Bonus Features: Playtime (1967)

Our current Movie of the Month, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, is a dystopian farce that clashes futuristic sci-fi sterility with the slapstick chaos of Silent Era comedies. Playtime isn’t as screamingly funny from gag-to-gag as its Silent Era sources of inspiration; it’s more of an intellectual exercise that drolly pokes fun at the absurdity of Modern Living. In that respect, the film is undeniably genius. It’s a patient, nightmarish vision of the way that technology worship is slowly homogenizing all culture & art into one amorphous, spiritless Hell. The minor laughs along the way only soften our frustrations & despair over Capitalism’s momentum towards that inevitable global monoculture, in which new product is more valued than natural humanity.

My initial impulse for recommending further viewing to audiences who want to see more films on Playtime‘s wavelength was to dive deeper into the Monsieur Hulot catalog. Tati directed himself as Hulot in four feature films, most of which overlap thematically with Playtime‘s humanity vs. technology themes. Watching the entire Hulot saga in one go would likely be a bit draining, though, since most of Tati’s directorial work operates with the same low-key tone. Instead, here are a few suggested titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema that touches on its themes & charms without repeating them wholesale.

Jour de fête (1949)

Part of the reason I expected bigger laughs out of Playtime is because the only other Tati movie I had previously seen was his debut feature, Jour de fête. It’s a much, much funnier movie than Playtime in terms of staging laugh-a-minute gags. It’s also a much less distinguished movie, creatively speaking, as it merely feels like Tati emulating the Silent Era comedy stylings of Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin without adding much innovation of his own. Like Picasso learning to paint naturalistically before he devolved into Cubist mayhem, Jour de fête feels a lot like Tati earning the right to play with the purpose & structure of traditional, vaudevillian comedy by proving he knows how to effectively play it straight.

In terms of setting & atmosphere, Jour de fête is the total opposite of Playtime. Tati stars as a bicycle-equipped mailman in a tiny French village who’s overwhelmed by the sudden influx of work that accompanies a traveling carnival arriving on the scene. Eventually, though, the film adopts the same skeptical eye that Tati’s later work would have for modern innovation, as the mailman attempts to deliver mail in a rapid, new-fangled “American style” that causes exponential chaos on his delivery route. Modern techniques & innovations disrupting the simplicity of daily living was apparently something Tati was interested in exploring from the start of his career, and it’s refreshing to see him pull that off in such a stripped-down, deeply silly context (as opposed to the massive, Parisian-scale sets he built for Playtime).

If you want to see Tati in full, unrestrained goofball mode before his work got more intellectually heady, Jour de fête is a wonderfully funny film from start to end. It’s not as memorably grandiose or artistically mannered as Playtime—so it’s not nearly as essential—but comedies don’t need to be astounding achievements in craft to be worthwhile.

Modern Times (1936)

Chaplin’s Modern Times obviously shares a technophobic sensibility with Playtime in its basic themes, but it’s also stubbornly old-fashioned in a similar way in terms of its form. Made in the post-Depression 30s long after talkies had taken over filmmaking as the industry norm, Modern Times is just as nostalgic as Playtime for Silent Era artistry. There’s minimal spoken dialogue in the film, and it’s mostly sidestepped through the intertitles & pantomime that Chaplin was used to working with – a stubborn nostalgia for filmmaking tradition that Tati would pick back up decades down the line.

Like Playtime, Modern Times is highly skeptical of the convenience that modern tech is supposed to afford our daily lives. Instead of mocking the pointless, homogenizing consumerism that Tati’s film spoofs, however, Chaplin instead warns of the way technology will be used to further exploit working class labor. The film’s most iconic gags are anchored to its opening stretch, wherein factory workers on an assembly line are surveilled & tormented by their supervisors in a series of escalating indignities. This culminates in a few key images from a near-future automated dystopia: Chaplin being admonished via video screen for taking a breather in the company restroom, Chaplin being force-fed a meal via robot to cut down on lunch-break productivity dips, and Chaplin being consumed by the machinery wholesale – whimsically traveling through the assembly line cogs & gears as if it were an amusement park ride.

Overall, this is a much angrier picture than Playtime. Instead of bumbling through absurdly contrived machinery meant to streamline modern life, Chaplin’s tramp character is a chaotic agitator who breaks down the very machines that was were designed to exploit his labor. It’s also a much funnier picture than Playtime and, not for nothing, a masterpiece in its own right.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

The dystopian warnings of Playtime & Modern Times were fairly accurate to the nightmare we live in now all these decades later, but it still wouldn’t hurt to pair them with a more modern update. The 2018 Boots Riley comedy Sorry to Bother You is a gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire that taps into the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re living in today like no other film I can name. Just as angry about class disparity & economic exploitation as Modern Times, Sorry to Bother You is bursting at the seams with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out in every over-the-top gag. Unlike the even-tempered, carefully curated confection that Tati achieved in Playtime, Riley’s film is never satisfied with exploring one idea at a time when it could just as easily flood the screen with thousands all at once, subtlety & restraint be damned. Where the films differ in tone, however, they greatly overlap in their fear of an inevitable, homogenized monoculture – a world without any recognizable sense of genuine humanity or localized community.

Overall, Sorry to Bother You‘s concerns are more aligned with the labor exploitation fears of Modern Times; this becomes especially evident in the film’s back half when its corporate villain, the fictional Amazon surrogate Worry Free, redesigns the human body itself for maximum labor efficiency. Worry Free’s insidious mission does overlap greatly with the monotonized, spiritless dystopia of Playtime for much of the film’s runtime, though. Their preference would be that the entire working-class population live on campus at their factory jobsites, six workers to each bunkbed slumber cubicle. Billboards with cheeky slogans like “If you lived here you’d be at work already” and desperately “chill” MTV Cribs episodes advertise these uniform live-at-work cubicles as a convenience that’s too tempting to pass up, but for the audience at home it’s easily recognizable as a nightmare vision of our not-too-distant future under the rule of Emperor Bezos.

While Riley’s film is much more tonally & politically chaotic than Playtime at large, it does have its own touches of carefully curated twee whimsy when it’s in the mood (including an out-of-left-field Michel Gondry gag). Both movies also share a bumbling protagonist who’s just trying to get through his day while a rapidly modernizing world around him makes every decision feel like a complex puzzle – whether one of morality (Sorry to Bother You) or one of practicality (Playtime). As you can likely tell by this group of recommendations, I tend to gravitate more towards Riley’s chaotic, messy sensibilities over the restrained subtlety of Playtime, but I still found a greater appreciation for both titles through the comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Ready Player One (2018)

As a pasty pro wrestling fan with a film blog, I’m comfortable with being identified as a nerd, but I’ve never quite felt like the right kind of nerd. Superhero comics, video games, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, anime – the staples of Nerd Culture have never been the pop media I personally obsess about. It’s not that my own nerdy obsessions are especially esoteric; I’ve just always felt like somewhat of an outsider when observing what typical nerds cosplay as or geek out over. When the pasty nerd hero of Ready Player One sneers at the business dick villain pretending to share his interests, “A fanboy knows a hater,” I had to think to myself that I likely qualify as neither. I also suspect director Steven Spielberg is an objective outsider to that distinction as well. Looking at the scruffy, near-sighted goon, it’s not too difficult to imagine that he’s seen the wrong end of a swirly or a locker-shove in his past, especially considering his life-long interest in science fiction. However, it is difficult to imagine him caring about the particular Nerd Shit on display in Ready Player One. Although there is plenty evidence to the contrary, I just can’t picture Spielberg wasting days behind the controller of a marathon session of Halo or repeatedly rewatching Akira in his Cheetos-stained pajamas. Roughly 75% of the Nerd Shit references that weren’t verbally acknowledged Ready Player One’s dialogue when over my head and I suspect a millionaire over twice my age wouldn’t have fared much better (many of the background details were reportedly included by special effects teams without his explicit request). As an outsider, I must admit I’m baffled by the consensus that Ready Player One is intended to be seen as a fun popcorn movie. To me, it’s a nightmare vision of a plausible near-future Hell that we’re helplessly barreling towards. Maybe that qualifies me as a hater. I wouldn’t know; you’d have to ask a fanboy. I do suspect, though, that the film’s director shares that same point of view somewhere beneath his King Nerd exterior.

Gatekeeping is perhaps the ultimate qualifier of true nerdom. Nerds tend to declare what pop culture is objectively Good or Bad as if their opinion is law and no interests outside their own have value. Like how 10 Cloverfield Lane exposes the creepiness of Doomsday preppers by depicting the dystopian world they secretly desire, Ready Player One envisions the logical, terrifying result of what this pop culture gatekeeping would look like if it were taken as seriously as every self-aggrandizing nerd wants it to be. A lonely trillionaire nerd (Mark Rylance) builds a virtual reality video game universe where his own pop culture obsessions (mostly white boy nerd shit from the 1980s) are canon as the greatest works of art of all time. Because of the universal popularity of his immersive gaming system, this über-Steve Jobs experiences the ultimate power fantasy all nerds crave: he’s celebrated for his superior tastes in esoteric pop culture. If he was into it, it’s fantastic & worthy of scholarly study. If he wasn’t, it essentially never existed. By the year 2045, long after his death, this celebration of one man’s pop culture tastes has driven the world into a digital Hell. Most people live impoverished in overpopulated slums (picture a game of Jenga where the building blocks are mobile homes). They escape their grim surroundings by immersing themselves in a dead trillionaire’s nerdy pop culture utopia through increasingly realistic virtual reality technology. No new art or creativity is necessary, since their preferred world’s creator isn’t around to approve it. This dystopian vision feels like a less classist version of Idiocracy in that way, where the world is driven to its lowest point by mindless 80s nostalgia instead of “bad breeding.” If a single, gatekeeping Nerd won the ultimate prize of being taken seriously as a tastemaker and had their own obsessions guide the establishment of a universal monoculture, this is exactly the world we would eventually live in. It’s a goddamn nightmare.

The catch about Ready Player One (and the internal tension that makes it interesting) is that it was written by one of those gatekeepers. Writer/stand-up comedian Ernest Cline penned both the film’s screenplay (along with several co-writers) and its source material novel. Cline takes gleeful pleasure in the material’s endless pop culture references, but that doesn’t feel at all reinforced on Spielberg’s end. Spielberg’s adventurism works in tandem with Cline’s geeked-out tone in an occasional chase sequence or flash of goofball humor, but as a whole their work feels more like a philosophical debate than a blissful collaboration. Cline constructs a story about a young nerd (Tye Sheridan) wooing another young nerd (Olivia Cooke) and saving the world by playing video games with incredible skill & displaying esoteric 80s pop trivia. It should be a joyous power fantasy for the like-minded video game obsessives in the world, but it instead looks & feels like a continuation of the grim, grimy futurism of Minority Report & A.I.: Artificial intelligence (two of the best films of Spielberg’s career, but also two of the most acidic). By all accounts, Cline’s writing style tends to dwell in long lists of nerdy pop culture ephemera, taking time to build its own gatekeeping canon of exactly what nerdy shit is worth preserving. By contrast, Spielberg’s film feels unconcerned with dwelling on its references at all, as plentiful as they are. Instead of relishing the joy of seeing disparate characters form across all of nerdom share the screen, Ready Player One essentially glosses over them in favor of fleshing out its grim dystopian future. There are plenty of extratextual characters referenced in the film, but they mostly appear so briefly in the background in moments of chaos that you hardly have time to notice them. It’s like Ernie Bushmiller’s “three rocks” principle: there are exactly just as many nostalgic references included as necessary to create the illusion that the film is overrun with them. In the few times when the film does dwell on them, their distant memory distorts the original intent of the artwork that’s supposedly being celebrated, like a copy of a copy. The Shining is now a jump-scare fest; the Iron Giant is now a ruthless killing machine; Chucky is all maniacal laughter instead of smart-ass quips; etc. Spielberg doesn’t take the same joy in referencing past works that Cline does; he practically mocks the way that thoughtless, performative celebration changes their fundamental nature. Spielberg’s not quite the same level of satirist as Paul Verhoeven, to put it lightly, but I haven’t seen a film this at odds with its own source material since Starship Troopers.

Maybe I’m giving Spielberg too much benefit of the doubt here. Maybe he does spend his lonely nerd nights creaming his Zelda pajamas while dreaming about how cool it would be if Gundam fought Mechagodzilla. Either way, Ready Player One plays much closer to the grim future-tech prophecies of his own early 2000s sci-fi than the pure-fun video game crossover indulgences of a Super Smash Bros or a Marvel vs. Capcom. Like the surveillance state speculation of Minority Report or the cruelty of artificial intelligence creation in A.I., Ready Player One taps into the potential, foreseeable darkness of a world that’s already nostalgia-obsessed, with escapist pleasures to be found in the anonymity of Internet avatars & in watching strangers make money playing video games on YouTube. If nerds win the culture war, this is a plausible vision of where we’re headed. If you look to Ready Player One as mindless popcorn fun, your enthusiasm for that vision might be determined by where you fall on the fanboy/hater divide. To me, the film is much more rewarding if you consider the ways it makes its own Nostalgia Bait fun appear grotesque & terrifying, regardless of what Spielberg’s intent may have been. Maybe the film works as a fanboy/hater Rorschach test in that way. Audiences who see a love letter to nerdy pop culture where Gremlins, Goro, and Batman can finally share the same universe can maintain their fanboy status. Others who see a deeply depressing glimpse into a near-future Hell, like I did, might just be haters after all (at least in Ernest Cline’s nomenclature). However, haters can take solace in the likelihood that Spielberg’s secretly a hater was well, considering how similar this grim vision is to his past dystopian world-building. Paradoxically, you’d have to be generous to classify Spielberg or myself as anything but nerds, even if we are the wrong kind of nerds. Let’s hope we’re aren’t found out as imposters in the virtual reality Hell that apparently awaits us.

-Brandon Ledet

Deathrow Gameshow (1987)

I’m a huge sucker for dystopian gameshow cinema, so my appreciation for Deathrow Gameshow might very well be entirely dependent on genre. There’s nothing particularly special about this mid-80s sci-fi cheapie that you couldn’t find in titles like The Running Man, Death Race 2000, The Hunger Games, or Nerve in terms of dystopian world-building or slick production design. Deathrow Gameshow even sidesteps the genre’s usual adherence to liberal, anti-authoritarian politics to sympathize & laugh along with the abusers in power, which seems like the exact wrong way to go about making one of these things. Still, I couldn’t help but take delight of some of the Killer Gameshow from the Future surface pleasures of the film’s premise because the genre territory it occupies is so instantly appealing to me. As the film went along, I even started to appreciate the way its disgusting Reagan era politics & sadistic black humor helped distinguish the work from its genre peers, even if by being spiritually repugnant.

In the not too-distant future of1991, a game show titled Live or Die executes prisoners for captivated audiences’ afternoon television entertainment. Deathrow inmates sign waivers to appear on the show, where they answer trivia questions or complete simple (but rigged) tasks in the hopes of winning prizes. The cost of an incorrect answer or a job half done is a televised execution – by guillotine, by electrocution, by explosion, by whatever keeps eyes glued to the television. The show is wildly popular, with citizens committing crimes for the opportunity to appear as contestants & family members of the executed cheering on their death for brief fame or small prizes. Live or Die does have its critics, though. Protestors gather in the streets holding signs saying the host “should be aborted.” There’s also, of course, people out to kill the host themselves to avenge lives he’s ended on air for personal profit. What’s weird is that we’re asked to sympathize with the sick, oppressive fuck instead of his portrayed-as-whiny detractors. Instead of watching him suffer under the weight of his own societal sins like, say, James Woods’s similar sleaze bag in Videodrome, we’re supposed to be invested in his spiritual growth as he’s threatened punishment, but ultimately gets out on top. That might be a result of the film’s dedication to comedy instead of horror or dystopian sci-fi, but it is a striking deviation from how these things usually go nonetheless.

Besides aligning audience sympathies with its selfish sleaze bag gameshow host, Deathrow Gameshow also disgusts in the targets of its misanthropic humor. This film takes jabs at “militant” feminism, makes casual references to prison rape & domestic violence for easy “humor,” and is convinced that the mere mention for homosexual desire is the height of hilarity. It’s also worth mentioning that although there’s diversity in its deathrow prisoner population, the only black characters represented onscreen are violent criminals. The film wholly & cruelly commits to a Reagan-era sense of Fuck You, I Got Mine selfishness, but in a way that almost works to its advantage. Even if its goal was to make me laugh with its cruel sense of punching down humor, the way those gleeful stabs at political incorrectness land make me recoil in horror, which in a way heightens the effect of its premise. This is a crass film with a complete absence of a moral center, but that kind of Money > Empathy sentiment fits its killer gameshow premise surprisingly well. I’m not sure the effect was entirely intentional, but the discomfort certainly makes for a memorable, authentically horrific viewing experience.

That’s not to say all of Deathrow Gameshow’s humor amounted to empty cruelty, though. I got a chuckle when one of the Live or Die contestants wins death by hanging as a gameshow prize, only for a The Price is Right-type announcer to declare, “Every man dreams of being well hung.” It’s not a particularly smart or inventive joke, but it’s well told, much like other gags where a secretary is caught masturbating or a rolled-up car window reads the message, “Blow it out your ass.” Everything in Deathrow Gameshow fits in one of two categories: sex or violence. Sometimes that 80s-era lizard brain idiocy can be amusing, like when an assassin, portrayed by an actor known simply as Beano, chows down on a whole mess of spaghetti while casually discussing murder. Sometimes it can be deflating, like when a character calling a woman coded to be a Feminist “a stupid bitch” is supposed to be a knee-slapper of a punchline.

There are some stranger, non-comedic touches to Deathrow Gameshow too: prisoners only being referred to as numbers, television advertisements for sex work, a nightmare sequence being rigidly blocked off like a movie trailer, a character justifying the show’s murder for entertainment ethos by explaining, “Life is a transitional state and Death is God’s way of saying ‘Take a Break.’” The movie’s just a little too compromised in its spiritually corrupt humor & underwhelming in its world-building ambition to award a hearty recommendation. I don’t mean to besmirch the good name of filmmaker Mark Pirro, whose other titles include Nudist Colony of the Dead, A Polish Vampire in Burbank, and Curse of the Queerwolf, but I’m not sure he was the best person to tackle the material. While Pirro’s grimy, off-putting sense of humor did provide the film a memorably sleazy, discomforting vibe, it’s a property that could’ve been an all-time classic in the more ambitious hands of The Canon Group or maybe Roger Corman’s crew. As is, Deathrow Gameshow is entertaining enough in its lighthearted approach to cruel, meat-headed exploitation cinema. It’s just difficult to shake the feeling that it could’ve been something more worthwhile.

-Brandon Ledet

Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)

As hardwired as my brain is to only focus on pro wrestling whenever given the opportunity, the name “Rowdy” Roddy Piper doesn’t automatically take me to the ring. Piper’s kilt-wearing, Goldust-kissing, race-stereotyping gimmickry as a wrestling heel is beyond infamy, but it’s his leading role in the John Carpenter sci-fi horror They Live! that defines his career for me. From the meaningless street brawl over a pair of sunglasses to the classic line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass . . . and I’m all out of bubblegum,” Piper’s foray into Kurt Russell-esque genre film machismo was perfectly suited for his skills as a world class shit talker & in-ring performer. What I didn’t know until recently is that Piper actually headlined two outlandish sci-fi pictures in 1988. They Live! has rightfully earned its place as the one deserving cultural longevity, even seeing a recent resurgence in meme form after last year’s disastrous presidential election. Somehow, though, that film’s paranoia about space aliens brainwashing the American masses was the most grounded & plausible of Piper’s 1988 sci-fi pics. The other title was the real weirdo shit.

In the absurdly-titled Hell Comes to Frogtown, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as the titular antihero Sam Hell, a gruff loudmouth who roams a post-nuclear fallout sci-fi dystopia as the most virile man on Earth. Although he prides himself as the ultimate alpha male, Hell has to learn how to navigate what is now a decidedly matriarchal society. World War III has drastically diminished the male population of the planet and left only a few survivors with a viable sperm count, putting the human race’s longterm survival at risk. And thus, even in the rare 80s genre film where the world is run by women, the citizens of Earth still need a man to save them. Hell is essentially enslaved as a sperm donor by the government agency Med Tech and given militaristic marching orders to impregnate as many as women possible in attempt to save the human race. The only thing standing in his way of fulfilling his literal stud duties is the other lingering side effect of the nuclear fallout disaster: humanoid frogs. Described in-film as “mutant greeners,” the villains of this dystopian wasteland are frog-like scavengers who are holed up in the titular Frogtown and lead by Commander Toadie, presumably in power because he has three dicks (one of the advantages of mutation, I guess). To simplify the plot & budget, Hell Comes to Frogtown boils down this worldwide crisis into a simplistic heist scenario. Lead Commander Toadie is holding fertile women hostage at his palace/harem for ransom (and pleasure). Med Tech commands Sam Hell to free these prisoners so that he can spread his seed, explaining “We’re gonna get them out and you’re gonna get them pregnant.” All in all, it’s a fairly solid contender for silliest Road Warrior knockoff ever.

It should go without saying that there’s a deeply strange sexual energy running throughout Hell Comes to Frogtown. I’m not convinced film didn’t start as an ill-advised exercised in erotic fiction that just got way out of hand and snowballed into a screenplay. The pervasiveness of this strange sexuality extends far beyond just the weirdo details of the plot and obviously charged imagery like rhythmic rifle-polishing and the hose of a gas can being carefully inserted into a tank.  In this dystopian hell hole, condoms are effectively outlawed. The Bible verse, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the Earth, and conquer it” is treated like a national slogan. A slow pan up a stripper’s body reveals a frog’s face, the first of the mutant greeners we actually see instead of just listening to their ribbits. Then there’s the BDSM undertone of Sam Hell’s relationship with his matriarchal captors. Outfitted with a high-tech, government-issued chastity belt, Hell is kept on a very short leash. His dick is now considered government equipment and any attempts to run away with it are punished by directly-applied electric shock. His captors tease him to keep him sexually excited, though, using military-sanctioned “seduction techniques” to keep him in the mood. This intense pressure to perform (and for an audience, no less) sometimes leads Hell to embarrassing moments of erection-killing anxiety. He barks at the female scientists in control of his sexual impulses, “Maybe you oughta try making love to a complete stranger in the middle of a hostile mutant territory and see how you like it!” It also seems a little odd that every woman in the world would be begging, desperate to sleep with and be impregnated by Hell at first sight, but at least that choice keeps the mood light; I wouldn’t want to watch a version of this picture where a matriarchal government was forcing Hell to impregnate women against their will.

Of course, the bizarre nature of this film’s sexuality is at least somewhat matched by its humanoid amphibian threat. The frogs that attempt to stop Sam Hell from saving the world through his progeny are weird looking boogers, resembling a cross between the classy masquerade scene from The Abominable Dr. Phibes and the Goombas from the Super Mario Bros. movie. They have the expressionless and flapping jaws of a cheap Planet of the Apes sequel, but a kind of incredible throat-swelling effect with every ribbit that distracts from their mobile limitations. Even when the villainous frogs’ general look isn’t exactly impressive, though, there’s always an underlying absurdity to their general presence, especially when they’re doing ridiculous things like wielding a chainsaw or insulting Hell by calling him “flat lips.” Combine that visual absurdity with the film’s weirdo sexuality and the campy cult classic potential just oozes from the screen like so much nuclear waste.

I can’t say that Hell Comes to Frogtown is entirely successful in living up to its full cult classic potential. As far as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper vehicles go, it’s certainly no They Live! and it’s difficult not to compare that film’s heights like the bubblegum one-liner to this one’s much lesser, “Eat lead, froggies.” Overall, Hell Comes to Frogtown’s comedic antics gleefully command a ten year old’s sense of humor, the same maturity range that seemingly dictates its Indiana Jones-style swashbuckling & slack-jawed fascination with naked breasts. Still, it’s overloaded with enough strange energy & discomforting sexual undertone to distinguish itself as a midnight movie novelty. Every scene in the movie looks like it was lit by car headlights. Piper brings distinct pro wrestling flavor to scenes where glass bottles are smashed over his head or where his loin cloth resembles a tattered version of his signature ring gear kilt. Camo bikinis with doily-style lace trim and phone chords tethering Piper’s crotch to mysterious electronic devices sear the brain with their kinky idiocy. This is an exceedingly inane movie that dares you to ask “What in the Sam Hell?” on a scene to scene basis, but somehow abstains from vocalizing that particular line itself against all odds. Hell Comes to Frogtown may not be the outlandish 1988 sci-fi picture that defined Piper’s career as a screen presence, but it has enough bizarre energy – sexual, amphibian, and otherwise – to stand on its own as a memorable, ramshackle novelty.

-Brandon Ledet

Logan (2017)

I don’t like Wolverine.

This has been a topic of much contention with my fellow comic book nerds for a long time, but there are a host of reasons why he doesn’t appeal to me as a character. First, it’s never made much sense to me that Professor X has a spot on his peace-oriented team for a man whose powers and enhancements make him a perfect assassin or soldier. I’ve also never seen myself reflected in Wolverine the way that I see aspects of myself in Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost (under Joss Whedon’s pen), and (especially) Beast; nor do I see something I could aspire to be in Wolverine the way that I did and do in Storm’s serenity or Nightcrawler’s happiness in spite of a lifetime of abuse. I certainly understand the allure of a character without a past and the desire for redemption (although the importance of this desire was intermittent), but Wolverine never worked for me as a character.

I think that this is mostly because, despite his meager origins, the character of Wolverine evolved into a straight white male power fantasy, especially among the more self-pitying members of the nerd subculture of the eighties and nineties. Macho Wolverine gets the girl, takes no shit, and leaves his enemies shredded to ribbons: he’s the ultimate enviable hero of the platonic nineties nerd before Hollywood came along and turned comic books and superheroes into the hottest trends on Earth. Following this popularity explosion, the character was inescapable, which is probably my foremost issue with him. Don’t like Angel, or Jean Grey, or Psylocke? No problem: there are plenty of Marvel comics without them, including long periods of time in many X-books. Don’t like Wolverine? You’re out of luck, bub: try to find an X-Men comic from 1985 to 2014 where he’s not a presence (give or take an Excalibur here or there), and if you turn to another Marvel book for a Wolverine-free reading experience, you better not want to check out Avengers, or New Avengers, or even Power Pack. It’s essentially the same reason that, despite my long and storied love of Star Trek, I don’t like Data (a crucifiable offense in many circles): both he and Wolverine are such pets of vocal fans and some creators that they become the entire focus of what is supposedly an ensemble, to the detriment and derision of other characters*. You can even see this in the way that he was not only the de facto star of the X-Men films in which he appeared, but also got his own film franchise.

That franchise reaches what claims to be its final film in the recently released Logan, a gritty neo-western masquerading as a superhero film. The plot finds the titular Logan (Hugh Jackman) caring for an aging and increasingly senile Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) with the help of Caliban (Stephen Merchant) in the Mexican desert in 2029. The combination of a cataclysmic event and genetic suppression has rendered them among the last mutants on Earth, until Logan is drawn back into the world of heroism by Gabriella (Orange is the New Black‘s Elizabeth Rodriguez), a woman who begs him to help save a child named Laura (Dafne Keen) from Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a cybernetically enhanced mercenary. Their redemptive road trip also features appearances from Eriq La Salle and Elise Neal as world-weary farmers who provide shelter for the group.

My apathy and weariness about Wolverine aside, this is a good movie. Sure, it makes no logical sense within the confines of the different timelines that the other films in this franchise have provided without a conspiracy theory board of newspaper clippings, post-it notes, and red string, but 20th Century Fox doesn’t care anymore, so why should you? The one problem I’ve never had with the film version of Wolverine is Hugh Jackman’s consistently strong performance regardless of the variable quality of the material available, and this is his best work as the character to date. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that, for once, we’re not reflecting back on his mysterious past as we have in literally every movie in which he appeared in this franchise and are instead seeing a man at the end of his career and, perhaps, his life. Logan deals with the more mundane aspects of growing old, like obsolescence in a changing world, the dementia of an elderly father (figure), and the betrayal of his own aging body and the disease thereof, despite his much-touted healing factor. This is not a character who is obsessed with learning about (or altering) his past, but one for whom the past is prologue to a slow, painful existence in an all-too-real dystopian future.

This is not the Sentinel-ruled technicolor hell of Days of Future Past, nor is it the candy-coated “corrected” timeline in which Jean, Scott, and Hank are alive: this is a dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. This film has been in development for a while and takes a great deal of inspiration from graphic novel Old Man Logan, but it is particularly fascinating that the first X-film released following the election paints such a realistic picture of a dark future in comparison to the optimistic ending of Days of Future Past, which was released solidly in the middle of Obama’s second term, when the tide of freedom and progress seemed to flow ever-forward.

Logan never becomes explicitly political, however, instead allowing this interpretation to emerge from its subtext. This is, first and foremost, a story about a retired, past-his- prime gunbladeslinger who has long since lost what little place he had in the world before being brought back in for one last stand. You’ve seen this movie before, but dressing it up in these clothes puts a spin on the material that is fresher than I expected, in the same way that Winter Soldier was reinvigorating as both a government conspiracy thriller and a superhero flick. I’d love to see more movies like this, to be honest: James T. Kirk and Company as the Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai, Black Widow having to Die Hard her way out of a building, or, hell, even Steve Rogers trying to save the old community center from being torn down to make way for those awful condominium/shopping center hybrid abominations.

Where the film doesn’t work for me is in its insistence on defining Logan’s little group as a family. The discovery of the genetic connection between Logan and Laura and the latter’s decision to help her does not necessarily an intimate connection make, and Xavier’s “This is what life looks like” moment rings falsely sentimental for the character, given all that we’ve seen him do and accomplish over the course of these films. For such a bloody and violent flick (which, make no mistake, Logan is), a fair amount of the emotional resonance that the film seeks to create works, but the occasional references to Laura and Xavier as Logan’s family work better when they’re subtle (like when he passes them off as his father and daughter) than they do when characters explicitly state that they are family. That aside, however, this serves as a fitting swan song for Hugh Jackman’s contribution to the franchise, especially if you’re  willing to forgive stilted dialogue and the occasionally unearned moments of pathos.

*Here’s the part where I admit that I love the Wolverine and the X-Men animated series, despite my general apathy towards the character; although Wolverine is the title character, WatX was much more of an ensemble piece that gave every character plenty of development and attention. He’s also cast in an unusual role as the reluctant leader with the atypically angsty Cyclops serving as the team’s loner. The show also has one of the darkest storylines ever constructed for what is ostensibly a show for children; it’s definitely worth checking out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Death Race 2050 (2017)

threehalfstar

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When people claim that “bad on purpose,” winking-at-the-camera camp films of recent years aren’t ever as exciting as those of distant schlock cinema past, I don’t think they’re necessarily saying that, as a rule, intentional, “low” camp is by nature less engaging than bad-on-accident, “high” camp. I hope not, anyway. I just think there’s typically a laziness to straight-to-VOD/SyFy Channel schlock that stops at a premise or a title, say Shark Exorcist or Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs, without any thorough or passionate pursuit of where its initial ideas can lead. To put it simply, modern CG schlock is rarely as deeply weird as it’s advertised to be in its Ain’t This Weird?! titles. That doesn’t mean all “bad”-on-purpose cinema is worthless, though. Just look to last year’s camp cinema triumphs like The Love Witch, The Greasy Strangler, and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday to prove that’s not true. Modern camp just needs to keep in mind that its most memorable ancestors, from the likes of Roger Corman or John Waters or Ed Wood, were made with great filmmaking passion that covered up whatever shortcomings their microbudgets couldn’t. Even when their tone wasn’t genuine, their inherent weirdness was.

Death Race 2050 is a genuinely weird film. It isn’t much more than a R-rated version of straight-to-SyFy Channel schlock, but it makes its cheap camp aesthetic count when it can and it survives comfortably on its off-putting tone of deeply strange “bad”-on-purpose black comedy. Much more closely in line with the Paul Bartel-directed/Roger Corman-produced original film Death Race 2000 than its gritty, self-serious Paul W.S. Anderson remake, Death Race 2050 is a cheap cash-in on the combined popularity of Hunger Games & Fury Road and makes no apologies for that light-hearted transgression. Corman productions have a long history of cannibalizing the films they’ve influenced, like when Joe Dante’s Piranha film openly riffed on Jaws (which was essentially a Corman film on a Hollywood budget). The original Death Race 2000, along with countless other Corman productions, surely had an influence on both the Mad Max & Hunger Games franchises and it’s hilarious to see the tireless film producer still willing to borrow from his own spiritual descendants for a quick buck all these years later. It’s also funny to hear him describe Death Race 2050 as “a car racing picture with some black humor,” which is about the most mild-mannered way you could possibly put it. The movie is, more honestly put, a live-action cartoon bloodbath featuring broad comedic personalities that would make a pro wrestling promoter blush . . . with a little car racing thrown in for fun. It never tries to survive solely on the strength of its premise, but instead injects each possible moment with weird character details and ludicrous production design. That’s the open secret of its many minor successes.

The plot here is standard Death Race lore. A near-future dystopia known as The United Corporations of America enacts population control through a televised racing competition in which contestants earn points for each pedestrian they run over. Children & the elderly earn them extra. Each contestant has a pro wrestling-sized persona: an obnoxious pop music idol, a genetic freak with inner conflicts regarding his sexuality, a Texas Christian archetype who’s turned her faith into terrorist fanaticism. None are nearly as popular as Frankenstein, however. A cyborg crowd-favorite who has long remained masked, Frankenstein is the paradoxical heartless killer with a heart of gold. Because this film is at least partly a Fury Road knockoff, New Zealander Manu Bennett plays Frankenstein as a cheap Tom Hardy stand-in instead of a reflection of David Carradine’s work in the original film. He drives across the country racking up points, trying not to fall in love with his comely co-pilot/annoying audience surrogate, fighting off a misguided revolution, and ultimately taking aim at his most crucial foil: a CEO-type dictator who falls somewhere between Emperor Snow & Donald Trump (the film’s only casting “get,” Malcolm McDowell). Rapid montages of a pollution-crippled future mix with television gameshow gimmickry, dismembered body parts gore (both traditional & CG), a long list of pointless tangents (including an otherwise-useless scene that deliberarely points to its own minimum-effort satisfaction of The Bechdel Test), and a romance plot no one asked for to make this ultra-violent race across the country a consistently fun, if wholly predictable journey. Death Race 2050 never transcends the bounds of what it is: a straight-to-VOD trifle. It stands as an enthusiastically entertaining example of the format, though, one that pulls some weird punchlines like “When your DNA sleeps it dreams of me,” and “Looks like rain today . . . and enslavement by machines tomorrow” whenever it gets the chance.

The only glaring faults I can cite in Death Race 2050 are a total lack of chemistry between its dull protagonists (Frankenstein & his co-pilot) and a dinky production value that suffers under what must have been a microscopic budget. That’s not so bad for a shameless, winking-at-the-camera remake meant to capitalize on two unrelated franchises that have earned popularity in its original version’s wake. Although Death Race 2050 tries to update some of Death Race 2000‘s minor details for a modern context (VR goggles that look an awful lot like swimming goggles, a Donald Trump-like villain, a self-driving AI vehicle contestant, references to things like St. Dwayne The Rock Johnson & Bieber Elementary), its spirit is very much rooted in the genuine weirdness of the Paul Bartel original. It’s a difficult tone to strike, I presume, given how often these cheap CG camp exercises come off as lifeless, passion-free slogs. Through some simple production details (especially in its dystopian Rainbow Store costuming), a dedication to R-rated sex & gore, and a surprisingly authentic punk soundtrack, Death Race 2050 shines like a rare CG gem in a murky sea of unmemorable schlock. It’s loud, dumb, “bad-on-accident” fun, but in a deliberately strange fashion that never feels lazy or half-cooked the way its peers often do.

-Brandon Ledet

Rollerball (1975)

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three star

Despite what you may assume from the flood of recent titles like Nerve, The Hunger Games, and The Maze Runner, the future-murder sports dystopia flick is not a new invention. The stars of those YA action flicks might skew younger & more feminine than they used to, but there’s a long tradition of dystopian sci-fi sports movies that dates at least as far back as cult classic like Death Race 2000, The Running Man, Tron, and Logan’s Run. Unfortunately, the James Caan sports dystopia Rollerball isn’t exactly a forgotten gem of the genre. It’s an admirable contribution to the field, though, and it had the good fortune of arriving early enough in the deadly future-sports genre to escape accusations of being derivative. If released in 2016 with a Chloë Grace Moretz or an Elle Fanning in its lead role, Rollerball would be a bankable, but forgotten addition to an already-crowded field, but in 1975 it could still pass as an oddity & a novelty, one that’s – for better or for worse – a lot more gruff & macho than its genre has become in the decades since.

The most exciting aspect of Rollerball is, of course, its titular game. Like a deadly version of roller derby filtered through aspects of football, hockey, jai alai, and motocross, rollerball is a swirling tornado of roller skates, motorbikes, and beefy men aiming to break the neck of any competitor willing to block their path to the same goal that commands most professional sports: putting the ball in the hole. Director Norman Jewison (who is also responsible for Moonstruck, oddly enough), throws all of his weight into the staging & the cinematography of the scenes set in the rollerball arena. The film opens with ominous organs that playfully hover between stadium music & a horror score. Intensely lit players on roller skates & motorcycles whip around the arena, flashing spiked gloves & ridiculous facial hair. Rollerball was made in a time when roller derby felt like a brutal & futuristic sport. It’s since become somewhat of a retro relic, but it’s got its own legion of dedicated fans & players and the movie captures the excitement of those crowds, just with an extra layer of bloodlust piled on top. As such, it’s perfectly calibrated for cult film longevity, even if it’s outshone by far superior works like Death Race 2000 & Logan’s Run.

That’s why it’s somewhat of a shame that the rest of the film surrounding the fictional sport is so oddly subdued. James Caan is perfectly cast as a gruff, but aging sports star, recalling several mid-70s quarterbacks from the NFL. He’s seen as being too on top of his game, however, as the wealthy executives who won the international rollerball league urge him to retrieve & squash his massive fanbase. The world of Rollerball is vaguely defined, but features a monolithic organization of Corporations that have replaced world governments with insular profit sharing & traded in business-disrupting wards with, you guessed it, rollerball. The Energy Corporation, who owns the Houston team Caan’s protagonist leads to frequent victory, reminds their star player constantly and with grave seriousness that, “No player is greater than the game itself.” As a sport, rollerball was specifically designed to encourage being a team player & to downplay the significance of the lone hero, a sentiment & philosophy meant to keep The Corporation’s subjects complacent, Caan’s heroic sports star threatens to disrupt that complacency when he refuses to step out of the spotlight and the executives who run the show conspire to rig the game in in order to force him out with the in-the-arena violence. By the time this comes to a head, bodies are on fire & piled on the court, but Caan keeps skating on & putting the ball in the hole. I like the central idea of a bloodsport keeping the common people’s heroics in check by encouraging groupthink, but the film does a much more compelling job establishing that story in the rollerball arena than it does in the lavish boardrooms & penthouses that languidly eat up the other half of its bloated runtime.

There may never be a better time for a Rollerball remake. Not only are remakes in general a hot commodity, but if you recast Caan’s lead role with a female teen you’ll have instant YA profits waiting to pour in (although I suppose it might’ve been a better bet to get it greenlit around the time of the first Hunger Games film, seeing how Nerve unfortunately passed by with little fanfare this summer). Rollerball was already disastrously duplicated in the hellish cultural low point of the nu metal 00s, but the time was less ripe then. Throw some neon & electronica on those undeniably exciting & PG-13 violent roller derby sequences and you’d have a really fun summer blockbuster on your hands. The 1970s version we already have is a decent enough picture on their own, though, especially in its exhilarating scenes of futuristic murder sports. You might have to be an already-established fan of that kind of sci-fi dystopia to be won over by its ludicrous thrills; it’s not an exception within its genre, but more of a typified. It is a weird little action movie, though, one I probably should have watched a lot sooner than I did, given my affection for its highly specific subgenre.

-Brandon Ledet

An Evening with Richard Kelly: A Southland Tales (2007) Q&A

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“No film is every really finished, just abandoned by the filmmaker.”

This is the philosophy, or rather one of the facets of the real-life and filmmaking philosophies, of Richard Kelly. In something of a MotM miracle, I received an email last week advising that Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse would be hosting a screening of Kelly’s 2007 opus Southland Tales, with an introduction by the director and a Q&A following the film. As discussed in our email roundtable, I was a fan of Donnie Darko when it was first brought to my attention in 2003, when a DVD of the film was passed around like wildfire at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. Although time and distance (and a strong wave of hype backlash as the film caught on outside of the cult scene) have dulled my teenage enthusiasm for the film, my interest in Kelly’s work was piqued again by our viewing of The Box, a film I didn’t love but haven’t been able to stop thinking about. I never got the chance to see Southland Tales before this past Sunday, but I’m glad that my first viewing experience was on the big screen and not limited to the comparatively tiny television in my living room.

What’s the film about? I’ll try to be as succinct as I can: Southland Tales takes place in an alternate 2008, where post-9/11 paranoia and the overreach of infringement upon civil liberties that followed that incident has been further exacerbated by a nuclear attack on American soil (Texas, to be precise). The draft has been reinstated, interstate travel is extremely restricted, and citizens are heavily monitored via the use of information network USIdent and the deployment of heavily militarized Urban Pacification Units, which seem to have taken the place of standard police forces. The Republican Party, most notably represented by Texas Senator and potential VP Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne) and his wife, NSA Deputy Director cum USIdent overlord Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson), is seeking to swing California to the red in order to ensure the continued power of USIdent and the party. Popular action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), the husband of the Frosts’ daughter Madeleine (Mandy Moore), has recently awoken in the desert with amnesia; he makes his way into the arms of Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a psychic porn star seeking to expand her media and merchandise empires through diversification. Krysta has recently completed a screenplay entitled The Power, which foretells the end of the world.

Elsewhere, the underground liberal forces of the Neo-Marxists oppose the Republican Party (this entire group is composed almost entirely of former SNL cast members, including but not limited to Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, and Cheri Oteri). Their current plan involves staging a racially-motivated police shooting committed by haunted veteran Roland Taverner posing as his twin brother Ronald (Seann William Scott), an UPU officer; the intention is to have this captured on film by Boxer during a ride-along for research purposes, then use the footage to discredit Bush’s apparent successors. Their machinations are held in check by a series of double-crosses that undermine their ability to take any real political action. Elsewhere elsewhere, the wizard Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) has invented both a device that uses the power of the ocean to generate wireless electricity as well as several injectable liquids of various colors that are used as drugs for both recreational and psychic purposes. He and his band of assorted cronies (Bai Ling, Curtis Armstrong, Zelda Rubinsten, and Beth Grant) move throughout the various factions at play, gaining political power and prestige while well aware that the alternative energy source that they have created could bring about the end of humanity. And all of this is narrated by Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a former movie star whose face was disfigured by friendly fire in Iraq after he was drafted. And, hey, if you were starting to think any of this was too straightforward, don’t worry; there are also stable time loops, predestination paradoxes, mistaken identities, and all the other Kelly elements you’ve come to know and, perhaps, love. Plus a lip-synch music video.

Part multimedia experiment, part time travel film, part jeremiad prophecy of the dangers of unchecked rightwing expansion into surveillance and homeland policing, part philosophy lecture, but mostly a political satire, Southland Tales has been called many things: unwatchable, convoluted, pretentious, and incomprehensible. For my money, however, the film (and its expanded materials, which I hesitate to call “supplementary” given that they were always intended to be part of the experience) is simply too ambitious to ever have any kind of mainstream penetration, even on the level that Darko did. There’s also been a lot of name-calling and assumptions with regards to Kelly’s ego and affectations of intellectualism, even from those of us here at Swampflix; in person, however, Kelly comes across as approachable, well-spoken, thoughtful, and shy (and he’s a total babe as well– look up a picture or two if you haven’t already done yourself this great service; those triceps are poppin’). Kelly directed this film when he was twenty-nine; that’s my age, and all I have to show for a life is a stack of unopened mail and a heap of student loan debt that I’ll finish paying off seven years after I’m dead– if I’m lucky.

In case you weren’t aware, Southland was originally envisioned as the final three chapters in a six-chapter arc, with the first three components released as graphic novels (Kelly said that when these materials, which were not quite complete at the time of the Cannes premiere, were given to the press, they sneered). There is a certain feeling of incompleteness that can be felt in the film as a result, but this is not the same thing as saying that the film is, as Kelly said in his introduction, “unfinished.” There’s certainly an element of that in play in the theatrical version that was screened, but I didn’t find it as distracting as others have. He discussed the nature of the release of the film, the way that certain visual effects were never quite completed due to the fact that the money for said polishing was to have come from one studio that held the international distribution rights, but there were issues with the domestic distributor. It’s all information that you can find elsewhere, I’m sure, so I won’t get into it here. There were some new tidbits that were shared in the Q&A that I’ll share here, though.

Why is Janeane Garofalo in the final scene? In the earlier, longer version of the film that was screened at Cannes, there is an additional subplot in which Garofalo plays a general who is engaged in a Dungeons & Dragons game with veteran Simon Theory (Kevin Smith) and a couple of other characters, with that game serving as an additional metaphorical layer to the events of the film, just line the screenplay for The Power. (I did see a credit for a D&D consultant in the final credits, which confused me until this was explained.)

Was this movie inspired by Brazil? Yes, Kelly loves Brazil.

Where did the character names come from? Kelly discussed that there’s a music to character names, and described how some come from more obvious sources (like the Robert Frost-quoting Senator Bobby Frost), and some a bit more obscure from sources both historical (like the von Westphalen family, whose true allegiances are obvious from the outset for those who know Jenny von Westphalen was the wife of Karl Marx), and literary (the Taverners share their surname with Jason Taverner, protagonist of Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which shares a rightwing autocratic dictatorship with Southland). So, like many of the references to extratextual real-world works that we mentioned in The Box discussion, they’re present less because Kelly wants to prove how smart he is and more because he thinks we’re all on his level, which is a compliment more than anything else.

Why so many Saturday Night Live actors? Besides the aforementioned Poehler, Oteri, Dunn, and Garofalo, other SNL alums include Jon Lovitz and John Larroquette. I really liked Kelly’s answer to this question; when we talk about political satire, at least in America, SNL is the troupe that is on the cutting edge of that discussion.

Is the recurring theme of free will versus predestination representative of a personal philosophy or just something that Kelly finds intriguing to play with on film? This was my question, and was admittedly a little longer in the actual asking (which involved referencing the Job-like structure of The Box and eschatological nature of Southland, leading Richard Kelly to compliment me personally, so take that, world!), but Kelly stated that this was something that he thinks about a lot, that humans beings are often bandied about by forces outside of their control, and how much agency any of us have at all (one audience member asked about Krysta Now’s agency in regards to the film, but I missed the answer to that one trying to calm myself enough to ask my question). Kelly had previously mentioned that Southland was intended to be a cathartic film experience; given that the themes of the film boil down to the idea that salvation comes from forgiving the self, which is an entirely internal emotional journey, I think that this could be reflective of that idea. Forgiving one’s self, like Taverner does in the film’s final moments, removes the external elements of predestination and is purely an act of personal decision, and through that comes real existential relief.

Whatever happened to the Norma Lewis prosthetic foot prop? This one I had to ask for Britnee, per her final thoughts on The Box. As it turns out, Kelly’s father, who really did work on the Mars Viking Lander project, did something similar for Kelly’s mother, whose own foot was disfigured, not unlike Norma’s. As for the prop, Kelly said he would have to make some calls to be absolutely certain, but he’s pretty sure it’s in a props warehouse in Boston.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, Richard Kelly’s sci-fi mystery thriller The Box, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how the film works as a literary adaptation.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Equals (2016)

fourstar

Is it all transgressive or radical anymore to point out that Kristen Stewart is a divinely talented actor? Have her Twilight days been sufficiently been wiped out by the ever-expanding wealth of killer onscreen work she’s put in outside that franchise? I hope so, because it’s becoming tiresome starting reviews like this (my third defensive preamble for her talents after American Ultra & The Clouds of Sils Maria). Kristen Stewart’s main problem, if she has one at all, is that the film industry often seems confused about exactly how to utilize her detached onscreen cool, a visible lack of urgency that lands her presence somewhere between James Dean & Lauren Bacall in its smooth, smoky, effortless charm. Although it nearly approaches the YA romance territory that has threatened to pigeonhole her career, the dystopian sci-fi drama Equals does know what to do with Stewart’s detached cool. Besides indulging in an always-welcome, heartachingly sincere story of sci-fi romance, Equals presents a future where emotion has been outlawed, a perfect platform for Stewart’s own emotive talents, which are typically communicated through subtle body language & small shifts in tone. It’s not my favorite Stewart performance by any stretch, but it might serve as a convincing argument on her behalf for those still on the fence in regards to her immense, underappreciated talent.

As much as I’m rambling on about the many merits of Kristen Stewart here, the true protagonist of Equals is a man named Silas, played by Nicholas Hoult. Silas navigates a cold, clinical world in which war has been eradicated by outlawing human emotion. As a member of the emotionless Collective, Silas lives & works in a society of Spocks. Everything is bland, uniform, and designed for logical, streamlined function, the entire world an Apple Store. Silas’s peaceful life as an illustrator of “speculative non-ficiton” is threatened when an outbreak of the disease S.O.S. (or “switched on syndrome”) starts to trigger “behavioral defects” (emotions) in members of The Collective, including our protagonist. Silas dutifully takes his prescribed pills, but continues to feel anyway (likely a comment on the effectiveness of anti-depressants), and eventually finds himself dangerously infatuated with a coworker, played by Stewart. His love interest is dealing with her own rapidly-progressing S.O.S., however undiagnosed & unmedicated, and initially treats his advances like the unwanted attentions of any other workplace creep. Their attraction is inevitable, though, and sets up an achingly sincere, doomed-to-fail romance full of secretive, tender sexual encounters that put both Hoult’s & Stewart’s characters at risk for correctional “defective emotional therapy” at the hands of The Collective’s governing elite, a “treatment” that often ends in encouraged suicide.

Equals is mostly a slow, sensual drift through a cold, calculated future defined by its clean lines & blue lighting. Its romanceless dystopia most closely resembles the surrealist fantasy of this year’s The Lobster, but it approaches the subject from a more sincere, open-hearted place that recalls the sci-fi romance of titles like Her & Upside Down. There’s a metaphor to be found in the way this future society values “productive” lives over genuine mental health, but its true bread & butter is in the nervous, trembling touches Hoult & Stewart share as two young lovers unaccustomed to intimate human contact. The film finds its own visual language in the way it zooms in on actors’ bodies & faces in search of the tiniest of emotive responses, shrinking even the subtle bodily flirtation of Carol to a more microscopic stature (until, you know, it becomes full-on boning). There’s a little dose of subtle comic relief mixed in with this chest-heaving sensuality in the emotionless delivery of lines like, “You’re going to live, pal,” and [upon witnessing a coworker’s suicide] “That’s unfortunate,” but the film works best for those easily won over by sincere romance juxtaposed with a clinical sci-fi setting, an aesthetic I’ll admit I’m a huge sucker for.

Nicholas Hoult does a great job of selling the heartbreaking sincerity of this futuristic love connection (and, speaking of underappreciated actors, The Diary of a Teenage Girl‘s Bel Powley shows up to support the main cast), but Equals is Stewart’s show, not only because it fits the detached cool of her already established persona so well. As much as I appreciate the cold, clinical future presented here, it mostly makes me wish for a not-too-distant future where Stewart’s recognized for the full scope of her talent, not for being the girl from Twilight. Equals is a welcome step in that direction as well as a great, self-contained love story heightened by an oppressive air of emotional restraint.

-Brandon Ledet

High-Rise (2016)

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fourhalfstar

One of my favorite movie genres is something I’ve dubbed the “Party Out of Bounds,” a kind of storytelling structure where guests at an initially civil social event are compelled beyond reason to stay once polite society de-evolves & things get primally nasty. The exit is open, but they decline & instead choose to duke it out with their fellow “party” guests. As much as I enjoy the realistic examples of this (admittedly made-up) genre like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boys in the Band, and this year’s A Bigger Splash, I really get excited when the “Party Out of Bounds” story gets supernaturally twisted, like in the genre’s crown jewel The Exterminating Angel or in the recent dystopian period piece High-Rise. High-Rise is a particularly interesting case because its party starts from a seemingly dangerous, chaotic place and gets even more wild & savage from there, expanding the scope of its hedonism & cruelty to a months’ long, seemingly supernatural descent into the darkness of the human soul. It’s a sight to behold, a sinisterly amusing & deeply unsettling sight that stands as one of the best “Party Out of Bounds” stories I can remember ever seeing onscreen (and in subsequent nightmares).

Adapted from a novel by J.G. Ballard, the madman who penned the source material for Crash (1996’s incredible Cronenberg provocation, not 2004’s shameless Oscar bait), High-Rise is a reflection of 1970s anxieties about “luxury lifestyle” commodity & spiritually-erosive consumer culture as funneled through an aggressive, vague menace of existential dread. The film posits the modern consumer as a “bio robot,” a soulless machine who cannot function without their various gadgets & devices of “convenience.” Tom Hiddleston’s relatively well-adjusted protagonist begins his journey into a bleak, 1970s version of the future when he moves into a high-rise condo complex, a towering work of architectural Brutalism. It’s easy to believe you understand where the film is headed in his early interactions with the high-rise & its inhabitants. The building is a self-contained class system that matches the rigid haves-vs-havenots societal structure of works like Snowpiercer; the wealthy live on upper floors while the middle & lower class fight for their crumbs on the bottom. As the Talking Heads would put it, the building “has every convenience,” from a grocery store to a gym to a rooftop terrace complete with gardens & horseback riding (that only the upper floor wealthy can access, of course). The rich divert & hoard the best of the building’s resources, setting up an anti-capitalist uprise that we’ve seen play out in many (if not most) dystopian sci-fi works in the past. High-Rise begins its journey into human depravity from this familiar place, but completely unravels & sets fire to the genre expectations that accompany its starting point. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything exactly like it before, which is what makes it such an exciting, terrifying work.

In addition to their addiction to modern convenience, the inhabitants of the titular high-rise are also addicted to partying. As a seemingly well-to-do surgeon (whose professions appears curiously specific to peeling faces off cadavers), Hiddleston’s protagonist is just wealthy enough to get a glimpse of the Victorian-style excess of the parties on the upper floors (as orchestrated by the building’s owner/architect, portrayed by Jeremy Irons), to mingle with the swinging 70s drug orgies of the middle floors, and to kindly visit with the little kids’ birthday parties of the lower working class floors (dutifully lorded over by Elizabeth Moss’s eternally pregnant, much put-upon matriarch). Hiddleston’s role as an entry point to each layer of the literally stratified society within the high-rise is a great starting point for establishing the scenario’s social structure, but ultimately becomes meaningless as the walls dividing these groups begins to break down. After the high-rise experiences an unexplained power outage the entire building devolves into total chaos. In a literal sense the structure begins to crumble: the water stops flowing, the gym is dismantled, the food in the grocery rots & molds, etc. There’s something much stranger going on in this shift, however, something that feels akin to a Persona-style psychological break. High-Rise is, at heart, a mass hysteria horror, a surreal exploration of a weird, unexplained menace lurking in our modern political & economic anxieties. Instead of simply leaving the titular building when things go horrifically sour, its inhabitants instead party harder and their drunken revelry devolves into a grotesque, months-long rager of deadly hedonism & de Sade levels of sexual depravity. The people of the high-rise are portrayed as just another amenity, one that can malfunction & fall apart just as easily & thoroughly as a blown circuit or a busted water pipe. It only takes weeks for the societal barriers that keep them in line to fully degenerate so that the entire high-rise society is partying violently in unison in their own filth & subhuman cruelty. If this is a version of America’s future in consumerism & modern convenience, it’s a harshly damning one, a confounding nightmare I won’t soon forget.

As much as the nastier details of High-Rise‘s eventual descent into cannibalism, rape, and animal cruelty (the majority of which, it’s worth noting, thankfully occurs offscreen) is obviously far outside my own experience with what happens when a party goes out of bounds, I do recognize a little truth in the initial power outage as a source for the mayhem. Anyone in New Orleans (or elsewhere in the coastal South) who’s gotten through the weeks-long power outages that follow hurricanes by drinking gallons of liquor in the darkness & heat should be able to recognize some of their own despair & depravity in the scenario, even if just a little. No matter how much you love the people you ride out a hurricane outage with, the confined space, oppressive boredom, and uncomfortable living conditions of the situation can increase tensions exponentially on a daily basis. The alcohol doesn’t help either (except maybe with the boredom). As I multiply that scenario in my head by the hundreds of people occupying this fictional high-rise & the economic tensions already driving them mad before the outage, this movie’s complete descent into subhuman depravity sort of makes perfect sense. Sort of.

There’s plenty of high art craft that goes into High-Rise‘s trashy version of Cronenberg mania, a marriage of aesthetics represented nicely in its off-putting soundtrack of nervous proto-punk jams & various spooky covers of ABBA‘s “S.O.S.” The film puts a lot of care in constructing its traditional sci-fi dystopia beginnings, distinguished only in details like its The Diary of a Teenage Girl/Space Station 76 faithfulness to its grim 70s era origins and its willingness to ogle at a male actor’s naked body for a change (Hiddleston’s, of course). When the setup gives way to the blindingly chaotic & inhumanly cruel punchline, though, the film finds its own distinctive space of cinematic innovation. High-Rise pushes its initially-familiar story into new, surreally wicked territory that makes for a more memorable experience than what the first act would lead you to expect and then lingers there for an uncomfortably long time. I’ve seen plenty movie parties go out of bounds before, but this is the one that most convincingly sets fire to the path back to civilization in the process. Its an entirely unique obliteration of the thin line that separates the modern consumer from the wild, bloodthirsty beast, a nightmare of a good time that will surely become a strong contender for cult classic status once more people have a chance to fall under its terrifying hypnotic spell.

-Brandon Ledet