Madonna: Innocence Lost

(USA / Canada 1994)

“I take what I need and I move on. And if people can’t move with me, well then I’m sorry.”

— Madonna

Wow, I completely forgot about this tawdry exposé made for TV — American TV, which is even worse — chronicling Madonna’s early years in New York City. It aired on Fox in the mid-nineties, and it’s actually amazing only for how awful it is. All the stops are pulled out, and it’s a trainwreck: the overriding theme is that Madonna is an ambitious whore. OK, National Enquirer.

Based on Christopher Andersen’s 1991 biography — totally unauthorized, I add — Michael J. Murray’s script is just plain sad. Some of it is remarkably accurate, but some of it…not so much. I recognize every single interview where he culled material to tell the Material Girl’s story — in Time, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Interview, and a few other magazines. He doesn’t just lift background, he lifts dialogue. Verbatim. That opening monologue is straight from a letter to Stephen Jon Lewicki in which she begs to appear in his softcore film A Certain Sacrifice. The characters are all real people even if their names are changed: her donut shop manager (Kenner Ames), Dan Gilroy (Jeff Yagher), Camille Barbone (Wendie Malick), Mark Kamins (Mitch Roth), Seymour Stein (Don Francks), frequent collaborator Steve Bray (Ephraim Hylton), and last but not least her father, Silvio Ciccone (Dean Stockwell).

I’m mildly impressed that her mother (Jenny Parsons), shown entirely in black and white flashbacks, even comes up. And the many guys she slept with, some of them with a purpose. And that gumcracking? Brilliant!

Terumi Matthews plays a young Madonna, and to her credit she nails the megastar’s ideosynchrocies perfectly! I’ll give her that. However, the vignettes and Catholic imagery stolen straight from the video for “Oh Father” are so lame that I feel like I should say a rosary after seeing this. So should you. Don’t even get me started on where this story starts — the first MTV Video Music Awards? Really? She was already on her second album by then.

Anyway…Madonna: Innocence Lost is not flattering, but it’s still a hoot. It plays on Madonna’s bad side, like “Blond Ambition” is a bad thing. The problem is, this approach fails when you’re dealing with someone who used that very name for one of her biggest tours. Shocking? Fuck no.

With Diana Leblanc, Nigel Bennett, Dominique Briand, Tom Melissis , Christian Vidosa, Dino Bellisario, Kelly Fiddick, Gil Filar, Maia Filar, Diego Fuentes, Matthew Godfrey, Evon Murphy, Stephane Scalia, Chandra West

Production: Fox Television Studios, Jaffe/Braunstein Films

Distribution: Fox Network, RTL Entertainment (Netherlands), True Entertainment (UK)

90 minutes
Rated TV-14

(YouTube) D+

Ginger Snaps

(Canada 2000)

“Shit, wrists are for girls. I’m slitting my throat.”

— Ginger Fitzgerald

Puberty is tough enough without your older sister turning into a werewolf. Just ask 15-year-old Brigitte Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins), who with her sib, Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), stages gory death scenes and takes pictures of them, like a pair of morose Cindy Shermans. When they were kids, they made a pact to die together. Their classmates think they’re weird.

A run-in with mean girl Trina Sinclair (Danielle Hampton) sparks a war. Walking through the woods on their way to exact revenge one October night with a full moon, Ginger gets her first period. She also gets attacked by a mysterious and savage beast — the same one responsible for eviscerating all the dogs in the neighborhood.

Ginger turns increasingly feral over the next few days, growing more aggressive and sexual. Her wounds, which heal almost immediately, are sprouting hair. Oh yeah, she’s also developing what appears to be…a tail?

Brigitte, or “B,” connects with cute, brooding dope dealer Sam (Kris Lemche), who struck and killed the beast while he was driving his van down the road where it ran after it attacked Gretchen. He’s got a recipe for what might be the cure. The clock is ticking as Gretchen gets farther out of control, and Halloween — with another full moon — approaches.

On paper — all I had going into it because I’d never heard of it — John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps sounds dubious at best. The premise seems trite. The part about the period sounds stupid, and the analogy to “becoming a lady” is obvious.

Turns out, Ginger Snaps is surprisingly good. Incorporating familiar elements of teen movies and splatter flicks, Fawcett, who wrote the screenplay with Karen Walton, pushes the “suspension of disbelief” envelope. He knows just when to stop, though. There’s quite a bit of gore here. The special effects are dated but effective nonetheless.

What really sells this film, though, is the acting: Perkins and Isabelle evoke a warmth to their relationship despite their offputting personalities and a fierceness to their bond. They’re totally believable as sisters. The final scene, which involves only them, is downright sad. Crushing, even.

