Brandon’s Top 20 Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2019

1. Fighting With My Family This melodramatic biopic about WWE wrestler Paige does an excellent job conveying the appeal of pro wrestling as an artform, offers empathy to every character its story touches without shying away from their faults, and properly sketches out how much respect for women’s wrestling has evolved in the last decade (and how influential Paige was in that sea change). It’s also way dirtier than I expected, often playing like an R-rated Disney Channel Original.

2. Ma Octavia Spencer slums it as an unassuming small-town vet tech who parties with neighborhood teens in order to enact revenge for their parents’ past wrongs. It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Spencer devour scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.

3. Child’s Play An in-name-only, shockingly fun “remake” of the classic killer doll thriller by the same name. Much like the original, this is the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flick kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them too young on cable, and it directly pays homage to that very canon in references to titles like Killer Klowns From Outer Space & Texas Chainsaw Massacre II.

4. Paradise Hills An impressive coterie of young actors (Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle McDnonald, Eiza Gonzalez) square off against veteran badass Milla Jovovich in a near-future Patriarchal hell. It’s essentially Guillermo del Toro’s Stepford Wives staged on the set of the rose garden from the animated Alice in Wonderland. A femme fairy tale that takes its over-the-top, Literotica-ready premise refreshingly seriously despite the inherent camp of its (sumptuous) costume & production design.

5. Read or Not A list of things that make this Clue & You’re Next genre mashup immensely enjoyable: the careful attention to costume design, the Old Dark house sets, Samara Weaving, Aunt Helene, that “Hide & Seek” novelty record and, most importantly, the rapid escalation of its final ten minutes into full unrestrained delirium. Great nasty fun.

6. Saaho A Indian action blockbuster that opens as a fairly well-behaved Fast & Furious rip-off in its first hour, then pulls an outrageous twist I’ve never seen in an action film before, and finally reveals its title card and the announcement “It’s showtime!” The next two hours are then a throw-it-all-in-a-blender mix of Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious, The Matrix, John Wick, Iron Man, Fury Road and practically every other action blockbuster in recent memory you can name. Pure maximalism.

7. Pledge A nasty little VOD horror about a fraternity rush week from Hell. The dialogue and performances are alarmingly good for something on its budget level, which makes it all the more horrifying when characters you kinda like are tortured in extreme gore by frat bro monsters for a solid hour of “hazing.” It also sidesteps a lot of the usual misogyny of the torture porn genre by making both the victims & villains All-American macho types.

8. Good Boys Superbad is often praised for its final emotional grace notes shared between teen-boy BFFs who’ve struggled to maintain a tough masculine exterior throughout their entire preceding gettin’-laid adventures, to the detriment of their relationship. Here, the earnest vulnerability & emotional grace notes are constant & genuine from frame one, providing some much-needed hope for the men of the future. These are very good boys.

9. Braid Two amateur drug dealers escape police scrutiny by returning to the childhood home of a mentally unwell friend who’s trapped in a never-ending game of violent make-believe. A total mess but also a total blast. Gorgeous costumes & sets, gloriously self-indulgent film school cinematography, and genuinely shocking over-the-top turns in the “plot” every few beats. Think of it as Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era.

10. War Between this & Saaho, my two favorite action movies of the year are both big budget, Twisty blockbusters from India. This one is basically a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. It’s 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.”

11. Glass M. Night Shyamalan explodes his small-scale women-in-captivity thriller Split into an MCU-scale superhero franchise, but hilariously dodges all the accompanying genre spectacle that his budget can’t afford. I am very late to the table as a Shyamalan apologist, but by the time I was the only person in the theater cackling at his attempt to connect the mythology of his own cameos in Split & Unbreakable into a cohesive narrative arc, I was converted for life. What an adorable nerd.

12. Crawl A lean, mean, single-location creature feature in which a father-daughter duo fights off killer CG alligators during intense hurricane-related flooding. Only could have been improved by an alternate ending where they survive the storm only to discover that the entire planet has been taken over by gators while they were trapped inside. Should have ended with gators piloting the “rescue” choppers.

13. Escape Room Basically the ideal version of Saw, with all the nasty torture porn & (most of) the nu-metal removed for optimal silliness. All storytelling logic & meaningful dialogue/character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, truly preposterous gimmick: an escape room, except For Real.

14. The Head Hunter A medieval monster slayer seeks to add the head of the beast that killed his daughter to his trophy collection. An impressive feat in low-budget filmmaking that knows it can’t convincingly stage battle scenes on its production scale, so it makes up for it by leaning into what it can do well – mostly delivering grotesque creature designs & a nihilistic mood.

