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

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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

Colossal (2017)

With his intricately-constructed time travel thriller Timecrimes, director Nacho Vigalondo found dark humor in the depths of selfishness in human self-preservation, exposing the ugliness of humanity as a species through the mechanism of a sci-fi fantasy plot. His American language debut, the kaiju-themed black comedy Colossal, shifts its genre & intended targets just slightly, but mostly repeats the trick. Through an outlandish genre film scenario, Colossal gradually strips away the veneer of polite smiles & social niceties that makes human beings appear to be kind, empathetic creatures to reveal the giant monsters lurking underneath. The destructive behavior of alcoholism & pretty selfishness in particular is giving an a measurable, kaiju-scale impact of real world damage. Much like in Timecrimes, the inner lives of Vigalondo’s characters aren’t given nearly as much attention as the implications of their actions within the larger, metaphor-heavy sci-fi plot, but the mystery of how that premise works & what it implies about the ugliness of humanity is enough to leave a lasting emotional bruise on the audience.

Anne Hathaway stars as a New York City socialite whose alcoholism finally crosses the threshold from “fun drunk” to full-on dysfunction, a conscious departure from the A-type personas she’s been saddled with since The Princess Diaries. Kicked out of the apartment she shares with an uptight boyfriend (Dan Stevens in full Matthew Crowley mode), she finds herself with few options but to move back to her small town childhood home. She’s employed as a barkeep by an egotistically sensitive childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis), which affords her way easier access to a steady stream of working class staples Jack Daniels & PBR than is likely healthy for her. The nightly blackouts that her addiction downturn sparks start to branch out from pure self-destruction to negatively affecting millions of people: namely, the city of Seoul, South Korea. Whenever our drunken anti-hero finds herself wasted in the playground near her childhood home at the crack of dawn, a corresponding kaiju appears in Seoul and mimics her exact, stumbling movements, blindly killing anyone in its path. Once these repeating scenarios become undeniably linked, she must face hungover epiphanies like, “I killed a shitload of people because I was acting like a drunk idiot again.” Getting sober & improving herself isn’t enough to solve the problem entirely, though. As soon as she starts to get her life back together, a second monster appears in Seoul, challenging her sense of control in an increasingly ugly situation.

What’s most fun about the metaphorical sci-fi plots of Vigalondo’s work is that they continue to develop & complicate after their initial reveal. It’s not enough that the connection between the protagonist’s alcoholism and the giant monster terrorizing Seoul is made explicit. The film also pushes through to explore why the playground location & time of day correspond with its appearance, why Seoul in particular is connected to her in the first place, and what is implied by the appearance of the kaiju’s robot challenger. The answers to this mystery are lazily revealed through the device of a decreasingly cloudy repressed memory, but are satisfying enough in their impact to justify the transgression. Complicating the kaiju metaphor detracts tremendously from the energy spent on potential inner conflict & emotional depth, but also expands the film’s themes beyond the selfish destruction of addiction to include crippling jealousy, the cycles of physical abuse, and a myriad of other forms of destructive behavior. By the end of Colossal you have to ask if the bigger monster is the protagonist’s addiction or the poisonous group of self-serving men that populate her life. It’s a testament to how strong the mystery & provoked themes of the central metaphor are that it doesn’t at all matter that the characters remain surface level deep. Vigalondo’s ideas are intricate, plentiful, and mercilessly cruel to the virtues of humanity enough to carry this small scale kaiju narrative on their own.

-Brandon Ledet

Band Aid (2017)

Band Aid is one of those intimate indie comedies that are easy to advertise in trailers as Sundance-flavored quirk fests packed with cutesy flights of whimsy, but deliver something much darker & more painfully honest once they get butts in seats. The last time I watched a film this tonally contrary to the light-hearted romcom romp it was advertised to be was last year’s Joshy: a darkly funny, yet emotionally devastating reflection on themes like grief, addiction, repression, and suicide. Band Aid similarly sweeps genuine emotional trauma under the rug until it can no longer be ignored, but sweetens its bitter medicine with even more of a quirk-friendly premise than Joshy‘s rogue bachelor party shenanigans: the formation of a novelty punk band. The film offers the same exciting swell of watching a fresh musical collaboration come together that was such a joy in last year’s Sing Street, except with a lot more focus on the stop & start failures necessary to make that magic work and a constant Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? mode of bickering romantic cruelty that consistently sours the mood. It’s much more of a personal, slyly devastating work of deep hurt & genuine pain than its quirk-focused advertising (understandably) makes it out to be, a kind of tonal sucker punch that arrives early & often enough to feel like an outright pummeling.

Writer, producer, and first time director Zoe Lister-Jones stars as a failed author & moderately successful Uber driver who’s stuck drifting through a joyless haze. Painfully conscious of her peers’ seemingly successful marriages & constantly bickering with her lazy stoner husband (Adam Pally, who was also in Joshy), she suffers every slight to her confidence, her independence, and her social status as a motherless wife as if it were a violent stab to the heart. Being around friends’ children seems especially painful for her, an anxiety she barely keeps at bay with the help of marijuana & old-fashioned emotional suppression. Couples’ counseling is not working. She seems to be stuck reliving the same fights with her husband over menial bullshit like doing the dishes & not having enough sex while more drastic elephant-in-the-room issues are allowed to fester, unspoken. While stoned at a friend’s kid’s birthday party & avoiding questions like, “When are you guys gonna make one of these things?” from cultish parents her age, she finally rediscovers the one healthy way she can still interact & collaborate with her husband without bickering & wanting to die: art. Music, specifically. As an act of self-actualized therapy, the couple decide to start a band (with the help of their wide-eyed creep of a neighbor, played by Fred Armisen) and turn all of the topics of their daily bickering into playful punk songs. Things get much better from there . . . for a while.

One of the most rewarding aspects of Band Aid is that it doesn’t allow for easy answers in what’s clearly an emotionally complex situation. At first it appears as if the couple’s cheeky songs about diminished sex drives & unwashed dishes are going to magically fix all of their deep-seated emotional pain in a convenient, only-in-movies release of pressure. That infectious spirit of creating art together eventually crumbles, though, and when they inevitably end up fighting again it’s over something much more significant & severe and they go about it in a much crueller way. But that’s okay. This is a film much less about mending a broken relationship than it is about embracing your right to fail. Bands, marriages, and all other kinds of intimate partnerships are difficult collaborations to negotiate, ones where successes can be less frequent than the failures necessary to make them possible. Band Aid is a film about that interpersonal push & pull just as much as it is about internal grief & despair.

Zoe Lister-Jones was not only ambitious in imprinting her auteurist personality in nearly all levels of production on her first feature as a director; she also set out to experiment with the general gender dynamics of a typical film production, indie or otherwise. Band Aid boasts an all-woman crew behind the camera, which has to be some kind of a rarity in film. Although gender dynamics is certainly high on the list of subjects tackled by Band Aid, I’m not sure you can clearly detect a tonal difference in the effect that atypical crew has on the final product. It is an idea worth celebrating & exploring, though, and it’s likely only Lister-Jones herself would be able to fully articulate the difference that dynamic made on bringing her script to life. There’s an undeniable omnipresence of the director’s personal voice throughout the work, not only because she plays the main character & sings all of her on her own songs. Dark humor about ISIS, Nazis, and mental disability offset a lot of the film’s potential twee whimsy. Its focus on the failures inherent to art & romance feels so much more relatably human it should in a film with this kind of a comedic premise. I guess it’d be easy to dismiss Band Aid as the quirky romcom it’s advertised to be if you only engage with its novelty songs & scenes of Armisen doing his usual post-Andy Kaufman schtick, but the film is so much more honest & nakedly sincere than that. It’s an impressively vulnerable work that often transcends its financial means and recognizable genre tropes by exposing an obviously raw nerve, then repeatedly attacking it with joking song lyrics & power chords. If nothing else, I very much respect it for that emotional ambition alone.

-Brandon Ledet

The Battle of the 2001 Fashion Industry Parodies was a Race into the Darkness of the Human Soul

April’s​ Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters comedy Head Over Heels, is many disparate films tied up in a single package. At times a formulaic romcom, a Farrelly brothers-style gross-out comedy, a diamond heist action thriller, and a winking Hitchcock homage, this Freddie Prinze Jr./Monica Potter madcap romance is largely a fun watch due to its violent, unexpected shifts in genre & tone. At its core, however, Head Over Heels can be readily understood as a light-headed satire of the fashion industry. Constantly poking fun at Monica Potter’s befuddled lead’s supermodel roomates, borrowing some of their second-hand glamor for its central romance fantasy, and staging its climactic showdown on a Fashion Week runway, Head Over Heels is a silly, parodic stab at couture culture. It was not alone in its year of release, either. The similarly silly, but much more popular Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander also arrived in 2001, with its own jokes about fashion models’ supposed stupidity and its own climactic runway-set showdown. Head Over Heels & Zoolander share more than just their deliriously silly fashion world parody too. They also undercut the frivolity that drives their central fashion world gags with some truly depressive, cruel lines of pitch black humor, diving much deeper into the darkness of the human soul than you might expect from a Freddie Prinze Jr. romcom and a ZAZ-style comedy that proudly features a Fabio cameo.

Fashion models seem to lead surreal, absurd, almost inhuman lives. Zoolander & Head Over Heels build their humor around that perception. They introduce a “normal” person (movie-normal anyway; one’s an art-restorer and one’s a photo-journalist for TIME Magazine) into the otherworldly realm of superhuman fashion models, or in Zoolander‘s parlance “people who are really, really, ridiculously good-looking,” to play off that eccentricity. Part of the humor they find there is in jealousy: lavish parties, beautiful clothes, a total lack of sexual inhibition, etc. are overwhelming to the two films’ non-model normies and both movies have a lot of fun indoctrinating them into this culture, which appears to be a live action cartoon from the outside looking in. To take the models down a peg, then, they also poke fun at the two things typically associated with people who are really, really, ridiculously good-looking: low intelligence & eating disorders. Zoolander is a lot harsher on both of those topics than Head Over Heels. The Mark Waters film is a lot more humanizing in its portrayal of its star’s supermodel roomates, who are eventually proven to be a lot more cunning & self-aware than any of their foils give them credit for. I don’t really see the point in diving into the particulars of either films’ jabs at bulimia or stupidity, though, since it’s the easiest, most common sources of humor you’d expect from any fashion world comedy. What interests me, and I think what makes these films memorable, are the more unconventional places they find their dark humor, the real weirdo shit.

At its core, Head Over Heels is a much sweeter movie than Zoolander, with more of a sincere focus on its milquetoast woman/fashion world weirdo romance. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t indulge in its own forms of pitch black humor. The reason our generic romcom lead puts herself on the market for a new man at the beginning of the film is that her old biddy coworkers keep announcing, plainly, “You are going to die alone.” She then has her “meet cute” moment with Freddie Prinze Jr.’s hotshot fashion exec when the dog he’s walking tackles & mounts her in the lobby of their apartment building, which is a special kind of brutally embarrassing public humiliation for a cutesy romcom. The movie later indulges in other similar raunchy comedy moments, like a stray cunnilingus gag or an epic scene where the leads’ fashion model roomates are covered head to toe in human feces. What’s even darker is that the movie’s entire romcom plot is built on a Rear Window moment where the lead witnesses the fashion exec hunk “murder” someone through his apartment window, but romantically pursues him anyway, because of their overwhelming sexual chemistry. This includes a scene where she bangs the possible murderer before he’s convincingly absolved of the crime, an act her roommates gleefully watch through the window as if it were a plot point on a daytime soap. Sometimes these models’ lack of sexual inhibition is played for light laughs, like in an early scene when they aggressively catwalk nude through their apartment’s shared living space. Sometimes it gets much darker, though, like when the Russian-born model casually accuses a Girl Scouts troupe of being a childhood prostitution ring or when the Australian-born model (who has a crippling addiction to plastic surgery) constantly makes casual references to being molested by her uncle as a child, which is played for laughs. For all of its indulgences in cutesy romcom tropes, Head Over Heels can be a deeply strange, deeply fucked up comedy.

Much like how Head Over Heels builds its madcap romantic mixup around a possible cold-blooded murder, Zoolander finds its humorous A-plot in a conspiracy to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia so that child labor laws will relax enough in that country for fashion clothing production to pinch a few pennies. That’s pretty fucked. Its dark soul wasn’t lost on critics at the time of its release either. Ebert famously wrote in his post-9/11 review of the film, “There have been articles lately asking why the United States is so hated in some parts of the world. As this week’s Exhibit A from Hollywood, I offer Zoolander, a comedy about a plot to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia because of his opposition to child labor.” Besides that boldly crass plot line (which does have a pointedly satirical jab at fashion as an industry built into its DNA) and its much harsher stance on models being oversexed, anorexic idiots than the one taken in Head Over Heels, Zoolander ups the stakes of its dark humor by actually claiming a few human casualties. While the witnessed “murder” of Head Over Heels turns out to have been faked, one of Zoolander‘s first big gags (and easily the one that got the biggest laugh out of me as a teen at the theater) involves four of its idiotic lead’s closest male model friends perishing in a gas station explosion. It’s the kind of gag that you’d expect to see in the icily funny mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, where the punchline is a smash cut to a funeral service. Later in the film, the fashion industry is again skewered when Ben Stiller’s male model lead participates in a runway show that exploits/appropriates the tattered rags of the world’s “crack whores” & homeless for a marketable fashion aesthetic. And the darkest joke of all is that the film’s very first celebrity cameo (one of thousands) is none other than Donald J. Trump. Yikes.

As harsh as the humor can be in both of these movies, they’re still largely absurd, silly, light-hearted films. In both Head Over Heels & Zoolander, initial competitive jealousies in an industry where vanity is everything eventually give way to heartfelt camaraderie. Initial unease with the fashion world’s liberated, uninhibited sexuality eventually leads to sexual & romantic satisfaction. Models considered to be useless idiots at the outset save the day & prove their worth as human beings. Still, there’s a dark soul lurking at the center of both Head Over Heels & Zoolander, a black comedy undercurrent that occasionally cuts through the deliriously silly fashion world parody to laugh in the face of betrayal, death, bulimia, child abuse, etc. 2001 not only saw the release of two energetically silly fashion world comedies; it also brought out a surprisingly corrosive spirit in each of them that can disrupt & subvert the cheeriness of their shared mainstream comedy surface. Both movies were better & more memorable for it.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters fashion world romcom Head Over Heels, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Joshy (2016)

fourstar

If I were feeling especially lazy, I would substitute writing a full review for Joshy with simply taking a screenshot of its IMDb page with some MS Paint exclamation points added for effect. Jenny Slate! Aubrey Plaza! Brett Gelman! Thomas Middleditch! The dude who made Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry)! A dark comedy about a devastatingly depressing weekend getaway, Joshy is stuffed to the gills with niche comedians and always-welcome performers. Even in the final twenty minutes I found myself exclaiming, “I can’t believe they’re in this too!” as new characters entered the frame. What was even more surprising & rewarding than any of the casting choices, however, was the realization that I’d become a fan of the film’s writer-director, Jeff Baena, without even realizing it. Apparently, Baena co-wrote I ♥ Huckabees & helmed his debut feature in the romantic horror comedy Life After Beth, two films I will passionately defend as being far better than their reputations. Just Gary Marshall dropping by as a zombie for a brief cameo was enough to land Life After Beth on my Best of 2014 list and the existential absurdism of Huckabees makes for my favorite David O. Russell film to date, despite that work’s generally divisive reception. After also taking delight in the gleefully bleak Joshy, I can comfortably say that I’m fully sold on Baena as a filmmaker. Only three projects into his career I’m going to count myself among his audience for life.

Five men commemorate an abruptly-ended engagement by honoring a reservation for the bachelor party at a remote cabin in California wine country. As you can probably guess, this situation quickly devolves into my beloved Party Out of Bounds subgenre, ranking up there with High-Rise, The Invitation, and A Bigger Splash as one of my favorite examples of that specific narrative structure I saw all last year. Caught between his friends’ wildly varied ideas of a good time (typified by reckless substance abuse or a Cones of Dunshire-style fantasy role playing game) the would-be bachelor Joshy  (Middleditch) quietly suffers while the world around him loudly crumbles. Joshy has the most readily recognizable reasons to be an emotional wreck, but all of his male compatriots, from the most bombastic bros to the most neurotic wet blankets, are in just as bad of a state. Joshy is first & foremost a film about men who do not comprehend how to deal with their emotions in a productive or honest way. They play & party their way around any direct engagement with their inner turmoil, filling their days with toy guns, drugs, and frivolous contact with a group of women having their own “weird party thing” nearby, all while avoiding any mention of the dark clouds of depression, alcoholism, and suicide that loom over them. At one point, a character even shouts, “It’s not okay to be sad!” to drive the point home. I don’t know if this speaks more about my personal taste or the immense talent of the cast, but this situation actually makes for some of the most hilarious cinematic moments of 2016 for me. Joshy traps itself under immense emotional pressure and the resulting comedy that explodes from that container had me screaming with laughter.

I suppose at first glance Joshy might come off as the clean cut indies & “mumblecore” aftershocks of filmmakers like the Duplass Bros (whom I personally dig) & Joe Swanberg (who appears in a cameo) and it’s possible that being able to enjoy that cinematic style is essential to appreciating this low-key indulgence in gallows humor. The closest comparison point I can conjure for it, though, is the work of Sleeping With Other People director Leslye Headland, particularly her film Bachelorette. Headland & Baena are both quietly trafficking in a highly specific, deeply affecting mode of caustic, ice bath humor. Their work is currently flying under the radar in terms of wide critical recognition, but I’m floored by how much they’ve been able to accomplish without making grand, sweeping maneuvers. Joshy is a cheap, quiet indie comedy about a few middle aged men who are having an awful time at a party that should have ended before it started. Baena managed to turn that scenario into both a painful exploration about how traditional masculinity leaves people ill-equipped to deal with emotions in a healthy, honest way and one of the funniest situational comedies of the year. I find that balance very impressive and I’m dying to see what he pulls off next.

-Brandon Ledet