Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

I was a late joiner to the Bong Joon-ho fan club. I didn’t see any of his films prior to the US release of Snowpiercer (which ended up being Swampflix’s very first pick for Movie of the Year), and I shamefully still—all these years later—have not doubled back to catch up with his early catalog.  Now that the runaway success of Parasite has made him an Oscar-certified sweetheart of the industry, Bong’s early films are easier to access than ever, so I have few remaining excuses to cover those blind spots.  It took nine long years for his debut feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite, to land proper American distribution, but now it’s just sitting right there on Hulu waiting to make you laugh & squirm along with the director’s other darkly funny genre pranks.  It obviously doesn’t match the budgetary scale of the eye-popping spectacles Bong would later deliver in films like Okja, Snowpiercer, and The Host, but it’s just as worthy of a post-Oscars re-evaluation of his decades-long career.  If nothing else, it’s good to be reminded that the adorable man who became a meme by making his Oscars statues kiss also has a deeply fucked up, vicious sense of humor.

Barking Dogs Never Bite feels like Bong Joon-ho’s version of the post-Clerks slacker comedy, complete with a couple of listless corner store clerks among its cast of downtrodden losers.  Gen-X apathy & ennui weighs heavy on its central players, a loose collection of near-destitute tenants of a multi-tiered apartment complex, barely earning enough through their entry-level jobs to feed themselves.  The title refers to the violent hijinks of an out-of-work academic whose peaceful days lounging around the apartment (which his pregnant wife pays for) are interrupted by a neighbor’s small, yipping dog.  The absolute worm of a man takes his frustrations over his stalled career out on various small dogs throughout the building, murdering them in an effort to quiet his own mind.  These outbursts of animal cruelty catch the eye of an anonymous notary who lives nearby, daydreaming about earning celebrity through heroic acts of vigilantism.  As the would-be vigilante tracks down the pathetic dog killer, the small minds & embarrassments of their daily routines pile up in an increasingly absurd tangling of their lives, somehow amounting to a pitch-black hangout comedy instead of a low-budget crime thriller.  It’s the exact kind of ironic slice-of-life slacker tale you’d expect to see at a film festival in the 1990s, except with a much sharper eye for visual gags & splendor than what you’d typically expect from movies on its budget level.

Bong’s debut is hilarious but vicious, which feels consistent with everything he’s done since.  Even so, violence against dogs is one of the few remaining taboos that make audiences squeamish, so it still cuts deep. It’s the kind of movie that’s almost pointless to log on the content-warning database Does the Dog Die?, as its entire purpose is to mash that exact taboo button.  The dogs that are killed are cute & pathetic.  Their murderer waits maybe a scene & a half before deciding to violently shut them up, not even suffering the expected montage where they annoy him for days on end until he snaps.  Even as someone with a high tolerance for shocking art, I was thankful that the film opened with an obligatory “No animals were harmed” title card instead of saving it for the end credits.  Still, I don’t know that I ever fully believed it, as whatever puppetry, camera trickery, or hidden harness support they used to depict the pups in peril was impressively convincing.  I was in love with Bong’s playful camera set-ups, non sequitur ghost stories, sped-up Benny Hill chase sequences, and onslaughts of discordant jazz, but I can’t claim that the puppy violence didn’t upset me.  It’s supposed to be upsetting, because Bong Joon-ho is a sick fuck, which is easy to forget as he’s become something of a Film Twitter mascot.

I remember there being a lot of memes at the expense of Chris Evans delivering the teary line “Babies taste best” in Snowpiercer, as if it were funny by accident.  I always found that mockery to be odd, as that moment didn’t feel especially over-the-top to me, at least not relative to every other batshit crazy thing that happens in that movie.  Having now seen Bong Joon-ho’s debut feature—a feel-bad hangout comedy about a series of dog murders—I’m even more convinced that the Snowpiercer memesters (likely just hungry to dunk on the limitations of Captain America’s acting talents) got it wrong.  Given Bong’s larger body of work, I believe that line was both intentionally funny and sincere.  It’s both a discomforting moment where a man deals with the guilt of surviving on the nourishment of baby-meat and a darkly humorous punchline that underlines just how depraved the film’s trainbound universe has gotten.  I’ve now seen Bong apply that exact discomforting humor to the onscreen death of puppies, so why not the off-screen death of babies? Lots to think about there, lots to consider.

-Brandon Ledet

Riders of Justice (2021)

Men will literally gun down an entire biker gang by themselves instead of going to therapy.  The Danish dark comedy Riders of Justice is essentially a two-hour shitpost with that exact punchline, which you might not guess in its opening, somber first act.  Like Nobody, it’s a low-key parody of the suburban-dad revenge thrillers Liam Neeson’s been treading water in since Taken – especially his collaborations with Jaume Collet-Serra: The Commuter (Taken on a Train) and Non-Stop (Taken on a Plane).  In both instances, the humor of that parody is delayed; both Nobody & Riders of Justice open with a straight-faced first act that doesn’t prepare you for the over-the-top absurdist mayhem to follow.  Riders of Justice doesn’t play like a thriller in its opening half-hour.  It starts as a solemn, introspective drama about a train accident that tears a family apart by killing its matriarch.  Instead of healing from the pain of that tragedy through therapy, however, the surviving widower stubbornly creates an anti-hero action plot out of thin air, exacting violence on a terrorist biker gang he believes is responsible for the train wreck, as if that’s the easier path to healing from the loss.  The more that revenge mission spirals out of his control and the further he goes out of his way to avoid talking about his emotions, the funnier the joke becomes (and the higher the bodies pile).

Like Nobody‘s front-and-center, against-type casting of Bob Odenkirk, the main draw for most audiences to Riders of Justice will be seeing Mads Mikkelsen in the starring role as a grieving Military Dad on the warpath.  I’m largely indifferent to Mikkelsen myself (beside being impressed by those magnificent cheekbones), so I’m shocked to report I was way more satisfied with his star-vehicle Taken parody than Odenkirk’s.  All of Nobody‘s action genre signifiers are pulled directly from modern post-Taken and post-John Wick thrillers, leaving it with very little visual style to call its own outside the incongruity of seeing Odenkirk presented in that context.  Riders of Justice casts a much wider net in its own action genre parody, especially by the time Mikkelsen assembles a crack team of computer experts in an industrial barn to help track down the targets of his wrath.  Once the plot is in full swing, he stands as a lone machine-like killer among a house full of bickering nerds who constantly undercut the macho revenge fantasy of his one-man gang war with their own petty, unmanly quibbles.  It’s the same mode of comic relief that side characters like Tyrese & Ludacris provide to the Fast & Furious franchise, for instance, but it’s deliberately uncool & uncomfortable in a way that constantly underlines how much these men need professional help instead of guns & ammo.  Meanwhile, Mikkelsen’s job as the traditionally macho hero (and comedic straight man) is to maintain a seething, barely contained anger at the world at large for contrast against those nerds, and he’s great at it.

It helps that Riders of Justice is also about something beyond its satirical observations about the emphasis on violent revenge in macho action flicks like Taken & John Wick.  It makes room for lots of unexpected, heartfelt reflection on grief, abuse, “found family”, and the cruelty of coincidence, all delivered with a real sicko sense of humor.  The movie is outright philosophical in the way it interrogates our need to apply logical order to the chaos of random tragedies by filtering them through religious faith, statistical analysis, or violent retribution.  It also pays careful attention to its own visual style, however muted.  At the very least, I appreciated the way its motif of blue & orange crosslighting helped break up the earth tones of its militaristic anti-hero’s joyless, colorless life.  All of the promotional materials for Riders of Justice feature Mads Mikkelsen staring directly into the camera while modeling action-hero army gear, which makes the film look like a humorless bore.  It turns out the character himself is the bore, and the film finds lots of humor at the expense of his performative brutish exterior (after taking the time to seriously consider the emotional pain of the loss he’s suffered).  It takes an unusually long time for the anti-macho humor of its action genre parody to emerge, but thankfully that’s not the only thing on its mind.  If you’re looking for zanier or more immediate humor in your action movie parodies, there’s always MacGruber or Hot Shots or even the final hour of Nobody.

-Brandon Ledet

Zola (2021)

As a terminally online movie nerd who has been relying on borrowed public-library DVDs instead of theatrical distribution to keep up with new releases all pandemic, it’s a minor miracle when I can enter a movie unbiased & unspoiled.  By the time I get to most buzzy releases, I’ve already heard every possible take on its faults & merits, with plenty of plot & stylistic details filled in as supporting evidence.  I was fortunate, then, to watch Janicza Bravo’s Zola without any clear roadmap to where it was headed.  As it was adapted from one of the most notorious Twitter threads of all time (with the co-writing help of its real-life subject & Tweeter, @zolamoon), I should likely be embarrassed that I had no idea where the film’s road-trip-to-Hell story would lead me, but instead I’m grateful.  While the hype around @zolamoon’s tweets was sensational, the conversation surrounding their movie adaptation has been much more subdued, which means the film-obsessed corners of the internet where I lurk left me mostly blind to where it was going.  All I really knew is that Zola lived to tweet about the journey, which did little to lighten the tension of the distinctly Floridian nightmare she survived.

This is not the first movie I’ve seen that was directly adapted from a series of tweets.  2013’s Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. is a Thai coming-of-age drama adapted from 410 consecutive tweets on an anonymous teen girl’s Twitter account, credited to @marylonely.  It’s a playfully experimental work that allows the jarring tonal shifts of reading a Twitter feed from bottom-to-top to dictate its moment-to-moment whims.  Zola is the darksided mirrorworld version of that much lighter, kinder film – finding a chaotic terror & humor in life’s sequential randomness.  By definition, Zola is a purely episodic journey, following each “And then this happened, and then this happened” anecdote of its online source material like the twisty tracks on a rollercoaster – with no hopes of the deranged carnies in charge letting you off.  A part-time waitress & dancer in Detroit, Zola is seduced into a road trip to working a few Florida strip clubs with the promise of easy money & friendship.  The second she becomes a backseat passenger in her obnoxious, shady “friend’s” SUV, she realizes she’s in the hands of unhinged strangers with no choice but to see the journey through, hoping they return her to Detroit in one piece.  Each new strip club & hotel room she’s dragged through along the way springs horrific funhouses surprises at her, and she does her best to remain visibly calm, unphased by their sinister absurdism.  It was the scariest movie experience I had in the entirety of October, when I was mostly watching movies about supernatural ghouls & goblins.

Speaking of funhouses, Janicza Bravo has fun adding a layer of fairy tale artifice to this darkly funny nightmare, setting its pre-strip show dress-up sequences in a fantastic mirror realm scored by angelic harp strings.  We’re swept off our feet by Zola’s new, chaotic stripper friend right alongside her, intoxicated by the promise of wealth & adventure.  There’s a music video sheen to the pop art setting & fast-fashion costuming that can put you under the Wicked Stephanie’s spell if you’re not careful.  Once that spell is broken, you’re forever tied to her, cursed to stare at blank hotel room walls while listening to her turn tricks you didn’t consent to witnessing in an endless parade of gnarled Floridian dicks.  Mica Levi’s usual tension-generator scoring is made even more upsettingly arrhythmic with the intrusion of gum-chewing & Twitter notifications, making sure the vibes remain just as poisonous as they are sickly sweet.  The movie is only 85 minutes long, including its end credits, but by the time it’s over you feel as if you’ve been trapped in its hellish mirrorworld for a thousand eternities – in desperate need of a scalding-hot shower. 

I’m not sure why Zola was so breezily discussed & forgotten among online movie nerds when it was released this summer.  Maybe its social media source material or its episodic nature made it appear unsubstantial by default.  Maybe its online discourse cycle had already exhausted itself before the movie was even announced, back when the original Twitter thread was a must-read.  Whatever the reason, I’m grateful that I got to engage with the movie as a fresh, volatile cultural object months after its initial run – a rare treat these days.

-Brandon Ledet

Happily (2021)

There’s a certain kind of low-budget indie comedy that’s packed with the hippest, funniest comedians you know . . . who just sorta sit around with nothing to do.  They’re not so much hangout films as they are grotesque wastes of talent.  What’s frustrating about the recent “dark romantic comedy” Happily is that starts as something conceptually, visually exciting in its first act, only to devolve into one of those comedy-scene talent wasters as it quickly runs out of ideas.  Happily opens with a wicked black humor and a heightened visual style that recalls what everyone was drooling over with Game Night back in 2018.  Unfortunately, it leads with all its best gags & ideas, so after a while you’re just kinda hanging out with hip L.A. comedians in a nice house – which isn’t so bad but also isn’t so great.

Joel McHale & Kerry Bishé star as a couple whose persistent happiness and mutual lust—as if they were still newlyweds after 14 years of marriage—crazes everyone around them.  Their cutesy PDA and ease with conflict resolution is first presented as a mild annoyance to their more realistically jaded, coupled friends.  Then, Stephen Root appears at their doorstep like the mysterious G-Man in Richard Kelly’s The Box, explaining that their lovey-dovey behavior is supernaturally deranged, a cosmic defect he needs to fix with an injectable fluorescent serum.  That Twilight Zone intrusion on the otherwise formulaic plot feels like it should be the start to a wild, twisty ride.  Instead, it abruptly halts the movie’s momentum, forcing it to retreat to a low-key couple’s getaway weekend in a bland Californian mansion with its tail tucked between its legs.

In its first half-hour, Happily is incredibly stylish for such an obviously cheap production.  Red color gels, eerie dreams, disco beats, and an infinite sea of repeating office cubicles overwhelm the familiarity of the film’s genre trappings, underlining the absurdity of its main couple’s commitment to their “happily ever after” romance.  Once it gets derailed into couples’ getaway weekend limbo, all that visual style and cosmic horror just evaporates.  The talented cast of welcome faces—Paul Scheer, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Natalie Morales, Charlyne Yi, Jon Daly, Breckin Meyer, etc.—becomes the main draw instead of the dark Twilight Zone surrealism, which is a real shame.  There are plenty of other films where you could watch hipster comedians act like cruel, bitter assholes in a lavish locale.  The early style and humor of Happily promised something much more conceptually and aesthetically unique.

