Friday 17 April 2020

Article: The Dirty South

A favourite podcast of mine that I often have filling my earholes when I am preparing the Sunday roast is the highly informative, often funny podcast Behind the Bastards. Hosted by former Cracked Writer Robert Evans; each episode documents an infamous grifter, villain or dictator from the world’s rogues gallery. A recent episode dealt with the recent phenomenon of Tiger King. If you’ve not got Netflix and have been living under a rock, The Netflix show depicts the beyond the bizarre tale of a polyamorous, gay wild cat owner, whose increasingly insane antics ended up with the aforementioned Joe, banged up in Federal Jail for violating the endangered species act and the attempted murder of another Big Cat owner Carole Baskin. The limited series delves into the outrageous lives of a variety of eccentric characters. Joe’s nonconformist lifestyle is as much of the documentaries focus as his grifting and obsession with Baskin. Everything seems to hold itself in a twisted sense of balance. 

Much has been said about the show and the background of the people for whom it is about. But the thing that really picked my brain about the show came from comedian Billy Wayne Davis who guested on the Behind the Bastards Podcast. With his origins based in a more rural, part of southern American, Davis’ reaction was one of near passivity. To him, he had met so many people like the cast of colourful characters on the show, that while he found the show funny, he was non-plussed by their behaviour. Remarking in a near throwaway comment that folks like Joe Exotic only shock city folk due to the little knowledge they hold of locations that the likes of Joe inhabit. Such criminality is common. Crooked lawmen. Hired hitmen. Dubious means of obtaining sums of cash. And always wrapped up within a lifestyle which goes beyond the fringes. Davis also stated on the podcast; The Daily Zeitgeist, that the likes of Jodie Hill and Danny McBride nailed the rural, southern way of life way before the hit Netflix show in their films The Foot Fist Way (2006) and the sitcom Eastbound and Down (2009). Personally, a part of me thinks that we should have been primed for the likes of Joe Exotic in films such as the 1998 Florida noir, Wild Things.

There is plenty of southern fried features with questionable escapades that could easily make an enjoyable overnight binge along with Tiger King. But for me, it’s Wild Things that sticks out as the crown jewel. True Crime has made a splash in the podcast and streaming world with its lurid elements and forensic details. However, a film like Wild Things was indulging itself in the same type of sociopathic chicanery way before Joe Exotic hit the zeitgeist. There is a clear love of the sensationalised indulgences that true crime shows, and podcasts enjoy playing into. But while a show such as Making a Murderer (2015) still can claim an element of moral justice. Tiger King leans into the outlandish mechanisms that also lie within John McNaughton’s humid cult hit. A backcountry playground removed from a so-called civilised world far to up its backside. Non-conformist sexual behaviour, crooked cohorts and the feeling that everyone not only for personal gain but are also a law into themselves. Likable characters are not what you watch either Tiger King or Wild Things for, but the needling desire to see thorn filled rabbit hole leads for these creatures is a strong pull.

In an article for The Ringer released around Wild Things’ 20th anniversary, bestselling author Shea Serrano recounts the amounts of double-crosses that occur in Wild Things’ 108-minute running. Shea notes the number of deceptive shenanigans with glee, yet it’s not noted at how well the film manages to do this. Wild Things comes out in an era where plot-twists and post-modern monkeyshines are well noted. Let’s not take into account Neve Campbell popping up in Scream (1996) or the question of Who is Keyser Soze. Wild Things still comes out a year before The 6th Sense (1999) a film in which that film's major plot twist leaves the audience shook for years to come. Wild Things has TWELVE double crosses within its running time, with Shea averaging that at a double-cross every 9 minutes. Doing for plot twists what Airplane! (1980) did for sight gags. This is, however, a showcase to how drum-tight the movie’s narrative is and how well-oiled the mechanics play out. John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) is not a directorial name that features often in circles of social media, those who know the name, know that he is no slouch. Watching Wild Things again, it is fascinating to watch how characters are blocked in scenes to foreshadow hidden agendas and to keep the audience guessing. The positioning of characters, as well as cutting and story shaping from editor Elena Maganini, are a great example of “the seen unseen”. A character placed behind a gated fence, but only after certain aspects play out first. A coupling of characters suggesting an unfortunate outcome for one, but almost signaling out another character who is running out of view. It’s also worth noting aspects such as casting Theresa Russell as the rich bitch Sandra Van Ryan. Russell who had a notable role in crime drama Black Widow (1987) in which she plays a murderous sociopath who murders for money. The film’s sheer audacity to cast Robert Wagner in a film that obtains mysterious boating incidents as set pieces is a clear note of the film’s gallows humour.

Poor Taste? Of course. But Wild Things is a film that knows what it is playing at. Salacious is the order of the day. Both Tiger King and Wild Things embrace taboo and scandal with loving arms. They ride on the idea of the guilty pleasure. Itching at spots that many would like to claim they do not have. The infamous threesome is a moment with a decent amount of sleazy steaminess yet is sneaky enough with the ages of the female students that no one appears to care that they are sleeping with their former teacher that should know better. However, as the camera gleefully glides slowly over the wet body of Denise Richards midway through the film, you see that the film is playing you like a flute. Roger Ebert in his review of the film asks people to refrain from telling him the film is in bad taste. It is quite clear. It makes no excuses. Ebert also remarks that the film is designed for “connoisseurs of melodramatic comic vulgarity”. How do you feel when you see Richards’ washing a dirty jeep in short shorts? Do you note that she is a school student in the film? Your answers will guide you on whether you would want to watch the film. It may also dictate your feelings towards something like Tiger King. The only difference (thankfully) Wild Things is fiction. 

Listen to the Fatal Attractions Podcast episode of Wild Things here

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Review: Below Her Mouth

Year: 2016
Director: April Mullen
Screenplay: Stephanie Fabrizi
Starring: Erika Linder, Natalie Krill

Time for an odd story. One of my hobbies is photography. Most of my work is mainly women. I often ask my subjects “how do you want to be shot?” I like the subject to have an aim of the shoot and their answer will usually provide a steppingstone to the type of tone the finished image will be. One model who I enjoy shooting with was quick to voice her concerns with previous photographers over sexualizing her recent shoots. A more than reasonable argument, so I looked to avoid heading down the same path. However, the model bought props which unfortunately would negate her comments if used. When she asked to place these items within the shot. I refused. The simple reason. If you don’t want to be observed under a certain gaze, it may be wise not to utilise things that may suggest otherwise. Below Her Mouth holds a similar problem. Although the film has an issue of addition as opposed to subtraction. It is a film full of sex. However, it has the same conundrum I felt I had with my model friend: What story are you trying to tell?

Films that single-handedly deal in the female gaze on screen still seem to be somewhat of a taboo even in 2020. Which is why it’s easy to a film like Below the Mouth wanting to be a lesbian romance straightly told. However, April Mullen’s sexually charged tale of an illicit affair between a female roofer (Erika Linder) and a fashion editor (Natalie Krill) in a heterosexual engagement is not too dissimilar to the testosterone-based cliché we often hear. It’s only interested in one thing.

Let’s not lie. Below Her Mouth is sexy. It’s really sexy.  The negative reviews I read about the film after watching the film, gave off the sort of puritanical leaning which seems to claim that they were somewhat above the film depicting sex which may cause an actual element of desire.  It wasn’t hard to find a review that labelled the film as pornography. The physicality within the sexual scenes is substantial. It’s a film that never shies away from sex. The scenes are as plentiful as they are explicit. The film is very happy to depict two very desirable women in a variety of sexually tense situations, often bathing them in natural light or framing their writhing bodies in aesthetically pleasing compositions. Both Mullen and Maya Bankovic have done their homework here. Being a non-Hollywood movie, it also means they can push the bar on what they can show.  And with no snickering in the back, the film knows how to make the sex look good.

The film’s struggle for substance in the narrative, however, provides the perfect element of truth to any cynic. Every sexual composition is lush and will no doubt corner the male gaze as well as the female one. However, the film’s turgid dialogue, sloppy metaphors and lack of characterization help push the idea that Below the Mouth is titillation and titillation only. The film’s use of one character nailing the roof outside while intercutting with the other woman masturbating in the bath while fantasizing over her is not only comically on the nose, but some of the scenes particular logistics feel unnecessary. The story keeps roofer Dallas’s backstory needlessly hidden while highlighting that she enjoys sex. The building of her character gives us little reason to care for her motives. In addition to this, as Dallas’ coded as the more masculine character, with her assertiveness being nearly her only trait, some of Dallas’s behavior is considered non-problematic simply because it’s a woman performing the actions. They could easily be perceived as toxic. The film gives little attention to Dallas's development. Keeping her an enigma, her pull towards Jasmine as well as her methods are left elliptical and unpolished.

Fashion editor Jasmine fairs only slightly better as an engaged woman who was seemingly scared straight due to one singular event in her childhood, however, the films lackluster character development again does little to convince as to why she’d be willing to drop her otherwise happy existence.

The film hints at a gender and sexuality struggle which may have been compelling. A secondary character exclamation of having to wear “conventional” women’s clothes to dictate that she fits in with certain societal expectations is sadly never built on. While Dallas’s statement of a coming out story being never-ending may not fully justify her lack of background story but is a small amount of profundity in a film that is far more interested in strap-on dildos.

All the elements add up to a film which is full of scenes that could make one hot under the collar but with sexual politics which were held together better in films which were more invested in who the film was about. The likes of My Summer of Love (2004), Moonlight (2018) or Princess Cyd (2017) name a few films which may not observe same-sex relationships with the same sexual explicitness yet hold an emotional attentiveness which Below Her Mouth seems disengaged with. If, however, one can ignore the battered clichés and slight dramatic displays at play, Below Her Mouth may hold some appeal simply by having scenes that could stream up a few windows. Don’t look for a powerfully told story through. It dissipates as quickly as condensation.

Below Her Mouth was viewed via Netflix UK

Thursday 9 April 2020

Review: Empathy Inc

If you have a bad day at work what do you do to turn it around? Vent to the wife? A swift half with the lads? Switch on the PlayStation and shout horrible slurs at 14-year olds? I’m sure we all have our ways of dealing with having an absolute mare. In case of venture capitalist Joel, whose multimillion deal has just gone the way of Orlando Bloom’s character’s in Elizabethtown (2005), things go beyond your usual hectic day at the office.

Forcibly moved in with his nightmare in-laws and with hardly a penny to his name, Joel (Zack Robidas) is in dire straits. That is until he meets an old friend with a fancy new scheme in the line of VR. What if you spend some time in someone else’s shoes? Someone who’s life is less than fortunate? Would that place your issues into perspective? Thus, the conceit is born. A VR system that places you in the shoes of someone who is desolate. By doing so, your hang-ups will become more manageable. And all those proverbs and maxims people like to band about would be justified.

It all seems too good to be true in Empathy Inc, the lo-fi, sci-fi head spinner from Yedidya Gorsetman. Of course, it certainly is, as the little bit greedy and all to nosy Joel soon finds out. With a conceit that feels a little bit Primer (2004) and noir style black and white that couldn’t help but remind me of Darren Aronofsky’s debut Pi (1998), Empathy Inc is the kind of askew, oddity that you’d use to find late nights on the weekend when terrestrial tele was our media gods and you were never quite sure if you saw what you watched or dreamed it. Safe to say, trying to tell your wife or the lads over a swift half about this flick may get you some strange looks.

It’s also safe to say that this is a very confident piece of filmmaking from a film that is seeing how resourceful it can be while on a very limited budget. It’s lack of expansive or varied locations not only keeps the focus on the characters but gives the entire film an inescapable, hemmed in vibe. It’s also notable that while the film is limited in funds the film's compositions and transitions highlight an eye for the cinematic.

Drenched in punchy black and white, giving the whole exercise a touch of the noir to its sci-fi leanings, Empathy Inc’s strengths lie in its simplicity. The film gives us just enough of its lofty idea to make the story compelling. The characters may be broad, but they’re never flat. Although the actors struggle with the tasks given as the film ramps up the tempo and twists later in the film. While Empathy Inc toys with deeper themes of haves and have nots, corrupt corporate investors and the identity of the self, it’s far more at home as being a moderately thrilling sci-fi that would fit comfortably on the same shelf as the films of Shaun Carruth. Although it may not get as far under the skin.

Empathy Inc is available now on VOD via Amazon Prime, Google Play and YouTube