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Birds, Bees and Whatnot

A Sexplanation

by Rachel Willis

Director Alex Liu is on a quest to overcome the shame he feels regarding sex. He’s also out to understand why sex is such a taboo subject in America – especially when it comes to our kids, their curiosity, and their own drives (whatever they may be) – in his documentary, A Sexplanation.

Part exploration of sex education in the United States, healthy sexual conversation, and personal memoir, the doc wants to understand why Liu was made to feel such shame about his own sexual acts and preferences. In a heart-wrenching moment, he even admits to contemplating suicide because of it.

This is a heavy sequence in an otherwise very lighthearted and funny documentary. Liu might still feel some of the embarrassment of his upbringing (in one particular interview it’s obvious from his blush he’s asking questions that bring discomfort), but he is determined to upend the current notion of sex as shameful.

This is the kind of documentary that would be a wonderful conversation starter for parents and their teenagers, as some of its queries are a bit too advanced for younger children. One of the points the documentary makes is that there shouldn’t be “The Talk” with kids, but a continuing conversation around age-appropriate topics. There’s no reason why a two- or three-year-old can’t know the proper terminology for their body parts. Or why a six-year-old can’t begin to understand the biological differences between the sexes. In the case of sex, silence from parents can be just as damaging as outright shaming.

This is what appears to have happened to Liu. As he talks with his parents, both of whom seem quite open to his questions, it doesn’t appear that they intended for Liu to feel awkward, embarrassed, or even wrong for a natural part of development. But their silence meant he was left to the wayward American education system, which primarily values abstinence-only over comprehensive sex-ed.

Conversations with others his age reveal the woefully inadequate education most of us have, not only concerning sex, but also some of the basics of human biology.   

Liu could probably have done a bit more exploring. Still, A Sexplanation offers a non-judgmental safe space for the questions that many of us (okay, probably all of us) have had when it comes to masturbation, sexual proclivities, and the whole exciting and wonderful topic that is sex. 

Scream Queen

All About Evil

by Hope Madden

Creepy twins! Librarians! Drag queens! These are a few of my favorite things…

The long-lost 2010 cult-film-in-the-making All About Evil brings all this and more to its Shudder debut this week. What’s it about?

The business of show!

Natasha Lyonne is Deborah Tennis, anxious librarian. Deb inherits her dad’s beloved single-screen San Francisco theater and vows to keep it afloat, no matter how. Her plan of action: make grisly, hyper-realistic horror shorts with literary puns for titles.

You’d be surprised how well it works.

Writer/director Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ, who co-stars) surrounds Lyonne with some underground heavy-hitters including Mink Stole and Cassandra Peterson. Between that and the Herschel Gordon Lewis love, All About Evil is a mash note to camp.

Performances and writing fall right in line. It’s community theater bad, but in the best way. Lyonne is in her element, hamming her arc from mousy literary type to vampy directress with Gloria Swanson skill. She’s even more fun when she’s directing her fine crew (Jack Donner, Noah Segan, and Nikita and Jade Ramsey – all so fun).

The underlying story that we need to stop assuming every troubled, white high school boy is a danger to society has not aged well. But Grannell also hits on timeless lessons about cell phone use during a movie (never OK!) and Elvira’s hotness (eternal!).

All About Evil offers clever midnight-movie fun from start to finish. The filmmaker is clearly a devotee of cult and kitsch, a love that brightens every frame of the film. Plus, the film memorabilia! Come for the movie posters, stay for more movie posters, enjoy some madcap campy mayhem in between.

Wake Up Call

6:45

by Rachel Willis

Working from a screenplay by Robert Dean Klein, director Craig Singer brings us the time loop horror film, 6:45.

Bobby (Michael Reed) and Jules (Augie Duke) are trying to work through some issues, so they visit the quaint island of Bog Grove for a relaxing vacation. What the couple doesn’t know is that their visit to the island falls on the anniversary of a traumatic, unsolved murder. Because of this, the ferry service doesn’t run, and they’re stuck – or so they’re informed by the nosy, odd proprietor for the inn where they’re staying.

A slow opening that follows the couple exploring Bog Grove, its tourist shops and oddball residents, doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to build tension. When the tragedy occurs, it comes as a relief rather than a shock.

Soon, Bobby descends into a nightmare he must relive over and over. Being forced to relive the day alongside Bobby is a horror in itself.

No one else experiences the loop, so we get to see Duke in a range of roles: some days she wishes could last forever, others see her trying to rein in an increasingly unstable boyfriend. Reed, on the other hand, is stuck playing a man who doesn’t seem to know how to handle himself each day. Every time the crucial event occurs, he seems constantly taken by surprise.

The cast of locals has little to do, often repeating lines from previous loops. They fill mostly stereotypical roles: small-town friendly and welcoming or weirdly creepy. There isn’t middle ground, and it makes for uninteresting characters.   

Rather than differentiate itself from similar time loop films through storytelling, 6:45 instead focuses on camerawork and distracting split screens. Anywhere from four to six screens will litter the frame, some focusing on banal details, others on more interesting visuals. Days are relegated to montages,

Flashbacks detailing the couple’s history sometimes punctuate the flashbacks. It’s here that Singer cleverly injects moments that help us understand why the couple has been fighting. It’s clear that the fight revolves around infidelity, but these fleeting moments offer hints of violence, which reveals something more sinister.

The film does take an interesting turn, but it comes too little, too late. It also fumbles any message it’s trying to get across. Instead of offering a strong look at a troublesome relationship, it embraces shock over commentary. In the end, we’re not shown anything new or astute.

Mean Boys

Mother Schmuckers

by Brandon Thomas

My relationship with gross-out humor is hit-or-miss. Like millions of other people around the world, I laughed uproariously as Cameron Diaz used the wrong “hair gel” in There’s Something About Mary. For 20 years, I’ve enjoyed the increasingly dumb antics of the crew from the Jackass films. On the other hand, Tom Green’s weirdo pet project Freddy Got Fingered remains one of the few movies I almost walked out of. Even revered cult classic Pink Flamingos has never been much more than a cinematic endurance test in my eyes.

Unfortunately for me, Belgian import Mother Schmuckers is less Mary and more Freddy with its unfunny bits and horrifically unlikable characters.

Brothers Zebulon and Issachar live a life of debauchery and chaos. When the two lose their mother’s beloved dog, they have 24 hours to find it or risk being thrown out on the street. Along the way, the two run afoul of a grocery store security guard, kill birds with a handgun, and parade a dead body around.

Mother Schmucker’s approach to comedy is throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Directors Harpo and Lenny Guit definitely aren’t afraid to try anything and everything, even if it means the vast majority of the gags (pun fully intended) fall flat. Everything from force-feeding feces to animal kink shows up at one point or another. This “anything goes” attitude might work for a prank or other kind of reality show, but as a narrative feature it just comes across as unfocused and lazy.

There’s a chaotic energy to Mother Schmuckers that’s undeniable. The movie’s visual aesthetic feels closer to a mid-90s skateboarding video than it does a traditional comedy. The camera moves around almost as fast as the brothers as they scurry from one catastrophe to the next. While it doesn’t necessarily make the movie any better, it does keep it from becoming a complete bore.

I don’t want to sound too puritanical, but brothers Issachar and Zebulon are two of the worst degenerates to ever grace the big screen. I doubt the Guits intended for audiences to embrace these moronic characters, but the lengths to which they go to make us actively hate them is almost impressive. I don’t for a second believe that movie characters need to be likable to be relatable, but these two live on a completely different plane of obnoxiousness and cruelty.

Mother Schmuckers is a pointlessly mean-spirited endeavor. Gross cinema can be good – heck, it can even be great! What it should never be, though, is cruel.

Pick A Side

A Shot Through the Wall

by Rachel Willis

“It’s important … that I understand your side of the story.”

Writer and director Aimee Long tackles a big topic with her debut feature, A Shot Through the Wall. Focusing on the aftermath of the shooting of a Black man shot by a police officer, Long tries to present the issue in shades of gray rather than the black and white portrayal often warring in the news or across social media.

When two police officers stop a group of Black teenagers on the street, a chase leads to an accidental shooting.

In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, Officer Michael Tan (Kenny Leu) draws his weapon in the pursuit of one of the teenagers and his gun discharges. Whether the result of a misfire or a jumpy trigger finger is never made clear, but that’s not Long’s point. From Tan’s perspective -and his is the one on which we’re focused – it’s an accident.

This is one of the more troubling aspects of Long’s film. While it’s made clear from the beginning that Tan never meant to hurt anyone, we’re not given the alternative perspective of what the killing of a Black man at police hands means for the family or the community.

A moment in the film’s first act allows us a chance to see the anger and the demand for justice, but this is depicted as a blanket response. No one takes the time to show us how the hole in the wall of an apartment rips a hole in so many lives. Be it accidental or intentional, the result is more victims of an unjust system.

The only chance we get to understand the victim’s side comes in the form of Tan’s fiancée, a Black woman. Portrayed by Ciara Renée, Candace is the strongest character as her dual role in the conflict gives us a little more insight.

However, that’s not to say the other actors don’t inhabit their roles. Each one brings depth that makes up for the film’s storytelling weaknesses.

A few tough questions are raised in the film. Is Tan’s race a factor in his indictment? Would a white cop face the same legal persecution?

There is strength in the film’s second act, as we get a chance to know Tan, but it falls apart at the end. The idea that violence begets violence leads to a (forgive the pun) cop out.

There is no real justice to find here. Only more of the same in a society where oppression and injustice are too often the norm.

Growing Strong

Beans

by Christie Robb

Adolescence is hard. It’s beset with conflicts and struggles that come from all directions—society, parents, peers, your own body… In Tracey Deer’s Beans, we see Tekahentakwa’s (nicknamed Beans) coming-of-age narrative, well, a slice of it anyway. She’s coming up on her seventh-grade year and contemplating a move from her neighborhood school to Montreal’s posh Queen Heights Academy.

The posh and majority-white Queen Heights Academy.

Which is more than usually fraught because Beans is a Mohawk and the Mohawks are fighting to keep White Quebecois developers from expanding a golf course onto a Mohawk cemetery.

Inspired by the true events of the Oka Crisis aka Kanesatake Resistance of 1990, Beans is a mix of archival news footage and fictional drama.

What begins as a peaceful protest at the cemetery turns violent once a riot squad shows up and starts lobbing tear gas at the protestors. A police officer is killed, which leads to a stand-off. Mohawks and white police face each other behind barricades. Beans’s town is cut off from supplies, leaving it more or less under siege.

The details of the stand-off are a little unclear, the way world events can seem when you are in middle school. What Beans experiences is a betrayal of white adults. They fail to live up to their roles in the social system she thought she was living under. Shop keepers won’t sell groceries to “her kind.” Police won’t protect a car full of women and children from folks throwing rocks. People scream obscenities and spit at her adorable kid sister.

In the midst of this, Beans is trying on possible versions of her adult self. She meets an older, more contemptuous, teenage mentor and seeks advice on how to toughen up. She abandons her baggy 90s overalls and braids and experiments with side ponytails, crop tops, and lipstick. She practices swearing in front of the mirror. She learns more about administering violence and suffering it.

As tensions with the developers and government mount, Beans’s life grows increasingly complicated, forcing her to make choices and figure out the type of person she wants to be.

The cast delivers authentic performances. As Beans, Kiawentiio nails the vulnerability covered with a brittle armor of cynicism that I remember from middle school. Paulina Alexis does a great job as the tough older girl who has been through some shit. And Rainbow Dickerson shines as the ultimate adult role model—strong and nurturing, and able to let loose with the lecture to kids and adults alike.

As a monolingual person from the States, I would have appreciated subtitles for the French language news footage and a little bit more context on how the Mohawks and the Canadian Government came to a resolution. But, overall, Beans is a moving coming-of-age story that depicts many strong First Nations women. This is Tracey Deer’s first feature film and I look forward to seeing what’s next.

Inner Conflict

Dangerous

by Hope Madden

I remember watching the inexplicably popular Bad Boys for Life and marveling at the film’s narrative purpose: to convince Marcus (Martin Lawrence) that being a violent man is better than being a man who does not commit violence against others.

Sure, there’s a mother/son angle, some explosions, a disco scene, but everything that happens does so to convince Marcus that his real purpose is to commit violence.

It’s different than the traditional “one man against the world” action flick, where a peaceful man is forced back into violence to avenge the death of his wife/child/puppy. Those have long existed. This idea that a man who chooses not to physically harm others needs to somehow be persuaded that he prefers a life of violence, that it is his nature and should be celebrated, is kind of new. This theme is also the driving force behind the admittedly enjoyable Nobody, among others.

The latest film that hates to see a man get his baser instincts under control is David Hackl’s Dangerous.

Scott Eastwood leads a solitary life. He works out. He eats frozen dinners. He waters his plants. Then his mind-numbing peace is disrupted when his brother Sean’s death brings him to the remote island where Sean had been renovating an old military base into a hotel.

Eastwood, who channels his father more and more these days, is now non-violent with the help of some personality-deadening drugs and call-me-whenever guidance from his therapist, played by Mel Gibson.

That’s funny.

Hackl’s clearly working on a shoestring here, and though the film sometimes shows a lack of funds, on the whole, it’s competently made. The humor Hackl, Gibson and Eastwood mine from Christopher Borrelli’s script delivers Dangerous’s saving grace.

Because, yes, D (Eastwood’s character) falls into ex-military, Black Op style gunplay once on the island, but first the recovering sociopath has to deal with his mom. Beyond that, the mystery is convoluted beyond measure, Tyrese Gibson and Famke Janssen are pointless, performances are forgettable.

In the end, the whole mess feels like the familiar fantasy of doing right by your mother just one time and then disappearing so you can’t screw it up. Which is a better story than the one about a sociopath who decides being a decent human is just not being true to himself.

Life Less Ordinary

Waif

by Hope Madden

Just two years ago, writer Samantha Kolesnik crafted the hypnotic road trip horror True Crime and introduced us to a frightening, insightful and bold central figure.

Much has changed in Kolesnik’s approach to her latest novella, Waif. And yet, a master of complex characters, Kolesnik delivers another fascinating point of view vehicle in Angie, whose thoughts and rationalizations defy clean moral categorization. Waif travels an unusual path along with Angie, an abused wife whose husband concocts a bizarre plan to recapture her sexual interest. The undertaking draws her into a wild world full of new dangers, and it awakens something.

The novella probes this damaged psyche without apology or judgment, Kolesnik’s writing here frank and often frankly sexual. Where her previous novella delivered dreamlike stream of conscious horror, Waif’s punch is direct.

The plot itself is never less than fascinating, allowing Kolesnik to explore sexual politics, loss, and an almost endless set of ideas concerning abuse. Through Angie, a less-than-reliable reliable narrator, Kolesnik asks provocative questions, and the answers she offers are often disturbing.

She complicates the ideas of innocence, agency and complicity, and once again her choice of narrator allows for a morally fluid point of view, which gives the author opportunity to look at every topic from a wide and wild range of perspectives. The story role-reverses again and again, giving nearly every character the chance to try on the robes of victim and perpetrator, often willingly.

Waif wastes not a sentence on sermonizing. Instead, it explores dangerous possibilities in the name of reclaiming something you thought you’d lost.

Living Deliciously

First Cow

by Hope Madden

Kelly Reichardt films tell a story, but not in the traditional Hollywood sense. She draws you into an alien environment, unveils universal humanity and shows you something about yourself, about us. There’s usually a story buried in there somewhere. In this case, it’s about two outsiders in 19th Century Oregon who find friendship.

And a cow.

Cookie (John Magaro) is a gentle soul, not properly built for the fur trade. (You saw The Revenant, right?) He’s a baker at heart, not that he gets to do much baking on a trapping expedition with hungry, volatile, hunt-weary men.

He holds no value for these men, and has nothing in common with them. But somehow he sees a kinship with the naked Chinese man he stumbles upon as he forages for mushrooms in the woods.

It’s sweet and sad the way Cookie and King-Lu (Orion Lee) fall into a relationship. King-Lu has ambitions. He opens Cookie’s eyes to opportunities he’d never had the courage to consider. Through these characters Reichardt demonstrates how fragile, lovely and heartbreaking hope can be.

Working again with regular collaborator Jonathan Raymond, whose novel the two adapted, Reichardt keeps you pulling for her heroes. The narrative lulls you with understated conversations and observations while the meticulously captured natural beauty onscreen beguiles. Within that, we see the potential of a young country through the eyes of Americans determining the dream.

Reichardt explores loneliness in all her films, the sense that we are each simply and inevitably alone, though we struggle against it regardless. This exploration isn’t hurried. It breathes. She emphasizes the longing for connection in every quiet moment with her characteristic use of lighting, the way she frames nature and the naturalistic performances she draws from Lee and Magaro.

William Tyler’s lonesome score offers something both mournful and tender, which is fitting. Although these men’s very existence in this place testifies to hardy ambition, Reichardt lingers on moments of gentle camaraderie.

When Kelly Reichardt tells a story, she breaks your heart. She does it slowly and quietly, but it’s broken nonetheless.

Saturday Screamer: The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

You know the drill: 5 college kids head into the woods for a wild weekend of doobage, cocktails and hookups but find, instead, dismemberment, terror and pain. You can probably already picture the kids, too: a couple of hottie Alphas, the nice girl, the guy she may or may not be into, and the comic relief tag along. In fact, if you tried, you could almost predict who gets picked off when.

But that’s just the point, of course. Making his directorial debut, Drew Goddard, along with his co-scribe Joss Whedon, is going to use that preexisting knowledge to entertain holy hell out of you.

Though Goddard was an unproven entity behind the camera, the duo have written and produced some of the most intriguing projects in film and on TV in recent memory, including Cloverfield, Lost, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whedon wrote Toy Story. There is nothing that garners higher praise from me than that particular credit.

Their quirky, dark humor is on full display in this effort.

Aside from the setup, the best thing to know about this film is nothing at all. The less you know, the more you’ll enjoy the savage, wickedly funny lunacy.

I will tell you this, though: Best onscreen elevator ride ever!

Goddard and Whedon’s nimble screenplay offers a spot-on deconstruction of horror tropes as well as a joyous celebration of the genre. Aided by exquisite casting – particularly the gloriously deadpan Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford – the filmmakers create something truly special.

Cabin is not a spoof. It’s not a satire. It’s sort of a celebratory homage, but not entirely. What you get with this film is a very different kind of horror comedy.

Fans of the genre will be elated. Those who generally avoid horror cannot help but be entertained. I left the theater absolutely giddy. As smart as Scream, as much fun as Evil Dead, this film is as thoroughly enjoyable a horror flick as anything you’ll find.