Dead Pigs (2021)

Because I don’t have the money to travel to the bigger players like Cannes or TIFF, most movies I see at film festivals are smaller, micro-budget productions with years-delayed releases or, often, no official distribution at all. It’s common for my favorite new releases at The New Orleans Film Fest—titles like Cheerleader, Pig Film, and She’s Allergic to Cats—to get lost in distribution limbo for years despite their explosive creativity & aesthetic cool. What’s a lot less common is for the filmmakers behind them to Make It Big before those calling-card films’ release. That’s exactly what happened to Cathy Yan, though. Because her debut feature Dead Pigs premiered to ecstatic reviews at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Yan landed a mainstream gig directing the pop-art superhero blockbuster Birds of Prey, one of Swampflix’s favorite films of 2020. In the meantime, Dead Pigs treaded water for two years with no means of wide distribution until Mubi picked up its streaming rights in 2021 (likely prompted by Birds of Prey). It’s Yan’s debut film but her second film released, a perfect encapsulation of the confounding labyrinth of the festival-to-wide distribution pipeline.

In Dead Pigs, Cathy Yan deploys a lot of the same candy-coated visual pleasures & chaotic irreverence that made Birds of Prey so fantabulous, except now in an entirely different genre: the everything-is-connected ensemble cast indie (sometimes referred to as “hyperlink cinema”). Think Me and You and Everyone We Know . . . except with pig corpses and neon lighting. We’re introduced to several, disparate citizens of modern Shangai who appear to be living entirely disconnected lives: a beauty salon owner, a pig farmer, a lonely waiter, a displaced white American architect, etc. As with other everything-is-connected stories like Magnolia, Traffic, and Short Cuts, their relationships with each other gradually become apparent and gradually construct a mosaic portrait of the region & community they populate — in this case Shanghai. It’s a great structural choice for a first-time director, as it allows Yan freedom to pursue many ideas at once without having to fully devote herself to a single option. It’s as if she couldn’t decide what movie to make so she made them all at once: a wealth-disparity romcom set in a hospital room, a low-level crime thriller about an unpaid debt to mobsters, an outlandish farce about a woman stubbornly refusing to sell her home to a predatory real estate corporation. They’re all individually great, and once they start directly informing each other they’re even greater.

All told, Dead Pigs is a snapshot of postmodern culture clash, a great movie about “the modern world” steamrolling the real one. The two major inciting events that link its disparate characters are the mass, city-wide death of pig-farmers’ stock and the rapid expansion of towering condos in neighborhoods that used to have distinct personalities & culture. However, describing the film that way doesn’t convey how fun & sinisterly beautiful it can feel in the moment – a tonal clash between form & content Yan would continue in her big-break blockbuster. The film is overflowing with culture-clash absurdism, broad comedic gags, and intense swirls of neons & pastels; it’s a delightful romp about the heartbreaking erasure of Shanghai’s authentic people & culture. That kind of tonal ambiguity & mosaic narrative structure is likely a tough sell marketing-wise, so it makes sense that Dead Pigs was allowed to float downstream for so long without proper distribution. I’m at least thankful that its festival-circuit buzz landed Yan such a high-profile gig and eventually got it in front of so many people. The system sometimes works, but it sure does take its time.

-Brandon Ledet

The Dark Lady of Kung Fu (1983)

After watching Pearl Chang direct herself in two traditional, psychedelic wuxia revenge tales, it was nice to see her totally cut loose in her third feature. That’s not to say Wolf Devil Woman or Matching Escort are humorless slogs, but more that The Dark Lady of Kung Fu just out-goofs them both by a large margin. The Dark Lady of Kung Fu feels more like a condensed season of a children’s Saturday Morning TV comedy than it does a wuxia epic; it’s just one that happens to feature occasional outbursts of martial arts wirework, gore, and gender ambiguity. It’s decidedly inessential when compared to Chang’s previous accomplishments, but it’s wildly, endearingly playful in a way that rewards completionists.

Pearl Chang stars in dual roles as The Butterfly Bandit & The Monkey King, two separate heroes to local street orphans. The Monkey King provides a makeshift home for the orphans as their figurehead, teaching them how to survive as Dickensian pickpockets. The Butterfly Bandit is a Robin Hood type superhero who showers the orphans & other impoverished citizens with stolen gold, costumed in a winged Zorro costume with a purple Mardi Gras mask. Both characters are referred to by “he/him” pronouns despite identifying as women, and a third character in their orbit is eventually revealed to be intersex in a major, clumsy plot twist. Despite both being played by Chang, the movie never confirms that The Butterfly Bandit & The Monkey King are indeed the same person. The masked superhero’s true identity is instead allowed to remain an ambiguous secret, so they can continue to live on as a mysterious hero to poor children everywhere.

The Dark Lady of Kung Fu is missing some of the Peal Chang touchstones that made Wolf Devil Woman & Matching Escort so fun as low-budget wuxia novelties. Mainly, her rapidfire psychedelic editing style & lengthy martial arts battles are greatly minimized here, allowing more room for the day-to-day hijinks of the street orphans instead of the superheroics of their idols. Still, the film is incredibly playful in its intensely colorful imagery, including shots of Chang enjoying a bubble bath in a giant clamshell, performing as a human Whack-a-Mole for busking tips, and allowing her flock to play Hungry Hungry Hippos with her stolen loot. The usual ultraviolence is also present throughout, featuring chopped limbs, rivers of stage blood, and flashes of horrific self-surgery. Besides its laid-back pacing, the only thing that really holds The Dark Lady of Kung Fu back from greatness is the cloying Comedy Hijinks of its English language dub. It’s yet another argument for Pearl Chang’s work being rescued & properly restored for modern audiences; they’d all make excellent Midnight Movies with a proper clean-up, and this one is no exception.

-Brandon Ledet

Grand Hotel (1932)

After years of watching homages to the genre it helped name & pioneer, I thought I knew what to expect from the ensemble-cast Old Hollywood spectacle Grand Hotel. Grand hotel-set screwball throwbacks to its interweaving-characters story structure (such as What’s Up Doc?, Big Business, and The Grand Budapest Hotel) set me up to expect a straight-up farcical comedy. I gasped, then, when Grand Hotel took a shocking tragic turn seemingly out of nowhere in its third act, a tonal shift that only caught me off-guard because of the expectations set by its much goofier spiritual descendants. I guess I should have been tipped off by the film’s Best Picture Oscar, given the Academy’s long-running aversion to recognizing comedies as a legitimate artform, but I was shocked all the same. Grand Hotel acts like a standard star-packed Old Hollywood screwball comedy for most of its runtime, then floods the screen with last-minute melodrama to pump itself up with an air of prestige. I don’t know that I preferred the dramatic conclusion to the comedic build-up, but it is kinda cool that a studio picture from nine decades ago managed to surprise me in its basic story structure.

Set at “the most expensive hotel in Berlin”, Grand Hotel chronicles the overlapping lives of unlikely acquaintances who could only cross paths because they’re staying at the same hotel: a prima donna ballerina, a down-on-his-luck factory worker, a blustering business executive, a suave cat burglar, etc. It’s the kind of early Hollywood production that feels more like a filmed stage play than it does cinematic poetry, but it’s packed with enough big-name stars from the era (dressed in exquisite gowns by the always-on-point couturier Adrian) that the limited creativity in its editing & camerawork doesn’t especially detract from its prestige. The most notable starpower is a generational changing of the guard, miraculously featuring both Greta Garbo & Joan Crawford in one movie even though they feel like they belong to entirely different eras. That crossover isn’t especially highlighted onscreen; the two actors somehow never share a scene even though they’re fighting for the romantic attentions of the same man. Still, Garbo’s depressive diva ballerina & Crawford’s hot-to-trot nude model/”stenographess” offer a fascinating contrast in morals & class, echoed in the social divides of the various characters that drift through each other’s lives.

Grand Hotel is purposefully, subversively funny when it wants to be. There are a lot jaunty class-divide jabs at capitalist pigs and Hays Code-era sex jokes like (to Crawford’s sultry stenographess) “Why don’t you take a little dictation from me sometime?” that keep the mood light & celebratory for most of the runtime. As a result, when the tragedy that concludes this interwoven, ensemble-cast story stops that line of humor dead, I reflexively shouted “Oh shit!” at the screen, totally unprepared for the last-minute tonal shift. I guess that’s the kind of genre-skewing shenanigans necessary to land a Best Picture Oscar for a Comedy (which this movie won despite being nominated in no other category), but it is a little jarring if you’re more familiar with the film’s descendants than you are with its own original reputation. I expected to enjoy a light yuck-em-up with my old pals Crawford & Garbo while they modeled pretty dresses & ran around a massive studio lot set. It turns out Grand Hotel‘s teeth are a little sharper than that.

-Brandon Ledet

Druids Druids Everywhere (2020)

For the first half hour of Druids Druids Everywhere, I thought I had finally hit a wall with my enjoyment of Matt Farley’s backyard horror comedies. Now that I’m nearly a dozen feature films into his staggering catalog, it’s not like there’s much left to discover anyway. This past year I’ve found myself looking under every unturned rock in the Motern Cinematic Universe looking for Matt Farley movies that slipped by me a couple summers ago when I was at the heights of my Motern madness. It’s mostly been worth the effort! While not as heavily promoted or discussed as cult-gathering Motern Classics like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, both Obtuse Todd & The Paperboy offered some of the most sublimely inane moments of understated comedy in any Matt Farley work I’ve seen to date. Then, Druids Druids Everywhere shook my faith in the entire endeavor. Was it possible that Farley (along with longtime collaborator Charles Roxburgh) had made a movie even I, a hopeless devotee, couldn’t enjoy? It was scary; then it got better.

Originally intended to be the fourth & final entry into Farley & Roxburg’s “Druid Cycle”, Druids Druids Everywhere was always going to be a for-fans-only proposition. To fully appreciate their crazed commitment to the long-running bit of the Druid Saga, you’d not only have to already be under the spell of their greatest non-druid hits like Local Legends and Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, but also to have seen the pre-requisite druid titles Adventures in Cruben Country, Sammy: The Tale of a Terrible Teddy and, the crown jewel of the series, Druid Gladiator Clone. That’s a lot of homework, especially for a no-budget comedy about a druid cult. It makes sense, then, that they decided to shelve the film in 2014 without ever officially releasing it, if not only to avoid scaring off new audiences who might have stumbled into it as their very first Motern experience. In the six years since that decision to shelve the film, though, public demand for Motern Content has only gotten louder, making Druids Druids Everywhere a Day the Clown Cried type Holy Grail for the few dozen freaks who’ve seen all the other Druid Saga films and maintained enthusiasm for more. And now it’s finally been released as an extra feature on the recent (excellent) Gold Ninja Video release of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!. I wish I could report that it was fully worth the wait.

To put it as simply as possible, the first act of Druids Druids Everywhere suffers what I’ll call The Adam Sandler Problem. Recalling the most annoying, soul-draining performances in Sandler’s cursed oeuvre, Matt Farley starts the film speaking in a painfully unfunny Voice that threatens to tank the whole enterprise if he sticks to it the entire runtime. It’s not exactly Little Nicky-level bad, but it’s not far off. Thankfully, he eventually drops the Voice (and its accompanying Spirit Halloween Store fake beard) and teams up with Roxburgh to rid the New England woods of the druid cult that’s been haunting them for four movies solid. Immediately, Druids Druids Everywhere feels like classic Motern, with extensive straight-faced gags involving evil clouds, home-cooked cans of Spaghetti-Os, and cargo pockets stuffed with magical dirt. The back half of Druids Druids Everywhere is rewardingly funny, but you have to suffer through some pretty dire schtick to get there. But, let’s face it, if you’ve gotten this far into the Motern catalog you’re going to be willing to put in the effort.

All the underplayed absurdism & recurring goofball players Motern fans love eventually bubble to the surface in this movie’s final act. If you’re already a Motern convert, it’s genuinely just a joy to dick around the woods with Farley, Roxburgh, and company MVP Kevin McGee for 90min. I doubt anyone who’s not already a fan would find much of value here, or likely even make it past the fake beard & Adam Sandler Voice intro in the first place. They knew that when they made the film, though, and it’s honestly generous of them to release it now anyway just so hopelessly curious nerds like myself could complete the Druid Saga and feel at rest. Sure, this is for-fans-only, but if you’re a Motern fan all you really need is moments of recognition to point at the screen at such classic Matt Farley Bits as walking!, ranting!, and playing basketball!. Please refer to the ranked Motern hierarchy below to determine whether you’re ready to enjoy such a low-key, but warmly familiar indulgence.
Must-See Motern Classics
Local Legends
Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!
Monsters, Marriage and Murder in Manchvegas
Second-Tier Motern Gems
Slingshot Cops
Freaky Farley
Druid Gladiator Clone
For-Fans-Only Motern Charmers
The Paperboy
Obtuse Todd
Sammy: The Tale of a Terrible Teddy
Adventures in Cruben Country
Druids Druids Everywhere

