Monthly Archives: March 2020

Leilah Weinraub’s SHAKEDOWN

I wrote the following review of Leilah Weinraub’s excellent SHAKEDOWN, streaming exclusively on Pornhub through the end of March, for the new COVID-19/all-streaming version of Cine-File Chicago.


Leilah Weinraub’s SHAKEDOWN (US Experimental Documentary)
Available to stream free on Pornhub through 3/31.

The title of Leilah Weinraub’s superb 2018 documentary refers to a series of legendary underground strip-club shows held in a variety of locations in Los Angeles in the 1990s and early 2000s. The performers at these shows, the “Shakedown Angels,” were exclusively lesbians of color who catered to audiences comprised largely of the same demographic. Like Jennie Livingston did with New York City’s drag-ball scene in the landmark PARIS IS BURNING, Weinraub provides an invaluable and eye-opening social history of a subculture too-long marginalized, and many of the pleasures her film offers arise from a similarly skilled manner of documentary portraiture: The subjects come across as compelling, vividly drawn characters – from Ronnie-Ron, Shakedown’s charismatic “stud” impresario, to angels Mahogany (who gives a fascinating description of the difference between performing for women vs. men), Egypt (a formerly homophobic high-school cheerleader who discovered her sexual identity after being introduced to gay club-life by a friend) and the enigmatic Slim Goodie (whose clever costumes and aggressive, mesmerizing dance numbers rival the best of what came out of MGM’s famed Arthur Freed unit in the 1950s). Fittingly, men are almost nowhere to be seen, and the only appearance of white men pointedly occurs when undercover cops show up to arrest nude dancers for “soliciting,” precipitating the closure of Shakedown’s main venue in 2004 amidst a new era of gentrification in L.A. But Weinraub also knows that the most effective way to challenge the dominant ideology of American culture (i.e., patriarchy and heteronormativity) in cinema is not only through content but form, and so she rebels against the conventions of mainstream documentary filmmaking as well. What ultimately makes SHAKEDOWN a landmark work of radical queer art in its own right is its experimental edge: In little more than an hour, Weinraub confronts viewers with an exhilarating montage of footage (culled from 400+ hours she shot herself on standard-definition video in low-light conditions) that frequently takes on a rude, hallucinatory beauty, punctuated by a wealth of still photographs and promotional flyers characterized by a cheesy-but-amazing early-2000s Photoshop aesthetic. Pornhub and Weinraub will host a Q&A live chat on Saturday, March 28 from 12PM-1PM PST. The chat offers viewers the chance to “simulate the experience of watching the film together, even while alone.” (2018, 66 min) MGS


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Bacurau (Dornelles/Mendonca)
2. Nightmare Cinema (Brugues/Dante/Garris/Kitamura/Slade)
3. The Swimmer (Perry)
4. Shivers (Cronenberg)
5. Shakedown (Weinraub)
6. King of New York (Ferrara)
7. Obit (Gould)
8. Auto Focus (Schrader)
9. Career Girls (Leigh)
10. The Lure (Smoczyńska)

The 15 Best Episodes of FORENSIC FILES

I’ve never seen BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN or GAME OF THRONES but I have seen all 400+ episodes of FORENSIC FILES. My contribution to “quarantine culture” is this carefully curated list of my 15 favorite episodes. I hope this comes in handy for anyone looking for something to binge watch:


15. WATER LOGGED (Season 14, Episode 11)
An Ohio woman takes her teenage daughters on vacation to Florida but they never return home. This is, for my money, the most horrific of all FF episodes and the only one that I can’t bear to rewatch. The details of how these women were murdered are burned into my brain, however, and it therefore deserves a place on this list. Also fascinating is the way the police end up capturing the killer: by posting a suspect’s handwriting on a billboard.

14. INVISIBLE INTRUDER (Season 4, Episode 1)
The Darlie Routier case is famous – she was found guilty of stabbing her 5 and 6-year-old sons to death with a butcher knife and staging the crime scene to look like it was the work of an intruder. Some people still believe Darlie is innocent but the forensics suggest otherwise. What really makes this case interesting to contemplate though is simply trying to fathom her motive.

13. A VOICE FROM BEYOND (Season 5, Episode 4)
This classic episode – about the discovery of a mummified corpse (with a fetus inside of it) stuffed in a barrel in the crawl space of a New York home – is one of the most satisfying from an actual scientific point-of-view. The solution to the mystery points to a tragic 30-year-old love triangle and stretches all the way to El Savador.

12. FAMILY TIES (Season 13, Episode 5)
A college student who is deep in debt kills his father with an ax for some inheritance money. This episode is compelling as a portrait of a young, upper-class psychopath but what really makes it memorable are the disturbing details of how, before dying, the father regained consciousness and, apparently unaware of his mortal wounds, went outside to fetch a newspaper.

11. SIGN OF THE ZODIAC (Season 8, Episode 25)
The New York Zodiac killer, not the San Francisco one! Heriberto Seda terrorized NYC for six years in the ‘90s, killing, at random, three people and wounding five others – all the while mailing taunting letters to the New York Post. The most chilling aspect of this case is how Seda’s claims that his victims would all belong to different astrological signs turned out to be both true and impossible to explain.

10. A BITTER PILL TO SWALLOW (Season 7, Episode 18)
A pregnant woman suspects that her fiancé, a handsome young doctor, has been poisoning her in order to induce a miscarriage. So she decides to take the law into her own hands by making a secret video recording of him fixing her a drink. Much like BAD BLOOD (see #1 on this list), this episode excels by giving viewers a feisty heroine to root for.

9. SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED (Season 10, Episode 25)
Three young men in Alaska go for a joyride and intentionally shoot and kill a random passenger in another car. One of the men turns state witness and testifies against his buddies in exchange for immunity but this leads to even more tragic consequences. This crazy episode unfolds like an overly plot twist-filled novel.

8. STRANGER IN THE NIGHT (Season 13, Episode 11)
An elderly woman is stabbed to death with a screwdriver in her Delaware home. Suspicion falls on her son who tells the police an unbelievable story about meeting and getting into a fight with the killer, a total stranger to him, earlier that same night. A darkly ironic episode that must be seen to be believed.

7. THE LIST MURDERS (Season 1, Episode 12)
John List was a devoutly religious accountant who murdered his mother, wife and three children then lived under a new identity for 18 years before being caught. That he was apprehended due to the work of a forensic artist who sculpted an accurate clay bust of his aged appearance is one of the most satisfying conclusions to any FF episode.

6. BAD MEDICINE (Season 9, Episode 8)
The enormously entertaining “Bad Medicine” tells the story of Anthony Pignataro, a bad plastic surgeon (and inventor of the “snap-on toupee!”) who accidentally kills a patient during breast-augmentation surgery. After doing six months in prison for negligent homicide, Pignataro, like some pathetic anti-hero in a Coen brothers’ movie, concocts an outrageous plan to exonerate himself and get his medical license back.

5. TRANSACTION FAILED (Season 12, Episode 6)
FORENSIC FILES frequently deals with the collision between good and bad people but the contrast in this episode is so extreme that it lifts the episode into the realm of the philosophical: Dianey Tilly was a teacher and founder of a school for troubled youth who was nicknamed “the miracle worker.” She meets her death at the hands of a 15-year-old girl (exactly the kind of person Tilly had dedicated her life to helping) and her monster of a father. The story’s heartbreaking conclusion should serve as a kind of Rorschach test for the beliefs of each individual viewer.

4. DEATH PLAY (Season 6, Episode 5)
No one could script anything this rich: a 16-year-old girl poisons her father and would have gotten away with it scot-free except that, a year later, while listening to her best friend recite Claudius’ lines from Shakespeare’s HAMLET, she is provoked into making a spontaneous confession. This episode features witty, salient commentary by Texas Monthly editor Skip Hollandsworth (who would go on to co-write Richard Linklater’s BERNIE).

3. THE WILSON MURDER (Season 1, Episode 8)
The first true FF masterpiece involves a pair of twin sisters in Alabama who are charged with the murder of one of their husbands. Testifying at both trials is an elementary school janitor / bargain-basement hitman whose testimony seems to be unreliable. Fans of “whodunits” will love this for the colorful, eccentric characters and the way it’s impossible to know for sure what really happened.

2. LAST WILL (Season 8, Episode 7)
A lot of the best FF episodes succeed in being either sad or scary. The heart-wrenching “Last Will,” by virtue of having the highest combined average of both of these qualities, is in many ways the ultimate episode of the show. It’s about a teenaged girl who is kidnapped in broad daylight and the sadistic abductor who allows her to write a will that he then mails to her parents after killing her.

1. BAD BLOOD (Season 6, Episode 18)
This Canadian-set episode is endlessly rewatchable: a doctor who drugged and raped one of his patients in the hospital where he works gets away with it initially by inserting a tube of someone else’s blood into his own arm(!), thus allowing him to pass a series of DNA tests. His accuser, a woman identified only as “Candy” (who proves to be a fantastic interview subject), doggedly pursues her claim for years, going so far as to hire a private detective to obtain the doc’s DNA through surreptitious means. Candy is my hero.

  • UPDATE (6/14/21) –  Over a year after making this post, and re-watching FORENSIC FILES hundreds of times in the interim, I realize there are a few classic episodes that didn’t make this list that probably should have. SEALED WITH A KISS (no one could make up shit this outrageous), A FISHY STORY (which, incredibly, bears a strong resemblance to the plot of Agatha Christie’s THE ABC MURDERS), ROOT OF ALL EVIL (one of the most disturbing installments in the entire series) and SEE NO EVIL (by far the best episode not narrated by the great Peter Thomas) all also deserve a spot on this list.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Mars Attacks! (Burton)
2. Masked and Anonymous (Charles)
3. The Honeymoon Killers (Kastle)
4. Inquiring Nuns (Quinn)
5. Joan of Arc (Dumont)
6. Out of the Past (Tourneur)
7. Le Bonheur (Varda)
8. Citizen Kane (Welles)
9. Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (Herzog)
10. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg)

Tsai Ming-Liang’s STRAY DOGS

I reviewed Tsai Ming-Liang’s great STRAY DOGS for Cine-File Chicago. It screens at Doc Films twice this weekend as part of their ongoing Tsai retrospective.


Tsai Ming-Liang’s STRAY DOGS (Taiwanese Revival)
Doc Films – Friday, 7:00pm & Sunday, 1:30pm

If Tsai Ming-Liang had indeed retired from making feature-length narrative films after STRAY DOGS in 2013, as he indicated in interviews when it premiered, he would have gone out on a high note (he has since returned with 2020’s DAYS). This beautiful film found the great Taiwanese director training his patient camera eye on a homeless man (the inevitable Lee Kang-Sheng) who struggles to provide for his two young children in contemporary Taipei. There are extended wordless sequences of Lee’s unnamed character “working” by standing in traffic and holding an advertising placard — and thus functioning as a human billboard, not unlike the protagonist of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s THE SANDWICH MAN — as well as washing his children in a grocery store bathroom; these shots are almost startling in their clear-eyed compassion and remind us that, for all of the audacious experimenting he does with form, Tsai has also grounded much of his best work in an authentic sense of character and milieu. The film’s high point occurs about half-way through: a long take of Lee’s character smothering a head of lettuce with a pillow (before doing other interesting things to it, including voraciously biting into it and cradling it in his arms and sobbing over it), a sad, funny and crazy scene that is far more emotionally moving than the similar but more shrewdly contrived and melodramatic climax of Michael Haneke’s AMOUR. Then there is the matter of the amazing penultimate shot: a static close-up of two faces staring at a mural that ticks well past the 10-minute mark before cutting, with one of the characters effortlessly shedding a few tears halfway through, a moment that recalls the famous final shot of Tsai’s breakthrough VIVE L’AMOUR from 1994. Without taking anything away from its culturally specific qualities, I think that the depiction of a family of “have nots” in STRAY DOGS has more to say about the lives of ordinary Americans in the 21st century than the vast majority of movies that have come out of the United States. (2019, 138 min, DCP Digital) MGS

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
2. Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (Broomfield)
3. Knives Out (Johnson)
4. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Dean)
5. Roy’s World (Christopher)
6. Citizen Kane (Welles)
7. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy)
8. The Living Dead Girl (Rollin)
9. Mickey One (Penn)
10. Vitalina Varela (Costa)

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