Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year Wishes For 2009 From Lauren Wissot

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

New Year Wishes For 2009 From Lauren Wissot

In 2008 we began the year in entertainment by bidding a premature goodbye to hottie Heath Ledger, his death casting a shadow on summer blockbuster “The Dark Knight”; and ended it by delivering a fond farewell to “The Dark Angel,” the Marilyn Monroe of the fetish world, “Queen of Pin-Up” Bettie Page. In between we lost numerous other screen sizzlers: Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Suzanne Pleshette, even Vampira! But since the New Year is a time to look forward as well as pay tribute to the sexy stars we leave behind, I’ve compiled my wish list for a very steamy 2009.

1. Woody & Bond Make a Porno

In 2009 Woody Allen must continue his 2008 sexy success with “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” by directing a porn flick. Preferably starring Daniel Craig.

Yup, 2008 was the year Woody Allen figured out that casting hot tamales like Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz can do wonders for your onscreen sex life. So now that the Woodman’s discovered the cinema equivalent of Viagra, it’s time for him to take the next step: toss that neurotic crutch into the Hudson (or Thames or Seine) and finally shoot his long-awaited, hardcore remake of Bergman’s “The Passion of Anna.”

2. Lauren’s Israeli Hearthrob Must Come to the US.

In 2009 Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi (who made me believe in sexy miracles when I caught up with “Walk On Water” on DVD this year) must star in a small, independent, American film that will require him to do press in NYC – and grant me an exclusive interview in his hotel room.

Ah, Lior Ashkenazi, Israel’s knockout brunette answer to Mr. Bond. A TV (“In Therapy”) and movie star (the aforementioned Eytan Fox flick) in the holy land, he’s a virtual unknown on these shores. Which means some savvy, Sundance-bound director in the market for a hypnotic leading man could probably pick him up at a reasonable price (then hopefully send him to me for free). And unlike, say, hard-body hottie Jason Statham, he can act and speak English at the same time.

3. The Transporter must transport his own package off screen.

In 2009 Jason Statham must stop acting and start stripping.

It’s about time to break the news to Guy Ritchie and Luc Besson that (Br)it boy Jason Statham can’t actually, um, act. Which is fine since he’s got a bod that can do the talking for him. Sure, the modeling career made complete sense, but onscreen unless he’s flying through the air “Hidden Dragon”-style or wrangling a big fat fire hose, Statham can be upstaged by a hydrant. Perhaps he could check with Chippendale’s or with the Aussies to see if the Thunder from Down Under is looking for a tasty new boy toy.

4. Baz Luhrmann must go full Brokeback.

In 2009, Baz Luhrmann must follow up the epic “Australia” with a “Brokeback Mountain” style western starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe.

I haven’t seen “Australia,” for though I’m a big fan of Hugh Jackman’s chest, I’m a bit burnt out on workaholic Kidman, not to mention nearly three hours of Luhrmann visuals strikes me as the equivalent of bingeing on everything in Willy Wonka’s factory, Charlie included. Which is why Luhrmann must switch to homo mode and make real use of hirsute Hugh and rough trade Russell – the Boy from Oz meets Cinderella Man – out in the outback at last.

5. Arnold Schwarzenegger must turn “The Wrestler” into reality.

In 2009, the Governator must pump himself back up to take on Mickey Rourke and Jean-Claude Van Damme in a Mr. Geriatric Olympia competition.

Both Rourke and Van Damme made muscle-bound movie comebacks in 2008, so why shouldn’t the onetime Terminator also toss his “top” hat into the ring? And since no one wants Rourke’s face to have to face more plastic surgery, nor JCVD split and pull a groin muscle, the Gov’s sport of choice would be the safest bet. Besides, if Mr. Geriatric Olympia doesn’t work out, the former steroid boys could always call it a meta-competition.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Post-Milosevic, Beyond Kusturica: After The War: Life Post-Yugoslavia

When A Million Movies a Minute, a distributor specializing in short documentaries, asked if I wanted a copy of their inaugural release “After The War: Life Post-Yugoslavia” (a two-and-a-half hour compilation of nine short films from five filmmakers from five countries) I said sure, figuring it was high time, in this post-Milosevic world, to expand my knowledge beyond Kusturica. To find out what I discovered visit The House Next Door.

Friday, December 26, 2008


Arriving in theaters just in time for the Holocaust-theme season is “Defiance” (which I mistakenly keep calling “Deliverance,” a remake of which with this film's cast would have been a much better idea), Edward Zwick's based-on-a-true-story account of four Jewish brothers who escape the Nazis before going on to form a resistance community in the Belarussian forest. Bizarrely, Zwick's film, written by the director and Clayton Frohman, is less an original story than a greatest-hits compilation—a glossy, formulaic summary of every WWII, Nazi-related movie ever made. People flee. People build. People starve. People fight. Repeat. “Defiance” is not so much a cohesive film as a series of interchangeable, broadstroked scenes—a movie on loop.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Snack for Thought: Our Daily Bread

Alternately haunting and beautiful (windmills against a blue sky, a field of Van Gogh picturesque flowers), disturbingly horrific (squealing pigs being strung up for slaughter, a calf being ripped from its mother’s side) and downright bizarre (baby chicks chirping as they shoot out of a conveyor belt like kernels of popcorn) Our Daily Bread is a speechless 92 minutes of daily life disconnected from any recognizable reality, a poetic visualization of an Orwellian nightmare come true. For what makes Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s film absolutely terrifying is that though it resembles some futuristic sci-fi fantasy, it’s actually a documentary – a cold hard look at today’s factory farming and industrial food production told solely through mesmerizing, William Eggleston-like images, sans emotional talking heads or soothing score. If ever there was a companion piece to Michael Pollan’s bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and a sound reason to grow organic and buy local, “Our Daily Bread” is it. And perhaps most astonishingly, Geyrhalter’s doc explores the very dehumanization of mankind through mechanization with extraordinary subtlety, without uttering a single word.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Home for The Holidays: Sexy (And Family-Friendly!) Cinema Suggestions

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Home for The Holidays: Sexy (And Family-Friendly!) Cinema Suggestions

Yes, it’s that “most wonderful time of the year” again. And unless the scent of pine turns you on or you’ve got a fetish for glittery objects (like the crazy queen who must have designed this year’s Macy’s window display after watching “A Beautiful Mind” on acid – there’s even a borderline creepy ode to the “diva Tinsel” stenciled on the glass. Check it out if you’re in NYC, it’s a must!), you’re probably feeling about as sexy as eggnog right now. But don’t despair. If Macy’s can turn a stalwart tradition into an LSD trip I can find the perversion in “The Sound of Music.” So without further adieu, here are some sexy, family-friendly suggestions for gathering around the DVD player with the clan.

Heavenly Creatures
• Dashing Cary Grant stars in Henry Koster’s 1947 “The Bishop’s Wife,” about an angel sent down to earth to help a holy man (played by the delightful David Niven) build a church – and recover his shaken faith in the process. Only problem is the bishop’s got a hottie wife in the form of radiant Loretta Young who the charming angel takes under his wing as well. Grant’s studly Dudley, a cuckolding do-gooder, is every bit as ambiguous as Grant himself was in real life.
• If your relatives are especially warped, have a double feature with Pasolini’s 1968 “Teorema,” in which an otherworldly knockout played by the breathtakingly beautiful Terence Stamp seduces the entire family kids included.
• And if you still haven’t gotten your fill of sexy spirits, throw in Warren Beatty’s and Buck Henry’s 1978 “Heaven Can Wait,” a remake of Alexander Hall’s 1941 “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” in which steamy Beatty turns tasty Robert Montgomery’s boxer Joe Pendleton into a quarterback who prematurely gets called to the big leagues upstairs as a result of angel error.

Sugar (Plum) Daddies
• As my friend CineKink founder Lisa Vandever has pointed out, if you have a suit fetish there’s no better film to turn to than Robert Wise’s 1965 “The Sound of Music,” in which Christopher Plummer as the immaculately attired, debonair daddy Baron Von Trapp tames Julie Andrews’ virginal Maria, turning the spunky nun into a submissive wife and mother. (And yes, as an added bonus, the film contains sexy Nazis to boot!)
• If it’s a marathon festival of family-friendly perversion you’re after, team this up with Victor Fleming’s 1939 “Gone With The Wind,” which stars the daddy of sexy rogues Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, the only man who could make Vivien Leigh’s strong-willed Scarlett O’Hara glow the morning after a night of non-consensual sex. (Frankly, my dear, I’d screw him, too.)
• If your relatives don’t do musicals or sweeping epics there’s always slapstick comedy in the form of Brian Levant’s 1996 “Jingle All The Way,” starring my favorite slab of political beefcake, the Governator himself, as a dad determined to score a Turbo Man toy for his son’s Christmas gift. (Now if only I can nab a seat on Santa’s lap the next time Arnie dresses up for one of those kids’ fundraisers. Guess my wish, Mr. Claus.)

Hot Mama

Lest I forget the boys who like girls and the girls who like girls, Peter Godfrey’s 1945 “Christmas in Connecticut,” starring the smoldering Barbara Stanwyck as a family advice columnist who fakes a family for the sake of publicity, is a great excuse for a double feature. Pair this with Alfred E. Green’s 1933 “Baby Face,” in which Stanwyck plays an unapologetic slut who sleeps her way to the top, and have yourself a “Working Girls’ Christmas.”

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Cripple of Inishmaan

Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” presented by the Atlantic Theater Company, revolves around the plight of a physically challenged orphan called “Cripple Billy” (a flawless Aaron Monaghan) who attempts to escape his suffocating existence in Inishmaan by following his dreams to the neighboring Inishmore, where Hollywood filmmaker Robert Flaherty has come to shoot his movie “The Man of Aran” on the little Irish island in 1934. But the tabloid plot is merely a foil for playwright McDonagh (who just in the past few years – like Quentin Tarantino did for film in the early nineties – has utilized a sense of anything-can-happen, dangerous adventure to single-handedly punch new life into the great white way with “The Pillowman” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”) to explore the collective mirror of his homeland itself.

To read the rest of my review visit Theater Online.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Film Critics in Peril on a Cliffhanger: A HND@Grassroots Podcast


What's shaking California?!!

Film critics are a dying breed, since they're either stuck online, being laid off from print publications or going off to Grad School. Dave Hudson himself gathers the tales of woe—this is clearly not the time to be a Journalist, but a perfect time to start digging ditches and hoping for New Deals.

But before all that comes to pass, have a listen to this impromptu podcast we recorded in early December featuring Variety associate editor Peter Debruge, who wrote up the whole "OMG NYC HAS BLOG WRITER" trend last week and quotes most of the people he met with. Of course, it's also important to mention Peter's invite was forwarded to a good number of us—I got mine through a third party. Don't fret, I'm still not a real critic dear listeners.

In addition to Peter, we've got a decent crowd for this canned chat: Lauren Wissot (Infamous for Various Reasons), Michael Joshua Rowin (The L Magazine, Stop Smiling); House contributor and Cine File Andrew Schenker, S.T. VanAirsdale (The Reeler, Defamer). There's a myriad of topics covered in this episode, ranging from the soul of a critic to why the hell someone would turn down work based on their soul. We cover it all—and it basically boils down to the following: some people subscribe to that nasty "Journalism" concept; others believe being a critic means keeping chaste, pure, and being able to lift their nose up to work that others would gladly take from them.

To hear the breaking news visit The House.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

An Antidote to Sexy Nazis: Mädchen in Uniform

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

An Antidote to Sexy Nazis: “Mädchen in Uniform”

For years Hollywood’s holiday season has been synonymous with Holocaust-themed films – see this year’s entries “The Reader,” “Defiance,” “Valkyrie,” etc. – or not. But only after reviewing The New Stage Theatre Company’s titillating “Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls!” did it hit me that revisiting the tragedy of WWII every winter makes no sense. For ‘tis the season to be jolly – not watch a Nazi! So I propose to start a new tradition: to stop equating Germany with SS boots and “Seig heil!” salutes every December, and instead go further back in time to when Deutschland was synonymous with sex, drugs, and decadent fun. Yes, this month let’s raise a toast to the high-spirited sleaze of the Weimar years; let’s celebrate the country that, before it gave the world the most notorious psychopath of the 20th century, birthed the first sexy, pro-dyke flick in 1931(!), Leontine Sagan’s “Mädchen in Uniform.”

The May/September romance of “The Reader” ain’t got nothing on this fairly chaste but nonetheless steamy affair between the older, seductress/school “mistress” Fraulein von Bernburg and her fragile, fourteen-year-old student Manuela. Set in an all-girl, Prussian boarding school, the film is adapted from a novel and play by (lesbian writer) Christa Winsloe and stars the raven-haired Dorothea Wieck, who seems to be carrying a dirty thought in her head at all times, and blond ingénue Hertha Thiele (who originated the role of Manuela onstage). From the start when Manuela arrives at the school after the death of her mother she’s taken under the wing of the rambunctious Ilse, (played by Ellen Schwanneke who appropriately captures the drama of adolescence) who guides her through the many rules of the strict institution, one of which is to not “fall in love” with the breathtaking von Bernburg, the woman all the girls lustily worship like a rock star. And these teens are not the least bit coy regarding their infatuation with their mistress – going so far as to sew her initials into a uniform, in one case even carve those initials into an arm! That the girls are all attracted to a woman and not a man doesn’t even seem to register. “Manuela, I demand absolute discipline,” the sexy Fraulein declares after shooting a lip-licking gaze upon the golden pupil when they first meet on the shadow-draped stairs. Von Bernburg transcends gender; she’s simply the essence of dominant hot.

“What do they call what all the movie stars have?” Ilse inquires as she shows Manuela her secret (male) pinup collection inside her locker. “Sex appeal,” another girl responds with embarrassed laughter before the dorm full of teens, hormones raging beneath those drab, striped uniforms, giggles over romantic pictures in a book. The heightened sexual tension is broken only when they’re reprimanded for causing such a stir. In fact, “Mädchen in Uniform” gracefully flows from “sin” in the form of lust and gluttony (the half-starved girls wax rhapsodic over favorite foods) to “salvation” through the discipline and punishment of military formations and drills, of forced group confessions – then back again. The prison guard-like principal warns that girls who misbehave will be deprived of their uniforms – even in the streets! The threat of nakedness (i.e., sexual humiliation) hangs heavy in the air like an aphrodisiacal perfume. Forever holding hands, hugging one another, playfully touching – these budding blossoms seem poised to burst even behind the metaphorical bars. “There’s a body, eh?” Ilse assesses admiringly after Manuela expands her chest, popping a button right off her dress with the force of her growing bust.

But, alas, impulsive Manuela makes the mistake of getting tipsy after a school play and declaring that love that dare not speak its name to the entire student body – and its warden. “What you call sin, Frau Principal, I call love, which can take a thousand forms,” von Bernburg stoically says in defense of Manuela who is punished through isolation. When von Bernburg encounters the sensitive blonde again she surreptitiously orders her to go to her room, to wait for her. But it is there that Manuela, expecting requited love, receives the harshest punishment of all at the hands of her idol, who decides it’s best if they never see each other again. Devastated the ingénue flees while von Bernburg bravely confronts the principal and resigns, having had enough of her cruel ways. Saying a prayer, Manuela ascends the winding staircase – and, inevitably, tries to jump – only to be saved by her schoolmates! No, there will be no “homo must die,” sacrificial dyke ending for “Mädchen in Uniform.” Indeed, the most subversive aspect of Sagan’s lesbian flick is its finale, a harsh indictment of the principal, that stand-in for all who judge love, who set the near suicide in motion. Yes, Manuela and von Bernburg will live while Frau Principal must face herself, come to terms with the lethal pain she has wrought. The final image of her wandering into those Expressionist shadows alone, fading to black, is worth a thousand wonderful Weimar words.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sex and Violence & "The Wrestler"

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Sex and Violence & THE WRESTLER

Most porn is about as titillating as a Yule log on a loop, which is why I never watch it. Except if I happen to be flipping channels on a Friday night, when World Wrestling Entertainment broadcasts its “Friday Night SmackDown,” a steroid-enhanced, S&M-laced, hard-bodied orgy of enormous proportions. It’s long been my fantasy to sit ringside, to smell the virile sweat and gape in awe at the blown up muscles, so freaky they’re sexy, akin to any porn star’s massively inflated tits. The homoerotic, dominant man on dominant man action, each bulging star vying to become the ultimate top, to slam his rival to the mat and make him his bitch, drives me wild. To this day The Rock’s “The People’s Champ” still ranks right alongside the remake of “Casino Royale” as my favorite gay porn.

So naturally I breathlessly awaited the press screening of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” starring Mickey Rourke – who decades ago honed his S&M chops in “9 1/2 Weeks” – as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Suffice to say that Aronofsky is gonna do for Rourke’s career what Tarantino did for Travolta’s – regardless of the fact that Penn most likely will win the Oscar for “Milk” – in spite of the film’s melodramatic mediocre script, so heavy-handed it makes Dustin Lance Black’s unsubtle “Milk” seem nuanced. Robert Siegel’s Screenwriting 101 predictable writing is livened up only by Aronofsky’s playful, often handheld, camerawork (and high-flying editing, though that too is coming close to turning into a humdrum Aronofsky tic). Fortunately, Rourke’s performance is both believable and respectful of the professional wrestling world. And yes, that ripped, sweat-and-steroid-built bod is as hot as The Ram’s one-night-stand’s firefighter fetish (which I share – if not her penchant for beefcake, “Firefighters like it hot!” posters on the bedroom wall).

But Aronofsky and Siegel missed a lightning rod opportunity to make the film both sexier and deeper by neglecting to use the character of the worn out stripper Pam, a.k.a. “Cassidy,” (played by the go-to actress for worn out cougar roles, Marisa Tomei) as a cautionary mirror to Rourke’s past-his-prime wrestler – showing that those who make a living off their bodies, the pleasures of the flesh, for too long eventually sell themselves off piece by piece. In fact, “The Wrestler” would have a stronger, much more realistic and engrossing story at its heart if Pam suffered from what’s termed “pole addiction.” For the truth is that most women still hustling at Pam’s age are “stuck” doing so as a result of their overwhelming need for the spotlight as much as for the money – i.e., the same affliction suffered by The Ram. After all, the thrill of exhibitionism inherent in both professions is one and the same, a point completely lost on the filmmakers.

For pro wrestling is just another part of the “spectacle of flesh” industry – its choreographed violence, set to a thumping soundtrack and performed by near-naked bodies in the ring, every bit as outrageously carnal as near-naked bodies writhing to loud music on a tittie club stage. So it should come as no surprise that those attracted to both lines of work are lured for similar reasons – as are its audiences. The semi-simulation of both violence and sex is so gloriously taboo that those who dare to do it are (devil?) worshiped, the recipients of ego-stoking adulation – if only for a night. But then one night of the ultimate aphrodisiac is more power than most people experience in a lifetime.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An American Hero: Wendy and Lucy

“Wendy and Lucy,” Kelly Reichardt’s existential road movie starring Michelle Williams as the titular Wendy, an Indiana woman heading to find work in Alaska, is the American cousin to the Dardenne brothers’ “L’Enfant.” Both films are quiet, simmering, sociological thrillers featuring hamster-on-a-treadmill protagonists whose odysseys to recover loved ones are set in motion by a single, desperate, money-related screw up. Like the Dardennes, Reichardt is interested in studying the intricacies of everyday life for those living on the margins—and society’s cold indifference to their very existence.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls

“Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls” is The New Stage Theatre Company’s attempt at crossing Fosse with Genet (plus a sprinkling of Grand Guignol) to explore the life of Anita Berber – “Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity,” according to her biographer Mel Gordon (who decades ago taught my freshman year, theater history class at NYU, and whose “The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber” inspired artistic director Ildiko Nemeth to direct and co-write, along with Mark Altman, the play). But as its title suggests the true star of the show isn’t Sarah Lemp, who plays Berber, but the campy, vaudevillian chorus girls who perfectly execute the down-and-dirty, dynamic choreography of conceptual artist Julie Atlas Muz (Miss Exotic World and Miss Coney Island ’06) like a lusty, peep show version of The Rockettes.

To read the rest of my titillating review visit Theater Online.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Transporter Gay?

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Transporter Gay?

Since I’m not a fan of Luc Besson any more than I am of Guy Ritchie, I’ve avoided the “Transporter” franchise from the start. Sure its star Jason Statham has a to-kill-for bod, but then that’s part of the action hero job description. And compared to hot he-men with a wicked, up-for-anything gleam in their eye like the Governator or The Rock or Daniel Craig, well, Statham’s just a little too bland for my taste. He’s someone you’d take home to mom for the holidays, not blow in an airplane bathroom along the way, having to dodge dirty looks at baggage claim upon landing. Never mind.

