Kajillionaire (2020)

When I was going through a really bad breakup in 2014, there was a quote that I stumbled across on Tumblr (again, it was 2014) that spoke to me on an intimate, deep level. I thought it was part of a poem, but I could never find it again, and I spent six years occasionally plugging the random bits of it that I could remember into Google to see if it would spit out the name of the poem, or the poet. Finally, in September, the search engine of record returned a result. The author was Miranda July, and it wasn’t a poem, it was an excerpt from her book It Chooses You

“All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.”

It may not seem like much to you (although if you’ve ever struggled with depression, it probably does), but I never felt more seen than I did in the moment that I first read this assortment of words in this particular order. How do other people make it through? Where are they parking their bodies and coping inside of those bodies, hour after endless hour? When you’re in the bottom of your emotional well and every hour feels like days, how are you supposed to live with that? I wanted to know and even knowing that someone else wanted to know it too made me feel less isolated and alone.

The answer to that question is not found in Kajillionaire, Miranda July’s 2020 film (she is credited as both writer and director). The film tells the story of Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood), who was so named by her con artist parents in honor of an unhoused person who won the lottery in the hopes that their daughter would be put in his will (in vain). Her father Robert (Richard Jenkins) prides himself on having no interest in or connection to mainstream consumerism, instead preferring to reject society’s pursuit of wealth and the accompanying desire to become “kajillionaires” to instead live a life in the margins, and her mother Theresa (Debra Winger) is in complete sympatico. They’re rejection of the conventional economy extends to making their home in an inexpensive office next to a soap factory, which also includes a twice-daily scooping of soap bubble overflow that comes out of the walls into a drain in the floor. They’re not just freegans, though: they’re pickpockets, scammers, and con artists, meticulously and obsessively keeping track of surveillance cameras and performing elaborate movements to avoid being seen, largely oblivious to the fact that they stick out like sore thumbs otherwise. Since Old Dolio’s childhood, they have split everything three ways. 

After attending a pregnancy preparation course taught by Dead to Me’s Diana-Maria Riva, Old Dolio starts to recognize how little her parents care for her emotional well being (read: not even a little bit). This is exacerbated when, while doing a quick airline luggage fraud scam, Robert and Theresa meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) and adopt her into their schemes while also immediately beginning to treat her with more tenderness and concern than their daughter, which does not escape her notice. Seemingly charmed by the thought of Hollywood-style heists, Melanie puts forth the idea of going to the homes of the lonely, elderly customers at the mall-based ophthalmology office where she works and complimenting their antiques until they offer her something of value, which the quartet could then flip. Ultimately, she finds the desperate, morally questionable actions of the Dyne clan to be seedier and less Ocean’s Eleven than she expected, but not before she develops a crush on the emotionally damaged Old Dolio. When Theresa can’t manage to use a single term of endearment for her daughter, Melanie promises to do all of that and more. 

Wood is giving a solid performance here,

On a recent Lagniappe episode of the podcast in which we discussed The Other Lamb, Brandon noted that he thought that the film would fall within my wheelhouse because of my interest in cults, be it real life cults like NXIVM or fictional cults like those in The Lodge and The Endless. And it’s true, and it’s also true that, as we discussed in that episode (and in other places), although I wasn’t raised in a cult per se, I did grow up in a particular segment of Evangelical Christianity that was very particular in its beliefs, and, like the Dyne parents here, created a mythology that was not only outside of and opposed to the mainstream, but was also strictly about opposition to the mainstream as part of its ideology. What really worked for me about Kajillionaire was Robert and Theresa’s strange little beliefs and how those beliefs so heavily affected their raising of Old Dolio not as a child but as a tool. Their self-centeredness and codependence upon each other, to the point of ostracizing their daughter, is played for laughs, and it’s often funny, but it’s also horribly depressing. When Old Dolio wins a trip to New York, her earnest attempts to take the trip with just her mother is not only rebuffed by Theresa, but Robert later uses it to denigrate his daughter as part of one of his many angry diatribes about how their way of life is the only feasible way. When Old Dolio manages to graft the aforementioned lost-luggage-insurance-fraud scam onto the trip to net just enough for the family to pay their back rent, said con involves flying to NYC together and flying back separately as strangers, but George immediately insists that he and Theresa will be a couple, and Old Dolio will travel alone. Not only is an arrangement of Richard flying alone while Theresa and Old Dolio fly together not even considered, but Richard and his wife are true narcissists who only see their daughter as a prop for their “jobs,” and nothing more. 

