Full River Red (2023)

Awards “Season” is such an exhausting, never-ending cycle that I fear I’m breaking a sensitive taboo just by speaking its name so soon after this year’s ritual “concluded”.  Any sane, sensible person should not be saying the word “Oscars” for at least another seven months.  I promise that there is a point to the transgression, though, as I’ve noticed a couple immediate benefits to surviving this year’s Awards Season gauntlet, mostly due to the sweeping wins of the Daniels’ sci-fi action comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once.  First, EEAAO is back in theaters again, and as much as its online fandom & Awards Season success makes it seem like a cultural juggernaut, it’s only been during this post-Oscars push that the its box office profits have finally surpassed the grim superhero origin story Morbius – a film sincerely enjoyed by no one.  Even better, the Oscars marketing machine has also cleared some space for a wider cultural appreciation of Michelle Yeoh, who is currently both the subject of a Criterion Channel sub-collection of Hong Kong action classics and the inspiration for a theatrical re-release of the early-aughts Oscar contender Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  I bring that up not only because it’s worth celebrating, but because in its own post-Oscars glow (landing four wins out of nine nominations) Crouching Tiger also cleared space for a wider range of genre cinema at the suburban multiplex, proving this post-EEAAO bump is no fluke. 

In particular, I remember the post-Crouching Tiger marketing push for wuxia martial arts cinema bringing the films of Zhang Yimou to the US, with his films Hero and House of Flying Daggers reaching a much wider international audience than they would have without Crouching Tiger‘s Oscars clearing the way.  Even concurrent to Crouching Tiger‘s post-EEAAO re-release two decades later, Zhang’s latest feature is currently screening in US theaters despite most modern Chinese blockbusters of its ilk not enjoying the same international platform.  Full River Red isn’t even a wuxia fantasy epic the way Zhang’s earlier successes were; it’s not even technically martial arts or action.  It’s being sold abroad on the strength of Zhang’s name alone – a name built on the back of Crouching Tiger‘s international success.  Looking back to those early days of Zhang Yimou buzz isn’t entirely flattering to Full River Red, since his latest is proudly exemplary of the way that modern Chinese blockbusters carry a dual duty as both populist entertainment and as state-sponsored nationalist propaganda.  Its title is a reference to a rabblerousing Chinese nationalist poem that is recited at the emotional climax with near-religious reverence, ensuring that all of the preceding cheap-thrills entertainment is contextualized within service & deference to the state.  That’s not any different than the rah-rah American militarism of Top Gun: Maverick, the MCU, or Michael Bay’s entire oeuvre, but it does feel like a far cry from the escapist fantasy epics Zhang Yimou used to get away with as recently as the aughts.

Before fulfilling its patriotic obligations as a pro-military poetry reading, however, Full River Red has a lot of cheeky fun as a murder mystery of covert political intrigue.  Set during a 12th Century clash between warring Song & Jing Dynasties, the film opens with the murder of a traveling diplomat and the disappearance of a secret-letter MacGuffin, a small token of widespread espionage.  With only a couple hours to solve the crime before dawn breaks and chaos ensues, an enigmatic Prime Minister figurehead assigns two makeshift detectives to the case: a cunning lowlife criminal turned loyal soldier and a hothead commanding officer who’s prone to killing suspects in fits of anger – creating literal dead ends in the investigation.  As the initial whodunnit premise gives way to a complex political puzzle of double-triple-quadruple crossings among the infinite sea of suspects, Zhang keeps the mood light with slapstick hijinks and the stakes high with vicious, horrific violence.  The walled-in fortress where the investigation plays out looks perfectly designed for close-quarters fistfights, but that’s not the genre Zhang is working in this time around.  He instead uses the setting as a labyrinth redesign of a classic stage play setup, with most of the “action” being restricted to wordplay, lies, and stabbings.  As actors travel from room to room, it appears they’ve gone nowhere at all, which only makes the circular murder investigation and contraband search all the more maddening as the morning light approaches.

Stylistically, Full River Red finds Zhang Yimou as sharp as ever.  He’s slightly held back by a lack of urgency in the circular plotting and by a muted day-for-night color palette but, overall, he delivers a viciously amusing shell game of 12th Century political espionage – one with an absolutely killer, operatic hip-hop soundtrack.  As birds-eye-view tracking shots of characters swiftly marching from room to identical room play out to electroshocked revisions of classical Chinese music, it feels like Zhang is delivering something that you can’t find anywhere else in modern cinema.  If Full River Red were a little brighter and a little zippier, it could’ve been an all-timer, both in Zhang’s catalog and in the greater whodunnit canon.  At the very least I would’ve appreciated a few more pops of red blood or lipstick against the metallic, stonework grays that wash over most of the screen.  It’s no matter.  Instead of complaining about the few ways Full River Red falls short of its ideal self, I’d rather just celebrate the fact that it made it to big-screen distribution at the AMC Westbank at all.  The movie would certainly exist without the Oscars marketing machine boosting its international profile, since the Chinese movie industry is sturdy enough on its own without the influence or support of Hollywood’s own nationalist propaganda muddying the waters.  I just don’t know that it would have reached me, personally, without that lingering Zhang Yimou bump in wuxia’s brief moment of Oscars glory – something that was impossible to ignore while Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was simultaneously playing on the opposite side of the Mississippi from Full River Red at AMC Elmwood.

-Brandon Ledet

Signature Move (2017)

I remember Jennifer Reeder’s surrealist high school melodrama Knives & Skin harshly dividing the audience at Overlook Film Fest in 2019, with the more macho Horror Bros in the crowd grumbling that it was the worst film they’d seen all fest and with other scattered weirdos gushing that it was the best.  Personally, I dug it, especially for the way it warped the teen-friendly Lynchian melodrama of early Riverdale by submerging it in a hallucinatory Robotrip aesthetic.  I wasn’t especially surprised that Knives & Skin confused the more rigidly horror-minded section of the crowd, though, since it’s a Laura Palmer-style murder mystery that doesn’t care as much about the murder as it cares about teen-girl bedroom decor and eerie vocal choir renditions of 80s pop tunes.  Hell, even my own reaction was confused.   I left the theater thinking I had watched a messy but ambitious debut feature from a boldly stylistic genre nerd.  I was wrong.  Reeder had not only made a name for herself as a prolific short filmmaker on the festival circuit, but she also had already completed her first feature in 2017’s Signature Move.  And now having caught up with that debut, I’m as confused as ever.  After the slow-motion, high-style freakout of Knives & Skin, I was expecting a lot more visual panache out of the straightforward, Sundancey romcom that preceded it.  I still don’t have a clear answer to the question “Who is Jennifer Reeder?” Maybe I never will.

Signature Move stars Fawzia Mirza as a closeted, thirtysomething Chicagoan who hides her lesbian social life from her first-generation mother, an agoraphobic shut-in who spends all her time watching Pakistani soap operas and needling her daughter about marriage.  As an act of private rebellion and stress relief, Mirza secretly trains as a professional wrestler between dull dayshifts working the desk at a law office.  She also sneaks around the city’s lesbian bar scene, where she meets a much more out-and-proud love interest played by Sari Sanchez.  Her new girlfriend lives a freer, more honest lesbian life, having grown up with an actual professional wrestler as her mother – an open-minded luchadora named Luna Peligrosa.  As one woman struggles to reveal her true self to her conservative parent and the other refuses to regress into the closet, conflict ensues.  From there, there isn’t much to Signature Move that you can’t find in any 90s festival-circuit romcom or, more recently, any streaming-era sitcom.  Even the lesbian-scene setting isn’t especially distinctive amongst similar, superior titles like Saving Face, Appropriate Behavior, The Watermelon Woman, or whatever was the first queer romcom you happened to catch on IFC before Netflix “disrupted” (i.e., gutted) the original purpose of cable.  I suppose there’s some value in documenting the food, fabrics, art, jewelry, and bootleg DVDs of Chicago’s Muslim & Latinx neighborhoods as our two mismatched-but-perfectly-matched lovers negotiate their new relationship, but in some ways those moments of cultural window dressing almost make the film more anonymous among similar low-budget comedies that pad out the programs at Sundance & Outfest every single year.

If there’s any detectable trace of Jennifer Reeder auteurism in Signature Move, it’s in the inevitable climax where Mirza’s shut-in mother bravely ventures out of their shared apartment to witness her daughter’s pro wrestling debut at what appears to be a lucha-drag hybrid event akin to our local Choke Hole drag-wrasslin’ promotion.  There’s a heightened artificiality to that queer-dream-realm wrestling venue that Reeder would later intensify & expand in Knives & Skin until it consumed an entire fictional suburb.  Otherwise, I can’t say I found much to either praise or pick apart with any fervor in Signature Move, which is just as straightforward & unassuming as Knives & Skin is uncanny & confounding.  It’s a cute enough movie on its own terms, though, and there can never be enough media celebrating how gay wrestling is as a microculture.  Otherwise, it appears that I time-traveled in the wrong direction when trying to get a firmer handle on Jennifer Reeder’s signature aesthetics as a director.  Her two follow-up features after Knives & Skin—last year’s Night’s End and the upcoming Perpetrator—are both supernatural horrors that promise a lot more room for the high-style, low-logic playfulness that caught my attention at Overlook than this cookie-cutter indie romcom was ever going to deliver.

-Brandon Ledet

Podcast #182: Rumpelstiltskin (1995) & Dark Fairy Tales

Welcome to Episode #182 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of dark, horrific takes on classic fairy tales, starting with the 1995 creature feature Rumpelstiltskin.

00:00 Welcome

02:14 Finde (2021)
05:30 The Little Mermaid (1968)
08:37 The Cremator (1969)
16:40 The Firemen’s Ball (1967)
21:51 Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

26:41 Rumpelstiltskin (1995)
48:41 Beauty and the Beast (1978)
1:02:50 Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997)
1:16:00 Freeway (1996)

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

-The Podcast Crew

Scream VI (2023)

Being born on the day that I was made for an interesting way of keeping track of time with regards to school when I was a kid. One of my dearest friends was born on October 27th, which meant that she spent her childhood believing that her favorite movies, which were all Halloween-oriented, came on television in honor of her, which leant her younger years a little bit of magic that was sorely needed. My birthday always landed during or after the last week of school, so much so that I turned 18 the day after I graduated from high school, and my college graduation was also exactly one day prior to my birthday. I know this will finally be the thing that dates me after I’ve played so coy over the years about how old I am, but I finished fifth grade in 1998, and one of my classmates came home with me for a birthday sleepover. My next-door neighbor, a girl a few years older than I was, secretly snuck me a VHS tape of a movie that she had recorded off of HBO, for us to watch on the tiny TV/VCR combo that I got for my birthday that year. I didn’t know it, but my whole world was about to change, not because I was turning 11, but because an extremely meta horror film was about to stab me in the brain and change everything that I thought I knew about how movies worked. It’s been 25 years, and I’m still just as in love with it, as well as (all but one of) the sequels it spawned in the intervening time. What’s your favorite scary movie … franchise?

Scream VI is a delight. After a fairly decent return to the world of Ghostfaces and voice changers in 5cream, this new installment lands on its feet despite the departure of the franchise’s main lead, Neve Campbell. Don’t get me wrong; I love Neve Campbell, and I love Sidney Prescott. In fact, I went to two separate screenings of Scream VI just 48 hours apart because I overbooked myself, and I wore a different Sidney Prescott t-shirt to each one, which is a testament to the fact that she is my favorite final girl. Somehow, despite her leaving this series after the last film, Scream VI manages to not only soldier on in her absence, but feel complete in spite of it; in fact, her absence is barely felt at all. This loss is mitigated by several mentions of her and the agreement between the lone veteran of the first film, Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), and new lead Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) that Sidney “deserves her happy ending” with her husband and children far, far away from whatever Ghostface copycat shenanigans are happening in New York, to which I also whole-heartedly agree. It’s a shame that the studio wasn’t willing to meet her salary requirements (a friend asked me how much Campbell asked for and I have no idea what her fee would have been, but she is worth every penny that they refused to pay), but if she’s not going to be in it, I’m hard pressed to think of a kinder send-off than she got. The news that VI would bring back fan-favorite Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere) was the only thing that kept me from writing this sequel off when it was in development last year, and her return is one of countless elements that make this film feel like it’s living up to the franchise’s legacy in spite of the loss of its star. 

It’s been a year since the events of the last film, in which Sam Carpenter returned to her hometown of Woodsboro, a town that’s rapidly heading towards overtaking Cabot Cove as the murder capital of small town America. After years of running from her past after discovering that the man who raised her was not her father and that she was actually sired by infamous serial killer Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich)—who, alongside Stu Macher (Matt Lillard) went on a spree in 1996 that formed the plot of both Scream and its in-universe adaptation Stab—Sam returned to the town to protect her sister from the latest killer(s) to don the Ghostface mask. In the intervening twelve months, she has become the subject of a widespread online conspiracy theory that she, as Billy Loomis’s daughter, was the true mastermind behind the 2022 Woodsboro spree and that she framed the guilty parties. Now living in NYC with her younger sister Tara (Jenna Ortega), who attends Blackmore University as a freshman, Sam is struggling not only with PTSD but the fact that it felt good to kill her tormentors, and she’s worried that it’s her father’s legacy still living inside of her. Also at Blackmore are Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding), twin niece and nephew of Sidney’s friend and classmate Randy, originator of “the rules.” Aside from these characters, introduced in the last film, we also meet: Quinn (Liana Liberato), the sex positive roommate of the Carpenter sisters; her father, Detective Bailey (Dermot Mulroney), who transferred to the NYPD when Quinn went off to college because of his guilt over the loss of his son, her brother; Ethan (Jack Champion), Chad’s shy, nebbish roommate; Anika (Devyn Nekoda), Mindy’s under-characterized girlfriend; and Danny (Josh Segarra), Sam and Tara’s neighbor, whom Sam has been snogging in secret. 

After a fun and effective twist on the opening scene formula that I won’t spoil here, Sam becomes a primary suspect in the slaying of two of Tara’s classmates, including “chode” Jason (Tony Revolori), a noted Argento freak (he even dies wearing a 4 mosche di veluto grigio shirt). The sympathetic Bailey is heading up the investigation and reveals that the killer left a Ghostface mask at the scene of the crime, which forensic evidence indicates was one of the masks used by the killer(s) in the previous installment; he gets an unexpected assist from Atlanta-based FBI agent Kirby Reed, who shows off the scars that Ghostface 2011 gave her. Despite some bad blood between herself and the Carpenters as the result of portraying Sam as a “born killer” in her latest book, a major crack in the case comes from longtime Ghostface opponent Gale Weathers, who finds a shrine to all of the previous killers and their victims in an abandoned theatre. From there, bodies start to rack up and more Ghostface masks are left behind at the scenes like Easter eggs, counting down from the killers in Scream 4 to 3 to 2, etc., leading up to a climax where no one is safe and no one can be trusted. 

What is your favorite scary movie franchise? Obviously, mine is Scream, but that wasn’t always the case. For many years, I was a Nightmare on Elm Street kid, through and through. What Craven’s earlier franchise had that made it stand out from so many other slasher empires was an increased focus on the continuity of characters between entries. Even though Nancy Thompson didn’t make it out of Dream Warriors alive, she effectively passed the baton to Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette in Warriors, Tuesday Knight in Dream Master), who passed it on to Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox), who becomes a final girl par excellence, in my opinion. The Scream franchise has remained one of the most consistent with regards to its core cast and with its content, with every film (other than Scream 3) being good-to-great and subverting the trend of recasting characters between films that was common in earlier slasher series (see above, re: Kristen Parker, but also Tommy in the Friday the 13th films, Andy in the Chucky movies, Mike in the Phantasms, Angela in Sleepaway Camp 2, and on and on). People didn’t go to the movies to see Jason Lives because they cared about the characters from A New Beginning; they went to see Jason Voorhees kill a bunch of teenagers. Scream isn’t about that; it’s about commenting on that phenomenon, and as a series, it’s important to remember that the ever-changing killer behind the infamous mask allows for Scream to reinvent itself by evolving its storytelling and maintaining a symbiotic relationship with the genre of which it is both text and annotation. Nightmare laid this groundwork by straddling this line, with Nancy and Alice as characters that one cared about alongside the primary franchise driver in the form of Robert Englund’s Freddy. Scream is this concept in culmination; 5cream being willing to kill off Dewey (David Arquette), a character who has been with us since 1996, not only reiterated that no one was safe but also that horror isn’t just about fright and suspense and terror and surprise, but also about sorrow. I won’t spoil anything, but Gale takes some real hard hits in this one, and because I’ve known Gale since I was a child, I felt a profound sense of possible loss, which isn’t something you can say about Dream Child or Jason Lives (or Hellraiser: Hellseeker or The Curse of Michael Myers or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, etc.). 

In the year since 5cream, one of the biggest complaints I’ve seen about the film had to do with Melissa Barrera’s purported lack of acting ability, and although I never participated in the spread of that complaint, I must admit that I agreed. I’m happy to report that I have no such complaints about her performance in Scream VI, where she really shines. Last time, Sam was wooden, unyielding, and didn’t seem to have chemistry with a single one of her co-stars; this time around, a large part of the film’s emotional weight requires a real sense of sisterhood between Ortega and Barrera, and the latter brought her A-game to the table this time. There’s a veritas and a humanity to the way that Sam worries about her younger sister’s refusal to process their shared trauma, and there’s just as much honesty in the way that Tara feels smothered by her long-absent sister’s overprotective return to her life; it would be easy for either character to seem unreasonable, but neither does, and that’s good conflict to find in the middle of this latest slasher sequel. It’s interwoven beautifully with the actual text as well, as, in the finale, both girls’ survival demands that Sam literally let Tara go, which is a nice touch. 

Overall, this is a strong sequel in a very strong franchise, possibly the horror franchise with the best hit to miss ration (5:1, in my book, and even the dud has Parker Posey to liven it up, so that’s something). Even though there are moments that are questionable (some of the people we see attacked should not have survived what happened to them), there are more than enough great sequences, character beats, and thrills to make up for them.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Thunivu (2023)

One of the biggest adjustments in my life recently has been getting used to getting around without a car.  It’s been fine.  Between bikes, buses, streetcars, and long walks, I’ve been able to access pretty much everything I want or need within New Orleans city limits . . . with one major exception.  The weekly screenings of Indian action movies I used to catch at AMC Elmwood are now prohibitively far away, so I’m a lot less likely to make that expensive trek out to the suburban multiplex unless it’s for a major hit, like the recent high-octane spy thriller Pathaan.  Despite the ongoing pop culture phenomenon of RRR, the two lone theaters in Orleans Parish (The Broad & The Prytania) have yet to take a chance on programming the Indian action blockbusters I love & miss. Even the recent EncoRRRe “fan favorite” screenings of that breakout hit were all held at AMC Elmwood, the exact venue where I first saw it a full year ago.  And so, I’m now relying on at-home streaming services to provide access to Indian action content, which isn’t quite the same as being obliterated by their explosive sound & spectacle on the big screen, but at least they’re sometimes quick to the punch.  The Tamil-language bank heist thriller Thunivu popped up on Netflix only one month after it screened at AMC Elmwood this January, so if I had any lingering FOMO from the missed opportunity it didn’t last very long.  And hey, I’m pretty used to watching these obnoxiously loud action flicks in empty theaters anyway, so there really wasn’t all that much difference in watching it on my couch.

In Thunivu, middle-aged action star Ajith Kumar plays a mysterious bank robber who pulls off a heist of a smaller, scrappier heist that’s already in motion.  Through a never-ending supply of preposterous flashbacks & plot twists it turns out that that heist was also sub-heist under a much grander, more complex theft being pulled off by the real criminals of the modern world: investment bankers.  So, Kumar’s anonymous Dark Devil persona is hijacking two different groups of thieves—gangster & corporate—by lumping them in with the usual crowd of everyday hostages typical to a bank-heist plot.  It takes a long time for him to assert dominance over this convoluted triple-heist, quieting the room with a relentless storm of machine gun bullets until no one dares stand against him.  He feels laidback & in control the entire time, though, cracking wise and impersonating Michael Jackson dance moves to win over the common people watching news coverage at home.  And then, when he has the world’s attention, he narrates a lengthy flashback that explains in great detail how the bank itself is the biggest thief of all, scamming working-class customers out of their hard-earned money without any legal consequence.  Thunivu starts as a standard bank heist thriller (complete with a “Here’s the plan” montage for the scrappier bank robbery that never comes to fruition), but eventually evolves into the DTV action equivalent of The Big Short.  It’s trashy, brutal, earnest excess featuring an action hero lead with self-declared “charismatic presence” and a healthy disgust for banking as an industry.

If that heist-within-a-heist-within-a-heist plot description was kind of a mess, it’s because the movie is too.  It’s at least a stylish, entertaining mess, though – one that remains excitingly volatile even when it defaults to infotainment monologues about the evils of modern banking.  There are some wonderfully explosive action scenes, some childish cornball humor, and a jolty, hyperactive editing style that plays like the modern CG equivalent of an overcranked nickelodeon projector.  If Thunivu starred Liam Neeson and was directed by Neveldine & Taylor it would be celebrated as a cult classic for decades to come by action movie nerds everywhere.  Instead, it’s mainly a victory lap celebration for Ajith Kumar’s adoring fans in India, now over 60 titles deep into his career as an action star & a “charismatic presence”.  As with all the leads of the Kollywood & Tollywood actioners I’ve been seeking out in recent years, Kumar’s Dark Devil persona is celebrated in Thunivu as the coolest dude to ever walk the earth.  He’s constantly adorned with sunglasses, a wind machine, and a hip-hop theme song declaring him “the gangsta”, living the full music video fantasy as a rock star bankrobber while everyone on the other side of his machine gun is blown to bits.  The movie goes out of its way to modernize this populist action hero archetype with CG graphics of cybertheft & corporate thuggery and with the Dark Devil taking on a masked Anonymous avatar when dealing with the press, but it’s all pretty basic, classic action hero machismo. He’s a hero of the people, fighting back against the villainous slimeballs in suits who hold us down.

I don’t want to complain too much here about the programming at The Broad & The Prytania, which between them offer just about every new release I’d want to see on the big screen.  Just about.  Even when explosively over-the-top Indian action blockbusters like Thunivu play out at the suburban multiplex (which has 20 screens under one roof to play around with), they often play to near-empty rooms.  I guess what I’m most lamenting is that the recent successes of films like RRR & Pathaan have yet to drum up much of an appetite for other Bollywood, Kollywood, and Tollywood action epics, despite their routine delivery of the most exciting populist entertainment on the market, Hollywood be damned.  These crowdpleasing genre pictures are still treated like a niche interest in America, an esoteric cultural novelty that you can only access via a 90-minute bus ride or, if you’re patient enough, a subscription to Netflix. 

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Murder by Death (1976)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the murder mystery meta comedy Murder by Death (1976), a direct precursor to Clue (1985).

00:00 Welcome

06:33 Heavenly Creatures (1994)
12:30 Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022)
15:38 Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)
19:01 Lust in the Dust (1984)
23:50 Scream VI (2023)
40:52 Cocaine Bear (2023)
42:45 Day of the Animals (1977)
46:46 Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)
51:14 Nathan for You: Finding Frances (2017)

58:13 Murder by Death (1976

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

-The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

U Turn (1997)

I never had much interest in Oliver Stone as a filmmaker, but I have plenty lingering fascination with Jennifer Lopez as an actor.  Besides her career-making role portraying pop idol Selena in an eponymous biopic and her music video performances of her own dance club hits, Lopez is most often thought of as a romcom actor – the kind of beautiful but relatable sweetheart archetype usually played by Julia Roberts & Sandra Bullock.  Maybe I’ve just happened to see one too many TV broadcasts of titles like The Wedding Planner, Monster-in-Law, and Maid in Manhattan, but I always feel like Lopez’s filmography as an actor is culturally misremembered for being lighter & breezier than it actually is.  Early in her career, Lopez worked on some fairly daring, hard-edged thrillers, most notably Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, Tarsem’s The Cell, and Stone’s sunlit neo-noir U Turn.  Maybe the wide cultural revulsion towards her gangster hangout comedy Gigli (which admittedly deserves the scorn) made Lopez a lot more careful in choosing daring, divisive projects.  Or maybe Hollywood producers foolishly overlooked her enduring sex appeal as she aged, redistributing her early sex-symbol thriller roles to the next hungry twentysomething down the line and, in the case of Hustlers, roping her in as their mentor.  I don’t have a firm handle on how or why Jennifer Lopez slowly softened the overall tone of her filmography, but I do know that it was exciting to pick up a DVD copy of 1997’s U Turn at a local thrift store, my ambivalence towards its director be damned.  It felt like a lost dispatch from JLo’s grittier, thrillier past, one that thankfully did not repeat the intensely sour notes of my recent, ill-advised thrift store purchase of Gigli.

The overbearing Oliver Stoneness of U Turn is impossible to ignore.  Stone shoots its American desert setting with the same hyperactive, multimedia style that he pushed past its limits in Natural Born Killers, violently alternating between handheld music video angles, flashes of black & white film grain, and the drunken fish-eye perspective of a 1990s breakfast cereal commercial.  Fortunately, it’s an improved revision of that distinctive NBK excess, slowing down and spacing out each stylistic flourish so that the intentionally bumpy ride isn’t so unintentionally shrill.  Sean Penn stars opposite JLo as the doomed lovers on this particular crime spree, except the spree is a nonstarter and the romance is a con job.  While smuggling a duffel bag stuffed with overdue loan money to the impatient Vegas gangsters he owes, Penn blows his muscle car engine in rural Arizona, forcing the self-described big city “slimy bastard” to spend a sunburnt eternity with small-town hicks he openly despises.  Juaquin Phoenix, Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Voight, Claire Danes, and Powers Booth put in over-the-top caricature performances as the local lunatics who torment Penn as the universe at large seemingly conspires to block his exit.  Only Jennifer Lopez & Nick Nolte matter much to the narrative, though, playing Penn’s femme fatale seductress and her abusive, “slimy bastard” husband.  Both spouses attempt to seduce Penn into killing each other for a cut of the insurance money, but only one is nuclear-hot enough to win him over to her side.  Penn & Lopez’s murderous “romance” is mostly a nonstop back & forth of double-triple-quadruple crossings as they repeatedly backstab each other in their selfish attempts to escape their respective prisons: Penn’s small-town purgatory and Lopez’s abusive marriage.  It’s basically Oliver Stone’s 90s-era update to the classic Poverty Row noir Detour, which Stone makes glaringly obvious by including multiple shots of “DETOUR” road signs framed from zany music video angles.

There’s a lot of poorly aged, Oliver Stoney bullshit to wade through here, from the long list of shitheel contributors (Penn chief among them) to their casual cross-racial casting, to the post-Tarantino antihero crassness of the “slimy bastard” gangsters at the forefront.  I was most bothered by the lengthy, onscreen depictions of misogynist violence that Lopez suffers, both because it’s frustratingly common to what young Hollywood actress are offered (before they become chipper romcom darlings) and because it feels sleazily, unforgivably eroticized.  A more thematically focused, purposeful version of U Turn would only allow bad things to happen to Penn, since its sense of cosmic menace is built entirely on his impossible, Exterminating Angel style mission to speed away from rural Arizona.  Lopez makes the most of her role as the horned-up victim turned manipulative seductress, but it’s all in service of a tired misogynist trope.  Luckily, Stone makes up for the scatterbrained, unfocused themes of his writing (alongside screenwriter & source material novelist John Ridley) in the scatterbrained, unfocused visuals of his direction.  He shoots roadside buzzards from the low angles & wide lenses of a Beastie Boys video.  He shamelessly lifts Spike Lee’s signature double-dolly shot, scores the small-towners’ grotesque bullying of Penn with cartoonish mouth-harp boings, and just generally bounces around the desert sand with nothing but expensive camera equipment and a prankster’s spirit guiding the way.  As nastily blackhearted as U Turn can be, its visual style is buoyantly playful and excitingly volatile, somehow smoothing out the jagged annoyance of Natural Born Killers into something genuinely entertaining.  It’s both a major red-flag indicator of why Jennifer Lopez might have abandoned her early collaborations with high-style auteurs and a nostalgia stoker for the more exciting, challenging work she was doing in that era. 

-Brandon Ledet

Jethica (2023)

Without question, the #1 annual film event on the New Orleans culture calendar is the Overlook Film Fest, or at least it has been since the once nomadic festival settled here in 2018.  Screening all of the year’s best horror titles on the top floor of the Canal Place shopping mall over a single weekend, it’s an annual vacation to genre nerd heaven.  Even while I’m getting stoked for the can’t-miss programming coming to Overlook at the end of this month (The Five Devils! The new Quentin Dupieux! A 30th Anniversary screening of Joe Dante’s Matinee!), I’m still catching up with titles I missed at last year’s fest – most recently the cheeky, supernatural stalker thriller Jethica.  To be honest, the microbudget horror comedy hadn’t jumped out at me as essential festival viewing at first glance, since its competition included Best of 2022 titles as formidable as Mad God, Deadstream, and Flux Gourmet.  But then I overheard and eventually chatted up Jethica star Will Madden as he was personally promoting the film in the screening room for the festival opener Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon.  I recognized Madden from the teens-in-peril gun violence drama Beast Beast, an intense little indie that I wish more people had seen, in which he plays a lonely teen boy with a firearm fetish who gets radicalized by the wrong kind of attention online.  All of that weekend’s screenings of Jethica clashed with other movies I already had tickets for, but nearly a year later it eventually found its way to streaming on Screambox & Hoopla, and I got to see Madden perform again, this time in a slightly goofier register (without forfeiting any of his Beast Beast intensity).  So, even when I’m not looking forward to Overlook or enjoying myself at Overlook, I’m looking back to the other movies I wish I had made time for last Overlook.  Their programming is that trustworthy and that rewarding; it’s the very best in the city.

I was delighted to see even more overlap with the team behind Beast Beast in Jethica‘s credits, including that film’s director (Danny Madden, Will’s brother) handling the sound design and its MVP editor (Pete Ohs) taking auteurist control as writer, director, editor, producer, and cinematographer.  Ohs’s style is much more relaxed & upbeat here, trading in the frantic intensity of Beast Beast for an oddly warm, friendly tone, even in the face of Madden’s agitated stalker mania.  I don’t want to give away too much about the film’s central conceit, which is a fun novelty to discover in the moment, but Madden essentially plays the modern incel equivalent of Beetlejuice: a lonely young misogynist whose unhealthy fixation on a college classmate transforms him into a kind of supernatural ghoul.  He’s a very chatty ghoul, rattling off nonstop rants about the titular target of his desire (Ashley Denise Robinson), whose name he incessantly mispronounces due to a childish lisp.  Jessica teams up with an old friend (Callie Hernandez) to shake her It Follows/Lucky-level stalker for good, only to discover that the friend also has a lonely hanger-on of her own.  It’s essentially a dirt-cheap horror comedy about the bottomless, dangerous loneliness of emotionally stunted straight men.  It’s also literally dirt cheap, in that it was filmed in a vast wasteland of actual New Mexican dirt, so it feels like the central four players—the women and their respective stalkers—are the only souls walking the planet Earth, eternally struggling to break free of their social rut & rot until the stalkers find healthier ways to ease their loneliness.  And it’s all filtered through a post-sex chat in the backseat love nest of a Los Angeles parking lot, which combined with its 70min runtime makes it feel more like an amusing anecdote than a harrowing male-gaze nightmare.

Jethica is not quite the microbudget marvel of American desert madness that you’ll find in The Outwaters, but it sometimes gets pretty close while maintaining a prankster’s smirk.  Ohs amplifies Jethica‘s supernatural menace with the same howling desert winds and flashlit nighttime exteriors as Robbie Banfitch’s found-footage breakout, even though his own film is ultimately more of a joke.  Every element of horror is treated both with genuine tension and with wry comedic sarcasm.  When a quick montage cuts away from the relaxed quiet of the American desert to flash sinister glimpses of Madden’s stalker gear, the edits linger on his New Balance sneakers to emphasize his bland white-boy personality in self-amusement.  When his single-minded stalker mission transforms him into something more glaringly monstrous, the effect is achieved with low-effort laptop CG effects and a Party City makeup kit, outright shrugging off the pressure to look scary on a shoestring budget.  The real key to that balance is Will Madden’s manic performance as the stalker. He alternates between scary, pathetic, and weirdly sweet in rapid succession with very little interaction from his costars to help keep his energy up.  Jethica is the exact kind of low-budget, high reward genre novelty I’m always searching for at film festivals, and I’m grateful that Overlook’s programmers put it on my radar – even if it took me a full year to catch up with it.  I look forward to bouncing around Canal Place’s few, compact screening rooms in a vain attempt to see every one of this year’s offerings in a single weekend, then spending the rest of 2023 hunting down the many excellent movies I missed.

-Brandon Ledet

The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2023

There are 39 feature films nominated for the 2023 Academy Awards ceremony. For the first time ever, we here at Swampflix have reviewed over half of the films nominated (so far!) without consciously trying to keep up with the zeitgeist. 40% of our own Top Films of the Year list has been nominated for Oscars this year, with our #1 pick leading the pack with 11 nominations.  Basically, our street cred is in the trash, and we are now part of the stuffy Awards Season elite.  As such, you can count on us to tell you which films should win Oscars this year—judged simply by the metric of good taste—even if they aren’t the films that will win, as The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually distributing statues.

Listed below are the 23 Oscar-Nominated films from 2022 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best, based on our star ratings and internal voting. Each entry is accompanied by a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

Everything Everywhere All at Once, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Michelle Yeoh), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Stephanie Hsu & Jamie Lee Curtis), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Ke Huy Quan), Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song (“This is a Life”)

“Maybe we’re living in the worst possible timeline, but maybe we’re just living in the one where Michel Gondry directed The Matrix.  It’s nice here.  The absurdism, creativity, and all-out maximalism of Everything Everywhere has made it the most talked-about movie of the year, and with good reason.  Films about intergenerational trauma and poor parental relationships often come across as schmaltzy and reductive, but this one is complex in ways that you can’t predict or imagine.  You’ll even find yourself empathizing with a googly-eyed rock.”

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“In the tradition of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the Borrowers books, and the half-remembered TV show The Littles, Marcel the Shell shrinks itself down to the level of a tiny being to view the world from their perspective.  Like the original stop-motion YouTube shorts, it’s a rapid-fire joke delivery system where every punchline is “So small!”  It also has a big heart, though, acting as an emotional defibrillator to shock us back into the great wide world of familial & communal joy after a few years of intense isolation.”

RRR, nominated for Best Original Song (“Naatu Naatu”)

“An anti-colonialist epic about the power of friendship (and the power of bullets, and the power of wolves, and the power of grenades, and the power of dynamite, and the power of tigers, and the power of bears, oh my).  A real skull-cracker of a good time.”

Triangle of Sadness, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, and Best Original Screenplay

“A delightfully cruel, unsettling comedy that invites you to laugh at the grotesquely rich as they slide around in their own piss, shit, and vomit on a swaying luxury cruise ship.  It’s incredibly satisfyingand maybe even Östlund’s bestas long as you prefer catharsis & entertainment over subtlety & nuance.”

The Banshees of Inisherin, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Colin Ferrell), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Kerry Condon), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Brendan Gleeson & Barry Keoghan), Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score

“In retrospect, watching three seasons of Derry Girls feels like training wheels for immediately understanding the humor in this. Exact same cadence to the jokes, just now with more alleGORY.”

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“A stop-motion musical about how delightfully annoying & revolting children can be (and how their obnoxious misbehavior is a necessary joy in this rigid, fascist world). The pacing could be zippier, and the songs could be catchier, but overall it’s a worthwhile, gorgeous grotesquerie that easily distinguishes itself from the thousand other Pinocchio adaptations it’s competing against for screenspace.”

Fire of Love, nominated for Best Documentary Feature Film

“I very much enjoyed the twee Grizzly Man, if not only as a slideshow of gorgeous nature footage. It’s the story of two talented filmmakers just as much as it’s the story of two doomed volcanologists, seemingly just as inspired by the French New Wave as they were by the immense power of Nature. At least that’s what comes through in the edit.”

EO, nominated for Best International Feature Film

“Jerzy Skolimowski’s noble donkey tale only occasionally plays like a colorized TV edit of Au Hasard Balthasar.  More often, it takes wild detours into an energetic, dreamlike approximation of what it might look like if Gaspar Noé directed Homeward Bound.  It’s incredible that a film this vibrant & playful was made by a long-respected octogenarian, not a fresh-outta-film-school prankster with something to prove.”

The Batman, nominated for Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects

“I am philosophically opposed to this current trajectory where we’ll just keep making Batman movies increasingly “realistic” & colorless forever & ever, to the point where it already takes 90min of narrative justification for The Penguin to waddle. That said, I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to, especially as a 2020s goth-kid update for The Crow. My preference is for Batman to be as goofy & horny as possible, but I’ll settle for creepy & romantic if that’s what’s on the table.”

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay

“Every reveal makes total sense and falls perfectly in line with what we’ve already seen and what we already know while still allowing us to feel some sense of accomplishment in “figuring it out” along with the characters. It’s an effect you can only find in great examples of the genre, like Murder, She Wrote.”

Women Talking, nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay

“Crushingly powerful start to end, more than I had emotionally steeled myself for. Even the drained color palette, which looks like a fundamental flaw from the outside, completely works in the moment. Everything is grim, grey, grueling – even the stabs of humor

Babylon, nominated for Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design

“Impressive in scale and in eagerness to alienate, even if it is just a cruder, shallower Hail, Caesar! crammed into a Boogie Nights shaped box. Likely would have been better received if it was a 10-hour miniseries instead of a 3-hour montage, but the manic tempo is exactly what makes it special among the million other movies about The Movies.”

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, nominated for Best Costume Design

“Gonna add “Mrs Harris finally gets the dress she wants” to the list of scenes I can think back to when I need a quick cry; right alongside “Paddington wishes Aunt Lucy a happy birthday” and “The Girlhood girls dance to Rihanna”

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, nominated for Best Documentary Feature Film

“Half a career-spanning slideshow from Nan Goldin’s legacy as a fine art photography rock star and half a document of her current mission to deflate The Sackler Family’s tires, at least in the art world. The career-retrospective half can’t help but be more compelling than the current political activism half, since her archives are so dense with the most stunning, intimate images of Authentic City Living ever captured. Her personal history in those images and her more recent struggles with addiction more than earn her the platform to be heard about whatever she wants to say here, though, especially since the evil pharmaceutical empire she’s most pissed at has trespassed on her home turf.”

Aftersun, nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Paul Mescal)

“Intimate, small, mostly forgettable until the last 10 minutes. I appreciate it just fine, but I’m always a little confused when this kind of movie breaks out to ecstatic praise, since practically every film festival is teeming with similar titles that never land distro.”

Elvis, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Austin Butler), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Production Design, and Best Sound

“The most individual camera setups I’ve ever seen outside of a Russ Meyer film. Maniacally corny pop art; wasn’t sure whether I enjoyed it until I heard someone complain “That is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen” on the way out and I found myself getting defensive.”

Turning Red, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“The smooth-surface CG & sugar-rush hijinks were very much Not For Me, but I still appreciate it as life-lesson messaging for little kids (especially since the last couple Disney animations I watched taught kids to obey & forgive Family at their own expense).”

Causeway, nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Brian Tyree Henry)

“A serviceable, low-key drama that I would say isn’t at all noteworthy for anyone who isn’t already subscribed to Apple’s streaming service, except that CODA won Best Picture last year so what do I know.”

The Fabelmans, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Michelle Williams), Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design

“Scared to contract whatever subvariant of Film Twitter Brain Rot makes you believe this is “late-style” movie magic but Cinema Paradiso is embarrassing schmaltz. Incredible how a movie so densely packed with detailed memories and messy interpersonal conflicts can ring so generic & phony.”

Tár, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Cate Blanchett), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing

“Half arthouse Aaron Sorkin, half French Exit for the most boring people alive; I am wildly out of step with the consensus with this one, which means it must be Awards Season again.”

Top Gun: Maverick, nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Song (“Hold My Hand”), Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects

“Making this after MacGruber is exactly as embarrassing as making a by-the-numbers musician biopic after Walk Hard. Maybe even worse, considering how much more money was wasted (and for a much more insidious political purpose). Blech.”

Blonde, nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Ana de Armas)

“Fake movie.  So phony it’s uncanny. So phony it makes Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis look tasteful, poised, controlled.  So phony it gets a phony performance out of Julianne Nicholson, of all people. Embarrassing stuff.”

The Whale, nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Brendan Fraser), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Hong Chau), and Best Makeup & Hairstyling

“I love a volatile auteur who consistently swings for the fences, but sometimes that means they follow up one of their career-best with their absolute worst. The only thing that works about this, really, is that Fraser has kind, sympathetic eyes. Every choice outside that casting is cruel, miserable, disposable, nonsense.”

-The Swampflix Crew

Podcast #181: Swiss Army Man (2016) & 2023’s Best Director Nominees

Welcome to Episode #181 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Hanna discuss the earlier works of this year’s Best Director Oscar nominees, starting with the Daniels’ gallows-humor flatulence comedy Swiss Army Man (2016). Enjoy!

00:00 Welcome

04:33 Son of the White Mare (1981)
08:11 Take Out (2004)
13:16 U Turn (1997)
16:00 A Self-Induced Hallucination (2018)

23:25 Swiss Army Man (2016)
41:44 War of the Worlds (2005)
59:58 Little Children (2006)
1:16:50 In Bruges (2008)
1:34:55 The Square (2017)

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

-The Podcast Crew