Nancy (2018, dir. Christina Choe)

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The only way to describe the psychological drama Nancy is as a mixture of Liza Johnson’s film Return, as far as being a low-budget portrait of a woman in small-town America whose life is quietly spiraling downward, and of Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West, with Choe’s debut feature being a somber take on a woman using media (including social media) to escape her damaged life and create a new one. In all three films, a woman searches for a cure-all that will fill the emptiness in her soul, craving the validation that she believes she needs to define her identity.

The main character of Nancy is Nancy Freeman (Andrea Riseborough), a 35-year-old woman who lives on autopilot. She works temp jobs in and around her upstate New York town and spends the rest of her time taking care of her overbearing mother, Betty (Ann Dowd), who is afflicted by Parkinson’s disease. In any available moments, Nancy stares at the screens of her phone or computer, seemingly addicted to the glow. She uses technology to gain sympathy from strangers; on a blog, under the pseudonym “Becca,” Nancy writes of the grief she has experienced since the death of her daughter. Although she lies about more than her name – including when and how her daughter died – Nancy wants so badly to experience an emotional connection that she goes on a lunch date with one of her readers, Jeb (John Leguizamo), maintaining the deception for as long as possible.

Soon after Nancy’s last encounter with Jeb, Betty dies suddenly from a stroke. This renders Nancy even more depressed and listless than usual. She finds renewed purpose just a few days later, however, when she sees a TV news interview with Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron) and Leo Lynch (Steve Buscemi) on the thirtieth anniversary of their daughter Brooke’s disappearance. The resemblance between Brooke and Nancy is shocking; the latter realizes that she has an opportunity to potentially gain the loving parents she has never had, although she can’t anticipate the toll it will take on her or on the hopeful couple when she insinuates herself into their lives.

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A lot of little details in Nancy add up to make it compelling viewing. The preternaturally large, haunting blue eyes and stark black hair of Andrea Riseborough enhance her character’s aura of detachment, a demeanor that is complicated, one presumes, by a lifetime of sadness. (Childhood traumas are alluded to, though we never learn the full extent of what Nancy endured.) I didn’t mention it in the first paragraph, but another film that Nancy reminds me of is Bug, the William Friedkin thriller about a mother mired so deep in mourning and denial for her vanished child that folie à deux with an evidently mentally ill man is their only logical answer to so much pain. Maybe this is a stretch, but I think Nancy also bears comparison with another little-seen drama released this year, Allure, in which the two female protagonists (one of whom has a history of childhood sexual abuse) yearn for independence from their fractured families, sliding into a dangerous relationship that fools the both of them into a false sense of security until reality becomes too glaring to ignore.

On the other side of the camera, Zoë White’s cinematography for Nancy captures the chilly austerity of New York State in winter, while Peter Raeburn’s score has a melodramatic sound that alternately evokes memories of Angelo Badalamenti’s work on “Twin Peaks” and of Cliff Martinez’s music for sex, lies, and videotape. Most intriguing, however, is the decision made by Christina Choe and editor David Gutnik to restrict the film’s images to the boxlike 4:3 aspect ratio for the first half hour, until the point when Ellen invites Nancy to come to her house. When Nancy packs her bags – as well as her cat, Paul – to embark on a road trip that may result in a brand new life, her world literally and figuratively opens up, demonstrated by the screen’s slow expansion to the “cinematic” 16:9 ratio as she leaves her dull existence behind.

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Getting back to discussing the acting: besides Andrea Riseborough’s strong performance, J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi do wonderful jobs as Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, particularly the always underrated Smith-Cameron, who has received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards. Ann Dowd and John Leguizamo also make memorable impressions, despite limited screen time. I like that the director cast Buscemi and Leguizamo against type, granting them space to inhabit characters who establish quite easily that they are gentle, thoughtful men who discuss their feelings and are not afraid to show their care and concern for others. I have to admit that I didn’t entirely “get” the ending scenes of Nancy when I saw the film for the first time this past Friday night, but after watching again while simultaneously listening to Christina Choe’s commentary track on the DVD, certain themes and narrative choices appeared to come together more effectively. I appreciate films that give me more ideas to contemplate the second time around.

The Favourite (2018, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

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Run, don’t walk, to your nearest theater to see The Favourite, the new period-piece comedy from Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) that I currently deem the best new film I have seen in 2018. It hits all my sweet spots as a viewer: political intrigue, historical accuracy, absurd humor, extravagant costumes and production design, creative cinematography and, most important, three lead actresses who give marvelous performances as richly complex characters.

The role of “the favourite” alternately belongs to Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and to her conniving cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), as they curry favor with Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in England circa the early 1700s. To some extent, Sarah – elevated to near-royal status by her marriage to Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) – has the upper hand since she has been Anne’s closest confidante, as well as her lover, for decades. Abigail, however, is a far more deceitful person, having learned as a teenager how to adapt to difficult situations when her father lost her to another man in a card game. Upon gaining employment in Queen Anne’s court, Abigail quickly maneuvers her way into Anne’s good graces. The question of who has allegiance to whom tears at these women, even as they trade snarky barbs at each others’ expense. Here, malice is often served with a smile.

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A few men do their utmost to proclaim power over the three women, like Lord Harley (an uproarious Nicholas Hoult), who seeks out every possible opportunity to pull Queen Anne’s strings and get his way in matters of state; Lord Masham (Joe Alwyn), who pursues Abigail with unabated passion; and the Earl of Godolphin (James Smith), who is the proud owner of Horatio, known far and wide as “the fastest duck in the city” (yes, Lanthimos shows us a duck race!). But no matter what developments occur in the plot regarding England’s position during the War of the Spanish Succession, these men remain peripheral to Anne, Sarah and Abigail’s intersecting lives. I’m not sure if any male director has made a more pointedly feminist film this year than Yorgos Lanthimos.

Go see The Favourite on the big screen and you will see why it is a shoo-in for a mass of Oscar nominations. Among the film’s many top-notch accomplishments are the direction by Yorgos Lanthimos, the witty screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, costumes designed by Sandy Powell and the combined art direction, production design and set decoration by assorted masters of their respective crafts (the attention to detail on those sets is remarkable). I would also like to give special attention to Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, which constantly utilizes either extreme low angles or a fisheye lens so that the distorted images can visually mimic the absurd, borderline surreal nature of the events that transpire within the walls of Queen Anne’s castle. The icing on the cake is the soundtrack, filled with era-appropriate music by Baroque composers Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Purcell, in addition to later works by Schubert and Schumann. Finally, there is the song that plays over the end credits; no spoilers, but it happens to be my all-time favorite (ha!) recording by one of the world’s greatest recording artists, so you can imagine how tickled I was to hear it – the perfect garnish to top off Lanthimos’ delectable film.

My Favorite Albums of 2018

Now that we’ve reached the end of December, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite albums from this year. I’m particularly proud of the emphasis that I placed on listening to new music by women, which will be obvious as you make your way through the post. As I hope is the case every time I make these annual rankings, my goal is not so much that anyone should be awed by my short paragraphs of explanation (doubtful since my schedule didn’t allow me enough time to edit my writing too closely – let me know if there are any weird errors!), but rather that my mentions of these artists will spread positive awareness of them. If I can share my appreciation for a singer or band and subsequently inspire someone to become a fan, the work will have been worth it. Have a good time with this, everybody!

