Underwater (2020)

One warm night outside The Broad Theater in July of 2017, we were chatting with friends who happened to attend the same screening of the psychedelic gem Funeral Parade of Roses as us. When asked about what they’ve been up to lately, a buddy groaned that they were working on “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart” that was in production. For the longest time, I was struck by the dismissive tone of that complaint, as if they were currently working on Paul Blart: Mall Cop 3 instead of the coolest-sounding project to ever be greenlit. I immediately began salivating over the prospect of watching KStew square off against deep sea monstrosities in a schlocky creature feature, an excitement I’d have to hold onto for three years as the movie suffered a series of post-production delays. And now, having experienced the final product myself, I can look back to see that our buddy’s nonplussed attitude was probably the more appropriate level of enthusiasm. It turns out that the Kristen Stewart deep-sea monster movie is just okay, nothing to dork out about.

Like last year’s Captive State, Underwater feels like the exact kind of generic sci-fi schlock that usually goes straight to VOD streaming platforms but somehow instead broke free to wide theatrical release. Everything from its vague title, to the over-explanatory newspaper headlines that provide its opening-credits exposition (“REALLY BIG DRILL,” “DRILL REAL BIG”), to naming its corporate villain Titan Industries, feels like the bargain brand facsimile of a Real Movie. The only distinguishing factor at play that signals this is a proper Hollywood production is the presence of a few over-qualified actors. In the cases of Kristen Stewart & Vincent Cassel as the central heroic duo who wage war against invading sea monsters, the overambitious casting is a blessing that elevates the material. In the unfortunate case of human colostomy bag T.J. Miller, it’s a curse. It should be noted to all concerned that Underwater’s T.J. Miller problem is a major problem. His character’s comic “relief” is constant for the entire time that he remains alive (far too long) so that he never fades into the background enough for you to forget that you’re watching a movie that stars a known abuser. I will forever love KStew’s unshakable sense of detached cool, but it’s not enough to cover up the stench of Miller’s obnoxious presence here, no matter how gruesomely he dies when his time comes.

As with most deep-sea aquatic horrors, Underwater mostly functions the same as any post-Alien spaceship thriller. It just skips a lot of the usual atmospheric preamble to jump right into its monster action. We open in a corporate Hell-future where Stewart & crew are working at an oil facility that mines directly into the ocean floor with seemingly the world’s largest drill. This fracking experiment throws our heroes into immediate crisis before we even get to know their names. Stewart teases a pensive, jaded narration track as if we’re about to watch a calm mood piece, but her inner thoughts are immediately interrupted by the deep-sea facility being attacked from all sides by creatures unleashed from beneath the ocean floor. Using her elite hacking skills as a ship mechanic, Stewart navigates the crumbling facility by bypassing its failing computer systems to open & close jammed doors as she flees to safety. She picks up a small crew of survivors along the way (including the ship’s captain, played by Cassel) and scrambles to save as many lives as possible by trekking to a far-off bay of escape pods. This doomed mission includes walking outside of the facility across the ocean floor as the monsters swirl around them in the deep-sea darkness. Few survive.

All told, Underwater is a modestly serviceable, 3-star aquatic horror that’s only elevated by the casting of its leads, the last-minute escalation of its monster mayhem, and the novelty of giving its creatures the same fracking origin story that Monster Trucks gave Creech. Setting its crisis on the ocean floor was smart in a few ways, as the darkness allows for a few moments of surprise and conveniently hides its cheap-end CG effects. Unfortunately, it also makes the film resemble far too many deep sea & deep space creature features that precede it – ones that don’t star T.J. Miller. For the movie to truly distinguish itself in any significant way, it would’ve had to make some grand gesture to break free from its subgenre’s expectations: a found-footage framing device, a “one-shot” editing gimmick, a last-second tie-in to the Cloverfield franchise, something. Instead, its monsters just get bigger & more plentiful until it’s over, delivering exactly what you’d expect from “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart.” I thought that novelty would be more than enough to swoon over, but it turns out it’s just enough to pass the time. It’s fine.

-Brandon Ledet

Mildred Pierce (1945)

After the William Castle psychobiddy Strait-Jacket, Mildred Piece is the second five-star, all-timer Joan Crawford film I fell in love with last year that starts with a violent murder. Unlike the late-career hagsploitation camp fest where Crawford maniacally wields an axe, however, Mildred Pierce is a much classier affair. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1946—including Best Picture—and won Ms. Crawford her own first Oscar statue for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Even its opening murder is much classier: an elegantly staged shooting with a revolver at an upscale beach house, adorned with impossibly tall ceilings & drastic noir lighting. Still, even with all the Old Hollywood elegance classing up the joint, Mildred Pierce manages to land some perfectly outrageous fits of drama & dialogue that outshine even the over-the-top fervor of her post-Baby Jane psychobiddies. That combination of the refined & the obscene is exactly what makes it such a joy – an exquisite clash of violence & melodrama.

Crawford stars as the titular Mildred Piece (duh), a wealthy woman being interrogated by the police for the murder of her husband – a crime to which her ex-husband has already confessed. We cut from this noir frame story to Mildred’s past as a proto-June Cleaver housewife, dutifully keeping house & selling home-baked pies on the side to keep her family’s finances afloat. As to be expected, all the men in Mildred’s life are scoundrels & jerks: the adulterous first husband who leaves her for another woman, the family “friend” who constantly tries to talk her into bed, the new husband who exploits her go-getter work ethic for frivolities & play money, etc. What really distinguishes this melodrama, however, is that none of these selfish brutes emerge as the movie’s central villain. That dishonor belongs to a young girl, Mildred’s own brat of a daughter. The movie (and its source material novel) could have totally still been worthwhile if it had chosen any one of Mildred’s beaus to stand out as her ultimate nemesis; it can never be reinforced enough that men are awful. Opting to pit Mildred against her own daughter instead makes for a much more distinct, idiosyncratic experience, however, a memorably outrageous source of conflict.

Veda Pierce (played with expert icy cruelty by a young Anne Blythe) rivals The Bad Seed‘s Rhoda Penmark as cinema’s greatest brat. Imagine a child so spoiled that their self-serving greed has its own body count. While Mildred claws her way up from neighborhood pie saleswoman to diner waitress to Lady Boss restauranteur, her efforts are entirely focused on raising her kids above her financial means. Still, Veda’s wealth envy knows no bounds. Like the murderous fop of Kind Hearts & Coronets, she’s bitter that she wasn’t born into the immense inherited wealth of royalty, and she’s ruthless in manipulating her way to achieving as close to that ideal as possible – often at the expense of her mother’s labor & health. The resulting clashes between Mildred & Veda are some of the most outrageously violent battles to ever reach the screen, even though instead of bullets & punches they trade cruel insults like “common frump,” “It’s your fault I’m the way I am,” and complaints about the stench of fried chicken grease. It’s just as much an Oscars-caliber showcase as it is soaringly over-the-top melodrama – a pure pleasure to behold.

There are plenty of other, smaller pleasures to soak in throughout Mildred Pierce: the comic relief of Mildred’s coded-lesbian business partner; the German Expressionist maximalism of the noir set pieces’ lighting & production design; Mildred’s costuming’s transformation from housewife drag to a pile of jewels & furs, etc. Yet, the main draw of the film is clearly the outrageous conflict of its central mother-daughter rivalry. The movie touches on themes of class envy & financial desperation, but at its core it’s just as much a horror film about mothering a seemingly evil child you don’t even like as recent titles like Goodnight Mommy, The Babadook, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. If Mildred were entirely focused on the bullying & exploitation of the various shithead men in her life or if the murder mystery investigation were the sole source of intrigue, this would still be a solid Old Hollywood relic (even if a pedestrian one). By focusing on a viciously cruel mother-daughter rivalry instead, it stands out as one of the all-time greats, yet another masterwork from Ms. Crawford’s immense catalog of troubled, fierce women butting heads with their equally ambitious nemeses.

-Brandon Ledet

Upstream Color (2013)

Shane Carruth’s mind control sci-fi whatsit Upstream Color was my favorite film I saw in a movie theater in 2013, back when I used to only make it out to the megaplex a few times a year (as opposed to a few times a month). In an effort to encourage other people to experience the film in a proper theatrical environment, I posted the following cringe-inducing paragraph on Facebook, which I am transcribing verbatim here as a vicious self-own: “playing one last time tuesday (tomorrow) night at the chalmette movies, 7:30pm; this movie is terrifying. truly horrific. if you are irritated by expressionistic directors like miranda july, harmony korine & whoever made ‘we need to talk about kevin’ you should skip out on this one; if you find those ppl/movies exciting and you like to be scared/confused/nervous go see it.” Woof. I like to think that my writing skills and frames of reference have both expanded greatly since starting this film blog in 2015 (please don’t report that you feel otherwise) and I’ve just revisited Upstream Color for the first time since that theatrical release, so I’d like to take a second crack at praising its merits here. Maybe I can even pull it off without insulting the great Lynne Ramsay this time. We’ll see.

While my initial “review” of the film was essentially the online equivalent of shitting my pants in public, I do maintain that a few key adjectives in that paragraph genuinely apply to Upstream Color – mainly “terrifying,” “expressionistic,” and “confused.” Shane Carruth still only has two feature films to his name but has earned great notoriety in film nerd circles for executing astonishingly complex sci-fi ideas on meager micro-budgets. His debut feature (2004’s Primer) was notoriously scraped together with a mere $7,000 behind it and yet has inspired entire websites dedicated to parsing out the A-B story of its complex time travel narrative. Although Upstream Color operated with a relatively massive $50,000 budget (still chump change even in indie filmmaking terms), it’s somehow even more stubborn in accommodating its audience narratively, especially since it opts for a sci-fi subgenre much less culturally familiar than time travel: mind control. Over time, Upstream Color sketches out in both macro & microscopic terms the life cycle of a mysterious parasite that, when ingested, leaves its hosts vulnerably suggestible (and inexplicably, inextricably connected to anyone else infected). It’s a closed loop of human connection and subhuman exploitation that makes for a legendarily weird trip for as long as you allow yourself to remain under its spell. It’s just also an uninviting one that doesn’t reveal its true shape until you’ve made it all the way through the loop yourself. And even then, you’re bound to walk away with more questions than explanations.

While their relationship to each other is deliberately obscured from scene to scene, the individual players of this sordid tale are at least distinct & well defined. We open with a nameless thief who harvests a mysterious blue chemical from orchids that he then injects into grubs and force-feeds to unsuspecting victims. This starts as a story of severe & total exploitation, with seemingly the one player with a full grasp on what these parasites can do abusing their mind-control properties for cheap financial gain. We then shift to his victims’ post-trauma haze as they try to piece together exactly what happened to them and why they feel subconsciously connected to each other. Also in play are a pig farmer, his cattle, and nearby orchid salesmen who unknowingly complete the life cycle of this phenomenal parasitic grub – each to their own selfish gain. The bulk of the story’s pathos is rooted in the search for connection & meaning among the traumatized victims of the parasite’s harvester, but making sense of exactly what they’re going through from minute to minute requires a complete understanding of how all these disparate players are connected – something you don’t fully acquire until you follow the entire life cycle to completion. Until then, the film plays like a half-remembered nightmare, with the logical reasoning of what’s happening in the moment making just enough sense to carry you through to the next disorienting crisis.

If any of the directors’ work I foolishly compared Upstream Color to in my initial “review” stands, it’s the only one I didn’t cite by name. If you’re being generous, I suppose there’s a stubborn obfuscation the film shares with Korine and its everyone-is-connected plot structure could be seen as a sci-fi mutation of July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. I don’t deserve that generosity, though. The Lynne Ramsay comparison is at least slightly interesting in retrospect, though, in that Upstream Color‘s greatest feat is surely in its editing (a task Carruth took on himself in addition to writing, directing, producing, scoring, shooting, and starring in the film as its over-achieving auteur). Upstream Color & We Need to Talk About Kevin are connected in that they’re clearly the most impressively edited films of the decade, considering how they communicate complex, internal narratives through a jumble of disjointed imagery and yet their basic outlines are crystal clear if you afforded them your full attention from start to finish. Either film would be doomed to confuse anyone who allows them to compete with a smartphone or tablet at home, as every image onscreen in an essential context clue as to what’s being communicated at large. An occasional special effect or microscopic science lab footage insert will help Upstream Color overcome its limited financial means, but its true spectacle is its editing room alchemy – a purposefully disorienting, alienating terror. In that way (and in that way only) it’s outright Ramsayesque.

Given Upstream Color‘s stubbornness to provide upfront explanations for what its isolated images, characters, and even sounds signify in the larger picture, it’s the kind of film that demands your full attention from start to end, completing its closed loop for yourself. As hard as I cringe over the word choice of my seven-years-stale plea that more people experience it in a proper theater, I can at least stand by the sentiment that full, undistracted immersion in that environment was its best shot of wholly winning over an audience. The best you can do to recreate that experience now is locking your smartphone away in another room and burying your ears in some high-end headphones. Hopefully this better-elaborated reasoning on why this film is worth that effort will convince someone new to experience this low-budget, high-ambition sci-fi chiller for themselves. Either way, I should probably cut myself some slack for my shortcomings in singing its praises – both now and in 2013. It’s an exceedingly difficult film to describe to anyone who hasn’t already fallen under its spell themselves. However, I do feel an eerie, soul-deep connection to those who’ve been a defender of it as one of the decade’s great works, as it could have easily been one of the many great 2010s indies to slip into total obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

Little Women (2019)

I have never experienced the apparently widespread phenomenon of being in a theater full of people who applaud the end of a film (at least not in a regularly scheduled film, as it has been known to happen at Weird Wednesdays and Terror Tuesdays, or when the director is in attendance), but I got my first taste of this peculiarity yesterday when Little Women concluded. Perhaps it is because I rarely find myself viewing a period piece at 1:15 on a Saturday afternoon and thus am almost never the youngest person in an auditorium by 30 years. I did expect that this might be the case, and I’ve certainly been in my fair share of screenings in which someone fell asleep, but this was definitely the first time I could hear someone snoring during the trailers (the same poor soul likewise dozed off again about an hour in, judging by the identical sounds). This is not indicative of the quality of Greta Gerwig’s latest, however; this movie is fantastic.

It’s the Reconstruction era. Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) has just sold a piece of writing to a newspaper in New York for $20, the same going rate as freelancers get in 2020, 150 years later, just in case there are any Boomers reading this and wondering why their grandchildren are so frustrated all the time. Elder sister Meg (Emma Watson) has married “a penniless tutor” and had twins, youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) learning painting and hoping to be courted by a man wealthy enough to support her and her family, including “indigent parents” Marmee (Laura Dern) and Father (Bob Odenkirk) March later in life. Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who many years earlier caught Scarlet Fever from a poor family that the Marches look after, is largely too weak to leave her bed after developing a weak heart as a result. Seven years earlier, Father March was working as a volunteer for the Union Army while Marmee tried to keep the family together, all four girls as vivacious and full of life as one small band of people could be, full of dreams. When the misunderstood lonesome older neighbor Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) takes his orphaned nephew “Laurie” (Timothée Chalamet, or Timmy Chalchal as we call him around these parts) into his home, he becomes close friends with all of the girls, inspiring an unrequited love deep within the young Amy while only having eyes for the independent Jo. Back in the “present” (seven years later), Jo makes her way home to Concord upon learning that Beth’s condition has taken a turn for the worse, while Laurie and Amy reunite in Paris as the latter begins to believe that her artistic talent is workmanlike and passionless in comparison to the pursuits and interests of her sisters.

This is a beautiful film, a timeless piece of literature made fresh once more with a cast overbrimming with talent (minus one odd casting choice, which I’ll get to momentarily) and filmed with an eye for chromatic storytelling and such beautiful Northeast scenery that when I tell you I was there, I was there. This is also such a talented cast that they breathe a new life into characters that, in the original text and in previous film incarnations, were at times sullen, unlikable, or intolerable. Aunt March in particular comes across quite well in this outing, with Streep infusing the role, one of a harsh spinster who condescends and proclaims a hardline fusion of morality and manners at her nieces (especially the recalcitrant Jo), with a mild comic edge that humanizes her. Her appearances are rare, but gone is the feeling of dread that her appearance could summon when reading the original novel, or in other adaptations. And it’s not the same old Miranda Priestly, either, but a new casual cruelty tempered by kindness.

Likewise, Pugh infuses Amy with a likability that can be absent in other versions, relying solely on the charisma of the actor to take the shallow, bratty, narcissistic monster who (spoiler alert for a novel that’s older than radio) in a particularly petulant moment burns her sister’s long-labored upon novel out of spite for not getting to go to the theater. That still happens in this version, and it is still treated as unforgivable, but Pugh’s elevated performance lends Amy’s childhood frivolity a lightness: when Jo cuts her hair in order to obtain money for Mother March to go the DC hospital where her husband is being treated, Pugh’s delivery of “Your one beauty!” is hilarious. Likewise, the recurring element of Amy being proud of her diminutive feet (“the best in the family”) is delightful, appearing first on the evening that she first meets Laurie as she proclaims that she would never twist her ankle while dancing as Meg had, and later when she decides to make him a plaster mold of said dainty feet so as to prevent Laurie from forgetting about them. Even her marriage, which for fifteen decades has been near universally read as the ultimate culmination of her childhood model of femininity, is presented here as the result of an awareness of the necessity of sacrifice as much as it is an unearned reward for her behavior. “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life,” Jo says at one point, and while she’s right, there comes a time when youngest March girl woman steps up and takes responsibility where her sisters can’t or won’t.

Of course, Jo is the star, and Ronan plays her with aplomb, but the internet will soon be full of gushing pieces that are better written than mine about her newest star turn. The only truly miscast part here is Odenkirk as Father March. I may be dating myself here, but the equation “Bob Odenkirk + period piece + sideburns” will always have the sum “A new Mr. Show sketch is starting!” to me, and there’s no way around that. When Father March comes back from DC after his recovery, there’s no way that your first thought isn’t that we’re about to hear about megaphone crooner Dickie Crickets or The Story of the Story of Everest (which you either love or hate). It’s not enough to bring the movie to a halt, but if you start laughing, you may get accusing stares from the elderly.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Uncut Gems (2019)

The Safdie Brothers’ breakout film Good Time was a knockout sucker punch that benefited greatly from its total surprise as a grimy novelty. Robert Pattinson’s starring role as an irredeemable scumbag who systematically burns every social bridge he’s crossed in NYC to achieve petty, self-serving goals was the final severed tether to the actor’s previous life as a vampiric teenage heartthrob. The synth assault soundtrack from Oneohtrix Point Never pinned the audience to the back of our seats like an overachieving Gravitron. It sets out to disgust, rattle, and discomfort for every minute of its small-minded heist plot and it succeeds wholesale. At first it appears that the Safdies’ follow-up, Uncut Gems, aims to repeat that very same experience – bringing back OPN for another oppressive score, revisiting the grimy underbelly of NYC, and swapping out RPatz for another against-type actor who’s far more talented than the roles he’s best remembered for implies. The nature of this particular lead actor’s screen presence changes the texture of the film entirely, though, subtly redirecting the same basic parts of Good Time towards an entirely new purpose.

Adam Sandler stars in Uncut Gems as a diamond jeweler and gambling addict who’s willing to melt down his entire life for the chance of orchestrating the ultimate score. He shuffles borrowed money around from sports bet to sports bet, caters to a wealthy black clientele of rappers and athletes who are lightyears outside his expected social orbit, and obsessively nurtures the sale of an uncut Ethiopian gemstone that appears to have magical, cosmic powers (but isn’t worth nearly as much as he self-appraises it to be). Like RPatz in Good Time, he runs around NYC making petty, self-serving chess moves to seal this ultimate score until everyone in the world is pissed off at him: his wife, his mistress, his bookie, the various mobsters that he owes money, Kevin Garnett, The Weekend, everyone. Unlike RPatz, he responds to this exponentially growing list of enemies by shouting with the same apoplectic rage that defined Sandler’s comedic roles in 90s cult classics like Billy Madison & Happy Gilmore. Whereas Good Time is all clenched jaws & gnawed fingernails from start to finish, Uncut Gems distinguishes itself by being consistently, disturbingly funny – thanks to Sandler’s willingness to redirect his usual schtick towards the grotesque.

While Uncut Gems didn’t have me quite as enraptured or rattled as the surprise blunt force of Good Time did, I’m in awe of how it revises that throat-hold thriller’s template into a darkly comedic farce without losing any of its feel-bad exploitation discomforts. Sandler’s unscrupulous gambler/jeweler shamelessly benefits from the exploitation of diamond miners in far-off foreign countries and employees just under his nose, and the movie never lets him off the hook for these sins. Watching the walls close in on him as he makes crooked deals across town is weirdly, uncomfortably fun, though, if not only through the ludicrous caricature of Sandler’s performance. The Safdies amplify the humor of this grimy feel-bad comedy with throwaway gags about cosmic colonoscopies & bejeweled Furbies and, in a larger sense, by bringing all its disparate elements to a frenetic climax in a classic farcical structure. Still, the responsibility of changing the film’s basic flavor enough to distinguish it from Good Time falls entirely on Sandler’s shoulders. It’s a bet that pays off, as he’s capable enough to make the audience laugh while simultaneously making us feel like shit. Repeating that bet for a third revision of Good Time‘s template would be ill-advised, though. Hopefully, the Safdies will realize it’s time to walk away from the table while they’re still up and find a new angle for their next project.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

I saw a Star War! And it was fine. Not great, but pretty good.

I loved The Force Awakens. From the moment that first trailer dropped, a chill went through my body; I’ve always been more of a Trek boy, but Star Wars has a special place in my heart, too. With that trailer way back in the innocent days of 2015, I felt like I was eight years old again, seeing something that resonated with me in a special way as if it were the first time. And the film itself didn’t disappoint! Then along came The Last Jedi, which was … fine. The discourse surrounding TLJ in the past two years has been exhausting, with a lot of hatred leveled at director Rian Johnson, containing a level of vitriol that should rightfully be reserved for—and aimed at—some of the real monsters currently haunting the venerated halls of our government. For me, I usually tend to forget about the elements of a work that I find boring and instead focus on the things that entertain me, but with TLJ, I don’t remember much about what I liked. In my mind, the whole pointless, infuriating side story about Finn and Rose going to the stupid casino planet seems to take up the entirety of the film’s run time in my recollection. I got into my general issues with the way slavery in the Star Wars universe is presented and my hatred of the stupid chihuahua horse escape sequence from TLJ in my Solo review, so I won’t beg your patience by revisiting it here, but suffice it to say that I’m not terribly invested in the fate of a bunch of CGI creatures when the end of the film shows that there are still enslaved children cleaning those stables. I hate that the body politic of the internet bullied Kelly Marie Tran until she basically quit social media because that’s idiotic on the part of her bullies (not to mention cruel); you have to be a child or an idiot to blame an actor for the poor choices that their character makes, but holy shit, Rose (as written) really was a horrible addition to this franchise. She didn’t have to be, but Christ almighty did that entire subplot drag the movie down.

But this isn’t a review of The Last Jedi; it’s a review of The Rise of Skywalker. When we last left our heroes, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were dead, and Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford were alive. Leia was alive, but Carrie Fisher has, sadly, passed. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (Jon Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) were reunited with Chewie, R2-D2, and C3PO aboard the Millennium Falcon and lived to fight another day. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was throwing a tantrum about not being able to kill his uncle Luke and live up to the legacy of grandfather Darth Vader, and General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) was pretty tired of his shit. Caught up? Well, unlike TLJ, this movie doesn’t pick up right where the last installment left off; instead, we’ve catapulted some period of time into the future. Finn and Poe are off on one of those generic “gathering intelligence” missions, Rey is getting some Jedi training finally (from Leia), and Kylo Ren is micromanaging the shit out of the First Order, flying all over the place and singlehandedly attempting to wipe out any and all threats to his new position as Supreme Leader. And that’s all from the opening crawl!

Do you remember whenever Batman, as played by Adam West, would feed a bunch of information into his Batcomputer and then come to an utterly incoherent conclusion that was inexplicably correct, despite the fact that it shouldn’t have been? Half of the plot points in this film feel that way. You’ll spend the first half of this movie wanting to talk back to the screen, asking characters how they “know” that they have to go to this planet or that moon. One plot coupon leads to the next at a breakneck speed, and there’s no time for any revelations or new pieces of information to breathe before we’re off to get the next one. Some of this works, and there’s some real Indiana Jones stuff that happens with a dagger that turns out to be a compass, but even getting to the place where the dagger is found (almost by accident) takes up an inordinate amount of screen time. Information and vistas come at you so quickly that you barely have time to get your bearings before jumping to hyperspace.

Even at that pace, there’s still far too much that happens offscreen, or relies on the audience to grant meaning to information that hasn’t been pre-established. The best comparison I can make is to the later Harry Potter sequels. As someone who was just a tad bit too old for the books when they came out, I’m really only familiar with the first two of those novels from reading them as part of a college course for people who might one day teach young adult literature. The movies were fun, though, and I enjoyed them, up until around The Half-Blood Prince, where they started too become incomprehensible if you didn’t have knowledge that came from the book series alone; from what I understand from conversations with friends who read J.K. Rowling’s books and Dominic Noble’s “Lost in Adaptation” YouTube series, later films adapted plot points from the novels on which they were based, but which followed up on plot elements which had been dropped from the previous film adaptations of the source material. A notable example is that, when I finally saw The Deathly Hallows in grad school, there’s a moment where Ron has some kind of accident while apparating, and Hermione screams that he’s “splinched.” As someone who had only seen the films, I had no reference point for what that could possibly mean. There’s a lot that happens here in Rise of Skywalker that feels much the same, except that there’s not even a source material from which this is taken that might give more insight, and the film wallpapers over these narrative leaps by moving so fast that (hopefully) you won’t notice it.

I’m going to get into minor spoilers here, so skip to the last paragraph if that’s not your bag. I’m not really a fan of the term “retcon” when talking about media franchises because of the overwhelmingly negative connotations that surround that term, both within the fandom and from the outside looking in. Retcons aren’t always bad; my personal favorite comic book character, Jessica Jones, only exists because Brian Michael Bendis wasn’t allowed to use Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) in his proposed noir private eye comic and had to invent a new character out of whole cloth, then retroactively slotted her into previously established Marvel Comics continuity. Even questionable retcons, like Star Trek: Discovery‘s insertion of a human foster sister into Spock’s backstory, have their fans (I don’t hate it). But there are things that happen in Rise of Skywalker that push the limits of what a narrative can expect its audience to go along with. The fact that Palpatine is still alive (or perhaps undead), despite the previous two films in this new trilogy even hinting that this might be the case, is a big one. That’s barely a spoiler, considering that this is literally the first thing that the audience learns in the opening crawl: “THE DEAD SPEAK!” is the text that immediately following the film’s title. The fact that Rey is, in fact, related to a previously established character despite Ren’s assertions to the contrary in the last film isn’t really a big deal in comparison to this horseshit. The fact that a major character that last appeared onscreen over a decade ago is actually not (quite) dead isn’t something that you establish offscreen. That’s just bad storytelling.

But even that doesn’t bother me as much as the moment where Rey is presented with a special gift: Leia’s lightsaber. It’s a moment that’s treated with such reverence that, as a viewer, you understand that you’re supposed to be awed by it, and by gum, I really wanted to be. I wanted to feel thrilled again; I wanted to feel the rush of childlike delight, but instead I felt the all-too-familiar sting of adulthood, the realization that you can’t go home again, a hollow dissatisfaction with the artifice that was constructed to play upon your nostalgia. It was like the first time that you realized that chocolate Easter bunnies are empty inside, and that now a little part of you will be, too, forever. There’s nothing magical about learning that Leia had a lightsaber, or even that she trained as a Jedi with Luke (who really wasn’t super qualified for that, all things considered, which would have been a much more interesting arc for him in these films). It’s just more bad retconning that, if you read the expanded universe novels and comics, may mean something to you, but which is lost on the rest of us.

Look, Rise of Skywalker is good. It’s not great like The Force Awakens or passable like The Last Jedi, but it’s also not that spectacular either. It doesn’t take the chances that TLJ took, and I was glad that the return of JJ Abrams meant that we went back to mostly practical FX for the aliens (those stupid chihuahua horses from TLJ will haunt me to my goddamned grave) even if the resultant film felt like he was trying to railroad the ending back to his original concepts after not liking how another director played with his toys. On the one hand, I wish the whole thing had ended with TFA so that we could just imagine our own endings, but on the other hand, no one’s stopping you from doing that anyway.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Luz (2019)

In the mad dash to gobble down as many potential Best of the Year List contenders as possible before we start making ranking our personal favorites films of 2019, only one last-minute title has jumped out at me as a worthy dark horse entry. The bewildering thing is that it’s a student film, the thesis project of first-time director Tilman Singer. A 70min genre exercise with a small cast and just a few sparse locations, Luz is maybe the most unassuming indie gem from 2019 to achieve such a sublime must-see cinematic effect. Its ability to hypnotize & disorient an audience into a state of total delirium in just an hour’s time is a commendable act of cinematic black magic, an effect unmatched by any other last-minute 2019 catch-ups I’ve flooded my brain with in recent weeks.

This barebones genre gem is a story of demonic possession. A visibly shaken, scraped-up cab driver is held for questioning at what appears to be a late-1970s police station. Apparently driven mad by an encounter with her last customer, the cabbie is subjected to hypnotism at the hands of a creepy doctor under the cops’ employ for further interrogation. Unbeknownst to anyone in the room, the doctor is possessed by a demon who is obsessed with our dazed cabbie, waiting for its most opportune moment to strike. We cut between the interrogation, the ill-fated cab ride, the dive bar where the doctor became possessed, and the Catholic school where the cabbie first encountered the demon in a disorienting kaleidoscope of narratives that only becomes creepier the more they shift & overlap.

On an aesthetic level, Luz is a thoroughly pleasant genre throwback indulgence in all the ways you’d expect: grimy celluloid grain, analog synth score, candlelit Satanic rituals, the full works. There are plenty of other movies that can deliver that exact brand of Euro-horror genre nostalgia, though. What really stands out here to me is the narrative ambitions that disorient time & place with an aggressive, deranged fervor. As the story’s various competing fractions combine into one sharp-edged mosaic, the film achieves a deranged, sweaty, deliriously horny nightmare that all demonic possession media strives for, but few titles ever achieve. The closest comparison point I have for its accomplishments are the supernatural horrors of giallo greats like Argento & Bava in titles like Suspiria & Kill Baby Kill. That’s an impressive echelon for a film school thesis project to sneak into, which alone makes Luz stand out as one of the year’s most unexpected treasures.

-Brandon Ledet

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The icy 1940s murder comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the funniest pieces of comedic writing to ever reach the screen. It just also happens to be one of the driest pieces of comedic writing to ever reach the screen, going down like a tall glass of cold sand. The closest the film comes to approaching the over-the-top slapstick antics we’ve come to expect from comedic filmmaking as a medium is a proto-Klumps gimmick in which British stage legend Alec Guinness plays several broad archetype characters of the same family throughout the film – a vaudevillian artform that later made a mint for actors like Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry, and (maybe closer to Guinness’s pedigree) Peter Sellers. Everything else is emotionally distant cruelty and callous bitchiness penned by a serial killer mutation of Oscar Wilde. That’s not a comedic tone that’s going to resonate with every viewer, but when it hits the right target it kills.

Dennis Price stars as the callous son of a disgraced noblewoman in the early 1900s. Bitter that he was raised in poverty because his mother married for love instead of land & title, our fey anti-hero schemes to reclaim his rightful place among landed wealthy gentry. He expedites his path back to this birthright like Jet Li in the nü-metal sci-fi thriller The One: murdering everyone ahead of him in line for his familial inheritance of a proper title. The humor of this selfish, greedy mission is in how these absurdly genteel murders are arranged to look like accidents, while our POV serial killer protagonist treats the deaths like domestic chores. The way he looks for “good” news in the Obituaries section of the paper and treats a diagram of his family tree like a hit list is outrageously cold & distanced. This is the kind of movie where the announcement of a murder investigation is described by the police as “a matter of some delicacy.” It’s also narrated as an after-the-fact epistolary memoir, underlining just how much of the humor is rooted in its post-Wilde writing style.

Alec Guinness does make an impression as the killer’s rotating cast of dipshit wealthy family members, whom the audience perversely want to see dead as well. His most popular collaboration with producer Michael Balcon—The Ladykillers—is a much more traditionally humorous farce, however, where his performance(s) is allowed to be more memorably pronounced. If anything, Guinness’s multiple personae in the doomed family line here only underline the multiple personae Price’s sociopathic killer tries on to gain access to the wealthy spaces his victims occupy. Guinness’s wealthy dolts don’t even turn out to be the killer’s ultimate nemesis; that honor belongs to a childhood “love” who shares his ruthless pursuit of money (just with shrewd choices in marriage partners, not murder).

Maybe the key to loving this movie’s frozen, impossibly dry heart lies in sharing that central vice of money envy – so that you get a perverse thrill from watching a working class fop murder his way into a more . . . comfortable living. More likely, it probably just takes an appreciation for the flippantly cruel way that thirst for wealth is written on the page, as that’s where Kind Hearts and Coronets‘s most exquisite artistry & outrageously funny zingers lie.

-Brandon Ledet

Slut in a Good Way (2019)

Christmas may be my least favorite holiday on the calendar, so I’m usually not one to dwell on Christmas movies as a genre. If I’m going to actively seek out a Christmas film to cover for this site, then, it will typically be one that overlaps with a genre I do especially enjoy. This novelty usually comes by way of Christmastime horror deviations like Rare Exports, Black Christmas, Krampus, or The Children. This year, the French-Canadian indie Slut in a Good Way offered me a much rarer treat as a Christmastime genre crossover, overlapping with a genre much less familiar with the holiday than horror: the teen sex comedy. In the recent tradition of high school sex romps like Booksmart, The To Do List, Blockers, and Wetlands, this low-budget gem attempts to subvert the raunchy teen sex comedy format by updating it with a femme perspective & a newfound sense of earnestness. It just happens to do so while wearing a Santa hat, which automatically makes it my favorite Christmas movie of the year.

Three 17-year-old high school friends take seasonal department store jobs at The Toy Depot to meet cute boys. One refuses to sacrifice her political ideology in order to be more attractive; one struggles to lose her virginity to the exact Mr. Right; and the third (our de facto protagonist) emerges as the staff’s foremost slut – “in a good way!”. Rebounding from a long-term romance that ends before our story begins, she discovers a newfound sexual confidence that encourages her to sleep with every one of her cute-boy coworkers. Mortified that she’s the last person to realize that she’s banged the entire Toy Depot roster, she ropes the other girls into a Lysistrata sex pact: no boinking until Christmas, to teach the boys a lesson. There’s a very old-fashioned Boys vs. Girls gender divide in that set-up, especially once you realize no one on the all-teen staff is gay, or even bi (in 2019??? no fucking way). For the most part, though, this low-stakes sex farce feels remarkably true to some version of a lived teenage experience; an early sequence involving a water bottle bong & public playground equipment felt true to my own at least. Its setting over Winter Break instead of Summer affords it a distinctly Canadian sensibility too, a specificity I appreciated all the way from the boiling swamps of Louisiana.

As much as Slut in a Good Way participates in teen sex comedy & Christmastime romance traditions, the film I would most readily compare it to falls in neither category: Ghost World. There’s something about its teenage melancholy & frustrated search for identity that feels directly rooted in that film (which meant a lot to me in high school). Little aesthetic touches like a D.I.Y. Bollywood ending & a leather-fetish cat mask make me suspect that association was intentional. If nothing else, the film asks to be taken seriously as a wistful indie drama on top of being a mildly naughty teen sex comedy. Its digital black-and-white patina & French-language dialogue allow it to function as the pretentious French smut counterpart to Booksmart (or French-Canadian smut, to be more accurate) while being just as tonally light & playful in its own moment-to-moment gags. That’s the exact kind of genre familiarity I’ll always be on the hook for, regardless of my aversion to Christmas cheer. I’m not going to pretend I prefer this film’s Yuletide sex antics to Christmas horror novelties, but if I’m going to occasionally stumble into watching a film centered on this (incredibly stressful) holiday, it’s nice to find some variety where I can.

-Brandon Ledet

Diamantino (2019)

In the opening sequence of Diamantino, our bimbo antihero achieves a euphoric state of internal bliss while doing the one thing he’s good for: playing soccer. With all the world’s eyes on his every move, the greatest living footballer dissociates from his game-winning drive by mentally escaping to his Happy Place. Glittery pink storm clouds flood the screen, accompanied by stadium-scale puppies galloping along with our titular galoot as he scores the goal of a lifetime. There are two ways to achieve that kind of internal peace & total calm: years of practiced meditation, or starting off already empty-headed. The beautiful sweet idiot Diamantino falls firmly in that latter category, and the tragedy of the film is him losing that transcendent state of blissful ignorance (a natural gift he refers to as “The Fluffy Puppies”) as soon as he gains just a little knowledge of how awful the world truly is.

In that way, Diamantino is like a hotter, more chiseled version of Chauncey Gardner, the Peter Sellers character from Being There. Sexy enough to know he can get away with living an exclusively shirtless life but so intellectually sheltered from the real world he doesn’t realize how bizarre it is that he’s an adult virgin, this Zoolander-level underwear model of a man is too naïve to be real. And so, he functions mostly as a political allegory. While yachting with his overly controlling family who leach off his wealth, Diamantino discovers the existence of political refugees – spotting a raft of starving, petrified victims of war drifting towards the Portuguese coast. This revelation that the displacement of refugees and general human suffering are real-life social ills completely blows his feeble mind, which was previously only occupied by a narcissistic self-obsession and an ability to play soccer real good. The fluffy puppies disappear and Diamantino loses his sexy footballer mojo, making the only possible triumph of the film a path back to blissful ignorance.

Once exposed to the existence of human suffering & political turmoil, Diamantino falls down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theory intrigue, allowing the movie to take wild, unsubtle jabs at the disasters of MAGA & Brexit culture in particular. As soccer is described to be the true “opium of the masses,” disparate groups like the Portuguese Secret Service, The Ministry of Propaganda, and the James Bond-style corporate entity Lamborghini Genetics all conspire to exploit Diamantino’s celebrity for their own political gain. Meanwhile, the beefy oaf just wants to make himself feel better about the refugee crisis so he can frolic in the pink clouds of his own empty head with the Fluffy Puppies again. It’s a delightfully absurd political farce, bolstered by surreally cheap CGI and a peculiar sense of humor that alternates between wholesomeness & cruelty at a breakneck pace. The whole thing just winds up feeling like a fantasy movie adaptation of this meme (which I swear I mean as a compliment):

-Brandon Ledet