-Brandon Ledet

Spontaneous (2020)

It’s very difficult for the post-Heathers high school black comedy to match the exact glorious highs of Daniel Waters’s 1989 classic. In the late 1990s, titles like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Jawbreaker, and Sugar & Spice leaned a little too hard into the flippant cruelty of the Heathers template, while more recent works like Mean Girls, The DUFF, and The Edge of Seventeen aren’t quite cruel enough. That’s why it’s a little frustrating that Spontaneous is so dead-on in its post-Heathers teen comedy cruelty in its first half, only to abandon that black comedy tone entirely as it reaches for a more earnest, less humorous conclusion. Of all the Heathers descendants I’ve enjoyed over the years, this one starts off with the most promise to share its icy, sardonic throne as the queen of the genre; then it abruptly decides it’s interested in pursuing something much more muted & emotionally grounded. I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment for that tonal shift as a result, even if the movie still holds up as a cute, enjoyable experience on its own terms.

Spontaneous is a shockingly well-timed horror-comedy-turned-teenage-melodrama. It’s about a spontaneous combustion pandemic that spreads throughout the senior class of one specific high school, forcing the student body into strict quarantine as their friends & classmates explode one by one in spectacular displays of gore. All the isolation & unprocessed grief that’s been hanging over high school & college kids since the coronavirus pandemic derailed all semblance of normalcy in March of 2020 is reflected here in a way the filmmakers could not have anticipated. Regardless of last year’s hyper-specific health pandemic context, though, the spontaneous combustion phenomenon works well enough as a generalized representation of the social pressures & gloom that hang over the heads of all kids who’re trying to remain optimistic about their futures as our planet continues to fall apart. It’s difficult to plan for the future when climate change, nuclear war, or your entire senior class exploding into piles of mush all threaten to end the world as we know it, so you might as well live in the moment – spontaneously.

There’s a lot to be disappointed by here if you’re looking to complain. It starts very strong when having morbid fun with its premise, but gradually loses steam as the heaviness of the material outweighs what its teen-drama earnestness can manage. I personally would’ve loved to see a version of this same film built around the lead’s friendship with her bestie rather than her brief senior-year romance with the new boy in town, since it’s a relationship that’s much better established & more worthy of exploring. I also obviously have a major mental block in assessing it as its own isolated accomplishment without constantly comparing it to my beloved Heathers, which it only echoes in its first hour. Ultimately, these are probably smart choices on the film’s part in reaching out to a teenage audience instead of my dusty thirtysomething sensibilities. The big emotions of the doomed romance, the dwelling on communal grief, and the Spencer Krug & Sufjan Stevens soundtrack cues are all perfectly pitched to hyperbolic teenage Feelings in a way I’m not sure I’ve seen matched since Your Name. Hopefully that teen audience will find this small, off-kilter gem while its context of graduating high school mid-pandemic is still a fresh, relatable wound.

If there’s any irony in me nitpicking Spontaneous‘s comedy-to-melodrama tonal shift, it’s the way that trajectory matches my very favorite aspect of the film. It perfectly captures the way that high school kids will impulsively say something mean to people who don’t deserve it in an attempt to be funny, then immediately regret that decision. The movie itself has flippant fun with its exploding-teens premise until the blood dries, and it has to clean up the emotional hurt that’s left behind – which is the same natural tendency the lead has to fight in herself as she treats everything around her as a meaningless joke. There’s something distinctly Veronica Sawyer about that character trait, as well as something universal to anyone who’s ever been a moody teenager. This is a fun, cute movie about a fucked-up tragedy, until the fun & cute evaporates and all that’s left is the fucked-up part.

-Brandon Ledet

Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)

Bill & Ted Face the Music finds our lovable slacker buds, William S. Preston Esq. (Alex Winter) and Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves), still at the great work that Rufus (the late George Carlin) foretold for them: the song that would unite the world. They’re also middle aged, with daughters of their own, named for the other: Wilhelmina “Billie” Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine) is dark-haired, shy, and androgynous like Ted, while Theadora Preston (Samara Weaving) is blonde, confident, and hyperactive like Bill. The film opens on the wedding of Missy (Amy Stoch), who was once our hapless duo’s babysitter, then was Ted’s step-mother, then Bill’s step-mother, and is now marrying Ted’s younger brother Deacon (Beck Bennett, taking over for Frazier Bain). At the reception, Bill and Ted plan to perform the first three movements of their latest composition, entitled “That Which Binds Us Through Time: The Chemical, Physical, and Biological Nature of Love and the Exploration of the Meaning of Meaning — Part 1,” and it starts with throat-singing and theremin, so I’m on board, but it’s not a crowd pleaser. At the suggestion of their wives, the princesses (Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays), Bill and Ted attend couple’s therapy with their respective spouse, as a quartet. 

Meanwhile in the future, time and space are falling apart. Rufus’s daughter Kelly (Kristen Schaal) and widow The Great Leader (Holland Taylor) have different interpretations of the prophesied Wyld Stallyns song, with the latter believing in her father’s vision of universal unity through the power of music, and her mother hoping to put things back on track by reluctantly killing the Stallyns. To that end, she sends a time-traveling murderbot (Anthony Carrigan) to hunt them down across space and time. Learning about the dire situation, Bill and Ted steal their old phone booth time machine and move progressively forward in time along their own lifelines in an attempt to acquire the song from their future selves. Meanwhile, Billie and Thea travel through time to acquire various historical musicians (and Kid Cudi) in preparation for the performance. 

The sad thing about Face the Music is that, all too often, Bill and Ted are the least interesting things in it. This movie made me feel young, and then it made me feel old, and then it made me feel young again, but not in a way I was happy about. There’s just a little too much happening here, in a sequel to a movie that knew just how many juggling pins it could keep in the air at one time, and there are too many narrative threads. Offscreen, the princesses have been invited by future versions of themselves to see all of space and time and see if there’s any way they can actually be happy in their marriages to the men of the title (not to sound too much like the boys, but, like, that plot is majorly a downer). Meanwhile, the daughters are having their adventure, which is a mixed bag; Weaving and Lundy-Paine are both great here but are sometimes forced into delivering dialogue that hits the ear with neither subtlety or comedy. They have a kind of abridged version of Excellent Adventure as they collect Mozart, Hendrix, and Louis Armstrong (Daniel Dorr, DazMann Still, and Jeremiah Craft) and others, to form a supergroup rather than for a history project, but each encounter feels more expository than fun. They encounter one instance of resistance in their plot and overcome it almost immediately, then have nothing but easy success from there on out, which doesn’t make for a compelling watch. Conversely, each future version of the adult Bill and Ted is drunker and less helpful than the last, and these encounters go on for too long (especially in 2025), making the whole thing feel more like a labor than a good time. Then, as if that weren’t enough, we get a slight rehash of Bogus Journey with a trip to Hell, where the guys, their daughters, several time-displaced musicians, and Ted’s dad once again meet up with Death (William Sadler) to get back to the world of the living in time to perform the song and prevent the end of existence as we know it–because, if there’s one thing you have to remember, it’s this: the clock in San Dimas is always running. 

I didn’t even get into the plot that’s running concurrently in the future in which The Great Leader keeps getting summoned into the same amphitheater to look at the hologram of space and time (represented as the earth as a turntable, with a record deck at the equator like Saturn’s rings) to fret, which seems to happen nearly half a dozen times. In an overstuffed movie, it’s crammed in there too for some reason but there seems to be a disconcerting lack of a narrative purpose for us to keep going back there. Obviously one would want to get their money’s worth when hiring Holland Taylor, but from a story standpoint, there’s just no reason to keep doing this; a ninety-three minute movie shouldn’t have 125 minutes of plot crowding it up like the suitcase of a Looney Tunes character, as it leaves no breathing room and creates the situation mentioned earlier, in which character dialogue is rushed and overly expositional.  

I loved Bill & Ted in my youth, and no one wanted this movie to be better than I did. There are a few solid jokes here, but even some of the best are in service of generating a nostalgic feeling, which isn’t the wrong way to go with this particular franchise, but could have been scaled back by about 35% and had both more room to breathe and been just as effective. Lundy-Paine and Weaving are doing a lot of heavy lifting, and they’re up to most of it, but there are lines that they’re asked to sell that are simply impossible to pull off, and while Reeves has continued to carve out a niche for himself with John Wick and one-off minor roles in things like Neon Demon, Alex Winter has remained largely out of the public eye, mostly making documentaries. It’s great to see him here; he seems to be having the most fun of anyone, and it’s infectious, even when the film drags. It’s a less than delightful end(?) to a franchise that had a better ending in Bogus Journey.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Twentieth Century (2020)

When enticing friends to check out The Twentieth Century, it’s probably best not to lead with plot.  This is a historical retelling of the 1899 campaign for the Prime Minister of Canada.  It focuses mostly on the rise to power of William Lyon Mackenzie King in particular, the longest-serving Prime Minister in Canadian history.  Sounds riveting, doesn’t it?  Luckily, the film is an exercise in pure visual aesthetics & surrealist flippancy, so that the story it tells does not matter at all when compared to the over-the-top indulgences of each in-the-moment gag.  The Twentieth Century is light on historical accuracy and heavy on tongue-in-cheek, kink-flavored eroticism.  It’s a gorgeous, absurdist fantasy piece that retells the history of Canadian governance as “one failed orgasm after another,” which is not at all the dry textbook illustration the premise might suggest.  In fact, it is very, very wet.

The competition for Canadian Prime Minister is represented as more of a dystopian game show here than it is an election.  As distinctly Canadian challenges like passive-aggressively responding to strangers cutting in line or clubbing baby seals to death Whack-a-Mole style add up, it’s clear this film is more of a sketch comedy showcase than it is a Wikipedia bullet point history lesson.  However, unlike most modern comedies, it’s also an over-achieving visual spectacle from start to end, constructing an intensely artificial German Expressionist dreamscape out of hand-built sets, puppets, and traditionalist collage.  In its entirety, The Twentieth Century feels like watching Guy Maddin direct an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch that stumbles out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor.  That reductive descriptor can’t fully convey how surprising the film is in its moment-to-moment impulses, though.  It’s formally controlled in its visual aesthetics, but total irreverent chaos in every other sense.

The Twentieth Century is less fascinated with Mackenzie King’s politics as a power-hungry Prime Minister than it is with the more salacious details of his private life, represented here as an occultist quest to cure himself of a fetish for dominatrices and old leather boots.  That self-hatred over his most base impulses is extended to represent the spirit of Canada as a nation: an embarrassed, self-loathing country that strives to convey dignity & poise, but is rotting from the inside in a way it can barely contain.  I’m not a Canadian myself, so I can’t claim that withering self-portrait spoke to me on a personal level.  However, the more universal humor of a self-hating kinkster who can barely conceal their fetishism while attempting to maintain a professional public persona translates extremely well cross-border, as does the film’s more over-the-top, absurdist indulgences: bird puppets, ejaculating cacti, tongue-in-cheek drag routines, etc.  It’s also a constant pleasure to look at, which is an increasingly rare quality in a modern comedy.  I couldn’t help but love it.

-Brandon Ledet

We Are Little Zombies (2020)

I remember watching Edgar Wright’s video game breakup comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in the theater and finding it charmingly cute, certainly better than its box office & immediate critical reception implied. As its then-teenage cast has grown into mid-level fame and its then-teenage audience has grown to become the critical establishment in the decade since, Scott Pilgrim‘s underdog status has long faded away. If anything, praise for its 8-bit video game nostalgia and self-critical, anti-romantic twee sentiments is absurdly overstated by now, and what was once a low-key charmer has become overloaded with unsustainably hyperbolic accolades as a modern classic – at least in online Film Nerd circles. Nothing has made that gradual canonization more absurd to me than catching up with the recent coming-of-age comedy We Are Little Zombies, which pushes the same twee video game nostalgia aesthetics everyone drools over in Scott Pilgrim to much more consistently exciting, surprising extremes at every turn. We Are Little Zombies is one of those over-achieving stylistic showcases where every single in-the-moment comedic gag & tangential flight of whimsy makes you shout, “That’s so cool!” at the screen; it’s just absolutely overflowing with creativity. I now understand where the Scott Pilgrim die-hards are coming from, because I’ve seen that movie’s stylistic flourishes exploded into a vibrant, over-the-top spectacle much more suited to my own maximalist tastes.

