Ten Years Ago: Hard Candy

18 Apr hardcandy4

Maggie McMuffin examines the online misandry movement in her breakdown of David Slade’s Hard Candy.

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Let me talk to you about the word misandry.

The modern misandry movement began on tumblr about, oh, four or five years ago. While it is now being bandied about as fact, as the opposite of feminism, it was actually started by Men’s Rights Activists. They were screaming at politically correct “tumblr social justice warriors” (a phrase now used exclusively to insult people) and calling them misandrists; they hate men, they want them all to die, female superiority reigns supreme!

At first there was pushback. No, that’s not what feminism is. No, that’s not what womanism is either.

And MRAs, they just kept fighting. Saying any request a woman made for safety or any criticism of harassment or rape culture was proof the dawn of man had ended long ago.

The response was to go “Actually yeah, fine,” and to fucking brand that shit. Misandrist art, bright and sparkling. “Fashionable misandry” became a popular tag, consisting largely of mermaids and hot pink self-defense items. We took those accusations and parodied them, creating male tears coffee mugs and “Fuck you, pay me” cross-stitches.

Which of course led the MRAs to point more fingers and yell that this was proof of them being correct!

So we pushed harder. “Dead Men Can’t Cat Call.” “Kill All Rapists.” “Valar Morghulis: Yes ALL Men.”

Fine, we said. You want to say we call death to all men. We’ll say that now. We’ll be the biggest worst thing ever and we’ll do it in six-inch heels!

But of course that just made the MRAs more convinced of our blood lust.

And we gave up, tired of the joke, and said “Actually…we do sort of hate men.”

Not All Men.

We never said that.

(There’s actually an interesting time in the misandry movement where intersectionality was called in and white women were told by POC not to say kill all men because white women still have the ability to enact violence on black men and also where do trans men fit into misandry and what about non-binary people who present as masculine and could butch women be misandrists too because is this about men or about masculinity and it’s actually a very fascinating online movement I hope gets studied one day.)

Anyway.

By being strawmanned, many of us were pushed to the point where we did just openly admit that, yes, we hate men as a concept. Not every man. Not each individual. But in terms of the patriarchy? In terms of gripping keys because a man is following you at night? In terms of not knowing if some guy will roofie you? In terms of “Oh, he’s just picking on you because he likes you”? In terms of having multiple stories of relatives, teachers, strangers, boyfriends, friends, classmates, bus drivers, cops, whatever doing anything from whistling at to raping us and being told that was our fault because of whatever arbitrary rule we managed to break that day?

Well, yeah. We kind of hate men.

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But what that meant was we just don’t trust you. Trusting men can’t be the default because men have victimized so many of us and gotten away with it. We are told to fight one another, that girls can’t get along, that
Mean Girls is so true to life, but most of us have never been systematically attacked by women the way we have been by men. Sure. Women can assist in that. Women can bully. Women can physically and sexually assault. Again, we never said that wasn’t true.

All we said was that we reached a point where we’ve got to parody the idea of hating men or we’re never going to make it in this world. We need to laugh so we don’t cry. We need to actually empower ourselves to call shit out even though it’ll get us called a bitch.

And unfortunately, that’s lost. Misandry is held up as being a real thing on par with misogyny and it just isn’t. Not in a world where a man’s worst fear is that women will laugh at them and a woman’s worst fear is that a man will kill her.

As the old (I mean four years is old in internet time) adage goes, “Misandry irritates; misogyny kills.”

And that’s where I’m coming from in thinking about Hard Candy.

Because I remember being 15 and watching that with my dad (who is legitimately “kill more rapists” than I am, or at least more “kill my rapist” than I am) and us talking about how overblown the film was. Like, we both kind of thought it was cool. A film about a 14-year-old girl who seeks revenge on a child rapist/possible murderer. But, wow, does that film not make it clear she’s a hero. I still run into people who claim that the movie was good and they totally agree with her, “But is she any better for pretending to castrate him and making him kill himself?”

Which echoes what I have been told, if I express fantasies of bad things happening to my abusers. Bad things I would never actually make happen or do myself.  That if you fight hate with hate or violence with violence then, obviously, you’re just as bad. If you strike back against someone who struck you first, well, you’re just as evil.

And that’s really not a good mentality when discussing things like pedophilia.

Like, no. There are not two sides to that issue. We have a man raping a child, and we have a child being raped. If you play devil’s advocate to any degree in that, you are a horrible person and I hope your mother shames you in her will.

But that’s the thing! People are totally allowed to play devil’s advocate on topics like this and get upset if people call them out for their hypothetical little argument (seriously, men do this all the time when rape culture comes up on Facebook), but if a member of an oppressed or marginalized group has a revenge fantasy, suddenly they are the person in the wrong and should be ashamed of themselves.

So I am going into this film hoping, really hoping, that it’s a more balanced narrative than I remember. That people were just misreading it. That it will be a great escapist fantasy where Ellen Page is gonna decimate online predators with her freckles and wit.

First off, I want to say that I don’t see how anyone can come out of this movie thinking it’s being presented equally. Because while Hayley’s methods of getting information from Jeff go from harsh to deadly, Jeff’s creep level does the same.

We open with an online chat between thonggrrrl14 and Lensman319. There’s flirtation, sexual innuendo, and then a decision to meet in an hour that’s prompted by thonggrrrl who insists she is NOT a baby because she reads Zadie Smith. But when we fade to a diner, we find someone who is very much a child, chowing down on tiramisu and chocolate that Jeff is more than happy to wipe off of her lips before offering to buy her more.

I mean that. Scene one and dude is offering to buy her candy. Also a T-shirt if she promises to model it for him.

The scene was triggering, if I’m being honest. About a 2 on my scale. Maybe it’s because there were too many similarities between Jeff and my older abusive ex (including a similar online handle, as my ex’s was and is photoj99), or maybe it’s because I came of age during AOL chatroom scares, or maybe it’s because there is no reason a 32-year-old should be meeting a 14-year-old to hang privately, but for whatever reason I went into the rest of the movie with my mind made up about Jeff being a bonafide creep.

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He pulls out all the classic lines: He tells Hayley she’s so mature, she acts older than her age, he can’t believe she’s so interested in reading, yadda yadda NOPE. And the thing is, while Ellen Page was 19 during filming and while I know my father and I agreed ten years ago that this character didn’t read as a real 14-year-old, she totally reads as one in this scene. Ellen Page has super-cropped hair. Not an attractive pixie cut, but a really boyish chop that highlights her freckles and her nervous laughter. While we later learn Hayley is duping Jeff so she can seek some vigilante justice for a missing girl named Donna Mauer (whose poster hangs over Jeff and Hayley’s first meeting) you would never know it here. Hayley may read, she may like Goldfrapp, she may have a big vocabulary, but she’s not confident. She’s unsure, timid, not smooth at flirting, and Jeff is just eating it up and being charming as hell without crossing any huge lines. Patrick Wilson plays Jeff as someone so assured of their own goodness that clearly there is nothing wrong with him taking Hayley home and offering her a screwdriver.

After a tour and Hayley saying she won’t accept a drink not mixed herself, the film shifts to the revenge fantasy we’ve been warned about. Over the course of the next hour, Hayley trusses Jeff up, reveals she’s basically stalked him, and tortures him for info about his pedophilia.

Jeff maintains he can’t be a pedophile or someone who hurts children, because he’s never slept with them. But as a photographer, he is able to photograph half-naked minors and then hang those blown up pictures in his house “as part of my portfolio.” Never the “poignant” and “important” nature shots for conservation agencies, just the “half-naked nymphs,” as Hayley puts it.

In fact, Hayley picks through all of Jeff’s arguments that he’s not a monster until eventually he is left with the one argument that still somehow serves as a legitimate argument in courtrooms:

“Come on. You were coming onto me.”

And while we have half a movie to go, Hayley launches into a monologue that hits home why that’s not an excuse.

“That’s what they always say, Jeff. Who? The pedophiles. ‘She was so sexy,’ ‘She was asking for it,’ or ‘She was only technically a girl; she acted like a woman.’ It’s just so easy to blame a kid isn’t it? Just because a girl knows how to imitate a woman does not mean she is ready to do what a woman does. I mean, you’re the grown up here. If a kid is experimenting and says something flirtatious, you ignore it. You don’t encourage it. If a kid says ‘Hey, let’s make screwdrivers,’ you take the alcohol away and you don’t race them to the next drink!”

But here’s the thing. Rape culture extends to children. A girl going through puberty early and growing breasts makes it easier to say her clothing is provocative even though it’s the only clothing being sold in her size. Children pole dance in beauty contests and people talk about how sad they are before they think to blame the parents who selected and choreographed those routines. A story comes out about David Bowie (and so many other rock stars) sleeping with 14-year-old groupies, and anyone who calls that statutory rape is branded as someone forcibly removing the agency of those girls. Lolita is sold with a pull quote on the cover proclaiming it “The only convincing love story of our time.”

It is easy to blame a child.

And here’s the thing: HAYLEY ISN’T WRONG ABOUT JEFF.

Because here the movie gets more personal, where Hayley begins to ask about the missing Donna. Even through a highly believable but ultimately fabricated castration, Jeff insists he knows nothing about Donna’s disappearance. He just…has a photo of her. And has met her. Because Jeff has a history of going online and specifically meeting 14-year-old girls and impressing them with wit and also lies. No, seriously. Hayley calls him on Googling every band she mentions and pulling quotes from Amazon reviews. He has a system.

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Hayley taunts him and mocks him, calling him lonely, threatening harm but never murder. Mostly, she focuses on a woman named Janelle who Jeff used to have a thing with and is still in love with. Like, he saved all her letters. The date of their “first time” (whether a photography shoot or having sex) is the code to Jeff’s child porn safe.

None of Hayley’s threats work. Not ruining his life, his career (which Hayley argues is a false argument anyway because Polanski), calling the cops, throwing him in prison. Through all of that, Jeff might cry and beg, but mostly he shouts he’s innocent or calmly offers Hayley help. That he’ll hold her, that her parents must not care about her but he sure does and understand everything…

All of that crumbles when Hayley threatens to tell Janelle and ruin any chance Jeff ever has of getting her back.

So he admits to Hayley that he didn’t kill Donna.

But he watched.

That doesn’t make him so bad does it? It’s not like he killed her or raped her.

“I just wanted to take pictures.”

But after this, Jeff is ready to go. He manages to get free, but with Janelle on the way and Hayley packing proof, he’s ready to just kill her. Instead, she convinces him to hang himself after he gives up the name of Donna’s murderer, thinking that by siding with Hayley’s vigilantism he’ll be safe.

“I know who he is. It’s funny. Aaron said you were the one who did it right before he killed himself.”

Here’s what this movie is. While, yes, Hayley is extreme, she’s constantly making good points. Jeff’s only argument is that he never actually raped anyone. He’s just been highly inappropriate and used his career to take photos of naked kids. He was even abused as a child because his aunt thought he molested her daughter! But he didn’t! He just did nothing to stop his much younger cousin from jumping naked all over him!

And people like him exist.

Hayley is a strawman in deeds, not words, but Jeff isn’t. Jeff is real. Guys like Jeff, who skirt the line and trade on charm and handsomeness to not be questioned, totally exist in our world.

And one of the best things about Jeff’s character is that he knows this. “I’m a decent guy,” he constantly says. He’s very careful to never hit on the models he shoots, going online for that. He’s well-liked by his neighbors and does work that’s very admirable.

Throughout the entire movie, he thinks he can have power over Hayley. Even at the end when he turns to force, he thinks he can take her down because he’s a larger man. But Hayley is always ahead of him. During their final confrontation on the roof, he says he’ll get out and find her, her dad is a professor at a famous school, and she’s from a smaller suburb. She throws out that none of that is true. Her name isn’t even Hayley.

And it’s clear that up until this point it had never dawned on him. Jeff legitimately had no idea that a 14-year-old on the internet was just as capable of lying to him.

In the end, even we never learn anything about Hayley beyond she’s got a therapist and also a friend she’s seeing after this. Because teenage girls are screens to be projected on. Society feeds them images of what they should be, things they should do. Jeff and other predators mentally dress them up into the people they need to feel good. Hayley played on this and it was probably the easiest part of her plan.

And THAT is when he gives up and kills himself.

As long as Jeff has his male power to rest on, he thinks he’s good. He thinks he can get out. The only other time he comes close to bending is when he thinks he’s being castrated. And once he learns that didn’t happen, he gets a second wind and is ready to kill, not caring about the consequences. Because he can just say that “she was all over me” when the cops show up.

This is a film about a 14-year-old taking power from a man. This is not a film about a bloody rampage; it is a film about a young woman methodically taking apart a man’s power and ability to defend his bullshit. About her destroying not just his will to live but also his entire concept of how safe he is.

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Is it overdramatized? Yes. But no more than a Tarantino film. Is it problematic that Hayley repeatedly mentions she’s crazy, especially since it’s framed as possibly being her one honest moment? Yeah. It’s also just a weird choice. Are the lighting shifts really heavy-handed? YES.

But the film is good and it makes its arguments. And because if people can watch this and still think Hayley was as much a villain as Jeff, then maybe we need extreme films. Maybe we, as an audience, need to be beaten and electrocuted before we can admit that being inappropriate with children is usually far more subversive than violent rape.

Because all of Hayley’s methods only led to Jeff saying she was right while he stabs out the crotch of one of his portfolio portraits. Because even before Hayley made the switch, Jeff was still trolling the internet looking for teenagers to hit on. There is no good and bad spectrum for pedophilia. There is only a spectrum of “pedophile” and “actually raped and killed a child.” There are not two equal sides to child rape and abuse.

So just remember that even if a guy is as charming as Patrick Wilson was before Watchmen nearly killed his career, he’s still capable of shitty behavior even if he’s not capable of the absolute shittiest behavior.

Random Thoughts

– This movie was the first time I had ever heard of Goldfrapp and to this day I can’t listen to them or hear about them without associating them with online predators.

– Goddamn I love Patrick Wilson and want to live in the timeline where he hit it big and got to be in a truly interesting adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera.

– Speaking of which, did you know Emmy Rossum was 16 during filming of that and Patrick Wilson was 32? It’s like this film sort of called that out along with all the other shout-outs to Hollywood kind of supporting this sort of thing.

– Ellen Page is RIPPED in this movie. I swear, she’s all muscle in this and they have her running around in a tank top for most of the film.

– An unintentionally humorous thing: During the “That’s what pedophiles say” speech, Hayley puts on Jeff’s glasses and a few lines later she tears them off dramatically while making a point about him.

– This film had a “production dog” and I don’t know why. I figure it probably did about as much work as Sandra Oh and the other two cast members did (about four minutes of collective screen time).

– If you think this sounds like a weird companion piece to Juno, you would be correct! In the ten years since this came out I still have not seen much a difference between Jeff in this and Mark in that. One is just wrapped up in comedy and Sonic Youth instead of drama and Goldfrapp.

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Ten Years Ago: Kinky Boots

15 Apr kinky2

Performer/choreographer/filmmaker Maxie Milieu still believes the sex is in the heel, and reminisces on how queer culture (and transgender politics) have evolved in the 10 years since Kinky Boots first hit theatres.

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“Ladies, Gentlemen, and those who have yet to make up their minds.”

There are few things I love in life more than a good pair of shoes. Put on the proper pair and the entire person can transform. Or, as the 2005 film Kinky Boots posits, the kind of shoes a person is wearing can tell you everything about them. 10 years ago I was an isolated teenager ravenously devouring movies at 2 a.m. on our limited BBC subscription that came with our new On Demand trial. For me, Absolutely Fabulous, Coupling, The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, and Kinky Boots all arrived in my life at the same time. For a child raised on pop culture who could communicate almost exclusively in Birdcage and Moonstruck quotes, these films spoke my language. In much the same way as Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet, and Moulin Rouge comprise Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy, The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, and Kinky Boots seem to me a complete set of quirky British underdog films. They also would eventually all go on to become Broadway musicals. 10 years ago I didn’t identify as queer, I wasn’t in a relationship with a trans person, I’d yet to do any leather manufacturing, or work as a club dancer or a burlesque performer. 10 years ago I may have just purchased my first pair of heels: teal t-strap peep toes that were glowing brightly at the display in Nordstrom. But here we are, 10 years later. Much like our film’s protagonist, Lola, who retraces her steps skipping across the uneven planks of a pier years after we see her do so in the opening sequence, let’s re-dance our steps. All I hope is that I don’t inspire something burgundy.

When we see Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor!) on the pier for the opening sequence, we are introduced to our film’s central tenants and trials. As Lola covertly slips on some fantastic red stilettos, glancing back apprehensively to make sure her father doesn’t see, she becomes herself. Embodied in one pair of red heels is the promise of the film: the limitless possibility of becoming yourself. When Lola’s father raps on the window snapping us out of this freeing introduction, dismissing Lola as a “stupid boy,” we are reminded that becoming yourself is fucking work.

We are introduced to our other protagonist, Charlie (Joel Edgerton), via the family business of shoes. We get the clear sense that Charlie, in his shitty trainers, is not invested in this business. When his father dies, he takes over the business realizing it is in severe financial trouble. After making over a dozen employees redundant, he is challenged to find a solution by one of the women he laid off. A chance encounter with Lola in London, where in defending herself Lola accidentally knocks Charlie out, leads to the spark of an idea to make shoes for the niche market of Drag Queens.

After an initial prototype failure, in which Charlie makes the least alluring pair of boots in all the land, Lola gives us my favorite monologue in the film. Disgusted at the burgundy color of the boots and appalled by the utilitarian heel. Lola break it down for us: The shoe is about sex, and the sex is in the heel. YES LOLA! “REEEEEDDDD” she purrs, the boots need to be red. The concept of the steel shank is born and we are off to montage land as provincial Northhamptoners, a shoe factory owner, and a Drag Queen work together to create two feet of irresistible cylindrical sex for the Milan Fashion Show. We overcome stereotypes and prejudices, fight the onslaught of progress (Charlie’s fiancée wants to turn the factory in to condos), and make a damn fine pair of boots.

Scattered throughout the film are Lola’s Drag performances. They act complementarily with the montages of boot-making, knotting together this process of manufacturing with the manufacturing of dreams. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable juxtaposition. Though I wish that Lola was not our sole speaking representative of the Drag and Trans world, as well as the only POC actor in the film, the performances give the film the tone of a spectacular in the way a pure narrative couldn’t do. Lola enlivens the possibilities of the boot-making endeavor and makes it something much bigger than just selling a product to a niche market. The boots are hopes, and dreams, and freedom, and truth, and sex, and desire, and power. When the first pair of completed boots rolls down the conveyer belt and we watch Lola gleefully pluck them up and slide that long zipper up her thigh, it is just pure magic. When she flicks the whip THAT HAS ITS OWN BOOT POCKET up the length of the boot, tucking it snugly in to place, the feeling of satisfaction and excitement is phenomenal. I think if I had a pair of those thigh-high, whip-concealing, RED boots, I could do anything.

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Things seems well on their way until Charlie begins to lose his chill. Pushing the craftsmen too hard in his drive for perfection they walk out, leaving the order unfinished. However, the people of the factory come together again to finish the order after they are rallied by our everyman “Don,” who was initially hateful toward Lola but grew as a human being and overcame all his lifelong prejudices in the course of 40 minutes. The order completed, all seems to be going well until Lola invites Charlie to a celebratory dinner and, while she has been “dressing down” in the factory, comes fully glammed out. Charlie hits his own prejudices dead on (gotta watch out for that pesky white male cis privilege always waiting to rear its ugly head) and insults and berates Lola in a way that, 10 years later, I find unforgivable. Charlie and a select few factory people head to Milan, sans Lola. When Charlie’s confesses to his new love interest that he was a douchecanoe to Lola and now they have no models, she challenges him, yet again, to figure something out. Charlie decides to walk the runway alone. In a scene that I’m sure inspired every “Let’s make the models wear dangerously high heels so they fall for entertainment” challenge on America’s Next Top Model, Charlie, quite literally, falls all over himself on the runway. He lies in a crumpled, disgraced, defeated pile, wearing a suit top, underwear and the aforementioned fantastic boots. Mirroring his vision early in the film, while facedown on the catwalk, he sees a pair of shiny red heels glimmering like a vision. It’s Lola! Come to save the day with her choreographed Drag runway extravaganza to “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” Fuck yes, this is what I’m here for. The number is a smash, the factory is saved, and Lola closes us out with one more number (after resolving the tension between her and Charlie).

Thoughts on the terminology used in the film. Kinky Boots uses the word Transvestite or Drag Queen to describe Lola. For where I stand in Seattle, WA in the U.S., 10 years later, conflating Drag performance with Trans identity is a no. While trans performers can and do perform drag, the identities are not one in the same. Transgender would also likely be the appropriate terminology for Lola in 2016. Overall in the film, Lola is described by her chosen pronouns of “she” and “her” except by “Don,” our stand-in for all bigotry and hatred. It gets a little muddy toward the end when our white cis dude (Charlie), after berating Lola as someone who is just a man in a dress and calling her Simon and asking her to show up looking like her passport, leaves a moving message to Lola explaining that he doesn’t know what a man is and complimenting that “she is more of a man than [he] could ever be.” It’s almost as if the film is striving to use “man” as a metaphor. Successful? Perhaps partially. Shoes make the man, man makes the shoes, shoes for a woman who is a man. There’s a great deal going on here. 10 years ago when I watched the film, none of these politics were on my mind. Watching 10 years later, my overall thought is that the film is perhaps even more relevant today as marginalized communities continue to strive for more visibility and equal rights. As technogiants take over our cities and begin to make us artists and individuals redundant. Kinky Boots is a true modern Cinderella story. It confronts the discomfort of our cis characters in a way that makes them reevaluate their suppositions. It does not always do this without sparing Lola discomfort, but it demands that we get to Lola’s level.

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Kinky Boots
is a well-acted, thoroughly enjoyable underdog film. It hit me more deeply 10 years later as my age and life experience made the trials of the film far more applicable to my life. Progress is churning ahead even more rapidly than 10 years ago. The fantastic elements of the drag performances seem banal and everyday to me in my current burlesque world. The truly uplifting moments come in the character interactions and the truth of the simple and everyday strife of attempting to be true to yourself.

Also, it has enough shots of feet to make my former ballerina heart happy.

Additional Thoughts:

– 10 years later, we are still very fixated on bathroom issues. The landlady that Lola is staying with asks “Can I just ask, are you a man?” When Lola responds in the affirmative the landlady responds, “Ah that’s fine, just sos I know how to leave the toilet seat. I’ll get some biscuits.” Clearly a moment of levity, meant to show Lola acceptance from an unlikely place, highlights the fixation on gender and bathroom. In fact, one of the major emotional scenes of the film takes place in a bathroom. After showing up dressed down to the factory, Lola hides in the men’s bathroom where she identifies herself as Simon to Charlie and recounts her childhood struggles with her father. Clearly gender identity and bathroom use are just as entrenched today as they were 10 years ago.

– One of the most compassionate moments in the film is when Lola and Don are having an arm wrestling competition. Lola is about to best Don when she looks in to his eyes and realizes that this is all he has in life. That his identity is fundamentally tied to this show of masculinity. She lets him win. #masculinitysofragile

– I am not in to 2005 shoe fashions. All strappy, and kind of low heels. No, just not my style. As someone who has a pair of Jimmy Choos, I hate the ones that the lesbian              ghost from Hex fanned over.

– The older man, George, who suggests the steel shank, is my favorite side character in this film. He is just so loving to those boots.

– I love that the drag show runway spectacular just leaves Charlie flat on the catwalk while they stomp it out over him.

– Lola, don’t give up your show to work in the shoe factory! Look at that stage! Those lights! The costumes!

– I wish Lola had a love interest.

– I am very sad that the original factory that made “kinky boots” no longer does so.

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Ten Years Ago: The Notorious Bettie Page

14 Apr Notorious2

Sailor St. Claire wonders why, even after twice watching the biopic The Notorious Bettie Page, she feels just as detached from Bettie Page as ever.

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The Notorious Bettie Page
isn’t exactly a bad movie, but it isn’t exactly a good movie, either. In this way, it’s a very fitting dedication to its subject. Bettie herself may have made a living as a “bad girl” on film, but wasn’t exactly a bad girl at all. Mary Harron and Gwen Turner’s biopic on the raven-haired pin-up queen focuses on Bettie Page as a blank canvas for the projection of other people’s fantasy. Even though a biopic is supposed to tell us something about the subject, Harron and Turner’s film leaves Bettie as an enigma. A religious girl from Tennessee who never wanted to be a teacher, with a natural talent for posing in front of cameras, and no shame about the body she was born into—these are the only three things we learn about Bettie as a person by the end of the film.

I know a lot of people, both in the pin-up/rockabilly/burlesque communities and around the world, wonder why Bettie Page would give up being Bettie Page, and the film does seem to pose an answer to this question. Bettie’s story is framed with the raids on Irving Klaw’s photography studio, and the 1955 hearings which accused Klaw and his wife of distributing pornographic material, especially through the mail in violation of the Comstock Law. Bettie herself waits outside the courthouse, waiting to be called to give testimony, for 12 whole hours, before the court determines she is unnecessary to the process. The film posits that there’s something about her role as a model here—the idea that her voice, her thoughts about any of the things she did on film for the Klaws or other photographers is “unnecessary”—that seems to shift Bettie’s thinking about her work. After the trial in which she is denied participation, she moves to Florida, reunites with Jesus, and becomes a preacher. The final scene shows Bettie telling a stranger that she wasn’t at all ashamed of her allegedly pornographic modeling, but that her God didn’t want her to model anymore, and so she didn’t.

Biopics have a tendency to lionize their subjects rather than critiquing them, and so the detachment with which the filmmakers treat the “notorious” Bettie Page is in some ways very refreshing. The choice to replicate the cinematic techniques of a period melodrama both aids in creating this sense of detachment, I think, as well as actually detaching the audience. Much like the racy photo essays that made Bettie famous, the filmmakers treat her story as a series of images rather than a narrative. As such, we as viewers don’t get much to cling to, which is why even after viewing this film, I still feel detached from Bettie. She maintains her mystery and allure, even though we do become privy to facts about her life: that she was kidnapped and raped in her early days as a model, that a black man was responsible for starting her career (and that she didn’t see a problem with a black man taking photos of a white woman in the 1940s), and that taking kinky photographs for men’s enjoyment was nothing but harmless dress-up fun to Bettie. These vignettes of her early life are presented to viewers via the camera zooming in on a letter to a friend back home, which Bettie grasps in her gloved hands while she waits outside the courthouse at the Klaw’s trial. I thought this was a nice nod to period cinema, and I liked how camera moves like that were paired with a generous use of B-roll shots of the American countryside as Bettie traveled on busses from Tennessee to New York.

The majority of the film is in glorious black and white, save for a few scenes in color—most of which take place in Florida around everyone’s favorite dream femme Sarah Paulson as Bunny Yeager. I watched this film with my friend Maggie McMuffin, and we both had a difficult time tracking what the shift to color was meant to represent. Had all of the scenes in shitty old-timey color been in Florida with Bunny, we would have been content reading them as scenes in which Bettie was being seen as a person (i.e. by a woman) than in the black and white way men saw her. But there’s also a scene in color where Bettie, the Klaws, other models, and some of their preferred clients are all playing croquet somewhere in upstate New York (and then taking “edgy” bondage-in-the-woods shots after the game), and, of course, the final scenes illustrating Bettie’s “conversion” back to her Christian life and new career as a preacher are also in color. So I’m not sure how to read the presence of color. Perhaps they’re meant to illustrate scenes in which Bettie’s making choices for herself, but if that’s true, it invalidates not only how she understands her career as a model, but her actual choice in becoming a fetish model (which as a pretty white woman, she had a lot of choice in).

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One thing I think the film makes clear is that the women who worked for the Klaws were not exploited, or asked to perform any tasks that they wouldn’t be fairly compensated for—or for clients not approved by the Klaws themselves. But at the same time, there are many scenes elsewhere that illustrate that amateur modeling is no different now than it was in the 1950s—from the proliferation of edgy bondage photos in the woods, to photographers asking models to do more than they agreed to pay for, it’s as if Bettie Page was on Model Mayhem before Model Mayhem even existed.

The Notorious Bettie Page is a strange pastiche of images from the life of a woman who is better known in pictures than in words, and so perhaps its best to leave her that way, innocent and naughty all at once, decorating Christmas trees in the nude in Playboy.

Free-Floating Thoughts

– Gretchen Moll sure is good at being a bad actress.

– Maggie: “That guy looks like a knock-off Norman Reedus.” Me: “That is Norman Reedus.”

– Jared Harris, better known as Lane Pryce on Mad Men, plays a total scuzzball in this. He looks like Remus Lupin on a bender.

– Jefferson Mays looks terrifying in this film.

– The minute Bettie’s actor boyfriend tells her he thinks her fetish photos are disgusting, Maggie and I both yelled, “Bye, Felipe!” at the screen.

– Not enough Sarah Paulson as Bunny Yeager. I’d have loved to see a more feminist take on Bettie Page that focused on how she and Bunny Yeager collaborated and mutually built one another’s careers.

– Sheriff Andy Bellfleur is Irving Klaw. That one took us a while to recognize.

– I want to live in Bunny Yeager’s house.

– The costume designer for this film did an awesome job. We loved all the 1950s swimsuits and underwear. We loved Bunny Yeager’s sundresses and sensible sandals.

– That holiday pinup from Playboy, where Bettie is decorating her tree while wearing nothing but a Santa hat, is basically the gold standard for Christmas pinups. It is a remarkable photo, and Yeager really does capture something special about Bettie in that shot. I can’t explain why it works so well; it just does.

– Paula Klaw is a hero for not burning all of the images she and Irving shot. Thank you, Paula, for saving the smut you worked so hard to make.

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Ten Years Ago: Brick

4 Apr brick2

Erik Jaccard explores the generic synthesis of film noir and high school dramas in Rian Johnson’s Brick…and makes your editors really want to watch Veronica Mars.

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Brick
Written and directed by Rian Johnson

In starting, I would suggest that it is a remarkable achievement for a film to help us see a genre with fresh eyes. Because this doesn’t occur very frequently, it’s all the more surprising when we run face-first into something that seems refreshingly new. We emerge from a cinematic experience energized and enthusiastic, but not even totally conscious of what we’ve just experienced. All we know is that it was some new thing, or some old thing we’d seen a million times, but this time done differently. Unsure of the what or the why, or of how to think of this new thing properly, we can only stop and feel. ‘YES. That. More of that please.’

This is overly dramatic, but it’s also a fair approximation of how I felt after seeing Rian Johnson’s neo-noir high school drama Brick for the first time. It was June and I was living in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’d finished the coursework for my master’s degree, was living on borrowed money, and had nothing to do but spend the following four months writing my thesis. Quite naturally, I was doing everything but that. Instead, I was hanging out with friends, drinking in the sun, running and reading a lot. I was working a little, sure, but mostly I was enjoying the long Scottish summer days and reveling in notion that I didn’t have much to do except eventually try to say smart things about some books. So, with all of this time on my hands, I started not only going to movies on my own, but taking chances on the smaller, independent films I’d be less likely to convince my friends were worth seeing. And so, on a fine early summer evening I trotted down to one of Edinburgh’s most charming arthouse cinemas—The Cameo—and watched Brick. Later, I emerged into the listless purple dusk outside and stood there, feeling my freedom and smiling ear to ear at the cool new thing I’d just witnessed.

As any who have seen the film know, the central conceit behind Brick is the transposition of the hard-boiled detective story—think Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon—into the context of a high school drama. On first viewing I found this idea to be very, very clever. In much the same way that I was bowled over by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s novel fusion of science fiction and romantic comedy, Brick’s blurring of generic boundaries helped me see each component differently. On the one hand, by setting a noir storyline in a high school, Johnson’s film brings much-needed levity to a hard-boiled genre that too often retreats into superficial shadows and straight-faced genre clichés. At the time I’d forgotten just how funny hard-boiled detectives can be, and Brick, as I explain in more detail below, is actually a really funny film in a lot of ways. On the other hand, the ominous tone and subjective uncertainty of the noir thriller ironically illuminates some of the deeper recesses of the high-school flick’s often frivolous or basely comical rendering of teenage life. The best examples from the hard-boiled film noir canon crackle with visual and verbal ingenuity, and Brick, because it stays so true to the ethos of those earlier films, lends the tired high school drama both a new gravitas and also an electric, memorable verve.

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Johnson notes in interviews that he’d been working on the idea for Brick since the late 1990s, but that he’d had trouble gaining traction with reticent studios understandably wary of taking on such a unique project from an unproven director. This probably makes sense, but then again, so does Johnson’s idea. For one, there’s a lot of exploitable overlap between character archetypes in the two genres: the wise-cracking, resolutely determined detective isn’t that far from the sarcastic social misfit giving the popular kids the fish-eye from across the cafeteria; the hard-working PI sidekick easily transitions into the diffident but resourceful nerd; the femme fatale is a differently drawn, and more mysterious version of the teenage drama queen, and so on. Second, the heavily stylized underworld argot of the detective narrative doesn’t seem that unnatural coming from the mouths of teenagers, who already speak in their own blurry and sometimes incomprehensible subcultural patois. Third, and this is a point I touched on long ago in my June 2011 re-view of The Fast and the Furious, both genres are inherently concerned with social dynamics, and particularly with codes of inclusion and exclusion. Just as detectives must operate in the seams between various social strata in order to determine the truth of their case, so, too, must the high school hero learn to navigate the various cliques and clubs—and the power dynamics which separate them—to determine the best route to achieving his or her goal. In doing so he or she often lays bare the unwritten rules and privileges by which some are elevated and others banished. Finally, and this might be the most obvious point, teenage life is full of both real and perceived drama, bickering, back-biting, deception, and betrayal—not unlike the detective story. Adult life contains its share of these things, too, but for teenagers it often seems like a much bigger deal, partly because the average teenager’s world is so small and partly because teens lack the maturity and perspective necessary to see their drama in context. As a result, the teenage years can often seem dark, frightening, and momentous, full of hidden motivations and secret dealings, insecurity and doubt, fragile alliances and naked power plays. (This is also, I believe, why the high school setting works so well a locus for Shakespearean tragedy.)

This is a long way of saying that in 2006 I found Brick to be a thoughtfully conceived, intelligent, and entertaining new take on established forms and that I enjoyed it all the more because it gave me the feels in all the ways I discuss above. While I’m not quite as invigorated ten years later—novelty does wear off, after all, to be replaced by newer novelties—I’m every bit as inclined to rank Brick among the better and more adventurous independent film projects of the 2000s. Watching it this time around I again appreciated its ambition, eagerness, and commitment, even when these qualities sometimes muddle the successful execution of the film’s larger premise. All in all, Brick stands the test of time, and for the next few pages I’ll attempt to explain why.

For those who haven’t seen the film, or haven’t seen it for ten years, here’s a brief precis of the plot. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a social misfit at his Southern California high school. He eats lunch every day by himself behind the school, weary of the world but unable to disengage from it completely. On day, his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin) calls him mysteriously and tells him she’s in big trouble and needs his help. Before she can explain fully, she’s cut off, leaving Brendan with only a handful of vague clues. A few days later Brendan finds Emily dead in a stone culvert which also doubles as a clandestine meeting spot for the area’s affluent, popular crowd. Determined to get to the bottom of what happened, Brendan starts tracking down her known acquaintances. He eventually ends up knee-deep in the school’s cultural underworld and must deal with a shady cast of characters of whom few, if any, can be trusted. There is the devious upper-crust femme fatale, Laura (Nora Zehetner), who at first seems only interested in helping; there is the tweaker burnout, Dode, who Brendan learns had been Emily’s most recent romantic attachment; and there is the vamp-vixen actress character, Kara, whose constant duplicity confounds Brendan’s quest for answers. These high-schoolers lead Brendan to the area’s local drug lord, ‘the Pin’ (Lukas Haas) and his truculent henchman, Tug. Through a fairly tense sequence of proverbial twists and turns, Brendan grows wise to the real culprit behind the murder and, ultimately, to the larger systems of power and perversion underlying Emily’s death.

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Now, one of the things I noticed this time around was the way the film’s setting and aesthetic plays against and softens some of the moodier textures of the conventional noir film. One of the disturbing pleasures of the latter is a shadowy grittiness in tone, which in movies like Double Indemnity or Touch of Evil is produced in part by stark contrasts between light and dark, and also by a kind of visual claustrophobia of setting (bequeathed to the genre by German Expressionism). By contrast, Brick is relatively expansive and incandescent. While it certainly references noir’s cloistered aesthetic, it also undercuts it in refreshing ways. For one, Johnson chose to set the film in his hometown of San Clemente, California, a beachside community in southern Orange County. This, combined with the fact that teenagers are afforded very little private space of their own, means that much of the film takes place outside, and is predictably shot at wide angles capable of expressing the long expanses of blue sky, and the rectilinear parking lots, football fields, and well-lit outdoor hallways typical of the SoCal high school flick. Such moments expand the viewer’s perception of the characters because it widens the aperture in which their dramatic potential is understood. Unlike the earlier films, where lighting and setting work metaphorically to express an entropic sense of collapse or psychological pressure, Brick evokes the infinite and open-ended. For every shot of a gloomy lair or darkened culvert, there is a corresponding escape into open space which disrupts stock conventions of noir filmmaking. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Teenagers are notoriously moody, if not gloomy, but this gloom is motivated as much by fear and uncertainty about the open-ended future and about understanding who and what one is going to be when they get older. This time around it was clearer to me that Brick’s visual aesthetic carefully recalibrates noir conventions less to emphasize the beastly horror underneath consensus social life—the darkness ‘in here’—and more the terror of the unknown ‘out there.’

I was also struck this time by the film’s humor, which I definitely don’t remember noticing as much the first time. While Brick plays around with some of the hard-boiled tradition’s characteristic dark comedy—Brendan’s lippy office exchange with the Assistant Vice Principal is a great example of this—its comedy derives mostly from the ironic juxtaposition of conventional teen movie settings and scenarios with the deadpan seriousness of its noir plot. Consider: the hard-boiled noir film offers the viewer glimpses of danger and intrigue uncommon to ordinary lives. Indeed, the strangeness of the seedy worlds depicted and the grave nature of its criminal plots are part of the genre’s appeal. At the same time, the conventional teen movie is utterly ordered and ordinary. Even when teen movies depart from the status quo they often do so only to return to it later, perhaps with the balance of power shifted in favor of the protagonist. But in Brick these two registers co-exist and produce this gleeful estrangement of both noir and teen movie tropes that keeps you oscillating between tension and humor.

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For example, in order to arrange a meeting with the film’s mysterious drug lord—‘the Pin’—Brendan must fight not a group of adult henchmen, but one of the school’s entitled ‘upper crust’ loudmouths in an afterschool parking lot. There’s the crime narrative element: Said loudmouth is one of the Pin’s primary dealers, so Brendan has to get through him to get to the Pin. But there’s also the teen movie trope: the clearly mismatched fight between scrappy loner and muscular jock, the former forcing social recognition by taking on its officially approved proxy. When the meeting finally happens, Brendan is driven to an ordinary suburban house, where the Pin’s mother (he lives with his parents) frets in the background about what kind of juice to offer the boys, seemingly unaware of the gravity of the conversation about to take place. Later on we see the Pin being driven around in a Chevy Astrovan (presumably also his parents’) with the back fitted as a model of his basement den. And even with daylight glaring through the windows, the Pin keeps his ominous lamp (complete with exotic shade), seemingly for dramatic effect. The scene draws the noir-esque imagery out to such an extent that we can’t help but laugh at it, literally exposed by the light of day as a kind of staged farce. This wouldn’t work if the film didn’t fully commit to both of its component genres, but thankfully it does. The actors play their parts with such deadly seriousness that you often forget that what you’re watching is actually really silly.

My favorite comic moment is the following exchange between Brendan and the Pin on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier. Having exhausted their shop talk, the two sit down, Brendan obediently behind the boss. The Pin speaks first:

“You read Tolkien?”

“What?”

“You know, The Hobbit books?”

“Yeah.”

“His descriptions of stuff are really good. Makes you wanna be there.”

Now, we like to think of our crime-movie villains as having some kind of villainous panache, whether that be intellectual or physical, or even sexual. We’re used to them having something that sets them apart, something to lend legitimacy to their power—even if it’s something horrible, like their willingness to dip victims in corrosive acid. But in this scene everything we know about the Pin’s noir archetype (noirchetype?) is so humanized that it becomes impossible not to see him as an unconfident boy attempting to bully others in his own little corner of the playground. Silhouetted against the setting sun, having a moment on the beach with his new bro, he spouts a line that sounds like the limp crescendo to a really bad paragraph in a freshman English paper. Maybe I laughed because I’m a person who sometimes has to grade bad English papers. However, I also just stopped and thought What? You can’t say that! You’re a mysterious urban myth, a veritable enigma of the streets! In no conceivable universe does a tough as nails noir gangster say “His descriptions and stuff are really good. Makes you wanna be there.” It drains all stylistic menace out of the scene and, for just a moment, you see the humans in front of you as vulnerable, uncertain people rather than narrative archetypes.

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There is, then, a lot of poignancy to the film’s humor, too. I couldn’t help but picture the end of Big, when Tom Hanks shrinks backs down to his teenage self and we see a shy boy walking down the street in a man’s suit. For the majority of that film the point is to laugh at the magical premise of a boy being transported into a man’s body and then doing childish things in adult form. We feel for him when he’s afraid, alone in the city, crying for his mother, and we delight in his playfulness and creativity in a world full of practically minded adults. We laugh because he’s so out of place, and because it’s a comedy the film nudges us to take this slapstick contrast as the primary point. Yet, there’s a darker irony here, too, and it’s produced by the nagging feeling that Josh is not, actually, that out of place. In fact, as he moves through the corridors of corporate power in New York we come to learn that he is surrounded by a variety of teenage archetypes living in the guise of adults. There’s the jaded popular girl, tired of all the stuff-shirted boys fluttering their feathers around her; there’s the older protector-figure, acclimated to the unforgiving nature of his world, yet willing to take a chance on the underdog; and there’s the aggressive bully, attempting to gain power and influence over others, no matter the cost. These, too, are kids wearing grown-up clothes, just as real-life gangsters, CEOs, and politicians are versions of other playground archetypes whom we’ve convinced ourselves are somehow different or more important because they’ve achieved adulthood. When a child collects all the blocks in one corner of the room we assume he or she is doing it because they haven’t learned to share; when adults do it, it’s because they’re talented, or strategic, or intelligent. Now, after that lengthy digression, here’s the point. The first time I saw Brick I marveled at the humor in people doing grown up things in kids’ bodies; this time I saw it the other way round, as all the grown-ups in my world continuing to do kid things, but convincing themselves it was something else. It isn’t as much that the Pin is a kid acting like a grown-up, though that is literally true, but rather that all the other big-shots are grown-ups who have convinced others their childish behavior is mature, and thus worthy of respect.

If it seems like I’m using the film to talk indirectly about class, it’s because my next point is about class. Watching Brick for this re-view, I kept seeing class dynamics pop up where I’d previously missed them. After thinking about this for a bit, I decided this was because I’d received the film in terms passed down to me by secondary interpretations of the film noir as a genre. For example, when I watched it the first time I was aware that the genre was more often than not interpreted in the psychoanalytic language of unconscious anxieties and desires, and that it thus foregrounded crises of sexuality and gender, and particularly female representation. To this point both of these hypotheses have generally made sense to me, given the genre’s emphasis on dark spaces, damaged anti-hero men, and the infamous and ubiquitous archetype of the femme fatale. To be sure, Brick features all of these things, and one could not be blamed for interpreting the film in light of these concerns. Yet, this time I kept coming back to class. So I did some light background research and eventually came across Dennis Broe’s Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood (2009), which provides an alternate reading of the conditions of emergence for the genre. Contra conventional academic readings of noir, Broe situates the genre in the historical context of postwar labor unrest, the politicization of Hollywood, increasing corporatization, and middle-class anxiety. In sum, he argues that the genre, at least for a brief period between 1945-1950, was a vehicle for the expression of leftist political values and oppositional artistic energies. Rather than see the male protagonist of the noir film as expressive of a masculinity in crisis (though it seems to me difficult to abandon this idea completely), he views him in terms of class struggle. I haven’t watched enough classic film noir to either confirm or refute this reading, but its suggestiveness led me back to Brick, a film whose teen movie element more consistently drives the class element to the fore.

We’d probably all agree that the teen movie, whatever its sub-classification, often foregrounds social stratification, and that this representation often stands as a metonym for the society at large. The allure of the popular kid is, much as in real life, often linked directly to an obvious affluence, and it is in contrast to this ‘upper crust’ element that the teen film’s protagonist is called to define him or herself (at least initially). Class anxiety is thus coded into the architecture of the genre and a character’s ability to succeed often depends on his or her awareness of social fault lines. Film noir, if we accept Broe’s claim, most often expresses this tension symbolically. Brick, however, because it so consciously blends its noir element into the teenage landscape, can’t help but illuminate it.

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The various social strata of Brick’s high school environment are, just like adult manifestations of social exclusion, defined by different ‘worlds’ (as Emily reminds him, “I’m in a different world now and you can’t keep me out of it”). To cross from one to the other is to violate the informal codes of inclusion and exclusion which regulate boundaries and keep the privileged and the undesirable from mixing. The teen movie most often takes such rules for granted, even if it ultimately works to subvert them in a moralistic inversion of real-world outcomes. Because it is a teen movie, so does Brick, at least superficially. For example, we can glimpse the firm class boundaries in both scenes where Brendan is interrogated by the school’s resident braggart, Brad Bramish, who questions why the former is hanging around spaces where he clearly ‘doesn’t belong’ (i.e. around the rich kids).  Because it is a noir film, however, it also forces to the fore a protagonist who exists outside the social spectrum and who, no matter what crime he is tasked with solving, also serves to expose the complex machinations by which social order is reproduced. This is, of course, not what Brendan consciously sets out to do. His main order of business is first to help, and then to avenge Emily, whose fatal mistake is to naively assume social mobility is possible. This hope blinds her to her own instrumentalization at the hands of the wealthy and mysterious Laura and ultimately leads to her death, thus setting Brendan in motion and turning the orderly social universe of the film on its head.

The film’s class awareness is bound up with its cynicism, which is one way in which it really does mimic the emotional morass of the classic film noir. The smartest and most successful characters are those who are aware that they are multi-purpose parts in a larger class system of which most are unaware. While this system cannot be controlled, it can be manipulated for gain. Those who lose in the film are the ones, like Emily, or her tweaker boyfriend, Dode, who hold out hope that a moral resolution is possible, that love or good or justice will prevail. The film’s primary characters (i.e. the ones that don’t die) recognize that this hope is illusory, that they can either reject the system and face lonely exile (like Brendan) or game it at the expense of others. True to noir form, the latter condition is most aptly characterized the film’s two femme fatales, but particularly by Kara, the vamp-chameleon archetype.

I found Kara fascinating this time, because of how clearly the film wants us to see her as perhaps the most socially conscious of all its characters. Never shown outside of a theater setting (and always in various costumes), Kara understands that not only her success, but also her survival, depends on a willingness to play a variety of roles. In traditional reading of film noir Kara would be the protean female whose ability to perform multipole identities exposes the internal schisms at the heart of the male protagonist’s seemingly stable masculine self. Working within this paradigm, Brendan’s ritual disrobing of her near the film’s end would mark the return to normalcy; in stripping her down to her female body, he deprives her of the ability to tell the lie to his own performative masculine identity.

I focused in this scene on the moment when Brendan smashes the mirror over Kara’s head. We hear the glass shatter and then the shot pans up to reveal Kara, in full kabuki makeup, starting grimly upward against the shattered mirror. If we see the mirror as representative of Kara’s power to reflect to the world the identity she wishes it to see, then Brendan’s destruction of it would seem to shatter (sorry, bad pun) and reveal the core identity beneath the surface. Yet, what we see is what is behind most mirrors: nothing. This is where things got a little dark for me, because, as I noted above, while Kara is cynical, she is also intelligent. She has learned how to play a game she’s destined to lose by mimicking the means by which it sustains itself. We’re taught to play roles and we play them. In high school these roles have complex social determinants, but they often revolve, consciously or unconsciously, around class. Kara knows this, which is why she’s not entirely disingenuous when she coyly asks Brendan whether he really wants to know what he thought he wanted to know: There is nothing behind the glass. No redemption is possible for Brendan or Emily, for the Pin or his poor, musclebound hamster henchman, Tug. There will be no redemption for Laura or her victims. The authorities will do their thing and order will be restored superficially, but only at the cost or re-obscuring the more fundamental social issues the teen movie papers over in the name of entertainment. To say any or all of this is not to say that I reject earlier readings of film noir that Brick is doing the genre a disservice by opening it up to an analysis of this kind. In fact, I think this fresh emphasis on class is one of the things that makes the film more interesting than most stock in trade entries into the tradition. Had Johnson not chosen to do something different, we probably would have been left with a very good film working a very familiar premise to moderately successful ends. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable, exciting, or intellectually stimulating.

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Ten Years Ago: She’s the Man

18 Mar SheManposter1

Kiki Penoyer helps Amanda Bynes go undercover to dismantle the patriarchy from within with She’s the Man.

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One of these people ends up on Mad Men.

 

Ten years ago, there was nothing cuter than Amanda Bynes, the absolute It-Girl of the early 2000s and a bright beacon in a dark world for those of us who were going through puberty very poorly. Something about her off-beat Nickelodeon charm spoke to a generation of girls who knew we weren’t Disney Star material, and nowhere did this shine brighter than in future cult classic She’s the Man.

For those of you who very sadly missed out on this one in the sea of endless mid-2000s upbeat teen comedies, She’s the Man is an (albeit pretty loose) adaptation of Twelfth Night, but with teenagers and soccer instead of mid-20-somethings and…whatever it is all these people in Twelfth Night do for fun. When I first saw this movie, I was an awkward teenager who knew a lot about The Amanda Show and nothing about Twelfth Night, so I was probably exactly the kind of person for whom this film was made. For purposes of this rewatch, I am a slightly-less-awkward adult staring down the barrel of entering my late 20s on Monday, and I know a lot about what happens to Amanda Bynes after this movie is made, and Twelfth Night and I have a complicated relationship thanks to a lot of bad scene work in theatre school.

But honestly, who doesn’t want to watch a movie where Amanda Bynes goes undercover in an attempt to dismantle the patriarchy from within?

She’s the Man jumps right to the plot: Viola (Amanda Bynes) is a powerhouse soccer player at Cornwall High School—that is, until The Patriarchy shuts down the girls’ soccer team, and Coach McDouche won’t let any of them join the boys’ team because apparently girls are shittier athletes. Amanda appeals to her Toolbag Goalkeeper boyfriend, who admitted yesterday that she was “probably better than half the guys on the team,” (“Maybe more than half,” Amanda replies sweetly, reminding him—and us—that she’s not here for your bullshit and will not have her accomplishments diminished by your assumptions about her gender) but Toolbag refuses to stick up for her and laughs with the other boys that girls aren’t good enough at sports.

Amanda responds by promptly dumping him and beaning him the face with her soccer ball. I can tell already that I’m going to love this movie just as much as I did in 2006.

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“How can I prevent Fragile Masculinity from standing in the way of my dreams?”

Not wanting to waste any time (seriously, we’re like maybe five minutes into the movie) we receive the entire rest of the setup: Amanda is mistaken from behind for her twin brother, Sebastian (whose real name, shit you not, is James Kirk), Amanda’s mother demands that Amanda attend a Debutante Ball but Amanda is too busy dismantling the patriarchy to deal with this shit, and Sebastian is running away to London for two weeks to do some kind of rock star teen thing that I didn’t really understand—right before he’s meant to transfer to Illyria High School, which (wouldn’t you know it?) is Cornwall’s biggest rival in soccer.

I’d forgotten how fast movies used to move in that era, because I’m pretty sure Twelfth Night took a lot longer to get us this much info, but Amanda has a lot of men to step on in her climb to the top, so she’s not here to wait around. She quickly concocts a plan to dress as Sebastian, infiltrate Illyria’s soccer team, and kick Cornwall’s ass, to prove to Coach McDouche that girls are to be taken seriously as athletes—to do this, she’s going to need guitar-powered montage of haircuts and Manwalking, which I’m pretty sure is just Amanda Bynes having fun with props and strangers as only Amanda can.

First day at Illyria High School, and we meet pretty much the best thing ever: Baby Channing Tatum! He has no idea he’s going to be the most famous man on the planet in just a few short years! Look at how adorable he is! I just wanna squish his little baby Channing Tatum face!

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*Swoon.*

Amanda defuses America’s collective sexual awakening by instructing her new roommates how to stop nosebleeds by putting tampons in your nose, and to be honest, this sounds like a great idea—has anyone ever tried this?

On to the real reason we’re here: Illyria’s soccer team, coached by Gareth from Galavant, and yes, he’s literally exactly what you would expect from Coach Gareth—gruff as fuck but ultimately the best: when Amanda announces that she must keep her shirt on during practice because she is “allergic to the sun,” Coach Gareth barks some guff at her but doesn’t push the issue and never brings it up again, because he’s the only gym teacher in the world who cares about your needs as a person.

Tobias Funke is the principal of Illyria High School, which goes exactly how you expect it will. I’m not sure of his function in the story or which character in Twelfth Night he’s meant to be, but honestly, all the supporting characters are getting pretty fuzzy by now because we didn’t really want to commit to the Shakespeare thing all the way through. There’s about half a dozen friends of Amanda and BCT that have yet to be named, but they’re probably some combination of Mariah/Sir Toby/Antonio/Whathaveyou.

On her way out of Principal Funke’s office, Amanda smacks into a hot blonde girl named Olivia, and experiences teenage sexual tension. I’m instantly regretting that this movie isn’t about Amanda Bynes discovering men are the worst and embracing her bisexuality, because while I am all about Baby Channing Tatum, I feel this would’ve been a way more interesting twist on the story. But maybe that’s just me.

The boys start doing that thing that boys do when there aren’t women around: being fucking gross about women. To his credit, Baby Channing Tatum refuses to participate, because he’s ~*different*~ but still doesn’t do a lot to derail the discussions his friends are having. You have a lot of work to do, Baby Channing Tatum. But he does spend a lot of time wearing boxers that are clinging to his hips like Sly Stallone in Cliffhanger.

i.e. not well.

Unlike how I felt actually watching Cliffhanger, I’m far from disappointed. (Ed. Cliffhanger rules and John Lithgow will get you yet, Kiki.)

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*Swoon.*

In what proves to be the most unexpectedly terrifying scene in the movie, four men arrive in the middle of the night and kidnap Amanda and take her to a dark room, where all the new soccer players are instructed to take off their clothes for a hazing ritual. As a teenager observing this, I remember thinking “Shit, Amanda, how are you gonna get out of THIS wacky happenstance?” (answer: pulling a fire alarm and crawling out a side door, which is the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card of teen media.) As an adult, I got SUPER uncomfortable—being a teenage girl and being dragged from your bed by masked strangers bigger than you who demand you get naked in front of them IS FUCKING TERRIFYING. I’ve never been a boy, so I can’t speak to how scary that would be for them, but as a girl, I found this scene pretty disturbing, and am amazed that Amanda was chill around these guys the next day, rather than feeling terrified that her friends gave so little of a shit about her bodily autonomy. Maybe it’s because she knows she’s about to detonate a truth bomb so big it will rattle the very core of their Masculinity. But I probably would’ve never spoken to a single one of those assholes again tbh.

But then comes what is probably the most HOPELESSLY MISGUIDED part of the movie: In order to prove her worth to shitty boys, Amanda gets her friends to participate in a montage of hot women hitting on her, to prove to these guys she has ‘game.’ Okay, fine, this is dumb, but whatever. It works, and Baby Channing Tatum and co. are instantly changing their tune—until Sebastian’s real-life girlfriend Monique shows up, and they get gross at her. Monique responds with the best comeback of all time: “Girls with asses like mine do not date boys with faces like yours.” TEAM MONIQUE 2K16.

Unfortunately, Amanda has proven in scenes past that she hates Monique for reasons unknown (so far all she’s done is stand up for herself and wear pink, but everyone is being super rude to her?) As part of her Manly Man persona, Amanda must humiliate her in order to continue participating in the patriarchy, and Monique is heartbroken. As am I. I’m on your side, Monique. You deserved better than what happened to you today. But you made the mistake of being the hot strawberry-blonde in a mid-2000s teen film, which means you’re the bad guy for some reason. Your day will come, girl.

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Dismantling the patriarchy also involves dismantling internalized misogyny, ladies. Monique is a victim here.

Amanda is now ‘in’ with the dudes, and she gets exactly what we’d expect: men being gross about girls, mansplaining, and waggling their penises in her face. Amanda reacts appropriately by hating all of them, and only hanging out with her lab partner, Hot Blonde Olivia from earlier. But all the bubbling chemistry sets in the world can’t show Amanda how to deal with the chemistry she has with Olivia, whose heart she breaks by blurting out that she’s not into her. </3 Team Violivia 2K16.

SURPRISE! Sebastian and Viola are BOTH expected at some kind of carnival thing! Says Amanda’s mom! I have no idea what the carnival is for, but both Cornwall and Illyria kids are going! And Olivia and Viola are both signed up to run the kissing booth BY THEIR MOTHERS which is hella gross and a great way to catch herpes! Over the next ten minutes, Amanda participates in some Mrs. Doubtfire costume-change hijinks, Channing Tatum offers to drown in Toolbag Boyfriend’s male tears, Amanda Bynes falls in love with Baby Channing Tatum, and Monique continues to refuse to stand for this treatment. For a plot point that makes no sense, there’s a lot of great shit happening here.

Thanks to Channing Tatum’s ‘How to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ montage, Amanda is now hella good at Bicycle Kicks, so Coach Gareth bumps her up to first string; she celebrates as anyone would, which is attempting to touch Channing Tatum’s butt. Olivia decides to make Amanda Bynes jealous by asking Channing Tatum out. It works, but not the way she wants. I’m feeling the way about this movie I did throughout both Pitch Perfects: the heterosexual lead couple isn’t NEARLY as interesting as the obvious lesbian undertones between the leading lady and her new hot best friend.

Amanda, Olivia, and Monique are all apparently part of this Debutante ball thing, which makes this the second Amanda Bynes film in three years where her being a reluctant debutante is a major part of the plot (for further study, please see the spectacular Cinderella story What a Girl Wants, starring Amanda and Colin Fucking Firth in Leather Fucking Pants.) Amanda’s mom is super into it, but Amanda isn’t: “I will not wear heels. Because heels are a male invention designed to make a woman’s butt look smaller. And to make it harder to run away.” You tell ‘em, Amanda.

This scene ends in a horrible pastel catfight in the bathroom where everyone gangs up on Queen Monique, but I only bring it up because of this moment, which I had forgotten about, which made me laugh so hard I startled two cats off my lap and choked on my beer.

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Olivia speaks to whatever random side character this is supposed to be (we’ve stopped giving people names so we don’t have to admit we didn’t read the play) and decides she needs to just kiss Sebastian on the face and admit that she loves him—that won’t be bad, right? EXCEPT THAT ISN’T AMANDA BYNES, IT’S CAPTAIN JAMES T. KIRK, THE REAL SEBASTIAN, AND BABY CHANNING TATUM SAW AND NOW HE’S SUPER SAD AND SAD CHANNING TATUM IS VERY HARD TO WATCH. Poor precious baby. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really ‘Get’ Channing Tatum before rewatching this movie, but having seen it a second time, I totally understand what everyone’s been going on about. He is a precious baby bunny and deserves to be protected from sadness and teenage angst.

James T. Kirk has no idea what’s going on, but decides to just go along with this new world order, including participating in the Big Soccer Game Against Cornwall because Amanda didn’t wake up on time for some reason. James T. Kirk is a shitty soccer player, but he’s too good-natured to work out what’s happening, and is subsequently benched; Amanda is furious, particularly once Principal Funke arrives with a megaphone and accuses him of being a girl, at which point James T. Kirk flashes his wang at a stadium full of people he’s just met, because fuck you for attempting to out a person in public.

Amanda is dying behind the stands, so at half time, she angrily switches outfits with her brother and heads to the pitch, where Coach Gareth is skeptical but breaks the rules of soccer by allowing a benched player back onto the field; I don’t think the ref is watching the same game I am, because Baby Channing Tatum earns several red cards by assaulting Cornwall players off the ball and no one calls him on it. Apparently the ref hates Cornwall and doesn’t give a shit if you abuse them. Apparently Cornwall is the Seattle Sounders of this world. I’m just saying.

Due to Monique’s effective and underappreciated indictment of the patriarchy, Amanda is forced to reveal at last her true identity—by, of course, nonchalantly flashing her boobs and demanding everyone shut the fuck up, at which point Coach Douche demands that we forfeit the game because there’s a lady on the field. Coach Gareth rips a sports manual in half and demands an end to sexism on his soccer field, because he’s the fucking best.

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“Breasts are not sex organs, Members of the Patriarchy. I have no fear of sharing them with you. #freethenipple”

What follows is actually some pretty legit soccer—like, not Bend It Like Beckham good, but still pretty legit. No one gives a shit that Amanda is a lady, because her dismantling of the patriarchy has succeeded, and her teammates are cool now. Amanda Dares to Zlatan and bicycle kicks the shit out of the winning goal, and everyone celebrates, except Toolbag Boyfriend who does what all shitty rejected boys do: crying hysterically while screaming insults at her and accusing the world of injustice. Amanda dgaf and rises above his nonsense, introducing James T. Kirk to Hot Olivia, who decides quashing her budding sexuality is more important than her indignation over having been deceived, because she runs off with him immediately to escape her feelings for Amanda Bynes. </3 RIP Violivia.

On the day of the Debutante Ball, Mom has decided she also wants to dismantle the patriarchy: “You don’t need a man to wear a beautiful dress,” she announces, and I’m pretty into it. Amanda wanders off alone into some spooky woods to deal with her budding sexuality over seeing Olivia all dolled up. She runs into Baby Channing Tatum, who admits he misses his new best friend, because it turns out actually being friends with a girl can be a lot of fun, and admits that he probably would’ve been shittier to her if he’d known she was a lady, because Men are the Absolute Worst. Amanda forgives his sweet, stupid self, and they live happily ever after, presumably, now that Amanda has converted him and all his friends to feminism.

Honestly, this movie wasn’t what I was expecting on a second watch. I sort of thought it would be a night of “Awww, I remember liking this when I was younger, but oof, the mid 2000s were a weird time.” But actually, I think I like this movie BETTER than I did the first time. There’s a lot of Grade A feminism going on in this movie, a lot of which I was too young to really appreciate when I first saw it—and there’s also some Grade A Patriarchal Bullshit happening, i.e. our horrific treatment of Monique, which I was also too young to understand at the time. Apparently these screenwriters didn’t learn enough from then-recent smash hit Mean Girls.

But we can still appreciate everything that’s good about this movie: It stands up for girls who want to do things that boys have decided are just for them (i.e. sports). Amanda Bynes showed us that you can be a badass tomboy and rock a hot party dress any time you want, which was an inspiration to all of us who were awkwardly hiding under our baggy jeans and Denver Broncos hoodies. The film itself is very funny in a mostly good-natured way, with the majority of the humor coming from Amanda Bynes being a naturally hilarious person. The main romance, while kind of a boring choice compared to the cute lesbian couple we could’ve had, is still touching and encouraging—I mean, she mails him a wheel of fucking gouda cheese to invite him to the Debutante Ball, because of a cute inside joke they had earlier, and if that doesn’t encourage all the off-beat personalities of the world to pursue love however they see fit, I don’t know what does. Baby Channing Tatum is fucking precious. There is a lot about this movie that is lovable.

She’s the Man is still just as good as, if not better than, it was 10 years ago. If you’re looking for two hours of joyful mid-2000s antics—and a critical discussion of depictions of feminism in modern cinema—I would highly recommend giving it another go. Be prepared to hear a lot of songs you’ll cringe over, remembering how often you listened to them on your iPod Shuffle (there are at least two All-American Rejects songs in the last 20 minutes alone), but if you can get past that, you’re in for a delight.

It’s worth noting that my COMPLETELY LEGITIMATELY OBTAINED copy of this film came hard-coded with Swedish Subtitles, so I got to learn a lot of fun Swedish slang. And I still enjoyed the shit out of this movie. Go Redbox this shit.

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That means “super duper excited,” apparently!

Ten Years Ago: Dave Chappelle’s Block Party

11 Mar blockparty1

Jake Farley digs back into the “small masterpiece” that is Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. Deal with it.

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The movie opens with two older men trying to fix a car sitting on the curb. One is tinkering under the hood, the other sits in the driver’s seat and hits the starter when commanded. Eventually, someone wanders up behind them and starts watching. Said someone happens to be internationally famous comedian Dave Chappelle, but these men don’t seem terribly impressed by that fact. Dave watches them work on the car for a moment, turns and signals to someone off-camera, then returns to watching the men work on the car. A marching band begins playing. The music gets increasingly closer, more cacophonous and the two men begin having difficulty hearing each other. Helpfully, Dave (who has been largely silent up to this point) reveals that he has been carrying a megaphone this whole time and begins relaying their communication back and forth over the music, to the men’s growing annoyance. This opening scene is the whole movie in a nutshell—a small slice of regular life, into which Dave Chappelle injects a little music and a little humor. There’s no real punchline in the scene because life doesn’t have a punchline—the implicit argument in the movie is that the best thing we can do for each other is to try and make each other laugh a little and to try and make each other dance a little.

If you want to have a good time, watch Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.

Okay, this wouldn’t be much of a retrospective if I just left it at that, so I suppose I should elaborate.

On August 4th of 2004, Dave Chappelle signed a $50 million contract with Comedy Central for a new season of his then-titanic hit Chappelle’s Show. A little over a month later, on September 18th of 2004, Dave Chappelle threw a huge block party in Brooklyn featuring some of the biggest and best names in hip-hop and R&B. If you knew where it was, and you could get there, you were welcome. No charge. It was, fundamentally, just a really, really cool thing to do.

In addition to the day of the show itself, the movie follows Dave over the weeks leading up to the concert as he connects with the musicians and roams Ohio and New York inviting people to his show. Dave (who lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio) wanders his hometown and offers pretty much everyone he comes into contact with, white and black, young and old, a free bus ride and hotel stay in New York City to attend his concert. Many people take him up on his offer. (One older white man politely declines, explaining that it’s not a matter of liking or disliking rap music, it’s that he no longer hears well enough to understand the words.) Dave purposefully seeks out Ohio residents who wouldn’t normally ever attend a hip-hop concert, because he wants them to have the opportunity to experience something new to them, something that he loves deeply. He wants to share. That generosity of spirit infuses the whole film and I think, in a lot of ways, is fundamental to Dave’s massive success in the early 2000s, and his subsequent retreat from public life.

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The movie never explicitly states this, but it seems clear watching Dave that he’s not terribly comfortable with the idea of being a rich star. He likes people and he doesn’t like anything that puts a wall between him and other folks. Despite that, he’s also clearly got…“it.” The Elvis. That mysterious, ineffable, je ne sais quoi that can make someone into the life of every party. Being famous doesn’t interest him as much as being entertaining interests him. Being the truest Dave Chappelle that Dave Chappelle can be is what interests him. It’s refreshing, really.

So the movie continues on, interspersing footage from the concert with footage from rehearsals, preparations, and the general hanging around that accompanies the process of putting up a big show. Plot-wise, there’s not much else to it, beyond following the concert and musicians themselves.

Oh. The musicians. I should take a moment to outline the truly, incredibly unbelievable lineup for this show. You’ve got The Roots Crew. You’ve got Dead Prez. You’ve got Mos Def and Talib Kweli. You’ve got Jill Scott, Common, Erykah Badu, and Kanye West (yes, Yeezus himself!), not to mention the titanic reunion of the Fugees. Hanging around the edges of all this are folks like John Legend, A-Trak, and Big Daddy Kane, not to mention the entire Ohio Central State marching band. It is an absolute murderer’s row of talent, and every music scene is on point, In fact, if there’s a complaint to be made about the film, it’s that occasionally Michel Gondry (oh yeah, also this was directed by the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind guy) doesn’t allow songs to play out fully. He does, however, do an excellent job of weaving the music into footage of the actual concert and mixing it with the aforementioned footage of people just hanging around doing other stuff. The balance he strikes somehow makes the performances feel even more alive when juxtaposed against images of people going about day-to-day business. Music is life and life is music and they pulse and twine together throughout.

I saw this movie when it first came out and I left the theater walking on air. Rewatching it for this review, I felt the same way. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is a small masterpiece, not necessarily because it’s well-made (though it is that), but because it perfectly captures an ephemeral moment in time when a bunch of cool people came together to do a cool thing. It’s a movie that makes you feel happier after you watch it. Why not soak it in?

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 OTHER STUFF

There is so much other fun stuff that happens in this movie that it’s basically impossible to catalogue it all, but let’s try.

  • Kanye, tragically, is the only major headliner at the show to not get any interview segments. I had actually forgotten he was in this until I rewatched it, and it would have been fascinating to see him in a candid environment 12 years ago. He had just released The College Dropout and was well on his way to stardom, but he wasn’t yet KANYE. You can see it in the footage of him here, though—he knows. He feels the future spooling out in front of him, and he is absolutely electric in his performance segment. I am a Kanye fan. Deal with it. [sunglasses drop onto my face]
  • There are some brilliant edits in the movie. My favorite is Dave performing a little routine for the crowd which he and Mos Def had worked out, and when the punchline comes, it’s given after a smash cut to the rehearsal the night before. It’s a wonderful, lively touch.
  • There is a great moment where Dave is walking around a Salvation Army, looking for couches to put in the artist lounge during the concert. He sees an old piano and, in delight, sits down and plays Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” while ?uestlove explains that Dave does not read music. He doesn’t really play the piano either, really, it’s just that Dave loves the song “’Round Midnight” so much that he just…decided to learn how to play it. Tell me that’s not wonderful.
  • The joy in the faces of all the kids from the Ohio Central State marching band when they’re told (out of nowhere) that they have been invited to play at the concert in New York City is amazing.
  • The movie occasionally also follows two kids from Ohio who Dave invites. At one point they stand on the roof of a building and enthuse about how now they finally feel like they’re in New York City, because people are always standing on rooftops in movies set in New York.
  • Lil’ Cease gives a brief but fascinating history of the early days of New York hip-hop.
  • The Fugees reunion is the climax of the film, and Dave presents it beautifully. He pulls a classic bait-and-switch on the audience, telling them that they had really wanted Lauryn Hill to be able to close the show out, but her record contract wouldn’t allow her to play a free concert. He lets the audience express disappointment for juuuust a moment before dropping the bomb that, instead, she just decided to get the Fugees back together for y’all instead. The crowd goes nuts.
  • Mos Def is the coolest cat around. Please be in more things, Mos. I need it.
  • Wait for a day when you’re kind of down in the dumps and put on Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. In an hour and a half, you’re gonna feel better.

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Ten Years Ago: Date Movie

19 Feb DateMovietab
New 10YA contributor Kiki Penoyer starts off with a doozy by suffering through the obnoxiously anti-woman “spoof” Date Movie so you don’t have to, exposing a low point in the world of parody.
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Let me start by saying I fucking love a good parody. As a child raised on Mel Brooks and Weird Al, I have a deep appreciation for the art of taking something well-known and making something hilarious and irreverent out of it. And two of the writers behind Scary Movie are, if not necessarily gods of the genre, at least well-known for it.So Date Movie, right?

I saw this movie once, when it first was on Pay-Per-View; it was 2006, it was really late at night, my mom and I couldn’t sleep at all that week and were staying up late watching whatever shitty thing was on because it was better than staring restlessly at the ceiling, and I don’t remember much about it other than not especially liking it. Typically I feel reviews should be more of a “Here is an overview of what you can expect,” but I’m going to recommend you never, ever watch Date Movie, and here’s a detailed summary as to why.

We open with Alyson Hannigan in a fat suit, dreaming of marrying Napoleon Dynamite; he rejects her with repeated use of his annoying catchphrase, and I am reminded why I never got on board the Napoleon Dynamite train. Alyson wakes up, terrified, and takes us on a journey of rom-com clichés—or, specifically, individual scenes and moments lifted almost verbatim from several very specific rom-coms, sans any commentary on the subject matter. We are treated to some Bridget Jones-esque narration, as Alyson Hannigan explains that even though she is boyless, she believes in true love—even though she’s fat.

Yeah, strap in, kids, because there’s way more of that than I remembered, and this is the least awful it will ever get.

What follows is perhaps the most famous scene in the film—at least, this is what pops up repeatedly if you type Date Movie into YouTube whilst trying to find a free copy of it: Alyson Hannigan busting out her front door and dancing down the street, smiling vacantly while shaking her (fake) booty to “Milkshake” and trying to get attention from boys. She is met with a series of disturbingly fatphobic images of: a man committing suicide via nail gun after accidentally seeing her bare thigh; a group of firemen attempting to kill her with a hose rather than let her get close to them; an entire town’s worth of men fleeing in terror when she tries to shake the water loose; etc. In case it isn’t clear yet, being fat is not only unattractive, but also grounds for public alarm. Oh, Alyson Hannigan! How silly you are not to know this!

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Youuuu wiiiiill leeeeeearn.

We travel to Alyson’s family’s Greek restaurant (you know, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding! Get it? Because it’s a Greek restaurant? Hilarious!) where we meet her black dad (Eddie Griffin), Indian mom (Meera Simhan), and Gothic Lolita-styled Japanese sister (Marie Matiko), who remind Alyson that she is all of these things and also Jewish, so she has to find someone who is also all of these races. I spend a few minutes wondering if this scene would’ve played a lot better if we acknowledged that the shoe is on the other foot than it was in MBFGW, and her WASP-y family ran a bland White People restaurant and told her she needed to find an appropriately boring Country Club boyfriend, and maybe her dad could spray some Dom Perignon out of his Windex bottle instead of the odd choice of bottled hummus we used for this film, so that it would acknowledge and parody the source material more appropriately instead of creating weird unnecessary racial tension by suggesting Alyson Hannigan is a woman of color…but I wasn’t a screenwriter in 2006, nor am I now, so who cares about my opinion? Oh, and 30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander is here? He is also black-Indian-Jewish-Japanese and maybe Greek? But he hates redheads. Lols! Oh, Alyson—will you ever find love?

Then we meet Knockoff Hugh Grant, the blonde one who was the rich boyfriend in Kimmy Schmidt, who might be Male Keira Knightley (IMDB tells me his name is Adam Campbell. Unimportant.) Keiro Knightley is having lunch in the restaurant, and when he sees Alyson, they share a ~*moment.*~ Feeling this may finally be her chance at true love, Alyson seeks the help of date-doctor “Hitch” (Tony Cox) (yes, they failed to bother to do anything with his name or story; he’s literally just a date-doctor named Hitch)—who immediately screams “Hell No,” and informs her he can’t help her—even though he “found Star Jones a husband.” Remember, fat women are disgusting and unlovable, so even a professional date therapist wouldn’t be able to help her fat ass find a boyfriend. To illustrate how disgusting fat people are, Hitch pulls an entire chicken wing from between her teeth while she smiles vacantly, and then she awkwardly licks his face almost exactly like Idina Menzel on that one episode of Rescue Me. For the record, I checked, and that episode aired a full two years before this trash, so I’m not saying that’s what we were going for, but anything’s plausible at this point.

Hitch decides her only hope is to go on a dating reality show—she whines that she has to be “beautiful” to be entered into the competition, probably because the people around her are so good at destroying her self-esteem that she can now smile vacantly while announcing how ugly she finds herself. Hitch takes her to the Pimp My Ride garage, where Alyson giggles as they take power tools to her body, grind off her destroyed toenails, wax her Harry-and-the-Hendersons-esque back, and suction away all of her fat into a jar of “Worst Foods Mayonnaise.” At the end of it, she is Skinny Alyson Hannigan with fancy hair and a nice dress; she is now “good to go.” See, she’s fuckable now, so boys will like her.

