Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)

I’m not sure how George Miller’s new fantasy anthology fits into the modern world, but I’m also not sure that it’s trying to.  Three Thousand Years of Longing feels like a relic from the 1990s at the very latest, recalling a specific fantasy era ruled by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Terry Gilliam, and likeminded Brits.  It conjures its magic through uncanny CGI that definitively pins it to the 2020s, but its story of a lonely white woman finding love with a Black djinn while shopping for knick-knacks in Istanbul feels out of step with modern politics, daring the audience to decry “Orientalism” or “magical negro” at every turn.  It’s worth keeping in mind that George Miller is an old man. He’s been working long enough to have contributed to this exact brand of matter-of-fact magic before it was vintage in both The Witches of Eastwick and Babe: Pig in the City.  It also helps that the story he tells here directly questions its place in modernity, ultimately deciding that it belongs in another time & realm.

Tilda Swinton stars as a professor of “narratology” who travels to Istanbul to perform an academic lecture on the power of storytelling.  While antique shopping in her off-time, she unwittingly unleashes a gigantic puff of smoke shaped like Idris Elba, who demands that she make three wishes so that he can be freed from his tiny, glass prison.  You would expect an anthology with that wraparound to include one cautionary-tale vignette per wish, but Three Thousand Years has many more stories to tell.  Because Swinton’s professor studies storytelling as an artform & cultural tradition, she’s very reluctant to make any of her three wishes, fully informed on the usual “monkey’s paw” irony of these scenarios.  Elba’s djinn recounts magical stories from his thousands of years in captivity to convince her that he is not a trickster set out to teach her morality lessons about selfishness or greed.  In hearing his lived-experience fairy tales, she realizes that the true reason she cannot make a wish is because she does not have a true “heart’s desire,” at least nothing that can compare to the passionate yearnings suffered by her new, eternally lovesick companion.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is at once George Miller’s Tale of Tales, Guillermo del Toro’s The Fall and, least convincingly, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Good Luck to You Leo Grande.  The vivid colors & eerie moods of the fantasy flashbacks are unimpeachable, even if their politics are questionable.  All that’s left to puzzle over, really, is the effectiveness of the wraparound, which is mostly an excuse for two talented actors to take turns narrating short stories in an illustrated audio book.  As a two-hander character study, Three Thousand Years is cute but frothy.  The djinn struggles to adapt to the electromagnetic cacophony of modern living, where magic and science clash in a constant, furious roar.  His new storytelling companion struggles with breaking out of her shell, with making herself vulnerable to desire, and with the ethics of conjuring magical powers in the realm of love.  There isn’t much room for that dynamic to deepen, though, since Miller understandably spends more time on the romance & fantasy of centuries past.  Maybe the power of storytelling isn’t so timeless after all; maybe our hearts & minds are too cluttered to fully incorporate the magic of the old world into the electronic buzzing of the new one.  Still, it’s a nice feeling to visit from time to time, a wonderful momentary escape.

-Brandon Ledet

The French Dispatch (2021)

When I was a teenager, I thought of Wes Anderson as a singular genius who made esoteric art films for in-the-know sophisticates.  In my thirties, I now see him for what he actually is: a populist entertainer.  The fussed-over dollhouse dioramas that typify Anderson’s visual style often distract from the qualities that make his films so popular & rewatchable: they’re funny.  Laughing my way through his new high-style anthology comedy The French Dispatch felt like a rediscovery of the heart & humor that always shine in Anderson’s work but are often forgotten in retrospect as we discuss the consistency of his visual quirks.  People often complain about how visually lazy mainstream comedies are, and here’s a film packed with Hollywood Celebrities where every scene is overloaded with gorgeous visuals and hilarious jokes.  You can access it at practically any strip mall multiplex, right alongside the superhero & animated-animal sequels that otherwise crowd the marquee.  No one else is making films exactly like Anderson’s, but everyone stands a chance of being entertained by them.

Judging by the wraparound segments of The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson appears to be self-aware of his usefulness in presenting Art Film aesthetics to wide audiences.  The titular literary magazine is written by high-brow artsy types in the fictional town of Ennui, France, but is published as a newspaper insert in the farmlands of Kansas.  The film is structured like a magazine layout, with light humorous moodsetters, standalone articles of in-depth culture writing, and a heartfelt obituary to cap it all off.  The deceased is the magazine’s editor, whose death makes the entire film feel like a love letter to the lost art of editing at large, in the age of ad-driven clickbait production.  Mostly, though, it’s all just a platform for rapidfire joke deliveries from talented celebrities dressed up in gorgeous costumes & sets.  The anthology structure makes it play like a warmer, more frantic version of Roy Andersson’s sketch comedies, except the presence of household names like Frances McDormand & Benicio Del Toro means that more than a couple dozen people will actually watch it.  And they’ll laugh.  The French Dispatch may be more-of-the-same from Wes Anderson, but it really helped clarify how much I value him as a comedic filmmaker – even if he’d likely rather be referred to as a “humorist”.

Scrolling through this ensemble comedy’s massive cast list, it’s easy to distinguish which new additions to the Wes Anderson family feel at home among the returning players (i.e., Jeffrey Wright as a James Baldwin stand-in) vs. which ones were invited to the party merely because they’re celebrities (i.e., Liev Schreiber as the talk show host who interviews Wright).  It’s much more difficult to single out which performer is the film’s MVP.  Tilda Swinton is the funniest; Henry Winkler is the most surprising; Benicio del Toro is the most emotionally affecting.  It’s likely, though, that the film’s true MVP is newcomer Timothée Chalamet as a scrawny political idealist who incites a vague yet violent student’s revolution on the streets of Ennuii with no clear political goal beyond the fun of youthful rebellion.  It’s not that Chalamet is any stronger of a presence than this fellow castmates, but his Teen Beat heartthrob status outside the film is highly likely to draw some fresh blood into Anderson’s aging, increasingly jaded audience.  The general reaction to The French Dispatch indicates that adult audiences who’ve been watching Wes Anderson since the 1990s are tiring of his schtick. Meanwhile, teenage girls hoping to get a peek at their favorite shirtless twink are perfect candidates for newfound, lifelong Anderson devotion.  He worked best on me when I was that age, anyway.

The French Dispatch is dense & delightful enough that I’m already excited to watch it again, which is exactly how I felt when I first watched titles like Rushmore & The Life Aquatic in my teens.  It might be my favorite of his film since The Royal Tenenbaums, or at least it feels like a perfect encapsulation of everything he’s been playing with since then.  There’s a high likelihood that I walked out of Moonrise Kingdom & The Grand Budapest Hotel with this same renewed enthusiasm for his work, and I’ve merely forgotten that immediate elation in the few years since.  Regardless, I don’t know that I’ve ever so clearly seen him as one of America’s great comedic filmmakers the way I do now.  His visual & verbal joke deliveries in this latest dispatch are incredibly sharp & consistently funny.  Many scenes start as fussed-over dollhouse dioramas shot from a cold, clinical distance.  Those neatly segmented spaces tend to fill with oddly endearing goofballs, though, and you can tell he’s having the most fun when he’s feeding them punchlines.

-Brandon Ledet

Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (1980)

If you’re a movie nerd of a certain age and sensibility, you’re already well aware that there’s a new Pedro Almodóvar short that recently premiered on HBO Max.  Filmed during the pandemic, it’s a cramped, minor production that essentially amounts to Tilda Swinton performing a one-woman play: Jean Cocteau’s 1930s actress showcase “The Human Voice.”  In the abstract, it’s surprising that the short is Almodóvar’s first collaboration with Swinton, since the two seem like a perfect pair.  In practice, it makes sense that he’d want to distance himself from that casting choice’s unavoidable association with the similarly idiosyncratic works of Derek Jarman, a contemporary.  The Human Voice feels like watching Almodóvar filter the basic components of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown through a Derek Jarman lens — complete with unadorned stage play theatrics & endless fascination with Tilda Swinton’s bone structure.  It’s a gorgeously wrapped, bitterly funny treat the way that Almodóvar always is at his best, but it’s more of a dispassionate, abstracted work than what he normally delivers.  That’s fine for a short-film experiment meant to fill in the schedule gap created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it did have me yearning for the barely coherent chaos of Almodóvar’s previous extrapolation of this same story in Women on the Verge.  There’s just something about that earlier, messier draft’s manic screwball energy that speaks more directly to my garbage bin heart than this distilled Conceptual Art revision ever could.

Thankfully, the arrival of The Human Voice on HBO Max was accompanied by ten earlier works from Almodóvar’s back catalog, so it was extremely convenient to scratch that itch.  We already covered many of the titles included in that package on an episode of The Swampflix Podcast last year, but a few selections were completely new to me, including Almodóvar’s debut feature Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón.  Any of the chaotic Pee-wee’s Playhouse kitch-punk I was picking up on in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is amplified a thousand-fold in Pepi, Luci, Bom.  Filmed over two years’ worth of spare weekends in Almodóvar’s punk-youth days in the Movida Madrileña movement, Pepi, Luci, Bom is a total fucking mess – the exact spiritual opposite of the cold arthouse abstraction of The Human Voice.  It’s a grimy, post-John Waters comedy that’s more concerned with obnoxiously breaking every taboo imaginable than it is with purpose or coherence.  Late in its second act, its protagonist (Pepi, played by Almodóvar regular Carmen Maura) admits she has no idea how the fictional film’s she’s making is going to end, which feels like a desperate confession to the audience from the cash-strapped man behind the camera.  Like Pink Flamingos, its broad outline plotting is mostly an excuse to stage a series of barely connected, highly scatological stunts among its cast of subprofessional freaks & punks.  It’s a little obnoxious, glaringly imperfect, and I love it for all its many, many faults.

Speaking of Derek Jarman, I don’t know that I’ve felt this at home with a cast & setting since I first stumbled onto JubileePepi, Luci, Bom is dragged by its hair trailing the story of a mousy housewife who’s seduced & corrupted by the local punks who despise her cop husband and conspire to ruin his life.  Unfortunately, like most Almodóvar films, it falls under the queasy genre umbrella of the Rape Revenge Comedy, which makes it difficult to blanketly recommend to the uninitiated.  Like in Waters’s early provocation pieces, the depictions of sexual assault are so flippant and grotesquely absurd that they’re difficult to take entirely seriously, but that transgression is still frequently repeated and frequently alienating all the same.  Like in Almodóvar’s later, more refined works, the women of Pepi, Luci, Bom refuse to be dismissed as victims, no matter how much violence the macho authority figures in their lives inflict on them.  The mousy housewife subverts the power imbalance suffered under her abusive cop husband’s thumb by incorporating her victimhood into her masochistic sexual kinks.  Likewise, the cop’s street-punk rape victim becomes sexually aroused while watching her scumbag friends kick him half to death in the street.  And just so you know not to take that vicious beating too seriously, it includes the bloodied cop shouting “Not my balls!” at his assailants as if it were a screwball comedy punchline.  It’s all in bad taste, and yet it’s all in good fun.

I can’t explain exactly why, but I found all of this film’s elaborate indulgences in piss play, stoner gags, fart jokes, and literal dick measuring contests to be oddly wholesome, despite the severity of its rape-revenge premise.  I was shocked, for instance, by how sweetly romantic I found Bom’s performance of her band Bonitoni’s love song “Murciana marrana”, written in ode to her maso-girlfriend Luci with the lyrics “I love you because you’re dirty, filthy, slutty, and servile.  You’re Murcia’s most obscene, and you’re all mine”.  Watching these three women and their knucklehead punk buddies thumb their nose at every possible taboo while modeling homemade clothing in shocking pinks & phlegmy yellows genuinely warmed my heart, even as the film’s nastier stunts turned my stomach.  The only thing that holds Pepi, Luci, Bom back from fully conveying Almodóvar’s chaotic genius is the limitations of its budget.  Not only did its scrappy weekend-to-weekend production derail any potential for narrative cohesion, but its 16mm to 35mm blow-up print also lacks the color saturation that makes later, better-funded works like Women on the Verge pop like a poisoned candy shop.  Still, despite all its ramshackle production details and juvenile pranksterism, it’s clear that Almodóvar was already fully himself here, complete with The Human Voice-worthy pontifications about how “Cinema isn’t life; cinema is fabricated.”  If anything, his usual sensibilities are just presented raw & unfiltered here, in a way that feels genuinely dangerous – a far cry from the controlled arthouse abstraction of his recent short.

-Brandon Ledet

Broken Flowers (2005)

In my Silver City review, I mentioned my recent writing retreat, in which I went internet-free in a cabin for a week to get some fiction writing done, and the collection of “Blockbuster’s Twilight Years”-era DVDs that had been purchased during that organization’s decline and which found there way to the cabin. One of these films was Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 Bill Murray vehicle Broken Flowers. I have a complete and utter Jarmusch blind spot, never having seen any of his films. In fact, I only know him from his appearance on Fishing with John for, as you well know by now dear reader, I am a weirdo. After the abysmal experience of watching In Secret and once again trying and failing to get through Titus, I really wanted to clear my Jessica Lange palate, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a serial womanizer, now retired after having done quite well in the field of “computers,” and living rather disaffectedly. When his latest ladyfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) leaves him, citing that she feels like his mistress even though he isn’t married, he receives a second blow: an untraceable letter from a woman claiming that Don fathered a now nineteen-year-old son with her and she kept it from him. The letter’s author warns that the boy is now on a road trip, and she has her suspicions that he’s looking for his father, and doesn’t want Don to be taken completely unaware. At the urging of his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don travels to see the five women who might have sent the letter.

First up is Laura (Sharon Stone), who married a now-dead stock car racer. Now a professional closet organizer, she does have a teenaged child—a daughter inexplicably named Lolita, who even more inexplicably expresses a sexual interest in 55-year-old Don. Next up is Dora (Frances Conroy), formerly a flower child but now leading a boring existence as the wife and business partner of real estate agent Ron (Christopher McDonald). Then it’s on to Dr. Carmen Markowski (Jessica Lange), who Don remembers as being very passionate about becoming a lawyer, but who is now some kind of animal whisperer, and from there Don locates Penny (Tilda Swinton), living in a bleak, crumbling clapboard farmhouse somewhere that definitely has a meth problem. Finally, Don visits the grave of Michelle, the fifth and final potential author of the letter. Returning home, he notices a young man (Mark Webber) whom he seems to remember having run into before, and buys him a sandwich and a coffee. Assuming that the boy is the long-lost son whose arrival was foretold, Don starts talking about being the kid’s father, freaking him out and causing him to run off. Alone in the street, Don watches as a car drives by slowly as a teenaged boy (Homer Murray, Bill’s real life son) makes eye contact with Don from the passenger seat, and then is gone.

While definitely a product of a certain time and of a certain generation of masculinity, which detracted from the end product for me, this was a good watch overall. The idea of Don Johnston as a Don Juan-esque lothario is a bit of a stretch (no offense to Murray, but let’s get real) and the fact that the film hinges on not just his one-time sexual voracity in his peak, but also his virility and that he’s never changed his behavior, is the weakest element. Murray’s also doing none of the heavy lifting here, as the editing is doing nearly all of the work while Murray sits back and lets his motionless silence be captured by Jarmusch’s directorial eye. There’s a great performance in here from the male lead, but it’s all in the Kuleshov of it all, while Murray does that thing that he always does (hey—if it’s not broke).

Looking at Jarmusch’s larger filmography, it seems his earlier films that predate Broken Flowers were largely anthological works, while his more recent ones seem to be more standard in their narrative structure, and this film is a kind of bridge between those two forms, conceptually, as it follows Don through a series of vignettes that consist of reunions with the women he once loved, each one shorter than the last, beginning with an overnight with Laura, a dinner with Dora and her husband, a constantly-interrupted period between appointments with Carmen, a four or five sentence exchange with Penny, and finally no time at all with Michelle. This adherence to structure is something that I love in any work of art; I think that the attention to detail is something that soothes my hyperactive brain. There’s also a lot of fun with the minor details of each interaction: Laura’s daughter’s detachment from the death of her father (“It was on the TV”), the utter sterility and banality of Dora’s bland dinner (a big slab of meat, unseasoned white rice, and crinkle cut carrots, possibly boiled), and the dilapidation of Penny’s home. There’s also something fascinating about the high number of basketball hoops everywhere he goes, which Don always instantly assumes means that there’s a teenage boy about and that he’s come to the right place, and yet their omnipresence renders them completely irrelevant as a clue.

Before Don goes on his adventure, Winston primes him to be on the lookout for pink items and objects to match the pink paper on which the letter was typed, and to try and obtain writing samples to compare to the written address on the envelope, which is the only handwriting on the letter. Although he isn’t successful in the latter endeavor, he (and by extension the viewer) is drawn to pink items everywhere in his adventure: Penny’s boots and motorcycle, Dora’s business card (to match her husband’s blue one), Carmen’s pants, etc. It’s a nice touch that, like the basketball hoops that appear so frequently, all of these clues are meaningless as well. The film sets itself up as a mystery: who sent the letter? And in the end, that mystery isn’t important, and remains unsolved. Each woman with whom he reunites is utterly noncommittal in their responses to Don’s roundabout questions, and in the end, it’s not as if he could have expected something different: if any one of them had taken the time to send Don a letter without divulging their identity, then they wouldn’t really allow themselves to be taken by surprise as he intends and suddenly confess when confronted in person. The possibility is even floated that Sherry wrote the letter as an attempt to shake Don out of his comfort zone, and that’s a possibility, but that resolution doesn’t really matter in the end.

As a showcase for the women who round out this cast, including Chloë Sevigny as Carmen’s assistant and Pell James as Sun Green, a compassionate florist who tends to the wounds that Don received from Penny’s friends, this is a pretty nice vehicle. It’s a film with a lot of breathing room but no real fat to be trimmed, playing out in shots that are long enough to convey meaning and last not one moment more. The blipvert/fever dreams that Don has in his quiet moments were initially distracting, especially as they simply once more reminded viewers that Don is still a perfectly virile man capable of sexual thought, which errs a little too close to the “New Yorker story in which an aging professional lusts after his student/protege” genre for my personal tastes, but not enough to derail the whole shebang.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Hunting for Hedonia (2019)

I am a luddite by nature, so the ethical and hypothetical questions raised in the documentary Hunting for Hedonia make me absolutely terrified of the future. That’s not exactly what I expected from the film, since so much of its subject is rooted in the past. The central topic of this documentary is research in the field of Deep Brain Stimulation – wherein the physical pleasure centers of the human brain are activated by electric pulses via surgically inserted wires. It’s a technology that was first developed in 1950s New Orleans by Dr. Robert Heath of Tulane University. Seeking to depopulate the grim mental institutions of the era that treated patients like prisoners, Heath and his team experimented with this radical technology to cure the most hopeless cases of clinical depression and put an end to the practice of lobotomy. Their success led to more exploratory applications of the tech that immediately crossed major ethical boundaries and retroactively damaged the reputation of the research among their peers. Now, modern neurosurgeons are rediscovering the benefits of DBS independently of Heath’s forgotten, discredited research and finding entirely new, complexly fucked up ways to abuse the tech – hinting at a terrifying near-future we’re somewhat helpless to avoid.

The horror and the wonder of DBS is that it really works. Patients suffering from extreme, incurable cases of suicidal depression, addiction, OCD, and Parkinson’s have had their lives saved by this experimental frontier of neuromodulation. This combination of psychology & neuroscience that engages the physical location of pleasure in the brain (Hedonia) has produced unignorable results in patents who have been failed by medication & talk therapy in the past. That doesn’t mean DBS is a perfect, foolproof science, though. Side effects in “cured” patients have included unexpected increase in rage & loss of impulse control, suggesting that these neurosurgeons are tapping into capabilities of the brain that we don’t yet fully understand. That’s where the terrifying vision of our near-future abuses of DBS come in, as excited, capitalistic interest in the re-emerging field is getting ahead of the technology’s currently limited applications. There’s money to be made in being able to alter the functions of the human brain – cosmetically, recreationally, militaristically, and so on – that raise dangerous ethical questions not yet fully ironed out by its application in the medical field, where it’s actually warranted. The scary thing is that these boundaries have already been crossed in the past, as Heath & crew contributed to nefarious DBS applications like participation in MK Ultra & gay conversion “therapy” (read: abuse) and yet no one seems to have learned from their unforgivable mistakes.

As a documentary, Hunting for Hedonia is most valuable for its ability to explain the full scope of DBS’s history in concise layman’s terms. It covers the horrific past of its abuse, the promising present of its success in the therapy field, and the terrifying future of its rapid, unavoidable escalation in a modern capitalist paradigm. Considering its detached narration from the expertly icy Tilda Swinton and its innocuous score, I don’t think the film necessarily leans into the eeriness of its subject in a flashy or deliberate way. If anything, it often plays like a well-behaved, informative BBC documentary instead of a work of art. Still, I was thoroughly creeped out by its subject’s ethical implications for our insidiously techy future, to the point where its 1950s lab footage & Rotoscope animations felt like vintage sci-fi horror from the drive-in era. That feeling of unease was only amplified by catching a screening of the film at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, where local neurosurgeons familiar with Dr. Heath’s research were muttering to each other about what a genius he was before the lights went down. I felt like running around the theater shouting “Don’t you see what he’s done?! Stop before it’s too late! Soylent Green is people!” in protest. Then again, DBS has obviously already helped people in desperate need and my luddite skepticism of its grim implications for the future are so far hypothetical in nature. That screening felt like an ethical Litmus test, and it’s unclear to me which side of the divide failed it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Garden (1990)

Derek Jarman’s process for creating the look of his 1990 experimental feature The Garden was to put the film through an exhausting gauntlet of format transfers. Shot on super-8, then recorded to video, before finally being printed on 35mm film, the physical shape of The Garden had been put through the ringer to achieve its deliberately scuzzy, highly color-saturated patina. The general effect of the film on the audience is much the same. Non-narrative, mostly dialogue-free, and constantly shifting in both mood & technique, the film feels more like a process meant to break its audience down than it does a piece of creative entertainment. It opens as a vibrant, playful experiment in overlapping visions of homoromantic tableaus & Biblical Christian iconography, but its titular Edenic tone is gradually soured into a somber, morbidly violent affair that loses all of its initial energy to disorganized doom & gloom. It’s exhausting, purposefully so, and it’s easy to leave the film feeling just as worn out as its imagery was by the time it reached its final form.

My assumption is that Jarman intended The Garden’s soul-deep exhaustion to be a kind of diary of his own emotional state in the early 90s. Suffering from a series of AIDS-related health crises at the time of production (a sign of declining health that would eventually end his life just a few years later), Jarman filmed this disjointed series of Biblical tableaus & scenes of homophobic violence around the bleak exteriors of his coastal home in Dungeness, England. Self-described early in the proceedings as a tour though a “wilderness of failure,” the film’s backslide from paradisiac peace into morbid atonement serves as a kind of eulogy to the loss of an entire queer generation to a single virus, one which would eventually claim the filmmaker himself. We open with James Bidgood-esque visions of queer love & harmony (similar to Todd Haynes’s contemporary work in Poison), but the onscreen couple being depicted is eventually arrested, beaten, and shamed into disorder & dissolution. Religious imagery like a lynched Judas dressed as a leather-clad punk shilling credit cards, a young Tilda Swinton appearing as a Madonna figure hounded by paparazzi, and old women playing wine glass tones as the twelve apostles at the Last Supper interrupt this reverie, until it finally sours into an official funeral for the real-life dead in Jarman’s familial circle. The film can be occasionally beautiful, but it’s pretty fucking grim on the whole.

As an aesthetic object, The Garden is wonderfully exciting in its stabs of surreal shot-on-video era imagery. Its experiments in Ken Russellian green screen fuckery in which the entire sky is supplanted with flowers & other poetic, Polaroid-grade images are especially wondrous. The film also clearly has a sense of humor, despite its overall descent into despair, often breaking for absurdist musical numbers – such as a bargain bin music video for the showtune “Think Pink” from Funny Face. I don’t know if it’s the kind of film I’d recommend watching at home, though, where smartphones & other distractions are readily available. Even seeing it digitally restored in a proper theatrical environment (thanks to Zeitgeist’s summer-long queer cinema series Wildfire), I struggled to stay awake for the final 20-minute stretch. Not only is the film deliberately draining its trajectory from Eden to funeral service, it also suffers from the same attention-level difficulty that many feature-length works from directors who mostly work in short films suffer, the same exhaustion that tanks a lot of Guy Maddin’s films. As interesting as each homoerotic image, Biblical tableau, or outbreak of bigoted violence may be in isolation, they never really congeal as a cohesive, unified collection.

Jarman was at least aware of how miserable & patience-testing The Garden would be for his audience. The opening introduction in his woefully sparse narration includes the invitation, “I want to share this emptiness with you.” By the closing sequence wherein Tilda Swinton’s Madonna figure conducts a memorial for the homoromantic Eden lost over the course of the picture (a quiet ceremony involving cheap paper lanterns), I definitely felt that emptiness to some extent. It wasn’t the most pleasant or even the most clearly decipherable feeling to leave a movie theater with, but it was effective nonetheless. If you ever find yourself braving this “wilderness of failure” to “share this emptiness” with Jarman, just go into the journey armed with patience & a willingness to feel hopelessly miserable by the end credits. An experimental art film dispatch from the grimmest days of the AIDS crisis will apparently do that to you.

-Brandon Ledet

Suspiria (2018)

On an aesthetic level, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspriria bears very little resemblance to Dario Argento’s Supsiria. If anything, this 40 years-later reimagining of that cult-favorite resembles an entirely different flavor of intensely stylized, European arthouse horror: Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. Guadagnino’s picture may have maintained the witchy dance academy setting & central character names from the Argento original, but it ditches all of that film’s intense giallo cross-lighting & prog rock sensibilities for the cold, greyed-out concrete & infectious madness of Possession. Where Suspriria (2018) deviates in tone & imagery from its source material, however, it did zero in on the most vital aspect of Argento’s work: excess. Everything about Guadagnino’s Suspiria is indulgently excessive: at 142 minutes, it’s structured as six acts & an epilogue; Tilda Swinton appears in multiple roles among an already sprawling cast of witchy women (including actors from the original film); unsatisfied with merely being a stylish tale of witchcraft, it also attempts to engage with the politics of post-war Germany; it features an original soundtrack from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. The most Suspiria (1977) thing about Suspiria (2018) is that it’s wholly confident that every self-indulgent impulse it has is worth exploring; the only difference in that respect is that the Argento version was more frequently correct in that shared delusion.

One of my favorite tactics that carries over from Original Flavor Suspiria to Nu Suspiria is that neither waste any effort hiding that they are about dance schools “secretly” run by a coven of witches. In the original, this mystery is “spoiled” by an early sequence of a frightened dance academy student fleeing into the woods while the prog band Goblin whispers, “Witch, witch-witch-witch” over the soundtrack. In the new version, that same freaked-out runaway character (Chloë Grace Moretz) blurts, “They are witches” in blatant terms to her old-man psychiatrist (a gender-blind cast Tilda Swinton) before continuing, “They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate.” The psychiatrist, of course, believes this paranoia to be delusional and a large part of the narrative likens his dismissal of her cries of witchcraft to the ways he failed his long-gone wife during The Holocaust. That post-war grief & guilt swirls outside the dance academy, while inside the flesh-eating witches in question are undergoing a more insular political crisis of their own. Unbeknownst to the young dancers in their care, the women who run the academy as an incognito coven are experiencing a kind of civil war on two key issues: choosing new leadership & selecting an unwitting student for a mysterious ritual that will secure the school’s future (at the student’s own peril, of course). That freshly-arrived American student’s name is Susie Banion (Dakota Johnson in a role originated by Jessica Harper), who is afforded her own lengthy backstory in a distant Mennonite community, just in case the narrative wasn’t already overstuffed without it.

It’s probably safe to say that no one loves the original Suspiria for the strengths of its story. Like most giallo-related media, it’s a film best appreciated for its overbearing sense of style more so than the cohesion of its narrative. This only became increasingly apparent as Argento attempted to retroactively make sense of his witchcraft lore in the Suspiria sequels Inferno & Mother of Tears, expanding the original film’s elevator pitch of “A ballet school run by witches” into an unwieldy (but still charming) mess now known as the Three Mothers Trilogy. Guadagnino greedily eats up this now-sprawling mythology and attempts to reinforce each element with even more over-explained backstory: how the dance school relates to its German setting; why Susie Banion is targeted and what her life was like before the ritual was initiated; how the coven negotiates & organizes its collective will across hundreds of women in three separate locales. Beyond skewing its overall aesthetic closer to Żuławski than any gialli, Guadagno’s Suspiria avoids becoming a pointless retread of its Argento source material by pulling its narrative to the opposite extreme – from vaguely stretched-out elevator pitch to overly complex, unnecessarily dense mythology. Paradoxically, the effect of that overcorrection is oddly similar to how plot & lore work in the original film; its narrative is such an overdose of information that very little of it sticks to the walls and what’s mostly left for the audience to digest is the overbearing sense of style it’s delivered through.

As much as I admire Guadagningo’s dedication to excess here, this is the exact kind of messy ambition that invites viewers to pick and choose individual elements at play to praise or critique—as opposed to the more unified vision of the Argento original, which is more of an all-or-nothing proposition. Personally, my favorite aspect of the new Suspiria is the purposeful ways that the act of dance (modern here instead of ballet) is linked to the practice of witchcraft, establishing a cause & effect relationship between dancers’ beautifully contorted bodies and their grotesquely contorted victims’, left to stew in their own piss & mucus. I was also in love with the complexly detailed imagery of Susie Banion’s nightmare montages, each individual flash of a tableau carefully staged like fine art photography. At the same time, there were two glaring stylistic choices that harshed my buzz throughout: a camcorder-level choppy frame rate effect worthy of a Milli Vanilli music video & the jarring inclusion of Thom Yorke’s crooning vocals in an otherwise phenomenal soundtrack. My aversion to those choices are likely personal biases, given that they’ve also bothered me in previous works (specifically, the choppy frame rate in Daughters of the Dust, and Sufjan Stevens’s voice in Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name), but I can’t help but find them cheapening & distracting all the same for crashing me down from the film’s otherworldly spell to a much more pedestrian tone.

There’s so much on the screen in Suspiria that most audiences will find something to nitpick in their personal experience with its relentless over-indulgences in gore-soaked, lore-obsessed witchcraft horror. I envy those who weren’t distracted by stray choices like Yorke’s mewing, appreciating this love letter to excess in its overwhelming entirety. I also pity those who can’t find anything to enjoy here; Guadagnino offers so much to choose from that if you can’t latch onto something the problem is you. I’m personally falling somewhere in the vast middle between those extremes—in impressed, but frustrated appreciation of the film’s dedication to the extremes.

-Brandon Ledet

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Director Wes Anderson has such a meticulously curated aesthetic that his work is almost polarizing by design. As his career has developed over the decades, long outlasting the wave of “twee” media it partly inspired, he’s only more fully committed himself to the fussed-over dollhouse preciousness of his manicured visual style. That can be a huge turnoff for audiences who prefer a messier, grimier view of the world that accepts chaos & spontaneity as an essential part of filmmaking. Personally, I can’t help but be enraptured with Anderson’s films, as if my adoration of his work were a biological impulse. Like the way house cats host parasites that fool pet owners into caring for them, it’s as if Wes Anderson has nefariously wired my brain to be wholly onboard with his artistic output. It’s a gradual poisoning of my critical thinking skills that stretches back to my high school years, when his films Rushmore & The Royal Tenenbaums first established him as a (divisive) indie cinema icon. Anderson’s latest work, Isle of Dogs, only makes his supervillain-level command over my critical mind even more powerful by directly pandering directly to things I personally love. A stop-motion animated sci-fi feature about doggos who run wild on a dystopian pile of literal garbage, the basic elevator pitch for Isle of Dogs already sounds like a Mad Libs-style grab bag of the exact bullshit I love to see projected on the big screen, even without Wes Anderson’s name attached. As he already demonstrated with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director’s twee-flavored meticulousness also has a wider appeal when seen in the context of stop-motion, which generally requires a level of whimsy, melancholy, and visual fussiness to be pulled off well. That’s why it’s so frustrating that Isle of Dogs is so flawed on such a fundamental, conceptual level and that I can’t help but thoroughly enjoy it anyway, despite my better judgment.

Set decades into the future in a dystopian Japan, Isle of Dogs details the samurai epic-style adventure of a young boy attempting to rescue his dog from an evil, corrupt government (helmed by his own uncle). All dogs in his region have been exiled to the pollution-saturated hell of Trash Island (which is exactly what it sounds like) amidst mass hysteria over a canine-specific virus, “snout fever.” The story is split between two efforts: a search & rescue mission involving the boy & a gang of talking Trash Island dogs (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, etc.) and a much less compelling political intrigue narrative in which an American foreign exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) attempts to expose the government’s villainous deeds. As an American outsider himself, Wes Anderson is at times contextually positioned in the POV of both the Trash Island Dogs and the foreign exchange student, the only consequential English-speaking characters in the film (a large portion of the dialogue is unsubtitled Japanese). In his worst impulses, Anderson is like Gerwig’s foreign exchange student– an enthusiastic appreciator of Japanese culture who awkwardly inserts themselves into conversations where they don’t belong, wrongfully feeling entitled to authority on a subject that is not theirs to claim. From a more generous perspective, Anderson is like one of the American-coded trash dogs– compelled to honor & bolster Japanese art from a place of humbled servitude, even though he doesn’t quite speak the language (either culturally or literally). By choosing to set an English language story in a fictional Japanese future, Wes Anderson has invited intense scrutiny that often overpowers Isle of Dogs’s ambitious sci-fi themes, talking-dog adorability, and visually stunning artwork. This is especially true in Gerwig’s (admittedly minor) portion of the plot, which sticks out like a sore thumb as one of the film’s more conceptually flawed impulses. For a work so visually masterful & emotionally deft, it’s frustrating that it seemingly wasn’t at all self-aware of its own cultural politics.

There are much better-equipped critics who’ve more thoughtfully & extensively tackled the nuanced ways Isle of Dogs has failed to fully justify its Japanese culture-gazing: Inkoo Kang, Justin Chang, Emily Yoshida, Alison Willmore, to name a few. As a white American, it’s not my place to declare whether this gray area issue makes the film worthy of vitriol or just cautions consideration. I could maybe push back slightly on the cultural appropriation claims that say there’s no reason the story had to be framed in Japan and that Anderson only chose that setting for its visual aesthetic. Like Kubo & The Two Strings’s philosophical relationship with the finality of death (or lack thereof), Isle of Dogs engages with themes of honor and ancestry that feel very specific to its Japanese setting (even if not at a fully satisfying depth). Truth be told, though, I likely would have enjoyed the film even without that thematic justification. Unless Isle of Dogs is your very first exposure to the director’s work, you’ve likely already formed a relationship with Wes Anderson as an artist, whether positive or negative. It’s a relationship that can only be reinforced as the director doubles down with each project, sinking even deeper into his own particular quirks. I assumed with Moonrise Kingdom that no film could have possibly gotten more Wes Andersony. Its follow-up, Grand Budapest Hotel, immediately proved that assumption wrong. While Isle of Dogs stacks up nicely to either of those films in terms of visual achievements, its own doubling-down on the Wes Anderson aesthetic is tied to the director’s long history of blissful ignorance in approaching POC cultures (most notably before in The Darjeeling Limited). It does so by submerging itself in a foreign culture entirely without fully engaging with the implications of that choice. As a longtime Anderson devotee in the face of this doubling-down, I’m going to have to reconcile my love of his films with the fact that this exact limitation has always been a part of them, that I’ve willfully overlooked it in my appreciation of what he achieves visually, emotionally, and comedically elsewhere. Isle of Dogs is a gorgeous work of visual art and a very distinct approach to dystopian sci-fi. It’s a great film, but also a culturally oblivious one. The conversation around that internal conflict is just as vital as any praise for its technical achievements.

-Brandon Ledet

Okja (2017)

In one of our very first posts as a website we declared Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi epic Snowpiercer the Best Films of 2014. My assumption is that it rose to the top of our list that year mostly because it was so much movie. As with a lot of Asian cinema, Snowpiercer never ties itself down to a single genre or tone. It constantly shifts gears from humor to terror to action spectacle to political satire to whatever whim it feels at the moment as its story progresses from one dystopian end of its train setting to the other. It was near-impossible to know what to expect from the director’s follow-up, then, except that it might similarly spread out its eccentricities over a bizarrely wide range of cinematic modes. Okja is just as deliciously over the top, difficult to pin down, and tonally restless as Snowpiercer, although it does not resemble that film in the slightest. If a movie’s main virtues rest in its ability to surprise & delight, Okja is an undeniable success. It’s not something that can be readily understood or absorbed on even a scene to scene basis, but its overall effect is deliriously overwhelming and expectation-subverting enough that it feels nothing short of magnificent as a whole.

Tilda Swinton & Jake Gyllenhaal star as the public faces of an evil meat industry corporation that’s attempting to improve its image with a new, falsely fun & friendly attitude. As part of this evolution within the corporation, they promise to breed a new form of domesticated animal to help maintain the world’s demand for (supposedly) non-GMO meat supply, a “superpig.” The unveiling of this superpig breed is structured as a kind of reality show contest and the movie follows one of 26 worldwide contestants within that frame. Okja, a superpig who has been raised free-range in the forests of South Korea, is officially declared “the best pig” (recalling titles like Babe & Charlotte’s Web), winning the dubious prize of being torn away from the little girl who raised her as a close friend instead of an eventual source for food. Before their separation, we get to know Okja as a kind, selfless animal with human eyes & a hyper-intelligent aptitude for problem-solving (not unlike the intelligence of a real-life pig). After she’s unceremoniously removed from her home and sent to face her fate as meat, we get to know the little girl who raised her as our de facto protagonist. The movie gradually reveals itself to be a coming of age quest to free Okja from her corporate captors, protect her from the well-meaning but idiotic animal rights activists who want to use her as a political pawn, and return her to her home in Nature. The rest is a blissfully messy blur of action set pieces, wild shifts in comedic tone, and a brutally unforgiving satire of modern meat industry practices.

The cuteness of Okja herself and the film’s occasional dedication to a kids’ movie tone (despite its constant violence & f-bombs) make it tempting to look to Babe as an easy animals-deserve-empathy-too comparison point. The truth is, though, that Okja more closely resembles George Miller’s terrifying action movie nightmare Babe 2: Pig in the City, where the grand adventure staged to bring its very special superpig home is a nonstop assault of bizarre imagery & comedic terror. There’s a constant threat of danger in Okja, ranging from car chases to meat grinders to stampedes through an underground shopping mall. The CGI in service of this spectacle is shoddy, but in a flippant, Steve Chow kind of way that is so irreverently cartoonish it could not matter less. Oddly, the performances work in much the same way. Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Shirley Henderson all stand out as intensely bizarre sources of nervous energy that exist far beyond the bounds of human nature, but in such a casually absurd way that it somehow fits the film’s ever-shifting tone. Gyllenhaal likely wins the grand prize in that respect, often resembling more of a rabid duck than an adult man. In any other context he’d be too broad or, frankly, too annoying to function as anything other than a distraction, but it’s somehow just the jarringly over the top touch the movie needs.

Okja is too much of an ever-shifting set of complexly self-contradictory tones & moods for it to be wholly described to the uninitiated. It’s both a scathing satire of modern meat industry & a slapstick farce poking fun at the activists who attempt to dismantle it. It’ll stab you in the heart with onscreen displays of animal cruelty, but will just as often giggle at the production of farts & turds. I can try to describe the film as an action adventure version of Death to Smoochy or a more deliberately adult reimagining of Pig in the City, but neither comparison fully covers every weird impulse that distracts & delights Bong Joon-ho as he chases his narrative across multiple continents. Just like with the similarly divisive Snowpiercer, I can’t promise all audiences will be onboard for the entire ride (Gyllenhaal in particular is sure to be a frequent point of contention), but Okja does offer something that’s increasingly rare in modern action adventures of this blockbuster-sized scale: the wildly unpredictable. You may not appreciate every individual turn in its impossibly twisty road, but oh, the places you’ll go.

-Brandon Ledet

Orlando (1992)

The phrase has recently devolved into something of a critical cliché, but I find myself becoming increasingly possessed by the idea of “pure cinema.” In the modern pop culture push to blur the lines between what is cinema and what is a video game, television series, or “virtual reality experience,” I find myself receding into the comforts of art that can only be expressed through the medium of film. “Pure cinema” titles like The Neon Demon, The Duke of Burgundy, and Beyond the Black Rainbow, with their hypnotic tones & basic indulgences in the pleasures of sound synced to moving lights, have been the movies that captured my imagination most in recent years and I often find myself chasing their aesthetic in other works. Sally Potter’s 1992 fantasy piece Orlando delivered my much-needed pure cinema fix with such efficiency and such a delicate hand that I didn’t even fully know what I was getting into until it was maybe a third of the way through. Initially masquerading as a costume drama with a prankish dry wit, Orlando gradually develops into the transcendent pure cinema hypnosis I’m always searching for in my movie choices. It pulls this off in such a casual, unintimidating way that it’s not until the final scene that the full impact of its joys as a playful masterpiece becomes apparent. This is the exact kind of visual and tonal achievement that could only ever be captured in the form of a feature film, a cinematic reverie that’s nothing short of real world magic.

I’m not sure why Tilda Swinton kept making films after she already found her perfect role in 1992. Orlando is essentially a one-woman show that finds Swinton navigating the only place where her unearthly presence makes any sense: the distant past. Playing the titular role of Orlando, a fictional (male) royalty from a Virginia Woolf novel of the same name, Swinton looks all too at home in her costume drama garb, as if the actor were plucked from a 17th Century painting. Orlando is a nervous little fella, often breaking the fourth wall with Ferris Bueller-type asides to the camera to alleviate his anxious tension. Early on, he finds himself squirming under the seductive scrutiny of Queen Elizabeth (played by an ancient Quentin Crisp, another genius choice of gender-defiant casting). The Queen promises that Orlando may retain possession of and lordship over his family’s land as long as he obeys a simple command, “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” He keeps this promise through an unexplained triumph of the will & fairy tale logic, living on for centuries in his youthful, androgynous state. The only change in Orlando’s physicality is that after a brief experience with the masculine horrors of war, he transforms into a woman. She explains to the camera, “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.” This shift is treated less like a huge rug pull and more like an internal, gender specific version if the identity shift in Persona. It’s a casual, fluid transition that leads to interesting changes in how Orlando experiences love, power, and property ownership, but had little effect on her overall character. Time continues to move on from there, decades at once, and the movie shrugs it off, concerned with much more important issues of identity & sense of self.

Besides the refreshing way it casually disrupts the rigidity of its protagonist’s gender, Orlando is impressive in the way it’s narrative structure more like a poem than a traditional A-B feature. Segmented into sequences titled (and dated) “1600: DEATH,” “1650: POETRY,” “1750: SOCIETY,” etc., Orlando reads more like a collection of stanzas than a period piece or even a fairy tale typically would. Its isolated meditations on topics like “LOVE,” “SEX,” and “POLITICS” shake it free from any concerns of having to fulfill a three act structure, allowing characters like Queen Elizabeth or a sexed-up Billy Zane drift through Orlando’s life without any expectation of achieving their own arc. Each piece is a contribution to the larger puzzle of Orlando’s curiously long & gender-defiant life. When seen from a distance, the big picture of this puzzle is pure visual poetry. Scenes are short, amounting to a hypnotic rhythm that allows only for a visual indulgence in a series of strikingly beautiful images: Swinton’s impossibly dark eyes, Sandy Powell’s world class costume design, love, sex, war, heartbreak. If you had to distill Orlando down to an image or two, there’s a scene where a living tableau is staged on ice as dinner entertainment and a soon-to-follow dramatic performance featuring traditional Shakespearean crossdressing that’s disrupted by loud, but oddly beautiful fireworks. They’re entertainments created solely for the sake of their own visual beauty, a spirit the movie captures in its sweeping fairy tale of a life that never ends.

Sally Potter makes this pure cinema aesthetic feel not only casual & effortless, but also frequently humorous. Orlando’s knowing glances to the audience are a prototype version of a mockumentary style later popularized by shows like The Office and the magical realism of their gender fluidity is often treated like a kind of joke, especially when they declare things like, “The treachery of men!” or “The treachery of women!” The final scene of the film perfectly nails home this half fantastic/half humorous tone as well, playing something like a divine prank. I feel like I can count on one hand the movies I’ve seen that achieve this balance of dry wit and visual opulence: The Fall, Ravenous, The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover, Marie Antoinette, and maybe Tale of Tales. I’d consider each of those works among the greatest films I’ve seen in my lifetime and after a single  viewing I’m more than willing to list Orlando among them. My only disappointment in watching Sally Potter’s masterful achievement is that I’m not likely to ever see it projected big & loud in a proper movie theater setting. Watching it at home on the same television where I’d steam a Netflix series or a pro wrestling PPV felt like an insult to a movie that deserves a much more grandiose environment. It is, after all, pure cinema.

-Brandon Ledet