I Blame Society (2021)

As often as I gripe about megacorporate movie products under the Disney umbrella—Star Wars, The MCU, and their loose collection of live-action reboots—cheaply pandering to wide audiences with Easter eggs & nostalgia triggers, the truth is that I also love to be pandered to. I absolutely loved the recent black comedy I Blame Society, but it did nothing to challenge me as an audience.  Everything about the film feels like it was aimed directly at my tastes, from its no-budget D.I.Y. aesthetic to the transgressive joy it finds in Misbehaved Women to its flippant meta commentary on movies as an artform.  If I vaguely described everything I love to see in movies in a focus group meeting, this is the exact end product I’d expect from the algorithm my feedback was plugged into (minus a few keywords like “drag,” “pro wrestling,” “witchcraft,” and “outer space”).  I slopped up everything the film dished out like a pig at a trough, completely content and undiscerning about what I was being served – the exact kind of passive, incurious media engagement I mock most audiences for when I’m at my snootiest.  It felt great.

The essential difference between I Blame Society and modern big-budget filmmaking is that it wasn’t focus-grouped & algorithmed into existence.  The reason the film is so sharply resonant & relatable is because it’s deeply personal & specific to the creative voice of its auteur.  Gillian Wallace Horvat writes, directs, and stars in this incredibly dark comedy about a struggling filmmaker who shares her name and (an absurdly exaggerated version of) her real-life persona.  In the film, she realizes that her unappreciated skills behind the camera mirror the skills needed to pull off The Perfect Murder, an epiphany that quickly turns her into a serial killer.  This premise is adapted from an off-handed compliment made by a real-life friend who said Horvat would make an excellent murderer, which she investigated in a short-length documentary a few years ago.  Footage from that short is included in I Blame Society as an abandoned project that Horvat intends to tease out into a feature, much to the horror & concern of the people who love her.  After years of not being able to land funding for her dark, off-putting screenplay pitches, she decides to throw all her creative energy & frustration with her industry into one D.I.Y. project that will prove to the world that she is a fully capable filmmaker . . . and, thus, a fully capable murderer.

Horvat is not shy about explaining exactly what’s pissing her off in her creative field and in the world at large.  I Blame Society is a vicious, angry film, often functioning as direct commentary on how difficult it is for women to participate in professional filmmaking as an artform.  In-character, Horvat attends pitch meetings with Duplass Brothers-type indie producers who use press-friendly buzzwords like “strong female characters” to signify that they’re changing with the times by unlocking the gates for women filmmakers to express themselves, but they don’t mean a word of it.  Horvat’s ideas are uniformly dismissed outright for their discomforting tone or “unlikeable” female leads.  The only work she’s ever offered is slapping her name on a man’s creative vision to meet a studio’s diversity quota.  It’s a cyclical, gendered rejection from her industry that eventually jokerfies her, to the point where the violence she commits in retaliation is intentionally designed to make the audience queasy – a giant fuck-you that undermines her “likeability” instead of aiming for easy “You go, girl!” cheerleading. 

Despite that seething, on-the-surface anger with the world, I Blame Society is relentlessly hilarious from start to end.  It combines the observational, no-budget filmmaking humor of Matt Farley’s Local Legends with the smiling, Influencer brain rot of last year’s ride-share thriller Spree.  Horvat smiles through her entire descent into murderous madness, often tossing out #girlboss catchphrases like “Lean in, baby” and “I’m living my best life” in the middle of her crimes to signal control & composure to her followers.  Even the low-tech equipment she uses to document her violence/art—head-mounted Go-Pros, hand-cranked wheelchair dollies, strategically hidden smartphones—read as visual gags, constantly undermining her surface-level calm with a flailing sense of desperation & lunacy.  The humor begins at a straight-forward angle of likening filmmaking to murder, as in a sequence where Horvat’s version of “location scouting” turns out to be stalking & home invasion.  From there, it only gets exponentially warped and esoteric; some of the funniest jokes are just the intensity in Horvat’s eyes as she chipperly explains the rationale behind her work.  You have to be locked onto her peculiar wavelength to fully appreciate that line of humor, but it’s just as relentless as it is sharply observed.

I Blame Society was shot in less than two weeks with a small crew of close collaborators and no concern for wide-audience appeal beyond Horvat amusing her own mischievous brain.  As much as I felt the film was aimed directly at my particular tastes, it’s clearly intended to vent & alienate, not to pander.  I’d say that it’s further proof that the personal is universal, but I don’t honestly believe it has that kind of far-reaching appeal, nor does it intend to.   If you have any personal affection for D.I.Y. filmmaking or Unlikeable Women, though, it’s the can’t-miss movie of the year.  Disney’s going to pander to everyone else on a near-weekly basis, but the rest of us have to pounce on the scraps that fall through the cracks whenever we can.  This particular trough doesn’t get filled very often.

