In Secret (2013)

I wrote before about the recent shuttering of both Vulcan Video and I Luv Video, and how neither one managed to survive the consequences of prolonged COVID-related shutdowns. In truth, both have been struggling for a while. When I was still living in Louisiana and only visiting Austin, there was a Vulcan Video location in North Austin near UT’s campus, complete with a giant mural of Spock, one block south from the apartment building where I would ultimately get my first place in Austin. One block west was the second location for I Luv Video on Guadalupe. By the end of my first year of residence, Vulcan had relocated their North location by about 25 blocks, and the I Luv Video on Guad posted a bunch of their DVDs and memorabilia for sale and consolidated with the main location on Airport Boulevard. It was at this sale that I found the Mrs. Winterbourne press packet that I wrote about when that was our Movie of the Month, lo these many years ago now. Most of the good horror had already been picked over, and what remained was risky. Jessica Lange had just left American Horror Story and I was hankering for some of that good Lange content when I stumbled across the DVD for In Secret, which featured her prominently on the cover. It was a fairly recent release (2013), too, and I figured I could risk the $4 and see if it would soothe my jonesing. But then, as these things often happen, I had to move and the DVD got stuffed into a box, and then put on a shelf for three years where it was occasionally discussed and then rejected as I could never quite sell my roommate on it. And then it went into another box, and then onto another shelf in another new place, where it’s sat for another year, until it took a trip with me to a cottage in the Texas Hill Country as part of my “emergency media” stash for my wi-fi free solo writing retreat (it’s going great, by the way). I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t live up to the hype. Spoiler alert for an Emile Zola novel that’s older than harnessed electricity.

In Secret is the very rote 19th century story of Thérèse, a young girl whose mother dies and leaves her in the care of her indigent explorer father, who immediately deposits the child with his own sister, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) and her chronically ill, possibly hypochondriac son Camille. Raquin is no wicked aunt/stepmother, but while she lacks ill intentions, she has an abundance of ideas of propriety and the natural progress of a life that are rigid in both structure and enforcement. In time, Thérèse grows up to be Elizabeth Olsen, and Camille grows up to be Tom Felton, and all the while the two are still forced to sleep in the same bed. When word arrives that Thérèse’s father, who has been gone for what must be at least eight years but feels like more, has died, Madame Raquin wastes no time in marrying the cousins to each other, which was the style at the time. She secures a job for Camille in Paris doing some kind of office work, and she opens a dress shop in a dingy alley with Thérèse as her assistant. Camille is soon reunited with Laurent (Oscar Isaacs), a childhood friend whose family relocated before Thérèse came to live with the Raquins, and his vivaciousness and bohemian nature capture Thérèse’s fancy, as her life is otherwise completely passionless and dictated by her aunt/mother-in-law.

The two soon begin a sordid, torrid affair, but when Camille decides to move the family back to their country home, their desperation to stay together pushes Thérèse and Laurent to kill Camille so that they can stay together in the city. While on a day trip in the park that culminates in renting a boat, they push him overboard before sinking the boat and framing the whole thing as an accident. While waiting what seems an appropriate amount of time before marrying one another, Laurent and Thérèse grow bitter and resentful of one another, and even after they have married, this hatred for one another continues to grow, especially once Madame Raquin suffers a stroke that leaves her largely paralyzed and requiring constant care, until they both seek desperate measures to extricate themselves from the circumstances.

This movie is … not very good. You know how, sometimes, you see that a movie was filmed in Serbia, and you’re like, “Oh, this movie was made specifically so that they would have something to show on buses for people traveling across Eastern Europe”? This is one of those films. This is, to date, the only feature helmed by director Charlie Stratton, who looks to have come up through the Hollywood ranks as an actor first, with sporadic one-off roles in TV series like L.A. Law, Thirtysomething, Dallas, and Matlock, with a major role on the Dirty Dancing television show, which apparently existed. From there, he’s mostly directed for television sporadically (Revenge, The Fosters, Chasing Life, Everwood), but the problem here isn’t one of direction (it’s competent), it’s one of story. This is a very 19th Century story, and it feels like it.

Certain narratives of that age can be endlessly reinvented or reinterpreted (say Bronte, Austen, Alcott), and this is a story penned by Émile Zola, who was nominated for both the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature. He wrote it with the intent of examining the relationships between the four temperaments, with each of the characters representing one of them, and as such considered the narrative itself to be a foregone conclusion, as this was the only way the four archetypes could interact, and the tragic ending was a foregone conclusion. That’s fine for the era in which it was written and is even fine if one were to engage with that worldview/mindset and re-examine and reinvent the narrative. There’s nothing inventive or novel about this extremely faithful approach, and as such, it feels more like an outdated morality play than anything else. One may as well make a completely straightforward adaptation of Pamela if one isn’t going to engage with the text in a meaningful, transformative, inspective way.

Most contemporary criticism revolved around Lange’s performance, and she delivers a great one, as usual, as she wrings great drama out of the scenes in which she is trapped in her body and attempting to communicate to others that all is not as it seems. Felton is serviceable, and Olsen and Issacs deliver characteristically invested performances as well, but there’s only so much overwrought peak-Romanticism era histrionics that one can stand. The film’s more somber moments are undercut by an air of (one hopes) unintentional comedy, delivered mostly by the presence and performances of Matt Lucas, then best known for Little Britain, and Shirley Henderson as, respectively, Olivier and his wife Suzanne. Above and beyond the fact that no one, from Lange down, even attempted to portray a hint of Franconess in this very French story, these two Brits seem to be playing every scene in which they appear for humor, and although it’s tonally jarring, these few morsels manage to be the only moments of real entertainment that the film has. The scene in which Lange’s Raquin painfully attempts to tell her assembled friends that Laurent and Thérèse killed Camille by painstakingly drawing individual letters with her enfeebled hand, only to get out “Thérèse and Laurent” before exhausting herself, only for Olivier to declare that she must have been writing “Thérèse and Laurent are taking great care of me,” is camp of the highest order, and completely out of place in what is otherwise a dour and dreary film.

Matt Lucas should never be the saving grace of anything.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016)

The opening gag of Bridget Jones’s Baby is the entire movie in a microcosm. Alone on her birthday, Rene Zellweger’s now middle aged romcom anti-hero opens this years-late sequel on the exact note where she started the first film in the series: blowing out a single candle on a cupcake & lip-syncing to Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” in an amusingly over-the-top moment of self-pity. She asks her series-sparking diary “How in the hell did I end up here again?” in voice-over and as an audience I can’t help but breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Even with all of the uncomfortable weight-cataloging & desperation to land a husband, 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary holds up nicely as a smart, darkly funny romcom that modernizes & subverts the Jane Austen classic Pride & Prejudice for the hard-loving, hard-drinking thirty-somethings of its era. As a protagonist, Bridget Jones is a little dopey & off-kilter, but personifies for her audience the Inner Idiot we all feel like we come off as whenever we’re anxious in public. 2004’s follow-up, the inexplicably titled Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, completely misinterprets the character’s appeal and makes her out to be an Actual Idiot in one of the most insultingly vapid romcoms I can ever remember seeing. That’s why it’s such a relief, over a decade later, to see Bridget Jones return to square one: drunk, alone, and once again personifying our collective Inner Idiot in a recognizably human way. It’s even more of a relief when this familiar beat is interrupted by Bridget switching the track to a modern pop song and deciding to celebrate her current middle age state instead of moping about her apartment, a welcome taste of what’s to come.

As necessary as Bridget Jones’s Baby was in undoing the damage wrought by Edge of Reason, it doesn’t find much else purpose for its existence besides transporting its protagonist to a modern context. The movie’s plot is centered on a simple “Who’s the father?” mystery as Bridget finds herself pregnant & caught between two potential lovers: Colin Firth’s eternally uptight Mr. Darcy from the first two films & the out of nowhere addition of an American billionaire played by 80s TV heartthrob Patrick Dempsey. I suppose as an audience we’re supposed to fret over which beau she (and her titular baby) will end the film with, but it’s difficult to care too much about that dilemma (especially since Mr. Darcy has been a kind of recurring inevitability since film one). The true conflict here is in watching Bridget navigate the 2010s, now a total outsider to the youth culture she drank her way through exiting in her original appearance. Surrounded by *shudder* millennials, Bridget weighs in on the cultural evils of music festivals, man buns, “ironic” beards, brand managers, “vegan condoms,” and (in an extended featured cameo) Ed Sheeran. I despised the trailer for this film for its regressive fretting over the fear of dying “alone” as a single mother, but the movie is much less concerned with the baby of its title than it is with ribbing a young, inauthentically hip culture it’s getting too old to understand. Bridget Jones is an awkward & as dopey as ever, but as a relic of the past she’s become a kind of Gen-X anti-hero tasked with cutting through the bullshit of modern culture in the name of middle aged women everywhere. That’s a huge step up from her blithering idiot persona who “hilariously” doesn’t know how to snow ski or navigate Thailand’s prison system in the miserable Edge of Reason.

There’s a comfort in familiarity to romcoms as a genre that Bridget Jones’s Baby delivers expertly. Rescuing its protagonist from the Idiot Plot screenwriting hell of Edge of Reason, this damage control sequel makes everything pleasantly familiar again. Bridget is back in her proper apartment, surrounded by her same cast of friends (including the always-welcome Shirley Henderson), and back to worrying about her same self-defeating anxieties over romance, her career, and her body. This return to normalcy is the cinematic equivalent of an electric blanket in a cold snap, to the point where any developments in Bridget’s romantic or professional life almost don’t matter at all. At its very last opportunity, Bridget Jones’s Baby introduces a plot twist that leaves the door open for a sequel that sounds pleasant, but unnecessary. Now that the damage from Edge of Reason has been undone there isn’t much a fourth Bridget Jones movie could possibly offer besides more comforting familiarity. At least that’s far from the worst thing a movie could accomplish. I’ll admit I was even tickled in this sequel by seeing Emma Thompson seemingly reprise her irreverent natal physician from Junior as Bridget’s smartass doctor. It didn’t really improve or even alter what I’d already seen her do before, but it was still a familiar, comforting reminder of a past pleasure. Bridget may despondently ask, “How in the hell did I end up here again?,” at the start of this movie, but her audience couldn’t possibly want to be anywhere else. Bridget Jones’s Baby doesn’t attempt to disrupt or subvert the romcom formula like recent bomb-throwers WetlandsObvious ChildSleeping With Other PeopleAppropriate Behavior, etc., but it does feel essentially redemptive for restoring a beloved character who deserved so much better in her previous outing to a comfortably familiar place.

-Brandon Ledet

Okja (2017)

In one of our very first posts as a website we declared Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi epic Snowpiercer the Best Films of 2014. My assumption is that it rose to the top of our list that year mostly because it was so much movie. As with a lot of Asian cinema, Snowpiercer never ties itself down to a single genre or tone. It constantly shifts gears from humor to terror to action spectacle to political satire to whatever whim it feels at the moment as its story progresses from one dystopian end of its train setting to the other. It was near-impossible to know what to expect from the director’s follow-up, then, except that it might similarly spread out its eccentricities over a bizarrely wide range of cinematic modes. Okja is just as deliciously over the top, difficult to pin down, and tonally restless as Snowpiercer, although it does not resemble that film in the slightest. If a movie’s main virtues rest in its ability to surprise & delight, Okja is an undeniable success. It’s not something that can be readily understood or absorbed on even a scene to scene basis, but its overall effect is deliriously overwhelming and expectation-subverting enough that it feels nothing short of magnificent as a whole.

Tilda Swinton & Jake Gyllenhaal star as the public faces of an evil meat industry corporation that’s attempting to improve its image with a new, falsely fun & friendly attitude. As part of this evolution within the corporation, they promise to breed a new form of domesticated animal to help maintain the world’s demand for (supposedly) non-GMO meat supply, a “superpig.” The unveiling of this superpig breed is structured as a kind of reality show contest and the movie follows one of 26 worldwide contestants within that frame. Okja, a superpig who has been raised free-range in the forests of South Korea, is officially declared “the best pig” (recalling titles like Babe & Charlotte’s Web), winning the dubious prize of being torn away from the little girl who raised her as a close friend instead of an eventual source for food. Before their separation, we get to know Okja as a kind, selfless animal with human eyes & a hyper-intelligent aptitude for problem-solving (not unlike the intelligence of a real-life pig). After she’s unceremoniously removed from her home and sent to face her fate as meat, we get to know the little girl who raised her as our de facto protagonist. The movie gradually reveals itself to be a coming of age quest to free Okja from her corporate captors, protect her from the well-meaning but idiotic animal rights activists who want to use her as a political pawn, and return her to her home in Nature. The rest is a blissfully messy blur of action set pieces, wild shifts in comedic tone, and a brutally unforgiving satire of modern meat industry practices.

The cuteness of Okja herself and the film’s occasional dedication to a kids’ movie tone (despite its constant violence & f-bombs) make it tempting to look to Babe as an easy animals-deserve-empathy-too comparison point. The truth is, though, that Okja more closely resembles George Miller’s terrifying action movie nightmare Babe 2: Pig in the City, where the grand adventure staged to bring its very special superpig home is a nonstop assault of bizarre imagery & comedic terror. There’s a constant threat of danger in Okja, ranging from car chases to meat grinders to stampedes through an underground shopping mall. The CGI in service of this spectacle is shoddy, but in a flippant, Steve Chow kind of way that is so irreverently cartoonish it could not matter less. Oddly, the performances work in much the same way. Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Shirley Henderson all stand out as intensely bizarre sources of nervous energy that exist far beyond the bounds of human nature, but in such a casually absurd way that it somehow fits the film’s ever-shifting tone. Gyllenhaal likely wins the grand prize in that respect, often resembling more of a rabid duck than an adult man. In any other context he’d be too broad or, frankly, too annoying to function as anything other than a distraction, but it’s somehow just the jarringly over the top touch the movie needs.

Okja is too much of an ever-shifting set of complexly self-contradictory tones & moods for it to be wholly described to the uninitiated. It’s both a scathing satire of modern meat industry & a slapstick farce poking fun at the activists who attempt to dismantle it. It’ll stab you in the heart with onscreen displays of animal cruelty, but will just as often giggle at the production of farts & turds. I can try to describe the film as an action adventure version of Death to Smoochy or a more deliberately adult reimagining of Pig in the City, but neither comparison fully covers every weird impulse that distracts & delights Bong Joon-ho as he chases his narrative across multiple continents. Just like with the similarly divisive Snowpiercer, I can’t promise all audiences will be onboard for the entire ride (Gyllenhaal in particular is sure to be a frequent point of contention), but Okja does offer something that’s increasingly rare in modern action adventures of this blockbuster-sized scale: the wildly unpredictable. You may not appreciate every individual turn in its impossibly twisty road, but oh, the places you’ll go.

-Brandon Ledet