Girl In The Picture (2022)

Last night I watched Girl In The Picture (2022), directed by Skye Borgman, which is a new Netflix true crime documentary. I had heard it was good, and, with a runtime of less than two hours (rather than the six hour-long episode slog too many Netflix documentaries are), I decided to try it. It tells the story of a young woman who is killed in a hit and run, and how her death leads to the discovery of a whole trail of kidnappings, murder, and pedophilia.

It’s all down to one man, the perpetrator Franklin Delano Floyd, but the focus of the film is not on Floyd but his victims, particularly the titular girl in the picture. This is in keeping with the trend of true crime documentaries to take the focus off the criminal and onto the people affected by their crimes; in general, it’s not a trend I have a whole lot of interest in (I like reading/watching this stuff because of the focus on the wrong-doer, it’s like a mental vacation from correct behavior), but here it makes perfect sense and is logical enough because of the rather unusual circumstances of the case.

With the story being told, and the gradual unfolding nature of the facts, it would spoil things for me to say much more. I recommend this if you like the more mysterious end of true crime; though the acts are terrible, the film does not linger on them. Girl in the Picture is not exploitative, but an exercise in doing justice to the memory of someone who never even knew her real name.

Ayahuasca: Vine of the Soul (2010)

Last night I watched Ayahuasca: Vine of the Soul (2010), a documentary on the psychedelic ayahuasca, created from Amazonian vines. I actually watched a few different things on ayahuasca but this was the best. We follow a couple of Torontonians (!) on a trip to Peru to try some in the jungle under the supervision of Guillermo Arévalo, a traditional shaman. Along the way are interviews with ethnobotanist Dennis J. McKenna (brother of writer Terence McKenna) and Dr. Gabor Maté, addiction specialist. Compared to some of the sensationalist garbage out there, this was a reasoned, calm look at a healing substance unlike most anything else available.

I’ve been reading about yage since I was in high school, and have often imagined trying some ayahuasca myself. I have no plans to fly to Peru to do so however, and so the best I could manage would be a well-travelled water bottle filled with brown, swampy liquid. Or so this documentary suggested over ten years ago now. Perhaps nowadays there’s more ways to explore this unique plant concoction? 

As you might expect what with documentaries airing about its incredible potential for healing mental and/or spiritual problems, ayahuasca has since become a bit of a popular option for those who can afford to take it, trendy even. The documentary points out that the userbase has been markedly different from such popular psychedelics as LSD; professional people (and increasingly celebrities) are trying ayahuasca, and this has affected how this ‘drug’ is treated by the laws and police of countries in which it’s now found. 

Just a week ago, athlete Aaron Rodgers was cleared for ayahuasca use by the NFL. It’s possible that a perfect storm of ayahuasca’s newfound popularity combined with a medical zeitgeist that takes seriously the beneficial possibilities of, for example, ketamine and psilocybin mushrooms in treating depression, anxiety or addiction, will create an environment in which ayahuasca becomes widely available, beyond expensive retreats and clinic appointments. Maybe soon we’ll all have the opportunity to try it.

Uncharted (2022)

I’ve kind of gone off video games in the last ten years or so. Too many character options and upgrades and DLC and whatnot. I like to just plug in and play as in video games of old. Anyhow, Uncharted is one of the only games I can say I’ve played all the different series of — it’s simple treasure hunting fun and not too hard, doesn’t get much more complicated than figuring out some puzzles. The action is of course over the top, as you’d expect. 

This brings us to Uncharted (2022), the big-budget movie adaptation, with main guy Nathan Drake played by your friendly neighbourhood Tom Holland, and his ‘trusty’ sidekick Victor “Sully” Sullivan played by Mark Wahlberg. Yes, Holland does have charm to spare, but I’m not sure he was really up to playing Drake, who always seemed a little older and tougher in the games than here. Half the time, Holland seems like a little boy playing at being a pirate and so on. 

There’s a few set pieces lifted from the games, and as far as fan service goes, I thought the film did fine. Reviews have been pretty uniformly abysmal even for a summer blockbuster, and though the film is being considered something of a flop, it still made enough money at the box office that a sequel remains a real possibility. I thought the villains were duds, which is always a shame when you’re talking big-budget action. Even Antonio Banderas falls flat here; he was more menacing in The Misbehavers, for crying out loud. 

In short, while kids will probably love this, anyone older than 15 or so is unlikely to be impressed. Some seriously weak sauce, all in all. IMO Mortal Kombat (1995) remains the best video game adaptation. Considering it’s almost 30 years old now, that’s kind of sad.

Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)

Last night I watched Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), written and directed by the marvellous husband and wife team of Eleanor Perry and Frank Perry. If you’ve ever seen The Swimmer with Burt Lancaster, which the Perrys did a few years previous, you’ll know the sort of entertainment you’re in for: an acerbic character piece about someone at the end of their rope, exhausted and perhaps flirting with danger as a consequence. It’s an unusual film for its time in that the whole thing is essentially from a woman’s point of view; combine that with an intelligent script filled with memorable zingers and you’ve got a riveting watch.

This film concerns Tina Balser (Carrie Snodgress), who is married to Johnathan Balser (Richard Benjamin) and spends most of her waking moments tending to his every whim and notion. He is childlike and selfish, undeveloped to a shocking degree, and mean on top of all that. She becomes depressed and withdrawn, and takes a lover, the writer George Prager (Frank Langella in a positively revelatory role) who is himself a selfish jerk but with a crass self-awareness of the fact that would appear to appeal to Tina. 

Snodgress is fantastic and the role made her something of a star, as well as muse to Neil Young for a time. She won a Golden Globe for her performance and was nominated for Best Actress Oscar, losing out to Glenda Jackson (for Women In Love). Benjamin was so vexing here to me that, after half an hour of his hectoring, I had to pause the film and take a break. Doubtfully the desired effect, but a testament to the character and Benjamin’s passionate portrayal of same.

Finally, Frank Langella, who seems like a smoother, sexier version of James Woods (?). Though I remember him as Dracula first and foremost, I’ve become accustomed to seeing him play generally creepy older men, as in The Ninth Gate, for instance. So to see him play a creepy younger man was quite an interesting surprise. I assume that groovy hairstyle he’s sporting here is a wig, what do you think?

I won’t spill the beans on what happens, but I must add that the film’s ending is a real humdinger, indicative of the ‘downer’ endings of the period (which I love). It’s so seldom that a great film has an ending that kind of takes it up that extra notch, but I would argue this qualifies. Bring back fearlessness in cinema!

Foolish Male Faces On Sex Comedy Posters

A version of this piece appeared in my old blog, Dec 12 2010.

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a phenomenon of men appearing on film posters bearing what can perhaps be safely described as overtly dumb expressions. Particularly popular in the area of sex comedy, such posters typically feature a beautiful woman (seen head-to-toe), while about her on either side are the faces of 2-6 very average, even unattractive men who look as though they have lost all reasoning capacity, are in fact made fools, struck dumb by the beauty they see before them.

From Jack Stevenson’s Fleshpot: cinema’s sexual myth makers & taboo breakers —

“In the excessive content of the Italian sex comedy, the constructed nature of masculinity is revealed… the sexual space of [these films]… are so over-the-top in their celebration of heterosexual ideas that today they are almost parodies”

Are such posters, and their images of men as idiotic figures of moronic lust, conservative, retrograde? Certainly their brief popularity in mid-1980s Hollywood was historically tied to the height of consumerist Reaganism. Maggie Günsberg’s Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre suggests much the same was true of Italy*; I don’t know enough about Italian politics to comment on any equivalences there, but I do know such male expressions were stock comic relief in not only Italian but also Mexican sex comedy cinema of the 1970s.

Should we consider that such male-dominant, even macho, societies might be confident enough in their masculinity that said masculinity could be safely depicted as something foolish, fun, even brainless – silly slaverings to sirens, evoking not the handsome male of so many a standard cinematic artwork, the mutual attraction, or romance portrayed in so many ‘rom-com’ film posters, but instead a tongue-out sort of pig lust? Or is it the reverse, exaggeration masking deep insecurities? I don’t know. Still, I confess when viewing these ridiculous faces, I can’t help seeing something of value in them, however unattractive it may be. —

“Lina Wertmüller established herself in the 1970s as Italy’s most important female director. Her best works were all typical of the commedia dell’italiana genre: The Seduction of Mimi (1971); Love and Anarchy (1972); Swept Away (1974); and her previously discussed masterpiece, Seven Beauties . Wertmüller’s comedies, filled with stock characters and presented with the typical vulgarity of traditional Italian slapstick farce, treated controversial political subjects, such as feminism, women’s rights, working-class chauvinism, and the opposition of love and anarchy, with grotesque humor.”

When women going out to male strip clubs became chic in the 1980s, I recall men’s sexual stoicism quickly coming under the gun – women were whooping it up in these clubs, thrilled to finally be seeing men dancing naked before them, so we were told. These women were in touch with their lust, it was fun and healthy to be vocal and enthusiastic; by contrast, men sat sullen and silent at their own strip clubs, apparently bored out of their minds. What was wrong with them? Were the gyrations of naked bodies not something to be celebrated? Made merry over? Perhaps even get downright silly over?

I don’t mean to excuse these goofy grotesques, but perhaps cast them in a different light, give them another context. As a young man growing up and focusing obsessively on anything that smacked of this mysterious magnet called sex, such posters (or late-night viewings of lusty Italian comedies on CHIN TV) conveyed that goofy, foolish, unattractive men, and sexy busty bombshells went together like a fork and spoon. I for one salute this lost ideal; we certainly can’t all be George Clooney.

This ‘lusty fool’ type was not limited to the posters of such films of course but was in fact a mainstay character type of sex comedy, pre-AIDS; in Italy and latin countries, often an older man, apparently past his prime; in the U.S., a young man, eager to loose his virginity at any and all costs. In these films, certain aspects of reality are turned upside down: clumsiness and awkwardness are endearing, not off-putting. Physical comedy often serves to ‘accidentally’ undress a woman, there being no acceptable means to view the vaunted T&A other than voyeurism, cliche soft-focus romance, or frequently aggressive ‘accidents’ (at this time, that could include basically just grabbing a woman’s top off). Private School is one such film featuring all three types of nudity, for anyone looking for examples.

* from a review of Maggie Günsberg’s Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre —

“Chapter Two (‘Commodifying Passions: Gender and Consumerism in Commedia all’italiana’) is dedicated to the commedia all’italiana, and especially the relationship between sex and materialism. The Italian social context is brought into play here, with a discussion of the increased commodification of Italian social relations during the boom years (which coincided with the peak of the commedia). It begins by looking at consumerism and commodity fetishism within a theoretical framework marked by psychoanalysis (Freud, Lacan) and Marxism (Baudrillard) and then explores how one commodity (the car) functions in a number of films, and the effect on gender relationships of the commodification of relations. It also examines the commodification of the female body (through its sexuality) and of the male body (through its labour power). The films which provide the focus for this chapter are Germi’s Divorzio all’italiana, De Sica’s Matrimonio all’italiana, and others, such as Audace colpo dei soliti ignoti.”

A Woman Under The Influence (1974)

This John Cassavetes film is a whopper, two and a half hours of Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) and her husband Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) in full-bore mid-Seventies serious mode, portraying a couple going through some trying times (largely a result of Mabel’s undiagnosed mental illness). The acting is intense, immediate, and almost free-associating at times. The script examines the role mental illness plays and how people respond to it. Personally, my own mental problems are on the opposite side of the spectrum so I found Mabel difficult to relate to at times; she was endlessly manic, on and on and on. It’s not my experience.

I’ve lived with people like that though, and I would say what Rowland’s performance was missing was the crash that inevitably follows a manic period. You could certainly argue that’s why she was so quiet after her hospital stay, but I’d say that was a different thing entirely. Caution, resentment, probably doped up on some pharmaceutical regime – that’s not the same as the kind of nihilistic ruminations I associate with bipolar disorder’s depressive side. But still, it’s a relatively minor quibble with a bravado performance.

Armchair psychiatry aside, I’m not sure how you’d diagnose Nick. His voice is kind of incredible, and that rat-a-tat delivery of lines just hammers his words into you. He clearly has problems of his own, but a love for his family lies behind his bellowing and bluster.

I’m not sure how much I can say about this that hasn’t been said a hundred times. It’s rightly considered a major classic of cinema, and watching it is like a masterclass in film making. I hadn’t seen it for many years and I do find my perspective on it has changed in the interval. What seemed rough around the edges or overbearing is now endearing.

The Kang Dynasty (2001-2002)

Last night I finished The Kang Dynasty, spanning sixteen issues of The Avengers comicbook, written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Alan Davis, Kieron Dwyer, Ivan Reis and Manuel Garcia (among others). It originally came out in 2001 and 2002, long after I’d stopped collecting comics, myself. Marvel recently announced a big screen adaptation of The Kang Dynasty to lead into Secret Wars, the finale of their Phase 6 filmography.

In this series, Kang The Conqueror tries to conquer Earth (duh) with an immense sword-shaped spaceship known as Damocles Base, capable of wiping out large cities with a single blast. Lo and behold, this time he actually succeeds and the Avengers formally surrender… or at least, most of them do…

I enjoyed this series, by and large. It goes on a bit long and the art isn’t really to my taste, but the story was pretty decent. Of course, Marvel takes only what they want from the original comics, so who knows what they’ll go with here? If the Master of the World subplot appears, it could leave a door open for Alpha Flight to be introduced.

The biggest single moment in the comic, something pretty certain to be included in some way, shape or form in the film, is a fight near the end wherein Kang becomes giant-size out in space, only to have Captain America grow larger as well, and they go at it like battling constellations. It’s totally ridiculous of course but it’s nice to take a mental break now and then in this world. If I were going to make Avengers films, I doubt very much I’d have taken this particular story on, but the die is cast. We’ll see what we get.

Men (2022)

Spoilers follow.

I’m a big fan of Alex Garland’s recent films so I was very much looking forward to seeing what an out and out horror movie directed by him would be like. Men (2022) has received mixed reviews on release, with many complaining that the story didn’t make sense, most particularly the ending. I felt that it did show coherence throughout, albeit in a metaphorical or allegorical fashion. 

In brief, Men is a horror film about the patriarchy. The way it robs you of your freedom, your solitude, your independence and your sanity with its relentless presentation, its insistence on perpetuating itself (both in conversation and then later literally), its myriad microaggressions. Many of the key moments in the film involve small moments that add up to a frightening whole: a hand on a knee, a phrase, an overstepping, a reluctance to believe or take seriously. Even a choice of honorific has an hurtful and intimidating connotation here.

Our protagonist Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) is taking a fortnight to herself after a traumatic row with her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) that resulted in his death. She seeks to simply be, to exist and to heal in this rented estate in the country; instead, at every avenue, she is pestered or harassed by a series of males, all of whom bear the same face (that of Rory Kinnear). Their offences become more and more brazen throughout. Harper is remarkably adamant in her own point of view and this appears to rankle.

The ending – wherein one man gives birth to another, and then that man gives birth to yet another, and so on until we arrive at James again, who sits up with Harper and persists in blaming her for his death – entails the conjunction of two very old, even pagan ideas: that of the Green Man and that of the Sheela Na Gig (this is the reason too that Men is referred to as a folk horror; I would quibble with that, but it’s a digression). These figures are depicted in the film as two sides of the same baptismal font in a spooky church Harper visits at one point. 

The film is suggesting some union of the male and female pagan (re)birthing energies, and this I think is key to understanding why these men are suddenly giving birth to each other at the end. It’s also making implicit the connection between her overtly aggressive late husband and the men in the town who have been so relentless in their own aggressions. When Riley (Gayle Rankin) arrives to see her friend, it’s clear that these women share a strong bond beyond friendly phonecalls. One can see how they flourish in each other’s presence. 

And this brings me to two key pieces of the puzzle most people seem to have overlooked, the answer James gives when Harper asks him what he wants from her (“love”), and the following shot of a dandelion losing its seeds played in reverse. Is love the key to patriarchy? A woman’s love for a man? Doing away with that entire construct (“he loves me, he loves me not”) may then be where happiness lies. A good hang with a good friend out in the countryside. Like Midsommar, perhaps this is a happy ending in disguise.

Is the film problematic? Most definitely, not least because James is the only person of colour in the whole thing, and he’s an unbalanced, aggressive person at that. There is also the issue of gender ‘essentialism’ going on – the film is called Men, after all. The fact that Riley arrives alone and pregnant at the end is very interesting, I thought. It further suggests a future free of men. Would I recommend watching Men? If you like A24 films (for it is such a one), and/or body horror, give it a go. 

The Demon (1978)

Kichiku or The Demon is a 1978 film by Yoshitarō Nomura, which examines child abuse and abandonment. Ken Ogata is masterful as a man whose mistress leaves him with their three children, and whose wife is none too pleased with the situation or with the new occupants of her home. Ogata won Best Actor at the Japanese Academy Awards and it’s easy to see why; he brings complexity and sympathy to a role that could easily have been a simple caricature.

It’s exceedingly rare for films to portray abuse to this extent, in a realistic manner, let alone to focus on it. Viewers should be aware that some of the imagery here is very intense. Hiroki Iwase is another standout as the six year old son (this is his sole film credit); his facial expressions and manner were remarkable in such a young actor. Fans of 70s Japanese cinema would probably want to see this, it’s a well-made film with first rate cinematography, but it’s difficult to imagine most people viewing it with anything but disgust.

W.R. Mysteries of the Organism (1971)

It’s difficult to know where to start with Dušan Makavejev‘s 1971 avant-garde film, W.R. Mysteries of the Organism. It starts out as a documentary on psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich but integrates vignettes of counterculture figures in the US, as well as a story set in Yugoslavia tackling themes of Communist revolution and sexuality. It may be fair to consider it something of a collage in construction then, incorporating B&W footage from Soviet film, colour footage of a plaster casting in the offices of Screw magazine, and any number of other elements.

Betty Dodson is interviewed on masturbation, Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs engages in street theatre, Jackie Curtis strolls down 42nd street enjoying an ice cream cone with a friend. We see orgone accumulators and hear from Reich’s family and friends, as well as fellow doctors and the townspeople he would interact with. Milena Dravić appears as a woman called Milena in the film’s fictional storyline. She is staunchly pro Communist, pro feminist, and pro Reichian; she enthralls a crowd with polemic, and seduces a Russian figure skater named Vladimir Ilyich, only to lose her head at his bloody hands and keep talking after decapitation.

If anyone reading this is getting bored by films, or feeling that there’s nothing new under the sun, I would urge you to see WR: Mysteries of the Organism. Unconventional to its core, it’s both a time capsule and an insight into a possible freethinking future. Similar in some ways to the political cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, but much funnier and sexier, I recommend it to anyone left curious by this description.