Family (2019)

Nathan Rabin’s pop culture travelogue You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is one of my favorite books of the past decade – an incredibly empathetic portrait of two pop music subcultures who are too-often, too-openly mocked by outsiders: Phish fans & Insane Clown Posse fans. Of those two groups, it’s the juggalos who could use the empathy boost the most in their public esteem, especially after the mockery that accompanied the release of the Insane Clown Posse single “Miracles” (you know, the one with the magnets). To outsiders, juggalos are unfashionable, uncultured, low-intelligence dorks with a penchant for violence & a hideously tacky horror-clown aesthetic. The FBI even recently went as far as to classify them as a gang. By spending time amongst them on their own turf (and unexpectedly becoming a juggalo of sorts himself), Rabin discovered a different side of the much-mocked subculture. He found them to be a wide, dependable network of societal misfits who offer a chosen-family safety net to anyone who needs it. The public perception of juggalos is that they’re low-life, hedonistic criminals with no moral code. In practice, they’re shockingly wholesome and bonded by a strong sense of solidarity.

If you’re not fully convinced that gaining greater juggalo empathy is worth reading an entire book, maybe watching the 85min mainstream comedy Family is an easier sell. Orange is the New Black‘s Taylor Schilling stars as a family-negligent businesswoman whose self-absorption drives her niece to run away to become a juggalo. The film opens with a genuine, in-the-wild “You’re probably wondering how I got here” gag as Schilling stumbles through the annual juggalo convention (and open-air drug market) The Gathering in a clashing business suit & clown makeup lewk. While that introduction teases that the film will be fully immersed in the juggalo deep-end, most of its Insane Clown Posse content is saved for its final half-hour, once her wayward niece has already been indoctrinated into the “gang” as a full-blown juggalette. The movie’s eventually really sweet about juggalos as a subculture & a Family once it gets there, though, with all of the drug-addled, Faygo-soaked horror clowns banding together to help find a missing child who might be in danger. It’s an oddly touching portrait of an unfairly maligned community, one that feels very much true to how juggalos are portrayed in Rabin’s lengthier defense of their collective character.

Before its juggalo redemption arc hits its full stride, Family is fairly low-key in how it distinguishes itself as a modern comedy. Only Schilling’s presence as the family-ignoring, business-obsessed lead who eventually learns her lesson about what’s really important in life stands out as anything special, and only because Schilling pushes that archetype’s usual narcissism into an unusually dark extreme. Before it stumbles into uncharted territory at The Gathering, the film reminded me a lot of The Bronze in how it looks & acts like a normal mainstream comedy in all ways except in how it allows its lead to be incredibly selfish & cruel without worrying about whether audiences will find her “likeable.” Schilling’s absurdly self-absorbed lead is the perfect POV for a juggalo skeptic, as she’s skeptical of anything & everything that’s not a lucrative business opportunity or a tall glass of white wine. She’s deeply relatable to any of us who’ve found ourselves lashing out as closed-minded cynics who see everything in the world we’re not immediately interested in as total bullshit (I’ve been there, at least), and there’s something remarkably charming about her learning to be more open-minded & considerate from a group as low in her estimation as pot-smoking clowns who consider listening to novelty rap a lifestyle.

If Family falls short as a juggalo story, it’s in not affording as much of an inner life to the juggalette-niece character, played by Bryn Vale. She’s broadly characterized as an awkward social outcast in search of an empowering identity, so it makes sense that she’d find comfort in the all-accepting, outcast-embracing juggalo Family. A movie that focused entirely on her journey & inner-life could have played like an Insane Clown Posse-themed variation on Eighth Grade, which might have been even more fascinating than the low-key mainstream comedy we get here instead. Family gets by just fine distinguishing itself as is, however, establishing a peculiar, R-rated wholesomeness that’s just as darkly funny as it is oddly sweet. Schilling’s juggalo-skeptical audience surrogate is a perfect encapsulation of most people’s initial attitudes toward uncool, unfashionable subcultures on the wrong end of the poverty scale, and it’s just as satisfying to watch her learn to empathize with weirdos that far outside her comfort zone as it is relatable to watch her in full-cynic mode in the film’s opening act. It’s not as comprehensive of an argument for juggalo empathy as You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, but it’s just as funny & much more succinct.

-Brandon Ledet

The Paperboy (1999)

It has occurred to me as I’m writing this review that I have now covered ten feature films by no-budget backyard auteur Matt Farley – most of them more than once. Considering how excited I am for the completion of Farley’s next D.I.Y. horror comedy, Metal Detector Maniac (due later this year), I don’t see that enthusiasm for the Motern Media canon tempering any time soon. Part of this bottomless enthusiasm is due to Motern’s way of becoming exponentially more charming & addictive the further you sink into the catalog. The jokes become funnier, the characters become more intimately familiar, and the lopsided plot structures become more satisfying the longer you’re immersed in Farley’s off-kilter, hyperlocal POV. More importantly, though, Motern movies are fun to write about because they’re genuinely inspiring to me, as someone with their own experience in self-publishing & go-nowhere art projects. Matt Farley, his filmmaking collaborator Charles Roxburgh, and their long-recurring cast of family & friends have been consistently making movies for decades to little acclaim or notoriety outside their New England social circle (and the few weirdos who stumble onto their wavelength over the internet). Even if the movies weren’t especially great, their persistence over decades of self-publishing into the void would still be a remarkable achievement. The fact that the films are all uniquely hilarious & memorably bizarre on top of that consistency is truly incredible, an over-achievement in D.I.Y. artistry.

In that respect, there are few Matt Farley movies more inspiring than the 1999 college-campus comedy The Paperboy. While most of us wasted our college-age energy on bong rips & Simpsons re-runs, Farley was already a fully operational media factory. He actually followed through on the “Wouldn’t it be cool one day?” aspirations of aimless twentysomethings who fantasize about making movies but never get around to it, completing a no-budget feature film with only a few friends and some dorm room ephemera at his disposal. It’s funny too! Against all odds, The Paperboy is just as comedically successful as later Motern-defining triumphs like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! & Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas. It’s missing a few of the familiar faces who would later become Motern legends (with a baby-faced Roxburgh stepping out from behind the camera to take up more of that screentime himself), but otherwise this unassuming campus comedy is business as usual for Farley & crew. It’s both increasingly hilarious the longer you stew in its absurdly low-stakes, deadpan humor and increasingly inspiring the more you realize just how few resources Farley had at his disposal (especially once you consider what you were doing with your own downtime at that age).

Matt Farley stars as the titular paperboy, a college campus entrepreneur who sells essays to lazy (or overworked) students who’d rather spend money than do their homework. He guarantees at least an A- on every purchase and his slogan is “Never the same paper twice!” It would be impossible to fully convey how the execution of that premise is funny here, since the humor is entirely dependent on Farley’s deadpan commitment to the bit. The only over-the-top details that distinguish his paper-selling operation as a comic exaggeration are the network of spies he employs to keep the operation discreet and the disguise that obscures his identity while delivering the goods: a tighty-whities “mask,” a customer-blinding headlamp, and a superhero cape. Otherwise, we merely watch the paperboy make his daily rounds and struggle to keep his true identity under wraps while also courting a potential love interest. It’s all executed in the exact way you’d expect a late-90s college student with a camcorder would film a feature-length comedy sketch, complete with taste-signaling touches like a Rushmore soundtrack CD & a Boogie Nights poster proudly featured in the dorm room background. Farley even indulges in some surprisingly crude, college-age humor here that you won’t find elsewhere in the Motern catalog, staging the first paper sale as if it were an act of prostitution and assigning one of his employees the walkie-talkie codename “Firebush.” As always, though, the thing that sets this Motern relic apart from its no-budget college campus peers is that it’s way funnier from gag to gag than you’d reasonably expect. The movie is essentially just a few late-90s Providence College nerds enjoying a goof with their camcorder, but it’s genuinely funny from start to end.

The one gag that really distinguishes The Paperboy as something special is its overly long non-sequitur in which the paperboy becomes fixated on the operation hours of the campus café. He takes precious time off his paper-selling obligations to campaign to school administration & students that the café should be open 24/7 (mostly so he can munch on complimentary popcorn while writing papers at odd hours). To achieve this goal, the paperboy & his most trusted employee (Roxburgh) team up to film a deranged PSA about the campus café’s necessity to be open around the clock, which only further confuses his target audience and derails his mission. This movie-within-a-movie tangent is pure Matt Farley, proving that the young auteur was already fully formed as an artist even when he was living in a college dorm. Practically every Matt Farley movie features an increasingly absurd political cause that only Farley’s character fully believes in, confounding everyone around him. It’s a recurring, self-aware joke on the Motern mission itself: a decades-spanning marathon of overlapping art projects that seemingly only Matt Farley cares about. Watching a bewildered audience scratch their heads at the nonsensical café PSA—not at all getting what Farley & Roxburgh are trying to communicate—is some incredibly sharp, aware meta-commentary for a couple of college kids who had no idea how long into the future they’d be suffering that same embarrassment. It’s also just an incredibly funny gag in the moment, one that elevates the film from surprisingly solid to truly great.

I’d recommend immersing yourself in some of Farley & Roxburgh’s more recent comedies before time-travelling back to The Paperboy. At the very least, the Motern mission statement Local Legends is a must-watch primer for fully understanding what they’re up to with their extensive catalog of low-stakes absurdities. Once you’ve gotten a handle on the Motern sensibility, however, The Paperboy is just as funny and just as inspiring as Farley’s best work to date. It’s also conveniently available on YouTube for anyone who’s curious, which is a nice consolation to indulge in as the world impatiently waits for the next Motern masterpiece to be released.

-Brandon Ledet

Selfie (2020)

One of the first major event cancellations this year was the SXSW festival in Austin, TX. That announcement was the exact moment when the widespread infection of COVID-19 in the US became a tangible reality for a lot of pop-culture obsessives like myself, as SXSW is a massive, institutional event that almost seems too big to simply skip over. The programmers of SXSW’s film festival wing apparently felt the same way. While the physical venues remained empty this year, festival programmers eventually found a way to keep the ritual alive in some capacity, taking advantage of having a captive audience at home in quarantine who couldn’t safely fly to Austin to watch movies en masse but could easily find time to stream them online. For the last week in April, a small selection of films that were programmed to play at this year’s SXSW were made available to stream for free on Amazon Prime to anyone in the US – preserving the film festival experience despite our current crisis by making it digital.

The most amusing inclusion in the SXSW showcase on Prime was the French anthology comedy Selfie, which at its heart seems antithetical to the SXSW ethos. Self-described to be a joke “on the influence of new media on good people,” Selfie is a series of interlocking, technophobic shorts that mock the modern ills of the social media age. Like a sketch comedy variation of Black Mirror, the film is endlessly fearful of technology’s influence on our daily lives, finding a never-ending supply of satirical targets under the Online Culture umbrella worthy of scorn & scrutiny. It’s especially funny to see that mindset presented in the context of SXSW in a year when internet distribution was the festival’s only chance of happening at all. For SXSW to program a technophobic satire on the evils of technology would be an amusing-self own in any year; more so than most other cultural fests, it’s an especially tech-obsessed event intended to market the latest in apps, doodads, and gadgetry. This year was especially ironic timing, though, since the entire festival was online and there were so few films for it to promote that Selfie was prominently front & center.

As a frequent sketch comedy apologist who loves even the trashiest movies about Evil Technology, I’m probably a terrible metric for whether someone else would enjoy Selfie. I got a kick out of the film as a joke delivery system and even found the flow of its interconnected vignettes to be impressively constructed, like a modern-day update to Mr. Show. The individual gags are appropriately sharp but never outright cruel, making sure that the satirical target is always Social Media itself and not the everyday people who use it. That kindness is even extended to the introductory nuclear family who have been so gradually immersed in transforming their adopted child’s life-threatening illness into content fodder for corny YouTube inspo videos that they’re completely unaware of how pathetic they’ve become. In the closest thing the movie has to a wraparound story, their desperation to maintain their child’s online fame even after his illness is cured reaches new lows every time we check back in on their unraveling, but they never stop being anything but normal and, frankly, boring people. They’re just normal people who’ve been badly influenced by modern tech.

That’s not to say that the movie is averse to throwing punches. It’s critical of social media Influencers in particular: celebrity YouTubers with confounding audience reach but no creative substance, white-nationalist terrorism recruiters who prey on lonely children online, inhumanly perfect Instagram braggards with perfectly curated lives, etc. It just manages to throw those punches while seeming more critical of online behavior rather than online people. Even a bookish, Luddite high school teacher who chides her students for being “lazy and perverted and glued to their phones all day” instantly devolves into a smartphone-addicted Twitter troll as soon as she discovers the lure & power of online anonymity. The movie doesn’t dunk on her after she sinks to her lowest moments of online bullying, either. Instead, it allows her to form an increasingly intimate connection with her Twitter rants’ most frequent target, so that in a roundabout way social media actually does its supposedly intended job of bringing people closer together.

That sentiment is echoed in how the seemingly disparate cast of anonymous Parisians throughout the shorts all know each other through friends-of-friends or daily irl happenstances. As much as Selfie is willing to rib its characters over their individual obsessions with YouTube view counts, Uber ratings, and turning all intimate family moments into entertainment media, it’s ultimately a movie about our shared, communal follies in a new global communication landscape we’re not yet sure how to properly navigate. We all fuck up online on a regular basis, even if just by mindlessly scrolling through the same two or three social media platforms long after we’ve drained them of their in-the-moment entertainment value. That daily buffoonery is more apparent than ever in the current COVID-19 lockdown limbo, where most of us are spending more of our lives online than ever. In that way, programming Selfie as one of the highlighted features for the at-home SXSW experience was exactly on-point, even if its mild technophobia would normally be antithetical to the fest.

– Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Playtime (1967)

Our current Movie of the Month, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, is a dystopian farce that clashes futuristic sci-fi sterility with the slapstick chaos of Silent Era comedies. Playtime isn’t as screamingly funny from gag-to-gag as its Silent Era sources of inspiration; it’s more of an intellectual exercise that drolly pokes fun at the absurdity of Modern Living. In that respect, the film is undeniably genius. It’s a patient, nightmarish vision of the way that technology worship is slowly homogenizing all culture & art into one amorphous, spiritless Hell. The minor laughs along the way only soften our frustrations & despair over Capitalism’s momentum towards that inevitable global monoculture, in which new product is more valued than natural humanity.

My initial impulse for recommending further viewing to audiences who want to see more films on Playtime‘s wavelength was to dive deeper into the Monsieur Hulot catalog. Tati directed himself as Hulot in four feature films, most of which overlap thematically with Playtime‘s humanity vs. technology themes. Watching the entire Hulot saga in one go would likely be a bit draining, though, since most of Tati’s directorial work operates with the same low-key tone. Instead, here are a few suggested titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema that touches on its themes & charms without repeating them wholesale.

Jour de fête (1949)

Part of the reason I expected bigger laughs out of Playtime is because the only other Tati movie I had previously seen was his debut feature, Jour de fête. It’s a much, much funnier movie than Playtime in terms of staging laugh-a-minute gags. It’s also a much less distinguished movie, creatively speaking, as it merely feels like Tati emulating the Silent Era comedy stylings of Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin without adding much innovation of his own. Like Picasso learning to paint naturalistically before he devolved into Cubist mayhem, Jour de fête feels a lot like Tati earning the right to play with the purpose & structure of traditional, vaudevillian comedy by proving he knows how to effectively play it straight.

In terms of setting & atmosphere, Jour de fête is the total opposite of Playtime. Tati stars as a bicycle-equipped mailman in a tiny French village who’s overwhelmed by the sudden influx of work that accompanies a traveling carnival arriving on the scene. Eventually, though, the film adopts the same skeptical eye that Tati’s later work would have for modern innovation, as the mailman attempts to deliver mail in a rapid, new-fangled “American style” that causes exponential chaos on his delivery route. Modern techniques & innovations disrupting the simplicity of daily living was apparently something Tati was interested in exploring from the start of his career, and it’s refreshing to see him pull that off in such a stripped-down, deeply silly context (as opposed to the massive, Parisian-scale sets he built for Playtime).

If you want to see Tati in full, unrestrained goofball mode before his work got more intellectually heady, Jour de fête is a wonderfully funny film from start to end. It’s not as memorably grandiose or artistically mannered as Playtime—so it’s not nearly as essential—but comedies don’t need to be astounding achievements in craft to be worthwhile.

Modern Times (1936)

Chaplin’s Modern Times obviously shares a technophobic sensibility with Playtime in its basic themes, but it’s also stubbornly old-fashioned in a similar way in terms of its form. Made in the post-Depression 30s long after talkies had taken over filmmaking as the industry norm, Modern Times is just as nostalgic as Playtime for Silent Era artistry. There’s minimal spoken dialogue in the film, and it’s mostly sidestepped through the intertitles & pantomime that Chaplin was used to working with – a stubborn nostalgia for filmmaking tradition that Tati would pick back up decades down the line.

Like Playtime, Modern Times is highly skeptical of the convenience that modern tech is supposed to afford our daily lives. Instead of mocking the pointless, homogenizing consumerism that Tati’s film spoofs, however, Chaplin instead warns of the way technology will be used to further exploit working class labor. The film’s most iconic gags are anchored to its opening stretch, wherein factory workers on an assembly line are surveilled & tormented by their supervisors in a series of escalating indignities. This culminates in a few key images from a near-future automated dystopia: Chaplin being admonished via video screen for taking a breather in the company restroom, Chaplin being force-fed a meal via robot to cut down on lunch-break productivity dips, and Chaplin being consumed by the machinery wholesale – whimsically traveling through the assembly line cogs & gears as if it were an amusement park ride.

Overall, this is a much angrier picture than Playtime. Instead of bumbling through absurdly contrived machinery meant to streamline modern life, Chaplin’s tramp character is a chaotic agitator who breaks down the very machines that was were designed to exploit his labor. It’s also a much funnier picture than Playtime and, not for nothing, a masterpiece in its own right.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

The dystopian warnings of Playtime & Modern Times were fairly accurate to the nightmare we live in now all these decades later, but it still wouldn’t hurt to pair them with a more modern update. The 2018 Boots Riley comedy Sorry to Bother You is a gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire that taps into the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re living in today like no other film I can name. Just as angry about class disparity & economic exploitation as Modern Times, Sorry to Bother You is bursting at the seams with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out in every over-the-top gag. Unlike the even-tempered, carefully curated confection that Tati achieved in Playtime, Riley’s film is never satisfied with exploring one idea at a time when it could just as easily flood the screen with thousands all at once, subtlety & restraint be damned. Where the films differ in tone, however, they greatly overlap in their fear of an inevitable, homogenized monoculture – a world without any recognizable sense of genuine humanity or localized community.

Overall, Sorry to Bother You‘s concerns are more aligned with the labor exploitation fears of Modern Times; this becomes especially evident in the film’s back half when its corporate villain, the fictional Amazon surrogate Worry Free, redesigns the human body itself for maximum labor efficiency. Worry Free’s insidious mission does overlap greatly with the monotonized, spiritless dystopia of Playtime for much of the film’s runtime, though. Their preference would be that the entire working-class population live on campus at their factory jobsites, six workers to each bunkbed slumber cubicle. Billboards with cheeky slogans like “If you lived here you’d be at work already” and desperately “chill” MTV Cribs episodes advertise these uniform live-at-work cubicles as a convenience that’s too tempting to pass up, but for the audience at home it’s easily recognizable as a nightmare vision of our not-too-distant future under the rule of Emperor Bezos.

While Riley’s film is much more tonally & politically chaotic than Playtime at large, it does have its own touches of carefully curated twee whimsy when it’s in the mood (including an out-of-left-field Michel Gondry gag). Both movies also share a bumbling protagonist who’s just trying to get through his day while a rapidly modernizing world around him makes every decision feel like a complex puzzle – whether one of morality (Sorry to Bother You) or one of practicality (Playtime). As you can likely tell by this group of recommendations, I tend to gravitate more towards Riley’s chaotic, messy sensibilities over the restrained subtlety of Playtime, but I still found a greater appreciation for both titles through the comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Giants & Toys (1958)

One of the most difficult genres to translate across cultural & language barriers is the comedy. While there’s a visceral, immediate impact from action & horror that make them near-universal, comedy usually relies on a mutual cultural foundation shared between creator and audience, so that those shared norms can be exaggerated or upended. The Japanese business-world satire Giants & Toys sidesteps the exported comedy’s cultural disconnect by centering its humor on a simple, easily translatable thesis that would resonate with any audience no matter their background: “Capitalism is bad.” That isn’t an especially complex or nuanced target for the movie to satirize, but it is one that’s only become increasingly relatable across all borders in the half-century since the film’s initial release.

A trio of cutthroat caramel companies compete to out-exploit each other over increasingly trivial differences in candy sales. As the Big Three candy companies race to out-Willy Wonka each other with the latest developments in caramel technology and marketing gimmickry, their tactics get progressively more vicious & unscrupulous, but the stakes for victory remain largely unimportant. There’s more than enough candy money to go around for all three companies to profit, but personal increases in sales is not enough to satisfy their corporate bloodlust. In a game where “Eat or beat eaten; cheat or be cheated,” are the only rules, success is only measured by the destruction of your enemies, and the stress of striving for that market dominance every waking moment drives the companies’ executives’ bodies into the ground. As they cough blood into their pristine handkerchiefs under the exponential, ulcer-inducing stress of the job, it never stops being amusingly pathetic that they’re sacrificing their health over something as frivolous as determining the best prizes for children to earn by mailing in UPC codes from candy wrappers. Capitalism is the farce, and this movie is smart about capturing it at its most inane & inhumane.

The only detectable shred of humanity in this picture is Hitomi Nozoe’s performance as the up-and-coming spokesmodel Kyôko, who functions as an element of chaos in the otherwise regimented world of corporate candy sales. When she’s first plucked from poverty & obscurity by the marketing executives who intend to make her a star, she’s a wild brat with an adorable distaste for being told what to do. The demands of being a spokesmodel for a corporate product—even a childish indulgence like candy—means that she’s pressured from all sides to be sexualized & politely mannered in the public eye. She refuses for as long as she can, subverting her handlers’ attempts to objectify her by lashing out like a goofball child on a never-ending sugar rush. Her rotten teeth & wagging tongue are especially powerful weapons in this effort to maintain her autonomy, earning most of the movie’s biggest laughs. Unfortunately, she can’t thwart the company who owns her image forever, though, and a corporation smoothing out her rough edges is one of the film’s greatest tragedies. This is a largely downbeat, defeatist tale—especially for a comedy—and much of its gloom & deviousness relies on Kyôko’s arc and the wild energy of Hitomi Nozoe’s performance.

Whether or not Giants & Toys has anything especially novel to say about the corrosive nature of Capitalism, its vulgar sense of humor and sleek stylishness (bolstered by an arbitrary Space Age marketing gimmick pursued by one of the Big Three candy companies) make for a fun, continually surprising watch. The intrusion of a chaotic outsider upending its corporate boardrooms’ routine exploitation schemes makes it feel like a Japanese precursor to Putney Swope (except that it’s more consistently rewarding than Putney Swope from gag to gag). Most comedies don’t translate nearly this well across cultural & language barriers, but most comedies don’t tackle such a universal, enduringly relevant satirical target. Giants & Toys‘s “Capitalism is bad” thesis may be surface-level & broad, but the film sets itself apart from other corporate-world satires by highlighting that culturally universal subject’s ugliest & most absurd extremes in a perversely fun way.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Playtime (1967)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer watch Playtime (1967).

Hanna: My taste in film—especially comedies—was heavily influenced by the movies my dad watched.  He seemed to be especially enamored with movies about men successfully and improbably bumbling their way through circumstances that are totally beyond their comprehension with fantastic bouts physical comedy (Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator and Peter Sellers The Pink Panther are notable favorites).  Those films helped foster a love for absurd comedy in general, especially in relation to everyday helplessness in the face of bureaucracy (I am a big fan of The Trial and Brazil) and our attempts to convince ourselves that the world isn’t totally confounding most of the time.  About a year ago I stumbled onto Playtime (1976) while perusing through the Kanopy website, and it managed to unite all of those wonderful threads—a hapless man shuffling through confounding obstacles, the unsettling prospect of navigating inhuman systems, and the natural delights of an good old-fashioned goof—into a gorgeous comedy that shimmers up into my mind at least once a month.

Playtime, directed by Jaques Tati, follows an assortment of characters—namely, a Parisian in his mid-50s named Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati) and an American tourist named Barbara (played by Barbara Dennek)—ambling through a variety of settings in a grayscale Kraftwerk version of 1960s Paris. The film begins in an airport (which is so devoid of identity that I mistook for a hospital for the first few minutes) as groups of tourists leave and enter Paris, and follows them into an absurd rendering of downtown Paris, a giant gray set populated by tourists and businessmen and an sea of monolithic steel and glass structures. It is here that we meet Hulot, who seems to be in the city on some sort of business, but is so completely baffled by the city that he’s not really capable of accomplishing much of anything.  Next, we follow Hulot into a bizarre gadget trade show, then out of Paris’s commercial center and into a domestic one; he runs into an old friend, who invites him to see his “ultramodern” apartment complex, a sleek set of gray cubes with glass walls facing the street (very modern, and a voyeur’s delight). Once Hulot leaves the apartment, we follow a group of young American tourists to the disastrous opening of The Royal Garden, an upscale restaurant and club with such shoddy and poorly planned construction that it begins to fall apart before the guests arrive. The film ends on the morning of the following day, as tourists prepare to leave for their homelands and Parisians prepare for work.

These distinct environments, which connect to form the absolute heart of the film, were part of an elaborate set built for Playtime called Tativille, which covered six acres of land in southern France; its construction added significantly to the film’s production period (three years) and budget ($15.4 million euros today), and was burned down after production ended.  Tativille radiates a kind of colorless disorientation through its impenetrable grayness, its blocky monotony, and its perpetual electric buzz that perfectly illustrates the surreal experience of living in a world that opposes organic engagement.  The comedy in Playtime rests on the tension between existing in and navigating vast technological and bureaucratic systems, which are both unnecessarily complex and hopelessly illogical. In an early scene, for instance, Hulot carefully considers a map containing absolutely no helpful information in an attempt to orient himself in an office building, only to find that he is standing in an elevator that is quickly rising many, many floors away from the man he’s supposed to be meeting.  In one of the film’s most iconic moments, he witnesses a terribly inefficient file transfer in a perfectly arrayed rat maze of cubicles.

What I like most about this tension, though, is that human connection does persevere sometimes, especially in the latter half of the film: restaurant patrons sing old songs together amid the restaurant’s wreckage, pipelayers collaborate to sneak a glass of beer in the morning, and life goes on.  It’s nice (and naïve, given the current moment) to imagine that technological, bureaucratic, and capitalist systems around us might just be baffling, as opposed to actively toxic and harmful.  Britnee, how did you feel about the environments in Playtime?  Do you think the world Tati built is still relevant?  How do you think those environments would have changed if Playtime was made today?

Britnee: It took me a while to realize that the film wasn’t set in a hospital, so I was relieved to read that you got the same hospital vibes in the first scene.  Everything about each environment felt so sterile.  I would usually find nothing but discomfort in such plain and ultra-clean environments, but given the current COVID-19 circumstances, I felt at ease.  I’m also surprised by how interesting the each environment turned out to be.  I was fascinated by the restrooms in the airport (Confession: I love exploring different types of public restrooms in general).  They were built just like an office cubicle, and offered no privacy for the men walking in to use it.  That’s the thing with the cubicle structure that is ever so present in this movie.  While it seems like a cubicle offers privacy, it really doesn’t.  It gives you just enough privacy to think you’re hidden, but you aren’t.  Parts of you are still seen and your movements and discussions are still clearly heard by others.  You’re just contained in a place where everyone knows where to find you, sort of like a lab rat in some sick experiment.  I work in a cubicle, so I’m speaking from experience.  It’s the worst.

