Archive for January 2015

Exposed

January 31, 2015

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The enduringly popular old-school nudie performer Bettie Page was a devout Christian who reportedly had no problem disrobing for strange men. Her reasoning was that God had made her body to please men, and so there was nothing wrong with using her body for its God-given purpose. I thought of that while watching Exposed, the longtime underground filmmaker Beth B’s tribute to the women, men and unclassifiables who have affably hijacked New York burlesque and bent it to their avant-garde political will. Bettie Page might have felt kinship with some of the performers profiled here, if only because they, like her, know no shame or guilt in nude self-expression. There’s an innocence, a sense of riotous play, in even the most transgressive and in-your-face shows here.

Before anything else, though, I feel the need to object to the audiences for the performances. In a weirdly moving sequence, an entertainer called Bambi the Mermaid comes out bedecked in lobster claws and shells, cracking open and eating bits of “herself” while looking near tears. As someone who pities the lobsters in the tank at the supermarket, and whose philosophy on eating them can best be encapsulated by David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “Consider the Lobster,” I felt saddened and disturbed by the performance, but the downtown hipsters in the club chortled hiply at it. I felt like saying “You’re annoying; shut up. She’s doing something beyond comedy here. Respect.”

Indeed, most of the performers do move beyond comedy, and the audiences do sometimes rise to it as it deserves. There’s a good amount of gender-bending, from the likes of transgressive drag queen Rose Wood (whose breast augmentation surgery is sort of the movie’s climax) or the “boy-lesque” artist Tigger! or the genetically female World Famous “Bob,” who spent some years thinking she was a gay man trapped in a woman’s body (shades of Margaret Cho) before learning to accept what she was born with. Such self-acceptance is a key motif here, as many of the women are full-figured and one of the male performers, Mat Fraser of American Horror Story: Freak Show, was born with what he calls “flippers” instead of arms after his mother took Thalidomide while pregnant with him.

Most of the people on view here hail from what Rose Wood terms “the Island of Misfit Toys,” psychologically if not physically. Women like Bunny Love and Dirty Martini have taken a form of entertainment long considered sexist and degrading (or, at best, goofy and archaic) and refurbished it to speak wordlessly but eloquently in a feminist language. It’s hard to argue that these non-mainstream artists aren’t doing exactly what they want to do, how they want to do it. The moves, the tassels, the striptease, all the elements are there, but the performers use burlesque as a found object, or found medium, to get their points across in a sensual, attention-grabbing manner.

I would also like to take this opportunity to nod gladly at Beth B, who was instrumental in the “No Wave” filmmaking movement of the late ’70s and who has worked in documentaries, some for TV, over the last decade or so. Though I can’t say she ever really left her artistic New York roots, the candy-colored, sex-positive Exposed feels like both a homecoming for her and a fine way to bring newcomers into her fold. (She turns sixty this year. I can’t even.) To put it in crass marketing terms, fans of John Waters and of John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and Shortbus should give this quick, often touching documentary a spin, and then maybe look up her early work like Vortex. This is not someone who will be offered a Marvel movie, or would accept if offered, and is to be cherished as such.

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Boy Meets Girl

January 24, 2015

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Boy Meets Girl is a mildly ironic title for a movie that almost always feels genuine. It’s a romantic comedy-drama about Ricky (Michelle Hendley), a young Kentucky woman who wants to go to a fashion school in New York. Ricky was also born female in every way except physically. The transgender narrative has become more familiar and less exotic in recent years, and deservedly so. What once might have come across as gimmicky, a way for a cisgender actor or actress to play trans and collect accolades (cf. Felicity Huffman, Jeffrey Tambor), now powers a low-key film in which Ricky’s identity is more or less taken for granted, and Ricky is played by a neophyte trans actress whose experiences bring unstressed authenticity to the character.

Ricky hangs out with childhood friend Robby (Michael Welch), who seems to see her as just Ricky, a girl he’s known forever. Pretty much everyone in the small Kentucky town knows who Ricky is and what her deal is. One day Ricky meets Francesca (Alexandra Turschen), and even though Francesca is engaged to a soldier, David (Michael Galante), stationed in Afghanistan, she and Ricky pursue a tentative connection. Francesca doesn’t know what Ricky’s deal is, but she finds out soon enough, and it intrigues her even more. We can guess, however, that David won’t be in Afghanistan for long.

Despite that, Boy Meets Girl takes its cue from the laid-back drawl of Michelle Hendley, whose unaffected performance provides a baseline of truth and humor. Ricky has climbed long and hard to be okay with herself, and by the time the movie starts she’s already done seven years of hormones and many more years of getting used to her own skin. The awkwardness is mostly felt by Francesca and, later, her fiancĂ©; they may not hate Ricky for who she is, but the very fact of Ricky makes them wonder about their own identities. The supporting cast — especially Michael Welch, who reminded me of the very young Saving Private Ryan-era Nathan Fillion — seems happy to work alongside Hendley and to enact the script’s emotional convolutions.

This is the tenth feature by writer-director Eric Schaeffer, whose goofy If Lucy Fell I pooh-poohed nearly twenty years ago, and whose subsequent work I skipped. Based on Boy Meets Girl, I now feel I may have done Schaeffer a disservice, ignoring his later output that may have been, for all I know, as thorny and insightful and good-hearted as this film is. The movie logically stops at the eighty-minute point, but then goes on a bit longer, because it recognizes that it needs to deal with two other characters and the feelings they bring into the mix. The cheerful denouement feels earned. Ricky’s life beyond the movie will go as it should. She can take care of herself.

Appropriate Behavior

January 18, 2015

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The debut feature by writer/director Desiree Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior has been compared to Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls. I’ve never seen the Dunham show, but I’m prepared to believe that Akhavan’s movie is as inspired by Dunham as leagues of white male nerds were by Woody Allen. The question you have to ask is: Derivative as it may be, is this film its own thing — does it have its own voice, its own concerns, its own world? Appropriate Behavior does, I think.

Akhavan also stars as the lead character, Shirin, a bisexual Brooklynite closeted to her Persian family, to the chagrin of her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). The story of Shirin and Maxine unfolds in non-linear flashbacks; the present tense involves Shirin’s attempts to move on from her breakup with Maxine, including a job teaching filmmaking to five-year-olds and an awkward polyamorous fling with a couple she randomly meets. Shirin is a typical confused twentysomething, trying to forge an identity among people who may be a little too rigid in their own identities — and not just the conservative Middle Eastern family she’s vaguely afraid of.

Akhavan’s writing/directing style is as deadpan and laid-back as her acting. The movie is the opposite of emotionally pushy, which makes an underwear-snipping, bottle-throwing argument late in the film stand out even more. Appropriate Behavior is, of course, about inappropriate behavior, but nobody is judged for it. It’s just the sort of goofiness that smart, needy people get themselves into, and nobody gets terribly hurt. The movie’s amused view of aimless artistic types in the city reminded me a little of the 1995 Parker Posey vehicle Party Girl. People ironically take stock of their neuroses, aware that their problems aren’t the end of the world, even if they feel apocalyptic.

Shirin doesn’t have a whole lot of back-up; she has one nonjudgmental friend, Crystal (Halley Feiffer), and various acquaintances and flirtations. Characters are allowed to be weird, complicated, flawed; nobody really does the expected thing. The guy who gives Shirin her job (Scott Adsit from 30 Rock) is a Louis CK-type sad sack who’s a little clueless but nonthreatening; that goes for pretty much everyone else, though they’re all clueless and nonthreatening in their own styles. The movie doesn’t seem to be up to anything larger than an amiable slice of urban life, and it doesn’t need to be.

Appropriate Behavior packs a drowsy erotic charge during a couple of its trysts, and even during those it doesn’t lose its tremulous sense of humor. Shirin teaches class alongside a blonde waif who used to be a hair model and whose “advanced” moviemaking class produces a pompous, Artistic little film called “At Park”; Shirin’s more down-to-earth class makes “Tales of the Lost Fart,” featuring zombies, boogers, and copious farts. Akhavan’s own movie is somewhere in the middle — no stranger to foo-foo self-reflection or to embarrassing physical foibles.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

January 11, 2015

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Even when Spike Lee remakes a horror movie, he can’t sell out. For one thing, the “horror movie” he has remade is an artsy 1973 item named Ganja and Hess, a film nearly lost but later restored, and generally known only to die-hard cult-flick fanatics and serious students of African-American cinema. For another, Lee has taken a page from the original film’s writer/director, Bill Gunn, and made the film with a leisurely, unhurried pace, full of ennui … well, it kind of drags, if you want to know. Under the new title Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Lee’s movie repeats Gunn’s themes of vampirism as addiction and the painful dichotomy of a black man torn between African spirituality and American Christianity. Lee certainly doesn’t schlock things up. But, other than some left-field lesbian flirtation late in the game, he doesn’t add much excitement, either.

As before, the new film follows scholar Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) on his journey into blood obsession after his insane assistant stabs him with a cursed ancient weapon. The curse renders Hess immortal but also addicted to blood. He steals blood bags from a hospital; he preys on an AIDS-stricken prostitute, then on a young mother. Eventually the assistant’s ex-wife, Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), comes looking for the assistant, and Hess seduces her into the life of the undead. There are minor and major changes — for instance, Lee disregards the climactic note of redemption on which Gunn sealed his movie — but Lee mostly traces Gunn’s template, right down to some dialogue (Gunn receives a 25-year-posthumous cowriting credit here).

I hate to say it, because I’ve always respected Lee’s work even when certain bold attempts have flatlined, but Ganja and Hess will stay with me longer than Da Sweet Blood of Jesus will. As a filmmaker, in terms of technique and talent, Lee has it all over Gunn, but Gunn was serious and passionate about this story in a way that Lee isn’t, quite. Lee is a fan of Ganja and Hess, and he decided to honor it and its maker, but the material itself doesn’t seem to light a fire in his belly. (It was a Kickstarter project, and a lot of it feels like a movie that could be reliably shot on the quick and cheap in Martha’s Vineyard, where Lee lives some of the year.) Gunn’s film, despite or possibly because of its technical ineptitude, packs more DIY charm, and even on Blu-ray it looks chewed up and bruised, adding to its dreamlike effect. Lee’s film looks slicker, but to its detriment; it’s as though someone made a pristine-looking remake of Last House on Dead End Street … or, more to the point, George Romero’s Martin, another idiosyncratic vampire movie that could go on a double bill with Ganja and Hess.

This particular story, with its specific concerns about racial authenticity, is very much of its time. It doesn’t translate very well to 2015, when a young black man’s biggest concern is not losing his African soul but being shot by the cops. Lee’s version spends a lot of time on Ganja and Hess’s tragic love story, which indicates a misreading of what made the story unique in the first place. Stephen Tyrone Williams’ Hess is stoic and bland, lacking the brittle power Duane Jones brought to the role, but Zaraah Abrahams is fun to watch as Ganja, and she gets some heat going with the striking NatĂ© Bova as an old flame of Hess’s. But Gunn had more on his mind and in his heart than Skinemax eroticism; his film was somehow lovable despite being completely uningratiating and stubbornly elliptical, because it felt pure. Ganja and Hess is art; Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a copy of art, and I don’t know that Gunn would be flattered by it.

Li’l Quinquin

January 3, 2015

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“Open that cow’s ass,” commands a detective, “and show me what’s inside.” Before long, the growl of a chainsaw disrupts the lapping quietude of the oceanside crime scene. Welcome to the phlegmatic but askew reality of Li’l Quinquin, a four-part saga written and directed by Bruno Dumont for French TV and just now opening in America in limited release. Lengthy but never boring, the story comes divvied up into fifty-minute segments; the three hours and seventeen minutes march by like a Netflix binge-watch of your choice of quirky TV mysteries. Li’l Quinquin has drawn comparisons to Twin Peaks and True Detective, but it also shares DNA with such creepy-cool freak-of-the-week programs as The X-Files and Fringe, what with all these cow carcasses turning up with human body parts inside them.

Genetic experiments? Alien shenanigans? If you seek resolution, you’re barking up the wrong mystery. Dumont, best known for a variety of bleak, severe dramas, would rather establish the community affected by, and possibly giving rise to, these weird events. Two cops — Captain Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and his right-hand man Carpentier (Philippe Jore) — move from suspect to suspect, confronting their own irrelevance when each suspect ends up in a cow. (Sample absurdist dialogue, in case my lede didn’t sell you: “I was sorry to hear about his body in a cow on the beach.”) Followers of Dumont’s earlier work have expressed surprise at the tone of Li’l Quinquin, which hews closer to the tongue-in-cheek, or at least to cosmic bemusement.

The eponymous character (Alane Delhaye) is a complex and prickly pear, a ten-year-old boy who likes to toss firecrackers into his own house. Quinquin is civilized enough to have a tender relationship with a local girl, but is nonetheless well on his way to a life of racist violence. We aren’t told how to feel about Quinquin or about anyone else; nobody in the narrative seems quite whole. The only person around who looks remotely Hollywood is a teenage girl who wants to sing on TV; her rather tone-deaf rendition of a song called “Cause I Knew” goes on interminably at least twice, once at the funeral of the first victim, where a gigglingly inept pastor almost derails the service and the organist plays bombastically and self-indulgently. Nobody seems to care about the dead woman except her widower, and he becomes cow stuffing before long. There’s even what might be a backhanded salute to superheroes when a kid dressed as “Speedy-Man” enters the picture, climbs a wall, and exits, leaving behind a chill of incongruous weirdness that outdoes the whole of Birdman (to say nothing of Guardians of the Galaxy).

I confess this is my first exposure to Bruno Dumont (but not my last). I make this confession to assure you that, though a background in Dumont’s prior work might help Li’l Quinquin work on a deeper level, it’s not mandatory. Feel free to jump right into this epic; it’s immersive, like a good thick novel, and the widescreen compositions, by cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines, showcase the enticing French countryside. It’s overall a soothing experience. The narrative isn’t heightened, and until the last half hour or so there isn’t even any non-diegetic music (why the movie finally allows some classical needle-drop is a question for more hard-nosed interpreters than I). The story stretches but is expertly paced — pacing is why a two-hour film can seem as though it’s crawling while a three-hour-plus work like this breezes by, and it’s a mystery of editing and the intuition of great moviemaking. Dumont uses the extra sprawl of his canvas and the luridness of his premise to indulge himself in the best, most playful sense. We don’t feel left out of the fun; we feel drawn in by the elliptical character-building and by the society on view, which we might say was splintered by the murders if we didn’t suspect it was pretty thoroughly splintered before.