The Rental (2020)

When staying at an Airbnb, I always go through this period of unease in the beginning. Being in a stranger’s home/private room always feels a little strange at first, but I always get over it after about like 15 minutes. That’s of course after I check in the closets, under the beds, and behind all the corners to make sure there’s not a psycho waiting to slit my throat. Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, really taps into that 15 minutes of initial Airbnb fear to the point that it feels disturbingly personal.

The Rental is definitely one of the best horror/thriller films to come out this year. It follows a group of two couples and their short getaway in a fabulous Airbnb rental home. One couple is made up of Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife, Michelle (Alison Brie), and the other couple is made up of Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend, Mina (Sheila Vand). Once they arrive to the Airbnb, the owner, Taylor (Toby Huss) meets them to hand over the key and go over the house’s amenities. There’s something off about him that everyone seems to pick up on. Mina, who is Muslim, initially requested the booking, and her request was denied by Taylor. Charlie then requested the same rental and was accepted immediately. Mina’s suspicion of Taylor’s racism is confirmed when he makes some racially motivated comments towards her during their arrival. It’s more than obvious that he is not a good guy, but the group tries to ignore that fact since they won’t have to deal with him for too long as he won’t be at the rental for the weekend. As the couples enjoy some recreational drugs and cut loose at the rental, a horrible mistake is made that could ruin the relationships of both couples. It’s soon discovered that this incident was filmed by a camera hidden in a showerhead. This is the point in the film where things go downhill for the group and everything spirals out of control.

I love movies that make me feel like I have everything figured out until some wild plot twist at the very end throws me completely off track. That’s exactly what The Rental does. Who wants to watch a movie that is predictable anyway? There’s just something so unique about the film’s ending that really kept me thinking about it. It annoyed me at first because it left a lot of questions unanswered, but it also gave me the space to make my own assumptions. The ending both makes total sense and doesn’t make sense at all, so prepare yourself for that. Franco has mentioned that he left it intentionally ambiguous because he wants to eventually film a sequel, and I am so down for that.

We are officially in spooky season (and apparently still in an active hurricane season), so The Rental is definitely a good pick if you’re interested in exploring a new horror/thriller film to get yourself in the Halloween spirit.

-Britnee Lombas

Angst (1983)

I usually don’t have much patience for home invasion thrillers. By default, there’s always been a misanthropic, Conservative viewpoint to the genre, wherein upstanding, taxpaying citizens are terrorized on their own property by the unwashed riffraff outside. The home invasion template preys on fears that the desperately poor are only one broken window away from robbing, raping, and disheveling away your illusion of middle-class suburban safety – bringing you down to their grimy, subhuman level. It’s gross. I am starting to notice a variation on the genre that does work for me, though, something I discovered when I first watched The Strangers a couple summers ago. Home invasion films are scariest and most relatable when the villains aren’t desperately poor or morally deficient, but rather have no motivation at all beyond a shrug and a “Just because.”

The pinnacle of the no-motivation home invasion film arrived decades before The Strangers and thousands of miles away from the pristine American suburbs where the genre usually dwells. The 1983 Austrian curio Angst spends much of its runtime attempting to understand the psyche & motivations of its killer trespasser, only to reveal that there’s nothing there to understand. He kills just because. The opening scene is an action shot of him already indiscriminately stalking and murdering strangers merely because they happen to be home and nearby. He’s arrested and eventually released, then kills again, this time drawing out his cruel torture to a movie-length displeasure. The killer narrates the film himself, explaining at length that he’s committing these crimes simply because he likes to commit them. He finds them thrilling, entertaining. With some level of accompanying disgust, the audience likely does as well.

The most immediately impressive aspect of Angst is its overactive camerawork & ice-cold atmosphere. Body-mounted cameras and severe-angle crane shots rattle the audience so that we feel just as crazed as the killer who takes us on the uninvited home tours of well-to-do Austrian neighborhoods. It’s a cold, dizzying sensibility shared only by over-stylized Euro horrors like Possession, Climax, and Luz. Meanwhile a Big Black-style industrial drum machine underscores the brutality on display, so that everything is simultaneously framed beautifully but presented as viciously ugly. It’s an impressively upsetting mood, offering no reprieve from the suffocating psyche of its narrator – a nastily hollow man who kills because he wants to kill. There’s something about that total lack of motivation that efficiently chills my blood, maybe because it’s more reflective of real-life cruelty & violence than the class war callousness that usually commands this genre (usually with a much duller aesthetic palate as well).

It seems that one-time director Gerald Kargl was also fascinated by no-motive home invaders, or at least by real-life killer Werner Kniesek in particular. When a title card announces “This film is based on true events” a few already-bloody minutes into the runtime, it plays almost like a jump scare. We’re treated to a brief true-crime slideshow detailing the killer’s history after that announcement, searching for answers to what appears to be pointless, aimless cruelty. Maybe it was the childhood abuse that led Kniesek to kill. Maybe his trail of dead could have been shortened if the legal system hadn’t found his sadism itself an argument for innocence by reason of insanity. By the time we rejoin the killer doing his thing from house to house, neither of those questions really matter. As we hear Kniesek tell it in his own words, he’s just acting on pure, self-pleasing impulse with no real need, philosophy, or ambition to speak of. Terrifying.

-Brandon Ledet

Spree (2020)

What a year it’s been, right? No need to go into the details. Sorry to have been away so long. I’ve been screaming into the void. I’m sure you have too. Let’s talk about a movie.

So Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer reached out to me last week and was like, “Have you done enough void screaming for the weekend? Do you want to watch a movie together and then Zoom after?” And I was like, “Yes, this is the new paradigm. We are very far behind on Into the Dark, or we could catch up on the shows we used to watch together. There’s a new season of Lucifer and we’re like two seasons behind on 3% now.” So he advised he would check with Current Roommate of Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer and the consensus was that we would watch Spree. I googled it and the first thing I saw was “executive produced by Drake” and I thought to myself “The Aubrey Drake Graham of Degrassi the Next Generation fame? That’s worth a seven dollar rental!” If you’re going to watch Spree, you should go in completely blind like I did, but you’re already here so here’s the gist. 

Spree tells the story of Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery, aka Steve from Stranger Things or Gabe from Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, depending on your Kinsey score), a sad California boy who was born in LA but spent much of his life growing up in less glamorous surroundings. Desperate to join the world of the influencer elite, he’s spent his whole life in emulation of social media culture with no success, the never-was yang to the yin of his has-been father (David Arquette).  Desperate for a sense of meaning, he plans what he believes is a guaranteed path to social cachet through a “lesson” in growing an internet following over the course of a single shift as a driver for rideshare app Spree. Navigating the clogged arteries of the roadway, he comes into contact with a few “celebrities” of various kinds, including up-and-coming stand-up comedienne Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), who is in the process of leveraging her similar-to-but-legally-distinct-from (henceforth STBLDF) Instagram following into a comedy career, as well as uNo (Sunny Kim), an internet-famous DJ serving as a dark mirror of Kurt, focused solely on brand-building and mining her real life for content. Throughout the night, Kurt is egged on by “BobbyBasecamp” (Josh Ovalle), a kid whom he babysat in his youth and who has since grown into a teenaged (STBLDF) Twitch streamer with a massive following.

Perpetually astride a glowing self-balancing scooter and with a neck-mounted streaming camera which is ready to go at a moment’s notice with a few taps, Bobby is the epitome of nouveau célébrité. His presentation borrows heavily from the rhetorical strategies and spaces of omnipresent social media cultural touchstones, living in a garish mansion that captures the embarrassing excess of Jake Paul, possessing the hair-trigger temper and toxicity of “famous for screaming” Twitch stars like Tyler1, and exhibiting the boyish good looks of someone like Cameron Dallas or whoever the du jour equivalent is (I am old). This also makes him the epitome of what Kurt wants to be: famous and beloved, living a life that is artificially performative over substantively experienced, and above all, popular. Which Kurt finally does become… when he murders Bobby, among others. 

Yes, the “spree” of the title doesn’t refer solely to the (STBLDF) Uber that “employs” Kurt, it also refers to Kurt’s bloody journey from a sad vessel empty of anything other than an all-consuming desire for fame as an abstract concept to the infamous “Rideshare Killer” over the course of single night. Kurt literally charts a path that leads from the area outside LA toward the heart of that city which, more than any other, can embody the emptiness, shallowness, and meaninglessness of fleeting celebrity. It’s not the most original idea, but there’s a certain magic to the way that he begins his trek in the dusty surrounds of LA, amidst the infamous right-wing extremism that lies just outside the urban enclaves of Southern California (his first and most justifiable victim being a soft-spoken neo-Nazi en route to speak to his followers about white supremacy), and works his way through vignettes of the outer “wilderness” of adulterous real-estate-agents-to-the-stars, fame-adjacent misogynist himbos, and an intersection between two DJs (one on the way down and one on the way up), before finding himself amidst a large homeless encampment that girds the underbelly of the celluloid city. Kurt is Dante and LA is hell, with concentric circles of torment in which there is only one sin, vanity, and which only increases in magnitude as one approaches the city’s rotten heart. Each person he encounters is slightly more famous than the last, exemplified by his initial chance meeting with Zamata’s Jessie prior to a potentially career-making performance and their engineered reunion later, after said performance garners her even more celebrity.

As the first victim (that we see) is the aforementioned white supremacist, followed not long after by the asshole himbo who spouts all of our favorite chestnuts about being prettier when smiling, etc., the film at first lulls one into a false sense of security that the audience is about to watch another version of Schumacher’s Falling Down or Goldthwaite’s God Bless America updated for the found-via-social-media footage generation. But while both of those films are at least somewhat invested—with varying levels of success—in maintaining a sense of empathy for their respective leads’ descent into madness, Spree doesn’t have the same values or desire to curry audience insertion into the character’s worldview. Instead, we open with an introduction that tells us, from the outset, that Kurt finally achieved the viral success he sought for so long; as a result, his journey from nobody to somebody is a foregone conclusion, so we are here to be party to the execution(s), not the destination. 

This would be a 5-star film were it not for the intermittent preachiness about the evils of social media. Not content to have the film treat new media as an object about which we can draw our own conclusions, the script is filled with far too many moments of overt negative sentiments expressed via character monologues. In the most tasteless moment of what is an admittedly pretty tasteless film, Kurt drives near the encampment of people experiencing homelessness mentioned before and gives a speech about how the people living there don’t care that they have no social media presence, that they are completely unconcerned that, as far as an increasingly online world is concerned, they don’t exist at all. One can read this as an envious screed, in which Kurt realizes that there are a group of people who are apathetic about the very thing that has consumed his entire existence, or as the screenwriter’s thesis about the emptiness of a digital world in which every interaction is built around the construction of one’s personal “brand” and promotion of self-care and toxic positivity that entail ignoring the social ills that are just a stone’s throw away.

Meta-textually, there’s a lot happening here as well. There’s the intersection of fame from “legitimate” means via traditional media and “illegitimate” fame via new media at play when one of the groups that Kurt picks up contains both Mischa Barton and Frankie Grande. Barton was an actress from childhood who started on the stage and gradually rose to widespread recognition as one of the leads on the wildly popular The O.C., becoming a household name for a time through conventional means. Grande, on the other hand, is the older half-brother of pop music persona Ariana Grande; his cultural prominence is based solely on gaining a large social media following through that association and parlaying that into reality TV appearances and then clawing his way into the pop culture psyche via nepotism and shameless self-promotion, the two driving forces of social media stardom. Later, the climax of the uNo vignette comes as a result of the DJ accidentally finding Kurt’s handgun in the glove compartment and posing with it in a careless fashion. There’s also the exciting novelty of presenting the narrative in various split screens that allow characters to face off against each other while the camera captures both performances in simultaneous shot/reverse shot instead of from an objective angle, which is fairly inventive (not to mention all of the dashcams, STBLDF Instagram and Twitch streams, and occasional security footage). 

As the story continues, Kurt’s initial underwatched stream slowly grows to encompass a huge audience, especially once he takes over Bobby’s stream. Suddenly thousands of people are watching, and we see them respond in their comments: memes emerge in real time as viewers type out parts of Kurt’s insane monologue and repeat them to each other as the stream goes on; various audience members beg Kurt to admit that his killing of Bobby was faked for the views while others comment about how “fake” the whole thing is and congratulate themselves for seeing through it; and, of course, there are various combinations of Kurt’s name with homophobic slurs. There’s also one comment that calls out Jessie’s performance outfit as making her look like a Minion, which is comedy gold. As the intensity ramps up, so does the speed of these comments, requiring complete attention to keep up with everything that is happening at all times. These little moments and metacommentaries provide a much more fulfilling denigration of social media as a concept than Kurt driving his car through tents full of disadvantaged people or Jessie turning her stand-up performance into a rant about the need to disconnect (it’s well acted by Zamata, but doesn’t really seem like something that would spark much interest online, if we’re being honest).

These intrusions of finger-wagging into the narrative are all that hold Spree back from being truly great, as it otherwise demonstrates a profound understanding of the relationship between new and traditional media, the power of and potential for abuse within internet discourse, and the deleterious effect on mental health on a societal level that can result from a pivot towards a social reward system that depends upon toxic narcissism. Kurt has no desire to garner fame for money, political power, to increase his sexual desirability, or as a means of class mobility: notability, in and of itself, is the goal. It’s the timeless tale of wanting to be popular, with no other goal. He lives in a completely different economic system where clout is currency, and even disengagement from that alternate reality doesn’t make one safe from its reach. In the film’s closing moments, we are treated to the best demonstration of writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko’s understanding of the foibles of media in all of its forms. The film’s “epilogue” consists of reactions in the aftermath to the titular spree through a series of article titles and forum posts. From initial reactions to the so-called Rideshare Killer, to “we don’t say his name” thinkpieces (complete with a link to the related article “A Complete List of the Names We Don’t Say,” which haha and also ouch), to Kurt becoming a hero of incels in STBLDF 4chan, there’s a lot of meat on these bones that I have no doubt will reward multiple rewatches. Were it not for the moments where that subtlety is pushed aside for onstage phone-smashing antics and vapid soliloquies that spell things out for the dullards in the audience, this would be an instant classic.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Pretty Poison (1968)

It’s a shame that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with Anthony Perkins when he was around, except to keep recasting him as Norman Bates into perpetuity.  I mean that both literally in the case of the three(!) Psycho sequels and figuratively in the dozens of Bates-knockoff characters he was asked to play besides.  Whenever you catch a glimpse of Perkins venturing slightly outside the tiny corner he was typecast into, the results are always electric.  I’m thinking particularly of the sweaty, bugged-out mania of his work in Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (which is admittedly just Norman Bates on an overdose of poppers) and the surrealist filth of his self-directed turn in Psycho III.  It would have been nice to see Perkins given the freedom to play a role that couldn’t be described as a dangerous psychopath, but that just wasn’t in the cards.  Instead, we have to search for scraps of variance in his frustratingly homogenous career, which feels a lot like being a fan of Vincent Price or Bela Lugosi or any other impeccably skilled horror icon who wasn’t given enough of a chance outside their respective genre boxes.

Pretty Poison is very much one of those post-Psycho roles where Perkins was cast as A Norman Bates Type.  The movie even opens on his exit interview with a psychiatrist as he’s being released from a mental institution, so that the film could even play as an unofficial Psycho sequel if you squint at it the right way.  Still, it manages to strike a tone that distinguishes this performance from Perkins’s typically deranged presence, though, even if his broader character traits play on the audience’s familiarity with the actor’s career.  In Pretty Poison, Perkins’s expert conveyance of dangerous mental instability is played more for dark, sarcastic humor than it is for genuine terror.  It’s a dryly funny movie with a wicked mean streak, allowing Perkins to find hints of sardonic wit within his usual Unhinged Serial Killer oeuvre.  His anti-hero protagonist is still dangerously detached from reality here; it’s just that he engages with the real world from a place of distanced, absurdist mockery rather than cold-blooded revenge.  In fact, once he’s confronted with a fellow lunatic who is willing to take a few lives while having her own fun, he’s not entirely sure what to do with her.

Tuesday Weld stars opposite Perkins as his young, erratic protegee.  Perkins is enraptured with the teenage beauty and—unsure how to approach her in a direct, honest way—pulls her into his fantastical delusions as an unhealthy form of seduction.  Perkins lies to the bubbly, seemingly naïve teen about being a secret undercover agent for the CIA, recruiting her for a highly-classified mission of vague intent.  What he doesn’t account for is Weld’s potential enthusiasm for the violence of espionage, and she quickly escalates his playful spy fantasies into full-on murderous mayhem.  By the time she’s rhythmically drowning an innocent old man between her legs on a riverbank as if she were masturbating to orgasm, Perkins is completely overwhelmed by the inversion of their power dynamic.  He spends the rest of the film just trying to keep her indulgences in the bloodshed of their “espionage” to a minimum, completely horrified by how real she’s made the fantasies he used to entertaining as his own private, sarcastic amusement.  Serves him right for tricking a teenager into bed, I suppose.

Pretty Poison is a little too weighed down by its era’s Cold War paranoia and teen-girl fetishism to be a total, enduring success.  It’s fun enough as a tongue-in-cheek riff on the Bonnie & Clyde template, though, even if its New Hollywood sensibilities feel a little stodgy & forced (especially in the way it clumsily panders to Youth Culture in a throwaway gag about LSD).  The real thing that makes the film worth a look is Perkins’s unusually playful performance at the center.  He’s cast as yet another Norman Bates Type here, but he manages to find new, subversively comic textures to that archetype that he didn’t always get a chance to explore.  Tuesday Weld ably holds her own as his bouncy, murderous foil, but I doubt there are as many movie nerds out there looking to track down her most idiosyncratic performances in the same way (give or take a Thief superfan or two).

-Brandon Ledet

Obtuse Todd (2006)

Backyard New England filmmaker Matt Farley’s bread & butter is the same go-to genre that most no-budget directors rely on: the horror comedy. Farley (along with close collaborator Charles Roxburgh) is obsessed with the teenage hangout intermissions between kills in the slasher & rubber monster subgenres of horror in particular. Expanding on the goofy surrealism of that downtime affords his films a uniquely bizarre quality you won’t find in any other cheap-o D.I.Y. horrors. The subtly surreal, humorously underplayed hangout film does have firm roots in other D.I.Y. filmmaking corners, though, not least of all the post-Clerks “indie” picture. With Obtuse Todd, Farley & Roxburgh attempted to graduate from the goofy backyard horror comedy to the Film Festival oddity, another routinely overlooked genre that’s mostly cast off into the independent distribution void – seen by few and enjoyed by even fewer. In fact, the film has become something of a “lost” work in the Motern Media catalog, as it failed to earn any of the film festival entries Farley & Roxburgh submitted it for, so it’s been officially “unreleased” to this day (except as a “hidden” bonus feature on Gold Ninja Video‘s recent Blu-ray release of Farley’s magnum opus, Local Legends). Matt Farley is nowhere near a household name, so it’s difficult to convey how excited I was to finally watch this discarded Motern classic. It’s like someone handed me a free DVD copy of The Day the Clown Cried just to see me smile.

As always, Matt Farley stars in the film as a Matt Farley type: an amateur songwriter named Todd who suffers a go-nowhere desk job so that he can pay his rent (and write more songs). Most of the action is confined to Todd’s unadorned, white-walled apartment (presumably where Farley himself was living at the time of production). And by “action” I mean hilariously inane dialogue exchanges in which Todd navigates complicated relationships with the few other characters in his orbit: a workplace crush he cannot muster the confidence to ask out, a precocious teenage stranger who obsessively calls him at all hours of the night after a fateful misdial, and that girl’s father – a meathead brute who initially threatens to beat Todd to a pulp for being a “pervert” but eventually becomes his bandmate instead. Most indie hangout comedies of the 90s Slacker Era would have maintained this simple, interpersonal drama as a day-in-the-life portrait of eccentric characters. Farley & Roxburgh can’t help but tilt their version of the no-budget Festival Movie into some kind of genre territory, though, so Obtuse Todd takes some wild swings at transforming into a psychological thriller instead. Todd’s over-the-phone teenage stalker doesn’t deal with his increasingly stern rejection of her advances lightly, and the second half of the picture shifts from Clerks to Misery as she exacts her deranged revenge. And that’s somehow not half as strange of a development as how Todd’s songwriting career takes off with his new bandmate/bully. I can see how film festival programmers would have been baffled or underwhelmed by Obtuse Todd as a cold submission, but in the context of the Motern canon it makes total sense and is a total delight.

I wish Obtuse Todd had arrived later in Matt Farley’s catalog, and it could make for an interesting direction for the Motern brand to return to in the future. This oddity arrived before the crew’s major creative breakthroughs in Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, in a time when they were still producing small-scale pranks like Druid Gladiator Clone & Sammy: The Tale of a Terrible Teddy. The only element at play that really feels like they’re operating at full power is Motern celebrity Kevin McGee’s performance as Todd’s bully/bandmate. Watching the two mismatched weirdos singly wildly popular novelty songs about food is explosively funny, especially in juxtaposition with the film’s more grounded Indie Drama & Psychological Thriller influences. Otherwise, Obtuse Todd feels like a dry run for what Farley & crew would later accomplish with success in the self-promo self-portrait Local Legends. For any of those minor comparisons & clarifiers to make any sense at all, you already have to be fully immersed in the Motern Media cult, in which case you should already be stoked that this is finally out there in the world regardless of its limitations. As such, all I can really do is encourage you to buy the limited-edition Gold Ninja release of Local Legends—one of the greatest films of the 2010s—before it goes out of print. Obtuse Todd‘s inclusion on that disc is pure lagniappe, but if you’ve read this far into this review you surely recognize the value of that gift. Its delayed thriller plot, novelty songs about apple pie, and maniacal close-ups of Matt Farley brushing his teeth are alone treasures worth seeking out for anyone who’s already been indoctrinated into the Motern Media cult.

-Brandon Ledet

Blow the Man Down (2020)

More movies could use a genuine, in-the-flesh Greek Chorus and this one’s the proof. Blow the Man Down‘s most audacious stylistic choice is the way it breaks its story up into loose chapters with a recurring device in which gruff, East Coast fishermen sing old-fashioned sea shanties directly to the camera. The first instance of these periodic Greek Chorus interjections was so jarring that I was convinced the movie was going to be a full-blown musical. Instead, the antique, weathered sea shanties are merely used to break the film up into acts, commenting on the moods & perils of the film’s protagonists after major events in their journey. It’s about as classic of a theatrical device as possible, elevating the modern on-screen drama with an Old-World patina without distracting from its in-the-moment thrills. It’s such an effective device that it’s a wonder you don’t see it exploited in modern cinema more often. Part of what makes the device work so well here, though, is that the movie would still be great without it. It’s an enhancement, not a crutch.

Blow the Man Down is a small-scale thriller about two sisters who stumble into their East Coast fishing town’s criminal underworld when they find themselves needing to dispose of a cruel, dead man’s body. In their scramble to cover up a man’s death, they clash with local police corruption, the terrifying madam who runs the community brothel (Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale), and their own naïve misconceptions of their family’s history on both sides of the law. The entire picture is sharply edited & performed with a dark sense of humor lurking behind each thriller beat. It recalls other normal-people-in-over-their-head-with-hyperviolence pictures like Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin or the Saulnier-adjacent black comedy I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore. Except, it’s specifically about a community of women competently running things behind the scenes while clueless men bumble about in the foreground, which is not a dynamic I can remember seeing in a post-Coens, Saulnier-adjacent thriller before. It’s an incredibly stylish movie, especially considering the scale of its budget, but it’s also one with a distinct thematic core that distinguishes it within its genre.

The attention-grabbing Greek Chorus device that binds this film together is far from its sole distinguishing feature. It’s just indicative of the stylish, heightened eye the film generally applies to its otherwise familiar thriller beats. The coastal Maine fisheries setting makes violence feel like an everyday part of life in this isolated, unpoliced community. Gutted fish, sharpened boning knives, and rickety harpoons recall the same fishing-town hyperviolence of over-the-top slashers like The Mutilator & I Know What You Did Last Summer – except that the characters navigating that treacherous ground feel like real, fully fleshed-out people. Part of that three-dimensional characterization means that they have a dry, withering sense of humor even in the face of traumatizing brutality. That humor is communicated loud & clear as soon as the first sea shanty, when the lead Greek Chorus member literally winks at the camera with a full Bugs Bunny sense of deviousness. It only gets more nuanced & discomforting as the violence escalates.

Blow the Man Down is frequently brutal & cold, following bone-tired characters as they trudge through the blue hues & white snows of coastal Maine as if they were walking corpses just waiting to be chopped up & shoved into fishing coolers. It’s also a warmly human movie about a silent system of tough, shrewd women, each with their own morbid senses of humor and touches of whimsy. Its Greek Chorus sea shanties device is an excellent attention-grabber and a concise summation of the film’s harsh tonal clashes at large, but it’s not all the film has to offer. It’s only a siren song, luring you to violently crash onto the rocks so the real drama can wash over your wreckage.

-Brandon Ledet

To Die For (1995)

Nicole Kidman stars in Gus Van Sant’s tabloids-obsessed erotic thriller To Die For as a local cable Weather Girl from the suburbs who cons metalhead teenage dirtbags into murdering her husband. It is maybe the most purely 90s Movie I’ve caught up with since the 90s ended, having blindly stumbled upon it as a recent thrift store purchase because I dug Kidman’s lewk on the poster. Her costars include Ultra 90s sitcom performers Wayne Knight (Seinfeld), Kurtwood Smith (That 70s Show), George Segal (Just Shoot Me!), and the never-less-than-stellar Illeana Douglas (who had at least one guest spot on any TV show you can name) among Van Sant’s usual movie-star caliber cast of players. Arriving just one year after Pulp Fiction, it experiments with the scrambled timeline messiness that became inescapably popular in a post-Tarantino world, applying it to the Joe Eszterhaz era erotic thriller, as defined by 90s titles like Showgirls & Basic Instinct. Danny Elfmann provided the score, which can’t help but recall the 90s suburbia fantasy worlds he helped establish for Tim Burton in titles like Edward Scissorhands & Beetlejuice (which spilled over into the decade in its animated Saturday Morning Cartoon form). The only way To Die For could be more quintessentially 90s is if it were Clueless and, even then, both films share their casting of Dan Hedaya as a disgruntled dad.

Beyond its immersion in contemporary aesthetics & personae, To Die For is distinctly 90s on a philosophical level in its bottomless appetite for tabloid sensationalism. Vanity Fair dubbed the 90s to be The Tabloid Decade in its 1999 retrospective on how news media had changed over those ten years (which makes sense given that it was the decade when the O.J. Simpson trial kicked off the 24-hour News Cycle, bringing tabloid journalism into every American’s living room on a round-the-clock routine). Energized by that growing cultural obsession with Celebrity Criminals, Nicole Kidman plays a tabloid superstar who recalls archetypes of the era like Lorena Bobbitt, Patsy Ramsey, and Tonya Harding (which makes it fitting that I, Tonya later copied from this movie wholesale and turned every last interesting thing about it into a tactless embarrassment). The novel Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from was even “loosely” based on a real-life tabloid sensation: Pamela Smart, a New Hampshire high school employee who really did seduce her school’s least respected teens into murdering her husband. Although Smart was not a Weather Girl in real life, contemporary audiences still would have recognized the iconography of her crime from the supermarket magazine racks and instantly known where this story is headed, so Henry & Van Sant waste no time taking them there. The movie begins with Kidman being mobbed by paparazzi at her husband’s funeral. Her fame is then projected on tabloid magazine-inspired opening credits so intensely up-close that they resemble a Roy Lichtenstein print in motion. A fictional headline that reads “Sex, Violence, and the Weather” could have served as an alternate title if Van Sant really wanted to commit to this sadistic tabloid obsessiveness (it’s what the Lifetime Channel version of the movie would have done, anyway), but we still get the point without him going there.

Since the Pamela Smart story was already familiar to the point where it was practically a modern folktale, To Die For is less about the surprise of her life’s twists than it is about the alluring idiosyncrasies of her character. Kidman’s persona in the film feels like a Mainstream Hollywood mutation of the fame-seeking anti-heroines of John Waters’s oeuvre: Pink Flamingos‘s Babs Johnson, Female Trouble‘s Dawn Davenport, Cecil B. Demented‘s Honey Whitlock, etc. She is desperate to be a famous TV personality at any cost. At first, her path to achieving that dream seems to be exhibiting her bombshell good looks on a local cable network’s news show as their eye-candy Weather Girl. Murdering her husband was only a necessary insurance measure, since he disapproved of her leveraging that gig into bigger opportunities that might have come along – preferring that she settle for becoming a stay-at-home mother instead. It turns out, though, that the murder itself was a much quicker path to televised fame. There’s a noticeable thrill that lights up her eyes once she realizes that the world’s attention is glued to her misdeeds on the screen (and on supermarket magazine racks). By 1995, neither celebrating nor satirizing the attention-seeking narcissism of tabloid-friendly criminals were especially novel; Waters alone was nine features deep on the topic with Serial Mom the year before. Still, the specific textures of Smart’s bizarre circumstances, Kidman’s sweetly cruel performance, and Van Sant’s playfully ironic (and, frankly, patronizing) tone make the film a sadistic delight.

The only hiccup I have with my enjoyment of To Die For is the way Gus Van Sant plays with the order of events. His mix of mockumentary and traditional narrative filmmaking styles is generally fun to watch, but there is a jerky stop-and-start rhythm to their assemblage that makes it difficult to fully lose yourself in the story being told. Otherwise, I’m totally on board with this film as an exercise in 90s-specific aesthetics, especially in its harsh contrast between Kidman’s bubbly femininity and the speed metal riffs that frequently interrupt Elmann’s whimsical score. The film only becomes more impressive the longer you dwell on how I, Tonya disastrously attempted to repeat every single trick in its playbook (which becomes apparent as soon as Illeana Douglas begins conducting her “interviews” from an ice-skating rink) but stumbled on a hypocritical tact of audience-blaming that blew up the entire balancing act. By contrast, Van Sant openly indulges in being captivated by the Pamela Smart story, shamelessly burrowing into its most sordid details and cruelly poking fun at the small-town simplicity of its central players. It might not be as Moral of an approach as the audience shaming finger-wagging of I, Tonya, but it’s at least an honest one. To Die For captures a very specific time in tabloid criminal celebrity by genuinely participating in its full allure, like a Lifetime Original Movie that happens to feature actual movie stars. If nothing else, it’s easily among the career best outings for both Kidman & Van Sant, who have plenty of formidable contenders for that honor.

-Brandon Ledet

Mr Klein (1976)

It sometimes feels as if the canon of Cinematic Classics has already been set in stone, as if there’s no major discoveries left to be found that haven’t already been exulted by cultural institutions like The Criterion Collection or The Sight & Sound Top 100 list. That’s why restorations of forgotten, discarded gems like Mr. Klein are so vital to modern cinephilia, keeping the hope alive for decades-delayed discoveries. Directed by HUAC-backlisted American ex-pat Joseph Losey in the grim, grimy days of the 1970s, Mr. Klein has been shoddily distributed in the decades since, to the point where it’s been effectively backlisted itself. Maybe some of its initial critical reluctance in France was due to its American filmmaker going exceptionally hard on targeting French authorities for cooperating with Nazis while under German occupation (still a fresh wound at the time of its initial release). Maybe the film was simply just considered not particularly great, just another vanity project for its tabloid-friendly leading man Alain Delon in the titular role; maybe its exceptional qualities only became apparent with time & distance away from Delon’s peak star wattage. Whatever the case, it’s a great work that deserves great respect, the exact kind of discarded gem that self-serious film nerds cream their jeans over when it’s rescued for the digital restoration treatment. Rialto Films isn’t only keeping Mr. Klein alive with this restoration; they’re also keeping alive the thrill of the hunt.

Delon stars as an unscrupulous art dealer who makes a fortune off the Holocaust’s slow intrusion into German-occupied France. As doomed Jewish citizens seek the road money necessary to escape Nazi rule, Mr. Klein lowballs them on the worth of their precious art collections, profiting off their terror. This unseemly business is disrupted when Klein is mistaken by French authorities to be Jewish himself, as he shares a name with a much less wealthy French citizen who’s on the path to be exported to a German concentration camp. Arrogantly convinced that his wealth & public stature will protect him, Klein decides to address this mix-up through official, administrative channels instead of fleeing France himself. His delusions that he can remain uninvolved in the plight of French Jews makes him more involved than ever. As he falls down a Kafkaesque bureaucracy rabbit hole in an attempt to clear his name, he effectively become both a Nazi and a Jew himself: hunting down the “real” Robert Klein to bring them to “justice” and being treated like a lousy criminal by the Nazi-complying French authorities because of an arbitrary criterion beyond his control. It’s clear from the start where the story is headed, as the movie largely functions as a Twilight Zone-style morality tale, but the point is less in the surprise of the plot than it is in the ugly depths of Klein’s authoritarian, self-serving character. This is a damn angry film about the evils of Political Apathy, and a damn great one.

Where Mr. Klein might frustrate some plot-obsessed viewers is in its predictability, it more than makes up for it in eerie mood. Its Kafkaesque bureaucracy nightmare and fits of uncanny horror almost suggest that Klein’s plight will tip into supernatural fantasy at any moment, as if he has a genuine doppelgänger roaming the streets of Paris in wait of a violent showdown. Mostly, though, the film operates like a grimy 1970s throwback to the heyday of noir. Klein’s late-night investigations of shadowy figures, dangerous dames, and widespread political corruption recall a wide range of classic noir tropes, right down the trench coat & fedora of his costuming. By the very first scene, he already tips the archetype of the noir anti-hero into full-fledged villainy, as he’s introduced fleecing a devastated Jewish man while dressed in an obnoxious silk bathrobe in his luxurious apartment. His villainy only worsens as he pursues the “real” Robert Klein instead of fleeing France himself, something he’s easily equipped to do. What’s his ideal success story here? That he clears his own name by condemning a Jewish man to death in a concentration camp? Klein is convinced the French authorities will clear his name through proper channels in time, yet he only becomes guiltier in the eyes of the audience and in the eyes of the Nazis the more he fights his designation as a Jewish citizen. Like all great Twilight Zone plots, it’s the story of a morally defunct man getting his cosmically just deserts, with plenty of uncanny chills along the way. It just happens to be dressed up more like a spooky noir film than an outright horror.

I hope that this restoration of Mr. Klein rescues it from its relative obscurity to present it as one of the era’s great works. If nothing else, there are isolated images from the film that continue to haunt me the way all Great Cinema does: a Nazi phrenology exam, a mansion left empty by pilfered artwork, the world’s most horrific drag brunch, etc. Whether that critical reappraisal is imminent or not, just the chance to see it projected on the big screen with a totally unprepared audience at this year’s New Orleans French Film Festival was enough of a wonder to justify Rialto Films’s restoration of this forgotten gem. Our modern-day audience was thrilled, chilled, and traumatized by the experience, which is just as validating as a proper entry in the Great Cinema canon.

-Brandon Ledet

Sibyl (2020)

I’m becoming increasingly tickled by the Charlie Kaufman-esque story template in which Writer’s Block leads an increasingly unraveled protagonist down an absurd rabbit hole at their own peril. Between Ismael’s Ghosts, Staying Vertical, and now Sybil, France has gradually emerged as the #1 exporter of these bizarro psychological thrillers about frustrated writers, which rarely earn great critical accolades despite constructing some of the most unpredictable, confounding plots in cinema. Overall, Sibyl doesn’t revolutionize the structure or purpose of the Writer’s Block thriller in any significant way, but it does reshape the (admittedly loose) genre’s usual tone by casting a woman in the central writer’s role. Typically, these post-Kaufman psych-thrillers profile Macho Academic types in a moment of Mid-Life Crisis, so it’s a relief to see the genre shaken up with a woman’s internal fixations & sexual urges for a change. Otherwise, Sibyl behaves just as you’d expect given the Writer’s Block-driven downward spiral its protagonist suffers. It’s just an acquired taste I’ve personally acquired with glee.

The titular Sibyl is a frustrated psychiatrist who’s decided to pull back from the professional demands of her clientele to re-focus on writing novels – only to be confronted by the dreaded Blank Page. She’s then pulled back into her psychiatry practice by a new patient in crisis, an actress whose affair with a famous co-star is causing an on-set meltdown (as the man is also sleeping with the film’s director). Sibyl verbally protests that she cannot become involved in this young, chaotic woman’s life, but she’s clearly addicted to the drama that unfolds. Her avoidance of writing a new novel fades as she chooses to write about this soon-to-be-famous (or soon-to-implode) actress under a pseudonym, becoming more & more involved in the young woman’s life under the guise of “research.” It’s clearly addictive behavior that’s linked directly to her addiction to work, her addiction to past sexual partners, and—most explicitly—her alcoholism. At the start of their relationship, the psychiatrist is protesting that she cannot become involved in the actress’s personal drama. By the end, she’s practically directing the movie herself as her life falls apart outside the boundaries of her newest, singular obsession.

As with the best of these Writer’s Block psych-thrillers, Sibyl is excitingly playful in its style & narrative structure. It begins with a chilling piano score & 70s grindhouse typeface, as if it were a remake of Halloween instead of an intellectual drama. It also later teases swerves into De Palma-era erotic thriller territory, but those genre throwback touches are more stylistic flavor than they are narrative substance. The narrative itself is more guided by tabloidish obsession with “celebrity” criminals like Robert Durst & Casey Anthony than anything recalling De Palma or Carpenter, to the point where Sibyl’s only connection to those genre traditions is in her shameless voyeurism (most amusingly depicted in her late-night laptop binges on junky clickbait headlines). The movie itself is tickled with the farcical adultery configurations of its central cast, but it’s most concerned with creating a fractured portrait of its doomed alcoholic writer as she spirals out. The sordid details of her involvement in her patient’s life is less important than the addictive, self-destructive impulses that lead her there – freeing the movie to have a laugh at her exponentially absurd downfall even when it’s at its most excruciatingly grim.

The only major fault with Sibyl is that you could name several movies that push its basic elements way further into way wilder directions. Beyond its obvious Kaufman ancestry, Double Lover & Persona both come to mind. Otherwise, it’s an admirably solid Movie For Adults, the kind of thoughtfully constructed erotic menace that used to be produced by Hollywood studios at regular intervals but now only seeps quietly through European film festivals. The movie works best when it’s clearly having fun with the absurdity of its unraveling premise, like when it frames Sibyl pensively vaping out a window in a Writerly way or in its casting of Toni Erdmann star Sandra Hüller as scene-stealing comic relief. It also takes the sexual urges & self-destructive behavioral patterns of its protagonist seriously enough that its central conflict never implodes into comic oblivion either. We’re fully invested in the manic downfall of this frustrated writer, even if not quite as much as she’s involved in her patient’s.

-Brandon Ledet