Character Assassination

What can ruin a good story for you?

For me, if I don’t care about the characters, I won’t care about the story. I felt that way while watching the film Public Enemies – John Dillinger was a horrible person, and I couldn’t invest any energy in caring whether he was caught or betrayed or killed. His charisma wasn’t enough to make me care, the cat-and-mouse game he was playing with the Feds wasn’t enough to make me care, his Johnny Depp-ness wasn’t enough to make me care. I was completely detached from the film, just waiting for it to end. (And trying to spot my friends Bill and Shannon Butler, who were swing dancing extras in the movie – the only thing that made watching it worthwhile.)


Likewise, I have a friend who hated La Femme Nikita, because the title character murders a cop in cold blood at the beginning of the film, and he couldn’t forgive her for that. Never mind that the story was about transformation and redemption – and about how society says it’s okay to be a monster, as long as you’re a monster on the right side of the law.  (Yeah, I loved it. But I get why he didn’t. )

We all have sins we consider unforgivable.

I just finished reading Menfreya in the Morning, by Victoria Holt. It was written in the 1960s – a Daphnie du Maurier-style Gothic romance, set in the early 20th century.

I was liking it a lot, the style is spot on: sweeping rocky coasts, a glorious old manor gone to seed, horseback riding accidents, political scandals, rumors of a ghost in the east wing – the whole Gothicky works. The main character, Harriet, is likable: a lonely, odd, smart girl with a despised limp, who ends up capturing the heart of Bevil, the man she’s been in love with since she was 10 and he was 20. He’s a gorgeous Lothario, and the most eligible bachelor in all of Cornwall. Even after they get married about half way through the book, she can’t really believe that he wants her – he’s had a lot of affairs in the past and still flirts with women more beautiful than Harriet.


The marriage happens early on, because the rest of the the story is tres Rebecca: what with the dark suspicions about her husband’s infidelity, the ghost in the east wing, the sinister governess and all. So, although they have an ideal honeymoon, when they get back, those little dreads begin to take hold. One night they have a major disagreement over Harriet’s best friend, who is also Bevil’s sister. After the argument, Harriet is furious with him, and announces that she’s going to sleep in the other bedchamber. He says no, he wants her there with him. She refuses.

Aaaaannnnnd he rapes her. It isn’t spelled out as such, but it’s pretty clear what happens… her arms and back are covered in bruises the next day, and she describes it as “the most soul-shattering experience of her life.”

Okay, I thought. Do I put the book down now? But Holt doesn’t pull her punches. She takes care to express the rage, humiliation and fear Harriet feels, and especially the loss of her autonomy, the realization that whatever she wants, he’s stronger, he’s her husband, and she has no way of fighting back.

Meanwhile, there’s a kind young man lurking vaguely in the background, and I started wondering whether Harriet was going to ultimately end up with him. Would her husband die? Then I thought, wow. This is a totally different book than I thought it was going to be.

EXCEPT IT’S NOT. Harriet makes excuses for her husband, and eventually learns that she was wrong about the sister, and he was right, and all her suspicions about Bevil’s infidelities were unfounded, and he really just loves only her and she loves only him and those two crazy kids work it out, by gum.

Fuck you, 1966.

What story was ruined for you by a character’s actions?



The Dressmaker’s Mixup Mystification


Don’t mess with the dressmaker

So, one could describe The Dressmaker as “Chocolat meets The Count of Monte Cristo.” Sounds like the best movie ever, right? Except there’s no blending of these two elements: it is a Frankenfilm. First it’s the one movie, and then it’s the other.

The basic setup: Kate Winslet plays Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, a successful Paris fashion designer, who returns to her dusty, small-minded home town (in rural Australia), because she believes she is cursed. She wants to break the curse by finding out whether or not she committed a murder she was blamed for  when she was just a child. She can’t remember, and the townsfolk, while full to the brim with damning gossip, are closed-mouthed when it comes to facts. She has also come back to see her mother, the local loon, “Mad Molly” (Judy Davis), and quickly falls in with a boy she vaguely knew from childhood, Teddy (Liam Hemsworth), who is, as far as I can tell, part of a family of itinerant workers who have more or less settled there. (Or one might say that they’re gypsies: Hello, Chocolat.)

I wish they would have stuck to making just the one sort of film, because I liked them both: The Chocolat, Cold Comfort Farm, Hope Floats, “glamorous girl comes to rural backwater and shakes things up” plot, and the black-as-velvet comedy/ murder mystery/ revenge plot.

(Speaking of Cold Comfort Farm – there’s an almost identical scene in The Dressmaker, wherein a girl gets a makeover to win a boy above her station. I have to say, although Cold Comfort Farm is the superior film, the makeover in The Dressmaker is much more breathtaking.)

dressmaker1.jpgDavis, un-glamorous and fabulous

Judy Davis and Kate Winslet are fantastic in this movie, especially in their scenes together. Davis particularly shines, as a woman gripped with dementia, slowly regaining her facilities (if not her tact), under the administrations of her long-lost daughter. If you are a fan of great acting for great acting’s sake, then see this movie. Also, if you like stunning 50’s fashion. And/or Liam Hemsworth with his shirt off. There’s plenty of that, and he holds up his end of the exchange quite nicely. Plus, there are some truly funny moments, especially anything involving Hugo Weaving as a local police officer and closet transvestite. But frustration over the thematic incertitude casts a pall over the whole enterprise.

You’re welcome
Finally, a shout out to Those In Charge, who cast Ms. Winslet, who is 41, as someone who is supposed to be the same age as Liam Hemsworth (27) and Sarah Snook (29). They placed them all around 33 years old, which actually works – since Hemsworth has that rugged Australian complexion, and Winslet possesses a dewy beauty barely nicked by time.
Pair With: A hip flask of whiskey – but don’t let Mad Molly pinch it.

The Worst Movie Ever?

(Originally posted at The Scribblerati)

Last weekend a few intrepid friends and I sat down to my husband’s stellar waffles and watched what some folk call the Worst Movie Ever. This was not my first experience with a movie that had laid claim to that disreputable title; I have sat through many a Worst Movie Ever in my day.

Brave, you say? Not really. I can’t make it through one of these cinematic dingleberries without the help of the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or one of their current incarnations (RifftraxCinematic Titanic). Take away the constant humorous riffing from those professional Bad Movie Watchers, folks with much stronger constitutions than yours truly, and I’d be rendered a quivering pile of goo, all sense of beauty, truth and artistic integrity forcibly drained from my very cells.

But I digress.

In this particular instance, the Worst Movie was Troll 2, an experiment in, let’s for the sake of argument call it ‘filmmaking,” that fails so extraordinarily in its efforts to be remotely good that it ends up being bizarrely entertaining in its own right. We watched the Rifftrax version. A few highlights:

  • It’s a movie called Troll 2 that not only is not subsequent to a Troll 1, but also contains no trolls.
  • It features one of the hammiest performances in the history of the universe, in the form of the actress playing the goblin queen. Even if the film had been made on Planet Pig, with sets carved from pure Cumberland Gap spiral bone-in ham, she’d still be the hammiest thing around.
  • And speaking of ham, the makers were clearly anti-vegetarian, or at least anti-eating your veggies, because the goblins (not trolls) turn all their victims into trees or vegetable goop before consuming them – and our young hero saves the day (spoiler alert!) with a double-decker bologna sandwich. That’s right. You heard me.
  • And then there’s the PG sex scene featuring a young man and the goblin queen both biting a corncob, which then (presumably due to the heat of their encounter) explodes into popcorn. The scene, incidentally, has no relation whatsoever to the rest of the story, except perhaps a tenuous tie to the fact that the goblins do love them some veggies. Even in the boudoir, it seems.

Here’s a sample: Troll Clip

And of course, there’s a documentary about it.

Truly awful? Yes. But I have to say that Troll 2, popcorn sex notwithstanding, is a little too snappy and cheery to honestly deserve the Worst Movie trophy.

So then, what constitutes a truly awful movie?

The obvious: Bad writing. Acting so terrible it barely counts as acting, and actors that are inherently unappealing. Incompetent directing. Abysmal, laughable special effects. Lack of continuity.

But what constitutes the Worst Movie of All Time? To qualify, the movie has to have that certain something extra. In my mind, it’s a pervasive atmosphere of oppressive creepiness: not the creepiness derived from good horror writing and cinematography, but that icky, dirty feeling you get when you realize you’re witnessing actors as puppets, forced to perform the director’s particular twisted proclivities for his own titillation. (Honestly, I get this feeling from Tarantino’s films too, although in every other respect they’re exceptionally well done).

Ed Wood’s films fit this profile, except there’s something so gleefully innocent about his strange quirks (not the least of which was his desire, against all reason, to be a filmmaker), that I don’t feel that deep. soul-besmirching uncleanliness that only the worst of the worst can bestow upon its viewers. 

There are two movies that I feel might qualify for Giant Turd Trophy (I just made that up, but I think it needs to happen) and both have been given treatment by Mystery Science Theater 3000. The first is Eegah – a picture from the 60s featuring Richard Kiel (Jaws from the James Bond franchise) as the last surviving caveman, and a pie-faced squishy, greasy, whiney young male ‘star’ (the director’s son, natch).


What’s the opposite of sex appeal? Sex repel? Well, you’ve got it, Mister! 

Eegah contains a truly repulsive sequence, in which the young hot female lead is trapped in Eegah’s cave with her father, played by the director, where she performs a series of humiliating tasks, including sitting on her daddy’s lap and shaving him. *Shiver*

The second, and probably champion, is Manos, Hands of Fate (or, translated, ‘Hands, Hands of Fate”), a dank and depressing devil story, in which an entirely incompetent family is trapped in a desert hotel by a big-kneed manservant. The movie features a scene where dead, ensorcelled gossamer-clad devil slave ladies have a big old pile-up girl fight accompanied by ghastly saxophone music. The scene goes on and on and on. And on. Also, the female lead gets repeatedly (and very awkwardly) pawed by Torgo, he of the big knees.


You can’t see his knees here, but sufficed to say, they’re whoppers.

There is something so horribly weighty and depressing about Manos, that after watching it, one is left with a sense of ennui that lingers for hours, much like that feeling you get after waking up from a really oppressive, really stupid dream.

So then, now that I’ve thought it through, I highly recommend throwing a Troll 2 party (Rifftrax style): sure it will hurt your brain, but feed your friends waffles and plenty of mimosas, and eventually they’ll forgive you. After all, it isn’t actually the WORST movie ever made.

Tweeting “Teen Witch”

The other day, I live tweeted Teen Witch. If you don’t know, Teen Witch is a glorious film from the 80s, one that I somehow managed to miss back in the day, despite the fact that I was definitely its target audience. The title tells you pretty much everything you need to know. It is currently streaming on Netflix.


Also, it is the most Eighties thing to happen ever. More Eighties than Reganomics. More Eighties than a Members Only jacket. More Eighties than The California Raisins. It is so Eighties, you guys. So. Very. Eighties.

So. I live tweeted, and I’m sure at least 3 people saw one or two of my comments. You feel left out, don’t you? Never fear. I’ve compiled the commentary in an easy-to-read fashion. (You read top to bottom instead of bottom to top. THE FUTURE IS NOW!)

This Twitter thread is for everyone. You can read it if you’ve seen the movie. You can read it while watching the movie, and try to figure out where each comment belongs. (Fun!) Or, you can save yourself the trouble of ever having to sit through the exquisitely painful Eightiesness of it all, and just read the tweets. They stand on their own, I swear. Oh, but watch Teen Witch’s opening credits no matter what. Because wow.

So then. Enjoy. TEEN WITCH TWEETSPair with: an Original New York Seltzer (vanilla creme), out of a Gizmo thermos. $_35