The Seagull (2018)

At first glance, it’s easy to see why the costume drama The Seagull is being undervalued in its early critical reception. A literary adaptation of an Anton Chekov play led mostly by women in period-specific costuming, this is the exact kind of stuffy-seeming costume drama that typifies most people’s perception of independent cinema, the kind of film festival fodder that lures elderly audiences into daytime-napping in public. However, The Seagull is only half the stately indie drama indicated by its Chekov stage play source material. Its other half is a surprisingly morbid, exquisitely bitchy comedy that laughs in the face of self-important, artsy fartsy types who would typically watch that more pretentious end of cinema in the first place. Saoirse Ronan anchors the genuinely dramatic end of that divide as an aspiring, vulnerable actress caught between the love & lustful whims of two playwrights. Annette Bening & Elisabeth Moss run wild & gnaw scenery on the morbidly humorous end, affecting the performative, comedically exaggerated femininity of a barroom drag act. Together, the trio transform The Seagull from minor prestige indie to slyly subversive comedy & meta-melodrama, an oddly delightful mix of femme-specific tones that deserves more critical respect than it’s ever going to get.

Annette Bening lords over the proceedings as a boastful matriarch (inviting a 19th Century Women pun I’m too clumsy to pull off) and a successful stage actress who demands 24/7 admiration from her family & fans. Her son is a depressive playwright who believes her craft is empty, pandering frivolity, as opposed to True Art. A lesser movie this stately in appearance might side with him, using his complaints that “The modern theatre is trite and riddled with clichés!” to comment on its own elevated place as true art in a cinematic landscape ruled by Transformers sequels & the MCU. Instead, his artistic idealism is satirized as being born of juvenile insecurities, especially in comparison to the much more successful playwright who is mother’s de facto concubine. This jealousy only deepens as the two playwrights struggle for the affections of the same hopelessly naïve muse (Ronan), while Bening & Moss (who is in love with the son) look on in horror. This he-loves-her-but-she-loves-another web of unrequited affections plays out in both perfect comedy & tragedy, equally balanced. Moss hovers between both ends with the most versatility, dressing as a widow because, as she explains it, “I’m in mourning . . . for my life.” Bening & Ronan are more constant in their demeanor (self-aggrandizing & hopelessly wide-eyed, respectively), as they allow a petty tug-of-war between two foolish, destructive men play out to an inevitably tragic end.

At its start, The Seagull feels artistically nondescript, as if anyone could have made it at any time. Early music cues even feel as if they were lifted from episodes of Downton Abbey. Its costumed soap opera stage setting eventually melts away, however, as the caustic relationships between its characters devolve into absurdist, playfully cruel humor (not to mention genuine, old-fashioned cruelty). Bening, Ronan, and Moss pull a minor miracle in transforming The Seagull into a must-watch subversive comedy that is not at all telegraphed by the film’s humble, lovelorn melodrama beginnings. Director Michael Mayer does his best to keep up with the trio, becoming increasingly daring in his framing & music choices as the stakes of the story increase and become more deranged. The cathartic emotional climax of the picture only works because of its performers, however, who sell the severity of this story’s cruelty, whether played for humor or genuine dramatic effect, with full, lasting impact. The Seagull is worth watching for those three performers alone, whether or not Chekov adaptations & stately costume dramas are your usual cup of tea. Here, the tea is boiling hot and surprisingly bitter, leaving the whole room laughing & fighting back tears in equal measure. It’s a shame it isn’t getting enough respect or attention for that accomplishment.

-Brandon Ledet

The Death of Stalin (2018)

The Death of Stalin is a historical comedy about a small contingent of serial rapists & mass murderers jockeying for power after its titular Russian political shakeup. Like the British comedy Death at a Funeral, much of its humor is derived from the tension of buffoons fumbling in their duties amidst a dead-serious crisis that requires putting on a stoic, sober face for the public. Every major player in Stalin’s (semi) loyal gang of power-hungry monsters are stripped of any & all mythic mystique in the process, depicted onscreen as dangerous nitwits who are scrambling for a plan (by comedic actors like Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, real life shithead Jeffrey Tambor, etc.) instead of some strategic masterminds who know exactly how to achieve their goals.  Humanizing these revolting fascists thorough goofball humor is a tonal risk that might invite audience sympathy to people who do not deserve it, but somehow The Death of Stalin achieves the opposite effect. By interpreting Stalin’s cronies as real people, a recognizable boy’s club, the film makes their millions of executions & untold numbers of rapes even more of a shock & a horror. There’s a comedic tension in watching violent buffoons getting in over their head in a tense political crisis, but we always see them as the walking, talking grotesqueries they actually were in the process, perhaps even more so than ever before.

It helps that The Death of Stalin takes its duties as a period film seriously. Its grim color palette & orchestral score recall the Nazi bunker drama Downfall. There’s humor in how Stalin’s kill lists can have names added by one false joke or comment and how they’re casually issued out like office lunch orders, but the brutality they signify is never treated lightly. The film thankfully doesn’t dwell on on-screen depictions of sexual assault, but it’s coldly honest about that evil’s wpervasiveness in this fascist culture. Mass protests recall the incredible large-scale crowd scenes in big budget epics like Doctor Zhivago. When Stalin dies, he soils himself the way any fresh corpse would. The recent German comedy Look Who’s Back was admirable for drawing parallels between Hitler’s fascist ideologies and the recent far-right political swing on issues like immigration, but it was a satirical mode achieved by resurrecting the dictator in an outlandish sci-fi plot and transporting him to modern times (and modern comedic sensibilities). The Death of Stalin reverses that dynamic by exporting modern sensibilities to the historic context of a period drama. Actors speak in their own American & British accents, treating the farcical humor as if it were an (especially violent) exercise in sketch comedy. The atmosphere & dramatic circumstances surrounding those performances are a dead serious contrast that drives the comedic tension by not being comedic at all, a brilliant choice in aesthetic.

You wouldn’t have to squint too hard to draw a parallel between the mass firings & buffoonish disfunction in the current Trump administration and the political chaos left in the wake of Stalin’s death in this film, but I’m not convinced that was entirely its point. If anything, The Death of Stalin is refreshing in its honesty about how much worse the modern-day Trumps, Putins and Kims of the world could potentially be if they continue to drift in their current direction. If there’s any commentary on specific current politics in the film’s central conceit it’s tethered to the idea that the dynamics of men in power never change and only get more dangerous the longer they’re allowed to go unchecked. As amusing as it is to watch these violent dolts assert their authority in a situation where their authority is at best vaguely defined, it’s also outright harrowing to see that recognizable humanity result in so much abuse & bloodshed. The Death of Stalin is a darkly funny historical comedy with political implications that will remain relevant long beyond current, topical concerns. It’s not exactly classroom-friendly material (it’s loaded with “locker room talk,” to borrow a parlance), but it is a great educational tool in establishing the universal, pedestrian traits of the people (as opposed to the mythic figures) who commit the world’s most devastating atrocities

-Brandon Ledet

November (2018)

When James & I covered a few Andrei Tarkovsky movies for the podcast last year, I found myself impressed by the Russian auteur’s talents as a visual craftsman, but more than a little frustrated by his work as entertainment media. With features that sprawl past the three-hour mark and fret over political & philosophical crises of Faith, Tarkovsky’s work often feels like an academic prerequisite more than movies to be “enjoyed.” Thankfully for my unintellectual mush-brain, 2018 has already offered a couple correctives to my frustrations with the Tarkovsky aesthetic. Most notably, Alex Garland’s sci-fi puzzler Annihilation reimagines Tarkovsky’s Stalker as a much more conventionally entertaining genre picture with scary monsters, a manageable runtime, and a clearly discernible narrative. This year’s more esoteric Tarkovsky remix can be found in November, which feels like the long-lost blooper reel to the director’s interminable religious epic Andrei Rublev. Shot in a black & white digital haze, November continues Rublev’s grueling drudge among the intensely religious, beaten-down peasants who struggle outside the comforts of the Christian elite. Unlike Rublev, this low budget indie often lightens the mood of its descent into the brutality of abject poverty with matter-of-fact depictions of pagan witchcraft, shit jokes, and Three Stooges-style slaps to the face. Sometimes this intruding irreverence can hit a sour note, particularly when it finds its amusement in sexual violence, but for the most part it’s the exact Andrei Rublev blooper reel I didn’t know I needed until it was casting spells and farting directly in my face.

Much like how The Witch literalizes the superstitions of New England Puritans, November depicts in frank terms Eastern European (particularly Estonian) folklore. Witches prepare salves that transform their clients into wolves for a night (and a price). Peasants make deals with the Devil that bring their farm equipment to life as all-obliging puppets/sculptures (“kratts” in the film’s parlance). Ancestral ghosts visit the living from beyond the grave to break bread & offer advice. Among this black magic free-for-all and visitations from the Plague (personified as common farm animals, naturally), the peasants stave off Christian conversion efforts by mixing the new religion with preexisting pagan practices and stave off their own hunger by stealing from everyone in sight: their bosses, The Church, The Devil, each other, etc. A tragic story of unrequited love emerges from this grimy, surreal backdrop, but its circumstances are too bizarre to land with much emotional impact. November is slow and not especially funny, even when indulging in outright scatological slapstick. It’s absolutely fascinating as a curio, though. The D.I.Y. puppetry of the kratts has a distinctly humorous Eraserhead quality (which the film could have used more of; the kratts steal the show). The matter-of-fact depictions of practical effects witchcraft are persistently endearing, especially in their achievement of visualizing human-size chickens through miniature set pieces. The desperation & audacity of the characters’ thievery is cumulatively jaw-dropping, as it proves to show no bounds or shame. The only ways the film stumbles, really, are in being too aggressively odd to stage an emotionally engaging plot and in finding occasional slapstick amusement in rape. In every other way, it’s the exact pagan fairy tale farce it presumably set out to be, as much as anyone could guess what a film this deliberately loose in tone & logic intended to achieve.

I should probably do a better job of justifying my comparisons of November to Andrei Rublev, but most of the details they directly share are in the margins: religious fanaticism, pagan ritual, soul-crushing poverty, images of water layered with tree branches & other foreign objects that distort or drift away before your eyes can fully adjust. November is ultimately too silly & irreverent to be exactly comparable to that immensely personal Tarkovsky work, but I understand them as reflections of each other all the same. As the goofier curio that depicts supernatural witchcraft instead of real-world war, I much prefer November’s end of that aesthetic, just as I preferred Stalker when it featured Natalie Portman firing bullets at a nightmarish alligator-beast. Still, November has entertainment value limitations of its own. With more witches & kratts and fewer rape jokes I could have easily fallen in love with this weird little Tarkovsky blooper reel. As is, it’s enjoyable as a bizarre midnight movie curio, but still mildly frustrating for having had the potential to amount to more than that.

-Brandon Ledet

Lemon (2017)

It’s been well over a decade of overgrown man-children running the show in mainstream comedies, thanks to the improv-heavy landscape sparked by the Judd Apatow crew, and it feels like that aesthetic has now officially spoiled in the public eye (likely because we have now have an overgrown man-child as President). Brett Gelman’s lead role in the grotesque character study Lemon is maybe the curdled the subversion of that trope we need in our lives right now. Selfish, depressive, pretentious about the art of theatre, socially inept, and prone to wetting the bed like a toddler, Gelman’s lead in Lemon is the culmination of the deeply upsetting, aggressively pathetic character work he’s been doing for years. The movie opens with him suffering a break-up with his longtime, blind girlfriend (Judy Greer), which would usually be played for sympathy in a typical modern man-child comedy. Instead, we can hardly blame her for leaving his dysfunctional, narcissistic ass, something that only becomes truer with time as you get to know him better. More disturbing yet, the movie expands its scope to reveal that Los Angeles is full of dysfunctional man-children just like him. He’s pretty much the norm.

To the protagonist’s credit, he at least supports himself financially through regular work. Between acting gigs advertising STD awareness & adult diaper brands, he teaches drama in a black box theater classroom, a space he mostly uses to express his jealous anger over his younger, more successful students. Most of his career envy is focused on a hot shot thespian played by Michael Cera (who looks like he’s secretly auditioning for a Gene Wilder biopic in the role), a relationship that often turns violent under its falsely cordial surface. This professional envy is even more grotesque in how it shows itself in his treatment of Gillian Jacobs’s theatre student, whom he shuts down, cuts off, ignores, and flat out berates in a way he never does with her male classmates. This toxic attitude towards women extends to how he idolizes his past, youthful romances in New York City and how he awkwardly proceeds to date future romantic prospects. It’s all one big, ugly state of juvenile angst that only gets uglier as you learn how it fits in with the similar shortcomings of his family & LA as a larger community.

It takes a moment to get into the stage play rhythms of Lemon’s dialogue, which can be as cruel & cold as anything you’d find in a Solondz or Lanthimos joint. Director Janicza Bravo, who has an extensive background as a costume designer, keeps the film consistently intense as a visual piece, elevating a (deliberately) pedestrian story with the intense lighting & near-artificial environments of a photo shoot. Bravo’s version of LA is just as beautifully curated as it is terrifyingly cruel, a point that’s driven home at a deeply tense Passover Seder I can comfortably call one of the most memorably nightmarish scenes of the year. As collaborators on the script, she & Gellman have skewered the modern comedy man-child trope so thoroughly that their film reads like an indictment of Los Angles as a city & an industry at large. It’s like a much easier to stomach version of the Neil Hamburger vehicle Entertainment in that way, lambasting all sides of the modern narcissistic entertainer’s existential emptiness, whether they’re a juvenile comedian hack or as self-serious thespian. It’s a harshly acidic, visually impressive picture that takes no emotional prisoners in its stage play cruelty & social criticism, cutting much deeper than you might first expect from Gelman’s Greasy Strangler-level awkwardness.

-Brandon Ledet

I, Tonya (2017)

I can already tell I, Tonya is going to be bitterly divisive with most audiences, since I’m harshly divided on the film myself. For the first half hour I was totally onboard with the humorously cruel rehabilitation of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding’s public persona. Margot Robbie delivers a phenomenal, humanizing performance as Harding; Allison Janney is even more of a force to be reckoned with as her terror of a mother. Both women are deeply flawed, but recognizably genuine human beings from a harsh economic & social background, portrayals that transform a tabloid sideshow into something resembling empathy. Then the beatings start. I, Tonya aims for a tone similar to early Alexander Payne works like Election & Citizen Ruth, where the mood alternates rapidly between quirky comedy & pitch black cruelty. The film is far too tonally messy and not nearly confident enough in its structure for me to always make those leaps, however. It’s difficult to be in the mood to laugh half a breath after watching your protagonist get punched full force in the face, thrown against a wall, pulled by the hair, cornered with a gun, and so on. The violence leveled on Harding throughout I, Tonya certainly makes her more of a recognizably sympathetic figure than what you’d gather from her news coverage. However, the nonstop beatings are near impossible to rectify with the Jared Hess-style Napoleon Dynamite quirk comedy that fill in the gaps between them. The film either doesn’t understand the full impact of the violence it portrays or is just deeply hypocritical about its basic intent.

I, Tonya is told through several contradictory, direct to the camera monologues that allow characters to reshape public perception through voice-over guidance. As Harding, Robbie delivers two clear mission statements for the film through this device. In one, she complains that she’s been beaten and abused both physically & emotionally throughout her entire life without any public sympathy, while Nancy Kerrigan is America’s Sweetheart for being whacked one time in the kneecap. The dark, matter of fact humor of that statement is representative of the film’s most subversive strengths, which completely flip an outsider’s perspective on the figure skating world’s most infamous controversy. The other mission statement line is where I, Tonya completely loses me. Harding bluntly accuses the audience of continuing her abuse by lambasting her in the press after her husband & his conspirators were caught rigging the competition by bashing Kerrigan’s knee. Pointing an accusatory finger at the audience in this way might work in a more self-aware, tonally sober film, but it feels completely out of line for a black comedy that exploits Harding’s hardships for cruel humor, essentially continuing the sideshow aspect of her story that it aims to condemn. I, Tonya wags its finger by jarringly interrupting its quirky character humor with sudden & brutal acts of deeply upsetting physical violence leveled on its star. The movie continually invites you to enjoy the humor of her situation’s absurdity before telling you you’re scum for obliging. It tosses out free candy only to slap it out if your hand and call you a greedy fuck for accepting it. Separately, I was onboard for Harding’s earnest public rehabilitation and the awkward humor of her working class background. I just found the way violence & audience-shaming editorializing was used to fuse those objectives together to be deeply unpleasant, if not morally repugnant. This is a spiritually ugly film, which might be fine if it were confident enough in its own convictions to own up to that ugliness.

Because I, Tonya‘s moral self-contradiction already had me cornered in a defensive position, I found myself picking at its formal shortcomings in a way I might not have if I were more fully convinced by its tone & objectives. There’s an uncanny valley quality to the CGI of its skate routines that feels both like a distraction & a terror. Its 70s-specific needle drops (despite telling a 90s story) of songs like “Spirit in the Sky” & “Break the Chain” feel as unwittingly cliché as the soundtrack of Robbie’s last major effort, Suicide Squad. The direct-to-the-camera narration is choppily arranged & inelegantly employed, especially as the film largely drops its over-the-top comedic tone in its never-ending third act. Janney & Robbie are uniformly wonderful, but they feel like they’re floating detached from the narrative of their worthy, but mismatched costars. The way real life footage of the conspirators in Kerrigan’s attack is used to justify the continued sideshow aspect of the work soured me even more on the film’s moralistic finger-wagging and sudden bursts of bone-crunching violence. Even the Miramax logo in the opening credits churned my stomach, for reasons that should be obvious. Yet, if I were more convinced by the confidence in the tone & humor of I, Tonya I could totally see myself forgiving or even embracing this scrappy sense of crudeness in craft. Part of the reason I find the film so frustrating is that it’s almost a success, but its self-contradiction is just miscalculated enough for everything to feel like a gut-wrenching failure. I honestly spent most of the picture wishing that I was rewatching the much less prestigious Melissa Rauch comedy The Bronze instead. It’s a trashier, less tonally ambitious version of an Olympics-setting black comedy than what I, Tonya aims for, but at least it doesn’t spit in your face for laughing at its own jokes.

-Brandon Ledet

Colossal (2017)

With his intricately-constructed time travel thriller Timecrimes, director Nacho Vigalondo found dark humor in the depths of selfishness in human self-preservation, exposing the ugliness of humanity as a species through the mechanism of a sci-fi fantasy plot. His American language debut, the kaiju-themed black comedy Colossal, shifts its genre & intended targets just slightly, but mostly repeats the trick. Through an outlandish genre film scenario, Colossal gradually strips away the veneer of polite smiles & social niceties that makes human beings appear to be kind, empathetic creatures to reveal the giant monsters lurking underneath. The destructive behavior of alcoholism & pretty selfishness in particular is giving an a measurable, kaiju-scale impact of real world damage. Much like in Timecrimes, the inner lives of Vigalondo’s characters aren’t given nearly as much attention as the implications of their actions within the larger, metaphor-heavy sci-fi plot, but the mystery of how that premise works & what it implies about the ugliness of humanity is enough to leave a lasting emotional bruise on the audience.

Anne Hathaway stars as a New York City socialite whose alcoholism finally crosses the threshold from “fun drunk” to full-on dysfunction, a conscious departure from the A-type personas she’s been saddled with since The Princess Diaries. Kicked out of the apartment she shares with an uptight boyfriend (Dan Stevens in full Matthew Crowley mode), she finds herself with few options but to move back to her small town childhood home. She’s employed as a barkeep by an egotistically sensitive childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis), which affords her way easier access to a steady stream of working class staples Jack Daniels & PBR than is likely healthy for her. The nightly blackouts that her addiction downturn sparks start to branch out from pure self-destruction to negatively affecting millions of people: namely, the city of Seoul, South Korea. Whenever our drunken anti-hero finds herself wasted in the playground near her childhood home at the crack of dawn, a corresponding kaiju appears in Seoul and mimics her exact, stumbling movements, blindly killing anyone in its path. Once these repeating scenarios become undeniably linked, she must face hungover epiphanies like, “I killed a shitload of people because I was acting like a drunk idiot again.” Getting sober & improving herself isn’t enough to solve the problem entirely, though. As soon as she starts to get her life back together, a second monster appears in Seoul, challenging her sense of control in an increasingly ugly situation.

What’s most fun about the metaphorical sci-fi plots of Vigalondo’s work is that they continue to develop & complicate after their initial reveal. It’s not enough that the connection between the protagonist’s alcoholism and the giant monster terrorizing Seoul is made explicit. The film also pushes through to explore why the playground location & time of day correspond with its appearance, why Seoul in particular is connected to her in the first place, and what is implied by the appearance of the kaiju’s robot challenger. The answers to this mystery are lazily revealed through the device of a decreasingly cloudy repressed memory, but are satisfying enough in their impact to justify the transgression. Complicating the kaiju metaphor detracts tremendously from the energy spent on potential inner conflict & emotional depth, but also expands the film’s themes beyond the selfish destruction of addiction to include crippling jealousy, the cycles of physical abuse, and a myriad of other forms of destructive behavior. By the end of Colossal you have to ask if the bigger monster is the protagonist’s addiction or the poisonous group of self-serving men that populate her life. It’s a testament to how strong the mystery & provoked themes of the central metaphor are that it doesn’t at all matter that the characters remain surface level deep. Vigalondo’s ideas are intricate, plentiful, and mercilessly cruel to the virtues of humanity enough to carry this small scale kaiju narrative on their own.

-Brandon Ledet

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

Anyone who engages with some form of social media is aware by now that there is a massive gulf between the personae we present online and our True Selves. By skewering LA hipsters who cultivate online celebrity through carefully curated Instagram profiles, the dark comedy Ingrid Goes West isn’t necessarily revealing anything its audience isn’t already aware of. The titular protagonist of that work, however, is a relatively fresh look at how that artificial cultivation of an online Personal Brand affects its consumers, specifically those suffering from mental illness. Ingrid Thorburn, miserably brought to life by Aubrey Plaza, is a character as worthy of study as Robert DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin or Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates. In a lot of ways, Ingrid Goes West falls short of being worthy of that performance, which updates the classic-tragic Lead Role Psychopath for the online stalker era in both a darkly humorous & incredibly tense way. The story that forms around Plaza’s turn as Thorburn isn’t afforded nearly as much nuance as the character herself, but her onscreen presence is alone enough to justify giving the movie a look.

Ingrid Thorburn begins her tragic saga in isolation, with only the cold glow of her smartphone holding her hand through a recent loss & the raw emotional compulsions of an obvious chemical imbalance. She frantically scans Instagram profiles for a point of contact out there in the great social void, desperately hanging on for dear life to any kind word or signal of acknowledgement. Her obsessions with individual Online Personalities are intensely focused, requiring just as much meticulous planning for stalking & befriending as her targets afford selfies & squared-off photographs of avocado toast. Her obsession du jour in this particular episode is an LA socialite (Elizabeth Olsen) who’s so wrapped up in her online persona that she builds a profession around advertising products on her feed. It turns out that there’s a vulnerability to constantly updating your location & minute-to-minute activities online, not least of all that your online followers can become your literal followers “in real life.” The even bigger danger, though, is in having people interpret your online hyperbole as actual sincerity. There’s a huge difference between advertising that a breakfast spot sells The Best Avocado Toast In The World and telling another human being “You’re so funny. I love you so much. You’re amazing. You’re my favorite person I’ve ever met.” When you’re dealing with human emotions, especially ones as pronounced as Ingrid Thorburn’s, that kind of disconnect from sincerity & authenticity can be dangerously cruel, especially when your victim discovers you’re not really “friends.”

There are theoretically better versions of this same story where the thriller aspects are highlighted & Ingrid becomes a kind of social media assassin who drags her obsessions down to her level or where LA charlatans & phonies are comedically lampooned for being heartless demons. Instead, Ingrid Goes West floats halfway between those extremes in a noncommittal way. There’s some incisive criticism of Los Angeles Bohemia in subtle digs at its barely-concealed racism or the unspoken expense of its “rustic” mason jars & potted succulents lifestyle. Ingrid badly wants to be an avocado toast kind of girl, but she’s much more at home eating McDonald’s out of the bag; there’s a wealth class difference in that distinction. The movie’s much stronger in its intense thriller beats, however, drumming up more visible thirst in Ingrid’s eyes than Sofia Coppola even dared to conjure in her recent remake of The Beguiled. You’re never sure if Ingrid wants to eat, fuck, or Single White Female her obsessive targets and the movie’s strongest moments are in accentuating the delicate intensity of that unspoken desire. It will often diffuse the danger of her real world stalking with a comedic sing-along to K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life” or the charming presence of Straight Outta Compton‘s O’Shea Jackson Jr., who plays the world’s most patient man (& biggest Batman enthusiast). I’m not sure looking to Ingrid Goes West for insightful satire on cellphone addiction or the inauthenticity of social media posturing is ever nearly as satisfying as watching Ingrid Thorburn dangle from a thin thread while she tries to land herself a lifelong bestie as if she were shopping for clothes online. Aubrey Plaza does a fantastic job of making that precarious intensity a memorable, worthwhile viewing experience, but it is somewhat of a shame that the movie it supports couldn’t match that performance in its extremity or specificity.

-Brandon Ledet

Look Who’s Back (2016)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

campstamp

Look Who’s Back, the latest German satirical comedy from the writer-director who unleashed Wetlands upon the world, just might be the weirdest film to hit Netflix’s streaming service since, I don’t know, Wetlands? David Wnendt’s last two features seem to be establishing a pattern where the filmmaker bravely dives head first into adapting controversial, provocative German novels for the big screen that challenge the outermost boundaries of basic human decency: one a slapstick romance about an anal fissure & the other a Borat-style farce in which Adolf Hitler clumsily navigates & eventually finds popularity in the modern world. The latter film adaptation, Look Who’s Back, mixes seemingly tame, broad comedy with fiercely biting, unforgiving political satire, a tonal whiplash that recalls the unlikely romantic comedy/vulgar gross-out mashup of Wetlands. Look Who’s Back isn’t quite as successful as the delightfully depraved film it follows, but it does help solidify Wnendt’s status as a prankster provocateur, a comedic mind very much astute in finding delight in modern human grotesqueries.

Part of what makes Look Who’s Back such an odd delight is how difficult it is to classify. The film starts with a sci-fi/fantasy premise where Adolf Hitler is mysteriously transported to modern times Germany and follows his first-person POV as he tries to make sense of concepts like selfies, television, the internet, etc. This broad, cheaply campy farce mostly functions as a Trojan horse for the film’s real bread & butter: unscripted, Borat-style street interviews where Hitler interacts with the modern public. A lot of folks treat Hitler like a joke — hugging him, posing for pictures, chirping “I love Hitler!” & honoring him with a Nazi salute — an uncomfortable gaze at toxic hipster irony & modern refusal to engage with life sincerely. These subjects recall the pitch black satirical attacks of works like The Comedy, but they’re not the darkest place the film goes. Look Who’s Back‘s main mode of political satire is in pairing Hitler with real-life, unscripted people who agree with his nationalistic, horrifically racist rhetoric when it comes to the issue of Muslim immigration. They aren’t all easily identifiable neo-Nazi skinheads, either. Think of the German equivalent of your average diehard Trump supporter and you pretty much get the picture. It takes very little effort for Hitler to push German citizens’ Islamophobic rhetoric into verbal support for eugenics & racial purity, a deeply disturbing revelation of a barely-concealed ugliness. As if that weren’t enough territory for an eerie camp comedy to cover, the back half of Look Who’s Back indulges in some weird Adaptation-type meta play where the film indicts itself and its source material for their cultural popularity in a modern media landscape it openly loathes. It’s a singularly strange work, however overstuffed, that finds a lot worth mining in its initially limiting premise.

Comedies don’t always translate well across cultural borders & language barriers and I’ll readily admit Look Who’s Back starts from a shaky place in its early farcical camp machinations. Once the film digs its talons into its not-at-all subtle political commentary, though, it can manage to be a downright harrowing glimpse at modern racism, a nightmarish terror just barely hiding under the guise of concern for “border security.” I was particularly haunted by Hitler’s post-credits tour of modern German where he thinks to himself, “I can work with this.” It’s chilling. Look Who’s Back‘s main conceit is that Hitler just sort of reappears, which initially seems like a far-fetched starting point until you realize that his rhetoric has already done the same. The film’s structure is a strange patchwork that initially mines humor from the visual comedy of a modern times Hitler (Hitler in dad jeans, Hitler in bumper cars, Hitler at the dry cleaners, Hitler bowling), then reminds its audience how dangerous the dead dictator’s very much alive ideology still is in a modern context in candid street interviews, and concludes by pointing a finger in the mirror for not taking history seriously in a meta reflection on the dangers of reducing such a fucked up cultural figure to a casual gag in the first place. Not every joke lands, especially in the early proceedings, but the way Wnendt shoehorns biting political commentary & self-lacerating attacks on ironic humor into the shape of a campy farce holds just as much shock value as the de Sade levels of sexual depravity & beyond-unsanitary pizza toppings of Wetlands. Look Who’s Back is something of a structural mess, but it’s a fascinating mess with a surprising amount to say about the current political attitude towards immigration that disgraces a vast majority of The West, America included (obviously). Wnendt uses the hacky device of a campy Hitler comedy to strike a vary particular nerve in his viewers. It evokes a strange feeling, but it’s a surprisingly potent effect considering the trash pedigree of its chosen genre context.

-Brandon Ledet

A New Leaf (1971)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

Walter Matthau plays Henry, an entitled man-child who squanders his trust fund taking his Ferrari into the shop after every time he drives it, wearing tailored suits, and having his butler take care of his every need. After he loses all his money with no other financial prospects, he does what any self-important ex-rich playboy would do and decides that he will marry a rich woman and murder her. Elaine May (who also directed the film) plays Henrietta, a plain-Jane botanist with an immense fortune and no interest in spending any of it. She is clumsy, uncultured, and infantilely clueless. Henry, seeing Henrietta as the perfect target, woos and marries her. With a synopsis like that A New Leaf seems like your typical straightforward black comedy where you’re lead along the entire film wonder if he will or won’t kill her, and in a way it is. Although much of what would be considered straightforward here seems actually more like subversive satire. Henrietta doesn’t get a makeover that involves removing her glasses. Henry doesn’t gain more affection for her and have a change of heart. They both just end up being frustratingly useless enough to deserve each other.

Henrietta is such an endearing character, before you find out how helpless she is. Her only dream in life is to discover and name a new species of fern.  May shines as a clueless nerd, with the awkward muttering and the soft exclamations of, “Oh, heavens.”  I, being a little bit of a clueless nerd myself, loved every awkward outfit, the bizarrely fitted hats, drab cardigans, and huge framed glasses. She is the perfect incompetent foil to Henry’s scheming, manipulative brooding. But eventually you realize she can’t even button her own shirts right.

A New Leaf is told mostly from Henry’s point of view. There’s a lot of handheld shots, grotesque close-ups from his perspective, and even a dream sequence. Though we’re constantly viewing everything from his side, we’re never expected to sympathize. If anything it only exaggerates his insufferable jackassery. Though, there is an interesting thing this movie brings up from his side: there seems to be some sort of underlying gay subtext. He is horrified at the idea of women. He’s never been married. There’s many jokes about the fact that he would even consider marriage. It’s a shame it’s played as a joke.

Elaine May had her own cut of the film that ran 180 minutes long. It was taken and re-edited to it’s released length of 102. The original cut of the film may not exist any more, so there’s no telling if the extra length added to the kooky absurdity. As it is, A New Leaf is one of the most warm and charming black comedies I’ve seen. It’s an awkward story about how two differently awful people deserve each other.

