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

Nocturama (2017)

I’m not sure the world necessarily needed a movie that makes acts of terrorism look sexy & cool, but with so few transgressive places left for cinema to go you’ve got to respect Nocturama for finding a way to push buttons in the 2010s. Nocturama is certain to ruffle feathers & inspire umbrage in the way it nonchalantly mirrors recent real life terror attacks on cities like Paris & London. That incendiary kind of thematic bomb-throwing is difficult to come by in modern cinema, though, considering the jaded attitudes of an audience who’ve already seen it all. It helps that the film is far from an empty provocation; it’s a delicately beautiful art piece & a hypnotically deconstructed heist picture, a filmmaking feat as impressive as its story is defiantly cruel. Its shifting perspective & out of sync editing style estimates a kind of cinematic Cubism, amounting to a picture that deserves to hang in an art gallery, yet quietly lurks on Netflix in a haze of streaming platform anonymity. It’s weird to see such a politically jarring & visually arresting art piece slip so quietly into the streaming deluge of #content, but there’s also no other place for Nocturama exist peacefully in the modern word; it is not a peaceful picture.

The major wrinkle in Nocturama‘s claim as a transgressive work of fine art is that it requires a massive amount of patience. The film is not only over two hours long, but its dialogue-free first half is very slow to explain its plot or the relationships between its characters. If Nocturama partially functions like a heist film, it disrupts the typical flow of that genre by starting with the climactic heist. In the film’s disorienting first hour, nearly every teen in Paris silently navigates the city’s public transit system and trades knowing glances as they move with mysterious purpose from building to building and accomplish small, seemingly unrelated tasks. We later understand these kids to be orchestrating a city-wide terror arrack, the planning of which is gradually revealed in after-the-fact flashbacks. Targeting the destruction of institutions & monuments, not people, and never explicitly stating their motivation for this violence beyond vague economic unrest & cultural ennuii, the brand of terrorism depicted in Nocturama resembles the political philosophizing of the German indie The Edukators far more than anything relevant to real life. Still, depicting the allure of the hip-hop & techno-scored gang of teens in leather jackets & tight jeans blowing up a city to make an ambiguous political statement & inspire general chaos is at least somewhat irresponsible & dangerous. That’s not a point that’s lost on Nocturama, as the second half of the film dwells in a what-have-we-done fallout as the kids watch the world crumble around them from the vantage point of an empty shopping mall (recalling a dystopic horror like Night of the Comet or Dawn of the Dead). Still, the discomfort of its highly stylized, teenage acts of mass terror is a major reason why the film sticks to the ribs.

Although the puzzling rush of its opening terror heist sequence is sure to steer the conversation around it, Nocturama doesn’t truly reveal its full nature until the extended denouement of that act’s shopping mall fallout. These kids play video games & stage techno dance parties with the same intensity that they plant explosives & ditch burner phones. With the exception of a stray familiar face like Rabah Nait Ofella (Raw, Girlhood) & Adele Haenel (The Unknown Girl), the film mostly boasts a cast of unrecognizable teenagers, so that it feels vividly real watching them blast pop music acts like Chief Keef & Willow Smith or “shop” for free clothes off the store’s infinite army of creepy mannequins. Driven mad by a lack of contact with the world outside the mall and the wait for a new day, the paranoia and guilt resulting from the first hour’s transgressive act begins to weigh heavily on their minds. There’s a myriad of visual pleasures in Nocturama that can intoxicate & mystify: a golden Joan of Arc statue aflame, a lipsynced drag routine set to “My Way,” a city in chaos, a gold-plated mask, etc. What cuts through those surface pleasures, though, is the existential frivolity of these kids, scared of their own actions, as they essentially wait for the world to end. As with the real world political implications of its opening half, Nocturama pulls no punches there either and ends on a silently methodical, Cubist conclusion of fractured, meaningless violence. The entire experience is puzzling, hypnotic, and requires both immense patience & amoral political philosophy. It might be one of the most challenging films of the year, which is odd to say of something so flashy in its violence & youthfulness, but it’s also one of the most rewarding in the way it stimulates complex reflections on life in the modern world.

-Brandon Ledet

Logan Lucky (2017)

I imagine a few outsiders are likely to be offended on The South’s behalf for the way the region is depicted in Steven Soderbergh’s latest heist picture. A self-described Oceans 7-11Logan Lucky stages an elaborate robbery of a NASCAR racetrack with the same technical intricacy of Soderbergh’s more lavish crime pictures, except now with the Southern-fried flavor of a Masterminds or Talladega Nights. A Louisiana native himself, Soderbergh feels intimately familiar with the Down South culture of his North Carolina & West Virginia settings, even peppering in references to LSU football as a callback to his Baton Rouge roots (which are more immediately perceptible in titles like Schizopolis & Sex, Lies, and Video Tape). Speaking as a lifelong Louisiana resident who’s familiar with the camo sweatpants & Bob Seger t-shirts country where Logan Lucky is staged, I personally found the film to be far more loving than satirical. Characters may awkwardly reference “knowing all the Twitters” or “looking it up on the Google” in their comically thick Southern accents, but the movie is genuinely invested in their emotional & financial hardships even while having a laugh at colloquialisms. Soderbergh may be making fun of his characters to an extent, but it’s in the way of an older brother ragging on their younger sibling. It’s done out of love & an unavoidable compulsion.

I’ve personally never seen an Oceans movie so I can’t directly compare Soderbergh’s sleek money-makers to Logan Lucky in terms of how they function as elaborate heist plots. I will say that there’s a laid-back, distinctly Southern vibe in the way the film builds up to its NASCAR track heist centerpiece that I doubt was integral to when he was filming beautiful movie stars robbing casinos in tuxedos. That slow Southern drawl delivery leaves a lot of room in the first two acts for character-based humor, however. Channing Tatum & Adam Driver star as two blue collar brothers who mastermind the NASCAR heist with a limited set of technical skills, but an intimate knowledge of how the facility’s money is stored & accounted for. Although Logan Lucky is a notable departure from the Oceans movies’ sleekness, it does feel like a direct continuation of Soderbergh’s previous collaboration with Tatum, Magic Mike. Both films can be wickedly fun in spurts, but also dwell on the dismal economic landscape suffered by modern American Southerners. Instead of struggling as a male stripper trying to make it out of the business, Tatum is a construction worker who’s let go for not disclosing a pre-existing medical condition, but desperately needs money to be able to afford his right to visit with his young daughter. Along with his bartender brother (Driver) & his hairdresser sister (Riley Keough), he intends to shatter a local superstition about his “family curse” by stealing a large sum of cash from an insured corporation that can stand to lose the money. As an audience, we never get the detailed plan of the heist until it’s entirely over, but rather take the time to get to know the Logan family in the weeks before they pull the trigger on their NASCAR-robbing ambitions. It’s easy to equate that kind of lead-up to traditional Southern Hospitality, which I believe to be a genuine impulse here.

Although I was often the only lunatic laughing in the theater, I do believe one of Logan Lucky‘s greatest strengths is its muted, character & setting derived sense of humor. A stranger accusing Tatum’s protagonist of being “one of them Unabomber types” because he doesn’t carry a cellphone or a smash cut from cockroaches to frying bacon had me cackling so much in the film’s first act build that I was in no rush to get to the payoff of its NASCAR heist. Admittedly, some of the humor in that build-up was in hearing ludicrously thick Southern accents attempted by big shot movie stars: Tatum, Driver, Keough, Daniel Craig, Katherine Waterson, Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank (the last two of whom were tasked with similar caricatures in Sam Raimi’s The Gift), etc. Those accents are just one facet of Soderbergh’s larger scope portrait of Everywhere, America that rests at Logan Lucky‘s core, however. There are so many distinct touchstones of Americana informing the film’s aesthetic: child beauty pageants, Katie Holmes drinking white wine in the doorway of her McMansion, off-hand references to Dr. Phil and the Fast & Furious franchise, an impassioned inclusion of John Denver music (in a year where every movie from Okja to Free Fire seems bent on honoring the long gone folk musician), and so on. It’s perfectly fitting, then, that the film pauses dead in its tracks for the National Anthem at the top of its centerpiece NASCAR race and makes frequent references to Memorial Day & American veterans. Anyone who’s made uneasy by the idea of a wealthy British actor dressing up in the guise of a poor American Southerner or the image of a pig feet dunking contest at a local fair is missing the larger picture of Soderbergh’s love for these characters and their environment. He’s having fun with them for sure, but not necessarily at their expense. The great joy of the film is watching them get one over on a larger corporation with the limited means of a discounted underdog; the movie is on their side.

-Brandon Ledet

To Catch a Thief (1955)

I recently caught To Catch a Thief at The Prytania, New Orleans’s oldest operating cinema. It was an early morning matinee where the theater’s ancient, adorable operator introduced the Hitchcock thriller with half-remembered stories about cameos & eggs and promises of complimentary coffee & cake after the screening. I knew nothing of the picture before I arrived to the theater except its stars, Cary Grant & Grace Kelly, as advertised on the poster. Before Rene Brunet’s introductory story about Hitchcock’s hatred of eggs, I didn’t even know who directed it. What followed was a Technicolor dream of gorgeous visual indulgences in simple pleasures like flowers & fireworks, beautiful people exploring even more beautiful locales, and a nonstop assault of witty, but juvenile sex jokes. I’ve certainly been more impressed with Hitchcock as a visual craftsman & a generator of suspense in more prestigious pictures like Psycho or Rear Window, but I’ve had never had more fun watching one of his films as an all-around entertainment experience. It was the exact exhilarating feeling of seeing high art visual craft married with the genre film pleasures of a trashy heist plot people have been gushing over Baby Driver for (even though I didn’t quite enjoy that Edgar Wright work myself). That’s why it deeply saddened me after the screening to learn that To Catch a Thief is widely considered to be a “lesser Hitchcock” and a dismissible, frivolous picture.

Cary Grant starts as a retired jewel thief known in the papers as The Cat, thanks to the gymnastic stealth needed to pull off his heists. Hanging up his cat burglar’s costume in the years since World War II, The Cat is attempting to live a quiet life outside of crime. He’s not quite a Robin Hood figure; he kept all the money he stole before the war. He did make a point only to steal from “those who wouldn’t go hungry,” though, which does have a sort of nobility to it. His peaceful retirement is interrupted when a copycat thief begins to stage crimes that fit his exact M.O., raising police suspicion that The Cat is back on the prowl. Grant’s handsome, ex-criminal protagonist decides to catch the new burglar himself (recalling OJ Simpson’s mission to “find the real killer”) with the help of an insurance agent who might be able to predict the next victim based on his clients’ claimed jewelry. This leads him to a Cannes Beach Club where he’s shamelessly flirted with by a young debutante played by Grace Kelly, whose mother’s jewels are in imminent danger of being stolen. The mystery of who the copycat jewel thief is doesn’t feel as complex or as suspenseful as the central mystery of most Hitchcock films, as the answer is fairly obvious earlier than it likely should be. This doesn’t matter in the slightest. The lush colors, playful mood, and overly stylized production value of To Catch a Thief make for a film so fun it feels like an outright comedy while still holding claim to some of the most striking imagery Hitchcock ever produced.

To Catch a Thief plays with the same lush production design & Technicolor lighting that made Douglas Sirk’s 1950s “women’s pictures” like All That Heaven Allows feel like high art despite their shameless indulgence in melodrama. A foot chase through a flower market, a swim on a French beach, or a picnic on the edge of a cliff, all in proudly-boasted “VistaVision”: you can tell this was an expensive production, made with Major Studio pride. What makes it such a delight, however, is that Hitchcock perverted those Sirk sensibilities with the tawdry jokes about boobs & Grace Kelly’s virginity. This clash is most glorious in a hotel room scene where Kelly’s young flirt is seducing Grant’s retired criminal, only for their attraction to be consummated with a Technicolor fireworks display. It’s scene that encapsulates everything To Catch a Thief is in its best moments: funny, sexy, gorgeous, and crude. A more sophisticated palette might better appreciate the tightly controlled tension of a Rear Window, but give my raccoonish taste buds the pretty colors and cheeky sex jokes of To Catch a Thief any day. Hitchcock’s perverted humor usually lurks in the corners of his best respected thrillers, but here it runs wild, swimming in its skivvies on gorgeous French beaches and sneaking across rooftops looking for hearts & jewels to steal through bedroom windows. It breaks my heart to hear that kind of immediate pleasure isn’t better respected.

I don’t mean to imply that there’s no tact or taste to To Catch a Thief’s humor. An early montage of a black cat sneaking across roofs to steal jewels, a literal cat burglar, feels a lot like the director’s peak form as a humorous craftsman. There’s also an early chase scene involving several fake-outs that’s almost Friedkin-esque in its clear staging of cat & mouse police pressure. Going in expecting the typical meticulous hand the director brings to his work might be a mistake, however. To Catch a Thief seems to be entirely a result of Hitchcock letting loose, having fun with the romantic & mysterious set-ups of his easygoing narrative. Even the double meaning of the film’s title (as both Kelly & Grant are attempting to catch a thief of their own) suggests that the whole thing is a kind of off-hand joke. Watching a world-class craftsman afford that joke the visual care & lusty passion that should likely be reserved for a more refined work makes it feel like jokey genre fodder elevated to the heights of fine art. If the world has room in its heart to praise the much lesser Baby Driver for achieving that exact kind of heist film elevation, I’d hope there’d also be room for an undervalued Hitchcock title to retroactively receive that same treatment.

-Brandon Ledet