Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

How to Build a Girl, or: High as a Kite

CW: self-harm

As it’s difficult to predict how 2021 will unfold (except that it will likely be challenging), it feels especially critical (or at least achievable) to determine how we’ll start off the new year here on the Blog Collab. Gritty drama? Experimental arthouse? Dark horror? Even shark films don’t feel appropriate right now, so we’re diving into waters we’ve really only dipped a toe into before: uplifting, feel-good pieces. We’re aiming for films as predictable as TV Christmas movies and as cozy as a weighted blanket.

Can we handle this long term–or at least for a month? We’ll ease into things this week with a coming of age comedy based on a Caitlin Moran novel (not that Moran herself is getting an open-ended seal of approval for all things). With our fave Beanie Feldstein starring, can our pick possibly be less than charming?

The Film:

How to Build a Girl

The Premise:

An awkward teen lands a job as a music critic for a trendy magazine, navigating the differences between career success and personal fulfillment.

The Ramble:

Johanna Morrigan, a teen growing up on a council estate in 1990s Wolverhampton, dreams of having the type of dramatic transformation and brilliant adventures of her heroes–figures like the Brontë sisters, Sigmund Freud, Cleopatra, Sylvia Plath, and Karl Marx. The trouble is, she’s exactly the kind of awkward straight-A student whose successes merely provide fodder for local bullies; in other words, she is unwittingly the vision of a 1990s heroine.

A dark-haired teen girl with glasses sits in a quiet library, looking with boredom out the window.

Though her family is full of too many siblings, a depressed mother, and a father still operating under the belief that he can make it as a pop star, Johanna’s best friend is her brother, Krissi, who is a gay Marxist armed with much cooler musical taste than anyone else around. One evening, preparing for the family viewing of Top of the Pops, Johanna’s life is set to change when her poem lands her a spot on a Midlands news program–though not in the ways she expects. An aspiring writer, her…er, quirky(?) performance on the show makes her even more of a target of ridicule, sending her to a decided low point.

In a darkened living room, a teen girl holds her younger baby brother, sitting on the floor next to her teen brother. In the corner, her father is seated at a drum set.

Luckily, Krissi is endlessly encouraging, urging Johanna to enter a competition to write for trendy music mag D&ME. Decidedly out of the loop on cool new music, Johanna opts to write with a sense of fun about “The Sun Will Come out Tomorrow,” which earns her a surprise interview in London. However, all of the pre-hipster ironic assholes at the magazine think Johanna’s entry was a joke, and they send her packing back home with only a free t-shirt to show for it. Unwilling to accept this, Johanna reminds the writers that the piece was strong, and she can learn all the rest about music trends on the job.

As luck would have it, one of the writers is less than enthusiastic about reviewing a gig in Birmingham, so Johanna goes along instead. Or, rather, Johanna’s alter ego Dolly Wilde arrives. After the publication of her article, Johanna is an overnight sensation (at least locally) with access to unreleased singles, swag, and the power to make or break a musical act. She may even finally help her dad’s music career take off, though he’s done himself no favors by calling his band Mayonnaise.

A teen girl with long, curly red hair and a top hat takes notes in a club as she looks with intensity at the musical act performing.

Inspired by her own success, Johanna plucks up the courage to ask for an interview assignment, landing a chance to chat with rising star John Kite. An earnest lover of music and pensive reflection among narcissists and posers, Johanna winds up totally smitten with Kite…and it shows in her work. D&ME refuses to publish her fangirl piece. In order to be taken seriously again, a fellow writer gives Johanna advice she takes to heart: unleash your inner bitch.

At a small table in a bar, a teen girl with long red hair sits across from a blonde man with a velvet coat. She has a cassette recorder and a soda on the table, while he has an ashtray and remnants of alcohol in a glass.

As it turns out, this has been the key to music criticism all along. Not only is Johanna earning more money than ever before, but she’s also enjoying power at last, as her word becomes gold. But, as always, there’s a price with all of this, and that price is being an insufferable little punk. As the family depends more and more on the work of Dolly Wilde, Johanna delights in rubbing their noses in her success. She talks back to teachers, leaves school, smokes and drinks to excess, and boasts about her sexual exploits to her brother (though has no time to hear about his romantic progress).

It all reaches a tipping point when Johanna wins Arsehole of the Year at a music industry awards night but is rejected by John Kite when she confesses her feelings to him. In a race to rock-bottom, Johanna strikes back at Kite by publishing a nasty article about him, then proceeds to alienate everyone remotely still on her side. Is it too late for Johanna to make amends with all of those she has wronged?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Look, there are no surprises here. This is a coming of age story tinged with sweetness and positivity, so it’s rather predictable. That being said, I enjoyed the film and its message in favor of awkward enthusiasm over aloof coolness. Beanie Feldstein hits all of the right notes here, even if there are times when her accent is a little inconsistent.

Throughout the film, there are a lot of elements that are fun but could have been pushed further to make things more interesting. First, Johanna is the only character who really gets any sort of development at all. I really liked the dynamic between her character and Krissi’s, but he ends up being quite one-dimensional. And it’s disappointing how often Johanna fails to be there for her brother, whose experiences as a gay teen on a 1990s council estate can’t have been easy…though this plot point is glossed over.

Additionally, the concept of Johanna seeking advice from her historical and fictional idols has potential, but it doesn’t happen frequently enough to feel necessary. All we get is a selection of celebrity cameos–none of which I’m mad about, but which do nothing particularly interesting for the story. They merely underscore the extent to which we’re meant to believe that this film and its protagonist are extremely quirky.

This leads me to my final issue with the film: the handling of Johanna’s self-harm scene and its aftermath. The film’s tone in these scenes is truly bizarre, and the writing is so loose that I’m not sure if it’s being played for laughs or just poorly developed. Either way, it isn’t well done and seems remarkably casual.

What I do appreciate about the film (and the novel) is its ability to negotiate the nuances of feminism (even if its real-life writer doesn’t always do this particularly well). Johanna is funny and fierce as she navigates the very male-oriented world of music criticism at a young age. To her credit, she begins to piece things together, realizing that being a trailblazing woman amongst men isn’t enough to make her actions feminist; she says and does a lot of problematic things for the benefit of her own career (and the male gaze). It’s not automatically a feminist quality to be outspoken, especially if your words are viciously attacking others simply because you can.

Would my blog wife tear this film a new one or fangirl about it all day long? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Poetic Justice, or: I’m Sorry, Miss Jackson

It’s very possible we pinned too many hopes on this week’s film providing inspiration, or, at the very least, a compelling romance between two musical icons. Either way, this week’s pick–starring no less than Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur–was not quite the hit we expected. As a result, prepare yourself for us to bust open the emergency Christmas seal earlier than usual. We could really use something painfully upbeat and comfortingly predictable, which this film…is not.

The Film:

Poetic Justice

The Premise:

After witnessing the murder of her boyfriend, a young woman turns to poetry to cope, and begins to connect with an aspiring musician.

The Ramble:

In 1990s Los Angeles, hairdresser Justice looks forward to a night out at the drive-in with her boyfriend Markell. It’s not long before the evening takes a tragic turn when a couple of Markell’s rivals spot him, shooting him point-blank in the head. Following her boyfriend’s death, it’s clear that Justice is in mourning, keeping to herself, writing poetry, and wearing mostly black.

A Black woman in a hair salon reads from her notebook to another woman.

Inevitably, everyone in the world feels the need to give advice to Justice on getting out more, finding a man, smiling…all of the usual nonsense. This includes postal worker Lucky, whose interest in Justice is extremely unwanted, creating immediate tension between the two.

Justice has found an escape in writing poetry, while Lucky aspires to a career in music. However, he must also find a way to provide a safe home environment for his daughter, whose mother is an addict.

A Black man in a White Sox baseball cap sits in an apartment, his daughter on his lap.

Whenever possible, Lucky heads up to Oakland with his fellow postal worker, Chicago. Oakland is home to Lucky’s cousin, a talented musician and collaborator. Justice’s bff Iesha happens to be dating Chicago, and brings her pal along for the ride…unaware of the tense history between Justice and Lucky.

The trip is off to a rocky start that escalates to name-calling, and the crew isn’t on the road for long before an enraged Justice decides to get out and walk. After finally managing to get Justice back in the truck, the group spots a family reunion that happens to waft the mouthwatering scent of perfectly cooked barbecue for miles.

A group of two men and two women stand outside in a park.

More or less blending in at the massive family reunion, where Maya Angelou is one of the aunts, things take a turn when a tipsy Iesha begins flirting with another man. After Chicago starts a fight with him, the group leaves the reunion, only for fights to break out all around between Chicago, Iesha, Lucky, and Justice.

As Justice and Lucky get to know each other better, Chicago and Iesha seem to be rapidly unraveling. Will the connection between Justice and Lucky survive when most of the group finally makes it to Oakland and tragedy strikes?

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

Agh, I don’t know where to begin with this one. With leads like Janet Jackson and Tupac, it feels impossible to go wrong…but there are so many problems with this film. First, Tupac’s character is incredibly problematic, referring to Janet Jackson as a bitch or a ho multiple times. I wouldn’t expect a film made in the early ’90s to age perfectly, but it happens so many times that it’s distracting.

In fact, Janet Jackson’s character as a whole doesn’t get a lot of respect (nobody’s calling her Miss Jackson here). After Justice’s boyfriend is shot in front of her, the people in her life are on her case to stop being depressed already and find a new man. No one offers her any particularly meaningful emotional support or even seems to recognize that she must be deeply traumatized. Her coping mechanism of writing poetry feels underdeveloped, and I expected Lucky to encourage her and/or recognize an opportunity to collaborate. In fact, Justice as a whole isn’t given enough character development, as what feels like her story initially becomes overshadowed by Lucky.

The plot itself is flimsy and doesn’t do much to distract from how flat our leading characters are. On top of all this, we don’t get any musical numbers whatsoever from either Janet or Tupac, which feels like a huge missed opportunity. Our incredible cast definitely deserved better.

Would my blog wife invite this one to a barbecue or ditch it along the side of the highway? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Menace II Society, or: Caine & LA

This may not be the most focused review for the Collab as I mentally process the past 5 or so days of the US election, which made everything feel like it was happening in slow motion. If you are at all familiar with this blog, you could likely guess with some accuracy that I am SO relieved with the Biden/Harris win, though I am still holding my breath until the orange man is physically out of the White House.

But let’s time travel back to a time when the current president was merely a horrible human discriminating against Black tenants in rental practices.

The Film:

Menace II Society

The Premise:

After a visit to a convenience store results in violence, recent high school graduate Caine’s future looks increasingly bleak.

The Ramble:

One fateful night, teens Caine and O-Dog enter an LA convenience store to buy beer. Everyone seems on edge, as the store owners immediately eye the two young Black men with suspicion, while the impulsive O-Dog drinks beer right from the bottle before paying and snaps out angry responses loaded with the f-bomb. It feels inevitable that a confrontation will break out. When the store owner makes an off-hand remark about O-Dog’s mother, the teen snaps, shooting both the man and his wife.

A young man in a convenience store drinks from a bottle of alcohol, while another man walks beside him.

Though O-Dog’s actions kick off the film’s main story, Caine is our main protagonist and narrator. He reveals his family is from the Watts neighborhood of south LA, an area known for one of the city’s most significant uprisings in the 1960s.

In the aftermath of the riots, Caine’s father (played by Samuel L. Jackson!) was a drug dealer, while his mother was a heroin addict. By the time Caine was 10, both of his parents were dead and he had gone to live with his grandparents.

In a room lit by a red light, a man sits across from another man at a card table, aiming a pistol sideways.

Despite the religious teachings of his grandparents, Caine follows in his father’s footsteps and is a drug dealer before he’s even graduated high school (in a scene that will remind viewers that this film is approaching 30 years old, Caine uses a pager to communicate about deals).

Though O-Dog is Caine’s best friend, there is tension between the two. O-Dog is reckless to a fault, going so far as to boastfully show the footage of the convenience store robbery to all of their buddies.

Two young men face each other as they hold an intense conversation.

As it turns out, this is the least of Caine’s problems, as he and his cousin are carjacked one night after a party. Though Caine is shot, he survives…unlike his cousin. And Caine makes it his mission to avenge his cousin’s murder.

Meanwhile, Caine has been growing closer to Ronnie, a single mother whose ex has been sentenced to life without parole. Even though she’s essentially a free agent, it goes against some sort of bro code for Caine to pursue Ronnie. Instead, Caine hooks up with a young woman he picks up at a park.

On a hospital bed, a man in a hospital gown sits next to a woman wearing a denim outfit.

At this point, Caine and O-Dog are arrested when they’re caught stealing a car. However, as this is Caine’s first arrest, and O-Dog is a minor, the two are released again soon, even after Caine’s prints match those found at the convenience store.

Throughout numerous violent encounters with the police and other young men, Caine has a chance to get out when Ronnie decides to take a job in Atlanta…and asks him to come along. But is Caine really ready to leave?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

This is a tough watch. The circumstances Caine inherits from his parents effectively demonstrate the difficulty of breaking destructive cycles and systems. This is a rare film about inequity that wisely pans out to give the audience context rather than focusing blame on individuals.

However, I couldn’t get Radha Blank’s song about poverty porn (featured in last week’s The Forty-Year-Old Version) out of my head throughout the film. The unceasing misery depicted here does verge on poverty porn. Focusing on systems rather than people makes it difficult to care about any of the characters…or to feel that they have any agency whatsoever. The near-constant threat of violence from the police and those around Caine helps the viewer understand the ways he is dehumanized, but it doesn’t make him particularly sympathetic. He treats a lot of the characters here pretty badly, actually–especially women.

Caine certainly doesn’t deserve his fate, but the film presents it as inevitable, which weighs very heavily indeed.

Would my blog wife have this one’s back or speed off towards Atlanta ASAP? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Jezebel, or: Nothing Like the Real Thing

It’s really difficult to remember the earlier days of the internet at times: the dial-up speeds, the AOL chat rooms, the GeoCities web pages that made questionable use of Flash graphics. Even then, it was true that the internet was for porn…except of a more pixely, low-resolution variety. This week’s film follows a webcam girl from the late ’90s, and it’s quite a fascinating world. And surprisingly empowering in some ways, though, as with porn, its appeal is a deeply subjective topic.

The Film:

Jezebel (2019)

The Premise:

A young woman living with her sister begins to make her own way by working as a webcam girl in the late 1990s.

The Ramble:

In the late ’90s, Sabrina barely makes a living as a phone sex operator. With two siblings to look out for, a young daughter, and a live-in boyfriend, the shared one-bedroom apartment feels tiny. What’s more is that the family matriarch has been unwell in the hospital for some time…and those bills are adding up.

A woman closes her eyes while on the phone, reclining on a bed wearing a low-cut nightdress.

To help keep the family afloat, Sabrina suggests that her 19-year-old sister Tiffany answer a job ad for an internet model gig–nudity required.

With Sabrina’s help, Tiffany is hired on the spot by brother and sister duo Chuck and Vicky. When asked for her name in the chat room, Tiffany gives the name Jezebel. There are few rules in the chat room beyond no nudity (except in private sessions), no onscreen penetration (which can yield a prostitution charge), and no personal contact information (for safety and financial reasons).

A young Black woman wearing overalls sits next to a white woman holding a computer keyboard, dressed in lingerie.

In the free chat room, Vicky and Tiffany dress in bikinis or lingerie and type flirty messages to their spectators, waiting for one to pay for a private room. Once in a private room, Tiffany is meant to keep the person on the other side of the screen logged in for as long as possible. Vicky does show Tiffany many of the tricks of the trade–none of the sex acts performed onscreen are real, from playing with sex toys to spanking.

The pay is decent, and, with help from her sister, Tiffany learns quickly how to get the most of her clients. She begins to genuinely have affection for a fetish client, Bobby, who responds well to seeing feet and being scolded or ignored. Tiffany even opens up enough to tell Bobby after she’s been to her mother’s funeral, and to give him her PO box and phone number.

A Black woman wearing a long wig sits on the floor of a darkened room, avoiding looking at the camera. Text shows chat messages asking the woman to speak to the sender.

It isn’t long before Tiffany has saved enough money for her own apartment. However, things begin to unravel when a client calls Tiffany the n-word in the chat, and everyone merely tells her to grow thicker skin. Soon after, Chuck calls out Tiffany for ignoring Bobby in a private chat room, despite this being one of his fetishes.

With an offer to move on to the adult film industry, Tiffany isn’t too devastated when she is fired. But when Chuck and Vicky reflect on how much money Tiffany is bringing in, will she return…with demands of her own?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I really enjoy how quiet and ordinary this film feels in many respects. There are elements of Tiffany’s work as a webcam girl that seem creepy or unsettling, and there are certainly exploitative people and businesses in this realm. However, the focus is on Tiffany and the development of her confidence and power rather than the gritty spiral out of control pattern that films with similar themes typically follow. In the work Tiffany does, it’s not so much what she does that’s important so much as whether she has a say in it. Part of Tiffany’s power is in her willingness to label herself Jezebel (quite literally), as well as her reclamation of the word.

While Tiffany’s journey provides the main story line, the relationship between sisters is also essential. Sabrina introduces her sister to the world of sex work, and this is more or less in line with any other sort of job referral. Her experience as a phone sex operator means Sabrina has an understanding of sexual power, as well as the ways in which sex work from a distance can mean greater control. She is there to offer advice and words of caution. Sex work is another way to earn money, which our characters and the film treat with pragmatism and a lack of melodrama.

My biggest complaint about this film is the lack of structure that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. What will happen when Tiffany finally meets Bobby? Will she follow in her sister’s footsteps and pursue a long-term arrangement with him? And what was with Tiffany’s fantasy about one of the other webcam girls–was it exclusively male gaze-y? Because of the nature of this film as sort of a slice of life story, so many questions remain!

Would my lovely blog wife let this one watch her paint her toenails or block it immediately? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Watermelon Woman, or: the City of Sisterly Love

I’m incredibly happy to report we’ve gotten around to this week’s pick, which has been on my watchlist for a while and depicts the lives of black lesbians from a contemporary and historical perspective. All of this through the lens of a fake documentary, rows and rows of video store VHS tapes, and as many denim overalls as you can handle. There’s nothing else quite like this week’s film, The Watermelon Woman.

The Film:

The Watermelon Woman

The Premise:

While creating a documentary dedicated to the life of a black actress credited as “The Watermelon Woman,” Cheryl navigates her own identity as a black lesbian in 1990s Philadelphia.

The Ramble:

Aspiring filmmaker Cheryl has made movies her life–in addition to working in a video rental store with her bff Tamara, the two record videos for fancy weddings across the greater Philly area. But Cheryl’s true passion is watching films of the 1930s and ’40s starring black women, particularly the so-called Watermelon Woman. Though she has no information about the actress’ real name or any other biographical details, Cheryl is nevertheless determined to uncover the woman’s identity and highlight her life in the form of a documentary.

Two black women work behind the checkout desk at a video rental store.

Meanwhile, Cheryl has the interference of her friend Tamara to contend with; both are lesbians, but the expression of their sexuality is unique to each woman. Tamara is constantly checking out other black women and trying to set up Cheryl with a date. Cheryl doesn’t particularly appreciate the effort, and the one time she agrees to a double date with Tamara, it makes for an awkward evening with an overly dramatic woman who has an unfortunately inflated opinion of her own musical talent.

Ever focused on the Watermelon Woman, Cheryl tracks down a series of interview subjects to fill in the details. A friend of her mother’s unexpectedly provides insight, recognizing the woman not from the black-owned theaters she frequented back in the day, but from performances at gay clubs. Through man-on-the-street interviews and conversations with experts, Cheryl records forgotten stories of black history as well as the spirit of present day (okay, mid-90s) Philadelphia. She eventually ends up in the library and the archives of an organization known as the Center for Lesbian Information and Technology (aka CLIT). Sadly, the members of the library profession are less than helpful representatives of the field.

A black woman and white woman sit together, embracing.

Cheryl’s journey to resurface the details of the Watermelon Woman’s life, real name Fae Richards, leads to the discovery of an interracial relationship between the actress and white director Martha Page. Was it really possible for a director responsible for depiction of her lover as a stereotypical mammy to treat Fae with love and respect? Connecting historical events to the present, Cheryl finds herself in a relationship with a white woman, Diana. Even in ’90s Philadelphia, a romance between a black woman and white woman is fraught; Tamara decidedly disapproves, and the number of black boyfriends in Diana’s past is worrying.

In the middle of a video store, a black woman talks to a white woman who is holding several VHS tapes.

As Cheryl continues her investigation into Fae’s life, a book is published (most likely by a white dude) that confirms some of the details surrounding her relationship with Martha. However, Martha’s own sister, as well as film and cultural critics continue to deny the possibility of their romance. Finally getting into contact with a woman who was Fae’s partner later in life, it seems the puzzle pieces are falling into place at last. Will the pieces align as Cheryl expects–either in her documentary or in her own personal life?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Perhaps best known as one of the only features directed by a black lesbian, The Watermelon Woman also happens to be a fascinating look into the forgotten (or intentionally erased) history of black LGBTQ women. Though Fae is a fictional character, she stands in for the lives of real women whose lives aren’t considered noteworthy as they defy mainstream narratives. The use of archival images and photos, as well as home movies, lends Fae’s story a poignancy that, as viewers, makes us question how many other stories have been neglected, buried, or removed altogether?

Dunye is observant of contemporary culture too, celebrating the lively streets of Philadelphia without glossing over truths about race and the queer community that reveal the City of Brotherly Love to be less than welcoming. Even in this film about filmmaking, the character of Cheryl is harassed by the police. There’s a lot to unpack in this scene, but currently the pervasiveness and the longevity of the problem of police aggression and suspicion stands out most.

There’s also a nuance to the way black lesbian experiences are depicted here–both Cheryl and Tamara express and act on their sexuality in very different ways. In fact, this becomes a source of conflict for the two friends, who I like to imagine will work things out. Tamara gets my favorite line of the whole film when she describes Philly as “the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.”

On a side note, this made me feel a sense of loss for video stores. Not for any experiences I had as a customer (and all of their excessive fucking fines), but for the number of film nerds they spawned and supported. I wonder where Cheryl’s character would have worked if the film had been made today; I’m guessing in a place where it would have been more difficult to meet ladies impressed with her film knowledge.

Would my blog wife show this film some affection or give it about as much attention as an extremely heteronormative wedding video? Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

JT LeRoy, or: Wigging Out

Perhaps appropriately, 2020 is in with a non-committal shrug. Will it come with the shiny potential a new year brings? Meh.

The year promises to be in line with our first pick for the Blog Collab 2020 as it is similarly likely to feature apathetic hipsters, inappropriate gaslighting attempts, and ’90s nostalgia out the wazoo.

The Film:

JT LeRoy

The Premise:

Based on a true story, a woman in ’90s San Francisco pretends to be the made-up persona of a trendy writer.

The Ramble:

Savannah is a young woman looking forward to the possibilities of living in a new city–San Francisco, specifically–with her brother Geoff and his live-in girlfriend Laura. Both are part of what is most likely a painfully grungy underground band, and Laura is not-so-carefully guarding a secret: she is the writer JT LeRoy, behind the edgy pseudo-memoir everyone is talking about. Her biggest secret? JT is a persona she has made up, pretending to be him on the phone and always making excuses for his refusal to be seen in public.

a woman wearing '90s grunge clothes sits in a dimly lit living room, gesturing to a character off-screen

After reading the novel for herself, Savannah feels deeply connected to the words and persona of JT. The book is supposedly based on JT’s real experiences as the child of a sex worker who provided services to men at truck stops. Laura asks Savannah to pose for a picture as JT by donning a wig (one of so many featured) just this one time. Famous last words.

More and more, Savannah appears as JT LeRoy for magazines and in public appearances. The persona of JT is naturally awkward and standoffish, working conveniently well for Laura’s purposes. Posing as his manager (with a rather cringey British accent), Laura effectively answers any question that comes JT’s way.

an androgynous young man poses for a photographer, wearing women's clothing and dark sunglasses

Though uneasy with the arrangement and constantly convinced she’s about to get caught, Savannah does enjoy trying on the role of JT. She has extra incentive to keep up the charade when she meets director and actress Ava, who is keen to get the film rights for the novel. However, this does complicate her personal life and relationship with her boyfriend.

When the book’s publishers agree to send JT and his manager to Paris, Savannah has the chance to get closer to Ava. But is there a real connection there when Savannah is pretending to be a 19-year-old boy with a traumatic childhood? Laura suspects not and, worried about her loosening control over the situation, tells Savannah that Ava only cares about the film rights.

a woman smokes a cigarette, seated next to an androgynous young man wearing a dark hat and sunglasses

Meanwhile, Laura is neglecting her relationship with Geoff, as well as her commitment to the band. But the JT act is going swimmingly. JT LeRoy is such an avant garde hipster that any challenges to his identity or history are easily shaken with a blasé shrug.

Once the film begins rolling, Savannah feels more conflicted about lying to Ava about who she is, and the existence of JT altogether. Despite pressure from Laura, Savannah decides to give up the act. However, after the film is completed and accepted into the Cannes Film Festival, Savannah agrees to make one final appearance as JT. We all know how that goes…right?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Laura Dern in all of her ’90s grunge finery alone makes this film worth a watch. LD, like she does in basically everything, looks GOOD. And her ever-rotating quirky grunge looks are so delightful here.

However, considering the madness of the story itself, it’s a bit of a letdown that my only real question here is “So what?” We don’t get a whole lot of insight into why Laura and Savannah hatch the JT LeRoy scheme. There are some half-explanations about Laura’s past in a group home, her mystical connection to the character of JT, and her need for recognition as an author without being fully in the spotlight. Savannah’s motives are similarly superficial–and if that’s truly the case, making this film seems like a waste of time. I hoped for an inside look into what made these two tick, but it falls flat. Even their relationship isn’t particularly convincing, and the two seem to annoy each other more than anything else.

I’m disappointed that, like its subject, this film takes the too-cool-for-you hipster brush off approach rather than pausing to offer a thoughtful reflection.

Would my grungy blog wife party with this one, unwashed hair and all, or slowly put on her oversized shades and walk away? Read her review here to find out!

Film Reviews

Sabrina Goes to Rome, or: Harvey and I Will Bury You in the Catacombs, Paul

The Film:

Sabrina Goes to Rome

Where to Watch:

Someone must have posted this on the internet; if not, it’s included on the last season of Sabrina

The Premise:

Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, travels to Rome in order to uncover the secret of a locket that has been in the family for centuries.

The Uncondensed Version:

Just as a word of caution, the music in this film is about as good (bad) as you’d expect from a movie based on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Right out of the gate there’s this really bad ‘90s dance track about everyone traveling their own road.

So basically the big setup for this movie is that Sabrina is in Rome to open a locket her dad sent her in a letter; she has to figure out a way to open it within the next 2 weeks or…I don’t know, I guess it will just be closed forever. At this point I was trying to get beyond the fact that Sabrina’s parents aren’t dead. Or at least her father isn’t. I kind of assumed that she lived with her aunts at least partially because her parents are dead.

When Sabrina arrives in Rome, she discovers she has a roommate in what is essentially a B&B for witches. Her roommate is Gwen, who I thought was her cousin, but I guess not. Gwen is an English girl with a really bad cockney accent and a jellybean obsession. Because the writers of Sabrina NEVER give in to stereotypes.

With Gwen’s help, Sabrina discovers the owner of the necklace was her aunt Sophia, who was banished after she fell in love with a mortal artist. He revealed she was a witch, and that gave her 12 hours to turn him into a pile of stone or be banished (yeah, those are the fucking rules in witchcraft. You do not talk about witchcraft).

So Sabrina and Gwen kind of alternate between fun touristy trips and locket-uncovering missions. Sabrina makes a wish in the Trevi Fountain and sees Sophia reflected in the water in a moment completely out of The Lion King. She’s just about to fall into the fountain when a really smooth American dude helps her (moral of the story is always don’t date the foreign guy).

the reflection of a woman dressed in Renaissance costume appears in a fountain
If you’ve ever played the Lion King board game, you know the agony of failing to make Mufasa’s face appear in the reflection pool.

Suavity in action:

Sabrina: You forgot to make a wish.

Smooth American Paul: What if it already came true?

Then he basically loses all points in his favor when he starts taking pictures of her after saying goodbye. It turns out he’s a photographer for a shady Italian tabloid. Paul and his friend Travis follow Sabrina to a museum the next day, where Gwen accidentally brings the statue of David to life. Sabrina, master of trickery and deceit, yells “Hey, look—the pope!” to distract Paul and Travis (which works). However, Paul and Travis are both onto her. Travis, true American that he is recognizes immediately what to do with an unbelievable, incredible story: sell it! The two bros have to get video of Sabrina practicing witchcraft to sell to the shady tabloid editor. With the money, Paul can finally be a REAL journalist.

a young woman wearing camouflage print pants interacts with a Roman statue come to life in a museum
’90s movie would be incomplete without camo pants.

Paul waits by the B&B wearing shades and holding a single rose. Sabrina hesitates but agrees to get breakfast with him, aka zip around Rome on a scooter. (I totally never realized how much of a Roman Holiday rip-off [tribute?] this is.) When they finally make it to breakfast, Sabrina bonds with Paul over the “real issues” she’s covered in her high school paper.

To search for clues, Sabrina and Gwen dig around the archives (archives in popular culture!). They discover the house where Sophia lived, but don’t realize Paul and Travis are on their trail.

So it turns out Sabrina has to find the portrait the artist, Roberto, painted of Sophia. There’s also an extended shopping montage for no apparent reason besides that this movie is apparently targeted to preteen girls. Paul and Travis continue to follow them around. Travis turns out to be a frenemy; when Paul is taking artistic pictures of Humans of Rome, Travis says it’s a waste of time.

Meanwhile, Gwen accidentally turns Alberto, the son of the lady running the B&B, into a pigeon. The spell can only be broken by kissing Alberto…so Gwen has to go around kissing EVERY pigeon in Rome.

I need you to appreciate that there is a montage to “Crush” in which Sabrina does archival work, runs around exploring with Gwen, and goes on dates with Paul.

Sabrina tells Paul she’s researching a minor Renaissance painter (you’ve probably never heard of him), and he finds a museum that houses a still life he painted.

Shortly after, we FINALLY get the time travel scenes we’ve been waiting for. Sabrina goes back in time to warn Sophia, who, conveniently, looks EXACTLY like her. Roberto’s “best friend” Mercutio suspects Sophia’s a witch and threatens to publicly announce it in the square tomorrow. Roberto then says she’s cool even though she is a witch, thus betraying her. It turns out Lorenzo, the dude Sophia’s family keeps pushing at her, paid Mercutio to trick Roberto. Somebody needs to tell these dudes to ditch the frenemies. Sophia forgives Roberto and refuses to turn him into a pile of stones, which means she will be banished. She then disappears, and Sabrina has to swordfight EVERYONE. Luckily, she makes it back to the painting and returns to her own time fairly quickly.

a woman in a pink Renaissance gown holds a sword up
I believe this is the only instance of Sabrina sword fighting (though I’ve been wrong before).

At this point, Paul decides he’s too noble to keep up this sham; however, Travis continues to creepily record everything Paul and Sabrina do.

At the end, Gwen finally kisses Alberto Pigeon, and he becomes human again. He overheard Travis and Paul’s plans when he was a pigeon, so he and Gwen race to warn Sabrina.

Too late—Sabrina has already revealed her secret by transporting herself and Paul to see his family, who I’m pretty sure are all dead? Paul promises never to reveal her secret just as Salem, Gwen, and Alberto arrive to tell her about the scam he and Travis are running. Salem’s sage advice is to turn Paul into a pile of stone, but Sabrina refuses.

Paul then finds Sabrina at Sophia’s portrait, showing her the destroyed tape of her performing witchcraft. His message is, essentially, thank you for believing in me (and not turning me into a pile of stone).

a young woman and man stand in front of a Renaissance portrait of a woman, a hologram appearing before them
HOLOGRAM SABRINAAAAA…was probably an unnecessary expenditure.

At last, the locket is magically opened with LOVE. Sophia appears as a hologram and advises Sabrina that the ones you love are always with you. Also that you should always choose love over magic (I’m sorry, but I would choose magic, esp. witchcraft). Salem, a cat after my own heart, tells Paul “You’re lucky I’m declawed!” Sabrina just kind of fucks with Travis by turning him into a bunch of different animals.

And they all lived happily ever after, except for Harvey.

The Critique:

I just don’t like this one as much as Sabrina Down Under, largely because Salem gets significantly less screen time. Also a little bit because Sabrina dates someone besides Harvey. I know that’s wrong. Sabrina can date whoever she wants to, but I’m still going to be upset when it’s not Harvey.

There’s something generally punch-able about Paul’s face.

The Rating:

Small Pink PantherSmall Pink PantherHalf Pink Panther head 2.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I feel I need to express my discontent with the lack of Salem screen time, though, objectively, this is probably no worse than Sabrina Down Under.

Film Reviews

Sabrina Down Under, or: Malleus Mer-eficarum

Time for Remembrance of Films Past, my oft neglected series of posts started with the best of intentions.

The Film:

Sabrina Down Under

Where to Watch:

Youtube (apologies in advance for the terrible screencaps)

The Premise:

Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, visits Australia to fulfill her dreams of becoming a marine biologist. There are mermaids.

The Uncondensed Version:

Hopefully if you’re reading this review you’re okay with a little (a lot) of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Remember how there were a couple of TV movies that seemed to have approximately zero connection to the series except for the fact that Sabrina and Salem appeared in them? YOU’RE ABOUT TO. (Don’t worry, I WILL be reviewing the other one, Sabrina Goes to Rome, as soon as possible.)

At the beginning of this particular movie, we learn of Sabrina’s hitherto unexplored passion for marine biology. (Right? I seriously don’t remember her mentioning marine biology even once in the series.) Apparently a book written by one Dr. Martin (don’t worry—not Doc Martin) inspired her to visit the Great Barrier Reef. I WONDER IF SHE WILL ENCOUNTER THIS DR. MARTIN DURING HER VISIT. HMMMMMMM.

As Sabrina rides over the ocean in a helicopter to wherever the fuck she’s going in Australia, she sees someone in the water. I wonder if it’s a merman (spoiler alert: it is).

Meanwhile, Salem has planned his own getaway, booking his favorite suite at a hotel where it is apparently normal to get a room for your cat and arrange for him to have massages and drink cocktails. “Your cat’s every whim is our desire” is literally a line uttered in this movie.

a cat sits at a bar, drinking a tropical cocktail with a straw
Seriously, not one eyebrow is raised at the cat drinking cocktails by the pool.

Meanwhile, Sabrina is meeting up with her English cousin, Gwen, who is something of a fuck-witch (get it? Get it?). Gwen’s goal is basically to watch hot Australians sunbathing, a hobby Sabrina greatly approves of but is not very good at. One of her astute observations is “He has dimples as big as coconuts.” Uh…are we talking about the same thing here, Sabrina?

This is interrupted when Sabrina realizes the disgruntled Aussie yelling at everyone for trespassing is none other than Dr. Martin. Sabrina tells him she’s a huge fan; he basically just continues to mutter to himself. However, he does invite her to join his diving expedition the next day. (It’s okay—for once, that is not a euphemism.)

The next day, Sabrina and Gwen show up in what has to be Barbie brand diving gear. They go diving to this really bad cover of “Octopus’s Garden.” Like the ’90s pop version of “Octopus’s Garden.” I would recommend watching this scene on mute. Sabrina turns herself into a fish for no apparent reason whatsoever EXCEPT to conveniently assist her in discovering a supposedly extinct species of fish. Gwen swims back to the surface and meets BARNABY (that’s seriously his name) the merman who appears to be sick or injured; when she tries to introduce him to Sabrina, he mysteriously vanishes.

a woman stands on a dock wearing a brightly colored yellow and pink wetsuit
I swear to god there’s a Barbie in hell with this exact outfit.

Meanwhile, Salem discovers there’s a white Persian staying at the hotel, who is a witch serving out a sentence as a cat. There are SLOW MO shots of the Persian shaking her head and licking her lips. (This movie’s target audience HAD to be cat ladies.) Though Salem expects they will bond over being trapped in cat bodies, the Persian flat out rejects him. He tries to win her over by sending himself to her on a tray. Yeah, there’s an uncomfortable amount of cat sexualization in this movie.

an animatronic Persian cat wears a floppy beach hat
Obviously cheaper to buy animatronic cats than to train live cats to wear hats.

Returning to the Sabrina storyline, Dr. Martin informs her they will have to verify the rare fish sighting and is generally a dick since he’s miffed he wasn’t the one to discover the fish. There’s also some dramatic foreshadowing about toxic waste being dumped in the ocean and killing the reef.

Then Sabrina and Gwen find what they initially believe is a dolphin but is, in fact, Barnaby the MERMAN lying on the beach. OF COURSE they try to give him mouth to mouth as Barnaby’s sister, Fin, and a dolphin watch, dismayed that the humans have Barnaby. Sabrina teleports them away from the beach, and they drag Barnaby to her room run a bath for him (I promise you this movie is not a porno).

two young women look in amazement at a man with a fishtail who is washed up on a beach
Continuing to stare at his chest will make everything all better, right?

When he wakes up, the merman has an American accent; clearly, the moral of the story is don’t date Australians. (The human/merperson barrier is easier to breach than the Australian/American.) In order to better fit in while he recovers, Sabrina gives him legs as well as blue camo pants and a beanie (I think Sabrina’s cruel streak runs deeper than anyone ever knew during the series). There’s a montage of Barnaby using his legs to a really bad cover of “Livin’ la Vida Loca” including riding a Sea Doo, going shopping, and eating at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

a young man wearing a beanie and blue camo cargo shorts crouches next to a dolphin on a beach
With that outfit it’s not surprising that Barnaby’s only friend is a dolphin.

In the meantime, someone shows Dr. Martin pictures of the merman, which he vows to find and capture FOR SCIENCE. When Sabrina brings ointment to a sick Fin, Dr. Martin places a tracking device in her backpack so he can finally have a merman of his own.

On the comic relief front, Gwen accidentally turns Salem into a catfish, who falls into the ocean. The Persian is supposed to meet Salem for dinner (and nobody at the restaurant questions this), and it turns out Salem is in fact a fish in the restaurant’s tank. By the time Sabrina transforms him back into a cat, the Persian has already left. To make it up to her, Salem takes the Persian to see the sunrise and conveniently snaps pictures of illegal toxic waste dumping in the ocean.

Returning to the unfolding mermaid tragedy, on the day Sabrina’s spell on Barnaby will wear off, Dr. Martin prepares to find the mermaid colony. To stop him, Sabrina decides to create THE PERFECT STORM; this can only end in tears. Because she’s standing in the water when Sabrina accidentally hits herself with lightning and knocks herself unconscious. Apparently this renders her temporarily unable to cast any more spells.

This entire sequence is all in vain as Barnaby crashes a car just after turning back into a merman right in front of Dr. Martin, who imprisons him in the hotel pool (that has got to be against hotel policy). Luckily, Gwen’s boyfriend, who does a really bad mermaid drag act, distracts everyone while Sabrina and Gwen free him.  Unfortunately, Dr. Martin and his gang of scientists put out nets to catch Fin and Barnaby. Sabrina manages to get aboard with the help of Fin’s dolphin friend (seriously). After Dr. Martin catches the merpeople, Sabrina magically finds the supposedly extinct fish and tries to convince everyone it’s more impressive than the discovery of merpeople. She starts cutting the net; I want a movie about Sabrina becoming a member of PETA and throwing blood on people wearing fur. Is that weird? She then makes a point about who is REALLY the poacher and demands Dr. Martin let the merpeople go (LET MY MERPEOPLE GO).

After this sequence of events, Dr. Martin’s dedication to the profession is renewed; he proceeds to recite the Endangered Species Act. The Persian transforms back into a woman since her sentence is over and breaks up with Salem (as a side note, witches/warlocks really need to work on a better crime deterrent because spending 1,000 years as a talking housecat does not sound like punishment at all to me). The identified ship that has been illegally polluting is stopped, and the reef is saved. Sabrina and Gwen go scuba diving with the merpeople, wooooooooo.

The Critique:

The biggest disappointment of this movie is that Sabrina’s quirky aunts don’t appear at all. They were a vital part of the show, and the dynamic is entirely ruined by their absence.

I am also both delighted and dismayed that there was no Sabrina/Barnaby romance. In my memory there was, which is rather upsetting because of Sabrina’s boyfriend Harvey and also because the merman’s name is BARNABY. (I really apologize to any and all members of the general population named Barnaby, but to me it sounds like the name of a sickly child in a 19th-century novel.)

On the bright side, there’s A LOT of very dramatically urgent didgeridoo music in the score (if made-for-TV movies can be said to have scores). I still think this is a reasonably entertaining movie, though perhaps not exactly the stuff that dreams are made of.

The Rating:

Small Pink PantherSmall Pink PantherSmall Pink Panther 3/5 Pink Panther heads

It hurts to give this movie a mere 3, but, my love of Sabrina aside, this is a fairly nonsensical film. If you never watched Sabrina, you will probably only enjoy this movie if you’re really into didgeridoo solos, cats, and/or mermaids. Mercats?

Sorry my longest review ever focuses on a made-for-TV movie about Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. It’s unforgivable, truly.

Film Reviews

Cursed, or: Long Live the ’90s

The Film:


Where to Watch:

Netflix, Amazon Prime

The Premise:

Siblings must contend with a werewolf curse in LA while surrounded by 1990s pop culture references.

The Trailer:

The Uncondensed Version:

Our movie opens with a Bowling for Soup cover of that uncomfortable song about Little Red Riding Hood (also memorably covered by Joey Fatone).

Abruptly, we cut to the gypsy prediction of doom present in basically every werewolf movie. Because it’s Wes Craven, the girls who receive the gypsy’s dire warning call bullshit: “You can’t tell people this shit.”

Then we meet our protagonists, Jesse Eisenberg (playing a bullied nerd [duh]) and his older sister, played by Christina Ricci (CR). The two live alone since their parents died (killed by werewolves???). CR is dating a guy who is opening a wax museum that also features a number of horror movie artifacts (because it’s LA, and that’s what you do in LA). Her night out is cut short when JE (for Jesse Eisenberg, not Jane Eyre) calls and asks her to pick him up. As they drive home, they’re involved in a terrible crash with an animal and one of the girls who is supposedly cursed.

CR attempts to help the girl trapped inside her car, but the animal returns, attacking and dragging her away. JE is convinced the animal was a werewolf, but CR remains skeptical. In a scene that appears almost identically in Twilight, JE researches werewolves by looking at a bunch of shitty GeoCities pages. Or, you know, so I’ve heard. From a friend who’s seen all of the Twilight movies.

a simple webpage about werewolves shows a stock photo of a wolf next to werewolf clip art
Facebook was really started so Mark Zuckerberg could determine whether or not you’re a werewolf.

Meanwhile, Christina Ricci hears creepy noises in the house. When she goes downstairs to investigate, her boyfriend shows up. She bites him, and suddenly wakes up. Although the entire sequence was a dream, we still learn not to trust the boyfriend (it’s a Wes Craven movie, after all). Don’t trust a bro, Christina Ricci.

At work the next day, one of CR’s co-workers can’t help noticing she seems a little different today. (Also don’t trust any dude who finds you attractive. It’s all a lie. He just wants to tear your face to shreds.)

Judy Greer is CR’s boss, playing essentially the same character as in 13 Going on 30, aka backstabbing bitch. Apparently Judy Greer used to date CR’s boyfriend. CR and her boyfriend have a serious talk, in which he claims that what they have is special and he doesn’t want to lose her. SERIOUSLY, don’t trust this dude. Their conversation is cut short when CR notices it’s a full mooooooooooon and excuses herself.

Moments later, the other girl who received a warning from the gypsy is attacked by THE WOLF. She does a reasonably good job at hiding: taking off her high heels, making sure the wolf can’t see her feet when she hides behind a car. And then she decides hiding in the elevator will end well, so she’s doomed.

a werewolf lunges at the open window of a house

The next day at work, CR begins transforming in the bathroom. She manages to avoid killing one of her co-workers (which would be an impressive feat even on a good day).

JE is undergoing some transformations of his own. When he shows up at school, he has “cool” ‘90s hair and stands up to one of the homophobic bullies. He then wrestles his bullies, thereby impressing his crush, Brooke.

a teenage boy with spiky gelled hair faces another person while pouting slightly
I understand that the ‘90s were your golden age, Wes Craven. But they’re over.

After JE returns home, the homophobic bully arrives at his house and professes his love for JE (of course). At this point, JE realizes that his DOG is a werewolf, so he and the bully have to make a quick escape. The two head to the opening of the wax museum to find CR.

Just before the opening, CR has a creepy confrontation with her boyfriend. He’s THE WOLF (duh). However, he reveals there’s another werewolf that has been killing people. He was born with the curse and has learned to control it, but the new wolf hasn’t. CR doesn’t trust him at all. Thank god.

At the opening, THERE’S A CAMEO BY LANCE BASS. There’s also a cameo by Pinhead, which is pretty spectacular.

a man smiles on the red carpet amidst many paparazzi

Of course a werewolf attack disrupts the party, leaving CR and JE trapped in the wax museum with the wolf. Pretty sure the wolf hides behind a wax model of Dustin Hoffman from Tootsie at one point.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, the wolf turns out to be CR’s bitchy boss, Judy Greer. So there’s this extended fight scene in which CR and JE fight her werewolf boss. Then CR’s boyfriend shows up and helps them. THEN the police show up and shoot her.

a bear-like creature with large teeth faces a mirror
So she’s not so much a werewolf as Smokey the Bear on steroids.

After all this, CR and JE’s lives return back to normal. …OR DO THEY?

On the next full moon, both siblings begin to TRANSFORM. CR’s ex(I presume)-boyfriend arrives at the house, telling her that she needs him to help her through the transition. He doesn’t mention that he plans to kill her brother because there’s only room for one alpha male. We get another lengthy fight scene that ends with CR killing and decapitating her ex, whose body bursts into flames and disappears.

Finally, JE’s crush, Brooke, and his former bully arrive at the house. JE and Brooke make out, which causes a lot of embarrassment for all witnesses.

The Critique:

I love Scream, so this film is pretty disappointing. Apparently Wes Craven was contractually obligated to direct this movie, so it makes a bit more sense that it’s incredibly bland and generic. I still wish there had been some kind of major twist as there usually is with the Scream series. Or that the “curse” had been someone’s period a la Ginger Snaps.

Biggest takeaways here (as with all Wes Craven films): 1. The ‘90s were truly the golden age of civilization. 2. Don’t trust a bro. Please.

The Rating:

Small Pink PantherSmall Pink Panther 2/5 Pink Panther heads

Just not a particularly memorable film.  It could’ve been worse, but it could’ve been so much better too.