Saboteur (1942)

If there’s anything I’ve learned from regularly attending the Classic Movies series at the historic Prytania Theatre on Sundays, it’s that even the “lesser” Hitchcock titles are not to be missed. After falling in love with the Marlene Dietrich sultriness of Stage Fright & the gorgeous Technicolor sex humor of To Catch a Thief, any & all Hitchcock titles have become appointment viewing — whether or not they match the iconic prestige of films like Psycho, Rear Window, or Strangers on a Train. The Prytania’s latest Hitchcock selection, Saboteur, was no exception to the rule. At first glance, Saboteur appears to be a noir thriller B-picture that’s only distinguishing detail is a co-writing credit from Dorothy Parker (who did a punch-up treatment on its dialogue). Only Alfred Hitchcock’s name in the “directed by” credit vouches for the film being anything more than that, but his is a name that consistently delivers. Even as much credit as Hitchcock gets for elevating genre filmmaking to the level of fine art, I’m beginning to question whether I’ve still been taking him for granted as one of the greatest directors of all time. He’s starting to cross the line from widely-praised cinematic icon to beloved personal favorite; the only question is why it took me so many years & just a few screenings of his “lesser” titles for me to get there.

In Saboteur, a couple of Air Force do-gooders attempt to put out a fire started by a foreign subversive at their base, and are punished for their heroism. One soldier dies in the fire, while the other is framed for the act of terror that killed his best friend & put national security at risk. What follows is a twisty, suspenseful mystery of grimy noir aesthetics & deep political intrigue as the surviving soldier travels the country in an attempt to thwart the terrorist syndicate who framed him and to clear his own name. At least that’s what’s promised on the tin. Instead, Hitchcock mostly delivers a weirdly patriotic road trip comedy about a hitch-hiker on the lam and the various weirdos who shelter him until he’s free of police scrutiny. Saboteur operates with a peculiar, admirable form of patriotism that loves America, but hates cops (as is right & proper). As our hero in peril finds comrades in billboard advertisement models, the disabled, working class truck drivers, and circus freaks while traveling by thumb across the country, Saboteur establishes a beautifully, radically inclusive definition of who & what is America. The enemies of that vision, by contrast, are wealthy pontificators who would sell the country to literal Nazis just to make another buck and ineffectual, brutish police officers who can’t determine the rightful target when enforcing the law. The crime thriller element promised in Saboteur‘s advertising is mostly just an excuse for this off-kilter version of war-time patriotism, one that course-corrects patriotism’s usual nastiness with a sense of humor & empathy the audience is not at all primed to expect.

Of course, Saboteur‘s surprises in tonal & narrative trajectory can only carry the film so far; they would amount to very little if it weren’t for Hitchcock’s visual craft & prankish spirit, both of which are on full display here despite this film’s modest budget & bevy of screenwriters. When crafting a noir thriller in the earliest stretch, the director casts sharply defined shadows of dangerous figures against stark white walls. When the inciting fire breaks out it’s announced with a thick black smoke projected against the same stark background, creeping into the frame with menacing intent. Incredible stunts & sound stage set pieces give the illusion of men crumbling in fires, jumping from bridges into wild rivers, and hanging from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Although the accused’s hitch-hiking trip across the country is broadly informed with cheeky humor & outlandish character work, Hitchcock builds genuine tension in the feeling that he is trapped and will be caught at any second. Saboteur starts in the contained, dingy menace of a Poverty Row noir, but expands to deliver everything you could want to see on the big screen: comedy, romance, adventure, visual spectacle, shocks of terror, etc. You can feel Hitchcock straining behind the camera to elevate the material to match his own meticulous standard. In that way, it’s almost easier to see his merits as a director in these “lesser” works than in his better-funded, better-respected masterworks where everything is arranged in its proper place & tone.

I’m not sure that I would call Saboteur “essential viewing” for everyone with a passing interest in Hitchcock. For all of its charmingly skewed patriotism & admirably crafted spectacle, the film is still somewhat hampered by a dull lead performer (Robert Cummings) and an unsatisfactorily abrupt ending that prevent it from being Great Cinema. However, the way the film gradually reveals itself to be a wild, playfully cruel road trip comedy & popcorn movie after initially coming across as just another cheap-o noir truly feels like watching Hitchocck getting away with something, like he’s pulling a fast one on his producers. The dangerous thing about Saboteur is that it suggests that all Hitchcock titles might be essential viewing, that even his least-respected, lowest-profile works are not to be missed – especially if you have convenient access to seeing them on the big screen.

-Brandon Ledet

Panic in the Streets (1950)

Usually, when a Hollywood production is shot on-location in New Orleans, the expectation is that the audience will be doing some tourist sightseeing. 80s thrillers like The Big Easy & Hard Target where especially shameless about this, setting scenes in conspicuous tourist spots like Tipitina’s, Mardi Gras parade float warehouses, and Bourbon Street strip joints for easy, sleazy atmosphere as they drunkenly stumbled around the city. The 1950 health-epidemic noir Panic in the Streets aimed for an entirely different kind of local seasoning. Directed by respected dramatist Elia Kazan shortly before he fired off major hits like A Streetcar Named Desire & On the Waterfront, Panic in the Streets was something of an experiment & a gamble for the Studio Era way of doing things. The business of exporting productions to shoot entirely on-location in far-off cities wasn’t business as usual yet, which might explain why Kazan didn’t think to make use of the city in the now-traditional ways of visiting famous clubs, capturing Mardi Gras crowds, or just generally making a big deal about the environment where the action is staged. There are a few familiar shots of French Quarter exteriors that haven’t changed at all in the last 70 years and the film eventually concludes in a shipping dock warehouse setting that feels unique to its chosen location, but most of its drama is confined to the city’s interior spaces, which are familiar but not entirely unique. The novelty of shooting a Studio Era film entirely on-location did lead to a different, less frequently travelled path to local authenticity, though. Over 80% of the hired cast & crew for Panic in the Streets were local to New Orleans, which is still an unusual way of doing things by big-budget Hollywood standards, even with all the productions that film here for the tax credits. There may not be much documentation of what the city itself looked like in the 1950s here, but the film offers something a little more precious instead: documentation of and collaboration with the city’s people.

Outside its context as a New Orleans peoplewatching time capsule, Panic in the Streets is a fairly standard noir. Its central hook promises something novel beyond the standard antihero cops vs. wise guy criminals dynamic that usually defines the genre. NOPD detectives and representatives from the federal US Public Health Service reluctantly team up to track down a murderer who is now patient zero in a potential city-wide epidemic of the pneumonic plague, thanks to a comprised victim. This unusual medical angle to the crime thriller drama does allow for some distinctive detail unusual to the genre: scientific jargon about “anti-plague serums,” wry humor about tough-guy cops who are afraid of taking their inoculation shots, an excuse to burn all the evidence with the infected-and-murdered man’s body just to make the mystery killer’s identity tougher to crack, etc. Mostly, the plague angle is merely used to build tension by giving local cops & federal officials a tight 48-hour window to catch their killer before his contagions become a city-wide threat. There are some conflicts built around “college men” health officials and blue-collar detectives flaunting their authority in the investigation, but most confrontations mostly amount to angry macho men yelling about jurisdiction at top volume, which feels standard to most cop thrillers. The rest of Panic in the Streets is a faithful amalgamation of classic noir tropes: post-German Expressionist lighting, witty retorts muttered under hard-drinking cops’ breath, a villain who looks like he was plucked from a Dick Tracy lineup, more sewer-grate steam that New Orleans has ever seen, and so on. Anyone with a built-in appreciation for noir as a genre won’t need much more than the plague outbreak premise and the New Orleans locale for the film to be of interest, but it still doesn’t go very far out of its way to distinguish itself beyond those novelties – especially considering the prestige Elia Kazan represents behind the camera.

One noticeable auteurist touch Kazan brings to the table is an interest in this port city’s immigrant Greek population, which feels unique to him given that the director himself was born in Constantinople to Greek parents. Besides the expected police stations, race tracks, and shipping dock locations that naturally arise by setting a noir here, one of the few vintage local spots the film takes a documentarian interest in is a Greek-owned restaurant named Athena’s, presumably now long-gone. The rest of the local cast & crew are much less conspicuous, sporting neither the thick Y’at nor Cajun accents typical to Hollywood productions set here (or, at least they weren’t undetectable to this local’s ear). It’s nice to have a movie character pronounce “New Orleans” correctly on the big screen (a rarer occurrence than you might expect) and it’s a little funny how the plague victims’ dazed stumbling resembles the drunken zombie tourists of Bourbon Street, but most of Panic in the Streets’s local people-watching is just as subtly played as its minor deviations from the noir template. There’s a natural authenticity to the movie that arises from casting real-life characters in a majority of the roles, so that very few faces on the screen are the pristine, homogenous brand of Hollywood Beauty we’re used to seeing. For my taste, there are far too few women with substantial roles to paly in that dynamic (especially for the genre that effectively invented the femme fatale), but for the most part I was riveted just picking faces out of the crowd anyway. Shotgun Cinema projecting the film large & loud for a free screening at the Marigny Opera House was a major help in that regard. As a shot-on-location noir and an Elia Kazan procedural drama, Panic in the Streets is a solid genre entry, but not much more. As an act of local-history people-watching, however, it carries a lot of clout as something exceptional and I was glad to have the opportunity to share that experience with a live, local community.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bedroom Window (1987)

Steve Guttenberg has a knack for playing silly characters.  Whether he’s roller-skating the streets of New York City in Can’t Stop the Music or goofing off as a wacky cop in Police Academy, Guttenberg’s natural comic essence always has a way of making me smile. How could he not with those innocent brown eyes and big rosy cheeks? In 1987, Guttenberg did something completely out of his realm and starred in Curtis Hanson’s psychological thriller, The Bedroom Window. To my surprise, he did a damn good job in what was essentially his first serious role in a major motion picture.

In The Bedroom Window, Guttenberg plays the role of Terry, a young professional having an affair with his boss’s wife, Sylvia (Isabelle Huppert). During one of their trysts, Sylvia witnesses a woman being attacked from Terry’s bedroom window. Thankfully, the assailant flees the scene after the woman begins to scream and a couple of people go out into the street to help her. Shortly after the incident, a woman turns up dead not far from Terry’s apartment, and Terry feels obligated to tell the police about what was seen from his bedroom window when the prior attack occurred. The only problem is that Terry didn’t actually witness anything; only Sylvia saw the attack. To protect Sylvia and keep their affair under wraps, Terry gets as much detail about the indecent from Sylvia as he possible can, and he lies to police about being a witness. From this point, Terry’s life goes to hell in a handbasket.

The surviving victim from the attack Terry fake-witnessed is a young waitress named Denise (Elizabeth McGovern), and she meets Terry when they both attempt to pick out the attacker from a police lineup, which they are not able to accomplish. One of the guys in the lineup, Carl (Brad Greenquist of Pet Sematary fame), sort of fits the description that Sylvia gave to Terry, so Terry does his own investigating. After following Carl in secret, Terry becomes positive that he is the attacker, and he immediately tells the police that he suddenly “remembered” seeing Carl attack Denise. He just keeps creating lie after lie to put Carl behind bars. Terry gets himself into this massive web of lies for two reasons. One reason is that he wants to protect Sylvia and report vital information that could potentially get a killer of the streets. The other reason, the more selfish reason, is that Terry wants fame. He wants to be the reason Carl goes behind bars, saving women from being murdered and assaulted. Unfortunately for Terry, everything sort of blows up in his face.

What I thoroughly enjoyed about this film is Guttenberg’s acting and McGovern’s surprising takeover of the screen. Guttenberg’s inherent innocence was vital for the role of Terry. Regardless of the douchey things that Terry does, we can’t help but be on his side. We want him to come out of this mess as the winner. If an actor that wasn’t as likeable as Guttenberg played Terry, The Bedroom Window would have played out very differently. As for McGovern, for the first half of the film, she’s in the background. We only know her as the victim of an attack, and she shows up in scenes very sparingly. Towards the latter half of the film, she becomes a total badass and plays a huge role in taking down her attacker. Of course, she and Terry become somewhat of an item, which is such a cliché, but you can’t help but love them.

The Bedroom Window is far from being one of the top films in the thriller genre, but it’s a good watch. There’s enough mystery and edge-of-your-seat moments to hold your attention until the very end, and most importantly, it’s got Guttenberg.

-Britnee Lombas

Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena, 1973)

Although it’s been an annual occurrence on the local calendar for the last fifteen years, 2019 was the first year I attended PATOIS: The New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival. I only caught four screenings over two days at the fest, but it was a rewarding, energizing mix of political activism, queer community organizing, and avant-garde art that’s left a major impact on how I’ve been thinking about the purpose & boundaries of cinema in the weeks since. A lot of that political stimulation & intellectual contextualization stemmed from the activists tabling in the lobby, the panelists who hosted post-screening Q&As, and the organizers’ own pre-screening acknowledgements to the Indigenous Peoples whose land the festival, and by extension modern New Orleans, occupies. Of course, it was also largely due to the proper cinematic experience afforded to the often-underserved figures represented in the films themselves – funk pioneer Betty Davis, trans activist Marsha P. Washington, the anonymous women of Zambian labor camps, etc. Of the few films I saw at this year’s festival, none benefited from the big-screen theatrical treatment quite as much as the 1970s Senegalese road trip movie Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena in English). While not as much of an overt, explicit call-to-arms in its politics as other activist selections at the fest, Touki Bouki was the screening that most benefited from the sensory immersion of the theatrical experience. If I had seen Toki Bouki at home, I would have assumed that I missed something that explained the disoriented, illogical patterns of its storytelling in a moment when my attention wandered. Seeing it undistracted at PATOIS, I was still super confused & disoriented by its disinterest in A-B logic, but pleasantly so.

To call Touki Bouki a “road trip movie” is more a nod to the listless, episodic nature of its storytelling than it is reflective of its characters’ trajectory. Mory, an ox-herder, and Anta, a politically active college student, scheme throughout the film on how to grift enough money to fund an escape to Paris. It’s a mission that requires them to travel all over Senegal to attack their lack of funds from multiple angles (mainly petty theft). Josephine Baker’s romantic chorus of “Paris, Paris, Paris” serves as a rallying cry in this escapist mission, just one of the many notes of repetition that defines the cyclical rut the characters are stuck in. The most confounding of these cycles is the repeated fracturing of its timelines. Cross-cut with absolutely horrific footage of oxen being led to slaughter in a real-life abattoir, we repeatedly see Mory meet a deadly end before he can manufacture his Parisian escape. The nature of his fated death varies as the film sprawls into both documentarian observation & total detached fantasy: motorcycle crash, suicide, murder, etc. Its fractured, sensory-driven narrative has a clear surrealist bent to its sensibilities, but its editing room tinkering is almost outright Cubist: dissecting the same events repeatedly from multiple angles to establish a scattered, but more accurate truth. This is the story of a romantic dreamer who is not nearly as slick as he believes himself to be and is doomed to a violent death no matter how grand or wistful his ambitions of Parisian escape become. It’s a road trip movie where the trip itself is an impossibility – not only because no roads lead from Senegal to France, but because the only ultimate destination for flames that burn this brightly is a young death. Yet, it stubbornly carries on like a carefree road trip movie anyway, having fun sightseeing, posing fashionably, and meeting outlandish characters on the journey to its grim, cyclical destination.

There’s a kind of kinship between Touki Bouki and the 1966 Senegalese labor drama Black Girl; both films adopt filmmaking sensibilities from the French New Wave only to weaponize them against their own audience. The clearest this parallel shines through is in Touki Bouki’s third act, when white French colonialists on a ship in port complain about the loyalty & dignity of Senegalese servants, entirely unaware of how abhorrent they sound. The difference is that Black Girl overtly pursues this anti-French-Intellectuals perversion of French New Wave aesthetics for its entire runtime, whereas Touki Bouki is much looser in its narrative & messaging. In that way, Black Girl would almost be the more obvious choice for PATOIS programming (and for all I know, it has been included in the festival’s past). Touki Bouki is less overtly interested in politically subverting the French New Wave and often instead borrows the psychedelic Cool of that movement’s intense cinematography & sound design to create something unique, something distinctly Senegalese. Its fractured, psychedelic road trip creates a visual language & narrative pattern entirely of its own, which has made the film itself substantial standout outside any context of a cinematic movement. Its expansive palette allows for emotional peaks as varied as passionate sex, shit jokes, elaborate fantasies of wealth, graphic documentation of animal slaughter, and broad slapstick humor. Its own iconography has persisted so conspicuously that the cowskull-adorned motorcycle that facilitates Mory & Anta’s journey was even referenced in the promotional materials for Beyoncé & Jay-Z’s recent “On the Run” tour. Maybe that’s where its political activism lies: establishing a new cinematic aesthetic that’s distinctly black, African, and cerebral. Regardless, I’m very much appreciative that it landed on the PATOIS lineup so I could see it blown up loud and in the dark, fully immersed in its Cubist fantasy realm.

-Brandon Ledet

Stripped to Kill (1987)

In a career defined by inconsistences and exploitation of passing fads, the one constant to Roger Corman’s instincts as a producer is that the knows how to make money. He even proudly marketed his own autobiography on that conceit, titled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. That’s why it’s so bizarre to hear Katt Shea recall in a recent interview with Blumhouse’s Shock Waves podcast how difficult it was to pitch her wildly successful debut feature to Roger Corman in the mid-1980s. If you boil Stripped to Kill down to its bare essentials, the film is basically just 15 (!!!) strip club routines, a few scenes of horrifically gruesome violence, and an extremely offensive twist ending that has aged about as well as a fart in a jar. It’s possible that Corman’s queasiness with the film’s #problematic conclusion was a smart instinct, and he should not have caved to Shea’s repeated, insistent pitches on the film. I doubt being politically correct ranks as highly in the producer’s mind as making enough money to fund his next picture, though, as evidenced by the existence of Stripped to Kill 2 and Katt Shea’s continued employment under his wing. Shea had a distinct, neon-soaked vision for a movie so sleazy it made Roger Corman afraid of making money; even if Stripped to Kill is so morally offensive that it should not exist, you still have to admire that accomplishment.

Two Los Angeles detectives stumble into an investigation of a serial killer who targets local strippers. Both detectives want to use this opportunity for a promotion to the homicide division, but only the woman of the pair has to strip for it. Undercover among strippers while her male coworkers cheer her on from the audience (to boost the appearance of her popularity), our heroine finds herself torn between staying focused on the investigation and losing herself to the unexpected pleasures of sexual exhibitionism. Her initial prime suspect for the stripper murders is far too obvious of a misdirect, meaning the real murderer is hiding in plain sight among the main characters. There isn’t much time for the audience to pick up on clues ourselves, though, as the film is (under$tandably) much more concerned with packing in as much sex & violence as it can manage in it brisk 88min runtime. There are brief glimpses of backstage stripper drama in the film that recall the backroom politics of sex work in flicks like Working Girls & Support the Girls, but they’re inevitably interrupted by flashier, more attention-grabbing indulgences: misogynist hyperviolence, leather fetish strip routines, explosions, etc. Even the opening credits of the film are accompanied by a full-length strip routine set to sub-Lou Reed beat poetry, just to squeeze in a little more bare flesh without wasting any time. It’s remarkably easy to lose track of the undercover cop’s hunt for a crazed killer among all this hedonism (a thread the cop loses herself as she comes to enjoy her new trade), which almost makes the unnecessary transphobic twist ending even more offensive, since the film makes very few narrative strides to justify it.

To be fair, Stripped to Kill is offensive long before the arrival of its killer reveal. The way it gawks at women both performing onstage and privately engaged in lesbian foreplay, then turns around to gawk at those same bodies being mutilated by a misogynist killer leans into the ickiest trappings of the sex thriller genre. The violence on display in this film is upsettingly brutal; women are strangled, tossed off bridges, raped, set aflame, and dragged behind giant commercial trucks. It has a shockingly gruesome mean streak for something that’s ostensibly meant to be sexually titillating (given the space it allows for more than a dozen strip routines, which often punctuate its kill scenes). There is something transgressively perverse about watching a young woman recreate this misogynist violence herself, especially in the case of Katt Shea believing in this project so passionately that she effectively bullied Roger Corman into greenlighting it. In its best moments, Stripped to Kill recalls the same 80s LA grime Jackie Kong exaggerated to a cartoonish degree in her cult classic horror comedy Blood Diner. Played straight here, the misogynist violence & sexual exploitation on display feel like a detailed time capsule of the era’s sleaziest sleaze – decorated perfectly with big hairsprayed mops of curls, high-wasted black lace lingerie, and intense washes of neon lighting. As shameless as they are, the sex & crime that defines most of Stripped to Kill are perfectly in tune with the hardboiled LA detectives & drug-addled street punks that populate its sleazy, greasy world. It’s just that sometimes that sleaze results in a badass moment (like women kicking an offending john to pulp in a back-alley act of vigilante stripper justice) and sometimes it results in poorly-aged cringe (the ill-considered twist).

It’s difficult to say with any certainty whether Stripped to Kill’s merits outweigh its faults. As its never-ending pileup of strip routines & grotesque murder scenes continually muscled out any room for genuine, legitimate drama, I found myself impressed by its wholehearted commitment to sleaze. Your own appreciation of that commitment will depend on your personal taste for unembarrassed, hyper-sexualized, politically careless trash. Thankfully, Roger Corman himself was won over by the film’s box office receipts despite his early reservations with Katt Shea’s pitch, and the young director was able to churn out a few better-respected titles under Corman brand – notably Poison Ivy, Dance of the Damned, and Streets. I’m looking forward to seeing how her keen sense of sleaze evolved in those pictures, but also a little weary of her instincts after the conclusion of this one.

-Brandon Ledet

Greta (2019)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lagniappe

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

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

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

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

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

-The Swampflix Crew

Burning (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Net (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Escape Room (2019)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet