Bumblebee (2018)

It is exceedingly rare for me to ever abandon a movie-watching project. I will occasionally drag my feet on some of my more daunting endeavors (for instance, it’s been five months since my last entry in my eternally ongoing Roger Ebert Film School series), but fully abandoning something once I’ve started is against my character as a self-flagellating completist. There is one major exception I can think of that contradicts this personal ethos, however: Michael Bay’s Transformers series. After catching a brief glimpse of a giant robot fighting a robo-dinosaur with an enormous sword (or some such exciting frivolity) in the trailer for a late-franchise sequel to Michael Bay’s Transformers, I decided to run through all five films in the series to see what I had been “missing out” on. I abandoned the project after just one movie, genuinely unable to continue. Between the soul-deadening CGI action, Shia LaBeouf’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging, and the endless shots of Michael Bay drooling over Megan Fox’s exposed midriff, the 2007 film Transformers defeated me like no other cinematic monstrosity I can recall. I’m recounting this here to explain why the spin-off Bumblebee is such an unfathomably effective rehabilitation for the Transformers series. I can’t think of a big-budget franchise with a more drastic tonal turnaround that this wholesome, adorable spin-off to a series previously defined by broad, obnoxious machismo & cynical commercialism. I went into Bumblebee defeated by & disgusted with the Transformers; I left wanting to adopt one as a pet & a bestie.

A major factor of this turnaround is the change in creative voices in front of & behind the camera. Michael Bay is still writing (and cashing) checks as a producer on Bumblebee, but directing duties have been passed off to Laika mastermind Travis Knight, whose previous film Kubo and the Two Strings was one of Swampflix’s favorite movies of 2016. Knight’s expertise in animated storytelling is extremely useful in the CGI action sequences of the Transformers brand. The complexity of a sentient robot unfolding & rearranging its various parts to reassemble as a common automobile in these movies is usually sidestepped by making the visual display so bewildering that it’s impossible to coherently nitpick (or even observe) what’s on display. Not only does Knight clear up this visual clutter (once described as a “Cubist” use of CGI by an overzealous critic) with a clarity & simplicity in Bumblebee‘s action sequences; he also enhances them with the heartfelt emotional core that informs Laika’s consistently endearing output. That shift from horny leering & macho fist-pumping to genuine emotional investment in the film’s characters is likely also somewhat due to something never before seen in the Transformers franchise: a female screenwriter, Christina Hodson. Between Hodson’s writing & Knight’s emotive eye, Bumblebee doesn’t even take the time to salivate over the young, exposed body of its main female character (a teenage loner played by The Edge of Seventeen‘s Hailee Steinfeld). That’s a depressingly low bar to clear, but given Transformers‘s track record it’s remarkable all the same. Bumblebee even goes a step further by making that female character the POV-commanding protagonist, so that we care about her thoughts, her emotions, and her personal growth. Go figure.

Steinfeld stars in Bumblebee as an amateur car mechanic in 1980s California whose hobbies include working on a half-finished sports car her father left behind when he passed away & brooding alone to The Smiths instead of engaging with her surviving family. This teenage-brooding crisis turns around when she discovers and fixes up a VW Beetle abandoned in her uncle’s junkyard. What she doesn’t know (but the audience does) is that the Beetle in question is actually an alien transforming robo-species from a distant planet who is damaged & scared. This mismatched pair, the alien robot & the teenage mechanic who adopts it, teach each other strength, confidence, and familial love in a relatively small, contained story that happens to also include a bloodthirsty Cold War American government & a warring alien robo-species who want nothing but to tear them apart & destroy them. The story that unfolds from there is heavily informed by 80s & 90s kids’ movies clichés: resentment over a single-parent’s ability to move on; the big bad government’s stubborn insistence on destroying an adorable creature it doesn’t understand; the same-old 80s high school bully archetypes we’ve seen echoed & parodied into oblivion over the decades, etc. It’s a nostalgic 80s lens that naturally derives from the film’s Spielbergian schmaltz in its story about an E.T.-esque naive creature who needs help from an Earth child to find strength & find a path home. It’s a template that’s been repeated in titles as beloved as The Iron Giant & as lowly as Monster Trucks because, on a basic level, it just works. Even without this franchise’s origins as an adaptation of 80s Hasbro action figures, Bumblebee’s indulgence in 1980s Spielbergian nostalgia (along with tossed-off references to pop culture touchstones like Alf & The Breakfast Club) would still be more than justified, as it’s reinforced with a surprisingly genuine emotional core.

There are plenty of smaller details to praise about Bumblebee: John Cena’s turn as the broad The Marine-esque villain, the endearingly playful 80s pop soundtrack, the oversized emotions conveyed by the titular robot’s gigantic anime eyes, etc. Mostly, though, this film is remarkable for finding such an adorable & heartfelt angle on something that was initially so obnoxiously nasty it appeared fundamentally flawed & irredeemable. When Bumblebee crash-lands into this wholesome 80s kids’ adventure movie from his home planet, it feels like he’s fleeing the intergalactic clutches of Michael Bay’s libido & garishly rendered CGI. We’re as lucky to have him as the teenage loner who discovers him & fixes him up. It’s just too bad we can’t also hug him through the screen ourselves to show proper thanks.

-Brandon Ledet

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Aquaman (2018)

There are two distinct, directly opposed routes to take in adapting Aquaman to the big screen. My preferred angle would be to lean into the inherent absurdity of the character’s underwater superheroics, having deliriously over-the-top fun with the various sea creatures & Lisa Frank waterscapes that environment invites. The lesser, cowardly route would be to poke fun at that absurdity, to make Aquaman a gruff macho bro who wouldn’t be caught dead swimming with dolphins in bright superhero tights (at least not with a smartass quip about the indignity). The confusing thing about the DCEU’s Aquaman film is that it chooses both of these routes, embracing & rejecting the inherent silliness of Aquaman lore in what has to be the most perplexing mixed bag experience offered by a blockbuster since . . . the last film in the DCEU. Aquaman is a film that deals only in extremes. Its soundtrack must feature the ethereal beauty of Sigúr Ros and the obnoxious corporate party anthems of Pitbull, nothing in-between. It has to take the regal lineage & mythology of its underwater sea kingdom dead seriously and feature a cutaway gag of an octopus playing the drums. It has no qualms exploiting the cartoon energy of its setting as if it were an underwater Ferngully or an extended version of the “Under the Sea” number in Disney’s Little Mermaid, but it also feels compelled to cast Jason Momoa in the titular role as the broiest bro who ever bro’d, lest Aquaman come off as an uncool seafaring pansy. In the hands of an over-the-top Asian action spectacle craftsman like a Steven Chow or a Tsui Hark this all-over-the-place quality might have felt controlled & intentional, but coming from an American studio (with negligible influence from Furious 7 & Dead Silence schlockteur James Wan) it mostly plays like a confused jumble of self-conflicting ideas.

Jason Momoa puts in the exact same Aquabro performance here that he delivered in Justice League, except now there’s more of it. So very much more. Instead of popping in for an occasional, cute bro-liner like his much-memed “My man!” in the previous film, he’s asked to anchor a sprawling mythology about the regal lineage of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, which is on the verge of civil war. Legitimate actors Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson admirably play the material straight as if there were actual stakes to this middling franchise entry and it wasn’t just a lavishly expensive, underwater episode of Wishbone. Momoa’s jockular, beer-pounding frat boy has a much more difficult time of it, especially in scenes where he’s asked to generate genuine chemistry or pathos with the sleepwalking Amber Heard (in one of history’s all time worst big screen wigs). It’s a shame that the mythology is so inert & self-serious, both because Momoa’s sex-idiot boytoy persona struggles to carry the weight and because the various underwater creatures that define the world are so pitch-perfect in their absurdity. Aquaman is packed to the gills with mighty sea horse steeds riding into battle, mounted laser sharks roaring in ferocious defiance, stingray-shaped submarines zipping around like underwater UFOs, a pissed-off Nicole Kidman hurling tridents in Burning Man drag, etc. I was often bored with the villain’s quest to become “Oceanmaster” (whatever the fuck that is), the hero’s search for the almighty trident McGuffin that would stop him, and the overall conflict of “uniting the two world’s” of Land & Sea, but every time I was about to give up on the movie entirely some mutated Lisa Frank monstrosity would emerge to reel me back in. For every shot of Momoa mugging to pure-cheese guitar riffs in embarrassing attempts to transform Aquaman into a badass, there’s equally weighted flashes of pure nerd-ass shit that accepts the character for the uncool goof that he is. I have no idea what to make of the result except to say that it’s exhausting.

There were moments of divine absurdity that had me thinking Aquaman might be the best film in the DCEU (a low bar to clear, but still). They were usually followed by 20 minutes or so of excruciating boredom before that pleasure resurfaced, choking on the flood of narrative glut. My disinterest in Momoa’s bro-flavored charms might have been what sunk my appreciation of the film to an extent (although I wouldn’t fault anyone for prurient interest in watching him get wet for three hours). Mostly, though, I think my inability to fully embrace the film’s live action cartoon energy resulted from its own half-commitment to its over-the-top, nerd-ass tone. When the evil sea creatures of Aquaman off-handedly cite land-dwellers’ pollution of the ocean as a reason to declare war, I couldn’t help but think of the more fearlessly committed overfishing politics of The Mermaid or the birds’ rights activism of 2.0, Asian blockbusters that are unembarrassed of their ludicrous premises. Aquaman, by contrast, constantly apologies for the frivolity off its underwater Ferngully by having a mugging macho class clown reassure the audience that everything onscreen is a joke and the hero is actually super cool, not nerdy at all. You can feel James Wan pushing for weird surreal touches in the background but the cultural monolith of the modern superhero blockbuster has a way of smoothing everything out into a routine monotony. The result is a picture at war with itself, like so many power-hungry Atlantians. A few years ago I might have rated this film a half-star higher for the moments of unbridled goofiness that do shine through the studio system muck, but I’m just finding the weight of this genre too exhausting to afford much more of my energy. A version of Aquaman that was an hour shorter and entirely relegated to the underwater sea creature civil war might have been something truly remarkable, but franchise filmmaking requirements constantly pull it out of the water so that another macho man can mug for the camera in all his heroic buffness and the repetition of the schtick is getting punishingly dull.

-Brandon Ledet

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

After becoming accustomed to Josephine Decker’s aggressive, immersive subjectivity that sinks her films’ POV deep into the psyches of her fraught protagonists (in the films Madeline’s Madeline, Flames, and Butter on the Latch). I thought I knew what to expect from the still-burgeoning filmmaker. Thou Wast Mild & Lovely, her sophomore feature, mostly lives up to the pattern established in her other works. It shifts the gendered lens of her typical protagonists to a masculine POV, but otherwise her usual character-subjective sensory-immersion techniques remain. The extremity of the sexuality & violence depicted in the film feels way more intense than her usual impulses, however, as evidenced by the Kanopy streaming platform warning me of the film’s “graphic” & “offensive” content before the movie began. Thou Wast Mild & Lovely finds Josephine Decker taking her psychological horror show to the farm in what’s essentially her version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, her Spider-Baby, her Mudhoney. The visual & tonal aggression that overwhelms the screen is undeniably unique to Decker, but the ultimate destination of the narrative it serves is the closest she’s come to making an outright genre film. Butter on the Latch may vaguely recall the aesthetics & rhythms of The Blair Witch Project and there are plenty of unraveling-women-detached-from-reality horror stories that precede Madeline’s Madeline, but neither film match the feral-family horror extremity & familiarity exploited here, especially in its concluding minutes.

Joe “Mr. Mumblecore” Swanberg stars as a hired hand who spends an unbearably tense summer working for a mean-drunk farmer (the always-welcome Robert Lonsgstreet) and his dangerously horny daughter (Sophie Traub). The archetype of the sex-starved farmer’s daughter who lures visiting men into inciting her father’s vengeful wrath is so old-hat that it’s often the subject of bawdy schoolyard jokes. Decker, of course, finds a unique spin on the cliché by filtering it through her typical method of sensory-immersion psychological freak-outs. The most terrifying aspect of Thou Wast Mild & Lovely is the way Decker alternates between sexual menace & genuine eroticism. On one level, the hired farm hand & love-starved farmer’s daughter dynamic plays out exactly the way you’d expect: with the pair using wrestling as foreplay, hiding their attraction & interactions from the father figure like teenagers sneaking away from a schoolmarm, and with the daughter conspicuously displaying private parts of her body as if it were an absent-minded mistake. On a deeper level, the farm hand’s fascination with her goes far beyond visually-stimulated sexual attraction, almost as if he were hypnotized by a witch. One glance at her body and he feels the need to rush off to masturbate in a “private” corner. When visited by his jealous young wife, he still can’t keep his eyes off the farmer’s daughter, transfixed. Meanwhile, her father watches intently as a mean-drunk voyeur, threatening to retaliate against their taboo sexual tryst with horrific violence. Eventually he follows through on that threat, but even when the film devolves into a genre film climax the intense eroticism remains, which only heightens the terror.

I may be overselling the horror genre payoffs to be found in Thou Wast Mild & Lovely. An average horror devotee unfamiliar with Decker’s larger catalog would likely be frustrated in waiting for the film’s last-minute shift to extreme Texas Chainsaw Massacre domesticity. Before these final minutes, the most horror-faithful indulgences on display are in quick flashes of gore-soaked nightmare imagery that torment the farm hand as he struggles to sleep through the night. His attraction to the farmer’s daughter is near-supernatural and the father’s drunkenly brutish behavior (a far cry from Longstreet’s more tender behavior in projects like Septien & Jules of Light and Dark) is consistently alarming, but those conflicts don’t cross the line into outright horror until the final minutes. It’s a testament to Josephine Decker’s ability to generate nightmarish tension & anxiety in audiences that all it takes is a couple last-minute events to tip her usual schtick fully into the horror spectrum. Her most interesting impulse is in that genre context is in Swanberg’s vulnerability as the figurative Final Girl. He’s helpless to the oversexed rural freaks that house him, unable to maintain any personal space or boundaries while under their employ, effectively making him a damsel in distress. Mostly, though, what’s interesting here is how the slight hint of genre filmmaking influences Decker’s usual mode, not the other way around. Swanberg’s portrayal of a man fraying under the pressure of animalistic lust & an aggressive environment is not unfamiliar to Decker’s typical works, but the extreme violence that release the pressure does feel unique for her. Decker’s craft is as arresting & unnerving as always here, so it should be no surprise that the film is nonstop psycho-sexual terror. The shocking thing is how easily that tone can be tipped into the direction of horror convention.

-Brandon Ledet.

Variety (1983)

The No Wave cinema movement arrived almost out of necessity & survival. The New York City financial slump of the late 70s & early 80s made for cheap living that encouraged a flourishing punk scene, brimming with drugged-out artsy types who had to find productive creative outlets for their pent-up energy, lest they die of drug overdoses. Early No Wave productions are dirt-cheap DIY pictures captured by snotty, over-confident punks who had no idea what they were doing with the camera, but boldly did it anyway. As the city’s financial rut softened and the cinematic novices gained hands-on experience, however, the scene grew up and effectively disappeared. Those who continued to make movies graduated from No Wave DIY experiments to legitimate productions: Jim Jarmusch went from Permanent Vacation to Down by Law; Susan Seidelman went from Smithereens to Desperately Seeking Susan; Lizzie Borden went from Born in Flames to the Showtime equivalent of Skinemax. Bette Gordon’s 1983 erotic drama Variety arrived midway into that dual transition. It’s slightly more polished than the grimy, rough-around-the-edges punk provocations of early No Wave. It’s also a far cry from a properly funded Hollywood picture, still feeling like a haphazard predecessor to the soon-to-tome indie cinema boom defined by names like Tarantino, Soderbergh, and (surprise!) Jarmusch. Variety is a post-No Wave, pre-Indie 90s microbudget art project, a cultural landmark with no clear contextual home. That same caught-between-two-worlds unease is also reflective of its protagonist’s mental state and the state of the city she lives in.

Variety stars Sandy McLeod as a sexually timid woman who, in a moment of financial desperation, lands a job working the ticket both at a NYC porno theater. Everyone around her seems confused about her decision to take the job. Friends are curious about her stories concerning the daily tasks & customer base at the theater, but are also visibly uncomfortable with her growing interest in pornography. Her patrons & coworkers leer at her through the ticket booth. They reach for what little flesh they can touch through the money hole as she hustles $2 tickets for pictures with titles like Beyond Shame, Purely Physical, and Nothing to Hide. Even she seems unsure what she’s doing there, nervously pacing in the theater’s lobby on her smoke breaks while obscene porno sounds blare in the background, until finally she works up the nerve to peek at the projections inside. She initially intends to keep herself separate from the prurient films beyond the ticket booth, treating her job as if it were no different from any other service industry gig. That compartmentalization proves to be impossible as she becomes increasingly fascinated with both the pornography and its customers. In particular, she becomes fixated on a sharply dressed mobster who frequents her theater, compulsively tailing him around the city in a conspicuous way that puts her in danger. There isn’t much of a narrative drive to Variety beyond its initial premise of a grimy porno theater seducing a “normal” young woman outside the safety of her social circle (and socially enforced sexual repression). She leaves that social familiarity to experience a grimy era of NYC at the tail end of its porno boom, a strange time when it felt like porn might eventually go legit and appeal to a wide, mainstream audience.

As an isolated document of a grimy 80s NYC, Variety isn’t exactly invaluable. The film does go out of its way to document street-side ads for pornos and the internal spaces of dirty magazine shops & arcades. However, that’s work that’s been much more thoroughly executed by more recent, academic outlets like The Rialto Report. Variety’s post-No Wave depiction of a young woman being lured into the fringes of sex work is also outshone by the similar territory covered in Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls. The difference there is that Working Girls is much less delicate about depicting the implied sex of its setting, whereas Variety only includes light softcore imagery in its porno theater projections. That timidity is also reflective of Variety’s engagement with its feminist themes, which mostly simmer in the background while the main narrative concerns itself with an inner-psyche character study. The strongest Variety’s feminist philosophy & pornographic mind comes through is in a couple scenes where the protagonist slips into long, unbroken erotic-fiction monologues recounting the “plots” of the films her theater is screening. Meanwhile, her friends uncomfortably ignore her newfound interest, frustratedly busying themselves with pinball & Chinese food as if they can’t hear her. There’s also a fantastic break with reality where she mentally projects her own internal fantasies onto the porno theater’s silver screen, imaginatively transforming herself into a vamp worthy of the dirty magazines she’s started reading. Variety is less a document of a long-gone grimy NYC than it is a character study set in that porno-soaked playground, tracking how the sex work subculture that bloomed in its era spilled over into the psyches & behavior of mainstream women curious about, but cautious of the pleasure to be found within.

While Variety might not be a one of a kind, invaluable depiction of NYC, it is an invaluable snapshot of late-No Wave filmmaking’s transformation & dissipation. Photographer Nan Goldin’s presence in the film as a side-character bartender (among other pleasant-surprise presences Luis Guzman & Cookie Mueller) is particularly illustrative of the film’s late-No Wave textures. The photographs Goldin took on-set are stunningly gorgeous, but the actual quality of the film proper has the faded, warm hues of a vintage dirty Polaroid. It doesn’t quite look as amateur as the deliberately shoddy outsider art of No Wave’s humble beginnings, but Nan Godlin’s photographs are still demonstrative of how different the film looks from a properly funded, formalistically crafted production. Variety is a No Wave film in transition about a woman in transition as a sexual being thanks to NYC’s own sexual culture-transition that would soon be snuffed out by Mayor Giuliani in the 90s. That prevents it from being an extreme example of its time or movement, but it does afford the film a very peculiar, ethereal quality of its own all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Sheer Madness (1985)

I’ve been conditioned to think of The New German Cinema movement of the 70s & 80s as an especially macho wave of filmmakers brimming with braggadocio, as typified by personalities like Werner Herzog & Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Discovering their contemporary Margarethe von Trotta was a welcome change of pace, then, as her work appears to deviate from that macho boisterousness wholesale. Von Trotta’s 1985 drama Sheer Madness traffics in the exact raw emotion & understated cinematic eye as typical New German Cinema fare, but the film also serves as a direct, uninhibited attack on the oppressive masculinity & overbearing personalities that tend to accompany that over-philosophical style of artistic restraint. This is the story of two women who form an intense, impassioned bond outside the control of the men in their lives and how that instantaneous attraction is treated like a dangerous form of madness. Their families & sexual partners worry & express frustration with this unbridled friendship, unable to influence the behavior of two women who act as if no one else exists in the world. Strong-headed macho brutes are portrayed as villains who corrupt, pervert, and discourage a beautiful thing before it reaches its full potential, when the standard would be for them to be the creative voices behind the camera. That corrupting influence closes around the two women, who find themselves just as hopelessly outnumbered as women directors were on the New German Cinema scene.

Ruth is a troubled painter. Olga is a literary college professor. Both academic women find themselves drawn to each other like magnets after Olga prevents Ruth’s suicide attempt at the outskirts of a drunken party. After a brief separation, Ruth confesses to Olga, “I often think of you. Somehow you must have felt it.” Olga does not verbally confirm, but she does begin to spend increasing amounts of time with the typically reclusive artist, much to the concern of every man in their social periphery. Even Ruth’s husband, who initially encourages the friendship to blossom, finds himself frustrated with the women’s dual, instantaneous obsession. He berates Ruth for having social anxiety around everyone but Olga, threatens her with hospitalization, and demands to know “What does she give you that I can’t?” Typically, this kind of story would fully tip into the realm of forbidden lesbian romance, but Sheer Madness is all the more fascinating for sidestepping that impulse. The two women dance together, stroke each other’s hair, make intense eye contact, and trade polite kisses on the cheek, but their mutual attraction cannot be explained by something as simple as sexual lust or romance. It’s instead allowed to sit uncomfortably as an intense magical spell, only occasional broken by the men in their lives who apply pressure for them to knock it off. The resulting relationship falls somewhere between Heavenly Creatures, Queen of Earth, and Call Me by Your Name – something as volatile & taboo as it is idyllic & enviable.

Margarethe von Trotta seems hyper-aware of her outnumbered status within an artistic medium dominated by macho blowhards, making the philosophy & isolation of feminism an explicit part of her text. Olga lectures her rapt classroom on the personal history of the poet Günderrode (in full, Karoline Friederike Louise Maximiliane von Günderrode), who came to prominence in a time when male artists were used to sidelining women as friends, wives, and mistresses – muses, not collaborators. Günderrode’s writing about two women who are “violently attracted to each other” is an obvious point of inspiration here, but I generally get the sense that the director also identified with her as a femme artist entrenched in a stubbornly macho medium. As thematically blatant as those feminist literature lectures can be, von Trotta mostly expresses herself though a quiet, unimposing subtlety. The boldest stylistic flourishes of the film are stray shots of black & white lyricism that occasionally break apart the stage play atmosphere of the proceedings by showing the world through Ruth’s bleak POV. Mostly, this conflict of a volatile, policed femme friendship is choreographed with such restraint that it’s difficult to tell if even a queer reading of the film is justified by the text itself or just our expectations of where these stories tend to go. In the film’s best scene Olga serenades a Christmas party with a downbeat rendition of the girl group classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” channeling Marlene Dietrich by way of Carole King. The body language she shares with Ruth & the visible discomfort of both women’s families say something very peculiar & almost subliminal that could not be expressed in dialogue. No matter how much von Trotta’s work aesthetically resembles her contemporaries’, the way that scene plays out (along with the central feminist conflict at large) feels entirely unique to her, divorced from the filmmaking braggadocio of her era.

-Brandon Ledet

Butter on the Latch (2013)

Josephine Decker’s critical notoriety skyrocketed in 2018 thanks to her two most recent features: the form-breaking documentary Flames and, more notably, the anxiety-fueled nightmare drama Madeline’s Madeleine. However, the director has been steadily working for at least a decade as an actor, an editor, a performance artist, a documentarian, and a below the radar auteur – frequently reduced to her role as a collaborator of mumblecore mainstay Joe Swanberg in critical discussion. It would be tempting, then, to assume that her notoriety breakthrough last year was a result of some great escalation in ambition or craft in her filmmaking technique, as is often the case with embattled mumblecore veterans who later make the leap to critical darlings. One viewing of Decker’s 2013 narrative feature debut Butter on the Latch will dispel that assumption in just 70 brief, nerve-racking minutes of full-on auteurist onslaught. All the basic building blocks of Madeline’s Madeline were already present in Decker’s debut five years ago; they were just contained to a more restrictive, boxed-in narrative so that their full value is not as readily apparent. I was even surprised to find that restriction often leads to more effective results, especially in terms of eeriness & character definition, even if Decker’s 2018 releases are technically more impressive in terms of pure narrative ambition. Her audacity & editing room mastery have always been in plain sight on the screen; it just took us half a decade to notice.

The tones & methods of Madleine’s Madeline are immediately apparent in Butter on the Latch, as the film opens with a young woman tearing through NYC in a frantic state – the audience immersed in her POV through visual & auditory-overloaded details. Decker’s vulnerably earnest depictions of performance art (a medium often parodically targeted in sketch comedy mockery) that commands so much of the runtime in Madeline’s Madeline is also the first introduction we have as an audience in Butter on the Latch—confronted with an uncomfortable, surreal image of NYC theatre. Most of Butter on the Latch is anchored to an entirely different kind of artistic performance, however: Balkan folk music. Harshly jumping from the concrete modernity of NYC to the woodland location of the East European Folk Life Center in CA, Butter on the Latch is most distinguishable from Madeline’s Madeline in its immersion in Nature. The Balkan folk music camp where most of the narrative is spent provides a pervasive deluge of percussive chants & instrumentation similar to what’s offered in the more recent film; the story is also framed through the fraught mental state of a frantically unraveling protagonist similar to Madeline’s Madeline’s. It’s mostly the thick-wooded greenery of the surroundings that alters the texture & atmosphere in a substantial way. The idyllic Nature getaway setting of Butter on the Latch recalls a more reality-fractured Blair Witch Project (but less straightforward-horror) or a more energetically surreal Woodshock (but less fashionable). I can only name one or two titles that fall within a stone’s throw of Butter on the Latch’s peculiar Natural menace esthetic, Felt & Queen of Earth, and they’re both remarkable works that were released years after Decker’s debut.

Besides its Natural setting, Butter on the Latch is distinguishable from Madeline’s Madeline in the restrictions of its narrative scope. Instead of going for broke in its detours from reality & immersions in an individual character’s perception, Butter on the Latch disorients its audience in much more concentrated, careful jabs. The film functions almost like a 2010s update to Persona, with two friendly-on-the-surface women becoming increasingly volatile in their unraveling friendship & entangling identities. Two friends reunite outside their NYC arts scene stomping grounds, using the Balkan folk music camp as a kind of restorative spiritual retreat. A fractured editing style purposefully confuses the crises that distinguish them from each other: a recent romantic breakup, black-out alcoholism episodes, an apparent drugging & sexual assault, an unraveling internal state, etc. We follow the story though just one character’s POV, but the divisions between them become so blurred, despite being the central source of conflict, that they might as well be one self-hating mess. Along with this blending of personae, the stakes of the central relationship exponentially escalate from jocular discussion of romance & sex to violent hallucinations of emotional outbursts & physical brutality. This mode of conflict isn’t all that different from the three-way maternal war of emotional outbursts & weaponized art in Madeline’s Madeline. The main difference it that the narrative is slightly more contained & restricted, so that the characters locked in subliminal battle are better defined as distinct personalities (paradoxically so, given the gradual melding of their personae).

The main thing I’ve learned from the few Josephine Decker pictures I’ve seen is that her credit as an editor is just as important as her seat in the director’s chair. Describing the tones & aesthetics of Butter on the Latch or Madeline’s Madeline can only convey so much of the experience of seeing them projected; the defining quality of these pictures are the minute to minute rhythms of Decker’s volatile editing style. Butter on the Latch speeds up, slows down, turns itself inside out, and explodes in poetic, unpredictable jolts in more interesting ways that any plot or imagery summation could ever capture. Her debut goes in & out of consciousness in strange, terrifying locales along with its protagonist, making a day (or 70min) in her head feel like a nauseating nightmare. It’s a skill in pacing & sensory immersion I was shocked to see already so well developed in her debut feature.

Just the fact that I spent so much of this review comparing Butter on the Latch to her most recent work lets me know that Decker’s merits as a cinematic voice are so singular that discussing individual releases from her feels like blurting out an incomplete thought. I probably shouldn’t have even reviewed this film until I had also watched its follow-up, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely­­, but I did find dialing the clock back to her start illuminating all the same. Butter on the Latch is so confident & slyly sinister that it made me appreciate Decker’s 2018 releases even more in comparative retrospect. Her work’s potency & clarity in vision only becomes more apparent the deeper you sink into her catalog; 2018 just happened the year most of us took notice.

-Brandon Ledet

Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

Everything about Anna and the Apocalypse makes it sound like a one-of-a-kind novelty. Just the film’s basic descriptor as a Scottish, Christmas-themed, horror comedy zombie-musical screams cult classic in its uniqueness & specificity. That’s why it’s such a disappointment that watching the film is a safe, overly familiar experience, a deflating feeling that we’ve seen all this before. A thin smattering of its one-liners land; it has exactly one good Christmas-themed musical number; and it’s hung off an admittedly clever metaphor where the zombie Apocalypse (yawn) mimics teenage emotions of leaving your entire life behind after high school; but none of those minor successes are enough to overpower the feeling that everything onscreen is a well-trodden cliché. The R-rated campy gore is too safe & corny where it needs to be transgressive & over-the-top. Worse, it centers its narrative on the blandest Disney Channel-ready personalities it can conjure when there’s a much funnier, more distinct POV fighting for screen time as a side character – the worst case of that sin I’ve encountered since Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl.

The titular Anna is an escaped protagonist from a Disney Channel Original Movie – a high school teen worried about losing her friends & defying her dad’s wishes when she leaves town to travel after graduating high school. Her self-absorption about this personal crossroads compounds with the obnoxious atmosphere of Christmas Cheer to distract Anna and her friends from the fact that a Romero-type zombie Apocalypse is unfolding in the background – a longform gag lifted wholesale from Shaun of the Dead (except now filtered through Glee-style song & dance). In this new harsh reality, Anna no longer has the luxury of finding closure with her friends & loved ones when high school ends, as they are all eaten alive by the flesh-craving undead before her eyes. We tenderly say goodbye to characters one by one as if we’ve gotten to know them over seasons of television instead of a few short minutes of rapid exposition, while the least compelling one of the bunch is featured front & center as the inevitable Final Girl. The CG blood-splatter & Avril Lavigne level “punk” showtunes do little to flavor that genre-faithful tedium and Anna and the Apocalypse mostly plays like the Kidz Bop version of a more memorable picture.

I don’t want to portray this film as an entirely negative, worthless experience. A few flashes of humor do break through the Yuletide schmaltz to offer a taste of what could have been: a one-liner like “Christmas is quickly becoming my least favorite C-word” or a salacious song addressed to Santa Claus that offers to “warm his milk” and invites him to “unload his sack.” I was also often taken with an uptight lesbian side character whose quiet indignity throughout the zombie invasion is both hilarious & endearing in a way few other things onscreen are. All the specificity missing from the protagonist’s POV is hiding just offscreen with a put-upon ball of nerves who generates more pathos & comedic tension than the rest of the cast combined in what little screen time she can scrape together (in a movie-stealing performance from Sarah Swire). None of these momentary respites are enough to save Anna and the Apocalypse from its lowly status as camp cinema for normies. The movie doesn’t even have the decency to be over-the-top gawdy camp like The Greatest Showman. It instead achieves something as pedestrian as that one musical-themed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Plenty of people love Buffy, and that’s okay. I genuinely hope they get a kick out of this movie too, as it has the structural bones of something that should have stolen my heart. Instead, I spent most of the film bored, wishing I could listen to the horny Santa Claus song again or, better yet, follow Swire’s character in a much weirder, more gleefully perverse horror comedy – musical or no.

-Brandon Ledet

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Into the Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & medium combo that should be a total drag, but instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t seen the feat achieved onscreen with my own two eyes – which are still sore from the vibrant, hyperactive swirl of interdimensional colors & spider-people that assaulted them in gloriously uninhibited 3D animation.

Even if Into-the Spider-Verse had stuck to a single, straightforward Spider-Man origin story, it chose the exact one that could have kept the formula fresh for a modern audience. Afro-Latino teen dweeb Miles Morales is a welcome deviation in representation from the countless white-boy Peter Parkers who have swung across the screen over the years. Miles inhabits a hip-hop centric version of NYC that’s largely missing from the rest of the Spider-Man canon- represented in graffiti bombing, boomboxes, earbuds blaring legitimate radio-rap tunes, and a social pressure to code-switch when attending a predominately white school for the gifted. It’s a refreshing perspective for a Spider-Man universe NYC . . . until the obligatory machinations of the Spider-Man origin story take over the plot. When Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider, the audience has an all-too-clear idea of where his story will & should go as he transforms into an unlikely, geeky superhero. Except, Phil Lord immediately dislodges this story from that well-established groove to chase something much more unpredictable & self-aware.

Two distinct narrative deviations disrupt the typical Spider-Man origin story trajectory once Miles is bitten by that spider. First, he becomes aware that he’s living in a comic book. His inner thoughts become deafening narration he cannot escape, and his world is suddenly contained in Ben Day Dots and sectioned-off panels. Second, he becomes aware that his is not the only Spider-Man comic book. In fact, there are countless variations on the Spider-Man origin story that exist in a vast multiverse that begins to perilously overlap with his own. These variations include novelty spider-people like Spider-Man Noir (Nic Cage) & Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), whose outlandishness could not be further from Miles’s grounded hip-hop version of reality. Miles’s first-act run-in with a radioactive spider (and subsequent heartbreak with the tragic death of a family member) may be as consistent with Spider-Man lore as the NYC setting, but the comic book environments & quest to reconstruct the multiverse in proper order that result form that bite feel wildly imaginative for the material.

Those comic book environments & psychedelic multiverse overlaps do more than just open the Spider-Man origin story to exiting new avenues; they also allow for experimentation in CG animation that feels like a huge creative breakthrough for the medium. Where most modern animation pictures feel flat & unimaginative in their design, Spider-Verse is overflowing with ideas. The Ben Day Dots, panel divisions, and deliberately off-set screen-printing effect of its comic book design afford it a distinctly retro visual style, one enhanced by the claymation effect of its off-kilter frame rate. The endless possibilities of its collapsing multiverse also invite a total surreal meltdown of psychedelic colors & shapes, transforming Miles’s grounded NYC into a melted-candy nightmare. I usually dread CG animated kids’ movies even more than I dread the latest needless reboot of Spider-Man. Both of those well-worn mediums subverted & exploded my expectations for what they could achieve in this out-of-nowhere visual stunner, often multiple times in a single scene.

The only arena in which Into the Spider-Verse falls a little short is in eliciting a genuine emotional response for Miles’s journey from geek to hero. It’s a little difficult to lose yourself in his story when the visual language of the film is so (literally) flashy, and when other Spider-Men are on-hand to make self-aware, Deadpool-lite references to things like the character having “an excellent theme song & a so-so popsicle.” Every time a new, outlandish spider-person appears to announce, “Let’s start from the beginning one last time,” it’s an amusing joke at the expense of the character’s endless parade of reboots. However, by extension that also means it’s at the expense of Miles Morales, who likely deserved to have a straight-forward, gimmick-free Spider-Man origin story more than any other version of the character we’ve seen in the countless live action adaptations before him—one that’s likely to never arrive now.

The most emotional I got in Into the Spider-Verse was in an end-credits acknowledgement of the character’s creators – Steve Ditko & Stan Lee, who both died last year. Whether or not its boundless creativity left room for genuine pathos, Into the Spider-Verse feels like as perfect of an encapsulation of everything that collaboration inspired as you’ll ever see – both in its scramble to gather every variation of the character it can and in its vivid graphic artistry. I went into Spider-Verse expecting a humorous, satisfactory reboot of a character who’s been through the ringer too many times to yield any true surprises. I was frequently surprised and more than merely satisfied by the psychedelic, playfully meta spectacle that unfolded, then imploded before me instead. By the end of the film I could only cite one unturned stone that felt like a true missed opportunity, and then that exact gag ended up being a standalone scene after the end credits. The movie is that good.

-Brandon Ledet

Parisian Love (1925)

If you ignore the Hollywood Babylon-type tabloid coverage of her life, the most outstanding thing about Old Hollywood starlet Clara Bow is the sheer volume of work she managed to produce in the 20s & 30s. Starring in nearly 60 pictures total, as one of the few performers who successfully transitioned from the Silent Era to talkies, Bow was often locked in a Roger Corman-type schedule of filming several projects at once. As such, it’s a little difficult to determine which titles are worth your time. In 1925 alone, Clara Bow starred in 14 feature films, making nondescript titles like Parisian Love seem like they’re worth slightly less than a dime-a-dozen. Her career-making performance in 1927’s It inspired the term “it girl;” her early-career fashion choices in films like Poisoned Paradise & Daughters of Pleasure helped inspire the character design for Betty Boop (along with singer Helen Kane). By comparison, Parisian Love is just another face in the crowd; it wasn’t even the most significant film of that year for Bow, not in when compared to commercial hits like The Plastic Age. Still, as an hour-long taste of the boundary-testing, plucky sexuality that made Bow such a magnet for public fascination, it feels like a significantly risqué, defiant work.

Clara Bow stars as a street-tough “Apache” – an early 20th Century hooligan running wild in the streets of Belle Époque France. Working small-level con jobs, dressing in male drag, staging bar fights, and openly mocking police & social elites, she’s a Turn of the Century punk – one who only cares about her fellow Apache lover. Most of Parisian Love concerns a revenge mission to win this lover back when a member of the wealthy Parisian elite effectively “steals her man” by making him into a proper gentleman. After a botched burglary of the house of an upstanding science professor, their intended mark takes a liking to her injured lover and takes him under his wing, much to Bow’s jealousy. The queer implications of this love triangle are not subtle. The professor is obviously in love with his Apache ward – using the sexual surrogate of wealthy women worthier of his class to make-out with the injured thief while he looks on intently. Bow’s lovesick scamp also witnesses these commissioned kisses and enacts her revenge by seducing & marrying the professor to effectively rob him blind while rousing the jealousy of their shared rags-to-riches lover. It’s a story that would traditionally end in tragedy, but instead plays out here in straightforward romantic melodrama.

The queer implications of its love triangle feel slightly risqué for its time and the story is refreshingly reluctant to punish its criminal Parisian street punks for their transgressions the way it would have under the soon-to-come Hays Code, but that’s not what makes the movie a joy to watch. Parisian Love is mostly enjoyable for allowing Bow to play a lying, stealing, punch-throwing, crossdressing badass on a mission. She kicks wealthy old men who sexually corner “the help” at parties. Her tendency to dress in drag on her heist jobs gives the appearance of two “men” kissing onscreen. Her confidence in rallying other Apache toughies to aid in her revenge mission (with promises to share the professor’s stolen wealth, of course) is refreshingly non-“ladylike” for an Old Hollywood sex symbol. I watched Parisian Love the same day that the racetrack near my house opened for its first race of the season. It’s a Thanksgiving tradition, where young New Orleans punks & weirdos dress up like the social elite in a kind of wealth-drag for early afternoon cocktails before dispersing for family meals. I got the same sense from Clara Bow in Parisian Love – a snotty punk gone undercover among socialites, dressed in their garb but not in their values. I can’t pretend to have seen enough Clara Bow pictures to know how that image fits into her massive catalog, but it did feel incredibly, defiantly punk in a 1920s context – making it clear to me why people fell in love with her so thoroughly in her heyday.

-Brandon Ledet

L’Age d’Or (1930)

The short-form collaboration between surrealist masters Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou, is standard Film Class 101 material by now. I’m saying this as someone who’s never actually taken a proper film course, but has been shown the film in creative writing lectures, heard it referenced in Pixies lyrics, and (most recently) seen Agnes Varda mull over its legacy in her recent art instillation documentary Faces Places. The juxtaposed images of clouds intersecting the moon and a cow’s eyeball being cut-open with a straight razor are an especially gory slice of early cinema just as fundamental to the medium as Méliès’s trip to the moon, Charlie Chaplin’s sliding through machine gears, and a steam engine train rapidly approaching the screen. It feels ignorant, then, that I was not aware of the 17min short’s feature length follow-up, L’Age d’Or. His second collaboration (and final, due to a social falling-out) with Salvador Dali, L’Age d’Or was Buñuel’s first feature-length film. It maintains the surreal juxtaposition of highly political, violently non-sequitur imagery from Un Chien Andalou, but this time hung off a more recognizable narrative and sustained for a full hour. As that story is remarkably thin & self-subverting, however, L’Age d’Or often plays like a loose anthology of comically surreal vignettes; it’s essentially a sketch comedy revue with a fine art pedigree. That kind of highfalutin pranksterism is very much on-brand for both Dali & Buñuel (who would later reuse a lot of images & political tactics from this feature debut in works like The Exterminating Angel) so it’s bizarre to me that this work isn’t cited more often along with Un Chien Adalou as a significant text.

In addition to being a loose collection of silly non-sequiturs, L’Age d’Or might also be undervalued because it’s such a cheaply horny work. The thin narrative that binds its anthology of vignettes concerns a romantic couple among social elites who really want to fuck, but keep getting cockblocked by the wealth class & The Church. The pair lustily make eyes across the room at various social get-togethers until they passionately go at it, right there in public, only to be pulled apart mid-coitus. Even considering the flagrant sexuality of Pre-Code Hollywood films like Baby Face, this animalistic lust feels absolutely scandalous in a 1930s context—something Buñuel gleefully juxtaposes with the rigid social propriety of wealthy social events & religious ceremony. The sexual activity depicted onscreen is far from pornographic, but it is scandalous all the same: fantasies about a woman’s stockinged legs, muddy bouts of public exhibitionism, the fellating of fingers & toes, a minutes-long tribute to de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, etc. These acts themselves doesn’t matter as much as the elite’s response to them. High society types ignore incongruous, troubling events like the murder of a child, the intrusion of a comically oversized chariot helmed by drunks, and the posthumous decay of Catholic higher-ups who rot on beaches in their finest robes. However, any display of sexual impropriety sends them into a riotous uproar, and they continually tear the two lovers away any chance they find to go at it. It’s all the same hypocritical tension between proper manners & animal desires that would continue throughout Buñuel’s career. Yet, its arrival at such an early stage of cinema combines with the ramshackle DIY energy of a creator at the beginning of their career to make for something distinctly fascinating.

It’s said Buñuel was a new adapter of cinema as a medium around the time of Un Chien Andalou & L’Age d’Or, so it’s difficult to pinpoint which aspects of his work were intentional rule-breaking pranks and which were novice mistakes. Buñuel shot L’Age d’Or entirely in-sequence and without cutting any footage in the editing room; all exposed filmstock is included in the final product. One of the earliest French films to use sound, the film features both spoken dialogue & silent film intertitles as if it weren’t sure what to do with the technology. Often, the only auditory elements included beyond the music are of sound effects like gun shots & slaps. Sometimes this feels like an uneasy filmmaker not properly using all the tools in their arsenal. Often, however, it plays like just as much of a prank as the film’s horned-up plot, especially in the case of a toilet flush sound effect accompanying the image of bubbling water. Buñuel opens L’Age d’Or with a short documentary about scorpions that seemingly has nothing to do with “plot” in any direct, discernible way, but its inclusion feels like an artist who knows exactly what reaction they’re intending to evoke. Later, he documents modern Rome with the wildly uneven cinematography of someone who’s never held a camera before in their life. In either case, it’s a young, defiant personality thumbing their nose at the already-established rules of a still-developing artform, while weaponizing that new artform against the hypocrisy & wealth disparity of an amoral, grotesque society. That throwing-punches-before-figuring-out-the-rules attitude affords L’Age d’Or an infectious DIY punk spirit, even if Buñuel would later better hone his skills in more put-together ruminations on the same topic.

As a lover of both pretentious smut & silly hijinks, I couldn’t help but be enamored by L’Age d’Or. The ancient cinematic depictions of gore & fornication fully satisfy my instant-gratification need for pure entertainment value, while the inclusion of Surrealist heavy-hitters like Dali & Max Ernst (who appears in a minor role) as collaborators allows me to pretend I’m watching Important Art. I understand how the prurient subject matter & the extended runtime might keep it from being as standard of a classroom tool as Un Chien Andalou, but you can easily detect its influence on important, artsy-fartsy filmmakers as wide-ranging as David Lynch, Ken Russell, Roy Andersson, Guy Maddin, and Monty Python throughout. That’s wonderful to able to say about a series of sketches detailing a romantic couple’s thwarted attempts to fuck in public.

-Brandon Ledet