Bad Films/Charles Jensen/THE SWEETEST THING

You know the plot: a heartless love ’em and leave ’em player toys with the affections of the opposite sex until WHAM! along comes the one who may turn out to be THE ONE. Undaunted, the player and player’s best friend hop in the car to pick up THE ONE at a wedding…only to discover THE ONE is marrying someone else! The wedding derails at the last minute and then…our main characters reconnect, finally falling in love.

What you don’t expect: the player is Cameron Diaz. THE ONE is Thomas Jane.

The Sweetest Thing turns tired romantic comedy tropes on their head by changing up the genders and letting women run the show. Diaz’s Christina has left a sea of shattered men in her wake, all of whom suffer from anger management issues, impotence, insanity, or some combination thereof. Her best friend Courtney, of a similar mold, supports her friends “manizing” and does a bit of her own, all for–GASP!–HER OWN ENJOYMENT! Third friend (and frequent third wheel) Jane (Selma Blair), recently dumped by her man, sets off on a calorie-free sexcapade with a cute (but insanely stupid) man whose “features” have her reaching for the Advil the next day.

If these characters had penises, I’d hazard to say they’d be the staple of any ridonkulous male sex comedy. But because they are women doin’ it for themselves, the film tanked. Diaz’s love interest, Peter (it’s slang for penis!), is a fussy, wallowy dude who becomes incensed when Christina rips him a new one for blowing off hot friend Jane at the club. He knocks her down a peg. Christina shrugs it off…but is she attracted to him? Yes. Probably because he’s the only guy in the club who isn’t dripping off her at any given moment. The story of our lives: we want who doesn’t want us.

While The Sweetest Thing is bold in premise, it doesn’t quite nail the dismount. If non-narrativity is your thing, this film is for you. Diaz and the girls interrupt the film with a costume change-filled “movie montage” while shopping for wedding outfits (and lamenting the sagging of her breasts with marked candor in the process), a spontaneous music/dance number called “You’re Too Big to Fit in Here” that summarizes the three’s perspective on consoling men about the size of their Johnsons, and a sex fantasy that features Christina receiving constant oral sex while eating giant ice cream sundaes with the calories removed. Add to this a road trip, a wedding brawl, a piercing-related fellatio emergency, an encounter with nervous bride Parker Posey, the most embarrassing visit to the dry cleaners EVER, and a glory hole, and you’ve got The Sweetest Thing.

While for most moviegoers, the disconnectedness (or what negative reviewers smarmily call its “bits,” also slang for penis, btw) for me is its strength. Diaz, Applegate, and Blair are fearless in the film, often taking gags to the point of danger, disgust, or both–but never losing their wicked lack of apology for doing so (unlike most other female-driven comedies like Bridesmaids, which got gross, but allowed you to hate/pity the characters while watching so you didn’t have to imagine spending a life with them).

While the film does ultimately return our women to “ladylike” status by the end (all our happily coupled and on a sex-free diet until “the time is right”), it pulls no punches along the way. One of the greatest moments is when Applegate lambasts Diaz for “naming the puppy” (Peter) after he chastizes her. Another woman in the restroom can’t stop staring at Applegate’s boobs. “They’re fake,” she says flatly, then offers, “Go ahead, touch them.” The woman, then three other women, all begin evaluating the realness of Applegate’s implants. As the bathroom door swings open, two men fall over themselves when they see this, their fantasy in real life. “That’s why chicks always go to the bathroom together!” one says as they camp out for a better view. Of course, the reality is a lot less sexy.

Or the bit where Applegate and Diaz, clad only in their “laundry day panties” after a urinal soaks them both with water and Diaz gets poked in the eye at the aforementioned glory hole, drive to the wedding. Diaz drops something on the floor of the car and, as she reaches over to grab it from under Applegate’s feet (who is driving), a hyper-masculine biker passes by and looks in, almost falling off his bike. Applegate plays up the appearance, flicking her tongue through her spread fingers, egging him on, while Diaz pats around on the floor none the wiser. All is fun and games until the biker, so caught up in their tryst, doesn’t see his lane end…and dumps the bike on the ground. In the background, you see him stand up and shake his fist at them angrily as they drive off. Again–masculine misinterpretation of female sexuality is the punchline. Oddly, (straight) men seemed not to find this funny!