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15. Seinabo Sey, I’m a Dream

Standout Tracks: “Never Get Used To,” “I Owe You Nothing,” “My Eye,” “Truth,” “Breathe,” “Good in You”

I might never have heard of Gambian-Swedish singer-songwriter Seinabo Sey if I didn’t regularly check out Pitchfork reviews, although luckily I started listening to I’m a Dream before reading Katherine St. Asaph‘s piece, which unfairly marks Sey’s album with a 6.0 grade. Sey’s second album, following Pretend (2015), continues her interest in marrying soul/R&B with pop, moving through different tempi to exhibit her perspectives on romantic and familial relationships. Most inspirational among the songs is “Breathe,” an empowering reminder from Sey to herself that no matter what hardships she endures, she is valuable and magical.

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14. Black Belt Eagle Scout, Mother of My Children

Standout Tracks: “Soft Stud,” “Keyboard,” “Mother of My Children,” “Yard,” “I Don’t Have You in My Life,” “Sam, A Dream”

There may not have been a more impressive debut single in 2018 than “Soft Stud,” a searing ode to unrequited lust. The rest of Katherine Paul’s album is fairly quiet by comparison, but her first full-length project as Black Belt Eagle Scout burns with longing. A self-described “radical indigenous queer feminist,” Paul draws from her experiences growing up in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington to tell stories both deeply personal to her and universal in the desires they communicate. Album closer “Sam, A Dream” is the best example of how Paul blends those two concepts, taking a minimalist lyrical approach to expressing her love for the song’s subject before spending a solid two and a half minutes on a guitar solo to finish the record, a sound so beautiful that you feel like you’re floating when you hear it.

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13. Blossoms, Cool Like You

Standout Tracks: “Cool Like You,” “Unfaithful,” “How Long Will This Last?” “Between the Eyes,” “Lying Again,” “Love Talk”

For those of us who love a good tune that pays homage to 80s New Wave and synthpop, Blossoms are your band. They don’t seem to have made anywhere near as much of an impact in the US as they have in their native UK, and British critics weren’t exactly bowled over by this sophomore album (despite it hitting #4 on the charts), but I’ll bet that most of today’s young American bands would kill to put out a single half as catchy as “Cool Like You,” or anything close to the upbeat yet still sort of bittersweet perfection of “Love Talk.”

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12. Shannon Shaw, Shannon in Nashville

Standout Tracks: “Bring Her the Mirror,” “Broke My Own,” “Leather, Metal, Steel,” “Love I Can’t Explain,” “Cold Pillows,” “Make Believe”

Stepping away from her role as frontwoman of Oakland, California’s surf-punk outfit Shannon and the Clams, Shannon Shaw’s debut solo album Shannon in Nashville is an entrancing collection of songs deeply inspired by 60s girl groups, Roy Orbison and, of course, Dusty “Dusty in Memphis” Springfield. Even if you’d never heard Shaw’s voice before now, it would instantly become iconic to your ears thanks to melodies that sound just as timeless as their predecessors from half a century ago.

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11. Say Sue Me, Where We Were Together

Standout Tracks: “Let It Begin,” “But I Like You,” “Old Town,” “After Falling Asleep,” “About the Courage to Become Somebody’s Past,” “Coming to the End”

Korean-American indie rock band Say Sue Me have a sweet, light touch that makes both their snappy power-pop efforts like “But I Like You” and “Old Town” and also somewhat more serious-minded guitar showcases like “Let It Begin,” “About the Courage to Become Somebody’s Past” (an instrumental that gives me real “This Magic Moment” vibes) and “Coming to the End” equally appealing. I don’t speak or understand Korean, so I don’t know how lead singer Sumi Choi’s lyrics for “After Falling Asleep” translate, but the fact that I love it anyway is a testament to the fact that fantastic music always transcends barriers of language.

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10. Robyn, Honey

Standout Tracks: “Missing U,” “Human Being” (feat. Zhala), “Baby Forgive Me,” “Send to Robin Immediately,” “Honey,” “Ever Again”

I didn’t expect to love Robyn’s newest album upon first listen back in October, but now I do, so here we are. A couple of months spent absorbing her woozy beats has made me appreciate Robyn’s ability to evoke moods that feel specific to her particular talent as an artist. The loss that inspired the album – the death of one of her closest friends, Christian Falk, in 2014 – pervades nearly all of the tracks, but they are relatable and will still make you want to dance, closer to light than to darkness. Even in songs like “Human Being” and “Baby Forgive Me,” where the rhythms and (to cite the latter’s credits in the album liner notes) “sad robot voice” play with notions of human artistic creation juxtaposed with machine-manufactured products, Robyn herself is always in front and center, and in the album’s crown jewel, the title track “Honey,” her maturity as a storyteller is evident.

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9. cupcakKe, Eden

Standout Tracks: “PetSmart,” “Cereal and Water,” “Garfield,” “Prenup,” “Blackjack,” “A.U.T.I.S.M.”

All Hail Queen cupcakKe. On her second album of the year, following January’s Ephorize, the Chicago rapper continues to show why she’s one of the best women in the game. “PetSmart” starts things off incredibly, exhibiting one entertaining brag after another, then the rest of the album displays more of her often laugh-out-loud humor, endless pop culture references, a bunch of her quintessential sex-centric jams (”Garfield,” “Typo,” “Blackjack”) and a song dedicated to people on the autism spectrum (”A.U.T.I.S.M.”). Every now and then there are moments that indicate that cupcakKe still has room to grow, like when she uses the R slur on “Garfield,” but ultimately her heart is in the right place; besides the aforementioned “A.U.T.I.S.M.,” she has also recorded songs in support of the LGBTQ+ community (”LGBT,” “Crayons”), so I am certain that she’ll eventually learn from her mistakes. As one YouTube commenter wrote on one of her videos: “She should be where Cardi B is.” Indeed.

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8. Chelsea Jade, Personal Best

Standout Tracks: “Ride or Cry,” “Pitch Dark,” “Colour Sum,” “Laugh It Off,” “Over Sensitive,” “High Beam”

New Zealand-based singer-songwriter Chelsea Jade has not yet hit it big in America like her younger compatriot, Lorde, but there is an ample proof on Personal Best that Jade can craft earworms with memorable hooks and intelligent lyrics. (Seriously, when was the last time you heard the word liminal used in a pop song, as Jade does on “Laugh It Off”?) She has her foot in the door in America as a lyricist, credited as one of the writers of this year’s Chainsmokers single “You Owe Me,” but one hopes that the “Accidental Dream Pop Hero” of Auckland, NZ will claim her own chart-topping stardom one day.

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7. Beach House, 7

Standout Tracks: “Lemon Glow,” “L’Inconnue,” “Black Car,” “Lose Your Smile,” “Girl of the Year,” “Last Ride”

I thought I knew what to expect from a Beach House album after following their career for the past few years, but “Lemon Glow” and “Black Car” hit me like gorgeous sledgehammers anyway when they were released earlier this year, still taking my breath away every time I hear them. I don’t know how Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally manage it, but they keep finding sophisticated ways to update their mining of the same musical territory in a tried-and-true comfort zone. Beach House’s secret seems to be that they have deduced all the algorithms necessary to hypnotize listeners. 7 is perhaps less exciting to me than the duo’s last album, Thank Your Lucky Stars, since the freshness of first being introduced to their music in 2015 has faded, but I’m glad to report that their new songs are absolutely worthy of praise.