The Dynes don’t want to be “fake” people, behaving as society expects a parent to, and they find the idea of treating Old Dolio with tenderness as both artificial and patronizing, as if undignified. And I’ll be honest: that speaks to me, too. It’s probably the a reason that I am not very good with children (and wasn’t even when I was one, although there was also the bullying), as I find it hard to engage with them when the situation (very rarely, thankfully) requires me to do so. But this film carries that idea through to its inevitable dark end when applied to parenting, and although the film’s marketing makes it look like this situation will be at least somewhat charming before conflict arises, it’s clear from the earliest moments that this is completely unhealthy, and that the world within which Old Dolio is trapped is one where even the slightest kindness or touch of comfort or is completely alien to her. 

There’s something fascinatingly and fantastically alien about Old Dolio’s situation, on top of and adjacent to the world that the rest of us live in. Miranda July seems to have asked herself about how one extremely specific person was making it through life —where she was putting her body, hour by hour, and how she was coping inside of it. It’s a character study of someone raised in a culture that is invisible, tangential, and almost inconceivable. In that, it’s worth a watch, although I’d wait until after its hefty rental price comes down a little.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)

Bill & Ted Face the Music finds our lovable slacker buds, William S. Preston Esq. (Alex Winter) and Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves), still at the great work that Rufus (the late George Carlin) foretold for them: the song that would unite the world. They’re also middle aged, with daughters of their own, named for the other: Wilhelmina “Billie” Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine) is dark-haired, shy, and androgynous like Ted, while Theadora Preston (Samara Weaving) is blonde, confident, and hyperactive like Bill. The film opens on the wedding of Missy (Amy Stoch), who was once our hapless duo’s babysitter, then was Ted’s step-mother, then Bill’s step-mother, and is now marrying Ted’s younger brother Deacon (Beck Bennett, taking over for Frazier Bain). At the reception, Bill and Ted plan to perform the first three movements of their latest composition, entitled “That Which Binds Us Through Time: The Chemical, Physical, and Biological Nature of Love and the Exploration of the Meaning of Meaning — Part 1,” and it starts with throat-singing and theremin, so I’m on board, but it’s not a crowd pleaser. At the suggestion of their wives, the princesses (Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays), Bill and Ted attend couple’s therapy with their respective spouse, as a quartet. 

Meanwhile in the future, time and space are falling apart. Rufus’s daughter Kelly (Kristen Schaal) and widow The Great Leader (Holland Taylor) have different interpretations of the prophesied Wyld Stallyns song, with the latter believing in her father’s vision of universal unity through the power of music, and her mother hoping to put things back on track by reluctantly killing the Stallyns. To that end, she sends a time-traveling murderbot (Anthony Carrigan) to hunt them down across space and time. Learning about the dire situation, Bill and Ted steal their old phone booth time machine and move progressively forward in time along their own lifelines in an attempt to acquire the song from their future selves. Meanwhile, Billie and Thea travel through time to acquire various historical musicians (and Kid Cudi) in preparation for the performance. 

The sad thing about Face the Music is that, all too often, Bill and Ted are the least interesting things in it. This movie made me feel young, and then it made me feel old, and then it made me feel young again, but not in a way I was happy about. There’s just a little too much happening here, in a sequel to a movie that knew just how many juggling pins it could keep in the air at one time, and there are too many narrative threads. Offscreen, the princesses have been invited by future versions of themselves to see all of space and time and see if there’s any way they can actually be happy in their marriages to the men of the title (not to sound too much like the boys, but, like, that plot is majorly a downer). Meanwhile, the daughters are having their adventure, which is a mixed bag; Weaving and Lundy-Paine are both great here but are sometimes forced into delivering dialogue that hits the ear with neither subtlety or comedy. They have a kind of abridged version of Excellent Adventure as they collect Mozart, Hendrix, and Louis Armstrong (Daniel Dorr, DazMann Still, and Jeremiah Craft) and others, to form a supergroup rather than for a history project, but each encounter feels more expository than fun. They encounter one instance of resistance in their plot and overcome it almost immediately, then have nothing but easy success from there on out, which doesn’t make for a compelling watch. Conversely, each future version of the adult Bill and Ted is drunker and less helpful than the last, and these encounters go on for too long (especially in 2025), making the whole thing feel more like a labor than a good time. Then, as if that weren’t enough, we get a slight rehash of Bogus Journey with a trip to Hell, where the guys, their daughters, several time-displaced musicians, and Ted’s dad once again meet up with Death (William Sadler) to get back to the world of the living in time to perform the song and prevent the end of existence as we know it–because, if there’s one thing you have to remember, it’s this: the clock in San Dimas is always running. 

