I 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.
First 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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Next 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.)
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.
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Last 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).
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.)
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.
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Honorable 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.