Film is a powerful medium but it’s also one where it seems an infinite number of people are ready and willing to debase themselves just to be part of a production, just like there seems to be an infinite amount of people ready and willing to use their perch as filmmaker to exploit, particularly, young women that normally wouldn’t give them the time of day. I don’t dislike exploitation cinema on its face. I enjoy crazy movies, bad movies, and movies replete with sex, drugs, and violence as much as the next guy. The problem is when the exploitation is for its own shallow sake. Such is the case with the repellent She’s Just a Shadow from writer/director/producer Adam Sherman, whose scuzzy aim seems to be a lower-rent Harmony Korine, who is a lower-rent Larry Clark, all face down in the trough of skeevy exploitation cinema runoff. This may be the kind of movie only a disaffected 12-year-old kid would love but you wouldn’t want to get to know that child.
Set amid the glamour and grime of Tokyo, we follow Irene (Tao Okamoto, The Wolverine), who informs us in her opening narration, “It was kind of confusing how I took over the black market and sex trade of the whole city.” So, off to a good start. She’s married to Red Hot (Kentez Asaka) who is looking to gain new turf for his drug empire and stomp the competition, which happens to be a grade school friend of Irene’s that causes him intense jealousy. Gaven (J-pop star Kihiro) is tired of his rich gangster playboy life and torn between his feelings for two prostitutes, Tanya (Karuka Abe, Kiss Me First) and Beth (Mercedes Maxwell, Marfa Girl). He wants to run away with Tanya but just can’t leave his cushy lifestyle. Really, the plot of this movie is: whatever character does copious amount of some drug while naked women cavort in foreground or background. Plus there’s a serial killer. That’s it.
The opening sequence sets the tone for this repulsive TWO-HOUR experience. A woman is hogtied, naked, and laid onto train tracks. Her abductor records her panicked muffled cries as one of Japan’s bullet trains approaches. Yes, it’s a twenty-first century film where a villain straps women to railroad tracks. However, that’s not edgy enough, so the abductor proceeds to masturbate to the woman’s terror and climaxes on her, which we see, before she gets smacked by a train. It’s a gross, sleazy, and gratuitous opening, and it sets the tone for a movie that never challenges itself to be anything more than the world’s most boring exploitation film.
You can clearly see Sherman’s interests in exploitation film staples and Japanese culture, but getting to play with your kinks and getting dozens of women naked does not a movie make. It feels like I’m watching some strange and off-putting project that’s a combination of a rambling, incoherent student film and personal pornography. I’m a red-blooded heterosexual male who enjoys nudity but She’s Just a Shadow is excessive to the point of boredom. The movie is almost two hours and I can literally count on my two hands the number of minutes that did not include some naked woman. Scene to scene, naked women will just bounce around, or sometimes they just lay around while other characters talk, serving as literal scene decorations. There’s a big glitter orgy and visuals of writhing, tawny nude bodies. There’s a full-frontal photo shoot that just goes on and on. There are multiple trips to a strip club. The gang of prostitutes are dressed in chunky Alice in Wonderland-style Gothic dresses and wigs and jewels glued to their faces. I looked it up and several of the minor Japanese actresses are real porn stars (no judgement). The objectification of the women is just so overpowering. It’s not that you can’t tell a compelling story with sex workers as the primary stars/perspectives. Sherman has not provided them the material because they aren’t characters; they’re barely people (more on that below) in this realm. They’re disposable fetish figurines meant for posing. This is like some horny teenage boy’s fantasy of having enough power to get a bunch of women to frolic to his specific demands. I counted the number of actresses listed under “prostitute” in the end credits and it’s 32!
Exploitation movies trade in base behavior, memorably outrageous characters, and fans celebrate them for it, but they still need to provide an entry point for an audience. She’s Just a Shadow is trying so hard to be edgy in every scene that it reeks of tragic desperation. It’s unrepentantly misogynistic and trashy and ugly and cruel for its own stupid sake. There are no characters of interest, no recognizable people to follow and empathize with, and Sherman’s idea of a Strong Woman amounts to an abused woman forced to do awful things to fit in or rise above awful people. Crime movies and exploitation cinema is rife with immoral characters but the filmmakers know well enough to make them worth watching. With She’s Just a Shadow, one of the biggest character’s entire arc is that he keeps saying, “Man, I can’t party anymore.” He has a life of empty luxury and he says he can’t handle it any longer, and yet he stays. The lead characters are supposed to be ferocious criminal leaders but they act like self-involved morons or cartoons. They have (nick?) names like Red Hot, Knockout, and the competing gangster, Blue Sky. There is one moment that is so incomprehensible in its insane nihilism that I was gob smacked. In the span of ten seconds, a character roundhouse kicks a kid in a wheelchair across his face, then punts his dog over a fence, and then gets plowed into by a speeding truck. If you needed confirmation, here it is that Sherman has contempt for his unfortunate characters.
The heavy-handed nihilism is so tiresome and is its only trick. Sherman is forced to resort to repetitive shock theatrics to jolt life into his movie because it’s such a floundering story. There’s one scene where Tanya is eating an ice cream cone, digresses about how her drunk father was so poor he could not even afford an ice cream cone, then discusses how she was possibly molested and raped by that same father, and now he’s dead, mom too, and then she smears the vanilla ice creams over her face and asks, “Will you lick the ice cream off my face?” Then there are close-ups of Gavin’s tongue lapping every morsel. What the hell is this scene even doing?
The lingering serial killer is the biggest symptom of this diseased thinking. The “Train Track Killer” is seen murdering a half a dozen naked women in his signature over-the-top style, and why do we need to see this half a dozen times? Are we gaining any further insights about this man? The police can’t seem to determine the identity of the culprit, but in this universe not a single train employee or passenger records evidence of a weird man standing beside a dead body. The serial killer poses as a cop but most of his screen time is spent spying on Irene’s prostitutes, and hacking into their electronic devices, and masturbating furiously. I suppose there’s a mystery of whom he is, not that his identity matters, but it does matter to Irene and her girls who are at risk. Halfway through the movie, Irene knows who this guy is and… she… does… nothing. Why? Eventually, at the very end of the movie, she does take a stand, but why didn’t she take the initiative an hour earlier? There are more women dead because she chose not to act. The “Train Track Killer” adds nothing of genuine value to this story. He’s a slipshod antagonist kept along the periphery, called upon to do something horrible at random times, yet his actions have no impact on the characters he targets. Under Sherman’s guise, the women are all disposable. This is a stupid character that has nothing to do except provide work for the newscasters (who report with the same microphone and obliviously within feet of speeding trains). Let this terrible man’s spiteful ejaculation in the opening scene serve as a metaphor for the entire enterprise.
She’s Just a Shadow has so many bizarre, ineffective, and pathetic examples of headache-inducing dialogue that I had to assemble my favorites. I asked my friends on social media what the best-worst example of dialogue is, and by a close margin they went with the first selection. The candidates for Worst Line of Movie Dialogue of 2019 are the following:
1) “Women! No matter how human they seem, they are just shadows. But on the other hand, aren’t we all?”
2) “This sandwich is cold and raw AND SO ARE YOU!” *hangs up phone*
3) “There’s two kinds of love: strawberry love and Twinkie love. A Twinkie can sit there for decades and still be sweet. A strawberry is juicy and sweet but if you leave it out it will rot in just a couple of days.”
“Only a prostitute would say that.”
4) “Everything goes away in the end. Love goes away in the middle.”
“Love is a thing with feathers.”
5) “You’re a man whore. A prosti-dude.”
The production has some merit when it comes to its Grand Guignol primary-color drenched photography, but anything of technical value is quickly extinguished by Sherman’s unrestrained penchant for gratuity. Even if you enjoy some of the visual arrangements, there will be scenes where it feels like they were running out of time and just threw a camera onto a tripod and got the first take. Even if you like some of the style, Sherman will indulge to the point of self-parody. There’s one moment where Irene’s girl gang and a rival gang standoff and Sherman has 14 seconds of shots of characters just drawing their guns (I actually counted) and no seconds of watching the actual shootout (the camera frustratingly pans away to hear the off-screen gunfire). Let that be an example of Sherman’s predilections and priorities, featuring women posturing in his fetish gear but, when it comes time for there to be stakes and story significance, the movie cowardly retreats. I haven’t even talked about the numerous other awkward moments. Red Hot rapes Irene twice, once after spanking her/beating her with a laptop, and a second time after stabbing her in the thigh. Gaven badgers a dying and profusely bleeding prostitute (it’s like the floor is painted in gory gallons) about whether or not she can see God in her final moments, and she requests a kiss that is followed through with a string of bloody saliva between their lips. The earlier shot didn’t even have this string of saliva, but then Sherman shows another take immediately after, because he definitely wants this string of saliva seen and processed. It means something. Or nothing.
To say She’s Just a Shadow is in bad taste or a waste of anyone’s time is an obvious understatement. This is a bottom-scraping bad time of a movie, soaked in various bodily fluids, gruesome for the sake of being cool, smothered by its wanton excess, and supported by one-dimensional ideas of characters that are really just opposable bodies miming the exploitation influences for Sherman. He feels disdain for all of these characters but especially the women who are fetishized, objectified, abused and harassed, and made to sadistically suffer. I felt bad for every person, especially the women, involved in what feels like Sherman’s student film project where he gets to tickle every personal fetish he’s ever had. Even watching the stream of flesh and violence grows utterly tiresome without variance or reasons. At one point, a call girl stumbles into a double suicide, blood splattered against the walls, and seems to be talking directly to the audience when she huffs, “This is the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.” You said it, sister.
Nate’s Grade: D
The Cold War-worthy spy thriller Red Sparrow is a misfire that doesn’t seem to be able to commit to what it wants to be. It wants to be provocative but serious; however, it lacks the substance to be serious and lacks the conviction to be provocative. It lands in a middle ground between the sleek genre fun of Atomic Blonde and the understated paranoid realism of a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. By landing in the middle zone, Red Sparrow is that rare boring movie plagued by untapped potential.
Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is a classically trained Russian ballerina that suffers a gruesome injury. Her leering uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) enlists her into a state-run school for spies and assassins who specialize in seducing their targets. “Whore school,” as Dominka terms it, is run by the Matron (Charlotte Rampling), who methodically trains her recruits by stripping away every ounce of fear, shame, and defiance. Their bodies belong to the state now, she says, and they will be put to good use for Mother Russia. Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is an American spy working in Europe who tries to convince Dominika to switch sides, to take refuge in the United States. Dominika’s superiors order her to get what she can on Nash, find their secret contact, and eliminate them both.
Firstly, Red Sparrow is far too long and far too leisurely paced at a bladder-unfriendly 140-minutes. When things do get interesting, the overall slow pacing has a tendency to sap whatever momentum was starting to emerge. The entire first act should have been condensed down into an opening ten minutes rather than stretching out into 30-some minutes. We don’t need a full half-hour explaining what Dominika’s life was like before her new life as a deadly state-sponsored seductress. We don’t need all that time to see her life as a ballerina, her life caring for her sick mother, and her hesitancy with her first mission before she’s roped into fully accepting her fate. I don’t need this much convincing that her life was better before or that she was trapped into this decision. I don’t care that Lawrence studied ballet for four months. It’s not integral and it’s a deadly start to a story. Once Dominika is at her spy school, that’s when the movie really starts. I was getting awfully sleepy as the movie just seemed to drift along. I know a high school student who saw the movie and said, “I fell asleep at the beginning, and then I woke up later and it was STILL the beginning!”