I didn’t even get into the plot that’s running concurrently in the future in which The Great Leader keeps getting summoned into the same amphitheater to look at the hologram of space and time (represented as the earth as a turntable, with a record deck at the equator like Saturn’s rings) to fret, which seems to happen nearly half a dozen times. In an overstuffed movie, it’s crammed in there too for some reason but there seems to be a disconcerting lack of a narrative purpose for us to keep going back there. Obviously one would want to get their money’s worth when hiring Holland Taylor, but from a story standpoint, there’s just no reason to keep doing this; a ninety-three minute movie shouldn’t have 125 minutes of plot crowding it up like the suitcase of a Looney Tunes character, as it leaves no breathing room and creates the situation mentioned earlier, in which character dialogue is rushed and overly expositional.  

I loved Bill & Ted in my youth, and no one wanted this movie to be better than I did. There are a few solid jokes here, but even some of the best are in service of generating a nostalgic feeling, which isn’t the wrong way to go with this particular franchise, but could have been scaled back by about 35% and had both more room to breathe and been just as effective. Lundy-Paine and Weaving are doing a lot of heavy lifting, and they’re up to most of it, but there are lines that they’re asked to sell that are simply impossible to pull off, and while Reeves has continued to carve out a niche for himself with John Wick and one-off minor roles in things like Neon Demon, Alex Winter has remained largely out of the public eye, mostly making documentaries. It’s great to see him here; he seems to be having the most fun of anyone, and it’s infectious, even when the film drags. It’s a less than delightful end(?) to a franchise that had a better ending in Bogus Journey.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Once again helmed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor/sorta, respectively, along with additions Pedro Pascal (as Maxwell Lord) and Kristen Wiig (as Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah), sequel Wonder Woman 1984 (stylized as WW84) has hit the big screens and small screens at the same time. Like many people who spent their Christmas apart from their family this year, and also have HBO Max, my Christmas morning involved watching WW84. As a Christmas present, it was like the gag candy that looks like coal and you get in your stocking, where for a moment you think that you’ve been punished before realizing it’s a sweet, except in reverse, where what seems like sugary fun at first turns out to be kind of a piece of coal. Wonder Woman 1984 is … pretty bad. And not in the way that the first one was considered “bad” by a lot of people who (understandably) lost the thread somewhere in that muddy finale or who just have a mental block that makes them hate the Wonder Woman character. This movie is a mess, with a few true gems in the narrative, but also with some troubling philosophical underpinnings. But what WW84 is, at its core, is something that Diana of Themyscira never would be: cowardly. 

It’s 1984, and Diana is working at the Smithsonian in her civilian identity, where she has access to artifacts recently recovered from a black market jewelry shop front that was revealed during a botched robbery that Diana foiled as Wonder Woman. She meets colleague Dr. Barbara Minerva, who establishes the value of everything save for one object: a citrine sculpture with an inscription that Diana translates to, essentially, “you get one wish.” She absently reminisces about Steve, and there’s magic little tinkly sounds and an air machine, and I can admit that I loved that bit. Barbara, for her part, wishes she could be more like Diana: effortlessly confident, eternally alluring, and tirelessly kind. Diana discovers that the wishing stone was actually en route to Maxwell Lord, a televised Ponzi schemer selling the idea of a socialistic communally owned oil reserve (I don’t get it either) when the FBI confiscated the artifacts, but she fails to stop him before he obtains and then acquires the power of the artifact. Steve comes back to life and although the two are happy to be reunited, the method of his resurrection reveals that the artifact operates on Monkey’s Paw rules (explicitly; it’s invoked, and it’s an admittedly nice touch that it’s Steve who calls it by name, as it would be a recent reference for him), and Lord’s using the granting of wishes to increase his personal power even as his body and society start to fall apart. Will Diana be able to stop him in blah blah blah?

If you’re completely removed from The Discourse or are Very Offline to the point that you’re in a bubble vis-a-vis politics, both contemporary and of the 1980s, then it might be possible for you to just turn your brain off and enjoy a nostalgic throwback about Wonder Woman fighting a Ponzi schemer in 1984. It’s certainly what the film wants you to do, and to that end, there are a lot of elements that are super fun.

Everything to do with Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah, is great from a performance standpoint. Wiig is once again playing a character similar to her previous role in Ghostbusters: a woman of high academic achievement who is nerdy, Hollywood Homely, and largely ignored/disdained by her peers to exaggerated comic effect (none of her male colleagues help her collect her dropped documents, only Diana does). Her own boss doesn’t even remember meeting her previously, which was funny in Office Space but just feels painful and awkward here, especially as it comes so early in the film that the tone hasn’t really been set yet (more on that in a moment). Her immediate interest in Diana is adorable, as she sees in the literally divine Amazon a reflection of what she wishes she could be, in more ways than one, and her friendship with Diana is fun and likable, before it inevitably goes sour. Wiig is having a lot of fun playing “frumpy” and excitable, and while that’s definitely within her wheelhouse, it’s also fun seeing her stretch those muscles playing some of Minerva’s more subdued moments. Unfortunately, the material she’s working with plays against her talents, especially once she’s turned into a clawing, snarling CGI abomination (seriously, the practical effects in The Island of Dr. Moreau from 1996 are better than how this looks). 