And since there isn’t much more to say about the toothless hangout comedy that Happily unfortunately devolves into, I’ll just point to a few recent titles on its budget level that are much more emphatically committed to the biting dark humor of their high-concept, anti-romantic premises: Cheap Thrills, The One I Love, and It’s a Disaster.  Those are good movies, and this is almost one too.

-Brandon Ledet

Promising Genre Winner

It might be something of a Hot Take to say so, but I overall really enjoyed Soderbergh’s stripped-down, intimate Oscars broadcast – especially considering the context of this year. The general complaint in the weeks leading up to the 93rd Academy Awards was that none of the movies nominated matter/exist to most people, so it was kinda sweet to see an intimate, personalized broadcast pitched directly at the niche audience already in the know.  I don’t think the streamlined, de-glitzed format would work as well in a year where people gather in groups for Oscar parties, but I had a nice pizza-on-the-couch night myself.  Still, I can’t say I was especially invested in any of the night’s Big Wins, at least not as a casual movie nerd.  My two least favorite films that I caught up with before the Oscars—Nomadland and Another Round—won major prizes; my two very favorite films nominated—Emma. and Pinocchio—were ignored even as technical achievements; and a lot of the awards in-between went to expensive-to-access 2021 releases that I have not yet seen: The Father and Minari.  I was surprised, then, that the award that most excited me this year was the Best Original Screenplay win for Promising Young Woman, a film I only liked just Okay.

I remember listening to an interview with the executive producer of Horror Noire, Tananarive Due, a few years ago (on the now-defunct Shock Waves podcast) about the Black cinema documentary’s then-upcoming release.  Due explained that the doc was greenlit the very next morning after Jordan Peele won his Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Get Out (Peele was a producer and interview subject involved in the production of Horror Noire).  Then she & the Blumhouse reps in the room alluded to several other black-led genre projects in the works that got launched at that same time, ones Peele was not involved in whatsoever.  That interview has stuck with me over the past few years as the noticeable uptick of mainstream Black horror films & TV shows have made their way into wide distribution, making it so that it’s almost already time for a Horror Noire sequel.  Some of those projects have been great; some have been godawful.  All of them directly benefited from the prestige of a Get Out Oscar win, no matter what you may think about the pageantry of Entertainment Industry Awards shows.  That’s why it’s important to root for artists you like getting Oscars attention for work you appreciate, even if most of the other statues are handed out to movies you don’t care about at all.

I don’t believe Promising Young Woman is as successful or as Important of a film as Get Out by any stretch.  To be honest, I can’t say I had a particularly strong reaction to it at all, either positive or negative.  For such a deliberate Provocation—a bitterly funny rape revenge thriller with a music video pop art aesthetic—it’s a relatively timid film, deliberately withholding the shocking violence of its genre’s inherent trauma and catharsis.  Pretty much everything I admired about it was tackled so much more fiercely & directly in films like Revenge, Felt, and Teeth, except this time with a poisoned candy coating that distinguishes it more as a stylistic flex than as a thematic discomfort.  To its credit, the movie appears to be self-aware in the ways it’s sidestepping the trappings of its genre, like in the way it teases bloodshed to reveal only a leaking jelly donut, or in how it exclusively casts comedic actors as its Nice Guy villains.  My personal favorite detail in that respect is the traditional Monster Movie music that hits every time Carrie Mulligan reveals herself to be stone-sober to the men taking advantage of her “drunken” state, as if there’s nothing scarier to a date rapist than a woman’s clear-eyed sobriety.  I don’t believe Promising Young Woman overhauled or subverted the themes or content of the rape revenge thriller in any substantial way, but it’s at least playing with the form, which is all we usually ask of genre filmmakers.

While I’m not emphatically in love with Promising Young Woman as a film, I am totally invested in its significance as an Oscar-winner.  Any time an over-stylized genre movie wins a major Academy Award—Get Out, Parasite, The Shape of Water, even Joker—I find myself celebrating the win no matter how in love I am with the movie itself outside that context.  Even if I find the movie itself to be just passably Okay, I’m stoked that a hyper-femme, button-pushing genre film decorated with rainbow-pastel nail polish and Britney Spears & Paris Hilton music cues won a major Academy Award this year.  That means that more, better funded genre movies tuned to my sensibilities are on their way.  Hell, even Jordan Peele outdid himself after his Get Out win with the much wilder, more daringly surreal creep-out Us, so Promising Young Woman‘s win might even mean that writer-director Emerald Fennell’s next film will totally bowl me over the way I wanted Promising Young Woman to.  Regardless, her win is a win for hyper-femme, discomforting genre filmmaking in general as a viable business, and that’s the victory I’m choosing to champion the loudest this Oscars cycle.

