Some psychedelic, “psychotronic” cinema is great because it tests the boundaries of filmmaking as an ever-evolving artform, especially cinema’s unique ability to simulate the elusive, illogical imagery of dreams. Most of it is just a cheap way to babysit stoners. The new David Bowie “documentary” Moonage Daydream falls firmly in that latter category, earning a prize spot among the stoner-babysitter Classic Rock “classics”: Heavy Metal, The Song Remains the Same, lava lamps, Tommy, blacklight posters, the iTunes visualizer, The Wall, etc. It’s more of a scrapbook in motion than a proper essay film or documentary. Or maybe it’s just the Bowie version of your local planetarium’s Pink Floyd laser show. I do think there’s some cinematic value to that kind of stoner-pacifying psychedelic filmmaking, but the rewards are pretty limited. It paints a beautiful backdrop for your couch-potato bong rips, then gently puts you to sleep so you can’t get into too much trouble while you’re high.
Do not watch Moonage Daydream if you want to learn about the life, loves, and art of glam rock musician David Bowie. Do watch Moonage Daydream if you want to hear Bowie intone Headspace app meditations about life, love, and art over a randomized slideshow medley of concert footage & movie clips. Some of the sci-fi pulp ephemera used to illustrate his lyrical mumblings make sense as mood setting for Bowie’s “alien rockstar” period as his Ziggy Stardust persona. However, as the never-before-seen concert footage is continually interrupted by selections as disparate as Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising and Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space long after Bowie’s moved on to more grounded, coked-out material, it’s clear those clips are only included to keep the otherwise repetitive imagery freshly varied. Bowie’s reputation as a cineaste is cited as an excuse to roll vintage sci-fi footage that looks cool alongside his music; the use of William S. Burroughs’s “cut-ups” technique in his writing is cited as an excuse to randomly quote him at his most abstractly philosophical, with no discernible reasoning behind arrangement or progression. The whole film is about as carefully planned out as the improvised “liquid light shows” projected behind Jefferson Airplane performances in the 1960s. It’s a Bowie-themed novelty kaleidoscope, a psychedelic “action painting” with a glam rock soundtrack.
This is not the approach to Bowie’s life, art, and legacy that I expected from documentarian Brett Morgen. His earlier film Montage of Heck deliberately de-mystified the ethereal rock star persona of Kurt Cobain, stripping away the self-destructive romance of his memory to show how sad & dysfunctional his drug addiction made his life on a practical, real-world level. By contrast, this montage of glam is only interested in David Bowie as an otherworldly prophet with an uncanny ability to tap into the collective unconscious through his far-out music; it’s more interested in his stage personae than his life as a real-world human being. That approach isn’t fundamentally wrong, but it leaves little room for tracking Bowie’s progress as an artist beyond noting his relocations from London to Los Angeles to Berlin to beyond. Since Morgen was given full blessing and access by the Bowie estate, he finds some freshly striking imagery to mine for his psychedelic freak-out montage; I was particularly tickled to see Ziggy Stardust perform at length in a slutty little kimono, conscious of his newfound status as a sex symbol. There’s just only so much Morgen can achieve by focusing on Bowie’s finely curated surface aesthetics, and it’s not quite enough to sustain 135 minutes of continuous abstraction . . . unless it’s used as background enhancement for other, more illicit hobbies.
Welcome to Episode #174 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss the merits & miseries of twee, comparing the 2015 twee-revival comedy Girl Asleep against a grab bag of aughts-era twee classics.
One danger of watching too many movies is that you can become a spoiled little brat. It’s easy to become jaded about what makes an individual picture special when you’ve seen dozens of equally great movies just like it, to the point where you overvalue novelty & surprise instead of emotional resonance & dramatic truth. Girl Picture is a thoroughly lovely teen-girls-at-the-edge-of-adulthood drama, chronicling the messy lives & loves of three Finnish high schoolers who are figuring themselves out before they get locked into the braindead rituals of adult responsibilities. It’s thorny, sweet, well observed, and swooningly romantic in all the exact ways you’d want a coming-of-age drama to be. And yet, I found myself comparing it against a long line of already-established modern classics that have delivered exactly what it offers, titles like Water Lilies, Girlhood, Princess Cyd, Babyteeth; etc. That’s great company to be in, no matter where Girl Picture ultimately fits in that hierarchy, but I also can’t help but search for the few dramatic details & stylistic nuances that help it stand out in that crowded field. The easiest solution would’ve been to, you know, just watch fewer movies to begin with.
I can really only think of two aspects of Girl Picture that distinguish it from the rest of its high-style, coming-of-age sorority. The most obvious distinguishing factor is its setting, with trades in the genre’s typical American summer backdrop for a harsh Finnish winter. The less obvious, less easily definable distinction is the film’s matter-of-fact approach to sex. I’m not used to watching teens order drinks at a sweaty dance club, then doing vigorous Hand Stuff as a nightcap. Girl Picture is very nonchalant about sex, centering its two main BFF’s paths to sexual self-discovery – one learning how to advocate for her pleasure with boys in bed, the other learning how to let girls into her heart instead of just into her sheets. There isn’t much drama to the story beyond to those two bedroom crises, and its sexual frankness also sometimes plays as deliberately rattling, at one point harshly cutting from a cliche shot of a teen’s hand soaring through the wind outside a car window to that same hand doing something much more vulgar between a fellow teen’s legs. It’s not at all played for shock value, though. If anything, these youngsters are extremely polite fuckers; they always ask for verbal consent before indulging their bodies, which at least feels unique to this generation of kids even if it’s not unique to this specific picture.
Ultimately, novelty doesn’t make or break a movie like this. These dramas are hinged on the personalities of the girls they profile, and Rönkkö, Mimmi, and (Mimmi’s love interest) Emma are all lovely to spend 100 minutes with. It’s a relatively low-stakes winter, with only so many mistakes that can be made between house parties, gym class, and afterschool jobs at the mall. When one girl swoons as if she’s met the love of her life, it cuts to the other playing laser tag with strangers in the woods. It’s all sweetly innocent, even when it’s raunchy or heart-soaringly romantic. Director Alli Haapasalo finds plenty room to flex her sense of visual style in this feature debut, too, even if it’s all decorated in the same neon crosslighting, strobelit dance parties, and pastel bedroom decor that’s typical to the genre. No matter how familiar Girl Picture can feel frame by frame, it’s always a pleasure, and it’s headlined by a lovely group of kids who deserve the absolute best. Rooting for these girls to get their acts together before life throws real consequences at them is more than enough to make this a satisfying teen-years drama. Just try your best to forget that you’ve seen it all done before many times over.
The timing of Bones and All’s theatrical run is indicative of how slight signifiers in a film’s marketing strategy can greatly change its public perception. Released a month earlier, this young-cannibals-in-love road trip story would’ve been treated as a major studio Horror Film, falling somewhere between the somber-epic mythmaking of Doctor Sleep and the teen heartthrob pop-horror of The Twilight Saga. By holding it off until November, MGM was able to position the film as a prestigious Awards Contender instead – something that loses money in the short-term, then hopefully buys the studio a couple golden statues months down the line. As a result, I’ve been seeing a lot of grossed-out responses from audiences who were expecting Bones and All to be more of a straightforward road trip love story, repulsed by its most shocking moments of blood-guzzling, flesh-chewing violence. As someone who twiddles their thumbs for most of the stretch between Halloween & January Dumping Season on the film release calendar, I’m coming from the opposite direction, wishing Bones and All weren’t so tenderly underplayed & remorseful about its hunger pangs for gore. It’s kinda nice to have something that drifts between those two magnetic pulls, though, especially since it’s so unusual to see a Near Dark-style genre blender treated as a genuine threat to Award Season’s more traditional biopics & historical weepies. The exact same cut of this movie would not have had that fighting chance if released in October instead of November, which is exactly how silly & arbitrary this entire “Best of the Year” selection process is on an industry-wide scale.
I was amused to see Bones and All‘s dual nature as a somber, awardsy drama and a viciously violent cannibal movie reflected in the casting of its two leads. Certainly, the Oscar nominated Tiger Beat heartthrob Timothée Chalamet is the film’s biggest draw, as it relies heavily on his twinky dirtbag charms as history’s scrawniest leading man. As a genre-trash connoisseur, though, I was most excited to see Escape Room‘s Taylor Russell get her due as the film’s front-and-center protagonist, as she’s a far more powerful emotional anchor than that high-concept, low-execution horror franchise likely deserves. Here, Russell headlines a coming-of-age story for a teen girl in rural 1980s America who’s going through an unexpected Raw phase: channeling her newfound adult instincts & urges into sudden acts of cannibalism. Abandoned by her family, she seeks a home & a self-assured identity on the road, where her natural scent as “an eater” is frequently clocked by fellow cannibals. Against the odds, she hooks up with Chalamet’s fellow loner eater and makes a small, manageable place for herself in the world where she can live without pain & guilt. Only, no matter how much she personally heals from her traumatic past, it has a way of creeping back in to ruin her progress – mostly through the villainous presence of Mark Rylance as an old-timey hobo (doing his best Rose the Hat). Bones and All is equally balanced as an understated road trip drama about pained personal healing and an eerie supernatural horror about the wounded souls & vicious monsters at the fringes of American rot. Which version of the film you see in that Rorschach test-in-motion is a matter of personal disposition and might even change from scene to scene.
I reacted to this movie the same way I’ve reacted to every Luca Guadagnino picture I’ve seen: sustained appreciation without total elation. Guadagnino consistently makes good movies—never great ones—precisely because of his tendency for dramatic restraint. With his two outright horror films (the other being his 2018 Suspriria “remake”), you can feel him actively fighting that impulse, reaching into the depths of Hell for transcendence & catharsis instead of his usual grounded frustrations & melancholy. Bones and All digs as far down as it can into the mud, blood, bone shards, buzzing flies, and ash of its underground-cannibal America, but it still feels self-consciously reserved & tethered to reality – recalling the authenticity-obsessed docudrama of American Honey more than the horned-up ferocity of Trouble Every Day. The doomed lovers of Bones and All never fully give in to the transcendent pleasures of their grotesque hunger. The hellish pool party of A Bigger Splash never fully devolves into the blood-soaked, poolside orgy it threatens to be. Armie Hammer never bites into that cum-filled peach. For a lot of audiences, that restrained approach to over-the-top genre tropes is what makes Guadagnino great; it’s what makes Bones and All a sincere Awards Contender, unlike other artfully grotesque horrors of the year like Mad God, Flux Gourmet, and Men. For me, it’s what keeps his work from ever fully accessing the cathartic release those tropes tap into, an approach that feels more timid than admirable. It’s apparently what gets you in the door to compete with The Fabelmans instead of Barbarian, though, so what do I know?
A few weeks ago, YouTube recommended a recent video essay for me entitled “rage & revenge: the birth of a new genre” [capitalization sic], created by Rowan Ellis. Apparently, it’s now a major part of The Discourse to consider recent films about women taking revenge as a genre unto itself, using the famous “good for her” quote from Lucille Bluth as its title. I’m not sure about the need for this specific taxonomic declension, but I can also tell you right now that most of the films that fall into that basket are ones that I already love, and the overlap in the Venn diagram between the films which are commonly identified using this term and my oft-cited love for “women on the verge” pictures is the shape of the moon a couple of days prior to being full. I’d even say that many of them overlap between the two subgenres, notably mother!, Midsommar, Promising Young Woman, and even Knives Out! and Ready or Not. It was the last two of these that was at the forefront of my mind every time I saw the trailer for The Menu, as the advertisement included certain specific details that were very similar: the woman out of place among the narcissistic rich elites who finds their decadence alienating, and that her specific presence as a member of a class that was unlike theirs would be the key to her success. The movie is … not quite that, but it still qualifies.
Hawthorne is an exclusive offshore restaurant situated on a private island and operated by celebrity chef Julian Slowick (Ralph Fiennes). Each evening, a cohort of twelve wealthy diners is shuttled to the island for a multi-course dinner, nearly all courses of which are informed by every little pretension of molecular gastronomy you’ve seen hyped and mocked on the internet and in sitcoms since the 1990s. One attendee, a food critic, is even said to have been the person who “basically discovered” slow eggs, which automatically made me flashback to a nearly five-year-old NYT piece about chef Alice Waters and her practice of cooking a single egg over a fire in a long cast iron spoon, the memory of which comes to mind unbidden about once a month, although rarely through so direct an association. Our viewpoint character on all of this is Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is accompanying snobby foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) to the restaurant on his dime; we’re immediately introduced to his fanboy idolization of Slowick in his first few moments, and his endless stream of prattle about gourmand nonsense and food science is breathless not because of his awe or wonder but because of its businesslike efficiency. He seems like exactly the kind of man who peacocks by taking a woman to a ludicrously expensive restaurant and explaining every little detail in a rehearsed speech as part of a mating ritual, not for any real love of foodcraft.
Rounding out the night’s guests are: a wealthy couple, Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light, who I was delighted to see), who have eaten at Hawthorne over a dozen times; Lillian (Janet McTeer), a well-acted caricature of every food critic character you’ve ever seen on screen, and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein); fading star George Diaz (John Leguizamo) and his girlfriend/assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero); and a trio of tech bro worms (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, and Mark St. Cyr) who boast to one another about their infidelities, off shore accounts, and general shittiness. Upon arrival, there is a heated discussion between Tyler and the maitre d’ Elsa (Hong Chau, who steals every scene that she’s in) regarding the fact that Margot is not his guest of record, but she is allowed to stay, despite her apathy about the situation. Elsa gives the diners a tour, which includes their poultry coops, meat smokehouse, and even the dorms in which the staff who work under Slowick reside, which looks more like a prison than anything else, down to an exposed toilet and shower in the same large room in which they all sleep in barracks. At the restaurant proper, dinner commences and Slowick introduces each course by clapping his hands loudly, which results in his staff dropping what they are doing and coming to military attention like the most well-behaved cooking reality show contestants on earth, at which point he gives a speech about the materiel being presented and its connection to some part of his past (and later, the pasts of some of his other high-ranking chefs). This starts out innocently enough with a sort of microcosm of an ocean ecosystem on a plate, then gets more provocative with a “lack of bread” course that includes several sauces for dipping but no actual bread, and then only becomes more dangerous from there.
The touch of the darkly comic fluctuates in its efficacy here. There are many lines that are laugh-out-loud funny, and others that are witty little observations about how people who all think that they’re the main character simply because of their wealth or power must prop themselves up by being the most annoying person in the room. Diaz attempts to ingratiate himself with the tech boys because he wants to convince himself that he’s still cool; Lillian’s running commentary on the food isn’t just for the benefit of herself and her editor but is also clearly projected so that even amongst the hubbub of the evening her comments on the broken emulsion of a particular sauce is still heard by the staff, who present her with a full bowl of the broken sauce. Tyler takes pictures of his food despite that being explicitly forbidden at the start of the evening, and Ted simply plays sycophant to whatever Lillian says, often completely reversing course on a statement in the middle when Lillian objects with an opposing opinion. It elucidates each diner in a way that’s efficient without feeling utilitarian while also planting little character morsels for you to recall and smile—although presumably not laugh—when they cross your mind. Margot’s cunning bon mots are fun, but they don’t stick to your ribs in quite the way that they ought. Of course, sitting in a cinema where the jokes aren’t landing with other people can also artifically dampen that feeling, as there are certain things that made me chuckle audibly but to which no one else reacted, so that could be while I’m feeling less than satiated by this particular meal. It’s not bad, I’m just still hungry (ok, I’ll stop). I’m just hesitant to say more because I wouldn’t want to spoil you, or your appetite (ok, that was the last one, I promise).
I don’t think that this would actually fall into the Good For Her genre. The ending is fun and functional, and although I would go so far as to say it borders on exhilarating, I wouldn’t call it cathartic. It’s not merely enough that assholes get their comeuppance for the film to qualify (if it did, this would make the cut), it’s that our Final Girl has to have actually performed some kind of rampage, and that just doesn’t happen here. It’s more a cold and calculated game of riddles between the staff and the diners with Margot falling somewhere in the middle, having to find the line between the ones who take and the ones who give and straddle it in order to survive. I’ll leave it at that, but if you’re a knowledge sponge with a functionally adult attention span like I am, then I’d recommend checking out Tara Heimberger’s thesis on the subject, “Female Rage, Revenge, and Catharsis,” here. This was a movie that will play as well for you as a rental once it’s available on demand as it does on the big screen, gorgeous island vistas aside, so I recommend it, maybe paired with a five-course dinner.
Our current Movie of the Month, 1972’s A New Leaf, was the directorial debut of stage comedy legend Elaine May. May reluctantly starred in the film herself opposite Walter Matthau, who plays a destitute, asexual playboy aristocrat who plans to marry her neurotic heiress character, kill her, and liquidate her fortune. Only, his plans are thwarted when it gradually dawns on him that there is one thing in the world he enjoys more than money: his wife’s company. A New Leaf is a darkly funny, bitterly anti-romantic romcom until, against all odds, it ends on the familiarly sweet notes of a traditional romcom. Elaine May’s performance is a large part of its success, as the only reasonable response to watching her nervously unravel under her gigantic glasses is to immediately blurt out “Marry me,” regardless of whether you also want to kill her for her inheritance. It’s a shame, then, that her frustrations behind the camera tripped up the film’s potential success.
Every movie Elaine May directed was delivered over-schedule & over-budget. Even her relatively laidback, low-budget debut stretched 40 days past its shooting schedule, with an entire hour of extraneous bits & bobs the studio edited out of the final product despite May’s protests that it needed to be a three-hour romcom to work. If she had delivered A New Leaf on-time, on-budget, and properly trimmed, it would’ve been considered a huge hit instead of just breaking even, and she might’ve had an easier time fighting for her cuts of similarly troubled productions down the line. Instead, she toiled away in the background, writing screenplays for some of the most beloved Hollywood comedies of all time – poor thing. She did manage to squeeze four feature films out of Hollywood producers before they took away her director’s chair, though, and luckily for audiences they’re all great movies, whether or not they lost money. If you enjoyed A New Leaf, I recommend that you watch all three films May directed afterwards, detailed below. And if you’re a Hollywood producer, I recommend that you spend even more money on whatever dream project the 90-year-old auteur wants to see made before she leaves this world. Chances are high you’ve already wasted much more money on much worse films.
The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
I guess it’s inaccurate to claim that every Elaine May movie was a commercial flop. Her follow-up to A New Leaf was her one hit comedy, enough of a financial success that it inspired a major studio remake starring Ben Stiller in the aughts. Curiously, it’s also the only film in her catalog that’s not currently available to watch at home through official means. The Heartbreak Kid has been left to rot on YouTube and Archive.org as a long-forgotten 20th Century Fox acquisition that the art-indifferent overlords at Disney have no concern for. Which is a shame, sinceit might very well be May’s career best as a director. At the very least, its anti-romcom humor is even darker & more vicious than A New Leaf’s, which is impressive since that debut was about marital murder.
Charles Grodin stars as a fresh-out-of-college shit-talker who immediately realizes on a honeymoon road trip that he despises his bride. While vacationing in Miami, he ditches her for a younger, blonder co-ed who he has no business fooling with, inevitably finding himself still deeply unhappy after another successful romantic conquest. The Heartbreak Kid is essentially a horror film about a nightmare world where everyone has to marry the first person who makes them horny before they get to have sex, regardless of compatibility or moral deficiency. May’s psychedelic zoom-ins on the Miami resort sunshine, Groden’s complaints that his wife is “not really his type,” and the escalating tension of the plot’s sitcom hijinks are outright maddening, whereas the similar poisonous romance humor of A New Leaf plays oddly, subtly sweet. Together, they make a great pair, and they’re the best argument for May’s genius as a comedic auteur.
May’s least typical work is her all-in-one-night gangster drama Mikey & Nicky, starring Peter Falk & John Cassavetes as a pair of uneasy, paranoid friends at the bottom rung of the crime-world ladder. Falk appears to be the kinder, more calming presence of the two, but over the course of the film both characters expose themselves as low-level scumbag criminals without a decent bone between either of their bodies. They’re not all that different from the self-absorbed, oblivious brutes of May’s comedies, except that working in a different genre means she no longer has to ingratiate them to the audience for the story to work. Moving away from a character-based comedy structure also expands her scope to capture a portrait of a grimy, pre-Giuliana era NYC instead of just a couple losers who occupy it. The film’s late-night setting, 70s funk soundtrack, guerilla-style camerawork, and authentic casting of dive-bar creeps as background extras all feel like they’d be much more at home in a Scorsese picture like Taxi Driver or Mean Streets than a typical film from Elaine May. But she’s damn good at it.
Mikey & Nicky presents the best argument that May deserves as much time to tinker around in the editing room as she desires. The dialogue has a tight, pointed feel to it, as if the screenplay were written for the stage. So, it’s mind-blowing to read about how its narrative flow was mostly constructed after-the-fact in the editing room, like a sprawling, improv-based Apatow comedy. Her way of putting a story together might not have been financially sound at the time (considering that her over-schedule shoots were burning through celluloid while Apatow’s only clutter up digital servers), but you can’t argue with the results. She makes great movies.
The only time I can feel the overcooked, under-planned sweatiness of Elaine May’s directorial style is in her final picture, the one that effectively became a punchline synonym for box office disaster. Ishtar is not nearly as bad as its contemporary reviews suggested. In its earliest stretch, it’s an ahead-of-its-time, Tim & Eric style anti-comedy, starring Dustin Hoffman & Warren Beatty as a pair of sub-mediocre songwriters who abandon their shared dream of making it big in New York City to instead make some quick money as a nightclub act in Morocco. The film also isn’t as great as its modern reclaimers suggest. Once it arrives in Morocco, May loses the personable intimacy that makes her earlier comedies so great, as Beatty & Hoffman’s buffoons are gradually drafted against their will into a conflict between the CIA, leftist guerillas, and the dictator of the fictional country of Ishtar. The movie loses a little of its post-Andy Kauffman, proto-Tim & Eric sheen as the whole battle comes to a head in its third act slump, which involves a blind camel, some unfortunate detours into brown face, and our bumbling leads getting lost in the desert.
Despite some of that exhausting, comedy-killing bloat in the third act, Ishtar does not deserve its reputation as One of the Worst Comedies of All Time. It’s doubtful it was even the worst comedy released in the spring of 1985. The film is often funny in a strikingly subversive, adventurously unconventional way. It even goes as far as to include harsh criticisms of US interference with political affairs in the Middle East instead of broadly stereotyping the people of the region the way lazier 80s comedies would (for the most part). Still, it ended up being the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, as it finally sealed May’s reputation as box office poison after four consecutive debacles. Even the critics had turned on May at the arrival of her final feature, seemingly eager to tear it down before it was even released. Even if her productions were overly extravagant for what she was supposed to be delivering, I’d say that was a mistake. After all, she was only hurting the money men. She consistently put out great art, even when it was bad for business.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the bad-taste Christina Ricci comedy Pumpkin (2002), in which a WASP sorority girl falls disastrously in love with a mentally disabled athlete.
01:20 The Rehearsal 06:06 Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022) 11:27 Death Becomes Her (1992) 21:00 True Grit (2010) 23:23 Gods of Egypt (2016)
As the Fall Film Festival season spills over into the Year-End Listmaking frenzy and the new year’s hangover Awards Ceremonies, it’s easy to be tricked into believing that movies are Important. Forget all the jump-scare horrors of October and the action blockbuster bloat of what’s now a six-month summer. This is the time of year when cinema cures all the world’s ills, from “solving” racial & economic injustice in 180 minutes or less to fortifying millionaire actors’ praise-starved egos with gold-plated statuettes. And so, it’s the perfect time of year to catch up with the Spanish film industry satire Official Competition, which is exactly as cynical about the absurd ritual of Important Cinema Season as the ritual deserves. Dissatisfied with merely being grotesquely wealthy, a pharmaceutical CEO decides to purchase cultural clout by funding a high-brow art film. He employs a temperamental arthouse auteur to complete the task in his name (Penelope Cruz, sporting one of cinema’s all-time greatest wigs). To make the most of the opportunity, she has to manage the competing egos of her two male stars (Oscar Martinez as a pretentious stage actor & Antonio Banderas as a himbo film star), and the three mismatched artists violently bicker their way into purchasing a Palme d’Or. Hilarity ensues, with none of the pomp nor dignity of Prestige Filmmaking left intact.
As you can likely tell from the dual presence of Cruz & Banderas, Official Competition borrows a lot of aesthetic surface details from the Almodóvar playbook: ultra-modernist art gallery spaces, video-instillation digi projections, cut-and-paste magazine collages, etc. It just repurposes those Great Value™ Almodóvar aesthetics for broad goofball schtick instead of subtly complex melodrama. And it works! The jokes are constant & consistently funny, always punching up at the absurd self-importance of artsy filmmaker types’ delusion that they can change the world through a millionaire producer’s vanity project. From the himbo’s Instagram charity sponcon to the theatre snob’s practiced awards rejection speech to the auteur’s failure to master TikTok dance crazes, the movie constantly pokes fun at its three central players for being far less Genius, Important, and Uniquely Talented than they believe themselves to be. At its core, this is a comedy about a boyish rivalry between the two actors under Cruz’s direction, and her mistaken belief that she’s the sole voice of reason on-set. They’re all equally ridiculous and all a constant source of verbal & visual punchlines.
Even though Official Competition is essentially a farce, it can’t help but absorb some of its own arthouse prestige through proximity. The three main actors all put in great, nuanced performances as broad film-world archetypes, especially Cruz as the exasperated auteur who can’t fully domesticate her collaborators. The Almodóvar set details afford it a crisp art instillation feel, especially in a lengthy gag involving a loudly mic’d lesbian makeout session. Its icy humor at the expense of its own industry also goes subzero in the third act, when the vicious on-set rivalries become outright lethal. It’s a very smart comedy about a very silly industry that thinks very highly of itself, an easy but worthwhile target for ridicule. It’s around this stretch on the annual film distribution calendar—when the novelty horror titles dry up between Halloween & January dumping season—that I’m desperate for a little novelty & levity in my moviewatching diet. Official Competition meets me halfway in that respect, finding plenty novelty & levity in Prestige Filmmaking itself.
It’s undeniable that the art of drag has changed drastically in the past decade, at least from what I can see in New Orleans. The traditionalist dive-bar pageant drag that I grew up with in the city has been pushed out to the edges of the frame, found only in the annual Gay Easter parade in the Quarter or at spaghetti & mimosas brunches on the West Bank. These days, most local drag acts are young cabaret weirdos who are much more interested in testing the boundaries of good taste than they are in looking pretty under a pound of pancake-batter makeup. In most cities, drag’s recent shift towards the avant-garde might only be attributable to the popularity of television programs like Ru Paul’s Drag Race and its legion of international spinoffs. Here, it’s more directly influenced by the New Orleans Drag Workshop, an intensive drag bootcamp that spawned most of the city’s most vital, exciting queens for the better half of the 2010s. That’s the local legacy of drag mother Lady Vinsantos, who closed the New Orleans Drag Workshop just before the pandemic in 2019, leaving behind a glamorously mutated art scene that now sets the city apart from the Southern Pageant traditions I remember from Mardis Gras & Decadences past.
The French “dragumentary” Last Dance honors Vinsantos for recontouring the New Orleans drag scene into the vibrant freak show it is today, so it was wonderful to see it presented with ceremonial prestige at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival. As the older, stuffier crowd attending the local premiere of the Louis Armstrong documentary Black & Blues spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of The Prytania, the drunken reprobates waiting for the Vinsantos doc rushed in, ready to cheer on & heckle the projection of their friends’ faces onto the century-old silver screen. The movie asks, “Remember when Neon Burgundy had that gigantic beard?” as if it’s making nostalgic small talk between stage acts at The All-Ways. It treats local drag performers like Franky, Tarah Cards, and Gayle King Kong as if they were the first wave of punk bands to perform onstage at CBGB’s, a much-deserved reverence you’ll only find in film-fest documentaries like this & To Decadence With Love. Director Coline Albert may not be from New Orleans, but she does a great job of highlighting what makes the local drag scene special, and how much of a hand Vinsantos had in shaping that scene into what it is.
Besides, New Orleans is only one part of Vinsantos’s story, as it’s told here. This is a documentary of thirds, split between the closure & legacy of the New Orleans Drag Workshop, Vinsantos’s youthful run as a chaos queen in San Francisco, and the character’s official retirement show in Paris – a lifelong dream realized. The writing & production of the Paris show helps establish a narrative momentum as Vinsantos reminisces about what he’s accomplished with his drag artistry in two distanced American cities, saving the movie from devolving into pure talking-heads tedium. Even as someone who’s attended many shows populated entirely by Workshop “draguates” (as well as Vinsantos’s horror-host screening of the San Francisco cult film All About Evil), I’ve had little direct interaction with his own work, as he’s been gradually, consciously ceding the stage to younger talent. Last Dance operates as a fly-on-the-wall portrait of Vinsantos as a self-doubting, frustrated artist with a chaotic stop-and-start creative process. The Paris retirement show finale and clips from past triumphs also offer a decent sketch of what the Lady Vinsantos stage persona is like in action – a volatile combo of a Strait-Jacket era Joan Crawford and a Grande Dame revision of Freddy Kreuger. The retirement of that persona is very much worth preserving here, even if she eventually rises from the grave to terrorize yet another city.
To Last Dance‘s credit, it doesn’t attempt to cover all of Vinsantos’s various art projects from throughout the decades. His dollmaking, songwriting, and filmmaking efforts are only captured in glimpses, sometimes frustratingly so. The archival fragments of the D.I.Y. drag-horror films he made as a prankish youth in San Francisco were the major highlight for me, since they have a vintage texture that can’t be matched by modern digital cameras. Even just limiting itself to the dual retirement of the Drag Workshop and the Lady Vinsantos persona, though, the movie can still feel a little narratively unfocused, frantically plane-hopping between the three cities tethered to Vinsantos’s heart. If it’s at all meandering or overlong, though, the indulgence is clearly earned. If anything, we should have rolled out the red carpet and handed over a Key to the City to make the ceremony of this retirement documentary even more ostentatious. As is, getting home from the post-screening Q&A after 1a.m. at least felt appropriate to the late-night freak scene Vinsantos helped establish here; the only thing the event was missing was a crowd-hyping MC and a two-drink minimum.
In Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature Nanny, a Senegalese domestic worker struggles to maintain her sanity while caring for the white child of a wealthy NYC family and scraping together money to emigrate her own son to her new home. It’s essentially an atmospheric horror update to Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, the second one I’ve seen this year after the South African apartheid horror Good Madam. I personally preferred Good Madam, but Nanny earned better reviews and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, so I’m out of sync with the consensus. I suspect that’s because Nanny is less of a proper Horror Movie, landing the same accolades as an important “social thriller” that Get Out earned outside of horror circles in 2017 (in a way no other Blumhouse productions have in the years since, until now). It’s an immigration story first & foremost, neatly containing all of its supernatural menace in its frequent nightmare & hallucination sequences in a way that the more straight-forward body possession story Good Madam does not. Whichever spooky revision of Black Girl you prefer, it’s undeniably cool that they both exist, and remarkable that their distribution paths converged on the festival circuit this year – Nanny premiering locally at New Orleans Film Fest and Good Madam premiering at Overlook.
Comparisons aside, Nanny mostly holds together as a sharply tense, surprisingly funny domestic drama about working class exploitation, with plenty of spooky window dressing to maintain an eerie mood. Heavily referencing African folklore figures like the arachnid trickster-god Anansi and the alluring water spirit Mami Wata, Jusu easily establishes a dense visual language in the film’s plentiful nightmare sequences & daytime hallucinations. Spiders, mirrors, snakes, and mermaids creep into the frame at almost every turn, disrupting the labor exploitation story at the film’s core in violent jolts of surrealist imagery. Highlighting that labor exploitation is the main point, though, and whatever supernatural scares accompany it are only there to provide texture. With a few scattered edits, Nanny could easily be reconfigured into a standard Sundance drama about an undocumented worker’s grim daily routine sacrificing her own familial bonds to hold a wealthy family together for petty cash. If anything, removing the supernatural horror elements might have left more room to dwell in the moments of discomfort, heartbreak, and rebirth in the film’s rushed ending, which would’ve been much more emotionally effective if the audience were allowed to fully sink into it.
Speaking generally, I’m happy that horror movies are starting to earn festival prestige & awards-season accolades instead of being siphoned off as disposable straight-to-streaming #content (which accounts for a lot of Blumhouse’s output these days). Nanny winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance feels a little like Silence of the Lambs winning Best Picture at the Oscars, though. Technically, it’s an industry win for horror, but it’s such a safe, cleaned-up, presentable version of horror that it doesn’t leave much room for the victory to be repeated. I would need an actual, physical intrusion of a devious spider-god or killer mermaid into the “real world” to get excited about what this movie’s success means for the prominence of the genre on awards ballots & festival red carpets. As is, I get the sense that Jusu is much more interested in the Dardennes-style economic drama she gets to tell outside those horror elements, which were more of a funding & marketing hook than the main purpose of her story. Thankfully, the horror industry is booming right now with or without festival accolades, so I can find what I’m personally looking for in stories like these plenty other places: Good Madam, Good Manners, His House, Zombi Child, I Am Not a Witch, etc., etc., etc.