AMERICA’S HEART PROBLEM

As I look over the major events in our country over the last couple of years, I am left with one question: What does it mean to be human?

And what does that have to do with the ideologically polarized time in which we find ourselves, you may ask? EVERYTHING.

Studying and teaching film has its benefits way beyond cinematic critical analysis. Since film is a reflection of life, we can learn a lot about a people by analyzing motion picture art. Granted, much of what we study in film is in retrospect, but these same approaches can be used to study current trends in storytelling media, which often parallel events in real life.

For example, my area of expertise is the American Horror Film, and as I wrote in the chapter on horror cinema of the 1970s, in my forthcoming book Why Horror?, I found the parallels between 1970s America shockingly similar to 2020s America. From the fights over abortion to inflation to civil rights to the rise of the new right and new left, much of what we are experiencing now can trace its roots back to the chaos of the 1970s.

But I digress.

What does it mean to be human? 

Everything we are facing in our tumultuous socio-political landscape has its roots in that philosophical question. One of the many reasons why I love Star Trek, in particular The Next Generation, is because of its central theme: the persistent exploration of humanity: What does it mean to be human? If we can answer that question, then so many of our other problems will solve themselves. Can logic and reasoning solve everything? No. But it’s far less chaotic and more strategic than constantly addressing symptoms of a larger generational illness through ideological positioning.

What is that illness, exactly? I believe it is the lack of a moral compass.

While there has been a distorted, warped definition of what it means to be liberal, I want to remind you that pure liberalism is a philosophical approach that considers all available empirical and anecdotal evidence to arrive at a solution that opposes fascism and authoritarianism in all their forms. It is not—and should not be—used as a synonym for either the political left (or for progressivism), any more than conservatism (or legalism) should be used as a synonym for the political right.

It takes only one generation to bring about the demise of a society. Just like the Roman Empire imploded—fell apart from within—our own American Empire is crumbling from within. About one-and-a-half to two generations ago, our public school systems began to drift away from teaching morals and ethics in formal classrooms. Combine that with the dissolution of the American family and the widespread abandonment of parental responsibility for teaching morals and ethics, and we can trace most of our societal problems back to this shift.

Why? Because we began to devalue truth in exchange for opinion, expression, and relativism. And when there is no truth, there is no means to know what is right or wrong. Think of it this way: a compass rose would be useless for navigation if it didn’t point to the true north. If a user of a compass was able to simply choose which north they wanted, then it would render navigation an exercise in futility. There can’t be more than one north anymore than there can be more than one truth. Without compasses (or GPSs) that are fixed to recognize the geographic north, no one is able to successfully navigate.

By not teaching the difference between right and wrong, fact and opinion, etc., children and young people since the mid-to-late ‘90s onward have not been reared and educated to respect parents, leaders, peers, and even one’s adversaries. Contrary to popular belief, respect doesn’t mean weakness or complacency. One can completely and vehemently disagree with someone, yet still be respectful.

I cite how Maverick responds to his leaders in Top Gun: Maverick, or how Jean-Luc Picard responds to countless admirals in Star Trek: the Next Generation when he is at philosophical or diplomatic odds with them. Even when Captain Picard is addressing his subordinates, he is always respectful, yet may fundamentally disagree with them. A great example of this is when he wanted Lt. Worf to donate his blood to save the life of a Romulan, but Worf refused. Captain Picard could have ordered him, but he chose not to out of respect for Worf’s dignity.

America has a gun heart problem.

By eliminating morals and ethics from our public school classrooms, educators no longer teach what is right and wrong (in the eyes of the law and humanity).

Growing up in and being educated by a system that values relativism over logic and reasoning gives birth to the kind of rampant disrespect for humanity that we’ve seen in the Pulse Massacre (in which I lost a friend and former coworker), Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Robb Elementary schools, the mass shooting in Buffalo, NY, Columbine, Uvalde, and more. Are gun laws perhaps a little too loose? Sure, I’ll give you that. Should there be universal background checks? Probably. Should the age to buy a firearm be increased to 21? Perhaps. Should military assault-style rifles be banned to the general public? Many think so.

The shooters in all those examples placed greater value on what they wanted, what they believed, and what they felt was the appropriate course of action than on the value of each and every human life. When one is reared in an environment devoid of consistent respect for others, then there is no reason not to behave inhumanely. It’s not mental illness that is driving these mass shooters (although I’m sure there is some correlation), but it’s the devaluing of human life that is the root cause. After all, this abominable action is justified or true to them. It all gets back to the heart.

If we look at this issue from a biological perspective, from the time male puberty sets in, through adolescence, until early to mid-20s, young men have raging hormones. And while we tend to associate these hormones solely with sex drive, we often forget that these same hormones and other chemicals predispose a young man to increased aggression. While some countries choose to require military service after high school, the U.S. doesn’t have any programs like that. Why is this important? Because in countries wherein there is required military service after high school for young men, they are better able to channel their predisposition to aggression in constructive ways. Not only does this provide seat time while the chemicals level out, but it also forces young men to deal with and manage these emotions.

I’m not stating that this is the only option the U.S. has for providing a method for young men to manage this biological and cognitive developmental stage, but it does demonstrate the need for a means for young men to have an avenue through which they can be educated as to how to behave like gentlemen and control their urges. Whether in military service or education, young men should be taught the difference between recognizing an impulse and acting upon it. Between inaction and impulse, there is a realm of good taste that is begging for attention.

Moreover, this stage in life also demonstrates why it’s important for a young man to have a father or a father figure in his life, because he needs to know how to be a man. Without a father at home or even a father figure in a boy’s life, there is an increased risk of inability to deal with the raging hormones and other chemicals as childhood transitions into adulthood.

For every action we take, there are consequences, be they good, bad, or indifferent. And contrary to postmodern belief, we ARE responsible for our actions. Does that mean our actions aren’t influenced by our environment? No, they most certainly can be, and often are. But at the end of the day, we—not the world—pull the trigger on our actions and are responsible for our decision(s)

But addressing these issues only fixes symptoms (i.e. the clear bigotry that motivates a variety of violence and hate speech). And by only treating symptoms, the root cause will continue to fester and get more septic over time. We will be better off by treating the cause, and then the symptoms correct themselves. Much more efficient. Children and teens today (and I’d venture to include young adults) have little fundamental understanding of (1) what it means to be human and (2) human dignity. When human life is devalued, then the risk of violence increases exponentially.

When does life become human?

Think of it this way: a baby can’t not be human until it is any more than it is human until it isn’t. It’s either human or not. It’s not complicated. Logically, the fetus is either a human child or a benign tumor, because it cannot simultaneously be both. Moreover, if we are in agreement that ending human life (when not in self-defense of one’s life or defense of one’s country when at war) is murder (and I’d hope we’re all in agreement on that), then ending unborn human life is also murder. But, if a human is only human when we decide it is, then it’s not murder because there is no standard for human life.

A great example of protecting sentient life (in all forms) can be found in the Star Trek: the Next Generation episode “The Offspring.” This is the episode wherein Data creates his child Lal. We witness Picard protecting the human rights of Lal when Starfleet informs Data and Picard that it will be removing Lal from the Enterprise to study her. Picard delivers this wonderfully profound line, “There comes a time when men can no longer blindly follow orders.” And he is willing to put his career on the line for a life.

Science, science, science. We hear so much about science nowadays; however, many only cite science when it supports their ideology. Science is science, regardless of what one believes. The great thing about scientific observations is that they can be either proven or disproven.

While science cannot answer questions that are a matter of philosophy or faith, such as the origins of the universe or is God real, science can help us to understand a great many things, such as the heartbeat in a sentient being indicating life.

So if we agree that intentionally ending a human life is murder, and murder is immoral, then we have to then conclude that intentionally ending the life of an unborn child is also murder. Moreover, this decision also influences whether or not the murder of a pregnant woman is—in fact—a double homicide. If the unborn child isn’t human, then there isn’t a double homicide; but if the unborn child is human, then a double homicide has been committed. Again, the unborn child can’t simultaneously be both human and non-human, as that would be illogical. If we begin to decide when a baby is or isn’t human (based upon personal opinion or choice), then we will be living by double standards and ignoring the science.

Well, what about surprise pregnancies? Okay, perhaps we need to revisit high school biology. Other than an immaculate conception, no pregnancy is a complete surprise. If you’re hetero, and you do the deed, a possible consequence is pregnancy. It’s not rocket science. It’s barely high school science. What there are, are unplanned or unintended pregnancies. Big difference between surprise and unplanned.

The only sure-fire method for preventing pregnancy for hetero couples is to not have sex. But we’re all human, and have human needs. And according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, sex is a basic need. Therefore, the reasonable solution is to offer morning-after pills, easy/free access to contraceptives, and financial assistance for mothers that have little to no means to care for a child.

Fortunately for most people in the United States, there is likely a Department of Health office or clinic in your area, and they have condoms they will gladly give you. Many offices, you just walk in and take a bunch out of a basket. There IS easy and free access to contraceptives. For those who fear this SCOTUS decision could affect alternative pregnancy procedures, such as IVF or surrogacy, there simply isn’t evidence to support that conclusion because those procedures seek to create and foster human life, not end it.

Earlier in the Next Generation episode “The Offspring,” Data informs Picard that he can deactivate Lal if her creation is problematic. Picard sharply responds, “It’s a life Data, you cannot simply activate and deactivate it.”

Protected rights and expression

We are all deserving of respect. Respect from those with whom we agree and disagree. The gross lack of human dignity and respect I observe around me, whether in real life or online, is dangerous. When young people are brought up not to value human life (including the life of those with whom they disagree), then they will interpret respect and dignity through their own eyes. Schools and other organizations that are focused on consistently highlighting the differences between people are actually fueling the problem.

From a position of logic, there is no white America, black America, hetero America, homo America, or Hispanic America, there is only America. Likewise, there aren’t white humans, black humans, Hispanic humans, hetero humans, homo humans, etc. Only humans who happen to be one or more of the above. Each with their own respective worldviews, beliefs, dreams, and fears. Once we begin to think of ourselves as one people, one nation, then we can fix so many of our problems.

On a biological level, there are two sexes: male and female. That’s it. Not opinion. Fact. It’s science, plain and simple. That said, while we are either male or female biologically, the manner in which we express ourselves is not limited by that binary; we can express our gender any way we want. You can be a feminine man or a masculine woman, or even androgynous. It doesn’t change the anatomy or chemistry; but fortunately, we are not limited to a binary means of expression.

The latitude of creative personal expression is as wide as the color spectrum! Every human is deserving of respect and dignity. Be different! It’s okay! Be proud of who you are, in whatever aesthetic form that takes! Just know that some will not accept your gender expression; but that’s unfortunate for them, because they will miss out on getting to know you.

The recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of the coach from Washington state that was disciplined by his school administration for holding prayer after football games at the 50 yard line, is another hot topic. 

Instantly, I saw countless posts on Twitter citing the separation of church and state. What many people don’t realize is that the principle has far more to do with State-sponsored or State-mandated religion than it does religious expression.

Moreover, it is not the equivalent of freedom from religion. That is a gross misinterpretation. What this separation means is that the State will not forcibly impose religious beliefs on citizens. Even though there is a movement (largely within the woke ideology) to dissociate the United States from its foundation in morality, the Constitution and our laws are influenced by Judeo-Christian principles (and for this, let’s look at George Washington’s farewell address):

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

While morality and religion are at the foundation of our great country, federal, state, and local governments are not to force matters of faith on citizens. According to The Constitution, these rights are endowed by our creator; therefore, the Constitution protects innate rights, rather than granting rights that were not present to begin with. We have human rights from our very beginning as a human. Allowing for or permitting religious expression is not the equivalent of forcing it on someone.

Make It So

Life is unfair. Shocking, I know. And no amount of legislation can ever make it fair. Utopia is an idea, not a destination. Some people will always have it harder than others. But that is why we create systems that provide tools to individuals that want to reshape their future. It takes hard work. But just like working for your first car, you will value it so much more than if it was given to you. It works against all logic and reasoning to devalue one group in order to place greater value on another. Or blame one group for the problems of another. It’s counterproductive.

From the time we are born, we are selfish. We have to learn not to be selfish. If we are not teaching our children the value of respect, logic, and selflessness, then they will grow up ignoring those foundational concepts and grow in selfishness, which can lead to destructive behaviors. That would be a far more constructive conversation than the age at which discussions of sex and gender expression should take place.

Let’s do the next generation a favor by showing them that they need a moral compass to successfully navigate life and to know what it means to be human.

One of the reasons why Star Trek’s Q is fascinated by humanity, in particularly Picard, is humanity’s moral center, which is something lacking in the Q Continuum. Let’s start instilling into our children and young people the importance of morals, ethics, and logic. Next time you are faced with a loaded sociological or political question, think about it from a logical perspective, because it will help to place you on a stable path devoid of counterintuitive, cynical theories.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others (which are mostly film reviews and deep dives) and FOLLOW this blog!

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“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” Film Review

The Eyes of Tammy Faye will penetrate to your soul. You may think you know Tammy Faye’s story, but go beyond the tabloids in Michael Showalter’s (The Big Sick) heartfelt, hilarious, honest film that paints a humanizing portrait of the ridiculed and often parodied Tammy Faye Bakker. You will undoubtedly be blown away by Jessica Chastain’s jaw-dropping performance as the “Queen of Eyelashes” in this powerful rise, fall, and redemption story. Tammy’s eyelashes may be fake, but there is nothing fake about this candid portrait of the late television icon. Playing the mastermind of the PTL Network scandal is Andrew Garfield in a showcase performance that will have you despising Jim, but praising the uncanny portrayal. The film highlights Tammy Faye’s genuine love for God and her love for people–everyone! Even in the 1980s, when the LGBT community had little to no voice, especially amongst fundamental evangelicals, she was a loving voice for them. While it would have been so easy for the film to have been devoid of genuine levity, audiences will find there are some hilarious scenes that work as fantastic humanizing elements, especially early on when Jim and Tammy Faye engage their lustful adolescent interests as hormonally charged young adults and newlyweds. Showalter, Chastain, and Garfield deliver a fresh perspective on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker that depicts human beings, not one-dimensional caricatures of televangelism.

In the 1970s, Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband, Jim, rise from humble beginnings to create the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and theme park. Tammy Faye becomes legendary for her indelible eyelashes, her idiosyncratic singing, and her eagerness to embrace people from all walks of life. However, financial improprieties, scheming rivals and a scandal soon threaten to topple their carefully constructed empire.

I already want to see it again! And it’s definitely becoming an addition to my physical media collection. This narrative film is based on the award-winning documentary by the same name, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, and I suggest watching it as a companion piece. In many respects, the storytelling structure of The Eyes of Tammy Faye parallels the approach Craig Gillespie took in I, Tonya. In addition to the awards-talk around the performances, I would look to see this film in other conversations such as makeup, screenplay, and perhaps directing and picture. Showalter’s film explores the world of Tammy Faye, as seen through her unmistakable eyes; furthermore, he treats the character (the person) of Tammy Faye with respect as a flawed but loving woman rather than the heavy-makeup-wearing satirical and parodied caricature that many remember from the tabloids. Perhaps the thousands of times she said “God loves you” may have came across as insincere; but the truth is, she wanted the world to know that God and Tammy both love them.

Showalter’s candid picture gives Tammy Faye and Jim the full treatment as he takes audiences on a journey through their story, including the scandal that rocked a nation, whilst treating them with dignity and respect as they are–as we all are–flawed humans. This biographic drama seeks to understand (mostly Tammy Faye, but a little of Jim too) the Bakkers, not mock them or their work. Tammy Faye is a breath of fresh air in an environment polluted by stale, lifeless, and downright rotten individuals. From the beginning of the film, you learn that her faith in God and love of Jesus was not going to be defined by her circumstances or what people thought of her. If you told her she couldn’t, she would prove to you that she could. That is a trait that she could continue through her entire life, even after her scandalous fall from grace. You also learn that while she lived an opulent lifestyle, she was never defined by her material possessions. Oh don’t get me wrong, she loved her signature clothing style and trademark makeup and hair, but those things did not define her or her faith. Well, except for her eyes. She said “if you remove my [fake] eyelashes, I wouldn’t be me.”

While her husband was pulling the strings, she was doing everything she could to reach people for Christ; however, it was also clear that she loved the performance, the camera, and the microphone. If she hadn’t gone into televangelism, she very well could have been a Broadway star with her larger than life showmanship and personality. We also learn that Tammy Faye was likely unaware of the dishonest and illegal dealings of her husband, even though she at times suspected he wasn’t being honest. Chalk it up to extreme naivety. Despite no reports of Jim being physically abusive to Tammy Faye or their two kids, he was shown to be psychologically and emotionally abusive to Tammy Faye. Even to the extent that he used Tammy’s minor indiscretion with a Nashville music producer against her, to humiliate her on international television in an effort to raise more money because of her testimony. Tammy’s flirtation with the an elicit affair goes to show that we are all flawed individuals that toy with or fall victim to the same temptations, in whatever form they take. But we understand how and why Tammy Faye was tempted to search for love elsewhere; she was not appreciated as a person by Jim, but only as a tool to get more money out of PTL’s “partners.” Even when the reality of Jim would peak through, she never let that detour her from spreading the love of God to everyone in her signature style.

While we ostensibly watch the events of the rise and fall of the Bakkers through Tammy Faye’s eyes, in a similar fashion we did in I, Tonya, we also get glimpses of the story through Jim’s perspective when it serves to advance the emotional journey of the characters, especially when it comes to his complicated relationship with the then and now unlikable Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. For example, I did not know that it was Jim and Tammy Faye that started the 700 Club. But when the innovative Christian talk show became a popular program on the fledgling CBN Network, Pat Robertson placed them on a maternity/paternity sabbatical, but was actually steeling their show in a jealous power-grab. The Bakkers then started what would become the TBN Network, but were ran off from there too. Finally, they began the PTL Club (later massive, worldwide PTL Satellite Network), and the success of that venture would eventually spawn a 24-hour network, neighborhoods, and a theme park that would become the third most visited in the country after Disneyland and Disney World.

While PTL was growing by leaps and bounds, Robertson and Falwell were seething with jealously at the success of Jim and Tammy Faye, a motive that comes into play when they discover the payment of PTL funds for the hush-money regarding Jim’s affair. Little did Tammy Faye know that Jim surrounded himself with a conniving mafia-like group of “Christians” that sought to take down the power couple after they departed from the Robertson-Falwell fundamentalist agenda. This mafia-like mentality is most apparent when Tammy Faye televises the emotional interview with a gay AIDS patient, also a Christian pastor, on her show. She ends the interview with reminding the viewers that Christians are called to love as Jesus loved. It was shortly after that, that Robertson and Falwell actively looked for ways to dethrone the king and queen of televangelism. Of all the examples of Christians in the film, amongst the lead and supporting characters, Tammy Faye is the best example of how a Christian should love and act.

Chastain has instantly shot to the front of the Best Actress in a Leading Role category, and Garfield may find himself in the Best Actor conversations as well. Chastain disappears behind the trademark Tammy Faye makeup and delivers a larger than life performance! And since Tammy Faye, herself, was the definition of camp and larger than life, it’s an incredibly authentic, sincere performance. It’s easy to see how the LBGTQ community was drawn to the person of Tammy Faye then and now, because the LGBTQ community often greatly admires women who remain strong in the face of adversity. But Chastain’s performance of the person of Tammy Faye will undoubtedly inspire and win the admiration of all kinds of people from all walks of life. While Chastain is brilliantly portraying the character of Tammy Faye, we learn in the film (and in the documentary, the interviews, and PLT flips that many will undoubtedly pour through after leaving the film) that Tammy Faye wasn’t a character at all but one of the most genuine, sincere loving people that ever walked the planet. Chastain captures every nuance of Tammy Faye with uncanny precision.

Even the indelible Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s love-to-hate mother that was so often Tammy Faye’s harshest critic may be in the supporting actress conversations. She’s a scene steeler herself, much like Allison Janney was as LaVona Harding in I, Tonya. All the lead and supporting performances are perfectly executed, and the hair/makeup on everyone leaves an uncanny resemblance between the actors and the real-life people that are being portrayed. If Tammy Faye was still alive, I feel strongly that she would appreciate the film. Her son Jay appears to like the film from what I’ve read of his comments.

I’d be remiss not to mention, what is perhaps the most telling scene of who Tammy Faye was. Months or perhaps years after the collapse of the PTL Empire and all her fine things were sold (and house actually burned to the ground), and she’s driving a crappy Honda Accord and living in a rundown apartment, she pulls into her parking spot one day. And she gets out, she hears a few of the neighborhood punk teens making fun or her. She walks over to them, and graciously says, “if you’re going to talk about me, since I am your neighbor, you should at least shake my hand and meet me first; hi, I’m Tammy Faye” (or something to this effect).

What we have here is a brilliantly produced biographical drama that works as trifecta comprised of a cautionary tale, a redemption story, and film that provides social commentary on topics such as politics, religion, and patriotism as our country is becoming increasingly polarized on these subjects.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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“JUDY” Biopic Film Review

A truly gripping motion picture that will bring you to tears during this somewhere over the rainbow redemption story. Bring tissues. Renee Zellweger is captivating as Judy Garland, and you’ll swear that you’re watching Garland on the big screen. Although we may be familiar with the broad strokes career of the legendary entertainer, this film goes beyond the headlines and tabloids to deliver a true life story that could ironically be titled A Star is Born, or perhaps reborn. Ironic in that this film shows the life of a movie star after the lights have faded and the offers stop coming in, much like the movie she starred in. It’s a rise and fall story, of sorts, but is more precisely a fall and rise story as the movie focusses in on the last year of Judy Garland’s life. If you are worried that the film ends on her death, you can be relived that the film chooses to stop the story prior to the end of the iconic star’s life. And it works so incredibly well! While there are many movies (not unlike A Star is Born) that focus on the rise and fall of a talent in showbusiness, this movie skips all the glitz and glamor to paint a realistic portrait of what it is like for those whom grow up in front of the camera, controlled by those around them, just to wind up in front of booing crowds, empty bank accounts, homelessness, and a tumultuous custody battle. Not to mention her addiction to pills that was caused by abusive treatment at the hands of the old studio system because of being force fed pills from an early age. Whether you are a fan of the iconic diva or not, if you love command performances, then you do not want to miss the uncanny performance of Zellweger as Judy. All the way down to the mannerisms, vocal inflections, and over all behavior, she IS Judy. Although we all know of the tragic ending, no mistaking it, this film is an inspirational story of redemption.

The money is gone, career on the rocks, and risking the loss of custody of her two youngest children, that is the last year’s of Judy Garland’s life. Unfortunately the other side of the rainbow for Judy was anything but magical. Three decades after starring in one of the greatest film musicals of all time The Wizard of Oz, the beloved actress and singer is in dire straights. She is left with virtually nothing except her name and what remains of her timeless voice that charmed millions throughout her early illustrious career. In order to prove that she can provide for her two youngest children, she accepts a gig in London playing to sold-out shows at the Talk of the Town night club. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans, fights her depression and anxiety over performing, and begins a whirlwind romance with her soon-to-be fifth husband.

“For one hour, I am Judy Garland, and the rest of the time I am just like everyone else…I want what everyone wants, I just seem to have a harder time getting it” is a paraphrased quote from the movie, but it illustrates how the actress and singer felt about her relationship with the world. The movie chronicles her inability to stay afloat financially in Los Angeles and must accept a gig in London where her personal troubles continue to follow and haunt her. Her character is so incredibly relatable because many of us have found ourselves in traps that we have stepped in and are at a loss as to how to get out. If you thought this was going to be another cliche musical biopic, then you would be mistaken. No pretense about it, this is an unapologetic look at the dark side of Hollywood in perhaps one of the greatest stories that is right up there with Norma Desmond. Now, I am not equating Judy with what is, in my opinion, the greatest film of all time Sunset Boulevard, but her story is not unlike the one experienced by Norma. The movie also comments on the far reaching effects of childhood trauma on the adult psyche. No one understood the extent that she was abused by the studio system except for Judy herself. If her present-day handlers knew what she went through during the years that American fell in love with The Wizard of OzMeet Me in St. Louis, and more, then they would not-so-casually write her off as a wrecked hasbeen who mismanaged her money and relationships. The film deals with perception versus reality. Strategically placed in the film are flashbacks to her childhood at MGM that provide context for moving the present story forward as each moment reveals a new layer to the legendary entertainer.

Zellweger delivers a performance for the ages in this film. More than a spot-on impression, she transforms into Judy Garland to the extent that you will almost believe that you are watching the iconic actress and singer on the big screen. It is clear that Zellweger studied Judy Garland for months in order to get into character. Her movement, speech pattern, posture, and other behaviors completely sell the audience on this audacious portrayal of such an icon. Never once does she break character and allow the actor to shine through, she remains committed to this phenomenally genuine portrayal of Judy Garland. We all know Zellweger can sing, after all, she wow’d us in Chicago (a rare example of when the movie adaptation IS better than the live show); but nothing will prepare you for the power of her singing in this movie. Other than Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, you will hear Zellweger sing other famous songs by Garland such as Get HappyThe Trolly SongCome Rain or Come Shine, and of course the encore of Over the Rainbow during the movie’s climactic, emotionally charged, showdown. Even when singing, Zellweger is determined to deliver the songs just as a late-40s Garland did, complete with all the stubbornness, anxiety, and even anger. I truly hope that Zellweger is nominated for this role.

Perhaps the reason why Liza Minelli was quite objectionably vocal about her mother’s portrayal in this movie is because there are creative liberties taken by the writers in order to further dramatize Judy’s story. As I’ve told my screenwriting class, dramatize don’t tell. If a “based on a true story” or biographical film was simply concerned with the timeline of events, the cold hard facts, and cause and effect, then it might feel more like a police procedural or college lecture. Hence why it is imperative that writers DO get a little creative in the dramatization of events for cinematic purposes. For instance, the facts are largely correct in this story as I have compared them to Wikipedia and other newspaper articles, but where I can see the difference is Judy’s reaction to the timeline of events. Articles and tabloids may be able to show what happened, but it is up to the screenwriters to dramatize the reaction to the conflict. So perhaps that is what Liza is upset with, she doesn’t agree with the story details between what we know from Hollywood history. One of the tangential components in the movie is Judy meeting up with “Friends of Judy” at the end of one of her shows. Judy joins them, rather than be by herself for a night of poorly made omelets and casual singing around a piano. It’s an emotionally moving tribute to all the gays who’ve loved her over the years. In all likelihood, this was written for the movie as there is no way of verifying if this night ever happened. This is the scene where I feel that she should’ve sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas because tonally it was similar to that scene in Meet Me in St. Louis. Instead, she sings Get Happy.

Maybe this is an unconventional redemption story, but that quality is clearly communicated through the film. Rising up against the internal and external monsters in your life that have dragged you down so far that there is no end in sight. Whereas Judy may not have changed as dramatically as Scrooge did in  A Christmas Carol, she does change during the climax of the movie. If you want to know just how, then you need to go out and watch it!

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com!

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“Knife + Heart” French Horror Review

As heard on One Movie Punch

Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill meets William Friedkin’s Cruising in this 1970’s inspired French slasher. Throw in a splash of Black Christmas and the concept of dealing with the heartbreak of loss, and you have this spectacularly haunting slasher. To the casual observer, this film might seem like an auteur’s masturbatory dream; but upon closer examination, the many layers to the story reveal a motion picture that is just as concerned with its messages as it is the medium through which it expresses the narrative. At the center of this film is one poignant message of social commentary: the panic of being gay in a potentially hostile world. While the killings are explicitly violent, the sexuality is not. Gonzalez keeps the focus on the mystery of the identity of the serial killer preying on the actors of the blue films within this film instead of the sexuality being in the forefront of the plot. It’s just as much a whodunit as it is a campy slasher movie.

For the podcast review, click HERE.

It’s Paris, summer of 1979, and gay porn producer Anne finds herself suddenly single when her editor and lover Lois leaves her. To win her back, Anne sets out to produce her most ambitious film yet with her assistant producer, the flamboyant Archibald. Following the brutal murder of one of Anne’s stars, she gets caught up in a bizarre “Black Dahlia” like investigation that turns her life upside-down. When more and more of her stars wind up victims of the sadistic killer, she finds herself in a whodunit of cinematic proportions.

There is also a time capsule of sorts in this film as it takes place in 1979, just before the AIDS crisis, much like Cruising. But this — what could have so easily been simple a throwback gay exploitation horror film — is a comprehensive motion picture that uses the setting of Paris 1979 to reflect upon the present state of affairs for the queer community, and the world in which they live today. As the content of this film is extremely dark, there was need to inject some comedic relief into it in order for it not to become too heavy. So while you may be cringing at the kills, especially the first few ones, you will have moments of levity that keep the emotional rollercoaster going. Moments of comedy are very important to a horror film. If a heavy horror film lacks moments that make you laugh, then it becomes too heavy and off putting.

Clearly inspired by the films of Argento, de Palma, and even Kubrick, Gonzalez shows a command of the screen and the power of the moving image coupled with emotion communicated through colors, shapes, and angles. Despite being made in the 21st century, the film has an exquisitely recreated vintage sound, look, and feel. The dream-like colors, horror tropes, and synth score composed by M83 work together to create a film that is truly “dressed to kill”. In terms of the screenwriting, the film’s opening is extremely strong and expertly hooks the audience. Following the shocking opening, the plot and characters seem to take a backseat to the imagery, emotion, messages, and directorial style.

Gonzalez may look similar to de Palma and Friedkin, but he lacks their emphasis on a narrative that showcased exemplary character drive supported by the action plot. Evidence of this lack of direction and plot can be witnessed in the film’s repetitive scenes in acts two and three. After such a terrific first act, the second and third acts don’t play out as effectively, and often feel like they’re in a holding pattern. Even the kills eventually lose shock value because the uniqueness fades after a while. While the film successfully depicts the horrors of being gay in a world that wants to see you dead, the plot feels thinly stretched.

However, holding the film together, and keeping it gripping, is the character of Anne, because her performance is outstanding. We may not fully buy into why she does what she does, because so much seems to be so unrealistic even for that time; but she definitely comes across as a real person through whom we connect to the story. We’ve all been heartbroken, so we can identify with her trauma following being dumped by Lois.

In short, “Knife + Heart” does so many things very well, but the plot is not executed with the same caliber as the film’s visuals. Perhaps it is due to having bits and pieces of so many different genres and even plots. Essentially, Gonzalez tries to balance a tormented lesbian love story against a homophobic serial killer movie. Both point to the message of being gay in a hostile world; but had the focus been on one or the other, instead of both, then narratively, the film would have worked better. Thankfully, the artistic achievement of this film works to compensate for the lack of proper pacing and plot development. For fans of immersive artistic horror or erotic whodunit films like the original Suspiria, The Black Dahlia, Cruising, or Muholland Drive, this is definitely one to check out.

Knife + Heart is included with Shudder (highly recommended for horror fiends like me) or available for rent on Amazon Prime.​

  • Rotten Tomatoes: 82% (Certified Fresh)
  • Metacritic: 69
  • IMDb: 6.3
  • One Movie Punch: 6.0/10

Podcast: onemoviepunch.libsyn.com/episode-542-knife-heart-2018

Ryan teaches film studies and screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Crisis Hotline” (2019) Indie Film Review

Erotic thriller with a shocking twist. Mark Schwab’s Crisis Hotline is an indie film that is reminiscent of Psycho IV, yet is budding with originality. It’s not often that we see fresh or original interpretations of past premises, but this film provides audiences with a new lens through which to explore heartbreak, guilt, and abuse of power. The small cast and two primary locations allow audiences to focus on the conflict between the crisis hotline operator and the caller. But down the rabbit hole the audience goes as the caller elaborates on why he is making a decision to harm himself and others. Despite the excellent hook provided by the opening scenes that setup the intriguing premise, the tone of the film shifts back and forth from heavy drama to psychological thriller to an erotic love story. Thus, leaving the film searching for what it wants to be. The screenwriting suggests that the writer was experimenting with genre, but didn’t commit to any one to a signifiant level, so there are tropes of all the aforementioned. What sets this film a part from many others that possess some of the same characteristics is that it features a predominantly gay male cast. What I appreciate about the characters is that their sexuality isn’t the focus of the story; truthfully, you could replace this cast with a heteronormative cast, and the story could play out similarly. However, the choice to make the characters gay does allow Schwab to explore relationship dynamics not often seen in films. While the premise may be intriguing, the execution lacks precision brought on by the underdeveloped plot and mostly flat characters.

A race-against-time thriller that highlights the potentially darkest sides of the social media phenomenon. Jaded by the job of managing an LGBT crisis line, Simon (Corey Jackson) finds that most of his callers are using the service for reasons that would qualify as being certainly less than a crisis. That all changes when he gets a call from Danny (Christian Gabriel) who says he is in the process of killing himself. Instantly gripped by his first real case, Simon does his best to connect with Danny and find out why he has come to consider such a drastic action. As the tale of Danny’s journey is unraveled through the use of flashback sequences, we discover a young romance, a troubling network of individuals, and a dark secret. (IMDb)

Although the characters are mostly flat, that doesn’t mean that they lack relatability. In fact, the characters of Simon and Danny are highly relatable. We’ve all been jaded over something in our lives. Maybe it’s failed relationships or perhaps it’s work related. Whatever the case, we’ve all been there. Simon goes into this shift with the same feelings that some of us may have experienced in our own jobs. Those in the service industry can definitely relate to that. Maybe you’re a Danny; you know what it’s like to be the new guy in town without a system of established friends and trying to date. Or you’ve been betrayed by someone you loved after having gone a long time just going through the motions of dating to the point you can provide an analytical breakdown of the steps, rises, and pitfalls. When Danny calls Simon to explain why he is intending to do himself and others harm, we can place ourselves in Danny’s shoes because perhaps we have been extremely heartbroken over a terminated relationship. He is our conduit through which we experience the plot of the film. He is a de facto narrator, and as such, because he is expressing suicidal and homicidal ideas, he is established as an unreliable narrator. But we have no choice but to listen to him because he must provide “the context” for Simon to process the severity of the call. Simon must establish the legitimacy of the call before contacting the authorities because there have been many false crisis claims in the past. In many ways, we are like Simon, listening to every word and trying to piece together the puzzle. There is no dramatic irony in this film, so we learn as Simon learns. The scenes of Simon listening to Danny are the scenes that I feel work best because that is when tension is at its highest.

Without getting into spoiler territory, I want to touch on how the film explores heartbreak, guilt, and abuse of power. Heartbreak is evident from the onset because the caller speaks to his broken relationship with Kyle. But when Simon suggests that the caller is going to extremes over a bad breakup, the caller draws Simon in closer to reveal the sordid, disturbing context of the broken relationship. Though Simon listens to a soft spoken Danny on the phone, it is clear that he is experiencing immense psychological pain. The heartbreak is more than sadness over a relationship that is over, it goes much deeper because of the sadistic betrayal that is slowly revealed over the phone call exposition. In addition to the exhibited heartbreak, the caller hints at the guilt he feels for some of his decisions, but the full extent of the guilt is not realized until the end of the film. I appreciate the film exploring not only the heartbreak of relationship loss, but the guilt parties feel in the aftermath. Lastly, the film comments on gross abuse of power. Through the conversation on the phone, Simon learns that Kyle’s employment may not be on the up and up, despite Kyle explaining to Danny that his employers were not involved in anything illegal–just sleazy. But Danny slowly begins to understand the degree to which Kyle’s employers hold him a captive employee. While the focus is on Danny and Simon, the film provides context for the audience to realize that the love of money is the root of all evil, and can reduce people to zeros and ones. Evaluating persons as a commodity is a dangerous slope that can lead to one’s destruction.

Thematically, the film works very well. The premise feels fresh, and the character setups are interesting. The weakness in this film falls on the screenplay that lacks direction. Although the plot is initially interesting and starts out gripping, it was stretched too thin to fill a 90min run time. Thankfully, the twist at the end helps to justify having sat through the poorly paced scenes. Not that this needed to be a quickly paced film; on the contrary, this is a story that needed to be a slow burn. But a slow burn does not mean that scenes should be poorly paced or longer than they need to be. Alfred Hitchcock stated, “start your scene as close to the end as possible.” And to Crisis Hotline’s credit, some scenes are tight and effective. But there are many that feel like they could have moved the plot along more efficiently. While I may be coming down hard on this film for it’s weak plot and lack of character development (when there was such an opportunity to explore these characters further), it provides audiences with a some great atmospheric scenes, a believable love story, and some rather suspenseful moments. I appreciate the film for not including explicit sex scenes, because then it’s entirely possible that it may have felt too close to a porno with a loose storyline. It has a good story idea with relatable characters and an intriguing premise.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry