Tickled (2016)

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fourstar

Foolishly, I expected that a documentary on “competitive endurance tickling” wouldn’t be much more than an amusing fluff piece, a sort of thin story about a string of online outlets that sell tickling-themed softcore porn under the flimsy guise of “athletic” competition. The Kiwi documentarian David Farrier seemed to have similar expectations when he initially prodded at the subject himself. Farrier’s career as a journalist is mostly relegated to “human interest” stories, something he calls “pop culture reporting.” He’s the guy you’d see on local news broadcasts interviewing personalities like “The Donkey Lady” or a toad farmer or maybe the subjects of the similarly-minded doc Finders Keepers. The narrative Farrier presents is that he initially didn’t know much about the world of modern tickling erotica and genuinely treated the topic as he would any of his other human interest stories until he discovered the abusive bullies behind the bulk of the websites’ production & decided to dig deeper. The facts of when, exactly, Farrier (along with his co-director Dylan Reeve) knew what he was getting into & the bizarre, terrifying world that his inquiry would uncover are questionable, especially considering the early dramatic re-enactments necessary to make the story feel linear. However, the investigation does prove to be a fascinating, worthwhile portrait of human cruelty in an increasingly bizarre modern age and the resulting documentary, Tickled, develops into a much darker & more unsettling experience than what you’d likely expect from the story of “competitive endurance tickling.”

Tickled splits its time between the pop culture reporting of competitive tickling as an erotic entertainment David Farrier initially pitches & an investigative look at the bullies who produce the overwhelming majority of it. Tickling porn, as the movie presents it, is a light form of homosexual BDSM play where young “athletes” (mostly white male beefcake) restrain each other with leather cuffs and, you know, get to tickling. This lighthearted snapshot of a seemingly innocuous fetish plays mostly like an episode of HBO Real Sex, except narrated with a New Zealander accent. Farrier & Reeve make a point to not only follow the history of tickle porn’s online presence (a journey that brings up some man-I-feel-old flashbacks like AIM & RealPlayer), but also to profile a couple tickle porn producers who aren’t total creeps. In the film’s most euphoric moment a tickle-happy pornographer straps a hairy young lad to a workout bench & goes to town with various tickle tools (feathers, feather dusters, electric tooth brushes, etc.) and the film decelerates to a slow motion crawl to amplify the scene’s complete, otherworldly ecstasy. These indulgences help Tickled distinguish itself from prudish kink shaming & also contrast what healthy, honest BDSM looks like vs. the evils Farrier eventually uncovers. When the “pop culture reporter” attempts to interview the largest tickle porn conglomerate about their unusual business in the film’s investigative half, he’s met with an incongruously aggressive response peppered heavily with homophobic slurs & threats of costly lawsuits. The abrasive nature of these attacks only deepens Farrier’s interest and a lot of the movie’s inquiry is wrapped up in trying to discover & expose exactly who’s behind them.

One of the only problems I have with Tickled is the sleazy journalism tactics Farrier uses to uncover his target/subject’s evil deeds. A paparazzi-style assault on the world of tickle porn isn’t exactly what I’d ideally want out of a film like this, but by the time the depths of cruelty perpetrated by the shadowy figures behind “competitive endurance tickling” are exposed, I found myself rooting for Farrier succeed, despite his questionable tactics. Athletic tickling pornographers (or at least their head honcho) use a lot of the same financially & emotionally abusive tactics laid out in the Scientology documentary Going Clear and by the end Tickled plays like a convincing indictment calling for them to be shut down & jailed for their crimes. Young men (typically MMA guys, body builders, actors, amateur athletes), sometimes underage, agree to appear in supposedly private tickle videos for much-needed cash. If they complain when this erotica is made public, they’re exposed to their families, employers, and the internet at large for being “homosexual pornographers” in an aggressive, public attack on their reputations. As Farrier puts it, “This tickling empire is way bigger than we imagined,” and the vast amount of heartless, predatory money that ropes these young men into a fetish porn ring they never agreed to be a part of is fascinatingly bottomless & terrifyingly abusive. Tickled can, of course, be amusing at times due to the bizarre nature of its subject, but it’s mostly a conspiracy theorist dive into a cruel empire that gets off on its own lies & bullying, executed through rapacious wealth & internet-age catfishing. As much as I initially bristled at Farrier’s journalism style, I do think he found a story worth telling & a modern monster worth exposing. Tickled is an infectious call to arms that by the end will have you screaming for the entire tickle porn empire to be torn down & set on fire.

-Brandon Ledet

My Mistress (2015)

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three star
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One of the most unexpected genre revivals I’ve noticed recently is the return of the 90s style erotic thriller. From major releases like 50 Shades of Grey to trashier fare like The Boy Next Door, there seems to be a veritable resurgence of erotic thriller media. This might be a little disheartening to defenders of good taste & decency, but for cinematic trash dwellers like myself, it’s a godsend. Bring on the expensive-looking echoes of crap that used to play at 2am on Showtime & Cinemax, I say. Bring it on, ya garbage peddlers.

It’s with that attitude that I welcome, without a safe word even, the arrival of My Mistress to Netflix’s Recently Added stockpile. An Australian film that grapples with questions about grief, maternal love, and the therapeutic powers of BDSM play, My Mistress doesn’t quite match the campy heights of fare like The Boy Next Door, but it also doesn’t try to. Although its story about a dominatrix who becomes involved with her teenage neighbor sounds adventurous, the film mostly plays it safe. It’s at heart a pleasant, but low key melodrama about two people who’ve been badly hurt & find solace in each other’s company. This kind of melancholy ambition doesn’t do much for the film’s erotic thriller appeal, admittedly. If it were to be a true addition to the genre one of the two love birds would have to flip out and start threatening to murder the other, but that’s just not the kind of story told here.

That’s not to say that there aren’t trashy elements at play. My Mistress may be hinged on the devastating grief suffered by two lonely souls, but it knows exactly how tawdry the erotic elements of its BDSM subject are. While the movie never gets overly kinky outside a couple whippings, there’s enough leather bullet bras & doggy costumes to give the whole thing a campy undertone. Watching a teen boy try to seduce a grown woman by smoking cigarettes and playing tough with lines like “I’m bad. Really bad. Evil sometimes,” is the kind of playfulness the movie tries to get away with while still dealing full-on with the more tragic plot developments. There’s also some uncomfortable, Oedipal vibes in the contrast between the two central mother-son relationships that the film is smart not to push too hard, but it still adds an extra layer of tawdriness to the affair.

My Mistress is not likely to be a movie that’s going to change anyone’s life. At best, it might help you fill up an afternoon. Its worst fault might be that it somewhat plays into the typical BDSM Folks Just Need to Meet Someone Sweet to Lower Their Defenses triteness you usually encounter in these kinds of films, but that only adds to its trashy charms in some ways. It’s a pleasant movie that finds a way to have it both ways, playing with titillating 90s Skinemax erotica and exploring the sad nuance of romance & grief. I liked the balance it struck, even if it didn’t push its worst impulses into deliciously over-the-top JLo territory.

-Brandon Ledet

Kink (2014)

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twohalfstar

There’s a crippling sense of pointlessness at the heart of Kink, a recent documentary about the BDSM pornography company Kink.com. It’s not just that anyone who would be inclined to watch the film in the first place is already likely to be on board with its “kink porn is not unhealthy” message; it’s also that the film plays more like a long form advertisement than a proper documentary. Kink is more akin to an infomercial, a DVD extra, or a decade-late episode of HBO’s Real Sex than it is to a fully invested exploration of the subject at hand. By focusing on a single production company’s output & ethos, it feels less like a document of where kink porn is today and more like an aggressive PR assertion of where Kink.com is today, which is not necessarily as worthwhile of a subject.

As practicing sadists, Kink.com is obviously very much worried about coming across as “axe wielding maniacs”, so much of the run time is softening that image. Actors are shown expressing “pain” & then practicing the expression of “pain” off-camera. There are a lot of looming hard-ons bouncing around the set, but they’re slapped & tickled in an irreverent manner that says “We’re having fun here, y’all! I swear! So much fun!” The producers try to pose the company as a sort of mom & pop operation that started in a college dorm room (every young perv’s dream) and somehow blossomed into a successful business. But not too successful, though. They want you to know that in comparison to other porn giants, they’re the small-time outsiders, saying “If pornography was high school, we would be the goth table. We’d be the art kids.” All of this aggressive PR is supposed to make the company’s scary flogging, spanking, and out-of-control fuck machines more palatable to a wider audience, but it’s hard to imagine that it’s winning anyone over who wasn’t already down with what it’s selling.

Preaching to the choir is not the only problem with Kink’s assertion that Kink.com’s brand of BDSM porn is a-okay. It also just doesn’t have much to say once it establishes that consensual BDSM play is healthy. That’s not to say the film is completely devoid of entertainment. If nothing else, it’s kind of cute in its matter-of-fact pre-coitus negotiations of what will & won’t go down. As I mentioned in my review of The Duke of Burgundy, the sub is firmly in charge in most BDSM scenarios, despite what most people would expect, so it’s amusing here to watch them call the shots before shooting scenes.  Even at a mere 80min, however, this message isn’t enough to carry the film and there’s a lot of redundant feet-dragging that sinks any good vibes it had cultivated along the way. The closest the film comes to challenging itself is in a brief questioning of how money muddles consent and (after its assertion that BDSM porn doesn’t promote rape) the filming of a home invasion scenario that is very much a distinct rape fantasy. Otherwise, it lets its subject off the hook. As a documentary, Kink is mostly harmless. I was a little bored with its repetition, a little cynical of its blatant advertising, and very much annoyed with the obnoxious, wailing orgasm moans that droned on & on & on, but its biggest fault is that it didn’t push itself harder, instead opting to cover one small facet of a truly fascinating topic that deserves a closer, more critical look.

Side note: When the end credits revealed that Kink was “Produced by James Franco” I thought to myself, “Of course it was.”

-Brandon Ledet

The Duke of Burgundy (2015)

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fivestar

It’s difficult to explain in print exactly why, but Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy may be the most uncommercial film about a BDSM-leaning lesbian relationship possible. Although Strickland’s film has sensuality to spare, it deliberately strays from being exploitative, choosing to explore the central couple’s universally relatable struggles with selflessness & compromise instead of engaging in typical blank leering. There’s a sexual element at play in nearly every scene, but the film is more romantic than voyeuristic. The Duke of Burgundy is a portrait of a long-term relationship’s struggling to find balance, with the more unique elements of the role playing games shared by its same sex partners functioning more as a detail that provides specificity than as an overwhelming fetishistic obsession. Strickland has found a balance here that threatens to tip in a disastrous direction at almost every turn, but instead holds steady, much like the romantic balance found within the film’s central relationship.

It’s not only the refusal to perv out that will keep The Duke of Burgundy from reaching a mass scale audience. It’s also a deliberately “artsy” film that luxuriates in its own gorgeous images & atmosphere, like a sex-tinged The Spirit of the Beehive. Strickland carves out a natural world here (as he did before in last year’s Bjork concert film, Biophilia Live), filling the frame with running water, wriggling insects, rustling tree limbs, and beating wings of moths & butterflies. So much of the film is composed of nature, books, lingerie, and women (I don’t think a single man appears on-screen), that a distinctly insular vibe is achieved, as if the entire film takes place within a cocoon. It attempts more of a preciously delicate visual aesthetic than it does a traditional, straight-forward narrative.

The Duke of Burgundy’s varied shots of a butterfly & moth filled specimen room sets a tone for how the film operates. It’s a narrative that relies on repetition & ritual, much like the repetition of a specific butterfly specimen is repeated within the display cases. Similarly, each image is tacked to the wall, hovering to be appreciated like a precious, organic object. Strickland finds emotional resonance in the film’s central relationship, but he also spends inordinate amounts of time reveling in the textures of the world that surrounds them. Filming the couple through mirrors, fringes, and fabrics, Strickland finds the same reverence for the sense of touch here that he did for sound in his 2013 ode to giallo, Berberian Sound Studio. It’s a challenging prospect for viewers, but the rewards are glorious.

Warnings of tasteful sensuality & highfaluting cinematography aside, The Duke of Burgundy is a lot more playful than you would expect from art house fare of its caliber. Sure, the film has a stuffy, old-fashioned vibe with interiors that are far more likely to conjure the words “parlor” & “boudoir” rather than “living room” & “bedroom”, but it also lets on that it’s self-aware of that vibe as early as the opening credits when it provides a title card that reads “Perfume by Je Suis Gizella.” Also, although the film’s central BDSM relationship has a serious issue at the heart of its struggles with power balance , the movie finds plenty lot of effortless humor in that conflict. The emotional tug of war at the heart of the film’s romantic conflict reminded me a lot of a poem deceased artist Bob Flanagan reads in the documentary Sick that starts, “Smart-Ass Masochists: Those are masochists who can take anything– can take anything they tell you to do. Anything I tell you to do I’ll do it just for you.” The power dynamics of a BDSM relationship are more complicated than they may first appear to an outsider and The Duke of Burgundy has a lot of fun playing that aspect for both humor and emotional resonance.

It’s incredible that The Duke of Burgundy never loses its balance. It’s an affecting story about true love, but it also sports piss jokes. It’s a movie that features kaleidoscopic cunnilingus, but it never approaches being salacious. It values strong, isolated images over plot & pacing, but never feels like a slog. It’s a well-made, satisfying film that simultaneously stimulates the intellect and entertains on a simple, surface-pleasures level. In short, it’s a fantastic, must-see film that will find you saying “Thank you so much. This is all I ever wanted,” even before one of the protagonists gets to say it first.

-Brandon Ledet

R100 (2015)

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threehalfstar

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Late in the run time of the surreally campy BDSM comedy R100, the film addresses the audience directly by suggesting that, “People won’t understand this film until they’re 100 years old.” Even that timeline may be a little too optimistic. Directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto, the juvenile prankster who brought the world the cartoonish excess of Big Man Japan & Symbol, R100 initially pretends to be something it most definitely is not: understated. The first forty minutes of the film are a visually muted, noir-like erotic thriller with a dully comic sadness to its protagonists’ depression & persecution. It’s around the halfway mark where the film goes entirely off the rails genre-wise, dabbling in tones that range from spy movies to mockumentaries to old-school ZAZ spoofs. It’s doubtful that even 100 years on Earth will give you enough information to make sense out of that mess.

Although the first half of R100 is more toned down than the second, it’s still off to a fairly bizarre start. The film’s protagonist, a mild-mannered mattress salesman grieving over his comatose wife, seeks solace in an unusual BDSM club. Instead of subbing for a dominatrix on the club’s parameters, he signs a contract that allows its stable of dominant women to appear in his personal life, beating him mercilessly in public without warning. He initially gets off on the tension of not knowing when a dominatrix will appear to beat him, but as they begin to surface at his job, his home, and (worst of all) his wife’s hospital room, he attempts to desperately cancel the contract. Of course, the club is not interested in cancellations. This is a world without safe words, a world where a dominatrix believes, “When perverts beg for mercy that means they’re begging for more.” In other words, it initially plays like an erotic novel, not far from the plot machinations of Gary Marshall’s BDSM comedy Exit to Eden. It’s far more akin to fantasy than real life and the incongruity of the public beatings with the mundanity of the modern world is played for a subtly comic effect (and, eventually, for an effect that is anything but subtle).

