Wounds (2019)

Either Wounds is clearly the most underrated film of the year or I’m a filthy alcoholic dipshit from New Orleans who sees too much of himself in this horror gem to acknowledge its most glaring faults. Can it be a little of both? The novella the film was adapted from, The Visible Filth, was written by Nathan Ballingrud – a former bartender at the exact Garden District pub I worked at as a grill cook when I was treading water in the service industry post-college. I didn’t know that extratextual factoid while watching the film (in a late-night stupor after meeting friends at another, much trashier New Orleans bar, appropriately enough). Yet, I felt that personal connection to the material scarily deep in my boozy bones anyway. Wounds thoroughly, genuinely freaked me out by regurgitating an eerily accurate snapshot of my hyper-local, self-destructive past through the most horrifically grotesque lens possible. It’s a wickedly gross, deeply upsetting picture – one I believe deserves much more respect for the ugliness of its ambitions.

Armie Hammer stars as a hunky, arrogant bartender who moved to New Orleans to study at Tulane University, but flamed out early to instead become a charming drunk. Bored & inert, he spends his days passive-aggressively sniping at his fiancée (Dakota Johnson) and his nights seducing his barroom regulars who’d be much better off without his enabling influence (Zazie Beetz, for the time being). This tricky balance is toppled over when a group of underage college student brats drunkenly leave behind a cursed object in his bar, one of my personal favorite horror movie threats: an evil smartphone. The messages, photos, videos, and electronic tones he’s exposed to via this wicked phone have a kind of King in Yellow quality that break down his sense of reality – as mundane & dysfunctional as it already was. The imagery Iranian director Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow) conjures to convey this supernatural evil is spooky as fuck: Satanic rituals, re-animated corpses, tunnels to nowhere, floods of flying cockroaches, etc. Our dumb stud bartender never fully uncovers their meaning or origin, though. They merely unravel his modest, liquor-soaked kingdom until he has nothing left.

The most baffling criticism of this film is that its scattershot haunted house imagery is spooky without purpose, framing Wounds as a jump-scare delivery system with nothing especially coherent to say. My personal, geographical proximity to the material might be clouding my judgement, but I believe the film has a lot more going on thematically than it’s getting credit for. Wounds is a grotesque tale of a “functioning” alcoholic losing what little control he pretends to have over his life until all that is left is rot. When we start the film, our dumb hunk is a bitter shell of a person who drinks to distract himself from the disappointments of a go-nowhere life and a festering relationship. Externally, he appears to be doing pretty great: living in a beautiful shotgun apartment and paving over his grotesque personality with his winking, handsome charm. His Lovecraftian run-in with a haunted smartphone is only a heightened exaggeration of his internal “functional” alcoholism crisis spiraling out of control until he has nothing left: no job, no friends, no home, barely a couch to sleep on. Not all of the imagery that accompanies the phone’s curse clearly correlates to this plight, but there’s a reason that cockroaches are a major part of it. He’s gross, and soon enough so is the boozy world he occupies.

Not to get too gross myself, but the low-50s aggregated ratings of this horror gem on Rotten Tomatoes & Metacritic can eat the roaches directly out of my ass. Wounds is an unpredictable creep-out overflowing with genuinely disturbing nightmare imagery and a lived-experience familiarity with what it means to be a charming drunk who works the graveyard shift at the neighborhood bar. Its tale of emotional & spiritual rot for a hunky, barely-functioning alcoholic on the New Orleans bar scene is so true to life that I have an exact bartender in mind who the story could be based on (although he’s a dead ringer for Lee Pace, not Armie Hammer). I guess I should message him to beware any abandoned smartphones he might find lying around the bar, but I get the sense that he’s already doomed no matter what.

-Brandon Ledet

Suspiria (2018)

On an aesthetic level, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspriria bears very little resemblance to Dario Argento’s Supsiria. If anything, this 40 years-later reimagining of that cult-favorite resembles an entirely different flavor of intensely stylized, European arthouse horror: Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. Guadagnino’s picture may have maintained the witchy dance academy setting & central character names from the Argento original, but it ditches all of that film’s intense giallo cross-lighting & prog rock sensibilities for the cold, greyed-out concrete & infectious madness of Possession. Where Suspriria (2018) deviates in tone & imagery from its source material, however, it did zero in on the most vital aspect of Argento’s work: excess. Everything about Guadagnino’s Suspiria is indulgently excessive: at 142 minutes, it’s structured as six acts & an epilogue; Tilda Swinton appears in multiple roles among an already sprawling cast of witchy women (including actors from the original film); unsatisfied with merely being a stylish tale of witchcraft, it also attempts to engage with the politics of post-war Germany; it features an original soundtrack from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. The most Suspiria (1977) thing about Suspiria (2018) is that it’s wholly confident that every self-indulgent impulse it has is worth exploring; the only difference in that respect is that the Argento version was more frequently correct in that shared delusion.

One of my favorite tactics that carries over from Original Flavor Suspiria to Nu Suspiria is that neither waste any effort hiding that they are about dance schools “secretly” run by a coven of witches. In the original, this mystery is “spoiled” by an early sequence of a frightened dance academy student fleeing into the woods while the prog band Goblin whispers, “Witch, witch-witch-witch” over the soundtrack. In the new version, that same freaked-out runaway character (Chloë Grace Moretz) blurts, “They are witches” in blatant terms to her old-man psychiatrist (a gender-blind cast Tilda Swinton) before continuing, “They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate.” The psychiatrist, of course, believes this paranoia to be delusional and a large part of the narrative likens his dismissal of her cries of witchcraft to the ways he failed his long-gone wife during The Holocaust. That post-war grief & guilt swirls outside the dance academy, while inside the flesh-eating witches in question are undergoing a more insular political crisis of their own. Unbeknownst to the young dancers in their care, the women who run the academy as an incognito coven are experiencing a kind of civil war on two key issues: choosing new leadership & selecting an unwitting student for a mysterious ritual that will secure the school’s future (at the student’s own peril, of course). That freshly-arrived American student’s name is Susie Banion (Dakota Johnson in a role originated by Jessica Harper), who is afforded her own lengthy backstory in a distant Mennonite community, just in case the narrative wasn’t already overstuffed without it.

It’s probably safe to say that no one loves the original Suspiria for the strengths of its story. Like most giallo-related media, it’s a film best appreciated for its overbearing sense of style more so than the cohesion of its narrative. This only became increasingly apparent as Argento attempted to retroactively make sense of his witchcraft lore in the Suspiria sequels Inferno & Mother of Tears, expanding the original film’s elevator pitch of “A ballet school run by witches” into an unwieldy (but still charming) mess now known as the Three Mothers Trilogy. Guadagnino greedily eats up this now-sprawling mythology and attempts to reinforce each element with even more over-explained backstory: how the dance school relates to its German setting; why Susie Banion is targeted and what her life was like before the ritual was initiated; how the coven negotiates & organizes its collective will across hundreds of women in three separate locales. Beyond skewing its overall aesthetic closer to Żuławski than any gialli, Guadagno’s Suspiria avoids becoming a pointless retread of its Argento source material by pulling its narrative to the opposite extreme – from vaguely stretched-out elevator pitch to overly complex, unnecessarily dense mythology. Paradoxically, the effect of that overcorrection is oddly similar to how plot & lore work in the original film; its narrative is such an overdose of information that very little of it sticks to the walls and what’s mostly left for the audience to digest is the overbearing sense of style it’s delivered through.

As much as I admire Guadagningo’s dedication to excess here, this is the exact kind of messy ambition that invites viewers to pick and choose individual elements at play to praise or critique—as opposed to the more unified vision of the Argento original, which is more of an all-or-nothing proposition. Personally, my favorite aspect of the new Suspiria is the purposeful ways that the act of dance (modern here instead of ballet) is linked to the practice of witchcraft, establishing a cause & effect relationship between dancers’ beautifully contorted bodies and their grotesquely contorted victims’, left to stew in their own piss & mucus. I was also in love with the complexly detailed imagery of Susie Banion’s nightmare montages, each individual flash of a tableau carefully staged like fine art photography. At the same time, there were two glaring stylistic choices that harshed my buzz throughout: a camcorder-level choppy frame rate effect worthy of a Milli Vanilli music video & the jarring inclusion of Thom Yorke’s crooning vocals in an otherwise phenomenal soundtrack. My aversion to those choices are likely personal biases, given that they’ve also bothered me in previous works (specifically, the choppy frame rate in Daughters of the Dust, and Sufjan Stevens’s voice in Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name), but I can’t help but find them cheapening & distracting all the same for crashing me down from the film’s otherworldly spell to a much more pedestrian tone.

There’s so much on the screen in Suspiria that most audiences will find something to nitpick in their personal experience with its relentless over-indulgences in gore-soaked, lore-obsessed witchcraft horror. I envy those who weren’t distracted by stray choices like Yorke’s mewing, appreciating this love letter to excess in its overwhelming entirety. I also pity those who can’t find anything to enjoy here; Guadagnino offers so much to choose from that if you can’t latch onto something the problem is you. I’m personally falling somewhere in the vast middle between those extremes—in impressed, but frustrated appreciation of the film’s dedication to the extremes.

-Brandon Ledet

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

In just a few high-profile creative projects, Drew Goddard has built up such an impossible stockpile of anticipatory goodwill that it was inevitable his second feature as a director would suffer some kind of sophomore slump. After his work on Lost, The Good Place, and (his debut feature) The Cabin in the Woods in particular, Goddard has become synonymous with high-concept philosophical interpretations of Purgatory. Goddard sets his most distinct projects in artificial environments where the morally judgmental voyeurism of the audience becomes part of the text. He uses this metatextual remove to explore the psychological & philosophical implications of audiences’ desire to judge fictional characters as either Good or Bad, Moral or Evil. His second feature, Bad Times at the El Royale, has all the makings of a perfect Drew Goddard project in that way. It’s set in a complexly mapped-out artificial environment that encourages voyeurism & moral judgements. It’s populated by troubled, mysterious characters who unsubtly teeter between Good and Bad on a moral scale. It’s also intricately constructed on a narrative level, coming together onscreen like a temporal puzzle or a Rube Goldberg contraption. Yet, there’s something lacking about Bad Times at the El Royale that keeps its overall effect disappointingly pedestrian, recalling Goddard’s creatively muted credits on Netflix’s Daredevil series or Ridley Scott’s The Martian. It’s a handsomely staged, frequently entertaining picture – yet it’s inevitable to feel letdown by it because we know Goddard can deliver so much more than that.

Even if Bad Times at the El Royale is a little underwhelming, its titular locale is a wonder of sinister-kitsch production design. A Lake Tahoe novelty destination that lost its luster as 60s swank descended into hippie rot, the hotel represents American culture in decline at one of its most turbulent times. Nixon, Vietnam, Hoover, Manson, Civil Rights protests, hippies, and heroin swirl around in the cultural zeitgeist outside the hotel like an especially morbid verse in “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” A perfectly preserved novelty from before those political flashpoints sparked a Cultural Revolution, the El Royale pretends on the surface to be a World’s Fair attraction vision of an idealized American past – complete with automatic food dispensers and a sense of lawless Wild West hedonism. Undercover G-men, bugged rooms, and a secret hallway that exposes each hotel guest to being spied on via two-way mirrors compromise that outdated idealism to reveal that the swanky 60s America of the past was no less sinister than the hippie 70s of the near future (the film is set in ’68). This is of no surprise to four guests who all converge at the El Royale at the exact same time to kickstart the film’s multilayered conflicts: a soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a hippie (Dakota Johnson), a priest (Jeff Bridges), and a vacuum salesman (John Hamm, back in Don Draper drag). Each conceal mysteriously guarded identities & motives until all is inevitably revealed in an ultraviolent climax (excluding what was prematurely revealed in the film’s trailer). It all comes together with the routine precision of clockwork, mirroring both the cultural ticking clock of the setting and the patience-tested audience’s urge to check our wristwatches.

It’s difficult to parse out exactly why Bad Times at the El Royale lands as good-not-great, despite the wonders of its production design, costuming, performances, and intricate plotting. It could be that, at 140 minutes, the film is too narratively unwieldy to support the weight of its runtime. The nonlinear structure of the story, broken up into chapters by hotel room, certainly doesn’t help there; it’s difficult to become too invested in any particular story before film switches tracks & resets. That structure’s similarities to the post-Tarantino 90s aesthetic, echoed by its 60s soul needle drops & humorously overwritten dialogue, feels a little too familiar to land with any genuine awe (especially since it isn’t observed with any of Goddard’s signature meta critique). My best guess for Bad Times at the El Royale’s shortcomings, however, is that the film doesn’t fully commit to the supernatural Purgatory elements of its script that feels so uniquely menacing in Goddard’s superior works. The film feels like such a blatantly coded, exaggerated depiction of the 1960s’s cultural catharsis, covering everything from religion to drugs to race to sex to war, that it’s almost a shame the artificial conflict of that philosophical stew wasn’t made literal in the text. The way all four of the El Royale’s guests arrive at the same time feels like a fresh batch of applicants being processed as a group at the Pearly Gates. Snippets of dialogue & signage like “See You Again Soon,” “How did you end up at the El Royale?,” “This is no place for a priest,” and (from the advertising) “All roads lead here,” suggest a supernatural tour of the Afterlife, or at least something more philosophically sinister than the sprawling dramatic thriller that’s delivered instead.

We’ve seen Goddard strike gold with those philosophical breaks from reality before, so it’s tempting to want more of the same here. Either way, he’s demonstrated he can do something far more interesting than this handsomely staged, but logically well-behaved popcorn movie. I hope whatever he works on next is just a structurally complex, but infinitely more preposterous. I don’t need him to ground his meta-philosophical contraptions within the bounds of reality. Reality is limiting, if not outright boring.

-Brandon Ledet

A Bigger Splash (2016)

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Chalk up A Bigger Splash as yet another fine example of one of my favorite dramatic subgenres: The Party Out of Bounds. A wealthy, white music industry couple get away from it all on a Sicilian island only to be rudely interrupted by a loud mouth producer/ex-lover and his hungry-for-trouble daughter. At first the couple tolerates the boisterous presence of their old friend but as he continually overstays his welcome the situation turns violently sour & then breaks in half. I love bottled up dramas when folks sickened by each other feel compelled (usually by a dangerous combination of lust & alcohol) to verbally duke it out in a cramped space instead of calling off the party & sending everyone on their not-so merry way. In A Bigger Splash‘s best moments it’s a wonderfully sadistic drama in this way, cramming four stage play-ready characters into a tight space & turning their cautious love for one another into murderous hatred.

Tilda Swinton stars as David Bowie’s less ethereal stand-in, an on-hiatus rock star recovering from a vocal surgery in romantic bliss with her recovering alcoholic husband. Their serene getaway is short-lived as the party’s crashed by the hopelessly crass, self-absorbed social terrorist music producer who haunts their past. Ralph Fiennes does a fantastic job as this obnoxious catalyst, turning the pathetic sadness of reliving your glory days into a mission statement & a battle cry. Dakota Johnson rounds out the cast as the producer’s hot-to-trot daughter, a literal siren on the rocks intending to seduce the blissful couple into annihilation from the other end. This is a huge step up for Johnson, who’s coming off a hot streak of stinkers like 50 Shades of Grey & How to Be Single to put in a well-measured performance that proves she can (emotively) duke it out with the best of them. Swinton is as consistently magnetic here as always, even with the power of speech mostly removed from her arsenal. It’s Fiennes who’s given free reign to chew scenery, though, and he does a wonderfully maniacal job driving the party as far out of bounds as he can, at times recalling Ben Kingsley’s dastardly crass performance in (the far superior work) Sexy Beast.

Unfortunately, A Bigger Splash has an occasional tendency to release steam from the dramatic pressure cooker in a way that relieves the central tension a little too easily. I’m thinking particularly of the flashbacks to Swinton’s & Fiennes’s glory days as a coked-up power couple on top of the rock & roll world. There’s too much escapism in those moments, distracting from the cramped discomfort of the the mounting resentment at hand even when they refer to past conflicts. That might be a personal bias, though, as it was the exact same problem I had with Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs film last year. I also thought showing Swinton performing her rock act in these flashbacks was a mistake. The film puts so much pressure on her voice/the music to be amazing that there’s no possible way for the reality to live up to it.

Still, director Luca Guadagnino does a great job here of turning a small cast drama into an intense visual display and a powder keg of lust & hurt feelings. Every body involved is a target for sexual leering. Unusually sharp focus of food, drink, and spinning records intensifies the sensual bacchanal of the central conflict. Up-close, direct to the camera line delivery recalls the discomfort of a great Bergman monologue. Even though he makes a few missteps in turning down the heat when it should be blasted, Gudagnino gleefully searches for the Devil in the details & employs an especially game Fiennes as a romance monster hellbent on tearing the whole world down so he can start from scratch (or dry hump the ruins). Although A Bigger Splash isn’t wholly successful, it is a remarkable experience that refuses to shy away from the violent urges of romantic jealousy & party-out-of-bounds societal unraveling. It’s impressive even when it stumbles and easily could’ve been much less memorable in less capable hands.

-Brandon Ledet

How to Be Single (2016)

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When Bridesmaids was released to enthusiastic commercial success in 2011 there was an exciting feeling in the air that maybe, just maybe, there was going to be a significant, feminine answer to the decades-long boys’ club of raunchy sex comedies. Now that the honeymoon’s over, so to speak, Bridesmaids & its ilk doesn’t quite feel as revolutionary as they first seemed. For instance, there’s a sequence in Bridesmaids where the titular gaggle of women are on their way to Hangover-style sexual misbehavior in Las Vegas only to have their flight cancelled at the last possible second, effectively nipping their mischief in the bud. Half a decade later, female raunch comedies are still acting a lot more tame & subdued than their masculine peers. Take, for instance, last year’s Trainwreck. The Amy Schumer vehicle pretended to be a raunchy, no-holds-barred sex farce about a total mess of an overgrown child who can out-drink, out-fuck, and out-drug any of her juvenile man-boy counterparts without missing a beat. That setup somehow ended up being a Trojan Horse for some unfortunate moralizing about how she should probably stop smoking weed & get married ASAP to redeem herself as a worthwhile character. Joke-wise the film was satisfying, but its narrative arc was kind of a disappointment.

How to Be Single doesn’t even pretend to Trojan Horse its lame-ass, monogamy-promoting moralizing the way Trainwreck does. In fact, it does the total opposite. The film presents itself as a celebration of life outside of monogamous relationships, but spends its entire runtime focusing on women seeking & finding fulfillment through marriage & childbearing only to double back in its concluding few minutes to declare that, you know what, being alone is actually pretty okay . . . for a while. How to Be Single‘s title is a total misnomer. A more truthful moniker could’ve been How to Yearn for a Man Without Appearing Too Desperate or How to Cope with a Shameful, Childless Life Through Socially Acceptable Alcoholism. At nearly every turn where the film could subvert societal pressure to “grow up” & settle down, it instead reinforces the idea that life outside of romantic bonds is narcissistic & self-destructive. It even repurposes the Amy Schumer brand of a party animal “trainwreck” by reducing her to a sidekick role (portrayed by Rebel Wilson, in case you couldn’t tell from the ads) & an eternal punchline meant to warn you about the exact wrong way to live  your life alone in The Big City. At the film’s conclusion one main character is engaged, one is new to motherhood & in a serious relationship, one is a lovelorn clown, and one is happily enjoying a life without a romantic partner . . . as a refreshing break between her long line of longterm, life-defining relationships.

Besides being on shaky, stuck-in-the-past moral ground, How to Be Single also suffers from some glaring technical problems as well. The whole film has the look of a television ad for cheap vodka, giving off the distinct over-sleek vibe that if Zima were still a thing people could buy, these are the people who would be drinking Zima. The film is at first posed as a survival guide on how to enjoy casual sex in (a suspiciously whitewashed) NYC, but much like Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, that structure is a flimsy launching pad at best & the film mostly operates within a typical romcom plot structure. As soon as the protagonist (played by Dakota Johnson) experiments with casual sex for the first time, she immediately regrets her decision & doubles back to land herself in the most easily accessible relationship available. The movie makes an interesting structural choice once she gets what she wants  & lands herself in said relationship, skipping its three month duration until he’s she’s single again & declaring “This story isn’t about relationships. It’s about all of those times in-between.” The truth is, though, that the movie is about relationships. It’s just about pining for them from the outside looking in. Throw in a meandering, unfocused runtime that’s at least 20min overlong & you have  self-conflicted, too-well-behaved mess of a bland comedy that feels like a television ad for a product its endorsers can’t even pretend to believe in.

The biggest tragedy about How to Be Single falling short is the staggering amount of talent it wastes along the way. Comedic actors Leslie Mann, Alison Brie, Jason Mantzoukas, Anders Holm, Rebel Wilson, Colin Jost, and Obvious Child/Carol‘s Jake Lacy all belong in a much better-realized comedy. I’ll even stand up for Dakota Johnson, who gets a lot of flak for the total shitshow 50 Shades of Grey, as being perfectly lovely in a role that asks her to be pathetic & vulnerable to the point that it’s a major turn-off. Her petty jealousies & lack of basic life skills (like, no exaggeration, dressing herself) are not as charming as the film believes them to be, but that’s more of a problem on the writing end than it is of Johnson’s at-the-very-least serviceable performance. She may occupy a kind of strained Zooey Deschanel quirkiness that isn’t usually my thing, but she pulls it off reasonably well. Rebel Wilson, by comparison, gets most of the better one-liners in, like when she encourages her regretting-the-single-life friend to “Go past ‘Go’, collect 200 dicks” before she seeks another relationship, but, again, she’s mostly played as a joke & any of her subversive potential is severely undercut. In a perfect world a cast this stacked would’ve been put to better, less-regressive use, but How to Be Single has no interest in pushing any boundaries & its marketing unfortunately spoiled most of its better gags in its omni-present, repetitious ad campaign.

The truth is that I’m far outside How to Be Single‘s target audience. It certainly doesn’t help that I saw the film in a laughless, mid-afternoon crowd of three stone-silent men (myself included). Still, the film felt like a long line of missed opportunities & a half-cooked screenplay that never fully commits to its basic premise that being single & childless is a perfectly okay way to live (until it’s way too late in the runtime to believably change its mind). This isn’t necessarily the film’s fault, but it’s also a little dispiriting that How to Be Single feels like yet another example of female-led sex comedies that deliver a much tamer, better-behaved product than promised. If this is supposed to be feminine counter-programming for bro-minded, male-driven raunch its idea of genre subversion is milquetoast at best. There have been a few comedies along this line that actually misbehave in a satisfying way: Broad City, Appropriate Behavior, Bachelorette, and The To Do List all immediately come to mind. However, many recent, high-profile, female-lead sex comedies are a lot more sexually & politically regressive than they’d need to be to actually make waves. How to Be Single declares that it supports single women who are “living longer, marrying later, and not leaving the party until [they’re] really, truly done.” What’s disappointing is the way the movie suggests that the party does have to end, that living single is a temporary respite, that marriage & motherhood are an inevitability, that there is a “later”. I’m not single & I’m not a woman, but I still found that idea regressive & patronizing, not to mention a total cop-out to what could’ve been a refreshing premise in a couple sharper, more-pointed drafts.

-Brandon Ledet