mother! (2017)

In the words of the Grand Galactic Inquisitor: “That was a weird one!”

For years, I woke up every morning (and the occasional afternoon), rolled over, and put my feet firmly on the floor in front of a poster for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. The Fountain was not a movie that I liked when I first saw it, nor was Black Swan. Over time, however, I came to love The Fountain in spite (or perhaps because) of its bizarre but ultimately human melding of pretentious universalism and cloying sentimentality. Even in my first viewing in the theater, I still loved the visuals of the film, especially the depictions of space as a vast sea of colors and reactions, which were actually taken from microphotography. And I guess I’ve come around some on Black Swan as well, although I doubt I’ll ever come to love it. All of this is to say that opinions can and do change. Sometimes I look back and can’t believe I gave Tenebrae anything less than a perfect 5 Stars. And 4 Stars for last year’s Ghostbusters? What was I smoking? In order to be fair, despite the fact that I walked out of the theater after seeing mother! and immediately wanted to pen my review, I decided to ruminate on it for a few days to see if my feelings about the movie changed at all.

And, hey, they did! The more time that passes, the less I like it. I better get this down on paper while I still have some positivity. And maybe while I still have some negativity as well. Good or bad, this one’s going to be on my mind for a while to come, and I get the feeling it’s going to go up and down.

On my Fountain poster, there was a pull-quote from film critic Glenn Kenny: “As deeply felt as it is imagined.” This is essentially true of all of Aronofsky’s films that I’ve seen (of his recent work, I’ve only missed Noah and The Wrestler): they are all films with a great depth of imagination and arresting visuals, paired with emotional gravitas that varies wildly but usually works because of strong performances by powerhouses like Barbara Hershey, Ellen Burstyn, and, for all that people love to mock her, Natalie Portman. It doesn’t really apply in the case of mother!, however. This is a cast full of powerful performers, from Javier Bardem to Jennifer Lawrence to Ed Harris and (my ride or die) Michelle Pfeiffer, but even their presence makes for a film that lacks the emotional resonance that it’s shooting for; it aims for the moon and misses, but it doesn’t land among the stars, it plummets back to earth as a fiery wreck, breaking up in the atmosphere and never again reaching the grounding of earth.

Although I went into this film as blind as I possibly could, avoiding all pre-release interviews and clickbait, I don’t foresee being able to fully discuss this film without going into the major plot elements and my interpretation of the events of the narrative. This is going to be a spoiler-heavy review, so abandon ship now all ye who wish to view the film with fresh eyes and clear hearts. This plot summary may not vary far from others you may have already seen, but I intend to only note things I plan to discuss. Ok? Let’s go.

The film opens on Javier Bardem’s character “Him” placing a crystal with a fiery center in a podium, which causes a burned home to regenerate, including the appearance of Jennifer Lawrence’s character, “mother.” She is working on restoring a glorious octagonal Victorian house to its former glory after a fire: plastering walls, repainting, and generally doing all of the heavy lifting while Bardem’s writer character, whom we later learn is a poet, sits in his study (which contains the crystal from the opening scene) and struggles with his writer’s block. One day “the man” (Harris) appears, supposedly after having been told that their home was a bed and breakfast. The poet welcomes him into the house over Lawrence’s character’s protests, and the two men spend the night drinking and carousing. The next morning, mother awakens to find herself alone before stumbling upon her husband helping the man, now with a wound where his back ribs are, to vomit in a commode. This prompts the appearance of “the woman” (Pfeiffer), the man’s wife, who slinks about making innuendo and asking invasive questions about how often the (ostensibly) younger couple have sex, do they love each other, and, of course, when is Lawrence’s character just going to have a baby already?

They reveal that they are actually fans of the poet’s work, and Pfeffer’s character finally manages to find her way into his inner sanctum, accidentally breaking the crystal and driving the poet into a rage; he boards up his study. As the homeowners prepare to kick the interlopers out of their house, the latter’s two sons (Domnhall Gleeson as the elder and Brian Gleeson as the younger) arrive and bicker about their inheritance, leading to a physical altercation that results in the younger son’s death. This leads into an influx of a seemingly endless multitude of mourners into the house, who invade and act out, from childishly mocking Lawrence’s character for trying to preserve the sanctity of her bedroom to aggressively trying to sleep with her and using misogynistic slurs to ultimately breaking a sink and flooding the room. This finally prompts her to drive all of the uninvited guests out. Afterwards, she and the poet make love. She awakes the next morning and declares that she is pregnant. This delights her husband and breaks through the wall of his creative block, and he writes something new, something truly beautiful and transcendent (not that the audience gets to read it; we only see how people react). That’s when shit truly hits the fan.

Near the end of her pregnancy, the new work is published, to Lawrence’s character’s surprise, and their home is immediately descended upon by fans, who begin to besiege the house in the form of a mob. In a matter of minutes, they make their way into the house and begin to destroy it, repeating the poet’s declaration that all that lies within is to be shared. Violence erupts, as well as various rituals and rites that smack of religiosity and sectarianism, until their home becomes a war zone, complete with women being imprisoned, the poet’s publisher (Kristen Wiig) performing violent executions, refugees hiding in barracks, and explosions in every direction. The mother and her husband make their way to his boarded-up study, where she gives birth but refuses to let the poet take the baby out into the rest of the house; when she finally falls asleep, she awakes in a panic and rushes from the room to find that Bardem’s character is presenting their child to the assembled throng of his fans, who steal the baby.

Then they kill it. Then they eat it. (Then hundreds of people in dozens of cinemas in America stood up and left the theater. To address the elephant in the room, it was pretty gruesomely laid open, and I’m not shocked that middle America revolted at this… revolting display. I’m sure that they would say that I am too desensitized to this kind of thing based on my previous viewing habits–including La terza madre, which features a similar scene of infant cannibalism–but really it’s that I’m an adult who knows when a prop is just a prop. The disturbing shit is happening out there in the streets in the real world right now, and if you happen to be one of those people who found this beyond reprehensible but don’t have a thing to say in defense of the victim when children like Trayvon Martin are getting murdered in the real world, then you’re the one whose brain is fucked up. Get your priorities and your house in order. But I digress.)

This (baby eating) drives Lawrence’s character around the bend. She attacks some followers and is badly beaten by them in retaliation. She ultimately makes her way to the basement, where she succeeds in setting the house ablaze and killing everyone inside, save for the poet. He finds her burned body and asks her to make one last sacrifice on his behalf: she allows him to remove her heart, which he cracks like a nut or an egg to reveal another crystal identical to the one at the start of the film. He again places the crystal in its place, and the house begins to rejuvenate once more….

I’m embarrassed to say that the primary and most obvious metaphor of the film did not reveal itself to me during my first watch. As someone well versed with the Western Canon, the reinterpretation and revisitation of Biblical sources is as familiar to me as the smell of my childhood home or the shape of the tree outside my bedroom window. I was careful (and lucky) to avoid promotional materials, which meant that Aronofsky’s public declarations about the films allegorical intent were unknown to me until after the fact. Still, in retrospect it should have been obvious to me that the poet was meant to be God, that Harris and Pfeiffer’s characters were Adam and Eve, that their sons were Cain and Abel, that the broken sink was the great deluge, that Lawrence’s character’s child was Jesus, especially as the mass of fanatics ate of his flesh and experienced a kind of religious ecstasy. Aronofsky has also stated that the considered the title character to be representative of the earth, which is taken for granted by mankind, a group which in turn tears the world apart in the name of warring faiths and factionalism, until the earth turns on its guests and burns everything down. Also, I’m pretty sure Wiig is supposed to be the Catholic Church in this paradigm. But Roland Barthes and I are over here in the corner and we want you to know: the Author is dead, baby, dead, and you’re not beholden to what he has to say.

I read the film not as a mostly one-to-one allegorical fable about the rise and fall of mankind, but as being instead about the God Complex of the author, the artist who is so self-absorbed with their personal vision that they allow themselves to reach the point of total narcissism and personal deification, an apotheosis of the self. To me, this read true in the scenes in which we see Bardem’s character repeatedly surrender his privacy, the sanctity of his personal relationships, and even his own child to appease the reader and the audience. It made me think of the way that so many writers, myself included, stripmine their lives for story material, consciously and unconsciously. I wasn’t expecting Adam and Eve so I didn’t notice them when they arrived, and was more fascinated with wondering whether or not Aronofsky knew how unbearable the author (and thus he himself) seemed to be, based on the lens of my reading.

As chaos descends in the final act, I found myself looking for other ways to interpret the material, and thought that we were headed for a kind of H.P. Lovecraft’s Rosemary’s Baby scenario. There’s certainly enough textual evidence for the idea that the house is in reality an eldritch horror show under all the floorboards and the plaster, with the image of a beating, fleshy thing behind the walls and a Cronenbergian bladder/ulcer/boil/appendage (?) sticking out of the plumbing. There’s also a very Lovecraftian element to the way that the interior of the house descends into a Gilliamesque war zone that’s evocative of the indecipherable and incomprehensible chaos of films like Jacob’s Ladder and In the Mouth of Madness. I was rooting for this potential turn right up until the child was born and it was totally normal-looking (other than being ten months old like most movie “newborns”). My hopes that the film was going to transcend into something truly bizarre were dashed.

But if we instead take Aronofsky at his word, then everything is so obviously (and clumsily) literal that we’re left struggling to grasp the meaning of the more obtuse symbols that appear in the film? Take, for instance, the importance of Harris’s character’s lighter. This “Adam” smokes, much to “mother’s” chagrin; if she is Mother Earth, is she upset by the pollution of her perfect home, caused by self-destructiveness, and this is the reason for her ill temperament? If we accept this premise for the sake of argument, what are we to make of the fact that she deliberately loses the lighter–is this the earth hiding man’s self-destruction from him, and is the fact that Harris’s character later lights a cigarette on the stove despite having no lighter a metaphor for how mankind will continues to be self-destructive regardless of nature’s attempts to course correct? If we grant that these precepts are sine qua non of the thesis that man/Adam/mankind abuses the hospitality/household/habitability of mother/earth/Mother-Earth and that this is what ultimately leads to the destruction of the house/planet, we are still left with questions. Why does the lighter have a Nordic rune on it (it’s called a Wendehorn; you can also see it on the woman’s luggage clasps)? When the metaphorical first man arrives bearing fire, are we really supposed to draw no connection to the myth of Prometheus? Given that Promethean fire most often metaphorically stands for technology, is it mankind’s technical aptitude that mother despises, and if so, what does the fact that she uses this fire/technology/self-destruction to burn down the house mean? Is it that polluting the earth causes climate change and thus the ultimate death-by-heat of humanity?

Is it really just that one layer? Is it really so obvious and dumb? Or is it a matryoshka, with multiple obfuscated layers of meaning but also somehow just as dumb?

And what of “Cain” and “Abel”? Primogeniture, inheritance, and birthright are common narrative devices of the Judaic biblical canon, ranging from Jacob and Esau to Isaac and Ishmael to Joseph and his brothers, but those aren’t elements of the story of Adam and Eve’s eldest sons, whose altercation was the result of Cain making the wrong kind of pre-Messianic sacrifice in comparison to Abel’s proper profferation of his prettiest sheep (no, seriously, look it up). Fraternal jealousy is a hallmark of this tradition, but Cain and Abel competed for the affections of their creator, not their father. As such, one would think that there would be some interaction between either of the brothers and the poet before the slaying, but if there was it was too fast or subtle to be perceptible. Again, there’s so much (one could say too much) effort put into creating a one-to-one correlation between events in the film and Judaic myth that when that synchronization falls out of step, it highlights the shoddiness of the overall metaphor.

Which is to say: I think there may be a great movie in mother!, despite its flaws being as deeply felt as they are imagined. It just needed two or three more drafts before it could reach that potential. And if this film has taught us anything, it’s that writers who think they are gods, as well as gods who envision themselves as writers, don’t spend nearly enough time working out the kinks.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Masterminds (2016)

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threehalfstar

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It’s difficult to sell the potential enjoyment of a Jared Hess film to the disinterested, because the director’s work can be so aggressively quirky-for-its-own-sake & juvenile. Hess’s latest film, Masterminds, has been the most difficult sell of the director’s career yet, possibly in a very literal sense. His debut, Napoleon Dynamite, was a dirt cheap indie comedy that somehow stumbled into the kind of success that scores you decades-long merch sales in roadside truck stops & shopping mall novelty shops, despite being the director’s least interesting work to date. Titles like Nacho Libre, Don Verdean, and (my personal favorite) Gentlemen Broncos have mostly flown under the radar since, as have the projects of Hess’s wife & creative partner Jerusha. Not one of these examples has suffered the financial & distributive roadblocks of Masterminds, though. A harmless madcap bank heist comedy starring Zach Galifianakis & three Ghostbusters (Jones, Wiig, and McKinnon), Masterminds has struggled for at least two years to see the light of day. The film itself is very amusing to those already onboard with Hess’s lost-in-time awkwardness schtick, but also relatively unexceptional within the larger scope of his career. The fact that something so straightforward from Hess has taken this long to overcome its distribution setbacks (which included the financial collapse of Relativity Media), only to flop on its long-awaited opening weekend does not bode well for the director’s career at large. He can’t continue making these comfortable, mid-budget, non-flashy comedies and expect to survive in the current Hollywood climate, no matter how much I (and apparently very few others) happen to find them amusing. Not without bringing his content straight to VOD, at least.

I could make some sort of grand claim about how the virtue of honesty is what ties together the heart of Hess’s narratives or that his films are interesting in their application of a Wes Anderson visual craft to a gross-out Farrelly Brother aesthetic, but I’m not sure that’s what makes them work as comedies. What Hess brings to the table, besides the general quease of Sears family photo shoots, is the visual punchline. In Masterminds, the machinations of Zach Galifianakis’s hapless security guard being coerced into robbing a bank by his milquetoast seductress, Kristen Wiig, or her sleaze ball cohort, Owen Wilson, aren’t nearly as amusing as just the mere look of him. The Prince Valiant haircut, the full beard, the tight novelty t-shirts: Zach Galifianakis is the fashion version of a slapstick pratfall. Certainly, there are funny turns of phrase in the film (mostly delivered by Jason Sudeikis’s cold-as-ice contract killer) but no dialogue in the film made me laugh nearly as hard as just the distinctly awkward visual tableau Hess crafted with his vanity-free players. In many ways Kate McKinnon was perfect casting for this comedy style, as it’s the criticism she most often receives from her work in SNL. She doesn’t deliver jokes so much as that she is the joke, striking such a specifically strange, crazy-eyed image that no verbal play is needed to sell the humor. This might not be enough for some folks, but just the mere sight of her posing for wedding photos with Zach Galifianakis to an Enya song is personally all I need to guffaw.

The humor of Masterminds is, in the film’s own words, “dumber than a suitcase full of buttholes.” The “based on a real story” failed bank heist plot is amusing, but indistinct. Stray lines about a “fart transplant” or why boobs don’t bleed milk are certainly funny & Jason Sudeikis’s sociopathic assassin is hilariously out of place in this world of naïve dummies, but the film isn’t particularly memorable for any verbal or narrative touches. It’s Hess’s deft with the comedic image, whether McKinnon posing in a hideous wedding dress or Galifianakis chowing down on a goo-filled tarantula, that makes Masterminds a weird, dumb delight. It’s doubtful that Hess can continue to get away with constructing those awkward tableaus in perpetuity, given the lukewarm reception each of his films have received since his surprise hit debut (and his worst film to date, in my opinion), but for now I’m enjoying the weirdly wonderful results. Anyone else should be able to tell at a quick glance if they’re also going to be onboard, considering the visual nature of the director’s humor.

-Brandon Ledet

Sausage Party (2016)

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onehalfstar

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When I was an innocent little preteen nü-metal doofus in the late 90s my stepdad used to take me to the theater to see films rated above my age range by the MPAA, but made perfectly for my (im)maturity level. I’m thinking of titles like the South Park musical Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, the post-apocalyptic Pam Anderson vehicle Barb Wire, and the deservedly forgotten Keanu Reeves sci-fi cheapie Johnny Mnemonic. It always felt like a special treat, an excursion to pluck the most low-hanging forbidden fruit imaginable. Were it still 1999 & I still a snot-nosed KoRn fan, I probably would’ve enjoyed our most recent journey together to Chalmette Movies to see the Seth Rogen-helmed shock comedy Sausage Party. Instead of leaving the theater transgressively delighted, however, I felt drained, spiritless, exhausted. I don’t know if that sensation speaks more to the movie’s maturity level or my own, but I will say that its moronic dedication to its own despicable worldview & self-congratulatory navel-gazing not only felt like a product of an entirely different century; it also distracted from the film’s main draw: CG animated raunch.

An obvious labor of love, Sausage Party is a Pixar-spoofing filth fest about anthropomorphic food products that somehow skates by without an NC-17 rating despite its fetishistic use of “foul” language & onscreen depictions of sexual congress. A tale as old as time, the film mostly follows one hotdog (voiced by Seth Rogen) as he embarks on a quest to get all up inside his complimentary bun (Kristen Wiig, whose thankless performance I pity the most in this production). It’s the same bros-trying-to-get-laid plot structure Rogen & his writing partner Evan Goldberg have been endlessly repeating all the way back to 2007’s Superbad, except this time with cartoon food. Buried somewhere in this gleefully stupid passion project, which features an entire grocery store full of talking foodstuff characters & the godlike shoppers who free them from the shelves, is about 20 minutes of pure schlock cinema brilliance. Whenever the film acts like a horror comedy, depicting little sentient potatoes & baby carrots being ruthlessly destroyed by gigantic human monsters they mistook for divine saviors, it can be quite funny. There’s a Cleanup in Aisle Whatever gag that spoofs the Omaha Beach invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan that rings as particularly inspired, especially in the detail of a can of spaghetti trying to re-contain its “intestines.” I’ll also vouch for the climactic hedonism that concludes the film with a nihilistic, anything-goes cocktail of sex & violence that smartly picks apart the basic stupidity of the anthropomorphic [fill in the blank]s of the various CG animated features the film is spoofing. The problem is that these flashes of brilliance are lost under an insurmountable garbage heap of cruelty-for-its-own-sake nastiness & pseudo-philosophical self-importance. Sausage Party knows how to tell an occasional good joke, but its soul is overall corrupted & inherently unlovable, so the punchline is always a short-lived pleasure.

Where Sausage Party derails its own sense of fun in delightful stupidity is in its supposedly necessary quest to construct a narrative more complex than just a nihilistic fascination with sex & violence. Its missteps in that regard are threefold:

  1. The film characterizes its individual food products based on racial & sexual stereotypes. The bagel is a Woody Allen-flavored Jewish caricature. The Twinkie is a twink. The bottle of tequila is a Hispanic scoundrel (among many other “illegal products,” including an oversexed lesbian taco voiced by a surprisingly game Selma Hayek). The hotdog buns are airhead female sex objects patiently awaiting their corresponding wieners. 40oz bottles of malt liquor & sentient boxes of grits are coded as black. The wise bottle of “Fire Water”-brand alcohol is a Native American mystic who smokes weed out of a kazoo. The lavash looks forward to an afterlife stocked with 70 bottles of extra virgin olive oil. The film is a relentless dedication to an “If everyone’s offended, nothing’s offensive” line of humor that’s no funnier the first time than it is the 1,000th and once you realize that its pursuit to racially categorize each of its many foodstuff personifications will eat up its entire runtime in the place of a worthwhile story or all-out debauchery, there’s nothing left to feel but exhaustion & despair.
  2.  Unsatisfied with its surprisingly brilliant depiction of human beings as cruel, uncaring gods who promise these talking food products passage to “The Great Beyond” (where, unknown to them, they will be mutilated & consumed), the film instead mostly follows the much less interesting threat of an anthropomorphic douche. I’ll tip my hat to the spot-on casting of comedian Nick Kroll as said douche, but much like the film’s above-referenced “have your cake & eat it too” satire of racial coding in foodstuffs marketing, his entire role should’ve been reduced to a short-form gag & not a full-length plot device. Let’s think for just a half-second what a villainous douche in a shock comedy would spend most of its time pursuing in order to create conflict. Did you picture roid rage-themed sexual assault? Apparently, Rogen & Goldberg didn’t think of it for much longer than a half second either, since they also pictured rape and thought that was funny enough to run with for the length of an entire film.
  3.  Perhaps the most damning fault of all this is that this shameless raunch fest actually thinks it has something to say. From its aggressively pedantic Richard Dawkins branch of atheism to its musings on the frivolity of the Israelian-Palestinian conflict to its juvenile depictions of a Hitler figure getting his comeuppance (a moment that apparently called for more rape humor, since there’s just never enough), Sausage Party captures exactly what’s so exhausting about being trapped in a confined space with the world’s worst subreddit’s didactic neckbeard internet philosophers or, more simply, watching an especially preachy episode of Family Guy. I swear a hotdog even mouths a “Giggity!” to seal the deal on the film’s overriding aesthetic just before the blood orgy climax. Somewhere along the way Rogen & Goldberg became mistaken that audiences wanted a self-important lecture on the meaning of life in the midst of comedic gags about hotdog ingredients cussing & fucking, particularly one with the stinger that man-boy stoners are the world’s true enlightened philosophers with all of The Answers. I can respect the film’s go-for-broke dedication to its own inane depravity, but I can’t at all get on board with its self-congratulatory stabs at know-it-all philosophy.

All three of these fatal flaws point to a major structural problem at the heart of Sausage Party‘s toxic unlikability. This should have been a short film. I’m thinking fifteen, twenty minutes tops. Any entertainment value Rogen & Goldberg pull out of anthropomorphic foodstuffs’ nihilistic sex & violence in the face of their human god consumers’ cruelty could’ve been efficiently fired off in that window, with the added bonus of allowing less room for the film’s “comedic” obsessions with race, rape, and the dirty word. Sausage Party should’ve kept to a short film format, just like how the equally exhausting Minions & Deadpool movies should’ve been instantly relegated to their current status as lazy Facebook memes instead of being developed into feature films in the first place. I’m glad I saw Sausage Party in the theater with my stepdad, not only for its occasional short film-worthy moments of depraved schlock brilliance, but also because it took me back to a special, nostalgic time in my cinematic past. The year was 1999, I was twelve, and I would’ve loved every minute of this shit stain of a movie. Unfortunately, there are just some places you can never go back to (and some you’d never want to if you knew what was waiting there).

-Brandon Ledet

Café Society (2016)

twostar

“Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.”

Y’all, I think I just watched my last Woody Allen movie. I’m done. In fact, I applaud the two women who walked out of Café Society after seeing Allen’s name appear in the opening credits. At the time I was annoyed that two fellow theater patrons would argue audibly over the first scene of a movie before storming to the exits (presumably over the director’s decades-old rape allegations & sordid familial history), but no less than ten minutes later I totally sympathized, maybe even to the point of envy. I had been over fifteen years since my latest Woody Allen film, Small Time Crooks, just enough time for me to forget that even the writer-director’s most lauded work was never really  my thing. I like my Woody Allen movies like I like my Beatles: young & goofy. The zany comedy of titles like Take the Money & Run and Sleeper were always more interesting to me than Allen’s headier work, so I really had no business watching Café Society in the theater in the first place. If it weren’t for the wealth of Kristen Stewart goodness promised in the trailer I probably never would’ve been there to begin with. I should’ve known better & followed those two miffed strangers to the exits.

By all means, Café Society‘s tour through Old Hollywood romance & glamor should be cinephile catnip. Actually, I’m sure there are plenty of movie nerds out there who’ll love it, not just Woody Allen diehards. The cinematography is breathtaking, stunning, gorgeous. Kristen Stewart is, as always, a rare treasure, this time afforded the proper temporal context for her natural Lauren Bacall smokiness. The costume & production design very nearly touch the heights of the similarly-set nostalgia dream Hail, Caesar! from earlier this year. Yet, the film is a thoroughly grating, slow moving torture and the problem is Woody Allen himself. Although he does not appear onscreen, you cannot escape Woody Allen in a single frame of Café Society, a forgotten recurring intimacy with the director I just remembered is always more than a little suffocating. Not only does the filmmaker narrate the story himself, he also seemingly directs Jessie Eisenberg’s protagonists to act exactly like him, a caricature that’s somehow even less likeable than Eisenberg’s unofficial Max Landis impersonation as Lex Luthor in Dawn of Justice. The major difference, of course, is that Luthor is a villain while this Allen surrogate is likely supposed to play as sympathetic, a gamble that simply doesn’t work. And since the late-period Allen humor of Café Society falls consistently flat, there’s not much else onscreen to distract you from the problem. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Dune, Ladyhawke) & Kristen Stewart simply aren’t enough to save this film on their own, try as they might. It was doomed with or without them.

Eisenberg’s protagonist is a fish-out-of-water Jewish twentysomething who leaves his beloved Manhattan behind in an attempt to make it as an industry type in Hollywood. The film constantly insists that he’s adorably naive or goofily nervous, but all I see is a self-absorbed monster that would make Barton Fink look like a humble mensch. Once he finds his feet at his first job in Hollywood, he immediately falls for Kristen Stewart’s cool kid office girl and constantly hounds her like an workplace creep in a weird MRA-type “friend zone” wooing ritual that sort of works, for a while, despite Stewart’s character’s passionate love for an older, wealthier, married man. Their relationship is doomed to impermanence, but what’s strange about Café Society is the way it asks you to root for their success. I never get the sense that Eisenberg’s protagonist or, hell, even the film itself are deserving of Stewart’s master class in effortless cool, despite the two actors’ dynamic working for me just fine before in the films Adventureland & American Ultra. Instead, I found myself trying to ignore their romance for as long as I could by focusing on the film’s gorgeous visuals until, by the end, I was mostly just desperate for it to be over.

The last time I remember feeling this severe of a disconnect between find a film achingly beautiful & loathing every second of its content was with Terrence Malick’s love-it-or-hate-it Tree of Life. I’m sure Café Society, along with a lot of late-period Allen, will prove to be similarly divisive, with the director’s more dedicated fans finding plenty of nervous humor & old world sensibility to delight in, but this film simply wasn’t for me. Especially missing was the majesty of Old Hollywood brought to vivid life in the far superior Hail, Caesar! & reduced here to endless namedropping at cocktail parties (something the film pretends to despise, but does so unconvincingly). Worse yet is a central romance it’s difficult to root for and a protagonist who’s far less interesting than literally any other character the story could’ve followed: Stewart’s (obviously), his adorable parents, his Boardwalk Empire-era gangster bother, Steve Carell’s Eddie Mannix archetype, Parker Posey’s eternally buzzed socialite, a still-tired-from-fighting-a-shark Blake Lively who’s given frustratingly little to do, a sex worker he meets for all of five minutes, a plate of spaghetti, a spilled martini, wet concrete, again, literally anything.

Woody Allen makes himself (or at least a younger version of himself) the center of the show and the results are consistently obnoxious, much like the film’s never-ending dixieland jazz soundtrack that constantly reminding you to have a cheesy good time until you hit the last minute melancholy. If Café Society isn’t my last Woody Allen picture it’s because he’s going to cast Kristen Stewart in a future project or I’m going to again forget, with time, that his films are not really my thing (or, most likely, I’ll get sucked into it by my ongoing Roger Ebert Film School project). In the mean time I hope I don’t find myself getting as far as walking out of one of his movies when I’m surprised by his name in the opening credits. That seems like an awful waste of time and money (though, maybe not as awful as actually staying).

-Brandon Ledet

Ghostbusters (2016)

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fourstar

Like most people my age (I was born in 1987), my first experience with the Ghostbusters came not in the form of the 1984 comedy classic; instead, my love for all things Ghostbusting was the result of watching the animated The Real Ghostbusters as a kid. In fact, watching the cartoon adventures of Egon, Venkman, Ray, Winston, and Janine on Saturday mornings, alongside Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Garfield and Friends, is one of my earliest memories; unlike TMNT, I can actually remember particular episodes and character types from Ghostbusters (I know that the Turtles theme song delineates each turtle’s individual personality, but that blew right past me as a kid and I couldn’t tell you which one was a “party dude” right now to save my life). I didn’t see the original film until I was a little older, and even then my clearest childhood memories of the movies actually comes from Ghostbusters II, where the pink slime that fills Sigourney Weaver’s bathtub made me terrified of the tub for a few months.

I was pretty excited to hear about the remake/reboot when it was first announced last year, but wasn’t confident that it would ever really been made and even less thrilled about how well it might turn out. I still remember hearing on the radio about a fourth Indiana Jones film as far back as 1997, when Joaquin Phoenix was in talks to play Indie’s younger brother; then, eleven years later, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull plopped into theatres on my birthday like the worst present of all time. I had mixed feelings about Paul Feig; he directed seven episodes of Arrested Development, sure, but one of those was “Ready, Aim, Marry Me,” which is probably the worst single episode of the original three season run. I was also not one of those people who was terribly impressed with Bridesmaids, although it might merely have been that I was in a terrible mood the first time I saw it. Still, Feig was heavily involved with Other Space, Yahoo’s sci-fi comedy that was released last year and which I enjoyed much more than anyone really has a right to (and which featured super cutie Karan Soni, who plays deliveryman Bennie in Ghostbusters, and Neil Casey, who plays villain Rowan North*). Still, when I saw a pic of the all-gal Ghostbusters squad all suited up and ready to bust last year, I was super on board. I retweeted the picture and expressed my excitement, even (and Feig favorited it!).

*According to the credits, fellow Other Space alums Milana Vayntrub and Eugene Cordero were also in the film, as Subway Rat Woman and Bass Guitarist, respectively, but I missed them, unfortunately.

There was (unfortunately, inevitably, and unfortunately inevitably) a backlash, mostly of the misogynistic variety, because of course there was. Of. Course. There. Was. Most of the criticism of the film had little to do with the fact that Ghostbusters is pretty much a perfect movie in a lot of ways (if inarguably a little dated in its kinda creepy sexual politics); after all, this is the primary objection that is usually voiced in response to remakes of any kind. “Why would you remake Total Recall/Robocop/King Kong/True Grit/The Manchurian Candidate/Poltergeist (etc.) when the original still holds up?” But that’s not why (a certain subset of) people were upset about Ghostbusters 2016 at all, even if they tried their best to couch their anti-woman bias in that language. Of course, the blanketing effect across the internet meant that people who were legitimately concerned about the potential artistic or financial failings of the film, especially after the not-very- good first trailer was released, were lumped in together with the rabid woman haters; as a result, those who were anxious that the film would simply fail ended up being on the side of the worst parts of the internet, meaning that there any real criticism was immediately swept away in a wave of meaningless manpain.

So, as someone whose childhood was very GB-influenced, how’s the new movie?

….

I loooooooved it. I loved it so much, y’all. Of course, it pales in comparison to the original, but that’s like saying that Canopus pales in comparison to Sirius: they’re still both pretty bright. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a lot of fun, and I honestly can’t wait to see it again. There’s a perfect mix between nostalgia and novelty, a slew of cameos from the original cast, and a hell of a lot of laughs throughout.

The film opens with a tour of a supposedly haunted mansion that becomes a little too real for the tour guide (Zach Woods). Meanwhile, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is preparing for her final tenure defense at Columbia when a book about the paranormal she co-wrote many years before threatens to derail her career track. She tracks down the other author, Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and asks her to stop pushing sales of the book long enough for her tenure to be accepted. Yates and her engineer officemate Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) agree, as long as Gilbert assists them in investigating the mansion. Following a genuine encounter with a ghostly entity, all three women find themselves rejected from academia. Meanwhile, MTA employee and amateur historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) has a strange encounter with commuter Rowan North (Neil Casey), then follows him down to a subway tunnel where he plants a device that summons a ghost from which Patty barely escapes. The three parascientists set up shop above a restaurant in Chinatown and hire hunky dingbat Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) as their receptionist, and Patty invites them to check out the ghost in the tunnels beneath the city. From there, the Ghostbusters become a legitimate team, and the story builds until the four of them face off against an entity that threatens to destroy New York.

First, the negatives: this film lacks a lot of the New York flavor that permeated the first Ghostbusters and its sequel, although I’d argue that this was inevitable given the overall Disneyfication and general enforced conformity that New York has undergone since the Giuliani administration (Sam Delaney’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is required reading on this subject, if you can find a copy). Still, it’s impossible to ignore how much that affects the overall tone of this film in comparison to the original. Further, the original Ghostbusters is a film that has a very dry wit, and although that same temperament is here, the comedy is a little more broad (no pun intended) and varied: there’s slapstick, improvisation, and your standard jokes tied in with the more sardonic wit that characterized the eighties flicks. Here, instead, the film runs the gamut from very dry (the mansion tour guide notes that the mansion that opens the film had the best contemporary security measures at the time of construction, including a fence specifically designed to keep out Irish immigrants) to the more over-the- top (Andy Garcia, as the mayor of New York, blows his lid when Dr. Gilbert compares him to the mayor from Jaws, in one of the film’s funniest moments).

There are other negatives. The music choices in the film are terrible, frankly, outside of the revisitations of the original GB theme and its derivations. There’s an extended sequence in which the team captures a ghost at a nü-metal concert, and the music playing throughout is utter garbage, but even that sounds like the music of the angels in comparison to the closing credits theme “Good Girls” by Elle King, which stands out as possibly the shittiest pop song of the new millennium. There’s also a slight editing problem in a few sequences where it is apparent that a scene has been cut. For instance, it seems like the big psychokinetic dance sequence that plays out over the end credits might once have been part of the film proper, but that’s not terribly distracting on the whole. There also may have been a cut subplot in which Gilbert leaves the team after one of their very public outings that ends with a fake arrest, but that’s also not a problem for me (honestly, the sooner someone takes the “team member rejects the group but then comes back in the end” third act subplot out into a field and puts it out of its misery, the better). I also didn’t love the “battle sequence” toward the end of the film, but that’s more a statement about the the state of modern film structure than a complaint that’s specific to this particular movie.

As far as other things that people have had negative criticism for, I don’t really agree. I’ve heard complaints that some of the improv jokes go on a little too long, but I’m not bothered by them. I’ve also seen much hay being made about Patty’s being a blue collar worker and not a scientist like the three other (white) women in the group, but I found her to be a delight and not at all the potentially troublesome stereotype that she was presented as in a few of the trailers. There are some people out there who are intent on finding something to hate in the film, especially anything that seems “man hating,” but there’s so little of it and it’s so toothless in comparison to the generally misogynistic tone of most media that it won’t bother you unless you go looking for it (for instance, the fact that one of the ghosts takes a crotch shot is something I’ve seen a great deal of discussion about, as if hits to the groin aren’t a staple of comedies with brows both high and low).

Overall, however, the film is great. There’s a lot of great parallelism between Gilbert and Rowan, and the way that each fights or assists supernatural evil with science and technology. There’s very overt humor throughout as well as more subtle moments, and there’s a lot to enjoy whether you’re a fan of old school Ghostbusters or not. None of the characters are direct one-to- one parallels with Egon and the gang (although Holtzmann has Egon’s cartoon hair, which I love), and the story feels fresh and new while retaining echoes of the past. One of the best visual gags in the original GB is when Egon activates Ray’s “unlicensed nuclear accelerator” in the hotel elevator, and then he and Venkman subtly move away from the proton pack, as if a few extra inches would really make a difference; there’s a similar scene in this film in which two of the Ghostbusters inch away from an activated device in the alley where they test their equipment. It’s subtle, but there’s a lot of love and respect for Ghostbusters as a franchise in this film, no matter what you’ve heard. Some of the more slapsticky moments went on a little long for me, but there’s too much fun to be had to stick your head in the sand and ignore this movie just because the ‘Busters aren’t the same ones that you grew up with. And, hey, if Dave Coulier replacing Lorenzo Music as the voice of Venkman in The Real Ghostbusters or the creation of the Slimer! shorts to pad out the Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters hour didn’t destroy the Ghostbusters legacy, this certainly won’t either.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Skeleton Twins (2014)

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fourstar

In the WWE there’s a little used, very illegal tactic of winning matches known as “twin magic“. This particular form of cheating occurs when wrestlers Brie & Nikki Bella swap places mid-match beyond the ref’s comically limited vision and use their identical twin likeness to win in a dire situation. It’s typical heel behavior, but also very specific to their sisterly gimmick (and also amusing because they barely look similar to one another at this point in time). I mention all this because the idea of “twin magic” exists far beyond the wrestling ring & the concept of confusing twin identities. “Twin magic” can also refer to, in my mind at least, the inexplicable mental link twins seem to have on an almost telepathic level. Twins can sometimes relate to each other in a supernaturally close, metaphysical kind of way that strains our understanding of the basic ways two human minds can communicate with one another. Their connection is, in a word, “magic”.

The recent indie drama The Skeleton Twins opens with an example of “twin magic”much more bleak than any you’re likely to see between pro wrestling’s The Bella Twins. The film opens with estranged twins (played by SNL vets Bill Hader &  Kristen Wiig) both preparing to commit suicide in bathtubs on opposite ends of the country. Spooky. Hader’s attempt is the more “successful” of the two & the shock of the news of her brother’s anguished state brings Wiig to stage a reconciliation after a decade apart. This is about as dark of a place as a movie can start off and, indeed, The Skeleton Twins is sadistically committed to piling on even more tragedy from there. A fuzzy childhood memory of a parent’s death, a past controversy involving a teacher’s sexual exploits with an underage student, and a current struggle with substance & sexual addiction all weigh heavily on the film’s grim proceedings. Another bit of “magic” at work here, however, is how the film’s talented cast & understated writing keep this tragedy from feeling soul-crushingly dour. It’s a sad film, for sure, but it also can be soulfully uplifting & deliriously funny in spurts.

Hader & Wiig have incredible chemistry from their SNL days that sells the The Skeleton Twins‘s central sibling bond much more comfortably & believably than would even be necessary for the movie to work. Wiig has delivered so many of these depressive, self-hating performances in past projects like Welcome to Me & The Diary of a Teenage Girl that at this point her dramatic chops are even more finely tuned than her comedic ones. Hader is more of the newcomer in the soul-crushing cinema game & it’s genuinely fascinating to watch him embody what his character calls “another tragic gay cliche” in a way that feels realistic enough to be genuine. Hader’s twin is more of a tightrope in terms of characterization, since his effete homosexual mannerisms could easily devolve into caricature, but the actor pulls it off in a wholly convincing, endearing way (despite his theater kid theatricality & gothy acerbic sarcasm). Oddly enough, it’s Luke Wilson who steals the show on the comedic front, playing a naive “Labrador retriever” of a dopey husband. Wilson is so on point in this role that he can make the simple act of eating a frozen waffle & talking about his shoes a total knee-slapper of a character beat. Hader & Wiig are more in charge of the film’s lowkey line of pitch black dramedy and it’s their intimate exchanges of sour worldviews & mental anguish that make the film sing in its own quiet, understated way.

I was just complaining that the recent indie drama Adult Beginners failed to coalesce its interesting ideas & talented cast into a cohesive product above anything beyond basic mediocrity. The Skeleton Twins is a perfect example of how the same approach of small stakes understatement & depressive humor can work when it’s handled a little more confidently. The film’s Halloween costume motif is a great example of how a metaphor can be developed with very simple gestures (in this case linking current familial tragedies to ones buried in the past) instead of the way Adult Beginners briefly addresses its central swimming lessons metaphor without any clear intent for its meaning. Both films are, perhaps, exercises in small ambition indie drama, but The Skeleton Twins makes the formula work in an engaging, even devastating way. I don’t know if it’s a case of better writing or the “twin magic” performances of Hader & Wiig that make the difference, but The Skeleton Twins is a shining (and depressing) example of the lowkey indie dramedy done exactly right.

-Brandon Ledet

Zoolander 2 (2016)

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threehalfstar

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It’s been fifteen years since the release of the original Zoolander, which seems like an awfully long stretch of time before deciding the world needs a sequel. A lot has happened since 2001, including (perhaps least importantly) a major turnaround on Ben Stiller’s fashion world comedy’s cultural cache. Zoolander suffered mixed-to-negative reviews upon its initial release, but has since grown a strong cult following that seems too large to even consider “cult” at this point. I even remember personally going into the theater prepared to hate Zoolander‘s guts as a grumpy teenager & being wholeheartedly won over as soon as the explosive Wham!-soundtracked gas station gag in the first act. The funny thing about Zoolander‘s fifteen-years-late sequel is that it’s on the exact same trajectory for long-term cultural success as the first film. The reviews are dire. The box office numbers are hardly any better. However, the dirty little secret is that Zoolander 2, while being nowhere near as perfectly inane as its predecessor, is actually a damn fun time at the movies. Nowhere near every joke lands in the film, but it’s smart to flood you with enough impossibly idiotic humor that you’re bound to laugh at something, maybe even more often than you’d expect.

In order to justify its own existence, Zoolander 2 has to undo a lot of the happy ending denouement of the original. Former male models/makeshift political intrigue heavies Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) & Hansel (Owen Wilson) must again start from the bottom. Hansel has been horrifically scarred & is experiencing growing pains with his in-effect wife, an orgy of weirdos. Derek’s own wife has passed away due to his own failures as a businessman & custody of his son has been revoked by the state due to his total lack of parenting skills in areas as basic as “how to make spaghetti soft”. In order to reclaim their estranged familial relationships & earn back their rightful place on top of the fashion world, Hansel & Derek have to repair their irrevocably broken friendship, putting aside the narcissism that plagues them both so deeply. Obviously, the plot doesn’t matter too much in a comedy as aggressively vapid as this, but I do think there’s something oddly sweet about Zoolander 2‘s central bromance that wasn’t nearly as fully realized in the first film. Derek & Hans really do need each other. They’re entirely codependent in their joint efforts to understand a world that doesn’t make sense to their tiny, uncomprehending minds. It’s a fascinating, even touching companionship even if it is an assertively brainless one.

Zoolander 2 does have an Achilles heel, but it’s not exactly the first place you’d expect. The film sidesteps most concerns about being late to the table in terms of following up its original iteration by making the outdated, past-their-prime cultural irrelevance of the its protagonists a major plot point. The redundancy of a second film following the same protagonists as they transition from male modeling to a life in political intrigue is also avoided by adding concerns about familial bonds and, absurdly enough, radical Biblical interpretations & quests for immortality into the mix. Where the film gets a little exasperating is in its never ending list of cameos & bit roles. Even in the film’s trailer swapping an appearance by David Bowie for the much lesser musical being/tabloid fixture Justin Beiber felt like a weak trade-off (although Bieber is actually far from the worst cameo on deck; his time is brief & fairly amusing). The film is overstuffed with both celebrity cameos & SNL vets dropping in for a dumb joke or two. Will Ferrell was a welcome return as the impossibly wicked megalomaniac Mugatu, Penélope Cruz was charming (not to mention breathtakingly gorgeous) as a secret agent for INTERPOL’s fashion division, and current SNL cast member Kyle Mooney proved himself to be a stealth MVP as a double-talking sleazebag hipster piece of shit who’s ironically stuck in the nu metal 00s (an archetype he always nails without fail). These are just a few faces in a sea of many, though, and the nonstop torrent of names like Kristen Wiig, Willie Nelson, Fred Armisen, Katy Perry, and whoever else felt like walking through the film’s perpetually open door did little for Zoolander 2 except to make it feel a little sloppy & out of control.

There were thing I loved about Zoolander 2 & things I easily could’ve done without. The film’s Looney Tunes physics & complete disinterest in stimulating the intellect felt entirely in tune with the original’s sensibility. The vaguely transphobic joke about Benedict Cumberbatch’s androgynous model All in the trailer is not at all improved by being expanded in the movie. Even though Hansel & Derek are close-minded imbeciles who believe things like fat = bad person, their treatment of All is an uncomfortable mixed bag at best & mostly just distracts from the film’s better realized gags. Many of the celebrity cameos & bit roles equally feel like a waste of time that could’ve been better step, but Zoolander 2 decisively aims for a quantity over quality M.O. & by the time the film finds its stride far more of its jokes land than fall flat. I spent most of Zoolander 2‘s runtime laughing heartily, which might as well be the sole requirement for a movie this militantly irreverent to succeed as a finished product. It’s not the best comedy in the theater right now (that would be Hail, Caesar!), but it’s also not the worst (*cough* Deadpool *cough*) & I could easily see myself watching/enjoying the film multiple times in the future. If nothing else, that’s a far better experience than I expected based on its early reviews, which is pretty much how this whole ordeal worked out the first time around in 2001.

-Brandon Ledet

The Martian (2015)

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threehalfstar

I don’t know if it’s just a mood I’m in or a reflection of the kind of studio films that get released this time of year, but The Martian is the third in-the-theater experience I’ve had in a row where I enjoyed what I was watching without ever being super impressed. Black Mass was a serviceable 70s gangster pastiche made entertaining by a long list of great performances from incredible actors putting in above average work. Sicario was a decent war (on drugs) film that survived mostly on the strength of its intense action sequences & striking cinematography. Going for the hat trick, The Martian was pretty good, but nothing out of the ordinary in terms of structure or narrative in the context of hard sci-fi cinema. In this case, what saves the movie from genre-related tedium is a depiction of believable people (read: nerds) engaging in practical problem solving in an impractical scenario: rescuing an astronaut/botanist who’s been stranded on Mars with limited resources for survival. The movie loses a good bit of steam when it gets mired in NASA politics & the logistics of making physical contact with the MIA astro-botanist, but for the most part the recognizable humanity in its extraordinary extraterrestrial situation makes for an interesting watch.

Matt Damon is asked to hold down a lot of the film’s weight as the titular astro-botanist Mark Watney, who might as well be considered a ghost as well as a Martian, as he has been assumed dead by his colleagues (with good reason). I almost hate to say it, but it’s the found footage aspects of his early post-abandonment screentime that holds most of the film’s charms. Despite facing almost certain death in The Martian‘s first act, Watney logically explains the details of exactly how/why he’s fucked as well as the practical day-to-day details other films would usually skip over, such as the bathroom situation in a Martian space lab. Speaking of the scatological, there’s a surprising amount of poop in this film. You could even say that poop saves the day, which is certainly more interesting than whatever control room shenanigans solve the conflict in Apollo 13 or other similar fare. Besides his poop-related resourcefulness, Watney has an entertaining sense of humor that distinguishes him from typical space rescue heroes, exemplified in lines like “Mars will come to fear my botany skills,” “Fuck you, Mars,” “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”, and constant tirades against his captain’s love of disco that remind me of the iconic “No more fucking ABBA!” line in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

The problem with The Martian, if there is one, is that every other actor in the film is completely wasted. Heavyweights Jessica Chastain & Michael Peña are given essentially nothing to do. Kristen Wiig is mostly present to look skeptical. Jeff Daniels is a run-of-the-mill business dick. And so on. Only Donald Glover’s performance stand out among the supporting cast, but not in a good way. Glover’s king nerd is distractingly awful in his attempts to outnerd his nerdy colleagues, providing the film’s sole representation of uncrecognizable human behavior. Glover is an island of falsehood in a film that generally feels believable. If I could ask director Ridley Scott one question about The Martian it would be what the hell was he thinking allowing Glover to embarrass himself/everyone else with that performance. It’s spectacularly awful.

Speaking of Ridley Scott, The Martian often feels as if it were a direct response to the backlash against more fanciful sci-fi like Scott’s own Prometheus & Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. If that’s the case, my lack of unbridled enthusiasm for the film may be a simple matter of taste. I loved Prometheus. Loved it. Also, Interstellar was my favorite movie last year. The practical problem solving & believably nerdy behavior of The Martian is likely to win over those two films’ naysayers, though, and believe me, they are in no short supply. A lot of people are really going to like this movie, but it lost me a little in the second half once the logical, step-by-step rescue process had larger political implications that extended beyond Watney’s immediate needs, such as growing crops & performing self-surgery. I know it makes me a cinematic philistine, but if The Martian had stuck to its found footage format or introduced some kind of The Angry Red Planet-esque space monsters to its believably human/nerdy aesthetic, I’d probably be singing its praises right now. Instead, I simply think it’s pretty good. Not Prometheus good, but pretty good.

-Brandon Ledet

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

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fourhalfstar

There was something about the laughter in the audience I saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl with that really freaked me out. Yes, the movie is funny, but it’s funny in an uncomfortable way that recalls difficult works from Todd Solondz like Welcome to the Dollhouse & Happiness moreso than any laugh-a-minute yuck ’em ups. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a rare picture that manages to incorporate effective black comedy into its beautiful visual artistry & the brutal, unmitigated honesty suggested by its confessional title. Adapted from a graphic novel by the same name, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the story of a vulnerably naive 15 year old comic book artist who gets wrapped up in a sexual affair with her mother’s much older boyfriend in 1970s San Francisco. It’s a difficult film to stomach at times, but it’s one told with an intense attention to verisimilitude & vivid incorporations of top notch comic book art, all held together by a career-making performance from Bel Powley, who plays the exceedingly endearing, but deeply troubled protagonist Millie. I’m willing to chalk up a good bit of the laughter from the theater where I watched the film to discomfort with the subject matter, something I’m more than sure was intended by first-time writer/director Marielle Heller, but I often found my own reactions to what was happening onscreen to be far more complicated than mere ribald laughs. It almost felt transgressive to watch the movie with a large group of vocal strangers, as if I were actually hearing the private diary of a complete stranger being read aloud in public. It’s a starkly intimate work.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl opens with a leering shot of Millie’s denim-clad butt as she struts through a public park populated with 70s San Fransiscan hippies, weirdos, bellbottoms, and mustaches. Amidst this time warp fashion show, Millie proudly declares, “I had sex today. Holy shit.” We soon learn that her newfound sexual exploration isn’t quite as positive of a development as she believes. Not knowing the full extent of what she was getting herself into (how could she?), Millie intentionally seduces her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), initiating a longterm affair that eventually drives some irrevocable wedges between her & her mother (Kristen Wiig). Her reasoning for acting out on her lust for Monroe? “I was afraid to pass up the chance because I may never get another.” Millie is full of these self-deprecating, sadly funny “truisms”. After sleeping with Monroe, she asks “Is this the way it feels for someone to love you?” She later yearns, “I want someone to be so in love with me that they would feel like they would die if I were gone,” and makes ridiculous declarations like “I want to be an artist so school actually doesn’t matter that much for me,” & “Hookers have all the power. Everybody knows that.” Her naiveté can be amusing when she gets teen-deep in her sexual philosophizing, but it also indicates a terrifying vulnerability that Monroe was a monster to take advantage of.

While Millie pines over Monroe in a typical “he loves me, he loves me not” fashion, he treats her more like a younger sister, incorporating an uncomfortable amount of childish horseplay in their flirtation. She’s a shameful fling in Monroe’s mind. She’s also, according to him at least, completely to blame for the affair. The movie does little to sugarcoat the realities of its mid-70s setting, establishing a very specific cultural mindset with references to the Patty Hearst kidnapping controversy (which Wiig’s flower child mother refers to as fascist misogynistic bullshit”), the rise of sexually androgynous milestones like Iggy Pop & The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the omnipresence of Fruedian psychology (represented onscreen by Christopher Meloni), depictions of teens freely ordering drinks in barrooms, the drugged out loopiness of H.R. Pufnstuf, and era-honest inclusions of casual racism & homophobia. It’s tempting to say that an affair with a 15 year old in that context would not have been as big of a deal as it is now, it being “different times” & all, but c’mon . . . Monroe feels intense guilt for the affair, because he knows it is wrong. Still, he blames Millie for his own transgression, as does every other person who learns of the affair (another indication of the times). When Monroe becomes increasingly frustrated with Millie’s adolescent behavior, he explodes “You’re a fucking child!” Well, he’s not wrong there, which is a large part of why he should’ve known better & why he’s so much at war with his own conscious.

To her credit, Millie is often blissfully unaware of just how detrimental her affair with Monroe actually is. Convinced that Monroe is only continuing to sleep with her mother to avoid suspicion, Millie mostly worries about whether or not he loves her back, not how much longterm damage he’s causing her psyche. In a lot of ways, Monroe is just one part of Millie’s coming of age story, which also involves experimentation with ditching class, hard drug use, bisexuality, self body image, skinny-dipping, prostitution, running away from home, and attempts to connect with her favorite comic book artist, Aline Kominsky (a real life talent & real life wife of Robert Crumb). Stuck halfway between an older man who can’t keep up with her overactive libido & her teen sexual partners who aren’t nearly as good in bed (not to mention often freaked out by her pursuit of her own orgasms), Millie is alone in a crowd. She both makes intentionally provocative statements like “I hate men, but I fuck them hard, hard, hard, and thoughtlessly because I hate them so much,” & hypocritically shames friends who are struggling with the same pursuits of sexual & personal autonomy.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl pulls no emotional punches as Millie perilously navigates these deeply troubled waters, often lightening the mood both with its protagonist’s endearing sense of humor & teen-specific lack of self-awareness, but never letting its characters off the hook for their often-cruel transgressions. All of this heft is backed up by a vivid visual collage format that allows ink drawings to come to life, wallpaper to transform into a jungle, and a bathtub to suddenly expand to an ocean, making great use of that concession without it ever outwearing its welcome. What results is an incredibly adept debut feature for Marielle Heller & an remarkable display of range for actress Bel Powley. I’m just as excited to see where their careers are headed in the future as I am to revisit this film as soon as I can get my hands on the novel (and experience it with a more intimate, on-my-wavelength audience).

-Brandon Ledet

Welcome to Me (2015)

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fourstar

A few years back there were frequently broadcast infomercials advertising a strange novelty product called The Perfect Polly. Polly, in case you somehow don’t remember, was a small plastic bird that would sing & move its head whenever prompted by its motion-activated sensors. The commercial was memorably amusing in the way infomercials sometimes are, especially in its assertions that Polly was a life-like substitute for real parakeets (it wasn’t), but there was more to it than that. It was also deeply sad. A lot of the ad consisted of lonely-looking people, mostly the elderly, interacting with the plastic bird as if it were their only friend in the world. As the narrator cheerily chirps, “By the window or on the shelf, with Perfect Polly you’re never by yourself!” the tone is decidedly dark. It makes total sense, then, the first image you see in the dark comedy Welcome to Me is a television playing the Perfect Polly ad in a lonely woman’s apartment.

An unmedicated recluse with borderline personality disorder, Welcome to Me’s protagonist Alice Klieg spends most of her days memorizing VHS recordings of old Oprah broadcasts alone in her apartment. She has a surprisingly strong support group that includes her parents, her ex-husband & his lover, and an unbelievably selfless best friend, but Alice is still for the most part alone in the world. This changes when she wins the lottery through a magical turn of events (the numbers on her winning ticket are announced in their exact sequence) and rashly decides to spend her new-found fortune by producing her own Oprah-like talk show at a local television station. The station is more than happy to oblige (read: take advantage of) her. Alice’s ambitions are realized and her own self-obsessed talk show, also titled Welcome to Me, begins to snowball in terms of scale & production costs. Described by her mother as an “emotional exhibitionist”, Alice uses the platform to recreate & interact with emotionally traumatic events from her past as well as offer a charmingly blunt brand of TMI like the tidbit, “I’ve been using masturbation as a sedative since 1991.” At first it’s expected that people will react to Alice’s exhibitionism like a jokey, Tim & Eric type of programming, but instead her brutal honesty cuts through the laughter and leaves her audiences stunned, especially by the time she’s cathartically performing veterinary surgeries live on the air.

Much like the Pretty Polly ad that kicks it all off, Welcome to Me starts off as oddly amusing, then goes pitch black in tone, then brings it back around to find a surprisingly strong balance between the two. Kristen Wiig’s central role as Alice might be her greatest performance on record, building off of her usual awkward brand of humor, but tempering it with a nuance that makes Alice deeply empathetic (kind of the way Melissa McCarthy’s schtick culminated in something special with last year’s Tammy). It helps that Wiig is surrounded by a stacked cast of character actors here. Produced by Will Ferrell & Adam McKay, Welcome to Me features supporting roles from Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley, Jason Marsden, Tim Robbins, Alan Tudyk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a delightfully crass Joan Cusack as a no-nonsense television producer. In lesser hands the film could’ve devolved into empty, pointless indie quirk, but instead a much darker sense of humor is struck here and it’s one that hits a lot closer to home than you’d expect, given some of Kristen Wiig’s past work, which is often hilarious, but not always this touching.

-Brandon Ledet