Vanity Fear

A Pretentious A**hole's Guide to B-Movie Bullsh*t

Yeah, I Own These (Part One in a Series) - Desperate Stabs at Disco Relevance

Over these years one of my favourite sub-genres to seek out and find are dance singles recorded by show business legends who if not experiencing a lull in their careers still find themselves attempting to get the attention of the kids with a not-always-subtle stab at relevance. Of my seven favourites listed below only one was actually successful, but my life is better for their existing.

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No Hot Dogs in Heaven

A few months ago I performed my third Pecha Kucha for Edmonton NextGen and two different YouTube videos resulted. The first is the one they uploaded, which gives a better idea of what the whole thing looked like from the audience, while the second is the version I recorded from my phone, which I like more because you can really hear the crowd laughing.

No One Can Tell Us We’re Wrong: The Perfection of Pat Benatar Summed Up in in 5 Minutes and 18 Seconds

Note: I originally wrote this for the "Ms. Behaved" blog in 2012, but a recent googling indicated that the site no longer exists, so I'm republishing it here for no other reason than because it's a personal favourite of mine.

A group of women; exploited and abused. Forced to monetize their sexuality in order to survive the unforgiving realities of harsh urban life. Amongst them stands a tiny brunette runaway. Her time in the hall has aged her—she seems like she’s 30, not a teenager forced out into the real world by her intractable father (for reasons unknown). She looks around and sees the environment she works in and deems it unacceptable. She refuses to be pushed around any more. Spurred by the rough actions of their gold-toothed “manager” she snaps and the other girls instantly organize behind her in solidarity.

And.

They.

Dance.

 

“Love is a Battlefield” is the greatest music video ever made. Many people—a large majority—may argue otherwise, but they are wrong, no matter how passionately they use such words as “ridiculous”, “dated”, “cheesy” and/or “stupid”. This 5 minute and 18 seconds of artistic excellence is impervious to their criticism for one objective, inarguable reason—Pat Benatar is awesome and anyone who says otherwise is an asshole who doesn’t even deserve to get it.

Few people were actually there to see it, but Pat Benatar cemented her status in pop culture history as the first solo artist to ever appear on MTV. Immediately after the station debuted with The Buggles’ a propos novelty hit, “Video Killed the Radio Star”, Benatar appeared—standing in front of her band in skin tight leather pants and cheeks so covered in rouge it bordered on kabuki-style performance art. She looked directly at us, took our measure and warned—with utter conviction—that we better run.

We better hide.

In a world of Blossom and Bubbles-esque pop stars, Benatar was the Buttercup the world so desperately needed. The tiny, dark-haired rock chick whose rarely seen smile was less an invitation than a taunting declaration—is that all you got? Fucker.

But that hardly made her unique. Many other female performers had blazed the badass trail, but unlike Benatar their musical appeal was based on grit and growls. They sang that way because that was the only way they could sing.

Benatar, though, sang that way because she fucking wanted to. On the same album she could go from the kick-your-ass rock of “You Better Run” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” to the angry apocalyptic wail of “Hell is For Children” and still pull off an amazing cover of Kate Bush’s ethereal classic “Wuthering Heights”.

But rather than praise for her obvious talent, many “serious” music fans at the time treated her with disdain and suspicion. For music to have merit, they claimed, it had to be “authentic” and authentic song-craft doesn’t come from trained musicians who have the ability to create any kind of music they please—it comes from damaged souls barely capable of creating breath, much less the messy, ragged tunes they manage to somehow produce.

“Authenticity” is the word the cool kids use to keep everyone else down. It’s specifically designed to keep out those with training and ambition—those who try to use hard work to rise above their station. It insists that everything you do be “real” even though “real” is a concept whose definition changes with every single person on the planet.

Pat Benatar was never “real”—she was awesome, because she wanted to be awesome, which meant that the people who listened to her music could be awesome too, if that’s what they wanted.

And that’s why the video for “Love is a Battlefield” is her crowning, signature achievement. It specifically defies the popular notions of reality and authenticity to create its own world, where its own rules apply and its message is thus—You don’t have to take that shit, if you don’t want to.

Conceived and directed by Bob Giraldi, the video famously revived the archaic practice of taxi dancing when MTV made it clear they wouldn’t air a video about actual prostitution. Rather than hurt the concept, this censorship empowered it. In one of Benatar’s previous songs, she once accused a lover of using “Sex As a Weapon”, but here she turns the tables and uses the skills she picked up from her oppressors to escape from them. It wouldn’t have been the same if she had to fuck her way to freedom.

The video embraces its most ludicrous elements (Benatar’s age, the ridiculous gold toothed “dancehall manager”, that one extra’s tight red shorts) and throws them into the context of the real streets of the city, which we see as she walks and sings her way through them. “Real” and “false” come together, all to serve the same purpose—so that we invest in the journey and celebrate our heroine’s victory, as short lived and bittersweet as it may be.

Played as straight “reality” and it would have been horrific—an urban nightmare of despair and exploitation. But thanks to the false notes found throughout its narrative, it is instead a tale of who we want to be, not who we really are.

And that is important. Those who insist that we only serve the “truth” (as they see it) do so to keep us dancing for dollars one song at a time. The last thing they want is for us to figure out that their “truth” is bullshit and all we have to do to break free is get together.

And.

Dance.

Allan Is an Asshole Contrarian - Batman v Superman Edition

It is always darkest before the dawn.

-Old Mariner Proverb

Beware: Here There Be Spoilers

-Less Old Internet Proverb

 

If you were to ask me to pinpoint my favourite scene in any superhero movie, I wouldn’t have to think about it nor would I bother to offer the slightest pretense of thoughtful hesitation.

“Adam West trying to get rid of the bomb on the crowded pier,” I’d say immediately, meaning every word of it.

There is a giddy joy in that sequence that has never been replicated (even though Mr. Schumacher did give it his best—only to prove his best wasn’t quite good enough). It’s also—I believe—proof of my theory that far from being the childish embarrassment many Bat-fans believe that era of Batmania to be, it was actually the most sophisticated (live-action) version of the character we’ve thus seen. Adam West’s Batman remains the coolest of all the Batmans—the James Bond of Batmans, if you will—because (like Roger Moore—the best of all the Bonds*) he is the one who has to endure the most outright silliness, but never once suffers because of it.

As much as I enjoy the Nolan films (and I do), they don’t offer the same transcendent experience as Batman ’66 because they keep themselves a deliberate distance from their source material. West’s cool is effortless, while Nolan’s is that of the insecure teenager who has recently adopted a “cool” personal uniform in the hopes that no one realizes they’re the same jerk who got picked on the year before. There’s an element of adolescent self-loathing in those films that can’t be denied. Rather than embrace what they are, they try to stand apart, which only makes those moments that do reek of comic book contrivance all the more glaring.

So, given that Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an indirect offshoot of the Nolan-verse, it makes sense for me to criticize it on similar grounds, but I can’t do it, because—even though it evokes a style of comic book storytelling I’m not a huge fan of—I came away from it believing that it actually celebrates that goofiness that draws me to West albeit in a diametrically opposed fashion.

Unlike Nolan, Snyder has made—for good or ill, depending on your point of view—a comic book film that is neither embarrassed about being a comic book film nor one that feels the need to justify it’s existence off the four-colour page. While Batman ’66 looked at the genre and saw the potential for whimsical comedy, BvS takes on its status as the pop mythology of our modern age. While Nolan’s films were essentially slightly elevated crime narratives featuring familiar characters, BvS serves as the beginning of something completely different—an unapologetic DC comic book universe filled with aliens, metahumans, billionaires and ageless Amazon royalty.

As dour as it may seem (and I say “seem” because I actually think it’s far less stern that many suggest), it avoids humour not out of a Nolan-like need to stay “cool”, but instead because it doesn’t feel as though it needs humour to justify its existence.

And I think that’s a valid approach.

Of course, this puts it in stark contrast to Marvel’s superhero universe where—since the first Iron Man—comedy and drama have often been effortlessly intertwined in the films to various degrees. Many have been critical of DC’s apparent refusal to adopt this same model (seemingly ignoring how badly it failed when they tried it with Green Lantern), but doing so would leave it always feeling like an also-ran, rather than its own entity. To stand apart, the franchise can’t do what has already been done—it has to forge its own territory. And to do this it might as well embrace the fact that DC has always been the Der Ring Des Nibelungen to Marvel’s The Young & the Restless.

As fashionable as it has become to dismiss Snyder out of hand as a hack, it’s interesting to note that he is the rare director who has risen to blockbuster status on the backs of films that routinely deny audiences pat happy endings. One of the reasons Sucker Punch alienated audiences to the degree that it did is that it actually lived up to its title—delivering a conclusion that left viewers feeling as though they had been…well…sucker punched. Dawn of the Dead ends with the revelation that the protagonists’ escape was really just a delaying of the inevitable, 300 is the tale of a pyrrhic victory and Watchmen ends with the suggestion the peace created by the heroes’ sacrifice will be undone by the discovery of Rorschach’s diary.

 Whatever you think of his work, Snyder isn’t a hack, but as much of an auteur that can exist in the major studio system today. Watching BvS, it occurred to me that it is (with all apologies to The Winter Soldier) the first comic book film that feels as though it could have truly come from the mid-70s. At times it struck me as possessing the same perverse authenticity of Robert Altman’s Popeye—another expensive comic book film that was so willing to be true to its own vision that it happily risked pissing off a significant portion of its audience.

