The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The Coen Brothers’ last feature, Hail, Caesar!, was one of my very favorite films of 2016 and one of my all-time dearest favorites from the directors’ mighty catalog. It’s a testament to how little interest I have in the Western as a genre, then, that it took me so long to catch up with the Coens’ follow-up to that philosophical Old Hollywood farce. Readily available on Netflix for months, nominated for several Academy Awards, and elbowing its way to the top of many critics’ Best Films of 2018 lists (including James’s), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs should have registered as must-see-ASAP material in the scramble to catch up with the best films 2018 had to offer. Early in its runtime, I even felt foolish for having let it cool on the shelf for so long, as its opening ten minutes are an energizing, over-the-top subversion of a genre that normally bores me to tears. My appreciation quickly plummeted from there, however, as it more often participated in the standard tones & tropes of the classic Western without subversion or update – sometimes to disturbing political implication, often to by-the-numbers tedium. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t transcend genre so much as it gleefully rolls around in it.

This is an anthology of Western tales with an elegantly simple wraparound: an illustrated hardcover collection of short stories set in the Old West titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (And Other Tales of the American Frontier.” As a disembodied hand flips the pages of the book it becomes clear why the titular story was highlighted as a standout and the other tales were grouped together beneath it. Coens veteran Tim Blake Nelson stars as the eponymous Buster Scruggs, parodying the exact smiling, singing cowboy archetype from Old Hollywood Westerns that Alden Ehrenreich played in Hail, Caesar!. Against the intensely artificial desert backdrops & drunken saloon shootout settings of classic cowboy musicals, Buster Scruggs exists as a kind of Bugs Bunny anarchist – mugging directly to the audience while enacting a brutal trail of slapstick violence. The segment’s Looney Tunes-level exaggeration of the typical Western’s brutality and anarchic mockery of its usual somber adherence to a strict moral code were a welcome subversion of a genre that could use some shaking up. It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the film felt so grim & macho (and weirdly racist) in the exact ways I’m usually bored with in this genre template.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a wonderful novelty in isolation; it’s the “Other Tales of the American Frontier” that drag this anthology down into regressive tedium as a collection. The Coens’ usual fixation on the philosophy & brutality of Death are perfectly at home with the genre – to the point where they get perilously uncomfortable with its worst trappings. Tall tales of brutish men fearlessly carving out a space for themselves in harsh, untamed terrain, nary a woman in sight; tone-deaf vignettes of white celebrities playing cowboy by slaughtering the indigenous nations of the land without subversion or critique; the indignity of having to continue looking at James Franco: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is so often an unpleasant, outdated bore that by its final segments it’s difficult to remember all the way back (over two hours earlier) to the live-action cartoon subversion that opened the show. There’s something to be admired in how the Coens use the avatar of Buster Scruggs, billing him as The Misanthrope, to exaggerate the way their cruel, ironic pessimism is often interpreted by critics despite their ostensible role as singing, dancing entertainers, before then leaning into the exact prolonged misanthropy they’re too often dinged for. The problem is the contrast between those two modes – the self-parody and the business-as-usual – is unfavorable to the majority of the runtime.

As someone who’s bored by Westerns almost by default and doesn’t have the same scholarly, intensive interest in the Coens as a lot of serious Film Nerds do, I’m probably the exact wrong voice to weigh in on this film’s merits. After several unsuccessful attempts to watch their much-beloved No Country for Old Men in its entirely without falling asleep, for instance, my opinion here is likely not to be trusted. Either way, I do believe “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is worth a look. I just don’t think the “Other Tales of the American Frontier” have much to offer beyond what you’d expect from the “Coen Brothers Western” premise of the anthology.

-Brandon Ledet

The Disaster Artist (2017)

Recent theatrical releases of movies are sometimes accompanied by short intros from casts or directors thanking the audience for coming out to see the picture. Edgar Wright recorded a really snooty one for the release of Baby Driver where he took an unnecessary potshot at the concept of Video on Demand distribution. The casts of X-Men: Apocalypse & Resident Evil: The Final Chapter recorded damage control intros that made a point to put human faces on what felt from the outside to be soulless, corporate products. James Franco’s highest-profile directing gig to date, The Disaster Artist, breaks new ground by making this cloying, self-congratulating mode of introduction an actual part of the picture, not just a tagalong video package. The Disaster Artist opens with Franco’s famous friends ironically praising Tommy Wiseau’s toxic trashterpiece The Room as if it were the most important picture ever made. The tone of this intro feels more fitting for the opening notes of an SNL sketch than a feature film, as does Franco’s lead performance as the enigmatic, vaguely European monster Wiseau. Later, there are isolated comedic bits and moments of genuine drama that transcend the tackiness of this intro, but then the movie slips right back into that mode in its final moments, featuring real-life footage of book signings & The Room screenings with Wiseau beaming over his own ironic adoration. In a way, these bookends are a welcome warning that although The Disaster Artist is Franco’s most legitimate, respectable work as a filmmaker to date, it still allows him to indulge at length in his worst impulses, which includes advertising for his own movie as you’re watching it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the amusingly bizarre/misshapen cult classic The Room or the excellent book that details its production (also titled The Disaster Artist), it’s unclear how appealing Franco’s film will be to you. Although The Room is a deeply misogynistic, poorly crafted mess, it has a strange allure to it that invites multiple re-watches, as evidenced by its regular midnight movie circuit screenings, complete with Rocky Horror-style call & response rituals. The book The Disaster Artist only makes The Room more fascinating as a found object, leaving you with more questions than answers about the strangely vampiric millionaire who wrote, financed, “directed”, and starred in it: Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau claims to be “from” my hometown of Chalmette, Louisiana, but has a heavily slurred, Eastern European accent that defies that explanation. He also claims to be decades younger than he very visibly is and skirts all inquiries into how he came to make millions selling counterfeit blue jeans in San Francisco. The more you dig into who Wiseau is as a historical figure and what The Room reveals about his psyche as person, the more fascinating he becomes as an enigma. With his big screen adaptation of The Disaster Artist, it’s unclear exactly how interested Franco is in these mysteries. He breezily skims over many themes & details of The Room’s backstory that could be rewarding if explored at length, but instead fail to register as anything significant as they fly by in a rapid procession. It’s like trying to get to know a popular band through their Greatest Hits collection instead of diving into their album cuts.

Without a strong thematic foundation or point of view, The Disaster Artist plays a little like its worst possible self: an excuse for famous people to play dress-up as a funny looking weirdo who made an infamously bad movie. The good news is that if anyone deserves to be mocked by famous people for their moral & artistic shortcomings, it’s Tommy Wiseau. James Franco’s impersonation of Wiseau may be more fitting of a Celebrity Family Feud sketch on SNL than a feature that supposedly has Oscar-contender ambitions, but he does (occasionally) make a point to highlight his subject’s dark, abusive streak. Hostile temper tantrums that selfishly drag people down to his level and deeply unsettling attitudes towards women & sexuality surface as Wiseau becomes frustrated with his own shortcomings as an artist & a friend. Much like the film’s better comedic bits (an extended sequence where Tommy forgets his own line for so many takes the entire crew knows it better than he does comes to mind), however, these moments of darkness & drama feel isolated & ultimately lead nowhere substantial. This is especially frustrating in a spark of critical thought where the movie highlights how hurtful it is to laugh at an undeveloped artist’s passionate work while also being honest about The Room’s enjoyability solely being a “so-bad-it’s-good” proposition. It’s a thought that’s floated only for an isolated scene or two before Franco quickly moves on to the next Spark Notes-style bullet point on The Room’s legacy, trying to make room for as many of the film’s touchstone details as he can without exploring any in particular at length. I’m not sure that finding a part for every host of the How Did This Get Made? podcast or playing exact recreations of scenes from The Room side by side with their source material was more important than critically or thematically engaging with Wiseau as a toxic enigma, but Franco often slips into that kind of indulgence, to the film’s detriment.

As insane as it is that people are comparing The Disaster Artist to the triumph of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, it does occasionally impress or delight in the same way that classic celebrates the minor victories of an artist ill-equipped. Because Franco doesn’t dive much deeper than that in his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it engagement with the darkness of Wiseau’s psyche, there isn’t much more to the movie than that simple idea and the minor pleasures of watching famous comedians mock the failings of a deeply flawed, aggressively amateur auteur. Brigsby Bear is the superior 2017 release that explores the darkness of an emotionally wounded, amusingly eccentric amateur filmmaker creating art directly from the depths of their subconscious. Lady Bird better details the follies of a selfish brat making constant mistakes in an early 00s period piece. Any meticulous recreations of specific scenes from The Room are far more amusing when experienced in the source material. Any questions of Wiseau’s history & character are more thoroughly, thoughtfully explored in Greg Sestero’s book by the same name. So, what exactly does Franco’s The Disaster Artist offer as a work on its own terms? I suppose there are enough successful comedic bits & dramatic moments that feel impactful enough in isolation to be worth your time, but ultimately don’t lead anywhere significant. And since the movie is bookended highlighting Franco’s worst impulses as an artist & a storyteller (the concluding side-by-side recreations from The Room are especially self-indulgent), its best moments aren’t even the first impression that comes to mind.

-Brandon Ledet

Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? (2016)



James Franco’s 2016 remake of the Tori Spelling Lifetime Original Movie Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? is a biting sociopolitical commentary on pervasive homophobia, sexism, and rape culture issues that plague college campuses in the 2010s. That’s a half-truth. The film is also a shameless, leering camp fest about lesbian vampires that sometimes borders on the less-than-prestigious realm of dime store erotica. Either way you look at it, the film is easily the most outrageously entertaining  work I’ve seen from Lifetime in decades (unless you include those Mommie Dearest marathons they do on Mother’s Day; those are hilarious). It’s funny, it’s trashy, it’s dirt cheap, and it’s more than a little bit sleazy: pretty much the perfect calibration for an instant Lifetime classic. Better yet, its penchant for cheesy sleaze feels 100% earnest, never truly crossing into the winking parody of an Asylum mockbuster or a ZAZ-style spoof, despite what you may assume from its pedigree. If this vampiric “re-imagining” is an indication of where Lifetime programming is currently headed, we’re in for some tawdry good fun in the years to come, a second golden age of made-for-television schlock.

In the mid-90s version of Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?, Tori Spelling plays a perfect teen daughter who falls head over heels for a bad seed her mother suspects to be a thug & a murderer. It was a fairly standard rehashing of the classic “road to ruin” B-pictures of the 1950s, which was essentially Lifetime’s bread & butter in its heyday and the exact kind of crap that made that channel’s original content memorable in the first place. Franco’s remake finds a way to blow all that to hell while still paying respect to its source material’s basic aesthetic appeal. The essential plot overview is still the same here –an overly nosy mother (this time played by Spelling) worries that her teen daughter is falling for someone who could lead to her ruin; and she turns out to be right! — but the major details are replaced to heighten the absurdity of the scenario: the daughter’s dangerous love interest is a lesbian vampire and it’s her sapphic coven of undead “nightwalkers” that pose a threat,not her. What we have here is star-crossed lovers being torn apart because they’re from different worlds: box wine suburbia & bloodsucking lesbian murder covens, respectfully. Its tragic romance is something out of a Shakespearean play, an element Franco’s production plays up by centering the film around a Shakespearean play, specifically Macbeth. Life is but a stage & Franco seems intent on masturbating in every corner of that stage, an impulse that plays beautifully in the made-for-TV schlock landscape.

You’d be forgiven to find some James Franco projects a little insufferable for their artistic pretensions (you’d certainly have a lot of projects to choose from there; the man never sleeps). That pretension totally works in this garbage bin smut context, though. In the film Franco himself plays a college campus theater director staging a girl-on-girl erotica adaptation of Macbeth, with the film’s director, Melanie Aitkenhead, sitting at his right hand, nodding approvingly. The two cohorts gleefully eat up their own slash fiction filth from the comfortable distance of a theater audience. There’s a comment on the artificiality of the whole production built into that device, but it’s mostly a nod to Franco & Aitkenhead knowing & enjoying the exact kind of campy smut they’ve staged here. There’s also a couple college classroom lectures our danger-sleeper-wither protagonist attends titled “Vampires & Sexuality” and “Virginity & Sisterhood” that casually dig up thematic implications like homophobia & teen sexuality in titles like Dracula & Twilight with no intention of actually exploring those topics in any insightful way. Franco, who receives a “story by” credit here on top of being an executive producer, constantly reminds the audience that he knows how to make a smart, poignant vampire picture; he just happens to be more interested in making very softcore sapphic porn.

The one way Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? might be mistaken for something mildly insightful is in its depiction of college campuses as a dangerous hellscape for young women. Although it’s true that a gang of fanged lesbians dressed in Hot Topic lingerie are out to turn our troubled protagonist into a “nightwalker,” they are mostly treated as an afterthought in light of the film’s true villains: men. In order to ethically sustain themselves on human blood, our spooky The Craft knockoff vampire coven feeds on frat house rapists & dude bro Redditor types, of which its college campus setting has plenty. This moral center unravels under even the slightest scrutiny, though. They murder rapists, sure, but they leave their victims’ drained bodies next to the girls they were going to assault, carelessly setting them up to take the blame. That’s hardly model vigilante behavior, but what’s even worse is that when they accidentally turn the film’s most egregious example of toxic rape culture into a nightwalker, they just accept him as one of their own and allow him to go about his usual predatory business. It’s probably not too smart to dissect this film’s thematic trajectory, honestly. It’s much less of a thoughtful, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night style of vampire flick than it is a trashy Jennifer’s Body-type. Despite what Franco’s play-within-a-play self reflection might invite you to believe, it’s most likely best to enjoy the film for its laughable melodrama and its purty pictures.

Speaking of purty pictures, Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? is damn ugly, just truly hideous stuff. Of course, due to its subject matter, it’s hopelessly buried under what I consider the absolute worst era of pop culture aesthetic: late 90s nu metal/mall goth. The film’s Charmed/Twilight/Disney’s Descendants Spirit Halloween Store cosplay was almost entirely unavoidable, though. What really stands out is its endless establishing shots of bland drone-POV cityscapes, its watery-purple stage blood, and its Dr. Phibes by way of a Halloween-themed T.A.T.U. music video masquerade parties, all just perfectly hideous in a way only television can get away with & not get called out for it. It’s tempting to assume that the film’s visual cheapness was an intentional means to point to its own artificiality, like the college lectures or the Macbethean play-within-a-play machinations. The truth is, though, that the film is naturally hideous because it’s so damn earnest. If it were a more ironic production it likely would’ve tried avoiding its television-ugly genre trappings, but this is one remake that stays true to its dirt cheap Lifetime roots, a shoddy authenticity that helps sell its intrinsic camp pleasures beautifully.

It’s a well-informed balance between heady subject matter & campily melodramatic execution that makes Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? such a riot, a formula that holds true for all of Lifetime’s most memorable features whether they focus on co-ed call-girls, wife-mother-murderers or, in this case, lesbian vampires. This film has the gall to approach topics as powerful as grieving over familial loss, coming out to your parents, and the horrors of date rape, but does so only as a means to a tawdry end, namely inane mother-daughter shouting matches & young, lingerie-clad girls making out in spooky graveyards. It’s wonderfully trashy in that way, the best possible prospect for made-for-TV dreck. If when you were watching Refn’s fashion world horror The Neon Demon you wished it were instead cheap & awful, this film’s fashion photography montages & horrendous pop music are going to blow your trashy mind (also, you are ridiculous). If you think Ren Faire goth never got its fair shake as an aesthetic turn-on, you are about to get all worked up by this TV-14 smut (with little to no payoff, of course). If when you were watching the Paul Rust/Gillian Jacobs romcom Love, you found yourself curious what the fictional show-within-a-show witchcraft drama Witchita might feel like instead, you are in luck, you silly thing.

Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? only appeals to the basest of your television pleasure zones, assuming that if you tuned in for a Lifetime movie, you’re in the mood for some really trashy shit. The one thing it changes up from the normal formula is that it mixes its awful Tori Spelling-brand acting (she really has not improved an inch in the last two decades; she’s impressively stubborn in that way) with some stubby-fanged, throat-tearing gore (it’s not called Mother, May I Sleep with Safety?, after all). Throw in some supernatural baloney about vampires never needing to feed if they find their one true love (no word on if that’s reversed if it winds up being just a college fling), some of the world’s sloppiest blood-eating, and a few stray howler lines like “I’m going to turn you into a nightwalker, bitch!” and you have one strange, campy delight. Again, Franco & company trust that if you show up for this picture in the first place, you’re going to be down for some tawdry smut along the way. They’re not wrong. I had a lot of shameful, lowbrow fun.

-Brandon Ledet

Kink (2014)



There’s a crippling sense of pointlessness at the heart of Kink, a recent documentary about the BDSM pornography company It’s not just that anyone who would be inclined to watch the film in the first place is already likely to be on board with its “kink porn is not unhealthy” message; it’s also that the film plays more like a long form advertisement than a proper documentary. Kink is more akin to an infomercial, a DVD extra, or a decade-late episode of HBO’s Real Sex than it is to a fully invested exploration of the subject at hand. By focusing on a single production company’s output & ethos, it feels less like a document of where kink porn is today and more like an aggressive PR assertion of where is today, which is not necessarily as worthwhile of a subject.

As practicing sadists, is obviously very much worried about coming across as “axe wielding maniacs”, so much of the run time is softening that image. Actors are shown expressing “pain” & then practicing the expression of “pain” off-camera. There are a lot of looming hard-ons bouncing around the set, but they’re slapped & tickled in an irreverent manner that says “We’re having fun here, y’all! I swear! So much fun!” The producers try to pose the company as a sort of mom & pop operation that started in a college dorm room (every young perv’s dream) and somehow blossomed into a successful business. But not too successful, though. They want you to know that in comparison to other porn giants, they’re the small-time outsiders, saying “If pornography was high school, we would be the goth table. We’d be the art kids.” All of this aggressive PR is supposed to make the company’s scary flogging, spanking, and out-of-control fuck machines more palatable to a wider audience, but it’s hard to imagine that it’s winning anyone over who wasn’t already down with what it’s selling.

Preaching to the choir is not the only problem with Kink’s assertion that’s brand of BDSM porn is a-okay. It also just doesn’t have much to say once it establishes that consensual BDSM play is healthy. That’s not to say the film is completely devoid of entertainment. If nothing else, it’s kind of cute in its matter-of-fact pre-coitus negotiations of what will & won’t go down. As I mentioned in my review of The Duke of Burgundy, the sub is firmly in charge in most BDSM scenarios, despite what most people would expect, so it’s amusing here to watch them call the shots before shooting scenes.  Even at a mere 80min, however, this message isn’t enough to carry the film and there’s a lot of redundant feet-dragging that sinks any good vibes it had cultivated along the way. The closest the film comes to challenging itself is in a brief questioning of how money muddles consent and (after its assertion that BDSM porn doesn’t promote rape) the filming of a home invasion scenario that is very much a distinct rape fantasy. Otherwise, it lets its subject off the hook. As a documentary, Kink is mostly harmless. I was a little bored with its repetition, a little cynical of its blatant advertising, and very much annoyed with the obnoxious, wailing orgasm moans that droned on & on & on, but its biggest fault is that it didn’t push itself harder, instead opting to cover one small facet of a truly fascinating topic that deserves a closer, more critical look.

Side note: When the end credits revealed that Kink was “Produced by James Franco” I thought to myself, “Of course it was.”

-Brandon Ledet

Saturday Night (2010)


three star

One of my all-time favorite pop culture documents is Live From New York, the oral history of Saturday Night Live. It’s an impressively thorough work that traces the grueling writer’s room structure of the sketch comedy institution back to the coked-out shenanigans of the 1970s. The absurdly late hours & rapid-fire turnaround that give the show’s more gloriously inane moments their loopy, “Why would someone even write that?” absurdity seem like a very peculiar business practice, but make total sense when considered in the context of their 1970s origins. Over the three decades of SNL covered in the book, not much changes institutionally. The show is like a river that only gradually shifts its course as a constant supply of fresh faces flow through it.

In case you are interested in how SNL functions, but can’t be bothered with the ~700 page task of Live From New York, James Franco has your back. His 2010 documentary Saturday Night was seven years behind the definitive oral history, but is much more easily digestible and covers much of the same territory. The premise is simple: Franco films the one-week cycle of the production a single SNL episode. On the starting Monday, the writers & cast cram into Lorne Michaels’ office to pitch seeds of ideas for sketches that could possibly be developed that week. As the days roll on the crew develops around 50 sketches that get torn down & rebuilt through a series of table readings, producers’ meetings and live rehearsals. They frantically grasp at sketch comedy straws & avoid sleep like the plague with only the faint promise that something they develop makes the live broadcast. After a single day of rest it’s Monday again and they’re pitching sketch ideas for the next SNL host. It’s a punishing/fascinating creative process that may be a hangover of the 70s party scene when rampant drug use could get you through the ordeal, but it’s one that pays off with some of the more bizarre realized ideas on broadcast television for four decades running.

Saturday Night starts with its most amusing moments. It’s genuinely delightful to watch the wheels turn in writers’ & performers’ heads when they’re excited about getting to work on an infant sketch idea. The fun fades a bit as the work gets more difficult, the frustration involved with the detailed logistics of developing a sketch on full display for the camera. Franco’s choice to film a week John Malkovich hosted pays dividends, as his subject is an endlessly fascinating personality even when just standing around idling as the SNL machine swirls around him. Cast members like Bill Hader & Will Forte also carry the film a long way, especially early in the creative process when they’re frantically riffing or selecting fart noises from a sound board. There are a few moments when Franco’s personality becomes intrusive, like a frustratingly useless scene involving Hader’s dressing room mirror & the intentionally conspicuous absence of Amy Poehler, but for the most part he pulls the film off with a calm, low-key tone that benefits the laborious process he documents. Saturday Night is a great companion piece to the more definitive Live From New York book. There are less mind-blowing anecdotes & juicy gossip than in the whopping oral history, but the film brings the day-to-day logistics of the pop culture institution’s unfathomable workload into vivid focus.

Saturday Night is currently streaming on Hulu.

-Brandon Ledet