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)

 

fivestar

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

99 Homes (2015)

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fourstar

You’d be forgiven for assuming that an indie drama about forcible evictions during the 2007-2009 U.S. Subprime Morgage Crisis would be a thoroughly bleak affair. And even if you didn’t assume that about 99 Homes, the film sets its pessimistic tone early by opening with the fallout of a suicide. There is a wild card at play here, however, and its name is Michael Shannon. Shannon is notoriously deft at playing hilariously terrifying monsters & his turn as a money-obsessed real estate broker in 99 Homes is certainly not relatable or even remotely likeable, but it is, at times, riotously funny. Shannon is such a darkly amusing joy to watch in 99 Homes that his performance often threatens to turn the film into a black comedy. It’s whenever he’s offscreen, leaving Andrew Garfield’s much-suffering construction worker & single father to pick up the pieces of a broken life left in the evil broker’s wake, that Shannon’s antagonist stops being darkly amusing & just simply feels dark.

The story of 99 Homes is fairly straightforward. Michael Shannon’s real estate broker makes most of his money by evicting people from their homes on behalf of the bank. When Shannon’s monster broker evicts Andrew Garfield’s out-of-work construction dad from his family home, Garfield’s desperate blue collar everyman ends up working for the less-than-legal brute. He works his way up from literally shovelling shit to making ludicrous piles of cash as the evil broker’s right hand man. This, of course, leads to Garfield’s sad dad performing the very same heartless eviction practices that ruined his life in the first place & hiding his newfound source of income from his suspicious mother, played by the always-welcome Laura Dern. There’s a devastating amount of empathetic pain in Garfield’s eyes as he explains to people that their homes are now owned by the bank & that they are trespassing on bank property that makes the film at times bleakly arresting. For the most part, though, there aren’t too many surprises in the film’s indie drama formula & it plays out exactly as you’d expect.

It really is Michael Shannon’s performance that makes 99 Homes a memorably visceral experience. Although there is a unignorable consistency to his work as an actor, Shannon brings a terrifying authenticity to the role, something that truly makes you feel bad for laughing, seeing as how this was a real thing that happened to real people very recently. Shannon’s heartless real estate broker is a pitch perfect update to the wicked bankers with the cigar-chomping switched out for e-cigs. (Our next generation of irredeemable villains are vapers. There’s no way around that.) Cop’s call Shannon’s evil broker “boss”. He golfs with politicians in one scene & makes backroom deals to rip off the government with higher-ups at the bank in the next. He brags about how he “made more money during the crash than before” & talks cynically about America as “a nation of the winners by the winners for the winners.” I also particularly liked a moment where he describes houses as boxes that you shouldn’t get emotional about. Instead of saying what matters is what you fill the boxes with, he says it matters how many boxes you have, which is a perfectly succinct summation of his monstrously greedy soul. As with a lot of Shannon’s work, the real estate broker at the center of 99 Homes‘ true-to-life nightmare is deliciously over-the-top in his villainy. Andrew Garfield & Laura Dern are talented actors who hold their own when needed, but Shannon devours so much scenery that there isn’t much left room for them left to stand on. He’s a sight to behold.

-Brandon Ledet

Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! (1967)

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fourstar

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If Russ Meyer’s first venture in in-color soap operas, Common Law Cabin, was a moderately enjoyable sampling of what the director had to offer as a horndog auteur & a misanthrope, his follow up Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! cranked up the heat to an almost insufferable degree, making for a much more memorable picture in its sex-crazed emotional sadism. A lot of what made Common Law Cabin a decent watch was its hateful battle of the sexes vibe. The dialogue had the abrasive quality of a longterm couple breaking up at an impossibly late, drunken hour, unloading all of their aggression onto each other in one last attempt to elicit hurt feelings. Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! twists the knife even further, improbably featuring some of Meyer’s most sadistic, anti-romantic exchanges to date. Although screenwriter Jack Moran had penned the early Meyer classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, it’s tempting to claim that Good Morning was actually the height of his work with the tirelessly perverted, curmudgeony Meyer. Faster, Pussycat! survived largely on the backs of its over the top performances from the likes of Tura Satana & Haji. Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!, on the other hand, excels on the spiteful, misanthropic dialogue Moran brought to the screen. It’s terrifyingly bleak stuff. It’s also darkly hilarious.

Of course, Good Morning begins with some true-to-Meyer form, besides-the point narration. The narrator asks the audience,“How would you define nymphomania?” Unwilling to settle for that simple question, he goes on to ask for the definitions of a long list of terms that include “irregular union”, “deflower”, “voyeurism”, “strumpet”, “hedonism”, “promiscuity”, “ribaldry” and so on. Although the narrator goes on to promise the definitions of these terms in the film to follow, along with an exploration of the “deepest complexities of modern life as applied to love & marriage in these United States”, this is all, of course, gobbledygook, as should be made apparent by the image of a naked woman galloping through an open field that accompanies the rambling. It isn’t until the narrator begins introducing the film’s central characters that a clear picture of what’s to come takes shape. He promises the story of “eleven losers in a game all of us play” coming together “like a beef stew, a casserole” (I’m guessing sex is the “beef” in that metaphor), a bit of preemptive plot summarizing that feels more like a trailer than an actual beginning to a movie. The go-go dancing, screwing, fistfights, cars, and skinny dipping that make up this would-be trailer are where Russ Meyer’s America starts to feel familiar & grace the screen. This is solidified by the time the narrator introduces Angel, a woman who serves as a “monument to unholy carnality & a cesspool of marital polution prepared to humiliate, provoke, and tantalize.” He also describes her as a “lush cushion of evil perched on the throne of immorality.” Meyer may not have an entirely favorable view of women (to say the least), but he does make them feel extremely powerful in their supposed wickedness.

The best part about this introduction to Angel’s vicious femininity is that she somehow lives up to the hype. Played by Alaina Capri, who filled a very similar role of a sex-crazed sadist in Common Law Cabin, Angel is an adulteress housewife who hates her husband’s guts because of his erectile dysfunction. She expresses this hatred as soon as the film’s first proper scene, a callback to the sexual failings that started the tragic adultery tale Lorna. After her husband Burt fails to get it up, Angel practically spits this insult in his face:“You’re a turd, Burt.” She goes on to say, “You’re the worst in town. Thank God I know somebody in the country.” When Burt complains about her infidelity, she shoots back, “My life is such a blank. I gotta fill it with something.” To his credit, Burt has some nasty, hate-filled things of his own to say. When Angel twists the knife with the line, “I lead you to it, spread it all out, ready & waiting and suddenly you got no appetite,” Burt retorts, “Well I don’t enjoy a picnic that cockroaches have beaten me to.” Yikes. This conversation is Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! in a darkly bitter nutshell. It’s funny stuff, but goddamn is it ever ugly. Burt is played in the film by Stuart Lancaster, who filled the role of the maniacal, train-hating, crippled paterfamilias in Faster, Pussycat!. By combining Lancaster’s natural ease with bitterness & Capri’s knack for cold, cuckolding provocations, Meyer created a powder keg of seething hatred. It’s a sight to behold.

Besides the film’s acerbic dialogue, there’s plenty of other ridiculousness to enjoy. Most notably, Faster, Pussycat! star Haji returns to the Meyer fold here to play some sort of natural, feral witch that meows like a cat & ostensibly cures Burt’s medical condition through vaguely defined sex magic. It’s ridiculous. There’s also a continuation of the swanky Gidget music of Common Law Cabin that brings some ill-deserved levity to what’s mostly a morbid, hateful affair and the would-be passion of the film’s big love-making scene is interrupted by absurd circumstances – a farmer’s report on the radio & the intrusion of Burt’s drunken teenage daughter. The film also sees the return of a new visual trick Meyer started with Common Law Cabin, displaying the opening credits on physical objects (this time they’re painted on mailboxes), as well as the return of nudity in Meyer’s dramatic work for the first time since the black & white “roughies” Lorna & Mudhoney got him in a heap of not-worth-it legal trouble.

These points of interest aside, it really is Jack Moran’s dark, hateful, anti-romance dialogue that makes Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! such a memorable piece of work. It would be Moran’s fifth & unfortunately final script for Russ Meyer, including the films Erotica, Wild Gals of the Naked West, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and, of course, Common Law Cabin. Besides Meyer’s eventual, unholy union with Roger Ebert, Moran proved to be the best writer the director ever partnered with, especially if you focus your attention on those last three credits. In appreciation of Moran’s contribution to the Meyer aesthetic and just because it’s hilariously inane, I’m going to close this review with his final words on a Russ Meyer project, the closing passage of Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!

“That’s keeping one’s family together the hard way. Yet while history has proven that might does not always make right and possession is 9/10ths of the law, more often than not what’s worth owning is worth fighting for, whether it be life, love, and the pursuit of happiness, Mom’s apple pie, or even something as basic as sex. And don’t go knocking it. That three letter word makes a mockery of the four letter ones that try to cheapen it. It’s a wonderful game for people of all ages. And even for losers it’s worth a try. That’s Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!.

-Brandon Ledet

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

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fourhalfstar

There was something about the laughter in the audience I saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl with that really freaked me out. Yes, the movie is funny, but it’s funny in an uncomfortable way that recalls difficult works from Todd Solondz like Welcome to the Dollhouse & Happiness moreso than any laugh-a-minute yuck ’em ups. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a rare picture that manages to incorporate effective black comedy into its beautiful visual artistry & the brutal, unmitigated honesty suggested by its confessional title. Adapted from a graphic novel by the same name, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the story of a vulnerably naive 15 year old comic book artist who gets wrapped up in a sexual affair with her mother’s much older boyfriend in 1970s San Francisco. It’s a difficult film to stomach at times, but it’s one told with an intense attention to verisimilitude & vivid incorporations of top notch comic book art, all held together by a career-making performance from Bel Powley, who plays the exceedingly endearing, but deeply troubled protagonist Millie. I’m willing to chalk up a good bit of the laughter from the theater where I watched the film to discomfort with the subject matter, something I’m more than sure was intended by first-time writer/director Marielle Heller, but I often found my own reactions to what was happening onscreen to be far more complicated than mere ribald laughs. It almost felt transgressive to watch the movie with a large group of vocal strangers, as if I were actually hearing the private diary of a complete stranger being read aloud in public. It’s a starkly intimate work.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl opens with a leering shot of Millie’s denim-clad butt as she struts through a public park populated with 70s San Fransiscan hippies, weirdos, bellbottoms, and mustaches. Amidst this time warp fashion show, Millie proudly declares, “I had sex today. Holy shit.” We soon learn that her newfound sexual exploration isn’t quite as positive of a development as she believes. Not knowing the full extent of what she was getting herself into (how could she?), Millie intentionally seduces her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), initiating a longterm affair that eventually drives some irrevocable wedges between her & her mother (Kristen Wiig). Her reasoning for acting out on her lust for Monroe? “I was afraid to pass up the chance because I may never get another.” Millie is full of these self-deprecating, sadly funny “truisms”. After sleeping with Monroe, she asks “Is this the way it feels for someone to love you?” She later yearns, “I want someone to be so in love with me that they would feel like they would die if I were gone,” and makes ridiculous declarations like “I want to be an artist so school actually doesn’t matter that much for me,” & “Hookers have all the power. Everybody knows that.” Her naiveté can be amusing when she gets teen-deep in her sexual philosophizing, but it also indicates a terrifying vulnerability that Monroe was a monster to take advantage of.

While Millie pines over Monroe in a typical “he loves me, he loves me not” fashion, he treats her more like a younger sister, incorporating an uncomfortable amount of childish horseplay in their flirtation. She’s a shameful fling in Monroe’s mind. She’s also, according to him at least, completely to blame for the affair. The movie does little to sugarcoat the realities of its mid-70s setting, establishing a very specific cultural mindset with references to the Patty Hearst kidnapping controversy (which Wiig’s flower child mother refers to as fascist misogynistic bullshit”), the rise of sexually androgynous milestones like Iggy Pop & The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the omnipresence of Fruedian psychology (represented onscreen by Christopher Meloni), depictions of teens freely ordering drinks in barrooms, the drugged out loopiness of H.R. Pufnstuf, and era-honest inclusions of casual racism & homophobia. It’s tempting to say that an affair with a 15 year old in that context would not have been as big of a deal as it is now, it being “different times” & all, but c’mon . . . Monroe feels intense guilt for the affair, because he knows it is wrong. Still, he blames Millie for his own transgression, as does every other person who learns of the affair (another indication of the times). When Monroe becomes increasingly frustrated with Millie’s adolescent behavior, he explodes “You’re a fucking child!” Well, he’s not wrong there, which is a large part of why he should’ve known better & why he’s so much at war with his own conscious.

To her credit, Millie is often blissfully unaware of just how detrimental her affair with Monroe actually is. Convinced that Monroe is only continuing to sleep with her mother to avoid suspicion, Millie mostly worries about whether or not he loves her back, not how much longterm damage he’s causing her psyche. In a lot of ways, Monroe is just one part of Millie’s coming of age story, which also involves experimentation with ditching class, hard drug use, bisexuality, self body image, skinny-dipping, prostitution, running away from home, and attempts to connect with her favorite comic book artist, Aline Kominsky (a real life talent & real life wife of Robert Crumb). Stuck halfway between an older man who can’t keep up with her overactive libido & her teen sexual partners who aren’t nearly as good in bed (not to mention often freaked out by her pursuit of her own orgasms), Millie is alone in a crowd. She both makes intentionally provocative statements like “I hate men, but I fuck them hard, hard, hard, and thoughtlessly because I hate them so much,” & hypocritically shames friends who are struggling with the same pursuits of sexual & personal autonomy.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl pulls no emotional punches as Millie perilously navigates these deeply troubled waters, often lightening the mood both with its protagonist’s endearing sense of humor & teen-specific lack of self-awareness, but never letting its characters off the hook for their often-cruel transgressions. All of this heft is backed up by a vivid visual collage format that allows ink drawings to come to life, wallpaper to transform into a jungle, and a bathtub to suddenly expand to an ocean, making great use of that concession without it ever outwearing its welcome. What results is an incredibly adept debut feature for Marielle Heller & an remarkable display of range for actress Bel Powley. I’m just as excited to see where their careers are headed in the future as I am to revisit this film as soon as I can get my hands on the novel (and experience it with a more intimate, on-my-wavelength audience).

-Brandon Ledet

Mistress America (2015)

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fourstar

Noah Baumbach is extremely adept at making me feel like shit. While from the outside his signature films The Squid & The Whale, Margot at the Wedding, etc. may look like the kind of cutesy indie dramas that often earn the quaint moniker “Sundance darlings”, they actually pack much more of a devastating emotional punch than you’d first expect. Baumbach’s parade of broken, often vile characters truly get under my skin, mostly because they’re so real & so relatable. What’s even worse is they have the nerve to make me laugh at the same time, despite myself. Even if I don’t personally identify with the moral reprobates Baumbach brings to the big screen, I can at least recognize their traits in real life people that stalk this cursed Earth, often people I love or at least find amusing. For instance, the deeply unpleasant film Greenberg hosts a lead performance from Ben Stiller so heartlessly misanthropic & cruelly self-centered that I left the film shaking so thoroughly with anger that I couldn’t help feeling as if part of my discomfort was that I recognized aspects of his destructive behavior in people I know intimately or, shudder to think, myself at my worst. It was so tempting to reduce my reaction to Greenberg to “Fuck that movie!” but at the same time it was near impossible to ignore that it had struck a chord, unpleasant or not. In a lot of ways, Baumbach’s latest film Mistress America is the spiritual opposite of Greenberg, yet both films somehow strike that dark, too-close-to-home chord of discomfort.

Mistress America, which Baumbach co-wrote with actress Greta Gerwig (who portrays the titular human anomaly Brooke), strikes a funny, but acidly damning portrait of Millennial pretentiousness. Brooke is anything & nothing simultaneously. She’s a creative spirit with no follow-through to finish any of the many projects she conceives. She drifts in & out of people’s lives without ever emotionally engaging with them in any specific way, leaving behind a trail of destruction that she is far too self-absorbed to even notice. She constantly rags on “rich people”, but obviously coasts on a certain level of privilege she won’t acknowledge. Brooke tries to be everything to everyone, even going as far as adopting different costumes (sometimes on an hourly schedule) depending on the task at hand: pencil skirts for business meetings, workout gear for the health nut part of her day, non-prescription glasses & sweaters for tutoring sessions, etc. While tutoring a math student she’s shown describing the nature of “x” as a variable that “can’t be nailed down”, which is very much on the nose. However, when she later describes herself as “kind & fearless”, she’s completely off the mark. Brooke may think she knows every last thing about how the world works, but the truth is she doesn’t even know the first thing about herself.

At the same time, though, her boundless energy & roaring self-confidence can be intoxicating, especially to a young admirer. Brooke’s soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (played by Lola Kirke) is mildly critical of, but completely starstruck by Brooke, who is, by all means, an impossible person (the kind that lives in Times Square & spontaneously gets invited onstage at concerts). Alone on a college campus in New York City, Tracy is an emotionally vulnerable freshmen who is looking for a sense of self-purpose & personal identity. Tracy yearns to be a pretentious literary type, but just doesn’t have the heart for it. In Brooke she sees the unbridled moxie she wishes she possessed herself. As she fawns over & begins to imitate Brooke, the film gets similarly excited, picking up speed in a delirious manner & getting drunk on self-awarded power. However, Brooke’s modern day Holly Golightly lifestyle is not nearly as glamorous as it may seem on the surface & Tracy quickly discovers that her hero is a broken, selfish narcissist not so gracefully transitioning from the twilight of her frivolous 20s into a much less flattering frivolous adulthood.

In a lot of ways Brooke is more of a collection of empty platitudes & thinly veiled attempts to be quotable than a real person. While casually posing for a friend’s Instagram photo she asks, “Must we document ourselves all the time? Must we?!” When Tracy explains she wants to be a stort story writer, Brooke responds “I read that TV shows are the new novel.” Other self-generated clichés include “You can’t really know what it is to want until you are at least 30,” & “There’s no adultery when you’re 18. You should all be touching each other all the time.” She’s also prone to introducing herself to new friends with the account that “I watched my mother die […] Everyone I love dies,” a personal catchphrase that feels all the more disquieting because she sounds like she doesn’t mean one word of it. It’s no wonder that Brooke is so proficient at Twitter fame, schmoozing businessmen, and coaching a spin class. Her vapid phrasings can be downright inspirational at times . . . as long as you don’t pay attention to what she’s actually saying.

It’s possible that not everyone will engage with Brooke in the same adversary way that I did. Like Tracy (who Brooke deems “Baby Tracy”) it’s feasible that some audiences could fall for her surface charms. It seems like no mistake to me, though, that the more Tracy imitates Brooke, the less unique & likable she becomes as a protagonist. In a lot of ways her newfound confidence turns her into an insufferable jerk & a bully. Also amplifying this feeling is the vibrant 80s synth soundtrack, which always feels like it’s building to a significant breakthrough moment that it never actually reaches. In so many ways, this echoes Brooke’s entire, vapid existence. She thinks that she’s the star of the show (and life is certainly nothing if not a staged production in her case), but she’s actually the butt of its cruel joke.

Mistress America pulls an incredible trick of not only exposing that fragile emptiness behind Brooke’s Everything Is Perfect & So Am I façade, but also making you feel sort of bad for her when the illusion crumbles. Like Tracy, we want to believe that someone so free & so in tune with The Ways of the Universe could actually exist, but by the end of the film you’re left with the feeling that the very idea of someone living that impossible lie on a daily basis is not only far from admirable, it’s also deeply sad. Brooke is the kind of person you’d love to talk to at a party & someone you could have a general sense of concern about, but not a presence you’d want to connect with on any intimate level. She’s far too fleeting & brutally egotistical for that & Mistress America has an emotional bodycount to prove it. Like with a lot of Baumbach’s work, it’s the kind of film that makes you feel truly awful for laughing, a conflicting sensation I personally enjoy very much.

-Brandon Ledet

Faults (2015)

fourstar

There’s a dividing line in Faults (a fault line, if you will) where the film goes from bitterly funny to something truly special. The first half of the film feels like a low-key, character-driven comedy inspired by the golden age of the Coen brothers. It’s manages a delicate balance between funny & depressing in its depictions of a once-famed cult deprogrammer pathetically milking what he can out of a complimentary hotel stay & a desperate, elderly couple who just want their daughter back. It’s an engaging slow burn of building tension, but there’s not much to conclude from this first half other than a general feeling that “This guy sucks.” As he delves deeper into his latest deprogramming case, however, Faults shifts gears and becomes an ambitiously deranged power struggle that transcends the low-key stakes of the first half of the film, but wouldn’t feel the same without them. It’s a deliberate shift that shakes the audience violently, snapping them out of the melancholy haze of the first half like a real life deprogramming.

The central power struggle between cult member & deprogrammer at the heart of Faults raises a lot more questions than answers, but the questions prove themselves more satisfying being left open ended. By the time we’ve followed the down-on-his luck deprogrammer, Ansel, as he shills a book no one wants & attempts half-assed modes of suicide, the cult member who supposedly needs saving, Claire, seems rather well adjusted. Sure, Claire makes ludicrous claims that she had sex with God or that she can make herself invisible, but she seems way better off than a once-famous man who now has to resort to stealing ketchup & 9 volt batteries to make ends meet. Claire has no problem discussing her past, saying that she was once “weak & stupid,” but has since grown as a person (and a divine being). Ansel, on the other hand, refuses to talk about his past, which is haunted by an outstanding debt & a former cult member he failed to “save”. In comparison to the rock bottom lifestyle Ansel is barely holding together, Claire’s religious organization Faults (which follows a single god, recognizes no individual leader, and encourages meditation) feels like a viable, or even preferable, way of living.

What’s most surprising about Faults is that it doesn’t allow itself to stop there. The contrasting lives lead by Ansel & Claire are merely a launching pad for the much stranger, more unnerving territory that their power struggle leads to. The conflict between the depressingly mundane and the divinely transcendent is apparent even in the movie’s sets, where strange, haunting lights invade wood paneling motel rooms & cheap diners. Words like “clear”, “free”, and “levels” make the film’s fictional cult Faults feel somewhat reminiscent of the real-life cult Scientology, but that comparison fades to reveal something much stranger in the second half as well. There’s something strange going on in Faults’ cult member vs deprogrammer power struggle that refuses to be fully understood or pigeonholed as it pushes through the expected territory of where that plot should lead and reaches for something more extraordinary. As an audience member you start to feel like the film has you sleep deprived, questioning your free will, and breaking down your personal identity just as you’d expect in a deprogramming. It’s wickedly funny in the way it manipulates you into feeling unease, but that humor does little to soften just how strange everything begins to feel once the conflict comes to a head.

-Brandon Ledet