed with a rape thriller that also happens to be an incisive character study of a very nasty woman who had something very nasty done to her. Audience loyalties and sympathies are consistently in tumult, shifting and being tested by new information and the mounting evidence of Michele’s treatment of others. Huppert gives a calculated, fierce performance right down to the end, pushing the audience into more uncomfortable reflection and uncomfortable laughter in the face of despair. I think this is why Verhoeven hopped back into the director’s chair and even re-learned French so he could communicate with a French film crew. He wanted to push an audience, upending their expectations about power, sex, and subjugation. Elle is downright elegant as it goes about its business, the business of forcing viewers to think critically and question their personal discomfort. It’s not exactly an easy movie to watch at times but it is a hard movie to forget.

Nate’s Grade: B

Tickled (2016) / The Lovers and the Despot (2016)

tickledSome of the greatest stories are so bizarre and unpredictable that they could only come from real life, and documentaries are a terrific showcase for the strange-but-true realities of our world that have escaped notice. Two of the more fascinating documentaries of 2016 are also two of its most strange films that have to be seen to be believed. Tickled begins as an innocuous look into amateur competitive tickle videos online, an obvious minor fetish industry that swears by its integrity as legitimate sport. A curious New Zealand journalist is then beset by homophobic harassment, personal attacks, and legal threats, which only makes him more determined to unravel the source of these tickle videos. It reminds me of 2010’s Catfish except this story actually has the stakes that film ultimately lacked. It’s an investigative piece of journalism that involves working through false identities, spooked video participants that have had their lives ruined from persecution, interviewing lackeys on hidden video, and ultimately discovering the true source behind the web of lies, a man that uses his privileged class position and wealth to intimidate and exploit others. It’s a movie that starts off goofy and just becomes darker, more serious, and downright sad by the end, leaving you with the sinister impression of the danger of a powerful bully using Internet anonymity to satisfy his repressed kinks including emotional sadism. Tickled could be better as it feels disorganized and padded out, including an extended trip to another tickle fetish vendor. The ending leaves something to be desired as well and will send you online to scour for more information. Still, the story is naturally intriguing and the filmmakers don’t mess up a good thing by allowing the curiosity to grab an audience.

the-lovers-the-despotThe same can be said for The Lovers and the Despot, a film that leaves you wanting more just because its own true-life tale is so engrossing and deserving of further examination. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was so frustrated with his country’s film industry that he kidnapped his favorite South Korean filmmaking husband and wife team, actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok. The couple made over 17 films for the dictator and had to earn his trust before they could plot an escape. This is a fascinating story about the power and entitlement others feel of art, with Kim Jong-il desperate for world recognition through the cinematic arts. He gave the couple a blank check and unrivaled artistic freedom, enough that some in South Korea suspect that Shin defected to the North rather than having been kidnapped. There are astonishing gets for this doc, namely Kim Jong-il’s actual audio conversations secretly recorded by Choi Eun-hee. When the couple defected to an American embassy, the U.S. government had never heard the dictator’s voice before, and here it was thanks to an actress. It feels like there’s so much more to this story that’s missing, either from the interview subjects’ reticence to share too much or the filmmakers reluctance to embrace more of the Cold War paranoia thriller trappings the story can veer into. There are some insights into the despot but they mostly fall into daddy issues. The omnipresent threat of the dictator is best visually showcased during the funeral marches for his father and then eventually Kim Jong-il himself. The masses are in a state of hysterical grief that crosses into parody, until you realize that these people are adopting a false front to protect themselves and their families just like Choi. Those not “properly grieving” could be punished, and so the miles of people wailing and hyperventilating becomes a chilling symbol of the hold one man has on the country even after death. The Lovers and the Despot is a fascinating story of artists held hostage by their biggest fan, who happened to be a ruthless dictator. It’s naturally compelling but you wish that someone else might better realize its potential on a second crack.

Both films follow the powerful exploiting others for their whims and both movies leave a little something to be desired for, but both are prime examples on how documentaries can shine a light on the wealth of human experiences we wouldn’t believe in other movies.

Nate’s Grade:

Tickled: B

The Lovers and the Despot: B

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

DIARY-OF-A-TEENAGE-GIRL-posterIn 1976 San Francisco, Minnie (Bel Powley) is trying to navigate the world of boys and her teenage feelings. She’s 15 years old and wants to be an artist. She lives with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), and her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), and her little sister. Minnie has always exhibited a desire to be touched, and the accidental touches of Monroe are exciting her mind. One night, their sense of play crosses a line and the two kiss, and from there Minnie and Monroe carry on a secret tryst.

Refreshingly, The Diary of a Teenage Girl may be one of the few coming-of-age films about a teen woman discovering her sense of sexuality without extolling an overpowering sense of moral judgment. The movie is frank and honest and allows its characters to make mistakes but also learn from them, and the kind of activities others might deem as mistakes or pitfalls might not be deemed as such by our characters, at least at their current point in time. Minnie is such a starkly interesting character, cheerfully independent and naively romantic. Her very first words in the film are, “I just had sex today.” Minnie is a character that enjoys sex and the movie does not punish her for her hormonal impulses. It’s encouraging to see a portrait of a woman who takes agency over her own sexuality. Once she’s discovered sex, it’s like a new world for Minnie. She feels like she’s discovered the secret handshake to being an adult. The world looks different to her. There’s a funny scene where she’s in a record shop and eyeing some of the varying male patrons, imagining what their respective penises might look like, which are depicted with colorful onscreen animation. It’s a nice change of pace to have a movie adopt a female point of view and the Female Gaze, if you will. We see the world as Minnie does, bursting with possibility, pleasure, and excitement. And yet, at the corners, we can sense the contours of doubt, the life lessons that will eventually present themselves to our restless heroine (the audio diary of her sexual escapades with Monroe is a time bomb waiting to happen). These lessons are not one of punishment but one of experience and understanding reminiscent of 2009’s An Education.

diary-of-a-teenage-girlIts bracing sense of honesty and its finely attuned perspective also help elevate the film. Minnie’s voice is all over this movie, and not simply because she provides narration. She’s not over precocious or hyper literate; she speaks like an average teenager bursting with feelings and ideas that she has trouble putting into words. There is a sprightly sense of humor that runs throughout, a sense of comedy that get can get naughty while still feeling wonderfully immature. Minnie’s point of view and the way she processes the world, aided with often-animated fantasy and dream sequences, provides plenty of entertainment. Some of the humor is derived from her naiveté and how brashly straightforward she can be about her wishes, but even these moments are free of judgment. Minnie is allowed to be the funny, flawed, and complex creature she is.

Teenage Girl is also a remarkable spotlight for two artists, Powley and debut director Marielle Heller (wife to Lonely Island Boy Jorma Taccone). Powley is a terrific lead and gives Minnie an appealing mixture of curiosity, angst, attitude, and humor. She’s thrown into a different world and trying to adjust as she goes, which leads to plenty of vulnerability and honest reflection. She’s looking for more than sex but doesn’t quite know how to find the companion she desires yet in a culture that values her most as a figure of desire. Powley, it should also be noted, is British (though you’d never know) and 22 at the time of filming. There are several sex scenes and nude sequences for Minnie that can be uncomfortable to watch given the age of the character. I never felt the movie was being exploitative with its lead actress and character. There’s a moment when Minnie stands naked before a mirror, touching her body, and openly hoping for someone who will love her as a whole. These moments are meant to be awkward and raw and they achieve that power without feeling exploitative. Powley’s performance is such a natural and cutting teenage performance with touches of Maggie Gyllenhaal in her voice. This is the kind of character that a young actress desperately hopes for and luckily Powley was gifted the right director.

15263-1-1100Heller, who also adapted the script based upon the semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, has a definite feel for the material and keeps the tone controlled. It would be very easy for this story to veer into tawdry with its sensationalist elements, and yet it feels far more grounded in the reality of a teenage girl discovering how to interact with men and the power she has within her. There are some cringe-worthy moments between Minnie and Monroe but the movie doesn’t tell us how to feel and instead challenges the audience. Monroe isn’t presented as some leering and lascivious pederast. He is presented as yet another flawed individual who is wrestling with conflicted feelings; he knows what he’s doing with Minnie is wrong but he can’t quite quit her. There’s a level of sympathy toward his character that doesn’t excuse his actions and weaknesses. Charlotte, in contrast, is a character that speaks the language of the 1970s enlightened feminist but has shackled her subconsciously, setting up reoccurring failures for herself because she has difficulty taking responsibility for herself. When she gets a big check from her concerned ex-boyfriend (Christopher Meloni), she frivolously spends it on drugs. By the end of the movie, Minnie acknowledges that her mother will always think she needs a man, a provider, to simply get by in this life. Heller’s feel for these characters is sharp and the ambiguity she affixes is appreciated.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a coming-of-age drama that sits unique amongst the burgeoning subgenre of teen angst and broken hearts mostly because it is female-focused and free of judgment or moral castigation. Our heroine learns about the world, learns the power and pitfalls of sex and the potential enjoyment, and yet she still gets to be herself, free of long-term scarring punishment usually befit a Lifetime original movie on the sordid subject. Even better, Minnie is an intensely interesting and entertaining character that freely shares her frank perspective. The film adopts her perspective and Teenage Girl comes across and far more honest about its characters and about growing up. Powely is a standout and destined for further great things, and the supporting cast all perform ably. There isn’t a bad or misplaced actor in a beautiful looking film. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (man do my fingers really confuse this title with the name of that cheesy ABC Family TV show starring a young Shailene Woodley) is a smart, funny, provocative yet mature and welcomed slice-of-life story that feels painfully honest and praiseworthy. It’s a story that doesn’t excuse or condemn the actions of any of its characters. It’s a film that takes chances and reaps rewards from its risk-taking. It can feel like watching a slow-moving car slide into a ditch, but you’ll be glued to the screen throughout.

Nate’s Grade: A-

It Follows (2015)

MV5BMTUwMDEzNDI1MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzAyODU5MzE@._V1_SY317_CR2,0,214,317_AL_Indie horror is always looking for the Next Big Thing, and at the start of 2015, that movie was It Follows. Coming out of relatively nowhere, the second film by writer/director David Robert Mitchell was dubbed the real deal, and audiences flocked to see what all fuss was over. I would have been intrigued before the positive word-of-mouth namely because Mitchell made one of my favorite films of 2011, the understated and perfectly yearning ode to adolescence, The Myth of the American Sleepover. I dearly hoped that Mitchell was not another flash in the pan. In retrospect, I did not have need to fear. It Follows is unsettling, suspenseful, and borderline ingenious with its concept, but it also has some faults that mitigate its concluding power.

Jay (Maika Monroe) is a normal 19-year-old girl going to college in Michigan until the night she sleeps with her object of desire, Hugh (Jake Weary). In her post-coital mediation, he drugs her, ties her to a wheelchair, and then waits. He wants to show her something, or more accurately someone (perhaps something is actually more appropriate). A woman slowly trudges toward them, the embodiment of a curse he passed on to Jay through sex. It will keep following her until it gets her and kills her. The only way she can protect herself is to sleep with someone else, to pass the curse onto a new recipient. Then the monster goes after them; however, once this newest curse-holder is murdered, the monster moves back up the ladder, attacking the next curse-holder. Once you have it, there’s no getting rid of this curse, only delaying it.

cannesitfollowsThe top question with a horror movie is whether it provides enough suspense, spooks, and scares to jolt an audience, and in this regard It Follows is quite good; not as unsettling as last year’s Babadook but still plenty unnerving and extremely well executed and developed. The opening hooks you, with a teen girl constantly looking in the direction of the camera and clearly scared out of her mind. The camera has adopted the identity of the monster. The central premise is wonderful, rich with thematic potential about the alienation and anxiety of being a teenager navigating the world, but also intriguing enough that I always wanted a large expository info dump scene just to learn more about the rules or its history. Rare is the film, let alone a horror film, where I’m left desiring lengthy exposition. One of the clever developments of its monster is that it can adopt the appearance of anyone, including people close to you (though it rarely does this for an unexplained reason). That means anyone can be your doom and the only way to know is to double-check whether other people can see this menacing phantom as well. Imagine going the rest of your life always having to look over your shoulder, always having a little nagging doubt in your mind about whether or not this person or that person is real. The premise is well developed with sequences that draw out the tension and make us dread what’s coming next or what may or may not be real. Now, slow-trotting fully naked people might not be a scarier monster than, say, Leatherface, but it’s still alarming.

The premise also allows the audience to imagine what course of action they would do if they were stuck in this situation. Would you doom an innocent human being to protect yourself? If so, would you be upfront about it and the ensuing danger? Would you formulate a plan like Hugh and drive long distances to provide further distance? If you thought you were being followed, would you immediately find a sexual partner? The clever premise gets your brain thinking of what you would do to survive and at what cost.

There’s a distinct Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter vibe with the filmmaking, which will enhance the overall mood of the film or drive certain viewers crazy. The camera movements fall into very few selections, mostly slow pans, slow zooms, or long tracking shots with the subject routinely framed in the center. It’s hard not to evoke feelings with The Shining, an all-time great horror film that likewise built a sense of foreboding terror, and Halloween. You’re conditioned to feel that something bad is about to happen as the camera turns or hovers, waiting for the creepy thing to pop around the corner. It plays into second-guessing everything you see, taking away the illusions of safety, and the steady and controlled camerawork enhances this mood. The entire movie feels vaguely out of time, notably a capsule from the 1980s save for one strange inclusion of a wireless reading device. The musical score by Disasterpeace (nee Rick Vreeland) is another throwback to the 80s, and its fuzzy synth-drenched soundtrack smoothly blends in and enhances the atmosphere.

it-follows-cannes-2014-4If anyone caught Mitchell’s previous film, you’ll know that besides a wonderful eye for framing visual compositions, the guy has a very natural feel for developing realistic teenage characters milling about their relatable existences. It Follows is no different, and while I would stop short of saying that the characters have depth to them, they are realistically drawn and portrayed by actors who look and act like scared teenagers. The relatablility of unrequited feelings, or going out on a limb and getting your heart broken, of trusting the wrong people who have ulterior motives, are universal pains that makes it all the easier to put ourselves in these unfortunate character’s shoes. It also helps that, up until the final act, the characters defy the arc of rampant stupidity in horror. After realizing the danger she’s trapped in, Jay actually seeks out the one person who she can get answers from, even if he’s the same person who doomed her with the curse.

It’s unfortunate that the movie loses steam when it creeps into its third act and forces a solution and showdown with the monster that makes no sense whatsoever. I understand the need to feel like the teens can regain the upper hand or somehow outsmart the curse that doggedly follows them, but with everything presented, it’s just not believable. For the entire movie, we’ve seen that this supernatural force doesn’t really have a loophole in its system of rules. The only way to stave off annihilation is to pass it along and create a series of firewalls as protection with other sexual partners. Otherwise, it’s relentless and like zombies the eventuality is what helps magnify the sense of dread. We even see it get shot in a hasty defense from the teens and the gunshots do nothing. And yet, this vital information doesn’t seem to register with our band of teenagers. Their third act solution (spoilers): they’re going to lure the following terror into a pool and… electrocute it. Huh? Why would a supernatural entity that has not shown any weakness to electricity, or any mortal dangers, be able to be killed? This plan makes no sense and not one character voices a counter-argument to what is proven to be a very bad plan. Maybe the point is that it’s supposed to be bad, that it’s an example of how desperate these characters have become that they would hold out hope for something that is completely inaccurate. After this failed plan, Jay does exactly what you’d expect with the boy who’s been itching to jump her bones for the entire movie. He gets what he wants (physical copulation, being the white knight), she gets what she wants (flimsy security), and then the movie just kind of peters out and ends. I understand that Mitchell’s extended point is that there is no happy ending possible and the characters will have to uneasily look over their shoulders for the rest of their lives. However, the point could have been made even without the third act. I wish It Follows could have found a better landing than just shrugging and saying, “Well, what are you gonna do with curses, you know?”

-1Before the movie hits the skids in the third act, I was pondering the greater implications and logistics of its sexually transmitted curse. Does “passing” it along require some form of genital contact? Does it require fluid exchange? If you wear a condom, does the prophylactic also protect your sexual partner from the transmission? Does the curse function relatively the same for same sex couples? What about people with non-functioning parts below the waste? Can someone who suffers from erectile dysfunction pass the curse along? Can it be transferred onto inanimate objects? Can men ejaculate into some sort of container and then send the container into space via the space shuttle and be protected? Actually, banging an astronaut who’s about to live on the space station or go to Mars might be the smartest move. I enjoyed thinking of a stratagem to best protect myself if I was caught in this scenario; even after passing it along and providing a buffer, you still always have to be on guard for the curse to move back up the ladder. My solution: have relations with a prostitute. This is probably a guarantee that the curse will be passed on within a 24-hour period, and even if that john is found and killed, chances are this prostitute may have already passed the curse along to a new client. If one cannot inoculate themselves from a supernatural STD-like curse with the aid of prostitutes, then there’s no hope for the rest of us poor mortals. Anyway, my mind wandered a tad.

It Follows may suffer due to the hype, the inconclusive resolution, and a third act that deflates, but it’s still an extremely well executed horror thriller with a terrific concept at heart. The sense of dread is stark and the camerawork and storytelling draw out the tension until you feel you’re about to break. It’s more unnerving than traditionally scary, but it has a power that does stay with you, particularly its fascinating premise and the natural relatability of the characters and their choices. I don’t know if this premise could sustain a sequel, especially with a villain that appears to be unstoppable, but that hasn’t thwarted the horror genre before in its stampede at cashing in on success. It Follows is a solidly entertaining and creepy movie, but it’s even more confirmation for me that David Robert Mitchell is going to be a filmmaker who has staying power. I’ll be following him.

Nate’s Grade: B+

50 Shades of Grey (2015)

rs_634x1005-141114095132-10644711_665591963557478_6990185292071945908_nIt’s hard to be ignorant of the publishing phenomenon that is 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James. The erotic trilogy became notorious for its numerous and often outrageous sex scenes. I have many female friends, and relatives, who read the series, and while not a one will admit to finding the series ostensibly “good,” they each read every book. In a way it reminds me of another popular yet critically maligned romantic series – Twilight. It should be no coincidence then that Grey began its early life as Twilight fan fiction. The movie adaptation was a hotly followed topic. After all, people argued, how could it possibly be rated R? How could you adapt it to the screen? With a female director (Sam Taylor-Johnson, wife to actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and a female screenwriter (Kelly Marcel) to steer the adaptation process, I figured I would at least get a sense of exactly what was so uncontrollably appealing about the series. For a film designed to be titillating and provocative, I came away wishing it had more action (of any sort) because the movie was just so freaking boring.

Anna (Dakota Johnson) subs for her sick roommate and gets to interview playboy billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). He takes an interest in her innocence. And so he runs into her at the hardware store where she works, he fetches her after a drunken text on her part, and whisks her away to his luxurious Seattle high-rise. Before things can get frisky he has to share a secret. He’s a dominant looking the world over for women who are willing to submit to him and be his submissive. The world of sadomasochism is a new one for Anna, a 22-year-old on the verge of graduating college. However, she’s drawn to Christian and accepts his terms, and that’s when the sex gets taken to another level.

585149ff3c3269d376577ab52b6688a295767916So much of the film is the drawn out flirtation between two characters that I found painfully uninteresting. Wasn’t this supposed to be the exciting and sexy story of risqué sex and overpowering urges? I’m by no means the target demographic but I felt unmoved by the onscreen sex because it was so sedate by Hollywood standards. I’ve seen more enthusiastic and engaging sex scenes skimming the channels of late-night cable TV. It certainly doesn’t even come close to rivaling some of the steamier sequences of films past, like 9 ½ Weeks, The Dreamers, Henry & June, Last Tango in Paris, The Piano, Risky Business, Sex and Lucia, Don’t Look Now, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Dangerous Liaisons, sex, lies, and videotape, Little Children, Mullholland Drive, and Secretary. For fans of romance with BDSM, please give 2002’s Secretary a chance since it is 500 shades superior to E.L. James.

I understand that most erotic TV series and films are readily designed for men, and 50 Shades was designed for women, and there are differences in approach and stimulation, but for a product that is famous for the degree of kink involved, I was sorely disappointed by the results. In short, the movie needs more kink. It plays out as an introductory guide to bondage and S&M. This aspect isn’t even explored until the very end. It’s too timid to really give in to the thrills of its premise and likewise the demand of its readership. There’s a lot of nudity, mostly from Johnson, but the sex scenes themselves are rather ordinary and sedate, all things considered. There are four of them in total for those curious readers wishing to keep track (I also tried keeping track of the times Anna bit her lower lip but lost count). The sex scenes are filled with plenty of moaning but not a one of them builds up to climax, a strange omission since we’re tracking Anna’s pleasures. I wasn’t expecting the graphic, and graphically drawn out, onscreen sex of Blue is the Warmest Color, but I was certainly expecting more after all the hubbub. In the end, a sexy movie is going to be known for its sexy scenes, which may or may not include sex (I feel like fans are going to be justifiably irked by the absence of full-frontal male nudity – come on, give the fans a bone here). 50 Shades of Grey is ironically far too tepid to register as much more than sub-soft core eroticism.

Then there are the characters, both of which are too one-dimensional, and also boring, to bring much interest. Cinema has always been interested in good-looking people getting it on, but unless there’s careful attention to plot and character, then you’re just recycling the same soft core setups. It is wholly transparent that James’ novel began as Twilight fan fiction because the couple occupies the same unhealthy relationship roles. The female lead is a stand-in for the audience/readers; she’s a mousey, shy, normal girl who gets swept away by a brooding and dangerous man who tells her he’s no good, insists she should not be with him, but cannot help himself falling for her because he sees her inner beauty. He’s more male chauvinist than complex character, and his obsession is less a sign of a tortured psyche and more, as displayed, a clear indication of a sexual predator. Anybody who requires his paramours to sign legal documents about what he can put inside them seems like somebody not worth knowing. He tracks her down across the country when she dares to see her mother because Anna didn’t ask his permission. Control freak or a budding sociopath? With a lack of tawdry sex scenes, the far majority of the film is Anna and Christian ramping up their almost endless sexual tension, which the movie will hit you over the head with. I didn’t feel a single thing between the two of them, partly because of how poorly written they are and also because of the lack of chemistry. We watch her bite her lip a thousand times. We watch her stammer. We watch him stare rather intently like a shark. The filmmakers are doing the work for us rather than allowing a romance to blossom organically. It’s cajoled and manipulated and feels inauthentic in every sense, even before the trip to the playroom begins.

There is one standout scene that is actually sexy, and apparently it’s quite different from the source material. As Anna and Christian go over his legal language for his submissive, they treat it as a business meeting with an arch sense of professionalism. It’s one of the few times Anna displays a spark of personality, as well as decision-making, as she goes line by line and says what she will and will not do. It’s played with a wry sense of humor but there’s also a sexy undercurrent throughout the scene, where these two adults are having fun with the preliminaries. If the rest of 50 Shades of Grey had this same sense of personality and fun, it might have worked as an engrossing erotic fantasy.

fifty-shades-greyJohnson (Need For Speed) is an enjoyable screen presence even if there’s absolutely nothing interesting about her character. Anna is so absent a personality that it makes it easier for the story to present someone else doing all the work for her, pushing her, prodding her, giving her form. Johnson plays a lot of scenes for laughs, which work in a titter-generating way. I kept hearing Patricia Arquette’s voice whenever she spoke, but I may be alone in this unusual observation. Dornan (TV’s The Fall) on the other hand is terribly wooden. Again, he’s playing a rather terrible character with rather terrible dialogue, but it’s hard to feel any authentic sense of passion from the guy. It’s hard to say whether these actors are miscast or whether there could ever possibly be a suitable matching because of how lacking the simplistic characters are. They’re archetypes, and ones the movie has to keep persuading you are totally hot for one another.

So what is it that makes this property the would-be blockbuster that it is? The story arc has been done before for decades, going all the way back to Rudolph Valentino’s Son of the Sheik: the mysterious prince who comes and sweeps the princess off her feet to his exotic world of privilege. 50 Shades isn’t reinventing the wheel but it has struck a chord, and perhaps it’s the wish fulfillment angle, the introductory angle to a world of BDSM, or the plain Jane ordinary heroine that acts as a cipher for readership. The books are the books and the movie must be judged on its own account. I’m sure most of the series’ fans will be pleased one way or another, though I doubt many of them will find the movie an improvement over the book. Then again it does strip away James’ wretchedly torrid writing. If it wasn’t for the 100 million books sold worldwide, this movie wouldn’t be generating any of the hype it is, but is that the film’s fault? The hype machine unfairly builds expectations that will fail to be met, but then again it’s the over-saturated exposure that has ensured 50 Shades of being a Valentine’s weekend event for half the planet.

Surprisingly boring and rather tepid, 50 Shades of Grey feels too callow to be the provocative film experience it wants to be. It needs more of just about everything; more characterization, more organic coupling, more story, more romance, more kink. It is lacking in too many areas, though the production values are sleek, like it’s the most technically accomplished episode of Red Shoe Diaries. It’s a tedious story of the hazards and joys of giving up control, but I didn’t care about the characters. I need more than pretty people staring at each other for an hour while a breathy remix of a Beyonce song plays over the scene (to be fair that Beyonce remix is hot). The actors don’t connect together and the Christian character comes across as more of a monotone jerk than wounded bad boy. I’m sure 50 Shades has pushed millions into exploring aspects of their own sex lives they would not have felt comfortable exploring beforehand, and good for them. My friend Angie quipped that, if nothing else, the release of 50 Shades of Grey will cause a spike in battery sales for its opening weekend. It’s a shame then that the movie is too limp where it counts to be serviceable.

Nate’s Grade: C

Nymphomaniac volumes I & II (2014)

113648_galWhen Danish film director Lars von Trier said he wanted his next movie to be “porn” he wasn’t kidding. The controversial filmmaker wanted to explore the world of a woman addicted to sex, following her history of varied experiences over the course of two movies/volumes. Actors lined up for the notoriously demanding filmmaker. During the sex scenes, computer effects magic married the actors’ faces and upper bodies with the lower parts of porn stars. Upper half, Charlotte Gainsbourg, lower half, some pornographic double, all spliced together into one onscreen human being. Think about that little special effects ground-breaker, putting Hollywood faces into hardcore sex scenes. Knowing von Trier’s pessimistic tendencies, and his penchant for heaping abuse upon his female leads to the point of uncomfortable exploitation, you may rightly cringe about the prospect of a von Trier “erotic” movie. That’s the funny thing about Nymphomaniac; it’s all about sex, sometimes graphically so, but it’s never erotic. It’s an intriguing, sometimes maddening look at human sexuality and our inhibitions and frailties, until a horrible ending spoils it. In the end, von Trier just couldn’t help himself.

The story boils down to this: Joe (Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as the younger version) is found beaten and unconscious in an alley. The kindly, monk-like Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her, brings her back to his home, and tends to her wounds. Joe says she brought all of her pain upon herself. Seligman finds this hard to believe. She uncorks a lengthy series of tales about her sexual awakening and desires.

112010_galIn many ways, Lars von Trier is the best and worst candidate to present a four-hour opus on the life and times of an avowed nymphomaniac. The man approaches the idea of sex addiction in practically the most clinical way possible while still being cinematic. You can practically envision Seligman as a stand-in for von Trier, countering Joe’s sense of shame with a broader, scientific perspective. Really, this is the tale of a woman spilling her guts about all her dirty little secrets and a man nodding along, asking questions, and dismissing her self-loathing with his reason and empathy. It’s sort of like being inside a therapist’s office. I can’t say whether or not I find all the analogous asides to be interesting or simply insufferable pretension. While Joe is detailing her behavior, Seligman will stop her and provide further context, often bringing in such subjects as fly fishing, the mating habits of fish, the Fibonacci sequence, Eastern Orthodoxy, and classical music. It’s almost absurd how encouraging Seligman is, dismissing every action of Joe’s sordid past through an example. After a while, it almost becomes a humorous game all its own, as we know Seligman will use every story as a stepping off point to some weird outside connection. Every item in Seligman’s bare bedroom inspires a story from Joe, which leads to a suspicion that she is something of a salacious Keyser Soze, piecing together her story on the spot; some of the coincidences with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) seems just a bit too much. Seligman’s enlightened and intellectual asides force the audience to consider deeper meaning with Joe’s actions. Is she irredeemable, does she have control over what she’s doing, is she doing anything even bad? Over the four hours of psychological examination, the doctor is out. Nymphomaniac, especially in Volume Two, is the best film yet on sex addiction. It doesn’t demonize the behavior, it doesn’t treat it as sensationalistic, and it doesn’t overtly judge its lead characters and the choices they make, nor does it spare them the devastating consequences.

The graphic nature of the film is getting all the headlines but Nymphomaniac treats its heroine as an addict trying to get a hold of herself. We begin with young Joe innocently discovering her sexuality, especially discovering the pull she can have over an almost endless parade of weak-willed men who will follow her every whim. If that was the only plot, then there would be little separating von Trier’s film from any late-night cable erotic series (“Oh, let me tell you the time I met this man and we did this…” –Repeat). Over the two movies, we get a stronger sense of how utterly trapped she is by her urges, by her addiction. When she’s dealing with the undignified death of her father, Joe finds whatever solace she can with a willing bedmate. She places herself in precarious situations chasing after that orgiastic high, which disappears at the conclusion of Volume One. The cliffhanger separating the two volumes is that Joe loses her ability to feel sexual pleasure, which is rather problematic for a nymphomaniac. And so in Volume Two, Joe desperately searches for a means to get her groove back, at one point abandoning her own child so that she can pursue her kink. Joe goes to counseling, joins a sex addict group (she bristles at the term and prefers “nymphomaniac”), and tries to detox, at one point removing everything vaguely sexual from her apartment, including anything knob-shaped.

nymphomaniacThe film is structured as a series of vignettes and anecdotes, broken up with von Trier’s tried-and-true onscreen chapter system. As expected for a film based around anecdotes, some stories are more interesting or revealing or simply entertaining than others. The stories are a little more whimsical in Volume One but by the time we get to Volume Two, they become more punishing and sad. It’s one thing to bet your promiscuous gal pal who will have sex with the most people on one train ride home, or on a prank to stick a restaurants dining utensil up your vagina, but it’s another when an adult woman, night after night, leaves her toddler at home so she MAY have the opportunity to have her behind whipped. The young Joe stories are easier to shake off as youthful experimentation and thrill seeking, which Seligman rationalizes as well. However, they set up just exactly the path that the adult Joe was destined for. The tales in Volume Two have to ratchet up the stakes, given Joe’s absent mojo, so what was once titillating can become downright disturbing. von Trier’s four hours offer plenty of feel-bad feel-good opportunities along the human sexuality sphere. Adult Joe thinks introducing a language barrier could be enticing, so she asks an African immigrant if he’ll have sex with her. He agrees, but brings his brother along. The two men bicker in a different language, while Joe sits there, head slumped against her hand, comically waiting for these two naked men, their penises wagging in the foreground of the camera, to get to business. It’s quite a funny and ludicrous turn of events.

One story in Volume One stands out for its raw emotional power. Joe has a whole schedule of lovers visiting her door. Well one such older man wanted to have Joe all to himself but her price was high: he had to leave his wife, “Mrs. H.” Surprise, he does, and Joe is already uncertain if this new arrangement is what she wanted; her offer was better in the theoretical sense that he would never cross that line. Well the misses (played with chomping disgust by Uma Thurman) comes for a visit and she brings her kids along. She wants her children to see what their daddy traded them away for. At first, the wife acts civil with some stinging passive-aggression, but the uncomfortable incident is dragged out, and the emotions reach a fever pitch, with crying all around. It’s so uncomfortable, so potent, and so memorable, forcing Joe, and the audience, to think of the ripples of consequences from simple sexual dalliances. While Joe is having her fun, unbeknownst to her, there are far-ranging consequences that she, and by extension the audience, choose to ignore because all those pesky details would get in the way of our fun.

The most troublesome storyline is also one of the longest, with Joe having her backside swatted by a no-nonsense sadist played by Jamie Bell (Man on a Ledge). This guy insists there will be no penetration and his rules are to be followed strictly. It starts out intriguing to get a sense of who this guy is and what his practices will be. Joe has to sit with other women between the hours of 2-4 AM, and maybe she’ll get picked. Night after night, she goes through this setup, so desperate to feel the spark of desire again. This situation feels like it goes on forever. There is no easy climax. Rather it sets up the darker turn for Joe’s character, as she gives up being a mother and a wife. To make ends meet she becomes a debt collector, using her knowledge of men, particularly heir weaknesses, to coax them back into paying. There’s one disarming moment when she takes great pity on a pedophile that will surprise you, and it’s the only incident that causes Seligman to disapprove. Her boss (Willem Dafoe) advises her to think of an eventual replacement she can groom, and his method is singling out a young girl with no support, becoming her world, and slowly manipulating her to do your every wish. In a von Trier film, that is what a retirement 401k package looks like. This whole storyline, including her young mark (Mia Goth) romantically falling for her would-be maternal figure, just feels misplaced, like von Trier doesn’t know how to bring his four-hour opus to a close.

Prelude-to-a-Wholesome-EveningThat’s because he doesn’t! This paragraph is going to delve into the conclusion of Nymphomaniac, so be warned that there will be major spoilers being discussed. If you wish to remain pure, skip to the next paragraph. During Volume One, I had the unmistakable feeling that all of this had to be leading somewhere. It wasn’t just going to be one woman distilling her life stories over the course of one night. I also figured there had to be a reason for why Seligman would rationalize every one of Joe’s actions, shifting blame away from herself. And there’s truth to what he says, namely that the world judges Joe far more harshly for her actions because she happens to be a woman committing them. If a man was performing the same stunts, or left his family, he would not be seen as damningly. Then early on in Volume Two, Seligman reveals himself as asexual, a man born without any sexual desire. He argues he’s the perfect person to hear out Joe’s tales of woe, as he can objectively analyze them free from lust and desire and titillation. Then, by the end of volume Two, Joe as decided to change her ways. She wants to be someone different, someone better. She’s turned the corner. What, a glimmer of well earned hope emerging at the end of a von Trier film? That’s impossible. This natural ending is destroyed thanks to von Trier’s nihilistic perspective; he just can’t help himself. And so, though it makes no narrative sense and seems completely out of character, Seligman comes back to Joe, tries to rape her, and is then shot dead. That’s the end. Every man is a deviant. It just completely undoes Seligman’s entire perspective, as von Trier abandons whatever gains he’s made over four hours for what amounts to a groan-worthy joke. It is without question one of the worst, most misguided endings I’ve seen in a film. It makes the previous four hours feel like a lousy setup for a lousier joke.

It’s a shame because Gainsbourg gives a terrific performance as the older Joe. The actress is no stranger to von Trier and his sadomasochist ways, having also starred in Antichrist and Melancholia. You get a sense of her character’s desperation, the thrills of her youth now gone. She’s also grappling with her own fallibility, the anger that comes from that, her antipathy with others, and the regrets and jealousy that penetrate her hard exterior (no pun intended). She’s trying to act above society, an operator who plays by a different set of rules, but it’s fascinating when the emotions reveal themselves from the sensations. And Gainsbourg puts all of herself into this role, submitting to her character’s many mental and physical tortures. Even if she has a body double pasted in, it’s still representational of her and Joe. Gainsbourg manages to draw us in, not wanting our sympathy but eventually earning it. Martin, as young Joe, gets just as much screen time as Gainsbourg, but there’s a vacancy there to her acting, a certain passivity that makes young Joe feel more like a spectator than a participant in her life. Skarsgard (Thor: the Dark World) is an appealing foil for Joe, almost comical in how accepting he is and how excited he can get with his digressive connections. The only other actor of note in the large ensemble is LaBeouf (Transformers) who affects a strange accent but sticks with it. We’ll see if his self-imposed exile from Hollywood and acting sticks as well.

112003_galI’ve spent this entire review talking about everything else rather than detailing the nature of the graphic sex, the point that earned Nymphomaniac much of its curiosity with the general public. That’s because the explicit nature of the sex is inconsequential. I understand that that may sound odd for a movie literally called Nymphomaniac, but that’s because von Trier’s movie is less interested in the salacious and tawdry acts and more about deconstructing a life lived and the increasingly fraught rationale for her choices. Much like Blue is the Warmest Color, the graphic sex is the headliner, and it is occasionally graphic and unsimulated, with more than a few vaginal close-ups. The sex is incidental, a symptom of the human condition, and von Trier’s less-than-sensational look at such a sensational topic grounds the movie intellectually. With Nymphomaniac, von Trier is posing questions, pushing his audience to question our own views on sexuality and concepts of normalcy and what is and isn’t in good taste. We’re prurient creatures lapping up all the dirty details and copious amounts of nudity, but the introspection is what sticks, and it’s an incisive character study that opens up in many beguiling, illuminating, and surprisingly relatable ways…. Until the end. There’s no way to account for Nymphomaniac and just forget the ending. Four hours and for what? I cannot fathom what von Trier was going for rather than a return to his M.O. of humanity resorting to casual cruelty. If you can bear it, Nymphomaniac is a fitfully entertaining film, provocative to the end, and then it all slips away thanks to cinema’s worst practical joker.

Volume 1: B-

Volume 2: C+

The Ending: F

Nate’s Grade Overall: B

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

blue-is-the-warmest-color-(2013)The French drama Blue is the Warmest Color has been bathed in publicity and controversy ever since its debut at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. It’s a three-hour lesbian romance about sexual awakening and finding a deep human connection, but all anyone wanted to talk about was the graphic sex. The drama split audiences down the middle, with people like Steven Spielberg praising its unflinching examination on the craving and heartache of young love, and others like New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis called the director/writer Abdellatif Kechiche “oblivious to real women.” It’s an impressive film, a rapturous love story for the twenty-first century that defies swift categorization. This isn’t just a gay film. This isn’t just a romance. This is a highly relatable, appealing, and heartbreaking movie of the first-order; however, both the defenders and detractors of Blue have substantial merits to their claims.

Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is a normal 17-year old girl trying to gather a sense of her self. Her peers are pressuring her to lose her virginity with a popular guy, but it’s another person, a mysterious blue-haired lass, that Adele can’t stop thinking about. This woman, the somewhat older Emma (Lea Seydoux) is an art student and an out lesbian. One night, Adele follows her into a lesbian bar and they strike up a friendship, one that quickly translates into something more romantic. Over the rest of the movie, we cover several years of Adele and Emma’s lives together and learn that each has left an indelible mark on the other, for good and bad.

109202_galLet’s tackle the portion that’s gotten the most coverage in the media, the graphic sex sequences that earned the film the rare stateside NC-17 rating. You may have thought 2011’s sex addict drama, Shame, earned its NC-17 rating, but Blue trounces it. Short of unsimulated sex scenes in movies like Shortbus and 9 Songs, I doubt many audience members have experienced sex sequences this explicit and this lengthy (you may start checking your watch at some point). At its Cannes premier, the critical response breathlessly hyped a sexual encounter that went on for 18 minutes. That number may be the total onscreen copulation time; the longest sex scene is seven minutes or so, but you do feel the vigorous extension. Is there a particular reason the steamy sex scenes needed to be this long or this graphic? Kechiche likely wanted to communicate an explosion of immeasurable passion unlike anything Emma or Adele will experience in their lives. But did this need to be communicated with seven minutes of orgasmic fingers, lips, and tongues exploring every crevice of their bodies? Would six minutes of enthusiastic sex prove insufficient? I’d be a hypocrite if I said I found little entertainment in watching Exarchopoulos and Seydoux clinging to one another’s sweaty naked bodies, entwined ever so passionately. I just don’t think the film demanded as much drawn out sex when the drama is this strong.

And that’s the mass appeal blurb when it comes to Blue is the Warmest Color: come for the intensity of the sex, stay for the intensity of the feelings. You will swiftly feel the nervousness and sexual tension that comes from the exploration of attraction. All those high school butterflies come fluttering back. The depth of feeling is easily relatable. The characters are searching for unparalleled human connection but also discovering more about who they are. This is a moving, absorbing, and crushing love story, but it’s just as much about two people falling out of love. That was a major surprise for me. What’s more is that the forces behind their breakup are completely understandable and you can see them coming; at heart, they are two different people that operate in different worlds, and they do change over time. That’s excellent storytelling when one can feel for both sides of a breakup, comprehend how this moment arrived, and looking back, see how inevitable a conflict like this would be. Emma’s sphere of friends is one that Adele does not feel a comfortable place within. Emma worries that Adele needs to find a sense of identity outside their relationship. Adele is still too timid to admit the truth about her relationship with a woman to her colleagues and family. These are major conflicts and they simmer and gestate in ways that feel like real life. Beyond some of the specifics in the bedroom (more on that later), there isn’t a moment that feels unbelievable in the entire three hours. This is a naturalistic love story that unfolds in small waves, allowing us to get to know the characters and their lives.

blue-is-the-warmest-color-poster1-e1381173193485The two actresses are outstanding and bare much more than their flesh for this film. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux disappear into their characters. These are richly developed characters, and each actress does her best to bring them to startling life. Exachopoulos (who looks like a Parisian Maggie Grace) has so much of the film riding on her 19-year-old shoulders since her character is the film’s major point of view; we often see the world through her perspective. She’s excellent as the curious, anxious, bashful young woman, and her encounters with Emma open her world up, allowing Adele to broaden as a person. She’s still not confidant, given to doubts that Emma seems to lack, but Exarchopoulos convinces you of the difference. Every step along her journey is credible, acted with poise, even the uncontrolled weeping. In a just world, this French newcomer would be up for serious acting award consideration. Seydoux is the more assured character, the one who sizes up her interest, but when hurt, the ferocity of Emma’s fury is staggering. This is not a woman to scorn, and Adele will learn this the hard way. Later in the film, as the history hangs in the air between Emma and Adele, we get a powerful sense of how conflicted both women are, having never turned off their feelings but trapped by circumstance and consequences. You feel each member cycle through the myriad of emotions, fumbling between desire and desperation. The actresses work together beautifully, raising one another’s performance, and giving one another the environment to get truly intimate, emotionally and physically.

Allow me to wade into some awkward territory and address some questions I have with the logistics of the graphic lesbian sex scenes. Now I have never been a lesbian but I am friends with a few, though I have never interrogated them on the subject‘s specifics because, well, that would be weird. With that said, I’m fairly certain that there are several positions and sequences between Adele and Emma that defy reality and, more so, practicality. For the more timid readers, please skip to the next paragraph. Much has been made about the breathy, energetic sexual activity on display, but some of it is just baffling. First off, I’m pretty certain that scissoring is not a terribly drawn out and essential part of lesbian lovemaking. Again, not having the equipment in discussion, I do believe that forcibly mashing one’s gentials, unsheathed, for long periods, against another harder surface is probably asking for some rug burns (I suppose this could work the same way for either gender). Then there are incidents like Emma’s head placement when it comes to performing cunnilingus. Rather than having Adele lie on her back, she instead lies flat on her stomach and Emma shoves her face into Adele’s rear. She doesn’t need to take the scenic route; there is a shortcut that works far better.

There is a larger point in my rehashing of the prurient details in Blue, and that is chiefly that the film is more a representation of a man’s fantasy of lesbian sex. The male gaze, a term referred to often in feminist film criticism, is trenchant in this film. Kechiche’s camera doesn’t just love his two young stars; it fawns over them, lusts over them. The camera is always within inches of Adele’s face, glued to tight shots lingering over Exarchopoulos’s pouty lips. Seriously, the actress has her mouth open the entire movie, her lips forever pillowy, forever pouting. It’s a sensual movie, yes, but does every shot of young Adele need to be so tawny and voyeuristic, her hair always slightly askew in her face, her body positioned just so that her assets are featured? Critics like Dargis are correct about Kechiche’s fawning camera pushing over into the boundary of erotic fetishism. This is where my questioning of sexual positioning comes back; going ass backwards when it comes to cunnilingus (and yes, I will intend that pun) is aesthetically pleasing in a sensuous manner, and that feels like the dictum of Kechiche’s intimate camerawork. It’s heterosexual male pleasure represented on screen, at least in its depiction. Otherwise, with the camera always tethered inches away from Adele’s face, why don’t we remain focused on her face during all this physical pleasure? It can be just as erotic. However, with all that out there, why can’t lesbian sex be given the same ridiculous fantasy depictions of heterosexual sex in the movies? I can almost guarantee that pool tables are not a prime location for indulging one’s urges. And just showcasing lesbian sex onscreen between a committed couple (not just girl-on-girl flings like in Black Swan) and normalizing it, whatever intention, is a virtue.

-1But it’s not just the sex scenes that could use some judicious snipping; the entire three-hour enterprise could be easily consolidated. The film is replete with loping scenes that sort of drift along, recreating the ordinary rhythms of life rather than the plot beat connect-the-dots we associate with most film narratives. That’s fine, you need time to establish characters and setting, but do we need people interpreting poetry at length and indulging in gender philosophy for minutes on end? Perhaps if I watched Blue is the Warmest Color a second time I’d be more tolerable of the narrative bloat, finding added subtext and metaphor to all those ponderous philosophical discussions over the nature of the self and gender identity. Of course seeing a three-hour movie, again, is going to take a significant time commitment.

Sensual throughout, beautifully developed, richly observed, and brought to life with bristling and audacious acting, Blue is the Warmest Color is a love story that hits hard with emotional force. By nicely realizing the characters, providing them depth and fallibility, we can empathize with them along the different stops of their romantic journey, seeing where each is coming from and understanding the yearning, frustration, and passion. When things are good, there’s a frisson on screen, a palpable sense of desire accentuated by Kechiche’s loving (and occasionally obsessive/fetishized) camerawork. The acting by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux is as raw and fevered as their onscreen lovemaking. I doubt it needed to be a full three hours long, and I doubt the notorious NC-17-earning sex scenes needed to be as graphic to communicate delight, but I’m most pleased that Blue is offering a full movegoing experience, watching the formation of two characters over time and how they change. It’s easily watchable even during its more ponderous, dare I say French-y, sidesteps. The ending is a slight misstep, calling out for greater certainty, but the French title for the film was, Adele: Chapters 1 & 2, the implication being there may be future cinematic adventures that await these people. I don’t know if this will ever come to fruition considering the original graphic novel by Julie Maroh is a mere 160 pages, rather shrift considering the medium, but I can hope. Romances this involving, observant, and intense don’t come around too often and deserve to be cherished. Just consider the sex a bonus.

Nate’s Grade: A

A Dangerous Method (2011)

At first glance, the movie seems like an odd fit for director David Cronenberg, that is until you realize that, as Freud himself might approve, the entire movie is bubbling with sexual repression and kink. The movie showcases the friendship between the two titans of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and the strange patient (Keira Knightley) who brought them together and tore them apart. This is a very intimate chamber drama, confined to lots of men in suits talking in great detail about psychology and philosophy and desire (there are three separate scenes of dream decoding and lots of letter correspondence voice over). Knightley is superb as a hysterical patient torn apart by her socially inappropriate desires. It may be a tic-heavy performance but my God can the woman act. She’s like a feral beast at points. The majority of the film follows Jung’s affair with Knightley and his friction with the single-minded Freud, who incidentally is never without a cigar clenched between his teeth. Jung wants to expand their field of study to include paranormal activities; Freud wanted to stay within the realms of science to give their movement credibility. Cronenberg’s period drama can be a bit too sedate at times given its aberrant sexuality. You don’t really empathize with either Freud or Jung, and thus the drama is a robust and intellectually stimulating exercise but only an exercise. For people who do not share an interest in psychoanalysis, they’re in for a long slog. A Dangerous Method is a rather short film, only 99 minutes, and would have benefited from being a bit more dangerous with its subdued subject matter.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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