U Turn (1997)

I never had much interest in Oliver Stone as a filmmaker, but I have plenty lingering fascination with Jennifer Lopez as an actor.  Besides her career-making role portraying pop idol Selena in an eponymous biopic and her music video performances of her own dance club hits, Lopez is most often thought of as a romcom actor – the kind of beautiful but relatable sweetheart archetype usually played by Julia Roberts & Sandra Bullock.  Maybe I’ve just happened to see one too many TV broadcasts of titles like The Wedding Planner, Monster-in-Law, and Maid in Manhattan, but I always feel like Lopez’s filmography as an actor is culturally misremembered for being lighter & breezier than it actually is.  Early in her career, Lopez worked on some fairly daring, hard-edged thrillers, most notably Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, Tarsem’s The Cell, and Stone’s sunlit neo-noir U Turn.  Maybe the wide cultural revulsion towards her gangster hangout comedy Gigli (which admittedly deserves the scorn) made Lopez a lot more careful in choosing daring, divisive projects.  Or maybe Hollywood producers foolishly overlooked her enduring sex appeal as she aged, redistributing her early sex-symbol thriller roles to the next hungry twentysomething down the line and, in the case of Hustlers, roping her in as their mentor.  I don’t have a firm handle on how or why Jennifer Lopez slowly softened the overall tone of her filmography, but I do know that it was exciting to pick up a DVD copy of 1997’s U Turn at a local thrift store, my ambivalence towards its director be damned.  It felt like a lost dispatch from JLo’s grittier, thrillier past, one that thankfully did not repeat the intensely sour notes of my recent, ill-advised thrift store purchase of Gigli.

The overbearing Oliver Stoneness of U Turn is impossible to ignore.  Stone shoots its American desert setting with the same hyperactive, multimedia style that he pushed past its limits in Natural Born Killers, violently alternating between handheld music video angles, flashes of black & white film grain, and the drunken fish-eye perspective of a 1990s breakfast cereal commercial.  Fortunately, it’s an improved revision of that distinctive NBK excess, slowing down and spacing out each stylistic flourish so that the intentionally bumpy ride isn’t so unintentionally shrill.  Sean Penn stars opposite JLo as the doomed lovers on this particular crime spree, except the spree is a nonstarter and the romance is a con job.  While smuggling a duffel bag stuffed with overdue loan money to the impatient Vegas gangsters he owes, Penn blows his muscle car engine in rural Arizona, forcing the self-described big city “slimy bastard” to spend a sunburnt eternity with small-town hicks he openly despises.  Juaquin Phoenix, Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Voight, Claire Danes, and Powers Booth put in over-the-top caricature performances as the local lunatics who torment Penn as the universe at large seemingly conspires to block his exit.  Only Jennifer Lopez & Nick Nolte matter much to the narrative, though, playing Penn’s femme fatale seductress and her abusive, “slimy bastard” husband.  Both spouses attempt to seduce Penn into killing each other for a cut of the insurance money, but only one is nuclear-hot enough to win him over to her side.  Penn & Lopez’s murderous “romance” is mostly a nonstop back & forth of double-triple-quadruple crossings as they repeatedly backstab each other in their selfish attempts to escape their respective prisons: Penn’s small-town purgatory and Lopez’s abusive marriage.  It’s basically Oliver Stone’s 90s-era update to the classic Poverty Row noir Detour, which Stone makes glaringly obvious by including multiple shots of “DETOUR” road signs framed from zany music video angles.

There’s a lot of poorly aged, Oliver Stoney bullshit to wade through here, from the long list of shitheel contributors (Penn chief among them) to their casual cross-racial casting, to the post-Tarantino antihero crassness of the “slimy bastard” gangsters at the forefront.  I was most bothered by the lengthy, onscreen depictions of misogynist violence that Lopez suffers, both because it’s frustratingly common to what young Hollywood actress are offered (before they become chipper romcom darlings) and because it feels sleazily, unforgivably eroticized.  A more thematically focused, purposeful version of U Turn would only allow bad things to happen to Penn, since its sense of cosmic menace is built entirely on his impossible, Exterminating Angel style mission to speed away from rural Arizona.  Lopez makes the most of her role as the horned-up victim turned manipulative seductress, but it’s all in service of a tired misogynist trope.  Luckily, Stone makes up for the scatterbrained, unfocused themes of his writing (alongside screenwriter & source material novelist John Ridley) in the scatterbrained, unfocused visuals of his direction.  He shoots roadside buzzards from the low angles & wide lenses of a Beastie Boys video.  He shamelessly lifts Spike Lee’s signature double-dolly shot, scores the small-towners’ grotesque bullying of Penn with cartoonish mouth-harp boings, and just generally bounces around the desert sand with nothing but expensive camera equipment and a prankster’s spirit guiding the way.  As nastily blackhearted as U Turn can be, its visual style is buoyantly playful and excitingly volatile, somehow smoothing out the jagged annoyance of Natural Born Killers into something genuinely entertaining.  It’s both a major red-flag indicator of why Jennifer Lopez might have abandoned her early collaborations with high-style auteurs and a nostalgia stoker for the more exciting, challenging work she was doing in that era. 

-Brandon Ledet

Magic Mike’s Last Dance (2023)

Ten years ago, my friend Alicia and I walked into the Cinemark at Citiplace in Baton Rouge with a lot of excited middle-aged women to see Magic Mike, the then-new film directed by beloved (by us anyway) BR film icon Steven Soderbergh. Magic Mike had largely been marketed as an upbeat romcom about a hot dude raising money to start his own business by working as a male stripper. In the trailer, which starts out pretending that the film is about Channing Tatum as a cop before revealing his true profession, there’s a very 2012 needle-drop of Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and some romantic tension with romantic lead Cody Horn that would lead you to assume that you’re in for a much different kind of film than the one that hit theaters lo these many years ago. The advertising focused on star power — not so much of Tatum himself but of his taut body and the promise of a tantalizing thrill ride that still featured a traditional “Guy wants more from life, girl wants him but doesn’t know if she can handle his past” plot structure. You know, like a Nicholas Sparks adaptation but with a lot more dry humping.

That wasn’t the movie that we got that day. Instead, Magic Mike was kind of Diet Cola Boogie Nights, which is strange considering that we already had 54. The 2012 movie is one that spends most of its first half focused on Alex Pettyfer’s newcomer character and his introduction to the world of male stripping, and his narratively inevitable fall into the sex/drugs/rock’n’roll dark side of that lifestyle, while Tatum’s Mike is very focused on finding a way to grind—pun intended—-at whatever comes his way until he manages to rise above his current economic class. There are plenty of sexy dances, but they’re shot with a bit of a remove, and so what we’re left with is a tonal mishmash of cheesy rom-com dialogue, writhing torsos, and a storyline about drugs that doesn’t moralize further than “Some people can handle them better than others.” I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that it wasn’t what I was expecting or what I wanted, and that the deluge of Baton Rouge moms who walked out of that screening also seemed to think that something different was supposed to have happened in that multiplex that day. 

Brandon is a big fan of the first follow-up, Magic Mike XXL, which eschews the first film’s director and direction, subbing in Gregory Jacobs for Soderbergh and, as Brandon wrote, “ditching its predecessor’s despondent character study in favor of an aging-boy-band-goes-on-a-road-trip slapstick comedy.” I understand the appeal, and I don’t think it was a bad idea to make a sequel that followed through on the unfulfilled promise of the first film’s marketing and also give it a lighter, fluffier narrative, and I find Donald Glover to be a welcome addition in anything that I’m watching, but it still didn’t connect with me. The first film purposely contrasted the dour realities of living under a broken economic system and the ways that people learn to cope inside of them with the larger-than-life stagebound fantasies that the boys got to portray. In XXL, the plot gets tiny little conflict injections as infrequently as narrative requirements allow while mostly taking the form of a goofy picaresque that mostly existed to hang strip sequences upon, and while I certainly understand the appeal, I just don’t connect. 

There was a moment in the screening of Magic Mike’s Last Dance when I turned to my friend who had accompanied me and asked: “How is this the best one?” And it’s not just better than the others (in my opinion), it’s actually great. 

This time around, we’ve got a narrator, and for reasons that don’t come into focus until the end of the first act, she’s young and has a British accent, and she’s telling the story of our old friend Mike Lane to catch us up on what’s happened in the intervening years. Mike’s furniture store folded during COVID, and he broke up with the woman he was presumed to have a happy ending with at the conclusion of XXL. Now he’s back to doing gig catering work, and he still hasn’t managed to claw his way out of his economic situation. While bartending at a charity event hosted by Maxandra “Max” Mendoza (Salma Hayek), who is recently separated from her media empire heir husband due to his infidelity, Mike is recognized by one of Max’s lawyers, who also happened to be one of the sorority girls from the party in the first film. To cheer up her boss, she recommends that Max invite Mike to give her a private dance, which he does after very little convincing. When the two wake up together the next morning, Max offers Mike a mysterious job, but he has to fly with her to London immediately. Once there, he meets her daughter—and our narrator—Zadie (Jemelia George) and their butler Victor (Ayub Khan Din), neither of whom approve of what Max is up to or, by extension, Mike’s presence. 

Max tasks Mike with a challenge: she owns a theater that was in her husband’s family for generations, and she’ll give him $60,000 for one month’s work of “redeveloping” the play that is currently being performed there. It’s a dreary-looking love triangle Victorian-era period piece called Isabel Ascendant that is considered old-fashioned and misogynistic even in-universe, and Max wants Mike to use his supposed knowledge of how to give women what they want to turn the play into an erotic, hip-thrusting masterpiece. This means firing the play’s director and, as a quirk of actors’ union labor laws, keeping on the actress playing the titular Isabel, Hannah (Juliette Motamed), who turns out to be as free of spirit as Isabel was repressed. With only three weeks until the curtain rises, Max and Mike have to recruit sexy dancers from all over Europe to fill out the ensemble while also dodging the various obstacles thrown in their way by Max’s soon-to-be-ex-husband. 

When I texted Brandon about doing coverage for this movie after I walked out of the theater, I was shocked to learn from him that it has such mixed reviews, but I think I have to chalk that up to … let’s politely call it “demographics.” Magic Mike wasn’t what it purported to be, sure, but it also wasn’t much of a fantasy either. Cody Horn is a gorgeous woman, but she’s not one with whom the presumed target audience of this kind of movie can readily identify. She’s hot, she looks great in her bikini, and she’s effortlessly cool. The same could be said of Amber Heard in XXL, and in neither movie is there ever any doubt about how the film will end and thus there are no stakes in those relationships, rendering them flat. Salma Hayek is also a gorgeous woman, and although she doesn’t look it, she’s 56, a full 14 years older than Tatum, and here she’s playing a woman with an ungodly amount of capital. I’m sure it’s not very common for someone’s wildest dreams to be about their partner cheating with their assistant, but there’s a lot to be said for the power fantasy of being a powerful older woman who can hire a maturing stud to create the ultimate sexy stage experience. Last Dance understands that better than the other two, and even though we know that the show will eventually have to go on, even if Max is rolling around in her overstuffed down comforters in a state of depression because it seems like her ex-husband has “won.” It’s called “Magic Mike’s Last Dance.” We know there’s going to be a big sexy revue at the end (and boy howdy is there). 

There’s a lot to really enjoy here. No one is more surprised than I am at how much I was won over by the ongoing subplot of Zadie and Victor. It would be so easy that it would almost be cheating to have Victor secretly be in love with his employer like something out of a Merchant-Ivory production, but there’s none of that nonsense here. I normally find precocious children to be grating and cloying in these movies, but it’s actually rather fun to watch Zadie have to occasionally step up and parent her mother as she goes through hard times, and for Victor to act in an unofficial grandfatherly capacity to get her back up to snuff. It’s not the stuff of Man Booker prizes—Zadie gets her mother out of the house and to the theatre for the finale of the film by finally addressing her as “Mum” instead of using her first name, which is a device that’s older than the hills—but it’s engaging in a way that I wasn’t really expecting for the third trip to this particular well. Hannah’s emceeing of the event is a hell of a lot of fun, and Motamed is a magnetic presence who leaves an impression on the viewer, standing out in a parade of male flesh that could easily wash her out of the mind completely, but she remains firmly rooted. 

In another way of fulfilling the fantasy, we the audience get to sit in on and attend the auditions for the revamped Isabel Ascendant and see all of the dancers get selected for their various individual talents: breakdancing, contortion, modern dance, ballet, and, of course, good ol’ fashioned stripping. It’s a fun montage, but also because it’s a montage, we never have to learn any names or have to try and keep track of them and their individual narratives as we were expected to in the previous films. As Peter, Bjorn, and John sang so long ago, “Flesh is flesh,” and that’s all that there is to it. All we need to worry about is having a good time, and although I’m sure that theatre reeked just as much of creatine farts as the back of the van in XXL, there’s something very classy and fun about it. As promised, the film does end with Magic Mike’s last dance, and it’s truly stunning, a demonstration that as much as mainstream critics like to tease Tatum, he is an amazing dancer who’s lithe and fluid in a way that belies his athletic build and his himbo public persona. The stakes are never too high or too low in the narrative, and the film rides that sweet spot for all that it’s worth, ensuring that this series goes out on a high note. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Shin Ultraman (2023)

Just as the original Godzilla series quickly backslid from heartbreaking political allegory to novelty children’s fluff, Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla franchise starter has already made way for quirky kitsch in its immediate follow-up – Shin Ultraman.  I could not be happier about it.  While Shin Godzilla is the smarter, more thematically purposeful film, Shin Ultraman is the more fun, breezy, rewatchable one.  It continues Shin Godzilla’s satirical illustration of the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy in the face of a kaiju-scale threat, but that governmental buffoonery is more of a background hum here than it is the main show.  Anno’s Ultraman film—which the Neon Genesis Evangelion mastermind wrote, produced, edited and, most surprisingly, mo-capped—is more of an upbeat celebration of both sides of the human/monster divide.  It crams in tons more of the skyscraper CG monsters than Godzilla’s solo outing could manage (although the individual designs of Godzilla’s Pokémon evolutions were a major highlight in the earlier film), and it also celebrates the humans below as adorable dorks who are just trying their best in a world stacked high against them.

If Shin Ultraman echoes any of Shin Godzilla’s high-minded artistic merit (beyond a main-cast performance from Drive My Car’s Hidetoshi Nishijima), it’s in its look & pacing.  Director Shinji Higuchi shoots governmental office scenes like he’s competing with Soderbergh in full showoff mode, finding the most improbable camera angles possible to accentuate the absurdism of modern office work’s fluorescent-lit mundanity.  Anno matches that overachiever energy in the editing room, cutting between Higuchi’s off-kilter shot compositions with a distinct anime sensibility – always going 10,000% hard no matter the occasion, even when depicting paperwork.  That dynamic attention to detail makes this a formidable contender for one of the most visually impressive comedies in decades; it’s just also one of the goofiest.  Instead of trying to conjure realistic-looking CG monsters (which was never a concern in the genre’s early rubber-suit days anyway), Shin Ultraman’s kaiju creatures lean into the uncanny end of the medium. That means it will be taken less seriously than aggressively dour competitors like Gareth Edwards’s American Godzilla film from 2014, but also means it’s a lot more fun to watch.  If it resembles any big-name kaiju movie from the past couple decades, it’s the goofball free-for-all Big Man Japan, which is at least a comparison that does it a lot of favors.

Story-wise, Shin Ultraman returns its titular space alien superhero to his children’s TV roots, pitting him against a series of skyscraper monsters in a consistent episodic rhythm.  Ultraman walks among us in a barely concealed Clark Kent disguise, powering up to kaiju scale whenever another post-Godzilla CG monster emerges to tear up Japanese cities & countryside.  His Earth-saving superheroics are even scored by a tin-canny mix of 60s throwback stock music presumably lifted from the original Ultraman series.  It’s a familiar formula for anyone old enough to remember a pre-MCU media landscape, but in the 2020s its vintage earnestness feels remarkably refreshing.  Ultraman is genuinely fascinated with the go-getter exuberance of the human spirit—especially when threatened by impossible odds—and, by extension, so is the film.  The hook of seeing Shin Ultraman big & loud at the theater is in the promise of weird-looking CG monsters doing battle over miniature cities while shooting laser beams out of their eyes, hands, and mouths.  Once your butt is in the seat, though, the real show is in its celebration of humanity’s adorable perseverance & naivete.  It can’t help but feel a little frivolous in comparison to the political cynicism of Shin Godzilla, then, but that unashamed frivolity is incredibly endearing.

Maybe I’m making Shin Ultraman sound like disposable kids’ fluff here, and in some ways maybe it is.  Its plot machinations surrounding intergalactic superweapons that can transform human beings into kaiju-scale war drones and Ultraman’s superheroic sacrifice in merging his alien DNA with a human’s are all old-hat comic book nonsense.  I’d much rather watch earnest nonsense like this than its ironic callbacks in post-modern works like Big Man Japan & Psycho Goreman, though, which borrow from the pop art beauty of its vintage kitsch but are too embarrassed to be mistaken for the genuine thing.  There’s plenty “adult” material lurking under this film’s Saturday Morning Cartoon surface too – from the governmental bureaucracy satire to the CG psychedelia to the momentary indulgences in sexual fetishism (including some especially shameless pandering to the giantess community).  They’re just not the main draw.  Shin Ultraman is a delight precisely because of its childlike exuberance, which is just as fitting to its titular alien hero’s television origins as Shin Godzilla’s political cynicism is to the original Gojira.

-Brandon Ledet

#52FilmsByWomen 2022 Ranked & Reviewed

When I first learned of the #52FilmsByWomen pledge in late 2016, I was horrified to discover that I hadn’t reached the “challenge’s” quota naturally that year, despite my voracious movie-watching habits. Originally promoted by the organization Women in Film, #52FilmsByWomen is merely a pledge to watch one movie a week directed by a woman for an entire calendar year. It’s not a difficult criterion to fulfill if you watch movies on a regular routine, but so much of the pop culture landscape is dominated by (white) men’s voices that you’d be surprised by how little media you typically consume is helmed by women creators until you actually start paying attention to the numbers. Having now taken & fulfilled the #52FilmsByWomen six years in a row, I’ve found that to be the exercise’s greatest benefit: paying attention. I’ve found many new women’s voices to shape my relationship with cinema through the pledge, but what I most appreciate about the experience is the way it consistently reminds me to pay attention to the artists I’m supporting & affording my time. If we want more diversity in creative voices on the pop media landscape, we need to go out of our way to support the people already out there who work outside the white male hegemony. #52FilmsByWomen is a simple, surprisingly easy to fulfill gesture in that direction.

With this pledge in mind, I watched, reviewed, and podcasted about 57 new-to-me feature films directed by women in 2022. The full inventory of those titles can be found on this convenient Letterboxd list. Each film is also ranked below with a link to a corresponding review, since I was using the pledge to influence not only the media I was consuming myself, but also the media we cover on the site. My hope is that this list will not only function as a helpful recap for a year of purposeful movie-watching, but also provide some heartfelt recommendations for anyone else who might be interested in taking the pledge in 2023.

5 Star Reviews

The Heartbreak Kid (1972) dir. Elaine May – “A horror film about a nightmare world where everyone has to marry the first person who makes them horny before they get to have sex, regardless of compatibility or moral ineptitude.  Incredible that May was able to make the humor in this even darker than A New Leaf, a film about marital murder.”

A New Leaf (1971) dir. Elaine May
Neptune Frost (2022) dir. Anisia Uzeyman

4.5 Star Review(s)

Golden Eighties (1986) dir. Chantal Akerman – “Akerman’s shopping mall romcom musical, a Young Girls of Rochefort for the Madonna era.  The first movie I can think of in a while that I watched simply because the stills looked beautiful, specifically the colors in this case. I wish I could drink them through a funnel.”

4 Star Reviews

Kung-Fu Master! (1988) dir. Agnes Varda – “Varda’s sentimental romance drama about a middle-age woman who inexplicably falls in love with a teenage boy, a premise that would not survive modern Age Gap Discourse™ (especially since she cast her own kid as the object of desire).  I think it gets away with it in its own contemporary context, though, since it’s not so much about the romance itself as it is about escaping from the grim circumstances of the AIDS epidemic by retreating into the innocence of schoolyard crushes. A tough but moving watch in more ways than I expected.”

A League of Their Own (1992) dir. Penny Marashall
Deadstream (2022) dir. Vanessa Winter
Please Baby Please (2022) dir. Amanda Kramer
Hatching (2022) dir. Hanna Bergholm
Fire of Love (2022) dir. Sara Dosa
The Eternal Daughter (2022) dir. Joanna Hogg
The Silent Twins (2022) dir. Agnieszka Smoczynksa
Gagarine (2022) dir. Fanny Liatard
Petite Maman (2022) dir. Celine Sciamma
Women Talking (2022) dir. Sarah Polley
Good Madam (2022) dir. Jenna Cato Bass
The House (2022) dir. Paloma Baeza, Emma De Swaef, Niki Lindroth von Bahr
Deadly Cuts (2022) dir. Rachel Carey

3.5 Star Reviews

In the Cut (2003) dir. Jane Campion – “Feels eerily out of place, both as a mid-90s studio thriller shot in fluorescent-lit 2000s grime and as a Nicole Kidman production starring Meg Ryan doing an alarmingly accurate Nicole Kidman impersonation.  A stylish, gnarly outlier in the erotic thriller canon, working hard to keep the genre relevant in an era when it was content to rot on video store shelves & cable TV broadcasts.”

I’m Your Man (2021) dir. Maria Schrader
Girl Picture (2022) dir. Alli Haapasalo
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022) dir. Laura Poitras
The Power of the Dog (2021) dir. Jane Campion
Piggy (2022) dir. Carlota Pereda
Fresh (2022) dir. Mimi Cave
Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022) dir. Halina Reijn
Pleasure (2022) dir. Ninja Thyberg
Corsage (2022) dir. Marie Kreutzer
Love and Leashes (2022) dir. Park Hyun-jin
The Pink Cloud (2022) dir. Iuli Gerbase
(2022) dir. Kristina Buozyte
Sissy (2022) dir. Hannah Barlow
Slumber Party Massacre (2021) dir. Danishka Esterhazy
Here Before (2022) dir. Stacey Gregg
Last Dance (2022) dir. Coline Abert

3 Star Reviews

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021) dir. Kier-La Janisse – “A lot of the interpretations of the hows & whys folk horror became a solidified genre seem very intuitive & obvious to me; if you just watch a few of the main texts you kinda instantly get it without all this academic handholding.  The only thing that really blew my mind was how recently the term was coined. Still, a wonderfully exhaustive definition of what those main canon texts are.  It’s most useful as an illustrated Letterboxd watchlist, but it is very useful.”

Watcher (2022) dir. Chloe Okuno
Aftersun (2022) dir. Charlotte Wells
The Lost Daughter (2021) dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal
Plan B (2021) dir. Natalie Morales
Tahara (2022) dir. Olivia Peace
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022) dir. Sophie Hyde
Aline (2022) dir. Valerie Lemercier
You Are Not My Mother (2022) dir. Kate Dolan
Don’t Worry Darling (2022) dir. Olivia Wilde
Mothering Sunday (2022) dir. Eva Husson
Causeway (2022) dir. Lila Neugebauer
Street Punx (2022) dir. Maja Holzinger
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2022) dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
Hellbender (2022) dir. Zelda Adams
Language Lessons (2021) dir. Natalie Morales
Turning Red (2022) dir. Domee Shi
Nanny (2022) dir. Nikyatu Jusu

Would Not Recommend

Do Revenge (2022) dir. Jennifer Kaytin Robinson
She Will (2022) dir. Charlotte Colbert
Umma (2022) dir. Iris K. Shim
Autumn in New York (2000) dir. Joan Chen

-Brandon Ledet

Mrs. Harris, Mrs. ‘Arris, and Their Trips to Paris

Even as someone who’s only casually familiar with Angela Lansbury’s career, I was saddened to hear of her recent passing.  I’ve never successfully watched an entire episode of Murder, She Wrote without drifting off to sleep or off to another channel; the most experience I have with her prestigious singing career is hearing her voice a cartoon teapot; and yet the TV interview clips memorializing Lansbury on local news broadcasts last week had me instantly crying for reasons I can’t fully articulate.  She just seemed like such a kind, thoughtful, talented person that the world was lucky to have around – a very particular, gentle flavor of sweet that’s been draining from our cultural palate.  Online posthumous praise for Lansbury has also helped me see new, nuanced shades to her persona, since I had only previously seen her typecast as a lovely old biddy for all of my life.  Between reading John Waters’s real-life anecdote of bumping into Lansbury at an NYC fetish club to watching her bratty debut in Gaslight and listening to her get gruesome in Sweeney Todd, I now have a better rounded appreciation of who she was a person & a performer; and I feel like crying all over again.

Getting acquainted with the tougher, saucier side of Angela Lansbury has only enhanced my appreciation of her frothier performances as well.  I’m particularly thinking of her turn as the Cockney-accented Mrs. ‘Arris in the 1992 made-for-television adaptation of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a novel that was adapted again for a much lusher production this year.  The 2022 version of Mrs. Harris is played by Lesley Manville, who I’m used to seeing as a heartless hardass in projects like Harlots & Phantom Thread.  She’s a big-ol’ softie in her new starring vehicle, though, leaving all of the ice-queen viciousness to her villainous co-star Isabelle Huppert.  Manville delivers the exact sugary sweet, kill-em-with-kindness defiance you’d expect from Lansbury in the role, playing Mrs. Harris as a human doormat who gradually learns to stand up for herself without ever stooping to the cruelty of the world she seeks to change.  What’s hilarious is that Lansbury’s Mrs. ‘Arris is a much tougher customer.  You get the sense that she could easily drink & swear Manville’s Harris under the table, tinging the role with a touch of the Cockney sass that kickstarted her career as a teenager in Gaslight.  She’s still a total sweetheart, but there’s a sharpened edge to her character that’s missing from the newer, higher profile adaptation.

While Lansbury got to play Mrs. ‘Arris with a little grit & gristle (reflected right there in the accented title), Manville got to be in the better movie.  Both adaptations maintain the novel’s basic premise that a kindly British housekeeper splurges her life savings on a couture Dior gown in Paris, much to the frustration of couture’s snootiest gatekeepers.  That premise is just all there is to the made-for-TV version, which wouldn’t be much of a movie without Lansbury’s loveable screen-presence babysitting the audience between commercial breaks.  Meanwhile, Manville’s Mrs. Harris essentially becomes a union organizer—inspired by an ongoing trash strike that’s only mentioned as a traffic obstacle in the Lansbury version—radicalizing both the workers at Dior and herself.  Both versions of Mrs. Harris are lauded for being kind in a cruel world, but only Manville gets to learn to prioritize herself in the face of oppressive class & gender politics; she’s in a drama, while Lansbury is in a sitcom.  The most telling difference between the two films is when a Parisian love interest warmly refers to Mrs. Harris as “Mrs. Mops” in honor of the maid that cleaned his room at British boarding school.  In the made-for-TV version, it’s played as a sweet gesture; in the theatrical version it breaks her heart, and you desperately want to see her punch the cad’s throat.

I don’t want to exalt the 2022 version of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris as some high standard of artful cinema that the made-for-TV version can’t live up to.  Both adaptations are the exact kind of passive British entertainment meant to be enjoyed under a giant blanket with an empty mind & a nice cuppa.  Only the theatrical version has a true emotional hook to it, though.  When Mrs. Harris inevitably gets the pretty dress she wants, the movie just works on a level that the 90s one can’t – joining “Paddington wishes Aunt Lucy a happy birthday” and “The Girlhood girls dance to Rhianna” on the list of scenes I can think back to when I need a quick cry.  Lansbury doesn’t need a good movie to hit that emotional trigger, though.  I can apparently watch 30 seconds of her doing a press junket interview with Entertainment Tonight and well up with tears in the same way.  Her Mrs. Harris movie didn’t need to be especially “good” to be worthwhile; her sweet-but-secretly-tough presence was enough.  All that said, there’s a much wider, brighter world of Lansbury projects out there I should have prioritized before watching her pretty-dress movie, especially now that I have a better handle on who she was.  And maybe I should start with forcing myself to fall in love with detective-novelist Jessica Fletcher, who was likely an even tougher customer than Mrs. ‘Arris; I just have to stay awake long enough to get to know her.

-Brandon Ledet

David Gordon Ween

Just like all other major entries in decades-running horror franchises, David Gordon Green’s Halloween was sharply divisive among genre fans as soon as it hit theaters in 2018.  Even so, its reputation has only declined in the five years since, especially as it has become the go-to, defining example of mainstream horror’s current “legacy sequel” trend.  Not only does the Halloween reboot have to answer for its own revisions of Laurie Strode & Michael Myers lore, but it also now carries the weight of horror nerd complaints against more recent offenses like 2019’s Child’s Play, 2021’s Candyman, and this year’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It’s also been reduced to a scapegoat trendsetter for the Trauma Metaphor Horror wave that has followed in its wake, while artsier, standalone titles like Hereditary & The Babadook have maintained much steadier, more prestigious reputations in the same context.  It doesn’t help, of course, that Green has diluted his Halloween legacyquel with two follow-up films that have only alienated the Michael Myers purists even further as the series stumbled along.  I opted out of the David Gordon Ween discourse when Halloween Kills opened to white-hot angry reviews last year, but now that his theatrical mini-series is over and the online vitriol has been directed elsewhere (mostly at Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling, which is practically a legacy sequel to Stepford Wives), it finally felt safe to return to Haddonfield to see how his take on Halloween has evolved.

Personally, I was really impressed with Green’s “original” Halloween in 2018, and I still think it holds up well when considered in isolation.  Regardless of its role as a harbinger for the next five years of mainstream horror trends, it still a really scary movie about self-fulfilling prophecies and obsessive thought spirals.  Okay, yes, Laurie Strode is haunted by the same metaphorical Trauma Monster that stalks most modern horror heroines (this time in a road-worn William Shatner mask), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any dramatic complexity to how that internal battle with trauma plays out.  We’re told that in the 40 years since Laurie was hunted by the infamous killer Michael Myers in the John Carpenter original, she’s been mentally stuck in the events of that one night in a way that has defined & limited every other minute of her life.  Faced with senseless violence from a heartless, near-catatonic killer, Laurie has attempted to make sense of her life’s story by convincing herself it’s fate that she will have a final showdown with Michael once he inevitably escapes captivity.  It’s the same way that doomsday preppers always appear to be looking forward to the apocalypse they supposedly fear.  So, when Michael does escape, Laurie (along with other Michael-obsessed weirdos like “The New Dr. Loomis”) does everything in her power to make sure she & Michael have their “final” showdown in her D.I.Y. death-trap compound at the outskirts of Haddonfield, even though that’s exactly what she’s been dreading for decades.  Michael just mindlessly kills whatever’s in striking distance; Laurie is the one that makes the confrontation happen, totally unaware that she’s willing the fight into existence.  It’s chilling.

Green’s Halloween trilogy loses its way in the 2021 sequel Halloween Kills, which zooms out the scope of Michael’s function as a Trauma Monster from his effect on Laurie to his effect on Haddonfield as a community.  I choose to interpret the word “kills” as a noun here, since this second entry is a feature-length montage of Michael slashing his way through the streets, homes, and pubs of Haddonfield while Laurie recovers from their “final” showdown on a hospital bed, listening in from the sidelines.  Michael proves the point of the 2018 film’s self-fulfilling prophecy arc by making no effort to visit Laurie’s hospital room; he just lumbers from kill to kill in the most mindless fashion ever seen from a slasher villain.  If Halloween Kills is “about” anything outside the monotonous rhythm of those murders, it’s in how the community of Haddonfield tries to make sense of Michael’s senseless violence by making themselves the collective hero of the “story.”  I very much appreciate Halloween Kills‘s disgust with small-town America’s fetish for gun-toting vigilantism, given how many ordinary, ill-equipped Haddonfieldians approach Michael with deadly weapons—the same way real-life gun freaks dream of personally intervening in active-shooter crises—and are immediately destroyed for their trouble, either by Michael’s knife or their own petard.  It’s just a shame the movie is spread too thin across Michael’s hometown to ever truly feel scary.  Its larger scope means that it keeps intercutting between the tension of individual scenes so that we’re never properly immersed in any one of them.  It doesn’t really matter that its political assessments of small-town America are goofily unsubtle; it could have easily gotten away with that if it weren’t so scatterbrained.

After the frantic scrambling of Kills, the more sincere, dramatic approach of Halloween Ends can’t help but feel like a relief.  With his final entry in the series, Green returns to the low-key indie dramas that first earned him name recognition before he started making major studio slasher sequels & stoner comedies.  Halloween Ends may not be as Great as the first film in its trilogy, but it’s at least coherently structured and (mostly) functions as its own standalone movie, which is an embarrassingly low bar that Halloween Kills does not clear.  It’s also custom-designed to alienate & infuriate die-hard horror fans the same way that Halloween III: Season of the Witch was when Carpenter was still actively involved in the franchise, since it also does not focus on the senseless killings of Michael “The Shape” Myers.  Instead, we follow an equally iconic horror villain: Cory, the lonely mechanic with a troubled past.  Cory is dubbed “the new Michael” by the surviving citizens of Haddonfield, who essentially radicalize him into becoming a mass murderer in their continued attempts to make a clear, sensical narrative out of Michael’s mindless violence.  Meanwhile, Cory keeps The Old Michael as a pet in the sewers below Haddonfield and “feeds” his bullies to the hibernating killer the same way little Jamie feeds his bullies to the “tra-la-logs” of The Pit.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who are frustrated by the tonal & narrative inconsistencies between each of Green’s Halloweens, but I do love that there’s still room in a post-MCU world for individual movies in a big-budget franchise to take unique directions from each other – even if it’s strange to get that from a series with a consistent creative team at its core.  Cory’s story isn’t nearly as compelling nor as scary as Laurie’s, but at least Green & company found a way to make Halloween intimately personable again after the aimlessness of Kills.

The bigger problem is not the inconsistency across this series; it’s that it didn’t need to be a series at all.  Laurie Strode’s story is so neatly contained & emotionally impactful in the 2018 Halloween that there’s no reason for her to return for two more entries.  Kills feels lost by comparison, aimlessly wandering the streets of Haddonfield in search of a new emotional hook.  To its credit, Ends finds that new hook (by conjuring a new central character out of thin air), but it has no chance of fully standing on its own, since Laurie is still hanging around Haddonfield, distracting from its new sense of purpose.  After Cory’s own storyline is neatly wrapped up, Laurie steps back in for another “final” showdown with Michael, as if they’re ultimate fight to the death was meant to be, undoing all the good work of Green’s “original” Halloween.  After two entire films of Laurie hanging around a hospital room (Kills) and absentmindedly narrating her memoir (Ends), that last minute return to her vendetta with Michael can’t help but feel like an afterthought that dilutes the impact of both her story and Cory’s.  That’s largely what makes Halloween ’18 a great film and Halloween Ends an okay one.  And the purposeless ambling of Kills only makes them both look stronger by comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Do Revenge (2022)

It probably comes as no surprise that I am a man whose limited social media use includes following the Twitter accounts of several Buffy-related content producers. I used to follow the one and only Mrs. Sarah Michelle Gellar on Instagram until I got sad that her manager was making her do the same branded social media content that fame bottom feeders like Patreon-less YouTubers and people who make cakes that are 80% fondant are doing; I felt like Sideshow Bob shivering upon learning that “TV’s bottomless chum bucket [had] claimed Vanessa Redgrave.” No judgment on our adulated SMG, of course; I love her like Broadway queens love Patti LuPone. I’m just saying everybody needs to go stream BTVS on Hulu like, right now, so that she never has to do another one of those unless she actually wants to. So, of course when I heard that Her Excellency was going to be in a new movie that was being billed as the high school version of Strangers on a Train, and that I didn’t even have to leave the house to see it, well, of course I was going to. 

At 28 minutes into Do Revenge, the traditionally attractive Drea (Camila Mendes, of Riverdale), having convinced gawkishly gorgeous Eleanor (Maya Hawke) to do revenge with her, gets excited: 

Drea: First we have to fix (pulls Eleanor in front of a mirror) … this. We have to do

Eleanor: Please don’t say “makeover.” 

Drea: —a makeover! Yay! (jumps up and down)

Eleanor: (with vocal fry) Feels problematic.

Drea: It is, but it’s fun!

Do Revenge presents itself as a pretty conventional movie, and in many ways it is, despite its winking self-awareness that it’s trafficking in cliches. Prior to this scene, when Eleanor is offered a tour of her new high school, she responds “I mean, as a disciple of the ’90s teen movie, I would be offended if I didn’t get one.” It’s borrowing from a deep, deep well: high school-set literature adaptations, the sharp wit and ear for dialogue that permeates the mean girl movie canon, and revenge thrillers. The film opens with narration from Drea, who fills us in on how, from humble beginnings, she has clawed her way to the top of the social hierarchy at Rosewood Country Day, an elite private high school in the Miami area. “They all want me as a friend or a fuck,” she says. “I’m worshipped at Westerburg and I’m only a Junior.” Wait, no, shit, that’s Heather Chandler. The words are different, but the speech is the same: it’s the end of her junior year, and she’s done something or other with Teen Vogue. Her friends are mostly vapid hangers-on, and although she thinks of herself as a scrappy underdog, she’s just an Alpha Heather with good publicity. She’s also dating star student Max (Austin Abrams), a weaselly little rich boy who happens to be class president. Since they won’t be seeing each other, he asks her to send him a sexy video, which is then leaked to the whole school. She ends up painted as the aggressor when she punches Max in the quad, and it nearly costs her the scholarship she depends on. 

Humiliated, Drea spends the summer friendless, working at a tennis camp for rich girls, a group that includes Eleanor. When the girls there also get  their hands on the “leaked” video, Eleanor names Erica (Sophie Turner) as the distributor, and is impressed with how swiftly Drea ruins Erica’s life, planting cocaine on her and remaining calm in the face of Erica’s furious accusations. When Drea has car trouble at the end of the summer, Eleanor drives her back, and they bond, with Eleanor relating a particularly traumatizing story about being outed as queer by a girl she had a crush on, who also told gossipy lies about Eleanor being a predator. Eleanor also happens to be transferring to the same school as the girl who bullied her, which is also Rosewood Country Day. On the first day, Max gives a speech which appropriates the language of resistance in order to distance himself from accusations that he was the one who leaked Drea’s video, shames the people who shared and viewed the video, and humiliates Drea by making her stand up in the assembly. He also announces the formation of the new school club “The Cis Hetero Men Championing Female-Identifying Students League,” which is to be exclusively male and straight, for men to become better allies (I fear I’m underselling the intentional tastelessness and invoked odiousness here, but he’s just awful). Eleanor and Drea run into each other again in the bathroom, and agree to each do the other’s revenge: Drea will get close to and socially destroy Carissa (Ava Capri), the girl who outed and started rumors about Eleanor, and Eleanor will get close to Max and help Drea get her own vengeance, and then they act out the scene transcribed above.

You might be asking yourself where Sarah Michelle Gellar is in all of this; she’s the headmistress of the school who’s heavily invested in Drea’s academic success. Although her scenes are too few, too brief, and too infrequent (although every single entrance made me gasp and say “She looks amazing“), her presence is felt throughout the narrative, and that’s not just me singing her praises. All our favorites are here, blended into a pastel smoothie: one part Mean Girls if Janis Ian used to be Regina George; one part Jawbreaker if Vylette’s makeover was arranged by Julie in order to get back at Courtney; two parts Heathers if Veronica allied herself with Betty Finn instead of Jason Dean; there’s even a little zest of that scene in Cruel Intentions where Reese Witherspoon distributes copies of Ryan Phillipe’s catty little journal to the whole school, except this time it’s copies of Max’s data that proves he’s faking his apparent progressivism, from the top of his stupid earrings to the tips of his “masculinity reimagined” painted nails. And I’m not just projecting that; both movies use Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You,” for goodness’s sake. And that’s not even getting into the (frankly inspired) choice to have the school uniforms uniformly look like Cher Horowitz’s Martha’s Vineyard Easter attire (which gives the whole thing a D.E.B.S. flair). It’s like a greatest hits album, right up until the moment that it suddenly isn’t anymore: well-worn and funny until everything gets turned on its head. I won’t spoil the very Patricia Highsmith twist here, but it disrupts the complacency with the familiar into which the audience has been lulled in a clever way. You thought that just because there was a scene in this movie where someone gets a tour of all the school’s cliques like in She’s All That and Ten Things I Hate About You that it meant you were going to ride the whole thing out in your comfort zone, but there’s something fresh and new here, too. 

I’m not really sure what demographic this movie is aiming for, but I’m in it. A few years back, I asked about the decade’s successor to the legacy of the Heathers -> Jawbreaker -> Mean Girls pipeline and nominated New Year, New You as the heir apparent, but there’s something new and fun here. This one is also theoretically aimed at the contemporary teen market, what with the inclusion of Riverdale‘s own Betty with Cabelo, Outer Banks hunk Jonathan Daviss, Alisha Boe from Thirteen Reasons Why, and Stranger Things actresses Hawke and Francesca Reale. (After the recent and dreadful He’s All That, I can only presume that the rest of the cast is filled with TikTokers and former Disney sitcom children.) At the same time, the soundtrack, like the films from which the narrative cribs, is very 90s focused. Aside from the aforementioned Fatboy Slim, the soundtrack also features tracks from The Cranberries, Meredith Brooks, Harvey Danger, the Symphonic Pops, and even The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, if you can believe it. Drea and Eleanor first bond while the dulcet tones of Third Eye Blind’s “How’s It Going To Be?”, and, because someone wanted to make me happy specifically, Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon.”  And yet there’s also more contemporary music like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish (although the simple fact that I, a man in my thirties, knows them could mean that they are no longer cool).

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Occhiali neri (Dark Glasses, 2022)

You knew that this was coming, reader. You knew it in your bones. I knew it in my bones, too. It’s been ten years since the release of Dracula 3D, and I think it’s safe to say we all assumed that this was a retirement, despite the sporadic vehement statements/threats that Sandman (not that one) really was going to come out some day, just you wait and see. It’s also been nearly seven years since I completed my review of the (at the time) entire Dario Argento canon. Now, in the year 2022 C.E., the master has returned, as he’s brought his daughter with him!

And he’s still up to his old tricks, as his latest film Occhiali neri (Dark Glasses) starts with—you guessed it—the murder of a sex worker! Some time later, Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli), a different young call girl, is attacked by the same serial killer one night after leaving a client’s home. She manages to get into her car and escape, but he pursues her, ultimately forcing Diana into a tragic collision with another vehicle. Diana is rendered blind while the driver of the other vehicle dies instantly and the other adult passenger, the driver’s wife, is rendered comatose. Only their elementary aged son Chin (Andrea Zhang) walks away without injury, and is placed into a Catholic orphanage for the time being, although he slips away and finds his way to Diana, who takes him in. As Diana slowly adjusts to her new life with the help of Rita (Asia Argento), a teacher who specializes in training the recently blinded to adapt to their new situation, as well as her faithful seeing eye dog Nerea, she gets the feeling that the man who forced her off the road and took her sight is still stalking her. And she’s right! 

Dark Glasses is fine. It’s certainly not the exciting return to form that one would expect when they hear that Argento is back, although that also doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in all the Argentoisms you’ve come to know and perhaps even to love. You’ve got your decapitations just like in Profondo rosso and over half a dozen others, you’ve got your totemic animals just like in Phenomena and Pelts, and you’ve even got my personal favorite, the intergenerational investigative duo, as in the aforementioned Phenomena as well as Non ho sonno, and this one even returns to the “child helps a blind person investigate” set-up from all the way back in l gatto a nove code. Were you wondering if there would be a plot cul-de-sac? Not to worry, there is, and it involves snakes nesting in a river! Ironically, one of the Argento conceits it doesn’t have is eye trauma; we are told explicitly that Diana’s blindness is caused by swelling in her brain from the accident, not any physical damage to her actual eyes. This movie even synthesizes the dog attack from Suspiria with the end-of-movie saved-by-a-service-animal twist of Phenomena into something fun and gruesome, even if it fails to be exciting and memorable. That having been said, it takes more than just a remix/medley of those old ideas to make a great movie, and this movie isn’t “great.” But then again, if you’re a real Argento fan, you know that this is true for his entire body of work, especially since 2001 (and that’s being charitable mostly because I rank Non ho sonno higher than most); for every Suspiria, Tenebrae, and L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo, there’s a Do You Like Hitchcock?, a Giallo, and an Il cartaio. I’m not trying to be a grumpy goose here, but when I read this vitriolic reviews for a movie that’s a perfectly fine little slasher that wouldn’t be out of place among the director’s nineties output (and would have been the best of them in that era), it’s like, don’t come crying to me unless you’ve actually managed to make it all the way through Le cinque giornate, ok? 

The strangest thing that’s happening here is that there’s a real cognitive dissonance to watching an Argento movie in which everyone has smartphones. I remarked on the podcast recently about how the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading is very much an unintentional period piece, with the way that it treats online dating, obsessive Blackberry use, and the Russian threat, and how strange it is to see media made during the era in which the arbiters of narrative were still trying to grapple with omnipresent mobile device usage (think Elaine on Seinfeld—rightfully, in my opinion—explaining that it’s rude to engage in a long phone call while on public transportation). Argento’s body of work skips all of that pretty much completely, since Il cartaio is the last film of his to engage with technology in a meaningful way, coming from the era of horror movies with the plot element of “live broadcast of murders” that was so prevalent in the mid-aughts, and then his next films either ignored technology or Victorian period pieces. Here, suddenly, mobile devices are omnipresent, but they do very little to change the narrative. Likewise, Diana at one point purchases Chin a (device which is similar to but legally distinct from a) Nintendo Switch, which is relevant to that scene and that scene alone, before it is never mentioned in the narrative again. 

I’ve been watching a lot of Murder, She Wrote this year (R.I.P. Angela and Ron) and it’s fun to watch as the series progresses how the writers on that program used the rapidly changing technology of the era in their mysteries, as Jessica Fletcher starts out with a typewriter before getting a word processor and finally a desktop computer to do her writing on, despite pushing back against the march of tech progress every step of the way. Sometimes the usage of the technology of the week is accurate, sometimes it’s inaccurate in a way that makes it clear the writer felt that using new tech gave them carte blanche to make the machinery do whatever the narrative called for, and sometimes I have no idea if what they’re saying modems and Telexes are capable of was accurate at the time or not. It encapsulates the three ways that an aging creative demographic can incorporate and understand (or misunderstand) how technology works and what it can contribute to this story. Here, we get a scene in which Rita teaches Diana how to use her new smart phone, which is programmed with specific accessibility features that are meant to accomodate people without sight. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a PSA in the middle of your movie about that sort of thing, but when we’re talking about a mystery thriller, the audience is primed to expect that this will come back into the narrative at some point, but it never does. Things that are foreshadowed are elements that could be in a film set any time in the past fifty years or more: Diana’s seeing eye dog being trained to defend her, or her joking to Chin that there’s no point in having a gun to protect her since she can’t aim it only for her to end up having to use one later. 

I guess that what I’m saying is that this film didn’t need to be set in the present. There’s not really anything in it that pegs it to 2022; even the CCTV footage that the police watch after one of the other murders doesn’t reveal anything more than you might see when people review security tapes on Diagnosis Murder or even some episodes of Columbo. This is meant as a term of awe and not mockery: Dario Argento is an old man. Yes, Clint Eastwood just directed Cry Macho last year at 91 and yes, Manoel de Oliveira was 104 when he directed O Gebo e a Sombra, but we can’t expect the Italian Maestro to start putting out a movie every 28 months like he did when he was a young man. If he’s only got a few films , or even one film, left in him then I would honestly much rather see him do some more period pieces, but this time, set them during the era in which he was most active as a director. If Dark Glasses had been set in 1978 of 1983 instead of 2022, it would automatically be much more interesting, and would have an unmistakable feeling of invoking the creator in his prime, not just in the audience but perhaps in the man himself. It’s not too late. 

All of that aside, Dark Glasses is as unpretentious as it is unremarkable, which means that like most movies which fail to either be massive Marvel moneymakers or Cats-level career crashes, will fall through the cracks, despite being a long-awaited return from an undisputed master of the genre. If you’re not in a film-loving market like I am in Austin, it probably never even screened near you and went straight to Shudder, where the user comments and ratings trend negative and a little redpill-y. But if you, like a lot of horror fans, love a tight 75-90 minute slasher flick, then Dark Glasses has your Friday evening covered. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Barbarian (2022)

To me, one of life’s simplest pleasures is going to the movies during the day, especially when it’s a weekday and there’s virtually no one else around. Of course, it’s pretty rare to be the only person or party in the theater; in my life, it’s only happened twice: when I was in the seventh grade and my mom picked me up from school early for a doctor’s appointment and then we went and saw Mission to Mars together, and on a recent Friday that I had taken off of work for a reason that fell through, so I went to a bunch of estate sales and then to see Barbarian. I have one friend in particular who absolutely refuses to watch movies during the day; she feels like it’s a waste of daylight and, hey, she’s certainly entitled to her opinion and whatever relationship she chooses to have with my longtime nemesis The Sun. For me, I love the experience of going into a dark theater and going on a complete emotional journey, only to stagger out into the daylight afterwards a changed person. It makes me feel like one of the Pevensie children stumbling back out of the wardrobe after a lifetime as royalty in another place, or Captain Picard when the Ressikan probe made him live a whole life in “The Inner Light” (or any of a hundred other examples, really). To be honest, that’s the closest thing I think we have to real magic in this world, other than magnets.

TW: Sexual assault.

Barbarian didn’t really change me. I didn’t come out of it a different person like I did when I stumbled out into the sun after seeing Mission to Mars twenty years ago (I’m not claiming it was a positive change) or True Stories in re-release five years ago. But it was a lot of fun and mostly maintained my attention. Written and directed by Zach Cregger, formerly of The Whitest Kids U’ Know and in his first directorial outing since his much-derided freshman feature Miss March, the film stars Georgina Campbell, who appeared in both the excellent Broadchurch and the well-received “Hang the DJ” episode of Black Mirror. Campbell is Tess, a woman visiting Detroit to interview for a research assistant position for a documentary filmmaker. She finds herself in an unenviable and stressful position when she discovers that the house she has rented on AirBnB is already occupied: by Keith (Bill Skarsgård), who claims to have booked the same house on HomeAway. They verify that they have the same (unmonitored) phone number for the property manager and Keith shows Tess his confirmation email. Tess is understandably less than enthused about the situation but is unable to find alternative accommodations, and ultimately she acquiesces to sleeping in the bedroom of the house while Keith takes the couch. She awakes in the night to find her door open and startles Keith awake, but the night is otherwise uneventful. She attends her interview and it goes well, and her presumed future employer warns her not to stay in the neighborhood that she’s in any longer than she has to. Back at the house, she has a frightening encounter with an unhoused person before accidentally locking herself in the basement while looking for toilet paper. While waiting for Keith to come back so that he can help her, she discovers a hidden door and a secret room, which terrifies her. Keith does come back and assist, but insists on seeing the room for himself, and eventually stops responding to Tess…. 

From there, we jump from the dark basement to sunny California to meet our third lead, sitcom star AJ Gilbride (Justin Long). He’s living the dream, or so he thinks, when he gets a call from two studio executives, who inform him that he’s just been #MeToo’d and that his accuser’s story will be front page news the following day. A survey of his finances leads him to consider selling some property, and the first place that he can think of is the house he owns in Detroit, so he flies back to Michigan (unwisely leaving the state, giving that it makes him appear that he’s fleeing) and enters the house, finding evidence that the house may still be occupied. We also learn that the home once belonged to a man named Frank (Richard Brake), who took up residence there during or before the 1980s, and that Frank was a serial kidnapper among the least of his crimes. 

Barbarian is a weird little picture. In his article “The Search for this Year’s Malignant,” Brandon makes a connection between this film and Don’t Breathe, which ranked fairly high on my list of top films for 2016 while being completely absent from everyone else’s, and I was also thinking about the two films in conversation with one another while sitting in the (empty, empty) screening of Barbarian. Both use the veritably post-apocalyptic vibe of many of the city’s neighborhoods to increase the overall sense of unease, but Barbarian makes the decline of the city a part of its text: when we see Frank leave his house to get, eh, “supplies,” it’s not merely his house that is in pristine condition, but the neighborhood as a whole. He drives a huge, American-made car and has an interaction with the next door neighbor that reveals Frank’s neighbors are planning to sell their house and move soon, since the wife is worried that they won’t be able to sell it the next year (Frank, for his part, ominously claims that he will never leave). Frank’s house in the present day is likewise well-maintained, but now it sits in the middle of a huge radius of homes that have fallen apart from disuse, squatting, fire, and neglect, which Tess, who initially arrived at night, discovers in the morning light. That change between the neighborhood of yesterday and today didn’t happen overnight, and Frank’s neighbors’ economic concerns about the future are proven absolutely right. Reagan himself is mentioned on the radio, the reminder that the ruin that Tess witnesses was the result of one of America’s most productive (and unionized) cities being crippled by his administration’s shift of power to the wealthy and the immediate movement by the wealthy to move manufacturing out of the American economy. The choice of Detroit isn’t a coincidence or merely intended to cash in on the city’s degradation, but a part of the framing. 

At its core, the film is a treatise about interpersonal interaction, most importantly how men treat women (more on that in a minute), and to a lesser extent, how people in general are treated by the system. The inciting event is the fault of the real estate agency that manages AJ’s Detroit property, as they fail to monitor their listings properly and allow a house to be booked through two different services; later, when Tess and Keith meet, the agency remains completely unresponsive and have no emergency contact information available for customers. Even when AJ comes back to the city and assumes that there are squatters in the house because of the luggage that he finds, the agency is unhelpful, can’t confirm when the last guests left, and cite that they only send cleaning services before the next guest (which, given that it’s been weeks, indicates that they’re not making sure that there are no corpses or bags of garbage getting septic in there even under normal circumstances); it’s enough to make one daydream about a Terry Gilliam picture about navigating the bureaucracy of short term rentals. More importantly, as in real life, the police here are not only useless, but obstructive. Although we don’t see it, given that the woman who interviewed Tess expressed concern about where she was staying, it’s reasonable to think she would have probably been concerned enough about not being able to contact her the following day that she would have asked for a welfare check-in, even if she didn’t file a report. But there’s no indication that anyone has been looking for her, and a later interaction between a character trying to get help and the police results in the officers treating said person like an addict and a troublemaker, and that’s not even getting into the dispatcher’s apathy when Tess is chased by a threatening figure. 

Each of the three men who own or occupy the house over the course of the film represents one of the ways that men treat women. Frank is clearly the worst, as he casually lies his way into a woman’s home in order to unlock a window for later abduction like a character in a Thomas Harris adaptation. I won’t get into what exactly is happening in that basement in the 1980s, but it’s sickening, and the trophies that he keeps in the form of VHS tapes are labelled with chillingly inhuman descriptions of women who are deprived of even the dignity of their names, reduced to “gas station redhead” and “grocery brunette (biter).” At the other end of the spectrum is Keith, a genuinely decent person who knows—on a conceptual level—what women “deal with” on a daily basis, going so far as to notice that she didn’t take a cup of tea that he made her and then, when offering her wine later, makes it clear that he wants to make sure she sees him open it. Keith knows what Rape Culture is, and although he’s genuine, he’s also still a Nice Guy, living so fully and comfortably within certain privileges afforded him by his maleness that he’s shocked to learn that there are even more precautions that Tess undertakes than he knows about. And although the banal evil of real estate apathy may have kicked off the events of the film as we see them, it’s Keith’s cat-killing curiosity about the creepy basement room despite Tess’s very rational statement that they need to leave that causes the rest of the film to happen. Even a nice guy is still a guy. In the space between Keith and Frank, not the “middle” per se but on that spectrum, is AJ. He almost definitely did what he’s accused of doing, and his denials of what happened, which he attempts to explain away as his having had to “convince” his accuser, don’t even seem to be convincing to himself when he recites them (the situation most reminded me of the accusations leveled against Aziz Ansari a few years back). 

I won’t lie and say that I never got bored during this one. A friend who saw it on a different day said that it felt like a Netflix series, and as Brandon pointed out in the above-linked article, the sketch-like segments don’t always pay off equally. The reveal is more functional to me than exciting, and there were a few moments when I was surprised the film hadn’t ended yet. I wish that the film had included a few more comedic beats during the long stretches of drama, because when Barbarian is funny, it’s very funny; the bit where AJ discovers a creepy kidnap room in his basement and immediately researches whether he can include it in the square footage for the real estate listing is, frankly, inspired – and comes back around in an important way. Cregger demonstrates a real ability to set the mood (one of my favorite bits of visual storytelling is when the dryer with the sheets in it has completed its cycle, but Tess and Keith are still enjoying each other’s company), but I would love to see him break it just a little more. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Podcast #170: The Plumber (1979) & Evil Professionals

Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of horror films about evil professionals who terrorize on the job, starting with Peter Weir’s made-for-TV domestic thriller The Plumber (1979).

0:00 Welcome

01:30 The Peanut Butter Solution (1985)
06:38 Kalifornia (1993)
10:45 Eyes Without a Face (1960)
12:30 Desert Hearts (1985)
14:15 Smile (2022)
17:40 Intimidation (1960)
20:35 Monkeybone (2001)

27:34 The Plumber (1979)
51:51 Dr. Giggles (1992)
1:05:23 Ice Cream Man (1995)
1:18:55 One Hour Photo (2002)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew