Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2022)

It’s usually a meaningless cliché when people say they were born in the wrong era, but I would make an exception if I heard it from Ana Lily Amirpour.  Since her 2014 debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Amirpour has been making the exact kind of high-style, low-effort hangout indies that earned easy festival buzz in the slacker culture days of the 1990s.  Two films later, it’s getting frustrating to see her drag that proud burnout energy into the 2020s.  It makes sense that her debut was a small-scale genre picture that coasted on laidback cool, but her resources have expanded greatly since then and she’s still making low-effort slacker films with attention-grabbing premises and a snotty “Fuck you” attitude.  The only difference is she’s now armed with celebrity stunt-casting & more extravagant locales.  Her post-apocalyptic cannibal whatsit The Bad Batch remains the most frustrating waste of her Flashy Debut clout to date, but its follow-up telekinetic fairy tale Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is only a half-step up from that disappointment.  Like her previous two films, Mona Lisa leans back & hangs out in a way that makes you wonder why Amirpour is making high-concept genre films when she’d clearly have more fun making no-concept, character-driven comedies.  The marquee promises a bubblegum pop version of Scanners or The Fury, but Amirpour is more interested in making a neon-lit Clerks.

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon isn’t bad; it’s just a little underwhelming.  Imagine if Harmony Korine couldn’t afford to be choosy with his projects and settled for making a straight-to-Shudder Gen-Z update of Carrie for an easy paycheck.  The titular Mona Lisa is an escaped mental patient with violent impulses & telekinetic powers.  She’s effectively a blank slate, having grown up in a padded cell with nothing but a straitjacket & a prison cot to keep her occupied.  Like the DaVinci muse, that internal void invites strangers to project meaning & intent onto her, which says more about their worldview than it does about her own personality (especially the freaked-out cops who want to lock her back up and the scheming hustlers who exploit her powers for cash).  This is Horror of the Hassled, as all Mona Lisa really wants is to hang out, eat junk food, and watch trash TV.  Her potential for violent mayhem is only unleashed when people get in the way of those totally reasonable goals.  Instead of seeking revenge in a cathartic Carrie-on-prom-night showdown with all the jerks who hassle her, she seeks moments of calm at corner stores, laundromats, and TV-lit living room couches.  She’s an out-of-time 90s slacker hanging out in a city of desperate, scheming dirtbags who’d all be better off if they just keep their distance and let her vibe.

Although not a great film, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon was a great programming choice for opening this year’s Overlook Film Festival.  It’s steeped in plenty N’awlins Y’all flavor to acclimate tourists who traveled here for the fest – starting in the swamps outside the city during Mona Lisa’s initial escape before trudging its way down to Bourbon Street strip clubs, frog ribbits bleeding into grimy DJ beats.  It’s also commendable for offering substantial character-actor roles to Kate Hudson (as a Quarter-smart stripper) and Craig Robinson (as the only kind NOPD officer in the history of the department).  Surely there’s an audience out there hungering for Amirpour’s high-concept slacker thrillers, real freaks who’d love to see Joel Potrykus’s own no-effort comedies dressed up in dingy pop soundtracks & Rainbow Store fast fashions.  I most appreciated Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon as a collection of oddball characters in no rush to do anything in particular.  I, too, would love to live a junk-food life unhassled, downing cases of cheap bear in parking lots with metalhead burnouts and chomping my way through well-done hamburgers at the Claiborne Frostop.  I just wish Amirpour would move away from the vampires, cannibals, and telekinetic witches of her film’s flashy premises, since she doesn’t seem motivated to do anything exciting with those conceits.

-Brandon Ledet

An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn (2018)

The 2016 gross-out comedy The Greasy Strangler is aggressively, unapologetically Not for Everyone. Devolving the awkward-on-purpose low-fi aesthetic of Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! into an even more subhuman headspace, The Greasy Strangler deliberately traffics in abrasive fits of mindless repetition & indulgences in sexual discomfort that amount to a truly singular, off-putting experience. For me, that skin-crawling, mind-zapping discomfort was a delightful novelty. As it was divisive-by-design, however, it left many others cold & unamused, dismissing the film’s juvenile self-indulgences as a total waste of time. I had a hard time understanding that reaction then, but director Jim Hosking’s follow-up to The Greasy Strangler, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, has offered me plenty of insight into what it must have felt like. Stripping Hosking’s schtick of its punishing repetition & grotesque sexual menace, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn offers Greasy Strangler defenders a taste of how detractors see the director’s work. Without all that subhuman antagonism driving his films’ peculiar rhythms, all that’s left is some sub-Jared Hess quirk humor and an incongruously kickass synth core—neither of which can carry the weight of an 108min runtime on their own.

In an alternate timeline 1988 decorated by a time-traveling Wes Anderson, Aubrey Plaza stars as Lulu – a down-on-her-luck diner waitress fired by her husband/boss and, seemingly, the only attractive human being on the planet. Frustrated by her new role as a dutiful housewife to a lowlife diner manager (Emile Hirsch, who really shouldn’t be getting work, but is at least playing a scumbag abuser here), Lulu makes a break for it by running away to a nearby hotel with money stolen from her family in a heist too pointlessly stupid to explain. Her partner in crime is a useless, virginal thug played by Jemaine Clement, who feels perfectly in tune with Hosking’s peculiar tone. At their hotel hideaway, Lulu finds herself torn between three suitors: the thwarted husband, the tragically uncool thief, and her mysterious former lover Beverly Luff Lin (Craig Robinson), who was hired by the hotel to sing Scottish-themed novelty songs as entertainment. All the sex & abrasive repetition from The Greasy Stranger are missing in this static set-up; the movie also doesn’t take its romantic conflict or farcical heist plot either seriously or goofily enough to make an impression. Mostly, An Evening of Beverly Luff Linn is a series of go-nowhere evenings waiting in a hotel lobby for something, anything to happen – funny or otherwise. Occasionally someone in the central cast of comedic heavies obliges, but not often enough to make the exercise wholly worthwhile.

There’s a scene in Wet Hot American Summer where a “teenage” Paul Rudd is asked to properly clear his cafeteria tray into the trash and he makes a big, bratty show out of being put out by the request. It’s a bit that I think perfectly encapsulates the awkward, ineffectual, low-energy antagonism of Hosking’s works, but it’s also one that’s difficult to maintain with any intensity or nuance for a full feature. The Greasy Strangler manages that miracle with a slimy, ugly-horny ease. An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn struggles to repeat the trick. When it does attempt the earlier film’s repetitious antagonism, whether in having Craig Robinson communicate entirely in Frankenstein groans or in Emile Hirsch’s angry shouts of lines like “Ow, my fucking ear you fat fuck!,” it comes up short in earning laughs, nervous or genuine. As its romantic tensions & heist genre instincts are too aggressively lazy to take seriously, the film also feels at times like a failed attempt to boost Hosking’s Greasy Strangler aesthetic with unearned earnestness. The warped synth score & the highly-specific dead-past imagery feel as sharp here as anything to be found in The Greasy Strangler, but the core joke they’re in service of falls far short of feeling worth the effort. Perhaps An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is a sign of growing pains as Hosking leaves behind the subhuman sexual grotesqueries of his debut for something more freshly, earnestly bizarre. I look forward to seeing where that career growth goes, but I can’t pretend I was especially entertained waiting in a hotel lobby for the next phase to arrive.

-Brandon Ledet

Morris from America (2016)

electrickchildren

fourstar

The classic The Onion‘s piece “Cool Dad Raising Daughter on Media that Will Put Her Entirely Out of Touch with Her Generation” has long been one of the satirical publication’s most often shared gags. It’s a joke that likely hits home most with nerd parents who strive to raise their kids with the “right” movies, music, and books without realizing how out of touch their supposedly cool offspring will be with their peers on the schoolyard as a result. As often as I’ve seen that article shared online, I don’t think I’ve ever seen its sentiment reflected in a work of art as precisely or endearingly as it is in the 2016 comedy Morris from America. Our hapless “cool dad” in this scenario is The Office vet Craig Robinson, appearing here as an American soccer coach raising his young son in Germany while working for a middling team. His son, the titular Morris, is frustrated with his father both for stationing him in a foreign country against his will and for insisting that he listen to old school hip-hop instead of chart-topping pop & rap. His alienation would be striking enough in an American setting, but in a foreign culture he’s especially stuck, isolated in the post-modern void of his dad’s design. The movie starts with this extreme example of that “cool dad”/alienated kid Onion article scenario as a launching point and somehow turns it into a touching, intimate, and surprisingly brave coming of age comedy matched last year only by the heights of The Edge of Seventeen.

Setting this particular tale of awkward American adolescence in Germany feels almost like a necessity, since 90s throwback nostalgia is in full swing in our current cultural climate. If the film were set in New York, Morris might’ve felt oddly at home with his peers, despite his father’s best efforts to obscure & isolate his tastes in a bygone era. In Germany, there’s no chance of that camaraderie. These kids are heavily into EDM, with all of the sex & drug-fueled chaos that culture implies, and Morris is ill-prepared to speak their language (both literally & figuratively) thanks to his dad insisting that he pay more attention to relics like cassette tapes & Ready to Die than anything that could be considered “dance music”. As Morris strives to figure out who he is as a person in a place that’s so foreign to his sensibilities, he often finds him lying to anyone who’ll listen. He lies about his age to older girls to impress them & flirt; he lies to his dad about the kinds of parties he sneaks off to at night; he lies in his own freestyle rhymes about how macho & “gangster” he is between nerdy bumblings & sips of hot chocolate. As the story goes on, Morris makes major mistakes, lands minor successes, and becomes confident in who he is through the painful process of growing up. It’s all very standard, coming-of-age fodder, except that the film smartly doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to topics like the embarrassment of teen sexuality or the racism its protagonist encounters as the only young black man in his social circle. The movie may appear to tell a very familiar story, but it does so smartly and with satisfying specifics in its defining details that makes it feel like a personal work instead of a genre experience.

It’s difficult to convey what makes Morris from America unique within its genre. Craig Robinson is an always-welcome presence; I was delighted by the inclusion of my beloved Wetlands‘s Carla Juri in the cast; there’s stray moments of intense visual craft in a location choice or a or a fantasy sequence where old world art bobs along with old school hip-hop; it adopts the hip-hop kung-fu of The Get Down without any of the baffling blunders that show stumbles into. These are all stray delights in a simple, streamlined work, but they aren’t what makes it special. Early on in the film, Craig Robinson’s “cool dad” hip-hop nerd explains to his son that 90s rap production works so well because the beat is “not overpowering the rhyme, but supports the rhyme.” Morris from America is a low budget comedy with style & specificity to spare in its choice of location & soundtrack, but it works in much the same way. Its style and its rhythm never overpower its story of teen self-acceptance, but rather support it with a fresh, interesting context that makes the coming of age formula feel new & intimate again. It’s a low-key comedy that surprises both in its frank honesty & its quiet attention to craft. If it were a record or a cassette, it’d be the exact kind of discovery a cool dad or their perpetually-alienated kid would find great pleasure in discovering while digging through dusty old crates of forgotten media relics.

-Brandon Ledet