The Lighthouse (2019)

Watching Robert Eggers movies at a corporate multiplex feels like getting away with something perverse. Eggers has seemingly signed a deal with The Devil (A24) that allows him access to wide audiences for every aggressively Not For Everyone idea he has; the only catch is that the rooms these niche monstrosities play in are plagued by incrementally audible discomfort. As with The Witch, the audience I watched Eggers’s latest film with stormed out of the theater in a disgruntled huff – muttering variations of “What the fuck was that?” amongst themselves on the trail to the parking lot. To be fair, their confusion & frustration is entirely justified, as The Lighthouse is the kind of artsy-fartsy indulgence that you’d usually have to go out of your way to see at a tiny indie theater at the edge of town. A black & white period drama crammed into a squared-off aspect ratio, The Lighthouse mostly functions as an unholy, horned-up mashup of Guy Maddin & HP Lovecraft. It has no business sharing suburban megaplex marquees with the superhero spectacle of the week; at least not before earning the perceived legitimacy of Oscar Buzz. We’ve designated an entire festival-to-VOD distribution template to keep this kind of challenging, deranged nonsense out of the eyeline of the unsuspecting public. Watching Eggers’s films break away from its designated playpen to cause havoc in the burbs feels like cheering on a puppy that runs across the dinner table at an aristocratic banquet. The more people protest the funnier it becomes.

That’s not to say this is a stuffy Academic art piece without traditional entrainment value. The Lighthouse’s tight frame is packed to the walls with more sex, violence, and broad toilet humor than you’d typically expect from high-brow festival circuit Cinema. If you can push past the initial barriers of Eggers’s patient pacing & period-specific dialogue, the movie is a riot. Willem Dafoe & Robert Pattinson costar as a lighthouse-keeper odd couple who gradually grow insane with hate & lust for each other as the only company available on an isolated island rock. What’s “actually happening” in the story is deliberately obscured, as the combative pair’s descent into drunken madness continually disorients the audience to the point where it’s impossible to get our sea legs. The back half of the film is a roaring storm where time, place, and meaning are all drowned out by the two bearded seamen’s passionate clash of wills, and the film becomes more of a deranged experiment in mood & atmosphere than anything resembling linear storytelling. Still, their horniness for each other (and maybe-fictional mermaids), their constant farting in each other’s faces, and their drunken penchant for fisticuffs means this is never a dry academic exercise, despite Eggers’s painstakingly researched dialogue that makes it sound like an ancient, cursed novel. He even buried the title card that announces those research efforts deep into the credits instead of allowing it to immediately undercut the impact of the film’s transcendent conclusion, fixing the one problem I personally had with The Witch.

As delightfully bizarre & idiosyncratic as The Lighthouse can be, I don’t know that I can claim that there’s nothing else like it. Between The Forbidden Room, Cold Skin, and my beloved The Wild Boys you could piece together a neat little modern canon that this antique fever dream is nestled in, even if it is one of the clear standout specimens of that crop. The main difference to me is the value of the A24 marketing & distribution machine behind it, as the other movies of this cursed deep-sea ilk only made it to tiny arthouse theaters nearby, if they played on the big screen at all. The Lighthouse features two recognizable movie stars devouring scenery & each other at top volume. It’s like watching two Daniel Day-Lewises battling to drink each other’s milkshakes at the seaport to Hell. Even if I was the only audience member present who was tickled by those handsome seaside ghouls’ drunken struggles with merfolk, one-eyed seagulls, and divine lightbulbs, it was still heartwarming to see those perverse monstrosities eat up screen space at a corporate multiplex. The fact that the movie is so darkly fun on top of being such an obscured art piece only makes it feel like more of an outright prank on Normie America. In an age when tentpole franchise filmmaking is quarantining most of these bizarro art pieces to the straight-to-VOD wastelands, I’m always going to root for the stray beast that breaks free & runs wild – even if all it really has to say is “Having roommates sucks. And seagulls suck too.”

-Brandon Ledet

Aquaman (2018)

There are two distinct, directly opposed routes to take in adapting Aquaman to the big screen. My preferred angle would be to lean into the inherent absurdity of the character’s underwater superheroics, having deliriously over-the-top fun with the various sea creatures & Lisa Frank waterscapes that environment invites. The lesser, cowardly route would be to poke fun at that absurdity, to make Aquaman a gruff macho bro who wouldn’t be caught dead swimming with dolphins in bright superhero tights (at least not with a smartass quip about the indignity). The confusing thing about the DCEU’s Aquaman film is that it chooses both of these routes, embracing & rejecting the inherent silliness of Aquaman lore in what has to be the most perplexing mixed bag experience offered by a blockbuster since . . . the last film in the DCEU. Aquaman is a film that deals only in extremes. Its soundtrack must feature the ethereal beauty of Sigúr Ros and the obnoxious corporate party anthems of Pitbull, nothing in-between. It has to take the regal lineage & mythology of its underwater sea kingdom dead seriously and feature a cutaway gag of an octopus playing the drums. It has no qualms exploiting the cartoon energy of its setting as if it were an underwater Ferngully or an extended version of the “Under the Sea” number in Disney’s Little Mermaid, but it also feels compelled to cast Jason Momoa in the titular role as the broiest bro who ever bro’d, lest Aquaman come off as an uncool seafaring pansy. In the hands of an over-the-top Asian action spectacle craftsman like a Steven Chow or a Tsui Hark this all-over-the-place quality might have felt controlled & intentional, but coming from an American studio (with negligible influence from Furious 7 & Dead Silence schlockteur James Wan) it mostly plays like a confused jumble of self-conflicting ideas.

Jason Momoa puts in the exact same Aquabro performance here that he delivered in Justice League, except now there’s more of it. So very much more. Instead of popping in for an occasional, cute bro-liner like his much-memed “My man!” in the previous film, he’s asked to anchor a sprawling mythology about the regal lineage of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, which is on the verge of civil war. Legitimate actors Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson admirably play the material straight as if there were actual stakes to this middling franchise entry and it wasn’t just a lavishly expensive, underwater episode of Wishbone. Momoa’s jockular, beer-pounding frat boy has a much more difficult time of it, especially in scenes where he’s asked to generate genuine chemistry or pathos with the sleepwalking Amber Heard (in one of history’s all time worst big screen wigs). It’s a shame that the mythology is so inert & self-serious, both because Momoa’s sex-idiot boytoy persona struggles to carry the weight and because the various underwater creatures that define the world are so pitch-perfect in their absurdity. Aquaman is packed to the gills with mighty sea horse steeds riding into battle, mounted laser sharks roaring in ferocious defiance, stingray-shaped submarines zipping around like underwater UFOs, a pissed-off Nicole Kidman hurling tridents in Burning Man drag, etc. I was often bored with the villain’s quest to become “Oceanmaster” (whatever the fuck that is), the hero’s search for the almighty trident McGuffin that would stop him, and the overall conflict of “uniting the two world’s” of Land & Sea, but every time I was about to give up on the movie entirely some mutated Lisa Frank monstrosity would emerge to reel me back in. For every shot of Momoa mugging to pure-cheese guitar riffs in embarrassing attempts to transform Aquaman into a badass, there’s equally weighted flashes of pure nerd-ass shit that accepts the character for the uncool goof that he is. I have no idea what to make of the result except to say that it’s exhausting.

There were moments of divine absurdity that had me thinking Aquaman might be the best film in the DCEU (a low bar to clear, but still). They were usually followed by 20 minutes or so of excruciating boredom before that pleasure resurfaced, choking on the flood of narrative glut. My disinterest in Momoa’s bro-flavored charms might have been what sunk my appreciation of the film to an extent (although I wouldn’t fault anyone for prurient interest in watching him get wet for three hours). Mostly, though, I think my inability to fully embrace the film’s live action cartoon energy resulted from its own half-commitment to its over-the-top, nerd-ass tone. When the evil sea creatures of Aquaman off-handedly cite land-dwellers’ pollution of the ocean as a reason to declare war, I couldn’t help but think of the more fearlessly committed overfishing politics of The Mermaid or the birds’ rights activism of 2.0, Asian blockbusters that are unembarrassed of their ludicrous premises. Aquaman, by contrast, constantly apologies for the frivolity off its underwater Ferngully by having a mugging macho class clown reassure the audience that everything onscreen is a joke and the hero is actually super cool, not nerdy at all. You can feel James Wan pushing for weird surreal touches in the background but the cultural monolith of the modern superhero blockbuster has a way of smoothing everything out into a routine monotony. The result is a picture at war with itself, like so many power-hungry Atlantians. A few years ago I might have rated this film a half-star higher for the moments of unbridled goofiness that do shine through the studio system muck, but I’m just finding the weight of this genre too exhausting to afford much more of my energy. A version of Aquaman that was an hour shorter and entirely relegated to the underwater sea creature civil war might have been something truly remarkable, but franchise filmmaking requirements constantly pull it out of the water so that another macho man can mug for the camera in all his heroic buffness and the repetition of the schtick is getting punishingly dull.

-Brandon Ledet

Vox Lux (2018)

The riskiest gamble of Vox Lux: “A 21st Century Portrait” is that it looks and sounds like a mainstream movie with wide appeal when it is, in reality, a purposefully divisive work meant to enrage & alienate. Featuring an Oscar reel-worthy performance from Natalie Portman (in full Black Swan mode) and arriving just in time to make that PR push happen, the film masquerades as a must-see Important Drama friendly to mainstream discussion in wide release. It’s the most flagrantly misrepresented film in that vein I’ve seen since mother!, however, and it’s sure too piss off just as many onlookers unprepared for the cold, mean, absurdist melodrama that awaits them. The funniest thing about that gamble is that this is a film about marketing and public perception. It’s about a pop culture artist who has a hostile relationship with the public, so it’s already sneering in the general direction of its inevitable detractors. It’s brutal and coldly funny like a Yorgos Lanthimos film, yet it’s absurdly earnest like a Mommie Dearest melodrama. It’s a distanced philosophical statement on the current shape of Western culture, but also a gleefully perverse, intimate portrait of a woman behaving monstrously. There’s no way to properly market a work that tonally volatile to a mass audience, so the film is going to be paraded around like an Oscar Season drama when it’s actually something much weirder and more deeply sinister. It’s a Trojan horse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a concealed weapon; it’s a film I admired on its own merits, but also look forward to seeing it being met with hostile negativity.

Vox Lux’s cheeky air of self-importance extends beyond its festival circuit & Oscar Season release strategy. Its self-appointed intent to function as a “21st Century Portrait” is not only a reference to its depiction of a pop star’s rise from teenage darling to thirty-something monster, but also its cold, detached commentary on the modern world at large. A bitterly sarcastic antidote to the earnest, vulnerable pontification of 20th Century Women, the film is relayed through the dry, humorously overwritten narration of Willem Dafoe, who acts as our godlike tour guide of the last 20 years of terrorist violence & pop culture rot (and finding those two forces grotesquely symbiotic). Portman’s central character, Celeste, is a kind of cipher for this cultural commentary. A permanently scarred victim of domestic terrorism as a teenager, Celeste turns a personal tragedy into a hit song to achieve instantaneous fame, so that the film can comment directly on how horrific violence is marketed for easy profit. The pop music machinery of this divide is anchored by an original soundtrack of Sia compositions, performed by “Celeste.” The menacing violence of the world it exploits & mismarkets is represented in contrast by a horrifyingly minimalist score from Scott Walker, approximating his best 21st Century mutation of John Carpenter. That internal musical conflict matches the other binary confrontations represented throughout: pop vs. metal, terrorism vs. Public Relations, “real art” vs. “having an angle.” By the time the film reaches its climatic Celeste concert and all that’s left is the conflict between Sia’s songs & Dafoe’s narration, the clearest binary at play is Good Vs. Evil. Like mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, gleefully unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.

All that thematic discussion is just me intellectualizing the real reason I enjoyed this film: it’s fun to watch women misbehave, unconcerned with whether or not you like them. Celeste starts the film as a relatively normal teenager (played by Raffey Cassidy­­), but the circumstances of her rise to fame and 24/7 pampering transform her into a monstrous, irredeemable brat. Portman has way too much fun going over-the-top as a power-hungry villain in the role, chewing scenery with an exaggerated Staten Island accent and an addict’s insatiable desire for more, more, more. She admits her latest album cycle’s “sci-fi anthems” are creatively bankrupt in one breath, then claims she is a literal god in the next. She pretends to be a thick-skinned badass in a leather jacket, but crumbles at any mention of her glaring, public faults – a vulnerability visually represented by the decorative neck guards he uses to conceal the wounds from her teen-years tragedy. A lesser film would portray Celeste as a victim of her circumstances, a product of an abusive, exploitative culture and frustrated expression of mass violence. Vox Lux refuses to let her off the hook so easily, instead allowing her the space to alienate & enrage with a comically escalating set of temper tantrums and demands for attentive admiration. Even her one saving grace as an artist, the frequent defense that “at least she writes her own lyrics,” is demonstrated to be a vicious lie, as she constantly takes credit for loved ones’ work and then bullies them into silence. The concluding minutes of concert footage that gloss over all that backstage misery with a pure-fantasy pop star sheen only make her monstrous behavior more horrific in contrast: yet another internal conflict meant to sit queasily on the viewer’s stomach.

I don’t expect universal backup for my love of Vox Lux, nor do I really want it. Just like how the movie is perversely fun in its uncompromising depictions of a woman’s monstrous behavior, I suspect some of my enjoyment of it as a final product is its built-in divisiveness. There were several walkouts at our New Orleans Film Festival screening of the picture, and even the audience who remained to squirm in their seats weren’t sure what to do with the film’s cold brutality & absurd melodrama humor. You either revel in that discomfort or you dismiss the film as a failure, and I very much look forward to seeing the most polarized reactions in that binary divide. My favorite kinds of movies are the ones where I look forward to reading their most fiercely negative reviews; that’s not something I’m used to getting out of an Oscar Season prestige release, so I find this instance especially exciting.

-Brandon Ledet

The Florida Project (2017)

Youth is the key ingredient to the court jester defiance of D.I.Y. punk as a culture & as a philosophy. There’s a defiant, punk as fuck spirit that drives Sean Baker’s breakout feature Tangerine in a way that made it an easy pick for one of my favorite films of 2015 and one of the 2010s releases I’d most want to watch with the unintentional godfather of youthful punk defiance, John Waters (Wetlands would be up there as well). Baker distills that youthful, punk defiance even further in his follow-up to that iPhone-shot whirlwind of sex workers on the war path by looking to even younger, more defiant protagonists: actual children. The Florida Project is already facing early waves of backlash for its cultural sins as poverty porn (and it’s honestly a miracle that Tangerine largely escaped the same). These accusations are understandable given the film’s children-in-peril setting in the extended-stay slum motels just outside the Disney World amusement parks in Florida, but they presume that the film’s sole goal is to merely report that these impoverished communities exist just outside the tourist industry playgrounds they surround. The Florida Project is not the miserable, poverty-exploiting drama that reading frames it to be. Rather, it captures the defiant punk spirit that laughs in the face of all authority & life obstacles among the children who run wild in those insular, run-down motel communities. The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults.

Willem Dafoe (in Willem Dafriend mode here) stars as the only recognizable face in a crowd of “nonprofessional” actors (give or take a Macon Blair or a Caleb Landy Jones), mostly children & young women. His exasperated motel manager, Bobby, is a reluctant caretaker of the single mother families that rent his rooms by the week. He attempts to maintain a professional emotional distance from these near-homeless families, whom he occasionally has to police & evict, but fails miserably due to direct contact & a soft heart. Like all adults & authority figures, however, Bobby is only a periphery presence to be mocked & subverted by the punk-as-fuck little rascals that play throughout the purple pastel stucco buildings that cater to Disney World tourist runoff. Their ring leader is our POV character, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a dangerously sharp child who runs wild around the motel as if it were a playground, with the approval of her sex worker mother. Instead of solemnly gawking at her small family’s limited means, The Florida Project celebrates the minor successes Moonee pulls off in the tropical Florida heat: scheming tourists out of ice cream money, crashing fancier hotels’ breakfast buffets, initiating newcomer kids into the joys of smashing the fragile semblance of routine normality authority figures like Bobby are tasked to maintain, spitting on cars. It’s no mistake that the opening credits are set to the disco hit “Celebration,” since the entire intent of the film is to celebrate good times, even in the face of the harsher realities at the story’s fringes. Although Moonee & her cronies are financially locked out of The Happiest Place on Earth, they defiantly turn the Magic Castle & Futureland Inn knockoffs they are allowed to occupy into a punk rock amusement park of its own.

Many reviewers are discussing The Florida Project in the same modern American poverty documentation terms used to describe last year’s (much less jubilant) American Honey. I believe the film’s vibe is much more in line with the young court jester punks of titles like We Are the Best!, Daisies, Female Trouble, etc. There’s certainly a detectable quality of documentation of hyper-specific “at risk” Floridians who live at the tourism industry’s fringes, following them with a detailed eye as they pass theme park-style gift shops & listen to trap music on smartphone speakers. Baker’s filmmaking style is much less kinetic & haphazard here than it was in the iPhone-shot sugar rush of Tangerine, but the rich 35mm colors & fixed camera precision of The Florida Project only stabilizes & beautifies the world of its children-in-peril punks enough to emphasize their exuberance & imagination. The pure, dangerous joy these kids find in the palm tree-lined parking lots of an urban Florida wasteland is infectiously genuine. The movie doesn’t ask for your pity, but rather a hearty cry of “Up the punks!” and recognition that “All Cops Are Bastards,” even well-meaning motel managers. The court jester youthfulness of punk requires you to take no authority or life challenge too seriously (even though situations are often physically & emotionally dangerous here) and the little kids who run free in The Florida Project’s miniature domain laugh in the face of it all without caution and without apology.

-Brandon Ledet

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Real life is a total bore, which is why most “based on a true story” movies come across as fairly mundane in comparison to revisionist pieces that play fast & loose with the facts. There are few biopics & fact-faithful dramas that can stand up to the entertainment value of Sofia Coppola dressing up Marie Antoinette in Chuck Taylors & Siouxsie and The Banshees or Todd Haynes supposing that Oscar Wilde was a space alien who passed on extraterrestrial queer magic to glam rock gods/lovers “David Bowie” & “Iggy Pop.” These factual liberties always rely on the excuse that they are aiming for a greater macro truth larger in scale than the finer details of reality, but in a more practical sense they also make for better, more interesting art. The early 00s horror comedy Shadow of the Vampire, co-produced by Nic Cage of all people, dives head first into this playful style of historical revisionism in its retelling of the production of the 1922 silent horror classic Nosferatu. On one level, the film aims to capture a greater truth about the essence of Nosferatu, particularly that the film’s power lies in the illusion that its monstrous star, Max Schreck, is a real life vampire & a force of Evil, not just a great method actor in harrowing makeup. Mostly, though, the movie uses that conceit as an excuse to have fun with the setting & aesthetic of a silent film shoot, an excellent springboard for horror-themed comedic absurdity.

Besides its irreverent search for entertainment value over realism, Shadow of the Vampire largely excels based on the casting of its leads. Willem Dafoe’s vampiric estimation of Max Schreck & John Malkovich’s perverted/exasperated straight man visionary F.W. Murnau, the director of Nosferatu, are excellent foils for each other, so similar in their violently ambitious thirsts that the actors could have too easily swapped roles. Dafoe’s physical comedy as Schreck, particularly in the buffoonish rodent faces he makes between takes, somewhat disrupt his illusion of a dangerous monster by turning him into a horny goofball. Murnau’s fear of & exhaustion with Schreck’s antics, which take vampiric method acting to the point of real life murder & blood-drinking, are hilarious in their participation in a straight man tradition. He struggles in vain to maintain normalcy & complete the shoot despite his star (who may or may not be a “real” vampire) gradually murdering his entire crew. The movie has some fun with real-life Nosferatu lore, especially in the detail that it shamelessly ripped off Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, but mostly just has a laugh at the idea of method acting taken to a cartoonish extreme. There’s a pretty clear road map in that line of humor for a movie to make fun of Jared Leto’s behind the scene antics on the set of Suicide Squad, presuming anyone remembers that film in 80 years. Imagine a comedy about DCEU execs wondering in fear if Leto was just a pretentious ass terrorizing his coworkers with dead pigs & used condoms for no reason or if he was a real life murder-clown. Shadow of the Vampire already delivers that kind of meta movie-production humor, one that works especially well whenever Malkovich & Dafoe share the screen.

Even with its irreverent historical revisionism & violent screwball comedy antics, Shadow of the Vampire still impresses with its sense of visual style. With the intertitles, Art Deco stylization, and wood panel cameras of the silent film era, the movie has much classier stage dressing than what would typically accompany comedies this goofy. As an actor who had to survive Shreck’s vampiric thirsts, Eddie Izzard especially has fun with the vaudeville style vamping that defined the performances in most silent pictures. This is especially amusing in juxtaposition with the snootiness of Murnau’s sense of self-importance & the supposed prestige of black & white filmmaking. Shadow of the Vampire also frames this imagery with the drastic Dutch angles & color filters of a comic book movie to match its over-the-top tone, recalling touchstones like Burton’s Batman & Raimi’s Darkman. Unfortunately, this visual energy doesn’t bleed over much to the narrative style. Shadow of the Vampire is structured in a way where Nosferatu is shot in sequence so that the movie & the movie-within-the-movie can run parallel in their progress. It’s a clever structure that pays off well overall, but something feels frustratingly unrushed in the stretches where the production of Nosferatu is halted due to Schreck’s bloodthirsty ways. Whenever the Nosferatu film shoots are derailed, Shadow of the Vampire feels like a kind of hangout film, very much relaxed in delivering its horror & comedy beats. I don’t especially mind hanging out on these silent horror sets in this comic book vision of 1920s Berlin, but it’s rarely a good idea for a comedy to feel this unintentionally labored.

Most importantly, as an awkward workplace comedy where a madman pervert auteur struggles to maintain order despite his star actor (who may or may not be a vampire) murdering the rest of his crew, Shadow of the Vampire is damn funny. It pretends to deliver the sophisticated, well-behaved tone of a sober biopic, but everything about Dafoe’s squinched-up, bloodthirsty rat faces & Malkovich’s over-the-top exasperation is hilariously absurd. The odd thing is that this tone is just as true to the spirit of the original Nosferatu as the suggestion that Max Schreck may have been a “real” vampire. The actor’s 1922 performance is oddly tinged in slapstick humor, including one scene where he carries his own coffin under his arm that would have been considered “too much” if restaged here. It’s not difficult to see why he’s been resurrected as a half creepy/half goofy comedy icon in films like What We Do in the Shadows & Shadow of the Vampire, even if they had to tear apart the truth to get to his essence.

-Brandon Ledet