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6. Soccer Mommy, Clean

Standout Tracks: “Still Clean,” “Cool,” “Your Dog,” “Last Girl,” “Skin,” “Wildflowers”

Nashville, Tennessee’s Sophie Allison, who performs under the moniker Soccer Mommy, wowed me with this ten-track album full of indie rock gems. At age 20, she is ready to take the music industry by storm, evoking her heroes Liz Phair and Mitski while always maintaining a recognizable individual style. This is most apparent on the more upbeat tracks – “Skin,” for example, is a brutally honest articulation of yearning, and if ever there was a year that needed a blistering takedown of abusive relationships like “Your Dog” as its rallying cry, it’s 2018.

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5. Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel

Standout Tracks: “Hopefulessness,” “Charity,” “Need a Little Time,” “Nameless, Faceless,” “Help Your Self,” “Sunday Roast”

It took a while for Courtney Barnett’s latest album to sink in with me. Tell Me How You Really Feel is the definition of a slow burn; it has just as much of Barnett’s trademark dry humor, but it also brings to the surface a sensitivity beyond what she revealed on her breakthrough album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015). Most of all, I think she’s enjoying exploring what she can do with her melodies, like the guitar solo on “Help Your Self,” her incorporation of Margaret Atwood’s famous “men are afraid, women are afraid” quote in the chorus of the #MeToo/#TimesUp anthem “Nameless, Faceless” or the amount of time it takes her to reach the “Keep on keeping on/You know you’re not alone” part of “Sunday Roast.” Listening to new music by Courtney Barnett is as rewarding an experience as any modern-day alternative rock fan could want.

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4. Caroline Rose, LONER

Standout Tracks: “More of the Same,” “Jeannie Becomes a Mom,” “Getting to Me,” “To Die Today,” “Soul No. 5,” “Animal”

I was magnetized to Caroline Rose’s music from the intriguing opening notes of “More of the Same,” the first of many riffs that LONER gifts to us. My favorite track is “Jeannie Becomes a Mom,” which continues a classic singer-songwriter tradition of relating the ups and downs of another woman’s life, especially her dreams for a brighter future. She also moves through a few genres besides indie rock with skill, employing elements of trip-hop on “To Die Today” and R&B on “Talk” and “Animal” in engaging ways. (According to Rose in a press release, LONER is “as much inspired by Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears as it was late-’70s punk,“ which I can believe.) Rose’s sense of humor might be the best part of the album, though, as seen in her sharp wit and sarcasm on “Money,” “Soul No. 5” and “Bikini,” the last of which is a bouncy number mocking the industries that compel women to become sexualized puppets tailor-made for public consumption.

I also find this Out Magazine quote from Caroline Rose about how she incorporates her own sexuality enlightening: “When I was first starting, I was kind of afraid to make being queer a part of my identity for fear that it would consume it, because that happens to a lot of artists, unfortunately. When you’re first starting, that is the way people identify you cause that’s all you get. You get one elevator pitch and if you’re lucky, a 30 second clip of what your music sounds like—and that’s the pitch. But I hit a point where I was like, ‘That’s dumb.’ People should be as much of themselves as possible, ‘cause then everyone would be super unique. No one else is you. You are independent of other people and you can do whatever you want with your identity and your body and the way you dress and the way you act. I realized I should just be myself—middle fingers up and no fucks given, ‘cause life is really short. My life is zipping by and I’m okay with that, but I want to make sure I do it right.”

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3. Wild Moccasins, Look Together

Standout Tracks: “Boyish Wave,” “Temporary Vase,” “Longtime Listener,” “Missing You (the Most),” “No Muse,” “Waterless Cup”

Few bands that I discovered in 2018 have dazzled me quite like Houston, Texas’s Wild Moccasins. When the pair at the heart of the group, vocalist/keyboardist Zahira Gutierrez and guitarist Cody Swann, ended their romantic relationship a few years ago, they turned their complex jumble of reasons and reactions into art. But Look Together isn’t a mopey breakup record; “Longtime Listener,” the song that immediately turned me into a fan, is a slice of New Wave heaven, while “Missing You (the Most)” and “No Muse” are just as jaunty but dig into the more personal side of the duo’s songwriting. “Missing” ends with a repetition of the lines “You only want me if you get the chance to change me/You only want me if you get the chance to save me,” while “No Muse,“ a pointed examination of how men (especially artists) undermine and belittle the women in their relationships, features this cogent chorus: “I’m no use to you unless I’m undressed/I’m no muse to you/You cut me in two unless I say yes/I’m no muse to you/And you can sing about it all you want/I must not want it bad enough, bad enough.”

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2. Miya Folick, Premonitions

Standout Tracks: “Thingamajig,” “Premonitions,” “Stock Image,” “Stop Talking,” “Deadbody,” “Baby Girl”

Thanks to Pitchfork, I first heard of Miya Folick when her single “Deadbody” came out this past March. It immediately struck me as a manifesto for our new age, where women can move forward with confidence thanks to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. That song alternately demonstrates subdued menace and loud, unapologetic anger, but “Stock Image” and “Premonitions” show that Folick has a strong leaning towards modern pop music; “Stop Talking” is so commercially accessible that it’s as much of a bop as any sugary confection by Carly Rae Jepsen. Folick’s debut album – after having released a number of EPs and standalone tracks over the past few years – showcases a woman whose voice and songwriting abilities have limitless potential, and she’s only just getting started. To quote some of Folick’s lyrics from “Stop Talking,” seemingly a summary of her artist’s statement: “You have to make a choice/Don’t be an accidental voice/We have to speak with grace/We will become the words we say.“

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1. Mitski, Be the Cowboy

Standout Tracks: “Geyser,” “Me and My Husband,” “Nobody,” “Pink in the Night,” “Washing Machine Heart,” “Two Slow Dancers”

It’s no mistake that so many end-of-year best-of lists have placed Be the Cowboy at the top of their rankings. Mitski’s fifth album finds her wading through deep pools of emotion in brief, lovely bursts of song, with twelve out of the fourteen tracks running two and a half minutes or shorter. It was pretty difficult for me to pick only a handful of highlights from an album that is so impressive in every conceivable way, so just know that every cut is a masterpiece. She puts words to the feelings we all carry inside, diamonds that glisten for fleeting moments but linger in the memory for a long time afterward.

honorable mentions (lps)

HONORABLE MENTIONS (alphabetical)

Cher, Dancing Queen (”Dancing Queen,” ”Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” “The Name of the Game,” “Waterloo,” ”Fernando,” ”One of Us”)

Farao, Pure-O (”Marry Me,” “Get Along,” “Luster of the Eyes,” “Cluster of Delights,” “Gabriel,” “Triumph Over Me”)

Florence + The Machine, High as Hope (”Hunger,” “Big God,” “Patricia,” “100 Years,” “The End of Love,” “No Choir”)

