Monday, August 24, 2015

The Teencible


Man am I glad to have been a teenager before the internet onslaught took full control over our lives. Sure, I visited my share of chat rooms and probably conversed with at least a few potential serial killers at some point in my youth, but whispers of Friendster didn't explode until college, and Tom of MySpace didn't become my pal until I had my first real apartment.

I am thankful for this.
As I believe we have all now agree, the internet is a super duper thing. It opens our world up to writing and friendship from across the globe. Heck, it lets me justify spending hours upon hours watching and analyzing movies like Criminal Passion because, you know, maybe somebody out there wants to read what I had to say about it. Without the internet, I'd just be a very sad woman.
I bring this up today not to ponder what I'd be doing if I couldn't write thousands of words about sleazy '90s erotic thrillers, but because today's film of choice does such a thoughtful job in putting millenial culture tics in view. Sisterhood of the Night is essentially a modern spin on The Crucible, but it's successfully explored through the eyes of a 21st century teenage girl.

Basically, it just makes me really glad I wasn't writing status updates in 9th grade. Because they would have been TERRIBLE.
Quick Plot: Mary is a 15-year-old high school student who inadvertently makes an enemy out of classmate Emily, a religious girl who retaliates by spilling some of Mary's secrets via her personal blog. Before you can shout "I saw Goody Goode with the devil," Mary is calling Emily a blog whore (which I guess is the 2015 translation of "you're a virgin who can't drive"), recusing herself from all social media, and starting her own secret club, The Sisterhood.


Nobody knows what The Sisterhood does, but that couldn't possibly stop the student body, faculty, and PTA from wildly speculating. Mary recruits a few more classmates, including the moody Catherine, who's uncomfortably dealing with her mother's cancer, and the shy Lavinia, who's uncomfortably dealing with her divorced mother's dating habits. All the while, Emily scowls from afar.


One night, Emily follows the girls deep into the woods to watch their mysterious ritual. Mary spots her, though the film doesn't quite show us what happens next. According to Emily, Mary and the girls are sexually touching each other and assault Emily, who proceeds to blog about the experience and publicly accuse The Sisterhood during Sunday mass.


Set in a small upstate town of Kingston, NY, The Sisterhood of Night is based on a short story by the wonderful Steven Millhauser, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who writes with a wonderful style of fantasy, humor, and Americana. The film itself feels a little more serious than most of his writing that I'm familiar with, but the overall style--grand bombastic music that overdramatizes the action--actually works rather brilliantly. When you're a 16 year old girl, this is kind of how life feels.

The filmmaking team here knows that, perhaps because refreshingly, they were indeed once 16 year old girls. Screenwriter Marilyn Fu and first-time director Caryn Waechter demonstrate a clear understanding of what it means to be an adolescent female dealing with a world that by most accounts, ain't so bad but by, again, adolescent female accounts, is an eternal nightmare. The pair apparently met at film school and funded the film through crowd sourcing. Clearly, there was indeed an audience that needed a story like this. 


The young actresses are rather incredible at finding the right notes. As the mysterious Mary, Georgie Henley (whom you might recognize as the youngest of the Narnia siblings) projects that kind of ethereal charisma that makes you want her to like you, or to at least know your name. Moonrise Kingdom's Kara Hayward plays the petty Emily with a great combination of earnestness and entitlement, and Willa Cuthrell finds just the right balance between selfish bitterness and wounded vulnerability as Catherine. 


Where The Sisterhood of Night comes up a tad short is in its adults. While I give Kal Penn's well-meaning guidance counselor a lot of bonus points for using the Beatles-based Still Life With Woodpecker version of a Rorsacht test, the rest of the parents are a little more simplistic in their reactions. Perhaps that's the point. From a teenager's eyes, adults simply can't understand the situation and ultimately belong outside of it.


High Points
Clearly there's a lot I loved about this film, but to narrow it to one, I'll go with the overall style and aesthetic. Serious teenage cinema is sometimes impossible to do well because it risks being dated to its young audience or seeming alien to its older one. Between its score, performances, and general look, The Sisterhood of Night manages to nail a very particular style that manages to feel both young and wise. It's no easy feat.


Low Points
Look, I'm human and alcohol may have compromised some of my memory cells but c'mon: how am I supposed to keep it straight that a character is named the uncommon name Lavinia, but it's her mother who's played by an actress (Laura Fraser) who once played a character named Lavinia in Julie Taymor's film adaptation of Titus. Just TYPING that made me want another drink


Lessons Learned
The w is silent in whore


George Harrison knew how to keep his secrets


Fatal Attraction is a popular film among the high school youth of 21st century America


Stray Observations Of a Nerdish Note
Though inspired by Arthur Miller and based on work by Steven Millhauser, the writer's voice I thought of the most during The Sisterhood of Night is Megan Abbot. For those unfamiliar, Abbot has written several rather brilliant novels that focus on teenage girls, including Dare Me (a dark saga of ambitious cheerleaders) and The Fever (a mystery/thriller about high school students suffering Crucible-like bouts of hysteria). If you enjoyed The Sisterhood of Night, I cannot recommend Abbot's canon highly enough. She's sort of a Gillian Flynn by way of Mean Girls, but way more awesome than that description sounds. 


Rent/Bury/Buy
As is often the case here at The Doll's House, the more I start to write -- or dare I say it, BLOG -- about a film, the more I tend to enjoy it. The Sisterhood of Night isn't perfect, but it has such a strong, needed voice behind it deserves to be seen. We don't get enough female-created content on our screens, so of course it's nice to see something so estrogen infused. What's even better is when said product is actually good. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Sexy Cop Sexy Time


Ladies, if you ever wanted to know what Dave from Killer Klowns From Outer Space's penis looked like underwater, have I got a film he co-wrote for you.


Quick Plot: Detective Melanie Hudson (the gorgeous Joan Severance) is trying to reconcile her inner darkness with her job hunting down a serial killer. Melanie's nighttime activities generally revolve around her driving her car, sexily glancing at the rearview mirror, and huskily narrating her inner conflicts in a style that somehow reminds me of Christian Bale’s Batman.

According to all the men she works with, Melanie just doesn't know herself very well.


Gents, allow me to give you some absolutely free advice when it comes to women: do not ever believe, and certainly do not ever state, that you know a dame better than she knows herself. Trust me: you don't. And if by some chance you do (which you actually don’t), she still doesn't want to hear it.


Nevertheless, it's a phrase repeated constantly to Melanie, who brushes off the advances of her partner and shifts her steely sapphire eyes to the prime suspect in her murder investigation. His name is Connor Ashcroft, and he’s the handsome and promiscuous son of a U.S. Senator. Connor had previously dated several of the slain women, but Melanie believes the real killer may be his thwarted welding artist ex, played by Total Recall’s Rachel Ticotin.

Once Connor is cleared, Melanie gives in to his advances and engages in some Showgirls-ish pool sex and elevator groping (the latter witness by extra Danny Trejo). Melanie’s fellow detectives are none too pleased, one going so far as to threaten Connor with, I kid you not, “You’ve got the lifespan of sperm.” Points to our boys in blue!



Let’s talk about the policemen in Criminal Passion. They are a delight. At least from a fashion point of view.


IMDB tells us that this film was released in 1994. I don’t quite know that I believe that, since Melanie rocks Annie Hall menswear and the men sport mullets and a tie collection manufactured from leftover patterns of ‘80s era suburban furniture. It’s a glorious thing to behold, especially when said policemen speak with cop accents so thick that subtitles become a necessity. Trust me, you need to hear the drunken spurned detective tease the wealthy Connor about his fancy glass vases before smashing them with glee if you ever hope to experience true joy.

Criminal Passion was directed by Donna Deitch, a woman who seems to work primarily in television (including no less than three episodes of Law & Order: SVU). The female perspective is an interesting one on a film like this, which has a surprisingly modern sex-positive heroin in Melanie. While most of the men constantly judge her activities, Melanie is content to live how she wants...until, well, the plot sort of tells her she shouldn’t.


Ultimately, I wouldn’t quite go so far as to call Criminal Passion a sex-positive, go girl power flick, but Melanie is a fully formed women and the film isn’t afraid to let her live how she wants (to a point). More importantly, unlike some of my other recent ‘90s forays, Criminal Passion is a movie that understands how to revel in its sleaziness. That my friends, is a thing of beauty.

High Points
She’s not going to win an Oscar anytime soon, but Joan Severance is incredibly watchable as Melanie. Aside from being a beautiful woman, she manages to project that sort of smokey sexiness that keeps the whole tone of the film in line


Low Points
The mystery itself of who’s killing these women is never really as pressing as one would think it should be

Lessons Learned
Men will believe anything if you say it with a smile


Always keep the first chamber empty


“Hey Cheekbones, wanna party?” is not a recommended pickup line, even if your target is the very high cheekboned Joan Severance


Rent/Bury/Buy

Criminal Passion is suitably sleazy for those in the mood for the kind of film that makes heavy use of saxophone solos or electronic smooth jazz. It’s your typical Skinemax fare with a little elevation from Severance’s performance. Cue it up on the old Amazon Prime when you feel the need for nudity and bad ties.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Dial It Up




Pizza.
Dot. 
Net.

Quick Plot: Meet Angela Bennett, a pretty but introverted computer genius who spends the majority of her time on the internet in her home office. Despite looking like Sandra Bullock, Angela doesn't get out much or socialize. She's far more comfortable conversing in chat rooms than face-to-face, and her hottest date of recent seems to be a medium pie from pizza.net.


Ahh, the '90s. To those born in a tragically dark world before the convenience of seamless or grubhub, ordering your pepperoni from a website was once considered both futuristic and weird. Today, I see Angela's experience with pizza.net as a tragedy in itself not because it demonstrates her fear of people, but because poor little Angie was robbed of the wonder that is Domino's rather amazing, if a tad racist interactive interface that involves a talking Caribbean toucan.

Back to The Net, Angela is just about to take a Mexican beach vacation (sadly lacking pizza-talking toucans) when one of her web pals sends her a mysterious floppy disc (think USB sticks but shaped like toast) that seems to have a flaw. What should be a simple music program somehow grants savvy hackers access to government records, banking databases, and much much more.  
Angela puts the disc out of her mind to soak up the sun, drink what sounds like the worst cocktail ever known to man (WHO PUTS ONIONS IN ANYTHING THAT DOESN'T NEED ONIONS??), and flirting with a dashingly handsome Brit named Jack Deviln who seems to be painstakingly made for her. Naturally, he proves to be a creepy hitman whose job is to steal the disc and leave Angie swimming with the pescados.


Thankfully, Devlin turns out to be absolutely terrible at his job. Maybe it's all the Gibsons he drinks, but the man is woefully unprofessional. For a company that later proves to be manipulating major banks, corporations, and the federal government, they ultimately show some rather large holes in their hiring practices.


That doesn't make life any easier for Angela, or as the evil web company has now renamed her, Ruth. Though she manages to get back to the States, her ID has been swapped for an ex-con drug addict whose name sends red flags to all police officers or other professionals she tries to enlist for help. Her only friend/ex-lover/ex-therapist/ex-yes-that's-very-icky-and-the-movie-doesn't-really-seem-to-care Dennis Miller tries to help, but it doesn't take longer than a Weekend Update for him to fall prey to the evil corporate website killers. It's up to Angela herself, with no resources other than her own moxie and fast typing skills, to save herself and a whole lot of urls.


As an unabashed fan of '90s cinema, I was excited to revisit Irwin Winkler's film with the giggles of nostalgia. Imagine my shock/slight disappointment to discover that mom jeans and floppy discs aside, The Net really hadn't aged poorly. Sure, we've come a long way from ordering your dinner online being a sign that you are one cat away from sad spinsterhood, but the actual depiction of the world wide web doesn't necessarily feel like a relic from a time long past. Our lives ARE in the hands of those better at manipulating technology, a fact that some people fear and lazy ones like me simply accept.


The real strength of The Net, however, isn't its adorably quaint internet graphics but its adorably lovable Sandra Bullock.


Yes, it's me. The same person who wrote over a thousand words about how The Blind Side was one of the worst movies of the post-Jim Crow world. See, I contrary to what some people may think, I love Sandra Bullock. She's a delight. 


But The Blind Side really is a terrible excuse for white people feeling good.


Back to Bullock, she really is the heart of this film and it's easy to suspect any other actress would not have made The Net such a watchable movie. Fairly fresh off her star-making supporting part in Speed and romcom debut While You Where Sleeping, Bullock proved here that she had that natural charisma to keep viewers engaged in virtually any material. It's impossible not to care about Angela. Part of it is that the character makes fairly smart choices throughout the screenplay, but the bigger part is that Bullock never overdoes the character.

There are certainly drawbacks to The Net. At just under two hours, it's longer than it should be but paced intensely enough to where you don't necessarily notice. Angela's agoraphobia or social anxiety or what exactly isn't particularly well defined. Nearly all the scenes of tension end with one of those "free at the last possible minute" kind of tricks that hardly seems possible the first time, let alone the fifth time around. Still, twenty years after its debut, this remains an involving and entertaining watch.

High Points
While Angela isn't exactly Rosie the Riveter, it's a huge relief to see the film wisely avoid some potentially unsteady gender ground. The movie doesn't judge Angela for sleeping with Devlin, and while the Dennis Miller character is problematic due to the icky/unethical doctor/patient boundaries, it also doesn't tack him or anyone else on as a love interest. The men in Angela's life aren't right for her, and by the end of the film, that seems to be just okay.


Low Points
Seriously, how many times can a character turn his head only to turn back and find you have vanished? 

Lessons Learned
In Colorado you grow up with guns


In the mid '90s, one could always count on a perfectly timed street parade to commence just as you might need a giant crowd to escape into
Hotel televisions have a remarkable ability to turn to just the right news station that has a shred of a story relevant to your current affairs
Rent/Bury/Buy
Look, it's not a treasure of its time, but I really enjoyed The Net. Angela's Cassandra-like warnings of the internet's borg-like assimilation knowledge have essentially proven true, and we didn't even have to kill Dennis Miller to get there. Fans of this type of movie--especially from this era--might be surprised at how a dial-up tone aside, this has saged surprisingly well. For the others, enjoy some pizza.net



Monday, August 3, 2015

Highl-erker


Netflix Instant Watch synopsis: 

“Bloodthirsy warriors from the Middle Ages. A sexy shrink from the present. This isn't your average Viking flick.”

Sold.

Quick Plot: In Viking times, a pair of brothers named Boar (Nightbreed’s Craig Sheffer) and Barek (90210’s John Sears, plus a whole catalog of B-movies’ Paul Johnansson) decide to free Brunhilda, the witch who spurned Odin and was henceforth sentenced to a life surrounded by flames until someone pure of heart frees her. Boar tries and gets burned, while Barek succeeds and asks Brunhilda to save his beloved brother. The catch is that Boar can only be revived as a cannibalistic Berserker. 

who now totally knows how to party
Apparently, some people consider that a bad thing.


Some years later, Barek’s father makes a deal with his now disowned cannibalistic Berserker son for help defeating Erik the Red in exchange for the non-cannibalistic son’s soul. When pops refuses to honor the terms, lots of flames and witch people show up to cause some chaos. Cut to--


THE PRESENT.

Or, at least a version of the present where high ranking psychiatric professionals show up to work in skirts that would make Britney Spears blush.


Enter one of the glowing lights of the B-movie darkness, Kari Wuhrer as Anya, a psychiatrist/reincarnated Valkyrie formerly named Brunhilda. Anya has just taken charge of a mental hospital for the violently insane where a new patient has been suspended from Hellraiser-esque chains for years because, well, he’s a reincarnated Viking warrior.


Plots like these have their reviews write themselves.

Berserker: Hell’s Warrior is written and directed by a man named Paul Matthews, whose name might ring a bell if you recall my recent review of his female-centric western, Hooded Angels. Like that film, Berserker was made in scenic South Africa on what I assume had to be a fairly small budget. This is most prominent in the shoddy CGI, soundtrack that sounds borrowed from the public domain library usually raided by video games, and quality of wigs that seem to have been purchased from a Halloween sale. 

sunglasses were half price

All that being said, I’ve come to find a lot of respect for Matthews’ filmography. Maybe it’s just that I watched the laughably incompetent Hammer of the Gods recently (you can listen to my thoughts via The Feminine Critique Episode 53 here), but Berserker fared somewhat (not much) better than you’d expect a low budget Viking movie to do. It sort of stands one tier above the Asylum Studio’s output. That’s not a glowing compliment, but it gives something of an idea of what to expect.


High Points
There’s a beautiful scene where modern-times Barek and Anya hide out in a rave while being pursued by not-that-out-of-place Berserkers. The real pleasure of such a setting is that it takes me back to one of my favorite undercover storylines on Law & Order: SVU, wherein the gang pull a sting in full glowstick glory.


Low Points
I don’t know if I can properly describe how bad the CGI looks, so here:



Lessons Learned
In case you needed reminding, severed heads onscreen are always funny

Like most cats (not mine), reincarnated berserker warriors always land on their feet


A benefit of being a female Berserker is that your eyeshadow gets automatically applied when your crazy genes kick in


No matter how tight the top, how short the skirt, how tattooed the dame, a pair of glasses will sell a hot chick as a doctor with no problem


Rent/Bury/Buy

Berserker: Hell’s Warrior is streaming on Netflix, and for under 90 minutes, it’s not the worst Highlander-ish background entertainment while you file your taxes or plan your next vacation. By no means is this a good movie, but it’s entertaining in its own little way.