Woodshock (2017)

If you celebrate Mardi Gras correctly, it tends to require a lot of drinking, walking, and dancing in the New Orleans sunshine, which usually means you arrive home exhausted in the early afternoon without much else to do for the rest of the day. It was in this fragile state that I decided to finally catch up with the low-key psychedelic thriller Woodshock, since I had surmised from the film’s advertising & reputation that it would likely be a calm, soothing watch. Indeed, Woodshock does rely on the stillness & calmness of a mechanized slideshow to establish its calming, psychedelic mood. The film also obsesses over the low-energy imagery of redwood forests, spend-all-day-in-your-underwear depression, and barely-busy marijuana dispensaries as it slowly creeps up on something resembling a psychological thriller plot. I can’t exactly say that it’s a wholly successful film or even an overall enjoyable one, but I can confirm that if you’ve had a loud, busy day reveling in the oppressive North Caribbean heat, this film’s gentle, floral mood is the perfect cannaboid tonic for your physical & mental aches. It was serviceable as post-Carnival comfort food for me, anyway. In that refractory mental state, I couldn’t have handled much more stimulation than what it glacially delivered, even though I likely would have been a lot more impatient with it on any other day of the year.

Kirsten Dunst generously donates her time as the film’s lead, a weed dispensary employee stuck in a haze of grief after the loss of her mother. Torn between her blue-collar logging worker boyfriend and her need to recover from a recent tragedy in privacy, our sullen protagonist mostly just drifts through the frame in her underwear while staring at trees or the ceiling. This insular crisis is disrupted by an even bigger problem when her gloomy daydreaming leads to the accidental sale of poison-laced joints (meant for an assisted suicide patient) to an unwitting stoner. Haunted by her mistake, she rolls several poison joints for her own consumption in what proves to be a failed suicide attempt. Instead of dying from a monster high, Dunst’s flailing protagonist finds herself violently hallucinating and committing increasingly dangerous acts while blacked out under the laced devil weed. Unfortunately, her hallucinatory descent into violence & madness doesn’t begin until about an hour into the film’s obnoxiously padded 100-minute runtime and doesn’t amount to much thematically. As an experiment in double-exposure photography and a gentle exploration of floral wallpaper psychedelia, though, it can be occasionally rewarding. It also helps that the final shot is almost stunning enough to trick you into thinking you’ve watched something substantial, when you’ve actually just been scrolling through a depressive stoner’s well-curated Instagram profile for two hours.

I was frequently impressed with Woodshock’s soft-psych visual aesthetic. The everyday majesty of the film’s impossibly tall trees, prismatic light, and tragic bedroom gloom makes filmmaking feel like a natural fit for directors Kate & Laura Mulleavy’s shared background as fashion designers. The bummer is that the movie these images serve is wholly uninterested in searching for something clear, novel, or substantial to say. I’ve seen too many movies recently that explore similar thematic territory in a more fulfilling narrative, while remaining just as visually interesting. I didn’t care for the Instagram gloom exploration of A Ghost Story either, but it felt more committed to its reflections on the haze of grief. The Lynne Ramsay psych thriller Morvern Callar was just as reliant on striking imagery & a well curated soundtrack to loosely construct its narrative, but did so with a scrappy, cranked-to-11 gusto that Woodshock never manages to convey. Most significantly, the ayahuasca-themed drama Icaros: A Vision is incredibly deft at the way it mixes grief, hallucination, and calming meditation into a clear, satisfying story that puts Woodshock to shame. The only thing I can say Woodshock does that I’ve never seen before is reverently film plastic sacks of weed as if they were the holiest of Nature’s gifts to humanity. Pot is never half as interesting as stoners believe it to be, though, and the tension of whether or not a character will smoke a poisoned joint often comes across as silly at best, when it really needs to sell pure, devastating drama to make the movie work.

No one needs me to tell them that Woodshock is underwhelming as a whole. It’s already one of A24’s worst-received releases to date, destined to be quietly forgotten by time. All I can report is that the Mulleavy sisters do have a worthwhile cinematic eye that will likely pay off in better movies down the line and that if you’re looking for a soothing, post-party cool down after an exhausting round of day-drinking, it’ll do in a pinch. Just don’t watch it if you’ve got enough mental energy to be distracted by your phone or any other available stimulation. It can only hold your attention if you’re entirely drained of your capacity to wander off or look away.

-Brandon Ledet

Tower of Terror (1997)

Expectations can make or break a movie-watching experience if you allow them too much headspace. I try to approach every film with an entirely blank slate, but it can be difficult to achieve that intellectual distance. For instance, watching a mid-90s Steve Guttenberg helm a made-for-TV kids’ movie based on a Disney World theme park attraction comes with its own expectation baggage that’s difficult to leave at the door. To be crassly honest, I expected a pile of shit. 1997’s Tower of Terror movie is a thoroughly pleasant surprise, then, shirking the stench of its compromised pedigree in nearly every scene. Even as a cheaply made VHS era kids’ horror starring The Gutte, the film is a massive improvement over Disney’s other haunted house amusement park ride adaptation, the miserable Eddie Murphy comedy The Haunted Mansion. It’s a charmingly silly, mildly spooky comedy that delivers just as much genuine entertainment as it does unintentional camp. I can’t parse out how much of my enjoyment was a surprise result of setting my expectations low, but that ultimately does not matter. What matters is that, against all odds, Tower of Terror is a good movie.

Steve Guttenberg stars as a sleazy photojournalist for a National Enquirer type publication, where he publishes hoax stories of alien autopsies & ghostly apparitions. Child actor (turned indie darling) Kirsten Dunst co-leads as his accomplice & niece, helping The Gutte fulfill his obvious destiny as a Goofy Uncle archetype. The pair get in over their heads when a mysterious old woman rope them into investigating a real life paranormal mystery, a 1939 incident at the infamous Hollywood Hotel that occurred on Halloween night. That evening, during a glamorous Halloween party (complete with big band swing music) a Shirley Temple/Baby Jane Hudson archetype mysteriously disappeared along with her drunk parents, her nanny, and a bellhop when the elevator car was struck by magic lightning. The answer to the mystery of what caused this supernatural event is explained upfront with the old lady’s tales of evil witchcraft and a Book of Souls MacGuffin. As Dunst & The Gutte search for this all-powerful talisman in the haunted hotel, however, the source of that witchcraft is called into question and the ghosts of the missing weigh in on what really happened that Halloween night. It all has very little to do with the actual Tower of Terror ride, but as a What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by way of Hocus Pocus or Jumanji plot, it all works out as a perfectly entertaining children’s creepshow.

The actual Tower of Terror at the Disney amusement park is also shaped like a 1930s hotel and was actually utilized for the film’s frequent exterior shots to establish setting & mood. The ride is Twilight Zone-themed, however, which is a licensing choice this made-for-TV venture couldn’t afford to make. Instead, the hotel is utilized as a kind of standard issue haunted house contraption where headless figures brandishing meat cleavers, singing child ghosts dressed like the twins from The Shining, and elevators full of hellfire pop up from around corners to startle the audience. Instead of treating the film like a single trip through this haunted space like an amusement park ride, however, its ghostly mystery & fascination with witchcraft is spread over several days. This allows for long, bizarre speeches about “banishing children to the underworld” and how the lightning “half-zapped” everyone in the elevator, trapping them in limbo. Director D.J. MacHale doesn’t have many credits to his name, except that he helmed twenty episodes of the Nickelodeon horror anthology Are You Afraid of the Dark?, which almost makes him overqualified for the task. For better or for worse, the movie plays like a feature length episode of that show that just happens to star two recognizable faces (along with exciting bit players like Melora Hardin & John Franklin) and is based off an amusement park ride (complete with mimicking the ride’s elevator drops at its climax, naturally). Expectations aside, it’s a form of entertainment I’ve been trained to appreciate for nearly my entire life.

Somewhere around 2015, as with all Disney properties (including The Haunted Mansion, somehow), there were talks of remaking Tower of Terror as a new, presumably better-funded feature. You can easily see how the studio would find easy potential in that idea, even if they nuke this original version out of existence & return to the property’s Twilight Zone roots. If that idea is dying along with the theme park attraction (which is gradually being replaced with some kind of Guardians of the Galaxy ride), however, the original will still persist as a perfectly entertaining, family-friendly haunted house tour starring Dunst & The Gutte. Even that kind of a modest success exceeds expectation, which is as good of a litmus test for a movie’s worth as anything, I suppose.

-Brandon Ledet

The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood-starring thriller The Beguiled rings oddly like a synthesis of the defining aspects of my two favorite films from the director: the dangerously gloomy boredom of The Virgin Suicides & the playfully modernized costume drama of Marie Antoinette. The delicate visual beauty & intensely feminine modes of violence in Coppola’s The Beguiled plays directly into her most readily apparent strengths as a filmmaker. Even though she could have assembled this picture in her sleep, however, there’s a potency to its in-the-moment effect that makes it feel like a personal obsession instead of a more-of-the-same exercise. The question of the film’s overall effect isn’t whether it’s a great work or if it’s an indulgence in craft, but rather how it never existed before this year, why it’s arriving now. The Beguiled feels as if it’s already lingered in the ether forever, or at least as long as Coppola’s been making movies.

A Virginian school for girls struggles with the vulnerability & boredom of isolation during the American Civil War. Distant drums & cannons build tension in an otherwise serene soundscape of bugs, birds, and branches swaying in the wind. In this secluded pocket of peace, one of the younger girls discovers a wounded Union soldier in the woods. Despite being a firmly Southern, Confederate household, the women of the school take the soldier in and allow him to heal in their care. They purport this kindness to be an extension of their Christian charity, but their motivations are clearly more purient than that claim. As the women openly lust for the new, exciting, masculine sore thumb that invades their once quiet home, unspoken rivalries form and the atmosphere turns palpably violent. Suddenly, the distant sounds of war are dwarfed by the violent outbursts within their home, as the intimate presence of the enemy distorts their Southern belle reverie, giving rise to something much more menacing.

Before its violence becomes openly visible, the devilish fun at the core of The Beguiled is its barely-contained displays of lust. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning (a staggeringly powerful trio of talents) stare down the soldier’s gradually healing body with held breath & blatant thirst. Colin Farrell is objectified without apology under this scrutiny. An unconscious sponge bath scene in particular is gleefully overwhelmed with close-ups of the actor’s hips, thighs, and chest hairs. Farrell also holds his own as the de facto prisoner of his seven female wardens, manipulating rivalries among them as a cowardly power play to establish a permanent place at the school instead of returning to the war. He’s the sole male presence in the house, though, a soldier deep in enemy territory. Any brief battles for power he can manage to stage only lead to temporary gains, sparks immediately snuffed by overtly feminine means. After a while, those lustful stares look a lot less like an opportunity and a lot more like a threat.

There honestly isn’t much to The Beguiled in terms of narrative complexity or immediate cultural significance, so Coppola must carry its weight on the back of her visual craft. The film’s natural lighting & period setting fall somewhere between The Witch & Daughters of the Dust in terms of both costuming & cinematographic tone. The sights & sounds of Nature permeate every moment, so that when they’re disrupted by the echoes of war (whether inside or out of the house) the effect is consistently jarring. The fog rising from the forest floor mirrors the steamy tension between Farrell’s soldier & his wanting captors. The heat of them being trapped in an old Southern home together is apparent long before the tension explodes. I can’t pinpoint any qualities of Coppola’s The Beguiled that suggest an immediacy or a necessity for its modern presence, but Coppola’s sense of visual craft & the tension she stirs between her actors make it feel at least somewhat timeless. It’s not one of Coppola’s very best works as a filmmaker, but it does share enough of those films’ DNA to re-conjure their potency & solidify what makes her one of the most consistently rewarding directors around.
-Brandon Ledet

Hidden Figures (2016)

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Although it’s a fairly paint-by-numbers historical pic, Hidden Figures stands out as a moving and impressive film, and the Academy has taken notice: Figures has picked up multiple Oscar nods this year in both behind-the-scenes and before-the-camera categories. This is important for a number of reasons, not least of all that it demonstrates that the #OscarsSoWhite backlash has put the old guard on notice. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the current political climate is anti-science, anti-progress, anti-women, and anti-minority, and while this film doesn’t exactly stand in that gap and hold the door, it does serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go.

The film follows the story of three real black women who worked for NASA in the 1950s and 1960s as “computers,” numerical analysts who performed and checked the calculations needed to put satellites into orbit, and later to send the first men into the cold vacuum that lies between the stars and bring them down to earth again. Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, a mathematician who becomes an engineer, alongside Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn, who leads the “colored women” computing group as a de facto supervisor despite being denied the prestige, title, and remuneration of that position. The cast is largely led by Empire‘s Taraji P. Henson, who plays Katherine Goble (later Johnson), a mathematical and physics genius who is instrumental in the calculations that are used to launch John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit and save him from destruction on re-entry. Rounding out the cast are Kirsten Dunst as Dorothy’s foil, an obstructionist gatekeeper, Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, the head engineer of the Space Task Group, Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the director to whom both Stafford and Katherine Goble report, Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s love interest Jim Johnson, and Aldis Hodge (so good to see you, Aldis, I’ve missed you so much since Leverage went off the air) as Mary’s husband Levi.

As with all historical films, it’s not wholly clear how precise Hidden Figures is in its details (I must admit that I haven’t read the book on which the film is based), but that’s largely irrelevant to the film’s message. Does it matter whether or not the real-life Al Harrison took a crowbar to the “Colored Ladies Room” sign and declared that “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” after learning that his best mathematician had to run a mile to the only such lavatory on the program’s campus every time she needed to relieve herself? Not really. What matters is showing young people (especially young girls) of color that although barriers exist, they can be surmounted. It also reminds the white audience that is, unfortunately, less likely to seek this film out that the barriers that lie in place for minorities to succeed do exist despite their perception of a lack of said barriers. What Harrison initially perceives as a failure in his subordinate’s work ethic is, in reality, a fact of her existence to which he is blind because of his privilege; in fact, his position of power has rendered him so above and outside of this concern that the fact it exists is a shock to him. It’s not exactly subtle, but when the truth has to still be dropped like an anvil from the sky fifty years after the fact, there’s no room for subtlety.

Characters like Stafford and Vivian Mitchell could easily be construed as caricatures, but Hidden Figures reminds us that this same kind of oppression is still ongoing. Post-bathroom-desegregation, Vivian and Dorothy both emerge from bathroom stalls and Vivian (who at this point has blocked Dorothy from a promotion to supervisor and taken no small satisfaction in the way that the goalposts have been moved for Mary’s transition to engineer) tells Dorothy that she has “nothing against [her] kind,” she just does her job. Dorothy gives her the only answer that she can: “I know . . . that you probably believe that.” It’s a stark reminder that “following orders” to maintain an immoral status quo isn’t just used as self-justification for the enablers and perpetrators of genocide in a distant past, it’s something that happens every day, hindering progress at every half-step.

There’s a lot to parse in this film, straightforward though it may seem, certainly far more than can be contained in this review (and, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, this discourse is limited by the horizons of my privilege as a white cisman), but Hidden Figures gets a strong recommendation from me. Catch it in theaters if you can; and, if you can’t, make sure to rent it somehow to show to your ignorant friends and family next holiday. Just be prepared to admit that maybe it is hard to buy Glen “Chad Radwell” Powell as American hero John Glenn.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Bring It On (2000)

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fourhalfstar

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The cartoonish cheerleader comedy Bring It On is one of those films I watched way too many times as young lad merely because it was one of the few movies my sister & I could agree on (other titles on that short list included Clueless & My Cousin Vinny). Nostalgia can be a blinding force when it comes to judging art on its own merits, though, so I was pleased to discover on a recent drunken night after a friend’s wedding that Bring It On still holds up as a high-functioning farce. This cinematic time capsule fits in with its eras finest high school comedies: movies like Clueless, Drop Dead Gorgeous, 10 Things I Hate About You, and But, I’m a Cheerleader!. Although there’s an imperfect choice of POV that somewhat weakens its central message (more on that in a minute), Bring It On is wholly committed to its camp value in an endearing way, moves at a breeze of a swift/efficient pace, and has its heart in the right place even if it missed out on making a solid socio-political statement. It also opens with one of the greatest musical numbers ever put to film, a two minute-long performance I could gladly watch into infinity.

Instead of adopting the typical ugly duckling/beautiful swan makeover story structure that dominated much of the 90s high school movie landscape (spoofed recently in the underappreciated Mae Whitman comedy The DUFF), Bring It On follows a traditional sports movie formula and tracks the progress of a Californian cheer squad as they work their way up to the all-important, ESPN-televised “Nationals.” Although the film does include a superfluous will-they-won’t-they love triangle, it’s at heart about ethics in cheer choreography. Bring It On‘s head cheerleader, cinema’s most prominent Torrance (brought to bubbly life by my lifelong celebrity crush Kirsten Dunst), deals with the fallout of the discovery that her former captain had been stealing routines from an predominantly black school in East Compton. Crushed by the betrayal, Torrance has to reconcile with the fact that her “entire cheerleading career is a lie.” When reminded that it’s only cheerleading, Torrence retorts, “I am only cheerleading.” It’s true, too. Her squad had become her sole identity, a concern that overrides any anxieties about her education or the boys chasing after her. (I particularly enjoyed the way that latter conflict was deflated with the line, “Do us all a favor and get over yourself and tell her how you really feel.”)

I’ll give kudos to Bring It On for making its romance plot a backseat concern in relation to a sports movie conflict involving white teens ripping off black artists without recognition. It’s kind of a gutsy choice for an innocuous teen comedy from nearly two decades ago. Where the film falters is in failing to give said black cheerleading squad much to do in a story about their own artistic exploitation. A Bring It On told from the POV of the East Compton Clovers would most likely serve this story of artistic integrity & cheerleading ethics much better. From the mostly white, well-to-do Toros’ perspective, it instead become a story about white guilt & “trying to make it right.” As much as the film could’ve handled its socio-political inquiries better, though, it does find a way to completely sidestep any shameless white knighting and its Big Competition conclusion is a satisfying end for both the Toros & the Clovers in a genuinely earned moment of feel-good movie magic.

Although I’m focusing on the implications of Bring It On‘s narrative here, what makes the film such a winning success is not its sense of storytelling, but its deliriously saccharine sense of humor. I get a dreamlike sense of an overwhelming sugar rush in this film, one matched only by titles like Josie & The Pussycats and Cool as Ice. Ant-Man director Peyton Reed establishes a punishing sense of rhythm in the film’s pacing, delivering campy humor in a nonstop barrage of rapidfire dialogue set to a “You Wouldn’t Steal a DVD”/Run Lola Run style of pop music production. UCB co-founder Ian Roberts drops by as a painfully corny/horny hired gun choreographer who derails the Toros with a Fosse-obsessed “spirit fingers” routine. There’s also plenty of delightfully inane cheerleading humor like in the line, “This is not a democracy; it’s a cheerocracy,” and and in the concept of “cheer sex” (eyefucking a member of the audience during a routine). Despite a stray joke or three threatening to indulge in body shaming or sexual assault and a pair of wallet chain-sporting nu metal bozos, Bring It On never fully sours on its cheery worldview. It manages to feel like a live action cartoon in details like rigorous.toothbrushing, religious reverence for something called a “cheer stick”, and a disgusting younger brother character straight out of Teen Witch. It’s thoroughly endearing & more than a little overwhelming in is high fructose energy, a tone that fits its subject nicely.

It’s a little shallow to say so, but I really do believe Bring It On‘s entire argument for cult following legitimacy as a campy delight hinges on its opening dream sequence cheer routine. It’s a beautiful, aggressive, surreal splash of cold water that happily indulges in its own inanity, as typified in the line, “Hate us because we’re beautiful, but we’ don’t like you either. We are cheerleaders.” It’s as iconic of an opening as film could ever ask for even before it reaches its Golden Age of Hollywood musical number conclusion. Bring It On might’ve stumbled in how it handled some of the political implications of its narrative (mostly in the diminished role of the Clovers), but it’s a wildly confident camp comedy that finds its own surreal voice in its manic cheerleading humor. If you need any proof that the film is worth a look, I urge you to watch the opening number in the clip below. It’s the same kind of cinematic perfection that won me over with “Floop’s Floogies” in Spy Kids, a perfect encapsulation of what makes the film such a rare, bizarre treat.

Side Note: How weird is it that the film’s titular line is actually “Bring It.” and not “Bring it on.”? It’s a very minor distinction, but it’s one I find fascinating, not only because the studio likely found that the one word difference tested better for some strange reason, but also because the line has been culturally altered by various & plentiful spoofs that read it as “Bring it on.” Really makes you think.

-Brandon Ledet

Upside Down (2013)

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fourstar

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It’s probably safe to say that by the end of its whopping seven minutes of opening narration you’ll be prepared to tell if you’re game for where Upside Down wants to take you. In heavy, overreaching breaths the protagonist coos about pink bees, forbidden love, flying pancakes, and “the three basic laws of double gravity” in a stunningly over-explanation of the film’s ludicrous premise. It’s as if Romeo & Juliet were retold through the half-mad kaleidoscope of Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. The line “Once love was stronger than gravity” best sums up the tone, distinctly warning the audience that this is a fairy tale and a love story, not a crowd-pleaser for discerning sci-fi types.

As is common with fairy tales (and sci-fi for that matter), the film sets up a very simple haves-vs-have-nots dichotomy. Two worlds are connected by opposing gravitational pulls, so that inhabitants of one are always looking upside down at the inhabitants of the other. The world on top is rich. The world on bottom is poor. It’s about as simple of an allegory as you’ll get outside the front & back of the train in Snowpiercer. The fun is in the film’s more fantastic elements, like the aforementioned pink bees that pollinate flowers from both worlds and improbably make an interplanetary romance possible. Besides a few grim details in the wealth disparity and interplanetary oil trade, Upside Down is mostly light fare. If you have the ability (or desire) to turn off your brain and enjoy a sappy against-all-odds love story that involves distant planets and magical pink nectar, it’s a truly fun film.

Even though the movie requires a complete absence of cynicism, it does boast visually thoughtful rewards as well. The spaces where the two worlds meet (particularly in offices & ballrooms that stretch on like two mirrors facing each other) are just straight up nifty. There’s an effortless cool to watching Kirsten Dunst sip a martini out of an upside down glass or watching her love interest hop around on floating platforms like a video game character. After the film’s opening Richard Kelly-style rant, it slows way down to tell a simple love story that will sound awfully familiar to most, but it’s a cliché that’s substantially boosted by its outlandish setting. The romantic fairy tale Upside Down tells is trite, but it’s also timelessly cute and backed up by a puzzling visual landscape that’s deliciously stubborn to even the most basic logic.

Upside Down is currently streaming on Netflix.

-Brandon Ledet