2002’s The Sweetest Thing didn’t get a lot of notice when it was released. In fact, I don’t even really remember it coming out in theaters. A quick sweep of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes brings up these ringing endorsements:

“Female characters should be allowed to engage in raunchy humor on the big screen; they already do on the small one with Sex and the City. But unlike that HBO series, The Sweetest Thing has no guts.” Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune

“If a date suggests the two of you should go and see this film dump them.” Harry Guerin, RTE Interactive

“A movie in which laughter and self-exploitation merge into jolly soft-porn ’empowerment.'” Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

“If you laugh at this badly made recycled trash dump…it may be because you are amused at seeing women doing the same revolting stuff men do, and being forced to suffer the very same consequences.” Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press

You’ll note all these reviewers are, sadly, men. And possibly humorless pricks.

Even as it wickedly deconstructs heterosexual gender norms and sex roles, The Sweetest Thing never loses its sense of whimsy and fantasy, as evidence by my parting gift: “You’re Too Big to Fit in Here.” If not obvious, this clip is rated R.

Bad Films/Collin Kelley/THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN

The Legend of Billie Jean was a flop in the summer of 1985. It was critically savaged and only earned around $3 million (peanuts!) at the box office before being sent to cable purgatory. Even the soundtrack, designed to draw in the MTV generation, tanked. Pat Benatar, who sang the killer theme song, “Invincible,” has disowned the movie.

The movie wasn’t in theaters long enough for me to see it on the big screen, but in the summer of 1986 I saw it for the first time in a hotel room in Savannah. And, oddly, every time I went on vacation with my family, the movie was playing. We would turn on the TV in our cheap hotel room and there was Helen Slater as the eponymous heroine fighting for white trash truth, justice, and the American way.

My father – who never paid attention to such things – remarked that it was “weird” that The Legend of Billie Jean seemed to be following us. From Mississippi to Virginia and beyond, Billie Jean Davy was working her “fair is fair” mojo into our very souls.

Watching TLoBJ today, it’s easy to see how this flop became a cult favorite on cable. With its impoverished Corpus Christi trailer park denizens, bullying, misogyny, attempted rape, child abuse, subversion of authority, and thematic link to Joan of Arc, TLoBJ wasn’t a happy ‘80s teen lark. It was anti-Brat Pack; darker than anything John Hughes would ever attempt although it’s cut from the same misunderstood youth cloth.

The story is pretty simple: Binx (played by Christian Slater in his first major role) has his beloved motor scooter stolen and trashed by the town bullies, lead by Hubie Pyatt. Binx and Billie Jean go to the police, but Detective Ringwald (a classy Peter Coyote) dismisses their story as just kids being kids.

Billie Jean decides to confront Hubie’s sleazy father, who runs a souvenir shop on the beach, and demands $608 to pay to fix the scooter. Instead, Mr. Pyatt says he’ll pay for the scooter in $50 increments every time Billie Jean has sex with him (“pay as you go, earn as you learn”) and when she refuses, he tries to rape her. Binx winds up shooting Mr. Pyatt in the arm, and the “Billie Jean Gang” (friends Putter and Ophelia are along for the ride to spice up their lives) are soon outlaws. They become instant celebrities and top the most wanted list as the media spins their exploits wildly.

A film geek, Lloyd, hides the gang at his house and shows Billie Jean the classic Otto Preminger film Saint Joan starring Jean Seberg. Billie Jean is mesmerized by the story and watches wide-eyed as Joan is burned at the stake for heresy.

When Billie Jean shears off her long flowing hair and dons the skin-tight jumpsuit, she transforms herself into a modern day Joan. Lloyd films her demands for the $608 and sends the videotape to every news channel in Texas, thus making Billie Jean a legend.

When Billie Jean & Co. arrive for a fateful meeting on the beach, where Detective Ringwald has promised that a restored Scooter will be waiting along with an apology from Mr. Pyatt, they find a phalanx of media, a whipped up crowd of supporters, and sharpshooters.

That’s a whole lotta lotta for what was billed as a “teen movie.” What makes the film more resonant now is how it pre-figured the media siege and spin long before the age of the Internet, 24 news cycle, and merchandising (Billie Jean’s likeness is emblazoned on everything from t-shirts to Frisbees). TLoBJ was also unafraid to present its good guys as anti-heroes. Billie Jean and Co. were no saints – they wound up having to steal, elude police, and Binx even threatens Detective Ringwald with a realistic toy gun.

The climatic scene at the beach, where the crowd equally wants to see Billie Jean triumph and to be gunned down, is over-the-top but also chilling. Along with the allusions to Saint Joan and Bonnie and Clyde, there’s also a bit of Patty Hearst thrown in for good measure as Billie Jean becomes an “urban guerilla” forced to rebel to survive. Like Hearst, Billie Jean makes the “mistake” of living instead of dying.

In the end, a giant effigy of Billie Jean erected on the beach by Mr. Pyatt is set aflame, harkening back to Joan’s fiery demise. TLoBJ has moments of silliness, Helen Slater has a propensity to under-emote when a scene needs a bit more, but this movie definitely deserved to be a hit.

Sadly, every time I was feeling persecuted by my parents for not being able to stay out late, get out of chores, or borrow money, the “fair is fair” line never worked. My dad said when I got my face on a Frisbee to let him know and we’d negotiate. Bummer.

Collin Kelley is an award-winning poet and novelist. His latest book, the mystery Remain In Light, is out now in eBook format and will be available in print in January. http://www.collinkelley.com

Bad Films/Andrew Demcak/AMUSING MUSES: XANADU VS. THE LADY IN THE WATER, WITH SPECIAL BONUS PARABLE: GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK

This is going to seem goofy as all hell that I even think about these things, but believe it or not, Olivia Newton John’s frothy roller-disco movie, Xanadu (41% Rotten Tomatoes rating) and the dreadful M. Night Shyamalan’s “Adult Fairytale” The Lady in the Water (24% Rotten Tomatoes rating) are basically the same film, and I love them both, God help me! Both films feature a Muse who returns to earth to inspire a young artist/author to create a great work: In Xanadu, that great work is to build a pleasure palace (read: tacky 80’s roller rink) and in The Lady in the Water, to inspire Vick Ran (played by the ego-bloated M. Night Shyamalan himself) to write The Cookbook, which will inspire a future president to change the world for the better. Both films also feature a group of sisters (The Pleiades, or Muses) who assist the lead character on his journey, a common folktale motif.

Anyone familiar with my writing will know that I incorporate many different mythologies into it. I have always been fascinated by myth and legend and continue to be. I am a sucker for a good fairytale! But one must know how to present one’s story CORRECTLY, m’kay? Tipping one’s hat means doing one’s homework. What I love about Xanadu is the fact that it is based in the Greek myth of the Nine Muses (plus the title is taken from Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Khan,” POETRY BONUS: 25 points to Xanadu). Although Olivia Newton John’s character is called Kira, and not her real name, Terpsichore (Muse of Dance), probably has more to do with the average American’s ability to pronounce words than the mistake of the novice scriptwriter.

Even Shyamalan’s film has all the elements and motifs of world mythology. It was clear to me from the very first minutes of the film that Shyamalan, like me, was enamored by fairytales. The Lady in the Water employs these common folk tale elements: an explanation of world origin (we came from the sea), human strengths are glorified (kindness, generosity, bravery, team work, healing abilities, etc.), the help of guardians/mentors/guides must be sought (The mermaid, aptly named “Story,” after she inspires Vick Ran, can only return to her oceanic world with assistance of The Healer, The Interpreter, The Vessel, The Guardian, and The Guild members) monsters (the wolf-like Skrunt, the ape-like Tarturic, and the great eagle, Eatlon), a quest or impossible task (which is the plot of the film, for “Story” to inspire the writing of The Cookbook and return then to the sea), and a struggle between light and dark, good and evil (ahh, Hollywood, where would you be without that one?)
Both films also revolve around Freudian and Jungian mythological archetypes, even perhaps, Feminist archetypes (but I won’t go into that here, dear me, no. That is a doctoral thesis in itself! Try pulling apart L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books if you really want to know about Jungian archetypes.)

BONUS PARABLE: Guillermo Del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (61% Rotten Tomatoes rating). Guillermo Del Toro knows his fairytales – that is clear from the Hellboy films. But what I loved about his remake of the 1973 ABC made-for-TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is he moves the plot into the literary world of mythology by having his young female lead character, Sally, step into a “Fairy Ring,” a ring of mushrooms left behind where fairies dance, in the beginning of the movie.

Anyone who reads a lot of folklore knows what a Fairy Ring is to a mortal: a dangerous place to enter. Humans can be trapped forever in the fairy ring or lose an eye, or suffer another punishment from the fairies for trespassing (SPOILER ALERT: the punishment in the movie involves someone’s teeth being pulled out and eaten by the fairies, and then the hapless human dragged kicking down a grated shoot into an filthy ash pit where he is turned into a fairy himself. Ouch!) In the movie theater, I almost cried out, “Don’t step into that Fairy Ring!” It wouldn’t have been the first time I did something like that, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering partner (17 years we’ve been together), Peter. But I knew that this invasion into the fairy realm would have its consequences for the young girl character, Sally. In fact, it sets up the plot for the rest of the film. Del Toro’s use of this simple folklore element raises his movie from common horror, to universal myth. And, I, for one, am glad he’s such a smarty-pants.

Andrew Demcak is an award-winning author & poet. His new book of poetry, Night Chant, is was published by Lethe Press in 2012. Check out his other work here: http://www.andrewdemcak.com & here: http://www.theandrewdemcak23.com He is listening to Wire’s awesome new album Red Barked Tree right now.

Much to, I’m sure, Collin Kelley’s chagrin, I paid money to see Jennifer’s Body.

And I don’t regret it.

That said, the trouble with Jennifer’s Body isn’t Megan Fox, believe it or not. It’s simply that, while trying to be both funny and unsettling, it succeeds at being neither. There’s no gore to speak of, which means this isn’t a horror movie. And there are laughs, yes, and there are some gross things that happen, but overall, it can’t decide if it wants to be a teen comedy or a teen slasher flick.

Megan Fox is actually excellent in this role, and it’s because of her that it’s as funny as it is. She dead pans all of her best lines, fully committing to the honesty of the situations as absurd as they might be. A favorite: after being impaled on a metal pole, she looks down at her bloody gut and asks her best friend, with surprised frustration, “Do you have a tampon?” When the girl says no, Fox replies sadly, “Oh…you looked like you might be plugging.”

Diablo Cody’s script here is good, almost better than Juno because she’s really tamed down her too-cute-for-school slang and focused more on character development and relationships. At it’s heart, Jennifer’s Body is a biting satire on girl-girl friendships–the BFFs who, despite all their affection for each other, can’t help but compete. Although the actual storytelling has a little hiccup in it that sort of wrecks the plot a bit, it’s done interestingly. Cody got demerits from me from letting good girl Needy figure out the situation too quickly and without a lot of plot clues.

Adrian Brody turns in a fantastic performance as the dickweed frontman of up-and-coming indie band Low Shoulder. If it weren’t for Megan Fox, he’d have walked away with this film in his back pocket. Mugging through his thick lines of guyliner, Brody gives an enthusiastic send-up of fame-hungry emo dbs, complete with Satanic ritual sacrifice of a virgin, and the repetitive playing of the band’s hit single. Amy Sedaris pops up for a minute, too, which was nice.

I think this is a movie with some cult potential. It has a fun Mean Girls vibe to it and was pretty quotable. I’ll have to watch it again to determine that. But Collin, it wasn’t a waste of my money.

The Best Tarantino Film Ever Made. (Almost.) SPOILERS, read at your peril.

Over the weekend, I saw Inglorious Basterds and keep thinking about it. I think it’s best of Tarantino’s films and would be a perfect film except for one minor detail.

The film concerns, as you’ll see in the trailer, a special “Apache”-style military unit headed by Brad Pitt who drop into occupied France to kill and terrorize the Nazis behind enemy lines. Most of these scenes feature Tarantino’s trademarks: extensive expositional dialogue that borders on dadaist; scenes of sudden and intense violence; film genre shorthand like regional dialect tics, racial and ethnic profiling, etc. All this is to say it’s very entertaining.

But this film is really two films at the least–maybe three. A parallel story concerns Jewish refugee Shoshannah, sole survivor of a massacre in which her family died in front of her at the hands of German SS officer Hans Landa. Shoshannah resurfaces in France as Emmanuelle Mimieux, owner of a Paris cinemateque that, through the amorous intents of an ardent Nazi hero, becomes the site of a German propoaganda film premiere drawing the highest ranking members of the Nazi party.

Mélanie Laurent as Shoshannah is amazing. She is cold, heartless–a crowd-pleasing femme fatale, almost–but she has not completely abandoned her humanity. As Frederick Zoller, the Nazi hero who wants to get with Shoshannah-as-Emanuelle, becomes more and more intent on seducing her, she finds herself seated at a lunch table with Joseph Goebbels and–yes–Hans Landa. Tarantino has really refined what makes a situation tense and suspenseful for an audience, and this is one example. And when Shoshannah takes her revenge, splicing into the German film a close-up of herself telling the Nazis she’s about to kill them, Tarantino achieves a kind of artistry his prior movies have really lacked. As the cinema burns, Shoshannah’s face flickers over the smoke at the front of the house, ghostlike and eerie.

The other standout is Diane Kruger as double agent and German film star Bridge von Hammersmark. Although her role in the film is brief, she makes a lasting impact through her convincing duplicity–even the audience wonders if she’s truly a double agent or not throughout her scenes, up until the very end. Oddly, she reminded me of Kate Winslet in this role, a comparison I liked but that isn’t 100% accurate. Her cross-cutting between effusive and self-possessed starlet and cunning double agent is done deftly and beleiveably, giving even more credence to her character’s success in the film industry.

Chrisopher Waltz’s portrayal of Hans Landa was also fantastic. He was one of the few truly horrifying characters in the entire film, menacing mostly because of his affability and openness to getting the job done with everyone’s support. Nicknamed “The Jew Hunter” for his ability to seek out and destroy hidden Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, he could easily have been a charicature of an evil, mindless killing machine. But he is not. Probably made even more evil for his ability to draft and redraft the “truth,” so to speak, he discovers a way even to rewrite history.

Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz was another enjoyable performance. Quiet and merciless, Stiglitz looms in his scenes with menace and hatred for the Nazis, erupting in sudden fits of violence that are as justified as they are horrifying.

If you’ve read about the film at all, you’ve probably caught wind of some kind of big risk Tarantino took with the script–and with history. While Hitler does attend the film premiere and, like the rest of the guests, is locked inside, the audience can’t help but believe he is going to escape somehow. That Tarantino is tackling his first true story leads us to this. And then Hitler is machine-gunned to pieces by one of the Basterds, ending the war. It’s an odd moment. Logically, we know this isn’t true or possible, and so our suspension of disbelief is broken. But honestly, was it even there? Going into a Tarantino film, we’re expecting things to be offkilter, but I think Tarantino’s only mistake is crafting stuch a stunning, classic film that is truly powerful and moving–then undercutting it with its cartoonish redraft of history.

One article I saw wondered if Tarantino had the “right to rewrite history.” I don’t know if that’s fair. Steven Spielberg used Nazi villains over and over in the Indiana Jones movies, technically rewriting history, you’d suppose. Hitler even shows up in the first Jones film, signs and autograph, and then moves on. Certainly that’s a rewrite of history, yes? So why is killing Hitler, which most Americans living at the time would have liked to have done, seen as a faulty narrative device?

Totally recommend seeing this if you haven’t.

Insobriety Required

Because I am often slow to get to the movies lately, I just finally saw Twilight this weekend.

You may recall that I tried reading the book some months ago and found it annoying, poorly written, dull, and all-around ridiculous (even barring vampires). I only read half of it and then regifted it as a white elephant Christmas gift for a party I went to. Getting rid of it was more a gift for me.

So my movie expectations were low, but I did think it would be better than the book.

No.

Wrong.

So wrong.

It was at least as bad as the book if not worse. Mostly because it pulled dialogue directly from Stefenie Meyer’s awfully-rendered scenes and dropped them into the gorgeous Pacific Northwest landscape. The acting was, simply put, atrocious, except for Kristen Stewart, who showed occasional glimpses of brilliance/adolescent awkwardness. But any bright points were infrequent, often clouded by the awful, awful dialogue and ridiculous scenarios–for example, it takes Bella about 90 minutes to figure out Edward’s a vampire. She even has to read a book to be sure. It’s like, hello? If the dude is cold, pale, stays out of sunlight and has super strength and catlike reflexes, he’s a vamp. Duh. Turn on a TV now and then, or read some classic literature. Bella is supposed to be very gifted otherwise. Right.

One of my friends referred to the film as a “cinematic abortion,” while another claimed the film was causing him to “grow a vagina.” While harsh, my own opinion was not far off. I actually said out loud at various points, “REALLY?” and “You’re kidding me.” It is so amateurishly done, it’s like the studio went out and found people who’d never even watched a movie and then said, “Here’s the book and a camera–call us when it’s done!”

The upside was that we saw the film at Cinema Drafthouse in Arlington, where we got to scarf down greasy bar food and a pitcher of beer before and while we watched. It seemed a small price to pay to crane my neck around the waiter in exchange for yumsy beer and deep friend mac-n-cheese bites. I will definitely go back there, although from now on we’ve all solemnly agreed not to see another film as awful as Twilight–in case we vomit with disgust, thereby ruining an otherwise nice night out.

Documentary of Embarrassment

My dad recently sent in all our old VHS and film home movies to a company that digitized them for use on DVD and the web. I had to walk him through how to create the DVDs last night, since he (nor I) have any patience for how-to videos and such (they move too slowly!). I went in and started tinkering.

The first set of clips I found were from a video “tour” of my hometown my best friend from high school and I made once, I think during one of my trips home from my first year of college.

It was mortifying. I watched about 30 seconds of it before I died of embarrassment and had to shut it off.

I told my father later, “I think it’s some sort of crime of nature that memories of my 18-year-old self won’t be allowed to fade into a mellow kind of comfort because all of the worst ones have been captured on video.”

The experience reminded me of another quirky video-related thing I did around that time. A few friends and I, video cam in tow, started making a movie called Documentary of a Stranger. We went out into the wild outer ring suburbs of Milwaukee and interviewed Barnes and Noble customers mostly, but also a woman pumping her gas at SuperAmerica.

We’d introduce ourselves and explain we were doing a project for a college sociology thesis called, of course, Documentary of a Stranger. We were going to ask them a series of probing questions, we said, and we just wanted them to answer to their comfort level.

We’d introduce them on camera: “This is Not David.” “This is Not Amanda.”

The questions were always varied but tended to include:

The normal where-from/sisters-brothers type questions
What do you do for a living?
What three famous people would you most want to have dinner with?
Can you do any stupid human tricks?
If you were stranded on a desert island, which brand of pain reliever would you prefer?

What was fascinating was that most people couldn’t wait to bust out their stupid human tricks. One girl walked with her knees bent, knees swinging in and out; another man touched his tongue to his nose.

Unfortunately, Documentary of a Stranger is lost–stolen, I think, but a college friend and then never returned.

It’s lost, but not forgotten. Unfortunately.