15. Booksmart Maybe not always the most hi-larious example of the modern femme teen sex comedy (in the recent The To Do List/Blockers/Wetlands/Slut in a Good Way tradition) but one with an unusually effective emotional core and more Gay Stuff than the genre usually makes room for. If nothing else, it felt good to know that the kids of Gen-Z are more than alright.

16. Greener Grass A warped Adult Swim-style comedy of manners about overly competitive soccer moms, featuring performances from D’arcy Carden, Mary Holland, Janicza Bravo, Beck Bennett, and similar Los Angeles comedy folks. Total illogical chaos and menacing irreverence from start to finish, with a particular debt owed to John Waters’s post-Polyester suburban invasion comedies.

17. The Breaker Upperers A New Zealand comedy about professional break-up for hire artists, a premise that’s pretty much a wholesome 2010s update to Dirty Work by way of Taika Waititi. Zings quickly & efficiently with incredibly well-defined characters, like a The Movie adaptation of a sitcom that’s already been going for years & years.

18. The Banana Splits Movie A SyFy Channel Original that’s somehow a genuine delight? It imagines a world where its eponymous Hanna-Barbera children’s show starred killer animatronic robots instead of failed actors in mascot costumes. Goofy & violent enough to be worthwhile despite how thin its character work is (with some especially nasty practical gore gags), which is more than you can say for most of the originals that network broadcasts.

19. Countdown Beyond just appreciating that there was a mainstream horror about a killer smartphone app in megaplexes this past Halloween, I admired this for adding three very distinct angles to the technophobic Killer Internet subgenre: the eerie unknown of user agreement text that no one reads; the startling menace of app notifications that unmute themselves every phone update; and car backup cam jump scares.

20. CATSTom Hooper’s deranged stage musical adaptation is the exact horned-up, ill-advised CGI nightmare that Film Twitter has been shouting about for months on end and I’m happy it’s been celebrated as such. Admittedly, though, I was absolutely exhausted by pro film critics’ competition to see who could dunk on the film online with the loudest or the funniest zingers, which tempered my enthusiasm before I got to enjoy its spectacular awfulness for myself (opening week!). As such, I suspect this is the camp gem of 2019 that will improve the most in years to come, once the hyperbolic discourse around it settles and it remains just as bizarre as ever.

-Brandon Ledet

Lily C.A.T. (1987)

There were countless Alien knockoffs that followed in the wake of Ridley Scott’s genre-shifting 1979 classic. Roger Corman alone produced three I can name offhand (Galaxy of Terror, Humanoids from the Deep, and Battle Beyond the Stars) and even that notorious schlockteur’s takes on the Alien template weren’t the cheapest or most derivative of the bunch. Within that crowded field, the straight-to-video cheapie Lily C.A.T. had very little chance of standing out as something especially unique or worthwhile. Yet, as it escalated to its own grotesque, cosmically horrific creature-feature crescendo, I found myself gradually convinced that I was watching something truly special, something that reaches beyond the confined-space creature feature dread of its obvious inspiration source to achieve its own rewarding, unnerving effect. If you’re going to be an Alien knockoff, you might as well strive to be the best Alien knockoff, or at least the most distinct.

Part of what saves Lily C.A.T. from devolving into sub-Alien tedium is that it’s more of a mutation of that seminal work than it is a Xerox copy. The film is immediately distinct from its fellow Alien riffs in its distinction as a mid-80s anime, converting the cheap sets & limited practical effects resources of this genre template into a freeing, visually impressive handdrawn animation style. It’s also, smartly, only an hour-long – firing off its checklist of genre requirements with rapid-fire efficiency where most cheap-o Alien riffs risk drifting into boredom in their half-hearted attempts to stir up atmospheric dread. Early in the film a character even asks aloud, “Hey captain, when are we getting to work? This is getting boring,” as if to signal to the audience that no time will be wasted in getting to the goods. Lily C.A.T. also mutates the Alien template by crossbreeding it with other creature feature influences: Cronenberg, The Thing, and any number of post-Lovecraft cosmic horrors you can conjure. It’s a quick, nasty little monster movie rendered in intricately handdrawn animation – the perfect genre nerd cocktail.

The story told here is so familiar it almost doesn’t require repeating for anyone who’s ever seen a spaceship-bound horror film. A motley crew of wisecracking Corporate employees are distracted from their stated mission by a distress call & a subsequent onboard alien invasion. They’re only broadly defined as “time-jumper” types: mercenaries who use the decades of hibernated sleep associated with deep-space travel to avoid personal troubles left back on Earth. Their individual archetypes are only developed from there in the way they’re drawn (uncomfortably so in the only black character’s exaggerated facial features) and their motivations for jumping time on their home planet (uncomfortably so in the main woman’s petty revenge on a romantic rival by returning twenty years younger than her). Their personalities matter less & less as they’re picked off by the invading alien creature, of course, although the film does generate suspense in an early reveal that there are dangerous intruders hiding among them under false credentials.

The threat of an intruder lurking among the crew is only an introduction to a larger theme of imposterism, which plays out in a much more grandiose fashion with a non-human member of the crew: the titular cat. Lily C.A.T. seems to be fascinated with the implications of traveling through the far reaches of outer space with a common housecat, and expands that detail from the original Alien film to generate the majority of its creature feature chills & thrills. While the crew assumes that it only has one cat onboard, that feline is actually copied by two of its own uncanny imposters. One cat is a robotic spy that secretly answers to Corporate back home behind their backs. In fact, it’s not a cat at all, but rather a C.A.T. (a Computerized Animal-shamed Technological Robot). The other imposter cat is a shapeshifting alien creature that fills its victims’ lungs with deadly body-morphing bacteria and gradually transforms into a grotesque Lovecraftian tentacle monster that absorbs the features of its growing list of victims in an exponential creepout. The original cat, unfortunately, does not make it too long into the film’s runtime, and we’re treated to a grisly confirmation of its . . . organic nature when its time onboard is up.

Weirdly, I’m not sure if Alien superfans would be the first audience I would recommend Lily C.A.T. to, unless their favorite detail from the original film happens to be Ripley’s relationship with her cat. This cheap DTV animation never had a chance to stack up to the original in a direct comparison, nor does it really attempt to. This film’s built-in audience is more likely nerds who salivate at the idea of any horror-themed anime or, more to my own alignment, weirdo genre enthusiasts who salivate over ludicrous killer-cat creature features like Cat People ’82, Sleepwalkers, and Night of a Thousand Cats. Surely, there’s some significant overlap between those two camps who will find Lily CA.T.’s shapeshifting-feline-tentacle-monster genre thrills exactly to their tastes. If nothing else, it’s a very specific niche that strikes a tone no other Alien knockoff ever could—animated or no.

-Brandon Ledet

Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

I didn’t really grow up with anime as a child, or even a teen. It was something I first explored in my early twenties in the aughts when it seemed like the last remaining sanctuary for hand-drawn animation in modern cinema. And even since then my familiarity with anime has been very surface-level, defined by major genre touchstones like Miyazaki, Sailor Moon, and Satoshi Kon. The one major exception I can think of in this late-to-the-table anime exposure was my childhood VHS tape of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, an 80s relic (and a Japanese-American co-production) that I watched countless times as a kid despite it being a drowsy, unhurried mess. Watching its contemporary peer Night on the Galactic Railroad for the first time recently felt like a weirdly comforting return to those childhood viewings of Little Nemo – one of the rare anime titles where I felt at home with the tone & artistry instead of in over my head with a genre I don’t know nearly enough about. Night on the Galactic Railroad is a soothing, hypnotic film for me, which is odd because it’s intended to play as a devastatingly somber fantasy drama.

This is an adaptation of a popular 1930s children’s novel from Japan, in which a lonely young boy escapes the isolation of caring for his sick mother in a small town where hardly anyone notices him by riding a magical late-night train with his only friend his age. For reasons unexplained, the movie decided to remain faithful to the book’s plot but recast most of its characters as talking cats. But not all of them! It’s in no rush to emphasize or justify this major alteration to its source text (or to clarify exactly why most characters are cats, but some remain human). In fact, it’s in no rush to do anything at all. It takes nearly 40 minutes for the titular magic train to arrive, before which we mostly watch our melancholic feline protagonist attend to his daily chores at work, school, and home. Once on the train, he has lowkey conversations about the immensity of the galaxy and the meaning of life with a series of passengers – including his aforementioned bestie and, most surprisingly, passengers of The Titanic. The tone is grim & low energy, slowly chugging along to a major reveal about what riding the train symbolizes in its closing minutes, long after an adult audience would have guessed the twist. If young children had the attention span to follow its story and parse out its symbolism, it’s devastating enough that it could really fuck them up. Instead, it plays like a minor-notes lullaby, a warm naptime blanket made entirely of grief & regret.

