Band Aid (2017)

Band Aid is one of those intimate indie comedies that are easy to advertise in trailers as Sundance-flavored quirk fests packed with cutesy flights of whimsy, but deliver something much darker & more painfully honest once they get butts in seats. The last time I watched a film this tonally contrary to the light-hearted romcom romp it was advertised to be was last year’s Joshy: a darkly funny, yet emotionally devastating reflection on themes like grief, addiction, repression, and suicide. Band Aid similarly sweeps genuine emotional trauma under the rug until it can no longer be ignored, but sweetens its bitter medicine with even more of a quirk-friendly premise than Joshy‘s rogue bachelor party shenanigans: the formation of a novelty punk band. The film offers the same exciting swell of watching a fresh musical collaboration come together that was such a joy in last year’s Sing Street, except with a lot more focus on the stop & start failures necessary to make that magic work and a constant Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? mode of bickering romantic cruelty that consistently sours the mood. It’s much more of a personal, slyly devastating work of deep hurt & genuine pain than its quirk-focused advertising (understandably) makes it out to be, a kind of tonal sucker punch that arrives early & often enough to feel like an outright pummeling.

Writer, producer, and first time director Zoe Lister-Jones stars as a failed author & moderately successful Uber driver who’s stuck drifting through a joyless haze. Painfully conscious of her peers’ seemingly successful marriages & constantly bickering with her lazy stoner husband (Adam Pally, who was also in Joshy), she suffers every slight to her confidence, her independence, and her social status as a motherless wife as if it were a violent stab to the heart. Being around friends’ children seems especially painful for her, an anxiety she barely keeps at bay with the help of marijuana & old-fashioned emotional suppression. Couples’ counseling is not working. She seems to be stuck reliving the same fights with her husband over menial bullshit like doing the dishes & not having enough sex while more drastic elephant-in-the-room issues are allowed to fester, unspoken. While stoned at a friend’s kid’s birthday party & avoiding questions like, “When are you guys gonna make one of these things?” from cultish parents her age, she finally rediscovers the one healthy way she can still interact & collaborate with her husband without bickering & wanting to die: art. Music, specifically. As an act of self-actualized therapy, the couple decide to start a band (with the help of their wide-eyed creep of a neighbor, played by Fred Armisen) and turn all of the topics of their daily bickering into playful punk songs. Things get much better from there . . . for a while.

One of the most rewarding aspects of Band Aid is that it doesn’t allow for easy answers in what’s clearly an emotionally complex situation. At first it appears as if the couple’s cheeky songs about diminished sex drives & unwashed dishes are going to magically fix all of their deep-seated emotional pain in a convenient, only-in-movies release of pressure. That infectious spirit of creating art together eventually crumbles, though, and when they inevitably end up fighting again it’s over something much more significant & severe and they go about it in a much crueller way. But that’s okay. This is a film much less about mending a broken relationship than it is about embracing your right to fail. Bands, marriages, and all other kinds of intimate partnerships are difficult collaborations to negotiate, ones where successes can be less frequent than the failures necessary to make them possible. Band Aid is a film about that interpersonal push & pull just as much as it is about internal grief & despair.

Zoe Lister-Jones was not only ambitious in imprinting her auteurist personality in nearly all levels of production on her first feature as a director; she also set out to experiment with the general gender dynamics of a typical film production, indie or otherwise. Band Aid boasts an all-woman crew behind the camera, which has to be some kind of a rarity in film. Although gender dynamics is certainly high on the list of subjects tackled by Band Aid, I’m not sure you can clearly detect a tonal difference in the effect that atypical crew has on the final product. It is an idea worth celebrating & exploring, though, and it’s likely only Lister-Jones herself would be able to fully articulate the difference that dynamic made on bringing her script to life. There’s an undeniable omnipresence of the director’s personal voice throughout the work, not only because she plays the main character & sings all of her on her own songs. Dark humor about ISIS, Nazis, and mental disability offset a lot of the film’s potential twee whimsy. Its focus on the failures inherent to art & romance feels so much more relatably human it should in a film with this kind of a comedic premise. I guess it’d be easy to dismiss Band Aid as the quirky romcom it’s advertised to be if you only engage with its novelty songs & scenes of Armisen doing his usual post-Andy Kaufman schtick, but the film is so much more honest & nakedly sincere than that. It’s an impressively vulnerable work that often transcends its financial means and recognizable genre tropes by exposing an obviously raw nerve, then repeatedly attacking it with joking song lyrics & power chords. If nothing else, I very much respect it for that emotional ambition alone.

-Brandon Ledet

Rough Night (2017)

There’s a distinct brand of mainstream comedy that somehow gathers together every single comedic performer you’d ever want to see in a movie, but fails to deliver on the promise of their shared presence. Rough Night is an enjoyable, mildly amusing comedy that’s biggest fault is proving to be less than the sum of its parts. There’s no reason a film helmed by the writers of Broad City that features performances from people as bizarrely funny as Jillian Bell, Ilanna Glazer, Kate McKinnon, and Eric Andre should be half as tame or restrained as this movie often feels. This goes doubly so considering the film’s letting-loose plot of a bachelorette party weekend that turns deadly. There are plenty of violent, absurdist, and over-sexed impulses simmering in the background of this hard-R summertime delight, but none are pushed to the extremes you’d hope for based on the level of talent involved. The result is still amusing, but it’s difficult not to be disappointed over what could have been.

Scarlett Johanson stars as a total nerd running for political office in what seems like a mild send-up of the Clinton/Trump campaign trail (with a little Anthony Weiner thrown in for flavor). She breaks away from her election effort for a single weekend to meet up with college friends she hasn’t see all together in years for a bachelorette party in Miami. While her fiancee’s bachelor party is a hilariously lame, muted affair, her own last gasp of freedom feels like the hedonistic free-for-all we never got to see in Bridesmaids because of the incident on the plane. Cocaine, apple bongs, and gallons of top shelf cocktails fuel the small group’s debauchery while anxieties over past romances & friendship dynamics inevitably bubble to the surface like a loud & proud belch. Eventually, the party spirals out of control when the women accidentally kill a stripper & attempt to dump the body to avoid arrest, making the whole feel a little like a gender-flipped remake of Very Bad Things remake that absolutely no one asked for. It’s all fairly amusing, but also a little over-familiar and, ultimately, disposable.

It’s possible that I would’ve been able to better enjoy the minor successes of Rough Night with a more enthusiastic audience. The crowd I watched it with were quiet enough for me to clearly hear the ceiling leak in the auditorium and the Tupac biopic screening on the other side of the wall. Even with that muted reaction, I especially enjoyed its callbacks to mid-00s pop culture, including Borat Halloween costumes and a dance routine set to Kelis’s “My Neck, My Back,” which were amusing reminders that I am gradually becoming an old man. I’d also consider the film a solid victory in the noble cause Operation: Make Jillian Bell A Star. Her militant distribution of dick-themed bachelorette merch & maniacally sincere delivery of lines like, “It would mean so much to me if we could do a little cocaine together,” made Bell out to be a clear scene stealer, no easy feat considering the talent that surrounded her. Still, Rough Night could’ve reached much more memorable heights if it has just cranked the volume on the violent, dangerously horny, occasionally absurdist touches that were already hiding in the shadows. The movie’s biggest fault is that it sets up jokes & payoffs you can see coming from an hour away and waits until the last possible second to pull the trigger. If its payoffs were more immediate there’d be more room for them to also be more plentiful (more weirdness! more sex! more accidental fatalities!) and the only thing it really needed to be special is more of what it was already working with.

-Brandon Ledet

Offerings (1989)

It seems silly to seek out a decades-old, cheaply made slasher just to saddle it with a negative review, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the unassuming, disappointingly slight feature Offerings. Anytime I watch one of these decades-old cheapies I’m always rooting for the film to succeed, trying to find something to celebrate. Offerings is the worst kind of disappointment in that way. It promises a lot very early on in terms of its potential as light, bloody entertainment, then punishes you for holding out hope by devolving into a painfully dull waste of time. And now I find myself in the unseemly business of digging a film up just to bury it all over again.

Part of what makes Offerings such a disappointment is its dedication to skating by as a blatant Halloween knockoff. We start with a very young child whose strange, anti-social, serial killer-esque behavior is blamed on his absent, abusive father by a mother who hates the sight of him. He’s similarly tormented & ostracized by neighborhood bullies his age who take a lighthearted prank too far by startling him into falling down a well. Ten years later, the child is a full grown homicidal maniac, with intense facial scarring from the incident, who breaks out of a mental institution to hunt down his childhood tormentors. Everything else is more or less a carbon copy of Michael Myers lore, right down to a score John Carpenter could’ve easily won a lawsuit over.

What’s frustrating about Offerings is that it shows flashes of inspiration that reach far beyond its ultimate Halloween Lite results. The hook of its title, for instance, is that the crazed, vengeful killer torments his bullies by sending them pieces of his victims as “gifts”: a finger, an ear, “sausage” on a pizza, etc. Also, while it’s far short of the meta-commentary of films like New Nightmare or Cabin in the Woods, the film does playfully hint to a kind of horror film self-awareness that could’ve been interesting if pushed a further. While watching TV, one character asks, “How come people in these horror movies always do such stupid things?” In a similar scene, a victim is hung to death outside a living room window while his friend eats popcorn, blissfully unaware. In my favorite bit, the killer ties his first victim down in a garage and sets up various power tools to do the deed, but they fail to deliver due to dead batteries or too-short power chords, so he uses a manually-cranked vice instead.

If Offerings stuck closer to the novelty of its titular premise or fully committed to the meta-comedy of its stray self-aware gags it’d be the exact kind of forgotten horror cheapies I usually strive to champion. As is, the film feels like a dispiriting waste of potential. About halfway through its runtime the killer stops tormenting a single set of “teens” in their confined space setting and the film devolves into an insufferably dull police procedural about tracking the monster down. As for the “teens” themselves, that ten year time jump must’ve been the roughest decade on record; they go from Little Rascals to Little Methadone Clinic in the blink of an eye.

Ultimately, Offerings feels like an excuse for that group of goofballs to down a few beers and hang out with the result of filming a horror movie in the process being treated as an afterthought. Sometimes that kind of hangout cheapie can be effortlessly charming, like with the recent Troma release B.C. Butcher. Sometimes, it can feel like a sloppy, shot-for-its-own-sake home movie, like with Desperate Teenage Lovedolls. Offerings firmly fits in that latter category, but it’s all the more frustrating for occasionally threatening to break free from its Halloween cover version roots and actually put forth a noticeable, praiseworthy effort. God forbid.

-Brandon Ledet

The House on Sorority Row (1983)

If you watch one too many 80s slashers in a row, it’s easy to convince yourself that you know exactly what to expect from every entry in the genre. For every weirdo outlier like Tourist Trap or Slumber Party Massacre II, there’s a thousand generic, by-the-books slashers waiting to lull you into a false sense of complacency. That over-confidence of being a know-it-all audience is exactly what allowed me to be surprised & delighted by the weird twists & turns of the off-kilter slasher The House on Sorority Row. On the surface, the film seems like it’s poised to play exactly like any sorority house slasher you can name, from Sorority House Massacre to the genre spoof in the opening scene of De Palma’s Blow Out. Pulling a third act turn reminiscent of the one in last year’s surprise delight The Boy, however, The House on Sorority Row winds up proudly boasting a more inventive, proudly anarchic spirit than it initially lets on.

A group of sorority sisters throw themselves an unsanctioned graduation party, despite the protests of their head mistress. To get back at the old lady for raining on their drunken parade, the girls stage an elaborate prank that gets out of hand and results in an accidental murder. As there’s only minutes to spare before guests arrive at their planned graduation party, the girls hastily decide to hide the dead body in their algae-covered swimming pool. Long story short, the body disappears from the pool and the girls start dropping off one by one in standard slasher fashion while blissfully unaware partygoers rage around them. The plot you’d expect from this kind of sorority-set slasher winds down about a half hour prior to the end credits, when our final girl finds herself faced with an entirely new, almost otherworldly challenge. Drugged, hallucinating, and used to bait the film’s mysterious killer, her distorted POV affords the film a surreal, over the top conclusion that has nothing to do with the sorority slasher premise, but definitely leaves a memorable impression on the audience.

The memorability of The House on Sorority Row’s horrors is twofold. In its earlier, standard slasher moments, the novelty of an (almost) entirely female cast and the unique murder weapon of a sharp-handled walking cane are enough to set it apart from its closest genre peers. In its much weirder concluding half hour, green screen hallucinations of dissected bodies, spinning objects, creepy clown dolls, and old world gynecology make it out to be even more of an outlier than initially expected. Even without its third act weirdness, though, The House on Sorority Row is an artfully made, carefully considered slasher. Moments like an opening credits dress-up montage or the camera searching for the seven guilty girls’ worried faces at their out of control party or a scene transition from a fired gun to a popped champagne cork all suggest a heightened kind of carefully-considered filmmaking craft that at least hints that there might be something interesting coming down the line for those patient enough to wait for it.

Unfortunately, there is one essential slasher film element lacking here: kills. One of the first post-prank kills is a vicious throat slitting that sets a very chilling tone the film never really lives up to. If it had remained consistent in the brutality & variety of its kills in that way, I have no doubt The House on Sorority Row would be remembered as one of the all-time greats. It’s still memorably distinct as is, though, well worth seeking out for anyone who feels like they’ve already seen all of the worthwhile slashers out there and need to watch something that explores memorably distinct territory within the genre’s often too-strict borders.

-Brandon Ledet

Burning Sands (2017)

Burning Sands is one of those Netflix-distributed indies that premiered at Sundance in January and then promptly resurfaced on streaming after a brief couple months’ gap. I’m sometimes frustrated with this relatively new distribution path. In the case of I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore in particular, it felt a little defeating to watch one of the best films of the year (so far) never even earn the chance to build up word of mouth momentum in a theatrical run before getting lost in the Netflix deluge. In the case of dirt cheap indies like Dig Two Graves and Burning Sands, however, Netflix distribution can be a kind of saving grace. Without being able to stream these kinds of moderate festival circuit pleasers at home, it’s likely audiences would never have direct access to them and they’d slip away into oblivion. The only problem now that they’re readily accessible, though, is getting them to stand out enough so that they’re not lost in the constant flood of digital content.

Burning Sands distinguishes itself from the overcrowded market of digital era indies in the intensity & specificity of its setting. Following the violent vetting process for fraternity pledges at a Historically Black College at the height of the trials & torments of Hell Week, Burning Sands is both a solemn reflection on the toxicity of traditional masculinity and a loose philosophical exploration of how the horrific vestiges of slavery have carried over into modern black identity in America. Set on a college campus named after Frederick Douglass, the movie frequently looks to his academic writing on the horrors of slavery as a window into black fraternity tradition, often with interesting, but vaguely defined results. It’s not a film that consistently wows or provokes contemplation, but when it does choose to crank its intensity in either its physical violence or philosophical prodding, it leaves a long trail of moments & images that stick around long after the credits roll.

Scenes of romantic, familial, and academic struggle threaten to drag Burning Sands down into forgettable melodrama tedium. The movie authentically captures the feel of a college campus, right down to the red cup parties that break out in the most depressingly bare apartment living rooms (complete with an accurate snapshot of the modern rap radio zeitgeist, Future included). Most of the drama staged in that setting can feel a little flat, though. There is a near unbearable amount of tension built in Burning Sands‘s hazing scenes that feels tonally at odds with its freshman year anxieties over grades & girlfriends, to the point where one half of that divide feels inevitably inferior. Still, each kick to the ribs, drunken experiment with branding, and regimented pressure into sexuality hits with full impact and the power of its strength in imagery & tension ultimately outweighs any of its moments of underwhelming melodrama. Burning Sands feels much more interested in the horrors of hazing than it is in fretting over freshman year anxieties and it’s all too easy to see why.

Burning Sands is far from the Hell Week exploitation of last year’s GOAT, but it’s difficult to pinpoint an overarching theme or message it’s trying to convey in its dramatic narrative. At times, it feels like a love letter to the bonds humans make in crisis. At others, it feels like an alarmist picture exposing the methods that manufacture that crisis on college campuses. Themes of slavery, militarism, police harassment, and even flashes of homoeroticism rattle around in its loosely defined moments of dramatic tension without ever landing with a solid thud. It’s possible that a more solidly defined thesis would have earned the film more attention once it hit streaming on Netflix. Honestly, I’d think that the presence of Trevante Rhodes (who was excellent as adult Chiron in last year’s Oscar-winning Moonlight) as one of the fraternity brothers who torment the pledges to test their loyalty would’ve been its best chance for widespread recognition, but the film has seemingly been allowed to slip into immediate VOD obscurity anyway. The extreme specificity in setting & subject and the brutal moments of violent tension lead me to believe that Burning Sands will eventually find its audience, though, maybe even with people who can better make out the function of its central message & dramatic conflict than I have been able to. Even if it never does, it at least floated enough fascinating images & ideas to remain distinctively memorable, which is a modern indie’s first hurdle to clear.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 30: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] The secret of The Silence of the Lambs is buried so deeply that you  might have to give this some thought, but its secret is that Hannibal Lecter is a Good Person. He is the helpless victim of his unspeakable depravities, yes, but to the limited degree that he can act independently of them, he tries to do the right thing.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “If the movie were not so well made, indeed, it would be ludicrous. Material like this invites filmmakers to take chances and punishes them mercilessly when they fail. That’s especially true when the movie is based on best-selling material a lot of people are familiar with. (The Silence of the Lambs was preceded by another Thomas Harris book about Hannibal Lecter, which was made into the film Manhunter.) The director, Jonathan Demme, is no doubt aware of the hazards but does not hesitate to take chances. His first scene with Hopkins could have gone over the top, and in the hands of a lesser actor almost certainly would have.” -from his 1991 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“One key to the film’s appeal is that audiences like Hannibal Lecter. That’s partly because he likes Starling, and we sense he would not hurt her. It’s also because he is helping her search for Buffalo Bill, and save the imprisoned girl. But it may also be because Hopkins, in a still, sly way, brings such wit and style to the character. He may be a cannibal, but as a dinner party guest he would give value for money (if he didn’t eat you). He does not bore, he likes to amuse, he has his standards, and he is the smartest person in the movie.” -from his 2001 review for his Great Movies series

There’s something about Jonathan Demme’s modern classic The Silence of the Lambs that lends itself well to those unsure about horror as a respectable film genre. I found the film endlessly rewatchable as a child (anytime I could sneak away with the family’s not-so-heavily guarded VHS, at least), despite it scaring me shitless. Academy voters in 1992 saw enough of a dramatic thriller in its bones to award it that year’s Oscar for Best Picture, a distinction that’s become increasingly rare for genre films, especially horror. Folks who like to split hairs over categorization would likely not care to hear it described as a horror at all, despite that genre’s drastic overlap with thrillers and this particular film’s violent, disturbing serial killer plot. When Demme recently passed away, many critics’ obituaries made a point to emphasize how much of a humanist filmmaker he was, how much attention he paid to making every character in his films feel like a real human being worthy of the audience’s empathy. You can feel that empathy in a wide range of characters in The Silence of the Lambs, from the in-over-her-head FBI recruit protagonist to her deranged sophisticate cannibal collaborator to the vicious serial killer they hunt down together to his latest victim, a mostly average American teenager. It’d be tempting to attribute all of the film’s cultural respectability to that characters-first/genre-concerns-second ethos, but I think that’s only half the story. The same way that Demme elevated the concert film as a medium in Stop Making Sense, there are formalist qualities to the picture that somewhat successfully distract audiences from the fact that they’re watching a sleazy horror film in the first place.

Jodie Foster stars as a soon-to-be FBI agent who jumps rank just a tad to single-handedly identify, locate, and take down the most wanted serial killer in America. Her unlikely accomplice in this mission is an imprisoned cannibal ex-psychiatrist played by Anthony Hopkins, who hints that he knows the identity of the killer, an ex-patient, but will only drop clues for Foster’s character to discover him for herself. The clock is ticking to bring the investigation to a close, as the killer has recently kidnapped his latest victim, the daughter of a politician, and she only has a few days to live before he skins her body. This plot is just as well-known by by now as the names of the characters who populate it: Agent Sterling, Buffalo Bill, Hannibal Lecter, etc. What’s lost in the remembrance of the murder mystery machinations, however, is just how much care goes into constructing each character, no matter how dangerous, as a recognizable human being. Hopkins plays Dr. Lecter as an ice cold intellectual creep who intentionally cultivates fear for ways he might act out, but still feels compelled to help Agent Sterling in her investigation out of some long-suppressed goodness in what’s left of his heart. Sterling herself commands much of the audience’s sympathies, of course, as she navigates the sexist skepticism of her colleagues in multiple branches of law enforcement who don’t take her seriously. Even the film’s horrific killer, Buffalo Bill, is explained to be a survivor of childhood abuse who’s confused by, but cannot control his own violent tendencies. Although it does so by including some dated psychobabble about trans women being “passive” by nature, the movie even distinguishes Bill’s obsession with wearing women’s skin and presenting female as something entirely separate from transgenderism, avoiding unnecessary transmisogynistic demonization. He’s a hurt, violent killer who the movie affords more sympathy than he probably deserves, considering the brutality of his crimes. It also affords Bill’s latest victim a moment or two of humanizing characterization on her own before she’s abducted, allowing her to be established as a real person and not just a nameless teen girl horror victim. It’s in Demme’s nature to give her that.

Demme’s avoidance of horror’s typical, inhuman sleaze isn’t entirely restricted to his sense of humanist characterization, though. You can feel it in the cinematography by Tak Fujimoto or the costuming by Colleen Atwood, two industry mainstays who elevate the genre proceedings with a sense of class. What really classes up the joint, however, is the orchestral score by Howard Shore, who’s a lot more at home providing sweeping soundtracks for huge productions like The Lord of the Rings or The Aviator than he is conducting a horror film soundtrack. It shows in his choices here, too. Shore’s The Silence of the Lambs score can be effectively tense in moments when Jodie Foster’s protagonist is in immediate danger, but overall feels way too light & classy in its strings arrangements to match its subject. It’s as if Demme employed Shore specifically to make his film sound like an Oscar-worthy drama instead of a sleazy police procedural about a woman-skinning serial killer. One of the most consistent pleasures of The Silence of the Lambs for me is in watching Jodie Foster & Anthony Hopkins try to out over-act each other. Foster’s thick Southern accent & Hopkins’s *tsk tsk* brand of mannered scenery chewing have always been a neck & neck race for most heightened/ridiculous for me, but this most recent rewatch has presented a third competitor in this struggle: Shore. The composer’s string arrangements actively attempt to match the soaring stage play line deliveries from Foster & Hopkins, who similarly seem to be playing for the back row. The rabid horror fan in me wishes that the score would ease up and leave a more sparse atmosphere for the movie’s genre film sleaze to fully seep into, but the more I think about it, the more Shore’s music feels symbiotic with the lofty Greek tragedy tones of Demme’s performers. I’m still a little conflicted about it even as I write this.

All of the orchestral arrangements & cautiously humanist character work in the world can’t save this film from its horror genre tendencies, though. The morbid true crime fascination with the story of real life woman-skinner Ed Gein automatically drags the film down into a kind of lurid horror film sleaze. Buffalo Bill’s fictional lair where he recreates Grin’s crimes is a feat of of horror genre production design, complete with creepy exotic bugs (Death’s Head moths) & mannequins with blank expressions. In two separate scenes, one on an airplane and one outside Lector’s cell, Demme & Fujimoto (both vets of the Roger Corman film school) utilize a harshly contrasted blue & red lighting dynamic closely associated with the horror genre because of hallmarks like giallo & Creepshow. The film’s climax, in which he Buffalo Bill hunts Agent Sterling in the darkness of his own basement with the help of night vision goggles, is so iconic to the horror genre that it was aped in two releases just last year: Lights Out & Don’t Breathe. Demme even makes room for a cameo from legendary horror film producer Roger Corman (who gave the director his start on the women in prison exploitation pic Caged Heat) as the head of the FBI. Of course, the most obvious horror element of all is Anthony Hopkins’s over-the-top, but chilling performance as man-eater Hannibal Lector, whose visage in a straight jacket & muzzle is just as iconic in the horror villain pantheon as Jason Voorhees’s hockey mask or Freddy Krueger’s fedora & striped sweater. Perhaps The Silence of the Lambs is a little too dramatic & not nearly cruel enough to be strictly considered an exploitative genre film, but I still smell horror’s sleazy stink all over its basic DNA. I also love the genre too much to have its only Best Picture Oscar taken away from it based on Demme’s empathy or Shore’s music alone.

It’s difficult to look back to The Silence of the Lambs for new insights this many years after its release, since it feels like it’s always been a part of my life. Even the film’s insular FBI politics, hyper-nerd experts, and onscreen text feel highly influential in the basic aesthetic of The X-Files, a show that had a huge influence on my pop media tastes as a young’n. I can look back to Demme’s film now for moments of Agent Sterling navigating shady sex politics that wouldn’t have meant much to me as a kid: suffering flirtations from superiors, attempting to remain stoic while prisoners harass her, boarding an elevator full of her towering meatheads of fellow recruits. That’s not really what surprised me on this revisit, though. Mostly, I was taken aback by how well the film masks it sleazy horror genre traits. It used to feel like such an anomaly to me that such a grotesque & terrifying film had won a major award usually reserved for heartfelt dramas about real life historical figures or the tragically disadvantaged. I fully understand how it got past the Oscars’ usual genre bias now. Not only does the film look and sound more like the films the Academy usually falls in love with, but Demme brings the same empathetically tragic, true to life drama to his characters that typifies Oscar winners. Whether they’re too young to be watching the film on a smuggled VHS or too old & stuffy to typically engage with its serial killer subject matter, the film has a way of easing audiences into a kind of horror film sleaze that’s usually reserved for exploitation genre hounds. It’s a horrific and often over-acted picture that shouldn’t feel nearly as prestigious or as classy as it does, but Demme somehow packaged The Silence of the Lambs as something enduringly endearing. More unlikely yet, I find it oddly comforting, like meeting up with an old friend in desperate need of intensive therapy.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4.5/5, 90%)

Next Lesson: Goodfellas (1990)

-Brandon Ledet

Howard Kremer’s #JawsReelTime Project

Stand-up comedian Howard Kremer has a recurring bit on his weekly pop culture podcast Who Charted? (co-hosted by fellow comedy mainstay and Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ showrunner Kulap Vilaysack) called “Jaws is Better” that’s consistently hilarious, although spontaneously employed. Basically, if a guest on the show happens to mention the title of their favorite movie, Kremer’s “Jaws is Better” theme music plays and the comedian immediately launches into a tirade that “proves” that his own favorite film, the classic Steven Spielberg creature feature Jaws (1975), is objectively “better.” I don’t personally have much of a connection with Jaws. I’ve only seen the movie once, in my 20s, screened at the Prytania as part of a Shark Week-themed midnight movie series. I also fall firmly on the wrong side of Kremer’s Oceans Vs. Space dichotomy, which suggests that movies set in Earth’s waters are automatically better than sci-fi “make-em-ups” set outside Earth’s atmosphere. Still, the consistency & conviction of the bit always tickles me and I’m excited that Kremer lately seems to be determined to take it to another level in a project he’s calling #JawsReelTime.

The events depicted in the film Jaws occur over an eleven day span from June 28 to July 8 on the calendar. Kremer’s proposition is for Jaws fans (or just any dedicated “Chartists”) to watch the movie in sectioned-off parts on the corresponding calendar day those (fictional) events took place, effectively watching it “in real time.” From what I can tell, the rigidity of this eleven day timeline is much clearer in the novel Jaws is based on than it is in the movie version. It’s still an easily achievable goal, though, one that offers a new way to look at a modern classic that’s already been meticulously dissected by those who’ve seen it many more times than I have (i.e. most people). The project starts off easily enough, with landmarks like Fourth of July celebrations to guide the way. Where #JawsReelTime gets very tricky is in the film’s climactic shark hunt, a three day journey without clear makers differentiating between its individual calendar dates. Kremer has suggested “winging it” without timestamps to help determine where to stop & start watching on each day, rightly explaining that it’ll help participants keep a fresh perspective. However, for a Jaws novice such as myself, a guided, timestamped timeline might be necessary to keep the project in order. Otherwise, I’d likely get lost at sea, like so many Richard Dreyfusses past.

I encourage you to join us for the #JawsReelTime project! At the very least, give a listen to Kremer explaining the project in recent episodes of Who Charted? (episodes 340 & 341 have the most detailed discussions of it so far). If you, like me, need a timestamped timeline of the events in Jaws to help guide your way, I did my best to create one below by cross-referencing its plot points as detailed on themovietimeline.com with the clearest corresponding scene breaks I could find in the film. Again, the divisions between these events become a little muddled in the third act, but I did my best to create an accurate game plan here. I’m not sure what, if anything, watching what Kremer would call the perfect “Summah” movie this way will add to its overall experience, but I’m excited to find out and will be discussing the results with Britnee on our own podcast soon after the #JawsReelTime project concludes. If you’re joining us for the journey, be sure to hashtag your progress #JawsReelTime on Twitter so Kremer knows he’s not alone on the waters, hunting down a monstrously huge shark all by his lonesome.

June 28 (0:00-5:05): Chrissie Watkins is killed by a shark while skinny-dipping.

June 29 (5:05-18:39): Alex M. Kintner is killed by a shark.

June 30 (18-39-23:01): A $3000 bounty is placed on the shark.

July 1 (23:01-27:53): Michael Brody’s birthday.

July 2 (27:53-50:09): A caught tiger shark is shown to the public but does not contain human remains.

July 3 (50:09-53:27): Mayor Vaughn refuses to close the beach.

July 4 (53:27-1:07:02): The 50th Annual Regatta is interrupted by a shark.

July 5 (1:07:02-1:20:39): Martin Brody and Matt Hooper sail with Quint in search of the shark.

July 6 (1:20:39-1:36:23): The search for the shark continues.

July 7 (1:36:23-1:50:01): The shark damages the boat’s hull.

July 8 (1:50:51-2:03:55): Quint dies and the shark is blown up.

Have fun! And remember, “Don’t go in the water.”

-Brandon Ledet

The Icy Road from Hip Hop to Nu Metal

After watching Cool as Ice, our Movie of the Month for June, I became more interested in Vanilla Ice than ever before. He’s so much more than a one-hit-wonder with terrible pants. He actually does have talent. There’s something about Vanilla Ice that’s just so mysterious & strange and it’s pulling me in. While on my Vanilla Ice high during our Movie of the Month viewing, Brandon mentioned that Vanilla Ice dabbled in some nu metal during the late 1990s. I absolutely love nu metal, so I was determined to find out more about nu metal Vanilla Ice.

In 1998, Vanilla Ice aka Robert Matthew Van Winkle, released his third studio album, Hard to Swallow.  The edgy album cover features a mirror image of a nude woman with bloody eyes surrounded by roses. How did the creator of “Ice Ice Baby” get to this point? Well, it turns out that a whole lot happened to Vanilla Ice after his one hit wonder faded away. He got heavy into drugs (mainly heroin) and jet skiing, but he was still attempting to stay relevant in the music world. Thus, an unsuccessful nu metal album was created.

I listened to the entirety of Hard to Swallow, and while it isn’t by any means a great album, it does have some redeeming qualities.

Track 1 – “Living” (0:00): The song begins with a Jonathan Davis-like scat before very angry, violent lyrics start spewing out of Vanilla Ice, or as he refers to himself in this song, “Iceman.” It’s pretty awful, but it gets even worse at the chorus where Iceman starts to babble on in a Jamaican accent about not having control of his life; at least that’s what I think he’s trying to say. When looking up the lyrics for the song on multiple websites, majority of the lyrics were transcribed as “incomprehensible,” and that sums up this track perfectly.

Track 2 – “Scars” (3:45): The root of Iceman’s anger definitely comes out in this track, and it’s his abusive & absent father. After he says his father threw him out of a window for watching TV, I can’t help but feel for this guy. He also gives a shout out to Mama Ice for doing her best considering the circumstances, which is really sweet. His “scars” are what motivates him to be a better family man. There are so many uplifting messages hidden behind the mildly terrible guitar riffs.

Track 3 – “Ecstasy”: Nine seconds of instrumental confusion that’s nine seconds too long.

Track 4 – “Fuck Me” (8:51): Featuring vocals from Casey Chaos (co-writer for the System of a Down hit “B.Y.O.B.”), this song is a whole lot of fun and very catchy. “Fuck” is said at least every 5 seconds, so it’s obvious that he’s trying really hard to blend into the nu metal crowd. Ice makes fun of himself throughout this entire song with lyrics like “Ice ice baby, ice ice biatch” and “Fuck Vanilla Ice! He sucks! He eats shit!”

Track 5 – “Valley of Tears”: A guy that sounds a lot like Johnny Cash utters a short yet poignant phrase in this short interlude.

Track 6 – “Zig Zag Stories” (13:36): I was waiting for a song about smoking weed, and it only took me six tracks to get to it. Ice pretty much raps about smoking weed and not abusing it, so it’s almost like a liberal D.A.R.E. course. There’s a part in the song where he sings “You know I like to fly,” and it sounds a lot like when Fred Durst says “If only we could fly” in my favorite Limp Bizkit song, “My Generation.” This song came out two years prior to Limp Bizkit’s “My Generation,” so did Fred Durst rip off Vanilla Ice? Say it isn’t so!

Track 7 – “Too Cold” (19:03): Lucky number seven! “Too Cold” is the only song from this album that made it to radio. It’s a nu metal remake of Vanilla Ice’s one-hit-wonder “Ice Ice Baby,” and it’s a damn good song, at least by nu metal standards. Turning a cheesy 90s hip-hop anthem into an alternative hit really shows off Ice’s musical genius.

Track 8 – “Prozac” (22:27): Honestly, this song is pure garbage. How did he legally get away with writing a song called Prozac? Maybe it was so bad and unknown that the major pharmaceutical company never caught him? Watch out Iceman, they may be coming for you.

Track 9 – “S.N.A.F.U.” (26:55): S.N.A.F.U. stands for “situation normal all fucked up”. What is that even supposed to mean? He sounds like a clown on speed during the chorus, and I can’t even handle it. Jimmy Pop from The Bloodhound Gang lends some of his talent on this track, but it’s not enough to save this song from being a piece of crap.

Track 10 – “A.D.D.” (31:42): This is one of my favorites for sure, and that’s probably because it’s heavily influenced by The Deftones. Ice strays away from his rap rock vocals and reveals his softer, more emotional side. He, of course, has some intense rap rock moments in this song, but it’s tastefully done.

Track 11 – “Stompin’ Through the Bayou” (36:57): The next time I visit my parents down the bayou, I am blaring the hell out of this. I would’ve loved this song so much when I was an angry teen living in Larose, LA. This song was made to be played while throwing back a few beers around a bonfire and smoking a shit ton of menthols.

Track 12 – “The Horny Song” (40:21): This track was really hard to get through because it’s pretty much a douchebag anthem. I didn’t expect much from a song titled “The Horny Song,” but I hate it more than I initially thought I would. There are actually lyrics in the song that state, “All I wanna do is hump with it and make you scream, and eat you up as I floss with your g-string.” It’s just the worst.

Track 13 – “Freestyle” (44:55): C-Note, Cyco, and 2-Hype are rappers that are featured in the last song on the Hard to Swallow album. I’ve never heard of them, and while they’re not the completely terrible, they’re not very memorable. This song isn’t very alternative like the other songs on the album. It’s a trip back to Vanilla Ice’s weird gangster rap stage that occurred after “Ice Ice Baby” and before Hard to Swallow, best captured by the video to “Roll Em Up.”

All in all, Hard to Swallow isn’t really a terrible album. There are some crappy songs, but there are also a couple of gems. I will be adding “Stompin’ In the Bayou,” “Fuck Me,” “Zig Zag Stories,” “A.D.D.,” and “Too Cold” to my music collection very soon.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this episode of the We Love to Watch podcast that covers similar themes of artful commercialism, and our look at how it functions as a remake of the Marlon Brando classic The Wild One (1953).

-Britnee Lombas

Dig Two Graves (2017)

It’s both fascinating and depressing how many minor indie films can slip through the cracks of theatrical distribution after first appearing for a festival run. The digitization of the film industry has democratized production to the point where almost anyone can make a movie, but opening the floodgates that way has meant that it’s much more difficult for a feature to stand out & be seen. The Gothic mystery thriller Dig Two Graves, for instance, premiered at the New Orleans Film Fest in 2014, but didn’t earn a “select theaters” release until nearly just three years later. The modestly budgeted film is now lurking, just a few months later, in the massive heap of under-publicized indies that eventually all find their way to Netflix. In some ways it’s easier to watch than ever before, but it’s also a victim of a distribution method that does it no favors in terms of visibility. It’s a shame too, because it’s actually a fairly engaging work that could be commercially viable with the right push.

There are two dueling timelines in Dig Two Graves. The film opens with 1940s cops dumping two bodies off a cliff into a backwoods river. It then jumps to two teen siblings standing at the same cliff in the 1970s. Unable to convince his sister to plunge with him, the older brother leaps to the water below on his own, never to resurface. The sister obsesses over this disappearance and is hurt that her family and community is able to move on. Her story starts to converge with the opening 1940s timeline from there, as she’s offered a proposition from old-timey gypsy vagabonds who promise to bring her brother back to life through black magic in exchange for the life of her schoolyard friend. The division between the 40s and 70s timelines loses its rigidity as she struggles with the implications of the magic that could bring her brother back. It’s a classic Southern Gothic tale of supernatural revenge that just happens to be set in the Midwest.

The pitfalls of revenge and the cycles of history repeating itself aren’t exactly novel territory for a mystery thriller to explore, but Dig Two Graves does a great job of visually distinguishing itself while remaining narratively familiar. Snakes, carnivals, magic tricks, the eeriness of the woods, and the hallmarks of hillbilly occultism all afford the film the feel of a strange bedtime story that resurfaces in your nightmares through half-remembered images. Jars of homemade moonshine and the field dressing of deer ground its supernatural story in a sense of real world brutality, while the lead vagabond’s battered top hat gives him a kind of Babadook quality. This is the exact kind of film I would have loved to have caught at a young enough age so that its specific images haunted me more than the mechanics if its central mystery; I’m thinking specifically of my relationship with The Lady in White. Still, even for an adult audience Dig Two Graves packs plenty of visually-triggered chills and can be technically impressive in its confident drifts between its two disparate temporal settings.

One of the biggest questions Dig Two Graves raises for me is just how many of these well-made indies are slipping through the distribution cracks and not even reaching Netflix. I even attended the 2014 NOFF where this film premiered (it’s where I saw Wetlands) and I’ve never heard of this film. I’ve had movies from subsequent NOFF screenings crack my Top Films of the Year lists, never to be heard of again in wide distribution. This is a strange time we’re living in for pop culture media, but I’m glad films like Dig Two Graves can at least find a way to get made even if they have to later struggle to be seen.

-Brandon Ledet

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)

It’s always at least a little frustrating when all a movie does is affirm things you already know. For instance, I already knew from the first film in William Beaudine’s career-concluding Weird West double bill, Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, that I wasn’t likely to enjoy its marquee mate Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Indeed, my second trip to that well was even less rewarding than the first and I had to question exactly why I even do these things to myself, especially since I already knew going in that its title was bound to be its best attribute. That wasn’t my most depressing reaffirmation watching Frankenstein’s Daughter, however. What really got to me was once again facing a truth about myself as an audience that never goes away: I will greedily gobble up any scraps of horror genre schlock put in front of me, but most Westerns put me to sleep, regardless of quality.

Of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, I wrote that the Western end of the film’s horror-Western divide felt like a Halloween-themed episode of Gunsmoke or Bonanza. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter similarly mirrors the lifeless, going-through-the-motions tedium of televised Western serials whenever its titular horror villain is offscreen. It also makes the problem worse by stretching out these gun-slinging adventures to much longer extremes than Beaudine’s other Weird West picture. At the opening of the film I was foolishly excited that it may be an improvement from Billy the Kid Versus Dracula because it begins in Lady Frankenstein’s lab as she experiments on a dead body using her grandfather’s ancient recipe. That excitement soon faded as I realized this is more so a picture about Jesse James’s travels as a pistol-shootin’ romantic.

Two scientists from Vienna, including the titular Lady Frankenstein, set up shop in a small Mexican village to take advantage of two of their most precious resources: electrical storms & disposable laborers (you know, human children). Lady Frankenstein’s experiments in the old abandoned mission she converts to a lab packed with sciency bleep bloop machines have no concern for conquering death, but rather create a strong, mind-controlled slave out of the local undead. Unfortunately, the cruelty in her preposterous form of sci-fi colonialism is abandoned for most of the film’s (very short) runtime to follow the American man who eventually does her in: Jesse James. James’s story is split between planning a bank robbery and getting stuck between the romantic intentions of a local Mexican woman & Lady Frankenstein herself. Neither end of that divide is half as interesting as Lady Frankenstein’s experiments, cheap thrills that have been better pulled off in countless films that are far more entertaining than this one.

If there’s any delight to be found in Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, it’s in the film’s disinterest in maintaining its own sense of world-building. Just like how the vampire in Billy the Kid Versus Dracula is never once referred to as Dracula, Frankenstein’s “daughter” in the film is actually the mad scientist’s granddaughter. Also, when Lady Frankenstein finally creates a successful undead mind-slave out of Jesse James’s hunky buddy, she names the monster Igor for some unknown reason. I guess the production design or the line delivery or a classic “Why? Why?! WHY?!!!!!” reaction made stray moments of the movie humorous, but it never lived up to the potential of its real life outlaw meets supernatural threat premise. I suppose my familiarity with its sister film should’ve meant I already knew that it wouldn’t. I got tricked, once again, into thinking the delights of its schlocky horror elements or its ridiculous title could outweigh the tedium of watching a tedious mid-60s Western. I sorta already knew better, but I watched it anyway and learned nothing in the process.

-Brandon Ledet