Saturday, July 24, 2010

A f*lm r*view

"Should we be in this movie or not?"


A week ago, at the Viz Theater in San Francisco's Japantown complex, I "bit the bullet" (ha-ha) and saw the Another Hole in the Head Film Festival's presentation of Ticked Off Trannies With Knives (aka TOTWK). The small theater was less than 40% full. The audience was mostly straight, nerdy male fans of the gore genre, albeit with some slight overlap in the gay community. Taking into account the possible fallibility of my "trans-dar" (and my apologies to my sister for even having to say this) I can pretty reliably state I was one of two trans woman audience members who weren't involved in the film (Krystal Summers was also in attendance along with the director, the producer and fellow actor, Willam Belli).

It's a lousy job but someone has to do it
Back in early March, when I first started complaining about this film being booked for the Tribeca Film Festival, it wasn't in my plans to see it. But given the repeated (incorrect) statements from the director how none of the people complaining about the film have even seen it, and given that the film has recently gotten distribution for the midnight movie circuit (which is where I predicted it would ultimately find a brick and mortar home) I felt I needed to have a look before writing any more about the subject. The film also has a pending DVD release in fall '10 and felt I had said all I could say about my issues with the promotional materials, clips, and trailer.

Coming redactions
Despite many of the its supporters' comments to the contrary, I found TOTWK's trailer to be an accurate representation of the film I ultimately saw. If you like the trailer and its promotional materials, you'll (sadly for your level of non-taste) enjoy the film. If you thought the trailer looked like crap or found elements of it offensive or banal, then you're wasting your money and will walk away from the film feeling as if you've just thrown away another few hours of your 'haven't-got-a-life.'

Ooh, I got a run in my pantyhose...
The film's opening is a long follow-shot of Bubbles (Kystal Summers), a female-impersonator going to her evening club performance. The character, we later find out, has just been drugged, raped and beaten by a guy she met (they don't clarify the exact time frame of the crime), yet is going to work that evening in a club full of screaming patrons ready to have her gyrate and shake her booty for them. What's wrong with this picture? Her biggest concern is can her black eye be covered up with makeup? The show inexplicably goes on.

Afterwards, the performers: Pinky (Kelexis Davenport), Tipper (Joe Hoselton aka Jenna Skyy) and Rachel (Willam Belli) are encouraged by fellow performer Emma (Erica Andrews) to accompany them to a bar and later to the place of two guys she vaguely knows. Again, Bubbles has been drugged, raped and beaten, feels required (perhaps out of economic desperation) to dance in front of a crowd of yelling people and is now willing to go out and socialize?! Moreover, the lack of compassion and understanding Emma and Rachel display about this reality (and granted, at that time they didn't yet know she'd been raped) made them seem flat, contrived and very much products of a male imagination.

They ARE that stupid
They arrive at a warehouse in a dark part of town, reflect on its possible danger for the blink of an eyelash and quickly find out the two potential loverboys are henchmen for "Boner" (woodenly played by Tom Zembrod) a tv-show casting cliche bad-ass white guy with stringy long hair. It's a cop out the film doesn't have the guts to show what real murderers of trans women tend to look like. Yes, he's the very person who, not long before, drugged Bubbles, raped her and beat her up upon finding out "she's a dude in a dress." What follows is 15 minutes (but seemed like 45) of Bubbles getting hit, tortured and taunted. Honestly, the film would have been far more effective if they'd shown one minute of the genuine homophobic panic and fury most men get before they perpetrate transphobic crimes.

Bad Guys "Streets of San Francisco" style
There is one wrong note after another in this scene, including an admission by Boner (in front of his two Latino henchmen) that he had sex with Bubbles. Um... wouldn't happen. While he says he was tricked, there is none of the real horror at questioning his own sexual orientation and disgust towards his very real sexual desires, which is very much the core of most transphobic crime. Instead, director Israel Luna gives us very stereotypical tv "bad guys"... and it rings both false and dull. Without going into details, Emma is fatally bludgeoned with a baseball bat, Tipper, who arrives late with Pinky to save Bubbles, is stabbed and dies. Rachel is slammed on the head with said baseball bat (including a portion of bloody scalp/wig) and Pinky is beaten senseless and bloodied but they both survive with seemingly no physical impact nor trauma. Guess being swatted in the cranium with a baseball bat and seeing two of your friends murdered isn't so bad.