There’s plenty of bizarre visual touches to this first half that suggest the weirdness that comes later: a carousel of dominatrix women floating in a void, brain wave halos of pleasure, leather clad doms galloping like gazelles, etc. There’s also the more surreal ways the protagonist submits, like when a dominatrix violently, repetitively smashes his sushi flat with her palm while he eats or when another covers him in gallons of saliva (which has got to be one of the most disgusting scenes I’ve ever encountered, or at least since Wetlands). At one point a character astutely compares the over-the-top theatricality of pro wrestling to kink play and in the ways kink is portrayed in R100 it feels more truthful than ever. However, even those cartoonish play sessions are ill preparation to the unhinged silliness that follows.

In some ways, the first half of R100 is an objectively better film, as it reins in its more absurd tendencies for the narrative’s benefit. Its premise would most likely fall flat as a straightforward film, though, so it’s not particularly a problem that it abandons its tone & genre for more outlandish territory. As long as you’re prepared to roll with the sharp left turn the film takes halfway through (especially if you’ve seen a Hitoshi Matsumoto film before), you’re likely to have fun with R100. It’s an oddball film that refuses to behave in a traditionally oddball way, seemingly shifting gears at a whim with no concern for the audience. When you sign up to watch R100, it’s like signing a contract that for the next two hours you’ll be in its capable, dominant hands, ready to submit to every command & goofy impulse it can muster before the contract runs out. As long as you don’t mind handing that freedom over and don’t become too attached to the early tone, you might experience some pleasure halos of your own.

-Brandon Ledet

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

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The best-selling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey recently made its long-awaited debut on the silver screen and, as a fan of the book series, I was very curious to see how this film could possibly be tame enough for movie theaters. What could have been one of the most iconic movies of the year turned out to be a total snoozefest. Literally. People in my theater were sleeping so hard they were snoring.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a film about a man incapable of love that falls for a hopeless romantic. What makes this average love story different from others is that he also likes to dominate his female partners in his “Red Room of Pain.” Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is a successful, attractive businessman that really enjoys the color grey. He has a grey office, grey ties, grey cars, etc. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a shy college student that earns the opportunity to interview the hottest billionaire in Seattle, Mr. Grey. After administering a truly crappy interview, she finds herself to be attracted to Christian, just as he finds himself to be infatuated with Ana. He instantly becomes disgustingly obsessed with her and takes time out of his busy schedule to make sure he knows her every move. There’s a mysterious aura about Christian, but Ana just can’t seem to figure out his big secret, even after he shows up at her hardware store job to buy cable ties, rope, and masking tape. Shortly after that uncomfortable encounter, he tells her “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard.” Everything sort of went downhill after that.

I don’t understand how a film about a BDSM relationship could be so quiet and lackluster. There wasn’t very much dialogue between Ana and Christian, and that really didn’t do much to make their love for each other believable. There was so much awkward energy between the two that it just became too much to handle. In the book, which is told in first person by Ana, many of her internal emotions are discussed, but this isn’t really shown in the film. The film made it look like she really didn’t enjoy being dominated, and at some points, it seemed like she was being sexually abused. It’s been a while since I’ve read the novel, but from what I remember, she was actually enjoying the submissive lifestyle; she was just scared that she liked it too much. Something went terribly wrong when the information from the book was translated into a film script.

In all honesty, I didn’t expect much from this film. The book was pure smut, so I was prepared for a silly mess of a movie that it wasn’t. With lots of good one-liners, a wicked soundtrack, and an amazing slow-motion flogging scene, it was far from the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Actually, I’m kind of looking forward to the sequels.

-Britnee Lombas

Exit to Eden (1994)

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three star

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I’ve been both curious about and terrified of the Garry Marshall BDSM comedy Exit to Eden for some time now, but never worked up the nerve to actually watch it until late last week. Then there were just too many recent prompts to ignore them all. Not only did we at Swampflix cover the more questionable career choices of Exit to Eden’s stars Rosie O’Donnell & Dan Aykroyd last week, but the entire pop culture world was flooded with endless news & buzz for the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey film, the first mainstream Hollywood BDSM film since the “erotic thriller” genre’s heyday in the mid-90s. In addition to selling absurd numbers of pre-order tickets before it’s even released, 50 Shades is also receiving a huge amount of flak from the BDSM community for its portrayal of an abusive relationship that misses the point of kink entirely. I thought, “Well, it can’t miss the point any more than Exit to Eden” and finally gave the film a watch. I might be right.

Exit to Eden may not confuse kink with abuse the same way 50 Shades has been accused of, but it still manages to be insulting to the BDSM community. This is a world where people are into kink because they were spanked as children, need therapy, and can’t manage lasting, meaningful relationships. This is a world where dominatrixes go into business because they were emotionally manipulated by men, but all they really want is for the right Australian stud to seduce them so they can put down the whip forever. The film’s head dominatrix (played by Dana Delany) confesses, “I like to cuddle & giggle. After a hard day of smacking people, I like to cuddle.” This is a world where plain old cunnilingus is treated as just as outrageously adventurous as a violent flogging. When a character facetiously delivers the line, “‘Alternative lifestyle’ is just a phrase deviants use to cover up their sex lives,” you have to wonder if the film were being more sincere than it lets on.

There’s also a dismissive, above-it-all tinge to the “jokes” delivered by Rosie O’Donnell’s narrator/undercover cop that would make you think the movie wasn’t at all titillated by its kinkier proceedings, but it totally is! The shameless/outlandish erotica of the Anne Rice source material frequently pokes through O’Donnell’s snark and makes for a really uncomfortable clash of sentiments. On one hand you have O’Donnell basically shouting “Get a load of these freaks!” every few seconds and on the other there are long, leering scenes involving Dana Delany spanking a male sub & trying on bondage gear for the first time while soft rock plays in the background. It’s about as tone-deaf and self-contradictory as you would imagine a Garry Marshall BDSM comedy would be.

Marshall is essentially King of the Hokey. His Happy Days/Odd Couple/Mork & Mindy roots don’t exactly read like the perfect résumé for a sleazy Anne Rice adaptation. As fascinating as Exit to Eden is in a “I can’t believe someone actually made this” context, it’s rarely actually funny. The cheery pop music & corny gags are so violently at war with the sensuality they share space with that it’s hard to imagine who the intended audience was. There are a few jokes that pay off, like when Marshall’s own off-screen voice demands that his mistress pay him attention (if you’re familiar with his voice it’s easy to imagine why that’d be amusing). Dan Aykroyd is also surprisingly funny considering the material he’s working with. He’s in full, uptight Dragnet mode here, which makes gags involving leaf blowers, vibrators, and rumors about his impressively large penis land beautifully. Still, most jokes in Exit to Eden made me roll my eyes so hard I was afraid I’d finish the film legally blind.

It’s okay that this comedy isn’t actually funny, though, because there’s enough inherent weirdness in its clashing concepts that genuine humor might have been a distraction. Take, for instance, the fact that Aykroyd & O’Donnell both separately don bondage gear for the camera. If you were actually laughing during those scenes, it might release the emotionally-scarring tension that feels similar to walking in on your aunt & uncle’s “play-time” without knocking first. If the jokes were actually funny, you might laugh over the horrendously inaccurate New Orleans accents that plague the film’s final scenes. No, the best way to “enjoy” the horror of Garry Marshall’s & Anne Rice’s dueling personalities refusing to cohesively mix in a sex “comedy” is to experience it in abject silence, mouth agape, eyes unable to fully convince your brain that the images before you are actually a real thing that very real people brought into this unfortunately real world. Exit to Eden should not exist, but it most definitely does. It’s not a successful comedy, but it is an undeniably memorable one.

-Brandon Ledet