Guava Island (2019)

The natural impulse when trying to find a proper context for the Donald Glover vanity project Guava Island is to consider it in conversation with recent “visual albums” like Beyoncé’s Lemonade or Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer. While it is billed as “a Childish Gambino film” and features a smattering of songs from Glover’s most recent album under that pseudonym, this isn’t exactly the form-breaking music video experiment we’ve been seeing echoed in the post-Lemonade era. It’s far too loose & laid-back to hold up to that standard. Guava Island is an hour-long, low-key movie musical that only allows its surrealist touches & music video interludes to creep in from the borders of the frame. It’s more narratively focused than its fellow visual albums, but also too casual & relaxed in its narrative to feel too substantial without its occasional breaks for Glover’s music. Guava Island is deliberately minor in some ways as a result, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unpleasant or not worthwhile. The worst you can say about it is that it often feels like a thin excuse to watch beautiful pop stars vacation in Cuba; that’s not such a terrible thing.

An opening narration from Glover’s costar, Rihanna, promises something much more adventurous & detached from reality than what’s ultimately delivered. She establishes the fictional island setting in a magical-realist folktale about the battle between Love & War that has raged since the island’s creation, a storybook monologue illustrated by 2D animation akin to 90s era Disney titles like The Emperor’s New Groove. This tale of The Dueling Truths (love & war) is only faintly echoed in the live-action story that follows – love in the beautiful silks & music that the island creates and war in the evil capitalist shipping company Red Cargo that seeks to commodify those arts. Of course, Donald Glover’s protagonist finds himself at the exact center of this struggle. He seeks to woo Rihanna (along with the rest of the island) with his beautiful music, but the wicked Red Cargo company only wants him to sing jingles promoting their products and encouraging their workers to remain productive. The whole thing culminates in a kind of workers’ uprising in the form of an all-night party that Red Cargo attempts to shut down, so its employees won’t be too tired to be industrious the next day. The stakes can be tragic, but defiance through partying & letting loose is exactly the film’s M.O. throughout.

Formally speaking, Guava Island is a gorgeous wonder. It has the classic shot-on-film look of a 70s arthouse picture (or a well-curated Instagram profile) and is effortlessly charming in its documentation of two charismatic pop stars, barely in character, vacationing in a lush tropical locale. Director Hiro Murai, who has previously collaborated with Glover on career-high achievements like the “This Is America” video & Atlanta, occasionally choreographs its music video sequences as if it were a movie-musical reiteration of arthouse relics like Touki Bouki or Black Orpheus. Glover himself brings a surreal touch to what’s otherwise a romantic hangout film in his writhing dance moves – reinterpreting the Iggy Pop contortions of his “This Is America” choreography in a newly interesting context (and prompting questions of what it would it be like if he were in a Magic Mike sequel now instead of four years ago). The only frustrating thing about the film, then, is that there isn’t more. Rihanna is a joy to watch here but doesn’t sing herself. Glover & Murai hint at a sinister, surrealist tone just under the surface of their dance sequence collaborations, but never fully unleash that impulse. The songs themselves are pleasant, but far more abrupt & spaced out than what you’ll hear in Lemonade or Dirty Computer. In almost every way, Guava Island could be more and could be better with just a little extra effort from each of its collaborators, but that doesn’t mean what’s onscreen isn’t worthwhile as is.

-Brandon Ledet

Belly (1998)

If the main metric of cinematic excellence is in the art of the moving image, it’s a grotesque injustice that legendary music video director Hype Williams was locked out of feature filmmaking after just one attempt, Belly. Just before venturing into the sleek futurism of his iconic music videos for TLC’s “No Scrubs” & the Janet Jackson/Busta Rhymes collaboration “What’s It Gonna Be?,” Williams sets this over-stylized action thriller just one year ahead of its release date, in the far-off distant future of 1999. Belly‘s intense monochromatic neon lighting vaguely recalls the sci-fi standard set by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner, even though the story it serves is more like a late 90s hip-hop version of GoodFellas. As you might expect from a music video auteur, Williams subscribes to the term “style over substance” as a personal mantra rather than a potential criticism. Belly’s visuals are as gorgeous as its dialogue is disposable. Its performances (mostly from musicians like Nas, DMX, T-Boz, and Method Man) and its overall narrative are so oddly constructed that the film practically qualifies as outsider art. However, 20 years later, there’s no one film that can be directly compared to its merits as a visual achievement. Long after the emptiness of the narrative & dialogue fade in your memory, the film still lingers as a sensory spectacle, a gold standard in the art of the moving image. If Williams had been paired with a stronger screenwriter for a second feature, I have no doubt he’d be hailed as one of the great auteurs of our time. His debut’s lousy 13% approval rating on the Tomatometer is entirely undeserved, though, as its ambition far outweighs its means. Belly’s vision of an MTV-minded, near-future crime dystopia is a powerful narcotic; getting hung up on whether it has something meaningful to say is almost beside the point.

Nas & DMX lead the cast as two tough-as-nails gangsters who’ve become incredibly wealthy though incrementally more dangerous crimes, but dream of leaving the game before it’s too late. There’s a nihilism to their wealth-hoarding that they both recognize as unhealthy (though Nas is by far the first to get there), as indicated by the line, “We’re born to motherfuckin’ die, man. In the meantime, get money.” The dialogue & acting are, to be honest, conspicuously amateur, with near-constant voice-over pulling most of the narrative weight. Thematically, the film can also be downright nasty in its function as a macho power fantasy, with gorgeous women dressed in lacy lingerie patiently waiting in sterile McMansions while their men shoot up nightclubs and coerce teen girls into acts of fellatio. The line between what’s supposed to be glamorous and what’s supposed to be grotesque is a grey area in the film, as everything is framed with a loving, stylized cinematic eye. We do know that theft & murder are A-okay in this world, but selling heroin is a bridge too far (a common theme in these kinds of crime narratives). The casual misogyny & homophobia are on much shakier moral ground, as they’re not directly dealt with in the text. Ultimately, the movie does attempt to pull most of its loose, frayed ends together in a few climactic monologues about the black experience in modern America. Reflections on the prison system, the ravages of addiction & gun violence, kids who’ll never make it past the borders of a housing project, and the spiritual promise of returning to Africa recontextualize the violent excess of the preceding 90min in a near-convincing last-minute turnaround. It’s difficult to know what to do with the information, though, since it’s philosophically at odds with the strange music video glamour of the film’s constant violence & macho posturing, but that moral tension is partly what makes Belly such a fascinating work.

It’s there’s any one clear way that Belly was ahead of its time, it’s in how it fulfills a recent push to pay attention to how we light & film black skin. Titles like Girlhood & Moonlight have earned much-deserved praise for acting as a corrective to a standard way of shooting that favored white complexions on the screen, but even they pale in comparison to the way Belly looks. Cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed, who more recently shot the “Formation” video for Beyoncé’s Lemonade project, creates otherworldly, monochromatic spaces lit in impossibly rich blues, reds, pinks, and browns. The way these hues compliment black complexions is never more evident than when the few white characters (i.e. cops conducting drug raids) invade these spaces to interrupt the reverie. Hype Williams pairs this lighting-intense vision with fashion photography-minded production design and a distinct sense of music video cool to establish an insular world that is only ever disrupted by the arrival of the aforementioned white cops. The way gun violence & misogyny also look cool in this in this otherworldly space is troublesome, especially in the opening, strobe-lit sequence where Nas & DMX shoot up a strip club & return to a gaudy McMansion homestead to “lay low.” That sense of danger & moral unease is distinctly build into the film’s charm, though. It’s also somewhat thematically undone in a climactic series of speeches about the plight of modern black America. There’s something oddly off-balanced about the image Belly is presenting and the (unclear) message it ultimately tries to convey, but the way it consistently carves out a thoroughly black, American space ties the whole thing together as a cohesive piece. It’s one of the many ways the film’s visual achievements outweigh its narrative shortcomings.

After the opening strobe-lit club raid, DMX entertains his guests at his gaudy McMansion by projecting Harmony Korine’s Gummo on the living room wall. Puzzled, Nas repeatedly asks variations on the question “What the fuck is that?” It’s an irreverently funny exchange that doesn’t hold much narrative significance, but does establish context of what’s to follow. Like Korine, Hype Williams is a highly skilled outsider artist whose approach to cinema is much more concerned with visual, stylistic provocation than it is with having something cohesive to say. His music video work alone should establish him as one of the great directors of our time, but I still find it shameful that he hasn’t made a second feature film in the 20 years since Belly. Where Korine has been afforded the space to develop his voice as a feature filmmaker in the public eye, Williams came out near fully-formed with a powerful debut, then returned to directing short-form videos. The critical disappointment with Belly may have been a result of the movie being framed as an MTV-era commercial product instead of a werido art piece like Gummo. Don’t be fooled by the inclusion of Kurt Loder & the stacked cast of big name, late 90s rappers. This is the exact kind of shaggy, off-balance visual piece that should be projected on the living room wall after a long night of partying so that your friends can ask in wonder & disgust, “What the fuck is that?”

-Brandon Ledet


Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)




Four films into the Roger Corman-produced “Massacre” collection & I feel like my efforts have finally payed off in a significant way. Sorority House Massacre was a delightfully dreamlike slasher, but it was cheap & derivative in a way that kept it from achieving anything too special. The Slumber Party Massacre was a by-the-numbers genre exercise with brief flashes of feminist-bent satire that were exciting, but mostly lost somewhere in their translation from script to screen. Sorority House Massacre II bridged the two properties, mixing & confusing the plots of the two original features to the point where no sense could be made of their central mythology (which, I assure you, was never intended to be shared). Slumber Party Massacre II, thankfully, brings a sense of purpose & unique charm to the (very loosely connected, if connected at all) Massacre franchise. It’s the first film of the series I’ve seen that felt like something truly special, the exact kind of bonkers midnight monster schlock that’s so mindlessly trashy & gratuitous that it approaches high art.

Courtney, the younger sister of one of the few nubile survivors of the original Slumber Party Massacre, ditches visiting her traumatized sibling in the hospital (“But Mom! It’s my birthday! I don’t wanna go to a mental hospital!”) in order to practice for The Big Dance with her all-girl New Wave garage band an at unsupervised (and unfurnished) condo. Of course, a group of goofball boys crash the party in order to make out & cause mischief. Despite warnings from her sister (who speaks to her through nightmares) to not “go all the way”, Courtney does the deed with the hunkiest of the bonehead beaus anyway, an act that releases a killer sex demon bent on killing everyone in the condo (seriously). Before having sex, Courtney falls into a routine of seeing nightmare images that recall the loopy flashbacks I enjoyed so much in Sorority House Massacre, but pushed to a much goofier extreme (severed hand sandwiches, killer raw chicken, a mutant zit spewing a river of puss, etc.) only to have everything snap back to normal when she calls for help. Her buddy/drummer asks, “Are you on drugs or something?” and Courtney responds with a perfect, gravely serious deadpan, “I wish I was, Sally.” It isn’t until after she has sex that these horrors become “real” & Slumber Party Massacre II devolves into supernatural horror/screwball comedy antics.

Slumber Party Massacre II gets everything right on its approach to slasher-driven mayhem. The origins & specifics of its killer rock n’ roll sex demon are just flat out ignored. All you know, really, is that he kinda looks like Andrew Dice Clay (although I’m sure they were aiming for Elvis) with a Dracula collar on his leather jacket & a gigantic power drill extending from the neck of his electric guitar (or “axe” in 80s speak). He mercilessly disembowels & impales teen victims on his monstrously phallic weapon/musical instrument all while shredding hot licks & doling out generic rock ‘n roll phrases like “This is dedicated to the one I love” & “C’mon baby, light my fire” before each kill. The best part is that this irreverent killer antagonist, although supernatural & unexplained, feels clearly purposeful. He not only plays directly into the slasher genres teen sex = instant death trope in a hilariously exaggerated way, he also stands as a perfect fit for the film’s overall aesthetic of a dirt cheap MTV relic. The film’s nightmare sequences & playful girlishness intentionally mimic/mock cheap music videos (right down to the smoke machine & bare bones sets) so it makes perfect sense that the killer would be a rock video knockoff with a phallic guitar murder weapon. Early in the film the girl band dreams of big success in ambitious statements like “Some day we’re going to be in movies & rock videos & everything,” and “MTV here we come!” What they didn’t expect is that MTV would come to them, wielding a gigantic power drill & an endless abundance of cheesy rock ‘n roll one-liners. All this & the camera taking the POV of a television while the girls watch the sister-Corman production (and flawless masterpiece) Rock ‘N Roll High School & dance around the living room in their undies (or less).

There are isolated moments that made the three Massacre films I had watched prior feel occasionally worthwhile, but Slumber Party Massacre II puts them all to shame. Written & directed by Deborah Brock, Slumber Party Massacre II includes everything recommendable in the earlier films, only pushed to their most exaggerated extremes. Its kills are bloodier. Its self-parody is funnier. Its nudity is more enticing. Its characters & dialogue, although awful, are far from memorable. I even have favorite characters in this film (a power couple of the impossibly attractive/horny Sheila & the perfect cad/Adam DeVine prototype T.J.) when I couldn’t name you a single character in any of the Massacre films I had watched before. So far in this franchise I’ve been championing Sorority House Massacre as a favorite due to its surprisingly strong femininity (for a slasher, anyway) & loopy dream/deja vu imagery. Slumber Party Massacre II outdoes it on both counts. The music video nightmare imagery is far more plentiful/bizarre than anything to be found in Sorority House Massacre & its mock sexiness (although it mimics male masturbation fantasies like pillow fights & car washes for a comical effect; at one point some male lookers-on exclaim “I didn’t know girls really did this stuff!”) is far more playfully feminine in an authentically girly way. It even achieves all this without airlifting its killer from John Carpenter’s Halloween with little to no changes in his backstory the way Sorority House Massacre does, opting instead to bother creating its own monster to terrorize its buxom, half-dressed teens (R.I.P. Sheila). Barring the highly unlikely event that Slumber Party Massacre 3 is an even better turn for the franchise it feels safe to say that this film is the most worth tracking down under the “Massacre” imprint. More importantly, it’s one of the most deliriously fun VHS era slashers I’ve ever seen, within or without the franchise. I highly recommend checking it out no matter how much you care about the “Massacre” films as an enterprise.

– Brandon Ledet