Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman, or: I Yacht the Sheriff

While I’m glad we crossed off some Oscar-nominated films during April, the month felt a lot like homework. And critical favor is so fleeting…is anyone going to be watching Licorice Pizza 10 years from now?

Of course, films that veer into tacky and trashy territory are much more our speed, so this May is dedicated to movies that under no circumstances would ever be award winners. Is there any category more fitting than horror based on serial killer true crime?

The Film:

Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman

Director:

Daniel Farrands

The Premise:

Facing execution, serial killer Aileen Wuornos recounts her early days, including an ill-fated marriage to a much older man.

The Ramble:

First interviewing the subject of your documentary the day before their execution feels like poor planning, but we’re apparently meant to believe this is something a good filmmaker would do. The fictional filmmaker of this fictional documentary (but confusingly based on a real documentary?) is determined to be the one to get compelling footage of Aileen Wuornos making never-before-seen confessions, though she has very little incentive to do so beyond enjoying the sound of her own voice.

For whatever reason, Aileen opts to do a deep dive on her brief early marriage to a much older man and the aftermath, years before the serial murders she committed. Though she hasn’t yet murdered, Aileen demonstrates violent tendencies from a young age, fairly regularly fighting, assaulting, and/or robbing johns as well as other men she encounters. In Aileen’s recounting, these men were by and large attempted rapists who had it coming.

It’s after punching a man who accuses her of being a lesbian that Aileen has a fateful meeting with Jennifer, and the two seem to be mutually attracted to each other. When Jennifer invites Aileen home to the family mansion, she doesn’t realize she’s about to introduce her father, Lewis, to his future wife. Aileen charms Lewis so completely that they’re married soon after.

Jennifer is shocked by the turn of events, vowing to dig up dirt on Aileen and remove her from the family forever. Considering that Aileen ends up being arrested for assault on the night of her wedding, probably not an overly difficult task.

As Jennifer keeps an eye on Aileen, she realizes that her new stepmother has problems with rage and impulsivity, along with a massive chip on her shoulder as she grew up poor. When Lewis’s friend and financial advisor manages to uncover information about Aileen’s prior troubles with the law, it seems she has no choice but to leave town.

But more than one character may find that underestimating Aileen is the last thing they’ll ever do…alive.

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

I will forgive anything but a boring film, and I found this one surprisingly dull, to be honest. This was supposed to have a theatrical release, but that was cancelled…and it’s not a shock as this one has an extremely made-for-TV feel. The plot is highly formulaic, the acting bad, and the dialogue horrible. I do appreciate the schlocky title, but that’s about it.

There’s a very good reason most discussions of Aileen’s annulled marriage to a much older man aren’t the focus of most media about her life: this is probably the most uninteresting thing about her. In anyone else’s life, the transparent gold-digging might make for a juicy story, but I’m guessing most of those cases don’t involve serial murders.

Because there are quite a few nods to Old Hollywood noir, I was really hoping for some soapy plot twists. Maybe Aileen and Jennifer would give in to a forbidden romance, scheme to murder Lewis, or have an unsettling Sunset Boulevard-style dynamic. None of these things happen, and Jennifer comes across as totally brainless and so dull. Aileen is somehow kind of boring to watch as well.

From my perspective, what it comes down to is the flawed concept that playing with what’s true and what isn’t will make for an interesting film. Aileen is cast as an unreliable narrator, reflecting the contradictory stories she told in reality. However, the film doesn’t push this concept far enough, sticking with fact in a way that confines the events that depart from reality. It’s not inventive enough to be stranger or more sensational than what actually happened.

Would my blog wife invite this one out for a jaunt on a yacht or decide to take out the trash? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Blinded by the Light, or: Born in Thatcher’s UK

If you’ve been following news from the US in particular, but also worldwide developments in the Covid-19 pandemic as a whole, 2021 doesn’t seem off to a promising start. Unless, of course, you focus your attention on our plans for the Blog Collab. What started out as an attempt to cheer ourselves up with inspiring films has morphed into a sort of music appreciation/coming-of-age theme that we never knew we needed. Not all of our plans have worked out on the Collab, but I feel a round of applause is in order for the parts of our brain that anticipated this unintended theme was just the ticket.

Jumping back from the ’90s Midlands last week to Thatcher’s 1980s Britain (blegh), the events unfolding in this film don’t necessarily represent an improvement over the 2020s. But our film for the week does consider immigrant experiences, pursuing personal dreams, and the power of music to uplift (or at least spur on impressively choreographed dance scenes).

The Film:

Blinded by the Light

The Premise:

A British-Pakistani teen in 1980s England falls in love with the music of Bruce Springsteen while struggling to balance his family’s expectations with his dreams of becoming a writer.

The Ramble:

Growing up in 1980s Luton, British-Pakistani teen Javed’s feelings about his hometown largely comprise the urge to get away as soon as possible. Bullied and harassed by skinheads in training, resistant to his family’s ambitions, and somewhat of a loner at school, Javed takes comfort only in writing, whether journal entries, poetry, or lyrics for his bff Matt’s band.

A teen boy looks unenthusiastically at a small cake his mother is presenting to him for his birthday. His father and younger sister stand on the sides, smiling expectantly.

Javed shares opinions on few issues with his father, who pressures him to stay focused on school rather than going to parties or dating. The family agrees that Javed should attend university; however, while dad Malik insists on his son pursuing a lucrative field like economics, Javed secretly enrolls in English A levels.

During the school day, Javed receives encouragement from his teacher, crushes on political activist Eliza, and longs to be part of one of the “tribes” of students. He doesn’t realize that a small gesture from Sikh student Roops will change his life: a loan of a Bruce Springsteen cassette.

Two teen boys have an intense conversation while standing outside of the front of a school building.

Javed immediately relates to the Boss’s songs of rejection, loneliness, rebellion, and the pain of being an outsider. Emboldened by Springsteen’s lyrics, Javed decides the only way to make things happen is by pursuing them, no matter what his family says. Secretly, Javed starts on the path of writing as a career, beginning with the school paper.

Just as Javed is ready to dream big and risk it all for his future, his father Malik loses his job at the local Vauxhall factory, where he has worked loyally for nearly 20 years. Under more pressure than ever to support the family financially, Javed instead focuses on the music of Bruce, writing poetry, and getting an article published in the school paper. His goal is to attend the University of Manchester, and his new pals Roops and Eliza are there to support him.

A teen boy in a denim jacket dances with a teen girl in the middle of a crowd at an outdoor market.

But while Javed is finding his voice as a writer, Malik reminds his son to stay on track to make a decent living. What’s more, Javed’s devotion to Bruce is causing tension between him and Matt, who considers the Boss too American and essentially dad rock. And let’s not overlook the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim bullies in Luton, newly invigorated by an upcoming National Front march in town.

As always seems to be the case, everything of note seems to be happening on one dramatic day: the National Front march, the wedding of Javed’s older sister, and a chance to buy tickets for a Springsteen concert at Wembley Stadium. Where will Javed’s priorities lie when he has to choose between supporting his family and following his own dreams?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I really wanted to give this a 4 because it’s such a feel-good film, and our lead, Viveik Kalra, is so cute. His performance as Javed is so charming that I was always rooting for him, even when his character was making irritating decisions.

I’m also such a sucker for a heartwarming coming-of-age story, especially when it comes with a healthy disdain for Thatcherism and white supremacy. And I’m not a huge Springsteen fan, but I could still enjoy the themes relating to music and identity that his work represented here.

However, I found our film a bit too lengthy (nearly 2 hours) and overly devoted to a familiar structure for coming-of-age films.

I did appreciate the hell out of the commentary on immigrant experiences in the 1980s and today. Films that look back with a heavy dose of nostalgia often rub me the wrong way, but this one counterbalanced those feelings by recognizing the socioeconomic and racial tensions still haunting the UK today (and, cough, the US).

But the film’s decision to tell instead of show really annoyed me on a personal level. First, it means that the dramatic moments fell a bit flat in terms of their emotional impact. I will admit that, increasingly, my heart seems to be made of stone–though having Javed make a speech all about how he has developed a more nuanced approach to chasing his dreams while appreciating his family lacked the emotional punch needed. We didn’t actually see him go through this progression onscreen. The plot elements needed to be woven together better so that the action of the film led to this moment, rather than feeling like merely a series of events.

Another disappointment is the development of the supporting characters. I really enjoyed Javed’s relationships with his friends and younger sister, but they (like everyone else in the film) were more or less props for his story. And there was a disagreement between Javed and Matt that I didn’t fully understand–especially when it was ultimately Matt who should have apologized IMHO (though the opposite happened). I did find the romp through town that Javed enjoyed with Roops and Eliza absolutely delightful, though.

At the very least, I’m glad this film put Viveik Kalra on my radar, and I’ll be happy to see him onscreen again. I wouldn’t say no to more of those highly choreographed dance routines either.

Would my blog wife join in with this one’s all-denim dance numbers or fast-forward through the rest of the tracks? Find out in her review!

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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!

a woman with a tumbler of alcohol sits in a chair, holding a cigarette and looking ahead
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Frida, or: Cry Me a River(a)

Our experiment with biopics and films based on true stories draws to a close!  This week, we break away from the subtheme of dirtbag men…and yet still manage to get our share of dirtbaggery.  We’re talking about women in the art world, after all–specifically, a painter who is now one of the world’s most renowned.

The Film:

Frida

The Premise:

This biopic follows the life of Frida Kahlo from her school days through relationship with muralist Diego Rivera and her own success as a painter.

The Ramble:

In the 1920s, a young Frida is a free-spirited student.  Close with her family, and especially so with her father, Frida boldly proclaims she will never marry.  Posing for her sister’s wedding photos in a men’s suit, it’s clear from the start this is a woman determined to live on her own terms.

Tragically, Frida’s schooling is cut short when a streetcar accident leaves her temporarily paralyzed and in chronic pain for the rest of her life.  Though she is eventually able to walk again, Frida’s time confined to her bed changes the path of her life–the only thing she is able to do all day is paint self-portraits.

a woman lies on her back in bed while painting a self-portrait

With medical bills piling up, Frida is determined to contribute to the household.  In a fateful move, she demands acclaimed muralist Diego Rivera critique her work and tell her if it’s good enough to make a living.  Impressed with her painting, Rivera quickly takes her under his wing and brings her into the Communist party crowd.  And I mean party in multiple senses of the word.

Both Frida and Diego drink a LOT.  While Diego gets angry and argumentative at parties, Frida opts for flirting with ladies in slinky dresses.  Even as Diego agrees he and Frida will be friends only, the two begin a sexual relationship.  Despite neither believing in marriage, it’s not long before the two have said their vows (and almost everyone in their circle places a bet on how long their wedded bliss will last).

a woman drinks alcohol straight from the bottle as another woman looks at her

Not long, is the answer.  Frida is furious when she learns Diego’s ex lives in the apartment above theirs while she finds a place of her own.  After an angry confrontation, Frida ends up with a new friend who teaches her to make the mole Diego loves.

Though Diego sleeps around, he promises loyalty to Frida if not fidelity.  The two get into SO MANY fights that often end with broken kitchenware, but they always make up.

Meanwhile, Diego faces critique from members of his own party for the government-sponsored murals he paints.  Diego argues his murals spread a socialist message for the people, though other Communists believe painting for the government makes him complicit in their policies.

With an unfinished mural on the wall behind them, a woman holding a bottle of alchohol sits next to a man covered in paint

Tired of this fight, Diego accepts an invitation to New York for an exhibition of his work.  Frida travels with him as she learned from Diego’s ex to never leave him to his own devices.  However, Frida instantly hates the idolization of wealth and ambition she encounters in the States, and the false smiles on every face.  Diego, on the other hand, loves the praise, admiration, and number of women always on his arm.  When Diego pushes things too far by including Lenin in a commissioned mural, the couple finally returns home to Mexico.

two women husk corn at a table, while a monkey sits beside them, and two children in the background play with a dog

Frida’s spirits lift, but Diego falls into a deep depression.  When he has an affair with Frida’s sister, who has recently left her abusive husband, Frida is finally sick of this shit and moves away.  She once again drinks A LOT, both alone and at parties.

That is, until Diego, who has agreed to host the exiled Trotsky, asks for her help in welcoming him to the country.  This plan works a little too well when Frida begins a relationship with Trotsky.

Eventually, Frida and Diego make up (IDK if this counts as a spoiler?), though her mobility and overall health decline.  Bedridden when she finally has an exhibition in her own country, Frida is determined to be at the opening.  What’s an artist to do?

The Rating:

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I just love Frida.  Truly, has a more fascinating human ever existed?  Salma Hayek captures her energy, intelligence, and charisma here.  The film blends some surreal elements with life in a way that feels very Frida, and frequently weaves her paintings into the story.  Since her paintings are so personal, placing her work in the context of her life gives us a greater understanding of the pain behind them.

The film doesn’t shy away from Frida’s chronic pain, bisexuality, or infamously turbulent relationship with Diego.  I enjoy that other characters sometimes directly ask why Frida stays married to Diego in spite of everything, and the non-judgmental approach the film takes in response.  Whether we as a contemporary audience understand or accept her reasons, as a human of flaws and contradictions, they are her own.

I will say the one thing I do really like about this film’s portrayal of Diego is his encouragement of Frida’s art.  She constantly dismisses her own talent, but Diego frequently tells her and others what a skilled painter she is.

I’m obsessed with this film and its subject, even as it proves that behind every great woman is a dirtbag man.

Would my blog wife paint a beautiful portrait of this one or throw a plate at its head?  Read her review here to find out!

two shirtless men sleep side by side with arms around each other
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

I Am Michael, or: To Be Gay or Not to Be

What sounds like a more interesting film:  one in which a legendary Chilean poet evades the law and narrowly escapes the cops or one about a man who moves to Canada and leans into Christian fundamentalism?  Subjectivity aside, the latter also features Zachary Quinto’s excellent eyebrow acting and the approach of a Lifetime movie to its subject matter.  And honestly, a film earns a lot of credit from me when it avoids heavy-handed narration.

The Film:

I Am Michael

The Premise:

The story of a gay activist who ultimately rejects his sexuality in favor of Christianity.

The Ramble:

“If you’re a moral person, you’ll choose to be straight.”  Not exactly the opener you’d expect for a film about a gay activist.  Except this activist is Michael Glatze, a man who edited a gay magazine in San Francisco before renouncing his sexuality in favor of Christianity.  That’s a lot to process, no?  Let’s back up a few years.

Before coming out as straight, Michael (played by James Franco) was in a serious relationship with love of my life Spock Zachary Quinto Bennett.  Michael is very much part of the gay community:  attending all-night raves, mourning traumatic events including the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Three men cheer amidst a larger group of people at a club. The men are wearing glow in the dark necklaces and bracelets as accessories.

When Bennett gets a job in Halifax, Michael’s life changes dramatically.  Instead of dedicating his time to the magazine, he gives talks to local schools, writes a lot of blog content, and eventually begins working in a soul-crushing office job.

After a year passes, Michael doesn’t feel any better adjusted to his new life.  When he fights with Bennett, Michael goes off in search of dudes, and picks up a cute young guy named Tyler.  Michael and Bennett begin an open relationship with Tyler, eventually traveling across the country with him to complete a documentary.

Two men walk through a meadow of white wildflowers. The man in front holds a flower and wears a backwards red baseball cap, blue t-shirt and jeans. The man behind him has blond hair, and wears a red t-shirt and jeans.

While filming the documentary about queer youth in the U.S., the three encounter a gay student at Liberty University (I’m sorry, but gross gross gross gross gross; I’m so creeped out by Liberty).  Though he identifies as gay, the student embraces his Christian identity and begins praying with his troubled friend.

Michael begins to wonder if he can have it all, identifying as both a gay man and a Christian.  However, he opts for living quietly with his doubts, going to church and reading the Bible in secret.

A group of people meditate on rugs in a large room with wooden floors and walls. They sit with crossed legs and eyes closed, and a man in a blue tank top and black shorts is the most prominent.

Meanwhile, Michael becomes increasingly preoccupied with his mortality and fears above all that the afterlife is just nothingness.  After a panic attack, he becomes convinced he has the heart condition that killed his father.

When he insists there’s a lot of love in the Bible, Michael earns some eyebrow raises from Bennett and Tyler.  He explores the Mormon church and Buddhism, drawn to their clear visions of the afterlife and potential to solve his so-called homosexual problem.  After moving out, he claims he is no longer gay.

What’s up with that?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

There’s something about this film that stays with me.  It may not be brilliant, but Zachary Quinto is great as ever and even James Franco gives a decent performance.  Possibly because he plays a character who’s a bit of an asshole?

It makes me sad that Michael broke Bennett’s heart, and it’s disturbing to think about the number of people who still have to lie about who they are in order to have the job and life they want.  To be clear:  I do not sympathize with people who claim they’re persecuted for their Christian beliefs in predominantly Christian nations.  It’s also troubling how Michael buys into the false dichotomy of being part of gay culture or living as the squarest straight dude alive.  I like to think we’re getting better at recognizing the many different ways to identify as LGBTQ, but clearly we still have a long way to go.

Narratively, I wish we’d spent a little more time on the impact of Michael’s actions on Bennett and the gay community as a whole.  I don’t really care if someone’s sexual orientation changes (though obv the idea that you can choose this is problematic AF), but the really shitty thing Michael did was perpetuate a horrible culture that tells young people their sexuality is a sin to be corrected.  I also feel we could use some more insight into Michael’s interiority while recognizing that I don’t ever want to know what’s really going on inside this guy’s head.

The only thing certain is that blonde James Franco is the douchiest James Franco.

Would my blog wife accept this one as it is or ditch it faster than a blonde James Franco?  Read her review here to find out!

Two men sit across from each other at a table in the visiting room of a prison. One man wears glasses, a blue sweater, and jeans; the other is in an orange prison jumpsuit.
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

True Story, or: Like Mike

Biopic/based on a true story month continues, along with the unofficial theme of dirtbag men doing dirtbag things.  Bonus(?):  one of the stars of this film is a dirtbag both onscreen and IRL.

The Film:

True Story

The Premise:

Disgraced journalist Mike Finkel explores an unusual murder case involving a man who claims to be Mike Finkel.

The Ramble:

Mike Finkel, renowned New York Times journalist, is eager to see his latest piece published.  The story highlights the abuse of modern-day slaves in regions of Africa.  When Mike merges the stories of 5 different young men into a fictional amalgamation, it turns out his eagerness is misplaced.  Caught out for his fabrications, Finkel is fired and unlikely to find work as a journalist ever again.

Man in a gray hoodie is in profile while talking on a cell phone. Behind him, a wood-paneled wall holds 7 framed New York Times magazine covers.

Returning in defeat to Montana and his archivist(!) wife Jill, Mike seemingly resigns himself to a quiet life in the remote but beautiful mountains.  There, he learns of a rather bizarre story he’s unknowingly connected to.

A woman with shoulder-length brown hair sits on a living room couch with a brown glazed mug. She is wearing a baggy cream-colored wool sweater.

A man named Christian Longo has been arrested in Mexico for the murder of his wife and young children by drowning.  The twist?  He has been claiming to be Mike Finkel of the New York Times.

Intrigued, Mike begins corresponding with Christian, ultimately traveling to Oregon to meet the identity thief.  Christian has long admired Mike’s work and feels he knows the journalist through his writing.  Though he protests his innocence, Christian is seriously contemplating a guilty plea as he believes no one cares enough to uncover the real truth.  Challenge accepted.  Mike decides to investigate Christian’s case for himself and cover the story as his big comeback.

As he works on the story, Mike becomes increasingly convinced that Christian is innocent and the two develop an understanding.  Christian refuses to tell the full truth as he claims to be protecting someone.  However, Christian is also weird AF and makes super creepy phone calls to Jill.

A man with brown hair and a goatee sits in a gray suit, testifying in a courtroom. A man with gray hair and glasses wearing judge robes is frowning in the background.

When the trial begins, Christian reveals financial troubles that caused problems in his marriage, and ultimately pleads guilty to 2 of the 4 murder charges.  What does the guilty plea mean?

The Rating:

2.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

To recap:  slightly scummy dude wants to believe much scummier dude is telling the truth despite statistics and evidence suggesting the contrary.

This story doesn’t come across as particularly remarkable even with the unique relationship between its subjects.  I will give credit to this for avoiding a sensational retelling, but everything comes across like a TV movie with the pretty ordinary plot and lack of interesting roles here.  For fuck’s sake, give Felicity Jones something to do!

I don’t get how the Mike Finkel in this story is a journalist; all he does here is make up stories and naively believe a murderer who enjoys his writing.  Like I get that the criminal justice system is fucked and frequently wrong, but a horrifyingly high number of women are murdered by their partners.  All you have to do is look up the stats, dude.

However, the main problem for me is the lack of depth to Mike and Christian’s relationship.  The film attempts to convey a connection between the two, but it doesn’t seem to be especially interesting.  Though the two aren’t really friends, the film does intentionally tell us they are still in touch yet doesn’t do enough to convey why.  And after the creepy phone calls to Jill, Mike just looks more like a scumbag for maintaining their weird relationship.

Maybe the book is better?

Would my blog wife write the book on this one or sentence it to life without parole?  Read her review here to find out!

four members of a band in stage costumes lean together in private conversation
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Dirt(bag Men of ’80s Rock)

We often escape from reality on the Blog Collab with terrible horror, bad sci-fi, and cheesy rom-coms. Not so this month, which brings us biopics and true stories grounded wholly in reality. Well…as real as the life of a rock star can be.

The Film:

The Dirt

The Premise:

The rise and fall (and rise?) of Mötley Crüe is recounted as the rock band contends with drug use, banging each other’s girlfriends, and the most rock ‘n roll problem of all: artistic differences.

The Ramble:

Our narrator sets the tone accurately here by claiming the ’80s are the worst decade of all time: stirring up shallow outrage, using glib humor rather irritatingly, and managing to come off with a smug superiority. Oh, you wanted a glowing review reaffirming that rock lives forever? Sorry to break it to you, but nostalgia’s dead.

a man in a government office holds his ID card as it burns

Lucky for us, we’re going to get insightful narration from all 4 major members of the band. Nikki Sixx (aka Lord Byron from the biopic Mary Shelley–this actor definitely has a type), founder of the band, grows up constantly fighting with a mother who blames him for driving his father away. At a fairly young age, Nikki decides he’s had enough of this situation and slices his arm open in rage, making accusations against his mother to guarantee he’ll be taken into foster care.

Tommy Lee, in contrast, has supportive parents who just sort of shrug when he raids his sister’s wardrobe. A mega fan of rock music, Tommy meets Nikki after a show that erupts in a massive fight. With his trusty drumsticks at the ready, Tommy convinces Nikki to make him the drummer in a new band just getting started.

a young man wearing colorful clothes reads in front of a wall of late 1970s posters

Enter Mick Mars, advertising himself in the papers as a rude, aggressive guitarist. A few years older than his band mates and suffering from a degenerative bone disorder, Mick takes no shit from the kiddos in the band.

As the band is still missing a lead singer, Tommy suggests his old high school buddy Vince Neil. Nikki and Mick aren’t particularly thrilled with his vibe, but since our dude is charismatic AF, they decide to give him a chance.

three young men in punk clothing look into the distance among people at an outdoor party

After throwing around a few truly terrible band names, the group quickly decides on the name Mötley Crüe. In the spirit of rock ‘n roll, a massive fight between the band and audience erupts at their first gig. However, their unrestrained music and attitude gains them a loyal following, and it’s not long before they are signed with a record label and have their own manager.

Their career gets an additional boost when the band goes on tour with Ozzy, who I learned was once blonde and did things like lick his own piss off the ground (the blonde thing surprised me more, TBH).

Am I forgetting something? Oh, right–the massive amount of partying, drugs, and sleeping around that happens throughout. Everyone seems to be sleeping with everyone else’s girlfriend, but the band is typically too fucked up to give a shit.

a man in all-black looks out confrontationally while the members of a metal band look on

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the band’s carefree days are numbered. When Vince causes an accident while driving under the influence, passenger and fellow rocker Razzle dies, while the passengers of the other car are seriously injured. After serving just 19 days in prison(!????!?!?!?), Vince is released on the condition he stay sober. When everyone around you is shooting up heroin and chugging hard liquor, this is a rather challenging task.

Meanwhile, Tommy is marrying actress Heather Locklear. Nikki, serving as best man, arrives at the wedding high out of his mind. He later overdoses and is reported dead. After immediately shooting up a bunch of heroin (again), Nikki realizes he needs to get sober. However, sober Nikki = perfectionist asshole Nikki, and a falling out means Vince is leaving the band.

Soon after, Vince is hit with the devastating news that his young daughter has cancer. The band is dropped by the label, seeming to end the Crüe’s run. Can anything get the band back together?

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

Points earned for over-the-top ’80s rock fashions; points detracted for toxic masculinity.

As a viewer, I was frequently confused about the purpose of this film. It seems to approach the culture of ’80s rock excess somewhat wryly, yet there are so many goddamn scenes of sex, drug abuse, and fights that it also buys into the lifestyle. There are only so many times you can flash tits onscreen and claim it’s part of the ambiance. And there’s a scene where Vince basically uses The Secret to get a blowjob, which just makes him look like an absolute douche.

I have admittedly never coveted the rock star lifestyle, but I would hope with a music biopic I would learn something about the band that’s interesting or informs my understanding of the music. Wow–Mötley Crüe really leaned into their rock star image Color me surprised. While I did find the story of Vince’s daughter upsetting, overall this film feels like a very surface-level examination of the band rather than offering much to reflect on.

There’s also so much unnecessary narration and breaking of the 4th wall that the film frequently feels like an unholy union of Scrubs and The Office. We get it: talking directly to the camera means you’re aware of the absurdity of your own experiences. So impressive.

All of this being said, our 4 leads are great. Their distinct personalities come across even when the characters all have the same haircut. And the charisma, the sense of fun, and the dedication to rock are very much there in the approach to the roles. I just have very little patience for watching so many men run around as giant man babies for most (if not all) of their lives.

Would my blog wife tie the knot without a prenup or fire this one before it can quit? Read her review here to find out!

A woman sits at a table, interviewing a woman holding a chicken. A cage containing four additional chickens rests on the table between them.
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Christine, or: Chickens vs. Serial Killers

Gorgeous Ladies of the Blog Collab takes an unexpectedly dark turn this week.  Chickens, mental health, and sensationalizing local news are all wrapped up neatly (or not so neatly) by Rebecca Hall.

The Film:

Christine (2016)

Where to Watch:

Netflix

The Uncondensed Version:

Right from the start, it’s clear that Christine is a brilliant yet deeply self-critical and complex young woman.  In both her personal life and professional career as a local TV news reporter, she frequently second-guesses herself and looks for opportunities to confirm her flaws in the eyes of others.

a woman in a news studio sits at a table facing an empty chair
“I can’t help feeling you’re a bit detached for this interview…”

After a year working for a Sarasota Springs station, Christine is ready for the next move in her career.  Having a non-existent sex life, her mother as a roommate, and an impending 30th birthday only make it clearer that she’s much in need of change.

When the opportunity arises for a promotion that will take her to Baltimore, Christine is eager to prove she’s up for the challenge.  However, this won’t be easy as the new marching orders from the station execs are to cover sensational, violent stories over the thoughtful human interest pieces Christine favors.  Her work crush, Dexter George, agrees with her objections, but it’s not long before the reporters are tripping over themselves to get in line with the changes.

Meanwhile, Christine has been experiencing major stomach pains that she shrugs off as stress-related.  I’m apparently way more of a wimp than Christine because I’d be at the doctor’s so quickly or at least popping more than the recommended dose of Extra Strength Advil 24/7.

These factors seem to be creating the perfect storm for Christine to suffer a repeat of Boston, which her mother mysteriously alludes to.  The mother/daughter relationship is volatile to say the least; Christine reacts very badly to change and seems to be threatened by her mother’s series of unsuccessful relationships.  There’s so much to unpack here that their relationship doesn’t get as much attention as some of the other facets of Christine’s life, but I would have loved to see more.

an older woman embraces a younger woman who is crying
For once, I have nothing cynical to say.

The stress begins to wear at Christine as it turns out the stomach pains are more serious than initially thought and may impact her ability to have children.  After receiving the news, she has a bit of a melt-down at work.  It’s frustrating to see self-care as a continuously low priority for Christine, though of course there are mental health and other issues at play too.  However, even when her sole work friend Jean suggests they take the rest of the day of and eat ice cream, Christine insists on pressing on.

Later, she does an ill-advised piece on a gun enthusiast who warns her that threats are everywhere.  He encourages her to carry around a gun for a few weeks to see if it makes her feel different and more in control.  Seems like…maybe not the best idea?

Though Christine tries to tow the new party line, her ideas are constantly shut down and she is usually at odds with her boss.  Finally, she is forced to take time off when she’s sent home early after an especially tense disagreement.

Just as her professional life is falling apart, Christine’s personal life seems to be lining up for once.  George asks her out to dinner, which is a major breakthrough as she seems to be convinced they have a future together…or at least the possibility of Christine’s first sexual relationship.  At the same time, George has some important news to share—news that will prove deeply upsetting to Christine.

a man with an open shirt faces a woman standing next to a floor lamp
I’ll give you 3 tries to guess the number of murders I’ve committed.

If you are familiar with the story of Christine Chubbuck, there will be no surprises for you here.  I was not and didn’t expect the ending at all…though it does have a sad logic that made me think I should have seen it coming.  Much like the real story I imagine.

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

I’m not sure I’d want to revisit this one, but it definitely earned at least a solid 4.  Infinite PPHs for Rebecca Hall’s performance, as she manages to portray mental health issues with such a depth and range of emotion without becoming melodramatic.  Christine comes across as extremely bold and intelligent while pulling back a few layers to reveal the pain of living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a devastating lack of confidence.  It’s time for Rebecca Hall to be a household name–she’s so talented.

Special shout-out to Christine’s closest work friend, Jean, and chicken lady, who I didn’t give a lot of attention here but who also deserve recognition.

Did this one hold Christa’s interest or was it too sensational?  Find out by reading her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Veil, or: Don’t Drink the…Poison Cubes?

After a brief hiatus, the blog collab is back with a vengeance.  Specifically, the kind of vengeance only provided by horror (very loosely) based on the Jonestown mass murder/suicide.  I’m probably being surveilled now based on my recent search history as I fact checked this film.  Word of caution:  if you are into the historical angle of this film, maybe just watch a documentary?  The one from 2006 that aired on PBS is really interesting.

The Film:

The Veil

Where to Watch:

Netflix (US)

The Uncondensed Version:

So Heaven’s Veil is the Jonestown of this film, and like its real-life inspiration, was the site of a religious cult’s mass murder/suicide.  This film seeks a supernatural explanation of the events of Jonestown and asks the (highly original) question—What if a fringe religious group really did find the secret to resurrection and eternal life promised in Christianity?

As our film opens, we discover there was one survivor, Sarah Hope, who was found creepily sitting amongst the dead and insisting “he” will bring them back.  Shudder.  With no idea of her biological parents or birth name, all members of known immediate and extended family dead, and being raised in foster care, it’s safe to say Sarah had a pretty shitty childhood.

25 years after the fact, Sarah receives an offer from Jessica Alba, aka Maggie, amateur filmmaker with a secret haunted past that we discover after about 10 minutes.  As it turns out, Maggie’s family was destroyed by the events at Heaven’s Veil after her father, the lead FBI investigator, killed himself several months later (though there are some really BS-y moments wherein she conflates the experience of her father’s suicide with Sarah’s experience as the sole survivor of the mass murder/suicide of her community).

a group of men and women face forward as they are driven in a van
Scooby and the gang.

Maggie has somehow uncovered a major detail that no one has noticed before:  there were reels of films made and stored somewhere in the Heaven’s Veil commune, and if she and her crew can finally locate these films, she will finally learn the truth.  Or you could just watch the Jonestown documentary, honestly.  It really is done extremely well.

Things begin to go badly right away, as one of the crew goes missing with the van only to turn up dead.

Via flashbacks, we learn that Jim Jacobs seemed to have an ability to heal and even separate his spirit and go body hopping.  By injecting himself with highly toxic venom and delaying use of the antidote for as long as possible, he’s brought closer to death, thus enhancing his powers.  B/c…you know.  Obviously it does.

a man in a white suit adjusts his aviator sunglasses
Aviators are next to godliness.

While two of the other crew members go for help, the rest of the team searches for the films.  Unluckily enough, Sarah stumbles upon a body inside the super secret house only she can find.  As we learn later, this is the body of a close follower of JJ, a nurse who helped with his venom experiments, and none other than Sarah’s biological mother.  I wonder who the baby daddy is, you may be thinking to yourself.  If you’ve never seen a movie before.   Believe that you know the answer to this because you do.

While the crew finds and watches the film reels, more and more of the team members are picked off yet eerily return.

on a foggy night, a group of people face a woman standing alone
Creeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeepy!

As JJ explains to his followers, death is the only way to be reborn…which they will all accomplish and then release all other humans from life.  It turns out leading the FBI raid on the complex was a dick move on the part of Maggie’s dad, who prevented all of these people from receiving the antidote and being resurrected.  I guess?

So this explains why the Heaven’s Veilers decided to kill themselves, though it still leaves many opportunities for questions, confusion, and considerable general gaps in logic.

Armed with the truth at last, does it even fucking matter when the crew is stuck in horror cliché hell?

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

Almost went with 3/5 b/c Jim Jacobs is so much fun to watch, but the rest of the film is almost deliberately forgettable.  Thomas Jane is believable as the charismatic yet psychotic Jim Jacobs, and seems to truly relish playing the role.

One major sticking point for me towards the end:  I was really annoyed with Maggie’s repeated apologies on behalf of her father.  1.  She was in no way responsible for his actions.  2.  He didn’t force anyone to drink the Kool Aid, as it were (in this case they are poison cubes [sadly not Rubik’s cubes of doom a la Hellraiser]).  3.  The goal of the mass murder/suicide was to return and KILL EVERYONE with their rebirth superpowers.  There’s literally no reason to apologize here.

The twist of Sarah not being quite as innocent as we’re led to believe is nicely done, but every other moment feels straight out of the horror handbook.  With the added insult of an interesting premise that had a lot of potential, this is an extra disappointing feature.  Once again, the lesson we can learn here is to always lower your expectations.

Would Christa follow this one to the commune or give it her share of poison cube?  Read her review here to find out!