The World is Full of Secrets (2019)

I often hear cinephile intellectuals on podcasts like Film Comment & The Important Cinema Club evangelize for the merits of #slowcinema, which is typified by long, lingering shots where little to nothing happens onscreen for minutes on end. I don’t know that I’ve ever fully bought their galaxy-brain explanations of how the medium artfully explores the textures of boredom or how the absence of action makes even the tiniest of movement or change mean everything. At least, I haven’t yet reached the point in my amateur cinephilia where I’m actively seeking out these experiments in artful boredom myself. However, this critical exaltation of #slowcinema was very much on my mind throughout the recent New Orleans Film Fest screening of The World is Full of Secrets, despite the film being too dialogue-heavy & eventful to fully qualify for the distinction. This is very much a writer’s movie, composed largely of single-take performances of monologues in intense close-up, deliberately boring its audience and luring us into a trance so that any minor action or change onscreen feels vitally significant. I genuinely can’t believe how much it worked for me as pop entertainment.

Set during a slumber party in 1996 suburbia, The World is Full of Secrets is structured like a horror anthology wherein teen girls take turns answering the prompt “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard?” They encourage each other to be as disgusting, terrifying, and brutal as possible. The stories they tell are almost universally about young women who’ve been cruelly battered & torn down by a society that’s been misogynist since the dawn of time. Meanwhile, an offscreen narrator warns that the night will conclude with an act of violence in that very house. This clash between innocence & violence and this eerie undermining of the assumed invincibility of privileged, suburban life aren’t especially novel in a thematic sense, but the way they’re couched in lengthy, meandering monologues instead of proper anthology vignettes feels like a major stylistic gamble (as well as a blatant budgetary choice). The film plays like Are You Afraid of the Dark? reimagined as a traumatizing stage play or audio book – with long takes of sub-professional teen actors struggling to conquer unnecessarily complex monologues. What’s amazing about this set-up is that the film not only finds room to establish a genuinely creepy mood, but it’s often prankishly hilarious and light on its feet despite its potential for academic pretention.

There’s a wry sense of humor on display throughout this chatty horror anthology. It opens with an old-fashioned intro to a 1950s sci-fi horror, as if it were hosted by an Elvira-type TV ghoul. An elderly narrator voice then cuts through to intone “It was the summer of 1996 . . .” as if that date were a hundred years in the past (or maybe this film is a dispatch from a #slowcinema future?). What I loved most, though, is that the film openly acknowledges in its dialogue when it’s boring us, as its lengthy stories of misogynist violence take the non-linear, detail-distracted paths of teens gabbing on a landline. As often happens with #slowcinema—or so I’m told—this absurdly patient approach to narrative leaves the audience in a loopy state where tiny, hallucinatory details that break through the spooky atmosphere register as major events. Did I imagine a skull or the Devil’s talons entering the frame between these lengthy tales of woman-hating cruelty or did those images actually appear onscreen? It’s hard to remember for sure as floods of details from the monologues overwhelm the slumber party drama, but I never lost the sense that the movie was fucking with me and having a great time doing so. I admire that.

This prankish experiment in traditional storytelling, cheeky atmosphere, and artful boredom is obviously not going to be for everyone. About half our audience walked out midway through the screening once they realized the full scope of what we were getting into. I was personally tickled by it. There’s enough layered, soft-focus imagery crammed into its cramped Academy Ratio framing to keep your mind busy as the stories being told lull you into a #slowcinema daze. Once you’re hypnotized in that state, it’s up to the movie whether it wants to creep you out or laugh in your face, depending on its minute-to-minute whims. If nothing else, I greatly enjoyed the tension of not knowing which of those effects it was going to choose next at any given moment.

-Brandon Ledet

Swallow (2019)

In a thematic sense, it’s near impossible to talk about the eerie, darkly humorous thriller Swallow without comparing it to Todd Hanes’s Safe. In both films, wealthy housewives suffer enigmatic health crises that can’t be controlled or even fully defined by their frustrated doctors & families – evoking a kind of existential horror take on the Douglas Sirk melodrama. They also both reach a third act turning point where their respective protagonists break free from their confined, controlled homelives to seek out a community of their own choosing – disrupting the structure of a typical thriller in remarkably similar ways. As similar as its content may be to Haynes’s prior achievement, however, Swallow has no trouble distinguishing itself as a unique work in tone or purpose. Safe is a pure exercise in mood & atmosphere, avoiding any direct answers as to what physical or cosmic affliction is tormenting its unraveling housewife protagonist beyond a vague association with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. By contrast, Swallow is much more willing to function as a straightforward genre film, discussing its themes & central conflict in clear, unflinching terms so that it can fully deal with the sinister consequences onscreen. Its wicked humor, squirmy body horror, and open discussions of financial & gendered power dynamics make for an equally disturbing but much more easily digestible picture – pun heavily intended.

The tormented housewife in question here suffers from a psychological disorder known as pica – which prompts her to compulsively swallow inedible objects of increasing danger & difficulty. Outright rejecting any need for subtlety or restraint (two vastly overrated impulses in modern filmmaking at large), Swallow openly acknowledges that this compulsion is its protagonist’s way of exercising control over her body in a closely monitored, oppressively boring life as a domestic servant for her own wealthy husband. Denied privacy, autonomy, and pleasure in all other aspects of her life, she finds a new, exciting fixation in swallowing increasingly dangerous, seemingly random household objects: marbles, thumb tacks, AA batteries, etc. On the surface, she seems to have won the lottery of life – living in the right house, impregnated by the right husband, curating the perfect nuclear home. The way she’s steamrolled & ignored in daily conversation makes her out to be more of home appliance than a living, breathing person, though, so she invents ways to exert control over her life & stir up internal adventures by swallowing forbidden objects. The financial & patriarchal authority figures in her family & medical community might not fully understand why she puts her life (and by extension her fetus’s life) at risk for such an unproductive thrill, but the audience totally gets it – and the horror comes not only from being unable to stop her, but also from being tempted to cheer her on.

There’s plenty of tonal & stylistic choices that distinguish Swallow as a uniquely satisfying work – especially regarding how it plays with genre. The contrast of the cold, crisp, color-coordinated spaces our thumbtack-swallowing heroine occupies emphasizes her need to break free from her domestic prison in nearly every frame. There’s also a deliciously wicked contrast between the humor & horror of her affliction; you both secretly want to see her get away with sneaking the next sharp objects down her throat and squirm in anguish as it scrapes against her teeth or is surgically removed. The real distinguishing factor here, though, is Haley Bennett’s performance in the central role. Both Swallow and Safe essentially function as one-woman shows. Bennett had a daunting task in distinguishing her own performance in that paradigm from the living legend who is Julianne Moore, something she seemingly accomplishes with ease. Appearing like a scared child in June Cleaver housewife drag, Bennett conveys a horrific lack of confidence & self-determination in every gesture. Her fragility & despondence under the control of her wealthy, emotionally abusive family make you want to celebrate her newfound, deeply personal path to fulfillment, even though it very well might kill her. As she snacks on fistfuls of garden soil while watching trash TV instead of obeying her family’s orders all I could think was “Good for her!,” which is about as far from the sentiment of Safe as possible. It’s a less opaque, less thematically subtle work than Haynes’s film, which I honestly believe makes for an improvement on the already satisfying formula. It could not have gotten there without the strength of Haley Bennett’s performance though; the whole enterprise rests on her shoulders and she carries it with an astounding ease.

-Brandon Ledet

Jezebel (2019)

I first heard of the new memoir drama Jezebel when the writer-director-star of the film, Numa Perrier, was interviewed on an episode of the Switchblade Sisters podcast this summer, discussing how the deeply personal project came to be. It’s near-impossible to resist the film’s premise as “a true story” wherein Perrier looks back to her teen years in the late 1990s, when her older sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work. The context & conflict of that premise is only made more intriguing by the fact that Perrier performs in the film herself as that older sister character, making the project as personal & intimate of an account as possible. What surprised me most about the film when it screened at the New Orleans Film Fest after months of anticipation was how sweet & delicate it was willing to be with its subject despite its creator’s obvious closeness to its emotionally raw context. Perrier doesn’t shy away from the exploitation or desperation that fueled her sex work as a cash-strapped, near-homeless teen, but she’s equally honest about the joy, power, and self-discovery that line of work opened up to her at the time, making for a strikingly complex picture of an authentic, lived experience.

Thematically, Jezebel falls somewhere between the poverty-line desperation of The Florida Project and the tense online sex work fantasy realms of Cam, but it’s not nearly as aggressive as either of those predecessors in terms of style or sensibility. Mostly, we follow the fictional Tiffany (who performs under the titular stage name Jezebel) as she ping-pongs between two suffocating, cramped locales: an extended-stay hotel room in Vegas and a nearby office space that’s been converted into an online pleasure dome. She has zero privacy in either her work or home life, where her “alone time” & her professional sex acts are quietly under surveillance by authority figures in just the other room. Understandably, a lot of the emotional drama is centered on her relationship with her older sister, who’s ultimately doing the best she can to equip the youngster with a self-sustaining skill (one the sister picked up herself over years of working dial-up hotlines). What’s more striking than that increasingly tense relationship, however, is Tiffany’s relationship with her own body & inner desires. The circumstances of how she got roped into sex work are far short of ideal, but she quickly comes to enjoy the freedom, power, confidence and expanding sexual passions the profession offers her – in a relatively low-stakes form of sexual labor she’s careful not to escalate. That conflict between desperation & autonomy rages throughout the movie, but it is mostly contained under a wryly humorous, surprisingly sweet surface.

While it’s nowhere near as deliberately horrifying as the chat sessions in Cam, Jezebel does a great job of distinguishing both the dangers & escapist fantasies inherent to working as a camgirl. The flood of unfiltered, hedonistic comments from anonymous men online are an overwhelming menace here, something Tiffany is especially vulnerable to as the only black girl working at her jobsite. There’s also just something horrific about how devastatingly young she looks as a 19-year-old babe in the woods who’s treating this incrementally risky line of work as a self-discovery playground. Watching her learn to wield power over her clients (one of them voiced by eternal sleazebucket Brett Gelman) or developing an internal sexual persona of her own, you can tell that working as a camgirl has overall been a genuine good in her life, but it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact that you’re watching a vulnerable child navigate potentially dangerous waters that are gradually rising above her head.

Perrier’s experience in the field is fascinating for the period-specific details of how early webcam lag, lack of audio, and chatroom etiquette informed the first wave of camgirl artistry (which mostly amounted to pantomimed sex acts instead of The Real Thing). Where Jezebel really shines, though, is in how the complexity of larger themes like familial politics, racial othering, financial power dynamics, and self-discovery are effortlessly, subtly weaved into a story that could have so easily been played for flashy shock value. Few things about this scenario are easy or fair, but Perrier finds plenty of room to convey a full inner life for her semi-fictional teenage surrogate, including touching bouts of joy, tenderness, and self-fulfillment despite the subject’s potential for pure exploitation and despair.

-Brandon Ledet

Countdown (2019)

My eternal amusement with the Killer Internet gimmick in modern horror bows to no one else’s. A few brave souls will stick out their necks for the Skype horror gimmick of Unfriended, the chatroom horror gimmick of Cam, and the Pokémon Go horror gimmick of Nerve, but it takes an even sturdier love of the genre to appreciate the really trashy shit: the Snapchat horrors of Sickhouse & Truth or Dare?, the Facebook timeline horrors of Friend Request, the Candy Crush nightmare of #horror, etc. This is my cinematic junk food – my personal version of the straight-to-Netflix romcom or the Adam Sandler yuck-em-up. I do believe the Killer Internet genre has an inherent value as a cultural time capsule just as much as it does as mindless entrainment, though, especially when it’s at its least discerning. This genre is doing more to preserve what our daily lives online look & feel like than any respectable Prestige Drama would dare; its assumed frivolity as an instantly dated novelty will only prove more academically useful with time, as these films are essentially archiving our cultural experience with modern user interface tech. Enter the killer-smartphone-app thriller Countdown: another silly-ass technophobic horror specimen to add on top of this cursed data pile, and another excuse for me to go to bat for a genre no one else seems to value as much as we all should.

The online ghoul-du-jour in Countdown is a demon who haunts a free smartphone app. This titular app is a countdown clock that tells you exactly how long you have left to live, which could be 60 years or 60 hours, depending on your pre-determined fate. Unremarkable archetype characters download the app in groups at parties & workplace breakrooms, having a laugh at the arbitrary estimation of how much time they have left alive on Earth. Only, the countdown clock proves to be eerily accurate, which isn’t so funny for the unfortunate souls who happen to download it the very night they’re fated to die. Armed with this cosmically privileged information on their impending doom, they naturally attempt to avoid their fate in a myriad of futile schemes: changing their travel pans to avoid train wrecks & car crashes, hacking into the app’s code to add time to their ticking clocks, commissioning a priest to wage battle with the dark forces that haunt their phones, etc. Unfortunately, these half-cooked maneuvers only serve to summon an ancient demon who strikes them down at their exact predetermined time of death anyway. Bummer. Between the hospital setting & college campus environment its main “character” frequents and the inevitability of fated Death that haunts her, there’s nothing especially new to Countdown that you won’t find done better in the Happy Death Day or Final Destination franchises. Its only value is its novelty as an entry in the Evil Internet canon, then, which it contributes to in a few key ways.

Countdown’s central gimmick obviously exaggerates the uncertainty of downloading an untrustworthy app to your phone, not knowing what viruses may accompany it to threaten your data security (and, apparently, your life). It doesn’t help that the app somehow has a 3.6 approval rating despite literally murdering people, so you can’t event trust its user feedback. Worse yet, once downloaded it will not allow you to uninstall it from your device, nor can you mute its notifications. For an unsavvy luddite like myself, there’s a unique menace to not being able to mute the loud, horrific noises that come out of my evil, dumb phone – settings that seemingly revert back to their top-volume horror with every automatic app update. I’ve never seen such a relatable mundane horror from my daily life represented onscreen. Most importantly, Countdown hinges its demonic smartphone possession premise on the eerie unknown realm of User Agreement text – the Terms & Conditions scroll that no one ever reads, to the point where we’re giving strange malevolent forces free rein over our personal data so that we can share cutesy memes about Millennial ennui or whatever. Every single character who downloads the Countdown app is explicitly agreeing to being hunted down by the Countdown demon, which they do automatically without pause. If that’s not the most universally relatable shit that could be exploited in horror, it’s only because you’ve never added an unnecessary app to your smartphone. I commend you for that; you’re are much stronger willed than I am.

There’s a lot about this movie that feels half-cooked: a #metoo subplot that’s not taken seriously enough to justify its discomfort; a PG-13 level body count that’s not brutal enough to overpower the skeptical hurdle most audiences will have with this silly of a premise; the sub-gimmick of a car backup cam jumpscare, which really deserves its own feature lengthy movie (that apparently only I will enjoy). Still, as the only mainstream, over-the-plate horror move tossed into wide release the week of Halloween, I very much appreciate that Countdown found new ways to expand the boundaries of the Killer Internet genre by documenting & exploiting the most mundane annoyances of daily smartphone app use. Cinema is an excellent way for us to record & reflect the full spectrum of the human experience, and we’re very unlikely to ever see an Oscar Bait drama handle topics as pedestrian as unmutable app notifications, unreadable user agreement text, and untrustworthy app store review ratings. That work, documenting the real nitty gritty of daily life in the 2010s, is left to noble trash like Countdown.

-Brandon Ledet

Monos (2019)

There’s a mystery at the core of Monos that has nothing to do with plot reveals or concealed identities among its characters. The mystery is mostly a matter of getting your bearings. What’s clear is that we’re spending a couple tense hours in the Amazon rainforest with a teenage militia as they struggle to maintain control over a political hostage and a sustenance-providing milk cow. The details surrounding that circumstance are continually disorienting as the whos, whys, and whens of the premise are kept deliberately vague. The temporal setting could range from thirty years in the past to thirty years into the apocalyptic future, limited only by the teen soldiers’ codenames being inspired by 80s pop culture references like Rambo & Smurf. The political ideology of The Organization that commands this baby-faced militia is never vocalized, hinted at only by the fact that the mostly POC youth are holding an adult white woman (the consistently wonderful Julianne Nicholson) hostage at gunpoint. The film doesn’t waste any time establishing the rules of the world that surround this violent, jungle-set microcosm. Instead, it chooses to convey only the unrelenting tension & brutality that defines the daily life of this isolated tentacle of a much larger, undefined political resistance. It’s maddening – purposefully so.

The reason Monos gets away with this stubborn refusal to establish a solid contextual foundation for its audience is that the sights, sounds, and performances that flood the screen are consistently, impressively intense. We’re estranged in a remote, lush jungle Where The Wild Things Go Too Far. The mountainside cliffs open to cloud formations the size of metropolises; the river rapids seemingly threaten to crush the (mostly unknown) teenage actors before our eyes. As the kids devolve from disciplined soldiers to wild animals without the watchful eye of an authority figure, they become a punishing force of Nature themselves. What starts as a jubilant celebration of freedom & autonomy—with recreational mushroom trips, fireside cunnilingus, and history’s most irresponsible gunplay—inevitably erupts into cruel, purposeless violence. They begin the film waging war on an outside, unseen enemy but eventually only wage war among themselves, almost as if they were rowdy children with guns. This constant, unrelenting mayhem is chillingly scored by Mica Levi in what very well may be her finest work to date (in film at least; I’m still a huge fan of her pop album Jewellery). The downward trajectory of Monos is from barely contained chaos to total, irrevocable chaos, which is more of a recognizable distinction than you might expect.

A lot of critical coverage of this film has understandably compared it to works like Apocalypse Now & Lord of the Flies, but to me it felt more like Nocturama of the Jungle. The clinically precise way these violently horny, prankish children (whose sexuality is just as fluid as their morals) are framed makes for a wonderfully rewarding contrast between form & content. Like in Nocturama, their innocent naivete and stylish teenage cool are somehow never lost even when they’re at their most despicably violent, even when we’re unclear what all this mayhem is meant to accomplish. Ultimately, though, I think I preferred the structure of Nocturama much better to Monos’s, as that film’s own disorienting mystery shifts & mutates in monumental ways – so that its two warring halves almost feel like entirely separate films. By contrast, Monos fully commits to one constant, unwavering tone from start to finish; we never know exactly what’s going to happen next, but we do know how each upcoming event is going to feel. The filmmaking craft & mountainsize ambition of this picture is consistently impressive from scene to scene, but its commitment to a single tonal effect—tense descent into disorder & mayhem—makes it frustrating to emotionally connect with, even after you get past the mystery of its context & purpose.

-Brandon Ledet

War (2019)

In his (excellent) collection of essays on Hawaiian-born schlockteur Albert Pyun, Radioactive Dreams, Torontonian film critic Justin Decloux speculates on why a cult-ready filmmaker he loves dearly never found their proper audience. Decloux laments, “There’s no major genre community for action films like there is for horror.” That quote has been rattling around in my head recently while watching big-budget Indian action spectacles like War, Saaho, and 2.0 on the big screen with relatively sparse audiences. Of course, the main difference there is that these Bollywood & Tollywood productions do draw sizeable crowds in their home country; they just aren’t drumming up much enthusiasm in America – unless you count “Get a load of this! LOL” viral videos of out-of-context clips being shared on social media platforms for cheap mockery. They should be getting the same attention & admiration Hong Kong martial arts films earned through VHS circulation in the 80s & 90s, as they’re pushing a corner of cinema built on pure excess to more of a delirious extreme than any Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible, or John Wick-type American franchises could dare to claim. I mean, those doesn’t even have built-in dance breaks between the gunfights.

Speaking of American action cinema and the 1990s, the latest in American-exported action offerings from Bollywood is essentially a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. War is 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium-size guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super-soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.” If Saaho played like a pastiche of 2010s action franchises of the Fast & Furious variety, this ultra-patriotic, muscled-out brodown between two secretly-in-love soldiers is very much modeled after the post-Bruckheimer 90s blockbuster. Its fetishization of missiles, biceps, and allegiance to the flag feels like a return to a bygone era of action spectacle – except now its embellished with You’ve Got Served-style dance competitions and a full-on Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming stage show. Action movies are a cinema of excess, so the mainstream Indian sensibility of mixing all genres & tones into every three-hour flood of wall-to-wall entertainment fits the genre perfectly. Intricately choregraphed martial arts sequences & acrobatic parkour chase scenes mix with handheld cinematography, incrementally preposterous plot twists, and double bass-pedal stadium rock to create a truly overwhelming wallop of action movie excess. And then the usual genre-blending touches of Bollywood Musical fantasy & romance pile on to make the whole thing feel just that much more gargantuan. It’s a wonder to behold, even as something that follows a vintage story template.

Homoeroticism always simmers under the surface in this kind of militaristic beefcake, but it really does feel like War is on the verge of vocalizing that tension outright. Its assassination stakeouts are bathed in bisexual lighting. When the younger soldier’s ability to track down his mentor without losing his cool is called into question, the commanding officer protests “You love him.” The soldier responds, “Not more than I love my country.” When he finally faces off against this rogue superior, he complains, in hurt, “You were like a god to me.” And then there’s all the staring. Whenever our two competing super-soldiers share the screen, their eyes lock with an intense, electric bond no distraction can break. When a female romantic love interest is introduced halfway into the massive runtime, she’s quickly fridged and swept out of the way – but not until after she playfully suggests her soldier beau is distracted as a lover because she has a “Wife? Girlfriend? Boyfriend?” back home. If only she knew. In all honesty, this palpable man-on-man desire isn’t that out of the ordinary for big, muscled-up action movies of this ilk. It only stands out more here because, unlike in the 90s Michael Bay vehicles it echoes, it doesn’t waste any time pretending that femme bodies are the eye candy on display. Its two dueling stars, Hrithik Roshan & Tiger Shroff, are carefully torn out of their clothes in nearly every action sequence to display the perfectly sculpted masc physiques underneath. Equally bare bikini babes are in short order and are quickly disregarded to get to the main course: abs & pecs, and everyone’s invited to dig in.

Whether or not American audiences ever catch onto how deliriously fun these Indian action blockbusters can be doesn’t matter all that much; they’re doing just find without us. If you ever find yourself wishing that a Fast & Furious sequel were just a little more excessive or that Tom Cruise would take a break from jumping out of planes to sing & dance for your entertainment, however, just know that the perfect action blockbusters are already out there – and they’re likely playing at a nearby megaplex (AMC Elmwood, if you’re reading this in New Orleans). You’re just not going to hear much American fanfare about them, because action cinema is for some reason lacking the same communal enthusiasm we afford other genre novelties like horror & sci-fi. They can also be wonderfully gay if you squint at them the right way, which is a plus for any genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Gemini Man (2019)

After earning major critical accolades as the director of cinematic triumphs like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, one-time filmmaker Ang Lee is now considering a secondary career as an absolute madman. Ever since Life of Pi, Lee has been sinking further & further into the abyss of tech obsession in his maniacal, one-sided pursuit of Perfection in craft – periodically emerging from his haunted laboratory with feature “films” no one wants nor cares for: first Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk in 2016 and now 2019’s Gemini Man. Specifically, Lee has become fixated on the merits of ultra-motion-smoothing High Frame Rate tech usually reserved for video games and sports broadcasts. Scoffing at the cowardly 48fps & 60fps rates that make the Hobbit movies and your parents’ factory-setting TVs look like absolute dogshit, Lee has bravely shouted “Double it!” in the face of God & good taste. Not a single commercial movie theater in America is currently equipped to screen Gemini Man in its intended, diabolical format: 3D, 4k, 120fps. Fourteen theaters in the country did secure a version of the film in that roided-out motion-smoothing 120fps rate, though, settling for a wimpy 2k 3D scan so their equipment could handle the projection. One of them happened to be AMC Elmwood just outside New Orleans, which is one of my weekly movie-watching spots.

Gemini Man’s light sci-fi plot about a retired super-soldier who must defend his decades-younger clone—both played by Will Smith—is about as generic of an action blockbuster premise that you’ll find outside a 1990s Bruckheimer flick. It’s probably for the best that this killer clones story template is something we’ve already seen repeated too many times before, though, since there isn’t a single second of this monstrous HFR experiment when you aren’t thinking about how absolutely fucking bizarre everything looks, so there’s no real room to care about the story. Will Smith acts his heart out in his dual roles, selling both the unembarrassed cheese of his older self’s Dad Jokes and the deep pain of the younger clone’s identity crisis with full commitment as the two super-soldiers battle it out in a “hyper real” screen space. There’s nothing Smith can to distract from the visual spectacle of the film’s format, though, since that’s where all of Lee’s efforts were poured. Applying all this HFR and mo-cap clone tech to such a pedestrian nothing of a story is a bold, deliberate choice on Lee’s part; it makes the movie about the technology as if it were a convention-floor demo reel. There’s nothing Smith can do with the so-so dialogue that will overpower the spectacle of him drinking from a crisply detailed soda can or swatting a distinctly visible fly with his baseball cap. There’s no semblance of depth in the film’s screenplay, but there’s miles-long depth of field in Lee’s camera; the distance between those two effects continually calls attention to itself to the point where there’s room for nothing else.

Overall, I’m more tickled with Ang Lee’s madman passion for tech no one else cares for than I am pleased with the results. It’s confounding to me that the very week this film was released there was a Twitter hive-mind discussion about the difference between cinema and theme parks—sparked by Martin Scorsese flippantly dismissing the artistic merits of the MCU—and somehow this wasn’t the movie being discussed. Usually, in action movies there’s a level of forget-your-troubles escapism in the stunts & explosions on display, but those payoffs here look more akin to attending a live practical effects demonstration at a Universal Studios amusement park than they do cinema. Every spark, flame, bullet, and speck of shrapnel on the screen was distinctly visible and textured in detail, but the HFR motion-smoothing often cheapened the look of the action so that it resembled a behind-the-scenes featurette instead of the Feature Presentation. The most delight I found in the results of Lee’s experiment were the kind of gimmick demonstrations that were popular the first time 3D tech was imported into movie theaters: gun barrels, motorcycles, explosions, and—I kid you not—kernels of popcorn protruding past the 2D plane to “leap” off the screen. Gemini Man might have worked better as a Movie if it were nonstop stunts & chases in that way, with an assortment of 3D objects constantly flying at the screen in unrelenting Will-Smith-on-Will-Smith mayhem, but making a better movie was never Ang Lee’s goal. It was just as important to the madman that he exhibit what the HFR tech can do in dramatic, low-key moments of (consistently non-consequential) dialogue – the kind of attraction you’d find at a techie convention, or inside a carnival tent.

There are flashes of interesting images that result from Gemini Man’s formal experiment, most notably in the super-soldier’s underwater nightmares and, appropriately, the 1st-person-shooter video game action sequences. Mostly, though, this feels like an accomplished director who got bored with making movies reaching for an unattainable goal with equipment & an audience that aren’t quite there yet. At one point, a character describing a failed military mission explains it perfectly, saying “It’s like watching the Hindenburg crash into the Titanic.” You have to appreciate the hubris that leads to that kind of spectacle, even when the results are this disastrous. I do believe that some near-future nature documentary or surreal animation experiment will make better use of this tech, and that success will be largely due to Ang Lee’s willingness to fail in such a spectacular fashion. He’s wearing himself out to the point of madness trying to normalize something no one else seems to want. The weird thing is that it might already be working, however subtly. My opening-night audience didn’t seem to notice anything peculiar about the film’s presentation, to the point where I felt like running around the theater shouting “Don’t y’all see how fucking weird this all is???” Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. Either way, they didn’t seem to care – which is the exact indifference that is snapping Ang Lee’s brain in half, like so many duplicated Will Smiths.

-Brandon Ledet

The Cell (2000)

I remembered really liking Tarsem Singh’s debut feature, The Cell, when I first saw it as a blockbuster VHS rental in my impressionable teen years in the early aughts. That fond memory has faded over the last couple decades as the details of the film itself became overwhelmed by critical complaints that it was a thematically thin bore and, frankly, by an increasing number of goodwill-tanking stinkers within Tarsem’s own catalog. I have since left The Cell behind as if it were a childish plaything, convinced that The Fall was the sole fluke when Tarsem had stumbled into creating a feature film worthy of his consistently stunning imagery. It was a pleasant surprise on revisit, then, that The Cell holds up to the exquisite nightmare I remembered it being in my initial viewing. Contrary to its reputation, Tarsem’s debut absolutely fucking rules, meaning the “visionary” director has two anomaly masterpieces under his name, and one of them stars Jennifer Lopez.

If The Cell is lacking anything that’s achieved more eloquently in The Fall, it’s certainly a matter of narrative & thematic substance. While the latter film is a morally complex exploration of the nature of storytelling, deceit, and imagination, Tarsem’s debut leaves all its ideas & plot machinations in plain view on the surface. Its dumb-as-rocks premise is an attempt to take the “Entering the mind of a killer” plot from Silence of the Lambs as literally as possible. That’s it; that’s the entire movie. JLo is our de facto Clarice Starling in this ungodly mutation of the Silence of the Lambs template, with Vincent d’Onofrio putting in a deeply creepy serial killer performance in the Hannibal Lector role (and Vince Vaughn taking over some of her on-the-ground detective work). Like in the psychedelic anime Paprika & the dream-hopping blockbuster Inception that followed nearly a decade later, JLo literally enters the subconscious mind of her maniacal serial killer patient via futuristic sci-fi- tech that essentially allows her to lucidly dream inside someone else’s head. Once lodged inside the nightmare realms of his twisted mind, she must race against the clock to discover clues that could save his latest potential victim from death (and hopefully help him heal along the way).

I could maybe see this Dream Police setup being disregarded as too convoluted or silly to be worthwhile in certain audiences’ eyes if the nightmare fantasy realms it facilitates weren’t so intoxicatingly lush. Bolstered by breath-taking creations from legendary fashion designer (and frequent Tarsem collaborator) Eiko Ishioka, The Cell often plays like a haute couture fashion show by way of Jodorowsky. Nature footage, fetish gear, and babydoll-parts art instillations serve as mood-setting set decorations for Ishioka’s designs, which look like they were inspired by the Royal Court of Hell. On its own, the police procedural wraparound story that fames those high fashion nightmares might have been the boring, thin genre exercise The Cell has been misremembered as. I don’t understand how anyone can indulge on the exhilarating drug of these high-fashion kink hallucinations and walk away displeased with the picture, however, as it sinks all its efforts into the exact sensual pleasures & dreamlike headspace that only cinema can achieve. It’s disguised as a single-idea genre film, but its ambitions reach for the furthest limits of its medium (and the medium of fashion while it’s at it, just as lagniappe).

If you boil down the most common complaints about The Cell to their most inane essence, the movie has been largely dismissed for following a “style over substance” ethos. This would be an incredibly boring take on any movie in my opinion, but it’s especially egregious considering just how exquisite the style is here (thanks to Ishioka, largely). My best guess is that Tarsem’s prior work as a music video & television commercial director had helped contextualize this piece as an exercise in pure style in critics’ minds, as he even calls attention to that professional background by recreating his sets from his “Losing My Religion” video in the killer’s troubled mind. Helpfully, though, he also calls attention to the aesthetic differences of this film and the grimy torture porn visuals that would soon become an industry standard. The next potential victim is locked in a time-controlled torture device (the titular cell) that will drown her if JLo doesn’t heal the serial killer in time, making the film’s real word setting feel just as much like a precursor to Saw as it is an echo of Silence of the Lambs. That grimy torture device helps establish clear, tangible stakes for JLo’s literal trips into the killer’s mind, but it also serves as a wonderfully illustrative contrast to the lush nightmare-couture of the dream sequences. In comparing that titular torture device to the serial killer’s nightmare realms, you can clearly see how Tarsem’s distinct sense of style transform a potentially mundane genre picture into an impeccable work of fine art – substance be dammed.

The only shame is that Tarsem’s struggled to repeat that miracle in the decades since, with one major exception in The Fall. Still, two five-star achievements in a single career would be an impressive feat for anyone. It’s a miracle that he got away with even that much.

-Brandon Ledet

Messiah of Evil (1973)

A truly cursed relic of Lovecraftian grindhouse schlock, the mid-70s horror curio Messiah of Evil is an experience that feels at once warmly familiar & nightmarishly uncanny. It’s among a rare breed of horror classics like Carnival of Souls, Eyes Without a Face, and Val Lewton’s Cat People that are deceptively obedient to the tones, tropes, and craft of their era, but manage to achieve an unnerving, bone-deep chill once that familiarity lowers your defenses. Yet, it hasn’t yet been showered with the adoring cinephilic praise reserved for those now-canon genre relics. You can approximate a nearly exact equation of what genre pieces were assembled to create its effect; it plays like a post-Romero attempt at adapting “Shadows over Innsmouth” as an American giallo. However, you can’t quite put your finger on how these familiar pieces add up to such an eerie, disorienting experience. That’s just pure black movie magic, the goal all formulaic horrors should strive for but few ever achieve.

This film’s loose dream-logic narrative is constructed through two epistolary accounts: the narrated recollections of a young woman who’s been committed to an insane asylum and the diary of her missing father, which led her to that confinement. The father character is an artist who moved to a secluded seaside town in order to paint in peace, only to mysteriously cut off communication with his family back home while away. His daughter is met with skeptical hostility from the ghoulish, Innsmouth-like townies in the village where he disappeared, but eventually settles into his home and searches for clues to his whereabouts. Surrounded by her father’s art on sinisterly muraled walls and lost in his diary that seemingly documented a descent into madness, she follows the missing artist’s exact path and gradually loses her own grip on reality. She finds some welcome company from fellow outsiders also investigating the town’s paranormal allure, but mostly she & her new friends are dangerously outnumbered by the cannibalistic, ghoulish locals who are protecting some cosmic secret no one can seem to put into words.

In terms of conveying a clear, logical narrative, Messiah of Evil is a total mess – seemingly making shit up on the fly as it bides time between its set-piece scares. This deliberate delay of traditional horror movie payoffs is a blatantly practical tactic for the barebones production to cut financial corners, which often reduces what’s onscreen to a sight that usually tanks cheap-o horrors into total tedium: people endlessly talking in closed rooms. Whether our troubled heroine is reading her father’s journals to herself in voice-over narration or chatting up the traveling throuple of erudite snobs who prove to be her only friends in town, however, Messiah of Evil is somehow never boring. It must be that the writing itself is especially strong. Monologues about “blood moons pulling people towards Hell” and Lovecraftian accounts of hallucinatory beasts & ghouls are so intensely vivid in their imagery & delivery that you don’t have room to notice that the film is saving money by describing these horrors instead of depicting them. It weighs on you like a harrowing stage play, when it so easily could have been corners-cutting lip service.

Luckily, the dialogue doesn’t have to do all the work in unnerving the audience. Messiah of Evil occasionally ventures out of tis spooky-murals artist’s loft locale to stumble through a funhouse of assorted scares. A few sideshow attractions like a ghoulish local slitting an outsider’s throat or gnawing on a live beach rat help space out its more complexly staged set piece scares. When it really invests its time on those larger atmospheric payoffs, the movie has a way of transforming everyday locales—movie theaters, supermarkets, parking lots, etc.—into otherworldly nightmare realms. The actual flesh-eating creatures that pose a threat to all outsiders here aren’t especially distinct from the undead ghouls of Romero’s landmark horror The Night of the Living Dead from just a few years earlier. Yet, their effect on the audience & their impetus to kill are so difficult to put your finger on that calling them “zombies” would be selling them short. Zombies you can figure out & plan to defeat. By contrast, the threats here keep shifting & changing the rules based on the whims of the tone, so that trying to wrap your mind around their nature & vulnerabilities feels like training yourself to slip into a lucid dream.

The married couple who wrote, directed, and produced Messiah of Evil—Gloria Katz & Willard Huyk—later developed a professional relationship with George Lucas that culminated in their swing-for the-fences, career-ending flop in 1986’s Howard the Duck. Whether you want to take that association with Howard the Duck as confirmation that this movie is an unstructured mess, a once-in-a-lifetime miracle of movie magic, or—in my rare case—further proof that Howard the Duck is vastly underappreciated is up you entirely. Personally, I believe Katz & Huyk to have an innate artistic understanding of the subliminal, dreamlike state movies put us in – logic be damned. That sensibility obviously displeased most audiences who caught their money-torching blockbuster, but it might be more widely accessible when rooted in the tradition of cheap-o moody horror. When the missing artist’s journal explains that, ”You’re about to awaken when you dream that you’re dreaming,” the potency of this film’s surreal nightmare logic became vividly clear to me – even if the structure & rhythms of the story it was telling never did. That’s not an easy effect to achieve, and many better-respected horror movies have failed in the attempt, so it’s a shame that Katz & Huyk haven’t received more audible recognition for the feat.

-Brandon Ledet

Prom Night (1980)

Is Jamie Lee Curtis the original scream queen? There were multiple generations of femme horror legends who preceded her (including her own mother in Hitchcock’s pivotal proto-slasher Psycho), but the “scream queen” designation specifically feels like a product of the first-wave slashers of the early 80s. Curtis was a central figure in that initial crop of body-count slasher films thanks to her starring role in John Carpenter’s Halloween, which (along with Black Christmas) established many of the tones & tropes now associated with the genre. Previous femme horror legends like Barbara Steele, Karen Black, and Vampira would often be typecast in horror films for their naturally spooky looks, while Jamie Lee Curtis’s generation were better known for their reactions to the horrors of the world – their screams. Curtis was a frequent go-to for the Final Girl Next Door archetype in the earliest crop of formulaic slashers (Halloween, Prom Night, and Terror Train specifically), establishing a scream queen career template that near-future horror actresses like Barbara Crampton, Heather Langenkamp, and Linnea Quigley would later transform into lifelong convention-circuit celebrity. Her mother’s stabbed-in-the-shower scream may have echoed much louder throughout horror history than any of her own on-screen scares, but one isolated fright does not make a Scream Queen. As of last year, Curtis was still extending her Final Girl status in the ongoing Halloween franchisefour decades after its debut. If she’s not the originator, she’s at least the one with the most follow-through.

Prom Night is a significant episode in establishing this scream queen status for Curtis, but only because it faithfully repeats a pattern initiated by Halloween a couple years earlier. If anything, it repeats that pattern a little too faithfully, as its initial gimmick is essentially a mashup of Halloween & Carrie with nothing especially novel to add to either side of the equation. Curtis stars as a suburban high school goody-two-shoes who finds herself the target of two dangerous adversaries: a hot-girl bully who wants to steal her thunder as prom queen (like in Carrie) and a maniacal killer who’s stabbing her friends to ribbons one by one (like in Halloween). When Curtis is gabbing about boys with her more promiscuous friends, walking just out of earshot of reports of an escaped mental-patient maniac, and stumbling blissfully unaware into a cruel prank just as she’s being crowned prom queen, all the audience can think about is Laurie Strode and Carrie White. There are a few key deviations here, to be fair. Instead of the escaped maniac being the assumed killer like Michael Myers, there’s a murder-mystery set-up involving a past wrong when the victims were children – calling into question the masked killer’s identity & motivation. Also, not for nothing, Curtis possesses no telekinetic superpowers here and must survive her bullies’ pranks with good old-fashioned Final Girl purity & wit. Prom Night also tosses in the menacing phone calls from Black Christmas to spice up this Halloween & Carrie mash-up, further emphasizing its adherence to first-wave slasher tradition (and Jamie Lee Curtis’s prominence within that milieu).

Thankfully, Prom Night eventually does come into its own as a unique object & an admirably stylish feat in low-budget filmmaking. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, this turnaround arrives during its titular high school prom dance. Working with a glorious Disco Madness theme, the prom sequence is a pulsating teen dance party where the hormone addled dum-dums we’ve been following all movie show off their best Saturday Night Fever choreography on a light-up dance floor, then file away one at a time to be brutally murdered by the masked killer. In a welcome deviation from a typical first-wave slasher, these kills do not directly correlate with whether or not the teens in question drink, screw, or revel in sin; the kids simply suffer the consequences for a past act of cruelty they’ve kept under wraps since they were tykes. The mysterious executioner sports an unusually glittery ski mask to protect their identity and wields a unique murder weapon—broken mirror shards—instead of the glistening kitchen knife of slasher tradition. Between these gruesome kills and the dance floor glam of the disco prom, Prom Night eventually emerges from its formulaic slasher chrysalis to become its own beautiful specimen of cheap-o grime. Its earliest stretch is guaranteed to test the patience of audiences generally bored with by-the-numbers slasher ritual, but I find that sturdy plot template can be exceptionally useful in providing structure for over-the-top aesthetic & tonal choices like, say, a Disco Madness theme. It also helped build Curtis’s legacy as the genre’s first genuine scream queen; she just also had to be crowned prom queen to get there.

-Brandon Ledet