Movies: Acclaimed Trio

Secretary-0I never intended this blog to be a movie or TV review blog, but I’ve found myself posting about various films or TV shows I’ve really liked (or — in a few cases — really hated). I often get too lost in a story to see myself as a good reviewer or analyst (serious film critics often amaze me by what they pick up on), but storytelling is a favorite area of mine, and I do enjoy writing about it.

Hence forth, I plan to be more open to writing about movies and TV shows. I do enjoy sharing some of the little known gems I find, and — if nothing else — it’s nice to have a record of those and my reactions to them at the time. And (as always) I enjoy a good rant about the ones that pissed me off. I make no claim to being a particularly good critic; take any of these as just my 1/50th of a buck’s worth.

Today I want to share three critically acclaimed, utterly delightful, gems.

Secretary-1First up, Secretary (2002), very possibly the most delightfully twisted love story I’ve seen that I can remember. (In the Cut (2003), Meg Ryan’s attempt to shed her “nice girl” image, maybe comes closest, but that one is ultimately a fairly standard murder mystery with dark, sexy edges.)

Secretary would easily have earned a spot in my Movies: Sexy Trio post from late last year had I seen it by then. It would have been especially fun to include it there with Hysteria, since both films are uplifted by the presence of Maggie Gyllenhaal. And while that marvelous and talented actress adds delight to Hysteria, she transforms Secretary into something quite amazing.


One odd love story!

The story involves, as love stories must, two people: Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal) and E. Edward Grey (James Spader).

Lee, daughter of a problematic family (alcoholic father, over-bearing mother (Lesley Ann Warren in a blonde wig)), is newly released from hospitalization over a self-harm incident that went too far (our Lee is a cutter).

E. Edward Grey (Esq!) is a lawyer who hires Lee despite her lack of social skills. (After her release, Lee attended typing school and graduated with very high scores — the ostensible reason Grey hires her. In fact, he’s attracted to her sense of submissiveness from the beginning.)


Time for a spanking!

Mr. Grey has a secret. He’s a dominate, the “S” in “BDSM” — definitely a sadist of sorts, but more in the psychological (some might say typically boorish male) sense than physical (although he is into serious spanking). He sees in Lee, a submissiveness that excites him. As their relationship develops, it moves from domineering boss to a BDSM personal relationship.

Lee blossoms during this relationship (and loses her urge to self-harm, in part at his insistence), but Grey is highly conflicted and insecure about his feelings for her. Things come to a head when, after their relationship becomes overtly sexual, he fires her due to his own sense of shame. Lee, however, is devastated.


Pre-blossom Lee.

Peter (Jeremy Davies), who Lee knew in high school, who’s always liked her, has been pursuing her, and Lee finally accepts his proposal of marriage. Here in the second act we’ve gone from the canonical “boy meets girl” to “boy loses girl.” Of course you know what has to come next.

As Lee is trying on her wedding gown, she realizes she can’t marry Peter and runs off (in the gown) to Grey’s office to declare her love for him.

He, still conflicted, puts her to the task — to sit in his office chair, feet on floor, hands on desk, until he returns.

Three days later.


Lee. Waiting.

What happens then is transcendent and transformational. At this point the movie moves into a kind of sexy grace and beauty that I won’t attempt to describe — this you need to see for yourself. (I will say that Maggie Gyllenhaal is an extremely beautiful and sensual woman.)

Secretary was nominated for 21 different awards, all but three for Gyllenhaal. It won eight of them and probably only barely lost the others. It grabs you from the very beginning — Lee at the height of their relationship, in full blossom (in light bondage gear).


Our first glimpse of Lee.

Her face is radiant. And just before we can find out what the hell? it flashes back to an unhappy and downtrodden Lee and her release from the hospital.

The contrast, and the arc of character growth, displayed by Gyllenhaal is part of what elevates this film into something awesome. If you watch it, pay close attention to her face and posture. Watch her character change and evolve — it’s really something!

The film has depth and would bear re-watching and discussion. It seems to contain considerable symbolism, and I even wonder about possible meanings in the names, Grey and Holloway (hollow?).


Lee’s release from the hospital (notice the lavender suitcase and purple sweater).

Lee is usually dressed in purple, and purple and lavender are repeated color motifs — although I think that stops after the wedding dress scene.

(I seem to recall something about second weddings, or non-virgin brides, that involves lavender trim on the white gown? It’s interesting that both lavender and a wedding gown factor into the story.)

Spader, who lacks Gyllenhaal’s awe-inspiring range, does manage to hold his own with her. He has a kind of “something’s not quite right about this guy” character he can invoke which is perfect for this role.

(It was also perfect for his role in 2 Days in the Valley (another cinema gem well worth seeing) and in The Blacklist TV series.)


The long hallway.

