Aftersun (2022)

Since the New Orleans Film Festival ended in early November, my inboxes (both physical and virtual) have been overflowing with FYC Awards Screeners.  Within the two-hour span of pressing play on a movie and checking my phone during its end credits, I’ll have received two or three more titles fighting to make their way into my eyeballs.  It’s an unrelenting flood of #prestigecontent presented in low-res, watermarked glory.  As much as catching up with this season’s “Best of the Year” contenders (some of which won’t reach wide distribution until early 2023) before this month’s SEFCA vote can feel like a marathon homework session, it has been pretty illuminating about how these year-end lists take shape.  I always wonder how the 100+ new releases I see every year are whittled down to the same 15-20 titles repeated & rearranged on pro critics’ & voting bodies’ “personal” Best of the Year lists, even though they presumably watch even more new releases than I do.  The answer, apparently, is marketing.  The FYC discs & emails sent directly to critics’ doorsteps are a huge part of the narrowing-down process.  Since I haven’t received any FYC screeners for some of my personal favorites of the year (so far)—Neptune Frost, Inu-Oh, Mad God, Jackass Forever, etc.—I’m meant to assume there’s no way to build momentum for their nomination, and thus voting for them will essentially be a waste of my microscopic modicum of clout.  It’s frustrating that money & marketing are the answer to the mystery of how critical consensus is formed, but in retrospect I should’ve assumed that was the case from the start.

The reduction effect of movie marketing doesn’t start with Awards Season screeners, though.  It’s a year-long process, starting with the Sundance Film Festival in January and picking up steam during Cannes in the spring, months before reaching its FYC screeners crescendo.  For instance, take the small, intimate, festival-circuit drama Aftersun, which is currently being marketed as a formidable awards contender by A24.  Every single film festival of merit—from mid-tier conversation starters like Sundance to the cultural juggernaut of Cannes to the regional community events like NOFF—are overstuffed with movies exactly as substantial as Aftersun.  Most of those films do not land proper distribution and are never heard from again outside a few stray critical raves in their festival roundups.  Aftersun is one of the lucky ones; it made it past the first, second, and third rounds of marketing-driven consensus culls, premiering to ecstatic enough reviews at Cannes that it’s now being shipped out to critics’ homes with an official FYC stamp of approval.  Maybe this process is necessary.  Maybe if no one was able to peek over their shoulder at each other’s homework, there would be no room for consensus at all, as Aftersun would be competing with hundreds of other slice-of-life indie dramas on its budget level instead of dozens.  Either way, I still often find this year-long ritual bizarrely arbitrary, as I cannot personally tell the difference in quality of what Aftersun achieves vs. the intimate, small-scale dramas I catch at NOFF every year that never reach theaters outside the fest.

If I’m avoiding talking about the movie itself here, it’s because there isn’t much to it.  Charlotte Wells’s debut feature is a stubbornly understated, bittersweet nostalgia trip – time stamping its period setting with “Macarena” dance routines & MiniDV camcorder footage.  Paul Mescal stars as an emotionally troubled, recently divorced father of one.  His blackouts, arm cast, and meditation techniques suggest he’s struggling with either anger or addiction issues, but we don’t get the full story.  Instead, we ponder him through his preteen daughter’s precociously discerning eyes like an exotic zoo animal.  She is embarrassed by her dad’s tucked-in t-shirts and cheesy dance moves, but she can’t quite pin down what’s happening in his mind.  So, we can’t either.  He consciously teaches her how to do new things the way a proper dad should, but subconsciously condescends to her the entire time in a way that maintains a cold, emotional distance.  There are also things she has to learn on her own, observing the zoological mating rituals of the older teens who stalk around their getaway vacation resort.  Her digi camcorder footage adds layers of innocence, nostalgia, remorse, and alien fascination on these teen & adult behaviors, with no pressure put on what any individual scene means with the larger-scope, slice-of-life story.  Mostly, we just spend a few days with a somewhat troubling, somewhat adorable father-daughter duo, wondering if the dad’s occasionally sentimental treatment of his daughter as his “wee poppet” is enough to outweigh the emotional damage of his frequent recesses into his insular, dark moods. 

There are distinguishing touches to Aftersun that might explain some of its continued critical acclaim beyond the festival circuit.  There’s a strobelit framing device that appears to be set in a modern-day nightclub, but gradually reveals itself to be some subliminal dungeon of the grown-up daughter’s mind where this ghost image of her father still dwells.  It’s a psychic space that grows in its onscreen significance as the movie closes in on its final ten minutes, which leave you feeling as if you’ve watched something much grander & more emotionally impactful than a modern reenactment of 90s home video vacation footage.  The two main actors—Mescal & Frankie Corio—also put in excellent, measured performances throughout, never straining the father-daughter intimacy of individual scenes to reach for anything grandly melodramatic.  It’s a good movie.  I just don’t know what to say or feel about it beyond that, because it’s not an especially unique one, no matter how personal it may feel to its director.  Refer to the closest film festival near you to see more solidly Good films just like it, and refer to future year-end lists and televised awards ceremonies to see which ones got a decent marketing push.

-Brandon Ledet

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)

I suppose it’s remarkable that Guillermo del Toro has directed his first stop-motion animated film, and yet his Netflix-funded Pinocchio adaptation feels so comfortably at home with everything he’s made before it that it doesn’t even register as a new chapter in his career.  Del Toro and Wes Anderson have got to be the two most stubbornly consistent auteurs working today, in that every new project they make is such an obvious, natural progression in their work that it feels as if it’s already come out years earlier – either to your boredom or delight, depending on how you feel about their individual quirks & kinks.  It’s only fitting, then, that del Toro collaborated with animation director Mark Gustafson on his Pinocchio film, since Gustafson also worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s own debut in the stop-motion medium.  Del Toro also teamed with Fantastic Mr. Fox‘s composer Alexandre Desplat (a regular collaborator of Anderson’s and now, after this & Shape of Water, del Toro’s) and Over the Garden Wall creator Patrick McHale, stacking the bench with enough heavy hitters to ensure his first animated feature would be a winning success.  Even with all those outside voices guiding the clay puppets through del Toro’s signature Gothic nightmare worlds, though, the stop-motion Pinocchio is unmistakably a stay-the-course continuation of what he’s already achieved as a household name auteur.  It may not be the most surprising, inventive take on the material he could’ve conjured, but it easily earns his name’s prominent inclusion in the title.

Familiarity is certainly the tallest hurdle that Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio has to clear.  That’s less of a symptom of del Toro’s own tried-and-true macabre formula than it is a symptom of a crowded market.  This is at least the third major adaptation of the Pinocchio story in recent memory, starting with Mateo Garonne’s grotesque fairy tale version in 2020 and more recently counter-programmed by Disney’s “live-action” CG abomination unleashed this summer.  By shoehorning the Pinocchio story into his own personal auteurist template, del Toro at least breathes some new life into the time-battered, tossed-around puppet.  He envisions Pinocchio as one of the gentle, misunderstood monsters that always anchor his Gothic horror dramas.  He also sets the story amidst the wartime brutality of Mussolini’s Italy, recalling the children-in-rubble peril of past works like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone and, hell, even his kaiju smash-‘em-up Pacific Rim.  He also uses the opportunity to revisit the old-timey carnival setting that staged the best parts of Nightmare Alley, before that film is sidelined in Cate Blanchett’s ornate therapist office.  I don’t know that del Toro brings anything especially unique to the medium of animation; if anything, the film’s best qualities are all excelled by their thunderous echoes in Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings.  I do think his insular, self-tropifying formula of repeated pet obsessions & spooky production designs brings a new perspective to the Pinocchio myth, though, if not only in highlighting how well it already fits into his milieu.

If there’s anything especially bold about del Toro’s Pinocchio take, it’s in his celebration of the titular wooden boy’s rebelliousness, which most versions of the tale feel compelled to condemn.  Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is essentially a stop-motion musical about how delightfully annoying & revolting children can be, and how their obnoxious misbehavior is a necessary joy in this rigid, fascist world.  Pinocchio enters life as a hideous monster whose inhuman puppet-body contortions terrify the local Italian villagers.  His childlike exuberance & wonder with every new discovery in this grim, grey world is played for shock value comedy; his broad, dumb smile never wavers as he rambunctiously destroys lives & homes.  Gradually, Pinocchio learns about the full “terrible, terrible joy” of living, as his puppet body outlasts the mortal members of his family, but the bittersweetness of life (and death) does little to tamper his boyish enthusiasm.  While most Pinocchio stories are cautionary tales about why you shouldn’t lie or act selfishly, del Toro openly encourages that behavior in his little wooden monster.  Pinocchio saves the day by being a selfish, chaotic liar with a grotesque little puppet body; his eternal resistance to being governable is directly opposed to the militaristic fascism of Mussolini’s Italy.  All Pinocchio movies find the puppet-boy’s misbehavior delightful (at least until they trip over themselves to condemn it), but del Toro’s is the only one I can name that celebrates it as a radical political ideology.

I enjoyed this movie a great deal, but I wish I liked it more.  Since the Pinocchio story nests so comfortably in del Toro’s long-established worldview and since the director’s visual artistry translates so fluidly to the stop-motion medium, neither of those pop-culture mashups can land as a stunning surprise.  It doesn’t help that there isn’t one catchy tune among its plentiful song-and-dance numbers, and that it dwells at least a half-hour longer than needs to get its point across.  A middling del Toro picture is still a wonderful time at the movies, though, no matter the medium.  Like all of his live-action pictures to date, Pinocchio is a heartwarming, gorgeous grotesquerie that feels intensely personal to the del Toro’s insular loves & obsessions; and that personal touch is exactly what distinguishes it from the thousand other Pinocchio adaptations it’s competing against for screen space.

-Brandon Ledet

EO (2022)

I discovered the 1960s arthouse donkey story Au Hasard Balthazar the way a lot of modern film nerds “discover” the largest looming titles in the Cinema Canon: I saw it on the Sight and Sound Top 100 pollEO director Jerzy Skolimowski hails from an older, pre-internet world, though.  When Au Hasard Balthazar was first earning a name for itself among critical devotees as noteworthy as Andrew Sarris & Jean-Luc Godard, Skolimowski was already a twentysomething filmmaker, striving to establish his own name as a world-class auteur.  Half a century later, Skolimowski has revisited & reinterpreted Bresson’s reverent, observational tale of a noble donkey’s travels through an unjust world in his latest—and possibly last—feature film.  EO does not at all feel like an old man reminiscing about the lost artistry of Euro cinema’s golden age, though.  If anything, it only occasionally plays like a colorized TV edit of Au Hasard Balthasar.  More often, it takes wild detours into an energetic, dreamlike approximation of what it might look like if Gaspar Noé directed Homeward Bound.  It’s incredible that the film was made by a long-respected octogenarian, not a fresh-outta-film-school prankster with something to prove. 

As you might expect, the titular EO is just as stoic & unknowable of a protagonist as Balthazar, as they are both nonverbal, unmagical donkeys.  He also goes on similar one-off adventures, finding both kind-hearted animal lovers and totally heartless animal abusers on his slow trot towards death.  The drunken football hooligans & incestuous trust-fund aristocrats of modern Europe might be mixed in with the farmers & carnies of olde, but the shape of humanity has not changed much since Balthazar left his hoof-prints all over provincial France.  What has changed, though, is the exponential intrusion of human technology in the donkeys’ natural environment, confounding EO with strobe lights, lasers, and drones as he absentmindedly searches for a home.  It’s in that alien machinery where Skolimowski separates his own vision from Bresson’s, often by flashing intense red gel lights to highlight the unique terror of our modern-tech hell world.  Whether he’s mounting his camera to junkyard cranes or zooming in on a single donkey tear rolling down EO’s cheek, you can tell he’s having fun with the exercise of updating Au Hasard Balthazar as a conceptual experiment.  And every time EO is confronted by a machine you could not imagine entering the frame of a Bresson picture, the film is at its most riveting.

I don’t know that EO has too much to say about the internal lives of animals nor the existential crises of life in general.  I also don’t know that it’s trying to say anything.  EO mostly just chews, breathes, and trots his way through most scenarios without much effect on their outcome.  My biggest, most abstract question while following him around Europe was “What do donkeys dream?”  Skolimowski supposes they dream out of jealousy for horses’ freedom, agility, and beauty, but it does not matter how much he is right about that.  Waking life is a series of disconnected, emotionally taxing episodes that the immense beauty & terror of our dreams only occasionally interrupt as we steadily trot closer to death.  EO cannot expect a happy ending to his life, because no life ends on its sweetest note.  There’s plenty to wonder at & take comfort in along the way, though, as well as plenty villains & obstacles to avoid.  Observing the world beyond those simple terms is likely a young artist’s game, but that doesn’t mean an old man can’t find a youthful exuberance in how he interprets what he sees.  Since Skolimowski has nothing left to prove, you have to assume the playfulness & subversions of EO are only trotted out for the pure joy of filmmaking as an artform; I love that he’s held onto that as long as he has.

-Brandon Ledet

White Noise (2022)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Moonage Daydream (2022)

Some psychedelic, “psychotronic” cinema is great because it tests the boundaries of filmmaking as an ever-evolving artform, especially cinema’s unique ability to simulate the elusive, illogical imagery of dreams.  Most of it is just a cheap way to babysit stoners.  The new David Bowie “documentary” Moonage Daydream falls firmly in that latter category, earning a prize spot among the stoner-babysitter Classic Rock “classics”: Heavy Metal, The Song Remains the Same, lava lamps, Tommy, blacklight posters, the iTunes visualizer, The Wall, etc.  It’s more of a scrapbook in motion than a proper essay film or documentary.  Or maybe it’s just the Bowie version of your local planetarium’s Pink Floyd laser show.  I do think there’s some cinematic value to that kind of stoner-pacifying psychedelic filmmaking, but the rewards are pretty limited.  It paints a beautiful backdrop for your couch-potato bong rips, then gently puts you to sleep so you can’t get into too much trouble while you’re high.

Do not watch Moonage Daydream if you want to learn about the life, loves, and art of glam rock musician David Bowie.  Do watch Moonage Daydream if you want to hear Bowie intone Headspace app meditations about life, love, and art over a randomized slideshow medley of concert footage & movie clips.  Some of the sci-fi pulp ephemera used to illustrate his lyrical mumblings make sense as mood setting for Bowie’s “alien rockstar” period as his Ziggy Stardust persona.  However, as the never-before-seen concert footage is continually interrupted by selections as disparate as Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising and Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space long after Bowie’s moved on to more grounded, coked-out material, it’s clear those clips are only included to keep the otherwise repetitive imagery freshly varied.  Bowie’s reputation as a cineaste is cited as an excuse to roll vintage sci-fi footage that looks cool alongside his music; the use of William S. Burroughs’s “cut-ups” technique in his writing is cited as an excuse to randomly quote him at his most abstractly philosophical, with no discernible reasoning behind arrangement or progression.  The whole film is about as carefully planned out as the improvised “liquid light shows” projected behind Jefferson Airplane performances in the 1960s.  It’s a Bowie-themed novelty kaleidoscope, a psychedelic “action painting” with a glam rock soundtrack.

This is not the approach to Bowie’s life, art, and legacy that I expected from documentarian Brett Morgen.  His earlier film Montage of Heck deliberately de-mystified the ethereal rock star persona of Kurt Cobain, stripping away the self-destructive romance of his memory to show how sad & dysfunctional his drug addiction made his life on a practical, real-world level.  By contrast, this montage of glam is only interested in David Bowie as an otherworldly prophet with an uncanny ability to tap into the collective unconscious through his far-out music; it’s more interested in his stage personae than his life as a real-world human being.  That approach isn’t fundamentally wrong, but it leaves little room for tracking Bowie’s progress as an artist beyond noting his relocations from London to Los Angeles to Berlin to beyond.  Since Morgen was given full blessing and access by the Bowie estate, he finds some freshly striking imagery to mine for his psychedelic freak-out montage; I was particularly tickled to see Ziggy Stardust perform at length in a slutty little kimono, conscious of his newfound status as a sex symbol.  There’s just only so much Morgen can achieve by focusing on Bowie’s finely curated surface aesthetics, and it’s not quite enough to sustain 135 minutes of continuous abstraction . . . unless it’s used as background enhancement for other, more illicit hobbies.

-Brandon Ledet

Girl Picture (2022)

One danger of watching too many movies is that you can become a spoiled little brat.  It’s easy to become jaded about what makes an individual picture special when you’ve seen dozens of equally great movies just like it, to the point where you overvalue novelty & surprise instead of emotional resonance & dramatic truth.  Girl Picture is a thoroughly lovely teen-girls-at-the-edge-of-adulthood drama, chronicling the messy lives & loves of three Finnish high schoolers who are figuring themselves out before they get locked into the braindead rituals of adult responsibilities.  It’s thorny, sweet, well observed, and swooningly romantic in all the exact ways you’d want a coming-of-age drama to be.  And yet, I found myself comparing it against a long line of already-established modern classics that have delivered exactly what it offers, titles like Water Lilies, Girlhood, Princess Cyd, Babyteeth; etc. That’s great company to be in, no matter where Girl Picture ultimately fits in that hierarchy, but I also can’t help but search for the few dramatic details & stylistic nuances that help it stand out in that crowded field.  The easiest solution would’ve been to, you know, just watch fewer movies to begin with.

I can really only think of two aspects of Girl Picture that distinguish it from the rest of its high-style, coming-of-age sorority.  The most obvious distinguishing factor is its setting, with trades in the genre’s typical American summer backdrop for a harsh Finnish winter.  The less obvious, less easily definable distinction is the film’s matter-of-fact approach to sex.  I’m not used to watching teens order drinks at a sweaty dance club, then doing vigorous Hand Stuff as a nightcap.  Girl Picture is very nonchalant about sex, centering its two main BFF’s paths to sexual self-discovery – one learning how to advocate for her pleasure with boys in bed, the other learning how to let girls into her heart instead of just into her sheets.  There isn’t much drama to the story beyond to those two bedroom crises, and its sexual frankness also sometimes plays as deliberately rattling, at one point harshly cutting from a cliche shot of a teen’s hand soaring through the wind outside a car window to that same hand doing something much more vulgar between a fellow teen’s legs.  It’s not at all played for shock value, though.  If anything, these youngsters are extremely polite fuckers; they always ask for verbal consent before indulging their bodies, which at least feels unique to this generation of kids even if it’s not unique to this specific picture.

Ultimately, novelty doesn’t make or break a movie like this.  These dramas are hinged on the personalities of the girls they profile, and Rönkkö, Mimmi, and (Mimmi’s love interest) Emma are all lovely to spend 100 minutes with.  It’s a relatively low-stakes winter, with only so many mistakes that can be made between house parties, gym class, and afterschool jobs at the mall.  When one girl swoons as if she’s met the love of her life, it cuts to the other playing laser tag with strangers in the woods.  It’s all sweetly innocent, even when it’s raunchy or heart-soaringly romantic.  Director Alli Haapasalo finds plenty room to flex her sense of visual style in this feature debut, too, even if it’s all decorated in the same neon crosslighting, strobelit dance parties, and pastel bedroom decor that’s typical to the genre.  No matter how familiar Girl Picture can feel frame by frame, it’s always a pleasure, and it’s headlined by a lovely group of kids who deserve the absolute best.  Rooting for these girls to get their acts together before life throws real consequences at them is more than enough to make this a satisfying teen-years drama.  Just try your best to forget that you’ve seen it all done before many times over.

-Brandon Ledet

Bones and All (2022)

The timing of Bones and All’s theatrical run is indicative of how slight signifiers in a film’s marketing strategy can greatly change its public perception.  Released a month earlier, this young-cannibals-in-love road trip story would’ve been treated as a major studio Horror Film, falling somewhere between the somber-epic mythmaking of Doctor Sleep and the teen heartthrob pop-horror of The Twilight Saga.  By holding it off until November, MGM was able to position the film as a prestigious Awards Contender instead – something that loses money in the short-term, then hopefully buys the studio a couple golden statues months down the line.  As a result, I’ve been seeing a lot of grossed-out responses from audiences who were expecting Bones and All to be more of a straightforward road trip love story, repulsed by its most shocking moments of blood-guzzling, flesh-chewing violence.  As someone who twiddles their thumbs for most of the stretch between Halloween & January Dumping Season on the film release calendar, I’m coming from the opposite direction, wishing Bones and All weren’t so tenderly underplayed & remorseful about its hunger pangs for gore.  It’s kinda nice to have something that drifts between those two magnetic pulls, though, especially since it’s so unusual to see a Near Dark-style genre blender treated as a genuine threat to Award Season’s more traditional biopics & historical weepies.  The exact same cut of this movie would not have had that fighting chance if released in October instead of November, which is exactly how silly & arbitrary this entire “Best of the Year” selection process is on an industry-wide scale.

I was amused to see Bones and All‘s dual nature as a somber, awardsy drama and a viciously violent cannibal movie reflected in the casting of its two leads.  Certainly, the Oscar nominated Tiger Beat heartthrob Timothée Chalamet is the film’s biggest draw, as it relies heavily on his twinky dirtbag charms as history’s scrawniest leading man.  As a genre-trash connoisseur, though, I was most excited to see Escape Room‘s Taylor Russell get her due as the film’s front-and-center protagonist, as she’s a far more powerful emotional anchor than that high-concept, low-execution horror franchise likely deserves.  Here, Russell headlines a coming-of-age story for a teen girl in rural 1980s America who’s going through an unexpected Raw phase: channeling her newfound adult instincts & urges into sudden acts of cannibalism.  Abandoned by her family, she seeks a home & a self-assured identity on the road, where her natural scent as “an eater” is frequently clocked by fellow cannibals.  Against the odds, she hooks up with Chalamet’s fellow loner eater and makes a small, manageable place for herself in the world where she can live without pain & guilt.  Only, no matter how much she personally heals from her traumatic past, it has a way of creeping back in to ruin her progress – mostly through the villainous presence of Mark Rylance as an old-timey hobo (doing his best Rose the Hat).  Bones and All is equally balanced as an understated road trip drama about pained personal healing and an eerie supernatural horror about the wounded souls & vicious monsters at the fringes of American rot.  Which version of the film you see in that Rorschach test-in-motion is a matter of personal disposition and might even change from scene to scene.

I reacted to this movie the same way I’ve reacted to every Luca Guadagnino picture I’ve seen: sustained appreciation without total elation.  Guadagnino consistently makes good movies—never great ones—precisely because of his tendency for dramatic restraint.  With his two outright horror films (the other being his 2018 Suspriria “remake”), you can feel him actively fighting that impulse, reaching into the depths of Hell for transcendence & catharsis instead of his usual grounded frustrations & melancholy.  Bones and All digs as far down as it can into the mud, blood, bone shards, buzzing flies, and ash of its underground-cannibal America, but it still feels self-consciously reserved & tethered to reality – recalling the authenticity-obsessed docudrama of American Honey more than the horned-up ferocity of Trouble Every Day.  The doomed lovers of Bones and All never fully give in to the transcendent pleasures of their grotesque hunger.  The hellish pool party of A Bigger Splash never fully devolves into the blood-soaked, poolside orgy it threatens to be.  Armie Hammer never bites into that cum-filled peach.  For a lot of audiences, that restrained approach to over-the-top genre tropes is what makes Guadagnino great; it’s what makes Bones and All a sincere Awards Contender, unlike other artfully grotesque horrors of the year like Mad God, Flux Gourmet, and Men.  For me, it’s what keeps his work from ever fully accessing the cathartic release those tropes tap into, an approach that feels more timid than admirable.  It’s apparently what gets you in the door to compete with The Fabelmans instead of Barbarian, though, so what do I know?

-Brandon Ledet

The Menu (2022)

A few weeks ago, YouTube recommended a recent video essay for me entitled “rage & revenge: the birth of a new genre” [capitalization sic], created by Rowan Ellis. Apparently, it’s now a major part of The Discourse to consider recent films about women taking revenge as a genre unto itself, using the famous “good for her” quote from Lucille Bluth as its title.  I’m not sure about the need for this specific taxonomic declension, but I can also tell you right now that most of the films that fall into that basket are ones that I already love, and the overlap in the Venn diagram between the films which are commonly identified using this term and my oft-cited love for “women on the verge” pictures is the shape of the moon a couple of days prior to being full. I’d even say that many of them overlap between the two subgenres, notably mother!, Midsommar, Promising Young Woman, and even Knives Out! and Ready or Not. It was the last two of these that was at the forefront of my mind every time I saw the trailer for The Menu, as the advertisement included certain specific details that were very similar: the woman out of place among the narcissistic rich elites who finds their decadence alienating, and that her specific presence as a member of a class that was unlike theirs would be the key to her success. The movie is … not quite that, but it still qualifies. 

Hawthorne is an exclusive offshore restaurant situated on a private island and operated by celebrity chef Julian Slowick (Ralph Fiennes). Each evening, a cohort of twelve wealthy diners is shuttled to the island for a multi-course dinner, nearly all courses of which are informed by every little pretension of molecular gastronomy you’ve seen hyped and mocked on the internet and in sitcoms since the 1990s. One attendee, a food critic, is even said to have been the person who “basically discovered” slow eggs, which automatically made me flashback to a nearly five-year-old NYT piece about chef Alice Waters and her practice of cooking a single egg over a fire in a long cast iron spoon, the memory of which comes to mind unbidden about once a month, although rarely through so direct an association. Our viewpoint character on all of this is Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is accompanying snobby foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) to the restaurant on his dime; we’re immediately introduced to his fanboy idolization of Slowick in his first few moments, and his endless stream of prattle about gourmand nonsense and food science is breathless not because of his awe or wonder but because of its businesslike efficiency. He seems like exactly the kind of man who peacocks by taking a woman to a ludicrously expensive restaurant and explaining every little detail in a rehearsed speech as part of a mating ritual, not for any real love of foodcraft. 

Rounding out the night’s guests are: a wealthy couple, Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light, who I was delighted to see), who have eaten at Hawthorne over a dozen times; Lillian (Janet McTeer), a well-acted caricature of every food critic character you’ve ever seen on screen, and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein); fading star George Diaz (John Leguizamo) and his girlfriend/assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero); and a trio of tech bro worms (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, and Mark St. Cyr) who boast to one another about their infidelities, off shore accounts, and general shittiness. Upon arrival, there is a heated discussion between Tyler and the maitre d’ Elsa (Hong Chau, who steals every scene that she’s in) regarding the fact that Margot is not his guest of record, but she is allowed to stay, despite her apathy about the situation. Elsa gives the diners a tour, which includes their poultry coops, meat smokehouse, and even the dorms in which the staff who work under Slowick reside, which looks more like a prison than anything else, down to an exposed toilet and shower in the same large room in which they all sleep in barracks. At the restaurant proper, dinner commences and Slowick introduces each course by clapping his hands loudly, which results in his staff dropping what they are doing and coming to military attention like the most well-behaved cooking reality show contestants on earth, at which point he gives a speech about the materiel being presented and its connection to some part of his past (and later, the pasts of some of his other high-ranking chefs). This starts out innocently enough with a sort of microcosm of an ocean ecosystem on a plate, then gets more provocative with a “lack of bread” course that includes several sauces for dipping but no actual bread, and then only becomes more dangerous from there. 

The touch of the darkly comic fluctuates in its efficacy here. There are many lines that are laugh-out-loud funny, and others that are witty little observations about how people who all think that they’re the main character simply because of their wealth or power must prop themselves up by being the most annoying person in the room. Diaz attempts to ingratiate himself with the tech boys because he wants to convince himself that he’s still cool; Lillian’s running commentary on the food isn’t just for the benefit of herself and her editor but is also clearly projected so that even amongst the hubbub of the evening her comments on the broken emulsion of a particular sauce is still heard by the staff, who present her with a full bowl of the broken sauce. Tyler takes pictures of his food despite that being explicitly forbidden at the start of the evening, and Ted simply plays sycophant to whatever Lillian says, often completely reversing course on a statement in the middle when Lillian objects with an opposing opinion. It elucidates each diner in a way that’s efficient without feeling utilitarian while also planting little character morsels for you to recall and smile—although presumably not laugh—when they cross your mind. Margot’s cunning bon mots are fun, but they don’t stick to your ribs in quite the way that they ought. Of course, sitting in a cinema where the jokes aren’t landing with other people can also artifically dampen that feeling, as there are certain things that made me chuckle audibly but to which no one else reacted, so that could be while I’m feeling less than satiated by this particular meal. It’s not bad, I’m just still hungry (ok, I’ll stop). I’m just hesitant to say more because I wouldn’t want to spoil you, or your appetite (ok, that was the last one, I promise). 

I don’t think that this would actually fall into the Good For Her genre. The ending is fun and functional, and although I would go so far as to say it borders on exhilarating, I wouldn’t call it cathartic. It’s not merely enough that assholes get their comeuppance for the film to qualify (if it did, this would make the cut), it’s that our Final Girl has to have actually performed some kind of rampage, and that just doesn’t happen here. It’s more a cold and calculated game of riddles between the staff and the diners with Margot falling somewhere in the middle, having to find the line between the ones who take and the ones who give and straddle it in order to survive. I’ll leave it at that, but if you’re a knowledge sponge with a functionally adult attention span like I am, then I’d recommend checking out Tara Heimberger’s thesis on the subject, “Female Rage, Revenge, and Catharsis,” here. This was a movie that will play as well for you as a rental once it’s available on demand as it does on the big screen, gorgeous island vistas aside, so I recommend it, maybe paired with a five-course dinner. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Official Competition (2022)

As the Fall Film Festival season spills over into the Year-End Listmaking frenzy and the new year’s hangover Awards Ceremonies, it’s easy to be tricked into believing that movies are Important.  Forget all the jump-scare horrors of October and the action blockbuster bloat of what’s now a six-month summer.  This is the time of year when cinema cures all the world’s ills, from “solving” racial & economic injustice in 180 minutes or less to fortifying millionaire actors’ praise-starved egos with gold-plated statuettes.  And so, it’s the perfect time of year to catch up with the Spanish film industry satire Official Competition, which is exactly as cynical about the absurd ritual of Important Cinema Season as the ritual deserves.  Dissatisfied with merely being grotesquely wealthy, a pharmaceutical CEO decides to purchase cultural clout by funding a high-brow art film.  He employs a temperamental arthouse auteur to complete the task in his name (Penelope Cruz, sporting one of cinema’s all-time greatest wigs).  To make the most of the opportunity, she has to manage the competing egos of her two male stars (Oscar Martinez as a pretentious stage actor & Antonio Banderas as a himbo film star), and the three mismatched artists violently bicker their way into purchasing a Palme d’Or.  Hilarity ensues, with none of the pomp nor dignity of Prestige Filmmaking left intact.

As you can likely tell from the dual presence of Cruz & Banderas, Official Competition borrows a lot of aesthetic surface details from the Almodóvar playbook: ultra-modernist art gallery spaces, video-instillation digi projections, cut-and-paste magazine collages, etc.  It just repurposes those Great Value™ Almodóvar aesthetics for broad goofball schtick instead of subtly complex melodrama.  And it works!  The jokes are constant & consistently funny, always punching up at the absurd self-importance of artsy filmmaker types’ delusion that they can change the world through a millionaire producer’s vanity project.  From the himbo’s Instagram charity sponcon to the theatre snob’s practiced awards rejection speech to the auteur’s failure to master TikTok dance crazes, the movie constantly pokes fun at its three central players for being far less Genius, Important, and Uniquely Talented than they believe themselves to be.  At its core, this is a comedy about a boyish rivalry between the two actors under Cruz’s direction, and her mistaken belief that she’s the sole voice of reason on-set.  They’re all equally ridiculous and all a constant source of verbal & visual punchlines. 

Even though Official Competition is essentially a farce, it can’t help but absorb some of its own arthouse prestige through proximity.  The three main actors all put in great, nuanced performances as broad film-world archetypes, especially Cruz as the exasperated auteur who can’t fully domesticate her collaborators.  The Almodóvar set details afford it a crisp art instillation feel, especially in a lengthy gag involving a loudly mic’d lesbian makeout session.  Its icy humor at the expense of its own industry also goes subzero in the third act, when the vicious on-set rivalries become outright lethal.  It’s a very smart comedy about a very silly industry that thinks very highly of itself, an easy but worthwhile target for ridicule.  It’s around this stretch on the annual film distribution calendar—when the novelty horror titles dry up between Halloween & January dumping season—that I’m desperate for a little novelty & levity in my moviewatching diet.  Official Competition meets me halfway in that respect, finding plenty novelty & levity in Prestige Filmmaking itself.

-Brandon Ledet

Last Dance (2022)

It’s undeniable that the art of drag has changed drastically in the past decade, at least from what I can see in New Orleans.  The traditionalist dive-bar pageant drag that I grew up with in the city has been pushed out to the edges of the frame, found only in the annual Gay Easter parade in the Quarter or at spaghetti & mimosas brunches on the West Bank.  These days, most local drag acts are young cabaret weirdos who are much more interested in testing the boundaries of good taste than they are in looking pretty under a pound of pancake-batter makeup.  In most cities, drag’s recent shift towards the avant-garde might only be attributable to the popularity of television programs like Ru Paul’s Drag Race and its legion of international spinoffs.  Here, it’s more directly influenced by the New Orleans Drag Workshop, an intensive drag bootcamp that spawned most of the city’s most vital, exciting queens for the better half of the 2010s.  That’s the local legacy of drag mother Lady Vinsantos, who closed the New Orleans Drag Workshop just before the pandemic in 2019, leaving behind a glamorously mutated art scene that now sets the city apart from the Southern Pageant traditions I remember from Mardis Gras & Decadences past.

The French “dragumentary” Last Dance honors Vinsantos for recontouring the New Orleans drag scene into the vibrant freak show it is today, so it was wonderful to see it presented with ceremonial prestige at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival.  As the older, stuffier crowd attending the local premiere of the Louis Armstrong documentary Black & Blues spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of The Prytania, the drunken reprobates waiting for the Vinsantos doc rushed in, ready to cheer on & heckle the projection of their friends’ faces onto the century-old silver screen.  The movie asks, “Remember when Neon Burgundy had that gigantic beard?” as if it’s making nostalgic small talk between stage acts at The All-Ways.  It treats local drag performers like Franky, Tarah Cards, and Gayle King Kong as if they were the first wave of punk bands to perform onstage at CBGB’s, a much-deserved reverence you’ll only find in film-fest documentaries like this & To Decadence With Love.  Director Coline Albert may not be from New Orleans, but she does a great job of highlighting what makes the local drag scene special, and how much of a hand Vinsantos had in shaping that scene into what it is.

Besides, New Orleans is only one part of Vinsantos’s story, as it’s told here.  This is a documentary of thirds, split between the closure & legacy of the New Orleans Drag Workshop, Vinsantos’s youthful run as a chaos queen in San Francisco, and the character’s official retirement show in Paris – a lifelong dream realized.  The writing & production of the Paris show helps establish a narrative momentum as Vinsantos reminisces about what he’s accomplished with his drag artistry in two distanced American cities, saving the movie from devolving into pure talking-heads tedium.  Even as someone who’s attended many shows populated entirely by Workshop “draguates” (as well as Vinsantos’s horror-host screening of the San Francisco cult film All About Evil), I’ve had little direct interaction with his own work, as he’s been gradually, consciously ceding the stage to younger talent.  Last Dance operates as a fly-on-the-wall portrait of Vinsantos as a self-doubting, frustrated artist with a chaotic stop-and-start creative process.  The Paris retirement show finale and clips from past triumphs also offer a decent sketch of what the Lady Vinsantos stage persona is like in action – a volatile combo of a Strait-Jacket era Joan Crawford and a Grande Dame revision of Freddy Kreuger.  The retirement of that persona is very much worth preserving here, even if she eventually rises from the grave to terrorize yet another city.

To Last Dance‘s credit, it doesn’t attempt to cover all of Vinsantos’s various art projects from throughout the decades.  His dollmaking, songwriting, and filmmaking efforts are only captured in glimpses, sometimes frustratingly so.  The archival fragments of the D.I.Y. drag-horror films he made as a prankish youth in San Francisco were the major highlight for me, since they have a vintage texture that can’t be matched by modern digital cameras.  Even just limiting itself to the dual retirement of the Drag Workshop and the Lady Vinsantos persona, though, the movie can still feel a little narratively unfocused, frantically plane-hopping between the three cities tethered to Vinsantos’s heart.  If it’s at all meandering or overlong, though, the indulgence is clearly earned.  If anything, we should have rolled out the red carpet and handed over a Key to the City to make the ceremony of this retirement documentary even more ostentatious.  As is, getting home from the post-screening Q&A after 1a.m. at least felt appropriate to the late-night freak scene Vinsantos helped establish here; the only thing the event was missing was a crowd-hyping MC and a two-drink minimum.

-Brandon Ledet