Lapsis (2021)

The daily experience of working and living right now is exhausting on a cellular level.  I’m not even referring to the specific context of the ongoing global pandemic, which has only amplified problems that have been humming in the background of our lives & work over the past couple decades.  Everything is fake now.  Meaningful, tangible experiences have been distorted and “disrupted” beyond recognition by the most power-hungry dipshits among us – tech bro vampires who mistake their inherited wealth for personal genius.  Most jobs aren’t really jobs anymore; they’re one-off assigned tasks performed by “independent contractors” for mega-corporations with incredible talent for innovating new ways to avoid taking care of their own.  Most personal interactions have lost their intimacy; they’re abstracted and commodified for social media broadcast, creating a constant pressure to be “on” all the time that makes even our idle hobbies feel like a secondary mode of labor – paid out in likes.  The modern world is uniquely empty and cruel in a way that’s becoming increasingly difficult to satirize.  There’s no artistic parody that could truly match the exponential inanity of the real thing, at least not in a way that won’t be topped the very next week by some other cosmic Internet Age blunder.

Lapsis gets close.  A high-concept, low-budget satire about our near-future gig economy dystopia, it’s a bleak comedy but not a hopeless one.  The wonderfully-named Dean Imperial stars as an old-fashioned working class brute who struggles to adapt to the artificial gig work of the Internet Age.  Our befuddled, belly-scratching hero takes on a new job running cables in the woods as infrastructure for a new, so-called “Quantum” internet service.  His daily work is assigned through an app that gamifies grueling, daily hikes with a point system and a competitive social media component with fellow contract “employees”.  He struggles to comprehend the basic functions of the app, requiring constant assistance from younger hikers who find smartphone tech more familiar & intuitive.  Yet, he ignores their attempts to unionize, focusing instead on sending all his hard-earned digital money back to a younger brother suffering from a vaguely defined type of medical exhaustion with the world called “omnia”.  The app heavily regulates hikers’ rest, like Chaplin being chided for taking an extended bathroom break in Modern Times.  They compete for tasks with automated delivery robots that trek on in the hours when their human bodies need sleep.  Their wages are taxed into oblivion by small, daily expenses that should be funded by the mega-corporation that “employs” them.  It’s all eerily familiar to the inane, artificial world we occupy now, with just enough exaggeration to qualify as science fiction.

The only other modern labor-exploitation satire I can recall in the same league as Lapsis is 2018’s Sorry to Bother YouLapsis doesn’t aim for the laugh-a-minute absurdism of Boots Riley’s instant-cult comedy, but it’s maybe even more successful in pinpointing exactly how empty and draining it feels to live & work right now.  Visually, it makes the most out of its budget in its art instillation set pieces that juxtapose its hiking-in-the-woods nature setting with impossible tangles of internet cables and the imposing cube-shaped modems they link to.  Satirically, it’s most impressive for walking a tightrope between observational humor and moralistic allegory.  Despite all of the tangible, recognizable parodies of modern gig-work tech it lays out in its early stretch, the film is most commendable for its more abstract, big-picture metaphors about inherited wealth, capitalist exploitation, and soul-deep exhaustion with modern living – all of which play out within the absurdist specificity of its near-future premise.  I was especially delighted that it strives towards a hopeful solution for our fake-as-fuck hellscape instead of just dwelling on its compounding problems.  It dares to sketch out a hopeful vision for labor solidarity between young, very-online Leftists and more traditional working-class Joe Schmoes, where it could just as easily point out the specific ways things are fucked right now without bothering to offer an exit strategy.  We need that kind of hopeful vision right now, even while we acknowledge exactly what’s wrong with the world as-is.

-Brandon Ledet

The Maids (1975)

When thinking back on the most striking, most ferociously committed performances I saw in any new-to-me films last year, two of the clear standouts were Suzannah York in Robert Altman’s Images and Glenda Jackson in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers – underseen, underappreciated gems from otherwise beloved 1970s auteurs. Playing women driven to madness by the unsympathetic, patronizing men in their lives, both York & Jackson are wildly over-the-top in their respective roles, but in a way that fits the volatile melodrama of the material they were given. In a word, their lengthy on-screen freak-outs in those films are spectacular. I was pleased, then, to discover that York & Jackson shared the screen in a 1975 adaptation of Jean Genet’s notorious stage play The Maids – a campy, dialed-to-11 actors’ showcase that allowed the two powerful women to fully run wild without any other actors getting in their way.

Jackson & York costar as incestuous sisters/housemaids who take turns roleplaying as their wealthy employer in elaborate kink games meant to mock her & dominate each other. The Maids‘s stagey limitations prevent it from being anything too exceptional as A Movie, but the central performances & class resentment politics are deliciously over-the-top in just the right way. It would be tempting to call York & Jackson’s performances over-acted, but really they’re just matching the archly over-written source material, wherein Genet turns the pageantry of wealth & class into a grotesque joke. It’s an unignorably cheap display, limited almost entirely to a single bedroom set and the world’s most embarrassing synthetic wigs. York & Jackson are fully committed to the material, though, overpowering the limitations of the production with Theatrical performances so monstrously grandiose & vicious they would make even Ken Russell blush.

On a thematic level, I can think of a few recent films that repeat & perfect The Maids‘s bigger ideas to much more exquisite results. In particular, the way the film fetishizes the employer/servant power dynamic and sarcastically pinches its nose at the stench of poverty, it’s impossible not to recall similar class-kink humor in films like Parasite & The Duke of Burgundy. It’s easy to get wrapped up in those comparisons to superior works, and the overall effect of York & Jackson reading off Genet’s deliberately overwrought dialogue ultimately feels like attending a 90min poetry recital. Still, it’s very much worth seeking out just to witness those two women sparring for dominance in a vicious, tawdry battle. I wish I could say it’s a great Movie overall, but it’s more a showcase for two great performances from women so overwhelmingly powerful it’s amazing that any one movie could contain them both.

-Brandon Ledet

Silver City (2004)

Writer’s Note: This was originally submitted for publication December 20, 2020, over two weeks prior to the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol Building.  Life comes at you fast, doesn’t it? 

While on my recent writer’s retreat, I spent some time free of wi-fi and, when I had run out of ideas for the day, enjoying the cornucopia of DVD delights that my cabin’s hosts had left behind. There were 21 DVDs, of  which three were things that I had at home (Stranger than Fiction, Cabin in the Woods, and something I’m too embarrassed to admit), four that were exercise/yoga related, and a number of westerns that I obviously ignored. Most of them seem to have come from that 2003-2009 “Blockbuster’s Twilight Years” era, having been purchased from the now-defunct company during its last years, with a decidedly independent bent. And so it came to pass that I have now seen Silver City, the 2004 political satire directed by Passion Fish-helmer John Sayles. 

The plot is relatively labyrinthine and cribs from Chinatown (there’s even discussion of water rights in a potential real estate development) and the then-contemporary election year political discourse du jour, which is depressing both in how unbelievably stupid the whole thing was and how much more dignified it was than 2020. Our lead is Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a former reporter turned private investigator after filing an explosive, provocative story whose informants later recanted under pressure from the political establishment, ending that phase of his career and ultimately bankrupting the paper that employed him. Danny is brought in when dim-witted Colorado gubernatorial hopeful and George W. Bush analog Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) accidentally hooks a dead body while shooting a bucolic political ad that sees him fishing in a  pristine lake. His cutthroat campaign manager Karl Rove Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) hires Danny’s agency to help determine where the body, that of a tattooed Latino man, came from while keeping the whole thing under wraps. Danny is aided in his investigation by Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), a former colleague in his past life as a newspaperman who now keeps the public informed in his own jaded way: leaking enough of the incomprehensibly large, true evil done by government that is too tied up in corporate interests, in the hopes of getting legitimate news outlets to pull the thread enough to take down bad political actors. Along the way, he also receives assistance from Tony Guerra (Sal Lopez), who works within the undocumented community to try and identify the dead man. 

There are three major enemies of the Pilager campaign that Danny is sent to investigate/quell: right wing radio pundit and political commentator Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer); former mining safety inspector Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), who was ousted in disgrace following a falsified scandal involving an accident; and Maddy Pilager (Daryl Hannah), Dickie’s disgraced “nympho” sister, the free-spirited black sheep of the family and once-and-current Olympic archery hopeful. Of them, we spend very little time with Castleton, but Ferrer makes an impression as what a right wing nutjob used to look like: power-hungry, conceited, and exploitative, but educated, tempered, and articulate, back when the people in such positions were merely obstructive backward, not completely insane or opposed to scientific progress, immoral but not amoral (Ben Shapiro clearly thinks he’s the heir apparent to William F. Buckley but he could never, and Buckley himself was a terrible person, but I’d take him over Charlie Kirk or Alex Jones any day of the week and twice on Sunday). It’s a stark reminder of how far we’ve fallen in so short a time—I’m in my mid-thirties, and I wasn’t even old enough to vote in the presidential election that happened the year this movie was released, so chew on that for a second. As a mirror of American politics of the new millennium, it feels like this movie is a reverse portrait of Dorian Gray that, though depressingly hideous, has grown more lovely with time as the body politik visibly betrays every hidden malice, every wicked act of greed, and every failure of decency

The titular “Silver City” is a proposed land development deal to build a planned community in land that is beautiful but unfit for human habitation: mining has made Swiss cheese of the hills and rendered the groundwater contaminated, but Pilager patriarch Senator Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy) made a bad investment in it and was bailed out when family friend and multi-millionaire business mogul Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) purchased the land from him far above its value. In exchange, Benteen wants to skirt the regulations that have prevented the development of Silver City and, one presumes, swim around in his profits like Scrooge McDuck. Kristofferson is fantastic here, appearing in only a few scenes but leaving a lasting impression and an air of malice, casual evil-by-way-of-enterprise. In his major scene, he takes Dickie on a horseback ride through beautiful, uncorrupted nature while decrying the regulations that keep it so; he can barely contain his bile as he curses the name of the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies, and it’s evident that in his dreams he sees the purple mountain majesty in the background as crawling with excavators and bulldozers like ants, but he paints his vision of the future with such a lovely palate that Dickie buys it.

Benteen is aided in this endeavor on multiple fronts. There’s sad Mort Seymour (David Clennon), who’s trying desperately to sell local government authorities on the Silver City idea, and who gains ground when Benteen puppeteers a casual, ostensibly coincidental run-in with Dickie at a local restaurant (Dickie’s election to the office of governor is treated as a foregone conclusion). Also on Benteen’s bench is slick, sleazy lobbyist Chandler Tyson (Billy Zane at his absolute oiliest), who presages the Kirks and Shapiros of the present as someone with utterly no moral compunction about flat-out lying with a straight face. His moral compass points due south, as he demonstrates in one of the film’s best, most nauseating lines: “Every idea, no matter how politically incorrect, deserves an advocate.” What he’s talking about in that moment is his previous testimony to Congress that there is no identifiable link between smoking and lung cancer. The idea was absurd, even for 2004, but it foretells a time when the general public would fall for easily disprovable scientific fact, like that the earth is (generally) round, that climate change is real and affected by human action, and that COVID-19 is real and deadly. 

Narratively, Danny’s investigation is complicated by two issues in his personal life: his employer Grace (Mary Kay Place) is married to Mort, which we learn late in the film, and the impending marriage of Tyson to Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello), a morally just crusading reporter who has a huge blindspot regarding Tyson’s lack of a conscience and also happens to be Danny’s ex. It’s clear to everyone paying attention that Dickie is completely out of his depth when he’s confronted without extensive preparation and coaching, at which point he repeats himself, cites jingoistic jingles, and makes it clear via an inability to express a single intelligent thought extemporaneously that he lacks any real savvy or acumen. (Remember, this was made in a time before The Right realized that they could get people to slurp that up with a spoon as long as it was sufficiently combined with white supremacist rhetoric.) This isn’t really relevant to the mystery of the watery corpse, however, except in the way that evil breeds evil. As it turns out,the deceased Lazaro Huerta (Donevon Martinez) was an undocumented day laborer who died in one of Benteen’s facilities. To prevent the exposure of Benteen as both (a) a hypocrite who exploits immigrants for cheap labor while decrying the practice and (b) a manufacturer who fails, mortally, to meet the OSHA regulatory guidelines that he derides as part of his deregulation agenda, Huerta’s body was hauled into the hills and thrown down an abandoned mineshaft that had previously been used to dispose of Benteen’s toxic waste. Casey Lyle (remember him?) had been trying to blow the whistle on the fact that the mines were now prone to collecting water in times of torrential rains and causing flooding in the future home of Silver City; one such flood had washed Huerta’s body into the lake, as will everything that’s hidden there, eventually.

There’s one man who could help reveal all of this: Vince Esparza (Luis Saguar), a cutthroat who obtains and arranges laborers, including for Benteen on the site where Huerta was killed. He threatens Danny and is shot by an overzealous sheriff’s deputy,  the two men who initially told Danny about the mineshaft are captured by I.N.S. and prevented from corroborating Danny’s information; when he returns later, the entrance to the mine has been sealed. Grace also fires him, and all hope seems lost as Benteen’s organization has bought up the news outlet for which Nora writes, killing any chance of exposing the rotten heart of American politics. Except … Paine and his team have managed to expose the thread, if someone else in the media can only pull it and see where it leads. But, as every fish in the picturesque lake that girds Silver City dies in a mass event that leads us to the credits, the message is clear: even if the truth is learned, it won’t un-destroy the ecosystem.

Silver City received mixed reviews in its time, and that’s well-deserved. The core of the film’s narrative at first presents itself as a murder mystery, and it ultimately is exactly that, metaphorically—who killed Lazaro Huerta? The system. We just get there through a roundabout investigation, and by that time we’ve pulled the thread of something bigger, more insidious, and, worst of all, entrenched. Conceptually, that’s a rich vein to be mined, so to speak, but what we’re left with teeters on the edge of being a little too on-the-nose. We need to care about Danny, at least a little bit, and it’s hard not to—Danny Huston can pull of “charismatic loser journeyman” with charm to spare—but his trail of discovery has in its margins a truly harrowing story about oppression under a capitalism that seeks to consume nature for no other reason than because it’s there, and does it on the back of exploited labor while paying silver-tongued lobbyists to lie, baldly. That something like this is offset by conversations between Danny and Nora about their former relationship, in which she basically tells him that he was just too damn good and married to the job, or a scene in which Nora waxes philosophical about Danny with Tyson while the latter gears up for a bike ride while expounding on the lack of objective morality, feel very Sorkin-y and pedestrian. The comedy is just too broad, perhaps as best epitomized by Hannah’s Maddy character, a manic pixie middle aged woman who smokes pot, has a weird hobby (archery), and delivers huge pieces of exposition while jumping on a trampoline.* There’s a deadly serious thing happening here, but the whole thing feels very flippant, because—did you notice it? “Pilager” sounds like “pillager”! That gets a Perfunctory Liberal Chortle™ and then we’re on to a scene in which a man is crushed under a car while trying to learn Huerta’s identity. It’s a three-flavor swirl of political satire that’s too broad, a background event with implications that encompass broad ecological destruction and consequence-free manslaughter, and also Danny and his ex-girlfriend considering getting back together. The narrative throughline is solid, but everything hanging off of it makes the thing unwieldy. Worst of all, the film has made me wistful for the immediate post-9/11 years. Is this really what it’s come to? 

*Without taking her shoes off first!

-Mark “Boomer Redmond

Episode #121 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Hunt (2020) & 2020 Election Cycle Satires

Welcome to Episode #121 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee discuss three recent satires that lampooned the 2020 presidential election cycle: The Hunt (2020), Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020), and Mister America (2019).  Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Podcast Crew

Giants & Toys (1958)

One of the most difficult genres to translate across cultural & language barriers is the comedy. While there’s a visceral, immediate impact from action & horror that make them near-universal, comedy usually relies on a mutual cultural foundation shared between creator and audience, so that those shared norms can be exaggerated or upended. The Japanese business-world satire Giants & Toys sidesteps the exported comedy’s cultural disconnect by centering its humor on a simple, easily translatable thesis that would resonate with any audience no matter their background: “Capitalism is bad.” That isn’t an especially complex or nuanced target for the movie to satirize, but it is one that’s only become increasingly relatable across all borders in the half-century since the film’s initial release.

A trio of cutthroat caramel companies compete to out-exploit each other over increasingly trivial differences in candy sales. As the Big Three candy companies race to out-Willy Wonka each other with the latest developments in caramel technology and marketing gimmickry, their tactics get progressively more vicious & unscrupulous, but the stakes for victory remain largely unimportant. There’s more than enough candy money to go around for all three companies to profit, but personal increases in sales is not enough to satisfy their corporate bloodlust. In a game where “Eat or beat eaten; cheat or be cheated,” are the only rules, success is only measured by the destruction of your enemies, and the stress of striving for that market dominance every waking moment drives the companies’ executives’ bodies into the ground. As they cough blood into their pristine handkerchiefs under the exponential, ulcer-inducing stress of the job, it never stops being amusingly pathetic that they’re sacrificing their health over something as frivolous as determining the best prizes for children to earn by mailing in UPC codes from candy wrappers. Capitalism is the farce, and this movie is smart about capturing it at its most inane & inhumane.

The only detectable shred of humanity in this picture is Hitomi Nozoe’s performance as the up-and-coming spokesmodel Kyôko, who functions as an element of chaos in the otherwise regimented world of corporate candy sales. When she’s first plucked from poverty & obscurity by the marketing executives who intend to make her a star, she’s a wild brat with an adorable distaste for being told what to do. The demands of being a spokesmodel for a corporate product—even a childish indulgence like candy—means that she’s pressured from all sides to be sexualized & politely mannered in the public eye. She refuses for as long as she can, subverting her handlers’ attempts to objectify her by lashing out like a goofball child on a never-ending sugar rush. Her rotten teeth & wagging tongue are especially powerful weapons in this effort to maintain her autonomy, earning most of the movie’s biggest laughs. Unfortunately, she can’t thwart the company who owns her image forever, though, and a corporation smoothing out her rough edges is one of the film’s greatest tragedies. This is a largely downbeat, defeatist tale—especially for a comedy—and much of its gloom & deviousness relies on Kyôko’s arc and the wild energy of Hitomi Nozoe’s performance.

Whether or not Giants & Toys has anything especially novel to say about the corrosive nature of Capitalism, its vulgar sense of humor and sleek stylishness (bolstered by an arbitrary Space Age marketing gimmick pursued by one of the Big Three candy companies) make for a fun, continually surprising watch. The intrusion of a chaotic outsider upending its corporate boardrooms’ routine exploitation schemes makes it feel like a Japanese precursor to Putney Swope (except that it’s more consistently rewarding than Putney Swope from gag to gag). Most comedies don’t translate nearly this well across cultural & language barriers, but most comedies don’t tackle such a universal, enduringly relevant satirical target. Giants & Toys‘s “Capitalism is bad” thesis may be surface-level & broad, but the film sets itself apart from other corporate-world satires by highlighting that culturally universal subject’s ugliest & most absurd extremes in a perversely fun way.

-Brandon Ledet

Diamantino (2019)

In the opening sequence of Diamantino, our bimbo antihero achieves a euphoric state of internal bliss while doing the one thing he’s good for: playing soccer. With all the world’s eyes on his every move, the greatest living footballer dissociates from his game-winning drive by mentally escaping to his Happy Place. Glittery pink storm clouds flood the screen, accompanied by stadium-scale puppies galloping along with our titular galoot as he scores the goal of a lifetime. There are two ways to achieve that kind of internal peace & total calm: years of practiced meditation, or starting off already empty-headed. The beautiful sweet idiot Diamantino falls firmly in that latter category, and the tragedy of the film is him losing that transcendent state of blissful ignorance (a natural gift he refers to as “The Fluffy Puppies”) as soon as he gains just a little knowledge of how awful the world truly is.

In that way, Diamantino is like a hotter, more chiseled version of Chauncey Gardner, the Peter Sellers character from Being There. Sexy enough to know he can get away with living an exclusively shirtless life but so intellectually sheltered from the real world he doesn’t realize how bizarre it is that he’s an adult virgin, this Zoolander-level underwear model of a man is too naïve to be real. And so, he functions mostly as a political allegory. While yachting with his overly controlling family who leach off his wealth, Diamantino discovers the existence of political refugees – spotting a raft of starving, petrified victims of war drifting towards the Portuguese coast. This revelation that the displacement of refugees and general human suffering are real-life social ills completely blows his feeble mind, which was previously only occupied by a narcissistic self-obsession and an ability to play soccer real good. The fluffy puppies disappear and Diamantino loses his sexy footballer mojo, making the only possible triumph of the film a path back to blissful ignorance.

Once exposed to the existence of human suffering & political turmoil, Diamantino falls down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theory intrigue, allowing the movie to take wild, unsubtle jabs at the disasters of MAGA & Brexit culture in particular. As soccer is described to be the true “opium of the masses,” disparate groups like the Portuguese Secret Service, The Ministry of Propaganda, and the James Bond-style corporate entity Lamborghini Genetics all conspire to exploit Diamantino’s celebrity for their own political gain. Meanwhile, the beefy oaf just wants to make himself feel better about the refugee crisis so he can frolic in the pink clouds of his own empty head with the Fluffy Puppies again. It’s a delightfully absurd political farce, bolstered by surreally cheap CGI and a peculiar sense of humor that alternates between wholesomeness & cruelty at a breakneck pace. The whole thing just winds up feeling like a fantasy movie adaptation of this meme (which I swear I mean as a compliment):

-Brandon Ledet

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Is it okay to admit that I genuinely don’t know what to make of this movie? After Taika Waititi’s hot streak of instant 5-star classics—Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, Boyit’s tempting to give the writer-director the benefit of the doubt in my unease with Jojo Rabbit’s tone & aesthetic. I especially wish I could celebrate Waititi’s willingness to immediately torch all the money & goodwill he earned making a crowd-pleasing Marvel movie by starring as Adolf Hitler in a pitch-black comedy with wild, deliberately alienating tonal shifts. Still, Jojo Rabbit’s mashup of Cute & Vile sentiments left me more confounded than either frustrated or moved. I suppose that discomfort & unease was largely the point, but it ultimately just didn’t feel as confident or personal as Waititi’s previous experiments in light-and-dark tonal clashes. It’s the first time I can assume one of his films didn’t fully achieve whatever it set out to accomplish.

The titular Jojo Rabbit is a 1940s German boy, Johannes, who is foolheartedly committed to his enrollment in The Hitler Youth. Already a victim to Nazi propaganda before the film starts, Jojo treats The Hitler Youth as a Weekend Fun precursor to The Boy Scouts (which it kinda was). He fully buys into the program’s antisemitic brainwashing that portrays Jewish people as magical, greedy demons with horns, scales, and forked tongues. This naïve, fanatical devotion to Nazi ideology is challenged when Jojo discovers that his own mother is secretly hiding a teenage Jewish girl from the Gestapo in the walls of their house, trapping him between the White Nationalist lies he’s been immersed in and the quiet demonstrations of kindness & charity towards Jews his mother exhibits at home. Naturally, he talks himself through this internal conflict with the help of his imaginary friend – a goofball, superheroic version of The Fuhrer himself, played by Waititi with the same vaudevillian broadness Charlie Chaplin brought to The Great Dictator.

Between the film’s Wes Andersonian visual fussiness, cutesy childhood humor, and ice-cold stares into the depths of wartime cruelty, Jojo Rabbit tosses a lot of clashing flavors into one overflowing gumbo. The not-for-everyone ingredient in that recipe (the okra, if you will) is the film’s peculiar sense of humor, which is broad enough to feel like it was intended for an audience of children despite the thematic severity it’s supposed to undercut. This film is consistently gorgeous as a meticulously tailored art object and seemingly heartfelt in its pangs of familial & genocidal drama, but it’s never quite funny enough to full earn its self-proclaimed status as “an anti-hate satire.” Making Hitler out to be a goofball lunatic who “can’t grow a full mustache” and teasing him with schoolyard names like “Shitler” registers only faintly on the satire scale, a whisper of righteous dissent. To be fair, it’s the kind of humor a school-age young’n might find darkly subversive, which fits the POV character’s mentality just fine. For an adult audience, though, the jokes rarely land with anything more than a droll chuckle of recognition, which to me means this outrageous Hitler comedy is paradoxically playing it safe.

Thankfully, it works much better as a political & familial drama, especially in Jojo’s relationships with the women in his house. Spending time with an actual, in-the-flesh Jewish girl reorients Jojo’s dehumanization of her people as horned demons in the exact ways you’d expect. His relationship with his mother (played by Scarlett Johansson with an SNL-tier “German” accent) is much more complex & capable of surprise, as she grieves for the loss of her sweet, kindhearted son to Nazi propaganda as if he had died in battle. The women’s disappointment in Jojo’s indoctrination into antisemitism and their dismissal of his burgeoning Nazi ideology as “a scared child playing dress-up” registers as the most clear-eyed satirical target in the film – one with undeniable parallels to the resurgence of Nazism among young white men online in the 2010s. The imaginary Hitler device doesn’t lead to anything nearly as poignant as that dramatic anchor (although it is satisfying to see the racist icon portrayed by a self-described “Polynesian Jew”).

If I’m unsure how successful Jojo Rabbit is overall, that unease is mostly due to its middling successes as a comedy. A few jokes land here or there with a light chuckle, but the humor peaks early with an opening credits sequence that reframes Leni Riefenstahl’s propoganda footage of Nazi crowds to play like a precursor to Beatlemania. Overall, the film’s “anti-hate satire” wasn’t nearly as pointed or as ambitious as the 2016 German comedy Look Who’s Back, which amplified tonal clashing in its parody of modern Nazism to the scale of a cosmic farce. For me, Jojo Rabbit worked best as a maternal parallel to the paternal drama of Waititi’s Boy. The difference is that I left Boy marveling at how he pulled off such a delicate tonal balance with such confident poise, whereas I left Jojo Rabbit wondering if I had just seen him lose his balance entirely and tumble to the floor for the first time. The answer remains unclear to me.

-Brandon Ledet

Mister America (2019)

Over a year ago, Tim Heidecker posted a video on his Instragram account stating that he was running for District Attorney of San Bernardio County, California. Truthfully, I had no idea if this announcement was some sort of joke or if he was legitimately running for a political office.  For those who are familiar with Heidecker’s unique style of comedy (best conveyed on the series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), he walks a thin line between reality and satire, so my confusion was completely reasonable. Almost a year later, the movie Mister America was released, confirming that Tim was not really running for DA last year. He was working on a mockumentary and releasing social media clips that would eventually become part of this feature film. The whole situation is wild and extremely hard to explain to those who are unfamiliar with his comic genius. Last Wednesday, The Broad Theater had a one-night screening of the completed film, which I ab-so-lutely attended along with about twenty other fans of the Tim and Eric Awesome Show universe. It was by far the best comedy to come out this year.

Eric Notarnicola, the director of Mister America, is no stranger to Tim Heidecker’s hijinks. He also directed a few television and web series starring Heidecker: Decker, On Cinema at the Cinema, and The Trial, all of which reappear in Mister America at one point or another. While it is helpful to already be a fan of these Notarnicola-directed series with Heidecker (especially On Cinema) prior to watching the film, I don’t think it’s necessary to be familiar with the On Cinema Universe to enjoy Mister America. There’s enough background information provided throughout the movie to bring those unfamiliar with the series’ backstories up to speed. In Mister America, Heidecker is followed by a documentary crew throughout his journey of running as an independent candidate for District Attorney of San Bernardino County. Without having enough signatures to be on the ballot, no volunteers, barely any campaign funds, and no legitimate political platform, Heidecker has a tough time getting his campaign off the ground. To make matters worse, he has the reputation of being a murderer. While at an EDM music festival, he “supposedly” sold contaminated vape juice to several festival goers, causing them to die. His prosecutor for the case, Vincent Rosetti, is the incumbent DA of San Bernardino County, and Heidecker self-represented his defense in court during the legal battle. So with his legal self-representation experience and his connection with everyday San Bernardino citizens (he is officially a San Bernardino resident because he receives his mail at his hotel room), he truly believes that he has what is takes to beat Rosetti.

The style of humor that Mister America sells is the kind that has you cackling at the most minor details. For instance, while Heidecker is having a breakfast meeting with his campaign manager Toni (Terri Parks), he gets lost deep into his business/politician persona and can barely get his hashbrowns and eggs onto his fork. The camera kept zooming in on his fork failure, and I completely lost it. Another major player that brings the funny to this movie is mister Gregg Turkington, a regular guest on On Cinema. Turkington pops up for short interviews with the documentary crew to shit-talk Heidecker, and he always seems to come up with a bizarre movie reference for every scenario. My favorite scene with Turkington was when he tried to explain the similarities between The Shaggy D.A. and Heidecker’s campaign. He even goes so far as to bring a bootleg VHS copy of The Shaggy D.A. to the documentary crew, which he makes clear that he needs returned ASAP.  He also has a great moment where the crew follows him trash-hunting for VHS tapes (destined to become Popcorn Classics for On Cinema), and it’s something that I personally related to way too much.

Mister America is up there with the mockumentary greats, and it’s just a lot of stupid fun. I believe the movie theater screenings are finished, but the film is now available on demand. Trust me, it is worth every penny.

-Britnee Lombas

Putney Swope (1969)

I first heard of Putney Swope when the post-Dissolve podcast The Next Picture Show covered it last year as a point of comparison for Sorry to Bother You, a film I enjoyed a great deal. It was an incredibly apt selection with plenty of thematic overlap between the two pictures, despite Boots Riley’s admission that he had never seen Putney Swope himself before writing his debut screenplay. Both films are absurdist workplace satires that traffic in broad comedic tones but are also potently weaponized against the horrors of corporate culture & Capitalism at large. More distinctly, they also both feature white actors overdubbing the vocal performances of their black stars as a means delivering that social & economic commentary. The major difference there is that Sorry to Bother You’s purpose for that vocal dub was pointed & purposeful, whereas Putney Swope’s use of the same device is much more wildly irresponsible.

The name Putney Swope belongs to a character played by Arnold Johnson, a fictional black man who becomes the head of a major advertising firm when its white figurehead dies in the middle of a boardroom meeting. This unexpected career advancement gives Swope the opportunity to shake up the very structure of American culture; he fires all of the white board members from the company, replacing them with politically radical black comrades who create a disruptive new wave of TV ad spots that subvert American ideals & economics on a fundamental level. The rise of the Truth & Soul ad agency is a brilliant wraparound narrative that allows the movie to basically function as a sketch comedy show, rolling full-length “ads” for products like airlines, breakfast cereal, and acne cream with Rejected-like premises that could never fly in real life. The sketches themselves (the only parts of the movie shot in color) are consistently funny and standout as clear highlights, with characters delivering lines like “I have a malignancy in my prostate, but when you’re in my arms it’s benign” as if it’s naturally the kind of thing you hear in TV commercials all the time. It’s the wraparound story that’s hit-or-miss as a successful satire, not least of all because Johnson’s vocal performance was overdubbed entirely by the film’s white director, Robert Downey, Sr.

According to Downey, the reason Johnson’s performance had to be overdubbed was because the inexperienced actor kept flubbing his lines. Why it had to be dubbed by a white man doing an exaggerated, deep voice that strays so uncomfortably close to vocal minstrelsy is another question entirely, a choice that undermines the film’s admirably radical leftist politics at every turn. The one element of Putney Swope that helps counterbalance Downey’s distancing-at-best vocal dub is that Swope is not the only black character in the film. The entire advertising agency being swapped out with black usurpers means that Swope’s status as The Black Man in the company doesn’t carry as much weight in its representation politics as the film initially suggest. You could even forgivingly frame the choice as unintended commentary on what it means for a white filmmaker to be writing dialogue for black characters to deliver onscreen, especially since Swope & his employees at Truth & Soul exist more as mouthpieces for leftist political statements then they do as real, fleshed out people. That interpretation would be meeting Downey more than halfway, however, as he really should have known better than to overdub Johnson himself in the first place without having a pointed satirical reason for doing so.

Holding this half-a-century-old comedic satire up to current political standards is a fool’s errand, for sure, but it ultimately can’t be helped. Stray political oversights like Putney’s white voice, casting little people as sight gags, and sidelining the women of Truth & Soul as sex objects are only frustrating because so much of the film’s incendiary political commentary isn’t outdated at all. Its swipes at the industry of War, the corrupting force of Capitalism, and the institutional perpetuation of racism in America still ring as true as anything you’ll see in Sorry to Bother You, but you have to strain to hear that echo over Downey’s booming vocal dub. As a low-budget D.I.Y. sketch comedy show, Putney Swope holds up remarkably well fifty years later; its commercials for Ethereal Cereal, a Ms. Redneck New Jersey beauty pageant, and the children’s game Cops & Demonstrators clear the way for other major satirical sketch comedy touchstones to follow, like The Groove Tube, Kentucky Fried Movie, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Saturday Night Live. It even directly inspired one of my favorite movie scenes of all time—the tense firecracker house party gag from Boogie Nights—which until now I had no idea was an homage. The only thing Putney Swope seeming didn’t inspire was Sorry to Bother You, a film that catches a lot of flak for being “messy“ but at least feels more generally considerate & purposeful in its satire than this ancient predecessor.

That’s how it feels now, anyway. Maybe in 50 years some major aspects of Sorry to Bother You will stand out as just as glaring of a misstep as Downey’s voice does here. It’s highly likely that its punching-up institutional satire will remain evergreen either way, unfortunately, considering that the power dynamics subverted by Putney Swope in its own time haven’t changed a lick since despite the other ways it may have soured.

-Brandon Ledet

The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

Riley Stearns’s debut feature Faults was a sinister dark comedy about a huckster deprogrammer facing off against a small, mysterious cult that proved to be too much for his limited skills & outsized hubris. Stearns’s follow-up, The Art of Self-Defense, takes on a much bigger, more widespread cult that often proves too much of an insurmountable burden for us all: toxic masculinity. Jesse Eisenberg stars as what MRA types would describe as a Beta Cuck – an unimposing milquetoast wimp who struggles to assert himself both at work and in his private life. When the poor runt is assaulted in a random act of violence by a gang of macho bullies, he commits full-on to the “self-defense” doctrine of a local strip-mall karate dojo with a newfound religious zeal. The dojo proves to be toxic masculinity in a cult-sized microcosm – incrementally indoctrinating our squirmy protagonist further into the hellish depths of Alpha Male bravado. It’s basically the masc counterbalance to last year’s militarized-feminism satire The Misandrists, except that the humor here is much drier than that film’s penchant for over-the-top camp.

It’s easy to reduce the themes of The Art of Self-Defense to “Toxic masculinity is a cult,” because the film itself speaks only in dry, matter-of-fact statements that leave little room for subtext. Everything is labeled clearly, almost to the level of Sorry To Bother You-style surrealism. Businesses have names like The New Restaurant in Town. When Eisenberg is jumped he’s out buying a brown paper bag labeled “DOG FOOD” in bold block letters. When the mugging is reported on news radio he’s announced as “A 35-Year-Old Dog Owner.” There’s a twinge of Napoleon Dynamite quirk humor to this stilted, deliberately underwritten dialogue, but more importantly it allows the film to make fun of the arbitrary distinctions of traditional masculinity by allowing them to be spelled out plainly without embellishment. Rules about what names, countries, music genres, ways of sitting, and word choices are socially coded as being more masculine or feminine are framed as heightened absurdism here merely by being voiced in plain terms, making for a peculiarly understated version of satire. The movie also gets into the allure of the Alpha Male, incel, MRA mentality for insecure, unconfident men as well. Eisenberg explains, “I’m afraid of other men. They intimidate me. I want to be what intimidates me.” You’re not likely to get a more concise explanation of what attracts young men to the real-life cult of toxic masculinity than that, and explaining everything in expressionless, matter-of-fact terms was the most effective way to get there.

One of the more rewarding aspects of Faults was the tension of its central mystery, which keeps the audience guessing throughout on whether its fictional cult is actually tapping into a sinister supernatural power or is just a brainwashing hoax. Stearns drops that tension here, instead telegraphing the answers to all potential mysteries and possible outcomes long before they arrive. I don’t know if that choice makes for a better movie exactly, but it does free him up to make fun of MRA rhetoric early & often. The hierarchal goings-on of the strip-mall karate dojo were never going to be as rewarding as the satirical lens that frames Maxim Magazine as an extremist propaganda rag, manspreading as a saintly virtue, and being nice to your pet dog as feminine “coddling.” That being said, I can’t guarantee this absurdly dry, expressionless humor will land especially well with every crowd. I was the only person in the audience laughing at my (almost exclusively elderly) weekday screening, which is a shame, since we should all be able to take a step back and laugh at the absurdity of systemically enforced gender traits. It’s absolutely fucking ridiculous, but we rarely consider that perspective in our daily lives because we’re fully submerged in it.

I’d also like to point out how cool it was to hear a song from local metal heroes Thou in a professional feature film, even if their genre was lumped in with the absurdist list of macho gender signifiers.

-Brandon Ledet