Pay attention to how the long hallway in Grey’s office changes. I suspect the hallway itself has some symbolic meaning (passages?), but I can’t say what (hence my aforementioned inability as a critic).

I read later that the design of the entire office features all natural materials (wood, plants and cloth), whereas all other settings in the film prominently feature artificial materials.

Bottom line: for film buffs, this is a must-see film.

§ § §

Only Lovers Left Alive-1Next up, another love story of sorts: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). This one features vampires — one of whom is the marvelous Tilda Swinton! The others are Tom Hiddleston (Loki from Thor) and Mia Wasikowska (Alice from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland).

This is another (very) superior vampire film!

(I mentioned one — Byzantium — in a recent post and pointed to some superior vampire novels in another. You don’t have to put up with the typical same-ol’, same-ol’ stuff! I will suggest you avoid, at all costs, Dracula 3000! And don’t confuse it with Dracula 2000, which you can at least watch without suffering brain damage.)

Only Lovers Left Alive-2

(The) Christopher Marlow catching a blood buzz.

Eve (Swinton) and Adam (Hiddleston) are married vampires who’ve been alive for centuries.

They don’t feed on humans (in part fearing blood contaminated by modern life), but procure “the good stuff” from medical sources (Eve gets hers from a friend: Christopher Marlow (the vampire)(also: John Hurt)). They have largely withdrawn from the lives of normal humans, whom they refer to as “zombies.”

Currently they live apart: Eve in Tangiers, Adam on the outskirts of Detroit where he records his music on aging audio gear and collects precious antique guitars and other musical instruments.

Only Lovers Left Alive-3

Musician, scientist, vampire!

Adam, part musician, part scientist, uses designs by Tesla to power his house and sports car. He has recently had made for him, a wooden bullet loaded into a .38 shell.

The film begins with both awaking from a day of sleep. A phone call between them causes Eve to realize that Adam is suffering a period of severe despondency, and she decides to visit him.

A common structure in story telling is of a life in some form of stasis, and the story describes events that shake up, sometimes utterly destroy, that stasis. This is one of those.

Eve’s visit with Adam initially has the effect she desired of bringing Adam out of his gloom (as much as bored century-old people can). They take night drives through deserted parts of Detroit and renew their acquaintance and love.

Only Lovers Left Alive-4

Trouble-making Ava!

The disruption comes when Eve’s “sister,” Ava (a woman she turned? it’s never made clear exactly what their relationship is other than “she’s of my blood” which could mean a lot for vampires), shows up from Los Angeles.

Ava (Wasikowska) is the wild, disruptive element that upends their largely static lives — she’s willful and not at all down with the withdrawn and, above all, careful lives of Adam and Eve.

Events require the couple (after kicking Ava out) to flee for Tangiers with only what they can carry onto the plane. Adam loses all his gear and his collection of antique instruments.

The film ends with… ah, but that would be telling. This is one you want to see unfold for yourself.

Only Lovers Left Alive-5

Not a cherry popsicle!

One of the fascinations here, in addition to Eve and Adam’s withdrawal from society and from feeding directly on humans, is that blood acts as a narcotic for them. They experience a form of ecstasy and languor from it.

Part of the problem with Ava is that she rapidly goes through their “stash” and… ah, again, that would be telling.

Fair warning: this piece is moody and filled with tone and some rather tasty dialog. There is very little action. This is a love story between two souls who’ve loved each other for centuries rather than a horror story, and there’s very little real horror therein. This is not a film for the impatient!

Only Lovers Left Alive-6

Things do end on a more “vampiry” note!

The film is directed and written by Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Coffee and Cigarettes, Broken Flowers), and his band SQÜRL provides the musical soundtrack. (Being a musician himself, you can see why he’d make a main character a musician.)

Jarmusch also directed one of the stranger assassin movies I’ve seen: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which starred Forest Whitaker.

The film currently has five nominations (two wins, two pending) and a well-deserved Rotten Tomatoes score of 85%! If you like vampires movies at all, you’ll want to see this one.

§ § §

Rare Exports-1Last up, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010). We’re moving from love stories to horror, and this is no love story. In fact, there’s not a single female character other than a voice on a radio.

You know how Santa Claus is an object of horror on Futurama? Well, here’s a horror film about Santa Claus as a (very large) supernatural being you’d prefer to freeze in an ice lake and then bury under a very large mountain.

And hope that, in the future, no one comes around to excavate it and thaw it out.

Which, of course, is exactly what happens (lives in stasis until kaboom).

Rare Exports-2

Some things really ought to remain buried and frozen!

Now, this is a Finnish film, so you’ll be reading subtitles. The characters are Finnish reindeer herders whose lives are thrown in disarray due to the events mentioned above. They don’t instigate events, but do suffer from them. The main character is the young son of one of these men.

As horror movies go, this one isn’t very horrific in the slasher sense. I’ll risk a spoiler and mention that none of the Finnish herders dies, although some others do.

It’s also not a slasher film in that most of the death is off-screen; we only see the results. (And, really, that’s more powerful and scary than all that gore.)

Rare Exports-3

Santa’s “elves” (brrrrr!)

I will say I’d hate to have been one of the actors who played Santa’s “elves” — old men all, who had to run around naked in the snow. In Finland! (But then the Fins are a hardy breed.)

Essentially this harkens back to older more aggressive “Santa” legends where Santa was more to punish bad boys than reward good ones. (The workers doing the excavation are given safety instructions charging them to not swear, smoke, or do any bad things.)

This one has also won many awards and holds a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 89%! You’ll never see Christmas quite the same again.

§ § §

Virtual SexualityHonorable mention to Virtual Sexuality (1999) which was going to be one of the three I mentioned this post, but which got blown out of the water by Secretary.

It’s not really a gem, per se, but it’s quirky fun. It’s maybe more worth seeing — at least for SF fans — for being directed by Nick Hurran who’s directed episodes of The Prisoner (the remake), Doctor Who, and Sherlock. He’ll also be directing (all?) six episodes of Childhood’s End for the SyFy channel.

Hurran has a style — a use of cinematic language — that reminds me a bit of early Guy Ritchie (check out Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). He doesn’t limit himself to the standard transparent language, but throws in odd bits of cutting, camera work, or even graphics.

It was a bit of fluff, but it was fun fluff! And it does have a nice message about love and the idea of the “ideal” mate.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

27 responses to “Movies: Acclaimed Trio

  • rung2diotimasladder

    I think a lot of men fell in love with Gyllenhaal in the Secretary. My husband watched all episodes of “Honorable Woman” just because she was in it. (I couldn’t watch the show. I thought it was a bit of a snoozer.) But she is a great actress and her role in the Secretary was perfect for her. She has just the right amount of sexiness and quirkiness for that part. I also liked Jeremy Davies in “Spanking the Monkey”. If you like weird movies, there’s another one for you. I don’t think it’s anywhere as good as the Secretary. I can’t really remember what it was about, but I remember finding it bizarre. There’s one scene that really stuck in my mind in which Jeremy throws cheese at the TV. Now every time I really hate something I’m watching, I have the temptation to do the same.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      For years I heard guys drooling over Maggie Gyllenhaal, but never really understood why. Now maybe I do. 🙂

      I’ve heard of Spanking the Monkey, but never seen it. I’ll keep it in mind if I see it listed. I remember Davies from Twister, 29 Palms (another little worthy gem), and the American version of Solaris. He was also just on an episode of Constantine.

      Throwing cheese seems a waste of cheese, but maybe that’s just me. XD

  • Blues Fairy

    Wow! this is the best reviw I’ve ever read!You totally sold me on those movies.I think you really should do these more often,and I’d venture to say that because you get lost in movies,it’d make you an excellent reviewer for people with similar taste. The secretary sounds like an intelligent and more sophisticated version of 50 shades of Grey – haven’t read it but I hate it (book instinct {emoji deleted}). I love Spader in the blacklist and is the main reason I watch it (would be awesome if you could dissect psychological thrillers!)

    And that santa movie!{emoji deleted}
    It has definitely piqued my interest with its eerie plot line.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thanks; glad you got something out of it and some films to look forward to!

      I haven’t read the 50 Shades book (books? no clue). Like you, my instincts pick up on what people say and whisper in my ear: Nope, doesn’t sound interesting. Sounds like “coffee table” porn. Boh-Ring.

      Yeah, that Santa movie is something. Is Finnish anything like Swedish that you’d understand the dialog, or is it a completely different language? It is definitely a psychological thriller. The scene where they’ve captured on of Santa’s “elves” will make your skin creep a bit! There’s something about lurking evil that’s a lot scarier than rampaging evil. Maybe because it’s hard to gauge how powerful it might actually be?

      I just now watched the Russian vampire films, Night Watch and Day Watch. Very possibly the weirdest vampire movies I’ve seen. Not quite as weird as Generation P (another Russian film), but pretty weird.

      • Blues Fairy

        I understand French and Dutch more than I understand Finnish. Despite the proximity of Finland to Sweden ( and the fact that Swedish is a national language in Finland) the languages are very different. Finnish is an Uralic language ( along with Estonian and Hungarian, amongst other ) and Swedish ( along with Danish and Norwegian) is a North Germanic language. So while there’s a rough mutual intelligibility between the 3 N.Germanic languages ( I have to strain to understand Danish), Finnish is utterly alien to my ears. But I love how it sounds ! XD

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m fluent in dozens of computer tongues, but (sadly, and typically for an American) the only human tongue I know is English. I do love the sound of other languages, though. That’s why I really hate dubbed foreign films — I’m willing to read the dialog in subtitles, but that means I get to hear the original language.

        I mentioned watching Night Watch and Day Watch last night… The former, which I own, gave me subtitles and original Russian. The latter, on Starz Ondemand, was dubbed, and it really took something away from the film, especially in contrast to the first one which I’d just watched.

      • Blues Fairy

        btw, when I said I understand French and Dutch more, I meant it in an ironic way because Finland is so close to home, yet so unintelligible to me.

        Funny thing abt subtitles, that’s how I started learning English; tv shows subbed in Swedish. I’d look to the subtitles for words I didn’t understand. On a personal parent-teacher meeting (with my dad and my teacher only), my teacher blamed my excessive tv-watching for my slacking in doing homeworks, at which I quipped that it taught me more than school ever did XD . She was dumbfounded.

        I didn’t know computer languages were considered languages up until last year, May or something. It’s a weird thing; new languages developing. It’s the era of the machines I guess

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s surprising what we can learn from good fiction. A lot of my early science education — and certainly the interest in science — came from all the science fiction I read as a kid. A lot of early science fiction was just packed with actual science.

        Computer languages, of course, are a lot less complex than spoken languages — probably why I can learn the former but struggle with the latter. (Extremely bad hearing and the need to hear words likely accounts for some of that with spoken languages.) Computer languages are also way less expressive — what you can actually say with them is hugely limited!

      • Blues Fairy

        Are you being hilarious or are you actually confused?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Me? I always go with the hilarious option! XD

        But to be clear: Yes, very hard of hearing. Born that way, and we were too poor to really do anything about it. Plus, being a “smart” kid, I thought I was supposed to pass hearing tests just like you did any “test.” So I faked my way through them — they didn’t realize then that patients did that; now days they take steps to prevent that. Point is, I spent most of my life in severe hearing fog. Made me very good at figuring stuff out, but it also isolated me socially a lot.

        Tried hearing aids as an adult, but they were so problematical on other levels, and they didn’t really help all that much. Over time they both broke (had one for each ear), and I’ve never gotten around to replacing them. Truth is I don’t interact with humans face-to-face enough to really be burned by the lack.

      • Blues Fairy

        XD that was hilarious ( feared I was in the wrong for a minute). And I’m so surprised! I guess you are very comfortable online. So do you read lips when you watch movies? Or read subtitles? Sorry abt the bunch of questions ! Oh, and do you know sign language?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Subtitles — I end up “reading” movies. 🙂

        I have a little naturally developed lip reading skill, but I’ve never studied it, let alone sign language — which looks fun and amazing to me. But I just don’t interact with the human race (face-to-face, anyway) enough to seem to make the effort worthwhile. [shrug]

      • Blues Fairy

        Oh I too read movies. I feel very uncomfortable watching a movie/show without subtitles! Weird huh.

        Your coolness factor just went up a few notches ! XD

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Are you hard of hearing also, or is it a language issue, or something else?

      • Blues Fairy

        I’m a visual learner and I tend to zone out a lot if I have to rely on audio alone. Just a force of habit from decades of reading. When I was younger, I’d rarely watch tv and instead I’d read books – sometimes going through 5 a week.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Our TV time was very restricted by my parents, so same here. I’d go to the library every other week and walk out with as big a stack of books as a little kid could carry!

  • wakemenow

    I saw the film “Secretary” a few years ago and liked it too. Not familiar with the others you mentioned. Might have to check them out eventually.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The other two (acclaimed ones) depend, I would think, a bit on ones tastes.

      Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire movie, although a pretty atypical one in that the characters’ relationships and behaviors require that they be vampires, but vampires really aren’t what the movie is about. The real taste required there is the ability to enjoy the slow pace and very moody tone (and general lack of action).

      Rare Exports is similar in that it’s a monster movie that really isn’t about the monster(s). It’s the more accessible of the two, I’d say, but it’s very European in style (plus sub-titles) and is more about the interaction between the characters than about running around after — or from — monsters. There’s more movement than in the Jarmusch film, but again not as much action as one might expect (although it does get a bit action-y at the very end).

      Virtual Sexuality is just a silly fun bit of fluff. It’s kind of like a puppy or kitten: too cute for anyone to take a dislike to.

      (I’m reminded here that I need to drop by your blog and catch up! Will try to get over there some time this weekend.)

      • wakemenow

        Not much to see on my end, hon. Don’t really have a lot to write about lately.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        No, just: Baked Spaghetti, sleeplessness, blaming women, and several others that looked really interesting. I’m done for “being on the computer” today (couch, book, nap time), but I’ll get there eventually!

        (My tendency to put off blogs and webpages is directly proportional to their level of interest to me and the amount of time I know I want to spend there. There’s a whole series of posts about morality and ethics on the Headbirths blog that go back to last August! So… take it as a compliment on how interesting you are!)

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