Thursday, November 3, 2022

Level 16 - "A Handmaid's Tale" meet "Repo! The Genetic Opera"


Just because October is over, it doesn't mean that Halloween cannot continue. If you have Prime, there is no harm in watching Level 16, a dystopian thriller about a group of teen girls who are trapped in a mysterious and cruel boarding school that hides a dark secret. I would not call the principle of this movie particularly original - it's really hard to come up with anything truly ground breaking in this genre - but it does a decent job weaving some of the classic dystopian tropes. 

My thoughts:

"Level 16" is what you get when you expect a spin on "A Handmaid's Tale" and end up with "Never Let Me Go" (2010) or "Repo! The Genetic Opera" (2008) instead. The emphasis on "feminine virtue" and subjugation and dehumanization of girls/women leads you to believe that gender politics will be at the core of the movie. Yet the plot goes in a different direction, leaving all those references to "cleanliness" as the proverbial gun that is never fired. Their internal qualities end up irrelevant, because in the end, the only thing that matters is the quality of their skin. Their virtue is literally skin-deep. 

"Level 16" is like a beautiful slice of Swiss cheese in terms of holes. There are so many unanswered questions. Not sure if the writers deliberately wanted to leave a bunch of loose ends for the sake of creative ambivalence or pure negligence. We are not told much about these girls' back stories. How old were they when they ended up at the school? Do they have any memory of their biological families? How did their concepts of friendship and loyalty form? These girls look forward to being adopted, so the idea of a family is part of their value system, yet they are told that the school is their family. 

And of course, no dystopian thriller would be complete without some Slavic henchmen. The cartoonish enforcers speak some broken pseudo-Russian gibberish. Not sure if it's a tribute to some Cold War trope or the location is supposed to have some significance. 

All in all, I feel this plot would have worked better as a mini series that would allow the writers to explore the back stories and the motives of the characters. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

The Surrogacy Trap:

Greetings, commies!

October is a pregnancy and newborn loss awareness month, so it only makes sense that I should review a movie that touches upon this sensitive. The affected audiences would benefit from a realistic depicture of the surrogacy process. Instead, Lifetime came up with an implausible wannabe thriller full of legal and logistical loopholes. The writers of The Surrogacy Trap did not do their homework.  


After losing hope of conceiving a child on their own, Christy and Mitch turn to surrogacy in hopes of creating the perfect family. However, their confidence is quickly shaken when they discover that the young woman might not be as perfect as they first thought.

My thoughts:

I realize that Lifetime doesn't always aim for accuracy, but this movie contains a few pretty gross factual errors. I am pretty sure it's a uniform rule that the surrogate must have at least one biological child - for good reasons. She needs to prove that she is at least capable of carrying a pregnancy through. Second, they really prefer women who are "done" having their own children, as surrogacy can potentially lead to infertility.

The couple comes across as unsympathetic and shallow, not to mention hypocritical, as they reject a more experienced surrogate for using the program as her main source of income and serving as a "professional incubator". Well, duh! What do they think a surrogate is? They wanted to a a "virginal" and altruistic surrogate who also looks like a supermodel?

Nobody specifies what sources of income Mallory has, yet she is able to afford a pretty fancy apartment. But that's to be expected in most TV productions. People live in apartments they would never afford in real life.

The cops look extremely naive and slow-witted. There were a few pretty close calls. Amazing how one psycho can totally outsmart the police department.

So, if you want to view this movie was a psycho fantasy, it you will be satisfied. But if you know the specifics of surrogacy, you will be rolling your eyes at the inaccuracies.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Kept Woman: "The Collector" meet "Stepford Wives"

Greetings, commies!

If need more moderately satisfying guilt-free guilty, not too mind-numbing pleasure, consider Kept Woman, a dark dark comedy exploring nightmares and gender stereotypes


Jessica and her fiancé finally move out of the city and into their dream home on a quiet suburban street. When their strange and mysterious new neighbor lures Jessica inside his home, she finds herself imprisoned in a meticulously decorated 1950's bunker.

