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

Satanic Panic (2019)

I closed out my experience at the Overlook Film Festival this year the exact way I started it: with a comedy that wasn’t at all funny. Just like with my opening night selection, Porno, I sat through much of Satanic Panic in the festival’s closing hours not laughing at any of the film’s proper Jokes but being amused by the absurdist excess of the sex & violence onscreen anyway. Humor is entirely subjective, as I learned a day prior when a total stranger scolded me for laughing during Peter Strickland’s killer-dress giallo pastiche In Fabric because it is “not a comedy” (hard disagree), so I’m sure this splatter comedy has a core demographic of genre nerds out there who are going to slurp up its cutesy occultist humor like so much blood & viscera. For the rest of us, the film is at least committed to exploiting the full absurdist potential of its sex & violence, perhaps the two most reliable sources of entertainment in the history of commercial art.

This film picks up where Rosemary’s Baby leaves off. Upwardly mobile suburbanite aristocrats gather in a beige McMansion to worship Satan as their Dark Lord. Their ritual du jour involves summoning the demon Baphomet to impregnate a sacrificial virgin, providing a physical form for an Evil deity. Our POV character is the virgin sacrifice in peril – a pizza delivery driver who dares speak up when the cult stiffs her on her tip, only for them to single her out for their depraved ceremony of untold horrors. Most of the film details her fight for survival over the course of a single night as she must first accept that witchcraft is real, then adapt to overthrow the black magic Satanists who want to destroy her with it. Luckily, her blue-collar pedigree has better prepared for the fight than the pampered suburbanites that surround her, whether or not they have all the forces of Hell to summon for backup.

In its least convincing moments Satanic Panic attempts a weirdly earnest emotional throughline about personal courage & survivor’s guilt. Its Society-esque thematic territory in which the Rich are an evil force that are actively trying to kill us is much more successful, but still a little hollow. Mostly, the plot is a thin excuse to juxtapose a wholesome cutie who loves fuzzy bunnies with the blood-soaked horrors of Satanic worship. It’s a relatively harmless source of humor (excusing a rape joke or two, re: preemptively losing her virginity), but also not a particularly novel or clever one. For me, the film worked best when the humanity of its characters was forgotten entirely in pursuit of sexual, gory mayhem: strap-on “killdo” drills, poisoned children, fisted neck wounds, Cronenberigan anus monsters, blood-soaked occultist orgies, etc. It may not be the pinnacle of joke writing or emotional drama, but Satanic Panic at least knows how to deliver the goods when it comes to over-the-top ultraviolence & softcore sexual mania.

From a production level standpoint, this should’ve been able to accomplish much more than what Porno pulled off. While that film was a more amateur affair populated by unfamiliar faces and limited to just a few locations, this is a Fangoria-supported debut feature for Horror Industry notable Chelsea Stardust and features supporting performances from Rebecca Romjin, Jerry O’Connell, and Arden Myrin among its suburbanite Satanists. It’s far from a major studio production, but the fact that it amounts to the same general effect of something as cheap as Porno can’t be a good sign. Because both of those titles were able to earn their place on the schedule for the same generally well-curated horror festival, and both screenings were met with uproarious laughter from plenty of genre nerds besides me, I assume there are many people out there who will find Satanic Panic hi-larious, whether or not they would enjoy it more than Porno. Admittedly, I did eventually have fun with its commitment to bloodlust & excess myself, but I also walked away a lot more cautious about making time for these unvetted splatter comedies the next time I’m prioritizing what to see at a genre film festival. I now know that they’re a type, and not necessarily my type.

-Brandon Ledet

Porno (2019)

I often talk about how the worst kind of movie is a comedy where the jokes don’t land. It’s an experience that can feel alienating (and, frankly, boring), especially when every other person in the theater is slapping their knees and doubling over with laughter. Watching Porno on opening night of this year’s Overlook Film Festival was the most alienated I’ve felt by a comedy since the opening weekend of Deadpool 2. In both instances, I was surrounded by the boisterous laughter of audiences who were tickled silly by every joke delivered onscreen, despite not a single one of them being in any way subversive or clever. I somehow still managed to have a good time with Porno, though, even while feeling like the odd man out in that crowd. That’s because it’s a horror film on top of being a comedy, and its horror beats deliver where its humor fails. When most comedies fail to make you laugh, they leave you very few opportunities to be entertained otherwise. To its credit, Porno entertains throughout by relying on the most tried & true attractions in the entertainment business: sex & violence. Even if you’re impervious to its proper Jokes, there’s still plenty of blood-soaked juvenilia to keep you occupied.

While closing shop on a busy weekend in 1990s suburbia, the Christian employees of a vintage movie theater discover a demonically possessed porno reel in a storage closet. When they watch the cursed reel out of lustful curiosity, the transgression releases an evil succubus that seduces & disassembles them one by one. The small staff of repressed twenty-somethings spend the night fighting off the succubus in a fool-hearted attempt to save the world outside the cinema, but in a larger sense they’re really fighting off the lustful temptations that conflict with their Evangelical values: sexual voyeurism, substance abuse, homosexual desire, etc. While the jokes could’ve used a punch-up from someone with sharper comedic chops, the sex & violence of the premise are fully committed to delivering the goods. I may not have laughed at any of the spoken dialogue, but as genitals were ripped to shreds in unflinching gore, grown men were pegged over a toilet by a femme sex demon, and occultist nudists bathed in blood & strobelit giallo hues, I occasionally found myself having a blast. I don’t know that I could enthusiastically recommend the picture as a non-stop laugh riot, but once its sex gradually becomes less vanilla and the number of onscreen dicks (mutilated or otherwise) piles up in practical gore mayhem, it kinda gets charmingly juvenile.

There’s a particular kind of Horror Nerd out there for whom this movie will work entirely, comedic warts & all. I know this for a fact because each bon mot landed to thunderous guffaws at our Overlook screening. I’ll even admit that some of my own enjoyment of the picture was in hearing those very same Horror Bros squirm with disgust when a scrotum was ripped open by a sex demon or a prostate was worked for all the un-Christian pleasure it was worth, since those moments were when I laughed the most. Given that the film shares thematic overlap with B-pictures I’ve enjoyed before like Demons, All About Evil, and Cecil B Demented (and it even features posters for personal favorites like Ed Wood’s Orgy of the Dead & Doris Wishman’s Deadly Weapons), there’s definitely a shared appreciation for camp & excess where my own sensibilities overlap with its intended crowd. I just more often found myself amused when they were sexually antagonized than when they were comedically pandered to. Porno may not succeed by most horror comedy metrics, but it’s willing to engage with the sexual taboos that would most upset its straight-guy-horror-nerd target audience and I greatly respect that chutzpah, even if I was in no danger of busting a gut.

-Brandon Ledet

One Cut of the Dead (2019)

It’s near impossible to recommend One Cut of the Dead without spoiling what makes it special, so I’m going to have to tread lightly here. This is maybe the most deceptively complex horror comedy I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly the most patient; the movie takes a huge gamble in saving all its major comedic payoff for its concluding half hour – an alchemist third-act twist that retroactively transforms the movie you think you’ve been watching for the previous hour into pure gold. Whether or not all its potential audience will stick around for the full benefit of that payoff is a major risk, especially since encouraging viewers who are going in blind to push through the limitations of its initial conceit might already be tipping the film’s hand. All I can really report without prematurely revealing too much is how the film toyed with my own expectations. I found it quietly charming, then disorienting & awkward and then, finally, one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a theater in a long, long while – horror or otherwise.

As the title suggests (perhaps awkwardly, in Japanese-to-English translation), the initial conceit of One Cut of the Dead is that it is an experiment in staging a zombie-invasion horror film in a single take. A microbudget movie crew filming a zombie cheapie in an abandoned WWII lab (that once experimented with bringing the dead back to life) are attacked by real-life zombies between takes. The unflinching, handheld camera offers a meta POV of the crew’s shock & subsequent fight for survival as the zombie mayhem they’re struggling to authentically stage for an unseen audience becomes “real.” Deciphering exactly what’s meant to be “real” within this paradigm and what’s merely a limitation of staging a single-take zombie picture on an amateur budget is increasingly difficult. Stage blood & actors’ spit splash against the lens. Performers wait a beat or three too long for their proper cues to deliver their next line. The POV cameraman is directly acknowledged by the actors, despite there already being a meta remove of a movie-within-the-movie. So much of One Cut of the Dead is on shaky logical ground because of the limitation of its filmmaking resources, but horror fans who are inclined to watch low-budget, high-concept zombie movies in the first place should be used to making those allowances. What’s brilliant about the film is how it transforms those awkward low-budget details into something brilliantly executed & purposeful. Revealing how it performs that miracle in a review would be a crime that I’m not willing to commit. You just have to afford it your attention & trust long enough to see it for yourself.

The biggest hurdle in convincing people to watch One Cut of the Dead long enough to catch onto what it’s accomplishing is that it’s a little difficult to convince people to watch any zombie movie in 2019, especially the kind that was made for less than $30,000 and most plays at genre film festivals like The Overlook. That’s the ultimate trick to the picture, though. This isn’t about zombies at all. Rather, it’s a heartfelt love letter to low-budget filmmaking and all the frustrations, limitations, and unlikely scrappy successes therein. Even before you’re allowed to fully catch on to what you’re watching, the movie’s already pitting a microbudget film crew against the horrors of the world outside their orbit. Actors strain to convey believable emotion in a preposterous scenario; sound technicians fight off the undead with boom mics; directors & cameramen defy all survival odds to piece together whatever scraps they can salvage from a film shoot that immediately goes to hell. This is a movie about the improbable joys & common frustrations of making movies, a sentiment that only becomes more apparent the more time & attention you afford it.

-Brandon Ledet

Greener Grass (2019)

Did you find yourself disappointed that Too Many Cooks wasn’t an hour longer? Have you ever started an online petition to greenlight a gender-flipped remake of Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie? Ever have a nightmare that David Lynch rebooted Stepford Wives as an Adult Swim sitcom? The precise target audience for Greener Grass is such an unlikely combination of interests & tolerances that it’s an unholy miracle the movie was ever made in the first place, much less screened at competitive film festivals like Sundance & The Overlook. It’s not enough that its audience has to be thirsty for a femme, Lynchian subversion of Adult Swim-flavored anti-comedy; they have to sustain that thirst for 100 unrelenting minutes as they’re flooded with enough illogical chaos & menacing irreverence to last 100 lifetimes. It’s an exhausting experience no matter who you are, but there are apparently enough weirdos out there who find this peculiar brand of comedic antagonism pleasurable enough to fight through the delirium. I’m afraid I’m one of them.

At its core, Greener Grass is a comedy of manners. First-time directors Jocelyn DeBoer & Dawn Leubbe costar as suburban housewives in the same cookie-cutter, fly-over America we’re used to seeing in films like Blue Velvet & Edward Scissorhands. The film is so blatant in its adoption of the Sinister Evil Lurking Under Suburbia’s Manicured Surface trope that it practically functions as a parody of the genre. There’s a framework for a serial killer plot in which a crazed grocery bagger stalks local women and usurps their lives & homes, but it’s mostly treated as an afterthought, some light background decoration. Instead, the film generates most of its horror by mocking middle class suburbanites as subhuman monstrosities. Sharing a communal vanity that drives every single adult to get braces, they make out in wet, sexless slurps that torment the audience in unholy foley work. Proud of the size & cleanliness of their in-ground swimming pools to the point of mania, they bottle the pool water for drinking on the go. Traveling around from beige McMansion to beige McMansion in electric golf carts, they callously trade husbands & children as bargaining chips in a never-ending game of one-upmanship. Each awkward social interaction is scored with creepy music cues as the humiliation from not keeping up with the Jones drives them each dangerously mad. It’s a total horror show, in that it’s totally banal.

DeBoer & Leubbe are joined by fellow LA comedy scenesters like Mary Holland, D’arcy Carden, Beck Bennet, and Janizca Bravo as they mercilessly mock the status-obsessed suburban monsters of Everywhere, America. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact target audience for this femme, improv-heavy anti-humor, outside the comedy nerds who turn up for UCB shows in NYC & LA. It was certainly surprising to see the film appear on the schedule for the Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans, which tends to cater to more immediately familiar horror tones than what the grocery-bagger killer side-plot has to offer here. I will admit it, though: the film is horrifying. Whether it’s grossing you out with the moist, passionless sex of its suburbanite goons or it’s breaking every known rule of logical storytelling to drive you into total delirium at a golf cart’s pace, the film is uniquely horrific & punishing – and hilarious. You should know approximately thirty seconds into its runtime whether or not its peculiarly antagonistic humor is something you’ll vibe with; there’s just very little that can prepare you for what it’s like to experience that aggressive irreverence for 100 consecutive minutes.

-Brandon Ledet

The Evolution of The Lonely Island Sports Movie

It’s been three years since The Lonely Island (Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, and Andy Samberg) released their latest commercial-bomb-turned-cult–classic, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and that 2010s update to Walk Hard pop music biopic parody finally has its follow-up. While Popstar mocked the modern “concert documentaries” (read: feature length infomercials) of acts like Justin Bieber & One Direction as an excuse to stage ZAZ-style gags & The Lonely Island’s classic music video sketches, the group’s latest release adopts an even flimsier format to do the same: the visual album. Self-described as “a visual poem” and surprise-dropped on Netflix in a Beyoncé-evoking distribution strategy, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is pure Lonely Island goofballery. It’s difficult to tell if its visual album format is meant to be a joke at the expense of hubristic projects like Lemonade & Dirty Computer or more of a self-deprecating joke at the expense of The Lonely Island themselves for even attempting to pull off such a loftily minded project in the first place. Either way, its’ a brilliant move that not only updates their cinematic sensibilities to a more modern version of pop music media, but also removes two barriers that tend to stand in the way of what makes them so enjoyable to watch: the necessity of a plot to justify a feature-length film & the necessity of box office success to pay their producers’ bills. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience isn’t as successful or as substantial of a work as Popstar, but it is one that further suggests that these very silly boys have finally reached a new sense of ambition & efficiency in their craft. It’s also an accomplishment that they’ve been building towards for years, if you consider the earlier, more restrained sports mockumentaries of their past as trial runs.

Appropriately enough, The Lonely Island’s cinematic career started with a feature-length sports narrative. While still producing Digital Shorts for SNL, the trio of pop music parodists delivered their first delightful box office bomb with 2007’s Hot Rod. While not quite as formally daring or riotously funny as Popstar (or even Jorma Taccone’s other SNL-era feature, MacGruber, for that matter), Hot Rod is still pretty damn hilarious from start to finish. It was the first instance when I can recall genuinely enjoying Andy Samberg beyond his usefulness as someone who makes Joanna Newsom laugh. Playing an overgrown man-child who wants to be a daredevil just like his deceased father, Samberg’s general mode in Hot Rod is slapstick comedy and it’s classically funny on a Three Stooges level as a result. Often missing jumps on his dirtbike & puking from the pain, Samberg’s titular Rod is far from the Evel Knievel Jr. he imagines himself to be. There’s a lot of solid humor derived from the disparity between Rod’s confidence & his actual abilities, which allows you to have a good laugh at his expense even when he drowns, catches fire, or explodes. That’s an interesting subversion of the traditional underdog sports story, but it’s still one that plays its comedic beats relatively safely. The premise is mostly grounded in reality yet is careful not to resemble any real-life public figures too closely (not even Knievel). Its structure remains true to the traditional sports movie narrative too, even if its greatest strengths rely on long strings of non-sequitur gags. For instance, most of the film boasts a killer 80s synthpop soundtrack, but towards the climax when Rod’s crew has their inevitable third-act falling-out, the score suddenly switches to melodramatic string arrangements – effectively poking fun at its own necessity to transform into A Real Movie at the last minute. With more filmmaking experience under their belts & more celebrity star power backing up their audacity, their sports movies parodies only strengthened from there.

At this point in The Lonely Island’s career timeline, Hot Rod’s timid SNL Movie comedy template feels more like a one-off anomaly than an early wind-up for what Bash Brothers delivers. If anything, Bash Brothers feel like it’s the final film in a trilogy of sports parodies that Lonely Island initially produced for HBO, mostly as a creative outlet for Samberg. At a half-hour a piece, Samberg’s sports mockumentaries Tour de Pharmacy (2017) & 7 Days in Hell (2015) are the earliest telegraphs of where the Lonely Island crew would eventually go with Bash Brothers. Respectively tackling the real-life sports world controversies of doping in cycling & angry outbursts in tennis, Tour de Pharmacy & 7 Days in Hell fearlessly make fun of some of the biggest scandals in sports history (short of the O.J. Simpson murder trial) in violent jabs of ZAZ-style chaos. What’s most amazing about them is that they invite the real-life sports celebrities involved in those scandals to participate in their own mockery. John McEnroe drops by 7 Days in Hell to poke fun at a fictional “bad boy of tennis” (played by Samberg, naturally) whose antics with sex, drugs, and physical violence result in a deadly Wimbledon match that drags on for a solid week, disrupting & disgracing a once-reputable sport. Serena Williams also pops by as a talking head, even through the media’s policing of her own supposed emotional outbursts is much more unreasonable than McEnroe’s. In Tour de Pharmacy, Lance Armstrong talks at length about how every single cyclist who competes in the Tour de France is aided by illegal substances, directly recalling his own downfall in a very public doping scandal. Wrestler-turned-comedian John Cena also appears as a steroids-enraged monster in the film, tangentially poking fun at the WWE’s own history with performance-enhancing drugs. Of course, both projects are still packed with the juvenile non-sequiturs & physical comedy gags that have been constant to Samberg’s sense of humor, now emboldened to be more sexually explicit than ever before thanks to the freedom of HBO – resulting in bisexual orgies, unconventional prostate stimulation, and characters high-fiving during cunnilingus. It’s the bravery of connecting those very silly gags to very real publicity crises for sports figures who are participating along with the creators that feels new & mildly transgressive.

As daring as it may be to trivialize real-life sports controversies in such a flippantly silly way, those two HBO productions still feel somewhat formally restricted. It wasn’t until Samberg rejoined with Schaffer & Taccone post-Popstar that his sports cinema mockery really hit is pinnacle, just a few weeks ago. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience makes full use of all The Lonely Island’s best cinematic qualities: the music video sketch comedy of their SNL days, the rise-and-fall (and fall and fall) sports narrative of Hot Rod, the gross-out sex gags of MacGruber, the shameless evisceration of real-life sports scandals from Sandberg’s HBO mockumentaries and, finally, the chaotic disregard for traditional structure of Popstar. The Netflix-hosted half-hour comedy special wastes no time mocking the steroids abuse scandal that plagued the 1989 World Series run of the real-life “Bash Brothers,” Mark McGuire & Jose Conseco. The very first verse Samberg raps in this “visual poem” (read: loose collection of music videos) references steroids abuse, a theme that’s reinforced over & over again in the group’s usual 80s-era Beastie Boys cadence with lines like “I never finish sex because I’m so juiced out” and “Stab the needle in my ass until I am rich.” The genius of adapting this mockery to a visual album medium is that is allows the boys to go full-goof 100% of the time, packing in as many music video sketches as they please, unburdened by the necessity of a coherent plot. As funny as Samberg’s HBO specials were, they’re still fairly grounded mockumentaries that parody the tones & structure of many HBO Films productions of the past. Hot Rod is even more beholden to classic cinematic templates, falling well within the boundaries of a typical SNL movie even if its individual gags are specific to The Lonely Island’s sensibilities. While Bash Brothers can easily be seen as a swipe at the hubris of the visual album format, it ultimately just proves the point that it’s a genius, unrestrained medium that brings out the best #purecinema potential of any popstar who dares to utilize it – even incredibly silly parodists with a fetish for traditional sports narratives.

The Unauthorized Bash Bothers Experience feels like an epiphanic moment within The Lonely Island’s cinematic output, a culminating achievement in the sports movie template that they’ve been trying to crack open for more than a decade now. Of course, I wish that feature-length comedies like Popstar & MacGruber were more successful as theatrical gambles, but I am glad that these very silly boys have finally found a more viable niche for their sports movie parodies. I’m also glad to see these comedy nerds continue to take the piss out of our deeply flawed sports gods of yesteryear – an achievement that’s only make doubly fascinating by those gods’ participatory amusement in their own mockery.

-Brandon Ledet

Jour de Fête (1949)

I knew when I was watching Jacques Tati play a romantic ghost in Sylvie and the Phantom that I wasn’t getting an especially arcuate representation of the comedian’s usual work. That’s why it was such an unmissable event for me when The Prytania Theatre was screening Tati’s directorial debut feature Jour de Fête in a proper theatrical environment, even if the lousy six-person attendance number indicated that it wasn’t much of a priority for the rest of the city. As Tati is best known for playing the recurring slapstick caricature Monsieur Hulot in his later works, Jour de Fête might have itself been an unconventional entry point for understanding the general shape of his oeuvre. Still, its deeply silly, anarchic physical humor seems much more typical to Tati’s reputation as a high-brow slapstick artist than Sylvie & The Phantom’s casting of him as the undead spirit of an ancient dreamboat (dutifully accompanied by his loyal puppy ghost, who gets most of the laughs). Tati may have been a rookie director when he made Jour de Fête, but he arrived on the scene with a distinct, fully developed comedic voice—one that can apparently still earn belly laughs 70 years later in a near-empty theater.

Tati stars in the film as a bumbling mailman in a small Central France village. The supposed conflict of the premise is that the mailman is overwhelmed by the sudden influx of work that arrives with a traveling carnival that passes through his tiny village. Truthfully, it’s not only the carnival that overwhelms the mailman, but also the bored whims of his own community. Jour de Fête is a drunken slapstick comedy about a rural village that bands together to troll their own mailman for being a nerd who strives to be good at his job while everyone else is partying. The carnival aspect is only festive background decoration for the relentless pranks villagers & carnival folk alike torment the mailman with for their own amusement. We’re introduced to the townsfolk & the carnies well before the mailman arrives, painting a false picture of a simple people who take wholesome pleasure out of a calm farm-life. As soon as Tati starts biking his delivery route that perception fades as everyone around him takes turns trolling him for taking his job seriously in any way they can manage: tricking him into doing their work, tricking him into getting blackout drunk, encouraging goats to eat his mail, and often just laughing directly in his face. It would be unbearably cruel if it weren’t so damn funny.

There is one truly inspired gag that elevates Jour de Fête as a standout among its ilk. One of the carnival’s main attractions is a makeshift cinema tent they place in town square, where the mailman watches an industrial “documentary” on American post offices that falsely portray U.S. delivery men as daredevil bodybuilders who disperse mail in sexy, death-defying feats of strength at incredible speeds. Not to be outdone, this French mailman spends the rest of the film haphazardly dispersing packages at a needlessly hyperactive speed, shouting “American style!” at any villager inconvenienced by his newfound gusto. The villagers themselves also make for some excellent people-watching, as Jour de Fête was shot on location in the small commune village of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre and cast many of the locals as extras & bit roles. Much of the film is a standard slapstick farce otherwise, one so conventional it includes a genuine rake gag. Tati is a little taller & ganglier than the Stooges, Keatons, and Marx Brothers before him and, as a director, affords the proceedings some welcome visual & narrative symmetry. In almost every other way, though, Jour de Fête is a traditional, even vaudevillian slapstick comedy – one that may have even been considered old-fashioned for its time. It’s also timeless in that’s still incredibly funny, proof that the old standards still work when they’re well executed. My only regret in seeking it out as an introductory Tati picture is that I couldn’t have seen it with a bigger crowd to amplify the laugher.

-Brandon Ledet

Booksmart (2019)

There isn’t much new thematic territory left in the femme teen sex comedy template for Booksmart to expand upon. Blockers and Wetlands have already pushed the potential shock of the genre’s gross-out sex & drugs gags to their furthest post-Pink Flamingos extremes. The Edge of Seventeen has already saddled its protagonist with the brutal “Wait a minute, I’m the asshole” epiphany in its respective us vs. them high school clique dynamics. The To Do List has even done a little of both while also telegraphing Booksmart’s exact narrative conceit: an overachieving high school valedictorian squeezes in a concentrated, hedonistic excess of sex & drugs experimentation after graduation to better prepare for the upcoming social challenges of college. Speaking as an enthusiastic fan of this genre, it would have been more than okay by me if all Booksmart did was echo these previous accomplishments while plugging in new jokes & characters into the already well-worn template. Instead, it defies the odds by offering two new variations on this femme teen sex comedy theme: a comedic voice distinctive to Generation Z and more Gay Content than the genre usually makes room for. This film didn’t need to be exceptional to be successful, but it uses those two variations to carve out its own new grooves within its genre anyway.

Kaitlyn Dever & Beanie Feldstein star as two smug overachievers who lord an unearned sense of superiority over their more relaxed classmates, whom they perceive to be losers partying at the expense of their own futures. Horrified to discover that the very kids they’ve been slagging for being slackers have all gotten into prestigious colleges despite not being obsessed with schoolwork, the girls decide to catch up by cramming in an entire high school career’s worth of hedonism into one night. Booksmart is essentially a road trip movie from there, with the girls suffering wild run-ins with hard drugs, awkward sex, and weirdo strangers on their way to an epic class party. Everything about his age-old set up plays out exactly the way you’d expect, except that the tone is incredibly specific to the kids of Generation Z. The open-hearted empathy, ease with queer identity, social media expertise, and feedback loops of women-validating-women are all specific to Gen Z sensibilities and all welcome reassurances that the kids are more than alright. The tragedy of the protagonists’ decision to block out the rest of their class throughout high school as a preemptive defense tactic is that they were missing out on some really sweet kids with a lot of genuine good to offer. That’s a far cry from the high school clique dynamics of yesteryear, and it gives me a lot of hope for this generation that’s going to be picking up the scraps after our Millennial dysfunction.

Booksmart is not the most consistently hilarious example of the femme teen sex comedy, but it is one with an unusually effective emotional core – especially in how much screentime it affords queer teen identity. I also suspect that it’s a film that will only become funnier on rewatches, as the side characters’ individual quirks will already be in sharper relief. Like our protagonists, we initially see side characters as broad archetypes, so that the idiosyncrasies of their respective personae & performances don’t initially register. As we get to know the kids better, their one-liners & character arcs start earning much deeper belly laughs, so that most of the movie’s heart and humor initially feels corralled to its climactic pool party. That’s also where first-time director (and long-time actor) Olivia Wilde pours most of her filmmaking creativity, culminating in a few lengthy tracking shots that match the emotional tension & catharsis of the moment. It’s a sequence that clarifies so many themes and personalities that are only gently prodded throughout the rest of the film that I feel like I immediately owed it a rewatch. Not only would that give me more time to hang out with the tech-savvy sweethearts of Gen Z, but it’ll also be an easy way to support a genre that I love with some minor financial backing, so that maybe more of these films can get made in the future – whether or not they feel the need to reinvent the wheel.

-Brandon Ledet