Monthly Archives: August 2019

“THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR”— A Billy Wilder First (from 1942)

“THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR”

A Billy Wilder First (from 1942)

Amos Lassen

Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) became tired of trying to make a living and avoiding advances of creeps like Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley),  so she decides to go home to Iowa using money she’s set aside for just such a rainy day. However the fare has gone up $5 causing her to be stranded in Grand Central Station. She decides to  disguise herself as Su-Su Applegate, a tall-for-her-age eleven year-old. This works until some suspicious conductors spot her smoking a cigarette on the observation car and she ducks into the first open compartment where she finds Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland), the commandant of the Wallace military school. He is returning from a failed attempt to secure a transfer to active duty. He buys Su-Su’s adolescent act and  Susan is convinced she’s met the man of her dreams under the worst conditions ever. Several complications later, Su-Su is spending a weekend at the military school, fighting off the advances of a number of aggressive cadets.

Philip’s fiancée Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson) also accepts Susan as Su-Su, but her little sister Lucy (Diana Lynn) isn’t fooled. Lucy doesn’t want Susan arrested and she needs an ally to show Philip that Pamela is  two-faced. Pamela has been pulling strings to wrongly convince Washington that the academy cannot do without Kirby. Meanwhile, Su-Su holds off the cadet wolves and goes to war against her female competition. 

Ginger Rogers has fun playing ‘Su-Su’ but it all backfires s when she meets Major Kirby. She’s encouraged when ‘Uncle’ Philip begins to see her as attractive, a development that Billy Wilder with his first Hollywood film exploits for all it’s worth. Major Kirby is clearly being turned on by what he thinks is an adolescent child, but since we’re perfectly aware that Susan is a mature 25, the naughtiness is censor-proof.

Everything comes to a head when Kirby tries to lecture Su-Su on the birds and the bees, comparing girls to light bulbs and boys to curious. Su-Su at first tells Philip that her family uses screen doors to keep the moths away, but when she sees that he’s having difficulty with the analogy, she lets him off the hook. When America’s young military cadets prove to be budding lovers. The irony is that Susan ditched the Big Apple to be free of unwanted advances, only to have it happen again.

Wilder’s personal brand of comedy is everywhere and wonderful. Running gags are  core constituent with Wilder style. back in New York. He loves topical jokes but they are certainly dated. Screenwriters Brackett and Wilder allow Susan Applegate to impersonate her own mother, thereby letting Ginger Rogers play Susan at three distinct ages.

Ray Milland is a fine foil for her as Major Philip Kirby, the officer who believes she is a frightened child, agrees to help her let her stay with him until they reach his stop, and eventually takes her home to the military academy where he teaches, pretending to be her father. 

Bonus Materials

 

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation transferred from original film elements
  • Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • New audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
  • Half Fare Please!, a newly filmed video appreciation by film critic Neil Sinyard 
  • Archival interview with Ray Milland 
  • Rare hour-long radio adaptation from 1943 starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland
  • Image gallery
  • Original trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork 
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: COLLECTOR’S BOOKLET WITH ESSAY BY RONALD BERGAN

“THE HOG FARM MOVIE”— Back to 1967, 68

“THE HOG FARM MOVIE”

Back to 1967, 68

Amos Lassen

In 1967, a group of artists, musicians and assorted freaks were living on a hilltop hog farm in Southern California. Paul Foster had been one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Now he was a computer programmer working for NASA’s Apollo team. Bonnie Jean Romney was an actress, doing ingénue roles on “Gunsmoke” and “Star Trek.” Hugh Romney was a poet and improv comic using theatre games to treat children with autism. He later changed his name to Wavy Gravy and become an ice cream flavor. 

In the summer of 1968 they went on the road with 40 painted buses, 2 geodesic domes, a light show, a band and the Yippee Party candidate for president, a 300-pound hog named Pigasus. This is a look at their epic journey across America, finally released  50 years later.
It was a commune of improvisational theatre performers, musicians, light-show artists, film makers, geodesic dome designers and Merry Pranksters that took shape on a mountaintop in southern California, where they had free rent in return for caring for forty hogs. As they traveled, they put on free participatory carnivals for thousands in rodeo grounds, Native American reservations, and colleges all across the country

The film features music by The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Neal Cassady, The Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and The Claude Doty Hog Farm Band. It was originally shot on 16mm in 1967-1968 and now fully restored in digital HD.

“PAPI CHULO”— Cross-cultural Communion

“PAPI CHULO”

Cross-cultural Communion

Amos Lassen

 “Papi Chulo” explores some deep emotional themes but lightly touch. Sean (Matt Bomer) is a gay Los Angeles weatherman who is having a rough time after a painful breakup. One day he has a breakdown on the air and his boss (Wendi McLendon-Covey) tells him to take some time of find also find someone he can talk to. Sean has a few ongoing projects around his house and decides his time off to take care of them, He goes to a local hardware shop for supplies where he sees middle-aged day worker Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) outside, and hires him to repaint his sun deck. Ernesto speaks very little English and has no idea what Sean is talking about as he tries to make conversation a variety of topics. Sean feels like he’s sharing his pain with someone, and having Ernesto around helps him cope with his loneliness. However, Ernesto doesn’t understand when Sean wants to hang out socially as well. He introduces Ernesto to his friends as if he’s a new boyfriend. Ernesto’s wife, Linda (Elena Campbell-Martinez), thinks this is very funny least until Sean gets a bit too close for comfort.

Irish writer-director John Butler slyly allows this to play using the humor in the characters rather than the situations. As Sean and Ernesto develop this offbeat friendship, the script reveals more about these two men and it becomes clear that Sean really needs professional help. Even as things become deeply emotional, the film remains honest and optimistic and eschews melodrama. We are reminded all the time that Sean’s friends care about him, and even Ernesto begins to understand that Sean’s pain needs more than just a  listener.

Bomer is excellent and delivers a layered performance as a smart man who has pushed his emotions down inside and can’t quite understand why his life seems to be going out of control. He keeps hoping he won’t have to confront his feelings, smiles stiffly and has clumsy conversations with everyone he meets. Sean’s real connection with Ernesto is a nice surprise, and Patiño plays him with a wonderful sense of wry humor. They are a fascinating odd couple, and each of their outings around town gives something to their strange relationship.

Director Butler gives the usual California locations of Silverlake and Runyon Canyon a fresh twist. Sean’s home in Eagle Rock is isolated from the city and the  film uses dating apps and easy sex. So if the plot sometimes seems to be pushy, its relaxed pacing and gently themes involve the audience.

Even though Ernesto understands very little,  Sean still insists on talking to him almost nonstop.  He talks about the work he needs done but then gives highlights of his life.  There is something in the warmth of the older man’s smile that encourages Sean to  share more and more .

The second day Sean insists that they take a break and go rowing on a local lake. He’ll pay the agreed hourly rate regardless of any work that gets done or not, and although Ernesto was initially wary of the fact that Sean is gay, he warms to him even though he has no idea what he is thinking about.  It is definitely not sexual in any way, but on the 3td day when the go off for a hike in LA’s hills there is a genuine warmness developing and an improbable friendship between these two strangers  who are totally opposites.

The second part of the film sees a change in tenor  as we learn why Sean is in such state and how his relationship with Carlos ended,  and everything makes sense.  We not only find our attitude to Sean’s seemingly odd behavior changing into compassion and something we can all relate to.

Here is cross-cultural communion that drives a metaphor into the ground. The film begins in medias res, with Sean having a meltdown on live television while reporting on a scorching heat wave sweeping through Los Angeles. He’s given a sabbatical that he’ll come to understand as a tacit firing, and at exactly the point that the job no longer really matters to him. He must get his deck painted before he can think about it.

What follows are events that find the lonely Sean taking the quietly obliging Ernesto on day trips around Los Angeles. Later, Ernesto guiltily acknowledges in a phone conversation to his wife  that he sees what the stranger by the lake does but that his bond to Sean is, in “conditionally transactional, possible only if it’s mediated by money.”

“Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York, 1840-1917” by Dale Cockrell— A History

Cockrell, Dale. “Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York, 1840-1917”. W.W. Norton, 2019.

A History

Amos Lassen

Dale Cockrell’s “Everybody’s Doin’ It” is the story of popular music’s seventy-year rise in the brothels, dance halls, and dives of New York City. We read about the birth of popular music, including ragtime and jazz, in convivial meeting places for sex, drink, music, and dance. Whether coming from a single piano player or a small band, live music was a nightly feature in New York’s dive bars where men and women, often black and white freely came together and this presence shocked the elite.

This drove the development of dance music that would soon span the world. The Virginia Minstrels, Juba, Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin and his hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band all played a part in beginning making new sounds and making them popular.

Musicologist Dale Cockrell recreates this underground world by researching tabloids, newspapers, court records of police busts, exposés, journals, and the reports of undercover detectives working for social-reform organizations who were gathered evidence against such places. “Everybody’s Doin’ It” illuminates the how, why, and where of America’s popular music and its journey from the dangerous Five Points of downtown to the interracial black and tans of Harlem. The book contains 30 illustrations. It also exposes the interracial and underworld origins of popular song and dance in the United States by taking is us into nineteenth-century concert saloons, cabarets, dives, and dance halls.
we are reminded that  prostitution was everywhere back then and was one of the ways that women could survive and it was an integral part of New York’s  music scene.”
Cockrell’s uses an archivist’s gaze to open  a new world for readers, showing how much has changed and how much has stayed the same.

“The Song of Songs: A Biography” by Ilana Pardes— The Greatest Love Poem

Pardes, Ilana. “The Song of Songs: A Biography”, (Lives of Great Religious Books), Princeton University Press, 2019.

The Greatest Love Poem

Amos Lassen

Ilana Pardes in “The Song of Songs: A Biography” gives us the essential history of the greatest love poem ever written. What makes it even more interesting is that we have varieties of love throughout and we can look at it as a poem about divine love or as a poem about human love. In Pardes’ biography, we concentrate on human love and she “reveals how allegorical and literal interpretations are inextricably intertwined in the Song’s tumultuous life.” The body is key to many allegorical commentaries in all its aspects including pleasure and pain and eroticism. In this world of modernity today, the allegory has not disappeared and we see new modes of allegory that have come forth in modern settings and including the literary and the scholarly to the communal. This is the beauty of Hebrew scripture. Each of us has the ability to interpret as it affects us individually or as a group. I cannot remember how many times I have read and studied “The Song of Songs” intently and each time I would find something I had not thought about or not noticed before.

Writer Pardes gives us rare insights into the history and story of this poem and she traces a diverse line of passionate readers and these include Jewish and Christian interpreters of late antiquity who debated the Song’s allegorical meaning, medieval Hebrew poets who introduced it into the elegant and opulent world of banquets, and kabbalists who used it as a way to the celestial spheres. We see how feminist critics have been amazed by the poem’s egalitarian representation of courtship, and how it became a song of America for Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison. And yes, it is audacious and it is beautiful in its audaciousness.

 For centuries, mystics, poets, and writers from ancient rabbis to modern poets  have loved this poem and transformed it in their literary outputs. This study is not an interpretation but rather a history (biography) of “The Song of Songs” and a look at perceptive literary readings. Through examples we see the distinction between literal and allegorical as ambiguous. Of course the big questions remains— Is it a celebration of the erotic desires of a young man and woman? Is it about the love of God for the Jewish people or is it about the desire of the mystic soul for union with God?

“Entitled: Discriminating Tastes and the Expansion of the Arts ” by Jennifer C. Lena— A Fascinating Look at the Art Scene

Lena, Jennifer C. “Entitled: Discriminating Tastes and the Expansion of the Arts ”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

A Fascinating Look at vThe Art Scene

Amos Lassen

In “Entitled”, author Jennifer C. Lena gives us an in-depth look at how democratic values have widened the American arts scene, even though it is elite and cosmopolitan.

Some two hundred years ago, wealthy entrepreneurs founded museums, theater companies, and symphony orchestras in an attempt to mirror European art. Now today’s American arts scene has widened to embrace photography, design, comics, graffiti, jazz, and many other forms of folk, vernacular, and popular culture. How did this happen and what led to it? Lena shows how organizational transformations in the American art world while we lived in a shifting political, economic, technological, and social landscape made such change possible.

In chronicling the development of American art from its earliest days to the present, we see here that while the American arts may be more open, they are still unequal. “Entitled” looks at key historical moments including the creation of the Museum of Primitive Art and the granting of federal and state subsidies during the New Deal supported the production and display of culture. Lena explores the efforts to define American genres, styles, creators, and audiences and “the ways democratic values helped legitimate folk, vernacular, and commercial art, which was viewed as nonelite.” While art lovers have acquired an appreciation for more diverse culture, they also carefully select and curate works that reflect their cosmopolitan, elite, and moral tastes.

It is fair to say that elite tastes have broadened, but we cannot help but wonder if a cultural hierarchy is still in place. Using case studies throughout history and cross artistic disciplines, Lena  answers this by showing “how even as elites incorporate cultural forms created by marginalized groups into their taste repertoire, social hierarchies [can] remain firm.

We see clearly how, starting in the nineteenth century, worlds of art existed in the United States and “who paid for them, who made the art, and how audiences for the results emerged.”

“Journey to Open Orthodoxy” by Avraham (Avi) Weiss— Wisdom from Rabbi Avi Weiss

Weiss, Avraham “Avi”. “Journey to Open Orthodoxy”, Urim,  2019.

Wisdom from Rabbi Avi Weiss

Amos Lassen

I recently received a letter from Rabbi Avi Weiss’s assistant telling me that the Rabbi has a new book out and asking if I would like to review it. I was extremely flattered since I have admired the rabbi’s work for years. For those of you who do not know, Rabbi Weiss is an ordained Orthodox rabbi and the founder of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale as well as two rabbinic schools and who has worked to bring open orthodoxy to us as a way of modernizing a very old and traditional religion. He has helped to raise his voice of moral conscience (and mine) for all humankind and I have often turned to his writings when I find no suitable answers myself. He shows us here that Judaism is a journey and it is different for each of us. My journey began as an Orthodox Jew and an ardent Zionist who went to live in Israel on a kibbutz for many years (as an academic in residence). While there, I lost my ties with the Jewish religion while living in a strictly secular society where Shabbat simply meant white tablecloths. I lived like this for some 35 years until returning to America to learn that if I wanted to have a community, I would have to join a synagogue. I, indeed, did so but I became a reform Jew yet filled with the traditions that had once been an integral part of me. I have never stopped trying to reconcile the two kinds of Judaism in my life.

In “Journey to Open Orthodoxy”, Rabbi Weiss presents his vision of Judaism, the very vision that recently has become known as ”Open Orthodoxy.” We see that Open Orthodoxy goes beyond such controversial issues as women’s ordination and LGBTQ inclusion. Rabbi Weiss (or Rav Avi) sees Open Orthodoxy as holistic and embracing all of Jewish spiritual, religious, halakhic and national life. He invites readers to evaluate the book’s content while looking at their own journeys and hopefully considering that branch of Orthodoxy as an inclusive, non-judgmental, loving, modern and open approach to our religion.

Rav Avi covers many topics in his book and I am simply going to quote the list rather try to put into my own words.
“Topics Include:
Mesorah: Bridging Past and Future
Is Halakha (Jewish Law) Ethical?
Da’at Torah: Do Decisions of the Rabbis Close Off Discussion?
Nation Is Family
Creating Spaces for those with Disabilities
Embracing the Elderly
Alternatives to Kiruv (Outreach)
Interdenominational and Interfaith Relations
Infusing Halakha with Spirituality
Women Rabbis
Belief and Doubt
Coping with Adversity
Jewish Leadership
Reining in Israel s Chief Rabbinate
Conversion: Building Walls or Welcoming People In?
Mission-Driven Judaism
Ritualizing the Shoah
The Holiness of Israeli Soldiers”

As a member of the LGBTQ community, I was naturally interested in what the Rabbi had to say so I read that section first (even though I was already somewhat familiar with his position). If Judaism is to be inclusive, it means inclusion of all Jews. Rabbi Weiss admits that he was not always so open to the LGBTQ community but he admits that he has evolved even to the point of acceptance of gay couples and their children as full member households. I was surprised at first to learn that a synagogue here in Boston accepted a gay couple and their daughter as a household and granted them membership and this was not a modern Orthodox synagogue. At first some of the congregation was not happy but as we all know change takes time. If we blur the lines between synagogue and state, we jeopardize the freedom of religion, one of the main precepts of this country.

There are those who still see homosexuality as perverse but the world is changing quickly. We have just seen a minister of the Church of Latter Day Saints announce that he is gay and leaving his wife of 30+ years and the pulpit. Rabbi Weiss tells us that as “an open Orthodox rabbi, I refuse to reject a person who seeks to live a life of same sex love”… “to single out homosexuality from other biblical proscriptions is unfair and smacks of a double standard” and I must add AMEN.

Through the writings here, we see the evolution and maturation of the good rabbi’s reflections. “Journey to Open Orthodoxy” is a collection of articles that the rabbi wrote over several years, and he notes when he wrote, published, or gave them as lectures. In some of what you read here, you will find that Rabbi Weiss agrees with far-right Jews and with others he is more open. He believes that God gave us the written and unwritten law at Mount Sinai and it is the word of God. “No human being can declare it null and void…. Therefore, the law must be kept even when its ethical underpinnings are not understood.”

But he also stresses that while Open Judaism reveres the wisdom of great rabbinic authorities yet “we should not follow them in non-halakhic areas blindly as do far-right Jews.” He advises us to think for ourselves and “to act with decisiveness.”
He sees Israel having enormous religious meaning and that we should rely on God to bring about necessary change, Open Orthodoxy feels that we have an obligation to act. “Women should be allowed to serve as spiritual leaders but not called “rabbi,” but Maharat, Rabba, or a similar title.

Seventy-five essays make up this book and it is divided into eight sections. In the section “Principles of Open Orthodoxy,” “he distinguishes it from Modern Orthodoxy,” which he feels is moving to the right. In “Inclusivity,” he stresses that  we, as Jews have universal responsibilities and must include LGBTQ Jews as well as Jews who have decided to remain less observant. “Gender” looks at the many issues involving women in six chapters. He would allow women to wear tefillin. In “Faith” he talks about problems people have when life brings them hardships and pains. And there is so much more but if I continue to tell you what is here, you won’t have to read the book and my point is to get you to read. I feel so much better now that I have read it.

 

“Ghosts of Blood and Bone” by Marcus James— Forgetting Bailey

James, Marcus. “Ghosts of Blood and Bone”, Midnight Choir Press, 2019.

Forgetting Bailey

Amos Lassen

Let me get one thing out-of-the-way at the get-go. Marcus James is an excellent writer who always manages to have good stories to relate. I have read and reviewed

several of his books and the only problem that I have is that when I finish, I have to wait for the next one to be published. What makes this even more interesting is that I am, by and large, not a fan of slasher and/or horror fiction (unless it has been written by Marcus James).

“Ghosts of Blood and Bone” is a big book coming in at 500 plus pages but you will not have one boring moment reading it. In fact, I recommend that you clear your day before you begin reading because once you begin it, you will not want to stop. I kept saying to myself, “just one more page” but I ended up reading all night long and part of the next morning. It’s about keeping secrets and that is a tantalizing topic. It is also about trauma, love, and the loss of innocence.

Bailey Nguyen has been dead for nine-and-a-half years, and yet, memories are everywhere and it is impossible not to think about him. Chase Sheppard was Bailey’s best friend, even with the sense of mystery in Bailey that was always present. Whatever it was, it was dark and sadistic and seemed to be responsible for his being not just the middle school bully but it also aroused fear in Chance who suspected what Bailey was capable of.

We meet Aaron Christopher, a schoolmate who was unpopular and insecure. Christopher had no friends and was effeminate thus making him the perfect target for a bully. Yet there was something about Aaron that fascinated Chase. For Bailey it was the opposite—he hated Aaron and he was fixated with doing him harm. This led to lead to a terrible accident that involved Bailey, Chance and Aaron and a bathroom that only Aaron would walk out of alive. Now almost ten years later, Aaron has been unable to move on from that day, and everything that preceded it.  He has tried but to no avail. Now, he is a senior at Fairhaven University in Bellingham, Washington and a budding artist. He has tried to lead  a “normal” (whatever that means) life for himself. He has been able to make friends, spend time with his roommates and use his coping mechanisms to deal with the death of Bailey who, it seems, will not let go. Something is being orchestrated by some great diabolical force that brings Aaron and Chase together and those amorous feelings  that they suppressed are once again with them like they were when they were kids and are every bit as strong.

Whatever attracted them about each other in the past (even though they did not act on it), is again pulling at them now. Aaron is taunted by phone calls from someone who sounds like Bailey (interesting that he can still hear Bailey’s voice) and a mysterious shape stalks him wherever he goes. It seems to have come out from the shadows of that past and refuses to stay dead and buried like Bailey. To say any more about the plot is not fair to any of you but I will say that the novel spans both a year of horror and darkness and a year of hope and redemption. It is how we get from one to the other that is so fascinating and to do so through lyrical prose is a great bonus.

“ECSTASY”— An Erotic Thriller

“Ecstasy”

An Erotic Thriller

Amos Lassen

Strand Releasing’s “Ecstacy” was originally titled “A Thought of Ecstasy”. It is an erotic thriller about a  journey through America in the year 2019 with a man in search of a lost love and a woman lost in the yearning for retribution as well as a country paralyzed by a heat wave and torn by mistrust and paranoia. A 20-year-old diary, arouses the desire to waste and that love is immortal, seduction is inevitable and revenge is irresistible. It is directed by and stars RP Kahl, Ava Verne, Lena Morris and Deborah Kara Unger.

We witness Copulating bodies in the sand, half-naked women in diffusely lit rooms and rides over sheer endless streets. The film is filled with images that elude unambiguous interpretation, initially hovering arbitrarily and intangibly in space. RP Kahl tells of a search for past love and places himself at the center of his story, which eschews conventional narrative patterns. We are taken to places where Kahl wants to tell about desire and longing, about being lost and the eternal search.

There is a definite preference for naked skin but slow images rely too much on a pull that is not fully sustained. Between dark rooms and bright sunlight Kahl rarely finds moments that remain in his head. What wants to be provocative and wild loses itself more and more in diffuse repetitions. The work is too tame for porn, too tense for a thriller and too empty for an art film yet we can see this indecision as a strength, as a film that consciously takes on these issues and subverts. And yet, above all, the impression remains that RP Kahl has lost in the search itself, in his intoxication of images that gradually loses its effect.

Nonetheless, “Ecstasy” has a certain fascination in its overambition, even though it is only the consequence of RP Kahl’s bringing his vision to the screen. There is no sign of compromise, no confession to the audience. Perhaps the very existence of this work is necessary to counterbalance all those endlessly enumerated and embarrassingly scheming sex films. That he too is not very successful, is probably buried in the matter itself. The associations are left behind, leaving behind images that are nothing more than images. Raw and fragile, anarchistic and poor in content – what is missing is an attitude. “Ecstasy” does not fail to have an effect and this is seen in the controversy it triggers.

Kahl once again revolves around himself in his third feature film. What fascinates as a cinematic experiment never unfolds the potential that makes it daring Deliberate provocation robs ” Ecstasy” of its effect.

The first scenes show a drive into the night. A beginning that immediately sets characters that reminds of countless film noirs. We follow Frank, a not very young man from Germany, who gets caught in the gap between his own past and the longing for a future, which is repeatedly drawn by reminders of their own past and past memories that he confuses with the present. Flash-like flashbacks and photographically precise sceneries turn the film into a topography of atmospheres in which moods superimpose events.

The journey of the film takes off in a city of cars, concrete and metal, and then finds its vanishing point in the desert of Death Valley, a space in which every feeling sooner or later seems like erased and abstracted everything in the matter of course of the grains of sand and is canceled. Frank comes to his personal zero point, and finds the “ecstasy” of the title. This is why a night trip becomes so, although a large part of the following pictures are bathed in glaring light, in a very bright sunshine and the film noir situation turns around. Frank is looking for a lost love. The trigger becomes a twenty-year-old diary whose words always talk to Frank and  works like the voice of a narrator. Frank seeks depth, desire and finds it in the radiant flurries of Death Valley.

This is an erotic thriller in which we see violence, sadomasochism and some sexually explicit scenes. It is erotic because we see women and men naked often and there is sex. But the women in this film are always imaginary, they exist in the head of the main character and thus in the mind of the audience: a pirate bride with eyepatch, a prostitute, a femme fatale, a fortune teller. This road movie trip is also a kind of science fiction, because it plays with the newer themes of this genre, with dystopia and paranoia. 

“LADYWORLD”— Happy Birthday

“LADYWORLD”

Happy Birthday

Amos Lassen

Eight teenage girls are trapped in an endless birthday party after an earthquake. The girls’ sanity and psyches deteriorate as they run out of food and water. Eventually, they turn to their baser instincts and exploit each other’s fears and insecurities.

Dolly (Ryan Simpkins) is about to learn precisely how savage teenage girls can be to one another. “Ladyworld” is a spin on “Lord of the Flies”. Eight young women become trapped in home that becomes a prison. As the days pass and supplies run out, tensions and pressures rise, rivalries unfold, sects form, and secrets and regrets rise to the surface.

Director Amanda Kramer and co-writer Benjamin Shearn give their film a border line surreal edge, causing the audience to wonder if any of this is real. It’s possible to see this situation as practical truth, that these girls are stuck in a house, or as a metaphorical purgatory. Either way, the film concerns itself more with psyches and unravelling social conventions.

Every element serves to create and enhance the unsettling, unnerving atmosphere. Cinematographer Patrick Meade Jones frames shots like an adolescent last supper and there is no traditional music score. Instead there are layered acapella vocal sounds and eerie songs sung by the cast. The girls talk of “The Man,” unseen but in the house with them, there is a looming threat of dread and harm. Everyone becomes increasingly unhinged as fear and paranoia bloom, building to a deranged climax.

The girls split into two factions. There’s the good girls, led by Olivia (Ariela Barer). Reluctantly taking the role, she just wants everyone to behave and get along and wait for the rescue that may or may not be on the way. Dolly is on her side. Sweet and simple and sheltered, she dissolves more quickly than the others. On the other side is Piper (Annalise Basso) leading the way. Already a mean girl with a keen eye for deep emotional evisceration, she becomes positively vicious, relishing in her power and the pain of her adversaries. This sect becomes wild, painting themselves in near-kabuki make up and adopting pseudo-post-apocalyptic costumes, hoarding resources and violently protecting their turf. Along for the ride, she drags Romy (Maya Hawke), who texts and talks on the phone as if anyone was out there, or as if it even still had a charge. Outside of the main four, however, the rest of the cast is basically the chorus, background players taking up space in the contained, constrained setting.

Director Kramer pushes her characters to the brink and beyond, by turns reminding the audience of heinous acts people are capable of, but also that these are awkward kids. The core of the film lies in the dynamics and intricacies of adolescent female relationships, here stripped to their barest form. Kramer uses the framework with a clever strength and style. Occasionally thin on narrative, the performers carry the film toeing the line between chaos and civility. There are lots of tension and intrigue.

Kramer succeeds in taking a low budget and limited set and providing an uncomfortable atmosphere yet thrilling ride. It is very reflective of the country’s current state of paranoia and fear and how those emotions can get the best of a person and force them to regress to baser instincts. This is an unforgettable thriller that assaults the senses.