I Blame Society (2021)

As often as I gripe about megacorporate movie products under the Disney umbrella—Star Wars, The MCU, and their loose collection of live-action reboots—cheaply pandering to wide audiences with Easter eggs & nostalgia triggers, the truth is that I also love to be pandered to. I absolutely loved the recent black comedy I Blame Society, but it did nothing to challenge me as an audience.  Everything about the film feels like it was aimed directly at my tastes, from its no-budget D.I.Y. aesthetic to the transgressive joy it finds in Misbehaved Women to its flippant meta commentary on movies as an artform.  If I vaguely described everything I love to see in movies in a focus group meeting, this is the exact end product I’d expect from the algorithm my feedback was plugged into (minus a few keywords like “drag,” “pro wrestling,” “witchcraft,” and “outer space”).  I slopped up everything the film dished out like a pig at a trough, completely content and undiscerning about what I was being served – the exact kind of passive, incurious media engagement I mock most audiences for when I’m at my snootiest.  It felt great.

The essential difference between I Blame Society and modern big-budget filmmaking is that it wasn’t focus-grouped & algorithmed into existence.  The reason the film is so sharply resonant & relatable is because it’s deeply personal & specific to the creative voice of its auteur.  Gillian Wallace Horvat writes, directs, and stars in this incredibly dark comedy about a struggling filmmaker who shares her name and (an absurdly exaggerated version of) her real-life persona.  In the film, she realizes that her unappreciated skills behind the camera mirror the skills needed to pull off The Perfect Murder, an epiphany that quickly turns her into a serial killer.  This premise is adapted from an off-handed compliment made by a real-life friend who said Horvat would make an excellent murderer, which she investigated in a short-length documentary a few years ago.  Footage from that short is included in I Blame Society as an abandoned project that Horvat intends to tease out into a feature, much to the horror & concern of the people who love her.  After years of not being able to land funding for her dark, off-putting screenplay pitches, she decides to throw all her creative energy & frustration with her industry into one D.I.Y. project that will prove to the world that she is a fully capable filmmaker . . . and, thus, a fully capable murderer.

Horvat is not shy about explaining exactly what’s pissing her off in her creative field and in the world at large.  I Blame Society is a vicious, angry film, often functioning as direct commentary on how difficult it is for women to participate in professional filmmaking as an artform.  In-character, Horvat attends pitch meetings with Duplass Brothers-type indie producers who use press-friendly buzzwords like “strong female characters” to signify that they’re changing with the times by unlocking the gates for women filmmakers to express themselves, but they don’t mean a word of it.  Horvat’s ideas are uniformly dismissed outright for their discomforting tone or “unlikeable” female leads.  The only work she’s ever offered is slapping her name on a man’s creative vision to meet a studio’s diversity quota.  It’s a cyclical, gendered rejection from her industry that eventually jokerfies her, to the point where the violence she commits in retaliation is intentionally designed to make the audience queasy – a giant fuck-you that undermines her “likeability” instead of aiming for easy “You go, girl!” cheerleading. 

Despite that seething, on-the-surface anger with the world, I Blame Society is relentlessly hilarious from start to end.  It combines the observational, no-budget filmmaking humor of Matt Farley’s Local Legends with the smiling, Influencer brain rot of last year’s ride-share thriller Spree.  Horvat smiles through her entire descent into murderous madness, often tossing out #girlboss catchphrases like “Lean in, baby” and “I’m living my best life” in the middle of her crimes to signal control & composure to her followers.  Even the low-tech equipment she uses to document her violence/art—head-mounted Go-Pros, hand-cranked wheelchair dollies, strategically hidden smartphones—read as visual gags, constantly undermining her surface-level calm with a flailing sense of desperation & lunacy.  The humor begins at a straight-forward angle of likening filmmaking to murder, as in a sequence where Horvat’s version of “location scouting” turns out to be stalking & home invasion.  From there, it only gets exponentially warped and esoteric; some of the funniest jokes are just the intensity in Horvat’s eyes as she chipperly explains the rationale behind her work.  You have to be locked onto her peculiar wavelength to fully appreciate that line of humor, but it’s just as relentless as it is sharply observed.

I Blame Society was shot in less than two weeks with a small crew of close collaborators and no concern for wide-audience appeal beyond Horvat amusing her own mischievous brain.  As much as I felt the film was aimed directly at my particular tastes, it’s clearly intended to vent & alienate, not to pander.  I’d say that it’s further proof that the personal is universal, but I don’t honestly believe it has that kind of far-reaching appeal, nor does it intend to.   If you have any personal affection for D.I.Y. filmmaking or Unlikeable Women, though, it’s the can’t-miss movie of the year.  Disney’s going to pander to everyone else on a near-weekly basis, but the rest of us have to pounce on the scraps that fall through the cracks whenever we can.  This particular trough doesn’t get filled very often.

-Brandon Ledet

Shiva Foreva

I recently had the pleasure of taking off an entire week from work to do Nothing – casually filling my time with movies, meals, and household chores instead of cramming those activities into the tight crevices between pushing papers & sleep.  It was a necessary, restorative break from my usual routine, one I’ve been reluctant to indulge in since the pandemic-era version of a “vacation” really just means extended time alone on my couch.  I managed to watch 18 feature films over that 10-day stretch, sometimes cramming in four a day and sometimes watching none at all to make room for “social” activities like podcasting and watching pro wrestling with friends.  As a result, most of the films didn’t have much space to stand out as anything distinctly noteworthy (with the major exceptions of Hackers and Pig), but I did notice some striking similarities shared between a few of the pairings.  Without a doubt, the most highly specific, niche double feature in that week-long binge was Shiva Baby & The Vigil: two incredibly tense new releases set at Jewish funeral rituals.  Neither stood out to me as personal best-of-the-year material the way I hoped.  Still, they were both impressively energetic, nerve-racking debuts from first-time filmmakers, and their shared Jewish funeral rites context only underlined their strengths as a pair.

I’d feel much worse about lumping these two unique, otherwise unrelated films together purely for their shared religious context if that overlap hadn’t already been covered by other blogs (most notably the Jewish outlet Alma‘s post “A New Kind of Jewish Horror Film Has Arrived“).  Shiva Baby in particular suffers the most in that pairing, since the film is already fighting off frequent comparisons as the Jewish, bisexual version of Krisha.  To be fair, Shiva Baby is a lot more similar to Krisha than it is to The Vigil, at least in terms of its tone & genre.  Set at a shiva ceremony following a distant relative’s passing, a college student & sex worker finds herself trapped at a nightmarishly awkward “party” with her parents, her ex-girlfriend, her Sugar Daddy, his wife, and their baby – struggling to keep them all apart so they don’t accidentally tattle on her triple-life.  A low-budget, 77min immersion in the sweaty panic of that disastrous wake, there’s a lot going on in Shiva Baby that directly recalls the familial tensions of the Thanksgiving-from-Hell setting of Krisha, right down to the winding tension of their plucked-strings scores.  I just don’t remember Trey Edwards Shults’s film being so Funny.  Writer-director Emma Seligman makes Shiva Baby so painfully, overwhelmingly awkward that it transforms into a kind of black comedy.  At the very least, she wouldn’t have cast Fred Melamed & Jackie Hoffman in bit parts unless she was aiming to wring out some laughs, no matter how dark.  The film even ends with all the main players converging into one cramped, chaotic space like a true farce, capturing the feeling of when your life is going so catastrophically bad that all you can do is laugh to release the tension.

The Vigil is much shorter on laughs.  It relieves its own dramatic tension in a much more traditional, straightforward way – aiming for classic haunted house scares that just happened to be staged in a highly specific cultural context.  Whereas the shiva ceremony of Seligman’s film is a post-funeral celebration & communal mourning, Keith Thomas’s haunted house horror covers the time before a funeral, when an assigned “shomer” sits vigil with the deceased so their body is never left alone.  In this case, a recent defector from an extremist form of Orthodox Judaism is reluctantly roped back into his old community as a one-night shomer for a total stranger, because he desperately needs a paycheck.  The premise is perfect for a horror film, locking a freaked-out shomer alone in a spooky house with a dead body while supernatural happenings creep in from the darkness.  The Vigil manages to cram a lot of unexpected details into that straight-forward set-up too: cult-deprogramming, Evil Internet tech, found footage video cassettes, body horror, demons, etc.  It reminded me most of the recent movies Demon (2016) & The Power (2021), but it does a great job in setting itself apart from them in its mood & scares, even beyond the specificity of its cultural context.  It would especially make for great Halloween Season programming, breaking up the usual cultural settings of by-the-books haunted house movies while still delivering the expected beats & scares of its genre (as indicated by its distribution under the Blumhouse brand).

If you’re looking for a film that’s invested in the specifics of traditional Jewish funeral rites, The Vigil is probably the more rewarding programming choice of this pair.  I personally found Shiva Baby to be the more promising debut, but its context as A Jewish Film was more generalized & cultural than The Vigil‘s.  If nothing else, it plays with the same buttoned-up comedic tension of non-Jewish films like Death at a Funeral, just with a younger, harsher edge.  It’s incredibly cool that both films were able to find proper funding & distribution around the same time to reach audiences outside the festival circuit, which is typically where culturally-specific films like this premiere and then immediately disappear.  I look forward to a time when there are enough films set in these types of niche cultural environments that they’re no longer a novelty as pairings.  For now, the significance of their cultural overlap helped them stand out among all the other, more familiar movie premises I drifted through during my on-the-couch vacation – even more so than their shared penchant for chokehold dramatic tension.

-Brandon Ledet

French Exit (2021)

There was a lot going on in Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical whatsit mother!, all of it worthy of many fractured, contradictory conversations.  To us, it was both a 2.5-star misfire and one of the very best movies of 2017.  To others, it was simply an embarrassment to all involved, most notably Jennifer Lawrence as titular mother figure, who rarely leaves the screen.  In all those heated debates over mother!‘s merits, metaphors, and malice, I think we may have still overlooked one of its wildest, most deliciously fucked up ingredients: Michelle Pfeiffer.  An eternally lovable screen presence who’s been shamefully sidelined in the past couple decades, Pfeiffer pounced into mother! like a cat hunting unsuspecting prey, batting Jennifer Lawrence around with a mean-drunk indifference I found thrillingly campy & cruel.  It felt like a seismic shift in Pfeiffer’s career at the time, but then nothing really came of it – conversationally, professionally, or otherwise.

Finally, a proper career resurgence vehicle for a post-mother! Michelle Pfeiffer has arrived . . . and it’s being met with the same unenthused shrug she got back in 2017.  French Exit expands Pfeiffer’s role as a cruel, vamping drunk in mother! to a feature-length drag routine.  She delivers nothing but deliciously vicious camp from start to end here, easily putting in one of her career-best performances.  The response has been muted at worst, divided at best.  Maybe the movie would’ve earned more momentum in non-pandemic times, when word of mouth would’ve reached the exact right audience for what Pfeiffer is doing here.  Maybe the world would never be ready for Michelle Pfeiffer to star in an erudite revision of Leaving Las Vegas for pompous, affluent drag queens.  Who knows?  All I can report is that every bitchy barb, quip, and eyeroll she lands in French Exit is a precious gift to the few jaded cynics on the movie’s wavelength.

Pfeiffer stars as an heiress & former NYC It Girl who has completely depleted her dead husband’s fortune.  She decides to sell off the remainder of his estate for spending money, then fucks off to Paris with her adoring adult son (Lucas Hedges) in tow.  Her long-term plan is to kill herself when her funds run dry, something she announces in a matter-of-fact, smirking tone.  Despite the morbidity of that premise, there isn’t much grandeur or pathos to the film’s plot, as the mother-son duo aren’t especially emotional in demeanor.  Most scenes are slight, low-key episodes: a cross-Atlantic boat ride, an awkward dinner party, a search for a runaway cat, etc.  However, if you’re in tune with Pfeiffer’s scenery chewing (and Hedges’s studied impersonation of her faded, jaded glamour) there’s a dark humor to each of those episodes that will have you howling at even the slightest facial expression and casually tossed-off insult.

I’m surprised to learn that French Exit was based off a novel (adapted by author-turned-screenwriter Patrick deWitt himself), since its witty banter and for-the-back-row vamping feels so firmly rooted in stage play dialogue.  The best I can approximate its cruel, quirky tone is to imagine Wes Anderson directing an adaptation of The Boys in the Band, but even that description doesn’t cover its absurdist supernatural plot twists, which I will not spoil here.  Most importantly, French Exit is a Nic Cagian showcase for one of our greatest actors to go as big and as broad as she pleases from gag to gag.  Sometimes those payoffs are muted, finding her sharpening a kitchen knife in total darkness or absentmindedly musing about the sad nature of dildos.  At other times, she sets literal fires, slipping into full camped-up Cruella de Ville mania.  In either instance, she’s electrically, fabulously entertaining, and we all should be groveling at her feet for more performances in this vein.

-Brandon Ledet

Happily (2021)

There’s a certain kind of low-budget indie comedy that’s packed with the hippest, funniest comedians you know . . . who just sorta sit around with nothing to do.  They’re not so much hangout films as they are grotesque wastes of talent.  What’s frustrating about the recent “dark romantic comedy” Happily is that starts as something conceptually, visually exciting in its first act, only to devolve into one of those comedy-scene talent wasters as it quickly runs out of ideas.  Happily opens with a wicked black humor and a heightened visual style that recalls what everyone was drooling over with Game Night back in 2018.  Unfortunately, it leads with all its best gags & ideas, so after a while you’re just kinda hanging out with hip L.A. comedians in a nice house – which isn’t so bad but also isn’t so great.

Joel McHale & Kerry Bishé star as a couple whose persistent happiness and mutual lust—as if they were still newlyweds after 14 years of marriage—crazes everyone around them.  Their cutesy PDA and ease with conflict resolution is first presented as a mild annoyance to their more realistically jaded, coupled friends.  Then, Stephen Root appears at their doorstep like the mysterious G-Man in Richard Kelly’s The Box, explaining that their lovey-dovey behavior is supernaturally deranged, a cosmic defect he needs to fix with an injectable fluorescent serum.  That Twilight Zone intrusion on the otherwise formulaic plot feels like it should be the start to a wild, twisty ride.  Instead, it abruptly halts the movie’s momentum, forcing it to retreat to a low-key couple’s getaway weekend in a bland Californian mansion with its tail tucked between its legs.

In its first half-hour, Happily is incredibly stylish for such an obviously cheap production.  Red color gels, eerie dreams, disco beats, and an infinite sea of repeating office cubicles overwhelm the familiarity of the film’s genre trappings, underlining the absurdity of its main couple’s commitment to their “happily ever after” romance.  Once it gets derailed into couples’ getaway weekend limbo, all that visual style and cosmic horror just evaporates.  The talented cast of welcome faces—Paul Scheer, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Natalie Morales, Charlyne Yi, Jon Daly, Breckin Meyer, etc.—becomes the main draw instead of the dark Twilight Zone surrealism, which is a real shame.  There are plenty of other films where you could watch hipster comedians act like cruel, bitter assholes in a lavish locale.  The early style and humor of Happily promised something much more conceptually and aesthetically unique.

And since there isn’t much more to say about the toothless hangout comedy that Happily unfortunately devolves into, I’ll just point to a few recent titles on its budget level that are much more emphatically committed to the biting dark humor of their high-concept, anti-romantic premises: Cheap Thrills, The One I Love, and It’s a Disaster.  Those are good movies, and this is almost one too.

