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Bondage, sex, and monsters 

Whenever a prestigious juried film festival invents a special prize, everyone should take notice. Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine was the first documentary allowed to play at Cannes in over four decades, and it was so impressive, the jury created an award for it to win. In other cases, special award recipients have much darker undertones, like David Cronenberg's Crash or the brand-new Secretary, which took home a Special Jury Prize for its "originality" at this year's Sundance fest.

            Now, the average Joe, upon learning that the film is about the deviant sexual relationship between a boss and his employee (and it stars Crash's James Spader, too), would probably assume that Secretary is a completely over-the-top look at the practice of BDSM, and that it is full of graphic sex. But it isn't over-the-top or full of graphic sex, and that makes the film either extremely cool or a complete letdown, depending on your level of comfort with the whole spanking thing.

            Secretary takes place in Florida and opens with Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) happily parading around an office in some kind of bondage yoke. The gear doesn't seem to impede her ability to perform her job, as she swishes around to Angelo Badalamenti's hip score.

            This, we soon find out, is really the end of the story, as the rest plays out in a long, narrated flashback that begins six months earlier, on the day Lee was sprung from the nuthouse. She's a cutter and a burner, no doubt as a result of her Norman Rockwell family life, which includes drunk Dad (Stephen McHattie) and overbearing Mom (Lesley Ann Warren). Making matters worse are Lee's sister's (Amy Locane) wedding, which is taking place the very day Lee comes home, as well as the constant wooing of an old boyfriend (Jeremy Davies), who has a whole slew of mental problems all his own.

            When it becomes clear the situation at home will only perpetuate her cutting and burning, Lee decides to get a job. The only thing she knows how to do is type, so she lands on the doorstep of E. Edward Grey, a local attorney who can only be described as "Spaderesque." Failing to take note of either the neon "Secretary wanted" sign that can be turned on and off like a hotel vacancy sign, or the previous holder of the job fleeing the office in tears, Lee is overly eager to land the position, even though Grey warns her she'll be bored out of her skull.

            A few typographical errors later, Grey has Lee bent over his desk while he smacks the hell out of her ass. But she likes it, and starts making errors on purpose. As the two get more and more into it, the bigger the stakes get, so to speak. She's a self-loathing wacko and he's a shy egomaniac --- it's a match made in BDSM heaven! Before long, Grey is controlling everything in Lee's life, right down to the number of peas she has for dinner. But eventually the wheels fall off, and both characters suffer.

            If this is an accurate portrayal of BDSM, it seems like a bit of a bore --- but I think that's the point. These are normal (well, fairly normal) people with one particular hang-up (or two). We're laughing, but not at the characters. Because of the special Sundance award, you expect something really sick to happen that never does. Then again, your mileage may vary. To put it simply, your enjoyment of Secretary hinges on the answer to this question: Is it demeaning to women because it shows a man of power getting off while he slaps a lowly secretary's dumper, or is it empowering because she's really getting what she wants? On the other hand, if you're simply looking for a wholesome BDSM love story, you needn't bother with the question.

            We've seen Spader in this kind of role so many times, it doesn't even phase us anymore how adept he is at being creepy. Gyllenhaal (she's Jake's sister) steals the show, both by default and because her performance is notably strong. Looking like a cross between Lauren Graham and Kim Deal, she is very believable as a young woman walking the line between complete mental breakdown and absolute female empowerment.

I first locked eyes on Spanish actress Paz Vega in Toronto last month, at the "international" premiere of The Other Side of the Bed, a sex romp with about a dozen song-and-dance numbers. I thought the ridiculously attractive Vega got naked a lot in that film, but it now seems like a drop in the bucket after seeing Sex & Lucía. The actress, already a superstar in Spain after playing the equivalent of Rachel on their equivalent of Friends, does some singing in Sex, plus, as the title advertises, there's plenty of hot monkey love, as well.

            Sex is one of those films that aims to confuse (director Julio Medem's last film, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, was a palindrome about characters named Anna and Otto). Just when you think you've got your mind wrapped around its insanely layered story, it drops you down a rabbit hole of confusion... literally. The film starts with Lucía (Vega) rushing home from work only to discover her boyfriend Lorenzo (Tristán Ulloa) is dead. She escapes to a remote island to mourn, meeting and moving into a guesthouse owned by Elena (Najwa Nimri), who we later learn is the mother of a child fathered by Lorenzo. So far, so good --- right?

            While Lucía is on the island, we see, via flashback, the origins of her relationship with Lorenzo, who was apparently working on a book. And this is when things really start to get crazy. It becomes increasingly impossible to separate what's real from what Lorenzo is writing, which is remarkably similar to what is happening around him. Meanwhile, he has a lot of sex with Lucía, who often screams, "I'm dying!" while she gets her groove on. As if that wasn't enough to get your juices flowing, there's also a thread involving the absurdly buxom (and potentially fictional) Belén (Elena Anaya), who looks after Elena's kid.

            Keep it in your pants, gentlemen --- you can see both Vega and Anaya in Pedro Almodóvar's upcoming Talk To Her.

           

Anybody expecting local filmmaker Tim Beideck's follow-up to the very funny Drivers Wanted to be another Kevin Smith-inspired laugh riot might be in for a shock. In Gertrude's Monster, Beideck blends eclectic elements like horror, religion, mathematics, and haircutting (okay --- maybe they're all rooted in horror) into a 20-minute tale about a nine-year-old girl named Gertrude and a bowlegged hunchback with crossed eyes who talks like a character in a badly-dubbed martial arts flick. And he isn't even the monster!

            You can catch Gertrude's Monster Thursday, October 24, at Johnny's Smoke-Free Bar, 1382 Culver Road, at 8 p.m. Admission is $5, and you can buy copies of the film after the screening. Beideck will use the proceeds in his quest to land a distribution deal for Drivers Wanted. For more information, visit his website at www.pillensfarm.com.

For more of Jon's unsanitized movie ramblings, visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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