Cruel Intentions (1999) Celebrates its 20th Anniversary. And its 31st. And its 237th.

The mildly kinky teen sex melodrama Cruel Intentions was a major cultural event for audiences in my exact age range. I doubt I’m alone in my personal experience with the film in saying that running my VHS copy into dust in the early 2000s actively transformed me into a burgeoning pervert (and passionate Placebo fan); it was a kind of Millennial sexual awakening in that way. Still, I was shocked & amused to see Cruel Intentions return to theaters for its 20th anniversary last month as if it were a legitimate cultural touchstone instead of a deeply silly, trashy frivolity that just happened to make the right teen audience horny at the exact right time. The commemorative theatrical experience was perfect, with fresh teens in the audience who had obviously never seen the film before gasping and heckling their way through the preposterous, horned-up picture in amused awe. I even somehow found new appreciation of & observations in the film seeing it projected on the big screen for the first time, instead of shamefully watching it alone in my high school bedroom. Some discoveries were positive: newfound admiration for Selma Blair’s MVP comedic performance; awe for how much groundwork is laid by the costume & production design; the divine presence of Christine Baranski; etc. Others haven’t aged so well: its flippant attitude about sexual consent; the teen age range of its central players; its casual use of homophobic slurs; and so on. The most significant effect this 20-years-later return to Cruel Intentions has had on me, though, was in convincing me to finally seek out the work that most directly inspired it – not the 18th Century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses that “suggested” its writing, but rather that book’s 1988 film adaptation, which Cruel Intentions closely mimics to the point of functioning as a feature-length homage.

Winning three Academy Awards and overflowing with stellar performers at the top of their game (Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Keanu Reeves, Peter Capaldi and Uma Thurman), 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons is far more prestigious than Cruel Intentions, yet its own recent 30th Anniversary went by largely unnoticed. It’s just as overtly horny & sadistic as Cruel Intentions but combines those impulses with the meticulously staged pomp of lush costume dramas – recalling the peculiar tone of genre outliers like Barry Lyndon & The Favourite. Since they both draw from the same novel for their source material, it’s no surprise that this film telegraphs Cruel Intentions’s exact plot: Glenn Close exacts revenge on a romantic rival by dispatching John Malkovich to relieve her of her virginity before marriage (to ruin her with scandal), while Malkovich has his own virginal target in mind that presents more of a challenge (only to inconveniently fall in love with his chosen victim). What shocked me, though, is how much of Dangerous Liaisons’s exact dialogue was borrowed wholesale for the latter film, especially in early parlor room discussions of Close & Malkovich’s respective schemes. Furthermore, Ryan Phillipe’s performance in Cruel Intentions is apparently a dead-on impersonation of Malkovich’s exact line-deliveries & mannerisms, and his opening scene therapist (Swoozie Kurtz) also appears in Dangerous Liaisons as the guardian of one of his sexual targets (later played by Baranski). Cruel Intentions’s title card announcing that it was “suggested by” the 18th Century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses plays almost a flippant joke in retrospect. The film is clearly a direct remake of its 1988 predecessor, just with some updated clothes & de-aged players to make it more commercially palatable to a late 90s audience. It’s no surprise that I was an instantaneous fan of Dangerous Liaisons on this first watch; I’ve already been a fan of it for two decades solid, just distorted through a late-90s lens.

Cruel Intentions arrived at the tail end of many classic literary works being reinterpreted as 90s teen romances: Emma in Clueless, The Taming of the Shrew in 10 Things I Hate about You, Othello in O, etc. The erotic nature of the source material makes Dangerous Liaisons an awkward candidate for that adaptation template, especially if you pause long enough to consider Selma Blair’s character’s age range as a high school freshman entering the scene . . . Many of its choices in how to update the material for a 90s audience makes total sense: gay sex, racial politics, drug use, etc. I was shocked to discover, however, that the incest element of Cruel Intentions (in which two siblings-by-marriage tease each other throughout) was a complete fabrication. Close & Malkovich are ex-lovers in Dangerous Liaisons, not sister & brother. It’s difficult to parse out exactly who Cruel Intentions was appealing to in that added layer of incest kink, then, since that’s not the first impulse that comes to mind in catering to modern audience sensibilities. Weirdly, that’s one of the film’s more invigorating additions to the Dangerous Liaisons lineage. Overall, there is a noticeable potency lost in the modernization. Characters peeping through keyholes, foppishly being dressed & perfumed by their servants, and firing off barbed phrases like “I’ve always known that I was born to dominate your sex and to avenge my own” feel like they’re getting away with something you can only do in period films, and Dangerous Liaisons benefits greatly from that setting. Still, the way Cruel Intentions translates that dated eccentricity to mocking the perversions of the young & wealthy with too much power & idle time is a rewarding conceit. They look & sound utterly ridiculous in their modernization of the exact horned-up affectations of Dangerous Liaisons’s central players, which is just as uncomfortable considering their age as it is appropriate for their level of privilege: the rich are ridiculous perverts, always have been.

Cruel Intentions is too trashy & commercially cynical to match the soaring heights of Dangerous Liaisons creatively, but I do contend that it admirably holds up on its own. No one in the latter film delivers anything half as compelling as Close’s Oscar-nominated performance of cunning sexual confidence, but Phillipe’s impersonation of Malkovich’s’ villainy is highly amusing in a modern setting. Similarly, Selma Blair’s campy performance as his youngest victim shares a direct lineage with Keanu Reeves’s wide-eyed naivete in Dangerous Liaisons; they both had me howling in equal measure and there wasn’t nearly enough screentime for either. I can’t objectively say that revisiting Cruel Intentions is worth your time if you didn’t grow up with it as a sexual awakening touchstone the same way so many kids of my generation did, but I can say that if you are one of those Millennial perverts, Dangerous Liaisons is required viewing. You already love it whether or not you’ve already seen it.

-Brandon Ledet

Replicas (2019)

Often, when we have fun watching “bad movies” for sport, we’re indulging in the over-the-top camp & below-par craft of outsider art: finding amusement in the handmade, weirdly delivered oddities that could never make it to the screen in more professional, homogenized studio pictures. The latest Keanu Reeves sci-fi cheapie (in a tradition that includes such esteemed titles as Chain Reaction & Johnny Mnemonic) is an entirely different, more rarified kind of “bad movie” pleasure. Replicas is less of an over-the-top, straight-from-the-id slice of schlocky outsider art than it is a confounding puzzle, the kind of “bad movie” that inspired the idiom “How did this get made?” There are a few laughs to be had at Replicas’s expense, but not as many as you may hope for from a dirt-cheap sci-fi picture dumped into an early-January theatrical release (when it obviously deserved the direct-to-VOD treatment). Chuckling at its robotic line-deliveries & Lawnmower Man-level CGI can only carry you so far in a movie that’s too somberly paced to fully support the MST3k-riffing treatment. Replicas does not amount to much as a laugh-a-minute camp fest, but it does excel as a puzzling piece of screenwriting, a bizarre act of storytelling so emotionless & illogical that there’s no recognizable humanity to it at all, as if its conception itself was a work of science fiction.

Keanu Reeves stars as a scientist & a family man, toiling away in a Puerto Rican lab on a research project meant to transfer human consciousness to A.I. machines. His closest collaborator, a perpetually nervous Thomas Middleditch, is simultaneously working on a seemingly unrelated project involving human cloning. When a freak car accident kills his wife & children, Reeves makes a panicked decision to combine the two projects, creating clones of his deceased family and importing the “neurological data” from their former selves, so it’s as if they never died. To its credit, Replicas almost establishes a genuinely unnerving source of tension there – finding chilling moments of unease as the dead family’s “living” replicas occasionally half-remember the crash that killed them as if it were a dream they once had. The movie isn’t especially interested in building on that theme, however, as it instead chases a go-nowhere conspiracy thriller storyline involving the company that paid for the cloning & A.I. research. Even that narrative thread is illogically patterned, however, delivering none of the usual payoffs you’d expect from its genre. Replicas ultimately feels as if it were written by a malfunctioning algorithm that became self-aware midway into the process and decided to self-destruct rather than construct a third act. Its various narrative threads & motions towards thematic reasoning are ultimately an act of total chaos, a meaningless collection of 1’s & 0’s. It’s oddly fascinating to behold as it devolves into formless nonsense, like listening to an A.I. machine babble as it loses power & effectively dies.

Keanu Reeves does deliver some traditionally funny “bad movie” line-readings throughout, recalling his befuddled family-man schtick in Knock Knock. His attempts to imbue pathos into lines like “I didn’t defy every natural law there is just to lose you again,” & “Boot the mapping sequence, Ed!” hit the perfect note of failed sincerity & meaningless one-liner script punch-ups. His wife (Alice Eve) sinks even further into inhuman “bad movie” performance than he does – speaking in a dazed, dubbed, robotic cadence about the difference between “neuro chemistry” vs. the human soul as if she were calling in a lunch order. Still, these moments of absurdly mishandled drama are too far spaced-out to recommend Replicas as a laugh-a-minute camp fest. The movie is much more enjoyable for the value of its bizarre construction as a piece of writing. Its mystery thriller tangents, loose Frankenstein-style themes of playing god, and desperate scramble to reach a coherent conclusion all clash spectacularly as its hopes for a clear, linear storyline fall to pieces before our eyes. Most so-bad-it’s-good cinematic pleasures are enjoyable because they offer a glimpse of humanity that shines through the usual machinery of professional filmmaking – whether in a poorly made costume, a wildly miscalculated performance, an unintentional expression of a creator’s id, or what have you. Replicas is a different kind of “bad movie” delight; it’s fascinating because it seems to display no discernible humanity at all, as if it were written by a machine on the fritz. Its only value is that it can be taught as an example of what not to do in a screenwriting class, or enjoyed for its puzzling questions of how & why it was made in the first place by the lucky few who mistakenly find themselves gazing at its confounding, cheap CG splendor.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #68 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Devil vs. Keanu & The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

Welcome to Episode #68 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our sixty-eighth episode, we wrap up the Halloween season with The Devil himselves. James & Brandon are joined by Krewe Divine co-founder Virginia Ruth to discuss three movies in which Keanu Reeves goes head to head with Satan. Also, Brandon makes James watch The Witches of Eastwick (1987) for the first time. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Freaked (1993)

When I revisited Tod Browning’s 1932 silent horror classic Freaks last October, I was struck by how the majority of the story it tells doesn’t play like a horror film at all. Before the titular circus “freaks” band together to avenge a bungled assassination attempt on one of their own, the movie mostly plays like a kind of hangout comedy, preaching an empathetic “We’re all human” message that’s later completely undone by its freaks-as-monsters horror conclusion. The 1993 horror comedy Freaked isn’t exactly a remake of Browning’s film, but it oddly mirrors that exact mix of tones. Continuing the inherent exploitative nature of sideshow freaks as a form of entertainment, Freaked is a morally grotesque work with a toxically shitty attitude towards physical deformity & abnormality, one very much steeped in Gen-X 90s ideological apathy. It’s also an affably goofy hangout comedy packed with a cast of vibrant, over the top characters. Freaked will leave you feeling just as icky as Freaks, although maybe not as intellectually stimulated, and I’m pretty sure that exact effect was entirely its intent.

Alex Winter (best known as Bill S. Preston, Esq.) directs and stars as an Ace Ventura-style ham and a Hollywood douche. It’s as if the evil versions of Bill & Ted from Bogus Journey were the protagonists of a horror comedy and you were supposed to find their Politically Incorrect hijinks hilarious instead of despicable. Along with a fellow wise-cracking asshole and a bleeding heart political protestor (picked up for her looks), Winter’s fictional movie star cad is lured to a crooked sideshow operated by a visibly drunk Randy Quaid. Quaid transforms these three unsavory souls into freaks for his sideshow against their will, where they join the ranks of fellow imprisoned performers in desperate need of a revolt: Bobcat Goldthwait as an anthropomorphic sock puppet, Mr. T as a bearded lady, John Hawkes as a literal cow-boy, Keanu Reeves as a humanoid dog/political revolutionary, etc. There’s also a side plot about an Evil Corporation dabbling in illegal chemical dumping, but Freaked is mostly a mix of special effects mayhem, Looney Tunes wise-cracking, and poorly aged indulgences in racial stereotypes, transphobia, and sexual assault humor.

Freaked is in a weird position as a cultural object. It’s shot like a breakfast cereal commercial and indulges in so much juvenile humor that its best chance for entirely pleasing a newfound audience would be reaching immature preteens with a taste for the macabre. I would never recommend this movie to an undiscerning youngster, though, since its sense of morality is deeply toxic in a 2010s context. (Big Top Pee-wee is both sweeter and somehow stranger, while essentially accomplishing the same tone.) Much like with Freaks, however, there’s plenty to enjoy here once you wince your way past the horrifically outdated social politics. Special effects & creature designs from frequent Brian Yuzna collaborator Screaming Mad George and a psych rock soundtrack from 90s pranksters The Butthole Surfers afford the film a raucous, punk energy. Meta humor about Hollywood as an cesspool teeming with sell-outs (especially in the jokes involving a fictional film series titled Ghost Dude) lands with full impact and colors the freak show plot in an interesting entertainment industry context. Mostly, though, Freaked is simply just gross, which can be a positive in its merits as a creature-driven horror comedy, but a huge setback in its merits as an expression of Gen-X moral apathy. I’m not sure how it’s possible, but it’s just as much of a marred-by-its-time mixed bag as the much more well-respected Tod Browning original.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bad Batch (2017)

It’s insane how rapidly Ana Lily Amirpour’s public estimation has plummeted since her well-received debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night made her one of the top directors to keep an eye on in the indie scene. A couple awkward (to put it lightly) Q&A session and Halloween costume incidents later and Amirpour is sitting at the helm of one of the year’s least loved high profile horror releases. Her druggy, cannibalistic road drama The Bad Batch lacks the critical support its fellow artsy fartsy cannibal picture Raw has enjoyed in 2017, finding few fans to defend its ambling, highly stylized version of a modern horror. I honestly went into the film hoping to file a contrarian opinion and get some blood flowing back into Amirpour’s veins. The Bad Batch boasted the same visual slickness & feminist bent that I enjoyed in her debut, except maybe shifting its palette from Jim Jarmusch to Harmony Korine (particularly his best works to date, Gummo & Spring Breakers). On paper, it’s the exact brand of bright colors & pop music ultraviolence I love in my modernist schlock, but in execution I can’t quite convince myself to enjoy what’s on the screen. What’s even more surprising than the way Amirpour’s reputation has faltered so quickly is that a movie this visually & conceptually exciting can feel so punishingly dull.

In a not-too-distant future, Texas, Florida, and Burning Man have all combined forces to create film history’s tackiest dystopia. The titular “bad batch” are a community of criminal outcasts fenced in outside the rule of law in a Texan desertscape that’s “hotter than the Devil’s a-hole.” A culture of scavengers & cannibals emerges from this outlaw nation, where people fill their downtime with drugged-out raves & prison yard workouts. Suki Waterhouse stars as a fresh-faced newbie to this flesh-eating community, one who immediately loses two limbs to cannibalistic reprobates on her first day as a member of “the bad batch.” She eventually escapes their clutches and makes her way over to a more hospitable raver community, where she gets entangled in a glacial plot involving a missing child. Other recognizable faces in the cast are obscured by bizarre character choices & costuming: Keanu Reeves in Tony Clifton drag as King of the Raves; Jim Carrey as a mute, sunburnt hobo; (most disastrously) Jason Momoa as a Cuban family man. It’s mostly a Battle of the Ridiculous Accents from there, as most of the violence happens quickly & early and the two hour runtime pulls a Terry Gilliam-esque feat of feeling three times its length. For a movie so sure of itself visually & aesthetically, The Bad Batch feels oddly short on ideas to occupy its time.

The most frustrating aspect of The Bad Batch is that it has the building blocks of a much more fun, rewarding movie already in its arsenal. I have no doubt that what Amirpour filmed for the project could be re-edited into a crowd pleasing spectacle of pop horror mayhem. The bubbly soundtrack (which includes needle drops from Ace of Base, Die Antwoord, and Culture Club), Speedos & watermelon-print jorts costuming, and beached jetskis & neon lights set design all suggest a movie far more fun than The Bad Batch ever dares to be. With more energy and a shorter runtime, the film could’ve been a blast as a live action sugar rush, but as a slow-moving art film it just lays there, rotting in the sun. The best parts of the film are dialogue-free indulgences in high fructose imagery (much like A Girl Walks Home, the film’s best scene simply watches a woman enjoy solitude in her bedroom). Any instances of plot or dialogue digging for meaning beyond these surface pleasures are either cringe-worthy, blunt statements of unearned themes or laughable moments like an embarrassingly edited, never-ending acid trip or the Richard Kelly-ish line, “What if all the things that happened to us happened to us so the next things that are going to happen to us can happen to us?”. That’d be fine if the movie were about half as long & twice as fun or violent, but as is its minor pleasures are buried under a massive bore.

I’m not quite ready to give up on Ana Lily Amirpour. I doubt the movie-world at large is either. Her imagery and bloodthirsty Millennial sensibilities are too immediately interesting to abandon just yet, but I’d be a liar if I said The Bad Batch in particular is worth anyone’s time. Until I hear that the film has been trimmed down or punched up into the wild ride horror comedy free-for-all it should’ve been in the first place, this is one Texan dystopia (among many) that I plan to leave forever in the rearview. Let’s just be hopeful and chalk it up as a standard sophomore slump.

-Brandon Ledet

The Psychic (1977) Goes Southern Gothic in Raimi’s The Gift (2000)

Boomer recently wrote about how August’s Movie of the Month, Lucio Fulci’s paranormal horror The Psychic, was initially confused by audiences to be a rip-off of its contemporary, Eyes of Laura Mars, despite being released in Europe before that American work. Constructing a paranormal murder mystery around a fashion photographer’s visions of crimes from the killer’s POV, Eyes of Laura Mars is widely cited as the only successful attempt to make an American giallo picture (although it’s arguable that the entire slasher genre is built on that same foundation). Eyes of Laura Mars held on tightly to European art horror aesthetics in its own version of a clairvoyance murder mystery, only serving as an American version of The Psychic in the means through which it was produced, not necessarily in its tone or aesthetic. The most fiercely American version of The Psychic wouldn’t come for another couple decades, when Sam Raimi would set a psychic visions murder mystery in the Georgian swamps of the American South. Raimi (working with a script penned by Billy Bob Thornton) would translate The Psychic‘s basic DNA from European art horror to Southern Gothic melodrama. The results aren’t necessarily a clear improvement, but they were undeniably more American.

The Gift (2000) features Cate Blanchett as a Georgian clairvoyant much more genteel in her demeanor than we’re used to from her steeled roles in works like Carol. Unlike in The Psychic (and most other media featuring a woman with psychic abilities), The Gift‘s clairvoyant protagonist is widely respected & believed within her local community, perhaps as a comment on the superstitions of American Southerners. Only a tough as nails sheriff (JK Simmons) & an incredulous lawyer (Michael Jeter) are skeptical of the psychic’s titular “gift” as she attempts to solve the mystery of a murdered local woman. Some even come to her for medical advice instead of consulting with a doctor. This psychic senses violence long before the central murder occurs, focusing on the intense energy of a pencil rolling off a table when she first meets the future-victim (Katie Holmes), much like how the protagonist of The Psychic has visions of the objects that populate a future murder scene: a lamp, an ashtray, a mirror, etc. Unlike with The Psychic, however, the visions frequently occur throughout the picture as she pieces together the image of Katie Holmes being choked to death in a nearby swamp with the other flashes of murder scene details that intrude her idle thoughts. The Gift doesn’t echo The Psychic‘s exact plot or tone, but the similarities are close enough to suggest what a Southern Gothic version of that giallo work might look like.

Something The Gift does share with The Psychic thematically, at least, is the tyranny of men. Like how the protagonist of The Psychic is isolated and made to feel insane by the skeptical men in her life, Cate Blanchett’s similar clairvoyant is surrounded by dangerous men who make her feel vulnerable for a “gift” she did not ask for. The Southern men who surround her are conspicuously abusive, threatening rape & other forms of violence in a way that extends far beyond the mystery of a single murder into a routinely monstrous way of life. This dynamic leaves plenty of suspects for the central murder: an abusive husband (Keanu Reeves) who regularly beats his mousy wife (Hillary Swank) for visiting the psychic, an on-edge mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) with a deeply fucked up familial past, the victim’s straight-laced husband (Greg Kinnear), her wealthy father, and the various men who participated in her extramarital affairs. Much like with all giallo pictures (and, I suppose, murder mysteries at large), the answer to this question is hinged on a last minute twist (or two) that disrupts the accusation of the most obvious suspect the movie sets up early on. The way The Gift manages to make the images in its protagonist’s psychic visions actually mean something in the film’s final reveal is a narrative feat, however. That’s more than you can say for Eyes of Laura Mars or Fulci‘s other clairvoyance horror, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, which use psychic visions mostly for stylistic flourish and a device that obscures the give-away details of the murder.

The Gift is an excellent little thriller, worth seeing for Raimi’s unusual displays of restraint, (not unlike Fulci’s atypically mild-mannered The Psychic) and for novel performances from actors like the surprisingly genteel Cate Blanchett or Keanu Reeves’s Southern fried preview of the monster he would later play in The Neon Demon. Some of the Southern Gothic touches to its paranormal mystery can be A Bit Much (Reeves’s threats to retaliate with Voodoo & witness stand accusations that Blanchett is a witch both border on being outright silly), but the film gets by just fine as a deadly melodrama even with those impulses. I especially believe The Gift is worth viewing as a wholly American contrast to the similar plot filtered through giallo aesthetics in The Psychic. The Gift opens with slow pans of Georgian swamp waters and incorporates lightning storms & visits from the dead into its murder-solving psychic visions in a way that feels distinctly more Southern Gothic than its European counterpart. I’d contend that The Psychic is the better film of the pair, but The Gift is very much worthwhile viewing as as an American counterpoint, maybe even moreso than the directly-linked Eyes of Laura Mars.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its American counterpart, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and last week’s comparison with its hornier Fucli predecessor, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971).

-Brandon Ledet

Knock Knock (2015)

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I’ve never bothered watching an Eli Roth movie before, mostly because I associate him with the mid 00s torture porn aesthetic that I generally try to avoid in my horror binges. Roth has a way of sneaking into other projects I’m interested in, though, and I’ve started to notice over the years that he seems to have a sense of humor to his work that I had missed out on from the outside looking in. If you judge Roth solely by his fake Thanksgiving trailer for the Grindhouse project, his performance as “The Bear Jew” in Inglourious Basterds, and his production work on the campy body horror Clown, he comes off as much less misanthropic than his usual reputation would suggest. As sick as his sense of humor seems to be, I’ve come to think of Roth as something of a prankster. If you need a brief glimpse of what I’m getting at, look to the trailer for Roth’s recent home invasion piece Knock Knock. Everything from Keanu Reeves’s strange line deliveries to the film’s cheap digital look to its winking title suggests that it’s supposed to play like a joke. I’m not sure that I have enough context to settle that question of Roth’s tonal intent on my own, but I can say that if Knock Knock was indeed meant to be a setup for a joke, the punchline was constantly amusing, making for a decent entry point into a career I’ve been too grossed out to approach for more than a decade now.

A nasty exploitation thriller that resembles a direct-to-DVD knockoff of Funny Games, it’s tempting to view Knock Knock in the same light as more typifying Eli Roth ventures like Hostel or Green Inferno. Whereas those titles have a pointed central message (usually about cultural tourism & American entitlement) & a dedication to gut-wrenching gore, however, Knock Knock is much more deliberately ditzy. Keanu Reeves plays a doting husband who’s alone for the weekend in his beautiful home when two young women knock on his door soaked & shivering in the rain. He’s initially kind to the girls, but far from predatory; things eventually get too steamy for him to resist, though, as the girls flirtatiously pressure him into cheating on his wife over the course of a night lifted straight out of a letter to Penthouse. Of course, as soon as he cheats his doom is sealed and the girls immediately switch from sexual fantasy to violent nightmare. They destroy his home, yip like wild dogs, tie him up, sexually assault him, and stab him with food utensils. You could search for meaning or a sense of morality in their gleeful chaos, maybe something about the gender reversal of predatory sexuality or about how all men are liars & cheats under the surface, but the film feels far too deliberately empty-headed for any of those themes to register. Instead, all that shines through is a Daisies-esque dedication to pointless, childlike abandon (except without the political context or attention to visual craft). Knock Knock is much more of a nihilist comedy than a pointed satire of gender politics and the psyche of the modern American husband/father.

One of the reasons it’s difficult to tell if the comedy was entirely intentional here is that it largely comes across in the performances. Keanu Reeves has a bewildering way of balancing between overacting & underacting, with no measured sense of middle ground, that plays so damn weird when he’s given enough space to chew scenery. In Knock Knock, he reaches Nic Cage levels of distracting performance, a one man camp spectacle that often feels as if he’s making fun of his own lines instead of trying to sell them. There’s an obvious humor to his delivery of lines like, “Wowww, chocolate with sprinkles!,” “Do you kids want to live in a box?,” and “It was free pizza!,” but they’re far from Keanu’s only amusing line readings. Something about the way he says things like, “What’s the point of this?!,” “I’m a good person. I made a mistake,” and “I’m an architect, so I believe that things happen by your own design,” points directly back to how hacky & corny the script is on a fundamental level, to the point where the film plays more like sketch comedy than erotic thriller. Actors Ana de Armas and Lorenza Izzo have an obvious blast playing Reeves’s seductors/tormentors, but even their over-the-top, childlike exuberance somehow can’t match the strangely inhuman way he quietly delivers his lines. Knock Knock truly is Reeves’s Wicker Man (2006) or his Vampire’s Kiss. It’s just waiting to be picked apart and cut down to YouTube memery.

The only question I have is exactly how much Roth was participating in the humor of this film. Knock Knock features a female-on-male rape, raises questions about childhood sexual abuse & incest, and indulges in the exact modes of life-threatening violence you’d expect from a self-serious home invasion exploitation piece, so it’s tempting to believe the director meant for his audience to take the film at face value. However, there’s just as much evidence to the contrary onscreen. Besides Roth’s prankster past & the joke plainly hinted at in Knock Knock‘s title, there’s a visual play to the movie that matched Reeves’s weirdo comedy energy, particularly in the way the frame lingers on details like the Hollywood sign & strategically-placed portraits of its protagonist’s family. If Knock Knock were meant to play as a straightforward thriller about predatory sexuality & the dangers of infidelity, I’d say it was a thorough misfire. As a nasty comedy overflowing with pointless nihilism & memorably campy performances, however, the film resonates a consistent success. I may not know enough about Eli Roth to decidedly say where this film falls on that divide, but I can honestly report that it amused me for the entirety of its runtime, which was a lot more payoff than what I expected to take away from this one.

-Brandon Ledet

The Neon Demon (2016)

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The drastic reds, blues, and purples of The Neon Demon‘s opening title card scream “Suspiria!” before the film’s lush synth score & vague witchcraft horrors can even beat you over the head with that influence. The film’s colorless voids & glacial pace whisper “Under the Skin” just faintly enough to give you goosebumps. You can feel Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion lurking in the film’s gleefully predatory sex & violence, as well as its deliberate moral provocations (and, oddly enough, its wallpaper patterns). There’s a touch of Black Swan lurking in its abstraction of female competition & psychological break. There’s more than a hint of Mulholland Drive in its stubbornly auteurist nightmare logic. Blood & Black Lace is woven into the fabric of its fashion world style-over-substance aesthetic. Lesser, trashier works also lodge themselves in the film’s DNA, as cherry-picked elements of It Follows, Lost River, Maps to the Stars, #horror, and, you guessed it (no you didn’t) Tron: Legacy are strategically repurposed for entirely new, entirely terrifying effect. The Neon Demon is unlike anything I’ve seen before in that it’s the best of everything I’ve seen before, just masterfully reshaped & distorted into an exquisitely beautiful work of art with a deeply ugly, predatory soul. I’m at once disgusted by and in total awe of what Nicolas Winding Refn has accomplished here and I revel in the unease of that conflict.

The closest Refn will likely ever come to directing a crowdpleaser was 2011’s Drive, a sleek Ryan Gosling vehicle that explored the seedy world of Los Angeles stunt men & mafia types (as well as the hypnotic spell of body language flirtation). His followup, Only God Forgives, seemed to intentionally push his newfound audience away, presenting an all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go art house take on the revenge thriller by surgically removing all the genre thrills that exploitation formula promises in favor of well-crafted emptiness. The Neon Demon seems intent to split the difference between those two extremes. It is at once Refn’s most beautiful work to date and his most deliberately off-putting (though the silent masculinity of Valhalla Rising makes it a close call on that latter point). His eye returns to the neon-lit, synth-soaked Los Angeles of Drive, but brings the violently ugly, corrupted soul of Only God Forgives along for the ride. It’s tempting to reduce The Neon Demon to descriptions like “the fashion world Suspiria” or “the day-glo Black Swan,” but the truth is that the work is 100% pure, uncut Refn. For better or for worse, this will be the title that solidifies him as an auteur provocateur, likening him to other technically-skilled button pushers like De Palma, Friedkin, Verhoeven, Von Trier, Ken Russell, and, why not, Russ Meyer. Like all the madmen provocation artists that have come before him, Refn stumbles while handling any semblance of nuance in the proudly taboo subjects he gleefully rattles like a curious toddler, but he makes the exercise so beautiful & so callously funny that it’s difficult to sour on the experience as a whole. Instead, you mull over provocations like The Neon Demon for days, months, years on end, wrestling with your own thoughts on what you’ve seen and how, exactly, you’re supposed to feel.

In this particular provocation Elle Fanning plays a sixteen year old model cashing in on her natural beauty in the repugnant, predatory L.A. fashion scene. As soon as she arrives, the sharks start circling the chum in the water, the pythons start sizing up their next meal, the L.A. vampires (both literal & figurative) start sharpening their fangs. She has the kind of beauty described by one character as “a diamond in a sea of glass,” making her stand out both as an opportunity for profit & as a target for violence. Sleazebag photographers & fashion designers turn their heads with unmistakable hunger in their eyes the second she enters a room. Other models shoot daggers as she gleefully eats up the attention. Dastardly villainous make-up artists (Jena Malone) & motel slumlords (Keanu Reeves) jockey to be the first wolf to devour the lamb, drooling to indulge in her inevitable demise. There is a constant, oppressive threat of sexual violence that permeates every scene of The Neon Demon, but Refn thankfully never indulges in its depiction the same way you’d see in old exploitation pics like The Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave. Instead, the threat of rape is abstracted into the shape of a vibe, a glance, an isolated image of violence in a dream, and at one particularly brutal moment, a sound. It’s up to the audience to decipher the balance between representation & complicity here. While it’s true that Refn is consciously condemning the pervasive rape culture aspect of fashion modeling at every turn, it’ also true that he’s indulging in the very same ogling-at-young-beauty impulses that allow that culture to thrive in the first place. Any pointed satire he presents on the matter is also severely undercut by the idea that female-on-female competition is just as much of an ugly threat, especially once the film makes a turn towards a more conventional witchcraft horror pic in the final act. Again, I don’t think Refn handles the hot button topics he’s interested in with any nuanced delicacy, but he does find a way to soften their blow through art house abstraction & you’re not likely to see a more gorgeous work on the big screen all year, morally muddled or not. The result is admittedly uncomfortable, but also deeply fascinating.

The smartest thing Refn does to maintain this high wire balancing act is surround himself with female collaborators. There’s only a small handful of male characters of any consequence in the film and their threat is far outshined by the downright supernatural (and shockingly vicious) power exuded by the women that envelop them, a likely influence of Refn’s two credited female co-writers, Polly Stenham & Mary Laws. He also abstracts the impact of the male gaze by employing a female cinematographer, Natasha Braier, who deserves every accolade you could possibly throw at her for her work here. As the movie puts it, “Beauty is the highest form of currency we have […] Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Although that line is meant to jab at the superficiality of a particularly chauvinistic prick within the fashion world, it also stands a sort of an ethos for what Braier brings to the screen. Every ugly, nightmarish scene in The Neon Demon is made to be strikingly beautiful by the otherworldly wizardry of her lens. Her literal smoke & mirrors dreamscape makes every moment disorienting in a Kubrickian sort of way, a comparison I wouldn’t use lightly. Braier’s work combines with the masterful score by Cliff Martinez and the surreal inclusion of unexpected visual prompts like mountain lions, eyeballs, diving boards, and a triforce to set an aggressively artificial stage for the screenplay’s warped fashion world satire. I don’t know if a team of female collaborators has assembled to construct such a confusingly caustic take on toxic masculinity since Mary Haron & Guinevere Turner adapted American Psycho for the big screen in 2000. By the time Refn dedicates the film to his wife in the end credits the whole movie plays like a terrifying, exquisitely crafted prank.

The Neon Demon is consistently uncomfortable, but also intensely beautiful & surprisingly humorous. Days later my eyeballs are still bleeding from its stark cinematography & my brain is still tearing itself in half trying to find somewhere to land on its thematic minefield of female exploitation, competition, narcissism, and mystic power. This film is going to make a lot of people very angry and I’m certain that’s exactly the reaction Refn is searching for, the cruel bastard. At the same time it’s my favorite thing I’ve seen all year. I’m caught transfixed by its wicked spell & its bottomless wealth of surface pleasures, even as I wrestle with their implications. This is where the stylized form of high art meets the juvenile id of low trash and that exact intersection is why I go to the movies in the first place. The Neon Demon may not be great social commentary, but it’s certainly great cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Point Break (2015) Wasn’t All That Bad . . . As Long As You’ve Never Seen Point Break (1991)

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Okay, it’s shameful confession time. I saw the Point Break remake, released just a few weeks before this past Christmas, before I saw Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 original. It was always a given that I’d see the original Point Break eventually, but twas a task I had been putting off despite the enthusiastic recommendations of friends (& Nick Frost’s bumbling cop in Hot Fuzz) who rank it among their favorite films of all time. A free movie ticket & a convenient showtime, then, lead me to the curious position of having seen the little-loved remake of Point Break weeks before I saw the original (also on the big screen, thanks to Indywood). The shameful part is that I actually enjoyed the remake. As a dumb action movie packed with bad writing, overwrought performances, and over-the-top stunts, it’s  nothing particularly special, but it’s also nothing especially awful either. It’s pretty okay & might’ve even flown under the radar as a half decent genre pic . . . if it hadn’t purported itself to be a remake of Point Break (1991) in the first place. Point Break (1991) & Point Break (2015) are so far apart in terms of style, intent, content, plot, and central philosophy that there’s no reason the 2015 version should’ve bothered calling itself Point Break in the first place. With a couple minor tweaks & a title change it might’ve even been able to sidestep accusations of being a ripoff. The two films are worlds away from one another.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break is a laugh-a-minute action vehicle for Keanu Reeves & Patrick Swayze (not to mention wildcard Gary Busey in unhinged Under Siege mode). The script is overloaded with jokes & the mood is surprisingly light considering that its two most tense action set pieces – a police raid & a bank robbery – are some of the most brutally severe I’ve ever seen. The Point Break remake, on the other hand, is easily recognizable as the post-Dark Knight kind of re-imagining that believes a grim, self-serious mood is what the people want in their over-the-top action cinema. It’s a thoroughly dour affair, especially for a film about bank robbing surfers. Just about the only thing that transferred from the original to the remake were the surfing & the homoeroticism (between an undercover FBI agent & the lead criminal).

What the remake does instead of retracing Bigelow’s steps is focusing on & amplifying particular details of the original & turning those isolated aspects into a feature film. The criminals in the original Point Break are really into surfing, but occasionally dabble in a parachute jump or some beachside football. That’s not X-treme enough for the remake, which makes a point to include every Red Bull-fueled sport you can think of: snowboarding, base jumping, kayaking, whatever. The bigger difference is in the two film’s philosophy, however. The surfer bros in the original may occasionally muse about “the spiritual side of the sea” or how surfing is “a state of mind”, but at heart they’re just thrill seekers & thieves for whom bank robbing is both an adrenaline spike and a source of income. The remake, on the other hand, posits its “extreme poly-athletes” (ugh) as “eco warriors” (double ugh) who steal from “the system” in order to “give back” to a “dying” planet in some 21st Century version of Robin Hood justice. Their thrill seekers as well, but their main concern is achieving nirvana through cutthroat vigilantism . . . and X-treme sports.

Both Point Break films are, admittedly, quite silly. The difference is that you laugh with the original & laugh at the remake. Kathryn Bigelow’s film is loaded with enough snarky one-liners to give any Joss Whedon script a run for its money and, surprisingly enough, they all land. The 2015 version is funny in a different way. Lines like “A tree falls in the forest & no one puts it on YouTube. Did it ever really happen?” & “So, you live off the grid?” “No, we live on it. Just on our own terms,” are downright hilarious, just perhaps not intentionally so. The action sequences in the 1991 Point Break achieve a kind of shocking gravity bucks the film’s humor in an interesting way. The 2015 Point Break‘s action sequences often play directly into the film’s (unintentional) humor. For instance, my first laugh was when a dude bro fell of a cliff while dirt-biking in a bid to earn sponsorships & YouTube hits. I know that’s pretty harsh of me, bro, but the film never truly earns the right to be taken seriously, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

All things told, the 2015 Point Break is a lot more akin to an X-treme sports version of The Edukators than it is to Kathryn Bigelow’s film. If it hadn’t been pitched as a remake it might have never been greenlit or it might’ve been underfunded, but it also would’ve stood a better chance as a critical success. Watching a bunch of bank-robbing anarchists try to achieve nirvana by skateboarding off a yacht to shitty EDM is pretty damn amusing, but it’s nothing in comparison to what any ten minute stretch of the original achieves. If you have any chance of enjoying Point Break (2015) as is, it’d be in seeing it before you check out its far superior source material. Either that, or pretending it has a different title & functioned as a blatant ripoff. As a standalone product, it’s an occasionally fun trifle of mindless action cinema. As a point of comparison, the outlook is much less flattering.

-Brandon Ledet