When it comes to Man of Steel, I’ve frequently parroted the popular critique that I enjoyed it as a film, but not as a Superman film. That is to say, I agreed that Snyder’s voice might not have been reconcilable with my preferred expression of the character. I do believe that the film suffers from the same lack of conviction as Nolan’s Batman films, but rather than seeing BvS as a continuation down that same path, I felt that it fully accepted its version of the character in a way that the previous film didn’t (to the point of not even allowing him to be called by his name).

Now, is this universe’s version of Superman my ideal Superman? No, but I don’t feel like I have much right to complain too harshly about this because I’ve already seen several films that scratch that itch for me (he wrote including Superman Lives). That said, BvS’s version of the character at least felt closer to my Christopher Reeve/Brandon Routh ideal than Man of Steal’s. Also, who knows what’s going to happen to the character after he’s resurrected (I already said there would be spoilers, people!).

But as contrarian as my opinions have thus-far been, probably my most out-there opinion regarding the film is my estimation of Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Alexander “Lex” Luthor.

I think it’s great.

No, really.

Great.

Perhaps I would have felt differently about this if I hadn’t heard beforehand that he based his performance on his time spent with American Ultra screenwriter Max Landis, but having been armed with this info it allowed me to completely embrace his interpretation of the character—who serves as the film’s lone thread of meta-commentary.

Landis—for those unfamiliar—is a highly opinionated, extremely passionate embodiment of the fanboy archetype. He’s the guy who has spent his whole life dreaming up his own perfect versions of his ideal superhero stories. During interviews he throws out screenplay/story ideas with an almost reckless abandon—knowing that since none of them will ever be made, he might as well release them into the wild the only way he can. He is both highly glib and extremely serious at the same time—he understands the absurdity of the kinds of stories he wants to tell, but is helpless to their awesomeness.

Eisenberg’s Luthor evokes that same energy—he is the fanboy incarnate, compelled to instigate the battle of his dreams less because it serves his ends than because he knows it’ll be epic. He pushes as hard as he can for the story to be told the way he wants it to be told, only to see his plans crumble due to forces he cannot control. He is the member of the audience who has spent his whole life waiting to see BvS, but who isn’t prepared for it to not go exactly the way he’s planned.

And that—even more than his obvious tics and quirks—is why so many are going to reject his performance. In a post about American Ultra I wrote that (short boring story) was deleted from the One Perfect Shot site, I noted that a major reason male audience members feel compelled to reject Eisenberg as an action hero is not because they can’t identify with him, but because they can identify with him way too easily. They resent how his onscreen presence reminds them of their own fallibility and weakness. This effect is quadrupled in BvS, where instead of embodying the archetype of cold, calculating evil, he instead plays a childish son-of-wealth (not that different from Bruce Wayne when you think about it) who uses his innate advantages in an attempt to mold the world in the image he prefers (only not for justice and criminal ass-kicking).

He is a pure portrait of white male geek privilege. And we all know how that audience reacts when a less-than-flattering reflection is aimed in their direction.

Beyond this I found many other aspects of the film worthy of praise. Much eye-rolling has been had at the film giving us another depiction of Martha and Thomas Wayne’s murder, but I personally found this to be—by far—the most moving depiction of the event I’ve ever seen and one that pays off when the screenwriters smartly use the comic book coincidence of Batman and Superman’s mothers having the same first name to their narrative advantage. Holly Hunter, Jeremy Irons and Laurence Fishburne all had great moments in what could have been thankless supporting roles, while Amy Adams’ Lois Lane felt far more integral here than she did in Man of Steel.

And, of course, there was Wonder Woman. Many are complaining that she gets short shrift and/or is uncomfortably shoehorned into the narrative, but I—as one of the character’s most overt and unapologetic fans—actually felt she was well-served by the film.

She is the film’s one true ray of hope, but rather than that being a flaw, I see it as being a feature. Up above I quote an old adage, which I think is evoked by the film’s title. BvS serves as the dawn of something new and before that dawn there must be darkness. Wonder Woman, appearing as she does, is the first light in a film where all is grey. She says as much in the movie, telling Batman that she has avoided the world of man and its infinite horrors for a century, but now is the time for her to return.

And, honestly, I couldn’t be happier about it.

 

*Fight me. I will not be moved on this.

Movies That Made Me the Happiest In 2015

This isn’t a “best of” list.

We like to quantify things. We live for it. To stack things up and compare. Lists are fun and easy to read. A great way to pass a spare five minutes at work. Maybe we might even get the chance to become angry with a specific choice or with the order. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed, since if there’s one thing everyone knows, it’s what’s better than everything else.

But, seriously, how do you quantify a subjective experience? “Through criticism!” is the cry and I suppose that’s true, but too often it’s the lack of an “I” that bears out the flaws in the system. The problem is that subjective experience lives in the heart of our emotions and for many acknowledging the role our feelings play in our lives is a sign of weakness. To admit that a work of art manipulated us is to admit that we can be manipulated, so to fight against this the natural inclination is to deny our emotions and opt for “objective” clinical analysis instead. And clinical analysis has its place, but given the choice between feeling the joy of playing with a living, breathing puppy or knowing how that puppy works after I’ve cut it up, I know which one I’m sticking with. (The one that doesn’t result in a dead puppy.)

Truthfully, it’s good to fight about movies. It’s fun. It’s a major reason why we rush to see them while they’re still fresh in the public consciousness. You don’t want to be one of those weirdos who wants to talk about a movie that came out all the way back in 2013. (That said, it’s wise to choose your moments. If someone is still in the full flush of rhapsodic bliss, it’s always a dick move to jump in with anything less than complete agreement. You’ll have time to disagree and express your POV later. It’ll wait. The world won’t end if you allow someone to be happy for five minutes.)

Anything that exposes the passion within us is a good thing, a great thing, a thing to be celebrated. But we don’t have to be jerks about it. So, that’s why this isn’t a “best of” list. Because I can’t honestly assert that any of these films are better than any of the films you would put on your list. This isn’t a definitive list of great films; it’s a catalogue of the movie experiences that hit me the hardest this year. The ones that reminded me why I love this art form as much I do. It’s a collection of all the wonderful emotions I felt at the movies in 2015.

It’s a happy list.

The Fury Awakens

Based on what I’d heard and the amazing trailers, I had high hopes for Mad Max: Fury Road, even though it was rebooting a franchise I didn’t have any emotional attachment to. Truthfully, it was one of my biggest pop-cultural blind spots, having only ever seen Beyond Thunderdome back when it originally came out. Obviously, I corrected this before going to see Fury Road, but I found myself strangely underwhelmed. I loved the initial weirdness of Mad Max (how had no one ever told me that it features a scene where his wife serenades him with a sexy sax solo?!?!?), but to me it felt more like a typical AIP biker movie than anything extraordinary. If I had no prior knowledge of the film and you told me it was set in a then-contemporary Australia, I’d have had questions, but I would have finally bought it. The Road Warrior surprised me because I had always assumed it was a film entirely composed of non-stop action set pieces, but that only really ended applying to the final act. And Beyond Thunderdome was Beyond Thunderdome. It had Tina Turner in it. So I kinda liked it.

But despite this, I went to Fury Road filled with genuine visceral excitement. I just got the sense this was going to be something special and it wasn’t simply because of the hype. I tend to be ambivalent about hype and am seldom swayed by it either way (there being—ultimately—no difference between wanting or not-wanting to see a movie because of it). There was just a sixth sense in this case. Thinking about it made my nose itch.

And that nose itching was completely fucking justified.

Around forty-five minutes in, I found myself moved to tears (my ducts spurred by The Splendid Angharad’s declaration that neither she nor her fellow prisoners would ever return to the slavery from which they were escaping) and from that point forward my eyes never dried. I was overwhelmed by a simple story told on an epic scale, filled with desperate barely articulate characters who’d had enough, who dreamed for more—who had hope, even though reality constantly battled to take it away from them.

I was witnessing a film that bore all the hallmarks of an action blockbuster, yet also maintained the themes of a low-budget indie. Was there a more explicitly political film this year? How else to explain the fact that so many members of the core desired audience responded to something so objectively “FUCK YEAH!!!” with a shrug and a “meh” than because they were not willing to embrace a film where the title male character is nothing more than a cog in a revolution against a tyrannical patriarchy? Even if they couldn’t articulate it, they had to sense that this movie wasn’t about them. It wasn’t for them. It didn’t give a shit about them. Either they bowed to the magnificence of Imperator Furiosa or they got the fuck out of the way.

I walked out of Fury Road exhilarated, overwhelmed and dehydrated. I left it certain that I had an experience I would not experience again this year, if not this decade.

My hopes were not as high for The Force Awakens, even though this WAS a series in which I could claim some investment. The first memory I can put an age to is my seeing the first film at the Twin Drive-In in the back of the Dombrosky’s station wagon.  I was two and half. I mostly remember how good the popcorn we snuck in from home tasted, but there’s no doubt the experience sowed the seeds of my future movie fandom.

For years I slept on Empire Strikes Back bed sheets. Return of the Jedi was the first film I ever saw in the theatre more than once. Princess Leia ranked with Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and The Dukes of Hazzard’s Daisy Duke in the trinity of strong beautiful ass-kickers who ignited my passion for such characters.

But I still kept my expectations measured. “I’ll probably like it,” I told myself. “And that will be good enough. It doesn’t have to be life changing. It can just be a movie.”

And that’s the attitude I took with me to the theatre. All I wanted was a pleasant two hours being reunited with characters I grew up with.

The last thing I allowed myself to expect was that I would relive my Fury Road experience.

Which is why I’m still reeling from the fact that that’s exactly what happened.

Watching TFA I was reminded how subversive these films are, the cute robots, aliens and fuzzy teddy bear antics disguising how much darkness they contain. Thinking about it, the series isn’t that different from the Mad Max films. The lives of those in the Star Wars universe are those of quiet desperation on extremely inhospitable planets, where everyone is at the mercy of a fascistic tyrannical order completely willing to commit genocide at a moment’s notice if it suits them. Rey is a survivor as much as Max Rockatansky and she too scavenges a vast desert wasteland. She just has a better chance of bumping into an adorable mechanical beach ball along the way.

The more I think about it, the more I find myself coming back to an offhand line spoken by Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma. “Who told you, you could remove your helmet?” she asks the stormtrooper who will go on to become a young man named Finn as the story progresses. It’s meant to illustrate how the First Order rules by taking away people’s identities and reducing them to a faceless, nameless horde raised from birth to follow without question, but it also made me think about how so many people came to embrace Boba Fett as a character, even though in the movies he’s something of a joke—as cool as his suit is, it doesn’t stop him from being accidentally fed to a carnivorous sand monster by a blind Han Solo.

For many the relative incompetence of the films’ more iconic villains (a group to which we can now add Captain Phasma) is a flaw, but watching TFA I realized it’s what the whole damn thing is about. Cowards hide behind masks, because they allow them to appear stronger and more intimidating. What is Darth Vader really, but an old asthmatic burn victim? See him without his mask and you wouldn’t even cross the street to avoid him, much less run in the other direction.

The heroes are the ones who don’t look intimidating. Who people are apt to lookover or not give a second glance. A blond farm boy, a princess with a weird hairstyle, a short green imp, a seven-foot tall dog, a beeping rolling trashcan.

Add now to that list, a young woman who trades scraps for food and a young man who has no stomach for being an anonymous force of evil.

Sure, Rey’s legacy is that of a Jedi, so her destiny is that of a “chosen one”—an archetype sure to cause many a jaded eye roll—but who she is and how she is portrayed transcends this cliché and turns it into something special and that is what I think explains why I found her character so moving.

In retrospect, it’s easy to dismiss Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. Especially in favour of a character as effortlessly cool as Han Solo. But I’d argue that without him A New Hope might’ve done all right at the box office, but we probably wouldn’t be taking about it today. And for precisely the reason that people criticize him now. As a blank slate, he allowed nearly every young boy who saw the film to imagine themselves in his place. Having grown up we all like to think of ourselves as witty rogues like Han, but at the time we all fought to be the one who played Luke—not only because he got the light sabre, but because the story was about him.

Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey isn’t anywhere as raw or clumsy as Hamill’s. In fact, it’s one that allows viewers the rare treat of seeing a future movie star appear to us fully formed and already worthy of our attention and adulation. But watching her I found myself envisioning a generation of young girls fighting for the chance to play Rey—to be the hero of the story who doesn’t need to be rescued, who thinks for herself, who fights back, who tells the boy she doesn’t need him to hold her hand. Because she can do it all on her own.

TFA isn’t life changing. For us old enough to have already had our lives changed. It’s a different story though for those who are now the age we were when the original trilogy appeared. This is a move that will spawn a million dreams. That will inspire. And it does so without any cynicism, no matter how cynical the mere existence of any billion-dollar franchise may inherently be.

Sure we know the story. But we knew the story the first time. It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t belong to us anymore. It belongs to them. And now it belongs to more of them than it did before.

And, I’ve got to say, I’m jealous that their version is better than ours.

Call Me Enemies

This year I got to live out one of my life dreams and spent a week in New York. I love big cities. Especially ones that appreciate that the world doesn’t end at 9 p.m. And as a movie lover it was a joy to actually walk around in the one I’d probably seen depicted more than any other. But, I’m not much for sightseeing. The landmarks I did see I saw because I stumbled upon them along my random travels. “Oh,” I’d think as I walked past a famous building, “there’s Carnagie Hall. Practice, practice, practice!”

So, I didn’t see the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty or Ground Zero. But I did go to the IFC Cinema three times.

Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.

I made it a priority to find this theatre when I learned that it would be showing the new movie by my favourite current filmmaker. Who you might recognize from his role as the dude in that 80s John Candy talking horse picture.

Bobcat Goldthwait’s films should be—by all rights—the stuff of immense cult fandom, but oddly it appears to be only his first—and, by far, worst—film that’s achieved that kind of attention. Since Shakes the Clown, he’s amassed a feature filmography filled with small films that take on initially shocking subject matters (a woman whose past contains that one inexplicable moment when she performed oral sex on her pet dog, a man who exploits the accidental death of his son in order to live out his dream of being a respected writer, a man and a teenage girl who go on a killing spree spurred on by other people’s thoughtlessness and rudeness) but fills them with characters so human and relatable that we root for them despite the atrocities they may commit.

Perhaps the best anecdote that describes watching a Goldthwait film comes from his commentary on Stay (aka Sleeping Dogs Lie), where he describes what happened at a festival screening of the film. The movie opens with the main character casually (and without any explanation or justification) admitting to her spontaneous doggie blowjob, and one woman in the audience was audibly repulsed and demanded that her friend leave the screening with her right then and there. But her friend refused to go and the woman reluctantly stayed. By the end of the film, Goldthwait’s daughter nudged her dad and pointed over to the woman. She was weeping—moved to tears by the film’s final scenes.

“Yeah, you cry bitch,” Goldthwait’s daughter joked to him as they noted the woman’s transformation from revulsion to whole-hearted acceptance.

If there’s a better four word summation to describe the experience of watching a Bobcat Goldthwait film, I’ve yet to come across it.

Which brings us to Call Me Lucky, a sometimes laugh-out-loud funny documentary about a comedian who was repeatedly raped and nearly killed by a stranger when he was a young child. But more importantly it’s a film about a person who uses their pain and despair not to lash out (although—on stage—Barry Crimmins lashes out plenty) but to make a difference and help others.

Cinematically, Call Me Lucky is nothing special—a typical documentary featuring people talking—but the story it tells is a heartfelt, emotional one that features a climax worthy of any piece of Hollywood Oscar bait. Originally Goldthwait wanted to make it as typical biopic, but—spurred on by cash donated by his best friend, Robin Williams—he went this route instead and proves himself to be an incredibly versatile and remarkable filmmaker.

He made this bitch cry three times before the credits rolled.

The other doc I saw in New York was Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies, which is another cinematically unremarkable talking heads film, but one I could watch on repeat 100x over.

It tells the tale of the series of 1968 debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley on ABC during the Democratic and Republican conventions. For the first time two of the country’s most significant public intellectuals would be given the opportunity to debate the issues in front of a large national audience, but even though they were chosen for their obvious ideological differences, it was their genuine and sincere hatred for each other that fueled the debate and created a sensation that would go on to change how the partisan divide would be addressed in the media over the decades to come.

It’s a portrait of two passionate, brilliant men with enormous egos who had a gift for words it's hard to find today. It’s a tale of good versus evil (where you have to decide which side is which based on your own personal values and philosophy) without a clear winner and where we’re left wondering if maybe the fallout was too large a price to pay. Not just for the combatants, but for a society where differences in political opinion now feel like taking sides in a war where any attempt at compromise is seen as a defeat and where “winning” has become more important than doing the right thing for everyone.

Best of Enemies proves that watching truly smart people argue can be as thrilling as watching gifted athletes throw punches and that the consequences can be just as devastating. The lesson I took from it is that sometimes the smartest thing a person can do is decide not to let loose with a devastating witticism and choose instead to try and listen. Except this is a lesson you’re unlikely to learn when—as was the case with Buckley and Gore—you’re often the only person in the room worth listening to.

Joy & Marmalade

A few years ago I wrote an article for xoJane about how much I enjoy the act of crying. It’s something I embrace and am oddly proud of despite how abhorrent many people find it. In that article I mentioned what happened when I saw Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, which up to that point held the record for my most extreme emotional breakdown. (It was the scene where the evil food critic was suddenly reverted back to his childhood that did it to me.) Well, now I think it’s at least a tie, since I pretty much had the same reaction when Bing Bong did what he did to save Joy.

As clever as Inside Out is conceptually, I find myself most moved by its depiction of a young girl who doesn’t want to surrender to her negative feelings, even though they’re totally justified. I’ve seen some criticism that insists Riley feels like an automaton rather than a living-breathing girl, but I have no idea where that’s coming from. For me she was as real as any non-anthropomorphic Pixar character ever has been. And I found her inner and outer journey profoundly moving.

Paddington, on the other hand, didn’t make me cry, but it did make me laugh. A lot. And hard. Of all the films I saw in 2015, none could claim to be more charming. Despite being totally centered on an expensive CGI digital creation, the film reminded me of my favourite mid-century British comedies, as it featured the wit and cleverness that made the best Ealing films so perfect and timeless.

In one case you have a bittersweet film about a character who personifies the feeling of joy and in the other you have a film that invokes that feeling as perfectly as you can ever imagine. Either way, that's a pretty great night at the movies.

Love is Pain

My two favourite love stories of 2015 (he wrote not yet having seen Carol) include an art house ode to 70s euro-softcore eroticism and a stoner-action flop whose negative critical reaction leaves me totally mystified.

The Duke of Burgundy is an exceptional film. Funny, sexy and sad, it delivers its desired style in a way that renders it utterly unique. As familiar as it may seem to those who enjoy pretentious European porn of a certain period, you come away from it knowing you’ve never seen anything like it before.

But it’s the humour that has stuck with me the most. Few films can make me almost weep with laughter with a gesture as simple as a character pouring herself a glass of water. It’s a film that forces us to confront the inherent absurdity of our sexual desires in a way that never feels prudish or shaming. Instead, it simply presents the realities of the situation in a way almost no other film has.

Of course, the situation is deliberately fantastic, as the film depicts a sadomasochistic relationship that takes place in a world without men and where the chief form of recreation/entertainment comes in the form of lectures about butterflies. It sounds like a satire, but what makes it work is its complete sincerity. Writer/Director Peter Strickland never once gives us an excuse to dismiss what we’re seeing as a lark. We’re expected to take the drama of the situation seriously, which makes it all the funnier and more moving.

It’s a film where a character can get sincerely excited at the thought of owning a human toilet and come off as adorable rather than a monster. It asks us to acknowledge the ridiculousness of our desires and shows how difficult it is to base love around a fantasy that requires constant vigilance (and many glasses of water) to keep going.

It’s also the most gorgeous movie I saw all year (again, I’ve yet to see Carol).

Currently American Ultra has a 44% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has even appeared on some critics' worst of the year lists and yet here it is among my favourites of the year. I wrote a whole essay that attempted to explain this and would link to it here had it not been deleted from the site it was posted on (I’m looking into it), so I’ll sum up: American Ultra is an amazing love story that succeeds by virtue of the incredible chemistry between its two leads, but that love story is obscured by a premise many took issue with based solely on the advertising and by the fact that the actors playing the two leads invoke feelings of unwanted recognition and distrust based on the previous films they’ve appeared in.

I’m convinced that the majority of the negativity shown to the film is because of what the critics and audience were sold rather than what they were given. And what they were given was the best love story of the year (I will get around to seeing Carol, I promise).

This happens a lot with movies and the only corrective is time. Eventually people will figure out what’s going on in American Ultra and recognize that it’s so much more than a stoner rip-off of the Bourne movies. That it’s a film about two people who don’t need anything else other than each other and who—despite the outrageousness of their situation—love each other in a way that feels truly authentic.

Every interaction between Stewart and Eisenberg felt completely genuine, which made the despair he felt at the thought he might be keeping her from realizing her potential all the more moving. At the same time we knew he was right and she probably could do better than some wake & bake convenience store clerk, while we also could see the sweetness he possessed that would allow her to ignore his faults.

Add to this a fun plot, some bloody violence and Connie Britton and I’m left with a movie where I don’t give a fuck how annoying Max Landis may be—it deserved to do a lot better than it did.

The Rest

Okay, I’m nearly 4000 words into this, so let’s just capsulize the rest.

Spy: I was worried about the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot. Not because I took any issue with the gender reversal (I think it’s a great idea), but because I had yet to see a Paul Feig/Melissa McCarthy joint that I actually liked. Bridesmaids had one funny scene (that I didn’t even think was that funny) and The Heat didn’t even have that. Fortunately that changed with Spy, which clicked in all the ways those two other films stalled. Also, the world needs more Rose Byrne.

The Martian: A great movie about people working together where the only real conflict is the situation, but it was the disco soundtrack that put it over the top for me.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: All hail Rebecca Ferguson! In a year featuring many strong female characters, Ilsa Faust ranks among the most awesome.

Trainwreck: I want to see LeBron James get the fucking Oscar. The scenes between him and Bill Hader rank among the funniest of the year.

The Big Short: You hit me like a Moneyball!

 Kingsmen: The Secret Service: Best anal sex joke of the year? I don’t know, but it’s the best use of “Freebird” since The Devil’s Rejects, that’s for sure.

He Never Died: A flawed film, but Henry Rollins performance was probably my favourite from any dude this year.

Ok, that's enough from me about 2015. I don't care where you go, but you can't stay here.

Transcending Tacky

On March 5, I had the opportunity to deliver a presentation at Edmonton NextGen's 21st Pecha Kucha night. For those unfamiliar with PK, it's a slide show format created by Japanese architects in which the presenter has to deliver a complete lecture over the course of 20 slides that are displayed for 20 seconds each. The goal is to create a presentation that speaks to each slide while also delivering a larger overall message, which is much harder than it sounds

For my presentation, I chose a subject matter near and dear to my heart--bad movie musicals. My friend Prasann Patel was kind enough to film it for me and I've chosen to upload two versions of the piece. The first is the live performance video, while the second consists of just the audio from that performance and the slides, for those who want a better idea of how Pecha Kucha works.

I had the good fortune to perform that night at a venue owned and operated by the company I work for, so a week later I found myself performing it again for my coworkers, who seemed to like it even more than this appreciative crowd had.

The Icons: Zoë Lund

This essay originally appeared on xoJaneUK, but has since vanished into the Internet ether when it was reabsorbed back into the mother site. I'm posting it here because I'm proud of it and want it to live on.

This is a sad story. A sad story about a beautiful woman whose gifts were so abundant she couldn’t take them seriously. Model, actress, musician, author, screenwriter, she did it all, but none satisfied her as much as her one true passion—the addiction that eventually killed her.

The thing is, though, you don’t have to live long to be an icon. Just ask James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. All it takes is one project that lingers—one that forever sticks in the memories of those who’ve experienced it.

Zoë Lund (nee Tamerlis) was still just a teenager when Abel Ferrara cast her as the title character in Ms. 45—a revenge drama that transcended the limits of its low-budget exploitation roots through the unique combination of Abel’s gritty boho-arthouse sensibility and Zoë’s wordless performance as a young woman who pushes back after being pushed too far.

Thana is a young seamstress, struggling to make a living in New York’s garment district. Her difficulties are compounded by a condition that has left her completely mute—leaving her largely defenseless in a city that often forces its citizens to possess a strong voice. She learns this the hard way one terrible night after work.

Grabbed by a man in a mask, she is unable to scream when he attacks her in an alley. In shock, she makes her way home, only to find a different man waiting for her, armed with a gun. He tries to rob her, but she has nothing to steal. As he assaults her, she is able to knock him down and kill him with an iron. Forced to dispose of his body, she takes his gun and realizes that she has found the voice she never had before.

And with it she tells the men of the city just how angry she really is.

Ms. 45 is a film that takes its Death Wish plot and deliberately turns it into a despairing-yet-triumphant feminist lament. The film makes it clear that Thana’s experience has driven her insane, yet also suggests that’s an entirely appropriate response for the world she lives in. When she takes her newfound gun out onto the streets and uses it on the men who seek to exploit her sexuality for their pleasure, we aren’t asked to recoil in horror. Instead, Abel and screenwriter Nicolas St. John seem to be asking why hasn’t someone done this before?

For this to work, it is imperative that Thana (whose name is a direct allusion to Thanatos, the Greek god of death) is someone we sympathize with and the brilliance of the film—and Zoë’s performance—is that we feel this empathy despite her inability to say a single word.

Iconic is a huge word. Especially for a low-budget film most people haven’t seen. But it’s the only one that fits when describing the impact Zoë has as Thana. Robbed of words, it’s a performance we can only experience through our eyes and what we see is extraordinary to behold.

As Thana, Zoë possessed the kind of sad, ethereal beauty we associate with the likes of Isabelle Adjani and Gene Tierney—burnished by sharp cheekbones and impossibly full lips. As her avenging alter ego, she predicted the dominating anonymity of the Robert Palmer video vixens, with their red lips, slicked back hair and cold, unforgiving eyes. Without words, Zoë makes this transition utterly believable and transfixing. This is best seen in the scenes between her and her boss. Before her transformation, we cringe as she meekly accepts his harassment; after, we smile knowingly when she accepts his invitation to be his date to a Halloween party—she now has all the power, he just doesn’t know it yet.

A true cult film, Ms. 45 was not an immediate success, but rather one whose reputation grew because people who saw it had to talk about it. Three years after it was released in 1981, Zoë got her second chance to star in a movie, this time in a role that required her to play two different parts.

Special Effects was written and directed by Larry Cohen, a cult filmmaker (It Lives, The Stuff, Q: The Winged Serpent) who has a reputation for coming up with inspired ideas that he usually ruined with lazy scripting and poor production. In it he cast Zoë as a wannabe starlet who is murdered on film by a fallen director played by Eric Bogosian, who then finds a lookalike to take her place in the movie he decides to make around the snuff footage. As the starlet, Zoë’s voice was dubbed by another actress (speaking in an unconvincing southern accent), meaning it wasn’t until an hour into her second movie that audiences finally got to hear her distinctly New Yorker inflections.

Unlike Ms. 45, Effects proved to be a forgettable effort and marked her last starring role. She appeared in an episode of Miami Vice and a short-lived TV drama set in an insane asylum, before focusing her sights behind the camera. Reteaming with Abel, she co-wrote what still remains his most famous film—1992’s Bad Lieutenant. She also agreed to appear in the film, playing the woman who helps Harvey Keitel’s title character freebase some heroin. It was a role she’d spent years researching.

It’s hard to see the same woman who once played Thana in the film. A decade older, she’s still beautiful, but gaunt and brittle. The already thin frame she displayed throughout Special Effects now looked sharp and disconcertingly bony, belying the true face of the era’s obsession with “heroin chic”.

Zoë was unapologetic about her addiction. She wrote at length about heroin and advocated and romanticized its effects. She worked on unproduced screenplays about famous junkies such as John Holmes and Gia Carangi, which meant she could harbor no illusions about how her life was probably going to end.

By 1999, she was living in Paris when her heart stopped working. She was 37.  News of her death was eventually reported on various websites. These obits were mostly short and perfunctory. There wasn’t a lot to say.

Watching Ms. 45, you see the debut of an exciting, charismatic and almost impossibly beautiful performer, but that wasn’t who Zoë Lund wanted to be. She had other things on her mind. We can choose to feel robbed for what might have been or grateful for what we got.

My instinct is to opt for the latter.