The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Does a bad ending, or even merely an unsatisfying conclusion, ruin a movie? I go back and forth on this a lot, sometimes within works with the same creators and producers. I considered last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane to be one of the best movies of the year, and I really love 98% of Super 8, both of which suffer the same issue of a tonally inappropriate ending for a movie that was thematically about something other than, you know, stupid Cloverfield monsters (in the case of the former, at least it was justified by the retitle). Both of them are movies that I recommend to others with the caveats that they are nearly perfect but fail in a major way that, depending upon your consideration of the subject, may ruin your overall filmic experience.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of these contentious films. I sat in the theater in a completely enraptured state watching the film’s first two hours, but in the film’s final moments, those joyous feelings turned to ashes in my mouth. My roommate walked out of the theater exultant, but I was underwhelmed. But before we get there, a quick synopsis.

Surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) has a well-ordered and successful life, as demonstrated by the sumptuous home he shares with his loving wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children, fifteen-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and elementary-aged Bob (Sunny Suljic). He also has a secret and unusual relationship with teenaged Martin (Barry Keoghan), which he keeps from his family and lies about to his anesthesiologist partner Matthew (Bill Camp). He meets with the boy clandestinely at a diner and buys him gifts, ranging from simple ice cream cones to expensive watches. Stephen eventually reveals this relationship to his family, although he lies that he met Martin when the boy’s father died suddenly; in fact, Martin’s father was a longtime patient of Stephen’s, who died under mysterious circumstances. Stephen’s family falls under the influence of Martin’s charms, especially Kim, but each member of the family begins to fall victim of an inexplicable paralysis that seems to be of Martin’s devising.

There’s a lot going on in this film, and there’s so, so much to love, especially in its small moments of subtlety and intricacy. When I told him that I had seen it, Brandon asked if the film was as Kubrickian and giallo-inspired as he had heard; although the fingerprints that underline Kubrick’s influence are all over the film, there’s no real giallo influence that I can discern. I didn’t happen to catch The Lobster, but I am told that the emotional distance evident in dialogue and the lack of inflection that the actors use in Killing is a commonality with director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous work. I’m not sure how that stylistic choice fit with his earlier film, but it’s a resounding success here, as the cold world of surgeons and diagnoses, children getting slapped (and worse), long walks with ice cream, and even awkward sexual advances are all treated with the same clinical dispassion, instilling the film with a feeling of extreme detachment that resonates in every scene. This only increases the mood of growing tension that is intentionally invoked, as the audience feels their anxiety rising like a tide while the characters observe the changes in their world and worldview with infuriatingly cold tempers.

Beyond the overt characterizations, there’s a lot of subtlety that will no doubt provoke discussion and inspection. Kim’s recent first menstruation is mentioned on two separate occasions, including once as a point of pride for Stephen when talking to his work colleagues following a formal speech; what’s to be made of that? Early in the film, Stephen and Anna engage in some slightly kinky hanky-panky (all edited and filmed with the same dispassionate camera work as every scene) in which Anna lies down inverted on the bed (with her head at the foot of the bed and vice versa) and pretends to be a patient under anesthesia; when Kim later attempts to seduce Martin, she assumes this same position, implying that she possesses a knowledge of her parents’ sex lives that is both incomplete and inappropriate. Every relationship possesses an animalistic charge but lacks intimacy, except for Stephen’s mentorship (for lack of a better word) of Martin, which is initially framed as potentially sexual and abusive but ultimately proves to be something equally primal but much, much worse. It’s not absent from the film, however: after foiling an unsuccessful seduction attempt on the part of Martin’s mother (one scene wonder Alicia Silverstone), Stephen later returns to their home in a rage when Martin’s true intentions are revealed, and he threatens/promises to “fuck [Martin] and [his] mother, like [Martin] want[s],” so he is at the very least aware of this tension and how it could appear, but his understanding of the motives are all wrong.

It’s the small moments in which this film proves its great worth, but paradoxically that same sparsity and minimalism in its ending left me unsatisfied as the credits started to roll. Even if you don’t make the immediate connection to the myth of Iphigenia, which is mentioned overtly in a scene wherein Stephen meets his children’s principal to investigate possible causes of their bizarre malady, the phrase “sacred deer” is bound to ping some mental connections for anyone with a familiarity to Greek mythology. Even with that knowledge, there is still an expectation for some kind of explanation for Martin’s apparently supernatural abilities, which never comes. This absence is less disappointing than one would expect, but the film still feels somehow incomplete in its final moments. Perhaps that was intentional; perhaps the evocation of feelings of incompleteness (not necessarily dissatisfaction) was the point of the film as a whole. I’d have to give it another viewing before I could say for sure, but for now, I’m left as cold as the icy blues of the film’s color aesthetic and Kidman’s eyes, although the buoyancy of the film’s choices before its final frames lifts my overall estimation.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Batman & Robin (1997)

It’s been two decades since the release of Batman & Robin and its director, Joel Schumacher, is still doing an apology tour in the press, begging forgiveness for his sins against the Batman brand. I do not understand the need. Much like how Tim Burton’s Batman vision didn’t escape its Studio Notes prison until its second installment, Batman Returns (the greatest Batman film to date), and Christopher Nolan’s second Batman effort, The Dark Knight, similarly improved on its own predecessor, Schumacher’s personal imprint on the Batman series didn’t reach its purest form until the director’s second effort. With Batman Forever, you can feel Schumacher steering the ship away from Burton’s gloomy freakshow back to the live-action cartoon days of Adam West in Batman: The Movie (’66). There’s too much Burton hangover looming in that film for it to feel like its own work, however, leaving a compromised vision not at all helped by the energy imbalance of hyperactive child Jim Carrey and comatose bore Val Kilmer. With the follow-up, Schumacher was allowed to completely cut loose, reportedly directing action sequences with megaphone instructions to “Remember! This is a cartoon!” during shoots. Audiences expecting more weirdo Burton gloom violently rejected Batman & Robin when it first hit cinemas in 1997, but I believe time has been kind to its charming dedication to Adam West silliness and Saturday morning cartoon aesthetics, not to mention its more prurient interests. I have no doubt that a rowdy 2017 midnight movie crowd would have a great time with it as an over-the-top Batman-themed comedy, which is exactly how it was originally intended to play.

The #1 roadblock audiences seem to have with enjoying Batman & Robin is the casting of George Clooney as the Caped Crusader. My guess is that after the Reclusive Weirdo Who Disguises His Voice When In Costume interpretations of the character from Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and Kevin Conroy, the world wasn’t quite ready to see Batman as the swashbuckling goofball he had been portrayed as in earlier adaptations. Clooney only tackles Batman as the Movie Star Handsome billionaire cad Bruce Wayne and does little to differentiate that presence from his night-time, in-costume persona. That approach maybe less faithful to the character’s dual nature in the comic book source material (I don’t know or care), but it’s not all that different from the more openly-winking Adam West interpretation of the character or, perhaps more accurately, how Batman was brought to life in 1940s serials by Lewis Wilson & Robert Lowery. Besides, even Batman & Robin seems largely disinterested in what Clooney’s Dark Knight brings to the table. Has Batman ever been the most interesting character in his own movies? Why wish for more of a brooding Keaton staring into his fireplace in the dark or more Christian Bale trying to out-gruff Aidan Gillen in his disguised tough guy voice when you can enjoy the simple pleasures of a Handsome Movie Star hamming it up with an ensemble cast of campy weirdos? Schumacher borrows a page from Batman Returns and floods the screen with wacky side characters who fall both in the Good Guys camp (Chris O’Donnell as hot-to-trot boy toy Robin & Alicia Silverstone as a Cher Horowitz-flavored Batgirl) and the Bad Guys camp (Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze & Uma Thruman as Poison Ivy). Clooney mostly just looks pretty and stays out of the way, which is more than I could ever ask for in a Batman performance.

Batman & Robin makes no attempt to hide that Batman himself is not the main attraction. George Clooney’s name is billed second to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s at the top of the credits. When the Batman logo appears it immediately freezes over, visualizing Mr. Freeze’s command of the spotlight. Excepting the disposable scenes of family drama at Wayne Manor, Batman & Robin mostly details Freeze’s plan to literally put Gotham on ice, a plot he hopes to enact with the help of botanist-turned-terrorist Poison Ivy and a nonstop onslaught of sweet, delicious puns. Much like with Schwarzenegger’s career high roles in titles like Commando & Total Recall, his impact as the top villain here is hinged on lizard brain word play (courtesy of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman). He taunts Batman & his bat-crew with some of the world’s most chill, ice-themed one-liners: “Stay cool, bird boy,” “Let’s kick some ice!,” “Cool party!,” “Ice to see you!,” etc., etc., etc. If you do not understand the basic appeal of that kind of pun-heavy joke writing, which is very much rooted in comic book tradition, you cannot be helped. Mr. Freeze sports a cartoonish character design, being kept frozen with “a crypto suit powered by diamond-enhanced lasers.” The character also serves as a rare crossroads where Schwarzenegger’s talents as a chilling 80s villain & a yuck-em-up 90s comedian kids think is cool can co-exist in full self-contradictory glory. Uma Thurman’s anarcho crust punk botany activist turned dive bar drag act is much less interesting as a villain, but there’s more than enough Arnold screentime to make up for any deficiency there. If Schumacher’s main objective was to bring Batman back to its over the top cartoon, pre-Burton Gloom roots, he more than covered it between Clooney’s Handsome Hero and Schwarzenegger’s Goofball Goon. Everything else was just lagniappe.

Subverting its welcome return to a time when Kids’ Stuff was treated like Kids’ Stuff, Batman & Robin also stands as the most aggressively queer major studio superhero film to date (with Bryan Singer’s sexless X2 standing as its closest competition, I suppose). I’m not sure how many out, gay directors have had a crack at major studio superhero properties (I’m guessing the answer is Too Few), but Schumacher took the opportunity to play up Batman’s queer kink potential to its most PG-acceptable extreme (how the film instead got saddled with a PG-13 rating, I’ll never know). The opening sequence of quick cut closeups is a Russ Meyer-esque assault of Batman & Robin’s leatherclad bodies as they suit up: nips, butts, crotch, butt, nips. Later, when Silverstone first gears up in her Batgirl costume, her leather clad posterior is immediately covered with a heavy cape, the same leering attention completely drained from the moment. Poison Ivy gets a fair amount of kink play in herself, dragging her power bottom sub Bane around by the leather collar & iron clad chastity belt and setting up her headquarters in a day-glo bathhouse. Any man who dares to kiss Ivy, the only sexually available woman in the movie, immediately dies by the toxins in her poison lips and Robin’s line, “You’ve got some real issues with women, you know that?” begins to feel as if it applies to the movie at large. Schumacher seems conspicuously disinterested in his female characters, which might help explain why Thurman’s performance as Ivy feels a little flat and why Silverstone’s Batgirl has a perfect Tom of Finland beard stubble ring of car exhaust when she removes her bike helmet after her big motorcycle chase scene, essentially wearing masculine drag. While waiting for a cure for his frozen wife, Mr. Freeze spurns the advances of Poison Ivy & his closest female crony, dismissing the come-on “I’m feeling hot,” with the quip, “I find that unlikely.” Bruce Wayne has a supermodel beard he only interacts with at public events and is only attracted to Poison Ivy whenever drugged by her weaponized pheremone potion. He mostly just focuses on his masculine relationships with Robin, the Boy Wonder, & Alfred, The Butler. Ultimately, Schumacher’s explicit, deliberate repurposing of Batman as a queer kink icon is mostly relegated to those early leering shots of leatherclad bat-nipples & bat-butt, but since that perspective is an underrepresented minority in the genre, its potency as a novelty cannot be undervalued (and it does unintentionally spill over into other aspects of the work).

I get the sense from the Christopher Nolan & Zach Snyder takes on Batman that the two directors were almost apologizing for the goofier aspects of the material. Tim Burton’s definitive adaptation at least understood the camp value lurking under Batman’s gloomy sheen of vigilante orphans brooding in black leather. I’m by no means a Schumacher fanatic in a general sense, but I appreciate how weirdly personal he made the return to that barely-buried camp. Every frame of Batman & Robin is excessively stylized, like a superhero comic book version of Michael Bay’s Armageddon (which I mean as a compliment). Looney Tunes sound effects, gigantic diamonds so cartoonish they look like clip art, sky surfing, ice-skating goons, a dinosaur bones display that roars in pain when it’s knocked over, Mr. Freeze’s (oddly pun-free) meta-commentary about how he hates “when people talk during the movie”: every decision projects the feeling of a Saturday morning cartoon come to life. I suppose someone had to eventually make a movie specifically targeted at queer children who aren’t yet entirely sure why Batman makes blood rush to their crotches and if that’s the only worthwhile thing Schumacher ever achieves in his lifetime, at least he filled a niche. What’s beautiful about it is that he got a major studio to foot the bill. Whenever a Coolio cameo or an American Express ad placement (“Never leave the Bat Cave without it,”) or a moment of well-aged special effects spectacle interrupt Schumacher’s leering at Clooney’s bat-ass or Schwarzenegger’s steady stream of super cool ice puns, the film’s strange crossroads of Art & Commerce becomes amusingly absurd. Movies this blatantly commercial are rarely as bizarrely cartoonish or as deliriously horny as Batman & Robin. It’s time we ask Schumacher to stop apologizing for making Batman silly again and instead congratulate him for making him so subversively weird.

-Brandon Ledet

Vamps (2012)

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Amy Heckerling directed two of the most iconic teen comedies of all time, Clueless & Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and yet she hasn’t been afforded much leeway as a filmmaker. Outside her work on television there’s a dispiritingly low number of titles to her name and while I’m not willing to fully go to bat for either Look Who’s Talking or Johnny Dangerously, I will say Heckerling does have at least one credit to her name that’s criminally overlooked: Vamps. A madcap romcom about two party girl vampires trying to survive the afterlife in the big scity, Vamps is wildly fun & immediately endearing, recalling Herckerling’s best work to date in the high school satire Clueless. The two films’ connection runs much deeper than the directer reuniting with actors Alicia Silverstone & Wallace Shawn, however. They both have a genuine empathy for all of their characters, even the high school mean girls & bloodsucking undead (as well as their respective “enemies”), and they both find plenty of room for personality & biting wit within the rigid romcom formula. Vamps is Heckerling at the top of her endearing-but-satirical game and every time I revisit it I become more  baffled that it has yet to cultivate a solid cult audience.

An ultra-feminine precursor to What We Do in the Shadows, Vamps follows two NYC roommates as they navigate big city nightlife & supplant their thirst for blood (held at bay by feeding on rats) with an endless eternity of clubbing & casual sex. Silverstone more or less reprises her role as an all-growed-up Cher “Clueless” Horowitz & her bestie is played by Krysten Ritter, who’s essentially a much-less vicious version of her Don’t Trust the B character Tall Slut No Panties, uhh, I mean Chloe. Except, you know, they’re vampires. Injecting a little horror movie fantasy into this Sex and the City worldscape of trying to find the right guy by sleeping with all the wrong ones livens up the format a great deal. It’s amusing to watch these women lie about their age by hundreds of years, attend Sanguines Anonymous meetings, find work modeling clothes for other vampires who can’t use a mirror, and check out hot guys’ jugulars as they, in turn, check out their cleavage. That’s not where Vamps gets the most mileage out of its vampire genre gimmick, though. Its combination of sisterly camaraderie with old world nostalgia is its true undead heart. Silverstone’s character in particular struggles with memory of a world before cellphone addiction & cancer-causing sugar substitutes and it’s her combination of Luddite philosophy & aggressive femininity that affords this film it’s own unique voice.

Vamps feels a little like an entire sitcom’s run conveniently contained at a romcom’s length. It’s by no means breaking any molds in terms of genre or humor, especially recalling other feminine horror comedy genre mashups like Hocus Pocus, Death Becomes Her, and Sabrina The Teenage Witch. Its playful mix of bloodlust, fashion, cute guys, and immortality might not feel entirely fresh in the 2010s, but Heckerling keeps the mood consistently light, endearing, and bizarre. Besides, the movie delights in feeling outdated in a modern world it has little reverence for. Big time supporting players like Sigourney Weaver, Maclolm McDowell, and Dan Stevens are all just as charming & effective as the main cast and a few inspired gags like a rat blood spit take & a vampire’s hideous spray-on tan find some unexpected, as-yet unexplored territory in a genre that’s been mined beyond death. It’s Heckerling’s specific, unmistakable comedic voice that makes Vamps feel remarkable despite what you’d expect from it’s genre trappings & modern age griping. Unfortunately, because that voice is so rarely heard these days it’s a sound for sore ears.If Herckerling has any other projects cooking that are half as charming as Vamps we’d be lucky to have them in our grotesque modern world. I’m afraid they’d also go noticed & unappreciated, though. There’s little evidence in the last twenty years of her work’s public reception that would make me think otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet