Like Me (2018)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

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Widows (2018)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Cam (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Cloak & Dagger (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lagniappe

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

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

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

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

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

-The Swampflix Crew

Summer of ’84 (2018)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

In just a few high-profile creative projects, Drew Goddard has built up such an impossible stockpile of anticipatory goodwill that it was inevitable his second feature as a director would suffer some kind of sophomore slump. After his work on Lost, The Good Place, and (his debut feature) The Cabin in the Woods in particular, Goddard has become synonymous with high-concept philosophical interpretations of Purgatory. Goddard sets his most distinct projects in artificial environments where the morally judgmental voyeurism of the audience becomes part of the text. He uses this metatextual remove to explore the psychological & philosophical implications of audiences’ desire to judge fictional characters as either Good or Bad, Moral or Evil. His second feature, Bad Times at the El Royale, has all the makings of a perfect Drew Goddard project in that way. It’s set in a complexly mapped-out artificial environment that encourages voyeurism & moral judgements. It’s populated by troubled, mysterious characters who unsubtly teeter between Good and Bad on a moral scale. It’s also intricately constructed on a narrative level, coming together onscreen like a temporal puzzle or a Rube Goldberg contraption. Yet, there’s something lacking about Bad Times at the El Royale that keeps its overall effect disappointingly pedestrian, recalling Goddard’s creatively muted credits on Netflix’s Daredevil series or Ridley Scott’s The Martian. It’s a handsomely staged, frequently entertaining picture – yet it’s inevitable to feel letdown by it because we know Goddard can deliver so much more than that.

Even if Bad Times at the El Royale is a little underwhelming, its titular locale is a wonder of sinister-kitsch production design. A Lake Tahoe novelty destination that lost its luster as 60s swank descended into hippie rot, the hotel represents American culture in decline at one of its most turbulent times. Nixon, Vietnam, Hoover, Manson, Civil Rights protests, hippies, and heroin swirl around in the cultural zeitgeist outside the hotel like an especially morbid verse in “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” A perfectly preserved novelty from before those political flashpoints sparked a Cultural Revolution, the El Royale pretends on the surface to be a World’s Fair attraction vision of an idealized American past – complete with automatic food dispensers and a sense of lawless Wild West hedonism. Undercover G-men, bugged rooms, and a secret hallway that exposes each hotel guest to being spied on via two-way mirrors compromise that outdated idealism to reveal that the swanky 60s America of the past was no less sinister than the hippie 70s of the near future (the film is set in ’68). This is of no surprise to four guests who all converge at the El Royale at the exact same time to kickstart the film’s multilayered conflicts: a soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a hippie (Dakota Johnson), a priest (Jeff Bridges), and a vacuum salesman (John Hamm, back in Don Draper drag). Each conceal mysteriously guarded identities & motives until all is inevitably revealed in an ultraviolent climax (excluding what was prematurely revealed in the film’s trailer). It all comes together with the routine precision of clockwork, mirroring both the cultural ticking clock of the setting and the patience-tested audience’s urge to check our wristwatches.

It’s difficult to parse out exactly why Bad Times at the El Royale lands as good-not-great, despite the wonders of its production design, costuming, performances, and intricate plotting. It could be that, at 140 minutes, the film is too narratively unwieldy to support the weight of its runtime. The nonlinear structure of the story, broken up into chapters by hotel room, certainly doesn’t help there; it’s difficult to become too invested in any particular story before film switches tracks & resets. That structure’s similarities to the post-Tarantino 90s aesthetic, echoed by its 60s soul needle drops & humorously overwritten dialogue, feels a little too familiar to land with any genuine awe (especially since it isn’t observed with any of Goddard’s signature meta critique). My best guess for Bad Times at the El Royale’s shortcomings, however, is that the film doesn’t fully commit to the supernatural Purgatory elements of its script that feels so uniquely menacing in Goddard’s superior works. The film feels like such a blatantly coded, exaggerated depiction of the 1960s’s cultural catharsis, covering everything from religion to drugs to race to sex to war, that it’s almost a shame the artificial conflict of that philosophical stew wasn’t made literal in the text. The way all four of the El Royale’s guests arrive at the same time feels like a fresh batch of applicants being processed as a group at the Pearly Gates. Snippets of dialogue & signage like “See You Again Soon,” “How did you end up at the El Royale?,” “This is no place for a priest,” and (from the advertising) “All roads lead here,” suggest a supernatural tour of the Afterlife, or at least something more philosophically sinister than the sprawling dramatic thriller that’s delivered instead.

We’ve seen Goddard strike gold with those philosophical breaks from reality before, so it’s tempting to want more of the same here. Either way, he’s demonstrated he can do something far more interesting than this handsomely staged, but logically well-behaved popcorn movie. I hope whatever he works on next is just a structurally complex, but infinitely more preposterous. I don’t need him to ground his meta-philosophical contraptions within the bounds of reality. Reality is limiting, if not outright boring.

-Brandon Ledet

Special Effects (1984)

Brian De Palma wasn’t the only director who released a sleazy version of Vertigo in 1984 that used a film industry term as its title; everybody’s second favorite weirdo workhorse (after Roger Corman, natch) Larry Cohen also churned Special Effects, which takes all the debatable class of Body Double and wrings it dry. Unfortunately, what you’re left with isn’t much to write home about.

Andrea Wilcox (Zoë Lund) is having a merry time in sleazy eighties New York. It may be Christmas outside, but it’s Independence Day on the set of a fake Oval Office where she rides a rotating platform in a star-spangled top hat and not much else. Trouble brews at the arrival of Keefe (Brad Rijn), the husband that she left behind in rural Texas to care for their toddler son. He’s arrived to take her home, and he won’t take “no” for an answer; despite some chicanery and attempted escapes, he manages to catch her and they go back to her apartment. While he rests, she escapes through the bathroom window and flees. Unsure where exactly to go, she ends up at the home of Christopher Neville (Eric Bogosian), a hotshot young director whose most recent picture was a complete flop, leading him to consider moving into making high-end porn instead. After sleazily setting up a camera behind a one-way mirror, he sleeps with Andrea, then kills her. When her body is later found, Detective Delroy (Kevin O’Connor) immediately suspects the jilted husband, but Neville pays Keefe’s bail and hires an attorney, claiming that he saw Keefe’s arrest and is fascinated by his story. Although Keefe is initially reluctant, he allows himself to be convinced to sign over the rights to his and Andrea’s narrative to Neville in exchange for being a consultant on the film. Detective Delroy is similarly distracted by the allure of the silver screen and likewise signs on to production.

While trying to track down Andrea’s possessions, Keefe ends up at the Salvation Army, where he meets Elaine Bernstein (Lund again), a woman whose resemblance to Andrea is uncanny. Neville hires her to portray Andrea in the film; and after an on-set altercation between the actor playing Keefe and the real Keefe, brought on by the realization that Andrea had slept with the actor, Keefe ends up playing himself. After murdering one of techs who processed the film negatives of Andrea’s death “scene,” Neville recreates his own bedroom on set and even includes certain touches, like a white rose, which lead to the perfect emulation of the day he killed Andrea, apparently in an attempt to frame Keefe for her murder by splicing together the two films. Keefe becomes suspicious and manages to acquire the film on which her murder occurs, but is unable to show it to Elaine before the footage is destroyed. But when Elaine is lured to Neville’s home so he can recreate the original footage of Andrea’s death, Keefe must save her despite Delroy’s suspicions.

The plot of this one is as thin as the celluloid it’s printed on. Rijn is obviously doing his best with the script that he’s given, but there are moments where he seems utterly lost, and it seems like the confusion is more Rijn’s than Keefe’s. Lund manages to make Elaine feel different from Andrea at first, but by the time Elaine dyes her hair to look like Andrea, Elaine seems to completely lack the street smarts that initially made her a separate character. Bogosian tries his best to balance malicious menace with approachable eccentricity, but his motivations are so unclear that not only is he completely unsympathetic, he’s also generically nonthreatening. Ten years before making this film, director Cohen sold a few ideas to Columbo; given that this film’s primary murder happens near the beginning and there’s no mystery about who the perpetrator is,this film feels like a feature-length episode of that show, but with sleazy nudity and an overlong denouement. All of the sets are ugly, including Neville’s house, and the cat-and-mouse in the dark after Keefe figures out the truth is more tedious than thrilling. All in all, unless you’re a Cohen completist, this is one to avoid.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Body Double (1984)

What if Vertigo wasn’t about vertigo, but was instead about claustrophobia? It feels like this is the catalyzing question that went through Brian De Palma’s mind when he first came up with the idea for 1984’s Body Double, a risque homage to one of the Master of Suspense’s greatest works (there’s also a little bit of Rear Window thrown in there just for good measure). In place of Jimmy Stewart’s Detective “Scottie” Ferguson, we instead meet Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) on one of the worst days of his life: after freezing up in claustrophobic terror on the set of the low-rent vampire flick in which he’s starring, Scully is sent home early, where he finds his girlfriend in the throes of passion with another man – she doesn’t even have the decency to stop. After running into friend-of-a-friend Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) a couple of different times at auditions and being rescued by him from an apparently emotionally abusive acting exercise in which he revisits the memory of being trapped behind a freezer during hide-and-seek as a child, Jake takes Sam up on the offer to house sit for him while he is out of town performing in a play. Sam takes Jake back to the home in question, the famous Chemosphere (aka Troy McClure’s house) and shows him the amenities: a fully stocked bar, rotating bed, and a telescope perfectly placed to watch the nightly erotic dance of a beautiful neighbor.

On his second night of housesitting, Jake witnesses a creepy-looking older man also watching the woman; the following day, he realizes that the other man is following her, so he pursues them both to a mall, where he overhears the neighbor planning to meet someone at a seaside hotel. He pursues her there, too, where the creep also lurks before snatching her purse. Jake chases him down, but is unable to follow him more than a few feet into a tunnel before his claustrophobia renders him immobile. The woman introduces herself as Gloria (Deborah Shelton), and the two share a passionate kiss after she confesses that she is unhappy in her marriage. Unfortunately, Jake’s new (and creepy) romance is over before it can truly begin, as he sees the villainous peeper burgling her home and arrives too late to save Gloria. The police are suspicious, but there are other witnesses, and though they are all rightfully disgusted by Jake’s voyeurism, he is released. Jake finds himself in a slump, until he sees porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) performing a very familiar dance on late night television. So begins a journey of mistaken identity and duplicitous disguises that traces a path across LA, from reservoirs to the seedy (but also maybe kind of fun?) underbelly of the porn industry.

There are a lot of scenes in Body Double that draw on the visuals from Vertigo, and which highlight the Hitchcockian influence on this sleazy thriller. When Jake enters the tunnel and is paralyzed by his claustrophobia, the visual distortion that communicates his distress echoes the iconic top-down shot of Jimmy Stewart attempting to climb stairs. There’s also a shot of the famous tower at Fisherman’s Wharf, which calls to mind distant shots of the tower that becomes the site of the older film’s climactic showdown. Jake’s voyeurism reminds one of Jimmy Stewart’s other most famous role in a Hitchcock film; Rear Window presents Jeff’s peeping as largely harmless and ultimately beneficial to the resolution of a murder investigation. Body Double follows some of those same story beats, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that in the real world, such surveillance is deviant and creepy, happy ending or no. And then, of course, there’s the inclusion of Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds (and Marnie, but let’s not talk about that). It’s admirably clever that De Palma, like John Carpenter before him when he cast Psycho star Vivien Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, creates a rhetorical space in which he identifies himself as one of the next filmmaking generation’s Hitchcock successors by using the daughter of one of Hitchcock’s actresses. And that’s leaving aside the fact that Griffith is fantastic in this role, bringing vivaciousness and an unusual brand of smarts to what could otherwise have been a very of-the-era “dumb blonde” role. While Wasson’s Jake is an interesting character study, a seemingly ordinary man who easily falls into depravity, Griffith’s Holly is a porn star with a sense of humor and who won’t put up with any creeps giving her a hard time. She also knows her limits and is up front about them from the beginning: “I do not do animal acts. I do not do S&M or any variations of that particular bent, no water sports either. I will not shave my pussy, no fistfucking and absolutely no coming on my face. I get $2000 a day and I do not work without a contract.” In contrast, Jake is a man who’s never thought about what his limits are, but he finds that with very little prompting, he’s perfectly willing to perv on a strange woman long distance, stalk her around a mall, and follow her to a presumable hotel tryst. And, of course, steal underwear out of a trash can (it makes more sense in context, but only just).

The presumption that the audience will sympathize with Jake (which you do, to an extent; when this film was introduced as part of this summer’s Unhitched series, Wasson’s character was referred to as a “nebbishly inept weirdo”) is something that really dates this movie, but there’s another element that I don’t think De Palma could have predicted. I won’t name the actor to avoid spoiling it for you, but there’s a latex mask reveal (possibly foreshadowing De Palma’s eventual fate as the director of the first Mission Impossible film) in this movie that is completely undercut by the fact that the mask that the killer wears pretty much looks like the actor underneath does now, nearly 35 years later. The villain is also consistently referred to as “The Indian,” which is . . . not great. It’s a product of its time, a sleazy De Palma take on a Hitchcock classic, and as such it’s an oddity that I can’t recommend more highly. It’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for months. There’s a new 4k restoration making the rounds, and it’s well worth the price of admission. And, as Halloween approaches, if you generally like your scares a little more cerebral than slashy but still want to feel a little bit dirty, Body Double could be your new go-to.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

A Simple Favor (2018)

Paul Feig is a strange animal. Freaks and Geeks is classic television, Bridesmaids is certainly popular even though I couldn’t quite get into it, and I’m probably one of the eight people in the world who saw Other Space, and I really, really enjoyed it (I’m still over here waiting for Karan Soni to really and truly break out). Never was Paul Feig’s eccentricity more clear to me than in the recent (all-too-brief) resurgence of The Soup under the Netflix banner as The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale. Feig, who was a producer of TJMSWJM, appeared in every single episode. There was a lot that was . . . off about TJMSWJM. The Soup‘s recurring characters appeared organically as part of sketches and happened to reappear only if there was a reason or they struck a chord with the audience, while TJMSWJM seemed to be forcing new characters onto the show without any rhyme or reason and segments like “That Happened,” while occasionally funny, were completely tone deaf about who the show’s demographic was and who they wanted to appeal to. If there was one element of The Soup that I would have forsaken when rebooting, it would have been the once-per-episode celebrity appearances; TJMSWJM actually compounded this problem, as each time Feig appeared on screen, the show ground to a halt (although I did get a kick out of him using the money gun in the finale). I like him, I think that he has a great sense of humor, and you’d be hard pressed to find a white man in the business who is so consistently and effectively using his privilege to promote women in the industry, but I also feel that he has the problem that some comedians I know personally have, which is an inability to recognize when something doesn’t quite work. In short, I’m not sure that Feig knows how to kill his darlings.

A Simple Favor is one of his least uneven films. There are still some comedic moments in it that feel very out of place; the worst offender in the film comes at the conclusion, when a comic bit of action happens and a very minor character reappears to say a terrible line, which is then followed by several much-better lines from our main characters. It stands out because, for the most part, the comic timing in the film is pretty perfect, but when it clunks, it clunks hard, in a way that is more noticeable than in some of his other work since this one is much more intricately plotted.

Widowed single mother Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a mommy vlogger whose son Miles befriends his classmate Nicky, which leads to Stephanie entering into an unequal friendship with Emily Nelson (Blake Lively, giving the best performance of her career). Emily is the PR manager for a fashion house that is run by your standard fashion mogul type, and her ultramodern home, huge income, hands-off parenting, hard drinking, and high fashion conflict with Stephanie’s tendency to commit to every school event, her recognition that her late husband’s insurance money will soon run out, and her felt-and-pompom arts and crafts aesthetic (although she does wear this cat study Anthropologie apron, which I recognized because don’t ask, so she’s more “Hollywood broke” than “real world poor”). Emily’s husband Sean (Crazy Rich Asians‘s Henry Golding) is a failed writer who teaches at a local institution, although Stephanie read his only novel as part of her book club years before. As their friendship grows (at least on Stephanie’s part), Emily elicits a dark secret from Stephanie under the guise of compassion and interest before asking her to pick up both boys one afternoon. Then Emily . . . disappears.

The police initially suspect Sean, but his alibi is solid. When evidence starts to point toward suicide, Stephanie refuses to believe it and launches into her own investigation, winding into and out of the lives of such disparate people as Sean’s T.A. (Melissa O’Neil, who I’ve been sorely missing since the unfortunate cancellation of Dark Matter), a painter who was once Emily’s lover (the ever-wonderful Linda Cardellini), and Emily’s dementia-afflicted mother (Jean Smart, always a pleasure). Her investigation leads her to the offices of fashion magnate Dennis Nylon, a Christian summer camp, a burned-out wing of a formerly glorious mansion, and even Emily’s gravesite. Emily–if that’s even her name–was not who she seemed to be. But then again, maybe Stephanie isn’t either . . .

Multiple reviews of A Simple Favor have drawn comparisons to the 2014 thriller Gone Girl, and with good reason, especially given that the film’s marketing seems to place it firmly in the largely humorless thriller genre (if there’s any way to describe Gone Girl, “humorless” is pretty high up there on the list). What appears to be taking audiences by surprise is A Simple Favor‘s comedic lightheartedness amidst all the sociopathy, implied and explicit violence, half-incest, debatable paternity, and arson. There’s a lot going on, but it’s never overwhelming, and if you’ve ever seen one of these movies before then there will be revelations that will lead you say, “Oh, I know where this is going,” and then the film promptly goes there. Regardless, there are still a few surprises buried in its bones, and the performances are strong enough to carry the film even when it seems to be simply following the outline of thrillers of this ilk. As noted above, this is probably the first film in which I’ve really been thrilled by a performance from Lively; I know that her shark movie was well received around these parts, but after Oliver Stone’s Savages I had no interest in another Lively vehicle. She’s really dynamic here, and it’s fantastic.

The only real problems in the film are the moments in which the comedy doesn’t land. Unfortunately, it’s the more ostentatious (and dare I say more Feigian) humor that thuds lifelessly on screen, and unfortunately those moments are more memorable than the praiseworthy subtle humor that’s woven throughout. Still, the actors and the French pop music lift the film when the plot starts to flail, and it would be a mistake to let this curiosity slip into obscurity without giving it a watch.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Searching (2018)

Something truly amazing is happening in Hollywood right now. There are currently two mainstream movies topping the charts that have something in common: they both star Asian-American actors. One is Crazy Rich Asians, a romantic comedy that I have yet to see but am looking forward to watching. The other is Searching, a fantastic heartwarming thriller that I saw in theaters over the Labor Day weekend. Hollywood films that have predominately Asian-American casts tend to fall in the action genre, so having two non-action films with Asian-American leading actors (Crazy Rich Asians has a majority Asian-American cast) in theaters is historical moment.

John Cho is best known for his comic stoner roles in the Harold & Kumar and American Pie films, but he recently made a bold move by taking on the role of David Kim, a widowed father in Searching. Cho beautifully conveys the characteristics of a loving father, desperately trying to do his best to raise a teenage daughter while dealing with personal grief. I truly hope that Searching will open a new chapter in Cho’s career. One in which he takes on more dramatic roles, as it is something he does very well.

Searching is film that entirely takes place on electronic devices (FaceTime, YouTube videos, live streaming news, computer cameras, etc.), quite similar to gimmicky techno-horror films such as 2015’s Unfriended, but rest assured, Searching is far from being a techno-horror film. In the film’s beginning, the audience gets to know the Kim family through their pictures and videos saved in file folders with labels like “First Day of School,” school schedules on personal desktop calendars, and emails containing medical information, just to name a few. All of it feels so familiar because everyone comes in contact with at least one of these platforms daily, whether it be checking personal email accounts or uploading family photos. Within 10 minutes, it was made clear that the Kim family was very close and experienced something very tragic.

Margot Kim (Michelle La) is a teen being raised by her father, David Kim, after the passing of her mother, Pam Kim (Sara Sohn). They seem to have a healthy father-daughter relationship based on the messages and FaceTime videos between the two, so when David is unable to locate or get in touch with Margot over the course of a day, it’s obvious that something just isn’t right. When David realizes that Margot is missing, he teams up with detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) to find his daughter. Loads of twists and turns (enough to make M. Night Shyamalan jealous) ensue during the search for Margot, and David’s sanity is put to the test.

Searching comes off as a Lifetime movie that made it to the big screen. Perhaps it will eventually make it to Lifetime’s programming once it’s out of theaters? It’s definitely not the best thriller to come out this year, but it’s a fun watch for those that enjoy a good plot twist or two. Or three. Or four.

-Britnee Lombas