Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2022)

It’s usually a meaningless cliché when people say they were born in the wrong era, but I would make an exception if I heard it from Ana Lily Amirpour.  Since her 2014 debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Amirpour has been making the exact kind of high-style, low-effort hangout indies that earned easy festival buzz in the slacker culture days of the 1990s.  Two films later, it’s getting frustrating to see her drag that proud burnout energy into the 2020s.  It makes sense that her debut was a small-scale genre picture that coasted on laidback cool, but her resources have expanded greatly since then and she’s still making low-effort slacker films with attention-grabbing premises and a snotty “Fuck you” attitude.  The only difference is she’s now armed with celebrity stunt-casting & more extravagant locales.  Her post-apocalyptic cannibal whatsit The Bad Batch remains the most frustrating waste of her Flashy Debut clout to date, but its follow-up telekinetic fairy tale Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is only a half-step up from that disappointment.  Like her previous two films, Mona Lisa leans back & hangs out in a way that makes you wonder why Amirpour is making high-concept genre films when she’d clearly have more fun making no-concept, character-driven comedies.  The marquee promises a bubblegum pop version of Scanners or The Fury, but Amirpour is more interested in making a neon-lit Clerks.

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon isn’t bad; it’s just a little underwhelming.  Imagine if Harmony Korine couldn’t afford to be choosy with his projects and settled for making a straight-to-Shudder Gen-Z update of Carrie for an easy paycheck.  The titular Mona Lisa is an escaped mental patient with violent impulses & telekinetic powers.  She’s effectively a blank slate, having grown up in a padded cell with nothing but a straitjacket & a prison cot to keep her occupied.  Like the DaVinci muse, that internal void invites strangers to project meaning & intent onto her, which says more about their worldview than it does about her own personality (especially the freaked-out cops who want to lock her back up and the scheming hustlers who exploit her powers for cash).  This is Horror of the Hassled, as all Mona Lisa really wants is to hang out, eat junk food, and watch trash TV.  Her potential for violent mayhem is only unleashed when people get in the way of those totally reasonable goals.  Instead of seeking revenge in a cathartic Carrie-on-prom-night showdown with all the jerks who hassle her, she seeks moments of calm at corner stores, laundromats, and TV-lit living room couches.  She’s an out-of-time 90s slacker hanging out in a city of desperate, scheming dirtbags who’d all be better off if they just keep their distance and let her vibe.

Although not a great film, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon was a great programming choice for opening this year’s Overlook Film Festival.  It’s steeped in plenty N’awlins Y’all flavor to acclimate tourists who traveled here for the fest – starting in the swamps outside the city during Mona Lisa’s initial escape before trudging its way down to Bourbon Street strip clubs, frog ribbits bleeding into grimy DJ beats.  It’s also commendable for offering substantial character-actor roles to Kate Hudson (as a Quarter-smart stripper) and Craig Robinson (as the only kind NOPD officer in the history of the department).  Surely there’s an audience out there hungering for Amirpour’s high-concept slacker thrillers, real freaks who’d love to see Joel Potrykus’s own no-effort comedies dressed up in dingy pop soundtracks & Rainbow Store fast fashions.  I most appreciated Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon as a collection of oddball characters in no rush to do anything in particular.  I, too, would love to live a junk-food life unhassled, downing cases of cheap bear in parking lots with metalhead burnouts and chomping my way through well-done hamburgers at the Claiborne Frostop.  I just wish Amirpour would move away from the vampires, cannibals, and telekinetic witches of her film’s flashy premises, since she doesn’t seem motivated to do anything exciting with those conceits.

-Brandon Ledet

A Great Lamp (2019)

This year’s New Orleans Film Festival was a 30th anniversary celebration, one that (in the social media marketing, at least) looked back at the festival’s gradual transformation from indie film & video showcase to increasingly massive Oscar-Qualifying institution. The no-budget feature A Great Lamp was an excellent programming choice for that occasion, then, as its sensibilities are evenly split between the early indie boom of the late 80s when the fest started and the radical earnestness of modern day. In look & texture, A Great Lamp feels akin to the aimless slacker comedies of yesteryear – the kind of deliberately apathetic, glibly existential art that put names like Jarmusch & Linklater on the map back when Independent Filmmaking was first becoming a viable industry. It’s got the handheld, high-contrast black & white look of a zine in motion (and I’m sure many a Clerks knockoff from festivals past), evoking a bountiful history of D.I.Y. no-budget art. However, in both tone & sentiment there’s no way the film could have bene made by previous generations of artful slackers, as its heart is clearly rooted in a 2010s sensibility.

A homeless, gender nonconforming punk named Max spends their structureless days wheat-pasting a flyer that memorializes their grandmother all over their sundrenched Southern town. Their aimless adventures committing petty, punk-af crimes like jaywalking, vandalism, and sleeping outside are interrupted when they meet a sharply dressed weirdo named Howie. Max is initially put off by Howie’s insistence that they attend a fabled rocket launch that will supposedly occur in three days’ time, but eventually the unlikely pair become incredibly intimate friends & collaborators. Their joint excursions around town frequently border on a mundane version of magical realism and are often interrupted by vignettes of a seemingly unrelated character suffering from the ennui of a much more privileged life, never truly coalescing into a coherent linear narrative. That aimlessness is intentional, of course, as waiting for that mythic rocket launch often feels like waiting for Godot. The unrushed, unfocused slacker vibe of this set-up might have been a patience-tester in any other modem return to Gen-X filmmaking, but Max’s exuberance & sweetness mutates the genre into an entirely new, exciting specimen. Max’s generosity toward Howie’s emotional wounds, their genuine eagerness for new loves & new adventures, and their exposed vulnerability as a grieving, lonely street kid are unusually earnest touches for this tried & true slacker formula. It’s like if Buzzard had a heart instead of a fart.

When director Saad Qureshi introduced the film at our screening, he said it was made during a particularly miserable summer for his social circle; making a movie just seemed like a great excuse to hang out with his friends. It’s likely that summer-bummer motivator and the crew’s total lack of production funds are what dictated the film’s throwback slacker aesthetic rather than any intentional exercise in 90s nostalgia. Still, they chose to accentuate that Gen-X patina by animating hand-drawn scratches & scuffs over the black & white digital images to simulate the look of a vintage 16mm cheapie. These meticulously applied “scratches” are fascinating to watch in a way that an editing filter approximating that same effect couldn’t be, as they often transform into crude animation artistry (provided by Max Wilde, who also performs as our eponymous hero), accentuating the film’s lowkey magical realist bent. This is a film that was made with no money and no real goal beyond making a film, any film, and so its existence is in itself a kind of minor miracle. Making any movie is always a triumph over frustration, logistics, and funding, so turning such limited resources into a work this heartfelt & nimbly crafted is a feat worth celebrating. Despite its modern earnestness, it’s the exact kind of D.I.Y. passion that’s been filtering through film festival lineups for as long as NOFF has been in existence – and with good reason. There’s apparently still new textures & sentiments to be mined from the time-honored slacker tradition.

-Brandon Ledet

Buzzard (2015)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Slacker culture is surely alive & well in 2015, but there was something unavoidably ubiquitous about 90s MTV slacker culture. Pretty much the definition of a low-stakes drama, Buzzard feels oddly old-fashioned in its portrayal of an apathetic underachiever, Marty, who feels like a cultural relic from a bygone lackadaisical era. Cheaply filmed and intentionally flat in style, Buzzard seemingly cares as little as Marty does, echoing his “It doesn’t matter” mantra with every fiber of its being. Buzzard portrays a world of petty victories & major losses where the odds are stacked so highly against Marty that he really has no incentive to try or care about anything and the movie itself has its own apathetic crisis in the same vein.

An angry, depressed loser with a go-nowhere job as a temp for a bank, Marty’s petty victories involve eating junk food, listening to metal, jumping on his bed, watching pornos while wearing a Halloween mask, and scamming suckers for small increments of cash. His half-assed scams typically pay off as long as the person on the other end cares as little about the transactions as he does. The problems that Marty faces only get rolling once the people he’s scamming start to care & take notice of his chump-change crimes. Marty amps up the damages of his mistakes as well when his most significant petty victory of all comes to fruition: a homemade Freddy Krueger glove that gives his “nothing matters” attitude some real-life consequences.

If Buzzard was intentionally looking to cultivate the 90s MTV slacker aesthetic it was astute in including outdated cultural markers like Nintendo NES, CD towers, and Freddy Krueger posters & merchandise. Although its ambitions & style feel like little more than a vintage throwback, its themes exploring the isolation of poverty, corporate culture, and poor mental health still resonate. Although it’s unlikely that Marty will ever approach anything that resembles a “successful” life, it’s still satisfying to watch him achieve short-term goals like the construction of his Krueger glove or eating a massive plate of spaghetti in a luxury hotel room. Due to Marty’s (and Buzzard’s) lack of motivation, regard, or enthusiasm for anything, it’s hard to celebrate too much of his life other than with surface-level observations like “Cool Demons t-shirt, dude,” but in a world where he has very little room to achieve much of anything, that line of shallow praise has considerable amount of significance.

-Brandon Ledet