I’m also just finding out about Tativille, and I’m so blown away.  An entire city built from scratch, only to be burned to the ground and never seen again.  RIP Tativille.  Whether Tativille would still be relevant today is a tricky question.  Modern office spaces are moving towards having more open work spaces, with no more cubicles and glass walls and doors.  Even modern homes are typically built or renovated with an open floor plan, where walls are being torn down to create more opportunities for togetherness.  The separated style of the airport, business office, and trade show of Tati’s world would be a bit different today.  However, the minimalistic look of the building’s interior and exterior would most definitely be relevant.  I can’t help but think of the overpriced, cheaply built homes, apartment buildings, and office buildings popping up all over New Orleans.  They appeal to many—mainly newcomers to the city—with their modern, lifeless look.  So much so that a plain three-bedroom shotgun home can easily go for half a million dollars within a week of popping up out of nowhere.  Even modern restaurants popping up around New Orleans are similarly styled to the one in Playtime, with a bar that looks like a science lab instead of an actual bar.  I truly think that a modern day Tativille would not look that much different than the one from 1967.  It would be a little more open but still just as soulless in design.

I found a lot of humor in the group of American tourists. It made me think about my trip to Paris a few years ago that I took with a group of people. There was a time where the majority of the group almost passed out with joy at the sight of a Starbucks, which I couldn’t understand at all.  Why would anyone go to Starbucks while in Paris, surrounded by so many unique cafés that aren’t found anywhere else in the world?  These were the same folks who were amazed by the huge steel buildings in the business district while bored with the charming cobblestone streets of Montmatre.  This is one of the many reasons why I travel solo nowadays.  Brandon, were there any particular characters or groups that you found to be funny?

Brandon: Honestly, judging Playtime‘s merits as a comedy is where I struggle most in my appreciation for the film  overall.  It reminds me a lot of over-budget American comedies of its era like What’s New Pussycat? & It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World that packed gigantic casts into sprawling runtimes, drowning out their intended madcap humor in a flood of flop sweat.  As a comedy, I am not convinced that Playtime is as screamingly funny as it needs to be to justify the effort that went into constructing it (or the effort that goes into watching it).  Every single gag is precisely designed & picked over so that no hair is left out of place, yet the overall comedic payoff amounts to the polite chuckles of recognition that East Coast Intellectuals get out of reading New Yorker cartoons.  On one hand, I do believe that was the intended effect of the piece — to stimulate the intellect of its viewers by drolly poking fun at the absurdity of Modern Living.  After all, Chaplin had already utilized the same cinematic slapstick medium to attack the same satirical target decades earlier for full-bellied laughs in Modern Times; it makes sense that Tati would want to push the artform into a new, exciting direction in his own revision.  Still, I found myself struggling to adjust my personal metrics of what makes a successful comedy while watching Playtime, since I’m trained to expect laugh-a-minute gags from the genre — something this movie isn’t particularly interested in providing.

If there is any one sequence that I found especially funny, it’s the hip, modernist restaurant’s disastrous opening night.  There is something incredibly satisfying about watching a pristinely mapped-out, designed-to-death space gradually break down into drunken chaos as that sequence progresses.  As Hanna mentioned, it is one of the few instances of the film where the natural disorder of humanity actually breaks through the monotonous control of technology that makes most of the film feel so sterile, and that payoff was a huge relief.  I don’t know that any one character within that sequence stuck out to me as a favorite, because this is a film that generally follows the progress of commotion rather than following the progress of particular characters.  Monsieur Hulot himself doesn’t enter the restaurant until well after the wheels have already fallen off among other diners and the staff, and he’s ostensibly the film’s protagonist.  I did find a lot of humor-of-recognition chuckles in the predicaments of the anonymous restaurant staff, however: the bartender having to work around an ornamental wall hanging that impeded the practical motions of his job; the waiter whose uniform gradually breaks down as the unfinished jobsite slashes at his armor; the doorman who continues to pretend that nothing is amiss hours after the glass door he is in charge of shatters, etc.  The restaurant sequence reminded me a lot of the specific indignities & absurdities of my own years working in the service industry, which combined with my general thirst for unstructured chaos to elicit most of the film’s biggest laughs.

I might struggle with assessing Playtime as a comedy, but as a dystopian vision of the way that technology worship is slowly homogenizing all culture & art into one amorphous, spiritless Hell, the movie is absolutely genius — undeniably so.  Although most of the film’s characters are playing tourist throughout Paris, we only see famous monuments like the Eiffel Tower & the Arc de Triomphe in the reflections of mundane skyscrapers’ endless grids of windows.  The sterile airport’s lobby advertises travel posters for other exotic, romantic destinations — each with the same uniform super-buildings waiting to bore & confound visitors in a new climate.  There are many ways in which technology is incredibly helpful in connecting the world as a communication tool, but it’s also aiding capitalistic forces that would prefer the world entirely homogenized so that it’s easier to control & market to.  In some respects, this dystopian vision of Paris is no different than would be if it were set in Tokyo or São Paulo or downtown Houston, Texas.  All distinguishing cultural features have been effectively, systematically erased, which is a loss that all major cities’ populations are currently fighting to prevent — lest their communities transform into endlessly repeating grids of skyscrapers & condos.  If this is a work that relies on the humor of recognition, it’s a success in how it reflects my own fears of New Orleans’s trajectory towards corporatized monoculture in the post-Katrina years (a disturbing trend Britnee already noted earlier).  Except, I feel just as much frustration & despair in this seemingly inevitable arc towards global singularity as I do humor in its relatable minute-to-minute absurdities, if not more so.

Boomer, how did you find Playtime‘s balance between humor and despair?  Were you more affected by its dystopian vision of a globally homogenized future or by its optimistic assertion that the quirky disorder of humanity will always find a way to burst through the seams (as in the chaotic restaurant opening)?

Boomer: I like that Hanna mentioned Brazil in her introduction, because that was the first thing that came to mind during the scene in which Hulot waits as one of the people with whom he is meeting walks towards the camera from very far away, moving at a rapid place but taking a nearly interminable time to reach the foreground destination.  This film is dystopian, but I never would have defined the film that way if the pump had not been primed, so to speak.  I tend to conceptualize dystopias—Oceania, Panem, the Cardassian Union—as monolithic and oppressive by nature and intention; the bureaucratic nature of dystopia is an effect and not a cause, a consequence of the indifference and pragmatism needed to prop up and propagate malice, to give it credibility through structure.  Playtime is the story of the opposite, where bureaucracy gives birth to depersonalization rather than the other way round.

As for the humor . . . Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is (not quite accurately) cited as the first feature-length animated film, and the Disney-propagated narrative is that the majority of resistance to the film’s creation was the idea that no one would want to watch a feature-length cartoon.  To an extent, Playtime is that feature-length cartoon that a standard audience would find difficult to complete — cutesy sound effects accompanying the movement of actors filmed on a Synecdoche, New Yorkian labyrinth film set that evokes a depressed Tex Avery.  At nearly two hours, it’s perhaps slightly too long for me to enjoy.  Unusually for me and my normal tastes, the film’s narrative actually acts against it, as I enjoyed the individual vignettes well enough in and of themselves (give or take a few), but forcing an interconnectedness between them extended the length unnecessarily.  For a film that foregoes “plot” so much as it does, what filaments of story that exist strangle much of the comedy for me.  I would have preferred if we had cut straight to Hulot’s visit with this old friend in his ultramodern exhibitionist apartment rather than having the two run into each other and Hulot having to be convinced.  There are so many fun and enticing images in that section: the different television sets bathing two households in identical light, the way that each family and their guest(s) seem to be starting at each other at certain moments as if in a conversational lull, the framed, boxed-in portrait of home life that may be a commentary on the banality of the domestic sitcom, for which it could easily be mistaken.  But the bracketing of this sequence with Hulot’s reluctance to arrive and his desperation to leave reduces it to be less than the sum of its parts.  So I was equally affected by its quirky humanity?

I don’t want to be down on Playtime or unnecessarily critical, because I’m glad I’ve seen it.  My favorite gags were the aforementioned filing sequence, Hulot and his colleague seeing each other reflected in the glass of a different building and mistaking their positions despite being within feet of each other, and every time poor Barbara got harassed by her clingy friend while just trying to enjoy Paris (there’s not that much dialogue in the film, but 25% of it consists of “Come on, Barbara! C’mere, Barbara!”).  I just feel like I got shuffled about in it, which I suppose could be the point.

Lagniappe

Boomer: I was terribly disappointed that the electronic broom only had headlights. I was imagining a Roomba on a stick.

Britnee: The Royal Garden restaurant scene is both one of the longest and one of the funniest scenes in Playtime. A turbot à la royale is being prepared and seasoned tableside for several diners, but it never gets eaten. It’s wheeled around the restaurant while getting salted and peppered numerous times, and for some reason, I found it to be so funny while also being very anxious about it at the same time.

Hanna: There’s a moment in the beginning of Playtime where an American tourist essentially forces an older woman selling flowers on the street to pose for a photo. The woman’s flowers are one of the only sources of organic color in the movie, and the photo-op is ostensibly an attempt to capture the rustic essence of Paris. The shot is repeatedly interrupted by other tourists, businessmen, and young Parisian ne’er-do-wells walking through the frame. When they’re finally gone, a man in military garb approaches the two women and asks them both to pose in his photo. This scene reminded me so much of tourists in the French Quarter, especially in the context of the city’s gentrification and the homogenous gutting of shotguns across the city; people will continue to document the vestiges of a city’s cultural identity as if they’re ubiquitous, even when they’ve been reduced to purely cosmetic touches on an anonymous backdrop.

Brandon: The only other Tati movie I have seen to date is his debut feature, Jour de fête.  It’s a much, much funnier movie than Playtime in terms of staging laugh-a-minute gags.  It’s also a much less distinguished movie, creatively speaking, as it merely feels like Tati emulating the Silent Era comedy stylings of Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin without adding much innovation of his own.  Like Picasso learning to paint naturalistically before he devolved into Cubist mayhem, Jour de fête feels a lot like Tati earning the right to play with the purpose & structure of traditional, vaudevillian comedy by proving he knows how to effectively play it straight.  If you want to see Tati in full, unrestrained goofball mode before his work got more intellectually heady, it’s a wonderfully funny film from start to end.  It’s just not as memorably grandiose or artistically mannered as Playtime, so it’s not nearly as essential.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)

-The Swampflix Crew

Obtuse Todd (2006)

Backyard New England filmmaker Matt Farley’s bread & butter is the same go-to genre that most no-budget directors rely on: the horror comedy. Farley (along with close collaborator Charles Roxburgh) is obsessed with the teenage hangout intermissions between kills in the slasher & rubber monster subgenres of horror in particular. Expanding on the goofy surrealism of that downtime affords his films a uniquely bizarre quality you won’t find in any other cheap-o D.I.Y. horrors. The subtly surreal, humorously underplayed hangout film does have firm roots in other D.I.Y. filmmaking corners, though, not least of all the post-Clerks “indie” picture. With Obtuse Todd, Farley & Roxburgh attempted to graduate from the goofy backyard horror comedy to the Film Festival oddity, another routinely overlooked genre that’s mostly cast off into the independent distribution void – seen by few and enjoyed by even fewer. In fact, the film has become something of a “lost” work in the Motern Media catalog, as it failed to earn any of the film festival entries Farley & Roxburgh submitted it for, so it’s been officially “unreleased” to this day (except as a “hidden” bonus feature on Gold Ninja Video‘s recent Blu-ray release of Farley’s magnum opus, Local Legends). Matt Farley is nowhere near a household name, so it’s difficult to convey how excited I was to finally watch this discarded Motern classic. It’s like someone handed me a free DVD copy of The Day the Clown Cried just to see me smile.

As always, Matt Farley stars in the film as a Matt Farley type: an amateur songwriter named Todd who suffers a go-nowhere desk job so that he can pay his rent (and write more songs). Most of the action is confined to Todd’s unadorned, white-walled apartment (presumably where Farley himself was living at the time of production). And by “action” I mean hilariously inane dialogue exchanges in which Todd navigates complicated relationships with the few other characters in his orbit: a workplace crush he cannot muster the confidence to ask out, a precocious teenage stranger who obsessively calls him at all hours of the night after a fateful misdial, and that girl’s father – a meathead brute who initially threatens to beat Todd to a pulp for being a “pervert” but eventually becomes his bandmate instead. Most indie hangout comedies of the 90s Slacker Era would have maintained this simple, interpersonal drama as a day-in-the-life portrait of eccentric characters. Farley & Roxburgh can’t help but tilt their version of the no-budget Festival Movie into some kind of genre territory, though, so Obtuse Todd takes some wild swings at transforming into a psychological thriller instead. Todd’s over-the-phone teenage stalker doesn’t deal with his increasingly stern rejection of her advances lightly, and the second half of the picture shifts from Clerks to Misery as she exacts her deranged revenge. And that’s somehow not half as strange of a development as how Todd’s songwriting career takes off with his new bandmate/bully. I can see how film festival programmers would have been baffled or underwhelmed by Obtuse Todd as a cold submission, but in the context of the Motern canon it makes total sense and is a total delight.

I wish Obtuse Todd had arrived later in Matt Farley’s catalog, and it could make for an interesting direction for the Motern brand to return to in the future. This oddity arrived before the crew’s major creative breakthroughs in Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, in a time when they were still producing small-scale pranks like Druid Gladiator Clone & Sammy: The Tale of a Terrible Teddy. The only element at play that really feels like they’re operating at full power is Motern celebrity Kevin McGee’s performance as Todd’s bully/bandmate. Watching the two mismatched weirdos singly wildly popular novelty songs about food is explosively funny, especially in juxtaposition with the film’s more grounded Indie Drama & Psychological Thriller influences. Otherwise, Obtuse Todd feels like a dry run for what Farley & crew would later accomplish with success in the self-promo self-portrait Local Legends. For any of those minor comparisons & clarifiers to make any sense at all, you already have to be fully immersed in the Motern Media cult, in which case you should already be stoked that this is finally out there in the world regardless of its limitations. As such, all I can really do is encourage you to buy the limited-edition Gold Ninja release of Local Legends—one of the greatest films of the 2010s—before it goes out of print. Obtuse Todd‘s inclusion on that disc is pure lagniappe, but if you’ve read this far into this review you surely recognize the value of that gift. Its delayed thriller plot, novelty songs about apple pie, and maniacal close-ups of Matt Farley brushing his teeth are alone treasures worth seeking out for anyone who’s already been indoctrinated into the Motern Media cult.

-Brandon Ledet

Troop Zero (2020)

Once upon a time, the Sundance Film Festival was a cinematic tastemaker that would routinely break new artistic ground by spotlighting low-budget, high-ambition filmmakers who’d come to define the innovative spirit of Indie Filmmaking: Todd Haynes, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, etc. Those days are long gone. The typical Sundance story in recent years is instead one of immense hype, followed by a sharp decline in critics’ & audiences’ enthusiasm. Year after year, the hottest new movie opens to rave reviews & skyrocketing acquisition prices at Sundance, only to later flail in wide distribution. The rest of the festival’s schedule between those early-buzz duds is typically padded out by cute-but-inoffensive indie comedies with a lot of heart & earnestness, but nothing that could be mistaken for innovation. It’s like the festival’s programmers hit a wall after the breakout success of Little Miss Sunshine and have desperately scrambled to recreate that formula every passing year to no avail. The result is a lot of ill-advised distribution purchases that don’t survive the grueling test of wide-audience cynicism and even more harmless-but-trivial indie comedies that don’t get seen by audiences at all.

Troop Zero is the exact kind of adorable, feel-good underdog story that Sundance gets mocked for programming year after year as line-up filler. It follows the Little Miss Sunshine story template as if it were a strict roadmap, pushing Beasts of the Southern Wild co-writer Lucy Alibar’s penchant for cutesy childhood whimsy into the outer limits of good taste. Does the movie feature a ragtag group of bullied, outsider children who fight to compete against the talent-show pageantry of more popular, privileged brats? Yes, and when they fail miserably it’s treated as more of a victory than an embarrassment. After all, victory isn’t some trophy you can take home to put on your shelf; it’s the friends you make along the way. If you’re not careful, this movie can give you a tooth-size cavity, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take pleasure in the fact that it’s sweet. If anything, Troop Zero is proof that the modern Sundance formula actually works; or it at least helps explains why the formula can be so enticing for the festival’s programmers & attendees. The film’s roster of pint-sized outcasts & jaded adults is incredibly charming. Its minute-to-minute gags are consistently funny, or at least-heartwarming. I even got a little verklempt at the emotional payoff of its climatic talent show (twice!), despite seeing exactly where the story was going lightyears away. The formula may be safe & predictable, but it works.

Set in an artificially cutesy version of 1970s Georgia (which looks conspicuously like contemporary rural Louisiana), Troop Zero details the rise & fall of the titular, shaggy Girl Scouts troop (or generic Girl Scouts equivalent) as they fight for legitimacy in a system that does not want them. Their unlikely organizer is an astronomy-obsessed nerd who covets the prize for the scouts’ annual Jamboree talent show: a vocal recording that will be launched into space as an attempt at extraterrestrial contact. This space-record MacGuffin sets a clear goal for our tiny protagonist to accomplish. She must form a Girl Scout troop among fellow weirdos adjacent to her trailer park, earn enough merit badges to land a spot in the climactic talent show, wow the judges with her adorkable fabulousness, and then speak her truth to the aliens she so desperately wants to contact. Only, she learns over the course of this journey that making friends among her fellow pint-sized weirdos is more fulfilling than defeating the more popular, privileged troops at the Jamboree, and the aliens eventually take second place in her heart to her newly formed group of friends. The entire tale is potently, unashamedly cute, and your response to that overdose of twee whimsy will depend largely on your cynicism towards that arena of pop media in general.

There’s no denying that Troop Zero is formulaic. Its entire premise feels like a shrewdly calculated mixture of Little Miss Sunshine, Troop Beverly Hills, and Southern Women nostalgia pieces like Fried Green Tomatoes and Now & Then to synthesize the perfect Sunday afternoon comfort-viewing. Nothing about the film feels especially authentic to the oddball charms of Southern living, which is especially apparent in Jim Gaffigan’s slack-jawed parody of Poor Southerner archetypes as the protagonist’s dumb-drunk father (and in directors Bert & Bertie’s status as British outsiders to the culture). Gaffigan’s performance is the only instance of the movie punching down, though. Most of the cast is fully committed to the bit, especially Viola Davis as the slumming-it small-town law student who’s destined for bigger things (an amusing reflection of her over-qualified credentials for the role) and Allison Janney as the heel administrator who’s absurdly obsessed to shutting the troop down before they make it to the Jamboree. Even with all that big-name talent, Mckenna Grace is the film’s clear MVP as the science-nerd protagonist that holds the cast of oddball children together as their overenthusiastic leader. Her off-kilter, Kool-Aid addled charisma is so effortlessly charming that you can’t help but for root for her roundabout scheme to contact space aliens, no matter how contrived it sounds on paper.

I can’t predict whether Sundance will ever reclaim its former glory as a groundbreaking film festival with any real significance as a beacon of artistic innovation. It can certainly do worse than routinely boosting these feel-good underdog comedies, however, which are just as harmless as they are effortlessly charming. It would be extremely limiting if the only kind of indie movie that earned coveted festival slots were post-Little Miss Sunshine trivialities where “a bunch of losers and trash that nobody wants” learn to “be sweet to each other.” That doesn’t mean those movies can’t be individually enjoyable for their own merits, though, and this one’s more winningly adorable than most.

-Brandon Ledet

Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh (2020)

When I traveled to California for the first time last year, I was low-key worried that I might be inducted into a cult during my brief visit and be trapped there forever. I was already on the mailing list of a California-based U.F.O. cult at the time, and most of the cults I’ve become familiar with while researching movies over the past few years have originated in the state: The Church of Satan, Scientology, The Buddhafield, etc. There’s just something about the California temperament and its invitation for transplants to remake & remarket themselves in the state’s robust pop culture industry that makes its citizens uniquely susceptible to cult-leader predation.

Given how abusive most of those cult leaders become with enough time & unchecked power, that topic is a questionable foundation for a kooky, twee comedy. Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh is about a young couple of Middle America transplants who move to Los Angeles in an effort to reinvent themselves, only to immediately become involved in the treacherous, routine bloodshed of a suicide cult. It’s a lot cuter than it sounds, considering the real-life abuses that it parodies, but it might ultimately be too cute to resonate with any significance at all. Seven Stages is an overwhelmingly harmless, breezy movie about ritualistic suicide – which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it were funny enough to distract from that tonal discrepancy.

Kate Micucci and Sam Huntington costar as recent L.A. transplants who are horrified to discover that their new apartment is only cheap because it’s the preferred “worshiping” grounds of a suicide cult. Taika Waititi plays the cult leader—the titular Holy Storsh—which is excellent casting considering his magnetic charisma as a real-life Personality. Thanks to Storsh’s teachings, intruders repeatedly break into the newly arrived couple’s shithole apartment for the privelege to commit suicide in their bathtub – a ritual aimed to achieve the bliss of “instantaneous eternity.”

This seems like an extreme practice at first, but the more the couple digs into Storsh’s vague self-help mumbo jumbo the more they warm up to their uninvited, self-harming visitors. They gradually transform their apartment into a Luxury Assisted-Suicide B&B to accommodate the ritual, then inevitably become indoctrinated into the cult as active participants themselves. It’s a tale as old as California, although in real life it tends to end in devastated & befuddled relatives back home rather than light chuckles & a wasted afternoon. I don’t know that I expected the movie to operate with the same Traumatizing Apartment Cult intensity as Rosemary’s Baby or anything, but it certainly could have benefited from taking the violence that drives its light-hearted jokes more seriously, at least so that there would be some tension for the punchlines to relieve.

There’s a sitcom-style repetition to the visits from the guest-start suicide cultists as they take turns breaking into the apartment, which allows the movie to pack in a ton of familiar, always-welcome faces who’d please any comedy nerd with an affinity for the L.A. scene: Maria Bamford, Mark McKinney, Brian Posehn, Dan Harmon, etc. These tangential guest-star spotlights don’t register with any staying power outside their momentary gags, though, so all that really matters is the unraveling of the central couple who rent the doomed apartment.

Some signs of the couple’s mental unraveling are absolutely inspired, especially the loopy improv-style backstory of why they had to leave Ohio and the gradual escalation of their birdhouse-building home business that transforms the apartment itself into a Lynchian otherworld. Mostly, though, the only memorable details from the picture are Micucci’s natural adorability and the catchy bathtub-themed suicide jingle Taika Waititi’s enigmatic cult leader sings over the opening credits.

The rest of the movie just gently flows down the drain as a pleasant-but-forgettable amusement – decent enough for lazy-afternoon viewing, but not worth going out of your way for despite the impressive cast list on the poster. Given the ultraviolent premise’s connection to real-life California cult culture and the talent involved, I think it’s reasonable to expect more than that.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997)

The self-anointed “Queen of the Underground Film,” Sarah Jacobson almost exclusively worked in the most underground film medium of all: the short. Most significantly, her landmark short film I Was a Teenage Serial Killer proved to be an iconic riot grrrl time capsule from the dingiest days of 90s punk’s feminist uprising, persisting as her most recognizable work. Jacobson did manage to pull together resources for one feature film in her (tragically short) lifetime, though: a sex-positive teen punk melodrama titled Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore. Her one feature-length film is a no-budget coming-of-age cautionary tale that subverts the Conservative 1950s road-to-ruin teen pic by transforming it into genuinely healthy sex education for 90s punx. On its surface, it doesn’t commit as wholeheartedly to the cut-and-paste feminist zine culture aesthetic of I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, but thematically it really digs into the unchecked misogyny of teen counterculture movements in a way that few movies do. Beyond that accomplishment, Mary Jane works wonderfully just as an adorably low-rent hangout film; it’s one of the very best slice-of-life dispatches from the go-nowhere Slacker era.

Jacobson wastes no time explaining why teen punks need a proper sex education in the first place. The movie opens with a parody of the old-fashioned romantic Hollywood depiction of what Losing It is supposed to look like, then cuts harshly to our teen protagonist, Jane (Lisa Gerstein), suffering a much more realistic and horrific version of the act in a harshly lit cemetery. From his terminally cheesy pick-up line “Let me show you how special sex can be” to his laughably boneheaded question “Did you cum yet?” while they’re having the most uncomfortable looking sex imaginable, it’s immediately clear that Jane’s idiotic date isn’t just an insensitive brute; he also has no clue what he’s doing and is too arrogant to pretend otherwise. After this atrocious initiation to the world of casual sex, Jane has to learn on her own that sex actually can be pleasurable & fun with the right partner (especially herself), a trial & error education she navigates mostly for the audience’s benefit. Jacobson walks us through this distinctly teenage ritual by aping & parodying the road-to-ruin teen pictures of the 1950s that tackled this same topic from a moralistic, sex-shaming POV (mostly as an excuse to indulge in the exact prurient imagery they were supposedly condemning). It’s a fun storytelling device, but also a purposeful one.

Given the wide range of social topics that Jacobson tackles here—masturbation, bisexuality, teenage pregnancy, drunk driving, divorce, etc.—it would be easy for Mary Jane to slip into a didactic After School Special tone, but it sidesteps that pitfall entirely. Some of that avoidance is a result of its direct acknowledgement of the moralistic road-to-ruin teen genre it’s subverting, but mostly the movie is just enjoyable as a snapshot of a specific time in youth counterculture aesthetics. Jane is a suburban girl with a job at an inner-city movie theater, where she works alongside obnoxious-drunk punks specifically archetypal of their era. 90s teenage regalia like unironic fedoras, white-kid dreadlocks, camo cargo shorts, and studded leather jackets are just as much a fabric of the setting as the era’s punk ideologies like straight-edge, riot grrrl, and zine culture. As the teenage delinquents party in the dingy cinema lobby, occasionally taking tickets & scooping popcorn for impatient customers, films like Hardcore & Last Tango in Paris spew unhealthy sex lessons from the other room, poisoning their minds in real time. Jacobson is visibly proactive in undoing the awful sexual misconceptions that have permeated these kids’ misogynist punk community, but she also clearly loves the little dolts as recognizable personalities from an evergreen social scene – the teenage dirtbags that they are.

It probably does require a certain fondness & familiarity with punk culture to fully appreciate this film’s D.I.Y. charms, where a boom mic shadow or broad pantomime performance of teenage drunkenness are always threatening to creep in from the edge of the frame. That’s a totally acceptable price of admission, though, since Jacobson was directly appealing to that specific subculture (which she appears to have been a member of herself) in order to mend the harm their grotesque sexual misbehavior was causing. It’s frustrating how often the politics of youth counterculture movements like hippies, punks, and—most recently—”The Dirtbag Left” don’t interrogate the active harm of the sex & gender politics they perpetuate from the Patriarchal institutions they’re supposedly rebelling against. It sucks that Sarah Jacobson wasn’t able to pull together enough resources to deliver more feature films in her lifetime, but it’s rad af that the one time she was able to do so, she used the opportunity to sexually re-educate the punks of her era. They clearly needed that course-correction, even if they could be charming in other ways.

-Brandon Ledet