Monkeybone (2001)

There are two immediately obvious reasons why the special effects horror comedy Monkeybone is worth revisiting in 2022: its director and its star.  Henry Selick’s upcoming Wendell and Wild is his first feature film since 2009’s cult favorite Coraline, and it appears to be perfectly in rhythm with the stop-motion nightmares for kids that have defined his career.  Not only is Monkeybone Selick’s only live-action film to date, but it also happens to feature another beloved 90s figure who’s making a comeback this year: Brendan Fraser, who’s soon to launch a Best Actor awards campaign for Aronofsky’s The Whale. Fraser is in his wacky, live-action Looney Tunes mode in Monkeybone, as opposed to the dramatic vulnerability mode he brings to films like Gods & Monsters and, presumably, The Whale.  Trapped in a literal nightmare-world induced by a coma, Fraser’s comic book artist protagonist goes to war with his own cartoonish creations in a physical version of the Hot Topic mall-goth fantasyscapes Selick made his name on in A Nightmare Before Christmas.  It’s like a dispatch from an alternate universe where Tim Burton directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, one made even more fascinating by the fact that it flopped hard on its initial release – investing $75mil on a $7mil payoff.

To my shame, I don’t want to spend much time praising what Selick nor Fraser achieve in Monkeybone.  No, I want to praise Chris Kattan.  I outright groaned when Kattan’s name showed up in the opening credits, expecting the SNL veteran to be voicing the titular, annoying cartoon monkey sidekick character as an extension of his Mr. Peepers sketches.  It turns out that Kattan is totally innocent on that front; Monkeybone is voiced by John Turturro, the scamp. He’s also supposed to grate on the audience’s nerves, as evidenced by Fraser’s constant efforts to get him to shut up & go away every time he opens his obnoxious little mouth.  For his part, Kattan doesn’t show up until about an hour into the runtime, playing the corpse of a gymnast who died in a horrific accident.  Through convoluted cosmic circumstances that involve a deal with Death herself (played by Whoopi Goldberg, naturally), Fraser’s comatose cartoonist takes over the gymnast’s body mid-organ donation and flees the hospital into an unsuspecting world.  Kattan’s physical acting as an animated corpse with a broken neck and organs plopping out of its open body cavity had me absolutely howling with laughter.  It was the quickest I’ve ever turned around on a famous actor’s presence in a film, encountering Kattan’s name with dread, then finding his performance so deliriously funny that I almost threw up from the physical exertion. I suppose it’s also worth pointing out that another 2022-relevant actor played a major part of that movie-stealing gag: Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk as the perplexed surgeon who trails behind the undead gymnast, continuing to harvest his organs as they fall to the ground behind him.  It’s sublimely silly.

As screechingly funny as Monkeybone gets during Kattan’s third-act zombie run and as wildly imaginative as Selick’s coma-induced Land of Nightmares set designs can be, its legacy mostly resonates with a what-could’ve-been melancholy.  Selick might have become a household name if this film didn’t flop so spectacularly. Or at least we wouldn’t get his work confused with Tim Burton’s quite so often.  Grimmer yet, Fraser, Kattan, and Rose McGowan (playing a humanoid-cat cocktail waitress, of course) have all gone public with stories of behind-the-scenes sexual abuse from major Hollywood players in the #MeToo era, haunting the film with questions of where their careers might have gone in a better world.  In the aftermath of those revelations, Fraser’s getting his late-career comeback, McGowan’s become a self-appointed spokesperson for the movement, and Kattan has continued to live in relative, semi-retired anonymity (give or take an affectionate shoutout in this summer’s Nope).  I don’t know that Kattan deserves the same red-carpet career revival as his co-stars, or if the actor would even be interested in a proper Kattanissance if it were an option.  I do know this, though: his performance is absolutely the highlight of Monkeybone, somehow outshining all of the cheeky monkeys, cyclops babies, Guernica bulls, and Nazi Mickey Mouse prison guards that Selick packs into the frame.  It would have been an interesting relic even without Kattan, creating an amusement park dark ride version of the kinds of grotesque cartoons that only aired on late-night Comedy Central in the 1990s.  Still, Kattan’s late-in-the-game intrusion is what pushes it over the line from interesting to essential.

-Brandon Ledet

Nobody (2021)

I’ve lost track of how we’re supposed to react to Bob Odenkirk as a screen presence.  After all the obsessive rewatches of Mr. Show DVD sets in my college years I’m trained to receive Odenkirk as a sight gag, where his very presence is meant to read as a joke.  Given the barely stifled laughter that echoed his titular line reading of “My little women!” in my theater screening of Gerwig’s Little Women, I assume I’m not the only one who reacts to him that way.  Bob Odenkirk is synonymous with sketch comedy in my mind, making any scene he’s in inherently feel like a bit.  What’s confusing about that association is that Odenkirk has been much busier and more widely popular in recent years in a medium I know very little about: Prestige Television.  His roles on shows like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and Fargo appear to be occasionally comedic in the way most TV dramas dabble in dark humor from time to time, but for the most part they’re played straight.  Bob Odenkirk is just as much of a legitimate actor now as he was a visual punchline in the past, and it’s up to the audience’s personal familiarity with specific pockets of his work to determine how he’s going to register onscreen (the same way I can’t watch Toby Huss in a serious dramatic role without first thinking of Artie, The Strongest Man in the World for at least a half-second). 

That muddled screen persona makes for an initially confusing experience in Odenkirk’s post-John Wick action vehicle Nobody.  At first glance, it’s absolutely absurd that Odenkirk would be starring in any kind of action movie at all, much less one styled after the bone-crunching ultraviolence of John Wick.  You’re not immediately invited to laugh at that casting choice, though, since Nobody plays its John Wick in the Suburbs premise entirely straight.  Odenkirk plays a self-identified “nobody”: a suburban dad with severe home invasion anxieties and an exponentially distanced relationship with his nuclear family, who’re bored by his stability.  The only early wink towards the absurdism of Odenkirk’s casting is in the brutality of its close-quarters violence.  Once a bloodlust is awakened in the milquetoast suburban dad, he over-commits to his role as a macho protector, and it’s absolutely bizarre to see Odenkirk smashing windows and crushing throats as if he were a retired, middle-age Rambo.  As that violence escalates and the suburban-America nobody’s list of enemies grows to include the entire Russian mafia, it’s clear that this is very much an intentional action-comedy; it’s just one that’s incredibly patient in paying off the set-up to the punchline.  Odenkirk starts the film in his Prestige TV Drama mode but by the end he’s a full-on sketch comedy player.

I had a lot of fun with Nobody once it fully sketched out what it’s doing.  Based on its marketing (and the involvement of producer David Leitch), I expected it to be a fish-out-of-water action comedy about suburban dad stumbling into a John Wick plot.  By the end, I was more convinced it was a direct parody of every post-Taken Liam Neeson thriller about a dad on the verge.  All the signs were there if I had known to look for them.  My borrowed library DVD started with a Liam Neeson trailer; Odenkirk grimly refers to his secretive military past, hinting at a “very particular set of skills” that could be deployed to save his family; he breaks into thieves’ apartment to retrieve his daughter’s beloved kittycat bracelet instead of, you know, his entire daughter; etc.  The opening montage is even a direct spoof of the morning-routine sequence from The Commuter (aka Taken on a Train, not to be confused with Non-Stop, aka Taken on a Plane).  The only way the Neeson spoofing could’ve been more obvious is if Odenkirk were speaking in a gravelly Irish accent, and I still didn’t catch onto what it was doing until about halfway into the runtime.  Nobody is a Mr. Show level parody of the post-Taken dad thriller; it just doesn’t make that satirical target immediately apparent.

The tonal confusion of what eventually turns out to be an over-the-top action comedy here feels both purposeful and effective.  Odenkirk’s mid-life macho fantasy of being an untapped protector of his household just waiting for a threat to quash is already funny enough when it’s played straight in the opening act.  Watching that fantasy meet the harsh reality of a suburban dad bod being pummeled by Russian mobsters mid-film is even funnier.  Then, the whole thing farcically escalates into live-action cartoon mayhem by the finale, boldly underlining the absurdism of its premise to the point where it’s unignorable.  If I were more confident on where Odenkirk is in his acting career (basically, if I watched more cable TV dramas) I might’ve caught onto that parodic sense of humor a lot sooner, but it took me a minute to get my footing on the film’s tone.  In retrospect, that makes it the perfect Bob Odenkirk vehicle despite the unlikeliness of its genre: a comedy where you’re not initially sure whether you’re supposed to treat the actor as a joke but it’s funny either way.

-Brandon Ledet

Little Women (2019)

I have never experienced the apparently widespread phenomenon of being in a theater full of people who applaud the end of a film (at least not in a regularly scheduled film, as it has been known to happen at Weird Wednesdays and Terror Tuesdays, or when the director is in attendance), but I got my first taste of this peculiarity yesterday when Little Women concluded. Perhaps it is because I rarely find myself viewing a period piece at 1:15 on a Saturday afternoon and thus am almost never the youngest person in an auditorium by 30 years. I did expect that this might be the case, and I’ve certainly been in my fair share of screenings in which someone fell asleep, but this was definitely the first time I could hear someone snoring during the trailers (the same poor soul likewise dozed off again about an hour in, judging by the identical sounds). This is not indicative of the quality of Greta Gerwig’s latest, however; this movie is fantastic.

It’s the Reconstruction era. Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) has just sold a piece of writing to a newspaper in New York for $20, the same going rate as freelancers get in 2020, 150 years later, just in case there are any Boomers reading this and wondering why their grandchildren are so frustrated all the time. Elder sister Meg (Emma Watson) has married “a penniless tutor” and had twins, youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) learning painting and hoping to be courted by a man wealthy enough to support her and her family, including “indigent parents” Marmee (Laura Dern) and Father (Bob Odenkirk) March later in life. Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who many years earlier caught Scarlet Fever from a poor family that the Marches look after, is largely too weak to leave her bed after developing a weak heart as a result. Seven years earlier, Father March was working as a volunteer for the Union Army while Marmee tried to keep the family together, all four girls as vivacious and full of life as one small band of people could be, full of dreams. When the misunderstood lonesome older neighbor Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) takes his orphaned nephew “Laurie” (Timothée Chalamet, or Timmy Chalchal as we call him around these parts) into his home, he becomes close friends with all of the girls, inspiring an unrequited love deep within the young Amy while only having eyes for the independent Jo. Back in the “present” (seven years later), Jo makes her way home to Concord upon learning that Beth’s condition has taken a turn for the worse, while Laurie and Amy reunite in Paris as the latter begins to believe that her artistic talent is workmanlike and passionless in comparison to the pursuits and interests of her sisters.

This is a beautiful film, a timeless piece of literature made fresh once more with a cast overbrimming with talent (minus one odd casting choice, which I’ll get to momentarily) and filmed with an eye for chromatic storytelling and such beautiful Northeast scenery that when I tell you I was there, I was there. This is also such a talented cast that they breathe a new life into characters that, in the original text and in previous film incarnations, were at times sullen, unlikable, or intolerable. Aunt March in particular comes across quite well in this outing, with Streep infusing the role, one of a harsh spinster who condescends and proclaims a hardline fusion of morality and manners at her nieces (especially the recalcitrant Jo), with a mild comic edge that humanizes her. Her appearances are rare, but gone is the feeling of dread that her appearance could summon when reading the original novel, or in other adaptations. And it’s not the same old Miranda Priestly, either, but a new casual cruelty tempered by kindness.

Likewise, Pugh infuses Amy with a likability that can be absent in other versions, relying solely on the charisma of the actor to take the shallow, bratty, narcissistic monster who (spoiler alert for a novel that’s older than radio) in a particularly petulant moment burns her sister’s long-labored upon novel out of spite for not getting to go to the theater. That still happens in this version, and it is still treated as unforgivable, but Pugh’s elevated performance lends Amy’s childhood frivolity a lightness: when Jo cuts her hair in order to obtain money for Mother March to go the DC hospital where her husband is being treated, Pugh’s delivery of “Your one beauty!” is hilarious. Likewise, the recurring element of Amy being proud of her diminutive feet (“the best in the family”) is delightful, appearing first on the evening that she first meets Laurie as she proclaims that she would never twist her ankle while dancing as Meg had, and later when she decides to make him a plaster mold of said dainty feet so as to prevent Laurie from forgetting about them. Even her marriage, which for fifteen decades has been near universally read as the ultimate culmination of her childhood model of femininity, is presented here as the result of an awareness of the necessity of sacrifice as much as it is an unearned reward for her behavior. “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life,” Jo says at one point, and while she’s right, there comes a time when youngest March girl woman steps up and takes responsibility where her sisters can’t or won’t.

Of course, Jo is the star, and Ronan plays her with aplomb, but the internet will soon be full of gushing pieces that are better written than mine about her newest star turn. The only truly miscast part here is Odenkirk as Father March. I may be dating myself here, but the equation “Bob Odenkirk + period piece + sideburns” will always have the sum “A new Mr. Show sketch is starting!” to me, and there’s no way around that. When Father March comes back from DC after his recovery, there’s no way that your first thought isn’t that we’re about to hear about megaphone crooner Dickie Crickets or The Story of the Story of Everest (which you either love or hate). It’s not enough to bring the movie to a halt, but if you start laughing, you may get accusing stares from the elderly.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Long Shot (2019)

In a lot of ways, the Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron two-hander Long Shot is a traditional, by the books romcom. Two socially mismatched idealists spark an unlikely romance after a chance meeting in the first act, then gradually learn to be more like each other through the ups & downs of their early months together (most romcoms bail before the real work of building a relationship starts, once that early emotional rush cools down). It’s arguable that Seth Rogen’s overgrown stoner-bro humor is a little out of place in that context, but the Apatow style of modern comedies where he cut his teeth were basically just romcoms with some lagniappe improv takes, so even that influence isn’t much of a subversion. If you find it comforting to watch two characters fall in love over a series of quippy one-liners and farcical misunderstandings, Long Shot is more than willing to deliver the formulaic romcom goods, building an amiable romance between two adorable leads with oddly believable chemistry. What’s really interesting about the film is how it manages to pull that off while discussing something most formulaic romcoms actively avoid: politics.

Charlize Theron plays a US Secretary of State who’s poised to make her first presidential bid in an upcoming election. Against the guidance of her campaign advisors, she hires Seth Rogen as her speech writer for the early stages of the campaign trail – both because she respects his leftist idealism and because she thinks he’s cute. In apolitical romcom tradition, the unlikely couple inspire each other to edge closer towards the political center from their extremist starting points. Theron relearns to stick to her guns ideologically without giving up too much in political compromise, while Rogen learns that compromise & reaching across the aisle are sometimes necessary to accomplish larger goals. It’s a relatively safe, careful approach to modern politics – an arena defined by increasingly violent extremes. As such, the movie leaves little room to make clearly stated, concrete political points without risking the fun-for-everyone charm of romcoms. Its only clear political stances are detectable in Theron’s campaign platform that centers The Environment, and in the way working in the news media spotlight is unfairly difficult for her as a woman. As far as modern political topics go, gendered scrutiny & saving the trees are about as safe as the movie could have played it, and you can feel it struggling with how political is too political for a romcom when addressing nearly every other topic.

One major way Long Shot avoids alienating half of its audience with its political stances is avoiding declaring which political parties it’s actually talking about from scene to scene. Theron’s environmentalist crusade and the feminist lens through which she views media coverage of her public persona both suggest that she’s a registered Democrat, but the movie is careful to never make that association explicit. Her role as Secretary of State is in service of a bumbling president (Bob Odenkirk) who is even more amorphous in his declared politics. Neither Democrat nor Republican (at least not explicitly) Odenkirk is a cipher for more universally acceptable jokes about how all politicians are more obsessed with celebrity than policy and how they’re all corrupt goons in lobbyists’ pockets. The only time I can recall the words “Democrat” or “Republican” being verbally acknowledged in the film is when Rogen is mocked for being horrified by the revelation that his best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a member of the GOP, when he supposedly should be willing to find common political ground with his best bud. That’s a tough pill to swallow in a time when Republicans are actively trying to outlaw abortion access and in a time when, as acknowledged in the film’s opening gag, many “Conservatives” are literal Nazis hiding in plain sight. Still, it’s the only position the film can really take without risking its traditional romcom cred.

For a more daring example of how the romcom template can productively clash with modern politics, the Jenny Slate vehicle Obvious Child is commendable in the way it plays with the genre’s tropes while also frankly discussing Pro-Choice stances on reproductive rights. The closest Long Shot gets to saying something specific & potentially alienating about modern politics is in its parodies of Fox News media coverage (complete with Andy Serkis posing as a hideous prosthetics-monster version of Rupert Murdoch), which is a joke that writes itself. The difference there is that Obvious Child is a subversion of the romcom template, one that nudges the genre closer to an indie drama sensibility. By contrast, Long Shot is more of an earnest participation in the genuine thing. It is, for better or for worse, a formulaic romcom – with all the charming interpersonal relationships & tiptoeing political rhetoric that genre implies. I can say for sure that the romantic chemistry between Theron & Rogen works completely. The gamble of bringing modern politics into an inherently apolitical genre template is a little less decidedly successful, but at least makes for an interesting tension between form & content.

-Brandon Ledet