Kathryn Bigelow and the Few Bad Apples

For most of its sprawling, thematically dense runtime, Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—our current Movie of the Month—is a politically daring, eerily prescient rebuke of the historically racist Los Angeles Police Department. As much as the film’s futuristic VR recording tech was predictive of the way police body cams & citizens’ cell phone footage would later change the way we publicly processed police brutality in the coming decades, it also served a snapshot of its then-current political angst. Strange Days plays like a big-budget blockbuster amplification of the racial police force pushback that led to the Rodney King riots, reinterpreting real-life civil unrest through a futuristic sci-fi lens. It’s a bizarre jolt of a letdown, then, when those citizens vs. police tensions are resolved in a last-minute turnaround where a police commissioner swoops in to admonish his corrupt, racist employees – simplifying the LAPD’s systemic racism to just a few rogue cops who don’t follow protocol. That same misinterpretation of racist policing in black neighborhoods would pop up again decades later, when Bigelow fixed her eye on a racist past instead of a racist future.

2017’s Detroit drew much more vocal criticism for its political shortsightedness than Strange Days suffered in the 90s, but that’s likely because more people happened to see it in the first place (not to mention the democratization of critical publication in a post-Twitter world). A brutal historical drama about the 1967 Detroit race riots, the film wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleasing box office smash, but Bigelow’s transformation from underappreciated genre film auteur to Oscar-winning establishment director means that every feature she releases in the modern era is something of an event. Like Strange Days, Detroit rushes out the gate throwing wild punches in a frenetic, meticulously detailed account of how one police raid of an unlicensed black nightclub spiraled out into a weeks-long, city-wide riot. The first hour of the film is an adrenaline-flooded nightmare as handheld war-style photography mixes with real-life news footage to paint the backdrop for the smaller, more confined story to follow in its second hour. It’s once the story slams the brakes to park at The Algiers Hotel in that second hour that the film draws a lot of its political backlash from critics – an unease with depictions of police brutality that was only exacerbated by the film being released the same week as the police-condoned racist mayhem of Charlottesville.

Once Detroit shifts from its macro view of how the 1967 riots ignited & spread to the specific, intimate terror of The Algiers Hotel, its interests shift from political unrest to militaristic torture. Convinced that a sniper in the hotel is shooting at the National Guards, a small band of police officers torture the business’s residents to “confess” who is guilty of the (non-existent) crime. The duration & methodical repetition of this sequence, in which several black men are murdered & psychologically tormented by white cops, drew a lot of criticism as torture porn that turned black pain & brutalized black bodies into mass entertainment. That lingering fixation on physical abuse & torture had been part of Bigelow’s visual language since her earliest features, an approach to storytelling that could only be described as “unflinching.” Whether that sensibility was worth continuing when she shifted into telling real-life black stories as a white artist is a conversation worth having, especially since Charlottesville was such a raw nerve when the film was first released. What really disappointed me about Detroit personally, though, was Bigelow’s continued reluctance to interrogate the racism of the offending police force as an institution rather than a defect among a few bad apples. She showed very little progress on that front in the 22 years between Strange Days & Detroit, if any at all.

In its superior opening hour, Detroit is actively interested in the institutional reinforcement of racial segregation & subjugation, which only makes its third-act backpedaling all the more frustrating. In a bewildering mixed-media collage of animation, real-life newsreel footage, and blood pressure-raising historical reenactments, Bigelow paints a wide picture of the systemic racial inequality that led to the civil unrest at the film’s core: the history of urban housing inequality and the cycle of white flight; the media coverage of the riots as senseless self-destruction rather than a purposeful expression of political discontent; the police force’s unwillingness to shoot looters dead, as they value property over black lives; etc. When we zero in on the extensive torture session at The Algiers, however, that critical eye towards institutionalized inequality becomes much murkier, to the point of being meaningless. Every commanding officer, National Guardsmen, and varying other police force higher-ups who catch wind of what the “rogue” cops did at The Algiers (entirely under the direction of a single bully, played by the eternally punchable Will Pourter) is disgusted by their actions. Although the real-life cops who committed these heinous acts were never fully held accountable, the movie makes sure it’s clear that they acted as a standalone gang of rotten apples. It makes no moves to interrogate how their evil acts may have been encouraged or even deliberately trained into them by their higher-ups. They’re portrayed as human flaws in the system, instead of the ugly truth that they’re a sign of the system working exactly as intended.

