The Evolution of The Lonely Island Sports Movie

It’s been three years since The Lonely Island (Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, and Andy Samberg) released their latest commercial-bomb-turned-cult–classic, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and that 2010s update to Walk Hard pop music biopic parody finally has its follow-up. While Popstar mocked the modern “concert documentaries” (read: feature length infomercials) of acts like Justin Bieber & One Direction as an excuse to stage ZAZ-style gags & The Lonely Island’s classic music video sketches, the group’s latest release adopts an even flimsier format to do the same: the visual album. Self-described as “a visual poem” and surprise-dropped on Netflix in a Beyoncé-evoking distribution strategy, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is pure Lonely Island goofballery. It’s difficult to tell if its visual album format is meant to be a joke at the expense of hubristic projects like Lemonade & Dirty Computer or more of a self-deprecating joke at the expense of The Lonely Island themselves for even attempting to pull off such a loftily minded project in the first place. Either way, its’ a brilliant move that not only updates their cinematic sensibilities to a more modern version of pop music media, but also removes two barriers that tend to stand in the way of what makes them so enjoyable to watch: the necessity of a plot to justify a feature-length film & the necessity of box office success to pay their producers’ bills. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience isn’t as successful or as substantial of a work as Popstar, but it is one that further suggests that these very silly boys have finally reached a new sense of ambition & efficiency in their craft. It’s also an accomplishment that they’ve been building towards for years, if you consider the earlier, more restrained sports mockumentaries of their past as trial runs.

Appropriately enough, The Lonely Island’s cinematic career started with a feature-length sports narrative. While still producing Digital Shorts for SNL, the trio of pop music parodists delivered their first delightful box office bomb with 2007’s Hot Rod. While not quite as formally daring or riotously funny as Popstar (or even Jorma Taccone’s other SNL-era feature, MacGruber, for that matter), Hot Rod is still pretty damn hilarious from start to finish. It was the first instance when I can recall genuinely enjoying Andy Samberg beyond his usefulness as someone who makes Joanna Newsom laugh. Playing an overgrown man-child who wants to be a daredevil just like his deceased father, Samberg’s general mode in Hot Rod is slapstick comedy and it’s classically funny on a Three Stooges level as a result. Often missing jumps on his dirtbike & puking from the pain, Samberg’s titular Rod is far from the Evel Knievel Jr. he imagines himself to be. There’s a lot of solid humor derived from the disparity between Rod’s confidence & his actual abilities, which allows you to have a good laugh at his expense even when he drowns, catches fire, or explodes. That’s an interesting subversion of the traditional underdog sports story, but it’s still one that plays its comedic beats relatively safely. The premise is mostly grounded in reality yet is careful not to resemble any real-life public figures too closely (not even Knievel). Its structure remains true to the traditional sports movie narrative too, even if its greatest strengths rely on long strings of non-sequitur gags. For instance, most of the film boasts a killer 80s synthpop soundtrack, but towards the climax when Rod’s crew has their inevitable third-act falling-out, the score suddenly switches to melodramatic string arrangements – effectively poking fun at its own necessity to transform into A Real Movie at the last minute. With more filmmaking experience under their belts & more celebrity star power backing up their audacity, their sports movies parodies only strengthened from there.

At this point in The Lonely Island’s career timeline, Hot Rod’s timid SNL Movie comedy template feels more like a one-off anomaly than an early wind-up for what Bash Brothers delivers. If anything, Bash Brothers feel like it’s the final film in a trilogy of sports parodies that Lonely Island initially produced for HBO, mostly as a creative outlet for Samberg. At a half-hour a piece, Samberg’s sports mockumentaries Tour de Pharmacy (2017) & 7 Days in Hell (2015) are the earliest telegraphs of where the Lonely Island crew would eventually go with Bash Brothers. Respectively tackling the real-life sports world controversies of doping in cycling & angry outbursts in tennis, Tour de Pharmacy & 7 Days in Hell fearlessly make fun of some of the biggest scandals in sports history (short of the O.J. Simpson murder trial) in violent jabs of ZAZ-style chaos. What’s most amazing about them is that they invite the real-life sports celebrities involved in those scandals to participate in their own mockery. John McEnroe drops by 7 Days in Hell to poke fun at a fictional “bad boy of tennis” (played by Samberg, naturally) whose antics with sex, drugs, and physical violence result in a deadly Wimbledon match that drags on for a solid week, disrupting & disgracing a once-reputable sport. Serena Williams also pops by as a talking head, even through the media’s policing of her own supposed emotional outbursts is much more unreasonable than McEnroe’s. In Tour de Pharmacy, Lance Armstrong talks at length about how every single cyclist who competes in the Tour de France is aided by illegal substances, directly recalling his own downfall in a very public doping scandal. Wrestler-turned-comedian John Cena also appears as a steroids-enraged monster in the film, tangentially poking fun at the WWE’s own history with performance-enhancing drugs. Of course, both projects are still packed with the juvenile non-sequiturs & physical comedy gags that have been constant to Samberg’s sense of humor, now emboldened to be more sexually explicit than ever before thanks to the freedom of HBO – resulting in bisexual orgies, unconventional prostate stimulation, and characters high-fiving during cunnilingus. It’s the bravery of connecting those very silly gags to very real publicity crises for sports figures who are participating along with the creators that feels new & mildly transgressive.

As daring as it may be to trivialize real-life sports controversies in such a flippantly silly way, those two HBO productions still feel somewhat formally restricted. It wasn’t until Samberg rejoined with Schaffer & Taccone post-Popstar that his sports cinema mockery really hit is pinnacle, just a few weeks ago. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience makes full use of all The Lonely Island’s best cinematic qualities: the music video sketch comedy of their SNL days, the rise-and-fall (and fall and fall) sports narrative of Hot Rod, the gross-out sex gags of MacGruber, the shameless evisceration of real-life sports scandals from Sandberg’s HBO mockumentaries and, finally, the chaotic disregard for traditional structure of Popstar. The Netflix-hosted half-hour comedy special wastes no time mocking the steroids abuse scandal that plagued the 1989 World Series run of the real-life “Bash Brothers,” Mark McGuire & Jose Conseco. The very first verse Samberg raps in this “visual poem” (read: loose collection of music videos) references steroids abuse, a theme that’s reinforced over & over again in the group’s usual 80s-era Beastie Boys cadence with lines like “I never finish sex because I’m so juiced out” and “Stab the needle in my ass until I am rich.” The genius of adapting this mockery to a visual album medium is that is allows the boys to go full-goof 100% of the time, packing in as many music video sketches as they please, unburdened by the necessity of a coherent plot. As funny as Samberg’s HBO specials were, they’re still fairly grounded mockumentaries that parody the tones & structure of many HBO Films productions of the past. Hot Rod is even more beholden to classic cinematic templates, falling well within the boundaries of a typical SNL movie even if its individual gags are specific to The Lonely Island’s sensibilities. While Bash Brothers can easily be seen as a swipe at the hubris of the visual album format, it ultimately just proves the point that it’s a genius, unrestrained medium that brings out the best #purecinema potential of any popstar who dares to utilize it – even incredibly silly parodists with a fetish for traditional sports narratives.

The Unauthorized Bash Bothers Experience feels like an epiphanic moment within The Lonely Island’s cinematic output, a culminating achievement in the sports movie template that they’ve been trying to crack open for more than a decade now. Of course, I wish that feature-length comedies like Popstar & MacGruber were more successful as theatrical gambles, but I am glad that these very silly boys have finally found a more viable niche for their sports movie parodies. I’m also glad to see these comedy nerds continue to take the piss out of our deeply flawed sports gods of yesteryear – an achievement that’s only make doubly fascinating by those gods’ participatory amusement in their own mockery.

-Brandon Ledet

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

Contemporary art galleries are some of my favorite places in the world. The shiny white floors and tall white walls sparsely decorated with bizarre, thought-provoking pieces make me feel like I’m trapped in a glorious nightmare. Dan Gilroy explores this mix of art and horror in his most recent Netflix film, Velvet Buzzsaw. It’s mysterious, stylish, and oh so very gory.

I have yet to see Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, but I’m well aware Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in the film was well received. I haven’t seen many Gyllenhaal  films, so I never really had an opinion about him. I always thought he was just okay, far from being a noteworthy actor. His performance in Velvet Buzzsaw has completely changed the way I feel about him. I never thought I would say this, but I’m officially a Jake Gyllenhaal fan! His character in the film, Morf Vandewalt, is a pretentious art critic who is extremely influential in the art world. How Gyllenhaal was able to make me fall in love with such an unlikeable character is beyond me.

In the beginning of the film, Morf leaves his boyfriend and develops a sexual relationship with his colleague, Josephina (Zawe Ashton). There aren’t nearly as many bisexual characters in cinema as there should be, so this was just another reason for me to appreciate Morf. Josephina works under Rhonda (Rene Russo), a well-known, tough-as-nails art dealer who was once a member of a punk band named Velvet Buzzsaw (the origin of the film’s title). Josephina is sweet and probably the most down-to-Earth out of the bunch, but that all starts to change when she uncovers the massive personal art collection of her deceased mysterious elderly neighbor. Josephina claims the paintings, and after she brings them to the attention of her fellow art associates, the paintings take the art world by storm. When anyone looks at the paintings, they look like they saw Jesus Christ in the flesh. It’s obvious there’s something magical about these paintings, but once those who come in contact with them begin to die in mysterious ways, the paintings go from being magical to pure evil.

Velvet Buzzsaw effortlessly balances being a satire of the highbrow art world while also being a blood-soaked slasher. The star-studded cast (including fabulous appearances by my all-time favorite actress, Toni Collette) work their magic by giving fabulous performances without allowing the film to lose its funky underground vibes. This is one of the best horror films to come out so far this year,  so 2019 is definitely off to a good start.

-Britnee Lombas

High Flying Bird (2019)

Ever since we covered his low-fi cerebral freak-out Schizopolis as a Movie of the Month, I’ve become a dutiful fan of Stephen Soderbergh. His latest post-“retirement” phase of low-key crowdpleasers that pack a vicious anti-capitalist political punch just below the surface are of particular interest to me, making recent titles like Magic Mike, Logan Lucky, and Unsane can’t-miss appointment viewing. It says a lot about how far outside my usual thematic wheelhouse High Flying Bird is then, that it took me several weeks to catch Soderbergh’s latest even though it was readily available on Netflix. A backroom business drama about a power-struggle between pro basketball players & the NBA (or at least its fictionalized equivalent), High Flying Bird is ostensibly the exact kind of “inside-baseball” sports movie I’d generally have zero interest in if someone’s name like Soderbergh’s weren’t attached. Of course, Soderbergh only uses the pretense of the pro sports drama as an excuse to explore leftist financial politics in what the movie would describe as “the game played behind the game,” as well as staging meta-narrative about his own career in filmmaking. I just didn’t personally connect with the film as much as I might have if it were instead about, say, rowdy strippers or a crazed stalker.

From a Soderberghian experiment standpoint, perhaps the most impressive feat High Flying Bird pulls off is in reflecting the director’s own career within the movie industry without at all sacrificing the voice or politics of its screenwriter Tarel Alvin McCraney (best known of penning the stage play source material for Moonlight). The dense, rapid-fire dialogue that pummels the audience throughout the film doesn’t feel too deviant from the slick-talking hucksters from Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series, but the themes discussed in those exchanges are, to be blunt, more conspicuously black than anything the director has ever handled before. As André Holland (also from Moonlight) travels from boardroom to sauna to gymnasium instigating an Ocean’s-type heist behind the backs of the mostly white (and mostly off-screen) businessmen of the NBA, he almost exclusively interacts with fellow black power-players: Bill Duke, Sonja Sohn, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, etc. The same thematic territory of the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams is elevated from college recruitment to the pro sports level, as the film tiptoes around equating its racially-caged labor dispute between NBA players & team owners to a continued form of American slavery. High Flying Bird deftly talks about race & labor without officially talking about either in explicit terms, a sly trick played by McCraney that I’m honestly a little too dimwitted to fully appreciate or even comprehend.

For any other white filmmaker I could imagine, this business of using an explicitly black story of labor relations with wealthy, white higher-ups to discuss the director’s own career in the movie industry would be disastrous. Soderbergh somehow pulls it off, though, mostly by staying out of the way of McCraney’s words and taking the backroom political drama at the film’s core deadly seriously on its own face-value terms. The most you notice Soderbergh’s presence throughout the film is in the showy digi-cinematography of his iPhone camera equipment. Shifting away from the ugly smartphone photography of Unsane to achieve a colder, HD security camera aesthetic of wide angles & oscillating pans, High Flying Bird again finds Soderbergh playing with his toys – finding new joy in the basic, evolving (devolving?) tools of filmmaking the way he has his entire career. No one shoots corporate, office-lit spaces quite like him, a sickly aesthetic that mutates slightly here though the omnipresence of HD TVs running sports news coverage 24/7 in the background of every interior setting. It isn’t until Holland’s protagonist starts negotiating deals with streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Facebook to circumvent the NBA’s usual broadcast distribution profits in the third act that the parallels between the labor struggle in the film and the director’s own fights to finance his art within a cruelly changing studio system become unignorably apparent. Still, Soderbergh is smart enough to keep those parallels extratextual and to allow the racial politics of McCraney’s screenplay to work on their own terms. Any more emphasis on the connection between those conflicts would’ve at best been an embarrassment, but it’s interesting enough in isolation as is without overpowering the story being told.

Ultimately, High Flying Bird is a smart, well-made movie that I enjoyed watching, but I feel like it was made for an entirely different audience than me. Any film nerds out there with a political or philosphical interest in the world of pro sports are likely to get much more out of the film than I ever could. As a Soderbergh fan, it was fun to see the director continue his pet interests of labor politics, smartphone cinematography, and offhand references to Baton Rouge culture while adapting the peculiar rhythms of another distinct creative voice. McCraney more than held his own in that collaboration and provides the film with an authenticity & cerebral stage play provocation it would be limp without. If I were just a little closer to the sports drama wavelength these two creative subversives collaborated on, this would likely be one of my favorite films of the year.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #78 of The Swampflix Podcast: Fyre Docs & American Movie (1999)

Welcome to Episode #78 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our seventy-eighth episode, Brandon & Britnee contrast & compare this year’s dueling Fyre Festival documentaries: Fyre Fraud & Fyre – The Greatest Party That Never Happened.  Also, Brandon makes Britnee watch the cult classic documentary American Movie (1999) for the first time. Enjoy!

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

-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened (2019)

Not since Queen of Versailles have I taken so much delight in watching rich people having a hard time. Watching a bunch of “influencers” (gag Alice Sheldon tried to warn us and we just didn’t listen) who were willing and able to drop more than a middle class person’s annual salary just for the opportunity to party with models and Blink 182 forced to retrieve their luggage from huge trucks and rush in a panicked herd to try and claim disaster tents made me laugh for five minutes straight.

Ok, let’s back up. Fyre Festival was the brainchild of Billy McFarland, a twentysomething college dropout from an affluent unincorporated neighborhood in New Jersey who managed to accidentally pull off the greatest catalyst of schadenfreude of the new millennium through nothing other than sheer self-delusion.

Wait, let’s try again.

Ok. For those of you who missed the media blitz in 2017 and the follow up descriptions that accompanied the release of this documentary and its Hulu-hosted competitor, Fyre Festival was a planned luxury music festival to be held in late spring 2017 in the Bahamas, to promote the Fyre booking app, which was intended to function like Tinder or Uber for events and performers. So, if you were the kind of parent whose child might appear on My Super Sweet 16 and wanted to have Ja Rule or Kendall Jenner or Post Malone perform (that is, a parent who is obscenely wealthy and criminally negligent), Fyre would help you do that, and the world would get a little darker and more dreary. Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Festival that Never Happened, traces the beginning of the festival and the app back to its creator, Billy McFarland, and exposes McFarland and his cronies as the pathologically nouveau riche trendchasers that they are.

As far as this documentary is concerned, McFarland’s story begins with his creation of Magnises, identified in news archival footage in the film as “the black card for millennials” (and if you’re already sick of hearing the word “millennial” before your viewing, you should turn back now), a proxy credit card made of sheet metal that could be paired to another card and allow young go-getters to mimic their idols: money magnates with their black and platinum Amexes. This is actually the perfect place to start with the discussion of what went wrong with Fyre Festival, as it gets to the core of what allowed a group of inexperienced goofballs to defraud a willing (and deserving) vapid, wealthy public: image, artifice, performance, and prestige. Magnises’s Twitter account, which hasn’t posted anything since March 2017, boasts this description: “The community for the socially and professionally adventurous.” Essentially, it was a private club that, for $250 a year, gave members not only a “Just Like Daddy’s!” metal credit card and access to a work/playspace loft that also hosted private events. Per Forbes, “Members would gain entry to exclusive celebrity events, a concierge service to score hard-to-get concert tickets and restaurant reservations and access to a swanky, shared hangout pad. They’d also get to meet up with other wealthy young folk who like to party: entrepreneurs, businesspeople and entertainers.” So, you know, a cesspool of young money and unearned self-congratulation; I don’t think that you’ll be shocked to learn that the photos from these events are full of white faces.

From there, the documentary explores the friendship (?) between McFarland and Ja Rule, who the younger man met via Magnises events. McFarland came up with the idea for the Fyre app with Ja Rule, and the two of them leapt at the idea of using a music festival to promote the app. From the moment of inception, virtually everyone involved with the festival comes off as, if you’ll pardon my lapse into common speech, a supreme fucking douchenozzle. There’s McFarland, of course, who seems like a rich kid who just wanted to party every day of his life and got in way over his head and decided to dig further rather than admit his mistakes and come clean. There’s also the preposterously named Mdavid Low, Fyre’s Creative Director, whose Twitter laudably contains much anti-Trump, pro-Net Neutrality, pro-immigration rhetoric mixed in with the same kind of shallow “get shit done” motivational images that your former high school dudebro bully posts on his Facebook (example). There’s Samuel Krost, a twenty-three year old who seems to have somehow gotten involved because of a prior relationship with Selena Gomez and friendship with model Gigi Hadid, one of the models who was ultimately complicit in the misrepresentation of Fyre Festival on social media; his LinkedIn profile bears no mention of his involvement in the Fyre debacle, which seems both wise and deceptive. There’s Andy King, the head honcho of event production company Inward Point, a middle-aged businessman who invested time and energy into Fyre based on his belief that McFarland was a savvy businessman; he also has the best story in the entire doc, degrading though the memory may be. There’s Marc Weinstein, a music festival alum who aims to paint himself as a sympathetic whistle-blower but doesn’t quite hit the mark. There’s Grant Margolin, the Chief Marketing Officer of Fyre, who, aside from Billy, comes across as the most delusional person on the entire island. More than once, the doc shows Grant with a smartphone in each hand trying desperately to coordinate an event that was out of control from the word “go,” as his colleagues and co-workers chuckle while reminiscing about how woefully unprepared Margolin was for this kind of responsibility, painting him as McFarland’s toad. You almost feel sorry for him  a short, average looking dude surrounded by beautiful models, suitbros with expensive personal trainers, and even McFarland, who’s handsome in an I’ve-had-a-few-drinks-so-sure-I’ll-go-home-with-you kind of way, until you see the manic energy that he brings to every action and imagine how exhausting it must have been to work alongside him; there’s a scene where he’s trying to organize a bonfire for the promotional video shoot where he uses the word “big” eleven times in a row to describe what’s needed. And then there’s Ja Rule himself, acting as the imp who pushes McFarland to ludicrous extremes of reckless spending and gratuitous excess, as best expressed in his ridiculous toast to the crew: “To living like movie stars, partying like rock stars, and fucking like porn stars.” It’s a perfect storm of booze-fueled toxic immaturity coupled with the business acumen of childhood overachievers who sold the most wrapping paper at the fundraiser and now think they’re too big to fail.

McFarland, Ja Rule, and Margolin are ghosts in this documentary, appearing only in archival footage, of which there is a stunning wealth of material to supplement the talking heads provided by Weinstein, Krost, Low, and others. It’s never explicit in the text, but Fyre acts as a stunning indictment of what mainstream media likes to (inaccurately) call “millennial naivete” and (inarticulately) call “FOMO” by taking aim not only at McFarland and his cronies but also demonstrating how the need to obsessively self-document elements of daily life for the performative artifice of celebrity in exchange for the temporary but ultimately fleeting satisfaction of emoji reacts and comments from followers/subscribers. Some of the most fascinating parts of Fyre come not from the delineation of how the event was doomed to failure but from the completely shallow lack of self-reflection exhibited by the attendees of the festival when detailing their experiences, which for most of these privileged goons will be the most difficult experience of their charmed lives. Hulu’s documentary, Fyre Fraud, features a wider range of these than Fyre (stay tuned), but you’ll find yourself deeply hating almost every person who appears on screen. There’s Mark Crawford (who appears in this film exactly as he does in his LinkedIn profile, shitty haircut and all), who recounts first hearing about the festival and how he and his bros started hitting the gym in preparation for hanging out with models on Pablo Escobar’s private island (note that the promotional video was shot on Norman’s Cay, which was not the ultimate site of Fyre, nor did it go over well with the living family members of people who were killed as part of Escobar’s drug empire). There’s Justin Liao, a cryptocurrency dude who comes across as a stone cold sociopath as he smiles while recounting the fact that he and his buddies ransacked the tents next to theirs and intentionally made them even more uninhabitable on the first night so that they would not have neighbors, intercut with footage he shot himself using that most aggressively absurd of instruments, a selfie stick. Also using a selfie stick is James Ohliger of Jerry Media who, alongside Jerry Media CEO Mick Purzycki, is one of the more visually appealing participants, but other than their interviews all of the footage of them comes from self-shot phone video that is so saturated with unsubtle marketing language and envy-baiting rhetoric that it makes your libido curl up and die. Worst of all, nearly every single man in the documentary talks about the appeal of partying on a desert island with “hot,” “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” “breath-taking” women in a way that makes your brain short circuit because you’re not sure if you should vomit in disgust or just crawl out of your skin. These are certainly attractive ladies, but the undisguised piggishness that serves as the impetus to attend Fyre is so unexaminedly toxic and nakedly misogynistic, even from interviewees like Weinstein, whom I think we’re supposed to like, that it’s disgusting.

There are a few people involved for whom you can feel empathy, however. Shiyuan Deng, a developer for the Fyre app, expresses her frustration early and often, and you get a feel for what it must be like to be a cog in the development machine when the business for which you work ends up bursting their money bubble and leaving you out of a job and wasting all of the time that you put into coding and testing. Maryann Rolle, the proprietor of a restaurant that was intended to assist with the feeding of event attendees, ended up losing her entire nest egg as the result of hiring additional staff for Fyre-related business that failed to take form. The mononymous Columbo, a contractor working on the building of facilities for the festival, was unable to pay the construction staff he hired to assist him, many of whom worked for 20 hours a day in a desperate attempt to prepare for the festivities, and ended up having to flee the island to avoid reprisal from others. And then there’s Keith van der Linde, perhaps the only sane person involved with Fyre Fest, a pilot whose important questions (how are you going to move toilet facilities to an abandoned island?) were met with McFarland’s declarations that “We’re not a problems-focused group, we’re a solutions-oriented group,” which is (a) exactly the kind of startup wishy-washy language you would expect from him, and (b) not the only time that one of the involved parties recited this bit of McFarland wisdom in response to legitimate issues that needed attention while McFarland was busy jet skiing and feeding wild pigs. Notably, other than Keith, the laborers and unpaid workers were all people of color, implicitly noting the stratification of labor in the worlds of Fyre and Magnesis.

Overall, this is a pretty slick documentary, although the talking head segments notably look less professional/more VH1’s I Love the… than similar interviews in the Hulu doc, but it’s not terribly detrimental. I know that there were some concerns about the involvement of Jerry Media, who were tasked with managing the social media elements of the festival, as producers on the film, but I’m not sure it was as much of a detraction as it could have been; either they were willing to present the worst sides of themselves by sharing their own self-congratulatory footage and failing to disguise their desire to “fuck like porn stars,” or they didn’t realize how this footage made them appear, so it’s a toss up there. If you have Netflix, check this one out. Also, for further reading, take a look at Rolling Stone‘s “What Fyre Fest Docs Reveal About Tech’s Cult of Positivity”, and also revel in how prescient this decade-old Onion News Network video was in regards to this generation’s need to obsessively self-record.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Apostle (2018)

Netflix has been cranking out phenomenal original horror series and movies this year, most notably The Ritual, which is easily one of the greatest horror films to come out in 2018. Just this past Friday, Netflix also released the period horror film Apostle just in time for Halloween, and it did not disappoint. The first half of Apostle is very tame and mysterious, and the latter half spirals into blood-soaked insanity. I absolutely loved it.

It’s sometime in the early 20th century, and Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), is on a mission to save his sister from a pagan cult that kidnapped her for ransom. He travels to a remote island populated only by cult members and goes incognito as a follower. The cult elements in Apostle are a slight nod to The Wicker Man, as the cult members are seemingly average folk inhabiting an isolated island, but the cult in question is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in a horror movie. They worship a Goddess that inhabits the island, and they essentially keep her prisoner and feed her human blood to give her enough energy to produce crops from the islands tainted soil. The cult leader, Malcolm (Michael Sheen), discovered her and claims to be her prophet, and just like any narcissistic douchebag that gets a taste of power, he starts to lose his grip on reality. Everything essentially goes to hell in a handbasket when Prophet Malcolm is overthrown by a psychotic cult member, and Thomas is caught up in the brutal carnage while trying to get his sister off of the crazy cult island.

What I loved most about Apostle, other than the badass bloodthirsty Goddess, is that there is a tragic Romeo and Juliet type love story between two young cult members in the midst of all the madness. Honestly, Romeo and Juliet had it easy compared to what happens to these two. There’s just something about forbidden love within a cult that really holds my attention.

Apostle is visually stunning and just so damn unique. I truly hope it gets the recognition it so rightly deserves from the horror community and goes down in genre movie history as a “cult” classic.

-Britnee Lombas

The Ritual (2018)

It’s no mystery why a dirt-cheap horror indie would obscure the look of its killer creature for most of its runtime. If a smaller movie is careful enough with its location & casting choices, it can pour most of its financial resources into the look of its monstrous threat, leaving an outsized impact through limited means. That tactic is a huge gamble, though. The longer you keep your monsters off-screen, the more pressure there is for them to deliver the goods. After a significant enough wait, an underwhelming creature design can cause an entire picture to fall apart & fade away, only to be remembered vaguely as a disappointment. The recent indie creature feature The Ritual, a British production Netflix picked up at last year’s TIFF, boldly goes all in on obscuring the monster at its center. Staged in the cheapo horror-favorite location of The Woods and featuring Thomas from Downton Abbey (Robert James-Collier) as its most recognizable performer, the movie puts a massive amount of pressure on its mostly off-screen monster to a leave significant impact once it steps into the light. Thankfully, the movie pulls through with a deeply chilling nightmare beast, fully satisfying the demands it put on its own mysterious force of Evil.

Four British bros hike into the forests of Northern Sweden as one of the most bizarrely ill-advised college reunion festivities imaginable. The trip gradually takes on a distinctly black metal-flavored tone of ominous terror as they stray further from hiking trails into thickly wooded wilderness, but their macho sense of comradery leaves little social grace for smartly bailing on the experience. No one would blame them for backing out of their dangerous, over-confident choice recreation, except themselves as they tease each other with questions like “What’s wrong? Are you scared of the woods?” It turns out, of course, that a healthy fear of the woods may have been beneficial on this particular venture, as they become increasingly lost & surrounded by mysterious, menacing forces. Besides the aforementioned creature that patiently hunts them one at a time and the encroaching vestiges of a witchcraft culture who worship the damned beast, the men are also supernaturally tortured by visions of their own worst fears & regrets. Sometimes even more harrowing than the ritualistically arranged animal corpses, the creepy altars, and the flashes of an unfathomable beast appearing in the creases of the trees is the mental invasions of their own guilty, grief-stricken memories. Their doom is entirely inescapable, as it encroaches from the outside and from within.

The Ritual is a debut feature for American director David Bruckner, who has so far cut his teeth helming standout segments of horror anthologies like Southbound & V/H/S. Sticking to the narrative economy demanded by anthology vignettes, he relies on a number of well-worn genre tropes that burden the film with a consistent sense of familiarity. The discovery of abandoned cabins in the woods and ominous pagan symbols (which in themselves suggest a black metal Wicker Man aesthetic) recall other classic lost-in-the-wilderness horrors like The Blair Witch Project. Its story of old friends being tormented by their toxic memories & friendship dynamics (not to mention bloodthirsty monsters) feels like The Descent for British bros, except in the woods instead of a cave. Its individualized visions of internal torment recall films like Event Horizon, except in the woods instead of a spaceship. There’s no doubt that this is a straightforward genre film, even if it pulls its disparate influences from varied extremes within that genre. That familiarity puts just as much strain on the film’s creature design as its decision to delay the monster’s reveal for as long as possible. Everything that distinguishes The Ritual as a modern, indie creature feature is the look, design, and lore around that monster. What’s incredible about the film, then, is that it really pulls off the trick of making that monster count. This is a great creature feature because, and only because, its creature is great. It would have been a forgettable letdown otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

El Bar (2017)

Netflix categorizes 2017’s El Bar (The Bar, although The Cafe would be a more accurate title) as an “International Comedy.” From Spain, the first word in that descriptor is accurate, but boy is the second part debatable. Not that this means the movie is bad, nor is it without its comedic moments, but I’m hesitant to say that a film that uses the set-up of a public shooting, and directly references the Paris shooting in dialogue when characters are trying to figure out what’s happening, could ever really be considered a “comedy.”

10 people from various walks of life find themselves in a Madrid cafe on a normal day. Amparo (the late Terele Pávez) owns the cafe, where she has employed Sátur (Secun de la Rosa) for over 10 years. Elena (Blanca Suárez, from La piel que habito) ducks in to see if she can charge her phone before meeting for a first date with a man she met on an app. Trini (Carmen Machi) is a neighborhood woman who comes in daily to try her luck at the cafe’s slot machine. Andrés (Joaquín Climent) was a police officer who let his drinking problem get the better of him, while Sergio (Alejandro Awada) is a salesman of fancy women’s underwear; both are regular customers of Amparo’s. Nacho (Mario Casas) is a designer who works on ad campaigns and, like Elena, has never been to the cafe before. And Israel (Jaime Ordóñez) is a local vagrant that Amparo provides with booze and, occasionally, a place to warm himself.

This vignette is rudely interrupted when a large man, seemingly drugged out but possibly very ill, enters the establishment and goes straight to the bathroom. When a local maintenance man leaves through the front door, he is shot dead; terrified citizens run screaming in every direction, evacuating the square. When another patron steps out to check on the dead man, he too is shot, and the remaining eight patrons (and one ill man) realize that they are trapped inside.

It’s a solid premise, a kind of modern day Spanish mashup of the Twilight Zone episodes “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (which features several people from different social circles trapped in a remote diner) and “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” (which demonstrates just how quickly the trappings of civility and community can degenerate into rampant, violent paranoia with the introduction of the smallest sliver of doubt). This is a thriller, there’s no doubt about it, and a pretty decent one at that. Perhaps the folks over at Netflix who slot films into genre groupings were confused by the fact that there are a few moments of slapstick (like when the captives attempt to force a greased-up Israel through a very small drain hole in the floor as part of an escape plan) and some other broad physical comedy (Nacho grabs Elena’s ass when helping her down from a chair—oh-ho-ho!). On the sliding scale of films that fall into the category of “people trapped in an everyday location by unknowable forces,” this one falls closer to The Mist‘s end than Shaun of the Dead‘s.

First, there are the questions about who is at fault, and the accusations that those who are trapped inside are somehow in collusion with the shooter. Why does this person have a gun? What’s the unusual piece of hardware in that person’s bag? Why is he, who was so gung-ho about searching her bag, now unwilling to let his own briefcase be inspected? Why did you stop into this cafe if you’ve never been here before and you’re not from this part of town? Next come the bigger concerns: is it a terrorist? You have a big bushy beard–are you a terrorist? (This one in particular has some particularly non-comedic underpinnings, given that one character says that even some Spaniards are them now–that is, Muslims.) This question is aimed at Mario Casas’s character, which amuses me; he’s dressed in a tightly tailored hipster outfit that does nothing to disguise his supermodel body, even though he does have one of those really gross beards that your buddy thinks makes him look super manly but just makes you wonder how much decomposing food is actually trapped in that rat’s nest. Even once every living character has been reduced to wearing their undergarments, they still keep him in his clothes because you can’t have a character who looks like this wandering around and still keep his allegiance in question for dramatic purposes, since the audience is going to side with him regardless. Thirdly, we move on to the particulars of the situation as a result of the realization that the man in the bathroom is dead, and was perhaps infected with some kind of virus. Did you touch him? Did you? Who didn’t touch him. Well, she touched the body, and you touched her, so that means you’re infected too! Is there an antidote? Is the government involved? You, infected, you go over there, and we’ll stay over here. And, finally: there’s one more survivor than there is a cure. What do we do now?

It’s a pretty standard plot structure. You’ve probably seen this movie before in a different form, either in one of the aforementioned movies or an episode of an anthology television show. What sets it apart from other Western media is the character’s immediate acceptance of the concept that the government is involved in some kind of cover-up (whether that ends up being true or not; I’m not here to spoil this for you); no one ever even argues that the government “wouldn’t do that to its citizens” the way that there always is in U.S.-produced films, where there is always nominal resistance to the idea of governmental corruption. There’s also insight into different modern Spanish social classes that provides a different kind of hook. The only real failure of the film is that, plot-wise, it doesn’t offer much in the way of something novel. The reason that this group has been trapped is a complete MacGuffin; they could be dealing with a zombie apocalypse, or a government coup, or a quarantine protocol, and the end result would be the same. Again, this isn’t a detriment per se, but it’s also not a ringing endorsement. All in all, this was one of three movies that I watched while lying around because it was just too damn cold to go outside, and it was far and away the best of the three. If it’s cold where you are, and you want to watch a movie that’s of a genre that’s usually dark and gray but filtered through a colorful, sunny lens, this movie will make you a little bit warmer.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Adulterers (2016)

For a time before I moved to Austin three years ago, I flirted with the idea of moving to L.A. and working as a script reader, as a dear friend had for a few years. She gave me a few different scripts to work on doing standard format reader reviews for, and while some of them were quite good (Melisa Wallack’s Manuscript, which ended up on The Black List, was my favorite of these), there were also quite a few that weren’t very good at all. The one that sticks in my mind the most was one entitled Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch, which has an IMDb page that lists it as “in development,” but doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2009 or 2010. I read enough short stories and personal essays in creative writing classes and discussion groups in both my undergrad and grad school that I developed a kind of sixth sense for when something was what could charitably called “revenge writing.” It’s basically when someone (invariably a man, almost always straight) writes out his one-sided feelings about the dissolution of a relationship, recently or distantly, painting himself as the put-upon everyman whose life is disrupted by the she-demon who broke his heart. That Guy in Your MFA didn’t emerge from a vacuum, is what I’m saying, and there’s a universality to the personality that those tweets are mocking which speaks volumes about society, literature culture, the writing world, and college campuses. Even without the laughable “Based on a True Story” caption that opens the film, or the credit that shows that the film was written, directed, and produced by one person (me, out loud, when I saw that on screen: “Oh boy”), I can smell that same malodorous desperation and entitlement all over Adulterers, and boy is it not in service of the film as a whole.

Spoilers to follow for a film you should just skip.

Samuel (Sean Faris) is an assistant manager at a hardware store in New Orleans, preparing to celebrate his one year anniversary with his wife Ashley (Danielle Savre), at the pinnacle of a record-breaking heat wave. He tells her that he won’t be able to come home as early as expected, as he’s picking up a double shift to help pay for the house and his new truck, but in fact intends to go home early and surprise her. After fending off the flirtations of his co-worker Lola (Stephanie Charles), he picks up a box “of dem dark chocklits” along with a bouquet of flowers and makes his way home to the exterior of what appears to be a shotgun house but has the interior of a two-story. While waiting for his wife to arrive from her waitressing shift, he realizes that her purse is sitting on the table, and that there are the telltale grunts of some mischief going on upstairs; he finds his wife in flagrante delicto with another man (Mehcad Brooks). Distraught, he goes downstairs to grab a couple of handguns, then goes back up and shoots them both guns akimbo. Credits!

Or not; in fact, it appears he just imagined this. He again climbs the stairs, and this time confronts Ashley and her lover at gunpoint, forcing them to answer questions about how long they’ve been seeing each other, how they met, and the frequency and content of their sexual encounters (yes: they have done it in the butt). This continues for some time, as all parties are emotionally and physically degraded. Brooks’s character’s name is given as Damien, and he admits that he, too, is married, and that his wife Jasmine (Steffinnie Phrommany) is pregnant with their second child. This is not the first time he’s cheated on her, nor is Ashley, whom he only knows as “Peaches,” the only woman with whom he is committing adultery.

We also learn that Ashley was already married when she met Samuel, but he rescued her from her abusive husband and even adopted her young daughter (whom we never see). Ashley gives a monologue about how she can’t help herself because she’s “broken,” and tells about how this brokenness emerged from being sexually assaulted several times by her father’s employer. Meanwhile, Lola continues reaching out to try and get Samuel to return to work before he loses his job, and when Jasmine calls, Samuel tells her about her husband’s infidelity, she decides to take her own revenge by coming to the house and having sex with Samuel in front of Damien, then telling Sam to dispose of the other man as he sees fit. This descends further into much absurd nonsense, with a lot of “Do you read the Bible?” and “I am God’s judgment” and “I won’t pretend to be a Christian, but my mama took me to church every Sunday” dialogue that I’m sure means you can imagine every moment of this excruciating standoff. Ultimately, it’s left up to God (in the form of Russian Roulette) to decide Damien and Ashley’s fate, and the afternoon’s events come to a conclusion with Ashley smoking a long-deserved cigarette while watching Sam bury her lover.

Except psych! Because of course it is. Samuel really did kill both Ashley and her lover at the beginning of the film, and the entire rest of the film has been his imagining of what would have happened had he not done so. Interestingly, this twist appears to have been so confusing (it really isn’t, though) that even the person who edited the film’s Wikipedia page doesn’t seem to have understood what happened, as it states (as of 02/16/18) that “Sam later finds himself back in reality, just after burying Ashley beneath the rose bed in the back yard. He realizes that he killed his wife and made up a story of her cheating in his mind.” That’s pretty clearly not what happened, as he clearly shoots them both, but you can hardly blame anyone for giving up and just making up their own ending. Unsurprisingly, this kind of “the whole thing was imagined!” plot twist was also common in a lot of the bad scripts I read, not to mention the work of fellow students. In the latter that’s almost forgivable, but in the former it’s a telltale sign that you’re an amateur. That doesn’t matter, I suppose, when you’re the writer, director, and producer, but if you’re thinking of submitting something like this to a legitimate agency or production house, take a tip from your old friend Boomer and just don’t.

There’s so much else going on here that demands to be discussed. I was actually able to track down an interview with director (writer, and producer) H.M. Coakley with the Urban Movie Channel, and it is one of the fluffiest fluff pieces I’ve ever read, and that’s coming from someone who used to do just these kinds of interviews with small name, big ego local personalities when writing for Dig in Baton Rouge. In it, when asked about the origin of the story, Coakley states “The actual idea for Adulterers was based on something that happened to a family member. I remember saying to myself, ‘Wow— what would I have done, if that was me?’” That’s not really what “based on a true story” means, I’m afraid. Just because a friend or family member caught their significant other in the act with someone else, and you imagined what you would do, and what you imagined is a character imagining an interaction with their cheating wife and her lover, that doesn’t make it “based” on anything. That barely makes it “inspired” by something that happened; by that logic, Home Alone is “based on a true story” about that time you imagined what it would be like to be a kid left alone in a mansion at Christmas, and Starship Troopers is “based on a true story” of fascist propaganda.

The worst thing about the interview, however, is this statement from the interviewer: “The story location was steamy & hot New Orleans, Louisiana and the accents, especially Sean’s, seemed quite authentic.” It’s not. It’s really, really, really not. The only authentic thing about this movie is the fact that, if someone were going to cheat on sex-on-a-stick uberbabe Sean Faris (who, in case you didn’t know, looks like this), the only other human being on earth who could possibly make your eye wander would be megahunk Mehcad Brooks (who looks like this). To be honest, either one of them would be worth getting shot. Cinematographer Ben Kufrin‘s pre-2005 C.V. consists almost entirely of titles with the word “Playboy” thrown in there, and while I’m hesitant to say that he shoots these male bodies as lovingly as (presumably) he did the women in his earlier films, this “erotic” “thriller” may at least send you off with visions of chiseled abs dancing in your head. The interview mentions that Brooks expressed interest as early as 2010, which makes sense given that this was after he stopped getting regular paychecks for The Game and True Blood and before he started being able to get paid regularly for Supergirl, where he’s been unfortunately underutilized of late. Full disclosure: Sean Faris’s presence was the only reason I watched this movie, and I’ve long felt that his turn on Life As We Know It should have led to greater market penetration and made him more of a star, but he’s never had the mainstream success that his sister has.

The long and short of it is this: even if you’re trying to find a film that’s set in a hot place to try and make up for the cold, cold winter we’ve had this year, you’re better off watching a documentary about volcanoes. If you just want the visual feast of watching hot people sweating in a stuffy room, there are other, better places to get your jollies.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Open House (2018)

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

A Netflix Original thriller set in a big, spooky house deep in the mountains seemed like the perfect first 2018 film for me to watch. I made a cup of hot chocolate with whole milk just for the occasion. For the majority of The Open House, I was on the edge of my seat. My anxiety levels were at an all-time high as I waited for the killer to be revealed so I could get some closure. Unfortunately, that never happened. Not only was the killer’s face never shown, but the two individuals being hunted by the killer both die in the end. I’ve never been more disappointed in the ending of a film in my entire life. Concluding a film with unanswered questions is quite common and even enjoyable if done properly, but The Open House doesn’t leave many clues for viewers to come up with their own version of who the killer was or why was he/she so set on killing our main characters. It’s a damn shame because everything leading up to the ending was actually entertaining.

The Open House gets its cheesy title from its setting: a mansion in the mountains that is on the market. After the sudden death of her husband, Naomi (Piercey Dalton) and her son Logan (Dylan Minnette) are forced to move into her sister’s mountain mansion until it sells due to financial reasons. From the moment they settle in, strange things start to occur. The pilot light turns off while Naomi takes showers, Logan’s phone goes missing, the basement door randomly opens, etc. Their creepy neighbor, Martha, makes an appearance a handful of times, and each one is more peculiar than the next. There’s even a scene where Dylan is in the pitch black basement and Martha’s face appears behind him. For a good while, it seems as though Martha is responsible for the mysterious happenings, but then Chris (Sharif Atkins), the friendly salesman Naomi meets in town, randomly shows up at the house. He claims that he noticed the open house sign in the front of the road, and he is interested in taking a look inside. Naomi lets him in, and while she isn’t looking, he disappears into the basement with a unsettling look on his face. At this point, he becomes a suspicious character as well.

The film’s pace picks up quickly when Naomi is out on the town and receives a call from her sister informing her that someone broke into the house. Once the police arrive, they aren’t much help and basically blame the break in on local kids pranking around. Chris is then invited to spend the night to provide some comfort to Naomi and Logan since there scared shitless. Because Chris had this artificial kindness to him, I really thought that he was going to reveal himself as the person responsible for all the strange activity, but Logan ends up finding him with a slit throat in their family SUV. Was Chris’s character purposely supposed to seem suspicious or was Sharif Atkins a crappy actor? We may never know.  Logan then gets his head bashed into the window and is doused with water while passed out in freezing temperatures by what appears to be a man. With Chris scratched off my suspect list and the killer not matching Martha’s physique, I assume that this person may be Martha’s son or husband.

The unknown killer then gets into bed with Naomi with his hands in prayer position across his chest. This was probably the most bone chilling part in the film for me. Naomi gets up to use the bathroom and gets back into bed with him! I’m assuming this is a California king size bed for her to not even flinch before getting in. As soon as she realizes the creep in the bed, he captures her, ties her up, and breaks her fingers one by one. Frozen Logan makes it back into the house, and accidentally stabs his mother, which then led me to believe that he was going to get Final Boy status because one of them would need to survive in the end, right? Nope. Just when I thought Logan escaped, he meets his death by the still unknown killer, and the movie comes to an abrupt end.

The ending just felt so lazy. There were so many cool elements in this film that could’ve been used to create a jaw-dropping conclusion, but all the buildup in the film’s last 20 minutes led to nothing but disappointment. I feel like I’ve been ripped off, even though the film is available on Netflix. Watch The Open House only if you enjoy frustration and disappointment.

-Britnee Lombas