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

Cheerleader (2016)

fourstar

One of the more overlooked aspects of the 90s was just how strong its high school comedies were. Titles like Clueless, But I’m a Cheerleader, Bring It On, Election, Jawbreaker, and 10 Things I Hate About You don’t get nearly enough credit for being some of the most playfully subversive and visually meticulous comedies of the past few decades. Every now and then we’ll see an admirable throwback to that era that pretty well captures the vibe: Mean Girls, The To Do List, The DUFF, etc. However, with the new microbudget indie release (& debut feature for writer-director Irving Franco), Cheerleader, we see the 90s high school comedy contorted into an entirely different, newly exciting beast. Cheerleader is a surprisingly dark comedy that repurposes the subversive bubblegum pop of 90s teen movies for a quietly surreal fantasy piece. The film exists in a cartoon reality of its own outside time & logic and uses familiar teen comedy beats to establish a darkly surreal mood and a tender mode of complete emotional devastation. It’s subtly brilliant, quietly intricate, and deserves the mass attention of wide distribution, especially considering the way it evokes an era of currently bankable nostalgia by reimagining instead of merely mimicking.

Helping establish its function as a fantasy piece, Cheerleader deals strictly in archetypes: The Jock, The Burnout, The Gossip Queen, Her Cohorts, etc. Their high school hierarchy is disrupted when the Popular Girl cheerleader sets up a date with the Total Nerd loser in order to make her on again/off again boyfriend, The Jock, jealous. While on the date Mickey discovers that she actually has genuine feelings for the hopelessly awkward Buttons. It’s an unexpected turn that not only throws off her plans to rouse jealousy in both her captain of the basketball team beau & her too old to still be in high school scumbag of a secret lover side fling, but also reveals to her what true desire feels like. While trying to make a big deal out of silly high school mind games Mickey accidentally discovers something that is a Big Deal, but can’t wrap her mind around how to work it into her already set in stone public persona.

Told from Mickey’s perspective, Cheerleader starts with a gentle mocking tone that pokes fun at the way its protagonist gets lost in thoughts like, “It’s nice to look nice or feel good or whatever” and the way she constantly thinks aloud, qualifying each statement with a “I think,” “I feel,” “I guess,” . . . or whatever. As you get to know her, though, her anxiety about being eternally self-aware about her public image & her constant need to feel desired takes on a decidedly tragic air. That’s why it hurts so much that when she actually experiences that genuine attraction from the equally self-conscious & anxious Buttons, she’s not sure what to do and mostly just allows herself to mentally & emotionally detach. The film starts like a lightly satirical comedy, but it morphs into something much darker & more empathetic over time.

One of the more immediately striking aspects of Cheerleader is its intensely meticulous visual palette. This film is 100% Tumblr-ready. Although its temporal setting is never made explicit, its timeline seems to fall somewhere between 1988-1992. Pastel windbreakers, Max Headroom-style screensavers, notebook grid wallpaper, French fries, and scrunchies map out a familiar era of past fashion & graphic design, but serve more to exaggerate an artificial fantasy space than to generate nostalgia. In Cheerleader‘s more lyrical moments the nonsense computer graphics of Buttons’s garage full of bleep bloop machines eat up the entire screen & serve to amplify the ever-intensifying unraveling of Mickey’s internal psyche. For a film so wrapped up in the meaningless machinations of high school relationships between 2D archetypes, it’s incredible how much of Cheerleader‘s visual palette plays like a quietly psychedelic art piece.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up & lost in Cheerleader‘s visual detail: the pink & blue lights, the gold eyeliner, the light-up make-up mirrors. This is an intensely sensual film. The atmospheric loops of its dreamlike score sound like the opening sample to a hip-hop song where the beat never actually drops. There’s a purpose to that sensory disorientation that extends far beyond art for art’s sake surrealism, though. Cheerleader creates an artificial environment and populates it with cookie cutter archetypes, but uses those pieces like players in a stage play to dig into some upsetting revelations about internal & external pressures on the teen psyche.

I’ve seen that same artificiality put to similar use in the best teen comedies of the 90s (Clueless & But I’m a Cheerleader being personal favorites), but nothing about Cheerleader plays like a going through the motions retread. The film quietly & confidently carves out its own loopy, dreamlike space within that genre that plays much more like deliberate subversion than empty nostalgia. It’s a consistently surprising work that at once functions as a satirical comedy, a doomed romance, and a surreal mental health drama without any of those individual parts conflicting with each other, a difficult balance to strike considering its dedication to subtlety & tenderness. I hope it gains more traction as more people get to see it, because I could easily see a (much-deserved) cult following easily forming around it.

-Brandon Ledet

Wiener-Dog (2016)

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threehalfstar

I was more than a little weary about venturing out to see Todd Solondz’s latest pitch black provocation, the ensemble cast “comedy” Wiener-Dog, last weekend. I hadn’t seen a Solondz flick since 2001’s mostly-forgettable anthology piece Storytelling and I’m a lot less cynical than I was in my college days when I would have listed Happiness as one of my all-time favorite films. I was right to worry too, not because Wiener-Dog is necessarily bad or mediocre Solondz, but because it’s very much steeped in the niche he’s carved out for himself as a storyteller. The writer-director works the absurdist cruelty that made him something of an indie scene name in the 90s with titles like Happiness & Welcome to the Dollhouse into the everything-is-connected (and equally hopeless) anthology structure of Storytelling, constructing an amusingly odd & deeply painful existential crisis that is unmistakably his own style & tone. What’s most interesting here, though, is how much of Solondz’s own personality is displayed & dissected onscreen. The director not only stubbornly recommits to the bleak trajectory of his life’s work; he also steps back to question why he would make such pointless, nihilistic art in the first place. Solondz coldly asks the audience what is the point of anything at all, but is smart to include his own art & existence in that query. The answer is far from concrete, but it’s haunting in its abstraction.

In a basic, structural sense Wiener-Dog is a road trip tour through Todd Solondz’s America. Similar to the black comedy Baxter, the film follows its titular dog, a dachshund, as it changes ownership though various tragedies & betrayals, providing a window into the dreary homes & familial structures that typify a nation Solondz finds . . . distasteful. A young cancer survivor (whose visage playfully cribs from the Linklater landmark Boyhood) falls in love with the dog as his first pet; an old woman tenderly cares for it as her last. A vet tech takes the pup on a road trip; a lonely college professor contains it in his tiny office & apartment. Every owner the dachshund encounters is vulnerable & alone in a cruel world eager to punish them for any display of open-hearted earnestness. Together, they form an American patchwork that paints the country as “lonely”, “sad”, “depressing”, “like an elephant drowning in a sea of despair.” Solondz’s America is brimming with strip clubs, alcoholism, superhero movies, hipster irony, mental disability, misogynistic video games, heroin, diarrhea, and a beyond-broken economy. People lie, threaten, and manipulate each other in a never-ending cycle of cruelty and the folks who suffer the most damage from that time-honored American tradition are the ones most capable of empathy & selflessness. The one exception might be Solondz’s surrogate, a frustrated film school professor who can’t overcome his own bitterness, lest you think the director himself wasn’t also complicit in that cycle. It’s dark stuff.

So, where does the innocent wiener-dog fit in all of this? As Danny DeVito’s bitter film professor/Solondz surrogate puts it, “You need a schtick. Everyone loves a little schtick.” If in Solondz’s America the earnest & the eager are the most harshly & frequently punished, a dog is the best possible manifestation of that concept, since all the little pups of the world really want to do is please us & be loved. Watching the wiener-dog ride skateboard or wear a cute costume is a great way to grab an audience’s attention & force them to focus on something uncomfortable, a gimmick Solondz pulls off openly & deliberately. During an old-fashioned intermission our canine talisman is represented as a larger than life, fiercely American tall tale with her own theme song, a moment that reinforces the empty artificiality of filmmaking as an art. After this break, the dog’s ownership changes hands without explanation, moving away from the linear storytelling of the first half & becoming an explicit plot device (quite literally in one particular moment of workplace terrorism, yet another American pastime). Solondz gets bored of his own structural schtick & begins to point his cinematic weaponry back at himself, asking questions like, “Why do you want to be a filmmaker?” and addressing criticisms of his work like, “The general consensus is that you’re too negative.” By the last shot the dog doesn’t matter at all and is reduced to the most meaningless of abstract art piece reflections on the mundanity of existence & mortality. It wags its tail & barks, but that action signifies nothing.

It’s difficult to figure out how to sell Todd Solondz’s films, which tend to occupy an uncomfortable space between comedy & tragedy that’s more likely to make you squirm than laugh or cry (despite what their oddly generic trailers indicate). Wiener-Dog seems to be a self-examination piece on the cruel stage play absurdity & ultimate pointlessness of that art/schtick’s place in this world and, more specifically, its function within a spiritually drained, soulless America. Just as I questioned what significance a modern Solondz work could possibly hold in my life, the director himself seems equally eager to prod at that conundrum in the context of life at large. There are some great performances along the way (DeVito, playwright Tracy Letts, Julie Delpy, Ellen Burnstyn, Kieran Culkin, Greta Gerwig in an all-growed-up Welcome to the Dollhouse role), that might each have served as a worthwhile character study in an indie dramedy had Solondz followed through on any particular full-length narrative, but the director doesn’t seem to think telling these stories from front to end is worthwhile. Exhausted with the soulless journeymen efforts of “What if? Then what?” screenplay writing, he instead reflects on an artform & a nation that he feels have failed us all. You can see that despair plainly in a tender, delicate pan over an endless display of canine diarrhea.  Solondz displays the skills required to deliver a great film were he interested, but the exercise seems increasingly empty to him. Watching him mull over that emptiness and the great, hopeless expanse of the country & mortality that contain it is largely what makes Wiener-Dog fascinating, if not soul-crushingly depressing, which is par for the course in the context of Solondz’s catalog. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that kind of dispirited existential crisis & self-examination sounds at all palatable to your tastes for an evening’s entertainment.

-Brandon Ledet

Swiss Army Man (2016)

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fourstar

The art of the tagline can sometimes outshine even the movie it’s trying to sell. For instance, this summer’s Kevin Hart/Dwayne Johnson buddy cop comedy Central Intelligence boasts the tagline, “Saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson.” That is such a beautifully constructed one-liner that it’s difficult to believe the film it’s selling could possibly ever live up to it. The gallows humor flatulence comedy Swiss Army Man presents a similar conundrum in its two-sentence elevator pitch the director team Daniels employed to convince actor Paul Dano to star in their debut feature: “The first fart will make you laugh. The last fart will make you cry.” There’s an audacious ambition in trying to make an audience cry at a fart that I greatly respect (and, of course, find very amusing). I don’t think Swiss Army Man quite lives up to that promise (the first fart made me laugh and the last fart also made me laugh), but I admire the Daniels for trying to get me to find genuine heart in a dead body’s flatulence. It was a lofty goal.

Paul Dano begins Swiss Army Man as a lonely shipwreck survivor attempting to hang himself in order to escape the horrors of boredom & dehydration. The film takes its gallows humor quite literally as he’s hanging from a noose and is saved from his lonely island nightmare by a farting corpse that washes ashore before him. Daniel Radcliffe plays this gaseous corpse with dead-eyed deadpan, at first silently filling the role of Wilson in this indie pop version of Cast Away, but eventually holding his own against Dano’s troubled protagonist. Dano seemingly continues his unhinged Brian Wilson impression in an alternate universe where his Love & Mercy character makes friends with a flatulent corpse instead of turning into John Cusack. He fights through personal neuroses & sings sweetly to himself as a way to cope with a world he finds cruel & a body (or two) he finds embarrassing. Much of the film’s journey is in learning about Dano’s broken heart protagonist as he bounces his skewed, dysfunctional ideas about the world off of Radcliffe’s lifeless body. The other part of that journey is in learning just what that lifeless body can do. Besides producing violent, body-shaking farts, Radcliffe’s corpse can also start fires, produce water, ride like a jetski, fire like a gun, etc. Although dead, he’s a verifiable Swiss Army man, or as the characters put it in the film, a “multi-purpose tool guy,” one with a magical, boner-driven navigation system that helps Dano find his way home. He also finds the ability to speak, despite being very dead, and because he has no recollection of his life before he was a rotting sack of farts, Dano spends much of the film teaching him how the world works (as filtered through is own hangups & neuroses). More importantly, he teaches his undead buddy about the value of love.

Did I mention that Swiss Army Man is a heartfelt love story? Did I mention that it’s also a road trip buddy comedy? Did I mention that it’s also, improbably, a musical? The director duo Daniels first cut their teeth helming music videos and it shows in their reverence for this film’s Animal Collective-style indie pop soundtrack, which bleeds beautifully into the narrative with a significant sense of thematic purpose. They’re unfortunately a lot less confident on where to take the romantic implications stirring at the movie’s core, a very exciting, unexpected turn that unfortunately peaks early & fizzles out before any meaningful destination is reached in the final act. I don’t want to fault this farting corpse buddy comedy too much for losing track of its emotional core, but it does feel as if the film were flirting with a line of romantic ambiguity it simply didn’t have the nerve to follow through on, which was admittedly disappointing even though I enjoyed the film as a whole. Swiss Army Man is overly ambitious in so many ways. Not least of all, the film tries to answer the question, “What is life?” with a full-hearted sincerity that erratically alternates between optimism & pessimism at the flip of a switch. The undead half of the central duo is essentially a child, curiously admitting, “I have a lot of questions about all the things you just said,” while the neurotic, living half explains his personal philosophy about the way things work through a depressing adherence to societal norms, fear of embarrassment, and the Law of Diminished Returns, a special cocktail that leaves him forever lonely and more than a little bit creepy. It’s possible that Swiss Army Man didn’t follow through on all of its thematic inquiries because it bit off more than it could chew, but there’s certainly no shame in that kind of wide scope ambition.

I don’t think the Daniels’ promise of a climactic fart that could make me cry ever came close to being fulfilled, but Swiss Army Man is mostly successful anyway. There may be an emotionally-distancing dedication to absurdity & artificiality at the film’s core that might’ve prevented me from connecting too closely with its central relationship, similar to the arm’s-length scholarly absurdism of this year’s equally ambitious The Lobster. Swiss Army Man has something The Lobster doesn’t, though, and it mostly takes the form of violent, body-shaking farts. The movie is genuinely fun & free-flowing from front to end, even when it’s fixated on morbid topics like how the human body relieves itself & becomes organic garbage the second it dies. Daniel Radcliffe puts in a solidly entertaining performance as the film’s undead catalyst, somehow finding weird energy in a character who resembles the Frankenstein monster after a hearty dose of heroin. (Speaking of which, after Victor Frankenstein this makes two films in a row where the actor participates in a vaguely homoerotic zombie comedy, right? Weird.) His body is also solidly entertaining as it spits, shoots, ignites, launches and, duh, farts its path through an escalating gauntlet of minute-to-minute obstacles. Paul Dano also holds his own here with a mentally/spiritually broken weirdo archetype he’s become very comfortable portraying and the always-welcome Shane Carruth & Mary Elizabeth Winstead both briefly poke their heads in just to remind you that they’re always getting involved in weird outlier projects and that you love them for it.

The Daniels also toss in a handful of reverent references to Jurassic Park & other Spielbergian fare (the Spielberg-produced Cast Away obviously among them) in a way that hammers home the idea that they love the movies & they’re giddy that they got away with making one about a farting corpse with a magical boner. They also nearly got away with making said farting corpse picture a teary-eyed romantic journey, but fell just short of that distinction. Overall, though, Swiss Army Man is far more memorable for its humor & ambition than its third act narrative shortcomings. I really enjoyed their debut, but I’m convinced the Daniels will have even better films coming down the pipeline once they learn to listen to their hearts the same way they ask the audience to listen to their farts. In the mean time, it just feels good to laugh along the scatological bleakness & divine absurdity they’ve constructed here. It’s okay that both farts made me laugh. I like to laugh.

-Brandon Ledet