1917 (2019)

I was very skeptical about the necessity of 1917’s existence, especially as someone with very little patience for War Movies in general. It’s not only that its time-obsessed, boots-on-the-ground warfare felt redundant after the technical achievements of Dunkirk or that it’s a big-budget spectacle about wartime brutality that cheekily features surprise celebrity cameos in bit roles (British celebrities, anyway). What really put me off the film initially was its “single-take” gimmick that hides all cuts between shots to look like one continuous image, à la Birdman. How could the movie possibly justify using such a flashy, attention-grabbing technical exercise for a gruesome war story that doesn’t even occur “in real time?” I still don’t know that I fully understand director Sam Mendes’s intentions in making that choice, but it did allow the movie to weigh on me heavily in the moment in a way few other war dramas ever have, which I suppose is more than enough justification for the indulgence. I dare say I even enjoyed it.

Two British soldiers in the trenches of WWI are tasked to cross enemy lines to hand-deliver a letter that calls off a sure-to-be-disastrous attack before it begins. They must evade death at the hands of German combatants to save fellow British soldiers’ lives. That’s it; that’s the plot. Everything from there is an emphasis on in-the-moment experience, which does indeed include surprise appearances from Posh British Thespians and even more distracting camera trickery from Industry legend Roger Deakins. Every time the screen goes black in the darkness of a tunnel or is temporarily obstructed by a passing object, a “hidden” cut announces itself, calling attention to the long-take gimmick, the same way vintage 3D movies would needlessly protrude objects directly at the screen to highlight the tech wizardry on display. The movie even has to work in a fade-to-black act break that allows a jump forward in time, showing a lack of faith in the “single” take gimmick you won’t see in more fully committed works like Russian Ark. It’s all very flashy & self-indulgent, so it’s no wonder its technical feats & dramatic prestige have earned it so much Oscars attention.

Putting all these distractions aside, I did find 1917’s in-the-moment experiential approach to be effectively horrific in a general War Is Hell sense. This is especially true of the film’s earliest stretch, where two sweet little boys in soldier drag are crawling through war-decimated hellscapes. The opening & concluding settings of the film are fields of wildflowers, calling attention to the Natural beauty of rural European landscapes. Every environment between those bookends are Tarkovsky-level nightmare zones, populated by shards of exploded buildings, piles of rotting corpses, discarded horse skeletons, and the only vermin willing to tread through that filth: rats. There are so many goddamn rats. The video game mission plot of 1917 might not make for especially complex drama between its solider protagonists, but the way those babyfaced boys contrast against the ghastly gore, rot, and decay of the war-torn earth beneath them is viscerally upsetting. There are many ways in which the long-take gimmick is a distracting technical exercise, but it does force you to stew in that discomfort for long, uninterrupted stretches. It’s surprisingly brutal in that way.

1917 is at its best when it’s gruesomely gross, which his never too far off from beat to beat. A few casting & editing choices can be distracting in the moment, but in a big picture sense it’s an effective portrait of how war mutates people & landscapes into hideous monstrosities. It’s a pretty good movie all in all, which is more than you can say for most years’ Oscar favorites.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top 20 Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2019

1. Fighting With My Family This melodramatic biopic about WWE wrestler Paige does an excellent job conveying the appeal of pro wrestling as an artform, offers empathy to every character its story touches without shying away from their faults, and properly sketches out how much respect for women’s wrestling has evolved in the last decade (and how influential Paige was in that sea change). It’s also way dirtier than I expected, often playing like an R-rated Disney Channel Original.

2. Ma Octavia Spencer slums it as an unassuming small-town vet tech who parties with neighborhood teens in order to enact revenge for their parents’ past wrongs. It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Spencer devour scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.

3. Child’s Play An in-name-only, shockingly fun “remake” of the classic killer doll thriller by the same name. Much like the original, this is the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flick kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them too young on cable, and it directly pays homage to that very canon in references to titles like Killer Klowns From Outer Space & Texas Chainsaw Massacre II.

4. Paradise Hills An impressive coterie of young actors (Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle McDnonald, Eiza Gonzalez) square off against veteran badass Milla Jovovich in a near-future Patriarchal hell. It’s essentially Guillermo del Toro’s Stepford Wives staged on the set of the rose garden from the animated Alice in Wonderland. A femme fairy tale that takes its over-the-top, Literotica-ready premise refreshingly seriously despite the inherent camp of its (sumptuous) costume & production design.

5. Read or Not A list of things that make this Clue & You’re Next genre mashup immensely enjoyable: the careful attention to costume design, the Old Dark house sets, Samara Weaving, Aunt Helene, that “Hide & Seek” novelty record and, most importantly, the rapid escalation of its final ten minutes into full unrestrained delirium. Great nasty fun.

6. Saaho A Indian action blockbuster that opens as a fairly well-behaved Fast & Furious rip-off in its first hour, then pulls an outrageous twist I’ve never seen in an action film before, and finally reveals its title card and the announcement “It’s showtime!” The next two hours are then a throw-it-all-in-a-blender mix of Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious, The Matrix, John Wick, Iron Man, Fury Road and practically every other action blockbuster in recent memory you can name. Pure maximalism.

7. Pledge A nasty little VOD horror about a fraternity rush week from Hell. The dialogue and performances are alarmingly good for something on its budget level, which makes it all the more horrifying when characters you kinda like are tortured in extreme gore by frat bro monsters for a solid hour of “hazing.” It also sidesteps a lot of the usual misogyny of the torture porn genre by making both the victims & villains All-American macho types.

8. Good Boys Superbad is often praised for its final emotional grace notes shared between teen-boy BFFs who’ve struggled to maintain a tough masculine exterior throughout their entire preceding gettin’-laid adventures, to the detriment of their relationship. Here, the earnest vulnerability & emotional grace notes are constant & genuine from frame one, providing some much-needed hope for the men of the future. These are very good boys.

9. Braid Two amateur drug dealers escape police scrutiny by returning to the childhood home of a mentally unwell friend who’s trapped in a never-ending game of violent make-believe. A total mess but also a total blast. Gorgeous costumes & sets, gloriously self-indulgent film school cinematography, and genuinely shocking over-the-top turns in the “plot” every few beats. Think of it as Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era.

10. War Between this & Saaho, my two favorite action movies of the year are both big budget, Twisty blockbusters from India. This one is basically a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. It’s 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.”

11. Glass M. Night Shyamalan explodes his small-scale women-in-captivity thriller Split into an MCU-scale superhero franchise, but hilariously dodges all the accompanying genre spectacle that his budget can’t afford. I am very late to the table as a Shyamalan apologist, but by the time I was the only person in the theater cackling at his attempt to connect the mythology of his own cameos in Split & Unbreakable into a cohesive narrative arc, I was converted for life. What an adorable nerd.

12. Crawl A lean, mean, single-location creature feature in which a father-daughter duo fights off killer CG alligators during intense hurricane-related flooding. Only could have been improved by an alternate ending where they survive the storm only to discover that the entire planet has been taken over by gators while they were trapped inside. Should have ended with gators piloting the “rescue” choppers.

13. Escape Room Basically the ideal version of Saw, with all the nasty torture porn & (most of) the nu-metal removed for optimal silliness. All storytelling logic & meaningful dialogue/character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, truly preposterous gimmick: an escape room, except For Real.

14. The Head Hunter A medieval monster slayer seeks to add the head of the beast that killed his daughter to his trophy collection. An impressive feat in low-budget filmmaking that knows it can’t convincingly stage battle scenes on its production scale, so it makes up for it by leaning into what it can do well – mostly delivering grotesque creature designs & a nihilistic mood.

15. Booksmart Maybe not always the most hi-larious example of the modern femme teen sex comedy (in the recent The To Do List/Blockers/Wetlands/Slut in a Good Way tradition) but one with an unusually effective emotional core and more Gay Stuff than the genre usually makes room for. If nothing else, it felt good to know that the kids of Gen-Z are more than alright.

16. Greener Grass A warped Adult Swim-style comedy of manners about overly competitive soccer moms, featuring performances from D’arcy Carden, Mary Holland, Janicza Bravo, Beck Bennett, and similar Los Angeles comedy folks. Total illogical chaos and menacing irreverence from start to finish, with a particular debt owed to John Waters’s post-Polyester suburban invasion comedies.

17. The Breaker Upperers A New Zealand comedy about professional break-up for hire artists, a premise that’s pretty much a wholesome 2010s update to Dirty Work by way of Taika Waititi. Zings quickly & efficiently with incredibly well-defined characters, like a The Movie adaptation of a sitcom that’s already been going for years & years.

18. The Banana Splits Movie A SyFy Channel Original that’s somehow a genuine delight? It imagines a world where its eponymous Hanna-Barbera children’s show starred killer animatronic robots instead of failed actors in mascot costumes. Goofy & violent enough to be worthwhile despite how thin its character work is (with some especially nasty practical gore gags), which is more than you can say for most of the originals that network broadcasts.

19. Countdown Beyond just appreciating that there was a mainstream horror about a killer smartphone app in megaplexes this past Halloween, I admired this for adding three very distinct angles to the technophobic Killer Internet subgenre: the eerie unknown of user agreement text that no one reads; the startling menace of app notifications that unmute themselves every phone update; and car backup cam jump scares.

20. CATSTom Hooper’s deranged stage musical adaptation is the exact horned-up, ill-advised CGI nightmare that Film Twitter has been shouting about for months on end and I’m happy it’s been celebrated as such. Admittedly, though, I was absolutely exhausted by pro film critics’ competition to see who could dunk on the film online with the loudest or the funniest zingers, which tempered my enthusiasm before I got to enjoy its spectacular awfulness for myself (opening week!). As such, I suspect this is the camp gem of 2019 that will improve the most in years to come, once the hyperbolic discourse around it settles and it remains just as bizarre as ever.

-Brandon Ledet

Monos (2019)

There’s a mystery at the core of Monos that has nothing to do with plot reveals or concealed identities among its characters. The mystery is mostly a matter of getting your bearings. What’s clear is that we’re spending a couple tense hours in the Amazon rainforest with a teenage militia as they struggle to maintain control over a political hostage and a sustenance-providing milk cow. The details surrounding that circumstance are continually disorienting as the whos, whys, and whens of the premise are kept deliberately vague. The temporal setting could range from thirty years in the past to thirty years into the apocalyptic future, limited only by the teen soldiers’ codenames being inspired by 80s pop culture references like Rambo & Smurf. The political ideology of The Organization that commands this baby-faced militia is never vocalized, hinted at only by the fact that the mostly POC youth are holding an adult white woman (the consistently wonderful Julianne Nicholson) hostage at gunpoint. The film doesn’t waste any time establishing the rules of the world that surround this violent, jungle-set microcosm. Instead, it chooses to convey only the unrelenting tension & brutality that defines the daily life of this isolated tentacle of a much larger, undefined political resistance. It’s maddening – purposefully so.

The reason Monos gets away with this stubborn refusal to establish a solid contextual foundation for its audience is that the sights, sounds, and performances that flood the screen are consistently, impressively intense. We’re estranged in a remote, lush jungle Where The Wild Things Go Too Far. The mountainside cliffs open to cloud formations the size of metropolises; the river rapids seemingly threaten to crush the (mostly unknown) teenage actors before our eyes. As the kids devolve from disciplined soldiers to wild animals without the watchful eye of an authority figure, they become a punishing force of Nature themselves. What starts as a jubilant celebration of freedom & autonomy—with recreational mushroom trips, fireside cunnilingus, and history’s most irresponsible gunplay—inevitably erupts into cruel, purposeless violence. They begin the film waging war on an outside, unseen enemy but eventually only wage war among themselves, almost as if they were rowdy children with guns. This constant, unrelenting mayhem is chillingly scored by Mica Levi in what very well may be her finest work to date (in film at least; I’m still a huge fan of her pop album Jewellery). The downward trajectory of Monos is from barely contained chaos to total, irrevocable chaos, which is more of a recognizable distinction than you might expect.

A lot of critical coverage of this film has understandably compared it to works like Apocalypse Now & Lord of the Flies, but to me it felt more like Nocturama of the Jungle. The clinically precise way these violently horny, prankish children (whose sexuality is just as fluid as their morals) are framed makes for a wonderfully rewarding contrast between form & content. Like in Nocturama, their innocent naivete and stylish teenage cool are somehow never lost even when they’re at their most despicably violent, even when we’re unclear what all this mayhem is meant to accomplish. Ultimately, though, I think I preferred the structure of Nocturama much better to Monos’s, as that film’s own disorienting mystery shifts & mutates in monumental ways – so that its two warring halves almost feel like entirely separate films. By contrast, Monos fully commits to one constant, unwavering tone from start to finish; we never know exactly what’s going to happen next, but we do know how each upcoming event is going to feel. The filmmaking craft & mountainsize ambition of this picture is consistently impressive from scene to scene, but its commitment to a single tonal effect—tense descent into disorder & mayhem—makes it frustrating to emotionally connect with, even after you get past the mystery of its context & purpose.

-Brandon Ledet

War (2019)

In his (excellent) collection of essays on Hawaiian-born schlockteur Albert Pyun, Radioactive Dreams, Torontonian film critic Justin Decloux speculates on why a cult-ready filmmaker he loves dearly never found their proper audience. Decloux laments, “There’s no major genre community for action films like there is for horror.” That quote has been rattling around in my head recently while watching big-budget Indian action spectacles like War, Saaho, and 2.0 on the big screen with relatively sparse audiences. Of course, the main difference there is that these Bollywood & Tollywood productions do draw sizeable crowds in their home country; they just aren’t drumming up much enthusiasm in America – unless you count “Get a load of this! LOL” viral videos of out-of-context clips being shared on social media platforms for cheap mockery. They should be getting the same attention & admiration Hong Kong martial arts films earned through VHS circulation in the 80s & 90s, as they’re pushing a corner of cinema built on pure excess to more of a delirious extreme than any Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible, or John Wick-type American franchises could dare to claim. I mean, those doesn’t even have built-in dance breaks between the gunfights.

Speaking of American action cinema and the 1990s, the latest in American-exported action offerings from Bollywood is essentially a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. War is 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium-size guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super-soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.” If Saaho played like a pastiche of 2010s action franchises of the Fast & Furious variety, this ultra-patriotic, muscled-out brodown between two secretly-in-love soldiers is very much modeled after the post-Bruckheimer 90s blockbuster. Its fetishization of missiles, biceps, and allegiance to the flag feels like a return to a bygone era of action spectacle – except now its embellished with You’ve Got Served-style dance competitions and a full-on Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming stage show. Action movies are a cinema of excess, so the mainstream Indian sensibility of mixing all genres & tones into every three-hour flood of wall-to-wall entertainment fits the genre perfectly. Intricately choregraphed martial arts sequences & acrobatic parkour chase scenes mix with handheld cinematography, incrementally preposterous plot twists, and double bass-pedal stadium rock to create a truly overwhelming wallop of action movie excess. And then the usual genre-blending touches of Bollywood Musical fantasy & romance pile on to make the whole thing feel just that much more gargantuan. It’s a wonder to behold, even as something that follows a vintage story template.

Homoeroticism always simmers under the surface in this kind of militaristic beefcake, but it really does feel like War is on the verge of vocalizing that tension outright. Its assassination stakeouts are bathed in bisexual lighting. When the younger soldier’s ability to track down his mentor without losing his cool is called into question, the commanding officer protests “You love him.” The soldier responds, “Not more than I love my country.” When he finally faces off against this rogue superior, he complains, in hurt, “You were like a god to me.” And then there’s all the staring. Whenever our two competing super-soldiers share the screen, their eyes lock with an intense, electric bond no distraction can break. When a female romantic love interest is introduced halfway into the massive runtime, she’s quickly fridged and swept out of the way – but not until after she playfully suggests her soldier beau is distracted as a lover because she has a “Wife? Girlfriend? Boyfriend?” back home. If only she knew. In all honesty, this palpable man-on-man desire isn’t that out of the ordinary for big, muscled-up action movies of this ilk. It only stands out more here because, unlike in the 90s Michael Bay vehicles it echoes, it doesn’t waste any time pretending that femme bodies are the eye candy on display. Its two dueling stars, Hrithik Roshan & Tiger Shroff, are carefully torn out of their clothes in nearly every action sequence to display the perfectly sculpted masc physiques underneath. Equally bare bikini babes are in short order and are quickly disregarded to get to the main course: abs & pecs, and everyone’s invited to dig in.

Whether or not American audiences ever catch onto how deliriously fun these Indian action blockbusters can be doesn’t matter all that much; they’re doing just find without us. If you ever find yourself wishing that a Fast & Furious sequel were just a little more excessive or that Tom Cruise would take a break from jumping out of planes to sing & dance for your entertainment, however, just know that the perfect action blockbusters are already out there – and they’re likely playing at a nearby megaplex (AMC Elmwood, if you’re reading this in New Orleans). You’re just not going to hear much American fanfare about them, because action cinema is for some reason lacking the same communal enthusiasm we afford other genre novelties like horror & sci-fi. They can also be wonderfully gay if you squint at them the right way, which is a plus for any genre.

-Brandon Ledet

The Image Book (2019)

Before Jean-Luc Godard’s latest essay-in-motion screened at the 2019 New Orleans French Film Festival, a presenter reassured the audience that the projection we were about to see was not broken, glitching, or corrupted. That turned out to be a helpful tip, as The Image Book plays about as smoothly as a gas station rap CD found facedown on parking lot pavement. The audio & imagery of the film alternate from complete darkness & silence to deafening booms & blinding vibrancy to erratic peaks & valleys in-between. Godard’s narration is sometimes subtitled in English, sometimes not, and he’s often cut off in the middle of a vague political or philosophical pontification. Images are frequently shown in their proper aspect ratio for a half-breath before being stretched out into full-screen, over-saturated monstrosities. The Image Book is a deliberately ugly, frustrating experience that strips the art of cinema of all its sensory pleasures in order to punish its audience. If I weren’t watching it with a snooty film festival crowd and if Godard’s name weren’t vouching for the purposeful intent of its sensory aggression, I assume there would have been even more flustered walkouts than the two or three I witnessed at our screening. Listening to old folks & college students intone “Hmmm” & “Ahhh” to themselves during the film as if in an art gallery where they “got” the subliminal meaning of an abstract oil painting was hilarious to me, as Godard did not give us much to work with in establishing patterns in his madness. I suspect most of our audience saw the grueling experience through for the exact reason I did, though: appreciation for the aging, curmudgeonly filmmaker’s audacity, even though he hates our guts for being there.

To his credit, Godard does afford The Image Book a clear sense of structure as a whole, even if its minute to minute rhythms are a dissociative free-for-all. The film is broken into five segments: one for each finger of the hand. This is explained with brief justification about how all art is made by the hands of its creator, which ultimately doesn’t mean much to the themes of the piece, but a guiding sense of structure is still appreciated in this kind of experimental cinema anyway. Three of the five segments seem especially vital to the The Image Book‘s thesis, as vaguely defined as it is: an early section titled “Remake” that pulls & distorts imagery from notable cinema past; a central section that collages imagery of steam trains & Nazi occupation; and a concluding section that offers sympathy to the suffering people of Arab nations who can only express their frustration with their government & Western oppressors through terrorist violence, as all other means have been stripped from them. There’s a lot of bleedover in all these segments, as even the early cinema clips are interrupted by war footage (and home videos of children playing war) and the distorted movie montages themselves continue throughout all five “fingers.” What Godard is trying to say with this assemblage is anyone’s guess. He makes a somewhat clear-eyed distinction between the decadent wealth of the West and the war-torn poverty of the Middle East, but the narration itself is too loosely philosophical to put too fine a point on what he’s saying. Mostly, what comes through is the sadness & anger of an old man who’s getting weary of watching the world burn with no sign of substantial change to come, a frustration he’s eager to pass on to his (mostly Western) audience as punishment. It’s a bleak political treatise that supposes its audience is unworthy of any cinematic pleasure, even the comfort of a clear thesis or narrative.

The Image Book is many things: a movie fanzine, an angry political screed, a flippant troll job, a solemn philosophy piece, a pretentious art film indistinguishable from a parody of itself. The wide range of cinematic relics it pulls from (including titles as varied as Un Chien Andalou, La Belle et la Bête, Elephant, Freaks, Salò, and Johnny Guitar) could easily make for a stunning, moving work of transcendent film fandom, but Godard deliberately uglies them up and robs them of their splendor. This may initially seem pointless when he’s distorting them though color-saturated Xerox copies in stretched-out aspect ratios or interrupting them with footage of war atrocities & hardcore pornography. By the time the film focuses on the atrocities of the now, particularly in the politics of The Gulf, it at least feels like there’s a commanding thesis behind the ugly chaos of it all – if not only in reflecting the ugly chaos of the modern world at large. Attempting any more concrete of a guess on what the French New Wave veteran was getting at with this ugly, fractured, grueling essay in motion could only make me sound like the beatnik lunatics in my audience who were shushing background chatter and whispering “Aha!” to themselves as if they had cracked some intellectual code. This is not a film that allows for a hypnotic, immersive experience; it has all the fluid movement & graceful logic of William S. Burroughs’s herky-jerky cut-ups experiments at their herky-jerkiest. However, it does command a confident, ambitious, righteous anger that I can’t help but be impressed by as a stunned observer, an anger that affords it a one-a-kind novelty as a stream-of-consciousness cinematic tirade.

-Brandon Ledet

Mohawk (2018)

Two Indigenous people and a British solider, all in a polyamorous relationship, flee American militia in the wooded battlefields of the War of 1812. Nothing about that premise particularly signals that Mohawk functions as a horror picture, but as soon as the menacing synths and flickering projection bulb of the film’s opening credits set the grindhouse-reminiscent tone, its choice of genre is undeniable. Directed by We Are Still Here’s Ted Geoghegan, Mohawk creates a kind of reverse-engineered version of a creature feature where white American men are the monsters hunting down its protagonists, emerging from behind trees as a kind of supernatural intrusion on an environment where they don’t belong. On a formal, financial level, the film lacks the attention to craft that elevates similar-in-tone projects like Ravenous, The Revenant, Bone Tomahawk, and The Hateful 8, but its choice of an Indigenous POV in both a historical and a horror genre context affords the film distinction as a cheaply produced curio. Mohawk’s recurring nightmare imagery, synthy crescendos, and washes of impossibly bright red acrylic blood all feel familiar to horror cheapie territory, but its historical narrative told through the perspective of the Mohawk tribe is a different matter entirely.

