Neptune Frost (2022)

At its best, cinema is honest artifice.  At its best, cinema is fiercely provocative & political.  It’s a shared dream; it’s poetry. Neptune Frost is cinema at its best.  The genderfucked Afrofuturist sci-fi musical is the kind of start-to-end stunner that feels so peerless in its fury & creativity that there isn’t a clear, pre-established critical language to fully discuss what it’s doing.  In genre terms, it triangulates unlikely holy ground between the communal-solidarity sci-fi of Bacurau, the dreamworld lyricism of Black Orpheus, and the “Hack the planet” online resistance culture of Hackers.  Otherwise, it’s untethered to tradition, using the digital tools of internet-era filmmaking to build an entirely new cinematic sensibility from scratch.  While so many genre filmmakers are stuck mining the past for retro nostalgia triggers, Saul Williams & Anizia Uzeyman are honest about the look & means of the moving image of the present, and as a result Neptune Frost feels like the future of sci-fi in the medium.

Neptune Frost‘s resistance to clear comparison or definition is integral to its design.  It boldly opposes every institutional structure it can hurl a brick at, from major oppressive forces like Capitalism, Christianity, and rigid Gender boundaries to more pedestrian concerns like Plot.  There are two lovers at the center of its loose, musical fantasy: a coltan miner mourning the loss of his brother and a non-binary traveler mourning their loss of place & community.  They find each other in the Rwandan savanna, and their love for each other combines with their hatred of modern civilization to create a new way of engaging with spiritual life & the physical world.  Other refugees & dissidents appear drawn to their subsequent political commune like a spiritual magnet, finding a way to collectively “hack” into the world’s computer systems from their remote locale through the power of their own hearts & minds.  Enough characters have names like Innocence, Philosophy, and Tekno that Neptune Frost feels like it should have a clear metaphorical guide to its scene-to-scene events, but I would be lying if I could say that I can make full sense of it (or that I’m even confident about my vague overview of its big-picture premise).  Since it’s all conveyed through music & poetry, though, it doesn’t have to make logical sense; it just has to be emotionally potent, and I felt every minute of it deep in my chest.

I do believe there is a clear guiding force to its political messaging, at least.  As much as it sets out to methodically undermine every single institutional structure in its path, it’s all filtered through a very specific disgust with the mining of coltan in countries like Rwanda, where horrifically exploitative working conditions are treated as a necessary evil to powering the world’s smartphones.  It’s openly confrontational about this trade-off, starting with a needless death in a coltan mine and referencing “Black-bodies currency” in its free-flowing song lyrics.  The beauty in its political subversion is in the way its savanna hacker commune turns the tools of their oppressors against them, using the community of online connection to overpower the systems that profited from its creation.  It’s a purely electronic mode of spirituality & political fury that feels more real & vital to modern life than the organized religions & pre-existing political movements it’s supplanting.  I don’t know that it offers a clear, real-life solution to the exploitation of coltan miners, but it does have a clear ethos in how online political organization is necessary to create meaningful change in the physical world, despite the exploitation that makes that connection possible.

The closest I’ve seen previous experiments in form approximate Neptune Frost‘s specific mode of political-resistance sci-fi euphoria was in the feature-length music videos Dirty Computer & When I Get Home.  I love both of those films for their boldness in pushing the medium to its outer limits, but I don’t think even they quite match Williams & Uzeyman’s far-out achievements here.  More importantly, they’re both relatively recent works, which means Neptune Frost is at the forefront of something new, something not yet fully defined.  It’s a thrill to behold, even with the uneasy balance between its political hopefulness and the real-world misery that drives its resistance to current status quo.

-Brandon Ledet

Crimes of the Future (2022)

He has not announced plans to retire, but if Crimes of the Future does end up being David Cronenberg’s final film, it would be an excellent send-off for the director’s career.  Just as A Dirty Shame registers as the perfect marriage between John Waters’s early-career transgressors and his late-career mainstreamers, Crimes of the Future lands midway between the sublime body-horror provocations that made Cronenberg famous and the philosophical cold showers he’s been taking in more recent decades.  It’s less of a complete, self-contained work than it is a loose collection of images, ideas, and in-jokes aimed at long-haul Cronenberg sickos.  It’s got all the monstrous mutation & fleshy, fetishistic penetration of his classic era, which makes it tempting to claim that the body horror master has returned to former glories.  It presents those images in the shape of his more recent, more talkative cerebral thrillers, though, as if to prove that nothing’s changed except that’s he’s grown out of a young man’s impulse to gross his audience out.  Crimes of the Future is the kind of film that’s so tangled up in the director’s previous works that it makes you say things like “‘Surgery is the new sex’ is the new ‘Long live the new flesh'” as if that means anything to someone who isn’t already a member of the cult.  And yet it might actually be a decent Cronenberg introduction for new audiences, since it’s essentially a scrapbook journal of everywhere he’s already been.

If there’s anything missing from Crimes of the Future that prevents it from reaching Cronenberg’s previous career highs, it’s not an absence of new ideas; it’s more an absence of narrative momentum.  Much of it functions as a dramatically flat police procedural, gradually peeling back the layers of a conspiracy theory that never feels as sharp or as vibrant as the future hellworld that contains it.  It’s a pure, playful exercise in complex worldbuilding & philosophical provocation, which are both major markers of great sci-fi no matter what narratives they serve.  Cronenberg essentially asks what our future world will be like once we inevitably accept the New Flesh mutations of his Videodrome era body horrors, as opposed to recoiling from them in fear.  He imagines a scenario where the pollution of accumulating microplastics in our bodies has triggered a grotesque evolution of new, mysterious internal organs that are hastily removed in surgery as if they were common tumors.  Meanwhile, our new bodies have essentially eradicated pain, making the general populace a depraved sea of self-harming thrill seekers.  A murdered child, an undercover cop, a network of paper-pushing bureaucrats, and a nomadic cult of proud plastic eaters all drift around the borders of this new, grotesque universe, but they never offer much dramatic competition to distract from the rules & schematics of the universe itself.

Crimes of the Future is at its absolute best when it’s goofing around as a self-referential art world satire.  Its most outlandish sci-fi worldbuilding detail is in imagining a future where high-concept performance artists are the new rock stars.  Viggo Mortensen stars as “an artist of the interior landscape,” a mutating body that routinely produces new, unidentifiable organs that are surgically removed in ceremonious public “performances.”  Léa Seydoux stars as his partner in art & life, acting as a kind of surgical dominatrix who penetrates his body to expose his organic “creations” to their adoring public (including Kristen Stewart as a horned-up fangirl who can barely contain her excitement for the New Sex).  Cronenberg not only re-examines the big-picture scope of his life’s work here; he also turns the camera around on his sick-fuck audience of geeky gawkers & fetishists.  It’s all perversely amusing in its satirical distortion of real-world art snobbery, from the zoned-out audience of onlookers making home recordings on their smartwatches, to the hack wannabe artists who don’t fully get the New Sex, to the commercialization of the industry in mainstream events like Inner Beauty Pageants.  Although it appears to be more self-serious at first glance, it’s only a few fart jokes away from matching Peter Strickland’s own performance art satire in Flux Gourmet, its goofy sister film.

I hope that Cronenberg keeps making movies.  Even five decades into his career, he’s clearly still amused with his own creations, when there’s big-name directors half his age who are already miserably bored with their jobs.  Hell, he doesn’t even need to create an entire new universe next time he wants to write something.  Crimes of the Future‘s plastic gnawing, organ harvesting, surgery-fucking future world is vast & vivid enough to support dozens of sequels & spin-offs.  It turns out you don’t even need much of a story to make it worth a visit.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Cube (2021)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss last year’s Japanese remake of the classic Canuxploitation sci-fi thriller Cube (1997).

00:00 Welcome

01:55 Drag Me to Hell (2009)
04:45 Evil Dead (2013)
10:30 Being John Malkovich (1999)
13:40 Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1978)
19:30 Interview with a Vampire (1994)
26:00 The Overlook Film Festival
31:37 Spider-Man 3 (2007)
38:00 Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2022)

41:27 Cube (2021)

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

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2022)

One of the stranger stories out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival was the selection of its opener.  Opening Cannes isn’t necessarily a marker of prestige, since the honor has been bestowed upon such disposable titles as The Da Vinci Code, Cafe Society, The Dead Don’t Die, and Grace of Monaco in the past.  Still, I was amused to hear that this year’s opener was a robustly budgeted French remake of the low-fi Japanese crowd-pleaser One Cut of the DeadFinal Cut was directed by Michel Hazanavicius, who’s been coasting for a full decade on the notoriety of winning a Best Director Oscar for The Artist.  Otherwise, it appears to be the exact kind of anonymous mainstream comedy that never gets exported outside France, so that Americans assume most of the country’s cinematic output is its small crop of high-brown art films.  Attempting to recapture the magic of One Cut of the Dead is a fool’s mission in any context, but there’s something especially absurd about an establishment filmmaker remaking it with real studio money and then getting the red-carpet treatment at the world’s most distinguished film festival.

One of the reasons it’s foolish for Hazanavicius to attempt replicating One Cut of the Dead‘s niche, low-budget magic is that One Cut‘s director Shinichiro Ueda has already championed his chosen successor.  Ueda has proudly boosted the profile of the low-budget sci-fi one-shotter Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes as One Cut of the Dead‘s adorable kid sister, lifting it out of the festival circuit into international distribution.  If it weren’t for that profile boost, the comparison wouldn’t do Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes many favors.  While One Cut of the Dead transcends its low-budget zombie comedy medium to become a film about the joys of all low-budget filmmaking, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes has a lot less to say about the world outside its single-location microcosm.  It’s an impressive feat in circular-logic thought exercises and microbudget filmmaking, though, and it’s easy to see why Ueda was won over by its surface-level charms as One Cut‘s spiritual successor.  Selling the rights for the Final Cut remake was smart, but it’s nice to see Ueda’s still siding with D.I.Y. art projects on the other side of that paycheck.

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes splits its 70min runtime between two rooms in the same cramped building: a ground-level cafe that’s closing for the evening and one of its baristas’ upstairs apartment.  In a self-creating paradox, the barista discovers that his computer monitor can see two minutes into the future through a lagging stream of the cafe’s security camera.  His future-self informs present-him of this two-minute loop, an anomaly that’s quickly discovered by a growing list of intervening friends who push past his fear & bafflement to test the limits of what the loop can do.  It turns out that two-minute future vision is essentially useless, and the more our bumbling time criminals stretch the boundaries of that frustratingly brief timeframe the more they trap themselves in a self-perpetuating loop of small-scale fate.  There’s some handwringing about the implications of contradicting the (very near) future they’ve already seen play out on the monitors, but for the most part the fun in the film is in watching them fail to expand the implications of this strange, isolated event into something bigger & more significant.

Of course, the only reason Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes has earned any comparisons to One Cut of the Dead is that both films are structured as one-long-takes, testing the limitations of that gimmick the same way Beyond‘s knuckleheads test the limitations of the two-minute time loop.  In One Cut, the one-shot gimmick is a wonderfully concise summation of all the various restrictions of low-budget film production.  Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is a lot less concerned about the authenticity of the gimmick, sloppily “hiding” its cuts in closeups on doors, clothes, and shadows.  It’s a smart way to draw attention as a D.I.Y. production filmed on smartphones, but I got the sense that maintaining the real-time progression of the time-loop experiments was more important than maintaining the illusion of a one-shot production.  In most one-shotters, the intended effect is to prompt the audience to ask, “How did they do that?” in stunned wonder.  By contrast, these two films make it blatantly clear how they accomplished the feat. One Cut proudly highlights its production mistakes as part of its inherent charm, and Beyond doesn’t waste much energy at all on hiding the creases between its shots.  Its time-loop conundrums are its main focus, so that its greatest strengths are in its writing instead of its framing.

In summation, One Cut of the Dead is a modern cult favorite, Beyond the Infinite Minutes is its adorable faint echo, and Final Cut is its flimsy plastic substitute.  It’s hilarious to see which one got the red-carpet rollout at Cannes, even if there is plenty precedent for that exact kind of cornball programming at the fest.

-Brandon Ledet

Moonfall (2022)

In Moonfall, the moon is a hollow “megastructure” that very nearly crash-lands into Earth (getting close enough to scrape a few mountain tops) before course-correcting back to its proper orbit.  It is the exact same moon-crash disaster epic that director Roland Emmerich would have made in 1998 had the script crossed his desk then, except with fewer movie stars filling out the ensemble cast; only Halle Berry & a brief Donald Sutherland cameo pass the Would Emmerich Have Cast Them in the 1990s? test.  As a genre, the over-the-top, over-budgeted CGI spectacle has continued past the 90s in the respective movie industries of India, China, and Korea, but Emmerich’s distinctly retro charms only recall pictures from its Hollywood heyday: Armageddon, Mission to Mars, The Matrix, Contact, Deep Impact and, of course, Emmerich’s own Independence Day.  Everything from the film’s shameless Lexus product placement to its astronaut hero’s anxieties over being an absent father are so distinctly 90s that it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’ve already seen half of it before on TBS, intercut with hours of commercial breaks and an unplanned afternoon nap.

Well, maybe not everything here would’ve made its way into the 90s version of MoonfallGame of Thrones‘s John Bradley is assigned the thankless task of modernizing the falling-moon disaster premise with some 2020s internet lingo.  Bradley plays a conspiracy theorist blogger & YouTuber, a self-proclaimed “megastructurist”.  We are told he is very smart, as he is the first civilian to deduce that the moon is crashing into Earth and that it is not a natural moon at all, but rather an alien-made megastructure.  Since he’s a cat-meme nerd who asks the question “What would Elon do?” for self-motivation, however, I retain that he is, in fact, very dumb.  Halle Berry & Patrick Wilson’s heroic NASA defectors agree with that assessment, and continue to poke fun at his absurd, idiotic conspiracy theories about moon lasers & the moon’s hollow core long after he’s been proven correct.  They’re right to do so.  Moonfall‘s premise is absurd & idiotic, and it was only written to set up the CGI spectacle of the film’s final act (where, spoilers, the mismatched trio stop the moon from falling). Thankfully, in the process it also sets up some beautifully asinine dialogue exchanges about the peculiar nature of our megastructure moon, a few of which I will transcribe below for your reading pleasure:

“You’re telling me that the moon was effectively the biggest cover-up in human history?”

“I told you! The moon was built by aliens.”

“You are the key to our moon’s knowledge.”

“We scanned your consciousness; you’re part of the moon now.”

Between Moonfall & Ambulance, it’s been a big year for vintage vulgar auteurs pretending it’s still the 1990s.  Michael Bay at least updated his schtick with modern drone camera tech; Emmerich simply stuck to his basics while committing to the biggest goofball premise he could find.  Sometimes, that nostalgia for Hollywood’s knucklehead disaster-epic past feels like a deliberate intent of the script, which laments several times that all of NASA’s moon shuttles are collecting dust in museums instead of standing by to heroically save the day (in case, you know, the moon decides to fall).  It’s much more likely, though, that Moonfall is just the Emmerich production machine on autopilot. Any byproduct nostalgia is an incidental result of how that rusty content mill differs from the MCU and Fast & Furious empires that have taken its place in the past couple decades.  Neither Emmerich nor Bay put in their career-best work this year, but there is still something reassuring about watching them do their usual thing in a post-superhero Hollywood.  All we need now is for Jerry Bruckheimer to produce a big-budget swashbuckler about the recovery of Atlantis to complete the cycle.

-Brandon Ledet

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

I enjoyed the Daniels’ debut feature Swiss Army Man, which I categorized on my Top Films of 2016 list as “an unconventional love story, a road trip buddy comedy, and an indie pop musical about a farting corpse with a magical boner.”  Even as a fan of that understandably divisive gross-out, I still agree with the consensus that their follow-up film is a huge step up for the music video director-duo.  Everything Everywhere All at Once triples down on the Cold Stone Creamery approach to filmmaking that the Daniels toyed with in Swiss Army Man, mashing every cinematic indulgence the directors could manage—from alternate-dimension sci-fi to vaudevillian slapstick to sincere Wong Kar-Wai homage—into a massive, delectable headache.  And yet it securely anchors that chaos to a solid emotional rock in a way that Swiss Army Man could not, which left it feeling adrift.  I don’t even know that I would encourage fans of Everything Everywhere double back to check out the Daniels’ debut.  You probably already knew in 2016 whether a farting-corpse boner comedy was going to appeal to you, and that likely has not changed.  In contrast, Everything Everywhere crams in a little taste of something for absolutely everyone, so much so that you’ll find yourself recommending it to family & coworkers despite it featuring its own gross-out gags involving butt-plugs & hotdog fellatio.

The elevator pitch for this unlikely crowd-pleaser is that it offers a glimpse into an alternate reality where The Matrix was directed by Michel Gondry.  It’s nice there.  Everything Everywhere is structured around a standard-issue comic book plot in which a maniacal supervillain attempts to gain ultimate power over the infinite alternate timelines of “the Multiverse,” with only a specially equipped Chosen One hero standing in their way.  It distorts that superhero blockbuster template through the hand-crafted dream logic & heart-on-sleeve sentimentality of our twee yesteryear, bringing an earnestness & personality to the genre that’s sorely missing from its megacorporate equivalents.  The superpower that allows ordinary characters to leap between these infinite timelines is the cosmic surprise of an unexpected, improbable act, “the less it makes sense the better.” The Daniels openly dare you to roll your eyes at the “LOL! So random!” humor of that premise, packing the screen with randomly generated totems like googly eyes, talking racoons, pro wrestling finishers, lethal fanny packs, and an all-powerful, apocalyptic Everything Bagel.  However, every silly, randomsauce image is lovingly crafted and thoughtfully anchored to the film’s emotional rock, earning its place on the screen beyond a for-its-own-sake indulgence.  They somehow even make their Chosen One heroine’s Deadpool-style observations about the absurdity of her predicament (especially her stubborn mispronunciations of the villain’s name) feel well-earned & natural to her character.  It’s an incredible feat.

The aforementioned emotional rock is the lead performance from the always-solid Michelle Yeoh.  The infinite alternate timelines premise demands that Yeoh play infinite alternate versions of herself, and she excels at every turn.  Yeoh is funny.  Yeoh is frustrating.  Yeoh breaks your heart into a thousand shards, then lovingly glues them together again.  The Daniels obviously have immense respect for her range as a performer. They allow her to show off both the stern dramatic severity & classic Hong Kong action superheroics she’s already famous for, then demonstrate the thousands of possibilities in-between those extremes we’ve been robbed of seeing onscreen.  Ke Huy Quan & Stephanie Hsu are also wonderful as her husband & daughter, respectfully, exploding the boundaries of what audiences have been trained to expect from their Nice Guy side character & flamboyant Gay Villain archetypes.  It’s Yeoh who leaves you in total stunned awe, though, especially as the rare Strong Female Character who’s allowed to be a genuinely complicated person.  We’re introduced to our hero as the absolute worst version of herself across the vast multiverse.  She’s terrible at the enormous entirety of everything, most crucially in the way she relates to her family as they frantically scurry through their shared daily routine.  Watching her learn to be a better person by breaking out of her rigid-thinking patterns & emotional cowardice is inspirational, something I can’t say about most Chosen One superheroes.

It’s easy to be reductive about what makes Everything Everywhere great, since the Daniels are willing to pummel you with an infinite supply of absurdly disparate, deeply silly imagery.  Pushing past that impulse, it’s impressive that a loud, chaotic superhero movie can prompt you to evaluate how you live your daily life and how you can work towards becoming the best possible version of yourself.  Considering that I only walked away from their last picture with fond memories of laughing at farts & boners, I’m okay conceding this follow-up was a major improvement.  My own rigid, stubborn, contrarian impulses would usually have me defending their earlier, messier work against their popular break-out, but in this instance the consensus take is the correct one.

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974)

I was initially careful not to divulge too many third-act details when reviewing Godzilla vs Kong, but it’s been an entire year since it first premiered so I don’t mind spoiling it now.  The only reason Adam Wingard’s kaiju smash-em-up is the best American Godzilla film to date is that the monster fights promised in its title felt exceptionally tactile & novel for a modern CG blockbuster.  And what really launched those fights over the top was the WrestleMania-style surprise entrance of Godzilla’s mechanized doppelgänger Mechagodzilla in the third act, injecting an excessive rush of adrenaline into a movie was already plenty entertaining before the bionic monster’s arrival.  The delight of that last-minute surprise really leaves audiences on a fist-pumping high, forgiving all the mundane humans-on-the-ground storytelling it takes to get there.

Looking back at the delightful surprise of Mechagodzilla’s most recent onscreen appearance, I can’t help but wonder if the robo-monster should always be presented as a last-minute swerve.  At the very least, I can say for certain that its first franchise appearance in 1974’s Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla would’ve been greatly improved if its existence weren’t teased in the title & poster.  There’s a brief, glorious moment in the film when Godzilla is being framed for mayhem he didn’t commit by the mechanized imposter, frustrated that other kaiju and the citizens below believe he has turned heel.  The film could have been an all-time classic if that conflict was allowed to drive the plot, delaying the reveal of the “space titanium” under the faux-Godzilla’s “skin” as late in the runtime as possible instead of immediately degloving it.  Basically, I wish Mechagodzilla was the Gene Parmesan of the series.

There is plenty of novelty to be found elsewhere in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla without that surprise reveal.  While Mechagodzilla is almost always a manmade weapon in subsequent films (including in Godzilla vs Kong), it arrives on Earth as space alien tech in its first appearance.  The sub-James Bond espionage antics that thwart that alien plot can be a little dull (an unfortunate holdover from the previous entry in the franchise, Godzilla vs Megalon).  The aliens themselves are amusing knockoffs of the Planet of the Apes creature designs, though, which adds a post-modern mash-up quality to the premise.  The film also doesn’t entirely rely on the novelty of Mechagodzilla to freshen up its monster roster.  It also features appearances from Anguirus (a spiky armadillo) and King Caesar (a personified Shisa statue) in its Royal Rumble rollout of surprise combatants.  It’s a fun picture as is, even if it had much greater potential as a kaiju whodunnit.

To be fair, I’m not sure Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla needed to be especially novel to be worthwhile, considering that it was already arriving fourteen films deep into the Godzilla canon.  Fifty years and twenty-two Godzilla movies later, there have been plenty of boring, uninspired kaiju duds with way less to offer than this standard-issue monster flick.  At the very least, it attempts to establish its own playful sense of style between the kaiju battles in its cave-painting illustrations, Brady Bunch news-report grids, and double-exposure shots of religious prophecies.  It’s no Godzilla vs Hedorah in that respect, but few movies are.  Most importantly, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla gets by on the exact same merits that made Godzilla vs Kong such a delight: the inherent entertainment value of its pro-wrestling style kaiju fights (which are often shockingly bloody in this case, imagery that was often softened in its American edits).  I just can’t help but wish that it also held back Mechagodzilla for as long as possible in the same way Godzilla vs Kong did, though. It could have been an all-timer instead of just another good’n.

-Brandon Ledet

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)

Whenever I’m overwhelmed by a flood of apocalyptic news on the old doomscroll machine, I like to remind myself that every generation thinks they’re going to be the last.  It’s been the “end of times” for centuries, if not forever.  Eventually, one generation will be right; humanity’s time on Earth will end and, who knows, maybe we’ll be the lucky ones to win that guessing game.  The comfort in that continuum is not in scoffing at previous generations for being wrong about “living” through the apocalypse; the comfort is in knowing that our exact cultural anxieties have been expressed before, often through persistently relatable art.  I was thinking a lot about that doomsday continuum during the low-budget horror whatsit Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell as characters pulled at their own hair, complaining that “The world’s a mess” and “People have gone insane” as global chaos escalates just outside their periphery.  It’s an exasperation that’s tied to a very specific era of cultural horror & grief—post-nuclear Japan—but the world has continued to be “a mess” in the decades since in a way that keeps the film relevant to current global-political turmoil, in both disturbing & comforting ways.

Goke, Body Snatcher form Hell is not unique in the way it processes Japan’s national grief over the US dropping atomic bombs in Hiroshima & Nagasaki through outlandish fantasy metaphors.  The 1954 film Godzilla is obviously the largest-looming behemoth in that genre, but there are plenty of other examples that followed in the King of Monsters’ wake: Genocide, Twilight of the Cockroaches, Atomic Rulers of the World, etc.  What distinguishes Goke is that its anti-nuclear-war political metaphor is not illustrated by a single monstrous threat but rather a series of baffling, discordant events that mirror the chaos of the world outside the cinema in the chaos of its narrative.  Goke is presented as a straightforward alien-invasion creature feature, but it’s really more of an anything-goes descent into supernatural mayhem.  Long before its space-vampire alien invaders are introduced onscreen, the film has already jolted its audience with bomb threats, international espionage, birds suicidally crashing into airplane windows, and a daytime sky that has turned inexplicably blood-red.  Even the aliens themselves are difficult to pin down to a single, understandable form.  They arrive as a metallic goo that creates a vaginal opening in their human victims’ foreheads, so they can physically hijack their brains and turn them into vampiric drones.  When I first heard the film reviewed on the We Love to Watch podcast a few years ago, they labeled it as “bug-nuts”, and I still can’t conjure a more apt descriptor.

Goke is one of those constantly surprising low-budget novelties where it feels like absolutely anything can happen at any time, while most of the actual imagery between the special effects shots is just a handful of characters debating a plan of action in a single room.  While its bug-nuts vampire plot recalls the absurdly expensive special effects showcase of Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, it’s executed in the style of retro British horrors like The Earth Dies Screaming.  The space vampires’ victims huddle in the cabin of a crashed airplane, relying on newspaper & radio broadcast reports of the world outside to afford the film’s supernatural chaos a sense of global scale.  A Freudian academic character presents their imprisonment on the airplane as a intriguing sociological experiment, coldly declaring it “a fascinating scenario for a psychiatrist to ponder” like a total sociopath.  In truth, there’s nothing especially complex about the individual characters or their interpersonal relationships that’s worth pondering.  They’re mostly buying time between the film’s jabs of horrific special effects, which are fascinating scenarios to ponder: aliens baiting humanity into nuclear war, aliens luring humans onto liminal sound-stage UFO sets, aliens oozing into human brains, etc.  It’s ultimately okay that the movie treads water between these go-for-broke genre payoffs, since they’re all incredibly cool & surprising whenever they do pop up.   It’s money wisely spent.

While Goke may not take its interpersonal human drama all that seriously, I do think it’s sincere in the way it expresses abject horror at the doomsday scenario of nuclear war.  The film often devolves into a slide show of still photos documenting real-life war atrocities, often citing the early stirrings of The Vietnam War as the conflict weighing heaviest on its mind.  I can’t think of many contemporary genre films that match the go-for-broke, bug-nuts energy of this film’s constantly evolving alien threat.  That’s not too surprising if you consider modern movie studios’ addiction to “safe bet” investments in pre-existing IP, let alone modern audiences’ obsession with boring metrics of quality like “plot holes” and “logic”.  It’s a shame, though, since the chaos of modern global politics feels outright apocalyptic in a way only this bug-nuts, constantly shifting plot “structure” can accurately illustrate.  Even if we never see our nightmare world reflected in these kinds of free-wheeling genre pictures again, at least we have relics of a wilder genre cinema past to look to for comfort.  The world has been explosively volatile for a long time, so there’s a long history of art to draw from.

-Brandon Ledet

Little Fish (2021)

As if it’s not already embarrassing enough that I’m a fully grown adult who treats every episode of the teens-in-peril melodrama Euphoria as appointment television, I have also spent a lot of my pandemic downtime watching its aughts-era prototype Skins for the first time.  Skins was an even more chaotic show than Euphoria in both its drama and its artistic quality, but I very much enjoyed catching up with its ludicrous teen-hedonist fantasies in recent months.  Maybe the most surprising thing about Skins is that—despite being a lasting cult favorite for horned-up, pilled-out Millennials—it didn’t launch many superstar careers for its revolving cast of troubled, adorable teens.  Dev Patel, Daniel Kaluuya, and Nicolas Hoult are obvious major exceptions, but for the most part the Skins cast have grown up to be anonymous character actors on cable television (or, worse yet, in years-delayed fantasy movies about lovelorn mermaids).  The one omission from that list that baffles me most is Jack O’Connell, who played James Cook on the show’s second “cycle.”  Cook just felt like a star, even more so than the three lucky kids who became one (judging by their work as scrawny youths, not talented adults).

My favorite episode of Skins involves Cook winning a Class President election on a platform of pure anarchy, essentially tearing the school down in raucous celebration.  Jack O’Connell was such an infectiously chaotic screen presence on the show that it was inevitable Cook would drive the student body into a collective, decadent frenzy – a perfect tonal counterpoint to that episode’s melodrama romance A-plot.  Apparently nihilistic chaos was his default mode off-screen at the time as well, as his rampant substance abuse & party-hard lifestyle kept O’Connell in British tabloids for pretty much the entire time he was filming Skins in Bristol.  I didn’t know anything about his personal life while watching the show, but a lot of what makes Cook such a compelling character is the authenticity of his chaotic presence, so that off-screen bad boy reputation makes total sense.  That’s why it was such a relief to see O’Connell pop up in the much calmer, more cerebral sci-fi romance Little Fish from last year.  I was honestly a little worried about his long-term health after seeing him play Cook, so it was just great to see him out there doing well, getting work, looking sharp.

Little Fish is one of those eerily pandemic-appropriate movies that happened to come out at the “right” time despite filming pre-COVID – joining the likes of Spontaneous, The Pink Cloud, Vivarium, and She Dies Tomorrow.  Olivia Cooke narrates as the heartbroken lead: a young vet with an art photographer husband (O’Connell), both of whom are living through a near-future global health pandemic that causes the infected to lose their memory en masse.  It’s like a viral, involuntary version of the Eternal Sunshine procedure, where two people who are very much in love are horrified by the idea that they will soon forget each other; then we gradually watch it happen.  Little Fish is almost too grim to enjoy while a real-life global health pandemic lingers outside, since it’s the kind of sci-fi heartbreaker that asks questions like “When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?”  Since it was adapted from a 2011 short story and wrapped production in 2019, you can’t fault the film too much for how bleakly it recalls life & love during the COVID-19 pandemic (although there is a morbid humor to COVID preventing its planned premiere at Tribeca in 2020).  Considered on its own terms outside that unforeseeable context, it’s a great little doomed romance with a mild sci-fi bent.

There’s a lot to admire about director Chad “Morris from America” Hartigan’s visual playfulness here.  He tells the story through a fractured, remixed timeline that evokes the slipperiness of even a healthy memory; and he subtly erases or mutates the details of replayed scenes to illustrate those memories fading forever.  He also finds ways to visually amplify the story’s romance (most notably in an intimate sex scene illustrated in De Palma split screens) and global-scale panic (most notably in the ominous military presence that rumbles outside) without drawing too much attention away from the core dramatic chemistry between Cooke & O’Connell.  For me, it’s O’Connell who’s the real draw here, but only because I was so recently fascinated with his performance as James Cook.  Like with Cook’s authentic onscreen chaos, his performance as the memory-drained husband reads as an authentic portrayal of a former addict who’s gracefully gotten his shit together, only to lose all that personal progress to a pandemic that’s out of his control.  O’Connell’s wonderfully effective in the role, so much so that I’m willing to forgive his flat approximation of an American accent.

I’ll spare everyone the embarrassment of trying to guess what future stars are currently brewing on the Euphoria cast, since I’ve already been extremely unfair in preemptively declaring the vast majority of the Skins kids culturally irrelevant.  They’re all still young; there’s plenty of time, as long as they take better care of themselves than the self-destructive characters that made them semi-famous.

-Brandon Ledet

Bigbug (2022)

One of the more delightful side effects of Netflix spending ungodly amounts of money producing in-house Originals is that they often fund dream projects for established auteurs who’re struggling to adapt to a post-MCU movie industry, where every single production has to be either a multi-billion-dollar tentpole or an Oscars prestige magnet to be deemed worthwhile.  There’s something wonderful about the likes of Scorsese, Fincher, and Cuarón finally enjoying total creative freedom and unrestrained access to a corporate checkbook, all for a profit-loss streaming giant that has no tangible plans to make short-term returns on those investments.  It’s wonderful in concept, anyway.  Despite sidestepping the creative & budgetary restrictions of the traditional Hollywood production process, none of these legendary directors have been doing their best work on Netflix.  Mank, Roma, and The Irishman are all perfectly cromulent Awards Season dramas, but none can claim to match their respective auteurs’ creative heights in previous works made under more constrictive conditions.  Netflix should be an auteur’s paradise, but somehow the work they’re platforming from cinema’s most distinct artists is coming out bland & sanded down in the process.

What I cannot tell about Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first Netflix project is how much of its blandness is intentional.  The basic premise of his sci-fi comedy Bigbug feels like classic Jeunet in that it’s a collection of oddball characters competing to out-quirk each other in a retro-futuristic fantasy realm.  However, Jeunet abandons the lived-in grime of his usual schtick to instead try out an eerily crisp, overlit production design that recalls the Spy Kids franchise more than it does anything he’s directed before.  It almost feels as if Jeunet is making fun of the Netflix house style with this cheap, plastic playhouse aesthetic, as it resembles the bright colors & bleached teeth of other Netflix Originals more than it does the sooty, antiqued worlds of films like Amélie, Delicatessen, or City of Lost Children.  I don’t know how much credit you can give Jeunet for making a film that’s bland on purpose, especially since plenty of Bigbug‘s slapstick gags & shrill one-liners are 100% intended to be funny and land with a miserable thud instead.  At the same time, Jeunet breaks up this single-location farce with totally unnecessary fade-to-black commercial breaks, reinforcing its production values as a TV-movie in an act of self-deprecation.  Questions of how good, how self-aware, and how critical of its own straight-to-streaming format Bigbug is persist throughout its entire runtime.  It’s undeniably the least idiosyncratic film in Jeunet’s catalog to date; the question is how much of its familiar, off-putting artificiality was the intention of the artist.

The truth is likely that Bigbug‘s plastic, sanitized production values were a circumstance of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and not a metatextual joke at the expense of the Netflix house style (a likelihood reinforced by a dire one-liner about a COVID-50 outbreak in the distant future).  In the film, several mismatched couples are locked inside a futuristic automated home to wait out an A.I. revolution that’s raging outside.  The humans in the house are all desperate to find privacy in lockdown so they can have sex.  The home-appliance robots they share the space with are desperate to be respected as fellow autonomous beings, mimicking the humans’ shrill, erratic behavior in idolization.  Both factions—the robots and the humans—must join forces to outsmart the fascistic A.I. supersoldiers that inevitably invade their prison-home, but the movie doesn’t feel all that invested in the terror of that threat.  Instead, it works more as a brochure for fictional automated-home technology, like the retro-future kitsch of 1950s World’s Fair reels promoting far-out kitchen appliances.  Treating this trapped-inside surveillance state premise as a thin metaphor for the limbo of COVID-19 lockdowns, Jeunet doesn’t stress himself out too much in pursuit of a plot.  The setting is mostly an excuse for a series of one-off gags involving navel-gazing vacuum cleaners, short-circuiting dildo bots, and the ritualistic humiliations of Reality TV.  It’s all extremely frivolous & silly, and some of it is even halfway funny.

At its best, Bigbug plays like The Exterminating Angel reprised on the set of the live-action Cat in the Hat.  At its worst, it plays like excruciatingly dull deleted scenes from the live-action Cat in the Hat.  I honestly don’t know what to make of that cursed imbalance, but I do know that it is at least a huge creative departure for Jeunet as a visual stylist.  All Netflix-spotlighted auteurs have done their blandest, most overly sanitized work for the streaming behemoth, but only Jeunet has leaned so far into that quality downgrade that it feels at least semi-intentional.  No one makes a movie this bizarrely artificial by accident – least of all someone whose work usually looks like it was filmed at the bottom of an antique ashtray.

-Brandon Ledet