For me, Detroit is overall a mixed bag, but the in-the-moment effect of its intense opening hour is almost enough to carry it. There’s some truly impressive, ambitious craft on display from Bigelow before the film slams its brakes to dwell on militaristic torture tactics for a literal eternity. Strange Days is similarly upsetting in is own depictions of intimate brutality, but its bigger sci-fi ideas remain a work of sprawling ambition throughout, making for a wholly satisfying picture in its entirety. No matter how much my genre-nerd impulses allow me to overlook Strange Days’s political shortcomings, however, I can’t help but be disappointed to see Bigelow’s “a few bad apples” misinterpretation of systemic police brutality & racism continue all the way into the 2010s. It only makes the superior firm’s own backpedaling conclusion more of a letdown in retrospect.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Nostalgia Check: Tim Curry is Clue (1985)’s Overworked, Undervalued MVP

Rian Johnson’s crowd-pleasing ensemble cast whodunnit Knives Out is proving to have a surprisingly substantial box office presence. The murder mystery Old Dark House throwback with a large cast of celebrity players is a time-honored Hollywood tradition, but it’s not one that always translates to commercial success. Consider, for instance, the 1985 John Landis-penned whodunit spoof Clue, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the eponymous board game. While Clue has gradually earned cult classic status over decades of television broadcasts, it first arrived in American theaters as a financial flop. That’s difficult to fathom in retrospect, as its TV broadcast familiarity throughout my life has always framed it in my mind as a beloved, popular classic. It turns out its financial & cultural impact aren’t the only aspects of Clue that had been altered through the faulty lens of my own memory either. Through time, I’ve lost track of exactly how funny this film is and who in the cast is responsible for its biggest laughs.

Given the presence of comedic heavyweights like Landis, Michael McKean, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, and Tim Curry, it’s easy to misremember Clue as a nonstop laugh riot. The collective charms of its cast does make the film eternally pleasant to revisit, but its laugh-to-joke ratio is disappointingly low. In recent years, I’ve come to think of Clue as a less-funny Murder By Death (which admittedly does have its own problems, mostly due to Peter Sellers’s yellowface performance as a Charlie Chan archetype), just with an updated-for-the-80s cast. Clue‘s sense of humor is a paradoxically low-energy offshoot of ZAZ spoofery, in which the genre-homage slapstick is plentiful but arrives at an unrushed pace. The biggest knee-slapper laugh lines come from mainstay Mel Brooks collaborator Madeline Kahn, whose “flames on the side of my face” & “It’s a matter of life after death; now that he’s dead I have a life” zingers have transformed the murderous widow character into a hall-of-fame meme. However, her presence is too sparsely doled out to carry the film on its own. To match the ZAZ-level energy needed to keep this genre spoof lively, Clue needed a much louder, more frantic MVP.

As the deceptive butler of the Old Dark House who gathers a group of high-profile strangers as dinner party guests to reveal that they’re all being blackmailed by the same soon-to-die rapscallion (the amusingly named Mr. Body), Curry has the fairly thankless role of constantly explaining the situation at hand. While the rest of the cast can rest on the charm of their personalities & Old Hollywood noir costuming, Curry is constantly doing the labor of providing direction & purpose for the proceedings. The true comic genius of Clue is in watching how that role escalates into total delirium as the bodies pile up and the party descends into chaos. By the final half hour of the film, Curry is soaked in flop sweat as he frantically runs around the house, dragging the rest of the cast behind him and explaining at length What’s Really Going On Here. In bewildering rapid-fire line deliveries & breathless monologue, Curry re-explains the entire plot of the film from the very first scene to the revelation of who among the suspects killed Mr. Body. It’s an absurd spectacle of physical comedic acting, one that only becomes funnier the longer it stretches on — driving Curry into a blissful mania that hasn’t been given nearly as much credit for its accomplishments as Kahn’s laidback zingers.

I don’t mean to downplay the pure pleasure of Madeline Kahn’s magnificent presence in Clue. I just find it bizarre that her cultural impact has been outshining what Tim Curry acheives in the film, when he does so much more heavy-lifting in keeping the film memorably funny. For instance, Kahn’s .gif-famous “flames on the side of my face” zinger is only included in one of the film’s three alternate endings, which you might not even see if you allow your DVD player to choose an ending at random. Meanwhile, Curry’s deranged flop sweat explanation of What’s Really Going On here is a substantial anchor in all three alternate endings, so that he’s literally doing triple the work of the rest of the cast. As so much of Clue’s legacy is built on nostalgia—both in its 1950s Agatha Christie throwback aesthetic and its 1990s television broadcast repetition—the frantic spectacle of this performance is just yet another element at play that deserves re-evaluation in a nostalgia check. The movie may not be as energetically silly, commercially successful, or Madeline Kahn-heavy as it’s misremembered to be, but Tim Curry sure does his damnedest to make up for any & all of its shortcomings all on his own, practically turning an ensemble-cast comedy into a one-man show.