The film’s length works both for and against it. When you’ve got a movie like this that’s premiering in people’s homes, it’s not like a theater in which the audience’s attention is captivated and captive; at home, there’s a lot more to distract you, and if you’re not drawn in by the opening, you’ve already lost a lot of people to their phones. As for how it works in its favor, I’m not opposed to a 2.5 hour movie (if anything, mine and Brandon’s recent discussion of Doctor Sleep proves that I thrive on them), and the film’s decompression allows for some of the film’s best elements to have sufficient breathing room. We get to see Diana reignite her love with Steve Trevor, who is brought back to life* via the magic of the film’s MacGuffin, and start to develop a friendship with Barbara that’s warm and kind. There’s an awful lot of complaining that this film is too light on thrills and that the length of time between action sequences is to the film’s detriment, but the same complaints were made about Spider-Man 2 when it was first released, and even after 15 years in which the prevalence of superhero media has done nothing but grow at an exponential rate, that’s still considered one of the most triumphant examples of the genre. It’s what doesn’t move the plot along that makes the film work when it does work; although this film has a different resolution than a big blue laser beam (and one that’s a novel choice, if nothing else), it still follows the rote and prescriptive stations of the plot outline for all of these movies.

The action sequences are also nothing to scoff at (most of the time). The opening scene on Themyscira is a fun contest, if a little Quidditch-y at points and hosting the film’s most questionable CGI choices, but there’s also really gorgeous location work that makes you just yearn for the beach; it really does look like Paradise. The mall sequence that brings us to the film’s 1984 “present” is really what sets the tone for what’s to come: it’s light, pastel, a little goofy, but warm and inviting and not too threatening. As Diana runs around stopping people from being injured during a robbery gone awry, she really seems like Wonder Woman, the real deal, the friend to all living things  who loves kids and Christmas and ice cream and justice, and it’s very clear that the movie’s operating on G.I. Joe/A-Team rules: nobody dies, they always parachute out or land in water instead, etc. There’s an extended roadway set piece that’s very impressive and makes inventive use of the lasso, and the best White House-based action since X2. The battle with Barbara in her Cheetah form is less fun, but the fact that the climactic sequence is not about beating Maxwell Lord into submission and is instead about saving his soul is a nice change of pace from the third act megafight that’s become the standard. Although the film is explicitly set mostly in midsummer (there are Independence Day fireworks over Washington at one point), that the film’s major conflict comes to a head when a greedy Dickensian man renounces his need to own the world gives the whole thing more of a Christmas vibe than the tacked-on snowy holiday set piece that ends the film proper. 

That having been said, there’s a lot going on here that’s … questionable. I couldn’t put it more eloquently than Walter Chaw does here, and I won’t try to, other than to say that all of the things that WW84 brings to the table pale in comparison to its gross narrative choices. And if you’re sitting there after having gone and read Chaw’s review and you’re thinking that he’s reading too much into it, then I’d direct you to a follow-up Tweet of his, which says, succinctly and simply, “The nature of bias is that yours is invisible to you.” It’s easy to hear the siren call to overlook the hard-to-face fact that this film has a supervillainess’s face-heel-turn be her self-defense against a sexual assailant. A woman is punished for wanting to be powerful, and instead of breaking through her defenses by lifting her up, Wonder Woman (who is friend to all living things and loves ice cream, remember), gives her one chance to recant without any encouragement or warmth, and then gives her the old toaster-in-the-bathtub treatment. Chaw wrote about the implications of the Bialyan anti-colonial sentiment expressed by an oil baron, but there’s so much being implied in the margins here that even he couldn’t get them all down. How about the fact that the wish stone is tied to the fall of multiple civilizations due to the chaos that it creates, including the Roman Empire and the Mayan civilization, and that the Mayans are explicitly stated to have been unwilling to take the actions needed to save their society? Yeah, yikes. For recommended further reading, there’s also Roxana Hadadi’s discussion of the film’s Middle Eastern stereotypes here.

