Tully (2018)

Diablo Cody’s work as a screenwriter is a bit of a required taste, as her dialogue often slips into overwritten self-amusement. It’s a tough stylistic choice to accommodate in a real-world drama, something she pulled off very awkwardly in Juno and with expert emotional cruelty in Young Adult. For me, Cody’s writing style is more consistently rewarding when it’s paired with an over-the-top premise that matches its eccentricity. The coming of age body horror genre beats of Jennifer’s Body and the D.I.D. multiple personality showcase of The United States of Tara frame Cody’s dialogue in its proper over-the-top context. The path to success is much easier in those works than in the grounded realism of a Young Adult, which requires more restraint. Cody’s latest project, a return to collaborating with Young Adult actor Charlize Theron & director Jason Reitman, smartly splits the difference between those two approaches. Tully is, in part, a brutally realistic drama about a woman who feels run-down & unacknowledged in the postpartum aftermath of her third childbirth. It’s also a tense fantasy piece swirling with nightmare imagery & reveries about mermaids that allows for Cody’s more batshit impulses to invade the dialogue & narrative without feeling out of place. I suspect that Tully will be as divisive as any of Cody’s other scripts, as its uncompromising dedication to both the recognizably true and the deliriously surreal are likely to leave audiences split between which side they’d wish to see more of. Personally, I found it to be one of her most substantial, rewarding works – one that fully figured out how to incorporate her eccentric artificiality into a real-world subject without feeling excessively awkward.

Tully begins with an idyllic, calm image of Theron’s protagonist playing mother in a sunlit, almost divine interaction with her son. That illusion is immediately disrupted by the harsh reality of an overworked, underpaid woman carrying her third child while wrangling her other two without much help from her eternally aloof husband (Ron Livingston). Her smug, wealthy brother (Mark Duplass, the Ron Livingston of the 2010s) offers to alleviate some of her blatantly apparent stress by hiring a “night nanny” to watch her newborn baby while she sleeps, affording her more stability in her daily routine. At first, this offer appears to be just as judgmental as every other unsolicited slice of advice about what she should be eating during pregnancy, how she should school her kids, and how much effort she’s putting into the upkeep of her home. As the horrors of daily routine mount to the piercing chaos of The Babadook, however, she breaks down and hires the night nanny anyway. A quirky eccentric with a college-age idealism that’s persisted well into her mid-20s, this Manic Pixie Dream Doula (Mackenzie Davis) completely changes the temperature of the home. The mother finally has the assistance she wasn’t getting from her tragically oblivious husband, but more importantly she has someone to acknowledge her and discuss her daily struggles instead of judging her supposed shortcomings as a homemaker. Still, although she seems more put-together on the exterior, she finds herself both jealous of & codependent on the night nanny and increasingly troubled dreams of mermaids & car crashes invade her more grounded thought patterns. The night nanny quick-fix is a life-saving miracle that completely shifts the reality of her daily routine, but it’s an Edenic dynamic that can only last for so long before the impossible obligations of modern motherhood come crashing back into the frame full-force.

Written after the birth of her own third child, Tully feels like a very personal project for Diablo Cody, who fills a somewhat delirious character study with plenty real-world detail. The way wealth determines quality of child care, the way fathers conveniently bumble their way past alleviating mothers’ daily responsibilities, and the horrifying tension built through a newborn baby’s incessant screams all feel like knowledgeable, lived experience. Cody’s overwritten dialogue tics are still present throughout, like in the mother’s description of the night nanny being like “a book of fun facts for unpopular 4th graders” or the nanny describing herself being “like Saudi Arabia” because she has “an excess of energy.” There’s also an extensive shout-out to the cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains awkwardly shoehorned into the film, exactly the way Kimya Dawson was clumsily forced into Juno’s DNA. For some audiences, Cody’s idiosyncratically overwritten style will always be a tough hurdle to clear. Her work requires a little bit of giving-in & good faith on the viewer’s end, but I personally find it to be very much worth the effort. Tully is deeply rewarding as a tense, darkly comic fantasy piece about the routine, real-life horrors of motherhood. It finds a great, delirious headspace that allows Cody’s stranger impulses to feel right at home with its more grounded character study of a woman frayed at the edges by an unfair, impossible collection of daily obligations. From the first appearance of an angelic mermaid disrupting the film’s realistic domestic drama you should be able to tell if you’re going to be onboard with the bizarre balance the film attempts to maintain between the surreal and the all-too-real. If you can accept what Cody’s doing on her own loopy terms, though, you might just find her results uniquely fascinating, even if inconsistent.

-Brandon Ledet

Duck Butter (2018)

One of my favorite kinds of onscreen stories are ones where characters feel compelled to remain in a cramped, increasingly violent social environment that’s obviously toxic from the start. It’s a narrative device I’ve previously defined as “The Party Out of Bounds” and it’s one that leaves a lot of room for variation in the reasons why its menacing parties never end. The cause of characters lingering in vicious environments can be practical (It’s a Disaster, The Invitation), supernatural (The Exterminating Angel, mother!, High-Rise), or just emotionally masochistic (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Bigger Splash). Rarely do the films focus on the compulsion itself though, choosing instead to explore the consequences of the tension it generates. The recent indie comedy/romantic drama Duck Butter subverts that genre expectation by constructing a toxic social scenario where characters feel compelled to dwell long after the vibe sours, then questioning the source of that compulsion & what it indicates about the characters’ emotional lives & the nature of romance at large. It also pairs quiet, awkward comedy with intimately explicit sex, making the audience feel trapped right in the room with its troubled co-leads.

Alia Shawkat (who co-wrote the film with director Miguel Arteta) stars as a prickly, Alia Shawkat-like actor struggling to find her place on the indie cinema scene. After crashing & burning on an improv-heavy film shoot with Mark & Jay Duplass (who produced this film, naturally), she turns to a woman she recently picked up at a lesbian bar for emotional support, getting more than she bargained for. Her new love interest (Victoria’s Laia Costa) is a maniacal free spirt, the unhinged Dharma to her uptight Greg. In their early hours of infatuation, they enter into an absurd sex pact in an effort to get to better know each other, speeding up wasted months of courtship. The agreement is to have sex once an hour for 24 consecutive hours, something that seems plausible when they first intensely lock eyes. The result is the couple rushing through the entire life cycle of a romantic relationship—from the lustful honeymoon period to meeting parents to decrease in sexual attraction to total emotional meltdown to personal growth at the inevitably sour end. It’s a sweetly funny story, but also a bitterly traumatic one where both characters must confront the basic reasons why their respective romances always end in ruin. Sleep deprivation amplifies both their failings & their admirable qualities and the whole night swirls into a chaotic mess of fart jokes, passionate love, deep personal confessions, and belligerent slogans shouted at the moon.

The conceit of staging an entire romance over an intimate 24-hour exchange is brilliantly simple, since the frayed mental state of staying up all night with a new romantic partner offers the film an interesting character dynamic that can be filmed quickly & cheaply (in true Duplass tradition). Shawkat, Arteta, and Costa attempted to authentically convey that sleep deprived logical looseness by staying up all night themselves, filming the entire 24-hour sex pact sequence on a 27-hour shoot with two rotating crews. The results pay off, informing the film with a loopy kind of desperation that cuts past social niceties to uncover elusive truths & hidden anxieties. That’s the exact quality that drives me to watching a good Party Out of Bounds story in the first place, since the act of lingering in a social environment long after it’s comfortable tends to lead to a spectacular breakdown in basic civility. In Duck Butter, that breakdown calls into question why we linger in a very specific kind of social experience long after it sours: romantic entanglement. The film is enjoyable enough even without that idea at its core, bringing in always-welcome players like Kumail Nanjiani & Mae Whitman for bit parts and gleefully interrupting its intimate sexual exchanges with sophomoric poop jokes, but it’s that rushed, mentally-strained examination of romantic relationships & emotionally masochistic compulsions that makes it a worthwhile experiment.

-Brandon Ledet

Creep (2015)

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threehalfstar

Newcomer Patrick Brice is having one hell of a year. His super uncomfortable black sex comedy The Overnight was the perfect mix of terrifying & hilarious and now his only other feature to date, Creep, has also reached its wide release the same year, revealing that Brice is far from a one-trick pony. If anything, Creep shows that Brice can achieve the same uncomfortable, but darkly funny intimacy of The Overnight with even less resources. Creep is a found footage horror film with an on-screen cast of exactly two: a wonderfully deranged Mark Duplass & Brice himself, who operates the camera & narrates when necessary. There’s no other way to put this, really: Creep is an inspiration. It’s one of those small-scale movies that remind you just how much you can accomplish with two (immensely talented) people & a camera.

Mark Duplass takes on most of the film’s acting burden, playing the titular creep with an alarming sense of dark humor. Duplass’ character is a collection of off-putting details. Behind his awkward smile, haircut, track pants, awkward everything really, it’s obvious from the get go that something is deeply wrong with the man. He claims to be a relapsing cancer survivor who hired Brice’s cameraman to document the last days of his life for his unborn son, but there’s something off about his performance that gradually begins to alarm Brice that he is not what he seems. Despite Duplass’ character’s relentless positivity that requires constant hugs, high fives, and baby talk (or maybe because of that positivity), the film’s title keeps you anticipating the moment the hammer will fall. When will the Creep reveal himself for what he truly is? By the time Duplass is asking his unsuspecting, newfound buddy questions like “Have you ever done anything you’re really ashamed of?” and introducing him to the third character of the film (and the movie’s true star), a werewolf mask named Peach Fuzz, the tension becomes almost unbearable. And then it gets worse.

Creep is not only a found footage film; it’s a found footage film set mostly in the woods, so it’d be understandable if it initially comes across as yet another Blair Witch knock-off, like say the goofy sasquatch movie Exists, but it’s much stranger than that. Just like with the haunted boat nightmare Triangle, Creep doesn’t let its genre or set location define its parameters. It isn’t until the film leaves the woods that you begin to understand just how strange the story Brice is telling truly is. Duplass does an excellent job of anchoring a film that asks a lot of him, and it’s refreshing to see his menacing side from last year’s The One I Love return to the screen, but it’s truly Brice’s triumph that’s the story here. In just two features, the relative unknown has found new ways to subvert intimacy & humor in a way that, well, creeps you out. It’s going to be interesting to see where his career goes in the future with larger casts & bigger budgets, but for now it’s incredible how much he’s been able to accomplish with so few moving parts.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lazarus Effect (2015)

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Sometime in late 2012 I had the unique opportunity to catch the beautifully-filmed fine cuisine documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, (a movie most people have experienced through the power of Netflix) on the big screen. Running late from grabbing a sushi dinner myself, I had to sit in the front row, craning my head to take in the majestic sushi specimens that towered over me. It was an overwhelming experience, one I’m unlikely to ever forget. Never in my wildest imagination would I have assumed that the director, who was present at that screening for a Q&A, would follow up that beautiful film with a drearily cheap sci-fi horror that feels more like a particularly eccentric episode of a CSI type show or a SyFy Original Movie than anything that belongs in a proper theater, but that’s exactly what happened.

The Lazarus Effect is cheap. And ugly. And hopelessly shallow. Its worst quality of all, though, is the level of talent it roped into its murky depths. Not only is Jiro Dreams of Sushi director David Gelb suffering a sophomore slump here, respectable actors Mark Duplass, Donald Glover, Olivia Wilde, and Evan Peters (who had a great turn as Quicksilver last year in X-Men: Days of Future Past) are all dragged down by his misstep. The movie’s dire quality is apparent as early as the opening credits, which play over grotesque medical footage and a staged lab experiment in which a dead dog is revived. It’s a cheap way to fish for a reaction from the audience, flatly showing something horrific & ugly instead of building suspense to it the way a decent horror movie typically would. That approach is a major indication of what’s to come.

Since the movie’s atmosphere never allows tension to build properly, the best chance you have of enjoying The Lazarus Effect is as a camp fest. The basic premise is that a doctor named Frank (-enstein! Get it? Get it?) is experimenting on bringing deceased canines back to life in hopes his techniques will give surgeons more time to operate in life & death medical emergencies. But what if he’s bringing his subjects back from Doggie Hell instead of Doggie Heaven? Indeed, the first revived dog starts to act a little freaky, but that doesn’t stop Dr. Frank from going off the rails & reviving a love one who passes away unexpectedly. When his first human subject rises from the dead, she’s literally a ghost under a sheet, which is a sort of goofy moment. By the time she’s reading minds, abusing her telekinesis, and (the most evil thing of all!) levitating, she’s gone full goof.

The problem with reading the film this way is that it’s rarely silly enough to be laughable. There’s some amusing moments involving the evil dog (who never gets to levitate or read minds himself, unfortunately) & I’m fairly certain this is the only film I’ve ever seen where a vape pen is used as a murder weapon, but for the most part it’s just hopelessly bland. The Lazarus Effect is much more concerned with exploring kiddy pool depth ideas about a scientific mind confronted with spiritual questions he can’t explain logically than it is with entertaining its audience or not looking like a pile of wet garbage. Whether you take the film seriously or try to enjoy it as a goof, there’s just not much there. I keep asking myself how this was made by the same guy who brought the world Jiro Dreams of Sushi and I just can’t come up with anything but the question itself. How? Just how? That’s about the only haunting or even vaguely interesting element at play here.

-Brandon Ledet

Tammy (2014)

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fourstar

Tammy is unmistakably a passion project for actress/comedian Melissa McCarthy. Ever since her career-making turn as a hot mess in Bridesmaids, McCarthy has been unfortunately typecasted as an obnoxious slob, so it seems peculiar that a film she personally developed with her first-time writer/director husband Ben Falcone would again have her fill that role. Instead of feeling like more of the same, however, Tammy feels like the culmination of what McCarthy has been building towards since her long line of hot mess characters began in 2011. Structurally, the film plays like a genre exercise in the vein of a standard road trip/buddy comedy that throws generic plot points at the audience as if they’re somehow still surprising despite their over-familiarity. However, Tammy’s strict genre adherence is a merely a front, a platform for the dark, irreverent working class comedy the film really is at heart.

The character Tammy (nearly every character is known by just their first name here: Pearl, Earl, Lenore, Bobby, etc.) is almost instantly familiar to the audience. As we follow her through an especially shitty day in which she loses a car, a job, and a husband, she not only builds on the personality McCarthy has developed since Bridesmaids, but she also establishes herself as a descendant of a long line of have-vs-have-nots comedic characters. Tammy is like a complicated black comedy cocktail with equal parts Strangers With Candy (sharing Jerri Blank’s near feral human-raccoon nature) , Roseanne (with her disinterest in feigning poise), Observe & Report (in her tendency to obscure her crippling depression with outsized bravado), Tommy Boy (in that she destroys everything she touches, but in an endearing way), and Freddy Got Fingered (in both her irreverence & her interaction with dead animals, though both of those factors are thankfully toned down). It’s a hilariously bitter formula that’s just as delightful as it is depressing. Tammy is an eternal fuckup with no discernible promise in her future, but she’s also refreshingly honest & super friendly. Her nature is best understood in a scene where she’s ineptly robbing a fast food restaurant while making friends & plans to hang out with the employees she holds at gunpoint. No one describes Tammy better than she does herself when she says “A little taste of Tammy and you’re going to come clammering back for more. I’m like a Cheeto; you can’t eat just one.” Her character (and in some ways the movie itself) is the personification of junk food; Tammy is cheap, cheesy, and most likely bad for you, but she’s also potently delectable.

In addition to Tammy’s penchant for finding somber humor in poverty, alcoholism, and depression, it’s also subversive in the way it swaps the traditional gender roles in the road trip & buddy comedies it emulates (the same way The To Do List subverted teen sex farces in 2013). Not only is the titular Tammy not the gender you’d expect in a crude, bumbling buffoon protagonist in this genre, she’s also surrounded by a large cast of hilarious women, with the film’s men taking largely a backseat role. The always-welcome Allison Janney & Kathy Bates both have great turns as Tammy’s uptight mother & boisterous lesbian aunt, respectively, but it’s Susan Sarandon that steals the show as Pearl, Tammy’s alcoholic, pill-addicted fuckup drunk of a grandmother. Even though it’s a story we’ve all seen told before, the film’s most heartfelt moments are when Tammy & Pearl drop the self-righteous posturing and bond as two vulnerable people, like in the scene where Pearl reveals that she was in a sexual relationship with “the wrong” Allman Brother and Tammy confesses that she got fingered by Boz Scaggs (but it’s okay, because “it turns out it wasn’t Boz Scaggs”). The film not only allows its women to misbehave in unconventional ways, it also limits the roles its male characters are allowed to fill. The only two male characters of note are played by Gary Cole, who essentially serves as a drunken bimbo for Pearl to conquer, and Mark Duplass, who plays the central character’s way too attractive & emotionally stable love interest, defined only by the depthless selflessness he offers the world. It’s an exact gender reversal of traditional slapstick farces.

Of course, Tammy is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea (or flavor of Cheeto). In fact, Deadspin named it the worst film of last summer, calling it “an ill-conceived nightmare from the beginning, starting with its star’s basic misunderstanding of what makes her an appealing actress in the first place. (It’s not the pratfalls; it’s the energy and warmth behind them).” I think there’s a lot of genuine warmth & some truly bizarre energy behind Tammy’s character that you can miss if you’re not on the movie’s wavelength (despite the character’s self-explanation that she’s like junk food & her love interest’s constant reassurance that she’s lovably honest & “real”). As with most comedies, your enjoyment is ultimately going to boil down to whether or not you find the film funny. Sure, it has its faults: the heart it tries to grow at its clichéd climax is less than compelling; there is an unfortunate featured inclusion of Macklemore on the soundtrack that will surely date the film; it’s relentlessly dumb & gross, etc. However, those faults are inherent to the genre-framework it operates within. For fans of this brand of subversively dark, lowbrow, working-class farces (from the titles mentioned above to other little-loved features like Brothers Solomon & Dirty Work) Tammy has plenty of charm to spare and a refreshing take on the gender roles established by its predecessors. McCarthy may not be playing to the height of her talents here (she’s an impressive dramatic actress when given the chance), but she has constructed a character and a film that are a welcome addition to a long tradition of surprisingly bitter junk food comedies.

-Brandon Ledet