A Great Lamp (2019)

This year’s New Orleans Film Festival was a 30th anniversary celebration, one that (in the social media marketing, at least) looked back at the festival’s gradual transformation from indie film & video showcase to increasingly massive Oscar-Qualifying institution. The no-budget feature A Great Lamp was an excellent programming choice for that occasion, then, as its sensibilities are evenly split between the early indie boom of the late 80s when the fest started and the radical earnestness of modern day. In look & texture, A Great Lamp feels akin to the aimless slacker comedies of yesteryear – the kind of deliberately apathetic, glibly existential art that put names like Jarmusch & Linklater on the map back when Independent Filmmaking was first becoming a viable industry. It’s got the handheld, high-contrast black & white look of a zine in motion (and I’m sure many a Clerks knockoff from festivals past), evoking a bountiful history of D.I.Y. no-budget art. However, in both tone & sentiment there’s no way the film could have bene made by previous generations of artful slackers, as its heart is clearly rooted in a 2010s sensibility.

A homeless, gender nonconforming punk named Max spends their structureless days wheat-pasting a flyer that memorializes their grandmother all over their sundrenched Southern town. Their aimless adventures committing petty, punk-af crimes like jaywalking, vandalism, and sleeping outside are interrupted when they meet a sharply dressed weirdo named Howie. Max is initially put off by Howie’s insistence that they attend a fabled rocket launch that will supposedly occur in three days’ time, but eventually the unlikely pair become incredibly intimate friends & collaborators. Their joint excursions around town frequently border on a mundane version of magical realism and are often interrupted by vignettes of a seemingly unrelated character suffering from the ennui of a much more privileged life, never truly coalescing into a coherent linear narrative. That aimlessness is intentional, of course, as waiting for that mythic rocket launch often feels like waiting for Godot. The unrushed, unfocused slacker vibe of this set-up might have been a patience-tester in any other modem return to Gen-X filmmaking, but Max’s exuberance & sweetness mutates the genre into an entirely new, exciting specimen. Max’s generosity toward Howie’s emotional wounds, their genuine eagerness for new loves & new adventures, and their exposed vulnerability as a grieving, lonely street kid are unusually earnest touches for this tried & true slacker formula. It’s like if Buzzard had a heart instead of a fart.

When director Saad Qureshi introduced the film at our screening, he said it was made during a particularly miserable summer for his social circle; making a movie just seemed like a great excuse to hang out with his friends. It’s likely that summer-bummer motivator and the crew’s total lack of production funds are what dictated the film’s throwback slacker aesthetic rather than any intentional exercise in 90s nostalgia. Still, they chose to accentuate that Gen-X patina by animating hand-drawn scratches & scuffs over the black & white digital images to simulate the look of a vintage 16mm cheapie. These meticulously applied “scratches” are fascinating to watch in a way that an editing filter approximating that same effect couldn’t be, as they often transform into crude animation artistry (provided by Max Wilde, who also performs as our eponymous hero), accentuating the film’s lowkey magical realist bent. This is a film that was made with no money and no real goal beyond making a film, any film, and so its existence is in itself a kind of minor miracle. Making any movie is always a triumph over frustration, logistics, and funding, so turning such limited resources into a work this heartfelt & nimbly crafted is a feat worth celebrating. Despite its modern earnestness, it’s the exact kind of D.I.Y. passion that’s been filtering through film festival lineups for as long as NOFF has been in existence – and with good reason. There’s apparently still new textures & sentiments to be mined from the time-honored slacker tradition.

-Brandon Ledet

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Is it okay to admit that I genuinely don’t know what to make of this movie? After Taika Waititi’s hot streak of instant 5-star classics—Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, Boyit’s tempting to give the writer-director the benefit of the doubt in my unease with Jojo Rabbit’s tone & aesthetic. I especially wish I could celebrate Waititi’s willingness to immediately torch all the money & goodwill he earned making a crowd-pleasing Marvel movie by starring as Adolf Hitler in a pitch-black comedy with wild, deliberately alienating tonal shifts. Still, Jojo Rabbit’s mashup of Cute & Vile sentiments left me more confounded than either frustrated or moved. I suppose that discomfort & unease was largely the point, but it ultimately just didn’t feel as confident or personal as Waititi’s previous experiments in light-and-dark tonal clashes. It’s the first time I can assume one of his films didn’t fully achieve whatever it set out to accomplish.

The titular Jojo Rabbit is a 1940s German boy, Johannes, who is foolheartedly committed to his enrollment in The Hitler Youth. Already a victim to Nazi propaganda before the film starts, Jojo treats The Hitler Youth as a Weekend Fun precursor to The Boy Scouts (which it kinda was). He fully buys into the program’s antisemitic brainwashing that portrays Jewish people as magical, greedy demons with horns, scales, and forked tongues. This naïve, fanatical devotion to Nazi ideology is challenged when Jojo discovers that his own mother is secretly hiding a teenage Jewish girl from the Gestapo in the walls of their house, trapping him between the White Nationalist lies he’s been immersed in and the quiet demonstrations of kindness & charity towards Jews his mother exhibits at home. Naturally, he talks himself through this internal conflict with the help of his imaginary friend – a goofball, superheroic version of The Fuhrer himself, played by Waititi with the same vaudevillian broadness Charlie Chaplin brought to The Great Dictator.

Between the film’s Wes Andersonian visual fussiness, cutesy childhood humor, and ice-cold stares into the depths of wartime cruelty, Jojo Rabbit tosses a lot of clashing flavors into one overflowing gumbo. The not-for-everyone ingredient in that recipe (the okra, if you will) is the film’s peculiar sense of humor, which is broad enough to feel like it was intended for an audience of children despite the thematic severity it’s supposed to undercut. This film is consistently gorgeous as a meticulously tailored art object and seemingly heartfelt in its pangs of familial & genocidal drama, but it’s never quite funny enough to full earn its self-proclaimed status as “an anti-hate satire.” Making Hitler out to be a goofball lunatic who “can’t grow a full mustache” and teasing him with schoolyard names like “Shitler” registers only faintly on the satire scale, a whisper of righteous dissent. To be fair, it’s the kind of humor a school-age young’n might find darkly subversive, which fits the POV character’s mentality just fine. For an adult audience, though, the jokes rarely land with anything more than a droll chuckle of recognition, which to me means this outrageous Hitler comedy is paradoxically playing it safe.

Thankfully, it works much better as a political & familial drama, especially in Jojo’s relationships with the women in his house. Spending time with an actual, in-the-flesh Jewish girl reorients Jojo’s dehumanization of her people as horned demons in the exact ways you’d expect. His relationship with his mother (played by Scarlett Johansson with an SNL-tier “German” accent) is much more complex & capable of surprise, as she grieves for the loss of her sweet, kindhearted son to Nazi propaganda as if he had died in battle. The women’s disappointment in Jojo’s indoctrination into antisemitism and their dismissal of his burgeoning Nazi ideology as “a scared child playing dress-up” registers as the most clear-eyed satirical target in the film – one with undeniable parallels to the resurgence of Nazism among young white men online in the 2010s. The imaginary Hitler device doesn’t lead to anything nearly as poignant as that dramatic anchor (although it is satisfying to see the racist icon portrayed by a self-described “Polynesian Jew”).

If I’m unsure how successful Jojo Rabbit is overall, that unease is mostly due to its middling successes as a comedy. A few jokes land here or there with a light chuckle, but the humor peaks early with an opening credits sequence that reframes Leni Riefenstahl’s propoganda footage of Nazi crowds to play like a precursor to Beatlemania. Overall, the film’s “anti-hate satire” wasn’t nearly as pointed or as ambitious as the 2016 German comedy Look Who’s Back, which amplified tonal clashing in its parody of modern Nazism to the scale of a cosmic farce. For me, Jojo Rabbit worked best as a maternal parallel to the paternal drama of Waititi’s Boy. The difference is that I left Boy marveling at how he pulled off such a delicate tonal balance with such confident poise, whereas I left Jojo Rabbit wondering if I had just seen him lose his balance entirely and tumble to the floor for the first time. The answer remains unclear to me.

-Brandon Ledet

Sunkist Family (2019)

On a recent 9-hour flight, I was browsing the in-flight movies that Delta Airlines had to offer. And yes, I did watch Delta’s controversial version of Booksmart in which the gay love scenes were cut (I wasn’t expecting them to be), but thankfully, Delta is working on incorporating the scenes into the films again after all the recent backlash. While browsing through the available movies, I came across the Korean family dramedy Sunkist Family, and it is one of the most heartwarming films to come out this year. To my surprise, this is the first film from female South Korean director Kim Ji-Hye, who served as both the film’s director and screenwriter. Her work is extremely impressive as she is able to keep this very sex positive movie quirky and sweet without ever coming close to being raunchy.

After about 20-something years of marriage, Joon Ho and Yoo Mi can’t keep their hands off each other.  They somehow manage to take care of their three children and run a small butcher shop while still making time to have sex anywhere and everywhere. The small suburban home that the couple share with their three children is a hilarious madhouse. Each kid has their own unique personality that really adds a lot of flavor to the family’s wacky dynamic. Chul Won is a sexually challenged teenage boy, Kyung Joo is an angsty teenage girl awaiting her first period, and Jin Hae is an extremely observant young girl. A good chunk of the film focuses on Jin Hae’s perspective of the family’s drama, and it is ever so charming and insightful.

Joon Ho and Yoo Mi’s perfect marriage takes a turn for the worst when Joon Ho’s first childhood love moves in next door. She pulls him back into his artistic roots while being a bit flirtatious, and Yoo Mi is not having it. Basically, one misunderstanding after another begins to tear the family apart, and little Jin Hae does her very best to bring them back together. Part of her plan includes spraying her entire family with what she thinks is “love spray,” but it’s actually some sort of penis spray intended to make men last longer in bed. This is perhaps my favorite moment in the film. The entire family is having a heated argument and Jin Hae comes to the rescue with the spray to help everyone love each other again. The whole spray scene is filmed in slow motion and looks so magical even though the reality of it is sort of disturbing.

Sunkist Family really focuses on how important communication is at all levels of a family. Husband to wife, parent to child, child to parent, etc. The miscommunication between the Sunkist Family almost destroys them, and this is something that most families can relate to. Whether it’s Jin Hae’s confusion on the world of sex or Joon Ho’s reluctance to tell his wife that he is visiting his lady neighbor instead of going to work, talking and being honest with one another is what is needed to keep this family together. This entire film is such a treat, and I’m looking forward to adding it to my ever-growing collection as I plan on watching again and again.

-Britnee Lombas

Mister America (2019)

Over a year ago, Tim Heidecker posted a video on his Instragram account stating that he was running for District Attorney of San Bernardio County, California. Truthfully, I had no idea if this announcement was some sort of joke or if he was legitimately running for a political office.  For those who are familiar with Heidecker’s unique style of comedy (best conveyed on the series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), he walks a thin line between reality and satire, so my confusion was completely reasonable. Almost a year later, the movie Mister America was released, confirming that Tim was not really running for DA last year. He was working on a mockumentary and releasing social media clips that would eventually become part of this feature film. The whole situation is wild and extremely hard to explain to those who are unfamiliar with his comic genius. Last Wednesday, The Broad Theater had a one-night screening of the completed film, which I ab-so-lutely attended along with about twenty other fans of the Tim and Eric Awesome Show universe. It was by far the best comedy to come out this year.

Eric Notarnicola, the director of Mister America, is no stranger to Tim Heidecker’s hijinks. He also directed a few television and web series starring Heidecker: Decker, On Cinema at the Cinema, and The Trial, all of which reappear in Mister America at one point or another. While it is helpful to already be a fan of these Notarnicola-directed series with Heidecker (especially On Cinema) prior to watching the film, I don’t think it’s necessary to be familiar with the On Cinema Universe to enjoy Mister America. There’s enough background information provided throughout the movie to bring those unfamiliar with the series’ backstories up to speed. In Mister America, Heidecker is followed by a documentary crew throughout his journey of running as an independent candidate for District Attorney of San Bernardino County. Without having enough signatures to be on the ballot, no volunteers, barely any campaign funds, and no legitimate political platform, Heidecker has a tough time getting his campaign off the ground. To make matters worse, he has the reputation of being a murderer. While at an EDM music festival, he “supposedly” sold contaminated vape juice to several festival goers, causing them to die. His prosecutor for the case, Vincent Rosetti, is the incumbent DA of San Bernardino County, and Heidecker self-represented his defense in court during the legal battle. So with his legal self-representation experience and his connection with everyday San Bernardino citizens (he is officially a San Bernardino resident because he receives his mail at his hotel room), he truly believes that he has what is takes to beat Rosetti.

The style of humor that Mister America sells is the kind that has you cackling at the most minor details. For instance, while Heidecker is having a breakfast meeting with his campaign manager Toni (Terri Parks), he gets lost deep into his business/politician persona and can barely get his hashbrowns and eggs onto his fork. The camera kept zooming in on his fork failure, and I completely lost it. Another major player that brings the funny to this movie is mister Gregg Turkington, a regular guest on On Cinema. Turkington pops up for short interviews with the documentary crew to shit-talk Heidecker, and he always seems to come up with a bizarre movie reference for every scenario. My favorite scene with Turkington was when he tried to explain the similarities between The Shaggy D.A. and Heidecker’s campaign. He even goes so far as to bring a bootleg VHS copy of The Shaggy D.A. to the documentary crew, which he makes clear that he needs returned ASAP.  He also has a great moment where the crew follows him trash-hunting for VHS tapes (destined to become Popcorn Classics for On Cinema), and it’s something that I personally related to way too much.

Mister America is up there with the mockumentary greats, and it’s just a lot of stupid fun. I believe the movie theater screenings are finished, but the film is now available on demand. Trust me, it is worth every penny.

-Britnee Lombas

Good Boys (2019)

I laughed at least once for every minute of Good Boys, which I don’t know that I can say about any other mainstream comedy in recent memory. Even other coming-of-age sex comedies like Blockers, Booksmart, and The To Do List can’t compete with this film’s joke-to-laugh ratio, despite being objectively Better films on the whole. Of course, humor is subjective, especially considering the specificity of this film’s POV in its suburban teen boy sexuality, so I can’t claim that every filmgoer will have the same high success rate with Good Boys‘s many, many gags as I did. I do feel confident in saying that the film is far more endearing & well-written than its initial “Superbad except with cussing tweens” reputation prepared me for, though. This is not a one-joke movie about how funny it is to watch children do a cuss; it’s got a lot on its mind about innocence, the pain of outgrowing relationships, and what distinguishes the earnest generation of radically wholesome kids growing up beneath us from our own meaner, amoral tween-years follies. These are very good boys.

A major aspect of this film’s success is that it acknowledges its own limitations from the outset. Its story of young tween boys’ friendships struggling to survive the social perils of sixth grade is about as low-stakes as any narrative that’s ever reached the big screen. A couple larger comedic set pieces within the film (including drug trafficking, an interstate pile-up, and a frat house brawl) distract from the plot’s total lack of meaningful consequences, but for the most part the film keeps its conflicts intimate & small. The pint-sized trio at its center want to attend their first “kissing party” at the coolest kid in sixth grade’s house. In order to achieve that modest goal, they have to avoid getting grounded, dodge teen girl bullies, try their first sips of (room temperature) beer, and maintain their solidarity as a unit even though they’re clearly outgrowing the friendship that binds them. The details of the obstacles that stand in their way can be outrageously broad, leaning into the tweens-confronted-with-sex-drugs-and-violence humor promised in the ads. Their goals & circumstances remain aggressively minor, however, and much of the humor reflects how the least meaningful bullshit imaginable means everything to you at that age, because the world you occupy is so small & inconsequential.

There’s an intelligently mapped-out relationship dynamic maintained between the three titular boys as their meaningless, go-nowhere adventure shakes their friendship to its core. Jacob Tremblay stars as the loverboy heartthrob of the group, the only one who has an active interest in reaching the kissing party destination. Keith L. Williams & Brady Noon co-star as the angel & devil on his shoulders, respectively, staging a constant moral-compass tug-of-war that steers his focus away from his girl-kissing objective with distractions like Doing the Right Thing and Searching for Beer. Of course, even the most wicked of the trio isn’t all that maliciously evil in the grand scheme of human morality. Not only are these children too young to get into too much trouble; they’re also from a nicer, more considerate generation that’s being raised with a less toxic model of a masculine norm. If we’re comparing this film to Superbad, it’s impossible to not notice how much sweeter, more vulnerable, and more aware of the value of Enthusiastic Consent these children are compared to the generations who preceded them. Superbad is often praised for its final emotional grace notes shared between teen-boy friends who’ve struggled to maintain a tough masculine exterior throughout their entire 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.

If you’re looking to Good Boys for broad jokes about children doing cusses and failing to differentiate what is and what is not a sex toy, the movie is more than happy to supply them. And those jokes are funny too! They’re just not all that’s going on. I won’t say this film is better constructed or more emotionally satisfying than its fellow 2019 Superbad revision Booksmart (with which it shares a Run the Jewels needle drop and a goofball-dad performance from Will Forte), but I do think it equally clarifies what makes the earnest generation of youngsters growing up right now so unique & promising while also garnering more guffaws-per-minute on a joke efficiency scale. As a pair, the two films work well in signaling that the kids are alright, a refreshing sentiment in a mainstream comedy landscape that likes to stigmatize Gen-Z as #triggered #snowflakes (while also often miscategorizing them as Millennials for some reason). It also proves that you can participate in that open-hearted earnestness without sacrificing the horned-up raunch and deliberately offensive edginess everyone pretends is disappearing from mainstream comedy in these supposed “safe space” times. You’re just no longer tolerated for being an inhumane dickhole while doing so. Be better. Be a good boy.

-Brandon Ledet

Jawbreaker (1999)

I’m genuinely shocked by how few times I’ve seen the 1999 high school murder comedy Jawbreaker compared to other films in its same wheelhouse. This is far from the pinnacle of the post-Heathers teen girl cruelty satire, but I’m still close enough to dead center in its target demographic that it should have been a teen-years favorite for me. Was it merely the happenstance that Drop Dead Gorgeous was the murderous-teen-girls high school comedy that found its way onto Blockbuster’s used VHS liquidation tables at the right moment that made that one a go-to standard for me instead? Both films are deeply flawed for sure, but I could never tell exactly why one was a beloved favorite that I looped into dust while the other was a film that I occasionally ran across here or there. In retrospect, I think it’s mostly because the appeal of Drop Dead Gorgeous is instantly recognizable; the low-key absurdism of its femmed-up Christopher Guest mockumentary schtick strikes a somewhat familiar tone, no matter how ill-behaved its amorality can be from gag to gag. The specificity of Jawbreaker’s appeal was a little more obscured & difficult to pin down for me, but it finally clicked on my most recent rewatch (only my second or third experience with the film, somehow): it’s Gay.

More specifically, Jawbreaker is perversely funny for having teenage high school girls deliver dialogue obviously written by adult gay men. Judging by writer-director Darren Stein’s work on explicitly gay projects like the queer screwball high school comedy G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend) and the drag queen horror comedy All About Evil, he knew exactly what he was doing here. The dissonance of Jawbreaker is that the Teen Girl actors tasked to deliver his Gay Man dialogue don’t know what they’re communicating at all; it’s as if they’re phonetically speaking a foreign language for the very first time. The result is a bizarre comedy that is paradoxically both over-written and under-performed, which makes it exceedingly difficult to connect with if you aren’t aware of the reason for that disconnect. Once you realize the film is basically the preemptive drag parody of itself, however, everything clicks into place. It becomes clear why all the girls are breathlessly horny for each other, why they use the word “kink” every other sentence, why they emphasize the pet names “Honey” and “Bitch” with such withering sass, and why the film’s only genuine sex scene revolves around a jock hunk fellating a popsicle. It’s Gay™.

One thing both Jawbreaker and Drop Dead Gorgeous get exactly right about the post-Heathers mean-girl high school comedy template is the callous cruelty, something not all its descendants have the stomach to commit to. In this case, Stein specifically zeroed in on the Corn Nuts gag from the iconic Daniel Waters screenplay, a sequence in which a beloved prom queen chokes to death in a prank gone horribly wrong. In Jawbreaker, the most popular girl in school is “kidnapped” by her friends as a prank for her 17th birthday, gagged with the titular candy to muffle her screams of protest. When she chokes to death on the giant ball of sugar in the trunk of their car, they decide to restage her death as a rape & murder case at the hands of a stranger, and their lies eventually overwhelm them in a haphazard cover-up. This mostly manifests in them bribing the school’s most reclusive werido nerd (played by Judy Greer, somewhere under a pile of oversized wigs & sweaters) with a hot-girl makeover. They help her navigate being on top of the clique culture food chain that once buried her (pointing out such adorable social distinctions as The Karen Carpenter Table in the cafeteria) while also coaching her in how to lie to the homicide detective who investigates their friend’s death (Pam Grier, forever a badass). Unbeknownst to anyone involved, they also teach her the ways of Adult Gay Man sass & slang in exchanges like “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” “No, honey, you’re the bitch.” Did I mention that this film is Gay?

Besides its post-Heathers cruelty and its preemptive drag parody humor, Jawbreaker is most enjoyable for its bubblegum pop art aesthetic. It’s a film that’s firmly rooted in a 90s high school comedy patina (after all, it’s one of two 1999 films in which The Donnas play the climactic prom), but its candy-coated surface also has a distinctive retro appeal to it. In that way, I’d almost more readily recommend it to fans of the Sexy Archie update Riverdale than to anyone looking for more of a Drop Dead Gorgeous sensibility. If nothing else, Rose McGowan exudes some real Cheryl Blossom energy in her role as the school’s queen bee, and the cheekily named Reagan High setting shares an R letterman patch with the classic Riverdale uniform. Sometimes this heightened rot-your-teeth pop aesthetic shines beautifully, like in several surreal sequences where the titular jawbreaker makes its way through a giallo-lit candy factory or rotates in the air like a planetary orb. Sometimes it falls embarrassingly flat, as in the obnoxious screen-wipes that frequently interrupt the dialogue or the visible boom mic that dips into the cafeteria tour. Either way, the film shares the clueless-teens-delivering-Adult-Gay-Man-dialogue dissonance that also makes Riverdale weirdly enjoyable, which manifests here in strange touches like the casting of legends like P.J. Soles & Carol Kane or in throwaway references to Barbara Streisand’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” for no reason in particular. It’s disorienting, but it helps distinguish Jawbreaker as having a distinct flavor within the post-Heathers teen cruelty pantheon. I still don’t love it as much as Drop Dead Gorgeous, but I at least now clearly recognize its appeal as The Gay One in its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Putney Swope (1969)

I first heard of Putney Swope when the post-Dissolve podcast The Next Picture Show covered it last year as a point of comparison for Sorry to Bother You, a film I enjoyed a great deal. It was an incredibly apt selection with plenty of thematic overlap between the two pictures, despite Boots Riley’s admission that he had never seen Putney Swope himself before writing his debut screenplay. Both films are absurdist workplace satires that traffic in broad comedic tones but are also potently weaponized against the horrors of corporate culture & Capitalism at large. More distinctly, they also both feature white actors overdubbing the vocal performances of their black stars as a means delivering that social & economic commentary. The major difference there is that Sorry to Bother You’s purpose for that vocal dub was pointed & purposeful, whereas Putney Swope’s use of the same device is much more wildly irresponsible.

The name Putney Swope belongs to a character played by Arnold Johnson, a fictional black man who becomes the head of a major advertising firm when its white figurehead dies in the middle of a boardroom meeting. This unexpected career advancement gives Swope the opportunity to shake up the very structure of American culture; he fires all of the white board members from the company, replacing them with politically radical black comrades who create a disruptive new wave of TV ad spots that subvert American ideals & economics on a fundamental level. The rise of the Truth & Soul ad agency is a brilliant wraparound narrative that allows the movie to basically function as a sketch comedy show, rolling full-length “ads” for products like airlines, breakfast cereal, and acne cream with Rejected-like premises that could never fly in real life. The sketches themselves (the only parts of the movie shot in color) are consistently funny and standout as clear highlights, with characters delivering lines like “I have a malignancy in my prostate, but when you’re in my arms it’s benign” as if it’s naturally the kind of thing you hear in TV commercials all the time. It’s the wraparound story that’s hit-or-miss as a successful satire, not least of all because Johnson’s vocal performance was overdubbed entirely by the film’s white director, Robert Downey, Sr.

According to Downey, the reason Johnson’s performance had to be overdubbed was because the inexperienced actor kept flubbing his lines. Why it had to be dubbed by a white man doing an exaggerated, deep voice that strays so uncomfortably close to vocal minstrelsy is another question entirely, a choice that undermines the film’s admirably radical leftist politics at every turn. The one element of Putney Swope that helps counterbalance Downey’s distancing-at-best vocal dub is that Swope is not the only black character in the film. The entire advertising agency being swapped out with black usurpers means that Swope’s status as The Black Man in the company doesn’t carry as much weight in its representation politics as the film initially suggest. You could even forgivingly frame the choice as unintended commentary on what it means for a white filmmaker to be writing dialogue for black characters to deliver onscreen, especially since Swope & his employees at Truth & Soul exist more as mouthpieces for leftist political statements then they do as real, fleshed out people. That interpretation would be meeting Downey more than halfway, however, as he really should have known better than to overdub Johnson himself in the first place without having a pointed satirical reason for doing so.

Holding this half-a-century-old comedic satire up to current political standards is a fool’s errand, for sure, but it ultimately can’t be helped. Stray political oversights like Putney’s white voice, casting little people as sight gags, and sidelining the women of Truth & Soul as sex objects are only frustrating because so much of the film’s incendiary political commentary isn’t outdated at all. Its swipes at the industry of War, the corrupting force of Capitalism, and the institutional perpetuation of racism in America still ring as true as anything you’ll see in Sorry to Bother You, but you have to strain to hear that echo over Downey’s booming vocal dub. As a low-budget D.I.Y. sketch comedy show, Putney Swope holds up remarkably well fifty years later; its commercials for Ethereal Cereal, a Ms. Redneck New Jersey beauty pageant, and the children’s game Cops & Demonstrators clear the way for other major satirical sketch comedy touchstones to follow, like The Groove Tube, Kentucky Fried Movie, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Saturday Night Live. It even directly inspired one of my favorite movie scenes of all time—the tense firecracker house party gag from Boogie Nights—which until now I had no idea was an homage. The only thing Putney Swope seeming didn’t inspire was Sorry to Bother You, a film that catches a lot of flak for being “messy“ but at least feels more generally considerate & purposeful in its satire than this ancient predecessor.

That’s how it feels now, anyway. Maybe in 50 years some major aspects of Sorry to Bother You will stand out as just as glaring of a misstep as Downey’s voice does here. It’s highly likely that its punching-up institutional satire will remain evergreen either way, unfortunately, considering that the power dynamics subverted by Putney Swope in its own time haven’t changed a lick since despite the other ways it may have soured.

-Brandon Ledet

The Unicorn (2019)

In some ways, I feel as if I were a little spoiled by the efficiency of this year’s quirky Kiwi comedy The Breaker Upperers, in which two friends run a business that helps strangers break up with their romantic partners in exchange for cash. That film starts with the titular business already in operation so that it can immediately launch into the gags set up by its ludicrous premise, wasting no time on justifying the scenario with a first-act backstory. I was nostalgic for that efficiency during The Unicorn, which spends almost a third of its runtime struggling to set up a very simple comedic premise: a young California couple attempts to save their flailing relationship by orchestrating a late-night threesome. Following the Breaker Upperers model, The Unicorn would already start with the couple on the hunt for the perfect partner to open them up sexually & romantically, so that it could pack in more blunderous shenanigans as they desperately attempt to actualize their fantasy. The backstory of how they arrived at the delusion that a threesome is a cure-all for their trust & communication issues could easily fit in a flashback or a single-scene set-up. At the very least, we don’t need a half-hour of setup before we launch into a premise already concisely teased in the title.

Still, even if it’s not the most efficient or structurally creative comedy around, The Unicorn is still about as funny & charming as you’d expect from a One Crazy Night comedy featuring a bunch of UCB & SNL regulars in bit roles, which I mean as a compliment. LA comedy scenesters Lauren Lapkus & Nick Rutherford star as the threesome-seeking couple, a pair of neurotic indoor kids who pretend to be far more social & adventurous than what they’re truly comfortable with. Familiar faces like Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and (beloved to me because of the trash gem Truth or Dare?) Lucy Hale pop up like Whack-a-Moles as the couple disastrously attempts to sleep their way cross Palm Springs as a means of saving their stalled relationship. Fueled by an ungodly quantity of hard liquor, these episodic challenges to the boundaries of their sexual comfort do drudge up some genuinely moving relationship-dynamics drama – à la similar LA indie comedies like Band Aid, Duck Butter, and The Overnight. Mostly, though, they’re an excuse for talented comedic performers to riff in uncomfortable sexual scenarios – creating audience tension for the jokesters to release. Luckily, the cast is very funny and easily carries what could potentially be a thin premise for a feature film – especially considering how well behaved the movie is structurally.

Shot, directed, and sometimes soundtracked by the Schwartzman/Rooney clan, you can occasionally feel artsy, Wes Andersonian aesthetics coloring this low-key indie sex comedy, but they mostly color between the lines. Beside the careful, old-fashioned build before launching into the premise, the film also falls into a common screenwriting trap that always drives me mad in conventional comedies. After the inevitable Third Act Fight between Lapkus & Rutherford, both participants are prompted to say “I’m sorry” in reconciliation, even though the girlfriend has clearly done nothing wrong and only the dude needs to apologize. It a frustratingly common trope, especially considering the other ways the film is conscious of challenging traditional comedic gender dynamics. The sincere bisexual experimentation, negotiation of terms before play, and constant checking in for consent are all refreshing to see sneak into a vanilla sex comedy this structurally conventional, so it’s a little disappointing to see it bookended by such familiar automatic-screenwriting-template decisions. I don’t want to sound like too much of a grump here, though. The movie is very funny, surprisingly sweet, and admirably open-minded for a comedy this conventional. If nothing else, the line “I’m glad we stopped before you did something you didn’t want to do” is remarkable considering the format in a way I doubt I’ll encounter again any time soon. Any complaints I have about its execution are likely just a side effect of finding something more to say about this simple, familiar pleasure other than “It’s funny.”

-Brandon Ledet

The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

Riley Stearns’s debut feature Faults was a sinister dark comedy about a huckster deprogrammer facing off against a small, mysterious cult that proved to be too much for his limited skills & outsized hubris. Stearns’s follow-up, The Art of Self-Defense, takes on a much bigger, more widespread cult that often proves too much of an insurmountable burden for us all: toxic masculinity. Jesse Eisenberg stars as what MRA types would describe as a Beta Cuck – an unimposing milquetoast wimp who struggles to assert himself both at work and in his private life. When the poor runt is assaulted in a random act of violence by a gang of macho bullies, he commits full-on to the “self-defense” doctrine of a local strip-mall karate dojo with a newfound religious zeal. The dojo proves to be toxic masculinity in a cult-sized microcosm – incrementally indoctrinating our squirmy protagonist further into the hellish depths of Alpha Male bravado. It’s basically the masc counterbalance to last year’s militarized-feminism satire The Misandrists, except that the humor here is much drier than that film’s penchant for over-the-top camp.

It’s easy to reduce the themes of The Art of Self-Defense to “Toxic masculinity is a cult,” because the film itself speaks only in dry, matter-of-fact statements that leave little room for subtext. Everything is labeled clearly, almost to the level of Sorry To Bother You-style surrealism. Businesses have names like The New Restaurant in Town. When Eisenberg is jumped he’s out buying a brown paper bag labeled “DOG FOOD” in bold block letters. When the mugging is reported on news radio he’s announced as “A 35-Year-Old Dog Owner.” There’s a twinge of Napoleon Dynamite quirk humor to this stilted, deliberately underwritten dialogue, but more importantly it allows the film to make fun of the arbitrary distinctions of traditional masculinity by allowing them to be spelled out plainly without embellishment. Rules about what names, countries, music genres, ways of sitting, and word choices are socially coded as being more masculine or feminine are framed as heightened absurdism here merely by being voiced in plain terms, making for a peculiarly understated version of satire. The movie also gets into the allure of the Alpha Male, incel, MRA mentality for insecure, unconfident men as well. Eisenberg explains, “I’m afraid of other men. They intimidate me. I want to be what intimidates me.” You’re not likely to get a more concise explanation of what attracts young men to the real-life cult of toxic masculinity than that, and explaining everything in expressionless, matter-of-fact terms was the most effective way to get there.

One of the more rewarding aspects of Faults was the tension of its central mystery, which keeps the audience guessing throughout on whether its fictional cult is actually tapping into a sinister supernatural power or is just a brainwashing hoax. Stearns drops that tension here, instead telegraphing the answers to all potential mysteries and possible outcomes long before they arrive. I don’t know if that choice makes for a better movie exactly, but it does free him up to make fun of MRA rhetoric early & often. The hierarchal goings-on of the strip-mall karate dojo were never going to be as rewarding as the satirical lens that frames Maxim Magazine as an extremist propaganda rag, manspreading as a saintly virtue, and being nice to your pet dog as feminine “coddling.” That being said, I can’t guarantee this absurdly dry, expressionless humor will land especially well with every crowd. I was the only person in the audience laughing at my (almost exclusively elderly) weekday screening, which is a shame, since we should all be able to take a step back and laugh at the absurdity of systemically enforced gender traits. It’s absolutely fucking ridiculous, but we rarely consider that perspective in our daily lives because we’re fully submerged in it.

I’d also like to point out how cool it was to hear a song from local metal heroes Thou in a professional feature film, even if their genre was lumped in with the absurdist list of macho gender signifiers.

-Brandon Ledet

The Farewell (2019)

One of the things I struggle with most in my personal life (to the point where I bring it up weekly in therapy) is my compulsion to avoid conflict & unpleasant conversation, especially with my family. I’ll often spare other people’s feelings by keeping my own opinions on uncomfortable subjects quiet, which limits a lot of my interactions with family to very surface-level & artificially pleasant depths, even when I’m really upset. There’s a lot going on thematically in Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical family drama The Farewell – ranging from immigration culture clash and abstract ponderings on Identity to the very nature of Life & Death – but what really resonated with me personally is how extreme this divide between surface-level familial pleasantries vs. deep emotional anguish becomes as the film pushes on as if nothing’s wrong while the world crumbles around it. Smartly, a lot of this tension between secretive personal grief and forced-smiles small talk is played for morbid humor and a disorientingly surreal tone. When it does come to a point where feelings spill over and characters openly weep in “inappropriate” social settings, though, the cathartic release of that breakdown feels remarkably true to something I’ve often felt in my real life but have never seen expressed so directly on the big screen.

In this case, the secret kept to spare a family member’s feelings is a pretty major one. Awkwafina stars as Wang’s fictional avatar, a young writer who returns to China to visit her elderly grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), who is diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. As is apparently custom in China, her family has decided to lie to their matriarch about her own cancer diagnosis, so that she can live out what little time she has left blissfully unaware of the doom hanging over her head. Her children, grandchildren, and extended family stage a sham wedding as an excuse to visit her one last time under happy circumstances without tipping her off that something is wrong, and most of the tension of the film derives from maintaining that celebratory surface while everyone is miserable with grief. This is a hyper-specific culture clash narrative where Awkwafina’s American upbringing prompts her to desire a genuine emotional display that her parents’ Chinese upbringing does not allow for. They believe they’re doing the grandmother a charitable service by shouldering all the worry & grief themselves, and the movie takes both sides of that argument dead seriously, even when laughing at the exponential absurdity of the situation. As with all hyper-specific human experiences, there’s still a universality to the situation as well, as we’ve all had to tell “good lies” to people we love to spare them grief, even if not as severe in scope as a cancer diagnosis.

Most of this movie’s charm relies on the adorable intergenerational rapport between Awkwafina & Zhao, even with such a devastating secret hanging over them. Whether in a darkly humorous exchange where the granddaughter is teased for being inexplicably gloomy or in a sweeter teasing when the grandmother exclaims, “Stupid child! Too loveable!,” their relationship is endlessly watchable, which makes it all the more devastating that it’s barreling towards such a definitive end. Wang also elevates the material as an exquisite stylist; she emphasizes the heightened emotions of the situation with a lush strings score, dives headfirst into the sensual reliefs & comforts of food as a grief-staver, and underlines the bewildering absurdity of living in a world of competing Truths (that the grandmother is drying and that everything is fine) by abstracting everyday Chinese environments as if they were surreal alien planetscapes. There’s a sequence in a wedding photography studio in particular that’s so continually disorienting that it might as well have been a dream, which is often how it feels to be hit with devastating personal news you haven’t been able to process—either publicly or internally. All this intricate detail in performance and direction adds up to an impressive tightrope balance between morbid humor and quiet emotional anguish – landing The Farewell in a curious space between Oscar Season crowd-pleaser & deceptively complex art film.

I do have a couple minor, spoilery complaints about last minute aesthetic choices that I believe robbed this film’s resolution of its full complex emotional potential by grounding it in a more pedestrian milieu of based-on-a-true-story dramas (or, in this case, “based on a true lie” dramedies). I was still crying despite that turbulent conclusion, though, so I guess those complaints can’t be all that important. Some people will even welcome them as much-needed tension relief, especially if they’ve followed this personal story since Wang first shared it on This American Life. More importantly, Wang herself apparently felt it necessary to include them in this fictionalized retelling of her own personal story, so their crowd-pleasing comforts are likely a version of self-therapy I have no real business questioning, especially since I found her auteurist decision-making so impeccable elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet