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

Joker (2019)

Uh oh, I ended up enjoying the disreputable movie about the Crime Clown, may the gods of Good Taste have mercy on me. The angry backlash surrounding Todd Phillips’s supervillain origin story Joker has been raging since before the movie was even theatrically released, so I can’t imagine that its recent anointment as this year’s Oscars Villain is going to make my defense of it any easier. Even I balked at the film’s existence when watching its early trailers, seeing nothing about what it was promising that hadn’t already been accomplished expertly in You Were Never Really Here & The King of Comedy. Yet, watching Joker on the big screen recently (thanks to its Oscars-boosted second run) I didn’t find anything that really needed defending. None of the endless months of vitriolic complaints against its honor resonated with me in the theater, where I mostly just saw a creepy character study anchored by an effectively chilling performance. If anything, the fact that a movie this unassuming and, frankly, this trashy was somehow causing chaos in the Oscars discourse only made it more perversely amusing.

On a plot level, there’s nothing remarkable here. Phillips merely piles another gritty comic book movie on top of the pile by replacing De Niro’s deranged stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy with The Clown Prince of Crime. Joker checks off all the necessary boxes to function as both an unimaginative Batman movie (yes, that includes a shot of Mrs. Wayne’s pearls) and as a middling Scorsese riff. There’s not even any room for surprise in the titular arch-villain’s transformation from sign-twirling clown-for-hire to deranged serial killer, since he already looks like a homicidal maniac in clown drag from scene one. The only relatively daring narrative specificity here is setting the film during the grimy days of a 1980s NYC (excuse me, “Gotham”) garbage strike, but even that choice reeks of Scorsese worship. This is not a film that desperately wants to surprise you, though. We all know the sign-twirling clown will become a murder clown by the third act, and in the meantime the soundtrack bombards us with the least imaginative song cues conceivable (including “Send in the Clowns” and “Everybody Plays the Fool,” but somehow not “Tears of a Clown”?).

I don’t see all this routine adherence to prescribed story templates as intellectual laziness, however. It’s just an exercise in genre. Like many great genre films, Joker overcomes its narrative familiarity with other virtues – namely in the bizarre screen presence of Juaquin Phoenix in the central role. Like Tom Hardy’s Herculean feat of transforming Venom from microwaved superhero leftovers to deeply strange camp fest all by his lonesome, Phoenix miraculously carves out a deeply weird character study from these uninspired backdrops. From his alien skeletal contortions in the sign-twirling clowns’ locker room to his piercing laughter at the exact wrong social cues to his public displays of bedroom-dancing, Phoenix delivers a genuine nightmare of a performance, flash-freezing my blood as soon as the first scene. I was too terrified of what he might do from moment to moment to worry about how pedestrian the film around him was. If anything, heightening the world around him to match his energy might have been too overwhelming. The familiar backdrop of a “gritty,” Scorsese-inspired comic book movie was just the muted tone his loud, upsetting presence needed to pop against in contrast.

The great irony of Joker is that much ado has been made about its political messaging where there is none, which is the exact folly that’s depicted in the film’s third act. Joker has become a popular irl boogeyman as a call-to-arms for potentially dangerous white men to rise up in revolt. Such a revolt is depicted in the film itself, with thousands of rioters taking to the streets in clown masks, inspired by the Crime Clown’s perceived “Kill the Rich” ethos. The thing that he has no awareness of class politics, and his adoring proto-Anonymous fans are reading into what’s essentially a blank slate of a hero. He might as well be Forest Gump or Chauncey Gardner, offering only empty platitudes like “What’s the world come to?” and “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” when prompted for an opinion on the state of things. If anything, the film functions like a horror movie about how scary isolated white men on the fringe can be once they’re fired up. Anyone who finds a hero in this indiscriminate murderer is deliberately searching for validation of their own already-established political agenda on a blank canvas – which is exactly what happens in the movie. This is a character study of a dangerous creep, not the incel dog whistle it’s been reported to be. Anyone who finds meaning there is just another kind of clown.

Of course, all art is inherently political in some way, and there’s been plenty of valid critique lobbed at Joker for its representation of racial power dynamics and mental health crises in particular. I don’t want to be dismissive of those claims, but I believe they mostly just point to the kind of movie this is at its rotten core: a trashy genre picture that has no real place being lauded in a prim & proper Awards Season context. I found Joker to be a deeply upsetting creep-out, thanks almost exclusively to Phoenix’s outright demonic performance. It’s rare that a slimy, grimy movie like that sneaks into Awards consideration, and a lot of people apparently don’t know what to do with it in that context except to get loud & get angry. Personally, I’m starting to find this particular bit of Oscars Season Chaos perversely amusing in a way I didn’t with past Awards Season villains like Green Book or Three Billboards. In other words, I used think that Joker’s existence was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a comedy.

-Brandon Ledet

Uncut Gems (2019)

The Safdie Brothers’ breakout film Good Time was a knockout sucker punch that benefited greatly from its total surprise as a grimy novelty. Robert Pattinson’s starring role as an irredeemable scumbag who systematically burns every social bridge he’s crossed in NYC to achieve petty, self-serving goals was the final severed tether to the actor’s previous life as a vampiric teenage heartthrob. The synth assault soundtrack from Oneohtrix Point Never pinned the audience to the back of our seats like an overachieving Gravitron. It sets out to disgust, rattle, and discomfort for every minute of its small-minded heist plot and it succeeds wholesale. At first it appears that the Safdies’ follow-up, Uncut Gems, aims to repeat that very same experience – bringing back OPN for another oppressive score, revisiting the grimy underbelly of NYC, and swapping out RPatz for another against-type actor who’s far more talented than the roles he’s best remembered for implies. The nature of this particular lead actor’s screen presence changes the texture of the film entirely, though, subtly redirecting the same basic parts of Good Time towards an entirely new purpose.

Adam Sandler stars in Uncut Gems as a diamond jeweler and gambling addict who’s willing to melt down his entire life for the chance of orchestrating the ultimate score. He shuffles borrowed money around from sports bet to sports bet, caters to a wealthy black clientele of rappers and athletes who are lightyears outside his expected social orbit, and obsessively nurtures the sale of an uncut Ethiopian gemstone that appears to have magical, cosmic powers (but isn’t worth nearly as much as he self-appraises it to be). Like RPatz in Good Time, he runs around NYC making petty, self-serving chess moves to seal this ultimate score until everyone in the world is pissed off at him: his wife, his mistress, his bookie, the various mobsters that he owes money, Kevin Garnett, The Weekend, everyone. Unlike RPatz, he responds to this exponentially growing list of enemies by shouting with the same apoplectic rage that defined Sandler’s comedic roles in 90s cult classics like Billy Madison & Happy Gilmore. Whereas Good Time is all clenched jaws & gnawed fingernails from start to finish, Uncut Gems distinguishes itself by being consistently, disturbingly funny – thanks to Sandler’s willingness to redirect his usual schtick towards the grotesque.

While Uncut Gems didn’t have me quite as enraptured or rattled as the surprise blunt force of Good Time did, I’m in awe of how it revises that throat-hold thriller’s template into a darkly comedic farce without losing any of its feel-bad exploitation discomforts. Sandler’s unscrupulous gambler/jeweler shamelessly benefits from the exploitation of diamond miners in far-off foreign countries and employees just under his nose, and the movie never lets him off the hook for these sins. Watching the walls close in on him as he makes crooked deals across town is weirdly, uncomfortably fun, though, if not only through the ludicrous caricature of Sandler’s performance. The Safdies amplify the humor of this grimy feel-bad comedy with throwaway gags about cosmic colonoscopies & bejeweled Furbies and, in a larger sense, by bringing all its disparate elements to a frenetic climax in a classic farcical structure. Still, the responsibility of changing the film’s basic flavor enough to distinguish it from Good Time falls entirely on Sandler’s shoulders. It’s a bet that pays off, as he’s capable enough to make the audience laugh while simultaneously making us feel like shit. Repeating that bet for a third revision of Good Time‘s template would be ill-advised, though. Hopefully, the Safdies will realize it’s time to walk away from the table while they’re still up and find a new angle for their next project.

-Brandon Ledet

Kathryn Bigelow and the Tough-as-Nails Heroine

One of the more popular theories as to why Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director is that she almost exclusively makes movie about men & masculinity. That’s not to say she doesn’t have an active, genuine interest in the topic as auteur, but rather that it’s curious that the filmmaker fixated on telling men’s stories happens to be the one woman director to ever win her field’s top prize. Bigelow’s preoccupation with macho, dirtbag men is especially noticeable in our current Movie of the Month—the Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—in which a scumbag anti-hero played by Ralph Fiennes is inexplicably centered in the film’s narrative instead of the more traditionally heroic badass played by Angela Bassett. Bassett’s stunt-driving, punches-throwing, testicles-kicking, politically radical heroine is a true wonder—a spectacle in herself—which makes it all the more tragic that even she is helpless to Fiennes’s greasy macho charms in the main role. That letdown is an intentionally frustrating aspect of the script (which Bigelow penned with her creative partner and already then-former husband James Cameron), but it still left me wondering what the film might have played like if Bigelow were more interested in Basset’s inner life and instead centered the woman as the lead. It would at least have been a novel departure from her usual mode.

As far as I can tell, Bigelow’s 1990 cop thriller Blue Steel is her only feature film to date with a woman in the top-billed role. Jamie Lee Curtis stars a rookie NYC police officer with a violent streak that immediately lands her in hot water. She’s not exactly the tough-as-nails badass Bassett portrays in Strange Days, but that archetype is exactly what she aspires to be. When pressed by her male colleagues about why she wants to be a cop in the first place, she “jokes” about coveting the violent authoritarianism of the position, musing “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to shoot people.” The truth turns out to be more that she grew up powerless to stop her abusive father from physically assaulting her mother, and her new badge & gun armory allows her to wield power over him and other abusers. The first time she dons her blue uniform, she struts down the street with newfound, first-in-her-lifetime confidence. During her first night on the job she overreacts to the threats of an armed suspect and unloads every bullet she’s got into his chest. She just as capable of violence as Bassett’s tough-as-nails heroine, but lacks that role model’s cool, even hand and moral sense of justice. It’s a dangerous inner conflict that the film eventually likens to the sociopathic impulses of a deranged serial killer – a man. Naturally, this wouldn’t be a Bigelow film if there wasn’t some destructive, alluring force of masculinity present to steer the central conflict.

Blue Steel’s grotesquely macho villain subverts Jamie Lee Curtis’s hero status at the film’s center by realigning her with the Final Girl archetypes that first made her famous. Ron Silver costars as a dangerously narcissistic Wall Street brute turned serial killer, essentially laying out the entire American Psycho template in an underpraised stunner of a role. This mustache-twirling villain is first inspired to kill when he witnesses Curtis decimate her perp on her first night of patrol. His fetishistic obsession with her (and her gun) quickly escalates into erotic thriller territory, a tension he relieves by shooting randomly selected victims on the NYC streets. He also shoehorns his way into the rookie cop’s romantic life with his Wall Street wealth, so that she’s unknowingly dating the very killer she’s professionally hunting. While the film is willing to link the trigger-happy cop’s penchant for violence with the Wall Street creep’s own sociopathy, this largely becomes a tale of a woman who’s boxed in on all sides by macho bullies. Between her abusive father, her gaslighting boyfriend, and the police force higher-ups who do not believe her accounts of being attacked by creeps on the street, Blue Steel’s heroine is awash in a flood of insidious machismo. For at least this one film, Bigelow proves that she can center a woman protagonist’s story why still satisfying her auteurist preoccupations with the nature & textures of masculinity. In that way, Blue Steel deserves to be regarded as one of the director’s foremost texts.

There are plenty of other reasons why Blue Steel deserves higher critical prominence in the Bigelow canon that have nothing to do with its tough-as-nails heroine. From the harsh noir lighting to the ice-cold atmospheric score & eroticized gun violence, this deeply creepy, mean thriller finds Bigelow at one of her most stylistically indulgent moments as a director. She’s channeling some serious 80s Friedkin vibes here, which I mean as a high compliment; all that’s missing is an elaborate chase scene & a Wang Chung soundtrack. Still, the most readily recognizable significance of the film within the director’s larger catalog is the rare chance to see her center a woman protagonist while remaining true to the violence & masculinity of her typical milieu. It’s not exactly the hypothetical “What if Angela Bassett was Top-Billed in Strange Days?” scenario that genre nerd audiences are likely to hope for, but it is the closest Bigelow has ever gotten to satisfying that ideal. It’s also, notably, an exquisite chiller of a film in its own right.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and our look at the director’s continued fascination with police brutality in Detroit (2017).

-Brandon Ledet