Brandon’s Top Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2017

1. Power Rangers – The last thing I would have expected from a superhero origin story that’s simultaneously a reboot of a 90s nostalgia property and a long-form Krispy Kreme commercial is that would bring a tear to my eye, but it happened several times throughout the latest Power Rangers film. Long before Power Rangers is overrun with alien sorcery, robot dinosaurs, and corporate-made donuts, it shines as a measured, well-constructed character study for a group of teenage outsiders longing for a sense of camaraderie, whether terrestrial or otherwise. Isolated by their sexuality, their position “on the spectrum,” their responsibility of caring for ailing parents​, and their past bone-headed mistakes, the teens who eventually morph into the titular Power Rangers are a broken, lonely lot. Still, this is a nostalgia-minded camp fest that’s not at all above cheap pops like briefly playing the 90s “Go Go Power Rangers” theme during its climactic battle. Its greatest strength is in the tension between those tones.

2. Monster Trucks – The rare camp cinema gem that’s both fascinating in the deep ugliness of its creature design and genuinely amusing in its whole-hearted dedication to children’s film inanity. It isn’t often that camp cinema this wonderfully idiotic springs up naturally without winking at the camera; it’s a gift to be cherished.  Monster Trucks feels like a relic of the 1990s, its existence as an overbudget $125 million production being entirely baffling in a 2017 context. It may be a good few years before any Hollywood studio goofs up this badly again and lets something as interesting-looking & instantly entertaining as Creech see the light of day, so enjoy this misshapen beast while you can.

3. IT – An excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. IT is an Event Film dependent on the jump scares, CGI monsters, and blatant nostalgia pandering (even casting one of the Stranger Things kids to drive that last point home) that its indie cinema competition has been consciously undermining to surprising financial success in recent years. What’s impressive is how the film prominently, even aggressively relies on these features without at all feeling insulting, lifeless, or dull. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of “elevated” horror, IT stands as a declarative, back to the basics return to mainstream horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions, which tend to lurk at the edges of the frame.

 

4. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2/ Thor: Ragnarok – Apparently, all of the MCU’s tendencies to squash auteurist voices with a collective House Style go out the window when they launch their franchises into space. Hip nerds James Gunn & Taika Waititi were both allowed to deliver the most aggressively bizarre, personal entries in the MCU yet with their respective space operas. Thor: Ragnarok‘s Planet Trash buffoonery (complete with off-the-wall contributions from eternal freaks Jeff Goldblum & Mark Mothersbaugh) was particularly idiosyncratic, like Pure Waititi doing Flash Gordon in the best way. Gunn’s film is much more emotionally grounded, somehow pulling off a genuinely touching climax after two full hours of cartoonishly violent, darkly comic id. Both works deserve kudos for excelling as intensely creative, memorable feats in blockbuster filmmaking.

5. XX –  Four concise, slickly directed, but stylistically varied horror shorts that each take chances on premises rich enough to justify an 80 minute feature’s leg room, but are instead boiled down to digestible, bite-sized morsels. As a contribution to the horror anthology as a medium & a tradition, XX is a winning success in two significant ways: each individual segment stands on its own as a worthwhile sketch of a larger idea & the collection as a whole functions only to provide breathing room for those short-form experiments. On top of all that, it also boasts the added bonus of employing five women in directorial roles, something that’s sadly rare in any cinematic tradition, not just horror anthologies.

6. Logan – There’s a lot to be excited about here: a superhero narrative that tries its hand in genre contexts outside the action blockbuster (even though I’m not particularly a fan of Westerns), the throat-ripping hyperviolence, a Wolverine Who Cusses, a Lil’ Wolverine you can fit in your pocket, etc. What really won me over in Logan, though, was how deeply weird the movie felt. Aesthetically, the closest reference point I could conjure for its mixture of childlike imagination & dispiriting grime is Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, which is a much more challenging vibe than what we’re used to seeing in superhero fare. The fact that it (accidentally) offers a legitimate glimpse into the future of Trump’s America in the process makes it all the more bizarre & worth seeking out.

7. The Fate of the FuriousThe Fast and the Amnesious is a universe without a center. It’s a series that continually retcons stories, characters, and even deaths to serve the plot du jour. That’s why it’s a brilliant move to shake up the sense of normalcy that’s been in-groove since the fifth installment in the series by giving Daddy Dom a reason to walk away from his Family, whom he loves so dearly.  F. Gary Gray brings the same sense of monstrously explosive fun to this franchise entry as he did to the exceptional N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. He strays from past tonal choices and character traits, but ultimately sticks to the core of the only things that have remained consistent in the series: there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved by a deadly, explosion-heavy street race and even the most horrific of Familial tragedies can be undone by a backyard barbeque, where grace is said before every meal and Coronas, um, I mean Budweisers are proudly lifted into the air for a communal toast. There’s something beautiful about that (and also something sublimely silly).

8. Free Fire – In its earliest, broadest brushstrokes, Free Fire is disguised as a return to the over-written, vulgar shoot-em-ups that flooded indie cinemas with their macho mediocrity in the years immediately following Quentin Tarantino’s first few features. Thankfully, things get much stranger from there. What’s fascinating is the way High-Rise director Ben Wheatley pushes a bare-bones premise, which is essentially a feature-length shoot-out, past the point of mediocre Tarantino-riffing into something much more transcendently absurd. By the film’s third act, its stubborn dedication to a single, bombastic bit becomes so punishingly relentless that it’s sublimely (and hilariously) surreal. It’s the shoot-em-up equivalent of a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. I’m not sure I ever want to see a gun fired in a movie again.

9. Wheelman – There weren’t many action movies last year leaner & meaner than this direct-to-streaming sleeper. The heist-gone-wrong plot is lizard brain simple, leaving plenty of room for the slickly edited camera trickery & city-wide mountain of paranoia that drive the film’s action. It’s as if the opening getaway sequence of Drive was stretched out for a full 80 minutes and packed to the gills with explosively dangerous testosterone. The majority of the film is shot from inside a car, even the conflict-inciting bank robbery, so that the audience feels like they were shoved in the back seat against their will and taken on a reckless ride into the night.

10. Atomic Blonde – One of the more bizarre aspects of this Charlize Theron action vehicle is the way it hops on the 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the Stranger Things & Ready Player One trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in 1989, the film’s estimation of 80s pop culture include references like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. As nerdy as its 80s pop culture references can be, though, its basic pleasures are universally apparent. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. It’s not wrong.

11. Girls Trip – An unashamedly maudlin comedy about adult sisterhood that drowns its audience in melodramatic cheese in its reflections on motherhood, religious Faith, adultery, betrayal, and falling out of touch with loved ones. Also one of the bawdiest, most aggressively horny comedies of the year, with a turn from breakout star Tiffany Haddish steering the ship out of Hallmark Channel waters towards the prankish filth of Divine’s turn in Pink Flamingos every opportunity she’s allowed at the helm. These two warring halves– the raunchy & the sentimental– make for a wholly unpredictable, tonally chaotic summertime comedy with gleeful participation in overt, oversexed filth that plays directly to my raccoonish tastes.

12. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Objectively speaking, this  horrible excuse for a space opera is a colossally goofy embarrassment. But I think I loved it? Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element somewhat passes as a normal movie if you squint at it from the right angle. This spiritual follow-up never had a chance, thanks largely to its titular lead. Dane DeHaan pretty much delivers a feature-length Keanu Reeves impersonation as the space-traveling swashbuckler Valerian, doing as much as he can to suck all the fun out of the film’s weirdo indulgences in grotesque creatures & alien planet dreamscapes. The movie persists as a misshapen good time anyway and I was oddly won over by DeHaan’s charisma vacuum as the story recklessly barreled along, despite myself.

13. Happy Death Day – Its defining gimmick may be dutifully reimagining the 1990s comedy Groundhog Day as a violent teen slasher, but what’s most surprising is that the slasher end of that gimmick is very much tied to the second wave slasher boom that arrived in the nü metal days of the late 90s & early 00s. Happy Death Day‘s depictions of PG-13 acceptable violence echo the big budget action & comedy beats that tinged post-Scream slashers like Urban Legend & I Know What You Did Last Summer. There’s a masked killer who murders our (deeply flawed) protagonist dozens & dozens of times on her birthday as she relives the same time loop on endless repeat, but outside a few jump scares & moments of horror tradition teen-stalking, the film doesn’t truly aim to terrorize.  Repetition allows the doomed sorority girl to adjust to her supernaturally morbid predicament and Happy Death Day gradually evolves into a girly (even if mean-girly) comedy that employs horror more as a setting than as an ethos.

14. Friend Request – When this dirt cheap supernatural slasher was first released in its native Germany, it was originally titled Unfriend. To avoid confusion with the modern found footage classic Unfriended (known as Unknown User in Germany), the title was later switched to Friend Request in its move to the US. This uninteded comparison does Friend Request no favors, really, as it’s the Bucky Larson: Born to be a Porn Star to Unfriended’s Boogie Nights, the Corky Romano to its Goodfellas. As the sillier, more formulaic entry into the social media-age technophobia horror canon, the film only stands a chance to excel as a campy, over-the-top novelty. Thankfully, as an airheaded jump scare fest about a Faceboook witch, it delivers on that entertainment potential (in)competently.

15. Death Race 2050 – Not much more than an R-rated version of straight-to-SyFy Channel schlock, but makes its cheap camp aesthetic count when it can and 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. 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 tirelessly self-cannibalizing film producer still willing to borrow from his own spiritual descendants for a quick buck all these years later.

16. Alien: Covenant -Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags the Alien series’ newfound philosophical themes down to the level of a pure Roger Corman creature feature. This prequel-sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise. Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years (it really should be retitled Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot), Covenant easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series. If it could be considered middling, it’s only because the Alien franchise has a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand typically has eight films into its catalog.

17. Kuso -How do you feel about the idea of watching Parliament Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton play a doctor who cures a patient of their fear of breasts by allowing a giant cockroach to crawl out of his ass & puke a milky bile all over their face? Your answer to that question should more or less establish your interest level in the gross-out horror comedy Kuso, in which that visual detail is just one minor curio in the larger freak show gestalt. With his debut feature as a director, Steve Ellison (who produces music under the monikers Flying Lotus & Captain Murphy) has made a Pink Flamingos for the Adult Swim era, a shock value comedy that aims to disgust a generation of degenerates who’ve already Seen It All, as they’ve grown up with internet access. Most audiences will likely find that exercise pointless & spiritually hollow, but I admired Kuso both as a feature length prank with Looney Tunes sound effects and as a practical effects visual achievement horror show.

18. The Babysitter – McG might finally found a proper outlet for his directorial style’s music video kineticism: bubblegum pop horror. The director’s tacky, over-energized breakfast cereal commercial aesthetic tested audiences’ patience in his Charlie’s Angels adaptations. The unbearably dour Terminator: Salvation proved that tonally sober seriousness would never be his forte either. The straight-to-Netflix horror comedy The Babysitter might be proof, however, that there is a perfect place in this world for McG’s hyperactive tastelessness. Essentially Home Alone 6(?!): Invasion of the Teenage Satanists, The Babysitter turns the cheerleader uniforms, spin-the-bottle games, and babysitting gigs of horny teen archetypes into a screwball comedy of violent terrors, an excellent backdrop for the tacky live action cartoon energy of McG’s crude, auteurist tendencies.

19. The Book of Henry – An unintended camp pleasure, entirely due to the unfathomably poor writing behind Naomi Watt’s mother figure, whose complete deferment to her 12-year-old son for every single adult decision is comically bizarre. In the film’s funniest moment, Watts’s protagonist is visibly frustrated that she can’t ask her son Henry for permission to sign medical documents because he’s in the middle of having a seizure. Her narrative trajectory of gradually figuring out that maybe she shouldn’t get all of her life advice from a precocious 12-year-old, not to mention a (spoiler) dead precocious 12 year old, is treated like a grand scale life lesson we all must learn in due time, when it’s something that’s already obvious from the outset. It’s also a scenario that only exists in this ludicrous screenplay anyway. She’s the most ridiculously mishandled adult female character I can remember seeing since Bryce Dallas Howard’s starring role in Colin Trevorrow’s last abomination, Jurassic World, another performance I’d place firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good camp.

20. Pottersville – Plays a lot like a Christmas-themed, kink-shaming episode of Pushing Daisies, with its plot’s overarching sweetness more or less amounting to It’s a Wonderful Yiff.  I wouldn’t suggest entering Pottersville if you’re not looking for a campy, tonally bizarre holiday comedy, but its novelty subversion of the Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie formula is both deliberate and surprisingly successful. Considering that Michael Shannon stars as an undercover Bigfoot hoaxer drunkenly attempting to infiltrate a community of small town furries in a modern retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life, I have to assume everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing in achieving this aesthetic imbalance. You don’t stumble into that kind of absurdity completely by mistake no more than you can accidentally wander into yuletide yiffing.

-Brandon Ledet

Girls Trip (2017)

In a summer when many comedies fell flat & promptly disappeared, Girls Trip excelled as a surprise runaway success lingering in theaters for months longer than its closest competition (Rough Night, Fun Mom Dinner, etc.). It’s not at all difficult to see why the film would carry a wide appeal & resulting financial success. As a star-studded broad comedy (featuring heavy hitters Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Queen Latifah among pop music celebrity cameos from performers like P. Diddy & Estelle) that caters directly to black audiences, Girls Trip taps directly into a criminally underserved market desperate to see its POV properly represented on the big screen. In a more idiosyncratic sense, it also cast an impossibly wide net in terms of tone. Girls Trip is an unashamedly maudlin comedy about adult sisterhood that drowns its audience in melodramatic cheese in its reflections on motherhood, religious Faith, adultery, betrayal, and falling out of touch with loved ones. It’s also one of the bawdiest, most aggressively horny comedies of the year, with a turn from breakout star Tiffany Haddish steering the ship out of its Hallmark Channel waters towards the prankish filth of Divine’s turn in Pink Flamingos every opportunity she’s allowed at the helm. These two warring halves– the raunchy & the sentimental– make for a wholly unpredictable, tonally chaotic summertime comedy that’s bound to grab the attention of anyone within earshot. Very rarely is something with commercial appeal this vast is so energetically strange & memorable for its grand scale acts of depravity.

The four leads of this corny/raunchy comedy feel as if they were grown in a lab to appeal to every quadrant of middle aged women in 2010s America. Queen Latifah is a skilled journalist whose talents are going to waste writing click bait hit pieces on celebrity gossip. Regina Hall is billed as the second coming of Oprah, a successful woman who seemingly Has It All in public, but struggles to keep her family together in private. Tiffany Haddish is a nuclear element of chaos, an overgrown childhood id in an adult woman’s body. Jada Pinkett-Smith is an uptight Party Mom, a “nurturer”, which is in direct contrast to her real life persona fronting a nu-metal band (!) & raising America’s most adorable space aliens. Self-described as The Flossy Posse, this meticulously crafted crew reunites after their post-college fall-out for an extravagant trip to New Orleans, where they attend Essence Fest & generally raise hell. Half the plot concerns mending emotional wounds between Latifah & Hall’s estranged besties as they try to save face in discussions of their personal lives. The other half is a group-wide mission to get Pinkett Smith’s hopelessly milquetoast Mother archetype laid. Haddish operates entirely outside either concern, ensuring the film’s immortality in her Freddy Got Fingered levels of depravity. Haddish’s lengthy tangents about ripping men’s hearts out & storing drugs in her “bootyhole” are paired with acts of mimed fellatio & a firehose of sprayed urine to completely pervert & subvert all of the film’s more heartfelt reflections on betrayal, reconciliation, and True Friendship. Haddish is not the only Flossy Posse member with blue material; every character gets their fair share of one-liners about giant dicks, camel toe, etc. Her performance just pushes the material into all-timer territory in its commitment to depravity & its freedom to exist outside concerns of realism or grounding melodrama.

New Orleans is the perfect backdrop for these sordid/maudlin shenanigans, but I have to admit I was often distracted by the way my city was depicted onscreen. The laws of movie magic dictate that I cannot nitpick the logic of the Hotel Monteleone’s carousel bar being near-empty on a festival weekend, the convenience of cabs & hotel rooms opening out of nowhere, the inhuman ability for the Flossy Posse to down consecutive Hand Grenades™ without exploding into piles of vomit, or the lunacy of a character having their morning coffee at the Topical Isle daiquiri chain. I can let these minuscule details go. The sanitized amusement park look of America’s infected bootyhole, Bourbon Street, was laughably unrealistic, however, and as a local it’s always sad to see one of the most vital, dynamic cultures on the planet reduced to off-season Mardi Gras beads & public flashing. From a tourist’s perspective, this view of the city might right true, though. There’s genuine admiration for the city in the film’s loving shots of the Superdome and local music touches like a twerking-flavored bounce show or a brass band rendition of a Bill Withers classic. Essence Fest also plays a huge role in Girls Trip‘s basic appeal. Not only does it allow for pop music acts to break up more labored stretches of emotional conflict; it also leads to weird novelties like this being the only film you’re likely to ever see where Ava DuVernay & DJ Mannie Fresh are both featured in prominent cameos. On some level, Girls Trip works as a dual commercial both for New Orleans as a lawless playground and for Essence as a concert experience. I just hope that anyone who takes the bait is aware that they won’t have as effortless of a time with it as The Flossy Posse, even with Regina Hall money to throw around.

There are plenty of reasons why Girls Trip shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. Besides its depiction of a pristine, non-existent New Orleans, the film is overlong, dramatically labored, and embarrassingly cheesy. You get a whopping taste of that cheese in its introductory stretch, which heavily features a lazily Photoshopped group portrait of The Flossy Posse standing in front of a green screen Superdome and (I kid you not) opens with a record scratch sound effect. It’s somehow easy to even be charmed by that opener, however, thanks to how a look back to the crew’s college days allows for open 90s nostalgia (a hot commodity right now, another reason why Latifah’s casting was perfectly calibrated). If Girls Trip is indeed a movie-by-committee proposition engineered to appeal to as many people as possible, I’ll admit I was not at all immune to its scheme. The film’s gleeful participation in overt, oversexed filth plays directly to my raccoonish tastes. Even if the massive runtime or clueless sentimentality had entirely soured me, I still would have walked away a fan of Tiffany Haddish, whose Jerri Blank-esque presence elevates the material immeasurably. I wasn’t necessarily negative on the film’s emotionally manipulate half either, though. Not every story beat about motherhood anxiety or the struggle to maintain the integrity of Christian Faith & public brands did something for me, but the film’s overall celebration of female friendship is undeniably infectious. It may be a story that could have been told more honestly & more succinctly, but the way its genuine pathos is perverted by the chaos of bar fights, hallucination, and male frontal nudity made for a delightfully subversive summertime comedy. I just won’t shed a tear if Girls Trip 2 happens to be set in another city, so I can focus less on setting & more on whom the Flossy Posse is banging, pissing on, giving a sincere heart to heart to, etc.

-Brandon Ledet