With Mimi Rogers, Jesse Moss, John Bourgeois, Peter Keleghan, Christopher Redman, Lindsay Leese, Wendii Fulford, Pak-Kong Ho, Lucy Lawless

Production: Motion International, Copperheart Entertainment, Water Pictures, Lions Gate Films, Oddbod Productions, TVA International

Distribution: Motion International (Canada), Unapix Entertainment Productions (USA), Lions Gate Films

108 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B-

Music Box of Horrors

http://www.gingersnapsthemovie.com

The Little Hours

(USA / Canada 2017)

“Eating blood? Do you think I’ve ever written down ‘eating blood’ before? Where am I?”

— Bishop Bartolomeo

From what I remember in my English lit classes, Geoffrey Chaucer called it as he saw it. He took a dim view of piousness and devotion because he knew that neither makes someone a good person. Hold that thought.

Some people take religion very seriously. Others reach such a high level of intellectual refinement or maturity that it puts them beyond crass, juvenile humor. Good for them — I’m not one of those people. I adore a snarky, irreverent story; it’s even better when it involves absurdism or sacrilege and still has something to say. The Little Hours is exactly that: a farce with a point.

Set during the Middle Ages, hapless Fr. Tommasso (John C. Reilly) has the unenviable job of overseeing a convent. Yipee. He finds himself without a gardner when Lurco (Paul Weitz) quits after three hateful young nuns — vain Sr. Alessandra (Alison Brie), nerdy gossipry Sr. Ginerva (Kate Micucci), and belligerent Sr. Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) — physically attack him one too many times.

While on a mission selling embroidery to raise funds for the convent, Fr. Tommasso, lost and drunk, crosses paths with Massetto (Dave Franco), a servant running from his master, obnoxious douchebag Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman). Bruno is out for blood (not to mention balls) after he discovers Massetto has been carrying on with his wife (Lauren Weedman) for some time.

Fr. Tommasso learns of Massetto’s dilemma and makes a proposal: Massetto can work in the garden at the convent, but he must pose as a deaf-mute to avoid stirring the ire of the nuns. Massetto accepts, but things don’t pan out quite as intended. The young nuns are, well, horny. Not long after he arrives at the convent, Massetto is getting it on with both Alessandra and Fernanda. All hell breaks loose when they find out.

Written and directed by Jeff Baena, The Little Hours is loosely based on — or a spoof of — a novella from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a 14th Century epic. If this sounds highbrow, don’t fret — it’s the only sophisticated thing about this film, which is fine because it is above all else a comedy.

Loaded with f-bombs, sex, and general malice, The Little Hours is an amusing mix of Mean Girls and Monty Python. The cast works well as an ensemble, bringing out and playing off of each other’s goofiness in an endearing way. I see hints of improvisation, which brings even more energy to the whole thing. Although the story peters out toward the end, Baena keeps the momentum going strong for most of it. What could have been a thin joke stretched out too long and too far stays fresh and fun with this vibrant and funny cast.

For all its silliness and flippancy — pretty much all seven deadly sins make an appearance here — Baena raises an interesting point. The Little Hours is very much a comedy about desire, and it get its laughs from the conflict between desire and appearance. Without getting preachy, The Little Hours shows that piousness and devotion don’t douse the flames of desire; sometimes, they fan them. After all, we’re all merely human. I can’t help thinking that Chaucer would approve.

With Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Jon Gabrus, Jemima Kirke, Adam Pally, Paul Reiser

Production: StarStream Media, Bow and Arrow Entertainment, Destro Films, Dublab Media, Productivity Media, Concourse Media, Exhibit Entertainment, Foton Pictures

Distribution: Gunpowder & Sky (USA), Mongrel Media (Canada), GEM Entertainment (International)

90 minutes
Rated R

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

http://www.thelittlehoursmovie.com

Closet Monster

(Canada 2016)

I wish I could play Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” for Closet Monster‘s protagonist, Oscar Madly (Connor Jessup), because the lyrics say something he needs to hear: the answers you seek and the love that you need will never be found at home. Sigh.

When young Oscar (Jack Fulton) is a wee lad of maybe seven or eight, his parents give him a hamster (played by four different actors: Chunk, Mama, Blood Thirsty, and Buffy #1). The gift, it turns out, is intended to take the sting out of their explosive announcement: his mother (Joanne Kelly) is leaving his father, Peter (Aaron Abrams). It doesn’t take long to see why, as Peter is an oppressive loose cannon. Oscar stays with his father and quietly retreats into his own world where his new furry friend, Buffy, becomes his companion and has a way of expressing what Oscar is feeling (Isabella Rossellini, of all people, provides Buffy’s voice).

