Professor Marston and the Wonder Women- (Dir. Angela Robinson), Review By Case Wright


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What does Wonder Woman, S&M, and Polyamory have in common?  Pretty much everything.  Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (PMWW) was…dull.  You’d think with all the whips and ropes that the movie would pull some interest, but the scenes were shot hamfisted and clinical.  I guess that makes sense to a degree because the stars were playing Harvard nerds who liked kinky sex, but man what a snore!

The movie was a Biopic about Professor Marston the creator of the lie detector test and I will forever know this because it was repeated over and over and over and over again.  UGGHHHH.  Professor Marston was a Harvard Professor who was married to fellow professor Elizabeth Marston.  They are social psyche professors who are developing a lie detector test and are determined to bring Olive Byrne into their cult-like love life.  This would be considered very creepy today, not for the S&M stuff, but because of the professor/student boundary crossing.  They aren’t shy at all about their relationship, causing everyone to get expelled/fired.  Honestly, I don’t blame Harvard on this one.  He not only seduced a student, got her pregnant, and they all lived together.  It reminded me of those separatist compounds.

Since no one is working, money gets tight. Eventually, Professor Marston puts his kink into high gear with ropes etc and this gives him the idea of Wonder Woman.  He uses the two personalities of his two wives to give Wonder Woman a dual identity.  It’s not a terrible analogy, just a terrible movie.   Their unconventional marriage is discovered by their suburban neighbors and as a result; they split up for what seemed like 6 days.  I blame the director on that.

There’s nothing wrong with being into an unconventional marriage or bondage, but I just didn’t expect it to be so boring.  If anyone has an interest in S&M, just watch this film and you’ll be so bored of it, you’ll try something much more exciting like papier-mache!  The movie concludes with a bookended plot line of him being investigated for using Wonder Woman to normalize bondage and polyamory and he even admits as much.  So??  I don’t know if I’m supposed to care or not.  Basically, I might be done with sex for good because I like a little excitement in my life and this apparently is a dead end.

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Film Review: Fifty Shades Darker (dir by James Foley)


The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is shaping up to be the cinematic equivalent of a twitter parody account.

That’s the conclusion that I reached today after my BFF Evelyn and I watched the second part of the trilogy, Fifty Shades Darker.  Since we had both read the book, we weren’t shocked when Fifty Shades Darker turned out to be a bad movie.  Hell, we weren’t surprised when Fifty Shades of Grey turned out to be bad, either.  Each subsequent book was worst than the one that came before it so, when the film version of Fifty Shades Freer is released next year, it should be the worst of all.

Still, nothing could have prepared us for the amount of laugh-out-loud moments and odd details that were offered up in Fifty Shades Darker.  Consider just a few:

Having broken up with Christian “I’m fifty shades of fucked up” Grey at the end of the previous film, Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson, doing penance in the hope of being sprung from Purgatory) is now working for a hip and trendy Seattle publishing company!  How do we know that it’s hip and trendy?  Well, it’s in Seattle and it’s called Seattle Independent Publishing!  (As opposed to Seattle Corporate Press.)  Her boss, Jack (Eric Hyde) leers at her in a style that basically screams, “Lifetime movie villain!”  There’s a scene in which Ana tells her editors that they should be making more of an attempt to reach readers in the “18-24 demographic” and everyone reacts as if this is the first time that they’ve ever heard about this concept.  You half expect someone to say, “18 to 24 year olds!  WHY DIDN’T WE THINK OF THAT!?”  Seriously, after seeing this, I’m going to send my resume to the Dallas Observer, along with a note that says, “18-24.  Hire me for more info.”

When Christian (poor Jamie Dornan, who I’m pretty sure was trying to blink out an S.O.S. signal at certain points in the film) and Ana first reunite, it’s to attend an art show.  Ana’s artist friend has filled an entire gallery with photos of Ana, the majority of which resemble the “sexy” photos that Darcy posted to her MyRoom page in that very special episode of Degrassi.  Christian buys all the pictures because he can’t handle the idea of anyone else having Ana on their wall.  This obsessive and controlling act is just enough to apparently make Ana reconsider her decision to dump Christian because he was being too obsessive and controlling.

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Christian eventually confesses to Ana that he’s only attracted to women who look like his mother and he punishes them because he’s angry with her.  “Oh, Christian, your Oedipal complex is so sexy,” Ana coos.  Okay, she doesn’t say that.  I said that and then Evelyn said something that I can’t repeat.  And then we laughed and laughed.  Don’t get me wrong.  I know that everyone has their issues and God knows, I’ve got a few myself.  But the minute a guy tells me that he’s only dating me because I look like his mother, that’s the minute I leave.

When Christian tells Ana about his messed up childhood, Ana responds by drawing on his chest with lipstick.  And I swear, that lipstick remains on his chest — without a smudge — for at least a few days.  Every time we would catch a glimpse of those perfect lipstick markings on Christian’s chest, Evelyn and I would start laughing.  I mean, drawing on your partner (or having your partner draw on you) can be fun but most people wash it off after a while.

(Incidentally, when the Scary Movie people get around to parodying this movie, you know that the lipstick scene is going to be recreated.)

Christian’s childhood bedroom is decorated with a poster of Vin Diesel.  When Christian is pouring out his heart, Vin Diesel is glowering in the background.  It would have been neat if the poster had suddenly come to life.  Perhaps Vin could have suddenly appeared in the bedroom and said, “Someday … BUT NOT TODAY!”

And I’m not even going to talk about the Ben Wa balls.

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Anyway, there’s really not much of a plot in Fifty Shades Darker.  Ana gets back together with Christian but says that she wants to have a “vanilla” relationship.  Christian agrees but he still keeps doing controlling stuff, like buying Ana’s company and freezing her bank account.  Ana gets mad.  Ana breaks up with him.  They get back together.  This happens a few times.  Christian tells Ana to stay away from a man.  Ana gets upset but then the man tries to rape her which feels like the film’s way of putting her in her place for doubting Christian’s instincts when it comes to men.  Kim Basinger pops up as the woman who introduced Christian to BDSM and tells Ana that Christian will never be happy in a vanilla relationship.  Ana says that vanilla is her favorite ice cream.  Here’s my thing: why can’t Ana come up with a more complimentary term than “vanilla” to describe her relationship goals?  I mean, Ana’s clever.  She came up with that whole 18-24 thing, after all.

There’s also a crazy woman (Bella Heathcote) who shows up occasionally.  We know she’s crazy because she’s dressed like someone who lives in an abandoned subway tunnel.  She occasionally grabs Ana and says, “I’m nobody!”  Hmmm….I wonder what that’s about…

(Well, don’t wonder too much.  There’s not a single mystery or question in Fifty Shades Darker that isn’t solved a scene or two after it’s raised.)

One of the redeeming things about Fifty Shades of Grey is that neither Dakota Johnson nor director Sam Taylor-Johnson seemed to be taking it all that seriously.  Dakota would pause meaningfully before delivering the worst of her dialogue, a sign that even she couldn’t believe what she was about to say.  Meanwhile, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction suggested that she found the story to be just as ludicrous and stupid as everyone else.  However, Fifty Shades Darker is directed by James Foley.  Foley is a veteran director, one who has been making films since before I was born.  He does a workmanlike job and you can almost hear him shouting, “Now, where’s my paycheck!?” during certain scenes.  Under Foley’s direction, there’s no winking at the audience.  There’s no hints of subversion.  Foley’s direction is very literal and more than a little dull.  He was hired to direct a big-budget version of a Chanel No. 5 commercial and that’s exactly what he does.

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The other big issue with Fifty Shades Darker is that Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan have very little romantic chemistry.  They both look good naked but that’s about it.  Jamie looks miserable to be there and Dakota seems to be trying to keep herself amused.  The lack of chemistry was less of a problem in Fifty Shades of Grey.  In that film, all that mattered was that Christian was rich and hot and Ana didn’t really haven’t anything better to do.  But, in Fifty Shades Darker, we’re asked to believe that they’re actually deeply in love and … no, it just doesn’t work.

Evelyn and I laughed through the entire movie.  In the past, we’ve gotten in trouble for doing this because we do have a tendency to get a little bit loud.  However, nobody in the audience seemed to mind.

Anyway, Fifty Shades Freer will be coming out next year.  Hopefully, someone will read this review and work my idea about the Vin Diesel cameo into the film.

Seriously, it would be great!

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Playing Catch-Up: The Neon Demon (dir by Nicholas Winding Refn)


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What to say about The Neon Demon?

See, this is a film that you have to be careful about discussing.  From the moment that it premiered at Cannes last year, The Neon Demon was the love-it-or-hate-it film of 2016.

Those of us that loved The Neon Demon really, really loved it.

And those that hated it — well, let’s just say that they really, really hated it.  They complained that The Neon Demon was exploitive.  They found the subject matter to be sordid.  They accused the movie of being both pretentious and ultimately pointless.  The plot made no sense, they complained.  The film was overlong and featured about a handful of false endings.  It almost seemed as if Nicholas Winding Refn was taunting anyone who expected him to make a typical melodrama about life in Hollywood.

All of that is true but, honestly, what were these people expecting?  As a result of the success of Drive, many people have made the mistake of thinking that Nicholas Winding Refn is a mainstream director.  He’s not.  Refn is a provocateur.  He is a director who often dares his audience to walk away.  In The Neon Demon, each false ending challenges the audience’s assumption about how a story — any story — should end.  Some people, I’m sure, would complain that Refn is all style and no substance.  However, The Neon Demon is about a world where one’s worth is determined by their style.  Style is substance.  The world of The Neon Demon may be empty but the film is not.

For all the debate about the film’s deeper themes (or lack of them), The Neon Demon‘s story is a fairly simple and deliberately familiar one.  A teenage runaway comes to Hollywood, finds some success as a model, and discovers that the world of show business is not as romantic as she may have initially believed.  When we first see Jesse (Elle Fanning), she’s posing for her boyfriend and she’s pretending to be dead.  Death, beauty, and sex go hand-in-hand in The Neon Demon.

Jesse’s an interesting character, one who constantly challenges our assumptions.  At first, Jesse seems like a typical innocent.  She’s a virgin who is so introverted that she can barely carry on a conversation.  She lives in a cheap apartment, under the menacing gaze of her sleazy landlord (Keanu Reeves, having fun playing his skeezy character).  She has a boyfriend and on their dates, she tells him about how she’s always dreamed of being a star.  It’s only as the film progresses that you start to realize how little you actually know about Jesse.  That she’s a runway is implied early on.  We never learn what led to her running away.  In fact, we learn next to nothing about who she was before she appeared in Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, Jesse is everything that the fashion industry values.  She’s beautiful and, even more importantly, she’s young.  We watch as Jesse goes to a casting call and we’re struck by the blank-look on her face.  We wonder if there’s anything going on underneath the surface.  Jesse has hallucinations, seeing a shining triangle and kissing her own reflection.  Someone asks her what it’s like to be desired.  She replies, “It’s everything.”

Jesse befriends Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who lives in a gigantic mansion, overlooking an empty swimming pool.  When Ruby isn’t working in the fashion industry, she works at a morgue, applying makeup to corpses and occasionally engaging in necrophilia.  She makes the dead beautiful so that they can be buried looking their best.  Again, beauty and death are intertwined throughout The Neon Demon.

Ruby has two other friends, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee).  They’re both models, struggling to maintain their careers even as younger models, like Jesse, continue to flood into Los Angeles.  Gigi has had so much cosmetic surgery that none of her original features remain.  Gigi is neurotic and fearful.  Sarah, on the other hand, is confident and sarcastic.  When asked what she did the last time another model screwed her out of a job, Sarah calmly replies, “I ate her.”

Sarah isn’t necessarily joking either.  Without giving too much away, The Neon Demon features, among other things, a character eating an eyeball that another character has just thrown up.  Not surprisingly for a Refn film, there’s a lot of blood in The Neon Demon.  It’s a film that opens with fake blood and ends with very real blood.

Combining the visual sense of Dario Argento with the thematic concerns of Jean Rollin, The Neon Demon is a triumph of pure style.  The visuals are so strong that it’s impossible to look away, even when the film’s themes are deliberately obscure.  The Neon Demon is a surreal journey into the dark side of Hollywood, a mixture of ennui, alienation, decadence, and sacrifice.  It may not always make sense but it’s always fascinating to watch.

Personally, I think The Neon Demon would make a great double feature with La La Land.  Two triumphs of style, two very different views of Los Angeles.

Film Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (dir by Burr Steers)


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I had high hopes for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the just-released film which, like the novel upon which it is based, attempts to combine Jane Austen and The Walking Dead.  The source material was good.  The cast — with Lilly James as Elizabeth Bennet, Jack Huston as Wickham, and Matt Smith as Parson Collins — was impressive.  The trailers looked great, promising a combination of zombies, ornate costumes, and a very British sense of humor.  Sadly, however, the ultimate film is a bit of disappointment.

Actually, it’s more than just a bit of a disappointment.  It is a HUGE disappointment.  To have so much promise and then to turn out so bland — well, it’s enough to make you wonder if maybe zombies have become so common place in popular culture that they’re no longer as interesting as they once were.  Don’t get me wrong, as a symbol of the impossibility of escaping death, zombies are great nightmare fuel.  But, when you see them in a relatively bloodless PG-13 film like this, you realize that it takes more than just a few random zombies to make an effective horror film.

Plotwise, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is exactly what it says it is.  It tells the same basic story as Pride and Prejudice, with the exception being that England is now under siege from zombies, the Bennet sisters have now been trained in how to kill zombies, Mr. Darcy (played by Sam Riley) is now Col. Darcy and he’s an expert at tracking down zombies and killing them, and Wickham is now more than just a cad, he’s a cad who wants to help the undead overthrow the living.  As I typed all that out, I realized I was probably making the film sound a lot more fun than it actually is.  And really, the movie should be fun but it’s not.

Director Burr Steers never manages to capture the proper tone for telling this story.  The satire is never as sharp as it needs to be.  The scenes that are meant to pay homage to Austen try a bit too hard to capture Austen’s style without contributing any of her insight and the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy is sabotaged by the fact that Sam Riley and Lilly James had absolutely no chemistry together.  The scenes with the zombies are bland, largely because this is a PG-13 rated film and bloodless zombies aren’t particularly scary.  A typical episode of The Walking Dead is more graphic than anything you’ll see in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Which is not to say that there aren’t a few moments when Pride and Prejudice and Zombies kind of works.  It has moments but they’re isolated and they never really come together to build any sort of narrative momentum for the film as a whole.  Sam Riley is a bit of a dud as Darcy but Lilly James, Jack Huston, and especially Matt Smith all give good performance.  (Smith, in particular, is so good as Collins that I would like to see him play the role in an actual adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.)  Early on in the film, there’s a fun scene where the Bennet sisters destroy a horde of zombies and it actually strikes the right balance between comedy and horror.  Before that, we get the traditional scene that we get in all Austen adaptations, of the Bennet sisters preparing for a ball and, in between lacing up corsets and discussing whether they will all be able find husbands, they also carefully conceal the daggers and knives that they will be carrying just in case they happen to run into any of the undead.  It’s one of the few scenes that suggests what Pride and Prejudice and Zombies could have been if it had only found a consistent tone.

For that matter, I also liked the animated opening credits, which wittily explained how the zombies first appeared in England and, not surprisingly, suggested that it was all the fault of the French.  And the film also had a fairly effective scene that shows up in the middle of the end credits and suggested what would might happen if Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 2 is ever put into production.

But ultimately, even those moments that worked only left me frustrated that the rest of the film did not.  For all of its potential, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies disappoints.

Horror Trailer: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


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It looks like they’ve actually gone ahead and made the damn thing. I remember writing about news of the Seth Grahame-Smith horror mash-up novel being green-lit for the big-screen all the way back in 2010. Yet, nothing much ever came of it. Directors were hired and the cast was set, but each passing year something would derail the project and things would go back to square one.

Now, over five years since that initial announcement back in 2011 we finally have proof that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has actually completed filming and will soon be up on the big-screen this February 16, 2016.

Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters – “Dark Shadows”


First off, a qualification : if you’re a lifelong (or thereabouts) fan of Dan Curtis’ classic Dark Shadows TV series, I can understand why you would hate Tim Burton’s new film of the same name. It’s many things, but old-school Dark Shadows isn’t one of them. Feel free, with my full blessing (whatever that’s worth), to absolutely despise this flick right down to a molecular level if you fit into this category of viewer. But if you don’t —

— then seriously, where is all this vitriol coming from? I’m not saying it’s a tremendous or important movie by any means, but it’s brainless, entertaining, heavy-on-the-camp fun that’s pretty solidly constructed Burton-by-the-numbers.

And maybe that’s the problem. Tim Burton’s work has, indeed, become almost relentlessly formulaic by this point : de-fang horror/gothic/50s-era sci-fi concepts to make them palatable to mainstream family audiences, concentrate heavily on the visuals, strenuously avoid even the hint of any political subtext, add in a dash of blatantly-obvious-but-ultimately-respectful-to-its-source self-satire, have your admittedly talented cast skew their performances toward the knowingly pantomime, and voila! You’ve got yourself morbidity for the masses.

Apparently this is now some sort of crime. Granted, Dark Shadows is no Ed Wood or Big Fish, but it doesn’t wallow in Burtonian excess the way that the more successful (as far as the box office goes) Charlie And The Chocolate Factory or the mega-successful Alice In Wonderland did. But judging by the reaction out there on Twitter and other “social media” sites, you’d think this was somehow the nadir or Burton’s career (how quickly we seem to forget Mars Attacks!) — in fact, it seems to be generating as much overly-malignant hatred as The Avengers is generating overly-effusive praise. But hell, at least this movie is recognizably the work of a singular creative vision (albeit not one operating at its peak) rather than pure CGI assembly-line product that could have been directed by any of dozens of different self-styled “action auteurs” (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — if The Avengers had been helmed by Jon Favreau, it would essentially be no different) who are ultimately as interchangeable as the material they produce.

The cast is the usual mix of Burton way-more-than-regulars (Johnny Depp in the title role of Barnabas Collins, Helena Bonham Carter as family doctor/lush Julia Hoffman, Christopher Lee in a terrific cameo — as opposed to his pointless quick turn in The Wicker Tree — as an “old man of the sea”-type), talented, well-cast veterans (Michelle Pfeiffer as tired family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Jackie Earle Haley as the hapless Willie Loomis) and up-and-coming talents (Eva Green as Barnabas’ principal object of love/hate, Angelique Bouchard, Bella Heathcote as his principal object of love only, Victoria Winters, Jonny Lee Miller as weak-willed family weasel  Roger Collins, Chloe Grace Moretz  doing her teen-with-a-‘tude thing as Carolyn Soddard), and while none are giving what could in any way be called inspired turns, all are solid and dependable.

As is the story, an uncomplicated affair about Barnabas emerging from the grave, vamped to the hilt, in the early 70s to help his fallen-on-hard-times clan rebuild their fishing and canning empire in the face of rival competition that’s equally supernatural in origin, with a little bit of reincarnation-themed romance thrown in for good measure. It’s hardly demanding stuff, of course, but it’s perfectly suited to function as precisely what it is — a distracted afternoon’s or evening’s summer lightweight entertainment. Joss Whedon does this with a team of super-heroes and we call him a genius. Tim Burton does it with harmless comic vampires and we say he’s jumped the shark. Go figure.

All of which goes to show nothing so much as the herd mentality so prevalent amongst today’s film-buff “community.” In truth, both Dark Shadows and The Avengers are cut from remarkably similar cloth — throwaway big-budget diversionary fare that demands nothing of its audience and gives you pretty much exactly what you figure to be in for when you buy your ticket. One is being praised for it because, hey, other people immediately started talking about how good it is, and one is reviled because, hey, other people immediately started talking about how stupid it was. But you know what? At least Dark Shadows has no pretense of being anything other than precisely what it is, and no army of zombies (or vampires) doing its studios’ dirty work for it and publicizing it like mad for free.

I freely admit that might be a big reason why I actually enjoyed this a little more than Marvel’s billion-dollar-bonanza, and I also freely admit that actions taking place off-screen should , by all rights, play absolutely no part in how I react to what’s taking place on-screen. But it’s not a perfect world. And Dark Shadows is far from a perfect film. But I ended up liking it it a lot more than I was honestly expecting to — and if you go into it with an open mind, who knows? Maybe you will, too.