HAPPENING (2021)

(Theaters only/VOD soon) Audrey Diwan’s HAPPENING (original French title: L’ÉVÉNEMENT), adapted fromAnnie Ernaux’s autobiography of the same name, may initially look like a slice-of-life character drama: It’s France in the early 60s and Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a devoted student of literature, ready to buckle down and pass her final exams. Her parents are supportive, albeit overly industrious small bar owners and, after sunset, she enjoys a bit of the nightlife with her clique, while occasionally being glared at by her enemies.

In another film, that could be the opening of a quaint, comfortable ‘that one crazy summer’ movie. Not HAPPENING. Underneath its sun-washed gauzy palette of aqua blues and verdant greens is a tense, unwavering tale of a young woman under pressure as she realizes that she is pregnant in a country where abortion is outlawed and vehemently taboo. Anne is gravely aware of her ticking clock and she is determined to roll it back.

Anna gets to work and, as she goes from one failed plan to another, we see how her possibilities and her world shrinks. The already-tightly composed framing — shot in an 1.37 aspect ratio, closer to the boxed-in look of a standard definition TV show than a widescreen film — finds the camera inching closer in on Anna; rooms she inhabits feel smaller, more constrictive, she takes up more of the frame, her wide, defiant eyes inhabiting more and more of the screen. Her friends distance themselves, and those she talks to cower in fear of being jailed for simply hearing her broach the idea.

Anna’s solutions become more desperate, the world increasing hostile to her escape attempt, and the camera refuses to flinch or turn away, brusquely displaying her efforts through longer and longer takes. Her strength and vitality wane, exhaustion sets in due to the strain of the clock, the machinations of her body draining her, and she finds herself more and more emotional drained by her time spent lurking in the shadows.

Yet, during all of this, Anna unwaveringly brandishes her physical desires with confidence. That detail helps to set HAPPENNING’s scope to that of a steadfastly look at an unjust twist in a singular person’s life as opposed to one part of a grander coming-of-age tale or a film consisting of well-meaning scare tactics.

HAPPENING is an affecting work that resonates past the France of the 1960s, a headstrong tale of individual survival. Diwan, who is open about having had an abortion, had the following to say about why she adapted L’ÉVÉNEMENT:

“Lots of people told me in the industry, ‘Why do you want to make the movie now, because we’re in France and we already have [a law legalizing abortion]?’ And I was like, ‘OK, I really hope that you’re going to ask the same question to the next filmmaker that comes to you and says they’re going to make a movie about World War II. Because I guess the war is over.’ It was not easy to have them understand. I mean, look at how many women died on that battlefield and tell me it’s not a war. It’s a silent war.”

MADE FOR LOVE (2021-)

(HBOMAX) MADE FOR LOVE is not exactly the most enticing premise for a television series, despite the fact that Alissa Nutting’s novel that the show is based on was very well-received. (It is worth noting that Alissa Nutting is credited with writing on the show as well.)

The show is about a smart-ass firecracker, Hazel Green (an amazing fictional name, played by the astoundingly elastic Cristin Milioti) who, while down on her luck, selling false raffle tickets for free smartphones to make ends meet, ends up marrying tech capitalist Byron Gogol* (played by the delightfully creepy Billy Magnussen, who was Marcus in one of my favorite episodes of TV ever: THE LEFTOVER’s ‘Guest’). Byron then moves Hazel into his home: the Hub, a hyper virtual reality workplace campus, a place where she has no agency, where she has to periodically log orgasm ratings in order to play the flight simulator video game she uses to numb herself to her situation.

Hazel finds herself loathing Byron and this technological purgatory, and she finally snaps when she discovers that Byron has been using her — without her consent — to develop ‘Made for Love’: implants that ‘co-mingle’ two beings, tethering two together so one can see and feel and experience what the other is feeling.

Hazel then runs, falling backwards to home, to her sadsack father (a delightful Ray Romano, whose dramatic skills have been vastly underrated) who — after the death of his wife/Hazel’s mom — has adopted a realdoll to replace his romantic and physical urges. Byron, being the controlling megalomaniac that he is, is completely unwilling to let her go, for both personal and capitalist reasons.

What follows is a thrilling and heartfelt and intelligent exploration of human desire, tech and surveillance culture, infatuation & the kept woman, and the masculine, blinkered approach to problem-solving emotional relationships. All of this is bolstered by pitch-perfect sound design, music supervision, cinematography, and production design; the Hub is so expertly handled — a modernist dystopia of tech and interior design; watch for how the show constantly throws visual barriers between Hazel and Byron, and how Byron’s often lathered in an icy blue; there’s one moment in the third episode where Hazel literally smells agency, then acts upon it; and the integration of the Gogol logo to also reflect handcuffs is a stroke of brilliance.

MADE FOR LOVE is a show flexing all of its muscles. It is in complete command of what it wants to convey and how it wants to convey it. I initially thought it was a limited series, but no, it ends on an open note, and the second season airs April 28th.

  • I know a number of folks label him as an Elon Musk techbro, and yes, I think there’s some of that there, but personally I think his DNA is more Howard Hughes than Musk.

THE LOST DAUGHTER (2021)

(Netflix) A haunting film — adapted by Maggie Gyllenhaal from the novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante — about what’s doing right for you, even if it’s wrong for everyone else, and living with the repercussions of your actions.

I am not the right person to write about this film that is fundamentally about the hurt of motherhood; mothers who don’t feel parental; of a personal reckoning. It features both Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, it fucked me up and I loved it, and I am disappointed it wasn’t discussed more prior to the Oscars. Instead, I will link to others talking and writing more insightfully about the film than I could:

Linda Holmes & Neda Ulaby for the POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR podcast: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1064901091 (Transcript, and I especially love Neda’s take on it as a horror film.)

Sheila O’Malley for RogerEbert.com: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-lost-daughter-movie-review-2021

Alissa Wilkinson for vox.com: https://www.vox.com/22869285/lost-daughter-netflix-review-explained

Esther Zuckerman questions Gyllenhaal about the film for thrillist.com and it is a supremely insightful and brilliant look at film and the process of completing THE LOST DAUGHTER: https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/netflix-the-lost-daughter-maggie-gyllenhaal-inspirations

“But just this idea that women do make work that’s different than men. And what’s that mean? And what does it look like?”

CHICAGO – ‘Cell Block Tango’ (2002)

Every six months or so I become absolutely infatuated with a filmed musical number and will endlessly play it on repeat for days. Prior offenders include: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’s ’Superstar’, CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND’s ‘You Stupid Bitch’, just about any song from JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS, LIZZIE’s ‘House of Borden’, SWEET CHARITY’s ‘The Aloof/The Heavyweight/The Big Finish’, and even The View’s performance of the Broadway adaptation of FROZEN’s ‘Let It Go’.

Right now, it’s CHICAGO’s ‘Cell Block Tango’, a number from a film that I saw when it first ran in theaters, groused about how it swept the Oscars that year, and now I won’t shut up about.

To be fair, I watched it before I really started to understand musicals and accept them for what they are, instead of finding them to be overly dramatic venues for big showtunes and elaborate dance scenes.

Please understand that I’m (mostly) only discussing the ‘Cell Block Tango’ here, not the film at large because, otherwise, this piece would run at least four thousand words. (Trust me, I’ll spill the rest of those words some day, especially concerning the backstory of the play!)

One last matter worth noting: I moved to Chicago — the city, not the musical — right around the time of the theatrical revival, several years before the release of the film adaptation. So, well beforehand, I had already soaked in the look and feel of the revival’s fishnet-adorned El stop ads and billboards.

And with that, I’ll say that, twenty years later, this piece is better than ever. I was deadly wrong about dismissing it.

Taken out of context, it plays like a fever dream, a blurring of fact-and-fiction, of glamor fantasy and hardened reality, and I love it.

Women scorned, unafraid to exact vengeance. Legs as shotguns; wrists as daggers.

The secret weapon here is Catherine Zeta-Jones, who most folks at the time wrote off as a pair of versatile hips for Sean Connery, but reveals herself as one hell of a torch singer, while also throwing herself at you with a fire in her eyes.

This is a musical adaptation that a lot of folks complain about because it breaks the mould of film musicals; it relies on a lot of rapid shots and whiplash choreography, but that’s a good thing! CHICAGO (2002) is all about punc-u-a-tion and what better way to emphasize that than scissor legs and quick cuts? It’s all about the kinetic movement, even utilizing some frame-skipping to give it extra POP, and it turns CHICAGO from a leering stage production into immensely compelling cinema.

This is seven minutes of tales of abuse, anger, and unrepentant payback, tales told from a century ago via the original author Maurine Dallas Watkins, but are also a tale as old as time.

“Then he ran into my knife. He ran into my knife TEN TIMES.”

I could go on about the work’s fidelity to Fosse and his faceless, mute men, fetish wear and so on, but really, the piece speaks for itself. Go ahead, listen, and watch, and don’t disregard it like I did before:

Lastly, the entire history of this film’s production is astounding, and it’s all detailed here. Trust me, read it — you will not be disappointed.

DIETLAND (2015)

CONTENT WARNING: Eating disorders.

I previously recommended the TV adaptation of DIETLAND back in January which I described as a ‘woman-focused FIGHT CLUB’. While I last watched the show when it first aired in 2018, revisiting the pilot inspired me to check out the source material, Sarai Walker’s novel of the same name.

Upon reading it, I was struck at how close Marti Noxon’s adaptation hewed to the source material, while still fleshing Plum’s story out to be a bit more action-oriented to meet the requisite runtime of a TV series. However, the novel has an interiority and command of character that strikes closer to the reason why these pieces exist, which is:

Fuck capitalism, your body is fine, accept it and stop funneling money into the weight loss industry, but you will never, ever, be able to fit in without fighting for your right to do so. (And you still might hate yourself for doing so.)

To summarize: Plum Kettle is an ghostwriter giving private email advice to whomever mail her under the name of teen lifestyle magazine empress Kitty Montgomery. Plum is also fat, has always been fat, and wants to get surgery so she’ll be ‘Alicia’, her given name, the thin girl waiting inside of her. While working for Kitty, she’s roped into a group of ‘Jennifers’, an extremist organization that has no qualms about killing men and women who perpetuate a masculine agenda at the cost of women’s lives. Matters escalate.

While Noxon’s adaptation scrutinizes the changing of Plum from a meek, self-loathing woman into a revolutionary, Walker’s novel takes a different tact in exploring the dichotomy between who Plum feels as a fat person, and who she’d feel like as Alicia, a thin person. The Jennifers are backgrounded, a means to an existential end. It’s purely about Plum and the reader’s journey.

Look: I know I’m a middle-aged CIS dude. I am not the target audience for this work. However, I’ve struggled with my own weight issues. As a teen, I was definitely a calorie-counting anorexic, a behavioral note that DIETLAND hammers home. At my lowest scale reading, I was 130lbs, which for a 6’2” person was not healthy, but health be damned — I was a lithe goth boy!

Then, after working in diners and then meeting a woman who introduced me to the wonders of fine dining — as opposed to the same reliable carbs I’d routinely eat — I got fat. Then I found a very stupid, but very healthy and fun way to lose that weight: DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION, a videogame that knows a bunch of weight-obsessed folks play it, as it counts your calories with each track you dance to. It was way ahead of PELOTON with gamifying weight loss but, sadly, apparently is no longer profitable, and no longer exists due to the whims of its corporation.