-Brandon Ledet

Sugar & Spice (2001)

By now, Heathers has surely gotten its full due as a cult classic in terms of its delicious visual aesthetics & eternal quotability. It’s even earned its own Broadway musical adaptation, so there should be nowhere left for its “cult” legacy to go. I still don’t think we’ve fully reckoned with how well balanced the tone of Heathers is, though, especially as a feat of screenwriting. Daniel Waters’s playful, sardonic cruelty is a deceptively tricky balancing act to properly execute, which is glaringly apparent when you look at the film’s dark teen comedy imitators in the late 1990s & early 2000s. Drop Dead Gorgeous is the most accomplished imitator to the throne, with the biggest laughs & most keenly pointed satirical eye of any post-Heathers high school cruelty comedy. It’s also a film that chooses some hideously misjudged moments to punch down, particularly at the expense of anorexic teens & the mentally disabled. For its part, Jawbreaker evolves the highly stylized visual whimsy of Heathers into a candy-coated fantasy all of its own, but its callous humor about sexual assault & physical abuse leaves an unignorably sour taste. However, neither of those examples conveys the high wire balancing act of the post-Heathers teen cruelty comedy quite as succinctly as Sugar & Spice.

Sugar & Spice is an absurdly bubbly, flippantly cruel teen comedy about bank-robbing cheerleaders. Its 1960s Archie Comics stylization is infectiously fun & energizing, complete with collage-style pop art screen wipes that nearly push the film into surreal, dreamlike territory. Its story of teen sweethearts whose rosy vision of the world harshly clashes with reality when they unexpectedly become pregnant offers a great satirical core for its humor, and the transgression of high school cheerleaders robbing a bank to solve that problem is sublime. Best yet, the movie is only 81min long, cramming as many goofs, gags, and one-liners as it can into every beat without wasting the audience’s time on superfluous details like thoughts or feelings. The only problem, really, is that the film is viciously homophobic. This is a mainstream, PG-13 comedy where f-bombs are carefully avoided so as not to upset the schoolmarms at the MPAA, but homophobic slurs are tossed in every direction like confetti. The only gay character in the film is a one-note visual gag: a male cheerleader who occasionally catapults into the frame to be called a “fag” and promptly dismissed. And then come the flood of prison rape jokes as the girls research their bank heist schemes among inmates at a women’s prison. Hilarious!

At first, the film’s tonal missteps seem to result from a poor choice in narrator: a small-minded rival of the bankrobbing teens who rats them out to the FBI out of petty jealousy. Watching a room full of middle-aged men listen to a bratty child endlessly monologue about the intricacies of cheerleader squad drama is hilarious, but choosing the least likeable character in the film to narrate often tilts the tone into sour territory, especially considering that character’s raging homophobia. You can’t blame all of the film’s misfired cruelty on the villain, however. The girls we’re supposed to be cheering for eventually prove to be just as guilty, calling the film’s politics into question not the characters’. The weirdest thing about that POV is that Sugar & Spice is otherwise perfectly calibrated for a dedicated queer fandom. It’s already practically a mash-up of Point Break & Bring It On, which sounds like a mad scientist experiment to create the perfect Gay Movie Night go-to. This is a film where James Marsden is ogled as a star-quarterback himbo, Madonna lyrics are treated as literal gospel, and teenage girls commit crimes while wearing knock-off Barbie masks. It’s also a film that frequently dehumanizes the exact target audience who would find those details fabulous for the sake of a cheap gag (or ten).

So yes, Sugar & Spice gleefully shares in the Jawbreaker & Drop Dead Gorgeous problem in that it can be a little too mean in spots; it may even be the meanest picture of the three. It’s also like those movies in that I love it anyway, which only makes me cringe harder when it spectacularly fucks up the balance of its tone. It’s certainly no Heathers, although over-written one-liners like “It was like he was a piece of chocolate and the entire school was on the rag” suggest that it very much wanted to be. If I’ve learned anything from loving these flawed teen cruelty comedies over the years, it’s that Heathers, although enduringly popular, was much more singularly skillful than could ever be fully acknowledged, especially in its mastery of tone.

