Replicas (2019)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Joshy (2016)

fourstar

If I were feeling especially lazy, I would substitute writing a full review for Joshy with simply taking a screenshot of its IMDb page with some MS Paint exclamation points added for effect. Jenny Slate! Aubrey Plaza! Brett Gelman! Thomas Middleditch! The dude who made Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry)! A dark comedy about a devastatingly depressing weekend getaway, Joshy is stuffed to the gills with niche comedians and always-welcome performers. Even in the final twenty minutes I found myself exclaiming, “I can’t believe they’re in this too!” as new characters entered the frame. What was even more surprising & rewarding than any of the casting choices, however, was the realization that I’d become a fan of the film’s writer-director, Jeff Baena, without even realizing it. Apparently, Baena co-wrote I ♥ Huckabees & helmed his debut feature in the romantic horror comedy Life After Beth, two films I will passionately defend as being far better than their reputations. Just Gary Marshall dropping by as a zombie for a brief cameo was enough to land Life After Beth on my Best of 2014 list and the existential absurdism of Huckabees makes for my favorite David O. Russell film to date, despite that work’s generally divisive reception. After also taking delight in the gleefully bleak Joshy, I can comfortably say that I’m fully sold on Baena as a filmmaker. Only three projects into his career I’m going to count myself among his audience for life.

Five men commemorate an abruptly-ended engagement by honoring a reservation for the bachelor party at a remote cabin in California wine country. As you can probably guess, this situation quickly devolves into my beloved Party Out of Bounds subgenre, ranking up there with High-Rise, The Invitation, and A Bigger Splash as one of my favorite examples of that specific narrative structure I saw all last year. Caught between his friends’ wildly varied ideas of a good time (typified by reckless substance abuse or a Cones of Dunshire-style fantasy role playing game) the would-be bachelor Joshy  (Middleditch) quietly suffers while the world around him loudly crumbles. Joshy has the most readily recognizable reasons to be an emotional wreck, but all of his male compatriots, from the most bombastic bros to the most neurotic wet blankets, are in just as bad of a state. Joshy is first & foremost a film about men who do not comprehend how to deal with their emotions in a productive or honest way. They play & party their way around any direct engagement with their inner turmoil, filling their days with toy guns, drugs, and frivolous contact with a group of women having their own “weird party thing” nearby, all while avoiding any mention of the dark clouds of depression, alcoholism, and suicide that loom over them. At one point, a character even shouts, “It’s not okay to be sad!” to drive the point home. I don’t know if this speaks more about my personal taste or the immense talent of the cast, but this situation actually makes for some of the most hilarious cinematic moments of 2016 for me. Joshy traps itself under immense emotional pressure and the resulting comedy that explodes from that container had me screaming with laughter.

I suppose at first glance Joshy might come off as the clean cut indies & “mumblecore” aftershocks of filmmakers like the Duplass Bros (whom I personally dig) & Joe Swanberg (who appears in a cameo) and it’s possible that being able to enjoy that cinematic style is essential to appreciating this low-key indulgence in gallows humor. The closest comparison point I can conjure for it, though, is the work of Sleeping With Other People director Leslye Headland, particularly her film Bachelorette. Headland & Baena are both quietly trafficking in a highly specific, deeply affecting mode of caustic, ice bath humor. Their work is currently flying under the radar in terms of wide critical recognition, but I’m floored by how much they’ve been able to accomplish without making grand, sweeping maneuvers. Joshy is a cheap, quiet indie comedy about a few middle aged men who are having an awful time at a party that should have ended before it started. Baena managed to turn that scenario into both a painful exploration about how traditional masculinity leaves people ill-equipped to deal with emotions in a healthy, honest way and one of the funniest situational comedies of the year. I find that balance very impressive and I’m dying to see what he pulls off next.

-Brandon Ledet

The Final Girls (2015)

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fourstar

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It’s difficult for me to speak objectively about The Final Girls‘  merits as a horror comedy, because so much of the film’s content is so distinctly in my wheelhouse. It’s also difficult to describe the film’s high-concept premise without spoiling its major conceit. So, I’ll just leave you with this vague recommendation for now: if you happen to be a fan of 80s “camp site slasher films” like Friday the 13th & Sleepaway Camp and you enjoy meta genre send-ups like Scream & The Last Action Hero, please check out The Final Girls as soon as you can. Save reading reviews (like this one, for instance) for after you give the film a chance. It’s best to go into this movie cold if you can manage it. I wish I had, anyway.

For those who need a little more convincing up front, here’s a quick run-down of the film’s premise. The Final Girls revolves around a fictional example of the oldschool “camp site slashers” mentioned above named Camp Bloodbath. Good title. When Camp Bloodbath is first introduced as a Grindhouse-style trailer on a smart phone, it’s unclear exactly how involved the plot will get with the horror relic. The answer is very. Five modern teens with varying degrees of familiarity with the film find themselves magically transplanted inside the move itself, à la The Last Action Hero. Don’t spend too much time questioning exactly how this could possibly happen, because the movie has very little interest in providing an answer. Instead, the device is used as a launchpad for lovingly spoofing the slasher genre from a modern perspective. It’s a means to a satisfying end.

As you can tell from The Final Girls‘ title, the film has a lot of fun playing with slasher genre tropes, especially in the film’s interactions between the self-aware modern teens & the fictional teen camp counselors at Camp Bloodbath. A lot of the teens’ plans to escape the machete-wielding Billy Murphy, a Jason Voorhees stand-in, revolves around abstaining from sex. The thinking is that teen sex invariably ends in death in oldschool slashers, which is something even the Friday the 13th series itself mocks in the humorously self-aware hologram scene in Jason X. The Final Girls also pokes fun at how teen dialogue is often moronic in oldschool slashers, like when an 80s teen tells a modern visitor, “Go suck a turd,” and he amusedly replies, “The writing is so bad.” Another modern character comments on her soon-to-end shelf life with the line, “I’m the mean girl in the 80s horror movie & we’re past the midpoint so . . .” There’s also attention paid to Camp Bloodbath‘s over-the-top John Carpenter score, the fact that cheap horror films can sometimes head to career-long typecasting, and the fact that there is often a very fine line between a slasher & a porno. The genre trope references are nothing if not relentless.

One of my favorite things about The Final Girls is that it not only participates in the trope-referencing meta play of Wes Craven’s Scream, but because of the film’s outlandish movie-within-a-movie concept, it also adopts the dream logic of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Although the film’s main goal is undoubtedly comedy, it does reach for eerie, otherworldly horror in its central conceit. As the modern teens attempt to escape their fictional prison they discover that all roads lead back to camp. In their words, “The movie won’t let us leave.” As a result, they find themselves stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque 90min loop until they can fulfil the slasher genre’s plot cycle to its conclusion, including establishing which virginal “final girl” would will remain alive to slay Not Jason at the film-within-the-film’s conclusion. There’s also a creepy interplay in the way exact dialogue from Camp Bloodbath bleeds over into “real life” conversation & in the way the 80s camp counselors are ritually devoted to their cues in certain scenes. Not all of the world-building is creepy, though. Just as the The Final Girls pokes fun at the predictability of horror movie tropes, it also mines humor from the artificiality of more general cinematic devices like black & white flashbacks, slow-motion escapes, and the physical appearance of production credits.

The reason I said earlier that I couldn’t be objective about The Final Girls as a finished product is that I recognize the film has some glaring faults, but I greatly enjoyed it anyway. Its straight-forward Jokes aren’t always as laugh-out-loud funny as they’re posed to be. The rules of its universe are more fluid & self-contradictory than they should be.  There’s also an unfortunate mount of weak CG imagery, which would normally be excusable in a cheap indie like this, except that the film calls direct attention to it in over-the-top Sam Raimi-style camera movement. However, that last complaint might be a little particular to my tastes, since I’m far from an Evil Dead fan. These are minor speed bumps for me, though, since so much of what’s going on in The Final Girls I’m already predisposed to enjoy. Not only am I a sucker for high-concept camp, but the movie features features contributions from a handful of minor personalities that I’m always down to watch in action: Alia “Maeby Fünke” Shawkat, Thomas “Silicon Valley” Middleditch, Joshua John “Teen Witch/Near Dark/Class of 1999” Miller (as a writer/producer), etc. The film’s 80s pop music cues also hit my sweet spot, including expert use of “Dance Hall Days“, “Cruel Summer“, and the most emotionally confusing “Bette Davis Eyes” strip tease you’re ever likely to see. There’s also a great deal of heart in the main protagonist’s personal relationship with one of the fictional 80s teens, one that’s particularly refreshing in its emotional severity considering the detached irony of a lot of the film’s meta humor.

Because so much of The Final Girls lines up with any particular interests it is difficult to say whether or not a majority of people will be able to get on its wavelength. I can, however, say this much in the movie’s behalf: audiences typically too squeamish for the slasher genre should be able to stomach the film’s limited gore, as it’s played for laughs more so than terror. I’m not sure that crowd will get as much out of the film’s trope play as the genre’s more dedicated fans, but as I said earlier, there’s plenty else going on to satiate anyone in the mood for a high-concept comedy with an occasional note of devastating heartbreak. If nothing else, The Final Girls will make an excellent compromise for those looking to introduce the horror comedy genre to the less-than-enthused. I expect it’ll make good fodder for many Halloween-themed movie binges in the years to come, perhaps sandwiched between the very “camp site slasher films” it lovingly spoofs.

-Brandon Ledet