To Die For (1995)

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Mr Klein (1976)

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Sibyl (2020)

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Joker (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Uncut Gems (2019)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Kathryn Bigelow and the Tough-as-Nails Heroine

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

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