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

P.S. I Love You (2007)

If you read a plot synopsis for the 2007 chick-flick oddity P.S. I Love You without any other context, you’d likely mistake the film for a heart-wrenching melodrama, a romantic weepie. This a movie in which a careerless New Yorker (Hillary Swank) loses her young, brash husband (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor before the opening credits. As a final grand romantic gesture, the husband had arranged for a series of posthumous letters to be delivered to his wife from beyond the grave, each prompting her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the past. The obvious, default tone for this narrative would be Sirkian sentimentality & heightened emotional catharsis. What makes the movie fascinatingly perverse is that it isn’t a drama at all, but rather an impossibly dark, morbid comedy that plays its tragic premise for yucks instead of tears. All its surface details convey a commercial, conventional “woman’s picture” about a young widow mending her broken heart. In practice, though, it’s a pitch-black comedy that plays the trauma of losing a romantic partner to brain cancer as an opportunity for some jovial gallows humor.

Not only does P.S. I Love You play like a subversive black comedy despite its conventional surface, it specifically plays like a morbid subversion of the romcom format. The only difference is that in this scenario The Wrong Guy that the lovelorn protagonist must get over so she can better herself happens to be her husband’s ghost. His letters from the afterlife prompt her to revisit memories & locations from their shared past as a proper last goodbye, but they also allow his sprit to re-enter the picture and comfort her as she feels his presence in these old haunts. His letters even push her to find new potential beaus (or at least one-night boytoys) in bit-role hunks Harry Connick Jr. & Jeffrey Dean Morgan (whose naked butt is ogled at length for straight-lady titillation). Like in all romcoms, the best characters are the ones with no stakes who’re only there to lighten the mood, with no real plot-related obligations; in this case it’s Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Bates as Swank’s family & gal-pals, a stellar lineup by any standard. Unlike in most romcoms, though, her personal success in the film is not defined by finding a replacement husband, but rather finding the fine art of Shoes. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s unusual for a joke-heavy romcom to open with the protagonist’s husband dying of a brain tumor.

Besides being shockingly morbid for a romcom (and borderline supernatural), P.S. I Love You is also certifiably drunk. That choice is questionable, given the harmful cliché it propagates about its characters’ Irish & Irish-American communities, but the sea-legs alcoholism of the film does afford it a distinctly human, relatable tone that’s often missing from these mainstream romcoms. Characters drink past blackout, raising their glasses to the dead while slurring along with the most vulgar Pogues songs on the jukebox. When the widow imagines in a flashback that her husband is “the only person in the room,” the number of beer bottles & plastic cups strewn about the empty bar they’re in is astronomical. The film even opens with a drunken late-night fight a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home from a party, Butler & Swank argue vehemently about children, money, careers, romance, and sex in an off-puttingly drunk communication meltdown, then immediately kiss & makeup. That’s our only taste of the husband before his untimely death. It’s like the movie itself is drunk along with its characters, which is why it’s so carefree about making light of brain cancer & young widowhood. It’s a little jarring tonally, but certainly a lot more fun than a straight-faced, sober drama with this same tragic story would be.

I don’t want to oversell P.S. I Love You as a dark subversion of commercial filmmaking. If anything, the perverse pleasures the film has to offer are in how cookie-cutter & familiar its surface details are despite the tragic humor & borderline magical realism of its premise. That means that a lot of the usual romcom shortcomings apply here: characters complaining about having no money despite living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan lofts; shockingly regressive treatment of anyone who’s not straight or white; reinforcement of Patriarchal standards of femme beauty & health, etc. Worse yet, because the film at least somewhat pretends to be a romantic drama it has the gall to stretch on for a full two hours, which is at least 20min longer than any romcom should ever dare. That’s likely because it drunkenly stumbled into functioning as a romcom by mistake. It over-corrected in lightening its pitch-black tone with proper Jokes and subsequently transformed into a bizarrely fascinating object as a result. P.S. I Love You is too long, politically muddled, and hopelessly confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. Still, it’s well worth putting up with those shortcomings just to witness the novelty of a romcom about a woman who must break up with her drunk husband’s ghost so she can find her true love in Shoes.

It’s also worth it for Lisa Kudrow. She’s very funny, no matter how morbid the context.

-Brandon Ledet

Come to Daddy (2019)

Fresh out of a delightful mid-day screening of One Cut of the Dead at this year’s Overlook Film Festival, I took a leisurely stroll down a hellishly hot Decatur Street to catch the next film on the docket, only to find myself unintentionally trailing that film’s star. Looking positively adorable in some crisp denim overalls and a patterned button-up, Elijah Wood was playing tourist along the riverside tchotchke shops on his way to the Come to Daddy Q&A. He was travelling in my exact path to Sidney’s Liquor Store, where I was headed to pick up some cold beverages to enjoy in Jackson Square before the screening. I felt like a total creep on that walk, entirely too aware of this oblivious stranger strolling just a block ahead of me, someone who probably spends way too much of their life wondering who’s looking at them and why. Luckily, the tables were eventually turned on me, as the film Elijah Wood was in town to promote was far creepier & more disturbing than any awkward eye contact I might have conveyed on that walk down Decatur. Despite his adorable exterior & chipper demeanor, Wood has a deeply fucked-up sense of humor and appreciation of the macabre – which is a major factor in why he’s so lovable.

Elijah Wood stars in Come to Daddy as a cowardly hipster & a shameless liar who responds to a reconciliation letter from a deadbeat dad who abandoned his family decades ago. The horrifically mismatched pair, drunken brute father & effetely timid son, enjoy an intimate family reunion in an isolated home on the California coast. It does not go well. The decrepit bully of a father mocks every physical & verbal communication his big-city hipster offspring dares to offer, bringing their tension to a point where its only possible outcome is physical violence. Then, just as the tragically mismatched men are about to come to blows, the film shifts the intimate dynamic of what we’re watching into a much more sprawling, chaotic kind of mayhem. It would be criminal to spoil exactly how the film unfolds after that first act, but I can at least say that its twisted humor & unrelenting brutality only become more severe as it veers into flashes of torture porn, slapstick gore, deep sexual discomfort, and all other kinds of fucked up Freudian delights. As Elijah Wood’s cowardly protagonist sinks further in over his head in sinewy ultraviolence, the picture begins to play like a farcical mutation of a Jeremy Saulnier picture – not unlike Wood’s recent turn in I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, just creepier.

As amusingly weaselly as Elijah Wood is in the central role, the real star of the picture might be screenwriter Toby Harvard, who also penned The Greasy Strangler. Harvard brings the same aggressive, repetitive anti-humor and nightmarishly greasy Daddy Issues that fueled The Greasy Strangler to this more reality-bound picture. It’s not enough that the hipster’s drunkard father calls his son a “rat fucker.” He has to elaborate that his son “stuffs rats up his cunt” and that when he dies they’ll find “rat skeletons in his pelvic area, where his cunt used to be.” After the director of The Greasy Strangler floundered without Harvard in his own follow-up, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, I’m starting to think Harvard is the name Greaseheads should be keeping their eye on. Elijah Wood has been making a career out of funding & promoting grotesque art projects from folks like Harvard in recent years – producing titles like The Greasy Strangler, Mandy, The Boy, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. As playfully disturbing as his tastes continually prove themselves to be, he mostly just seems like a wholesome horror nerd who loves to make fucked-up moves with his friends. His presence in horror nerd spaces like Overlook Film Fest are entirely appropriate & expected; we just have to make sure to not ruin his good time by awkwardly trailing him down the street. We need him out there to raise funding for fucked-up, greasy oddities like Come to Daddy, so we better not scare him off.

-Brandon Ledet

I Am Not a Witch (2018)

The world Rugando Nyoni establishes in her debut feature I Am Not a Witch is so far removed from my own that it’s difficult to tell exactly where its true realism stops and its magical realism begins. Zambian born and residing in Wales, Nyoni clearly has plenty of real-world issues on her mind in her satirical look back on her African birthplace: governmental corruption, colonialist tourism, the subjugation of women, the clash of traditional ideals with worldwide homogenization, etc. Without contextual research, however, it’s impossible to parse out exactly how much of its minute-to-minute details are heighted for satirical effect. Its central story follows a young Zambian orphan who is accused of witchcraft by a local villager and subsequently sentenced to live out her entire life in a government-owned labor camp with other “witches,” who are all elderly women. As an outsider with no context for Zambian government structure or folklore, this premise initially seems plausible enough, or at least something I’m hesitant to question. From there, the details sprawl further into the realm of absurdist fantasy. The “witches” are tethered to spools of white ribbons that prevent them from flying away. The young girl can magically hear nearby schoolhouse lectures through a plastic funnel with superhuman clarity. The local economy appears to be built entirely on trading bottles of gin. There’s a lot of real-world pain & oppression at the center of I Am Not a Witch, but it’s all filtered through a disorienting, absurdist layer of satirical exaggeration.

While the obscurity & severity of its subject make it sound like a miserable watch, Nyoni smartly disarms I Am Not a Witch’s overt misery with a weaponized sense of humor. It may sound heartless to label a story about a young girl sentenced to a lifelong labor camp where she’s gawked at as a tourist attraction a comedy, but there’s a very broad, purposeful line of humor that runs throughout the film. The girl herself (played by newcomer Maggie Mulubwa) is mostly a silent, put-upon observer, but the world around her is increasingly absurd. Her t-shirt that reads “#bootycall,” the government goon who parades her around in public as a sideshow attraction, and the clueless white tourists who snap her photos as keepsakes all feel like they belong to a much broader comedy, confusing the borders of her real-life crisis. Nyoni & Mulubwa never lose sight of the seriousness her gendered subjugation represents, but a spoonful of humor often sweetens the medicine of that real-world issue so that the film is also palatable as an entertainment, caustically so. That absurdism can also achieve a sense of lyrical poetry, especially in the visual motif of the ribbons that keep the “witches” tethered to the earth and in the overwhelming orchestral score that heightens the atmosphere. The film’s overall tone is one of disturbed beauty and deep heart-heavy despair, but its function as a political satire also means that it finds plenty of morbid laughs to be had along the way.

I’m trying to imagine the inverse equivalent of what someone interpreting my own country & culture through this distorted of a lens might look like. If, for instance, a Zambian audience’s first vision of America were last year’s over-the-top sci-fi satire Sorry to Bother You, they might have a difficult time parsing out what was true & what was satirical exaggeration. However, Boots Riley’s film would still convey something very real about the corporate-labor hell we all live under here, no matter how fantastic the third-act details, and I suspect my own experience with I Am Not a Witch is much the same. I know too little of witchcraft’s place in modern Zambian culture to say for sure what is an absurdist exaggeration vs. what is a true-life cultural or governmental ill. Still, it’s easy to tell Nyoni is unloading some very real frustration about gendered oppression in that cultural context here, whether expressed through poetic lyricism, absurdist humor, genuine heartfelt despair, or a mesmerizing cocktail of all three.

-Brandon Ledet

Masques (1987)

Acclaimed French director Claude Chabrol is one of the founding directors of La Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave movement), which is one of the most pivotal turning points in French cinema. Chabrol is best known for his Hitchcokian thrillers, and as I have recently found myself delving into the world of French thrillers, it’s been quite difficult to avoid any of his films. His 1987 film, Masques, is a perfect example of his unique cinematic style.

Roland Wolf (Robin Renucci) is a young, eager journalist hired to ghostwrite a memoir for famous game show host Christian Legagneur (Philippe Noiret). The game show that Christian hosts involves elderly couples singing and dancing on a stage decorated with props comparable to decorations found in a kindergarten classroom, so I was obviously in love with it. Christian invites Roland to spend a couple of days with him at his mansion out in the countryside so he can gather information for the memoir. Once the film shifts to the mansion, it becomes a bit of a guessing game as the inhabitants of the mansion all seems to hold their own sinister secrets. At times, I felt like I was watching the French version of 1985’s Clue. There’s even a character that reminded me of Ms. Scarlett! She doesn’t have a name, but she’s referred to as the masseuse. Not only does she give great massages, but she reads tarot as well. In my eyes, she was the star of the show.

Masques has received a lot of negative criticism (for a Chabrol film, at least) for being a little on the boring side, but I didn’t find it to be boring at all. It’s a simple film that follows the old-fashioned “good overcomes evil” plot structure, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, what I love so much about Masques is that it has plenty of suspense and dark humor without being too over-the-top. Chabrol is smart enough to know that too much of a good thing ends up spoiling the party.

-Britnee Lombas

Fierce People (2005)

One of the most promising debut features of the year so far has been playwright Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, which coldly (and comically!) examines ruthlessness & sociopathy among the wealthy. Watching the film, there was something about its studied emotional distance and trilling tribal drum soundtrack that reminded me of the 2002 novel Fierce People in a way I couldn’t shake. A distastefully fun read, Fierce People is a work of outright pop fiction in which a young son of a cultural anthropologist studies the wealthy people in his immediate social circle as if he were a National Geographic reporter researching a third world tribe. One of the most significant aspects of Thoroughbreds is its featured performance of the late Anton Yelchin, a surprise delight that made its connection to Fierce People even more apparent. In 2005, a baby-faced Yelchin starred in a feature film adaptation of Fierce People, a movie I’ve been putting off watching for years because of its . . . muted reputation. Directed by Griffin Dunne—a prestigious auteur who has been involved in such celebrated projects as Practical Magic, Movie 43, and the Rear Window-riffing romcom Addicted to LoveFierce People is an ill-conceived adaptation of a deeply #problematic novel that could only get more glaringly awkward in its translation to the screen. If considered in direct comparison to Thoroughbreds, it can only be understood as the lesser work on both a narrative & technical level, lacking both the latter film’s attention to dialogue and its thrilling sense of visual craft. Still, much like with the novel, I found myself enjoying Fierce People despite myself, if not only for the strength of its before-they-were-stars cast. Besides Yelchin (and old-timers Donald Sutherland & Diane Lane), the film also features performances from Kristen Stewart, Chris Evans, and Paz de la Huerta. I find the novelty of that crew near impossible to resist.

With an adapted screenplay from the novel’s own author, Dirk Wittenborn, Fierce People largely retains its original story, with only a few details excised for brevity. Because his mother (Lane) is detoxing from a cocaine habit on a rich man (Sutherland)’s dime, Yelchin’s impossibly smug protagonist misses an opportunity to study the fictional Ishkanani tribe in South America for a summer with his estranged father. He instead pours all his frustrated anthropological energy into studying the rich people around him for the primal racists, rapists and murders that the they truly are beneath their mask of civilization. Caught between the worlds of the wealthy (Stewart, Evans) and their exploited staff (de la Huerta), Yelchin’s coming of age story is a dangerous game of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll in a violently inhospitable environment. Besides Dunne’s awkwardly cheesy visualizations of his psychedelic drug trips and pubescent sexual awakening, the movie stumbles in a couple major ways that are likely to be instant turnoffs for most audiences. They’re both problems inherent to adapting the source material in the first place: 1) Part of Yelchin’s internal transformation requires him to dress like a South American tribesman and become a savage warrior. Again, the Ishkanani are a fictional people, but still. 2) The story takes a violent left turn in its second act with a plot-derailing male on male rape, which completely shifts its tone from dark comedy to sexual assault whodunit. It’s a turn that’s not entirely earned either onscreen or on the page, if not only because it values mystery over trauma.  Even the film’s marketing is unsure how to deal with it, addressing only the more humorous opening half with inappropriate taglines like “Every family tree has its nuts.” It’s possible that someone who’s masterfully adept at uneven tones could’ve navigated these two issues in an expert adaptation, but Dunne & Wittenborn were probably not team to do so. Fierce People remains just as politically awkward (yet oddly compelling) as its source material.

I can’t recommend Fierce People, the book or the movie, in good conscience without a litany of cautionary warnings about its attitudes towards colonization & sexual assault (the latter of which is at least taken seriously, if not thoughtfully). However, I do think the strength of its cast, which only gets more unbelievable every year, is enough of a draw to overcome some of that awkwardness. This is especially true in Yelchin’s case, considering the rarity of seeing him command a lead role and the film’s thematic overlap with Thoroughbreds, which might prove to be one of his most significant performances. If you’re looking to supplant your Thoroughbreds experience with some extratextual materials, Fierce People would not at all be a terrible place to start; the connections are there. I’d just prepare yourself for an occasional cringe before taking the plunge. It’s far from the most self-aware of modern narratives, even if its ultimate target is the 1%.

-Brandon Ledet

The Death of Stalin (2018)

The Death of Stalin is a historical comedy about a small contingent of serial rapists & mass murderers jockeying for power after its titular Russian political shakeup. Like the British comedy Death at a Funeral, much of its humor is derived from the tension of buffoons fumbling in their duties amidst a dead-serious crisis that requires putting on a stoic, sober face for the public. Every major player in Stalin’s (semi) loyal gang of power-hungry monsters are stripped of any & all mythic mystique in the process, depicted onscreen as dangerous nitwits who are scrambling for a plan (by comedic actors like Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, real life shithead Jeffrey Tambor, etc.) instead of some strategic masterminds who know exactly how to achieve their goals.  Humanizing these revolting fascists thorough goofball humor is a tonal risk that might invite audience sympathy to people who do not deserve it, but somehow The Death of Stalin achieves the opposite effect. By interpreting Stalin’s cronies as real people, a recognizable boy’s club, the film makes their millions of executions & untold numbers of rapes even more of a shock & a horror. There’s a comedic tension in watching violent buffoons getting in over their head in a tense political crisis, but we always see them as the walking, talking grotesqueries they actually were in the process, perhaps even more so than ever before.

It helps that The Death of Stalin takes its duties as a period film seriously. Its grim color palette & orchestral score recall the Nazi bunker drama Downfall. There’s humor in how Stalin’s kill lists can have names added by one false joke or comment and how they’re casually issued out like office lunch orders, but the brutality they signify is never treated lightly. The film thankfully doesn’t dwell on on-screen depictions of sexual assault, but it’s coldly honest about that evil’s wpervasiveness in this fascist culture. Mass protests recall the incredible large-scale crowd scenes in big budget epics like Doctor Zhivago. When Stalin dies, he soils himself the way any fresh corpse would. The recent German comedy Look Who’s Back was admirable for drawing parallels between Hitler’s fascist ideologies and the recent far-right political swing on issues like immigration, but it was a satirical mode achieved by resurrecting the dictator in an outlandish sci-fi plot and transporting him to modern times (and modern comedic sensibilities). The Death of Stalin reverses that dynamic by exporting modern sensibilities to the historic context of a period drama. Actors speak in their own American & British accents, treating the farcical humor as if it were an (especially violent) exercise in sketch comedy. The atmosphere & dramatic circumstances surrounding those performances are a dead serious contrast that drives the comedic tension by not being comedic at all, a brilliant choice in aesthetic.

You wouldn’t have to squint too hard to draw a parallel between the mass firings & buffoonish disfunction in the current Trump administration and the political chaos left in the wake of Stalin’s death in this film, but I’m not convinced that was entirely its point. If anything, The Death of Stalin is refreshing in its honesty about how much worse the modern-day Trumps, Putins and Kims of the world could potentially be if they continue to drift in their current direction. If there’s any commentary on specific current politics in the film’s central conceit it’s tethered to the idea that the dynamics of men in power never change and only get more dangerous the longer they’re allowed to go unchecked. As amusing as it is to watch these violent dolts assert their authority in a situation where their authority is at best vaguely defined, it’s also outright harrowing to see that recognizable humanity result in so much abuse & bloodshed. The Death of Stalin is a darkly funny historical comedy with political implications that will remain relevant long beyond current, topical concerns. It’s not exactly classroom-friendly material (it’s loaded with “locker room talk,” to borrow a parlance), but it is a great educational tool in establishing the universal, pedestrian traits of the people (as opposed to the mythic figures) who commit the world’s most devastating atrocities

-Brandon Ledet

November (2018)

When James & I covered a few Andrei Tarkovsky movies for the podcast last year, I found myself impressed by the Russian auteur’s talents as a visual craftsman, but more than a little frustrated by his work as entertainment media. With features that sprawl past the three-hour mark and fret over political & philosophical crises of Faith, Tarkovsky’s work often feels like an academic prerequisite more than movies to be “enjoyed.” Thankfully for my unintellectual mush-brain, 2018 has already offered a couple correctives to my frustrations with the Tarkovsky aesthetic. Most notably, Alex Garland’s sci-fi puzzler Annihilation reimagines Tarkovsky’s Stalker as a much more conventionally entertaining genre picture with scary monsters, a manageable runtime, and a clearly discernible narrative. This year’s more esoteric Tarkovsky remix can be found in November, which feels like the long-lost blooper reel to the director’s interminable religious epic Andrei Rublev. Shot in a black & white digital haze, November continues Rublev’s grueling drudge among the intensely religious, beaten-down peasants who struggle outside the comforts of the Christian elite. Unlike Rublev, this low budget indie often lightens the mood of its descent into the brutality of abject poverty with matter-of-fact depictions of pagan witchcraft, shit jokes, and Three Stooges-style slaps to the face. Sometimes this intruding irreverence can hit a sour note, particularly when it finds its amusement in sexual violence, but for the most part it’s the exact Andrei Rublev blooper reel I didn’t know I needed until it was casting spells and farting directly in my face.

Much like how The Witch literalizes the superstitions of New England Puritans, November depicts in frank terms Eastern European (particularly Estonian) folklore. Witches prepare salves that transform their clients into wolves for a night (and a price). Peasants make deals with the Devil that bring their farm equipment to life as all-obliging puppets/sculptures (“kratts” in the film’s parlance). Ancestral ghosts visit the living from beyond the grave to break bread & offer advice. Among this black magic free-for-all and visitations from the Plague (personified as common farm animals, naturally), the peasants stave off Christian conversion efforts by mixing the new religion with preexisting pagan practices and stave off their own hunger by stealing from everyone in sight: their bosses, The Church, The Devil, each other, etc. A tragic story of unrequited love emerges from this grimy, surreal backdrop, but its circumstances are too bizarre to land with much emotional impact. November is slow and not especially funny, even when indulging in outright scatological slapstick. It’s absolutely fascinating as a curio, though. The D.I.Y. puppetry of the kratts has a distinctly humorous Eraserhead quality (which the film could have used more of; the kratts steal the show). The matter-of-fact depictions of practical effects witchcraft are persistently endearing, especially in their achievement of visualizing human-size chickens through miniature set pieces. The desperation & audacity of the characters’ thievery is cumulatively jaw-dropping, as it proves to show no bounds or shame. The only ways the film stumbles, really, are in being too aggressively odd to stage an emotionally engaging plot and in finding occasional slapstick amusement in rape. In every other way, it’s the exact pagan fairy tale farce it presumably set out to be, as much as anyone could guess what a film this deliberately loose in tone & logic intended to achieve.

I should probably do a better job of justifying my comparisons of November to Andrei Rublev, but most of the details they directly share are in the margins: religious fanaticism, pagan ritual, soul-crushing poverty, images of water layered with tree branches & other foreign objects that distort or drift away before your eyes can fully adjust. November is ultimately too silly & irreverent to be exactly comparable to that immensely personal Tarkovsky work, but I understand them as reflections of each other all the same. As the goofier curio that depicts supernatural witchcraft instead of real-world war, I much prefer November’s end of that aesthetic, just as I preferred Stalker when it featured Natalie Portman firing bullets at a nightmarish alligator-beast. Still, November has entertainment value limitations of its own. With more witches & kratts and fewer rape jokes I could have easily fallen in love with this weird little Tarkovsky blooper reel. As is, it’s enjoyable as a bizarre midnight movie curio, but still mildly frustrating for having had the potential to amount to more than that.

-Brandon Ledet

Thoroughbreds (2018)

I’m fascinated by the career Anya Taylor-Joy is building for herself fresh out of the gate as a stark, young talent. I don’t know if it’s her pale, wide-eyed look that steers her casting or a personal sensibility, but there’s a sinister streak to her project choices that reminds me a lot of the actors I grew up loving most in the 90s, people like Winona Ryder, Fairuza Balk, and Christina Ricci. Taylor-Joy’s starring role as Thomasin in (Swampflix’s favorite film of 2016) The Witch is obviously her most striking acting showcase to date, but following her career through Split and, now, Thoroughbreds has only solidified what an intriguingly dark, expressive persona she’s establishing onscreen. I’m even tempted to seek out the objectively terrible-looking pictures Morgan and Marrowbone now, just to see how they fit in the sinister genre film catalog Taylor-Joy is building for herself. She’s becoming a huge draw for me in a way few young actors are, the way I’d usually seek out releases from an auteur director. I doubt I would have rushed to see Thoroughbreds as quickly as I did if her name weren’t on the marquee.

Thoroughbreds joins past indulgences in dark humor about young girls’ bloodlust like Heathers & Heavenly Creatures to deliver the year’s first great femme thriller. Anya Taylor-Joy stars as a spoiled, but emotionally fragile rich girl who can barely contain her seething hatred for her macho brute stepfather. Olivia Cooke balances out her intensely emotive energy as a sociopath struggling to feel anything at all, while also navigating her own status as a public pariah awaiting trial for animal cruelty (it’s probably a good thing this horseriding-themed film is light on actual horse imagery). The former childhood friends & fellow “horse girls” share their dilemmas in that precarious period at the tail end of high school where it feels like every struggle will last for an eternity, but you just need to hold your breath & survive the next few months. Their initial dynamic is a dual tutorship: one learning empathy (or at least how to fake it) and the other learning how to be honest. It evolves into something much more sinister, of course, blossoming into a shared murder plot to kill the wicked stepfather. He didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. He’s just a dick & a convenient target for all their frustrations & emotional crises, a personification of the evils that rot what should be privileged life of leisure.

It’s likely somewhat burying the lede to single out Anya Taylor-Joy here, when the film features what’s presumably the final substantial role for the tragically deceased Anton Yelchin. With the greasy, panicked desperation of a drowning rat, Yelchin is perfectly cast as a small-time drug dealer the girls attempt to blackmail into committing their planned crime. As such, he’s the only external witness to the intense, morbid friendship they’ve coldly developed and is thoroughly freaked out by their communal lack of basic empathy. Oddly, Yelchin also starred in a film adaptation (that I have yet to see) of the trashy novel I’d most readily compare to Thoroughbreds: Fierce People. An anthropological study of the cut-throat social politics of the wealthy elite, Fierce People is a kissing cousin to Thoroughbreds’s tribal drum soundtrack & meditations on the selfish violence of life-long privilege. Yelchin does an excellent job (as always) of devolving this tough-guy posturing as a working-class outsider into abject horror at the coldly applied viciousness of his teen girl foils, allowing his usual aptitude for vulnerability to gradually overtake the character as he sinks further into the plot. It’s touching that the movie is dedicated to his memory, as his stopped-short career is one of modern cinema’s greater losses.

I somehow knew first-time director Cory Finley got his start as a playwright before I googled it. For a tense thriller about murderous teens, Thoroughbreds is noticeably heavy on stage play dialogue, concerning itself more with exploring the two girls’ psyches than with ramping up the tension of their violent deed. One is prim; the other is excessively laidback. One doesn’t feel anything; the other feels everything. Their re-convergence after years spent apart feels like old lovers reuniting in a moment of crisis, helping each other get past a current trauma by picking apart past wounds & unearthing deep-seated emotional issues (last year’s microbudget found footage drama Damascene is an excellent point of comparison there). Finley also impresses as a visual stylist. Tanning bed coffins, strobe light dance parties, and blank stares into the wilderness feel like they were plucked form an eerie sci-fi picture in the way they’re applied here. Guided tours of gaudy mansion hallways are paired with tense, ambient sounds that feel like they were borrowed from The Witch, affording a blank page setting a sinister mood. The girls’ wardrobes range from hip, haute teen fashion to the inherent creepiness of seeing a young girl in lipstick & pearls. The setting can often feel meticulously stylized & genuinely unsettling, but it’s ultimately all in service of Finley’s dialogue, which enters the canon of pictures like Jennifer’s Body, Ingrid Goes West, and the aforementioned Heavenly Creatures that extensively dwell in the intoxicating danger of intense female friendships.

It’s unclear if Anya Taylor-Joy is being typecast in these dark genre film experiments or if she’s actively seeking them out. Either way, I’m wholly on the hook for the trajectory of her career so far, which is seemingly typified by a defensive, vulnerable steeliness in a morbid atmosphere. Thoroughbreds transports that vibe to a affluent setting where carefully guarded secrets and the maintenance of social reputations can stir up just as much darkness on their own as a haunted house or the midnight woods. Like with most intense stage play dialogue, there’s a sinister sense of humor informing that deadly privilege & femme bloodlust set-dressing and Taylor-Joy is remarkably comfortable with the nuance of that tone. Playing off Olivia Cooke’s (intentional) emotional blankness requires Taylor-Joy to tell most of the story through her own reactionary expressions & hesitations. She’s incredible to watch, as always, and Thoroughbreds owes much of its allure & staying power to her striking screen presence.

-Brandon Ledet

Lemon (2017)

It’s been well over a decade of overgrown man-children running the show in mainstream comedies, thanks to the improv-heavy landscape sparked by the Judd Apatow crew, and it feels like that aesthetic has now officially spoiled in the public eye (likely because we have now have an overgrown man-child as President). Brett Gelman’s lead role in the grotesque character study Lemon is maybe the curdled the subversion of that trope we need in our lives right now. Selfish, depressive, pretentious about the art of theatre, socially inept, and prone to wetting the bed like a toddler, Gelman’s lead in Lemon is the culmination of the deeply upsetting, aggressively pathetic character work he’s been doing for years. The movie opens with him suffering a break-up with his longtime, blind girlfriend (Judy Greer), which would usually be played for sympathy in a typical modern man-child comedy. Instead, we can hardly blame her for leaving his dysfunctional, narcissistic ass, something that only becomes truer with time as you get to know him better. More disturbing yet, the movie expands its scope to reveal that Los Angeles is full of dysfunctional man-children just like him. He’s pretty much the norm.

To the protagonist’s credit, he at least supports himself financially through regular work. Between acting gigs advertising STD awareness & adult diaper brands, he teaches drama in a black box theater classroom, a space he mostly uses to express his jealous anger over his younger, more successful students. Most of his career envy is focused on a hot shot thespian played by Michael Cera (who looks like he’s secretly auditioning for a Gene Wilder biopic in the role), a relationship that often turns violent under its falsely cordial surface. This professional envy is even more grotesque in how it shows itself in his treatment of Gillian Jacobs’s theatre student, whom he shuts down, cuts off, ignores, and flat out berates in a way he never does with her male classmates. This toxic attitude towards women extends to how he idolizes his past, youthful romances in New York City and how he awkwardly proceeds to date future romantic prospects. It’s all one big, ugly state of juvenile angst that only gets uglier as you learn how it fits in with the similar shortcomings of his family & LA as a larger community.

It takes a moment to get into the stage play rhythms of Lemon’s dialogue, which can be as cruel & cold as anything you’d find in a Solondz or Lanthimos joint. Director Janicza Bravo, who has an extensive background as a costume designer, keeps the film consistently intense as a visual piece, elevating a (deliberately) pedestrian story with the intense lighting & near-artificial environments of a photo shoot. Bravo’s version of LA is just as beautifully curated as it is terrifyingly cruel, a point that’s driven home at a deeply tense Passover Seder I can comfortably call one of the most memorably nightmarish scenes of the year. As collaborators on the script, she & Gellman have skewered the modern comedy man-child trope so thoroughly that their film reads like an indictment of Los Angles as a city & an industry at large. It’s like a much easier to stomach version of the Neil Hamburger vehicle Entertainment in that way, lambasting all sides of the modern narcissistic entertainer’s existential emptiness, whether they’re a juvenile comedian hack or as self-serious thespian. It’s a harshly acidic, visually impressive picture that takes no emotional prisoners in its stage play cruelty & social criticism, cutting much deeper than you might first expect from Gelman’s Greasy Strangler-level awkwardness.

-Brandon Ledet