Predictably, I gained the weight back, although under better circumstances: mostly beers in-between theater screenings and the like. I recall waking up one morning and realizing ‘oh, I’m just a fat person. This is who I am now.’ I felt a bit at peace with that reckoning. I stopped weighing myself and just started accepting my girth for what it was.

Then, the pandemic occurred, and in a fit of stress-induced anxiety, lost twenty pounds without even realizing it, which then provoked a flood of endorphins and, well, I thought: I lost this much through inaction, so let’s try action! And now I’ve lost at least fifty pounds, I can wear pants and shirts I haven’t worn in over a decade — although that’s probably a fashion crime — but I still feel like garbage. My wife calls it self-control, but I know the real term for it, and I haven’t felt the same sort of acceptance that I felt when I told myself that I was fat.

What DIETLAND instills is that the fat, insecure person will always live in you. It becomes part of your identity. You will always see them, even if others don’t. It’s a resignation that, in the novel, leads to a personal and political revolution. In real life, that doesn’t really happen.

I’d like to say I ‘recovered’, but as anyone who has struggled with weight knows: there’s no recovery; not really. There are highs and lows, at least until a final acceptance, which is the ultimate point of DIETLAND, but at the end of the day, DIETLAND is still a fictional work. Living with that is far harder than turning the last page.

I don’t feel that most men think about their looks or weight, or at least more than they have to which — by American standards — is very little if they’re heteronormative. I’m thankful to have a network of friends I can confide to about this, but I fear many don’t, which is exactly why I’m writing this. I can say: both the series and the book have helped me process a number of weight-related issues, and if you suffer from that, maybe these works will speak to you, too.

BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)

(VOD) I happened to read Robert Marasco’s 1973 horror novel BURNT OFFERINGS a few years ago, a properly enigmatic ‘house possesses and feeds off of its guests’ work, focused more on male/paternal/provider anxieties that hasn’t necessarily aged as well as one would hope, but it’s an intriguing enough qualified read.

I had absolutely no idea that, not only had it been adapted into a feature film in 1976, but that it has a surprising roster that features Oliver Reed as Ben, the father who drags his family to a spacious, yet dilapidated, summer house for vacation, Karen Black as Marian, his wife, Bette Davis as Aunt Elizabeth, as well as Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart as the brother and sister renting the house to the family.

As you might suspect based on the roll call, what ends up on the screen is an eclectic oil-and-water mix of performances: Reed brings an old-school stiffness that occasionally balloons to an overly grandiose show; Karen Black plays it a bit more naturalistic, bringing a haunted quality to the film, and Bette Davis gleefully leans into the creep factor of the aunt’s ailing body. Only Meredith and Heckart bring a playful vibe to the film, but it helps that they’re both on-screen for less than ten minutes.

While the film mostly hews close to the novel’s original tale, which primarily consists of putting the family’s young son David (Lee Montgomery) through the physical and psychological wringer, it deviates in two important ways. First, director Dan Curtis inserted a bit of back story for Ben where he keeps seeing a pale, grinning chauffeur, first at his mother’s funeral. Allegedly, this was a bit of dream-inspiration on Curtis’ part, but it slots into the adaptation quite well. Second, the end is significantly more close-ended and shocking than the source material but, again, it suits the work.

Tonally, the film is far more interesting, if not occasionally maddening, especially given how it contrasts against similar horror films of the time. It’s not quite a throwback, but it doesn’t quite embrace the evolving style and leniency of 70s horror.

Warning: the trailer pulls no punches and spoils some of the biggest moments of the film.

Halloween 2021 Programming: CLASSIC

As previously noted, my wife and I have a tradition where I draft up a selection of horror films for Halloween viewing, and she picks one from each group: Contemporary, Classic, and Cult, and I thought I’d share my suggestions this year. Today features classic horror films, and mostly features the exact text I sent her.

This time I will apologize not for leaning on prior works, but for posting about films I have yet to watch, but they all have stellar reputations, and at least one of them will be viewed tonight!

DOCTOR X (1932, Criterion/VOD)

While I purchased a copy of the newly restored DOCTOR X — it was one of the rare early horror films shot on a very distinct, very early two-color Technicolor process (see also: THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)) I have yet to watch it. It’s directed by Michael Curtiz, during his infamous horror run at Warner Bros, and stars Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.

Excerpt:

SISTERS (1973, Criterion/HBO MAX/VOD)

Also previously suggested. Classic Brian De Palma film about two sisters, two sides of the same coin.

DIABOLIQUE (1955, Criterion/HBO MAX/Plex/Roku)

Also previously suggested. “More of a thriller than a horror film, but it’s a seminal piece of film history for both. I haven’t seen it in over twenty years, and I’m eager to revisit it.”

THE VANISHING (1988, Criterion/VOD)

This has been on my watchlist for years. I think I had a copy on the DVR via TCM, but it may have been auto-deleted due to space.

THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971, DVD/YouTube)

It’s campy, but very intelligent and darkly comic. Also, Vincent Price AND Joseph Cotten! (There’s a sequel I’ve been meaning to watch, but haven’t gotten around to.)

(Shh)

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927, epix/kanopy/Paramount+/VOD

I haven’t seen this yet but, similar to THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) — which we watched a few years ago — it’s an ensemble film along the lines of Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (although this film predates both works). It’s directed by Paul Leni, who directed THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, notable for Conrad Veidt’s (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) performance that was blatantly ripped off for the look of the Joker.

Excerpt:

THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION (2006)

(VOD) THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION — an episode of the SHOWTIME TV horror anthology MASTERS OF HORROR — is an oddity for director Joe Dante. Most of his works play with elements of horror, satire, and slapstick, however there are no laughs to be found here.

Dante’s THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION is an adaptation of James Tiptree Jr.’s short story of the same name. (If you aren’t familiar with James Tiptree Jr./Raccoona Sheldon/Alice Hastings Bradley, she was a brilliant-but-troubled sci-fi writer.) It’s a slightly modernized take on the original short, but essentially the same: scientists try to wipe out a parasitic insect, but the end result causes the insects to infect men and cause them to turn their sexual impulses to violent, murderous ones.

It’s not a subtle piece — and Dante’s adaptation is hampered by some overly clunky Spielberg-ish TV cinematography (too many canted angles, too many tight shots) — but it is extremely effective in showcasing how women rightfully are consistently fearful of of men. I also find it a remarkable piece because it’s also about men being afraid of themselves. This is horror at its exploratory best.

M (1990-1992)

(Comics/Graphic Novel) You may not think you need to read a comic book adaptation of Fritz Lang’s classic serial killer horror noir M (1931), but this adaptation is from Jon J. Muth, who literally reframes much of Lang’s imagery with his unique, haunted painterly style.

It was initially published as a four-issue mini-series over two years — once you see Muth’s work, you’ll understand why it took so long — but quickly went out-of-print until it was collected into a trade paperback in 2008.

https://www.vulture.com/2008/04/comics_m.html

DETENTION (2021)

(Cinemas/VOD) DETENTION (2021) This film is based on the previously featured videogame, but unless you played said game, it’s unlikely you would know it despite the fact that it mostly adheres to the original game’s story and visual design. Many of the sets are surprisingly detailed recreations of the game’s 2D environments, and Gingle Wang is a fantastic swap-in for Fang (ostensibly the protagonist, and I will fight you about that), but the script is rich enough that it doesn’t feel like an horror point-and-click game adaptation.

Yes, it takes a few liberties and makes a few feints — some characters stick around far longer than they did in the game — but it’s a far more nuanced and complicated expounding on the game’s narrative and characters, and it even improves on the already fantastic creature design.

Personally, I played the game first and then immediately watched the film and felt very rewarded. There are a number of easter eggs that aren’t just there to point at, including how deftly the film handles the game’s multiple endings.

I’ll note that there’s also a mini-series available via Netflix, which I have yet to watch.