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.