Duck Butter (2018)

One of my favorite kinds of onscreen stories are ones where characters feel compelled to remain in a cramped, increasingly violent social environment that’s obviously toxic from the start. It’s a narrative device I’ve previously defined as “The Party Out of Bounds” and it’s one that leaves a lot of room for variation in the reasons why its menacing parties never end. The cause of characters lingering in vicious environments can be practical (It’s a Disaster, The Invitation), supernatural (The Exterminating Angel, mother!, High-Rise), or just emotionally masochistic (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Bigger Splash). Rarely do the films focus on the compulsion itself though, choosing instead to explore the consequences of the tension it generates. The recent indie comedy/romantic drama Duck Butter subverts that genre expectation by constructing a toxic social scenario where characters feel compelled to dwell long after the vibe sours, then questioning the source of that compulsion & what it indicates about the characters’ emotional lives & the nature of romance at large. It also pairs quiet, awkward comedy with intimately explicit sex, making the audience feel trapped right in the room with its troubled co-leads.

Alia Shawkat (who co-wrote the film with director Miguel Arteta) stars as a prickly, Alia Shawkat-like actor struggling to find her place on the indie cinema scene. After crashing & burning on an improv-heavy film shoot with Mark & Jay Duplass (who produced this film, naturally), she turns to a woman she recently picked up at a lesbian bar for emotional support, getting more than she bargained for. Her new love interest (Victoria’s Laia Costa) is a maniacal free spirt, the unhinged Dharma to her uptight Greg. In their early hours of infatuation, they enter into an absurd sex pact in an effort to get to better know each other, speeding up wasted months of courtship. The agreement is to have sex once an hour for 24 consecutive hours, something that seems plausible when they first intensely lock eyes. The result is the couple rushing through the entire life cycle of a romantic relationship—from the lustful honeymoon period to meeting parents to decrease in sexual attraction to total emotional meltdown to personal growth at the inevitably sour end. It’s a sweetly funny story, but also a bitterly traumatic one where both characters must confront the basic reasons why their respective romances always end in ruin. Sleep deprivation amplifies both their failings & their admirable qualities and the whole night swirls into a chaotic mess of fart jokes, passionate love, deep personal confessions, and belligerent slogans shouted at the moon.

The conceit of staging an entire romance over an intimate 24-hour exchange is brilliantly simple, since the frayed mental state of staying up all night with a new romantic partner offers the film an interesting character dynamic that can be filmed quickly & cheaply (in true Duplass tradition). Shawkat, Arteta, and Costa attempted to authentically convey that sleep deprived logical looseness by staying up all night themselves, filming the entire 24-hour sex pact sequence on a 27-hour shoot with two rotating crews. The results pay off, informing the film with a loopy kind of desperation that cuts past social niceties to uncover elusive truths & hidden anxieties. That’s the exact quality that drives me to watching a good Party Out of Bounds story in the first place, since the act of lingering in a social environment long after it’s comfortable tends to lead to a spectacular breakdown in basic civility. In Duck Butter, that breakdown calls into question why we linger in a very specific kind of social experience long after it sours: romantic entanglement. The film is enjoyable enough even without that idea at its core, bringing in always-welcome players like Kumail Nanjiani & Mae Whitman for bit parts and gleefully interrupting its intimate sexual exchanges with sophomoric poop jokes, but it’s that rushed, mentally-strained examination of romantic relationships & emotionally masochistic compulsions that makes it a worthwhile experiment.

