White Noise (2022)

I know that I read Don DeLillo’s post-modern novel White Noise in high school (along with his Lee Harvey Oswald fan fiction Libra) because I still see my beat-up copy on a friend’s bookshelf every time I drop by for a visit.  I just could not recall anything that happens or is said in that book if asked, while similar works from authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and Barry Hannah have remained vivid in my memory.  That’s okay, though, because Noah Baumbach is on-hand to transcribe DeLillo’s novel word-for-word to jog my memory.  Baumbach’s live-action illustration of White Noise gives DeLillo’s words the Shakespeare in the Park treatment, parroting without edit or interpretation.  It’s the worst kind of literary adaptation, the kind that runs itself ragged trying to encapsulate everything touched on in its source material instead of reducing it to core essentials.  It’s aggressive in that approach, too, as its inhuman archetype characters recite dialogue directly off pages of the novel in a deliberately alienating, absurdist exercise that has no business leaving the art school context of a fiction-writing workshop or a black box theatre.  All Baumbach has accomplished here, really, is issuing an $80mil reminder to audiences that White Noise is worth a read (which, to be fair, is a more noble waste of Netflix’s money than most).

The second half of this 136min existential epic is almost worth the exercise.  White Noise starts off as a sweaty, distinctly Netflixy disaster thriller in which an academic couple (Adam Driver & Greta Gerwig) bungle their family’s escape from an “Airborne Toxic Event” that threatens to damage the health of the entire college town where they live.  Between the Altmanesque overlapping dialogue, the Spielbergian wonders-stares at the sky, and the academia in-jokes about the overlap between Hitler Studies & Elvis Scholarship, there is plenty enough movie in that first half alone to justify a standalone feature.  It’s just a movie without much of a point, nor many successful jokes.  In the second half, Driver & Gerwig really get into the selfish secrecy and personal struggles with existential dread that threaten to melt down their seemingly perfect marriage, and the purpose of adapting the novel in the first place starts to become clear.  If Baumbach wanted to make a movie about the crushing fear of death that keeps these characters from truly connecting with each other, I don’t know why he’d waste time running rampant making a disaster epic first, instead of either editing those events out of the picture entirely or summarizing them in flashback.  Adapting a novel does not mean you have to adapt all of the novel since, you know, cinema & fiction are two different artforms with drastically different qualities & necessities.

White Noise occasionally lands on some striking imagery by leaning into the intense artificiality of “The Netflix Look,” especially in scenes set at an overlit A&P grocery store (a setting it milks for all its worth in its concluding LCD Soundsystem music video).  More often, it’s just a baffling waste of talented performers’ time & energy.  Gerwig delivers an emotionally gutting monologue mid-film that’s a welcome reminder how talented she is on both sides of the camera.  Driver’s goofball physicality is naturally funny throughout, even when the words he’s reciting are too stiff to land a punchline.  If this were a shrewdly edited-down domestic drama about their crushing, isolating fears of death in the aftermath of a bizarre “Airborne Toxic Event,” the movie might have achieved the intellectual transcendence it’s straining for.  Instead, the event itself is given equal weight, exhausting the audience before the core story even takes shape.  I have no doubt this adaptation will have a dedicated cult, though.  Diehard fans of Charlie Kaufmann, Under the Silver Lake, and getting cornered at parties by chatty academics will find plenty to love here.  Personally, all I saw was a reminder that the things I love in creative writing are not the same qualities I value in cinema, as well as an ominous vision of what will inevitably happen when some misguided fool “adapts” Infinite Jest

-Brandon Ledet

Love and Leashes (2022)

The two genres I’ve noticed thriving exclusively on Netflix in recent years have been cutesy romcoms and steamy erotica.  The erotic thriller heyday of the Verhoeven 80s and the romcom heyday of the Meg Ryan 90s have long been absent from theatrical marquees, so Netflix has stepped in to, um, fill those gaps, so to speak.  Somewhere between the quiet success of titles like 365 Days (erotic), To All the Boys I’ve Love Before (romantic), Deadly Illusions (erotic), and Always Be My Maybe (romantic), the streaming behemoth has gotten its algorithmic wires crossed and decided to split the difference with an erotic romcom set in the Korean kink scene, Love and Leashes.  Not since Gary Marshall’s Exit to Eden has kink play been treated with such a fluffy, mainstream, sexless touch (unless, of course, you include other recent Netflix properties like the kink-themed sitcom Bonding or the kink-themed home improvement show How to Build a Sex Room).  And since Netflix does not share verifiable data about their streaming numbers, we’ll never know how much demand there is for such an unlikely mix of theme & tone . . . unless they start commissioning more romcom erotica to fill out their splash page in the next couple years.  All I can say for now is that Love and Leashes is as adorable as its existence is absurd.

This is a cutesy, formulaic comedy about an unexpected BDSM office romance, essentially Secretary re-imagined as a femdom romcom.  When a new hire at a media marketing firm risks having his human dog collar shipped to work, his vanilla (but kink-curious) coworker accidentally receives the package instead. In their struggle for possession, the seedy Amazon order flies in the air as they both fall to the ground, flustered.  It’s a kinky re-imagining of the standard dog walking meet-cute of two destined-to-fuck strangers getting tangled up in leashes while trying not to spill their Starbucks orders.  Only, the rope bondage comes much later in the plot.  The man is sensitive and turned on by masochistic play; the woman is naturally bossy but uninitiated to the scene.  She finds a genuine thrill in transgressing the assumed submissiveness of her gender roles, though. She also uses the excuse of learning more about her new co-worker’s fetishes to attempt dating him in a more traditional, romantic dynamic.  Sometimes they play at work, charged by the thrill of potentially getting caught.  More often, they test the uneasy waters of their new mistress/sub dynamic in hotel rooms and in public, both pretending they’re only into the kink activities, not each other (for reasons that can only be explained as Romcom Brain).  It’s the kind of nothing conflict that could be solved by a single, honest conversation, but that’s true of most romcoms, with or without the leather gear.

Of course, there’s an inherent incompatibility in attempting a romcom/erotica genre mashup; most traditional romcoms are excessively chaste.  As a result, Love and Leashes is strangely sexless, considering all the butt plugs, harnesses, and ball gags that hang in the background as set decoration.  In terms of actual, onscreen sexual activity, the most we get is some flogging, hair-pulling, foot worship, rope bondage, and the same dripped-wax fantasy as the “Livin’ La Vida Loca” music video.  We can hear sex in the next hotel room over, but we’re in the room where a man is wearing a leash and yipping like a dog for comic effect – no insertions necessary.  This might have bothered me more if the pup’s mistress-in-training didn’t ask (in Sex and the City-style narration) “Is it weird to play this hard without having sex?”, noting the absurdity of their chaste dynamic.  She spends a lot of time online researching the standard dynamics of domme-sub relationships and chatting up anonymous kink veterans on message boards for newbie tips (setting up an obligatory, last-minute Gossip Girl reveal), totally unaware of how much sex she should be having with the sub under her “control.”  A lot of the central conflict is in the weirdly out-of-sync couple finding a way to enjoy transgressive kink play and start up a traditional, adorable romance on vanilla dates – the same conflict the movie has in its own dueling tones.

This is both my first K-drama and the first movie I’ve seen adapted from a “webtoon” (originally titled Moral Sense), so I can’t speak to how well Love and Leashes translates its source material to a new medium.  I’m an expert in scouring Netflix for low-level horny novelties, though, and it’s one of the better attempts at harmless erotica I’ve seen on the platform.  It’s a little sexually timid & cruelly overlong, but it’s a decent throwback romcom with just enough naughtiness to make the genre’s stalest tropes feel freshly amusing & cute.  The obvious next step for the platform is to get into the business of romcom softcore, but we’ll have to see how well this mashup does before they take that risk.

-Brandon Ledet

Incantation (2022)

There are a lot (a lot) of ways in which Netflix is one of the most frustrating, underwhelming streaming behemoths in the game, but I will give them this: they’re a useful conduit for international genre cinema.  Most of the American-market content that floods that platform’s splash page is dull, overlit, purposefully disposable dreck, but if you know what you’re looking for, there’s plenty international genre gems lurking in the search pages – Indian action epics like RRR, Korean sci-fi adventures like Space Sweepers, Indonesian martial-arts romances like Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, and now the Taiwanese found-footage horror Incantation.  Just three months after Incantation premiered to great commercial success in Taiwanese theaters, it was available to stream globally on Netflix . . . as long as you knew to look for it.  That’s a remarkable turnaround when you think back to the video store days of the aughts, when horror nerds would spend years waiting to track down bootleg copies of then-obscure J & K-horror titles that fell through the cracks of American distribution (i.e. weren’t backed by Tartan Extreme).  I don’t want to give the money-torching, art-minimizing, transphobe-enabling corporate chuds at Netflix HQ too much credit, but they can be a good resource when it comes to international genre pictures.

I honestly don’t know much about the general history of Taiwanese horror (which is partly why it’s cool to have it beamed directly into my living room like this), but it is easy to see why Incantation was such a runaway success – the biggest Taiwanese box office earner of 2022 so far and the highest-grossing Taiwanese horror film of all time.  It’s spooky as hell.  The movie does little to overcome the decades of post-Blair Witch found footage fatigue in its mood, look, or story, but it does craft some genuinely terrifying images that will soon be making guest appearances in the audience’s nightmares.  Its writhing bugs, rotting flesh, flaming demons, dental mutations, and cursed Buddhist statues should shock even the most jaded viewers.  There isn’t much to the central story of a single mother who “violated a religious taboo” in a sacred tunnel, then spent the next six years fearfully protecting her daughter from the evil “deity” that seeks revenge for the transgression.  If anything, the movie deliberately obscures the rules & specifics of its mythmaking, explaining that “the more you know about it, the more it plagues you”.  That makes watching Incantation feel like a dangerous risk in itself (à la Ringu), but it also frees it from having to fully sketch out the shape & boundaries of its central threat.  There’s just a general curse hanging over our anti-heroine in distress, represented by a wide range of fucked up, bone-chilling images that linger in your mind way longer than the narrative that justifies them.

In theory, I’m all for Incantation using a bare-bones Evil Curse premise as a broad excuse for a loose collection of ghouls & scare gags.  In practice, I was a little disappointed by how much it cheats on its own found-footage conceit, muddying its believability & narrative immersion with non-linear editing of dual timelines and preposterous camera placements that violate the basic rules of the format.  The movie isn’t interested in working within the found-footage medium, so I’m not sure why it bothered, other than camcorder, smartphone, and CCTV security footage being cheap to replicate.  At the very least, it could have shot the flashbacks to the inciting religious transgression in a found-footage format, while shooting the present-day fallout of that blunder like a Regular Movie, since it wanted to use multiple camera set-ups & professional editing techniques in those sequences so badly.  Of course, this an embarrassingly nerdy thing to complain about, since the movie is spooky enough to (mostly) get away with ignoring its own premise.  It’s just that I’m usually very forgiving to that kind of rule-bending, and even I thought it cheated a little too much to get by unnoticed.

Pedantic nitpicking aside, Incantation joins a lot of the better over-the-plate horror freak-outs of the past couple years, titles like The Medium, The Empty Man, and The Queen of Black Magic.  It’s just as cool to be spooked by its tangential scare gags as it is to watch that strand of modern horror reach into a new cultural context most international audiences don’t often see onscreen.  And those other titles were not nearly as substantial of cultural hits in their own countries (Thailand, America, and Indonesia, respectfully), while Incantation measurably resonated with its domestic audience.  In its most ambitious moments, it asks its audience to participate in Buddhist prayer, actively getting further involved in a curse that gets exponentially worse the more you learn about it.  I’ll never understand the full cultural significance of those prayers, but it’s the kind of big, abstract idea that cuts through the petty scene-to-scene concerns of its found-footage cheats.  The eeriness of those audience participation prompts combines with the shock of its individual scares to make the film worth a look for any horror audience no matter where they live on the globe, and thanks to Netflix’s international genre acquisitions the entire globe has access to it while it’s still fresh.

-Brandon Ledet

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2022)

In the time-honored tradition of Netflix underpromoting their film festival acquisitions in favor of front-paging their in-house Television Fad of The Week #content, we now have Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash — which premiered to positive reviews at last year’s TIFF & Locarno before being quietly dumped onto the global streaming platform this April.  I understand the difficulty in marketing this low-budget Indonesian curio; it is incredibly elusive in its genre & tone.  Vengeance is Mine is a sentimental indie romcom dressed up in the closed fists & stiff kicks of a retro martial arts bone-cruncher.  It mixes the understated, quietly morbid humor of a Kaurismäki film with the full-throttle fight choreography of vintage Hong Kong action schlock and the slowly simmering romance of a 90s festival-circuit slacker pic, topping it all off with a matter-of-fact ghost story & flashes of political satire.  In order to properly promote their product, Netflix would have to first be able to define what that product is, which is an exceedingly difficult task in this instance.  Still, it would have been worth it for them to give it a shot; they bought a very good movie, even if it’s a puzzling one.

In Vengeance is Mine, a small town fists-for-hire mercenary (Marthino Lio) starts as many bare-knuckled brawls as he can to broadcast & reinforce his masculinity, as it’s an open secret he’s been sexually impotent his entire adult life.  He meets his match in an adorable bodyguard (Ladya Cheryl), who beats him into submission and wins his bruised heart in the process.  It’s cute to watch them flirt through traded blows, sweetly smiling while kicking each other’s teeth in.  A years-spanning romance develops between the two lonely brutes, complicated of course by their inability to copulate in a traditional sense.  The film fully sidesteps the potential machismo of its street-brawl backdrop by building its central romance around male impotence & female sexual pleasure.  Ex-lovers, corrupt politicians, and meddling ghosts keep the story novel & unpredictable, even as it feels like not much is happening from scene to scene.  Director Edwin also underlines his female lead’s ties to the Cynthia Rothrock era of martial arts cinema by dialing the clock back to a late-80s setting—complete with windbreakers, dirt bikes, and rat tails—affording it a vintage cool on top of all its messy modern melodrama.

On the one hand, it’s wonderful that a movie this strange & low-key is available to a global audience on a platform as mainstream as Netflix.  It’s not enough for modern indie movies to be accessible, though.  They need to be marketed into existence, especially if they’re going to populate on streamers months after their initial festival buzz fades.  Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash might appear to be an especially difficult product to market but, I dunno, Drive My Car was a 3-hour drama about rehearsals for a staging of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, and Janus Films managed to draw a lot of eyes to the screen for that one after it premiered at Cannes.  Netflix apparently does not care about promoting their own festival acquisitions unless they have potential Oscar Buzz™, which this bitter martial arts romcom very much does not.  I’m starting to wonder why they bother buying low-budget festival movies in the first place, even though I am enjoying the benefits.

-Brandon Ledet

Bigbug (2022)

One of the more delightful side effects of Netflix spending ungodly amounts of money producing in-house Originals is that they often fund dream projects for established auteurs who’re struggling to adapt to a post-MCU movie industry, where every single production has to be either a multi-billion-dollar tentpole or an Oscars prestige magnet to be deemed worthwhile.  There’s something wonderful about the likes of Scorsese, Fincher, and Cuarón finally enjoying total creative freedom and unrestrained access to a corporate checkbook, all for a profit-loss streaming giant that has no tangible plans to make short-term returns on those investments.  It’s wonderful in concept, anyway.  Despite sidestepping the creative & budgetary restrictions of the traditional Hollywood production process, none of these legendary directors have been doing their best work on Netflix.  Mank, Roma, and The Irishman are all perfectly cromulent Awards Season dramas, but none can claim to match their respective auteurs’ creative heights in previous works made under more constrictive conditions.  Netflix should be an auteur’s paradise, but somehow the work they’re platforming from cinema’s most distinct artists is coming out bland & sanded down in the process.

What I cannot tell about Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first Netflix project is how much of its blandness is intentional.  The basic premise of his sci-fi comedy Bigbug feels like classic Jeunet in that it’s a collection of oddball characters competing to out-quirk each other in a retro-futuristic fantasy realm.  However, Jeunet abandons the lived-in grime of his usual schtick to instead try out an eerily crisp, overlit production design that recalls the Spy Kids franchise more than it does anything he’s directed before.  It almost feels as if Jeunet is making fun of the Netflix house style with this cheap, plastic playhouse aesthetic, as it resembles the bright colors & bleached teeth of other Netflix Originals more than it does the sooty, antiqued worlds of films like Amélie, Delicatessen, or City of Lost Children.  I don’t know how much credit you can give Jeunet for making a film that’s bland on purpose, especially since plenty of Bigbug‘s slapstick gags & shrill one-liners are 100% intended to be funny and land with a miserable thud instead.  At the same time, Jeunet breaks up this single-location farce with totally unnecessary fade-to-black commercial breaks, reinforcing its production values as a TV-movie in an act of self-deprecation.  Questions of how good, how self-aware, and how critical of its own straight-to-streaming format Bigbug is persist throughout its entire runtime.  It’s undeniably the least idiosyncratic film in Jeunet’s catalog to date; the question is how much of its familiar, off-putting artificiality was the intention of the artist.

The truth is likely that Bigbug‘s plastic, sanitized production values were a circumstance of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and not a metatextual joke at the expense of the Netflix house style (a likelihood reinforced by a dire one-liner about a COVID-50 outbreak in the distant future).  In the film, several mismatched couples are locked inside a futuristic automated home to wait out an A.I. revolution that’s raging outside.  The humans in the house are all desperate to find privacy in lockdown so they can have sex.  The home-appliance robots they share the space with are desperate to be respected as fellow autonomous beings, mimicking the humans’ shrill, erratic behavior in idolization.  Both factions—the robots and the humans—must join forces to outsmart the fascistic A.I. supersoldiers that inevitably invade their prison-home, but the movie doesn’t feel all that invested in the terror of that threat.  Instead, it works more as a brochure for fictional automated-home technology, like the retro-future kitsch of 1950s World’s Fair reels promoting far-out kitchen appliances.  Treating this trapped-inside surveillance state premise as a thin metaphor for the limbo of COVID-19 lockdowns, Jeunet doesn’t stress himself out too much in pursuit of a plot.  The setting is mostly an excuse for a series of one-off gags involving navel-gazing vacuum cleaners, short-circuiting dildo bots, and the ritualistic humiliations of Reality TV.  It’s all extremely frivolous & silly, and some of it is even halfway funny.

At its best, Bigbug plays like The Exterminating Angel reprised on the set of the live-action Cat in the Hat.  At its worst, it plays like excruciatingly dull deleted scenes from the live-action Cat in the Hat.  I honestly don’t know what to make of that cursed imbalance, but I do know that it is at least a huge creative departure for Jeunet as a visual stylist.  All Netflix-spotlighted auteurs have done their blandest, most overly sanitized work for the streaming behemoth, but only Jeunet has leaned so far into that quality downgrade that it feels at least semi-intentional.  No one makes a movie this bizarrely artificial by accident – least of all someone whose work usually looks like it was filmed at the bottom of an antique ashtray.

-Brandon Ledet

The House (2022)

Netflix has a habit of quietly dropping substantial, worthwhile art onto its streaming platform without any promotion or fanfare, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been as surprised by one of its dead quiet in-house releases as I was by The House.  The only reason this stop-motion anthology caught my eye is that one of its three segments was directed by the animators of This Magnificent Cake! (Emma De Swaef & Marc James Roels), and I recognized the visual trademarks of their work on the thumbnail poster.  Otherwise, I haven’t seen much official promotion or social media hoopla signaling the film’s uneventful release this month, at least not without looking for it directly.  And when I search for reviews & press releases covering The House, different sites appear to be in conflict about what it even is.  Netflix lists it as a one-time “special”.  IMDb & Rotten Tomatoes list it as a three-episode season of a supposedly ongoing “series” (likely because its three segments are credited to three different sets of animators).  Meanwhile, review sites like AV Club & RogerEbert.com are treating it as a standalone feature film.  That’s the category that registers as correct to me, given that it’s contained in one 97min presentation with no rigid episode breaks.  Still, I do think the general confusion about its format is indicative of Netflix’s constant, apathetic flood of #content with no attention paid to the promotion or artistic value of anything that’s not going to earn the company Oscars or Emmys.

A large part of the reason The House holds together as a standalone feature film is that all three of its segments were penned by a single screenwriter, Enda Walsh.  As the tones & visual styles shift between each segment’s separate animation teams (De Swaef & Roels, Niki Lindroth von Bahr, Paloma Baeza), Walsh maintains a strong narrative core throughout as the central authorial voice.  The House is a darkly funny stop-motion anthology about a cursed house’s journey through different eras of doomed owners.  Divided between the past, the present, and the future of the ornate structure, each set of its owners are working class rubes who are mesmerized by its opulence & grandeur, convinced that it will bring wealth & social status into their lives with just a little hard work & determination.  Each segment ends with the lesson-learned punchline of a centuries-old ghost story or fairy tale, with the owners’ obsession with the house inevitably absorbing them into its walls & bones.  It all amounts to a pretty relatable horror story about how “owning” a house basically means a house owns you – something that debt-saddled Millennials should be able to recognize as a real-world truth, anyway. 

As with all horror anthologies, The House varies in quality from segment to segment.  De Swaef & Roels open the film on its strongest, eeriest footing, while the hopeful note Baeza concludes with feels like its weakest step.  Between those bookends, there’s a great wealth of gorgeous animation, dark humor, and melancholy.  De Swaef & Roels have the most distinct visual style of the batch (working with the same textured felts & beading that distinguished This Magnificent Cake!), while von Bahr & Baeza both play with the taxidermy-in-motion style of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.  Overall, it’s Walsh’s consistency in theme & tone that holds the film’s structure together as a convincing, satisfying whole.  I found this film just as visually & narratively impressive as any animation project I’ve seen in the past couple years, and yet its release has been so barebones that professional media critics can’t even decide whether it’s a Film at all.  Maybe I’ll be embarrassed next year when a Season 2 of The House is released on Netflix and my miscategorization is confirmed, but in all likelihood I wouldn’t even be aware a follow-up exists at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Cuties (2020)

This summer’s flurry of internet outrage over the French coming-of-age drama Cuties completely derailed how I engage with movie discussions online. Once upon a time, Cuties was the kind of small festival-circuit indie drama that a few professional movie nerds would kick around on their Best of the Year recommendation lists and then promptly forget among the other thousands of docu-realist provocations just like it. Instead, its wide distribution through Netflix coincided with rabid QAnon conspiracy mania at the exact wrong time and it became the Bot Target of the week: a much-discussed but little-seen work that had been boiled down only to alarmist headlines & dogwhistles. By the time the film was available to the wide public, it was impossible to view it on its own terms, as it was already buried under a sea of preloaded online complaints – some legitimate (critiques of Netflix’s misrepresentative, Dance Moms-flavored marketing and its clichéd positioning of Muslim faith as a prison of Moral Conservatism) but most cruelly disingenuous (wild claims that it was “pedo-bait” that first-time director Maïmouna Doucouré should be jailed or even executed for creating, along with the entire entertainment industry at large). Excessive online discourse preceding any film’s release is already exhausting enough, but the sensationalist, death threat-generating controversies surrounding Cuties in particular shattered my spirit, to the point where I couldn’t engage with any of the bad-faith slander against it without becoming instantly apoplectic. It’s made me reluctant to discuss any movie with anyone outside the confines of this blog – yet another moment of social, cultural heartbreak in a year of never-ending grief.

Having now seen Cuties for myself long after the QAnon C.H.U.D.s have moved onto whatever arbitrary-target-of-the-week they’re currently bombarding, I wish I could say that there was nothing to the controversial uproar and that the movie was a harmless delight. I would love to claim that the most offensive part of watching the movie was when Netflix auto-played it with an English vocal dub instead of its original French-language audio track, then move onto calling it one of the year’s most misunderstood gems. That would be just as disingenuous as the film’s pre-release backlash (pre-lash?), though. The truth is that Cuties is an intensely uncomfortable watch; it’s just uncomfortable in the exact opposite way than what its most ghoulish detractors report. This is a film in which young children obsessed with hip-hop dance squad pageantry mimic & weaponize an adult realm of sexuality that they don’t yet fully understand. They twerk & grind in skimpy Fly Girl outfits as a kind of rebellious provocation, an insistence on prematurely growing up to escape the constrictions on personal freedom that frustrate every child. However, the only way these dramatizations of deliberately bratty behavior could be seen as immoral or socially harmful would be confusing its depiction for endorsement, a common occurrence in online discourse (which deals more in clickbait headlines & out-of-context clips than its targets’ actual substance). Cuties is an intentionally uncomfortable watch – one that’s clearly, explicitly alarmist about the sexualization of children’s bodies & minds. It’s conscious of how girls’ & women’s bodies are policed by religious & social institutions, a reality that makes aggressive, sexually provocative dance a form of personal-political rebellion. Still, it’s also horrified by how early access to the internet and highly-sexualized imagery warps these kids’ minds, sending out clear “Do you know where your children are?!” fearmongering to the audience, taking the exact “Save Our Children” moralist position as the people who’ve gotten the most outraged by its existence. You know, people (and bots) who never watched it.

Growing up in New Orleans, I’ve seen children twerk before. At least as far back as Cash Money Records “taking over for the ’99 and the 2000” I’d even call it a fairly common occurrence. While those kids are mimicking a sexually provocative style of dance, they’re not purposefully engaging in sexual behavior and no one really treats it as such. It’s more a cultural rite of passage than anything obscene. The discomfort of watching Cuties is that Doucouré’s camera does sexualize its pint-sized dance troupe’s twerking & grinding, filming their movements as if they were gyrations of women twice their age. It’s a deliberate provocation meant to question what harm pop culture & premature internet access might be doing to kids’ minds, which is made explicitly clear at least by its climactic scene in which an on-screen adult audience watches the central dance troupe’s erotic routine in total, visible disgust. Personally, I didn’t get much out of that line of moralistic handwringing about children’s exposure to sexually explicit pop culture (beyond the intended cringe reactions during some of the more outrageous dance sequences). I was more engaged by the drama of the main character’s journey of self-discovery, wherein she rebels against the constrictions of her home life by joining the bratty dance troupe that routinely causes a ruckus at school. Unfortunately, there’s just so much twerk-alarmist moralizing to sift through (both in the film and online) that the coming-of-age drama feels secondary and not entirely worth the effort, especially when there are films like The Fits, The Florida Project, Girlhood, and Water Lilies that already excel at what it’s struggling to accomplish.

I wish I liked Cuties more, if not only to justify all the mental exhaustion leftover from justifying its right to exist. It’s a mostly okay movie that distinguishes itself by taking some impressively daring swings at a culturally touchy subject – the kind of thing that in a better, recently memorable world would’ve led to divisive film festival reviews not a flood of online death threats. It hasn’t revolutionized the coming-of-age docu-drama in any way, but it has completely changed the way I look at and engage with online film discourse, especially among people I don’t already know & trust.

-Brandon Ledet

Mucho Mucho Amor (2020)

I can’t be the only American philistine who wasn’t aware of Walter Mercado before he was lovingly parodied by drag queen Alexis Mateo on the most recent season of Drag Race All Stars. That’s why the timing of the Netflix Original documentary Mucho Mucho Amor mere weeks after that episode aired was such a beautiful, unexpected gift. A sexually ambiguous television astrologer with a love for modeling extravagant capes, Mercado fits snugly within the parameters of drag artistry, making Mateo’s signal boost of his legacy a perfect use of Drag Race‘s annual, wildly uneven “Snatch Game” segment. Even without a previous awareness of Mercado’s public persona, Mateo’s impersonation and costuming made Mercado immediately comparable to other enigmatic public figures who’ve skirted the edges of drag pageantry – mainly in pop music (Little Richard, Elton John, Liberace) and in pro wrestling (Gorgeous George, Goldust, Cassandro el Exótico). A breezy pop-doc arriving to provide the details of Mercado’s particular place within that familiar pop culture paradigm so soon after I had first discovered his existence was a pure delight. On a more superficial note, so was getting a closer look at his closet full of fabulous capes.

It almost seems like a willful ignorance on my part to not have heard of Walter Mercado until now (or to have forgotten him from fuzzy childhood TV broadcasts), considering that he was a celebrity of note for four decades: 1969 – 2007. After a brief career as a suave telenovela star, Mercado quickly rose to fame in Puerto Rico (and, not too soon after, internationally) for his gently flamboyant horoscope readings, wherein he would dress like a drag mystic and assure each astrology sign that peace, love, and positive changes were heading their way. In a rare candid moment of Mucho Mucho Amor, Mercado explains that the costuming, wizardly hand motions, and mystical sets from these horoscope & tarot readings were merely “Stupid Stuff” that he would use to help get his message of love & positive thinking in front of as wide of an audience as possible. He’s not wrong. That Stupid Stuff is his schtick’s main attraction, and the driving force that puts audiences under his spell. He’s much more guarded during the rest of the doc, though, making sure to not reveal too much about his age, sexuality, gender identity, or personal vendettas against former colleagues who ransacked his television fame for easy cash-outs. Mercado strives to present a kayfabe version of himself in Mucho Mucho Amor that floats freely between any strict definitions of identity, so that he is more the spirit of pure all-posi love than he is a corporeal human being, and the doc does its best to oblige him as much as possible.

I get the sense that this documentary was originally intended to be a career revival for Mercado. Unfortunately, it proved to be more of a memorial service than anything, since Mercado did not survive long enough to see its completion. It’s very fitting to his all-posi messaging to have such a sunshiny posthumous documentary about his career’s upward trajectory, though, and it thankfully gives the film something else to fixate on besides the “What Happened?” true-crime investigation of the mysterious legal troubles that derailed his career. It also helps the film that Mercado was virtually omni-present on television for decades, reading daily horoscopes to his mesmerized fans, so that there is a glorious wealth of retro footage to mine for visual fodder. The ways Mucho Mucho Amor fills the time between those vintage clips of Mercado doing his thing achieve varying levels of success. The staged reenactments of 1980s households and the out-of-nowhere Lin-Manuel Miranda vanity tour that interrupt the flow of the narrative are a little distracting, but other gambles like the animated tarot card chapter breaks and the glimpses into Mercado’s contemporary home life work beautifully. Most importantly, the film allows Mercado himself to have the final word on his own persona & legacy in a lengthy series of interviews, so that the whole thing plays more like a document of a fascinating art project than a real human being, which works perfectly for the subject at hand.

Since I didn’t know much of anything about the subject going in, Mucho Mucho Amor could have just been 90 minutes of Walter Mercado modeling extravagant capes and I would have been just as pleased with the result. Actually, looking back, I’m not sure that it wasn’t just 90 minutes of Walter Mercado modeling capes, and I’m convinced its portraiture photo shoots deserve to be converted into a coffee table look book. It was wonderful getting to know this enigmatic astrologer mystic in such an intimate, loving way so soon after discovering his existence, and the movie mostly does a great job of showcasing what made him fabulous without getting in his way with its own theatricality.

-Brandon Ledet

Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling (2019)

You hardly have any time to adjust to the updated look & feel of the 2019 reboot of Rocko’s Modern Life before the movie makes fun of you for struggling to adapt to the change. In the new series timeline, the titular cartoon wallaby has been floating in outer space with his three animal besties (a cow named Heffer, a turtle named Filbert, and his pet dog Spunky) while watching the same rerun of their favorite cartoon, The Fatheads, over and over and over again. This absurd state of preserved, perpetual stasis is clearly coded as a comment on the real-life audience’s nostalgia for an ancient, deeply silly cartoon show from the 1990s – right down to its vintage orange VHS cassette packaging that all Nickelodeon shows were immortalized on in their home video form. Rocko is perfectly happy in his rut of watching the same show on loop for decades, asking “Isn’t it great how some things never change?” Obviously, a lot has changed in the 23 years since Rocko’s Modern Life has been on the air, which is immediately apparent in the crisp digital look of its updated 2010s animation style. Acknowledging & confronting those changes head-on quickly becomes the entire point of this straight-to-Netflix sequel to the show, which smartly interrogates the necessity of its own existence in a way that justifies the entire exercise beyond its value as a nostalgia stoker.

Once their outer space hiatus inevitably ends, Rocko & crew rejoin the citizens of Earth to find that a lot of change has transpired here in their absence. While Rocko can overlook his buddies’ fascination with the food trucks, smartphones, and 3D printers that define this new normal of the 2010s, he struggles with the revelation that his favorite cartoon show has been cancelled while they were gone. Most of Static Cling concerns Rocko’s campaign to Bring Back The Fatheads as a 2010s reboot, a Sisyphean effort to preserve just one thing as it was 20 years ago instead of accepting that everything changes with time. Mishaps in bringing back the series’ original creator, fighting off corporate directives to cut corners by having it computer-animated, and preventing the original show’s central dynamic between its main characters from shifting at all drive Rocko mad as he attempts to control just one aspect of his life in a constantly changing world. Those struggles also directly reflect the effort to bring back Rocko’s Modern Life in a meaningful way, of course, so it’s for the best that the movie eventually settles on an “Embracing change is the key to happiness” message, even if it pauses to make fun of 2010s concepts like “going viral” and to adjust to modern concerns like the evolution of modern transgender identity politics before it can get there. It’s wonderful that the return of the show found a way to be about something instead of merely skating by as an empty nostalgia exercise, even if that Something was empty nostalgia exercises.

It’s worth noting that Rocko’s Modern Life hasn’t changed so drastically in this modern iteration that it’s no longer recognizable. Its proto-SpongeBob hyperactivity and grotesque dedication to gross-out details like booger jars & prehensile nipples remain intact, as do the basic character traits & vocal performances of its main cast. The movie just doesn’t pretend that the world is exactly the same as it was when we last visited the show, instead adjusting its purpose for existing to address that exact cultural shift. It works both as a 90s nostalgia generator and as a meaningful work of modern animation in its own right, which is more than anyone should have reasonably expected from this straight-to-streaming novelty.

-Brandon Ledet

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