Breakfast on Pluto (2005)

I very distinctly remember going to the theater to see Breakfast on Pluto in 2005. I remember enjoying it. I even remember why I sought it out in the first place (the ads reminded me of the glam androgyny of Velvet Goldmine, a movie that meant a lot to me at the time). When I recently ran across a used DVD copy of the film in a thrift store, however, I realized I remembered almost nothing else about it. The cast, the characters, the plot, the setting, the soundtrack – the entire film, really – had all dissipated from my memory like a vapor. I didn’t even know it was directed by Neil Jordan, whose chaotically inconsistent catalog somehow also includes The Company of Wolves, Interview with a Vampire, and this year’s Greta. It all makes sense in retrospect now that I’ve revisited the film, though. Neil Jordan’s involvement tracks as a follow-up on his interest in transgender narratives via The Crying Game (for good and for bad). The Euro-glam 70s setting and gender androgyny that drew me in as a teen is strongly present throughout, even if the movie doesn’t comment on it directly. The story told therein is so vague & exhaustively obedient to the tropes of a lifelong memoir that it’s easy to quickly lose track of the details. And yet, even with its many, many faults only made more glaring in the sober light of a late-2010s revisit, I still left Breakfast on Pluto with an idiotic smile on my face (and its major details again immediately slipping away).

Cillian Murphy stars as a trans woman in this coming of age biopic about a fictional 1970s Irish community in crisis. Murphy’s vocal performance in the role can occasionally be off-putting in its exaggerated lilt; the politics of casting trans and gender-nonconforming characters has changed drastically since the film’s mid-aughts release; and the language around gender identity has evolved since its 1970s setting even more so. All of these modern discomforts are only compounded by the fact that the character was made up entirely by a cisgender author, Patrick McCabe, in the late 90s, leaving very little room for authenticity in its exploration of transgender themes & narratives despite being constructed like a birth-to-death biopic of a real person. Still, despite all these red flags, Breakfast on Pluto is immensely enjoyable to watch for the relative eternity of its 128mn runtime. It often plays like a glammed-up spiritual sequel to the Quentin Crisp biopic The Naked Civil Servant in its story of transgender identity in a time before its proper terms & borders were solidified, but its fictional source material opens it up to even more absurd, outlandish plot developments than that relatively well-behaved work. It’s also packed with always-welcome character actors who had not yet become recognizable faces to wide audiences in 2005: Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Ruth Negga, Liam “The Onion Knight” Cunningham, and Neil Jordan mascot Stephen Rea. Also, if nothing else, it’s just always wonderful to stare at Cillian Murphy’s gorgeous face for two solid hours.

This fictional trans woman’s coming-of-age story starts with a few scenes of small-town childhood crossdressing so cinematically familiar they were already cliché when they surfaced in Billy Elliott five years prior. Patricia “Kitten” Braden’s life’s story gets incrementally more distinct as she ages into her teenage & young adult years, however, since her unorthodox gender expression becomes more of a source of conflict at home, school, and church as she ages. She eventually announces, “Oh fiddly boogles, what’s the point?” and leaves her small Irish town for the metropolis of London, the city that “swallowed up” her estranged birth-mother – known to the audience as The Phantom Lady. As Kitten chases down this human MacGuffin (surviving mostly on various forms of sex work along the way), her friends back home struggle with the escalating violence of The Troubles – which encroaches closer & closer to her own life in unexpected jolts of gory brutality & rudimentary CGI explosions. With over 30 onscreen chapter titles interjecting every couple scenes, Breakfast on Pluto is a never-ending parade of period-specific details that swirl around Kitten as she searches for a family of her own: glam rock bands, penny arcades, mournful priests, milk deliveries, car bombs, etc. When she does eventually find her family, emerging miraculously unscathed from a chaotically cruel world, it’s both the least expected configuration possible and the most endearingly sweet.

This is essentially a fairy tale, complete with talking CGI birds that flutter around the screen warning you of the fantasy indulgences to come. That genre distinction helped me get over my main problem with the film, which is that it’s gushingly romantic at every turn and yet entirely sexless when it comes to genuine eroticism – as if it were unafraid to actually depict non-straight, non-cis couplings on the screen. Fairy tales (or at least the modern post-Disney variety) are largely sexless affairs, so I’m okay with overlooking that hiccup. Whether or not you’re personally okay with a cisgender male actor playing a fictional trans woman within that glam-70s fairy tale is up to you, and will likely guide your relationship with the film at large (especially when it comes to adjusting to the hushed, delirious whispers of Murphy’s vocal performance). There’s plenty to enjoy in Breakfast on Pluto otherwise, though, and even if you happen to impervious to its other charms it has a way for sprinkling fairy dust over you by the end credits so that you forget most of the movie permanently anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Widows (2018)

I’m not sure what aspect of Widows’s marketing led me to expect a stylish heist thriller about vengeful women transforming into reluctant criminals in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. That version of Widows is certainly lurking somewhere in the 128-minute Prestige Picture that’s delivered instead, but it’s mostly drowned out by what I should have known to expect: an ensemble-cast melodrama packed with talented women in beautiful clothes & a world of political intrigue. Everything about 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s involvement, his collaboration with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, and the film’s Oscar-Season release date should have tipped me off that the promise of a heist genre action picture was merely a cover-up for a thoughtful, handsomely staged drama about women’s internal turmoil in the face of gendered, financial, and political oppression. Widows might still be a slight deviation from McQueen’s usual Prestige Drama fare in its isolated nods to heist genre convention, but surprise twists are becoming Gillian Flynn’s clear specialty; this entry in her modest canon includes a twist in the basic tone & genre of what you’d expect from an ensemble-cast heist picture.

Viola Davis stars as the ringleader widow, who attempts to rope three other widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and a barely- present Carrie Coon) into a heist job to help heal the financial wounds left by their dead criminal husbands. Following the detailed instructions left behind by her respective husband (Liam Neeson) in a Book of Henry-style notebook, she transforms from grieving teacher’s union organizer to criminal mastermind in the blink of a teary eye. The nature of her planned caper lands her in the middle of a hard-fought Chicago City Council’s race between brutish local politicians (Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, and Robert Duvall), which is dangerous territory for her small crew of grieving non-professional women who just want to put their lives back together. Oh yeah, and Bad Times at the El Royale’s Cynthia Erivo joins the crew as a getaway driver/muscle, just in case the cast wasn’t already overstuffed. And the dog from Game Night is also along for the ride; and Matt Walsh too. And Lukas Haas. And Jacki Weaver. If the enormity of that cast and the themes of that premise sounds like it might be overwhelming, it’s because it very much is. Widows plays a lot like an entire season of Prestige Television packed into a two-hour span – complete with the execution of the central heist acting as a self-contained episode. The economic & political backdrop of a stubbornly changing modern Chicago sets the stage for a wide range of actors (mostly playing dirtbag men and the women who love them) to patiently wait for their spotlight character moment to arrive in due time. Meanwhile, Flynn adds a new wrinkle to the plot every few beats to leave the audience salivating with anticipation for what’s going to happen next. It’s overwhelming (and a little thinly spread), but it’s also exhilarating.

Widows feels like a movie custom built for people whose all-time favorite TV show is still The Wire (and who could blame ‘em?). Its tangled web of debts, power plays, and barely-concealed vulnerabilities make for sumptuous melodrama, where lines like “We have a lot of work to do. Crying isn’t on the list,” don’t feel at all out of place or unnatural. The POV may be spread out too thin for any one character’s emotional journey to stand out as especially effective, but the performers are all so strong they manage to make an impression anyway: Davis as a once-confident woman at her wit’s end, Kaluuya as an inhuman terror, Erivo as an athletic machine, Debicki as the world’ tallest (and most tragic) punching bag, etc. I was way off-base for looking to Widows as a highly stylized heist thriller, as if it were the 2010s equivalent of Belly. Instead, it’s more of an overachieving melodrama and an actor’s showcase, the exact kind of smartly considered, midbudget adult fare Hollywood supposedly doesn’t make anymore. The action-heist element of the plot is just some deal-sweetening lagniappe for a stylish, well-performed story that would have been just as entertaining without it.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #66 of The Swampflix Podcast: All the Darkmen & Non-Stop (2014)

Welcome to Episode #66 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our sixty-sixth episode, we kick off the Halloween season with an unhinged Liam Neeson. James & Brandon discuss all three movies in Sam Raimi’s Darkman franchise and James makes Brandon watch Jaume Collet-Serra’s airplane-set thriller Non-Stop (2014) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

The Commuter (2018)

The sole kernel of fun in last year’s over-hated natural disaster thriller Geostorm was its function as a conservative fantasy in which one white, middle aged tough guy fights off a massive conspiracy all on his lonesome. The latest action vehicle for Liam Neeson, who knows a thing or two about middle aged white guy power fantasies at this point in his career, pushes that same dynamic to a much more satisfying, deliriously inane extreme. Director Jaume Collet-Serra already reframed Neeson’s defining late-career gimmick in Non-Stop, which was essentially Taken on a Plane. His latest collaboration with the forever-slumming-it actor, The Commuter, flips the script again with the paradigm-shifting concept of, wait for it, Taken on a Train. Neeson stars as the titular commuter, a hardworking family man struggling to maintain an upper middle-class lifestyle without a proper safety net. Just when his job, his family, and his sense of security are taken away from him, he’s offered a quick, sleazy way to make a cool $100k on his commute home. He must make a choice: blindly go along with the flow or stand up for the little guy and take down a massive conspiracy network one bare-knuckled punch at a time. The Commuter isn’t exactly capital “R” Republican in its politics; at the very least it musters a lot of residual anger from the 2008 market crisis, even including the line, “Hey, Goldman Sachs! On behalf of the American middle class, fuck you!” The film’s pro-cop philosophy, “Millennials, huh?” patronizing, Info Wars-style paranoia, and general macho swagger are all informed by a conservative tinge, though, and it’s perversely fun to watch that sensibility stretch to such absurd lengths in this kind of disposable, low-rent/high-concept thriller.

Freshly let go from his unglamorous job as an insurance salesman by a heartless Corporation, our ex-cop Hero Dad has little to lose as he sullenly rides home on a packed commuter train. He’s a hardworking man who plays by the rules in a mind-numbing routine, but he gets screwed anyway because the system is rigged. In this moment of desperation & financial despair, he’s approached by a mysterious organization and offered $100k to do something he is uniquely qualified for: pointing out a fellow passenger “who does not belong” on the train he rides every day. This setup does not entirely make sense, as he’s both tasked to single out an out-of-place stranger and told that there are other strangers on the train watching his every move, which you would think just muddles the assignment. It doesn’t take long or the focus to shift away from this original moral quandary (which feels somewhat like an exhausted, late 90s John Woo adapting The Box). Neeson’s middle-aged toughie quickly realizes he’s being blackmailed into committing unwitting acts of Evil and the rest of the film details his David vs. Goliath heroics in taking down the mysterious, all-powerful Organization responsible for his predicament from within the speeding train. His triumph as the hero hinges both on his ability to see through the Fake News & truthiness of the world and on the brunt force of his traditional masculinity, something that’s been eroded by the daily Corporate grind of commuting by train in a cheap suit to provide for his family. I’m not sure how much longer Neeson will be able to coast along in these ludicrous Tough Dad action thrillers, but The Commuter hits a nice sweet spot where he’s still virile enough for the violence to be passably convincing and the premises must reach far beyond rational thought to keep the formula novel. It’s fun trash.

Much like Collet-Serra’s fun-trash shark pic The Shallows, The Commuter feels a little unnecessarily labored & delayed in its setup. Once his aggressively idiotic plots get cooking, however, they capture a distinct 90s thriller spirit that used to light up summertime marquees, but have since been ghettoized on a straight-to-VOD release path. Even The Commuter’s gloriously cheesy tagline, “Lives are on the line,” feels like a relic from an ancient mode of blockbuster filmmaking. Where that 90s thriller throwback vibe might disappoint is in this film’s general deficiency of action. Besides an inevitable special effects climax involving the train itself, there are only a few moments of genuine action that make appropriate use of the train setting’s close quarters combat tension. The most memorable of these involves Neeson fighting off a guitar-wielding conspirator with a fire hatchet, in what’s effectively an axe-on-axe fight. Mostly, though, The Commuter is less entertaining for its Loud, Dumb Action than it is for its Loud, Dumb Ideas. The film recalls high-concept thrillers like the David Fincher joint The Game or the M. Night Shyamalan-penned Devil in its paranoia-driven sociology experiments where every character is an anonymous archetype and no one is to be trusted. I probably shouldn’t take so much delight in how films like Geostorm & The Commuter adapt that conspiracy theorist hero worship to the Fake News, Alex Jones era, but I just find it so damn silly. There’s a whole legion of dangerous white, American men out there who believe they’re living in some kind of rigged, The Matrix-type system where they’re the only dude in the world smart enough to crack the code of What’s Really Going On, when they’re actually just, for instance, some boring ex-cop who got laid off from selling insurance. Watching that kind of outsized power fantasy play out onscreen to its most illogical extreme should probably be frightening, but instead it tickles me immensely.

-Brandon Ledet

Silence (2016)

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If you can claim that a film successfully marries the philosophical inner-conflicts of Ingmar Bergman with the epic majesty of Akira Kurosawa, is there really anything more to say about its worth as a work of art? Martin Scorsese’s latest is undoubtedly one of the most impressive technical feats to reach cinemas in the last year and likely one of the greatest accomplishments of the American master’s long cinematic career to date. Silence is a passion project. A hand-wringing reflection on what Bergman scholars would call “The Silence of God” set in 17th Century Japan, this three hour historical epic is essentially and spiritually a form of box office poison. It should be considered as something Scorsese got away with (after more than a decade of false starts), not something that failed in its wide theatrical release. Silence was designed to lose money, something it’s been doing quite well in its first week of national distribution. Its ambitions reach beyond financial concerns and easy critical points to search out something within its auteurist creator’s soul, as well as something possibly divine & transcendent outside human reach. The journey getting there is long, brutal, hopelessly cruel, and, in its most honest moments, a destructive force of self-deluded madness.

Two Jesuit priests from Portugal continue a failed mission to spread Catholicism to Japan despite the Japanese government’s systematic destruction of the religion. They use the disappearance and reported defection of their former teacher to justify the excursion, which partly sets up a Search for Colonel Kurtz type storyline straight out of Apocalypse Now. For the most part, though, this suicide mission is a spiritually selfish act for the holy men, who take dictums like “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” way too close to the heart. They practice a religion that asks them to spread the Truth globally no matter what the personal sacrifice. The problem is that the sacrifice is rarely personal and the Japanese Inquisition that meets their efforts crucifies, drowns, and burns the very people they intend to “save” through Catholic conversion. They practice an outlawed faith, praying in secret & hiding in daylight like Holocaust victims. It’s a true war on Christianity, unlike whatever delusional Evangelicals think is happening in modern America. They’re the invading force in this war, though. They travel to a foreign nation to spread a faith that doesn’t belong in an Eastern philosophical context, only to see the native people tortured for the transgression. Japanese officials are exhausted by the routine of the exercise, taking time to host theological debates (which are, of course, corrupted by an imbalance of power), arguing that the converted are merely the poverty-stricken taking solace in the promise of Paradise after death, never truly understanding the Christian faith beyond that hope for posthumous rebirth. Until the priests can repent and revoke their imposition of a Universal Truth that’s proving to be not so universal, they struggle with delusions of their own Christ-like godliness, whether the mass death & torture of their converts is God’s Plan, and whether God is there at all. The answers to these questions are difficult, insular, and widely open to audience interpretation.

There’s so much to be impressed by in Silence, but what most strikes me is its rough around the edges looseness. For an expensive religious epic that took over a decade to realize onscreen, it’s a work that feels oddly misshapen, which is a blessing considering how dull this literary adaptation might have felt if kept “faithful” & tightly controlled. Like with Altman’s Short Cuts, PT Anderson’s The Master, and Friedkin’s Sorcerer, there’s a surprising immediacy to the ways Scorsese allows Silence to feel oddly unfinished, as if he were still wrestling with the film internally well after it was shipped for screenings. The film is masterful in its high contrast nature photography of coastal & mountainside Japan, but fuzzy around the edges in its epistolary narration, violent zoom-outs, and strange moments of possible hallucination. Even the casting & performances can feel oddly loose. Liam Neeson provides some A Monster Calls style narration in an early scene before going fully into full Ra’s Al Ghul mode for his Colonel Kurtz-type defector. Andrew Garfield & Adam Driver are a little goofy & out of place in their roles as the film’s main Portuguese missionaries, but it’s a feeling that plays well into their characters’ in-over-their-heads naïveté. This becomes especially apparently as they’re outshone by the film’s Japanese cast (which includes Tetsuo: The Iron Man director Shinya Tsukamoto among its ranks), who clash with that goofy naïveté with a heartbreaking emotional gravity. The film’s visual craft and sudden bursts of cruel violence all feel tightly controlled, purposefully positioned in regards to how they affect the overall narrative. Everything within that narrative is much less nailed down, though, as if Scorsese himself is using the confusion to reach for something beyond his own grasp. It’s fascinating to watch.

It’s going to take me a few years and more than a few viewings to fully grapple with Silence. My guess is that Scorsese isn’t fully done grappling with it himself. What’s clear to me is the film’s visual majesty and its unease with the virtue of spreading gospel into cultures where it’s violently, persistently rejected. What’s unclear is whether the ultimate destination of that unease is meant to be personal or universal, redemptive or vilifying, a sign of hope or a portrait of madness. Not all audiences are going to respond well to those unanswered questions. Indeed, most audiences won’t even bother taking the journey to get there. Personally, I found Silence to be complexly magnificent, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement of paradoxically loose & masterful filmmaking craft, whether or not I got a response when I prayed to Marty for answers on What It All Means and how that’s reflected in his most sacred text.

-Brandon Ledet

A Monster Calls (2016)

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It’s difficult to say objectively if A Monster Calls is likely to resonate with most audiences the way it did with me at the exact moment I happened to catch it in theaters. The very same week the fantasy-leaning cancer drama reached New Orleans I had lost my grandmother to an aggressive form of cancer and, at the time I’m writing this review, she still has not yet been memorialized with a funeral. The wounds are still fresh in a lot of ways, so I don’t have enough critical distance to say if this dark children’s fantasy about “a boy too old to be a kid and too young to be a man” struggling with the gradual loss of his young mother to failed chemotherapy treatments is truly the emotionally impactful, thematically complex filmgoing experience I found it to be. I can only say for sure that A Monster Calls is admirable in the brave ways it tackles issues of frustration, resentment, and self-conflict that wreak havoc on families who are hit with this kind of loss through prolonged illness. The film’s multi-faceted, sugarcoat-free discussion of how grief can be destructive long before it’s cathartic is not the thematic territory typically expected of a kids’ movie featuring a talking tree, but A Monster Calls fearlessly dives head first into those troubled waters and emerges as a hauntingly beautiful experience for taking that leap, one that arrived at the exact moment I needed it.

Liam Neeson voices the titular monster in this dark fantasy drama, a talking tree that visits a young boy each time he wakes from the recurring nightmare of physically letting his mother go while holding her hand at the edge of a cliff. The mother (Felicity Jones, who in all honesty gets just as little character development here as she does in Rogue One) is losing her battle with a rapidly progressing cancer; the boy is being physically bullied at school by the one kid who bothers to notice him; and the rest of the family struggles to figure out what to do with him now that his only attentive parent is at the verge of death. The tree monster solves none of these problems. He only awakes to tell the boy three seemingly unrelated stories (illustrated in beautiful watercolor-style animation) about dragons, kings, suicide, magic . . . pretty much nothing to do with his current predicament. Instead of smiting the boy’s enemies and bringing his mother back from the brink of death, the tree monster merely teaches him a few harsh life lessons: that sometimes life is a cheat, that sometimes good people do horrifically bad things, that sometimes “bad” people can do good, that terrible things often happen for no reason at all. The monster coaches the child through a tough moral gray area and, in the process, allows him to admit & accept some less-than-honorable feelings he’d been repressing about his mother’s impending death before it’s too late.

Besides the obvious reasons why I would connect with this kind of a cancer-themed familial drama at this time in my life, A Monster Calls also appeals to me directly by evoking the same brutal honesty & melancholy tone I found solace in with the similar dark children’s fantasies Paperhouse & MirrorMask. In all three films, young British children process real world emotional grief in a harsh dream space of their own artistic design. A Monster Calls joins this tradition, which unfortunately has a bad critical & financial track record, with a morally ambiguous tale of how there are no easy answers to the ways we process loss and how you’re not always going to be proud of the things you do, say, or feel in your worst moments of grief. It’s the exact kind of thoughtful, morally complex narratives I look for in my children’s media combined with a distinct visual palette (complete with a muscular tree butt for some reason) and impeccable timing, arriving just when I needed to wrestle with my own conflicted modes of grief. I may not be able to discuss A Monster Calls objectively due to my own recent familial loss, but I can say that it’s a deeply relevant & revelatory experience when you’re in that very particular, very fragile state of grief & mourning. There’s just some things about life that you need to hear from Liam Neeson dressed up like a talking tree to fully grasp, I suppose. It worked for me, anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016)

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three star

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In the most basic sense The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a sequel that no one was clamoring for. Even the star of Snow White & The Huntsman, my beloved Kristen Stewart, declined to return for this second installment of a franchise practically no one loves. This film’s lack of critical hype or a vocal fandom was a little isolating for me, since I was actually a fairly solid fan of the much forgotten original film. As a low-key fantasy epic that called back to mid-80s productions like LegendLabyrinth, and Ladyhawke, I found Snow White & The Huntsman to be a mostly satisfying experience. What really stood out, though, was the film’s visual flourishes, which bathed a wicked queen played by Charlize Theron in a milky white porcelain & transformed the evil mirror of Snow White folklore into a menacing humanoid made of dripping gold. In this way The Huntsman: Winter’s War could be understood as being simply more of the same. Anyone who brushed off Snow White & The Huntsman as a dull trifle (most people, I’m assuming) isn’t going to be won over or blown away by what they find in Winter’s War. However, fans of the original’s familiar fantasy realm setting & surprising knack for striking visuals in its villainy are likely to be pleased by the franchise’s years-late return. I was, anyway.

A ludicrously belabored, heavy-handed prologue narrated by Liam Neeson asks the question “What does a mirror show you? What do you see?” The answer is clips from Snow White & The Huntsman, apparently. It’s probably not a good sign that this late in the game follow-up feels the need to remind its audience that it’s not an original property, but I found myself entertained by the film’s strained way of setting up its own Kristen Stewart-free narrative. The prologue is so long & unwieldy that it feels as if Neeson is reading a decades-spanning bedtime story, which is far from the worst effect for a fairy tale, all things considered. By the time the setup is over with, Winter’s War simultaneously functions as a prequel and a sequel, retroactively introducing new characters into its already-established mythology so that it has a place to go in Snow White’s absence. I’m not sure knowing the exact plot of this film’s silly middle ground between Lord of the Rings & Game of Thrones is all that necessary for you to understand what you’re getting into. Winter’s War more or less boils down to a CG action adventure about opposing kingdoms’ quest to obtain & command the evil mirror of the first film, which looks like some kind of all-powerful golden gong. It just so happens that the monarchs of those kingdoms are both badass women.

Besides its undeniable knack for visual effects, Winter’s War mostly finds entertainment value in the strength of its casting. Charlize Theron returns as the golden evil queen of the first film, but this time she’s joined by a (somehow previously unmentioned) sister, played by Emily Blunt (hot off the heels of her roles in Sicario & Edge of Tomorrow). Here, Blunt plays a CG-aided Ice Queen who staffs her tundra-set fortress of solitude with a ferocious army of children she raises to be loveless killers. She trains these tiny tyke murderers to believe that “Love is a lie. It is a trick,” establishing her sole governing rule to be “Do not love. It’s a sin. I will not forgive it.” And, wouldn’t you know it, two of her miniature killing machines grow up to fall in love. One of them is America’s hunky but dim foreigner boyfriend Chris Hemsworth, returning from the first film, and he’s romantically paired with Fellow Beautiful Person Jessica Chastain. The two leads essentially live out a feature-length version of the ridiculous fight-flirting scene from Daredevil, interspersed with their attempts to thwart two evil queens from gaining the ultimate power represented in the mirror by destroying a litany of faceless foot soldiers with their gorgeous weaponry of golden liquids & CG ice shards. Edgar Wright’s pet doofus Nick Frost returns as a CG dwarf to offer some comic relief, but the less I say about that the better.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War boasts three badass women as its leads along with stunningly gorgeous costumes & visual effects, but is hopelessly saddled with goofy everything else. For every brilliant idea in its visual play (like a white porcelain version of the mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans), there’s something equally silly waiting to drag down its artistic clout (like an early scene that depicts the most blatantly overwrought “You thought this was just a game?” chess match metaphor I’ve ever seen in my life). I might be the only person in the world who regrets not seeing this ridiculous display play out on the big screen, but I do believe with a little push in a more extreme direction, either towards more over-the-top camp in the performances or some R-rated gore in its fantasy violence, this film & its predecessor could have serious cult following potential. As is, you have to appreciate them for their low-key fantasy realm charm, the absurdity of their surprisingly game cast, and the perfume commercial menace of their imagery to buy what they’re selling. Personally, I’m a sucker for all three.

-Brandon Ledet

Darkman (1990)

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I’ve never been much of a Sam Raimi fan. His Spider-Man films felt like the height of superhero cinema mediocrity to me in their heyday. The Evil Dead series was never really my thing, mostly because of the rapist tree & my contention that Bruce Campbell is a second-rate version of Jim Carrey’s worst tendencies. As far as I knew until recently, Raimi’s greatest contribution to the cultural zeitgeist was as a producer on the television show Xena: Warrior Princess, with his directorial work not mattering much to me in any significant way. I appreciated the over-the-top cartoonishness of his aesthetic, but it never connected with me in the same way that the work of, say, Peter Jackson did. Darkman changed all that.

A comic book-inspired noir riding on the coattails of Tim Burton’s Batman, Darkman is a masterfully goofy work of genre cinema. Its comic book framing, over-the-top performances, and stray Ken Russell-esque freakouts were all perfection in terms of trashy entertainment value, pushing the lowest-common-denominator of trash media into the realm of high art. Darkman is not only the finest Sam Raimi film I’ve ever encountered, it’s also one of the most striking comic book movies ever made . . . which is saying a lot considering that it wasn’t even based off of a comic book. Given our current climate of endless adaptations, remakes, and reboots, it’s bizarre to think that Darkman was made from an original idea of Raimi’s & not from bringing a pre-existing character to the screen. The film’s two superfluous, direct-to-video sequels would fit in just fine with our current trend of endlessly returning to the well, but the original Darkman really went out on a limb with its central idea & it’s a risk that paid off nicely.

Tim Burton’s Batman (a film Raimi had actually once been considered for as a potential director) seems like the most obvious point of reference for Darkman‘s cultural context. Released just one year after Batman‘s release, Darkman was a similarly dark, gritty, noir-inspired comic book landscape that even brought longtime Burton-collaborator Danny Elfman in tow for its score. The original idea for Darkman had nothing to do with the Caped Crusader at all, however. It wasn’t even conceived as an homage to comic books. Raimi had first conceived Darkman in a short story meant to show reverence for Universal Studio’s horror classics of the 1930s. It’s very easy to see the mad scientist ravings of characters that would’ve been played by folks like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff in an earlier era (or both in the case of The Invisible Ray) in Darkman‘s DNA. The outfit the anti-hero uses to hide his face even more than closely resembles that of The Invisible Man. The combination of this monster movie pedigree & the newfound comic book seriousness of Burton’s Batman were a great start for Darkman as a launching pad. Add Sam Raimi’s particular brand of cartoonish camp to the mix & you have a perfect cocktail of violently goofy cinema.

Liam Neeson stars as Darkman‘s titular anti-hero, a brilliant scientist & kindhearted boyfriend working on the secret of creating new body parts for scratch with the world’s first 3-D printer (of organic material, no less). The doctor’s girlfriend, played by Frances McDormand, inadvertently gets him mixed up with some rough mobster types who burn down his lab with the poor man inside it & through some shaky-at-best comic book/monster movie shenanigans, he emerges alive, but forever altered. Horrifically scarred, unable to feel pain, and freakishly strong due to an increase in adrenaline, the doctor emerges as the masked vigilante Darkman & sets out to exact his revenge on the Dick Tracy-esque mobster villains who destroyed his life. His masks alternate from the Invisible Man get-up mentioned above to temporary organic faces contrived from his pre-mutation scientific research & his revenge tactics go beyond basic vigilantism into full-blown, cold-blooded murder. Instead of struggling with the inner conflict a lot of violent superheroes deal with regarding which side of the law & morality they stand on, Darkman truly enjoys exacting revenge on the goons who wronged him in the cruelest ways he can possibly devise.

It’s not just remarkable to me that Sam Raimi happened to direct a movie I enjoyed. What’s most surprising is the ways that Darkman couldn’t have been made by any other auteur. Raimi’s personal aesthetic is what makes the film work and although he could’ve easily allowed the formula to go off the rails (he really wanted Bruce Campbell in Neeson’s role, which would’ve been a disaster), it’s his own cinematic eye & sadistic sense of humor that makes it such an iconic accomplishment. With Batman, Burton had brought comic book movies out of the dark ages, proving that superhero media wasn’t just the goofy kids’ media of Adam West yesteryear. Raimi combined both those extremes, the gritty & the goofy, in Darkman in an entirely idiosyncratic way (as Burton also would in the similarly masterful Batman Returns). The film indulged in some Batman-esque brooding, especially in its noir lighting & in introspective lines like “The dark, what secrets does it hold?”, but those elements are all so over-the-top in their inherent ridiculousness that there’s never any sense that Raimi is doing anything but having fun.

Although Darkman isn’t technically a comic book adaptation it exudes comic book media in every frame. Darkman‘s onslaught of drastic Dutch angles, 1st person shooter POV, Oingo Boingo circus aesthetic, Alterted States-esque hallucinations, and wild tangents of practical effects gore all feel both like classic comic book imagery & classic Sam Raimi. I can’t speak too decisively on the entirety of Raimi’s catalog since there are more than a few titles I’ve intentionally skipped over, but I can say for sure that the director has at least one certified masterpiece of goofball cinema under his belt: Darkman. It’s a work that not only surprised me by becoming an instant personal favorite, but also by inspiring me to consider giving Raimi’s catalog a closer second look to see if he ever repeated the trick.

-Brandon Ledet