Belle (2022)

I went to see Mamoru Hosoda’s interpretation of Beauty and the Beast on the big screen solely because I recently enjoyed catching up with his 2006 debut (as a sole directorial voice) The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.  That introduction to Hosoda’s work should have primed me for the sci-fi spin the Japanese animator would put on that classic fairy-tale romance, but Belle was not at all the film I expected it to be.  Belle is a lot less about Beauty and the Beast and a lot more about The Internet than I was prepared for, which is fine by me, since I’m generally a huge sucker for Internet Age cinema anyway.  In this instance, Hosoda debates the merits & limitations of replacing in-the-flesh community with online engagement with the world at large.  He also uses the dreamscape visualizations of a pure cyberworld and the digi-humanoid avatars who populate it as an excuse to fill the screen with fun, excessively cute imagery for its own sake.  The result is a lot more exciting than a straight anime adaptation of Beauty and the Beast likely would have been, so it’s probably for the best that its supposed source material only accounts for roughly 15% of its sprawling plot.

The titular Belle is the online avatar for an anonymous, unpopular high school student who instantly becomes famous as a pop star after logging into the metaverse world of “U”.  Futuristic “bodysharing” technology allows U’s billions of users to be fully immersed in the senses & sensations of life online.  People still go to work & school in the physical world, but most social interaction & international celebrity is experienced in the digital one – like in The Congress, or like on Twitter.  Within U, Belle is the pop icon du jour, but she finds that she receives just as much cruelty from comment section trolls as she does adoration from her fans.  It’s still preferable to interacting with peers or adults in her real life, though, where her social anxiety and the very public history of her familial loss weighs heavily on her heart.  And at least as Belle she gets to wield her social capital for real world good: attempting to heal the broken heart of whatever similarly lonely teen is raging through U as The Beast.  Belle is both optimistic about and critical of what online community can achieve, and all the plot’s near-infinite twists & turns feel like a struggle to find a balance between that digital community and the one in “real” life.

I’m generally skeptical of modern anime’s need to supplement its traditional hand-drawn animation with CG backdrops & effects.  Hosoda gets away with it here by setting his coming-of-age sci-fi plot within a digital cyberworld, leaning into the uncanniness of the corner-cutting CG instead of excusing it for budgetary reasons.  Seeing it contrasted against a never-ending parade of trailers for shitty American cartoons in the theater certainly helped it stand out as an aesthetic object as well.  At least it’s constantly trying to look beautiful in every frame, as opposed to just seeking untapped IP sources that could be voiced by unenthused celebrites like Chris Pratt.  If anything, Belle is beautiful to the point of being sappy, but I cried at its emotional climax because I’m a total sap.  I can’t recall the last time an animated American film stirred up that emotional of a response in me purely through its visual artistry.  Maybe 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse?  And even that example has a much more limited imagination in straying from its already popular source material.

It’s probably for the best that Belle isn’t a direct Beauty and the Beast adaptation.  That French fairy tale already has a masterpiece adaptation in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version, a beautifully animated adaptation in Disney’s 1991 version, and a horrific imbalance between flesh & CGI in Disney’s 2017 version.  Hosoda borrows a few images & relationship dynamics from that frequently trodden tale, but he mostly uses Belle as an excuse to reflect on what community, celebrity, privacy, and bodily identity are going to mean in our near digi-future as most of our interpersonal interactions are ported online.  I’ll always champion movies that sincerely, creatively engage with internet culture as a valuable cinematic subject.  Even so, this one is more beautiful to gaze at than most, and I’m almost curious enough about what the English-language versions of its pop songs sound like to rewatch it dubbed while it’s still playing in theaters.

-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

Kung-Fu Master! (1988)

As I’m writing this review of a movie that’s nearly as old as I am, there are currently two prestigey Awards Season dramas from well-respected auteurs in theaters that dabble in age-gap “romances” between adults & teenagers.  In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, a 25-year-old-woman disastrously indulges a semi-romantic friendship with a 15-year-old boy.  In Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, a 40-something conman actively grooms a small-town high schooler for potential employment in the pornography industry.  Surprisingly, it’s the former film that’s taking a lot of online heat for its supposedly dangerous amorality, while the latter is enjoying a quiet, uneventful theatrical run.  Maybe the difference is that Licorice Pizza‘s friendly quasi-romance is played with a nostalgic sentimentality, while Red Rocket more aggressively interrogates the moral shortcomings of its skeezy conman protagonist.  Maybe it’s merely a symptom of Licorice Pizza reaching a wider audience, so more people are around to be offended by it.  I’m going to make no attempts to pinpoint the discrepancy, as I’ve been constantly baffled by what movies have been singled out by the sharpened knives of Age Gap Discourse™ in recent years.  Ever since Call Me By Your Name was treated like a Cuties-level provocation, I’ve struggled to figure out why we’ve completely lost our ability for nuanced discussion of morally ambiguous relationships, especially in discussion of fictional age-gap romances.  One thing I do know, though, is that if it were released in this current hyperbolic environment, Agnes Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! would make these morally righteous kids’ heads explode.

Agnès Varda’s cinematic persona has been over-simplified into a kind of wholesome meme in recent years, but she made provocative, fiercely political art in her time.  Even so, Kung-Fu Master! is one of the toughest watches I’ve seen from her, although it appears to have been made as a tossed-off afterthought mid-production on her documentary Jane B.  Made as a collaboration with that documentary’s titular subject—actor & singer Jane Birkin—Kung-Fu Master! is a sentimental romance drama about a middle-aged woman who inexplicably falls in love with a teenage boy.  The small cast includes Varda & Birkin’s own children, including Varda’s son Matthieu Demy as the snotty object of Birkin’s desire and Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg as his classmate & her romantic rival.  It doesn’t sexualize the scrawny, boyish Demy in any way – outside maybe lingering on a few closed-mouth kisses with the adult Birkin.  Still, it also doesn’t make any excuses for his adult fling’s transgressions.  She is attracted to him specifically because he is underage, visibly fascinated by his juvenile ramblings about boyish nonsense like Dungeons & Dragons and the titular arcade game Kung-Fu Master!.  Falling in love with him ruins her social life, isolating her from her own children & other adults.  The movie doesn’t make any grand gestures to demonize her for her bizarre infatuation, though.  It instead delicately interrogates the absurdism of an adult being so transfixed with a child she has nothing in common with.  It’s a premise that would not survive a minute of modern Age Gap Discourse, at least not in the morally ambiguous way it’s handled here.

Personally, I think Kung-Fu Master! more than justifies exploring this specific moral transgression.  It’s a movie that’s more about the why of its morally squicky events than it is about depicting the what; the most we ever see of Birkin & Demy consummating their onscreen fling are a few chaste little kisses and an implied sleeping bag sleepover.  Meanwhile, the film is anchored to a grim contemporary context that’s presented with much harsher tonal severity.  Kung-Fu Master! is not so much about its romance itself as it is about escaping from the grim circumstances of the AIDS epidemic by retreating into the innocence of schoolyard crushes.  Divorced & painfully lonely, Birkin’s fantasy-prone protagonist longs for the flattery & safety of flirting with a teen boy instead of a sexually mature adult.  She swoons for the smallest, scrawniest boy in her daughter’s class of brutes specifically because he is “curious & vulnerable”.  Meanwhile, the video game arcades she trails him to are crowded by AIDS pamphlets & condom dispensers, constantly reminding her of the much more dangerous, complicated logistics of adult romance.  It isn’t until the mismatched couple isolate themselves for an island vacation that they escape the havoc AIDS has wreaked on big-city living, and they enjoy a moment of interpersonal peace.  It would be very easy to dismiss this film outright for the hands-off way it approaches the immoral romantic pairing at its core, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for being too squicked out by that predatory dynamic to appreciate its larger themes.  I found it to be a tough but moving watch in more ways than I expected, though, especially the further it digs into the reasons for Birkin’s immoral predation.

Curiously, Kung-Fu Master! opens with a scene that’s perfectly tailored for today’s social media climate.  The teenage Demy, dressed in a karate uniform, mimics the stilted video-game motions of his favorite arcade game by treating his city sidewalk as a sight-scrolling button-masher.  It’s a visual gag that’s been repeated endlessly in TikToks & Vines, where teens will mimic the nonsensical body language of GTA maniacs or idle NPCs.  I don’t know that modern social media discourse would have much breathing room for discussing anything that happens after that adorable intro, though, since Varda is entirely disinterested in damning her wayward protagonist for her crimes.  I understand the inherent sensitivity of a film tackling statutory rape in its core narrative, but I still think there’s something lost when art is reductively discussed as real-life morality parables rather than a safe, fictional space to explore complicated ideas.  Despite the obvious personal connection to Varda & Birkin’s own families (including the eventual loss of Varda’s husband & Demy’s father to AIDS complications), these are fictional characters whose onscreen behavior are not being endorsed by their real-life creators.  However, the harsh circumstances of the world they occupy is very real, and their moral transgressions within it are a troubling psychological response to that circumstance.  It’s deeply fucked up, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth grappling with.

-Brandon Ledet

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

As is tradition, we’re spending the bulk of this January looking back at our favorite movie discoveries of the past calendar year, reducing hundreds of hours of thoughtful engagement with art to bite-size, shareable lists that will be forgotten by next month at the latest.  That year-in-review listmaking process always tends focus on The New and The Novel, prioritizing discussion of movies that we’ve only seen once or twice without allowing them much time to saturate.  Something that might be slipping through the cracks in that ritual is the value of the rewatch, noting what movies climbed in our esteem in years-later reappraisal.  Personally, the movie that most improved in rewatch for me last year was the 1971 rodent-attack horror Willard.  I had remembered Willard being painfully dull when I first saw it about fifteen years ago, likely because I was comparing it against the over-the-top mayhem of its Crispin Glover remake in the nü-metal 2000s.  On revisit, I was horrified to discover how much I now relate to the titular rat-training avenger.  Willard just wants the freedom to be lazy & enjoy his go-nowhere hobby (training an army of loyal, bloodthirsty rats), snapping back at the people in his life who pester him with chores & busy work.  It’s Cinema of the Hassled, a disturbingly relatable mindset in an era when we’re pressured to remain constantly busy at work & home even though the world is crumbling around us, with most outlets for social leisure taken off the table in the greater interest of public health.  Fortunately, I cannot weaponize my collection of thrift-store DVDs to attack my enemies on command, so the world is safe (for now), but I still saw a little too much of myself in Willard’s desire to shrink away from the world in his solitary, niche-interest hobbies without having to suffer the hassles of his daily responsibilities.

I won’t say that I “saw myself” in the 1976 thriller The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane—as it’s populated with the most reprehensible scum to ever grace the silver screen—but it did remind me a lot of Willard‘s Cinema of the Hassled tensions.  In the film, a teenage Jodie Foster just wants to keep to herself in her beautiful house, but all the creeps of the world (cops, rapists, busybodies) keep barging in to disturb her solitude.  They deserve the worst and they get it, fucking around and subsequently finding out, as Foster poisons the rude-mannered intruders and buries them in her spacious back yard.  Contemporary marketing for the film didn’t know how to deal with the moral ambiguity of a teenager murdering adults simply for being a bother.  Foster’s framed as a kind of Bad Seed serial-killer brat on the promotional poster, as if she were killing for sport.  In truth, she’s doing her best to live a peaceful, solitary life – educating herself in academic subjects like Dickinson, Chopin, and the Hebrew language instead of wasting her time on more traditional, narrow-minded schooling.  Her parents are out of the picture, but she can clearly take care of herself despite being in her early teens, asking “How old do you have to be before people start treating you like a person?”.  It’s only the adult authority figures who violate that personhood—barging into her home uninvited to impose their will on her like schoolyard bullies—who suffer her delicate wrath, so there isn’t much sympathy to go around for her victims.  It’s the ultimate Latchkey Kid movie, really, in that Foster is a fully autonomous child who would be perfectly capable of taking care of herself without any adult intervention.  In fact, the adult intervention in her life is almost purely villainous, an obstacle for her living her best life, free of needless hassle.

In the 2003 remake of Willard, Crispin Glover repeatedly shrieks “This is my house!” at the adult bullies who scheme to hassle him out of his family home.  My favorite thing about the original Willard is how uncomfortably relatable I found Willard as a character; my favorite thing about the remake is how much Crispin Glover is an absolute freak.  I’m only bringing that up here to note that a baby-faced Jodie Foster also repeatedly demands “Get out of my house” in her own Cinema of the Hassled thriller, but delivers it with a much more believable, authoritative self-assertion.  She very well may have been the greatest child actor of all time, conveying an intelligence & emotional maturity that’s hard to find in precocious theatre kids who don’t know how to play to the camera.  Unfortunately, that perceived maturity often landed her in incredibly risqué, morally shaky movies.  The same year that Foster starred in Taxi Driver as a teenage prostitute, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane asked her to fight off the unwanted sexual advances of a fully adult Martin Sheen (playing a small-town, trust-fund creep) and to engage in a consensual, onscreen sexual relationship with a teen boy several years her senior.  The film’s teen-romance dynamic would not survive the rabid Age Gap Discourse that seems to be constantly chewing up & spitting out new movie releases on social media hellpits like Twitter these days, but it’s mostly sweet in its portrayal.  Still, the film asked that Foster appear nude onscreen in the movie’s only sex scene, and her older, adult sister had to act as a body double to protect her from that exploitation.  Even as a one-of-a-kind talent in real life, Foster was hassled by a grotesque movie industry that did not have her well-being in mind.  Thankfully, it seems her family was around to protect her as best as they could, and she didn’t have to poison any lecherous movie producers and bury them on the backlot (that we know of, anyway).

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is incredibly uncomfortable, but it’s also incredibly well-written & performed.  It’s like a deranged stage play that got out of hand and became a movie by mistake, with sharply skilled actors verbally sparring in a single location for most of its unbearably tense runtime.  That single location happens to be a teenage Jodie Foster’s living room, which she’ll politely ask you to leave several times before her demands for privacy get more volatile & lethal.  Unlike original-flavor Willard, I don’t expect to revisit this film too many times in the future, even though I appreciated it just as much as a Cinema of the Hassled thriller.  Foster’s hasslers are just too goddamn skeezy for the film to invite multiple rewatches.  There are few people out there more frequently & grotesquely hassled than a teenage girl, and Foster clearly had to put up with a ton of undue bullying onscreen & off as a precocious kid with a talent for playing mature-for-her-age hardasses.  At least in this case you get to watch her take calm, level-headed revenge on those bullies, may they rest in shit.

-Brandon Ledet

The Dry (2021)

There are a lot of things that they just don’t make like they used to. Cadbury creme eggs, Star Warses, western democracy. But one thing that’s still reliably chugging along through the same well-worn, comfortable ruts that the covered wagons made, and that’s the small-town crime thriller. Now with more Eric Bana! 

Bana stars in The Dry as Aaron Falk, a federal agent in Australia who returns to his fictional hometown of Kiewarra, some twenty years after he was run out of town by locals who believed the then-teenaged Aaron (Joe Klocek) had something to do with the drowning death of his girlfriend, Ellie (Bebe Bettencourt). Although Kiewarra is now suffering economically due to the titular intense drought, flashbacks show a verdant river and fields as backdrop to the youthful friendship between Aaron and Luke (played by Martin Dingle-Wall as an adult and Sam Corlett in the past), as well as Luke’s then-girlfriend, Gretchen (Claude Scott-Mitchell). Unfortunately, it’s the tragic death of Luke and his family that’s brought Aaron home after all this time, in an apparent murder suicide at the hands of his old friend. 

Asked by Luke’s parents to stay and investigate further in order to prove their son’s innocence, Aaron finds himself the object of scorn and scrutiny by Ellie’s older brother Grant (Matt Nable), who still believes Aaron got off scot-free for his sister’s murder, as well as Ellie’s now cognitively challenged father Mal (William Zappa), who confusedly accuses Aaron for covering up for his son, not recognizing that the man he’s accusing is the Falk boy. He also reunites with Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly), and the two reconnect while he investigates. While reviewing the files of Luke’s wife, Aaron discovers “Grant?” written on the back of a document, which leads him into conflict with Ellie’s family once again. 

Most of the reviews for this film label it a “slow burn,” and it’s definitely that, with an emphasis on “slow.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it also wasn’t really what I was in the mood for when I was finally able to set aside some time to screen this one. There are no molds being broken here; nothing ever starts to get meta or strays from the conventional. It’s your standard Protagonist Archetype 7C (Law Enforcement Officer, Federal) with modifier 32-A (Chip on the Shoulder) sigma (adolescent tragedy), in setting 3 (small town) B (where  they grew up) dash 5 (in economic crisis) dash B (due to inclement weather), where Kappa (a homicide) has occurred, involving Pi-3 (their childhood friend). The plot is solid and hangs together. It’s nothing new, but if this is the thing that’s up your alley, then you will enjoy it. 

Normally, when we apply the descriptor “paint by numbers,” which certainly applies here, we’re talking about something with mass market appeal and application. This film is more of a masterpiece by numbers, where your end result is something that’s good enough to be truly proud of, or even be turned into a 1000-piece puzzle. I wish I could speak more highly of it, because what normally renders the more run-of-the-mill versions of these films to the heap of forgotten mediocrity is that they have no staying power beyond their twist, but this one is gorgeously shot, thoughtfully edited, and masterfully acted. You can really feel the heat radiating off of the ground in draught-addled Kiewarra, but it’s not enough to elevate this into the pantheon of its genre. It’s above average but does not exceed expectations. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

I was very excited this past summer when, during that period when things were starting to reopen and I was able to go back to the theater for the first time since Emma. way back in March 2020, to see Black Widow. I managed to see two others in theaters before the end of the year, when threats of Omicron (Persei 8) means that many of us are once again sworn off of the in-person theatrical experience, Nicole Kidman be damned. For the past two weeks, I’ve been trying to squeeze in a few last 2021 releases in order to soothe my conscience with regards to ensuring that my forthcoming end of the year list was sufficiently well rounded and informed, consistently texting Brandon that “I just need[ed] to finish Matrix Resurrections/The French Dispatch/etc. and then I [would] ‘call it.'” Many years ago, I wrote that no one could gaslight me like I could gaslight myself, and like Charles Boyer himself, I just kept moving those goalposts, until I think we are finally at an end, as I got the opportunity to see Spider-Man: No Way Home in a relatively safe environment courtesy of coincidental access to a GMC Terrain and Austin’s own Blue Starlite Drive In

Spoilers!

We open just where we left off in Far from Home, with our friendly neighborhood Spider-Twink (Tom Holland) having just had his secret identity as Peter Parker exposed by J. Jonah Jameson, once again played by J.K. Simmons, although this time instead of being an editorial-mad editor, he’s here running a Daily Bugle that, instead of being a decently respectable publication, is not-quite-InfoWars. Although no criminal charges associated with the accusation that he killed Mysterio manage to stick (thanks in no small part to Charlie Cox reprising his role as Matt “Daredevil” Murdock), the repercussions of the allegations ripple throughout his life. Peter and May have to move out of their apartment to avoid harassment from Mysterio truthers, and the controversy costs Peter and his friends the opportunity to go to MIT together. It’s the last of these that prompts Peter to seek out assistance from Dr. Strange to try and reverse the damage, but Peter’s second guessing causes the magic to go haywire, setting off a bizarre series of events. 

Seriously, spoilers. 

As a result, everyone who knows Peter Parker is Spider-Man, even in other universes, begins to appear in New York. Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) from Spider-Man 2? Of course! Willem Dafoe’s hypnotic Sam Raimi-movies Green Goblin? You betcha! Electro (Jamie Foxx) from Amazing Spider-Man 2? Um, ok, yeah. Thomas Haden Church as Raimi’s Sandman and Rhys Ifans as Lizard? If, um, if you want, I guess. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris)?! Unfortunately, no, although I kept an eagle eye out for both her and Mageina Tovah. Peter manages to round up these accidental invaders with help from Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya), and Strange prepares to send them back. However, when each of them shares that the last thing that they remember are the moments leading up to what we the audience know are their deaths (give or take a Sandman), Peter decides that he can’t knowingly send them to their respective dooms without instead curing them so that they might live instead: repairing the broken interface between Octavius and his cybernetic arms, ridding Osbourne of the Goblin identity, delectrifying Electro, etc. It’s actually kind of nice, but of course, goblins gotta goblin, so it goes off the rails, which is where things start to get really interesting. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one. A few years back, the CW DC shows did a big multiverse crossover event that managed to incorporate a shocking number of appearances from “other universes” that were explicitly other media adaptations: Smallville, Doom Patrol, Titans, the 1990s Flash, Superman Returns, and even more esoteric examples like Lucifer. There were appearances from Huntress from the short-lived Birds of Prey series from 2002, Burt Ward reprising his role as Dick “Robin” Grayson from the 1960s, and having Kevin Conroy, who voiced Batman in the 1990s animated series (aka my Batman), appear in the flesh as Bruce Wayne for the first time. Watching it unfold was like a matryoshka doll of niche specificity; it was a much lower budget than this, obviously, but it was still fun. I knew Far from Home was planned as a big crossover, that would start off the multiverse thing, which was hinted at in WandaVision and would play a big role in the upcoming Doctor Strange and the Who Cares, blah blah blah. But following on the heels of the what narratively should (but obviously capitalistically never could) have been the finale of this whole enterprise with Endgame, I didn’t really think that another installment in the Disney money-printing machine would manage to elicit the same kind of emotional thrill that of four-color yesteryear. 

And then it did, somehow. Maybe? There’s no Disney logo at the beginning; when the Sony logo came up, followed by Tristar, I thought it was another trailer, until the ending audio from Far from Home played. But I’m getting off track. Pre-release, it was impossible to avoid the rumors. Would Tobey Maguire come back? Surely not. The rights alone would make it all so complicated. But someone saw, or said they saw, or maybe heard from the PA that you met at a friend’s party that Andrew Garfield and his Tumblr-famous jiggly puffs were spotted back in the old spandex. And somehow, post-release, even after a couple of weeks, I assumed that it must not have happened, since no one on Twitter had spoiled it (for me) yet, but yeah, here they are. And, like, it’s impossible not to feel a swell of something warm inside when they all meet here. 

It’s common to call reference-heavy, perhaps even fan service-y fare a “love letter to the fans.” I’m not usually a fan of that phrase since most of the things that are intended to be so—perhaps especially when it comes to my beloved Star Trek franchise—usually come out muddy at best and are frequently, sometimes infamously, bad. And this does run the risk of that, especially if one is too young to really remember or to have ever even seen the older films referenced herein. But sometimes, especially in trying times, maybe a little bit of nostalgia is all that you need. Sometimes, it’s more than enough. Spider-Man: Three Spider-Men wrang legitimate tears out of me, and not just because no one bothered, I assume, to see what Rosemary Harris was doing. After the two older Spider-Men recount to Gen-Z Peter how they respectively lost their Uncle Ben and/or Gwen Stacy, Amazing Spider-Man gets the opportunity to save a falling MJ here, and this time he succeeds where he failed before, and it’s genuinely one of the most emotionally satisfying things that this bombastic, bloated franchise has ever managed to affect. 

And that’s just the bittersweet stuff; there’s still plenty of humor to go around, although obviously not on the level of Homecoming. I’ve spoiled enough of the drama that I’ll leave the comedy unrepeated so that there’s something for you to still discover if you haven’t already seen this one. If there’s one big quibble that I do have, it’s that Jameson as no-celebrities-were-harmed Alex Jones doesn’t quite work for me. Firstly, there’s no way that Marvel could ever let J.K. Simmons ever go full Jones; Disney might take a couple of potshots at him by having Jameson hawk not-quite-nootropics, but a film under their umbrella is never going to have Jameson get involved with Pizzagate or get taken to court for calling the Battle of New York survivors crisis actors. Although the film briefly touches on what the equivalent of our own real world conspiracy theorists would look like in the MCU, it’s pretty toothless. Going soft on Jones with a parody that neither sees him get his comeuppance nor push his pathological adherence to his outrageous beliefs past the line where his charisma fails to walk him back … you just wonder why they bothered. 

I guess I should close by saying that although this was a lot of fun, it doesn’t really hook me on the franchise’s future at all. I didn’t stay for the post-credits scene, and although it’s true that I was, as stated, at a drive-in and that my bladder was full, I still simply couldn’t bring myself to care enough to stay. But, like, does that matter? Did it ever? Maybe. Probably not. As a capper on the Spider-Man series, this would also do, and it brings it all home.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop: How to be a Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps (1992)

Before phrases like “sex positivity” & “kink” wormed their way into my vocabulary as a horned-up youth, Annie Sprinkle already embodied them in my mind as a sex-culture mascot.  Like other retro fetish icons like Bettie Page & Dita Von Teese, Annie Sprinkle has seemingly always been around in the public eye as a cheerleader for fun, adventurous sex – reaching me before I was old enough to access pornography without parental surveillance.  I don’t know if I first encountered her in a magazine interview or on a late-night broadcast of HBO’s Real Sex, but she’s definitely one of the first cultural ambassadors for kink & sex positivity that penetrated my sheltered suburban bubble.  Long before I had seen a single frame of her golden age pornos, she symbolized the ways that pornography could be fun & feminist in the right circumstances, which helped shape the ways I think of the medium.

While the mainstream porno Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle is likely her biggest commercial success, I don’t think Sprinkle peaked as artist until a decade later, when she was making avant-garde video art instead of traditional hardcore.  The cult VHS oddity Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop: How to be a Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps is a tongue-in-ass-cheek instructional video promoting kink & sex positivity, a wonderful document of the Annie Sprinkle ethos.  Co-directed with a young Maria Beatty (who still makes artsy fetish videos like Ecstasy in Berlin, 1926) and scored by experimental electronic musician Pauline Oliveros, the video is ostensibly a taped version of Sprinkle’s sex-positivity workshops that she ran in early-90s NYC but is something much stranger & more cinematic than that documentation implies.  In the video version of the workshop, Sprinkle lectures directly to the camera about the mystical slut/goddess binary. She promises to “awaken your inner slut” and “your inner goddess,” challenging cultural biases that a sexually enthused woman is somehow vulgar or immoral.  She walks you through this spiritual slut awakening in front of surreal green screen video-art effects while arhythmic keyboard flourishes, marching drums, and slide whistles trigger a kind of D.I.Y. psychedelic hypnotism.  Sprinkle declares that she wants the video to make sex “empowering, liberating, and healthy,” but in the process she also makes sex a bizarre psychotronic head-fuck.

While commercially marketed as a porno, the Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop plays more like experimental video art than it does like pure erotica.  It’s telling that Sprinkle & Beatty tacked on a lengthy threesome scene at the end of the video as an afterthought, realizing late in production that their sex video didn’t have much actual sex in it.  And even that scene concludes with Sprinkle experiencing a five-minute, unedited orgasm, lecturing about the different levels of orgasmic pleasure in voiceover while a digital clock counts every eternal second.  Everything that precedes that mind-blowing climax lands somewhere between the high-art mysticism of Derek Jarman’s The Garden and the psychedelic sketch comedy of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!.  A kaleidoscope of vulvas undulates on the screen while Sprinkle instructs on how to find “your goddess spot” and makes cheeky puns about how genital piercings make you “holier.”  Brief sex acts shared between her crew of “Transformation Facilitators” are transposed in front of backdrops that are usually reserved for karaoke screens.  The video is often hot and always fun, but it’s less pornography than it is Dianetics for your clit.

As you’d likely expect, not all of Annie Sprinkle’s sex-positive politics have aged gracefully over the past three decades.  The Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop has some major blind spots when it comes to cultural appropriation in particular, encouraging superficial Orientalist engagement with yoga & bindis as cultural costuming instead of genuine spiritual practices.  In the audio commentary on my mid-2000s DVD copy of the film, Sprinkle shrugs off the insensitivity of these missteps, explaining that she didn’t even know what cultural appropriation was at the time of filming.  However, she also recounts that those aspects of the workshop caused some of the video’s more radical performers to walk off-set in protest on the first day of filming, so those conversations were very much being had at the time whether or not she chose to listen.  Still, I’d like to think that it’s worth squinting past Sprinkle’s political blind spots to appreciate her ambassadorship for good sex and good pornography.  After all, she does have an entire section on her Wikipedia page titled “Contributions to Feminism,” which should be some implication of how important her messaging was at the time, short sights aside. 

If there’s anything especially radical about the Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop, it’s not necessarily in its erotic mysticism or in its video-art psychedelia.  Annie Sprinkle’s most invigorating contribution to pornography is in her D.I.Y. punk ethos, encouraging her audience to have more playful sex and even to make their own pornography at home.  It’s the same mobilizing energy that the Riot Grrrl movement brought to feminist bands & zines at the time, inciting women to make their own self-liberating art in defiance of the era’s cultural gatekeepers.  Sprinkle’s version just happened to allow her to experience a continuous 5-minute orgasm in the process, which is a pretty sweet bonus if you can achieve it.

-Brandon Ledet

Plan B (2021)

I’ve been a huge fan of Natalie Morales for a very, very long time. In fact, I just got the Middleman DVD box set for Christmas and am doling out episodes to myself at a slow rewatch pace like a post-holiday Advent calendar, after my last rewatch of gray market .avi files that are still watermarked with the ABC Family branding. I heard about the then-unfilmed Plan B, Morales’s directorial debut, sometime back and then don’t remember ever hearing anything else about it until it premiered on Hulu. There’s a distinct style to her comedic delivery and timing that I have always loved, and it’s present in her other non-Wendy Watson roles with which we have been graced over the years; it’s also present here, in an esoteric spiritual way and in the way that her voice comes through so clearly in the cadence of her characters’ dialogue. 

Lupe (Victoria Moroles) and Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) are best friends. Both have single parents: Sunny is an only child being raised by her mother, Rosie (Jolly Abraham), a driven real estate agent with high expectations for Sunny’s academic performance; Lupe has younger brothers, and her mother passed away some time ago, pushing her minister father (Jacob Vargas) towards overprotection, against which she bristles. Sunny’s crushing on Hunter (Michael Provost), a sensitive boy whose signature pairing of cardigan and P.E. uniform revs her engine, and she’s egged on by the ostensibly more sexually experienced Lupe. When Rosie leaves for an out-of-state realty conference, Lupe convinces Sunny to throw a house party in order to spend time with Hunter, but when he leaves with another girl, Sunny ends up having (brief and unsatisfying) sex with a different classmate, the zealously Christian dweeb Kyle (Mason Cook). 

The next morning, she realizes that despite her best efforts to use protection, she may be amongst the minute percentage for whom condoms are ineffective. This kicks off a series of events in which the girls try to obtain the titular pharmaceutical, during the course of which they run afoul of a pharmacist (Jay Chandrasekhar) who invokes the state’s laws allowing for those of his profession to withhold medication based on “moral” objections, a gas station attendant (Edi Patterson, of The Righteous Gemstones) with her own issues, and a supposedly teenaged drug dealer (the 31-year-old Moses Storm) whose apparent age is the result of never drinking water. En route to the closest Planned Parenthood, a several-hour car ride that turns into an overnight coming-of-age road comedy, Sunny has an unexpected encounter with Hunter, and Lupe finally meets her oft-mentioned off screen love interest, Logan, for the first time in person; both we and Sunny learn that Logan (Myha’la Herrold) is actually a woman. With the ticking clock to get both the Plan B pill before it starts to lose its efficacy, and for the girls to get home before Sunny’s mom gets back from her conference, one never forgets that stakes, regardless of how many peals of laughter are experienced between delays. 

There’s a great scene early on in which we get a one-scene performance from Rachel Dratch as Ms. Flaucher, the characters’ sex ed teacher. Just like I did, they’re getting an abstinence-only curriculum in which premarital sex is given an elaborate metaphor. You know the one; in his late-2019 stand-up special, Jaboukie Young-White talked about his Catholic upbringing in which the sinfulness of the Marital Act outside of the Marriage Bed was demonstrated by having everyone spit in a cup and challenging the last person to drink it. My school also had the one with the Scotch tape, in which once you put it on someone’s shirt, then someone else’s, then a third person’s, the tape lost adhesiveness, to show how we could never really properly bond to our future spouses if we allowed ourselves to be sullied by physical encounters in which loose threads were exchanged, if you follow. The September 2019 installment of Into the Dark, entitled Pure, took place at a purity retreat; during the scene in which the event’s spiritual leader asked for a piece of gum and started chewing it, I told my then-roommate that this was about to become a metaphor for how “gross” and “used” people were, and he couldn’t believe that this prediction came true. At least I am too old to have been subjected to Christian trap music, which plays a role here in Plan B

On the VHS tape (ha!) shown to Lupe and Sunny’s class, a woman’s virginity (and it’s specifically a woman’s in this case, which is discussed) is presented as a much-abused car, which her husband refuses to ride in. There’s something essential about comedy that requires it to be knowing, and that’s what elevates Plan B. It’s not just funny, it’s funny in a very intimate way, which matches the subject matter, appropriately interspersed with emotional reminders of the potency of teenage emotion. Sometimes, no matter how adult you think you are and attempt to take care of your problems, you’re still a child and you need an adult, and it’s ok to acknowledge that. That emotional honesty plays out in its demonstration of young love, and how it can be sweet and still a little embarrassing. And it does it all with humor that verges-upon-but-does-not-quite-become gross-out comedy, vignetted character portraits of outlandish but somehow instantly familiar personalities, and the warmth of basking in the effortless conversational volley between two best friends who know each other better than anyone else in the world. There are a few missteps; I personally can’t stand a late-film friendship-threatening argument, and although this one is blissfully short and quickly reversed, that really underscores how unnecessary it is. But I’m not here to get bogged down in those details, and neither should you be. This one’s a lot of fun.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Rare Beasts (2021)

Rare Beasts is the directorial debut of Billie Piper, whom you might know as a nineties British pop star, the companion of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, or perhaps even from Secret Diary of a Call Girl or Penny Dreadful. It also stars the talented Piper and was written by her as well, and it’s a bizarre, barbed delight, despite the mixed reviews, which we’ll get to. 

Mandy (Piper) is a single mother to the behaviorally challenged Larch (Toby Woolf), who may be on the spectrum. She works for a TV production company where she and several others are tasked with delivering pitch ideas, and the ones which the audience is allowed to hear are universally bad. It’s here that Mandy meets her relationship interest, Pete (Leo Bill). I say “relationship interest” because I initially typed “love interest” and then gagged a little, updated it to “romantic interest” and thought that this was an inaccurate adjective as well, given that there’s very little in the way of romance either. Pete’s a horrible man who comes very close to turning red and having kettle steam jet out of the sides of his head on their first date, as he spews unprompted vitriol about how much he hates women and desires what he considers an ideal marriage (one of female subservience), and how these questionable values align with his religious identity. Like, no one ever says “MRA” or “red pilled” but there’s a very clear reason why he’s alone. 

Nonetheless, the two navigate through the stations of the canon of the romcom plot; they go to their first wedding together (where Mandy briefly flirts with a man with whom she clearly has a history, and whose eyes twitch exactly like Larch’s), have a day in the park (which ends in a scene in which Pete and Larch bond and seemingly come to some kind of understanding by way of a screeching tantrum mirror match), and Mandy meeting Pete’s family for the first time. Every situation is frighteningly familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a screaming match break out at a wedding or family dinner, but also takes comfort in the bleak humor of detachment; it’s Marge Simpson in “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield” murmuring her way into the act break after grimly telling herself “At times like this, I guess all you can do is laugh”The Movie. That’s especially true as these relationship woes play out against the scenery of her relationship with her mother (Kerry Fox), who is terminally ill and, although separated from him, is still tormented by the not-so-harmless shenanigans of Mandy’s mostly absentee father (David Thewlis). 

I’m always someone who’s more interested in a fascinating movie over one that’s “good,” but I think Rare Beasts manages to be both. There’s a hyperreality to the bizarre dialogue, which is stilted and almost impenetrable in its content at times, but always delivered in a perfect clipped cadence. It’s an experience that ends up feeling like you’re hovering halfway between an unfamiliar Shakespeare play performed with the original dialogue but in a modern setting and one of those short films or musical performances that are meant to evoke the experience of what English sounds like to non-English speakers. It’s surreal and hyperreal at the same time. 

Mandy is captivating (as is Piper). She’s struggling, and that’s life. Larch is going to be who he is, and there’s very little that can be done about it. People are horrible, meeting dates is a tragedy in slow motion, and your parents will, someday, die. My favorite detail about Mandy is that, according to her father, she would write little death threats when she was a child. He laughs this off, but when pressed for what kind of threats they were, he notes that they were the kind “that would have you thinking,” as his eyes widen. Rare Beasts is a film of subtle details in that way; in an attempt at foregoing all the potential issues with intimacy, she shows Pete every part of herself, revealing in extreme detail which parts of her body she is neurotically obsessed about (there are many, including her legs, which are “too much femur, not enough tibia.”

The camerawork here is fantastic, shockingly ambitious for a first-time director and surprisingly effective and empathetic where it needs to be. When her sexist boss insults her talent and fires her, there’s a reversal of the kind of shot that’s so frequently applied to women; she is framed though his legs, and instead of being titillating, the angle at which his legs are spread (much more than would make logical sense for a standing person not in the middle of a cheer routine) creates a sense of overall wrongness that permeates the film just as it permeates our existence. At one point after Mandy stands up for herself, there’s an immediate cut to a crane shot of Pete and Mandy running through a deserted London intersection, and it’s like something out of a coming-of-age film, but it feels wrong, long before the details set in. At one point, when Mandy is eavesdropping on her parents by sitting on the floor outside of her mother’s bedroom, her father notices here and shuts the door, but he’s looking down on her as if she were a child, shortly before a sequence in which Mandy tap dances from childhood to her present age, in line with the film’s frequent dream logic. 

I was surprised by the film’s low Rotten Tomatoes score, which is an extremely imperfect metric at best, but when looking at the reviews and the critics who provided them, I noticed a pattern, and dug in a little further. There were 50 reviews, and for 48 of them, I could identify the critic’s gender (bless Rory Doherty for putting his pronouns in his Twitter bio and keeping that from being 47). Of those, 26 (54.2%) were written by women, and 22 (45.8%) were written by men, which is pretty uncommon; normally, reviews from male critics on RT outnumber those by women 2:1. I tried to find a film with similar statistics that I could compare that to and confirm, and after taking a look at The Novice, which had 60 reviews, I realized that it was also a film with a woman helming it, as both writer and director, so that would hew too close and skew the results. Then I found Cyrano, which at the time had 51 reviews, Joe Wright’s period piece with Peter Dinklage in the title role. With roughly equivalent reviews, 12 (25.5%) were written by women, and 38 (75.5%) by men. So yeah. Of Rare Beasts‘ 48, 10 of the male critics (45.5%) gave it a negative review, as opposed to 8 (30.8%) critics who are women. So not only did this film attract disproportionately female critical attention, more men still somehow managed to dislike it than women, and with women having an internal positive/negative ratio of 2.25:1, compared to 1.2:1 for dudes. So, I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re a man, maybe this one won’t be to your liking, but that’s not a guarantee since, you know, I thought it was excellent. Then again, this film is very much Not For Everyone, so maybe that’s to be expected. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011)

There was a point sometime in the past decade—at least as early as 2014’s Sharknado 2: The Second One—where I completely lost my appetite for ironic “bad”-on-purpose schlock.  Even retro broadcasts of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 have lost their luster for me, as I often find myself wishing I was just watching the B-movies being mocked without all the Gen-X sarcasm spoiling the mood.  Based on its title, its blatant Ed Wood homages, and its $10 budget, I was worried that Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same would be the exact kind of lazy B-movie throwback that I’ve lost my appetite for in recent years.  I was wrong. It’s incredibly funny & heartwarming, joining the ranks of the few rare examples of digital-era retro schlock that’s genuinely entertaining as the genre relics it’s parodying: Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, B.C. Butcher, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, etc.  Its cheap digital sheen & buzzing room tones almost scared me away in the very first scene, but by the end I was wishing it was a pilot for a What We Do in the Shadows-style sitcom instead of a standalone film.

The titular lovelorn Lesbian Space Aliens are basically a rehash of The Coneheads, complete with bald caps and robotic vocal inflections.  They’ve been exiled to Earth from planet Zots because their “big emotions” are eroding their homeworld’s ozone layer.  The plan is for the trio of romantic misfits to enter the dating pool in NYC, where they’re sure to have their hearts broken and return to Zots emotionally numb.  While one of the Zotsians is a shameless flirt seeking “hot alien-on-Earthling action,” the other two are just painfully lonely.  Their romantic mishaps on the NYC singles scene are mostly an absurd excuse to make tragicomic observations about the quirks of lesbian dating – the kinds of anxious “Are we being friendly or are we flirting?” observations that still routinely make the rounds on Twitter.  Every character in their orbit is oddly loveable in their downtrodden, softspoken misery – right down to the self-deprecating G-men who’re assigned to uncover their UFO launching site.  And when one alien does make a genuine romantic connection, it’s more satisfying than any mainstream romcom storyline Hollywood has produced in decades.

I’m not surprised to learn that Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same originated as a queer-culture stage play in the early 90s, nearly two decades before its movie adaptation.  Its writing & performances are much better defined than most backyard digi movies on its production level, and its retro-schlock patina is more of a launching pad for its humor than it is the entire joke.  The film was met with high praise when it premiered at Sundance & Out Fest in the early 2010s but hasn’t had much of a cultural impact in the decade since.  Anecdotally, it appears to have a low number of viewers but a high satisfaction rate, and director Madeleine Olnek at least went on to helm the more robust production Wild Nights with Emily (with Susan Ziegler, the actor who plays the codependent lesbian space alien Zoinx, in tow).  I totally get audiences’ general suspicion of low-budget, “bad”-on-purpose B-movie parodies like this, but it’s one of the good ones – meaning it’s one that has a sincere heart beating in its chest, just beneath its irony-coated novelty skeleton.

-Brandon Ledet