The Favourite (2018)

When exiting our screening of The Favourite, we watched a confused man point to a theater lobby standee advertising the upcoming historical biopic Mary, Queen of Scots. “That’s the movie I thought I was seeing!” he complained to an impatient usher and amused passersby. “When does that come out?” I explained that he was only a week early and asked what he thought of The Favourite, having not been prepared for it. He chuckled and responded, “It was . . . different,” which is exactly the thing moms say when they want to be nice about hating something they know you loved. To be fair, The Favourite is “different” if you consider it a part of the same genre as Mary, Queen of Scots: Oscar Season costume dramas with famous actors playing dress-up & chewing historically accurate scenery in governmental battles of manners. Featuring Olivia Colman, Rachel Wiesz, and Emma Stone (and sometimes Nicholas Hoult) entangled in a barbed, sadistic 18th Century power struggle, the movie could easily be confused with something tamer & more buttoned up if you just quickly glanced at a TV spot or a poster. The Favourite is something much less palatable for wide-audiences, though, something deliberately off-putting in its self-amused cruelty: it’s the new Yorgos Lanthimos joint.

As disoriented & befuddled as my new theater lobby friend already was by The Favourite, it’s difficult to imagine how much more shaken he would have felt exiting a previous Lanthimos film like The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Would he have even made it to the end credits? No matter how wild or devilishly cruel The Favourite may seem in a costume drama context, it’s also a rare glimpse of Lanthimos on his best behavior. Many of his usual auteurist themes about the absurdity of “civil” behavior and the stripping of emotional artifice carry over into this work, but the dialogue is not as deliberately stilted and the violence not nearly as jarring. Part of this smoothing out of his most off-putting impulses is due to the setting; an 18th Century royal court is the exact right place for buttoned-up, emotionally distanced behavior, whereas it often feels alien or robotic in his more modern settings. It also helps that this is the first film Lanthimos directed but did not write (the screenplay was penned by Tony McNamara & Deborah Davis), so that his most upsetting impulses are somewhat dulled. The jokes fly faster & with a newfound, delicious bitchiness. The sex & violence veer more towards slapstick than inhuman cruelty. The Favourite is Lanthimos seeking moments of compromise & accessibility while still staying true to his distinctly cold auteurist voice – and it’s his best film to date for it.

To further complicate the question of whether The Favourite is a well-behaved historical costume drama or a provocatively cruel art film, it’s loosely based on a real-life conflict in the 18th Century court of Queen Anne (Colman). The Queen’s closest confidantes (Weisz as a childhood friend & Stone as a power-starved upstart) compete for her affection to siphon off a small fraction of the privilege & political weight bestowed by the Crown. How they compete is where the film deviates from what you’ll find in similarly staged costume dramas about power grabs between members of the court: gay sex, bitchy retorts, Paris is Burning style voguing – behavior more befitting a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race than anything you’re likely to find in Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s not that Lanthimos isn’t interested in the real-life historical dynamic he’s depicting or that he only uses the setting as set dressing. It’s more that he doesn’t let detailed historical accuracy get in the way of big-picture truths. The queer sexuality, useless fop men, “civil” power struggles, and absurdist displays of decadence (best represented in the court’s hoarding of pet bunnies & gambling on duck races) depicted in the film are exaggerated & modernized for comic effect, but they do often get to deeper truths about the era the movie might not have had the time or energy to mine if it were more factually behaved.

There are two hurdles to clear in appreciating The Favourite. The first is in accepting modern sensibilities’ intrusion on a historical setting. My confused theater lobby friend compared that temporal breach to A Knight’s Tale. I’d more likely use Barry Lyndon, Marie Antoinette, or Phantom Thread as reference points. That’s the easier hurdle to conquer either way. What’s more difficult to manage is Yorgos Lanthimos’s auteurist schtick. This is the closest I’ve come to fully falling in love with a Lanthimos pic, but I still felt my appreciation slipping the further he strayed from compromise in the film’s second half. The first hour or so of The Favourite is exquisite, outrageous comedy I love to pieces. Some extremely Lanthimosy choices in the more dramatic second hour gradually cool it off from there and I kind of wish the whole thing were pure sadistic fun because I am a frivolous fop at heart. Still, I left the theater immensely pleased in a way no previous Lanthimos feature, no matter how “different,” had affected me. I very much sympathized with the poor befuddled chap who left just ahead of me, though, as he feebly pointed to the standee advertising a much more accessible picture. A Knight’s Tale is not at all a decent enough primer for your first bout in the ring with this humorously cruel provocateur, no matter how well he’s behaving.

-Brandon Ledet

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Like Me (2018)

A neon-lit technophobic thriller profiling a teenage hedonist who posts videos of her increasingly violent, entirely preposterous crime spree on social media for likes, Like Me portends to be about the violence & voyeurism of modern online culture. Its title & basic premise promise the exact kind of genre-film fearmongering about the Evils of the Internet that I love so much in titles like Cam, Nerve, Unfriended, and #horror. That genre’s influence certainly runs throughout Robert Mockler’s microbudget debut as a constant, background hum, but the film overall is more of a character study of an ambitionless slacker who fills her days with drugs & violent pranks as a destructive form of self-amusement. The moral pitfalls & visual hallmarks of online culture are mostly an aesthetic choice used to flavor the post-Gen X road trip drama our reckless slacker protagonist stumbles through aimlessly. Given her grotesque impulses to indulge in large quantities of brightly colored junk food – both as sustenance and as bodily decoration – the film is just as much about sploshing as it is about the Internet. The command “Like me” from the title, then, is a clever indication of the midpoint where the film teeters between genres: stuck between an Internet Age crime spree thriller and a character study of a timeless teenage-loner archetype who just desperately needs attention & adoration.

