Film

BEHIND THE SCENES:

SPEAKING WITH SAMMIE RHODES

AN INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES LONBERGER

Sexual performance art is a craft that by definition does not call attention to itself. After all, its purpose is to create the illusion of sexual congress wherein the participants are lost in ecstasy. It might come as a surprise to casual viewers to learn that it is a fiction crafted and practiced by skilled performance artists who use their trade to entertain and to convince us that that fiction is a reality.

This is a skill employed to great profit by the Adult Film Industry, but within this art there are sub genres that unjustifiably do not have equal value attributed to them. For instance, performers that specialize in one type of scene are devalued for not wishing to be engaged for other types of scenes.

A classic case in point is the supremely talented Sammie Rhodes, who, in staying true to herself, specializes in girl/girl sex and will not perform with boys for the camera. Due to the nature of the business, "a lot of people in it want to push the line," and constantly attempt to convince the cool, patrician beauty to do boy/girl scenes, especially because Ms. Rhodes has established an enviable professional reputation. She is focused in front of the camera, always reports to work on time and prepared, and performs without inhibitions. This ability surprises even the artist herself: "I would never have called myself an exhibitionist before I entered this business," she says. "But, the truth is, the camera sparks an energy in me that comes to life once we start filming."

One of the reasons Ms. Rhodes has established such a solid reputation lies in the fact that she doesn’t allow "ego to get in the way. Making a scene work requires there be no conflict. I am hired to do a job," she said simply. "And I do it."

In a day and age when being a Porno Star is a not uncommon career goal, Rhodes herself did not seek out the industry. "It chose me," she marveled, "it was never a conscious decision for me to enter Adult." Coming from Mainstream work, she had reached a stage in her life when she was "overwhelmed by school work, but I didn’t even want to be a nude model. But I was put in good hands", in particular the hands of her agent, Skooby, who has built his reputation on "doing what is right and ethical," though not all that he does business with do. He is, regardless of how others are, mindful of the responsibility of his position, and guides Sammie and the others he represents, not only in their careers, but also, as far as possible, in their work habits as well.

And Sammie is grateful for his guidance. "I have made sure that outside of work I have a sober and unaffected life," she smiled. "For 20 years, I was not happy with me. I was," she admitted, "stressed, I drank and was immature. But," she continued, "under the influence of Skooby, I got my act together." She took a deep breath. "Now, I take care of myself physically and mentally. I take responsibility for my actions, eliminated the drama from my life, and am the healthiest and happiest I’ve ever been in my life."

Clear eyed, and extremely analytical of herself and her surroundings, the right-handed Scorpio characterized her personal life as "conservative," in contrast to many young talents who get caught up in the hype of the Industry. "It’s like, you are supposed to get in trouble" but, in reality, it doesn’t work that way. In contrast to the public stereotype about a Porn Star, Sammie feels that "you don’t have to act classless. When I go out for dinner," (one of her favorite forms of relaxation), this cellist dresses and acts "very conservatively."

As a performer who works exclusively with women, Sammie’s perception of the fairer sex is full of appreciation and enjoyment. "I am turned on by the…intricacy of women," she blushed. "There are just so many dimensions to a woman," she sighed. "You can see it in the look in a girl’s eyes. In sex scenes, men go through the motions and are less intense, more casual."

She stopped, sipped her coffee, and reflected. "With men, it’s like you are both part of something that is connected by nature, but when two girls get together, it’s like there are two energies that collide to create a different kind of energy."

Introspectively, she mused, "I’ve never had a chance to fall in love with a woman. I have fallen in love with a man." Breathing deeply, she continued. "It would be more of a challenge to be in love with a woman. I mean," she continued, "women are just made to make love to, to play with. They are very sexual, and have," using one of her favorite phrases, "a different energy. And with women", she pointed out, "there is no holding back. You can be free, everything flows." She reiterated the contrast between working with men and women for the camera. "Women are made for sex. Men can become very robotic."

Indeed, one of the reasons she stopped doing heterosexual scenes, is because she found the calculation that comes with performing was beginning to invade her personal life. As someone who is "very stable in my thinking" and thoroughly grounded, she pursued her bisexuality, which had been established when her "first sexual experience had been with a girl" This being established so early helped to open her horizons sexually. "It was such a relief to know myself. I’ve never had any pressure" about her bisexuality.

Just as women in our society get caught in the crosshairs and inability of the world to accept their intrinsic dialectic whereby they can be "nasty and classy at the same time, a whore and a professional," Sammie feels in a similar situation with her career choice. "I just have to stand my ground, and place my happiness at the top of my priorities." She explained to me that "heterosexual sex for me is private. It’s personal for me. I don’t perform it."

On the other hand, she naturally finds women to be more sexually attractive. "In my personal life, I do not look at the guys. I do, however, study women and I am unashamedly intrigued by them." In her private life, "I have female friends. Women have no ulterior motives. I mean," she laughed, "talking to a woman is like talking to yourself." Most interestingly, her close friends are "from back home in Connecticut." She wisely eschews non-professional associations within the industry she works in. Despite her preference for female friends, the love of her life is male – her dog, Benji, whom, she assured me was at home scratching the door while we interviewed, wondering what had happened to her.

Being bisexual in her private life does not translate to her bisexual activity on screen, but doing scene work has put restrictions on her acting opportunities, despite being greatly gifted at it. Regrettably, she has had little opportunity to show her great thespic skills, although she did a huge monologue in one take for a film made recently by Red Ezra. Hopefully, as the Adult Industry nudges ever closer to mainstream, girls who do girl/girl scenes will be cast according to their abilities, not their preferences.

Privately, the same relaxed dialectic that hallmarks her bisexuality is to be found in her personality and other sexual preferences as well. Typical of her sex, her sexual nature changes depending on whom she is paired with. "One day I’m sub," she shrugged. "The next day, I can be Domme – I just feed off the energy of my other." Further, despite making her reputation with her lesbian lovemaking, she considers herself "very spiritual. I believe in God and a Higher Power."

Her perceptive intelligence bespeaks of an academic background in sociology and English. Sammie Rhodes is focused, supremely self aware and served by an admirably analytical mind. She manages her personal life with the same level of skill that she performs with. And she does not confuse her reality with the fiction she creates, a fiction that gives expression to the joy of being a girl.

 

NOW SHOWING:

THE ILLUSIONIST

REVIEWED BY DORIAN

Based on a story by Steven Millhauser (Eisenheim the Illusionist), writer/director Neil Burger has created a delicious concoction of a film that certainly deserved wider publicity and distribution rather than the art house venue to which it was relegated. It is so superior to The Prestige, that much touted disaster, that the film’s short run becomes even more tragic.

There is a new sensation on stage in 1900 Vienna: Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) who performs almost supernatural illusions. His daring feats, including apparently raising the dead, make him manifestly guilty of the crossing of boundaries between art and life, and between illusion and reality. Is he really tampering with the laws of nature? People believe he really is summoning the dead from beyond the grave. An illusionist’s appeal rests not upon his tricks but upon his bond with the audience. The audience knows they are seeing an illusion, but it is how the magician presents the sleight-of-hand that holds the crowd spellbound: You question the validity of what you are seeing.

Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, attends a full house performance and, furiously jealous of Eisenheim’s popularity, is determined to expose the illusions as fraud. He sends his fiancée, Countess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel) to the stage as a volunteer but Eisenheim and Sophie recognize each other as childhood sweethearts who were torn apart because he was a commoner and she was not permitted to continue the relationship. Now they are reunited and Leopold, livid with rage, sends his stooge, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to shut down the show by any means.

Eisenheim sits on a bare stage in a solitary chair. He is concentrating intensely. The crowd rustles apprehensively. Suddenly the misty figure of a woman appears seemingly out of thin air. She reaches out to the audience as if in supplication and Inspector Uhl halts the proceedings, ordering his officers to shut down the show as pure fakery. The audience is enraged, close to rioting.

The Illusionist deals with the nature of belief and illusion, the notion that seeing is believing – even if we know what we’re seeing can’t possibly be true. Does Eisenheim deal with the supernatural or is he a master magician? We don’t truly find out until the end, but it’s totally mesmerizing en route.

No one could have portrayed Eisenheim better than Edward Norton with a blazing intensity that so scorches the viewer, it becomes frightening. But beneath this intensity, there’s also a beguiling casual quality to his performance which tends to throw the viewer off balance. He becomes an enigma, as was intended. Paul Giamatti almost steals the film as an overly ambitious policeman who feels a deep regard for Eisenheim but owes allegiance to Leopold. He creates a complex character in Uhl who walks a tightrope between serving his own interests and those of his sponsor, Leopold, while also fighting to hold onto some integrity and sense of justice. Jessica Biel as Sophie is positively luminous. Rufus Sewell as Leopold is evil incarnate, venomous, ruthless and sadistic, wanting to marry Sophie only to realize the Austro-Hungarian empire such a union would create, and is planning to wrest his father from the throne.

Nothing you see in the film should be taken for granted thanks to the illusionist-in-chief, the director. The Illusionist is first and foremost a mystery, but it actually is a mysterious film. There is a mysterious yet satisfying resolution. That Burger adapted a 21-page story, created the roles of Sophie and Leopold and yet remained faithful to the spirit of the original is truly remarkable. That Philip Glass composed the mesmerizing music caps it – absolutely spot-on perfect: atmospheric, mysterious, hypnotic, creating a magic of its own.

The film is beautiful: The cinematography by Dick Pope casts a spell, the colors used to enhance the mood. Burger delights in reminding us that movies are, by their very nature, nothing but illusions.

 

THE QUEEN

REVIEWED BY DORIAN

All Hail the Queen…Helen Mirren. Is there nothing this luminous actress cannot do to perfection? She has laid Jane Tennison to rest (I weep) and has resurrected Queen Elizabeth. Peter Morgan wrote a jolly good script about the Queen at the time of Princess Diana’s death in 1997; Steven Frears took this script and spun gold.

The film begins with the election of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) as the new Prime Minister and his initial meeting with the Queen (Helen Mirren) who makes no effort to disguise her disdain for this clearly non-royal person. A few months later, the royals are awakened with the news that Diana was killed in an auto accident in Paris while running from paparazzi. Because Diana is no longer officially a royal (she and Prince Charles were already divorced), Elizabeth, the decidedly unpleasant Prince Philip (James Cromwell at his curmudgeonly best), and the slightly dotty Queen Mum (Sylvia Sims) see no reason why they should get involved beyond grieving for the former Princess in private. Such icy insensitivity is unfathomable to the British populace.

But the new Prime Minister has a different take on the matter: with Diana’s worldwide popularity and the public mourning so strong for the "People’s Princess," the matter needed immediate attention with a press statement by the royal family and a public funeral to help the nation heal. But Elizabeth refuses, unaware of the adverse effect this has on the British people. The royals are held in such contempt for their haughtiness, disdain and downright coldness toward the beloved Diana that there are distinct rumblings that the monarchy has outlived its relevancy and perhaps should be disbanded.

This is a film about a clash of wills between the Queen and the Prime Minister. The Queen finds herself in the uncomfortable position of trying to adjust to the public’s perceived hostility and also taking advice from this young snip of a Prime Minister.

Helen Mirren gives a spectacular performance as Queen Elizabeth II – never once do you feel you are watching an actress perform – she simply IS Queen Elizabeth II, no doubt about it. She maintains the Queen’s famous reserve while occasionally allowing glimpses into her deeper emotions. Michael Sheen as Tony Blair is ideally cast. He captures Blair’s boyishness and is more attuned to the public pulse, more accessible ("Call me ‘Tony’!), more modern, less monarch-rigid. He’s also an annoying gnat to Elizabeth who clearly does not approve of this commoner – yet he is the bridge between the British people and the British monarchy. The bridge he walks over is Diana’s memory.

Elizabeth was raised as a royal with little control over her life or her world. She is more attentive to her perceived "duty" than to her family. Diana was a rebel, wearing her heart publicly, but that so-called "weakness" made her human and lovable. The queen is out of touch, locked away in Scotland, trying to shield her grandsons from the public displays of emotion, but she also feels the weight of her crown and shows us what it’s like to bear the responsibility of wearing it. Her inclination is to treat Diana’s death as a tragic private affair; since Diana no longer is a princess, she shouldn’t be publicly celebrated. The Queen stands firm; she will not make a statement. Philip displays nothing but arrogance and dismisses the public as so much folderol. Charles (Alex Jennings) knows the royal attitude must change but doesn’t have the cojones to do anything about it. He talks to Blair, sensing the restlessness of the public mood and tries to convince his mother to go with the flow, but fails. He himself is a lost soul. However, after a public journey to observe the overwhelming tribute to Diana, Elizabeth finally accedes to Blair’s cajoling.

Frears gives Mirren lots of room to be the queen, warts and all – yet he encourages her to reveal her character’s insecurities in quiet moments. While it seems easy to say the royals are all wrong, Frears subtly directs the film so that the audience can see that they simply are behaving the way they were tutored – the traditional way. By the film’s close, you come to see that even if you feel the queen is out of touch and outdated, she deserves our respect. The royal family behaved as they always have done; it is the world that changed, and the royals were unprepared for it.

Mirren captures the Queen’s moral dilemma unerringly with a perfectly realized tone of "you may not like her, but you should understand her." Mirren’s exquisite subtlety and emotional tenacity create a cinematic wonderment. Neither Mirren nor Sheen do impersonations; they simply are who they represent on the screen and bring them to life.

All About Anna

REVIEWED BY CHARLES LONBERGER

All About Anna announces itself as a film that is made by and for women – but that, unfortunately, is exactly what is wrong with it. It is a production that depicts emotional indulgence without ever achieving the least amount of emotional depth.

The problem is primarily to be found in the script of Anya Aims and Loretta Fabiana, which seems not to notice that the "threefold needs" of the female sex eerily mirror schizophrenia. Thus, the world of and by women that it delineates is one filled with abrupt, if artificial at times, mood swings. As indeed is the case in the real world, these moods veer between tears and aggression, and the resultant behavior is recklessly promiscuous. In fiction as in life, it is a world ruled by hormones.

As is the case with real life women, "trust" has a whimsical nature. But what fatally undermines this fiction is the fact that it has too many coincidences to be plausible, creates scenes of artificial confrontation and abruptly resolves itself by being "All about us." The lack of self-discipline and real insight into herself, means that Anna doesn’t find anything out about herself at all, except that she suffers from crushes. As scripted, the film could just as easily be entitled "Finding Johan," with him coming as Anna is going.

While unable to transform this vision into anything more than what it is, director Jessica Nilsson paints an impressionistic picture, in spite of overstated cultural stereotypes. She begins the story with an extreme close up coming into focus and ends effectively with a quiet close up as well. She implies the servility of Johan’s weak character through his association with a dog and a shoe, and, to her credit, treats explicit sex as incidental, yet undermines herself at times with pretentiously surrealistic touches.

As Anna, Gry Bay is attractive and can’t seem to "take a step without being reminded of Johan." As Johan – a "blast from the past" – Mark Stevens is an overgrown puppy who sulks about not being called and mopes about by going fishing. At least, as the rejected Frank, Thomas Raft is all man. In her role as Sophie, Ovide is strong, which means she is a lesbian whom Anna loves and leaves.

Most offensive of all is the highhanded manner that Eileen Daly gets treated in as roommate Camilla. The interpretation of a character that seems to have been created to be ridiculed (because of, not despite) her patheticness and desperation is WAY over the top. She gets it in the eye, to add insult to injury.

The soundtrack of M. Maurice Hawksworth is all over the place. At best impressionistic, it turns trendily funky, quotes every New Age convention possible, equates jazz with hot sex, and ends with a silly pop song.

The photography of Claus Lykke is better, and often hand held, but it is alive with pop colors and shows us a Paris of vibrant images. The editing of Martin Bernfield, basically dissects lovemaking.

All About Anna works best as a teeniebopper’s film, because it gives voice to the prepubescent inside an adult, and this quality actually accounts for the behavior of its lead character as well as its spite towards Camilla. Chew your bubble gum when watching this one.

It is distributed by Wicked Pictures.

 

HOOK UPS 11

REVIEWED BY CHARLES LONBERGER

Despite having the virtues one has come to associate with its filmmaker, Mark Stone’s Hook Ups 11 is a tedious exercise, due to its unrelentingly vanilla flavoring.

Stone gets a lot out of his POV technique, which unbrokenly segues from dialogue with his actresses to the role of an observer. Also, the attention to color scheme that hallmarks Stone’s films is again tastefully present in the form of reds and vibrant pink accents.

The lighting by Fliktor flatters the girls and employs lattice subtlely, though the camerawork by Stone himself, while smooth, is mostly of two perspectives – low and lower. There is no editing to speak of, and the normally hard driving soundtrack that is the director’s signature is here only employed between scenes, as a bridge.

If there is one thing the viewer brings away from this one, it is the sound of slurping, as Marie Luv, Randy Spears and Steven St. Croix lap it all up. Luv, a home girl who gets hammered, is the most exuberant of the performers here: she gets it "right on the kisser" and "drops on you" with "nice, plump small breasts" and looks very pretty in pink. Even more memorable is Shanna Steele, who doesn’t act nervous at all, handles her partner with ease and ends up apologizing, although we wondered what for. That being said, she is cute and sports a glorious outie.

The other pros employed are a curious lot: Cherokee’s little girl voice reminds one of a perverse pixie, though we greatly enjoyed Liv Wyler, who was somehow sweet with her "tiny little titties," as she proved to us that she indeed "likes getting spanked." Delicate and fragile, she was very pretty, soft and feminine.

For the rest, we mistook Avy Scott for Randy Spears’ publicist, the way she sang his praises, Lexi Tyler showed us that plastic never fails and Britney Manson gave the ending away.

The male performers were even more colorful, beginning with the workmanlike performance of Randy Spears. Eric Masterson kept a straight face, while Chris Cannon went wild by smacking himself all over the place. Steven St. Croix turned into "an animal" before our very eyes, and abruptly started shrimping. And Evan Stone was presented to us as "the ultimate lover" (?!) before making the most unexpected wedding proposal I’ve yet to witness in my years as a reviewer.

Wacky and original when you least expect it, Hook Ups 11 can be ordered through www.wickedpictures.com. Even when the action is numbingly predictable, Stone always finds a way to surprise us, making us chuckle as we start to count sheep.

FROM THE VAULT:

MUCHO MILANO :

Embrace of the Vampire (1995)

Poison Ivy II: Lily (1995)

REVIEWED BY CHARLES LONBERGER

Producer/Actress Alyssa Milano betrayed her leanings to the occult (since exploited in her TV series, Charmed) in the 1995 film, Embrace of the Vampire, which was made with care by some significant, if lesser known, talents. Chief among these was its director, Anne Goursaud, who had a sizeable list of credentials (primarily as editor), behind her when she essayed this production. She sets the action immediately in a long ago, courtly time, established by the use of costumes and filters, then updates it effectively to a spooky college campus. With smooth tilts and pans, she employs mid shot, close up, and high angles in telling a tale that equates a glow-in-the-dark ankh symbol with "sexual powers."

All this is played against a color coordinated backdrop by production designer Peter Stolz and music by Joseph Williams that is all new age accents. Surprisingly, given Goursaud’s background, the editing of Tarilyn A. Stropshire is unimaginative, though the cinematography of Suki Medencevic is airy, glossy and chicly rich.

The screenplay by Halle Eaton, Nicole Coady and Rick Bitzelberger presents vampirism as a nipple and brain licking animus projection of the lead character, Charlotte, one which is overcome en route from that character’s virginity to her final fulfillment through adult sexual expression and coitis. This is emphasized by scenes in which she converses with the vampire, who no one else can see or hear. The screenplay uses the study of Botticelli to introduce the occult to its characters and establishes college age relationships believably through its dialogue.

As Charlotte, Ms. Milano convinces us she has a beast within, having mostly bisex bad dreams at night while dressing like a sexy but good schoolgirl during the day. Smoking, drinking or not, she shows us prominent breasts, large pink nipples and an out-there outie, while integrating Catholic ritual into the occult and tongue kissing other girls with a deep expertise. As the vampire, Martin Kemp carries an air of slightly effeminate melancholy, dispatching of Charlotte’s girlfriends while spouting poetic musings meant to remind us of his distant past. He is doomed not to win his beloved, continuing his suffering by letting her go. Jennifer Tilly has fun as a good time Butch with the voice of a little girl, and Charlotte Lewis’ photo studio is all teddy bears, tits and lesbic assaults.

This is thoughtfully crafted and unpretentious, deserving of its cult status.

Which is more than can be said for Poison Ivy II: Lily, which was made the same year, and by the same crew. Consequently, the film is very stylish and even accomplished: the cinematography of Suki Medencevic snakily shifts around with its camera, and the direction of Anne Goursaud is confident and adaptable. Whether she uses hand held cameras or foreground placements to suggest perspective, she effectively understates her scenes – at least most of the time. There is a simply stunning use of horizontal composition within one particular frame that is astounding and original. One must note, however, that, at least in one regard, continuity is thrown to the wind: the navel that is pierced is an innie, and, thus, clearly not belonging to Alyssa Milano, which it is supposed to.

No, what’s wrong about this film is its screenplay by Chloe King, which touches on issues important to female college freshmen. Ms. Milano, as the heroine, Lily, is in turmoil, having to choose between an age appropriate, if rebellious, boyfriend and a much older man who happens to be her teacher.

The problem comes in the portrayal of the teacher, Donald. He is a leering instructor who has a history of putting the make on his students. His idea of teaching is to tell you to take your clothes off, and if you don’t, well, he’s here to help you. To depict him as being "artistic", the film has him smoke and drink when painting. He might as well have "Born to Lose" tattooed upon his forehead, and only an idiot of any age could end up falling for him.

The boyfriend isn’t much better; His attitude seems to be that there isn’t anything tequila won’t cure. And when that won’t work, there is a Chinese cellist roommate who will accompany Ms. Milano as she dresses up like leatherette. Another oddity is the perpetual presence of a pretentious performance artist who hangs around on campus like it’s his job.

Certain analogies, like the artistic conflict between teacher and boyfriend masking their sexual competition, don’t really resonate, although the troubled psychology of Lily basically does. As played by Milano, Lily is a good girl who has self-esteem issues related to hometown and parents, and who thus tries to be bad in order to succeed. She gets jealous, although she is herself a closet predator, but her "I just wannabe good, again" speech to her boyfriend at least gets him back, without a hint that this, too, might just be an act.

What fatally flaws the film is that it tips from being a study of a particular age and sex and becomes Pinteresque. This just turns it into a potboiler and unintentional comedy, but the attempt is as egotistical as…dare we say it? Girls of a certain age.

The final nail in the coffin is the soundtrack by Joseph Williams, which equates sex with Enigma, seduction to a wannabe Morisette, and acid rock to trashy behavior. Something for everybody, but none of it new.

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