Tag Archives: Sexual Assault

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Rating: A-/   I have a weakness for stories taking place in dystopian societies. The way I see it, society is so fucked up at this point, a 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 type scenario hardly seems that outlandish. On the other hand, I’ve always been wary of feminism. I know, I know, the stereotype of the man-hating stone butch with a chip on her shoulder is just that, a stereotype. There are certainly issues involving women’s rights that need attending to, and there are a lot of decent feminists trying to make a better future for the girls of tomorrow. I know all that, of course; but God help me, when I hear the word ‘feminism,’ I cringe a little. There’s nothing rational about it, it’s just a prejudice I have. Continue reading Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Book Review: Singing Songs by Meg Tilly

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Rating: B/ This autobiographical novel by actress Meg Tilly (yes, that Meg Tilly, of Agnes of God and The Big Chill) is a tough pill to swallow. I actually tried unsuccessfully to complete it like four or five times before finally getting all the way through. It’s not a bad book, and certainly a well-written one (obviously something had me coming back, probably the main character’s voice) but the level of child abuse made it almost unreadable for me. The fact that some of this, if not most of it, had actually happened in some form made it even more stomach-turning. Continue reading Book Review: Singing Songs by Meg Tilly

Movie Review: City of God (2003)

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Rating: B/ This ain’t the vision of Rio di Janeiro you see on travel brochures! Told in a nonlinear style somewhat akin to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, City of God tells the disturbing story of a Brazilian gangster named Lil’ Ze (Leandro Firmino) living in the crime-ridden ‘city of God’ who really wants to make a name for himself, and climbs up to the top of the food chain amid the senseless slaughter of hundreds of unfortunates.

Continue reading Movie Review: City of God (2003)

Book Review: The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

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Rating: B+/ Two bright and resourceful sisters, twelve-year-old Bean (real name Jean) and fifteen-year-old Liz, are abandoned by their flaky mother Charlotte in a small California apartment while she goes out to ‘find herself’ and make it big as a songwriter and musician. When Charlotte doesn’t return for months at a time and the social workers get involved. Bean and Liz take a bus to their eccentric Uncle Tinsley’s decaying mansion in Byler, Virginia, where he reluctantly takes them in. Continue reading Book Review: The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

Movie Review: Lilya 4-Ever (2002)

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Rating: A-/ Prostitution is bad, okay, kids? Lukas Moodyson’s tale of a sixteen-year-old girl sold into sexual slavery will scare any man away from hiring a hooker much in the same way that Requiem for a Dream scared us away from heroin abuse. Much of it’s power relies on the performance of Oksana Akinshina as Lilya, a world-weary but somehow naive teen ekeing out an existence in a low-income Estonian suburb. Lilya’s mother (Lyubov Agapova) abandons her willful daughter at home to go run away with her boyfriend to a new life in the U.S., and her aunt (Liliya Shinkaryova) (a grade-a cunt if there ever was one) moves her niece into a complete shithole so she can live in relative comfort in Lilya and her mother’s apartment. In fact, Lilya’s only real lifeline is an abused adolescent named Volodya (Artyom Bogucharskiy,) who becomes her confidante and friend. Continue reading Movie Review: Lilya 4-Ever (2002)

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

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Rating: A-/ Imagine living a regular, relatively charmed life and being taken from your home, your family, everything you know. Imagine being shipped overnight to a place where you could be both bought and sold as property. It seems so unreal, doesn’t it? But in 1841, it actually happened to Solomon Northup (played here by Chiwetel Ejiofor,) a free black man who was drugged and kidnapped by two con men and sent to the Antebellum South as a slave. Solomon was educated, savvy, everything that was forbidden of blacks during this time, and he soon learned to hide the fact that he could read and write and tried to go unnoticed among the hoards of black faces that passed through insane slave owner Edwin Epps’ (Michael Fassbender)’s cotton fields every day. Continue reading Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Movie Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

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Rating- A / Even though it seems fairly tame by today’s standards in terms of violence, language, and sexual content, it’s easy to imagine Midnight Cowboy making waves in 1969. Both controversial and extremely daring for it’s time, the film, based on the novel of the same title by Leo James Herlihy, deals with hot-button issues such as prostitution, rape, homosexuality, and childhood sexual abuse. And it transcends the constraints of time and setting to tell an incredible story of innocence lost and outcasts eking out a hardscrabble urban existence that is both archetypal and vitally original. Continue reading Movie Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Monster (2003)

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Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) always knew she’d be famous for something. Who knew that her claim to fame would be as America’s first female serial killer? Life pisses all over Aileen, she’s a sexual abuse victim from a crappy home and a crappy family who turns tricks as a cheap roadside whore for a living. About as white trash as it is possible to get, Wuornos is played by Theron with prosthetic teeth and excess flab in a Academy Award-winning performance born of pure grit.

Monster is a rather eerie and disturbing movie that forces you to sympathize to some extent with a beastly human being with little to no compassion for her victims. Monsters are made, not born. I really believe that 99.9% percent of the time, that’s the case. A woman of limited resources, low intelligence, and poor self-control, Aileen’s first murder is self-defense; shooting a sexually abusive john who tries to rape her. When she gets a taste of that power, though, she embraces the life of a killer.

Aileen has a girlfriend named Selby (Christina Ricci,) a pixyish young lesbian with a crooked smile and an easy way about her. Maybe Aileen is gay. Or maybe she’s just sick of men treating her like shit. Aileen’s only friend is Thomas (Bruce Dern,) a homeless war vet who offers her half a sandwich and doesn’t ask anything in return. This is Aileen’s life. It’s not pretty, but that doesn’t mean it’s a side of America that doesn’t exist. Selby wants to be treated like a princess, and Aileen offers that in the form of murdered johns’ money. Selby doesn’t know, or pretends not to know, about Aileen’s murderous nighttime habits. Aileen wants to quit the life, but every opportunity seems to lead to a dead end for this dim, volatile nut bag of a woman.

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The first thirty minutes or so are oddly touching, a mix of hopeful and even unexpectedly sweet emotions that make the film’s plunge into the abyss of murder and misery all the more jarring. We get to see the halting baby steps in a love affair, one that is skewed but still real and heartwrenching.Theron looks like shit but this lends her some credibility as an ‘ordinary,’ ‘blue-collar’ person. She looks like one of those dodgy types lurking outside of Wal-Mart with a cigarette and a tattoo, and she sells it, too. Christina Ricci also impresses with a deft mix of vulnerability and manipulation. In the end, we don’t know which one is a more fucked-up or unlikable person; and yet we can’t dismiss them entirely. We go on a trip into utter desolation and horror with them, and we cannot hate them as much as we want to; and probably should, their descent into hell seems all too plausible.

As Aileen wreaks destruction on those around her, I admired the film’s refusal to justify or condemn, Aileen’s such a sad little creature that her descent into psychopathy doesn’t shock us as much as it probably should. This is the kind of woman we ignore. This is the kind of woman we avert her eyes from. This is the kind of woman we don’t notice until she turns up on headlines all over the country and we shake our heads in disgust and say, there are some crazy people in this world. We can’t understand Aileen unless we’ve been in her situation, but at the same time, we can’t justify her actions, especially her murder of the particularly unfortunate final victim (Scott Wilson.) This is the kind of movie you view as an outsider, and then you thank God you’re just that.

This movie doesn’t paint a pretty picture of men, women, or society in general, it attempts less to draw a social or moral conclusion and more just to paint a character portrait of some very screwed up people; a woman ugly inside and out, and her manipulative enabler/lover. When Aileen tries to get a job, we see a woman of low morality and intelligence getting by the best way she can. You can’t spin crap into gold, but at the same time, you see a little of the girl who couldn’t do anything right in this broken woman. She wanted to be a star. She got her name out to the press in the end, but not in the way she expected. As Aileen herself says, Life’s funny. Basically, if you like dark psychological character studies starring characters with severe mental illnesses/ personality disorders, this is the movie for you. If you don’t like the idea of a disturbing movie about a sexually abused hooker waxing her johns, you’ve been warned. There’s plenty of crazy to go around here though, for fans of intense character-driven storytelling and abnormal psychology.

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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Esteemed poet and memoirist Maya Angelou chronicles her life from lonely, isolated black girlhood to sexual awakening and teen motherhood in this sad, poetic true-life account. Little Maya never believed much in her own self-worth, and racism was as rampant in the small community of Stamps, Arkansas, that she lived in with her Grandmama and disabled Uncle Willie as the wrenching poverty of both blacks and whites. Her unwavering sense of fatalism  forced her into the belief that she would live a brief, harsh life of subjugation before dying in a crazy dramatic way (in this sense, she is more like the modern youngster than she might think.)

But Maya (AKA Marguerite) had a  way to escape her tough circumstances- her love of books and writing, which kept her spirit strong and her mind sharp in the face of myriad staggering adversities. Through prejudice, sexual abuse, and eventually teen pregnancy, Maya not only survived, but slowly developed her sense of self and the belief that she and the African-American race deserved better than what they had been given.

Good writing is a prerequisite in an autobiography, but it also helps to have an interesting story that will grab the reader’s interest. ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ has both. Angelou retreats so far into the mind of her younger self that the book seems free of Angelou’s adult beliefs and opinions. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how she felt about a situation at the time she wrote the book. Maya Angelou has had a fascinating, though frequently tragic life, and the prose she incorporates into the book rolls off the tongue like sweet honey.

I found the author’s own personal feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness following her rape at age eight at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend particularly heart-wrenching. No one should ever have to feel guilty for a act of sexual violence done unto them. But I was thrilled when Mr. Freeman (the name of the bottom-feeding pederast in question) was rubbed out by Maya’s mafioso relatives. Sweet justice! Of course, it would have been better if the abuse hadn’t occurred at all, but the killing of the child rapist gave me pleasure in an mostly bleak and depressing book.

The racism portrayed within these pages is shocking (the white dentist achieving a particular low,) but it makes the reader think about how far we’ve come as a society. Nowadays if someone cared to indulge in a ‘jigaboo walks into a bar’ joke they would be greeted by most with moral outrage and unlaughing silence. Back then racism wasn’t just a mindset- it was a way of life. People had never considered that blacks could be anything more than their drastically inferior dark-skinned servants,  and in many places- including the South- thinking that there might be an alternative to prejudice and hate was all too much for these white hicks to take in.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book is that it ended far too abruptly. It concluded on a hopeful note, but at the same time it just kind of left me hanging. It’s funny, a lot of the behavior exhibited by Maya’s most well-regarded relatives would be considered child abuse by today’s standards.

She just kind of laughs countless whippings and frankly psychotic behavior (for instance her stuttering Uncle Willie  threatening to burn her and her brother Bailey on the stove) off, but nowadays that kind of acting out by unhinged grown-ups would now be followed by a visit by CPS. People talk about the ‘good old days,’ where kids were hard-working and respectful and everything was more wholesome, but were the old days really that great? This book, and others, answer my question with an emphatic no.

If you like kind of slow books that love each word onto paper, rather than simply writing them in the way of popular writers, you’ll adore Angelou’s precisely, and gorgeously written memoir. And, grim as it is, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is not without it’s humor. “Preach it, Brother Thomas!” In the wake of Maya Angelou’s death the world lost a great literary voice. She brings barbed honesty and haunting lyricism into what could have been a standard coming-of-age narrative.

American History X (1998)

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It’s natural to be discomforted by the racist language and the violence in “American History X.” After all, what are we if we can’t be rattled and unnerved by terrific fiction? Don’t watch this movie if you’re not prepared for a film about racism where both the blacks and the whites act like absolute animals. This is not a story where the unending compassion of the African-Americans spells redemption for the biased white men. There is startling evil on both sides, just like in real life. And there are good, decent people of both races just trying to get by or to help others, just like in real life.

Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) is the kid the students feel antagonized by and the teachers don’t hold out much hope for. His latest travesty- “My Mein Kamf,” a response to a school assignment championing Hitler as a civil rights hero. However the principal of Danny’s tough inner-city school, Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks,) is determined to help him grapple with his demons and someday, maybe, see the light.

Danny’s neo-Nazi brother, Derek (Edward Norton, in a fantastic performance,) gets out of prison for a sadistic racially-motivated crime a changed man. He wants nothing more to do with the white supremacist existence, and has decided to steer his younger brother, who places Derek on a lofty pedestal, away from the skinhead life. As Danny listens to Derek’s story of his life in prison and his change of heart, he realizes that breaking away from his racist beliefs might be the most important thing he ever does.

But disassociating with old friends and influences might be harder than it sounds, as Derek and Danny soon find out. Meanwhile, Sweeney instructs Danny to write a paper about the events that put his brother in prison and beforehand, led to the Vinyard brothers’ legacy of hate.

Anybody who knows anything about the making of “American History X” knows that the production of the film was a bit of a disaster. Tempers flared, Edward Norton micromanaged the script, and director Tony Kaye eventually wanted his name taken off the finished product and changed, oddly, to ‘Humpty Dumpty’ (hhmm, that’s not weird.) So it might be “American History X”‘s greatest wonder that the movie is not bad at all, despite it’s production woes; on the contrary, it’s very good.

The film does a great job in making you believe in the unlikely premise that Norton could change, after years of being a vicious skinhead and an all-around terrible person. The cycle of hate and of the Vinyard’s beliefs are really well-done. The terrifying thing about Derek’s character (one, of certainly many) is how he runs the gamut from almost rational (saying things that, on the surface make sense, then devolve into racist gobbledygook)) to batshit crazy.

Rather than making Derek a cartoon, he’s written as a terrifyingly believable monster- you can palpably feel the charisma he most hold for frustrated young men who want someone to blame for their screwed-up lives. Edward Norton is an acting powerhouse in this movie. It might still be the best performance of Norton’s career.

Bile and rage and pure adrenaline run through Derek’s veins- he’s scary intense, and you can fully comprehend the fear and even disgust his mom (Beverly D’Angelo) and sister (Jennifer Lien) must have felt before the prison term, simply living with him on a day-to-day basis.

I’ll give credit where it’s due- the whole cast does a great job. But it is Norton who will haunt you for days. Now for the low points. Well, the ending actually worked for me. I’m not sure it was the best way to end the story, but it was overall effective, albeit brutally so. Honestly, the only major problem for me was the music. It was a little too “Oh, let me make you experience major emotions!”

“American History X” is not only worthy for Edward Norton’s performance, although that may be what you remember most about it. It’s a genuinely powerful drama, one of the best of the 90’s. Many movies have preached the power of love over hate and enlightenment over prejudice, but rarely to such a meaningful effect.

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