Juliana Hatfield, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (”I Honestly Love You,” ”Physical,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “Xanadu,” “Dancin’ ‘Round and ‘Round,” “Make a Move on Me”)

Marie Davidson, Working Class Woman (”Your Biggest Fan,” ”Work It,” ”The Psychologist,” “Day Dreaming,” “So Right” [although the extended version is even better since the opening lines are brought back in the last thirty seconds, making the song’s ending even more effective], “Burn Me”)

honorable mentions (eps)

HONORABLE MENTIONS #2: EPs (alphabetical)

Ellis, The Fuzz (”The Drain,” “Frostbite,” ”What a Mess”)

Hatchie, Sugar & Spice (”Sleep,” ”Try,” “Bad Guy”)

King Princess, Make My Bed (”Talia,” “Upper West Side,” “Holy”)

Margaret Glaspy, Born Yesterday (”Before We Were Together,” ”One Heart and Two Arms,” “I Love You, Goodnight”)

Sevdaliza, The Calling (”Soul Syncable,” “Energ1,” “Human Nature”)

Ms .45 (1981, dir. Abel Ferrara)

After watching the endlessly strange and fascinating drama Bad Lieutenant recently, I knew I had to see some more of controversial director Abel Ferrara’s work. On the surface, Ms .45 is just another exploitation flick from its era, a post-Death Wish/Taxi Driver rape revenge story intended to trade on the sick pleasures of watching a female victim of sexual violence punish all men for the sins of a few. And the film is certainly the product of testosterone-driven artists; it was written (Nicholas St. John), directed (Abel Ferrara), photographed (James Lemmo), edited (Christopher Andrews) and scored (Joe Delia) by men. Despite those details, it can be argued there would be no Ms .45 without the lead performance of Zoë Lund, then an eighteen-year-old Columbia University student making her feature film debut.

Lund, known at the time by her birth name Zoë Tamerlis, portrays Thana, a mute woman who is employed as a seamstress in Manhattan’s Garment Center neighborhood. On a sunny afternoon, while returning home from her job, she is sexually assaulted twice; first, by a man in a mask (played by Abel Ferrara) who pulls her into an alley, and then by a robber who had broken into her apartment sometime earlier and lay in wait until Thana opened her door. Already traumatized by the previous attack, Thana kills the second offender by bludgeoning him in the head with a paperweight. In a daze, Thana methodically dismembers the rapist’s corpse, lining her fridge with garbage bags full of body parts. Crucially, Thana takes possession of the man’s gun, hiding it in her purse for daily protection on the city streets.

The gun changes everything about Thana. She transforms from a shy introvert to a vigilante serial killer of men, not only those who catcall her or try to assault her but also citizens who have committed no crime other than being male. Thana’s new identity gives her a voice she never had before, and she adjusts her physical appearance accordingly by wearing heavy makeup and fashionable outfits and by putting her hair up in an efficient ponytail. Aided by her more glamorous image, Thana lures her prey to their deaths in various scenarios; her power is fueled by the sorrow and anger of every woman who has been objectified and hurt by men.

It’s hard to say whether this tale of retribution has a moral at the end or not, although the film concludes with a final scene that wraps up its grim narrative on an unexpectedly light note. Determining whether Ms .45 is a feminist film seems like a moot point since that’s not a term I would use to describe Abel Ferrara, based on the comments I’ve heard him make about Lund and other actresses in interviews – the jury’s still out on screenwriter Nicholas St. John, although I assume his views on women were somewhat similar since he had been friends with Ferrara since high school – but ultimately the film would not have the impact that it has without Zoë Tamerlis Lund as its star. You can never look away from her. She commands every frame with her bright green eyes and with her believable development into a single-minded assassin. Late in the film, Lund has her most memorable moment when Thana dons a nun’s habit and bright red lipstick for a Halloween party being thrown by her handsy boss; the poses that Thana assumes as she looks in a mirror and aims her revolver like a big-screen sharpshooter are chillingly reminiscent of Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle. Like the Greek mythological figure that Thana is linked to by name symbolism – Thanatos, god of death – there is a larger-than-life aura surrounding her ability to destroy the male population of New York City.

Research tells me that Zoë Lund was a polyglot, a prolific writer and an accomplished musician/composer, in addition to being the daughter of renowned sculptor Barbara Lekberg. Was Ms .45 to blame for Lund’s decision to abandon her privileged upbringing and education, temporarily move to Europe and become a heroin addict, the last of which defined her existence until her drug-related death in 1999? I don’t know; maybe the path she traveled was one she would have found regardless of a cinematic career. Perhaps there will never be a neat, sensible answer to the question. What remains indisputable, however, is that Lund elevates Ms .45 into something more than a portrait of New York City at its scuzziest. As difficult as the film may be to watch due to its frank themes, it is consistently engaging, a thought-provoking study of how rape and PTSD can alter a woman in unimaginable ways and reshape her concept of herself within society.

First Reformed (2017/2018, dir. Paul Schrader)

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Praised as a return to form for filmmaker Paul Schrader and a career-best showcase for Ethan Hawke, the drama First Reformed is a thought-provoking (if imperfect) meditation on assorted crises of faith. Hope and despair are the two warring states of emotion here, exposing characters’ constant struggles against the entwined losses of loved ones and, thanks to global warming, the natural beauty of our planet. Schrader, who will almost certainly be nominated for the Best Original Screenplay, occasionally makes heavy-handed missteps in articulating his environmental concerns – anyone who seen the film’s “Magical Mystery Tour” sequence has an idea of what I mean, though they may not share my reaction – but the strength of the acting, the dialogue (including voiceovers) that conveys the inner turmoil of Hawke’s Reverend Toller and the superb cinematography by Alexander Dynan make First Reformed one of the must-see films of the year.

Named for a politically active German Jewish playwright from the 1920s and 30s, the Rev. Ernst Toller of Schrader’s film is yet another of God’s lonely men, a solitary figure who embraces warm conversations when given the opportunity yet rejects help from those who would share more intimate expressions of love and kindness with him. Living in a few sparsely-decorated rooms attached to the humble Dutch Reformed church that he presides over in rural upstate New York, this is a man mired in regret and grief for the son who died as a soldier in Iraq, the tragedy of which caused his marriage to dissolve. Unable to cope with his pain, Toller has turned to the bottle for solace. His alcoholism has in turn caused his body to fall apart as surely as his soul, internal ailments that are eventually mirrored by the external conflict that will also trouble him.

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At the beginning of the film, Toller is called on by a local woman, Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried), to council her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger, a promising up-and-comer whom I first noticed in last year’s Brawl in Cell Block 99), an environmental activist who is filled with doubt and frustration over humankind’s self-destruction, compounded by the corporate greed that no amount of peaceful protest seems able to stop. Toller slowly comes around to Michael’s line of thinking – the core of which is the simple yet potent question “will God forgive us?” – and Michael’s actions and influence spur Toller to take steps of his own against power structures, chiefly the megachurch run by a gregarious acquaintance, Rev. Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, wonderfully cast against type) and a nearby factory’s contemptible CEO, Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), whose money is funding the renovation of Toller’s church for its upcoming 250th anniversary.

Paul Schrader’s strict Calvinist upbringing evidently inspired his decision to write First Reformed as much as climate change did, but the lingering traces of his cinematic muses are visible throughout the film as well. Schrader’s first breakthrough as a critic and historian came with the publication of his 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, and I certainly recognized the impact that Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Bergman’s Winter Light had on First Reformed while watching it. As I have also noted with regard to Schrader’s remake of Cat People, his understanding of visual composition is masterful; the images in First Reformed by the aforementioned DP Alexander Dynan are magnificent, not just because of the color palette and camera angles/framing but because of Paul Schrader’s command of mise-en-scène. In this film, empty spaces are as important and symbolic as the arrangements of objects, a physical representation of Reverend Toller’s emotional isolation and the hollowness of his cloistered life. I also appreciate the director’s overt allusions to Taxi Driver, apparent in Toller’s daily journaling of his obsessive thoughts, as well as a scene when Toller drives through his desolate town at night and, most literally, in a moment when he pours some Pepto-Bismol into a glass of liquor à la Travis Bickle’s bubbling Alka-Seltzer tab (itself an homage to Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her).

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First Reformed’s ending has proved itself to be divisive, and I’m not convinced that it was the optimal way to bring the story to a close, but in truth I respected it more when I heard Paul Schrader’s take on moviegoers’ two possible interpretations of the final scene during the post-film Q&A (the screening I attended was at the Museum of Modern Art, where both Schrader and Hawke spoke). I stand by my distaste for some of the film’s clunkier “We Are the World”-isms, and I also thought Amanda Seyfried was perhaps not the best casting choice for Mary – yes, that name is as symbolic as you imagine – but my problem with the latter is not so much with Seyfried’s acting (since I enjoy her work in general) as with the dull lines that Schrader wrote for her. Still, if First Reformed is viewed fundamentally as a display for Ethan Hawke, who is guaranteed a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his sensitive, nuanced and multilayered performance, then it is indeed a great cinematic success. Ever since he was a teenager in Dead Poets Society, Hawke has shown a remarkable ability to illustrate the coexistence of vulnerability and fortitude, and he continues to uncover new ways to demonstrate this tender balancing act with intelligence and grace.

October Diary: 10 Films from a Month of Watching Horror Cinema by Women Directors

All this month, I have paid special attention to horror films directed by women. Inspired by my recent post about Mary Harron’s category-defying satire American Psycho, I thought I would publish some of the notes I took after watching ten particular titles on my October checklist. Ghost stories, vampire romances, slasher pics, period pieces about cannibalism, predatory-mermaid musicals, genre parodies – I tried it all.

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The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) – dir. Amy Holden Jones (notes written: Mon. 10/8/18)

Rita Mae Brown, famed writer of the groundbreaking lesbian-themed novel Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), penned the original screenplay for The Slumber Party Massacre (available for free on YouTube), which was made in collaboration with Amy Holden Jones in her directorial debut. Originally intended to be a satire of slasher films, the finished product ends up coming across more like a regular (serious) horror flick than a parody, but in a brief 77 minutes, Jones and Brown deliver an entertaining thriller with plenty of gore.

The plot is simple and straightforward: serial killer Russ Thorn (Michael Villella) escapes from prison and fixates on a bunch of high schoolers as his next victims. Linda (Brinke Stevens) meets a bloody demise in the locker room after her friends have already left; the rest of the group of girls – Trish (Michelle Michaels), KIm (Debra De Liso), Jackie (Andree Honore) and Diane (Gina Smika Hunter) – become Thorn’s targets when they gather at Trish’s house for a sleepover. Two sisters who live across the street from Trish, Valerie (Robin Stille) and Courtney Bates (Jennifer Meyers), initially try to hold back their interests in crashing the party, but they soon realize that all is not well at Trish’s residence, leading the Bates girls to inspect the property for themselves and get ensnared in Thorn’s web.

Like pretty much every other film in its genre from that time period (or this one, probably), The Slumber Party Massacre is a hotbed of gratuitous T&A. It’s not necessary for the camera to lasciviously linger on images of the female characters in various states of undress, like when they take showers after gym class at school or change into pajamas at Trish’s place (in front of an open window, of course), but then again, it was essentially a requirement for nudity and sexual content to appear to some degree in horror films made in the early 80s. Despite the annoyingly predictable objectification of female bodies, what The Slumber Party Massacre gets right is its character development, some good acting among the young leads (particularly Robin Stille, whose Valerie character turns out to be a real badass; sadly, Stille committed suicide in 1996) and a number of genuine thrills and jump scares. That the misogynistic killer’s weapon of choice is a power drill is an effective piece of phallic symbolism on Rita Mae Brown’s part, and the way in which Thorn’s reign of terror is stopped furthers Brown’s point.

I also appreciate Massacre’s nods to some classic horror from earlier generations. The most obvious homage is to Psycho, given the use of the last name “Bates” for two of the main characters, but there is also a scene in which a character’s murder echoes a similar death in Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man (1943), showing a victim clawing at a door that the people on the other side refuse to open, a decision that concludes with the corpse’s blood oozing under the doorway. Massacre also features solid direction by Amy Holden Jones, excellent cinematography by Stephen L. Posey and a suitably unsettling score by Ralph Jones, so there’s quite a bit to recommend the film for your October schedule.

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Blood Sisters (1987) – dir. Roberta Findlay (notes written: Sun. 10/14/18)

New York-based filmmaker Roberta Findlay could probably do just about any job required in the motion picture industry. For the horror film Blood Sisters (available via YouTube), she worked as director, screenwriter, cinematographer (I’m pretty sure she shot almost all of her films) and co-editor (with Walter E. Sear, who had additional contributions as producer, production manager and score composer). Mind you, I’m not saying that the end result is any good – Blood Sisters is one of the strangest horror flicks I’ve seen recently – but it has its share of fun aspects.

Findlay’s film is both a stereotypical entry in the slasher genre, concerning a deranged killer stalking sorority girls who are spending the night in a notoriously “haunted” former brothel, and also a supernatural thriller since there really are apparitions in the creaky old house. As we can guess from the film’s opening scene, in which a little girl rejects the affections of a boy her age and he immediately runs to the brothel to shoot all of the prostitutes (including his mother) and patrons, the present-day murderer is that same boy as an adult. During the college students’ stay in the ex-brothel, some of the young women see visions of the dead prostitutes and the clients in mirrors; the appearances by these specters seem to be tailored according to sexual orientation since some of the main characters are shown heterosexual couplings, while the one lesbian in the group is presented with the memory of a sexual encounter between a pair of women.

Despite the usual conventions of the horror genre, the sexuality on display in Findlay’s film is pretty tame, which is somewhat surprising (and maybe a little disappointing) since everything she directed between and 1971 and 1985 was hardcore pornography. I wondered if Findlay was motivated to give horror a try because sexploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman did so with A Night to Dismember (1983), but according to a 2017 interview, Findlay claimed never to have seen any of Wishman’s work. (It’s worth noting, however, that Blood Sisters referenced the title of Wishman’s slasher thriller for its own tagline.)

To recap some of the things you can see in Blood Sisters, I’ll quote the headline of one IMDb user’s review: “Possessed nightgown! Strangulation by garter belt! Lesbian hooker ghosts!“ Sure, Findlay’s film is a low-budget exercise in poor taste, and you’re more likely to roll your eyes than cower in fear, but at least there are gems peppered throughout the dialogue. Two favorite lines: one guy says to another, “Eat my shorts, tampon breath!” (reminiscent of a similar retort in another recently viewed horror film, Campfire Stories – “Stop being such a sanitary napkin, dude!” – evidently part of a tradition of insults inspired by feminine hygiene products), and in a later scene, a character wearing a neon-colored item of clothing is asked by a friend, “Alice, can’t you turn that coat off?”

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) – dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui (notes written: Sat. 10/20/18)

Before Sarah Michelle Gellar found superstardom as the title vanquisher of the undead, Kristy Swanson brought the starring role of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to life. As the Valley girl armed with plenty of wooden stakes, gymnastics skills for days and an infinite array of cute neon crop tops and leggings – thank you for your service, early 90s fashion, you were truly inspired – Swanson embodies the heroine of Joss Whedon’s original screenplay and makes her hilarious, badass, sensitive and altogether awesome.

The rest of the cast is stacked with both established actors and newcomers, all of whom do great work: Luke Perry, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens (I guess this was one of his first high-profile projects following his 1991 arrest; he’s unrecognizable and a delight to watch), Rutger Hauer, Hilary Swank (making her big screen debut at age 17), David Arquette, Stephen Root (he steals every scene he’s in as the principal at Buffy’s high school), Natasha Gregson Wagner (she has my favorite line reading of the movie, asking her friends with goofy intensity, “Okay, guys, what do you think about the ozone layer?”), Candy Clark, Slash in a cameo as a prom DJ and, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit part, Ben Affleck as a basketball-playing student. According to my TV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a one-star production, but I say it’s a ton of fun and one of the best horror comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

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Embrace of the Vampire (1995) – dir. Anne Goursaud (notes written: Sat. 10/6/18)

Now that it’s October, I plan on diving deep into the wide, seemingly unending selection of horror films that I have not yet seen. Since I am especially eager to become better acquainted with horror projects directed by women, I first took a gander at what was available in decent condition on YouTube and my first (frankly sort of random) choice was the erotic horror thriller Embrace of the Vampire.

Granted, I didn’t bother to Google the film before viewing it, but I knew two things: it starred Alyssa Milano in one of her first “adult” roles and that the director, Anne Goursaud, was best known for her work as an editor on some notable films from the 80s and 90s, including The Outsiders (1983), Crimes of the Heart (1986), Ironweed (1987) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Embrace of the Vampire served as Goursaud’s directorial debut and while I can’t say that it exhibits either an original creative aesthetic or good taste, I do want to congratulate her for casting Martin Kemp as the nameless vampire who haunts virginal college student Charlotte (Milano), luring her via sex dreams and in hallucinations she has while sitting in her art history class. I can’t tell you how hard I chuckled when the opening credits rolled and I said to myself, “Martin Kemp? Do I know this much is true or is that not one of the Spandau Ballet guys?” (It was, he was the band’s bassist.) Unintentional as it was from the director’s point of view, I laughed every time Kemp’s moody character showed up.

Kemp is both a terrible actor and not particularly sexy (sorry, but that matters for this genre of film), so to be brutally honest it makes sense that the only reason why Milano’s character would be drawn to him is through forces outside of her control. On the other hand, Charlotte’s boyfriend, Chris (Harold Pruett), is barely a Casanova either, but I will not comment on his looks since I was saddened to read that Harold Pruett died of a drug overdose in 2002, a tragic end for a former child almost-star. Anyway, the three best performances are from Milano, Charlotte Lewis as a bisexual photographer who lives in Charlotte’s dorm and flirts with her, and Jennifer Tilly as another vampire (or at least I think she’s undead; I don’t remember if it’s explicitly stated). Watching all of these weird characters spout inane dialogue and pursue temptations of the flesh – like an embarrassingly lengthy “orgy” (or more accurately, a lot of topless people making out) fueled by Ecstasy – is often hilariously bad.

I assume that most people would only watch Embrace of the Vampire for its perceived sexiness, but it doesn’t deliver on that count. Perhaps excessive nudity is sufficient for some viewers, but I was let down by the dearth of actual sex scenes. I figured that it was a foregone conclusion that Anne Goursaud’s film wouldn’t rate too highly on the horror scale, therefore replacing thrills with tacky romance, but the lack of smut was pretty disappointing. Maybe things could have gone differently if the vampire had been portrayed by, say, Michael Bolton.

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Office Killer (1997) – dir. Cindy Sherman (notes written: Tues. 10/23/18)

Photographer and conceptual artist Cindy Sherman made her sole foray into feature filmmaking with Office Killer, a morbidly funny dark comedy about a put-upon clerk who snaps once her job status has been demoted to part-time. Proofreader and copywriter Dorine Douglas (Carol Kane) is perpetually described as “mousy” and “strange” by her colleagues at Constant Consumer Magazine, owing to her introverted nature, her tendency to jump any time a person touches her, and the fact that she lives at home as a caretaker for her disabled mother (Alice Drummond). After Constant Consumer’s overbearing CEO, Virginia Wingate (Barbara Sukowa), downsizes the staff and subsequently limits Dorine’s office time by making her work partly from home instead, our antiheroine tastes sweet revenge when she is indirectly responsible for the fatal electrocution of one of her other irritating bosses, Gary Michaels (a gloriously coiffed David Thornton), while fixing her computer during after-hours. There is no going back for Dorine after she opts to take the freshly deceased corporate lackey to her house; soon, corpses are accumulating in her basement left and right.

“It is true that to live inside a warm and nurturing environment is everybody’s dream,” Dorine muses in a voiceover, “but as we grow up we also need to experience independence and adventure.“ She takes the initiative to dispatch of all those who have wronged her, and even a few complete innocents to boot. And there are plenty more potential victims to choose from: Kim Poole (Molly Ringwald), an editor who hates Dorine’s guts for stealing one of her articles out from under her; Norah Reed (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Virginia’s second-in-command and one of the few office workers who shows any care for Dorine; and Daniel Birch (Michael Imperioli), who is Norah’s boyfriend and, more crucially, the IT expert who installs a computer in Dorine’s home and teaches her how to use email. With her newfound technological skill, Dorine manipulates the Constant Consumer hierarchy into doing her bidding and keeping her out of trouble with the law.

If the screenplay of Office Killer seems noticeably well-crafted, that is thanks to the talent involved: Cindy Sherman and Elise MacAdam wrote the underlying story, while MacAdam and Tom Kalin (renowned director of the films Swoon and Savage Grace) penned the screenplay and indie auteur Todd Haynes contributed additional dialogue. The performances are uniformly excellent, but above all the film is a showcase for Carol Kane, who is by turns adorable, pitiable and spine-chillingly menacing as Dorine. Too rarely have I seen Kane in leading roles, and certainly never one so deliciously malevolent.

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Ravenous (1999) – dir. Antonia Bird (notes written: Mon. 10/15/18)

(Warning: spoilers in the last paragraph.)

Blending gruesome violence with pitch black humor and period-piece details, Ravenous is surely the only movie you’ll ever see about Mexican-American War veterans who are also cannibals. Set during the rough winter of 1847, the film follows Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a military man whose medal for valor in war was actually the result of cowardice – he played dead after being wounded, only getting behind enemy lines because his “corpse” was dragged there by soldiers. Because of the carnage he witnessed on the battlefield, Boyd has lost his taste for meat, but his hunger for flesh will soon return in an unexpected way after he is transferred to a new outpost in California.

Late one night, a Scotsman named F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) arrives at the camp, practically out of his mind from malnutrition. Colqhoun tells Boyd, Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones – how I do continuously find myself watching movies with this creep?), Pvt. Toffler (Jeremy Davies) and some of his other rescuers about the terrifying circumstances of his journey across America. The party he had been traveling with lost its way during a snowstorm and they were forced to take shelter in a cave, where the lack of food eventually drove them to eat each other. Colqhoun escaped the situation when he thought he might be next on the menu, and the next day he leads Boyd and his superiors on a trip back to the cave to see if the last two survivors are still there. Unsurprisingly, this little adventure turns out to be a trap; Colqhoun clearly planned from the start to kill everyone. Only Boyd manages to flee his bloodthirsty attacker, although the price he must pay for attempting to hide in the woods will unleash his own similarly uncivilized cravings.

Pearce and Carlyle’s characters are like oil and water – Boyd is an introvert who only speaks when necessary, while Colqhoun is a loquacious gent with a penchant for flamboyant witticisms – and yet they are drawn to one another, each challenging the other in verbal and physical altercations. On the surface, Ravenous is an over-the-top dark comedy about literally carnal appetites, but the film also functions well as a metaphor for homosexuality. Colqhoun represents the embrace of gayness, while Boyd is repressed but constantly fighting the urge to succumb to the same desires. There is especially intense chemistry between the two main characters in a scene where Boyd comes close to licking blood off of a wound on Colquhoun’s hand. Numerous scenes also employ a female/gay male gaze as male characters view other men’s unclothed bodies, often searching for injuries that have penetrated the skin, to say nothing of the moment when Boyd and Colquhoun actually around roll in some hay during a melee in a barn.

Perhaps the subtext is only there for those who look for it, and the ending certainly raises questions about what the true message is if the narrative is indeed symbolic, but there is no question that Antonia Bird’s film is a delicious morsel. On the downside, Ravenous deserves points off for failing the Bechdel test so badly – there is only one female character, a Native American woman named Martha (Sheila Tousey) who exists solely to serve white men in power and to occasionally explain the local lore of her people – but one cannot argue that the film’s exploration of, shall we say, alternative lifestyles is fascinating.

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Dorothy Mills (2008) – dir. Agnès Merlet (notes written: Thurs. 10/18/18)

Despite the claim made on its spooky DVD cover, the Irish psychological horror film Dorothy Mills is closer to Breaking the Waves than to The Exorcist, concerned not so much with demonic possession than with the demons of the past that have loomed large over an insular, fundamentalist community. Like the teenager Linda Blair played in that classic chiller almost half a century ago, the title character in Agnès Merlet’s film (played by Jenn Murray) is a girl not in control of her own mind and body. When a psychiatrist, Jane Morton (Carice Van Houten) is sent to the small island where Dorothy lives in the wake of a violent incident – a couple came home to find their babysitter, Dorothy, attacking their infant – the locals reveal both their hatred of the girl, their opposition to outsiders invading their territory and contradictory opinions on whether Jane should be allowed to investigate and potentially take the teen back with her to the mainland.

I wouldn’t describe Dorothy Mills as horror, but rather as a moving drama that observes how history affects and changes us, particularly with regard to tragedies that we can’t forget. It helps that the acting is solid across the board, particularly from Carice Van Houten as the conflicted psychiatrist, who is battling dark memories of her own, from Gary Lewis as Pastor Ross, whose word is law in this deeply religious region, and from the outstanding Jenn Murray (in her film debut) as the girl at the heart of the conflict. Dorothy is a complex character, to say the least, and Jenn Murray brings so many details to her performance that make watching her absolutely riveting. The cinematography by Giorgos Arvanitis also does a fine job of capturing the moods of the isolated village and its bitter residents.

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Kiss of the Damned (2012) – dir. Xan Cassavetes (notes written: Thurs. 10/11/18)

Xan (Alexandra) Cassavetes, the eldest daughter of legendary auteur John Cassavetes, made her debut as a writer-director with Kiss of the Damned, an elegantly crafted horror film that is currently available to stream via Hulu. While the film initially presents itself as a romance, following the unusual courtship of French vampire Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) and American screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), the latter of whom Djuna bites shortly after meeting, but the story soon turns into a critique of upper-class excess. The rich are often portrayed as vampires in the media, sucking the life out of those less fortunate, but in Damned, the undead characters literally do just that; they are consumers in both the materialistic and literal senses of the word. They also indulge in a particular subsection of capitalism that allows for luxuries like fancy bottles of synthetic blood and parties where the immortals gather, mostly to congratulate themselves on no longer being mere humans.

The main conflict in the film arises from the arrival of Djuna’s sister, Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), who gets her kicks from seducing everyone she meets. This spells trouble for Djuna and Paolo, who already have a lot on their plate since they rent their house from another vampire, successful actress Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), and at one point there is an unexpected visit from Paolo’s agent, Ben (Michael Rapaport, who provides some much-needed humor). The supporting cast also includes Ching Valdes-Aran as Irene, Xenia’s housekeeper; Riley Keough as Ann, a teenage devotee of Xenia’s theatrical career; and Peter Vack as one of Mimi’s victims.

The narrative of Kiss of the Damned is thinly plotted and predictable, following the main characters yet never feeling as though much is happening. Instead, Cassavetes relies on evoking a suitably moody atmosphere to fill in the gaps in the story. Tobias Datum’s cinematography and Steven Hufsteter’s score hark back to artistic horror films of the 1960s and 70s, making the film quite aesthetically pleasing even when the acting and writing are not always satisfying.

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The Voices (2014) – dir. Marjane Satrapi (notes written: Fri. 10/19/18)

Available to stream now via Netflix, The Voices is not for everyone, particularly those viewers who would rather abstain from seeing a comedy about a murderer who keeps women’s severed heads in his fridge. Even so, let it be said that The Voices is not without its charms. Ryan Reynolds does a fine job of bringing complexity, humor and, when necessary, terror to his part as Jerry, a mentally ill factory worker who stumbles into serial-killing and finds himself unable to stop; Reynolds also provides the voices that Jerry hears coming from his pets, a dog named Bosco and a cat (with an uncanny, David Tennant-esque Scottish burr) named Mr. Whiskers, who act as the proverbial angel and devil on Jerry’s shoulders.

As deeply unsettling as the concepts for the film are, it is also a bizarrely enjoyable experience. The tone sometimes shifts wildly from one scene to another, jumping from surreal satire (the film’s opening is reminiscent of Blue Velvet, introducing us to a picturesque small town with a cloying jingle on the soundtrack) to slasher flick to candy-colored musical. The performances by Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick as two of Jerry’s co-workers (and potential love interests), Fiona and Lisa, bring additional spark to the proceedings, while Jacki Weaver plays the pivotal role of Dr. Warren, Jerry’s sympathetic psychiatrist. The creative approaches taken in telling this story arise from the collaboration between director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, Chicken with Plums) and screenwriter Michael R. Perry (his background seems to be primarily TV), and while the film has its shaky moments here and there, it is highly entertaining and it continually kept me guessing what would happen next.

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The Lure (2015) – dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska (notes written: Mon. 10/22/18)

Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature The Lure (which I believe is still available to stream through FilmStruck) is surely unlike any other film you’ve seen lately, blending fantasy, horror and romance into a musical set in Warsaw during the 1980s. A pair of mermaid sisters, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska), are brought onto dry land by a trio of cabaret performers – singer Krysia (Kinga Preis), her drummer boyfriend (Andrzej Konopka) and a twentysomething bassist (Jakub Gierszal) – who discover that the sisters are capable of transforming their tails into human women’s legs. Silver and Golden are added to the nightclub act, charming customers with backup singing that soon gives the siblings a chance for pop stardom of their own as a duo.

The interior of the club shimmers from the glittery costumes designed by Katarzyna Lewinska (who worked on another great film I saw earlier this year, The Innocents), the cinematography by Jakub Kijowski and the original music written and composed by Marcin Macuk, Barbara Wrońska and Zuzanna Wrońska specifically for the film, modeled on the synthpop and New Wave genres popular in that era. My personal favorite cut from the soundtrack is “I Came to the City,” a poppy ode to materialism sung by Silver, Golden and Krysia during a lavish shopping spree that they embark on while working-class citizens protest outside on the streets of Communist-run Warsaw (“I’m new to the city/I wanted to put my best foot forward/Change what I can change and get their attention/A mention, a nod … the city will tell us what it is we lack!”). Another musical highlight that was not created by the film’s composers, though, is a dazzling cover of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” sung by Krysia after the film’s opening credits as our introduction to the cabaret environment.

The Lure can be seen as an update of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable “The Little Mermaid,” but Smoczynska’s version is markedly more adult. Silver and Golden take different approaches in adjusting to the world of two-legged humans and individually realizing their burgeoning erotic yearnings; Golden entices men and women into sexual situations that she uses to turn them into dinner (the sisters have an insatiable hunger for human flesh), while Silver experiences first love when she falls for the band’s cute, shaggy-haired bassist. Informed by her would-be lover that she will always be “a fish” to him as long as she does not have the typical female reproductive organs, Silver elects to sacrifice her aquatic anatomy by agreeing to undergo a dangerous operation that will make her a “real” woman.

There are consequences for Silver’s decision, however, and The Lure serves as a compelling look at the impact that love and lust have on women, as well as the price women sometimes pay when they think more of a man’s happiness than they do their own. Furthermore, the film explores what it means to inhabit a woman’s body, especially in the context of the importance a man places on a woman having a vagina in order to be perceived as whole and normal. Yes, there is blood, violence and death in The Lure, but the true horror is in how men manipulate women when, in the end, family may actually be the strongest bond of all.

Food for Cinema Thought: American Psycho (2000)

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Every so often I watch a film with a reputation as a classic, and while I try not to worry too much about how I’ll judge the product, it’s a relief when the experience turns out to be positive. I felt this way last fall when I saw Requiem for a Dream for the first time – I was honestly kind of bowled over by how great it was, even though the rest of Darren Aronofsky’s filmography doesn’t live up to that standard – and now I have a similar appreciation for what Mary Harron accomplished with American Psycho. I already knew that Harron could tackle thorny subjects with humor and daring since I’ve seen her first feature, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), but American Psycho ups the ante as a portrait of violence, sexuality and excess.

Since whatever interest I might have had in reading Bret Easton Ellis’ work dissipated when he claimed that Kathryn Bigelow had only won awards for directing The Hurt Locker because she was “a very hot woman,” I never bothered wasting precious time on any of his novels. Watching the cinematic adaptation of American Psycho, however, is a different consideration; with direction by avowed feminist Mary Harron and a screenplay by Harron and Guinevere Turner (an openly gay screenwriter, filmmaker and actress), I knew that American Psycho would be an experience worthy of discussion.

As played by Christian Bale, the character Patrick Bateman is a fascinatingly complex mess of tics and tendencies. As he relates to us in voiceover narration at the beginning of the film, in the midst of his lengthy and detailed facial care process: “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there.“ Patrick is both a parody of hypermasculine obsessions and an almost pitiable (you know, if it weren’t for all the killing) excuse for a man – the face mask Patrick peels off might have more substance than he does. He goes the extra mile to make sure his physical form is flawless, taking pains to be the ultimate he-man whether in the boardroom or in the bedroom, and yet has no real inner self, other than the portion of his brain that harbors uncontrollable homicidal urges. Music appeals to Patrick on intellectual levels, but despite his ability to understand the meanings and symbolism of lyrics through critical thinking skills, he cannot apply the songs’ messages to his treatment of his peers.

Make no mistake, as horrific as the violence is (and I absolutely consider this to be a horror film), American Psycho is an extremely funny satire of late 80s capitalism/materialism and the grotesque elitism of privileged young white men with cushy Wall Street jobs. Every time that one of these bankers can score a reservation at a fancy restaurant is a glorious victory; each perfectly designed business card displayed by a rival coworker shocks Patrick like a personal affront. That he supplements his wealthy, mercurial lifestyle with messy murders of his fellow yuppies, girlfriends, prostitutes and whoever else inspires his boundless savagery is an extension of the same absurdity that fuels his financial career.

The cast assembled to play Patrick’s “friends,” enemies and assorted conquests is staggering: Chloë Sevigny (as the one character who Patrick has even a hint of sympathetic feeling for), Willem Dafoe, Reese Witherspoon, Jared Leto, Samantha Mathis, Matt Ross (hilarious), Justin Theroux, Cara Seymour (who brings a heartbreaking poignancy to her depiction of a sex worker who knows that Patrick is bad news but can’t turn down his money), Josh Lucas, Guinevere Turner, Krista Sutton and Reg E. Cathey all contribute to the ambience created by Turner and Harron. Andrzej Sekula‘s cinematography is also exceptional, which makes sense since he also shot Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (seriously, how has Sekula never been nominated for an Oscar?). I also enjoy the film’s screenwritten quality; that is, I can envision the images, actions, dialogue and voiceover as they appeared on the script pages, but unlike some movies that come off as amateurish because of that characteristic, Harron’s film thrives in part thanks to that carefully planned style.

As we know, there are far too many guys in the world who watch American Psycho and feel a kinship with Patrick Bateman, idolizing his habits as though he’s a role model for masculinity, but any viewer with even a tiny amount of intelligence and good judgment will recognize that he is the villain of the story, not the hero. As Angelica Jade Bastién wrote in a Village Voice piece from 2016 titled “The Female Gaze of ‘American Psycho’: How Mary Harron Made Fantasy Into Timeless Satire,” the film “gets under our skin delving into the effects of violence, male vanity, and the horrors of the patriarchy let loose. There is a ripe satire about Reagan’s America and the evil that powerful men get away with buried underneath the (purposeful but wrongheaded) monotony of Ellis’s writing. It just took two women to find it.” And in today’s post-Kavanaugh world, the hedonism and male entitlement portrayed in American Psycho’s vision of the 1980s aren’t too far removed from the atmosphere prevalent in our current climate.