One afternoon after school, Oscar follows a group of older teenage boys into a cemetery. Unbeknownst to them, he watches from behind a tree as they barbarously attack another boy—presumably a gay one—with a rusty iron rod. Immediately after, Oscar notices his father is a toxic alpha male asshole. Determined to prevent something horrible from happening to him, he jumps into survival mode and starts doing “guy” things.

Cut to a decade later: Oscar (Jessup) is into creating monsters with makeup and prosthetics, practicing in his treehouse on his friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), an aspiring model who carries a torch for him. They both just finished high school. Oscar bides his time that summer working as a stockboy at a home improvement store while waiting for an acceptance letter from a school with a design program for cinematic special effects to which he’s applied. He’s completely beside himself when a new employee named Wilder (Aliocha Schneider) shows up and asks to borrow his work shirt. Wilder is cool, sexy, and has a way of transmitting ambiguous sexual signs—causing Oscar severe stomachaches and visions of that iron rod.

Writer and director Stephen Dunn’s first feature threw me for a loop, in a really good way. Closet Monster is packed with gay coming of age clichés, but it still stands on its own. Oscar’s homosexuality is more than incidental, but it’s no dark secret; Oscar knows he’s gay and he doesn’t seem to be ashamed of it, even if dealing with it is tricky. The cast here is excellent, particularly the exchanges between Jessup and Schneider (not to marginalize the other actors). Dunn exhibits a dinstinctive style both in how he tells his story and how he shows it. From a narrative standpoint, he concocts a compelling mix of comedy, teen drama, fantasy, horror, gore, and psychological intrigue. The tension between Oscar and Peter is palpable, simmering from a quiet friction to an all-out eruption.

Dunn’s visuals are even better: vivid, surreal imagery of iron rods popping out of Oscar and vomiting nuts and bolts into a sink, they indelibly illustrate what’s going on in his head. Peppered with retro electronica, I pick up a certain late ’80s/’90s vibe here; indeed, Dunn’s aesthetic reminds me of David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and to a lesser extent Anton Corbijn, all of whom started out doing music videos. Dunn’s sensibility is similar to another young director, Xander Robin (Are We Not Cats) (https://moviebloke.wordpress.com/2016/10/15/are-we-not-cats/), though Dunn is not as dark. Closet Monster has a few shortcomings, but overall it gels nicely into a totally satisfying film.

90 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) B

http://rhombusmedia.com/film/closet-monster/

http://www.strandreleasing.com/films/closet-monster/

The Reflecting Skin

(UK/Canada 1990)

“Sometimes horrible things happen quite naturally.”

“It’s all so horrible, you know, the nightmare of childhood. And it only gets worse. One day you’ll wake up, and you’ll be past it. Your beautiful skin will wrinkle and shrivel up. You’ll lose your hair, your sight, your memory. Your blood will thicken, teeth turn yellow and loose. You will start to stink and fart, and all your friends will be dead. You’ll succumb to arthritis, angina, senile dementia. You’ll piss yourself, shit yourself, drool at the mouth. Just pray that when this happens, you’ve got someone to love you. Because if you’re loved, you’ll still be young.”

—Dolphin Blue

British playwright and occasional film director Philip Ridley’s first picture, The Reflecting Skin, is a wickedly devious bait and switch. It opens downright beautifully with seemingly precious eight-year-old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) walking through an unnaturally radiant golden field of wheat carrying a huge frog to his friends, Eben (Codie Lucas Wilbee) and Kim (Evan Hall), who are waiting for him on the side of a rural dirt road. The idyllic scene, which could be straight from a Norman Rockwell or Edward Hopper painting or maybe even a Mark Twain novel, immediately takes a seriously twisted turn when one of them sticks a straw in the frog’s butt and inflates it. The tone is set: as Ridley himself admitted, “the opening of the film deliberately dupes you into thinking you’re going to watch Little House on the Prairie, and then it suddenly becomes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with reptiles” (http://thepeoplesmovies.com/2015/12/the-reflecting-skin-philip-ridley-interview/). Ummm, yeah.

Poor Seth: his name rhymes with death, which is all around him and it’s tearing his world apart—he doesn’t even realize it. The adults in his life seem incapable of explaining any of it to him. He lives in a crumbling old farm house next to the gas station that his henpecked father, Luke (Duncan Fraser), operates in an isolated prairie town somewhere in Idaho (a fact I picked up from a state trooper’s uniform) in the 1950s. Maybe the town has seen better days, but probably not. A group of handsome greasers in a big black Cadillac comes into the station for a fill up. The creepy driver (Jason Wolfe) asks Seth a few weird questions and promises to see him soon before driving away.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

The aforementioned frog was the unfortunate pawn in an awful prank involving one of the Doves’ neighbors, a glum and taciturn English widow with the spectacular name Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan). Seth’s mother, Ruth (Sheila Moore), a raving termagant obsessed with the smell of gasoline in her house, makes him go apologize to her. It’s a weird exchange: Dolphin relates that she used to burn cats when she was little and shows Seth a box containing her dead husband’s teeth, hair, and cologne before she breaks down, sending Seth running away with a harpoon. Soon after, Eben disappears. Seth blames Dolphin, whom he concludes is a vampire in part because she looks like the one on the cover of a pulp novel his father is reading. The police, particularly cynical Sheriff Ticker (Robert Koons), think otherwise: they blame Luke because of a past transgression. Feeling backed into a corner, Luke eventually immerses himself in gasoline and sets himself on fire.

Seth’s older brother, Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), comes home from the military, where he’s serving on a mission in the Pacific. Cameron meets Dolphin at the cemetery—a spark ignites, and they start spending time together. Seth is horrified when his brother tells him he’s sick: he’s losing weight, his hair is falling out, and something is going on with his teeth. Seth again blames Dolphin, who he thinks is turning Cameron into a vampire (although Cameron reveals what’s really going on when he breaks out a photo of a Japanese baby whose skin turned silver from an atomic bomb). After catching an intimate moment while spying on the budding lovebirds, Seth observes the guys in the Cadillac snatch Kim.

“Innocence can be hell,” is the last thing Dolphin says to Seth before she accepts a ride into town from the black Cadillac.

The Reflecting Skin makes a simple point: children will use their imagination to fill in the blanks of what they don’t understand. The story is told through Seth’s eyes, and his conclusions are often bizzare but he arrives at them using what little he has to work with (that whole deal with the fetus he finds in a barn and rationalizes is Eben—yuck!). As Ridley explained, “it’s a kind of remembered fantasy of childhood; it’s being told by an unreliable, possibly psychotic narrator; objects are used symbolically; there’s this huge kind of nightmare journey through one mythical childhood” (http://thepeoplesmovies.com/2015/12/the-reflecting-skin-philip-ridley-interview/).

The way he illustrates his point is fascinating. Everything about the story is horrible. With an approach worthy of David Lynch, Ridley takes a hodgepodge of characters—vampires, religious zealots, suspicious small town law men—and throws them into this weird mix of the macabre, sexual perversion, punishment, and subtle dark humor. His use of symbolism is liberal to say the least. The story is meticulously plotted: every character, scene, and little event is in here for a reason.

This is all underneath Dick Pope’s gorgeous cinematography, which is loaded with vibrant colors and a beautifully fine-tuned attention to detail: the vastness of the wheat fields, the crazy black hair of both brothers, the flies that are always present. Nearly 30 years on, The Reflecting Skin still looks arresting; in fact, it’s one of the most beautiful looking movies I’ve ever seen. Nick Bicât’s heavy and haunting baroque-inspired score is a perfect fit. The overall result is wonderfully dreamy and surreal, yet we definitely sympathize with Seth—probably because we all know that childhood does in fact suck. He’s grounded in reality.

I would be remiss not to mention the acting, which is all around superb. I doubt this film would work with lesser talent.

A dearly departed old friend of mine introduced me to The Reflecting Skin in 1993 or 1994. I’ve never had an opportunity to see it on the big screen, which is a pity because this is one film clearly meant to be seen in a theater. For years, I had a shitty VHS copy and recently found it on DVD. It’s not an easy film to find, but it’s totally worth the effort.

96 minutes
Rated R

(Home via DVD) A+

The Mask [Eyes of Hell]

(Canada 1961)

Terrible doesn’t even begin to describe The Mask: the acting, the dialogue, the plot, the sets, the “special” effects—they’re all so wonderfully cheap and dippy in a way that screams “atomic age.” A pervading sense of overblown naive paranoia and a subtext of sexual transgression and drug abuse add to the fun. I loved The Mask for what it is—cinematic junk food.

Mild-mannered Dr. Alan Barnes (Paul Stevens), a psychiatrist, experiments with an ancient tribal mask that a patient (Martin Lavut) warned him about. Barnes quickly falls under the spell of the mask—which looks a lot like a mosaic disco ball version of C-3PO—and morphs into a monster as he sinks into a subconscious world of horror, much to the dismay of his fiancé, Pamela (Claudette Nevins), and his mentor, Professor Quincy (Norman Ettinger). Lieutenant Martin (Bill Walker), hot on the trail of a homicide, has a hunch that the mask is a big clue to the mystery. Can anyone save Barnes before it’s too late?

The mask world, you see, is in 3D. When Barnes submits to his jones for the mask, a commanding offscreen voice bellows, “PUT THE MASK ON NOW!” This little device serves two purposes: it demonstrates the powerlessness of Barnes over the mask, but it also prompts viewers to put on 3D glasses—which were provided:

TheMask3D

With the 3D glasses, we get to see what Barnes sees—oooh! The mask world manages to cram every single horror movie dream sequence cliché into each scene—fog, eyeballs, skulls, snakes, fire, spiders, pyres, hands reaching out of the screen, it’s all there. Despite the potential for eyerolling—and there’s a ton—the mask world is trippy and cool even with its pedestrian take on horror. The restored version I saw had a sharp, crisp look. The 3D effect worked surprisingly well. Ed Wood might have envied this one.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-

 

TheMask2

Room

(Canada/Ireland 2015)

Although shortened and accelerated, Room is still a fitting adaptation true to Emma Donoghue’s novel. Some of the nuance is lost in transition from page to screen, but the story is told as much as it probably can be on film from the point of view of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), whose fifth birthday begins our involvement. Tremblay, who is seven years old, does an astounding job; he uses silence as much as sound to convey what’s going on in Jack’s head. Brie Larson as Jack’s mother, Joy, is quietly intense, at least until later; when she explodes, however, her intensity is a bit overdone. Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) initially is shown only in intermittent bits and pieces, keeping his role in the story a mystery– a nice touch. Joan Allen and Tom McCamus, the latter arguably the sole redeeming male character aside from Jack, serve as calming anchors. William H. Macy appears very briefly as Joy’s father.

Director Lenny Abrahamson definitely gives us the claustrophobic feel of “Room.” His depiction of Jack’s foray into “World” about halfway through is the most intense and suspenseful part of the film; I literally held my breath at points. It was done really well, using choppy, moving camera work and tweaky color to illustrate the foreign, unfamiliar appearance of mundane objects to Jack– and how trippy his first experience outside is for him. The rest of the film is quieter, focusing on both Jack and his mother’s assimilation into the real world (Akron, Ohio, in the film– I don’t remember that from the book). I suspect most will agree that the first half of Room is far more compelling.  Still, it’s worth seeing and the story will stick with you after it’s over.

(Landmark Century) B

http://roomthemovie.com/#/

Tom at the Farm [Tom à la ferme]

(Canada 2015)

As psychological thrillers go, Tom at the Farm is a notch above average. It’s got a plot I haven’t seen before: Tom (Xavier Dolan, also the director) schleps from Montreal to rural Quebec for the funeral of his dead boyfriend, Guillaume, who grew up in the French Canadian equivalent of a hick town. Big shock: Guillaume didn’t tell his mother (Lise Roy) he was gay, a secret his dark and sexy but tres psycho older brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), aggressively guards. After the funeral and some mixed signals from Francis, Tom is pulled into farm life with his new “family”– and a bizarre sexless S&M relationship with Francis that creates a major sense of foreboding danger.

Tom at the Farm does a nice job building up suspense, and the homoerotic overtones add to the tension. The problem is, the story isn’t believable, even for a thriller. Maybe that’s because the characters’ motivations aren’t adequately explained; it feels like something was left out. Worse, the slow and steady buildup between Tom and Francis doesn’t lead anywhere; despite all the tension– sexual and otherwise– it fizzles like a dud firecracker. We leave with no sense of what either character is about or what makes him tick, and only a vague notion of what their whole thing is about. A film with such potential that ultimately fails to deliver leaves one with the frustrating and disappointing cinematic equivalent of blue balls.

(Home via iTunes) C

http://tomatthefarm.com

Big Eyes

(USA/Canada 2014)

A desperate housewife’s foray into 1960s San Francisco art scene becomes a surprising if dubious success. An “agreement” with her wannabe artiste husband, however, silences her claim to fame.

Something of a morality play, Tim Burton’s stamp is all over Big Eyes. But that doesn’t mean it’s great—it certainly is no Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood. The problem here is that it lacks the heart of Burton’s earlier work. Too bad. Despite a rushed wrap-up, though, Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz turn in highly enjoyable performances that save Big Eyes from complete inanity.

With Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Jon Polito, Delaney Raye, Madeleine Arthur , James Saito, Farryn VanHumbeck, Guido Furlani

106 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Landmark Century) B-

http://bigeyesfilm.com