Another problem is that the parallel storyline about Nash and the Americans is far less interesting. Every time the movie jumps to his perspective, you can feel the movie stalling. A U.S. spy who is pushing against his own brass and the politics of the agency can’t compete with a woman who is thrust into unfamiliar and dangerous missions that test every physical and psychological boundary she knows. When Nash and Dominika cross paths, he finally starts to justify his placement. Much like the delayed first act, though, the extra time setting up his life before he was important was not time well spent. Their relationship together is mean to appeal to Dominika to convince her to flip allegiances. They don’t feel like they really connect, and part of that is the lackluster chemistry between the actors. The emphasis on their romantic relationship is even more moot because Dominika’s real motivation is revenge. She didn’t need a handsome, doe-eyed American man for that to happen.
Where Red Sparrow does work is with its unique, high-pressure, destabilizing training environment. There’s a prurient appeal when it comes to watching the training program for assassins who must strip everything away and use their bodies as a weapon. This is where the film is at its most interesting and its most sensational as far as use of genre elements. There is an uncomfortable amount of stark sexual violence depicted in the movie. I lost track of the number of times Dominika is raped, tortured, sexually assaulted, or assault is attempted upon her. I don’t feel like these moments of sexual violence are glamorized or designed for base titillation; it’s a window into the harsh reality these women face. They have been robbed of their agency, their very sex weaponized. There’s a fascinating story to be told from that perspective and the trials and tribulations within “whore school” are harrowing, shocking, and always intriguing, which makes it even sadder when the filmmakers try and posit an arty sheen of self-seriousness. This is a movie about training spies to seduce the enemy and then prove their skills. This is a movie where the head of the spy school runs a play-by-ply analysis on a student’s use of a handjob. This is not going to be John le Carre, and that’s fine. Rather than embrace its inherently trashy side, Red Sparrow tries to stay above the icky stuff, while still indulging in a heaping helping of blunt sexual violence. It’s truly strange. It’s like the filmmakers felt they were making something sober and thoughtful and didn’t want to taint their award-caliber production with too much emphasis on the thing that makes it most interesting. And then instead they threw in a lot more sexual violence, because that’s also serious, and that’s the kind of thing serious movies do to be serious.
Lawrence (mother!) is once again a strong anchor for the audience, even if her Russian accent falters from scene-to-scene. This is a very different role for Lawrence and requires her to simultaneously put much of herself on display physically while finding ways to hide the inner life and thinking of her character from the audience. There’s an interesting character here buried under layers. After her accident, Dominika viciously injures her dance partner and his new leading lady, and it previews the cruelty that Dominika is capable of. Much of the press in the lead up has focused on Jennifer Lawrence’s nudity, and it’s there, okay, but it’s never really emphasized. There is one sequence in particular where she disrobes and taunts her would-be rapist to try and ravish her available body, humiliating him, and it’s one of the few scenes where Dominika turns her body around as a tool of empowerment. Granted, it’s within the prism of a school that’s practically state-run sex slavery, so let’s not get carried away with larger feminist implications. Lawrence keeps the audience guessing scene to scene as she transforms from setting, slipping into different identities that suit her, thinking on her feet, and being, frankly, adult.
There are a slew of good supporting actors tasked with saying ridiculous and foreboding things, like Charlotte Rampling as the headmistress of “whore school” and Jeremy Irons as a high-level Russian spymaster. What really catch the attention are the accents. We have a group of actors from the U.S., Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany portraying Russians, and with Edgerton, an Aussie portraying an American. As you might expect, the Ruskie accents can be a bit thick and obviously phony at times.
It’s not too difficult to see the kind of movie that Red Sparrow could have been. It even previews it from time to time, providing a glimpse into an alternative version of the movie that decides to take ownership of its more sensational, sexualized elements with genre pride. Red Sparrow feels like an out-of-time throwback to the erotic thrillers of the go-go 90s. I mean does Russia even need to train sexy assassins any more in the information age where a troll farm and some Facebook ads can get the job done? Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games movies) has a controlled, precise Fincher-like visual acumen that gives the film a sleek and sterile allure to the spy shenanigans. It’s a nice-looking movie to watch, but without a better story, let alone a verdict on tone, it’s a nice-looking movie that runs self-indulgently too long. Consider it a screensaver you forgot was still going on but with Jennifer Lawrence nudity.
Nate’s Grade: C
I think Fifty Shades Freed as a title works well not just for the audience but also the actors, as everyone is celebrating putting one of Hollywood’s least engaging film franchises well behind them. E. L. James’ best-selling erotic novels have made for pretty lifeless big screen entries. Director James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) is free from having to bring this silly thing to straight-laced life. The actors are free at last from the mechanical sex scenes that populate these films, free at last from their terrible chemistry with which they cannot conceal, free at last from having to say stilted dialogue for stilted characters, and free at last from the six hours of boredom and overstated kink. This is a franchise that wants to go out in a toe-curling climax but goes out with a whimper. If you’re like me you’ll scratch your head and wonder, “Was that it?”
Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) are now Mr. and Mrs. Grey. While honeymooning in France, Christian still can’t help his domineering ways and instructs Ana not to sunbathe topless. She finds ways to assert her independence and defiance. Meanwhile, the happy couple is challenged by two foes: a vengeful Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) and the prospect of children.
It’s hard to say which in this trilogy is the worst film but I still venture that the second, Fifty Shades Darker, is the winner in that regard. It’s hilariously bad and incompetent, whereas Fifty Shades Freed is slightly better simply because there’s less of everything, which also includes less of a reason to exist. If you thought the previous film was struggling to stretch enough story to fill a feature-length runtime, then just wait until you watch the new movie where we have such scintillating plotlines like whether Christian’s brother might be cheating on his girlfriend or Christian being mad because Ana hasn’t changed her work email to her new married name. That last item also serves as another blaring waning sign about the scary control freak that is this franchise’s supposed brooding, Byronic hero, but we’ll get more into that later. The characters introduced in the last film don’t really matter. There just isn’t a credible story here, which may be why this is the first Fifty Shades to clock in short of two hours (and it has a montage that cycles through highlights of the trilogy). The problem is that the last film mostly completed the journey of Christian Grey from bad boyfriend material to slightly less bad marriage material, as he got down on one knee and proposed to Ana. He learned to settle down, open up about his past behavior, and start the process of compromise. With Fifty Shades Freed, we start off with them getting married and their frolicking honeymoon, and the movie seems to exist in that post-“happily ever after” phase of romances that we rarely see because nobody wants to know what happens after the couple gets their Big Closing Kiss. Does anybody want to check in with Cinderella and Prince Charming arguing over who has to do the dishes (trick question: it’s the servants)?
Conflicts are once again introduced and hastily taken care of, much like the laugh-out-loud helicopter crash from that last film that was resolved in the very next scene. They’ve carried over a lackluster villain from the second film, Ana’s unfortunately named old boss Jack Hyde who tried to sexually assault her. This man worked as a fiction editor in the world of publishing and now suddenly he’s an expert on kidnapping, breaking and entering, and stalking. It’s a ridiculous threat meant to provide some level of dread and danger, except he’s easily dispatched by the end of Act One. There’s a hilarious courtroom scene where his lawyer is trying to argue that Jack was simply trying to work things out after exhausting all his communication resources. Ignore the fact he held a knife to Ana’s throat. He goes away for the second act only to, surprise, come back in another stupidly preposterous way to re-establish his menacing threat… only to once again be easily dispatched in an anticlimactic manner. This guy sucks. The screenplay tries to hastily add some duality to Jack, saying he despises Christian Grey for denying him the life he deserved. Apparently (spoiler alert but do you actually care anymore?) Jack and Christian were in the same Detroit foster care system together and I guess Jack assumes without Christian he would have been adopted by wealthy elites instead? Jack seemed to make a name for himself even without that cushy starting point. Mostly this is another Fifty Shades movie that feels like it has time to fill and time to kill.
That’s where you’d expect the steamy sex scenes to provide a jolt. Isn’t the whole purpose of this franchise watching pretty people get naked and do sexy things? For all its whips and chains and BDSM banter, the Fifty Shades sex has been tepidly tame. As I wrote previously of this franchise: “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 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.”
The lusty thrills are of the soft-core porn variety with close-ups of erect nipples and heavy breathing. The sex scenes in the second film were most strange because they all followed a routine that was cut short once actually sex began, cruelly teasing the target audience. By my count, there are three actual sex scenes in Fifty Shades Freed and two or so aborted efforts. The strongest sex scene is the one that feels inspired from 9 1/2 Weeks, where Ana takes control and dabbles melted dollops of ice cream over Christian’s shirtless torso only to lovingly lap up every morsel. It’s the only scene that feels like it has some spontaneity and sexiness. Maybe it’s because it breaks free from their Red Room routines or maybe it’s because it has Ana in charge, or maybe it’s just residual good will from memories of 9 ½ Weeks (side note: I re-watched it a year ago as “research” for a short script, and it is not as sexy as you’ve been told. There’s an extended sex scene on the scuzziest and grimiest fire escape stairs in the rain). Another disappointment for its intended audience must be the lack of full-frontal male nudity, something each film has curiously shied away from. There is plenty of Jamie Dornan’s pubic hair, which I guess was dangled as a concession to the fans. If you came to watch erotic sex scenes you’d be better off getting off from late night cable.
With bad sex, bad storytelling, and bad pacing, what we’re left with is the closing realization that these two people really shouldn’t be together. Much of the second half of this movie revolves around a core difference over their views on children: Ana wants them and Christian is less than enthusiastic. This is a conversation that should have taken place before they got hitched. It’s another example of Christian not wanting to share Ana with anyone (he literally says this in response to being a potential father). You can bring the man to sing a dopey love song on the piano but you still can’t remove all the scary, controlling elements of his character. I think ultimately Christian’s love of bondage is because he is portrayed as being damaged, abused, and this informs his sexuality. While that may be the case for various people, transforming moments of trauma into uncontrollable and subconscious desires or titillation, it presents a pretty distorted picture of the consenting adults who frequently enjoy participating in BDSM. These people are simply not that interesting. Anastasia Steele (and it pains me every time to type that out) is a mousy audience surrogate meant to be whisked away into a hidden world of luxury, where the hunky man is obsessed with having her, and only the power of her love can make him whole again. That doesn’t exactly sound like the makings of a healthy relationship, and the fact that it’s spun into being a smutty fairy tale is even more disconcerting. The Twilight fan fiction origins become clearer with every film.
Struggling to justify its whole existence for 105 lugubrious minutes, Fifty Shades Freed is the flaccid finale to a boring and underwhelming trilogy. I have no problems with movies whose sole purpose is to turn on their audience. Erotic movies certainly have their place in the landscape. They can even be specifically designed for very specific audiences that do not include me, and the Fifty Shades series is definitely not my kind of smut. I’m not the target audience but I’m open to interesting stories and visceral sexuality. With how redundant and tedious the film franchise is, I think I’ll recycle yet again an observation I wrote of the original film: “Surprisingly boring and rather tepid, Fifty 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.” Skip the Red Room, these insipid characters, and the high-camp tawdry attempts at sensuality. The final Fifty Shades is a fitting end for a franchise that could never get its mojo going.
Nate’s Grade: C-
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-
I’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.
There 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.
Christian 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).
If 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 undresses 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 Korean 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-
It’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 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.
Does 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
Some 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 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.
The Lovers and the Despot: B
In 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.
Its 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.
Heller, 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-
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.
The 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.
If 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?”
Before 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+
It’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.
So 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.
Johnson (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