A New Leaf (1971)

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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

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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

Wiener-Dog (2016)

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threehalfstar

I was more than a little weary about venturing out to see Todd Solondz’s latest pitch black provocation, the ensemble cast “comedy” Wiener-Dog, last weekend. I hadn’t seen a Solondz flick since 2001’s mostly-forgettable anthology piece Storytelling and I’m a lot less cynical than I was in my college days when I would have listed Happiness as one of my all-time favorite films. I was right to worry too, not because Wiener-Dog is necessarily bad or mediocre Solondz, but because it’s very much steeped in the niche he’s carved out for himself as a storyteller. The writer-director works the absurdist cruelty that made him something of an indie scene name in the 90s with titles like Happiness & Welcome to the Dollhouse into the everything-is-connected (and equally hopeless) anthology structure of Storytelling, constructing an amusingly odd & deeply painful existential crisis that is unmistakably his own style & tone. What’s most interesting here, though, is how much of Solondz’s own personality is displayed & dissected onscreen. The director not only stubbornly recommits to the bleak trajectory of his life’s work; he also steps back to question why he would make such pointless, nihilistic art in the first place. Solondz coldly asks the audience what is the point of anything at all, but is smart to include his own art & existence in that query. The answer is far from concrete, but it’s haunting in its abstraction.

In a basic, structural sense Wiener-Dog is a road trip tour through Todd Solondz’s America. Similar to the black comedy Baxter, the film follows its titular dog, a dachshund, as it changes ownership though various tragedies & betrayals, providing a window into the dreary homes & familial structures that typify a nation Solondz finds . . . distasteful. A young cancer survivor (whose visage playfully cribs from the Linklater landmark Boyhood) falls in love with the dog as his first pet; an old woman tenderly cares for it as her last. A vet tech takes the pup on a road trip; a lonely college professor contains it in his tiny office & apartment. Every owner the dachshund encounters is vulnerable & alone in a cruel world eager to punish them for any display of open-hearted earnestness. Together, they form an American patchwork that paints the country as “lonely”, “sad”, “depressing”, “like an elephant drowning in a sea of despair.” Solondz’s America is brimming with strip clubs, alcoholism, superhero movies, hipster irony, mental disability, misogynistic video games, heroin, diarrhea, and a beyond-broken economy. People lie, threaten, and manipulate each other in a never-ending cycle of cruelty and the folks who suffer the most damage from that time-honored American tradition are the ones most capable of empathy & selflessness. The one exception might be Solondz’s surrogate, a frustrated film school professor who can’t overcome his own bitterness, lest you think the director himself wasn’t also complicit in that cycle. It’s dark stuff.

So, where does the innocent wiener-dog fit in all of this? As Danny DeVito’s bitter film professor/Solondz surrogate puts it, “You need a schtick. Everyone loves a little schtick.” If in Solondz’s America the earnest & the eager are the most harshly & frequently punished, a dog is the best possible manifestation of that concept, since all the little pups of the world really want to do is please us & be loved. Watching the wiener-dog ride skateboard or wear a cute costume is a great way to grab an audience’s attention & force them to focus on something uncomfortable, a gimmick Solondz pulls off openly & deliberately. During an old-fashioned intermission our canine talisman is represented as a larger than life, fiercely American tall tale with her own theme song, a moment that reinforces the empty artificiality of filmmaking as an art. After this break, the dog’s ownership changes hands without explanation, moving away from the linear storytelling of the first half & becoming an explicit plot device (quite literally in one particular moment of workplace terrorism, yet another American pastime). Solondz gets bored of his own structural schtick & begins to point his cinematic weaponry back at himself, asking questions like, “Why do you want to be a filmmaker?” and addressing criticisms of his work like, “The general consensus is that you’re too negative.” By the last shot the dog doesn’t matter at all and is reduced to the most meaningless of abstract art piece reflections on the mundanity of existence & mortality. It wags its tail & barks, but that action signifies nothing.

It’s difficult to figure out how to sell Todd Solondz’s films, which tend to occupy an uncomfortable space between comedy & tragedy that’s more likely to make you squirm than laugh or cry (despite what their oddly generic trailers indicate). Wiener-Dog seems to be a self-examination piece on the cruel stage play absurdity & ultimate pointlessness of that art/schtick’s place in this world and, more specifically, its function within a spiritually drained, soulless America. Just as I questioned what significance a modern Solondz work could possibly hold in my life, the director himself seems equally eager to prod at that conundrum in the context of life at large. There are some great performances along the way (DeVito, playwright Tracy Letts, Julie Delpy, Ellen Burnstyn, Kieran Culkin, Greta Gerwig in an all-growed-up Welcome to the Dollhouse role), that might each have served as a worthwhile character study in an indie dramedy had Solondz followed through on any particular full-length narrative, but the director doesn’t seem to think telling these stories from front to end is worthwhile. Exhausted with the soulless journeymen efforts of “What if? Then what?” screenplay writing, he instead reflects on an artform & a nation that he feels have failed us all. You can see that despair plainly in a tender, delicate pan over an endless display of canine diarrhea.  Solondz displays the skills required to deliver a great film were he interested, but the exercise seems increasingly empty to him. Watching him mull over that emptiness and the great, hopeless expanse of the country & mortality that contain it is largely what makes Wiener-Dog fascinating, if not soul-crushingly depressing, which is par for the course in the context of Solondz’s catalog. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that kind of dispirited existential crisis & self-examination sounds at all palatable to your tastes for an evening’s entertainment.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Citizen Ruth (1996)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and Alli watch Citizen Ruth (1996).

Boomer: Citizen Ruth is twenty years old this year, but the topics that it tackles and the way that it approaches those ideas is both frank and depressing. Reproductive rights and agency over one’s body are, sadly and frustratingly, still topics that the public sphere considers to be up for debate, just as they were in 1996. The film tells the story of Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), an homeless drug addict and frequent tenant of the local jail, who has had four different children taken from her by the state because of her overall unfitness to care for herself, let alone a child. After she extorts some cash from her brother (who has custody of two of her four kids), she buys a can of patio sealant and huffs it in an alley, where she is discovered in a daze by local police. At her hearing, she learns that she is pregnant for the fourth time; the state has chosen to pursue felony indictment of Ruth for her endangerment of the fetus. A kind judge suggests to Ruth that an “accident” could reduce this charge to a misdemeanor, but she is convinced otherwise when a group of anti-abortion crusaders led by Gail Stoney (Mary Kay Place) spends the night in the same cell. The Stoney family, including patriarch Norm (Kurtwood Smith) and teenaged daughter Cheryl (Alicia Witt) take Ruth into their home. Ruth takes the first opportunity that she can to get high, ending in an altercation that leads Pro-Lifer Diane (Swoosie Kurtz) to offer her home to Ruth as well, but she turns out to be a mole for the Pro-Choice movement, along with her domestic partner Rachel (Kelly Preston). Soon, both sides of the debate are raging against the other over the future of Ruth’s unborn child, represented by Pro-Life champion Blaine Gibbons (Burt Reynolds) and Pro-Choice queen Jessica Weiss (Tippi Hedren).

Director Alexander Payne has said that this film is less about reproductive rights vis-à-vis abortion than it is about fanaticism, and that this particular fight was chosen simply because it was the most openly divisive political fight of the time. Although I certainly understand that point, it’s impossible to divorce the concept of fanaticism from the topic of the debate at hand, and the lens through which each side is viewed is telling in the way that men are the central point in many ways, despite this ostensibly being a women’s issue (as it is in the real world). There’s a great moment close to the end of the film that shows that the Pro-Lifers have tracked down and recruited Ruth’s own mother in an attempt to sway Ruth to their side, complete with a bullhorn-enhanced argument between the two women that reveals Ruth provided sexual favors to (at least) one of her mother’s suitors while underage, speaking volumes about the home situation from which Ruth and women like her are birthed, ultimately pointing the finger back at men and their attitudes about sex, entitlement, and gendered power politics. Male needs are prioritized over women, from Norm growing increasingly exasperated by Ruth’s long bath time, delaying his dinner, to his wife’s fawning over their son while all but ignoring their daughter. Even among the doe-eyed moon-worshipping loons who populate the Pro-Choice side of the debate, the arguments women present to Ruth fail to sway her like the offer of money… that comes from a man.

There’s also some discussion of class as well, albeit more subtly. Just look at the overall dreary aesthetic of the world Ruth lives in, from the flophouse where she has sex with her ex (in the opening of the film, creating a rhetorical space in which Ruth is taken advantage of, to be bookended at the end by the argument with her mother) to the dilapidated house where her brother lives. As the war for Baby Tanya first begins, Ruth is raised from homelessness into the modest (in that the-frillier-the-doilies-the-closer-to-God/”we homeschool our children because of evolution” way) home of the Stoneys and then into the gorgeous farmhouse that Diane and Rachel share. Neither of these factions understands Ruth’s life and world outside of their shallow conceptions of how she must live, and as a result fail to appreciate the gravity of her situation in any way except how she can be used to benefit their respective causes.

What did you think, Britnee? I felt a lot of sympathy for Ruth even though she was, frankly, a horrible person. Did you feel the same way? And do you think that was because of Dern’s nuance or the representation of the world Ruth lived in?

Britnee: As my grandmother would say, “Pauvre Ruth!” I felt sorry for her since the film’s opening scene, where she’s having emotionless sex with her horrible boyfriend before he throws a television at her. Just when I think this girl’s life can’t get any worse, she turns out to be a homeless addict who has a terrible, insensitive family. And to top it all off, she has 3 children she’s lost custody to. Can this girl catch a break? Ruth comes off as a really awful person, but there’s much to be taken into consideration before making any harsh judgement about her. Let’s start with the relationship she has with the only two family members of Ruth’s we’re introduced to: her brother and her mother. In the beginning of the film, she goes to her brother, who is raising two of her children, for help after being kicked out of her boyfriend’s garbage apartment. Her brother is annoyed and angry to find that his sister showed up at his home asking for shelter, so he sends her off with $15. Then, we’re introduced to her mother at the Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice battle at the end of the film. As Boomer previously stated, we get a pretty clear picture of Ruth’s upbringing after she is accused of performing sexual activities with her mother’s boyfriends. It’s no wonder she turned to drugs and alcohol to escape from her unfortunate reality. She didn’t choose her lifestyle; it was forced upon her.

Ruth is essentially treated as an object and not a human being throughout this entire film. When she finds out she’s pregnant while in prison, the judge handling her case suggests she have an abortion to avoid being imprisoned. Then when she’s “rescued” by a group of Pro-Lifers, they do everything they can to make sure she goes through with her pregnancy. She’s then “rescued” from the pro-lifers by the Pro-Choicers, and they do everything to persuade her to have an abortion. The pro-lifers and the Pro-Choicers go as far as to persuade her with money to either keep or get rid of her child. Both groups use her to support their cause, and it was so hard to watch this happen. How is Ruth supposed to better herself when everyone around her is trying to use and control her? Ruth lives in a world that has failed her, and I think that’s why I feel so much sympathy for her.

Brandon, how did you feel about Ruth’s choice in the end of the film, when she jacks the money from the Pro-Choice group and escapes the rally? Was this a sign that she was in control of herself or was this just Ruth being a bad person?

Brandon: As with all joys in this film, that final triumph feels like a mixed bag at best. I experienced a certain pride in that moment, watching Ruth take control of her own life for the first time in the entire film (except for, arguably, the occasions when she huffs spray paint & household chemicals for a cheap high). There’s a general sense that she’s sticking it to the man, getting what’s hers, finally having her day, etc. It’s a very bittersweet victory, though. Ruth is making off like a bandit, but her loot is a measly $15,000. It’s certainly more than the nothing Ruth starts the film with, but she believes it’s an astronomical amount, when it’s not likely to keep her afloat for a full year. It’s especially not enough to invest in real estate, as the self-help cassette she steals inspires her to (if she can ever get her grubby claws on Side 3). Also, consider for a second who exactly she’s stealing the money from in that moment. She’s not ripping off the horrifically self-righteous Pro-Lifers or their equally slimy hippie-dippie counterparts. She’s stealing from the biker, who, in my mind, was the only character in the entire film who ever offered Ruth freedom of choice in the first place (his $15,000 bribe was only meant to diffuse the financial pressure raised by the opposing, Pro-Life side of the argument so that money was not a factor in her choice).

Ruth isn’t really making any grand political statements or personal strides toward autonomy & self-actualization in her midday marauding. She begins & ends the film an addict with a one track mind. There’s a glorious catharsis in her final stride when she openly gets away with her heist of the century because everyone’s so wrapped up in a hot button political issue that they forget to take notice of the human being at the center of it. However, it’s also a bit of a last second gut punch as you realize Ruth’s most likely returning to the world where we found her at the beginning of the film. I’m not sure how much spray paint & patio sealant you can huff for $15,000, but I’m willing to bet it will land her in a coffin.

That balance between emotional devastation and (pitch black) comedy is a major part of what struck me about Citizen Ruth (besides Laura Dern’s career-consistent brilliance, obviously). Ruth’s not a “bad” person, necessarily. She’s just been turned into something of a feral animal by her addiction, making her play onscreen like a hyper-realistic version of Jerri Blank (who is a bad person, I should add) in her more amusing moments. Since I first saw Election writer/director Alexander Payne has always struck me as an outright sadist in his humor, but this movie goes for a very uncomfortable mix of tragedy & comedy that’s extreme even for him. He’s working on some fucked up Todd Solondz vibes here. Watching the first ten minutes or so of Citizen Ruth it’s near impossible to imagine that something so bleak would gradually be reshaped into a comedic mold, but the film pulls off that balance beautifully (and quite cruelly). You can feel it in Ruth’s “triumphant” stroll at the climax. You can feel it when she punches a child in the gut for snitching on her drug abuse. You can even feel it in her drug of choice, which is somehow more pathetic than alcoholism or needle drugs. Payne is a sick bastard for making us smile through the pain here, but he also never makes the protagonist’s horrific circumstances feel unrealistic. There’s genuine pain on display in this film  even when it’s softened with nervous laughter. Nothing ever feels easy or trivialized, which is impressive to say the least.

What do you think of Citizen Ruth‘s tonal clash between character-based humor & emotional terror, Alli? Did you expect that genre play even before the film took you there or did it catch you off-guard?

Alli: I think from the first scene of her having emotionless and unsatisfying sex while the song “When Somebody Loves you” is the soundtrack, I kind of expected there to be a clash of deep sadness and dark ironic humor. I found the scenes like this one, and also the one where she’s crying into a drain, praying to God, to be sort of the real life kind of funny. You know, the kind of funny where you’re having the worst day but if you don’t laugh what can you do? Not necessarily satisfying but still something to laugh at. I don’t think I expected the genuinely funny, satisfying moments at first, and what I really didn’t expect is how sort of bizarrely surreal the humor was going to get. I think some of those surreal moments even kind of treaded into John Waters territory, or at least for me.

For instance, one of my favorite scenes in the movie is after she’s just been “rescued” by this Pro-Choice couple the Pro-Life crowd comes to demand Ruth back. And they go out to look at the moon, and they start singing to the “moon mother” in unison, and have that three way hug with Laura Dern’s head comically smashed in the middle. It just feels like the exact kind of irreverent over the top situation that John Waters would construct.  Just the idea of a part rescue part kidnap by a fanatical group brings to mind Cecil B Demented, which was released in 2000, four years later, so maybe it was an influence on that. There’s also the clash between the perfect suburban family and the reject weirdo class, which is a huge theme in a lot of John Waters’ films. You have the naive Gail saying things like, “We’re all sinners but that doesn’t mean you can go around smelling drugs!” contrasted with one of my favorite Ruth lines in the movie, “Suck the shit out of my ass, you fucker!” I would have a hard time believing that he didn’t write this movie if it weren’t for the dark, emotional terror.

There’s also this very Eraserhead moment, where Ruth is just a fish out of water at their dinner table, and there’s these tiny chickens that they’re all eating. And the only thing I could think was, “You just cut them up like regular chickens.” The fact that Laura Dern was in two David Lynch movies before this makes me feel like that was no accident.

What do you think, Boomer? Does this movies humor stand on its own? Or do you think it wears it’s influences a little too on its sleeves?

Boomer:It’s important to bear in mind that this was Alexander Payne’s first film. As a writer (like all of us here), we all start out on our journeys as scribes by paying deference to the creators who inspired us, merging our own voices with those of the giants on whose shoulders we stand. For me personally, I think that Citizen Ruth stands out as truly original in its voice in spite of any inspiration Payne may have taken from other sources, with a clear through line that makes the poetic statement that we are all products of the lives that we are brought into without permission.

On a bit of an existential note, none of us have any agency in our creation. We’re all born without a choice, which is reflected in the way that baby Tanya is no more than a MacGuffin onto which various parties project their personal moral concepts and failings. Ruth, likewise, was born into a world in which she was treated as a sexual object long before she had the emotional capacity to make decisions about consent. Everything about her life that followed was the result of her mother’s unnamed boyfriend using her, just as both factions of the abortion debate use her. Even when she is presented with the illusion of agency when she is taken to a clinic where she demands an abortion and is instead forced to watch propaganda, she’s trapped in a world that doesn’t care about her needs or desires as anything other than a means to a political end wrapped in a fiction about morality. On the face of it, this is a narrative about women and the agency they deserve in regards to their bodies, but on a higher level it’s about how all of our lives are circumscribed by an indifferent society and the personal agendas of people we should be able to trust.

I often find myself thinking about Tanya. What would her life have been like? Even with $15K, it’s not as if Ruth is all that likely to escape the cycle in which society and her own vices have trapped her; would Tanya have escaped that cycle, or would she, too, have been caught in it? Although I would never want to see Citizen Tanya (and Ruth’s miscarriage means that this sequel could never happen), I am curious about who she would have become, whether her life would have been better than her mother’s or not. Would she know about her prenatal past as a talking point for myopic worshipers of God and the moon? What hypothetical future do you see for Tanya, Britnee?

Britnee: It’s interesting how I didn’t really think much about Tanya even though she was so prominent in the film. If Tanya was born and raised by Ruth, her upbringing would have been terrible. Ruth would’ve bought a warehouse packed with patio sealant with that $15K, so that money would not go towards Tanya in any way. Ruth’s brother would definitely not take in another one of Ruth’s children, so Tanya would most likely end up in foster care. Now, foster homes could be the best thing to happen to a child in Tanya’s situation. There are loving families out there that want nothing more than to give children the best life possible, but there are some foster homes that are nothing short of a horror story. There is a chance that Tanya could grow up to be a completed success, even an advocate for children growing up in situations similar to her own. There’s also a chance that she would grow up to huff just as much patio sealant as Ruth and be just as self-destructive. I’ve been trying to think a little more positive lately, so I’m going to say that Tanya would grow up to be a phenomenal social worker that would eventually write a book about her fame as Baby Tanya (with a Danielle Steel-style photograph on the back cover). The book, which would be titled Whatever Happened to Baby Tanya?, would become one of those fantastically terrible made-for-TV Lifetime films. Of course, this is all just wishful thinking.

Something that I’ve been wanting to mention is the choice of casting Laura Dern as Ruth. Dern was in her late twenties when she portrayed the role of Ruth, and I find it interesting that they didn’t choose someone in their early twenties or late teens. Also, at the point of the release of Citizen Ruth, Dern was best known as Dr. Sattler from Jurrasic Park, and it must’ve been so strange for viewers to see Dern in such a different role. The whole thing just didn’t feel right.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Dern as Ruth? Would another actress have fit into this role a little better? If so, who would it be?

Brandon: I think I spilled the beans a little prematurely on who I’d love to see in the role of Ruth, were it to be recast. Although logic would tell you to go younger & more reserved, I’d love to see the film go hard in the exact opposite direction and cast Amy Sedaris in the lead role, preferably decked out in her Jerri Blank gear. Citizen Ruth predates Strangers With Candy by just a few years and, to me, boasts an unlikely kinship with the cult comedy series in the ways it finds pitch black humor in the base, animalistic behavior of its hopeless addict antiheroes. If there’s enough room in this world for a second Strangers With Candy movie (and I pray we can all agree there is), one that follows Citizen Ruth‘s exact storyline would be a perfect backdrop for Jerri Blank’s particular brand of finding humor in selfish, subhuman cruelty. There would be plenty of room for Sedaris to go over the top with the role without having to alter a single beat of the story’s current state.

That being said, I wouldn’t change one note of the performance Dern delivers here. Whether she’s a blind horse enthusiast or elbow deep in triceratops droppings, I’ve always found Laura Dern to be a magnetic presence onscreen. Citizen Ruth offers a rare treat in its casting of Dern in a lead role, one she tackles fearlessly as a lovably self-absorbed, violently naïve monster. A lot of actresses at that point in their career would’ve injected too much vanity or empathy into this kind of role, but Dern is content to leave her be as an doomed, ugly soul. I would love to see the Amy Sedaris take on the part, but that mental exercise is transforming the movie into something it’s not, pushing it further into the John Waters territory Alli mentioned earlier. I found Dern’s screen presence to be perfectly suited for the task at hand, as subtly uncomfortable & amusing as that task was.

What’s your biggest takeaway from Dern’s performance as Ruth, Alli? How does this role fit into her career at large?

Alli: I personally really enjoyed Laura Dern in this role, and I actually got really excited when I found out she was the lead in the movie before I even started watching it. I don’t know why, even though I’ve only seen a handful of the movies she’s been in, but I’m sold on something if she’s involved. I knew her as a kid from Jurassic Park and that role is definitely iconic. But recently I just watched Wild At Heart and loved her in that. I really like the way she handles these complex characters in difficult situations. In Wild at Heart, she still plays sort of the naïve youngster, but in a much more positive way than in Citizen Ruth. Both characters make their fair share of bad decisions though. She plays the lovable scamp really well. She manages to bring this almost nervous yet comical in it’s own right energy to these roles. Her acting is pretty charming at the loss of a better description.

I guess given the movies I’ve seen her in I think of her in kind of the Chloë Sevigny category, “the actresses who rock these small, strange movies but can just as easily slide into bigger roles.” She also seems to take sort of daring roles, be it the smart scientist of Jurassic Park (“Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.”) or a drug addict Ruth seeking an abortion.

Also, superficially, she has one of my favorite interesting faces, so I like that about her as well.

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Britnee: I didn’t mention this during the conversation, but I thought it was so creepy how Gail Stoney was totally planning on stealing Baby Tanya. There were a few hints in the film that led me to believe that her son’s real mother was a woman in a position similar to Ruth. What a creep!

Brandon: My favorite tonal shift in this film is when it first reshapes itself from a heartbreaking drama into a subtly comedic character study. After Ruth hits rock bottom (literally) and is rescued from her cold jail cell floor, she’s whisked away to the tackiest version of suburbia you’re likely to see outside a Tim Burton film. There’s so many subtly humorous/nightmarish details to focus on in this sequence — the goth teen temper tantrums, the Kafkaesque trip to the anti-abortion clinic, the rabid feminists trying to break their way into the house through the dining room windows, etc. What really cracked me up/kept me up at night, though, were the depictions of suburban food. What words could you even use to describe those images? Horrific blandness? Nightmarish crimes against good taste? Culinary abortions? The film’s intense focus on the horrors of suburban cuisine were both a great snapshot of the aggressively mild nature of the Pro-Lifers who prepared it & the delicately monstrous humor Alex Payne constructs in his debut feature as a whole. There’s a lot of powerful imagery in these kinds of details that you wouldn’t normally experience in a comedy, no matter how dark or political.

Boomer: I’ll second Brandon’s note that the suburban nightmare was a favorite element of mine, although the thing that stood out to me more than the food was the loud airplane flyover that occurs when the family is having their meal outdoors. It perfectly encapsulates a paradoxical sense of both “nowhereness” and “everywhereness” that permeates the film’s mood. It expresses the lack of urbanity, or more accurately the utter suburbanity, of the Stoney lifestyle, and is perhaps the most artful sound choice in the film.

Alli: I didn’t mention this before, because I thought it would have been weird and off topic, but I really feel like this is a movie just asking to be adapted to a musical. I know it would push it more into the goofball comedy spectrum, but I’d really like for there to be a musical number with the staff of a pregnancy crisis center feeding the audience increasingly outrageous fake information. I’d pay money to watch that and a bunch of stereotypically dressed third wave feminists serenading the moon goddess.

Upcoming Movies of the Month:
August:
Alli presents Black Moon (1975)
September: Brandon presents The Box (2009)
October: Britnee presents The Funhouse (1981)

-The Swampflix Crew

The Lobster (2016)

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threehalfstar

Fail to fall in love with The Lobster within the first 45 minutes & you’ll be transformed into the miffed geezer complaining that he had just seen “the stupidest movie of [his] life” while standing next to me at the world’s most telling critical forum: the post-screening urinal. Personally, I enjoyed the film, but it took a lot of willingness to give into its off-putting deadpan style to get there. Here’s a list of things you have to be okay with seeing depicted to enjoy The Lobster: high-concept absurdism, twee preciousness, animal cruelty, romanceless intercourse, abrupt & ambiguous conclusions, heartless violence, purposefully awkward & stilted acting, a muddled mix of sci-fi & fantasy, the world’s strangest rape joke, and Colin Farrell. You still with me? A lot of the elderly folk I shared a theater with last Saturday morning weren’t, making this one of the most disharmonious screening I’ve been to since listening to the genre-minded horror hungry grumble at The Witch. Just like the film’s central premise promises/threatens, there’s a lot of pressure to fall in love with The Lobster against the near-insurmountable odds or else your personal experience could turn quite ugly, even beastly.

As is true with a lot of high-concept sci-fi & fantasy, I mostly enjoyed The Lobster as an exercise in world-building. In the film’s dystopian reality, being romantically unattached is punishable by law. Only couples are allowed to live in The City. Single people are forcibly enrolled in a program at a resort hotel that attempts to pair them off in life-long romantic bonds. Failure to fall in love within 45 days results in being turned into an animal of their choice through surgical procedure. More time can be added to their stay at the resort by hunting down defecting loners who chose to live in isolation in the wilderness. Seemingly, no one is truly happy. There’s a fierce, biting allegory to this premise that combines the most effective aspects of sci-fi short stories & absurdist stage play black humor to skewer the surreal, predatory nature of the modern romance landscape. It takes a certain sensibility to give into The Lobster‘s many outlandish conceits, but it’s easy to see how the film could top many best of the year lists for those able to lock onto its very peculiar, particular mode of operation, despite the sour word of mouth at the post-screening urinal. It’s basically 2016’s Anomalisa, with all the positives & negatives that comparison implies.

Just like Anomalisa, The Lobster is difficult to connect with on a personal, emotive level due to the distancing nature of its befuddled protagonist & its high-concept conceit. (Both films also boast the two of the awkwardest sex scenes I’ve endured in years, but that’s another matter.) I would say that the central problem with high-concept allegory is that it cuts into the audience’s ability to empathize with a film’s romance & humanity, but that’s not always true. Just look to Spike Jonze’s Her for a work that has its cake & eats it too in that regard. The Lobster is purposefully distancing & impersonal. It intentionally takes the audience out of the story at every given opportunity to gawk & scoff at the absurdity of modern romance. I know that I personally would’ve been more enthusiastic about the film’s rewards if it injected a little more heart into its satirical black comedy reflections on the predatory nature of romantic coupling, which didn’t even match the somber not of Anomalisa in terms of genuine emotion. Not everyone will feel that way, though, and a great deal of folks will perfectly enjoy The Lobster on an intellectual level without needing to engage with it on an emotional one.

Sci-fi romance horror has become a pet favorite subgenre of mine lately, best reflected in titles like Possession, Spring, and The One I Love. The Lobster does the genre one better & injects an unhealthy dose of black humor into the formula. A lot of my favorite moments in the film are when it pushes the surreality of its central premise into the familiar territory of a solid comedic gag: masturbation punished with a bread toaster, a Zero Theorem-esque headphones dance party in the woods, the idea that certain species are endangered because most people choose to become dogs, an over-the-top fairy tale narration that pokes fun at the absurdity of needless voice-over, etc. I also respect the film greatly for not shying away from the consequences of its cold, bloody violence, despite what you might expect from its tightly controlled Wes Anderson/Michel Gondry-type meticulousness & whimsy. The Lobster sets the tone early with an opening gun shot, a vindictive act of violence that chills the room before its absurdist humor has a chance to warm it up.

Still, I can see what the wheezing geezer at the urinal was getting at when he complained that the film, particularly the ending, was a letdown. The Lobster is not a romance for the ages titled The Lobsters or a yuck-em-up comedy titled My Brother the Dog, though it could’ve easily gone in either direction. It’s an uncompromising, absurd trudge through ennui & romantic dread, one that makes very little effort to bring the audience along for the deeply somber ride. It takes a leap of faith to enjoy the film. I enjoyed it a great deal myself, but I’ll admit that I was also a little miffed at the way it wore the “Not for Everyone” tag like a badge of honor every chance it got. I get where you’re coming from, angry urinal critic. I understand.

-Brandon Ledet

The Skeleton Twins (2014)

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fourstar

In the WWE there’s a little used, very illegal tactic of winning matches known as “twin magic“. This particular form of cheating occurs when wrestlers Brie & Nikki Bella swap places mid-match beyond the ref’s comically limited vision and use their identical twin likeness to win in a dire situation. It’s typical heel behavior, but also very specific to their sisterly gimmick (and also amusing because they barely look similar to one another at this point in time). I mention all this because the idea of “twin magic” exists far beyond the wrestling ring & the concept of confusing twin identities. “Twin magic” can also refer to, in my mind at least, the inexplicable mental link twins seem to have on an almost telepathic level. Twins can sometimes relate to each other in a supernaturally close, metaphysical kind of way that strains our understanding of the basic ways two human minds can communicate with one another. Their connection is, in a word, “magic”.

The recent indie drama The Skeleton Twins opens with an example of “twin magic”much more bleak than any you’re likely to see between pro wrestling’s The Bella Twins. The film opens with estranged twins (played by SNL vets Bill Hader &  Kristen Wiig) both preparing to commit suicide in bathtubs on opposite ends of the country. Spooky. Hader’s attempt is the more “successful” of the two & the shock of the news of her brother’s anguished state brings Wiig to stage a reconciliation after a decade apart. This is about as dark of a place as a movie can start off and, indeed, The Skeleton Twins is sadistically committed to piling on even more tragedy from there. A fuzzy childhood memory of a parent’s death, a past controversy involving a teacher’s sexual exploits with an underage student, and a current struggle with substance & sexual addiction all weigh heavily on the film’s grim proceedings. Another bit of “magic” at work here, however, is how the film’s talented cast & understated writing keep this tragedy from feeling soul-crushingly dour. It’s a sad film, for sure, but it also can be soulfully uplifting & deliriously funny in spurts.

Hader & Wiig have incredible chemistry from their SNL days that sells the The Skeleton Twins‘s central sibling bond much more comfortably & believably than would even be necessary for the movie to work. Wiig has delivered so many of these depressive, self-hating performances in past projects like Welcome to Me & The Diary of a Teenage Girl that at this point her dramatic chops are even more finely tuned than her comedic ones. Hader is more of the newcomer in the soul-crushing cinema game & it’s genuinely fascinating to watch him embody what his character calls “another tragic gay cliche” in a way that feels realistic enough to be genuine. Hader’s twin is more of a tightrope in terms of characterization, since his effete homosexual mannerisms could easily devolve into caricature, but the actor pulls it off in a wholly convincing, endearing way (despite his theater kid theatricality & gothy acerbic sarcasm). Oddly enough, it’s Luke Wilson who steals the show on the comedic front, playing a naive “Labrador retriever” of a dopey husband. Wilson is so on point in this role that he can make the simple act of eating a frozen waffle & talking about his shoes a total knee-slapper of a character beat. Hader & Wiig are more in charge of the film’s lowkey line of pitch black dramedy and it’s their intimate exchanges of sour worldviews & mental anguish that make the film sing in its own quiet, understated way.

I was just complaining that the recent indie drama Adult Beginners failed to coalesce its interesting ideas & talented cast into a cohesive product above anything beyond basic mediocrity. The Skeleton Twins is a perfect example of how the same approach of small stakes understatement & depressive humor can work when it’s handled a little more confidently. The film’s Halloween costume motif is a great example of how a metaphor can be developed with very simple gestures (in this case linking current familial tragedies to ones buried in the past) instead of the way Adult Beginners briefly addresses its central swimming lessons metaphor without any clear intent for its meaning. Both films are, perhaps, exercises in small ambition indie drama, but The Skeleton Twins makes the formula work in an engaging, even devastating way. I don’t know if it’s a case of better writing or the “twin magic” performances of Hader & Wiig that make the difference, but The Skeleton Twins is a shining (and depressing) example of the lowkey indie dramedy done exactly right.

-Brandon Ledet

Super (2010)

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threehalfstar

When recently revisiting James Gunn’s MCU directorial debut for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. feature, I was surprised to find that the film had greatly improved with time & distance. A lot of problems I had with Guardians of the Galaxy felt entirely inconsequential the second time around. Unfortunately, I couldn’t repeat this trick with Gunn’s other superhero movie, 2010’s dark comedy Super. I enjoyed Super well enough the first time I saw it a few years ago, but found it deeply flawed in select moments that often poisoned the film’s brighter spots with a certain kind of tonal cruelty. More specifically, I thought Super‘s lighthearted approach to sexually assault in not one, but three separate gags was a huge Achilles heel in an otherwise enjoyable film. If anything, recently giving Super a second, closer look made this fault even more glaring than it was the first go-round.

In the film a short-order grill cook & lifelong target of bullying (Rainn Wilson) is emotionally wrecked when his exotic dancer wife (Liv Tyler) relapses on her sobriety & leaves him for a ruthless drug-dealing schmuck (Kevin Bacon). In this moment of crisis our pathetic hero finds solace & inspiration in a Christian television show about a pious superhero named The Holy Avenger. Things get out of hand when his religious delusions become full-blown divine visions where the finger of God touches his brain (literally) and convinces him to take justice into his own hands by becoming a real-life superhero. As his newly-minted superego The Crimson Bolt, our hero is no longer on the receiving end of bullying. He’s no longer the kind of pushover who’d make his wife’s new lover fried eggs for breakfast out of timid kindness. He’s now empowered by a homemade costume, an overeager sidekick (Ellen Page), and some nifty catchphrases (“Shut up, crime!”) to fight evil deeds by mercilessly beating people within an inch of their lives with household tools for minor offenses. In his mind The Crimson Bolt is all that’s standing between justice & chaos. From the outside looking in, he’s a man suffering from crippling depression & self hate and is more of a dangerous liability than he is a divine vigilante.

My favorite aspect of Super is the ambiguity of its tone. Is it a pitch black comedy or simply pitch black? When The Crimson Bolt weeps in a mirror & thinks to himself “People look stupid when they cry,” does the humor of that observation outweigh the severity of its emotional turmoil or should you join in on the tears? It’s difficult to tell either way, but part of what makes James Gunn pictures so engaging is in the fearless way they’re willing to explore this compromised tone by going hard on darker impulses that complicate their humor. Sometimes I’m more than willing to laugh at these clashes in tone, like when The Crimson Bolt has a moral dilemma about murdering people for non-violent offenses (like cutting in line or keying cars) that he summarizes as “How am I supposed to tell evil to shut up if I have to shut up?” Other times I’m left much more uncomfortable, especially in the multiple instances of rape “humor” that make light of prison rape, female-on-male rape, and drug-assisted sexual assault. In these moments Gunn’s tonal ambiguity plays much more like a detriment than an asset & any humor meant to be mined from the violence falls flat & unnerving.

It’s possible that the exact discomfort I’m describing is what Gunn was aiming to achieve in Super. The director makes a cameo in the film (in the context of the Holy Avenger television show) as the Devil & it’s possible that’s exactly how he sees himself. He promises to deliver certain genre goods in his films (Kick Ass-style dark comedy in this case), but merely uses them as a vehicle to deliver something much more misanthropic & grotesque. It’s a classic Devil’s bargain. I enjoy so much of what Super grimly delivers & maybe Gunn’s turning that sinful delight against me with this distasteful line of rape humor. Who’s to say? All I can really do is note the discomfort & wish for better.

-Brandon Ledet

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

 

fivestar

Paying too close of attention to reviews & hype surrounding a film can sometimes lead you to miss out. Besides its release date coinciding a little too closely to Mardi Gras, I had put catching up with the latest Coen Brothers comedy, Hail, Caesar!, on the backburner due to the film’s somewhat tepid response at the box office. Hail, Caesar! is flopping hard right now, failing to find a significantly sized audience despite the prominence of Big Name movie stars in its advertising & the Coens’ loyal (though not gigantic) fanbase. Many major publication critics are also seemingly lukewarm on the film, often citing it an overstuffed mixed bag. That lack of enthusiasm & no basic knowledge of the film’s plot lead me to the theater with essentially no expectations, but Hail, Caesar! floored me anyway. Honestly, if I don’t see a better movie in the cinema all year I’ll still be perfectly happy. It was that much of a delight. I should have gotten to the theater a hell of a lot sooner.

Hail, Caesar! is firmly in the highly respectable medium of art about the nature of art. More specifically, it’s a movie about the movies. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens have looked back to the Old Hollywood studio system as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. Packed with theological & political debate/diatribes and a sprawling cast of both Big Name movie stars & That Guy character actors, the film sounds like a lot more effort than it actually is. The plot is, in essence, the day in the life of a “fixer” for a major Hollywood film studio in the 1950s. Imagine if Pulp Fiction was centered on Harvey Keitel’s “The Wolf” character instead of the organized crime ring he was keeping steady & his work was in major film production instead of the murder & drug trade (on top of being oddly sweet instead of quietly terrifying). Josh Brolin’s protagonist, Eddie Mannix, provides such an anchor for Hail, Caesar! as a whirlwind of film production snafus swirl around him. Rampant addiction, a kidnapped star, unwanted pregnancy, secret Communist societies, gossip column vultures, and all kinds of trouble on the studio lot’s various sets turn Mannix’s typical workday into a laughable, Kafkaesque nightmare. It’s a testament to the Coens’ screenwriting talents that the film feels so smooth & effortless while Mannix’s webs become increasingly tangled and the general tone is a mix of subtle humor & broad farce instead of plot fatigue.

A lot of movies are effortlessly funny, though. What’s special about Hail, Caesar! is the way it perfectly captures Old Hollywood’s ghost. It reminded me a lot of the feeling of seeing Georges Méliès’s work recreated so vividly in the theater during Scorcese’s Hugo, except that Hail, Caesar! covered a much wider range of genres & filmmakers from a completely different era. Every classic Old Hollywood genre I can think of makes an appearance here: noir, Westerns, musicals, synchronized swimming pictures, Roman & religious epics, tuxedo’d leading man dramas, etc. Audiences sometimes forget that these types of films weren’t always physically degraded so it’s somewhat shocking to see the beautiful costuming & set design achievements of the era recreated & blown up large in such striking clarity at a modern movie theater. Besides the breathtaking visual achievements, it’s impressive how many other aspects of Old Hollywood cinema the film manages to include, both in its “real” setting & in its fake film shoots: close attention to lighting, a briefcase MacGuffin, sets that look like backdrop paintings, the threat that television will destroy the movie business, reclusive editors who act like chain-smoking psychos, talent that’s owned by the studio in what essentially amounts to indentured servitude, a sea of white faces in a world where everyone else has been locked out, etc. Even the smallest turns of phrase like “motion picture teleplay” & character names like George Clooney’s leading man actor Baird Whitlock feel perfectly in tune with the vibe of the era whether or not they’re poking fun at its inherent quaintness.

Speaking of Clooney’s wonderful turn as Baird Whitlock, Hail, Caesar! is at heart an ensemble cast comedy. It’s difficult to pinpoint any exact MVPs among the film’s long list of cameos & supporting players (Brolin undeniably takes the honor overall). Channing Tatum continues his nonstop winning streak here, dressing like a sailor & leading one of the most wholesomely filthy song & dance numbers you’re ever likely to see. Scarlett Johansson looks peacefully at home as a classic Hollywood starlet in a mermaid costume & hilariously disrupts the illusion with a brassy performance that allows her to refer to her flipper as a “fish ass.” Following up his delicately winning performance in Grand Budapest Hotel, Ralph Fiennes continues to prove himself as a stealthily comic force to be reckoned with. Relative unknown Alden Ehrenreich threatens to steal the show with an “Aw, shucks” cowboy routine & the similarly obscure Emily Beecham is a near dead-ringer for The Red Shoes/Peeping Tom star Moira Shearer (and I mean that as the highest praise). And all that’s just scratching the surface of how attractive everyone looks in this film, how effective the smallest of roles come across, and the sheer number of recognizable faces on display here.

So what’s keeping a smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous film like Hail, Caesar! from pulling in ticket sales? Who’s to say? I was a good three or four decades younger than most members of the audience where I watched the film (although it should be noted that most young folks were probably watching Deadpool that weekend), so maybe it’s missing an appeal to key money-making demographics? Maybe the advertising didn’t sell the more gorgeous end of its visuals hard enough, so a lot of folks are calmly waiting for it to reach VOD? I have no answers, really. I will, however, defend the film against the accusation that it’s overstuffed or unfocused. Hail, Caesar! chronicles a day in the life of a world-weary man who operates in an overstuffed, unfocused industry, so the various plotlines could be perceived as overwhelming as you try to make sense of them in retrospect, but on the screen they play with the confident poise of an expert juggler.

Like I said, Hail, Caesar! is not performing well financially & the reviews are mixed so it’s obvious that not everyone’s going to be into it. However, it’s loaded with beautiful tributes to every Old Hollywood genre I can think of and it’s pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly. If you need a litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy the film yourself, Barton Fink might be a good place to start. If you hold Barton Fink in high regard, I encourage you to give Hail, Caesar! a chance. You might even end up falling in love with it just as much as I did & it’ll be well worth the effort to see its beautiful visual work projected on the silver screen either way.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary and Max (2009)

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fivestar

The 2009 stop motion animation indie drama Mary and Max is somewhat of a strange case. It’s ranked among the highest-rated titles of all time on IMDb, but it’s not a particularly well-known film. That disparity is readily recognizable in the film’s box office numbers, which posits it as a financial flop that only managed to earn back $1.7 million of its $8.2 million budget, despite near-universal critical acclaim. Perhaps the divide between its critical & financial accomplishments is a question of tone. The sole feature film credit of stop motion animator Adam Elliot, Mary and Max adopts the visual format & storybook narration of a children’s film, but it’s, at heart, an emotionally merciless drama that touches upon, among other things: mental illness, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy, atheism, war crimes, repressed homosexuality, obesity, and the endless cycle of poverty. It’s likely that the film didn’t do particularly well at the box office because it’s difficult to market an animated feature about heartbreaking loneliness, depression, despair, and the search for human connection among the disenfranchised. I’m getting choked up right now just mulling over the film’s themes, so easy to see why it might’ve been a difficult sell as a comedy (however black) & a fun night at the movies. All that being said, Mary and Max is a masterful work in the stop motion medium, easily one of the best examples of the format I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame it couldn’t have turned that achievement into financial success, though, or we might’ve had a few more Adam Elliot features in the six years since its release.

Detailing the strictly-epistolary friendship between two total strangers, a young Australian girl & a middle aged man in New York City, Mary and Max relies heavily on storybook-style narration to move its story along between its back & forth letter reading. This narrative structure doesn’t allow much room for complicated plot maneuvering or a fast-paced momentum. Mary and Max, as its title suggests, is more of a two-handed character study than a whirlwind of action & consequence. Mary is a young girl with an alcoholic mother & an emotionally reclusive father. Initially described as looking like mud & poo, Mary is somewhat of an outcast, self-conscious of her appearance, bored, and alone. Max is a lonely, atheist man of Jewish descent who has difficulty navigating the modern world due to his struggles with Asperger’s Syndrome. It seems at first like they might have very little in common besides the drab greys & browns that define their respective worlds & their shared love of a children’s show called The Noblets. As their friendship deepens & is challenged by decades of hard-fought battles with mental illness & life at large, though, a remarkably rewarding swell of emotion begins to elevate the film miles above the basic precociousness & impressive handmade craft stop motion automatically commands as a medium.

For a film loaded with fart jokes & gags involving bird anuses, Mary and Max is a remarkable achievement in emotional provocation. Toni Collette (who I’ve recently been binge-watching in United States of Tara) does an excellent job voicing the adult Mary & Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who, of course, everyone has been inadvertently binge-watching in quality work for the last two decades & mourning in more recent years) is even more of a treasure as the deeply-complicated Max, although neither personality is especially essential to the film’s charm. The real crux to Mary & Max‘s perfection as a small stakes drama/black comedy is in director Adam Elliot’s nuanced characterization of his titular leads & in the finely detailed visual world he made by hand (with help, I’m sure) in a painstakingly meticulous method/dying art. I like to imagine a world where Mary and Max was a wild financial success that allowed Elliot to immediately produce a long string of other feature films, the same way the success of Coraline, released the same year, launched Laika Studios. As is, I’m happy that this pitch black gem was ever produced in the first place. It’s not often that an animated feature about the importance of “real friendship” is this well constructed & this reluctant to play by the rules of its medium/genre. Just writing about the film’s emotional severity is making me tear up in the retrospection, which is a clear sign that Elliot got something significantly right here, even if that something was a difficult commodity to monetize.

Side Note: You can go ahead & include Mary and Max as yet another indication that no place in time has ever loved ABBA quite as much as 1970s Australia. The ABBA poster in Mary’s bedroom feels more significant than a mere callback to Toni Collette’s starring role in Muriel’s Wedding. It’s part of a larger Australia Loves ABBA narrative that I swear is A Thing. It makes more sense every day that ABBA: The Movie was set in Australia. It’s the band’s home away from Sweden.

-Brandon Ledet

Entertainment (2015)

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threehalfstar

Neil Hamburger’s comedy isn’t for everyone. Actually, that’s putting it too lightly. Neil Hamburger’s comedy is atrocious, just godawful, completely useless. Anti-comedy is a difficult trick to pull off. When it works, it’s a brilliant form of audience antagonism à la Andy Kaufman & his ilk (I defy anyone to watch Hamburger’s tirade against the Red Hot Chili Peppers without laughing at least once) but when it fails that antagonism feels like an empty exercise. Who could find a capable comedian intentionally telling shitty, unfunny jokes worthwhile if that’s the only thing they ever do? How is that entertainment? Neil Hamburger (aka Gregg Turkington) asks that question of himself in the pitch black comedy-drama Entertainment.

Entertainment follows a fictionalized version of Hamburger (billed here simply as “The Comedian”) on a stand-up comedy tour through the desolate American West. His opening act is an old-timey clown/mime (played by the immensely talented youngster Tye Sheridan). His venues are a depressing parade of prison cafeterias, hotel conference rooms, and dive bar stages. Bombing is essential to his act, which is true of the real-life Hamburger as well, but the movie takes it to a whole new low. Actual jokes from Hamburger’s routine are repeated verbatim in Entertainment, but any semblance of humor that can be found from in his work has been removed wholesale. All that is left is the antagonism. As “The Comedian” cracks monstrous jokes about rape, makes fart noises, and repeatedly pleads “Why? Why? Why?” in a piercing, nasal whine it makes all too much sense why no one in the audience is laughing. When he becomes savagely combative with them for not rewarding his efforts, you have absolutely no sympathy.

Just as director Rick Alverson disassembled Tim Heidecker’s brand of hipster anti-humor in The Comedy to make it into something unforgivably ugly & self-absorbed, he more or less repeats the trick for Neil Hamburger’s shtick here. Entertainment is about depression, addiction, and the uselessness of pursuing art for the sake of pursuing art, but it paints such an ugly portrait of the artist in question that there’s no sympathy to go around for his existential crisis (and intentionally so). You’re prompted to think “You should be depressed. Maybe you should quit comedy. Maybe life itself isn’t worth the effort for you.” There’s an excess of eerie imagery & spacial pacing in Entertainment that reaches for a Lynchian aesthetic I’m not sure that Alverson fully commands, so overall The Comedy endures as a much more confident, successful example of the anti-comedy-is-useless-cruelty genre the director is carving out for himself. Still, Entertainment stands as a brave act of self-reflection for Hamburger/Turkington & a pitch black drama/dark comedy for the art house crowd at large.

-Brandon Ledet