Greta (2019)

The camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a dual career revival for its two stars – Bette Davis & Joan Crawford – who had aged out of Old Hollywood’s cruelly small window of use for the in-their-prime actresses, despite their incomparable talents. While the surprise high-profile success of Baby Jane did lead to more roles for the two late-career titans, though, it also typecast them for dirt-cheap genre work far below their skill level, all because Hollywood deemed them too old to be fuckable. Davis & Crawford spent the rest of their careers as sadistic nannies, axe-wielding maniacs, and black magic hags – creepy old ladies who were literally, lethally demented. Baby Jane spawned an entire subgenre later coined as the “psychobiddy” thriller or the ”Grande Dame” horror or, most crudely, “hagsploitation.” Other notable actresses got roped into the genre as it continued to make money on the drive-in circuit: Shelly Winters in What’s the Matter with Helen? & Who Slew Auntie Roo?; Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling; Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest; etc. If there’s anything the once-respected British director Neil Jordan accomplishes in his recent cheapie Greta, it’s in reviving the psychobiddy genre for the 2010s, allowing his titular star Isabelle Huppert to chew scenery the way Davis & Crawford had in similar relics of hagsploitation past. The cultural context around Huppert’s casting has changed drastically since the days of the post-Baby Jane psychobiddies; the actor has been allowed to be complex, compelling, and sexy in plenty of better projects in recent years in a way Davis & Crawford weren’t at her age. Still, it’s crystal clear that Huppert is working within the hagsploitation paradigm here. She’s not even emulating the classier end of the genre like Baby Jane or Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte either; Greta is more on the level of the Bette Davis pic The Nanny or Crawford’s Strait Jacket: the really trashy shit.

While I am overall positive on this picture as a campy delight, I should be clear upfront; Isabelle Huppert is Greta’s only saving grace. In the film’s earliest scenes, before Huppert’s old-biddy cruelty enters the frame, goings are tough. Between Chloë Grace Moretz’s non-presence as a naïve country bumkin in the big city (even though she’s originally from the small podunk town of Boston?) and Neil Jordan’s severely unfunny misestimation of how young women talk & think, the first half hour of place setting is a cringey bore. Even the early scenes of Moretz & Huppert forming and unlikely intergenerational friendship (and surrogate mother-daughter dynamic) after a chance meeting in the vast anonymity of NYC are alarmingly limp. It isn’t until Moretz discovers that the pretense of their initial meeting – a luxury purse Huppert “accidentally” left on a subway train, luring strangers to return it to her – was a deliberate scam that Greta finally comes alive. The remainder of the film is exponentially more fun as Huppert gradually escalates from clingy grifter to creepy stalker to kidnapper to full-blown murderess. The dialogue never improves as the stakes are heightened, but Huppert brings life to the material through the stubborn will over her over-the-top performance. Watching her flip tables, menacingly “teach” piano as a form of torture, get carted away on a stretcher like Hannibal Lecter, and shout disciplinary epithets like “This is a bed of lies!” to her Misery-like victim is a perverse, persistent pleasure that overpowers the dialogue’s more glaring shortcomings. If nothing else, there’s a whimsical little dance she does – like a child’s improvised, freeform ballet recital – in her violent showdown with veteran Neil Jordan collaborator Stephen Rea that is A+ delirious camp and alone worth the price of admission. I don’t know that I would readily describe Greta as a great movie so much as a great performance, but like with Tom Hardy in Venom, Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss, or any number of over-the-top psychobiddy performances in its own genre’s spotty past, the film is the performance. Thankfully, nothing else matters here, because Moretz & Jordan could have easily dragged the material down if Huppert weren’t such a spectacle.

The trick of appreciating Greta as a psycobiddy revival is in affording Huppert’s performance enough time to fully heat up. I wouldn’t blame anyone for bailing during the film’s fun-vacuum prologue, but those who leave the film early will miss out on the joys of watching one of our great living actors indulge in some over-the-top cartoon villainy once she’s afforded the space. There’s even comfort in the fact that, unlike with hagsploitation titles of the past, Huppert has not been locked out of landing more substantial work in better pictures because of her age, which is how the psycobiddy was born in the first place. This is more of a trashy detour for her than a professional dead end, which makes it all the more fun to watch her indulge in a bit of vicious camp at the expense of her wet noodle collaborators, as opposed to feeling embarrassed for her the way we were when the great Joan Crawford was typecast as an axe-wielding maniac despite her legendary cinematic pedigree.

-Brandon Ledet

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Movie of the Month: Love Me If You Dare (2003)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month CC made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer watch Love Me if You Dare (2003).

CC: When I was a culturally starved teenager, it was incredibly rare for me to program my own media intake. I desperately wanted to watch pretentious art films and feel like an intellectual, but at the time I was living in a FoxNews and Tim Allen comedy world, stifling my artsy-fartsy dreams. However, I do remember one pivotal weekend when I was around fourteen or fifteen where I got to indulge myself on those impulses. Left alone to set my own schedule, I spent an entire few days’ vacation from others’ control sunbathing and eating bagels all day, and binge-watching the Sundance & IFC movie channels all night. I don’t remember most of the movies I watched that weekend, but a few really stood out to me as gems, including the 2003 French romantic comedy Love Me If You Dare. Something about Love Me If You Dare‘s subversive tone (and bizarre ending) struck me as extraordinary and, importantly at the time, sophisticated. This is before I had even seen Amélie, so I had truly not experienced anything like this unconventional, artsy, French romcom before.

Love Me If You Dare is the story of a boy and girl duo (Guillume Canet and Marion Cotillard) who are locked in a life-long game of romantic oneupsmanship. They first meet as children when the girl is being bullied and the boy cheers her up with the gift of a cookie tin. From there they develop a mischievous game, where whoever possesses the cookie tin can issue a dare the other has to complete, no matter how outrageous. They pass the tin back and forth this way with each completed dare, with no end to the game in sight. Told from the boy’s POV, the story follows this game’s escalation from relatively harmless childhood anarchy to catastrophically destructive mayhem as they hit adulthood and sexual maturity. The film is set up like a traditional romcom, but it’s weirdly antagonistic towards its audience in a way that genre usually isn’t. Its sweet setups usually lead to sour payoffs, subverting expectations established by traditional romcom patterns.

Brandon, given this film’s devious deviations from genre, would you even consider this a romcom? Is there any other genre that would be a more apt description?

Brandon: I don’t think I would readily describe Love Me If You Dare as a romantic comedy, but I’m not exactly sure why. It’s romantic; it’s (darkly) humorous. Yet, classifying it simply as a romcom feels no more accurate than it would be to describe Heathers or Heavenly Creatures as such. This is, at heart, the story of two adrenaline junkies whose violent attraction to each other’s mischievous spirits only leads to destruction. Something about the volatile clash of their thrill-seeking energies (and overactive imaginations) is a Biblically destructive force, crushing the lives of any innocent bystanders in their vicinity who are just trying to get through the day while they are daring each other to tear the world apart. It’s like visiting a world where two Bugs Bunnies are anarchically attempting to out-Bugs Bunny each other, when one is already far more than enough. Sure, the hetero romance at its core (where two characters who are obviously made for each other eventually find a way to be together forever) is a textbook romcom dynamic, but the devilish details veer so far off the rails that its romantic beginnings are a faded memory by the time we reach the life-threatening oneupsmanship of the bonkers third act. We’ve covered romcoms for Movie of the Month before with similarly subversive escalations of unromantic danger: the Hitchcock-riffing Head Over Heels & the noirish Mrs. Winterborne, to be specific. Those examples feel like extreme outliers in the genre, however, and Love Me If You Dare‘s own maniacal self-escalation might even best them in its sheer audacity.

If I had to ascribe Love Me If You Dare to a single genre it might be this: twee mayhem. In general, twee is a much more difficult genre to recommend (or even to define) than the romantic comedy, as it was specific to a very distinct time & sentiment. As I was also a culturally-starved teenager in the early aught, I’m personally predisposed to being helpless to twee pop culture. Where more cynical audiences were revolted by the whimsical imagination, visual fussiness, and cutesy musical cues of twee, I found a desperately needed respite from the grotesque, macho muck pop culture was stuck in for the nu-metal end of the late 90s & early 00s (not knowing at the time that I was mostly watching ideas repurposed & repackaged from French New Wave artists half a century prior). I’ll concede that a lot of twee has aged horribly in the last couple decades; I’ve rolled my eyes at many a Zooey Dechanel project & Etsy store as the years have trudged along. However, I don’t think the loosely-defined genre ever got enough credit for how dark & melancholy it was just below its meticulously curated surface. Artists like Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet often handle topics like depression, abuse, dead pets, and terminal illness with childlike vulnerability & outsized emotions – crafting art that looks pretty but is often surprisingly sinister. That’s exactly where I see Love Me If You Dare fitting in. It’s a darkly romantic comedy that starts with themes like cancer, poverty, and nationalist bullying before escalating to full-blown torture, murder, and suicide. How sweet! Even considering similarly morbid twee romances like Pushing Daisies or Amélie, this film reaches a level of destructive mayhem that feels remarkable for its cutesy tone of childlike whimsy.

Boomer, how does Love Me If You Dare fit into the twee romance template for you? Does it feel at home with how you typically experience the genre or does its level of destructive mayhem make it as much of an outlier in that context as it is as a romcom?

Boomer: It’s funny that you mention Wes Anderson, a director that I love; while watching Love Me if You Dare, my roommate got up and left the room twenty minutes in, saying “This is what I see when I look at a Wes Anderson movie” (he’s not a fan). I think that I might have a slightly different idea of what comprises twee filmmaking; my go-to example of the genre is God Help the Girl, the 2014 film project of Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch starring Emily Browning, Olly Alexander (of queerpop band Years & Years), and Hannah Murray (Skins, Game of Thrones, Bridgend) – a musical featuring songs from Murdoch’s 2009 concept album of the same name. As much as I love Belle & Sebastian – they’re one of my top 5 all time bands – when I finally found a copy of God Help the Girl I hated it for the first fifteen minutes before realizing that I could just give into it and have a good time, and a good time I had indeed. I would also note that I, too, am generally disposed to be forgiving of tweeness when I find it, and for much the same reasons, and I’d add Stranger than Fiction, I ♥ Huckabees, and the most recent TV version of Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective to that canon. It’s fine to enjoy things. I even spent this last New Year’s Eve watching a Friday the 13th marathon on TV with my best friend while we listened to Françoise Hardy records she brought back from France; since those films are mostly young adults wandering through the woods, skinny dipping, and angsting about getting laid, having Le premier bonheur du jour play on while little Corey Feldman watched the horny teens next door get down to business turned the whole film series into a franchise of French coming-of-age films that just happened to have a hockey masked murderer show up from time to time (relax Mrs. Voorhees “well, actually” purists: they were only showing III-VII on a loop). So you could say that even when there is no twee, I might end up adding it in myself.

You also mentioned Heathers, and around these parts it’s no secret that it’s my favorite movie of all time. I’ve never really imagined that it fell into the “twee” category (the musical version notwithstanding) simply because it’s so weirdly and unabashedly dark (“Corn. Nuts!”) and even its lighter elements are still part of an all-encompassingly nihilistic worldview, even with Martha doing a little doughnut on the scooter in the hallway of Westerberg High at the end. I understand where you’re coming from, though, as Love Me if You Dare has a lot of the same hallmarks, and I think that the difference for me comes from the fact that, ultimately Veronica recognizes that her suburban dissatisfaction and the town-wide ignorance of parents and school administrators alike has led her to go all-in on J.D.’s menacing plans for the future. It feels right, in the same way that if Julien and Sophie had pulled back from their life-and-death game of dares it would have felt wrong. Any cutesiness that arises from their ever-escalating dare tag is belied by how utterly committed they are to the whole thing: even the first dare endangers a school bus full of children (granted, they were a bunch of racist little shits who deserved a good scare if nothing else). If that level of intensity had ever been subverted, it would be a different story, but by starting with that platform of playful malice and going from there, there’s never a moment where you really question how cute the whole thing is, until the leads are buried in concrete (or are they?). As it stands, I’d say that it’s just as much a subversion of romcom standards as it is of performative cuteness, so it’s equally an outlier for both but the gentle ribbing it gives to both genres is born out of fondness and affection, rather than something like Heathers (which specifically aims to undermine the supposed harmlessness of eighties teen romances à la John Hughes) or my dearly beloved trash masterpiece Head Over Heels (which asks the question: what if the misunderstanding that separates the two romantic leads involved a murder, maybe?).

Britnee, with regards to romances that take themselves more seriously than Love Me if You Dare, they often have a lot of the same tropes that are present here: the angelically perfect parent with vaguely defined medical problems, resentment from the remaining living parent, economic and/or social stratification between the two romantic leads, etc. Do you think these work here, or do they undercut the smirking self-awareness that the movie has? Are there any that I’ve missed or that you felt should have been present here?

Britnee: Love Me If You Dare had a way of making the basic tropes of romantic films very unsettling. Were we supposed to laugh when Julien was being an insanely rambunctious kid while his mother was dying in her hospital room? Was his relationship with his dad supposed to break our hearts or make us roll our eyes and chuckle? I’m still not sure what the answer is. I love how the film challenged my emotions and really got me to question my humor and sensitivity.

Another romance trope that the film pokes fun at is the reunited lovers living happily ever after. Both Julien and Sophie marry other people and have completely different lives with their significant others. Once the two get together for real without prolonging the game, they don’t run off to start a new life. Instead, they drown in cement at a construction site while making out with each other. It’s so wonderful and silly.

What I enjoyed the most about Love Me If You Dare is the beginning of the film that focuses on Sophie and Julien’s blossoming childhood friendship. Their childlike imagination is brought to life on the screen with whimsical visuals and slanted camera angles. Some scenes even looked like they were taking place in a lifesize pop-up book. Their innocent shenanigans (for the most part) were quirky and adorable, but once the two were pulling the same crap as teenagers and adults, they seemed like total monsters.

CC, did you find young Sophie and Julien to be more likeable than grown Sophie and Julien?

CC: Absolutely! If a teacher lectures a child and said child starts to pee themselves, it’s hilarious. If another adult pees on you, it ruins your day and both parties feel a great deal of shame. Sophie and Julian were two troubled children who used their game as a means of coping with poverty and emotional isolation, respectively. As adults we expect them to either “grow up” and stop playing the game or to get professional help. I’m not saying that children aren’t capable of daring each other to commit heinous crimes, but in the context of this film, the crimes Sophie and Julian commit as adults destroy the lives of everyone in their path. It’s one thing to utter a string of scatological expletives during class in elementary school; it’s another to frame someone for attempted murder and call the French equivalent of the SWAT team on them as a prank.

I think what is most frustrating about their relationship as adults is their refusal to admit their feelings for each other. Neither one is brave enough to declare their love and end the game so it just drags on and on, destroying everything in its path.

Brandon, this film feels very French to me, but do you think it had to be set in France to work? Would it have read as “twee” if it were set elsewhere?

Brandon: It’s more than a vague cultural sensibility or sense of morbid whimsy that makes Love Me If You Dare feel distinctly French. It’s that the film feels so in line with French Cinema of its era. The sickly green digital palette of its early 00s aesthetic is unmistakably akin to the look of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s works. The artificial hand-built theatrical sets of the early childhood fantasy sequences are pure Michel Gondry (who was mostly popular as a music video auteur at the time). It’s like a Greatest Hits collection of early aughts twee aesthetics in that way, except that the limited scope of its CGI budget and the . . . moderate visual talents of debut filmmaker Yann Samuel sometimes make it feel like the kind of Greatest Hits collection you find in a grocery store checkout line or gas station CD rack. What truly makes the film special, then, what distinguishes it among its French cinema peers, is the increasingly morbid nature of its central romance. You can see its absurdist dynamic of two volatile minds who are unavoidably drawn to each other reflected in works from other countries: Heathers, Heavenly Creatures, Thoroughbreds – films far outside the realm of twee. Clashing that inevitably tragic relationship dynamic with the overactive imagination of childhood whimsy does feel distinctly French to me, though, even beyond its adoption of twee visual tropes specifically.

Of course, twee has been exported globally to the point where it is no longer explicitly French, if it ever was. Michel Gondry made most of his iconic works in America. Wes Anderson, a hipster Texan, is a cornerstone of the aesthetic. 2010s twee devotees like the Australian dreamworld comedy Girl Asleep and the aforementioned Scottish musical God Help the Girl are twee as fuck, undeniably so. I’d like to think you could export Love Me If You Dare to practically any urban setting without losing what distinguishes it as twee. What I’d be more concerned about losing in that translation is one of the major reasons the film works as well as it does and one of the defining tropes of artsy-fartsy French cinema at large: the bleak ending. It’s almost a cliché to say that Hollywood productions are more inclined to have a happy ending than their French film counterparts, but I could very easily see an American remake of this film sidestepping or undercutting its tragic conclusion while maintaining the twee whimsy free of morbidity, zapping it of its magic.

Boomer, am I being my own worst nightmare (a pretentious art film snob) by assuming that this quirky French romance must have a tragic ending to succeed on its own terms? Is there any satisfying way you can see this story about two thrill-seeking hedonists who express their affection through torturous dares concluding without them dying in each other’s arms, locked away from the rest of the world? Would a traditional “Hollywood ending” have ruined the appeal of the film’s otherwise sinister romance dynamic?

Boomer: If I’m being completely honest, at the moment that Julien (supposedly) crashed into that truck while speeding away from the police and apparently died, I thought the film was over. When it continued and there was more to it, I thought to myself, “Oh, how French.” It’s not that the French are without morality, of course (I saw enough Earth Day demonstrations in Lyonne last year to know that there are things about which they care deeply and passionately), but their different viewpoint on the relativistic ethics of sexpolitik are pretty different from ours (or at least mine; I’m not trying to project onto anyone else in this group). For me, I kept expecting a more American moralistic standpoint to leap out of the shadows and take over this viewing experience; as a result, I expected that this purely hedonistic joy that Julien declared to be better than [insert your drug/sex position/adrenaline junkie activity of choice here] to be his last moment, and that we were being treated to a Hays-lite moralization that “This may look like fun but it is bad and you will be punished.” And to be honest, I wasn’t entirely opposed to that? Interpreting from a purely American perspective is tricky; while I was watching the scene of Julien’s mother’s death, which Britnee mentioned above, I found myself consciously thinking that this would be treated differently in an American film. Here, I think it demonstrates that Julien is deeply unaware of just how unwell his mother really is, and reflects the way that children fail to understand the articulation of the adult world, and that tragic failure to read the situation may even be the instigating factor in his inability to navigate the adult world with any kind of joy outside of his game with Sophie. That’s not explicit (although it would be in an American film), but it gets to the heart of your question: is there anything tragic in this film (like, as you asked, the ending) that is treated with the deference due to tragedy? Even if death at the bottom of a concrete pylon is a tragedy in theory, the film doesn’t treat it this way, instead acting as if living to a ripe (and ribald) old age is just as emotionally satisfying a “happy” ending as being buried alive. Honestly, seeing the elderly Julien and Sophie together is the Hollywood ending, and it’s not nearly as thematically resonant or tonally consistent as (what I assume is) the real ending. That’s not necessarily being artsy-fartsy to say so, but it does underline all of the ways that this differs from the mean.

Britnee, you mentioned above that you found the first act which took place during our leads’ respective childhoods to be more endearing than the rest of the film. I agree, although I wasn’t as cold to the rest of it as you were. How would you have preferred to see this play out? What changes would you have made?

Britnee: The romcom-loving side of me would want to see Julien and Sophie get together for good in the dinner scene when he fake proposes to her. That was probably the most upsetting scene in the entire film. The secondhand embarrassment was so bad and made me hate Julien so much. After the proposal, the rest of the film would be a quirky journey to their wedding day. Julien’s father would have a come-to-Jesus moment and embrace his son on his wedding day, letting him know how proud he is of him and how much he loves him. Sophie’s sister would give a heartfelt toast at the reception explaining how she forgives her sister for ruining her wedding cake. Their families would just come together in the comic style of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Basically, I want My Big Fat French Wedding to be a thing.

I don’t want to seem like I don’t appreciate the darkness of Love Me If You Dare, because I do. I just have to be in the right mindset to watch two people lose their minds on a path of destruction.

Lagniappe

Boomer: Man, Julien’s father is such an asshole.

Britnee: Part of me still doesn’t think that Julien and Sophie really died in the end. It’s very unlikely that they lived, but based on all the other times I thought they died when they didn’t, I just don’t trust them.

Brandon: I do think this movie’s greatest asset is the unpredictability of its storytelling, which makes it feel as if anything is possible from minute to minute, as long as that anything is emotionally cruel. What impresses me most about that unpredictability is that the storyline still manages to maintain a clear, logical progression in its tone & aesthetic; it’s not all chaos. The dreamlike pop-up book sequence Britnee described feels totally in tune with the characters’ childhood imaginations, which later give way to the visual tropes of action thrillers, romantic melodramas, and wedding ring jewelry commercials as they grow into adults. I also greatly admire the trajectory of its central romance, which does not shy away from the impossible scenario these two characters have set up for themselves where “Happily ever after” cannot be achieved without a few casualties, if not the end of the world. For all of the film’s visual showiness as an excited director’s dressed-to-impress debut, its value as an off-kilter feat in morbid, fluid storytelling is what really makes it a gem.

CC: I’m really glad this film held up! Once I saw Amélie a couple years later, it obviously replaced Love Me If You Dare as my favorite darkly whimsical French film, but this still holds up on revisit.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Brandon presents Local Legends (2013)
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

-The Swampflix Crew

Burning (2018)

It doesn’t come up here very often as this is a film review site and not a place where I brag about all the books I read, but I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami. I was 16 in 2004 when a friend recommended The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the book helped save my life in a dark time. Murakami has notoriously been reticent to hand over adaptation rights to much of his work (and if you’re a fan, imagine someone trying to turn 1Q84 or Kafka on the Shore into a movie and you can probably see why), but director Lee Chang-dong (Oasis, Secret Sunshine) did it, and the result is nothing less than spectacular. It took a little time, but Burning made its way back to Austin via the Film Society Cinema, and it was well worth the wait.

After his father runs into trouble with the law, Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), who finished college after his mandatory military service but has yet to find gainful employment, is making his way back to his father’s small farm in his hometown near the North Korean border to manage his livestock. Along the way, he runs into Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend and neighbor, whom he doesn’t recognize at first, which she attributes to plastic surgery. She demonstrates a talent for pantomime and tells him that she is planning a trip to Africa and asks him to feed her cat, Boil, while she is out of the country. The two sleep together when she gives him the tour of her tiny apartment, showing him the one spot in the single room which gets a ray of sunshine reflected off of the Seoul Tower for a few moments a day. After she leaves, he attends his father’s arraignment and attends to feeding Boil, whom he never sees, and grows more attached to Hae-mi in her absence. When Hae-mi returns from Kenya, she is accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a fellow Korean with whom she bonded when they were both trapped in the Nairobi airport for three days due to a terror warning. The three attend dinner together, where Ben plays coy about his employment and claims to have never shed a tear in his adult life as he has never experienced sadness, while Jong-su appears envious of the rapport Ben and Hae-mi have developed.

The three get together again and Ben prepares dinner (or, as he says he sometimes imagines, and offering to himself) in his home, an upscale apartment in Seoul’s expensive Gangnam neighborhood; Jong-su compares him to Jay Gatsby, a young man of great wealth whose income is obscure. Still later, Ben and Hae-mi visit Jong-su’s farm and the three get high; Hae-mi dances topless beneath a beautiful sunset, Jong-su opens up about his mother’s departure when he was a child and his father’s anger, and Ben admits to having a fascination with burning down greenhouses. Jong-su insults and shames Hae-mi, and she and Ben leave. Later, when Jong-su tries to contact her again, she doesn’t respond. Eventually her phone number is disconnected, and after a visit to the Shin family still reveals no secrets, Jong-su investigates further. But what is he chasing? A woman? A shadow? A victim? A dream? A ghost? Someone who was never there at all?

This movie is dense. It also never feels its length, moving along at a steady clip for all 150 minutes. I’d never read “Barn Burning,” the Murakami short story on which the film is loosely based (and which was in turn inspired by a Faulkner story), but there’s a 13 page PDF version floating around the internet, so I gave it a quick once-over to see how much of the film’s plot correlated to the original text, and it’s less than you would expect. Still, it’s obvious that Lee (the director, not the carrier) is a fan of Murakami’s wider body of work based on other elements that he inserted in expanding the 5000ish word piece into a sprawling film. There’s no cat in “Barn Burning,” for instance, but the presence of cats in the author’s work can’t be understated (the missing cat Noboru kicks off the plot of Wind-Up Bird, Tengo’s obsession with a short story about a town of cats is an integral part of 1Q84, and Nakata in Kafka on the Shore can communicate with cats, just to name a few). There’s also no mention in the story of the father of the unnamed narrator (who is older than Jong-su), but bad fathers are also a frequent element in Murakami’s work (the titular Kafka runs away from home because of his father, Tengo’s reminisces about his childhood that don’t involve around Aomame are all about being used as a prop by his father on his NHK fee-collecting route, etc.), and Jong-su’s father here is explicitly a man with anger issues who drove his wife away before forcing his son to burn the woman’s clothes and who can’t seem to stop fighting with local authorities. As soon as there was a cat and a shitty dad, I thought to myself, “Now all we need is a well,” and sure enough, Hae-mi ended up telling a (probably false) story about falling into a well as a child and being rescued by Jong-su about ten minutes of screentime later. It’s all the Murakami hallmarks you’ve come to know and love, even down to the fact that the song Hae-mi dances to is Miles Davis’s “Générique,” although the narrator mentions that the trio listened to Davis during the visit to his home in “Barn Burning.” All that’s missing is an internal monologue about staying in shape by swimming in the city’s public pool or a step-by-step recitation of how to take care of vinyl records and you’d hit Murakami bingo.

Not that you need to speak Murakami to love this film. I confess I’ve not seen any of Lee’s previous work, but I have to imagine that if it contains half the subtlety, the meaningful composition, the sweeping cinematic beauty, and the intensity of emotion here, it’s no wonder he’s considered one of the great living directors (just look at the list of awards and honors on his wikipedia page). It’s almost impossible to really get into the layers of composition here without giving too much away, since there’s a lot going on. Just how reliable is Jong-su’s point of view? He paints Ben as Jay Gatsby, but Ben comes across more as a Tom Buchanan type, with Hae-mi as the mercurial and flighty Daisy to Jong-su’s obsessive Gatsby (albeit lacking in the archetype’s material wealth). We dislike Ben because Jong-su does, but should we like Jong-su, really, even before he starts to suspect Ben might have had something to do with Hae-mi’s disappearance and thus stalks Ben around in the world’s most conspicuous “stealth” vehicle? But if Ben’s so innocent, what is he up to with all his mysterious riches and his gaggle of friends? Is he a sociopath, as his lack of empathy seems to imply? What’s up with his collection of women’s jewelry – is he hiding a cuckqueaned wife from his series of girlfriends? Is this his collection of trophies from sexual conquests? Something more sinister? What really happened to Hae-mi? When she returns from Kenya, she delivers a poignant monologue about watching the sunset over the desert and feeling that she was at the end of the world, citing fear of death but a desire for non-existence. Did she disappear because that’s what she really wanted? This hearkens back to her explanation of pantomiming eating a tangerine (which does come from the short story): it’s not about believing that the tangerine is there, but forgetting that it isn’t. Does she want to not exist, or does she want to forget that she ever did? We even see this void/lack when Jong-su visits Hae-mi’s mother and sister, who not only haven’t seen her but tell Jong-su that she’s not welcome to return until she repays her debts; they’re correct that Hae-mi is responsible for Jong-su’s visit despite his protests that she didn’t send him, they simply don’t realize that its Hae-mi’s absence that is driving him.

I really can’t add any more here without telling you too much. Just go watch Burning. It’s currently streaming for $3.99 (a steal, believe me) on Vudu and Amazon Prime.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Net (1995)

There was a stunning late-2018 phenomena in the week between Christmas and New Year’s where everyone in my immediate social & professional circles who normally don’t care at all about movies suddenly cared a lot about one movie in particular: Bird Box. The absurd, instantaneous ubiquity of Bird Box‘s online premise caused on uproar of memes, then memes about those memes, then conspiracy theories about where the memes came from in the first place. Whether Bird Box‘s cultural moment was manufactured by the Netflix advertising machine or it was a genuine response to a widely available genre film with a flashy premise, its sudden online omnipresence was a great reminder to watch another Sandra Bullock vehicle that had been sitting unwatched on my shelf for months: the 1995 cyberthriller The Net. I don’t know that there ever was a time when The Net dominated online culture in proto-meme ridicule the way Bird Box hijacked everyone’s brain for 72 hours, but wild internet conspiracy theories about Bird Box‘s marketing had a distinct Net-ish flavor to it anyway. To put it in 1995 terms, Bird Box Week was a terrifying time when America got hacked by an elite group of cyberterrorists – Netflix’s marketing department.

The most convincing argument that Bird Box‘s instantaneous online success was a natural occurrence instead of an algorithm “hack” job is that Sandra Bullock is just that much of a draw. Curiously enough, that exact argument is what makes the basic premise of The Net so ludicrously unconvincing. Sometime in the 1990s audiences (and well-compensated PR teams) unanimously crowned Julia Roberts as America’s Sweetheart, only for that position to quickly trickle down to Sandra Bullock sometime around the release of Miss Congeniality (and, arguably, later to Reese Witherspoon). As one of America’s Official Sweethearts, Bullock is often cast as an everyday Plain Jane in roles she is far too beautiful & vibrantly charismatic to pull off. I’ve never seen a more preposterous version of that dissonance than in The Net, where Bullock plays a friendless loner slob computer hacker, vulnerable to attack because she’s alone in the world. Watching Bullock slovenly eat junk food & code in her “cyberchat” computer dungeon really pushes her Sweetheart Next Door onscreen persona into surreally unbelievable territory. That inability to lose herself in a role comes hand in hand with movie star celebrity, though – a suspension of disbelief audiences are willing to accommodate because we love seeing these megastars perform, Everyday Sweethearts or no.

Besides Bullock’s natural star power & effortless charm, The Net‘s main draw for modern audiences is its glimpse at 1990s era fears & misunderstandings of online culture. I feel like I already blather until I’m hoarse about how user-interface cyberthrillers like Unfriended, Cam, Nerve, and #horror are documenting online culture & tech textures in a way more “respectable” cinema wouldn’t dare; The Net is only further proof how invaluable that will be after just a few years’ time. The film’s main conflict involves an encrypted floppy disc that elite hackers are willing to murder Bullock’s online slob to obtain, exploring then-contemporary audiences’ fears of the vulnerability of digitally stored information. Characters anxiously explain the vulnerability of our “electronic shadow” in a world where “our entire lives are in the computer,” waiting to be hacked. The film’s tagline bellows, “Her driver’s license. Her bank account. Her credit card. Her identity. DELETED.” Most of The Net‘s basic thriller elements derive from Bullock’s helplessness in the face of this online identity persecution limiting her mobility & capital as she protects the MacGuffinous floppy disc. Just as important as those loud, overwhelming shouts of digitized culture fearmongering, though, are the documentation of more grounded, everyday online activities as Bullock frantically types away on her ancient PC.

Of course, all of this alarmist documentatarian focus on mid-90s internet culture often opens up the film to being outright silly, charmingly so. Primitive AOL-era emojis, in-dialogue explanations of terms like “IRL” (all-caps), and exchanges like “You’re hacker too?,” “Isn’t everybody?,” color The Net as a so-bad-it’s-good early Internet relic. A lot of that ridicule is overexaggerated, such as a much-mocked scene where Bullock orders food delivery from the fictitious Pizza.Net that more or less predicted the Domino’s online delivery app a decade in advance, as if this were prescient sci-fi instead of a ludicrously dated thriller. Where The Net truly gets good for me is in its lack of confidence that its chosen subject is sufficiently cinematic. Unsure audiences will bother reading online chatroom text to themselves, Bullock’s computer “helpfully” reads out the chatter in exaggerated robotic voice synthesizers. Discontented with merely displaying online data in matter-of-fact presentation, harsh music video edits & slashing sound cues are deployed to make computer readouts more “dynamic” (read: obnoxious). To add some explosive energy to the onscreen thrills, the film’s evil hacker syndicate graduate from hijacking online personal data to hijacking personal airplanes – essentially hacking victims to death in fiery crashes. It’s all deeply, incurably silly, a tone that only improves with time as its moment in tech becomes more obsolete.

Without its Evil Internet gimmick and the America’s Sweetheart charisma of Sandra Bullock, The Net would have a dime-a-dozen quality in 90s thriller terms. I assume the same could be said of Bird Box‘s respective gimmick, sight unseen (pun intended). There’s much worse a thriller could do to grab your attention than exploit a preposterous high-concept scenario & employ a surefire box office star, though. For instance, it could flood the internet with fake accounts & preloaded memes or hack your VOD platform to set its front-page autoplay on loop to inflate its own viewing numbers, boosting its profile. If The Net had taught me anything, it’s that nothing is unhackable and nothing online is to be trusted, not even Pizza.Net.

-Brandon Ledet

Escape Room (2019)

People like to joke about January being a toxic wasteland for cinematic releases, but for all practical purposes it might genuinely be my favorite cinematic month of the year. Not only is January a notorious dumping ground for Hollywood studios to unload cheap genre trash into wide release in a gloriously uninhibited free-for-all, it’s also the time of year when prestigious Oscar Hopefuls trickle down from NYC & LA to finally reach the American South. It’s a truly jarring overlap that allows for maniacally curated double features like Silence & Monster Trucks or Mom and Dad & Call Me By Your Name, the kind of high-brow/low-brow battleground I always crave at the cinema. Even as an enthusiastic defender of January genre trash, however, I was taken aback by the entertainment quality of this year’s earliest release of note the high-concept gimmick horror Escape Room. Escape Room is the ideal specimen of January trash, where all storytelling logic & meaningful character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, preposterous gimmick. My only regret is that I didn’t think to pair it with something prestigious, like Roma or If Beale Street Could Talk, even though that was totally doable thanks to the bonkers programming choices that always kick off the calendar year.

When stripped down to its essentials, Escape Room is the ideal version of Saw – with all of its nasty torture porn impulses & (most of) its nu metal soundtrack removed for optimal silliness. A group of money & adventure hungry strangers are lured to a high-end escape room with the promise of a $10,000 payout if they solve the puzzle therein. The exposition that introduces the escape room’s contestants (and, later, combatants) is smartly kept brief – reducing the film’s characters to broad archetypes who are instantly familiar, so no time is wasted. Once the boring business of telling a story with emotional stakes is swept away, they find themselves struggling for survival, both as a team & as opponents, in a series of preposterous death traps – escape rooms except for real. As they fight their way through creepy mannequins, oversized ovens, and monstrous doses of hallucinogens, a larger conspiracy about why they were chosen as participants and who, exactly, is pulling the levers behind the curtain emerges, but the effort amounts to even less than the half-assed motions towards character development & meaningful dialogue. This movie is entirely about in-the-moment cheap thrills, which it supplies in exponentially silly delirium as its escape room gimmicks escalate towards a near-global scale.

Besides keeping its character work to a bare minimum, Escape Room is smart in its acknowledgement of the dorkiness of its own premise. When a college student receives a Hellraiser puzzlebox invitation to the titular escape room, her roommate jokes “Have fun playing with your box over break.” Later, an uptight business prick endlessly razzes the escape room’s most enthusiastic participant for his nerdy obsession with escape rooms in general, essentially brushing him off as a virginal loser. There aren’t many other flashes of intelligence to be found in the picture, unless you’re easily impressed by casually tossed off references to Satre that have no actual significance to the tone or plot. The movie acknowledges that escape rooms are inherently dorky, rushes to pack one with broad caricatures anyway, and then puts its head down to power through the most absurd applications of its gimmick that it can conjure in just 100 minutes. You can squint your eyes looking for interesting choices in neon lighting, spooky synth music, or lavish production design, but you’d be fooling yourself for trying to pump this film up for being anything more than it is: cheap January genre trash with an all-in commitment to an attention-grabbing gimmick. It’s entirely satisfying for being just that and not pretending there’s a need for more.

-Brandon Ledet

Like Me (2018)

A neon-lit technophobic thriller profiling a teenage hedonist who posts videos of her increasingly violent, entirely preposterous crime spree on social media for likes, Like Me portends to be about the violence & voyeurism of modern online culture. Its title & basic premise promise the exact kind of genre-film fearmongering about the Evils of the Internet that I love so much in titles like Cam, Nerve, Unfriended, and #horror. That genre’s influence certainly runs throughout Robert Mockler’s microbudget debut as a constant, background hum, but the film overall is more of a character study of an ambitionless slacker who fills her days with drugs & violent pranks as a destructive form of self-amusement. The moral pitfalls & visual hallmarks of online culture are mostly an aesthetic choice used to flavor the post-Gen X road trip drama our reckless slacker protagonist stumbles through aimlessly. Given her grotesque impulses to indulge in large quantities of brightly colored junk food – both as sustenance and as bodily decoration – the film is just as much about sploshing as it is about the Internet. The command “Like me” from the title, then, is a clever indication of the midpoint where the film teeters between genres: stuck between an Internet Age crime spree thriller and a character study of a timeless teenage-loner archetype who just desperately needs attention & adoration.

The first 20min of Like Me is the exact social media-obsessed cyberthriller its surface-details promise. The film opens with our adoration-craving anti-hero filming her robbery of a late-night convenience store as if it were a 1st person shooter video game. Everything from her pixelated mask, her victim’s discomfort, and her audiences’ flippant online response to the misery being documented for their entertainment is a perfect encapsulation of the fearmongering cyberthriller that’s promised on the tin. Her subsequent stunts stray further from that theme as she often forgets to even film her crimes, which range form staging an elaborate dine & dash with a homeless man to kidnapping & shooting a pervy motel owner with a handgun. It’s in her relationship with that kidnapped perv (Larry Fessenden, looking like a mix between Jack Torrance & the Too Many Cooks creep) that Like Me begins to show its true, hideous colors. Its online-voyeurism critiques fade to the background as this unlikely, doomed pair become increasingly friendly on a go-nowhere road trip. As they hop novelty motels, share cheap drugs & morbid stories, and loosen the constraints of their captive-captor dynamic, the film becomes more about a single interpersonal connection made irl instead of thousands being made online – as irrevocably fucked up as the relationship might be.

As much as I’ve been focusing on Like Me’s various themes & character relationships here, those are admittedly the film’s most glaring weaknesses. Online commenters reducing human misery to the same entertainment value applied to movie trailer reaction videos & Funko Pops unboxings on YouTube is too thin of a critique to carry the movie on its own – both due to over-familiarity & to the broadness of its caricatures of an online audience. The closest Like Me gets to making a unique, interesting point about the evils of online culture is in casting a young female lead in a world where she’s surrounded almost exclusively by misogynist MRA types who make her feel small no matter how large her social media following becomes. It fares slightly better on that front once it becomes a kidnapping road trip drug movie, but for the most part the themes are razor thin and the quality of its actors’ performances is wildly uneven. It’s just easier to dwell on those narrative weaknesses in discussion of the film than it is to convey what makes it worth a watch: its visual experimentation. Like Me’s hyperactive editing style, neon-soaked production design, and glitchy .gif-influenced cyber-psychedelia transform what should be an entirely dismissible microbudget thriller that’s kind of about the dangers of the Internet into something genuinely worth a look. It didn’t deliver the Internet Age fearmongering I was hoping for, it stumbles a little in its search for having something to say, and the acting talent on hand is spotty, but the imagery it assaults the audience with is undeniably something – especially in its drugged-out, up-close depictions of day-glo sploshing.

-Brandon Ledet

Widows (2018)

I’m not sure what aspect of Widows’s marketing led me to expect a stylish heist thriller about vengeful women transforming into reluctant criminals in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. That version of Widows is certainly lurking somewhere in the 128-minute Prestige Picture that’s delivered instead, but it’s mostly drowned out by what I should have known to expect: an ensemble-cast melodrama packed with talented women in beautiful clothes & a world of political intrigue. Everything about 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s involvement, his collaboration with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, and the film’s Oscar-Season release date should have tipped me off that the promise of a heist genre action picture was merely a cover-up for a thoughtful, handsomely staged drama about women’s internal turmoil in the face of gendered, financial, and political oppression. Widows might still be a slight deviation from McQueen’s usual Prestige Drama fare in its isolated nods to heist genre convention, but surprise twists are becoming Gillian Flynn’s clear specialty; this entry in her modest canon includes a twist in the basic tone & genre of what you’d expect from an ensemble-cast heist picture.

Viola Davis stars as the ringleader widow, who attempts to rope three other widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and a barely- present Carrie Coon) into a heist job to help heal the financial wounds left by their dead criminal husbands. Following the detailed instructions left behind by her respective husband (Liam Neeson) in a Book of Henry-style notebook, she transforms from grieving teacher’s union organizer to criminal mastermind in the blink of a teary eye. The nature of her planned caper lands her in the middle of a hard-fought Chicago City Council’s race between brutish local politicians (Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, and Robert Duvall), which is dangerous territory for her small crew of grieving non-professional women who just want to put their lives back together. Oh yeah, and Bad Times at the El Royale’s Cynthia Erivo joins the crew as a getaway driver/muscle, just in case the cast wasn’t already overstuffed. And the dog from Game Night is also along for the ride; and Matt Walsh too. And Lukas Haas. And Jacki Weaver. If the enormity of that cast and the themes of that premise sounds like it might be overwhelming, it’s because it very much is. Widows plays a lot like an entire season of Prestige Television packed into a two-hour span – complete with the execution of the central heist acting as a self-contained episode. The economic & political backdrop of a stubbornly changing modern Chicago sets the stage for a wide range of actors (mostly playing dirtbag men and the women who love them) to patiently wait for their spotlight character moment to arrive in due time. Meanwhile, Flynn adds a new wrinkle to the plot every few beats to leave the audience salivating with anticipation for what’s going to happen next. It’s overwhelming (and a little thinly spread), but it’s also exhilarating.

Widows feels like a movie custom built for people whose all-time favorite TV show is still The Wire (and who could blame ‘em?). Its tangled web of debts, power plays, and barely-concealed vulnerabilities make for sumptuous melodrama, where lines like “We have a lot of work to do. Crying isn’t on the list,” don’t feel at all out of place or unnatural. The POV may be spread out too thin for any one character’s emotional journey to stand out as especially effective, but the performers are all so strong they manage to make an impression anyway: Davis as a once-confident woman at her wit’s end, Kaluuya as an inhuman terror, Erivo as an athletic machine, Debicki as the world’ tallest (and most tragic) punching bag, etc. I was way off-base for looking to Widows as a highly stylized heist thriller, as if it were the 2010s equivalent of Belly. Instead, it’s more of an overachieving melodrama and an actor’s showcase, the exact kind of smartly considered, midbudget adult fare Hollywood supposedly doesn’t make anymore. The action-heist element of the plot is just some deal-sweetening lagniappe for a stylish, well-performed story that would have been just as entertaining without it.

-Brandon Ledet

Cam (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Cloak & Dagger (1984)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Boomer, Brandon, and CC watch Cloak & Dagger (1984).

Britnee: Even as a grown woman, I find that I still watch a lot of children’s films, which is obvious from some of my past Movie of the Month choices (e.g., Magic in the Mirror, Something Wicked This Way Comes). The reason I get so much joy from indulging in films created for kids is that watching them whisks me away from my boring life of being a lame adult. Children’s films are full of imagination, creativity, and nostalgia – all things that I love. And so my selection for December’s Movie of the Month is yet another imaginative, nostalgic children’s film: Richard Franklin’s 1984 children’s adventure classic, Cloak & Dagger.

Cloak & Dagger is different from the average children’s movie, though, because it is extremely violent, making it super fun to watch as an adult. The film is about a dorky kid named Davey (Henry Thomas of E.T. fame) that spends most of his time going on adventures with his imaginary friend, Jack Flack (Dabney Coleman). Jack is the main character of Cloak & Dagger, a spy-adventure Atari game that Davey is obsessed with. After Davey is handed a Cloak & Dagger cartridge by a dying man in a stairwell, his life becomes Cloak & Dagger for real instead of for pretend. The cartridge contains top-secret government plans, and he must protect it at all costs. Things get crazy when a mysterious group of men hunt Davey down, intent to get their hands on the game (and to murder Davey in cold blood).

Brandon, were you surprised by the amount of violent action in Cloak & Dagger? What kind of reception do you think this film would receive if it was released in theaters today?

Brandon: I was definitely taken aback by the violence of Cloak & Dagger. Shocked, even. The film’s Video Game: The Movie gimmickry and casting of Dabney Coleman (in a dual role as both father & imaginary friend) promises a fun, goofy knockoff of WarGames about a young boy’s spy-mission fantasy antics. Instead, Cloak & Dagger mostly plays like a terrifying thriller about an international network of ruthless child murderers, only wearing its PG kids’ adventure movie pedigree as a disguise. The gleeful brutality of the child-hunting terrorists in Cloak & Dagger extends far beyond the normal Bad Guy goons just doing their jobs that typically fill the villain roles in these kinds of movies; they’re really looking forward to destroying their pint-sized tagrets (E.T.‘s Henry Thomas is paired up with a precocious Drew Barrymore-type for a sidekick, go figure), even more so than recovering their top-secret video game cartridge. The children of Cloak & Dagger are throttled, shot at, nearly stabbed, delivered bombs and, most cruelly, locked in car trunks with the corpses of their dead friends. Burly men burst into their homes, growling threats of how they’re going to blow up the entire neighborhood or shoot out the kids’ kneecaps before actually killing them, just to watch them bleed. All of this violence is supposedly in service of teaching Davey a lesson about how the adventurism he craves is no match for the stability of the loving home his father provides, but it is pushed to a traumatic extreme that definitely feels distinct for the genre.

As extreme as the brutality of Cloak & Dagger feels in retrospect, the film is clearly a product of its time. Sneaking into theaters just before the advent of the PG-13 rating, it got away with a lot of its violence because of the amoral grey area of not-quite-children’s-media that arose & died in its era. Along with Spielberg productions like Gremlins & Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Cloak & Dagger presented a confounding trend for the uptight pearl-clutchers at the MPAA: films that weren’t sexually crass enough to earn an R-rating, but were far too violent to be rated PG, requiring the invention of an entirely new rating. If released even months later, Cloak & Dagger would have been saddled with a PG-13 rating, which likely would have preempted it from becoming a modest hit. Cutting out that much of its potential customer base (by making a children’s movie only teenagers could see without a guardian in tow) would likely mean that a modern release of Cloak & Dagger either wouldn’t be greenlit in the first place, or would be sanitized of the violence that makes it distinct. Modern audiences struggle with embracing violent children-in-danger narratives in general, and the few that sneak through (Midnight Special, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Tomorrowland, to name a recent few) are often commercially shrugged off until they effectively disappear. The PG-rated brutality of Cloak & Dagger is just as 1980s-specific as the kids in the film being given free reign to ride the city bus wherever they like without chaperones and waving around black plastic toy guns in office buildings; it simply wouldn’t be permissed in modern day.

Of course, Cloak & Dagger is also adorably dated to the 1980s in its treatment of video game culture as an opportunity for a cash-grab, a flash-in-the-pan fad. One of the first instances of corporate synergy in the cinematic video game tie-in market (via a real-life Cloak & Dagger game simultaneously released to arcades by Atari) this film could have just as easily been titled Video Game: The Movie. Yet, it doesn’t seem to understand video games at all, likening all types of gaming (role play, cards, board games, arcades) as if they were all of the same cloth and not separate forms of amusement. CC, what do you make of Cloak & Dagger‘s adorably antiquated understanding of video game culture and how that tone clashes with the severity of its children-in-danger brutality? Does that juxtaposition date the film in a delightfully entertaining way or is it prohibitively distracting?

CC: I wasn’t there to experience it, so I could be wrong, but I feel like leisure activities have dramatically evolved in the past 50 years. When Cloak & Dagger came out, I’m not 100% sure that video games were seen by the wider culture as any different from table-top RPGs, card games, board games, or the games of skill seen in arcade halls. The types of amusements depicted in Cloak & Dagger were once considered the amusements of children – and children only. The only adult who plays video games in the movie was portrayed as a socially awkward nerd who is coded as existing in a state of arrested development. Now that video games are mainstream and firmly established as their own multi-billion-dollar industry, separate from all other types of gaming, I feel like the distance between these types of amusement has expanded. Further, the desire of the children of the 1980s to continue playing video games as they got older pushed it into the mainstream and increased the age of the average player. Today, I feel like table-top RPGs and campaign board games are more of a late-teen to adult amusement. Or perhaps I’m overestimating the level of perceived difference in types of gaming among actual gamers and the jumbling of elements has more to do with the writers’ cluelessness?

I never really felt that the clash between the gaming sensibilities and the violence were what was jarring. It was simply the protagonist’s young age that made the level of violence seem discordant. Personally, I liked the level of violence in this because it drove home the point that the Cold War Era table-top RPGs our protagonist was obsessed with included a huge amount of senseless violence. It’s only when you see that gore portrayed onscreen that you understand the intensity of the violence in the fantasy world he was already immersed in. On the page it’s fun and games, but in real life it’s terrifying.

Boomer, during our October Movie of the Month discussion for The Pit we talked a little bit about the mental health of Jamie, the sociopathic (but previously written as autistic or at least on the spectrum) lead. I feel like this film also walks a fine line between portraying its protagonist, Davey, as an obsessed child who gets carried away with his games to the point of hallucinating his hero Jack Flack – and a normal, but imaginative child who is truly trapped in a dangerous situation. How do you think this film handled Davey’s mental state? Did you feel that the level of judgement towards Davey’s game-playing was warranted?

Boomer: There’s certainly a level of “the newest form of entertainment is evil” panic present in the film, at least as far as Davey’s father is concerned. Some of this could simply be a filmmaker’s panic about video games; after all, history is filled with (externally moralized) panic about television replacing film, phonographs replacing people’s desire to learn how to play a musical instrument, and the printing press being an invention of the devil. With the advent of home gaming in the early 80s, there were many attempts to demonize that there newfangled video console. (Given that the video game industry is making money hand over fist and pulling in more revenue than movies, perhaps their concerns were justified.) Within the context of the film itself, Davey’s father’s concerns are justified: while he’s at work, his son gets so into his fantasy world that he’s wandering around downtown San Antonio and flashing very realistic toy guns in front of office lobby security. The security guard who sees a kid with what could easily be a real gun and doesn’t do anything about it is really bad at his job. While it would have been pretty bad for the elderly spies to escape with the secret stealth bomber plans hidden on the cartridge, this plot should never have happened, because Davey should have been asked where his parents were and his dad should have been called at work as soon as he flashed his piece in a crowded building. I live in Texas and the open carry laws are pretty lenient, but even in the 80s this wouldn’t have flown. The film sets up Mr. Osborne to be, within the context of this narrative, rightfully concerned that Davey is experiencing some degree of difficulty separating reality from fantasy, and so the lesson for children does seem to be that video games (and by association tabletop RPGs, etc.) are not to be trusted. Alternatively, a reasonable kid could also take away the lesson that, should you happen to witness a murder or something else you can’t immediately prove, maybe you should explain it to your parents in a realistic way and not talk about your imaginary friend in the process; that ups your credibility. Further, as with most stories in which new media are denigrated, most kids will recognize that the people making it have no idea how any of it works, which is in full evidence here in the way that no one making the movie understands how video games work or how figurines could play into it.

Brandon noted that this is part of that 80s zeitgeist of movies in which kids are doing pretty spectacular things, and they either fool their parents (who are useless), or their parents don’t believe them (again, useless), until at the end of the film Mom or Dad (never both in the 80s: Dad’s either left the family or Mom’s dead) demonstrate that they really do love Child Protagonist in a way that could be dangerous to them, but it all works out in the end. One of the things that this film didn’t do was have the two single parents of the kids have that moment at the end when everyone’s safe and they look at each other with a “maybe romance?” twinkle in their respective eyes. In fact, given the overall level of violence (it hasn’t been mentioned yet, but our Child Protagonist kills a man) and a pretty winding plot, there are probably more “rules” of kids movies from this era that are being broken that I’m overlooking. Britnee, as the expert on this genre and the person who’s seen Cloak & Dagger more than once, what are some of the other subversions and broken rules at play here?

Britnee: Piggybacking off your statements about the role of parents in 1980s kids’ movies, often when the child has a deceased parent there’s at least one or two scenes where they have an “I wish Mom/Dad was here” moment, or something is done to honor their parent’s memory. A memorable example would be when Bastian from The NeverEnding Story calls the Childlike Empress “Moonchild,” which is believed to be the name of his late mother. This trope even persists in animated children films of the 1980s. In The Land Before Time (which I still truly cannot watch without crying like a baby until this day), the spirit of Littlefoot’s deceased mother guides him on his journey to The Great Valley. The only mention of Davey’s deceased mother in Cloak & Dagger is from his father. Davey never talks about her or references her, and she never shows up to give him any sort of spiritual guidance. Perhaps having the memory of his mother more present in his decision-making would have softened up the film a bit?

What really stood out to me after watching Cloak & Dagger recently is how Davey was so willing to go with the elderly couple who end up being total creeps. For some reason, in both film and in real life, the older a person is, the safer they seem to be. The sweetly helpful elderly couple is all too common of a trope in children’s movies, so the twist that they are villains here is shocking. Trusting the old couple was the biggest mistake that Davey made because they were just as evil as the pack of child-killers chasing him. The most important lesson that can be learned from Cloak & Dagger is that Stranger Danger has no age limit.

Cloak & Dagger also strays away from the average 1980s kids’ movie because there’s really nothing magical or whimsical in it. There are no buried treasures or mythical creatures. The villains are grown men with guns; it takes place in San Antonio, Texas; and all that’s at stake are some lame secret government plans. Even though Jack is an imaginary friend, he doesn’t have any superpowers or magical abilities, which are typical imaginary friend qualities. The only thing in the film that was a little outside-of-the-box is the giant multi-sided dice in the opening scene. The more that I think about it, Cloak & Dagger is essentially a kids’ movie made for old men.

Brandon, do you think the film would have been better if Jack had superpowers? Like making weapons appear out of thin air for Davey to use against the bad guys?

Brandon: I was delighted by the jarring, Top Secret!-style spy-movie spoof that opens Cloak & Dagger, but I’m also glad the fantasy stopped there. That run-in with the giant dice is a concise, disorienting taste of Davey’s inner-fantasy life before the film moves on to contrast that escapism with the harsh, violent realities of the real world. Giving Jack Flack real-world superpowers might have made for a different kind of fun kids’ movie, but it would have ruined the dynamic that makes this one so special: the disconnect between Davey’s swashbuckling boys’ adventurism and the real-life implications of the violence that often defines those adventures. That dynamic is not only fascinating because of the horrific levels of 80s action movie violence leveled on children in a PG context, but also because of how it affects Davey’s relationship with his overworked father.

As Boomer already touched on, Cloak & Dagger stands out as the rare children’s film where both the kid & the parent actually have a point in their central conflict. Yes, Daddy-Dabney Coleman faces the same resentments about valuing career over family that plague most single parents in kids’ media. However, his explanation to Davey that “real heroes do boring things” like provide stability & shelter for their loved ones (instead of saving the world in grand, bullet-riddled adventures) is more justification than most single-parent archetypes get in this context. At the same time, Davey’s insistence that his dad play along with his interest in gaming so that they can spend intimate, quality time together is also justified by the danger that envelops him when he’s left to his own devices (namely, an Atari & a bus pass). Giving Imaginary Dabney Coleman real-life superpowers might have tipped the scales of justification further in Davey’s direction, which would be a shame since it’s rare to see such an evenly weighted parental conflict in a kids’ movie.

Cloak & Dagger was originally adapted from a short story (presumably written solely to pitch the movie) titled “The Boy Who Cried Murder,” so there’s plenty of implication that the film was meant to serve as a cautionary tale about getting lost in the fantasy of gaming – the same alarmist territory covered in the Tom Hanks Dungeons & Dragons cautionary tale Mazes & Monsters. At the same time, the film really wants you to invest in the struggling Atari console, so much so that it’s directly marketing a tie-in Cloak & Dagger video game by incorporating its cartridge & gameplay as a central part of the plot. Daddy-Dabney Coleman is also taught a lesson that parents should not blindly dismiss their kids’ interest in gaming, encouraging them to play along so they can be involved in their kids’ inner lives. CC, what do you make of this self-contradictory moralizing about the dangers of gaming and encouragement for parents to play Atari with their kids? Does Cloak & Dagger attempt “to have its cake & eat it too” or does it make a clear, substantive statement about whether gaming is a danger or if it’s harmless fun?

CC: It’s difficult to parse out the filmmakers’ intent, but there is definitely an internal struggle between the idea that games are a dangerous mind-suck and the reaction that golly-gee, that new Atari game sure looks swell. Even when they’re trying to sell you a new video game, they make it very clear that, unless you’re a well-adjusted parent trying to forge a stronger bond with your child, the only adults that play games are socially awkward nerds. They certainly spend more of the film’s runtime emphasizing the dark sides of gaming (obsession, fantastic delusion, misplaced trust in the elderly) that any pro-gaming messages seem like an afterthought, or were perhaps shoehorned in after Atari’s team watched the rough cut.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what the intent was. Due to the video game crash of 1983, Atari halted production on the home console version of Cloak & Dagger (and the company went bankrupt shortly after). All of the screenshots in the film were pulled from the arcade version and the cartridges were fakes. Perhaps the conflicted tone of the movie gives us some insights into the turmoil of Atari’s marketing department. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Mark, imagine you were the right age when Cloak & Dagger came out (and Atari had released the home console version). Would you have wanted to purchase your own copy after seeing this movie?

Boomer: You know, I don’t think that I would have been that into it, but I’m not sure. I like video games and always have, but I’ve never really been much of a “gamer” (especially as, almost from its inception, online gaming has been a cesspool of homophobic and racist language used by children without oversight or parental guidance), and I’m old enough to remember when the gatekeepers of that fandom looked down on me for my unending love of Halo (then derogatorily referred to as a “Doom clone” before we came to call those games by the more appropriate term “first person shooter”). But as a kid growing up in economically depressed Southeastern Louisiana, we were always behind the times technologically, although I still clearly remember getting the original Game Boy for Christmas in 1995, six years after its release, and I’ve been lagging behind ever since; I bought my Xbox 360 in 2008, three years after it hit the shelves and even then only because my tax return that year was pretty good, and ten years later it’s still the most sophisticated thing that I own. That having been said, the depictions of video games in movies rarely piques my interest, and I don’t think that this would have been any different had I been the appropriate age for this film when it was released. It makes an interesting companion piece to The Wizard, which came out 5 years later and which I do remember from its television airings when I was younger; I remember being fond of that movie, but that might simply be the fact that even as a child I knew that I would follow Jenny Lewis to the ends of the earth. The first video game I can remember playing in the home (the local seafood po-boy place at the corner of Plank and Hwy 64 had both Pole Position and Ms. Pac-Man, both over ten years old by that point) was the bizarre Bouncing Babies, which came with our monochromatic MS-DOS HP that was inherited from a friend of the family in 1996 (again, 12 years after that game was originally released) and which I loved.

The actual gameplay of the Cloak & Dagger video game that we see doesn’t look like much fun, to be honest, and I don’t think even child-Boomer would have been impressed or interested. The graphics are bad, even for that time; compare the onscreen presentation to something like Frogger, Donkey Kong, and especially Dragon’s Lair, all of which predated or were contemporaries of C&D, and there’s really no contest. Cloak & Dagger looks muddied, clipped, and just plain ugly. Of course, that may just be the way that the refresh rate on the monitors that characters are using in the movie interacted with film, since actual screengrabs from the game look amazing in comparison. Still, as a kid, I don’t think that I would have been that interested, especially since even for a patient kid like me, this movie was long, and the gameplay was the least captivating thing about it. I would have been much more interested in the real-world make-believe play-acting that the kids in this movie did. In fact, if I remember correctly, I used to desperately want a pair of amazing walkie-talkies that I could use to talk to my best friend from a long way away more than I wanted anything else as a kid, a desire that was fanned by other movies with similarly unrealistic performance ranges (I’m looking at you, Three Ninjas).

The other thing that would have really stood out to me as a kid, even more than its video game subplot, were the villains. The elderly couple make for pretty memorable antagonists. I told a friend that I had watched this movie the day before, and he said that this was on the movies that his elementary school had on VHS to be pulled out on rainy days (which . . . yikes). When asking questions to make sure he was remembering the right movie, he didn’t mention any Atari cartridges or an imaginary friend: his strongest memory was of the evil elderly spies. Take from that what you will.

Lagniappe

Boomer: So this movie is pretty blatantly propaganda for San Antonio’s public transportation system, right? That and the River Walk.

Britnee: Dabney Coleman looks like he smells like a mix of chewing tobacco and fabric softener. This applies to his role as Davey’s father and as Jack Flack.

Brandon: It was kind of a bold move both for Henry Thomas’s agent and for Atari to risk associating the young actor with gaming so soon after the E.T. video game disaster. The E.T. tie-in video game was such an embarrassing flop for Atari (due mostly to poor craftsmanship in its rush to market) that it’s cited as one of the major contributing factors for the video game industry crash of 1983 – the very thing that made desperate last-ditch revitalization efforts like Cloak & Dagger necessary in the first place. As confirmed in the 2014 documentary Atari: Game Over, thousands of copies of the E.T. game were buried in a New Mexico landfill to clear the unsold stock, each with Henry Thomas’s face on the cartridge. That’s not necessarily the first face I would think to cast in my movie about a video game fantasy adventure.

CC: As much as I like kids in danger, I dunno, this one doesn’t do it for me. I think Britnee got it right when she said it was a kids film for old men. Plus the opening scene reminded me of Top Secret! & The Naked Gun and I hate ZAZ/Leslie Nielsen films.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Summer of ’84 (2018)

After the all-consuming cultural takeover Stranger Things staged a couple summers back, it’s near-impossible for an 80s kids-on-bikes genre throwback to escape limiting, direct comparisons to the Netflix TV series. For an eerie 80s nostalgia piece to stand out at this point, in an oversaturated market just brimming with the stuff, it has to have an angle: Beyond the Black Rainbow shines in its paranormal psychedelia; Super Dark Times de-mystifies the wholesomeness of the era’s memory to expose its true-life teen boy grotesqueries; Ready Player One foresees a grim near-future where 80s nostalgia eats us all alive. The filmmaking collective RKSS fulfilled this requirement wonderfully in their 2016 debut feature Turbo Kid, which turns nostalgia for half-remembered, comically exaggerated 80s runoff into a weirdly mutated, hyperviolent sugar rush. That’s why it’s disappointing that their follow-up sophomore feature, the kids-on-bikes mystery thriller Summer of ’84, plays its own material almost entirely straight, offering way-too-little-way-too-late in terms of finding a fresh angle on the 80s throwback craze to avoid redundancy. Turbo Kid feels like a 1980s throwback in its surface pleasures, but in practice goes too far over-the-top in its own whimsy to resemble anything specific from the decade in any direct, recognizable way. Summer of ’84, regrettably, finds RKSS delivering something that could easily be shrugged off as “just another Stranger Things,” waiting until its final few minutes to attempt anything novel or unexpected with the material – to muted results. The good news is that Stranger Things is pleasant, crowd-pleasing entertainment; the disappointment is in knowing RKSS can achieve more than that.

Summer of ’84 lays out the exact shameless 80s nostalgia tone it’s going for as thickly and as early as possible, ranging from sly Spielberg nods like kids riding around on bikes at sunset, armed with flashlights, to blunt Spielberg nods in lengthy discussions of Gremlins and declarations like “I’m going to become the next Spielberg!” The young boys in question are feeling restless in their Spielbergian suburb/prison, only able to fill up so much of their summer vacation ogling crusty porno magazines and spying on the Hot Girl Next Door with the Side Ponytail through binoculars & bedroom windows. It’s almost a blessing, then, when a local serial killer starts abducting boys their age in the nearby vicinity, bringing some supposedly needed “excitement” into the neighborhood. Taking full advantage of the opportunity for adventure, the boys launch their own vigilante investigation of the abductions, fixating on a beloved neighborhood cop/obvious creep played by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer. Summer of ’84 is a little too late to the table to offer much insight in its revelations that suburban life is more sinister than it appears on the surface, try as it might in lines like “Every serial killer lives next door to someone,” and “The suburbs are where the craziest shit happens.” Even if the Spielberg & Joe Dante territory the film is directly aping weren’t enough to cover it, David Lynch has just about run that topic into the ground all on his own. It does find a somewhat novel angle on the material by clashing its initial gee-walkers 80s boys’ adventure tone with a last-minute shift to pitch-black cruelty & brutality that feels anachronistic to its era (outside extreme examples like Cloak & Dagger). It’s a tonal shift sold exceptionally well by Sommer’s creepy neighbor-cop, but it’s one that arrives too late to have much effect on the overall picture.

There are a few early jump scares that might indicate the dark, novel places Summer of ’84 eventually goes in its concluding minutes, but for the most part what’s on the screen just resembles things we’ve already seen many times over as an audience. Beyond its resemblance to Stranger Things, the film also recalls the teenage Rear Window mutation Disturbia in its killer-next-door-neighbor binoculars investigations. I swear one of the scrawny teen-boy actors (Cory Grüter-Andrew) is styled to look exactly like Martha Plimpton in The Goonies and it’s cute, but super distracting. It’s tough to tell whether the casual Reagan Era misogyny & homophobia shared amongst its central teens is meant to be a critique of films from that era or just a reflection of the culture at the time, but either way it was a topic covered much more purposefully in Super Dark Times. Really, then, Summer of ‘84’s one standout angle on the material is the harsh clash of its teen-boy adventurism and the cold, brutal reality of its serial killer plot. If the tonal contrast of that juxtaposition has been featured front & center for the entire length of the picture, Summer of ’84 might have established a unique enough angle on the 80s nostalgia craze that it would invite deeper critical discourse than just comparisons to previous works. As is, everything before that final shift can be comfortably described as “just another Stranger Things;” that isn’t the worst critique to suffer, but it’s also well below the wilder, go-for-broke standard set by Turbo Kid.

-Brandon Ledet