JLo: All-American Hustler

It’s almost undeniable that the most All-American event on the cultural calendar is the Super Bowl: a championship football game adored for its TV ads, its excessive snack food rituals, and its pop music spectacle intermission. There’s a reason why so much emphasis is placed on who will sing the National Anthem that kicks off the game every year (and how well they did or didn’t perform); the event is just as much a celebration of American culture as it is a championship football game. I’ve gradually stopped watching football over the years as pro wrestling, the Oscars, and RuPaul’s Drag Race have replaced it as my competitive sports events of choice, but even I still tune in for the Super Bowl Halftime Show most years due to my overriding interest in pop culture at large. This year was a great one! Whoever booked the game’s intermission entertainment made great use of its Miami venue by featuring Latinx entertainers like Shakira & Bad Bunny, representing an often-overlooked facet of the American cultural fabric that’s been especially politically charged under the xenophobic reign of the Trump Presidency. The centerpiece of this celebratory Latinx protest display was a pop music medley from singer-dancer-movie-star Jennifer Lopez, whose section of the show took the biggest, most direct political jabs of the event – while also conjuring Lopez’s most recent onscreen persona as a modern marvel of Cinema in particular.

The reason I’m talking about football & pop music on a movie blog is that JLo’s Halftime Show performance was greatly influenced by her recent movie-stealing role in the film Hustlers. Adapted from a New York Magazine article chronicling a real-life series of crimes, the film is a post-2008 Financial Crisis period piece about a ring of strip club employees who drugged & fleeced their wealthy Wall Street clientele for tens of thousands of dollars. Told in a flashback style directly borrowed from GoodFellas, the film is ostensibly aligned with the POV of its top-billed narrator character, played by Constance Wu. In practice, Wu is the lead performer in name only. As soon as Jennifer Lopez saunters onto the screen to perform a strip routine to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” the movie is entirely her show. Both the audience & Wu herself are fixated on the spectacle of the almighty JLo as she shows us the ropes – first on the gymnastic basics of working a stripper pole, then on the basics of fraudulently running up transactions on an unconscious client’s credit card. Some of Wu’s fixation on JLo’s Stripper Queen persona is explained to be a result of her character’s Mommy Issues (a refreshing change of course from cinema’s usual Daddy Issues fixation among macho narrators), but that almost feels like overkill. It’s self-evident; no explanation necessary. Even much-advertised cameo roles from major pop music personalities like Lizzo & Cardi B do little to distract from JLo’s nuclear charisma. She just casually walks away with the entire movie tucked into her overpriced designer handbag, never breaking a sweat.

Early in Hustlers, Constance Wu’s narrator pontificates that “This whole country is a strip club,” drawing a parallel between her industry’s sexual hustling to the “stolen money” of Wall Street’s own daily hustles. Nothing could better illustrate America’s function as the world’s largest strip club than JLo performing from atop a stripper pole at the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Bringing her newfound exotic dancer skills from the Hustlers set to that All-American pop music venue was a brilliant maneuver, as she then had an entire nation gawking at her in awe the way Wu & Hustlers‘s (much smaller) audience had already been on the hook. And what did she do with this amplified, captivated audience? She redirected our eyeballs to Latinx children posing in cages on the football field, peeling back the pop culture escapism of Super Bowl spectacle to refresh our horror with ICE’s abuses in the ongoing refugee border crisis. JLo even emerged from one of her many onstage costume changes during her short set in a fur coat/body suit combo outfit that directly recalled her Hustlers costuming, except redesigned to resemble the American flag. In the movie, she welcomes Constance Wu into the warmth of her coat, purring “Climb into my fur.” On the stage, she opens her All-American fur in the same fashion, only to reveal that it’s a Puerto Rican flag on its reverse side – further emphasizing the Latinx prominence in America’s DNA that’s often dismissed by the country’s falsely “patriotic” right-wing goblins. This whole country is a strip club, and it was wonderful to see it get so flagrantly hustled by a performer who’s been in her prime for decades, with no signs of slowing down.

The only way Jo’s Halftime Show performance could have been more blatantly political is if she had ripped a picture of Donald Trump in half, à la Sinead O’Connor on SNL (although the political effectiveness of either performance is up for debate). The only way it could have been more directly tied to her movie-stealing, Oscars-snubbed persona in Hustlers is if she had looked directly into the camera to ask the entire country, “Doesn’t money make you horny?” You can even see her Hustlers persona echoed in how easily she steals the show from Shakira, who’s just as capable of a singer & dancer as Constance Wu is an actor. Shakira is both a sex bomb & a total goofball, positively lighting up that Super Bowl stage with her spectacular hip gyrations, her to-the-camera tongue-wagging, and her comically over-the-top song selections (like choosing to open with the werewolf anthem “She-Wolf”). As the first & longest sustained performer on that stage, Shakira should technically be positioned as the central star of the Halftime Show, with Lopez slotted as a special guest star. Instead, as with in Hustlers, JLo’s blinding charisma easily overpowers Shakira’s own formidable presence – emerging as the de facto star of the show. If the Super Bowl is going to stand as an annual distillation of American culture, it’s only appropriate that the event acknowledge the country’s Latinx contingent through artists like Shakira & JLo as well as the hedonistic exploitation & excess detailed in Hustlers – both of which are American as fuck. It’s your patriotic duty to give it a watch even if you care way more about movies & pop music than you care about football:

-Brandon Ledet

Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls (1989)

Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is my favorite kind of unnecessary horror sequel. Since the first film in Katt Shea’s unashamed sleaze franchise is a self-contained murder mystery mostly comprised of 15(!!!) strip routines and a few gruesome murders, no one was exactly salivating for a follow-up – at least not for narrative reasons. The only reason the sequel was made in the first place (besides the surprise financial success of its predecessor) is that Roger Corman had a strip club set leftover from an unrelated production for a few days before it was going to be dismantled. Having wrapped filming her previous picture Dance of the Damned on a Saturday and rushed unprepared into filming this movie on the leftover set with no script the following Monday, Shea found herself working in the Corman machine at its most budget-efficient but most creatively restrained. She used the few days of strip club access to film as many dance routines as she could, then retroactively churned out a screenplay to tie them together in the following weeks. The result is total madness, a disjointed sense of reality that transforms the original serial-killer-of-strippers formula of Stripped to Kill into something much more surreal & directly from the id. It’s the same madhouse horror sequel approach as films like Slumber Party Massacre 2, Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2, and Poltergeist III: avoiding rote repetition of its predecessor by completely letting go of reality and indulging in an over-the-top free-for-all of nightmare logic. The fact that it was written in a rush after it already started filming only adds to its surrealist pleasures, like how the best SNL skits are the nonsensical ones written in a 3 a.m. state of delirium.

Live Girls opens with its best scene. A frightened stripper in 80s hairspray & lingerie dances in frightened flight as a room full of mysterious nightmare figures reach out to handle & harm her. Ominous winds roar on the soundtrack as if we had accidentally stumbled into David Lynch’s wet dreams. The dance routine itself is less akin to the straightforward LA strip club acts of the previous film than it is to the interpretive dance madness of The Red Shoes or any Kate Bush music video you can conjure (especially the one where Bush pays homage to The Red Shoes). As early as that opening, it’s clear that Live Girls has abandoned the gritty real-world crime drama of Stripped to Kill for a logically looser MTV aesthetic, caring little for how plausible its strip routines & murder spree play onscreen as long as they’re “cool.” The dance numbers are less frequent here (they were rushed to accommodate a soon-to-disappear set, after all), but they’re also more memorably bizarre. A tag-team lion tamer act, a fire-breathing routine with a flaming stripper pole, and an oddly juvenile ballerina number feel just as detached from reality as the frequent dream-sequence murders that are expressed in full-on interpretive dance. Although the MTV nightmare logic of the opening sequence does persist throughout, though, the film never quite matches the Kate Bush striptease madness of its opening, which concludes with a masked killer taking out their first stripper victim with a razor blade kiss. The howling winds of this opening nightmare do return in subsequent stripper-killing dreams, but none are quite as delirious or deranged as the first. Still, I was too immediately enamored for my mood to drop too significantly as the movie calmed down to stage a proper murder mystery.

Besides adding some heightened surrealism to its never-ending parade of strip routines, the dream logic conceit of Live Girls also improves on the Stripped to Kill formula by obscuring the misogyny of its stripper-killing violence. In this sequel, the kills are staged in the context of a stripper’s half-remembered dreams as she mentally unravels. Amidst the dream sequences of interpretive dance, a masked killer with a razor blade secured in their mouth slices stripper victims on the face & neck with a deadly kiss and our frazzled protagonist wakes with a mouth full of blood & no recollection of the hours since she blacked out. The ultimate reveal of the killer’s identity is unfortunately just as politically #problematic here as it was at the conclusion of the previous film. The difference is that the kills leading up to it aren’t nearly as brutally misogynistic. I respect the unembarrassed sleaze of Stripped to Kill in concept, but the way that film alternates between gawking at women’s bodies as sexual objects and then gawking at those same bodies being mangled and torn apart left me a little queasy at times. Here, both the sex and the violence are less reminiscent of real-world misogyny and play more like a horny teenager’s nightmare than a proper thriller. Disembodied hands reach through a series of glory holes on a shiny zebra-striped wall to grab a stripper as she’s tormented by the howling wind. Occultist strippers with face-obscuring masks & robes dance erratic circles around a victim before they’re kissed to death at the business end of a fog machine. Both Stripped to Kill films end on a morally offensive queerphobic twist, but only the first is truly morally grotesque long before it gets there. This follow up is loopy & goofy in all the places where its predecessor is grimy & gruesome, endearingly so. The neon lights & hairspray-fried mops of curls didn’t change between the two films, but the worlds they decorate feel like they belong to entirely separate realms – the real & the unreal, the grotesque & the delirious.

In its most surreal moments, Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is like a psychedelic, Kate Bush-inspired porno where the performers took too many hallucinogens and accidentally slipped into interpretative dance when the script said they should bone. At its worst it’s low-energy Skinemax sleaze, which can be charming in its own way. In either instance, it’s way more entertaining & bizarre than the first Stripped to Kill film, despite their shared penchant for poorly aged, queerphobic conclusions. Even if the final twist spoils the fun, you do have to admire the distinct delirium of the picture, which it shares with other rushed-through-production Corman classics like Blood Bath, Bucket of Blood, and Little Shop of Horrors. This addition to that haphazard canon of barely coherent projects that somehow lucked into cult status is a little more adherent to the bare flesh & neon lighting of MTV-era sleaze than its cohorts, but it fits right in among the best of ‘em all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

American Mary (2012)

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Maybe the reason that the late 90s, early 00s nu metal Hot Topic mall goth aesthetic hasn’t yet returned in any significant, nostalgic way is that it never died a proper death. Not that I’d recommend the experience, but if you tuned in to a modern rock radio station, you’ll notice that not much has changed in the last fifteen years. A couple outliers like Tame Impala & The Black Keys aside, a lot of mainstream hard rock sounds like the kind of dreck I would’ve greedily eaten up in my KoЯn/Slipknot/Limp Bizkit-loving days as a wee lad. That’s partly why the half-hearted, cheap-o slasher American Mary feels so awkwardly uncool. If it were released closer to 1999, it’d be a lot more likely to deserve a former mall goth cult following like the actually-pretty-great werewolf movie Ginger Snaps. Since it was released just three years ago, however, the film feels like stale leftovers from a nu metal yesteryear. It’s not just in the shitty soundtrack either. The whole film feels like it could’ve been jointly sponsored by Hot Topic, Spencer’s, The Family Values Tour, and Ozzfest. Obviously, there’s still a market for that aesthetic, but I personally found it difficult to stomach.

The titular Mary in this nostalgia trip to a time no one misses is a young medical student who falls down the bizarre rabbit hole of performing voluntary body modification procedures thanks to a strip club named Bourbon-a-Go-Go. Unable to support herself financially while attending medical school, Mary auditions to be a stripper at Bourbon-a-Go-Go & somehow the interview devolves into her performing life-saving surgery in her fancy lingerie, a ridiculous display I suppose was meant to be titillation for surgery fetishists. It certainly didn’t deliver anything valuable in terms of gore. Shortly after this strange turn in her life, Mary is drugged & raped at a mentor surgeon’s house party (a moment that feels grotesquely out of place in what is for the most part a horror comedy) and the film then briefly combines my two all-time least favorite movie genres: the rape revenge & the torture porn. Fun. All of this nonsense eventually leads to Mary finding a second life as an unlicensed body modification surgeon who specializes in tongue splitting, teeth filing, implants, gential modification, voluntary amputation, and the like. She spends the rest of the film trying to balance this newfound vocation with the day-to-day complications of a besides-the-point budding romance & police investigation. Gore-light, gothy hijinks ensue.

To her credit, the actress who plays Mary (Katharine Isabelle, who also played Ginger in the aforementioned Ginger Snaps, appropriately enough) is mostly charming here, with her mod goth bangs & ironic, Daria Morgendorffer-style sense of emotionally-detached humor. Other female characters, including a woman who’s had more than a dozen elective procedures in order to look like her favorite cartoon character & a fetish model who wants to become as flat as a Barbie doll to sidestep sexual objectification, are equally fascinating. What doesn’t work is the grotesquely macho world that surrounds them. The film’s tendency towards a meat head nu metal aesthetic opens it up to leering lipstick lesbianism, thoroughly unsexy fellatio, sexual assault, and trashy-at-best strip teases that ruin the good vibes that a few interesting characters here or there can’t sustain on their own. American Mary desperately wants to be an ironically detached horror comedy & sometimes it works. The fact that our lovely mod goth protagonist earns the moniker “Bloody Mary” is amusing, as are other tossed-off details like an early scene where a mentor praises her surgical skills with the line, “You’re going to make a great slasher.” Most of the film is far from self-aware in this way, though, and instead drags on endlessly through macho goth nonsense sure to please every thirteen year old out there who’s still rocking studded bracelets & wallet chains, but not many others.

For the morbidly curious looking to dive into this dated aesthetic, I recommend instead checking out the somewhat-similar-in-tone Starry Eyes, in which a young actress falls into the rabbit hole of Hollywood casting couch politics. Starry Eyes is far from a horror comedy, but its earnestness earns much more interesting, bizarrely grotesque results than American Mary‘s overbearing sense of detachment. Starry Eyes has a lot of American Mary‘s nu metal posturings, but puts them to much better use, going for full-on horror instead of this half-ironic, half-brutal, fully-tepid stinker with a late 90s hangover.

-Brandon Ledet