Imitation Girl (2018)

I knew I was in trouble with Imitation Girl just a few minutes in, when an alien species crash-lands on Earth through a hole in the atmosphere. I’m usually very forgiving when it comes to effects work in small budget independent films, but there was just something clumsy & unsatisfying about the CGI space hole that opens in that moment. A movie about a shapeshifting space alien that takes the form of an actress it discovers on a magazine cover, Imitation Girl should be an eerie sci-fi creep-out, but the functional flatness of the way its crash-landing is rendered has all the atmospheric dread of a Sharknado sequel. Given that the actress the alien mirrors is a porn star, the film also suggests that it might have something substantial to say about identity & sex work, but it shies away from that topic in an almost bashful manner. In fact, Imitation Girl comes across super squeamish about depicting sex at all, almost to the point where it seems sex-negative about mainstream pornography as an industry. It’s a sci-fi horror film that’s reluctant to horrify, a movie about sex that’s afraid of eroticism. A more tonally intense, better crafted film could get away with those withholding impulses, but this one’s student-film flatness is too lacking in sensory pleasures to also lack those genre-specific payoffs.

What imitation Girl lacks in sexual courage & tonal intensity, it somewhat makes up for in the unpredictability of its storytelling. Not being in tune with the typical payoffs of the sci-fi horror genre allows for some surprising turns in the narrative. The doppelganger space alien does not immediately seek a confrontation with the woman whose image it cloned. It instead stumbles through the desert like an intergalactic Nell until it’s rescued by an Iranian family, who attempt to communicate with it in both Persian & English until it learns enough social skills to be able to navigate the world on its own. Meanwhile, the porn star struggles with her own confidence in independence – unsure of her profession, her choice in lovers, and her under-the-table involvement in low-level drug deals. As the audience alternates between the porn star & her space alien doppelganger, there’s sometimes a few seconds’ lag in being able to tell which version of actress ­­ we’re currently watching. It establishes a calm, unrushed rhythm in fluctuating between these two identities that’s sometimes broken by a jolting shift in reality – whether though a mirror functioning as a window or a kaleidoscopic return to the alien’s outer space roots. That’s a unique approach to genre filmmaking, although one that invites the mind to wander.

There are a couple stray elements of pure-horror at play that suggest Imitation Girl is attempting to function as an eerie sci-fi creep-out – especially in its arrhythmic strings score & early scenes of the alien doppelganger stumbling through the desert in jerky, inhuman contortions. Mostly, though, it’s a film about an identity crisis that’s having an identity crisis of its own. It wants to generate terror in the mysterious arrival of its space-alien double, but mostly leaves that journey on the backburner as the porn star goes about her daily business – stalling the alien’s story with the Iranian family for an overwhelming portion of the movie. The film wants to evoke the specificity of the mainstream porn industry to provide its central identity crisis some texture, but it’s too timid to evoke the eroticism (or terror) monetized by that trade. Its engagement with pornography as a topic comes across as remarkably old-fashioned as a result – both in its assumption that the audience finds it inherently demeaning & evil and, on a more practical level, in how it resembles a version of porno production that’s mostly faded from practice in the latest two decades. Most of the reason Imitation Girl is open for the occasional jarring surprise (Lewis Black appears in a single-scene cameo as a drug kingpin?!) is that it’s too delicately handled in its central topics for the audience to not be distracted by stray, incongruous details.

The most damming thing about Imitation Girl’s ineffectiveness is how much better its basic themes are covered in other recent sci-fi horror films. Its femme space alien identity crisis recalls the gorgeous, bone-deep creep-out of Under the Skin. Its sex worker doppelganger crisis recalls the sexed-up cyberthriller vibes of Cam. All Imitation Girl can do is surprise in its deviations from the expectations set by those contemporaries. Unfortunately, those deviations mostly arrive in its tonal & sexual timidity and its deployment of SyFy Channel-level CGI.

-Brandon Ledet

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Cold Skin (2018)

2017 was a great year for fish-fucking movies, considering the American distribution of the horned-up Polish mermaid musical The Lure and the surprise Best Picture Oscar win for del Toro’s Creature from the Black Lagoon slashfic The Shape of Water. It was during this fish-people pornography frenzy that I first heard of the Xavier Gans creature feature Cold Skin, so I’ve been anticipating its arrival here for a solid year, hoping our new national fetish could continue into pervy perpetuity. Given its French Horror pedigree & its provocative title, I expected Cold Skin to be the most extreme of the 2017 fish-fucking titles – especially considering the grotesque sexual menace of recent French titles like Raw, We Are the Flesh, and The Untamed (which does feature some alien space-squid fucking, which, close enough). I felt a little letdown, then, that Cold Skin is merely a serviceable creature feature that keeps most of its human-fish sexual behavior muted, off-screen, and de-eroticized. It’s like the movie’s scared to fully commit to the implications of its fish-people fucking, which is a huge hindrance in a year where more head-on explicit engagements with the same topic are out there winning Oscars.

In 1914, a depressive academic eagerly takes a year-long gig studying Antarctica weather patterns in solitary isolation. With his only assigned task being to measure the strength & direction of Antarctic winds and his only company being a stack of literary texts, he looks forward to being left alone with his brooding thoughts in a frozen wilderness. Of course, this plan of “seeking peace through nothingness” doesn’t last long and our protagonist soon finds himself living in “a monster-plagued inferno” (his love for Great Works of Literature often inspires him to describe his plight in verbose prose). Instead of living in total isolation as planned, he finds himself contending with two unexpected threats: a species of nocturnal fish-beasts that attack his cabin nightly and a near-feral man who’s made a life out of fighting these creatures off with a gun from the vantage point of his nearby lighthouse. The bearded brute has also taken in one of the anthropomorphic fish monsters as a house pet & sex slave, which bothers the bookish weather observer at first on the grounds of human decency, then later romantic jealousy. This unlikely trio—the brute, the scholar, and the fish slave—form a bizarre domestic routine in the Antarctic wilderness, fighting off encroaching monsters nightly and struggling to make eye contact during the day.

As a horror genre indictment of colonialism, in which two white men have the audacity to wage war on native creatures protecting their own territory, Cold Skin is a passably okay creature feature. Its cold digital photography & fanged-Delgo creature designs amount to an interesting enough visual aesthetic, and there’s plenty of monster-attack action to fill the time. The movie’s major flaw is that it’s deluded in thinking those nightly creature attacks are somehow more interesting than its implied fish-fucking – which it’s very wary about exploring in any direct way. It almost uses the colonialist rape & sexual subjugation of the fish-people as an excuse to avert its eyes when it comes to the more legitimate interspecies sparks of romance that later arise. The fish sex that does occur is nothing you’d want to see. I don’t know that explicit fish-person eroticism is a healthy desire for what I want depicted in modern cinema or if my brain has just been thoroughly wrecked by the cultural zeitgeist’s entertainment of that impulse in the last year. I do know that enough movies have more fully committed to engaging with that topic in recent memory that Cold Skin’s sexuality feels downright bashful in comparison – so that all that’s left are its minor creature feature payoffs.

-Brandon Ledet

R.P.G.: R.I.P.

Our current Movie of the Month, the 1984 children’s action-thriller Cloak & Dagger, has a lot to say about the dangers of fantasy roleplay gaming, but it’s all very confused & self-conflicting. If nothing else, the film seems to be confused about what gaming culture even is, conflating tools like video game cartridges and 12-sided board game dice as if they belonged to the same activity. Additionally, it cannot decide whether it wants to scare parents about the dangers of fantasy roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons or if it wants to promote the purchase of Atari cartridges like the one that gets its young tyke protagonist into a heap of trouble. Besides the film’s horrific eagerness to put children in life-threatening danger, I’d point to that self-conflicted messaging as one of the film’s major draws. In a key exchange in the first act, a father & son (Dabney Coleman & Henry Thomas) argue about the value of fantasy roleplaying and, in what’s rare for a children’s film from the era, both sides of the divide have a point – the father in pleading with his son to consider the practical realities of the world around him and the son in asking the father to participate in his gaming interests as a way of bonding. That well-balanced approach to the topic of fantasy roleplaying may be smart & nuanced, but it does dampen the novelty of Cloak & Dagger’s larger tendency to function as an alarmist siren to all parents everywhere that roleplay fantasy is corrupting their children’s minds. Thankfully, another early 80s gaming drama picked up the slack with a much less nuanced, raving lunatic screed against the dangers of D&D. And it even starred one of America’s most beloved celebrities.

The 1982 made-for-CBS melodrama Mazes & Monsters is a vision of what Cloak & Dagger would be like without dramatic nuance or tact. Based on a “true crime” novel about a real-life disappearance case where a fanatic D&D player committed suicide, the film deliberately skews logical cause & effect patterns to make RPGs out to be child-endangering killers. Mazes & Monsters opens with a news report explaining what fantasy roleplay gaming is and how it can directly lead to “loss of distinction between reality & fantasy, and possibly the loss of life in the process.” We’re then introduced to four college-age friends, each with deep-seated personal issues, who regular meet to play a fictional RPG called Mazes & Monsters when they should be focusing on their school work. Tom Hanks, in his first leading role, plays the most troubled of the foursome – a likely schizophrenic outsider haunted by the disappearance of his older brother. While the other players in his gaming circle have no trouble using the escapism of Mazes & Monsters to forget their personal issues (romantic, parental, school-related, or otherwise), Hanks’s fraying protagonist struggles with coming back down from the fantasy to return to normal life. He refuses to break character, hallucinates demons from the game in his real-life environment, and eventually runs off to NYC on a suicide mission to jump off The Twin Towers. His friends eventually call for help when they can’t stop him from doing a 9/11 to himself, but in the process feel compelled to lie about their involvement in the game, endangering him even further in their cautious self-preservation. Everything that touches the Mazes & Monsters game only leads to malady & misery.

