Selah and the Spades (2020)

I very much wanted to adore this film, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it never wanted to be a film in the first place. Selah and the Spades opens with a massive exposition dump detailing the kinds of intricate structural hierarchies & historical power struggles that are referenced at the front of multi-volume sci-fi & fantasy novels with corresponding maps of fictional fantasycapes. Except, it’s a very simple high school teen drama about boarding school drug trade. The movie extends the cafeteria-set introductions of various high school cliques that are normally banged out in less than a minute in films like Heathers or Mean Girls into a feature-length tome about warring “factions” and stolen “ledgers.” It’s far less invested in the inner lives of individual characters than it is in the generational passing of the torch from graduating seniors (who care more about maintaining these hierarchies than they do about moving on to college) to their underlings. The movie is so wrapped up in establishing the rules & parameters of its boarding school drug trade markets that it leaves almost no time to establish a reason for the audience to care. It plays more like a backdoor pilot for a tie-in, Degrassi-style TV series than a proper standalone feature film, establishing the rules & boundaries of its universe up front and waiting to flesh out its characters in future episodes.

The titular Selah is a popular honor student at an elite boarding school, overwhelmed both by her parents’ pressure that she academically overachieve and by her responsibilities as the figurehead of her school’s most prestigious drug-trade “faction,” known as the Spades. This premiere season of Selah and the Spades details Selah’s search for a worthy protegee to take over the reins of the Spades’ schoolwide drug ring once she graduates. Meanwhile, other jealous factions—the Bobbies, the Skins, the so-and-so’s—pressure Selah and the Spades to cede their power over the school entirely. The season finale is set at senior prom, of course, and it ends on a cliffhanger guaranteed to have you coming back for the next batch of episodes as soon as they air. I feel as if I’ve put in the work that most long-form “prestige television” dramas require before they “get good” several hours into their runtime, after all the main characters have been sketched out and the battle lines are drawn. Except, I don’t know that I’ll be sticking with this particular high school drug trade series the way I did with HBO’s Euphoria, which was much more interested in the detailed character work, morbid gallows humor, and sensationalist hedonism necessary to make this kind of prerequisite homework feel worthwhile.

Selah and the Spades looks great. This is especially evident in the couple isolated scenes where Selah directly addresses the camera during cheer squad practice, an army of uniformed cheerleader lackeys backing her up as she explains the transgressive pleasure of power in a teen girl’s life. Those isolated moments recall the transcendent cinematic achievements of coming-of-age works like Skate Kitchen & The Fits, but for the most part Selah and the Spades doesn’t feel like cinema at all. It’s pretty, but it’s largely devoid of humor, poetry, atmosphere, or a recognizable sense of danger or transgression. All that’s left is an intricately mapped-out hierarchy of warring high school cliques that I can’t imagine any audience truly caring about unless they are young enough to look up to the characters onscreen as the Cool Kids they hope to meet once they get to high school. Considering how artificial & fantastic this setting can feel, that potential audience might just have to settle for getting to know these kids better when Selah and the Spades gets picked up as the ongoing television or YA novel series it desperately wants to become. Even though I didn’t enjoy the film very much, I do hope that transition into a new medium eventually takes place. It would be a waste of these 100 minutes of self-serious table setting for the show not to be picked up after its pilot episode.

-Brandon Ledet

New Jack City (1991)

The used Blu-ray copy of New Jack City I blind-bought includes no fewer than three accompanying music videos among its special features – including one for Color Me Badd’s eternally amusing hit “I Wanna Sex You Up.” I was so taken aback by this emphasis on music video tie-ins that I wondered if the film’s exceptionally well-curated street fashion and R&B soundtrack had been the original inspiration for the term “New Jack Swing.” No, that genre signifier had been around since at least the mid-80s, but my confusion at least points to how much of an MTV-inspired sensory pleasure the film can be from scene to scene – effortlessly oozing hiphop cool in every drastic camera angle and exaggerated cartoon of street-level criminal activity. What makes the film feel so fascinatingly odd is the way those formal surface pleasures actively go to war with the genuinely horrific dramatic content of its crack-epidemic plot. Halfway between a music video and an alarmist D.A.R.E. ad, New Jack City is exhilarating in its tension between framing the power of crack cocaine druglords with the stylized cool of Comic Book Noir movies like Dick Tracy ’90 or Batman ’89 and showing the full horror of their product’s havoc on their community as the nightmare it truly was. The film opens with a sample of N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” announcing, “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge,” to signal both its aesthetic connections with music video filmmaking and its willingness to pummel its audience full-force with its anti-drugs messaging.

Ice-T stars as an undercover cop (dressed up for his rap rock “Cop Killer” phase, long before his eventual Law & Order retirement home) hell-bent on busting Wesley Snipes’s snarling druglord baddy, Nino Brown. The futuristic crack cocaine emporium the cops attempt to bust is even more intricately constructed than the complex operations of The Wire. Nino’s gang, The Cash Money Brothers, have seized an entire housing project tower and retrofitted it into a one-stop-crack-shop, where a customer can purchase, consume, and ride the high of the lethally addictive drug in a single, protected locale. This massive, organized crack-selling operation requires an equally colossal reaction from law enforcement, escalating this small-budget crime story to the unlikely heights of an action blockbuster. Cheesy guitar riffs accompany rogue cop heroics and accentuate grisly images of addicts (literally) hitting rock bottom. Ice-T & his undercover crew chase down their perps with X-treme BMX stunts, and find themselves de-wiring a bomb in a panic seconds before it’s set to blow. The film is less decisive about how heroic or sympathetic its portrayal of their druglord nemeses are supposed to come across. Sure, Snipes is destroying his local community to turn a personal profit, has no qualms with using a small child as a shield in a gunfight, and gives Stacy Keach a run for his money in how to most menacingly eat a banana. At the same time, there’s an undeniable anti-hero cool to the way the film’s music video aesthetic frames the dealers’ power & fashion (which includes a lot of Kangol, gold chains, and velvet track suits). When they rationalize “You gotta rob to get rich in the Reagan Era,” it doesn’t exactly erase their trail of dead, but it at least contextualizes their rise to power as an underdog story that’s uncomfortably easy to sympathize with.

With this debut feature as a director, Mario Van Peebles continued to evolve a tradition partly pioneered by his father’s proto-blacksploitation art piece Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song twenty years earlier: using the stylized cool of Black Culture to deliver a clear political message to his own community. There’s some genuine heartfelt concern here about the havoc the 90s crack epidemic was wreaking on black communities across America. He plainly states a plea to address the problem head-on in a textual epilogue that reads, “If we don’t confront this problem realistically – without empty slogans and promises – then drugs will continue to destroy our country.” That destruction is illustrated throughout the film in outright body horror detailing what crack does to its addicts – most notably to a “basehead” named Pookie played by a young, gaunt Chris Rock. Even with that blatant messaging, though, I’m not sure the film’s anti-drugs themes managed to overpower the music video cool of its depictions of profitable street crime. New Jack City has had a huge impact on black pop culture, inspiring the performing names of artists as disparate as the New Orleans-based rap label Cash Money Records, the Atlantan drag queen Nina Bonina Brown, and the ECW-fame pro wrestler New Jack. You can also see its visual sensibilities echoed in other hiphop music video-flavored features like Belly & last year’s remake of SuperFly, which also struggle to deliver a convincing political messaging over the stylized cool of their surface pleasures. Based on the film’s lasting impact among these pop culture descendants, it’s become increasingly clear that its style has overpowered its substance enough to make its drug dealing antagonists out to be admirable anti-heroes rather than the communal menaces they were likely intended to be. Still, the movie itself never shies away from depicting the full, ugly consequences of their brutal rise to power, and that clash between form & content makes for a fascinating watch in the moment.

-Brandon Ledet

Her Smell (2019)

There are few narrative templates as a familiar to American audiences as the rockstar addiction story, in which booze & illicit chemicals tear down celebrity gods from powerful highs to pitiful rock-bottoms. Hell, in the last year alone we’ve already seen this exact story play out in Vox Lux, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Dirt, and yet another A Star is Born remake in a longstanding, haggard tradition. On a plot outline level, Her Smell makes no attempt to jazz up the melody of this narrative template. It’s well aware that this is a story we’ve seen too many times before, both in the tabloids and on the big screen. If anything, everyone in the film seems well past exasperated & fed up with watching the tired rock star addiction cliché play out spectacularly around them; they’re just helpless to stop it. As faithful to & disdainful of that cliché as the film appears to be, though, it still manages to feel like a fresh, unholy terror through the virtues of its execution, which does its best to rattle the audience to the point where we’re numb, drained, and begging for release.

A large part of what distinguishes Her Smell in this crowded field is the specificity of its setting. These tortured artist addiction narratives are typically reserved for machismo-driven cock rockers like Jim Morrison, Led Zeppelin, and whatever Americana archetype Bradley Coopers was aiming for in last year’s Oscar run. By contrast, this film is a pastiche of the rock ’n roll excess stories that seeped out of the femme 90s punk bands of the riot grrrl & grunge era. The most obvious 1:1 comparison for its fictional rock ‘n roller Becky Something would be Courtney Love on her worst behavior, but the film pulls from plenty other bands’ onstage personae & backstage drama for inspiration: The Breeders, Throwing Muses, L7 , Babes in Toyland, etc., etc., etc. We see the fictional band Something She at the height of their 90s heyday only in brief interstitials of backstage videocorder footage between much lengthier, more contemporary scenes of their post-fame bickering. It’s a hyper-specific yet undeniably iconic music scene that we rarely get to see depicted in feature films, which usually do little to challenge rock ‘n roll’s outdated reputation as a boys’ club. If we’re going to watch a familiar story of drugs wrecking a rock star’s life & career play out yet again, we might as well use it as an opportunity to see something that’s a much rarer treat in filmmaking of any era: women behaving badly.

Besides the specificity of the setting, Her Smell is also elevated above its potential genre tedium by the provocateur sensibilities of its director, Alex Ross Perry. Perry brings his usual thirst for pitch-black despair & total sensory overload to this Queen of Earth follow-up, content to violently shake his audience by the shoulders for as long as anyone could possible stand it. The major evolution to his usual mode here is a newfound sense of patience. Her Smell is well over two hours long. It’s structured like a stage play, with act-length scenes stretching on for torturous eternities as its addict antagonist torments everyone unfortunate enough to be lured into her orbit. Perry at least has the decency to release some steam from the pressure cooker for a rare moment of calm halfway through the runtime that effectively serves as an intermission, but for the most part he offers very little relief from the anxiety & hurt addiction wreaks on this once vibrant, now decaying music scene. His camera offers a dizzying, unflinching tour through the backstage labyrinth hellscapes behind the concerts that justify this vile behavior, with muffled far-off crowds screaming for more like the demons of Hell. That thunderous applause mixes with subtly unnerving synth flourishes to continually disorient viewers as we’re forced to endure nightmare drug parties long after the good vibes have soured. It’s exhausting, but impressively effective.

All this preamble is really just burying the lede of what truly makes Her Smell a must-see spectacle: Elizabeth Moss. Recalling the maddening whirlwind performances of legendary actors before her like Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence or Faye Dunaway in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Moss plays the tragic rock ‘n roller Betty Something more as a rabid animal or a natural disaster than a human woman. Usually these madwoman breakdown dramas are sympathetic portraits of someone who’s cracked under the pressures of mental illness & impossible Patriarchal ideals. Here, Moss is simply allowed to be total, unforgivable nightmare – bursting into rooms backstage like a flood that wipes out all her friends, family, and colleagues along with her. She curses professional rivals with mysterious black-magic hexes, plays with her small child like a dog temporarily excited by a new chew toy, and feeds off the adoration of her audience as an enabling signifier that she can do no wrong. We never see Moss ingest drugs onscreen, but you can read each speck of the junk on her dazed, ghoulish face. It’s an intensely physical performance that expresses all the subtlety & nuance necessary to make this somewhat generic story specific to her character, so that all Perry has to do (besides write the damn thing) is stay out of her of way and allow it to play out in its full, rabid spectacle. It’s a mesmerizing feat of a performance from one of our greatest living actors.

The final achievement that makes Her Smell an exceptional specimen of its ilk is in the quiet release of its final moments, something I wouldn’t dare spell out here even if I thought it was possible. After two full hours of being terrorized by Elizabeth Moss’s feral showboating, everyone involved is exhausted on a molecular level, allowing for a rare moment of quiet grace I can’t recall ever seeing before in this Tragic Rock ‘n Roll Addict genre. I was genuinely, emotionally moved by the final lines of Her Smell, which was something I hadn’t expected given the familiarity of this thematic material. It shames me to admit that I had much stronger feelings overall for the superficially similar swing-for-the-fences mess of Vox Lux last year. Still, it’s undeniable that Moss & Perry broke through to something truly resonant & powerful by the time this film reaches it’s closing moments of denouement – whether through the specificity of character & setting, the willingness to dwell in intense discomfort, or the perversely cathartic pleasure of watching Women Behaving Badly.

-Brandon Ledet

Tenement (1985)

No matter how turned off or disgusted you are by Roberta Findlay’s grim & grimy oeuvre, you could never be a harsher critic of her work than the filmmaker is herself. In an incredibly rare interview on her time as a pornographer & schlockteur with The Rialto Report, Findlay disparages the supposed artistic value of her work and dismisses the fans who attempt to reevaluate her films as dangerous lunatics she wants nothing to do with. Findlay describes herself as a human barnacle who would latch onto & follow the whims of the men in her life rather than finding any self-driven motivation of her own. She uses this metaphor to explain how she transformed from a trained pianist who would accompany silent films in a repertory cinemas to a cinematographer & eventual director of hardcore pornography, a business that interested her late husband & artistic collaborator. Findlay herself was disgusted by the sexual extremity of the rough pornos she was filming for profit, a revulsion that carried over to her depictions of extreme violence in the grindhouse horror industry (once the VHS market made porno less profitable). I imagine her disgust & horror with filming rough sex worked against her porno films’ ostensible goal of titillation, but in her hyperviolent genre work it only enhances her accomplishments. In Findlay’s signature exploitation piece, the 1985 home invasion cheapie Tenement, the director’s self-hatred & disgust with the sex, violence, and sexual violence on display oozes through the screen in every scene’s grotesque tableau. Roberta Findlay may report to despise the grime & cruelty of films like Tenement, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of that ill-will in the final product, which makes us all sick to our stomachs along with her.

Instead of invading a single home, the murderous hooligans of Tenement invade an entire community, keeping the film true to close-quarters NYC living. A dilapidated housing tenement in The Bronx (the exact kind of run-down apartment complex Findlay grew up in herself) is overrun by a gang of hyperviolent squatters on Angel Dust. Recalling the similar crime wave paranoia of films like I Drink Your Blood, The Class of 1984, Street Trash, and The Warriors, the film pits helpless families trying to scrape a peaceful life together against hedonist drug dealers who stave off boredom by playing with dead rats, snorting cocaine off switchblades, and mutilating normies with real jobs & families. The film devolves into a PCP-addled version of Home Alone from there, with the building’s proper tenants inventing gangster-killing booby traps (like box spring electric fences & rat poison heroin) to kill off the encroaching squatters. Both the gang & the community of victims are racially & culturally diverse enough to avoid the usual political offenses of this urban crime genre, but Findlay finds new ways to offend all on her own. Sometimes, her amoral cruelty makes for an excitingly heightened version of the home invasion template, especially in how no victim feels at all safe from being torn apart by the crazed hooligans – not children, not the elderly, not single mothers, not pets, no one. Other times, the cruelty goes too far and makes for a deeply unpleasant, almost impossible watch – such as in the first-person-POV staging of a gang rape or in watching the villains bathe in dog’s blood for a fun lark. In either instance, it’s Findlay’s unflinching, self-hating depictions of human viciousness & misery that distinguishes Tenement in its crowded field of grimy NYC exploitation cinema. A lot of schlock peddlers in the business didn’t especially care about the hyperviolence on display beyond its capacity to sell tickets. Findlay, by contrast, despised the stuff and found her own films grotesque, which shows through in the work in genuinely upsetting ways.

Given the heartless cruelty on display, especially in its pivotal scene of sexual assault, it’s not difficult to see why Roberta Findlay dismisses Tenement (along with the rest of her porno & exploitation catalog) as useless, despicable trash. I would at least hope that she can look back with some pride on what she accomplished in her filmmaking craft, though. This is a shockingly well-shot, tightly edited picture considering its budget. Plotted over the course of a single day and regularly time-stamped for temporal perspective, the film boasts an incredible efficiency in storytelling its fellow video nasties rarely mustered. The close-quarters violence of its invasion plot is partly so memorably brutal because it’s never obscured; you’re always aware of exactly what’s being done to the victims, with the camera often pausing for a mood-setting detail. In some ways, this unexpected production quality allows Tenement’s nastiness to catch the audience off-guard. In an early scene, the PCP gang’s head honcho spins on a lazy-Susan while shouting to the sky “I’m going to get my building back!” in a tone that promises major-studio fun rather than the grindhouse mayhem to come. Tenement is also bookended by my all-time favorite movie trope: the plot-summarizing rap song, also a staple of a more corporate, more inhibited product. This grimy NYC nightmare is all the more effective for having someone behind the camera who actually knows what she’s doing, so that you expect a level of quality control in its content that just isn’t there. Findlay’s curse is that she was skilled at her craft but hated the immoral content her efforts were applied to. It’s a tension between creator & art that makes for a grotesque, unsettling experience for the audience – the transgression of a work that hates its own guts and knows it should not exist but pushes on for the meager box office payoff anyway. The results of that payoff are fascinating, even if you can barely stomach to look at them.

-Brandon Ledet

White Boy Rick (2018)

The opening shot of White Boy Rick is of a child plunging their hand into a popcorn maker for a snack, then running onto a gun show floor room to lead the audience to a character whose life’s dream is to sell enough guns to open a VHS rental store. Everything you need to know about the film’s balance between thematic daringness & easy entertainment value is contained in that introduction. Based on the true story of a white teenager in 1980s Detroit who was recruited as an FBI informant before transforming into a kingpin drug dealer on his own, White Boy Rick is extremely well-behaved in its style & structure as a biopic, approximating what Good Time might have felt like if it were a mid-90s VHS rental at Blockbuster instead of a modern stylistic freak-out. This is the kind of movie your aunts & uncles are asking for when they say they just want “a good story” without all the artsy-fartsy stuff getting in the way, the kind best enjoyed on the couch with a bowl of microwave popcorn. The story it tells lends itself to potentially complex, challenging themes of legal corruption, the failed War on Drugs, white privilege, and the cycles of poverty, but the movie is much less interested in slowing down to pick apart those topics than it is in repeatedly asking “Isn’t this crazy?” as it crams in every possible detail from its (admittedly crazy) true-life story. Director Yann Demange & his team of three credited screenwriters seemingly decided that the real “White Boy” Rick Wershe’s life story was entertainingly absurd enough on its own to need no further embellishment or thematic examination beyond being presented as-is in dramatization, that the movie practically makes itself. They’re not wrong.

Like with most well-behaved biopics, White Boy Rick’s greatest faults result from the compulsion to cram every possible real-life detail into a rigid two-hour structure that can barely contain it all. It’s understandable why the film’s small screenwriter army would indulge in that compulsion here, as Rick Wershe’s life between the ages of 14 to 17 in mid-80s Detroit was wild to the point of incredulity. In just three years, he embodied a range of functions within the “Just Say No” Reagan crack epidemic era as varied as arms dealer, drug kingpin, undercover narc, and convicted criminal – all before becoming a legal adult. It’s the kind of life story that makes for a great journalism piece (and has in this 2014 Atavist Magazine profile) but is overwhelming to tackle in full in under two hours of screen-time. The result of that information-compression is a drama too rushed to make an emotional impact, one that must rely on archetypes like The Stoic Drug Dealer With A Hidden Temper & The Tragic Cold-Turkey Junkie to move its story along at a manageable pace. Anyone looking for White Boy Rick to examine the corruption & deep-seated racism of a legal system that would elevate & protect a white teenager in order to take down a network of poor black people operating in a drug market they helped foster will leave the movie deeply disappointed; it simply doesn’t have the time. Instead, White Boy Rick chases capturing each beyond-belief beat of Rick’s short biography as a big-name hustler, focusing on telling “a good story” instead of a meaningful one. Its thematic material sticks with you about as along as it would take to read a mid-length profile of Ricky over your morning coffee. You only have time to say, “Whoa, that’s crazy” before the movie ushers you along.

What White Boy Rick lacks in thematic complexity it more than makes up for in the humor & specificity of its character work. Newcomer Richie Merritt plays the titular hustler as a sweet, hapless idiot too naïve to fully grasp the severity of the game he’s playing. There’s a quiet tragedy to the way he looks to his older junkie sister for wisdom & life advice, but Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) plays her as such a feral, inhuman goblin that the character takes on a Jerri Blank-esque humor, however dark. Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, and RJ Cyler (Power Rangers) all match those siblings’ sweetly pathetic energy in a way that finds intensely uncomfortable comedy in the daily tragedies of urban poverty. White Boy Rick works best when it functions as a Seinfeldian absurdist farce, with self-absorbed, delusional characters yelling at each other over minor grievances like pancakes, dead rats, frozen custard, and Footloose while the world crumbles around them. It’s only through that disarming humor that the drama makes any impact, since the swift brutality of the violence that disrupts it is in harsh juxtaposition. The film plays like a less challenging, non-meta I, Tonya in that way, reveling in the discomfort of finding dark humor in poverty’s violence & absurdity. There’s also an easy beauty to its recreation of mid-80s Detroit sounds & fashion, especially when it gawks at the fur coats, gold chains, and neon lights of the social scene at the local roller rink while Detroit soul & early hip-hop breaks cheerfully blare in the background. The clash of those indulgences against the medically accurate fallout of a gunshot wound or the grim step-by-step process of making & distributing crack is almost jarring enough for White Boy Rick to masquerade as an Important Drama, when it’s truly a character-driven farce.

It’s important to find balance in your movie-going habits. While I understand the urge to champion challenging art like I, Tonya, Good Time, and You Were Never Really Here over the more pedestrian payoffs of this Based On A True Story drama, there’s room in your diet for both. A few eccentric, character-based performances & “a good story” are more than enough to entertain as for-their-own-sake indulgences and there’s something adorably old-fashioned in White Boy Rick’s contentment to not reach any further than that. You can practically smell the popcorn popping & hear the VCR whirring in the background, as it’s incredible this movie wasn’t made in the Blockbuster Video era – both because of its simplistic artistic ambitions and because it’s absurd that Wershe’s life rights weren’t optioned decades sooner.

-Brandon Ledet