The End of Evangelion (1997)

As someone who only casually watches the most surface-level specimens of anime, I’m likely the least qualified person to register an opinion on Neon Genesis Evangelion. The show was a major reinvigorating boon for anime as an industry in the mid-90s and has maintained a strong cult following in America in the decades since, to the point where I remember at least 50% of all non-porn Tumblr posts being dedicated to the show’s meaning & legacy. I am one of the many, many Americans who didn’t bother seeking out Neon Genesis Evangelion until it became conveniently available to stream on Netflix earlier this year, though, running through all 26 of the episodes that fans have been obsessing over since the 90s in just a week’s time. It was a trip. The show starts off as a proto-Pacific Rim kaiju vs. mech suits action series, but then rapidly transforms into a psychedelic, philosophical crisis in which Humanity must escape the consequences of playing god by finding unexpected refuge in The Singularity. That is, if I understand even a tenth of what was happening in the defiantly convoluted & unconventionally structured story – an intricate web of conspiracy theories, flashbacks, Biblical references, and intense psychological breakdowns. It’s a show I should probably sit with over several years and a few rewatches before I speak on anything it’s attempting to accomplish, outside praising the artistry of its gorgeous, intricately detailed 2-D animation style. And yet, I still feel compelled to talk about a major aspect of the show’s legacy that I find outright fascinating: its ending(s).

The conclusion of Neon Genesis Evangelion is somehow even more difficult to parse out in words than the show’s perplexing premise. Most of the series details a government program that militarizes young children by psychologically linking them to organic mech suits to fight invading kaiju threats to their city. Mysteries about the government’s intent with the program, the origins of both the mech suits & the monsters, and the psychological effect of weaponizing children open the show up to sprawling obfuscation & subjective interpretations, but for the most part its story fits into a genre template we’ve become familiar with in the decades since its initial run. I was stunned, then, when the final two episodes in the series abandoned the mech suit program entirely to stage a psychedelic breaking down of each character’s individual identities, so that the world can be saved through reaching The Singularity rather than through battle. I loved this swerve. It reminded me a lot of the “How are you connected to yourself?” philosophical crises of Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, except interpreted through psychedelic animation instead of the gory payoffs of early-aughts J-horror. Apparently, contemporary fans of the show did not feel the same way. They complained violently, for years, that the series creator Hideaki Anno (who later directed the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla) ruined something truly special with this esoteric conclusion, to the point where they sent him death threats for the offense. Eventually, Hideaki Anno responded to this fandom bullying the way many modern pop culture creators find themselves doing these days: caving in to deliver more of the show, promising fans the ending they believed they deserved. Things only got weirder from there.

Reconstructing a proper ending for Neon Genesis Evangelion took two whole feature films to pull off. The first, titled Death & Rebirth, was mostly an incomprehensible editing room nightmare meant to refresh fans’ memory of the series arc in a glorified clip show. Anything new it added to series lore (besides a flimsy wraparound in which the weaponized children form a string quartet) has since been removed and added to the front end of the proper movie sequel The End of Evangelion – thanks to a series of revisions that’s too convoluted to be worth explaining. That puts all the weight of sending off Neon Genesis Evangelion with a fandom-satisfying ending on a single 90min feature film, which is structured as a three-episode arc of the show. What I love about The End of Evangelion in its final edit (at least the one that’s conveniently streaming on Netflix) is that it only pretends to play nice in satisfying the fandom for so long. The film rewinds the clock to before the Singularity experiments of the final two episodes (known as The Instrumentality Project in series lore) to provide a more linear, logical conclusion where the government base is under militaristic attack and each character gets a proper send-off in the fray (mostly through onscreen deaths). I initially hated this choice, as it seemed to be caving to fans’ demands entirely by reorienting the plot to be more of a conventional story of traditional character arcs rather than a grand philosophical statement on the nature of Existence. Then, with time, The End of Evangelion transforms into its own confounding monstrosity that’s just as bizarrely esoteric & inscrutable as the original conclusion to the show that pissed off fans in the first place. It’s the anime equivalent of an “Up high, down low, too slow!” prank, and I love it for that fandom-satisfying fake-out.

I don’t think it would be especially useful (or even possible) to describe what happens in The End of Evangelion here. If the series it’s wrapping up is to be understood as a warped, nightmarish Biblical allegory, this is certainly the Book of Revelations portion of the text. Images of The Rapture, in which characters pop like balloons or swell to the size of celestial gods, mix with Donald Hertzfeldtian animation that assaults the viewer in psychedelic mixed-media collage. It’s just as horny, grotesque, and stupefying as the best episodes of the show ever were, except that it’s now set free to melt down the confines of reality on a global scale, whereas the original ending of the show was more of an internalized crisis. What I love most about it, though, is how it resets the narrative of The Instrumentality Project only to ultimately reach the same conclusion: a psychedelic visual essay on humanity reaching The Singularity. The End of Evangelion calls for “Death to God, man, and all life so that we may become One.” I’m still not convinced that the movie sequels to the show ever needed to exist in the first place, but I greatly respect them for promising a more logical, linear result to the narrative only to backslide right into the same confounding breakdowns of reality, except now on a bigger scale. To make that prank on the fandom even more satisfying, Hideaki Anno even included images of the death-threat emails he received after the original finale as part of the multi-media collage. He might as well have appeared on camera himself to give his audience the finger.

Honestly, I wish more modern creators would have this openly hostile of a relationship with their own fandoms. Watching people like Rebecca Sugar, Rian Johnson, and the Game of Thrones dorks suffer nonstop hyperbolic complaints from the entitled brats they’re only trying to entertain has been insufferable in recent years, so it’s wonderful to look back to what Hideaki Anno­­ accomplished in The End of Evangelion as an anti-audience pushback. He pretended to cave into his most abusive fans’ demands of a “proper” conclusion to his series, only to double down in a grand, grotesque spectacle. I wish more creators could get away with letting their “fans” squirm this way. It’s just as much of a dying art as traditional animation (as evidenced by the fact that even Hideaki Anno­­ himself is working on more Neon Genesis Evangelion sequels as I type this, so that his own victory over his fans was somewhat short-lived).

-Brandon Ledet

Eraser (1996)

One of my all-time favorite movie subgenres is the The Internet is Trying to Kill Us thriller, in which mundane online user-interface tech is transformed into a horrific menace that’s aiming to destroy us all. The genre was still in its infancy in the mid-90s at a time when The Internet was just starting to invade our homes, which gave early specimens like The Net a growing-pains conundrum on how to translate online imagery & lingo into traditional studio thriller beats. As a result, that film spends a lot of time following Sandra Bullock around irl as baddies erase her identity online – a compromise between the cyberthriller and the traditional action film (as opposed to more recent, fully-immersed Internet Thrillers like Unfriended). Looking back on the Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick Eraser now, over two decades after its release, it’s a film that feels equally paranoid about the advancement of 90s computer tech and the flimsiness of personal identity in the Information Age as The Net, but it makes even less of an effort to translate that Luddite unease into new cinematic language. Eraser turns the fears surrounding computer tech’s intrusion into American homes into a villainous threat by manifesting it as a big scary future-gun. It’s the most direct, literal approach to the topic possible, and it’s charmingly boneheaded as a result.

The future-gun in Eraser doesn’t shoot bullets, but rather electromagnetic impulses. Its viewfinder display is designed like the sickly green MS DOS grids that decorated far too many cyberthrillers in the 90s, most notably The Matrix. Instead of merely offering the gun operator night vision, this feature allows them to see through walls & bodies like a digital X-ray machine. The gun is designed for military use (and, naturally, falls into the hands of international terrorists), but it’s almost exclusively deployed in domestic settings throughout the film. Characters who threaten to expose the government’s mishandling of the gun’s development and sale are shot at with “electromagnetic impulses” through the walls of their own homes in the Washington D.C. suburbs, so that computerized technology is literally invading their domestic spaces to destroy therm. Vanessa Williams stars as a military-weapons detractor who steals the designs for this future-gun on a miniature CDR, so she is pursued for the disc in the exact way Bullock is pursued for her own forbidden floppy disc in The Net. The only difference here is that Arnold Schwarzenegger is heroic for erasing her identity online as a way of protecting her as a witness. The tagline even boasts, “He will erase your past to protect your future.” Sill, the flimsiness of identity in the digital age is a premise the film banks on to hook the audience, and the film shares a lot of thematic & aesthetic preoccupations with The Net even if it replaces the ethereal qualities of The Internet with a physical “electromagnetic” gun.

Eraser only has one foot in the future of Internet Age techno thrillers. Everything about the film besides the future-gun and the erasure of online identity records is very much rooted in the familiar tropes & imagery of the Schwarzenegger action canon. The film opens with a suiting-up montage (one of many) where Arnold loads down his muscly body with superfluous weaponry. He dresses in almost the exact leather jacket outfits he already self-parodied himself for in The Last Action Hero four years prior. Every time he enters the frame he’s accompanied by guitar-solo theme music announcing his heroism. Most dialogue consists of 90s-era action movie one-liners as Schwarzenegger goes about the business of saving the world from terrorists & cyberguns, including the title-riffing quip “Smile. You’ve just been erased.” Within this familiar framework, Eraser can only stand out on the strength of its individual set pieces, of which ether are two absolute stunners: one where Arnie jumps out of an airplane without a parachute and one where he kills a room full of baddies by releasing CG alligators at the zoo. The gators sequence stuck with me in particular as a kid, being the only detail I vividly remembered about the film besides the cybergun. I was glad to confirm on revisit that the gator stunt is extensive, featuring far more CG chomping action than necessary to get its point across. If only they could’ve found a way to arm the gators with their own cyberguns to tie the sequence into the film’s larger themes of technophobia . . .

I wouldn’t vouch for Eraser’s excellence as an especially exceptional example of Arnold Schwarzenegger action cinema, nor as a clear early entry in the Evil Internet canon. The evil-clone movie The Sixth Day might even be a more calcified example of an Arnie film that directly engages with the technophobia of the early Internet Era. Still, there’s a kind of distinctly 90s anxiety about computerized technology invading suburban homes in Eraser that makes it just as fun of a dated watch as more explicitly Internet-dreading thrillers like The Net. Besides, it really does have some of the best gator-flavored mayhem you’re likely to see in a big budget action movie of its ilk, a novelty that cannot be undervalued.

-Brandon Ledet

The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

Riley Stearns’s debut feature Faults was a sinister dark comedy about a huckster deprogrammer facing off against a small, mysterious cult that proved to be too much for his limited skills & outsized hubris. Stearns’s follow-up, The Art of Self-Defense, takes on a much bigger, more widespread cult that often proves too much of an insurmountable burden for us all: toxic masculinity. Jesse Eisenberg stars as what MRA types would describe as a Beta Cuck – an unimposing milquetoast wimp who struggles to assert himself both at work and in his private life. When the poor runt is assaulted in a random act of violence by a gang of macho bullies, he commits full-on to the “self-defense” doctrine of a local strip-mall karate dojo with a newfound religious zeal. The dojo proves to be toxic masculinity in a cult-sized microcosm – incrementally indoctrinating our squirmy protagonist further into the hellish depths of Alpha Male bravado. It’s basically the masc counterbalance to last year’s militarized-feminism satire The Misandrists, except that the humor here is much drier than that film’s penchant for over-the-top camp.

It’s easy to reduce the themes of The Art of Self-Defense to “Toxic masculinity is a cult,” because the film itself speaks only in dry, matter-of-fact statements that leave little room for subtext. Everything is labeled clearly, almost to the level of Sorry To Bother You-style surrealism. Businesses have names like The New Restaurant in Town. When Eisenberg is jumped he’s out buying a brown paper bag labeled “DOG FOOD” in bold block letters. When the mugging is reported on news radio he’s announced as “A 35-Year-Old Dog Owner.” There’s a twinge of Napoleon Dynamite quirk humor to this stilted, deliberately underwritten dialogue, but more importantly it allows the film to make fun of the arbitrary distinctions of traditional masculinity by allowing them to be spelled out plainly without embellishment. Rules about what names, countries, music genres, ways of sitting, and word choices are socially coded as being more masculine or feminine are framed as heightened absurdism here merely by being voiced in plain terms, making for a peculiarly understated version of satire. The movie also gets into the allure of the Alpha Male, incel, MRA mentality for insecure, unconfident men as well. Eisenberg explains, “I’m afraid of other men. They intimidate me. I want to be what intimidates me.” You’re not likely to get a more concise explanation of what attracts young men to the real-life cult of toxic masculinity than that, and explaining everything in expressionless, matter-of-fact terms was the most effective way to get there.

One of the more rewarding aspects of Faults was the tension of its central mystery, which keeps the audience guessing throughout on whether its fictional cult is actually tapping into a sinister supernatural power or is just a brainwashing hoax. Stearns drops that tension here, instead telegraphing the answers to all potential mysteries and possible outcomes long before they arrive. I don’t know if that choice makes for a better movie exactly, but it does free him up to make fun of MRA rhetoric early & often. The hierarchal goings-on of the strip-mall karate dojo were never going to be as rewarding as the satirical lens that frames Maxim Magazine as an extremist propaganda rag, manspreading as a saintly virtue, and being nice to your pet dog as feminine “coddling.” That being said, I can’t guarantee this absurdly dry, expressionless humor will land especially well with every crowd. I was the only person in the audience laughing at my (almost exclusively elderly) weekday screening, which is a shame, since we should all be able to take a step back and laugh at the absurdity of systemically enforced gender traits. It’s absolutely fucking ridiculous, but we rarely consider that perspective in our daily lives because we’re fully submerged in it.

I’d also like to point out how cool it was to hear a song from local metal heroes Thou in a professional feature film, even if their genre was lumped in with the absurdist list of macho gender signifiers.

-Brandon Ledet

Wild Rose (2019)

I’m not an especially avid fan of country music, so I’m not sure that Wild Rose ever had a chance to speak directly to my soul. I did, however, recognize the universal appeal of the genre when the aspiring country music singer in the film is asked why she loves country so much and she responds, “Because it’s three chords and the truth.” That’s basically the same explanation you’ll hear about the appeal of punk and all other stripped-down mutations of rock n’ roll, and it’s one this movie conveys surprisingly well despite country’s not-for-everyone cultural barriers (to the point where “three chords and the truth” is tattooed across its protagonist’s forearm). It needs to sell that universal appeal to the audience too, since its premise relies on it being believable that a young Scottish woman who’s never been to America is singularly obsessed with making it as a country musician in Nashville. Most of Wild Rose’s tension is in how those dreams of graduating from a local sensation at a Western-themed dive bar called Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry to the real-deal half a world away conflict with her means and obligations at home. It’s easy to get swept up in that kind of underdog story no matter how much personal investment you have in country music scene in particular.

The reason I sought out this minor indie drama despite my general disinterest in its milieu is that its star, Jessie Buckley, was incredible in last year’s criminally underseen thriller Beast. She’s just as endlessly watchable here as an unlikely country singer-songwriter pursuing a career in Americana all the way from Scotland, even though that thematic territory isn’t nearly as appealing to me personally as the Wuthering Heights-flavored crime novel mystery of Beast. Wild Rose is a sort of delayed-coming-of-age picture for Buckley, as she plays an immature twentysomething petty criminal who’d much rather get sloppy dunk & sing country tunes with strangers than spend a quiet afternoon engaging with her own children, whom she treats as a burden. She relies on her increasingly frustrated mother (Julie Walters) to tend to her obligations as she storms off like an unruly teen to play pretend rockstar in a cheesy country bar. A lot of the growing up she does in the film is in realizing that she can take an active role in pursuing a career as a country singer and be a decent person to her own kids. All she really needs is encouragement (and financial support) from her local community to push her in the right direction, as she starts her journey to self-realization as an ex-convict with every little to work with and an isolating sense of selfishness.

Wild Rose does occasionally dip into a maudlin kind of Sundance-friendly inspo-drama that I don’t always have the patience for, but it at least tempers its sentimentality with a relatable layer of crude vulgarity. Buckley cusses her way through the picture in a thick Scottish accent that cuts through what could easily feel like an artificial cliché if it were a PG drama staged in Nashville instead of the drunken end of Glasgow. Buckley’s not quite as mesmerizing here as she is in Beast, but that earlier film didn’t leave room for her to exhibit what made her a star to watch in Britain in the first place: her beautiful singing voice. Even as a country music agnostic, I was thoroughly won over by all her vocal contributions to the soundtrack. It was just all the other country tunes that left me cold, give or take a brief cameo from Kasey Musgraves. I cried in the exact moments when Buckley wanted me to (usually in her character’s interactions with her mother and kids) and my heart soared in her few moments of triumph (most notably in the performance of a song inexplicably co-written by Marky heckin’ Steenburgen of all people). That’s not too bad for a film with two layers of genre skepticism for me to fight past as a perennial big-city grump – country music and saccharine melodrama. Buckley is just that good, and I’ll apparently watch her in just about anything.

-Brandon Ledet

P.S. I Love You (2007)

If you read a plot synopsis for the 2007 chick-flick oddity P.S. I Love You without any other context, you’d likely mistake the film for a heart-wrenching melodrama, a romantic weepie. This a movie in which a careerless New Yorker (Hillary Swank) loses her young, brash husband (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor before the opening credits. As a final grand romantic gesture, the husband had arranged for a series of posthumous letters to be delivered to his wife from beyond the grave, each prompting her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the past. The obvious, default tone for this narrative would be Sirkian sentimentality & heightened emotional catharsis. What makes the movie fascinatingly perverse is that it isn’t a drama at all, but rather an impossibly dark, morbid comedy that plays its tragic premise for yucks instead of tears. All its surface details convey a commercial, conventional “woman’s picture” about a young widow mending her broken heart. In practice, though, it’s a pitch-black comedy that plays the trauma of losing a romantic partner to brain cancer as an opportunity for some jovial gallows humor.

Not only does P.S. I Love You play like a subversive black comedy despite its conventional surface, it specifically plays like a morbid subversion of the romcom format. The only difference is that in this scenario The Wrong Guy that the lovelorn protagonist must get over so she can better herself happens to be her husband’s ghost. His letters from the afterlife prompt her to revisit memories & locations from their shared past as a proper last goodbye, but they also allow his sprit to re-enter the picture and comfort her as she feels his presence in these old haunts. His letters even push her to find new potential beaus (or at least one-night boytoys) in bit-role hunks Harry Connick Jr. & Jeffrey Dean Morgan (whose naked butt is ogled at length for straight-lady titillation). Like in all romcoms, the best characters are the ones with no stakes who’re only there to lighten the mood, with no real plot-related obligations; in this case it’s Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Bates as Swank’s family & gal-pals, a stellar lineup by any standard. Unlike in most romcoms, though, her personal success in the film is not defined by finding a replacement husband, but rather finding the fine art of Shoes. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s unusual for a joke-heavy romcom to open with the protagonist’s husband dying of a brain tumor.

Besides being shockingly morbid for a romcom (and borderline supernatural), P.S. I Love You is also certifiably drunk. That choice is questionable, given the harmful cliché it propagates about its characters’ Irish & Irish-American communities, but the sea-legs alcoholism of the film does afford it a distinctly human, relatable tone that’s often missing from these mainstream romcoms. Characters drink past blackout, raising their glasses to the dead while slurring along with the most vulgar Pogues songs on the jukebox. When the widow imagines in a flashback that her husband is “the only person in the room,” the number of beer bottles & plastic cups strewn about the empty bar they’re in is astronomical. The film even opens with a drunken late-night fight a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home from a party, Butler & Swank argue vehemently about children, money, careers, romance, and sex in an off-puttingly drunk communication meltdown, then immediately kiss & makeup. That’s our only taste of the husband before his untimely death. It’s like the movie itself is drunk along with its characters, which is why it’s so carefree about making light of brain cancer & young widowhood. It’s a little jarring tonally, but certainly a lot more fun than a straight-faced, sober drama with this same tragic story would be.

I don’t want to oversell P.S. I Love You as a dark subversion of commercial filmmaking. If anything, the perverse pleasures the film has to offer are in how cookie-cutter & familiar its surface details are despite the tragic humor & borderline magical realism of its premise. That means that a lot of the usual romcom shortcomings apply here: characters complaining about having no money despite living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan lofts; shockingly regressive treatment of anyone who’s not straight or white; reinforcement of Patriarchal standards of femme beauty & health, etc. Worse yet, because the film at least somewhat pretends to be a romantic drama it has the gall to stretch on for a full two hours, which is at least 20min longer than any romcom should ever dare. That’s likely because it drunkenly stumbled into functioning as a romcom by mistake. It over-corrected in lightening its pitch-black tone with proper Jokes and subsequently transformed into a bizarrely fascinating object as a result. P.S. I Love You is too long, politically muddled, and hopelessly confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. Still, it’s well worth putting up with those shortcomings just to witness the novelty of a romcom about a woman who must break up with her drunk husband’s ghost so she can find her true love in Shoes.

It’s also worth it for Lisa Kudrow. She’s very funny, no matter how morbid the context.

-Brandon Ledet

Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973)

The invaluable podcast & film blog The Rialto Report frequently argues that the hardcore pornography & dime-a-dozen smut that was made in the cheap-living days of NYC (before the city was cleaned-up & Disnified by Mayor Giuliani) has an archival value in the way it documents a specific era of history that’s largely ignored by mainstream documentaries. Usually, the archival nature of NYC’s 70s & 80s smut is an unintended symptom of underground filmmakers having free rein over the city (as long as they could avoid arrest for indecency) and assuming that their own XXX-rated material wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone after its brief, localized theatrical runs. Fleshpot on 42nd Street feels like an outlier in that way. The 1973 pornographic melodrama opens with an intentionally documentarian eye. Andy Milligan (the film’s writer, director, and cinematographer) juts his handheld camera outside the passenger window of a moving car, intentionally capturing the faces & places that lurked around its titular district of streetwalkers & porno arcades. From frame one, Milligan is clearly more interested in documenting the lowlife personalities that populate 42nd Street than he is in exploiting their bedroom activities for titillation, exemplifying the archival value of the medium that The Rialto Report so often promotes.

That documentarian impulse was likely a result of Milligan’s increasing boredom with making pornography in general. Fleshpot on 42nd Street was the shameless schlockteur’s final sexploitation film before transitioning into cheapo horror productions full-time. You can tell his heart really isn’t in the genital-grinding end of the business here. The main focus of the film is building a dirt-cheap Sirkian melodrama around the life & crimes of a low-level sex worker (Laura Cannon), not inspiring erections among the sleazy patrons of NYC grindhouses. Much of the film recalls the deranged melodramas of Russ Meyer’s collaborations with screenwriter Jack Moran – titles like Good Morning … and Goodbye! & Common Law Cabin. Characters bicker over the scraps life has left them in sweaty dive bars & public hangout spots around the city, displaying more bitter anger than horned-up libido. When they do have sex, their emotional & physical engagement with the act ranges from total boredom to inhuman cruelty. Characters violate our protagonist’s boundaries of consent in high-risk group sex and S&M scenarios. When tending to lower-maintenance johns, she yawns & rolls her eyes while receiving head, scheming on how to rip the bloke off once they tire themselves out. The few moments of passionate lovemaking she finds are with an outsider Prince Charming businessman from Long Island, who promises to set her free from a life of sex work by transforming her into a suburban housewife. During these romantic trysts, the film takes an out-of-nowhere swerve into hardcore depictions of full penetration, further underlying how different her rare moments of sex-for-pleasure are from her more frequent, tedious, and dangerous professional encounters.

I wonder how much of Milligan’s blatant disinterest in the erotic aspects of this story stem from the fact that he was openly homosexual. Fleshpot on 42nd Street details the heterosexual exploits & romances of one female sex worker as she navigates the scummiest corners of Times Square, so the amount of queer content Milligan allows to creep into the frame is continually surprising. Because the director mostly populates his cast with off (off, off) Broadway thespians he was fiends with on the theatre scene, the performers brings a lot of over-the-top gay energy to even the film’s explicitly hetero roles. Many of the protagonist’s johns are clearly disinterested in her sexually, which helps further defang the eroticism of the picture while also heightening its melodrama. Her comic relief sidekick character is a flippantly cruel trans streetwalker who quips at length in a lived-in, queer-as-fuck dialect that guides most of the film’s tone. Even the tragic hetero romance with the Long Island business prince plays with a breathy melodrama that would appeal to gay kids who’d fake sick to skip school and watch soap operas with their mothers. Fleshpot on 42nd Street may be costumed as straight porn, but it’s mostly over-the-top gay theatre in its execution, if not only through Milligan subconsciously expressing his own interests from behind the camera.

You should know by now whether this sleazy slice of NYC grime would appeal to you. And because we live in a golden age of physical media for cinephiles of all stripes, the film is now available in an ungodly pristine digital restoration of the original 16mm print on Blu-Ray via Vinegar Syndrome. There isn’t much to Fleshpot on 42nd Street content-wise that you wouldn’t be used to seeing in other sexploitation relics of its era. The only distinguishing touches to the film are where Milligan’s auteurist sensibilities happen to slither through: the queer bent, the disinterest in hetero erotica, the shameless indulgence in romantic melodrama, the documentarian eye for a horned-up era in the city’s history that was sure to shrivel up quickly. Even if Milligan was growing tired of making hetero porn, this still comes across as a hands-on, personal project. The camera tilts wildly as he literally climbs into bed with his actors or steals candid shots of NYC street life. You never forget his presence behind the camera as he lights the transactional sex, flippant cruelty, and casual racism of his home turf with a single flashlight, as if he were documenting a crime scene. I don’t know that Fleshpot on 42nd Street has made me any hungrier to track down any other Rialto Report-ready sexploitation pictures of its ilk, but it certainly has me interested in Milligan’s work. At the very least, I bet he’d make one hell of a sleazy horror picture under the right circumstances.

-Brandon Ledet

The Farewell (2019)

One of the things I struggle with most in my personal life (to the point where I bring it up weekly in therapy) is my compulsion to avoid conflict & unpleasant conversation, especially with my family. I’ll often spare other people’s feelings by keeping my own opinions on uncomfortable subjects quiet, which limits a lot of my interactions with family to very surface-level & artificially pleasant depths, even when I’m really upset. There’s a lot going on thematically in Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical family drama The Farewell – ranging from immigration culture clash and abstract ponderings on Identity to the very nature of Life & Death – but what really resonated with me personally is how extreme this divide between surface-level familial pleasantries vs. deep emotional anguish becomes as the film pushes on as if nothing’s wrong while the world crumbles around it. Smartly, a lot of this tension between secretive personal grief and forced-smiles small talk is played for morbid humor and a disorientingly surreal tone. When it does come to a point where feelings spill over and characters openly weep in “inappropriate” social settings, though, the cathartic release of that breakdown feels remarkably true to something I’ve often felt in my real life but have never seen expressed so directly on the big screen.

In this case, the secret kept to spare a family member’s feelings is a pretty major one. Awkwafina stars as Wang’s fictional avatar, a young writer who returns to China to visit her elderly grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), who is diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. As is apparently custom in China, her family has decided to lie to their matriarch about her own cancer diagnosis, so that she can live out what little time she has left blissfully unaware of the doom hanging over her head. Her children, grandchildren, and extended family stage a sham wedding as an excuse to visit her one last time under happy circumstances without tipping her off that something is wrong, and most of the tension of the film derives from maintaining that celebratory surface while everyone is miserable with grief. This is a hyper-specific culture clash narrative where Awkwafina’s American upbringing prompts her to desire a genuine emotional display that her parents’ Chinese upbringing does not allow for. They believe they’re doing the grandmother a charitable service by shouldering all the worry & grief themselves, and the movie takes both sides of that argument dead seriously, even when laughing at the exponential absurdity of the situation. As with all hyper-specific human experiences, there’s still a universality to the situation as well, as we’ve all had to tell “good lies” to people we love to spare them grief, even if not as severe in scope as a cancer diagnosis.

Most of this movie’s charm relies on the adorable intergenerational rapport between Awkwafina & Zhao, even with such a devastating secret hanging over them. Whether in a darkly humorous exchange where the granddaughter is teased for being inexplicably gloomy or in a sweeter teasing when the grandmother exclaims, “Stupid child! Too loveable!,” their relationship is endlessly watchable, which makes it all the more devastating that it’s barreling towards such a definitive end. Wang also elevates the material as an exquisite stylist; she emphasizes the heightened emotions of the situation with a lush strings score, dives headfirst into the sensual reliefs & comforts of food as a grief-staver, and underlines the bewildering absurdity of living in a world of competing Truths (that the grandmother is drying and that everything is fine) by abstracting everyday Chinese environments as if they were surreal alien planetscapes. There’s a sequence in a wedding photography studio in particular that’s so continually disorienting that it might as well have been a dream, which is often how it feels to be hit with devastating personal news you haven’t been able to process—either publicly or internally. All this intricate detail in performance and direction adds up to an impressive tightrope balance between morbid humor and quiet emotional anguish – landing The Farewell in a curious space between Oscar Season crowd-pleaser & deceptively complex art film.

I do have a couple minor, spoilery complaints about last minute aesthetic choices that I believe robbed this film’s resolution of its full complex emotional potential by grounding it in a more pedestrian milieu of based-on-a-true-story dramas (or, in this case, “based on a true lie” dramedies). I was still crying despite that turbulent conclusion, though, so I guess those complaints can’t be all that important. Some people will even welcome them as much-needed tension relief, especially if they’ve followed this personal story since Wang first shared it on This American Life. More importantly, Wang herself apparently felt it necessary to include them in this fictionalized retelling of her own personal story, so their crowd-pleasing comforts are likely a version of self-therapy I have no real business questioning, especially since I found her auteurist decision-making so impeccable elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

Her Smell (2019)

There are few narrative templates as a familiar to American audiences as the rockstar addiction story, in which booze & illicit chemicals tear down celebrity gods from powerful highs to pitiful rock-bottoms. Hell, in the last year alone we’ve already seen this exact story play out in Vox Lux, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Dirt, and yet another A Star is Born remake in a longstanding, haggard tradition. On a plot outline level, Her Smell makes no attempt to jazz up the melody of this narrative template. It’s well aware that this is a story we’ve seen too many times before, both in the tabloids and on the big screen. If anything, everyone in the film seems well past exasperated & fed up with watching the tired rock star addiction cliché play out spectacularly around them; they’re just helpless to stop it. As faithful to & disdainful of that cliché as the film appears to be, though, it still manages to feel like a fresh, unholy terror through the virtues of its execution, which does its best to rattle the audience to the point where we’re numb, drained, and begging for release.

A large part of what distinguishes Her Smell in this crowded field is the specificity of its setting. These tortured artist addiction narratives are typically reserved for machismo-driven cock rockers like Jim Morrison, Led Zeppelin, and whatever Americana archetype Bradley Coopers was aiming for in last year’s Oscar run. By contrast, this film is a pastiche of the rock ’n roll excess stories that seeped out of the femme 90s punk bands of the riot grrrl & grunge era. The most obvious 1:1 comparison for its fictional rock ‘n roller Becky Something would be Courtney Love on her worst behavior, but the film pulls from plenty other bands’ onstage personae & backstage drama for inspiration: The Breeders, Throwing Muses, L7 , Babes in Toyland, etc., etc., etc. We see the fictional band Something She at the height of their 90s heyday only in brief interstitials of backstage videocorder footage between much lengthier, more contemporary scenes of their post-fame bickering. It’s a hyper-specific yet undeniably iconic music scene that we rarely get to see depicted in feature films, which usually do little to challenge rock ‘n roll’s outdated reputation as a boys’ club. If we’re going to watch a familiar story of drugs wrecking a rock star’s life & career play out yet again, we might as well use it as an opportunity to see something that’s a much rarer treat in filmmaking of any era: women behaving badly.

Besides the specificity of the setting, Her Smell is also elevated above its potential genre tedium by the provocateur sensibilities of its director, Alex Ross Perry. Perry brings his usual thirst for pitch-black despair & total sensory overload to this Queen of Earth follow-up, content to violently shake his audience by the shoulders for as long as anyone could possible stand it. The major evolution to his usual mode here is a newfound sense of patience. Her Smell is well over two hours long. It’s structured like a stage play, with act-length scenes stretching on for torturous eternities as its addict antagonist torments everyone unfortunate enough to be lured into her orbit. Perry at least has the decency to release some steam from the pressure cooker for a rare moment of calm halfway through the runtime that effectively serves as an intermission, but for the most part he offers very little relief from the anxiety & hurt addiction wreaks on this once vibrant, now decaying music scene. His camera offers a dizzying, unflinching tour through the backstage labyrinth hellscapes behind the concerts that justify this vile behavior, with muffled far-off crowds screaming for more like the demons of Hell. That thunderous applause mixes with subtly unnerving synth flourishes to continually disorient viewers as we’re forced to endure nightmare drug parties long after the good vibes have soured. It’s exhausting, but impressively effective.

All this preamble is really just burying the lede of what truly makes Her Smell a must-see spectacle: Elizabeth Moss. Recalling the maddening whirlwind performances of legendary actors before her like Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence or Faye Dunaway in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Moss plays the tragic rock ‘n roller Betty Something more as a rabid animal or a natural disaster than a human woman. Usually these madwoman breakdown dramas are sympathetic portraits of someone who’s cracked under the pressures of mental illness & impossible Patriarchal ideals. Here, Moss is simply allowed to be total, unforgivable nightmare – bursting into rooms backstage like a flood that wipes out all her friends, family, and colleagues along with her. She curses professional rivals with mysterious black-magic hexes, plays with her small child like a dog temporarily excited by a new chew toy, and feeds off the adoration of her audience as an enabling signifier that she can do no wrong. We never see Moss ingest drugs onscreen, but you can read each speck of the junk on her dazed, ghoulish face. It’s an intensely physical performance that expresses all the subtlety & nuance necessary to make this somewhat generic story specific to her character, so that all Perry has to do (besides write the damn thing) is stay out of her of way and allow it to play out in its full, rabid spectacle. It’s a mesmerizing feat of a performance from one of our greatest living actors.

The final achievement that makes Her Smell an exceptional specimen of its ilk is in the quiet release of its final moments, something I wouldn’t dare spell out here even if I thought it was possible. After two full hours of being terrorized by Elizabeth Moss’s feral showboating, everyone involved is exhausted on a molecular level, allowing for a rare moment of quiet grace I can’t recall ever seeing before in this Tragic Rock ‘n Roll Addict genre. I was genuinely, emotionally moved by the final lines of Her Smell, which was something I hadn’t expected given the familiarity of this thematic material. It shames me to admit that I had much stronger feelings overall for the superficially similar swing-for-the-fences mess of Vox Lux last year. Still, it’s undeniable that Moss & Perry broke through to something truly resonant & powerful by the time this film reaches it’s closing moments of denouement – whether through the specificity of character & setting, the willingness to dwell in intense discomfort, or the perversely cathartic pleasure of watching Women Behaving Badly.

-Brandon Ledet

Frenzy (1972)

Although I do attend The Prytania’s Sunday morning Classic Movies series far more often than I used to, I’m not exactly religious about it. If my schedule is convenient enough and the Old Hollywood classic on the bill is halfway intriguing, I’m likely to go, but my attendance is not a guaranteed weekly occurrence. (If the demographics of the few patrons who do attend every week are any indication, that won’t be a part of my regular routine for another thirty years or so). There is one major exception, though; if The Prytania is screening a Hitchcock film I’ve never seen before, I consider it mandatory appointment viewing. This started when the Classic Movies’ iconic host Rene Brunet Jr. would bring an unbridled enthusiasm to the Hitchcock pictures that he reserved for few others, but it’s a tradition that’s continued now years since Mr. Rene’s sadly passed away. (I still get teary-eyed at his pre-recorded intros to the Sunday screenings). Of course, an allegiance to Rene Brunet’s memory isn’t the only thing that keeps me coming back for every Hitchcock picture, from stone-cold classics like Strangers on a Train to forgotten frivolities like Saboteur. I’m also in attendance for the Hitchcock classics because they always deliver. I’ve yet to blindly go into an Alfred Hitchcock film on the big screen and leave disappointed; each consecutive screening has been a delight so far, whether in surprise of a smaller flick that doesn’t get much attention or in a decades-late affirmation of something I’ve already known to be a classic long before I saw it for myself. That very nearly changed for me with The Prytania’s recent screening of Hitchcock’s late-career serial killer thriller Frenzy, a film that’s just as punishingly nasty in spirit as it is impressive technical craft.

The very first murder scene in Frenzy is so grotesquely sleazy that I almost soured on the movie entirely. At the very least, I did not blame the young couple who quietly walked out of the screening after that brutal, misogynist display, as it was nothing like what we have been primed to expect from the Hitchcock classics that regularly screen in that venue. Frenzy is a thriller about a man who’s wrongly accused of serially strangling women to death all over London with his neckties, then dumping their bodies to be discovered by police & press. There’s no glaring narrative deviation in that premise from Hitchcock’s usual schtick, as it’s common that we know who the true killer is in these thrillers upfront and all the mystery & suspense is packaged in watching a wrongly accused man prove his innocence. The major deviation here, then, is a severity in tone. The first murder committed onscreen is a lengthy, unblinking rape & strangling shot in sweaty closeups that drag on for a hideous eternity. It’s a break in form from Hiscock’s classic mode, where he was restrained in what Hays Code-type censorship would allow him to get away with onscreen, to explore a much crasser sensibility befitting 1970s grindhouse exploitation like I Spit on Your Grave, I Drink Your Blood, or Last House on the Left. It’s arguable that this distasteful effect was purposeful & self-aware, since the subsequent murders in the film read more like a return to form in contrast – with Hitchcock pulling away from the violent & sexual brutality of the kills instead of pushing in to gawk at it. If the point was to demonstrate how much better 1950s restraint & cleverness in obscuration are in depicting onscreen violence than the 1970s free-for-all of uninhibited sleaze & cruelty, it’s severely undercut by just how much of a sour taste that first kill scene leaves to linger over the rest of the picture. Hitchcock may move on to finish his point, but the audience struggles to move past the echo of his openings statement.

Part of the reason it’s difficult to fully buy into the tonal shift of the softened violence after that opening kill is that Frenzy is morally grotesque in so many other ways. Our wrongly accused man may not be a murderer or a serial rapist, but he’s a grotesquely macho piece of shit that the movie too easily lets off the hook anyway. He’s the same womanizing, alcoholic anti-hero we’ve been asked to sympathize with in far too many machismo fantasies over the years (including in a John Wayne pic titled Brannigan that oddly resembles this one), a total menace in the lives of the women who are unfortunate enough to know him. When he asks his current girlfriend/coworker “Do I look like a sex-murderer to you?” it’s frustrating that her answer isn’t a simple, resounding “Yes,” because he totally does. The same parallels Hitchcock usually draws between his own voyeurism as a director and the violent perversions of his fictional killers continues here, but the unrestrained frankness of the dialogue makes that connection more distasteful than intriguing. The men of London regularly joke about the rapes with offhand bon mots about how “Women like to struggle,” as well as playing armchair psychologist with the killer-at-large’s necktie strangling kink. Hitchcock’s unconscious id as a violent, voyeuristic pervert is still interesting here, but listening to characters babble about how “criminal, sexual psychopaths […] hate women and are mostly impotent” only continues the moral unease of that opening, hideous murder scene long after it’s over. In terms of the explicit brutality of his onscreen violence, Hitchcock may revert to his old ways after the first kill’s brief indulgence in 70s sleaze, but there are plenty of other, unconscious factors that leave us stuck in that initial shock: a scumbag protagonist, a continued leering at naked breasts (whether or not they’re attached to corpses), a general disinterest in the inner lives of women outside their roles as victims, an equating of kink to rape, etc.

All of this is not to say that Frenzy is meritless, or even minor. Most of the film’s set pieces are just as cleverly genius as Hitchcock ever was in his prime, especially a central one set the back of a potato truck and a backwards tracking shot that pulls away from the second murder. It’s also a joy to watch the legendary director export this artistry from traditional sound stages to the crowded streets of London, as most of the film is shot on location. I also always have respect for auteurs who go down swinging in their later years, concluding their careers on angry screeds of pure, uninhibited id. It’s just that the general pall of 70s sleaze mutes a lot of Unkie Hitch’s usual charm. It’s a stomach-turning level of violent misogyny I usually brace myself for when approaching 1970s genre cinema blind but didn’t think to in this particular case because of my past, pleasant experiences watching Hitchcock classics at The Prytania. I have to wonder, if Rene Brunet were still around to host the series himself, would he have selected or approved of it? I have my doubts.

-Brandon Ledet

Tenement (1985)

No matter how turned off or disgusted you are by Roberta Findlay’s grim & grimy oeuvre, you could never be a harsher critic of her work than the filmmaker is herself. In an incredibly rare interview on her time as a pornographer & schlockteur with The Rialto Report, Findlay disparages the supposed artistic value of her work and dismisses the fans who attempt to reevaluate her films as dangerous lunatics she wants nothing to do with. Findlay describes herself as a human barnacle who would latch onto & follow the whims of the men in her life rather than finding any self-driven motivation of her own. She uses this metaphor to explain how she transformed from a trained pianist who would accompany silent films in a repertory cinemas to a cinematographer & eventual director of hardcore pornography, a business that interested her late husband & artistic collaborator. Findlay herself was disgusted by the sexual extremity of the rough pornos she was filming for profit, a revulsion that carried over to her depictions of extreme violence in the grindhouse horror industry (once the VHS market made porno less profitable). I imagine her disgust & horror with filming rough sex worked against her porno films’ ostensible goal of titillation, but in her hyperviolent genre work it only enhances her accomplishments. In Findlay’s signature exploitation piece, the 1985 home invasion cheapie Tenement, the director’s self-hatred & disgust with the sex, violence, and sexual violence on display oozes through the screen in every scene’s grotesque tableau. Roberta Findlay may report to despise the grime & cruelty of films like Tenement, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of that ill-will in the final product, which makes us all sick to our stomachs along with her.

Instead of invading a single home, the murderous hooligans of Tenement invade an entire community, keeping the film true to close-quarters NYC living. A dilapidated housing tenement in The Bronx (the exact kind of run-down apartment complex Findlay grew up in herself) is overrun by a gang of hyperviolent squatters on Angel Dust. Recalling the similar crime wave paranoia of films like I Drink Your Blood, The Class of 1984, Street Trash, and The Warriors, the film pits helpless families trying to scrape a peaceful life together against hedonist drug dealers who stave off boredom by playing with dead rats, snorting cocaine off switchblades, and mutilating normies with real jobs & families. The film devolves into a PCP-addled version of Home Alone from there, with the building’s proper tenants inventing gangster-killing booby traps (like box spring electric fences & rat poison heroin) to kill off the encroaching squatters. Both the gang & the community of victims are racially & culturally diverse enough to avoid the usual political offenses of this urban crime genre, but Findlay finds new ways to offend all on her own. Sometimes, her amoral cruelty makes for an excitingly heightened version of the home invasion template, especially in how no victim feels at all safe from being torn apart by the crazed hooligans – not children, not the elderly, not single mothers, not pets, no one. Other times, the cruelty goes too far and makes for a deeply unpleasant, almost impossible watch – such as in the first-person-POV staging of a gang rape or in watching the villains bathe in dog’s blood for a fun lark. In either instance, it’s Findlay’s unflinching, self-hating depictions of human viciousness & misery that distinguishes Tenement in its crowded field of grimy NYC exploitation cinema. A lot of schlock peddlers in the business didn’t especially care about the hyperviolence on display beyond its capacity to sell tickets. Findlay, by contrast, despised the stuff and found her own films grotesque, which shows through in the work in genuinely upsetting ways.

Given the heartless cruelty on display, especially in its pivotal scene of sexual assault, it’s not difficult to see why Roberta Findlay dismisses Tenement (along with the rest of her porno & exploitation catalog) as useless, despicable trash. I would at least hope that she can look back with some pride on what she accomplished in her filmmaking craft, though. This is a shockingly well-shot, tightly edited picture considering its budget. Plotted over the course of a single day and regularly time-stamped for temporal perspective, the film boasts an incredible efficiency in storytelling its fellow video nasties rarely mustered. The close-quarters violence of its invasion plot is partly so memorably brutal because it’s never obscured; you’re always aware of exactly what’s being done to the victims, with the camera often pausing for a mood-setting detail. In some ways, this unexpected production quality allows Tenement’s nastiness to catch the audience off-guard. In an early scene, the PCP gang’s head honcho spins on a lazy-Susan while shouting to the sky “I’m going to get my building back!” in a tone that promises major-studio fun rather than the grindhouse mayhem to come. Tenement is also bookended by my all-time favorite movie trope: the plot-summarizing rap song, also a staple of a more corporate, more inhibited product. This grimy NYC nightmare is all the more effective for having someone behind the camera who actually knows what she’s doing, so that you expect a level of quality control in its content that just isn’t there. Findlay’s curse is that she was skilled at her craft but hated the immoral content her efforts were applied to. It’s a tension between creator & art that makes for a grotesque, unsettling experience for the audience – the transgression of a work that hates its own guts and knows it should not exist but pushes on for the meager box office payoff anyway. The results of that payoff are fascinating, even if you can barely stomach to look at them.

-Brandon Ledet