"Yeah, well, your acting sucks too!"

And this card means... *snore*
After her initial escape (yes, the scene is still going oooon) Bubbles is found again by Boner who blathers on about having 3 playing cards and each one is a different way of killing her (one will give her a head start to escape... blah, blah). Perhaps Luna saw this work in another film, but here it just falls flat. Imagine a transphobic/homophobic psycho, he finds the person who he considers male who he thinks 'tricked' him into having sex and he drones on sounding like the Sicilian from Princess Bride. A better director would have shown the character's real panic at his conflict about being attracted to Bubbles. But this is where TOTWK falls from being a self-consciously bad film to just being... bad product.

"Emma and Tipper are dead"... *silence*
so is this scene

Bubbles is next seen at a hospital waking up from a coma and being visited by Rachel and Pinky. They show no real concern for her, nor display any effects of their own traumas and seemingly care less how two of their friends were brutally murdered. (not to mention why Boner and crew wouldn't kill Bubbles after already murdering two others??!!) Needless to say, because this takes place in slasher/revenge film land, there is no mention of police, family or loved ones having any interest in the dead characters... basically two 'trans women' are murdered and no one gives a damn. Either you buy that or you don't.

"This woman has been raped and nearly
fatally assaulted... she needs to have her
boob squeezed by an oversexed tranny nurse"

Boobeez: alwayz pfunny
In one of the least humorous (and most offensive) sequences in the film, a sexed-up "tranny" nurse squeezes Bubble's breast... yes, a woman who was just raped and beaten into a coma allows the nurse to squeeze her boob. A burlesque show doctor tromps in, does a few limp jokes and leaves. In an interminably tedious sequence, jokes are made about the fact Bubbles has brain damage and can't speak. Smoke some strong weed before you see it and it MIGHT be funny... but no guarantees. Again, Luna repeatedly follows formula... limp laughs, ominous situation, extreme violence, more failing attempts at laughs, rather than really allowing the power and horror of what's happened to Bubbles (and the others) to sink in. Trashy film or not, it ruins much of the later impact of the film. Yes, even good trashy exploitation films need to have a logic and an emotional core.

Seriously, audience, time to take a bathroom break

'Ching Chong Chinaman time'
TOTWK pretty much dies in its middle. A long, completely unfunny scene involving their gay friend in pseudo Chinaman eyeliner teaching the remaining three some form of Eastern Martial Arts is just painful. (reviewer's note: I missed two minutes of it and ran to the Woman's Room to enjoy the Viz Theater's uber-cool heated Japanese electronic bidet/toilets, the highlight of my evening) Stripped of the interior lighting and night shots (which are mostly well lit and shot for a low budget film), here it looks like a teenage bad home video you'd see on YouTube. I timed nearly 10 minutes of zero laughter from the audience during this section (even the 3 yahoos sitting behind me who seemingly laughed at everything were quiet).

Not a woody... just wooden
The next section involves Bubbles at home, taking a Psycho-style™ shower, hearing suspicious noises, etc. Sure enough, Boner turns up at her apartment with his two assistants. Can't say that Bubbles and Boner generate a lot of acting excitment in their scenes. Boner drones on, Bubbles looks passive and vacant and I found my eyes rolling upward. Many of the key moments are stuck in 'bad acting land'. Not hilarious 'Edith Massey bad acting' land, but just cardboard. Now we're left with yet another long sequence of Boner torturing Bubbles, more mentions of the playing cards, yadda, yadda. None of the seeming shock and horror of suddenly re-encountering her rapist/attacker is here, which then makes the surprise of the next scene seem flat.

fill in the ________ expression

Run that by me again
In a confusing twist nearly sunk by terrible editing, we ultimately find out the three women have laid a trap for boner and his accomplices. There is a horrible series of badly-edited cuts (not a pun). We see boner and the henchmen lying on the ground and the three former victims are in their Emma Peel catsuits standing over them. They've stuffed knives up the rectums of the two henchmen and a 'cocked' pistol up boner's behind (not easy to do).

Filmmakings' version of
a knife up the ass
But Luna is clueless how to make the scene work. Instead, the three women are total ditzes and are nearly overcome by the guys yet again who manage to somehow stand up with large dangerous objects in their behinds. Basically, it's called "let's drop the premise and go onto something else because we don't know what to do with it." Word of unasked-for advice to the budding revenge filmmaker: if you're going to put knives up "a bad guy's" behind... somehow show it being done... painfully, in detail, excruciatingly. Show the full impact it has on them, and let it be the cause of a horrible death involving a heaping helping of gore... or don't do it in the first place.

NO, BONER, PLEASE... no more talking about your cards!

Boner as King Lear
Yes, the bad guys are eventually killed and Boner's death, which should be the gory centerpiece of the film, is a serious yawn. I kept thinking Luna already had his micro-budget-rate Tom Savini special effects and then crafted the entire scene around them with no accounting for storyline. But the method of killing Boner has no drama and none of the graphic charge you'd expect from a revenge film. Let's see, you call a character Boner, he's a rapist and a murderer, and how do you kill him... you stick a knife in his mouth (which should have at least been shot with a tremulous close-up). Instead, Bubbles shoots him a couple of times with a pistol and the scene is captured with a medium camera shot (and some disinterested acting from Krystal Summers). Hello... where's the castration... where's the penis jammed in his mouth? If you're going to make a trashy violent film, don't do boring deaths... go for your money shot and stick it in the audiences' faces. Or just don't do it. (I prefer the latter)

Next time, Bulgarian folkdancers
instead of "trannies"
Ultimately, TOTWK has little to do with real transphobic violence (even viewed through a filter of 'comic' trashy revenge film). It's a middle-brow revenge film which uses transgender characters but the violence perpetrated against them has nothing to do with the real world of such crimes. It's just plugging a few "tranny" moments and characters into a cliched framework. Could this be, perhaps, because, as Luna first stated, his impetus for making the film was more about anti-gay crimes than murders of trans women? That's how it reads. As a result, the film has virtually nothing to say about trans women being murdered other than... no one really cares about your death and most of you are rather stupid. As Luke Y. Thompson of the New Times stated about I Spit on Your Grave, the film which greatly inspired TOTWK,
"Defenders of the film have argued that it's actually pro-woman [or in TOTWK's case, pro trans woman], due to the fact that the female lead wins in the end, which is sort of like saying that cockfights are pro-rooster because there's always one left standing".
As the film-ending exchange between Pinky, Bubbles and Rachel states, for purposes of TOTWK there is no difference between the men who rape and attack them and the revenge seeking "trannies." And, in this case, they're right. The violence and deaths are there strictly for the audiences' entertainment, not to enlighten them about trans women's lives (or deaths). Luna's mistake was deluding himself into thinking he was actually making a film about a serious subject and then attempting to sell that premise to LGBT festivals (who overwhelmingly didn't buy it... but the film was presented by festivals like SIFF and Tribeca who felt no need nor interest to justify their desire for easy exploitive "edge" to pissed off trans people).

Don't quit your night jobs
In general, the acting is fairly low budget-wooden but with a few exceptions. Willam Belli has a good comic delivery and timing albeit rather one note (for what it's worth, the aforementioned 3 guys sitting behind me were often amused). Joe Hoselton/Jenna had the best moments of real screen acting in the early backstage scenes. Erica Andrews is asked to deliver a cartoony, stereotyped Chiquita Banana performance and she "succeeds." Kelexis Davenport honestly looked as if she wasn't really into the entire experience and seemed mostly grumpy and out-of-it (and I don't mean in a Warhol/early-John Waters actor... "I'm stoned and you're a creeper for watching me" kind of way). Krystal Summers has a genuine sweetness and dumb teenage gurrl vulnerability which helps the film's 'likability factor' but she tends to go numb in many of the key scenes. The film seriously deflates when Zembrod and Summers are asked to deliver large amounts of dialogue for long stretches and it doesn't create any charge for the "money scenes" of carnage and torture.

A 'nice' slasher flick
For a film with a miniscule budget, TOTWK looks pretty good and has a fairly decent score... and this is one of its problems. It lacks the 'blown-up from 16mm' grainy, graphic punch the 'best' slasher flicks have. The "grindhouse" (is anyone else really sick of this tired retro-wannabe hipster term?) aspects like the blunt cuts spice up the film's tv-ish sterility, but don't really add a period look nor any power to the violent moments. The color is video bland—not the glaring, faded in parts, unadjusted, bleeding, aged technicolor it requires. The missing reels are the director trying to be cute, which is the opposite of what a revenge/slasher film should be. Moreover the camerawork is blandly competent instead of awful/punky/inspired and in your face. Again, none of the "money" shots are thoughtfully captured nor create the lasting iconic sick imagery this genre demands.

For all the issues I have about TOTWK blithely co-opting and trying to ride the tails of the very real and important subject of violence, transphobia, rape and murder against trans women (and, for the most part, ignores or sanitizes it) I am prepared to say that, at the very least, if it delivered on its goal as a genre film I would give it its due. Sad to say, it doesn't.

Two gay men (far left, far right) and
a wannabe 'tranny' (center)

Meet the (boring) public
What's extra depressing is how little audiences ask of a film like this. Yes, there are people who pay a lot of money to see WWF Wrestling and scream their heads off and believe they're seeing an actual exciting event. There are bored teens who see the most derivative punk band and pretend it's 1976 London and they've invented rebellion. There are people who see the most tedious, third-rate drag queens and whoop, hoot and holler because they think they're being outraaaageous for doing so. Or people who think John Water's post-Divine films are worth watching (btw, they suck). Which is why this film is perfect for midnight movies—whose audience is overwhelmingly bored suburban kids, and lonely, older guys who still collect action figures. They'll either be attracted by the promise of "seeing real trannies," experiencing buckets of fake gore or both. My recommendation is to find another one of the Japanese super toilets, push every button and get some real entertainment.

Should you choose to attend this film,
I recommend seeing it only at a theater
with truly professional Japanese toilets.

Note: This review is intended as a general critique of the film and not an examination of all the issues it does or doesn't raise.


  1. Thank you Gina for this review - we have a bit of a debate going on at our house regarding the merits of this film as a "grindhouse" film - and yes i am sick of that term too. Luna's excuse or premise that it is a revenge film as you describe does sound like it is an epic fail IN FILM MAKING - doing nothing NOTHING at all as he states he wishes he could do to elevate the issues. Its just another crappy movie. Really crappy.

  2. @PP: Thank you PP! I've tried to review the film based on the esthetic of its genre and some of the stated hopes the director had for examining more complex issues within that narrow context.

    ... ^wow, do I sound like an academic or what!? :->

  3. Found this via QT. Kudos to you for watching the entire film. I'm a film studies major & I definitely have experienced that moment of "Damn, do I *really* have to watch this terrible movie? I guess I do, in order to understand what makes people tick & what people are saying about my community..."

    I've also worked as an intern monkey at various film fests. I've seen my share of bad films go through, but this particular one puzzles me. Thinking about it, most of the bad films that have slipped through had some heart. This one does not sound like it has heart.

    I'm just getting so fucking tired of seeing crap like this everywhere, you know? We gotta settle for "positive" portrayals in stuff like Priscilla: Queen of the Desert while we open up the local paper and see transphobic crap everywhere.

  4. Aw crap. That last comment is from my old & dead blog. You can find my new one at - sorry

  5. "A better director would have shown the character's real panic at his conflict about being attracted to Bubbles."

    I've been doing queer issues related reolplays recently, and it's really difficult to play homophobic. It would make sense that Luna was unable to imagine what that panic and fear feels and looks like. Given that that panic is supposed to be the impetus for all the events in the film, it's no wonder that it's weak.

  6. @andersonredux: Thanks so much for the link to your Moving Hands blog... it's wonderful!

  7. wow. you spent A LOT of time on this. plots you got factually twisted (cards only appear in one scene) and some other stuff but i'm past that. it's time for me to just have fun with theatrical releases all over the US and let you & the other folks opposing just do your thing.
    I will say Thank You for using a GREAT picture of Luna, Musto and I. I'm sure you coulda grab some shot of me looking like i just got gangbanged but you were kind in your selection. i wish you woulda asked us stuff during the Q&A. we were looking right at you. I even said "are you sure no one else has questions?"

  8. p.s. those toilets were FIERCE!

  9. @Willam: What is the "other stuff" I got twisted? If I'm wrong I'm wrong but I'm almost certain the cards were mentioned again in the attack scene in Bubble's apartment. Whether they are or not doesn't really change my experience of the movie nor does it make it a better film.

    As I responded to you in your previous mention of the Q&A, I was there to see the film and listen to the people responding to it. 30 seconds in a shallow Q&A isn't enough time to address my concerns with the film.

  10. shallow? you coulda made it in depth. we broached the major issues you had qualms with in philly and nyc with people on your side of fence.
    I'm just going to tell you the first two i saw cause there were many mistakes (not my opinion- just factual stuff that is misstated).
    Biggest concern about covering a black eye was an homage to the women reverse-splotation film Gloria Stienam's I Was a Playboy Bunny movie when Joanna Kerns gets beat and then the girls help her pretty up. remember it, with Kirstie Alley? was awesome. Bubbles has to make a living despite being beat up.

    AFTER- when you said bubbles has been "raped, beaten and...go out and socialize" is wrong. She agrees to give EMMA and RACHEL a RIDE HOME. when they end up at a different place she says "neither of you lives here. I'm going."

    at least we agree on those amazing toilets

  11. Willam... coulda, woulda, shoulda. The Q&A I heard was 90% you yapping away (repeatedly telling the same stories), 0% Krystal. There was one mention made by an audience member of "Transsexuals in the Mission" who were murdered. I've never heard anyone who had issues with the film see it and say you actually "broached" issues except people who already were pro-TOTWK. Stop being a nudge or I'm going to put an ugly-ass picture of you up on the review. Just be glad I have that tedious toad Michael Musto next to you.

    Guess I missed the Joanna Kerns movie. Whatever oblique reference there was to it (and I would say 99.9% of the audience wouldn't have gotten it) doesn't mitigate how limp a premise it is as to how "flat" and compliant Bubbles was during the scene after being drugged, beaten and raped. Do you know women who, in that situation, are able to go out in front of a noisy crowd and shake their butt? "Mistake"... I don't think so.

    Bubbles gets out of the car and agrees to socialize. Emma and Rachel goad her to go inside. She enters the building (where the attack occurs) to, on some level, socialize. She is not physically dragged inside. I'm aware you have to somehow snark on this review but your attempted nitpicking is truly silly.

  12. I did makeup at a strip club in philadelphia and had to cover track marks, bruises, and the like from girls allowing themselves to be abused or doing it to themselves (our makeup girl-who is trans- worked at Babydolls in Dallas doing the same).
    I don't see me correcting wrong things as silly. If you say something that isn't 100% right, it's got some wrong in it. Bubbles says "one drink and i'm out" as she's walking in. no more to be said on that. her intent obviously is to bounce quite quickly. she tries to leave when no one answers the door at first. but you say potato, i say potatoe. we see it diff i guess.
    The Q&A in Philly got quite heated. A trans man and woman went back and forth with us inside for about 3 minutes and outside for 10 more. i had to keep reminding myself that people were filming and taking pictures so try not to look annoyed and put on my pretty face lol.
    I'm a mic hog. sorry i didn't give krystal the chance to answer any questions. If only people had directly asked...

  13. "I don't see me correcting wrong things as silly." - Well, we've been around and around on this before.

    "The Q&A in Philly got quite heated." - What happened?

  14. a transman actually stood up to make a point that he felt wasn't being heard. a sole transwoman was there despite me going out in the gay 'hood to give out seats to girls- who told me point blank that that was their "working time" when i met them in a pizza parlor and then a club. kinda sad about that. The woman that did attend started talking about how this film promotes violence. She didn't like when i said so did Die Hard.

    Why would she come to a movie that she knew featured violence (that may hit close to home for her) if she knew she wouldn't like it? I don't go to the movie to be saddened. I mean at least The Hours made me think, right? TOTWK requires no thought to enjoy, and only a squostch if you want to read something into it.

    (when the lady was talking, I actually had to remember to keep on my "pretty face" cause I was pissed. It's like LRGirl- would you go see Transformers if you knew you hated robots? no, right?)

  15. Why would you be pissed because someone saw the film and brought up what they thought about it? Isn't that the point of the Q&A? Sounds like those "conversations" that y'all keep talking about may be more one-sided than you have been leading people to believe.

    "TOTWK requires no thought to enjoy, and only a squostch if you want to read something into it."

    - and when one thinks about the messages in the film/ marketing and reaches a less than favorable opinion, you have to suppress being pissed off?

    "It's like LRGirl- would you go see Transformers if you knew you hated robots? no, right?"

    - If people kept telling me Transformers was actually showing how bad robots were and how empowering it was to watch them blowup - I may see it.


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