Although its three central characters’ polyamory might stick out as a peculiar detail in the historical context of the War of 1812, Mohawk treats it with a casual, matter of fact dismissal. The much more pressing issue is how the throuple’s Mohawk tribe is caught between two warring white man governments, the Americans & The Brits. While most other Native peoples have chosen sides in the conflict, the Mohawk tribe remains deliberately neutral, leaving themselves vulnerable to violence from both ends. The presence of the British soldier disrupts this balance and invites even more violence, especially once our three leads find themselves surrounded by a small band of seethingly racist American combatants. The two sides bitterly fight out the conflict of the war at large in a wooded microcosm, trading vicious blows to each other’s already dwindled, wounded ranks. As the violence and stress-induced nightmares escalate in the days leading up to the inevitable bloodshed of the climax, the film drops the pretense of its function as a war movie entirely. The cheap synths, woodland sets, and bright red stage blood of its tension-building violence feel distinctly tied to the rhythms & tropes of horror cinema, which is an interesting lens for telling this kind of wartime story.

Unfortunately, Mohawk’s sense of craft can’t quite match the interest it generates as a corrective in POV from what’s usually depicted in clashes between American settlers & their Indigenous victims. The film finds a tone & perspective far preferable to the ones of superficial correlatives like The Revenant, but its flat digital cinematography is far from Emmanuel Lubezki quality. As confidently casual as Mohawk can be about its themes of polyamory, it drives home other topics with awkward tactlessness in lines like “From my experience, it’s the white man who does the scalping.” I suspect the film’s shortcomings are mostly on the shoulders of Geoghegan, whose previous haunted house picture was similarly frustrating in its stubbornness to live up to its full potential. I greatly respect his choice of perspective & casting in Mohawk. Besides the inclusion of always-welcome genre film character actor Robert Longstreet & wide-eyed beardo pro wrestler Luke Harper among the American monsters, the film also commits to casting actual Native actors Kaniehtiio Horn & Justin Rain in its central roles. That casting reinforces the fascinating specificity of the film’s choice in POV, but it’s a little disappointing that Geoghegan couldn’t do better by the opportunity for greatness created in that collaboration.

I’m always down for a horror cheapie with a killer premise set in the creepy (and affordable) world of the woods, but I can’t help but wish that Mohawk had done just slightly more with its visual language & sound design within that genre context. Its novelty as a historical horror film with an Indigenous, polyamorous POV puts a lot of pressure on the final product to deliver something memorable & impactful. It seems unlikely that we’ll ever see this exact set of circumstances & qualifiers coexist onscreen again. Mohawk is easy to recommend for the specificity of that context alone and can be forgiven for many of its sins against objective quality in consideration of its exceedingly modest budget. I would much rather report that it was a knockout masterpiece that fully fulfilled the promise of its premise, but the truth is that it’s a fairly standard woodland-set indie horror with a killer hook. There’s obviously value to that kind of minor pleasure, even if the temptation is to wish for better.

-Brandon Ledet

Waterloo Bridge (1931)

Old Hollywood legend James Whale is most famous for directing the first two Frankenstein films, both of which are highly ranked among Universal’s classic Famous Monsters relics. The project that landed him that job was far outside the confines of the horror genre, though: a wartime drama titled Waterloo Bridge. Bringing in the production of Waterloo Bridge on-time & under-budget for Warner Brothers, Whale earned the respect & attention of Universal executives, who then gave him free reign to helm any property owned by the studio, of which he chose Frankenstein. That follow-up has obviously outshone his work on Waterloo Bridge in terms of defining his legacy as an auteur, but Waterloo Bridge was a resounding success with a long-lasting legacy of its own. A pre-Code drama about a sex worker making do & unexpectedly finding love in wartime, Waterloo Bridge is a controversial work that, although subjected to censorship & patchy distribution as the moral landscape of Hollywood changed after its release, was popular enough to inspire two (toned down) remakes in the following decades. It’s an impressively bleak work of Old Hollywood filmmaking that, while drastically different from the Frankenstein series in terms of genre, telegraphed much of the grim atmosphere & well-budgeted spectacle that would soon define Whale’s career.

Mae Clarke (of Frankenstein fame, naturally) stars as an American prostitute struggling to make ends meet in a nondescript English slum. Introduced as just one chorus girl among many in a lavish stage musical before casually soliciting men & avoiding cops at her real job walking the streets, our financially & emotionally broken protagonist is a microcosm of the young people who’re made into living ghosts by the Great War. She takes no pleasure in sex work, which is mostly a desperate necessity to (barely) cover her rent. The dread of a life that can’t be sustained forever is made even more unbearable by the constant air raids that terrorize London, sending its worse-for-the-wear citizens seeking shelter at a moment’s notice. In one of these air raid crises, Clarke’s fragile antiheroine meets a wealthy, naïve American solider (Douglass Montgomery) who instantly falls in love with her. She bats away his sweet offerings of rent money, pretty dresses, and marriage purely out of self-loathing, believing that her sordid lifestyle & family history means she doesn’t deserve happiness with such a well-to-do sweetheart. Indeed, his heart visibly breaks in half when he first discovers her profession, but his offer of marriage & lifelong happiness stands anyway. The conflict of Waterloo Bridge is tragic, but largely internal; it depends entirely on if a young woman can forgive herself for the “immoral” things she had to do to survive. It doesn’t end well.

The painfully earnest performances from Clarke & Montgomery drive much of Waterloo Bridge, which often shows its origins as a stage play in long, uninterrupted conversations during air raids & romantic getaways. Whale strategically chooses moments to splurge on spectacle, funneling most of his budget into a few isolated effects shots that almost trick you into thinking you’re watching a war epic instead of a parlor drama. Huge crowds of extras & bomb-dropping model airplanes bookend enough of the single-apartment dialogue-dumps that the whole thing feels way more extravagantly expansive that it truly is at its core. You can easily tell what Universal execs saw in Whale’s financial resourcefulness & why they had the faith in him that led to Frankenstein. A few choices, like the soldier’s off-putting sense of entitlement or his practically deaf father’s one-note version of comic relief, prevent the film from being an all-time classic, but they feel tied to the writing & the source material more than anything Whale had influenced. His mark on the film is delivering a powerfully grim punch to the gut on a bare bones budget, something that helped launch his career & establish his reputation as an Old Hollywood legend.

Presuming most modern audiences aren’t 1930s producers looking to fund the long-dead James Whale’s next project, Waterloo Bridge mostly offers 2010s film nerds one of those glimpses of grimy pre-Code Hollywood sex & violence that feel so out of place in ancient black & white studio pictures (thanks to the moralistic bullies who censored them into oblivion). Besides not shying away from the source material’s matter-of-fact discussion of the practicality of sex work, Whale also searches for sexual tension in the details of dialogue & body language. Chorus girls are filmed in their dressing rooms, lounging in see-through underwear. When one prostitute complains to a friend that the men conducting air raids give her “the willies,” she glibly responds, “Well, they are men, aren’t they?” As Montgomery’s worked-up soldier gets hot & bothered in Clarke’s presence, he strokes the blatantly phallic corner post of her bed, leering. Waterloo Bridge is not a sexy movie. It’s too relentlessly grim & ultimately tragic to earn that descriptor. Its frank discussions of sex & sex work make for a striking Old Hollywood wartime drama, though, something I imagine was lost in its two Hays Code-era remakes. I can’t say it’s my favorite work I’ve ever seen form James Whale or even the most shockingly sex-comfortable pre-Code film I’ve encountered (Baby Face is tough competition for that distinction), but it is an impressive small-scale work for something that’s essentially a grimy stage play with occasional war epic aspirations.

-Brandon Ledet

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

I feel like what I’m looking for in any Bette Davis movie is for the actor to let loose & open fire on her costars. I’m not sure if this is retroactively a result of her late career comeback in the famously combative (onscreen & off) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or if it’s just a natural extension of a deliberately non-demure persona she carried throughout her career. I didn’t think to expect that loose cannon antagonism in the 1939 Technicolor costume drama The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, but Davis’s lead performance as Queen Elizabeth I delivered it by the truckload. Although it has the pedigree of an expensive Major Studio period piece, the film is essentially just Bette Davis wearing beautiful costumes, gobbling snacks, and hurling vicious insults for two solid hours. In other words, it’s fabulous.

Many actors have interpreted Elizabeth I onscreen over the decades, ranging as wide as Cate Blanchett & Quentin Crisp, but Bette Davis’s depiction feels entirely singular in its vicious, feral energy. Like with many pictures over her career, it’s rumored that she was not at all happy with her coworkers or the demands of the production. She was especially miffed that Elizabeth’s remarkably high hairline required her to shave her head, which put her in a persistently ornery mood. This made the film a chore to shoot, especially since Davis would act out in juvenile ways like slapping the piss out of her romantic co-lead, Errol Flynn, with all of her might instead of just making sure the scripted hit looked good for the camera. That anger translated well to the role, though, making Davis’s Elizabeth come across as a kind of furious demon in beautiful costumes. She’s visibly uncomfortable, constantly reaching for grapes or wine or invisible stress balls to calm her nerves as she inhales between each insult. The effect on the film is glorious, though, transporting Davis’s slack, unceremonious, Baby Jane Hudson-mode energy into a stuffy Studio Era drama where it doesn’t belong.

A 16th Century tale of real life war & romance endowed with the same Major Studio bloat of the 1960s Camelot musical, there isn’t much to The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in a formal sense. As Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, Errol Flynn is propped up as a kind of love/hate romantic sparring partner meant to periodically threaten Davis’s power as the Queen of England. She steamrolls him with ease. Essex & Elizabeth both can’t get enough of each other in their lustful bouts of loneliness and can’t possibly share the same space & time, due to their individual thirsts for power & the throne. This sometimes leads to the Queen sending Essex off to war in the Irish Moors (which look an awful lot like a studio lot) without proper supplies to succeed, just to be temporarily rid of him. It also leads to literal, direct rebellion within the palace where the two square off head to head with their respective guards. Flynn’s Essex is never given a chance to really stand up to the Queen, however. Outside occasionally riding a horse, the athletic leading man isn’t even afforded a chance to do any of his signature swashbuckling. Elizabeth’s other foils, a dangerously horny Olivia de Havilland and a foppish knight played by a baby faced Vincent Price, don’t fare much better. As much as this film’s dialogue frets over Elizabeth’s duties as a Queen being hindered by her desires as a woman, there’s no question who’s in charge and who’s going to make it out on top. I’m not saying that because of the inevitability if its Wikipedia-verifiable history lesson, either. Davis’s fierceness demands her victory, with obligatory demise for each of her opponents, whether or not she wants to fuck them.

I’d be a liar if I said I cared at all about the plot of this film. Formally, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is remarkable less for its narrative than it is for its gorgeous production & costume design. One Orry-Kelly-designed dress in particular, with shimmering green mermaid scales, a pale pink Elizabethan collar (naturally), and a neon green feathered hand fan had me gasping for air. Those luxurious design flourishes only serve to contrast Elizabeth’s demonic furor, however, as she complains about her old age, smashes mirrors, claws at a pile of snacks, and fires off long strands of insults: “lying villain,” “wicked devil,” “slimy toad,” “stupid cattle,” “snakes & rats,” etc. If, like me, your favorite Bette Davis performances find the actor in vicious attack mode, the formal mediocrity of this Studio Era period piece won’t matter to you one bit. The film is downright delicious for Davis’s inhuman bursts of Technicolor furor, especially considering the restrained pomp & propriety of the setting that contrasts it.

-Brandon Ledet

Dunkirk (2017)

I sometimes complain about missing an essential Dad Gene that would enable me to care about certain traditional macho movie genres: Westerns, submarine thrillers, James Bond entries, etc. I’m not faced with the pressure to watch any other subcategory of these Dad Movies nearly as often as I am with The War Movie. Films about battleground warfare, especially set during WWII or The Vietnam War, tend to put me to sleep. There’s a grim, heroically macho routine to battlefield dramas & thrillers that typically makes them feel indistinguishable from one another, like a sea of uniformed soldiers solemnly marching in unison. Christopher Nolan’s recent war thriller, Dunkirk, broke that spell and made me question my Dad Movie prejudice. Dunkirk feels much more like a personal obsession with the story of a single historical event than yet another echo of the war movie genre trappings that dull down so many of its peers. I’m usually unable to distinguish any particular World War II battlefield picture from the long, uniformed line that marched before it, but Nolan’s auteurist interests in things like time, intense sound design, and muted performances from actors like Tom Hardy & Cillian Murphy make Dunkirk feel like a wholly new, revitalizing take on the genre. Instead of checking my pulse for signs of life at the top of the second act, I found myself holding my breath in anxious anticipation throughout, due largely to Nolan’s technical skills as a craftsman and, in a recent turn starting with Interstellar, personal passion as a storyteller.

Dunkirk dramatizes a colossal military disaster where 40,000 French & British heroes & cowards awaited rescue on a beach while surrounded by the German enemy in World War II. With a massive cast & sparse dialogue, Nolan does little to provide character detail for any of these thousands of soldiers, but rather tells their story as a massive unit. Even actors like Murphy, Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and pop star Harry Styles, who all should individually draw attention through the virtue of their mere presence, are but tiny gears in a larger machine that sounds & functions like clockwork, ticking away until the enemy bombs them out of existence. Nolan fractures this larger narrative through three narrow focus storylines: a two man beachside escape mission that lasts a week, a three man boat ride that lasts a day, and a two man airplane skirmish that lasts an hour. These three narratives barrel towards an inevitable point of convergence: a historical event where private vessels & fishing boats were employed to rescue soldiers from the beach, since all traditional Navy ships were being sunk by the enemy. Although Nolan tells this story through a precise, coldly technical build-up of moment to moment tension, he takes a breath to glorify this triumph of The Dunkirk Spirit in a rare stint of nationalistic pride. When the tiny pleasure yachts roll in to Bring Home the Boys under the German’s noses, Branagh admires their bravery in silence, nearly holding back a single manly tear as if it were Nolan himself watching the waters. It’s possibly the only moment of relief offered in Dunkirk‘s entire runtime, a much needed breather in an otherwise tense, relentless chokehold.

Besides Nolan’s typifying play with the film’s sense of time & a bold decision to never depict the enemy onscreen, Dunkirk also avoids war movie doldrums by echoing the structure of near-plotless obstacle course movies like Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road. All that really matters is clearing the next hurdle. Whether searching for drinkable water & smokable cigarette butts in city streets or avoiding drowning inside of a ship that is both sinking & on fire, Nolan’s camera follows his soldiers & their civilian saviors as they conquer one obstacle at a time. This makes for an entirely nerve-racking experience from opening to closing credits, an intensity amplified by Hans Zimmer’s sparse, haunting score of ticking clocks & building strings. This score is only softened when the complex sound design is overwhelmed by sudden, deafening air raids that leave all soldiers ducking & praying for survival at irregular intervals. Nolan mirrors the impossible technical feat of rescuing that large of a number of soldiers on a fleet of tiny civilian vessels by staging his own series of aurally terrifying, temporally ambitious, and brutally logical technical feats of filmmaking & narrative craft. The anticipatory feeling of seeing the film on a 70mm print opening night felt more like an Event or an Experience than a typical trip to the movies. It was something akin to a film fest vibe (although with a notably more bro-populated crowd), but it also reminded me of waiting in line for a rollercoaster. Dunkirk is a quick, dizzying trip through pure adrenaline thrills & for-their-own-sake technical marvels. It gives you little time to attach yourself to any one character or narrative in particular, but the complexities of its basic structure & overall effect are so impressive that it never really matters.

The few isolated beats where I wasn’t fully onboard with Nolan’s vision were when he did attempt to stir emotion instead of building tension. That scene where Branagh admires the civilian volunteers’ makeshift rescue efforts while the ticking clocks score gives way to triumphant orchestral strings reminded me so much of the war movies that typically do nothing for my shriveled, cynical heart. Those moments are few & far between, however. Dunkirk mostly mines tension from an increasingly complex series of moment-to-moment tasks spread out over sea, sky, beach, and several converging timelines. To deny the power of the film’s technical feats because of its lacking emotional impact or detailed character development would be asking it to be something entirely different from the story Nolan set out to tell. As someone who has an impossible time focusing on the particulars of battlefield drama in more traditional war stories, I very much appreciate Nolan’s approach here. It’s likely that he personally found much more emotional resonance in the film than most of his audience possibly could, but the experience of watching him reach for that emotion in his tightly controlled, meticulous recreation of wartime chaos is as immediately impressive as it is likely to be unforgettable.

-Brandon Ledet

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

After Kong: Skull Island, War for the Planet of the Apes is the second time this year I attempted to put my boredom with cinematic war narratives aside to feed my hunger for eccentric creature features. The results were moderately better on this second go. Matt Reeves’s conclusion to his Apes prequel trilogy felt like a sincerity antidote to Skull Island‘s disingenuous SyFy Channel genre film throwback, which was far more conventional than its What If King Kong Fought In The Vietnam War? premise should have allowed. Not only does War for the Planet of the Apes cover similar territory in a more satisfying way; it also adds shades of World War POW camps, the Holocaust, American slavery, and the Malcolm X/Martin Luther King Jr philosophy divide to deepen the context of its Apes vs Humans war for the planet. It takes its wartime primates premise far more seriously than Kong: Skull Island attempts to, yet somehow emerges as a notably better example of summertime blockbuster spectacle, despite the season’s usual penchant for dumb fun. Its superiority to that overpriced B-movie aside, I can’t honestly say much else in praise of War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s an interesting film & a welcome excuse to escape the heat in a dark, air-conditioned room for two hours; but its nature as a straightforward war movie & a CG spectacle franchise cornerstone never allows it to amount to anything more substantial than that.

We rejoin the talking ape Caesar, played by eternal mo-cap prisoner Andy Serkis, as he attempts to maintain peace & order among his primate followers through simple credos like “Apes together strong,” and “Ape no kill ape.” Their plans to live peacefully in the woods are disrupted by a human militia headed by Woody Harrelson, who plays a warmonger who’s seen either Platoon or Full Metal Jacket one too many times in his life. This rogue colonel refuses to accept the apes’ peaceful request to be left alone in the wilderness. He slaughters large numbers from their ranks and eventually imprisons the survivors in an isolated stronghold he converts into a primate labor camp. Caesar and the colonel grimace at each other and trade gruff lines about who started/escalated the war and who they’ve both lost along the way for as long as the movie can put off two inevitabilities: an escape plan hatched by the ape prisoners & an all-out fire fight initiated by the humans. Somewhere during this grudge match two new characters introduce themselves to the fold: a mute child who’s clumsily coded as an archetype of Innocence & a Steve Zahn-esque buffoon played by sub-David Arquette buffoon Steve Zahn. As the war rages on, the developing details of the virus engineered in the first film are gradually revealed, opening the door for a kind of decisive finality to the series. The events of the film are tightly contained to a singular conflict, but dialogue hints that the struggle is linked to a more significant global crisis we never get to see.

I’m not sure that if you swapped out the apes with a more plausible rebel group like, say, Anarchists or Socialists, that I would find that same plot all that interesting, given my general aversion to this dour wartime end of cinema. That’s not the only issue making War for the Planet of the Apes feel like a moderate-at-best success, though. The apes look great; they’re believably animated in an eerie, modern CGI rendering that recalls the Disney-funded majesty of last year’s live action Jungle Book remake. The problem is that kind of CG spectacle isn’t all that interesting in the long run. As realistic as the apes look, they’re still just slightly off in a way that’s more distracting than it likely would have been if their image were more stylized. I’m not sure there was any point during the picture where I wasn’t thinking about the quality of the special effects, which isn’t anywhere near the top of my list of cinematic priorities. That kind of summertime special effects showcase typically comes with a long line of normalizing, Major Studio requirements too. There’s an oddly conspicuous Coca-Cola ad placement involving an abandoned 18-wheeler the camera lingers on for an eternity. The movie opens with a labored text scroll that attempts to walk the audience through the plot points & the “Rise/Dawn” title confusion of its two predecessors. It attempts to head off critics’ readymade puns like “Ape-ocalypse Now” & “The Great Esc-Ape” by making those allusions itself, which feels like a Major Studio brand attempting to control the conversation instead of allowing the film to be its own weird self. The whole ordeal just feels meticulously calculated & restrained.

 Without question, the second entry in the Apes trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, remains my favorite film in the franchise. There was something oddly wild & unpredictable about that film, which gifted the world one of my all-time favorite action movie images: the ape on horseback simultaneously operating two machine guns. I’m not sure there’s anything to be found in this follow-up that’s half as exciting as that image. Even Woody Harrelson’s character, who’s clearly supposed to echo Brando’s Colonel Kurtz performance from Apocalypse Now, feels fairly run of the mill for a crazed war movie villain. He nonchalantly shaves his head with a straight razor, wears sunglasses at inappropriate times, and eats apple slices off a combat knife; all of that macho posturing feels cinematically overfamiliar. By the time a Jimi Hendrix needle drop finds him listening to Vietnam War era rock alone at his boozy command station I felt as if I had already met this character a thousand times before. It was a beat that made me roll my eyes just as hard as any of Steve Zahn’s attempts to resurrect Pauly Shore humor or his silent little girl companion’s similarly cliché visual representations of Wartime Innocence (complete with tenderly earnest offers of a single flower). If it weren’t for the presence of CG apes in its central roles or the movie’s lengthy, silent stretches of sign language communication, War for the Planet of the Apes wouldn’t feel much different from any number of big budget war movies or grim franchise-closers. It’s competently made and visually impressive. It’s got a strikingly sorrowful brutality to it that helps distinguish it slightly from the other bombastic works of calculated studio bloat floating out there in the summertime blockbuster heat. Still, titles like Dawn or, better yet, Okja are exciting reminders that CG spectacle can be something much more idiosyncratic, more passionate, and more memorable than that. At least Kong: Skull Island is a fresh-on-the-mind counterpoint signaling that it also could’ve been much worse.

-Brandon Ledet