The amusing thing about Mazes & Monsters is that it contradicts its own message just as much as Cloak & Dagger; it just seems to be entirely unaware that it’s doing so. The film shoots itself in the foot by foolishly swapping around the cause & effect of its alarmist fearmongering. The way the movie frames it, roleplaying games cause a psychological break with reality that generates a series of personal problems in the impressionable, weak-minded youngsters who succumb to their temptations of escapist fantasy. However, it also frames the Mazes & Monsters gamers as already-troubled youths who use the RPG lifestyle as a means of forming comraderie with like-minded peers. Tom Hanks’s troubled youth is already predisposed to schizophrenia & suicidal urges when he arrives to college; the social activity of roleplay gaming merely provides him with a safety net community who can call for proper medical attention when he needs it. Of course, this glorified Afternoon Special about the dangers of gaming misinterprets this dynamic to the opposite extreme and practically characterizes the RPG community as occultist freaks. Late night Mazes & Monsters sessions are candlelit as if they were witchy seances. Dragon-like demons (or at least hallucinations thereof) are summoned in condemned, life-threatening caves. Worst yet, the game is warned to even inspire your kids to run off to New York City, the biggest temple of sin since Sodom & Gomorrah. The depictions of fantasy roleplay gaming start off harmless & true enough – with college age nerds putting off studying for a Physics exam so they can roll 12-sided dice in a cramped dorm room. By the end of the film, however, it’s played with the authenticity & occult-fearing alarmism of a live-action adaptation of a Chick Tract.

As amusing as Mazes & Monsters’s alarmist rants about the otherworldly danger of roleplay fantasy gaming can be, and as adorable as it is to see Tom Hanks find his humble beginnings in a project so embarrassing in its central conceit, the movie is unfortunately too muted & slow-moving to recommend as an over-the-top novelty. It’s interesting as a comparison point to Cloak & Dagger (and the two films’ titles could be swapped with hardly anyone noticing), as it demonstrates what that superior film could have devolved into if it had fully committed to its scolding about the dangers of gaming. Cloak & Dagger‘s dual purpose as an advertisement for the flailing Atari 2600 console added an interesting, self-challenging layer to its anti-gaming moralism missing from Mazes & Monsters. Without it, that made-for- CBS melodrama only challenges its own message by missing the point entirely – advertising for roleplaying games as a source of community & comraderie in a misguided attempt to condemn the harmless activity for its supposed reality-distorting sorcery.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger (1984), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans this Week 12/13/18 – 12/19/18

Here’s a quick round-up of the films we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week. After nearly a month of there being little to recommend, the mysterious distribution gods are actively trying to drown us. There’s so much to see!

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

The Favourite Yorgos Lanthimos follows up the stubbornly obscure The Killing of a Sacred Deer with what appears to be his most accessible feature yet: a queer, darkly funny costume drama about a three-way power struggle between increasingly volatile women (Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz). This is the one film I feel like I must see before contributing to any Best of the Year lists; it looks like a gorgeous riot.

Roma Alfonso Cuarón’s black & white period-piece epic & personal memoir is all but guaranteed to be a major Oscar contender in the next few months, but most people will only have a chance to see it at home on Netflix. We’re one of the few cities where audiences can fully immerse themselves in its lush cinematography & meticulously detailed sound design on the big screen. Only playing at The Broad Theater.

The Big Easy (1986) – A big-budget erotic thriller starring Dennis Quaid & Ellen Barkin, shot on location in 1980s New Orleans.  Come for the hot & steamy criminal-world intrigue; stay for the documentary glimpses of 80s New Orleans locales like Tipitina’s, Antoine’s, Mardi Gras parade float warehouses, and French Quarter strip clubs. Screening Thursday 12/13 at The Prytania Theatre.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Spider-Man & CG animation are two filmmaking arenas I usually don’t care about at all, but there’s a lot of promise in the screenwriting involvement of Phil Lord (Clone High, Last Man on Earth, The Lego Movie) and the movie’s Ben-Day dots visual design. Its high critical scores (99% on Rotten Tomatoes, 85 on Metacritic) also suggest that it’s something worthy of my time, despite my genre biases.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

Female Trouble (1974) – Divine might not have ever gotten those cha-cha heels she wanted from Santa and John Waters may never make the gay Christmas movie Fruitcake that he wrote, but you can still celebrate XXX-Mas with the Dreamlanders this weekend with a drag-themed screening of Female Trouble.  Drag performers Puddin’ Tain, Titibaby, Squirt Reynolds and Tarah Cards will host a rowdy midnight screening of the film (with the pre-show starting at 11) Saturday 10/15 at the AllWays Lounge (as an unofficial afterparty for the performance of A John Waters Christmas at the Civic).

Vox Lux Natalie Portman stars as an off-the-rails pop star in the middle of a spectacular breakdown in the public spotlight. A lot of people are going to hate this, but I was really won over by it when we caught it at NOFF. It’s brutal and coldly funny like a Lanthimos film, but also absurdly earnest like a Mommie Dearest melodrama. It’s interesting as a philosophical indictment of modernity, but also just a perverse joy in watching a woman behave monstrously (and dance to Sia songs) without repercussion. Bold, alienating stuff – the mother! of 2018.

Widows  Academy Award-winning director Steve McQueen cashes in some of his prestige points to make a heist picture about a group of ordinary women who reluctantly transform into violent criminals, a collaboration with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn. I was surprised by how much of his one functions like an ensemble cast melodrama instead of the action-thriller that was advertised. Not disappointed, just surprised. It feels like a movie custom built for people whose all-time favorite TV show is still The Wire, which, who could blame ‘em?

Jim Henson’s Holiday Special (1977, 1984) – A Yuletide, Muppet-themed double feature of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and The Bells of Fraggle Rock, two beloved Jim Henson holiday classics. Screening Sunday 12/16 via Fathom Events.

-Brandon Ledet

Shirkers (2018)

Swampflix is a money-losing labor of love. Everyone who contributes to this blog is a non-professional, untrained cinephile who just happens to have enough passionate opinions about movies to need the creative outlet. If our collective had formed a couple decades earlier, Swampflix almost certainly would have been a zine instead of a blog – an assumed truth I try my best to reflect in the site’s general DIY aesthetic & our participation in zine culture events like NOCAZ & The American Library Association Zine Pavilion. The 2018 documentary Shirkers is as accurate of a summation of that same zine culture aesthetic as any I’ve seen, both in its subject and in its editing methods. Novelist Sandi Tan begins the film recalling her teenage days as a pop culture gatekeeping zinester in early-90s Singapore. She translates the photocopier collages of her early zine collaborations with friends into a vibrant, volatile cinematic expression that affords the doc a distinct, yet familiar visual language. It’s a visual ethos that perfectly matches the subject it serves, as Shirkers is about the ultimate DIY art project time-suck, the most tragic of youthful collaborations lost to dissociation with the means of production. It’s the cinematic equivalent of working on a zine with your friends all summer only for the pages to blow away in a single gust of wind on your way to the photocopier, never to be recovered. It’s a pain in artistic loss that hit home for me in ways I did not expect, as I identified with its teen-girls-in-Singapore subject far more closely than I could have assumed I would, since we’re all DIY zine-makers at heart.

In the summer of 1992, Tan and her fellow brat-punk friends set out to make Singapore’s first entry in the era’s indie cinema boom – an aesthetic typified by then up-and-comers like Tarantino, Soderbergh, and Jarmusch. A DIY art project that translated their zinester tastemaker sensibilities to highly stylized, low-budget cinema, the original form of Shirkers was meant to defy Singapore’s cultural conservatism with some good ole 1990s who-cares slackerism. It was a 16mm “road trip movie in a country you can drive across in 40 minutes,” a film more concerned about documenting counterculture personality & local atmosphere than telling a coherent story. With the help of a shady older man “of unplaceable age & origin,” the young women miraculously completed principle photography on the shoot, having all the raw materials necessary to complete a feature film. Then the creep who “helped” them disappeared with the footage, with no one else who had worked on the film having seen a single frame. Tan eventually recovered the footage form Shirkers nearly 20 years later from the creep’s widow, finding its intensely vibrant colors & richly textured filmstock pristinely preserved by the conman who ruined her teenage dreams. Instead of attempting to reconstruct her original vision for the film (which would prove impossible, given its still-missing soundtrack), she instead uses the opportunity to explore who she was and why she was ripped off at such a pivotal rime in her life. The documentary version of Shirkers finds Tan both reopening old wounds in interviews with her closest zinester-days collaborators and investigating the mysterious identity & motivations of the man who derailed their dream project.

Shirkers figuratively hit close to home with me in its profile of DIY art project tragedy, but it also literally, geographically hit close to home with me in the trajectory of its narrative. It’s shocking how much of this story about a conflict that begins in Singapore finds its way to Mid-City New Orleans, as Tan investigates the mysterious backstory of her arch-enemy, Georges Cardona. She discovers that Cardona had a history of sabotaging microbudget art projects wherever he went, including an obscure 80s New Orleans slasher titled The Last Slumber Party. He was far more concerned with making legend than making art, claiming bizarre self-mythology (like being the source of inspiration for James Spaeder’s character in Sex, Lies, and Videotape) that’s just as unflattering as it is untrue. Outside considering the inappropriate nature of her youthful friendship with the much older Cardona, Tan’s investigation of his deceitful legacy mostly leads to fruitless dead ends. The true revelations she discovers in the doc are much more personal and, thus, more painful. When reflecting on her history as a culture-gatekeeping zinester and her over-ambitious willingness to risk her collaborators’ time & energy on a shady creep’s honor, Tan has a hard-look-in-the-mirror epiphany: she’s an asshole. Regardless of Cardona’s baffling behavior, the way she socially bullies her friends in her attempts to establish an artistic Personal Brand, both as a teen and as an adult, makes her out to be the true villain of this doomed DIY collaboration. The gorgeous footage that survived from Shirkers suggests that this assholery can lead to wonderful artistic results, but her headstrong stubbornness also leads directly to Cardona’s sabotage of the project – leaving her collective essentially empty-handed for their efforts. There’s a fascinating tension in that self-defeating dynamic that drives Shirkers’s thematic core.

You don’t have to be a DIY zinester with moviemaking dreams to appreciate Shirkers as an artistic, historical object; you don’t have to be a Singapore or New Orleans local either. It helps, but you don’t have to. Between the what-the-fuckery of Cardona’s mysterious backstory, the vibrant imagery of the recorded footage, and the preposterous circumstances of its inciting incidents, Shirkers has plenty to offer audiences as almost a true crime-level twisted story. I was just pleasantly surprised to personally connect with the film as a self-portrait of a socially tactless, self-sabotaging DIY artist. Tan got to me through the merits of her brutal self-honesty. More superficially, she also got to me through the aesthetics of her DIY zine culture ethos & her story’s exponentially rapid trajectory to my front doorstep.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #71 of The Swampflix Podcast: #NOFF2018

Welcome to Episode #71 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-first episode, Brandon and CC review the overwhelming list of oddball films they caught at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest: shorts, documentaries, and narrative features. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

It’s almost impossible to say anything about Orson Welles’s posthumous bomb-thrower The Other Side of the Wind, positive or negative, that the film doesn’t already say about itself. A notoriously troubled production that only came to completion though Peter Bogdanovich’s stubborn devotion to boosting Welles’s legacy, the film features Bogdanovich as a sycophantic right-hand man to an elderly auteur. A frustrated return to Hollywood filmmaking for Welles after years of European exile, the film features Old Hollywood director John Huston as an elderly auteur struggling to gain backing for his first American production in years, titled The Other Side of the Wind. A collaboration with porn & B-movie cinematographer Gary Graver, it’s a lusciously sleazy affair that cheekily blurs the line between European art film & cheap porno. A messily meta commentary on youthful rebellion & a changing film landscape overrun by New Hollywood upstarts, the film both approximates the same Industry-condemning self-indulgence of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie and features Dennis Hopper as himself talking out of his ass about filmmaking philosophy. Caricatures of critic Pauline Kael & New Hollywood producer Robert Evans, who Welles saw as roadblocks to getting this doomed project off the ground, create conflict as the film-within-the-film version of The Other Side of the Wind attempts its first screening to drum up financial support—only for the filmmaker to die at the party before that’s accomplished. For a sprawling, incoherent mess that’s been cooking for four decades solid before finally arriving on Netflix, The Other Side of the Wind is almost impossibly self-aware; it also weaponizes that awareness so that anyone who has ever made (or even seen) a movie is a target.

Another way The Other Side of the Wind feels incredibly self-aware is in the ways it brings Orson Welles’s career full-circle. The director’s legendary debut, Citizen Kane, not only suffered the same troubled path to respect & admiration as what would prove to be his last, but also functions like a documentary profile of a fictional man explained to be larger than life. “A film likeness of the man himself as he looked,” The Other Side of the Wind’s central concern is the psyche of John Huston’s bitter old pervert auteur, frustrated that he has to grovel for funding in a post-Studio System where the New Hollywood rug-rats have taken over. Instead of the birth-to-death portrait of Citizen Kane, however, this film mostly captures the events of a single night, with the details of its subject’s past filled in by partygoers’ gossip & hearsay. In staged found-footage captured on a wide range of cameras, The Other Side of the Wind is supposedly assembled from documentation of the party where the film-within-the-film is meant to be screened, like an arthouse version of the first-season party episode of American Vandal. This fractured structure allows cinematographer Gary Graver to play around with a variety of tones & textures, as if he were filming an especially smutty Guy Maddin picture. It also allows Welles to poke fun at every cinematic archetype – from the Studio System elite to New Hollywood brats to European art snobs – as they swirl around a disaster of a party waiting for The Other Side of the Wind to finally screen. It’s no wonder this film took 40 years to complete; it must have been an editing room nightmare. Still, it opens the floor for Welles to lash out (from beyond the grave) at as many Hollywood phonies as he can strike within a two-hour span, including whichever version of himself is represented in John Huston’s avatar.

The frantic, fractured editing style on display here makes it difficult to latch onto any solid character or narrative definitions, so that the slow, stony baloney movie-within-the movie that interrupts that chaotic party feels like a huge relief. The fake movie in question becomes one of the more intense focal points of the picture, then, which is hilarious because Welles packs it with pornographic smut: naked breasts, cuckolding, bathroom orgies, strap-on dildos, etc. Even in The Other Side of the Wind’s quieter, more thoughtful moments, Welles attacks the audience with the menacing sleaze of a Russ Meyer picture. Of course, he’s aware of his own indulgences in smut here, and the screenings of the movie-within-the-movie often cross-cut to John Huston’s peeping-Tom auteur intensely licking his lips, gazing at the prurient glory of his own work. This meta commentary on Welles’s own pervy interests in those sequences is only compounded by his casting of his real-life young lover Oja Kodar as the star of the psychedelic art-house porno, billed simply as The Actress. Part of me wishes that the entirety of the movie were dedicated to feature-length parody of pornographic art-house pretension in this style, as the filmmaking craft of the fake Other Side of the Wind is much more pleasurable to watch than the frantic satire of the real one (although even the party scenes recall Russ Meyer’s rapid-fire editing style in films like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). For me, the relentless sketch comedy-like humor of the party scenes wears a little thin in the second hour, but the smutty art house psychedelia parody of the movie screening at their party remains potent throughout. I suspect Welles’s own interests were also more . . . aroused by the sensory pleasures of those sequences as well.

I’m not sure the second hour of The Other Side of the Wind fully lives up to the promise of its first, as it’s difficult to care too deeply about a story meant to disorient & frustrate its audience at that length. Even that complaint is addressed in the film’s script, however, both in screening room scenes where the continuity of the movie-within-the-movie is explained to be not quite the mess it appears to be, and in the question posed to the fictional auteur, “If the audience can’t get it, why even go to the movie?” That question plays as a jab both at the creator and at the public, as The Other Side of the Wind can find no shortage of enemies in Welles’s expressed frustrations with an industry that had essentially abandoned him. John Huston’s character is detailed to be far from a saint – exploiting women (and sometimes men) he’s attracted to for both professional & personal pleasure, treating little people as novelty objects, and just generally acting like a drunken asshole who believes the world of himself and little of anything else. There’s certainly some self-laceration detectable in that portrait of a despicable auteur the world has left behind, but it’s a critique that extends to all selfish, self-aggrandizing men who have shared his profession – from Russ Meyer to Antonioni. The Other Side of the Wind is both critic & participant, both weapon & target. It’s both incredibly flawed & incredibly aware of those shortcomings, easily making for one of the most fascinating & storied releases of the year—just not the most wholly satisfying one. Even if you somehow walk away from The Other Side of the Wind as frustrated with its stops & starts as Welles did, you still have to admire the picture for all its go-for-broke smutty audacity and its drunken willingness to throw a punch.

-Brandon Ledet

Let the Corpses Tan (2018)

Let the Corpses Tan is a fascinating convergence of things I love to see on the screen and things I could not care less about. Directed by the married duo behind the psychedelic giallo freakout The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, the film is a highly stylized, hyperviolent indulgence in over-the-top depictions of sex, violence, and outsider art. It’s also a loving pastiche of the Spaghetti Western, one that details a never-ending shootout between cops & robbers fighting to the death over stolen gold. Westerns aren’t my usual genre of choice and although Let the Corpses Tan largely avoids the gruff, macho posturing and ruminations over codes of Honor that typically bore me in the Western pic, I couldn’t help but be exhausted by it all the same. This is a film that deliberately survives on the virtues of its aesthetics, so I don’t feel too bad in admitting that its choice of genre & locale was largely the only elements at play preventing me from falling in love. If these same tones & tactics were set in a haunted graveyard or a spaceship instead of the desert I would have been a lot more enraged with the gorgeous display on the screen; it’s petty but it’s true.

A small crew of boneheaded brutes take refuge at a remote artists’ retreat in the desert after stealing a truckload of solid gold bars. When a young woman kidnaps her child against a custody order and arrives at the retreat unannounced, unconnected to the robbery, she brings police scrutiny that explodes the already tense situation into a day-long shootout. The story behind the gun violence is treated like a necessary evil so that directors Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani can get to the detail-obsessive filmmaking indulgences that really excite them: biker cops in fetish gear reaching for their holstered guns; kinky fantasies involving outdoor piss play & bondage; jolts of desert-set psychedelia reminiscent of titles like Phase IV, The Velvet Vampire, and Altered States, etc. The hour by hour detailing of the cops & robbers shootout (as told & retold from various angles) can be a bit of a chore, making Let the Corpses Tan feel twice its 90min runtime. However, the detailed aesthetic Cattet & Forzani evoke between the film’s creaky black leather & gold glitter-smeared nude bodies is undeniable in its in-the-moment effect. Its blasé attitude shared between artists & thieves who think nothing of “killing all the cops on Earth” is also infectiously punk, especially considering that this is a genre I typically associate with Conservative grumps.

When Let the Corpses Tan sings it’s a gorgeous, badass free-for-all of detail-obsessed filmmaking. When it drags it plays a little like a dime-a-dozen Tarantino knockoff the world has already seen far too much of in the last two decades, Thankfully, it sings more than it drags, and the strength of its imagery – whether a highway robbery disguised by Frankenstein masks, a stream of glittery gold piss snaking through the desert sand, or the simple lighting of a cigarette – is what sticks with you longer than its overly familiar gene beats. Even beyond its debt to the Western template in general — Spaghetti or otherwise — Let the Corpses Tan has to contend with plenty of other recent highly-stylized, desert-set gore fests that threaten to dampen its novelty. It’s like Revenge, but less political; it’s like The Bad Batch, but not as boring; it’s like Bone Tomahawk, but not latently racist. The modern genre film landscape is overflowing with so many riches, both in new releases and in Blu-Ray reissues of long-lost classics, that it’s extremely difficult for any isolated title to stand out as a one-of-a-kind-novelty. Between Let the Corpses Tan, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, and their debut Amer (which I also found a little patience-testing, to be honest), Cattet & Forzani have proven that they can do so with ease, as long as their chosen genre is something that sparks your interest on its own merits. I enjoyed this one immensely at times and fought off the approach of boredom at others. Here’s to hoping they make their next one about something more my speed, like a pro wrestling tournament or a witch’s coven; I’ll be watching either way.

-Brandon Ledet

The House That Jack Built (2018)

I thought I had gotten confident enough in my distaste for Lars Von Trier’s audience & critics trolling that I no longer considered keeping up with his provocations du jour an obligatory exercise. During the entire hype & backlash cycle for Nymphomaniac, I largely abstained from engaging – neither reading reviews nor thinking about what he was trying to say with the film, much less actually watching all 325 (uncut) minutes of it. Honestly, it was freeing. However, von Trier’s follow-up to that massive, prurient temple of self-indulgence, The House that Jack Built, somehow lured me back into his orbit, like Wile E Coyote unable to walk away from the Road Runner even if it means repeatedly falling off the same cliff. There was a carnival sideshow aspect to The House that Jack Built that I was too weak to resist. Its initial reaction out of Cannes was polarized between mass, disgusted walkouts & glowing 5-star reviews. It was touted as both an inflammatory gore fest and the height of art film pretension – two modes of cinema I can’t help but love seeing smashed against each other. Even more enticingly, the film was being shown in select theaters in its “unrated” festival cut for one night only before making the theatrical rounds in a toned-down R-Rated edit (a move that really twisted the tighty-whities of the nerds at the MPAA), which only helped boost the attraction of its promised grindhouse sleaze. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of The House that Jack Built is that I didn’t have an especially strong reaction to its faults or merits, that I was neither especially tickled nor offended through most of its lengthy runtime. I had allowed the carnival barker promises of a highly divisive, hyperviolent art piece to lure me back into engaging with Von Trier’s edge-lord pranksterism, only to experience the one thing you never want to encounter at the movies: boredom.

I will credit The House That Jack Built for this: it does break the pattern that’s become so stubbornly, cruelly repetitious in the stories von Trier chooses to tell. The typical Lars von Trier film introduces the audience to a complex, lovable woman and then proceeds to torture her as harshly and unforgivingly as possible for the entire length of a feature. It was a tactic that worked on me in early-career titles like Breaking the Waves & Dancer in the Dark, but it has only become increasingly pointless as it’s repeated verbatim in each subsequent, cruelly grim work. The House that Jack Built disrupts this career-long pattern, but perhaps in the most boring way possible. It maintains the violent-destruction-of-women themes that are constant to his previous pictures, but this time switches the central POV to the man who’s destroying them, a serial killer played by Matt Dillon. Von Trier also deliberately strips his female characters of their depth & nuance, turning them into pathetic, braying dolts who practically beg to be murdered to save the world the trouble of their existence. Broken into five “incidents,” The House That Jack Built is practically an anthology horror; each victim is played broadly & without empathy so that there’s time to move onto the next. Matt Dillon punctuates each chapter with visual-collage art history lectures and psychiatric conversations with the poet Virgil (Bruno Ganz), contrasting the film’s dirt-cheap mid-2000s torture porn aesthetic with the literary grandeur of Dante’s Inferno. The kills themselves are gruesome, featuring unflinching depictions of mutilated women & children Dillon has claimed as trophies, but they’re also no more shocking than anything you’d see in an Eli Roth movie or a Saw sequel—flatly shot acts of pointless cruelty that are as boring now as they were when they were the Mainstream Horror standard a decade ago. Von Trier has devolved his torture of female characters to the most pedestrian, artless level of cinematic masturbation available. The annoying part is that he knows exactly what he’s doing; it’s all for a cheap joke.

Not only does von Trier change up his usual schtick by switching POVs to the man responsible for the women’s pain, he also chooses the most eyeroll-worthy subject possible for that new perspective: himself. In its best moments, The House That Jack Built functions like a buffoonish self-parody exaggerating how the director’s harshest critics see his work. The oversimplification & increased cruelty of his typical tones & methods are entirely the point – as he parodies media perception of his life’s work through the avatar of a serial killer who makes mediocre art out of violence. In a way, the mildly dopey Matt Dillon is perfectly cast in the role, recalling the empty-headed brutes of American Psycho & Killer Joe who think themselves superior to the mouth-breathers around them, but doesn’t actually have anything insightful, useful, or clever to say themselves. Dillon’s titular misogynist fancies himself to be the kind of hyper-intelligent serial killer sophisticate who turns mutilation & dismemberment into a fine art, like a 21st Century Hannibal Lector. He even autographs his evidence with the nom de plume “Mr. Sophistication” to taunt the police on his tail and compares the corpses he leaves behind to classic examples of paintings, piano compositions, and cathedral designs. He imagines himself to be a meticulous perfectionist in his violence/art, but is in fact a sloppy buffoon – more Paul Blart than Dexter. It’s initially a hilarious self-own, with von Trier expressing amazement that he keeps getting away with his woman-tormenting provocations despite the glowing flaws repeated throughout his work. The way Dillon’s ineptitude clashes with his illusions of grandeur and how he exploits MRA-type hurt-puppy tactics to weasel out of getting stopped from committing another crime (i.e. many making another movie) suggests a focused self-awareness of exactly how on Trier’s art is perceived by his harshest detractors. It’s a deliberate attack on his audience, then, when the cartoonish self-parody of the film’s earliest kills dissipates, and he begins to play the cruelty of the violence straight. After being shown how pointlessly cruel these empty provocations can be, it’s a lot to ask from the audience to sit through them again without the jokey remove. It’s also unforgivably boring in that straight-faced repetition, especially considering the extremity of the material.

There are some undeniably striking images & themes scattered throughout The House That Jack Built, but they’re overwhelmed by so much deliberately pedestrian genre filmmaking & self-trolling inside humor that it’s like searching for diamonds in dogshit. The way I can tell that the film doesn’t work as a whole in its own right is that it wouldn’t mean anything to someone who wasn’t already aware of Lars von Trier’s filmography & past PR debacles. Its horror genre payoffs are not extreme enough to justify the visceral reactions they elicited at Cannes or their banned by-by-the-MPAA outlaw status; anyone who survived the Hostel era of grimy torture porn grotesqueries has seen it all before, if not worse. The one time I was personally shocked & offended by this highfalutin troll job was in a Faces of Death-style sequence of real-life footage of dead bodies resulting from Nazi war atrocities. It’s not that I believe that thematic territory to be wholly off-limits (a very similar tactic worked for me with great impact in BlacKkKlansman earlier this year, for instance); it’s that it was evoked merely to poke fun at the blowback von Trier received for favorably comparing his artistry to Hitler’s at a press conference. It’s just so frustrating to sit through so much pitch-black misery for the sake of someone else’s self-amusement, especially when they demonstrate upfront that they know better. In The House that Jack Built’s earliest stretches, it feels as if von Tier is truly coming to terms with the follies of his own cruelty & pretensions; he appears willing to make a joke at his own expense, satirizing his worst impulses for cartoonishly broad humor. By the end of the film, however, he doubles down on being his own biggest fan, lashing out at his heretics with exaggerated, weaponized versions of his cruelest, most unlovable tactics. The House That Jack Built is only a self-critique for so long before it becomes a temple for von Trier’s own cinematic legacy; it’s a black hole of creative & receptive energy that only drags all of us further into the discussion of his art & his persona – whether or not we find him interesting to begin with. I’m embarrassed that I afforded him my attention here. I have spent too much of my life online to have been tricked into feeding this particular troll again. I should have known better.

-Brandon Ledet

Widows (2018)

I’m not sure what aspect of Widows’s marketing led me to expect a stylish heist thriller about vengeful women transforming into reluctant criminals in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. That version of Widows is certainly lurking somewhere in the 128-minute Prestige Picture that’s delivered instead, but it’s mostly drowned out by what I should have known to expect: an ensemble-cast melodrama packed with talented women in beautiful clothes & a world of political intrigue. Everything about 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s involvement, his collaboration with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, and the film’s Oscar-Season release date should have tipped me off that the promise of a heist genre action picture was merely a cover-up for a thoughtful, handsomely staged drama about women’s internal turmoil in the face of gendered, financial, and political oppression. Widows might still be a slight deviation from McQueen’s usual Prestige Drama fare in its isolated nods to heist genre convention, but surprise twists are becoming Gillian Flynn’s clear specialty; this entry in her modest canon includes a twist in the basic tone & genre of what you’d expect from an ensemble-cast heist picture.

Viola Davis stars as the ringleader widow, who attempts to rope three other widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and a barely- present Carrie Coon) into a heist job to help heal the financial wounds left by their dead criminal husbands. Following the detailed instructions left behind by her respective husband (Liam Neeson) in a Book of Henry-style notebook, she transforms from grieving teacher’s union organizer to criminal mastermind in the blink of a teary eye. The nature of her planned caper lands her in the middle of a hard-fought Chicago City Council’s race between brutish local politicians (Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, and Robert Duvall), which is dangerous territory for her small crew of grieving non-professional women who just want to put their lives back together. Oh yeah, and Bad Times at the El Royale’s Cynthia Erivo joins the crew as a getaway driver/muscle, just in case the cast wasn’t already overstuffed. And the dog from Game Night is also along for the ride; and Matt Walsh too. And Lukas Haas. And Jacki Weaver. If the enormity of that cast and the themes of that premise sounds like it might be overwhelming, it’s because it very much is. Widows plays a lot like an entire season of Prestige Television packed into a two-hour span – complete with the execution of the central heist acting as a self-contained episode. The economic & political backdrop of a stubbornly changing modern Chicago sets the stage for a wide range of actors (mostly playing dirtbag men and the women who love them) to patiently wait for their spotlight character moment to arrive in due time. Meanwhile, Flynn adds a new wrinkle to the plot every few beats to leave the audience salivating with anticipation for what’s going to happen next. It’s overwhelming (and a little thinly spread), but it’s also exhilarating.

Widows feels like a movie custom built for people whose all-time favorite TV show is still The Wire (and who could blame ‘em?). Its tangled web of debts, power plays, and barely-concealed vulnerabilities make for sumptuous melodrama, where lines like “We have a lot of work to do. Crying isn’t on the list,” don’t feel at all out of place or unnatural. The POV may be spread out too thin for any one character’s emotional journey to stand out as especially effective, but the performers are all so strong they manage to make an impression anyway: Davis as a once-confident woman at her wit’s end, Kaluuya as an inhuman terror, Erivo as an athletic machine, Debicki as the world’ tallest (and most tragic) punching bag, etc. I was way off-base for looking to Widows as a highly stylized heist thriller, as if it were the 2010s equivalent of Belly. Instead, it’s more of an overachieving melodrama and an actor’s showcase, the exact kind of smartly considered, midbudget adult fare Hollywood supposedly doesn’t make anymore. The action-heist element of the plot is just some deal-sweetening lagniappe for a stylish, well-performed story that would have been just as entertaining without it.

-Brandon Ledet