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

Super (2010)

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threehalfstar

When recently revisiting James Gunn’s MCU directorial debut for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. feature, I was surprised to find that the film had greatly improved with time & distance. A lot of problems I had with Guardians of the Galaxy felt entirely inconsequential the second time around. Unfortunately, I couldn’t repeat this trick with Gunn’s other superhero movie, 2010’s dark comedy Super. I enjoyed Super well enough the first time I saw it a few years ago, but found it deeply flawed in select moments that often poisoned the film’s brighter spots with a certain kind of tonal cruelty. More specifically, I thought Super‘s lighthearted approach to sexually assault in not one, but three separate gags was a huge Achilles heel in an otherwise enjoyable film. If anything, recently giving Super a second, closer look made this fault even more glaring than it was the first go-round.

In the film a short-order grill cook & lifelong target of bullying (Rainn Wilson) is emotionally wrecked when his exotic dancer wife (Liv Tyler) relapses on her sobriety & leaves him for a ruthless drug-dealing schmuck (Kevin Bacon). In this moment of crisis our pathetic hero finds solace & inspiration in a Christian television show about a pious superhero named The Holy Avenger. Things get out of hand when his religious delusions become full-blown divine visions where the finger of God touches his brain (literally) and convinces him to take justice into his own hands by becoming a real-life superhero. As his newly-minted superego The Crimson Bolt, our hero is no longer on the receiving end of bullying. He’s no longer the kind of pushover who’d make his wife’s new lover fried eggs for breakfast out of timid kindness. He’s now empowered by a homemade costume, an overeager sidekick (Ellen Page), and some nifty catchphrases (“Shut up, crime!”) to fight evil deeds by mercilessly beating people within an inch of their lives with household tools for minor offenses. In his mind The Crimson Bolt is all that’s standing between justice & chaos. From the outside looking in, he’s a man suffering from crippling depression & self hate and is more of a dangerous liability than he is a divine vigilante.

My favorite aspect of Super is the ambiguity of its tone. Is it a pitch black comedy or simply pitch black? When The Crimson Bolt weeps in a mirror & thinks to himself “People look stupid when they cry,” does the humor of that observation outweigh the severity of its emotional turmoil or should you join in on the tears? It’s difficult to tell either way, but part of what makes James Gunn pictures so engaging is in the fearless way they’re willing to explore this compromised tone by going hard on darker impulses that complicate their humor. Sometimes I’m more than willing to laugh at these clashes in tone, like when The Crimson Bolt has a moral dilemma about murdering people for non-violent offenses (like cutting in line or keying cars) that he summarizes as “How am I supposed to tell evil to shut up if I have to shut up?” Other times I’m left much more uncomfortable, especially in the multiple instances of rape “humor” that make light of prison rape, female-on-male rape, and drug-assisted sexual assault. In these moments Gunn’s tonal ambiguity plays much more like a detriment than an asset & any humor meant to be mined from the violence falls flat & unnerving.

It’s possible that the exact discomfort I’m describing is what Gunn was aiming to achieve in Super. The director makes a cameo in the film (in the context of the Holy Avenger television show) as the Devil & it’s possible that’s exactly how he sees himself. He promises to deliver certain genre goods in his films (Kick Ass-style dark comedy in this case), but merely uses them as a vehicle to deliver something much more misanthropic & grotesque. It’s a classic Devil’s bargain. I enjoy so much of what Super grimly delivers & maybe Gunn’s turning that sinful delight against me with this distasteful line of rape humor. Who’s to say? All I can really do is note the discomfort & wish for better.

-Brandon Ledet

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

 

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Paying too close of attention to reviews & hype surrounding a film can sometimes lead you to miss out. Besides its release date coinciding a little too closely to Mardi Gras, I had put catching up with the latest Coen Brothers comedy, Hail, Caesar!, on the backburner due to the film’s somewhat tepid response at the box office. Hail, Caesar! is flopping hard right now, failing to find a significantly sized audience despite the prominence of Big Name movie stars in its advertising & the Coens’ loyal (though not gigantic) fanbase. Many major publication critics are also seemingly lukewarm on the film, often citing it an overstuffed mixed bag. That lack of enthusiasm & no basic knowledge of the film’s plot lead me to the theater with essentially no expectations, but Hail, Caesar! floored me anyway. Honestly, if I don’t see a better movie in the cinema all year I’ll still be perfectly happy. It was that much of a delight. I should have gotten to the theater a hell of a lot sooner.

Hail, Caesar! is firmly in the highly respectable medium of art about the nature of art. More specifically, it’s a movie about the movies. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens have looked back to the Old Hollywood studio system as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. Packed with theological & political debate/diatribes and a sprawling cast of both Big Name movie stars & That Guy character actors, the film sounds like a lot more effort than it actually is. The plot is, in essence, the day in the life of a “fixer” for a major Hollywood film studio in the 1950s. Imagine if Pulp Fiction was centered on Harvey Keitel’s “The Wolf” character instead of the organized crime ring he was keeping steady & his work was in major film production instead of the murder & drug trade (on top of being oddly sweet instead of quietly terrifying). Josh Brolin’s protagonist, Eddie Mannix, provides such an anchor for Hail, Caesar! as a whirlwind of film production snafus swirl around him. Rampant addiction, a kidnapped star, unwanted pregnancy, secret Communist societies, gossip column vultures, and all kinds of trouble on the studio lot’s various sets turn Mannix’s typical workday into a laughable, Kafkaesque nightmare. It’s a testament to the Coens’ screenwriting talents that the film feels so smooth & effortless while Mannix’s webs become increasingly tangled and the general tone is a mix of subtle humor & broad farce instead of plot fatigue.

A lot of movies are effortlessly funny, though. What’s special about Hail, Caesar! is the way it perfectly captures Old Hollywood’s ghost. It reminded me a lot of the feeling of seeing Georges Méliès’s work recreated so vividly in the theater during Scorcese’s Hugo, except that Hail, Caesar! covered a much wider range of genres & filmmakers from a completely different era. Every classic Old Hollywood genre I can think of makes an appearance here: noir, Westerns, musicals, synchronized swimming pictures, Roman & religious epics, tuxedo’d leading man dramas, etc. Audiences sometimes forget that these types of films weren’t always physically degraded so it’s somewhat shocking to see the beautiful costuming & set design achievements of the era recreated & blown up large in such striking clarity at a modern movie theater. Besides the breathtaking visual achievements, it’s impressive how many other aspects of Old Hollywood cinema the film manages to include, both in its “real” setting & in its fake film shoots: close attention to lighting, a briefcase MacGuffin, sets that look like backdrop paintings, the threat that television will destroy the movie business, reclusive editors who act like chain-smoking psychos, talent that’s owned by the studio in what essentially amounts to indentured servitude, a sea of white faces in a world where everyone else has been locked out, etc. Even the smallest turns of phrase like “motion picture teleplay” & character names like George Clooney’s leading man actor Baird Whitlock feel perfectly in tune with the vibe of the era whether or not they’re poking fun at its inherent quaintness.

Speaking of Clooney’s wonderful turn as Baird Whitlock, Hail, Caesar! is at heart an ensemble cast comedy. It’s difficult to pinpoint any exact MVPs among the film’s long list of cameos & supporting players (Brolin undeniably takes the honor overall). Channing Tatum continues his nonstop winning streak here, dressing like a sailor & leading one of the most wholesomely filthy song & dance numbers you’re ever likely to see. Scarlett Johansson looks peacefully at home as a classic Hollywood starlet in a mermaid costume & hilariously disrupts the illusion with a brassy performance that allows her to refer to her flipper as a “fish ass.” Following up his delicately winning performance in Grand Budapest Hotel, Ralph Fiennes continues to prove himself as a stealthily comic force to be reckoned with. Relative unknown Alden Ehrenreich threatens to steal the show with an “Aw, shucks” cowboy routine & the similarly obscure Emily Beecham is a near dead-ringer for The Red Shoes/Peeping Tom star Moira Shearer (and I mean that as the highest praise). And all that’s just scratching the surface of how attractive everyone looks in this film, how effective the smallest of roles come across, and the sheer number of recognizable faces on display here.

So what’s keeping a smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous film like Hail, Caesar! from pulling in ticket sales? Who’s to say? I was a good three or four decades younger than most members of the audience where I watched the film (although it should be noted that most young folks were probably watching Deadpool that weekend), so maybe it’s missing an appeal to key money-making demographics? Maybe the advertising didn’t sell the more gorgeous end of its visuals hard enough, so a lot of folks are calmly waiting for it to reach VOD? I have no answers, really. I will, however, defend the film against the accusation that it’s overstuffed or unfocused. Hail, Caesar! chronicles a day in the life of a world-weary man who operates in an overstuffed, unfocused industry, so the various plotlines could be perceived as overwhelming as you try to make sense of them in retrospect, but on the screen they play with the confident poise of an expert juggler.

Like I said, Hail, Caesar! is not performing well financially & the reviews are mixed so it’s obvious that not everyone’s going to be into it. However, it’s loaded with beautiful tributes to every Old Hollywood genre I can think of and it’s pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly. If you need a litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy the film yourself, Barton Fink might be a good place to start. If you hold Barton Fink in high regard, I encourage you to give Hail, Caesar! a chance. You might even end up falling in love with it just as much as I did & it’ll be well worth the effort to see its beautiful visual work projected on the silver screen either way.

-Brandon Ledet

Entertainment (2015)

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threehalfstar

Neil Hamburger’s comedy isn’t for everyone. Actually, that’s putting it too lightly. Neil Hamburger’s comedy is atrocious, just godawful, completely useless. Anti-comedy is a difficult trick to pull off. When it works, it’s a brilliant form of audience antagonism à la Andy Kaufman & his ilk (I defy anyone to watch Hamburger’s tirade against the Red Hot Chili Peppers without laughing at least once) but when it fails that antagonism feels like an empty exercise. Who could find a capable comedian intentionally telling shitty, unfunny jokes worthwhile if that’s the only thing they ever do? How is that entertainment? Neil Hamburger (aka Gregg Turkington) asks that question of himself in the pitch black comedy-drama Entertainment.

Entertainment follows a fictionalized version of Hamburger (billed here simply as “The Comedian”) on a stand-up comedy tour through the desolate American West. His opening act is an old-timey clown/mime (played by the immensely talented youngster Tye Sheridan). His venues are a depressing parade of prison cafeterias, hotel conference rooms, and dive bar stages. Bombing is essential to his act, which is true of the real-life Hamburger as well, but the movie takes it to a whole new low. Actual jokes from Hamburger’s routine are repeated verbatim in Entertainment, but any semblance of humor that can be found from in his work has been removed wholesale. All that is left is the antagonism. As “The Comedian” cracks monstrous jokes about rape, makes fart noises, and repeatedly pleads “Why? Why? Why?” in a piercing, nasal whine it makes all too much sense why no one in the audience is laughing. When he becomes savagely combative with them for not rewarding his efforts, you have absolutely no sympathy.

Just as director Rick Alverson disassembled Tim Heidecker’s brand of hipster anti-humor in The Comedy to make it into something unforgivably ugly & self-absorbed, he more or less repeats the trick for Neil Hamburger’s shtick here. Entertainment is about depression, addiction, and the uselessness of pursuing art for the sake of pursuing art, but it paints such an ugly portrait of the artist in question that there’s no sympathy to go around for his existential crisis (and intentionally so). You’re prompted to think “You should be depressed. Maybe you should quit comedy. Maybe life itself isn’t worth the effort for you.” There’s an excess of eerie imagery & spacial pacing in Entertainment that reaches for a Lynchian aesthetic I’m not sure that Alverson fully commands, so overall The Comedy endures as a much more confident, successful example of the anti-comedy-is-useless-cruelty genre the director is carving out for himself. Still, Entertainment stands as a brave act of self-reflection for Hamburger/Turkington & a pitch black drama/dark comedy for the art house crowd at large.

-Brandon Ledet

 

The Hateful Eight (2015)

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fourstar

One of the first things that will always come to mind with Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, is the William Castle-esque pageantry of its release. Framed as an Old Hollywood-style Road Show, the film was released one week earlier than its digital-version wide release date as a 70mm film print (a strip twice as large as was standard when film prints were standard) complete with an overture, intermission, and a full-color playbill. The Hateful Eight Road Show was a three hour long experience. Purchasing tickets more than a week ahead of time I got the distinct feeling of when you’re anticipating a band you love coming to town instead of a film. To tell the truth, though, the Road Show wasn’t as flashy or as exciting as you would expect, not even as over-the-top as the Grindhouse gimmick attached to Tarantino’s Death Proof release. The overture & intermission were blank spaces accompanied by music. The “extra footage” was, presumably, a collection of extended exterior & detail shots that helped establish mood. Watching the movie unfold on projected film was a nice touch for an homage to old-fashioned Westerns, but it’s a detail that could be forgotten once you’re immersed in its story. The best part of the Road Show was not how it punched the film up & made it more exciting, but how it slowed the proceeding down & let it breathe.

At one point in The Hateful Eight, Samuel L. Jackson’s balding, ex-military bounty hunter says, “Not so fast. Let’s slow it down. Let’s slow it way down.” That seems to be the film’s M.O. in general. Tarantino is, of course, known to luxuriate in his own dialogue, but there is something particularly bare bones & talkative about The Hateful Eight. It’d say it’s his most patient & relaxed work yet, one that uses the Western format as a springboard for relying on limited locations & old-fashioned storytelling to propel the plot toward a blood-soaked finale. Depicting a (jokingly) self-described Bounty Hunter’s Picnic, the film follows the transport of a dangerous criminal (played by an especially feral Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the company of eight potentially dangerous men who are all snowed-in in in a small Wyoming cabin during a blizzard. Among them are Kurt Russell’s weathered bounty hunter, desperate to see her hang; Sam Jackson’s similarly-minded bounty hunter with his own payday to protect; Bruce Dern’s cantankerous Southern Rebel general who refuses to let go of the Civil War; Tim Roth’s “jolly good” rapscallion of a Brit; and the list goes on. As the plot unfolds it becomes apparent that one or more of the strange men are determined to set the prisoner free by leaving behind a trail of dead, which makes for a Western version of a mystery film like Clue or John Carpenter’s The Thing. Tarantino’s no stranger to genre mashups or liberal borrowing, but there’s a relaxed, unrushed pacing that started to emerge in his films sometime around Inglourious Basterds that’s getting its full due in The Hateful Eight.

Watching Tarantino’s films with the general public is always a little nerve-racking for me. The mashup of comedy & violence in his work builds a lot of nervous tension that leads to much-needed laughs, but I find a lot of audiences will laugh at disturbing moments designed to leave you more in abject horror instead of knee-slapping amusement. The Hateful Eight provides a wealth of opportunities for this discomfort. The audience around me laughed during shots of Jennifer Jason Leigh being beaten half to death by the men in charge of her transport. I found that more horrifying than amusing (despite her playing a cruel, heartless character herself), but Leigh’s immediate response to of spitting, shooting snot rockets, and licking up blood with a smirk were all very funny to me in a Jerri Blank kind of way and fell onto a silent room. Similarly, the copious amount of utterances of the word “nigger” in a post-Civil War America setting & an extended fireside tale of a rape & murder left me chilled to the rest of the room’s bizarre reactions. At least we could all agree on the excellent physical comedy gag of a door that wouldn’t stay latched? Tarantino knows exactly what he’s doing with this tension, something he plays up with decisions like ending the rape tale with a silent intermission or having characters puke blood in a grotesque practical effects display that alternates from funny to horrifying to funny to you get the picture.

So many details complicate the background & history of The Hateful Eight that it’s difficult to separate them from the film proper. The film’s screenplay was leaked online prior to production, so an infuriated Tarantino cancelled the film outright, then doubled back & staged a table reading before deciding to actually begin filming due to an overwhelmingly positive response. I mention this backstory because it bleeds into the film not only in its dialogue-heavy vibe, but also in the way Tarantino himself acts as a narrator, reading stage directions aloud during the film. The Thing vibes are inescapable in its snowed-in, no-one-can-be-trusted plot structure, but are also backed up & complicated by unused segments of Ennico Morricone’s score for John Carpenter’s The Thing. Then there’s the experience of the Road Show & the 70mm print, two features I cannot separate from the movie as a finished product. I also found myself thinking of its “Spend the holidays with someone you hate” tagline in the trailers, especially in Michael Madsen’s cowboy’s interrupted plans to spend Christmas with his mother & in a particularly uncomfortable rendition of “Silent Night”. It’s difficult to know when you’re enjoying The Hateful Eight or when you’re enjoying the experience & the lore of watching The Hateful Eight. It’s a confusingly engaging film in that way.

There are a few things that are remarkably clear about The Hateful Eight to me right now, though. It is an incredibly violent, misanthropic, lushly-photographed tale of a collection of vile ruffians murdering each other in such a flippant, nonchalant way that it leaves you with both nervous laughter and total disgust. In that way it’s classic Tarantino, so mileage may vary depending on how you already feel about his work. In this case, though, the pacing is slowed way down to allow the violence & the nervousness to soak in even deeper than before, leaving you with a particularly nasty, hateful feeling at the end credits.

-Brandon Ledet

People, Places, Things (2015)

threehalfstar

With a little tweaking People, Places, Things could easily pass as the third Noah Baumbach black comedy of the year (following Mistress America & While We’re Young). The film’s mix of understated indie quirk with pitch-black dialogue like “Happiness is not a sustainable condition,” & “I’m fine. I’m just having a bad life. It’ll be over eventually,” fits right in with the typical Bambauchian formula. This doesn’t feel like a direct, intentional nod to the director’s work, however. It’s rather a side-effect of attempting to adopt the often dark humor & lightheartedly sullen tone of modern art comics & graphic novels. Featuring original artwork from comic book artist Gray Williams, People, Places, Things uses the comic book medium as a form of inner monologue to tell the story of the protagonist’s emotional state as his external, romantic life crumbles at his feet. Fans of Fantagraphics-leaning artists like Daniel Clowes & Charles Burns will probably get a lot of satisfaction from that storytelling device. The rest of the film’s entertainment value is largely dependent upon your interest in dark humor, romantic comedy, and Flight of the Conchords vet Jemaine Clement.

Clement plays the film’s protagonist, Will Henry, a super-bummed graphic novelist/art school professor having a toned-down sort of mid-life crisis. After catching his longtime girlfriend cheating during their twin daughters’ 5th birthday party, he spends a full year in a state of depression-laden stasis before reluctantly re-entering the dating game. After a tense first date with a surprisingly age-appropriate literary professor that had the two passionately arguing over the supposed merits of graphic novels as a legitimate form of literature, he finds himself torn between a new love interest who finds him snobbish & the leftover fragments of his love for the mother of his children. It’s a classic tale of arrested emotional development. Honestly, because Henry is in such a reflective state of depression & self-loathing, he comes across as the only properly-developed character in the film. As a result, none of People, Places, Things’ romantic detangling hits quite as hard as Clement’s portrayal of a broken man, which works perfectly in tandem with Gray William’s sullen comic book art. There’s obviously a great deal of humor in Clement’s performance, especially in the way he interacts with his daughters (for instance, on their 6th birthday he tells them, “It feels like just yesterday you were 5,”) & in the way he allows his lectures to devolve into topics like “Why Does Life Suck So Hard?”. Humor comes naturally for Clement, though, so it’s much more of a treat to see him showing off his dramatic chops here. The movie asks him to carry a hefty load of emotional weight & he seems to pull it off effortlessly.

As enjoyable as People, Places, Things is as an understated black comedy, it doesn’t break the mold in any significant way. It’s not even the best dark comedy about a comic book artist in a state of emotional crisis to be released this year. That distinction belongs to The Diary of a Teenage Girl. As with all of Jemaine Clement’s work, though, it is an exceedingly charming film in a way that feels natural & unforced. The movie even works in some Understanding Comics-type lectures on basic comic book concepts like the function of “the gap between the panels” without compromising its tone. I also liked that as fervently as the movie defends comics as an artform, it doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at the fine art of improv comedy in a dismissive way. Besides Clement’s exceptional performance as the lead, the best trick People, Places, Things pulls off is in exploring comic books as a form of storytelling while simultaneously adapting its techniques to the medium of film. It works surprisingly well & feels remarkably genuine, which is an important attribute for this Bambauchian sort of depressive indie comedy quirk. It’s not something you need to rush out to see, but it is currently, conveniently streaming on Netflix for whenever you’re in the mood for what it’s laying down.

-Brandon Ledet