At the top, I mentioned that WW84 was cowardly, and where that shines through the most to me on a personal level is in the choice of place and time without the willingness to tackle the topics of the time. The POTUS in the film is nothing like Reagan, other than in the raging hard on for nukes, and the unwillingness to attack the tarnished late-blooming legacy of a president who was despised (even within his party and even in his time) and who turned a blind eye to the HIV/AIDS pandemic with callous disregard for human life (by the end of 1984, nearly 8000 people had contracted HIV, and nearly half of that number had died). Maxwell Lord is clearly supposed to echo the soon-to-be-former-President Donald Trump, with his facial bloat, unconvincing dye job, and all-consuming greed, but in a year dominated by politicized response to public health emergencies and dangerous alliances between pulpit and podium, history was lobbing a slowball straight over the plate, and WW84 not only didn’t make contact, it didn’t even swing. 

Some films we’re able to appreciate despite their flaws by recognizing that they are products of their times. Unfortunately, WW84 is the same, as its flawed technical achievements and interesting character moments take place in a narrative that’s circumscribed by peak white liberalism, blind to its own faults like a lot of capitalist products that aim to capture leftward social momentum and leverage it into profit. Maybe Wonder Woman is harder to get right than we thought when lighting was captured in a bottle in 2017. I don’t think it had to be this way, but unfortunately, this is what we got. 

*Some restrictions may apply.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Brandon’s Top 20 Films of 2020

1. Ask Any Buddy A post-modern mash-up of clips from 125 golden-era hardcore films, loosely constructing a morning-to-night day in the life of a post-Stonewall gay male archetype (one with an incredibly bustling sex life). Transgressive D.I.Y. outsider art that could easily be tediously academic or pointlessly provocative in the wrong hands, but instead comes across as a playful, genuinely loving catalog of tropes & narrative throughlines clearly assembled by a true fan of the supposedly low-brow, disreputable film genre.

2. We Are Little Zombies Four orphans meet at their parents’ simultaneous funerals and run away to form a surprisingly successful pop punk band. One of those movies where every single in-the-moment comedic gag & tangential flight of whimsy makes you shout “That’s so cool!” at the screen. Pushes the twee video game nostalgia aesthetics everyone drools over in Scott Pilgrim to much more exciting, surprising extremes; just absolutely overflowing with creativity.

3. The Wolf House A nightmare experiment in stop-motion animation that filters atrocities committed by exiled-Nazi communes in Chile through a loose, haunting fairy tale narrative. It’s a relentlessly grotesque display, one that fully conveys the hideous evils of its allegory’s real-life parallels even if you aren’t familiar with that particular pocket of fascism history.

4. The Twentieth Century A gorgeous, absurdist fantasy piece that retells the history of Canadian governance as “one failed orgasm after another.” It’s like Guy Maddin directing an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch, stumbling out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor. A German Expressionist farce that features tongue-in-cheek drag routines & ejaculating cacti; I couldn’t help but love it.

5. Birds of Prey My favorite superhero movie since Batman got deliriously horny in the 90s. All hyperviolent, hyperfemme slapstick from start to end; there can never be enough mainstream movies where obnoxious women gleefully misbehave. It also felt nice to finally enjoy a Deadpool movie for once (it helps that Margot Robbie is, unlike Ryan Reynolds, actually funny).

6. Possessor Apparently Brandon Cronenberg took note of the often-repeated observation that Andrea Riseborough loses herself in roles to the point of being unrecognizable, and built an entire fucked up sci-fi horror about the loss of Identity around it. A damn good one too.

7. Deerskin An absurdist thriller from Rubber director Quentin Dupieux about a vapid man whose obsessive love for his own deerskin jacket leads him to a life of crime, including serial murder. Consistently funny, but also incredibly vicious when it wants to be. Works as a macho counterpart to In Fabric, but more importantly it’s an excellent joke at the expense of Male Vanity (including the vanity of making an entire movie about a deerskin jacket).

8. Color Out of Space Richard Stanley returns to the director’s chair after decades of mysterious exile to adapt an H.P. Lovecraft short story about a meteor crash and an Evil Color. Genuinely just as upsetting as anything Stanley accomplished in Hardware, if not more so. I mostly saw it as a traumatic nightmare movie about cancer tearing a family apart, 80s throwback vibes & Nic Cage affectations aside.

9. Horse Girl A woman-on-the-verge mental illness drama filtered through a trippy sci-fi narrative. In my eyes, the most shamefully underrated movie of the year. It’s like watching the first half-hour of a mumblecore movie and then, bam, you’re in the third act of Bug . . . Then again, I always seem to enjoy Jeff Baena movies at least 30% more than everyone else and I don’t know why that is.

10. Emma. A basic appreciation of the Jane Austen source material is a requirement at the door, since it’s a super faithful adaptation, but this is coldly hilarious and gorgeously composed from start to end. The dips into thoughtless cruelty hit just as hard as the physical comedy, both of which are majorly enhanced by the buttoned-up tension of the setting. Each performance is aces; ditto the confectionery production design & the deviously playful costuming. Just a pure, icy delight.

11. Zombi Child A from-the-ground-up renovation of the zombie film, one that directly reckons with the genre’s racist, colonialist history onscreen and the untapped potential of its roots in genuine Voodoo religious practices. Somehow evokes both Michael Haneke’s cold, academic political provocations and Celine Sciamma’s emotionally rich coming-of-age narratives while still ultimately delivering the genre goods teased in its title.

12. Impetigore An Indonesian ghost story about the lingering evils of communal betrayal & inherited wealth (and horrific violence against children in particular, it should be said). This walks a difficult balance of being gradually, severely fucked up without rubbing your face in its Extreme Gore moments. Handsomely staged, efficiently creepy beyond the shock of its imagery, and complicated enough in its mythology that it’s not just a simple morality play.

13. Host Basically a kindler, gentler Unfriended with actually likeable characters (I don’t think that necessarily makes it an improvement, but it’s at least a different flavor). It’s also got a lot of COVID-lockdown specific details that make it extra eerie in a way that really leans into the of-the-moment documentary quality of these tech-driven horror novelties. Big fan of both the genre and this example of it.

14. Swallow An eerie, darkly humorous thriller in the style of Todd Haynes’s Safe, in which a newly pregnant woman is compulsively drawn to swallowing inedible objects, much to the frustration of her overly-controlling family & doctors. Appearing like a scared child in June Cleaver housewife drag, Hayley Bennett conveys a horrific lack of confidence & self-determination in every gesture. Her fragility & despondence under the control of her wealthy, emotionally abusive family make you want to celebrate her newfound, deeply personal path to fulfillment, even though it very well might kill her. As she snacks on fistfuls of garden soil while watching trash TV instead of obeying her family’s orders all I could think was “Good for her!”

15. Vivarium Imogen Poots & Jesse Eisenberg are a young couple in search of a suburban starter home to begin their life together, only to get trapped in a hellishly bland eternity of supernatural imprisonment in that very abode. I knew this was going to be grim & abrasive. I didn’t know that it was going to be so Funny. A humorously cruel sci-fi chiller about resenting your own spouse & child (one that I’m not surprised is so divisive, since the child is 1000x more shrill & frustrating than even the kid in The Babadook).

16. Bacurau A delicately surreal sci-fi take on “The Most Dangerous Game” that’s so gradually, subtly escalated that you don’t notice how truly batshit it is until you’re deep in the thick of it. Uses familiar tropes & techniques to tell a story we’ve all heard before in a new style & context that achieves something freshly exciting with those antique building blocks. In other words, it’s genre filmmaking at its finest.

17. The Invisible Man This was excellent, but Remake Culture is just getting so out of hand. Are we so out of ideas that we need the Upgrade guy remaking Unsane only two years after the Soderbergh original? Shameful.

18. You Cannot Kill David Arquette A documentary that chronicles Arquette’s recent self-destructive campaign to win over pissy wrestling fans who are somehow still mad about a silly angle from over 20 years ago. A really fun, surprisingly emotional watch. Reminded me a lot of the Andy Kaufman “documentary” I’m From Hollywood (one of my all-time fav wrestling movies) in how it mixes reality & self-mythology to become a wrestling angle & performance art project in itself.

19. The Shock of the Future Alma Jodorowsky stars as a fictional synthpop composer in late-70s Paris. This is almost 100% aesthetic posturing; its entire thesis is that synths sound cool-as-fuck and women didn’t get enough credit for pioneering their use. It’s not wrong; synths and the women behind them are incredibly cool and, apparently, endlessly watchable. There’s also something super relatable about watching someone work tirelessly alone in their apartment on art no one else in the world cares about; feels very of-the-moment even though it’s a nostalgia piece.

20. Dogs Don’t Wear Pants A Finnish drama about a widower who processes his grief by hiring a dominatrix to help him explore an emerging kink for breath play. Follows a plot template I’m always a sucker for: Our protagonist is obsessed with something they know is going to eventually kill them but they keep going back to it anyway because it makes them super horny.

-Brandon Ledet

The Twentieth Century (2020)

When enticing friends to check out The Twentieth Century, it’s probably best not to lead with plot.  This is a historical retelling of the 1899 campaign for the Prime Minister of Canada.  It focuses mostly on the rise to power of William Lyon Mackenzie King in particular, the longest-serving Prime Minister in Canadian history.  Sounds riveting, doesn’t it?  Luckily, the film is an exercise in pure visual aesthetics & surrealist flippancy, so that the story it tells does not matter at all when compared to the over-the-top indulgences of each in-the-moment gag.  The Twentieth Century is light on historical accuracy and heavy on tongue-in-cheek, kink-flavored eroticism.  It’s a gorgeous, absurdist fantasy piece that retells the history of Canadian governance as “one failed orgasm after another,” which is not at all the dry textbook illustration the premise might suggest.  In fact, it is very, very wet.

The competition for Canadian Prime Minister is represented as more of a dystopian game show here than it is an election.  As distinctly Canadian challenges like passive-aggressively responding to strangers cutting in line or clubbing baby seals to death Whack-a-Mole style add up, it’s clear this film is more of a sketch comedy showcase than it is a Wikipedia bullet point history lesson.  However, unlike most modern comedies, it’s also an over-achieving visual spectacle from start to end, constructing an intensely artificial German Expressionist dreamscape out of hand-built sets, puppets, and traditionalist collage.  In its entirety, The Twentieth Century feels like watching Guy Maddin direct an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch that stumbles out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor.  That reductive descriptor can’t fully convey how surprising the film is in its moment-to-moment impulses, though.  It’s formally controlled in its visual aesthetics, but total irreverent chaos in every other sense.

The Twentieth Century is less fascinated with Mackenzie King’s politics as a power-hungry Prime Minister than it is with the more salacious details of his private life, represented here as an occultist quest to cure himself of a fetish for dominatrices and old leather boots.  That self-hatred over his most base impulses is extended to represent the spirit of Canada as a nation: an embarrassed, self-loathing country that strives to convey dignity & poise, but is rotting from the inside in a way it can barely contain.  I’m not a Canadian myself, so I can’t claim that withering self-portrait spoke to me on a personal level.  However, the more universal humor of a self-hating kinkster who can barely conceal their fetishism while attempting to maintain a professional public persona translates extremely well cross-border, as does the film’s more over-the-top, absurdist indulgences: bird puppets, ejaculating cacti, tongue-in-cheek drag routines, etc.  It’s also a constant pleasure to look at, which is an increasingly rare quality in a modern comedy.  I couldn’t help but love it.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Doctor Sleep (2019)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss Mike Flanagan’s epic The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, which strives to bridge the gap between Stephen King & Stanley Kubrick’s disparate versions of the original.

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTubeTuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Mark “Boomer” Redmond & Brandon Ledet

Possessor (2020)

The most often repeated observation about actor Andrea Riseborough is that she loses herself in roles to the point of being unrecognizable.  Among other examples, Riseborough’s turns as the titular metalhead loner in Mandy, the titular grifter in Nancy, and the daughter of the titular dictator in The Death of Stalin are all so distinctly unique in both performance and physicality that it might not even occur to you that the same actor was cast across the roles.  That chameleonic quality might be frustrating for Riseborough’s professional need for name recognition, but it is fascinating to watch in terms of pure excellence in craft.  It’s also, I assume, a major factor in why she was cast as the lead of Brandon Cronenberg’s latest feature, Possessor, which seemingly took note of her absence of persona and built an entire fucked up sci-fi horror around it about the loss of Identity.  A damn good one too.

Riseborough stars as a near-future corporate assassin who hacks into unsuspecting marks’ bodies to pin her public executions on them, avoiding arrest and collecting massive bounties.  We catch up with the assassin one too many missions into this grotesque routine, losing her grip on her own persona as the borders blur between her host bodies and her original self.  Much of the film involves an especially disastrous mission where she cannot escape the host body she intends to assassinate a Jeff Bezos-type Big-Tech Asshole with, trapped inside his dirtbag son-in-law and becoming increasingly violent the longer she loses herself in the role.  The two dueling personae inside that one shared meatbag start to fight for control in increasingly upsetting ways, represented onscreen through surrealistic melting wax figures & video art freak-outs.  It’s a fight between actors Riseborough & host-body Christopher Abbott to take over as protagonist just as much as it is a fight between assassin & unsuspecting scapegoat.  Both performers are spectacularly upsetting as they squirm uncomfortably inside their own warring bodies, but it’s a struggle that speaks directly to Riseborough’s reputation as a chameleonic actor in particular.

Brandon Cronenberg does little to avoid the inevitable comparisons to his father’s previous triumphs here.  As the assassin’s bloodlust for grotesque, pointless cruelty escalates, the film’s genre shifts from pure sci-fi thriller to outright surrealist body horror in the Cronenberg family tradition.  Casting Jennifer Jason Leigh as the assassin’s handler and using plug & play brain ports as the company’s means to hack into host bodies at least serve as direct acknowledgements of this cinematic inheritance, directly referencing the iconography of eXistenZ in particular.  There’s plenty of modernization & innovation at play here that elevates Possessor above mere tracing-paper ditto work, though.  The horrors of the Jeff Bezos-funded surveillance state that completely obliterates the boundaries of privacy & autonomy to the point of hacking into our goddamn bodies feels distinctly of-the-moment and a worthy application of the body horror tropes that David Cronenberg helped pioneer.  There’s so much about Possessor that’s unique to our current, nightmarishly inane hellscape, including casual use of the term “cuck queen” and non-stop onscreen vaping.  It’s indebted to body horror classics of the past, but not at all tangled up in attempts to recreate them.

It’d be outrageous to claim that Possessor is about Andrea Riseborough’s eerie absence of a solid persona.  On a conceptual level, this is clearly a film that’s most interested in the identity & autonomy we’ve all given up in our march towards a corporate data-mining hell future.  Casting Riseborough in that central role of a professional impersonator who can’t hold onto her original persona as she loses herself in her assignments can’t help but feel like a deliberate, knowing choice, though.  It builds off her established reputation as an actor in fascinating, terrifying ways, which adds additional depth to the bodily & technophobic grotesqueries that drive the plot otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

We Are Little Zombies (2020)

I remember watching Edgar Wright’s video game breakup comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in the theater and finding it charmingly cute, certainly better than its box office & immediate critical reception implied. As its then-teenage cast has grown into mid-level fame and its then-teenage audience has grown to become the critical establishment in the decade since, Scott Pilgrim‘s underdog status has long faded away. If anything, praise for its 8-bit video game nostalgia and self-critical, anti-romantic twee sentiments is absurdly overstated by now, and what was once a low-key charmer has become overloaded with unsustainably hyperbolic accolades as a modern classic – at least in online Film Nerd circles. Nothing has made that gradual canonization more absurd to me than catching up with the recent coming-of-age comedy We Are Little Zombies, which pushes the same twee video game nostalgia aesthetics everyone drools over in Scott Pilgrim to much more consistently exciting, surprising extremes at every turn. We Are Little Zombies is one of those over-achieving stylistic showcases where every single in-the-moment comedic gag & tangential flight of whimsy makes you shout, “That’s so cool!” at the screen; it’s just absolutely overflowing with creativity. I now understand where the Scott Pilgrim die-hards are coming from, because I’ve seen that movie’s stylistic flourishes exploded into a vibrant, over-the-top spectacle much more suited to my own maximalist tastes.

Like most twee fantasy pieces and whimsical coming-of-age stories, We Are Little Zombies’s flashy sense of style mostly just functions to obscure the deep well of pain flowing just below its manicured surface. The plot is simple; four freshly orphaned children meet at their parents’ simultaneous funerals and run away to form a surprisingly successful (but ultimately doomed) pop punk band. The pint-sized lineup of Little Zombies are all emotionally numb to their grief, so they write vibrant pop songs about their apathy as a form of art therapy. Most of the structural conflict in the film is typical to a rise-to-fame rock band narrative, deriving from evil record company executives converting their art into capital. However, from scene to scene their journey is guided strictly by video game logic, wherein their instruments must be acquired like digital armor and the record execs are level bosses who must be defeated. The vibrant colors, rapid cuts, 8-bit score, and continually surprising shot choices that power-boost this video game surface aesthetic feel like they belong to a kinetic live-action cartoon populated by hyperactive kids in constant search of their next sugar rush. Instead, the Little Zombies are decidedly anti-emotional as a band, despondently stumbling through their shitty little lives in the exact way their collective name implies. The only time they appear to be having as much fun as first-time director Makoto Nagahisa is having behind the camera is when they’re playing their candy-coated pop punk tunes, and there’s a genuine tragedy to how easily that collective art therapy is corrupted for a one-hit-wonder cash-in.

In terms of its mind-melting, genre-defying maximalism, there are a ton of psychedelic Japanese freak-outs I’d compare We Are Little Zombies to before citing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Suicide Club, Hausu, Funeral Parade of Roses, Wild Zero, etc. Still, the two films’ overlap of pop punk soundtrack cues, twee heartbreak, and video game surface aesthetics make the comparison unignorable. We Are Little Zombies amplifies the little touches that make Scott Pilgrim charming into an explosively entertaining video game dreamscape that much more clearly, consistently registers as Something Special to my eyes. It’s apparently now my turn to overhype an underseen, underloved video game fantasy piece until people are sick of hearing about how great it is. Hopefully, I’ve got at least a decade until the tides turn against it.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #124 of The Swampflix Podcast: Black Christmas Blowout w/ We Love to Watch

Welcome to Episode #124 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon is joined by Aaron Armstrong and Pete Moran of the We Love to Watch podcast to discuss all three versions of the Yuletide slasher classic Black Christmas. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet & The We Love to Watch Boys