Femme Fatale (2002)

Brian De Palma’s late-career erotic thriller Femme Fatale opens with an exquisitely staged diamond heist, set during a red-carpet movie premiere at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. It ends with an all-in commitment to a sitcom-level cliched Twist that zaps any remnants of prestige or intelligence from that refined opening locale. Those two bookends—a pretentious Art Cinema patina and an intellectually bankrupt gotcha! plot twist—perfectly frame what makes the movie such sublimely idiotic fun. Femme Fatale is preposterous, lurid trash from the goblin king of preposterous, lurid trash. De Palma imports his refined visual acrobatics into the cheap Paris Hilton-era fashions of the early 2000s, and the result is just as impressively crafted as it is aggressively inane.

The opening image of Femme Fatale finds then X-Men villain Rebecca Romijn lounging naked in a French hotel room, watching a classic noir (1944’s Double Indemnity) on a cathode television. Even without the way the title underlines the femme fatale tropes of the noir genre, the audience instantly knows she’s bad news because she shares the same slicked-back bisexual hairdo Sharon Stone sports in Basic Instinct. Romijn pulls off the Cannes diamond heist by distracting her mark with bathroom-stall lesbian sex. She then double-crosses her fellow thieves, and struggles to protect herself (and her loot) in a world where she slinks around with a target on her back. Luckily (very luckily), she’s able to escape by stealing the identity of a French civilian who looks exactly like her (because she’s also played by Romijn); she just has to hope that a snooping slimebag paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) doesn’t blow her cover, or else she’ll have to seek her own revenge for the betrayal. The rest of the film is a convoluted tangle of blackmail, double-crosses, strip teases, and unearned plot twists. It’s all so cheap in its Euro trash mood & straight-boy sexuality that it’s a wonder De Palma managed to not drool directly on the lens.

Story-wise, Femme Fatale is only remarkable for its perversely laidback pace. It’s shockingly unrushed for such a tawdry erotic thriller, allowing plenty of time for relaxing bubble baths, leisurely window-peeping, and little cups of espresso between its proper thriller beats. Otherwise, the film would be indistinguishable from straight-to-DVD action schlock if it weren’t for De Palma’s pet fixations as a visual stylist and a Hitchcock obsessive. All of his greatest hits are carried over here: split-screen & split diopter tomfoolery; suspended-from-the-ceiling Mission: Impossible hijinks; shameless homages to iconic Hitchcock images like the Rear Window binocular-peeping. The mood is decidedly light & playful, though, especially in the flirtatious deceptions shared between Banderas & Romijn. In that way, it’s a lot like De Palma’s version of To Catch a Thief: beautiful movie stars pushing the boundaries of sex & good taste in a surprisingly comedic thriller set in gorgeous European locales. The difference is that Hitch’s film is a carefully crafted Technicolor marvel, while De Palma’s is only elevated a few crane shots above a Skinemax production. Both approaches have their merits.

I wish I could say that there’s some pressingly relevant reason to recommend this film to new audiences. The only contemporary connection I can bullshit on the fly is that its stolen identity sequence recalls the recent Hilaria Baldwin nontroversy in the press, as Romijn’s titular conwoman is publicly exposed for faking a French accent for seven consecutive years (even to her husband). The truth is that I only watched this because it’s one of my few remaining blind-buys from the pre-COVID days when I would collect random physical media from nearby thrift stores. The copy on the back of that DVD is so dated in its relevancy that, just under its “Fatale-y Attractive Bonus Features” section (woof), it includes an America Online Keyword for the poor dolts who might want to research the film on The Web but need the extra guidance. That early-2000s-specific insignificance speaks to the film’s broader appeal. This is disposable, amoral trash that would be totally lost to time if it weren’t for the over-the-top eccentricities of its accomplished horndog director. What would normally be an anonymous entry into a genre comprised mostly of cultural runoff instead feels like a significant cornerstone of De Palma’s personal canon.

-Brandon Ledet

Locked Down (2021)

Doug Liman’s COVID-themed, straight-to-HBO romcom Locked Down has seemingly hit a raw nerve for a lot of the pro critics who were assigned to cover it. What I found to be a low-key, innocuous charmer has been burdened with tons of handwringing about what Popular Art is allowed to be made & distributed during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The collective complaint appears to be that movies should transport their audience away from the time & place we occupy, not dwell in it; or at least that being stuck in our domestic spaces for the past year has emphasized a need for pop culture escapism. Locked Down‘s major faux pas against good taste is in its desire to be of-the-moment, compromising its value as fluff entertainment by reminding us just how miserable it is to be alive in our confined, isolated worlds right now. It has critics gritting their teeth in guarded anticipation of more COVID-themed pop media to come, especially since ongoing lockdown restrictions continue to limit what can be made & distributed in the year. I just personally fail to see how any of this is intrinsically bad.

A lot of my openness to COVID-themed pop media is an extension of my interest in, of all things, social media-themed horror films. I do love a gimmicky exploitation flick that fixates on the distinctly modern evils of momentary novelties like Skype calls (Unfriended), ride-share apps (Spree), Facebook timelines (Friend Request), Instagram clout (Ingrid Goes West), camgirl chatrooms (Cam), and so on. Not only are these technophobic thrillers entertaining for their traditional genre payoffs, but they’re also culturally valuable for daring to document the particular inanities of what our lives look & feel like online in a way that the more respectable corners of Mainstream Cinema wouldn’t dare. In a way, Locked Down (along with other COVID-era productions) is a natural evolution of that kind of strike-while-the-iron’s-hot exploitation filmmaking. It’s blatantly capitalizing on the idiosyncrasies of surviving the past year by using them to flavor an otherwise superficial, well-behaved genre film. The only difference is that it’s hanging those of-the-moment details off of genres people usually take more seriously than the technophobic horror: the break-up drama, the romcom, the heist film, etc. Whether or not that kind of cynical Life During COVID documentation violates a current cultural desire for Movie Magic escapism, it will only become more valuable the further we get away from this moment.

In fact, Locked Down is already a document of a bygone era. Its version of Life During COVID is more specific to the earliest lockdown orders of last March when the world at large finally started taking the virus seriously (i.e. when it nearly assassinated Tom Hanks). Anne Hathaway & Chiwetel Ejiofor star as a bitter Londoner couple who foolishly break up just when the stay-at-home orders hit the city, confining their romantic meltdown to a single (fabulously stylish) house they’re pressured not to leave. Their isolation from the outside world and increased “alone” time triggers an avalanche of neurotic second-guessings of their life philosophies & self-mythologies. They not only reassess their relationship, but also the overall trajectory of their life together, their individual professional careers, and the world at large. Meanwhile, early-pandemic observations about empty city streets, supermarket mask etiquette, at-home breadmaking, laggy Zoom calls (a convenient excuse for Celebrity Cameos), and the introduction of pajama bottoms to “office” wear anchor those alone-time reassessments to a very specific, instantly recognizable moment in recent history. All of this anti-romantic back & forth unfolds like a lightly bitter stage play (thanks mostly to the limited setting and the screenwriting contribution from Locke-director Steven Knight) until seemingly insignificant details accumulate to present an absurd opportunity to the struggling couple: they could easily pull off a minimal-effort diamond heist. Even just the suggestion of that risky transgression is enough to reignite their lost excitement for life & each other. The major conflict of the heist is not in its planning but in the decision of whether or not to go through with it at all.

In a word, Locked Down is cute. Like with the last time Anne Hathaway starred in a frothy heist comedy (Ocean’s 8), its only major sin is that it’s decent enough but Soderbergh could’ve done something phenomenal with the same cast & resources. Its major selling point—whether or not anyone knows it yet—is that it’ll be a great fluffy time capsule for people who were too snooty or squeamish to watch last year’s Host. The promotional materials for Locked Down have claimed that it’s “one of the first and most ambitious films to be conceived and shot during the pandemic”. I know that’s bullshit for two glaring reasons: 1. Critics who are professionally assigned to watch & review pop media are apparently already sick of grappling with COVID-era cinema, indicating that it’s far from a novelty at this point. 2. The found-footage Zoom meeting horror flick Host was conceived, shot, and released last summer, when many of Locked Down‘s more zeitgiesty observations would’ve still felt fresh. Host was also way more ambitious in its genre payoffs & budget-defying stunts, whereas Locked Down is mostly just handsome celebrities exchanging cutesy monologues in a few limited locales. Even its central diamond “heist” is mostly a series of conversations. The only difference is that Host (despite being the far superior work) happens to belong to a genre that most audiences don’t take seriously as Art, whereas Locked Down echoes more widely familiar moods & rhythms of Mainstream Filmmaking, which has largely been halted for the past 10 months. Despite the cries of its COVID-era commentary being Too Soon, Too Crass, or Too Much, I think there’s immense cultural value to pop media like this directly grappling with the real-world circumstances that are limiting its scope by effectively documenting them for cultural posterity. It’s time-capsule exploitation filmmaking at its sweetest & most harmless, so I’m a little baffled as to why it’s become such a critical scapegoat.

-Brandon Ledet

Kajillionaire (2020)

When I was going through a really bad breakup in 2014, there was a quote that I stumbled across on Tumblr (again, it was 2014) that spoke to me on an intimate, deep level. I thought it was part of a poem, but I could never find it again, and I spent six years occasionally plugging the random bits of it that I could remember into Google to see if it would spit out the name of the poem, or the poet. Finally, in September, the search engine of record returned a result. The author was Miranda July, and it wasn’t a poem, it was an excerpt from her book It Chooses You

“All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.”

It may not seem like much to you (although if you’ve ever struggled with depression, it probably does), but I never felt more seen than I did in the moment that I first read this assortment of words in this particular order. How do other people make it through? Where are they parking their bodies and coping inside of those bodies, hour after endless hour? When you’re in the bottom of your emotional well and every hour feels like days, how are you supposed to live with that? I wanted to know and even knowing that someone else wanted to know it too made me feel less isolated and alone.

The answer to that question is not found in Kajillionaire, Miranda July’s 2020 film (she is credited as both writer and director). The film tells the story of Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood), who was so named by her con artist parents in honor of an unhoused person who won the lottery in the hopes that their daughter would be put in his will (in vain). Her father Robert (Richard Jenkins) prides himself on having no interest in or connection to mainstream consumerism, instead preferring to reject society’s pursuit of wealth and the accompanying desire to become “kajillionaires” to instead live a life in the margins, and her mother Theresa (Debra Winger) is in complete sympatico. They’re rejection of the conventional economy extends to making their home in an inexpensive office next to a soap factory, which also includes a twice-daily scooping of soap bubble overflow that comes out of the walls into a drain in the floor. They’re not just freegans, though: they’re pickpockets, scammers, and con artists, meticulously and obsessively keeping track of surveillance cameras and performing elaborate movements to avoid being seen, largely oblivious to the fact that they stick out like sore thumbs otherwise. Since Old Dolio’s childhood, they have split everything three ways. 

After attending a pregnancy preparation course taught by Dead to Me’s Diana-Maria Riva, Old Dolio starts to recognize how little her parents care for her emotional well being (read: not even a little bit). This is exacerbated when, while doing a quick airline luggage fraud scam, Robert and Theresa meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) and adopt her into their schemes while also immediately beginning to treat her with more tenderness and concern than their daughter, which does not escape her notice. Seemingly charmed by the thought of Hollywood-style heists, Melanie puts forth the idea of going to the homes of the lonely, elderly customers at the mall-based ophthalmology office where she works and complimenting their antiques until they offer her something of value, which the quartet could then flip. Ultimately, she finds the desperate, morally questionable actions of the Dyne clan to be seedier and less Ocean’s Eleven than she expected, but not before she develops a crush on the emotionally damaged Old Dolio. When Theresa can’t manage to use a single term of endearment for her daughter, Melanie promises to do all of that and more. 

Wood is giving a solid performance here,

On a recent Lagniappe episode of the podcast in which we discussed The Other Lamb, Brandon noted that he thought that the film would fall within my wheelhouse because of my interest in cults, be it real life cults like NXIVM or fictional cults like those in The Lodge and The Endless. And it’s true, and it’s also true that, as we discussed in that episode (and in other places), although I wasn’t raised in a cult per se, I did grow up in a particular segment of Evangelical Christianity that was very particular in its beliefs, and, like the Dyne parents here, created a mythology that was not only outside of and opposed to the mainstream, but was also strictly about opposition to the mainstream as part of its ideology. What really worked for me about Kajillionaire was Robert and Theresa’s strange little beliefs and how those beliefs so heavily affected their raising of Old Dolio not as a child but as a tool. Their self-centeredness and codependence upon each other, to the point of ostracizing their daughter, is played for laughs, and it’s often funny, but it’s also horribly depressing. When Old Dolio wins a trip to New York, her earnest attempts to take the trip with just her mother is not only rebuffed by Theresa, but Robert later uses it to denigrate his daughter as part of one of his many angry diatribes about how their way of life is the only feasible way. When Old Dolio manages to graft the aforementioned lost-luggage-insurance-fraud scam onto the trip to net just enough for the family to pay their back rent, said con involves flying to NYC together and flying back separately as strangers, but George immediately insists that he and Theresa will be a couple, and Old Dolio will travel alone. Not only is an arrangement of Richard flying alone while Theresa and Old Dolio fly together not even considered, but Richard and his wife are true narcissists who only see their daughter as a prop for their “jobs,” and nothing more. 

The Dynes don’t want to be “fake” people, behaving as society expects a parent to, and they find the idea of treating Old Dolio with tenderness as both artificial and patronizing, as if undignified. And I’ll be honest: that speaks to me, too. It’s probably the a reason that I am not very good with children (and wasn’t even when I was one, although there was also the bullying), as I find it hard to engage with them when the situation (very rarely, thankfully) requires me to do so. But this film carries that idea through to its inevitable dark end when applied to parenting, and although the film’s marketing makes it look like this situation will be at least somewhat charming before conflict arises, it’s clear from the earliest moments that this is completely unhealthy, and that the world within which Old Dolio is trapped is one where even the slightest kindness or touch of comfort or is completely alien to her. 

There’s something fascinatingly and fantastically alien about Old Dolio’s situation, on top of and adjacent to the world that the rest of us live in. Miranda July seems to have asked herself about how one extremely specific person was making it through life —where she was putting her body, hour by hour, and how she was coping inside of it. It’s a character study of someone raised in a culture that is invisible, tangential, and almost inconceivable. In that, it’s worth a watch, although I’d wait until after its hefty rental price comes down a little.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Sugar & Spice (2001)

By now, Heathers has surely gotten its full due as a cult classic in terms of its delicious visual aesthetics & eternal quotability. It’s even earned its own Broadway musical adaptation, so there should be nowhere left for its “cult” legacy to go. I still don’t think we’ve fully reckoned with how well balanced the tone of Heathers is, though, especially as a feat of screenwriting. Daniel Waters’s playful, sardonic cruelty is a deceptively tricky balancing act to properly execute, which is glaringly apparent when you look at the film’s dark teen comedy imitators in the late 1990s & early 2000s. Drop Dead Gorgeous is the most accomplished imitator to the throne, with the biggest laughs & most keenly pointed satirical eye of any post-Heathers high school cruelty comedy. It’s also a film that chooses some hideously misjudged moments to punch down, particularly at the expense of anorexic teens & the mentally disabled. For its part, Jawbreaker evolves the highly stylized visual whimsy of Heathers into a candy-coated fantasy all of its own, but its callous humor about sexual assault & physical abuse leaves an unignorably sour taste. However, neither of those examples conveys the high wire balancing act of the post-Heathers teen cruelty comedy quite as succinctly as Sugar & Spice.

Sugar & Spice is an absurdly bubbly, flippantly cruel teen comedy about bank-robbing cheerleaders. Its 1960s Archie Comics stylization is infectiously fun & energizing, complete with collage-style pop art screen wipes that nearly push the film into surreal, dreamlike territory. Its story of teen sweethearts whose rosy vision of the world harshly clashes with reality when they unexpectedly become pregnant offers a great satirical core for its humor, and the transgression of high school cheerleaders robbing a bank to solve that problem is sublime. Best yet, the movie is only 81min long, cramming as many goofs, gags, and one-liners as it can into every beat without wasting the audience’s time on superfluous details like thoughts or feelings. The only problem, really, is that the film is viciously homophobic. This is a mainstream, PG-13 comedy where f-bombs are carefully avoided so as not to upset the schoolmarms at the MPAA, but homophobic slurs are tossed in every direction like confetti. The only gay character in the film is a one-note visual gag: a male cheerleader who occasionally catapults into the frame to be called a “fag” and promptly dismissed. And then come the flood of prison rape jokes as the girls research their bank heist schemes among inmates at a women’s prison. Hilarious!

At first, the film’s tonal missteps seem to result from a poor choice in narrator: a small-minded rival of the bankrobbing teens who rats them out to the FBI out of petty jealousy. Watching a room full of middle-aged men listen to a bratty child endlessly monologue about the intricacies of cheerleader squad drama is hilarious, but choosing the least likeable character in the film to narrate often tilts the tone into sour territory, especially considering that character’s raging homophobia. You can’t blame all of the film’s misfired cruelty on the villain, however. The girls we’re supposed to be cheering for eventually prove to be just as guilty, calling the film’s politics into question not the characters’. The weirdest thing about that POV is that Sugar & Spice is otherwise perfectly calibrated for a dedicated queer fandom. It’s already practically a mash-up of Point Break & Bring It On, which sounds like a mad scientist experiment to create the perfect Gay Movie Night go-to. This is a film where James Marsden is ogled as a star-quarterback himbo, Madonna lyrics are treated as literal gospel, and teenage girls commit crimes while wearing knock-off Barbie masks. It’s also a film that frequently dehumanizes the exact target audience who would find those details fabulous for the sake of a cheap gag (or ten).

So yes, Sugar & Spice gleefully shares in the Jawbreaker & Drop Dead Gorgeous problem in that it can be a little too mean in spots; it may even be the meanest picture of the three. It’s also like those movies in that I love it anyway, which only makes me cringe harder when it spectacularly fucks up the balance of its tone. It’s certainly no Heathers, although over-written one-liners like “It was like he was a piece of chocolate and the entire school was on the rag” suggest that it very much wanted to be. If I’ve learned anything from loving these flawed teen cruelty comedies over the years, it’s that Heathers, although enduringly popular, was much more singularly skillful than could ever be fully acknowledged, especially in its mastery of tone.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

After falling in love with two other major works in the Alec Guinness canon of post-War comedies for Ealing Studios, I was not at all prepared for the wholesome, crowd-pleasing sentiments of The Lavender Hill Mob. Whereas The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts & Coronets are viciously acerbic—if not outright sadistic—in their densely written wit, The Lavender Hill Mob is light-on-its feet, effervescent. It’s not my favorite film of the trio, but it’s certainly the most streamlined, and maybe the one with the biggest laughs in its final payoff. While I was shocked to find it so bubbly & sweet, I was not surprised to learn that it was the most popular of Guinness’s works for Ealing, even earning an Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.

Guinness stars as an absurdly bland, milquetoast man who’s assigned to supervise the transport of freshly-minted gold bars from the refinery to the bank. Perceived to have no ambition or imagination by anyone around him (and maybe not even himself), Guinness deduces that he’s perfectly suited to steal the gold from under the bank’s nose, undetected. More of an adorable doofus than a criminal mastermind, the mild-mannered nothing of a man must navigate a world of crime beyond his limited comprehension. We watch him bumble through assembling a crew of thieves and then smuggling the stolen gold as novelty Eiffel Tower-shaped souvenirs, increasingly charmed with his buffoonish naivete at every step. Of course, his scheme eventually blows up in his face in a spectacularly farcical fashion; that’s to be expected. What caught me off-guard was how much he genuinely falls in love with both thievery itself and his small crew of fellow criminals. While The Ladykillers & Kind Hearts are deeply misanthropic works about greed & exploitation, The Lavender Hill Mob is a wholesome goof-em-around where the only true villains are the asshole cops who spoil the criminals’ fun.

I assume this was a highly influential work that just happened to slip past my radar until now. It’s difficult to imagine wryly funny heist comedies like A Fish Called Wanda or Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series existing in their current form without Lavender Hill paving the way. It’s a very simple, straight-to-the-point comedy in a lot of ways, but it manages to pack in many distinguishing details in under 80 minutes of runtime: a spiral staircase chase scene that rivals the visual trickery of Hitchock’s finest illusions; an all-timer of a gag that tricks a cop into oinking like a pig for the audience’s amusement; a single-scene walk-on role for a pre-fame Audrey Hepburn, billed simply as “Chiquita”, etc. The vicious misanthropy of Kind Hearts & Ladykillers speaks more directly to my own sensibilities, but I totally get this one’s broader appeal and I very much believe it to be worthy of their company.

-Brandon Ledet

Riot Girls (2019)

After Satanic Panic & Porno, Riot Girls is the third cheap-o genre film I’ve seen this year with confoundingly strong word of mouth despite its modest payoffs, likely due to its creator’s accumulated goodwill from years of work in the horror industry. A recent episode of Switchblade Sisters detailed director Jovanka Vuckovic’s professional background as the editor-in-chief of Rue Morgue Magazine – a beloved Canadian horror publication. On paper, the film she was promoting—Riot Girls—sounded like a revolutionary kick to the industry’s balls from a genre film aficionado who knew exactly what pitfalls of cliché & tedium to avoid or subvert in her debut as a filmmaker. In practice, the results are more aggressively ordinary than revolutionary – a pattern I’ve noticed in straight-to-VOD genre novelties like this & Satanic Panic recently. However, Riot Girls’s ordinary, familiar tones counterintuitively worked in its favor in the long run, as the film ultimately recalls the landscape of daytime syndicated television in the 1990s – a very specific corner of trash media I can’t help but remember fondly.

This post-Apocalyptic thriller is set in an alternate 1995 where all adults die of a horrific epidemic known as “gut rot.” The young children & teenagers left behind, unaffected by the disease until they reach full maturity, attempt to maintain a semblance of societal structure after this cataclysmic event. Maintaining the wealth disparity of the generations that preceded them to a petty, increasingly meaningless degree, the kids of Small Town, USA split their city into two warring halves: The Rich Side & The Poor Side. The rich run their government like a high school principle’s office while the poor dress like mid-90s mall punks who just discovered their first Bad Religion record. It’s letterman jackets vs. Elmer’s glue mohawks as the rich kids take the poor kids’ leader hostage on the wrong side of the border. A small crew of mall punk misfits (including a central lesbian couple) break in to free their bud, literalizing a class warfare that had been bubbling under the surface since long before their parents all mysteriously died.

There’s a whole lot to complain about here. The movie peaks early with an L7 needle drop and a stylish info-dump prologue designed to look like a hip 90s Fantagraphics comic. The eighty minutes of hostage-heist rescue missions that follow are astoundingly inert, no matter how many studded leather jackets or power chord guitar riffs decorate it. The worst part is that the title has little, if anything to do with the onscreen action; there are two female leads who might qualify for the “riot girl” distinction, but for the most part the movie is far too well-behaved & testosterone-addled for the title to mean much of anything. It does at least gesture to the production’s 90s setting & sensibility, but ultimately the movie isn’t feminist nor punk enough to earn that title. There’s barely a riot here and only a couple of girls around to start one, which is a shame, since the title & post-Hernandez Brothers poster art promise something very specific that cannot be delivered under those circumstances.

Fortunately, there is a media category where this That’s So 90s sensibility & mall punk posturing feels right at home: the vintage daytime syndication TV show. Riot Girls’s unrushed tempo, kids-against-the-world premise, and post-aPunkalyptic costuming recall 90s shows like The Tribe, Ocean Girl, and Animorphs. Except now those sub-Xena disposables are beefed up with blood & cusses (and the threat of sexual assault for some unwelcome lagniappe). It’s a little easier to forgive the film for its dramatic flaws & lack of urgency once you allow it to mentally transport you back to those simpler times. Don’t look to Riot Girls to kick in your teeth with a Punk Rock Kids Apocalypse; former Movie of the Month selection Class of 1999 might be your better option there. Rather, allow it to dial the clock back to when you would casually drain away entire Saturdays watching nonsense trash like Beastmaster, Highlander, and Baywatch Nights in a passive trance – drooling cereal-flavored saliva onto your Power Rangers pajamas. Every now & then a flash of gore or an onscreen bong rip will break that trance, but for the most part it comfortably fits in that exact milieu.

-Brandon Ledet

Widows (2018)

I’m not sure what aspect of Widows’s marketing led me to expect a stylish heist thriller about vengeful women transforming into reluctant criminals in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. That version of Widows is certainly lurking somewhere in the 128-minute Prestige Picture that’s delivered instead, but it’s mostly drowned out by what I should have known to expect: an ensemble-cast melodrama packed with talented women in beautiful clothes & a world of political intrigue. Everything about 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s involvement, his collaboration with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, and the film’s Oscar-Season release date should have tipped me off that the promise of a heist genre action picture was merely a cover-up for a thoughtful, handsomely staged drama about women’s internal turmoil in the face of gendered, financial, and political oppression. Widows might still be a slight deviation from McQueen’s usual Prestige Drama fare in its isolated nods to heist genre convention, but surprise twists are becoming Gillian Flynn’s clear specialty; this entry in her modest canon includes a twist in the basic tone & genre of what you’d expect from an ensemble-cast heist picture.

Viola Davis stars as the ringleader widow, who attempts to rope three other widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and a barely- present Carrie Coon) into a heist job to help heal the financial wounds left by their dead criminal husbands. Following the detailed instructions left behind by her respective husband (Liam Neeson) in a Book of Henry-style notebook, she transforms from grieving teacher’s union organizer to criminal mastermind in the blink of a teary eye. The nature of her planned caper lands her in the middle of a hard-fought Chicago City Council’s race between brutish local politicians (Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, and Robert Duvall), which is dangerous territory for her small crew of grieving non-professional women who just want to put their lives back together. Oh yeah, and Bad Times at the El Royale’s Cynthia Erivo joins the crew as a getaway driver/muscle, just in case the cast wasn’t already overstuffed. And the dog from Game Night is also along for the ride; and Matt Walsh too. And Lukas Haas. And Jacki Weaver. If the enormity of that cast and the themes of that premise sounds like it might be overwhelming, it’s because it very much is. Widows plays a lot like an entire season of Prestige Television packed into a two-hour span – complete with the execution of the central heist acting as a self-contained episode. The economic & political backdrop of a stubbornly changing modern Chicago sets the stage for a wide range of actors (mostly playing dirtbag men and the women who love them) to patiently wait for their spotlight character moment to arrive in due time. Meanwhile, Flynn adds a new wrinkle to the plot every few beats to leave the audience salivating with anticipation for what’s going to happen next. It’s overwhelming (and a little thinly spread), but it’s also exhilarating.

Widows feels like a movie custom built for people whose all-time favorite TV show is still The Wire (and who could blame ‘em?). Its tangled web of debts, power plays, and barely-concealed vulnerabilities make for sumptuous melodrama, where lines like “We have a lot of work to do. Crying isn’t on the list,” don’t feel at all out of place or unnatural. The POV may be spread out too thin for any one character’s emotional journey to stand out as especially effective, but the performers are all so strong they manage to make an impression anyway: Davis as a once-confident woman at her wit’s end, Kaluuya as an inhuman terror, Erivo as an athletic machine, Debicki as the world’ tallest (and most tragic) punching bag, etc. I was way off-base for looking to Widows as a highly stylized heist thriller, as if it were the 2010s equivalent of Belly. Instead, it’s more of an overachieving melodrama and an actor’s showcase, the exact kind of smartly considered, midbudget adult fare Hollywood supposedly doesn’t make anymore. The action-heist element of the plot is just some deal-sweetening lagniappe for a stylish, well-performed story that would have been just as entertaining without it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Killing (1956)

I’m used to thinking of Stanley Kubrick as a fully-formed artist, the meticulous craftsman behind mind-boggling technical achievements like Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It now seems obvious, but it never before occurred to me that the director must’ve had many, many stepping stones to that machine-like precision in his early career. 1956’s The Killing is an excellent snapshot of what early-career, still-figuring-it-out Kubrick looks like while still exhibiting the promise of what he’d later accomplish with more experience & larger budgets. In a way, its small-scale genre film territory is much more in tune with my usual cinematic interests than Kubrick’s grander, more precise productions, so seeing it screen locally at The Prytania Theater was oddly more of an eye-opener than similar screenings of works like Barry Lyndon or A Clockwork Orange. I was already aware Kubrick was capable of large-scale technical anomalies; what I had never seen before was him paying his dues in the low-budget genre film trenches.

Purported to be Kubrick’s first professional-level production, The Killing is a straight-forward, late-period noir with all the bells & whistles that genre descriptor indicates: intense black & white cinematography, over-written voice over narration, dangerous criminals, even more dangerous dames, guns hidden in flower boxes & musical instrument cases, etc. The story concerns the planning, execution, and unraveling of a heist at a race track. It’s like a less zany precursor to Logan Lucky, except with horses instead of NASCAR. It even preempts some of Logan Lucky’s humor, especially in a drag-ready performance from Marie Windsor as the wandering, dangerously greedy wife Sherry Peatty. As a disparate group of sweaty men plan, execute, and lay low from the race track robbery that’s meant to make them millionaires, Sherry lazes in her lingerie, swills liquor, hurls insults at her husband, and fetches her on-the-side boy-toy to retrieve the stolen cash for her by any means necessary. Her plan is just as disastrous as the heist she’s attempting to usurp, but she’s consistently amusing in her cold-hearted quips in a way that transforms The Killing into The Sherry Peatty Show. There’s a humor to the way the central heist, an operation commanded by a contingent of macho brutes, is ultimately all in service of a woman who hardly ever leaves her apartment. The movie also ends on an even sillier joke where a small, rascally poodle becomes an even bigger bane to the burly men’s aim for quick, easy cash.

As humorous as The Killing can be in its more eccentric details, it still delivers the brutal violence expected of it as a noir-era crime picture. Cops, criminals, horses, and bystanders are torn apart by gunfire. Men and women who threaten the planning of the heist are treated with equal physical force, knocked unconscious by the alpha criminal’s burly fists. Infidelity, liquor, armed robbery, and police corruption define the film’s borders, establishing a crime world setting that’s so in tune with noir sensibilities it often feels like it was assembled entirely of genre tropes. Kubrick was smart to balance that macho brutality with slyly cartoonish humor and an exaggerated femme foil, a tactic he doesn’t often get enough credit for in his later works. There’s an over-the-top absurdity to films like Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and 2001 that’s often overlooked for the sake of praising their technical achievements. Kubrick is understood to be coldly calculating in tone, but his depictions of human villainy often find absurdist humor in the intensity of their brutality, the same way Daniel Day Lewis is oddly amusing in his villainous PTA performances in There Will Be Blood & Phantom Thread. You can feel the early stirrings of that brutal/comedic tension in The Killing, especially in the character of Sherry Peatty, who joins the ranks of humorously wicked Kubrick villains like Jack Torrance and HAL 9000. Marie Windsor deserves that recognition.

The Killing follows another pattern of Kubrick’s later, greater (in scope, at least) works: it wasn’t properly recognized in its time. It’s difficult to understand now, but when his more out-there works like The Shining & 2001 were first released, they were divisive at best. Many critics initially passed off the now-beloved director as an over-ambitious hack. The Killing experienced almost the exact opposite trajectory. Wide audiences passed on the film, which was ultimately something of a commercial flop, while professional critics raved about it long enough to keep it in the conversation for Best of the Year lists (and, eventually, repertory screenings like the one I just attended). Six decades later, The Killing still feels essential in the same way it was to critics then – showing immense promise in the stylistic & tonal ambitions of a young director who would eventually go on to accomplish big budget greatness. For genre film enthusiasts, it’s an especially precious gem, as there’s nothing better than an ambitious, talented creator imposing their personal impulses on a set-in-stone structure with its own built-in, pre-established payoffs. The Killing finds a young Kubrick playing by the rules of a strict genre template and struggling to work around the limitations of a modest budget. It’s a rare mode to see him working in and makes for one of his more distinct accomplishments as a result.

-Brandon Ledet

Ocean’s 8 (2018)

Ocean’s 8 opens exactly like the Soderbergh version of Ocean’s 11 that preceded it, with Sandra Bullock in a parole hearing interview pretending to be reformed so she can be released and launch directly into her next grift. George Clooney sat in that same position back in 2001, which partly makes Ocean’s 8 feel just as much like Ghostbusters-style gender-flipped remake as it is a years-late sequel. Bullock is not a reincarnation of Danny Ocean, however, but rather his sister & criminal equal, Debbie Ocean. Likewise, the film does not follow the Soderbergh “original” or its Rat Pack source material’s plot about smooth criminals simultaneously robbing three Las Vegas casinos, but shifts its heist’s target to the much more femme setting of the annual Met Gala, one of high-fashion’s biggest events of the year. For better or for worse, it also shifts away from Soderbergh’s experimentations in overly slick, early 2000s thriller aesthetics to adopt a style more befitting of a 2010s mainstream comedy. As a result, both films are noticeably distinct from one another, but also notably cheesy and of their time in a way that pairs them as clear parallels (even though, once gain, this is a sequel and not a remake).

Although it’s about a decade late to the table, it’s arguable that Ocean’s 11 needed this women-led sequel, as it’s a series that’s always struggled with doing right by its female characters. In Ocean’s 11, Julia Roberts mostly had the thankless role of reacting to male characters’ actions & muttering vague warnings under her breath. For Ocean’s 13, both she & Catherine Zeta-Jones refused to return to the series because they were told the script could not accommodate giving them substantial roles beyond a couple lines of dialogue, despite having room for over a dozen men. Ocean’s 12, by far the best in the series (even if you include the also-excellent Logan Lucky), was much more accommodating of both actors, particularly for the opportunity it gave Julia Roberts to poke fun at her own celebrity (the same role she fulfilled in Sodebergh’s Full Frontal). Anne Hathaway is afforded the same self-satire platform in Ocean’s 8, but this time she’s not surrounded by a sea of men in tailored suits. Ocean’s 8’s cast includes Bullock, Hathaway, Rihanna, Awkwafina, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, and Cate Blanchett as the titular eight. None of these already-established celebrities are playing against type, but rather lean into their public personae in an exaggerated way, like drag or pro wrestling characters. Hathaway clearly has the most fun with the space afforded her, but the important part is that this heist comedy playground was ever offered to this many talented women in the first place.

Immediately upon release from prison, Debbie Ocean launches into a few minor grifts that provide her temporary food & shelter. Once recharged, she begins recruiting the crew she needs to steal millions of $$$ in diamonds from the upcoming Met Gala, a much bigger heist than she’s ever attempted before. Cate Blanchett joins as a longtime bestie in full Atomic Blonde drag. Rihanna & Awkwafina are aggressively casual stoners gifted at street-level hacking & pickpocketing. Kaling is a jeweler, Bonham Carter a cash-strapped fashion designer, and so on. It’s Hathaway who steals the show as an image-obsessed, emotionally fragile actress whom the team plans to steal the diamonds off of, though. Public opinion of Hathaway has always been grotesquely judgmental about her supposedly outsized ego, so it’s wonderful to see her subvert that perception by turning it into a caricature. The heist itself, from the planning to the execution to the fallout with law enforcement, is all standard to the typical joys of the genre, except in an unusually haute setting drenched in fashion & wealth. The most distinctive factor at play is that the film is staged like a comedy more than a thriller, which suits the material well enough at least in the way it distinguishes it from Soderbergh’s previous trilogy (except maybe Ocean’s 13, its closest tonal parallel).

The cast is exceptional, the choice in setting inspired. The worst that could be said about Ocean’s 8 is that director Gary Ross burdens the film with all the visual style & generic pop music of an Alvin & the Chipmunks squeakquel. The flatness in its imagery & its dispiritingly indistinct pop music cues feel at home with the standard approach to the modern mainstream comedy, though, which is largely where the film lives & dies. Ocean’s 11 is often framed as being a stylish subversion of the heist picture formula, but its own hideous color saturation & music video experimentation also feels beholden to the worst aspects of its own era’s aesthetic, a post-Matrix techno thriller hangover that culminated in the “You Wouldn’t Steal a Car” PSA. Ocean’s 12, Logan Lucky, and now Ocean’s 8 all feel like improvements on that earlier picture in the way they work around its more glaring shortcomings, which is a kind of paradox in that they could not exist without it. Ocean’s 8 is, admittedly, the least impressive improvement of the three. It does the bare minimum of giving women something to do while still working within that film’s original framework, only shifting its genre context slightly closer to a standard comedy. It’s still funny & breezily charming within that modern mainstream comedy context, even while often slipping into pure unembarrassed cheese, which is the most Ocean’s 11 ever offered us in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet

Wheelman (2017)

“I drive the car. I’m the wheelman. That’s it. End of story.”

The incredible thing about the film Locke is how much tension it manages to generate by depicting Tom Hardy making telephone calls about a concrete pour & a domestic snafu while driving practically in real time in a fancy car. The much grimier, less delicate Netflix Original™ Wheelman sets that restraint & refinement aflame and then pisses on the ashes. Wheelman is essentially Locke with all of the references to concrete substituted with variations on the word “motherfucker” (so much so that Shea Whigham’s Travis Bickle-esque scumbag is billed simply as Motherfucker in the credits) and its stage play dialogue being run over at full speed by GTA-style video game action/chaos. Most people who adored Locke weren’t likely wishing to themselves that it would be remade as a hyper-violent, bitterly macho shoot-em-up, but they’d likely have fun with what Wheelman does with the formula anyway. There aren’t many action movies this year leaner & meaner than this direct-to-streaming sleeper and the fact that it resembles a much classier high-concept picture makes it all the more charming in its own scrappy way.

Frank Grillo stars as the titular Wheelman, a tough-as-nails ex-con who drives getaway missions to repay mobsters for debt he accrued in prison. The movie details a single night of mayhem in his miserable life when a heist goes horribly wrong & puts everything he loves in jeopardy. Instructed to abandon his crew in the middle of a bank robbery, the wheelman finds himself stuck between two warring criminal factions while in possession of the cash they both claim ownership over. Between street chases & gunfights across the city, he negotiates the terms of the money’s surrender by phone between both parties while also sending instructions to his daughter & ex-wife on how to avoid the mobsters’ clutches and tracking down the people responsible for getting him stuck in such a dangerous position in the first place. The 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 heist sequence of Drive was stretched out for a full 80 minutes and packed to the gills with explosively dangerous testosterone. In other words, it’s a blast.

It’s easy to imagine an action film with this little dedication to establishing complex plot & characters feeling boring or empty, but Wheelman compensates for these deliberate deficiencies just fine in its attention to craft. The majority of the film is shot from inside the 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. Even when drivers switch hands at the wheel, the POV remains with the car itself. Shots are framed tire-level at dangerously sharp turns. Gunshots & head wounds are allowed to sink in with full impact, even though the movie’s usual M.O. is to chase break-neck kineticism. Much like Locke, Wheelman is little more than a sequence of phone calls made by a single character in the driver’s seat of a nondescript car, but it finds a way to make every moment of that dynamic unbelievably thrilling. It’s much trashier & flashier than Locke, though, so the fact that it’s able to pull off its same formula is much less surprising, even if it is a brutally constant source of action mayhem/fun.

-Brandon Ledet