My thoughts:

Many of the reviewers already brought up the classic novel by John Fowles "The Collector" as the genre-setter. It's impressive that the novel is still read and remembered. "Kept Woman" is a satirical take on the hostage trope. Do not take it as a straight drama. It's a dark, dark comedy. No, it's not a feminist manifesto. It doesn't put down the work of homemakers. But it does make fun of stereotypes. It's also an allegory. The characters represent movements and ideologies. The dynamic between Jess and Robyn kind of busts the myth that women, when facing the same ordeal, will stick together. The only thing that seemed implausible is the naivete and stupidity of some of the characters. If you suspect that your neighbor is a murderous creep, why do you go into his house unarmed or alone? The cop who took it upon himself to confront the antagonist should have known better than going into his house alone. Same for Jess. She acts like a curious 12-year old schoolgirl. One would expect someone her age to be more cautious and savvy.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

The Voyeurs: a guiltless guilty pleasure

Greetings, commies!

You don't have to wait for Halloween to enjoy a creepy treat. For some of us it's been political Halloween for the past 7 months. If you want to take a break from WWIII, consider streaming The Voyeurs


A young couple (Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith), find themselves becoming interested in the sex life of their neighbors across the street (Ben Hardy and Natasha Liu Bordizzo). What starts as an innocent curiosity turns into an unhealthy obsession, after they discover that one neighbor is cheating. Temptation and desire cause their lives to become tangled together leading to deadly consequences.

My thoughts:

"If you see something, say/do something." Right? Not necessarily. Modern culture is filled with mixed messages and moral ambivalences. If you see "something" that "looks like something", what do you do? How do you decide if it's your place to step in? Are you truly following the call of your conscience to expose lies, or are you merely gratifying your idle, obscene curiosity? By the way, there is no such thing as "innocent curiosity" when it comes to other people's sex lives. I felt strangely dirty and guilty myself for watching a movie about voyeurs. I would call it "guilt-free guilty pleasure". 

A few words about Sydney Sweeney. I saw her in "Nocturne". She does a decent job playing a "good girl" with a few pesky demons who suddenly grow on her and take over her life. She has an expressive face and can go from innocent to psycho in a few seconds. 

Alas, the absolutely implausible ending cheapens the movie. If you can cut out the last 5 minutes, you will find yourself much more satisfied. I am not going to dismiss the movie altogether, because it does raise many valid questions in the realms of ethics and social norms. Take it as a cautionary tale about dark impulses masked as good intentions. 

Friday, August 26, 2022

Brimstone: a religious thriller


Greetings, commies!

In a mood for a light summer flick? Not a chance! I don't watch or review those. Brimstone is an excellent choice guaranteed to give you nightmares. It's billed as a "A gritty revenge western, about a young woman in a frontier community who must go on the run when she is targeted by a diabolical preacher."

Not every film set in the West qualifies as a "western", and not every plot that contains elements of revenge automatically becomes a "revenge" piece. "Brimstone" is more of a multi-layered religious thriller. It helps to have some understanding of the Scripture to appreciate the structure of the film, all the theological references. If you are a totally secular viewer without any interest in the Bible, you will view this film as yet another attempt to make Christians look bad. If you already have an aversion to organized religion, this movie will not change your position, certainly. But this film is so much more than just another criticism of the hardcore evangelical movement in the US. The cinematography is stunning, horrifying and stern. The plot is blood-chilling. The antagonist is so repulsive, that you forget that he is a minister. You don't focus on his position in society. That kind of fades into the background. One thing that put me off is the idealized depiction of less than ideal women. Of course, they are depicted as agents of compassion and solidarity in this harsh, male-dominated world. I wish there had been more ambivalent female characters, capable of backstabbing and manipulation and cruelty. These acts should not be reserved to men alone. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Act: a toxic family drama enough to make you paranoid

Greetings, commies & mommies-dearest! 

As many of you are preparing to send your kids back to school, you are, no doubt, getting all sorts of complaints "Do I HAVE to go back". If your kids accuse you of being "mean", if they wish they had a different mommy/daddy, you can always say: "At least your mommy is not like Dee Dee Blanchard." Based on a real harrowing case of Munchausen by proxy, The Act is a must see for all wholesome (or not) families. As kids, many of us have feigned symptoms to gain sympathy and avoid going to school (come on, own up!) But imagine if the roles are reversed, and it's your parents who are doing the feigning, trying to convince the world that their precious child suffers from a string of mysterious maladies. 

I have to say, having worked in child protection services, I am a little paranoid and prone to scrutinizing certain families. We are trained to see abuse, neglect and toxic parenting everywhere. So it's amazing that the characters in the series had managed to keep up the act for such a long time. Dee Dee Blanchard, brilliantly portrayed by Patricia Arquette, fools the most skeptical and hardened of neighbors. 

A post-menopausal Arquette, is no longer a sex symbol. In the past she had played some dark vixen characters. And Joey King, God bless her, will never be a sex symbol (not that Hollywood needs more of them). She is a few plastic surgeries away from being a generic, mainstream beauty. I hope she never goes the Jennifer Grey route, gets a nose job and loses her quirky appeal. In "The Act" she flipflops between the wounded ugly duckling and a fetish worthy almost-swan. Not many young actresses would have been able to pull that off. 

So, if you think your family has problems, splurge on "'The Act". 

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Ammonite: a speculative same sex romance

Greetings, commies! 

It's Pride month, so I thought it would be fitting to review a film featuring a same sex love story. If you are in a mood for a beautifully shot slow burner, check out Ammonite, starring my two favorite actresses, Kate Winslet and Saiorse Ronan. 


1840s England, acclaimed fossil hunter Mary Anning and a young woman sent to convalesce by the sea develop an intense relationship, altering both of their lives forever.

My thoughts:

I said it before about the French film "Portrait of a Lady On Fire", and the same idea applies to this review. A same sex love story should not be used as an excuse for lazy writing. Imagine if this was a heterosexual love story. Would you feel cheated out of a richer, more engaging plotline and character development? Some writers think that just because the story is about two women, that alone should carry the weight of the film. 

First things first, the social context. Some may not realize, but in Victorian England, two women in love could get away with much more than their male counterparts. It was not uncommon for women to form romantic friendships, live together for periods of time, and not be suspected of "immoral behavior". A spinster and a young wife spending a lot of time in each other's company would probably not raise any eyebrows. Public hand-holding, embraces and kisses were regarded as tokens of tender affection. Women were believed to be "too pure" for any kind of deviant behavior. So the two lovers in "Ammonite" were not exactly endangering themselves. 

Yes, the cinematography is sublime. The ambience is moody and brooding. But there is only so much the finest of actresses can do with a dull, unimaginative script. There are too many narrative gaps, too many proverbial guns that were never fired. One of such guns is the infamous Mr. Murchison. He is not even two-dimensional - he is an empty shell, a sketch of a character. I can certainly appreciate leaving to the viewer's imagination, but his character was just left in its embryonic form, and that's a shame. He is reduced to a cold, patriarchal talking head. There could've been so much more to him. Why is he so reluctant to engage with his wife in intimacy? Could he be struggling with some same sex attractions as well? I wish he had been developed more. 

Now, the much-anticipated love scenes. I found them a little too ... "expert"? These two women are supposedly unversed in the art of same sex love. It must be new and awkward for both of them. Yet they seem to know what to do right off the bat. 

Nobody expected a happy ending, but its bitterness was a little unconvincing. The main character pretty much throws away her chance at happiness. There is really nothing standing in their way, no harsh conventions. We have Mr. Murchison, who is immersed in his newly found hobby, who has no interest in his wife. Yet Mary harshly rejects her young lover's attempts at building a future together.