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, though, 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

The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

Riley Stearns’s debut feature Faults was a sinister dark comedy about a huckster deprogrammer facing off against a small, mysterious cult that proved to be too much for his limited skills & outsized hubris. Stearns’s follow-up, The Art of Self-Defense, takes on a much bigger, more widespread cult that often proves too much of an insurmountable burden for us all: toxic masculinity. Jesse Eisenberg stars as what MRA types would describe as a Beta Cuck – an unimposing milquetoast wimp who struggles to assert himself both at work and in his private life. When the poor runt is assaulted in a random act of violence by a gang of macho bullies, he commits full-on to the “self-defense” doctrine of a local strip-mall karate dojo with a newfound religious zeal. The dojo proves to be toxic masculinity in a cult-sized microcosm – incrementally indoctrinating our squirmy protagonist further into the hellish depths of Alpha Male bravado. It’s basically the masc counterbalance to last year’s militarized-feminism satire The Misandrists, except that the humor here is much drier than that film’s penchant for over-the-top camp.

It’s easy to reduce the themes of The Art of Self-Defense to “Toxic masculinity is a cult,” because the film itself speaks only in dry, matter-of-fact statements that leave little room for subtext. Everything is labeled clearly, almost to the level of Sorry To Bother You-style surrealism. Businesses have names like The New Restaurant in Town. When Eisenberg is jumped he’s out buying a brown paper bag labeled “DOG FOOD” in bold block letters. When the mugging is reported on news radio he’s announced as “A 35-Year-Old Dog Owner.” There’s a twinge of Napoleon Dynamite quirk humor to this stilted, deliberately underwritten dialogue, but more importantly it allows the film to make fun of the arbitrary distinctions of traditional masculinity by allowing them to be spelled out plainly without embellishment. Rules about what names, countries, music genres, ways of sitting, and word choices are socially coded as being more masculine or feminine are framed as heightened absurdism here merely by being voiced in plain terms, making for a peculiarly understated version of satire. The movie also gets into the allure of the Alpha Male, incel, MRA mentality for insecure, unconfident men as well. Eisenberg explains, “I’m afraid of other men. They intimidate me. I want to be what intimidates me.” You’re not likely to get a more concise explanation of what attracts young men to the real-life cult of toxic masculinity than that, and explaining everything in expressionless, matter-of-fact terms was the most effective way to get there.

One of the more rewarding aspects of Faults was the tension of its central mystery, which keeps the audience guessing throughout on whether its fictional cult is actually tapping into a sinister supernatural power or is just a brainwashing hoax. Stearns drops that tension here, instead telegraphing the answers to all potential mysteries and possible outcomes long before they arrive. I don’t know if that choice makes for a better movie exactly, but it does free him up to make fun of MRA rhetoric early & often. The hierarchal goings-on of the strip-mall karate dojo were never going to be as rewarding as the satirical lens that frames Maxim Magazine as an extremist propaganda rag, manspreading as a saintly virtue, and being nice to your pet dog as feminine “coddling.” That being said, I can’t guarantee this absurdly dry, expressionless humor will land especially well with every crowd. I was the only person in the audience laughing at my (almost exclusively elderly) weekday screening, which is a shame, since we should all be able to take a step back and laugh at the absurdity of systemically enforced gender traits. It’s absolutely fucking ridiculous, but we rarely consider that perspective in our daily lives because we’re fully submerged in it.

I’d also like to point out how cool it was to hear a song from local metal heroes Thou in a professional feature film, even if their genre was lumped in with the absurdist list of macho gender signifiers.

-Brandon Ledet

P.S. I Love You (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Come to Daddy (2019)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

I Am Not a Witch (2018)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Masques (1987)

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

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

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

-Britnee Lombas