00:00 Hurricane Ida Relief:
02:43 Blow Out (1981)
03:41 NiNoKuni (2020)
05:50 Forest of Piano
06:50 The X-Files
09:53 Star Trek
– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew
00:00 Hurricane Ida Relief:
02:43 Blow Out (1981)
03:41 NiNoKuni (2020)
05:50 Forest of Piano
06:50 The X-Files
09:53 Star Trek
– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew
The recent Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was a rousing success with both audiences and professional critics, so it’s natural that a subgenre of vintage television hagiographies would follow. Chicken Soup for the Soul’s movie production wing has now entered the chat with an adaptation of the pop media history book Street Gang, which documents the early development & broadcast of the children’s education show Sesame Street. Like Won’t You Be My Neighbor‘s museum tour through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a Wikipedia-in-motion recap of its show’s historic bullet points, underlined by a heartfelt nostalgia for its radical, politically pointed brand of Kindness in an era of constant political turmoil (the times, they aren’t a changin’ much). As a history lesson, the film does a great job contextualizing Sesame Street‘s intent, execution, and impact through the 1970s and 80s; it efficiently packs a lot of background information into a relatively short runtime without overwhelming the audience. As an emotional nostalgia trip, however, it never quite conjures the same magic as the Mister Rogers doc, which was largely popular because it could wring tears out of an unsuspecting audience like an old dishcloth.
As told here, Sesame Street started as a purely educational public service meant to enrich the lives of Inner-City Kids who were watching television for up to 60 hours a week, mostly alone while their parents worked. Childhood psychology studies were conducted to parse out exactly what children paid attention to and retained from all that screentime, and how to make the most use out of that engagement. It turned out commercial jingles for products like breakfast cereal & beer were the most resonant programming among the adolescent audience, so they designed a show that would “sell the alphabet to preschool children” as if it were a supermarket product. Then, through the process of putting together a show aimed specifically at young urbanites, eccentric puppeteers like Jim Henson & Frank Oz were paired with Civil Rights activists & other Lefties to guide its creative vision, expanding its scope from educational jingles to an all-inclusive utopian vision of a world where “television loved people” instead of being outright hostile to them. It’s a twisty journey from concept to screen with creative, political input from many, varied minds. All that amounts to a fascinating history (which I assume is even more richly conveyed in the source material), but not necessarily an emotional gut punch.
Luckily, Sesame Street already has its own emotional gut punch documentary in the Carroll Spinney biography I Am Big Bird, which charts out the beloved puppeteer’s delicate psychological balance as expressed through both Big Bird & Oscar the Grouch. If you’re looking for a good, wholesome cry, go there. Because Steet Gang is spread out across so many collaborators and decades of backstory, it can’t possibly pack the same emotional wallop as the Fred Rogers or Caroll Spinney docs. Between its praise for Spinney, Henson, Oz, songwriter Joe Raposo, and behind-the-scenes shot callers like Joan Ganz Cooney & Jon Stone, it’s reluctant to single out any one creative as responsible for the show’s magic, which makes for good journalism but shaky foundation for an emotional arc. If there’s any core pathos to the story Street Gang tells, it’s in watching a group of young, fired-up artists & Leftists age into grumpy, burnt-out workaholics as the weekly workload of Sesame Street grinds their enthusiasm into dust. For the most part, though, it’s just a warm bath of vintage television nostalgia that relies on feel-good throwback clips & behind-the-scenes insight to feel worthwhile. And it works. The expectation that these vintage TV docs emotionally destroy you is likely an unfair one; sometimes they’re just Nice.
The unspoken allure for documentaries as a medium is the promise that you’ll see raw, honest footage from real life that could never be captured in narrative filmmaking. No matter how well a doc is fortified by talking-head interviews, firmly contextualized historical research, or a strong editorial POV, its main selling point to most audiences is going to be the carnival-barker promise of never-before-seen wonders you won’t find elsewhere in cinema. I was thinking a lot about that tension between raw archival footage & carefully curated supplementary material during Soleil Moon Frye’s self-portrait documentary Kid90. A reflection on her post-Punky Brewster years as a party-hard teenager with a constantly running camcorder among other Famous 90s Kids, Kid90 is a vintage backstage tour of teenage celebrity you’re likely to never see with such raw, intimate candor again. Its modern talking-head interviews & narration often cheapen the impact of those video diary clips, but the camcorder footage is such a powerful clash of pop culture nostalgia & miserable decadence that it doesn’t matter much. Kid90 delivers on the promise of unveiling raw, honest footage of its subjects that you’d never see in their carefully curated public appearances, but we’re at the mercy of how Frye chooses to contextualize (or withhold) that footage as the director/narrator. We only get a peek into the window, but it’s a privilege to be invited into her world at all.
It makes sense that a former child celebrity would be protective of the private footage she has of herself and her friends (both alive and dead) struggling with the early-onset-adulthood of growing up in the entertainment industry. I don’t know every Teen Beat star of her time by name, so I spent a lot of the movie asking questions like “Is that the guy who played Zach Morris?” as I failed to recognize some of her peers in their adult form. There are some incredibly intimate glimpses of celebrities like David Arquette, Corey Feldman, and Leonardo DiCaprio in her camcorder diary footage, though, and seeing them act like actual teenagers instead of PR-polished entertainers is outright jarring. Frye herself was lost in the 1990s, often cast as a teenage sex symbol after growing out of her sassy cutie-pie phase, to the point where name-calling taunts of “Punky Boobster” drove her to de-sexualize her body with a very public breast reduction surgery. She fully understands the value of her video diaries of that pre-internet era, when celebrities young & old were much less conscious of their candid, off-stage footage leaking out into the world at large. In one brief montage, clips of Famous 90s Kids like Stephen Dorff & Jenny Lewis drinking & getting high are intercut with their PSA participation in the “Just Say No” campaigns of the Reagan Era, which feels like a glimpse of what this film might’ve been at feature length if the footage had fallen out of Frye’s hands. Instead, she’s careful what information to disclose and when, and you always feel as if there’s even more sensational footage on these tapes that we’ll never be allowed to see.
I’m glad that Kid90 is 100% the story Soleil Moon Frye wanted to tell, how she wanted to tell it. So much of her private life was already in the public eye from such a young age that it’s surprising she’d offer even more of herself & her inner circle for wide consumption like this, instead of defensively locking it away. The only letdown is how much of the film is comprised of modern-day footage of her famous friends all-growed-up, when those interviews cannot compete with the potency & enormity of what she captured on her camcorder as a teenager. There are already much braver, more vulnerable versions of this kind of self-reflective filmmaking to be found in titles like Stories We Tell, Shirkers, and You Cannot Kill David Arquette. Frye is more than candid enough about the abuse & heartache she suffered as a kid for us to understand why this project is a cathartic, therapeutic experience for her, and it would be unfair to ask for more than what she already shares. The problem is that when we’re submerged in the vintage VHS nostalgia and cursed found-footage horror of her teenage video diaries, there’s just no denying that we’re watching something truly special & raw that you could not find anywhere else. Being pulled out of that footage for a modern-day check-in is a constant disappointment, but I feel privileged to have seen even a minute of her home video footage in the first place. I need to let go of the nagging thought that there’s even more of it that’s just outside my reach.
The pre-packaged media narrative about what makes Together Together special is that it’s a mainstream comedy that cast a trans actress as a cisgender, pregnant woman. That’s true enough, but what really makes the film incredible is that the actress in question is Patti Harrison, who’s just about the last comedian on the planet you’d expect in a mainstream role of any kind. Harrison’s comedy is confrontational, absurd, and explosively funny. Together Together is none of those things. This is a very Sundancey comedy about two lonely people establishing an unlikely friendship in an intensely awkward scenario. Harrison is cast opposite Ed Helms as her co-lead – a bland, safe, everyman comedian whose defining quality is that you always kinda wish he was Jason Sudeikis instead. She’s asked to be earnest, muted, and vulnerably awkward, and she does so ably . . . but that’s not what you think of as Her Thing. This is not at all the movie you’d expect from a comedian who says things like, “[I] feel very caged by [a lot of well-meaning social media liberals] who claim to be pro-my-autonomy. You’re pro-my-autonomy until it comes to my work, and then you can’t accept the fact that I love to joke about fucking dogs.” It’s extremely cool to see her land such a high-profile gig—complete with promotional interviews on NPR (home base for well-meaning social media liberals) about the film’s cultural importance—but it’s also a little bit of a bummer that she couldn’t be more herself in that spotlight.
I don’t want to be too hard on Together Together. It’s cute. Twenty years ago, this soft-pedaled quirky comedy about an upper-middle age, upper-middle class tech bro (Helms) forming an unlikely bond with the twentysomething barista he’s paying to be his child’s surrogate mother (Harrison) almost certainly would’ve been a romcom, with the two leads falling for each other across generational and class divides. Instead, they establish a low-key platonic friendship, which is much trickier to navigate but a lot less icky. It’s mostly a film about boundaries. Their employer-surrogate relationship is contractually defined by legal & therapeutic boundaries that are set in ink & stone, but once they start finding comfort & pleasure in each other’s company, those lines are hopelessly blurred. They’re two deeply lonely people who very much need each other but don’t know how to express that need without violating the terms of their firmly established legal, financial dynamic. The movie quickly establishes this uneasy rapport in an opening interview where the barista is hired for the surrogate mother job, then it gently tracks their friendship’s rocky development across the pregnancy’s three trimester-chapters. It’s all very cute and charming and has no business being Rated R.
Even if another performer replaced Patti Harrison in the starring role, there’d still be something perverse about the way this movie assembles so many aggressively strange comedians for something so deliberately toothless. Jo Firestone, Anna Konkle, and Tig Notaro are very funny people, so why are they given so little room to make jokes? Julio Torres is the only comedian who’s fully set loose to be Funny here as Harrison’s spaced-out weirdo co-worker, while everyone else is mostly just asked to be awkwardly sweet. Still, it was nice to see so many talented performers in one spot. Hopefully it’ll be the kind of word-of-mouth charmer that’ll gradually make Patti Harrison a big enough name that she can star in a comedy molded closer to her own delightfully fucked up tastes. She deserves it. For now, this is decent enough as lazy-afternoon comfort viewing. It feels condescending to label a movie “cute” and “nice”, but there really no other words for what Together Together offers. I’m just a little confused why so many outrageously funny people had to be assembled to accomplish that.
Britnee: There are many comedies that play around with the morbid humor of characters coming back from the dead. We actually did an episode of The Swampflix Podcast a few months ago where we talked about My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), a great example of a film that makes that gruesome subject light and funny. While they can be hilarious, what My Boyfriend’s Back and similar films do that I’m not a huge fan of is attach their undead humor to traditional zombie lore (bodies starting to rot, hunger for human flesh, etc.). Thankfully, there is a funny movie about someone returning from the dead who is in great health and looks fabulous from start to end: Hello Again (1987). It also happens to be my second Movie of the Month selection that stars Shelley Long, the ultimate 80s funny lady.
Lucy (Shelley Long) is a clumsy housewife who’s married to her college sweetheart, Jason (Corbin Bernsen), a plastic surgeon rising through the ranks of high society in NYC. Lucy is constantly tripping over her own feet, spilling food on her light-colored clothing, and in one of the most memorable scenes, ripping her dress in two by stepping on the hem. She most certainly does not fit in with the snobby groups her husband rubs shoulders with. While visiting her occultist sister Zelda (Judith Ivey), Lucy chokes on a piece of a South Korean chicken ball and dies. Thankfully, Zelda comes across an ancient book in her shop in which she finds a spell that could bring Lucy back from the dead. In order for the spell to work, there are three things that need to happen approximately one year after death: (1) the deceased must have died before their time; (2) the person performing the spell has to have pure love for the deceased; (3) the Earth, the moon, and the dog star must be aligned in a perfect isosceles triangle. Zelda makes it happen, and Lucy returns from the grave. She then tries her best to navigate through life (again) while developing a romantic relationship with the ER doctor who witnessed her death (Gabriel Byrne).
There’s not much explanation of how the magic works post-resurrection, except that Lucy needs to find true love before the next full moon. Nothing is mentioned on how long her new life will last, if she will continue to age, etc. I love that the film doesn’t spend a ton of time getting lost in some bizarre, made up lore. Instead, we get to watch Lucy be an undead klutz with the most incredible fashion sense, and it’s wonderful.
Brandon, what are your thoughts on how Hello Again handles the subject of coming back from the dead? Was it boring or creative?
Brandon: I didn’t find the way it handles Lucy’s resurrection boring or creative, really. That’s because I’m not sure the film handles that subject at all. Lucy could’ve just as easily been deep-frozen, or lost in the woods, or simply comatose for a year and it wouldn’t have had that much effect on the film’s tone or plot. Hello Again is less about her being undead than it is about her being unflappable, sidestepping all of the possible morbidity of its zom-com premise in favor of A Modern Woman Making Her Own Way feel-goodery. And it’s cute as heck. We already have plenty gory screwball comedies about the decaying bodies of the living dead — from Death Becomes Her to Dead Man on Campus to Idle Hands to the aforementioned My Boyfriend’s Back. This particular zom-com feels way more fixated on how much your life & social standing would change if you unexpectedly disappeared for a year than it does on the practical, grisly details of its supernatural conflict, and that’s fine. If anything, the last 18 months of global social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that thought experiment more relevant and relatable. Watching Lucy emerge from the grave to feel out her place in a world that has moved on without her is eerily reminiscent of what it currently feels like to leave my house to see friends & family for the first time since the pandemic started. It’s a little awkward, a little absurd, surprisingly sad, but ultimately good for our souls.
If there’s anything I wished Hello Again would’ve pushed a little harder, it wouldn’t be the flesh-decaying zombie angle, but rather the Mr. Bean style physical humor Shelley Long gets to indulge in as a hopeless klutz. She’s incredibly loveable (and funny!) as a clumsy goofball who can barely keep herself together among the big-city sophisticates she refers to as “jazzy people.” I guess my ideal version of the film would be a Mr. Bean-meets-Groundhog Day premise where Lucy repeatedly dies in pathetically silly ways (steps on a rake, drowns in a birdbath, gets crushed by a falling piano, etc) only to get resurrected for yet another chance at self-actualization/true love until she gets it right. Instead, the movie brushes both its supernatural & slapstick shenanigans aside for some heartfelt melodrama about Lucy re-establishing her place in the world (with a brief flirtation with tabloid fame along the way). It’s cute, but not nearly as funny as watching her split her dress open at a fancy party to expose her underwear to all the major financial donors at her husband’s hospital so they can drop their monocles and exclaim “Well, I never!” The only other major Shelley Long star vehicle I can recall seeing is Troop Beverly Hills, and it’s only Lucy’s unfashionable clumsiness that really distinguishes those two performances for me (as adorable as they both are), so I would’ve loved to see it exaggerated to greater effect.
Hanna, what do you think Shelley Long brings to the table as the central performer here? Hello Again asks a lot of her as its star. She has to convey sincere romance with a dead-serious Gabriel Byrne as a rival doctor at her husband’s hospital; she has to comically outshine a wide range of the exact quirky side-character archetypes that she usually plays herself (especially Judith Ivey as her sister Zelda); she has to pose both as a dowdy housewife and a burgeoning fashionista. Does she somehow pull it all off?
Hanna: I’m not super familiar with Shelley Long (apart from her role in The Money Pit, which I love), but I was super impressed by her tireless commitment to the various zany demands of Hello Again. Her adaptability in whatever situation she’s thrown into is key to her character and the success of this movie; it seems obvious that one of Long’s strengths as a performer in general is being totally game for anything (including making a fool of herself), and that quality carries over to Lucy’s indomitable spirit in the face of heartbreak, fame, and the occult nonsense that brought her back to life. It helps that Long is eminently likeable! She’s especially charming when she’s living my nightmare of exposing her big white panties to a slew of hot-shot doctors at a dinner party, but I was just as happy to see her strut around her sister’s bookstore in an absurdly fabulous dress after her Big Makeover.
Even though Long obviously did a great job, I’m not sure if all of the threads of Hello Again came together in a satisfying way. Like Brandon said, there’s a lot going on: Lucy’s story is picked up by the global news and becomes a viral celebrity, forcing her to dodge paparazzi at the hospital; Jason (Corbin Bernsen) shacked up with Lucy’s opportunistic best friend, Kim (Sela Ward) in Lucy’s absence, then tries to win Lucy back once she becomes famous; and of course there’s the love subplot with the dreamy ER doctor Gabriel Byrne, which includes a Beauty and the Beast-ish threat of Lucy being sent back to the grave if she fails to find true love before the next full moon. There are a few more tiny subplots, but for the most part they were a little underdeveloped, and sometimes forgotten. This is especially true of Lucy’s love curse, which is briefly mentioned to add some stakes to her living situation but largely goes unaddressed without consequence. I really loved the characters in Hello Again and I was entertained by each scene individually, but I never felt like I had a firm grasp on the overall direction of the story. But! That’s okay – it was an absolute delight anyway.
Boomer, do you think Hello Again could have used a little more development, or was it perfect as an erratic late-80s comedy? Is there an element of Lucy’s life after death that you wish had been explored further?
Boomer: There’s a lot of fun to be had here, and one of the topics of discussion that we have danced around is Long’s big performance near the end in which she is supposedly possessed by the spirit of Kim’s latest (dead) husband. It’s a true delight in which she shows off her talent for funny voices and physical comedy that’s very large but refrains from going too broad. In a movie that is, in many ways, largely unfocused, it serves as a capstone on the various small bits of physical comedy scattered throughout. That’s kind of the film’s bread-and-butter, though, as it moves from a small, heartfelt reunion, to scenes of Lucy speaking with her former boss about how, despite being irreplaceable, she was replaced within two weeks of her death, to her realization that her understated suburban housewife style has become all the rage in Los Angeles, for dubiously believable pop psychology reasons. It’s fair to say that by the time they’re having a full-on Oh God! style press conference, things have gotten pretty muddled.
I did think that the brevity of the time between Lucy’s death and resurrection was a bit of a misstep. This is a bit of a strange reference point for a film in this genre, but I kept thinking about Flight of the Navigator, and how that film’s eight year jump forward allowed for the passage of enough time for significant changes to occur and thus return that film’s protagonist to a world that was sufficiently different and alienating. It might have been weird, narratively, for Zelda to still be clinging to the idea of bringing back her sister after so long a period of time, but while it’s not inconceivable that a year might be enough time for, say, a playground to be converted into a fairly-far-along construction site, it does seem like far too little time for various other events to have occurred. The one that seemed the most unbelievable to me was that her son, who was presumably 17 or 18 at the beginning of the film given that he was still deciding whether or not to go to college, had compressed what, in the real world, would be at least six years of professional development into a mere twelve months. A longer time before resurrection would also go some distance toward making Kim and Jason a little more well-rounded and multi-dimensional, as opposed to their largely static roles in the film as it exists now. In the film, the Jason moves on so quickly that it would probably raise a few eyebrows, and instead of having Kim simply hop into bed (and matrimony) with Jason, she could have had a scene with Lucy in which she talked about having a hard time finding her footing and eventually falling for Jason because the two spent so much time together after Lucy’s passing. I could definitely see both her and Jason played more sympathetically, with both of them as flawed individuals who brought out the worst in each other as her lust for wealth cross-pollinated with Jason’s ambitions to create an LA power, and powerfully misguided, couple.
Brandon: Even if it can be narratively frustrating, there is something charming about how disinterested Hello Again is in its own plot vs. how in love it is with its collection of quirky characters. One of the funniest line deliveries in the entire film is when Zelda crashes a stuffy society party and introduces herself to the shocked sophisticates, “My name’s Zelda! I have a story for you. Hey, don’t worry. I’m just Lucy’s eccentric sister.” I love how blatant the film’s priorities are in that exchange.
Boomer: I literally said “Oh my god, Sela, you look amazing” the moment she appeared on screen. I also love Judith Ivey. If you’re able to track it down, I’d recommend giving her audiobook version of the Stephen King short story “Luckey Quarter” (sic) a try; it’s very charming.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
-The Swampflix Crew
Welcome to Episode #142 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon is joined by temporary shelter-mate Sabre to stave off the boredom of Hurricane Ida power outages with our very first solar-powered podcast — discussing the movies they’ve been watching while waiting for the post-storm world to return to normalcy.
02:50 Heathers vs. Mean Girls
05:35 Death Becomes Her
08:15 Jellyfish Eyes
– The Podcast Crew
Understandably, there have been hundreds of attempts to make timely COVID-era films over the past year and a half. Most of these productions are on the level of Doug Liman’s Locked Down: throwaway novelties of limited scope & budget that’re only worthwhile as cultural time capsules of the minor inconveniences and quirks of daily life that define this never-ending global pandemic for most people surviving it. I’m interested in this burgeoning exploitation genre the way I am with most fad-cinema novelties of the past: disco musicals, aerobics-craze horrors, sports dramas about skateboarders, etc. There is something especially cynical & dark about exploiting COVID-era “lockdown life”, though, since this particular global “fad” comes with a real-life bodycount in the millions. From what I’ve seen so far, there have only been three works of COVID cinema that have really grappled with the grief, isolation, and exhaustion of the pandemic: the “screenlife” cyberghost story Host, the Bo Burnham video diary Inside, and Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic folk horror In the Earth. This is likely a cinematic subject we’ll be unraveling for the rest of our lives, since it affects every last person on the planet, but genuinely great films made in the thick of this ongoing crisis have so far been in short supply.
For its part, In the Earth smartly reflects on the maddening grief of COVID-19 indirectly, from a distance. Its characters discuss the social isolation of quarantine and the bureaucratic discomforts of routine testing, but they never specify the exact scope or nature of the virus they’re protecting themselves from. It’s less about the specific daily safety measures of COVID in particular, but more about how a year of social & spiritual isolation has permanently remapped their brains in chaotic, fucked up ways. By stepping away from the lockdown restrictions of city life to instead stage its COVID-flavored horror show in the woods, it recontextualizes this never-ending global crisis as a dual Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Man struggle, attempting to document something a little more philosophical about the absurdity, violence, and emptiness of living right now. Its two central villains are trying to directly bargain with Nature through science and through religious mysticism, respectively, as if all our modern ills can only be solved by radically overhauling the way we live among each other on this planet (which feels right, even if nearly impossible).
A field researcher is guided by a park ranger into the thick of British wilderness, searching for a rogue scientist who’s gone off the grid and off the rails in her recent experiments. They eventually find the mad scientist, who is directly communicating with trees trough a convoluted system of strobe lights & synthesizers she’s arranged in the woods like a sinister art instillation. In her mind, this human-to-Nature line of communication could potentially unlock some great, authentic power that will help us better understand (and potentially command) our place in the global ecosystem. The philosophical counterpoint to her experiment and the main obstacle on our journey to her is an axe-wielding maniac who stalks the woods. His plan to reconnect with Nature involves local folklore rituals that honor the elder god Parnag Fegg, The Spirit of the Woods. The advocate for science and the advocate for religion are both violently insane, of course, but they have a way of luring in the two new interlopers in the woods with calm, disarmingly kind demeanors that make them vulnerable to their respective extremist rhetoric. These are extreme times, after all, and the social isolation of the past year has made us all a little batty in our own special ways.
I can’t tell you exactly what Ben Wheatley was trying to communicate with this gory, psychedelic horror show, nor do I really want to hear the specifics of his intent. As a horror movie, it’s perfectly entertaining & unsettling mix of sci-fi, folk horror, and woodland slasher genre tropes. The surgical details of the axe wounds are just as effectively upsetting as the psychedelic freak-outs of its strobe light centerpiece. As a nightmare reflection of our collective, COVID-era mindset, it’s much more difficult to pin down exactly what it’s doing except to say that it’s impressively strange, upsetting stuff considering its limited scope & budget. So many movies being made in and about these times are so caught up in the mundane, practical details of daily life that they never transcend the novelty of its setting. In the Earth is a rare example of COVID Cinema that aims for something a little more intangible and indescribable — something that captures the existential horrors of current life rather than the logistical ones.
“Is this Good-Weird or just Weird-Weird?” That nagging question never faded from my mind at any point during Leos Carax’s entertainment-industry rock opera Annette, but I’m not convinced it’s a question that needs an answer. I’m cool with the movie’s low-energy batshittery either way. It at least has a sense of humor about itself, and there’s nothing else quite like it – two qualities that cannot be undervalued in the current Prestige Filmmaking landscape. Originally composed as a concept album by the avant-garde pop group Sparks, Annette feels more like a prank than a proper musical. Every line of dialogue is written as unsubtle, declarative statements about what each character is doing & feeling in the moment, as if that information wasn’t already being illustrated onscreen; they’re also sincerely performed as pure, straight-forward melodrama. And yet the entire film feels as if it’s being conveyed with a tight, self-amused smirk, impressed with its own audacity as a go-for-broke Weird Movie with a legitimate budget & cast. I’m impressed as well, even if I can’t quite match how impressed it seems to be with itself.
Adam Driver stars as a low-effort, hacky stand-up comedian who’s earned rockstar status through his “tells it like it is” abrasiveness, which protects him from having to be vulnerable onstage. His fame skyrockets when he romantically links with a renowned opera singer played by Marion Cotillard, whose contrasting artform is high-effort & devastatingly vulnerable on a nightly basis. The comedian’s ego is threatened by the amount of oxygen his tenor-wife’s career eats up in their life together, especially once her starpower outshines his own. That resentment leads him to explosive, violent fits of anger, as well as the financial exploitation of their child, whose own singing career allows him to vicariously re-live his former professional glories. This all sounds typical enough for a star-studded, festival circuit melodrama with Awards Season ambitions, but Annette‘s wryly operatic line-deliveries & near-future visual mindfuckery abstract all its familiar narrative elements into oblivion. Its Weird-Weird weirdness is concentrated entirely in its execution, not in its premise.
My favorite aspect of Annette is how its outright hostile it is towards its audience, mirroring the onstage abrasiveness of its stand-up “comedian” protagonist. Like in Soderbergh’s introduction to the difficult-to-define prank comedy Schizopolis, the movie opens with Carax issuing commands that everyone hold our breath, our farts, and our full attention for the entirety of the screening. We’re instructed to “Shut up and sit” without any distractions for the following 140min, which feels like a tall order considering that it was distributed through Amazon Prime concurrently with its theatrical release. Carax doesn’t want your absent-minded snacking or social media scrolling to compete with his quietly bizarre vision of the modern movie musical. If you grant him your full attention, he promises to treat you to a nightmarish inversion of pop-culture celebrity in a near-future Los Angeles. He mostly delivers. The film’s explicit sex, fairy tale puppetry, late-night motorcycle rides, and surrealist parodies of Entertainment Tonight broadcasts are all incredibly, uniquely eerie deviations from the mainstream-filmmaking norm. I don’t fully know what its intent or purpose are besides achieving that eeriness, but that effect was more than enough to hold my attention (if not my farts).
My only complaint about Annette, really, is that it’s obnoxiously long. I was amused by the blatant emotional declarations of the song lyrics, the absurdist intrusion of the puppet-baby, the surface-level jabs at entertainment media vanity, and all the rest. It’s just that it could have been an entire hour shorter without sacrificing any of those distinguishing details. The movie is Weird, but it is persistently Weird in the exact same way from start to end, with no detectable ebb or flow in its tone. However, as impatient as I could get with the vast ocean of Weird-Weird water-treading between its opening & closing numbers (the only genuinely catchy songs of the bunch), I recognize that obnoxious self-indulgence & self-amusement as exactly what’s endearing about the film in the first place. A movie this hubristic pretty much has to be an hour longer than needed; that’s just part of its nature. And, hey, at least it’s a more singularly entertaining waste of Amazon’s money than the rocket fuel that powers Jeff Bezos’s mid-life crisis.
Since its planned 2020 release was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot has long been one of the most widely anticipated horror films on the horizon. Given the recent infection surge from the Delta variant of this cursed virus, it was certainly possible its release would be delayed again, but the movie has finally arrived on the big screen. I’m just not personally feeling comfortable enough with current movie theater safety to see it. On top of that, Hurricane Ida has knocked out the power supply to all cinemas in my region anyway. Everything DaCosta has said about her vision (and revision) for Candyman lore has at least made the new film sound like it has a thoughtful, novel approach to the material. At the very least, it can’t be any worse than the previous two Candyman sequels, which essentially just plugged the Candyman character into new cultural settings outside of his Chicago housing projects home (Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Día de los Muertos celebrations in Los Angeles, to be specific) without any worthy thematic purpose to justify the change in locale. Early reviews have been mixed, but I’m still waiting to see how successful her attempt to revamp the material is for myself, which is frustrating now that it’s just outside my reach.
If you’re like me, you really, really need a modernized rehash of Candyman to hold you over until DaCosta’s film arrives on VOD, and I guess you could do worse for that fix than the recent French horror Kandisha. Directed by the sickos who wrote the home-invasion chiller Inside, Kandisha blatantly riffs on the Candyman narrative template but relocates it to the housing project towers of Paris. In the film, a small crew of teenage girls summon a Moroccan ghost that proves to be more powerful & dangerous than they ever imagined, putting all of their friends & family at risk. The girls are graffiti artists who hang out in abandoned nooks of their housing project, emerging through holes in the walls as if sneaking into alternate urban universes. They make direct jokes about summoning the demonic figure of Kandisha by saying her name five time in the mirror “like in the movies”, a direct acknowledgement of the film’s ties to Candyman lore & iconography. It’s basically Shudder getting into the Asylum business of rushing out a similar-enough photocopy of a major work before the real, expensive thing reaches home video. And by that metric, it’s pretty good.
In its early goings, Kandisha plays like any recent coming-of-age drama about European teens — Girlhood, Rocks, Cuties, etc. There’s a genuine camaraderie established between the girls when this is still just a hangout film, which is when it’s at its strongest and most specific. Once the Kandisha is out of the bag things get much more generic. This is basically a mainstream teen-audience horror on an indie budget. The gory details of its kills can be shockingly gnarly, but all its story beats & scares are exactly what you’d expect from a Studio Horror version of this story. This is especially true when it comes to the film’s confused approach to metaphor. Kandisha is a modern urban legend and an ancient Moroccan folktale. Despite the geographic specificity of her origins, she can be summoned through either pentagram or Ouija Board, which from what I can tell have nothing to do with Moroccan mythology. She’s both a misandrist and the only covered Arabic woman in the cast, but the film has little to say about the cultural & gender politics evoked in those choices. I’m not saying that every single horror villain has to function as a 1:1 political metaphor for some diagnosed social ill, but in this case it’s impossible not to search for one. Are the girls punished for venting that “All men are trash” by summoning a misandrist demon that only targets the men in their lives? Is there some thinly veiled commentary here about the tensions between Europe’s Old-World mysticism and modern youth culture? Is this progressive, reactionary, or somewhere in-between? I couldn’t tell you, since Kandisha is way more invested in the grisly details of its bodycount violence than it is in the thematic purpose behind it. That approach is entertaining enough in the moment, but it’s also disappointingly shallow considering how much more thoughtful the character work is in the early stretch.
Kandisha “updates” Candyman in the exact careless way its direct sequels did in the 1990s: by relocating it to a new cultural context & locale for variation in backdrop, with no real engagement with how that change affects its themes or purpose. The promise of Nia DaCosta’s reboot is that it attempts something much more thoughtful & substantial with its own revision of Candyman lore. I’m excited to see that ambitious, divisive revision from the comfort & safety of my own home in a few months, but in the meantime I enjoyed this junk-food appetizer for what it is.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, a darkly funny portrait of a dysfunctional family’s attempt to construct the most extravagant single-family home in the United States.
01:50 Things Heard and Seen (2021)
09:00 Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop (2021)
13:13 The Wailing (2016)
14:14 It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)
16:20 Annette (2021)
21:19 The Astrologer (1976)
26:00 The Queen of Versailles (2012)
– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew