Tag Archives: Feminist

CAPSULE: MEDUSA (2021)

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Medusa is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Anita Rocha da Silveira

FEATURING: Mariana Oliveira, Lara Tremouroux

PLOT: A group of Brazilian girls involved in a fundamentalist Christian sect spend their nights as vigilantes attacking women they deem insufficiently modest; one becomes beset by doubts.

Still from Medusa (2021)

COMMENTS: Medusa begins with a closeup of an eyeball, with a spot of bright red light and a spot of bright green light clearly reflected to the right and left of the pupil. As Goblin-esque techno music swells, the camera pulls back and rotates to show its subject performing an abstract but provocative interpretive dance, bathed in competing green and red washes. It’s appropriate that the film begins with a moody dance scene, because Medusa is full of elaborately choreographed atmospheres, from the bubblegum pink neon pop performances of “Michele and the Treasures of the Lord” to synchronized fascist yoga to a masked rave in the woods. The audiovisual aspects are superb: doom-laden dollies establish an effective mode. The director cites Suspiria as a major influence (seen mainly in the bold lighting choices.)

But while the style is enthralling, Medusa‘s script struggles to keep up. Granted, a lot of thought goes into the film’s themes. The running monster motif is handled well. The film critiques the cult-like dynamics of the nameless evangelical Christian sect portrayed here by focusing on its overwhelming concern with policing surface appearances rather than fostering virtue. This leads to the occasional satirical hit: an influencer explains how to properly take a “Christian selfie.” It also allows for moments of pathos, as when the same YouTuber removes her makeup after abandoning a video tutorial to reveal an unglamorous underlying reality. The fact that the protagonist only begins to question the group’s ideology of superficiality when her physical perfection is temporarily compromised is meaningful. But these insights exist alongside more obvious anti-religion jabs that verge on the stereotypical, e.g. a pastor stops a spiritual counseling session in the middle to take a call from a wealthy donor.

That unevenness could be forgiven, but at the same time, the story is losing focus as it progresses. The film’s increasing disorientation tracks with Mariana’s growing disillusionment and the disintegration of her worldview; but the story also seems like it’s unsure how to conclude. Shaving twenty minutes or so off the running time would have helped. Medusa lingers a too long on dreamlike sequences that add little. And Mariana’s arc goes a bit flat in the third act: she drags her bestie into dipping their toes into hedonistic excess with no believable coaxing—just a touch of magical realism that doesn’t feel all that realistic. And, though cracks show, Mariana doesn’t firmly break from her religious fervor even at the end, when the girls all spontaneously erupt into what is meant to be an expression of raw, resentful female fury, but might be unfairly dismissed as a mass hysterical episode. The women express righteous catharsis, but it seems tacked-on rather than flowing from the plot (especially since it encompasses characters who’ve experienced none of Mariana’s character growth). Medusa has a great look and sound, a few memorable scenes, and a fine central performance by Mariana Oliveira to ground the chaos, but the whole feels less than the parts.

Director Anita Rocha da Silveira was inspired by the rise of evangelical Christian groups in Brazil, and by reports of teenage girls physically assaulted by their peers for appearing too slutty on social media. On these inspirations she overlaid Ovid’s version of the myth of Medusa, where the gorgon is transformed into a monster by Athena as punishment for alleged promiscuity. De Silveira’s film played at Cannes and was picked up for U.S. distribution by Music Box Films (who are becoming a major player in distributing some of the weirder low-to-mid budget movies out there, having also released Strawberry Mansion and Please Baby Please in 2022).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Da Silveira has alluded to the disturbing social trends in her native Brazil that have informed her themes. Here she challenges them in a way that is satirical, amusing, stylish and strange; perhaps even controversial for her native audience.”–Demetreos Matheou, Screen Daily (festival review)

366 UNDERGROUND: KING JUDITH (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Bailey

FEATURING: Nicole Fancher, Joanna Schellenberg, Jenny Ledel, Emily Ernst, Rhonda Boutte

PLOT: A police detective investigates a car crash which ends the lives of three women and triggers the disappearance of a fourth.

Still from King Judith (2022)

COMMENTS: Viewer discretion is advised: this film is best viewed as a treatise on American feminist folklore. The plot’s threads remain unwoven until a quiet reveal at the finish, and even then the pervasive mystery is not put to rest. This method of storytelling is in keeping with the Southern Gothic style, relying heavily on ambience and spirituality—both religious and otherwise. The ethereal-but-anchored tone also echoes the subject matter: ghosts, memories, and revenants. And despite the sun-infused imagery and wispy, often (overly) poetical dialogue, there is a sense of unspecifiable loss wrapped around the ambiguous happenings.

The facts at hand are scant. Known: three women died in a car crash while en route to a “macabre literary festival.” Known: the sudden appearance on the road of a fourth woman, recently evicted from her tent-home of twenty years, triggered the crash; this woman’s whereabouts are unknown. Known: this tragedy is followed by a series of deaths-of-despair on the parts of several ostensible witnesses. Through the detective’s interviews with the victims’ friends and associates, and obliquely pertinent poems sent to her by an unknown observer, the meandering turns of events are uncovered. But what it all adds up to remains opaque, both for the film’s protagonist and for the audience.

While enduring the first third of the movie, I felt a growing apprehension—the bad kind. I feared I would have to spend an entire review dumping on an unlucky indie filmmaker. The opening mystery-tedium and the lead actress’ unconvincing performance (imagine a keen twelve-year-old girl attempting to come across as a thirty-something “seen-it-all” kind of cop) nearly sunk it. To my relief, King Judith manages to transcend both the sum of its parts and its myriad flaws. (As with anything “Southern” or “Gothic”, patience pays off, in this case handsomely.) The second act opens with a bar scene in which writer/director Bailey at last finds his storytelling voice. What follows is an encounter where an awkward fellow beautifully regales a childhood ghost experience, and the young woman he’s speaking with (one of the three car-crash victims) in turn share the amusing story of the “Mounted Aristotle” caper from Alexandrian times.

King Judith never fully shakes off its pretensions; there are too many random shots of poetical movement in front of poetical backdrops, plenty of “quirky” artist characters, and dialogue of the “…reckless urges to climb celestial trellises, and slide down them” variety by the bucketful. The grandiloquence is heading somewhere, however, and its meandering way covers interesting intersections of folklore and psyche, feminist and otherwise. And Richard Bailey’s detective-story frame is apt. In the world of memory, tales, history, the supernatural, and the hereafter, there are “no answers to our questions, only rewards—fascinating details, luminous things; on and on it goes: the work of gathering clues.”

Kind Judith is currently streaming for free on Tubi.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird little film that mixes folklore, and Southern Gothic, with a dose of women’s studies, and comes up with something that feels almost like a stage play that was adapted for the screen.”–Jim Morazzini, Voices from the Balcony (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ANATOMY OF HELL (2004)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Amira Casar, Rocco Siffredi, voice of Catherine Breillat

PLOT: A woman pays a gay man to observe her intimate moments for four nights.

Still from Anatomy of Hell (2004)

COMMENTS: Sartre said Hell is other people. Catherine Breillat says Hell is other people’s bodies; or, more specifically, other genders’ bodies; or, when you get right down to it, women’s bodies.

A Woman goes to a gay disco and slits her wrists in the bathroom. She’s rescued by a gay Man, who takes her to a clinic to be stitched up. The Woman proposes to pay him to “watch her when she’s unwatchable.” He goes to her house for four nights, pours himself a few fingers of Jack Daniels to help him make it through the night, and they talk while she lies naked and exposed. “They fragility of female flesh inspires disgust or brutality,” he muses. “The veils [men] adorn us with anticipate our shrouds,” the Woman proclaims. (The conversation is not intended to be naturalistic; it’s a staged Platonic dialogue with a poetic overlay). While never verbally expressing anything but disgust for the Woman, the Man is drawn to experiment intimately with her body (including scenes involving garden tools, and worse). Then the arrangement ends. He is moved, and, in what may be a fantasy sequence, commits an act of brutality. That’s it; it’s partially successful conversion therapy.

Siffredi, a pornographic actor best known for his recurring “Buttman” character, turns out to be a surprisingly capable actor—although his moods are restricted to disgust and melancholy, both simmering. Casar is beautiful as she lounges around naked, but her role could be played by almost any beautiful nude actress. Although she shows more range than Siffredi, as any actress might, she has trouble putting across dialogue like “in intercourse, the act isn’t what matters, but its meaning.” Casar’s body double is anatomically correct. Breillat herself dubs the thoughts for both parties.  And that’s it for the acting—which is a problem, in what’s basically a character-driven two-hander (explicit though it is, it’s so anti-erotic that could never make the grade as a one-hander).

On release, Anatomy of Hell received a lot of understandable criticism for its overly-simplistic brand of radical gender philosophy. Taken literally, the film argues (explicitly and didactically, despite the poetic trappings) that men are disgusted by women’s bodies and instinctively long to damage them—and that this misogyny is even more pronounced in gay men. That’s not a position I would want to defend in a Ph.D. thesis. But while that literal reading is both ridiculous and offensive, there is another layer to the film that is hopeful. Despite his disgust at The Woman’s body, The Man is eventually seduced by it. And after the job is done, he finds himself changed by the experience: “I experienced total intimacy with her. And I don’t even know her name.” Radical posturing aside, Anatomy of Hell at least partly celebrates the alchemy of shared human bodies: that point when carnal disgust is overcome and physical commingling becomes a spiritual experience. Look past words to the magic of bodies, this wordy picture whispers. Though mercifully short, Anatomy of Hell is a hard watch, composed of dull, pseudo-profound dialogues broken by shock sequences designed to reinforce its putative thesis that female bodies are disgusting. It’s not recommended, but—if you can bypass the untenable literal reading its characters propose—this erotic experiment is more thought-provoking than its detractors suggest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“But sometimes [Breillat] is just plain goofy, as in ‘Anatomy of Hell,’ which plays like porn dubbed by bitter deconstructionist theoreticians.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Motyka, who asked for more Breillat reviews and stated that Anatomy of Hell was “especially worth looking at, because of its rejection of a traditional plot.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: MAYDAY (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Karen Cinorre

FEATURING: Grace Van Patten, , Soko, Havana Rose Liu, Juliette Lewis

PLOT: Escaping a horrible day of work at a restaurant, Ana finds herself amongst girl guerrilla fighters in the midst of war.

COMMENTS: Though others may have said it better, few have said it with as much swagger and clarity as Queen: don’t try suicide. This is among the handful of messages littered around the intriguing mess that is Karen Cinorre’s feature debut, Mayday. In fact, every other line of dialogue seems to be some kind of advisement:

  • Getting dizzy? Of course you are: you’ve never seen that far before.
  • You’ve been in a war your whole life, you just didn’t know it.
  • Girls are better off dead, ’cause now we’re free.
  • A lot of girls just slip away. They deserve better.
  • He needs to learn what fear feels like.
  • Wars always get out of hand. Soon everyone will be in on it.

This last line bears dissection, as the gist of it perhaps makes some sense (the spiraling nature of violence), but the execution of the aphorism collapses under scrutiny. This is a difficulty that Mayday battles throughout. But despite nearly buckling under the weight of its own heavy-handedness, Mayday pulls off the sermonizing while remaining generally entertaining.

The film begins with an airman parachuting from a plane’s open hatch. The story begins with Ana (Grace Van Patten) waking up abruptly in her car. She is awoken by her friend and coworker Dmitri: they are grunts-in-arms at a fairly hellish venue, catering a wedding beset with freakish electrical episodes. Inside, the maitre d’ brushes past Ana, chiding her, “Clean yourself up! I have to look at that face.” The bride-to-be abruptly grabs her, and the two crash into the ladies’ room for a bridal meltdown. When Ana is then tasked with a trip to the basement to futz with the fuse box, things become increasingly jumpy. Flipping the main switch, she ascends the stairs to an empty kitchen and climbs into an oven only to emerge on some seaside rocks.

What follows is a girl-vs-boy fantasy adventure whose tone speedily careens toward a clunky patrio-normative finale. Marsha leads a partisan trio that somehow knew when and where to collect Ana upon her arrival. “Gert” is weapons-obsessed, “Bea” is the playful adventurer, and the now-complete gang of four hide out in a beached submarine. They spend their days frolicking and sending out distress signals, siren-style, to lure would-be rescuers (all men) into deadly storms.

Cinorre has chosen a compelling and (unfortunately still) topical premise to explore, but the experience is undercut with every Marsha-n diatribe. I am fully on board with criticizing male chauvinism, but have qualms about getting into bed with misandry. Mayday‘s ultimate acknowledgement of all genders’ capacity for ill-behavior, though welcome, isn’t enough when the plot clings to the “but you have a man who wants you” motivation for Ana to decide to carry on. Like Queen, Cinorre can swagger; unlike Queen, her message drowns in ambiguity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“From ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and beyond, the references are there in abundance, but Cinorre trusts in their familiarity so much that she ditches notions like logical world-building (yes, there needs to be some coherent and consistent logic even in fantasy), throwing the audience inside a barely-realized novel reality. If you don’t ask too many questions and just go with the flow, you might have a decent time in this dimension.”–Tomris Laffly, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska

FEATURING: Sylvia Soska, Jen Soska, Rikki Gagne, C.J. Wallis, Loyd Bateman

PLOT: Two young druggies and two young churchies find a dead hooker in their trunk and set out to dispose of the body while pursued by a serial killer and other slimeballs.

Still from Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not one of the all-time strangest movies out there, though it’s OK as a first timers’ take on a low budget exploitation movie with a feminist slant—one that is weirder than it had to be.

COMMENTS: Absolutely faithful to the exploitative promise of the title, but still not exactly what you’d expect, Dead Hooker in a Trunk is a nihilistic feminist punk black comedy with an absurd script and experimental tendencies. It plays out in a comic book reality that’s halfway between a modern Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and a film. It may also take place, as the character known only as “Junkie” suggests, in Purgatory (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, looks a lot like Vancouver).

En route to scoring some “shit” for her bestie the Junkie, the Badass agrees to pick up Goody Two Shoes from his church youth group at the request of her sister, The Geek. Leaving the church, they immediately smell the dead hooker in their trunk, and after minimal debate about calling the cops, they decide instead to dispose of the evidence. So the quartet goes on the lam, checks into a sleazy motel, and has to deal with cops, drug gangs, a serial killer, and a cowboy pimp. Along the way they encourage necrophilia and meet God (in a cameo); characters lose eyeballs and arms, but emerge little the worse for wear. They also engage in a gruesome and fatal tooth-pulling torture session, lest you think this is all just innocent fun and games.

The Soska sisters indulge in some experimental aesthetics: for example, flashback scenes have dark lighting and rounded shadowy edges around the frame (sometimes with the sound of a projector running in the background). Most of the film is vérité style shot-on-video, particularly obvious during action scenes where the camera swerves around to catch the action, as if a documentary crew is filming the carnage live. Some people seem to enjoy the indie/punk soundtrack, which features several original songs, although I found it merely functional. I must say, however, that the filmmakers did a great job with makeup, and not just with the corny gore effects. Besides one symbolic moment where a teardrop tattoo appears and disappears, you never get confused as to which of the identical twin sisters is the Geek and which is the Badass; in fact, you might not even guess that the actresses were related.

Dead Hooker‘s rowdy screenplay emits a theme of female empowerment, in that the women (particularly the Badass) triumph over men who are driven to violence by sexual inadequacy. The main problem I had with the film, however, is that I never liked the characters the way the script wanted me to. The two “good” characters put up only token resistance to the criminality of the two “bad” characters. Although the foursome bonds with each other through their trials, I wouldn’t want to spend much time with any of them. The group makes an appeal for sympathy with the adoption of an abandoned dog, but then they blow all that goodwill with the tone-deaf torture/revenge scene. Getting audiences to root for reprobates is always a hard sell; it’s only the pitiless antiheroes who never show any sign of remorse or goodness (like Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat) that come off best. By not caring whether we like them, they make us love them, whereas Dead Hooker‘s antiheroines can come across as too desperate for our approval.

The Soska sisters moved on to bigger budgets after making this debut film for a reported $2,500 (!) Dead Hooker was re-released on a limited edition Blu-ray in 2019, although given its low-fi origins, it’s hard to imagine the picture benefits much from a high definition presentation. The disc does contain a commentary track from the sisters, not available on previous releases. Next up for the twins: a remake of fellow Canadian ‘s Rabid, due out in late 2019 or early 2020.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As cheap, meretricious and disposable as its titular character, this countercultural road movie may be a puerile mishmash of low-rent clichés and in-your-face transgression (with just a smattering of Weekend at Bernie’s), but it is just about knowing enough to get away with it – as long as you approach it with the right (which is to say lowered) kind of expectation.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures

LIST CANDIDATE: THE WILD BOYS (2017)

Les garçons sauvages

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Mandico

FEATURING: Anaël Snoek, , , Elina Löwensohn,

PLOT: After raping and accidentally murdering their literature teacher, a pentad of miscreant boys is sent to sea for discipline, under the supervision of a flinty captain.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Wilds Boys is, in many ways, easy to dismiss as pretentious French arthouse fare. That said, it’s an occasionally unnerving bit of cinema that hovers strangely between too little coherency and too much exposition while maintaining a fearlessness that would be hard to find State-side. Of course, there are only three official slots currently left on the List

COMMENTS: To get a feel for the nature of this beast, it may be worth noting that this movie disappeared from Amazon Prime’s video library after I had added it to my watch list. iTunes proved itself the braver host, however, and I watched Mandico’s feature debut on my desktop instead of my widescreen television. That might have been for the best, as it created an intimacy that would have been lacking otherwise. And if nothing else, The Wild Boys is a very intimate movie—teeming with claustrophobia, dreamy violence, grit, and trans-female/trans-feminist sermonizing.

Five upper class boys get drunk, rape, and inadvertently murder their literature teacher, perhaps at the behest of “Trevor”, a sequin-bejeweled god-demon they all fear. During a dreamy trial, replete with a space-Expressionist prosecutor, cosmic background, and two near-nude man pillars, each lad provides unconvincing, doctored testimony. They are convicted, but kept at their respective estates until a suitable punishment can be determined. Enter the captain: gruff, bearded, and severe. With a young woman and a younger man on a rope in his entourage, he explains to the boys’ assembled parents that he has a fail-safe method for fixing their sons’ defiant, cruel, and rape-y behavior. He cannot, however, guarantee that all the boys will survive. Despite this, the parents approve of the plan, and the boys are sent off to sea. As warned, the boys do not survive their ordeal—as boys.

The film’s disorienting nature is on display right at the beginning: a wild boy, a self-inflicted head wound, Aleksey German-style camera, and lustful sailors. The dark fairy tale feel is augmented by the largely black and white photography and the choice of rounding the edges of our field of vision throughout. There is visual chaos, most troublingly during the rape scene. This violation looks like it could have come from straight from a nightmare—and immediately explains why The Wild Boys is unrated. Hereabouts, it would have gotten at least an “X” rating. (I was prompted to wonder, “Can showing teenage boys with erections be child pornography even if the boys are played by of-age[?] women with realistic prosthetics?”)

The director’s choice to veer into the direction he does—that, were the world populated exclusively by women, there’d be much less violence—is a little hackneyed. But at the same time he seems to undermine this thesis through the inclusion of murder of innocent sailors at the hands of “converts.” Mandico’s film is still worth a view for those curious about any of the “tags” below, as it is unlike any other dissection of those issues I’ve seen. As for its straight-up weird cred, here are some things to which I bore witness: captain’s map-tattooed member; open-faced uterus gun holster; cactus ambrosia-jizz plant. Yep.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“French director Bertrand Mandico turns the arthouse weirdness dial up to 11 with his erotically uninhibited and deeply bizarre feature debut set at the turn of the last century.”–Cath Clarke, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

306. THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

“Casual viewers are going to find it weird, poorly acted, nonsensical, sexist, weird, not scary, confusing and did I mention weird?”–Amazon review of The Love Witch

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel, Jared Sanford

PLOT: Elaine, a mysterious young woman who, we later learn, is a practicing witch, motors into a northern California town and sets up residence in a Victorian house. She casts spells which cause a succession of men to fall in love with her, but her beaus always fail to meet her fairytale romantic expectations and come to bad ends. As her old Satanist cronies attempt to draw her back into their circle, she finally finds a man she believes will be “the one”—the detective investigating the very disappearances she’s linked to.

Still from The Love Witch (2016)

BACKGROUND:

  • After her debut feature, the 1960s/70s softcore sexploitation parody Viva (2007), Anna Biller worked on The Love Witch for years, not only writing the script and directing and editing but also designing all the costumes and composing the medieval music score. She even spent months weaving the pentagram rug and creating Elaine’s spell book with hand-drawn calligraphy.
  • For authenticity, The Love Witch was shot in the soon-to-be-extinct 35 mm film format.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A Samantha Robinson closeup (pick one). She doesn’t need a spell beyond those eyes, outlined in wicked mascara and smoldering electric blue eye shadow, to get a man in bed—but she’ll cast one anyway, just to make sure.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink tea room; jimsonweed rainbow sex; tampon/urine brew

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The familiar but unreal world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively singular—brewed from pulpy romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectics, and glitzy Technicolor melodramas—that it can only rightfully described as “weird.”


Brief scene from The Love Witch

COMMENTS: The Love Witch is thematically dense and symbolically Continue reading 306. THE LOVE WITCH (2016)