How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2023)

In Bertrand Bonello’s 2016 political provocation Nocturama, a group of young, hip domestic terrorists set off a disparate series of homemade bombs in modern Paris, then await the state’s violent military response in a shopping mall.  In Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a group of young, hip domestic terrorists set off two homemade bombs along a Texan desert pipeline, then await the state’s violent military response in the hot American sand.  The Parisian kids never fully explain the reasoning behind their explosives beyond a vague sense of economic unrest & cultural ennui.  The central point of Nocturama is making its teenage dissidents look cool—which it does—before they all meet a violent end.  By contrast, the American kids explain the ideology behind their explosive Direct Actions at length, intending to disrupt the economic viability of crude oil as a means to slow down Climate Change.  The point of How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn’t to inform the audience how to replicate this violence ourselves, but to motivate us to get serious about Climate Change as a mass extinction event that needs to be directly, immediately combated.  Both films are structured as non-linear heist thrillers, joining their hip teen terrorists in the hours before their respective bombings before flashing back to the planning stages of those attacks.  They both function as feature-length Building the Team montages as a result, which is always the most satisfying sequence in heist movies anyway.  In contrast, the American version of Nocturama is less pretty & more explainy than the French one, but it’s also a much more useful political motivator, which counts for a lot in this context. 

Goldhaber & crew do their best to make this Lefty manifesto traditionally entertaining so that its incendiary politics ignite the widest audience possible. This was never a concern of Bonello’s, who made a provocative aesthetic object to be appreciated by a small audience of art nerds.  How to Blow Up a Pipeline uses retro synth scoring & 90s blockbuster fonts to disguise itself as a throwback to crowd-pleaser heist thrillers like Point Break, but its full-hearted advocacy of its climate activists’ property destruction is much more daring & modern than the genre’s cop-friendly past.  Most of the shocking plot twists are the exact kind of undercover, double-crossing character reveals we’re used to in that context, but the movie loudly endorses the titular bombing and the activists behind it every chance it gets.  The most Goldhaber & editor Daniel Garber shake up the traditional blockbuster heist film formula is by cutting away from explosions seconds before detonation to retreat into flashbacks, letting the tension ride for several minutes before returning to the Bruckheimerian balls of fire.  Otherwise, it works within a familiar, comforting Dad Movie story template that this time just happens to be populated by pissed-off crust punks & college campus leftists.  The tension of whether a homemade explosive will be jolted the wrong way by those nervous rioters before they reach their targeted pipeline is continuously effective in the moment, but it’s all in service of stringing the audience along to listen to the reason behind their planned property destruction in their downtime between backroom chemistry experiments.

It’s extremely shallow of me to compare Pipeline‘s cool-cred endorsement of violent political action to the much more nihilist, beauty-obsessed Nocturama, as if they’re the only two films of their kind.  There’s a wide range of uncivil unrest advocacy cinema in this movie’s lineage, from 2018’s Empty Metal to 1983’s Born in Flames to 1966’s Battle of Algiers.  It would also be shallow of me to assign an auteurist reading to its production, given that it’s officially credited as “a film by Daniel Goldhaber, Ariela Barar, Jordan Sjol, and Daniel Garber” (a list that includes the director’s co-writers and aforementioned editor).  I’m going to do it anyway, though, because I’m a shallow guy.  I appreciate that some of the paranoid technophobia from Goldhaber’s debut feature Cam bled through to this follow-up, represented in Pipeline by characters’ constant awareness of being surveilled via their smartphones, even when dormant.  Still, I miss the slick, fantastical aesthetics of that indoor sex-work cyberthriller, which are traded in here for the grit & sweat of the outdoor American West.  That cinematic preference for beauty & artifice over more practical, real-world concerns is likely why Nocturama was at the forefront of my mind throughout Pipeline.  I felt as if I had already seen my ideal version of this picture in Bonello’s puzzle-box terrorist thriller, so even when admiring the big-picture politics & scene-to-scene tension of Goldhaber’s version, I could never fully crossover into zealous love for it.  It’s a consistently entertaining, ideologically solid eco-activist thriller that never fully shook me out of my cowardly complacency as a passive political thinker & pop media consumer. Or, that’s at least what I want to convey to the FBI.

-Brandon Ledet

Holy Shit! (2023)

There are plenty reasons why Spielberg’s shark-attack classic Jaws has endured in the public consciousness for the past half-century: its early showcase of the crowd-pleaser director’s technical talents, its emotional scarring of young aquaphobic Gen-Xrs, its annual holiday celebrations on both The 4th of July and Shark Week, etc.  Between all of the praise for its iconic horror scoring & mechanical-shark puppetry, though, we rarely take the time to praise Jaws for one of its most frequent, looming influences on modern genre filmmaking – the motivations of its villain.  I don’t mean its monstrously gigantic shark, whose descendants would not be assigned clear motivations for their people-eating sprees until preposterous sequels like Jaws 4: The Revenge.  No, I mean the capitalist mayor of Amity, who refuses to shut down his small town’s beaches for The 4th of July to prevent more inevitable shark attacks so local businesses can keep the holiday money flowing, like so much swimmers’ blood.  The Mayor Vaughn motivator is an easy go-to for cheap-o genre movies that need a simple, clear reason for their villains to allow needless violence to continue past the point of credulity.  It works both as ready-made stock political commentary that makes the schlockiest schlock out there appear to have something to say about the evils of Capitalism, and as a self-fulfilling “The show must go on” handwave that endorses the continuation of outlandish movie violence because the violence needs to happen for there to be a movie worth making in the first place.

The Mayor Vaughn motivator has trickled so far down the genre-filmmaking hierarchy that it’s now reached German scheisse comedies about exploding port-a-potties.  The low-brow, high-concept, single-location thriller Holy Shit! is set entirely within the four plastic walls of a locked German port-a-potty, which is set to explode with our shit-smeared hero inside it if he does not escape in time.  Much of the fun is in admiring the ways the film stretches this bar-napkin premise to feature length, which includes impaling the poor prisoner’s arm on a long stretch of rebar to lock him in place and dropping his smartphone just out of reach on the wrong side of the toilet seat.  The film never cheats on its premise; it remains locked inside the portable toilet for the entire runtime, only flashing back to outside events in auditory hallucination and bringing all outside characters within the visible frame of the port-a-potty door.  The only place it doesn’t have to strain its premise, really, is in finding motivation for the madman who locks his professional nemesis inside the toilet and rigs it to explode.  He’s given the off-the-shelf Mayor Vaughn motivator for expediency, trapping his plastic-shitter prisoner on a construction site that he’s determined to see dynamited to oblivion no matter who dares get in the way.  It’s almost overkill when the villain goes a step further by attempting to woo the hero’s girlfriend on top of demanding that the show must go on, but no one is watching a movie with this premise and this title expecting narrative restraint.

The only time Holy Shit! ventures outside its port-a-potty setting is in an opening music video fantasy featuring a hot-babe construction worker posing in full nudie-magazine glamour.  It turns out that image is of a centerfold crudely pasted to the construction site port-a-potty’s walls, which our concussed hero blankly stares at until he fully comes to.  After piecing together how he got trapped in his 127 Hours On The Crapper prison in the first place and abandoning his plans to dial for help on his shitty phone, he begins to MacGyver his way out of the predicament using whatever basic items are within reach.  His skills as an architect eventually come into play when he starts drawing geometric escape plans on the port-a-potty walls, making the film a scatological rehash of CubeHoly Shit! earns its title multiple times over as the shituation escalates and our disarmed hero has to self-mutilate in order to escape, calling into question if he’ll survive the sepsis after he survives the dynamite.  Incredibly, as juvenile as the film can be conceptually, it never pushes itself too far into winking, mood-killing irony.  It even often pauses between its outrageous shit & gore gags to focus on small, delicate details: dripping water, a ladybug, a sentimental photograph.  Only the Mayor Vaughn archetype goes fully off the rails in his broad caricature of genre movie villainy, and it’s somewhat necessary to keep him so over-the-top in every single beat so that all of the exploding port-a-potty gross-outs around him appear tame & tasteful by comparison.

You’d expect this scatological perversion of trapped-in-a-box thrillers like Cube, Devil, Buried, Phone Booth, and Panic Room would come off desperate & thin, but Holy Shit! is surprisingly solid.  Fibrous, even.  It’s continuously shocking without ever cheating on its extremely limited premise, which is all most shlock audiences are asking for out of movies of its ilk.  There’s nothing especially surprising about its villain, though, who is a cookie-cutter capitalist monster who those same audiences have watched wash up on the beaches of Amity over & over again for the past five decades running.

-Brandon Ledet

Missing (2023)

When I think of movie sequels that best their originals, what come to mind are the ones that go bigger, broader, and cartoonishly extreme, exploding the comparatively timid premises of their source texts – titles like Gremlins 2, Ghoulies 2, Child’s Play 2, Paddington 2, Batman Returns, and Magic Mike XXL.  In all of those examples, though, I still like the original films that preceded them, which is more than I can say for the volatile, twisty screenlife thriller MissingMissing is a spin-off sequel to one of my least favorite entries in the screenlife genre, Searching (a film that I should note Britnee reviewed very positively for this site back in 2018).  Searching wasn’t embarrassing in the way that lower-budget screenlife schlock like Safer at Home and Untitled Horror Movie can be, but I still resented it for cleaning up a trashy genre I love for its illogical technophobic fearmongering by turning it into safe, This Is Us-style melodrama.  Laptop-POV thrillers should prey on the eeriness of life on the internet, not act as tech-friendly advertisements that constantly reassure parents their terminally online children are actually doing okay.  It was basically Unfriended for the corniest of suburbanites, a perspective I was happy to see dropped in its much meaner, trashier sequel.

Missing improves on the Searching formula in practically every way, most of all in how it maintains a healthy paranoia around modern tech even while explaining why it’s useful (and in how it’s willing to put its characters in actual, sustained danger instead of just pretending to).  Storm Reid stars as the mouse-clicking, keyboard clacking internet detective du jour, a teenager who investigates the sudden disappearance of her mother—lost while vacationing in Colombia—from her laptop control room in California.  Missing‘s tone echoes the hokey schmaltz of Searching‘s parent-child melodrama, scoring its petty mother-daughter tensions with heart-tugging piano flourishes you’d expect to hear in an engagement ring jewelry store commercial.  Only, while Reid clicks away at the Ring cameras, location trackers, search histories, password workarounds, and username paper trails at her fingertips to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance, she’s revealing more than just the speedbumps & heartbreaks of modern familial bonds; she’s also cataloging the tools of the modern surveillance state.  The surface-level text of the film details the twists & turns of a Dateline-style “true” crime mystery and subsequent familial grief, while the glaring subtext is all about how deep privacy-invading technology has already seeped into our daily lives in ways we’ve learned to ignore, simply because it’s convenient.

One of the major things I love about screenlife thrillers (and one of the major reasons they’re dismissed as frivolous novelties) is their nimble ability to document of-the-moment trends in modern life online.  It’s something most other genres are scared to touch for fear of looking gimmicky or dated, despite computer screens accounting for so much of the visual data most audiences absorb on a daily basis.  There’s something fearlessly honest about engaging with that supposedly uncinematic imagery, but I also just like to imagine how incomprehensible screenlife aesthetics would be to earliest cinemagoers who were astounded by The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station in 1896.  For its part, Missing doesn’t have many updates in modern screenlife to document, except maybe the frustrating ambiguity of Captcha challenges and the low-key hostility of a thumbs-up emoji.  It does have plenty notes about life outside of the computer, though, marking our cultural obsession with turning real life tragedies into true crime #content; zoomer teens’ uncanny savvy in navigating the back roads of social media; and our casual, collective acceptance of privacy invasion from vampiric tech-world capitalists.  On a more practical, immediate level, it’s most useful as a showcase for Reid’s skills as a young actor and editors-turned-directors Will Merrick & Nick Johnson’s understanding of screenlife’s unique visual language, since those three collaborators account for almost everything we see onscreen.  It’s a fun, well-staged mainstream thriller with just the right balance between social commentary, shameless sentimentality, and trashy what-the-fuck twists, when Searching only hit one of those three metrics.

-Brandon Ledet

Holy Spider (2022)

Holy Spider lands at the exact intersection of two genres I’m not especially interested in: the true crime serial killer thriller and the shoe-leather journalism drama.  Its semi-fictional story of real-life confessed, convicted killer Saeed Hanaei’s street-level rivalry with a composite-character journalist determined to bring him to justice is something I was prepared to ignore entirely . . . until I saw who directed it.  Iranian-born, Copenhagen-based filmmaker Ali Abbasi made such choppy waves with his previous film, Border, that I could not ignore whatever he made next, regardless of genre.  Although no less morbid nor extreme, Border is in my genre wheelhouse, since its dark fairy tale setting lands it firmly in the supernatural.  The ripped-from-the-headlines story behind Holy Spider can’t pretend to be as singular as that doomed trolls-in-love horror drama, but it does continue the disturbing brutality of Abbasi’s previous triumph, and likely puts it to more politically ethical use.  No matter how little interest I may have in Holy Spider as a genre piece, it’s so fiercely unflinching & matter of fact in its observations of misogynist violence that I couldn’t help but be chilled by it.  Abbasi is a fiercely effective purveyor of movie violence, often to a deliberately sickening degree.

Time-stamped with 9/11 footage looping on a background television, Holy Spider recounts the serial murders of sex workers in the “holy city” of Mashhad in the early 2000s.  The women are choked to death—often in real-time on camera—with their headscarves by a serial killer posing as a potential john, using a religious symbol as a form of self-righteous punishment.  Maintenance man Saeed Hanaei’s guilt in these crimes is not hidden from the audience.  It’s barely hidden from the fictional journalist who takes him down, as her bare-minimum efforts to sniff him out expose the cruelty of local police’s indifference to the murder spree.  Once caught, Hanaei proudly confesses his guilt, claiming the murders were a “jihad on vice”, calling for a “fatwa on immoral women”.  Public response to his declarations is mostly positive, recalling the NIMBY cruelty towards real-life sex workers’ murders in the avant-garde musical London Road.  It’s a pretty cut and dry story about the free-flowing bleedover of sexual repression into misogynist violence, one that only differs from its Hollywood true-crime equivalents in its cold, matter-of-fact depictions of sex & violence.  Abbasi could be accused of edgelord pranksterism for some of the more shocking moments in Border, but these real-life murders are taken deadly seriously, without a hint of humor or sensational romance.

If Abbasi does anything especially unique with the genre traditions of the serial killer thriller, it’s in the way he continues Hanaei’s story beyond capture & punishment.  Once caught, his rivalry with the feminist journalist determined to take him down continues in full stride, as he tries to weaponize the court of public opinion to justify his murders.  After execution, his misogynist philosophies live on, particularly in the mind & actions of his teenage son, who idolizes his father as a morally righteous superhero.  The typical Hollywood version of this story is pure copaganda, wherein putting Hanaei behind bars is enough to neutralize the threat.  Instead, Abbasi finds deep terror & sadness in the continuation of Hanaei’s misogynist vision on a culture-wide level, continuing his work well after he’s physically neutralized.  It’s a chilling picture, one that has more political & philosophical purpose than most true crime recaps of famous headlines or sensationalized hagiographies of journalists doing their jobs.  As much as I would personally prefer that Abbasi return to the supernatural world in future projects, I still respect what he was able to accomplish while tethered to reality here.  Both Border and Holy Spider feel like grueling ordeals rather than passive entertainment, and attaching that hurt to real-life victims doesn’t make them any easier to endure.

-Brandon Ledet

Watcher (2022)

According to my count, there have now been four significant riffs on the classic paranoia thriller Rear Window in the past year, each starring freaked-out, disbelieved women in the James Stewart role.  That trend could a response to the increased social isolation during the pandemic making us simultaneously agoraphobic and nosy about strangers’ lives (now seen entirely through the digital windows of social media apps).  Or it could just as likely be that Hitchcock’s’ influence is eternal, and several Rear Window projects have happened to bottleneck in their distribution paths at a weirdly apt time.  Either way, Chloe Okuno’s debut feature Watcher is done a huge disservice by this sudden deluge of Rear Window riffs, maybe even more so than its unintended sister films.  Understated & unrushed, Watcher is a little too lacking in scene-to-scene tension and overall novelty to stand out in its crowded field (bested by both Kimi & The Voyeurs in those rankings, surpassing only The Woman in the Window).  I appreciate the icy mood it echoes from post-Hitchcock Euro horrors of the 1970s, and the stern narrative follow-through of its ending is almost enough of a shock to make up for the preceding dead air, but I’m not convinced that’s enough to make it especially noteworthy or even worthwhile.

Maika Monroe (It Follows) stars as an out-of-work actress who moves to Bucharest at the behest of her workaholic boyfriend (Karl Glusman, Devs).  Alienated by her endless days alone in the apartment and her inability to speak Romanian, she becomes more of a quiet observer than she is an active participant in her own life.  Worse yet, a neighbor she can see from her apartment window has taken to staring back with an intense fixation on her every move, even when she leaves the relative safety of her new home.  The actress is convinced her stalker is a neighborhood serial killer known as The Spider, so she sends the few men in her life to violently threaten him & interfere before his obsession gets out of hand.  As their patience for humoring her suspicions wears thin, Watcher becomes a fairly typical Believe Women thriller.  Its only distinguishing details, really, are the fashions & architecture of its Eastern European setting and the cold, stubborn brutality of its conclusion.  It’s thematically rich in its intricate gender politics, especially in the way Monroe is dismissed & infantilized by the men in her social circle and endangered by demonstrating even the most benign friendliness to male strangers. The tonal & visual expressions of those themes are just a little too calm & well-behaved for the movie to stand out as anything special.

My fixation on Watcher‘s lack of novelty is likely just as much of a result of seeing it in a film festival setting as it is a result of its recent competition among other, flashier Rear Window updates.  Watcher played at this year’s Overlook Film Festival among dozens of similar low-budget genre films with their own abundance of pre-loaded comparison points.  To my eye, it’s the one that most suffered from its dedication to long-running genre tradition (at least among the nine titles I watched at the festival), precisely because it’s the one that was least interested in attention-grabbing novelty.  And yet it’s the one title that was simultaneously playing in AMC theaters elsewhere in town, while most of the bolder, weirder Overlook titles I caught will get nowhere near screens that size.  I appreciated the opportunity to see Watcher in a theatrical environment, since its distribution through Shudder means most audiences will force it to compete with smartphones for their attention when it inevitably hits streaming.  It’s a pretty good movie with admirable political convictions and an effectively eerie mood.  It’s just also nothing special, really, at least not when considered in comparison with its competition – Overlook, Soderbergh, Sweeney, or otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

Piggy (2022)

I’ve been working up the courage to watch Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl for two decades now, building its power in my mind as the kind of post-Haneke heartcrusher that’s specifically designed to ruin my day, and possibly my entire life.  The high-style, low-budget thriller Piggy is as close as I’ve gotten to taking that icy Breillat plunge to date, as it processes a lot of the same squirmy coming-of-age discomforts through more recognizable, digestible genre tropes.  Piggy also has a dark, winking sense of humor to it that keeps the mood oddly light as it stares down the ugliest truths of an outcast youth.  Since I haven’t yet seen Fat Girl and not enough of the general public has seen The Reflecting Skin for that comparison to be meaningful, let’s go ahead and call Piggy an update of Welcome to the Dollhouse for the Instagram era.  It’s the kind of button-pushing indie that’s made entirely of pre-existing genre building blocks, so it’s easy to discuss entirely through its similarities to earlier titles, but it still feels freshly upsetting & perversely fun in the moment.

“Piggy” is, of course, a term of disendearment lobbed at our teenage anti-heroine by her thinner, more popular bullies.  While her peers pose pretty for a nonstop flood of Instagram hearts, Sara cowers behind the counter of her family’s butcher shop, desperately hoping to coast her way through puberty unnoticed.  Her bullies are relentless, though, whether they’re the teen girls who oink at her from the side of the public pool or her overbearing mother who berates her for letting candy stain her teeth & expand her belly.  That’s why she’s in no particular rush to rat out her neighborhood serial killer, who shows parasocial sympathy for Sara’s plight by abducting & torturing all of her harshest critics.  Every second Sara withholds the killer’s identity & location from local cops, it becomes increasingly unlikely her nemeses will be recovered all in one piece.  It’s a trade-off she’s willing to make, though, at least of a while.  She’s finally found the space to develop as an independent young adult on the other side of the butcher counter without her bullies suffocating her – using her newfound freedom to experiment with teenage thrills like masturbation, marijuana, and lies.  Besides, she’s developed an incredibly inappropriate crush on her adult serial killer “friend,” so there’s plenty incentive to just sit back & see how it all plays out.

-Brandon Ledet

There’s a satisfying, upsetting progression to how Sara’s violently accelerated maturation is matched by director Carlota Pereda’s visual aesthetic.  There’s a soft, pink innocence & nostalgia to the film’s earliest scenes that feels totally at home in teen girls’ Instagram feeds & bedroom decor.  By the final stretch, Sara is submerged in the dingy dungeon greys of the torture porn 2000s, losing her childhood innocence to her own newfound selfishness.  It’s a worthwhile journey, as she emerges from the other end of that blood-drenched tunnel as a much more confident, fully formed person.  Piggy is more of a character study than a proper thriller in that way; everything is in service of tracking Sara’s emotional development.  And since it recalls so many coming-of-age horror stories that came before it, all it can really accomplish is to add Sara’s name to the list of all-time great outsiders who’ve already Gone Through It onscreen: Dawn Wiener, Maya Ishii Peters, Anna Kone, Dawn Davenport, Juliet Hulme, etc.  I have no clue where Anaïs Pingot of Fat Girl infamy resides on that prestigious list, but I hope to one day have the courage to find out.

Lagniappe Podcast: Fractured (2019)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the 2019 Netflix psych-thriller Fractured, starring Sam Worthington as a heavily concussed dad in crisis.

00:00 Welcome

00:55 Tatie Danielle (1990)
05:45 The Frog Prince (1971)
08:55 Licorice Pizza (2021)
14:15 Nightmare Alley (2021)
16:45 Encanto (2021)
21:30 The Woman in the Window (2021)
24:15 Dave Made a Maze (2017)
26:35 Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)
29:10 Fresh (2022)
30:25 The Covenant (2006)

32:25 Fractured (2019)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Kimi (2022)

Of course, of all the big-name Hollywood filmmakers you’d expect to thrive in spite of COVID-era production troubles, Steven Soderbergh has been thriving the brightest.  Three decades into his career, Soderbergh still conveys a playfulness and adaptability that have got to be near impossible to maintain in an industry that’s increasingly hostile towards anything that’s not pre-established, multi-billion-dollar IP.  While most legendary auteurs have struggled to get no-brainer projects off the ground, Soderbergh remains a scrappy, resourceful innovator who’s still making exciting work at the margins of the industry – the kind of movies you’d expect out of a director in their twenties with something to prove.  Adding the circumstances of the COVID pandemic to his already unstoppable filmmaking routine is just another obstacle for Soderbergh to navigate his way around, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was genuinely delighted by the challenge.  Two years into the pandemic, he’s already made and distributed three feature films, making it look disgustingly easy while most of the Hollywood machine feels like it’s still on pause.  I’m halfway convinced that he’ll be up to four COVID-era features by the time I finish typing this paragraph.

Although Soderbergh has already delivered other experiments in COVID-era cinema (all for HBO Max), his latest dispatch, Kimi, is the first that feels like it was produced during the pandemic.  While Let Them All Talk & No Sudden Move would’ve felt right at home in any other year of Soderbergh’s post-“retirement” era, Kimi directly acknowledges the ongoing pandemic and integrates it into its narrative.  It initially plays like Soderbergh making an easy exercise out of updating Rear Window for the COVID era.  Zoë Kravitz stars as a low-level surveillance tech who reviews and solves technical issues for an Alexa-style personal assistant gadget called Kimi.  An agoraphobe whose anxiety about leaving the apartment is only worsened by the pandemic, she’s limited almost all of her in-person social interactions to physical communication with the tenants of the apartment building opposite her window.  Given how most COVID-era productions have shifted to screenlife thrillers contained to laptops and single-location living spaces, you’re trained to expect the entire movie to play out in this one beautiful, but restrictive Seattle apartment.  Instead, Soderbergh turns that familiar set-up into an excuse for a totally Unsane remix of The Net.  While working her surveillance data-collection job, Kravitz discovers evidence of a violent crime.  Reporting it puts her in danger of suffering a similar fate of the victim she’s trying to save, as the corporate suits at Kimi will literally kill to prevent the resulting public scandal.  So, she has to go on the run outside her apartment to escape violent, corporate thugs, which is really just an excuse for Soderbergh to play with the unique anxieties of what it feels like to exist in public right now.

The brilliant thing about Kimi is that it feels like a throwback to mid-budget tech thrillers of the 1990s like Sneakers and The Net—the exact kind of movies that most Hollywood studios neglect to make anymore—even though it has distinctly modern sensibilities in its technophobic satire & production circumstances.  The film’s paranoia about the illusion of online privacy, its dual use of the Kimi tech as both a weapon & a punchline, and Kravitz’s e-girl haircut are all firmly rooted in modern internet culture, but they’re treated with a retro Hollywood thriller sensibility in the film’s plotting.  Meanwhile, Soderbergh is having fun playing with his filmmaking toys, as always.  He shoots Kravitz’s nervous escape on the streets of Seattle with a sped-up skateboard video aesthetic that recalls the anxious discomforts of Unsane.  He stunt-casts comedians David Wain & Andy Daily in bit dramatic roles that recall similar casting pranks in The Informant.  Most importantly, he continues his reign of filming the ugliest, drabbest office settings in the biz, depicting our current corporate hellscape as a fluorescent-lit nightmare we’d all be lucky to wake up from at any second.  If there’s anything that unifies Soderbergh’s filmmaking sensibilities beyond his continued playfulness in craft, it’s that all his films maintain a sternly anti-Capitalist political bent – capturing the cruelty, tastelessness, and absence of Life in our soul-drained modern world like no other filmmaker working today.  It’s all very honest about the exact corporate power structures that are crushing the few good things left in this world, while also recalling the phoniest blockbuster thrillers of Hollywood past.  Exciting stuff.

I have no idea how much longer COVID will continue to disrupt the production logistics of traditional Hollywood filmmaking.  I’ve stopped trying to predict the future after these last two years of watching a global health crisis get unnecessarily prolonged in a game of profit-over-people politics.  Still, I can say with full confidence that Soderbergh will continue to make movies as long as he’s alive on this planet, and his movies will continue to confront those exact misanthropic politics for what they are.  They’ll also continue to be wonderfully entertaining; he’s always dependable for that, even if his modes of professional survival are forever in flux.

-Brandon Ledet

Streets of Fire (1984)

I’m sure there are plenty of real-life biker gangs that have been a terrifying menace in whatever communities they rumble through, but I feel like most of my exposure to that culture has been sanitized & defanged to the point where I don’t see them as a threat.  From Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones to Vanilla Ice in Cool as Ice, there’s a long history of retro biker gangs that look tough on the screen but never actually follow through on their threats.  Likewise, most bikers I see in the streets these days appear to be bored men in midlife crisis, trying to muster up some Leather Daddy fashionability instead of just plain Dad Vibes.  Apparently, that de-emphasized biker menace bothered notorious genre filmmaker Walter Hill as well, presumably after growing up in the Marlon Brando era of biker-with-a-heart-of-gold dramas as a teenager.  Hill seemingly made an entire feature film just to make bikers feel genuinely dangerous again, terrorizing a 1980s audience with revamped black-leather bullies from his 1950s youth.

Streets of Fire is a 50s teen-delinquent throwback sleazed up with 80s music video neons.  Self-described as “a rock & roll fable” set in “another time and another place,” it exists in a make-believe limbo that covers both decades at once – the same neon-noir aesthetic as Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind.  It’s basically The Wild Ones sped up for MTV sensibilities, with music-video crosscutting and a constant, aggressive drumbeat keeping the audience’s blood pumping like mad while its rabid biker gangs raise Hell up & down the streets of the fictional city of “Richmond” (read: Chicago).  Bikers get away with stripping innocent citizens nude in the street and dragging them across the asphalt trailing behind their roaring bikes as they smash every storefront window in their vicious path, but they cross a line when they kidnap a famous rock ‘n roll singer in the middle of her sold-out concert.  The heist mission to rescue that singer from biker-gang territory nearly burns the entire city to the ground, and it’s legitimately terrifying in a way few—if any—1950s biker films were allowed to be.

The only thing that really slows Streets of Fire down is its dead-eyed lead, Michael Paré, which is bizarre since the rest of the cast is packed with exciting, charismatic people you always love to see.  Willem Dafoe is a gorgeous sex goblin as the main biker villain, recalling his leather-clad brute performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless.  Likewise, Diane Lane’s performance as the kidnapped rock ‘n roll singer feels like an MTV-era update to her persona in The Fabulous Stains, right down to the red & black color story of her wardrobe.  Rick Moranis is maybe the only main player who’s cast against type as the tough-guy music manager who hires a vigilante to rescue his missing talent, playing the part of a macho bully that’s usually reserved for men three times his size.  Paré does not bring much to the table as the mercenary hero in contrast.  He’s generically handsome, but he’s got no personality to speak of.  Walter Hill directs every single character to deliver action hero one-liners in amphetamine-rattled noir speak, and Paré’s the only one who mumbles his way through them like a long-lost Stallone brother.

While Paré is a major liability as the narrative center of attention, Hill’s high-style visual theatrics more than compensate for his lack of screen presence.  Flaming motorcycles, S&M butcher outfits, neon crosslighting, and a music video performance of the soft-rock hit “I Can Dream About You” all violently combine to make a singular genre picture – one that revitalizes a long-subdued subculture that’s rarely as tough as it looks.  For the record, Cool as Ice is also a high-style delight; I just wouldn’t say that Vanilla Ice was exactly “scary” in it.  Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe is a goddamn nightmare.

-Brandon Ledet

Mother’s Boys (1994)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the erotic thriller’s migration from movie theaters to streaming services.  Unless you’re lucky enough to catch French exports like Knife+Heart or Double Lover at a local film festival, most modern audiences’ exposure to the erotic thriller genre is going to be through straight-to-streaming releases like Netflix’s Deadly Illusions or Amazon Prime’s The Voyeurs.  If there’s been a low-level resurgence of the erotic thriller in recent years, it’s already reached its direct-to-video nadir, where streaming services are playing the part of late-night Skinemax broadcasts while sex has completely evaporated from public screenings at the American multiplex.  There’s no clearer indicator of this decline in theatrical exhibitionism than Disney’s handling of the upcoming film Deep Water.  Originally planned for wide theatrical distribution under the 20th Century Fox banner, Deep Water is a mainstream erotic thriller with legitimate movie stars that’s now going to be quietly dumped onto Hulu, as if Disney is ashamed to let their freak flag fly in broad daylight.  What makes that last-minute change in distribution model so symbolic of the state of the erotic thriller is that Deep Water was directed by Adrian Lynne, whose heyday titles Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and 9 1/2 Weeks essentially defined the genre.  There used to be space in the theatrical market for Adrian Lynne’s mainstream erotic thrillers to become widely discussed watercooler movies; now they’re something we’re supposed to enjoy in private with the blinds closed so no one can see our shame.

One major blow to the erotic thriller’s theatrical distribution was the box office failure of the 1994 Jamie Lee Curtis vehicle Mother’s Boys, a financial loss that nearly obliterated Miramax.  That bomb was one of Miramax’s first major releases after its mid-90s Disney buyout, the exact kind of studio gobbling that’s now allowing Disney to hide Adrian Lyne’s latest on a subsidiary streaming service.  Mother’s Boys may have appeared to be a dime-a-dozen in its heyday, but I honestly think contemporary audiences missed out on a great time at the movies.  It should have been a hit.  Yet even this traditional erotic thriller blurs the lines between what’s theatre-worthy vs. what’s straight-to-video content in its own way.  It’s high-style 90s trash packed with the kinds of recognizable movie stars & over-active camera trickery that are usually too big for direct-to-video budgets.  At the same time, it’s also directly inspired by real-life Betty Broderick tabloid headlines (recognizable even in Curtis’s spiky blonde haircut), positioning it as a major studio mockbuster of the made-for-TV “movie event” A Woman Scorned.  Personally, I found it to be more explosively entertaining than even the revenge-pranks half of A Woman Scorned: Part 1, but it’s still very much playing around with a psychotic-ex thriller template that’s been reserved for television broadcasts & streaming services since the erotic thriller was pushed out of theaters.  To put it plainly, Mother’s Boys is the Lifetime thriller perfected.

Jamie Lee Curtis stars as an unhinged, sadistic mother who terrorizes her kids & husband (an architect, naturally) after abruptly disappearing for three years.  She wears outrageous couture clothing, enjoys martinis in her bubble baths, and treats herself to unwanted sexual advances on her still-healing, single-father ex just for the pleasure of watching him squirm.  The traditional erotic thriller elements are in watching that poor man (Peter Gallagher) resist the temptation of backsliding into their old red-hot sexual dynamic at the expense of the much healthier romance he’s sparked up in her absence.  Like many a Michael Douglas character, it’s his job to resist her sexual charms and then violently punish her for her transgressions in a grand display of Hays Code morality.  Those plot machinations almost feel like obligatory genre markers that (failed to) make the movie easily marketable, though, since most of its central drama involves Curtis’s relationship with her titular boys.  While her estranged husband must resist her offers of mind-blowing sexual favors, their oldest son must resist her training to become a little sociopath molded in her image.  It’s bad enough when she’s manipulating the three children to turn against their father’s new fiancée (mostly by bribing them with junk food & Gameboys), but by the time she’s purposefully traumatizing the oldest so he becomes mommy’s little sociopath, the movie transcends the limitations of the erotic thriller genre to become something uniquely upsetting.  It’s fabulous, reprehensible stuff.

If there was any positive outcome in the shift from the theatrical erotic thriller template to its made-for-TV equivalent, it’s that the Lifetime movies tend to center the psychotic woman’s POV instead of her male victim’s.  If Fatal Attraction was a two-night “movie event” like A Woman Scorned instead of a traditional theatrical release, Glenn Close would’ve been the main-POV character instead of Michael Douglas, and it likely would’ve been better off for it.  Even though Mother’s Boys was designed for theatrical distribution, it was way ahead of the curve there.  Curtis’s psycho-wife monster remains a kind of volatile enigma the entire runtime (what exactly was she up to for the three years when she abandoned her family?), but her over-the-top sexual & vengeful theatrics are given a lot more attention than Gallagher’s exhausted response to them.  Direct-to-video erotic thrillers also usually have more freedom to dip their toes into outright softcore pornography than their theatrical foremothers, since they aren’t subject to the browbeating of the MPAA.  I’d gladly sacrifice that Playboy Magazine-level titillation to be able to see movies as deliriously trashy as Mother’s Boys on the big screen again, though.  Our current theatrical distribution market is a little too sanitized & predictable, more concerned with selling audiences on the nostalgic comforts of familiar IP than testing the boundaries of their good sense & good taste.  We need to get a little more comfortable watching our horned-up, amoral trash out in public again.  It makes for a fun night out, even if we all rush home to shower directly after.

-Brandon Ledet