-Brandon Ledet

Shiva Foreva

I recently had the pleasure of taking off an entire week from work to do Nothing – casually filling my time with movies, meals, and household chores instead of cramming those activities into the tight crevices between pushing papers & sleep.  It was a necessary, restorative break from my usual routine, one I’ve been reluctant to indulge in since the pandemic-era version of a “vacation” really just means extended time alone on my couch.  I managed to watch 18 feature films over that 10-day stretch, sometimes cramming in four a day and sometimes watching none at all to make room for “social” activities like podcasting and watching pro wrestling with friends.  As a result, most of the films didn’t have much space to stand out as anything distinctly noteworthy (with the major exceptions of Hackers and Pig), but I did notice some striking similarities shared between a few of the pairings.  Without a doubt, the most highly specific, niche double feature in that week-long binge was Shiva Baby & The Vigil: two incredibly tense new releases set at Jewish funeral rituals.  Neither stood out to me as personal best-of-the-year material the way I hoped.  Still, they were both impressively energetic, nerve-racking debuts from first-time filmmakers, and their shared Jewish funeral rites context only underlined their strengths as a pair.

I’d feel much worse about lumping these two unique, otherwise unrelated films together purely for their shared religious context if that overlap hadn’t already been covered by other blogs (most notably the Jewish outlet Alma‘s post “A New Kind of Jewish Horror Film Has Arrived“).  Shiva Baby in particular suffers the most in that pairing, since the film is already fighting off frequent comparisons as the Jewish, bisexual version of Krisha.  To be fair, Shiva Baby is a lot more similar to Krisha than it is to The Vigil, at least in terms of its tone & genre.  Set at a shiva ceremony following a distant relative’s passing, a college student & sex worker finds herself trapped at a nightmarishly awkward “party” with her parents, her ex-girlfriend, her Sugar Daddy, his wife, and their baby – struggling to keep them all apart so they don’t accidentally tattle on her triple-life.  A low-budget, 77min immersion in the sweaty panic of that disastrous wake, there’s a lot going on in Shiva Baby that directly recalls the familial tensions of the Thanksgiving-from-Hell setting of Krisha, right down to the winding tension of their plucked-strings scores.  I just don’t remember Trey Edwards Shults’s film being so Funny.  Writer-director Emma Seligman makes Shiva Baby so painfully, overwhelmingly awkward that it transforms into a kind of black comedy.  At the very least, she wouldn’t have cast Fred Melamed & Jackie Hoffman in bit parts unless she was aiming to wring out some laughs, no matter how dark.  The film even ends with all the main players converging into one cramped, chaotic space like a true farce, capturing the feeling of when your life is going so catastrophically bad that all you can do is laugh to release the tension.

The Vigil is much shorter on laughs.  It relieves its own dramatic tension in a much more traditional, straightforward way – aiming for classic haunted house scares that just happened to be staged in a highly specific cultural context.  Whereas the shiva ceremony of Seligman’s film is a post-funeral celebration & communal mourning, Keith Thomas’s haunted house horror covers the time before a funeral, when an assigned “shomer” sits vigil with the deceased so their body is never left alone.  In this case, a recent defector from an extremist form of Orthodox Judaism is reluctantly roped back into his old community as a one-night shomer for a total stranger, because he desperately needs a paycheck.  The premise is perfect for a horror film, locking a freaked-out shomer alone in a spooky house with a dead body while supernatural happenings creep in from the darkness.  The Vigil manages to cram a lot of unexpected details into that straight-forward set-up too: cult-deprogramming, Evil Internet tech, found footage video cassettes, body horror, demons, etc.  It reminded me most of the recent movies Demon (2016) & The Power (2021), but it does a great job in setting itself apart from them in its mood & scares, even beyond the specificity of its cultural context.  It would especially make for great Halloween Season programming, breaking up the usual cultural settings of by-the-books haunted house movies while still delivering the expected beats & scares of its genre (as indicated by its distribution under the Blumhouse brand).

If you’re looking for a film that’s invested in the specifics of traditional Jewish funeral rites, The Vigil is probably the more rewarding programming choice of this pair.  I personally found Shiva Baby to be the more promising debut, but its context as A Jewish Film was more generalized & cultural than The Vigil‘s.  If nothing else, it plays with the same buttoned-up comedic tension of non-Jewish films like Death at a Funeral, just with a younger, harsher edge.  It’s incredibly cool that both films were able to find proper funding & distribution around the same time to reach audiences outside the festival circuit, which is typically where culturally-specific films like this premiere and then immediately disappear.  I look forward to a time when there are enough films set in these types of niche cultural environments that they’re no longer a novelty as pairings.  For now, the significance of their cultural overlap helped them stand out among all the other, more familiar movie premises I drifted through during my on-the-couch vacation – even more so than their shared penchant for chokehold dramatic tension.

-Brandon Ledet

French Exit (2021)

There was a lot going on in Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical whatsit mother!, all of it worthy of many fractured, contradictory conversations.  To us, it was both a 2.5-star misfire and one of the very best movies of 2017.  To others, it was simply an embarrassment to all involved, most notably Jennifer Lawrence as titular mother figure, who rarely leaves the screen.  In all those heated debates over mother!‘s merits, metaphors, and malice, I think we may have still overlooked one of its wildest, most deliciously fucked up ingredients: Michelle Pfeiffer.  An eternally lovable screen presence who’s been shamefully sidelined in the past couple decades, Pfeiffer pounced into mother! like a cat hunting unsuspecting prey, batting Jennifer Lawrence around with a mean-drunk indifference I found thrillingly campy & cruel.  It felt like a seismic shift in Pfeiffer’s career at the time, but then nothing really came of it – conversationally, professionally, or otherwise.

Finally, a proper career resurgence vehicle for a post-mother! Michelle Pfeiffer has arrived . . . and it’s being met with the same unenthused shrug she got back in 2017.  French Exit expands Pfeiffer’s role as a cruel, vamping drunk in mother! to a feature-length drag routine.  She delivers nothing but deliciously vicious camp from start to end here, easily putting in one of her career-best performances.  The response has been muted at worst, divided at best.  Maybe the movie would’ve earned more momentum in non-pandemic times, when word of mouth would’ve reached the exact right audience for what Pfeiffer is doing here.  Maybe the world would never be ready for Michelle Pfeiffer to star in an erudite revision of Leaving Las Vegas for pompous, affluent drag queens.  Who knows?  All I can report is that every bitchy barb, quip, and eyeroll she lands in French Exit is a precious gift to the few jaded cynics on the movie’s wavelength.

Pfeiffer stars as an heiress & former NYC It Girl who has completely depleted her dead husband’s fortune.  She decides to sell off the remainder of his estate for spending money, then fucks off to Paris with her adoring adult son (Lucas Hedges) in tow.  Her long-term plan is to kill herself when her funds run dry, something she announces in a matter-of-fact, smirking tone.  Despite the morbidity of that premise, there isn’t much grandeur or pathos to the film’s plot, as the mother-son duo aren’t especially emotional in demeanor.  Most scenes are slight, low-key episodes: a cross-Atlantic boat ride, an awkward dinner party, a search for a runaway cat, etc.  However, if you’re in tune with Pfeiffer’s scenery chewing (and Hedges’s studied impersonation of her faded, jaded glamour) there’s a dark humor to each of those episodes that will have you howling at even the slightest facial expression and casually tossed-off insult.

I’m surprised to learn that French Exit was based off a novel (adapted by author-turned-screenwriter Patrick deWitt himself), since its witty banter and for-the-back-row vamping feels so firmly rooted in stage play dialogue.  The best I can approximate its cruel, quirky tone is to imagine Wes Anderson directing an adaptation of The Boys in the Band, but even that description doesn’t cover its absurdist supernatural plot twists, which I will not spoil here.  Most importantly, French Exit is a Nic Cagian showcase for one of our greatest actors to go as big and as broad as she pleases from gag to gag.  Sometimes those payoffs are muted, finding her sharpening a kitchen knife in total darkness or absentmindedly musing about the sad nature of dildos.  At other times, she sets literal fires, slipping into full camped-up Cruella de Ville mania.  In either instance, she’s electrically, fabulously entertaining, and we all should be groveling at her feet for more performances in this vein.

-Brandon Ledet

The World to Come (2021)

It’s become something of a meme complaint over the past couple years that too much Queer Cinema is pervasively about white women longing for each other in period costumes.  Sometime between the ecstatic praise for Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the collective yawn over Ammonite, pro critics & hobbyist bloggers decided that the biggest threat to the artform of cinema wasn’t Disney’s IP-hoarding or Netflix’s refusal to license its films to libraries & universities; it was white women sharing intense eye contact in a historical setting.  Google “lesbian period drama” and you’ll find infinite hit-piece articles with titles like “Why Are All Lesbian Films Set in the Past?”, “Shoehorning Lesbian Scenes into Historical Dramas is Anything but Progressive”,  “Lesbian Period Dramas: Have We Seen Enough?”, and “Enough With The Lesbian Period Dramas” from publications high and low.  Personally, I understand this subgenre fatigue when it’s applied in broad strokes to a wide range of films, but not so much when it’s aimed at individual titles as if they were a cultural scourge.  The problem isn’t that mediocre WLW romance dramas like Ammonite exist; it just sucks that other kinds of queer stories aren’t getting greenlit in bulk beside them.

I assume the relatively tepid response to The World to Come is a result of its arrival after this particular strand of Online Film Discourse had already run its course.  It’s a great film, presuming you aren’t burnt out on the prospect of another lesbian period drama (or its pre-loaded critical baggage) at first sight.  A delicately sweet romance contrasted against a brutal, unforgiving backdrop, The World to Come is splendid & bleak in equal measure.  Its tale of secretive queer romance in a time of intense scrutiny & oppression is so familiar it’s almost regressive.  Still, its historical environment at least rings true.  It reminded me a lot of a college course I took on the literature of women’s travel writing in 19th Century America.  The women in those real-life journals and this fictional novel adaptation share the same two threats to their freedom, happiness, and well-being: the cruelty of Nature and the cruelty of their husbands.  It’s a shame how rare it is to see queer people flourishing in friendlier environments on the page & screen, but the romance & misery portrayed here still feels true to life on the American “frontier.”

