When I visited a close friend during post-Katrina exile in their home state of Alabama, one of their favorite ways to pass the time was listening to a swap meet radio show that negotiated a buy-sell-trade market of second-hand items among their audience. It was a fascinating listen, not only for the absurdism & obscurity of the items being bartered, but also because of the eccentric personalities of the people who’d call in to haggle over them. That memory flooded back to me watching the documentary/narrative hybrid film Socks on Fire, which disrupts its central drama with reenactments of that exact call-in swap meet show, deployed as Greek-chorus chapter breaks. Even more so than its subjects/characters endlessly chanting “Roll tide!” and dressing in crimson red, that radio show device placed me in its Alabama setting with an uncanny specificity I never thought possible, considering it’s a state I’ve only visited a handful of times in my life.
As its title promises, Socks on Fire opens with flaming socks pinned to a backyard clothesline, with filmmaker-poet Bo McGuire narrating questions of what you’re supposed to do with a loved one’s leftover possessions after they pass away. What to do with his deceased grandmother’s used socks has a clear-enough answer: burn ’em. It’s much trickier for the family to decide what to do with her lifelong home, of which she did not leave a living will to assign possession to any of her surviving children or grandchildren. The most obvious answer is to hand the empty house over to McGuire’s uncle, a near-destitute drag queen who doesn’t have another place to live. McGuire’s fiercely homophobic aunt opposes that plan, despite her supposedly Christian values, and viciously fights to leave her brother homeless. McGuire uses the documentary as an excuse to prod at how the siblings’ relationship got to be so poisoned in the first place, and how that friction distorts his own sense of place as a gay artist in his insular Alabama hometown.
I want to describe Socks on Fire as a Southern-fried revision of this year’s auto-documentary Madame, but that doesn’t quite capture the camp or sardonicism of its humor. It operates more like an earnest version of the over-the-top Southern theatrics of Sordid Lives, played like a tell-all airing of a family’s dirty laundry instead of a sitcom. Bo McGuire illustrates his sordid family history with a mixed-media approach, breaking from traditional documentary storytelling with photo album collages, home video tape distortions, fine art photography of suspended household objects, and poetic monologues that ominously refer to decades of conflicts that have gnarled his family tree. It’s when his uncle & fellow queens start re-creating those conflicts in camped-up drag routines that the movie touches on something really special, though. Turning his homophobic aunt into a drag character was an especially inspired choice, and it’s one that clues you into McGuire’s deliciously fucked up boundaries between humor & heartbreak.
I’m not entirely convinced that Socks on Fire is about the disputes over McGuire’s grandmother’s estate, so much as it’s about his own relationship with his isolated hometown. The swap-meet radio show, the Steel Magnolias-style trips to the hair salon, and the awed references to Reba McEntire as a living god are all tied into his aunt & uncle’s battle over a home that only one of them needs, but they feel more personal to Bo McGuire as the narrator than they feel relevant to that story. By the time he collects all the small-town women who shaped his life & persona for a single photoshoot, it’s clear that he’s mostly returning to that place of origin to uncover something about himself, not necessarily about his family. It’s all hyper-specific, intensely intimate, and playfully experimental in its internal visual language, which is pretty much all I ever ask for out of a movie. It’s a privilege to be invited into McGuire’s boozy Southern psyche like this, an old-fashioned flavor of Alabama hospitality.
Of the three low-budget, low-profile indies I caught as virtual selections from this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, I did not expect my favorite would be the crossgender body-swap comedy. In Homebody, a gender-questioning 9-year-old boy discovers the meditative power to inhabit the body of his adult-woman babysitter and lives a day in her literal shoes. It’s a premise you’d expect to find in a 1980s sex comedy or in amateur online erotica, but here it’s handled with an innocence & sweetness that disarms its potential for moral or political disaster. Four years ago, Your Name.kicked open the door for more thoughtful, earnest gender-swap comedies to saunter through, and this is the first movie I’ve seen take advantage of that opening so far. It makes sense that delicate, modernized approach to the genre would come from a film festival acquisition and not a mainstream comedy, so let’s appreciate this sweet little movie before the inevitable live-action Hollywood remake of Your Name. spoils the mood.