-Brandon Ledet

The Columnist (2021)

This is going to sound ironic coming from someone who publishes multiple paragraphs of movie opinions no one asked for on a daily basis, but I’ve been trying my best to avoid Online Film Discourse lately.  I still frequently listen to podcasts, lurk in heavily curated Facebook & Twitter circles, and refresh my Activity feed on Letterboxd—mostly looking for new movies to watch—but I’m becoming increasingly reluctant to participate in conversations with strangers online about movies, or about anything at all.  Sometime between the reactionary blowback to the Cuties trailer and the immediate Hot Take apocalypse aftermath of Bo Burnham: Inside, I’ve just lost my taste for engaging with strangers’ opinions online.  I’ll read and listen to film criticism, but I have no energy for contributing to the discussion . . . unless that discussion is contained among the half-dozen people who contribute to the Swampflix blog & podcast.  That loss of appetite for a more generalized, public form of film discourse is likely Pandemic related.  I’m just generally burnt out on the daily chore of basic existence, and having all my social interactions limited to digitally obscured strangers is not helping at all.  If anything, spending too much time scrolling my Twitter feed makes me outright misanthropic; I always end up walking away with a few sparse movie recommendations and a thousand reasons to feel worse about the nature of humanity as a species.  The tradeoff is not really worth it.

The recent Dutch black comedy The Columnist deeply understands that kind of internet-inspired misanthropy, just as much as it understands how weak I am for succumbing to it.  It’s a satirical horror film for our cursed Online Discourse times.  It treats the universal truth “Never read the comment section” with the same grave seriousness previous generations’ horror films gravely warned “Never sleep in the woods,” “Never have premarital sex”, and “Never swim on a shark-infested beach.”  Katja Herbers stars as a clickbait columnist who reads one too many anonymous sexist tweets about her work and snaps, going on a violent rampage.  It starts as a kind of writer’s block thriller, where she cannot focus on her work until her detractors are violently silenced (after she slays them in their homes, confronting them with sexist language from their tweets).  By the end, though, she’s totally Jokerfied, losing track of her familial connections and professional duty to create #content in her pursuit to destroy every last misogynist troll who antagonizes her online — of which there is an infinite supply.  The biggest red flag that she’s lost to the madness of Online Discourse is when she announces that she’s officially quitting Twitter, then spends more time obsessively checking the notifications on that message than she does writing or enjoying her life.  It’s a very familiar kind of horror, one that evokes a humor of recognition and despair rather than anything politically satirical.

The Columnist is smart enough to satirize its antiheroine for her own ideological weaknesses, so as not to entirely rely on The Internet Is Evil fearmongering.  She’s at least lightly ribbed for her amorphous neolib politics, as her strongest ideological stances are that blackface is bad (a still-sensitive subject in Holland, at least, thanks to Christmas celebrations involving the figure Black Peter) and that people with differing opinions should be nicer to each other online.  Still, it mostly backs her ultraviolent revenge on her much more grotesque right-wing trolls, gleefully indulging in a Fuck Around and Find Out ethos.  The Columnist is most fun as a pitch-black counterpoint to all those NPR & Chris Gethard human interest stories where targets of online bullying forgive and make amends with their vilest trolls.  Here, internet vitriol is literalized into physical, cartoonish violence and everyone involved is mocked for getting sucked into the pointless ritual of Online Discourse in the first place.  It’s just as cathartic as it is sharply observed, especially considering that women in particular take the most shit for daring to have opinions online (apparently even women with benign clickbait-friendly “opinions” of no real consequence).

As an illustration of why I’m losing my appetite for engaging in Online Film Discourse with unmoderated strangers, I’d like to point to the real-world clickbait article “Bizarre Dutch dark comedy film ‘The Columnist’ mocked for showing journalist on a killing spree against online critics“.  Much like the reactionary blowback to films like Cuties, Joker, and The Hunt months before they were actually released, The Columnist apparently stirred up minor right-wing vitriol for “endorsing” the murder of lefty journalists’ political opponents.  You can’t fault the anonymous right-wing commentariat (and their army of bots) for willfully misconstruing the point of a movie that satirizes the journalist herself as well as her trolls; after all, they were commenting on a movie they hadn’t seen.  It’s still a useful affirmation that the kind of aggressively inane Online Discourse that accompanies every last news item (including the release of low-budget Dutch horror comedies, apparently) is enough to make a normal, calm person violently misanthropic — proving the satirical point of The Columnist months before the movie was released.  Anyway, I should have known better than to read that comment section round-up in the first place, a mistake I hope I can avoid making again in the future.

-Brandon Ledet

I Care a Lot (2021)

The Swampflix Crew were generally big fans of the twisty psychological thriller Unsane a few summers back, but it was very divisive in other circles. The way Soderbergh mined the real-life horrors of involuntary hospitalization & insurance scams at the expense of the mentally ill for cheap-o genre entertainment was a major turn-off for a lot of that film’s audience, understandably so. And now I have to wonder what that crowd would make of the recent Netflix release I Care A Lot, which mines the real-life exploitation of the elderly for something even less respectful: a flippant black comedy. At least Unsane was fully dedicated to making the bureaucratic nightmare at its core as visibly ugly & spiritually repugnant as possible. By contrast, I Care a Lot uses its own exploitative health industry scam as a convenient springboard for a candy-coated slapstick comedy about an overachieving #girlboss with a killer wardrobe. Regardless of that choice’s morality or its likely divisiveness, I have to admit that the clash between film’s pitch-black cruelty & sugary irreverence is exactly what endeared it to me.

Rosamund “Gone Girl” Pike is typecast as a vicious, unrepentant monster with an A-type personality and a blunt Lime Cat bob. As a professional “caretaker” & “guardian,” she “earns” her designer wardrobe & lavish home off the backs of her elderly “clients”, whom she traps in legally-forced conservatorships that park them in prison-like retirement homes while she liquidates their funds on the outside. It’s a scam that should be familiar to the audience by now, both through the 2017 investigative article in The New Yorker that likely inspired the film and, more recently, through the ongoing #FreeBritney scandal that’s effectively made “conservatorship” the dictionary word of the year. Maybe that’s why the movie quickly gets bored with dwelling on the details of the scam, then shifts focus to gawking at the heartless inhumanity of the criminals who profit off it. Pike’s blatantly exploitative business is essentially a legally-sanctioned version of organized crime (as her grift requires behind-closed-doors cooperation from doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies for a share in the profit). So, the movie pits her against a network of actual mobsters, testing the limits of her power-hungry cruelty in a rapidly escalating mob war that highlights the disturbing parallels between both sides. It’s all very silly, while also never losing sight of the real-life bitterness at its center.

I don’t know that this film has anything especially insightful to say about the forced-conservatorship scam in particular or even the evils of late-stage Capitalism at large. It’s more of a movie about the type of person who excels in those corrupt, unjust scenarios. No matter the minute-to-minute distractions of its broadly comedic plot, this is essentially a character study of All-American Capitalist Scum. In a system where the only two viable options are to exploit or be exploited, she’s playing the game exactly the way it’s designed to be played. The fucked-up thing is that it’s genuinely Fun to watch her win that game, even after getting an up-close look at the victims of her cruelty. Watching Pike model designer sunglasses, pull on giant cigar-sized vapes, and rapidly force a sugary-smile as if she were firing a gun is endlessly entertaining, and you can tell she’s gleefully enjoying the role. The movie’s both honest about the luxuries & pleasures of Capitalist power and the toll that level of Success takes on the most vulnerable members of your fellow citizenry. No matter how far it strays away from the real-life health industry exploitations of its first act into the cartoonish mobster war of its main plot, everything you need to know about how fucked up our modern healthcare & economic systems are can be seen in a quick flash of Pike’s sinisterly insincere smile.

I Care a Lot is an icy blast. Its plotting could be tighter, and even I have some serious issues with how it concludes, but neither of those nitpicks are enough to sour the acidic sugar rush that surrounds them. The film is just deeply, deeply mean and looks like pure candy, which is more than enough for me. I can’t promise those guilty pleasures will be enough to win everyone over, but I hope we can at least all get on the same page in praising Pike’s sociopathic ice queen performance. She should be allowed to run wild like this more often; cruelty suits her.

-Brandon Ledet

We Are Little Zombies (2020)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Dogtooth (2010)

As a latecomer to his oeuvre, getting to know Yorgos Lanthimos as an auteur over the past decade has been a disorienting experience. The first film of his I ever caught was The Lobster – a coldly emotionless, abruptly violent farce that bizarrely parodies the socially accepted norms of dating rituals. Each film since has been a bewildering journey, as if I was tasked to put together the jigsaw puzzle of what he’s attempting to accomplish in his films without having seen the reference picture on the box it arrived in. I finally clicked with Lanthimos on The Favourite, but that film felt like the director meeting latecomers more than halfway – staging his usual emotionless trauma-comedies in a context where we’re more used to stilted, carefully veiled viciousness: the costume drama. Pure Lanthimos oddities like The Killing of a Sacred Deer—while amusing—still escaped me as a something I could fully embrace as personal favorites. It turns out that the answer key to fully comprehending Lanthimos’s Whole Deal was hiding in plain sight in the most obvious place: his breakthrough calling-card picture, Dogtooth.

Dogtooth is often mistaken to be Lanthimos’s debut feature as a director, despite being his third completed film, because it was the first to land his name on the international stage. For a solid decade I’ve heard flummoxed mumblings of how traumatizingly fucked up & darkly funny the film is from friends – to the point where I was actively dreading the experience of watching it, as if it were some depraved shock value gross-out like Martyrs, The Human Centipede, or A Serbian Film. I envy the audiences who stumbled upon Dogtooth totally unprepared without this decade’s worth or word-of-mouth build-up. Even with the warning, the film is surprising from start to end – both because it didn’t live up to the pointless, abject cruelty I had envisioned in my head and because it’s so far removed from recognizable human behavior that it was impossible to predict from scene to scene. More importantly, seeing Dogtooth early would have been helpful as a guiding roadmap to Lanthimos’s disorienting oeuvre. It’s a concise distillation of what the filmmaker has been delivering in each feature since: viciously traumatic hangout comedies. I think I get it now.

Three teenage siblings are raised in a walled-off Greek home, isolated from the world outside. That’s not to say that they’re merely physically imprisoned in their familial compound. They’re also intellectually cut off from the outside world via a radical homeschooling experiment conducted by their irrationally protective parents, one that scrambles their understanding of basic social concepts: the definitions of random vocabulary words, the mysterious nature of airplane technology, the mechanics of sex & romance, the production of entertainment media, etc. This is a plot template we’ve since seen echoed in raised-in-captivity films like Room & Brigsby Bear, but never with the specific, comically cold detachment Lanthimos injects into the material (and all material he touches). Although overflowing with difficult-to-stomach taboos like incestual rape & grotesque body horror, Dogtooth somehow always makes room to chuckle at the understated absurdity of its premise. By constructing such a bizarrely artificial, aggressively arbitrary version of insular familial socializing, it manages to have an indicting laugh at the way all familial bonds are arbitrarily established & enforced. It’s also in no rush to hammer that point home, either. Lanthimos instead forces us to stew in the discomfort, morbidly lingering on the absurd mechanics of the preposterous youth-in-captivity torture he’s envisioned.

If I had caught Dogtooth when it first reached the US in 2010, I might have been able to appreciate it purely as an absurdist portrait of the horrors of homeschooling. In 2020, I can’t help but view it as a primordial version of the director’s ice-cold oddities to follow; it’s most interesting to me in direct conversation with his later work. In either instance, I don’t know that I ever would have had the chance to fully fall in love with it. Excepting The Favourite, I always find Lanthimos’s work to be admirably unique & chilling, but not exactly My Thing. Dogtooth was no different in that respect. It did open me up to a better understanding of the director’s catalog at large, though, a clarifying primer I should have sought out much sooner than I did.

-Brandon Ledet

Come to Daddy (2019)

Fresh out of a delightful mid-day screening of One Cut of the Dead at this year’s Overlook Film Festival, I took a leisurely stroll down a hellishly hot Decatur Street to catch the next film on the docket, only to find myself unintentionally trailing that film’s star. Looking positively adorable in some crisp denim overalls and a patterned button-up, Elijah Wood was playing tourist along the riverside tchotchke shops on his way to the Come to Daddy Q&A. He was travelling in my exact path to Sidney’s Liquor Store, where I was headed to pick up some cold beverages to enjoy in Jackson Square before the screening. I felt like a total creep on that walk, entirely too aware of this oblivious stranger strolling just a block ahead of me, someone who probably spends way too much of their life wondering who’s looking at them and why. Luckily, the tables were eventually turned on me, as the film Elijah Wood was in town to promote was far creepier & more disturbing than any awkward eye contact I might have conveyed on that walk down Decatur. Despite his adorable exterior & chipper demeanor, Wood has a deeply fucked-up sense of humor and appreciation of the macabre – which is a major factor in why he’s so lovable.

Elijah Wood stars in Come to Daddy as a cowardly hipster & a shameless liar who responds to a reconciliation letter from a deadbeat dad who abandoned his family decades ago. The horrifically mismatched pair, drunken brute father & effetely timid son, enjoy an intimate family reunion in an isolated home on the California coast. It does not go well. The decrepit bully of a father mocks every physical & verbal communication his big-city hipster offspring dares to offer, bringing their tension to a point where its only possible outcome is physical violence. Then, just as the tragically mismatched men are about to come to blows, the film shifts the intimate dynamic of what we’re watching into a much more sprawling, chaotic kind of mayhem. It would be criminal to spoil exactly how the film unfolds after that first act, but I can at least say that its twisted humor & unrelenting brutality only become more severe as it veers into flashes of torture porn, slapstick gore, deep sexual discomfort, and all other kinds of fucked up Freudian delights. As Elijah Wood’s cowardly protagonist sinks further in over his head in sinewy ultraviolence, the picture begins to play like a farcical mutation of a Jeremy Saulnier picture – not unlike Wood’s recent turn in I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, just creepier.

As amusingly weaselly as Elijah Wood is in the central role, the real star of the picture might be screenwriter Toby Harvard, who also penned The Greasy Strangler. Harvard brings the same aggressive, repetitive anti-humor and nightmarishly greasy Daddy Issues that fueled The Greasy Strangler to this more reality-bound picture. It’s not enough that the hipster’s drunkard father calls his son a “rat fucker.” He has to elaborate that his son “stuffs rats up his cunt” and that when he dies they’ll find “rat skeletons in his pelvic area, where his cunt used to be.” After the director of The Greasy Strangler floundered without Harvard in his own follow-up, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, I’m starting to think Harvard is the name Greaseheads should be keeping their eye on. Elijah Wood has been making a career out of funding & promoting grotesque art projects from folks like Harvard in recent years – producing titles like The Greasy Strangler, Mandy, The Boy, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. As playfully disturbing as his tastes continually prove themselves to be, he mostly just seems like a wholesome horror nerd who loves to make fucked-up moves with his friends. His presence in horror nerd spaces like Overlook Film Fest are entirely appropriate & expected; we just have to make sure to not ruin his good time by awkwardly trailing him down the street. We need him out there to raise funding for fucked-up, greasy oddities like Come to Daddy, so we better not scare him off.

-Brandon Ledet

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