-Brandon Ledet

Pretty Poison (1968)

It’s a shame that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with Anthony Perkins when he was around, except to keep recasting him as Norman Bates into perpetuity. I mean that both literally in the case of the three(!) Psycho sequels and figuratively in the dozens of Bates-knockoff characters he was asked to play besides. Whenever you catch a glimpse of Perkins venturing slightly outside the tiny corner he was typecast into, the results are always electric. I’m thinking particularly of the sweaty, bugged-out mania of his work in Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (which is admittedly just Norman Bates on an overdose of poppers) and the surrealist filth of his self-directed turn in Psycho III. It would have been nice to see Perkins given the freedom to play a role that couldn’t be described as a dangerous psychopath, but that just wasn’t in the cards. Instead, we have to search for scraps of variance in his frustratingly homogenous career, which feels a lot like being a fan of Vincent Price or Bela Lugosi or any other impeccably skilled horror icon who wasn’t given enough of a chance outside their respective genre boxes.

Pretty Poison is very much one of those post-Psycho roles where Perkins was cast as A Norman Bates Type. The movie even opens on his exit interview with a psychiatrist as he’s being released from a mental institution, so that the film could even play as an unofficial Psycho sequel if you squint at it the right way. Still, it manages to strike a tone that distinguishes this performance from Perkins’s typically deranged presence, even if his broader character traits play on the audience’s familiarity with the actor’s career. In Pretty Poison, Perkins’s expert conveyance of dangerous mental instability is played more for dark, sarcastic humor than it is for genuine terror. It’s a dryly funny movie with a wicked mean streak, allowing Perkins to find hints of sardonic wit within his usual Unhinged Serial Killer oeuvre. His anti-hero protagonist is still dangerously detached from reality here; it’s just that he engages with the real world from a place of distanced, absurdist mockery rather than cold-blooded revenge. In fact, once he’s confronted with a fellow lunatic who is willing to take a few lives while having her own fun, he’s not entirely sure what to do with her.

Tuesday Weld stars opposite Perkins as his young, erratic protegee. Perkins is enraptured with the teenage beauty and—unsure how to approach her in a direct, honest way—pulls her into his fantastical delusions as an unhealthy form of seduction. Perkins lies to the bubbly, seemingly naïve teen about being a secret undercover agent for the CIA, recruiting her for a highly-classified mission of vague intent. What he doesn’t account for is Weld’s potential enthusiasm for the violence of espionage, and she quickly escalates his playful spy fantasies into full-on murderous mayhem. By the time she’s rhythmically drowning an innocent old man between her legs on a riverbank as if she were masturbating to orgasm, Perkins is completely overwhelmed by the inversion of their power dynamic. He spends the rest of the film just trying to keep her indulgences in the bloodshed of their “espionage” to a minimum, completely horrified by how real she’s made the fantasies he used to entertaining as his own private, sarcastic amusement. Serves him right for tricking a teenager into bed, I suppose.

Pretty Poison is a little too weighed down by its era’s Cold War paranoia and teen-girl fetishism to be a total, enduring success. It’s fun enough as a tongue-in-cheek riff on the Bonnie & Clyde template, though, even if its New Hollywood sensibilities feel a little stodgy & forced (especially in the way it clumsily panders to Youth Culture in a throwaway gag about LSD). The real thing that makes the film worth a look is Perkins’s unusually playful performance at the center. He’s cast as yet another Norman Bates Type here, but he manages to find new, subversively comic textures to that archetype that he didn’t always get a chance to explore. Tuesday Weld ably holds her own as his bouncy, murderous foil, but I doubt there are as many movie nerds out there looking to track down her most idiosyncratic performances in the same way (give or take a Thief superfan or two).

-Brandon Ledet

Dogtooth (2010)

As a latecomer to his oeuvre, getting to know Yorgos Lanthimos as an auteur over the past decade has been a disorienting experience. The first film of his I ever caught was The Lobster – a coldly emotionless, abruptly violent farce that bizarrely parodies the socially accepted norms of dating rituals. Each film since has been a bewildering journey, as if I was tasked to put together the jigsaw puzzle of what he’s attempting to accomplish in his films without having seen the reference picture on the box it arrived in. I finally clicked with Lanthimos on The Favourite, but that film felt like the director meeting latecomers more than halfway – staging his usual emotionless trauma-comedies in a context where we’re more used to stilted, carefully veiled viciousness: the costume drama. Pure Lanthimos oddities like The Killing of a Sacred Deer—while amusing—still escaped me as a something I could fully embrace as personal favorites. It turns out that the answer key to fully comprehending Lanthimos’s Whole Deal was hiding in plain sight in the most obvious place: his breakthrough calling-card picture, Dogtooth.

Dogtooth is often mistaken to be Lanthimos’s debut feature as a director, despite being his third completed film, because it was the first to land his name on the international stage. For a solid decade I’ve heard flummoxed mumblings of how traumatizingly fucked up & darkly funny the film is from friends – to the point where I was actively dreading the experience of watching it, as if it were some depraved shock value gross-out like Martyrs, The Human Centipede, or A Serbian Film. I envy the audiences who stumbled upon Dogtooth totally unprepared without this decade’s worth or word-of-mouth build-up. Even with the warning, the film is surprising from start to end – both because it didn’t live up to the pointless, abject cruelty I had envisioned in my head and because it’s so far removed from recognizable human behavior that it was impossible to predict from scene to scene. More importantly, seeing Dogtooth early would have been helpful as a guiding roadmap to Lanthimos’s disorienting oeuvre. It’s a concise distillation of what the filmmaker has been delivering in each feature since: viciously traumatic hangout comedies. I think I get it now.

Three teenage siblings are raised in a walled-off Greek home, isolated from the world outside. That’s not to say that they’re merely physically imprisoned in their familial compound. They’re also intellectually cut off from the outside world via a radical homeschooling experiment conducted by their irrationally protective parents, one that scrambles their understanding of basic social concepts: the definitions of random vocabulary words, the mysterious nature of airplane technology, the mechanics of sex & romance, the production of entertainment media, etc. This is a plot template we’ve since seen echoed in raised-in-captivity films like Room & Brigsby Bear, but never with the specific, comically cold detachment Lanthimos injects into the material (and all material he touches). Although overflowing with difficult-to-stomach taboos like incestual rape & grotesque body horror, Dogtooth somehow always makes room to chuckle at the understated absurdity of its premise. By constructing such a bizarrely artificial, aggressively arbitrary version of insular familial socializing, it manages to have an indicting laugh at the way all familial bonds are arbitrarily established & enforced. It’s also in no rush to hammer that point home, either. Lanthimos instead forces us to stew in the discomfort, morbidly lingering on the absurd mechanics of the preposterous youth-in-captivity torture he’s envisioned.

If I had caught Dogtooth when it first reached the US in 2010, I might have been able to appreciate it purely as an absurdist portrait of the horrors of homeschooling. In 2020, I can’t help but view it as a primordial version of the director’s ice-cold oddities to follow; it’s most interesting to me in direct conversation with his later work. In either instance, I don’t know that I ever would have had the chance to fully fall in love with it. Excepting The Favourite, I always find Lanthimos’s work to be admirably unique & chilling, but not exactly My Thing. Dogtooth was no different in that respect. It did open me up to a better understanding of the director’s catalog at large, though, a clarifying primer I should have sought out much sooner than I did.

-Brandon Ledet

Uncut Gems (2019)

The Safdie Brothers’ breakout film Good Time was a knockout sucker punch that benefited greatly from its total surprise as a grimy novelty. Robert Pattinson’s starring role as an irredeemable scumbag who systematically burns every social bridge he’s crossed in NYC to achieve petty, self-serving goals was the final severed tether to the actor’s previous life as a vampiric teenage heartthrob. The synth assault soundtrack from Oneohtrix Point Never pinned the audience to the back of our seats like an overachieving Gravitron. It sets out to disgust, rattle, and discomfort for every minute of its small-minded heist plot and it succeeds wholesale. At first it appears that the Safdies’ follow-up, Uncut Gems, aims to repeat that very same experience – bringing back OPN for another oppressive score, revisiting the grimy underbelly of NYC, and swapping out RPatz for another against-type actor who’s far more talented than the roles he’s best remembered for implies. The nature of this particular lead actor’s screen presence changes the texture of the film entirely, though, subtly redirecting the same basic parts of Good Time towards an entirely new purpose.

Adam Sandler stars in Uncut Gems as a diamond jeweler and gambling addict who’s willing to melt down his entire life for the chance of orchestrating the ultimate score. He shuffles borrowed money around from sports bet to sports bet, caters to a wealthy black clientele of rappers and athletes who are lightyears outside his expected social orbit, and obsessively nurtures the sale of an uncut Ethiopian gemstone that appears to have magical, cosmic powers (but isn’t worth nearly as much as he self-appraises it to be). Like RPatz in Good Time, he runs around NYC making petty, self-serving chess moves to seal this ultimate score until everyone in the world is pissed off at him: his wife, his mistress, his bookie, the various mobsters that he owes money, Kevin Garnett, The Weekend, everyone. Unlike RPatz, he responds to this exponentially growing list of enemies by shouting with the same apoplectic rage that defined Sandler’s comedic roles in 90s cult classics like Billy Madison & Happy Gilmore. Whereas Good Time is all clenched jaws & gnawed fingernails from start to finish, Uncut Gems distinguishes itself by being consistently, disturbingly funny – thanks to Sandler’s willingness to redirect his usual schtick towards the grotesque.

While Uncut Gems didn’t have me quite as enraptured or rattled as the surprise blunt force of Good Time did, I’m in awe of how it revises that throat-hold thriller’s template into a darkly comedic farce without losing any of its feel-bad exploitation discomforts. Sandler’s unscrupulous gambler/jeweler shamelessly benefits from the exploitation of diamond miners in far-off foreign countries and employees just under his nose, and the movie never lets him off the hook for these sins. Watching the walls close in on him as he makes crooked deals across town is weirdly, uncomfortably fun, though, if not only through the ludicrous caricature of Sandler’s performance. The Safdies amplify the humor of this grimy feel-bad comedy with throwaway gags about cosmic colonoscopies & bejeweled Furbies and, in a larger sense, by bringing all its disparate elements to a frenetic climax in a classic farcical structure. Still, the responsibility of changing the film’s basic flavor enough to distinguish it from Good Time falls entirely on Sandler’s shoulders. It’s a bet that pays off, as he’s capable enough to make the audience laugh while simultaneously making us feel like shit. Repeating that bet for a third revision of Good Time‘s template would be ill-advised, though. Hopefully, the Safdies will realize it’s time to walk away from the table while they’re still up and find a new angle for their next project.

-Brandon Ledet

Swallow (2019)

In a thematic sense, it’s near impossible to talk about the eerie, darkly humorous thriller Swallow without comparing it to Todd Hanes’s Safe. In both films, wealthy housewives suffer enigmatic health crises that can’t be controlled or even fully defined by their frustrated doctors & families – evoking a kind of existential horror take on the Douglas Sirk melodrama. They also both reach a third act turning point where their respective protagonists break free from their confined, controlled homelives to seek out a community of their own choosing – disrupting the structure of a typical thriller in remarkably similar ways. As similar as its content may be to Haynes’s prior achievement, however, Swallow has no trouble distinguishing itself as a unique work in tone or purpose. Safe is a pure exercise in mood & atmosphere, avoiding any direct answers as to what physical or cosmic affliction is tormenting its unraveling housewife protagonist beyond a vague association with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. By contrast, Swallow is much more willing to function as a straightforward genre film, discussing its themes & central conflict in clear, unflinching terms so that it can fully deal with the sinister consequences onscreen. Its wicked humor, squirmy body horror, and open discussions of financial & gendered power dynamics make for an equally disturbing but much more easily digestible picture – pun heavily intended.

The tormented housewife in question here suffers from a psychological disorder known as pica – which prompts her to compulsively swallow inedible objects of increasing danger & difficulty. Outright rejecting any need for subtlety or restraint (two vastly overrated impulses in modern filmmaking at large), Swallow openly acknowledges that this compulsion is its protagonist’s way of exercising control over her body in a closely monitored, oppressively boring life as a domestic servant for her own wealthy husband. Denied privacy, autonomy, and pleasure in all other aspects of her life, she finds a new, exciting fixation in swallowing increasingly dangerous, seemingly random household objects: marbles, thumb tacks, AA batteries, etc. On the surface, she seems to have won the lottery of life – living in the right house, impregnated by the right husband, curating the perfect nuclear home. The way she’s steamrolled & ignored in daily conversation makes her out to be more of home appliance than a living, breathing person, though, so she invents ways to exert control over her life & stir up internal adventures by swallowing forbidden objects. The financial & patriarchal authority figures in her family & medical community might not fully understand why she puts her life (and by extension her fetus’s life) at risk for such an unproductive thrill, but the audience totally gets it – and the horror comes not only from being unable to stop her, but also from being tempted to cheer her on.

There’s plenty of tonal & stylistic choices that distinguish Swallow as a uniquely satisfying work – especially regarding how it plays with genre. The contrast of the cold, crisp, color-coordinated spaces our thumbtack-swallowing heroine occupies emphasizes her need to break free from her domestic prison in nearly every frame. There’s also a deliciously wicked contrast between the humor & horror of her affliction; you both secretly want to see her get away with sneaking the next sharp object down her throat and squirm in anguish as it scrapes against her teeth or is surgically removed. The real distinguishing factor here, though, is Haley Bennett’s performance in the central role. Both Swallow and Safe essentially function as one-woman shows. Bennett had a daunting task in distinguishing her own performance in that paradigm from the living legend who is Julianne Moore, something she seemingly accomplishes with ease. Appearing like a scared child in June Cleaver housewife drag, Bennett conveys a horrific lack of confidence & self-determination in every gesture. Her fragility & despondence under the control of her wealthy, emotionally abusive family make you want to celebrate her newfound, deeply personal path to fulfillment, even though it very well might kill her. As she snacks on fistfuls of garden soil while watching trash TV instead of obeying her family’s orders all I could think was “Good for her!,” which is about as far from the sentiment of Safe as possible. It’s a less opaque, less thematically subtle work than Haynes’s film, which I honestly believe makes for an improvement on the already satisfying formula. It could not have gotten there without the strength of Haley Bennett’s performance though; the whole enterprise rests on her shoulders and she carries it with an astounding ease.

-Brandon Ledet