Braid (2019)

Braid exhibits both the greatest charms and worst faults of all directorial debuts: it’s tonally chaotic, unnecessarily showy, and overflowing with far too many ideas than what could comfortably fit in a single picture, yet those very qualities all amount to something that is undeniably fun & exciting. Hyperactive camera work tears through every color filter, image texture, and aspect ratio it can manage, as if this were a hand-held skateboarding compilation instead of a feature film. Concerns like logical consistency, tonal control, and purposeful pacing are all tossed out of the window in favor of gorgeous costumes & sets and over-the-top shocks in a twisty “plot” that’s too stoned & scatterbrained to possibly land anywhere solid. It’s the best kind of dirt-cheap indie production: the kind that just shoots a few fully-committed actors in an interesting locale and attempts to push those resources to their furthest possible limit in every single frame, logic be damned. It’s a total mess, but also a total blast.

Two amateur drug dealers escape police scrutiny by returning to the childhood home of a wealthy but mentally unwell friend who’s trapped in a never-ending game of violent make-believe. While in hiding (and searching the home for her cash-stuffed safe), they must play along with the friend’s house rules: Everyone must play; no outsiders allowed; nobody leaves. Their respective roles as Mommy, Doctor, and Daughter in this make-believe heist dynamic sledgehammers away at the border between fantasy & reality, and all three women rapidly backslide into the mania & trauma of young girls at play. As many horror premises as I’ve seen repeated over the years, “What if you had a friend who was still playing House and taking her role very seriously?” is a pretty unique story structure I can’t remember encountering onscreen before. The closest appropriate comparison might be to call the film a Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era, with all the obsessive psychosexuality & fetish for brightly colored fashion that descriptor implies. Given the music video freak-outs, detours into torture porn, and disorienting repetition of the game’s core setup, however, no 1:1 comparison could ever fully cover what transpires here. There’s a lot going on, and it’s kind of all over the place – but it all feels delightfully, excitedly new.

Braid is going to be a huge turnoff for a lot of viewers. Not only is it a chaotic sugar rush that pulls the rug from under you so many times that there’s nowhere left to stand, but it’s also deliberately off-putting in its drama & politics. This is a film where one woman grows up to be a dominatrix because of her traumatic childhood, another spends the majority of her screentime dressed like a fetishized schoolgirl, and the third is supposedly driven mad by her own barren womb’s inability to carry child. I personally didn’t find myself getting too hung up on its more #problematic choices, though, mostly because I didn’t have the time. This is an 80 min whirlwind that spins you around until you’re vomitously dizzy and then chases you down the hallway with a knife. It’s an avalanche of pure candy (as long as you appreciate a certain sinister femme sensibility), and my head was swooning with too many pure-sugar pleasures to take notice of anything bitter: Madeleine Brewer in Grey Gardens drag, dollhouse miniatures with their own dollhouse miniatures nested inside, brightly colored silks & lace (sometimes splattered with gore, when necessary), etc. I don’t have much room left in my head for concerns with plot logic or politics when the other wares on display are this sumptuous, so I mostly just can’t wait to see whatever bonkers monstrosity new-comer Mitzi Peiron delivers next.

-Brandon Ledet

Captive State (2019)

I don’t know what the production or distribution history of the mid-budget alien invasion thriller Captive State indicates, but this seems to be a movie that no one really wants. Director Rupert Wyatt’s only major credit is a Planet of the Apes reboot released nearly a decade ago. The film itself feels like it wrapped production so long ago that it missed an opportunity to boost the screentime of single-scene actors who’ve blown up in the years since – Madeline Brewer (Cam) & KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) to be specific. Most damningly, it’s a film that’s near-impossible to market, as it’s an alien invasion thriller that’s more interested in the political machinations of humans surviving under intergalactic rule than it is in exploiting the commercial potential of its creature-feature payoffs. A smarter, artier movie like Arrival can get away with that kind of obfuscation, but cheap nerd-ass sci-fi like this generally needs to be more accommodating to wide audiences in its minute-to-minute payoffs. As a result, both pro-critic reviews and box office numbers have been tepid for this underdog sci-fi pic, which has essentially been orphaned by its marketing & distributor. It’s a shame too, since Captive Sate is actually a solid little sci-fi thriller for anyone with an enthusiastic interest in the alien invasion genre.

The reason I say a little sci-fi nerd cred is required to fully engage with the film is that Captive Sate is much more adept at action set pieces & world-building lore than it is at dialogue or meaningful pathos. Set nearly a decade after first contact with invading alien species, the film is set in a post-apocalypse Chicago that’s politically torn between acceptance & resistance. Few characters are allowed any nuance as the film sketches out the two warring factions: a marshal law surveillance state government (represented mostly through John Goodman as a fascist brute) and an underground resistance aiming to topple it (represented by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders as a low-level street hustler). The movie isn’t especially interested in the emotions or political maneuvers of their personal struggle, though, despite their unlikely social bond that bridges the gap between both sides of the civil war. It’s much more interested in establishing a larger “off-the-grid” future defined by analog equipment like wiretaps, reel to reel recorders, vinyl records, polaroid cameras, in-print newspapers, and carrier pigeons. Nothing typifies this old-world future better than the bird-swarm murmurations of surveillance drones that flutter throughout the city, keeping citizens in line with the threat of facial recognition tech. So much thought went into that establishment of a lived-in world and the political clash & chase scenes staged within it that very little time was left for establishing fleshed-out characters, which is something you just have to be okay with to get on its wavelength,

So what, exactly, is Captive State trying to say with all of this world-building & freshman-year Poli Sci pontification? Its major theme seems to be a contrast between active political resistance & mindless cooperation. Although the roach-like alien beasts (who feel like cousins to the space-bugs of Starship Troopers) are largely off-screen, their presence is felt in the submission & cooperation of a human government that cows to their intergalactic authority. As the film focuses on real-world issues like facial recognition software and exponential wealth disparity over defining the players in that conflict, it does appear to have a “Silence is complicity” ethos when it comes to living under the fascist rule of modern ills like The Trump Administration. It establishes a world where “You must pick a side,” having no patience for the cowardice of political apathy. More practically, the world it establishes is essentially just a playground where it can execute carefully-considered thriller sequences: the surgical body horror of tracking device removal, the heist-planning rhythms of a political assassination, a few spare moments of creature-feature confrontation, endless police chases, etc. I may have a few minor quibbles with its paper-thin characterizations (mainly, how it manages to have immensely talented women like KiKi Layne, Madeline Brewer, and Vera Farmiga on staff, but for some reason affords much more dialogue & screentime to dudes as lowly & uninteresting as Machine Gun Heckin’ Kelly than all of them combined), but I was mostly on board with the picture as a nerd-ass, overly serious sci-fi thriller. It’s just a shame it couldn’t also inspire that enthusiasm in its own distributor.

-Brandon Ledet

Cam (2018)

I’m not sure how useful an endorsement for the technophobic camgirl thriller Cam will be coming from me, but I’ll gladly gush over the film anyway. Between its Unfriended-style user interface horror about the Evils of the Internet and its smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace, the movie is so extremely weighted to things I personally love to see in cinema that my adoration for it was practically predestined. A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam was custom-built to be one of my favorite films of the year just on the strengths of subject matter & visual aesthetics alone. It’s only lagniappe, then, that the film is excellently written, staged, and performed – offering a legitimacy in craft to support my default-mode appreciation of its chosen thematic territory. Even if you’re not a trash-gobbling Luddite like myself who rushes out to see highly-questionable titles like #horror, Friend Request, and Selfie from Hell with unbridled glee, Cam in still very much worth your time as one of the more surprisingly thoughtful, horrifically tense genre films of the year. It’s an exceptionally well-constructed specimen of a still-burgeoning genre I’d love to see evolve further in its direction, a perfect example of how the Internet Age horror could (and should) mutate into a new, beautiful beast.

Madeline Brewer stars as an ambitious camgirl clawing her way up the rankings on her host site, Free Girls Live, by putting special care into the production values of her online strip sessions. The opening minutes of Cam borrow a page from Wes Craven’s Scream, delivering a tightly-constructed short film version of what an effective Unfriended-style camgirl horror movie might look like. After that five-minute horror show meets its natural, nightmarish conclusion, the narrative spirals out from there to detail how the camgirl’s attention-gabbing stripshow stunts put her at risk from anonymous online attackers. In a Body Double-mode De Palma plot matched by no other thriller this year (except maybe Double Lover) and no cyberthriller ever (except maybe Perfect Blue), our camgirl protagonist finds herself locked out of her Free Girls Live account and replaced by an exact, menacing replica of herself who has taken over her show (and, by extension, her digital tip money). The mystery of who or what this doppelganger is and the Kafkaesque battle to reclaim her online identity from it push Cam into the realm of the supernatural, but each of its threats & scares remain firmly rooted in the real-word concerns of online sex work. Much like how Assassination Nation exploited the horrors of private data leaks to expose America’s (already barely concealed) misogyny, Cam does the same with hacked accounts & the vulnerabilities of stripping for cash, whether online or in the flesh.

Co-written by former camgirl Isa Mazzei, and with key sexualized scenes co-directed by Brewer herself, Cam seeks an authentic, collaborative depiction of the anxieties involved in online sex work. Being stalked by clients irl, suffering sex-shaming embarrassments from friends & family, being bombarded with abusive feedback (often in the form of low-grade .gifs) when all you’re offering is companionship & intimacy (for $$$): Cam covers a wide range of industry-specific anxieties that afford its thriller plot a very specific POV. Where that perspective really shines is in the protagonist’s up-font announcement of her don’ts & won’ts (recalling Melanie Griffith’s infamous monologue in Body Double): no public shows, no saying “I love you” to clients, no faked orgasms. Much of Cam’s horror is in watching her online doppelganger systematically violate each one of those ground rules without discretion, eroding the boundaries she had set for herself in the camgirl arena. This is not a cautionary tale about why you should not participate in online sex work, but it does play into anxieties & threats associated with the profession – both external ones form boundary-crossing clients and internal ones in watching those boundaries chip away.

As a cyberthriller about the Evil Internet, Cam excels as an exploitation of our fears of the digital Unknown just as well as any film I’ve ever seen—Unfriended included. The digital grain of the camgirl’s neon-pink broadcast set (a disturbing mixture of infantile stuffed-animals girls’ décor & professional kink gear) combines with an eerie assault of laptop-speaker message notifications to isolate our haunted protagonist in a physical chatroom that feels stuck between two realms – the online & the irl. It’s the most high-femme version of cyber-horror I’ve seen since Nerve (another thriller where an isolated young woman escalates the dangers of her online activity for money & attention), including even the Heathers-riffing vibe of Assassination Nation. Cam’s production design smartly toes the line between believable camgirl production values and a surreal, otherworldly realm where anything is possible. In this dreamy headspace, a hacked account feel like more than just a hacked account; it feels like someone reaching through the screen to steal an essential part of her being, like a digital curse in an Internet Age fairy tale. Part of the fun (and terror) of its central mystery is in knowing the possibilities are endless in that metaphysical realm, although with real-life ramifications echoed in the one we’re living in.

I can’t guarantee you’ll be as deeply smitten with Cam as I am. I’ve been known to praise lesser cyber-horrors like the Snapchat-hosted Blair Witch riff Sickhouse, while also complaining at length about more crowd-pleasing specimens like the cowardly cop-out Searching. The good news is that giving Cam a shot is relatively low-effort & low-risk; it’s a 90min watch acquired by Netflix from the festival circuit for online streaming perpetuity. The next time you’re looking for a lean, lewd, Luddite entertainment, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. In my mind, it’s clearly one of 2018’s most outstanding releases, regardless of my affinity for its genre.

-Brandon Ledet