Language Lessons (2021)

There was much attention paid to the dual achievements of Ridley Scott & Ryusuke Hamaguchi directing two films each in 2021, but I haven’t personally seen any of the four films they released last year (House of Gucci & The Last Duel and Drive My Car & Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, respectively).  However, I have seen the dual directorial debuts of actor-turned-auteur Natalie Morales, Plan B & Language Lessons – both released in 2021.  Plan B was the higher-profile release of the pair, boasting a larger budget and a substantial promotional push when it premiered on Hulu.  It’s a fun addition to the new wave of teen sex comedies that attempt to de-Porky’s the genre by giving girls’ libidos a spin at the wheel for a change (joining titles like Blockers, Booksmart, The To Do List, and Never Have I Ever). Language Lessons is a much smaller film in scope & cultural impact, both of which were restricted by circumstances of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  Filmed on laptops with an onscreen cast of two, Language Lessons finds Morales toying with the screenlife genre the same way she played around with the tropes of the teen sex comedy in Plan B.  There’s nothing flashy about her directorial style in either film, but she demonstrates a sharply tuned ear for comedic banter in both, which is especially evident in the film that is pure dialogue with no visual distractions from the script.

Mark Duplass stars as a nouveau riche Oakland hipster whose semi-famous husband buys him 100 Spanish language lessons as a surprise birthday gift.  His teacher is played by Morales herself, who’s much more protective of her personal life and is unsure how chummy she wants to be with a stranger she’ll be speaking to on a weekly basis for two solid years.  There are many barriers obstructing the mismatched pair’s path to a genuine friendship: their California/Costa Rica locations, their wealth/working class social statuses, their gringo/Latina cultural heritages, etc.  Gradually, though, the professional & transactional boundaries of their relationship break down and they become genuine, real-life friends – often through abrupt, shocking events in their lives off-screen.  The story is told entirely through Skype calls & video messages but doesn’t do anything remarkably unexpected with the screenlife format.  It’s just well written & performed enough to get by as a compelling one-on-one dialogue exchange, no visual embellishments necessary.  In comparison to other 2021 releases on similar topics, it doesn’t have quite as much to say about the transactional nature of modern online social life as Pvt Chat, but it’s a better attempt to remold dusty romcom tropes into a sincere story about friendship than Together TogetherPlan B is likely the 2021 Morales film that will be remembered & respected over time, but Language Lessons helps reinforce that her excellent dialogue & character work in that better-publicized debut was no fluke.

Sweeping Morales to the side for a second, Language Lessons does feel like a no-brainer Duplass Brothers project for the COVID era.  Not only was there a huge uptick in Duolingo users learning new languages in their idle time early in the pandemic (myself included, until Hurricane Ida power outages interrupted my momentum), but the safety protocols of COVID-era productions make for the exact kind of intimate indie dramas that the Duplasses cut their teeth producing.  At their best, Duplass productions are exciting reminders that just a couple people & a camera are more than enough resources to slap a decent movie together (as long as the script is strong).  Casting Mark as one of those two people in this instance makes Language Lessons feel like a wholesome counterpoint to Creep, a natural evolution of the exact kinds of movies they produce in normal circumstances anyway.  Morales is credited as the sole director of this production, but she shares the writing credit with Duplass, marking it as a true collaboration between them.  I’m not sure what she plans to accomplish as a filmmaker in the long term, but she had a great start in 2021 with two solidly entertaining, surprisingly political indie comedies released in the same calendar year.  Neither one is going to earn the level of attention the decades-established filmmakers Scott & Hamaguchi are enjoying but, again, she’s just getting started.

-Brandon Ledet

Belle (2022)

I went to see Mamoru Hosoda’s interpretation of Beauty and the Beast on the big screen solely because I recently enjoyed catching up with his 2006 debut (as a sole directorial voice) The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.  That introduction to Hosoda’s work should have primed me for the sci-fi spin the Japanese animator would put on that classic fairy-tale romance, but Belle was not at all the film I expected it to be.  Belle is a lot less about Beauty and the Beast and a lot more about The Internet than I was prepared for, which is fine by me, since I’m generally a huge sucker for Internet Age cinema anyway.  In this instance, Hosoda debates the merits & limitations of replacing in-the-flesh community with online engagement with the world at large.  He also uses the dreamscape visualizations of a pure cyberworld and the digi-humanoid avatars who populate it as an excuse to fill the screen with fun, excessively cute imagery for its own sake.  The result is a lot more exciting than a straight anime adaptation of Beauty and the Beast likely would have been, so it’s probably for the best that its supposed source material only accounts for roughly 15% of its sprawling plot.

The titular Belle is the online avatar for an anonymous, unpopular high school student who instantly becomes famous as a pop star after logging into the metaverse world of “U”.  Futuristic “bodysharing” technology allows U’s billions of users to be fully immersed in the senses & sensations of life online.  People still go to work & school in the physical world, but most social interaction & international celebrity is experienced in the digital one – like in The Congress, or like on Twitter.  Within U, Belle is the pop icon du jour, but she finds that she receives just as much cruelty from comment section trolls as she does adoration from her fans.  It’s still preferable to interacting with peers or adults in her real life, though, where her social anxiety and the very public history of her familial loss weighs heavily on her heart.  And at least as Belle she gets to wield her social capital for real world good: attempting to heal the broken heart of whatever similarly lonely teen is raging through U as The Beast.  Belle is both optimistic about and critical of what online community can achieve, and all the plot’s near-infinite twists & turns feel like a struggle to find a balance between that digital community and the one in “real” life.

I’m generally skeptical of modern anime’s need to supplement its traditional hand-drawn animation with CG backdrops & effects.  Hosoda gets away with it here by setting his coming-of-age sci-fi plot within a digital cyberworld, leaning into the uncanniness of the corner-cutting CG instead of excusing it for budgetary reasons.  Seeing it contrasted against a never-ending parade of trailers for shitty American cartoons in the theater certainly helped it stand out as an aesthetic object as well.  At least it’s constantly trying to look beautiful in every frame, as opposed to just seeking untapped IP sources that could be voiced by unenthused celebrites like Chris Pratt.  If anything, Belle is beautiful to the point of being sappy, but I cried at its emotional climax because I’m a total sap.  I can’t recall the last time an animated American film stirred up that emotional of a response in me purely through its visual artistry.  Maybe 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse?  And even that example has a much more limited imagination in straying from its already popular source material.

It’s probably for the best that Belle isn’t a direct Beauty and the Beast adaptation.  That French fairy tale already has a masterpiece adaptation in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version, a beautifully animated adaptation in Disney’s 1991 version, and a horrific imbalance between flesh & CGI in Disney’s 2017 version.  Hosoda borrows a few images & relationship dynamics from that frequently trodden tale, but he mostly uses Belle as an excuse to reflect on what community, celebrity, privacy, and bodily identity are going to mean in our near digi-future as most of our interpersonal interactions are ported online.  I’ll always champion movies that sincerely, creatively engage with internet culture as a valuable cinematic subject.  Even so, this one is more beautiful to gaze at than most, and I’m almost curious enough about what the English-language versions of its pop songs sound like to rewatch it dubbed while it’s still playing in theaters.

-Brandon Ledet

Pvt Chat (2021)

I got so wrapped up in reflecting on how Adam Sandler’s career & persona reshaped the Safdie Brothers’ usual schtick in Uncut Gems that I forgot to mention the true standout discovery among its many NYC-caricature performers: Julia Fox.  As Sandler’s breathy, pouty mistress/employee, Fox softened Uncut Gems‘s acidity with a much-needed sweetness you won’t find elsewhere in the film.  At the very least, she’s the only character who finds the continuous fuck-up anti-hero adorable instead of despicable, and it’s oddly cute watching her play moll to his delusions of mafioso grandeur.  Fox felt refreshingly authentic & eccentric in the same way a lot of the Safdies’ NYC caricatures do, except with an unusual star power that had me leaning in for more, unsure that more would ever arrive.

2021 has been a pretty decent year for Julia Fox’s post-Uncut Gems career.  Not only did she land a small role in Stephen Soderbergh’s star-studded neo-noir No Sudden Move, but she also found an opportunity to co-lead a feature film that plays directly into her strengths as a screen presence (and, thus, one that’s unavoidably reminiscent of the Safdies’ grimy NYC filmmaking style).  Pvt Chat is a grim internet-age romance starring Fox as a camgirl dominatrix with the world’s wormiest fuckboy client (Peter Vack).  She spends most of her screentime domming the porn & gambling addict from the safety of a webcam, taunting him, “spanking” him, and using his tongue as a virtual ashtray.  Even when she’s playing mean in these exchanges, there’s a sweetness to her persona that leaks out of her patent leather armor.  It’s a dangerous allure for her character, whose approachability inspires her online client to become her on-the-street stalker.  It’s a huge benefit to her as an actress, though, proving that her radiant performance in Uncut Gems was not a one-time anomaly.  Julia Fox is the real deal.

Pvt Chat is not so much a Safdies photocopy as it is pulling inspiration from the same independent NYC filmmaking subcultures that inspire them.  It drags the late-night grime & mania of New York City livin’ up the fire-escape and onto the laptop computer, icing down the city’s up-all-night genre traditions with the cold isolation of life online.  It’s classic No Wave filmmaking echoed in 1’s & 0’s; it’s Smithereens for the Pornhub commentariat.  Pvt Chat declares itself to be “a romance about freedom, fantasy, death, friendship.”  In truth, it’s more about how all modern relationships have been completely drained of their intimacy through our transactional, performative online interactions.  It presents a world where intimacy is an illusion for purchase, not an authentic shared experience.  Setting that crisis in a city overflowing with genuine, in-the-flesh people only makes it more tragic (and more perverse).

There are some instances in which Pvt Chat‘s nostalgia for independent NYC filmmaking of yesteryear gets in its own way.  In particular, the way Julia Fox gradually falls for her sadboy crypto-bro client feels like the kind of pure masturbatory fantasy that would’ve been much more common on the 1980s & 90s film festival circuit than it is now.  Imagine a boneheaded version of Taxi Driver where Cybil Shepphard & Robert DeNiro genuinely hit it off after their porno theatre date on 42nd Street.  Personally, that romantic development didn’t ruin the film for me.  It arrives after so many preposterous, manic decisions made by late-night lunatics that it felt oddly at home with the movie’s M.O.  More importantly, even when the doomed lovers do physically connect, the movie does not abandon its themes of isolation & performance.  It perverts the consummation of their shared desire in a way that still leaves them physically alone & unfulfilled.  Maybe the movie is all in service of a delusional fuckboy fantasy, but it at least seems aware of how pathetic & grim that fantasy is.

Even if the unlikely central romance of Pvt Chat is a turn-off for most audiences, the movie is still a worthy vehicle for Julia Fox.  She commands the screen (and the screen within the screen) with an infectious ease that still has me leaning in for more.  It’s incredibly cool that her acting career wasn’t limited to a one-off novelty; she’s a goddamn star.

-Brandon Ledet

Host (2020)

I’ve already spilled gallons of digital ink praising high-concept horror films about The Evils of The Internet and how technology is going to kill us all. I promise it’s not a bit. I’m genuinely enamored with movies that fully commit to an Online Horror gimmick, especially the ones that hone in on a specific app or social media platform for a temporal anchor (Skype in Unfriended, OnlyFans in Cam, CandyCrush in #horror, Snapchat in Sickhouse, Facebook timelines in Friend Request, etc.). The argument against the Online Horror gimmick is that it makes these films feel instantly dated, which I’d contend is more of a virtue than a fault. We spend so much of our modern lives online, navigating virtual spaces, that it feels outright dishonest that contemporary cinema would not reflect that digitized reality. Yet, it seems only gimmicky horror films are the ones brave enough to truthfully document & preserve our daily “lived” experience. They’re no more dated than Citizen Kane was for capturing the media mogul megalomania of contemporary figures like William Randolph Hearst or Casablanca was for reflecting America’s selfish isolationism in the earliest days of WWII. Evil Internet novelty horrors capture the moods & textures of our current era, where most of our lives play out in the eerie spaces beyond touchscreens & keyboards.

In that context, the new Shudder original Host is likely to remain one of the most vital, honest films released this year. Written, filmed, edited, and released in the months since the world went into lockdown for the current COVID-19 pandemic, Host is an instantly dated horror film and damn proud of it. Like the real-time Skype session gimmick of Unfriended (and plenty of other online found footage horrors besides), the film is staged as a fictional hour-long Zoom meeting. It’s a digital space many of us have had to become quickly acquainted with in recent months as working remotely has become more of a norm. Host smartly builds a lot of its scares around Zoom-specific quirks like the eeriness of lag time, the obscured view of pixilation, the uncanny-valley creepiness of artificial backgrounds & facial-recognition filters, and the feedback echo of a user logging into the same meeting on two separate devices. Its end credits are even scrolled through as a Zoom Participants list, which is a wonderfully thorough commitment to the premise. Other COVID-era details like a character scrambling to put on a face mask before fleeing out of their apartment or a young couple in quarantine becoming increasingly frustrated with each other’s constant presence drives home the nowness of the film even further for a shockingly unnerving experience. A decade from now (assuming we’re all alive a decade from now), this will be a priceless cultural time capsule of what life has been like this incredibly bizarre year. Of course, watching it while those wounds are still fresh only makes it more perversely fun & horrific in the interim.

Story-wise, there’s not much going on here that hasn’t already been accomplished in Unfriended (or Unfriended 2: Dark Web or Searching or The Den or so on). If anything, this is basically just a kinder, gentler Unfriended with genuinely likeable characters. That doesn’t necessarily make it an improvement on the formula, but it at least opens it up to a different flavor palate. A group of college-age women gather in a Zoom meeting for an online séance led by a spiritual guide who becomes disconnected mid-call, leaving them vulnerable to whatever ghosts or demons they may have conjured in the process. They’re generally likeable kids, and their only sin, really, is not taking the idea of an online séance very seriously (a sentiment likely shared by most of the film’s audience), which results in supernatural backlash from spirits on the other side of barrier between realms. Once the spirits start punishing these women for their careless indulgences in sarcasm & edgelord humor (they seem to be particularly miffed about a tasteless suicide joke), the movie mostly devolves into a series of haunted house gags where each Zoom participant is snuffed out one by one. The scares are impressively staged, combining practical & computerized effects to really stretch how much can be collaboratively achieved in a social-distance lockdown. And, honestly, it’s impressive that anything was achieved at all, considering how difficult it’s been to complete simple tasks and function as a human being in recent months.

Perhaps the most COVID-aware aspect of Host is that it’s only an hour long, which graciously accommodates how scattered & limited our attention spans have been since the world stopped in its tracks. Even if you’re not fully convinced that this kind of high-gimmick novelty horror about The Evils of The Internet is worthy of your attention, that hour-long commitment is such a small ask. It’s unlikely that we’ll see another feature film this year that so directly, accurately captures what life is like right now, and I’m honestly not shocked that my beloved Online Horror subgenre was the engine that got us there. It’s perfectly suited for that kind of of-the-moment documentation, with plenty of other entertaining payoffs besides.

-Brandon Ledet

Jezebel (2019)

I first heard of the new memoir drama Jezebel when the writer-director-star of the film, Numa Perrier, was interviewed on an episode of the Switchblade Sisters podcast this summer, discussing how the deeply personal project came to be. It’s near-impossible to resist the film’s premise as “a true story” wherein Perrier looks back to her teen years in the late 1990s, when her older sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work. The context & conflict of that premise is only made more intriguing by the fact that Perrier performs in the film herself as that older sister character, making the project as personal & intimate of an account as possible. What surprised me most about the film when it screened at the New Orleans Film Fest after months of anticipation was how sweet & delicate it was willing to be with its subject despite its creator’s obvious closeness to its emotionally raw context. Perrier doesn’t shy away from the exploitation or desperation that fueled her sex work as a cash-strapped, near-homeless teen, but she’s equally honest about the joy, power, and self-discovery that line of work opened up to her at the time, making for a strikingly complex picture of an authentic, lived experience.

Thematically, Jezebel falls somewhere between the poverty-line desperation of The Florida Project and the tense online sex work fantasy realms of Cam, but it’s not nearly as aggressive as either of those predecessors in terms of style or sensibility. Mostly, we follow the fictional Tiffany (who performs under the titular stage name Jezebel) as she ping-pongs between two suffocating, cramped locales: an extended-stay hotel room in Vegas and a nearby office space that’s been converted into an online pleasure dome. She has zero privacy in either her work or home life, where her “alone time” & her professional sex acts are quietly under surveillance by authority figures in just the other room. Understandably, a lot of the emotional drama is centered on her relationship with her older sister, who’s ultimately doing the best she can to equip the youngster with a self-sustaining skill (one the sister picked up herself over years of working dial-up hotlines). What’s more striking than that increasingly tense relationship, however, is Tiffany’s relationship with her own body & inner desires. The circumstances of how she got roped into sex work are far short of ideal, but she quickly comes to enjoy the freedom, power, confidence and expanding sexual passions the profession offers her – in a relatively low-stakes form of sexual labor she’s careful not to escalate. That conflict between desperation & autonomy rages throughout the movie, but it is mostly contained under a wryly humorous, surprisingly sweet surface.

While it’s nowhere near as deliberately horrifying as the chat sessions in Cam, Jezebel does a great job of distinguishing both the dangers & escapist fantasies inherent to working as a camgirl. The flood of unfiltered, hedonistic comments from anonymous men online are an overwhelming menace here, something Tiffany is especially vulnerable to as the only black girl working at her jobsite. There’s also just something horrific about how devastatingly young she looks as a 19-year-old babe in the woods who’s treating this incrementally risky line of work as a self-discovery playground. Watching her learn to wield power over her clients (one of them voiced by eternal sleazebucket Brett Gelman) or developing an internal sexual persona of her own, you can tell that working as a camgirl has overall been a genuine good in her life, but it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact that you’re watching a vulnerable child navigate potentially dangerous waters that are gradually rising above her head.

Perrier’s experience in the field is fascinating for the period-specific details of how early webcam lag, lack of audio, and chatroom etiquette informed the first wave of camgirl artistry (which mostly amounted to pantomimed sex acts instead of The Real Thing). Where Jezebel really shines, though, is in how the complexity of larger themes like familial politics, racial othering, financial power dynamics, and self-discovery are effortlessly, subtly weaved into a story that could have so easily been played for flashy shock value. Few things about this scenario are easy or fair, but Perrier finds plenty of room to convey a full inner life for her semi-fictional teenage surrogate, including touching bouts of joy, tenderness, and self-fulfillment despite the subject’s potential for pure exploitation and despair.

-Brandon Ledet

Countdown (2019)

My eternal amusement with the Killer Internet gimmick in modern horror bows to no one else’s. A few brave souls will stick out their necks for the Skype horror gimmick of Unfriended, the chatroom horror gimmick of Cam, and the Pokémon Go horror gimmick of Nerve, but it takes an even sturdier love of the genre to appreciate the really trashy shit: the Snapchat horrors of Sickhouse & Truth or Dare?, the Facebook timeline horrors of Friend Request, the Candy Crush nightmare of #horror, etc. This is my cinematic junk food – my personal version of the straight-to-Netflix romcom or the Adam Sandler yuck-em-up. I do believe the Killer Internet genre has an inherent value as a cultural time capsule just as much as it does as mindless entrainment, though, especially when it’s at its least discerning. This genre is doing more to preserve what our daily lives online look & feel like than any respectable Prestige Drama would dare; its assumed frivolity as an instantly dated novelty will only prove more academically useful with time, as these films are essentially archiving our cultural experience with modern user interface tech. Enter the killer-smartphone-app thriller Countdown: another silly-ass technophobic horror specimen to add on top of this cursed data pile, and another excuse for me to go to bat for a genre no one else seems to value as much as we all should.

The online ghoul-du-jour in Countdown is a demon who haunts a free smartphone app. This titular app is a countdown clock that tells you exactly how long you have left to live, which could be 60 years or 60 hours, depending on your pre-determined fate. Unremarkable archetype characters download the app in groups at parties & workplace breakrooms, having a laugh at the arbitrary estimation of how much time they have left alive on Earth. Only, the countdown clock proves to be eerily accurate, which isn’t so funny for the unfortunate souls who happen to download it the very night they’re fated to die. Armed with this cosmically privileged information on their impending doom, they naturally attempt to avoid their fate in a myriad of futile schemes: changing their travel pans to avoid train wrecks & car crashes, hacking into the app’s code to add time to their ticking clocks, commissioning a priest to wage battle with the dark forces that haunt their phones, etc. Unfortunately, these half-cooked maneuvers only serve to summon an ancient demon who strikes them down at their exact predetermined time of death anyway. Bummer. Between the hospital setting & college campus environment its main “character” frequents and the inevitability of fated Death that haunts her, there’s nothing especially new to Countdown that you won’t find done better in the Happy Death Day or Final Destination franchises. Its only value is its novelty as an entry in the Evil Internet canon, then, which it contributes to in a few key ways.

Countdown’s central gimmick obviously exaggerates the uncertainty of downloading an untrustworthy app to your phone, not knowing what viruses may accompany it to threaten your data security (and, apparently, your life). It doesn’t help that the app somehow has a 3.6 approval rating despite literally murdering people, so you can’t event trust its user feedback. Worse yet, once downloaded it will not allow you to uninstall it from your device, nor can you mute its notifications. For an unsavvy luddite like myself, there’s a unique menace to not being able to mute the loud, horrific noises that come out of my evil, dumb phone – settings that seemingly revert back to their top-volume horror with every automatic app update. I’ve never seen such a relatable mundane horror from my daily life represented onscreen. Most importantly, Countdown hinges its demonic smartphone possession premise on the eerie unknown realm of User Agreement text – the Terms & Conditions scroll that no one ever reads, to the point where we’re giving strange malevolent forces free rein over our personal data so that we can share cutesy memes about Millennial ennui or whatever. Every single character who downloads the Countdown app is explicitly agreeing to being hunted down by the Countdown demon, which they do automatically without pause. If that’s not the most universally relatable shit that could be exploited in horror, it’s only because you’ve never added an unnecessary app to your smartphone. I commend you for that; you’re are much stronger willed than I am.

There’s a lot about this movie that feels half-cooked: a #metoo subplot that’s not taken seriously enough to justify its discomfort; a PG-13 level body count that’s not brutal enough to overpower the skeptical hurdle most audiences will have with this silly of a premise; the sub-gimmick of a car backup cam jumpscare, which really deserves its own feature lengthy movie (that apparently only I will enjoy). Still, as the only mainstream, over-the-plate horror move tossed into wide release the week of Halloween, I very much appreciate that Countdown found new ways to expand the boundaries of the Killer Internet genre by documenting & exploiting the most mundane annoyances of daily smartphone app use. Cinema is an excellent way for us to record & reflect the full spectrum of the human experience, and we’re very unlikely to ever see an Oscar Bait drama handle topics as pedestrian as unmutable app notifications, unreadable user agreement text, and untrustworthy app store review ratings. That work, documenting the real nitty gritty of daily life in the 2010s, is left to noble trash like Countdown.

-Brandon Ledet

Rukus (2019)

A lifetime ago, I used to be friends with the Memphis filmmaking collectives behind the microbudget docudrama Rukus. They were making backyard movies as long as I’ve known them, from music video fan art to thematically daring documentaries to an ambitious feature-length fairy tale titled What I Love About Concrete (that felt like a breakthrough achievement for the crew). Rukus is a different beast entirely, not least of all in its personal, diary-like confessions of central contributor Brett Hanover as the film’s writer-director, with the rest of the collective (mainly Alanna Stewart & Katherine Dohan of Do You Know Where Your Children Are? Productions) taking on a myriad of supportive filmmaking duties – music, sound, cinematography, assistant-direction, etc. This sense of a long-lasting community collaborating on a single project over many years of spare weekends & rigidly structured “free time” affords Rukus a sense of depth in both subject & emotion, especially in how it tracks Hanover’s own maturity from high school sexual anxiety to a more confident, adult sense of self-understanding over what feels like fifteen years of footage & backstory. It’s over that exact span of time that I have drifted away from this community myself, to the point where I’m so far outside their orbit now I’m hesitant to suggest I have the right to still call them friends – even if “acquaintances” sounds too cold. I also don’t believe it’s extratextual to mention my fading personal connection to the filmmakers here or to recount their backstory as a microbudget filmmaking collective, as Rukus is a film about communities & intimate connections, both online and in the flesh (and fur). Like all great documents of personal importance, it has universal implications about relationships we’ve all had over the internet & irl; we all already know the players in Rukus, whether or not we’ve actually met them.

It’s important to mention the universality of Rukus’s themes of isolation, community, maturity, and self-harm upfront, because its on-paper premise indicates that it’s about something far more niche: furries. The most flippant (and inaccurate) way you could describe Rukus would be to contextualize it as the furries equivalent of the Netflix documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony. That might have even been Hanover’s original intent when he first documented a Memphis furries convention for a high school photography project in the aughts: a fascinated, but detached interrogation of furry culture that borders uncomfortably close to a gawking “Getta load of this freak show!” voyeurism. Smartly, Hanover instead shifts this eagerness to gaze at human oddities inward – confronting his initial impulse to engage with furry culture from the academic distance of an “anthropological observer” as a self-serving lie. Anyone looking for a culture-gawking doc on furry conventions is going to be disappointed by the breadcrumb trail of information Rukus leaves behind as it prods at something much more personally vulnerable & ambitious. I was frequently reminded throughout of Nathan Rabin’s (excellent) book You Don’t know Me but You Don’t Like Me, in which the pop culture critic learns almost too much about his own mental & emotional health while attempting to cheekily document the often-mocked subcultures of Phish & Insane Clown Posse fandoms, only to become a member of both communities himself. Hanover’s personal journey as the loudest creative voice & most central subject of Rukus parallels Rabin’s across two entirely separate communities: his irl Memphis friends who are directly confronted with his OCD & sexual hang-ups and an online contingent of furries whose digital anonymity offers a freer, more accepting playground where he can find himself. Larger themes of kink power dynamics, queer identity, depression, romance, abuse, and self-harm emerge over the long haul of the story’s over-sprawling narrative, but it’s all anchored to that pursuit of finding intimate connections & personal fulfillment while navigating the needs & politics of the communities that are willing to put up with you – furries and beyond.

The thematic ambition & personal vulnerability of Rukus is evenly matched by the film’s own formal adventurousness. It initially presents itself as a documentary on Hanover’s interaction with real-life furries (with a particular focus on his relationship with the titular self-published furry artist Rukus), but as it unravels the question of what is & what isn’t real becomes muddled to the point of not mattering at all. There are moments of pure fantasy represented through hand-drawn sketchbook animation and childhood fursona dreamscapes that recall the immersive artworlds of films like Paperhouse & MirrorMask. Outside those forays into escapist magic, though, the question of what’s “real” is much more deliberately confused. Real-life footage & interviews mix freely with dramatic reenactments and intangible online personae to test the boundaries of what could be considered a “documentary.” It’s a dissociative tactic that evokes the feeling of looking at the world through a video camera – a remove that’s echoed in the film’s multimedia indulgences in laptop-lit stage plays, webcam cinematography, and crudely drawn outsider art. It’s also a fitting approach for conveying the emotional lives & development of its subjects: furries that express their truest selves through the remove of carefully-sculpted costumes & online avatars and the director’s own expression of his sexual & romantic impulses through a detached “academic” interest in niche fetish communities outside his comfort zone. I’ve seen plenty of recent documentaries that blur the line between reality & crafted narrative in this way Rat Film, Swagger, and The World is Mine to name a few. The overall effect of Rukus is something much more personal & vulnerable than what those dramatically obscured titles offer, though. It reaches more for the unembarrassed emotional exhibitionism of Josephine Decker’s (criminally underrated) project Flames: the volatile self-revelation of reading your private diary’s most intimate passages at top volume in a public space.

It’s doubtful that if Rukus were an outside-observer’s anthropological examination of furry culture it would have meant as much to the community it depicts. I doubt Bronies gather around to watch that Netflix documentary as a community, for instance, whereas past public screenings listed on Rukus’s website (where you can now watch the film in its entirety, for free) include multiple furry conventions. It’s tough to suppose whether that’s because Hanover & the Do You Know Where Your Children Are? crew tapped into something deeply true about furries in particular or if the movie moreso taps into something universally true about the roles of community & identity in our larger modern digital hellscape while inviting furries along for the ride. Either way, it’s the exact kind of ambitious, challenging filmmaking you’d hope to see from no-budget outsider artists passionate about their craft but locked outside official means of production. I’m proud to have ever been even on the periphery of a community this empathetic, inclusive, and vulnerably honest, even if time has eroded those connections to the point where we’re total strangers only flimsily tethered to our shared past online.

-Brandon Ledet

Child’s Play (2019)

I honestly have no idea why Orion Pictures bothered slapping the Child’s Play brand name on this evil-doll horror comedy, beyond the easy box office returns of its name recognition and the fact that its parent company, MGM, owned the rights. With a quick redesign of the killer Chucky doll and a few nodding references to the original franchise removed, Child’s Play (2019) could easily transform from a deviant remake of a beloved genre relic into an entirely new evil-doll franchise of its own design. Protective, enthusiastic fans of the original Don Mancini series have been cautions to support this corporate retooling of the director’s work, since he’s built a long-running series of passionate, campy, queer horror novelties out of the bizarro slasher premise for decades (with Brad Dourif in tow as the voice of the killer doll for the entire run). I can see how outside voices dialing the Chucky brand back to its origins for a franchise-resetting remake could feel like a betrayal to longtime superfans (especially since series steward Mancini is still making films & television shows featuring Dourif’s version of Chucky to this day). For casual fans like me, however, this MGM-sponsored blasphemy is an exciting development in Chucky lore. This is the exact right way to pull off a worthwhile remake: return to the original germ of an idea, strip away everything else, and then build something so new around it that it’s hardly recognizable. The 2019 Child’s Play remake would have been much more upsetting to me if it were a mindless, risk-adverse retread of what Mancini had already accomplished. Thankfully, it’s instead entirely its own thing separate from Mancini’s work, the ideal template for a decades-later revision.

While the 2019 Child’s Play is a drastic deviation from the 1988 original in terms of plot & tone, it does ultimately amount to a similar effect. This feels like the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flicks kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them at too young of an age on cable. In addition to borrowing the Child’s Play brand name, this film also makes direct references to other titles in that exact inappropriate-kids’-horror-canon: The Texas Chain Massacre II, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, RoboCop, etc. In that way, it reminds me more of what Charles Band accomplished with Full Moon Entertainment (which is overflowing with straight-to-VHS titles about killer dolls) than it does Mancini’s work under the Chucky brand. Like most of the Full Moon catalog, Child’s Play ’19 is a violent, R-Rated horror film that perversely feels like it was intended for an audience of children, which will have to sneak their way into a movie theater (or access to unsupervised late-night streaming) to enjoy it. That’s why I was bummed to see so few pro critics & Letterboxd mutuals have a good time with this over-the-top shlock. It’s so blatant about its efforts to tap back into the goofy, childlike imagination of the straight-to-VHS nasties of yesteryear that it even makes fun of the inane “That would never happen!” complaint that’s frequently lobbed at these things in the 2010s (during a slumber party screening of Texas Chainsaw Massacre II). I was saddened, then, to see real-life movie nerds critique the film for being silly & illogical as if those weren’t its selling points. As a collective audience, we could all benefit from lightening up & going with the flow instead of straining to “outsmart” the exact kind of genre candy we used to enjoy back when we had an imagination. It’s fucked up to say so, but I hope the right kids find this film at an inappropriate age, just like how I found titles like The Dentist & The Lady in White too young in my own day.

Mark Hamill takes over the vocal booth duties from Bard Dourif in this iteration, performing Chucky as a more of a Teddy Ruxpin cutie gone haywire than a misogynist murderer on bender. That’s because the remake drops the original film’s premise of a serial killer installing their own damned soul into a doll’s body via a mysterious Voodoo ritual in favor of something more “modern”: my beloved The Internet Is Trying To Kill Us horror subgenre. Newcomer director Lars Klevberg updates Chucky to the 2010s by giving him a Luddutian makeover as a malfunctioning piece of future-tech. The killer doll isn’t Evil, necessarily. Rather, he’s a symptom of what goes wrong when we automate too much of our daily lives, submitting our autonomy to computers in exchange for comfort. The Buddi doll is now a home appliance connected to every other automated tech in your house: lights, thermostats, self-driving cab services, home-use surveillance drones, The Cloud etc. When one of these dolls inevitably goes haywire through faulty programming, these conveniences now become an arsenal to dispose of humans who dare get in the way of his friendship with this “best buddy” (the child who owns him). Chucky himself has become a real-life horror of technology as well, as the animatronic puppet used in the film has been smoothed out into a distinct Uncanny Valley look that’s frequently bolstered with cheap CGI – meaning he’s often creepy though the limitations of his animation as much as anything else. It’s up to a ragtag group of neighborhood tykes to stop the doll before he causes too much havoc with all this future-tech, as the adults in their lives don’t believe something so innocent-looking & benign as a Buddi doll could possibly be responsible for the community’s murders. Similarly, it’s up to the kids in the audience (who really shouldn’t be there, the scamps) to preserve this deeply silly film’s legacy, since adults’ lack of imagination is failing them in real life too.

It would be easy to confuse the new Child’s Play for one of those standard modern-era remakes of 80s horror classics that mistake an origin story for the killer and a more generally self-serious, muted tone as an “improvement” in revision. This is a major studio production after all, one with recognizable faces like Aubrey Plaza & Brian Tyree Henry lurking in the cast. I was delighted to discover, then, that it’s something much stranger & more unapologetically goofy than that: a film that’s too violent for children but far too silly for adults, the exact formula that made early Child’s Play movies cult classics in the first place. There may be some 2010s-specific updates to the material in the technophobia of Chucky’s design and the Adult Swim-type glitch edits & meme humor that accompanies it, but otherwise this feels like a perfect 80s horror throwback. It recalls the over-the-top delirium of basic cable & VHS horror from the era, while also exceeding as an entirely new, silly thing of its own design. It’s damn fun, an it’s a damn shame how few people have remembered how to have fun with ludicrous genre films of its ilk.

-Brandon Ledet

Cam (2018)

I’m not sure how useful an endorsement for the technophobic camgirl thriller Cam will be coming from me, but I’ll gladly gush over the film anyway. Between its Unfriended-style user interface horror about the Evils of the Internet and its smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace, the movie is so extremely weighted to things I personally love to see in cinema that my adoration for it was practically predestined. A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam was custom-built to be one of my favorite films of the year just on the strengths of subject matter & visual aesthetics alone. It’s only lagniappe, then, that the film is excellently written, staged, and performed – offering a legitimacy in craft to support my default-mode appreciation of its chosen thematic territory. Even if you’re not a trash-gobbling Luddite like myself who rushes out to see highly-questionable titles like #horror, Friend Request, and Selfie from Hell with unbridled glee, Cam in still very much worth your time as one of the more surprisingly thoughtful, horrifically tense genre films of the year. It’s an exceptionally well-constructed specimen of a still-burgeoning genre I’d love to see evolve further in its direction, a perfect example of how the Internet Age horror could (and should) mutate into a new, beautiful beast.

Madeline Brewer stars as an ambitious camgirl clawing her way up the rankings on her host site, Free Girls Live, by putting special care into the production values of her online strip sessions. The opening minutes of Cam borrow a page from Wes Craven’s Scream, delivering a tightly-constructed short film version of what an effective Unfriended-style camgirl horror movie might look like. After that five-minute horror show meets its natural, nightmarish conclusion, the narrative spirals out from there to detail how the camgirl’s attention-gabbing stripshow stunts put her at risk from anonymous online attackers. In a Body Double-mode De Palma plot matched by no other thriller this year (except maybe Double Lover) and no cyberthriller ever (except maybe Perfect Blue), our camgirl protagonist finds herself locked out of her Free Girls Live account and replaced by an exact, menacing replica of herself who has taken over her show (and, by extension, her digital tip money). The mystery of who or what this doppelganger is and the Kafkaesque battle to reclaim her online identity from it push Cam into the realm of the supernatural, but each of its threats & scares remain firmly rooted in the real-word concerns of online sex work. Much like how Assassination Nation exploited the horrors of private data leaks to expose America’s (already barely concealed) misogyny, Cam does the same with hacked accounts & the vulnerabilities of stripping for cash, whether online or in the flesh.

Co-written by former camgirl Isa Mazzei, and with key sexualized scenes co-directed by Brewer herself, Cam seeks an authentic, collaborative depiction of the anxieties involved in online sex work. Being stalked by clients irl, suffering sex-shaming embarrassments from friends & family, being bombarded with abusive feedback (often in the form of low-grade .gifs) when all you’re offering is companionship & intimacy (for $$$): Cam covers a wide range of industry-specific anxieties that afford its thriller plot a very specific POV. Where that perspective really shines is in the protagonist’s up-font announcement of her don’ts & won’ts (recalling Melanie Griffith’s infamous monologue in Body Double): no public shows, no saying “I love you” to clients, no faked orgasms. Much of Cam’s horror is in watching her online doppelganger systematically violate each one of those ground rules without discretion, eroding the boundaries she had set for herself in the camgirl arena. This is not a cautionary tale about why you should not participate in online sex work, but it does play into anxieties & threats associated with the profession – both external ones form boundary-crossing clients and internal ones in watching those boundaries chip away.

As a cyberthriller about the Evil Internet, Cam excels as an exploitation of our fears of the digital Unknown just as well as any film I’ve ever seen—Unfriended included. The digital grain of the camgirl’s neon-pink broadcast set (a disturbing mixture of infantile stuffed-animals girls’ décor & professional kink gear) combines with an eerie assault of laptop-speaker message notifications to isolate our haunted protagonist in a physical chatroom that feels stuck between two realms – the online & the irl. It’s the most high-femme version of cyber-horror I’ve seen since Nerve (another thriller where an isolated young woman escalates the dangers of her online activity for money & attention), including even the Heathers-riffing vibe of Assassination Nation. Cam’s production design smartly toes the line between believable camgirl production values and a surreal, otherworldly realm where anything is possible. In this dreamy headspace, a hacked account feel like more than just a hacked account; it feels like someone reaching through the screen to steal an essential part of her being, like a digital curse in an Internet Age fairy tale. Part of the fun (and terror) of its central mystery is in knowing the possibilities are endless in that metaphysical realm, although with real-life ramifications echoed in the one we’re living in.

I can’t guarantee you’ll be as deeply smitten with Cam as I am. I’ve been known to praise lesser cyber-horrors like the Snapchat-hosted Blair Witch riff Sickhouse, while also complaining at length about more crowd-pleasing specimens like the cowardly cop-out Searching. The good news is that giving Cam a shot is relatively low-effort & low-risk; it’s a 90min watch acquired by Netflix from the festival circuit for online streaming perpetuity. The next time you’re looking for a lean, lewd, Luddite entertainment, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. In my mind, it’s clearly one of 2018’s most outstanding releases, regardless of my affinity for its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Is the Unfriended Gimmick Growing Up or Going Stale?

It should be no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this site than I’m a massive fan of the 2015 found footage cyber-horror Unfriended. That Blumhouse production has become an exceptionally useful touchstone when describing my beloved Evil Internet horror genre, which exploits the average user’s vague understanding of the mechanics of the Internet for easy, eerie scares of the unknown. Shot from the POV of a laptop screen, where all images & sounds are generated by applications like Skype, Facebook, and Windows Media Player, operated by an unseen user, Unfriended is the epitome of the Evil Internet cyber-horror. Its full-on dedication to its commanding gimmick both creates an eerie recognition in its audience of what daily life online looks & feels like (give or take a vengeful computer-ghost) and preserves that cultural experience in a user interface time capsule in a way more “respectable” cinema wouldn’t dare. As was inevitable, this once-fresh, of-the-moment laptop interface gimmick has since been assimilated into more consciously diluted works. For years, I’ve been taken with Unfriended-style documentation & exploitation of user interface horror in trashier genre fare: the way Sickhouse recreates The Blair Witch Project in Snapchat posts; the way Nerve turns online games like Pokémon Go into voyeuristic horror shows; the way #horror finds unexpected terror in the sugary inanity of emojis & CandyCrush, etc. These shamelessly trashy tactics have shown no sign of slowing down in the lower dregs of genre cinema, but 2018 has seen a major change to the Evil Internet user interface horror that I was dreading: my preciously guarded subgenre is gradually going mainstream.

Curiously enough, you can detect this dilution of the Unfriended gimmick even in Unfriended 2: Dark Web, the film’s recent sequel. The usual tactic of sequels to low-budget, high concept horror curios is to avoid redundancy by pushing the original premise to a greater extreme (even if only in extremity of gore). Dark Web shies away from that challenge and instead makes its central conceit more palatable for the average moviegoer. Like in the first Unfriended film, a group of online teens in a shared Skype chat are terrorized by forces beyond their control, held hostage before their monitors at the threat of death. Instead of an all-powerful computer ghost threatening their lives, however, the kids of Dark Web are tormented by a vast network of powerful lurkers on the dark net – real life, evil reprobates who can seemingly hack into anything electronic to dispose of their victims. In any other context, that would be a preposterous, over-the-top premise for a horror film. As a follow-up to the computer ghost hauntings of the first Unfriended film, however, it feels like a conscious toning down of a supernatural conceit some audiences felt went too far. Dark Web is likely a far better gateway film to appreciating the gimmicky cyber-horror genre as a result, but its dilution of the Unfriended premise’s supernatural horror makes it less distinct or useful as an isolated example of that genre. The first Unfriended bests its sequel in its audacity to reach beyond the real-life limitations of the internet by melding the technological with the supernatural. In its own references to the dark net’s ties to ancient mythology and in its villains’ deployment of impossible identity-obscuring glitch software, Dark Web teases notes of supernatural forces at work in its online hostage crisis, but those aspects of the conflict mostly amount to go-nowhere intimidation tactics used by its in-the-flesh cyber-criminals. It’s almost as if the movie were too embarrassed to fully commit to those supernatural conceits, and it feels all the weaker for it.

Any nitpicking complaints I may have about Unfriended: Dark Web are likely a result of my too-high personal esteem for the genre territory it echoes without expansion or evolution. Ultimately, it’s a solid Evil Internet technohorror that might even be a boon for the genre in its potential to reel in new fans. I cannot say the same for the recent hit cyberthriller Searching, which outright apologizes for the trashiness of the user interface horror as a concept in its (successful) bid to reach a wide audience. In Searching, John Cho plays a single, widower father using context clues from his missing daughter’s laptop to investigate her disappearance. The film uses the same tactics & efforts pioneered in Unfriended to tell its Lifetime Original-ready story, but with an added layer of cowardice. Afraid to allow the audience to search for their own point of focus as its twisty story unfolds, the film directs the eye by zooming in to make active cursors & text boxes take up the entire screen, as if it were worried that the grandma in the back of the theater’s eyesight would prevent her from following along. This affords the film the patina of a TV commercial for an operating system, which isn’t surprising given director Aneesh Chaganty’s background as a tech bro Google employee. The film’s cowardice extends far beyond its advertising aesthetic & lack of commitment to its user interface gimmick too (which it also cheats on by incorporating news footage & Google Maps graphics). Searching is a thriller that’s afraid of danger. It teases threats of what parents fear their kids might be up to online (gambling, hiding sexual affairs, drug trade, secret identities) but then defangs each danger seconds after introducing them to reinforce that “The kids are alright” & the Internet is a tool for Good just as much as it is a tool for Evil (if not more so). This should be a genre that preys on the eeriness of life online, but here plays like a tech-friendly advertisement. It’s cleaning up a trashy genre I love for its illogical fearmongering by turning it into a safe, This Is Us-style melodrama. Basically, it’s Unfriended for the corniest of suburban parents, an embarrassment to the user-interface cyberthriller – and its being met with the greatest praise the genre has seen to date.

I’m not entirely against Unfriended user interface horrors evolving & maturing in less gimmicky, more respectable corners of indie cinema. It’s a mode of filmmaking I believe could be useful in any modern-set film’s toolkit, as evidenced by recent films like Eighth Grade & Ingrid Goes West that depict troubled protagonist’s emotional unraveling through their immersion in Instagram feeds. The Instagram scroll set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” in Eighth Grade is especially striking, layering imagery into a beautifully eerie cyber psychedelia that stands out as one of the year’s most distinct cinematic Moments. That Instagram immersion & the film’s mood-setting YouTube tutorial videos don’t comprise the entirety of Eighth Grade’s visual or emotional substance, but rather serve as just one tool in its arsenal, ready to be deployed when helpful. It’s in this way that trashier genre fare like Unfriended has become useful in its influence. It was once gauche to heavily incorporate user interface imagery in a proper movie, but the trash-horror soldiers have since laid the groundwork at the frontlines to normalize & develop that tactic. For Eighth Grade or Ingrid Goes West to incorporate that imagery into less genre-faithful narratives means the tactic is maturing in a useful, rewarding way that can only benefit the future of modernist cinema. What’s much less useful is when a film like Searching dilutes Unfriended’s exact tactics at feature length with wide-audience friendly sappiness stripping the original work of its riskier gambles to make its gimmick more palatable. Even Unfriended: Dark Web is guilty of this dilution, although to a lesser extent. By normalizing the Unfriended gimmick, they’re making it less distinct & notable, running the risk of allowing new, exciting cinematic territory to grow stale in familiarity, rather than to evolve the way it has in films like Eighth Grade.

My biggest fear is that all this griping about the future of highly specific genre I unabashedly love is likening me to one of those joyless Star Wars “fans” complaining about that series’ recent batch of sequels because of what they didn’t do instead of celebrating them for what they are. After all, there are still plenty of gimmicky, high-concept cyber-horrors being released all the time. Snapchat filters were recently given the horror treatment in this year’s Truth or Dare; Facebook timeless were made out to be spooky hell-rides in last year’s Friend Request; Assassination Nation just dug into the stomach-turning nausea of private data leaks just a few weeks ago; and smaller, cheaper titles like Selfie from Hell hit VOD so frequently I can’t even keep up with them. Still, I can’t help but have complicated feelings about the ways the Unfriended gimmick is being assimilated into more respectable, higher profile releases to wider critical success. It warms my technophobic heart to recognize its influence on works like Eighth Grade, only to have my heat broken when its dilution & normalization in cowardly works like Searching lead to critical praise that implies it was a broken gimmick that has since been “fixed” through a tonal sobriety. If Unfriended weren’t extremely preposterous & attention-grabbing its influence would have never leaked this far into the ether in the first place; all Searching is doing is lazily reaping the benefits. I shouldn’t complain too loudly, as that film’s critical & financial success can only mean good things for the further production of a genre I can’t help but love. I just worry that its more normalized, safer tones will risk running the gimmick stale, when it should be mutating into new, exciting possibilities in modern filmmaking aesthetics.

-Brandon Ledet