Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The icy 1940s murder comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the funniest pieces of comedic writing to ever reach the screen. It just also happens to be one of the driest pieces of comedic writing to ever reach the screen, going down like a tall glass of cold sand. The closest the film comes to approaching the over-the-top slapstick antics we’ve come to expect from comedic filmmaking as a medium is a proto-Klumps gimmick in which British stage legend Alec Guinness plays several broad archetype characters of the same family throughout the film – a vaudevillian artform that later made a mint for actors like Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry, and (maybe closer to Guinness’s pedigree) Peter Sellers. Everything else is emotionally distant cruelty and callous bitchiness penned by a serial killer mutation of Oscar Wilde. That’s not a comedic tone that’s going to resonate with every viewer, but when it hits the right target it kills.

Dennis Price stars as the callous son of a disgraced noblewoman in the early 1900s. Bitter that he was raised in poverty because his mother married for love instead of land & title, our fey anti-hero schemes to reclaim his rightful place among landed wealthy gentry. He expedites his path back to this birthright like Jet Li in the nü-metal sci-fi thriller The One: murdering everyone ahead of him in line for his familial inheritance of a proper title. The humor of this selfish, greedy mission is in how these absurdly genteel murders are arranged to look like accidents, while our POV serial killer protagonist treats the deaths like domestic chores. The way he looks for “good” news in the Obituaries section of the paper and treats a diagram of his family tree like a hit list is outrageously cold & distanced. This is the kind of movie where the announcement of a murder investigation is described by the police as “a matter of some delicacy.” It’s also narrated as an after-the-fact epistolary memoir, underlining just how much of the humor is rooted in its post-Wilde writing style.

Alec Guinness does make an impression as the killer’s rotating cast of dipshit wealthy family members, whom the audience perversely want to see dead as well. His most popular collaboration with producer Michael Balcon—The Ladykillers—is a much more traditionally humorous farce, however, where his performance(s) is allowed to be more memorably pronounced. If anything, Guinness’s multiple personae in the doomed family line here only underline the multiple personae Price’s sociopathic killer tries on to gain access to the wealthy spaces his victims occupy. Guinness’s wealthy dolts don’t even turn out to be the killer’s ultimate nemesis; that honor belongs to a childhood “love” who shares his ruthless pursuit of money (just with shrewd choices in marriage partners, not murder).

Maybe the key to loving this movie’s frozen, impossibly dry heart lies in sharing that central vice of money envy – so that you get a perverse thrill from watching a working class fop murder his way into a more . . . comfortable living. More likely, it probably just takes an appreciation for the flippantly cruel way that thirst for wealth is written on the page, as that’s where Kind Hearts and Coronets‘s most exquisite artistry & outrageously funny zingers lie.

-Brandon Ledet

Jawbreaker (1999)

I’m genuinely shocked by how few times I’ve seen the 1999 high school murder comedy Jawbreaker compared to other films in its same wheelhouse. This is far from the pinnacle of the post-Heathers teen girl cruelty satire, but I’m still close enough to dead center in its target demographic that it should have been a teen-years favorite for me. Was it merely the happenstance that Drop Dead Gorgeous was the murderous-teen-girls high school comedy that found its way onto Blockbuster’s used VHS liquidation tables at the right moment that made that one a go-to standard for me instead? Both films are deeply flawed for sure, but I could never tell exactly why one was a beloved favorite that I looped into dust while the other was a film that I occasionally ran across here or there. In retrospect, I think it’s mostly because the appeal of Drop Dead Gorgeous is instantly recognizable; the low-key absurdism of its femmed-up Christopher Guest mockumentary schtick strikes a somewhat familiar tone, no matter how ill-behaved its amorality can be from gag to gag. The specificity of Jawbreaker’s appeal was a little more obscured & difficult to pin down for me, but it finally clicked on my most recent rewatch (only my second or third experience with the film, somehow): it’s Gay.

More specifically, Jawbreaker is perversely funny for having teenage high school girls deliver dialogue obviously written by adult gay men. Judging by writer-director Darren Stein’s work on explicitly gay projects like the queer screwball high school comedy G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend) and the drag queen horror comedy All About Evil, he knew exactly what he was doing here. The dissonance of Jawbreaker is that the Teen Girl actors tasked to deliver his Gay Man dialogue don’t know what they’re communicating at all; it’s as if they’re phonetically speaking a foreign language for the very first time. The result is a bizarre comedy that is paradoxically both over-written and under-performed, which makes it exceedingly difficult to connect with if you aren’t aware of the reason for that disconnect. Once you realize the film is basically the preemptive drag parody of itself, however, everything clicks into place. It becomes clear why all the girls are breathlessly horny for each other, why they use the word “kink” every other sentence, why they emphasize the pet names “Honey” and “Bitch” with such withering sass, and why the film’s only genuine sex scene revolves around a jock hunk fellating a popsicle. It’s Gay™.

One thing both Jawbreaker and Drop Dead Gorgeous get exactly right about the post-Heathers mean-girl high school comedy template is the callous cruelty, something not all its descendants have the stomach to commit to. In this case, Stein specifically zeroed in on the Corn Nuts gag from the iconic Daniel Waters screenplay, a sequence in which a beloved prom queen chokes to death in a prank gone horribly wrong. In Jawbreaker, the most popular girl in school is “kidnapped” by her friends as a prank for her 17th birthday, gagged with the titular candy to muffle her screams of protest. When she chokes to death on the giant ball of sugar in the trunk of their car, they decide to restage her death as a rape & murder case at the hands of a stranger, and their lies eventually overwhelm them in a haphazard cover-up. This mostly manifests in them bribing the school’s most reclusive werido nerd (played by Judy Greer, somewhere under a pile of oversized wigs & sweaters) with a hot-girl makeover. They help her navigate being on top of the clique culture food chain that once buried her (pointing out such adorable social distinctions as The Karen Carpenter Table in the cafeteria) while also coaching her in how to lie to the homicide detective who investigates their friend’s death (Pam Grier, forever a badass). Unbeknownst to anyone involved, they also teach her the ways of Adult Gay Man sass & slang in exchanges like “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” “No, honey, you’re the bitch.” Did I mention that this film is Gay?

Besides its post-Heathers cruelty and its preemptive drag parody humor, Jawbreaker is most enjoyable for its bubblegum pop art aesthetic. It’s a film that’s firmly rooted in a 90s high school comedy patina (after all, it’s one of two 1999 films in which The Donnas play the climactic prom), but its candy-coated surface also has a distinctive retro appeal to it. In that way, I’d almost more readily recommend it to fans of the Sexy Archie update Riverdale than to anyone looking for more of a Drop Dead Gorgeous sensibility. If nothing else, Rose McGowan exudes some real Cheryl Blossom energy in her role as the school’s queen bee, and the cheekily named Reagan High setting shares an R letterman patch with the classic Riverdale uniform. Sometimes this heightened rot-your-teeth pop aesthetic shines beautifully, like in several surreal sequences where the titular jawbreaker makes its way through a giallo-lit candy factory or rotates in the air like a planetary orb. Sometimes it falls embarrassingly flat, as in the obnoxious screen-wipes that frequently interrupt the dialogue or the visible boom mic that dips into the cafeteria tour. Either way, the film shares the clueless-teens-delivering-Adult-Gay-Man-dialogue dissonance that also makes Riverdale weirdly enjoyable, which manifests here in strange touches like the casting of legends like P.J. Soles & Carol Kane or in throwaway references to Barbara Streisand’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” for no reason in particular. It’s disorienting, but it helps distinguish Jawbreaker as having a distinct flavor within the post-Heathers teen cruelty pantheon. I still don’t love it as much as Drop Dead Gorgeous, but I at least now clearly recognize its appeal as The Gay One in its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Casting JonBenét (2017)

Watching​ the highly stylized, editorial-free documentaries The Act of Killing & Room 237 a few years ago felt like witnessing the dawn if a new era in the medium. Instead of following traditional models that pack documentaries with talking heads interviews & Wikipedia-in-motion historical summation, Oppenheimer & Ascher’s films simply record oral history-style input from their subjects, free of judgement, and match the false memories, conspiracy theories, and outright fantasies of those interviews with striking cinematic imagery. I’ve only seen the impact of those two seminal works echoed in a few projects since – including the recent docs Beware the Slenderman & Swagger and Ascher’s own The Nightmare – but I still feel that their influence can only grow exponentially from there. The Netflix-distributed documentary Casting JonBenét is a clear addition to this new post-modernist documentary landscape. Instead of a typical true crime documentation of the mysterious disappearance and murder of the six year old beauty pageant contestant JonBenét Ramsey in the 1990s, the film exists as an abstracted art piece & loose collection of conspiracy theories surrounding the case. Its humor is uncomfortable. Its dedication to a style over substance ethos may seem immediately at odds with a documentary’s function of capturing “the truth.” Yet, the film’s loose collection of unsubstantiated claims & theories surrounding the Ramsey murder case seemingly reveals much more perception & impact on its immediate community & the hive mind at large than a straightforward, Dateline NBC-style documentary on the subject ever could.

Like The Act of Killing, Casting JonBenét builds its narrative around an insular community re-enacting a past atrocity from its own history. Colorado area actors & pageant competitors audition for key roles in a fictional feature film about the JonBenét Ramsey murder case: the police, the parents, JonBenét herself, etc. Some of the people auditioning personally knew the Ramseys at the time of the murder, some happened to live nearby, and some are only familiar with the case by way of national headlines & supermarket tabloids. Everyone has a take on what happened to JonBenét, however, and the movie blends reality with speculation by recording each & every theory they give voice to between audition takes of reading actual Ramsey dialogue from press conferences & police records. The interviewees documented here will both lay extremely judgemental criticism on the Ramseys’ parenting style (even supposing that they killed their own daughter because she frequently wet her bed) and claim the only reason the mother was considered a prime suspect was because of sexist scrutiny. Wild conspiracy theories about child porn rings and child beauty pageant prostitution are discussed in hushed tones. Claims that JonBenét’s nine year old brother may have killed her are harshly juxtaposed with actual nine year old boys simply being children. The overall result is oddly humanizing. The Ramseys, guilty or not, were ultimately ordinary people, as real and mundane as the actors who dress like them for this film’s interviews. National news coverage has a way of abstracting that truth, but it hits with full impact here while young girls dressed like JonBenét giggle & eat cookies between auditioning their terrified screams. There’s no actual photographs or footage of the real life Ramseys to be found in Casting JonBenét and the more I watched different interpretations of their press conferences mimicked & picked apart by various actors the more I realized I no longer have any idea what they actually looked like. The overall effect of that abstraction both points to how dehumanizing the court of public opinion is and questions how that kind of national curiosity & speculation could ever lead the public closer to the truth of what happened to JonBenét.

The most immediately striking aspects of Casting JonBenét are its gleefully inappropriate humor and its dreamlike imagery. Because it documents the wild conspiracy theories of so many Colorado weirdos the film often plays like a Toddlers & Tiaras-inspired riff on mockumentaries like Drop Dead Gorgeous and Waiting for Guffman. The film heavily leans into that flippantly​ comedic tone too, mixing one of the actors auditioning to play a sheriff discussing the details of his work as a dom in the BDSM community with the murder case speculations of his fellow interviewees. Besides Casting JonBenét‘s general humor in blankly voicing the outlandish conspiracy theories of anyone who wants to talk for the camera, the film also interrupts questions of whether a nine year old boy could crush a six year old girl’s head with footage of actual nine year olds splitting open watermelons with a heavy flashlight. The absurdist humor of that moment immediately dives into traumatic horror once it registers exactly what the melon represents, which is indicative of how the film’s comedic tone works overall. The film’s nightmarish, almost Lynchian imagery also takes a while to fully register and doesn’t reach its full crescendo until the concluding ten minutes, a The Red Shoes-style centerpiece that retroactively brings the documentary’s entire vision into intense focus. Absolutely insane shots of multiple Ramseys impersonators dressed alike and simultaneously populating the same sound stage recreation of JonBenét’s real life house setting not only allows for the film’s myriad of theories of what happened on the night of her murder to overlap & self-contradict; it also frankly just looks cool. There’s an open admission to the public’s morbid fascination with real life murder mystery at the heart of the film’s lyrical style over substance climax that both feels incredibly honest & oddly revelatory for a film that plays fast & loose with “facts.”

Early in Casting JonBenét, a young girl auditioning to play the titular victim in the documented fictional film about her real life murder directly asks her interviewer (and the camera), “Do you know who killed JonBenét Ramsey?” I’m not convinced that anyone truly does and if this documentary does anything exceptionally well it’s in exposing the slippery, intangible nature of that truth. The curiosity & slight terror in the young girl’s eyes as she asks that question, dressed like JonBenét herself, is also both chilling & easy to relate to. For all of Casting JonBenét‘s bells & whistles as a post-modernist work that bucks the rigidity of documenting the truth by deliberately blending reality with pure speculation, it’s an ultimately humanizing work. The film indulges plenty of transgressive humor & style over substance imagery, but it also democratizes the visage of the Ramseys in a way that reclaims their personas from public curiosity to once again become everyday people. That’s especially important for JonBenét in particular and I greatly admire the way the film contextualizes her as a real life little girl again, among its other more immediate surface pleasures.

-Brandon Ledet

Silent Running (1972)

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fourstar

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The 1972 Bruce Dern sci-fi epic Silent Running offers an interesting moral litmus test for its viewers. Depending on how you see the film it can either play like an environmentalist screed against the evils of modern Capitalism (think Ferngully set in space) or a chilling tale of crazy-eyed hippie who gets so entrenched in his ideology that he’ll murder any humans necessary to save a few trees. Either way, it’s a strange little film loaded with the kind of production detail that sci-fi cinema nerds crave in their media, the kind that only improves as it becomes more outdated. Directed by a special effects supervisor who worked on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running‘s intricate space ship models & star-filled backdrops are exceptional for a modest pre-Star Wars production. It avoids the swashbuckling-in-space thrills of George Lucas’s future game-changing franchise, however, so that it can focus on its murderous hippie philosophical dilemmas. Once Dern’s long-haired, bleeding heart astronaut murders his entire crew to Save the Forest in the film’s first act, Silent Running proves to be something of a hangout movie, just a calm drift in a vacuum enjoyed by a lonely environmentalist soul, his forest full of wild animal pets, and a few stray robot “drones.” Pesky humanity taken out of the equation, the film finds a sense of peace. The question is where you’ll land on how that peace is achieved.

The film opens on close-ups of delicate animals in a natural habitat: frogs, turtles, snails, hawks, Bruce Dern. This Garden of Eden is soon revealed to be an artificial biodome (for lack of a better term) on a near-nude American Airlines space freighter in outer space. The status quo on this spaceship & the post-apocalyptic Earth they left behind is that Nature was a fixture of the past, not something worth worrying about now that everything worthwhile can be automated & manufactured. As Dern’s resentful hippie tends his space garden, the universe’s last hope for genuine plant life, his shithead co-workers casually cause havoc, running space age go-carts over his flower beds & maliciously smashing his self-grown cantelopes as a means of joshing him. He’s already a bit unhinged at this point, prone to ranting maniacally about how his fellow astronauts are poisoning their bodies with synthesized foods & how a world without Nature is a world without beauty. It’s when the crew’s ordered to abandon their project, nuke the biodomes, and return home that our hero/villain snaps and murders his entire crew. He feels occasional remorse for his actions once the cabin fever/space madness sets in, but mostly he just chills with his dinky robot pals in his pristine space garden and enjoys a peaceful life without his fellow man mucking up his ethereal hippie paradise. The only crisis that arises is when a “rescue mission” arrives to pluck him from isolation in the abandoned freighter and he must choose whether to rejoin humanity to pay for his crimes or to nuke himself into oblivion along with anyone who dares threaten his beloved plant life.

Whether or not you’re interested in the crazed hippie moral dilemma at the center of Silent Running, the film is interesting enough in its production details alone to deserve a look. Besides the obvious care that went into constructing the space freighter models which float by in endless lingering shots of outer space majesty, the dinky drone bots Dern’s savior/killer hangs out with are a strange practical effects novelty. Operated by bilateral amputees walking on their hands in seemingly heavy robot shells, they’re cute little pre-R2D2 buggers with plenty of unwarranted AI personality useful for keeping their crazed killer master some company. They’re also notably the only actors in the film who aren’t all white men, not that you ever get to see them onscreen. I should also mention that, in true hippie fashion, Silent Running features original songs by Joan Baez, who serenades the audience with poetic lines like, “Tell them it’s not to late, cultivate one by one. Tell them to harvest in the Sun” along with some proto-Jill Stein raps about the feeling of earth between your toes. I think there’s some distinct camp value to the way the film succinctly simplifies the cause to Save the Forest by making the forest a small, manageable space that can be saved by murdering a few careless capitalists. Whether you’re a no-bridge-is-too-far hippie activist, someone who’s terrified to death of those activists, or just a sci-fi nerd who enjoy looking at toy spaceships & hand-built robots, Silent Running has plenty to offer in terms of pure entertainment. Whether you see it as a horror film or an inspiring message of hope relies entirely on you.

-Brandon Ledet

Small Sacrifices (1989)

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three star

In 80s cinema, Farrah Fawcett was best known for her performances as revenge-hungry victims in films such as The Burning Bed and Extremities. However, in the made-for-TV biopic, Small Sacrifices, Fawcett transforms from a victim to a straight-up killer by taking on the role of the infamous Diane Downs. In the early 80s, Downs made headlines after being accused of shooting her 3 children in the backseat of her car. A few years after the incident in 1988, true crime writer Anne Rule published Small Sacrifices, which (obviously) the movie was heavily based on. The film has definitely made its share of appearances on the Lifetime channel throughout the years, so it’s easy for it to blend in with all the other made-for-TV dramas. The only thing that really sets it apart from the rest is Fawcett’s phenomenal performance. She’s really good a playing a bad mom. As horrible as that may sound, I mean it in the best way possible.

With her fluffy blonde hair, cute Southern accent, and all-American smile, Fawcett perfected the innocent image of Downs. How could this sweet single mother of 3 kill her children? Well, she was disturbingly obsessed with a married man (and fellow postal worker) Lew Lewiston, and during one of their rendezvous, he mentioned to her that he was not interested in having children. Interestingly, Ryan O’Neal played the role of Lew, and at the time, he and Fawcett were in an iconic relationship. Lew ended his relationship with Downs to go back to his wife, but Downs wasn’t having it. She completely lost her mind and took her children on a late night car ride, and while Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” was blaring in the background, she shot them all. Of course, she created an elaborate story about being attacked by a stranger that was hanging out on the deserted road, but she really sucked at keeping her story straight. Little by little, she transformed from being a grieving mother to a terrifying psychopath. I can’t even imagine how difficult it was to portray someone so mentally unstable, but Fawcett nailed it. She was so good that I had a difficult time separating her from her character, and that’s not something I come across very often.

Lifetime junkies, true crime lovers, and everyone in between, Small Sacrifices is an absolute must-see. The movie is about 3 hours long, so be prepared to spend a good bit of time with this one.

-Britnee Lombas