-Brandon Ledet

Knives Out (2019)

“Physical evidence can tell a clear story with a forked tongue,” Daniel Craig’s Knives Out character Benoit Blanc, “last of the gentleman sleuths,” says to Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) upon being told that all the physical evidence surrounding the death of publishing magnate Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) points to suicide. This is not the first or last of a series of surprisingly well delivered bon mots from Blanc as he doggedly pursues the truth of what happened the night of Thrombey’s 85th birthday.

All the family gathered that night: Thrombey’s eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who describes her real estate business as “self-made,” in spite of actually starting out with a million dollar loan from the family patriarch; widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette), a self-described lifestyle guru/entrepreneur and would-be influencer whose knowledge of current events comes from reading tweets about New Yorker articles; and, finally, son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Blood Like Wine Publishing, his father’s business. Each has their own family and hangers-on, as well; Linda is married to the largely useless and unfaithful Richard (Don Johnson), and their son Ransom (Chris Evans) is likewise a rootless gadabout and playboy of the Tom Buchanan mold; the delightful Riki Lindhome is given little to do other than spout Trump-era rhetoric about “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants” in her role as Walt’s wife Donna, and their son Jacob (Jaeden Lieberher) is a smartphone-addicted teen described as a “literal Nazi” who allegedly masturbates to images of dead deer; Joni is accompanied by daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), who is attending a prestigious liberal arts college and serves as the closest thing to a good person this family has, although she is not without her flaws. There’s also Greatnana, Thrombey’s elderly mother of unknown age, played by onetime Martha Kent K Callan, who I was surprised to learn was still alive. Also in the house that night are Thrombey’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), and pothead housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson, taking a break from killing it on The Righteous Gemstones). When Ransom storms out early after a heated discussion, suspicion initially falls on him, but every member of the family has a motive, as Thrombey had announced to each of them that very night that he was cutting off their individual paths of access to his wealth. And then, 33 minutes into the film’s 130 minute runtime, writer-director Rian Johnson tells you who did it. And then things get interesting.

I’ve long been a fan of comedy pastiches and homages of genres that function perfectly as examples of those genres despite humorous overtones; my go-to example is Hot Fuzz, which I always tout as having a more sophisticated murder mystery plot than most films than most straightforward criminal investigation media (our lead comes to a logical conclusion that fits all of the clues, but still turns out to be wrong). Knives Out is another rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot. Despite the big names in that cast list above, Marta is our real hero here, although to say more than that would be to give away too much of the plot–both the film’s and Harlan’s. I’m not generally a fan of Daniel Craig, but in this opportunity to play against type, his turn as a kind of Southern Hercule Poirot here is surprisingly charming, first appearing to be somewhat bumbling and ignorant in his pursuit of the truth but ultimately proving to have a sharp deductive mind. His affected drawl also helps take many of Blanc’s lines, some of the best one-liners ever committed to a movie script, and elevates them into true comedic art. From the quote at the top of the review to his description of a will reading (“You think it’ll be like a game show. No. Imagine a community theater performance of a tax return.”) to his reference to Jacob in his Sherlockian summation of the evidence near the film’s end (“What were the overheard words by the Nazi child masturbating in the bathroom?”), all are rendered hilarious in their Southern gentility. It’s a sight to behold.

The film is surprisingly political, as well, and not just in a “Communism was a red herring” way. Like Get Out before it, Knives Out mocks the occasional ignorance of the political left vis-a-vis latent and uninspected racism on the part of Joni and Meg, who profess progressive values while being, respectively, a largely uninformed buffoon and an easily corrupted intellectual. On the other side of the aisle, the fact that all of the Thrombey children and grandchildren consider themselves to be “self-made” despite succeeding only due to the generosity of their wealthy patriarch calls to mind certain statements about a “small loan” of a million dollars that a certain political figure has made. Likewise, Rian Johnson has claimed that Jacob’s character is based on blowback he received from some of the darker corners of the internet following (what some would consider to be) the mismanagement of the Star Wars franchise while helming The Last Jedi. In particular, the entirety of the wealthy white family seems completely ignorant of Marta’s country of origin, with each of them calling her a different nationality; after a few glasses of champagne, they devolve into an ugly debate about the current supposed immigration “crisis,” citing well-worn neocon talking points about “America [being] for Americans” and “millions of Mexicans” undermining American culture, as well as the purported illegality of seeking asylum. All of this is done in front of Marta, who is specifically called out as an model member of a minority group and then asked to speak to this experience, exotifying her and speaking over her (that the most useless member of this crew, Richard, does so while absentmindedly handing her his dessert plate—like one would with a server or a domestic servant—is a particularly nice detail). It comes across as rather toothless in the moment, especially given that Jacob is largely held unaccountable for his political ideology (other than Richard’s accusation that the boy spent Harlan’s party in the bathroom “Joylessly masturbating to pictures of dead deer”), but the white New England family’s desperation to hold onto property that they consider rightfully theirs despite having had no hand in building the family’s financial success is ultimately revealed to be a core part of the film’s thesis, as evinced in the film’s final frame. That having been said, there are moments when I wish that the family was a little less charming and a little more clearly depicted as being in the wrong; at one point at the screening I attended, there was a rather loud laugh when Jacob called Marta an “anchor baby,” and the effusive reaction to that line in particular chilled my blood a bit.

The first time I saw the trailer for this film was before The Farewell, and the friend with whom I saw that flick had no interest in Knives Out, asking only that I text him after I left the theater and tell him who the killer was. I initially assented, but after my screening, I texted him and told him that the movie was too clever to be spoiled that way, and I meant it. This is a movie that should be seen without as little foreknowledge as possible, and as soon as you can.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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

Here are the movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week, including a few heavy-hitter auteurs and some appropriate Holiday Season programming.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Black Christmas – Sophia Takal and April Wolfe team up to overhaul the seminal proto-slasher Black Christmas into a modern feminist action horror that rails against the pervasive evils of college campus sexual assault. It’s already making Men mad online just by the trailers alone, so you know it’s doing something right. Playing wide.

Honey Boy Shia LaBeouf plays his own alcoholic, abusive father in an autobiographical self-examination of his early yeas as an overworked child actor. Given how grim the premise is, I like to imagine he pulled the title from the Xiu Xiu track “Fabulous Muscles” but I’ve yet to get confirmation on that. Playing wide.

Waves Trey Edward Schults continues his hot streak of highly divisive, emotionally rattling A24 productions with a years-spanning melodrama about one black family’s lives in suburban America. Looks to be much more narratively & tonally well-behaved than Krisha or It Comes at Night, but those movies had deceptively conventional trailers too, so who knows. Playing wide.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

Parasite The latest from Bong Joon-ho (director of Okja and Swampflix’s favorite movie of 2014, Snowpiercer) is a twisty, crowd-pleasing thriller about class resentment that’s been selling out screenings & earning ecstatic critical praise for weeks as its distribution exponentially spreads. Guaranteed to be in discussions of the best movies of the year, so don’t miss your chance to see it big, loud, and with an enraptured crowd. Playing only at The Broad.

In Fabric Peter Strickland’s florid horror comedy about a cursed department store & a killer dress is decidedly not for everyone (someone shushed me for laughing along with its exquisite absurdity at our screening, mistaking it for a dead-serious drama), but it was our favorite film we caught at this year’s Overlook Film Festival. I also suspect it will be one of our collective favorite movies of 2019, given our weakness for over-the-top genre fare. Playing only at the Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge.

Knives Out Rian Johnson cashes in his Last Jedi money to make an old-fashioned Agatha Christie throwback whodunnit with a massive cast of celebrity faces. He’s clearly having a ton of fun with the genre, and the best part is that the joke at the expense of the Nazi dweebs and Middle America fascists who hounded him for supposedly making TLJ too SJW. Playing wide.

-Brandon Ledet

Doctor Sleep (2019)

I reread The Shining this past October. It was part of my effort to read more spooky books after finishing up a posthumous Shirley Jackson collection (Let Me Tell You) that had a few good gothic outliers in it but was largely more domestic than the portions of her body of work with which I was more familiar (my next read after The Shining was David Mitchell’s Slade House, which was great but should really only be read if you’ve already finished his Bone Clocks, which is an endeavor). My erstwhile roommate and I talked about it midmonth when we met up for a mutual friend’s birthday, and he mentioned that, of all of Stephen King’s works that he had read, The Shining is the one that most closely resembles an objective (and admittedly pretentious) definition of “literature,” and as someone who loved the pulpiness of The Dead Zone but also literally threw Salem’s Lot into the trash at about the midway point, I had to agree. At the time, I had no idea that the forthcoming Doctor Sleep was an adaptation of the sequel to the earlier novel (or a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining from 1980, or something between the two, as the case turned out to be), but boy was I excited once I learned that was the case!

2019 marks the first time that three theatrical King adaptations have hit the big screen in the same year since 1983, which featured the hat trick of Lewis Teague’s Cujo, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, and John Carpenter’s Christine.* I had more positive feelings about IT: Chapter 2 than most (long story short: it was a better Nightmare on Elm Street movie than about half of the films in that franchise) and didn’t see the Pet Sematary remake, but boy was my King itch scratched by Doctor Sleep.

Doctor Sleep follows an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who, following the incident at the Overlook Hotel in the first film, was taught by the ghost of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly, taking over for the late Scatman Crothers) to “lock away” the malevolent spirits that followed him—the rotten woman from Room 237, the Grady twins**, and even Horace Derwent—inside mental boxes. As an adult, he finds himself falling into the same patterns as his father and even going further; he’s not just an alcoholic, but abuses harder drugs as well, and even Jack Torrance never stole cash out of a single mother’s purse. Taking an inventory of his life, Danny starts anew in another town, where he seems to thrive and even becomes “psychic penpals” with a girl named Abra, whose Shining is perhaps even stronger than Danny’s. Elsewhere, however, a group of quasi-immortals called The True Knot seek out and murder children with the Shining in order to feed on their psychic essence. When the Knot’s de facto leader Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) becomes aware of Abra, the group seeks her out as their next victim, and she turns to Danny for help.

I loved this movie. I’ve been a fan of Mike Flanagan’s since Oculus, and I think that he may be the best horror director of this generation. The Haunting of Hill House series that he released last year was stunningly, achingly beautiful, and his adaptation of Gerald’s Game established that he was more than capable of adapting the tone, tension, and dry bones terror of a Stephen King narrative. With him at the helm, there was little to no chance that this film would be anything less than perfect. Every shot is beautifully composed, and although I know many probably balked at the film’s 152 minute runtime, there’s not a single frame of wasted celluloid in this film. Even the moments when, theoretically, nothing is happening (like Danny’s and the Knot’s long cross country drives), the camera watches from a place of elevated removal, watching and waiting and letting the tension build, subtly echoing Rose’s viewpoint when she “flies” while astral projecting in her pursuit of Abra. It’s elegant in its simplicity, but isn’t above descending into occasional camp either (Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer mentioned that the villains gave him strong True Blood vibes, which is a criticism not without merit). This film never feels its length, and the muted public reaction and mediocre box office returns are a personal disappointment; this film was never going to surpass The Shining, but it’s not far behind, and Flanagan was right to mix the original film’s solemn meditative qualities with occasional frenetic setpieces. In a lifetime of watching movies, I’ve never been so invested or felt so much tension in my spine when watching a scene of a man eight years sober struggle to not take a drink, even in Kubrick’s opus; it’s powerful movie-making at its best, and I can’t recommend it more highly. McGregor gives one of his best performances here, and Ferguson is likewise a delight (the supermarket scene is a particular standout). Sleep really and truly deserves all the attention that it’s failing to garner in the mainstream, and is the rare horror sequel to live up to (and feel like it truly belongs to) the legacy of its predecessor.

*Graveyard Shift, Misery, and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie all came out in 1990, but Darkside is an anthology with only one King adaptation in its ranks, so I don’t count that. 2017 actually boasted four features, but Gerald’s Game and 1922 both premiered on Netflix and not in theaters, and although IT was a clear success, the less said about The Dark Tower the better. Technically, King’s website also lists an April 2017 release date for My Pretty Pony, which is a movie that I’m not entirely sure exists. Even the Wikipedia page for the short story on which it is based talks about the film’s 2017 release in the future tense, and I can’t find any evidence of the film ever coming to fruition.

** Yes, I know they are not identified as the children of former caretaker Grady in Kubrick’s The Shining, and that Grady’s daughters in the novel are explicitly not twins (being aged 8 and 10); don’t @ me.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #97 of The Swampflix Podcast: Parasite (2019) & Vertical Class Warfare

Welcome to Episode #97 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our ninety-seventh episode, James & Brandon discuss one of 2019’s great crowd-pleasers and one of its most divisive oddities: Parasite & Us. And because both films deal in vertical class warfare, they then descend below ground to wrangle with C.H.U.D. (1985). Enjoy!

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

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

#NOFF2019 Ranked & Reviewed

Here we are almost two full months since the 30th annual New Orleans Film Festival concluded and I’m finally gathering all of titles I caught at the fest in one spot. CC & I already recorded a more fleshed-out recap of our festival experience on Episode #95 of the podcast, in case you’re interested in hearing about the goings-on at the handful of downtown theaters where the festival was held and the various short films that preceded some of those screenings. This list is a more bare-bones kind of recap: a ranking from the best to the . . . least best of the features we managed to catch at this year’s festival.

This year we focused entirely on boosting the profile of micro-budget indies that are unlikely to get wide theatrical distribution, skipping the New Orleans premieres for bigger titles like Jojo Rabbit, Knives Out, and Harriet. Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. Swallow Appearing like a scared child in June Cleaver housewife drag, Bennett conveys a horrific lack of confidence & self-determination in every gesture. Her fragility & despondence under the control of her wealthy, emotionally abusive family make you want to celebrate her newfound, deeply personal path to fulfillment, even though it very well might kill her. As she snacks on fistfuls of garden soil while watching trash TV instead of obeying her family’s orders all I could think was “Good for her!”‘

2. Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project As Stokes’s D.I.Y. archive is an extensive cultural record of American society over the past thirty years, the list of trends & topics that could be explored in their own full-length documentaries are only as limited as an editor’s imagination. This film is an excellent primer on the cultural wealth archived in those VHS tapes, as it both explores larger ideas of how media reflects society back to itself and does full justice to the rogue political activist who did dozens & dozens of people’s work by assembling it.”

3. Gracefully “Smart to never allow the flashiness of its craft to overpower the inherent fasciation of its subject. When it does get noticeably artful in its framing & imagery, it’s only ever in service of its subject’s dancing—often showing him performing in pitch-black voids as if his D.I.Y. glamor was the only thing in the world that matters.”

4. Jezebel “Perrier doesn’t shy away from the exploitation or desperation that fueled her online sex work as a cash-strapped, near-homeless teen, but she’s equally honest about the joy, power, and self-discovery that line of work opened up to her at the time, making for a strikingly complex picture of an authentic, lived experience.”

5. A Great Lamp “Feels akin to the aimless slacker comedies of yesteryear – the kind of deliberately apathetic, glibly existential art that put names like Jarmusch & Linklater on the map back when Independent Filmmaking was first becoming a viable industry. It’s got the handheld, high-contrast black & white look of a zine in motion (and I’m sure many a Clerks knockoff from festivals past), evoking a bountiful history of D.I.Y. no-budget art. However, in both tone & sentiment there’s no way the film could have bene made by previous generations of artful slackers, as its heart is clearly rooted in a 2010s sensibility.”

6. Hunting for Hedonia “Most valuable for its ability to explain the full scope of Deep Brain Stimulation’s history in concise layman’s terms. It covers the horrific past of its abuse, the promising present of its success in the therapy field, and the terrifying future of its rapid, unavoidable escalation in a modern capitalist paradigm.”

7. The World is Full of Secrets “Plays like Are You Afraid of the Dark? reimagined as a traumatizing stage play or audio book – with long takes of sub-professional teen actors struggling to conquer unnecessarily complex monologues. What’s amazing about this set-up is that the film not only finds room to establish a genuinely creepy mood, but it’s often prankishly hilarious and light on its feet despite its potential for academic pretention.”

8. Pier Kids “Its personal, intimate documentation of a new, specific crop of homeless queer kids is just as essential as any past works – if not only as confirmation that the epidemic is still ongoing. These children are still out there taking care of themselves & each other with no end or solution to this cycle in sight. I do hope there will be a day when these documentaries are no longer such a regular routine, but only in the sense that I hope for a future where they’re no longer necessary. We’re not there yet.”

9. Reži “Even if the film is overall too frustrating to merit a hearty recommendation, the combatively prankish attitude it performs in every frame is too infectious to fully ignore – like so many festering stab wounds.”

10. Singular Whatever faults this might have as an overly reserved document of a wild, punches-throwing artist, it does have plenty of net benefits in pushing Cecile McLorin Salvant in front of an even wider audience. I imagine if you’ve never heard of her before this doc could play as a revelation that a Nina Simone-level genius is alive & working in plain sight, waiting for your eyes & ears. The contrast between her work & the doc’s reserved nature might even unintentionally emphasize her art’s subversive playfulness, which seeps through the concert footage despite the buttoned-up style of the interviews.”

-Brandon Ledet

Ladyworld (2019)

“This party would be a lot more fun if it was over.”

In Ladyworld, eight women in their early-twenties are trapped in a house indefinitely after what seems to be a society-collapsing earthquake. As the consecutive days without electricity, water, or food supplies pile up, this event triggers the group’s collective descent into madness. I didn’t love this movie as much as I expected to, given the promise of that premise, but it’s still a solid entry in a genre I personally never tire of: the horrible party that never ends. Even if Ladyworld didn’t achieve the full atmospheric menace attempted in its disjointed imagery, stage play dialogue, and aggressive sound design, that story template of a miserable party gone out of bounds still guarantees a deeply unnerving effect the movie fosters admirably.

Often, these microcosmic descents into communal madness are deployed as allegories of larger societal ills. The Exterminating Angel’s never-ending party satirized wealth disparity in a grotesquely unfair class system; mother! hinged its own chaotic symbolism on an Environmentalist bent; Demon was haunted by a buried past of antiemetic genocide; etc. For its part, Ladyworld mostly seems concerned with hierarchal distributions of power. Within mere hours of the earthquake trapping these young women at a never-ending birthday party, the group splits into two camps behind self-elected leaders. This divide ignites a power struggle that results only in escalating violence and seemingly no positive motions toward survival. It’s a kind of femme variation on Lord of the Flies in that way, with the women exchanging that novel’s conch for a decorative crystal. It’s tough to say if there’s any clear messaging or themes intended behind this power struggle, beyond mocking the pointlessness of the impulse. If the movie has anything direct to say about hierarchal power, it’s that “No one needs to be in charge when everyone has a knife.” And the knives are only necessary because we’re naturally prone to violence & chaos.

It’s almost pointless to pick apart what the movie’s doing on a plot level, though, since its main focus appears to be atmospheric menace. Ominous drones & rhythmic breathing overpower the soundtrack as characters indulge in impov warmup exercises and cake on inch-thick layers of makeup. A paranoid myth that a man is lurking in the house, waiting to attack them, spreads throughout the group like a hushed religious belief. The menace of unending boredom & unstructured idle time escalates to a feverish panic, with the two warring factions starting shit with each other just so there’s something to do. The strongest case the movie makes for its value as a consistently unnerving, abrasive work of outsider art is when one character praises a painting in the house for being ugly. She contends that the necessity for everything to be pleasant & beautiful is a kind of artistic oppression, one that Ladyworld actively fights against in its tonal & atmospheric aggression. This is an ugly film about the ugliness of basic human nature, something that comes across much stronger in its visual & aural experiments than in its dialogue or plot.

As I’m writing about Ladyworld’s emphasis on cinematic language over traditional storytelling and its use of the party-out-of-bounds narrative template to terrorize its audience with atmospheric menace, I’m again left wondering why this isn’t my new favorite movie. Maybe if I had been fully immersed in a theatrical setting instead of watching it on my couch, I might have felt its psychological impact a lot stronger. Maybe I seek out these kinds of movies too often, so watching adult women devolving at a never-ending-slumber-party-from-Hell feels like something I’ve already seen approximated in recent films like Queen of Earth, #horror, and – most recently—Braid. Disregarding my sky-high expectations and over-saturation in this genre territory, though, this film is still an impressive work of D.I.Y. alchemy – turning a single location & a small crew of fresh-faced collaborators into something deeply, unrelentingly upsetting. It’s not the greatest specimen of its ilk, but it’s still a commendable one.

-Brandon Ledet

Singular (2019)

I first fell in love with jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant at her 2015 Jazz Fest performance, where her unpretentious, playful stage presence felt like a once-in-a-lifetime gift I didn’t deserve. It says a lot about her accessibility that she affected me at all, given that I listen to essentially zero modern jazz. Yet, there was a sinisterly subversive, rawly sexual prankishness to her art that read as being punk-as-fuck to me across that genre divide. Salvant has also been a hit among people who actually are in tune with the current state of jazz, winning multiple consecutive Grammys in the few years since that performance and many other accolades besides. Part of her rise-to-legend path now includes the PR-boosting documentary Singular, which premiered in her hometown of Miami this year before screening at The New Orleans Film Festival to an audibly delighted crowd. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t quite live up to Salvant’s subversive, audience-rattling stage presence, but I’m not sure it ever had a fighting chance to do so.

Smartly, Singular anchors its recap of Salvant’s quick rise to relative fame on a Miami concert where the genius of her art is on full, open display. Talking-head interviews & home video footage of her pre-fame years interrupt the concert at regular intervals, but you do get just enough of a taste of what she’s up to onstage to understand why she’s so distinct in her field. The problem is that it’s difficult to not want more, especially if you’re hearing her music for the very first time. I’d usually be thankful for a film with this straightforward of a subject sticking to a slim 68min runtime, but here that compression means that Salvant’s performances are frequently disrupted by the commentariat, with interviewees talking over her art about how great that art supposedly is, as opposed to letting the work speak for itself. It’s probably unfair of me to wish this were a full-on concert film instead of a documentary, but in all honesty the story of Salvant’s life (as presented here) isn’t nearly as interesting as the story her work tells onstage. Few things are.

This is ultimately a very polite, well-behaved documentary for a subversively raunchy, confrontational performer who deserves something with much sharper teeth. Salvant’s backstory of training with an intimidating French professor at her “momager’s” insistence before returning to America to wow jazz snobs who didn’t know what to expect from her is endearing, but not especially eye-opening. As the narrative approaches her modern day interests—confronting the performance of racial caricature in jazz history, drawing psychedelic cartoons of a “lobster woman” in her free time, modeling some world-class couture glasses-frames, etc.—the story starts to get more interesting but then abruptly shuts down as if those were footnotes & addendums instead of the central text. Part of the issue might be that these legend-building docs usually arrive posthumously or late in an artist’s career, while Salvant’s story is still very much unfolding. At this point, anything but a proper concert film is bound to feel a little premature.

Whatever faults Singular might have as an overly reserved document of a wild, punches-throwing artist, it does have plenty of net benefits in pushing Salvant in front of an even wider audience. I imagine if you’ve never heard of her before this doc could play as a revelation that a Nina Simone-level genius is alive & working in plain sight, waiting for your eyes & ears. The contrast between her work & the doc’s reserved nature might even unintentionally emphasize her art’s subversive playfulness, which seeps through the concert footage despite the buttoned-up style of the interviews. The movie also does convey a kind of lighting-in-a-bottle aspect of her current work by contrasting it with her life & career as a whole. In early footage of her amateur concerts & competitions, Salvant is obviously talented, but feels like a relatable, pedestrian nerd from Miami. In her contemporary performances, she’s a ferociously confident, once-in-a-lifetime persona, as if something magical within her had clicked into place that cannot be fully explained. It’s difficult to not yearn for more of that modern, magical footage in a feature-length concert film, but this document of that trajectory from green talent to world-conquering confidence is still worthwhile on its own merits – even if barely so.

-Brandon Ledet

Aniara (2019)

Among the big-city dwellers who were lucky enough to see it on the big screen, Claire Denis’s High Life proved to be one of the year’s more divisive films. That work’s stubbornly esoteric allegories about climate change & humanity’s isolation in an uncaring universe could either register as captivating or exhaustively boring depending on its audience’s sensibilities – an effect Denis only amplified by rooting the story in prolonged, systemic cruelty. Even the Swampflix crew was divided on the film’s merits, with Boomer filing a negative review for it the same week CC & I sang its praises on the podcast. In some ways, I wish that same awe-and-vitriol divide had been afforded to this year’s other brutal space travel allegory, Aniara, which shares a lot of thematic ground with High Life when considered in the abstract. Instead, Aniara has been suffering the much worse fate of not being talked about at all. Ever since it premiered at TIFF last year, Aniara has been damned with faint praise as a decent-enough, 3-star sci-fi yarn, which naturally stirs up a lot less critical conversation than the wild, alienating swings of Denis’s film. That’s a shame, since it covers similar thematic territory as the more divisive, attention-grabbing work in a way I think a lot more people would be receptive to. And it’s just sitting right there on Hulu, largely unwatched & undiscussed.

Maybe it’s only genre nerds who’ve spent hundreds of hours watching SyFy Channel reruns of venerated series like Star Trek & Battlestar Galactica who would be greatly excited by Aniara’s melancholy space travel mood. It shares existential climate change themes with High Life, but its story is much more linear & traditionally structured than its arthouse counterpart. At least, it appears that way in the early goings. As the boundaryless void of outer space and the meaningless of time for those drifting across it becomes increasingly apparent, the movie gradually blossoms into its own blissfully bizarre object. No matter how familiar the film’s storytelling structure & spaceship setting may first appear, it’s ultimately a surreal, existential descent into despair that processes the horrors of climate change through a deep-space travel narrative. It features a bisexual female scientist as the lead, dabbles in the psychedelia of futuristic space-cult religions, and argues that maybe bringing new children into a dying world isn’t necessarily the best idea – a tough, but worthwhile topic given our current path to extinction. No film that embodies all those potentially alienating elements should be brushed off as “conventional,” no matter how familiar its tone & setting might feel to sci-fi television storytelling ritual. It’s just that it’s more adventurous & ambitious in its ideas than it is in its formal structure, which could be said about plenty sci-fi classics of the past.

A massive spaceship ferrying a routine transportation haul of human passengers from Earth to Mars is unexpectedly thrown off-course by space junk debris. The captain of the ship informs his horrified passengers that their trip will now take months instead of hours. Those months turn into years as it becomes increasingly unclear whether the ship will ever return home at all. The organic supplies that generate fresh food & oxygen gradually start to rot. Drifting through space with no hope or purpose, the passengers search for higher meaning & easy escapism in their severely limited environment. This mostly entails visits to Mima – a machine that broadcasts holodeck-style images of Nature into the minds of its users. Even before they were stranded on this spaceship, this imagery belonged to a nostalgic past before Earth was wrecked by climate change. Through Mima, it’s now twice removed from its original source, and becomes an addictive tool for mental escapism in what’s essentially a prison ship. Of course, this shipwide abuse of Mima is not sustainable in the long run; the demands of the passengers far outweigh the supply. As the passengers search for other, grander ways to find meaning in their endless drift into the void of deep space (and wrestle with the morality of bringing newborns into such a nihilistic environment), we experience daily life on the titular ship through the eyes of Mima’s operator – who suffers the full spectrum of love, loss, labor, and search for purpose while her years adrift endlessly accumulate.

I’d readily recommend Aniara to any & all sci-fi nerds who’ve ever gotten hooked on a long-running space travel series. I’d especially recommend it to those who were intrigued but frustrated by High Life earlier this year. Personally, both films hit me in about the same way on a thematic level, but I found it easier to buy into the linear, structured drama of Aniara on an emotional one (not least of all due to a stunner of a lead performance from Emelle Jonsson). I appreciated High Life more for its arthouse craft, whereas Aniara left me gutted and terrified for our inevitable near-future doom as a species. Both works are worthy of attention & discussion, even if you end up falling in love with neither.

-Brandon Ledet