Relative newcomer Colby Minifie puts in an A+ slapstick performance as the babysitter host-body in this possession story. Her client is a “Wells For Boys” type indoor kid who’s obsessed with his babysitter in a way that extends beyond the boundaries of a typical childhood crush into an intense jealousy & idolization. A few quick YouTube tutorials later, and he’s using “free spirit” transcendental meditation to inhabit her body, living a casual afternoon as an adult woman. Meanwhile, her consciousness is locked away in a Sunken Place limbo, slowly emerging to coach him through the trickier parts of living in her body before their proper places are righted. The scope of the picture is intimately small & mostly guarded from danger, but it doesn’t shy away from the squirmier curiosities children have when figuring out their relationships with their gender & their bodies. This particular kid indulges in crayon illustrations of his vore fantasies, carefully listens to adults piss from the outside of locked bathroom doors, and inadvertently invites his babysitter’s boyfriend to hook up while he’s piloting her body – all uncomfortable glimpses into his private psyche. For the most part, though, you just hope he has a nice afternoon exploring his feelings & identity on the other side of the gender divide, hopefully without ruining this sweet woman’s life in the process.
Homebody makes an impressive impact, considering its limited means. Director Joseph Sackett wrings a lot of visual vibrancy out of the crayon drawings & YouTube meditation tutorials that illustrate his protagonist’s gender journey. The movie also would not work at all if not for the talent of Minifie in her dual role as babysitter & client, clearly defined as two separate personae through the subtleties of her physical presence. It’s a movie that could very easily sour its own mood with a tonal or political misstep. It’s also one that could allow itself to be reductively summed up as “Freaky Friday meets My Life in Pink“. It’s got a lot more going on than that sales pitch would imply, though, especially as an intimate character study of a highly specific type of child that doesn’t tend to get a lot of screentime. Overall, it’s a wonderfully earnest exploration of childhood gender identity & general obsessiveness. It was also the highlight discovery of this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, at least for me.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Britnee and Brandon discuss A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story (1992), a three-hour, two-movie “event” that earned notoriety through frequent re-run broadcasts on the Lifetime network.
02:00 Fatal Charm (1990) 07:30 The Deadly Look of Love (2000) 14:30 Censor (2021) 18:35 The Mad Women’s Ball (2021)
22:05 A Woman Scorned (1992) 39:32 Her Final Fury (1992)
As you would likely assume, the COVID-19 pandemic has sabotaged my usual filmgoing routine during the New Orleans Film Society’s annual New Orleans Film Festival. In a typical year, I fill my NOFF schedule with a dozen or more low-profile independent films that I likely wouldn’t be able to see on the big screen (or see at all) outside a festival environment. I’ll zip around the city for a week solid, cramming in 3-4 no-budget titles a day, the more esoteric the better. I tend to avoid most of the big-name movie premieres at NOFF every year – both because those films are likely to be widely distributed to local theater chains in a few months anyway, and because the events are time-sucks that keep me from catching the smaller, weirder titles that will not screen in any other local venue. The pandemic shifted those priorities greatly for me, though. As I’ve been going to the movies a lot less frequently this year, the appeal of seeing a film festival screening of a major release with a masked, vaccinated crowd instead of gambling that I might be comfortable seeing it at the multiplex in a couple months is much less resistible. And so, my participation in the 2021 edition of the New Orleans Film Festival was most boldly defined by attending the city’s premieres of three Awards Season prestige pictures, the exact thing I usually avoid during this ritual.
I will still do my best to individually review the few smaller NOFF selections that I watched at home on the festival’s virtual platform, since those no-distro titles are the ones that can most use the attention. Since the three Spotlight Films I attended in person will most likely be discussed to death in the coming months by professional publications, I’m okay just grouping them here in bite size quick-take reviews. As always, we’ll also provide an audio round-up of all the films we caught at this year’s festival on an upcoming episode of The Swampflix Podcast in the coming days. Some traditions are worth maintaining, pandemic or no. For now, here’s a brief round-up of all the major spotlight releases I caught at this year’s NOFF.
The most thematically on-point selection for this year’s New Orleans Film Festival was definitely C’mon C’mon, which was highlighted with a lavish red-carpet premiere at The Orpheum. The film was an obvious programming choice for that festival-opener treatment because the city of New Orleans features prominently in its cross-generational road trip narrative, which visits—in order—Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and, finally, N.O. Director Mike Mills was in attendance to gush about the locals who collaborated on the picture, especially the New Orleanians who trusted him to interview their children on-camera about their visions of what they expect the future will be like.