In case you’re keeping count, we are now approximately a third of the way into this film, and there have been exactly zero actual jokes.

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[Smiles vacantly while other people discuss her worth as a human based on her appearance.]

We arrive on set for the TV show. Blonde Hugh Grant, it turns out, is the Bachelor on this dating show—who woulda guessed?! The host asks Blondie to choose one of the women and eliminate the others—he does so swiftly by pulling out a shotgun and methodically shooting each of them in turn, leaving only Alyson Hannigan, smiling vacantly. I’m angry and uncomfortable, because violence against women just isn’t funny to me; this is the point where my husband, who has been diligently trying to help me watch this turdfest, borrows my headphones and listens to Hamilton while I slog through the rest of this hellswamp by myself. Thanks, Roland.

On their first date, Blondie (after badly imitating the orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally in a bit that goes on for a full 60 seconds longer than we could even pretend was funny) recognizes her as the waitress he met earlier—she admits it was her, but she was ‘downright ugly’ before. It’s okay, because Keiro Knightley never thought she was ugly! He gets a gold star! They celebrate by beating up a homeless man in the park (yes), stealing his liquor, and repeating his terrifying orgasm back at her apartment while her creepy elderly neighbor watches.

Keiro Knightley then heads off to the restroom and discovers her giant “Before” panties, where he almost vomits—so maybe that gold star was premature. He snoops in her medicine cabinet and finds a series of personal care products that freak him out, and screams over the Psycho theme. Because women are expected to look a certain way, but only if we never know how it gets done, because otherwise we’re terrified. Alyson rolls around in bed and smiles vacantly. He decides to stop caring once he finds a product that is useful to him and uses it without permission. Alyson Hannigan asks him if he’d be down to meet her parents. This is good, because we’ve basically run out of plot points to take from MBFGW until the actual wedding bit, so we need to find something else to half-assedly copy without actually elevating, and Meet the Parents becomes the new target.

Turns out this is just a segue into a three-minute scene of a grotesque cat puppet taking a violent, graphic dump. Nothing is funny and I hate everything.

We move on immediately to a scene that is literal dialogue lifted from Meet the Parents, ending in Keiro knocking down an urn containing a full-sized decaying body, which the cat puppet proceeds to French-kiss and dry-hump while everyone looks on in terror. I consider taking a moment to build a time machine and go back several weeks to slap myself in the face repeatedly for considering signing up for Date Movie. At this point I figure it can’t get any worse, so whatever; in for a penny, in for a pound.

Apparently Meet the Parents is boring now, so we take a quick detour through the proposal scene from Sweet Home Alabama (complete with Frodo Baggins trying to pawn the One Ring and kicking Gandalf repeatedly in the dick) and decide to move straight on to Meet the Fockers. Only they’re the Fockyerdodders now. Your groan is my groan. Somehow we get from that to Alyson Hannigan grilling a baby on his sign language (whose fucking baby? Why is this baby here?), wherein he correctly guesses a series of misogynistic flash cards and speaks his first word (“Beeyotch.”) Now I don’t watch a ton of rom-coms, but surely they aren’t all this gross?

But then we meet Blondie’s father, who proceeds to sexually assault Alyson Hannigan while she smiles vacantly, so maybe they were and I’ve just missed it and that’s why we feel the need to make this movie so violently anti-woman?

Enter the ONLY GOOD PART OF THIS MOVIE, Jennifer Coolidge, whose Barbra is so good that for a brief moment I honestly thought it was the real deal—but who then rattles off a series of “Yiddish” words in rapid succession, because we can’t trust that Jennifer Coolidge is a talented enough impressionist on her own and will only get that it’s Babs if we make her stereotypically Jewish. C’est la vie.

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Jennifer Coolidge, you are too legitimately funny to be in this stupid garbage dump of a film.

After a brief moment of The Wedding Planner-inspired racism wherein a woman named Jell-O dons a thick fake accent and shakes a fake ass the size of a small loveseat at Blondie, we finally meet the real conflict of the film: Blondie’s best man, Andie (apparently this is Sophie Monk but she looks so much like Blonde Mila Kunis that it’s distracting); she is his Big Ex, who likes to swim in full eyeliner and heels and has a penchant for eating bananas in slow motion. We spend several minutes of nothing but her doing stripper hair twirls and squirting milk on her tits while Blondie repeats the word “Sex” and Alyson Hannigan looks on worriedly. She broke up with HIM, though, so Alyson needn’t worry, apparently, because they can all be friends!

But women aren’t allowed to be friends, as evidenced by Mila’s first sentence being a comment on the size of Alyson Hannigan’s tiny boobs, followed by her stripping down naked and making eye contact with both of them while revealing that their engagement ended only three weeks ago. Women, of course, come in only two speeds: Tan, blonde, sudsy whores who are evil and conniving and will steal your man, and vacant-smiling infantilized good girls. I know this is a parody, but this isn’t really doing anything other than play on my absolute least favorite stereotypes, so I admit I started tuning out for a minute while texting love notes to my lady friends because fuck your definition of how women interact.

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Behold: Satan, obviously. Because women are only for sex but women who are sexy are evil. Lolol.

Alyson Hannigan tries on a wedding dress and gets electrocuted? Honestly I missed a couple minutes here but I think we were doing both My Best Friend’s Wedding and What Women Want simultaneously. Anyway, now Alyson Hannigan discovers Blonde Mila Kunis wants to ruin the engagement. Alyson and Mila snap to Kill Bill outfits and fight over how dare Mila Kunis be sexy I guess. In one scene we have managed to shoehorn in three different films without making an actual joke about any of them, so Bravo, two of the six writers of Scary Movie. Alyson returns to Hitch, who sees a picture of Mila and remarks that he would “tear that shit up.” (God fuck I hate this dialogue so much.) Alyson continues to smile like a dizzy child while she tries to think of a plan.

The next day, Alyson Hannigan wakes up with a comically huge zit and knocks herself through a wall trying to pop it, so she’s naturally an hour late to her own wedding. Blonde Mila Kunis kisses Blonde Hugh Grant just as Alyson arrives, so of course now everything is sad and dramatic because the one true trope of rom-coms is heartbreak caused by miscommunication. So…that’s one point, I guess? Keiro Knightley tries to win her back with a boombox à la Say Anything. Randos throw a series of progressively heavier vegetables at him to get him to shut the fuck up because it’s the middle of the goddamned night on a public street, and to his credit, Keiro holds a very straight face as he is beaned in the eyebrow with a giant prop cabbage. His expression surprises the very first (and sadly, last) giggle out of me, so I feel it’s worth writing it down even though the plot is still stalling.

Alyson Hannigan is depressed back at the restaurant, and Judah Friedlander proposes again, which her father pressures her into accepting. Alyson has a flashback during her vows that is a slow-motion montage of all the worst scenes of this movie set to “Open Arms,” including, naturally, the shitting cat. Dad, seeing how distraught Alyson is, admits to having watched the flashback, wherein “He even liked you when you were butt ugly” (i.e. fat, in case you forgot) and suggests she use a magical talking magazine to go find Keiro Knightley at the top of her apartment building and marry him instead. (I don’t know.) Turns out the magical magazine is six months old, and Keiro has a gross beard now.

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Ignore that this is basically the same wig Gandalf wore earlier. Love me! I’m cool now!

Somehow Blonde Mila Kunis is in the stairwell when Alyson Hannigan arrives (maybe she also had a magical talking magazine that was six months old?), and Alyson straight murders her I think, so that’s done. We get some Sleepless in Seattle music, she falls over a railing and into his arms, and we repeat all the most famous lines from the movies we couldn’t figure out how to work in normally while Alyson smiles vacantly.

They have a cute little outdoor ceremony that actually looks like it could’ve been nice, if not marred by Mila Kunis (not dead, I guess?) somehow still being invited and making out with Judah Friedlander in the front row while the Shitting Cat Frenches an old lady (I’m not fucking kidding, this is in this fucking movie.) Keiro Knightley’s dad gives Alyson a gift—and without even opening the box we know it’s going to be creepy and inappropriate AND IT IS AND I’M SO UNCOMFORTABLE, and then we see an Owen Wilson lookalike drop in for two seconds of screen time to ask if he can crash the wedding and continue this Big Bang Theory-esque style of simply referencing things in the hope of eliciting a laugh without having to actually do anything funny.

Probably all of this would have been enough. But for some reason, rather than just let this be a fucking terrible film that we could all forget about, these filmmakers decide they want to give it that extra layer of shit-frosting, just to be sure. For our epilogue, we go to a scene from the alleged honeymoon, which I guess is making a movie on Kong Island—where Carmen Electra (yes) screams for help as she is sexually molested/stripped naked by the giant finger of King Kong while a crowd of film extras cheers savagely. But don’t worry guys, it’s okay, because she decides she likes it in the end. At this point, I ragequit and got up to slam my laptop shut, but Date Movie had got the better of me, because THAT IS HOW THE FUCKING MOVIE ENDS. SERIOUSLY. NOW IT’S THE CREDITS. A CROWD OF MEN CHEERING WHILE A WOMAN GETS ASSAULTED IN FRONT OF THEM. THAT IS THE ENDING OF DATE MOVIE.

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CARMEN WHY THE FUCK DID YOU SAY YES TO THIS.

So we’re meant to watch these films in retrospect. It’s been ten years since Date Movie came out. I was seventeen years old and extremely awkward-looking when I saw it, so maybe I identified with Alyson Hannigan and her sad observations that people only like girls who are skinny and hot and eat burgers on sudsy cars. I remember not liking it, I remember being uncomfortable at various moments, but I always viewed it through the lens of my discomfort over watching a “kissing movie” with my sheltering mother sitting right next to me.

But I’m ten years older now. I’m ten years wiser. I’m smart enough now to realize I’m not uncomfortable that my mom and I are in the same room watching two people kiss on screen—I’m uncomfortable watching a film where the alleged heroine is emotionally abused, physically molested, and reminded repeatedly that she is only worth what a man wants out of her body. I am uncomfortable watching a film where the fucking finale is a rape joke.

I’m uncomfortable because I feel I have stumbled into a miserable wastescape wherein a tired, graying monkey on an off-key organ grinder slowly holds up a series of pictures of other movies that were funny, and once he is sure I have recognized them, he smears feces on them and drops them to the ground without a word, to hold up another one a moment later with a humorless but self-satisfied expression.

This is not what parodies are. Parodies are well-studied pieces of art where people who know a shitton about the original source material synthesize that knowledge with their innate sense of comedy and create an irreverent but hilarious version of a thing we already know. Parodies have, you know, JOKES. Date Movie has a shitting cat.

Maybe deep down, Date Movie had something to say. Maybe it wants to comment on the infantilization of women in film. Maybe it wants to expose the cruelty of the Slut/Madonna dichotomy. Maybe it is just sick of rom-coms and wanted to show us what it thinks of their predictable, recycled plots—that they, too, are little more than a series of familiar images that no one has bothered to update in many years, so what do we care if some sad half-mechanical monkey takes a three-minute-long puppet shit on them?

Or maybe Date Movie is a fucking terrible film, and you and I both deserve better. Whatever the moral, don’t watch Date Movie.

Ten Years Ago: Curious George

12 Feb curious2
Returning contributor Sadie Rose is a huge fan of Curious George, but this time her enjoyment is challenged by the intelligence, impatience, and keen judgement of Lila, her four-year-old daughter.
 

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10 years ago I was living alone in a 150-square foot micro-apartment, with a balcony, which was pretty sweet. I had a 13-inch box TV with rabbit ears that only received three channels. One of which was PBS (KCTS to be exact) and I loved everything on PBS. But one of my favorite guilty pleasures was Curious George on PBSkids. It’s hard to explain (without incriminating myself), but after I got home from my administrative job, in an underwriting office, which I hated, I would turn on Curious George and giggle like a four-year-old. There was something about the shameless curiosity of this silly monkey that brought me great joy. My boyfriend at the time knew my secret pleasure and very shortly after the Curious George movie was released in theaters, he committed a felony and downloaded it onto his computer for me. Oh, the strange romantic gestures of young love.

So now it’s been 10 years and I am married (not to said felon) with an actual real life four-year-old. I’m the adult. It’s a little strange. My daughter, Lila, doesn’t like Curious George on PBSkids. Yes, she is already disappointing me. Lila can become very emotionally involved when she watches TV, feeling what the characters feel and she can’t seem to relate to George. She feels so painfully embarrassed by his cluelessness. She thinks he should know better and constantly tells me, “This show makes me uncomfortable. I’m so embarrassed.” So we don’t watch it. However for this retrospective I’m going to sit her down and do my best to keep her attention on the movie, without causing any emotional scars.

She was very excited to help. “I’m an excellent helper. Is the movie scary?” she asked before the movie started. I told her it wasn’t. But apparently I was wrong, because she got very scared at points. There were lots of tears. But lets not jump ahead.

Here it goes.

The movie opens with some sweet Jack Johnson music; he wrote all the songs for the movie. They are mostly winners, although Lila did not enjoy “Wrong Turn” which is pretty legit; it is the dud of the soundtrack. We meet a very curious George, playing with bubbles and finger painting and doing all the things a kid would do, if the kid were a monkey living in a jungle in Africa. The other young animals play along, until the mother animals break up the fun and drag their children away, leaving George all alone.

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“What’s so sad about him? Their mom’s got mad at him, but why?” So the whole parents-just-don’t-understand thing is not yet a reality for my four-year-old. It is a little unrealistic that wild animals don’t like their children to play, I mean it’s not like they’re painting on the walls of a penthouse; they’re in the wild.

Next we are introduced to the Man in the Yellow Hat, his name is Ted (voiced by Will Ferrell), and he does not yet have a yellow hat. Ted works in a museum and arranges dry lectures for young children, while their teacher, Ms. Maggie (Drew Barrymore), tries to woo him. This romantic story line really adds nothing to the plot. Lila also finds it very uncomfortable and gross.

Lila observes, “The kids don’t like the museum because they want to play at the museum and see animals, like at our museum.” We do have a fabulous museum down the street with great interactive exhibits. Strangely, Lila is spot on about one theme of the story, and we’re only 10 minutes into the film.

Next we meet Mr. Bloomsberry (Dick Van Dyke) and his son, Junior (David Cross), who own the low attended financially failing museum. Junior wants to turn the museum into a parking lot (“That guy is the bad guy!!”) while Mr. Bloomsberry wishes there was someway to save his beloved museum. Ted bumbles his way into volunteering to go on an expedition to find a lost 40-foot idol in the jungles of Africa and bring it back for an exhibit that will save the museum. Junior really wants that parking garage, so he sabotages Ted’s efforts by tearing and doctoring the map to only lead Ted halfway. Another point for Lila, this is the bad guy!

While preparing for the expedition Ted is duped into buying a yellow suit and hat. Yellow is the new khaki. Only it’s not. It’s just another signifier that Ted is clueless about the world around him and only interested in knowledge that is fed to him rather than learned through personal experience or exploration. While walking the jungles of Africa, Ted has his nose in a book and misses all the wonders around him and attempts to teach the locals about their own culture. Now I feel like Lila: “This is so embarrassing.” Then George stumbles on to his yellow hat.

This was my favorite part 10 years ago; I loved the peek-a-boo and the animation. George is so much cuter in the movie than in the cartoon. Lila liked this part too because after whining about how “I don’t like this. I don’t want to watch this. I don’t want to do this!!” she turned to me with a big smile and gave me a huge hug during this part. Meanwhile I’m like, “Ya, kid, this is good stuff. Shut your face!” No, I didn’t actually say that! Just thought it.

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Due to the sabotaged map and a plot hole, Ted does not find the 40-foot idol but a three-inch idol. He takes a picture of it to show Mr. Bloomsberry, without realizing the three-inch idol looks much larger in the picture. Seriously, how else is the plot going to be driven forward? So while Ted travels home to NYC sad and dejected, Mr. Bloomsberry is planning on the arrival of the 40-foot idol and the salvation of the museum.

Lila was thrilled to see George follow Ted from Africa to NYC. However, once in NYC George gets himself into a lot of trouble. Which is when the protests really ramp up from Lila.

George unrolls all the toilet paper in the bathroom. “Mom I don’t want to watch it!”

George discovers open paint cans in various colors in an all white room. “I won’t watch! It’s too scary! I don’t know what he’s going to do!” Oh, you know what he’s going to do, the same thing he did in the jungle: finger paint!

George finds the owner of the previous white room relaxing in a bubble bath with cucumbers over her eyes; he discovers if he adds paint to the bath the bubbles change colors, so he does. “This is not my favorite!”

Ted gets evicted from his apartment, and takes George to the museum, where Ted laments loudly in his office about the miscommunication over the size of the idol. Junior overhears and gleefully plans Ted’s demise. This is where Lila completely loses her cool. “I don’t want to watch it. The Man in the Yellow Hat is going to be in big trouble!” Real tears are being shed. “Can we watch this next week and watch one of my movies now? Like The Wiz. Can we watch The Wiz?!?” My four-year-old wants to watch The Wiz. I can’t say no.

So the next day I tried again. We talked about how maybe Ted wouldn’t be in trouble and she expressed how scared she was for him. I told her I would keep her safe and give her lots of hugs and cuddles if she got scared again. She groaned a “FINE!” like she was 14 not four and we started the movie again

The very next scene is a press conference set up by Junior to expose Ted’s “lie.” Meanwhile, George gets out of the office and begins to climb a dinosaur fossil. Classic Curious George. Lila screams, “HOLD ME! I’m scared,” while burying her face in a blanket. Writing this, I feel like a pretty bad parent, but my child is very dramatic and healthy so I’m mostly sure this isn’t scaring her. Watching movies, shows, theater, or any art is when we as an audience get to experience things from a point of view we may never experience in real life. It helps us grow our understanding of others and exercise our compassion and empathy. While some of the emotions my four-year-old expresses while watching the movie are raw and messy, I can think of no safer place for her to explore them then in her mother’s arms. But how are we, as parents, ever really sure? I’ll slip an extra $20 into the therapy fund just in case.

After the inevitable crash of the fossil, in a private meeting the size of the idol is revealed to Mr. Bloomsberry and Junior. Mr. Bloomsberry is disappointed and worried about the museum, but not mad at Ted (as Lila had feared). However, Junior uses this as an excuse to kick Ted and George out of the museum. They have nowhere to go and end up sleeping in the park, discovering fireflies and stars. (Later, Lila told me this was her favorite part.) The next morning George runs off to play with children at the zoo and gets swept up by a buddle of balloons. Ted is forced to save him, by defying physics and flying after George with nothing but more balloons and a kite. George almost falls to his death, but Ted saves him. Lila exclaims “Wow that was a close one! I never fly with lots of balloons!” She’s pretty proud of herself for being smarter than a cartoon monkey.

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Ted finds a way to make the three-inch idol look 40 feet with a projector and takes the idea to the museum. Everyone thinks it will work (even though it never would), but then Junior sabotages the plan by spilling his latte on the projector and handing the cup to George. Lila starts asking questions about Juniors motivations for framing George, so I pause the movie, only for her to ask me to start it again, so she’s finally officially invested.

After George is blamed for the failed plan, Ted completely rejects George and has animal control send him back to Africa. Ted is pretty heartless in this scene and Lila begins to cry. “I’m starting to cry, give me a hug. He’s going awaaaaay!” She’s sobbing. Slowly, while wandering NYC, Ted realizes everything reminds him of George and he decides to go after him.

“What is he doing?” Lila sniffles.

I told her, “He’s going to get George.”

“Because he loves him?”

“Yes.”

Her lip begins to quiver. As Ted and George are reunited and hugging it out Lila smiles and wails “I’m crying more!” So I hug her harder. And maybe feel some feelings, too.

As a jaded adult I think it is funny, almost silly, that the entire scene is set up and played as the cliché boy-gets-girl-back scene, but replace girl with monkey… monkey is a euphemism. It is funny! However for my four-year-old (who is completely grossed out and annoyed with the love story between Ted and Ms. Maggie), the man-gets-monkey-back scene works as a cathartic moment. It was remarkable to experience it from her eyes.

In the end, George and Ted discover the three-inch idol contains a clue that leads them to the 40-foot idol, which they bring back from Africa and put on display in the museum.

“They saved the day!” Lila cheers. I have to hold myself back from saying, “But, Lila, they are stealing a culture’s history and heritage and putting it on display for profit. They might as well build a parking lot.” We may have to come back to this conversation in a few years.

With the unveiling of the idol, Ted also unveils exhibits that the patrons can interact with, using their curiosity to practice and discover knowledge through play. Lila called it.

I enjoyed the movie, more than Lila, although she was into it by the end. We both agreed the music was the best part. The voice cast is all-star and well performed, but is there for the adults, as the kids have no reference for these actors. And while Lila called the problem/solution 10 minutes into the movie, the larger theme and moral of the story is over the average four-year-olds head. Letting children, or monkeys, or even adults, explore and make mistakes and get messy will enhance their life and knowledge acquisition more than following the rules and only gaining knowledge through books and notes. Also, relationships are rewarding even when they are difficult. However, I don’t know if most parents take a cartoon movie all that seriously. So the movie suffers from “Who is the intended audience?” However if you have a kid in your life, or you smoke a lot of pot, it’s well worth the 90 minutes.

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Ten Years Ago: Grandma’s Boy

15 Jan grandma1
Jean Burnet is back at 10YA for a look at the “shit sandwich of a movie” that is Happy Madison’s Grandma’s Boy.
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Simply put: we are all fucked. Seriously! In the past year I’ve read like twenty articles about how online dating is turning us into a horde of unfeeling robots, we use a thing called a “Fitbit” to track our every waking motion which is approximately one step away from being nano-chipped, and now I hear people get paid to let other people just watch them play video games at home. Come on, world! It’s like you’re not even trying anymore!!

This is all a preamble to say that this shit sandwich of a movie very aggressively depicts the fears we have about technology encroaching on our humanity, except ten years ago, in what can only be described as the plight of the beta male. Granted, I’m probably not the target audience for this movie. But hey, I actually like the occasional gross-out comedy! I willingly watched Hot Tub Time Machine twice—and enjoyed it! And I am still a woman that enjoys a good fart joke so long as it is as refined as a smooth crème brulee! (Which, coincidentally, occasionally make me fart!)
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Mmmmm delicious farts

I remember the first time I watched Grandma’s Boy. Let me set the scene: It’s my first year of college, and I’m the only woman in this room covered in Natty Light cans from last weekend’s epic beer pong tournie, and everybody is stoned. Then one guy starts laughing, and then the other one’s laughing cause he’s laughing, and then another guy’s laughing because the second guy started choking on the drag he just took from his bong and so now he’s choke-laughing, and then everyone’s laughing, and then I’M laughing because I. NEED. TO. SURVIVE. THIS. TIME. OF. MY. LIFE. SOMEHOW.

Why did I pick this sad sack of a movie to re-view? I honestly don’t know. I guess I have some unresolved issues with it.

A product of Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions, Grandma’s Boy features gamers and grannies, partying, boobs, bongs, more parties, and a Tae Kwon Do Master chimpanzee. It’s also a movie so bad that even Adam Sandler wouldn’t cameo in it. (At least this is what I assume, not having spotted him anywhere.) It’s actually worse today than when I watched it ten years ago, and I’ve watched a lot of bad movies since then. For this alone I am astounded.

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Sandler moments after seeing the final cut. (not a still from Grandma’s Boy)

The mitigating event that launches this turd rocket into motion is simple: Instead of diligently paying rent with the money Alex (our protagonist) has been giving him for the last six months, his roommate has spent all of it on Filipino “massage therapists.” This results in a prompt eviction. Alex then commences to bumble through his increasingly weird friends as he tries to find somewhere to crash.

His friend/co-worker Jeff, for instance, is one of those weirdos. We know he’s weird because when he answers the door he’s wearing footie pajamas, and also, he sleeps in a plastic car bed in his parent’s house. Jeff lets Alex crash on his bedroom floor. Alex can’t sleep, so in the middle of the night, while Jeff slumbers peacefully in his vehicle/bed hybrid, he vigorously masturbates in the bathroom to a half-dressed female action figure before being unceremoniously surprised by Jeff’s mom and… um… “excreting” all over her. Understandably he gets kicked out. This all happens within the first 15 or so minutes of the movie. (Note: Jeff aka Nick Swardson is actually the funniest human in this movie and possibly paid someone off to get all the best lines.)

Alex ends up at his Grandma Lilly’s house, where his two other roommates include some additional geriatrics: one a pill-addled basket case, the other basically Samantha from Sex and the City when she hits 70-something. (She also may or may not have had sexual relations with Charlie Chaplin.) I’m not sure why the Partridge family mom and Shirley Knight signed up for this, but maybe they owed Adam Sandler a favor.

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Momma Partridge whyyyy

We learn Alex’s day job is working for a video game company called Brainasium. This is fascinating to me because… I don’t know. Because Seattle! Is this what it’s like, guys? Because it looks like it’s a smelly playground with no women except for the one conveniently hot one that just started as a project manager for their next big game (played by Freaks and Geeks’ nerd-hot Linda Cardellini).

Here we see the beta boy in full: this office is jam-packed with dudes living with their mothers, dudes who need to get laid (but can’t), dudes who measure themselves against the other by their video game prowess—dudes who simply at some point missed the train headed toward “getting it together.” Before you start to think I’m imposing this sad stereotype on them, more than one of them declares from his own mouth just how much he hates himself outside of the context of this video-game-bubble-world. Why is everyone so miserable here?! I’m pretty sure working for Valve is just like free massages and lunch every day. Right? Am I wrong?

The unhappiest among them is also our villain, Grease Hair, a child prodigy that designed some super popular game at 13 but lost his ability to connect with humans in the process. He dresses like he’s in the Matrix and listens to loud techno. I know he’s supposed to be the villain, but why doesn’t anyone like him? He seems pretty harmless and clearly thought about his outfit and—oh, I see, he makes a weirdly insulting robot voice when he can’t handle his shit. God, even his annoying quirk isn’t that interesting?

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Please save your kids from this fate

The boys and hot project manager Samantha go out to dinner to celebrate for some reason I can’t remember—they finished the big game I guess? David Spade makes a great appearance as a sassy vegan waiter. I would watch a movie about him instead.

During the course of the night the boys make lewd jokes and Samantha loves it! Wow, turns out she’s a lot cooler than they all thought she was! Because she’s not a girl’s girl—she’s just one of the guys! I bet she played flag football. She eventually confirms this in a heart-to-heart with Alex: “Growing up, other girls were playing with Barbies—I was beating my brothers at Super Mario!” Excuse me while my eyes roll so far back into my head I can watch my hair grow.

I can’t get on board with the Sam/Alex thing because not only is she way out of his league (seriously way out of his league), but because she starts out as a badass project manager in a male-centric field only to be validated as a character when she wants to party with the guys. Even then, she’s still just the hot girl. Just the cool hot girl. At least Grandma knows the power of female friendship, even if it is with two batshit crazies.

More on Grandma (played by Everybody Loves Raymond’s bitchy matriarch Doris Roberts): she is the OG cool girl. She is good at video games. She defends her grandson. She drinks weed. She plays pranks. She’ll stay up all night watching Antiques Roadshow just because she can. She does almost all of this obliviously, but Grandma don’t give a fuck!

I’m not saying Alex should date his Grandma. I’m saying he should aspire to date someone like his Grandma, who doesn’t need to extricate herself from her womanhood in order to gain social currency amongst this swathe of dudes.

Honestly I totally zoned out during the middle part and did my laundry instead. The grandmas all get high as fuck somehow, then Alex/Sam and the boys invite their overly tan dealer over, who invites a bunch of people, and they have a strange house party where Jonah Hill ends up sucking on some lady’s boob for 13 hours. In many ways the whole movie is like trying to follow a joke someone said while they were stoned which you thought was really funny at the time because you, too, were stoned.

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First search result on “stoned dude” He would have enjoyed this film

I know this is a predecessor to such classics as Superbad and Pineapple Express, but where it truly fails is in giving us a protagonist we want to see win. Sure, Alex eventually manages to wield the technology that’s likely been a succubus on his ability to become a fully-formed and functioning citizen to at last produce something creative and fully his own with his new video game—but he just kinda sucks. He’s not even the one that saves the day; it’s Grandma that does the legwork for him by beating Grease Hair in the final battle royale of gaming.

Alex’s redemption isn’t really a win for the whole team either—while he gets the hot girlfriend, successful video game, and presumably a new place to live, the rest of his dude compatriots seem to be stuck in the same mode they started in: watching somebody else take the victory.

The fact that I hate this movie so much more now than I did then probably has a lot to do with the fact that I would no longer willingly sit in a room full of people I half-like watching something I hate in order to seem cooler than I am. I don’t even have to pretend to like this movie anymore. I hate it. If anything, I recommend showing this film to anyone who needs a reminder about the dangers of living a passionless, stunted life where technology’s potential for good is outweighed by its demon power to destroy us. (Side note: I once dated someone who played a lot of WoW—this might explain my review in its entirety.)

This movie feels dated as hell and the stoner comedy connoisseurs amongst us demand better. In the immortal words of Jeff, “Your shit’s weak! Wizzeak!”

Final Verdict: Exasperated shrug

Ten Years Ago: Hostel

15 Jan hostel4
Maggie McMuffin has complicated feelings about Eli Roth and his second film, Hostel, but that’s not going to stop her from giving it a second chance.
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Let me tell you about disappointment.

I was 16. At this point in my life I had been watching horror movies for, oh, five years. Aside from the Scary Movie franchise, I was pretty much permitted by my parents to watch anything: werewolf movies, vampire flicks, Stephen King adaptations, and slashers for days. I had strong opinions on Freddy Krueger and my love of Elm Street had fostered a need for greater, more creative onscreen deaths. Saw fit the bill but I was getting really desensitized. (I would give up horror binges by the time I was 17.) So imagine my joy when a movie came along that was advertised as being so hardcore people were fainting in the theaters. Full of graphic violence that was sure to leave my innocent self traumatized.

Then imagine my anger when my local theater decided its permission slip policy didn’t apply for their showing of Hostel.

Not only that, but they wouldn’t even permit anyone under 17 to see the film unless a legal guardian accompanied them. My mother was not for horror and so I was forced to wait. The movie came out while I was visiting my father, who had watched many horror films with me throughout the years, covering my eyes if sex happened but letting me watch each bloody moment. I talked up the film, the expectations, how I had been denied my right as a mature young woman to decide this movie was okay for me. We rented it, settled in for some bonding time, and were subsequently disappointed by every point of the film.

They just kill the mysterious Icelandic dude? There’s no twist about him? The douchebag lives? It takes halfway through the film to get to violence? There are more topless women than there are deaths? My dad was busy criticizing the torture scenes because people were trying too hard to cut off toes and I laughed along with him because I didn’t realize there’s a difference between someone viewing inaccurate violence vs someone viewing fantasy violence. It’s funny! I’m being so worldly and mature right now because I don’t take torture seriously! I’m hardcore! Because I could be more creative than these rich clods!  Because violence is always entertaining when it’s hypothetical and the people aren’t real!

I’ve grown less blood-lusty. I can watch violence now but I don’t seek it out. I ask if it’s necessary because often it isn’t. Violence in media is usually cheap and it tends to either hit me hard and make me mad because it reminds me of real life and how violence has consequences in real life, or I just shake it off because I’ve seen it all before. That’s me now. At 16 I was pissed at this film for not being a sensationalist torture fest. There were cutaways from nearly everything. There was no humor. It was just people being cut up. Where’s the enjoyment? I was so enraged I spent five years carrying a grudge against Eli Roth and even thought up an elaborate plan to make him fall in love with me so that I could punch him in the face, yell, “THAT WAS FOR HOSTEL,” and then sex him on the hood of the nearest car. I have complicated feelings about Eli Roth that can, ironically, probably only be resolved through gratuitous sex and violence.

But on my rewatch (which I went into expecting to still be bored) I realized that the movie isn’t bad because it wasn’t more violent. It’s plenty violent. But gratuitous violence isn’t the point, so I can’t fault it for the lack thereof.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a not-good movie but 16-year-old me was too focused on getting her gore-rocks off to realize why this movie is bad. This movie is bad because it’s trying really, really hard to say something. It’s bad because it’s pretentious. It’s bad because I cannot figure out what the message is.

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The movie starts with blood but the opening credits are very subtle and admittedly one of the best parts of the movie. (This is something I will always fault directors and writers for. If your credits upstage your film you need to try harder.) We get water dripping and scrubbing. We get dirty soap. We get something that could be blood dripping. It’s a slow unfold to shots of bloody tools being washed and someone whistling and sets the mood.

We cut to three guys; two friends, Paxton and Josh from America, and an Icelandic dude they picked up named Oli. They are in Amsterdam, which we know because the first line of this film is “AMSTERDAM MOTHERFUCKERS!” They want pot and just after I say, “Ah, remember when we had to go all the way to Europe to get pot?” one of the boys says, “Did we come all the way to Amsterdam just to smoke pot?” Yes, you did, because you are in the past.

But they didn’t just come for pot! They came to get laid. Oli is just a boundary-less machine who manages to pick up chicks left and right and even text pictures to his American buddies of his bathroom stall conquests. Paxton is doing alright but Josh…Josh just doesn’t go for it. He just broke up with his girlfriend. He doesn’t want a sex tour of Europe. He doesn’t want to bang a girl who seems so high she’s “in a coma” (which, granted, is cool of him). He doesn’t want to go to one of Amsterdam’s many sex workers. Josh is presented as being the ‘good guy’ of the group but he’s also presented as being a massive downer.

(Side note: The Amsterdam workers are the least sexualized women in the film. They are either covered up in windows, shown as silhouettes, the one very nice sex worker it’s implied Josh does bang after she smoothly puts him at ease and then shows her boobs, or the domme who shouts, “You watch, you pay!” to anyone who walks into her sessions. I do have to give Roth points for this.)

While in Amsterdam, we see Josh start a fight with someone and Paxton join in. They and Oli are kicked out of a club and shout about how it’s full of faggots and everything is gay. They continue being loud when they can’t get into their hostel and get into a shouting match with the owner. This continues an ever-present theme of everyone hating the boys for being American. But they are saved just as the cops arrive! A sweet guy named Alex lets them climb into his window where he tells them that “not everyone wants to kill Americans” and that if they really want to get laid they should go to Slovakia, which is apparently full of hot, American-loving sluts who will fuck any foreigner who speaks to them. “There are no men because of the war,” he says, and all the poor babes are mourning with their vaginas apparently.

The boys are sold and off they go. They take a train ride and encounter a kindly German man who has odd opinions about eating meat with his hands because “I like to have connection with something that died for me.” Paxton is a vegetarian and says he’s not down with this. 

If you think we’re going straight to murder camo you are wrong. We get more of Oli waving his naked ass, we get Paxton refusing to speak the German he knows and being a willful dick about everything. We get Josh doing…whatever he does. They meet some girls, go to a spa and a disco, and everyone hooks up. Josh takes a break to get attacked by a fucking gang of children who demand bubblegum and dollars. Josh is saved by the dude from the train who tells him that “Here, children commit the most crime. They don’t care. They attack anyone.” He gives Josh some life lessons about choosing to have a family and then Josh is taken away. 

Here’s where this goes from road trip to horror film. In the next 24 hours Oli disappears and we learn he’s dead. Kana, a Japanese girl staying at the same hostel, says her friend disappeared with him. All we get is a shot of Oli’s decapitated head and Kana’s friend screaming and a pre-shot of her toe being cut off. We get Paxton giving Josh a speech about enjoying their lives before going back to school. We get Paxton bringing up out of the blue “Did I ever tell you I saw a girl drown when I was eight?” THE FUCK PAXTON. “We made eye contact which was weird you know and she yelled at me to help her.” FUCK. AND THEN THE LIFEGUARD DIDN’T BELIEVE HE SAW SOMEONE DROWNING AND IGNORED IT. “I just feel like I could have done more to save her.” 

“But what made you think of that now?”

Uh…shoehorned character development for later, Josh. God, I thought you wanted to be a writer.

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So now that Oli has ditched them, so they think, they decide to party on their last night. Unfortunately Josh gets drugged and wakes up shackled to a chair in nothing but his underwear and what follows is a scene that, yes, disappointed me as a child. But now it freaks me out. Josh is at the mercy of that dude from the train who I will just call Surgeon because he gives a speech about how he always wanted to be a surgeon because holding life and death in your hands blah blah blah. Josh is crying in this. Like really crying. These are not manly tears. Josh is screaming, bribing, bargaining, and covered in snot. It’s disgusting and a level of realistic emotion never really seen in horror films. Surgeon drills through his shoulders and then hacks at something on Josh’s legs. When that’s done he saunters over to the door and opens it, telling Josh he’s free to go. Josh, not thinking he should check his limbs, stands up and immediately keels over because that’s what happens when your Achilles tendons get cut. He crawls to the door and gets stopped by Surgeon and you know what, THAT is cruelty. THAT is torture. The point here isn’t getting to see the knife go in, it’s seeing the aftermath. It’s seeing Surgeon toy with Josh and offer him an exit. It’s Josh screaming in pain but determined to take that offer and then getting told NOPE.

Onto Act 3 of this film which has Paxton playing a pretty convincing detective. After getting drugged and passing out not where he was supposed to, he wakes up and is told Josh is gone. He doesn’t believe it and proceeds to use Oli’s last pictures (staged and sent by the murder camp) and hearsay to find out what happened. The child gang shows up a couple more times. Paxton is still an arrogant American but now he’s on a mission and that mission allows him to further yell at the hot girls who lured them in. They play dumb, they play like Josh told them he ran off, and Paxton is too genre-savvy for that. So he gets dropped off at murder camp where he is shown a dead body and then immediately gets shackled and then sold because he’s an American and people love killing Americans! And the hot murder chick gets the best line in the movie: When Paxton calls her a bitch she laughs and says, “I get a lot of money for you. That makes you my bitch.”

And you know, I bet being a murder camp counselor pays pretty well. What do you think the benefits are? Is it just the joy of partying and getting free drinks? How much money is a lot of money in this country? Do all these people just get free board at the hostels where they pick guys up or do they have secret houses full of cool stuff? Do they travel at all? Is Elite Hunting run by a specific person who enlisted the town for help or did the town hold a meeting and decide this was the way to go? I really want to know more about these people. I couldn’t give a fuck about the people paying to torture people but the people who get paid to do it are another story.

I still don’t know what the lesson of the film is exactly, but if you watch it, it is clear that there is one. Maybe Roth is trying too hard. Maybe he thought he was being cerebral. Maybe he was trying to impress a chick with some pseudo-feminist possibly anti-violence dialogue. I don’t know. I don’t. What I do know is that, again, very little actual violence. This dude breathes funny and snips scissors menacingly while Paxton cries. Then Paxton appeals to his murder camp buddy by speaking German (Paxton knows German fluently; he just refuses to speak it) and is then gagged. It’s only through throwing up around his gag after losing some fingers that his captor slips and chainsaws himself. Paxton kills the guard, hides under dead bodies, kills another dude, spots people in the throes of torture but can’t stop, makes it to the locker rooms, and steals a suit and uses gloves to hide his finger situation.

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And then gets stopped in the locker room by a first timer; another American who wants to know what it’s like; who has travelled the world banging chicks but now feels that “Pussy’s pussy. Been all over the world, every whorehouse. It’s all the same… But this. This is something you’ll never forget.” HEY LOOK IT’S LIKE EARLY PAXTON ON COCAINE. He asks for tips, he says he spent 50,000 bucks on this special treat for himself. (Spoiler: it’s Kana, Japanese girl, and also there’s a menu at some point and it has Americans listed as the most expensive at $25,000. Apparently Asian girls are so rare that they just don’t list them.) Paxton, who has gone through a gamut of emotions and is just numb at this point, is trying really hard to put up with this guy so he can leave. But guy won’t let him and asks if he should do it quick or slow. Paxton grunts out “quick” and the guy says that’s “too American, I’m going old school” and goes off shouting “WHO WANTS THIS SHIT!” over and over again.

Esteemed readers, we have our lesson. And that lesson is that…Americans suck? That the world rightfully hates us? That we deserve torture? That we are desensitized to sex and so we move onto violence? Because there are so many tits in this movie but we never see any at murder camp. Hell, we only see the two women there at all. So you get sex or you get violence. And maybe it’s that we as Americans need to try to see beyond our culture, our language, our needs? Because, as my viewing partner Randi Simmons pointed out, this was a film made for a mono-lingual audience. Any non-English language isn’t translated. There are no subtitles. Even with captions on it’ll just say (foreign language spoken) or (German shouted). So it’s intentionally saying something about language (and getting meta since Josh asks earlier how he’s supposed to understand a movie playing in the hostel lobby if it doesn’t have subtitles), but is it that language connects us? Is that why Josh needed to be gagged? Because speaking the same language as his captor humanized him?

ELI ROTH IS TRYING TO TELL ME SOMETHING, I KNOW IT.

Anyway, Paxton makes it to a car with keys but hears a woman screaming. I mean, fuck all those men he passed earlier, this harkens back to his need to save that drowned girl when he was eight! He finds Kana being face-flamed by the locker room douche. Paxton kills him and assesses Kana’s damage which honestly is a shit show makeup job. It is. Her face is burned and her eye is hanging out by a nerve and it looks like ketchup and a cat toy. Then in his most confusing move, Paxton screams that he can’t understand what she is saying (DID YOU LEARN NOTHING ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF LANGUAGE?) and grabs some scissors. Kana starts screaming NO, which is a word I think Paxton should know, and then he does her a favor by cutting her eye off. DUDE. THE FUCK. HOW IS THAT HELPING? WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?

They escape, they get to a car, they are chased by another car. They run into the child gang and give them ALL the gum (because it’s all stockpiled in the cars because the people in this town steal everything from tourists) and the gang later kills the pursuers and their car. Just smash everything and everyone to bits with rocks. Paxton also gets to run down the two hot girls and Alex from Amsterdam. Paxton’s violence is righteous because it’s vengeance. I think? Again, I’m not sure what Roth is saying here.

At the train station, Kana gets a look at her ruined face and jumps in front of a train. Just like that. So, sorry Paxton, but you don’t get to save anyone ever. But you do get to overhear train dude giving his food speech and then corner him in a bathroom stall and kill him. Yay!

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So that’s Hostel. A pretty well-paced 90-minute film about how Americans are shit. But they can learn. Through being tortured. But then surviving. But not saving anyone from other countries. And also killing people in violent ways. Which is okay because they’re Americans. I think. Or it might all be meta for American film audiences and our relationship with sex and violence. I mean, what’s worse, the fact that this film has violence or that a 16-year-old girl was disappointed that it wasn’t more graphic?

You know, Hostel isn’t a poorly told story. It has good set up for the murder camp, for Paxton’s growth and also his specific brand of asshole. It has good world-building for the town around the murder camp, with stolen clothing immediately being worn by townspeople and everyone in town clearly having a system of lies set up. The fucking child gang (who Randi speculated are children of the murder victims who are just angry and roaming). The fact that this movie is low-key hilarious? It lampshades stuff and the whole thing with the gum and just how much the hot girls drop liking Paxton once they’re done with him. This isn’t a near-comedy like Hostel 2, it’s just got some laughs thrown in for good measure.

And the violence is eased into. It isn’t gratuitous. In fact, it’s barely on screen at all. The more gruesome something is, the more likely it is to be shown as a blink and you’ll miss it moment or done as a cutaway or shown right as it’s being wrapped up. It’s like how the ass-to-mouth aspects of Human Centipede are what got people through the door but it’s only like ten seconds of the film. The violence in Hostel drew people in, but it’s Paxton’s journey that is meant to keep us here. And honestly Jay Hernandez, who plays Paxton, does a good job of carrying that. The amount of emotions he goes through feels real and there are many reaction shots of him seeing violence, or experiencing it. We see him letting out pain and we see him holding it in because he’s playing dead to survive. The moment where he’s on the body cart and looks up to see Josh’s face hanging over his is stirring. You can see Paxton wanting to feel something, wanting to react, but not being able to because he’s gotta swallow everything down to get through this. Which, again, might be some meta commentary on how we all have to cut out our sympathy for characters in order to revel in their deaths or get through the carnage, but it is, like everything else, very unclear.

This movie isn’t told poorly, it just isn’t told clearly. So while I will admit that 16-year-old me was wrong and missed the point of the film, I will state in her defense that the point is really hard to see anyway.

Notes

— I was pissed about Kana’s suicide ten year ago and I am pissed now. She just kills herself over vanity. Like, wow, how feminist of you Eli Roth. Way to balance the scales back to zero after the goodwill you accrued in Amsterdam.

— The head child is credited as Bubble Gum Gang Leader and every time I think about that I smile.

— The first half of this film is kind of boring. Like I get that it lays the groundwork and it pays off but there’s this layer of bleh over it that I can’t quite describe.

— Oli knows a song in every language they encounter and it’s how he tries to endear himself to locals. He sings very loudly.

— Ten years ago I thought that Paxton’s captor was the best part of the film because dude is just creepy in such a specific understated way. Just the way he mouth breathes and moves his arms in a semi-jerky way is really unsettling but also interesting from a performance standpoint. I don’t think he outshines the whole film but he still stood out to me.

— The suit Paxton steals to run away fits him really well and I think he should keep it as a souvenir of his time at murder camp. Especially since he tries really hard to hold onto his amputated fingers only to lose them to an incinerator.

— I think rewatching this film lessened my grudge against Eli Roth for wasting 90 minutes of my time but I still want to shame-bang him. I just won’t punch him first. Or I might because he seems into that.

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