High Life (2019)

Oddly enough, two nights after I went and saw Knife+Heart, I took in a screening of High Life, the new English-language sci-fi horror film from French director Claire Denis, the visionary behind Un beau soleil intérieur and Beau travail. When asked by a friend how I liked them, I said “I loved Knife+Heart! It’s so French!” followed immediately by “I hated High Life! It’s so French!”

CW/TW: Discussion of on screen sexual assault. That’s way more of a warning than this movie gives you. Also, you know, there’s a scene in this movie where a female character rapes a sedated man to acquire his ejaculate, then squats and drips it out into her open palm so she can impregnate someone else. You know, for science.

In its defense, High Life is not a bad movie. It’s beautifully framed and edited, and the extended lingering shots of both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic–from the depths of space and all the beautiful delights and terrors that it contains to close-ups of eyes and protracted shots of delicate droplets of water on leaves—make for a beautiful experience on the big screen. But there’s also sexual assault aplenty, shot with the same cold indifference, not to mention flat performances from almost every member of the cast, all of whom you’ve seen give stronger, bolder performances in other things.

High Life tells (in non-chronological order) the story of Monte (Robert Pattinson), a mostly unwilling astronaut on a damned voyage. A convict serving a life sentence, he and other young prisoners in the same situation are placed aboard a utilitarian space ship for the purpose of determining if black holes can be used to provide a source of renewable energy. The captain, Chandra (Lars Eidinger) is the only person who is not a felon, and the life support on the ship demands he make a log entry every 24 hours, or the crew will die. The real authority, however, is Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a medical officer who killed her own children and now oversees the regulation of sedatives among the crew and is engaged in her own side experiment to try and create a perfect offspring, although her efforts have largely been in vain and none of the children survive, even if they make it to term. Members of the crew use “The Box,” a masturbatorium, to relieve their pent-up sexual frustrations, and Dibs collects DNA from all aboard as part of her “scientific” enquiry, most notably Ettore (Ewan Mitchell). Other crew members/prisoners of note include Tcherny (André Benjamin/3000) and Boyse (Mia Goth, of Suspiria); Tcherny is Monte’s only real friend, who reminisces about life on earth and the family he left behind, while Boyse is a deeply troubled and unpleasant woman who is the first and only mother on the ship to successfully bear a child, as the result of two separate sexual assaults.

I’m really not quite sure what to make of this movie. Were it directed by a man, we could call this film troublingly sexist and degrading and call it a day, but with Claire Denis at the helm, it’s not so easy. A lot of this is bound up in the treatment of Boyse, and the questions that revolve around her. She is utterly unlikable in every imaginable way, which speaks to Goth’s range, considering how much I enjoyed her turn in Suspiria. There’s something to admire in her declaration that “[her] body obeys [her]” after Ettore sexually assaults her, but we never learn what her crime was that landed her in prison and thus on this shit detail in the first place, and her willingness to kill Nansen (Agata Buzek), who attempted to come to her defense, further obscures any possibility that we could really understand Boyse. She’s more than just an animal running on instinct, but she’s wild in a way that makes it impossible to understand her actions or desires.

In addition to being non-linear, the film is deliberately obtuse and obscure when revealing details. No one on the ship ever recounts why they ended up there; we only learn of this from a brief scene aboard a train in which a young reporter interviews a man credited only as “Indian Professor” (Victor Banerjee). Very little takes place planetside: this Professor rides inside of a train, two children play with a dog that later dies, and Ettore and Boyse are also seen riding on the tops of a train (presumably not the same one but who knows) while Monte discusses what it was like to be a societal castoff and outcast. The traintop scenes are shot in the first person, but the audience is never given clarification of whether these are Monte’s memories or not, or if they are projections of his assumptions; after all, we later learn that the crime for which he is incarcerated occurred when he was a child, so it makes very little sense for him to be free and enjoying the lifestyle of a crusty wanderer as a young adult. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it shouldn’t matter. But to me, it does.

At a very cursory glance, the film seems to be attempting to create a narrative about the dehumanizing treatment of the incarcerated, perhaps weaving that together with a statement about overpopulation or resource allotment, or even eugenics. As a statement about any of these topics, the film is fairly shallow. Is the film about the fact that all human progress in some way relies upon exploitation of the labor of a lower class? Is it about historical precedent of experimentation on prisoners? Is it about countering the idealized speculative fiction narratives of Star Trek and its cohort that point toward a lofty future of post-scarcity humanitarian egalitarian utopiae by showing that space travel and technological advancement will really only show us our true, animalistic selves? Yes! To all those things! Maybe(?)! It’s also about 110 minutes long, but that still doesn’t really tell you anything, does it?

That’s what I mean by the film being “too French.” High Life is has awful lot of Big Ideas, but not much in the way of Big Statements. It would be intellectually dishonest to say “This film does not demonize the prison system,” because it clearly wants to and expects the audience to fill in those gaps; at the same time, it would be a more straightforward lie to say “This film demonizes the prison system,” because it never really does. We see that there are outright dangerous people in the system, like Dibs, as well as seemingly good people like Monte (it helps that his crime was one of passion that was in defense of a helpless animal, which is almost laughable in its lack of subtlety), and others who were perhaps decent but were pushed beyond their limits as the result of the dehumanization of incarceration, like Boyse and perhaps Ettore (I’m not saying that Ettore’s aggressive assault of Boyse isn’t morally reprehensible or that it’s an unavoidable consequence of being involuntarily celibate, just that the film might be making that argument). Is Denis’s thesis that even good and moral people will become monsters in a captive prison state? If so, it follows that murder and rape are inevitabilities in such a broken system, absolving the individual from both agency and responsibility, which is grotesque. The only person that we see rise above these moral lapses is Monte, whose only stated difference from his shipmates is the fact that he is voluntarily celibate, going so far as to even abstain from the dubious pleasures of “The Box.”

I’ve never seen any of Denis’s other work. The friend with whom I saw this movie is very pro-Denis; when I asked if he wanted to check this one out, he cited her as his favorite living director. He was rather pleased with this cinematic experience, noting that she had directed his favorite movie about cannibalism, which led to me asking about Raw (we also saw that one together), and he made the statement that Raw wouldn’t exist without Denis. That’s all well and good, but as my first foray into her oeuvre, I’m not sure that I’m impressed. The musical score is haunting, every actor gives a great performance, and many of the visuals are pure visual art, but on the whole, this is a film that I’m not sold on, and I’m not sure I’m sold on Denis. Looking back over her filmography, she’s made multiple films with Vincent Gallo, and even wanted him to star in this one, which makes me question a lot about her instincts (if you’ve ever accidentally swallowed something that had a label on it that says “Induce vomiting if consumed,” here’s a self-aggrandizing, Trump-worshipping essay by Gallo to get you started; my favorite commentary on it came from The Playlist, which wrote “[we] reached out to Roger Ebert for comment, [then] remembered that Roger Ebert passed away in 2013, and that Gallo is picking a fight with a dead film critic.”).

I’m not here to pick fights with anybody. Honestly, I’ve given a lot of other films credit that they didn’t deserve. But this one? Not so much. Its unimaginative plot is given the semblance of originality through an irregular nonlinear narrative structure, but that doesn’t make up for making a film that is a sad slog through human misery.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Oh boy oh boy oh boy! It’s here! It’s finally here! We’re in the Endgame now. All good things must come to an end, after all.

Speaking of all good things, remember how that was the title of the series finale for Star Trek: The Next Generation? And how that episode showed our dearly beloved Captain Picard visiting the past and the future, solving a mystery that spanned decades and giving the audience a chance to revisit where that series had started and where it could go in the future, while also putting a nice little bow on the journey of Picard and his cohort? Going into Endgame, I had the same feeling, and as it turns out, this was intentional, going as far back as last March, when Marvel Films bigwig Kevin Feige cited “All Good Things … ” as an influence on this latest (last?) Avengers picture. So for once, I’m not just inserting a Star Trek reference where it doesn’t belong; it’s relevant.

Here there by spoilers! You have been warned! There’s virtually no way to talk about this movie without them, so saddle up buckaroos.

The film opens exactly as Infinity War ends, with Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) at a family picnic teaching his daughter archery. He turns his back for a moment and looks back, only to find that his entire family has been raptured turned to ash as part of Thanos (Josh Brolin)’s stupid, stupid plan to end scarcity across the universe by killing half of all living things. (This is also the plan of Kodos the Executioner from the classic Star Trek episode “The Conscience of the King,” because you should know by now that you can’t trust me not to insert Star Trek references were they don’t belong from time to time as well.) Three weeks later, the devastated remains of the team, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and War Machine/Rhodey (Don Cheadle) are joined by the only surviving Guardian of the Galaxy, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) in their existential depression. Luckily, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his companion Nebula (Karen Gillan) are found in deep space by Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) just in time to prevent their suffocation, and she brings the two back to earth. With Nebula’s help, they locate Thanos’s little retirement farm and head straight there to retrieve the Infinity Stones and bring back everyone who was raptured dusted. When they get there, however, they learn that Thanos has already destroyed the Stones to prevent exactly this thing; Thor beheads the mad titan unceremoniously.

Five years later, people are still struggling. Struggling with depression, struggling with moving on. Cap goes to group counseling meetings. Natasha keeps the mechanisms of the Avengers in place, coordinating efforts to keep the peace, overseeing outreach and relief. Captain Marvel’s in deep space, helping the planets that don’t have the benefit of superheroes looking after them. Banner has managed to reconcile his two selves and lives full time as an intelligent Hulk. Tony has retired to a lakehouse with wife Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and adorable daughter Morgan. And Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is still stuck in the Phantom Zone Quantum Realm until his equipment is accidentally reactivated, popping him back out into the regular world so that he can have a tearful reunion with now-teenage daughter Cassie (Emma Fuhrmann) and heads to Avengers headquarters, where he tells Cap and Natasha that it’s only been five hours for him, not years. With help from a hesitant Tony, the team works out how to use the Ant-Man equipment to stage an elaborate “time heist,” plucking the Infinity Stones out of time to recreate Thanos’s gauntlet and undo the damage he wrought. It’s “All Good Things … ”! But Marvel! And I cried! I really did!

You don’t need the ins and outs of how all this shakes out. There’s that Marvel house style of comedy that you’ve come to know and (probably) love, coupled with the emotional devastation that you would expect in a world where half of the population has disappeared. Clint’s taken on the Ronin persona from the comics (although this codename is never used on screen), tracking down and murdering criminals as the result of having no moral tether after the loss of his family. Scott’s headlong run across San Francisco to try and find his daughter only to discover a memorial to the lost, which he searches frantically in the hopes that her name won’t be there. Natasha puts on a brave face, but you can tell that she counts every life lost as red in her ledger (she clears every crimson drop by the end of the movie, and then some). An unnamed grief-stricken man in Cap’s support group recounts a first date with another man; they both break down in tears over the course of the evening, but this is the status quo now, so they’re seeing each other again (so, you know, the post-snap world isn’t all bad).

The time travel premise lets us revisit past events from new perspectives, which makes for a lot of fun to counterbalance all that drear. This includes contemporary smart Hulk having to act like his brutish past self, much to his embarrassment and consternation. Tony’s interactions with his daughter are adorable, and went a long way toward making him more relatable and likable, especially after I’ve been pretty anti-Iron Man for a while. One of the most moving parts of the movie also comes as a result of its comedic elements; we learn that the remaining refugees from Asgard have set up a “New Asgard,” where a broken Thor has retired and let himself go (he’s got pretty standard dad-bod, but the internet has reacted as if he looks like Pearl from Blade, just in case you were wondering if bodyshaming was still a thing). Once the heist kicks off, this means that Thor and Rocket have to travel to the time of Thor: The Dark World to get the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), giving our favorite Asgardian hunk a chance to have an affirming heart-to-heart with his departed mother Frigga (Rene Russo), retroactively adding more depth to her character in a lovely way.

I’m burying the lede, though, since what really matters about all these time travel shenanigans is that we get to see Peggy (Hayley Atwell) again. PEGGY! As soon as there was a wrinkle in the time plan and they mentioned having to go back to the seventies, I knew where we were headed and could barely contain my excitement. If I remember nothing else from this movie on my deathbed, I will remember the thrill of seeing Peggy one last time (and then again). That doesn’t even include the fact that Tony gets to have a nice moment with his father (John Slattery), too, and that there are appearances from every character.

Look, this is the perfect capstone for this franchise. If there were never another MCU film, it would be totally fine, because as a finale, this is pitch perfect. Every important and semi-important character (other than Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, because she was presumably busy shooting Us) gets a moment to shine, as the Snap is undone (come on, you knew it would be). There’s even a moment where every living lady hero from the entire MCU is onscreen at once, and it is delightful, although I’m sure the internet is already full of comments about how it was “forced” or “cheesy,” but I don’t feed trolls and I try not to cross the bridges that they live under, so I wouldn’t know. But, as the people behind the MCU have noted, this is a finale, not the finale. We get to say our goodbyes to many of our favorites, but the future is in good hands with Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) taking up the mantle and shield of Captain America, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) taking her place as the new leader of the Asgardians in diaspora, and the possibility of future adventures of Pepper Potts as the heir apparent to Iron Man. The future is now, and it couldn’t be brighter.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Captive State (2019)

I don’t know what the production or distribution history of the mid-budget alien invasion thriller Captive State indicates, but this seems to be a movie that no one really wants. Director Rupert Wyatt’s only major credit is a Planet of the Apes reboot released nearly a decade ago. The film itself feels like it wrapped production so long ago that it missed an opportunity to boost the screentime of single-scene actors who’ve blown up in the years since – Madeline Brewer (Cam) & KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) to be specific. Most damningly, it’s a film that’s near-impossible to market, as it’s an alien invasion thriller that’s more interested in the political machinations of humans surviving under intergalactic rule than it is in exploiting the commercial potential of its creature-feature payoffs. A smarter, artier movie like Arrival can get away with that kind of obfuscation, but cheap nerd-ass sci-fi like this generally needs to be more accommodating to wide audiences in its minute-to-minute payoffs. As a result, both pro-critic reviews and box office numbers have been tepid for this underdog sci-fi pic, which has essentially been orphaned by its marketing & distributor. It’s a shame too, since Captive Sate is actually a solid little sci-fi thriller for anyone with an enthusiastic interest in the alien invasion genre.

The reason I say a little sci-fi nerd cred is required to fully engage with the film is that Captive Sate is much more adept at action set pieces & world-building lore than it is at dialogue or meaningful pathos. Set nearly a decade after first contact with invading alien species, the film is set in a post-apocalypse Chicago that’s politically torn between acceptance & resistance. Few characters are allowed any nuance as the film sketches out the two warring factions: a marshal law surveillance state government (represented mostly through John Goodman as a fascist brute) and an underground resistance aiming to topple it (represented by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders as a low-level street hustler). The movie isn’t especially interested in the emotions or political maneuvers of their personal struggle, though, despite their unlikely social bond that bridges the gap between both sides of the civil war. It’s much more interested in establishing a larger “off-the-grid” future defined by analog equipment like wiretaps, reel to reel recorders, vinyl records, polaroid cameras, in-print newspapers, and carrier pigeons. Nothing typifies this old-world future better than the bird-swarm murmurations of surveillance drones that flutter throughout the city, keeping citizens in line with the threat of facial recognition tech. So much thought went into that establishment of a lived-in world and the political clash & chase scenes staged within it that very little time was left for establishing fleshed-out characters, which is something you just have to be okay with to get on its wavelength,

So what, exactly, is Captive State trying to say with all of this world-building & freshman-year Poli Sci pontification? Its major theme seems to be a contrast between active political resistance & mindless cooperation. Although the roach-like alien beasts (who feel like cousins to the space-bugs of Starship Troopers) are largely off-screen, their presence is felt in the submission & cooperation of a human government that cows to their intergalactic authority. As the film focuses on real-world issues like facial recognition software and exponential wealth disparity over defining the players in that conflict, it does appear to have a “Silence is complicity” ethos when it comes to living under the fascist rule of modern ills like The Trump Administration. It establishes a world where “You must pick a side,” having no patience for the cowardice of political apathy. More practically, the world it establishes is essentially just a playground where it can execute carefully-considered thriller sequences: the surgical body horror of tracking device removal, the heist-planning rhythms of a political assassination, a few spare moments of creature-feature confrontation, endless police chases, etc. I may have a few minor quibbles with its paper-thin characterizations (mainly, how it manages to have immensely talented women like KiKi Layne, Madeline Brewer, and Vera Farmiga on staff, but for some reason affords much more dialogue & screentime to dudes as lowly & uninteresting as Machine Gun Heckin’ Kelly than all of them combined), but I was mostly on board with the picture as a nerd-ass, overly serious sci-fi thriller. It’s just a shame it couldn’t also inspire that enthusiasm in its own distributor.

-Brandon Ledet

Captain Marvel (2019)

She’s beauty, she’s grace, she can kick you into space.

Well, the first Marvel movie of 2019 is here. And, hey, it’s pretty good! Nothing that’s so exciting that it’ll melt your brain out, or anything, but Captain Marvel has finally hit our screens and damned if we aren’t glad to see her. Right? Right?

I don’t want to be down on this one. I really enjoyed myself as I sat in the theater and mindlessly absorbed a little nugget of Marvel product, which loudly and proudly is set in the 90s. Remember the 90s? There was a Democrat in office, the economy was essentially okay, we weren’t at war with anyone for a little while, and when the President got a blowjob and perjured himself about it, we all were in agreement that the office of the PotUS had been so thoroughly tarnished that no future President could ever sink lower (ha). But also, you know: AIDS, Hurricane Andrew (which goes strangely unremarked upon here despite the fact that a significant portion of the film takes place in 1995 Louisiana), Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc. Never let your nostalgia get the best of you, is all I’m saying, but it’s no crime to feel a little warm inside when you hear the opening strains of “Come As You Are,” either.

It’s 1995. Vers (Brie Larson) is a member of the Kree Defense Force, a group of interstellar “warrior heroes” who keep the peace in the Kree Empire (the blue [mostly] aliens from the Guardians movies and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) by performing various acts of apparent valor, including rooting out cells of Skrulls, a race of green reptilian shapeshifters. She herself is a woman without a memory, à la Wolverine, only getting glimpses into a past she can’t recall when dreaming of a mysterious woman (Annette Bening). Under the tutelage of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers attempts to learn more about herself using the AI ruler of the Kree, the Supreme Intelligence (Bening again, as we only see her from Vers’s point of view and it takes different forms for different people), without much success. After being taken captive by Skrulls and fighting her way free, Vers lands on C-53, better known to its inhabitants as Earth, where she immediately runs afoul of S.H.I.E.L.D., before bonding with a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and setting out to discover why the woman in her dreams seems to have had a life on C-53, including involvement with a top secret aerospace defense project. Along the way, she connects, or perhaps reconnects, with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). Opposing her is the Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), but there may be more to his motivations than meets the eye.

A lot of the internet is pretty up in arms about Captain Marvel, and for the most part, it’s just trolling and various degrees of personal toxicity. And the problem with every dudebro out there who’s angry about the injustice of Captain Marvel/Vers (as I’ll refer her to remain spoiler free, if that’s even possible at this juncture) stealing a motorcycle from a man who told her to smile, as if a microaggression warrants grand theft, is that it leaves very little room to be critical of the elements that don’t actually work from a narrative perspective. Look, I’m not MovieSins; I’m not here to ring an annoying little bell just because the final mental showdown between two characters is set to a Nirvana classic from an album that we don’t actually see Vers hearing (although she had plenty of chances offscreen). But I have to admit that even I was a little tired of some of the pablum and the unwillingness to take risks that were on display here. Sure, there was some inventiveness with the subversion of both what we’ve come to expect from films in general and this franchise specifically, especially in regard to the villainous Skrulls and their true motivations, but that doesn’t mean that the storytelling itself is inventive, and that’s the issue here. We’ve seen the fish-out-water story before in Thor, but that doesn’t mean that this is inherently derivative. I remember walking out of that film way back in 2011 and being pleasantly and refreshingly surprised by it, and there’s a part of me that wants every Marvel movie to give me an equivalent rush, but that’s not a realistic expectation to have after ten years and twenty movies. Time makes you bolder, children get older, and I’m getting older, too. It may be that these movies are just as fun as they’ve always been and I’m just too cynical to enjoy them the way that I used to.

Because, hey, this movie is fun. There are a lot of great setpieces: a sequence of dodging questionably aligned federal agents deep in the heart of a research base library, a terrific train fight sequence featuring the best Stan Lee cameo to date (I’m more of a Jack Kirby stan, if we’re being honest, but even I thought it was nice), and others. But the main one, the big finale, was just a big CGI fest that tired me more than it thrilled me. Compared to the relative viscerality of the Independence Day-esque desert dogfight that came earlier in the film’s runtime, not to mention the undetectable de-aging of Jackson to make him the Fury of yesteryear, it lacks any concreteness and feels hollow; I’m glad to hear that other people found this to be exciting, but it just didn’t work for me. Admittedly, that’s always been the case with the MCU, as all of the films peak early, going as far back as Iron Man, where the best sequence wasn’t the toe-to-toe showdown between our “hero” and Iron Monger, but the more stunning and ground-breaking sequence in which Tony finds himself flying alongside two fighter planes. But still, there’s something about this movie that doesn’t quite sit right with me, and it’s not just that they didn’t have an appearance from Peggy, even though she was totally alive at this time and, per Ant-Man, still active in S.H.I.E.L.D. a mere six years prior, although that omission is a crime.

Still, it’s hard to fault a film for having a poor finale after a lot of fun beforehand. Fitting for a movie that is at least on some level about both Girl Power and The 90s, the comparison that kept coming to my mind was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It may just be that I rewatched the 1992 film within the past six months (and also watched it about 47 times over the course of a single summer once), but the aforementioned scene in which Vers steals a guy’s motorcycle reads just like the scene in that film in which original Kristy Swanson Buffy does the same after a rude biker asks if she “wants some real power between [her] legs.” It’s a sanitization of something, to make it more palatable for you to be able to bring your kids to see the new superhero movie, but it’s almost the same scene, and I genuinely enjoyed that the film evoked that rhetorical space in the era of its birth. Further, the sequence of Vers getting up over and over again, used as a shorthand about her past and her resilience in the face of limitations placed on her by a masculine culture, included one of her as a little girl stepping up to the plate and getting ready to knock one out of the park, which once again evoked the scene from the series finale of Buffy the show, during the title character’s famous “Are you ready to be strong?” speech (believe it or not, this is the best upload I could find of the scene; sorry). I don’t know if there was a subliminal attempt to invoke the memory of disgraced Avengers and Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon by summoning relevant images from both the beginning and end of the Buffy franchise, but if so, that’s a next level of synergy, and I’m impressed by the mad genius of it.

I’m hot and cold on this one. As it’s been out for almost a month now, it’s unlikely you need me to tell you whether or not to check it out, as your decision was probably made months in advance of its original release date. Larson is a terrific actress who’s really not given as much to do characterwise as someone of her talent could, but she’s effortlessly charming and magnetic, and her chemistry with Lynch and Jackson is very good. When it comes to integrating a child as a main character and instigator of plot, it also certainly works a lot better than Iron Man 3, where the character was so blatantly an audience surrogate that it almost derailed a film that is, outside of that plot detour, the best Iron Man movie (don’t @ me). And after quietly making his bones in the mainstream as a one-dimensional villain in a lot of hyped releases the past few years (Rogue One, Ready Player One, and that Robin Hood that no one saw), Mendelson brings a pathos to a scaly monster that you wouldn’t expect to find in a movie that’s as relatively flat as this one is. There are twists and betrayals, but they all seem rather rote at this point. And yet . . . and yet . . . I enjoyed this one. And you probably will, too.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

I saw the first Happy Death Day film at the historic Prytania Theatre in Uptown New Orleans, blocks away from the film’s shooting locations around the college campuses on St. Charles Ave. As a horror franchise, this series is a little too tongue-in-cheek to take especially seriously, but there was still something eerie about that geographic proximity. The Happy Death Day films have a killer hook in how they adapt the late-90s slasher model to the Groundhog’s Day time-loop narrative structure, generating a body count horror film where the exact same body can be stabbed to death dozens of times with little consequence, as our protagonist wakes up in the same time loop every time she’s taken out by her masked killer. For New Orleanians, the familiarity of the film’s scenery only adds to that cosmic terror, but in unexpected ways that extend beyond the oak trees & streetcars in the blurred background of the college campus setting. It’s the inspiration the film pulls from our most terrifying local sports mascot for its serial killer’s design that really makes this series a nightmare. As I noted in my review of the original film, the fictional school mascot mask the killer wears bears “a striking resemblance to the (even more terrifying) King Cake Baby mascot that appears at our local NBA games,” an observation I suspect was common among local horror nerds. The Blumhouse team behind that film’s recent sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, gleefully emphasizes that comparison in a scene set at a college basketball game, where characters note in the dialogue how strange it is that a sports team would have a baby for a mascot, and how creepy the baby costume is – almost as if the film were directly trolling The Pelicans for their seasonal King Cake Baby appearances. This was likely infuriating to Jonathan Bertuccelli, the designer of the King Cake Baby (who is currently suing Blumhouse for the killer’s resemblance to his ungodly creation), but it personally just made me appreciate the series more for ditching the pretense that the connection was a coincidence.

Unfortunately, if you’re watching this series solely to see the King Cake Baby live out his rightful destiny as a horror movie villain, the first Happy Death Day is much better suited to your needs. Happy Death Day 2U allows itself much less time for slayings & cheeky repetitions of late-90s slasher tropes, which means less screentime for the terrifying infant. To be honest I’m not even sure this sequel is enough of a horror movie in general for me to recommend it in that context. It frequently strays from the serial murder half of its premise to further explore the mechanics of its time loop conceit. Whereas the first Happy Death Day’s time loop crisis appears to be a cosmic morality tale about the serial-murdered protagonist’s selfishness, Happy Death Day 2U provides concrete sci-fi explanations as to how the time loop was initiated. Instead of being chased through scary hospitals & frat house hallways for the majority of the runtime, return protagonist Jessia Rothe spends most of the film in her college’s Quantum Mechanics lab with several hopeless nerds trying to figure out how to break out of her time-loop crisis for a second time. Her recurring slayings are explained to be the result of a proton laser machine on the fritz, which has blurred the borders of alternate timelines & dimensions – a very different sentiment than the Universe temporarily changing its own rules specifically to teach one mean sorority girl a lesson. There are still baby-mask murders interspersed throughout this newfound sci-fi paradigm, but for the most part this film feels more like an 80s college campus comedy than a high-concept late-90s slasher. The resetting timelines antics feel like they belong to a previously unadapted Back to the Future sequel screenplay. The flustered college dean who attempts to shut down the supernatural shenanigans of the Quantum Mechanics lab feels as if he were airdropped into the picture from a contemporary Animal House knockoff. There’s an All That-level broad caricature of a blind French woman that’s allowed an alarming amount of screentime in the film’s climactic shift from sci-fi campus comedy to heist thriller. The jokes in Happy Death Day 2U are broad, but they’re also conceptually ambitious enough to be surprising & rewarding. Most horror sequels stay fresh by upping the brutality of their gore; this one does so by dropping the horror pretense altogether and gleefully digging around in the genre grab-bag for a new toy every few minutes – mostly to the audience’s perplexed delight.

When considered in the abstract, divorced from its context as a local curio, Happy Death Day 2U is the best kind of horror sequel: the kind that offers an entirely different flavor & mouthfeel than its predecessor instead of just funneling in more of the same. Its delayed fascination with the mechanics of the Groundhog’s Day time-loop narrative structure is a well-timed participation in a larger, still-growing zeitgeist as well. Other recent media like Russian Doll & Edge of Tomorrow have found pop culture gazing back into the temporal abyss in similarly comedic fashion; Happy Death Day 2U only outdoes them by allowing its inherent silliness to go as broad as possible, really leaning into the unnecessarily complex narrative mechanics necessary to pull this kind of story off. A mean sorority girl bully being killed over & over again on her birthday until she becomes a better person, always resetting to the same starting point, is more or less a manageable conceit. This follow-up to that relatively straightforward Groundhog’s Day-as-a-slasher launchpad is ambitiously, irreverently convoluted by comparison – expanding into the realms of doppelgangers, alternate timelines, and quantum physics to push this newly refreshed subgenre to its conceptual extreme. It even makes things doubly hard on itself by returning to the square-one reset point of the first film, so that it has to maintain the same cast & production design continuity to make any sense for those of us attempting to follow along. Hilariously, the movie also takes on this increasingly convoluted endeavor without an upfront recap of what happened in the previous film, as if everyone in the world has already seen Happy Death Day (not to mention having seen it recently enough to remember all the details of its plot). When Rothe begrudgingly does provide a “Previously on . . .” recap roughly 15 minutes into the film, she rushes through it, annoyed at the obligation. Whether or not you’re enamored with the sci-fi campus comedy deviations Happy Death Day 2U takes from its initial horror template, you have to admire its confidence that its audience is following along with every non-sequitur indulgence as if it makes perfect logical sense (and, for the most part, it does).

Speaking selfishly, what I’d most like to see from a Happy Death Day 3 is a truce between the series’ baby-faced killer and the real-life King Cake Baby mascot. Bad-blood lawsuits between Blumhouse & the King Cake Baby’s designer aside, I think it would be incredibly satisfying to see the real deal make an official cameo in a sequel to the horror franchise that “allegedly” took inspiration from his look. That crossover synergy would even help the series’ scare factor, as there’s nothing quite as terrifying as the dead eyes & bulbous baby body of the real thing. The tonal direction of Happy Death Day 2U indicates the series isn’t especially interested in being scary at this point, but it also does convey a willingness to throw anything & everything at the screen as long as it’s good for a gag. The only x-factor there is how open to reconciliation Bertuccelli is feeling to a series he believes ripped him off; the staggering settlement he’s seeking in his lawsuit (“half the movie’s profits”) isn’t a good sign, but maybe there’s a better timeline out there where he & Blumhouse manage to work it out.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #77 of The Swampflix Podcast: Shyamalan Classics & Spring (2014)

Welcome to Episode #77 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-seventh episode, Brandon & James dive deeper into M. Night Shyamalan canon to re-evaluate the divisive director’s early classics. Also, Brandon makes James watch the Lovecraftian sci-fi romance horror Spring (2014). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

–Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

On the Silver Globe (1988)

When Jazmin Moreno, the programmer for Austin Film Society Cinema’s “Lates” series (“the new cult film canon”) introduced the recent, sold-out screening of Andrzej Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe), she said that, if you were so fortunate as to have seen the film before its 2016 restoration by original director of photography Andrzej Jaroszewicz, you likely only saw a heavily yellowed print and not in a complete translation. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ve seen it translated now. Part of the reason for the perceived incomprehensibility of the piece is that it’s unfinished, but given what extant footage remains, I doubt that the film would have become a success even if the director had been permitted to finish it. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

In 1975, three years after leaving his native Poland in order to avoid censorship by the communist government, director Żuławski achieved financial and critical success in France helming L’important c’est d’aimer (That Most Important Thing: Love). The Polish cultural affairs office opted to invite him to come home and work on films in his native language once again. After spending two years adapting Trylogia Księżycowa (The Lunar Trilogy), science fiction novels written in the first decade of the twentieth century by his own great uncle Jerzy, Żuławski began production, but the project was halted in early 1978 by the newly appointed Deputy Minister of Culture and Art, Janusz Wilhelmi, supposedly due to the film going over its budget, but in reality because the Polish government was uncomfortable with the film’s anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian themes. Although Wilhelmi died in a plane crash shortly thereafter, it was not until the collapse of the ugly communism of that era that the film could be released, and even then only 80% of it had been completed. As completing the film as originally envisioned was essentially impossible, Żuławski filmed contemporary (late eighties) Warsaw along with some nature footage, and he recorded voice over describing the events from the screenplay that were no longer possible to bring to life on film. This was completed in 1988, and the result was screened at Cannes.

Depending upon how you look at it, the story behind the scenes of On the Silver Globe is either an ugly parable about political interference, a warning about the potential pitfalls of overreaching ambition, or a ballad of ultimate, if pyrrhic, victory against the forces of totalitarianism. Depending upon your perspective, this is also the story that happens within the film, although your mileage may vary. When I walked out of the screening and made the same joke to my friends that I made in the introduction above–that I still wasn’t sure I had seen the translated film–I wasn’t kidding. I’m far removed from the production of On the Silver Globe by space, time, philosophy, language, and politics; I honestly can’t figure out how Wilhelmi could possibly have sifted through the material and found enough of a thread of cohesion to definitively determine that any of it was seditious or subversive. To be honest, I wasn’t even entertained. Mystified, yes. Confused, yes. Engaged, also yes. And I was taken on a journey to somewhere I had never dreamed of, and saw things I could not have imagined. That is something truly astounding and deserving of commemoration, even if nothing about it makes sense.

For some context (and a pretty effective demonstration of how little anyone really understands this text), the film’s Wikipedia page identifies it as an adaptation of only the first novel, from which the title is taken. The page about the novel series on which it is based states clearly that “the film adapts the whole trilogy.” Based on the synopses: the first novel is about the initial expedition to the moon to discern whether or not the dark side of the satellite has an atmosphere that could support life, and the colonization of said orb by these pioneers; the second novel is about the coming of another terrestrial visitor who is hailed as a messianic figure by the descendants of the first group and enlisted in their war against the hostile lifeforms which seek to conquer and enslave them, with mixed success; the third novel tells the story of two lunar astronauts on an expedition to the earth. It all seems straightforward enough, right? But while the first and second novels’ plots are definitely present in the film, the third… might be?

The film opens (after an introductory narration from Żuławski) with a man in dirty but ornamented cloaks, furs, and a headdress riding a horse across a snowy wilderness against a sonic backdrop of mournful woodwinds. He bursts into some kind of dilapidated performance hall, where two men in silver suits, presumably astronauts, discuss their situation: they are here among apparently primitive humans, perhaps indigenous, whom they fend off by dispensing speed pills. The younger of the two is criticized by his elder for his apparently having gone somewhat native, including having taken on the facial markings of these tribal humans and even taken their offer of a woman, who now “belongs” to him. The rider from the opening presents them with a piece of space debris, which they identify as ancient and are skeptical that it could have only just fallen from the sky as claimed, but they discover that it is full of “old style” data discs, which they take to a laboratory and view . . . .

From here we follow the story of the first expedition to an unidentified planet (not the moon as in the novel, owing to the advance of scientific knowledge between 1903 and 1977), where a craft of five explorers has crashed, leaving one dead, one critically injured, and three relatively unharmed. Tomasz, the critically injured astronaut, dies shortly after arrival and is mourned by his pregnant lover Marta (Iwona Bielska), the only woman present. Piotr (Jerzy Grałek) becomes the default leader of the group, and Jerzy (Jerzy Trela) uses their cameras to record a history of the expedition, presumably the same one that fell to the ground and is being viewed by the aforementioned astronaut duo. The small group makes their way to a seashore, where they settle in. Marta names her newborn son Tomasz after his father, and she notes that he is growing more quickly than children on earth do; within an undefined but explicitly short period of time, he appears to be six or seven, and the mostly mute Marta begins to paint both his face and hers in the same kinds of patterns as those seen on the primitives in the prologue. Another time jump, and Marta has had several more children, all Piotr’s, and between their rapid aging and maturity, an entire small community has appeared on the shore and, despite the frequent allusions to carrying on only the best things about earth and leaving the ugliness of it behind, this group is still plagued by petty jealousies and sexual violence.

Jerzy lives largely removed from this community and becomes the “Old Man,” a kind of supernatural figure to the fledgling society, possessing a rationality and memory of their former homeworld that is seen as arcaneand perhaps dangerousknowledge. After Piotr is killed by an unknown force, Marta convinces Jerzy to give her one last child; she dies in childbirth. Some time later, Jerzy returns to the seaside and is disgusted to find that these new humans have lapsed into mythologizing their origin almost immediately, characterizing a flash flood that the landing trio endured as a religious deluge and painting Marta as a goddess: “Fertile Marta begat thunder with the moon in heaven . . . She returned swept by the flood and begat fishes,” they say. Now attended by a hunchbacked “actor” and his own mad daughter, Jerzy finds the village under the rule of the “second” Tomasz (really the third, the grandson of the original astronaut who died after the crash), where ritual sacrifice and interpersonal violence are common, women are subjugated as breeding stock, and death has no meaning. Tomasz decides to lead his people across the sea to see what lies on the other side, only to return and tell Jerzy that they found a great city there, but that it was filled with an evil presence that will soon fly across the sea to take vengeance.

Thus ends the first third of the film, as Żuławski’s narration (which runs over apparently unedited footage of Polish shoppers descending an escalator) describes the ultimate fate of the scientific duo from the prologue: taken from the underground laboratory and town limb from limb. Seeing it all on the page like this, it almost seems comprehensible, even logical, doesn’t it? But this is just the narrative; the film itself is comprised almost entirely of philosophical monologues that are delivered in a series of screams and shrieks. An example: “Wait! Do you remember a man being born? The father endows him with the seeds of every possibility. Each man must cultivate it within himself. If it is vegetal, he will be a plant. If it is sensory, he will be an animal. If it is rational, his essence will become divine; finally, if it is intellectual, he will be an angel or the son of man.” Or: “Although we have thus attempted to get an austere view of this reality whose existence may depend on a decent life, on our work, our honor which permits us to express no more than what we ourselves have seen.” Or perhaps you’d prefer this one: “There is truth in anything I say if I am capable of expressing it. Freedom exists and resides in darkness, it turns away from the lust for darkness to lean towards the lust for light. It embraces the light with its everlasting will. And darkness strives to capture the light of freedom but it cannot do that because it is centered on its own lust and turns to darkness again.” And the whole time, you as an audience member are thinking to yourself, “Is this what the Polish government was afraid of? This circular and defeatist rhetoric that makes little to no sense?” Every single line is delivered with the same intensity, which becomes exhausting, and the only time you get a break is when someone gets upset and runs into the ocean, which happens with great frequency. People are forever trying to run from their problems into the ocean, getting to waist depth, and then delivering another monologue.

From there, we take another leap forward in time to the arrival of Marek (Andrzej Seweryn), another earthman. His ship is met by an envoy from the settlement and he is borne back to them on a kind of parade float, drifting through sylvan, pastoral vistas before being met by a group of acolytes bearing massive banners and ornamented headdresses. Like everything else in this film, it is visually stunning. When he arrives at the seaside, he finds that they have grown into a veritable (if tiny) nation, complete with an underground civilization (give or take the “civil”). Believing Marek to be the prophesied savior who will lead them to victory over the Sherns, the flightless telepathic bird people Tomasz’s envoy discovered across the water and who, it can be assumed, were the ones responsible for the attack that killed Piotr. In addition to carrying out attacks on the human colonists, they have been experimenting on humans and attempting to create hybrids by raping captured women. Marek is given a woman (Krystyna Janda) to be his consort, and he commits to his role without much hesitation, first defeating a captured Shern in a telepathic battle before leading an assault on their city, which ends poorly. He returns to find that the settlement’s inhabitants have lost their faith in him, executing those who are true believers and ultimately crucifying Marek. Literally.

Again, an out-and-out summary isn’t an accurate way to convey anything about this film, but I felt obligated to share one here, if for no other reason than the fact that I haven’t been able to find a coherent one anywhere on the internet, and even claiming that this one is authoritative would be inaccurate. Some of the elements that I couldn’t parse in my viewing only made sense when taken in conjunction with others’ readings, and in some of them there are inaccuracies that I can identify, meaning that none of us has a true idea what is happening here. Writing for Film Comment, Jonathan Romney helped to clarify that much of what I perceived as unexplained warfare is in fact mass ritualistic battle, but he didn’t follow the narrative throughline “explaining” (ha!) that Marta’s first child was Tomasz’s, followed by an unknown number fathered by Piotr, and bookended by the birth of Jerzy’s child. John Coulthart’s review makes explicit that Marek defeated a Shern telepathically, which I mentioned in my summary above; at the same time, his reading of the text is that the discovery of Jerzy’s footage is what prompts Marek’s expedition, which (a) makes perfect sense but (b) I’m not sure is accurate. Given that the third novel’s narrative was about a reciprocal recon mission back to Old Earth, I think that the scenes with the two astronauts living among primitives and viewing Jerzy’s footage might have been the intended adaptation of this plotline, meaning that what we are seeing are Marta’s descendants returning to the homeworld and finding that mankind has descended into the same kind of barbarism as the tribe of Tomasz. My interpretation here is supported by the earthlike portraiture high in the eaves of the baroque performance hall in which this scene takes place, but Coulthart’s interpretation is supported by the fact that it makes more narrative sense (then again, cohesion was never this film’s intent). Only after reading Scout Tafoya’s review for RogerEbert.com did I understand the secondary narrative intercut with Marek’s story, about another scientist who is Marek’s friend; apparently, he and Marek’s girlfriend were having an affair and sent Marek off to investigate the previous expedition so that they could continue to see each other, and their incomprehensible dialogue is about their attempts to justify the fact that they sent him off to his likely death for their own selfishness. By the time that these scenes are happening, the viewer’s senses have been so thoroughly assaulted that finding meaning in the threads of this apparent chaos is an exercise in futility.

So much of this probably sounds like a complaint, and while that’s not not what’s happening here, that ignores the fact that this movie is stunning. At the intersection of ambition, melancholy, madness, and capital-A Art, there lies the Silver Globe. Sure, the dialogue vacillates between philosophical broadness and situational specificity that it induces whiplash as it bounces from meaningless to incomprehensible and back again, but the words spoken on screen are like the plot: simply background dressing. This is a film that is about the image, and spends all of its run time barreling forward (and backward, and side to side) with a frenetic energy that is never anything other than utterly captivating, disoriented but grounded, and very much alive. If by some miracle this film finds its way to you and you get the chance to experience it, don’t be put off by its 160 minute run time or the fact that you’ll be unable to wrap your head around it after one viewing (and after one viewing, you may never want to experience it again, and that’s fine), and just go and have the experience. Failing that, you could also just watch the trailer that AFS cut together for it 107 times to get an idea.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Replicas (2019)

Often, when we have fun watching “bad movies” for sport, we’re indulging in the over-the-top camp & below-par craft of outsider art: finding amusement in the handmade, weirdly delivered oddities that could never make it to the screen in more professional, homogenized studio pictures. The latest Keanu Reeves sci-fi cheapie (in a tradition that includes such esteemed titles as Chain Reaction & Johnny Mnemonic) is an entirely different, more rarified kind of “bad movie” pleasure. Replicas is less of an over-the-top, straight-from-the-id slice of schlocky outsider art than it is a confounding puzzle, the kind of “bad movie” that inspired the idiom “How did this get made?” There are a few laughs to be had at Replicas’s expense, but not as many as you may hope for from a dirt-cheap sci-fi picture dumped into an early-January theatrical release (when it obviously deserved the direct-to-VOD treatment). Chuckling at its robotic line-deliveries & Lawnmower Man-level CGI can only carry you so far in a movie that’s too somberly paced to fully support the MST3k-riffing treatment. Replicas does not amount to much as a laugh-a-minute camp fest, but it does excel as a puzzling piece of screenwriting, a bizarre act of storytelling so emotionless & illogical that there’s no recognizable humanity to it at all, as if its conception itself was a work of science fiction.

Keanu Reeves stars as a scientist & a family man, toiling away in a Puerto Rican lab on a research project meant to transfer human consciousness to A.I. machines. His closest collaborator, a perpetually nervous Thomas Middleditch, is simultaneously working on a seemingly unrelated project involving human cloning. When a freak car accident kills his wife & children, Reeves makes a panicked decision to combine the two projects, creating clones of his deceased family and importing the “neurological data” from their former selves, so it’s as if they never died. To its credit, Replicas almost establishes a genuinely unnerving source of tension there – finding chilling moments of unease as the dead family’s “living” replicas occasionally half-remember the crash that killed them as if it were a dream they once had. The movie isn’t especially interested in building on that theme, however, as it instead chases a go-nowhere conspiracy thriller storyline involving the company that paid for the cloning & A.I. research. Even that narrative thread is illogically patterned, however, delivering none of the usual payoffs you’d expect from its genre. Replicas ultimately feels as if it were written by a malfunctioning algorithm that became self-aware midway into the process and decided to self-destruct rather than construct a third act. Its various narrative threads & motions towards thematic reasoning are ultimately an act of total chaos, a meaningless collection of 1’s & 0’s. It’s oddly fascinating to behold as it devolves into formless nonsense, like listening to an A.I. machine babble as it loses power & effectively dies.

Keanu Reeves does deliver some traditionally funny “bad movie” line-readings throughout, recalling his befuddled family-man schtick in Knock Knock. His attempts to imbue pathos into lines like “I didn’t defy every natural law there is just to lose you again,” & “Boot the mapping sequence, Ed!” hit the perfect note of failed sincerity & meaningless one-liner script punch-ups. His wife (Alice Eve) sinks even further into inhuman “bad movie” performance than he does – speaking in a dazed, dubbed, robotic cadence about the difference between “neuro chemistry” vs. the human soul as if she were calling in a lunch order. Still, these moments of absurdly mishandled drama are too far spaced-out to recommend Replicas as a laugh-a-minute camp fest. The movie is much more enjoyable for the value of its bizarre construction as a piece of writing. Its mystery thriller tangents, loose Frankenstein-style themes of playing god, and desperate scramble to reach a coherent conclusion all clash spectacularly as its hopes for a clear, linear storyline fall to pieces before our eyes. Most so-bad-it’s-good cinematic pleasures are enjoyable because they offer a glimpse of humanity that shines through the usual machinery of professional filmmaking – whether in a poorly made costume, a wildly miscalculated performance, an unintentional expression of a creator’s id, or what have you. Replicas is a different kind of “bad movie” delight; it’s fascinating because it seems to display no discernible humanity at all, as if it were written by a machine on the fritz. Its only value is that it can be taught as an example of what not to do in a screenwriting class, or enjoyed for its puzzling questions of how & why it was made in the first place by the lucky few who mistakenly find themselves gazing at its confounding, cheap CG splendor.

-Brandon Ledet

Bumblebee (2018)

It is exceedingly rare for me to ever abandon a movie-watching project. I will occasionally drag my feet on some of my more daunting endeavors (for instance, it’s been five months since my last entry in my eternally ongoing Roger Ebert Film School series), but fully abandoning something once I’ve started is against my character as a self-flagellating completist. There is one major exception I can think of that contradicts this personal ethos, however: Michael Bay’s Transformers series. After catching a brief glimpse of a giant robot fighting a robo-dinosaur with an enormous sword (or some such exciting frivolity) in the trailer for a late-franchise sequel to Michael Bay’s Transformers, I decided to run through all five films in the series to see what I had been “missing out” on. I abandoned the project after just one movie, genuinely unable to continue. Between the soul-deadening CGI action, Shia LaBeouf’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging, and the endless shots of Michael Bay drooling over Megan Fox’s exposed midriff, the 2007 film Transformers defeated me like no other cinematic monstrosity I can recall. I’m recounting this here to explain why the spin-off Bumblebee is such an unfathomably effective rehabilitation for the Transformers series. I can’t think of a big-budget franchise with a more drastic tonal turnaround that this wholesome, adorable spin-off to a series previously defined by broad, obnoxious machismo & cynical commercialism. I went into Bumblebee defeated by & disgusted with the Transformers; I left wanting to adopt one as a pet & a bestie.

A major factor of this turnaround is the change in creative voices in front of & behind the camera. Michael Bay is still writing (and cashing) checks as a producer on Bumblebee, but directing duties have been passed off to Laika mastermind Travis Knight, whose previous film Kubo and the Two Strings was one of Swampflix’s favorite movies of 2016. Knight’s expertise in animated storytelling is extremely useful in the CGI action sequences of the Transformers brand. The complexity of a sentient robot unfolding & rearranging its various parts to reassemble as a common automobile in these movies is usually sidestepped by making the visual display so bewildering that it’s impossible to coherently nitpick (or even observe) what’s on display. Not only does Knight clear up this visual clutter (once described as a “Cubist” use of CGI by an overzealous critic) with a clarity & simplicity in Bumblebee‘s action sequences; he also enhances them with the heartfelt emotional core that informs Laika’s consistently endearing output. That shift from horny leering & macho fist-pumping to genuine emotional investment in the film’s characters is likely also somewhat due to something never before seen in the Transformers franchise: a female screenwriter, Christina Hodson. Between Hodson’s writing & Knight’s emotive eye, Bumblebee doesn’t even take the time to salivate over the young, exposed body of its main female character (a teenage loner played by The Edge of Seventeen‘s Hailee Steinfeld). That’s a depressingly low bar to clear, but given Transformers‘s track record it’s remarkable all the same. Bumblebee even goes a step further by making that female character the POV-commanding protagonist, so that we care about her thoughts, her emotions, and her personal growth. Go figure.

Steinfeld stars in Bumblebee as an amateur car mechanic in 1980s California whose hobbies include working on a half-finished sports car her father left behind when he passed away & brooding alone to The Smiths instead of engaging with her surviving family. This teenage-brooding crisis turns around when she discovers and fixes up a VW Beetle abandoned in her uncle’s junkyard. What she doesn’t know (but the audience does) is that the Beetle in question is actually an alien transforming robo-species from a distant planet who is damaged & scared. This mismatched pair, the alien robot & the teenage mechanic who adopts it, teach each other strength, confidence, and familial love in a relatively small, contained story that happens to also include a bloodthirsty Cold War American government & a warring alien robo-species who want nothing but to tear them apart & destroy them. The story that unfolds from there is heavily informed by 80s & 90s kids’ movies clichés: resentment over a single-parent’s ability to move on; the big bad government’s stubborn insistence on destroying an adorable creature it doesn’t understand; the same-old 80s high school bully archetypes we’ve seen echoed & parodied into oblivion over the decades, etc. It’s a nostalgic 80s lens that naturally derives from the film’s Spielbergian schmaltz in its story about an E.T.-esque naive creature who needs help from an Earth child to find strength & find a path home. It’s a template that’s been repeated in titles as beloved as The Iron Giant & as lowly as Monster Trucks because, on a basic level, it just works. Even without this franchise’s origins as an adaptation of 80s Hasbro action figures, Bumblebee’s indulgence in 1980s Spielbergian nostalgia (along with tossed-off references to pop culture touchstones like Alf & The Breakfast Club) would still be more than justified, as it’s reinforced with a surprisingly genuine emotional core.

There are plenty of smaller details to praise about Bumblebee: John Cena’s turn as the broad The Marine-esque villain, the endearingly playful 80s pop soundtrack, the oversized emotions conveyed by the titular robot’s gigantic anime eyes, etc. Mostly, though, this film is remarkable for finding such an adorable & heartfelt angle on something that was initially so obnoxiously nasty it appeared fundamentally flawed & irredeemable. When Bumblebee crash-lands into this wholesome 80s kids’ adventure movie from his home planet, it feels like he’s fleeing the intergalactic clutches of Michael Bay’s libido & garishly rendered CGI. We’re as lucky to have him as the teenage loner who discovers him & fixes him up. It’s just too bad we can’t also hug him through the screen ourselves to show proper thanks.

-Brandon Ledet

The Wild Boys (2018)

The long-vintage buzzword “genderfuck” might be an outdated term that’s since been replaced by descriptors like “genderfluid” & “non-binary,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe the nightmare fantasy piece The Wild Boys. If any movie was ever genderfucked, it’s this one. In a way, the outdated status of the term (combined with its confrontational vulgarity) only makes it more of a perfect fit. The Wild Boys feels like an adaptation of erotica written on an intense mushroom trip 100 years ago. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its depictions & subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender. As an art film oddity & a transgressive object, The Wild Boys lives up to the “wild” descriptor in its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic sideshow. More importantly, though, the film is thoroughly, deliberately genderfucked – a freshly radical act of nouveau sexual politics represented through the tones & tools of the ancient past.

In The Wild Boys, adult femme actors play unruly young boys who are punished for their hedonistic crimes in a magical realist fashion that violates their gender & sexuality. Untamable rapist hooligans who act like the Muppet Babies equivalent of the masked ruffians of A Clockwork Orange, the boys find themselves in legal trouble when their depravity results in the death of a drama teacher after an especially lewd rehearsal of Macbeth. They’re punished with the same boot camp treatment unruly teens are subjected to on shows like Maury – shipped off for behavioral rehab with a mysterious, authoritative sea captain who claims he can reform the worst boys you can throw at him. The captain takes them on a journey that’s part Edgar Rice Burroughs colonialist fantasy & part William S. Burroughs genderfucked eroticism. They reach a giant oyster-shaped island overgrown with perverse sexual delights: phallic tree flowers that spurt delicious milky liquids, vaginal shrubbery that sexually clasps around human lovers like penis fly traps, testicle-shaped fruits that transform the bodies of those who consume them. It’s in that fruity transformation where the nature of their punishment and the point of the women-cast-as-boys conceit starts to make sense – as much as anything in this deliberately obscured art house fantasy ever could.

The Wild Boys is more of a sensory indulgence than a logical narrative. Silent Era cinematic textures & stark washes of purple lighting recall the intensely artificial, tenderly pornographic tableaus of James Bidgood’s art photography. It’s the same kind of intimate, gay, surreal imagery that obsessed Todd Haynes in early New Queer Cinema features like Poison. Boys’ drunken playfighting devolves into operatically beautiful orgies among a continuous drizzle of soft pillow-feathers. Out-of-proportion rear projection backdrops fill the screen with old-fashioned romanticism. As erotic & alluring as the film’s sexuality can be, however, The Wild Boys is also a work of intense supernatural menace. Gigantic tattooed dicks, dogs with glowing human faces, and an all-powerful demonic glitter-skull named TREVOR overpower the setting’s more paradisiac delights. The boys are forced to ask tough questions like “How much hairy testicle fruit can you possibly eat?” and “What will you do with your dick once it falls off?” Sex alternates between violence & sensual pleasure in an uncomfortable, artificial sensibility more befitting of delirious erotica than anything resembling real life. The resulting effect falls somewhere between Guy Maddin & Bruce LaBruce – a decidedly not-for-everyone-but-definitely-for-someone combination if there ever was one.

If recommending The Wild Boys in the 90s I might have told you to go get genderfucked. If recommending it 100 years ago I might have told you to save it for a stag party where you trusted no one would call the cops. The film’s sexuality, gender, and violence are of both those eras and, paradoxically, very much of the zeitgeist now. I guess that’s the quality that prompts people to call a work of art “timeless”, but I can’t refer to this movie as anything but hopelessly, beautifully fucked.

-Brandon Ledet