-Alli Hobbs

Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), and the Erosion of the Female POV in Alexander Payne’s Filmography

EPSON MFP image

July’s Movie of the Month, the 1996 abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, was the debut feature from blistering satirist Alexander Payne. Since this initial work of relentlessly bleak humor, Payne has consistently delivered soul-crippling dramedies that typically fall somewhere between Todd Solondz & Noah Baumbach in their meticulous indulgence in human despair. What’s been less consistent, however, is the way Payne has dealt with the prominence of his female characters. Citizen Ruth dealt with a homeless addict who unwittingly finds herself the center of a national debate on abortion rights. Although Ruth, played with heartbreaking sincerity & total lack of vanity by a top-of-her-game Laura Dern, navigates a world where her legal & bodily struggles are dominated by a vast network of uncaring men, she is still the center of her own story. Citizen Ruth is the only top-billed Laura Dern performance where her protagonist actually commands the film’s POV. It also happens to be the only film from Alexander Payne that centers entirely on a woman’s POV, a perspective he’s been seemingly drifting further away from ever since.

Alexander Payne’s last three films have all included interesting, complex roles for female characters, but they’re roles that mostly color & complicate the lives of the writer-director’s male protagonists. Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska are all about men, usually middle-aged, in a moment of personal crisis. Payne-penned women merely swirl around them. The closest Payne has gotten to repeating the female-centered POV of Citizen Ruth was in his follow-up to that initial work (and his best film to date, in my opinion), Election. The 1999 MTV-produced dark comedy Election doesn’t exactly have a female protagonist, but does its best to split its POV 50/50 along the gender binary among four equally interesting characters. It’s also acidically critical of adult male power dynamics in how they deal with the women under their influence, another aspect of Payne’s early work you aren’t going to see echoed in films like Sideways.

Election derives its title from its fictional high school presidential election in which young, A-type personality Tracy Flick (played as a hilariously uptight go-getter by Reese Witherspoon) is roadblocked by bitter middle-aged teacher Jim McAllister (a full-schlep Matthew Broderick), who is annoyed to the point of cruelty by her youthful promise & his own personal failures. I remembered from watching this film as a teen that  both of these characters were dismally selfish & abusive, but it plays very differently returning to it as an adult. Tracy Flick can be annoying, sure, as many high school goody two-shoes can, but she in no way matches the grown man evil of Jim McAllister. The film begins with McAllister blaming the underage Flick for ruining the life & career of a colleague, an adult man & an unlikely father figure, who she had an affair with. This pattern repeats itself later in the film when McAllister himself has an affair & again blames the woman for the transgression. The worst you could say about Flick is that she’s demanding & self-serving (to the point where she treats Jesus like an employee in her bedtime prayers), but there’s an element of class politics in that demeanor. Flick comes from a poor, single-parent family & works hard, militantly hard, to free herself from that economic restraint, looking down on the kids who have it easier & don’t have to try as hard with as much daily persistence to succeed. McAllister, who has settled for a mediocre life in a loveless marriage, getting small thrills from participating in high school extracurriculars & beating off to high school-themed porn in his basement, hates the promise Flick works so hard to secure for her future & seeks to nip it in the bud when he hits his spiritual low point. It’s a far worse impulse than anything you could say about Flick’s naked, admittedly abrasive ambition.

Payne pits Flick & McAllister against each other in a larger narrative involving a charming idiot jock & his lesbian slacker sister (who share narration duties with the main characters), a structure that recalls the political satire vs. character study narrative arc of Citizen Ruth. This 50/50 gender split is the closest Payne’s ever come to returning to the female POV of his debut, which isn’t exactly a mark against his films’ overall quality, but does point to an interesting shift in the way he’s written stories since his early stirrings in the 90s. The only time I’ve become actively annoyed with the masculine-centered POV in a Payne film is in the middle-aged ennui of Sideways, but that was mostly a matter of personal taste. Still, I’d gladly welcome a Payne project that returned to the feminine POV of his first two films, It looks like his next project, Downsizing, will at least be a return to the 50/50 split of his sophomore work, a film that might divide its attentions between characters portrayed by Sideways‘s Paul Giamatti & Election‘s Reese Witherspoon. It could be a start, but still wouldn’t be a full return to the perspective established in Citizen Ruth. Hell, as long as Payne’s bringing back old collaborators, he might as well write another starring role for Citizen Ruth‘s Laura Dern. The world desperately needs more of her top-bill performances & Payne himself could use an excuse to write another work from a woman’s perspective, a creative starting point he seems to be drifting further away from with each project.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its place along the trajectory of the modern abortion comedy, and last week’s comparison of Laura Dern’s performance with her other top-billed roles.

-Brandon Ledet