-Brandon Ledet

Fans of the Raunchy, Sex-Positive Teen Comedy Blockers (2018) Should Double Back to Watch The To Do List (2013)

Listening to an interview with Kay Cannon promoting her film Blockers on Ira Madison III’s Keep It podcast, it was exciting to hear her acknowledge the film’s intended purpose as a major studio femme subversion of the losing-your-virginity teen sex comedy. The teen sex comedy is just dripping with machismo as a medium, as it’s most clearly defined by the bro-friendly boundaries of titles like Superbad, American Pie, and Porky’s. As many of my recent favorite comedies have been femme subversions of traditionally macho subjects (The Bronze & Wetlands being particular standouts), I 100% welcome Blockers as a continued corrective to the exhausting omnipresence of bro sex humor. However, I do wish Blockers wasn’t being critically framed as an innovator within that corrective, since that claim ignores 2013’s already criminally overlooked The To Do List. Another sex-positive, femme subversion of the raunchy, losing-our-virginity sex comedy, The To Do List was critically buried upon its initial release for its perceived overreliance on 90s nostalgia to sell its humor. Every passing year it becomes increasingly difficult to fathom caring about such a triviality, especially when you consider the film’s other virtues. If we can forgive the cult classic Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion for featuring adult comedians reliving their 1980s heyday in extended flashbacks, I‘d like to think we can accept The To Do List expanding that bit into the next decade, especially considering the level of talent on-hand: Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Donald Glover, Lauren Lapkus, D’Arcy Carden, Alia Shawkat, and (in the starring role) Aubrey Plaza. The To Do List is overdue for critical reappraisal as a modern comedy sleeper, both on its own terms and as an active subversion of the same teen sex comedy tropes challenged by Blockers.

Aubrey Plaza stars in The To Do List as a high school valedictorian who fears her dedication to book-smarts has left her unprepared for practical social interactions. Most significantly, she expects college to be a nonstop orgiastic bacchanal that she will be out of the loop for as a nerdy virgin who hasn’t even shared a kiss. As an overachiever, she attempts to correct this problem by dedicating the entire summer before college to methodical, scientific sexual experimentation. It’s a plan that extends beyond shedding her virginity to include activities most high school students wouldn’t dream of attempting: rimming, motorboating, pearl necklaces, etc. This pursuit of sexual experience leads to inevitable John Hughesian tropes of Plaza’s in-over-her-head protagonist being confronted with the choice between two suitors: the “bad boy” she lusts for and the “good guy” who longs after her. In that moment of crisis, she smartly chooses neither, pointing out the impermanence & ultimate insignificance of most high school flings. Sex is paradoxically explained to not be a big deal, but also requiring careful consideration for your partners’ feelings. It’s a complex, but necessary lesson for high school kids to learn, one coupled with matter-of-fact statements of sexual intent & partners’ enthusiastic consent. A large portion of the plot is also dedicated to three teen girls’ lifelong friendship and their frequently thwarted plans to watch a rented VHS copy of Beaches together at some point during their last summer before college. Blockers explores a very similar friendship dynamic, although it admittedly better spreads the narrative focus around to each member of the group (and the overprotective anxieties of their respective parents). Both films are thoughtful explorations of femme teen sexuality & friendships without feeling at all leering or exploitative, likely in part because they were both helmed by women (The To Do List was written & directed by Maggie Carey).

The charm of both Blockers & The To Do List is that their sex-positive politics & wholesome emotional indulgences are allowed to co-exist with the typical gross-out gags that accompany the raunchy teen sex comedy. Although it tends to cater to straight male sensibilities, this is a genre that owes its space under the mainstream comedy umbrella to the raucous envelope-pushers of John Waters’s early career, particularly Pink Flamingos (even if by way of its influence on the Farrelly Brothers). Blockers goes for broke in its own gross-out moments of teen puke & butt-chugged beers, but The To Do List hits even closer to home in echoing its Pink Flamingos roots by depicting Aubrey Plaza defiantly chomping on a turd. Cinema is beautiful, y’all. Both films also mine a lot of awkward humor from parents being trapped in the same space as their children in the middle of sexual congress, going as far into The To Do List as having them lock eyes with their kids mid-orgasm or shaking the hand of the person currently fucking them. Dismissing The To Do List outright for blatantly adult comedians playing young or for 90s-nostalgic references to things like Hillary Clinton & jean skorts is an oddly reductive way of looking at a comedy that actively challenges the same gendered, double standard sex comedy tropes later subverted in Blockers. It’s even arguable that The To Do List is the more aggressive of the pair in that subversion, as its dedication to gross-out raunch is much more prolonged & pronounced. If nothing else, The To Do List was also prescient of the losing-your-virginity-on-top gag later repeated in the critical darling Lady Bird. That’s gotta be worth something, right?

Blockers is a great film that deserves to be celebrated for its femme subversions of a long-established comedic boys’ club that only gets sourer every passing decade. I don’t at all mean to detract from what Cannon accomplished there. I would just want to stress to anyone desperate to see more of that subversion out in the pop media landscape that The To Do List is well worth a critical reevaluation in the same context (along with the equally underrated The Bronze). If we could be gifted with one heartfelt, femme gross-out sex comedy a year like Blockers or The To Do List, the world would be a better, filthier place. We deserve more movies like them, but in the mean time we should give proper due to the ones we already have.

-Brandon Ledet

Green Room (2016)

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threehalfstar

With his last two features writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has carved out a nice, little niche for himself in constructing intimate, terrifying thrillers about folks who are in way over their heads (in blood & viscera). His last film, Blue Ruin, was a tightly-wound revenge thriller in which a doomed, ordinary man took on an organized criminal syndicate despite his ineptitude for violence in a private war he instigates (or avenges, depending on your perspective). His attempts at violence are ugly & disastrous, as he fucks up constantly, but the inertia of the plot doesn’t allow him any viable options but to continue on anyway. There isn’t much of a difference in Saulnier’s follow-up, The Green Room, except a change in scenery and a shift in perspective from revenge to survival in its central plot concerns. The Green Room somehow feels less special & more pared down than Blue Ruin, but it’s still an effective thriller that never loosens its chokehold on the audience’s throat throughout its runtime thanks to an increasingly limited set of options for a positive outcome for any one of its characters, protagonist or otherwise.

Fictional hardcore punk band The Ain’t Rights (featuring Burying the Ex‘s Anton Yelchin & The Final Girls‘s Alia Shawkat among its members) are struggling to make it home from a disastrous road tour, resorting to siphoning gas & camping roadside to ease their financial desperation. Keeping their punk band ethics D.I.Y. & internet presence free, the band finds themselves in the fragile situation of playing one last gig for an isolated skinhead (ne0-Nazi) community (run by a no-nonsense, ice-cold Patrick Stewart). As soon as The Ain’t Rights open their set with a cover of the Dead Kennedys’s classic diddy “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” the vulnerability of their situation becomes terrifyingly apparent & only gets worse as the plot thickens & the chokehold tightens. After their set The Ain’t Rights accidentally uncover a couple nasty secrets their racist/militaristic punk show hosts are hiding at their concert venue/compound and the situation snowballs into a total nightmare where they’re locked in a small, windowless dressing room with no hope for escape except an all-out bloodbath where the ill-prepared youngsters aren’t likely to survive. Spoiler alert for those unfamiliar with this kind of genre fare: most of them don’t.

If there’s a prevailing concern that drives every scene of The Green Room it’s authenticity. Scenes of D.I.Y. punk kids drinking beers, listening to records, getting dead serious about their biggest artistic influences during college radio interviews, and having out-of-body religious experiences while thrashing around in a mosh pit all feel true to the punk scene as I know/remember it, albeit without the stench of body odor that would seal the deal. Apparently The Thermals frontman Hutch Harris was brought in as a coach for this aspect of the film, which is about the cutest thing I’ve heard of since Deb Harry handed out “punk rock merit badges” to the Frog Scouts on The Muppet Show. I only have to assume that the skinhead scene is represented with the same level of authenticity, as I’ve thankfully had very few experiences with their presence at New Orleans D.I.Y. shows. I’d like to see a version of this kind of punk scene thriller without these white power monsters’ involvement, but the movie seems well-researched in their representation. At the very least it gives the same fetishistic attention to the various designations of their bootlace colors as Friedkin gave to the gay S&M scene’s handkerchief coding in Cruising.

The Green Room‘s authenticity doesn’t stop at its depictions of D.I.Y. punk culture, either. The violence is some of the most horrifically brutal, gruesome gore I’ve seen in a long while, not least of all because it’s treated with the real life severity that’s often missing in the cheap horror films that misuse it. Each disgusting kill hits with full force, never feeling like a frivolous indulgence, and the resulting tone is an oppressive cloud of unending dread. From the Dead Kennedys cover to the end credits my veins were pulsing so hard they felt as if they might explode. That’s a sign of a highly effective thriller, but it wasn’t necessarily a feeling I’d wish to return to at any point.

The Green Room amplifies the hopeless situation of Blue Ruin by confining its action to an extremely limited space & uping the potential number of lives at stake, but I couldn’t help but find the plight of Saulnier’s in-over-their-heads protagonists a little repetitive here. There are some truly great, small moments in the film (the religious experience in the mosh pit especially stands out), but in a larger context I felt it was mostly delivering a heart-racing sensation of fear & apprehension. It was intense in the moment, but felt like somewhat of a cheap thrill once I reached the relief of the end credits. As a genre picture I think The Green Room checks off all the right boxes & delivers everything you could ask for as an audience looking to cower & sweat. However, I’d love to see Saulnier switch gears in the future & push where else he can take that intensity/authenticity with an entirely different set of genre expectations.

-Brandon Ledet

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016)

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fourstar

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Is it possible for someone to have an unbiased opinion on Pee-wee Herman in 2016? It seems like everyone in the world even remotely in tune with the pop culture landscape probably knows by now whether or not they’re on board with Paul Reubens’ man-child alter-ego & his home planet of eternal 50s kitsch. I guess for the purposes of this review I should go ahead & confess my own bias: I’m a wholly committed fan of everything P.W. Herman. The long-defunct television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse is one of my favorite examples of modern surrealism. His 1985 cinematic debut Pee-wee’s Big Adventure remains my all-time favorite Tim Burton feature (though Ed Wood is a close second). I’ll even stand up for the much-hated sophomore feature Big Top Pee-wee, which I think is underappreciated for its off-putting sense of tongue-in-cheek camp. I love Pee-wee so much I should probably marry him.

So, yeah, to say that Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a for-fans-only venture is a bit of a redundancy, since all Pee-wee content is something of an acquired taste. The direct-to-Netflix production is only different from earlier Herman outings in that it feels like it was made by fans (who now happen to be moderately famous). Heavy-hitter comedy producer Judd Apatow, Comedy Bang Bang regular & creator of the excellent Netflix series Love (also produced by Apatow) Paul Rust, and director/multi-media artist John Lee (who had an absurdly subversive/satirical run with the projects PFFR, Wonder Showzen, and Xavier: Renegade Angel) all come together to form a really geeky Pee-wee Herman fan club, making Pee-wee’s Big Holiday out to be something of a labor of love (or a dream come true, depending on your perspective). And the president of this fan club just happens to be none other than Magic Mike XXL star/popular kid Joe Manganiello, who appears here as the film’s hunky MacGuffin.

In the same way J.J. Abrams recently took the reins of the mighty Star Wars empire by mirroring past story lines in The Force Awakens, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday tries to revive Herman’s prominence in the world by returning to the roots of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The similarities between Big Adventure & Big Holiday are unavoidable, even right there in the titles. Both films are road trip comedies. Both open with needlessly complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions. Both feature surrealist dream sequences (this time with a Mac & Me-style alien instead of the much more terrifying clown surgeons of yesteryear). Both feature former new wave punk legends on their scores (this time Mark Mothersbaugh instead of Danny Elfman). Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is essentially Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on a Big Top Pee-wee scale & budget, which is all that fans could really ask for in a direct-to-streaming release after a 30 year gap. It also helps that the film finds Pee-wee just about as charming & hilarious as he’s ever been, even if its financial freedom & resulting ambition are somewhat diminished.

While working as a short-order cook at a 50s-style diner in the Pleasantville-esque town of Fairville, Pee-Wee is shocked to discover that his doo-wop band is calling it quits, a blow that pretty much puts an end to his social life. Stuck in a hopeless rut, it takes a chance encounter with Joe Manganiello (starring as his wonderful self) to convince Pee-wee to break free from his milquetoast lifestyle & explore the world outside Fairville on a quest to attend Manganiello’s birthday party in NYC. Along the way he meets a long line of eccentrics played by mainstays from past Pee-wee projects & minor comedic personalities. His run-ins with traveling novelty product salesmen, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!-style gangsters (who include among them Arrested Development/The Final Girls‘s Alia Shawkat wearing the exact angora sweater director Ed Wood spent a lifetime fetishizing), strange mountain men, Amish folk, and sassy beauty salon weirdos are all entertaining in a lighthearted, episodic sort of way, but they all exist merely to support Herman’s madness-in-repetition comedic stylings, which are just as top notch as ever.

It’s easy to see why Lee, Rust, Apatow, and company would return to the road trip format for Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. All the movie has to do to succeed is provide Herman (who’s also billed as playing himself) with a variety of backdrops & supporting players to bounce his bizarrely childish humor off of. In one highly pertinent scene, Herman proves that he can entertain an entire village of on-lookers with a single, ordinary balloon. Just about the only aspect of Pee-wee Herman’s Big Holiday that isn’t bare bones in this way is Joe Manganiello’s involvement. Manganiello enters the scene as a living embodiment of a Tom of Finland drawing on a motorcycle. The gay subtext certainly doesn’t end there. By the conclusion of the film, Herman & Manganiello’s instant attraction to each other fully blossoms into a really sweet, very romantic story about “friendship”. If there’s any chance for a non-Pee-wee fan to enjoy Big Holiday it’d be in watching just how naturally & enthusiastically that “friendship” develops. All else should be pleased to know that Big Holiday is more like Big Adventure than Big Top (which I still contend is under-loved) and should pretty much already know whether or not they’ll have fun with what’s delivered.

-Brandon Ledet

The Final Girls (2015)

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fourstar

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It’s difficult for me to speak objectively about The Final Girls‘  merits as a horror comedy, because so much of the film’s content is so distinctly in my wheelhouse. It’s also difficult to describe the film’s high-concept premise without spoiling its major conceit. So, I’ll just leave you with this vague recommendation for now: if you happen to be a fan of 80s “camp site slasher films” like Friday the 13th & Sleepaway Camp and you enjoy meta genre send-ups like Scream & The Last Action Hero, please check out The Final Girls as soon as you can. Save reading reviews (like this one, for instance) for after you give the film a chance. It’s best to go into this movie cold if you can manage it. I wish I had, anyway.

For those who need a little more convincing up front, here’s a quick run-down of the film’s premise. The Final Girls revolves around a fictional example of the oldschool “camp site slashers” mentioned above named Camp Bloodbath. Good title. When Camp Bloodbath is first introduced as a Grindhouse-style trailer on a smart phone, it’s unclear exactly how involved the plot will get with the horror relic. The answer is very. Five modern teens with varying degrees of familiarity with the film find themselves magically transplanted inside the move itself, à la The Last Action Hero. Don’t spend too much time questioning exactly how this could possibly happen, because the movie has very little interest in providing an answer. Instead, the device is used as a launchpad for lovingly spoofing the slasher genre from a modern perspective. It’s a means to a satisfying end.

As you can tell from The Final Girls‘ title, the film has a lot of fun playing with slasher genre tropes, especially in the film’s interactions between the self-aware modern teens & the fictional teen camp counselors at Camp Bloodbath. A lot of the teens’ plans to escape the machete-wielding Billy Murphy, a Jason Voorhees stand-in, revolves around abstaining from sex. The thinking is that teen sex invariably ends in death in oldschool slashers, which is something even the Friday the 13th series itself mocks in the humorously self-aware hologram scene in Jason X. The Final Girls also pokes fun at how teen dialogue is often moronic in oldschool slashers, like when an 80s teen tells a modern visitor, “Go suck a turd,” and he amusedly replies, “The writing is so bad.” Another modern character comments on her soon-to-end shelf life with the line, “I’m the mean girl in the 80s horror movie & we’re past the midpoint so . . .” There’s also attention paid to Camp Bloodbath‘s over-the-top John Carpenter score, the fact that cheap horror films can sometimes head to career-long typecasting, and the fact that there is often a very fine line between a slasher & a porno. The genre trope references are nothing if not relentless.

One of my favorite things about The Final Girls is that it not only participates in the trope-referencing meta play of Wes Craven’s Scream, but because of the film’s outlandish movie-within-a-movie concept, it also adopts the dream logic of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Although the film’s main goal is undoubtedly comedy, it does reach for eerie, otherworldly horror in its central conceit. As the modern teens attempt to escape their fictional prison they discover that all roads lead back to camp. In their words, “The movie won’t let us leave.” As a result, they find themselves stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque 90min loop until they can fulfil the slasher genre’s plot cycle to its conclusion, including establishing which virginal “final girl” would will remain alive to slay Not Jason at the film-within-the-film’s conclusion. There’s also a creepy interplay in the way exact dialogue from Camp Bloodbath bleeds over into “real life” conversation & in the way the 80s camp counselors are ritually devoted to their cues in certain scenes. Not all of the world-building is creepy, though. Just as the The Final Girls pokes fun at the predictability of horror movie tropes, it also mines humor from the artificiality of more general cinematic devices like black & white flashbacks, slow-motion escapes, and the physical appearance of production credits.

The reason I said earlier that I couldn’t be objective about The Final Girls as a finished product is that I recognize the film has some glaring faults, but I greatly enjoyed it anyway. Its straight-forward Jokes aren’t always as laugh-out-loud funny as they’re posed to be. The rules of its universe are more fluid & self-contradictory than they should be.  There’s also an unfortunate mount of weak CG imagery, which would normally be excusable in a cheap indie like this, except that the film calls direct attention to it in over-the-top Sam Raimi-style camera movement. However, that last complaint might be a little particular to my tastes, since I’m far from an Evil Dead fan. These are minor speed bumps for me, though, since so much of what’s going on in The Final Girls I’m already predisposed to enjoy. Not only am I a sucker for high-concept camp, but the movie features features contributions from a handful of minor personalities that I’m always down to watch in action: Alia “Maeby Fünke” Shawkat, Thomas “Silicon Valley” Middleditch, Joshua John “Teen Witch/Near Dark/Class of 1999” Miller (as a writer/producer), etc. The film’s 80s pop music cues also hit my sweet spot, including expert use of “Dance Hall Days“, “Cruel Summer“, and the most emotionally confusing “Bette Davis Eyes” strip tease you’re ever likely to see. There’s also a great deal of heart in the main protagonist’s personal relationship with one of the fictional 80s teens, one that’s particularly refreshing in its emotional severity considering the detached irony of a lot of the film’s meta humor.

Because so much of The Final Girls lines up with any particular interests it is difficult to say whether or not a majority of people will be able to get on its wavelength. I can, however, say this much in the movie’s behalf: audiences typically too squeamish for the slasher genre should be able to stomach the film’s limited gore, as it’s played for laughs more so than terror. I’m not sure that crowd will get as much out of the film’s trope play as the genre’s more dedicated fans, but as I said earlier, there’s plenty else going on to satiate anyone in the mood for a high-concept comedy with an occasional note of devastating heartbreak. If nothing else, The Final Girls will make an excellent compromise for those looking to introduce the horror comedy genre to the less-than-enthused. I expect it’ll make good fodder for many Halloween-themed movie binges in the years to come, perhaps sandwiched between the very “camp site slasher films” it lovingly spoofs.

-Brandon Ledet