mother! (2017)

In the words of the Grand Galactic Inquisitor: “That was a weird one!”

For years, I woke up every morning (and the occasional afternoon), rolled over, and put my feet firmly on the floor in front of a poster for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. The Fountain was not a movie that I liked when I first saw it, nor was Black Swan. Over time, however, I came to love The Fountain in spite (or perhaps because) of its bizarre but ultimately human melding of pretentious universalism and cloying sentimentality. Even in my first viewing in the theater, I still loved the visuals of the film, especially the depictions of space as a vast sea of colors and reactions, which were actually taken from microphotography. And I guess I’ve come around some on Black Swan as well, although I doubt I’ll ever come to love it. All of this is to say that opinions can and do change. Sometimes I look back and can’t believe I gave Tenebrae anything less than a perfect 5 Stars. And 4 Stars for last year’s Ghostbusters? What was I smoking? In order to be fair, despite the fact that I walked out of the theater after seeing mother! and immediately wanted to pen my review, I decided to ruminate on it for a few days to see if my feelings about the movie changed at all.

And, hey, they did! The more time that passes, the less I like it. I better get this down on paper while I still have some positivity. And maybe while I still have some negativity as well. Good or bad, this one’s going to be on my mind for a while to come, and I get the feeling it’s going to go up and down.

On my Fountain poster, there was a pull-quote from film critic Glenn Kenny: “As deeply felt as it is imagined.” This is essentially true of all of Aronofsky’s films that I’ve seen (of his recent work, I’ve only missed Noah and The Wrestler): they are all films with a great depth of imagination and arresting visuals, paired with emotional gravitas that varies wildly but usually works because of strong performances by powerhouses like Barbara Hershey, Ellen Burstyn, and, for all that people love to mock her, Natalie Portman. It doesn’t really apply in the case of mother!, however. This is a cast full of powerful performers, from Javier Bardem to Jennifer Lawrence to Ed Harris and (my ride or die) Michelle Pfeiffer, but even their presence makes for a film that lacks the emotional resonance that it’s shooting for; it aims for the moon and misses, but it doesn’t land among the stars, it plummets back to earth as a fiery wreck, breaking up in the atmosphere and never again reaching the grounding of earth.

Although I went into this film as blind as I possibly could, avoiding all pre-release interviews and clickbait, I don’t foresee being able to fully discuss this film without going into the major plot elements and my interpretation of the events of the narrative. This is going to be a spoiler-heavy review, so abandon ship now all ye who wish to view the film with fresh eyes and clear hearts. This plot summary may not vary far from others you may have already seen, but I intend to only note things I plan to discuss. Ok? Let’s go.

The film opens on Javier Bardem’s character “Him” placing a crystal with a fiery center in a podium, which causes a burned home to regenerate, including the appearance of Jennifer Lawrence’s character, “mother.” She is working on restoring a glorious octagonal Victorian house to its former glory after a fire: plastering walls, repainting, and generally doing all of the heavy lifting while Bardem’s writer character, whom we later learn is a poet, sits in his study (which contains the crystal from the opening scene) and struggles with his writer’s block. One day “the man” (Harris) appears, supposedly after having been told that their home was a bed and breakfast. The poet welcomes him into the house over Lawrence’s character’s protests, and the two men spend the night drinking and carousing. The next morning, mother awakens to find herself alone before stumbling upon her husband helping the man, now with a wound where his back ribs are, to vomit in a commode. This prompts the appearance of “the woman” (Pfeiffer), the man’s wife, who slinks about making innuendo and asking invasive questions about how often the (ostensibly) younger couple have sex, do they love each other, and, of course, when is Lawrence’s character just going to have a baby already?

They reveal that they are actually fans of the poet’s work, and Pfeffer’s character finally manages to find her way into his inner sanctum, accidentally breaking the crystal and driving the poet into a rage; he boards up his study. As the homeowners prepare to kick the interlopers out of their house, the latter’s two sons (Domnhall Gleeson as the elder and Brian Gleeson as the younger) arrive and bicker about their inheritance, leading to a physical altercation that results in the younger son’s death. This leads into an influx of a seemingly endless multitude of mourners into the house, who invade and act out, from childishly mocking Lawrence’s character for trying to preserve the sanctity of her bedroom to aggressively trying to sleep with her and using misogynistic slurs to ultimately breaking a sink and flooding the room. This finally prompts her to drive all of the uninvited guests out. Afterwards, she and the poet make love. She awakes the next morning and declares that she is pregnant. This delights her husband and breaks through the wall of his creative block, and he writes something new, something truly beautiful and transcendent (not that the audience gets to read it; we only see how people react). That’s when shit truly hits the fan.

Near the end of her pregnancy, the new work is published, to Lawrence’s character’s surprise, and their home is immediately descended upon by fans, who begin to besiege the house in the form of a mob. In a matter of minutes, they make their way into the house and begin to destroy it, repeating the poet’s declaration that all that lies within is to be shared. Violence erupts, as well as various rituals and rites that smack of religiosity and sectarianism, until their home becomes a war zone, complete with women being imprisoned, the poet’s publisher (Kristen Wiig) performing violent executions, refugees hiding in barracks, and explosions in every direction. The mother and her husband make their way to his boarded-up study, where she gives birth but refuses to let the poet take the baby out into the rest of the house; when she finally falls asleep, she awakes in a panic and rushes from the room to find that Bardem’s character is presenting their child to the assembled throng of his fans, who steal the baby.

Then they kill it. Then they eat it. (Then hundreds of people in dozens of cinemas in America stood up and left the theater. To address the elephant in the room, it was pretty gruesomely laid open, and I’m not shocked that middle America revolted at this… revolting display. I’m sure that they would say that I am too desensitized to this kind of thing based on my previous viewing habits–including La terza madre, which features a similar scene of infant cannibalism–but really it’s that I’m an adult who knows when a prop is just a prop. The disturbing shit is happening out there in the streets in the real world right now, and if you happen to be one of those people who found this beyond reprehensible but don’t have a thing to say in defense of the victim when children like Trayvon Martin are getting murdered in the real world, then you’re the one whose brain is fucked up. Get your priorities and your house in order. But I digress.)

This (baby eating) drives Lawrence’s character around the bend. She attacks some followers and is badly beaten by them in retaliation. She ultimately makes her way to the basement, where she succeeds in setting the house ablaze and killing everyone inside, save for the poet. He finds her burned body and asks her to make one last sacrifice on his behalf: she allows him to remove her heart, which he cracks like a nut or an egg to reveal another crystal identical to the one at the start of the film. He again places the crystal in its place, and the house begins to rejuvenate once more….

I’m embarrassed to say that the primary and most obvious metaphor of the film did not reveal itself to me during my first watch. As someone well versed with the Western Canon, the reinterpretation and revisitation of Biblical sources is as familiar to me as the smell of my childhood home or the shape of the tree outside my bedroom window. I was careful (and lucky) to avoid promotional materials, which meant that Aronofsky’s public declarations about the films allegorical intent were unknown to me until after the fact. Still, in retrospect it should have been obvious to me that the poet was meant to be God, that Harris and Pfeiffer’s characters were Adam and Eve, that their sons were Cain and Abel, that the broken sink was the great deluge, that Lawrence’s character’s child was Jesus, especially as the mass of fanatics ate of his flesh and experienced a kind of religious ecstasy. Aronofsky has also stated that the considered the title character to be representative of the earth, which is taken for granted by mankind, a group which in turn tears the world apart in the name of warring faiths and factionalism, until the earth turns on its guests and burns everything down. Also, I’m pretty sure Wiig is supposed to be the Catholic Church in this paradigm. But Roland Barthes and I are over here in the corner and we want you to know: the Author is dead, baby, dead, and you’re not beholden to what he has to say.

I read the film not as a mostly one-to-one allegorical fable about the rise and fall of mankind, but as being instead about the God Complex of the author, the artist who is so self-absorbed with their personal vision that they allow themselves to reach the point of total narcissism and personal deification, an apotheosis of the self. To me, this read true in the scenes in which we see Bardem’s character repeatedly surrender his privacy, the sanctity of his personal relationships, and even his own child to appease the reader and the audience. It made me think of the way that so many writers, myself included, stripmine their lives for story material, consciously and unconsciously. I wasn’t expecting Adam and Eve so I didn’t notice them when they arrived, and was more fascinated with wondering whether or not Aronofsky knew how unbearable the author (and thus he himself) seemed to be, based on the lens of my reading.

As chaos descends in the final act, I found myself looking for other ways to interpret the material, and thought that we were headed for a kind of H.P. Lovecraft’s Rosemary’s Baby scenario. There’s certainly enough textual evidence for the idea that the house is in reality an eldritch horror show under all the floorboards and the plaster, with the image of a beating, fleshy thing behind the walls and a Cronenbergian bladder/ulcer/boil/appendage (?) sticking out of the plumbing. There’s also a very Lovecraftian element to the way that the interior of the house descends into a Gilliamesque war zone that’s evocative of the indecipherable and incomprehensible chaos of films like Jacob’s Ladder and In the Mouth of Madness. I was rooting for this potential turn right up until the child was born and it was totally normal-looking (other than being ten months old like most movie “newborns”). My hopes that the film was going to transcend into something truly bizarre were dashed.

But if we instead take Aronofsky at his word, then everything is so obviously (and clumsily) literal that we’re left struggling to grasp the meaning of the more obtuse symbols that appear in the film? Take, for instance, the importance of Harris’s character’s lighter. This “Adam” smokes, much to “mother’s” chagrin; if she is Mother Earth, is she upset by the pollution of her perfect home, caused by self-destructiveness, and this is the reason for her ill temperament? If we accept this premise for the sake of argument, what are we to make of the fact that she deliberately loses the lighter–is this the earth hiding man’s self-destruction from him, and is the fact that Harris’s character later lights a cigarette on the stove despite having no lighter a metaphor for how mankind will continues to be self-destructive regardless of nature’s attempts to course correct? If we grant that these precepts are sine qua non of the thesis that man/Adam/mankind abuses the hospitality/household/habitability of mother/earth/Mother-Earth and that this is what ultimately leads to the destruction of the house/planet, we are still left with questions. Why does the lighter have a Nordic rune on it (it’s called a Wendehorn; you can also see it on the woman’s luggage clasps)? When the metaphorical first man arrives bearing fire, are we really supposed to draw no connection to the myth of Prometheus? Given that Promethean fire most often metaphorically stands for technology, is it mankind’s technical aptitude that mother despises, and if so, what does the fact that she uses this fire/technology/self-destruction to burn down the house mean? Is it that polluting the earth causes climate change and thus the ultimate death-by-heat of humanity?

Is it really just that one layer? Is it really so obvious and dumb? Or is it a matryoshka, with multiple obfuscated layers of meaning but also somehow just as dumb?

And what of “Cain” and “Abel”? Primogeniture, inheritance, and birthright are common narrative devices of the Judaic biblical canon, ranging from Jacob and Esau to Isaac and Ishmael to Joseph and his brothers, but those aren’t elements of the story of Adam and Eve’s eldest sons, whose altercation was the result of Cain making the wrong kind of pre-Messianic sacrifice in comparison to Abel’s proper profferation of his prettiest sheep (no, seriously, look it up). Fraternal jealousy is a hallmark of this tradition, but Cain and Abel competed for the affections of their creator, not their father. As such, one would think that there would be some interaction between either of the brothers and the poet before the slaying, but if there was it was too fast or subtle to be perceptible. Again, there’s so much (one could say too much) effort put into creating a one-to-one correlation between events in the film and Judaic myth that when that synchronization falls out of step, it highlights the shoddiness of the overall metaphor.

Which is to say: I think there may be a great movie in mother!, despite its flaws being as deeply felt as they are imagined. It just needed two or three more drafts before it could reach that potential. And if this film has taught us anything, it’s that writers who think they are gods, as well as gods who envision themselves as writers, don’t spend nearly enough time working out the kinks.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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Schizopolis (1996) Brought Soderbergh Back to Home Base Only to Burn It to the Ground

One of the most exciting aspects of September’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, is in trying to figure out exactly who it’s for. As a filmmaker, Soderbergh has consistently maintained a one-for-me-one-for-them creative pattern, balancing out crowd-pleasers like the Oceans & Magic Mike series with head-scratchers like Solaris & The Girlfriend Experience. Few creative enterprises have ever felt as self-satisfying as the deliberately impenetrable Schizopolis, however, which was seemingly made for Steven Soderbergh and Steven Soderbergh alone, an audience of one. What’s interesting is that as insular & self-indulgent as Schizopolis can feel to anyone who isn’t Steven Soderbergh, it also closely resembles the debut crowd-pleaser that jumpstarted his career, a feature that made him a name before he had even fully found his voice. In a way, Schizopolis documents Soderbergh’s return to his creative home base, his professional launching pad, only so he could set fire to the good will it generated and move on with his life. Soderbergh may have built his career on a one-for-me-one-for-them ethos, but Schizopolis is a rare case of the director returning to one of his one-for-them successes with an anarchic intent to explode his own legacy.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape was a Big Deal in 1989. At 26 years old, Soderbergh was the then-youngest director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this debut feature, which then went on to earn great financial success that made a name for the Sundance Film Fest and was a major player in kick-starting the 90s indie cinema boom. That success also weighed heavily on Soderbergh’s shoulders. A film famously written on a legal pad during a week’s worth of travel and filmed in just a month’s time in Soderbergh’s makeshift home city of Baton Rouge, Sex, Lies, and Videotape quickly built the young director up for a massive professional fall, a danger he immediately succumbed to. His three immediate follow-ups– Kafka, King of the Hill, and The Underneath— bombed critically & financially, leaving him dangerously close to becoming an indie cinema one hit wonder. To shake himself out of this professional slump, Soderbergh returned to Baton Rouge as a prodigal son to film another hastily-written, dirt cheap reflection on domesticity & suburban ennui. Where he had formerly crafted a poignant, darkly funny drama that struck a chord with everyone within earshot, he now seemed determined to cut loose with a nonsensical comedy designed to strike a chord with no one. Schizopolis was the inverse, anti-matter version of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, a kind of self-targeting professional blasphemy that set Soderbergh free from the expectations set by his initial success.

Much like Schizopolis, Sex, Lies, and Videotape is about a long-married Baton Rouge couple struggling to maintain intimacy & honest communication as their domestic life loses its initial spark of romance. Andie MacDowell stars as a bored suburban housewife who doesn’t believe women enjoy sex as much they report to while her eternally horny husband cheats on her with her equally oversexed sister. Although she’s never experienced an orgasm and is embarrassed to discuss masturbation even with her therapist, her sexual appetite is seemingly awakened by the arrival of her husband’s old college buddy, a drastically gloomy James Spader. Spader’s lovelorn drifter is an impotent fetishist who can only get off by interviewing women about their sexual past on the titular videotapes, which he watches in isolation. McDowell’s lack of a sexual appetite & Spader’s social impotency amounts to a kind of sexual miscommunication that builds nicely with the ambient tension of Sex, Lies, and Videotape‘s Cliff Martinez score. The film’s payoff is in watching two emotionally wounded animals eventually get on the same page to fulfill their obvious desire for one another, despite the communication breakdown of their sexual language. Paradoxically, Schizopolis would later make this exact kind of romantic miscommunication more literal and more abstract.

Schizopolis may return to the themes & settings of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but it also feels hostile to the commercial elements that make Soderbergh’s debut a universal success. Themes of romantic miscommunication are made irreverently literal as a husband & wife’s dialogue are overdubbed in two incompatible languages or converted to generic, nonsensical placeholder phrases. Where Sex, Lies, and Videotape was hastily written, Schizopolis is almost wholly improvised, making its spontaneity even more abrasive. In his debut, Soderbergh made sure to keep his Baton Rouge setting mostly confined to interiors, where MacDowell’s thick Southern accent is the only identifying element at play that makes it feel unlike Anywhere, America. By contrast, Schizopolis makes a point to document as many Baton Rouge-specific exteriors as possible, to the point where half our initial conversation on the film was distracted by its tourism of a city where most of us had lived at one time or another in the 2000s. He made the film even less universal by casting himself & his ex-wife (Betsy Bentley) as the film’s romantic doppelgängers; not to mention the lack of commercial appeal inherent to an irreverent film about romantic doppelgängers in the first place. It’s a film that covers the same adulterous, dispirited, emotionally dysfunctional territory as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but with none of the universal appeal that made that landmark erotic thriller a critical & financial hit, deliberately so. It even forsakes the immediate appeal of its predecessor’s instantly intriguing title.

As disparate as the approaches in Soderbergh’s Baton Rouge-set domestic dramas seem aesthetically, there’s actually a fair amount of Schizopolis’s DNA detectable in Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Besides the obvious overlap in themes & setting, one of the more striking aspects of Sex, Lies, and Videotape is the dissociative disconnect between the movie’s imagery & its soundtrack. From the opening sequence where Andie MacDowell rambles to her therapist about waste disposal while the audience watches James Spader travel to Baton Rouge as a prodigal son to later scenes where her confessions of sexual appetite deficiency overlap with images of her husband’s infidelity, Sex, Lies, and Videotape is playful with the ways the sights & sounds of cinema can manipulate audience perception when out of sync. Schizopolis pushes this dissociative effect to a comedic extreme, jarring its audience out of sync at every possible turn with the irreverence of a feature length Monty Python sketch gone rogue. By returning to his earliest success in filmmaking experimentation, Soderbergh rediscovered the tools & effects that initially excited him in the first place, then decided to push them as far as the medium (and perhaps past where his audience) would allow. He picked apart & set aflame the basic components of his first feature in an eccentrically personal work that seemed to violently shake him out of a five year sophomore slump and led directly to the most successful stretch of his career to date.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Stephen Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last wek’s look at how its romantic doppelgänger crisis compares to the themes of Anomalisa (2015).

-Brandon Ledet

Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016)

The opening gag of Bridget Jones’s Baby is the entire movie in a microcosm. Alone on her birthday, Rene Zellweger’s now middle aged romcom anti-hero opens this years-late sequel on the exact note where she started the first film in the series: blowing out a single candle on a cupcake & lip-syncing to Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” in an amusingly over-the-top moment of self-pity. She asks her series-sparking diary “How in the hell did I end up here again?” in voice-over and as an audience I can’t help but breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Even with all of the uncomfortable weight-cataloging & desperation to land a husband, 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary holds up nicely as a smart, darkly funny romcom that modernizes & subverts the Jane Austen classic Pride & Prejudice for the hard-loving, hard-drinking thirty-somethings of its era. As a protagonist, Bridget Jones is a little dopey & off-kilter, but personifies for her audience the Inner Idiot we all feel like we come off as whenever we’re anxious in public. 2004’s follow-up, the inexplicably titled Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, completely misinterprets the character’s appeal and makes her out to be an Actual Idiot in one of the most insultingly vapid romcoms I can ever remember seeing. That’s why it’s such a relief, over a decade later, to see Bridget Jones return to square one: drunk, alone, and once again personifying our collective Inner Idiot in a recognizably human way. It’s even more of a relief when this familiar beat is interrupted by Bridget switching the track to a modern pop song and deciding to celebrate her current middle age state instead of moping about her apartment, a welcome taste of what’s to come.

As necessary as Bridget Jones’s Baby was in undoing the damage wrought by Edge of Reason, it doesn’t find much else purpose for its existence besides transporting its protagonist to a modern context. The movie’s plot is centered on a simple “Who’s the father?” mystery as Bridget finds herself pregnant & caught between two potential lovers: Colin Firth’s eternally uptight Mr. Darcy from the first two films & the out of nowhere addition of an American billionaire played by 80s TV heartthrob Patrick Dempsey. I suppose as an audience we’re supposed to fret over which beau she (and her titular baby) will end the film with, but it’s difficult to care too much about that dilemma (especially since Mr. Darcy has been a kind of recurring inevitability since film one). The true conflict here is in watching Bridget navigate the 2010s, now a total outsider to the youth culture she drank her way through exiting in her original appearance. Surrounded by *shudder* millennials, Bridget weighs in on the cultural evils of music festivals, man buns, “ironic” beards, brand managers, “vegan condoms,” and (in an extended featured cameo) Ed Sheeran. I despised the trailer for this film for its regressive fretting over the fear of dying “alone” as a single mother, but the movie is much less concerned with the baby of its title than it is with ribbing a young, inauthentically hip culture it’s getting too old to understand. Bridget Jones is an awkward & as dopey as ever, but as a relic of the past she’s become a kind of Gen-X anti-hero tasked with cutting through the bullshit of modern culture in the name of middle aged women everywhere. That’s a huge step up from her blithering idiot persona who “hilariously” doesn’t know how to snow ski or navigate Thailand’s prison system in the miserable Edge of Reason.

There’s a comfort in familiarity to romcoms as a genre that Bridget Jones’s Baby delivers expertly. Rescuing its protagonist from the Idiot Plot screenwriting hell of Edge of Reason, this damage control sequel makes everything pleasantly familiar again. Bridget is back in her proper apartment, surrounded by her same cast of friends (including the always-welcome Shirley Henderson), and back to worrying about her same self-defeating anxieties over romance, her career, and her body. This return to normalcy is the cinematic equivalent of an electric blanket in a cold snap, to the point where any developments in Bridget’s romantic or professional life almost don’t matter at all. At its very last opportunity, Bridget Jones’s Baby introduces a plot twist that leaves the door open for a sequel that sounds pleasant, but unnecessary. Now that the damage from Edge of Reason has been undone there isn’t much a fourth Bridget Jones movie could possibly offer besides more comforting familiarity. At least that’s far from the worst thing a movie could accomplish. I’ll admit I was even tickled in this sequel by seeing Emma Thompson seemingly reprise her irreverent natal physician from Junior as Bridget’s smartass doctor. It didn’t really improve or even alter what I’d already seen her do before, but it was still a familiar, comforting reminder of a past pleasure. Bridget may despondently ask, “How in the hell did I end up here again?,” at the start of this movie, but her audience couldn’t possibly want to be anywhere else. Bridget Jones’s Baby doesn’t attempt to disrupt or subvert the romcom formula like recent bomb-throwers WetlandsObvious ChildSleeping With Other PeopleAppropriate Behavior, etc., but it does feel essentially redemptive for restoring a beloved character who deserved so much better in her previous outing to a comfortably familiar place.

-Brandon Ledet

Laser Mission (1989)

I discovered the late 80s action cheapie Laser Mission as a thrift store purchase of what appears to be a DVD bootleg transferred from a straight-to-VHS release. The absence of a legitimate production budget is apparent as soon as its opening diamond heist sequence. The “most precious and largest” diamond ever mined in Africa is stolen from a banquet hall while masked villains gear up & load ammo against a black background. The effect feels like cutting between amateur camcorder footage of a VFW hall wedding and a TV commercial for car alarms. An 80s rock ballad recorded by Dire Straits co-founder David Knopfler wails, “In the violence of the night, his heart beats like a hammer, like the backbeat of a song. And the fire burns in him. He knows he don’t belong. Mercenary man, mercenary man, mercenary man,” before reaching its inevitable crescendo of a saxophone solo. It’s the film’s sole soundtrack selection and will repeat endlessly until the end credits. Laser Mission is Everything Is Terrible action cinema, a genuine VHS era version of Neil Breen’s weirdo vanity projects or Tim Heidecker’s Decker series. It’s flatly acted, looks like it was filmed in a backyard, and does not at all earn the confidence needed to pull off its sub-Commando sense of bravado. There’s something infectious about its constantly apparent cheapness, though, and by the end credits I found myself singing “Mercenary man, mercenary man, mercenary man” along with its one-song soundtrack while reaching for more box wine. It’s a “bad” movie, but it wasn’t a bad time.

Years before he went goth (and tragically died) for The Crow, Brandon Lee stars in his first deviation from the early career martial arts schlock that relived the legacy of his father, Bruce Lee. He appears here as the smartass superspy action hero Michael Gold. Lee lacks any of the charisma that makes the Stallone & Schwarzenegger characters he’s aping work on the screen. He’s also not nearly as physically imposing as those towering meatheads, so any direct attempts to make him look like a super cool, tough-talking badass fall humorously flat. When he shows up for secret meetings at US embassies wearing only an undershirt, he looks like a joke. When he calls a woman he meets for the first time “bitch” for turning down his sexual advances, he sounds like a chauvinist monster. Attempts to disguise himself for acts of espionage range from pathetically applying a fake mustache in a makeup mirror to monstrously adorning brownface & the rags of a crippled beggar. It also doesn’t help that Lee’s sub-Schwarzenegger one-liners are embarrassingly weak. Exchanges include the awkward, “Are you acquainted with theoretical physics?” “No, I specialized in recess and girls,” “Ha, very funny,” and a disgruntled “You know? You guys really know how to win friends & influence people.” The only thing that prevents Laser Mission from being a total embarrassment is Lee’s undeniable skill with martial arts. Practically no money went into producing this disposable schlock, but what little was there was all poured into its gun violence, explosions, and endless supply of nameless baddies for Lee to mow down with ease. The action is the only semi-legitimate element at play in Laser Mission (besides maybe its phenomenal theme music), which honestly wasn’t the worst choice it could have made in terms of VHS era craft. There’s nothing wrong with playing to your strengths.

Laser Mission‘s surface pleasures are so slight that it doesn’t even treat the audience to its titular lasers. Michael Gold is tasked by US special forces to retrieve a Russian scientist (Ernest “What Am I Doing Here?” Bornigne) famed as “the world’s leading expert in laser technology” before the KGB can nab him first. The race against the clock is especially dangerous because of the KGB’s possession of the comically oversized diamond from the opening heist, which they supposedly want to use to create the world’s most powerful laser cannon or some such nonsense. We, of course, never get to see said laser cannon because the movie can’t afford to depict it. Instead, we watch Lee evade capture from two bumbling Scooby-Doo level goons as he works his way closer to Borgnine’s laser scientist, eventually teaming up with that target’s daughter to complete the mission. In between disposing of baddies with liberally fired bullets & casual karate chops, he openly gawks at his new partner for her ability to fire guns & drive a getaway truck in heels even though she’s a woman. They eventually fuck, the scientist & the laser diagmond are recovered, and a few go-nowhere twists are revealed in a dry fart of a finale that sets up Michael Gold’s next mission, obviously never to come. Besides not delivering on the lasers it brazenly promises, it’s not too bad of a cheap action plot; at least, it wouldn’t be if the jokes were actually funny and the bravado was actually earned.

Laser Mission is mildly enjoyable as a late 80s curio. It’s at least amusing to see what happens when the Stallone/Schwarzenegger formula falls flat in less capable hands, even if the embarrassment for Brandon Lee’s failings as a leading man are palpably awkward. I can’t recommend the film at face value as a legitimately well-made action flick, but as a real world example of the kinds of VHS schlock Decker & Neil Breen are calling back to, it’s both fascinating & adorably campy. The only thing it’s missing, really, is a few lasers.

-Brandon Ledet

Utopia (1951)

I picked up a dirt cheap, used DVD copy of the Laurel & Hardy comedy Utopia (aka Atoll K, aka Robinson Crusoeland) thinking it’d likely be as good of an introduction to the comedy duo’s 23 film catalog as any. I’ve done my best to catch up with comedy staples like Charlie Chaplin and Abbott & Costello over the years,  but somehow the filmography of Laurel & Hardy has always escaped me. This was an ill-advised point of entry as an outsider, as it turns out that Utopia was the final film in Laurel & Hardy’s catalog, a misfire that put an end to their career. It’s difficult to even know which version of the film is the definitive one, since they’re are four separate cuts with four different runtimes, none of which were positively received. Filmed in Europe with a blacklisted American director years after the comedy duo’s heyday, Utopia was engineered to function entirely as last gasp cash grab. It was anything but. The shoot was supposed to take twelve weeks, but instead lasted an entire year, dragging out any chance to make a quick buck off the shriveling Laurel & Hardy legacy before it disappeared entirely, with no chance to financially succeed. You can feel that labor in every dull frame of the picture too; it plays more like a hostage video than a slapstick comedy.

The main problem with Utopia is that it works way too hard for way too long to establish what should be a simple premise. Laurel & Hardy inherit a rickety yacht & an uncharted island from a deceased uncle, where they intend to establish a paradisal version of Mortville to ease their economic troubles. It takes an absolute eternity for them to reach that goal, as the movie wastes tons of time in unnecessarily expensive sight gags suffered by their traveling ship for more than half the runtime. It takes a solid 40 minutes for the plot to fully set up Laurel & Hardy alone in the island with two other dirty men & one beautiful lady. It takes a full hour before that crew decides to establish their own country, Crusoeland. That only leaves 20 minutes for the film’s basic premise to play itself out, which really wouldn’t be a problem if the lead-up were shorter or less labored. I was simply too exhausted by Utopia’s narrative mechanics of setting up the political follies of a small island country to be amused by the inhabitants of that island treating a lobster like a pet dog or trying to pile into a single bed. Instead of achieving the knee-slapping energy of a light-hearted farce, Utopia presents a frustrating existential crisis where everyone from the (multiple!) directors to the actors to the audience has to work way too hard for laughs that never arrive or feel worth the effort.

As poor of a Laurel & Hardy introduction as Utopia turned out to be, it at least thematically clued me in on some of the duo’s charms. They way they function like a married couple (“Don’t I always take care of you? You’re the first one I think of.”) and turn their dire economic peril into (sometimes literal) gallows humor is endearing, at least. I can also get behind their central goal to establish a country with “no passports, no prisoners, no taxes, no laws, and no murder.” It’s a shame that those sentiments are buried under a film so visibly tired & directionless. Every potential is wasted, from Laurel & Hardy’s vaudevillian energy to the absence of a performance from French singer Suzy Declare, the only female performer of note onscreen. By the time previously absent narration intrudes halfway through the runtime to summarize the young country’s efforts to tame the island they inhabit the whole thing feels like a mess that should have been cancelled the first month it fell behind schedule. No one steering the ship wanted to be there and I didn’t want to be watching them go through the motions, especially not as a first time audience for an iconic comedy duo I’ve never witnessed in their prime.

-Brandon Ledet

Rene Brunet Jr., Hitchcock, and the Prytania’s Classic Movies Series

Oddly, the only time I’ve ever written about recently deceased local legend Rene Brunet, Jr. for this site was when I saw the storied theater operator introduce Cinema Paradiso for the Prytania Theatre‘s 100 Year Anniversary two long years ago. Brunet’s family has been in the business of local cinema operation since the 1900s and, at 95 years old, Rene had owned & operated many local cinemas himself over his seven decades in the profession. Within my lifetime, his name had become synonymous with the Prytania Theatre, which he had operated since the mid 90s. The last single screen neighborhood theater still playing movies in Louisiana, the Prytania is the physical manifestation of Brunet’s love of cinema history, a passion he’d fed into the co-authored book There’s One in Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans and, more importantly (to me), the theater’s weekly Classic Movies series. Since the Classic Movies series began almost a decade ago, Brunet had been introducing his old favorites from cinema past every Sunday & Wednesday morning he could physically make it, usually with the same kind of anecdotes he preceded that Cinema Paradiso screening with. I’ve personally become very attached to those screenings over the past few months especially, thanks to the Prytania’s partnership with the New Orleans Film Society. Given that a particular week’s selection looked to be of interest, I’d make those screenings an essential part of my weekly movie-going routine. These aren’t the 35mm prints or 4k restorations of fancier art houses around the country (although the Prytania often programs those as well). Most films that screen for the Classic Movies series aren’t even presented in their intended aspect ratio. Besides the basic thrill of seeing them big & loud with an audience, Rene Brunet, Jr.’s passion for each selection is largely what made those screenings a weekly draw and I never heard him more passionate than he was when he was talking about Hitchcock.

The last movie Brunet introduced at those Classics screenings was The Wizard of Oz, a viewing experience that completely melted my mind in its Technicolor vibrancy, despite having grown up with its eternal repetition in television broadcasts. After a couple behind-the-scenes anecdotes, Mr. Brunet sweetly asked us if there were any bad witches in the audience, admitting that he could only see good ones. He would always deliver these routines from the perch of his wheelchair at the front of the crowd. Then, as he prompted the projectionist to start the feature, he’d be wheeled to the back while reminding us off-mic, as if he’d forgotten, to join him in the lobby for conversation after the movie, where “Coffee and cake are complimentary!” I never spoke to him in the lobby myself, but there was always something adorable about watching him hold court over the older patrons in his Three Stooges necktie as I made my way into the Sunday afternoon sunshine. I’d even come to get used to, if not sadly miss, the loud wooshing sounds of his oxygen tank at the back of the theater during the pictures, which was audible no matter where you sat. In a lot of ways, The Wizard of Oz was the perfect final picture to share with Mr. Brunet. Not only does it encapsulate the Old Hollywood movie magic he attempted to promote with the Classic Movies programming, but the pre-screening music at the Prytania is often a piano rendition it “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” so that space & that film are already forever linked. I will say, though, that I had come to most closely associate the series with the work of Alfred Hitchcock. I never knew Brunet personally enough to suppose who is favorite filmmaker might have been, but I got the sense that he always treated Hitchcock screenings with a special care & enthusiasm. They were always the highlight of the Classic Movies schedule and it’s downright eerie watching the director’s work at those Sunday morning screenings in Brunet’s absence.

In particular, I’ll always owe Rene Brunet’s enthusiasm in presenting To Catch a Thief for the series, a screening he prefaced with anecdotes about Hitchcock’s hatred of eggs & where to look for that distaste in the film. To my surprise, what’s often dismissed as one of the director’s more frivolous works quickly rocketed up to one of my favorites in his catalog. Surely, the benefit of seeing that Technicolor sex comedy (which is superficially dressed up like a heist thriller) big & loud with an appreciative crowd had a large part in my enthusiasm for the work. However, I’ve been to two Hitchcock screenings since Brunet’s career-concluding presentation of The Wizard of Oz and, while I’m not sure exactly how much the effect of his absence had to do with my reaction, I just didn’t feel nearly as strongly. For the deviously taut thriller Stage Fright, I may have been worried by the video introduction from Mr. Brunet, whose physical absence was alarming, given his age & the appearance of his health. By the time Strangers on a Train was presented, the news he had passed was weeks in the rearview, but still a difficult adjustment. This was the first time I’d ever seen Strangers on a Train, which is just as slyly funny & visually impressive as To Catch a Thief, but didn’t hit me with the same intensity. Several sequences within the film undeniably felt like Best of All Time cinema landmarks: the Love Tunnel stalking, the Life or Death tennis match, the spectacle of the out-of-control carousel crash, etc. I just wasn’t as enraptured with it as I was with To Catch a Thief‘s much cheaper sex jokes & Technicolor pleasures. That likely has a lot to do with my generally trashy tastes and the expectation levels set by the film’s respective reputations, but I’m sure the environment I saw them in didn’t help Strangers much either. With To Catch a Thief I saw a local legend cheerfully introduce a little-loved work from what appeared to be one of his favorite artists. With Strangers on a Train I had to reflect on the reality that I’d never share that experience with Mr. Brunet again, which is a sad enough circumstance to sour any theater-going experience. He wasn’t there to hold my hand through another long-overdue Hitchcock initiation and the absence of his enthusiasm was immediately felt.

While it is emotionally distressing that Rene Brunet, Jr.’s physical presence will no longer be a part of the Prytania or its Classic Movies series, his influence on that New Orleans culture cornerstone is promised to continue in perpetuity. His son Robert Brunet continues on as a co-operator for the theater as it transitions into its second century serving the neighborhood. His portrait that hangs in the lobby has been updated with a plaque commemorating his passing. Even more endearing is the decision to have Rene continue to introduce the Classic Movies series even though he can’t be there to offer complimentary coffee, cake, and conversation after the credits roll. When I saw Strangers on a Train, the feature was preceded with a short video clip of Mr. Brunet speaking to the audience from a seat within the theater, enthusiastically addressing us with a “Welcome to the big screen!” They even retitled the series Rene Brunet’s Classic Movie of the Week, a tweak I pray that sticks indefinitely. Even beyond those weekly screenings and that small brick building on Prytania Street, Brunet’s presence is something that’s going to forever linger in New Orleans film culture. Every time I see a Hitchcock classic for the first time I’m going to hear his excited voice encouraging me to take notice of the tiny details and backstage lore. Every time I attend a local film fest or indie cinema I’ll have to appreciatively keep in mind the loving care he put into keeping that culture alive, especially in a time when it felt like AMC was going to eat this city alive. Rene Brunet, Jr. is already dearly missed, but his near century-long enthusiasm for the local cinema experience means he’ll always be a part of how people in this city watch & appreciate movies, especially the classics.

-Brandon Ledet

The Supernatural Romantic Tedium of Anomalisa (2015) & Schizopolis (1996)

In our initial discussion of our current Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, I asked Boomer how he felt the film’s tale of adulterous doppelgängers differed from the similar themes in Charlie Kaufman’s recent stop-motion drama Anomalisa. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh & (his real life ex-wife) Betsy Brantley play duel sets of doppelgängers who cheat on each other in existential searches for romantic passion, only to find more of the same in their “new” partners. To me, this “Love the one you’re with” messaging felt wildly different from Anomalisa‘s central conflict, in which a traveling businessman sees the entire world outside himself as one homogeneous personality except for the woman he’s currently cheating on his wife with, until she too is absorbed into the society of milquetoast doppelgängers that populate his life once the initial spark is gone. I asked Boomer for insight on this difference because I knew he’d be better at articulating it than I would. He wrote, “Schizopolis is a film about projection, but in a way that explores the various ways that multiple individuals categorize and compartmentalize their interactions between different people depending upon the intimacy (or lack thereof) of their relationship, the difference in their social classes and the power dynamic thereof, the emotional distance between them, libido, and other factors. Instead of Anomalisa‘s Michael facing the difficulty of seeing every person–strangers, his wife, his ex, his boss–as the same, Fletcher Munson’s interactions vary, demonstrating the dissonance between his words and his thoughts in his conversations with various people.” Those differences in varying social interactions & perspectives truly are essential to what distinguishes Schizopolis from Anomalisa. It still surprises me, though, how significantly the two works overlap in form to achieve their respective goals.

One of the most immediately striking aspects of both Anomalisa and Schizopolis is the crudeness of their visual forms. Shot with no solid script while palling around Baton Rouge, Schizopolis has a strikingly informal look to it, approximating the home movies & sketch comedy hybrid that defined the style of The Kids in the Hall. For its part, Anomalisa adopts the medium of stop-motion animation, which inherently has a kind of imperfect crudeness to its motions. Offsetting the leaps made in the medium by studios like Laika, however, this film intentionally shows the creases in its characters’ faces, calling attention to its own seams & artifice. Both films also dwell on the anonymity of utilitarian spaces & the empty babble of corporate speak. In Anomalisa, Michael’s depression is amplified by the doldrums of occupying a hotel room while away on business, with nothing especially exceptional about his transient spacial surroundings. The Baton Rouge office buildings & suburban homes Fletcher Munson drifts through in Schizopolis are just as unremarkable & devoid of personality. Munson’s job writing nonsensical speeches for the L. Ron Hubbard reminiscent cult leader of Eventualism & author of How to Control Your Own Mind is also reflected in the big speech on optimizing customer service efficiency (or some other empty form of corporate chatter) Michael travels to deliver. For two films about supernatural events in which bored businessmen drift into romantic entanglements with physical copies of their partners, Anomalisa & Schizopolis both make a point to keep their visual pallets anonymously bland & unassuming. They both seek to wring the supernatural out of the mundane, which requires the outlandishness of their premises to be rooted in visual monotony. The differences between their achievements have less to do with their respective visual styles than with how one story takes boredom with the hegemony as a freeing opportunity for irreverence while the other allows that boredom to fester into contempt.

As Boomer wrote in our initial conversation, “The biggest difference between the two films is in the fact that Anomalisa only gives us Michael’s point of view and insight into his particular problems with intimacy, communication, empathy, and humanity. […] Shizopolis gives us the points of view of several people, and highlights how each of them have their own problems with communication, which vary from person to person.” It’s arguable which choice of perspective makes for a more rewarding film, but being stuck in Michael’s head certainly makes Anomalisa the more uncomfortable watch. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh casts himself as a bland everyman. Anomalisa envisions a world where every man is bland. Not only is every character outside Michael’s head boring (and vaguely reminiscent of Michael Ian Black); they’re also an annoying, unremarkable sea of braying idiots with nothing unique to offer the world. I appreciate the bizarre accomplishments of Anomalisa from an emotional distance, but never truly fall in love with the film because it feels as if it should display just as much contempt for its villainous protagonist as he does for the rest of the world. Whether or not his perspective is the symptom of a chemical imbalance, the lack of empathy in Michael’s worldview makes him out to be an elitist monster who’s far more difficult to resonate with than Fletcher Munson’s more recognizably common suburban doldrums. Schizopolis is willing to examine its protagonist’s close-minded selfishness in its third act reversal of perspective that replays scenes through Mrs. Munson’s POV, while Anomalisa just dismisses Michael’s cruel boredom as “psychological problems,” as if they’re something universally experienced. The most perspective we get from Jennifer Jason Leigh as Michael’s titular love interest is a sweetly pathetic rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which is played more for pity than it is for empathy.

As much as I prefer the deranged silliness of Schizopolis to Anomalisa‘s bitter people-watching, Michael’s climactic speech about customer service optimization does devolve nicely into a kind of dual mission statement for both films. He asks himself (and his audience) “What does it mean to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” in existential desperation, only to answer those questions with frantic repetitions of “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” These films approach that crisis and the oppressive mundanity of modern life from entirely different perspectives. Schizopolis searches for meaning in interpersonal relationships, finding its frustration with the ineffectiveness of language at truly connecting two human souls in a punishingly tedious world that increasingly doesn’t make sense. Anomalisa, by contrast, despairs at the punishing tedium of other people, who are just as uninteresting & personality-free as hotel room furniture. No matter which perspective you find more honest or worthwhile, it’s eerie how much these visually crude doppelgänger narratives overlap in form. Their supernatural romance dramas are rooted in two incomparable philosophies, yet they’re both staged in a common, tedious modern world setting with intentionally limiting means of expression.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Stephen Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

The Chosen (2015)

Movie night (which is, like, three nights a week) in the Boomer/Boomer’s Roommate household can be a chore sometimes. We are very decisive people when it comes to where and what we want to eat, who is and is not welcome in our apartment, and which Simpsons seasons are worth a damn. Of late, however, we’ve had to make a hard and fast rule: if we want to watch a movie, we have 10 minutes to browse Netflix (et al) and make a decision; if we can’t choose by the end of that time period, we give up and watch either one of our staple programs (The Simpsons, The Soup, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or Next Gen) or whatever TV show we’re currently working our way through (it’s Caprica at the moment, for those of you who are curious, since we binged Battlestar after the election for obvious reasons and needed a break afterward). His particular idiosyncratic desires also make it a challenge, albeit a fun one. Case in point: last night, I wanted to watch a horror comedy along the lines of Housebound (which we both found delightful), but he wanted something that specifically had the twitchy horror effects from The Ring or The Grudge, but not an actual J Horror flick. That’s an impossible thing to search for, but our interest in The Grudge did prompt Netflix to suggest The Chosen, which was more impressive and interesting (and funny, much to my delight) than expected, especially given its nondescript name.

The film follows nineteen year old Cameron, played by distractingly good-looking uberbabe Kian Lawley, who is apparently a YouTube star of some kind, although I’ve never heard of him before (maybe I’m just out of touch)*. He has an odd family situation: he and his mother Eliza (Elizabeth Keener, sister of Catherine) live with her parents. Grandpa is in a persistent vegetative state, and Nanny is in a persistent state of pettiness. Also living in the house are Eliza’s brother Uncle Joey (Chris Gann) and Angie (Mykayla Sohn), Cameron’s niece and Eliza’s granddaughter. Angie’s mother Caitlin (Angelica Chitwood) has been exiled from the house by Eliza while she tries (with mixed success) to break free of her heroin habit, an echo of Eliza’s own alcoholism, although the older woman is twelve years sober.

While Eliza is out of town on a work retreat, Cameron sneaks Angie out of the house for a visit to her mother’s apartment. When he hears thrashing, the cries of a baby, and screaming next door, he investigates over Caitlin’s protests. He discovers that Caitlin’s next-door neighbor Sabrina (Melissa Navia) is in the process of attempting to kill her ex-husband, who escapes, only for the crying baby to be nowhere in sight and Angie to now suddenly appear to be physically ill and behaving strangely. As apparently supernatural evil seems to begin swirling around Angie, Cameron has to try and figure out how to stop the monster that is coming for Angie before it’s too late.

The critical consensus surrounding this film is overwhelmingly negative; there’s not a single review on IMDb that passes the five (out of ten) star mark, and it’s sitting at a 30% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes (there are no professional critic reviews, until this one, I guess, for a certain definition of “professional”). I can admit that I certainly see why the masses would be turned off by the film; it’s not very good from a lot of objective viewpoints. I remarked to my roommate during the film that I found Lawley to be a surprisingly good actor for an “unknown” his age (his YouTube stardom was only revealed to me when I looked up the Wikipedia article for the movie after our viewing), and he carries a lot of the film with his performance. Knowledge of his rise as an internet celebrity(?) may have colored the perception of his acting ability for others, but I don’t feel the need to rescind or attenuate or revise my praise for him after the fact.

Non-subjective negatives do abound, however. The special effects vary wildly in quality, from creepy subtlety in smoke and shadow to terrible-looking CGI demons that would look more at home in an Asylum/Syfy original co-production. There’s even a sequence in which Caitlin looks at a picture of infant twins that turn out to be Angie and her now-dead brother Jordan; the CGI on the photograph itself is terrible, and it only gets worse when Caitlin sheds a tear on the image and smudges it while trying to wipe the photo off. Maybe the assumption is that the target audience doesn’t know how physical photographs work (God help us all), but regardless of whether it does (or doesn’t) make sense logically, it’s still just awful to look at.

Other than that, the film’s first big narrative problem comes when Cameron has to revisit Sabrina once Angie starts acting strangely. She reveals all of the details about the movie’s supernatural antagonist, Lilith (yeah, that Lilith). There’s a right way and a wrong way to do exposition scenes, and this one is definitely on the far end of the scale from Raiders or Chinatown, erring very close to poor Frances Conroy’s infodump scene from Catwoman. At the very least, it serves its purpose and then moves along from there, if you can get past the cringe. Cameron’s final scene is also undercut by some notably bad acting, especially in comparison to the impressive subtlety he brought to other scenes; given that he’s supposed to be delivering a badass one-liner to the aforementioned bad CGI monster, it makes sense that a first-time actor would have some trouble pulling it off.

But enough about the negatives! It’s understandable that a film that turns its protagonists into, essentially serial killers (don’t overthink it; it’s not Psycho) wouldn’t have able to land every joke, but the roommate and I were both taken aback and cracked up when some out-of-context characters found their way into the film to stir up even more chaos. We also got a kick out of a slapstick scene of Cameron and his sister dragging a body and hitting every piece of furniture in the house with it, which was a refreshing moment of levity in a pretty dark flick. We also quite enjoyed some of the surprise twists; it’s rare that a movie manages to fool both of us, but this one did more than once.

It’s not going to be every viewer’s cup of tea, and I’d go so far as to say that it may deserve its poor critical score from an objective standpoint. But there’s too much that works in this film for me to give it a poor score. The film dives in immediately and throws the viewer into the unusual family situation with no belabored exposition, it contains too many interesting and funny characters to ignore, and it has surprises galore, including a very realistic depiction of addict behavior, surprises about bloodlines, and a likable lead that you find yourself rooting for even as his behavior becomes more erratic and unhinged. You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have this movie. Give it a chance.

*I did check out Lawley’s YouTube channel after watching the movie. It’s terrible; it’s one of those “my buddy and I have a bajillion viewers for no discernible reason, we answer questions and laugh and such” channels. If you want a recommendation for what to watch instead, my favorite channels to which I subscribe are Red Letter Media (love me some Plinkett and Wheel of the Worst), Alison Pregler’s Movie Nights (Baywatching is a delight to me in these dark times), Every Frame a Painting for your film language critical needs, Pop Culture Detective, and Nerd Writer (even though I hate that “tired but overly emotionally invested adjunct” voice that he sometimes uses at the end of his video essays). Of course, the be-all end-all of YouTube brilliance is Lindsay Ellis, who has been an influence on me for years now and who never ceases to be brilliant. She’s basically doing a free class on the different disciplines of film theory through the lens of Michael Bay’s oeuvre right now, and it is a gift.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

IT (2017)

One of the more exciting trends in the last few years has been the significant uptick in artsy fartsy horror productions. Our last two Movie of the Year selections for this site, for instance, were It Follows & The Witch, with plenty of titles like It Comes at Night, Raw, The Babadook, and The Neon Demon filling out the ranks below them in what’s starting to feel like a legitimate low budget horror renaissance. With this embarrassment of riches on hand, it’s easy to lose track of the few stray successes that have cropped up in mainstream horror production, since it’s easier now than it has been in a very long time to favor the underdog pictures over their major studio competition. The most recent adaptation of Stephen King’s 10,000 page novel IT is an excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. IT is an Event Film dependent on the jump scares, CGI monsters, and blatant nostalgia pandering (even casting one of the Stranger Things kids to drive that last point home) that its indie cinema competition has been consciously undermining to surprising financial success in recent years. What’s impressive is how the film prominently, even aggressively relies on these features without at all feeling insulting, lifeless, or dull. Even more so than well-received franchises like The Conjuring, Sinister, and Insidious, IT fulfills the major studio promise that big budget horror filmmaking can still be intense, memorable, and above all else fun. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of “elevated” horror, IT stands as a declarative, back to the basics return to mainstream horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions.

Seven middle school dorks suffer the worst summer of their lives when their problems balloon larger than the usual abuses laid on them by bullies & villainous adults to include a hundreds-of-years-old curse that haunts their small, suburban town. IT converts the childhood nostalgia pangs usually reserved for the 1950s to a more currently appropriate 1980s setting. Inconsequential references to New Kids on the Block, “Where’s the beef?” commercials, and Tim Burton’s Batman slightly update the material’s Scary Stand By Me aesthetic, but its sense of small town Americana feels timeless, mostly untouched by then-contemporary pop culture. The Losers Club avoids contact with their school’s feral teen bullies and their homes’ emotionally & physically abusive adults by hiding out at The Quarry or in the library. Their inner circle is a protective shield against the evils of bigotry, sexual trauma, physical violence, etc. that haunt the larger world, but struggles to stand up to the more metaphysical evil that drives those real world terrors, the titular “It.” A centuries-old demonic force responsible for generational catastrophes that befall the same town’s children every few decades, “It” shows itself in this 1980s context in the form of missing, abducted children. Adults remain in a daze as their children disappear, content to paper over each “missing” poster with the next one down the line, showing no enthusiasm for determining the source of the epidemic. As the ancient evil creeps closer to abducting their own members, The Losers Club are compelled to defeat “It” on their own without the help of clueless adults in a climactic Good vs. Evil showdown. They even find a physical manifestation of “It” they can focus their energy on destroying: a sewer-dwelling birthday clown named Pennywise.

Pennywise The Dancing Clown (a heavily CGI’d Bill Skarsgård) crystallizes The Loser Club’s childhood fears into more tangible iconography than the larger-looming traumas that haunt their private & public lives: clowns (duh), basements, darkness, isolation, and so on. His individual scares work with the routine precision of a rotary dial. Children slowly approach personalized manifestations of their respective fears with a cautious, quiet curiosity until a jump scare releases the tension and the rotary wheel is dialed back for another tense build. IT is a collection of haunted house attractions (sometimes literally) in this way, relying more on the thrill of individual scares & set pieces than overall atmospheric dread. The demonic clown that personifies these horrors with a familiar, if grotesque face is an excellent anchor for its more general, community-wide evils that would usually take several hours of mini-series sprawl or (in King’s case) hundreds of pages of exposition to fully cover in a satisfying way. Smartly, IT doesn’t afford much screentime to mythology outside some light library research & examination of old town maps. Instead, it builds the collective friendships & flirtations of The Losers Club as a single group unit and then cyclically breaks down their ranks into weakened, individual members through the routine of its jump scares. There’s an impressive efficiency in this approach that allows room for isolated scares to properly breathe without sacrificing the pace of the group narrative, with Pennywise’s Evil Clown antics & red balloon calling card serving as an essential lynchpin to the whole enterprise. As fascinating as the more intangible horrors of IT can be, it really helps that the story is also streamlined as a Children vs. Killer Clown narrative to keep things relatively grounded.

While director Andrés Muschietti does succeed in boiling a strange, sprawling narrative into a manageable mainstream horror package, he also allows himself to indulge in IT‘s more surreal, intangible menace in the background details. Pennywise’s drifting irises, the paradoxical positioning of background extras, and a peripheral television broadcast that encourages children to play in the sewers with their friends all subvert the more routine, by the books horror thrills of the jump scares in the foreground. One scene involving a malfunctioning slide projector in particular fully delivers on Pennywise’s potential as a metaphysical being, allowing “It” to take an outsized physical form through a distorted beam of light in what has to be one of the most striking images from any feature film this year, mainstream or otherwise. The movie also impresses in its R-rated willingness to deliver on its children-in-peril threats, tearing out young tykes’ limbs and sinking knives & fangs deep into their flesh. This onscreen violence nicely counterbalances coming of age hallmarks like a flirtatious skinny dipping sequence & a team-building housecleaning montage lifted directly from IT‘s 80s reference points to create something both warmly familiar & genuinely dangerous-feeling. While certainly a straightforward, mainstream horror affair built more on elaborate scare mechanisms than artsy fartsy atmosphere, IT doesn’t just function as a middle school-set slasher featuring a creepy clown with endless rows of sharpened teeth & red balloons. The movie’s more adventurous, unnerving touches may lurk in the background, but they’re essential to the overall effect. Its Scary Stand By Me veneer is deceptively simple, but highly effective, leaving plenty of room for more ethereal horror to creep in at the edges. If nothing else, IT is a succinct, revitalizing argument that Big Budget Horror might be dormant, but is neither toothless nor obsolete.

-Brandon Ledet