Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (2021)

The recent Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was a rousing success with both audiences and professional critics, so it’s natural that a subgenre of vintage television hagiographies would follow.  Chicken Soup for the Soul’s movie production wing has now entered the chat with an adaptation of the pop media history book Street Gang, which documents the early development & broadcast of the children’s education show Sesame Street.  Like Won’t You Be My Neighbor‘s museum tour through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a Wikipedia-in-motion recap of its show’s historic bullet points, underlined by a heartfelt nostalgia for its radical, politically pointed brand of Kindness in an era of constant political turmoil (the times, they aren’t a changin’ much).  As a history lesson, the film does a great job contextualizing Sesame Street‘s intent, execution, and impact through the 1970s and 80s; it efficiently packs a lot of background information into a relatively short runtime without overwhelming the audience.  As an emotional nostalgia trip, however, it never quite conjures the same magic as the Mister Rogers doc, which was largely popular because it could wring tears out of an unsuspecting audience like an old dishcloth.

As told here, Sesame Street started as a purely educational public service meant to enrich the lives of Inner-City Kids who were watching television for up to 60 hours a week, mostly alone while their parents worked.  Childhood psychology studies were conducted to parse out exactly what children paid attention to and retained from all that screentime, and how to make the most use out of that engagement.  It turned out commercial jingles for products like breakfast cereal & beer were the most resonant programming among the adolescent audience, so they designed a show that would “sell the alphabet to preschool children” as if it were a supermarket product.  Then, through the process of putting together a show aimed specifically at young urbanites, eccentric puppeteers like Jim Henson & Frank Oz were paired with Civil Rights activists & other Lefties to guide its creative vision, expanding its scope from educational jingles to an all-inclusive utopian vision of a world where “television loved people” instead of being outright hostile to them.  It’s a twisty journey from concept to screen with creative, political input from many, varied minds.  All that amounts to a fascinating history (which I assume is even more richly conveyed in the source material), but not necessarily an emotional gut punch.

Luckily, Sesame Street already has its own emotional gut punch documentary in the Carroll Spinney biography I Am Big Bird, which charts out the beloved puppeteer’s delicate psychological balance as expressed through both Big Bird & Oscar the Grouch.  If you’re looking for a good, wholesome cry, go there.  Because Steet Gang is spread out across so many collaborators and decades of backstory, it can’t possibly pack the same emotional wallop as the Fred Rogers or Caroll Spinney docs.  Between its praise for Spinney, Henson, Oz, songwriter Joe Raposo, and behind-the-scenes shot callers like Joan Ganz Cooney & Jon Stone, it’s reluctant to single out any one creative as responsible for the show’s magic, which makes for good journalism but shaky foundation for an emotional arc.  If there’s any core pathos to the story Street Gang tells, it’s in watching a group of young, fired-up artists & Leftists age into grumpy, burnt-out workaholics as the weekly workload of Sesame Street grinds their enthusiasm into dust.  For the most part, though, it’s just a warm bath of vintage television nostalgia that relies on feel-good throwback clips & behind-the-scenes insight to feel worthwhile.  And it works.  The expectation that these vintage TV docs emotionally destroy you is likely an unfair one; sometimes they’re just Nice.

-Brandon Ledet

Kid90 (2021)

The unspoken allure for documentaries as a medium is the promise that you’ll see raw, honest footage from real life that could never be captured in narrative filmmaking.  No matter how well a doc is fortified by talking-head interviews, firmly contextualized historical research, or a strong editorial POV, its main selling point to most audiences is going to be the carnival-barker promise of never-before-seen wonders you won’t find elsewhere in cinema.  I was thinking a lot about that tension between raw archival footage & carefully curated supplementary material during Soleil Moon Frye’s self-portrait documentary Kid90.  A reflection on her post-Punky Brewster years as a party-hard teenager with a constantly running camcorder among other Famous 90s Kids, Kid90 is a vintage backstage tour of teenage celebrity you’re likely to never see with such raw, intimate candor again.  Its modern talking-head interviews & narration often cheapen the impact of those video diary clips, but the camcorder footage is such a powerful clash of pop culture nostalgia & miserable decadence that it doesn’t matter much.  Kid90 delivers on the promise of unveiling raw, honest footage of its subjects that you’d never see in their carefully curated public appearances, but we’re at the mercy of how Frye chooses to contextualize (or withhold) that footage as the director/narrator.  We only get a peek into the window, but it’s a privilege to be invited into her world at all.

It makes sense that a former child celebrity would be protective of the private footage she has of herself and her friends (both alive and dead) struggling with the early-onset-adulthood of growing up in the entertainment industry.  I don’t know every Teen Beat star of her time by name, so I spent a lot of the movie asking questions like “Is that the guy who played Zach Morris?” as I failed to recognize some of her peers in their adult form.  There are some incredibly intimate glimpses of celebrities like David Arquette, Corey Feldman, and Leonardo DiCaprio in her camcorder diary footage, though, and seeing them act like actual teenagers instead of PR-polished entertainers is outright jarring.  Frye herself was lost in the 1990s, often cast as a teenage sex symbol after growing out of her sassy cutie-pie phase, to the point where name-calling taunts of “Punky Boobster” drove her to de-sexualize her body with a very public breast reduction surgery.  She fully understands the value of her video diaries of that pre-internet era, when celebrities young & old were much less conscious of their candid, off-stage footage leaking out into the world at large.  In one brief montage, clips of Famous 90s Kids like Stephen Dorff & Jenny Lewis drinking & getting high are intercut with their PSA participation in the “Just Say No” campaigns of the Reagan Era, which feels like a glimpse of what this film might’ve been at feature length if the footage had fallen out of Frye’s hands.  Instead, she’s careful what information to disclose and when, and you always feel as if there’s even more sensational footage on these tapes that we’ll never be allowed to see.

I’m glad that Kid90 is 100% the story Soleil Moon Frye wanted to tell, how she wanted to tell it.  So much of her private life was already in the public eye from such a young age that it’s surprising she’d offer even more of herself & her inner circle for wide consumption like this, instead of defensively locking it away.  The only letdown is how much of the film is comprised of modern-day footage of her famous friends all-growed-up, when those interviews cannot compete with the potency & enormity of what she captured on her camcorder as a teenager.  There are already much braver, more vulnerable versions of this kind of self-reflective filmmaking to be found in titles like Stories We Tell, Shirkers, and You Cannot Kill David Arquette.  Frye is more than candid enough about the abuse & heartache she suffered as a kid for us to understand why this project is a cathartic, therapeutic experience for her, and it would be unfair to ask for more than what she already shares.  The problem is that when we’re submerged in the vintage VHS nostalgia and cursed found-footage horror of her teenage video diaries, there’s just no denying that we’re watching something truly special & raw that you could not find anywhere else.  Being pulled out of that footage for a modern-day check-in is a constant disappointment, but I feel privileged to have seen even a minute of her home video footage in the first place.  I need to let go of the nagging thought that there’s even more of it that’s just outside my reach.

-Brandon Ledet

Together Together (2021)

The pre-packaged media narrative about what makes Together Together special is that it’s a mainstream comedy that cast a trans actress as a cisgender, pregnant woman.  That’s true enough, but what really makes the film incredible is that the actress in question is Patti Harrison, who’s just about the last comedian on the planet you’d expect in a mainstream role of any kind.  Harrison’s comedy is confrontational, absurd, and explosively funny.  Together Together is none of those things.  This is a very Sundancey comedy about two lonely people establishing an unlikely friendship in an intensely awkward scenario.  Harrison is cast opposite Ed Helms as her co-lead – a bland, safe, everyman comedian whose defining quality is that you always kinda wish he was Jason Sudeikis instead.  She’s asked to be earnest, muted, and vulnerably awkward, and she does so ably . . . but that’s not what you think of as Her Thing.  This is not at all the movie you’d expect from a comedian who says things like, “[I] feel very caged by [a lot of well-meaning social media liberals] who claim to be pro-my-autonomy. You’re pro-my-autonomy until it comes to my work, and then you can’t accept the fact that I love to joke about fucking dogs.” It’s extremely cool to see her land such a high-profile gig—complete with promotional interviews on NPR  (home base for well-meaning social media liberals) about the film’s cultural importance—but it’s also a little bit of a bummer that she couldn’t be more herself in that spotlight.

I don’t want to be too hard on Together Together.  It’s cute.  Twenty years ago, this soft-pedaled quirky comedy about an upper-middle age, upper-middle class tech bro (Helms) forming an unlikely bond with the twentysomething barista he’s paying to be his child’s surrogate mother (Harrison) almost certainly would’ve been a romcom, with the two leads falling for each other across generational and class divides.  Instead, they establish a low-key platonic friendship, which is much trickier to navigate but a lot less icky.  It’s mostly a film about boundaries.  Their employer-surrogate relationship is contractually defined by legal & therapeutic boundaries that are set in ink & stone, but once they start finding comfort & pleasure in each other’s company, those lines are hopelessly blurred.  They’re two deeply lonely people who very much need each other but don’t know how to express that need without violating the terms of their firmly established legal, financial dynamic.  The movie quickly establishes this uneasy rapport in an opening interview where the barista is hired for the surrogate mother job, then it gently tracks their friendship’s rocky development across the pregnancy’s three trimester-chapters.  It’s all very cute and charming and has no business being Rated R.

Even if another performer replaced Patti Harrison in the starring role, there’d still be something perverse about the way this movie assembles so many aggressively strange comedians for something so deliberately toothless.  Jo Firestone, Anna Konkle, and Tig Notaro are very funny people, so why are they given so little room to make jokes?  Julio Torres is the only comedian who’s fully set loose to be Funny here as Harrison’s spaced-out weirdo co-worker, while everyone else is mostly just asked to be awkwardly sweet.  Still, it was nice to see so many talented performers in one spot.  Hopefully it’ll be the kind of word-of-mouth charmer that’ll gradually make Patti Harrison a big enough name that she can star in a comedy molded closer to her own delightfully fucked up tastes.  She deserves it.  For now, this is decent enough as lazy-afternoon comfort viewing.  It feels condescending to label a movie “cute” and “nice”, but there really no other words for what Together Together offers.  I’m just a little confused why so many outrageously funny people had to be assembled to accomplish that.

-Brandon Ledet

In the Earth (2021)

Understandably, there have been hundreds of attempts to make timely COVID-era films over the past year and a half. Most of these productions are on the level of Doug Liman’s Locked Down: throwaway novelties of limited scope & budget that’re only worthwhile as cultural time capsules of the minor inconveniences and quirks of daily life that define this never-ending global pandemic for most people surviving it. I’m interested in this burgeoning exploitation genre the way I am with most fad-cinema novelties of the past: disco musicals, aerobics-craze horrors, sports dramas about skateboarders, etc.  There is something especially cynical & dark about exploiting COVID-era “lockdown life”, though, since this particular global “fad” comes with a real-life bodycount in the millions.  From what I’ve seen so far, there have only been three works of COVID cinema that have really grappled with the grief, isolation, and exhaustion of the pandemic: the “screenlife” cyberghost story Host, the Bo Burnham video diary Inside, and Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic folk horror In the Earth.  This is likely a cinematic subject we’ll be unraveling for the rest of our lives, since it affects every last person on the planet, but genuinely great films made in the thick of this ongoing crisis have so far been in short supply.

For its part, In the Earth smartly reflects on the maddening grief of COVID-19 indirectly, from a distance. Its characters discuss the social isolation of quarantine and the bureaucratic discomforts of routine testing, but they never specify the exact scope or nature of the virus they’re protecting themselves from.  It’s less about the specific daily safety measures of COVID in particular, but more about how a year of social & spiritual isolation has permanently remapped their brains in chaotic, fucked up ways. By stepping away from the lockdown restrictions of city life to instead stage its COVID-flavored horror show in the woods, it recontextualizes this never-ending global crisis as a dual Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Man struggle, attempting to document something a little more philosophical about the absurdity, violence, and emptiness of living right now.  Its two central villains are trying to directly bargain with Nature through science and through religious mysticism, respectively, as if all our modern ills can only be solved by radically overhauling the way we live among each other on this planet (which feels right, even if nearly impossible).

A field researcher is guided by a park ranger into the thick of British wilderness, searching for a rogue scientist who’s gone off the grid and off the rails in her recent experiments.  They eventually find the mad scientist, who is directly communicating with trees trough a convoluted system of strobe lights & synthesizers she’s arranged in the woods like a sinister art instillation.  In her mind, this human-to-Nature line of communication could potentially unlock some great, authentic power that will help us better understand (and potentially command) our place in the global ecosystem.  The philosophical counterpoint to her experiment and the main obstacle on our journey to her is an axe-wielding maniac who stalks the woods.  His plan to reconnect with Nature involves local folklore rituals that honor the elder god Parnag Fegg, The Spirit of the Woods.  The advocate for science and the advocate for religion are both violently insane, of course, but they have a way of luring in the two new interlopers in the woods with calm, disarmingly kind demeanors that make them vulnerable to their respective extremist rhetoric. These are extreme times, after all, and the social isolation of the past year has made us all a little batty in our own special ways.

I can’t tell you exactly what Ben Wheatley was trying to communicate with this gory, psychedelic horror show, nor do I really want to hear the specifics of his intent.  As a horror movie, it’s perfectly entertaining & unsettling mix of sci-fi, folk horror, and woodland slasher genre tropes.  The surgical details of the axe wounds are just as effectively upsetting as the psychedelic freak-outs of its strobe light centerpiece.  As a nightmare reflection of our collective, COVID-era mindset, it’s much more difficult to pin down exactly what it’s doing except to say that it’s impressively strange, upsetting stuff considering its limited scope & budget.  So many movies being made in and about these times are so caught up in the mundane, practical details of daily life that they never transcend the novelty of its setting.  In the Earth is a rare example of COVID Cinema that aims for something a little more intangible and indescribable — something that captures the existential horrors of current life rather than the logistical ones.

-Brandon Ledet

Annette (2021)

“Is this Good-Weird or just Weird-Weird?”  That nagging question never faded from my mind at any point during Leos Carax’s entertainment-industry rock opera Annette, but I’m not convinced it’s a question that needs an answer.  I’m cool with the movie’s low-energy batshittery either way.  It at least has a sense of humor about itself, and there’s nothing else quite like it – two qualities that cannot be undervalued in the current Prestige Filmmaking landscape.  Originally composed as a concept album by the avant-garde pop group Sparks, Annette feels more like a prank than a proper musical.  Every line of dialogue is written as unsubtle, declarative statements about what each character is doing & feeling in the moment, as if that information wasn’t already being illustrated onscreen; they’re also sincerely performed as pure, straight-forward melodrama.  And yet the entire film feels as if it’s being conveyed with a tight, self-amused smirk, impressed with its own audacity as a go-for-broke Weird Movie with a legitimate budget & cast.  I’m impressed as well, even if I can’t quite match how impressed it seems to be with itself.

Adam Driver stars as a low-effort, hacky stand-up comedian who’s earned rockstar status through his “tells it like it is” abrasiveness, which protects him from having to be vulnerable onstage.  His fame skyrockets when he romantically links with a renowned opera singer played by Marion Cotillard, whose contrasting artform is high-effort & devastatingly vulnerable on a nightly basis.  The comedian’s ego is threatened by the amount of oxygen his tenor-wife’s career eats up in their life together, especially once her starpower outshines his own.  That resentment leads him to explosive, violent fits of anger, as well as the financial exploitation of their child, whose own singing career allows him to vicariously re-live his former professional glories.  This all sounds typical enough for a star-studded, festival circuit melodrama with Awards Season ambitions, but Annette‘s wryly operatic line-deliveries & near-future visual mindfuckery abstract all its familiar narrative elements into oblivion.  Its Weird-Weird weirdness is concentrated entirely in its execution, not in its premise.

My favorite aspect of Annette is how its outright hostile it is towards its audience, mirroring the onstage abrasiveness of its stand-up “comedian” protagonist.  Like in Soderbergh’s introduction to the difficult-to-define prank comedy Schizopolis, the movie opens with Carax issuing commands that everyone hold our breath, our farts, and our full attention for the entirety of the screening.  We’re instructed to “Shut up and sit” without any distractions for the following 140min, which feels like a tall order considering that it was distributed through Amazon Prime concurrently with its theatrical release.  Carax doesn’t want your absent-minded snacking or social media scrolling to compete with his quietly bizarre vision of the modern movie musical.  If you grant him your full attention, he promises to treat you to a nightmarish inversion of pop-culture celebrity in a near-future Los Angeles.  He mostly delivers.  The film’s explicit sex, fairy tale puppetry, late-night motorcycle rides, and surrealist parodies of Entertainment Tonight broadcasts are all incredibly, uniquely eerie deviations from the mainstream-filmmaking norm.  I don’t fully know what its intent or purpose are besides achieving that eeriness, but that effect was more than enough to hold my attention (if not my farts).

My only complaint about Annette, really, is that it’s obnoxiously long.  I was amused by the blatant emotional declarations of the song lyrics, the absurdist intrusion of the puppet-baby, the surface-level jabs at entertainment media vanity, and all the rest.  It’s just that it could have been an entire hour shorter without sacrificing any of those distinguishing details.  The movie is Weird, but it is persistently Weird in the exact same way from start to end, with no detectable ebb or flow in its tone.  However, as impatient as I could get with the vast ocean of Weird-Weird water-treading between its opening & closing numbers (the only genuinely catchy songs of the bunch), I recognize that obnoxious self-indulgence & self-amusement as exactly what’s endearing about the film in the first place.  A movie this hubristic pretty much has to be an hour longer than needed; that’s just part of its nature.  And, hey, at least it’s a more singularly entertaining waste of Amazon’s money than the rocket fuel that powers Jeff Bezos’s mid-life crisis.

-Brandon Ledet

Kandisha (2021)

Since its planned 2020 release was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot has long been one of the most widely anticipated horror films on the horizon.  Given the recent infection surge from the Delta variant of this cursed virus, it was certainly possible its release would be delayed again, but the movie has finally arrived on the big screen. I’m just not personally feeling comfortable enough with current movie theater safety to see it. On top of that, Hurricane Ida has knocked out the power supply to all cinemas in my region anyway. Everything DaCosta has said about her vision (and revision) for Candyman lore has at least made the new film sound like it has a thoughtful, novel approach to the material.  At the very least, it can’t be any worse than the previous two Candyman sequels, which essentially just plugged the Candyman character into new cultural settings outside of his Chicago housing projects home (Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Día de los Muertos celebrations in Los Angeles, to be specific) without any worthy thematic purpose to justify the change in locale.  Early reviews have been mixed, but I’m still waiting to see how successful her attempt to revamp the material is for myself, which is frustrating now that it’s just outside my reach.

If you’re like me, you really, really need a modernized rehash of Candyman to hold you over until DaCosta’s film arrives on VOD, and I guess you could do worse for that fix than the recent French horror Kandisha.  Directed by the sickos who wrote the home-invasion chiller Inside, Kandisha blatantly riffs on the Candyman narrative template but relocates it to the housing project towers of Paris.  In the film, a small crew of teenage girls summon a Moroccan ghost that proves to be more powerful & dangerous than they ever imagined, putting all of their friends & family at risk.  The girls are graffiti artists who hang out in abandoned nooks of their housing project, emerging through holes in the walls as if sneaking into alternate urban universes.  They make direct jokes about summoning the demonic figure of Kandisha by saying her name five time in the mirror “like in the movies”, a direct acknowledgement of the film’s ties to Candyman lore & iconography.  It’s basically Shudder getting into the Asylum business of rushing out a similar-enough photocopy of a major work before the real, expensive thing reaches home video.  And by that metric, it’s pretty good.

In its early goings, Kandisha plays like any recent coming-of-age drama about European teens — Girlhood, Rocks, Cuties, etc. There’s a genuine camaraderie established between the girls when this is still just a hangout film, which is when it’s at its strongest and most specific. Once the Kandisha is out of the bag things get much more generic.  This is basically a mainstream teen-audience horror on an indie budget.  The gory details of its kills can be shockingly gnarly, but all its story beats & scares are exactly what you’d expect from a Studio Horror version of this story. This is especially true when it comes to the film’s confused approach to metaphor.  Kandisha is a modern urban legend and an ancient Moroccan folktale.  Despite the geographic specificity of her origins, she can be summoned through either pentagram or Ouija Board, which from what I can tell have nothing to do with Moroccan mythology.  She’s both a misandrist and the only covered Arabic woman in the cast, but the film has little to say about the cultural & gender politics evoked in those choices. I’m not saying that every single horror villain has to function as a 1:1 political metaphor for some diagnosed social ill, but in this case it’s impossible not to search for one. Are the girls punished for venting that “All men are trash” by summoning a misandrist demon that only targets the men in their lives?  Is there some thinly veiled commentary here about the tensions between Europe’s Old-World mysticism and modern youth culture? Is this progressive, reactionary, or somewhere in-between?  I couldn’t tell you, since Kandisha is way more invested in the grisly details of its bodycount violence than it is in the thematic purpose behind it.  That approach is entertaining enough in the moment, but it’s also disappointingly shallow considering how much more thoughtful the character work is in the early stretch.

Kandisha “updates” Candyman in the exact careless way its direct sequels did in the 1990s: by relocating it to a new cultural context & locale for variation in backdrop, with no real engagement with how that change affects its themes or purpose.  The promise of Nia DaCosta’s reboot is that it attempts something much more thoughtful & substantial with its own revision of Candyman lore.  I’m excited to see that ambitious, divisive revision from the comfort & safety of my own home in a few months, but in the meantime I enjoyed this junk-food appetizer for what it is.

-Brandon Ledet

I Blame Society (2021)

As often as I gripe about megacorporate movie products under the Disney umbrella—Star Wars, The MCU, and their loose collection of live-action reboots—cheaply pandering to wide audiences with Easter eggs & nostalgia triggers, the truth is that I also love to be pandered to. I absolutely loved the recent black comedy I Blame Society, but it did nothing to challenge me as an audience.  Everything about the film feels like it was aimed directly at my tastes, from its no-budget D.I.Y. aesthetic to the transgressive joy it finds in Misbehaved Women to its flippant meta commentary on movies as an artform.  If I vaguely described everything I love to see in movies in a focus group meeting, this is the exact end product I’d expect from the algorithm my feedback was plugged into (minus a few keywords like “drag,” “pro wrestling,” “witchcraft,” and “outer space”).  I slopped up everything the film dished out like a pig at a trough, completely content and undiscerning about what I was being served – the exact kind of passive, incurious media engagement I mock most audiences for when I’m at my snootiest.  It felt great.

The essential difference between I Blame Society and modern big-budget filmmaking is that it wasn’t focus-grouped & algorithmed into existence.  The reason the film is so sharply resonant & relatable is because it’s deeply personal & specific to the creative voice of its auteur.  Gillian Wallace Horvat writes, directs, and stars in this incredibly dark comedy about a struggling filmmaker who shares her name and (an absurdly exaggerated version of) her real-life persona.  In the film, she realizes that her unappreciated skills behind the camera mirror the skills needed to pull off The Perfect Murder, an epiphany that quickly turns her into a serial killer.  This premise is adapted from an off-handed compliment made by a real-life friend who said Horvat would make an excellent murderer, which she investigated in a short-length documentary a few years ago.  Footage from that short is included in I Blame Society as an abandoned project that Horvat intends to tease out into a feature, much to the horror & concern of the people who love her.  After years of not being able to land funding for her dark, off-putting screenplay pitches, she decides to throw all her creative energy & frustration with her industry into one D.I.Y. project that will prove to the world that she is a fully capable filmmaker . . . and, thus, a fully capable murderer.

Horvat is not shy about explaining exactly what’s pissing her off in her creative field and in the world at large.  I Blame Society is a vicious, angry film, often functioning as direct commentary on how difficult it is for women to participate in professional filmmaking as an artform.  In-character, Horvat attends pitch meetings with Duplass Brothers-type indie producers who use press-friendly buzzwords like “strong female characters” to signify that they’re changing with the times by unlocking the gates for women filmmakers to express themselves, but they don’t mean a word of it.  Horvat’s ideas are uniformly dismissed outright for their discomforting tone or “unlikeable” female leads.  The only work she’s ever offered is slapping her name on a man’s creative vision to meet a studio’s diversity quota.  It’s a cyclical, gendered rejection from her industry that eventually jokerfies her, to the point where the violence she commits in retaliation is intentionally designed to make the audience queasy – a giant fuck-you that undermines her “likeability” instead of aiming for easy “You go, girl!” cheerleading. 

Despite that seething, on-the-surface anger with the world, I Blame Society is relentlessly hilarious from start to end.  It combines the observational, no-budget filmmaking humor of Matt Farley’s Local Legends with the smiling, Influencer brain rot of last year’s ride-share thriller Spree.  Horvat smiles through her entire descent into murderous madness, often tossing out #girlboss catchphrases like “Lean in, baby” and “I’m living my best life” in the middle of her crimes to signal control & composure to her followers.  Even the low-tech equipment she uses to document her violence/art—head-mounted Go-Pros, hand-cranked wheelchair dollies, strategically hidden smartphones—read as visual gags, constantly undermining her surface-level calm with a flailing sense of desperation & lunacy.  The humor begins at a straight-forward angle of likening filmmaking to murder, as in a sequence where Horvat’s version of “location scouting” turns out to be stalking & home invasion.  From there, it only gets exponentially warped and esoteric; some of the funniest jokes are just the intensity in Horvat’s eyes as she chipperly explains the rationale behind her work.  You have to be locked onto her peculiar wavelength to fully appreciate that line of humor, but it’s just as relentless as it is sharply observed.

I Blame Society was shot in less than two weeks with a small crew of close collaborators and no concern for wide-audience appeal beyond Horvat amusing her own mischievous brain.  As much as I felt the film was aimed directly at my particular tastes, it’s clearly intended to vent & alienate, not to pander.  I’d say that it’s further proof that the personal is universal, but I don’t honestly believe it has that kind of far-reaching appeal, nor does it intend to.   If you have any personal affection for D.I.Y. filmmaking or Unlikeable Women, though, it’s the can’t-miss movie of the year.  Disney’s going to pander to everyone else on a near-weekly basis, but the rest of us have to pounce on the scraps that fall through the cracks whenever we can.  This particular trough doesn’t get filled very often.

-Brandon Ledet

French Exit (2021)

There was a lot going on in Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical whatsit mother!, all of it worthy of many fractured, contradictory conversations.  To us, it was both a 2.5-star misfire and one of the very best movies of 2017.  To others, it was simply an embarrassment to all involved, most notably Jennifer Lawrence as titular mother figure, who rarely leaves the screen.  In all those heated debates over mother!‘s merits, metaphors, and malice, I think we may have still overlooked one of its wildest, most deliciously fucked up ingredients: Michelle Pfeiffer.  An eternally lovable screen presence who’s been shamefully sidelined in the past couple decades, Pfeiffer pounced into mother! like a cat hunting unsuspecting prey, batting Jennifer Lawrence around with a mean-drunk indifference I found thrillingly campy & cruel.  It felt like a seismic shift in Pfeiffer’s career at the time, but then nothing really came of it – conversationally, professionally, or otherwise.

Finally, a proper career resurgence vehicle for a post-mother! Michelle Pfeiffer has arrived . . . and it’s being met with the same unenthused shrug she got back in 2017.  French Exit expands Pfeiffer’s role as a cruel, vamping drunk in mother! to a feature-length drag routine.  She delivers nothing but deliciously vicious camp from start to end here, easily putting in one of her career-best performances.  The response has been muted at worst, divided at best.  Maybe the movie would’ve earned more momentum in non-pandemic times, when word of mouth would’ve reached the exact right audience for what Pfeiffer is doing here.  Maybe the world would never be ready for Michelle Pfeiffer to star in an erudite revision of Leaving Las Vegas for pompous, affluent drag queens.  Who knows?  All I can report is that every bitchy barb, quip, and eyeroll she lands in French Exit is a precious gift to the few jaded cynics on the movie’s wavelength.

Pfeiffer stars as an heiress & former NYC It Girl who has completely depleted her dead husband’s fortune.  She decides to sell off the remainder of his estate for spending money, then fucks off to Paris with her adoring adult son (Lucas Hedges) in tow.  Her long-term plan is to kill herself when her funds run dry, something she announces in a matter-of-fact, smirking tone.  Despite the morbidity of that premise, there isn’t much grandeur or pathos to the film’s plot, as the mother-son duo aren’t especially emotional in demeanor.  Most scenes are slight, low-key episodes: a cross-Atlantic boat ride, an awkward dinner party, a search for a runaway cat, etc.  However, if you’re in tune with Pfeiffer’s scenery chewing (and Hedges’s studied impersonation of her faded, jaded glamour) there’s a dark humor to each of those episodes that will have you howling at even the slightest facial expression and casually tossed-off insult.

I’m surprised to learn that French Exit was based off a novel (adapted by author-turned-screenwriter Patrick deWitt himself), since its witty banter and for-the-back-row vamping feels so firmly rooted in stage play dialogue.  The best I can approximate its cruel, quirky tone is to imagine Wes Anderson directing an adaptation of The Boys in the Band, but even that description doesn’t cover its absurdist supernatural plot twists, which I will not spoil here.  Most importantly, French Exit is a Nic Cagian showcase for one of our greatest actors to go as big and as broad as she pleases from gag to gag.  Sometimes those payoffs are muted, finding her sharpening a kitchen knife in total darkness or absentmindedly musing about the sad nature of dildos.  At other times, she sets literal fires, slipping into full camped-up Cruella de Ville mania.  In either instance, she’s electrically, fabulously entertaining, and we all should be groveling at her feet for more performances in this vein.

-Brandon Ledet

The World to Come (2021)

It’s become something of a meme complaint over the past couple years that too much Queer Cinema is pervasively about white women longing for each other in period costumes.  Sometime between the ecstatic praise for Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the collective yawn over Ammonite, pro critics & hobbyist bloggers decided that the biggest threat to the artform of cinema wasn’t Disney’s IP-hoarding or Netflix’s refusal to license its films to libraries & universities; it was white women sharing intense eye contact in a historical setting.  Google “lesbian period drama” and you’ll find infinite hit-piece articles with titles like “Why Are All Lesbian Films Set in the Past?”, “Shoehorning Lesbian Scenes into Historical Dramas is Anything but Progressive”,  “Lesbian Period Dramas: Have We Seen Enough?”, and “Enough With The Lesbian Period Dramas” from publications high and low.  Personally, I understand this subgenre fatigue when it’s applied in broad strokes to a wide range of films, but not so much when it’s aimed at individual titles as if they were a cultural scourge.  The problem isn’t that mediocre WLW romance dramas like Ammonite exist; it just sucks that other kinds of queer stories aren’t getting greenlit in bulk beside them.

I assume the relatively tepid response to The World to Come is a result of its arrival after this particular strand of Online Film Discourse had already run its course.  It’s a great film, presuming you aren’t burnt out on the prospect of another lesbian period drama (or its pre-loaded critical baggage) at first sight.  A delicately sweet romance contrasted against a brutal, unforgiving backdrop, The World to Come is splendid & bleak in equal measure.  Its tale of secretive queer romance in a time of intense scrutiny & oppression is so familiar it’s almost regressive.  Still, its historical environment at least rings true.  It reminded me a lot of a college course I took on the literature of women’s travel writing in 19th Century America.  The women in those real-life journals and this fictional novel adaptation share the same two threats to their freedom, happiness, and well-being: the cruelty of Nature and the cruelty of their husbands.  It’s a shame how rare it is to see queer people flourishing in friendlier environments on the page & screen, but the romance & misery portrayed here still feels true to life on the American “frontier.”

Katherine Waterston stars as a hopelessly lonely housewife on an isolated, flailing New England farm.  She has a rich internal life, furiously reading & journaling in her idle hours but unable to express herself aloud when the center of attention.  While nursing her own grief over the loss of a child, she meets her exact opposite: Vanessa Kirby as a bold, brassy lush with no discernible talent for the intellectual arts.  They hit it off in ways that Waterston’s journals struggle to describe.  She confesses “There is something going on between us that I cannot unravel,” as if the concept of genuine sexual attraction is so foreign to her life that she doesn’t have the language to express it.  Eventually, the two women do find the physical language to express their attraction to each other, even if it takes longer for the words to arrive.  Unfortunately, the respective prisons of their marriages to cruel, repressed nerds and their shared prison of harsh, American wilderness prevent that romantic spark from reaching its full flame.  Waterston’s careful, whispered language & passion is in direct opposition to the cold, uncaring environment she occupies.  She finds her perfect fit in Kirby.  It does not go well.

While the broader details of The World to Come may sound blandly generic in a post-Portrait of a Lady on Fire world, I found its in-the-moment effect to be impressively distinct & chilling.  Its frontier setting might as well have been repurposed for a woodland A24 horror film, given its harsh digi cinematography and its frightfully unnerving score (which during one especially horrendous storm sounds like seagulls imitating jazz).  It’s a highly subjective film that follows the tones & moods of Waterston’s journals as she flips through the pages of her life.  There are great jumps in time when she has nothing exciting to write about, as well as loopy, unfocused entries when she self-medicates herself through depression with laudanum.  Her voiceover narration is wonderfully overwritten, with Waterston delivering pained line-readings of confessions like “We were the very picture of anguish” and “I have become my grief.”  Even when it releases the delayed flood of romantic & sexual bliss that always accompanies these films’ early stretches of pent-up longing, it’s in the most devastating possible context, undercutting the two women’s passion with a deeply felt loss & despair.  This is an unrelentingly cold, somber film, and I respect that truthful brutality even if I agree that it’s not the only kind of queer story that deserves to be told.

-Brandon Ledet

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Every year I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on my birthday as a gift to myself.  This year I caught up with the latest installment in the action star’s career-defining franchise, something I probably should’ve watched on the big screen when that was an option.  For the first half of Terminator: Dark Fate, I was worried that I had goofed up in my programming choice, as Unkie Arnie is nowhere to be seen in what’s mostly a star-making vehicle for Mackenzie Davis, the new badass in town.  Then, the film reunites Schwarzenegger with Linda Hamilton as longtime human/Terminator frenemies and all is right in the world again.  As a pair, their sharply acidic comedic rapport and stone-faced action heroism feel like they haven’t missed a beat since Judgement Day in 1992, even if the world has drastically changed around them.  Because I’m rapidly becoming an old man, that latter half’s familiar callbacks to the series’ James Cameron era are what really hooked me as a viewer here.  Still, Mackenzie Davis’s intrusion in the series as a self-described “augmented supersoldier from the future” provides some much-needed momentum to keep that throwback from feeling like stagnant nostalgia bait, and the movie generally does a good job of maintaining a balance between the old & the new.

Because of its self-fulfilling time travel plots and vague references to many “possible futures”, the Terminator series is free to blaspheme its own internal lore.  The last film in the saga, Genisys, was jeered for its own overwriting of past events in the Terminator timeline (wrongly, in my opinion), while Dark Fate was celebrated for the same disregard for series continuity (rightly so, imo).  In this “possible present” timeline, all Terminator films post-Judgement Day have been wiped from the series, positioning Dark Fate as an alternate Terminator 3.  Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has successfully stopped the Skynet apocalypse, but Terminator-assassins are still created in variations of the future that have nothing to do with Skynet at all.  One of these first-generation T-800 assassins has successfully murdered her son (whose services as a Human Resistance leader are no longer needed anyway), inspiring her to dedicate the rest of her life stamping out time-traveling Terminator bots whenever and wherever they crossover into her timeline.  This particular episode finds her joining forces with a human-machine hybrid from “the” future (Davis) to protect their own timeline’s version of a John-Connor-to-be from another shape-shifting T-1000.  To her horror, this mission must also enlist the help of the original-flavor Terminator who killed her son (Arnie).  Bitter banter, uneasy alliances, and money-torching chase sequences ensue.

Structurally, Dark Fate is smart in the way it gradually highlights each of its four main players as action-hero badasses in distinct layers.  We start with Mackenzie Davis as a fully-formed hero with no patience for Linda Hamilton to pass off the torch as her obvious successor.  Hamilton then forcefully wedges herself into the main action despite Davis’s protests, righteously announcing to the future-soldier and the moviegoers of the world that she’s still a formidable screen presence – complete with aviator sunglasses and a severe haircut.  Schwarzenegger is late to the party, but provides essential monotone humor and retro machismo to authentically tie this new chapter into the series’ decades-old origins.  Newcomer Natalia Reyes has the least to do as the damsel-turned-rebel these muscular brutes circle to protect, but by the end of the film her personality and her place in the future emerge convincingly enough for her to be more than just a human MacGuffin.  At the very least, it’s her character arc that provides the self-fulfilling-timeline tomfoolery that makes this franchise such a fun, resettable time travel playground to begin with.  The movie wouldn’t be anything special without Hamilton & Schwarzenegger growling at each other in reluctant collaboration, but Davis & Reyes do a decent job of refreshing that dynamic for our alternate present.

As a standalone action blockbuster, divorced from its long-running IP, Dark Fate is nothing exceptional.  Even so, it probably is the best sequel in its series since Judgement Day, which I’m saying as someone who has some affection for all Terminator movies – minus McG’s Salvation.  I’ll never enjoy these action-heavy sequels as much as the grimy Roger Corman sci-fi noir of the original The Terminator (Judgement Day included), but Dark Fate understands the exact balance between quippy humor & Hollywood spectacle needed to make them worthwhile.  I miss the tactile effects work that distinguished the original Terminator, and there’s a lot of modern-TV backstory plotting that weighs this thing down; but again, those are the grumblings of an old man who misses the old world.  Dark Fate includes just enough throwback Hamilton & Schwarzenegger rivalry to keep old grumps like me smiling, while also injecting some much-needed fresh blood to keep this machine running into “the” future.

-Brandon Ledet