Ghost in the Shell (1995)

I am once again living without a car.  It hasn’t been a traumatic life adjustment or anything, but it has limited how much of the city I can conveniently access without it feeling like an epic journey.  It’s also made me realize, once again, how few legitimate movie theaters are currently operating in New Orleans proper.  Ever since most theatrical screenings were exported to the Metairie movie palaces in the 1990s, there have been precious few cinemas operating in the actual city.  I can only name three currently running, and if you’re biking & bussing around the center of town, only two of those are easily accessible; most nights for me, the original uptown location of The Prytania might as well be on another planet.  So, in these dark days when the ludicrously cheap AMC A-List subscription service is miles of interstate out of reach, I am relying heavily on the programmers at The Broad & The Prytania at Canal Place to keep me air conditioned & entertained.  Thankfully, they do a kickass job.

In particular, I’ve been loving the repertory programming at The Canal Place Prytania in recent months.  The Rene Brunet Classic Movie series at their uptown location is the closest thing this city has to a solid rep scene, so it’s been cool to see that NOLA TCM energy flow downriver to their new outpost.  If anything, the downtown location has been much hipper in its curation, including the Wildwood series—a “weekly celebration of daring cinema”—and, more recently, a month-long program of anime classics branded “Anime Theatre.”  I had just caught up with Akira and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie in the few months before the Anime Theatre series started running, and I very much wish I had held out to catch them for the first time on the big screen.  I just never would have assumed the opportunity would present itself so conveniently (except maybe as a glitchy Fathom Events stream out in the suburbs).  Luckily, though, there was still one major blind spot that series could fill for me: the 1995 cyberpunk classic Ghost in the Shell, which was a real treat to see projected big & loud with a fired-up audience of downtown weirdos.

It’s a stain on my honor that I watched the live-action Scarlett Johansson remake of Ghost in the Shell years before seeking out its animated ancestor.  Worse yet, I apparently enjoyed that remake at the time, faintly praising it as “Blade Runner-runoff eye candy” with “a deliriously vapid sci-fi action plot.”  In retrospect, I’m surprised to see how much of that Blade Runner DNA flows through the original film’s synthetic veins.  I assumed the live-action version borrowed a lot of Ridley Scott’s neon-noir imagery as lazy shorthand, but it turns out the anime version of Ghost in the Shell sets a lot of its own moody, “What is humanity anyway?” introspection on the same neon-lit, rain-slicked streets of future-Tokyo.  There’s plenty of RoboCop influence at play here too, not only in the ultraviolence exacted by Ghost in the Shell‘s cyborg law enforcement leads, but also in the first-person POV framing of those cyborgs booting up in a cold, blue world.  The movie was plenty influential in its own time too, to the point where you could argue that The Matrix was actually its first live-action remake – right down to its green towers of binary code.  Watching Ghost in the Shell for the first time felt like finding a crucial, missing piece of a larger genre puzzle.  It helped contextualize other genre works I already love by fitting them into an infinite continuum of sci-fi visual language.

It’s also just gorgeous.  This is brain-hacking cinema of the highest order, much more low-key & philosophical than I expected based on its most lurid imagery.  Yes, these badass cyborg women strip down into flesh-tone body suits before digitally cloaking themselves in reflective pixels, but they look amazing doing it, blurring humanity & technology in the medium itself.  Ghost in the Shell was at the forefront of mixing digital animation with traditional hand-drawn cells, conjuring a new, glitchy spectacle out of their interplay where most future productions would only see cost-saving measures.  It’s through those digi animation experiments where the film manages to feel like its own weird thing despite all the convenient comparisons swirling around it.  The future-world body horror of seemingly human parts opening in segments to reveal the fabricated machinery inside is mirrored in the human/machine hybrid of the film’s animation.  It’s a tension in technique still echoed in contemporary anime, whether thoughtfully in films like Belle or lazily in films like Fireworks.

If I’m not spending much time recapping the themes or plot details of Ghost in the Shell, it’s because I assume most cinema obsessives have already seen it.  This was a behind-the-times educational experience for me, which is pretty much how I always feel when watching classic anime.  The only relatively unique aspect of my Ghost in the Shell experience was the opportunity to see it projected big & loud, thanks to the downtown Prytania.  It was the closing film in their Anime Theatre series, but their kickass repertory programming is marching on into spooky season with their upcoming line-up of Kill-O-Rama double-features, pictured below. In a city with a relatively small cinema exhibition scene, that kind of thoughtful, adventurous curation is invaluable.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fog (1980)

I first saw John Carpenter’s cosmic body horror The Thing in the midnight slot at The Prytania.  I loved the film, but struggled to stay awake during the final third, fighting a losing battle against its low-key, matter-of-fact tone and unrushed pacing.  A few years later, I’m a few years older and struggled to stay awake at a 7pm screening of John Carpenter’s The Fog at The Broad.  I appreciated the opportunity to see a proper projection of a beloved genre classic, but that novelty wasn’t enough to keep my eyes from being magnetically drawn to the top of my skull.  Immediately after my screening of The Fog, I biked home to rent the film VOD and rewatch the last half-hour to make sure I didn’t take a “long blink” through anything vital.  I did the same the morning after that midnight screening of The Thing in 2015, “re”watching the back half of the film over a cup of coffee.

I don’t believe the drowsiness of The Fog‘s mood & pacing is a detriment, no more than I believe The Thing is anything less than a 5-star classic.  The Fog just happens to be one of those low-budget horrors that’s so moody & dreamlike that it leaves you both riveted and halfway asleep – joining the likes of Carnival of Souls, Messiah of Evil, and its seaside sister film The Living Skeleton.  The prologue is a campfire horror story about a drowned ship’s crew who haunt the land as ghosts, proving ahead of time that you can condense this 90min film’s plot into just 5 minutes of dialogue.  So, what does Carpenter fill the other 85 minutes of dead air with?  As the children would say, just vibes.  The titular fog is a glowing, sentient force of nature that slowly creeps onto the screen, inviting some glowing-eyed ghost friends along for the ride.  It is the most literal interpretation of “atmospheric horror” around, surviving on pure mood and eerie weather until supernatural mayhem is unleashed in the go-for-broke finale . . . if you’re awake to witness it.

Most of what makes this film of interest to modern audiences is its horror icon bonafides.  Carpenter may be working on a scrappy budget here, but he puts his glowing-eyed monsters to a much more ambitious, ethereal effect than their subterranean brethren in C.H.U.D.. That’s why he’s the best.  Give the man a kitchen knife & a store-bought William Shatner mask, and he’ll inspire decades of copycats in a subgenre of its own.  The Fog never really took off in the same way as Halloween, but there are plenty of Carpenter regulars around to give it a similar classic-horror pedigree: producer Debra Hill, scream queen Jamie Leigh Curtis, her screamier-queenier mother Janet Leigh, town drunk Tom Atkins, etc.  Adrienne Barbeau is a particular highlight among those collaborators, playing the coolest local radio D.J. around, talking her small seaside town through the ghastliest night of their lives in the smoothest tones possible.

The Fog is far from Carpenter’s flashiest work.  It doesn’t have the impossible body contortions of The Thing, the pro-wrestling caricatures of They Live, nor the psychedelic rug-pulls of In the Mouth of Madness.  Besides the icy synths of Carpenter’s score and the calming, laid-back cool of Barbeau’s performance, there isn’t much to recommend here as the artistic pinnacle of anyone’s career.  It’s got plenty mood & craftiness to spare, though, achieving a wonderfully vivid nightmare vibe on a community theatre budget.  Even if you stay awake & alert the entire runtime, it’s easy to question whether you slipped into a dream halfway through.

-Brandon Ledet

Breathless (1983)

The most impressive thing about the 1993 genre spoof Fatal Instinct is that it riffs on two genres at once.  1980s & 90s erotic thrillers were already such a direct photocopy of 1940s & 50s noir that it’s difficult to tell where one genre’s tropes end and the other’s begin in that Carl Reiner goofaround.  It turns out that Fatal Instinct had already been outdone by the 1983 remake of Breathless, though, which adds a whole other layer of post-modern cultural ouroboros to the noir nostalgia cycle.  Whereas Fatal Instinct is a disposable novelty that clowns about at the intersection of erotic thrillers & classic noir, Breathless makes an extra pit stop at Jean-Luc Godard’s doorstep to translate that genre overlap into high art – the very pinnacle of the artform, even.  If anything, the entire Hollywood noir experiment was only worthwhile so that it could be filtered through French New Wave art snobbery and then later perfected in this 80s pop art orgasm.  I’m only partially kidding.

I was surprised to swoon so hard for the 80s Breathless update, since the 1960 original didn’t exactly wow me when I saw it at the New Orleans French Film Fest in 2018.  I did appreciate the ways its flippant story of a womanizing car thief was blatantly influenced by American gangster pictures, filtered through a more casual, hands-on French New Wave aesthetic, then later filtered again through New Hollywood crime pictures like Bonnie & Clyde back in America, and the cycle goes on. I struggled at times with the poisonous machismo of the film’s chain-smoking antihero, though, even though he admits up front to being an asshole and most of the humor positions him as the butt of the joke. Even with all that self-deprecation, the movie thinks he’s a lot cooler than he is.  The original Breathless has a handheld, exciting immediacy to it that makes its place in the Important Movies canon immediately apparent, but it could easily be remade as a (hyperviolent) Pepé Le Pew cartoon, which was a huge turnoff for me at the time.

The remake doesn’t really do anything to soften or rehabilitate its party boy hedonist antihero other than casting a young, hot-to-trot Richard Gere in the role.  Somehow, that’s more than enough.  Gere’s performance as the heartbreaking, carjacking Jesse Lujack is just as much of a slimy little shit as Jean-Paul Belmondo was in the original, but he’s a thousand times cooler while smoking a thousand fewer cigarettes.  And maybe that’s just a result of my ignorant biases as an uncultured American.  This is the one American remake of a foreign art film I can name that out-performs its source material specifically because it is American.  Gere plays around with Silver Surfer comics, Jerry Lee Lewis cassette tapes, and loaded revolvers as American fetish objects, packaging his brash boyishness as a rock n’ roll cowboy routine – a young, dangerous, beautifully idiotic nation personified.  He makes total sense as a lethal object of desire, luring a French college student (Valérie Kaprisky) to ruin through his roadside-diner sex appeal.  Well, that and his muscular, naked body.

The Breathless remake is a post-modern pop art melt down.  You don’t need to hear the third-act Link Wray needle drop to know Tarantino drooled all over this in his formative years as a pop-culture obsessed video store clerk.  It dresses up 1950s jukebox rock in the sneers & plaids of 1980s punk.  Before Gere starts fiddling with his library of cassettes in a stolen Cadillac, it’s not even clear what decade we’re in.  Is the Argento crosslighting of the dive-bar neons supposed to feel modern & fresh, or is it a throwback to the rock n’ roll diners of old?  Is this more of an erotic 80s update to the Godard original, or a colorized echo of the noir films that inspired it?  You can’t mistake the country it’s set in for any other place in the world, though.  As much as the 1960s Breathless was in love with American crime pictures as the pinnacle of the artform, its 1980s remake was the real deal – truly American in all the best & worst ways, and truly the height of cinema.

Full disclosure: I had already written and scheduled this review before it was announced that Jean-Luc Godard had died at 91-years-old. I’m noting that timeline just to make it clear that I did not post this as some kind of gotcha putdown of a great artist who recently passed. If anything, it speaks to Godard’s influence on the medium of filmmaking that his work was already on the tip of some amateur, genre-nerd blogger’s tongue before his name was in the daily headlines.

-Brandon Ledet

Funny Pages (2022)

In Funny Pages, a teenage comic-book obsessive shrugs off the comforts & privileges of their suburban upbringing to seek an authentic outsider-artist lifestyle in the city, jumpstarting their adult independence in the most juvenile ways possible.  If that premise recalls Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World, it’s not by mistake.  Funny Pages proudly wears its 2000s indie nostalgia as a grimy badge of dishonor, questioning why Ghost World and The Safdies can’t share the same marquee.  Its alt-comics slackerdom initially feels out of step with the modern world, but it turns out aimless teenage rebellion doesn’t change much from decade to decade.  Being a total brat who worships at the altar of Subversive Art at the expense of developing meaningful politics & relationships is a timeless rite of passage, and every generation needs their own gut-punch movie to mock that shithead behavior.

If Funny Pages updates the Ghost World template for the 2020s in any discernable way, it’s only in its Safdies-style casting choices.  This is a version of Ghost World where every character is as interesting to look at as Steve Buscemi, from Our Flag Means Death‘s Matthew Maher to Orange is the New Black‘s Constance Shulman to The Andy Milonakis Show‘s Andy Milonakis to a long list of one-of-a-kind screen presences you’ll never see in television or film again.  Most artists are difficult people, so there’s something immensely satisfying about seeing Real People on the screen again in this working-class art world context.  I say that with both full sincerity and full awareness that it makes me sound like the exact kind of dipshit suburbanite poser Funny Pages brutally satirizes.  In a movie about the boundaries between authenticity & stolen valor, it’s important to be on the right side of that dividing line.

Funny Pages is very funny, but it’s funny in a way that has you laughing while feeling like your skin is on fire.  It’s funny in the way that vintage alt-comics are funny, testing the extremes of good taste and then pushing past them to offend your delicate sensibilities.  It’s funny in the way that Ghost World is funny; it’s funny in a way that makes you feel like total shit.  Its effectiveness depends on your own personal embarrassment over being an edgelord provocateur as a teen, but it’s unlikely that anyone who didn’t go through that phase would stumble across this movie anyway.  There’s an endless supply of former Subversive Art brats to fill out the audience.  More are born & reformed every year, to the point where this movie would’ve been just as effective as a Blockbuster rental in 2002 as it is an art theater marquee-filler in 2022, something I can confirm from memory.

-Brandon Ledet

We Met in Virtual Reality (2022)

The sci-fi anime Belle dreams of a far-out futureworld where all social & commercial activity online is ported to a Virtual Reality realm in which our external bodies & environments are just as fluid as our internal psyches.  According to the documentary We Met in Virtual Reality, that future has already arrived, at least for a small number of tech-savvy übernerds.  Billed as “the first feature-length documentary filmed entirely in VR,” it’s basically Belle except for “real” and without all those pesky trips back to the physical world.  It’s a pixelated descent into the kind of niche nerd-culture subdungeons that the internet was built for but rarely achieves anymore.  Right now, it’s unclear whether the Metaverse will succeed in replacing that psychedelic digi-realm with an infinite digi-Target, but this still feels like a vital, of-the-moment snapshot of what VR life looks like in the early 2020s.  It’s the utopian counterpoint to the more sinister vision of Belle, and it’s somehow one with just as much anime imagery.

Users of the virtual reality platform VRChat explain how VR offers infinite possibilities in how they can interact and be perceived in a new, revolutionized social space that’s only limited by their own imaginations.  Meanwhile, they’re speaking through digital avatars that can be neatly categorized into a few anime & furry subgenres, mostly made up of pre-existing IP.  It turns out that given all the possibilities in all human creation, most people want to be seen as a hot lady with a tail.  And who could blame them?  Taken at face value, the interviewees would have you believe they’re creating a digital utopia that’s broken free from the cruelties & limitations of the physical world, but what’s onscreen is just a virtual simulation of real-world grind & commerce now populated by catbois, wolfsonas, and anime babes.  The VRChat represented here is a glitchy, pixelated echo of pre-existing rituals under real-world capitalism: weddings, funerals, improv classes, lap dances, raves, etc.  That tension between what the infinite possibilities of this digi-realm offers vs. what’s actually achieved within it pushes the film beyond initial, superficial reactions like “This looks weird,” and “Who are these people irl?”.

A large part of the utopian rhetoric posited here is a result of COVID, since most of its interviews were recorded in the pre-vaccine days of 2020 & 2021.  Many of the subjects who flocked to VRChat in that time describe themselves as having been lonely, anxious, and suicidal before finding community there.  Every bellydancing class, ASL instruction, and virtual driving lesson captured “on film” ends with a group photo, with all the hot, tailed, anime avatars crowding into a single frame to make cutesy faces at a virtual camera.  It often feels like that group photo is more important than the activity it’s commemorating.  These nerds really do love each other, just as much as they love the freedom to style their digital bodies to match their true personae (often with little regard for matching traditional gender presentations to the expected pronouns of the “real” world).  I’m not yet convinced that Zuckerberg will lure your average normie into the VR lifestyle in the coming years, but it’s easy to see the appeal for this specific subset of very-online nerds, especially within the context of COVID-era isolation.

Beyond its introduction to a subculture most viewers don’t have access to otherwise, We Met in Virtual Reality is also an interesting advancement in documentary tech.  It’s not simply screengrabbed from a livestream of virtual reality interactions.  It’s traditionally directed, paying attention to coverage, “camera” placement, and narrative flow in an entirely simulated environment.  While VRChat feels like an early step into a new realm of online interaction that hasn’t quite gotten its footing yet, the movie does the same for documentary filmmaking in that new, digital realm.  Take a look at it now, while it’s still a rudimentary immersion in surreal images and far-out ideas; and fear the soon-to-come days of Belle when all significant social interactions are filtered through this exact lens.  For better or for worse, this is the future of life & art.

-Brandon Ledet

Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)

I’m not sure how George Miller’s new fantasy anthology fits into the modern world, but I’m also not sure that it’s trying to.  Three Thousand Years of Longing feels like a relic from the 1990s at the very latest, recalling a specific fantasy era ruled by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Terry Gilliam, and likeminded Brits.  It conjures its magic through uncanny CGI that definitively pins it to the 2020s, but its story of a lonely white woman finding love with a Black djinn while shopping for knick-knacks in Istanbul feels out of step with modern politics, daring the audience to decry “Orientalism” or “magical negro” at every turn.  It’s worth keeping in mind that George Miller is an old man. He’s been working long enough to have contributed to this exact brand of matter-of-fact magic before it was vintage in both The Witches of Eastwick and Babe: Pig in the City.  It also helps that the story he tells here directly questions its place in modernity, ultimately deciding that it belongs in another time & realm.

Tilda Swinton stars as a professor of “narratology” who travels to Istanbul to perform an academic lecture on the power of storytelling.  While antique shopping in her off-time, she unwittingly unleashes a gigantic puff of smoke shaped like Idris Elba, who demands that she make three wishes so that he can be freed from his tiny, glass prison.  You would expect an anthology with that wraparound to include one cautionary-tale vignette per wish, but Three Thousand Years has many more stories to tell.  Because Swinton’s professor studies storytelling as an artform & cultural tradition, she’s very reluctant to make any of her three wishes, fully informed on the usual “monkey’s paw” irony of these scenarios.  Elba’s djinn recounts magical stories from his thousands of years in captivity to convince her that he is not a trickster set out to teach her morality lessons about selfishness or greed.  In hearing his lived-experience fairy tales, she realizes that the true reason she cannot make a wish is because she does not have a true “heart’s desire,” at least nothing that can compare to the passionate yearnings suffered by her new, eternally lovesick companion.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is at once George Miller’s Tale of Tales, Guillermo del Toro’s The Fall and, least convincingly, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Good Luck to You Leo Grande.  The vivid colors & eerie moods of the fantasy flashbacks are unimpeachable, even if their politics are questionable.  All that’s left to puzzle over, really, is the effectiveness of the wraparound, which is mostly an excuse for two talented actors to take turns narrating short stories in an illustrated audio book.  As a two-hander character study, Three Thousand Years is cute but frothy.  The djinn struggles to adapt to the electromagnetic cacophony of modern living, where magic and science clash in a constant, furious roar.  His new storytelling companion struggles with breaking out of her shell, with making herself vulnerable to desire, and with the ethics of conjuring magical powers in the realm of love.  There isn’t much room for that dynamic to deepen, though, since Miller understandably spends more time on the romance & fantasy of centuries past.  Maybe the power of storytelling isn’t so timeless after all; maybe our hearts & minds are too cluttered to fully incorporate the magic of the old world into the electronic buzzing of the new one.  Still, it’s a nice feeling to visit from time to time, a wonderful momentary escape.

-Brandon Ledet

Without You I’m Nothing (1990)

I’ve loved Sandra Bernhard my entire life, but I could never tell you exactly why.  I have never watched any of her stand-up specials, and it wasn’t until recent adulthood viewings of Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Madonna’s Truth or Dare that I ever saw her in anything.  Like with my lifelong admiration of fellow provocateuress Annie Sprinkle, I just appreciated Bernhard for being around.  She was easy to latch onto as a counterculture media presence without ever directly engaging with her work.  So, finally catching up with the 1990 movie adaptation of her “smash-hit” one-woman show Without You I’m Nothing was an education in all things Bernhard, completing the puzzle of what, exactly, she does and where her art fits into the larger puzzle of American pop culture.  If I was looking for a provocateur in Bernhard all these years, I certainly found one.  Consider me provoked.

My heart sank in the early minutes of Without You I’m Nothing, which starts with Bernhard performing a whitewashed caricature of Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” intoning lines like “My skin is brown” and “My hair is wooly” in a nightclub cabaret act.  The discomfort did not stop there.  Throughout the show, Bernhard impersonates iconoclastic Black performers like Sylvester, Prince, and Diana Ross in a way that tests the boundaries of where cultural appreciation ends and outright minstrelsy begins.  It’s an off-putting approach to comedy, especially if the film is your introduction to her work.  However, every time she crosses the line into full-on offensive, the edit cuts away to an audience member rolling their eyes or yawning through her set.  She’s performing these Black counterculture standards to a bored, Black audience who are perpetually on the verge of walking out the room in total disinterest.  The joke, when there is one, is always on her.

Once I fought past my initial discomfort with Bernhard’s ironic racial caricature, I started to greatly appreciate the film on its own shaky terms.  Without You I’m Nothing is absolutely fabulous as an Encyclopedia of American counterculture icons.  It sketches out a roadmap of the queer, Jewish, and Black artists who have shaped this nation’s counterculture identity through a series of sincere impersonations and highly exaggerated in-character monologues.  Bernard playfully mocks herself for carving out her own place in that lineage of legends, a hubris that’s constantly undercut by her audience’s aggressive disinterest.  In a way, it has to wrestle with a white woman taking so much influence from such an inherently Black pop culture history as America’s, so there’s something daring about the way she crosses the political lines of good taste to make herself a target for well-deserved criticism.  At the same time, I wouldn’t blame anyone who bails on the picture as early as that Nina Simone opener.  The film is incredible, essential, and highly questionable.

I can’t think of many points of comparison for Without You I’m Nothing – concert film, stand-up special, or otherwise.  The closest I can think of is Sara Silverman’s Jesus is Magic, which is likewise offensive-on-purpose, but never as sincere nor as politically purposeful.  Bernhard throws a lot of punches in this film, from mocking the ladies who lunch in Upper Manhattan for their name-dropping, art-hag frivolity to repeatedly reducing her highly publicized frenemy Madonna into a dive bar stripper.  Even when she’s lashing out, though, you get the sense that she loves all the American freaks & geeks she profiles here, especially herself.  She was incredibly audacious to think she could get away with this much button-pushing in a show entirely about her place among her pop culture obsessions and, I don’t know, maybe she didn’t.  It’s a complicated work about a complicated national history, so I’m not sure it matters whether it was entirely successful.

-Brandon Ledet

Vicious Lips (1986)

I love Z-grade exploitation cinema as an artform.  The Roger Corman method of cranking out low-budget, high-concept features over a single weekend with a sleep-starved crew is the exact kind of behind-the-scenes underdog story that always wins my heart.  All you really need to make a successful genre picture is a good marketing hook, some pocket change, and enough film-geek enthusiasm to power through a hectic shoot.  At least, that’s the fantasy.  The reality is that making movies is almost impossibly hard no matter the scale of production, and it’s a miracle that any movie reaches completion.  While Corman can pen a memoir titled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime with a straight face, there are plenty filmmakers who’ve adopted his same run-and-gun shooting style and fallen flat on theirs.  From what I’ve already seen, Albert Pyun is totally capable of completing quick-shoot pictures on the cheap, at one point whisking rappers like Silkk the Shocker & Ice-T off to Slovakia for one-week productions like the urban crime drama Corrupt.  His career is also littered with what-could’ve-been near misses, though, like the 80s new wave space opera Vicious Lips.

Vicious Lips is the exact kind of underdog story I love to champion.  Shot in seven days on an outstretched $100,000 budget, it fits snugly in the Roger Corman exploitation mold.  Except, Corman always finds a way to package his most chaotic productions (Blood Bath & The Raven most notorious among them) into something resembling coherence, reportedly never losing a dime. Pyun completely biffs it here.  Dream sequences, flashbacks, and an extensive second-act hangout all reek of financial & creative desperation in the editing booth, struggling to mold Vicious Lips into a complete feature.  It’s a shame, too, since the movie has a killer hook.  The titular Vicious Lips are a space-traveling New Wave band (performing the songs of real-life New Wavers Sue Saad and the Next) who go on an intergalactic road trip for the gig of a lifetime, with only a stowaway rubber-mask monster to get in their way.  It’s impossible to describe without making it sound more fun than it is.  Despite the band’s bubbly 80s mallrat aesthetics and the much-needed adrenaline injection from Milo the Venusian Manbeast, the movie barely drags itself across the finish line.  It’s barely a movie at all.

Vicious Lips starts with almost enough manic MTV editing to distract from its overall incoherence.  Unfortunately, on the band’s journey to their career-making gig at The Radioactive Dream, the film literally crash-lands on a desert planet and rots in the sun.  All of the drag makeup, glitter, pleather, and teased wigs of the music video opening are still on full display, but the band essentially just hangs around a cardboard spaceship set waiting for more production funds to come through.  Those funds never arrive.  Milo and a few thriller-video zombies chase the girls around the spaceship’s “hallways” for a bit to burn off some pent-up energy, but we’re stuck in that sunlit sandpit for a really long time without much to do except wait.  It’s a hack observation to say any Z-grade schlock resembles a sexless porno, but this particular low-budget novelty does have an exact porno corollary in New Wave Hookers – a film that, despite its own myriad of faults, at least maintains a sense of momentum & purpose from scene to scene.  Once The Vicious Lips finally get back on “the road”, the movie cruelly cuts back to earlier scenes of their impromptu desert vacation in wistful montage, dragging us back into total sunburnt stasis for a second near-eternity.  Vicious Lips should be an inspiring story of a renegade film shoot pushing beyond near-impossible conditions to make gorgeously transcendent schlock. Instead, it plays as a cautionary tale about not going into production if you don’t have all the time & funding you need to complete a picture.

There’s no reason to be too hard on Pyun here.  It’s not his fault he was working with scraps.  Besides, he’s already been punished harshly enough for his hubris.  Vicious Lips failed in theaters, was dumped direct-to-VHS outside the US, and was essentially considered “lost” until Shout Factory released it on Blu-Ray in 2017.  There’s a lot to be charmed by in its 80s MTV revision of 50s Space Age kitsch, from the main character’s birthname Judy Jetson to the half-baked futurism of its three-tittied bar wenches, “sonic bloomers” lingerie, zig-zag shaped cigars, and glowing guitars. It’s cute; it’s just also inert.  It’s probably less useful for me to drag this already little-known film’s name through the mud that it would be to recommend watching its more successful equivalent Voyage of the Rock Aliens instead.  Still, it does help illustrate the limitations of the one-week-shoot Corman model.  Those run-and-gun schlock productions are the stuff of legends when they’re pulled off well, but they are frustratingly dull when they fail to cohere.

-Brandon Ledet

End of Days (1999)

Every year I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on my birthday as a gift to myself.  It’s a small, often private ritual that I hold sacred, and it’s one I plan months in advance.  Which version of Arnold am I going to celebrate with – the one who gets in gunfights with alligators?, the one who gives birth to a baby with his own adult face?, or maybe a double-trouble combo of Arnie clones?  The possibilities are endless.  This year, the decision was easy.  I happened to find a used DVD copy of the nü-metal Schwarzenegger relic End of Days on a thrift store shelf a few months before my birthday, making my selection obvious.  Then, just a couple days before this year’s Big Event, a tabloid new story came out about Schwarzenegger’s abhorrent behavior on the set of End of Days.  Specifically, he was accused of deliberately farting in the face of his co-star Miriam Margoles during their fight scene.  And did he apologize for this workplace transgression?  No, dear reader, he laughed.  Beyond confirming yet again that all millionaires are assholes, it was kind of a nothing news item, worthy only of a chuckle while scrolling though headlines on the old Twitter feed.  It was the easily most press End of Days has gotten in this century, though, and its timing meant that this year I was celebrating my birthday with The Fart Movie.

Anyway, the Nü-Metal Arnöld movie holds up fairly well.  There was once a time in my life where any vaguely gothy movie with a prominent KoRn single on its tie-in soundtrack was an instant 5-star classic in my eyes, so I can’t say I enjoyed it as much now as I did when it was a Blockbuster rental, but it’s still a hoot.  End of Days is a product that only could have been made in that exact spiked-collars-and-wallet-chains era, marketing itself specifically as Y2k horror.  Set “three nights before every computer fails,” the film dreads the approach of the year 2000 with the same dread Christian doomsayers approach the birth of antichrist.  In fact, it directly links the two strands of paranoia.  You see, the Mark of the Beast has been misinterpreted in modern translations of the Bible.  That “666” has been flipped by mistake, making 1999 the Year of the Beast, when Satan would return to Earth to choose his bride and the mother of his world-destroying son.  The oncoming worldwide computer crashes of Y2k appear to be coincidental, but they’re frequently cited by radio DJs in the background as a parallel end-of-the-world scenario.  In case you don’t remember, Y2k never happened the way its biggest doomsayers promised, but Gabriel Byrne sure does arrive on Earth as a father-to-be Satan in this film, and there’s only one Austrian-accented supercop in all of NYC who can stop him before it’s too late: Jericho Cane.

End of Days takes the genre mashup “action horror” about as literally as it possibly can.  Satan’s quest to become a father before the Times Square ball drops on Y2k positions the film as the 90s blockbuster version of Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s the 90s version of Rosemary’s Baby that would’ve been produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.  Sure, there are spooky Catholic ceremonies behind every locked door in every NYC church, as the city’s priests wage a secret Good vs Evil battle with the Prince of Darkness.  And there are plenty of CG demons, back-alley crucifixions, and Satanic orgies to keep the teenage edgelord KoRn fans in the audience drooling on their JNCOs.  None of it is supposed to be especially scary, though.  It’s all just badass, gothy set dressing for a standard-issue Arnie action flick, complete with helicopter chases and storefront explosions.  Schwarzenegger plays such a cliché version of an action-hero cop that he borders on parody, especially in an early scene when he’s introduced pouring coffee, pizza, Pepto, and Chinese leftovers into a blender as a makeshift hangover cure – like a noir goblin.  Luckily, that approach means he still gets to land some of his standard action hero one-liners despite the oppressive gloominess of the setting, like in a scene where he tells Satan, “I want you to go to Hell,” and Satan shoots back, “You see, the problem is sometimes Hell goes to you.”  That’s some beautiful late-90s cheese, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

End of Days has a lot of problems.  Its 2-hour runtime is super bloated for a movie with so few ideas.  Its female lead, Robin Tunney, doesn’t have much to do besides wait around as a damsel in Satanic distress (and to vaguely resemble Brittany Murphy).  Worst yet, Kevin Pollak was brought in as sarcastic comic relief, as if the producers weren’t convinced Arnie wasn’t funny enough on his own (despite being, hands down, the funniest action lead of all time) and somehow thought Kevin Frickin Pollak was the solution to that non-problem.  Still, it feels like an essential artifact in both nü-metal & Y2k genre cinema, bridging the gap between two really dumb things I cared way too much about when I was 12 years old, with my all-time favorite action star at the helm (and sometimes on the cross).  It has an interesting production history too.  Both Sam Raimi & Guillermo del Toro turned down the chance to direct before it fell in the lap of anonymous workman Peter Hyams.  It was also written with Tom Cruise in mind to star, which would’ve changed the entire tone & meaning of the project.  It’s the kind of what-could’ve-been scenario that really fires up your imagination . . . until the conversation is dominated by the fact that Schwarzenegger is a bully who farted in the face of Miriam Margoles.  Oh well, at least he didn’t fart into an open flame, since flames & explosives were such a prominent aspect of its Satanic set decoration.  A lot more people could’ve been hurt.

-Brandon Ledet

The Living Skeleton (1968)

I once found half of a Criterion Collection boxset at a West Bank thrift store, and it felt like stumbling across gold on the sidewalk.  Two of the four titles in Criterion’s “When Horror Came to Shochiku” set were collecting dust on the shelves at Thrift City USA, where I’m used to finding Hangover sequels and Season 3 discs of The O.C.  Neither were the title I was most excited to watch from the Shochiku set, but it still felt like winning the schlock bin lottery. 

I had only heard of the “When Horror Came to Shochiku” collection thanks to an early episode of the We Love to Watch podcast, which covered the chaotic, “bug-nuts” sci-fi free-for-all Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell with the same adoration Sight & Sound contributors reserve for Vertigo & Citizen Kane.  Unfortunately, Goke was not on that thrift store shelf.  What I had in my hands were the two lesser-loved titles Genocide & The X from Outer Space, which proved to be just as wonderfully bizarre but not as well-regarded.  It wasn’t until I was invited as a guest on We Love To Watch’s current “Summer of Kaiju” series to discuss The X from Outer Space that I realized I had somehow stopped short of watching all four titles from “When Horror Came to Shochiku,” and I had missed the most prestigious of them all.

“When Horror Came to Shochiku” collects four horror films produced by the Japanese studio Shochiku in the late 1960s, when they were best known for producing melodramas by the likes of Kurosawa & Ozu.  The Living Skeleton is the only film of the batch that doesn’t feel like a market response to the supernatural disaster template established by Godzilla, so it’s the one that maybe hits closest to the studio’s usual tone.  It’s also the one that’s seemed to earn the most critical praise since the set was released a decade ago.  The Living Skeleton is a lot more subdued than the other three films on the set, telling an eerie, seaside ghost story in a literary whisper.  Personally, I was a lot more excited by the vivid, volatile pleasures of the rest of the set, but I’m generally a more enthusiastic audience for that wildly expressive end of genre filmmaking than the average online film nerd.  If you’re more likely to enjoy a respectful, traditional ghost story from a movie studio best suited for respectful, traditional melodramas, of course The Living Skeleton would be your favorite of the batch.

The X from Outer Space has the most adorably dorky monster in the kaiju canon.  Genocide & Goke have an unpredictable, chaotic approach to narrative that gets to the heart of the cultural heartbreak of post-War Japan.  The Living Skeleton is the only film in the set shot in black & white, which I think is an indicator of the more traditional, subdued version of horror it offers.  It’s a very typical ghost-revenge story, with violent rape & murder committed by pirates in the first scene avenged by the arrival of a ghost in the same seaside village years later.  Some of the black & white haunted house effects call back to the Poverty Row knockoffs of Universal’s “Famous Monsters” era, including toy bats bobbing on strings against a black background.  Others are morbidly gorgeous, including an underwater garden of skeletons anchored to the seafloor and a dreamworld burlesque show worthy of David Lynch.  It’s all well-crafted & effectively creepy, but none of it feels as memorably idiosyncratic as the other horror novelties made by Shochiku at the time – apparently to its benefit in the modern discourse.

If I’m only describing The Living Skeleton through its comparisons to the rest of the Shochiku boxset, it’s because I don’t have much to say about it any other context.  There’s an antique quality to its visual patina that puts the more recent seaside horror The Lighthouse to shame, but there’s not much about it that you can’t find elsewhere in traditionalist ghost stories of its kind.  Maybe I’m shallow for prioritizing novelty in this boxset of effects-heavy horror films, but novelty is exactly what makes the set so great as an overall group.  In a time when so many Japanese filmmakers were rushing to replicate the exact zeitgeist-torching formula that made Godzilla so immensely popular, Shochiku took that inspiration into some far-out, unpredictable directions.  With The Living Skeleton, they strayed the least far from their home turf, which makes its relative payoffs the most timid & contained.  It’s still a solidly eerie ghost story on its own terms, though, and there isn’t one stinker in the entire collection.

Ranking the Criterion “When Horror Came to Shochiku” box set, just for fun:

1. The X from Outer Space

2. Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell

3. Genocide

4. The Living Skeleton

-Brandon Ledet