Baby Face (1933)

I’ve been casually flipping through & taking notes on Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon for a few months now (even though it’s essentially a lengthy gossip rag & could easily be read in an afternoon), which really is one of the better trashy reads on cinema history out there. If even a tenth of Anger’s ancient gossip is to be believed, the early days of Hollywoodland were a reckless, anything-goes bacchanal of drugs, sex, murder, and glamor, a just-born industry living out its youthful transgressions with unfathomable lust & fervor. There’s an obvious allure to these tawdry movie industry legends that just about anyone should be able to latch onto, but for film nerds early Hollywood gossip & myths are especially intoxicating. Among its more prurient interests, Anger’s book offers a glimpse of American cinema before it was defanged by the browbeating morality of the Hays Code, a time when Major Studio filmmaking was just as wild & transgressive as any art in production. I could have easily devoured Hollywood Babylon in a single sitting, but I find myself slowing way down to take notes on as may films Anger mentions as possible, hoping to find a movie-shaped doorway into the freewheeling times when the Studio System’s tawdriest works were being produced. That’s why it was beautifully serendipitous to recently find a used copy of a Warner Archives release titled Forbidden Hollywood at a second-hand media store. Featuring pre-Code pictures from Old Hollywood’s wildest era, the modest collection found its way into my personal stash at the exact right moment of my life, not only because of the surprising modern relevance of its crown jewel: 1933’s Baby Face.

A Barbara Stanwyck vehicle released just one year before the Hays Code was first strictly enforced, Baby Face is one of the most notorious examples of pre-Code Hollywood boundary-testing. It’s a grimy, cynical work about weaponized female sexuality and corporate culture exploitation, a true wonder as a Studio System relic. What’s most incredible, though, is the way its basic premise of lifelong sexual harassment corrupting & limiting women’s professional opportunities as autonomous adults continues to be vividly relevant to the current Cultural Discourse. The solution for combating that patriarchal oppression (essentially a Fuck Your Way to the Top ethos) has drastically changed, but the circumstances have not. The Forbidden Hollywood DVD features a recently discovered “pre-release” cut of Baby Face that includes extended sequences & alternate takes that are even racier than the version of the film that ruffled feathers in 1930s theaters. The official theatrical cut is plenty shocking for its time as is, though, not only in its casual approach to aggressive female sexuality, but also in its strides towards equality for onscreen black representation. The film is by no means a prophetic reflection of 2010s political ideology, but it is an incredibly honest screed about social & institutional oppression of women in the 1930s. It’s a kind of honesty we’re not used to associating with Old Hollywood pictures, thanks to the blanket moralizing of the Hays Code that would soon neuter American Cinema until the New Hollywood movement took over decades later. Its world of casual sex, suicide, interracial friendship, untold hundreds of cigarettes, and swanky Dixieland jazz paints a picture of what Old Hollywood could’ve been, if it were only allowed to fully blossom into its flagrantly amoral ideal.

Barbara Stanwyck stars as a put-upon barmaid who’s been harassed, cat-called, and groped every day of her life since she was a teen. Her father is her employer and, without consent, her pimp, charging men by the hour to be alone in the bar with her. A grim factory smoke tableau fills the window to the world outside their lowly speakeasy. A tragic accident suddenly frees her from this imprisonment and she flees to the city with her best friend (a black servant played by Theresa Harris) to establish her own place in the world. Resourceless and encouraged by the only speakeasy customer who’s ever been nice to her to stop being a pushover for horny men’s whims, she consciously decides to use her sexuality to earn money & status. Early in the film, Stanwyck’s antihero walks up to an impossibly tall skyscraper bank with no contacts or experience necessary for employment. To put it crassly, she systematically fucks her way to the top floor over the course of the movie, leaving behind a trail of heartbroken men in her path to financial success. Stanwyck is incredible in the role, confidently delivering lines like, “I don’t owe you a thing. Whatever I do is my business,” with a nonchalance that borders on viciousness, but never enough to turn the audience against her. The tragedy of the film is not the bosses, managers, and banking associates she seduces & leaves ruined, but in a climactic decision that jeopardizes the money she’s earned though the transgression. Using her intimacy as leverage and often waiting a beat to decide how to act before claiming another “victim” (would-be-harasser), she flips the power dynamic of a corporate world stacked against women by weaponizing the one asset that’s been afforded her: sex appeal. By the time she’s holding a major bank’s entire board of directors hostage with that one minor resource, Baby Face becomes a perverted David vs Goliath story and the movie is clearly rooting for her succeed by any means necessary.

Obviously, the theatrical edits made to soften Baby Face’s sexual transgressions also weaken its modern appeal. A moralistic coda about changing her casual sexin’ ways is tacked onto the story and stands out as just as much of a sore thumb as the similar false ending to The Bad Seed. Her amoral life coach is more of a Christian finger-wagger in the theatrical cut, scolding her for doing what he encourages her to do in the original, unreleased version of the story: fucking for power. Small moments of sex & violence are more explicitly depicted in the “pre-release” cut, hammering home what’s only implied in the version that’s been publicly available for decades. No matter which cut of Baby Face you’re privileged to see, however, the movie still shines as a grimy, transgressive wonder of Old School Hollywood boundary-pushing. Pre-Code Hollywood really was an amoral Babylon of hedonistic indulgences in sex & violence, as evidenced by the fact that even Baby Face’s censored, theatrical cut is more thematically & morally risky than most modern Major Studio releases dare to be. The fact that it accomplishes this while tackling an issue that’s currently commanding our cultural zeitgeist (the exploitation & sexual degradation of women in a male-dominated workplaces) only makes it all the more astounding.

-Brandon Ledet

A Dirty Shame (2004)

As loudly & proudly as I’ll proclaim John Waters the greatest filmmaker/artist/human being of all time now, he was even more important to me when I was an ornery high school student in the early 00s. I owe the entirety of my sense of humor, camp, and love of “bad” movies to teenage introductions to works like Pink Flamingos & Serial Mom, which shook me out of my nü metal shithead phase into something much sillier. That’s why it was a huge deal when Waters released a new film in theaters the summer after I graduated. A Dirty Shame was a return to form for Waters, whose previous two efforts, Pecker & Cecil B. Demented, were a little too mired in arts world self reflection & nü metal era creative doldrums to match the singular eccentricity of his earlier works. With A Dirty Shame, The Pope of Trash figured out how to re-energize his voice in a cinematic climate where once taboo, over-the-top gross-out comedies had become the norm, thanks to success stories like The Farrelly Brothers & the Jackass crew. He did so by returning to the sex-obsessed comedies of his youth and the suburban-invasion narratives of his mid-career mainstream successes like Hairspray & Polyester, crafting a kind of career-retrospective overview of his cinematic aesthetic. A Dirty Shame has only become more valuable over time for that redemptive act of career-spanning review & revitalization, if not only because it might very well be the last film Waters even directs.

Tracey Ullman stars as prudish Baltimore housewife Sylvia Stickles, whose calm suburban neighborhood, her daughter included, is seemingly being taken over by horned-up “sex addicts.” As more & more fetishists appear out of thin air and even the squirrels & shrubbery in her neighborhood begin to titter with teenage-level horniness, taunting her and other “neuters” with lewd acts, this phenomenon appears to be a supernatural event. It turns out to be more than supernatural; it’s divine. Johnny Knoxville soon appears as a Christ-like, miracle-performing figurehead with a devoted, DTF cult of apostles behind him, turning A Dirty Shame into a religious allegory so blatant & over-the-top it would make Aronofsky blush. Sylvia Stickles joins their ranks when she’s struck with a freak accident concussion that leads to a kind of religious epiphany . . . in her clitoris. Along with her fellow concussion-survivors/fetishists, she becomes a devotee to the Second Cumming as a self-identified “cunnilingus bottom,” waging war on the Neuters of her neighborhood & going on a religious pilgrimage to discover “a brand new sex act,” which is feared to be a myth. As the apostles barrel closer to the promised Resurrsexion, their horniness devolves from combative exhibitionism to zombie-level mayhem & sexual terror. Waters builds the cartoonishness of this societal meltdown to a point where it has to accommodate David Hasselhoff’s frozen feces, CGI squirrels headbutting each other in ecstasy, corpses rising from the dead, and a star-filled sky slathered in divine semen in its (literal) climax. It’s even sillier than it sounds.

Of course, like all John Waters films, A Dirty Shame survives more on the outrageous moments of individual flourishes than it does on strength of its plot. Outside a couple shots of flaccid dicks, the film does nothing especially vulgar to earn its NC-17 rating. In fact, it’s arguably a fairly tame entry into the modern sex comedy canon. It is irreverently aggressive in its sex positivity, though, stocking its legion of horned-up side characters with bears, sploshers, rimmers, adult babies, masturbation addicts, and a go-go dancing Selma Blair with Russ Meyer-proportioned CGI tits. Character names like Ursula Udders, Roddy the Rimmer, and Fat Fuck Frank mingle with intentionally shoddy CGI and intensely punny one-liners like “I’m Viagravated and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” to establish joke-a-second ZAZ rhythms that call back to the playful energy of Waters’s early, Dreamlanders era. The only real difference is that the film is more dedicated to silliness than shock value and outside of appearances from longtime collaborators Mink Stole & Patty Hearst, most of the traditional Waters crew has been replaced with the likes of Johnny Knoxville, Chris Isaak, and Tracey Ullman (who’s essentially doing her best Amy Sedaris in the role). Waters even advances his visual aesthetic here, integrating a lyrical use of Ed Wood-esque B-movie ephemera to visualize the film’s horned-up concussion sequences and fully embracing the drive-in horror movie trappings those concussed transformations imply.

Waters has long been teasing the production of a queer-themed Christmas comedy titled Fruitcake. As the years roll on and his struggle to secure the full funding he desires for the project stagnates, it seems increasingly likely that A Dirty Shame will be his final feature as a director. Of course, I’d love to see Fruitcake completed & distributed to as wide of an audience as possible; every Waters film I’ve ever seen in the theater (I’m up to eight now!) always plays better with a crowd. I’ve come to peace with the likelihood that A Dirty Shame will be his final filmmaking triumph, however. It’s a fittingly enthusiastic swan song that encapsulates both the wildly idiosyncratic energy a young & angry Waters gifted the world and the mainstream raunch comedy aesthetic he inadvertently pioneered. At the very least, it saved him from concluding his catalog on the downbeat of his creative lowpoint, the two late 90s arts scene comedies that preceded it. A Dirty Shame brought Waters back to sex cinema as an elder statesman of Filth. We we’re lucky to have seen him shine in all his smutty glory one final time, even if his sense of shock value had become an unlikely kind of cultural norm.

-Brandon Ledet

Sausage Party (2016)

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onehalfstar

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When I was an innocent little preteen nü-metal doofus in the late 90s my stepdad used to take me to the theater to see films rated above my age range by the MPAA, but made perfectly for my (im)maturity level. I’m thinking of titles like the South Park musical Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, the post-apocalyptic Pam Anderson vehicle Barb Wire, and the deservedly forgotten Keanu Reeves sci-fi cheapie Johnny Mnemonic. It always felt like a special treat, an excursion to pluck the most low-hanging forbidden fruit imaginable. Were it still 1999 & I still a snot-nosed KoRn fan, I probably would’ve enjoyed our most recent journey together to Chalmette Movies to see the Seth Rogen-helmed shock comedy Sausage Party. Instead of leaving the theater transgressively delighted, however, I felt drained, spiritless, exhausted. I don’t know if that sensation speaks more to the movie’s maturity level or my own, but I will say that its moronic dedication to its own despicable worldview & self-congratulatory navel-gazing not only felt like a product of an entirely different century; it also distracted from the film’s main draw: CG animated raunch.

An obvious labor of love, Sausage Party is a Pixar-spoofing filth fest about anthropomorphic food products that somehow skates by without an NC-17 rating despite its fetishistic use of “foul” language & onscreen depictions of sexual congress. A tale as old as time, the film mostly follows one hotdog (voiced by Seth Rogen) as he embarks on a quest to get all up inside his complimentary bun (Kristen Wiig, whose thankless performance I pity the most in this production). It’s the same bros-trying-to-get-laid plot structure Rogen & his writing partner Evan Goldberg have been endlessly repeating all the way back to 2007’s Superbad, except this time with cartoon food. Buried somewhere in this gleefully stupid passion project, which features an entire grocery store full of talking foodstuff characters & the godlike shoppers who free them from the shelves, is about 20 minutes of pure schlock cinema brilliance. Whenever the film acts like a horror comedy, depicting little sentient potatoes & baby carrots being ruthlessly destroyed by gigantic human monsters they mistook for divine saviors, it can be quite funny. There’s a Cleanup in Aisle Whatever gag that spoofs the Omaha Beach invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan that rings as particularly inspired, especially in the detail of a can of spaghetti trying to re-contain its “intestines.” I’ll also vouch for the climactic hedonism that concludes the film with a nihilistic, anything-goes cocktail of sex & violence that smartly picks apart the basic stupidity of the anthropomorphic [fill in the blank]s of the various CG animated features the film is spoofing. The problem is that these flashes of brilliance are lost under an insurmountable garbage heap of cruelty-for-its-own-sake nastiness & pseudo-philosophical self-importance. Sausage Party knows how to tell an occasional good joke, but its soul is overall corrupted & inherently unlovable, so the punchline is always a short-lived pleasure.

Where Sausage Party derails its own sense of fun in delightful stupidity is in its supposedly necessary quest to construct a narrative more complex than just a nihilistic fascination with sex & violence. Its missteps in that regard are threefold:

  1. The film characterizes its individual food products based on racial & sexual stereotypes. The bagel is a Woody Allen-flavored Jewish caricature. The Twinkie is a twink. The bottle of tequila is a Hispanic scoundrel (among many other “illegal products,” including an oversexed lesbian taco voiced by a surprisingly game Selma Hayek). The hotdog buns are airhead female sex objects patiently awaiting their corresponding wieners. 40oz bottles of malt liquor & sentient boxes of grits are coded as black. The wise bottle of “Fire Water”-brand alcohol is a Native American mystic who smokes weed out of a kazoo. The lavash looks forward to an afterlife stocked with 70 bottles of extra virgin olive oil. The film is a relentless dedication to an “If everyone’s offended, nothing’s offensive” line of humor that’s no funnier the first time than it is the 1,000th and once you realize that its pursuit to racially categorize each of its many foodstuff personifications will eat up its entire runtime in the place of a worthwhile story or all-out debauchery, there’s nothing left to feel but exhaustion & despair.
  2.  Unsatisfied with its surprisingly brilliant depiction of human beings as cruel, uncaring gods who promise these talking food products passage to “The Great Beyond” (where, unknown to them, they will be mutilated & consumed), the film instead mostly follows the much less interesting threat of an anthropomorphic douche. I’ll tip my hat to the spot-on casting of comedian Nick Kroll as said douche, but much like the film’s above-referenced “have your cake & eat it too” satire of racial coding in foodstuffs marketing, his entire role should’ve been reduced to a short-form gag & not a full-length plot device. Let’s think for just a half-second what a villainous douche in a shock comedy would spend most of its time pursuing in order to create conflict. Did you picture roid rage-themed sexual assault? Apparently, Rogen & Goldberg didn’t think of it for much longer than a half second either, since they also pictured rape and thought that was funny enough to run with for the length of an entire film.
  3.  Perhaps the most damning fault of all this is that this shameless raunch fest actually thinks it has something to say. From its aggressively pedantic Richard Dawkins branch of atheism to its musings on the frivolity of the Israelian-Palestinian conflict to its juvenile depictions of a Hitler figure getting his comeuppance (a moment that apparently called for more rape humor, since there’s just never enough), Sausage Party captures exactly what’s so exhausting about being trapped in a confined space with the world’s worst subreddit’s didactic neckbeard internet philosophers or, more simply, watching an especially preachy episode of Family Guy. I swear a hotdog even mouths a “Giggity!” to seal the deal on the film’s overriding aesthetic just before the blood orgy climax. Somewhere along the way Rogen & Goldberg became mistaken that audiences wanted a self-important lecture on the meaning of life in the midst of comedic gags about hotdog ingredients cussing & fucking, particularly one with the stinger that man-boy stoners are the world’s true enlightened philosophers with all of The Answers. I can respect the film’s go-for-broke dedication to its own inane depravity, but I can’t at all get on board with its self-congratulatory stabs at know-it-all philosophy.

All three of these fatal flaws point to a major structural problem at the heart of Sausage Party‘s toxic unlikability. This should have been a short film. I’m thinking fifteen, twenty minutes tops. Any entertainment value Rogen & Goldberg pull out of anthropomorphic foodstuffs’ nihilistic sex & violence in the face of their human god consumers’ cruelty could’ve been efficiently fired off in that window, with the added bonus of allowing less room for the film’s “comedic” obsessions with race, rape, and the dirty word. Sausage Party should’ve kept to a short film format, just like how the equally exhausting Minions & Deadpool movies should’ve been instantly relegated to their current status as lazy Facebook memes instead of being developed into feature films in the first place. I’m glad I saw Sausage Party in the theater with my stepdad, not only for its occasional short film-worthy moments of depraved schlock brilliance, but also because it took me back to a special, nostalgic time in my cinematic past. The year was 1999, I was twelve, and I would’ve loved every minute of this shit stain of a movie. Unfortunately, there are just some places you can never go back to (and some you’d never want to if you knew what was waiting there).

-Brandon Ledet

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

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three star
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“Alright, scouts. Let’s kick some zombie ass.”

Man, these zombie horror comedies really do seem to write themselves. Here’s the basic premise of Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (as if you couldn’t infer it from the title alone): three teenage boy scouts try to get laid while the world (or at least their small town) crumbles around them into zombie mayhem. You can pretty much tell from there whether or not you’re on board with the movie’s grossout gore gags & sexual bro humor, which for better or for worse plays out exactly as you’d expect it to.  Imagine Superbad with extras from the “Thriller” video eating half the cast & you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re in for. All its genre faithfulness aside, at least Scouts Guide doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of films like this: wimping out on the gore & sex jokes. It’s a very raunchy teen sex comedy & a very gory zombie flick, both elements over the top in their crassness. Fans of bro humor & disgusting splatter fests may know what they’re getting ahead of time, but are likely to leave somewhat satisfied.

Despite what you may assume from the title, Scouts Guide never provides a list of rules on how to survive the zombie apocalypse like the one Jesse Eisenberg reads off in Zombieland. The plot is much more straightforward in structure. After establishing that teenage boy scouts are unsexy nerds who can’t get laid, the film stages a 28 Days Later-type viral outbreak that shakes up their world enough to allow rites of passage like squeezing their first breasts, viewing their first strip tease, and (on a sweeter note) receiving their first kiss, all on the same night. And because they’re hormone-addled teenage boys, it just barely bothers them that these moments of intimacy are soaked in gore & viscera. Even though that gore is pretty standard in terms of zombie movie mayhem, it is at least enthusiastic enough in its details to make the effort worthwhile. If nothing else, I’m pretty sure it was the first time I had ever seen zombie cats, zombie deer, zombie scientists, zombie scout leaders, zombie cops, and zombie strippers all in the same film, And true to form, in terms of teenage boy sex humor, the movie also makes time to include zombie hand jobs, zombie rim jobs, and zombie cunnilingus while it was at it. It’s all very tasteless,  but it’s also just silly enough to work.

Even though I enjoyed Scouts Guide for what it was, I’m struggling to recall details that distinguish it from its zombie comedy peers. The reason I watched the film in the first place was that the star role was filled by the incredibly gifted Tye Sheridan. It was nice to see him have fun for a change, since most of his work to this point has been in grim dramas like Mud & Joe. Other supporting roles from familiar faces like David Koechner, Blake Anderson, and Cloris Leachman were wall pretty much on par with their previous comedy work, but nothing out of the ordinary. Only the strip club cocktail waitress played by Sarah Dumont stood out as a particularly bad performance, but what’s the point of a zombie movie if you don’t sneak at least one of those in there?

The rest of the film’s charms are a stray sly joke or two, like a strip club named Lawrence of Alabia, a zombie wearing a “YOLO” shirt, a pissant dude bro taking selfies with corpses, a grown man’s beyond-obsessive shrine to the fabulous Dolly Parton, etc. You’ve more or less seen everything else before: the chest-caving moment from The Thing, the landscaping equipment brutality of Dead Alive, you know the drill. If you can deal with a couple stray poop jokes, gratuitits nudity, and bros being bros (often with resulting punishment), Scouts Guide is an amusing, low stakes horror comedy. It also gets instant bonus points for valuing practical effects over CGI. It could’ve easily substituted details like zombie cat puppets & elastic zombie dicks with computer graphics, but instead they for the most part took the time to mimic the golden era of the genre in its gore effects, a dedication to the (admittedly trashy) craft that I truly appreciate.

-Brandon Ledet

You and the Night (2014)

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twostar

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I recently praised The Overnight for finding a surprisingly effective homogeneous blend of the black comedy & the light sex romp and now I appreciate it even more after watching the same blend fail so miserably in You and the Night. Where The Overnight utilizes its small cast & budget to enhance its own sense of uncomfortable intimacy, You and the Night points to its own financial shortcomings intentionally as a source of would-be humor. You and the Night is embarrassingly bad in a try-hard, underfunded art-house way that somehow makes an orgy hopelessly boring. At times it feels like a stage play and in other moments it could be mistaken for an oldschool horror anthology (with a lot more prosthetic cocks than usual), but the effect is the same either way. You and the Night tries to point to its own artificiality as a form of campy amusement, but the result is more embarrassing than it is funny.

The few moments that actually succeed happen when the film drops its own bullshit sense of detachment & sincerely tries to create something worth looking at. There’s a nice dream logic to its individual anthology segments that leads to some great shots like a green screen motorcycle ride, an Alice in Wonderland style ballet, and a trip to a phantom movie theater. These scenes feel just as fake as the too-cool-to-be-sincere orgy set-up that binds them, but they actually leave a lasting impression that the rest of the film is unlikely to.

A lot of You and the Night feels like a French comedy spoofing the nature of French comedies. It presents an exaggerated sense of detachment & coquetry that’s difficult to react to in any way outside a scoff. If I had caught this movie on late night cable as a teen I might’ve gotten a little more out of it. The idea of a dark comedy set at a pansexual fuckfest still holds a lot of drawing power for me now, which is how I ended up lazily watching it on Netflix in the first place. It’s unfortunate that You and the Night can’t deliver on the promise of that premise, though, and holds all sincerity & genuine effort at arm’s length. Even a few intense images & an incredible, synth-soaked score from M83 can’t save this film from its own sardonic self-amusement.

-Brandon Ledet

The Overnight (2015)

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fourstar

Usually, filmmakers have a tendency to keep their dark comedy & their sex romps separate. Full-blown sex comedies are usually mindless entertainment more concerned with raunchy gags than existential contemplation & while a black comedy might lighten the mood with an occassional sexual diversion (last year’s sadistic Cheap Thrills comes to mind), it’s rare that sex is its main focus. Even the recent raunch fest Wetlands, which I absolutely loved, kept its dark streak separate from its hedonism, a difficult task for a movie mostly remembered for its ungodly volume of on-screen semen. There might be a reluctance in blending the sexual with the menacing both because it’s awkward to take sex seriously & because sexual menace is difficult to play for a laugh for reasons that should be more than obvious without explanation.

In The Overnight, we have a surprisingly successful homogeneous blend of the black comedy & the sex romp, one where both elements are fused together completely instead of played off each other for a contrasting effect. The movie strikes a consistently terrifying tone through its depiction of underhanded sexual coercion, but somehow never loses grasp of the sillier raunch tangents you’d expect in a typical sex comedy. The effect of this powerful combination is that the sex gags are twice as funny as they’d normally play, thanks to the way they relieve overbearing tension of the the film’s sexual menace. In a lot of ways The Overnight follows the typical party out of bounds story structure of classic black comedies like The Exterminating Angel & Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where in-over-their-heads guests feel compelled to remain at a social function even though the mood has soured, but the four characters at the center of this particular party out of bounds & their surprising tenderness for each other are unique to the genre. It’s a very well-written example of a very familiar story that I have a huge soft-spot for.

Besides the deft balance & gradual escalation of the razor sharp script, The Overnight‘s strongest asset is its cast. Adam Scott & Taylor Schilling are fantastic as the befuddled North Westerners struggling to decide if their Los Angeles party hosts are just having a California-style good time or if they’re swingers trying to take their newfound friends to bed. Jason Schwartzman & Judith Godrèche steal the show as the film’s sexual menace, making both sly & overt sexual advances through maneuevers as simple as a hand on a knee and as ludicrous as an art studio packed with abstract paintings of buttholes. It’s difficult to decide through most of The Overnight whether the L.A. couple is taking advantage of their more uptight out-of-towners guests or if they’re apparent sweetness is genuine. The tension between those two competing readings is a great dynamic and both tones could be read in some of the film’s best scenes, like in a stoned, strobe-lit dance party or in a literal dick-measuring contest by the poolside. It’s a testament to the film’s effectiveness that what lingers in your mind after the credits is not the film’s individual sex gags, but rather the implications of the relationships that form between the film’s two central couples. It’s both an equally fun & terrifying experience, as well as a must-see for fans of Jason Schwartzman at his most mischievous.

-Brandon Ledet

Appropriate Behavior (2015)

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fourhalfstar

It’s difficult to describe Appropriate Behavior without using titles like Broad City & Obvious Child as reference points, but those comparisons truly do the film a disservice, as it’s much more emotionally satisfying than either of those titles (both of which I like very much). True, Appropriate Behavior is yet another raunchy, sex-obsessed comedy-drama centered on a New York City woman-child struggling to figure her shit out, but there’s something uniquely direct & honest about its approach to this aesthetic that distinguishes it from its peers. Its authenticity might have a lot to do with the overall strength of the writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan, who delivers the material as if she’s lived it before, but what’s really arresting is the crippling, all-too-common sadness that anchors the story. The details of the protagonist’s Shirin’s lifestyle & personality may be specific, but her heartache is universal & familiar.

Shirin is a young, bisexual Brooklynite party girl with a journalism degree & Persian heritage. Not everyone is going to relate to certain aspects of her sex life, such as safe-words, strap-ons, group play and hiding her sexuality from her Iranian-born parents.  However, the film’s central romantic conflict is an about as universal as they come. Appropriate Behavior details the depressing, gradual detangling of two people exiting a long term relationship. The film thankfully doesn’t dwell solely on the couple’s post break-up gloom, but instead adopts a flashback structure that allows it to show the former couple in better times, like in a flirtatious exchange when the first meet where Shirin says, “I find your anger incredibly sexy. I hate so many things too.” When the broken relationship Shirin’s mourning is first detailed it looks too toxic to be worth the heartache. The flashbacks reveal that it was at one time something playful, something worth saving. It allows the film to run through the entire cycle of a romantic tryst from first meeting to fucking to fighting to eventual dissolution.

Although the universal relatability of this cycle is what makes the film affecting, it’s the specificity of Shirin’s world that makes it special. The film’s Brooklyn setting provides a lot of room for lampooning of ludicrous personalities like social justice comedians, Kickstarter gurus, pothead businessmen, and absurdly pretentious performance artists. Shirin’s open, playful sexuality is an invitation into a world of group sex, kink play, and drag queens. Her Persian heritage is a window into both the culture’s familial intimacy & rituals as well as its malignant homophobia. At the center of this Venn diagram is a very relatable Shirin. She calls Brooklyn hipsters out on their nonsense, asking  “What is up with your placid disinterest in everything?” She laughs in the faces of people who take their kink play seriously and finds a way to reconcile her sexuality with her family in a somewhat disheartening “don’t ask, don’t tell” type of equilibrium.  A lot of Shirin’s life goals amount to “a good time”, which is more than understandable for a woman in her twenties.

It’s incredible how much Shirin’s zest for fun shines through when Appropriate Behavior finds her in such a dark time. It’s a familiar balance to anyone who’s experienced true heartbreak: trying to party away the pain like it doesn’t matter, but the superficial hedonism always feeling empty. She pretends like she doesn’t care, but she continuously ends up alone & hurt after the high. No matter your relation to the specifics of Shirin’s background & lifestyle, it’s easy to see yourself in her sadness when she curls up in a ball and says, “I’m going to lie here and forget what it feels like to be loved. Could you please turn off the light?” It’s a sadness that feels like it’s never going to fade, but it always does . . . eventually. Shirin can’t move past it until she gets wrapped up in her own project, a distraction that finally allows her to let go of the past. The thing that saves her? An elaborate fart joke. That’s the exact kind of clash between emotional devastation & goofball irreverence that makes Desiree Akhavan’s debut such a strong, relatable film, even for those worlds apart from her protagonist’s exact circumstances.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Crimes of Passion (1984)

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Every month
one of us makes the other two watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made James, Britnee, and (our newest contributor) Kenny watch Crimes of Passion (1984).

Brandon: Director Ken Russell was a madman. Whether exploring the farthest reaches of his twisted psyche in projects like Altered States & Lair of the White Worm or making more commercial projects like the musical film Tommy, Russell had a knack for finding the surreal in the mundane. His films would reach for cinematic mindfuckery that audiences would expect in dignified art films, but his particular brand of on-screen madness was typically grounded in a mundane, often tawdry context. For instance, both Tommy & Altered States are overflowing with bizarre, dreamlike imagery but one is essentially a glorified The Who music video and the other is (reductively speaking) about a dude on drugs in a bathtub. Russell’s films are simultaneously both artful & cheap, an unholy marriage of high & lowbrow art and that’s partly why I love his work so much

In some ways Crimes of Passion, a 1984 sex thriller starring Kathleen “Serial Mom” Turner as a fashion designer by day & prostitute by night, is the prime example of Russell’s self-conflicting nature. It’s a visually stunning work that uses a Bava-esque attention to lighting to create an otherworldly playground of sexual fantasy & escapism, but it’s also just pure smut. It occasionally attempts to laud the virtues of sex work, but also uses the profession as a means to leer at naked bodies. It reads like an intentionally cruel vilification of marriage & monogamy that also has a lot to say about the hypocrisy of self-righteous religious piety, but it’s also just a long string of dirty one-liners like “Don’t think you’re getting back in these panties; there’s already one asshole in there.” Crimes of Passion is thoroughly bewildering in its refusal to be engaged with as either high art or low trash, but instead insists that audiences simultaneously appreciate it as both. In other words, it’s pure Ken Russell.

Kenny, what did you make of the film’s tonal mix of art house solemnity and tawdry sex jokes? How did its leering salaciousness interact with its more sincere views on monogamy & religious faith for you?

Kenny: “A Priest, a hooker and a husband walk into a motel…” This sounds like all the makings of a bad joke, but instead these are the ingredients to a perfectly balanced portion of 80’s cinema. The film walks a very tight line, carefully trying to not be cast as weighty or absurd. Without question, the director maintains a perfect tonal balance with the film’s mix of the “sacred against the profane.” However, the thing to marvel in is how Russell frames the context. What is sacred is absurd (ex. “holy sex toy”). What would be filth, the viewer comes to recognize as sacramental. I love the way it flips the norms on the viewer.

Speaking of flipping societal norms, how cool is Russel’s vision of China Blue? She has all of the makings of a kick-ass comic book anti-heroine. A successful woman in fashion, who finds herself trapped by the dated expectations of how “normal” people should behave, escapes to her seedy lair in the underbelly of the city to find a safe haven among the deviant. I love how she is placed in a position of power throughout the film, and how her independence as a woman is never compromised.

Did anyone else care for Ken Russell’s reversal of traditional gender roles? What are your thoughts on the dynamic of the strong female and the meek male character in need of saving?

Britnee: China Blue (aka Joanna) is the definition of an independent woman. Kathleen Turner is a total goddess that is known for portraying strong women in film, so she was perfect for this role. Russell really did an excellent job switching up traditional gender roles in Crimes of Passion by giving China Blue the power to create and control her own world while both major male characters, Reverend Peter Shayne and Bobby Grady, are both pretty weak and cannot function without their China Blue fix. The Reverend is the scariest, most unstable individual that one could ever imagine, and I was really shocked at how she wasn’t intimidated by him whatsoever. She didn’t run and hide from him, but instead fought him at his own game. Also, I think it’s important to mention that Russell didn’t end the film in a traditional way by giving China and Bobby an over-the-top wedding that leads to a happily-ever-after marriage. China didn’t need to marry Bobby in order to make a better life for herself; she already had her shit on lock.

One thing that really stuck out to me when we watched Crimes of Passion was how it seemed like two different movies mixed into one. The beginning was like an insane fever dream, but the second half of the film had a much more mild tone and was more on the serious side. It’s known as an erotic thriller, but it didn’t really feel like a thriller in the beginning. If there were any elements of a thriller in the beginning, they were definitely overshadowed by the all the peculiar incidents.

James, do you think that there was a significant change in the style of the film towards the latter half? If so, what are some of your thoughts/opinions of why Russell would do this?

James: Besides the completely bonkers ending, I agree that Crimes of Passion shifts to a subtler, more character driven direction in its second half, but tonal shifts are kind of a Russel trademark. As Brandon addressed in his opening remarks, Russell loves to have trash coexist with highbrow art and all of his films have done this with varying degrees of success. (Crimes of Passion is definitely up there). For me, the real heart of Crimes of Passion lies in its subdued second half, as these deeply damaged characters come more into focus.

The scenes of Bobby and Amy’s crumbling marriage and China Blue meeting with a dying man, in particular, are outstanding and it’s refreshing to see Russell, whose stylistic tendencies can sometimes overpower his actors, give them center stage and let their performances drive the movie. Turner, Laughlin, and especially Perkins pull out all the stops (he apparently huffed real nitrous between takes), putting in more effort than maybe the film deserves. I say this because, in the end, I am skeptical that Russell had a clear message he was trying to convey with Crimes of Passion. Much of the film feels like Russell being a prankster provocateur, which is not to diminish the visceral, surreal experience of watching it.

Brandon, what do you think Ken Russell set out to do with Crimes of Passion? Was he trying to make a genuine statement about relationships and sex or is he merely being a “prankster provocateur”?

Brandon: My short answer would be that he’s doing a little bit of both. There is an undeniable central message to Crimes of Passion, it’s just not a particularly deep one. The film essentially boils down to the thesis that monogamy = bad. There’s a vivid contrast between the miserably drab home life of the central married couple and the wild escapist fantasies of China Blue’s sex work that intentionally makes seedy, New York City prostitution feel divine in comparison to the straight life’s cruel bickering. China Blue has fun with her stable of johns’ perversions, never arguing with them until the minute she has a truthfully passionate impulse and falls in love. That moment is what tips the film to the slower, more grounded second half, so in a way monogamous love even has the gall to spoil the fun of the film itself.

And then there’s Russell’s prankster sensibilities running rampant in details like Anthony Perkins’ deadly “superman” vibrator and a nameless john’s terrifying bait & switch rape fantasy mined for dark humor. Russell was nothing if not a series of absurd contradictions and the contrasting anti-monogamy message & sex-obsessed pranks of Crimes of Passion can best be observed in harmony in the film’s soundtrack. I wasn’t keeping a tally, but I want to say that the not-so-subtly sarcastic, anti-monogamy ditty “It’s a Lovely Life” plays more often in this film than “That Thing You Do!” plays in That Thing You Do! Every time I thought they were finally playing a new tune, a stray bar from the chorus of “It’s a Lovely Life” would interrupt and remind me that there really is only one song on the soundtrack, like the movie was one overlong, salacious music video for a parody of a rock song. I’m definitely willing to chalk up that effect to Russell being a “prankster provocateur” (nice descriptor for him, by the way).

Kenny, considering that Crimes of Passion was released just a few years after the launch of MTV, can you see ways in which it was influenced by the music video as a media format?

Kenny: This movie couldn’t be more MTV if it had a Billy Idol music set in the middle. The cinematographer’s love of neon had to be the envy of any 80’s music video director. Sharing what I like to call an “80’s noir” look with other films such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Weird Science and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, I can certainly see how the director would use the look of the film to amplify the fever dream feeling Britnee spoke of. However, nothing in the movie seemed more 80s than the performance from Tony Perkins.

Britnee, did you find Russell’s decision to cast Perkins to be a bit of type casting at play?

Britnee: Absolutely! Type casting is definitely something that I get annoyed with from time to time, but I’ll let it slide for this one because Perkins was disturbingly perfect as The Reverend; he was a complete psycho, so who would be better for this role than the original “Psycho“? As crazy as this may sound, I find Perkins much more terrifying in Crimes of Passion than he is in Psycho. He’s just as demented as Norman Bates, except he’s got a sick religious obsession with a hooker and a bag of dangerous sex toys.

Crimes of Passion is not a very popular film. Even just in the group of Ken Russell films, it’s still more unknown than others. I don’t understand why it’s so underrated because it’s actually an amazing film with a star studded cast. It doesn’t even have that much of a cult following, which absolutely blows my mind. This movie is perfect for elaborate midnight showings. Picture it, a crowd full of fans dressed as China Blue singing along to “It’s a Lovely Life”; it’s just meant to be.

James, why do you think Crimes of Passion wasn’t a a bigger hit? Why doesn’t it have a large cult following?

James: I totally agree that Crimes of Passion should have a much bigger cult following but I think the film’s bizarre mixture of sex, violence, and humor was probably a turn off to mainstream audiences in 1984 who were expecting a more straight forward erotic thriller. This is also the exact reason that I enjoyed the film so much and why I think the film would play better for audiences today who have a more ironic, postmodern sensibility.

Lagniappe

Brandon: In some ways “should’ve been more popular” feels like the story of not only Crimes of Passion, but of Ken Russell’s entire career. Sure, he had a huge hit on his hands with his The Who musical Tommy and I know he has his die-hard fans, but his name is not one you typically hear when weirdo auteur names like Cronenberg & Lynch get tossed around. His films The Devils, Lair of the White Worm, and Altered States are just as arresting & cerebral as anything in those directors’ repertoires. Crimes of Passion has a little bit of a lighter hand than these titles, but its affinity for cheap sex jokes makes it even more of an anomaly than some of his other works. Sex sells, after all. Russell should’ve been more of a household name and the playful sex-obsession of Crimes of Passion should’ve been his foot in the door.

Kenny: Crimes of Passion is a must see for any 80s film buff. The lighting, the set pieces and art design, along with the acting, will give any film fan the nostalgic feeling of watching the dream sequences of A Nightmare on Elm Street combined with the eroticism of The Red Shoe Diaries.

Britnee: Crimes of Passion was a hoot! It’s been well over a month since we all sat down to watch it, and I still catch myself singing “It’s a Lovely Life” while reminiscing about all the insanity that occurred in the film. Also, I’m just realizing how China Blue kind of looks like a sassier version of Disney’s Cinderella. I’m not sure if Russell did this for any reason whatsoever, but it’s just something to think about.

James: Overall, the film is nuts, features memorable performances, and deserves a rightful place among Ken Russell’s best work.

Upcoming Movie of the Months:
June: James presents Blow Out (1981)
July: Britnee presents Highway to Hell (1991)

It Follows (2015)

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Horror movie villains are often our sadistic, cinematic moral police, sent to punish the corrupt masses (especially attractive, fornicating teenagers) for their sinful behavior. The curse haunting the sex-obsessed teenagers in It Follows, however, is slower, more cerebral than Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. It values psychological over physical torture. Its horror is omnipotent, never ceasing. It’s the kind of moral police that watches you from behind a camera, following your every move.

At the center of the demon’s wrath is Jay, a 19 year old college student who enjoys her idyllic suburban neighborhood with her sister Kelly and friends Paul & Yara. They spend their fall days drinking on porches, watching 50s horror movies, taking collective naps. Innocent, naive, happy.

Their feeling of security is soon shattered following an initially innocent sexual encounter that ends with Jay being drugged with a heavy dose of chloroform. She wakes up half-naked, strapped to a chair, and told by her brief fling Hugh that she has been infected with a sexually transmitted curse. The curse can take any human form and stalks the stricken in calm walking tempo. Its touch means death. The only way to rid yourself of the curse is to pass it along to someone else. Have sex or be killed.

The ingenious premise of It Follows and strong stylistic vision of director David Robert Mitchell turn Jay’s mundane suburban surroundings into a playground for dark forces. The curse takes shape in variety of ways; an abnormally tall man with his eyes gouged, the methodical walk of a naked demon woman. As these terrifying images invade her picturesque world, the juxtaposition makes them even more disturbing. The way the story unfolds in It Follows keeps you intrigued but doesn’t go into too much detail about the true nature of the curse. This keeps the curse vague, menacing. A sense of permanent dread and anxiety hangs over the movie. Rich Vreeland, stage name Disasterpiece, also kills it with his strange, ominous soundtrack that is reminiscent of not only John Carpenter, but video game music as well.

It Follows doesn’t get everything right. It loses momentum at several points and builds toward a somewhat tepid climax, but these are small grievances. Overall it is an exceptional horror film that plays around with horror genre tropes, but feels modern instead of regressive. There is also potent subtext about the nature of our sexual attachments and intimacy anxieties. The film can also be interpreted as a metaphor for AIDS and other STDs. Other movies like the body horror flick Contracted (about a zombie STD) have also played around with these themes, but none feel as refreshingly original as It Follows. If nothing else, it’s a convincing argument for abstinence if I’ve ever seen one.

-James Cohn