The first 20min of Like Me is the exact social media-obsessed cyberthriller its surface-details promise. The film opens with our adoration-craving anti-hero filming her robbery of a late-night convenience store as if it were a 1st person shooter video game. Everything from her pixelated mask, her victim’s discomfort, and her audiences’ flippant online response to the misery being documented for their entertainment is a perfect encapsulation of the fearmongering cyberthriller that’s promised on the tin. Her subsequent stunts stray further from that theme as she often forgets to even film her crimes, which range form staging an elaborate dine & dash with a homeless man to kidnapping & shooting a pervy motel owner with a handgun. It’s in her relationship with that kidnapped perv (Larry Fessenden, looking like a mix between Jack Torrance & the Too Many Cooks creep) that Like Me begins to show its true, hideous colors. Its online-voyeurism critiques fade to the background as this unlikely, doomed pair become increasingly friendly on a go-nowhere road trip. As they hop novelty motels, share cheap drugs & morbid stories, and loosen the constraints of their captive-captor dynamic, the film becomes more about a single interpersonal connection made irl instead of thousands being made online – as irrevocably fucked up as the relationship might be.

As much as I’ve been focusing on Like Me’s various themes & character relationships here, those are admittedly the film’s most glaring weaknesses. Online commenters reducing human misery to the same entertainment value applied to movie trailer reaction videos & Funko Pops unboxings on YouTube is too thin of a critique to carry the movie on its own – both due to over-familiarity & to the broadness of its caricatures of an online audience. The closest Like Me gets to making a unique, interesting point about the evils of online culture is in casting a young female lead in a world where she’s surrounded almost exclusively by misogynist MRA types who make her feel small no matter how large her social media following becomes. It fares slightly better on that front once it becomes a kidnapping road trip drug movie, but for the most part the themes are razor thin and the quality of its actors’ performances is wildly uneven. It’s just easier to dwell on those narrative weaknesses in discussion of the film than it is to convey what makes it worth a watch: its visual experimentation. Like Me’s hyperactive editing style, neon-soaked production design, and glitchy .gif-influenced cyber-psychedelia transform what should be an entirely dismissible microbudget thriller that’s kind of about the dangers of the Internet into something genuinely worth a look. It didn’t deliver the Internet Age fearmongering I was hoping for, it stumbles a little in its search for having something to say, and the acting talent on hand is spotty, but the imagery it assaults the audience with is undeniably something – especially in its drugged-out, up-close depictions of day-glo sploshing.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 11/22/18 – 11/28/18

A quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Widows Academy Award-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, not Bullitt) cashes in some of his prestige points to make an action-thriller heist picture about a group of ordinary women who reluctantly transform into violent criminals. I’m always on the hook for an artfully staged genre picture, and I’d love to see this one’s pedigree land an action flick in Oscar contention.

Pokémon The Movie: The Power of Us – The “The Movie” part of the title may indicate that a Pokémon movie is a first-of-its-kind breakthrough, but the truth is that this is the 21st feature film of the franchise and the second of this current reboot. The plot & production history aren’t going to be much of a selling point here. This is 100% just an opportunity to cherish seeing Pikachu be cute on the big screen one last time before Ryan Reynolds ruins the act forever by turning the adorable monster into Lil’ Deadpool. Screening November 24, 26, and 28 via Fathom Events.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

Overlord This is less the Nazi Zombie Movie tedium delivered in Dead Snow than it is an over-the-top descendant of Re-Animator, reinterpreted as a WWII video game. It’s cartoonish schlock with a big studio budget behind it – a deliriously fun, cathartic middle finger to the Nazi grotesqueries of the modern world.

Venom A C-grade superhero movie that treads water for at least a half-hour, then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy with an outright Nic Cagian lead performance from Tom Hardy. Venom plays like a less satirically pointed, big-budget version of Upgrade or a modernized Henenlotter, but its highs are also much funnier (and surprisingly queerer) than either of those reference points. It’s a lot of fun if you maintain your patience through the first act.

-Brandon Ledet

Morgan (2016)

Ever since Anya Taylor-Joy made her grand entrance as a name to watch in her stunning, starring role in The Witch (Swampflix’s 2016 Movie of the Year), she’s continued to be a compelling presence in modern genre cinema. Perhaps typecast for her wide-eyed, witchy visage that appears as if she just stepped out of a Victorian oil painting, Taylor-Joy has continued to dwell in genre cinema corners ranging from the Gothic horror vibes of Marrowbone & The Miniaturist to the highly stylized modernist thrillers Split & Thoroughbreds. I’m unsure if that reflects her personal taste in choosing roles or just the range of options being made available to her, but it seems constant to her career path stretching back even before her name became synonymous with The Witch. The same year The Witch was released to wide audiences, Taylor-Joy starred as the titular character in a more mainstream production that made much less of a splash. The sci-fi horror Morgan, directorial debut of Ridley Scott’s son Luke Scott, was largely dismissed in its initial run as merely being an obvious, Hollywood-style rehashing of the superior work Ex Machina, perhaps rightfully so. As hyperbolically negative as I find the film’s general critical reputation to be, I somewhat understand that dismissal and can mount no defense of the mediocre-at-best thriller as some great lost work worthy of reclamation. After recently falling in love with Anya Taylor-Joy’s screen presence all over again in the BBC miniseries The Miniaturist, however, I did find Morgan worthy of a revisit, if not solely for the merits of her performance.

Like Ex Machina, Morgan is a Turing Test thriller where an outside party is hired to determine the commercial viability of a femme A.I. creation in captivity at a remotely located science facility. Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, and Jennifer Jason Leigh round out an over-qualified cast of scientists & staffers assigned to this A.I. experiment, but they mostly amount to archetypes who hang around to get slaughtered once things inevitably go wrong. Only two characters really matter in this movie: Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular, dangerous A.I. creation and Kate Mara as a corporate “risk management consultant” hired to assess the artificial creature’s commercial viability. A very human-like creation with a recent history of violent episodes with the staff, Morgan presents two ethical questions the movie only pretends to wrestle with: “Is her advancement of technology worth the risk of her potential violence?” and “Is she a person or is it property?” These very basic sci-fi concerns are mostly just time-wasters in the lead-up to the film’s true payoff: Morgan’s escape & horrific slaughter of every human that held her captive, even the ones she once considered close friends & family (as much as an A.I. creature could). These horror genre leanings are reinforced by the sci-fi lab’s locale in a spooky Gothic mansion & a few last-minute, telegraphed twists that are much more concerned about in-the-moment thrills then they are philosophical ponderings. Morgan’s main concern is an attempt to be coldly creepy, and it’s something the movie often pulls off well thanks to the seething animosity that binds Mara & Taylor-Joy’s performances.

As a sci-fi horror about an A.I. creation that escapes captivity & erupts into bloodshed, Morgan doesn’t offer much of interest that can’t be found elsewhere. As a showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy’s acting range, the film does feature some deviating touches in performance that feels like a far cry from her more typical modes in The Miniaturist & The Witch. Although often cast in spooky genre fare, Taylor-Joy typically plays a traumatized, delicate victim, batting her giant doe eyes to convey innocence in a world ruled by evil (deceptively so in Thoroughbreds). Here, she’s allowed to be fierce & dangerous throughout, even opening the film in a vicious lunge to tear out one of her captor’s eyes. Taylor-Joy plays Morgan with the brooding anger of a teenage girl who’s been wronged and stripped of her agency, expressing a quiet, violent anger halfway between explosive emotional outburst & cold, machine-like calculation of who exactly to strike. You can even sense this atypical use of her screen presence in her costuming, which forsakes her usual period-specific garb for a modernist sweatpants & hoodie combo – the comfy outfit of a pissed off teen locked in their room by parents who Just Don’t Understand. Her striking looks are intensified by a cold makeup effect that almost renders her silver, as if she’s in black & white while the rest of the film is in color. It’s a different approach to how her appearance & talents are typically deployed in genre films and that deviation is largely what makes Morgan a worthwhile watch. As a Hollywood companion piece to Ex Machina the film could only suffer through comparison, but as a demonstration of explosive teenage anger from a compelling actor who doesn’t often get to express it, it finds a way to feel worthwhile.

You’re unlikely to walk away from Morgan with any intense interest in whatever follow-up project Luke Scott has in the works. The film is competent enough to get by as a passable sci-fi horror diversion about a Killer A.I., but it’s ultimately nothing special in terms of style or texture. The takeaway is more the question of what other sides of Anya Taylor-Joy’s abilities as a performer are we not yet privy to this early in her career. I appreciated seeing her as a teenage killing machine here, but I’m even more excited by what that indicates about what she might be able to unleash in future roles. It’s a career worth keeping a (gigantic, doe-like) eye on, to say the least.

-Brandon Ledet

Too Late or Too Soon? The Subtle Art of the Well-Timed Charles Manson Joke

Charles Manson is right up there with Adolf Hitler as a monstrous historical figure whose name is over-cited for easy, #edgy punchlines. The Manson Family murders obviously never came close to matching the body count or continued political atrocities resulting from Hitler & the Nazi Party, but there’s an easy shock value to Charles Manson’s sensationalist, highly-publicized crimes that makes his name just as frequent of a punchline. The joke, no matter how tasteless, has been run into the ground over decades of repetition in South Park episodes, Sam Kinison routines, and Marilyn Manson album titles to the point where it’s too old hat to be effectively offensive. There may have been some minor uproar after Quentin Tarantino’s recent announcement that he’ll be dramatizing the Manson Family murders in his signature tongue-in-cheek way with the upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but most of the outrage surrounding the production has focused on the casting of known-abuser Emile Hirsch & Tarantino’s public statements making light of Roman Polanski’s rape charges. Outrage over his potentially glib treatment of the Sharon Tate murders has been put on the backburner as people address fresher wounds. Our Movie of the Month, the 2006 stop-motion musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, was similarly too late to the table to shatter any monocles with its own Charles Manson humor. There’s a performative transgression to Live Freaky! Die Freaky! that acts as if making light of Charles Manson & Sharon Tate was crossing a sealed taboo barrier never before addressed in comedy, despite decades of preceding shock-value art to the contrary. Like Tarantino’s still-in-production Manson movie, Live Freaky! Die Freaky! had to find other, less seemly ways to offend than relying simply on citing Charles Manson’s crimes in a humorous tone (namely through “ironic” misogyny & homophobia).

If timeliness is the key to a truly offensive Charles Manson joke, it’s doubtful that anyone could claim the honor more convincingly than John Waters. On the commentary track for the Criterion Collection release of his 1970 feature Multiple Maniacs, Waters explains the ways the developing account of the Sharon Tate murders changed the shape of the film during production, as the story was still playing out in the headlines. Early in the film, Divine teases her lover (played by David Lochary) by threatening to turn him into the police for killing Tate, even mocking the “P-I-G” carving in her stomach, a real-life detail. Waters explains, “When we shot this, they had not caught Charles Manson. No one knew who he was or anything about him.” Later in the film, Lochary says as much when he holds up an actual newspaper revealing Manson’s involvement in the Tate murder, absolving himself of the crimes Divine attempted to in pin on him, exclaiming, “I’ve never heard of these people!” That scene was quickly re-written the day the paper was printed, making for what has to be the earliest Charles Manson joke on celluloid. When John Waters & The Dreamlanders were joking about Charles Manson, the humor actually was transgressive, an effect that had only dulled & diluted by the time Live Freaky! Die Freaky! arrived over three decades later. When you read positive responses to Live Freaky! Die Freaky! online, they typically liken director John Roecker to Waters, saying his work is “in the comedy style of films like Pink Flamingos.” I’m not buying the comparison. The two directors may have overlapped in thematic territory & subject, but the timing of their arrival completely alters the effect & context of the material. When John Waters joked about The Manson Family murders it was a dangerous, culturally taboo act of true political transgression. By the time John Roecker did the same it was a hack bit that had lost all that impact through decades of dilution, like a kid playing dress-up as a Dangerous Artist.

It’s important to remember the cultural context in which John Waters was making his Charles Manson jokes. As he explains in it on the Multiple Maniacs commentary, the political upheaval of the late 60s countercultural made it feel as if the world were ending. Before turning to filmmaking, Waters poured his political angst into protesting, rioting, and writing for leftist mags. He describes his crew as being pissed-off, dysfunctional hippies who would later become punks & bikers – counterculture types who had not yet established their own niche. His filmmaking was an extension of that political unrest, using humor to both process the absurdity of a culture in chaos and “using humor as terrorism to embarrass your enemy.” When Waters jokes about The Weather Underground & killing cops in Multiple Maniacs, it’s coming from a real place of anger against the cops who arrested his crew while filming Mondo Trasho and added a homophobic slur to David Lochary’s name in their reports. When he jokes about Sharon Tate’s death, films anal lesbian acts involving rosary beads in a Catholic church, or *gasp* shows “two queers kissing like lovers on the lips!” in the film, he was bucking against very real constrictions of censorship, genuinely pushing the envelope of what was allowed by law. Censor boards in America attempted to shut the film down in outrage only for judges to shrug off the complaints because the acts were tasteless, but technically legal. When he sent prints to a Canadian distributor, border police confiscated & destroyed them, not waiting for a judge to weigh in on their legality. Roecker & Tarantino are only able to make their own tasteless Charles Manson jokes now because those censorship battles have already been won; as Waters explains it, “You can put anything in a movie now,” so that for-its-own-sake shock value no longer holds any political power. When hardcore pornography was legalized, Waters gave up trying to shock the censors and moved on to more narrative-focused works like Female Trouble & Polyester. Roecker & Tarantino are only playing with his broken, discarded toys that have been collecting dust in the attic for decades.

That’s not to say that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood can’t or won’t find useful thematic material in the Manson Family murders. There’s no telling how that will pan out until we see the finished product. The dichotomy between the pointed political subversion of Multiple Maniacs and the pointless juvenile posturing of Live Freak! Die Freaky! does suggest that it will be a difficult task, however. John Waters snuck in his Manson Family humor when the wounds were still fresh and the topic was still taboo. John Roecker warns of what could happen when you pretend that same topic still has edge, despite it long having been made acceptable through repetition & familiarity.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at the director’s follow-up, the Green Day documentary Heart Like a Hand Grenade.

-Brandon Ledet

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

The first book I read in 2018 was Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last. The protagonist and her husband, who lost their home and their professional jobs and now live in their car while trying to avoid sexually- and economically-motivated violence, agree to participate in a project called “Consilience.” Consilience is a kind of planned, gated community in which participants spend alternating months in a nice home and working professional jobs and in a “prison,” doing more menial tasks. Over the course of the book, the main characters become aware that the promises of Consilience are hollow, and that the corporate overseers of the community have many nefarious goals, as the work narratively explores themes of identity, oppression, corporate irresponsibility, and sexual predation in multiple forms. Despite being a huge Atwood fan going back over a decade since the first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale in 2005 (it’s a book that retains its relevance regardless of the particular authoritarian ugliness one is currently living under, be it the War on Terror or the current War on Decency), this is, other than the awful Surfacing, my least favorite of her books. The Heart Goes Last is simply too tonally inconsistent, rapidly flipping back and forth from the kind of insightful commentary that makes up her other works to a kind of absurdist humor that the astute reader can see is intended to make the darkness darker, but doesn’t work.

Sorry to Bother You has a similar plot point, and a similar problem. From the first few minutes, the audience is made aware of the existence of WorryFree, a corporate entity to which citizens can essentially sign over their freedom in exchange for the relative security of guaranteed employment and wages. This has become a more common feature of dystopian fiction of late, especially as broad trends point toward a governmental and social system that is more pro-corporatism and anti-consumer, as various writers and artists highlight the way that economically disadvantaged people can be pressured and herded into debt slavery and company towns from which there is no escape. (Aside: there’s a lengthy description of one such company town in Octavia Butler’s phenomenal 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, which should be considered required reading for every American citizen, in my opinion.) The issue in Sorry is the same of that in The Heart Goes Last: the abject horror of the concept of WorryFree and Consilience alike is undercut by the comedy of the absurd that permeates both works. Imagine that The Handmaid’s Tale and Idiocracy were involved in a teleporter accident and you’ve got a pretty good idea of why this shouldn’t work, and you’re picturing both THGL and STBY, although through different lenses (notably, the comparison to Idiocracy is almost too obvious, given the presence of Idiocracy alum Terry Crews in STBY as the protagonists’s uncle, who is considering signing himself up for the WorryFree program). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Sorry to Bother You presents the story of Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a resident of an alternate contemporary Oakland. Cash lives in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Crews) and, as the film opens, finds a job as a telemarketer for RegalView that will hopefully pave a way for himself and his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) to have a more stable lifestyle. On his first day, he is encouraged by more seasoned co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” (David Cross) when making his sales calls as a way of making (predominantly white) customers feel more at ease and trusting. Although this tack leads him to success in his career, Cash also feels drawn to the ideals of Squeeze (Steven Yeun), a fellow RegalView employee who is actively working with his peers to form a union.  Cash finds himself torn between two worlds and various factions as his star continues to rise; promotion at work leads him to learn that upper tiers of RegalView’s services includes selling the human labor of WorryFree. He finds himself the subject of special interest of WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who invites him to a bourgeois party where Cash’s “otherness” is put on full display as he is forced to, in the cultural theory lexicon of our times, “perform his blackness” for an audience of rapt white people. In a private meeting, Lift reveals his ultimate goals for WorryFree, much to Cash’s horror.

A very dear friend saw STBY about a week before I did and warned me off of it: “I hated it,” he said. A fellow writer and friend with whom I went to see the movie the following weekend walked out and immediately declared: “Well, that was a piece of shit” (she missed about 15 minutes of the film for personal reasons and re-evaluated that stance once we filled her in on what she missed, but her overall impression was still largely negative). I feel that my concerns with the negative elements of the film may give the impression that I feel the same way, but that’s not really true. This is a movie that is undoubtedly flawed and certainly has all the hallmarks of a first feature from a director who has too many ideas, even if all those ideas are interesting (or even brilliant) in isolation. Another friend advised that her co-worker broke down STBY thusly: Scott Pilgrim + Black Panther + Black Mirror + Office Space. At the time, a mere day or two after my screening, I responded that my breakdown was more 15% Get Out, 30% Naked Lunch, 10% Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 5% Rent (mostly that Detroit’s stunningly bad performance art piece is a lot like the horrible Maureen’s horrible “Moo With Me!” bullshit, presumably [hopefully] as a parody of the same), 10% Idiocracy, and 30% Being John Malkovich. After a couple of weeks to marinate on it, I’d probably change those percentages up a little bit and add that there’s also a few healthy pinches of that one episode of Degrassi TNG in which Liberty realizes that the only reason the Smithdale sorority wants her is to serve as their token black friend.

Make no mistake: this is a good film and a great work of art, even when the meaning of certain symbology is hard to parse. It’s worth noting that the negative reviews I got from friends were from white friends, which isn’t meant to impugn them, but demonstrates how a story about blackness, perceived whiteness, the navigation of predominately white economic spaces, code switching, and the magical realism of taking concepts like “talking white” and “workhorse” to a literal extreme can discomfit white audiences without them understanding why (bear in mind, I am a white person, so I’m trying to use my privilege to highlight this while staying in my lane, so please forgive me if there’s something I’ve overlooked).

This is good: making your audience aware of inequities and how they affect the psychology of every participant, those who are empowered and those who seek empowerment but can be corrupted by it, is important. And faulting a work of art for not providing a clear explanation of how to navigate this minefield is as foolish as expecting every disadvantaged or disenfranchised person to assume personal responsibility for your education about social issues and race relations. This film raises awareness without trying to make the audience feel better at the end by saying “oh, there is a path to a better world, just follow this light.” It just says “this is a bad time, guys” and means it, and leaves each member of the audience to sort out what that means individually. If there’s any truly glaring fault, it’s that the film occasionally makes the mistake that Crash (shudder) did, which was painting racism as solely an independent, personal flaw of character rather than as both an individual fault and as uncritical or insufficiently critical participation in hegemonic social constructs and systems of power that are the legacy of colonialism.

There’s a line in Sorry to Bother You that I really love, even if I can’t remember the exact wording and can only paraphrase: “When people don’t know how to fix a problem, they get used to it.” In a recent interview, writer/director Boots Riley noted that the undesirable—and yes, deplorable—elements of American society have made themselves more visible in the past few years, to the point that his original satirical screenplay, written in 2014, had to be rewritten to avoid being “too on the nose.” Notably, this meant the excision of the line “WorryFree is making America great again,” which was composed at least two years before that same rhetorical phraseology took on the connotation that it has now. (Another aside: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1984 publication The Wild Shore is another dystopian novel concerning a post-disaster U.S., like Parable. In Wild Shore, we see that “Make America Great Again” was the rallying cry of another dangerous leader who draws people to his banner in the name of nationalistic pride. It’s quite good, although it also shares some of the first time novelist/director issues that STBY has, as it was originally written as Robinson’s MFA thesis.) These continue to be dark days, and though we may not know how to fix them, we must not get used to them. And if you like your social commentary candy-colored but lacking in neat, pat answers, go see Sorry to Bother You. Hell, go see it even if that’s not your bag; your comfort zone could become your noose if you don’t push your boundaries.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Unsane (2018)

I never particularly understood what makes Steven Soderbergh unique as an auteur until we covered his cerebral, low-fi prank Schizopolis for a Movie of the Month conversation last year. Filmed cheaply on Super 8 cameras while dicking around in the hellish mediocrity of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Schizopolis is alone justification for Soderbergh’s reputation as a scrappy experimenter in content & form. If I hadn’t already gotten on his wavelength by catching up with that experiment in low-fi irreverence last year, 2018’s Unsane would have been just as viable of an entry point. Here, Soderbergh bridges the gap by getting on my wavelength, delivering the exact heightened horror schlock I cherish the most at the movies. Filmed on an iPhone and shamelessly participating in every mental institution thriller cliché you can imagine, Unsane is a Soderberghian experiment in the lowest rung of genre filth. It uses that unlikely platform to explore themes ranging from capitalist greed in the modern medical & prison systems to male-dominated institutions’ flagrant dismissal of the concerns of women to the power dynamics of money & gender in every conceivable tier of society. Much like how Schizopolis mixed heady existential crises with the lower irreverence of Kids in the Hall sketch comedy, Unsane experiments with a teetering balance between microbudget exploitation cinema & power-skeptical radical politics. They’re two flavors that shouldn’t mix well together in a single container, but find a chemically explosive reaction in the clash.

Claire Foy stars as a cutthroat corporate stooge who works in one of those sickly, florescent-lit cubicle hells from past Soderbergh joints like Schizopolois & Full Frontal. She comes across as aggressively uptight & snooty, but not without reason to be on-edge. Her mother constantly infantilizes & undermines her. Her boss leverages his position to hit on her without consequence. Potential Tinder hookups pose a threat of physical harm to her as a single woman who lives alone. Her steeled exterior is a performative defense, mostly because of a violent stalker from her past that has driven her into a constant state of fear & paranoia. As she relapses into seeing this stalker’s face in spaces he logically cannot occupy, she seeks psychiatric help from a mental health facility that tricks her into “voluntarily” committing herself for suicide watch. Once she’s locked into that system, the hospital uses every small infraction possible to extend her stay, heartlessly milking her for insurance money. The scam is described (mostly by a fellow level-headed patient, SNL vet Jay Pharaoh) in terms of a prison sentence: “They’re locking up sane people for profit,” “Do your time. Keep your head down,” “Learn how to live the routine,” etc. Remaining cool, calm, and collected proves to be impossible, though, as the stalker she fears so much surfaces as an employee of the hospital’s, an authority figure she cannot escape. Worse yet, nobody believes her, perhaps not even the audience. The rest of the film from there is a cheap slasher masquerading as a giallo mystery & a wryly funny descent into the bowels of Kafkaesque capitalist bureaucracy.

Besides my more general appreciation for morally tacky horror, I have a very specific love for affordable fad technology being documented in microbudget (and often technophobic) genre pieces. In the past, I’ve praised at length the laptop POV of Unfriended, the gaming app aesthetic of Nerve & #horror, the ringtone eeriness of Suicide Club, the GoPro energy of Afflicted, the Snapchat pop grime of Sickhouse, and so on. On the surface, Unsane’s iPhone cinematography appears to be closer tied to the classy transcendence of the medium in works like Tangerine & Damascene, but the film is too deliberately, persistently ugly to make that leap. Soderbergh intentionally chooses outright hideous angles & vantage points that recall daily digital footage we’re used to seeing outside of cinematic contexts: security camera pans, low-angle YouTube uploads, uncomfortably close webcam conversations, voyeuristic distance in clips of celebrities’ or strangers’ public behavior covertly captured on smartphones. However, outside a brief sequence where social media is explained to be a security liability to stalkers’ victims, there isn’t much outright paranoia about the evils of modern technology reflected in this approach. Instead, the film uses pedestrian modes of everyday, we-all-do-it filmmaking to approximate the feel of an investigative journalist sneaking a hidden camera into a crooked mental institution that holds patients against their will, like the horror film equivalent of an episode of Dateline NBC. An occasional experiment in double-exposure digi-photography pushes the aesthetic beyond that approach to match the protagonist’s manic (or too-heavily medicated) psyche, but Unsane mostly dwells in the drab digital hell we’re immersed in online daily. It’s something I always appreciate from my trashy horror movies, if not only as an honest document of our current culture as it truly looks to the unfortunate souls who live it.

Almost anything I could praise about Unsane would potentially be a turn-off to other viewers. Like with last year’s Split, I love the films schlocky premise as is, but wouldn’t hold it against anyone who finds its treatment of mental illness as morally repugnant. As I’ve learned from recommending small budget technophobic horrors in the past, not everyone shares my voracious appetite for pedestrian digital photography in their proper cinema. Claire Foy’s central performance (as the wonderfully named Sawyer Valentini) might be universally recognizable as a knockout punch of paranoid tension, but it’s in service of a dark, dry, often cruel sense of humor with punchlines like “Hail, Satan!” & offhanded blowjob references that might derail her presence’s wider appeal. I’m saying this to note that, like Schizopolis & Full Frontal, Unsane is firmly rooted in the required taste end of Soderbergh’s career, far from the bombastic crowd-pleaser territory of an Oceans 11 or a Magic Mike. Respecting its themes of abuse within the bureaucratic capitalist paradigm or of men in power dismissing the claims of women in crisis is not enough in itself. You must also be down with its indulgence in the moral & visual grime of microbudget exploitation horror. That dual set of interests might be a slim column on the Venn Diagram of Unsane‘s genre film experimentation, but I totally felt at home in that position. With Schizoplolis, I ventured out into the wilderness of Soderbergh’s psyche to understand him on his own terms. With Unsane, he returned the favor by stooping down to my lowly genre film trash pile to offer me a leg up.

-Brandon Ledet

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

The popular myth about A Wrinkle in Time is that it’s an “unfilmable” novel, but there have certainly been more out-there, ethereal works of fiction adapted to the big screen with great success, so I don’t necessarily buy that. Ava DuVernay’s recent big screen adaptation of the children’s fantasy novel is being lumped in with past failed attempts, including a horrendous-looking made-for-TV monstrosity from 2003 that’s way beneath its pedigree as a big budget Disney release. I don’t think that comparison is giving DuVernay’s ambitious, bravely earnest self-empowerment fantasy enough credit for the admirably bizarre (even if frequently minor) successes it pulls from its loose-logic source material. I think the problem might largely be viewers’ emotional attachment to a novel that meant a lot to them as kids, but must be streamlined & reshaped to be presentable in a feature length movie format. The best novels leave a lot of mental space for readers to fill in the details, which is a luxury the visual medium of filmmaking cannot afford, so the difference between a reader’s mental picture & what ends up on the screen is always going to be a little jarring. While watching A Wrinkle in Time I thought a lot about Boomer’s review of Annihilation, which he called an “A+ science fiction that also happens to be a D+ translation of the source material, if your qualifications for a good adaptation revolve solely around how closely the film version adheres to the novel.” To me, that A+ means the adaptation was a total success, faithfulness to the source material be damned. I’d more likely call A Wrinkle in Time a C+ fantasy picture, as I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about it as I am about Annihilation, but in being even a passably enjoyable film that could’ve been improved upon, it still defies the idea that its inspiring novel is “unfilmable.”

Oddly enough, its adventurousness as an adaptation is not the only facet of A Wrinkle in Time that reminded me of Alex Garland’s Annihilation. Josh Larsen of Filmspotting has already expanded upon the surprising similarities between their dual mind-bending trips into alien landscapes (The Camazotz & The Shimmer, respectively) elsewhere, but what’s fascinating to me is the way A Wrinkle in Time makes Annihilation’s brand of sci-fi psychedelia palatable to children by softening it with Oprah-flavored self-empowerment & Disney Channel precociousness. Oprah Winfrey herself appears in A Wrinkle in Time as a godlike figure in outer space drag makeup. She & her lesser eternal-being underlings (Reese Witherspoon & Mindy Kaling) relieve a depressed young nerd from grief over her NASA scientist father’s disappearance by offering her a chance to miraculously travel through space & time to rescue him from a realm ruled by Fear & dark thoughts. Backed by a queasily earnest inspo-pop soundtrack and blown up to almost kaiju-sized proportions, Oprah is in her element here. The movie is built around her career-long self-help messaging about overcoming fear & self-doubt. This advice & reinforcement is doled out to our troubled protagonist in encouraging slogans: “You have no idea how incredible you are,” “Be a warrior,” “You have such beautiful faults,” “We can’t take any credit for our talents; it’s how you use them that counts,” etc. The middle school drama she suffers enough to need this New Age inspo encouragement has a distinct Disney Channel vibe to it that will directly appeal to children, whereas adults are likely to see cheese. Oprah & her magical space crew can only prepare this child so much for the psychedelic darkness that will greet her (along with history’s most annoyingly shrill adopted brother & a blank page love interest) as she enters the nightmare landscape of The Camazotz to rescue her father, much like Natalie Portman’s complete lack of preparedness at the edge of the big evil soap bubble in Annihilation. The surprises and challenges that await her there are genuinely odd, distributing stuff and make any of the awkward precociousness of the build-up worthwhile for the emotional payoff.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on how A Wrinkle in Time could have been improved as an adaptation, so I might as well offer mine here: this film should’ve been animated. As a modern, Disney brand exercise in CG spectacle, the film is already in a way a live-action/animation hybrid. Oprah’s five-point star silhouette & 50ft stature already make her resemble a Hayao Miyazaki character. Reese Witherspoon briefly transforms into a flying lettuce dragon that would have been a lot easier to stomach in a 2D animation context. The literalized encroachment of an evil Darkness poisoning the Universe with fear & self-destructive thoughts works a lot better in the proto Disney-Miyazaki collaboration Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland. There’s a lot of reverence for flight & Nature in the film that feels familiar to Studio Ghibli territory (not to mention the studio’s tendency to adapt female-penned fantasy novels); the recent animated release Mary and the Witch’s Flower telegraphed its melding of science & magic; last year’s Your Name. laid out a lot of solid groundwork for how its more intangible, psychedelic impulses could’ve been represented onscreen in expressive, illogical indulgences in traditional animation. God help me, I think I’m saying I would have enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time more if it were a modern anime, the last major refuge for traditional, hand-animated cinema. As someone who doesn’t watch nearly enough anime to be considered even slightly informed on the subject and hasn’t read the film’s source material in at least two decades, my take on how to successfully adapt A Wrinkle in Time to the screen should be treated as highly suspect. I do think the logical freedom of animation could do this book wonders, though.

As a sucker for wide-eyed earnestness & soft psychedelia in children’s work, I enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time more than I found fault in it. The larger critical community’s dismissal of better works like Tomorrowland & Wonderstruck that operate within a similar tone means this movie never really had a chance for anything near universal appeal. That’s purely a matter of taste, though. What really bugs me is the idea that the movie was mediocre because its source material is “unfilmable.” In every other way Ava DuVernay’s Oprah-worshipping Annihilation Jr. psychedelia might have been only a mild success, but it’s in itself proof that an affecting, engaging adaptation of the novel can be (and now has been) done. There’s also huge chance that the film’s Disney-level distribution will get it in the hands of the people who need it most: depressed, unsociable middle school nerds who could use a 50ft Oprah-sized ego boost. I imagine those kids will then be led to the novel and form their own ideas about what is and what isn’t “filmable.” Those are the takes we should probably trust the most; feel free to ignore mine in the meantime.

-Brandon Ledet

Ismael’s Ghosts (2018)

When I recently reviewed Alain Guiraudie’s bizarro drama Staying Vertical, I described it as a feverish plot driven by the desperation of writer’s block instead of any real-world logic. I wrote, “It seems to be solely the result of Guiraudie needing to put something, anything on the page. As with Charlie Kaufman’s similar works, that back-against-the-wall creative necessity leads to some . . . interesting choices.” Let’s go ahead and add Arnaud Desplechin’s latest feature, Ismael’s Ghosts, to that list of absurdist French dramas continuing the Kaufman tradition of writer’s block mania narratives. Like Staying Vertical, Ismael’s Ghosts follows an increasingly frazzled artist as they avoid the completion of a creative project to the point where their ever-growing list of obligations surround them like wolves (literally, in the case of Staying Vertical). Greater thematic purpose is near impossible to pinpoint in these works, as they’re driven mostly by the anxiety of being obligated to create. It’s like the filmmakers are pulling the audience into their own personal anguish of having to tell a story onscreen in the first place, making the immense pressure felt by the creator just as much of an emotional burden for the consumer. The results of these writer’s block meta experiments can be uneven (and even at times tedious), but they can also lead to fascinating, unpredictable places.

A long-successful filmmaker prolongs the process of writing & directing a feature about his estranged younger brother. He tends to his aging father-in-law, who shares the emotional pain of the filmmaker’s wife’s disappearance over two decades in the past. His current girlfriend is understanding about the ongoing emotional grief that lingers from this disappearance, but unsure of their relationship (and her own sexuality) in more general, intangible ways. The longer the screenplay & subsequent film go unfinished, the more absurdly disastrous these conflicts become. The brother becomes even more irrevocably distant as his fictional movie-within-the movie avatar strays further from the truth. The movie’s production becomes stalled & exponentially more expensive by the day. The father in law’s mental & physical health plummet at an alarming rate. Most significantly, the filmmaker’s wife, who’s been missing and presumed dead for decades, reappears in his life to blow up his current romantic relationship from the inside. The progression (or, perhaps more accurately, regression) of these events & relationships don’t make much logical sense, a fact that only becomes more increasingly obvious as their circumstances deteriorate. Somehow, though, you get the sense that everything would return to a healthy, balanced normal if our crazed, drunken antihero would just finish the damn movie he started writing. It’s his procrastination that threatens to unravel the very fabric of reality just as much as it’s his narcissistic self-absorption.

Ismael’s ghosts, as referenced in the title, are a brother, a wife, and an adopted child, all missing form his current life. These hauntings from the past aren’t a source of grief so much as a piling-on of anxiety: crazy-making sources of obligation that make his inability to complete the film he started writing even more stressful. The true conflict that drives the film is the desperation of writer’s block under the pressure of audiences waiting for a finished product. This creative desperation fractures the narrative into an array of opposing genres: spy thriller, Guy Maddin-style art piece complete with double exposure photography, melodrama about amnesia, a Persona-style psychological thriller (played out by French heavyweights Marion Cottillard & Charlotte Gainsbourg at a beach house), absurdist comedy, and so on. Ismael describes this hellish break with reality in the line, “I’m living in a nightmare and I can’t wake up,” but the truth is that he could wake up any moment if he would just finish the movie he promised his producers. In the meantime, the audience is held hostage waiting for Ismael’s Ghosts to tidily wrap up its illogical collection of disparate tones & storylines, a task that proves more impossible every passing minute. It’s as if Desplechin’s self-therapy for being tortured by his own writer’s block in the midst of familial & professional obligations was to pass that anxiety along to his audience so they can feel what it’s like. It’s a difficult mode of art to appreciate as a viewer, but one with a surprisingly rich tradition (if not only in the Charlie Kaufman oeuvre) and occasional strokes of brilliance among its expressions of creative frustration.

-Brandon Ledet

The Greatest Showman (2017)

“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?”
“Do these smiles look fake?”

One of my favorite recurring SNL characters in recent years was Andy Samberg’s portrayal of Hugh Jackman: The Man with Two Sides. The joke was essentially that Jackman’s public persona was bizarrely bifurcated between his gruff performances as a muscled-out action star and his more delicate, fanciful performances as a man of the stage. 2017 might have been the year when the Two Sides of Hugh Jackman both reached their most absurd extremes. Early in the year, Jackman’s long-running lone wolf/tough guy act as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise got so somber & manly in Logan that the film could easily pass as an adaptation of a late-career Johnny Cash ballad. Jackman then followed that grizzled performance up in December with the silliest, most frothy performance in his entire musical theatre career. Jackman stars in the movie musical biopic The Greatest Showman as an eternally chipper P.T. Barnum, whom the movie posits as the inventor of modern showbusiness. The Greatest Showman is less remarkable for contrasting Logan as an exercise in pure, unembarrassed musical theatre than it is for contrasting it as a disingenuous, 100-minute-long commercial where the product being sold is joy. Just as I cried a solitary, manly tear as Logan toyed with political exploitation & deep-seated daddy issues, I also totally bought into the joyful, bullshit product Jackman peddles in The Greatest Showman. He’s a very talented salesman, no matter which one of his Two Sides is doing the talking.

Calling The Greatest Showman a biopic is a little misleading. I’m not sure Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum shares much in common with the real-life showman outside a name and an affiliation with the popularization of the traveling circus. The revisionist narrative the film peddles is just as surreally artificial as its nonstop barrage of green-screened backdrops. Barnum begins the film as a working-class upstart whose belief in the American dream (and skills at lying to bank lenders) catapults his family from rags to riches as he unknowingly “invents” modern show business (think Vegas variety show). His “aha!” moment that transforms a failing wax museum packed with dusty curios to a lucrative enterprise of populist entertainment is a decision to exploit the local outcasts & physically disabled as tourist attractions, essentially inventing the profession of “circus freak.” The Greatest Showman often attempts to posit Barnum’s relationship with his disenfranchised employees as tenderly familial, but it’s much more convincing in the stretches where he profits off their labor, yet locks them out of the visibility of the high-society circles they afford him access to. The film’s moral lies somewhere in celebrating your inner (and outer) weirdness instead of desperately wanting to be accepted by the snobbish hegemony, a lesson Barnum supposedly learns several times throughout (by way of gaudy, pop-minded showtunes, of course).

There are dual romance storylines that distract from The Greatest Showman’s Let Your Freak Flag Fly messaging and overall value as a crassly populist spectacle. One involves Barnum repeatedly ignoring his wife (Michelle Williams) and children in his blind pursuit of high society respectability, something that falls a little flat if not only because his wife’s inner desires are left vague & unclear. Early on, Barnum sings passionately about his dream of creating the ultimate form of entertainment, while his wife’s only expressed desire is that he share that dream with her and allow her to tag along. A second, interracial romance among Barnum’s employees (Disney Channel vets Zack Effron & Zendaya) is a little clearer in its place in the story, though it’s ultimately just as inconsequential. Neither romance is nearly as satisfying as the time spent with Barnum’s stable of “freaks,” whose determination to be visible & respected while being themselves is the most convincing thread in the film’s overall sentimentality. I’ll admit that even as crass & silly as this movie is in every single frame, I got a little teary-eyed at the circus performers (especially the bearded lady) singing about how they’re “Not scared to be seen” in the Oscar-nominated tune “This is Me.” The characterizations of the circus performers can be just as insultingly artificial as the romances and the revision of Barnum’s exploitative history and everything else in the film (the bizarre vocal dubbing of the cast’s sole little person is especially egregious), but that’s all part of The Greatest Showman’s tacky sense of proto-Vegas fun. It also does little to distract from the endearing, all-accepting, freaks-are-people-too messaging.

The debut film from director Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman was likely a movie-by-committee proposition, very much in the tradition of blatantly commercial movie musicals like Moulin Rouge & Xanadu. It proudly wears that populism on its ruffled sleeve, though, directly calling out potential critics as “prigs & snobs” before they even have a chance to file a negative review. Barnum goes even further by calling the entire profession of entertainment criticism inherently hypocritical, as he becomes morbidly fixated on a “critic who can’t find joy in the theatre.” That insult stuck with me, not because it was especially insightful as a look into the practice of art criticism, but because it made clear exactly what product this obnoxious, crass, overlong, deeply silly advertisement was trying to sell me: joy. I greatly respect The Greatest Showman for the honesty of its populist spectacle & out-in-the-open commitment to artifice. I also believe that, besides maybe Barnum himself, there are few hucksters who could have sold its joy-product more convincingly than Jackman, even if he was outshined by the circus performers’ storyline and could only employ one of his distinct Two Sides in the task.

-Brandon Ledet