But after reading Chris Lee’s “L.A. Times” piece, in which director Louis Leterrier claims to have added a gay subtext to Statham’s character in “Transporter 2,” I knew I just had to take a peek. And surprisingly, for someone who can spot a gay subtext from as far away as David Beckham can score a goal, I couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about. Statham’s gun-for-hire Frank Martin is too asexual to be homosexual; if he is gay he’s so far in the closet that even Alessandro Gassman’s sleazy, sexy villain Gianni Chellini (now that’s a name to scream in the heat of passion) couldn’t coax him out. Indeed, if there is anything queer about “Transporter 2,” it’s the character played by Italian stallion Gassman (a dirtier, XXX version of Antonio Banderas) who should be exposed.

Well, perhaps “exposed” is the wrong word, for this man has a hard time keeping his clothes on (I’m not complaining, just stating the facts). The dark-haired, muscle-bound hunk spends nearly the entire film shirtless, sometimes completely naked, with water dripping from his skin as he emerges from the pool, making me wonder if he’s envious of his fellow countryman Rocco Sifreddi’s international, porn star career. And it is in fact Chellini who gets the seductive, come on lines (not to mention Kate Nauta’s androgynous blonde moll Lola who looks like David Bowie in his prime). In the near final showdown between Chellini and Martin it is Chellini who, after injecting his body with every last drop of the only solution to a lethal virus, taunts Martin with, “I am the cure for what ails you. I’m the only cure for what ails you. I am the antidote.” In other words, Martin must partake of Chellini’s bodily fluids if he wants to save the young boy who’s been infected (i.e., the world!) Of course, rough trade Martin remains clueless so Chellini coyly prompts, “Perhaps I can help you out. What part are you a little – how do you say? Thick on.” To which Martin replies, “You. Why?” (Though I guess that could explain Martin’s earlier response of “Who isn’t?” to his employer’s wife’s apologetic “I feel so lost, so confused,” after he’d dismissed her sexual advances.)

While there are no voluptuous, steamy females in “Transporter 2” (Amber Valletta’s Audrey is a pretty MILF not a nasty slut) there is a scene in which Martin wields a fire hose like a whip, taking out the baddies one by one, MMA-dominatrix style, which is more BDSM hot than outright homo. Martin does pursue Chellini with all the vengeance of a love-struck stalker, right up into the air on a private plane, but once again, it is Chellini who talks dirty when he discovers Martin onboard. Pulling out his big loaded gun he purrs, “Have a seat. Relax. Drink something and let’s get to know each other,” sliding a cocktail the dim stud’s way as if it’s happy hour at Splash. All in all, “Transporter 2” is more borderline bisexual than it is blatantly homo like the remake of “Casino Royale.” Which is why for those casting the next Bond villain I’ve got two words – Alessandro Gassman.

Monday, December 1, 2008

4 Gay-For-Pay Action Heroes

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

4 Gay-For-Pay Action Heroes

Attending the press conference for Gus Van Sant’s biopic “Milk,” I had a Eureka moment that revealed my own naivety. A woman had asked Van Sant about his creative casting decisions, not just in choosing straights to play all the major gay characters (including a stunning Sean Penn as the gay civil rights leader Harvey Milk), but also in selecting the talented and out Denis O’Hare to embody homophobe extraordinaire John Briggs (the face behind the Proposition 6/Briggs Initiative to kick gay and lesbian teachers out of California’s public schools). I waited anxiously for the director to expound upon what the press notes referred to as “sexual-preference-blind casting,” a subversive twist that relates to Milk’s own modus operandi of rejecting divisiveness regarding sexuality in favor of bringing people together (or as Milk protégé Danny Nicoletta puts it in the notes, “It doesn’t matter what side of the fence you fall on. In fact, just tear the fence down; we all live in the same world.”)

Instead I was taken aback by Van Sant’s candidness. The point wasn’t to use O’Hare in some sort of queer jujitsu to sidestep criticism from the likes of Harvey Fierstein (who’s compared the casting of straights in gay roles to blackface), but simply to get as many homos involved as possible. Thus he wasn’t casting O’Hare so much in a straight role as in a small role. Or as the director so delicately put it, no gay actors have the “box office stature” that was required to get the film made. O’Hare either played straight or he didn’t play at all.

In other words, one of the few industries left in which gay white men (actors) don’t make pay (i.e., wield power) equal to that of their hetero counterparts has churned out a movie about a gay white man who demanded equal rights. Which is ironic enough. And yet even while homo thespians don’t make the serious money in Hollywood some of the biggest box office draws have been allowed to play gay!

To wit:

Russell Crowe

Yes, Maximus was once a friend of Dorothy. Fresh on the heels of his notoriously sexy turn as a neo-Nazi skinhead in “Romper Stomper,” Russell Crowe starred in Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling’s 1994 “The Sum of Us,” playing Jeff Mitchell, a young Australian looking for Mr. Right as his dad searches for the woman of his own straight dreams. Crowe plays gay okay if lukewarm. (A homo “Gladiator” would have been way hotter.)

Will Smith

Yup, Hancock liked cock. In Fred Schepisi’s 1993 “Six Degrees of Separation” Smith played Paul, a gay hustler posing as the son of Sidney Poitier. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard. To be honest, I can’t bring myself to watch “Six Degrees of Separation” because the idea of Smith playing gay just feels, well, as wrong as Harvey Fierstein doing Tevye on Broadway (whereas Jeffrey Wright as Belize in “Angels in America” felt oh-so-right).

Matt Damon

Though Jason Bourne does make for a fine gay hustler, in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 “The Talented Mr. Ripley” Damon plays Tom Ripley, a natural born killer and con artist with the hots for Jude Law’s Dickie. Damon is convincing playing gay, but then the homosexual nature of the role is beside the main point that snotty richies shouldn’t screw with psychos of any persuasion. Would have gotten bonus points if Tom and Dick had actually got it on.

Daniel Craig

What? You thought I was going to pass up the opportunity to talk about James Bond? In John Maybury’s 1998 “Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon,” Daniel Craig plays Bacon’s lover George Dyer, a sizzling piece of rough trade that Bacon picks up in his own apartment (Dyer was burglarizing the pad – how hot is that?!) The filmmaking, artsy and overwrought, can be forgiven since Craig as dominant Dyer takes off his clothes. And the stylish, soft-core poster of a nearly naked Craig lighting up on a bed is number two on my holiday wish list. (Right after a nearly naked Craig lighting up on my bed.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Beautiful Dreamer: Milk

“Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s labor of love biopic about civil rights leader Harvey Milk (the first openly gay man elected to higher office in the United States and later gunned down, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, three decades ago this month), is mainstream filmmaking at its finest and a perfect wedding of subject matter to director. For Milk, like Van Sant, was a former “radical” who learned to work within—even to embrace—the system, stealthily turning it to his advantage. What Milk is to extremist activists like Larry Kramer, Van Sant is to fellow filmmaker Todd Haynes—no longer a director of experimental art in the moving picture medium, but a maverick of the mini majors.

To read the rest of my glowing review visit The House Next Door.

Friday, November 21, 2008

An Interview with The Betrayal's Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath

The day I interviewed famed cinematographer Ellen Kuras (who I’d always envisioned as a wishbone with Scorsese and Spike Lee pulling on either leg) and Thavisouk Phrasavath, co-directors of the 23-years-in-the-making labor of love “The Betrayal,” congratulations were in order. The film, about the fallout from U.S. foreign policy in Laos as told through the personal lens of Thavi and his immigrant family, had just made the doc shortlist for the Academy Awards (along with “Man On Wire.” Attention Werner Herzog, HND interviews are good luck!) But as we spoke about everything from the American government’s refusal to fully own up to historical atrocities committed in its name (thereby repeating them) to the influence “Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind” (on which Kuras was cinematographer) had on “The Betrayal,” I got a strong sense that the filmmakers were aiming higher than even Oscar. Sure, a statue would be nice, but influencing an Iraq pullout would be much more on point and gratifying.

To hear the podcast visit The House Next Door.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

MILK and Irony

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

MILK and Irony

Irony held center stage at the press conference for “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s passionate biopic about the first openly gay man elected to higher office in the United States, that took place at The Regency Hotel in Manhattan a little more than two weeks after the passing of California’s (heavily financed by the Mormon Church) Proposition 8, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. It was Supervisor Harvey Milk himself who had been instrumental in the defeat of California’s Proposition 6 (a battle featured prominently in the film), which had been openly opposed by everyone from Governor Jerry Brown to Carter and Reagan. The victory over the measure that would have effectively banned homosexual teachers and their allies from the public school system occurred in the same (non-election) year Milk was assassinated along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, exactly three decades ago this month. Since those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, it’s no surprise Harvey Milk is not a household name, not even to the many young actors starring in Milk, who became aware of him only upon receiving the script.

And this is something Van Sant, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who grew up gay and Mormon in California, and was the sole Mormon writer/producer on the Mormon-themed “Big Love” – yes, as I said, irony ruled the day!) and the panel of actors, including Sean Penn (Harvey Milk), James Franco (Milk’s lover Scott), Josh Brolin (assassin Dan White), Alison Pill (campaign manager Anne Kronenberg) and Emile Hirsch (Milk protégé/activist Cleve Jones) have set out to rectify. Of course, Van Sant only took on this labor of love once he’d gotten word that Oliver Stone was abandoning his own biopic (and yes, I’m going to gloss over the irony of Penn and Brolin both having famously worked with Stone, lest I begin to sound like a Stone conspiracy theorist). For Milk wasn’t just the colorful “Mayor of Castro Street,” who united gays, straights, blacks, whites, seniors and youth, through old-fashioned charm and newfound civic pride, but a civil rights leader in the mold of fellow slain activists Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

How important was this barely remembered man? When asked how history would have been different had Milk lived, Penn (nursing a cold; at one point an assistant walked up to offer a handkerchief) instantly and adamantly stated, “Less people would have died of AIDS. Reagan would have addressed it.” Not only was this remark incredibly perceptive, but absolutely correct. Ground zero for the AIDS epidemic happened also to be Harvey Milk’s backyard. And Milk (“My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you,” his signature line) never tolerated silence in his backyard.

But Van Sant, seeming to shrink seated between Penn and Brolin, preferred, like Milk, to focus on hope not despair. The director drew a connection between the “new energy” of a different time to the latest national activism in response to Prop 8. Screenwriter Black saw parallel strategies, with Proposition 8 a descendant of the pre-Prop 6 initiatives of Dade County and Wichita, where anti-gay measures (neither of which included any mention of homosexuality in their wording) passed thanks to Anita Bryant and her own religious fervor. Yet when one woman tried to define the debate in terms of “religious faith vs. gay rights,” Penn stepped in to immediately correct her. Neither Prop 6 nor Prop 8 have anything to do with religion, he pointed out, but of simple “hatred and intolerance,” the very opposite of faith. And, he added, that issues (words) do indeed kill. People take their own lives when you take away their hope for the future – another “Milk” and Milk theme.

Regardless, it was none other than campy, Katherine Harris-like Anita Bryant who was responsible for the inventive use of archival footage in “Milk,” according to Black. Since the screenwriter was unable to craft the character without falling into caricature he decided to just let the real Anita Bryant speak for herself. Van Sant and his longtime DP Harris Savides then took Black’s idea and ran with it, flowing seamlessly between footage of the original marches, archival stills (often seen from the POV of the character Milk’s camera) and the actual on-location-in-SF shoot (where they went so far as to recreate Milk’s camera shop in the original shop!)

And speaking of his noticeably absent cinematographer, Van Sant admitted that while Savides’ talent first caught his eye, it was his reputation for being “the only DP Madonna would work with” that sealed the deal. (“She must be pretty discerning,” Van Sant figured.) Now every time he works with Savides he excitedly thinks, “Oh, I’ve got Madonna’s DP!” To which Penn deadpanned, “DP, ex-husband…” Even the statue of Milk that stands on the steps of San Francisco’s city hall where marriage ceremonies are held would have cracked a smile.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Why Daniel Craig Must Get Naked In The Next Bond Movie

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Why Daniel Craig Must Get Naked In The Next Bond Movie

When I heard “Quantum of Solace” director Marc Forster say in the promo trailer that he tried to make the Bond film he always wanted to see, I thought “Uh-oh.” But my “Uh-oh” turned to “Oh, shit,” once I got to the screening and saw Paul Haggis listed in the credits as one of the writers, my distaste for “Finding Neverland” Forster trumped only by my loathing of faux-deep Haggis. And yet none of this mattered in the least because I was going to see “Quantum of Solace” for one reason and one reason only: to watch Daniel Craig get naked. (Heck, I’d have happily sat through “Crash” a dozen times if Haggis had tossed in a naked Daniel Craig every once in awhile!)

You see, ever since Craig’s debut in the remake of “Casino Royale,” the dusty old, 007 series was offered a prime opportunity to expand its audience for the first time in decades. Not only would hardcore Fleming franchise fans and massive car explosion enthusiasts be lining up for tickets; there was now a third audience of those like me, indifferent to the Bond legacy and shaky cam chases alike, but hot and bothered by Mr. Craig. And Forster and Haggis, not surprisingly considering their very un-sexy track record, blew it.

It’s not like I was expecting another gay S&M scene smack dab in the middle of the film (I realize a repeat of soft-core porn “Casino Royale” would have been too much to ask), but the makers of “Quantum of Solace” not only ignore Daniel Craig’s raging sexuality, they practically neuter him as well. A full hour goes by before Craig even so much as takes off his shirt – the only flesh he bares in the entire film! Instead he’s shown in a vast array of tuxedoes, suits and some ill-advised, Ralph Lauren-like leisurewear – as if he’s refined Roger Moore and not working class Craig. It’s like Forster has some cookie cutter image of a courtly Moore/Brosnan Bond stuck in his head, completely unaware that he’s dealing with a thug in a tux.

And yet this is precisely why Daniel Craig is the hottest Bond ever, the tension between his blue-collar physicality and the debonair restraints of the role are what makes him sizzle right off the screen. Closer in spirit to the rebellious Connery than to any of the suave and sophisticated Bonds to follow, Craig’s Agent 007 isn’t comfortable pent up in expensive duds. He wants to run wild on a beach half-naked (and I want to see him run wild on a beach half-naked). Sure, I’d be thrilled to attend the opera with Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan on my arm. But I’d much rather skip Tosca and be locked in a hotel room with Daniel Craig.

In essence, “Quantum of Solace” is nothing more than a two-hour tease without the money shot. Even when Bond steals a tux at a luxurious party Forster frustratingly cuts away. In lieu of a hot shot of Bond changing into the suit, we inexplicably get some doughy, topless dude searching around for his pilfered threads! And Haggis’ script fares no better in understanding the allure of this particular Bond. For example, when Agent 007 eschews the down-and-dirty hotel in Bolivia for a five-star resort it makes total sense – for Moore’s proper Bond. But it makes absolutely no sense for the Bond character that Craig is playing! Craig’s Bond is rough-and-tumble like his C.I.A. counterpart Felix Leiter (played by always-at-the-top-of-his-game Jeffrey Wright), a warrior who only goes along with the snooty stuff because it’s part of his job. Watching Craig’s Bond one gets the sense he’d rather be talking football in the pub with the lads. (Besides, Craig’s Bond happens to still be in mourning for his beloved Vesper so he’s not focused on material comforts – only on revenge.)

For the makers of “Casino Royale” implicitly understood Craig, tailored the film around his sex appeal. For better or worse, the Fleming franchise belongs to the actor playing Bond and the filmmakers have to follow that lead. There’s downright arrogance in Forster and Haggis ignoring Craig’s enormous assets – as if they could care less who plays Bond (heck, it wasn’t up to them anyway!) Yes, auteur is king if you’re making a Hollywood boutique film – the actor must accommodate himself into the script. But this is the Bond series – thus the script must be tweaked to fit the actor playing the iconic agent!

For Craig is rightly reinterpreting the role – and Forster is not picking up on it. Craig’s been a stage and screen actor for decades so there’s a wealth of material Forster and Haggis could have studied to grasp Craig’s sensuous physicality. But I’d be surprised if they’d seen him in anything other than “Casino Royale” or “Munich,” if they’d actually done their homework. Craig was selected to play Bond for a reason – a different reason than Moore or even Connery was. The Bond role is evolving even as Forster and Haggis are stuck trying to repeat the past (evidenced by “Quantum’s” Bond-posing-with-a-gun retro opening).

It’s problematic that Mathieu Amalric as baddie Dominic Greene and Olga Kurylenko as Camille are the only actors who seem to be having a ball (probably because English is not their first language so they don’t realize how bloody awful their dialogue really is), but it’s unforgivable that these two are actually sexier than Bond. Haggis’ script just may be the worst Bond screenplay of all time, drained of all playfulness, the “wink” that is the key to the series’ longevity. Only when Bond responds “I sure hope so,” to the line “I do think she has handcuffs,” and “Not in the least” with a smile full of relish to Camille’s inquiry as to whether her use of sex as an infiltration tool offends him do Craig’s mischievous eyes light up. All other traces of witty, tongue-in-cheek, Bond double entendres are nowhere to be found. Sadly, even with the sexiest man alive in the lead, “Quantum of Solace” is far from titillating, as dry as the desert sand.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Proposition 8 and "Lotte's Death"

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Proposition 8 and “Lotte’s Death”

Even as the champagne was still flowing across the nation in celebration of Barack Obama’s historic victory, protests were raging in California after Proposition 8, defining marriage as an institution between a man and a woman, passed with nary a hitch. By chance this was also the week I finally got around to watching Fatih Akin’s stunning follow-up to his rightly lauded “Head-On,” “The Edge of Heaven,” recently released on DVD. It’s hard to believe Akin, the biggest talent to come out of German cinema since Fassbinder, is only 35 years old. Indeed, the depth of the script, the subtlety of the Turkish score, the nuanced camerawork and self-assured editing are that of a master director. As is the poignancy with which Akin invests the breathtaking lesbian love story, which both connects the first and last parts of his international trilogy, and is the beating heart of the film. If those same-sex marriage advocates are ever in need of a cautionary tale that could serve as a Prop 8 teaching tool, “Lotte’s Death” (as part two is titled) is it.

As strong and sexy as the star-crossed straight lovers in “Head-On,” blond, pixie hipster Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) and Turkish hot tamale Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay) meet sweet outside the university where Lotte studies – and to which Ayten covertly has escaped after fleeing her country and inevitable arrest for political terrorist activities. The down on her luck Ayten fidgets as she walks up and asks Lotte for money to buy food. Confident Lotte doesn’t have change yet can’t seem to let Ayten go, offers to get change inside, prompting me to ponder, “Hmm, is she trying to pick her up?” Of course, had this been a boy-meets-girl moment there would have been no doubt in my mind. (This is how ingrained the straight POV is – even within non-hetero audiences!) It’s crystal clear that aggressive Lotte is lusting for Ayten – and yet this instant of uncertainty speaks volumes to an often unacknowledged, subconscious bias.

Yes Lotte, mesmerized by the brunette beauty, buys Ayten lunch, which she wolfs down. Later she takes her to a club where they dance and sweat, steamily share a joint as Akin’s lens respectfully caresses them in slow motion, then make out like it’s their last night on earth. The chemistry between the two is so magnetic that it’s no wonder that Ayten immediately moves in (under the disapproving gaze of Lotte’s mom Susanne played by Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla). Susanne knows by the loving look in her daughter’s eyes that she isn’t just taking pity on a political refugee. She wants this femme fatale from Istanbul for her wife.

Of course this can never be. Separated by nationality, the two find themselves also unable to navigate the government system because of their sexuality once Ayten gets arrested in Germany. As Lotte accompanies Ayten to the room where she’ll be living while awaiting an asylum hearing, the sympathetic official who escorts them tells Lotte she can stay three nights a month. He knows they’re lovers though the truth remains unspoken. After Ayten loses her appeal and is sent back to Turkey Lotte follows and slams head on into the closed doors of bureaucracy. When Lotte learns she can’t see the imprisoned Ayten because they don’t share the same surname she bursts into uncontrollable tears. The Turkish official, feeling sorry for her, offers to try to get special permission. He knows by the intensity of Lotte’s outburst that Ayten is not merely a good friend. And yet, neither woman is allowed to declare her love like heterosexual characters most certainly would have. Lotte and Ayten don’t get lines like, “But this is my wife – I’m entitled to see her!”

And here through the illuminating lens of fiction we get a glimpse into the darkest fears of homosexual couples. Lotte and Ayten, though the exact opposite of poster children for the same-sex marriage movement – a young, hot-blooded couple in trouble with the law who don’t always play it safe – aren’t allowed even the basic rights afforded a badass heterosexual couple in their shoes. For Lotte and Ayten, sharing a surname isn’t an ideological exercise. It’s the difference between life and death.

Red, White & Bling! Election Night 2008 with The Billionaire Follies

Last week while the masses were breathing a collective sigh of relief at the symbolic end to the most disastrous presidency in U.S. history, I was pondering the one downside of the conclusion to W’s reign. No more Billionaires for Bush, the hilariously high-living, street theater troupe (with 90 national chapters) who “armed with tuxedos, evening gowns, hard facts and a humorous spin” have been putting a satirical shiner on corporate interests at political rallies throughout the country for years. No more tiara-wearing women dripping in jewels and top hat clad men (not to mention the nattily attired kids) bearing “Free The Enron 7” and “We’re All In This Together (sort of)” signs outside the conventions. (Though one member did lament to me that it’s impossible to get arrested in a tuxedo.) The Bills, rightly fearing that Obama would not be good for this minority’s rights, had decided to call it quits.

But of course, if the Billionaires had to bail out it would be with a bang, thus “Red, White & Bling! Election Night 2008 with The Billionaire Follies” was a nouveau riche cabaret extravaganza emceed by Dave Bennett as George W. Bush (“Gonna find that Dow Jones, follow him to his Wall Street cave – and smoke ‘em out!”), performing everything from his “just released” hip-hop number (“Don’t vote” urged whispering backup voices) to a blues tune with Dave Case’s Karl Rove (sample lyric, “Hope Cheney doesn’t shoot me ‘cause I’m a lame duck”). Then there was the terrific Tina Fey-inspired Yvonne Willrich-Teague as Sarah Palin singing “Suddenly Sarah” and standing behind Robbie Edmondson’s Levi Johnson – rifle in her hand – as he tremblingly disavowed his MySpace page and declared his love for her daughter Bristol played by Amanda Kay Schill. (The pregnant Palin teen later got into a wrestling match with Melody Bates’ equally pregnant Jenna Bush.) Toss in the 2008 U.S. National Tango Champions Gayle Madeira and Lexa Rosean doing an Obama-Palin slapstick dance worthy of Mack Sennett, the Lobbyists for McCain harmonizing an ode to banking (“No credit? No money? How ‘bout a mortgage? Sure!”), and the Raging Grannies (who’ve been holding a vigil every Wednesday in Times Square since the Iraq war began) singing “Grandmama for Obama,” and you’ve got yourself the best election party stock options can buy.

Yet the highlight for me wasn’t Constance Swindling’s laugh-till-you-can’t-breathe rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (with the lyrics “Just a Navy boy/Married money post-Hanoi/Has eight mansions he just don’t know where”) nor the “big oil,” grand finale Fosse number “All That Gas” (“Drill baby drill!”), which concluded with the MILF governor stripping down to a bathing suit and Miss Alaska sash while the Billionaire chorus mimed wildlife and Ivy League-Legacy called, “Oh, look, it’s moose!” to the rifle-toting Palin. No, what thrilled me most was when Bennett’s Bush directed the performers into the audience at the very end (“Billionaires, take a seat in the house – or the Senate!”) for a video juxtaposing stills of the troupe with their dubious inspiration’s strangest moments, concluding with a picture of W and “Dope” changing to one of Obama’s face and “Hope.” As “This land is my land/ This land is my land/ From Catalina to the Cayman Islands” became the real thing it became equally apparent that the Bills’ constant refusal to ever stop laughing in the face of despair is the very definition of hope. And exactly the change we need.

Click here to see the Bills in action. Review also available at Theater Online. Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Presidential Appeal: Bill Clinton By John Travolta

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Presidential Appeal: Bill Clinton By John Travolta

My mom has the hots for President Clinton as badly as I swoon for Arnold Schwarzenegger, both of us turning into goofy schoolgirls at the mere mention of our respective crushes. While the Governator’s arrogant, aggressive virility drives me wild, personally I’ve never fantasized about Arkansas charmer Slick Willy.

And yet I’d be thrilled to bed John Travolta, who embodied Bill Clinton via the character of Jack Stanton in Mike Nichols’ 1998 “Primary Colors,” a thinly veiled account of the would-be president’s rise to stardom during the 1992 primaries, with a swift-moving screenplay by Elaine May based on political reporter Joe Klein’s originally “Anonymous” novel. Travolta as Stanton perfectly captured the sexy essence of Clinton then topped it with his well-honed movie star touch.

The similarities between the two aging icons are striking. “Primary Colors” begins and ends with the famous “Stanton handshake,” shots of the many ways the southern governor greets his supporters, the positioning of his free hand on an arm sending a subliminal signal, from sparkling playfulness to grave empathy, to the adoring fan. He connects with people through pressing the flesh, literally through touch. Stanton, like Clinton, is a visceral character, full of warmth and life. Which also perfectly describes Travolta, who has always cultivated the same image of accessibility, the Jersey boy from the hardworking Irish-Italian-American family who never forgot his roots. Neither Stanton/Clinton nor Travolta were silver spoon fed; both earned fame and fortune through sheer sweat and tenacity.

In fact, it’s nearly impossible to imagine either Clinton or Travolta being spoon-fed at all. Even as Stanton shoves a donut in his mouth as if he’s popping a peanut, Travolta’s own hearty appetite shines right through. These are men of insatiable hunger who attack life with gusto. They’re also not afraid to play by their own rules. Who would have thought a small-time southern politician with a campaign run by passionate novices would become leader of the free world? Who could have imagined the dude who played Vinnie Barbarino would become an international sex symbol? I’m sure Travolta, like Clinton, never thought it farfetched for a second.

And this especially is the root of their steamy appeal: a combination of knowing self-confidence, charm and good looks coupled with a downright honest vulnerability. There’s a lost little boy innocence locked inside their big men’s bodies. Stanton weeps openly as a man in an adult literacy program describes the shame he felt upon graduating with an honor in “attendance” – Clinton’s “I feel your pain” core personified. Likewise, Travolta as sweet Vincent Vega dancing and whacking his way through “Pulp Fiction,” and especially turning in an astonishingly mature, heartrending performance as Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever,” garnered Academy Award nominations – and these things just don’t go to guys who fear wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

Which doesn’t mean that they’re not also shrewd and calculating. In “Primary Colors” Stanton has the foresight to have his arrest at the DNC convention in ‘68 expunged from the record, lest it return to haunt him. I don’t think it’s an accident that before the flops following “Urban Cowboy,” Travolta was untouchable, box office gold. Though both men are gamblers never shying from heart-pounding risk (Stanton/Clinton with his serial infidelities, Travolta starring as Edna Turnblad in the remake of “Hairspray”), they’re also experts at planning the next move while making it look like it was all divine provenance.

In “Primary Colors” Stanton refers to Lincoln being a whore before he was a president. There’s something sexy about a man who doesn’t mind getting his working hands dirty – who revels in the mud. And yet sly Stanton/Clinton won the presidency by wooing voters like a patient respectful lover. “Now don’t break our hearts,” a campaign staffer says to Stanton at his inauguration. No coincidence it’s a specialty that’s always been Travolta’s own stock in trade.

Monday, November 3, 2008


Declan Recks's “Eden,” with a script adapted by Eugene O'Brien from his own play, is the latest from the producers of the exhilarating “Once,” and that, along with a couple commendable acting turns from Aidan Kelly and Eileen Walsh as Billy and Breda Farrell, an Irish couple with two kids who find their marriage stagnating after a decade, is pretty much all it's got going for it. Simply put, “Eden” is like knockoff Leigh or Loach, unfocused kitchen-sink realism.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Road to The White House: Jesus Politics

The idea for “Jesus Politics,” a road trip documentary spanning 4000 miles and 17 states in which director Ilan Ziv interviews the religious activist supporters of both Democratic and Republican candidates during the presidential primaries, came when Ziv noticed the prominent role religion was playing in the most recent campaigns. As a veteran of the 1973 war in Israel, Ziv fled his homeland 35 years ago specifically to live in a society in which the separation of church and state was an inalienable right. Stunned and dismayed by the sudden rise in post-9/11 Bible thumping, he decided to investigate. Ironically, what Ziv found reveals more about this immigrant filmmaker’s romantic notion of America than it does about the country itself.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Treat

When Troma Entertainment asked if I’d like to review a “sneak beak” screener of Lloyd Kaufman’s latest Poultrygeist “Night of the Chicken Dead” I hesitated. Not only have I been a vegetarian for over two decades, but my friend Aimee, who I’ve known for nearly that long, is a tireless and inspiring fowl savior for the ASPCA and Farm Sanctuary. Then again I’m a sucker for the whole throwback to the 70s, “let’s put on a no budget midnight show” schlock, especially of early John Waters. Uh-oh. What to do? I decided to check IMDB for a plot synopsis.

“When the American Chicken Bunker, a military-themed fried-chicken chain, builds a restaurant on the site of an ancient Indian burial ground, local protesters aren't the only ones crying fowl! The previous tenants, fueled by a supernatural force, take "possession" of the food and those who eat it, and the survivors discover that they must band together before they themselves become the other white meat! Film lovers have been starved for sustenance. The relentless diet of predictability and pretense Hollywood has been serving up just doesn't cut it. Poultrygeist is hearty food for thought. In Poultrygeist, Troma takes on the fast-food industry – skewering the soulless restaurateurs – in the world's first horror-comedy film to feature zombie chickens, American Indians and a bit of singing and dancing! It's Poultrygeist!”

Well, if it’s “zombie” chickens I figured that was kosher. Though there is some dead bird eating and screwing (it’s a Troma film, people!), the fact that “Poultrygeist” is served deep fried in so much campy gore could do more to pass California’s Proposition 2 animal welfare ballot initiative (profiled in this week’s NY Times Magazine) than the most gruesome factory farming video. And, of course, also because it’s a Troma flick, it’s as silly and harmlessly sweet at its core as “High School Musical 3” (only with lots of girl-on-girl action, explosive bowel movements, references to Abu Ghraib, talking sandwiches – but, hey, the tunes are off-key catchy!)

And speaking of talking sandwiches, my favorite line in “Poultrygeist” comes courtesy of a puppet named Paco who laments, “America isn’t ready to accept a gay Mexican chicken sandwich.” No, Paco – though perhaps there’ll be a ballot measure soon.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Treat Me

If you like what you read drop me a treat. Thank you!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Sexiest Vampire Movie Ever: Daughters of Darkness

Originally posted at SpoutBlog:

The Sexiest Vampire Movie Ever: “Daughters of Darkness”

Most vampire movies suck like most porn, the pleasures of the flesh drained of all life. Fortunately there’s “Daughters of Darkness,” starring the intoxicating Delphine Seyrig as the blonde, femme fatale Countess Elizabeth Bathory, Harry Kümel’s very-70s flick is a sexy roundelay akin to Radley Metzger’s 1973 soft-core “Score,” only in this case the hungry horny couple are the blood lusty Countess and her secretary/lover/protégé Ilona Harczy played by Andrea Rau (with lips to rival Angelina Jolie’s – someone get Brangelina a vampire movie already!), looking like a knockoff Lulu with her flapper haircut. The objects of their carnal obsession, newlyweds Stefan (John Karlen, resembling a cross between Michael J. Fox and Andrew McCarthy but, alas, born a decade too early for a John Hughes film) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet — think Elke Sommer with a French accent) may be unwitting, but Stefan especially is far from innocent. Which gives the standard vampire set up of “Daughters of Darkness” a compelling mystery twist.

And also like Metzger’s “Score,” Kümel’s film is a sumptuous melodrama with a thumping sexual vibe through and through. The tone is set right from the start: an appropriately blue-hued sex scene, jump cuts from Valerie’s ecstatically grasping hand back to naked entwined torsos, Stefan virtually devouring his young bride, burrowing his head into the heaving flesh of her chest, going for the jugular without drawing blood. The entire atmosphere of the film is steamy, as visceral as the Florida summer of “Body Heat.” From the rising and falling suspense string score to the lush, sensuous colors and velvet fabrics of the European resort, as cavernous and creepy as the Overlook Hotel; from the fluid camerawork, the grand high angle and long shots, the noir shadows, the close ups on Seyrig’s flawless face, a playful pixie vixen, nails and lips forever painted blood red.

And boy does Seyrig work those feline fingernails. Even as Stefan dodges introducing Valerie to his disapproving and mysteriously elusive mother, the Oedipal layers run deep. Countess Bathory, placing herself behind Stefan seated in a plush armchair in the front parlor, practically seduces the young man with her hands, fingers dancing along his sweater-clad chest, intimately rubbing his arms, as she and the rich playboy wax rhapsodically about the historical torture and ritual murder of virgins for blood, eyes closed in ecstasy (and both ignoring Valerie as she begs, “Stop! No! Stop!” – attempting in vain to break the hypnosis). The few actual sex scenes pale in comparison to this hot-blooded, erotic encounter.

Yet even golden ingénue Valerie is a bit of a pervert at heart. “You actually enjoyed seeing that dead girl’s body,” she accuses Stefan, explaining why she suddenly fears him as they ride the bus back from Bruges where they just happened to witness the coroners removing the corpse of the latest throat slashing victim. “Just like you enjoy telling me,” Stefan snaps back. “We’re getting to know each other,” he adds before brushing away her hand – that is now reaching for his crotch!

“Daughters of Darkness” seems to say that even the most innocent among us are less than saints, thus ripe for evil’s picking. “I’m just an outmoded character,” the Countess sighs as her silver sequin, mirror ball dress catches the light, defiantly shooting rays at the camera. Though the sly smile on her lips suggests otherwise, that inside every virgin lurks an insatiable slut – and, of course, that vamps never go out of style.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dante In The Andes: Stranded

I never saw Frank Marshall’s “Alive,” the 1993 Ethan Hawke vehicle based on Piers Paul Read’s bestseller about the Uruguayan rugby team that endured a nine-circles-of-hell experience that began in October 1972 when their plane crashed on an Andean glacier en route to a match in Chile, and ended 72 days later with the rescue of 16 of the 45 passengers, all of them emerging with incredible tales of fatal avalanches and last-resort cannibalism. The script is by one of my favorite writers, John Patrick Shanley, but unless the director is Werner Herzog, I tend to be highly skeptical of Hollywoodized "based-on-a-true-story"/"man-against-sadistic-nature" tales (Sean Penn’s endlessly tedious Into The Wild made me feel like I was trapped in the Alaskan wilderness for two hours plus, awaiting rescue by an intrepid editor). Which is why it’s a breath of fresh mountain air to see director Gonzalo Arijón, a childhood friend of many of the survivors, along with his cinematographers Pablo Hernán Zubizarreta and César Charlone (Fernando Meirelles’ DP—who as fate would have it was supposed to be on that very flight but missed it!) lightly and patiently treading the same territory in “Stranded: I’ve Come From A Plane That Crashed On The Mountains.”

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Deliver: The All-Female Remake of Deliverance

Originally posted at SpoutBlog:

“Deliver”: The All-Female Remake of “Deliverance”

Hearing about Jennifer Montgomery’s “Deliver,” an all-female remake of John Boorman’s 1972 “Deliverance,” having its world premiere at BAMcinematek this evening, I got the same feeling I had when my friend Rose told me about her sister’s all-female, Motley Crue tribute band Girls Girls Girls. How exciting! Upending and giving the finger to notions of gender and sexuality always gets me all hot and bothered. As did watching Burt Reynolds strut his sexy stuff in Boorman’s original (with its screenplay and book by that ornery southern, man’s man James Dickey).

So who would take on the Burt Reynolds role of Lewis – the dude who stands apart from the rest of his male bonding, canoe trip comrades? Yes, Jon Voight as family man Ed, Ned Beatty as insurance salesman Bobby and Ronny Cox as the guitar-strumming Drew are all darn good, but it’s Reynolds’ bad boy Lewis who steals the show, nearly upstaging both the mighty river and the mesmerizing, menacing woods. Cocky and virile, looking like a Castro Street clone with his signature moustache, an open leather vest revealing his hirsute chest and beefy biceps – that phallic cigar tucked sensuously between his lips! – Lewis is the alpha antidote to the trio of nerdy, fisherman hat-wearing salesmen (bodies chastely clothed) who he’s talked into joining him on this ill-planned, back to nature retreat. Reynolds’ Lewis even looks like a Greek god as he wields his bow and arrow, spearing fish for his money shot.

And that sexual vibe is always lurking just beneath the surface, popping up every once in awhile like a hungry trout. As the men embark downstream with Lewis barking directions about avoiding rocks, he’s kidded with “Is this how you get your rocks off?” When Ned Beatty’s Bobby gets ready to bed down for the night he muses that he had his first wet dream in a sleeping bag. In the canoe Lewis even asks Voight’s Ed (who protests “I like my life” to the dismissive stud) with a wink, “Why do you come with me on these trips?” Lewis gets a rise out of the fact that Ed and the rest of his followers are attracted to the masculine, fearless, take-charge, Marlboro Man ideal he embodies. When Lewis proudly states that he’s never bought insurance in his life – “not enough risk” – it’s with equal bravado and sly taunt. As he comes to the rescue of his buddy like a knight in shining armor, coolly killing the hillbilly who’s about to sodomize pretty blonde Ed, droplets of water drip sexily down his skin as if even the river is magnetically drawn to him.

And speaking of the infamous rape scene, how on earth would Montgomery’s “Deliver” pull that off? I wondered. Physically, it couldn’t be much of a challenge (stick a dildo in the hands of a sadistic mountain woman and you’re all set), but metaphorically wasn’t that, well, pointless? The rape of Bobby in Boorman’s original is already both literal and metaphoric (payback for the “city boys’” raping of rural lands throughout history), so isn’t gender an irrelevant concept in a film about social class – The Man above manhood? These questions stayed in my head even as I tuned in to find out if “Deliver” would deliver.

Montgomery’s video remake is set in the Catskills (along a river really called, I kid you not, the Beaverkill), and that’s pretty much where the fun ends. Using uncharismatic, self-conscious, stilted, experimental filmmakers/academics in lieu of actual actors (Montgomery and her friends have all the sexual chemistry of Barney and Fred, not Voight and Reynolds), playing a combination of the original male characters and themselves, renders Montgomery’s take a sort of Brechtian exercise meets home movie. Bored halfway through, I thought, “Perhaps I need Cliffs Notes.” So I turned to all I had — the press notes:

This is the moment (the rape) when a seemingly simple exercise in gender inversion becomes complicated. In the original, the iconic male hillbillies’ hostility toward bourgeois men is based largely on land entitlement. Few women can claim that history of entitlement, and the Catskills are not hillbilly country. Most importantly, there is the false notion that women do not pose a sexual threat to one another. What, then, motivates this rape? At what point do we read it as an unconvincing imitation of a “real” rape? It is the aim of this film to pose critical questions about the gendering of nature, homosocial sexual violence, and the act of filmmaking itself.

Uh-huh. Leaving aside the “false notion that women do not pose a sexual threat to one another” (Who subscribes to this false notion? If Rosie O’Donnell were a drunk who didn’t take no for an answer, I’d sure run like hell!), I put Montgomery’s question back to her. What, then, motivates this rape? Nothing in “Deliver,” as far as I could tell, making what was originally a comment on the age-old hostility between the dirt poor and the comfortably condescending middle class, completely unbelievable (even as female-on-female sodomy is unquestionably plausible, just not in this context), rendering the hillbilly rapist as deep as a horror movie murderer (though at least Michael Myers had a back-story). What are mountain men with very specific axes to grind in “Deliverance” are merely women hillbillies gone wild in “Deliver.” I just couldn’t shake the sense that even as Montgomery boldly questions Boorman’s film, she neglects to question the validity of her remaking it. Indeed, if she truly was troubled by Boorman and Dickey’s “hegemonic structures of gender,” as she states in her press notes, wouldn’t it have made more sense for her female hillbillies to have taken revenge on patronizing men?

But perhaps I’m being too hard on an accomplished artist with a limited budget. In all honesty, I wanted to rave about “Deliver,” I really did. But stripping Boorman’s original of sex appeal, class conflict and its southern roots, and replacing it with, uh…nothing, leaves only half a movie. (And I’ll add that Peggy Ahwesh in the Burt Reynolds role just doesn’t do it for me.) That said, should Montgomery decide to remake “The Women” with Zizek in the Norma Shearer role, I’ll be the first in line at BAM.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Working Moms: Who Does She Think She Is?

I’ll admit, as a person lacking in any parental instinct whatsoever, that I thought twice before agreeing to review Pamela Tanner Boll’s “Who Does She Think She Is?” a documentary that asks “Is it possible to be both a mother and an artist?” I’m about as interested in creative mommies as I am in quantum physics, yet that’s exactly why I decided to give it a look. If Boll, the co-executive producer of “Born Into Brothels,” can inspire and enlighten an artist who says a silent prayer of “Thank heaven that’s not me!” every time I see a mother pushing a stroller, then she’s succeeded in crafting a film that reaches beyond its limited theme. That she does so both with humility and driven inquisitiveness is an added bonus.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Soviet Story

“The Soviet Story” is an ambitious journey from "The Extermination of Ukrainians 32/33" (the words announced in bold, graphic-novel style—as are all the other "chapters" in the documentary) through "Preparing the New World Order" to "Soviet-SS Collaboration," shedding light on the "real" Soviet ideology that Eastern Europe would rather sweep under the rug. Which probably accounts for the effigy of director Edvins Snore being burnt outside the Latvian embassy in Moscow by Young Russia thugs—who never bothered to see the film—upon its premiere.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

“Candy Girl” Not Too Sweet

A shout out to my fan turned friend (and fellow author) Patrick Whitehurst, who just finished reviewing stripper-turned-Oscar-winning-screenwriter Diablo Cody’s Candy Girl at his Literary Turns. I’m both flattered and humbled by the mention.

“As an erotic memoir, (“Candy Girl”) pales in comparison to others on the market, such as Lauren Wissot’s “Under My Master’s Wings.” Both follow a “year in the life of,” though “Wings” holds the distinction of being the most ambitious.

Wissot’s 2006 memoir, which details her year as a submissive under the yoke of a gay-for-pay stripper, carries a sense of originality that cannot be duplicated and certainly not guessed at over coffee at Denny’s. Those readers looking for a slice of life that can’t be found in their own pie would do well to sample Wissot’s creative existence.

There is little that can be called mundane within the pages of Wissot’s erotic memoir, from simple, humorous descriptions of one’s carnal appetite to voracious carnal mayhem; her tale is solid proof that an erotic memoir can be an impressive force in the literary world.

Those seeking anything “Cody” should visit her social networking sites. For those seeking an erotic memoir with a bite, read Wissot.”

The House Next Door at Grassroots Tavern Podcast: “A Whiff of Whiteness"


Our first episode sans both John and Vadim (don't fret THE FUTURIST! and friends, they'll be back next round) features House contributors Steven Boone and Lauren Wissot on the weighty subject of “Ballast” and the nutritive effects of “Hunger.” Texts referenced in the discussion include Armond White and Ed Gonzalez's reviews (in “New York Press” and “Slant Magazine,” respectively) of “Ballast”; more of Lauren on “Hunger” can be found at “Slant.”

To hear us talk film, race and economics in a crowded bar visit The House Next Door.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Working Girls (and Boy): Our Five Favorite Movie Hookers

Originally posted at SpoutBlog:

Working Girls (and Boy): Our Five Favorite Movie Hookers

From the turn-of-the-century Northwest to seedy 70’s NYC, from an 80’s morgue to 90’s Japan to the modern-day midwest, the oldest profession in the world is onscreen to stay. Here are five timeless performances that are worth the peep show.

Julie Christie as Constance Miller in Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”

Julie Christie is exhilarating in her Oscar-nominated turn as the smart and sexy Constance Miller, a no-nonsense businesswoman in the wild and wicked Northwest who just happens to be in the business of selling sex. In fact, it’s Warren Beatty’s dream chaser John McCabe who is the bimbo to Miller’s sly fox. Like a whore himself, he needs the professional madam’s charms and chops to make a living more than she needs him as a partner in their bordello/tavern venture. Sex-positive feminism at its finest.

Jodie Foster as Iris Steensma in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”

Oscar loves hookers. Astonishingly wise and mature beyond her years, Jodie Foster delivers an Academy Award nominated portrayal of teen prostitute Iris Steensma in Scorsese’s 1976 “Taxi Driver” that is both streetwise and viscerally vulnerable. Whether Iris is slow dancing with Harvey Keitel’s pimp Sport Matthew, or conversing with Robert De Niro’s damaged Travis Bickle she is always the focus of attention in the scene, the object of desire, less an underage “sex slave” than a screwed up Lolita who’s learned far too young how to use her sexuality to control any situation. That Foster intensely studied the girl who played Iris’ best friend, a hooker in real life, is readily apparent by this focused, nuanced, nonjudgmental performance.

Shelley Long as Belinda Keaton in Ron Howard’s “Night Shift”

Normally I’m not a fan of director Ron Howard, but his bizarrely funny 1982 “Night Shift” allowed Shelley Long to shine as hooker Belinda Keaton in a way that showed she could hold her own onscreen opposite heavier hitters like Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton. So what if the premise of a nerdy Joe named Chuck Lumley (Winkler nerdy? Take that, Fonzie!) becoming a pimp to a fur-clad, cliché wrapped whore, turning the morgue he and Michael Keaton’s Bill Blazejowski work at into a brothel, is silly? The ensemble cast pulls it off, ushering in the crazy entrepreneurial 80’s in screwball style.

Miho Nikaido, Ai in Ryu Murakami’s “Tokyo Decadence”

Ryu Murakami’s 1991 “Tokyo Decadence” is one of my all-time favorite S&M flicks, not least because Miho Nikaido gives a refreshingly understated performance as Ai, a professional slave/call girl whose highly erotic acts of submission blew the mind of even this hardcore pervert. No need to “act sexy” if the script calls for your character to be forcibly fitted with a vibrator while being degraded at the hands of a sadistic yakuza john. Nikaido sizzles in collar and heels.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil McCormick in Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin”

“Mysterious Skin,” the 2004 movie based on Scott Heim’s novel about two teenage boys forever haunted by their respective childhoods, is the film with which director Gregg Araki finally grew up, his most mature and poignant flick to date. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s young hustler Neil McCormick is the male Iris Steensma with more of a back-story. The fact that Neil was abused by his Little League coach – and embraced that abuse rather than allowed himself to become paralyzed by it – is apparent in every downward spiral move Neil pursues. Joseph Gordon-Levitt invests the character with the same sexual knowingness as Foster does Iris, that of a child whose only power in the world is through simultaneously wielding the body as instrument of seduction and red-blooded weapon.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

WALL STREET and Wall Street: The Lasting Appeal of Gordon Gekko

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

WALL STREET and Wall Street: The Lasting Appeal of Gordon Gekko

Stanley Weiser, co-writer of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” penned a terrific piece titled “’Wall Street’s’ message was not Greed is Good,” for The Los Angeles Times on Sunday, in which he lamented the mythologizing of Michael Douglas’ master of the universe Gordon Gekko with the following:

Gekko’s character was written to create an engaging, charming, but deceitful and brutal being. I have nevertheless run into quite a number of younger people, who upon discovering that I co-wrote the film, wax rhapsodic about it . . . but often for the wrong reasons.

A typical example would be a business executive or a younger studio development person spouting something that goes like this: “The movie changed my life. Once I saw it I knew that I wanted to get into such and such business. I wanted to be like Gordon Gekko.”

The flattery is disarming and ego-stoking, but then neurons fire and alarm bells go off. “You have succeeded with this movie, but you’ve also failed. You gave these people hope to become greater asses than they may already be.”

While I can understand Weiser’s horror in this idolization of amoral Gekko, especially in the wake of the real Wall Street’s collapse, I also couldn’t help but think back to a column I wrote in which I dissected Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” Kubrick also was sufficiently horrified by the hero-worshipping of Alex, by the copycat crimes by droog wannabes that occurred in England after the film’s release (enough to yank it from distribution in that country). But the idea that either Weiser or Kubrick would be shocked (“utterly shocked” in Weiser’s sarcastic appraisal of Gekko’s view of the financial meltdown) by this pedestal raising strikes me as either naive or disingenuous. Put sexy actors in passionate roles and what do you think is gonna happen?

For people are attracted to Gekko, they want to be like the ruthless financier, for the same reason they’re attracted to sociopathic Alex – not because he’s greedy or evil, but because he’s passionate. Villains are often sexy because they’re the ones onscreen with the most creative fire in their bellies. For Gekko money is just tangible proof of power, a by-product of desire, not a goal in and of itself. If someone is inspired to be like Gekko it’s not the trampling on bodies that is the allure, but the love of the game, of the hustle. (I’d venture to guess Gordon Gekko in jail would make for a fascinating sequel. I’m sure he’d still be wheeling and dealing with the inmates – as addicted to the hustle as a past-his-prime fighter to the ring.) Like with Alex the bodies that pile up are merely collateral damage (save for Terence Stamp’s Larry Wildman who like a rival Mafioso had it coming – and Donald Trumped Gekko in the end).

For lest we forget, that infamous “greed is good” speech also includes a reference to the “greed of love” – for it’s all the same to Gekko. Greed is only the catalyst towards pursuing passion. Gekko’s point that everyone who excels at what they do is greedy is the simple, unvarnished truth. (Even those who society deems “selfless” – the Mother Theresa’s of the world – do what they do because it makes them feel good, the more they give the more they get back in the adrenaline high of love.) Gekko’s enthusiasm – his love of the financial chess games – is addictive. It’s the rush of seeing how much you can get away with – how fast you can go without crashing – how close and for how long you can dance on the edge. Who wouldn’t want this ultimate high? “Better than sex” is how Gekko describes his first real estate deal – and no wonder. Power is one mind-blowing orgasm.

In other words, the recent Wall Street woes could be read as a result of too much unbridled, unchecked passion, and not the fault of greed – or passion – itself. Weiser also notes that “After so many encounters with Gekko admirers or wannabes, I wish I could go back and rewrite the greed line to this: ‘Greed is Good. But I’ve never seen a Brinks truck pull up to a cemetery.’” Yes, Gordon Gekko certainly would agree that everything in moderation, including sex and greed, is good. For as Gekko learned over two decades ago, and Wall Street’s titans only two weeks ago, the problem lies not with corporate capitalism, but with our ever-changing definition of moderation itself.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Living Theatre: Up Close And Personal

Hanon Reznikov died this past spring before he could complete The Living Theatre’s latest production “Eureka!” based on a prose poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Like Hanon (who studied biophysics at Yale before he found his calling with the troupe) Poe was interested in the synthesis of art and science, penning a work that explores the creation of the universe from Big Bang to end (at a time when most scientists disavowed such visionary thinking). But the tell-tale heart of art carries on, and thanks to Judith Malina who has finished her partner’s work, transformed Poe’s poem into not a play but prose for the stage, Hanon’s legacy continues in a thrilling multimedia production infused with that collective spirit he fell in love with forty years ago.

To read my theater review debut visit Theater Online.

And for some sensational photos visit musical director Patrick Grant's site.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

New York Film Festival: Hunger

It's fascinating that Steve McQueen, a Turner Prize-winning black artist born and bred in a land that defines itself by "country first" (and is having its own faith shaken at a time when many young Brits are defining themselves as "Muslim first") would create a film that subtly uncovers his homeland's hypocrisy. For the British believe in "country first" only when that country is England, which is why Irish Republican nationalism (Ireland's own version of "country first") historically has been so offensive, thus brutally repressed. In contrast, America has always been a land of identity politics, defining our groups as "African-American," "Mexican-American," "Jewish-American," the "American" always second in importance. But in England, it's always "Anglo" first (McQueen is not "Caribbean-British" or "African-English"), an offensive veil that the Provisional IRA fought to rip away.

Since McQueen is first and foremost a prestigious visual artist, I expected the images in “Hunger,” his Camera d'Or-nabbing debut feature about the infamous hunger strike staged at Northern Ireland's Maze Prison in 1981 after leader Bobby Sands and his fellow inmates' special status as political prisoners was revoked, to be stunning. What I wasn't prepared for was an equally assured, mind-blowing sound design and stage-worthy script. The term "art film" has been batted around, posted like a sticky note to so many movies since the time of its conception that it's hard to type the two words together with a straight face. And yet “Hunger,” with all its visual, sonic and editing elements flowing together in harmony like a five-star, six-course meal, exemplifies the phrase. McQueen's film is a nuanced masterpiece that never flaunts its artistry, but uses it humbly to serve the all-important story.

Read the rest of my review at my Slant debut.

Hooker with a Heart (and Hand) of Gold: Irina Palm

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Irina Palm: Hooker With A Heart (and Hand) Of Gold

In the 9/21 edition of “The NY Times Magazine,” Randy Cohen, a.k.a. “The Ethicist,” responding to a writer inquiring about the morality of a professor patronizing a strip club, offered this little admonishment, “Nobody should attend strip clubs, those purveyors of sexism as entertainment. Strip shows are to gender what minstrel shows are to race. But while I endorse your conclusion about these sad displays.”

To which I respond, Oh, brother. (Yes, who better an expert on female strippers than a gay guy who pens a column for The Grey Lady?) Between this sweeping, condescending – not to mention unethical – judgment of “gentlemen’s clubs,” and the latest crackdown on NYC’s houses of domination (which sent the “NY Post” into a “slap-happy” tizzy) I needed an uplifting, sex-positive view of the industry ASAP. So what better time to Netflix over to London to try out “Irina Palm”?

Sam Garbarski’s lovely gem of a film starring Marianne Faithfull as a grandmother who chooses prostitution to pay for travel expenses to Australia for a last-ditch operation for her sick grandson, is really a journey to self-empowerment, as Faithfull’s Maggie saves both her grandson and herself through the discovery of her own sexuality. Faithfull’s portrayal of a working class widow forced to take matters into her own hands (or rather “palm”) for the first time in her life is as honest and nuanced as anything the royal acting dames of England have done in recent years. Even in her sixties, Faithfull – Mick Jagger’s ex and the great-great-niece of “Venus in Furs” author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – knows she has eroticism in her blood, which she smartly downplays in favor of her maternal side, letting her natural sexiness merely peek out from beneath a frumpy winter coat and dowdy hairdo.

After being turned down at the bank and at the unemployment office for being too old, desperate Maggie sees a sign for a “hostess” position in a storefront. Walking through a garishly lit hallway to the beat of a throbbing sound system she finds she has stumbled into a seedy strip club, and right into the office of club owner Miki, played by the equally middle-aged, equally sexy Miki Manojlovic (best known for his work with Emir Kusturica). They have a hilarious exchange from across Miki’s desk, which begins when Maggie is told that “hostess” is a euphemism. “Do you know what a euphemism is?” Miki inquires. “No,” Maggie hesitantly replies. “I didn’t either – my lawyer had to tell me,” Miki deadpans then defines the word before adding, “Hostess is a euphemism for whore.” Without missing a beat he asks to see her hands, swiftly decides she’s got great jack off mitts, smooth and sensual. The shaken Maggie demurs, gets up and makes her way towards the door, only to be stopped in her tracks by Miki’s offer – six hundred a week to start.

Inevitably, the lure of easy money returns Maggie to “Sexy World”, its no frills “live nude show” sign out front, where she’s taught the lucrative skill of jerking off guys through a glory hole in a wall by Luisa, a pretty bored brunette with an Eastern European accent. The camera stays on Luisa’s upper torso and face as she matter-of-factly explains her ritualized method, some anonymous dude on the other side panting and moaning until she ends with “Remember, you are in control,” as we hear the guy come. Luisa shrugs, washes up and in her no nonsense way squirts lotion onto Maggie’s palm before taking the terrified woman through the motions, the look on Maggie’s mortified face funny and endearing. Riding home on the bus at the end of the day Maggie can’t stop staring at her hands, these suddenly foreign objects of sex and desire (and female power).

What follows is a wonderful workaday scene worthy of the Dardenne brothers as Maggie, seated alone in the dark dingy room, presses the red button that signals for the next customer, waits, then lotions up and begins on the unseen dick, her movements as awkward as if she were kneading bread with one hand. Her wrist begins to ache as if she were working on a factory assembly line until finally the day shift is over, the club morphing into an evening strip joint. On her way out she runs into Luisa who befriends the still unsure woman, takes her for a drink. Maggie returns the kind gesture by opening up, confiding in her colleague how she became the “wanking widow.”

But Maggie’s new life can’t help but clash with the old. Her equally sheltered, frumpy friends express surprise that she landed a job. “A job? Maggie can’t do anything, can she?” one gossips snidely to another before the camera cuts to Maggie in her small sparse room, making a load of money off men’s loads. She becomes virtually transformed by prostitution – finds her “calling,” the one thing she’s better at than anyone else – and begins to glamorize a bit, a touch of lipstick now that she’s been christened “Irina Palm.” After Miki covertly “tries her out” and decides he wants her to work more days and longer hours Maggie seizes the opportunity with a good dose of chutzpah – says she needs 6,000 pounds right away, agreeing to work for the next eight weeks, earning 800 per week and letting him keep the rest as interest. Miki reaches out to shake on the deal after adding his own provision that if she cheats him he’ll kill her. As their hands meet the realization that Maggie’s hand job talent is her trump card, giving her an empowerment she’s never been allowed before, is crystal clear. This is a woman who finally knows her worth.

As the men line up to experience the notorious “Irina Palm,” Maggie starts to take pride in both her work and herself, nailing a scenic picture to an empty wall, placing a vase of flowers next to the lotion on the table. The job becomes nearly as humdrum as secretarial work with Maggie easily flipping through the pages of a magazine with her free hand, tuning out the orgasms. She even gets “penis elbow” (a carpal tunnel cousin to “tennis elbow”), which forces her to wear a sling and switch to her left palm. And still the men come and come.

Including Dave, owner of a rival Soho strip club called Sex-O-Rama, who upon discovering Irina’s identity offers Maggie a job that will give her 15% of the earnings of the girls she trains plus her own salary. Shocked that she’s so in demand Maggie’s even more stunned when, after disclosing that she still owes Miki, Dave assures her, “I’ll take care of it.” With bargaining chips galore Maggie returns to tell Miki of Dave’s offer. A jealous Miki abruptly dismisses her but just as quickly changes his mind and chases her down, which leads to the pair having dinner together. The tale of Maggie’s sexual awakening begins to expand into a sweet love story between two middle-aged industry workers each growing to mutually respect the other.

Which gives Maggie an even greater freedom, the strength to be herself without shame. Emboldened she joins her old maid friends for afternoon tea and tells all, taking special pride in the fact that Miki “the club owner” says she has the best right hand in London. “I’m Irina Palm. I’m the best,” she announces her face aglow (a bittersweet statement as Faithfull never lets us forget that this is the first time in Maggie’s life she’s ever been good at anything). “Irina Palm?” an incredulous frump wonders. “Stage name,” Maggie continues. “Everyone has one. Oh, these look delicious, Jane. Did you make them yourself?” she adds, picking up a pastry. Of course, the gossipy women can’t help but inquire about methods, about length, until Maggie, having had enough, stretches her arm. “Touch of penis elbow,” she sighs then takes her leave.

Now that Maggie’s able to call her friends on their bullshit – even publicly lets snobby Jane know she knew all about her affair with her dead husband “and how much you like to be spanked,” as he confessed before he died – and in the next instant confidently go about her shopping, she’s become a new woman. She’s strong enough to feel the pain of her son, who discovers the origin of the money for his own son’s operation and orders her to quit, ride it out, then reclaim her life for herself. Her last minute decision not to ship off with the family to Australia, but to return to “Sexy World” bags in hand, the stoic Miki rushing over to kiss her passionately for the very first time, is not only touching – it’s the power of sex at its unapologetic peak.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

What Would A Real Director Do?: Choke

“Choke” – Clark Gregg’s film adaptation of the book by literary darling Chuck Palahniuk—is, according to the press notes, “the subversively comedic tale of Victor Mancini, con artist, sex addict, Colonial village re-enactor, angst-filled son, serial restaurant choker … and unsuspecting romantic antihero for our unsettling times.” This jam-packed one-liner should give some indication as to what Gregg was up against in attempting to translate Palahniuk’s prose to the screen. David Fincher had an equally difficult challenge with the author’s “Fight Club,” but unlike Fincher, Gregg is an actor and first-time filmmaker hailing from the theater world (a founding member and former artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company) whose only qualifications to script-write and direct the cult novel seem to be friends with money, a love of the book, and Palahniuk’s blessing. Well, sometimes love and money and a pat on the head just ain’t enough.

To read the rest of my smackdown visit The House Next Door. (And, yes, I do feel guilty about panning the film after interviewing my fellow Random Houser Chuck Palahniuk, but hey, he didn’t direct!)