Archive for the ‘satire’ category

The Menu

January 2, 2023


Who eats the wispy, elite stuff served up by chefs like Ferran Adrià and, in The Menu, by the well-regarded Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes)? Certainly not you and me, unless you routinely drop $1,250 on a meal. No, it’s for the rich and jaded. And the movie aims both barrels at those who have that kind of money, and would spend that kind of money on something that, as Slowik notes, “turns to shit in your guts.” The food doesn’t matter — it’s the status of being one-percenter enough to get a seat at the fancy table. On a mordant eat-the-rich level — though, to be fair, the film is never so obvious as to dabble in cannibalism — I enjoyed The Menu. But if you’ve consumed enough black-comedy horror about snobby gourmets getting their comeuppance, nothing much here will shock you.

Our entry point into this rarefied world is a young couple, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who journey by boat with ten others to Hawthorne, an exclusive restaurant on a private island. Chef Slowik rules his kitchen with military precision; essentially, he puts on a show, acting the way his audience expects a deluxe, eccentric chef to act. Tyler is a big fan of Slowik; the others, including a food critic (Janet McTeer), just buy tickets to the experience as a badge of superiority, or to find the less-than-robust fare wanting because, when you get down to it, most of these people aren’t as refined as they want to appear, and just want to stuff their faces like the brutal gourmand Mr. Spica in this film’s nearest ancestor, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

Margot is not what she seems, and neither is Slowik; they gravitate to each other, carrying similar demons, and Fiennes and Taylor-Joy do their nimblest work opposite each other. Their scenes will play all the better a second time through. Hong Chau is elegantly menacing as Elsa, who deals with the guests using a quiet but deadly politesse (she’s having quite the season — she’s in The Whale and Kelly Reichardt’s upcoming Showing Up). The acting, especially John Leguizamo as a past-it hack movie star and Judith Light as a rich matron in whose eyes we can see the light of hope slowly dying, is top-notch; the director Mark Mylod clearly sets the stage (The Menu could almost as easily be done as theater — it is theater) and gets out of the way so this crew of performers can assemble some fine dishes.

But once you’ve seen what the movie is, you’ve seen the strings, and there’s about half an hour to go in which you wait to see how savage the situation gets. Pretty savage. Anthony Bourdain would have cackled his dark cackle all the way through it. But, again, if your diet has been long on stuff like Cook, Thief and various horror comedies set in restaurants, you’ll most likely see the final course coming; the only suspense is what the ingredients are. The writers, Will Tracy and Seth Reiss, have typed up a doozy, and I can’t fault the showmanship. But I kept hearing in my head the voice of my late friend and fellow horror fan Ken Souza, who would have given the film points for craft (Peter Deming’s cinematography is swanky-creamy throughout) but rattled off like ten different sources it cribs from.

I am a little more forgiving of lapses in originality. As Godard supposedly opined, it’s not where you take it from, it’s where you take it to. And The Menu takes it to a satisfyingly apocalyptic conclusion, the only way, really, for such a nihilist-lite work to see itself out. (I say lite because not everything turns to shit in its guts.) There’s nothing much the matter with it — there’s just not, finally, anything great about it. As satire, it sets up easily hissable Richie Riches without much shading. And the film’s (valid) grumbling about the inequity between classes would have more bite if we got to know anyone on Slowik’s kitchen crew at all. (One is reduced to a loud portion of Slowik’s ghastly performance art; one poses as something else in a somewhat pointless diversion; the rest are as indistinct as most of the maggots in Full Metal Jacket.) The Menu is a competently prepared dish that would like to be thought of, ultimately, as a well-made cheeseburger. But it feels weird on our tongues, like the reconstituted, teleported steak in David Cronenberg’s The Fly. In more senses than one, it lacks taste.

Don’t Look Up

January 23, 2022

dont look up

Some things are too big for most people to worry about. We’re all going to die at some point, but it’s possible to know that and still go about one’s day. If we were told, as the people of Earth are told in Don’t Look Up, that a comet will come and wipe us all out in half a year, what would we do? Writer-director Adam McKay (The Big Short) thinks some of us would face it — few of us, really — but most would be short-circuited into denial or avoidance. It’d be too big to think about. But Don’t Look Up is more of a satire of the media presence and politics of recent years than a lampoon of humanity’s response as individual humans. Outside of a few flashes, the movie doesn’t deal much with how other countries, cultures, peoples are coping with the comet. The barbs fly mainly at America.

Two astronomers who aren’t especially media-ready — Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) — discover the comet and figure out its trajectory and ETA. The president (Meryl Streep) blows it off until she needs a wag-the-dog diversion, at which point we send up some nukes at the comet. Other complications happen; the administration privileges monetary gain over human life. Eventually everyone has to look up. The movie has become something of a flashpoint, though its buzz has faded in the last couple of weeks. Some viewers come away shocked, others get angry, and I’ll bet a good number have the same response I did: “Well, yeah. Of course.”

Of course talk shows would absorb and then dismiss an existential crisis, pivoting with relief to coverage of a breakup between two pop stars. Of course Americans would have a divided, largely unhelpful reaction to it. Of course politicians would lead from the polls instead of from their consciences. Of course our pop-culture-fixated, meme-addicted media would trivialize it, just as it trivializes anything else it touches. Anyone who’s endured the last two years and paid a modicum of attention will find very little in Don’t Look Up surprising or controversial. So it’s probably not going to change a lot of minds. The red-hat-wearing anti-vax contingent isn’t going to see a movie like this anyway, and if they do, they’ll fold their arms and turn to stone, letting the film’s appeals to rationality bounce off of them.

It’s well-made, to be sure, played just a hair shy of farce, and the large cast (including Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Mark Rylance, and Jonah Hill) come to play. Ron Perlman makes the most out of his few minutes as a belligerent war veteran picked to lead the assault on the comet. Lawrence and DiCaprio yell and suffer a lot. Everyone is committed. But the satirical gunfire becomes scattershot. We are not, after all, culpable in the existence of the comet, the way it certainly can be argued we are culpable in the human impact on the climate, or culpable in the prolonging of the pandemic. The comet has nothing to do with us; we didn’t create this monster. McKay is more interested in showing how the responses to the crisis — the government’s, John and Jane Q. Public’s, but mostly the media’s — are dictated by fear or greed. Which is valid, I guess, but don’t stop the presses.

The problem with movies that satirize “the media” is that they manage to forget they’re part of “the media.” Would that be the same “media” that Adam McKay worked for weeks at the end of last year, angling for that Oscar? “The media” obligingly created a gotta-see-it buzz around Don’t Look Up, first around its stars and then around the “controversy” (as if anything in this polarized culture weren’t “controversial”). In making Dr. Strangelove, still the undisputed champ of American satirical cinema, Stanley Kubrick largely ignored what “the media” would say; he focused on the donut, the government, not the hole. McKay focuses on the hole, the media, and then decries the void.

Promising Young Woman

January 3, 2021

promising-young-woman-trailerThe gut tension starts early in Emerald Fennell’s debut feature Promising Young Woman. Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is by herself at night at a bar, seemingly so blitzed she can barely sit up. Some nearby horndogs take notice, and one of them heads over to her. What follows, as the guy compels the scarcely sentient Cassie to go back to his place for a drink, trades one form of stress for another, a more deeply unsettling one. Cassie is nowhere near as drunk or oblivious as she seems, and her M.O. is quickly established: She purposely attracts predatory dudes, then confronts them with their own piggishness. One of the insights that writer-director Fennell has is that all these guys, two minutes after trying to take advantage of an inebriated woman, still want to portray themselves as not that bad. They’re not, like, rapists or anything, they think, not long after they were planning rape.

But this isn’t quite the #MeToo Death Wish some critics have painted it as. It’s a satire — like, dark satire, Juvenalian satire in which hardly anyone comes off well, except maybe Cassie’s gentle dad (Clancy Brown, gainfully cast against his usual type). It satirizes the inverse of its title: the “promising young men” (Brock Turner, say) whose lives stand to be ruined if they are held accountable for their crimes against women. And the women’s lives? Young women, presumably, are not as promising. It’s a bitter, necessary title for a bitter, necessary near-thriller about a rage-filled woman who always seems about to cross over to violence but never does, except the violence she does to men’s egos.

