Show Dogs (2018)

Show Dogs is the most bizarrely problematic talking animal film I’ve seen in theaters since the Kevin Spacey talking cat pic Nine Lives two summers ago. It’s so problematic, in fact, that its own studio has since censored scenes of the film deemed dangerous for children’s well-being, something I learned was going to happen a mere hour after I left the cinema. Dangerous, censored, transgressive art is far from the first descriptor that leaps to mind when you set expectations for a children’s movie starting Ludacris as a rapping Rottweiler, but the original unedited version of Show Dogs is now effectively a renegade, outlawed production officially deemed morally unfit for public consumption. Its uncensored form, which screened in theaters nationwide only for the span of a week, has been orphaned as a lost art scene moment, a cinematic event. Banishing its real-world evil back into the pits of Hell was a necessary action Global Road Entertainment should be proud of taking, as the message its deleted footage was sending kids was genuinely risking their safety. Its deletion is also beneficial to adults looking to the ill-advised production for a stray whiff of absurdism, raising the film’s value from sub-Air Bud atrocity to a The Day the Clown Cried type Holy Grail. Show Dogs is now one of the premier cinematic events of 2018, if not only for what footage it’s lost.

The rapping Rottweiler voiced by Ludacris is an undercover cop from a confusing universe where animals can talk, but humans don’t understand them. Their flapping CGI mouths form full sentences and they hold real jobs in offices and everything, but humans just hear barks & meows and so on. At one point a dog even complains, “Why can’t people understand what dogs say?” I don’t know; you tell us. It’s your confusing universe. Anyway, the toughest cop on the force is assigned to go undercover as a show dog (Hey, that’s the name of the show) in a heist plot to rescue a stolen, abused baby panda from underground dealers of rare & exotic animals. Keeping with the tropes of every buddy cop movie ever, he’s teamed up with another hard-ass hothead (Will Arnett in full TMNT mode), a human partner who must learn to collaborate with the canine cop & trust his instincts. The reluctant partners build a heist team meant to prepare the undercover pup for passing as a primped & groomed show dog, most notably including Natasha Lyonne as a pet stylist (with an incredible sense of style of her own; she looks fantastic here) & Stanley Tucci as a former Best in Show champion chihuahua with a snotty French sensibility. The team pull through to save the day, never discovered as frauds, and return the stolen baby panda back to its family (in captivity, weirdly). They even learn a few life lessons (and scar a few thousand children who caught the film early enough in its run) along the way.

The thread that has been removed from Show Dogs is one about grooming, but not the kind you might expect given the film’s setting. One of the cop-dog’s biggest hurdles in remaining undercover as a show dog is the Judge’s Inspection segment of the competition, in which dog show panelists must physically handle the dogs’ genitals. A street-tough police dog, Ludacris’s canine lead Max struggles to endure this indignity without instinctively turning around to bite the person invading his privacy. He’s coached out of this instinct by Arnett & Tucci, who train him to “go to his happy place,” mentally dissociating while his “private parts” are being handled without his consent. The climactic triumph of the film is a sequence in which he mentally transports to a psychedelic Eden where Arnett & Lyonne tell him he’s a good boy and reenact the climax of Dirty Dancing with him against a background of kaleidoscopic fireworks . . . all while his genitals are being inspected by a stranger. Can you see why this might be a dangerous life lesson to teach impressionable children? It wasn’t lost on the concerned parents of the mommy blogosphere. One (rightfully) alarmist piece written by Terina Maldonado of East Mesa Macaroni Kid gained enough traction to have Global Road Entertainment pull the footage from the film. The “happy place” tactic is explained in that piece to be a very real method that real-life child molesters use to “groom” their young victims into unquestioning compliance, a factoid I can’t believe I typed without vomiting. Maldonado’s account of Show Dogs is extremely (and understandably) fixated on this aspect of the film’s plot, making me assume it was going to be a consistent throughline throughout the film. Instead, it is (or was) contained to a single training montage & a climactic exchange with the dog show judge. At first, the limited amount of “private parts inspection” footage made me question just how potentially impactful the film’s grooming message really was. When the judge’s inspection is met with a dead-silent horror atmosphere where the soundtrack is overwhelmed by the dog’s pounding heartbeat, however, there’s nothing you can qualify the exchange as but a rape scene. In a kids’ movie. About talking animals. Evil, but also incredible that it ever screened at all.

The dark truth about Show Dogs is that even with the genital molestation/”happy place” narrative thread removed, the film is still deeply flawed on a moral level. At its heart, this is a film about toxic masculinity (You thought it was about adorable talking animals? Fool!), but it’s also a perpetuator of toxic masculinity. Max is “a street dog with a temper” that has to learn life lessons like “Maybe it’s not the worst idea to get some help,” which is a much more adorable sentiment to convey to kids than the one that’s been censored into oblivion. What’s uncomfortable about his gradual change of heart is the way this “alpha” dog (speaking of canine terms that have evil cultural contexts elsewhere) is characterized in opposition to the implied frivolity & vanity of the show dog world, something more femme than his masc sensibilities can handle without embarrassment. It’s weird enough that other dogs allude to the size of Max’s dick, that a lady-pigeon (voiced by Kate Micucci) fawns over his gruff masculinity in lines like “He can flip this bird any day,” and that he’s taught humility in a scene where Arnette & Lyonne wax his anus (again, without consent). What’s really fucked is where he & Arnett finally bond when the owner chooses to not force him to breed against his will with an over-the-top flamboyant pup voiced by RuPaul. Now, in-film, RuPaul’s character is gendered as a female dog, but the gag plays as bizarrely homophobic anyway, as his over-the-top vocal performance (which includes a number of Drag Race catchphrases) disgusts Max in a way that reads distinctly as gay panic humor. Like with all of Show Dog’s sins against good taste & morality, its homophobia & toxic masculinity are bizarrely complex to the point of absurdity.

There are plenty of standard, cheap camp thrills to be found in Show Dogs’s minor joys as a 2010s, theatrically released talking-dog movie, a leftover relic from another time. I could try to sell this movie to you as an absurdist joy for watching Ludacris’s talking cop-dog perform impossible acrobatic maneuvers through cheap CGI or deliver hacky one-liners like “This is ludicrous!” or “I’m about to take a bite out of crime.” The truth is, though, that minor pleasures like Shaq voicing a Zen sheepdog named Doggy Lama or CGI dogs dabbing are just background noise for the film’s main draw: its propensity for real-world evil. Even with its “private parts inspection” narrative rightly removed, Show Dogs still has a genuinely menacing, toxic undertone that’s impressive in both its audacity & its cluelessness. Although its absurdist joys are minor, it’s a movie that must be seen to be believed (especially its original, intact “grooming” cut), as it’s tough to fathom how this many people, from the executives at Global Road down to the on-set catering crew, allowed it to happen. It’s more of a man-made disaster than a feature film in that way and all we can do as audiences is rubberneck at the wreckage. Don’t allow children to gaze at this atrocity, however; what they see could be scarring.

-Brandon Ledet

All About Evil (2010)

Typically, movies made by drag queens require a little good will & benefit of the doubt from their audience. I’ve written positive reviews of dirt cheap drag productions like Vegas in Space & Hurricane Bianca in the past, but my forgiving love of drag as an artform likely made me a little lenient in discerning their merits, just like how my love of pro wrestling can lead to positive reviews of widely-hated films like Ready to Rumble. I’d like to distinguish All About Evil from that bias. Written & directed by infamous San Francisco drag queen Peaches Christ (under her boy name, Joshua Grannell), All About Evil is a genuinely well-made participation in B-movie schlock tradition. The film features performances from legitimate camp cinema players (and friends of Grannell’s, presumably): Natasha Lyonnne, Mink Stole, and Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, an admirably unholy trinity. While Peaches Christ appears in the film in full drag (as herself!), the story isn’t especially concerned with the artform; it’s a natural part of the San Francisco setting, nothing more. The production values are about on par with most drag cinema indies (I’m thinking specifically of outsider art made by drag queens, not major productions like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert or To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar), but its ambition aims much higher than most camp comedies of its ilk. Most importantly, tough, All About Evil displays a deep, knowledgeable love for the horror cinema refuse it imitates & pays homage to. As the screen fills with references to Blood Feast, The Wasp Woman, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, The Pit and the Pendulum, and so on, All About Evil’s midnight movie credentials are beyond legitimized and it transcends its drag cinema pedigree to become something else I’m strongly biased to enjoy: over-the-top horror schlock.

Although its title is a play on the name of a Bette Davis picture and there are plenty throwaway references to other cult horror works, All About Evil most resembles the Roger Corman classic Bucket of Blood in its basic plot. Natasha Lyonne (telegraphing her later re-emergence in weirdo horror cheapies like Antibirth & #horror) stars as a mentally unstable librarian who inherits a repertory movie theater form her deceased father. Her business struggles to stay afloat until security footage of her murdering her father’s shrill widow is projected on the screen for an unsuspecting midnight audience. The gore hounds in the crowd mistake the violent act as a fictional work of outsider art, commending her for creating a few found-footage subgenre they call “surveillance slaughter” and eagerly awaiting her next homemade short film. She continues to build her local legacy from there by committing more murders for the camera, often punishing her victims for faux pas like disparaging horror as an artform or using their cellphones in the theater. There might be vague correlations to be made between horror audiences’ insatiable bloodlust and the film’s movie theater goths mistaking murder for art, but the premise is mostly an excuse to have fun while celebrating horror as a communal joy. In true drag queen tradition, Lyonne’s short film slashers are given ridiculous pun titles like “Slasher in the Rye” & “Gore and Peace.” Popcorn machines & library books are fashioned into ridiculous murder props. The gore flows freely in practical effects indulgences instead of settling for the cheaper, lazier route of CG blood splatter. All About Evil is a genuine specimen of gleeful horror fandom. Like with the TV persona of bit part actor Elvira and the stage performances of Peaches Christ herself, it’s always wonderful when that quality can convincingly intersect with the world & art of drag. For an enthusiastic fan of both like myself, it’s all too easy to get swept up in the joy of that combo.

The one thing that tempers my appreciation of All About Evil is its choice of protagonist. Instead of detailing Lyonne’s mental unraveling from her own perspective, the film is told mostly from the POV of a teenage horror bro who arrives on the ground floor as one of her biggest fans. He makes sense as a choice for inserting an audience surrogate into the narrative, but like in Joe Dante’s embarrassing Burying the Ex misfire, can often unintentionally display some of the fandom’s worst macho tendencies. His relationship with a horror-hating Feminist Nag is particularly troubling, especially in an exchange where he mansplains to her that Lyonne’s deranged killer is “important” because there’s (supposedly) never been a great female horror director before. The statement is, at best, misinformed, devaluing the the cult classic films of women like Stephanie Rothman, Doris Wishman, Jackie Kong, Roberta Findlay, and Mary Lambert. It’s even more cringeworthy once you consider the fact that Cindy Sherman’s Carol Kane slasher Office Killer is by far a superior example of the exact mousy-homebody-turned-vengeful-killer aesthetic All About Evil aims towards; a woman has essentially made a better version of the movie that’s telling its audience no woman has ever made a truly great horror film before. It’s a frustrating claim to stomach. Office Killer also didn’t feel the need to tell its story through the eyes of a goth bro, keeping its perspective solidly anchored to Kane even as she descended into gory madness (which is partly why it’s a better film). I wouldn’t have been so taken aback by the character’s misguided horror bro mindset if it weren’t so clearly meant to be a mouthpiece for the audience. All About Evil is such a gleeful celebration of cult horror subculture (and women in general) otherwise that it was disappointing such a misguided choice made it to the screen in the process.

Being mildly offended is honestly just as natural to drag culture as bad puns & glitter, though, so I wasn’t too bothered with All About Evil’s slightly off-center feminist politics. It also helps that I saw the film in one of the best possible environments: with Peaches Christ present for a Q&A in the back room of a local bar. The screening was preceded by a few B-movie friendly drag performances (including a Female Trouble-themed act from fellow Krewe Divine member CeCe V Deminthe) and was supervised by local drag workshop instructor Vinsantos (a friend of Peaches Christ’s who also provided the film’s low-fi score). The entire evening was reminiscent of old school art cinema screenings, where weirdos would pile into unconventional spaces like bookstores & dive bars to struggle to hear avant-garde experiments over the roar of a nearby whirring projector. In this case the projector had an inaudible, digital-era hum, but the environment was still the same. The similarities between the drunken drag enthusiasts in that barroom and the gore-thirsty goths calling for the peril of Natasha Lyonne’s victims onscreen were apparent & plentiful. I’m much more suspicious of that environment’s effect on my enthusiasm for the film than I am with my general drag cinema leniency. Still, Peaches Christ delivered an impressive love letter to campy, gore-drenched schlock in All About Evil. The film was clearly a blast to make, but far from the lazy, self-indulgent hangout it easily could have been (and many microbudget horror comedies are). I’d without question recommend it to anyone with a voracious love of B-movie history, whether or not they’re familiar with Peaches Christ as a real-life persona or drag as an artform. That’s more than I can say for pictures like Vegas in Space, as much I as I love those for their own sake.

-Brandon Ledet

Sleeping With Other People (2015)

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fourstar

“Are we in love with each other? What are we going to do about it?”

Sometimes the universe will provide you with the perfect contrast-and-compare examples to show you how a movie formula is done right & how it’s miserably flubbed. Consider the difference between Ryan Coogler’s inspired Rocky sequel Creed & last year’s other boxing world drama, Southpaw. Both films use the structure & tropes of the tried & true boxing picture to tell their respective stories, but Creed was so much more distinct & powerful in comparison that it’s easy to forget that the punishingly mediocre Southpaw was even released that same year. A more recent & much less macho example of that dichotomy would be the pairing of How to Be Single & Sleeping With Other People. How to Be Single is one of the least enjoyable films I’ve seen so far this year (it’s no Gods of Egypt, but it’s not far off) and yet it shares a lot of DNA with the low-key charmer Sleeping With Other People, a brilliant utilization of the traditional romcom format that feels entirely modern without ever working like an arms-length subversion. Sleeping With Other People is a feat in genuine emotion & sincerity in a genre that can often lack both, but it’s also remarkably similar to a recent film that gets it all so very wrong. There’s a lesson to be learned in the difference between how those two titles play onscreen & it’s almost certainly a question of craft.

A will-they-won’t-they romcom with an unfathomably stacked cast of talented actors (Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie, Jason Mantzoukas, and Natasha Lyonne to name a few), Sleeping With Other People is a story of the star-crossed & emotionally damaged. Two recovering sex/love addicts form a sexless, but deeply romantic bond while carrying on affairs with people they care far less about (hence the title). A lesser film would use this scenario to slyly poke fun at or sarcastically subvert the tropes of the romcom genre it operates in, but the brilliance of Sleeping With Other People is the way it feels sexy, smart, adult and, above all, honest all while operating within its genre boundaries. It commits. The film may admittedly be a little more vulgar than what we’re used to from the genre, though. It’s not likely that you’ll ever hear lines like “In your specific case I think you should fuck that sex addict,” or watch a woman learn how to masturbate as demonstrated on an empty juice bottle in My Big Fat Greek Funeral or Garry Marshall’s Veteran’s Day Eve. However, Sleeping With Other People is still instantly recognizable as a by-the-books romcom that delights in the way it plays by the rules. From its onscreen text message exchanges to its falling-in-love montages to the basic confines of its “We’re not a couple, but we act like one” plot, this is a true blue romcom with little to no pretension of being anything else. It just also happens to be well made, uproariously funny, and brutally truthful, a credit to both its writer/director Leslye Headland (who also helmed the underappreciated dark comedy Bachelorette in 2012) & its two stunningly-talented, sincere leads.

There’s recently been a sort of rejuvenation of the romcom format both on the big screen (Wetlands, Obvious Child) & on television (Love, Master of None) that’s encouraging for a genre that for a while seemed like it was on its last legs. How to Be Single felt like a growing pains process for bringing the low stakes romantic comedy into the modern era, never fully committing to letting go of its old-fashioned values despite what the title suggests. Sleeping With Other People, a film that shares two actors & a sex-addicted chauvinist protagonist with that lesser work, is much more adept at balancing a modern sensibility with that same timeless comedic structure. It’s likely there will be plenty of romcom junkies who enjoy How to Be Single well enough, but Sleeping With Other People has much more universal appeal to it. It’s a great movie first & a romcom second. I’d love to know if anyone else senses even the slightest correlation between the two (there’s always a chance I’m dead wrong about these kinds of arbitrary connections), but for me their differences & similarities are as clear as day. It’s also just as clear to me which one will stand the test of time.

-Brandon Ledet