Besides my recollections of Little Nemo, Night on the Galactic Railroad reminds me of when I had Final Fantasy on Gameboy as a kid but didn’t really know how to play it, so I would just wander around the game’s villages talking to fictional strangers. Absolutely nothing happens in this movie and the feline character designs stray disturbingly close to online furry art, but it still works like a soothing salve on a troubled mind. This film is potent catnip for anyone who can lose themselves in the pleasures of looking at cute cats & outer space imagery for the eternity of a lazy afternoon. Its unrushed tedium isn’t boring so much as it’s a time distortion device, making 100 minutes stretch on for 100 pleasantly melancholic hours – like contemplating the nature of Death while drifting through outer space all by your lonesome. It’s not the dazzling, intricate artistry and propulsive excitement of anime that I’ve come to appreciate in recent years as I’ve sought out the legendary standouts of the medium, but rather the dozy nostalgia-prone slow-drift of 80s anime that I grew up with as a kid.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghost Cat (2003)

There’s an instant absurdist appeal to making a live action cat movie that I find endlessly entertaining, whether it be a “lighthearted” family comedy like Nine Lives or a weirdo genre film like The Night of 1,000 Cats or something in-between like The Cat from Outer Space. 2003’s made-for-Animal Planet TV movie Ghost Cat also splits the difference between those feline cinema subcategories. Starring a before-she-was-famous Ellen Page, still firmly in the Trailer Park Boys/I Downloaded a Ghost phase of her career, Ghost Cat is a cheaply ugly & transparently vapid time-waster of a family picture. Alternately marketed as a family drama under the titles Mrs. Ashboro’s Cat and The Cat that Came Back, it was only packaged as a feline horror thriller as an afterthought. Ghost Cat doesn’t have the heart to make a villain out of its titular threat, instead playing the ghost cat as a hero to animals everywhere & giving her the not-at-all-threatening name Margaret. Still, I found myself at least mildly charmed by the film’s quaintly campy thrills throughout and left it with a big, dumb smile on my face. The inane pleasures of a live action cat movie are that inherently strong.

Ghost Cat’s titular animal spirit is too lovable to demonize, so the film instead turns to the most tried & true villains of children’s media (and life in general): white businessmen. Greedy white men conspire to rob an old lady of her family home and her friendly neighbor of her animal rescue operation to make way for an Evil Real Estate Development Deal. Once the old lady dies alone at home, along with her cat (yikes! that’s depressing) the only thing standing in the way of the evil real estate development is the cat’s ghost and its only living human friend, a young girl played by Page. The ghost cat initially appears in the young girl’s stress-induced nightmares about her own dead mother, wildly meowing in an artfully inane montage of flames and black & white photographs. From there it does things you’d expect a cat’s ghost to do: mysteriously knocking items off shelves, walking across piano keys, and invisibly “making biscuits” on bedspreads. The cat’s ghostly deeds become more purposefully heroic as the film goes on, though, and Margaret eventually saves the day several times over by scratching the evil white men in the face and thwarting their shady contract deals by getting the right papers in the right people’s hands.

Made soon after national stories like the Enron scandal and Martha Stewart’s insider trading conviction, Ghost Cat has a surprising amount to say about how financial institutions are gleefully willing to rip off & tear down the people. The film even solidifies the threat by having its business cretins directly attack the most innocent victims possible: abused & neglected animals. It’s bad enough when they start the film pressuring an old woman to forfeit her property, but by the end the ghost cat has to stop them from literally gassing an entire animal shelter’s worth of rescues to death. That’s some top shelf TV movie villainy right there. Unfortunately, focusing the story’s weight on the evils of white man business dealings means there’s less room in the runtime for ghost cat tomfoolery, which is obviously the film’s main draw. I was satiated by the few ridiculous cat cam & feline nightmare sequences the film could afford me, but for the most part there just wasn’t nearly enough ghost cat in my Ghost Cat. This film is strictly for mid-afternoon lazy-watching, an easy on the brain indulgence that somewhat satisfies in its titular inanity, but leaves a lot of room to explore in future feline spirit realm cinema. I’ll be there for those future ghost cat experiments in TV movie artistry, but sadly I doubt Ellen Page will be joining me for the ride. She’s got better things to do. I don’t.

-Brandon Ledet

Kedi (2017)

In a lot of ways, cats are admirable role models. They roam the streets and live out their own ways of life no matter who’s judging. They go after what they want in the world and snatch it. They take naps whenever and often wherever they want to. Kedi is a celebration of cats—of their independence and embodiment of freedom. It follows seven cats as they roam through the streets of Istanbul just doing what cats do best: genuinely being themselves. Some of them are bullies. One of them is a total moocher. A couple are new mothers. All of them add meaning to and enhance the lives of the humans around them.

Kedi is also about cat people. All the interview subjects have unique relationships with the street cats around them. Some feed them, some go as far as to fund vet care, but they all have a connection with these strange little animals they love. In a lot of ways, Kedi restores my faith in humanity. All the people they talk to about these cats have a selfless understanding with them. They talk about them like old friends. When faced with the expansion and changing landscape of Istanbul, the people feel more concerned for their feline friends than for themselves.

It’s a super beautiful and vibrant movie. Istanbul is lovely as seen from a cat’s eye view. The camera follows them low to the ground as they prowl the streets looking for scraps and hiding spots. The camera also goes up to the rooftops to see the cats who have reached impossibly high perches. I’m not quite sure how they managed to really take on a cat like presence, but it is such an intimate portrait of such a foreign little world. I was amazed that they were able to follow a few of the same cats back and forth between their destinations. That also means, though, that the documentary has a cat-like sense of focus, meaning that it has a tendency to be a little meandering, shifting from subject to subject without many segues.

Kedi is a beautiful glimpse into feline world. It really puts you in the paws of these strange little creatures. You get to see the inner workings, their quirks, their street feuds, their hiding spots, the routines they stick to, and the kind-hearted people they choose. The world needed a documentary about cats. Kedi was a long time coming.

-Alli Hobbs

The Night of a Thousand Cats (1972)

fourstar

The 1970s was a truly vile era of schlock cinema, a decade of post-Hays Code liberation that’s just as notable for its New Hollywood artistic renaissance as it is for grotesque drive-in provocations like Cannibal Holocaust & I Spit on Your Grave. Whenever I watch horror films from the 70s era of grindhouse grime I usually prepare myself for the possibility of disgust, particularly in the decade’s beyond questionable depictions of sexual assault. I do have a few pet favorites from the era, though, rough at the edges gems that could’ve only been produced in the lawless days when exploitation cinema was king, a malevolent, slovenly king. I don’t want to say, for instance, that I’ve seen the minor schlock title The Night of a Thousand Cats more than anyone else, but it is a nasty 70s horror title I return to far more often than is typical for me. Ever since I picked up its laughably shoddy DVD print at an ancient FYE for pocket change, the film has held a strange, undeniable fascination for me. It’s something that could have only been made in what I consider to be the sleaziest, most disreputable era of genre cinema and, yet, I return to it often in sheer bewilderment.

You might expect a horror film with the title The Night of a Thousand Cats to be laughable camp, but somehow the inherent goofiness of a mass hoard of ravenous, man-eating house cats is severely undercut here. Much like with the mannequin-commanding telepathy of Tourist Trap, The Night of a Thousand Cats is far too grimy, loopy, cruel, and unnerving in its feline-themed murders to be brushed aside as a campy trifle. Its cocktail napkin plot is thus: a mysterious, wealthy man flirts with women by flaunting his opulence. Once (easily) seduced, he flies them back to his remote castle via helicopter, murders them, stores their heads in glass cases, and tosses their remaining meat to his ungodly collection of house cats, which might just meet the 1,000 benchmark indicated in the title. Before he can complete his collection of lovely lady heads, his cat army escapes confinement, turns on him, and eats him alive. It’s an inevitable comeuppance in a bare bones story with little to no frills in its individual beats. There’s certainly an alternate universe where the exact same premise could be played for absurdist, camp-minded laughs, but something about this film lodges itself under your skin. It’s disturbing to the point of feeling unethical, even more so in its treatment of cats than its treatment of women.

If The Night of a Thousand Cats were produced in 2016 there’s no doubt its titular feline hoard would be made entirely of CGI. In 1972, they used real cats. Like, so many goddamn cats. A lot of 1970s schlock is difficult to watch due to its gleeful cruelty towards fictional women. This film is disturbing for the way it treats real life animals. A sea of cats whine in a bare, concrete cage where they’re fed from above by casually-tossed, rare “human” meat. What’s worse is that the cats themselves are tossed at both their fleeing victims & their cruel master. It’s not quite the nasty on-screen animal cruelty of Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s still disturbing to watch. The only cinematic reference point I can really compare it to is the feline kill at the heart of Dario Argento’s Inferno. As uncomfortable as the film is to watch as an animal lover, however, it’s still fascinating as a relic from a time when filmmakers could go unchecked in such a questionable way. My usual discomfort with grindhouse slime is in the way sexual violence is exploited for shock value & (in the worst cases) titillation. The cat-tossing & cat-hoarding of this work is surely immoral in a similarly sleazy way. I’d never want to see it recreated in a modern context and it probably should have never been made in the first place, but it’s a fascinating document as is, one that’s effectively disturbing in both its on & off screen implications.

What’s most surprising about The Night of a Thousand Cats is that its depiction of predatory sexuality is actually somewhat enlightened & thoughtful, depending on how you read the film’s intent. Since there is a surprisingly minuscule amount of dialogue holding the film together, the terror of The Night of a Thousand Cats is mostly centered on the predatory evils of masculine seduction. The bearded playboy killer who collects heads & house cats could easily be presented as a target for envy from the audience. He vacations in beautiful locations, seduces beautiful women, and lives in an inherited mansion complete with an Igor-esque butler named Goro. The killer’s entire seduction process amounts to “Look at my helicopter,” but it’s a flirtation that works every single time. Instead of coming across like a prototype for The World’s Most Interesting Man, however, he’s played as an obvious creep. He directly tells his romantic partners that he wants to possess them, to “put you in a place where no one can’t touch you,” “a crystal cage”. The women find this possessiveness charming, but for the audience it’s a horror show, one that only leads to more cat feedings. We know so little about the killer that he’s defined solely by his wealth, his sexuality, and his masculinity. He inherited wealth from a family of “collectors” & strives to assemble his own collection of sorts that will stand as “the most interesting of all”, but that’s about it. We don’t even know for sure why he’s obsessed with cats. His interest in cats & women seems to be one in the same: a violent obsessiveness that’s smartly played for chills & vague menace instead of shameless titillation.

Some of the confusion in this film’s plot is surely due to its heavily-edited US release, which cuts a good half-hour off the original Mexican work for a slim hour-long runtime. The speed & disjointedness of The Night of a Thousand Cats plays to the film’s strengths, however, and through its strange, clunky edits the film feels at times like a clumsy art house dream world. In a way, it plays like a nasty grindhouse version of Knight of Cups, with its loose, largely dialogue-free disposal of beautiful women & the heavy psychedelic melancholy of a deeply selfish man. I don’t want to oversell this film’s competence. It’s an ugly mess first & foremost, but I’m continually fascinated by the surreal quality of its ugliness, the surprisingly deft way it handles the killer’s misogyny and (of course) its never-ending sea of bloodthirsty cats. I’m usually all for leaving the nastier side of grindhouse horror in the past, but The Night of a Thousand Cats is one ghost from that era I’d love to see brought back & re-examined. It’s a singularly strange & nasty work I return to way more often than I probably should.

-Brandon Ledet

April and the Extraordinary World (2016)

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twohalfstar

Movie magic is complicated alchemy. The hand-drawn French animation feature April and the Extraordinary World seems tailor made to have me on the floor, drooling. It’s a welcome reprieve from the flat, CG animation style that’s dominated nearly everything outside Studio Ghibli productions & stray stop-motion animations for the past couple decades. It stars a cool, fiercely independent female scientist & her sarcastic cat sidekick in its lead roles. It begins with an impressively ambitious alternate history sci-fi premise that sets the table for a grand, one-of-a-kind adventure. By all means I should’ve been over the moon with what the film delivers, but it never quite clicked for me. April and the Extraordinary World has all necessary ingredients to make movie magic, but there’s something noticeably off in the recipe.

Part of the problem might be that the movie throws so much of its narrative weight into its go-for-broke premise that there’s not much room left for genuine wonder after its opening exposition. Before we meet our scientist & feline heroes we’re steamrolled with a history lesson in an alternate timeline where famous scientists are abducted by a totalitarian French Empire of Napoleonic lineage and the resulting world is a steampunk’s wildest dream of coal-powered inventions & antiquated-yet-futuristic doohickies. There’s an awe-inspiring aspect to the film’s Future in the Past fantasy realm that recalls Miyazaki works like Howl’s Moving Castle, but never quite touch that master’s skill for emotional impact or his patience with luxuriating in the worlds he creates. The film somehow boils its vast, exciting plot into a generic chase film in which our two outsider heroes must protect a magical MacGuffin (a fix-all cure to death, aging, seemingly any illness) out of the hands of a malicious government & a mutated pair of failed experiments hellbent to destroying the planet. Once you strip it of a few quirks, the story is more or less interchangeable with that of any bloated superhero summer blockbuster of the past decade, which is a damn shame considering the massive potential of its launching point.

April and the Extraordinary World is a beautifully animated film, but I spent most of its runtime passively enjoying that visual treat without engaging with its emotional or narrative core. There are a couple ideas at play that make great use of its premise – only the older generation remembers a world with trees thanks to pollution & the world’s remaining scientists are forced into either hiding or weapons production – but for the most part it crams its extraordinary sci-fi ambition into an extra ordinary action chase plot. April and the Extraordinary World has all the necessary pieces to construct a gorgeous work of sheer wonder, but I found myself instead often wondering when it would finally be over. I hope its formula is more impactful for other people intrigued by the various charms of its individual building blocks, but I mostly zoned out on its emotionless proceedings & focused on the pretty lights & sounds. The movie is almost passable as pretty good, but it’s made of some fantastic material, an alchemist’s formula that should have produced pure gold.

-Brandon Ledet

Nine Lives (2016)

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fourstar

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Mark August 2016 down as the exact moment 90s nostalgia reached peak ridiculousness, since we’re apparently now making movies about corrupt businessmen who learn life lessons by getting turned into talking animals again (in this case a cat). And I’m talking real movies with real theatrical releases, too, not just some straight-to-DVD trifle from Air Bud Entertainment. Said talking animal comeback film, Nine Lives, even features two (!!!) Academy Award-winning actors and hinges its lovable furball antics on topics as hefty as greed, adultery, the ethics of leaving a vegetative state loved one on longterm life support, and attempted suicide. The result is a violent clash of tones that, as evidenced by the surprisingly well-attended screening I just witnessed, will have both toddlers and gin & soda-clutching wastoid drunks (It me.) alike laughing for the entirety of its runtime, albeit for wildly different reasons.

The most impressive thing about Nine Lives to me is how it finds a way to satisfy both sides of the toddler-drunk divide in its audience. For instance, the movie opens with a montage of cat videos lifted from YouTube, a tip of the hat to the audience that says, “Hey, we all know why you’re here, you pathetic thing you.” If you regularly find yourself losing valuable time to internet wormholes of cat-themed home video, you’re likely to get a kick out of Nine Lives‘s simple pleasures: a cat drinking scotch, a cat falling over, a cat slow-dancing with his human daughter, a cat rushing to prevent his human son’s attempted suicide. You know, the little things. If that weren’t enough, and if you don’t mind me spoiling a climactic moment in a children’s talking cat movie, Nine Lives presents internet permakitten Lil Bub as if she were the biggest celebrity cameo get of all time (and she very well may be). The movie’s dedication to broad comedy is inherent to its DNA, so it already has younger kids on the hook, but it also finds ways to rope in a goofier older set who showed up to chuckle at some cat-themed schlock. It does so both in its reverence for internet cat irreverence and in its subversive tendency to tackle dark, chilling topics in an incongruously lighthearted way.

Nine Lives opens with a greedy businessman (Kevin Spacey, Oscar Winner #1) ignoring his wife’s texts & daughter’s birthdays in pursuit of constructing the largest tower in the Northern Hemisphere, a monument to his own grotesque ego. Through a texting-while-driving PSA machination, our business prick anti-hero finds his body trapped in a coma and his mind trapped in an ordinary house cat. This arrangement is orchestrated by a mysterious pet shop owner (Christopher Walken, Oscar Winner #2), who uses his magical, secretive powers as a “cat whisperer” to teach the absent father, now known as Mr. Fuzzypants, a thing or two about humility & familial love. Mr Fuzzypants’s wife & daughter are super bummed about the unexpected coma patient in the family for about the length of a cab ride home and then immediately shift focus to the wacky hijinks of their new furball pet, who meows up a storm in frustration. In between getting drunk, spying on his wife’s suspected infidelity, leeringly watching her undress, and trying to maintain control of his business, Mr. Fuzzypants walks the audience through an inner monologue journey of sarcastic quips until he finally realizes, “I should’ve been a better dad.” His daughter comes to the same realization, declaring “I wish Daddy was more like the cat,” and bonding with the fatherly feline over slow-dances to The Coasters’ “Three Cool Cats” & retaliatory attacks on snotty preteen social media bullies. It’s all very silly (until you reach the suicide crisis of the climax, a moment so shockingly out of place it’s worth mentioning thrice).

One of the weirder aspects of Nine Lives I haven’t touched on yet is the film’s visual palette. Overall, it has an uncannily unreal, cheap feeling to its slick, CG look, recalling the living cartoon artificiality of titles like Speed Racer, Spice World, and Cool as Ice. The overall look of its sarcastic cat protagonist, however, is actually fairly realistic. This obviously isn’t the state of the art technological epiphany of Jon Favreau’s recent Jungle Book adaptation, but the cat genuinely looks pretty great considering the film’s budget. What’s really weird is how the realistic feline navigates the shoddy Photoshop aesthetic of his environment, creating a  strange fantasy realm space in the drastic contrast. Nine Lives thankfully doesn’t pull any last second “It was all just a dream” revelations in its conclusion, but its entire story could have all been revealed as a coma-induced hallucination at the end and the visual style would’ve comfortably supported the twist.

The king of anthropomorphic animal schlock in 2015 was undoubtedly the Jack Russell terrier pro wrestling picture Russell Madness. Nine Lives is a clear winner for 2016 so far (though it could’ve easily been surpassed by The Witch or The Shallows were they nudged a little harder in that direction). There’s something absurdly anachronistic about Nine Lives‘s very existence that makes it a fascinating watch as a modern theatrical release. Beyond its Jack Frost-type plot structure & cheap CG production design, Nine Lives manages to feel out of step with time in small details like its multiple George W. Bush & mean ex-wife jokes and its Gremlins-esque magical pet shop. And all this 90s-00s nostalgia haze serves to do is mask a truly disturbing tonal clash between toddler-friendly physical humor & pitch black subject matter, sometimes fused together, like in gag where the mysterious cat whisperer threatens to have Mr. Fuzzypants fixed.

I can’t promise you’ll get as hearty of a laugh out of lines like [trying to operate a computer tablet] “Ironically, I could use a mouse right now” & “Is this cat my dad?!” as I did, but I do think Nine Lives is recommendable for its horrific train wreck appeal in its inner conflict of tone vs. subject matter. When I first bought my ticket I was shocked that it was stamped with the incredibly high rating of PG. By the end credits I was shocked that it was marketed for kids at all. But there we all were, laughing in the theater together, children & tipsy adults alike, each clutching our respective juice boxes & hard liquor containers, finding a wealth of small joys in a dumb movie about a talking cat. A lot of people have declared this a dull summer for major releases without any particular film standing out as a one-of-a-kind event, but I can’t imagine a more essential cinematic experience than that.

-Brandon Ledet

Keanu (2016)

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It’s been a good while since I’ve seen a film in theaters and actually laughed out loud (at least for films that are actually meant to be comedies). I can’t even remember the last time I saw a comedy that would be considered a new release. I guess it would be Krampus, but Krampus is considered to be a horror-comedy and not just a straight up comedy. Recent funny films that have hit theaters would be The Boss, The Brothers Grimsby, and Meet the Blacks, just to name a few. Maybe the movie trailers and reviews didn’t do these films justice, but nothing about these films made me want to make my way to a theater and drop ten bucks to see them. Keanu was a different story. Knowing my love for cats, a friend of mine sent me the movie trailer for Keanu via text message. At first, I thought this was a silly trailer for a fake movie that was part of the Key and Peele sketch comedy show. Well, I just about exploded with joy when I found out that this was going to be a real movie. A real movie that was going to actually be in real movie theaters. A film about an adorable kitten mixed up in a drug cartel that included tunes from music legend George Michael was something I wouldn’t miss for the world. Yes, I definitely shelled out ten bucks for this one.

Keanu has a strong, action-packed start. Two assassins, known throughout the film as the Allentown Brothers (actually played by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), massacre a buttload of people in a drug lair housed by a church. A cute little kitten that goes by the name of Iglesias escapes the madness and ends up on the doorstep of Rell (Jordan Peele), who is going through a terrible breakup. Iglesias, renamed Keanu by Rell, brings Rell out of his depression and becomes the most important thing in his life. His world falls apart again when Keanu is kidnapped from his home. With the help of his straight-laced cousin Clarence, Rell sets out to find Keanu. The two end up going undercover as the infamous Allentown Brothers to get Keanu back with the nicknames of Tectonic (Peele) and Shark Tank (Key). Tectonic and Shark Tank join a gang with a leader that goes by the name of Cheddar (Method Man) as part of their plan to get Keanu back. The duo quickly finds themselves teaching teambuilding exercises to gang members and selling drugs to The House Bunny actress Anna Faris, among other things.

What I found to be very interesting about this film was that it was actually very violent and gory. The shooting scenes are brutal but funny at the same time. It’s a strange feeling for sure. Key and Peele really pushed the envelope by having all that violence in a comedy starring a super cute kitten. Also, one part the really stuck out to me was towards the end of the film when Clarence and Rell actually get arrested after taking down a major drug operation. It was so surprising because it was so realistic. Usually when the good guys in movies steal cars and deal drugs to ultimately take down the bad guys, they’re let off the hook and the film concludes to a silly happy ending.  In Keanu, our main comic stars go straight to jail after they save the day because, well, they actually broke a ton of laws throughout the movie.

Peele is by far the star of the show. He was absolutely hilarious consistently throughout the film, and I was laughing during just about every moment he was on the screen. He gets especially funny when he takes on the role of Techtonic. Unlike Key, he doesn’t rely on overacting and ridiculous Dane Cook-like humor to have a funny performance. I know that it sounds like I’m being harsh on Key, and I don’t really mean to be. He did bring a good bit of humor to Keanu, and he starred in one of my favorite scenes in the movie: while on a drug trip, he imagined himself in the video of George Michael’s “Faith,” tight jeans included. Clarence, like myself, is a huge George Michael fan, and there are some insanely hilarious parts in the film (other than the “Faith” drug trip) which involve his love for George Michael that I completely adored. Key’s style of comedy just doesn’t a-Peele to me as much as Peele’s, so I can’t help but compare the two.

Once the film was over, my cheekbones were sore from laughing so much, but then a more serious feeling came over me. I realized that I would probably do the same thing Rell did if my cat was in Keanu’s situation. Keanu’s adorable little kitten meow tugged at all my heart strings, and hopefully, other viewers had the same reaction. Keanu was like an Air Bud for adults. In a world filled with animal abuse and abandonment, it’s nice to see a film that promotes human/animal bonds. Give your fur babies lots of kisses and hugs and catch Keanu before it leaves theaters!

-Britnee Lombas