While that choice to highlight a (partially) local production in one of the city’s most gorgeous venues makes total sense thematically, I do think the presentation clashed with the film’s low-key nature. I walked out Mills’s previous film wowed by his concise encapsulation of subjects as wide-spanning as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be “a good man” in modern times, the shifts in the status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For all of C’mon C’mon‘s interviews with real-life kids about the daunting subject of The Future, it’s mostly just a road trip movie where a socially awkward uncle (Joaquin Phoenix at his most subdued) bonds with his socially awkward son. It’s about the same thing a lot of low-key indie dramas are about: how difficult it is to meaningfully connect with the fellow human beings in your life, which is a much smaller scope than what I’m used to from this director.
Since C’mon C’mon is a lot more contained & intimate than either Beginnersor 20th Century Women, it never approaches the heights of what Mills can do at his best. Still, it’s pretty darn charming as one of those heartfelt friendship stories where a precocious child drags a lonely grump out of their shell. And I love that you can feel Mills falling in love with New Orleans in real time in the third act, especially in a brief sequence set during a walking parade. He looked genuinely inspired by the city on that stage.
The other two Spotlight screenings I caught at this year’s fest were staged at AMC Elmwood – a very clear vision of what it would’ve been like to see them presented outside of the fest. Of the Elmwood screenings, the title I was most stoked to see was Sean Baker’s latest black comedy Red Rocket, since his previous film The Florida Project ranked among my personal favorite films of the 2010s (several spots below Mills’s 20th Century Women). Red Rocket did not disappoint, but it did leave me in a worse mood than Baker’s previous two features, which are much sweeter despite dwelling in the same bottomless pits of economic desperation.
Former MTV VJ Simon Rex stars as a down-on-his-luck pornstar who returns to his hometown in rural Texas to recover from his rock-bottom fallout in Los Angeles. From the opening seconds of the film, Rex chatters & schemes at a brutally unrelenting pace, weaponizing his conman charm (and gigantic dick) to climb the local drug-ring ladder at the expense of everyone he encounters – including his closest family members and innocent neighborhood teens. The only moment of relief from his sociopathic motormouth is when the community joins forces to shout “Shut the fuck up” into his face in unison. The film boasts all the D.I.Y. visual splendor & infectiously rambunctious energy that typify a Sean Baker film, but they’re re-routed into a stomach-turning, pitch-black character study of Beach Bum-level proportions.
In its broadest terms, Red Rocket is just another bleak poverty-line comedy from Baker, exactly what you’d expect from him. It’s just that this time it’s more of a feel-bad hangout than a nonstop plummet into chaos, and the protagonist is deeply unlikeable instead of charmingly vulgar. It’s like a goofier, laidback version of Good Time, where you feel terrible for laughing while a desperate scumbag exploits every poor soul in their path just to keep their own head slightly above water. It really slows down to make you squirm between the punchlines. I didn’t appreciate it as much as The Florida Project or Tangerine, where you are invited to love Baker’s protagonists for their misbehavior, but at least he’s not repeating himself, nor shrinking away from what makes his work divisive.
While the appeal of the other two NOFF Spotlight selections I caught this year was the previous work of the creatives behind them, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was drawn to the third & final film on my schedule mainly because of its exclusivity. I’m generally a fan of Sean Baker & Mike Mills, but the only other film I’ve seen from Apichatpong Weerasethakul left me dead cold. What drew me to his latest slow-cinema arthouse drama, Memoria, was less the artist behind it and more the William Castle-style gimmickry of its distribution. A large part of the appeal of film festivals is having access to movies I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. Memoria fits that bill perfectly: a challenging head-scratcher indie film that may never play in New Orleans again.
In a publicity-generating power move, Memoria‘s distributor Neon has announced that the film will “never” be presented on a streaming service or physical media. It will instead perpetually “travel” in a “never-ending” theatrical release that will only play on one screen in one city at a time. Personally, I very much value the novelty of attending an Event Movie right now. It’s been a lackluster year for me, so I appreciate a little carnival barker razzle dazzle on the arthouse calendar, luring marks like myself who don’t even enjoy the director’s previous work into the circus tent just to feel like I’m witnessing something special. I also recognize the pretension & elitism of that release strategy, so I was proud of the NOFF audience for outright laughing at the explanation of it during the festival’s pre-recorded intro. That moment of communal mockery turned out to be one of the precious few highlights of the experience, unfortunately.
Memoria stars Tilda Swinton as a Scottish academic who’s spiritually adrift in Colombia, haunted by her sister’s mysterious illness and an even more mysterious sound that only she can hear. Much of the film consists of non-sequitur tangents & intentionally overlong shots of its star sitting in still silence, as seems to be Apichatpong’s M.O. I had about the same level of engagement with this film as I had with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: short bursts of baffled awe drowning in a bottomless sea of boredom. Both films have exactly one scene that I flat-out love (a tense family dinner at a restaurant here & the catfish encounter in Boonmee) but for the most part were decidedly Not For Me. I was practically begging for Memoria to end by its final half-hour, cursing myself for being suckered into the theater by its “never-ending” exhibition gimmickry. Taking chances on difficult-to-access art films that make you feel intellectually bankrupt for not “getting” them is a quintessential film festival experience, though, and it oddly felt nice to be let down in that distinctly familiar way. Made me miss the before times, may they soon return.
When I was a teenager, I thought of Wes Anderson as a singular genius who made esoteric art films for in-the-know sophisticates. In my thirties, I now see him for what he actually is: a populist entertainer. The fussed-over dollhouse dioramas that typify Anderson’s visual style often distract from the qualities that make his films so popular & rewatchable: they’re funny. Laughing my way through his new high-style anthology comedy The French Dispatch felt like a rediscovery of the heart & humor that always shine in Anderson’s work but are often forgotten in retrospect as we discuss the consistency of his visual quirks. People often complain about how visually lazy mainstream comedies are, and here’s a film packed with Hollywood Celebrities where every scene is overloaded with gorgeous visuals and hilarious jokes. You can access it at practically any strip mall multiplex, right alongside the superhero & animated-animal sequels that otherwise crowd the marquee. No one else is making films exactly like Anderson’s, but everyone stands a chance of being entertained by them.
Judging by the wraparound segments of The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson appears to be self-aware of his usefulness in presenting Art Film aesthetics to wide audiences. The titular literary magazine is written by high-brow artsy types in the fictional town of Ennui, France, but is published as a newspaper insert in the farmlands of Kansas. The film is structured like a magazine layout, with light humorous moodsetters, standalone articles of in-depth culture writing, and a heartfelt obituary to cap it all off. The deceased is the magazine’s editor, whose death makes the entire film feel like a love letter to the lost art of editing at large, in the age of ad-driven clickbait production. Mostly, though, it’s all just a platform for rapidfire joke deliveries from talented celebrities dressed up in gorgeous costumes & sets. The anthology structure makes it play like a warmer, more frantic version of Roy Andersson’s sketch comedies, except the presence of household names like Frances McDormand & Benicio Del Toro means that more than a couple dozen people will actually watch it. And they’ll laugh. The French Dispatch may be more-of-the-same from Wes Anderson, but it really helped clarify how much I value him as a comedic filmmaker – even if he’d likely rather be referred to as a “humorist”.
Scrolling through this ensemble comedy’s massive cast list, it’s easy to distinguish which new additions to the Wes Anderson family feel at home among the returning players (i.e., Jeffrey Wright as a James Baldwin stand-in) vs. which ones were invited to the party merely because they’re celebrities (i.e., Liev Schreiber as the talk show host who interviews Wright). It’s much more difficult to single out which performer is the film’s MVP. Tilda Swinton is the funniest; Henry Winkler is the most surprising; Benicio del Toro is the most emotionally affecting. It’s likely, though, that the film’s true MVP is newcomer Timothée Chalamet as a scrawny political idealist who incites a vague yet violent student’s revolution on the streets of Ennuii with no clear political goal beyond the fun of youthful rebellion. It’s not that Chalamet is any stronger of a presence than this fellow castmates, but his Teen Beat heartthrob status outside the film is highly likely to draw some fresh blood into Anderson’s aging, increasingly jaded audience. The general reaction to The French Dispatch indicates that adult audiences who’ve been watching Wes Anderson since the 1990s are tiring of his schtick. Meanwhile, teenage girls hoping to get a peek at their favorite shirtless twink are perfect candidates for newfound, lifelong Anderson devotion. He worked best on me when I was that age, anyway.
The French Dispatch is dense & delightful enough that I’m already excited to watch it again, which is exactly how I felt when I first watched titles like Rushmore & The Life Aquatic in my teens. It might be my favorite of his film since The Royal Tenenbaums, or at least it feels like a perfect encapsulation of everything he’s been playing with since then. There’s a high likelihood that I walked out of Moonrise Kingdom & The Grand Budapest Hotel with this same renewed enthusiasm for his work, and I’ve merely forgotten that immediate elation in the few years since. Regardless, I don’t know that I’ve ever so clearly seen him as one of America’s great comedic filmmakers the way I do now. His visual & verbal joke deliveries in this latest dispatch are incredibly sharp & consistently funny. Many scenes start as fussed-over dollhouse dioramas shot from a cold, clinical distance. Those neatly segmented spaces tend to fill with oddly endearing goofballs, though, and you can tell he’s having the most fun when he’s feeding them punchlines.
It takes all the strength in my body & soul not to turn this blog into a total schlockfest. My natural inclination when selecting what to watch is to reach for the shortest, trashiest genre pic available, which constantly threatens to backslide Swampflix into a bargain-bin horror blog. I do like to challenge myself, though, especially coming out of October’s horror-binge rituals where I indulge in my preferred cinematic junk food for a month solid. And so, I find myself contemplating and writing about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the 2010 Palme D’or. Like previous detours into the works of Jarman, Tarkovsky, and Ozu, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a beloved arthouse auteur who I’m underqualified to assess, comprehend, or even appreciate. Still, I crave the brain-cell alarm bells these alienating filmmakers set off in my brain; I can’t get by on a diet of Roger Corman cheapies & Chucky sequels alone.
Uncle Boonmee is the kind of calm, quiet, meditative cinema that always challenges my attention span and intellect. Like Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, it’s a slow-cinema mood piece about a man dying in real time – in this case a Thai farmer succumbing to the gradual decline of kidney failure. Static shots of the wealthy man’s inner circle & dialysis technicians sharing meaningful silences are scored only by whispers of waterfalls, car engines, and chirping bugs. Harsh digital cinematography frames these exchanges with all the pomp & circumstance of a straight-to-YouTube documentary. I am told that this is a deeply emotional film about life & the great mystery that follows it, but I don’t see the modern arthouse Ikiru in it that others are latching onto. I mostly just felt as if Apichatpong were daring me to fall asleep with each lingering shot of meditative non-action & white noise.
To be fair to my emotionally distanced (and self-declared Communist killer) Uncle Boonmee, this movie at least met me halfway with some absurdly polite ghosts & magical creatures, who gather around the titular farmer as he approaches the gates of the spirit realm. Death is not the end of the human spirit in this reality; Boonmee’s deceased family hold his hand through the transition into his next state of being, calmly sitting beside him along with his surviving acquaintances. His dead wife appears as a classic, transparent ghost, materializing at the dinner table as if she had casually walked through the front door. His dead son appears as a primate-hybrid “monkey-ghost” with glowing C.H.U.D. eyes. I appreciated their magical-realist intrusions into the “plot”, since ghost stories typically are the kind of cinema I can comprehend. They just did very little to disrupt the quiet calm of Boonmee’s slow demise.
I don’t know that I’ll ever revisit this film unless I can see it in a proper theater; I genuinely struggled to feel immersed & overwhelmed by it at home. It was mostly worth the struggle, though, and it did often remind me of films I love that were likely influenced by Apichatpong’s meditative filmmaking style – namely the psychedelic ayahuasca dramaIcaros: A Vision & Laurie Anderson’s memorial-doc Heart of a Dog. There are individual images & ideas from Uncle Boonmee that will likely stick with me for a long time, especially its non-sequitur vignette in which a travelling princess makes love with a talking catfish. If nothing else, that detour will stick with me as an all-timer of a sex scene. My go-to horror schlock rarely reaches such glorious highs, even if they’re easier to digest en masse.
Our current Movie of the Month, 1973’s Lisa and the Devil, is a supernatural murder mystery set in a haunted mansion full of creepy mannequins. As usual with Mario Bava, it’s consistently beautiful & eerie while wildly inconsistent in its central mystery’s internal logic. Parsing out what’s really going on in Bava’s films is always miles beside the point; they thrive on vibes and vibes alone. So, what really sets this loopy-logic Bava mystery apart from the rest of his catalog is its haunted castle setting, which vividly contrasts the moods & tones of his filmmaking style against other Gothic horrors of his era from The Corman-Poe Cycle and Hammer Studios. It’s in that contrast where Lisa and the Devil‘s twisty dream logic and harshly artificial color gels really shine as something special.
I knew I was going to use November’s Movie of the Month selection as an excuse to clear out a few of my Mario Bava blindspots. What I didn’t know is that so many of those major blindspots would also be set in haunted castles (as opposed to the bloody couturiers of Blood & Black Lace or the eerie alien landscapes of Planet of the Vampires). As I dug further into Bava’s catalog this month, I really started appreciating how his haunted castle movies boast all of the spooky atmosphere of Hammer Horror at its best, boosted with a lurid Technicolor sleaze that satisfies in a way Hammer rarely does – if ever. Nearly every one is a Masque of the Red Death-level knockout, which is rare for the genre. To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more Mario Bava classics set in haunted castles.
Black Sunday (1960)
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Mario Bava spent so much of his career playing with camera equipment in spooky castles, since that setting is exactly where he made a name for himself at the start of his career. Bava’s debut feature credit as a director, Black Sunday (a.k.a. The Mask of Satan) crams in as many haunted-castle spooks & ghouls as it can possibly fit in an 87min runtime: vampires, witches, Satanic rituals, an overachieving fog machine, etc. Even in black & white—devoid of Bava’s trademark color gels—it clearly stands out as the very best of the director’s haunted castle horrors. If anything, the harsh black & white lighting offers a vintage Romero sheen that feels like a novelty in Bava’s larger Technicolor catalog.
If actors dress up in ritualistic costumes and repeat the word “Satan” enough, I’m automatically going to be charmed. It still helps when it’s someone as electrically intense as Barbara Steele. In her breakout, career-defining performance(s), she stars as both a vampiric witch who’s punished for her allegiance to Satan and as the innocent descendent she plans to drain of her blood & youth. Steele’s haunting screen presence (conveyed most fiercely through her intense eye contact) is what makes the movie enduringly iconic, but Bava’s background as a cinematographer heightens every frame with a stark beauty & terror. It’s not Bava at his most idiosyncratic (given that it’s drained of his usual indulgences in color & disregard for plot), but it might be Bava at his best.
The Whip and the Body (1963)
Barbara Steele is not the only horror legend who cut their fangs working with Bava. Christopher “Dracula” Lee collaborated with the Italo-auteur on both the dark fantasy epic Hercules in the Haunted World and in the haunted-castle chiller The Whip and the Body. It’s The Whip and the Body that really leans into the strengths of Lee’s sultry screen presence, casting him as a BDSM ghost who haunts a modest seaside castle (and the masochistic woman he used to adulterize with when he was alive). It’s never much of an exaggeration to say that Christopher Lee was pure sex in his handsome youth, but in The Whip and the Body that statement isn’t even a figure of speech. He haunts the castle as the personification of sadistic sex just as much as he’s the ghost of a cruel pest who even his mistress despised.
The ghostly psychosexual terror of Lee’s kink-ghost is the perfect mechanism for Bava’s usual indulgences in atmosphere & aesthetics. It’s customary for haunted castle movies to feature menacing gusts of howling wind, but here Bava gets to mix in sounds of Lee’s leather whip to pervert that trope into something freshly upsetting. The film haunts a lovely middle ground between the classic gothic horror of Black Sunday and the Technicolor fairy tale horrors of Lisa and the Devil (complete with a dagger in a bell jar as its fairy tale version of Chekov’s gun).
Baron Blood (1972)
Like The Whip and the Body, Baron Blood is about a craven misogynist who haunts his family castle as a menacingly horny ghost. Like Black Sunday, it even dabbles in an undercurrent of witchcraft for counterbalance; the sexist ghost is resurrected from the dead as revenge from a witch who wants to see him tortured for eternity instead being allowed to rest. Unfortunately, this late-in-the-game middle ground between those two classics doesn’t stack up to Bava’s usual standard. It’s conveyed in muddy 1970s browns, and the stoney-baloney pacing of that era is in no rush to get anywhere.
So yeah, Baron Blood is by far the weakest entry of this haunted-castle Bava set. It has its own laidback 70s charms, though, including occultist rituals, rusty torture devices, and a fiendish ghoul with sopping hamburger meat for a face. All it really needed to be a Lisa and the Devil-level stunner was a peppier sense of urgency and a few color gels. Save it for a lazy weekend afternoon, so it’s not such a big deal if you take a nap in the middle of it.
Men will literally gun down an entire biker gang by themselves instead of going to therapy. The Danish dark comedy Riders of Justice is essentially a two-hour shitpost with that exact punchline, which you might not guess in its opening, somber first act. Like Nobody, it’s a low-key parody of the suburban-dad revenge thrillers Liam Neeson’s been treading water in since Taken – especially his collaborations with Jaume Collet-Serra: The Commuter (Taken on a Train) and Non-Stop (Taken on a Plane). In both instances, the humor of that parody is delayed; both Nobody & Riders of Justice open with a straight-faced first act that doesn’t prepare you for the over-the-top absurdist mayhem to follow. Riders of Justice doesn’t play like a thriller in its opening half-hour. It starts as a solemn, introspective drama about a train accident that tears a family apart by killing its matriarch. Instead of healing from the pain of that tragedy through therapy, however, the surviving widower stubbornly creates an anti-hero action plot out of thin air, exacting violence on a terrorist biker gang he believes is responsible for the train wreck, as if that’s the easier path to healing from the loss. The more that revenge mission spirals out of his control and the further he goes out of his way to avoid talking about his emotions, the funnier the joke becomes (and the higher the bodies pile).
Like Nobody‘s front-and-center, against-type casting of Bob Odenkirk, the main draw for most audiences to Riders of Justice will be seeing Mads Mikkelsen in the starring role as a grieving Military Dad on the warpath. I’m largely indifferent to Mikkelsen myself (beside being impressed by those magnificent cheekbones), so I’m shocked to report I was way more satisfied with his star-vehicle Taken parody than Odenkirk’s. All of Nobody‘s action genre signifiers are pulled directly from modern post-Taken and post-John Wick thrillers, leaving it with very little visual style to call its own outside the incongruity of seeing Odenkirk presented in that context. Riders of Justice casts a much wider net in its own action genre parody, especially by the time Mikkelsen assembles a crack team of computer experts in an industrial barn to help track down the targets of his wrath. Once the plot is in full swing, he stands as a lone machine-like killer among a house full of bickering nerds who constantly undercut the macho revenge fantasy of his one-man gang war with their own petty, unmanly quibbles. It’s the same mode of comic relief that side characters like Tyrese & Ludacris provide to the Fast & Furious franchise, for instance, but it’s deliberately uncool & uncomfortable in a way that constantly underlines how much these men need professional help instead of guns & ammo. Meanwhile, Mikkelsen’s job as the traditionally macho hero (and comedic straight man) is to maintain a seething, barely contained anger at the world at large for contrast against those nerds, and he’s great at it.
It helps that Riders of Justice is also about something beyond its satirical observations about the emphasis on violent revenge in macho action flicks like Taken & John Wick. It makes room for lots of unexpected, heartfelt reflection on grief, abuse, “found family”, and the cruelty of coincidence, all delivered with a real sicko sense of humor. The movie is outright philosophical in the way it interrogates our need to apply logical order to the chaos of random tragedies by filtering them through religious faith, statistical analysis, or violent retribution. It also pays careful attention to its own visual style, however muted. At the very least, I appreciated the way its motif of blue & orange crosslighting helped break up the earth tones of its militaristic anti-hero’s joyless, colorless life. All of the promotional materials for Riders of Justice feature Mads Mikkelsen staring directly into the camera while modeling action-hero army gear, which makes the film look like a humorless bore. It turns out the character himself is the bore, and the film finds lots of humor at the expense of his performative brutish exterior (after taking the time to seriously consider the emotional pain of the loss he’s suffered). It takes an unusually long time for the anti-macho humor of its action genre parody to emerge, but thankfully that’s not the only thing on its mind. If you’re looking for zanier or more immediate humor in your action movie parodies, there’s always MacGruber or Hot Shots or even the final hour of Nobody.
Ten films into the “The Fast Saga“, I have no idea how to evaluate individual movies in the franchise beyond noting how much fun I had while watching them. During the last entry, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, I didn’t have any fun at all despite seeing it in a theater full of braying strangers; the mood was sour & off-brand. During its pandemic era follow-up, F9, I had a moderate amount of fun watching a borrowed public-library DVD alone on my couch. F9 mostly offers more of the same from the decades-running action franchise, which has ballooned from street racing heist films to superhero fantasy epics that just happen have car engines revving in the background. In this outing, Dom’s gang/family drive over landmines, through weaponized magnetic fields and, inevitably, into outer space. I can’t tell how much my enthusiasm for these stunts was dampened by watching the film at home vs. how much it was dampened by feeling like I’ve seen it all before. All I know is that after the bitter taste left by Hobbs & Shaw‘s aggro-bro sense of humor, I’m now way more conscious of how these films generate their moodsetting comedy. As it turns out, it’s a lot more difficult to have fun when you’re thinking about whether or not you’re having it.
A lot of the straightforward, dialogue-based humor in F9 is pretty dire, but at least it’s delivered in a better spirit than Jason Statham & The Rock’s play-hateful banter. Its verbal comedy is typified by Ludacris’s computer nerd side-character making lazy pop culture references to fellow IP giants like Harry Potter, or by Michelle Rodriguez’s A-team hero quipping “Well, that was new” after Vin Diesel swings a sports car off a cliffside rope like an automotive Tarzan. Most of the fun to be had in these films relies on the visual absurdism of those impossible car stunts, which has gotten exponentially self-aware since the skyscraper jump in Furious 7 (my personal favorite in the series). They want to clearly signal that they realize it’s all in good fun by adding MCU-style one-liners to the script, but the series’ internal humor’s just not there yet. In that respect, F9‘s biggest blunder was in casting John Cena in a dead-serious villain role despite him being the funniest member of the cast (judging by his recent string of R-rated raunch comedies) while feeding its proper Jokes to dead-behind-the-eyes action stars like Vin Diesel. All longtime fans really want out of these movies is for Diesel to mumble the word “family” with outsized gravitas in-between Looney Tunes-level car stunts; he doesn’t need to land any bon mots.
To F9‘s credit, it does find a way to push its hack “Well, that just happened” MCU humor to new, absurd places. Roman (Tyrese Gibson) escalates that self-awareness of the improbability of his family/gang’s superheroism by pausing to remark “We should all be dead.” After dodging machine-gun fire, landmine explosions, and physics-defying car wrecks, he desperately tries to spread his self-aware epiphany to the rest of the crew. He points out how out of control the street racing gang’s “insane missions” have gotten, declaring their continued existence on Earth “damn near impossible”. I wish he had pushed that line of thinking a little further beyond “We are not normal” to realizing that he must be a fictional character in a Hollywood action franchise. At least that post-Last Action Hero meta narrative would’ve landed as a novelty in a series where the only other frontiers they haven’t yet explored are time travel & dinosaurs. Give them enough time, and I’m sure they’ll get there. After all, launching Ludacris & Tyrese into space is already lightyears away from the gang’s first-movie mission of stealing DVD players out of 18-wheelers.
If I had to narrow down Roman’s “We’re invincible” epiphany to a more specific observation, it’s that the Fast &Furious family appear to be invincible as long as they fall on a car instead of the ground. There are multiple stunts in this film in which an actor (or a CG blur standing in for an actor) flies through the air while their partner rushes towards them in a car, making sure they land on the hood instead of the concrete below. Apparently, that three-foot difference is enough to save the day in this loopy-logic action series (and even if it weren’t, fan-favorite characters frequently return from the dead anyway). That’s the kind of inane bullshit that makes this series fun, and the more you can focus on those cheap thrills instead of the halfhearted one-liners the happier you can drive away. I do think it helps to watch these films in the theater, where the rumble of car engines helps drown out the whimpers of dialogue, but Hobbs & Shaw is proof that watching these action blockbusters big & loud isn’t enough to cover up their worst attempts at straightforward humor. Thankfully, F9 is still a lot of goofball fun when it lets the cars do the talking.