Like most twee fantasy pieces and whimsical coming-of-age stories, We Are Little Zombies’s flashy sense of style mostly just functions to obscure the deep well of pain flowing just below its manicured surface. The plot is simple; four freshly orphaned children meet at their parents’ simultaneous funerals and run away to form a surprisingly successful (but ultimately doomed) pop punk band. The pint-sized lineup of Little Zombies are all emotionally numb to their grief, so they write vibrant pop songs about their apathy as a form of art therapy. Most of the structural conflict in the film is typical to a rise-to-fame rock band narrative, deriving from evil record company executives converting their art into capital. However, from scene to scene their journey is guided strictly by video game logic, wherein their instruments must be acquired like digital armor and the record execs are level bosses who must be defeated. The vibrant colors, rapid cuts, 8-bit score, and continually surprising shot choices that power-boost this video game surface aesthetic feel like they belong to a kinetic live-action cartoon populated by hyperactive kids in constant search of their next sugar rush. Instead, the Little Zombies are decidedly anti-emotional as a band, despondently stumbling through their shitty little lives in the exact way their collective name implies. The only time they appear to be having as much fun as first-time director Makoto Nagahisa is having behind the camera is when they’re playing their candy-coated pop punk tunes, and there’s a genuine tragedy to how easily that collective art therapy is corrupted for a one-hit-wonder cash-in.

In terms of its mind-melting, genre-defying maximalism, there are a ton of psychedelic Japanese freak-outs I’d compare We Are Little Zombies to before citing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Suicide Club, Hausu, Funeral Parade of Roses, Wild Zero, etc. Still, the two films’ overlap of pop punk soundtrack cues, twee heartbreak, and video game surface aesthetics make the comparison unignorable. We Are Little Zombies amplifies the little touches that make Scott Pilgrim charming into an explosively entertaining video game dreamscape that much more clearly, consistently registers as Something Special to my eyes. It’s apparently now my turn to overhype an underseen, underloved video game fantasy piece until people are sick of hearing about how great it is. Hopefully, I’ve got at least a decade until the tides turn against it.

-Brandon Ledet

I Declare War (2012)


I wrote previously about the DVDs-and-booze Alamo Drafthouse at home program that the Austin-based movie tavern dynasty has rolled out as part of their COVID business model. I wasn’t terribly impressed with The FP, but the second selection, I Declare War, really hit for me.

I Declare War is the story of two factions of children playing war, with shockingly high stakes and consequences that will echo far beyond this one hot afternoon. On one side, there’s longstanding champion P.K. (Gage Munroe) and his crew: P.K.’s best friend Paul (Siam Yu), hothead rule challenger Kenney (Eric Hanson), enigmatic scout Caleb (Kolton Steward), timid altar boy Wesley (Andy Reid), and brash loudmouth Joker (Spencer Howes), who has a tendency to be a little bit of a bully. On the other side is Quinn (Aidan Gouveia), the first kid that P.K. thinks has the tactical knowledge to beat him, and Quinn’s team: anger-management-challenged and budding sociopath Skinner (Michael Friend), diminutive chatterbox Frost (Alex Cardillo), thuggish but dim-witted Sikorski (Dyson Fyke), and Jessica (Mackenzie Munroe), the only girl playing the game, who’s only there because of her crush on Quinn. The game will end when the general of one team captures the opponent’s flag.

We’re introduced to the rules—both those of the game itself and the rules of the visual language of the war itself—immediately. Each child has a firearm, and after we first see it established that these weapons are actually made of sticks, tin cans, and other assorted debris, we then see them as the children see them: Jessica’s slingshot is a crossbow, P.K. carries a pistol that looks far too large for his little hands, and Frost and several others carry automatics. The rules are as follows: if you’re hit, you’re paralyzed for ten speedboats (“one speedboat, two speedboat, three speedboat …”), giving your opponent time to move in and perform the finishing/killing move with a grenade (a balloon filled with red liquid). After you’ve counted to ten, you’re able to escape. Generals can’t move their bases after the game has started, and when you’re out, you go home. The war is over when a general captures the opponent’s flag.

We get a lot of detail about the characters that we’ll be following from pretty early on, as the cast drops to a more manageable number pretty quickly, when a fully committed Kenney, complete with ‘Nam-esque camo paint, takes out one of Quinn’s men before “dying” himself. Skinner instructs Sikorski to kick Kenney around in the dirt for information about P.K.’s base, which is cheating (the dead can’t be interrogated), establishing Skinner as a bully and a cheat. Kenney likewise wants to stick around and assist P.K., but the latter insists that the rules be followed, establishing P.K. as committed to honoring the rules of engagement and to his successful victory at any cost within those parameters, although he does attempt some subterfuge of his own later on. P.K.’s own establishing character moment comes when he and Paul talk about what they’re doing after the battle: pizza and a movie at P.K.’s. Paul asks what movie, to which P.K. replies that they’ll be watching Patton, to Paul’s chagrin, as this is explicitly not for the first time P.K. has subjected him to this particular film. Wesley takes up a role as the platoon’s chaplain by default, serving as the coward who’s too afraid to stand up for himself or even shoot his “gun,” initially finding himself in conflict with Joker, whose shtick is outlandish hypothetical situations and calling Christian concepts of God’s love “gay.” One such hypothetical shows P.K. thinking outside the box to create his own resolution that gives him the best of both situations, to which Joker objects, showing us early on that P.K. doesn’t see himself as bound within the binary between options A and B, but as entitled to “winning” in every situation.

Paul is our real lead here, however, as we see much of the conflict between P.K. and Skinner (who deposes Quinn in a coup early on) through his eyes. When Paul is cornered, Skinner takes him prisoner instead of grenading him outright, under the assumption that P.K. will personally come and rescue Paul, leaving their base unguarded and enabling Skinner to steal their flag. Skinner goes into full-on Lord of the Flies mode pretty much immediately, issuing contradictory orders to Frost, Sikorski, and Jessica and quickly realizing that knocking Quinn off so soon has left them undermanned. What he really wants, however, is for the others to leave him alone with the bound Paul so he can torture the smaller boy. And not play-torture, either; as soon as they’re alone, he threatens Paul with a knife and lays a section of plywood across Paul’s prone body and starts piling rocks and cement blocks on him, calling Paul racial slurs and telling him that this was how people were put to death before hanging became the standard form of execution. It’s troubling and dark, and only slightly marred by some of the more over-the-top deliveries from the young actors (these are all extremely solid performances for child actors–shockingly so, so I’m more inclined to forgive the moments when their reach exceeds their grasp).

We learn that, before Paul and his family moved to the community, P.K. and Skinner were best friends, but that P.K. ultimately rejected him because of his issues with anger management. We also learn that Skinner is bullied at school, including a prank enacted upon him by two girl classmates who invited him to go swimming and gave him a fake address, and he also blames some of his social isolation on no longer being friends with P.K., although it’s unclear how much of this is true or is simply part of Skinner’s obsession with P.K. in general and retaking what he perceives as his rightful place next to P.K. that Paul has “usurped” from him. Paul, however, ultimately learns that P.K.’s friendship may not be all that it’s cracked up to be; it’s not just endless viewings of Patton (although that would be enough to stretch any friendship to a near-breaking point), but carelessness about their relationship. Even after Paul escapes from literal physical torture at Skinner’s hands, P.K. sends him back to be recaptured intentionally so that he can proceed with his current plan to take Skinner’s flag. When Skinner is willing to concede defeat if P.K. simply cuts Paul with the knife from earlier, it’s left ambiguous whether P.K. was willing to do so in the name of winning or not.

There’s a lot going on in the margins here: Frost and Sikorski as the Rosencrantz and Gildenstern of this private little war, Joker’s intermittent fantasies about being able to blow away annoyances with laser eyes, and Caleb using the R/C airplane that Quinn had left behind to deal a climactic blow. I’m not sure how I feel about Jessica doing her own thing and imagining fantasy conversations with Quinn, however. There’s value in noting that her internal life and how she perceives the activities of the day is different from the boys, but there’s something just a little bit… off about her characterization. At one point, Skinner suggests she use her feminine wiles to distract the enemy, and she is rightfully put out by the ignorance of this, but by reducing the number of girl characters to one and having her participation be solely for the purpose of impressing the boy on whom she has a crush, the script makes the same reductive mistake that Skinner does, in a way.

As the movie goes on, each character becomes more and more filthy and disheveled, their faces first getting dirty and then transforming into a kind of warpaint. There’s also something beautifully upsetting about the validity of Skinner’s frustration; his issues could easily stem from an undiagnosed neurodivergence or potentially treatable personality disorder, but his peers see him as simply “a spaz” and ostracize him, leading him to engage in behavior that’s not terribly dissimilar from P.K.’s own in its casual disregard for conventions of friendship but more openly antagonistic. At the film’s end, we’re left wondering if this has ended Paul and P.K.’s friendship as well, or if they can repair what P.K. and Skinner clearly cannot.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond