The Big Deal About Call Me by Your Name (2017) is That It Isn’t a Big Deal at All

While I wasn’t quite as knocked on my ass by the Academy Award-nominee Call Me by Your Name as Britnee seemed to be in her review, I do share in her appreciation of its merits as an intoxicating sensory experience. She writes, “I could taste the fresh apricot juice as it was flowing down Oliver’s throat. I could feel the warmth of the sun as it was beaming down on Elio’s face. Even the use of the music in the film was phenomenal.” Like with Luca Guadagnino’s previous directorial effort A Bigger Splash, this is a film that often compensates for its most glaring narrative shortcomings by simply shining as a gorgeous object, a portrait of life “somewhere in Northern Italy” that appeals to all five of the senses. I can’t recall a work of art that’s served as a better advertisement for an Italian life of leisure since the wonderfully-penned Gabrielle Hamilton memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter. I wasn’t 100% convinced by the passion shared between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) & Oliver (Armie Hammer) in this gorgeous backdrop the way Britnee was, but in a way, the soft, casual edge to their summertime romance is a huge part of the film’s appeal. Much like the ease of drinking fresh-squeezed juice, going for a swim on a whim, or plucking a book to read from the endless towers of them stacked about the open-windowed house, the same-sex romantic tryst at the center of Call Me by Your Name is a casual indulgence in an ancient pleasure. The only air of tragedy to their extended hook-up in this sun-drenched Eden is that it’s doomed to be temporary. That casual approach to same-sex romance & sensuality is extremely rare in cinema’s coming of age narratives about queer self-discovery, especially the ones set in the AIDS-paranoid, legally malevolent days of the early 1980s. It’s wonderful to see that the Big Deal about Call Me by Your Name isn’t made to be a big deal at all.

Something that caught my eye in Britnee’s review was that she made a point to note that Elio confesses his desire to (the older, more confident) Oliver “without stating that he is homosexual or bisexual.” This may be a result of the film’s less identity politics-obsessed 1983 setting, but it’s very much important to its overall appeal. I’ve been taken aback by a few critical takes on the film that posit Elio & Oliver as closeted homosexual men, when my experience with their shared arc was explicitly framed as a bisexual awakening. In a typical cinematic version of this story, these two young men would only be flirting & sleeping with women as a cover for their true passion, a dangerous romance that would inevitably end in tragedy (think of titles like Brokeback Mountain or When Boys Cry for context). Here I never question that the leads enjoy sleeping with women any more than I question them enjoying fresh fruit or afternoon swims. Their own connection may be more passionately intense & more of a social taboo (due to their significant age gap just as much as their shared gender), but that feels like it has more to do with their mutual compatibility than any external factors. A more convincing case could be made that Elio’s academic father (the consistently magnificent Michel Stuhlbarg) is a closeted homosexual man, but his hints about his own sexual orientation are left ambiguous at best. The most you can surmise from the fatherly advice carefully doled out throughout the film is that he believes what Elio & Oliver have is a rare, beautiful thing. Again, I don’t buy that the summertime fling the two leads share is as rare or as special as it’s ultimately framed to be, but I do find a lot to admire in this mode of subtle parental encouragement. In a more typical work, Elio’s parents would have found out about their tryst and made a huge dramatic gesture out of shutting it down. Instead, they quietly allow it to blossom & wither in its own time, as if it were the most natural thing in the world (which it kind of is).

The exchange that best solidifies the connection between the ease of Oliver & Elio’s romance and the general idyllic ease of a life on a Northern Italian villa is the one involving The Peach. Between his bored, restless indulgences in reading, drinking, swimming, sleeping, playing music, and having sex (what a life!), Elio often finds himself alone & sexually frustrated in the few private spaces he can find in his parents’ expansive summer home. In the most pivotal of these moments, he finds himself masturbating into a fresh peach, only to awake embarrassed when Oliver discovers him sleeping next to the evidence. To Elio’s horror, Olive licks & threatens to eat the defiled, oozing peach. It’s a jarring exchange, but one that’s played as casually as the glazed petit four scene in Toni Erdmann, rather than for the shock value humor of similar scenes in Wetlands, Pink Flamingos, or American Pie. Elio is too embarrassed & ashamed to see it, but Oliver’s instinct to Eat The Peach in that scene is a natural extension of the indulgent, leisurely life they’ve been living all summer. Oliver is an overconfident, lumbering bro with a voracious appetite for Experience. The way he downs whole glasses of juice, dances with wild abandon, and smashes into even the daintiest of breakfasts is almost beastly, but it’s an appetite for life that makes the most out of the many sensory pleasures that enrich the Northern Italy countryside. Elio could use some of that unearned confidence himself, which is why it’s wonderful to see him indulge in more pleasures outside the shade of his bedroom as the film progresses. Eating The Peach is such a great summation of the careful, delicate hedonism of the summer the two young men share together over the course of the film. It’s kind of a shame the movie ultimately chickens out on fully depicting it (which I understand was not the case in the André Aciman source material).

Not everything in Call Me by Your Name worked for me. The Oscar-nominated Sufjan Stevens songs were more of a distraction than an enhancement. For all the film’s confident comfort in bisexuality, I found it a little odd that its onscreen nudity was all boobs and no peen. Less superficially, I never fully bought into the once-in-a-lifetime significance of the central romance, nor into Oliver’s transformation from “impolite, arrogant” bro to sensitive soul. Again, though, Guadagnino’s eye for gorgeous, natural imagery and all-encompassing sensory pleasures more than compensate for any narrative missteps (the intensely-lit Psychedelic Furs dance sequence was the most I’ve been excited for his upcoming Suspiria remake to date). Overall, this is a tenderly beautiful & surprisingly humorous delight. Speaking more culturally than personally, I believe the film’s greatest achievement is in not pushing to be more than that. It’s so encouraging to see between films like Call Me by Your Name & Princess Cyd that there are bisexual coming of age stories finally being told onscreen where the awakening & the romance are The Big Deal instead of the sexuality itself. There’s too many kinds of queer stories yet to be told onscreen for every major non-hetero release to be a coming-out misery narrative, as feels like has been the case for decades. Elio & Oliver believe their summertime romance to be a bombshell secret, a fear contextually informed by the film’s early 80s temporal setting, but nearly everyone around them perceives what they’re up to and does nothing to obstruct it with disapproval. The movie is ultimately casual & delicate in its depiction of an extended same sex hook-up, leaving only a young man’s broken heart behind in its inevitable conclusion (a wound that always heals with time, no matter how traumatic it feels in the moment). Elio & Oliver’s brief, passionate fling is presented as just one Northern Italy delight among many, no different than a good book, an afternoon swim, or a freshly squeezed glass of juice. The only way for that messaging to be clearer would be for Oliver to Eat The Peach and shrug at the camera, but I suppose that would have been making a Big Deal out of nothing at all.

-Brandon Ledet

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El Bar (2017)

Netflix categorizes 2017’s El Bar (The Bar, although The Cafe would be a more accurate title) as an “International Comedy.” From Spain, the first word in that descriptor is accurate, but boy is the second part debatable. Not that this means the movie is bad, nor is it without its comedic moments, but I’m hesitant to say that a film that uses the set-up of a public shooting, and directly references the Paris shooting in dialogue when characters are trying to figure out what’s happening, could ever really be considered a “comedy.”

10 people from various walks of life find themselves in a Madrid cafe on a normal day. Amparo (the late Terele Pávez) owns the cafe, where she has employed Sátur (Secun de la Rosa) for over 10 years. Elena (Blanca Suárez, from La piel que habito) ducks in to see if she can charge her phone before meeting for a first date with a man she met on an app. Trini (Carmen Machi) is a neighborhood woman who comes in daily to try her luck at the cafe’s slot machine. Andrés (Joaquín Climent) was a police officer who let his drinking problem get the better of him, while Sergio (Alejandro Awada) is a salesman of fancy women’s underwear; both are regular customers of Amparo’s. Nacho (Mario Casas) is a designer who works on ad campaigns and, like Elena, has never been to the cafe before. And Israel (Jaime Ordóñez) is a local vagrant that Amparo provides with booze and, occasionally, a place to warm himself.

This vignette is rudely interrupted when a large man, seemingly drugged out but possibly very ill, enters the establishment and goes straight to the bathroom. When a local maintenance man leaves through the front door, he is shot dead; terrified citizens run screaming in every direction, evacuating the square. When another patron steps out to check on the dead man, he too is shot, and the remaining eight patrons (and one ill man) realize that they are trapped inside.

It’s a solid premise, a kind of modern day Spanish mashup of the Twilight Zone episodes “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (which features several people from different social circles trapped in a remote diner) and “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” (which demonstrates just how quickly the trappings of civility and community can degenerate into rampant, violent paranoia with the introduction of the smallest sliver of doubt). This is a thriller, there’s no doubt about it, and a pretty decent one at that. Perhaps the folks over at Netflix who slot films into genre groupings were confused by the fact that there are a few moments of slapstick (like when the captives attempt to force a greased-up Israel through a very small drain hole in the floor as part of an escape plan) and some other broad physical comedy (Nacho grabs Elena’s ass when helping her down from a chair—oh-ho-ho!). On the sliding scale of films that fall into the category of “people trapped in an everyday location by unknowable forces,” this one falls closer to The Mist‘s end than Shaun of the Dead‘s.

First, there are the questions about who is at fault, and the accusations that those who are trapped inside are somehow in collusion with the shooter. Why does this person have a gun? What’s the unusual piece of hardware in that person’s bag? Why is he, who was so gung-ho about searching her bag, now unwilling to let his own briefcase be inspected? Why did you stop into this cafe if you’ve never been here before and you’re not from this part of town? Next come the bigger concerns: is it a terrorist? You have a big bushy beard–are you a terrorist? (This one in particular has some particularly non-comedic underpinnings, given that one character says that even some Spaniards are them now–that is, Muslims.) This question is aimed at Mario Casas’s character, which amuses me; he’s dressed in a tightly tailored hipster outfit that does nothing to disguise his supermodel body, even though he does have one of those really gross beards that your buddy thinks makes him look super manly but just makes you wonder how much decomposing food is actually trapped in that rat’s nest. Even once every living character has been reduced to wearing their undergarments, they still keep him in his clothes because you can’t have a character who looks like this wandering around and still keep his allegiance in question for dramatic purposes, since the audience is going to side with him regardless. Thirdly, we move on to the particulars of the situation as a result of the realization that the man in the bathroom is dead, and was perhaps infected with some kind of virus. Did you touch him? Did you? Who didn’t touch him. Well, she touched the body, and you touched her, so that means you’re infected too! Is there an antidote? Is the government involved? You, infected, you go over there, and we’ll stay over here. And, finally: there’s one more survivor than there is a cure. What do we do now?

It’s a pretty standard plot structure. You’ve probably seen this movie before in a different form, either in one of the aforementioned movies or an episode of an anthology television show. What sets it apart from other Western media is the character’s immediate acceptance of the concept that the government is involved in some kind of cover-up (whether that ends up being true or not; I’m not here to spoil this for you); no one ever even argues that the government “wouldn’t do that to its citizens” the way that there always is in U.S.-produced films, where there is always nominal resistance to the idea of governmental corruption. There’s also insight into different modern Spanish social classes that provides a different kind of hook. The only real failure of the film is that, plot-wise, it doesn’t offer much in the way of something novel. The reason that this group has been trapped is a complete MacGuffin; they could be dealing with a zombie apocalypse, or a government coup, or a quarantine protocol, and the end result would be the same. Again, this isn’t a detriment per se, but it’s also not a ringing endorsement. All in all, this was one of three movies that I watched while lying around because it was just too damn cold to go outside, and it was far and away the best of the three. If it’s cold where you are, and you want to watch a movie that’s of a genre that’s usually dark and gray but filtered through a colorful, sunny lens, this movie will make you a little bit warmer.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Emergence of John Woo’s Muse in A Better Tomorrow (1986)

When you try to conjure a single image of what visually distinguishes John Woo as a director, there are plenty of choices in iconography: doves, slow-motion, speedboats, operatic gun violence, explosions, etc. There’s only one actor who can claim to serve as a visual calling card for Woo’s decades-long career, however: Chow Yun-Fat. To date, the actor and the director have collaborated on five feature films (and one video game), far more than any other repeating player in Woo’s career. The most iconic of these collaborations, of course, is our current Movie of the Month, Hard Boiled, wherein Chow Yun-Fat portrays a tough-as-nails cop who plays jazz clarinet & raps to babies (between hyperviolent gunfights). Their first collaboration together, however, was just as significant to their respective careers, as it was both the director’s and the actor’s first exposure to wide, international attention. Produced by Hong Kong action legend Tsui Hark, John Woo’s 1986 feature A Better Tomorrow was his first film to earn a significant critical & commercial breakthrough. With a miniscule budget and almost no advertising, the film broke Hong Kong box office records and went on to even greater international success, planting the seeds of the “heroic bloodshed”/“gun fu” genre Woo inspired. Even though he was cast as second-bill in the film, Chow Yun-Fat’s charisma was a major factor in that success. By the time A Better Tomorrow reached international distribution, it was his face that dominated the advertising, not the film’s lead. John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat arrived on the international stage as a unit, which helps explain why they remained frequent collaborators in the years leading up to their shared creative pinnacle in Hard Boiled.

A Better Tomorrow is the Mean Streets to Hard Boiled’s GoodFellas. It’s a cheaper, rougher-around-the-edges dry run for an aesthetic Woo would later polish & perfect, but there’s a distinct D.I.Y. punk energy to that cheapness that makes it an exciting watch. All the speed boats, slow-motion takes, explosions, and operatic gun violence that would come to define Woo’s career are present here (minus maybe the obsession with birds) but the “How did he do that?” factor of his appeal as an action spectacule craftsman is wholly supplanted by a handmade, indie quality (by necessity of budgetary restraints). Woo’s tendency to alternate between sweeping, operatic action and slapstick absurdity remains, however, even if his over-the-top vision is staged on a relatively smaller scale. The story also shifts slightly from Hard Boiled’s immersion in illegal arms trading culture to the not-too-dissimilar world of counterfeit money production (just one year after Friedkin’s stylistic action landmark To Live and Die in L.A. tackled the same topic), but the thematic concerns of obligation, betrayal, and honor remain the same in this test run. Two brothers, one a cop and one a gangster, are divided by their relationship with the law, but tragically reunited in their dual pursuits of avenging their father’s murder. Clichés of the counterfeiter brother struggling to find his way out of the inevitable cycle of crime are abound, but like all John Woo films, A Better Tomorrow is much more distinguished in its stylistic flourishes than it is in its narrative innovation. Even though the film’s story feels very common to 1980s action cinema, its peculiar tone and aesthetic carved out an entirely new style of filmmaking with influence that would reach far beyond Woo’s future projects like Hard Boiled. Chow Yun-Fat’s screen presence was very much at the center of that burgeoning aesthetic, something audiences immediately latched onto and Woo was smart to repeat.

Chow Yun-Fat portrays neither of the cop & gangster brothers at the center of A Better Tomorrow’s conflict, but rather a second, more jovial counterfeiter who serves as the doomed brother’s partner in crime. The two gangsters grin & rough-house like school boys, making a life of thievery & gun violence seem like it’d be a blast (until you get blasted dead). It should come as no surprise that the most sketched-out Bad Boy would come across as the coolest character in a highly stylized action film. When we first discussed Hard Boiled, we singled out Philip Kwok’s side character Mad Dog for similar reasons; Woo lovingly shoots both characters taking out entire rooms of fellow criminals in cool, confident, slow-motion shootouts that make them look like villainous gods. Chow Yun-Fat somehow looks even cooler than the eye patch-wearing, motorcycle-riding Mad Dog, however. You can practically hear Quentin Tarantino furiously taking notes for what would become Reservoir Dogs as Chow Yun-Fat strikes a pose in a handsome suit & sunglasses combo between his various shootouts. At the very least, Tarantino cites the extended shootout in A Better Tomorrow 2 as being a direct influence on his aesthetic. By the time Chow Yun-Fat was lighting his cigar with flaming dollar bills on the international posters for A Better Tomorrow, Woo knew exactly what kind of hot ticket stylistic commodity he had on his hands. In later collaborations like The Killer & Hard Boiled, Chow Yun-Fat was smartly put front & center as Woo’s preferred lead. He even managed to maintain his bad boy appeal in those pictures by continuing to play nuanced anti-heroes the audience could find both enviably cool and dangerous as a violent threat. Before slow-motion pigeons came to define the John Woo brand, Chow Yun-Fat was already an established, essential component of that aesthetic.

A Better Tomorrow’s status as a less-polished Hard Boiled has seemed to persist over the last few decades. Whereas the Dragon Dynasty DVD copy of Hard Boiled I was able to borrow form the library was slickly packaged with a entire disc of extras, that same library’s copy of A Better Tomorrow was a cheap SD transfer with a British vocal dub. That cheapness is admittedly charming in contrast to Hard Boiled’s high production values, though, a feeling backed up by the score’s nonstop onslaught of corny synths & electric drums. In 1986, films like A Better Tomorrow & To Live and Die in L.A. (with its own deliciously corny Wang Chung soundtrack) were not cheesy at all; they were the cutting edge in action cinema. A Better Tomorrow’s violence isn’t as immediate or as frequent as Hard Boiled’s, but it is a brutal, bloody contrast to that cheap synthpop cheese in an admirably mean, fully-committed way that makes the film feel well worth a look no matter how shoddy its home video format can be. The entertainment value of that contrast was obviously not lost on 1980s audiences either, as A Better Tomorrow earned two franchise follow-ups (one directed by Woo and one directed by Tsui Hark himself) and inspired an entire generation of action cinema devotees, from “heroic bloodshed”/”gun fu” imitators to Tarantino & his own generation of imitators to beyond. It’s only right that Chow Yun-Fat was along for the ride as John Woo himself repeated, revised, and refined the aesthetic established in A Better Tomorrow until he perfected it in Hard Boiled. This is the leaner, meaner test run for that more formally accomplished gun violence opera, but its value as a stylistic innovator & industry influencer is pronounced, not least of all because of the way Chow Yun-Fat embodies its distinct sense of action cinema cool onscreen.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the John Woo action cinema classic Hard Boiled, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its American follow-up, Hard Target, and last week’s examination of the action genre spoof it inspired, Shoot ‘Em Up.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #50 of The Swampflix Podcast: Deathgasm (2015), A Gnome Named Gnorm (1990), and Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead (2012)

Welcome to Episode #50 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our fiftieth episode, the whole crew gets back together! Britnee joins James & Brandon to celebrate a podcast milestone by doing a full round-table of Movies of the Minute selections.  Britnee presents the buddy cop fantasy comedy A Gnome Named Gnorm (1990), Brandon presents the heavy metal horror comedy Deathgasm (2015), and James presents the gross-out Japanese horror oddity Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead (2011). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-The Podcast Crew

Wonderstruck (2017)

I seem to be at odds with most audiences on how we as a culture enjoy our Todd Haynes. Most people seem to prefer Haynes when he’s well-behaved, heaping ecstatic praise on his most straight-forward works like Far from Heaven & Carol. I’m much more into Haynes when he gets messy & experimental, like in the multimedia freakouts Poison & Velvet Goldmine. Considering that dissonance, I should have known better than to let the muted critical response to Haynes’s latest release deter me from seeing it big & loud when I had the chance, instead of sheepishly catching up with it months later upon its quiet streaming-platform release. Adapted from a children’s book by Brian Selznick (who also penned the source material for Scorsese’s Hugo, speaking of undervalued experiments from established auteurs), Wonderstruck is a deceptively well-mannered film that appeals to a younger audience in its tone, but formally sprawls into countless, ambitious directions. This film is just as fractured & mischievous as any of Haynes’s most out-there works, yet is thematically eager-to-please enough that its total lack of Academy Awards nominations feels like a deliberate injustice more than a harmless oversight (at the very least, it’s tied with mother! for being most over-looked in the Best Sound Editing category). I’d even argue it’s Haynes’s most impressive, satisfying work since Velvet Goldmine, which would make it his second-best film to date. If there’s one title I’m embarrassed to have not seen before filing my Best of 2017 list, it’s Wonderstruck, which only makes it all the more baffling why it was met with a series of yawns & shrugs instead of the rapturous adoration that was showered on the much more subdued Carol.

Two children, separated by 50 years and hundreds of miles, appear to be mysteriously linked in a shared destiny. They are both deaf, but do not speak sign language. Their parents are absent, but for wildly different reasons. They run away from home and are both drawn to the NYC Museum of Natural History for refuge. Their lives are temporally & geographically disparate, but supernaturally in sync, a mystery that untangles itself in intricate, multi-faceted ways as their stories converge in an unexpected (for them) shared space & time. In the stretch leading up to that convergence, the film busies itself contrasting the two adult worlds these out-on-their-own children perilously navigate. 1920s New York is framed with a traditionalist, black & white silent film palette, poisoning touchstones of Old Hollywood glamour with a distinct sense of NYC meanness. 1970s New York is a warm, sprawling mix of vibrant sounds & colors, even directly challenging the white hegemony of the earlier timeline by flooding the screen with PoC. Perhaps the reason I’m personally drawn to Wonderstruck is because the types of spaces that remain constant in both timelines & unite the two stories are the exact building blocks I’d use to construct an ideal universe: theaters, museums, libraries, bookstores, miniatures, etc. By the time the two deaf children’s parallel narratives converge in a whimsical, minutes-long stop motion sequence staged inside a meticulous miniature model of New York City, I was just completely broken down into pieces by the gorgeous, used book store universe Haynes (and Selznick) had constructed. It was only a kindness on his part to build me back up with the awe-inspiring tenderness of the film’s impossibly satisfying climax, a sweeping, meticulously calculated convergence of worlds that tied so many ethereal narrative threads together so concisely that it left me . . . well, you know the title.

Wonderstruck is far from the first film to attempt to revise & modernize “silent” filmmaking on an epic scale. Where it departs from past works like The Artist & Singin’ in the Rain, however, is in Haynes’s deliberately messy style as a collage artist. The sound design in this film is incredible, weaving effortlessly from immersion in the deaf children’s aural POV’s to the glam rock tapestries of Velvet Goldmine to the piano-accompanied silent era when the deaf & people with functional hearing had much more in common in their shared experiences at the movies. Haynes gleefully indulges in the most obviously attractive aspects of constructing a silent-era throwback, especially in scenes where he films & photographs his long-favorite collaborator Julianne Moore as a classic Old Hollywood starlet. The “silence” in the film’s choices of medium is much more than a question of aesthetic, however, as it’s distinctly, inextricably a part of its narrative DNA. For obvious reasons, Wonderstruck details at length the array of communication breakdowns that can cause havoc in a variety of interpersonal relationships once sound is removed from the communicators’ toolbox. The modes of communication the children and their friends & family must employ to get around their sound/language barrier are almost as varied as the visual media Haynes employs to communicate with his own audience: stop-motion, 3D models, silence, monologue, intensely colored lighting, black & white filmmaking, rapid fire montage, calm children’s film hangouts, etc. He even cast a deaf actress for the film’s lead to aid in the accuracy & immersion in the fractured narrative (Millicent Simmonds, who is also scheduled to appear in the upcoming horror film A Quiet Place). The movie’s silent era throwback vibe is far from empty nostalgia feel-goodery, even if it’s just as openly celebratory of the medium as simpler, more joyful works.

My favorite review of Wonderstruck I’ve seen so far was a blurb from John Waters’s Best of 2017 list, where he recommends parents show it to their kids as a kind of intelligence test, explaining “If your small-fry like the film, they’re smart. If they don’t, they’re stupid.” It’s a glib review that flippantly disregards questions of preference & taste, but it’s one I can’t help but agree with. In fact, I’d expand that uncalled-for insult to the adults who are bored or unmoved by the film as well. Complains that Wonderstruck is emotionless or “gets lost” in the Museum of Natural History baffle me. I can’t imagine a scenario where this many people don’t fall under the spell of Hayne’s kaleidoscopic mix of New York City models made entirely out of 1920s glamour magazines, Guy Maddin-style nightmare imagery of layered wolves, glam rock daydreams about stargazing, and so on. It’s unfair to fault anyone for not emotionally connecting with Wonderstruck’s children’s film tone or its narrative about deaf, fearless children who refuse to be treated like inconveniences by their reluctant adult guardians. That kind of subjective response is obviously personal, but people understanding the film as anything less than a technical marvel in fractured, multi-media storytelling makes me question what planet I’m living on.

To be fair, though no response to Wonderstruck could possibly be as idiotic as the one it’s getting from its own distributors. Amazon Studios is making no plans to release Wonderstruck on physical media, which is tragically ironic, considering the film’s obsession with the archival & preservation of physical objects. Todd Haynes’s latest work of ambitiously sprawling genius may be obsessed with libraries & museums, but Amazon’s going out of its way to make sure it never arrives in any such collections. Given the muted critical response to the film over the last few months, I’m afraid it might be lost in time to digital rot, which makes me want to cry over its delicate, misunderstood beauty all over again.

-Brandon Ledet

Toni Erdmann (2016)

The highly lauded German comedy Toni Erdmann has many hurdles to clear in winning over latecomers who didn’t catch it in its early festival & foreign market runs. First, selling anyone on a three hour-long foreign language comedy is a difficult task, which is largely the reason it personally took me over a year to see the film once it was available to stream at home. More importantly, though, the initial hype for Toni Erdmann’s greatness was feverishly enthusiastic. Before it was ever available for American audiences, the film already earned a spot on the BBC’s poll for the hundred greatest comedies of all time, an indication of just how in love the larger critical community is with the film. Still, despite the daunting nature of its massive runtime and the unfair expectation level set by its early critical hype, Toni Erdmann succeeds as a hilarious examination of loneliness & emotional fragility. Building its entire dramatic conflict around a single father-daughter relationship, its emotional beats are intimate in their specificity, but near-universal in their scope, especially relatable to anyone who has ever been driven mad by a barrage of dad jokes. I can’t quite match the depth of love many critics have already flooded the film’s reputation with, but it’s still very much an enjoyable, rewarding watch for anyone with enough free time to give it a chance.

The titular Toni Erdmann is a fictional persona created by a German father to prank his emotionally distant adult daughter. An aging music teacher mourning the recent loss of a pet, the father shows up unannounced for a vacation at the daughter’s work-abroad apartment in Bucharest, Romania. Stressed about an upcoming business proposal she’s preparing for her company’s contractor, she could not be less happy about the intrusion. In turn, he’s disappointed in her success as a business woman seemingly zapping the joy & adventure out of her life. Armed with hideous false dentures & a cheap wig, he creates the persona of Toni Erdmann to prank her out of her uptight doldrums, bringing his weaponized arsenal of lame dad jokes into her place of business, jeopardizing her reputation. They begin the film as opposing forces, the daughter asking her father, “Do you have ambitions in life that aren’t slipping fart cushions under people?” and the father asking her, “Are you really a human?” His pranks and the mounting pressure of her career trigger a mild nervous breakdown, releasing all the tension her emotional fragility builds throughout in a couple cathartic scenes that walk a thin border between hilarious & cruel. By the end of the film, both father & daughter are on the same page, but it’s not necessarily a happy place to be or an easy space to occupy.

As with a lot of classic comedies, the joy of Toni Erdmann is in watching traditional societal barriers break down to make room for chaos. The prankster father’s jokes aren’t especially amusing in and of themselves, but in the context of an uptight business world where any out-of-place gesture can mean loss of money or status they land with full comedic impact. The business world he’s subverting is worthy of the offense too; decisions made in fancy office buildings just outside Romanian slums are determining the future of untold families who have no power or input. The movie doesn’t dwell too much on the practical, devastating effects of unethical, exploitative business world that contrasts its titular buffoon, but that context is always lurking at the edge of the frame, informing the tension his actions disrupt. The most cathartic societal breakdowns are in more intimate social environments: a pair of climactic house parties that devolve into emotionally intense karaoke & sexual chaos. The politeness that builds the tension in those moments is superhuman, which makes its inevitable release more satisfying. The difference between Toni Erdmann & most comedies, though, is its dramatic honesty in detailing the emotional aftermath of those societal breakdowns, which helps explain why it’s so critically lauded.

There’s supposedly a planned remake of Toni Erdmann in the works starring Kristen Wiig & Jack Nicholson; this sounds like a phenomenally bad idea. Not only is the film such a critical darling that any slight changes to its formula will inevitably inspire umbrage, but its overall vibe is so inextricably European that an American context will dilute what makes it special. I’m not only talking about its international corporate culture either. The film’s casual approach to sexual transgression is likely to either be played for Farrelly Brothers-style gross-out humor or to be excised entirely, given the difference in American attitudes toward the subject. Toni Erdmann isn’t exactly Wetlands in terms of shock value sexuality, but it does treat casual nudity & out-of-context sperm-eating with a delicate comedic touch I doubt could be replicated in an American remake. I don’t exactly believe the film to be the infallible Holy Ground its critical reputation suggests; it’s too drawn out & ultimately too well-behaved to earn that distinction. However, I do think that trying to restage its very distinctive charms in another cultural context is a huge mistake, no matter how universal its father-daughter relationship themes might seem from the outside looking in. It really is a special, particular work, even if not the masterpiece suggested by its reputation.

-Brandon Ledet

Adulterers (2016)

For a time before I moved to Austin three years ago, I flirted with the idea of moving to L.A. and working as a script reader, as a dear friend had for a few years. She gave me a few different scripts to work on doing standard format reader reviews for, and while some of them were quite good (Melisa Wallack’s Manuscript, which ended up on The Black List, was my favorite of these), there were also quite a few that weren’t very good at all. The one that sticks in my mind the most was one entitled Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch, which has an IMDb page that lists it as “in development,” but doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2009 or 2010. I read enough short stories and personal essays in creative writing classes and discussion groups in both my undergrad and grad school that I developed a kind of sixth sense for when something was what could charitably called “revenge writing.” It’s basically when someone (invariably a man, almost always straight) writes out his one-sided feelings about the dissolution of a relationship, recently or distantly, painting himself as the put-upon everyman whose life is disrupted by the she-demon who broke his heart. That Guy in Your MFA didn’t emerge from a vacuum, is what I’m saying, and there’s a universality to the personality that those tweets are mocking which speaks volumes about society, literature culture, the writing world, and college campuses. Even without the laughable “Based on a True Story” caption that opens the film, or the credit that shows that the film was written, directed, and produced by one person (me, out loud, when I saw that on screen: “Oh boy”), I can smell that same malodorous desperation and entitlement all over Adulterers, and boy is it not in service of the film as a whole.

Spoilers to follow for a film you should just skip.

Samuel (Sean Faris) is an assistant manager at a hardware store in New Orleans, preparing to celebrate his one year anniversary with his wife Ashley (Danielle Savre), at the pinnacle of a record-breaking heat wave. He tells her that he won’t be able to come home as early as expected, as he’s picking up a double shift to help pay for the house and his new truck, but in fact intends to go home early and surprise her. After fending off the flirtations of his co-worker Lola (Stephanie Charles), he picks up a box “of dem dark chocklits” along with a bouquet of flowers and makes his way home to the exterior of what appears to be a shotgun house but has the interior of a two-story. While waiting for his wife to arrive from her waitressing shift, he realizes that her purse is sitting on the table, and that there are the telltale grunts of some mischief going on upstairs; he finds his wife in flagrante delicto with another man (Mehcad Brooks). Distraught, he goes downstairs to grab a couple of handguns, then goes back up and shoots them both guns akimbo. Credits!

Or not; in fact, it appears he just imagined this. He again climbs the stairs, and this time confronts Ashley and her lover at gunpoint, forcing them to answer questions about how long they’ve been seeing each other, how they met, and the frequency and content of their sexual encounters (yes: they have done it in the butt). This continues for some time, as all parties are emotionally and physically degraded. Brooks’s character’s name is given as Damien, and he admits that he, too, is married, and that his wife Jasmine (Steffinnie Phrommany) is pregnant with their second child. This is not the first time he’s cheated on her, nor is Ashley, whom he only knows as “Peaches,” the only woman with whom he is committing adultery.

We also learn that Ashley was already married when she met Samuel, but he rescued her from her abusive husband and even adopted her young daughter (whom we never see). Ashley gives a monologue about how she can’t help herself because she’s “broken,” and tells about how this brokenness emerged from being sexually assaulted several times by her father’s employer. Meanwhile, Lola continues reaching out to try and get Samuel to return to work before he loses his job, and when Jasmine calls, Samuel tells her about her husband’s infidelity, she decides to take her own revenge by coming to the house and having sex with Samuel in front of Damien, then telling Sam to dispose of the other man as he sees fit. This descends further into much absurd nonsense, with a lot of “Do you read the Bible?” and “I am God’s judgment” and “I won’t pretend to be a Christian, but my mama took me to church every Sunday” dialogue that I’m sure means you can imagine every moment of this excruciating standoff. Ultimately, it’s left up to God (in the form of Russian Roulette) to decide Damien and Ashley’s fate, and the afternoon’s events come to a conclusion with Ashley smoking a long-deserved cigarette while watching Sam bury her lover.

Except psych! Because of course it is. Samuel really did kill both Ashley and her lover at the beginning of the film, and the entire rest of the film has been his imagining of what would have happened had he not done so. Interestingly, this twist appears to have been so confusing (it really isn’t, though) that even the person who edited the film’s Wikipedia page doesn’t seem to have understood what happened, as it states (as of 02/16/18) that “Sam later finds himself back in reality, just after burying Ashley beneath the rose bed in the back yard. He realizes that he killed his wife and made up a story of her cheating in his mind.” That’s pretty clearly not what happened, as he clearly shoots them both, but you can hardly blame anyone for giving up and just making up their own ending. Unsurprisingly, this kind of “the whole thing was imagined!” plot twist was also common in a lot of the bad scripts I read, not to mention the work of fellow students. In the latter that’s almost forgivable, but in the former it’s a telltale sign that you’re an amateur. That doesn’t matter, I suppose, when you’re the writer, director, and producer, but if you’re thinking of submitting something like this to a legitimate agency or production house, take a tip from your old friend Boomer and just don’t.

There’s so much else going on here that demands to be discussed. I was actually able to track down an interview with director (writer, and producer) H.M. Coakley with the Urban Movie Channel, and it is one of the fluffiest fluff pieces I’ve ever read, and that’s coming from someone who used to do just these kinds of interviews with small name, big ego local personalities when writing for Dig in Baton Rouge. In it, when asked about the origin of the story, Coakley states “The actual idea for Adulterers was based on something that happened to a family member. I remember saying to myself, ‘Wow— what would I have done, if that was me?’” That’s not really what “based on a true story” means, I’m afraid. Just because a friend or family member caught their significant other in the act with someone else, and you imagined what you would do, and what you imagined is a character imagining an interaction with their cheating wife and her lover, that doesn’t make it “based” on anything. That barely makes it “inspired” by something that happened; by that logic, Home Alone is “based on a true story” about that time you imagined what it would be like to be a kid left alone in a mansion at Christmas, and Starship Troopers is “based on a true story” of fascist propaganda.

The worst thing about the interview, however, is this statement from the interviewer: “The story location was steamy & hot New Orleans, Louisiana and the accents, especially Sean’s, seemed quite authentic.” It’s not. It’s really, really, really not. The only authentic thing about this movie is the fact that, if someone were going to cheat on sex-on-a-stick uberbabe Sean Faris (who, in case you didn’t know, looks like this), the only other human being on earth who could possibly make your eye wander would be megahunk Mehcad Brooks (who looks like this). To be honest, either one of them would be worth getting shot. Cinematographer Ben Kufrin‘s pre-2005 C.V. consists almost entirely of titles with the word “Playboy” thrown in there, and while I’m hesitant to say that he shoots these male bodies as lovingly as (presumably) he did the women in his earlier films, this “erotic” “thriller” may at least send you off with visions of chiseled abs dancing in your head. The interview mentions that Brooks expressed interest as early as 2010, which makes sense given that this was after he stopped getting regular paychecks for The Game and True Blood and before he started being able to get paid regularly for Supergirl, where he’s been unfortunately underutilized of late. Full disclosure: Sean Faris’s presence was the only reason I watched this movie, and I’ve long felt that his turn on Life As We Know It should have led to greater market penetration and made him more of a star, but he’s never had the mainstream success that his sister has.

The long and short of it is this: even if you’re trying to find a film that’s set in a hot place to try and make up for the cold, cold winter we’ve had this year, you’re better off watching a documentary about volcanoes. If you just want the visual feast of watching hot people sweating in a stuffy room, there are other, better places to get your jollies.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Baby Face (1933)

I’ve been casually flipping through & taking notes on Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon for a few months now (even though it’s essentially a lengthy gossip rag & could easily be read in an afternoon), which really is one of the better trashy reads on cinema history out there. If even a tenth of Anger’s ancient gossip is to be believed, the early days of Hollywoodland were a reckless, anything-goes bacchanal of drugs, sex, murder, and glamor, a just-born industry living out its youthful transgressions with unfathomable lust & fervor. There’s an obvious allure to these tawdry movie industry legends that just about anyone should be able to latch onto, but for film nerds early Hollywood gossip & myths are especially intoxicating. Among its more prurient interests, Anger’s book offers a glimpse of American cinema before it was defanged by the browbeating morality of the Hays Code, a time when Major Studio filmmaking was just as wild & transgressive as any art in production. I could have easily devoured Hollywood Babylon in a single sitting, but I find myself slowing way down to take notes on as may films Anger mentions as possible, hoping to find a movie-shaped doorway into the freewheeling times when the Studio System’s tawdriest works were being produced. That’s why it was beautifully serendipitous to recently find a used copy of a Warner Archives release titled Forbidden Hollywood at a second-hand media store. Featuring pre-Code pictures from Old Hollywood’s wildest era, the modest collection found its way into my personal stash at the exact right moment of my life, not only because of the surprising modern relevance of its crown jewel: 1933’s Baby Face.

A Barbara Stanwyck vehicle released just one year before the Hays Code was first strictly enforced, Baby Face is one of the most notorious examples of pre-Code Hollywood boundary-testing. It’s a grimy, cynical work about weaponized female sexuality and corporate culture exploitation, a true wonder as a Studio System relic. What’s most incredible, though, is the way its basic premise of lifelong sexual harassment corrupting & limiting women’s professional opportunities as autonomous adults continues to be vividly relevant to the current Cultural Discourse. The solution for combating that patriarchal oppression (essentially a Fuck Your Way to the Top ethos) has drastically changed, but the circumstances have not. The Forbidden Hollywood DVD features a recently discovered “pre-release” cut of Baby Face that includes extended sequences & alternate takes that are even racier than the version of the film that ruffled feathers in 1930s theaters. The official theatrical cut is plenty shocking for its time as is, though, not only in its casual approach to aggressive female sexuality, but also in its strides towards equality for onscreen black representation. The film is by no means a prophetic reflection of 2010s political ideology, but it is an incredibly honest screed about social & institutional oppression of women in the 1930s. It’s a kind of honesty we’re not used to associating with Old Hollywood pictures, thanks to the blanket moralizing of the Hays Code that would soon neuter American Cinema until the New Hollywood movement took over decades later. Its world of casual sex, suicide, interracial friendship, untold hundreds of cigarettes, and swanky Dixieland jazz paints a picture of what Old Hollywood could’ve been, if it were only allowed to fully blossom into its flagrantly amoral ideal.

Barbara Stanwyck stars as a put-upon barmaid who’s been harassed, cat-called, and groped every day of her life since she was a teen. Her father is her employer and, without consent, her pimp, charging men by the hour to be alone in the bar with her. A grim factory smoke tableau fills the window to the world outside their lowly speakeasy. A tragic accident suddenly frees her from this imprisonment and she flees to the city with her best friend (a black servant played by Theresa Harris) to establish her own place in the world. Resourceless and encouraged by the only speakeasy customer who’s ever been nice to her to stop being a pushover for horny men’s whims, she consciously decides to use her sexuality to earn money & status. Early in the film, Stanwyck’s antihero walks up to an impossibly tall skyscraper bank with no contacts or experience necessary for employment. To put it crassly, she systematically fucks her way to the top floor over the course of the movie, leaving behind a trail of heartbroken men in her path to financial success. Stanwyck is incredible in the role, confidently delivering lines like, “I don’t owe you a thing. Whatever I do is my business,” with a nonchalance that borders on viciousness, but never enough to turn the audience against her. The tragedy of the film is not the bosses, managers, and banking associates she seduces & leaves ruined, but in a climactic decision that jeopardizes the money she’s earned though the transgression. Using her intimacy as leverage and often waiting a beat to decide how to act before claiming another “victim” (would-be-harasser), she flips the power dynamic of a corporate world stacked against women by weaponizing the one asset that’s been afforded her: sex appeal. By the time she’s holding a major bank’s entire board of directors hostage with that one minor resource, Baby Face becomes a perverted David vs Goliath story and the movie is clearly rooting for her succeed by any means necessary.

Obviously, the theatrical edits made to soften Baby Face’s sexual transgressions also weaken its modern appeal. A moralistic coda about changing her casual sexin’ ways is tacked onto the story and stands out as just as much of a sore thumb as the similar false ending to The Bad Seed. Her amoral life coach is more of a Christian finger-wagger in the theatrical cut, scolding her for doing what he encourages her to do in the original, unreleased version of the story: fucking for power. Small moments of sex & violence are more explicitly depicted in the “pre-release” cut, hammering home what’s only implied in the version that’s been publicly available for decades. No matter which cut of Baby Face you’re privileged to see, however, the movie still shines as a grimy, transgressive wonder of Old School Hollywood boundary-pushing. Pre-Code Hollywood really was an amoral Babylon of hedonistic indulgences in sex & violence, as evidenced by the fact that even Baby Face’s censored, theatrical cut is more thematically & morally risky than most modern Major Studio releases dare to be. The fact that it accomplishes this while tackling an issue that’s currently commanding our cultural zeitgeist (the exploitation & sexual degradation of women in a male-dominated workplaces) only makes it all the more astounding.

-Brandon Ledet

Morvern Callar (2002)

It’s a goddamn shame that in her two decades of directing features, Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsey has only been able to secure financing for four directorial efforts. What’s more of a personal shame for me is that I haven’t yet made a point to watch all of her available works. I’m in love with the darkly amusing, surrealist nightmare of 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and her upcoming thriller You Were Never Really Here is my most anticipated film of 2018, but I’ve been slow to pull the trigger on her two earlier features until now, a grotesque oversight on my part. Speaking of grotesque, Ramsey’s precursor to We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the grimier, more sickly features I can remember seeing in a long while. Morvern Callar feels less like an original screenplay than it does like a feature film adaptation of a crumpled-up Polaroid Ramsey found in a sewer. Along with a fearless performance from indie movie mainstay Samantha Morton, Ramsey’s direction & scum-coated visual language capture a very specific phase of soul-crushing grief: the stage where you stumble in total shock, only emerging from drunken stupors long enough to pray for the release of death. The film is nowhere near as satisfying as We Need to Talk About Kevin on a technical or narrative level, but stylistically speaking it’s just as powerful & willing to lunge directly at the audience’s throat, a visual ferociousness I can’t help but appreciate.

Morton stars as the titular Morvern Callar, a twenty-something party animal who awakes from a blackout to discover her boyfriend dead from suicide. As Morvern ponders her plight in the sad glow of their shared apartment’s blinking Christmas lights, the movie threatens to sink into the slow, grainy quiet of a Kelly Reichardt film. That quiet, reflective gloom does not last long. Morvern’s response to her boyfriend’s death is much more akin to the behavior of a raccoon or an opossum than it is to a human being. She allows his body to rot on the floor for days before deciding to chop it up & bury it, keeping the funeral money he left behind for herself & selling his novel manuscript to a publisher under her own name. She uses the resulting cash flow to fill her days with hedonistic distractions: drugs, parties, vacations with her bestie, bad sex. The whole movie dwells in a kind of desperate attempt at fun! meant to hold her grief at bay, as she keeps the opening tragedy to herself as a secret. I’m not sure this nightmare vision of grief & desperate distraction is ever as strong as it is in the first party she attends almost immediately after discovering her boyfriend’s body. A disorienting mosaic of dancing, fire, broken glass, and drug-rotted sex, the earliest party sequence dunks the audience’s head in ice cold water as an open, honest threat about the meaningless debauchery to come. Morton barrels through it all with a nasty, heartbroken fervor and Ramsey matches her feral energy with an appropriately devastating sense of grime.

I can’t honestly say that Morvern Callar sustains the brutal intensity of that initial party sequence for its entire runtime, but it’s never dull or dispirited. The film plays like an pus-infected inversion of Eat, Pray, Love, with Morvern attempting to transform into a different person through self-indulgence & travel. Instead of “finding herself,” however, she’s more attempting to lose herself. For her part, Ramsey never loses track of the grief or desperation at the center of this quest, but she does often threaten to make it look cool. An incredible soundtrack stacked with some of the greatest pop acts of all time (Broadcast, Stereolab, Velvet Underground, Ween, etc.) combines with intensely colored lights & grimy punk energy to almost estimate the dressed-down chic of a fashion shoot or a music video. Ramsey’s sensibilities are too stomach-turning & sorrowful for Morvern Callar to fully tip in that that direction, though, and the movie ultimately comes across as incredibly sad. It’s the same odd balance she struck in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a tone she collaboratively establishes through heartbreaking performances from Samantha Morton & Tilda Swinton, respectively. I’m excited to see how that tonal tightrope is managed in the rest of her work, but saddened to know it won’t take much effort for me to fully find out.

-Brandon Ledet

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007) and the Value of John Woo’s Sincerity

When John Woo jumped down from the heights of his Hong Kong action heyday in Hard Boiled to the more pedestrian American mold of action cinema in its follow-up, Hard Target, you could immediately feel a tampering of his penchant for excess. It takes Hard Target nearly an hour of contextual narrative buildup before the over-the-top excess of Jean-Claude Van Damme punching rattle snakes, gangsters shooting up Mardi Gras parade floats, and Wilford Brimely going full Crazy Cajun in the film’s third act. Hard Boiled, by contrast, starts with one of its most chaotically violent set pieces (the showdown staged at the bird-watching tea house) and mostly maintains that same intensity throughout. Hard Target plays a little like a compromise, with American studio execs only allowing Woo’s sensibilities to show at the seams instead of flying at the screen full-force at every possible opportunity, as they had in his past Hong Kong efforts. As much as the 90s action thrillers that followed in the footsteps of Hard Boiled and its Hong Kong contemporaries were highly entertaining, they were often self-aware about not coming across as silly in a way the films that inspired them weren’t. Hard Boiled is entirely unembarrassed by its indulgences in excess and cheese. Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) doesn’t play jazz clarinet or drive around to cheesy synth-pop in a convertible as a sly wink to the audience; he does it because it supposedly looks cool. Mad Dog (Philip Kwok) doesn’t wear an eye patch or ride his motorcycle through a wall of flames to distract the audience from his pro wrestling-simple villainous persona; he does it because it obviously looks cool. Oddly, one of the few American films directly influenced by Hard Boiled that nails its unembarrassed indulgence in excess & cheese is the 2007 action genre spoof Shoot ‘Em Up. Even as a loving parody, Shoot ‘Em Up feels more like a faithful carbon copy of Hong Kong excess than even Hard Target, which John Woo himself directed. Unfortunately, though, it fatally lacks Woo’s sincerity.

Shoot ‘Em Up telegraphs its nature as an ironic comedy by making the genre it’s spoofing clear in its title. It’s as if a slasher send-up were titled Horror Film or, you know, Scary Movie. Director Michael Davis was inspired to write the film after seeing Hard Boiled and being delighted/baffled by the sequence during the climactic shoot-out when Tequila teams up with a newborn baby to defeat the film’s legion of faceless baddies. Like Hard Boiled, Shoot ‘Em Up drops you into its violent, chaotic narrative with very little introductory context. Clive Owen stars as a drifter who gets caught in the crossfire of an opening gunfight, where his instinct to protect a pregnant woman in labor results in delivering the baby himself, mid-shootout. He separates the umbilical cord with a bullet from his pistol. The mother dies in the fray. The drifter finds himself carrying & the protecting the newly orphaned baby through many more over-the-top gunfights, but never any that reach the entertainment value of the film’s opening minutes. Shoot ‘Em Up’s rapid-fire, ZAZ-style spoof humor means that the jokes are abundant and any one bit doesn’t last for long. They’re also just rarely funny (which might be why the Scary Movie franchise came to mind). A rare gag like the baby being swapped out with a robo-decoy or the drifter leaving them on a filthy public bathroom floor to clean his gun on a changing table can be inspired. Mostly, though, the film is painfully unfunny & grotesquely macho, especially in its treatment of sex workers (practically the only women in sight) and in every single thing that Paul Giamatti says & does as the villain. By the time the film reaches for a second joke about how shooting a gun is like “blowing your load,” its difficult to care that one of its best gags was later blatantly ripped off in the deranged Nic Cage vehicle Drive Angry. Shoot ‘Em Up was built around a borrowed concept anyway and Drive Angry at least recognizes the value in playing the material straight/committing to the bit.

I don’t mean to suggest that Hard Boiled is unintentional in its humor. In the baby-themed shootout sequence that inspired Shoot ‘Em Up, Chow Yun-Fat delivers a great physical comedy performance, protecting the infant’s ears between gunshots & even singing it a hip-hop lullaby. The intentional humor of the sequence’s over-the-top excess is not in question. Where Hard Boiled is more successful is in its in-the-moment sincerity. Chow Yun-Fat is straight-faced & fully committed, playing the baby scene & the jazz clarinet as if they were totally typical to the action genre. Clive Owen’s drifter in Shoot ‘Em Up, by contrast, is a literal stand-in for Bugs Bunny, the king of winking at the audience. Before he even fires a gun, Owen is shown loudly gnawing on a carrot on a public bench, a habit he continues throughout the film to clue the audience in that it’s all a big joke. Unfortunately, the joke isn’t all that funny and only gets less impressive as it’s driven home with repetition. The entire film plays like the dick-shooting gag in Our RoboCop Remake, except that it runs for 90 minutes instead of 90 seconds. Its wacky! insincerity & ultimate lack of imagination (not to mention its boys-will-be-boys misogyny) are exhausting at that length. I admire Shoot ‘Em Up for capturing the spirit of the nonstop, over-the-top excess of 80s Hong Kong action cinema that most other American films failed to imitate in that movement’s wake. I just wish it had learned a lesson about the value of sincerity & playing it straight while admiring the humorous excess of films like Hard Boiled. John Woo’s comedic touches are twice as funny without trying half as hard to earn a laugh. Their unembarrassed embrace of cheese allows them to mix in with the over-the-top action seamlessly, creating a much more genuinely enjoyable product as a result.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the John Woo action cinema classic Hard Boiled, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its American follow-up, Hard Target.

-Brandon Ledet