Promising Young Woman is, alas, a bit pulpy; it runs a little too far on coincidence. If Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate of Cassie’s, didn’t pick the coffee bar where she works to grab a cup, there wouldn’t be a first-act spin to kick the material up a notch. Ryan is a doctor, and Cassie was once going to be one, too, but she dropped out of med school to take care of her friend Nina, who was raped at a party. Usually, as in Ms. 45 and other revengesploitation, the annihilating angel is herself a victim, but Fennell works around that trope to haunting effect. Nina is never seen, but looms large over Cassie and over the movie. When we first meet her, Cassie’s vengeful fury is a bit random, scattershot; she only shames those who approach her with foul intent. But Ryan and the world he’s part of give Cassie sharper focus. Ryan seems a decent sort, quietly witty, and we dare to hope that Cassie finds some happiness. But the goblin of coincidence raises its furry head again; there’s a revelation that some will take as a betrayal and others will already have seen coming.

I saw it coming, but Promising Young Woman still left a stinging mark on me as one of the year’s best. I continue to insist that, as more marginalized people step behind the camera and take the reins of story — women, people of color, LGBTQ+, etc. — we will see how their approaches differ, often in wonderful ways, from that of the standard default white-cis-hetero-male director. There is a foglike dread, dread of how bad things can get, that runs through violent female-made films like Jane Campion’s In the Cut and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin — a subtle undertone of the silent agony that male supremacy is built on. And I find it in Promising Young Woman, which isn’t really a “horror film” but is about horror, true horror as it is felt and lived, the horror of being violated and then ignored, having to live on in a world that doesn’t care that you were raped. That, in fact, would rather you just shut up about it or die.

The movie may leave you feeling like an open wound, but I can’t deny it’s also fun a lot of the way. Carey Mulligan gets to play an emotionally stunted, eternally disappointed woman, and she finds notes of wit in Cassie’s pain — she may be in pain, but she also is a pain. That Cassie isn’t a wide-eyed goody-goody allows us to enjoy her manipulations as a sort of theater of rage. This one random guy may have had nothing to do with her friend’s savaging, but he’s still a guy who can be taught some brutal truths. Ryan seems different, but don’t they all? Promising Young Woman sees all men as grinning reptiles pulling at themselves; it sees through Cassie’s eyes without 100% buying into her particular actions, but still doesn’t disagree with her. And if we didn’t do concern-trolling with Bronson and Eastwood and all the rest about their vigilante actions, we don’t need to start now with Cassie.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

October 23, 2020


“I was tucking in my shirt” might just be the movie critique of the year. Then again, look at the year. In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Sacha Baron Cohen brings his big-hit satirical character Borat Sagdiyev out of retirement, and the result is sporadically explosive, with more obviously staged sequences than I remember the original 2006 Borat having. Here, Borat is apparently too recognizable to Americans from his previous film, so he puts on a fake fat suit, a beard, and a wig that all make him look like an Amish elder who’s gotten into too much butter. There are some scenes where Baron Cohen, in one disguise or another, interacts with people who don’t seem in on the prank, and many others where Borat hangs out with characters clearly played by actors — a couple of QAnon hicks, a black woman Borat hires to look after his 15-year-old daughter.

The daughter, Tutar, is very much the movie’s saving throw, and the 24-year-old Bulgarian actress who plays her, Maria Bakalova, swipes the movie right out from under Baron Cohen’s thick mustache. He lets her run with it, knowing what she brings to the party. Tutar is intended as a gift to Mike Pence on behalf of Borat’s mother country Kazakhstan, but her babysitter points her towards feminist awakening and rejection of the fearful sexism Borat teaches her. Loudly and crassly, at fancy events for shocked rich white people, Tutar embraces the feminine. Some of the movie’s more screamingly funny moments (it’s too bad we can’t see this in a packed and roaring theater as it deserves) don’t involve Borat at all; it’s all Tutar, and Bakalova jumps into each fresh outrage with both feet, hungry for life and pleasure. 

The shirt-tucking moment has gotten all the press, but really it doesn’t tell us much we don’t already know, which is to say — to quote All the President’s Men — “these aren’t very bright guys, and things got out of hand.” So to speak. It’s a good gotcha moment, but in truth, the subject’s predatory leers beforehand tell a more disturbing story. Maria Bakalova deserves hazard pay, not only for the “sex attack” she may have narrowly sidestepped but for sitting within feet of America’s mayor as he coughs and hacks into his hands. Much of the movie was shot as the COVID crisis unfolded, and I’m sure the production observed strict protocols, but it’s still a chilling moment. This is a man so monstrously privileged and delusional he just figures your space is his space. He moves in a world where he gets to accompany a very young-looking girl to a bedroom, lie down, and stick his hand down his pants. Or he gets to cough at her.

This Borat sequel has nine writing credits (the original had five), and there are stretches where you can feel the chaos being wrested into a narrative, an arc wherein Borat learns to love and respect his daughter. It’s a far different movie than the first Borat was; it feels like a transitional film from Borat’s punk-brat origins to something with more heart, albeit Hollywood heart. Baron Cohen, himself Jewish, apparently continues to think anti-semitism is smashingly funny, or at least allows for dark satirical doodling. Some will no doubt chafe at the scene in which Baron Cohen brings out Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans to inform Borat that, yes, the Holocaust did happen. I think, for Baron Cohen, anti-semitism represents all other forms of idiotic hate, and as always, the sharpest scenes come when Baron Cohen can get random folks on camera heartily agreeing with Borat’s blinkered, almost childlike racism. Stick around for the end credits — no mid-credits scene, but an absolute stomper of a cover of “Everybody Dance Now” by the Russian punk band Little Big.

The Hunt

June 21, 2020

thehuntAlmost every character in The Hunt is crap. The exceptions are a skittish private-jet attendant and “Snowball” (Betty Gilpin), so nicknamed by the rich elites who are hunting her. The Hunt has had a long and winding road to distribution. First slated for release last September, it ran afoul of commentators who, of course, had not seen it; their objection was to the premise, wherein wealthy leftists kidnap and hunt “deplorables” — Trump supporters — for sport. (As it is, the movie finally limped into theaters in March, just in time for COVID-19 to shut theaters down. It hit VOD a week later, and now is finally on DVD.) There’s more to the film than that — but not much more, disappointingly. It’s a sleek, short, well-wrought horror-thriller with buckets of gore, and a sharp performance by Betty Gilpin that deserved far more notice.

“Snowball,” or Crystal, has been chosen along with eleven others to be the prey while well-armed, somewhat trained richies play predator. Crystal turns out to be a smart cookie who fought in Afghanistan, and as such has a much better chance of survival than her fellow captives. Is she a deplorable? Maybe, maybe not. Does it matter? I don’t think so. The Hunt is better than The Oath, a dark comedy from 2018 that probed the current political bifurcation (I couldn’t get through that one), but it’s really a defense-and-retreat thriller first and political commentary a distant second. Almost everyone is an easy stereotype of virtue-signalling lefties or cap-wearing, bigoted righties. Crystal, the exception, is so shrewd about defense and retreat that the director, Craig Zobel, and writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof seem to have given her a sneak peek at the script.

In short, the movie is on nobody’s side except Crystal’s, and Gilpin rises to the occasion. Crystal keeps wanting a cigarette and never gets one; if she ever did, she’d be a perfect John Carpenter hero, someone of few words and hard action. Gilpin scarcely smiles, except ruefully, mordantly. She gives Crystal a certain southern-style wit, and she doesn’t ask to be liked. She gives us, against all odds in a taut but gimmicky thriller, a true feminist hero, and one notable thing Zobel does right is that he never tells us where Crystal does stand politically. We get to know all we need to know about her. She feels real to us. The other characters, not so much — particularly Hilary Swank as the HBIC of the elite hunters, pompously kept offscreen or with her back to us for half the movie. Swank does what she can with Andrea, a CEO with her own vengeful agenda, but Andrea isn’t really credible as a person. Whoever trained Swank and Gilpin for their king-hell battle royale in Andrea’s tasteful rented kitchen can take a bow, though.

The Hunt is weakest when it dips its toe in the waters of satire; the characters are simply too sketchy and rudimentary. It can’t touch the Clinton-era satires The Last Supper (1995) or Citizen Ruth (1996), which succeeded for reasons other than being on “the correct side.” Nowadays, those films (especially Citizen Ruth, which boasted its own great performance via Laura Dern) would be knocked on Film Twitter for both-sides-ism — or no-sides-ism, which amounts to the same thing. The Hunt would like to be a throwback to those small but thorny films, but its expertise lies with staging violence (some of the actors you expect to be around for at least a few reels are gorily dispatched early on) and with giving Betty Gilpin the breathing room to create, in the midst of this crisp but callow cartoon, a real human being.


January 5, 2020

parasitefilm It’s clear pretty early on that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite — which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes and may yet claim more trophies this awards season — isn’t meant to be taken literally. Taken seriously, yes, but not literally. The narrative has many, many moving parts, but the parts are also combustible, and they’re all arranged to detonate on cue for maximum damage. Bong makes you feel as though you’d damn well better catch every little detail, every flourish and filigree, because it’s all inexorably marching towards something. But that destination can’t be guessed at or controlled — it’s chaotic and brutal, and only retrospectively makes sense.

Parasite is yet another movie that demands to be evoked, not described (as a plot synopsis would just ruin the experience). Put simply, it’s the story of two families. One family, just scraping by, lives cramped together in a “semi-basement” apartment of the sort common in urban Korea. The other family is wealthy, and one of their bedrooms would probably take up as much space as the poorer family’s entire living area. Each family is perfectly nuclear — man, woman, boy, girl — and the son from the poor family gets himself hired to tutor the daughter from the rich family. And it doesn’t stop there; in short order, each member of the poor family ends up working for the rich family, none of whom realize their new employees are all related.

Okay, that’s a little far-fetched. It’s also narratively convenient; some of it depends on just the right character hearing just the right bit of information. But the point Bong wants us to get is how the families respond to each opening. Nitpick Parasite if you must, but you’ll be watching a different movie from the one Bong has made. The actual movie underneath all the ornate plot scaffolding has a lot of questions, some of which it can’t answer, though art isn’t built to answer questions but to pose them. Bong asks, first and foremost, what prosperity is built on, and how far down the hierarchy goes (not how far up). You may feel the boot of the oppressor on your neck, but are you also oppressing someone just by virtue of what you have and what they don’t? You may not intend to oppress, but in truth, few actively seek to do so — the ones who have more, and who oppress more, just benefit from a certain moral laxity, a willingness to tune out the screams and wails coming from below. In our culture of late, we have discussed white privilege, and how it doesn’t mean a white person’s life is easy in every way, just that it’s easier in every way than a comparable person of color’s life is. And there are privileges among the less privileged, too: a hetero African-American man enjoys freedoms that a gay African-American woman does not. And both have it easier than a disabled African-American does. They share one aspect of experience, blackness, but in other respects are not alike.

So that’s what Parasite is about, but it’s also about the duelling production designs of the poor family’s packed but lived-in pad and the rich family’s expansive but sparse rooms, including a vast living room whose vast window looks out onto a vast backyard, where the climax unfolds in such an abrupt series of feints and jabs that we may want to stop the film and go back — we don’t feel ready for it, even though we know we’re on an accelerating ride into the inferno. One action during the climax isn’t readable at first glance because, in the moment, we see the father of the poor family the way the father of the rich family sees him: not as a father but as a driver. But then we say, No, he’s a father, and what he does makes some sort of sense.

Parasite will drive the literal-minded around the bend, because its events pile up and sometimes recall the ruthless structure of a sitcom, or a slamming-door farce like Noises Off. Much is made of the smell of the underclass, or the rich little boy’s American Indian fantasies into which the grown men of both families are conscripted, or water as a harbinger of disaster and forestalled revelation. The movie is also a lot of smooth fun to watch, Bong being an entertainer above most else. Parasite flips through about ten different genres and takes the best bits of each; it feels like a relaxing buffet that expresses and sparks a love of cinema. Some of the suspense and incidents rubbed me the wrong way while I was watching, but in memory they gain stature and gravitas. Finally, it stakes its claim as a Juvenalian satire in which products are more than once praised because “we ordered it from America,” but we Americans probably shouldn’t take that as a compliment.

The House That Jack Built

December 16, 2018

the-house-that-jack-builtIn Lars von Trier’s traumatizing serial-killer epic The House That Jack Built, the murders have a rough clumsiness, preceded by something that’s almost worse — the awkward chasm of build-up before the killing, when our protagonist Jack (Matt Dillon) is trying to relate to his prey, if only to keep up appearances. A textbook sociopath, Jack has photos of various facial expressions pasted around a mirror, so he can practice looking human. He is human, though; the moments when he’s trying to manipulate his way into a house, or holding forth before the mutilation begins, show us the cracks in his mask of insanity. Somewhere in there, seen only in fragments, is someone capable of compassion, staring out in horror.

The point of the film, I gather, is to draw a connection between Jack the fictional ripper and von Trier the supposedly amoral artist — and, by extension, between the acts of destruction and creation. Both leave a mark on the world, even if a mark of erasure, and Jack takes it a step further by trying to transform murder into art — sculpting corpses into tableaux of ruin and decay. Of all the atrocities we witness, possibly the ghastliest is what Jack does to the face of a frowning little boy who, in life, was nicknamed Grumpy. I’ll never forget that sight, and moments like it are why horror fans have gravitated eagerly to The House That Jack Built — von Trier finds a new way to shock, to show us fear in a handful of meat. But for the most part what they’re going to get is a sermon on art and morality before they get the gory donut.

The version of the film most Americans will see (until the director’s cut is allowed to be released in America sometime next year) is R-rated, and missing a minute or so of footage involving the shooting of children and a nonconsensual mastectomy.¹ Whether we think we or anyone need to see these things is beside the point; this muted version removes taboos that had strengthened the film’s punch as a work of Juvenalian satire. The House That Jack Built turns out to be a movie very much of this fraught, bifurcated moment. The wearing of red baseball caps in a key scene may provide a clue. Anyway, the trimmed version is mainly intact, though I recommend it for the most part only to von Trier fans, who seem to have greater tolerance for the Danish maestro’s games than do most Western critics.

The movie is literarily structured into five “incidents” and an epilogue (“Katabasis”). The “incidents” almost all feature Jack singling out some woman — he usually happens on them randomly — and bringing the pain. He’s not especially slick at it; he bumbles through the first killings we see, stashing the remains in his walk-in freezer. He takes on the nom de meutre “Mr. Sophistication,” mailing the newspapers photos of his work as David Bowie’s “Fame” comments somewhat obviously on his ambitions. He talks to an unseen man, known as Verge (Bruno Ganz), who listens to Jack’s self-justifying monologues half-heartedly, having heard speeches like them many times before. Jack is being led to Hell, and feels the need to explain himself on the way.

The House That Jack Built — immaculately acted, by the way, especially by cold-eyed Dillon and by Siobhan Fallon Hogan in the film’s most wounding but least gruesome “incident” — is enough of an evocative art-house exhibit to be about whatever you want it to be about. Jack’s hobbies and trophies could sensibly be read as the horrific logical extension of white male privilege, and its ultimate destination might make this von Trier’s most cheerful film in quite a while. Maybe Jack can kill with impunity — though not forever — and maybe, as he shouts, “nobody wants to help,” but that doesn’t mean no consequences. By the end, when we see the end result of Jack’s hoarding of his victims, we understand that we have left the realm of the literal — if we were ever in it — and entered the twistier dreamland of metaphor, icon, myth. We recall the sorrowful, stinging tone of von Trier’s previous fables about America, and we understand we all live in Jack’s house.


¹This sequence, in the R-rated version, becomes darkly hilarious for its glimpse into what the MPAA finds beyond the limits of an R rating (showing a breast being cut off), and what is apparently acceptable (showing a disembodied breast being prankishly tucked under someone’s windshield wiper, and the other one used as Jack’s wallet). I leave it to the reader to determine which is worse.

Code Name: Dynastud

October 22, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 4.50.29 PM “My penis was a lethal weapon,” narrates the titular hero of Code Name: Dynastud, “and I had a license to thrill.” This is the sort of freewheeling dialogue you can expect from this movie and from many of Richard Griffin’s movies in general. Griffin is the Rhode Island bad boy responsible for making serious films (Long Night in a Dead City, Flesh for the Inferno) and queer-positive farces (last year’s Strapped for Danger and definitely this movie). Sometimes the sharpest response to a repressive situation is laughter, and in Dynastud Griffin gays it up bigly in the face of a regime that just announced they’re looking to redefine transgender out of existence, and whose vice-president gladly speaks at the anti-LGBT hate gathering Values Voter Summit.

Griffin’s comedic grab-bag approach, with nods to everything from James Bond opening-credits sequences to Dune to Moby Dick, probably won’t win over any more bigots than a more sober-sided Oscar-season appeal to tolerance would, but it’s a lot more fun. (Some may recall that Strapped for Danger was supposed to be Griffin’s swan song; fortunately for us, he changed his mind.) Griffin’s story here (cowritten with frequent giggling collaborators Duncan Pflaster and Lenny Schwartz) involves a scrawny farm-raised lad who receives superpowers and becomes Dynastud (Anthony Gaudette), both blessed with fabulous good looks and cursed with the tendency to make his sexual partners’ heads explode when he achieves orgasm. Dynastud’s new partner in crimefighting — the Robin to his Batman, if you will — is Bart (Derek Laurendeau), a bespectacled dude punished for the crime of being gay in 2024 by being married off to the avidly horny daughter of the senator being groomed as the next president.

Despite the intentional clownishness (the bad dubbing in tribute to Enter the Ninja) and the continued thirst for vibrant colors (courtesy of cinematographer John Mosetich), Griffin’s radicalism here makes Bruce LaBruce’s callow outrages look like a kid’s armpit farts. Code Name: Dynastud imagines an America left incredibly worse post-Trump — this may come to be recognized as the first post-America film. It’s a cheerfully nihilistic work, with the emphasis on “cheerfully.” The performers come to party, with the most vivid fun-makers being Bruce Church as the gun-toting, hateful senator and Candace Sampson as his randy spawn. I’m always happy to see Aaron Andrade barge into a Griffin shindig, and here he busts in as a MAGA agent and puts on a hilariously lofty accent. He cracked me up every time.

It’s probably no accident that Griffin is hijacking traditionally macho genres (and movies by typically macho studios like Cannon) to tell lasciviously gay stories. By the same token, gay lust and affection are about the only things that don’t come in for ridicule here; by rewriting/rewiring hetero fantasies, Griffin is showing the hetero audience what their unquestioned hetero entertainment looks like to everyone else. I sometimes wonder what Griffin’s wilder films will look like in thirty years (assuming anyone will be around to watch them) — whether their method of flipping the script will be viewed as something that was sadly necessary in the dark ages of 2018. There may be a future in which films like Code Name: Dynastud will be seen not as gay parodies but as parodies. Part of Griffin believes in that future and works towards it. And part of him laughs in rage at the present. There’s the soul of an artist in these schlock homages Griffin does, with all their jokes about schlongs and jizz.

The Misandrists

May 7, 2018

Misandrists-7-800x499The only moment I freely enjoyed in Bruce LaBruce’s erotic satire The Misandrists comes when a woman dressed as a nun, walking on the grounds outside an all-girl school, suddenly and randomly breaks into the Charleston while music plays (coming from where? We don’t know). Then, as inexplicably as it started, the music stops, the dance is cut off, and the “nun” resumes walking. This happens roughly fifty minutes into the movie, and it’s the only bit with any spontaneity or life. The rest of The Misandrists is more porno-tinged, half-serious “radical” agitprop from LaBruce, a founding father of the queercore movement of the ‘80s, who has made this as a quasi-sequel to his 2004 film The Raspberry Reich.

For LaBruce, homosexuality is revolutionary, and he literalizes that by linking gay sex with terrorism, or at least with terrorist rhetoric. I see the point: In certain quarters of supposedly free Western societies (LaBruce hails from Ontario), if you’re LGBTQ you may as well be ISIS. So why not give homophobes something to be genuinely phobic about? Filmed in Berlin in twelve days on a Kickstarter budget, The Misandrists concerns a lesbian separatist group — the Female Liberation Army — disguised as a convent. Their leader is Big Mother (Susanne Sachsse, from Raspberry Reich), who uses gender-swapped words like “womansplain” and says things like “We must tell the world to wake up and smell the estrogen.”

If this is your cup of camp, drink up. I found it largely boring, especially a slow-motion pillow fight that goes on for eight or nine weeks, or so it seems. Filmed in early 2016, The Misandrists can’t really be faulted for not anticipating the atmosphere in which it would eventually be released (after a year or so of bouncing around festivals worldwide). You can’t read a room if you’re not expecting it to be on fire in two years. But maybe now isn’t the time for a jokey send-up of gay, female and transgender rage. Maybe it also isn’t the time for scenes like the one in which an transgender young woman is ostracized (temporarily, but still) while a wounded young man is subjected to forced gender reassignment surgery (shown in gory, leering close-ups in actual vaginoplasty footage as the man screams in pain). This may be a shot at the TERF mentality, but in this particular landscape it lands poorly. As Roger Ebert wrote about the lumberjack jokes in Blue Velvet, “Sorry, but I just couldn’t get my lips to smile.”

This sort of japery was done funnier and filthier by John Waters in the pride of his midnight-movie shining, in films like Desperate Living and Female Trouble. I’m not sure whether LaBruce wants us to chuckle politely — that dignified whitebread titter you hear in audiences for art-house flicks — or to nod in meaningful mute assent to the heavy points he’s making. One of the points is a good one: extremism used to control people is bad; used in art, as in the pornifesto the young women produce at the movie’s end, it’s good. Would that The Misandrists were an example of the latter. As it is, it employs graphic, unsimulated sex and blood for an upsy daisy assortment of self-consciously subversive blackout sketches. Which may have worked in the somewhat gentler ‘90s. These days, more is needed and deserved.


Beatriz at Dinner

September 10, 2017

beatrizatdinnerI’m not sure whether Beatriz at Dinner is, as advertised, “the first great film of the Trump era” (Get Out might beg to differ), but that’s a reductive tag anyway. Its concerns go deeper (and it was finished months before Election Day 2016), so don’t let that description scare you away or foster unrealistic expectations. The movie is not the savage jugular-punch to the current administration that some will want and others will wearily and warily expect. It’s accidentally topical — it could just as easily have been made in the mid-2000s, on the heels of the two other films by Beatriz’ makers, Chuck & Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002). But director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White speak to today’s preoccupations precisely by not tying themselves to the present.

The movie is archetypal, not satirically specific. Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a massage therapist and general holistic healer, and also an immigrant. Her opposite number here is Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a real-estate magnate who seems to represent the values that validate Trump without actually being much like Trump. Mike White allows Doug some wit and self-awareness (he’s way too well-spoken to be a Trump parody), and Lithgow makes him quick and shrewd, but with an understanding that Doug’s self-opinion is deeply divided. Doug is reflective, even existentially aware of his place in the world. In his way, Doug is the most honest person in the movie. He’s joshingly cruel but he never pretends to be anything other than what he is.

Beatriz is brought into Doug’s sphere when she’s stuck at a client’s house by car trouble. Her client is Kathy (Connie Britton), the sort of conscientious rich white woman, blind to her own privilege, who thinks of her massage therapist Beatriz as a friend because having a woman like Beatriz as a friend makes a woman like Kathy feel warm and gracious. (She commiserates tastefully when a saddened Beatriz says her neighbor killed her goat.) Beatriz knows they’re not really friends, though she once treated and helped Kathy’s (offscreen) daughter through her chemotherapy. She knows how easily a rich white person’s affection is given, and withdrawn. Beatriz doesn’t say much until some wine loosens her tongue, but the great actress Hayek writes an entire novel wordlessly, with stares of despair or outrage.

Beatriz at Dinner has also been described as a comedy, but it isn’t really — the level of camp is awfully low (it spikes a bit in some of Beatriz’ flights of fantasy), and the few laughs are uncomfortable. There is one top-notch twisted joke: these rich people love passing grotesque photos around on their phones; it happens twice, and both times Beatriz is horrified, and finally livid. Beatriz is more or less marooned at the California mansion of Kathy and her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) as an important business dinner, involving Doug Strutt, looms later in the evening. Amusingly, except for Doug, the men seem indistinct; the women come off snappy and precise. They’re intelligent and know the right things to say to continue presenting as compassionate people, but some part of their soul is gone, scabbed over. They enable their men to kill the world.

Sometimes Hayek’s Beatriz is powerful Earth Mother, other times just a slumped, small-statured woman trying to get through the day. She is the conscience of the earth, but hardly its consciousness. She feels others’ pain, even a dying octopus, and may be too intense an empath to function in a harsh world created by the rich and white. She seems to understand Doug, or would like to think so (she keeps saying she knows him from somewhere), but Doug has her number the moment he lays eyes on her. His final words to her reverberate far past the end credits. Beatriz at Dinner is being sold as some sort of Greenaway-esque satire of manners, but it’s a good deal more troubling than that. It bothers us long after it’s over, bringing us back to Beatriz’ death-haunted eyes, looking for the man who killed her goat.