Bumblebee (2018)

It is exceedingly rare for me to ever abandon a movie-watching project. I will occasionally drag my feet on some of my more daunting endeavors (for instance, it’s been five months since my last entry in my eternally ongoing Roger Ebert Film School series), but fully abandoning something once I’ve started is against my character as a self-flagellating completist. There is one major exception I can think of that contradicts this personal ethos, however: Michael Bay’s Transformers series. After catching a brief glimpse of a giant robot fighting a robo-dinosaur with an enormous sword (or some such exciting frivolity) in the trailer for a late-franchise sequel to Michael Bay’s Transformers, I decided to run through all five films in the series to see what I had been “missing out” on. I abandoned the project after just one movie, genuinely unable to continue. Between the soul-deadening CGI action, Shia LaBeouf’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging, and the endless shots of Michael Bay drooling over Megan Fox’s exposed midriff, the 2007 film Transformers defeated me like no other cinematic monstrosity I can recall. I’m recounting this here to explain why the spin-off Bumblebee is such an unfathomably effective rehabilitation for the Transformers series. I can’t think of a big-budget franchise with a more drastic tonal turnaround that this wholesome, adorable spin-off to a series previously defined by broad, obnoxious machismo & cynical commercialism. I went into Bumblebee defeated by & disgusted with the Transformers; I left wanting to adopt one as a pet & a bestie.

A major factor of this turnaround is the change in creative voices in front of & behind the camera. Michael Bay is still writing (and cashing) checks as a producer on Bumblebee, but directing duties have been passed off to Laika mastermind Travis Knight, whose previous film Kubo and the Two Strings was one of Swampflix’s favorite movies of 2016. Knight’s expertise in animated storytelling is extremely useful in the CGI action sequences of the Transformers brand. The complexity of a sentient robot unfolding & rearranging its various parts to reassemble as a common automobile in these movies is usually sidestepped by making the visual display so bewildering that it’s impossible to coherently nitpick (or even observe) what’s on display. Not only does Knight clear up this visual clutter (once described as a “Cubist” use of CGI by an overzealous critic) with a clarity & simplicity in Bumblebee‘s action sequences; he also enhances them with the heartfelt emotional core that informs Laika’s consistently endearing output. That shift from horny leering & macho fist-pumping to genuine emotional investment in the film’s characters is likely also somewhat due to something never before seen in the Transformers franchise: a female screenwriter, Christina Hodson. Between Hodson’s writing & Knight’s emotive eye, Bumblebee doesn’t even take the time to salivate over the young, exposed body of its main female character (a teenage loner played by The Edge of Seventeen‘s Hailee Steinfeld). That’s a depressingly low bar to clear, but given Transformers‘s track record it’s remarkable all the same. Bumblebee even goes a step further by making that female character the POV-commanding protagonist, so that we care about her thoughts, her emotions, and her personal growth. Go figure.

Steinfeld stars in Bumblebee as an amateur car mechanic in 1980s California whose hobbies include working on a half-finished sports car her father left behind when he passed away & brooding alone to The Smiths instead of engaging with her surviving family. This teenage-brooding crisis turns around when she discovers and fixes up a VW Beetle abandoned in her uncle’s junkyard. What she doesn’t know (but the audience does) is that the Beetle in question is actually an alien transforming robo-species from a distant planet who is damaged & scared. This mismatched pair, the alien robot & the teenage mechanic who adopts it, teach each other strength, confidence, and familial love in a relatively small, contained story that happens to also include a bloodthirsty Cold War American government & a warring alien robo-species who want nothing but to tear them apart & destroy them. The story that unfolds from there is heavily informed by 80s & 90s kids’ movies clichés: resentment over a single-parent’s ability to move on; the big bad government’s stubborn insistence on destroying an adorable creature it doesn’t understand; the same-old 80s high school bully archetypes we’ve seen echoed & parodied into oblivion over the decades, etc. It’s a nostalgic 80s lens that naturally derives from the film’s Spielbergian schmaltz in its story about an E.T.-esque naive creature who needs help from an Earth child to find strength & find a path home. It’s a template that’s been repeated in titles as beloved as The Iron Giant & as lowly as Monster Trucks because, on a basic level, it just works. Even without this franchise’s origins as an adaptation of 80s Hasbro action figures, Bumblebee’s indulgence in 1980s Spielbergian nostalgia (along with tossed-off references to pop culture touchstones like Alf & The Breakfast Club) would still be more than justified, as it’s reinforced with a surprisingly genuine emotional core.

There are plenty of smaller details to praise about Bumblebee: John Cena’s turn as the broad The Marine-esque villain, the endearingly playful 80s pop soundtrack, the oversized emotions conveyed by the titular robot’s gigantic anime eyes, etc. Mostly, though, this film is remarkable for finding such an adorable & heartfelt angle on something that was initially so obnoxiously nasty it appeared fundamentally flawed & irredeemable. When Bumblebee crash-lands into this wholesome 80s kids’ adventure movie from his home planet, it feels like he’s fleeing the intergalactic clutches of Michael Bay’s libido & garishly rendered CGI. We’re as lucky to have him as the teenage loner who discovers him & fixes him up. It’s just too bad we can’t also hug him through the screen ourselves to show proper thanks.

-Brandon Ledet

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Brandon’s Top Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2018

1. 2.0 The more I watch big-budget Asian cinema the more I understand that it’s common for a single movie to touch on as many genres it can instead of sticking to just one. This Kollywood flick fully lives up to that ethos, melding technophobic sci-fi, Environmentalist political advocacy, ghost-possession horror, android-on-android romance, slapstick farce, superhero action spectacle, and philosophical debate into one lumbering, silly-ass beast. I loved it all, both for the surprise of its novelty and for its audacity to go big & so silly.

2. The Misandrists Queer punk prankster Bruce LaBruce’s latest work is a little too cheeky & misshapen to stand out as my favorite movie of the year but it is the most John Watersiest film I’ve seen all year, which, close enough. The Misandrists has clear thematic & aesthetic vision and a distinct political voice, but its commanding ethos is still aggressively amateur & D.I.Y. Its burn-it-all-down gender & sexual politics are sincerely revolutionary but are also filtered through a thick layer of sarcasm & over-the-top-camp. You might be justified in assuming it was a film school debut from a young, angry upstart with a still-fresh appetite for shock humor & pornography, but it’s got the clear vision & tonal control of an artist who’s been honing their craft for decades – like John Waters at his best.

3. The First PurgeThere’s nothing subtle about The First Purge’s political messaging in its depictions of white government operatives invading helpless, economically wrecked black neighborhoods to thin out the ranks of its own citizenry, nor should there be. We do not live in subtle times. What I didn’t expect, though, was that the film would be willing to push the imagery of its volatile racial politics to the extremes it achieves as the violence reaches its third act crescendo. I greatly respect its bravery & lack of restraint, almost enough to finally give the rest of the series a chance.

4. Blockers This modern teen sex comedy shifts away from the bro-friendly humor of its genre’s American Pie & Porky’s past by approaching the subject from a femme, sex-positive perspective. I don’t quite understand the narrative that its mold-breaking challenge to the gendered politics of the typical high school sex comedy is revolutionary. If nothing else, The To Do List already delivered an excellent femme subversion of the trope to a tepid critical response in 2013 and 2014’s Wetlands has set the bar impossibly high for what a gross-out femme sex comedy can achieve. Blockers is a damn fun addition to that tide-change, though, one that’s surprisingly emotionally effective in a John Hughes tradition beyond its sexual buffoonery.

5. A Simple Favor Mainstream comedy mainstay Paul Feig shakes up his usual schtick with a tongue-in-cheek Gone Girl riff. The performances, writing, and costuming are all naughtily playful at the exact perfect one, especially in how they converge to create a career-high showcase for Blake Lively. The wild shifts in tone from dark humor to dime story mystery novel intrigue can leave unsuspecting audiences more befuddled than amused, but this has serious cult classic potential among the weirdos on its distinctly modern wavelength.

6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Into the Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & medium that should be a total drag but is instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity here.

7. VenomTom Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout the film as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

8. Hotel ArtemisUnlike most overwritten post-Tarantino crime thrillers, this misshapen gem is genuinely, consistently hilarious. With the hotel setting and absurdist mix-ups of an Old Hollywood farce, Hotel Artemis embraces the preposterousness of its exceedingly silly premise in a way that more cheap genre films could stand to. However, the joys of watching Jodie Foster waddle around the titular hotel and lovingly tell patrons they look “like all the shades of shit” are very peculiar & very particular. That kind of highly specific appeal can be a blessing in disguise for a scrappy, over-the-top genre film, and I can totally see Hotel Artemis gathering a dedicated cult following over time.

9. Overlord There’s nothing especially nuanced or unique about the message “Nazis are evil & gross and must be destroyed,” but in the context of 2018’s political climate it still feels damn good to hear. This is especially true when said Nazis are shot, set aflame, and exploded in an over-the-top action spectacle that cares way more about cathartic fun than it does about historical accuracy. We may be living in a world where war thrillers & zombie pictures are all too plentiful, but there can never be enough condemnation of Nazi scumbaggery.

10. Black Panther I can’t pretend that this movie hit me as the mind-blowing, form-breaking revelation most audiences see it as (mostly because its titular hero is something of a moralistic bore). I’d even feel comfortable calling it the least of Ryan Coogler’s works, even if it is his best-funded. As an Afrofuturist sci-fi spectacle with a killer villainous performance from the consistently-great Michael B. Jordan, however, it’s easy to cite this franchise entry as one of the best of the MCU canon. My appreciation for Black Panther might be relatively subdued when compared to others’, but I could contently watch spaceships fly around Wakanda while Michael B Jordan chews scenery & background actors model Afrofuturist fashion designs for a blissful eternity.

11. How to Talk to Girls at Parties A jubilant, musically-charged mess of bisexual, youthful rebellion that’s half theatre-kid earnestness & half no-fucks-given punk. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s (incredibly short) short story of the same name, How to Talk to Girls at Parties finds John Cameron Mitchell crafting his own Velvet Goldmine vision of pop excess, except set in England’s early-stages punk scene, years after the demise of the glam scene lauded in Todd Haynes’s film. The film’s future-kink set design, punk needle drops, irreverent culture-clash humor, and performances by indie scene heavyweights Elle Fanning (as a babe-in-the woods space alien rebel) & Nicole Kidman (as a parodic Vivienne Westwood knockoff) are all intoxicating pleasures that readily distract from the fact that Mitchell has greedily bitten off more than any human could possibly chew, only to spit the overflow into the air in defiance of tastefulness.

12. Halloween Like with The Force Awakens, this Halloween sequel/remake/reboot has the impossible task of pleasing everyone, ranging from devotees of the original who want to know how Laurie Strode’s doing 40 years later to first-weekend horror-gobbling teens who just want to see some jump scares & interesting kills. I believe it did an excellent job of satisfying the most extreme ends of that divide by treating them as separate tracks, then giving them a substantive reason to converge. The tension between the original Halloween’s storyline’s need to logically seek closure & the slasher genre’s need to propagate random, senseless violence makes this film one of the best examples of its franchise – one that has something substantive to say about Fate, Evil, and self-fulfilling prophecies.

13. Marrowbone If you’re not especially in love with the atmospheric feel of the traditional haunted house genre, this film’s aesthetic details and bonkers third act might not be enough to carry you beyond the sense that we’ve seen this story told onscreen many times before. More forgiving Gothic horror fans should find plenty of admirable specificity to this particular story, though – the kind of tangible, unhinged detailing that allows the best ghost stories to stick to the memory despite their decades (if not centuries) of cultural familiarity.

14. Assassination NationUpdates & subverts the Heathers formula by adopting the glib, dark humor of Twitter-speak, where all human experience – even the worst misery & public embarrassment imaginable – is fair game for a flippant, casually tossed-off joke. This weaponized, empathy-free brand of online humor sits on the stomach with an unease, only to gradually erupt into full-on, gendered violence once it escapes the anonymity of the internet and devolves into a public display. Assassination Nation may be costumed like a glib, modernist Heathers descendant, but it’s ultimately less interested in making you laugh than it is in making you sick to your stomach. Once you catch onto that nausea being its exact intended effect, it’s an incredibly impressive work.

15. Mom and Dad A wickedly fun satire about traditional families’ barely concealed hatred for their own; a chaotic portrait of selfishness & self-loathing in the modern suburban home. This movie hides behind tongue-in-cheek touches like a 70s exploitation-themed credits sequence & stylized dialogue like “My mom is a penis,” but just under its ironic camp surface rots a charred, bitterly angry heart, one with no respect for the almighty Family Values that mainstream America holds so dear. Show up for Nic Cage destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing “The Hokey Pokey;” stay for the pitch-black humor about “successful” adults who find their manicured, suburban lives with the right career & the right family bitterly unfulfilling.

16. Batman Ninja The concept of mashing up Batman with anime sounds like a nerd’s wet dream, a juvenile pleasure impulse Batman Ninja attempts to live up to in every self-indulgent frame. With intense character redesigns from Japanese manga artist Takashi Okazaki and an impressive team of traditionalist animators, this movie is almost well-crated enough to pass itself off as an art piece instead of what it truly is: nonstop over-the-top excess, a shameless sky-high pile of pop culture trash. Batman Ninja seems entirely unconcerned with justifying its own for-their-own-sake impulses. Its experiments in the newly discovered artform of Batmanime seem to be born entirely of “Wouldn’t it be rad if __?” daydreaming. It’s a refreshing approach to Batman storytelling, as most of the character’s feature-length cartoons are much less comfortable with fully exploring the freedom from logic animation affords them.

17. Ghost Stories For most of its runtime, this movie pretends to be a very well-behaved, Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level horror anthology with open-ended, unsatisfying conclusions to its three mildly spooky vignettes. It turns out that dissatisfaction is deliberate, as it sets the film up for a supernaturally menacing prank on an unsuspecting audience. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent-enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure us into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith.

18. Revenge “Resolving” rape through gory bloodshed may be a faulty narrative impulse, but the way Revenge filters its all-out gore fest indulgences through psychedelic, sun-rotted fantasy is an especially novel mutation of a rape revenge genre formula that must evolve to be sustained (or, better yet, must be destroyed for good). The trick is having the patience in watching the film participate in that despicable genre long enough to be able to explode it from the inside.

19. SuperFly A modernized retooling of one of the most iconic titles in the blaxploitation canon, this low-budget, high-fashion action thriller sets itself up for comparisons that jeopardize its chance to stand out on its own from the outset. The soundtrack may have been updated from Curtis Mayfield funk to Future trap, and some of the nihilism from the original may have been supplanted with wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it is still largely the same story of an ambitious hustler with beautifully over-treated hair struggling to get out of the cocaine business with one big, final score. It’s a gleefully trashy, hyperviolent action cheapie with more of an eye for fashion & brutality than any technical concerns in its visual craft or its debt to stories told onscreen in the past. It’s entirely enjoyable for being just that.

20. Truth or Dare – There are two competing gimmicks at war with each other in the gleefully idiotic trash-horror Truth or Dare?. As suggested in the title, one gimmick involves a supernatural, deadly version of the schoolyard game truth-or-dare that drives the film both to explorations of contrived ethical dilemmas and to even more contrived novelty indulgences in demonic possession clichés. As delightfully silly as a haunted truth-or-dare game is for a horror movie premise, though, it’s not the gimmick that most endeared the film to me. It’s Truth or Dare?’s stylistic gimmick as The Snapchat Filter Horror Movie that really stole my trash-gobbling heart. Films like Unfriended, #horror, Afflicted, and so on are doing more to preserve the history of modern online communication than they’re given credit for, specifically because they’re willing to exploit pedestrian trash mediums like Skype, Candy Crush, and webcasting as foundational gimmicks for feature-length narratives. For its own part, Truth or Dare? has earned its place in cheap horror’s academic documentation of online discourse by exploiting Snapchat filter technology as a dirt-cheap scare delivery system. As silly as its titular gimmick can be, it wouldn’t have deserved camp cinema legacy without that secondary Snapchat filter gimmick backing it up.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 1/17/19 – 1/23/19

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Glass M. Night Shyamalan continues the off-kilter superhero mythology he established in Unbreakable & Split (is that still considered a spoiler?) in a third, already critically divisive chapter. Split was one of Swampflix’s favorite films of 2017 and Shyamalan was already on a creative upswing with The Visit before that, so this surprisingly rapid follow-up definitely has our attention.

The Seven Year Itch (1955) The Billy Wilder romcom that gifted us the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe pinning down the skirt of her white dress while standing on a gusty subway grate. Also features an animated credits sequence from legendary graphic designer (and Phase IV director) Saul Bass, which is always a treat. Playing Sunday 1/20 & Wednesday 1/23 as party of Prytania’s Classic Movies series.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

The Favourite  Yorgos Lanthimos follows up the stubbornly obscure The Killing of a Sacred Deer with his most accessible feature yet: a queer, darkly funny costume drama about a three-way power struggle between increasingly volatile women (Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz). It’s both a gorgeous laugh riot and a pitch-black howl of unending cruelty & despair. Fun!

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & a medium that should be a total drag, but instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity.

-Brandon Ledet

#52FilmsByWomen 2018 Ranked & Reviewed

When I first learned of the #52FilmsByWomen pledge in late 2016, I was horrified to discover that I hadn’t reached the “challenge’s” quota naturally that year, despite my voracious movie-watching habits. Promoted by the organization Women in Film, #52FilmsByWomen is merely a pledge to watch one movie a week directed by a woman for the entirety of a year. It’s not at all a difficult criteria to fulfill if you watch movies on a regular routine, but so much of the pop culture landscape is dominated by (white) male voices that you’d be surprised by how little media you typically consume is helmed by a female creator until you actually start paying attention to the numbers. Having now taken & fulfilled the #52FilmsByWomen two years in a row, I’ve found that to be the exercise’s greatest benefit: paying attention. I’ve found many new female voices to shape my relationship with cinema through the pledge, but what I most appreciate about the experience is the way it consistently reminds me to pay attention to the creators I’m supporting & affording my time. If we want more diversity in creative voices on the pop media landscape, we need to go out of our way to support the people already out there who work outside the white male hegemony. #52FilmsByWomen is a simple, surprisingly easy to fulfill gesture in that direction.

With this pledge in mind, I watched, reviewed, and podcasted about 59 feature films directed by women in 2018. The full inventory of those titles can be found on this convenient Letterboxd list, which includes all the re-watches of the batch. For the purposes of this article, I’ll only list the feature-length movies I saw for the first time last year, which serendipitously totaled a clean 52. Each film is ranked & linked to a corresponding review, since I was using the pledge to influence not only the media I was consuming myself, but also the media we cover on the site. My hope is that this list will not only function as a helpful recap for a year of purposeful movie-watching, but also provide some heartfelt recommendations for anyone else who might be interested in taking the pledge in 2019. It’s an experience I highly recommend, as I got so much out of it myself that I’ve already started a new Letterboxd list for my third year of participation.

5 Star Reviews

The Gleaners & I, dir. Agnes Varda (2001) – “I can’t believe that there was this succinct of a summation of my personal philosophies as a silly-ass, trash-obsessed punk idealist in my youth floating around in the ether and I completely missed it until now. I went into The Gleaners & I respecting Varda as a kind of mascot for unfussy, D.I.Y cinema with a genuine subversive streak, but left it believing her to be more of a kindred spirit, someone who truly gets what it means to live among the capitalist refuse of this trash island Earth.”

Dirty Computer, dir. Emma Westenberg, Lacey Duke (2018)

4.5 Star Reviews

Working Girls, dir. Lizzie Borden (1986) –Working Girls is often darkly funny, but it is first & foremost dark, depicting even the most privileged corners of sex work as an inherently exploitative industry hinged on power, greed, and violence. Whether that criticism is aimed at sex work in particular or capitalism at large is up for interpretation (I assume it’s a healthy dose of both), as the brothel setting of Working Girls is essentially the entirety of capitalism in an apartment-sized microcosm. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a film with this much sex play as aggressively unerotic as what’s on display here, resulting in what’s basically a horror film about the hour-to-hour mundanity of sex work (and, by extension, all labor under capitalism), a slow burn creep-out & a low-key political screed.”

You Were Never Really Here, dir. Lynne Ramsay (2018)

Faces Places, dir. Agnès Varda (2017)

Dogfight, dir. Nancy Savoca (1991)

Flames, dir. Josephine Decker (2018)

Shirkers, dir. Sandi Tan (2018)

The Adventures of Prince Achmed, dir. Lotte Reiniger (1926)

4 Star Reviews

Good Manners, dir. Juliana Rojas (2018) – “On a horror movie spectrum, the film is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on familiar genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.”

Ratcatcher, dir. Lynne Ramsay (2000)

Blockers, dir. Kay Cannon (2018)

Le Bonheur, dir. Agnès Varda (1965)

The Hitch-Hiker, dir. Ida Lupino (1953)

Mamma Mia!, dir. Phyllida Lloyd (2008)

Thou Was Mild and Lovely, dir. Josephine Decker (2014)

Butter on the Latch, dir. Josephien Decker (2013)

The To Do List, dir. Maggie Carey (2013)

Skate Kitchen, dir. Crystal Moselle (2018)

Sheer Madness, dir. Margarethe von Trotta (1983)

Revenge, dir. Coralie Fargeat (2018)

Blue My Mind, dir. Lisa Brühlmann (2018)

United Skates, dir. Tina Brown, Dyana Winkler (2018)

Double Agent 73, dir. Doris Wishman (1974)

3.5 Star Reviews

Morvern Callar, dir. Lynne Ramsay (2002) – Morvern Callar feels less like an original screenplay than it does like a feature film adaptation of a crumpled-up Polaroid Ramsey found in a sewer. Along with a fearless performance from indie movie mainstay Samantha Morton, Ramsey’s direction & scum-coated visual language capture a very specific phase of soul-crushing grief: the stage where you stumble in total shock, only emerging from drunken stupors long enough to pray for the release of death.”

Madeline’s Madeline, dir. Josephine Decker (2018)

Toni Erdmann, dir. Maren Ade (2016)

Variety, dir. Bette Gordon (1983)

Zama, dir. Lucrecia Martel (2018)

Tigers Are Not Afraid, dir. Issa López. (2018)

Trouble Every Day, dir. Claire Denis (2001)

The New Romantic, dir. Carly Stone (2018)

Saving Face, dir. Alice Wu (2005)

Let the Corpses Tan, dir. Hélène Cattet (2018)

Never Goin’ Back, dir. Augustine Frizzel (2018)

Blank City, dir. Celine Danhier (2010)

Generation Wealth, dir. Lauren Greenfield (2018)

The Spy Who Dumped Me, dir. Susanna Fogel (2018)

The Breadwinner, dir. Nora Twomey (2017)

Alaska is a Drag, dir. Shaz Bennett (2018)

Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami, dir. Sophia Fiennes (2018)

3 Star Reviews

Somewhere, dir. Sofia Coppola (2010) – “This is a deliberately simple, quiet work that scales back Coppola’s ambitions after the go-for-broke excess of Marie Antoinette, one that mirrors the listless emptiness of its the-price-of-fame protagonist. As a result, it would be easy to dismiss the film as a lazy act of pretension, but Coppola’s too tonally & visually skilled as an artist to let it sit that way. This may be the most underwhelming film in her catalog to date, but it’s also quietly sweet & charming in a way too few movies are, which is why she’s one of the best.”

Summer of ’84, dir. Anouk Whissell (2018)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, dir. Desiree Akhivan (2018)

Mary Queen of Scots, dir. Josie Rourke (2018)

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge, dir. Marie Noëlle (2017)

A Wrinkle in Time, dir. Ava DuVernay (2018)

Nailed It, dir. Adele Pham (2018)

Would Not Recommend

Woodshock, dir. Kate Mulleavy, Laura Mulleavy (2017)

Imitation Girl, dir. Natasha Kermani (2018)

Romy & Michelle: In the Beginning, dir. Robin Schiff (2005)

Rabbit Test, dir. Joan Rivers (1978)

-Brandon Ledet

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

After becoming accustomed to Josephine Decker’s aggressive, immersive subjectivity that sinks her films’ POV deep into the psyches of her fraught protagonists (in the films Madeline’s Madeline, Flames, and Butter on the Latch). I thought I knew what to expect from the still-burgeoning filmmaker. Thou Wast Mild & Lovely, her sophomore feature, mostly lives up to the pattern established in her other works. It shifts the gendered lens of her typical protagonists to a masculine POV, but otherwise her usual character-subjective sensory-immersion techniques remain. The extremity of the sexuality & violence depicted in the film feels way more intense than her usual impulses, however, as evidenced by the Kanopy streaming platform warning me of the film’s “graphic” & “offensive” content before the movie began. Thou Wast Mild & Lovely finds Josephine Decker taking her psychological horror show to the farm in what’s essentially her version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, her Spider-Baby, her Mudhoney. The visual & tonal aggression that overwhelms the screen is undeniably unique to Decker, but the ultimate destination of the narrative it serves is the closest she’s come to making an outright genre film. Butter on the Latch may vaguely recall the aesthetics & rhythms of The Blair Witch Project and there are plenty of unraveling-women-detached-from-reality horror stories that precede Madeline’s Madeline, but neither film match the feral-family horror extremity & familiarity exploited here, especially in its concluding minutes.

Joe “Mr. Mumblecore” Swanberg stars as a hired hand who spends an unbearably tense summer working for a mean-drunk farmer (the always-welcome Robert Lonsgstreet) and his dangerously horny daughter (Sophie Traub). The archetype of the sex-starved farmer’s daughter who lures visiting men into inciting her father’s vengeful wrath is so old-hat that it’s often the subject of bawdy schoolyard jokes. Decker, of course, finds a unique spin on the cliché by filtering it through her typical method of sensory-immersion psychological freak-outs. The most terrifying aspect of Thou Wast Mild & Lovely is the way Decker alternates between sexual menace & genuine eroticism. On one level, the hired farm hand & love-starved farmer’s daughter dynamic plays out exactly the way you’d expect: with the pair using wrestling as foreplay, hiding their attraction & interactions from the father figure like teenagers sneaking away from a schoolmarm, and with the daughter conspicuously displaying private parts of her body as if it were an absent-minded mistake. On a deeper level, the farm hand’s fascination with her goes far beyond visually-stimulated sexual attraction, almost as if he were hypnotized by a witch. One glance at her body and he feels the need to rush off to masturbate in a “private” corner. When visited by his jealous young wife, he still can’t keep his eyes off the farmer’s daughter, transfixed. Meanwhile, her father watches intently as a mean-drunk voyeur, threatening to retaliate against their taboo sexual tryst with horrific violence. Eventually he follows through on that threat, but even when the film devolves into a genre film climax the intense eroticism remains, which only heightens the terror.

I may be overselling the horror genre payoffs to be found in Thou Wast Mild & Lovely. An average horror devotee unfamiliar with Decker’s larger catalog would likely be frustrated in waiting for the film’s last-minute shift to extreme Texas Chainsaw Massacre domesticity. Before these final minutes, the most horror-faithful indulgences on display are in quick flashes of gore-soaked nightmare imagery that torment the farm hand as he struggles to sleep through the night. His attraction to the farmer’s daughter is near-supernatural and the father’s drunkenly brutish behavior (a far cry from Longstreet’s more tender behavior in projects like Septien & Jules of Light and Dark) is consistently alarming, but those conflicts don’t cross the line into outright horror until the final minutes. It’s a testament to Josephine Decker’s ability to generate nightmarish tension & anxiety in audiences that all it takes is a couple last-minute events to tip her usual schtick fully into the horror spectrum. Her most interesting impulse is in that genre context is in Swanberg’s vulnerability as the figurative Final Girl. He’s helpless to the oversexed rural freaks that house him, unable to maintain any personal space or boundaries while under their employ, effectively making him a damsel in distress. Mostly, though, what’s interesting here is how the slight hint of genre filmmaking influences Decker’s usual mode, not the other way around. Swanberg’s portrayal of a man fraying under the pressure of animalistic lust & an aggressive environment is not unfamiliar to Decker’s typical works, but the extreme violence that release the pressure does feel unique for her. Decker’s craft is as arresting & unnerving as always here, so it should be no surprise that the film is nonstop psycho-sexual terror. The shocking thing is how easily that tone can be tipped into the direction of horror convention.

-Brandon Ledet.

Variety (1983)

The No Wave cinema movement arrived almost out of necessity & survival. The New York City financial slump of the late 70s & early 80s made for cheap living that encouraged a flourishing punk scene, brimming with drugged-out artsy types who had to find productive creative outlets for their pent-up energy, lest they die of drug overdoses. Early No Wave productions are dirt-cheap DIY pictures captured by snotty, over-confident punks who had no idea what they were doing with the camera, but boldly did it anyway. As the city’s financial rut softened and the cinematic novices gained hands-on experience, however, the scene grew up and effectively disappeared. Those who continued to make movies graduated from No Wave DIY experiments to legitimate productions: Jim Jarmusch went from Permanent Vacation to Down by Law; Susan Seidelman went from Smithereens to Desperately Seeking Susan; Lizzie Borden went from Born in Flames to the Showtime equivalent of Skinemax. Bette Gordon’s 1983 erotic drama Variety arrived midway into that dual transition. It’s slightly more polished than the grimy, rough-around-the-edges punk provocations of early No Wave. It’s also a far cry from a properly funded Hollywood picture, still feeling like a haphazard predecessor to the soon-to-tome indie cinema boom defined by names like Tarantino, Soderbergh, and (surprise!) Jarmusch. Variety is a post-No Wave, pre-Indie 90s microbudget art project, a cultural landmark with no clear contextual home. That same caught-between-two-worlds unease is also reflective of its protagonist’s mental state and the state of the city she lives in.

Variety stars Sandy McLeod as a sexually timid woman who, in a moment of financial desperation, lands a job working the ticket both at a NYC porno theater. Everyone around her seems confused about her decision to take the job. Friends are curious about her stories concerning the daily tasks & customer base at the theater, but are also visibly uncomfortable with her growing interest in pornography. Her patrons & coworkers leer at her through the ticket booth. They reach for what little flesh they can touch through the money hole as she hustles $2 tickets for pictures with titles like Beyond Shame, Purely Physical, and Nothing to Hide. Even she seems unsure what she’s doing there, nervously pacing in the theater’s lobby on her smoke breaks while obscene porno sounds blare in the background, until finally she works up the nerve to peek at the projections inside. She initially intends to keep herself separate from the prurient films beyond the ticket booth, treating her job as if it were no different from any other service industry gig. That compartmentalization proves to be impossible as she becomes increasingly fascinated with both the pornography and its customers. In particular, she becomes fixated on a sharply dressed mobster who frequents her theater, compulsively tailing him around the city in a conspicuous way that puts her in danger. There isn’t much of a narrative drive to Variety beyond its initial premise of a grimy porno theater seducing a “normal” young woman outside the safety of her social circle (and socially enforced sexual repression). She leaves that social familiarity to experience a grimy era of NYC at the tail end of its porno boom, a strange time when it felt like porn might eventually go legit and appeal to a wide, mainstream audience.

As an isolated document of a grimy 80s NYC, Variety isn’t exactly invaluable. The film does go out of its way to document street-side ads for pornos and the internal spaces of dirty magazine shops & arcades. However, that’s work that’s been much more thoroughly executed by more recent, academic outlets like The Rialto Report. Variety’s post-No Wave depiction of a young woman being lured into the fringes of sex work is also outshone by the similar territory covered in Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls. The difference there is that Working Girls is much less delicate about depicting the implied sex of its setting, whereas Variety only includes light softcore imagery in its porno theater projections. That timidity is also reflective of Variety’s engagement with its feminist themes, which mostly simmer in the background while the main narrative concerns itself with an inner-psyche character study. The strongest Variety’s feminist philosophy & pornographic mind comes through is in a couple scenes where the protagonist slips into long, unbroken erotic-fiction monologues recounting the “plots” of the films her theater is screening. Meanwhile, her friends uncomfortably ignore her newfound interest, frustratedly busying themselves with pinball & Chinese food as if they can’t hear her. There’s also a fantastic break with reality where she mentally projects her own internal fantasies onto the porno theater’s silver screen, imaginatively transforming herself into a vamp worthy of the dirty magazines she’s started reading. Variety is less a document of a long-gone grimy NYC than it is a character study set in that porno-soaked playground, tracking how the sex work subculture that bloomed in its era spilled over into the psyches & behavior of mainstream women curious about, but cautious of the pleasure to be found within.

While Variety might not be a one of a kind, invaluable depiction of NYC, it is an invaluable snapshot of late-No Wave filmmaking’s transformation & dissipation. Photographer Nan Goldin’s presence in the film as a side-character bartender (among other pleasant-surprise presences Luis Guzman & Cookie Mueller) is particularly illustrative of the film’s late-No Wave textures. The photographs Goldin took on-set are stunningly gorgeous, but the actual quality of the film proper has the faded, warm hues of a vintage dirty Polaroid. It doesn’t quite look as amateur as the deliberately shoddy outsider art of No Wave’s humble beginnings, but Nan Godlin’s photographs are still demonstrative of how different the film looks from a properly funded, formalistically crafted production. Variety is a No Wave film in transition about a woman in transition as a sexual being thanks to NYC’s own sexual culture-transition that would soon be snuffed out by Mayor Giuliani in the 90s. That prevents it from being an extreme example of its time or movement, but it does afford the film a very peculiar, ethereal quality of its own all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Sheer Madness (1985)

I’ve been conditioned to think of The New German Cinema movement of the 70s & 80s as an especially macho wave of filmmakers brimming with braggadocio, as typified by personalities like Werner Herzog & Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Discovering their contemporary Margarethe von Trotta was a welcome change of pace, then, as her work appears to deviate from that macho boisterousness wholesale. Von Trotta’s 1985 drama Sheer Madness traffics in the exact raw emotion & understated cinematic eye as typical New German Cinema fare, but the film also serves as a direct, uninhibited attack on the oppressive masculinity & overbearing personalities that tend to accompany that over-philosophical style of artistic restraint. This is the story of two women who form an intense, impassioned bond outside the control of the men in their lives and how that instantaneous attraction is treated like a dangerous form of madness. Their families & sexual partners worry & express frustration with this unbridled friendship, unable to influence the behavior of two women who act as if no one else exists in the world. Strong-headed macho brutes are portrayed as villains who corrupt, pervert, and discourage a beautiful thing before it reaches its full potential, when the standard would be for them to be the creative voices behind the camera. That corrupting influence closes around the two women, who find themselves just as hopelessly outnumbered as women directors were on the New German Cinema scene.

Ruth is a troubled painter. Olga is a literary college professor. Both academic women find themselves drawn to each other like magnets after Olga prevents Ruth’s suicide attempt at the outskirts of a drunken party. After a brief separation, Ruth confesses to Olga, “I often think of you. Somehow you must have felt it.” Olga does not verbally confirm, but she does begin to spend increasing amounts of time with the typically reclusive artist, much to the concern of every man in their social periphery. Even Ruth’s husband, who initially encourages the friendship to blossom, finds himself frustrated with the women’s dual, instantaneous obsession. He berates Ruth for having social anxiety around everyone but Olga, threatens her with hospitalization, and demands to know “What does she give you that I can’t?” Typically, this kind of story would fully tip into the realm of forbidden lesbian romance, but Sheer Madness is all the more fascinating for sidestepping that impulse. The two women dance together, stroke each other’s hair, make intense eye contact, and trade polite kisses on the cheek, but their mutual attraction cannot be explained by something as simple as sexual lust or romance. It’s instead allowed to sit uncomfortably as an intense magical spell, only occasional broken by the men in their lives who apply pressure for them to knock it off. The resulting relationship falls somewhere between Heavenly Creatures, Queen of Earth, and Call Me by Your Name – something as volatile & taboo as it is idyllic & enviable.

Margarethe von Trotta seems hyper-aware of her outnumbered status within an artistic medium dominated by macho blowhards, making the philosophy & isolation of feminism an explicit part of her text. Olga lectures her rapt classroom on the personal history of the poet Günderrode (in full, Karoline Friederike Louise Maximiliane von Günderrode), who came to prominence in a time when male artists were used to sidelining women as friends, wives, and mistresses – muses, not collaborators. Günderrode’s writing about two women who are “violently attracted to each other” is an obvious point of inspiration here, but I generally get the sense that the director also identified with her as a femme artist entrenched in a stubbornly macho medium. As thematically blatant as those feminist literature lectures can be, von Trotta mostly expresses herself though a quiet, unimposing subtlety. The boldest stylistic flourishes of the film are stray shots of black & white lyricism that occasionally break apart the stage play atmosphere of the proceedings by showing the world through Ruth’s bleak POV. Mostly, this conflict of a volatile, policed femme friendship is choreographed with such restraint that it’s difficult to tell if even a queer reading of the film is justified by the text itself or just our expectations of where these stories tend to go. In the film’s best scene Olga serenades a Christmas party with a downbeat rendition of the girl group classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” channeling Marlene Dietrich by way of Carole King. The body language she shares with Ruth & the visible discomfort of both women’s families say something very peculiar & almost subliminal that could not be expressed in dialogue. No matter how much von Trotta’s work aesthetically resembles her contemporaries’, the way that scene plays out (along with the central feminist conflict at large) feels entirely unique to her, divorced from the filmmaking braggadocio of her era.

-Brandon Ledet

Butter on the Latch (2013)

Josephine Decker’s critical notoriety skyrocketed in 2018 thanks to her two most recent features: the form-breaking documentary Flames and, more notably, the anxiety-fueled nightmare drama Madeline’s Madeleine. However, the director has been steadily working for at least a decade as an actor, an editor, a performance artist, a documentarian, and a below the radar auteur – frequently reduced to her role as a collaborator of mumblecore mainstay Joe Swanberg in critical discussion. It would be tempting, then, to assume that her notoriety breakthrough last year was a result of some great escalation in ambition or craft in her filmmaking technique, as is often the case with embattled mumblecore veterans who later make the leap to critical darlings. One viewing of Decker’s 2013 narrative feature debut Butter on the Latch will dispel that assumption in just 70 brief, nerve-racking minutes of full-on auteurist onslaught. All the basic building blocks of Madeline’s Madeline were already present in Decker’s debut five years ago; they were just contained to a more restrictive, boxed-in narrative so that their full value is not as readily apparent. I was even surprised to find that restriction often leads to more effective results, especially in terms of eeriness & character definition, even if Decker’s 2018 releases are technically more impressive in terms of pure narrative ambition. Her audacity & editing room mastery have always been in plain sight on the screen; it just took us half a decade to notice.

The tones & methods of Madleine’s Madeline are immediately apparent in Butter on the Latch, as the film opens with a young woman tearing through NYC in a frantic state – the audience immersed in her POV through visual & auditory-overloaded details. Decker’s vulnerably earnest depictions of performance art (a medium often parodically targeted in sketch comedy mockery) that commands so much of the runtime in Madeline’s Madeline is also the first introduction we have as an audience in Butter on the Latch—confronted with an uncomfortable, surreal image of NYC theatre. Most of Butter on the Latch is anchored to an entirely different kind of artistic performance, however: Balkan folk music. Harshly jumping from the concrete modernity of NYC to the woodland location of the East European Folk Life Center in CA, Butter on the Latch is most distinguishable from Madeline’s Madeline in its immersion in Nature. The Balkan folk music camp where most of the narrative is spent provides a pervasive deluge of percussive chants & instrumentation similar to what’s offered in the more recent film; the story is also framed through the fraught mental state of a frantically unraveling protagonist similar to Madeline’s Madeline’s. It’s mostly the thick-wooded greenery of the surroundings that alters the texture & atmosphere in a substantial way. The idyllic Nature getaway setting of Butter on the Latch recalls a more reality-fractured Blair Witch Project (but less straightforward-horror) or a more energetically surreal Woodshock (but less fashionable). I can only name one or two titles that fall within a stone’s throw of Butter on the Latch’s peculiar Natural menace esthetic, Felt & Queen of Earth, and they’re both remarkable works that were released years after Decker’s debut.

Besides its Natural setting, Butter on the Latch is distinguishable from Madeline’s Madeline in the restrictions of its narrative scope. Instead of going for broke in its detours from reality & immersions in an individual character’s perception, Butter on the Latch disorients its audience in much more concentrated, careful jabs. The film functions almost like a 2010s update to Persona, with two friendly-on-the-surface women becoming increasingly volatile in their unraveling friendship & entangling identities. Two friends reunite outside their NYC arts scene stomping grounds, using the Balkan folk music camp as a kind of restorative spiritual retreat. A fractured editing style purposefully confuses the crises that distinguish them from each other: a recent romantic breakup, black-out alcoholism episodes, an apparent drugging & sexual assault, an unraveling internal state, etc. We follow the story though just one character’s POV, but the divisions between them become so blurred, despite being the central source of conflict, that they might as well be one self-hating mess. Along with this blending of personae, the stakes of the central relationship exponentially escalate from jocular discussion of romance & sex to violent hallucinations of emotional outbursts & physical brutality. This mode of conflict isn’t all that different from the three-way maternal war of emotional outbursts & weaponized art in Madeline’s Madeline. The main difference it that the narrative is slightly more contained & restricted, so that the characters locked in subliminal battle are better defined as distinct personalities (paradoxically so, given the gradual melding of their personae).

The main thing I’ve learned from the few Josephine Decker pictures I’ve seen is that her credit as an editor is just as important as her seat in the director’s chair. Describing the tones & aesthetics of Butter on the Latch or Madeline’s Madeline can only convey so much of the experience of seeing them projected; the defining quality of these pictures are the minute to minute rhythms of Decker’s volatile editing style. Butter on the Latch speeds up, slows down, turns itself inside out, and explodes in poetic, unpredictable jolts in more interesting ways that any plot or imagery summation could ever capture. Her debut goes in & out of consciousness in strange, terrifying locales along with its protagonist, making a day (or 70min) in her head feel like a nauseating nightmare. It’s a skill in pacing & sensory immersion I was shocked to see already so well developed in her debut feature.

Just the fact that I spent so much of this review comparing Butter on the Latch to her most recent work lets me know that Decker’s merits as a cinematic voice are so singular that discussing individual releases from her feels like blurting out an incomplete thought. I probably shouldn’t have even reviewed this film until I had also watched its follow-up, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely­­, but I did find dialing the clock back to her start illuminating all the same. Butter on the Latch is so confident & slyly sinister that it made me appreciate Decker’s 2018 releases even more in comparative retrospect. Her work’s potency & clarity in vision only becomes more apparent the deeper you sink into her catalog; 2018 just happened the year most of us took notice.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 1/10/19 – 1/16/19

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

If Beale Street Could Talk – Barry Jenkins follows up his Best Picture winner Moonlight with an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel set in 1970s Harlem. From what I can tell without spoiling it for myself, it appears to be brimming with gorgeous costumes, sensual romance, and a seething indictment of America’s inherently racist system of “justice.” Looks heavy, but emotionally powerful.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening Fine art photographer RaMell Ross sets his gorgeous portraits of impoverished Southern lives in motion in his debut feature as a documentarian. The Ogden Museum of Southern Art will be screening the film for free on Friday 1/11, followed by a The Dismantling of Southern Poverty panel discussion with Ross & other artists on Saturday, 1/12.

Saboteur (1942) A film noir spy thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, featuring a co-writing credit from Dorothy Parker. Playing Sunday 1/13 & Wednesday 1/16 as party of Prytania’s Classic Movies series.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

The Favourite  Yorgos Lanthimos follows up the stubbornly obscure The Killing of a Sacred Deer with his most accessible feature yet: a queer, darkly funny costume drama about a three-way power struggle between increasingly volatile women (Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz). It’s both a gorgeous laugh riot and a pitch-black howl of unending cruelty & despair. Fun!

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & a medium that should be a total drag, but instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity.

Escape Room – The first significant release of 2019 is essentially the ideal version of Saw, with all the nasty torture porn & (most of) the nu-metal removed for optimal silliness. All storytelling logic & meaningful character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, truly preposterous gimmick, making for some delicious early-January trash.

-Brandon Ledet