Katherine Waterston stars as a hopelessly lonely housewife on an isolated, flailing New England farm.  She has a rich internal life, furiously reading & journaling in her idle hours but unable to express herself aloud when the center of attention.  While nursing her own grief over the loss of a child, she meets her exact opposite: Vanessa Kirby as a bold, brassy lush with no discernible talent for the intellectual arts.  They hit it off in ways that Waterston’s journals struggle to describe.  She confesses “There is something going on between us that I cannot unravel,” as if the concept of genuine sexual attraction is so foreign to her life that she doesn’t have the language to express it.  Eventually, the two women do find the physical language to express their attraction to each other, even if it takes longer for the words to arrive.  Unfortunately, the respective prisons of their marriages to cruel, repressed nerds and their shared prison of harsh, American wilderness prevent that romantic spark from reaching its full flame.  Waterston’s careful, whispered language & passion is in direct opposition to the cold, uncaring environment she occupies.  She finds her perfect fit in Kirby.  It does not go well.

While the broader details of The World to Come may sound blandly generic in a post-Portrait of a Lady on Fire world, I found its in-the-moment effect to be impressively distinct & chilling.  Its frontier setting might as well have been repurposed for a woodland A24 horror film, given its harsh digi cinematography and its frightfully unnerving score (which during one especially horrendous storm sounds like seagulls imitating jazz).  It’s a highly subjective film that follows the tones & moods of Waterston’s journals as she flips through the pages of her life.  There are great jumps in time when she has nothing exciting to write about, as well as loopy, unfocused entries when she self-medicates herself through depression with laudanum.  Her voiceover narration is wonderfully overwritten, with Waterston delivering pained line-readings of confessions like “We were the very picture of anguish” and “I have become my grief.”  Even when it releases the delayed flood of romantic & sexual bliss that always accompanies these films’ early stretches of pent-up longing, it’s in the most devastating possible context, undercutting the two women’s passion with a deeply felt loss & despair.  This is an unrelentingly cold, somber film, and I respect that truthful brutality even if I agree that it’s not the only kind of queer story that deserves to be told.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #141 of The Swampflix Podcast: My Dinner with Andre (1981) & Conversation Pieces

Welcome to Episode #141 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss four one-long-conversation dramas, starting with My Dinner with Andre (1981).

00:00 Welcome

01:35 Free Guy (2021)
06:18 A Quiet Place Part II (2021)
09:00 Queen Bees (2021)
11:11 Hello Again (1987)
12:12 Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)
13:30 Mommie Dearest (1981)
15:35 The Swimmer (1968)
18:44 Nine Days (2021)
24:14 The Green Knight (2021)

28:40 My Dinner with Andre (1981)
51:11 Before Sunrise (1995)
1:09:50 What Happened Was . . . (1994)
1:27:54 Interview (2007)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on  SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTube, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Bonus Features: Sneakers (1992)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1992’s Sneakers, is a mainstream thriller about elite hackers played by middle-aged movie stars instead of teenage Mall Goths.  As a “cyberpunk” thriller about elite early-internet hackers, it is absurdly un-hip.  I’ve come to expect my movie hackers to be young, androgynous perverts dressed in glossy patent leather, not near-geriatric celebrities who tuck in their shirt-tails.  However, as a big-budget Dad Movie that plays with 90s-specific cyberterror anxieties, I found it solidly entertaining.  It feels like a dispatch from a bygone studio filmmaking era when movie stars actually drove ticket sales, so that their importance on the screen is stressed way more than directorial style or production design – which are slick enough here but deliberately avoid calling attention to themselves.  Even among the movie’s biggest fans, I get the sense that it satisfies most as a comfort watch steeped in nostalgia for that era, right down to the clunkiness of its landline phones and desktop computers.

I appreciate Sneakers‘s appeal as a star-studded studio thriller, but I personally prefer my Evil Technology movies to be just a smidge goofier, sexier, or more stylistically over the top.  Thankfully there are plenty of trashier, less reputable 90s thrillers about computer hackers to choose from.  Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month but want to see something a little less sensible.

The Net (1995)

For something just a smidge goofier than Sneakers that still sticks to the mainstream star-vehicle format, I’d recommend the much-mocked but highly entertaining The Net.  The Net stars Sandra Bullock as a loner computer hacker, vulnerable to attack because she’s friendless in the world. Watching Bullock’s slovenly hacker eat junk food & code in her “cyberchat” computer dungeon really pushes her Sweetheart Next Door onscreen persona into absurdly unbelievable territory. Bullock’s inability to lose herself in a role comes hand in hand with movie star celebrity, a suspension of disbelief audiences are willing to accommodate because we love seeing these megastars perform, Everyday Sweethearts or no.  It’s the same suspension of disbelief that asks us to buy a middle-age Robert Redford as the hippest computer genius on the planet or Dan Ackroyd as a Mall Goth conspiracy theorist, when more reasonable casting would’ve skewed younger or nerdier.

Besides Bullock’s natural star power & effortless charm, The Net’s main draw for modern audiences is its glimpse at 1990s era fears & misunderstandings of online culture, which is pushed to a much goofier extreme than the standard political thriller beats of Sneakers. The film’s main conflict involves an encrypted floppy disc that hackers are willing to murder Bullock’s online slob to obtain, exploiting then-contemporary audiences’ fears of the vulnerability of digitally stored information. Characters anxiously explain the vulnerability of our “electronic shadow” in a world where “our entire lives are in the computer,” waiting to be hacked. The film’s tagline bellows, “Her driver’s license. Her bank account. Her credit card. Her identity. DELETED.” Most of The Net‘s basic thriller elements derive from Bullock’s helplessness in the face of this online identity persecution limiting her mobility & capital as she protects the McGuffinous floppy disc.  On the sillier end, there are also primitive AOL-era emojis, in-dialogue explanations of terms like “IRL” (all-caps), and exchanges like “You’re hacker too?,” “Isn’t everybody?,” to help color The Net as a so-bad-it’s-good early Internet relic.

Where The Net truly gets good for me is in its lack of confidence that its chosen subject is sufficiently cinematic. Unsure audiences will bother reading online chatroom text to themselves, Bullock’s computer “helpfully” reads out the chatter in exaggerated robotic voice synthesizers. Discontented with merely displaying online data in matter-of-fact presentation, harsh music video edits & slashing sound cues are deployed to make computer readouts more “dynamic” (read: obnoxious). To add some explosive energy to the onscreen thrills, the film’s evil hacker syndicate graduate from hijacking online personal data to hijacking personal airplanes – essentially hacking victims to death in fiery crashes. It’s all deeply, incurably silly, a tone that only improves with time as its moment in tech becomes more obsolete.  Whereas Sneakers molds a traditional, reasonable political thriller formula onto a 90s cyberterror setting, The Net goes out of its way to stress the contemporary gimmickry of his computer hacker plot to the point of delirium.

Disclosure (1994)

For something “sexier” than Sneakers, I’d point to the Michael Douglas erotic thriller Disclosure, which features the middle-age movie star in yet another deadly battle with a femme fatale who desperately wants to fuck him to death . . . this time with computer hacking!  Douglas stars as a misogynist computer programmer whose daily sexist microaggressions are turned back on him a thousandfold by his new bombshell boss (and sexual harasser), played by Demi Moore. It literalizes the 90s-era War of the Sexes in the same queasy way all these mainstream erotic thrillers do, which you’re either going to be on board for or not.  However, this particular example is flavored with an Early Internet tech obsession that includes wide-eyed wonder at cell phones, emails, video calls, and CD-ROMs – placing it in the same techno-espionage realm as Sneakers, just with the absurdity dialed to 11.

There is no actual, consensual sex in Disclosure, despite its erotic thriller patina.  Most of the frank, adult conversations about sexuality are contained to legal mediations about the gendered nature of consent and power in the workplace.  The actual computer hacking portion is also minimal in its screentime, but once it arrives it is a doozy. The climax of the film is staged in a Virtual Reality simulation of a filing cabinet in a digital hallway, with Michael Douglas frantically searching for confidential files while a Matrixed-out killbot version of Demi Moore systematically deletes them with VR lasers.  Of all the examples of movies overreaching in their attempts to make computer hacking look visually dynamic and Cool, this is easily up there in the techno-absurdism Hall of Fame.  It’s also lot more thrilling than it sounds on paper, depending on your taste for this kind of horned-up, technophobic trash.

Hackers (1995)

And of course, no list of 90s computer-hacking thrillers would be complete without the over-styled, undercooked excess of 1995’s Hackers.  When I was picturing my ideal version of Sneakers—young perverts in fetish gear throwing around the word “elite” as if it were the ultimate honor—I’m pretty sure I was just picturing Hackers . . . a film I had never seen before.  Whereas Sneakers is careful to present its corporate espionage computer hacking in a reasonable, rational context that’s careful not to deviate too far from the mainstream thriller norm, Hackers fully commits to its Computer Hacking: The Movie gimmickry.  Jonny Lee Miller stars as a child hacker (alias Zero Cool) who has to lay low after being convicted for hacking into the systems of major American banks, then emerges as a hip teen hacker (new alias Crash Override) who’s pinched for a similar corporate espionage crime he did not commit.  Will he and his elite-hacker friends be able to out-hack their evil-hacker enemies to clear their names before they’re sent to prison?  Who cares? The real draw here is the rapid-edit visualizations of computer hacking in action, wherein Zero/Crash closes his eyes and zones out to psychedelic clips of vintage TV shows & pop culture ephemera while his hands furiously clack away at his light-up keyboard, techno constantly blaring in the background.

Is it possible to be nostalgic for something while you’re watching it for the first time?  Hackers has everything I want in movies: tons of style, no substance, mystical visualizations of The Internet, wet dreams about crossdressing, Matthew Lillard, etc.  In the abstract, I recognize that Sneakers is technically the better film, but its competence keeps it from achieving anything half as fun or as surreal as this 90s-teen derivative.  I very much appreciated Sneakers as is, but I spent its entire runtime re-imagining it as my ideal version of a 90s computer-hacking thriller . . . only to later discover that Hackers already is that exact ideal.  It’s, without question, the most ridiculous and most essential film in this set.  Hack the planet!

-Brandon Ledet

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Every year I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on my birthday as a gift to myself.  This year I caught up with the latest installment in the action star’s career-defining franchise, something I probably should’ve watched on the big screen when that was an option.  For the first half of Terminator: Dark Fate, I was worried that I had goofed up in my programming choice, as Unkie Arnie is nowhere to be seen in what’s mostly a star-making vehicle for Mackenzie Davis, the new badass in town.  Then, the film reunites Schwarzenegger with Linda Hamilton as longtime human/Terminator frenemies and all is right in the world again.  As a pair, their sharply acidic comedic rapport and stone-faced action heroism feel like they haven’t missed a beat since Judgement Day in 1992, even if the world has drastically changed around them.  Because I’m rapidly becoming an old man, that latter half’s familiar callbacks to the series’ James Cameron era are what really hooked me as a viewer here.  Still, Mackenzie Davis’s intrusion in the series as a self-described “augmented supersoldier from the future” provides some much-needed momentum to keep that throwback from feeling like stagnant nostalgia bait, and the movie generally does a good job of maintaining a balance between the old & the new.

Because of its self-fulfilling time travel plots and vague references to many “possible futures”, the Terminator series is free to blaspheme its own internal lore.  The last film in the saga, Genisys, was jeered for its own overwriting of past events in the Terminator timeline (wrongly, in my opinion), while Dark Fate was celebrated for the same disregard for series continuity (rightly so, imo).  In this “possible present” timeline, all Terminator films post-Judgement Day have been wiped from the series, positioning Dark Fate as an alternate Terminator 3.  Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has successfully stopped the Skynet apocalypse, but Terminator-assassins are still created in variations of the future that have nothing to do with Skynet at all.  One of these first-generation T-800 assassins has successfully murdered her son (whose services as a Human Resistance leader are no longer needed anyway), inspiring her to dedicate the rest of her life stamping out time-traveling Terminator bots whenever and wherever they crossover into her timeline.  This particular episode finds her joining forces with a human-machine hybrid from “the” future (Davis) to protect their own timeline’s version of a John-Connor-to-be from another shape-shifting T-1000.  To her horror, this mission must also enlist the help of the original-flavor Terminator who killed her son (Arnie).  Bitter banter, uneasy alliances, and money-torching chase sequences ensue.

Structurally, Dark Fate is smart in the way it gradually highlights each of its four main players as action-hero badasses in distinct layers.  We start with Mackenzie Davis as a fully-formed hero with no patience for Linda Hamilton to pass off the torch as her obvious successor.  Hamilton then forcefully wedges herself into the main action despite Davis’s protests, righteously announcing to the future-soldier and the moviegoers of the world that she’s still a formidable screen presence – complete with aviator sunglasses and a severe haircut.  Schwarzenegger is late to the party, but provides essential monotone humor and retro machismo to authentically tie this new chapter into the series’ decades-old origins.  Newcomer Natalia Reyes has the least to do as the damsel-turned-rebel these muscular brutes circle to protect, but by the end of the film her personality and her place in the future emerge convincingly enough for her to be more than just a human MacGuffin.  At the very least, it’s her character arc that provides the self-fulfilling-timeline tomfoolery that makes this franchise such a fun, resettable time travel playground to begin with.  The movie wouldn’t be anything special without Hamilton & Schwarzenegger growling at each other in reluctant collaboration, but Davis & Reyes do a decent job of refreshing that dynamic for our alternate present.

As a standalone action blockbuster, divorced from its long-running IP, Dark Fate is nothing exceptional.  Even so, it probably is the best sequel in its series since Judgement Day, which I’m saying as someone who has some affection for all Terminator movies – minus McG’s Salvation.  I’ll never enjoy these action-heavy sequels as much as the grimy Roger Corman sci-fi noir of the original The Terminator (Judgement Day included), but Dark Fate understands the exact balance between quippy humor & Hollywood spectacle needed to make them worthwhile.  I miss the tactile effects work that distinguished the original Terminator, and there’s a lot of modern-TV backstory plotting that weighs this thing down; but again, those are the grumblings of an old man who misses the old world.  Dark Fate includes just enough throwback Hamilton & Schwarzenegger rivalry to keep old grumps like me smiling, while also injecting some much-needed fresh blood to keep this machine running into “the” future.

-Brandon Ledet

Wrath of Man (2021)

I’ve been warming up to Jason Statham’s appeal as a post-90s Action Star in recent years, starting with his self-parodic roles in films like Spy and then doubling back to catch up with his more sincerely over-the-top schlock in titles like The Transporter 2 (a personal fav).  In all that belated good will for the barroom brawling brute, I had forgotten why I was so behind on the Statham action canon in the first place: his collaborations with Guy Ritchie.  Snatch & Lock, Stock were dual star-makers for both Statham & Richie (with the help of already-established celebrities like Brad Pitt), but they never held much appeal for me as overly gruff, self-serious muscle mags in motion.  I like the idea of Statham continuing the tradition of the Stallone/Van Damme/Schwarzenegger action hero archetype into the 21st Century, but his star vehicles always lose that Old World luster whenever Richie’s at the wheel (or whenever similar snoozers like The Bank Job ape Ritchie’s style). 

2021’s Wrath of Man is a harsh reminder of just how efficiently Guy Richie can drain the fun out of a Jason Statham action vehicle by focusing on style & posturing instead of the action itself.  It starts with an excellent meathead action cinema premise, with Statham taking a job far beneath his mysterious supersolider skills as a driver for an armored cash truck company.  After thwarting several cash-delivery heist jobs with shocking tact & brutality, it becomes apparent that he’s hiding major details from his past & his motives for taking such a nondescript job.  The movie loses all momentum when Richie doubles back to fill in those missing details, scrambling the chapters of its story like so many half-assed Pulp Fiction knockoffs that littered video store shelves in the 1990s.  What should be a half-paragraph of dialogue in which Statham confesses the twisted path that landed him behind the steering wheel & gun trigger instead eats up two-thirds of the runtime, often removing Statham from the story entirely to detail the lives & motives of his crime-world enemies.  Ritchie thinks he’s being clever by chopping up & re-arranging the story this way, but I guarantee Wrath of Man would’ve been 100x more exciting as straightforward, Transporter-style action schlock about an undercover badass with a dangerous day job.

I had high hopes for Wrath of Man as a mean, oblivious action flick in its opening act, as Statham is getting acquainted with his instantly, insanely hostile coworkers.  The film starts off as the kind of quippy, aggro muscle show that’s so homophobic it’s blatantly homoerotic – wherein real tough guys with nicknames like “Boy Sweat” and “Sticky John” constantly make threatening jokes about each other’s dicks & buttholes.  It’s a miscalculated attempt at “witty” Shane Black-style dialogue, but that kind of homoerotic homophobia banter plays like a relic from an earlier, worse era that’s somehow adorably quaint in a modern context. The film works best when it completely lacks self-awareness of its own cultural obsoletion in that way.  The opening credits look like concept art for a late-90s Godsmack album, proudly displaying illustrations of flames, wolves, and fallen angels that you’d expect to find in the flash-art binders of your city’s worst tattoo shop.  Statham is introduced to his coworkers with the codename “H, like the bomb or Jesus H.”  A spooky Johnny Cash remix haunts the soundtrack as if it’s somehow still 2004.  This is a dour, self-serious film from the start, but at least there’s a shamelessness & authenticity to it in its earliest stretch.  Then Ritchie ruins the vibe by pretending what he’s making is cleverer than it is (or ever needed to be).

Wrath of Man is neither great, nor terrible, nor much of anything at all.  I still have yet to see a Jason Statham action vehicle that satisfies like the first two Transporter films (nor a cash-truck heist film more fun than The Lavender Hill Mob), but I don’t think it’s the actor’s fault.  We’ve gotten to the point where American movie studios don’t make genuine Action Star Showcases anymore, so we have to settle for jokey, self-aware “subversions” of the format like Spy, Hobbs & Shaw, Crank, etc.  It’s unlikely that this era of mainstream filmmaking could ever produce something purely, obliviously schlocky enough to register as Statham’s Commando, his Hard Target, his First Blood Part II: Rambo.  The worst thing Wrath of Man does is briefly teasing that possibility, then devolving into just Another Guy Ritchie Movie.

-Brandon Ledet

The Suicide Squad (2021)

There is something hilariously ironic about James Gunn reviving the Martin Scorsese “theme parks” discourse while making the promotional rounds for his Suicide Squad sequel.  Over two years ago Scorsese off-handedly referred to billion-dollar superhero blockbusters in the MCU and DCEU as theme park rides (as opposed to legitimate cinema) in a one-off interview, and nerds have had their bedroom-mounted swords out for the auteur ever since, apparently Gunn included.  While promoting The Suicide Squad for the DC Comics brand this month, the long-time MCU Guardians of the Galaxy director defensively retorted (into the void, I’m assuming, since there’s no possible way that Scorsese could still give a shit), “It just seems awful cynical that [Scorsese] would keep coming against Marvel and then that’s the only thing that would get him press for his movie […] He’s creating his movie in the shadow of the Marvel films, and so he uses that to get attention for something he wasn’t getting as much attention as he wanted for it.”  There are two things that are cracking me up about this: Gunn is himself reviving a long-dead non-rivalry with a director way above his punching weight in order to promote his new superhero movie, the exact thing he claims Scorsese was up to.  Even more hilariously, “a theme park ride” is exactly how I would describe my experience with The Suicide Squad.  I had a lot of fun riding this Tilt-a-Whirl while it lasted, but forgot practically every detail about it the second it was over while seeking out my next amusement.

All told, I enjoyed Gunn’s latest big-budget superhero sequel with a gold-plated heart of rot about as much as I enjoyed his two Guardians films.  As with Guardians, this crass, colorful sci-fi action epic follows a misfit group of anti-hero outlaws who reluctantly save the day despite their communal and moral dysfunction.  There are bestial humanoids among the crew (this time a shark and a weasel instead of a raccoon); there’s lots of handwringing about fathers who fall miles short (this time pantomimed by Idris Elba & Taika Waititi, two more crossover Marvel contributors); and there are the requisite cameos from extended members of the James Gunn family (including Michael Rooker in a flowing Edgar Winter wig).  As you likely recall from the first Suicide Squad film, these particular imprisoned supervillains only fight for Good because they’re being controlled by a government institution that has implanted explosives at the base of their brains, basically holding them hostage in exchange for heroism.  And if you don’t recall that, it’s no matter.  The set-up is mostly an excuse for Gunn’s big-budget escalation of the same character-based splatstick horror comedy he’s been doing since he was a twentysomething Troma employee.  Cruel baddies crack wise, crack skulls, and crack open some cold ones with the boys, getting so chummy with the audience that you often forget they’re worthless scum who kill innocent people for fun.  If the gory action-horror sequences are this theme park’s rollercoaster attractions, at least you get to hang out in line with interesting friends who can tell some solid one-liners while you wait.

If there are any specific details about The Suicide Squad that will cling to your braincells, it’s likely to be a stand-out character among the misfit cast.  It was unanimously agreed that Margot Robbie’s interpretation of Harley Quinn was the stand-out performance in the first film, which led to the fantabulous spin-off sequel Birds of Prey (the only truly Great superhero movie of the past two decades, imo).  Declaring the stand-out character in Gunn’s sequel is more of a toss-up.  Robbie’s as delightfully devious as ever here, but she’s more of a tangential side character than a main member of the crew.  Lots of people seem to be drawn to the rodent-commanding sleepyhead Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) as Quinn’s successor, likely because she’s the only beacon of sincerity among her heartless comrades.  On the exact opposite end, I could see Sylvester Stallone’s slurred vocal performance as a himbo shark-man stealing the show for anyone looking for goofball one-liners, since his entire purpose is to serve as a joke delivery machine.  Personally, I was most enamored with John Cena as the fascist American “superhero” Peacemaker, who chipperly parodies the ACAB side of superheroics that usually goes unexamined in these types of movies.  There are a lot of reasons why Cena’s performance was the stand-out to me: I’ve never watched popular TV show The Boys—which parodies that exact superheroic fascism in the exact same way—so the humor was still fresh to me.  I’m also deeply invested in John Cena’s R-rated comedy work in films like Blockers & Trainwreck, to the point where I’ve turned around in the past decade from thinking he’s the worst thing about pro wrestling to thinking he’s one of the great entertainers of our time.  Speaking of which, my most anticipated match at this month’s SummerSlam PPV is John Cena vs. Roman Reigns, something I’m still wrapping my mind around considering both performers’ dull, repetitive ringwork in the not-too-distant past.  John Cena is currently at the height of his self-aware, image-subverting powers right now, and Gunn puts his surprisingly game, shockingly raunchy screen presence to great effect here.  If I were to visit this particular theme park again, Cena’s performance is the one attraction that I’d be looking forward to revisiting – the same way I used to eagerly anticipate riding the Gravitron at local fairs every year as a little kid.

Besides its gaudy, momentary thrills, the way The Suicide Squad most resembles a theme park is that it’s absolutely fucking exhausting.  The film is, at heart, a comedy, which makes its 132-minute runtime more of an affront to good sense & good taste than any of its amoral one-liners or post-Troma gore gags.  Even with forty fewer minutes weighing this thing down, it likely still would’ve felt like a never-ending game of bumper cars, but as is it feels like enduring that series of scrapes & jolts while keeping down a stomach full of corn dogs, cotton candy, and gallon-sized sodas.  I left the film amused but numb, hardly remembering any details of the sensory assault I just bought a ticket for.  The only way I know how to rate this thing is by scoring it slightly higher than the first Suicide Squad movie – a much shabbier, more sinister kind of amusement park run by some real scary looking carnies.  Even if this is technically a better film than the first, I don’t know that it’s the more interesting one of the pair.  At least in the original, there was a behind-the-scenes war between director & studio execs whose editing room bickering led to a singularly bizarre experience.  By contrast, Gunn seemingly got free reign to do his own thing here, and pretty much delivered exactly what you’d expect from him (an R-rated revision of Guardians of the Galaxy with some throwback gross-out aesthetics echoed from his Troma days).  It’s hilarious that he thinks this is the art that’s worth picking a one-sided fight with Scorsese over, not his darker, more idiosyncratic works like Super or Slither.  It’s a fun ride, but that’s about all you can say about it.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Loves of a Blonde (1965)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss breakout Czech New Wave director Miloš Forman’s classic romantic dramedy Loves of a Blonde (1965).

00:00 Welcome

02:30 Possessor (2021)
03:30 Millennium Actress (2001)
05:45 The Green Knight (2021)
11:22 Greener Grass (2019)
14:40 A Classic Horror Story (2021)
18:20 The Suicide Squad (2021)
28:08 Sound of Violence (2021)
31:10 In the Earth (2021)

34:30 Loves of a Blonde (1965)

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

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew