Princess Mononoke (1999)

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fourhalfstar

I’ve gradually become accustomed to a certain warmth & comfort in Hayao Miyazaki films, where a slow, languid pace allows the plot to trickle as we come to settle in an infinite, domestic space full of immense wonder. Even otherworldly dangers like Howl’s Moving Castle’s bird wizards & Spirited Away’s No Face are tamed & consoled by the warmth & domesticity of Miyazaki’s intricate, natural worlds. His characters always seem to find their way to calmness & peace in interior space, occasionally contrasted with the expensive majesty of flight. Imagine my shock, then, when I recently watched Miyzazki’s Japanese folklore masterpiece Princess Mononoke for the first time. It was like a glorious, unexpected punch to the face. Princess Mononoke might be the single most metal animated feature I’ve ever seen. Its shapeshifting warthog demons, severed arms, decapitations, and eco warrior terrorism were not only unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a Miyazaki film before; they were also inexplicably invigorating in a way that only the best of cinema can be. Its PG-13 violence was shocking, but also darkly beautiful and added a whole other layer of complexity to a director I’ve been gradually less able to fully understand or pigeonhole with each passing feature. It’s an exciting feeling.

The story of Princess Mononoke appears to be heavily steeped in Japanese history & folklore, but its basic elements are fairly understandable to a cultural outsider. A young prince must leave his village on a quest to lift a curse from his arm he incurred while slaying an undead demonic boar. His cursed wound allows him to “fight like a demon,” but being a mighty warrior is a small consolation prize for a spreading illness that will eventually bring his death. On his journey he finds himself stuck between two sides of an impending war. On one end stands an industrial iron-producing village helmed by a warmongering matriarch, representing the modern world. On the opposite end stands the natural world, represented by mythically large talking beasts, ancient spirits, and a Jungle Book-type princess who was raised by a pack of wolves. The prince must negotiate a peaceful balance between the modern world & the natural one before the two sides’ bloodbaths get out of hand, an escalating tension reflected in the way his cursed wound pulsates & worsens each time they clash.

It’s difficult to capture the fierce beauty of Princess Mononoke in words. I can’t describe the pure badass beauty of its titular character riding into battle equipped with a spear & mask on a giant wolf’s back, but nothing could supplant seeing it for yourself. Although his accomplishments are typically contextualized solely within the world of animation, Hayao Miyazaki is truly one of cinema’s modern masters & Princess Mononoke is one of his finest works, as complex & violent of an outlier as it is. The film juggles concepts as varied as war, deforestation, ghosts, industry spirituality, and the basic instructions on how to kill a god, all without ever feeling bogged down or overstuffed. In some ways its story is as simple as a young man fighting on both sides of a war he finds abhorrent in order to put an end to it & find peace. The implications of what that war means and how we define balance in a modern, industrialized world is much vaster & more fascinating, though, a depth Princess Mononoke commands in very few brushstrokes. Besides, it really is just so goddamn metal. You really need to see that girl riding that wolf into battle.

-Brandon Ledet

April and the Extraordinary World (2016)

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twohalfstar

Movie magic is complicated alchemy. The hand-drawn French animation feature April and the Extraordinary World seems tailor made to have me on the floor, drooling. It’s a welcome reprieve from the flat, CG animation style that’s dominated nearly everything outside Studio Ghibli productions & stray stop-motion animations for the past couple decades. It stars a cool, fiercely independent female scientist & her sarcastic cat sidekick in its lead roles. It begins with an impressively ambitious alternate history sci-fi premise that sets the table for a grand, one-of-a-kind adventure. By all means I should’ve been over the moon with what the film delivers, but it never quite clicked for me. April and the Extraordinary World has all necessary ingredients to make movie magic, but there’s something noticeably off in the recipe.

Part of the problem might be that the movie throws so much of its narrative weight into its go-for-broke premise that there’s not much room left for genuine wonder after its opening exposition. Before we meet our scientist & feline heroes we’re steamrolled with a history lesson in an alternate timeline where famous scientists are abducted by a totalitarian French Empire of Napoleonic lineage and the resulting world is a steampunk’s wildest dream of coal-powered inventions & antiquated-yet-futuristic doohickies. There’s an awe-inspiring aspect to the film’s Future in the Past fantasy realm that recalls Miyazaki works like Howl’s Moving Castle, but never quite touch that master’s skill for emotional impact or his patience with luxuriating in the worlds he creates. The film somehow boils its vast, exciting plot into a generic chase film in which our two outsider heroes must protect a magical MacGuffin (a fix-all cure to death, aging, seemingly any illness) out of the hands of a malicious government & a mutated pair of failed experiments hellbent to destroying the planet. Once you strip it of a few quirks, the story is more or less interchangeable with that of any bloated superhero summer blockbuster of the past decade, which is a damn shame considering the massive potential of its launching point.

April and the Extraordinary World is a beautifully animated film, but I spent most of its runtime passively enjoying that visual treat without engaging with its emotional or narrative core. There are a couple ideas at play that make great use of its premise – only the older generation remembers a world with trees thanks to pollution & the world’s remaining scientists are forced into either hiding or weapons production – but for the most part it crams its extraordinary sci-fi ambition into an extra ordinary action chase plot. April and the Extraordinary World has all the necessary pieces to construct a gorgeous work of sheer wonder, but I found myself instead often wondering when it would finally be over. I hope its formula is more impactful for other people intrigued by the various charms of its individual building blocks, but I mostly zoned out on its emotionless proceedings & focused on the pretty lights & sounds. The movie is almost passable as pretty good, but it’s made of some fantastic material, an alchemist’s formula that should have produced pure gold.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Moon (1975) was the Most Honest Surrealist Take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice . . . Until Alice (1988)

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We were having a hard time in our initial conversation about August’s Movie of the Month, the fantasy realm art piece Black Moon, in pinpointing an exact interpretation of the film’s basic plot or intent. It’s highly likely, of course, that director Louis Malle didn’t want his exact intent or a definitive plot to be discernible at all in the film. Black Moon feels very much committed to a certain mode of surrealism that points to the coldness & seemingly random cruelty of existence by being, you guessed it, cold & randomly cruel. The interpretation we more or less settled on as a crew was that Black Moon was best understood as a down-the-rabbit-hole story that aped the structure of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland series as a means of capturing his young protagonist’s unsettling journey into womanhood. Whatever that journey means or what it even is largely falls under the umbrella of personal interpretation but the Wonderland influence was undeniable as an overarching aesthetic in its basic structure. Black Moon is by no means a strict adaptation of that source material, but it does wear the influence on it sleeve, as openly admitted by Malle himself in interviews. I’d also argue that the film was the best surrealist take on Wonderland’s cold, random cruelty depicted on film for well over a decade, capturing that aspect of Carroll’s work better than any of its many peers that were straightforward adaptations of the novel. That is, until it was upstaged by 1988’s stop-motion animation classic Alice.

Czech director Jan Švankmajer had been producing short films all the way back to the same art scene in his home country that produced 1967’s Daisies before making his feature film debut in Alice. To be honest, Alice’s structure & pacing reflect his short film past in a lot of ways, recalling modern filmmakers like Guy Maddin & Roy Andersson who are remarkably adept at constructing individual images & vignettes, but struggle a little when it comes to piecing those moments together to achieve a digestible feature length work. Alice is a stunning visual achievement, a tactile work of stop-motion animation that values the specificity of curio cabinet oddities, Joseph Cornell shadowboxes, and taxidermy animals over the clay figurines we’re used to seeing in titles like Coraline & Kubo. What makes Alice interesting as an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s source material, however, is not in the visual achievement, but in a tone that matches the cold surrealism of Louis Malle’s Black Moon. As Švankmajer put it himself, he wanted to reinvent the interpretation of Alice in Wonderland in other adaptations that posed it as a fairy tale with a moral center and instead present it as a cold, amoral dream with no point to be made outside its own absurdism, a reading that captures the essence of Black Moon just as much as it hints at the power & intent of Carroll’s source material. Švankmajer explained, “While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted finger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realization of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realized dream.” Considered in that context, Black Moon also functions best as a dream & not as a fairy tale, despite what you’d expect based on its talking unicorn.

The difference between the dream structures of Alice & Black Moon, however, is that the latter often functions as a nightmare. Both films’ plots survive on the surreality of minute to minute obstinate confusion, but there’s a lighter tone to Alice that isn’t quite matched in Black Moon. Black Moon can be funny at times, but it often veers into uncomfortable imagery like hawk murder & interspecies breastfeeding, while Alice finds its individual vignettes in moments like a cute rat cooking a can of beans on its young protagonist’s head. Most of the film’s creepiness lies in its old world imagery, a curio cabinet specificity that recalls a similar immersion in Nature, strange animals, and odd domesticity to what we see in Black Moon’s languid sleepwalk through an earth tone dreamscape, but with noticeably less malice. Black Moon pulled a lot of its surrealist influence from Carroll’s creation in Alice in Wonderland, an uncaring, dreamlike tone that recalls the structure of a fairy tale, but without the lesson to be learned. 1988’s Alice picks up that torch & runs with it, applying that same amoral interpretation of Carroll’s intent to a straightforward adaptation of his novel. Together they have a lot to say about the potency of dream logic, the philosophical implications of surrealism, and the meaninglessness of meaning. I highly recommend them as a double feature next time you’re feeling particularly existential & loopy.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, Louis Malle’s surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s comparison of its lame duck unicorn with the divine unicorns of Legend (1985).

-Brandon Ledet

Don’t Think Twice (2016)

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fourstar

It’s tempting to say that you won’t get much out of stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia’s latest film, the improv comedy scene indie Don’t Think Twice, unless you’re the kind of comedy nerd who finds yourself regularly reading Splitsider, religiously awaiting the next episode of Comedy Bang Bang, and fostering a lifelong love-hate relationship with Saturday Night Live. I do believe that’s selling the film’s merits a bit short, though, especially since it’s more of a drama than an outright comedy. It just happens to be a drama that centers on characters immersed in that comedy world nerdom, a culture Birbiglia & his stacked cast of up & coming greats (Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, etc.) seem to know intimately well. Much like how the recent Jemaine Clement comedy People Places Things structured its story around a formal, art school lesson on comics & the graphic novel as artistic mediums, Don’t Think Twice offers a history lesson & a crash course instruction on the basic tenets of improv comedy theater. Underneath that specificity of setting, though, lies a heartfelt drama about a tight knit group of friends at an insurmountable impasse. Most of the film’s actual laughs come from a truly dark, black soul sense of humor that contrasts itself sharply with its more crowd-friendly improv sketches, which, like a lot of improv, aren’t really all that funny. It’s kind of a you-had-to-be-there artform. Birbiglia knows how to make that real world melancholy clash nicely with the stage show artificiality in a way that’s both emotionally revealing & intellectually engaging. Don’t Think Twice smartly plays into the strengths of small stakes filmmaking instead of the appeal of improvisational comedy, which is an elusive spirit that evades strict documentation.

Don’t Think Twice details the lives of the fictional improv troupe The Commune as they struggle to hold themselves together in the face of two modes of impending doom: imminent financial ruin & the jealousies that arise when one of their own gets called up to “the big leagues.” The same way their comradery shifts into seething anger when one member finds mainstream success, Don’t Think Twice morphs the comedy institution Saturday Night Live into a nasty fictional surrogate named Weekend Live, a weekly ritual The Commune & other comics treat like a sports event (if you’re the kind of sports fan who mostly like to get drunk & heckle). The film does a great job of contrasting the thrill of watching the live sketch comedy show in person vs. the lifeless bitterness of watching it broadcast at home, especially if you’re resentful that someone “made it” on the cast when you feel you deserved their spot. There’s a Party Down vibe at work here where writers & comedians are stuck in the rut of working menial service industry jobs while their peers find their paths to success seemingly with ease. The Commune and its individual members aren’t able to break this bitterness cycle until they realize that there’s more than one definition of success and that a place on Weekend Live, a very limited window of opportunity, is not necessarily the thing that would make each & every one of them happy. Watching these comics deal with personal & professional jealousy is only the beginning of the journey; the rest is nested in seeing them find their own place in a broad spectrum of comedy outlets, whether that means pursuing a new medium or it means staying put in the less-than-lucrative world of improv theater.

There’s an incredible, knowledgeable attention to detail in Don’t Think Twice’s portrayal of improv comedy, both in capturing the feel of Weekend Live’s obvious source of inspiration & in its depiction of backstage ritual, but what the film nails particularly well is the specificity of its comedy scene personalities. Much like the nasty Tim Heidecker vehicle The Comedy, the film depicts the darkness & discomfort of hanging around with comedians who turn everything into “a bit” instead of dealing with their own emotions in a direct, genuine way. The difference is that Don’t Think Twice’s characters are empathetic & human in a way that makes you want to root for their success, even when they’re mocking a friend’s dying father or, worse yet, “yes-and”ing during sex. In this world characters mask their malice & aggression with an unapologetic, after-the-fact cry of “It was a bit!” There’s a lot of deconstruction of craft at work here that captures how working on an impression can look a lot like madness or how improv survives on the strength of groupthink, but comedy is mostly used as  vehicle to mask pain in what’s most essentially a coming-of-middle-age drama about a once-close group of friends seemingly meeting their communal end. Don’t Think Twice is both cruelly truthful about how that dynamic can tear a group apart and hopeful about how it can pull a backs-to-the-wall community together to create exciting art. The film values genuine sincerity over “It was a bit!” sarcasm, but also recognizes why a wounded animal comedian would use that emotional distance as a protective shield. There’s a great empathy at work here for each of the film’s characters, no matter where they are spiritually or emotionally & no matter how much or how little empathy they have for each other at any given moment.

In the Apatow & McKay era of ensemble cast comedies the tendency has been to unravel the scripted work to a sprawling, improv-driven looseness. Don’t Think Twice reverse engineers that alchemy and turns an artform built on spontaneity into a tightly controlled narrative where recurring bits & motifs gain new meaning & significance each time they reappear. Mike Birbiglia accomplishes a lot here that speaks directly to my tastes: he delivers the year’s third unofficial SNL film (after Popstar & Ghosbusters); he provides space for yet another showcase of Gillian Jacobs’s immense wealth of dramatic talent;  he finds new modes of promoting the value of sincerity over arm’s length sarcastic engagement, etc. I don’t think you need to be plugged into any of those niche interests or the improv comedy scene at large to enjoy what Don’t Think Twice has to offer, though. Its charms as a small stakes drama hoisted by gallows humor & a uniquely talented cast should be near universal. And if you end up not liking the film at all, it still should be fun to heckle.

-Brandon Ledet

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

fivestar

It would be dishonest of me to echo the complaints about how lackluster this summer’s movie offerings have been, since I’ve enjoyed so much of what’s been released, from major productions like Paul Feig’s unfairly-reviled Ghosbusters reboot & Shane Black’s neo-noir comedy The Nice Guys to weirdo indie outliers like The Fits & The Neon Demon. Where I sour on 2016’s movie industry output, however, is in those films’ box office numbers, which are dismal at best. Seemingly, the only movies able to make significant money in our current cultural climate are either bloated superhero spectacles or CG-animated films featuring talking animals. What’s frustrating me the most this week is that Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika, satisfies both of those requirements in its own way. It features both an in-over-his-head protagonist with superhuman abilities and his talking animal sidekicks and yet, like so many other great films this year, it’s flailing in its opening weekend attempt to recoup a significant fraction of its production costs. Kubo and the Two Strings alone is proof positive of 2016’s major cinematic conundrum: great films are being made; it’s just that no one’s paying to go see them.

Inspired by Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics, Kubo and the Two Strings is at heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic. The film’s titular protagonist is a small boy who makes a living for himself & his disabled mother by telling stories for market place shoppers’ spare change in town. Kubo illustrates his own tales by playing his banjo-esque musical instrument, the shamisen, which brings to life colorful sheets of paper that fold into origami shapes & act out his stories as he narrates. What the townspeople don’t know is that the witches, samurais, and magic moon kings of Kubo’s stories are also a real life part of his past . . . which is why his tale doesn’t yet have an ending, a frustrating quality that always leaves his audience hanging. When that past catches up to him Kubo is caught in the middle of two opposing quests: his own mission to reclaim his deceased father’s armor and his witch & moon king enemies’ quest to steal his only remaining eye (finishing a job they started when he was only a newborn) and, thus, destroying his capacity for empathy & his free will. Kubo’s only company on this journey are a goofball beetle in samurai armor (Matthew McConaughey in his best performance since Interstellar) and a no-nonsense monkey (Charlize Theron, who’s just as fierce here as she was in last summer’s Fury Road). Along the way Kubo learns the responsibility & discipline necessary to command his magic abilities, but more importantly he learns that only he can bring a happy ending to his own story, however bittersweet.

A lot of what makes Kubo and the Two Stings such an overwhelming triumph is its attention to detail in its visual & narrative craft. As with their past titles like Coraline & ParaNorman, Laika stands out here in terms of ambition with where the studio can push the limits of stop-motion animation as a medium. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense sense of visual craft as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film also allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent. What’s really impressive here, however, is its efficiency in storytelling. There isn’t a single image or element at play, from a woven bracelet to a paper lantern to an insectoid buffoon, that doesn’t come to full significance if you lend the film enough patience. Kubo and the Two Stings could’ve easily rested on the laurels of its visual spectacle, a result of infinite hours of painstakingly detailed labor in an animation studio, but it instead pours just as much care & specificity into its reverence for traditional storytelling. Nothing presented onscreen is wasted. This is narrative prowess at its most essential & efficient, an attention to craft reflected in the fact that the film’s protagonist himself is a storyteller & an animator in his own right and that his quest mostly centers on a desire to seize & steer his own narrative to a satisfactory ending. This film definitely falls into the category of cinema about cinema, art about art, but it doesn’t call attention to that conceit. It all takes naturally & beautifully as the plot continually folds in on itself like intricate origami.

What films do you consider the height of stop-motion animation as a medium? The Nightmare before Christmas? Fantastic Mr. Fox? Alice? Mary & Max? Kubo and the Two Strings easily belongs in the conversation at even a moment’s glance. The film boasts an impressive depth of visual detail & intricately mapped-out story structure, yet it’s remarkably light on its feet, leaving plenty of room both for moments of levity & for heart wrenching blows of emotional impact. Just watching the endless parade of bland talking CG animal kids’ comedies in the trailers preceding Kubo and the Two Strings, each more annoying & forgettable than the last, is enough of an eye opener as to why this film’s arrival in our current cinematic climate is such a goddamn relief. You owe it to yourself to watch this modern classic on the big screen and, please, bring a friend. The idea that there are no great films being released this year, that Hollywood is simply out of ideas and the world was somehow more creative or inspired in past decades is honestly getting to be more than a little silly. There are plenty of great films in the theater right now. We just need to get smarter about throwing our attention & dollars at them. I suggest starting with Kubo and the Two Strings. You could do far worse with your money than escaping the August heat in the air-conditioning, admiring a projection of a modern animation masterpiece in the comfort of public darkness.

-Brandon Ledet

Hell or High Water (2016)

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three star

I’m going to preface this review by saying that Hell or High Water is far outside my comfort zone in themes of genre. A story about a world-weary lawman attempting to chase down & outwit a pair of haphazard bankrobbers just days before his retirement, the film resembles an awful lot of ultra-macho neo-Westerns I’m often told are great, but usually leave me bored silly. The problem is fairly deep-seated too. Even the Coen Bros’ No Country for Old Men, which I’m sure is fantastic, has put me to sleep every single time I’ve tried to watch it, including twice in the theater. So, I totally believe people when they say Hell or High Water is their favorite movie of the year so far, but I suspect these folks are just more finely tuned to the intricacies of its genre & tone than I am. For me, the film is formally a little flat, playing like what I’d imagine a modern Showtime drama version of Walker, Texas Ranger would look like, right down to the wince-worthy music cues. However, even as an outsider I did find myself entertained, especially by the film’s showy dialogue & muted performances.

Outside being a fairly standard bankrobbing thriller, Hell or High Water mostly stands out as a screenwriter’s playground. Taylor Sheridan, who also penned last year’s Sicario, recognizes the rigid restraints of the film’s simple narrative & throws most of his weight into the its quietly humorous dialogue. When Jeff Bridges’s perpetually exhausted Texas Ranger asks a recently robbed bank teller whether her assailants were black or white, she retorts, “Their skin or their souls?” It’s these kinds of colorful turns of phrase that make him mutter to himself, “God, I love West Texas.” I can’t echo that sentiment, but I do appreciate the film’s ability to capture that terrain’s slow, desolate atmosphere by bringing the more action-packed aspects of the plot down to an occasional halt in favor of some porch sittin’ & beer drinkin’, a perfect stage for showy exchanges of phrase. Sheridan understands the glass beer bottles, vastly empty roads, grunts, football, and poverty that make up a large part of that state & he uses that terrain to stage a somewhat believable modern version of a Cowboys vs. Indians Western. One of those Native Americans just happens to be a cop (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Gil Birmingham) trying to hold his aging white partner together for a final ride. His cowboy opponents are two in-over-their-heads brothers living out a revenge plot similar to Jeff Nichols’s (far superior) Shotgun Stories, except their target is a predatory banking institution instead of a rival family. The only question is if the calm, collected half of the criminal duo (played by an admirably restrained Chris Pine) can hold together his wildcard brother (a grimy Ben Foster, who plays the part like Guy Fieri reimagined as a methed-out murderer), long enough to escape the cops’ wrath. The evenly-distributed amusement of the proficient dialogue leaves a lot of grey area of which side to root for here (although, I guess you’d have to be a monster to root for the banks), so the fun of Hell or High Water is mostly in watching the pieces fall into place in an inevitably satisfying way, whatever the result.

I can’t say for sure if I would’ve enjoyed Hell or High Water more if it were staged in a different setting or if it didn’t feature gruff country songs with lines like, “I am lost in the dust of the chase my life brings” (an aspect of the film Nick Cave had some apparent involvement with, speaking of things I’m often told are great but I don’t really understand). My brain does usually shut all the way off when it comes to certain macho genres like Westerns or James Bond flicks or straightforward war movies, though, and I have to admit I didn’t have that problem here. This was far from my Film of the Year, but I was mostly on board with its Who’re the Real Thieves, Really? approach to predatory banking & its last legs lawman performance from Jeff Bridges (which brought me back to the novelty for Kurt Russell’s similar role in last year’s Bone Tomahawk). Like I said, though, it’s the film’s dialogue that really makes it distinct and I suspect that aspect is what’s going to have the moviegoing dads, uncles, and grandfathers of the world chuckling to themselves in delight. This movie was seemingly made with that specific crowd in mind & I’m not sure they’re going to appreciate its finer charms more than I was able to tap into myself.

-Brandon Ledet

Twins (1988)

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fourstar

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Comedic director Ivan Reitman is perhaps best known for his 80s trinity of goofball collaborations with sad sack enigma Bill Murray: Meatballs, Stripes, and (if the piss babies who light up internet message boards are to be believed) the most beloved comedy of all time, Ghostbusters. What’s funny to me is that Reitman has collaborated on just as many comedic properties with an entirely different type of 1980s personality: Arnold Schwarzenegger. The first three Schwarzenegger films that could comfortably be considered straight-forward comedies (Kindergarten Cop, Junior, and Twins) were all helmed by Reitman. It’s a director-actor collaboration that may not have inspired much critical praise in its time, but did help steer & reshape Arnold’s career into the more kid-friendly (yet still violent) territory of titles like The Last Action Hero & T2: Judgement Day that inspired many lifetime fans of the Austrian galoot’s oddly affable screen presence (myself included). The first of these collaborations, 1988’s Twins, was a movie that had somehow slipped by me until now and I feel forever foolish for living so much of my life without it. I should have grown up with this Arnold-Reitman classic as a youngster. I really liked it as an adult, but I would’ve loved it as a scamp.

Twins’s living cartoon narrative is blatantly written around its improbable casting. The film is strange, modern fairy tale that starts once upon a time in a science lab where six successful, elite men (athletes, professors, the like) and one beautiful woman donate their reproductive faculties to an experiment meant to create the world’s finest human specimen. Arnold Schwarzenegger portrays the result of that experiment (duh), the buffoonish supergenius Julius Benedict, who’s just as inhumanly strong & intelligent as he is devoid of common sense. The unintended side effect of the experiment and, naturally, Julius’s twin, is Vincent Benedict, a weird little sex magnet sleazeball played with pitch perfect hubris by Danny DeVito. Ignoring the “master race” Nazi ideal implications of this comedic setup, the casting of Schwarzenegger & DeVito in their respective roles as “the most fully developed human the world has ever seen” & “the crap that was left over” is pure, inspired genius, a dynamic that never stops being amusing over the film’s entire runtime. Twins finds particular delight in contrasting the two strangely loveable actors’ wildly disparate statures by dressing them in matching outfits & having them synchronize their movements in simple tasks like eating breakfast & washing their hands. It’s what the WWE refers to as “twin magic.” Not satisfied with hammering the point home in this endlessly repeated gag, the entire joke is capped off with the concluding punchline, “I just can’t get over how alike they are!” just before the end credits. It’s all wonderfully silly & relentlessly good-natured (except maybe for some stray Adventures in Babysitting-type indulgences in Reagan Era fears of the big city).

Twins ostensibly knows that the inherent silliness of its comedic setup doesn’t leave much room for small concerns like plot or character development, but instead of avoiding those storytelling requirements it doubles down & attempts to tackle them head on. There’s no less than four plots at work in Twins: one in which the titular duo embark on a cross-country road trip to meet their estranged parents; one where Vincent teaches Julian the value of street smarts & Julius returns the favor with the value of familial love; one where both brothers become romantic targets for women who find their respective physicalities irresistible; and one where they’re, no joke, hunted down by a mafia hitman from whom they unwittingly steal precious, illegal cargo. As if that all weren’t overwhelming enough, the film also attempts to have a lot to say about the nature vs nurture conundrum as well as the effect privilege has on someone’s life trajectory (the well-adjusted Julius was raised by a wealthy scientist; the slimeball Vincent was abandoned at an orphanage). It’s as if Twins knew its premise couldn’t possibly sustain any kind of worthwhile narrative or emotional investment, so it intentionally ate up its own runtime with an nonstop barrage of subplots & asides to hang its Schwarzenegger big/DeVito small visual gags off of. Whether or not this formula was intentional, it’s entirely successful and by the time it faces a climax at the same vague industrial complex all 80s films seem to end at, the whole thing feels remarkably silly & delightfully convoluted.

I’ve been doing my best in recent years to establish my own personal tradition of watching an annual Schwarzenegger film on my birthday, which is how I ended up watching Twins for the first time at the ripe age of 30. As an Arnold showcase, the film did not disappoint (no offense meant to DeVito, who was perfectly amusing as the con artist straight man). Casting the typically meathead-typecast Schwarzenegger as a supergenius was, uh, super genius enough on its own, but the film goes a step further by robbing him of common sense due to an extremely sheltered childhood, so that he’s some kind of an oxymoronic genius-idiot. This leads to a bottomless wealth of classic Schwarzenegger comedy bits, some as simple as watching him eat ice cream, pose with a Rambo poster, or misunderstand idioms in lines like, “Thank you for the cookies. I’m looking forward to tossing them.” The film even works in a reading of his classic Terminator line “I’ll be back,” because of course it does. Arnold’s consistently wonderful screen presence makes Julius an impossibly endearing goof, especially in moments when he butchers the Coasters song “Yakety Yak” in his incredibly thick Austrian accent or when he doesn’t recognize that he’s being shamelessly hit on by a ready-to-pounce Kelly Preston or robbed by violent street toughs. Julius will even go as far as apologizing when said robbery doesn’t go well, explaining of a fallen reprobate who fails to nab his briefcase, “I did nothing. Pavement was his enemy.”

Arnold had already halfheartedly tried his hand at comedy in his narrative film debut Hercules in New York, but that work is more unintentionally funny than anything & uses the bodybuilder exclusively for the size of his pecs, not his impeccable sense of comedic timing. Twins is where Schwarzenegger truly found his comedic voice and it arrived in a perfect moment for him to bounce that voice off his mismatched twin DeVito & a hilariously dated onslaught of cheesy 80s fashion & pop music trash. It seems that this good will won’t be forever buried in the oversized suit jackets & greasy ponytails of the past either. Just as Paul Feig was allowed to “ruin” childhoods in his recent remake of Ivan Reitman’s crown jewel, Ghostbusters, Reitman himself is attempting to revive the Twins property for a modern audience in an announced, decades-late sequel titled Triplets. The premise of Triplets would bring back Schwarzenegger & DeVito as Julius & Vincent, bowling them over with the discovery that they actually share a birthday with a third brother/wombmate, played by none other than Eddie Murphy. It’s a plot twist that makes absolutely no goddamn sense for so, so many reasons, but that didn’t stop the original Twins from being thoroughly delightful & I’m more than ready for Arnold to make a comeback to his comedy career, so I say bring it on. As long as the film ends with the line “I just can’t get over how alike they are,” I’m sure I’ll be happy.

-Brandon Ledet

Howard the Duck (1986)

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“In a land of a lot of flops, it’s kind of awesome to be in a really famous flop. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s kind of a poster child for flops. A lot of iconoclasts really love that movie. They love to love something that everyone hates. And those are my kind of folks. I’m happy to be part of that club of people who don’t want to be told what’s horrible and just want to enjoy it anyway. Howard the Duck has a lot of fans, and usually when they come up to me, I just think they’re the coolest. Because it takes a lot of strength, a lot of perseverance to love Howard the Duck. [Laughs.]” – Lea Thompson, star of Howard the Duck

There are a lot of great reasons to love a movie, any movie, that have nothing to do with establishing yourself as an iconoclast or Lea Thompson thinking you’re “the coolest” (not that those aren’t great consolation prizes). Ebert’s musings on cinema as a “machine that generates empathy” is a great go-to quote for starters, but I don’t think it exactly covers all of what makes a great film great art. For instance, I don’t necessarily love Howard the Duck because it makes me empathize with a cigar-chomping, beer-swilling duck from outer space or the human woman who wants to fuck him. Instead, I believe the infamous George Lucas-produced flop touches on one of cinema’s other distinguishing qualities as a unique art form: improbability. There’s an almost transgressive absurdity to the idea that this film reached theaters in the form that it did. So many collaborators touched this expensive, unlikely work and it took on a weird energy all of its own in the process. Howard the Duck isn’t Guernica or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but it is a visually distinct, almost hauntingly memorable mess of artistic expression, at the very least notable for the specificity of its improbable ineptitude. Lea Thompson may have been a little off the mark in the above quote by suggesting the movie deserves love merely to buck its criticism or to establish contrarian cool points, but I do believe she’s right that it takes a certain strength & perseverance to hold onto that love in the face of its overwhelmingly negative reputation. I also believe that loving certain catastrophic missteps like these (and I mean genuine love, not its ironic cousin), films like 1993’s Super Mario Bros & Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles franchise, means loving something essential about film as an artistic medium. The worst thing a movie can be is unmemorable. Howard the Duck typifies a type of “bad movie” that’s anything but unmemorable, an outlier of improbable absurdity that only the film industry could deem worthy for public display in thousands of movie theaters (the most modern of art galleries) across the world.

Part of the reason Howard the Duck is such a great exemplifier of the “bad” movie as modern art is that so much of its DNA matches its cultural reputation. Both the film & its Marvel Comics source material depict an anthropomorphic duck transported from an alternate dimension against his will to a world that’s less than hospitable to him as an obvious outsider who’ll never quite fit in. In the comics’ words, he “trapped in a world he never made.” This is partly why he finds a kindred spirit with Beverly, played by Lea Thompson in the movie, who is socially & financially unable to find her place in a heartless patriarchy that only values her . . . assets as an art school model (or, in the film, a rock star babe) and not her talents or personality. The movie itself has become an out of place outcast in a hostile world and its slow-growing cult audience has become a sort of real-world surrogate for Bev in the way it finds love for something everyone else seems to hate. Howard’s comic book creator, Steve Gerber, used the duck’s misfit existential crisis as a device for griping about a modern world the artist found distasteful, critiquing social ills like a corrupt political system or violent children’s entertainment and filtering those critiques through outlandish comic book villains like Pro-Rata, the cosmic accountant, who lives in an enormous tower made of credit cards. Although the movie does feature a similar over the top villain in The Dark Overlord of the Universe, it also softens the property’s tendencies towards biting social satire in favor of some bullshit Marty McFly 80s cool & George Lucas-specific action “comedy,” the exact kind of Poochie-flavored marketing Howard would’ve despised in the comics. However, the film does maintain a critical eye against unwarranted hostility in the modern world in a way that feels very true to its source material and it’s amusingly appropriate that the citizens of Earth have treated Howard the Duck the movie with just as much of that vitriol as the way they treated Howard the Duck the character in the comics.

A large part of what people tend to hate about Howard the Duck is its inconsistent tone, which is a problem apparent as soon as its opening four minutes spent on Howard’s home planet, Duckworld. This movie was a produced in the early, lawless, Wild West days of the PG rating, which allows for a surprising amount of sexual content to seep into its childlike humor. In the first few minutes we spend getting accustomed to Duckworld’s anthropomorphic duck citizens (before the opening credits, mind you), we’re treated to two (!!!) shots of topless duck women’s exaggerated humanoid breasts (once in a bathtub and once in a Playduck Magazine centerfold). The clash of adult sensibility with kids’ movie visuals continues later when Lea Thompson infamously climbs into bed with Howard wearing only lingerie and a hungry smile, threatening to instigate the world’s most uncomfortable love scene (although I could argue that her character in Back to the Future’s seductive threat is even worse) as well as a moment where she finds a tiny, duck-sized condom in his wallet. (Thankfully, no mention is made of how terrifying real life duck dicks are.) In the comics Howard & Bev’s romance is played as odd, but harmless. Faced with the realities of its imagery in the movie is a different matter entirely. It’s hilariously wrong at best, an effect the film’s writer-directors Willard Huyk & Gloria Katz entirely intended, according to their interviews on the “A Look Back” featurette included on the film’s first DVD release in 2008. Howard the Duck looks & feels like a kids’ picture, but its hero is a sexual being whose appetite knows no special bounds. He’s also an animatronic puppet who will humorously hit hicks with cream pies in one scene & threaten to stab record company creeps in the face with an ice pick in the next, a wide range of tones that makes for a singularly memorable, terrifying experience, especially if you catch it at a formative age.

In the fool’s mission of trying to make sense of Howard the Duck’s tonal mishmash, it’s easy to lose track of exactly how striking its visual palette can be. Try for a second not to get hung up on the idea that this talking duck children’s film features a biker gang called “Satan’s Sluts,” a hedonistic bathhouse orgy, and a hideous space demon with a Doom monster torso & a scorpion’s lower body (more on that in a moment) and you just might find some interesting production design in those details. The violent new wave punks’ wardrobe features some incredible touches, like a leather jacket adorned with plastic babydoll faces. The aforementioned bathhouse is lit like an early Bava or Argento giallo picture. The scorpion demon from outer space is a perfect marriage of classic Ray Harryhausen stop motion technique with some nightmarish HR Giger flourish. Howard himself, although disturbingly uncanny, is a feat of practical effects animatronics. As a historical object of cinematic past, I’d argue that his design is actually quite beautiful. Jeffrey Jones’s Dark Overlord of the Universe, an all-powerful demon from beyond the planets who eventually turns into the aforementioned scorpion beast & is undoubtedly the film’s most overlooked secret weapon, is a masterclass in cinematic villainy, running the full gamut from Star Wars Empower Force-lightning to Cronenbergian body horror to self-conflicted Golem psychosis. There’s even some early-in-the-runtime outer space mysticism, which I’m always a sucker for in any film, regardless of quality. The only time Howard the Duck becomes genuinely boring is when it abandons its typical Reagan-era grit – with its drugs, punks, violence, and homelessness – for George Lucas’s usual mode of 30s & 40s action “comedy” chases which are just about as lifeless as they are in Spielberg’s 1941. At the very least, though, those scenes serve to contrast & heighten the absurd unlikelihood of the film’s very existence as a completed product and even in the worst of the film’s third act doldrums it’s difficult to take your eye off Howard’s unthinkable face, which has a Max Headroom kind of unnerving quality to it, one that makes you just as horrified by the duck’s presence as the fictionalized citizens of Earth who reject him at every turn.

Thirty years after Howard the Duck’s release it’s difficult to find much praise for what the film accomplishes. It’s occasionally covered by schlock cinema critical outlets like My Year of Flops or How Did this Get Made?, but without any hint of adoration or fanfare, if not with an open, unapologetic hostility. Even the film’s initial DVD release, supposedly willed into existence by a growing cult fanbase, could only muster the faint praise that it’s “one of the most talked about movies of all time” in its jacket copy. The only instance I can think of where Howard receives any kind of reverence or adoration is an post-credits gag in Guardians of the Galaxy where the character appears (in a much less visually interesting CG rendering) solely to troll the audience with the mere idea of his return to the big screen. Despite being the very first Marvel property to earn a feature film adaptation (and a surprisingly faithful one at that, lifting some dialogue directly from the page), Howard the Duck holds a lowly 15% score on the Tomatometer & is widely considered to be “one of the worst films of all time.” If it has a wide cult following its devotees are just about as silent as fans of pro wrestling or Nickelback. As strangely misshapen as the film can be, I believe it deserves better than that and its best chance for a path to a better reputation would be for more people to respect it for its basic improbability. This film was initially pitched as an animated feature, but was instead rushed into production due to studio pressure & morphed into a live action film where little person actors man animatronic duck puppets. It opens with a duck traveling through outer space against philosophical musings about infinite dimensions where “all is real and all is illusion,” yet ends in the same generic industrial space that concludes all 80s action plots. It indulges in generic 80s garbage pop, but finds unlikely collaborators in respected musicians Thomas Dolby & George Clinton. The dialogue is sublimely corny, with its references to “space rabies” & Quack-Fu, but is sold competently by in-on-the-joke actors like an incredibly game Jeffrey Jones (who really does put on one of his most memorable performances here) and future Oscar winner Tim Robbins, (who, appropriately enough, is dressed like Thomas Dolby in the film).

Much like its self-loathing “wisequacker” protagonist, Howard the Duck is a “strange fowl in an even stranger land.” Its mere existence points to a cinema-specific ability to bring strange, improbable art to a mass audience, whether or not that audience appreciates it. In fact, its complete lack of a positive reception only adds to its idiosyncratic charm in the way it mirrors the mallard-out-of-water hostility of the source material’s narrative. The film has objective faults, sure. It could have been shorter, better paced, more tonally consistent, etc. What’s more interesting to me are the ways its stands out from other films with the same problems. Its practical effects techniques, however dated, carve out their own, unforgettably bizarre space of visual distinction. Its duck/human sexual tension is a brilliantly uncomfortable mode of (again, intentional) audience trolling. Its attempts to shoehorn in George Lucas’s aggressively wholesome aesthetic of radio serial adventure epics into its modern era cynicism is beyond bizarre. Its space demon villain is a genuinely breathtaking work of movie magic evil in a film generally considered to be technically inept. This movie should likely not exist in its completed form and it’s that exact, eccentric crime against good taste & basic logic that makes it such a memorable oddity, a quality often overlooked in a quest to catalog its many, improbable faults. There’s never been a better time to reconsider Hoard the Duck’s charms a go-for-broke cinematic misstep. On its thirty year anniversary, the film is benefiting from some fine wine time capsule qualities that can only come with age. Its comic book source material is currently experience one of its all-time best runs with Chip Zdarsky’s neo noir take on the property over at Marvel. There’s always a chance that Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn will continue to Trojan horse the wisequacker into future MCU properties, so it’s probably best to be aware of his cinematic past. Besides, falling in love with Howard the Duck will have Lea Thompson thinking you’re “the coolest.” And if none of that is enough to convince you that the film is at the very least interesting as a cultural relic, if not lovable as a cinematic outlier, then I believe Thompson’s Bev put it best: “Howard may be a duck, but you people are animals!”

-Brandon Ledet

Cuddles Kovinsky as the Ultimate Edith Massey Performance

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The almighty Divine is John Waters’s most infamous collaborator (even if that means her name is unfortunately synonymous with eating dog shit in a broad cultural context). Marianne Vivian Pierce is the only Dreamlander (as Waters’s recurring cast is often known) to appear in every one of the director’s features. Mink Stole is, perhaps, the coolest kid in the room, the one with the most adaptable talent & willingness to commit. There’s an argument to be made, however, that Baltimore personality Edith Massey was Waters’s most readily fascinating featured player, his most consistently striking & bizarre screen presence. There’s no one else in all of cinema quite like Massey. The only actor who even comes close is Waters’s idol Russ Meyer’s frequent collaborator Princess Livingston (not surprisingly, the two women were discovered while working as a bartender & a motel manager, not as actors), but even Livingston’s bizarre charisma couldn’t quite match the weird energy & depth of content Massey brought to the screen in her decade-long stint as a Dreamlander. Massey’s odd, snaggle-toothed visage helped define who John Waters is as a filmmaker with a striking, idiosyncratic specificity that makes him my favorite living artist, if not person.

A lot of the shock value humor of Waters’s early, transgressive films often outshines the more even-tempered work he delivered later on in his “mainstream” titles like Hairspray, Cry-Baby, and (the utterly perfect) Serial Mom. Waters is often misunderstood in the context of shock cinema due to his earliest provocations, most notably Pink Flamingos, and the weirder trash-art surreality of his work is sometimes overlooked because of his youthful pranksterism. Massey was with Waters from day one during these formative provocations, putting in the bulk of her work as an actor in the director’s so-called “Trash Trilogy.” Easily, Massey’s most iconic role is her turn as Divine’s mother, The Egg Lady, in the aforementioned Pink Flamingos. The Egg Lady was an underwear-clad humanoid who demanded a constant supply of eggs at all times of the day: a strange, unsettling image that afforded Massey a lifetime of celebrity & provided the name of her short-lived punk band Edie & the Eggs. Massey’s screentime & command of Waters’s strange brand of humor grew in her two subsequent roles as villains in Desperate Living & Female Trouble (two films that are far more attention-worthy than Pink Flamingos, as much as I adore that scrappy filth fest). Massey devours scenery in these two wicked roles, whether she’s coaching her beloved nephew on the lifestyle benefits of “turning queer” or sentencing an entire village to death before her royal firing squad. Much like Waters’s overall aesthetic, however, I’m not convinced that Massey’s work reached its pinnacle in the wild, punk days of the “Trash Trilogy”. Her work wouldn’t meet its peak absurdity until it was juxtaposed against the much more mundane avenues of suburban America (and because we’re talking Waters here, I guess that specifically means suburban Baltimore).

The film that bridged these two halves of John Waters’s career, the trashy & the suburban-surreal, was his 1981 feature Polyester. Presenting Douglas Sirk by way of Russ Meyer, Polyester is a wonderfully strange slice of American pie, one molded & poisoned by melodramatic fits of adultery, alcoholism, teenage delinquency, and sexual perversion. Both halves of Waters’s career have endless merit in my eternally gushing eyes & it’s wonderful to watch the way Polyester can teeter totter on both sides of that divide without ever losing track of what makes either half special. Additionally, this is where I find Edith Massey’s most outrageous, knee-slappingly funny performance to be. Massey’s performance as Cuddles Kovinsky is her finest work as a Dreamlander, a true tour de force of delightfully terrible acting that somehow steals a film from a top-of-her-game Divine, which is no small feat. Watching Massey do her weird, off-putting thing in films like Pink Flamingos & Desperate Living is one thing, but her transgressive screen presence made total sense in the context of those films’ early punk depravity. In Polyester, she’s presented as a normal human being, an upstanding member of regular society, and it’s an outrageously ill-fitting role for a foul-mouthed, snaggle-toothed bartender with her braying style of line delivery to fill. Waters & Massey both knew exactly what they were doing when they airdropped Cuddles Kovinsky into an unsuspecting suburbia and it ended up being both a pivotal turning point in Waters’s trajectory as a filmmaker as well as the pinnacle of Massey’s work as a Dreamlander. Unfortunately, it would also prove to be their final collaboration due to Massey’s escalating health problems and inevitable death.

Cuddles Kovinsky is a wealthy heiress & former housekeeper of Divine’s much put-upon housewife archetype Francine Fishpaw. As Francine’s life spins out of control due to her teenage children’s hedonism & her husband’s flagrant adultery, Cuddles’s own path hits a rags to riches upswing. Cuddles lives the lavish fantasy of the nouveau riche, traveling around Baltimore in a limousine with a boy toy European driver behind the wheel, shopping for fashion’s high end designer finery (none of which looks at all natural or comfortable on her weird, little egg-shaped body), rubbing elbows with Baltimore’s country club elite, and just straight up murdering the French language with a never-ending recital of high society clichés & platitudes. Cuddles is the ever-optimistic ying to Francine’s depressive, alcoholic yang and Massey plays her with the exact right tone of complete obliviousness. When Francine passes out on the floor blind drunk her best friend Cuddles mews, “You’re so cute when you’re tipsy!” When Francine attempts to hang herself to end the pain, Cuddles exclaims, “We’re going on a picnic!” Polyester is mostly centered on Francine’s struggle to find happiness in a world where its existence seems unlikely at best, but Cuddles is perfectly happy throughout, concerned only with what she’s going to wear to her debutante ball at the country club. Divine & Massey’s performances compliment each other nicely, but it’s near impossible to take your eyes off Cuddles anytime she graces the screen. Even her over-the-top pantomime reactions to every syllable of someone else’s lines are attention-grabbing in a completely absurd, living cartoon kind of way. Of all of Massey’s wonderfully weird onscreen creations, Cuddles stands out as her most arrestingly unique & distinctly out of place.

I don’t mean to downplay the early works of either Waters or Massey here. The “Trash Trilogy” is pure cinematic chaos, a hedonistic whirlwind of freaks & weirdos I don’t know where I’d be without. I love each of those films & Massey’s performances in them dearly. With Polyester, however, the degenerate duo (with the help of Divine & other Dreamlanders, of course) struck upon something much more subversive. Watching Massey don leather dominatrix gear or wax poetic about the virtues of cocksuckers fit in very closely with what you’d expect from her image & her gaudy barroom personality. There’s something much stranger & more unexpected going on with Cuddles Kovinsky, a character that allows Massey to wear French schoolgirl & horse riding outfits and bray lines like, “There must be a God. Everything is so beautiful!” It’s all too easy to picture Massey fronting a punk band or tending bar, but gleefully praising God & enjoying a picnic in the woods? That’s some weirdly subversive shit. Waters capitalized on that taking-the-circus-to-suburbia aesthetic more or less for the remainder of his career, but unfortunately Massey wasn’t able to come along for the ride. Polyester ended up being Waters’s final collaboration with the actor and after a role in the forgotten schlock title Mutants in Paradise, she died. At least we can say her career as a Dreamlander ended on top, though, as Cuddles Kovinsky brought some of her weirdest, most unexpected energy to the silver screen, helping reshape the trajectory The Pope of Trash’s career would take in the decades to follow. At least we’ll always have Cuddles

-Brandon Ledet

The Reverence & Irreverence for Unicorns in Black Moon (1975) & Legend (1985)

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When we were discussing August’s Movie of the Month, the surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, it was all too easy to pick on the film’s depiction of a plump & frumpy unicorn, since that’s not the image we typically associate the mythical beast with. The movie itself even picks on the unicorn, with its protagonist Lily (one of three Lilys) stating plainly to the poor beast, “You’re not very graceful. In my books unicorns are slim & white.” The Eeyore-esque unicorn then laughs in her face & brays “The most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.” Black Moon playfully subverts the iconic image of a unicorn with what is essentially a horned donkey with a smartass sense of humor. The most realistic depiction of what Lily & ourselves were picturing when we mentally conjured a basic unicorn wouldn’t gallop onto the screen until a decade later in Ridley Scott’s fantasy epic Legend.

As a European art film featuring cross-species breastfeeding & a literal battle of the sexes, Black Moon isn’t at all interested in basic cinematic concerns like clear narrative or commercial appeal. It wouldn’t be until the mid-1980s when American movie studios would start mining the same fantasy realm representation for wide commercial releases, but you can see echoes of the Natural World magic & down-the-rabbit-hole story structure of Black Moon in popular fantasy titles like The Neverending Story, The Labyrinth, and Ladyhawke. Although Legend was an outright commercial flop it was a big studio picture that firmly fit in that category. Legend is more of an adventure epic than Black Moon in a lot of ways, structuring its tale around dual journeys to restore order to a broken world instead staying put & feeling out the weirdo magic vibes of one particular location. Both films do pursue a dead still sense of pacing, though, concerning their narratives more with an overwhelming immersion in Nature than any kind of action-packed pursuit. Legend‘s scope & budget allows for the inclusion of goblins, demons, fairies, zombies, and swamp witches that you aren’t going to see anywhere near Black Moon‘s small scale domestic horrors, but both films do depict a mortal woman in over her head in a magic realm and they do share  a common talisman: the unicorn.

In Black Moon, the unicorn doesn’t do much but trot lazily & crack wise. It’s just one element among many that confounds our hero Lily in her quest for simple answers about where she is & why that world is so hostile. In Legend, on the other hand, unicorns are everything. They’re exactly what Lily was conjuring when she insulted their Black Moon equivalent: slim, white, majestic, and (just like everything else in Legend) slathered in glitter. Lily chases down the Black Moon unicorn out of sheer curiosity and the consequence of the transgression is a line of dismissive insults no worse than anything else she suffers in her newfound home. In Legend, princess & Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend Lili (Mia Sara), lures a unicorn in for an intimate moment, but her indulgence’s consequences are much more severe. When the princess calms the mythical beast into standing still a goblin severs its horn, instigating a fantasy genre version of the Ice Age. There are only two living unicorns in Legend‘s folklore and their existence & health affects the state of the world no less than almighty gods. According to Tom Cruise’s woodland nymph character (who’s a decent stand-in for Black Moon‘s mute Fabio houseboy Lily), the unicorns “speak the language of laughter” & “Dark thoughts are unknown to them.” Furthermore, the princess “risks [her] mortal soul” when she says that she doesn’t care that the creatures are sacred. Like in Black Moon, the unicorns can talk, but they communicate in beautiful whale songs. Everything about them boasts divinity. And when “a mortal laid hands on a Unicorn” the whole world goes to shit.

Recent try-hard films like Deadpool & Suicide Squad and their like-minded internet memes have made the image of the unicorn a sort of cheap visual gag supposedly humorous for its Lisa Frank brand of femininity, a likely result of its brony-based cultural resurgence. Black Moon, similarly (but more purposefully), pokes fun at the divinity & femininity of classic unicorn representations by subverting the mythical creature’s attributes in an image & demeanor that pokes fun at the importance of physical beauty. That subversion wouldn’t mean anything without a unicorn hegemony to buck against, though, and you’ll find its best contrast in the divinity of Legend‘s horned equestrians. Ridley Scott’s mid-80s fantasy epic is maybe a little lacking in pace & plotting, but it’s a jaw-dropping work of gorgeous production design if I’ve ever seen one (I could happily spend 1,000 mall goth lifetimes in Tim Curry’s demon lair if nothing else) and that attention to glitter-coated beauty is a perfect stage for a traditional white unicorn ideal, the exact antithesis of what’s presented for laughs in Black Moon.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, Louis Malle’s surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet