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

Parasite (2019)

“Money is an iron.”

This is the thesis statement of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a beautiful film about the lengths that one family living in poverty will go to in order to climb the ladder of social success. As stated by a member of this quartet, money is an iron, as it irons out all the wrinkles in life, both metaphorical and literal, leaving behind flawless skin and a life virtually devoid of the anxieties of the common man.

A couple of years ago, a friend was taken on a date by a man of great wealth (she never mentioned his name, either to maintain the air of mystery or possibly due to an NDA). She described the evening, in which they were seated at a table in a clearing that was essentially devoid of people, servers appearing seemingly out of thin air when more wine was needed or to deliver unidentifiable gourmet foods and then disappearing back into the bushes. At the end of the night, when her host was driving her home in a wine-buzzed state, he tapped the rear bumper of another car. My friend watched as the wealthy man got out and talked to the other driver, the scene playing out in the Lynchian halo of headlights: no arguments, just a civil conversation, until finally her host took out his wallet, handed the younger man an amount of cash, and at the end of their discussion, the victim hugged the man whose car had struck his own. “In that moment,” my friend said, “I realized my whole life was a lie. Nothing matters. Money can do anything.” Money is an iron.

Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik, of Train to Busan) lives in a half-basement apartment with his parents and sister, all of them working odd jobs, like folding pizza boxes, to scrape by. One day Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon) visits the family to deliver a suseok shaped like a mountainand meant to act as a charm to bring the family wealthand ask Ki-woo to take over his position as English tutor to the teenaged daughter of a wealthy family whose patriarch Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) is the CEO of an IT company. Ki-woo, who is naturally bright but was unable to afford college following his required military service, is initially reluctant, but agrees to interview for the position with school documents forged by his sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), and is accepted for the role by the relatively simple-minded family matriarch, Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong). Noticing that the couple’s younger, undisciplined child, son Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon), likes to paint, Ki-woo secures a job for Ki-jeong as the boy’s art teacher, under the guise of a friends cousin from art school in the U.S. With a little more finagling, he gets his mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, of Snowpiercer) positions working for the Park family as well. And that’s when things get . . . weird.

To say more would be to spoil the film’s various twists and turns, although all of them are foreshadowed beautifully: Ki-taek’s tendency to leave the windows of the family’s hovel open results in disaster, Ki-woo’s obsession with and allegiance to the rock that is meant as a talisman for the family’s upward mobility brings him nothing but misfortune, even Ki-jeong’s fortuitously lucky guess that something “traumatic” happened to Da-song when he was younger turns out to be true, after a fashion. For the Park family, money is an iron, as it not only frees them from difficulties others experience, but protects them from even having to be aware of them, as they live in an ornate, sun-kissed mansion surrounded by a perfectly manicured and maintained lawnthe only vegetation that we see in the entire film. Approaching the Park home from the street, there is only a set of stairs and a garage door visible, but once inside, the walls at the edge of the property make the house and its inhabitants seem completely isolated, the shrubbery creating an optical illusion as if there is no world beyond the edge, no starving people living in easily-flooded basements just subway stops away.

The Parks are not malicious people, just naive and separated from the rest of the world. The Kims are not evil either; they are merely trapped within a social structure that offers no legitimate or straightforwardly moral methods to escape from their social tier. The rules are different for the rich, and it shows in the way that they treat their domestic employees: Ki-taek may be treated like a trusted advisor and even a friend most of the time, but Dong-ik doesn’t hesitate to remind him that he is being paid when the former is hesitant to participate in a roleplay for Da-song’s birthday. The Parks also remark upon Ki-taek’s smell, noting that it is musty and “like the subway,” not that any member of their family has set foot in a subway in years, and Dong-ik’s involuntary reaction to being confronted by the scent unexpectedly plays a major role in the film’s resolution. Further, the Park family even fetishizes poverty at one point, as husband and wife lie together and he whispers to her about the eroticism of the “cheap” panties (actually Ki-jeong’s) that were found in the backseat of his car earlier in the film.

Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Riot Girls (2019)

After Satanic Panic & Porno, Riot Girls is the third cheap-o genre film I’ve seen this year with confoundingly strong word of mouth despite its modest payoffs, likely due to its creator’s accumulated goodwill from years of work in the horror industry. A recent episode of Switchblade Sisters detailed director Jovanka Vuckovic’s professional background as the editor-in-chief of Rue Morgue Magazine – a beloved Canadian horror publication. On paper, the film she was promoting—Riot Girls—sounded like a revolutionary kick to the industry’s balls from a genre film aficionado who knew exactly what pitfalls of cliché & tedium to avoid or subvert in her debut as a filmmaker. In practice, the results are more aggressively ordinary than revolutionary – a pattern I’ve noticed in straight-to-VOD genre novelties like this & Satanic Panic recently. However, Riot Girls’s ordinary, familiar tones counterintuitively worked in its favor in the long run, as the film ultimately recalls the landscape of daytime syndicated television in the 1990s – a very specific corner of trash media I can’t help but remember fondly.

This post-Apocalyptic thriller is set in an alternate 1995 where all adults die of a horrific epidemic known as “gut rot.” The young children & teenagers left behind, unaffected by the disease until they reach full maturity, attempt to maintain a semblance of societal structure after this cataclysmic event. Maintaining the wealth disparity of the generations that preceded them to a petty, increasingly meaningless degree, the kids of Small Town, USA split their city into two warring halves: The Rich Side & The Poor Side. The rich run their government like a high school principle’s office while the poor dress like mid-90s mall punks who just discovered their first Bad Religion record. It’s letterman jackets vs. Elmer’s glue mohawks as the rich kids take the poor kids’ leader hostage on the wrong side of the border. A small crew of mall punk misfits (including a central lesbian couple) break in to free their bud, literalizing a class warfare that had been bubbling under the surface since long before their parents all mysteriously died.

There’s a whole lot to complain about here. The movie peaks early with an L7 needle drop and a stylish info-dump prologue designed to look like a hip 90s Fantagraphics comic. The eighty minutes of hostage-heist rescue missions that follow are astoundingly inert, no matter how many studded leather jackets or power chord guitar riffs decorate it. The worst part is that the title has little, if anything to do with the onscreen action; there are two female leads who might qualify for the “riot girl” distinction, but for the most part the movie is far too well-behaved & testosterone-addled for the title to mean much of anything. It does at least gesture to the production’s 90s setting & sensibility, but ultimately the movie isn’t feminist nor punk enough to earn that title. There’s barely a riot here and only a couple of girls around to start one, which is a shame, since the title & post-Hernandez Brothers poster art promise something very specific that cannot be delivered under those circumstances.

Fortunately, there is a media category where this That’s So 90s sensibility & mall punk posturing feels right at home: the vintage daytime syndication TV show. Riot Girls’s unrushed tempo, kids-against-the-world premise, and post-aPunkalyptic costuming recall 90s shows like The Tribe, Ocean Girl, and Animorphs. Except now those sub-Xena disposables are beefed up with blood & cusses (and the threat of sexual assault for some unwelcome lagniappe). It’s a little easier to forgive the film for its dramatic flaws & lack of urgency once you allow it to mentally transport you back to those simpler times. Don’t look to Riot Girls to kick in your teeth with a Punk Rock Kids Apocalypse; former Movie of the Month selection Class of 1999 might be your better option there. Rather, allow it to dial the clock back to when you would casually drain away entire Saturdays watching nonsense trash like Beastmaster, Highlander, and Baywatch Nights in a passive trance – drooling cereal-flavored saliva onto your Power Rangers pajamas. Every now & then a flash of gore or an onscreen bong rip will break that trance, but for the most part it comfortably fits in that exact milieu.

-Brandon Ledet

Swallow (2019)

In a thematic sense, it’s near impossible to talk about the eerie, darkly humorous thriller Swallow without comparing it to Todd Hanes’s Safe. In both films, wealthy housewives suffer enigmatic health crises that can’t be controlled or even fully defined by their frustrated doctors & families – evoking a kind of existential horror take on the Douglas Sirk melodrama. They also both reach a third act turning point where their respective protagonists break free from their confined, controlled homelives to seek out a community of their own choosing – disrupting the structure of a typical thriller in remarkably similar ways. As similar as its content may be to Haynes’s prior achievement, however, Swallow has no trouble distinguishing itself as a unique work in tone or purpose. Safe is a pure exercise in mood & atmosphere, avoiding any direct answers as to what physical or cosmic affliction is tormenting its unraveling housewife protagonist beyond a vague association with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. By contrast, Swallow is much more willing to function as a straightforward genre film, discussing its themes & central conflict in clear, unflinching terms so that it can fully deal with the sinister consequences onscreen. Its wicked humor, squirmy body horror, and open discussions of financial & gendered power dynamics make for an equally disturbing but much more easily digestible picture – pun heavily intended.

The tormented housewife in question here suffers from a psychological disorder known as pica – which prompts her to compulsively swallow inedible objects of increasing danger & difficulty. Outright rejecting any need for subtlety or restraint (two vastly overrated impulses in modern filmmaking at large), Swallow openly acknowledges that this compulsion is its protagonist’s way of exercising control over her body in a closely monitored, oppressively boring life as a domestic servant for her own wealthy husband. Denied privacy, autonomy, and pleasure in all other aspects of her life, she finds a new, exciting fixation in swallowing increasingly dangerous, seemingly random household objects: marbles, thumb tacks, AA batteries, etc. On the surface, she seems to have won the lottery of life – living in the right house, impregnated by the right husband, curating the perfect nuclear home. The way she’s steamrolled & ignored in daily conversation makes her out to be more of home appliance than a living, breathing person, though, so she invents ways to exert control over her life & stir up internal adventures by swallowing forbidden objects. The financial & patriarchal authority figures in her family & medical community might not fully understand why she puts her life (and by extension her fetus’s life) at risk for such an unproductive thrill, but the audience totally gets it – and the horror comes not only from being unable to stop her, but also from being tempted to cheer her on.

There’s plenty of tonal & stylistic choices that distinguish Swallow as a uniquely satisfying work – especially regarding how it plays with genre. The contrast of the cold, crisp, color-coordinated spaces our thumbtack-swallowing heroine occupies emphasizes her need to break free from her domestic prison in nearly every frame. There’s also a deliciously wicked contrast between the humor & horror of her affliction; you both secretly want to see her get away with sneaking the next sharp object down her throat and squirm in anguish as it scrapes against her teeth or is surgically removed. The real distinguishing factor here, though, is Haley Bennett’s performance in the central role. Both Swallow and Safe essentially function as one-woman shows. Bennett had a daunting task in distinguishing her own performance in that paradigm from the living legend who is Julianne Moore, something she seemingly accomplishes with ease. Appearing like a scared child in June Cleaver housewife drag, Bennett conveys a horrific lack of confidence & self-determination in every gesture. Her fragility & despondence under the control of her wealthy, emotionally abusive family make you want to celebrate her newfound, deeply personal path to fulfillment, even though it very well might kill her. As she snacks on fistfuls of garden soil while watching trash TV instead of obeying her family’s orders all I could think was “Good for her!,” which is about as far from the sentiment of Safe as possible. It’s a less opaque, less thematically subtle work than Haynes’s film, which I honestly believe makes for an improvement on the already satisfying formula. It could not have gotten there without the strength of Haley Bennett’s performance though; the whole enterprise rests on her shoulders and she carries it with an astounding ease.

-Brandon Ledet

Monos (2019)

There’s a mystery at the core of Monos that has nothing to do with plot reveals or concealed identities among its characters. The mystery is mostly a matter of getting your bearings. What’s clear is that we’re spending a couple tense hours in the Amazon rainforest with a teenage militia as they struggle to maintain control over a political hostage and a sustenance-providing milk cow. The details surrounding that circumstance are continually disorienting as the whos, whys, and whens of the premise are kept deliberately vague. The temporal setting could range from thirty years in the past to thirty years into the apocalyptic future, limited only by the teen soldiers’ codenames being inspired by 80s pop culture references like Rambo & Smurf. The political ideology of The Organization that commands this baby-faced militia is never vocalized, hinted at only by the fact that the mostly POC youth are holding an adult white woman (the consistently wonderful Julianne Nicholson) hostage at gunpoint. The film doesn’t waste any time establishing the rules of the world that surround this violent, jungle-set microcosm. Instead, it chooses to convey only the unrelenting tension & brutality that defines the daily life of this isolated tentacle of a much larger, undefined political resistance. It’s maddening – purposefully so.

The reason Monos gets away with this stubborn refusal to establish a solid contextual foundation for its audience is that the sights, sounds, and performances that flood the screen are consistently, impressively intense. We’re estranged in a remote, lush jungle Where The Wild Things Go Too Far. The mountainside cliffs open to cloud formations the size of metropolises; the river rapids seemingly threaten to crush the (mostly unknown) teenage actors before our eyes. As the kids devolve from disciplined soldiers to wild animals without the watchful eye of an authority figure, they become a punishing force of Nature themselves. What starts as a jubilant celebration of freedom & autonomy—with recreational mushroom trips, fireside cunnilingus, and history’s most irresponsible gunplay—inevitably erupts into cruel, purposeless violence. They begin the film waging war on an outside, unseen enemy but eventually only wage war among themselves, almost as if they were rowdy children with guns. This constant, unrelenting mayhem is chillingly scored by Mica Levi in what very well may be her finest work to date (in film at least; I’m still a huge fan of her pop album Jewellery). The downward trajectory of Monos is from barely contained chaos to total, irrevocable chaos, which is more of a recognizable distinction than you might expect.

A lot of critical coverage of this film has understandably compared it to works like Apocalypse Now & Lord of the Flies, but to me it felt more like Nocturama of the Jungle. The clinically precise way these violently horny, prankish children (whose sexuality is just as fluid as their morals) are framed makes for a wonderfully rewarding contrast between form & content. Like in Nocturama, their innocent naivete and stylish teenage cool are somehow never lost even when they’re at their most despicably violent, even when we’re unclear what all this mayhem is meant to accomplish. Ultimately, though, I think I preferred the structure of Nocturama much better to Monos’s, as that film’s own disorienting mystery shifts & mutates in monumental ways – so that its two warring halves almost feel like entirely separate films. By contrast, Monos fully commits to one constant, unwavering tone from start to finish; we never know exactly what’s going to happen next, but we do know how each upcoming event is going to feel. The filmmaking craft & mountainsize ambition of this picture is consistently impressive from scene to scene, but its commitment to a single tonal effect—tense descent into disorder & mayhem—makes it frustrating to emotionally connect with, even after you get past the mystery of its context & purpose.

-Brandon Ledet

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Brian Raftery’s film criticism book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen has had many pop culture pundits gazing twenty years back to 1999 as a creative pinnacle of modern cinema. Frankly, I don’t fully buy the claim that the year was anything special, as many of the examples cited as phenomenal releases that year – Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Election, Audition, etc. – were not immediately hits upon release and took years to gain cultural traction as significant works. Every movie year is practically the same; most movies are bad, but a lot of them are great, and it takes time to sift though the deluge to single out the gems. I’m sure in twenty years’ time, with enough breathing room to reflect back and grow into nostalgia for the modern era, someone could compile a long enough list of standouts to contend that 2019 was the best movie year ever. Or 2017. Or 2003. Or any other year. Still, even if I don’t fully buy Raftery’s thesis the way other pop culture nerds have seemed to, the mental exercise of singling out a particular year for collective re-examination has been fun, and it’s thankfully lifted the profiles of smaller, niche films that still haven’t gotten their full due as great works. I’ve seen this play out with movies I personally love in genres that aren’t always critically respected – especially femme high school cruelty comedies like But I’m a Cheerleader!, Jawbreaker, Cruel Intentions, and Drop Dead Gorgeous. I’ve also been pushed outside my own comfort zone to check out excellent titles I’ve overlooked, like The Talented Mr. Ripley.

I was thirteen years old when The Talented Mr. Ripley was first released, and I did not understand its appeal from the scattered snippets of it I caught at the time whatsoever, other than that it was a thriller made for grown-ups. In fact, I’ve often mixed the film up with the innocuous-looking The Thomas Crown Affair remake of the same year, likely because they both involve con artists named Tom doing sexy European crimes among high-society snobs. I do get it now, though. Despite being generally suspicious of the “[Year X] was a better Movie Year than [Year Y] or [Year Z]” mode of criticism, I’m happy this celebration of 1999 cinema has boosted The Talented Mr. Ripley’s profile, as it’s the exact kind of “movies made for adults” that people bemoan have disappeared from the big screen in recent years (at least in terms of major studio Hollywood productions). Story-wise, it’s no less sleazy than lowly genre films like Single White Female or Fatal Attraction, but it’s dressed up with enough handsome costuming, cinematography, and in-their-prime movie stars to convince you of its intellectual value as a night out at the Theatre. Plus, it’s got something going for it that too few Hollywood productions can boast now, in the 90s, or otherwise: it’s gay. Not undertone/subtext/implied gay either; this is a menacing thriller about handsome young men who love each other to death in an explicitly gay context, leaving no wiggle room for any other interpretation. Of course, because it’s Hollywood, there’s unfortunately no explicit gay sex onscreen, but you must take your minor victories where you can find them. If only I had clued into the seedy, sordid, sexual menace of the film’s surface pleasures as a teen instead of passing it over as a boring drama for boring adults; it might have been a decades-long favorite instead of a late discovery.

Matt Damon stars as the titular Tom Ripley, a piano tuner turned con artist who grifts his way into the upper class of the jazzy, closeted days of the 1950s. After costuming as a Princeton alumnus at a swanky NYC cocktail party, Ripley is hired to retrieve a millionaire’s spoiled-brat son, Dickie (Jude Law), back from his permanent vacation in coastal Italy. Dickie has been living it up on his father’s dime, all the while fucking any & every willing participant who crosses his path – including a socially compatible fiancé (Gwyneth Paltrow), a village full of naïve working class women, and also possibly a string of closeted boytoys from his college days (most notably including Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a grotesque frat-boy ogre). At one point he even vows to fuck an icebox, the hedonist, simply because he loves cold beer. If there’s any major fault in The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s that the who’s-fucking-who dynamics at play remain a little ambiguous, as there is somehow no onscreen sex in this incredibly horny movie. It’s all kept behind closed doors, mirroring the hush-hush extramarital sexuality of its temporal setting. Ripley himself, a supposedly dishonest con artist who elbows his way into a wealth class where he doesn’t “belong,” is the only character who is clear & direct about his intentions with Dickie, romantic or otherwise. He confesses, “I’ve gotten to like everything about the way you live. It’s one big love affair!” It’s difficult to give him too much credit for the virtue of that honesty, however, since the means by which he attempts to claim Dickie’s lifestyle & sexual charisma for himself quickly escalates from simple grifts to a complex web of lies – one with an exponential body count. Ripley is blatantly honest about being a liar, a forger, and an impersonator by trade, but he doesn’t quite let on how violent he’s willing to get to protect the believability of those lies once they inevitably spin out of control.

Thematically, there isn’t much going on in The Talented Mr. Ripley that you couldn’t find in plenty of other wealth-class thrillers. The way Dickie plays with other people’s lives like a spoiled brat with a shiny new toy and the incestuous in-circle politics wherein the ultra-rich all know each other (which is often the downfall of Ripley’s schemes) are common tropes in this setting. The unspoken cruising & spark of homosexual lust in a closeted past is of a rarer breed in pop culture media, but not totally unique either. If nothing else, Patricia Highsmith, who wrote this movie’s source material novel, also covered that territory in her work that eventually became Carol (and both adaptations feature Cate Blanchett!). Beneath its handsome, prestigey surface The Talented Mr. Ripley is essentially a genre film – a horny European-set crime thriller of a very particular type. Like with all great genre films, the exceptional achievements it manages to pull off are rooted in minor details & aesthetic choices, not in story or character dynamics. Seeing these particular young movie stars at their sexiest (Hoffman excluded) in gorgeous wealth-class locales is perhaps the most astonishing detail of all, as this is the kind of genre film that’s now relegated to small-budget indies & foreign pictures like Double Lover, The Duke of Burgundy, or Piercing in the 2010s. The other exciting quirks & details of the picture (like Dickie wielding “You can be quite boring” as the ultimate insult or Tom bludgeoning wealthy brats with tools of their own class – like boat ores & Grecian statues) can’t compete with that kind of bygone-era appeal. I can’t match the general enthusiasm for 1999 as the Best Movie Year Ever, but I was at the right age then (as many of the Millennial & Gen-X critics writing this stuff were) to have enough nostalgia for the era to make The Talented Mr. Ripley an incredibly sumptuous example of its genre. Well, that, and the gay stuff.

-Brandon Ledet

Frenzy (1972)

Although I do attend The Prytania’s Sunday morning Classic Movies series far more often than I used to, I’m not exactly religious about it. If my schedule is convenient enough and the Old Hollywood classic on the bill is halfway intriguing, I’m likely to go, but my attendance is not a guaranteed weekly occurrence. (If the demographics of the few patrons who do attend every week are any indication, that won’t be a part of my regular routine for another thirty years or so). There is one major exception, though; if The Prytania is screening a Hitchcock film I’ve never seen before, I consider it mandatory appointment viewing. This started when the Classic Movies’ iconic host Rene Brunet Jr. would bring an unbridled enthusiasm to the Hitchcock pictures that he reserved for few others, but it’s a tradition that’s continued now years since Mr. Rene’s sadly passed away. (I still get teary-eyed at his pre-recorded intros to the Sunday screenings). Of course, an allegiance to Rene Brunet’s memory isn’t the only thing that keeps me coming back for every Hitchcock picture, from stone-cold classics like Strangers on a Train to forgotten frivolities like Saboteur. I’m also in attendance for the Hitchcock classics because they always deliver. I’ve yet to blindly go into an Alfred Hitchcock film on the big screen and leave disappointed; each consecutive screening has been a delight so far, whether in surprise of a smaller flick that doesn’t get much attention or in a decades-late affirmation of something I’ve already known to be a classic long before I saw it for myself. That very nearly changed for me with The Prytania’s recent screening of Hitchcock’s late-career serial killer thriller Frenzy, a film that’s just as punishingly nasty in spirit as it is impressive technical craft.

The very first murder scene in Frenzy is so grotesquely sleazy that I almost soured on the movie entirely. At the very least, I did not blame the young couple who quietly walked out of the screening after that brutal, misogynist display, as it was nothing like what we have been primed to expect from the Hitchcock classics that regularly screen in that venue. Frenzy is a thriller about a man who’s wrongly accused of serially strangling women to death all over London with his neckties, then dumping their bodies to be discovered by police & press. There’s no glaring narrative deviation in that premise from Hitchcock’s usual schtick, as it’s common that we know who the true killer is in these thrillers upfront and all the mystery & suspense is packaged in watching a wrongly accused man prove his innocence. The major deviation here, then, is a severity in tone. The first murder committed onscreen is a lengthy, unblinking rape & strangling shot in sweaty closeups that drag on for a hideous eternity. It’s a break in form from Hiscock’s classic mode, where he was restrained in what Hays Code-type censorship would allow him to get away with onscreen, to explore a much crasser sensibility befitting 1970s grindhouse exploitation like I Spit on Your Grave, I Drink Your Blood, or Last House on the Left. It’s arguable that this distasteful effect was purposeful & self-aware, since the subsequent murders in the film read more like a return to form in contrast – with Hitchcock pulling away from the violent & sexual brutality of the kills instead of pushing in to gawk at it. If the point was to demonstrate how much better 1950s restraint & cleverness in obscuration are in depicting onscreen violence than the 1970s free-for-all of uninhibited sleaze & cruelty, it’s severely undercut by just how much of a sour taste that first kill scene leaves to linger over the rest of the picture. Hitchcock may move on to finish his point, but the audience struggles to move past the echo of his openings statement.

Part of the reason it’s difficult to fully buy into the tonal shift of the softened violence after that opening kill is that Frenzy is morally grotesque in so many other ways. Our wrongly accused man may not be a murderer or a serial rapist, but he’s a grotesquely macho piece of shit that the movie too easily lets off the hook anyway. He’s the same womanizing, alcoholic anti-hero we’ve been asked to sympathize with in far too many machismo fantasies over the years (including in a John Wayne pic titled Brannigan that oddly resembles this one), a total menace in the lives of the women who are unfortunate enough to know him. When he asks his current girlfriend/coworker “Do I look like a sex-murderer to you?” it’s frustrating that her answer isn’t a simple, resounding “Yes,” because he totally does. The same parallels Hitchcock usually draws between his own voyeurism as a director and the violent perversions of his fictional killers continues here, but the unrestrained frankness of the dialogue makes that connection more distasteful than intriguing. The men of London regularly joke about the rapes with offhand bon mots about how “Women like to struggle,” as well as playing armchair psychologist with the killer-at-large’s necktie strangling kink. Hitchcock’s unconscious id as a violent, voyeuristic pervert is still interesting here, but listening to characters babble about how “criminal, sexual psychopaths […] hate women and are mostly impotent” only continues the moral unease of that opening, hideous murder scene long after it’s over. In terms of the explicit brutality of his onscreen violence, Hitchcock may revert to his old ways after the first kill’s brief indulgence in 70s sleaze, but there are plenty of other, unconscious factors that leave us stuck in that initial shock: a scumbag protagonist, a continued leering at naked breasts (whether or not they’re attached to corpses), a general disinterest in the inner lives of women outside their roles as victims, an equating of kink to rape, etc.

All of this is not to say that Frenzy is meritless, or even minor. Most of the film’s set pieces are just as cleverly genius as Hitchcock ever was in his prime, especially a central one set the back of a potato truck and a backwards tracking shot that pulls away from the second murder. It’s also a joy to watch the legendary director export this artistry from traditional sound stages to the crowded streets of London, as most of the film is shot on location. I also always have respect for auteurs who go down swinging in their later years, concluding their careers on angry screeds of pure, uninhibited id. It’s just that the general pall of 70s sleaze mutes a lot of Unkie Hitch’s usual charm. It’s a stomach-turning level of violent misogyny I usually brace myself for when approaching 1970s genre cinema blind but didn’t think to in this particular case because of my past, pleasant experiences watching Hitchcock classics at The Prytania. I have to wonder, if Rene Brunet were still around to host the series himself, would he have selected or approved of it? I have my doubts.

-Brandon Ledet

Tenement (1985)

No matter how turned off or disgusted you are by Roberta Findlay’s grim & grimy oeuvre, you could never be a harsher critic of her work than the filmmaker is herself. In an incredibly rare interview on her time as a pornographer & schlockteur with The Rialto Report, Findlay disparages the supposed artistic value of her work and dismisses the fans who attempt to reevaluate her films as dangerous lunatics she wants nothing to do with. Findlay describes herself as a human barnacle who would latch onto & follow the whims of the men in her life rather than finding any self-driven motivation of her own. She uses this metaphor to explain how she transformed from a trained pianist who would accompany silent films in a repertory cinemas to a cinematographer & eventual director of hardcore pornography, a business that interested her late husband & artistic collaborator. Findlay herself was disgusted by the sexual extremity of the rough pornos she was filming for profit, a revulsion that carried over to her depictions of extreme violence in the grindhouse horror industry (once the VHS market made porno less profitable). I imagine her disgust & horror with filming rough sex worked against her porno films’ ostensible goal of titillation, but in her hyperviolent genre work it only enhances her accomplishments. In Findlay’s signature exploitation piece, the 1985 home invasion cheapie Tenement, the director’s self-hatred & disgust with the sex, violence, and sexual violence on display oozes through the screen in every scene’s grotesque tableau. Roberta Findlay may report to despise the grime & cruelty of films like Tenement, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of that ill-will in the final product, which makes us all sick to our stomachs along with her.

Instead of invading a single home, the murderous hooligans of Tenement invade an entire community, keeping the film true to close-quarters NYC living. A dilapidated housing tenement in The Bronx (the exact kind of run-down apartment complex Findlay grew up in herself) is overrun by a gang of hyperviolent squatters on Angel Dust. Recalling the similar crime wave paranoia of films like I Drink Your Blood, The Class of 1984, Street Trash, and The Warriors, the film pits helpless families trying to scrape a peaceful life together against hedonist drug dealers who stave off boredom by playing with dead rats, snorting cocaine off switchblades, and mutilating normies with real jobs & families. The film devolves into a PCP-addled version of Home Alone from there, with the building’s proper tenants inventing gangster-killing booby traps (like box spring electric fences & rat poison heroin) to kill off the encroaching squatters. Both the gang & the community of victims are racially & culturally diverse enough to avoid the usual political offenses of this urban crime genre, but Findlay finds new ways to offend all on her own. Sometimes, her amoral cruelty makes for an excitingly heightened version of the home invasion template, especially in how no victim feels at all safe from being torn apart by the crazed hooligans – not children, not the elderly, not single mothers, not pets, no one. Other times, the cruelty goes too far and makes for a deeply unpleasant, almost impossible watch – such as in the first-person-POV staging of a gang rape or in watching the villains bathe in dog’s blood for a fun lark. In either instance, it’s Findlay’s unflinching, self-hating depictions of human viciousness & misery that distinguishes Tenement in its crowded field of grimy NYC exploitation cinema. A lot of schlock peddlers in the business didn’t especially care about the hyperviolence on display beyond its capacity to sell tickets. Findlay, by contrast, despised the stuff and found her own films grotesque, which shows through in the work in genuinely upsetting ways.

Given the heartless cruelty on display, especially in its pivotal scene of sexual assault, it’s not difficult to see why Roberta Findlay dismisses Tenement (along with the rest of her porno & exploitation catalog) as useless, despicable trash. I would at least hope that she can look back with some pride on what she accomplished in her filmmaking craft, though. This is a shockingly well-shot, tightly edited picture considering its budget. Plotted over the course of a single day and regularly time-stamped for temporal perspective, the film boasts an incredible efficiency in storytelling its fellow video nasties rarely mustered. The close-quarters violence of its invasion plot is partly so memorably brutal because it’s never obscured; you’re always aware of exactly what’s being done to the victims, with the camera often pausing for a mood-setting detail. In some ways, this unexpected production quality allows Tenement’s nastiness to catch the audience off-guard. In an early scene, the PCP gang’s head honcho spins on a lazy-Susan while shouting to the sky “I’m going to get my building back!” in a tone that promises major-studio fun rather than the grindhouse mayhem to come. Tenement is also bookended by my all-time favorite movie trope: the plot-summarizing rap song, also a staple of a more corporate, more inhibited product. This grimy NYC nightmare is all the more effective for having someone behind the camera who actually knows what she’s doing, so that you expect a level of quality control in its content that just isn’t there. Findlay’s curse is that she was skilled at her craft but hated the immoral content her efforts were applied to. It’s a tension between creator & art that makes for a grotesque, unsettling experience for the audience – the transgression of a work that hates its own guts and knows it should not exist but pushes on for the meager box office payoff anyway. The results of that payoff are fascinating, even if you can barely stomach to look at them.

-Brandon Ledet