My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea (2017)

I don’t often get excited for modern animation. The flat, rounded-out, overly precise digital designs of CG-animated movies, including well-respected behemoths of the medium like Disney & Pixar, are largely uninspiring to me, even if they illustrate a well-told story. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is the perfect antidote to these troubled, CG animation times. Jumping from Fantagraphics-published graphic novels to feature-length filmmaking, visual artist Dash Shaw overwhelms the senses in My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea with a tactile, unnecessarily complex visual style that feels like the philosophical opposite of modern CG animation doldrums. Shaw’s loosely sketched figures navigate blindingly colorful backgrounds of ever-shifting multimedia collage, recalling the more psychedelic impulses that invade the black & white stick figure frames of Don Herzfeld’s work or the short-form experiments you might catch in a late-night haze on Adult Swim. This eccentric visual design is paired with an over-the-top, go-for-broke plot (spelled out plainly in the title), but is also tempered by a laid-back, juvenile attitude that calmly strolls through its dizzying whirlpool of ambitious ideas. In a perfect world, a film this visually stunning & naturally cool would gather at least a cult audience through its challenge to the inhuman computer graphics style that typically guides modern animation aesthetics. Instead, My Entire High School Singing into the Sea had a single-week, single-screen theatrical run in New Orleans before disappearing for nearly a full year and then popping up on Netflix to little fanfare. Dash Shaw dared to leave his grubby little fingerprints all over this messy, overly-ambitious debut, delivering the film that modern animation needs, but no audience seems to want.

Jason Schwartzman stars as an unpopular jerk of a high school student who wastes his energy overachieving as a “journalist” for the school newspaper, making this film feel somewhat like an unsanctioned Rushmore sequel. Since he’s both a social nuisance and a known blowhard, his warnings to the student body that the school (which was built both cliffside and on a fault line) is at risk of crumbling at the slightest earthquake are an act of crying wolf. Early in the runtime, this foretold earthquake knocks the entire high school into the adjacent sea and the majority of the film is a Titanic-like race for survival as the building sinks into the water. Schwartzman’s prickly protagonist is joined on his voyage to safety by an impressive voice cast of tagalongs: Reggie Watts & Maya Rudolph as fellow newspaper nerds, Lena Dunham as a Tracy Flick-like over-achiever, and (the MVP of the movie) Susan Sarandon as a tough-as-nails lunch lady who acts as the group’s only muscle. Each speak in hushed, flat voices, incredibly calm in the face of their surroundings burning, crumbling and flooding in ever-worsening mayhem. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a laid-back irreverent comedy, but it does not shy away from the Hellish displays of widespread destruction its over-the-top premise naturally inspires. Our ragtag group of aggressively casual, self-obsessed teens (and their remarkably buff lunch lady) are subjected to the horrors of libraries aflame, flesh-eating miniature sharks, haunted locker rooms, and makeshift dystopian societies that deify social popularity to determine their leaders. It’s all very goofy & flippantly nonchalant about the panic that defines its borders, but it’s also a perilous journey to safety & rescue littered with the blood, guts, limbs, and severed heads of the less-fortunate students who don’t make the cut.

The simplicity of that story is a necessity, as it allows room for the much busier visual assault that obliterates eyeballs for the entirety of the runtime. Before the picture starts, a title card warns of potential risks for inducing photosensitive epilepsy. It becomes immediately apparent why, as just a character running to catch a school bus in the opening scene is a layered, video game-inspired adventure of visual hyperactivity. Dash Shaw’s debut movie is bursting with weirdo experiments that push animation as a medium by remixing older, more hands-on methods into new, stunning arrangements. It’s like the mashup DJ equivalent of a modern animated feature in that way, except that its adoption of past, rudimentary techniques are transformative, not nostalgic. Crayon scribbles, amateur sketchbook doodling, and Prince Achmed-style cutouts supply its elemental building blocks, but their cumulative, layered effect is something much more impressively complex than those D.I.Y. tactics imply. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a simple, irreverent comedy about teen brats winging their way through an absurd, impossible crisis. It’s also a bold vision for how animation can evolve in meaningful, tactile ways without fully succumbing to 100% computerization. And if you don’t personally enjoy what Shaw accomplishes in the picture, don’t worry. His dialogue promises, “Next time I’ll water it down so that it’s shitty and more popular!”

-Brandon Ledet

Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone (2017)

Knowing the director duo Daniels from their work on projects like Swiss Army Man and the “Turn Down for What” music video, it’s immediately apparent why they would be interested in signing on as producers for Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone. Not only does the movie feature comedic actor Sunita Mari, who also features heavily in their work on “Turn Down for What,” it also plays directly into the post-Adult Swim visual excess & juvenile fart humor absurdity that’s quickly come to define their work. Later in the film, a cameo from digital era prankster Reggie Watts sets in stone the exact visual & comedic vibe the film is aiming for. What’s important about Snowy Bing Bongs, though, is not the continued joy of revisiting its more recognizable contributors, but rather the way the film works as an introduction to new talents. These newcomers arrive in the form of the Cocoon Central Dance Team: Eleanore Piente, Tallie Medel, and Sunita Mani (who has already had a great year on the screen, thanks to eye-catching turns on both GLOW & The Good Place, probably my two favorite new television comedies). The film is essentially a mid-length showcase for their various comedic styles, so your reaction to it as an overall piece will rely heavily on how much they can make you laugh.

Most stills & advertisements for Snowy Bing Bongs emphasize the look of its central tableau: a snow-covered planet where three women dressed only in bear skin rugs awkwardly dance with beach ball props. The weirdo dance sequences set on this cotton candy planet only make up a fraction of the film’s runtime as a kind of all-purpose wraparound. The majority of the film functions as a sketch comedy revue, with each member of the Cocoon Central Dance Team being afforded their own series of non sequitur vignettes in which to steal the spotlight. Weirdo characters who can’t pronounce their own names, refer to applause as “hand-slappies,” and discover that they have more internal organs than they initially suspected take turns branching off into their own sketches before the film’s rotary dial returns to the cotton candy snow planet wraparound. The whole thing feels like an extended episode of an Adult Swim sketch comedy show, only functioning like a proper movie in the tableau dance routine & moments of meta commentary on cinema, like the question, “Why do we make movies?” or a sketch that’s essentially a built-in post-screening Q&A. The movie can be very funny from gag to gag, but it’s very rare that it actually feels cinematic.

The heart of Snowy Bing Bongs definitely lies in that cotton candy snow planet, which is explained to be under attack by beach ball asteroids. There’s a slight narrative shift within that wraparound, starting with a rival planet of over-heated bikini babes whose beach balls invade the snow planet and are eventually defeated. More importantly, though, the aggressively ungraceful “choreography” of the dance routines outshines much of the traditional comedy sketches they interrupt, a point that’s driven home in the film’s best vignette: a horrifyingly amateurish pop music performance on a fictional early 2000s TRL-style variety show. Snowy Bing Bongs might have been a better film if it had stuck to a single storyline set on the icy planet of bear skin rug-wearing alien women, but I’m not even sure what that would look like. Instead, we get a mid-length introduction to a new crop of sketch comedy performers & writers that incorporates its fractured structure into their aggressively amateurish Tim & Eric aesthetic. That’s its own kind of pleasure for sure and by the end I was far more surprised than I was disappointed by the form it chose to take.

-Brandon Ledet

Creative Control (2016)

EPSON MFP image

three star

“It’ll be weird when we all have chips in our brains.”
“It won’t seem weird then. It’ll seem inevitable.”

Some of the most effective sci-fi works are the ones that don’t have to reach too far into the future to find something worth saying. The recent indie cheapie Creative Control doesn’t say exactly what year it’s supposed to be set in, but it might as well be next year, maybe even next month. Walking through the CBD in New Orleans every week, I see tons of tiny tech startups clacking away on their Apple computers in the giant, unobscured windows of their rented, cubicle-free workspaces. I usually assume most of these businesses are in the search optimization market or something similarly intangible, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t be hammering away at creating or advertising Augmenta, the central technological advancement that drives the plot of Creative Control. The film starts from an entirely plausible place & doesn’t stray too far from that contemporary anchor, a decision that helps keep its technophobic paranoia surprisingly relatable, despite its hamfisted smartphone addiction shaming & the general unlikeablility of its characters.

The fictional technological advancement Augmenta, in case you haven’t guessed it, is posed as the next logical step in augmented reality. Housed in the clear plastic frames of hipster glasses, Augmenta is much more stylish than the Borg-ish look of Google Glass & aims for a Steve Jobs-esque attention to clean, fashionable visual aesthetic. The company hired to sell this product is a hipster Brooklynite version of Mad Men, complete with rampant alcoholism, model-chasing adultery, and hypermasculine ennui. This is cheap, casual sci-fi with occasional moments of off-putting acting choices, but it’s grounded in a very specific world of money-chasing advertisers & profit > people manufacturers that’s likely never going away, so it actually comes across as relatively pertinent to our current consumer culture. Creative Control toes the thin line that divides technology & magic, exploring the way that A.R. advancements attempt to “enhance real life with a magical layer in front of it.” It uses the uncanny, inevitable future of every consumer wearing a “face computer” to moralize about a modern society increasingly “addicted to misery & pain” and decreasingly engaged with life head on as characters multitask in both the real & digital worlds simultaneously, never fully focused on a single interaction in a constant attempt to focus on them all. Creative Control presents big ideas about digital & tangible interactions in a very realistic future, but those concerns merely color the anxieties of its beyond-grating cast of capitalist brutes rather than lead to some kind of grand, epiphanic statement about where our culture is headed.

For all of its see-through smartphones, holographic lap dances, and strange, geometrically-shaped pills, the world of Creative Control is still very much like our own. It’s even crawling with the same cocaine-numb bro monsters, douchebag fashion photographers, and overly flirtations yoga instructors that currently infest the masculine end of modern hipsterdom as we speak. Creative Control’s plot mostly revolves around a tangled web of adultery & romantic jealousies where an ad agency jerk (with a Yoni Wolf fashion sense) satisfies his lust for a skirt-chasing buddy’s girlfriend by masturbating to her avatar in his Augmenta-created fantasy world. In the process he loses touch with his girlfriend’s wants & needs and the basic demands of his job as he slips further into a drug & alcohol fueled confusion that blends reality & fantasy into a difficult-to-parse mess of petty romantic betrayals.

No one in the male-dominated film isn’t an asshole except the two girlfriends who get sucked into their partners’ corrosive bullshit and they’re treated like a nagging shrew & a magic pixie dream girl ideal, respectfully. The one exception there is Reggie Watts, playing himself as Augmenta’s chosen spokesman. It’s in Watts’s prankster-minded screen presence and in the film’s crisp, black & white digital cinematography that Creative Control finds its own voice as a distinct work. Its fretting over technology addiction & its anxious gaze into modern romance is a little less special, but also a natural element of its pedigree as a contemporary sci-fi drama. I left Creative Control glad to see Reggie Watts get paid for being his wonderfully weird self (along with a cameo role H Jon Benjamin) and super glad that I don’t have to deal with the film’s tech startup bros in my own life, though I know for sure that they exist. It worked pretty well for me in that way even if it wasn’t the cinematic breakthrough equivalent of augmented reality or “face computer” technology.

-Brandon Ledet