Hotel Artemis (2018)

There was a long period of time where slick crime pictures with deliberately overwritten dialogue felt distinctly like post-Tarantino drivel. The post-Tarantino thriller was a far-too-common manifestation of macho posturing where fresh-out-of-film school cinema bros could indulge in style-over-substance “subversions” of genre flicks – mostly to their own delight. Now that the artform of the Tarantino knockoff is much less ubiquitous, however, it’s evolving into something much more adventurous. Free Fire remolded the overly-talky Tarantino formula into an absurdist meta comedy about how audiences should be feel bad about being endlessly entertained by gun violence. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (embarrassingly) attempted to graduate it to the level of Oscar Bait Melodrama. Neither were nearly as satisfying as the post-Tarantino sci-fi comedy Hotel Artemis, which has evolved the medium into something I never thought I’d see it become: adorable.

Set in a near-future dystopian Los Angeles where Jodie Foster is clearly tired of your shit, Hotel Artemis details a single night of backstabbing, thievery, and bloodshed among chatty, professional criminals. A sprawling cast that somehow includes Foster, Dave Bautista, Jeff Goldblum, Jenny Slate, Sterling K. Brown, Charlie Day, and Zachary Quinto mingles in the titular art-deco-meets-steampunk hotel while a historically massive riot rages on outside. Stray references to a border wall and the exorbitant cost of clean water detail the general state of the decaying, overpopulated world outside, but Hotel Artemis mostly concerns itself with the John Wickian criminal society that walks its wallpapered halls. “Hotel” is kind of a misnomer, as the space these organized, warring thieves occupy is in fact an underground hospital run by Foster: a rules-obsessed nurse who does not suffer fools gladly. She and Bautista, who acts as her enforcer yet fancies himself “a healthcare professional,” struggle to maintain order on this particularly chaotic night at the Artemis. Various criminal members with barely-concealed agendas talk shit & start deadly fights throughout the increasingly bloody night, counteracting the hotel’s intended function as a hospital for critically injured reprobates. As the situation worsens by the minute, Foster seems more annoyed than disturbed, passing off the rules-breaking violence around her as just another busy Wednesday shift, her least favorite night of the week.

Unlike most overwritten, post-Tarantino crime thrillers, this film is genuinely, consistently hilarious. With the hotel setting and absurdist mix-ups of an Old Hollywood face, Hotel Artemis embraces the preposterousness of its exceedingly silly premise in a way that more cheap genre films could stand to. Foster & Bautista have the adorable rapport of a local news segment on a raccoon that made friends with a baby elephant. Foster shuffles down the hotel’s hallways with animalistic determination & a distinct old-lady waddle that might go down as the comedic physical performance of the year. Bautista brings the same matter-of-fact line deliveries that are so endearing in his role as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, somehow making lines like “I will unheal the shit out of you” endearingly warm despite the physical threat of his massive body. Even the general rules of the film’s world-building are treated as a kind of throwaway joke. Characters repeatedly exclaim their surprise at the hotel’s existence, claiming they thought it was a myth, despite the massive neon sign that reads “Hotel Artemis” on the building’s roof. The entire film plays like that, casually breaking with logical consistency for the sake of a gag, relying on the easy charm of its cast and throwaway action movie one-liners like “Visiting hours are never” to pave over any jarring bumps in the road. It’s a gamble that totally worked for me, as I watched the entire movie with the same wide, stupid grin throughout.

I don’t know that I would recommend Hotel Artemis for sci-fi fans specifically. Besides shallowly explored concepts like 3D organ-printing & medically employed microbial robots explained in lines like “Yeah yeah yeah, I know what nanites are,” the movie’s genre beats are more consistently defined by its old-timey hotel setting and its clashes between various criminal elements. There’s minimally-employed CGI and even less world-building exposition, so I’m not sure a true sci-fi nerd is going to get the genre payoffs they’re looking for. Similarly, fans of the Tarantino & John Wick aesthetics the movie superficially echoes in its chatty crime world setting are likely to walk away unsatisfied, as the movie lacks the macho energy of either influence (and is better for it, in my opinion). It’s hard to know who to recommend Hotel Artemis to at all, given its bafflingly low critical scores and the fact that I was the only audience member laughing in my theater (for the first time since . . . Spy? Chappie?). The joys of watching Jodie Foster waddle around the Artemis and lovingly tell patrons they look “like all the shades of shit” are very peculiar & particular, which means that Hotel Artemis will have surprisingly limited appeal for a movie with this objectively wonderful of a cast. That kind of highly specific appeal can be a blessing in disguise for a scrappy, over-the-top genre film, though, and I can totally see Hotel Artemis gathering a dedicated cult following over time. I hope that appreciation doesn’t take too long, though, as Foster & Bautista’s adorable chemistry in this picture deserves to be recognized as a Cinematic Event.

-Brandon Ledet

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Freddy Got Fingered (2001)

I often use Freddy Got Fingered as a comparison point when describing a certain kind of comedy that relies on depraved, deliberate idiocy to achieve an absurdism that’s paradoxically both anti-intellectual & subversively intelligent. It difficult to convey how so-dumb-it’s-smart comedies like Billy Madison & MacGruber transcend the limitations of their juvenile antics by making them as juvenile as possible, but I always remember Freddy Got Fingered as being the artistic height of that style of humor. That’s not to say that Tom Green necessarily invented any new kid of anarchic depravity never before seen on the big screen in his directorial debut. From Harpo Marx chewing & swallowing a thermometer to Divine eating cops alive at her own birthday party, there’s a wide-ranging cinematic tradition of chaotic troublemakers breaking down social laws of decency & maturity. Still, Freddy Got Fingered has always stood out to me as a unique example within that larger tradition, an easy reference point for aggressively inane, absurdist depravity on the big screen, despite it having been well over a decade since I last revisited it.

Tom Green stars in his own directorial debut as a Tom Greenish hobgoblin. Recalling his own real-life path to unlikely stardom, he is a grotesque, overgrown man-child who still lives at home in his late 20s and struggles to convince the sensible adults around him that his prankish art (not to mention his literal pranks) has any real-world value. In an early moment of heartbreak, a slimy L.A. animation industry executive (Anthony Michael Hall with an Eminem haircut) explains that his amateur comic strips are commercially worthless because nothing happens in them narratively, practically spitting in his face, “It doesn’t make any sense. It’s fucking stupid.” That exchange is more of a mission statement than a self-criticism, as the plotless nonsense that follows doesn’t make any sense and is extremely fucking stupid. There’s a vague story structure adhered to in Freddy Got Fingered where this directionless man-child matures by engaging in romantic relationships, finding alternative routes to commercial success, and mustering the courage to stand up to his bigoted bully of a father (Rip Torn). That narrative progress is barely perceptible under the film’s maddening mountain of inane comedic bits & non-sequiturs, though, which in their own way attempt to update John Waters’s Dreamlanders-era depravity for the 90s mall punk generation.

Although Tom Green’s combative relationship with his father and kinky romance with his paraplegic love interest provide the film with the familiar rhythms of more tightly structured narratives, most of Freddy Got Fingered is a strung-togehter series of grotesque stunts and absurdist gags. Green masturbates large animals while exclaiming nonsensical catchphrases like “Look at me, daddy! I’m a farmer.” He delivers babies in trespassed hospital rooms after medically addressing the mother-to-be’s symptoms with “Oh I see the problem. There seems to be a little baby inside your body,” eventually cutting the umbilical chord with his teeth and pocketing it as a keepsake. He covers himself in roadkill like a mangy dog. He endangers children and sends entire rooms full of respectable adults into chaotic cacophonies. His entire existence is grotesque, gore-soaked performance art. Sometimes there’s a recognizable beauty in the chaos, as in the case of a musical instrument he constructs out of sausages arranged on a complex pulley system, an instillation piece that deserves art museum preservation. More often, though, his antics are an indulgence in truly meaningless violence, expressed directly from his id. It’s an impressive sight in both instances, even when it makes you want to puke.

There’s an underlying tone of #edgy humor to Freddy Got Fingered that hasn’t aged particularly well as we’ve culturally (and thankfully) moved further away from Gen-X moral apathy. Homophobic slurs, jokes about suicide & child molestation, and “ironic” bigotry stick out like sore thumbs in a 2010s context, which can sometimes spoil the mood. At the same time, I laughed so hard for such an extended period of time while watching it that I cried and had a headache. There’s nothing especially novel about saying that Freddy Got Fingered deserves critical reappraisal at this point, as its ever-growing cult following is strong enough that Green has been teasing (threatening?) an extended Director’s Cut of the film for years. Even just seeing Wikipedia list it as a “surrealist black comedy” feels like a kind of well-won victory, as I‘m sure its contemporary descriptors were much less kind. Revisiting the film only confirmed that it really is a standout in the subversively idiotic comedy genre, a type of straight-from-the-id juvenile humor I have a difficult time defining, but find tremendous respect for anyway. Comedy often relies on the challenge to & breaking down of civility. With Freddy Got Fingered, Tom Green cemented his legacy as one of the greats in aggressively causing social havoc. His only contemporaries on that front, really, was the Jackass crew, but judging by the skateboarding footage in this film’s opening credits, the only area where they bested him was in extreme sports. 17 years later, there’s still nothing quite like this perversely idiotic gem.

–Brandon Ledet

Best in Show (2000)’s Comedic Perversion of Gates of Heaven (1978)

One of the most difficult things to pinpoint about Errol Morris’s landmark documentary Gates of Heaven is the question of its tone. In the 1970s, a feature-length documentary about something as quaint as a pet cemetery was met as an absurd concept (so much so that Werner Herzog ate his own shoe over it), so it would be tempting to read a humorous irony into the interviews Morris conducts for the film. There’s no narration, editorializing, or extratextual context provided for the film’s oral histories of an inter-family dispute over ownership of a pet cemetery. The most of his own personality Morris imposes on the story is in his choices in framing & editing, which have a proto-Wes Anderson flavor in their sense of symmetry & color. When an eccentric pet owner sings to their dog or recounts a long, rambling non-sequitur story about their tragically uninteresting children, it’s presented in such a matter-of-fact delivery that it’s difficult to tell if & when Morris is finding them as humorous as his audience does. This documentation of small-town disputes & niche pet-culture eccentrics later turned out to be a huge, blatant influence on the comedic sensibilities of director Christopher Guest. One of Guest’s improv-heavy mockumentaries, the 2000 comedy Best in Show, even mirrored Gates of Heaven’s documentation of eccentric pet owners & the commercial industries that surround their devotion to their animals. And since Guest’s tone is blatantly comedic, the way his own filmmaking style accentuates the quaint humor of his characters is as an excellent demonstration of just how tonally vague Morris’s own style remains.

It’s hard to believe Best in Show was released almost two whole decades ago. Its cast of Guest-regular performers (Bob Balaban, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr, etc.) look so oddly young in retrospect, after watching them age in other projects in the years since. In addition to being a time capsule, Best in Show remains an incredibly endearing comedy, something that’s difficult to achieve in a film that openly (even if gently) mocks the kind of pet-obsessed eccentrics who are more sincerely profiled in works like Gates of Heaven. Errol Morris’s influence on Best in Show is most apparent in the film’s earliest stretch, when these characters are first introduced. Before they converge for a climactic dog show competition, each contestant is individually interviewed in their home environments, which often resemble the 1970s decor of Gates of Heaven’s pet-owner homes (right down to the amateur dog portrait art in the background). Most of the individual contestants are coupled off romantically, except for Christopher Guest’s own bloodhound owner, which is a distinct departure from Errol Morris’s style, which tends to focus on one orator at a time. The bloodhound owner would fit right in with the Morris doc, though, almost recalling the quiet sweetness & tragedy of the lonesome Floyd McClure, the pet cemetery entrepreneur who kicked Gates of Heaven’s entire story into motion. The similarities between the two works becomes less apparent as the contestants coverage for the actual dog show competition, because Best in Show then resembles a traditional sports movie narrative instead of a quaint documentary. In the early, introductory stretch, however, you can detect Morris’s fingerprints all over the picture, something that’s only betrayed by the movement of Christopher Guest’s camera.

Part of Morris’ distancing tone is in how his film captures long uninterrupted oral histories of a pet cemetery dispute in a static camera, only coloring interviewees’ input through the background imagery he chose to frame them with. To establish a more distinctly comedic tone, Guest more often “interviews” two characters at the same time, allowing more improvisational play & establishing a quicker pace. There are more interviewees, more live pets, more location changes, more camera movement, more everything. Instead of framing his characters with Wes Andersonian symmetry & calm, he allows the camera to drift back & forth between speakers to accentuate a ridiculous statement or an incredulous reaction. If there is a blatant sense of humor to Gates of Heaven, it’s to be found in the film’s matter of fact documentation of mundanity. Best in Show runs with that thread, making its characters out to be incredibly boring, in that it’s genuinely incredible how boring they are. As much as anyone can assume what Morris was up to in his work, I don’t think Gates of Heaven is mocking his subjects the way a mockumentary must, by design. Similarly, Christopher Guest’s own characters are played with a kind of sweetness (give or take a high-strung yuppie couple with an unseemly J. Crew catalog addiction), even if their extreme mundanity is supposed to be read as humorous. Guest just makes their screentime quicker, broader, and more dynamic in motion than Morris does, because Guest must establish a comedic rhythm instead of allowing one to arise naturally (if at all).

Again, I’m not sure exactly how much humor or ironic detachment Errol Morris intended his audience to read into Gates of Heaven. All Best of Show can illustrate is how that movie may have looked if it were clearly tipped in that direction, fully committed to establishing a comedic tone in capturing the eccentricity of hopelessly devoted pet owners. The two films do feel oddly complementary, though, even if only because they both find an endearing sweetness in most of their subjects, no matter how distanced they remain from them. Best in Show resembles Gates of Heaven (especially in its earliest, introductory stretch) not necessarily because of its similar subject matter, but because it finds genuine fascination in the eccentric mundanity of the pet industry it depicts.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its resulting promotional-stunt Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

-Brandon Ledet

Le Mariage de Chiffon (1943)

Typically, when we discuss French Cinema as a hegemony, we’re talking about creatively adventurous arthouse pictures that follow in the tradition of the French New Wave movement that arrived in the rebellious days of the 1960s. France’s more frivolous screwball comedies & trashy genre pictures tend to land far outside our radar, whereas the USA globally exports so much of its pop culture glut you’d be forgiven for assuming our own cinematic landscape was comprised entirely of Transformers sequels & Paul Blart Mall Cops. What I’m even more unclear on, besides what purely commercial modern French cinema looks like, is what, exactly The French New Wave was bucking against in the 60s. With the cutesy frivolity Galia, I got a glimpse of what it looked like when an old-guard French director attempted to appear as hip & With-It as his New Wave dissenters, a disguise few people bought. Stately, well-behaved French cinema before the New Wave’s arrival is more of a mystery to me. Like with modern commercial comedies & trashy crime pictures (think All That Divides Us) that don’t make it to American shores with any significant impact, France’s stately, pre-New Wave cinematic past is an export lacking any kind of an immediate hook to draw in contemporary American audiences. Le Mariage de Chiffon is a major exception to that generalization, but not for any concerns of content or craft. The first of four escapist-entertainment features directed by Claude Autant-Lara during the German occupation of France in WWII, Le Mariage de Chiffon has enough extratextual, cultural value to earn a prestigious spot in the Criterion Collection canon, something that’s usually reserved for the rebellious New Wave brats who sought to challenge Autant-Lara’s traditionalist approach to filmmaking. It’s also a frivolous romcom, charmingly so.

Odette Joyeux, who would go on to appear in all four of Autant-Lara’s German Occupation comedies, plays half her age as the 16y.o. aristocratic brat Chiffon. While running wild in the darkness of nighttime Parisian streets, she innocently flirts with a noble military man who immediately takes a liking to her prankish charms. He also mischievously pockets her left shoe as a keepsake, hoping to stage a Cinderella-inspired investigation of who, exactly, stole his heart in the dark. The answer is ultimately unsatisfying, as Chiffon is obviously & obliviously in love with her own uncle (by marriage, but still), a disgraced innovator in the early discoveries of aviation who is widely understood to be a dandy & a kook. Set in the pre-War past of the aristocratic 1910s, Le Mariage de Chiffon chipperly offers pop entertainment escapism though romance & humor, a much-needed distraction for German-occupied France. The hotel settings, mistaken identities, and absurd misunderstandings of the classic comedy structure are prominent throughout, but in a distinctly charming way. This is a genuinely, enduringly funny picture, thanks largely to Joyeux’s hijinks as Chiffon. A total brat who squabbles with her uptight mother for sport, refuses to corset her body, and documents her teenage mischief in a journal she titles The Boring Diary, Chiffon is an adorable element of chaos that breaks down the rigid social rituals of high society elites. It’s the exact social anarchist function you’d want in any comedic lead, from Harpo Marx to Divine to Tom Green and beyond. The picture that contains her just happens to be more well-behaved than she is. The most Autant-Lara deviates from traditional comedy & romance beats is in a couple quieter moments of dramatic fallout, where the camera lingers on the downer imagery of a dilapidated house foolishly purchased as a love offering or aviation equipment being seized in a bankruptcy proceeding. It’s difficult to know if there’s any subversive intent behind these tangents, though, since most of the film is concerned with the follies of a deliberately frivolous girl who is in love with her own uncle (by marriage).

If there’s anything illuminating about how Le Mariage de Chiffon stacks up to its American contemporaries, it’s how more honest traditionalist filmmaking could be without Hays Code censorship breathing down its neck. The moral center & gender politics of the film seem to belong to a Conservative past, where it’s romantic that older men, even strangers, feel entitled to carry Chiffon around in public or lead her by the small of her back in private. The way she openly discusses adultery & sexual desire (specifically that she’s afraid to marry anyone because she knows she’ll be tempted to cheat) is far too honest for the heavily-censored American films of the period to echo. The soft-incest implied by her desire for her uncle (by marriage!!!) also feels morally risky for the time, especially in scenes where they “innocently” help each other undress, practically panting throughout the process. As traditionalist as the film can feel on a formal level, too, we always understand Chiffon’s troublemaking as the admirable alternative to high society stuffiness, especially when she’s being admonished in statements like “A woman is more womanly in a corset” and “Your behavior shames us all.” Chiffon may be a brat, but she’s our brat. When her elitist nemesis is perplexed by something as simple as a misplaced shoe, they shout with incensed incredulity, “It’s a prank to ruin me!” Chiffon, as aggressively frivolous as she can be, is portrayed to be the sensible one by comparison. I’m not sure that a bratty harbinger of chaos would have been allowed that moral upper-ground in a contemporary American film (without being pushed to change their ways). I do know for damn sure she would not have been allowed to be so honest about her sexual desires & the blatant hypocrisy of how adulterous impulses are reconciled in the social institution of marriage. That’s not something I’m used to seeing in 1940s comedies, stately or otherwise.

Claude Autant-Lara is not one of the artistic & political rebels we usually associate with French Cinema. In fact, in the 1980s he disgracefully booted from his position in the European Parliament after exposing himself as a hard-right Holocaust denier, which is more than enough to justify labeling him as The Enemy. Still, there is a kind of defiance to making escapist entertainment in the face of military occupation, or at least there is a value to the comfort it could provide. Either way, the truth is that you would never assume that wartime context watching Le Mariage de Chiffon if you weren’t told to look for it. The real draw of the picture is Odette Joyeux’s endlessly lovable performance in the titular role, a mischievous character who’s bigger than the rigidly formalistic picture that (barely) contains her. Le Mariage de Chiffon is a handsomely staged, genuinely funny comedy, even if it is nested in an overly well-behaved French Filmmaking past. The most its wartime context benefits it is in affording the film an imperative for contemporary audiences to revisit it as a cultural object, though all we might find is a glimpse at the status quo the French New Wave later subverted.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 40: A Night at the Opera (1935)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where A Night at the Opera (1935) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “I am not one of those purists who believes the talkies were perfect and sound ruined everything. To believe that, I would have to be willing to do without Marilyn Monroe signing ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ and Groucho Marx saying, ‘This bill is outrageous! I wouldn’t pay it if I were you!'”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he did reference it in his Great Movies series review of Duck Soup. He wrote, “A Night at the Opera (1935) [the Marx Brothers’] first MGM film, contains some of their best work, yes, but in watching it I fast-forward over the sappy interludes involving Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. In Duck Soup there are no sequences I can skip; the movie is funny from beginning to end.”

Like all great comedians, the Marx Brothers were social anarchists. Blatantly disinterested in the pomp & civility of the modern world, the legendary comedic team would only create stuffy, rules-obsessed backdrops for their intensely illogical, confrontationally flippant vaudeville routines to break them down into total chaos. It would be presumable, then, that the self-serious world of the opera would offer one of the most perfect targets for their antics imaginable. The wealth & propriety that surrounds the opera is an inspired choice for a stuffy backdrop for the Marx Brothers’ slobs vs. snobs brand of social anarchy. Unfortunately, A Night of the Opera arrived at a later, transitional period in the Marx Brothers’ cinematic path, just before they became burdened with studio bloat in A Day at the Races, so it never really had a chance to use its conceit to its full anarchic advantage the way they would have in an earlier, freer work like Duck Soup. Luckily Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx are some of the funniest people to have ever walked the planet (especially Harpo), so the movie is wildly funny anyway. A Night at the Opera is only vaguely disappointing because it’s very funny, as opposed to being the funniest movie of all time, something that very easily could have been achieved with its exact plot & cast under less studio control.

The first film marking the Marx Brothers’ transition from Paramount Pictures to MGM, A Night at the Opera is somewhat burdened by the limited imagination of its producers. In particular, MGM exec Irving Thalberg made a point to oversee & reshape the comedy troupe’s schtick to make it more palatable to a broader audience. He wanted to enhance the Marx Brothers brand’s appeal by strengthening their movies with more story structure and more sympathy for the three goofball leads. Thalberg aimed to achieve this sympathy by reserving their social terrorism only for “deserving” villains, as opposed to everyone in sight. It’s an impulse that fundamentally misunderstands what people love about the Marx Brothers in the first place, overloading their usual light touch of illogical transgressions with increasingly sprawling plots & runtimes. Every moment dedicated to giving the brothers a reason to drive their victims mad with slapstick & wordplay is wasted time that could just as easily have been replaced with more comedic gags. A Night at the Opera is a story about two opera singers who love each other, but struggle to connect because of the distance created by their disparate levels of success. Instead of tearing down the civility of the opera world, the Marx Brothers’ main function in the film is to bring the two lovers together, across the boundaries of class. That’s their function in the plot, anyway, which despite what Irving Thalberg believed, does not matter in a film like this. Not for a second.

That’s enough obligatory nitpicking from me. This movie is hilarious. Harpo Marx remains the funniest man who ever lived, transforming the art of slapstick humor into a deeply deranged subversion that’s since been unmatched (even appearing briefly in drag for an early gag here). Groucho & Chico are as impressive as ever in the circular logic of their conman wordplay, scamming the rest of the world and each other into a luxurious position just above the poverty line. One elaborate gag even recalls the total chaotic meltdown of a Duck Soup by piling every character possible into a single, cramped state room on an already crowded ship, a bit that comes so naturally to their comedic style that Harpo effectively sleepwalks through it. As always, the Marx Brothers’ quality in comedic craft remains unchanged; it’s just the vessel it’s packaged in that feels questionable. I really enjoy A Night at the Opera as a stately showcase of vaudevillian comedy, even if its focus on plot, romance, and musical interludes greatly distracted from what the Marx Brothers could have achieved in an operatic setting without MGM supervision guiding their work. I mean, even A Day at the Races was an easily lovable MGM-era Marx Brother comedy, and that film was saddled with a bloated, plot-driven runtime & a deeply disappointing blackface gag. Left to their own devices, the Marx Brothers could have made A Night at the Opera an anarchic masterpiece. Under Irving Thalberg’s supervision they made it a very funny, naturally endearing comedy instead, something to still be grateful for.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: My Dinner with Andre (1981)

-Brandon Ledet

Life of the Party (2018)

In official terms, there hasn’t been an SNL Movie since MacGruber (perhaps the artistic height of the medium) tragically died in the theaters in 2010. Long gone are the days where recurring, one-note Saturday Night Live characters like Stuart Smalley & Mary Katherine Gallagher were allowed to carry a feature-length comedy on their own. The modern SNL movie is a low-key affair, manifesting in pictures like Popstar, Sisters, and Ghostbusters (2016), where the cast is stacked with chummy SNL vets, but the premise was born outside the show. Melissa McCarthy movies are an even more rarified breed within that modern tradition, as McCarthy herself was never quite an official member of the Saturday Night Live cast. She may have hosted & cameoed so many times on the show that she seems like a natural extension of the staff and she may have started her comedy career in The Groundlings with professional besties Kristen Wiig & Maya Rudolph, but McCarthy is an SNL guest player at best (like Steve Martin in the 1970s). What’s curious about that is the way her own comedy features (especially the ones she’s collaborated on with husband/fellow Groundlings-vet Ben Falcone) feel like the lowkey, unofficial SNL comedies that most closely recall the brand’s 1990s “Every recurring character gets a movie!” heyday. Reinforced by the presence of SNL vets Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, and (current cast member) Heidi Gardner, the latest McCarthy-Falcone joint feels exactly like the 1990s model for the SNL Movie, only with the absurdity turned slightly down to make room for saccharine sentimentality (something McCarthy can’t help but bring to the screen between her violent bursts of slapstick). That comedic aesthetic is a kind of risk, as the classic SNL Movie is only beloved by a hopelessly dorky few, but I personally find it to be an endearing comfort, a return to the sweetly dumb movies I was raised on out of brand loyalty to SNL as an institution.

Playing a Midwestern 90s Mom character I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’s been whipping out since The Groundlings, McCarthy stars as a middle-aged divorcee who enrolls back in college to finish a degree she abandoned for the sake of her family. As she crashes the frat & sorority party scene also inhabited by her college-senior daughter, the movie doesn’t shy away from its unavoidable similarities to the Roger Dangerfield classic Back to School. The relentless barrage of party sequences & studying montages almost make Life of the Party feel like another McCarthy-helmed, gender-flipped remake. That bawdy Dangerfield irreverence & fish-out-of-water social humor is also contrasted against a striking amount of sentimentality, however, as the movie focuses more on McCarthy’s inner journey as a woman who’s tired of being an emotional doormat than it does on her daughter’s initial horror at her presence (not to mention her sex drive). For the most part, she fits right in with the younger students, even being inducted into their sorority house as an honorary sister and finding herself a young boy-toy to wear out in the bedroom. Life of the Party is overlong, burdened by an inspo-pop soundtrack, and generally suffers from an improvisational looseness that should have spent a little more time simmering in the editing room, but I think most audiences’ biggest hurdle will be reconciling that overly earnest tone with expectations of gag-a-minute slapstick. This is a much more labored, sentimental piece than either Tammy or The Boss, the previous two McCarthy-Falcone collabs, but its sweetness isn’t necessarily a mood-killer if you’re willing to accept it as an essential part of the movie’s fabric. I still think the hedonistic, low-class excess of Tammy is the couple’s greatest collaboration to date, but Life of the Party’s warm blanket of Midwestern Mom energy has a charm of its own.

If you can withstand the crushing weight of its Hallmark sentimentality, Life of the Party also offers the simple joy of women being afforded space to be funny. In addition to the always-reliable McCarthy & Maya Rudolph, who bring a middle-aged severity to out-of-nowhere slapstick gags of explosions & crotch-shots, the movie also allows plenty of screentime for promising lesser-knowns. Heidi Gardner recalls the same nu-metal & mall goth battiness she often brings to her SNL sketches as McCarthy’s shut-in roommate. Gillian Jacobs (who should be starring in her own wide-release features by now) often runs away with the movie as coma survivor & sorority sister who drifts through life in an anarchic haze. There are many tonally sloppy reaction shots in Life of the Party that director Falcone should have paid much more attention to in the editing room, but Jacobs manages to turn her own into an art form, acting as an element of dazed chaos even when idling in the background. Her Love costar Jessie Ennis also shows promise as a relative newcomer, operating with a wide-eyed derangement as a sorority sister who wants to fit in at any cost. The way these women rally around McCarthy’s new-lease-on-life mom is so sweet it borders on surreality, affording Life of the Party a sustained, low-key joy even when specific jokes don’t land or a labored party sequence drags on into a tequila-drenched eternity. The joys of Life of the Party’s slapstick & absurdism require a patience with its saccharine earnestness & editing room looseness, especially in a year where we’ve seen that sweet/raunchy balance achieved so expertly in Blockers. I’m more than willing to put in the effort for this endearing of talent (especially from too-rarely-seen performers like Gardner & Jacobs), something I’m long familiar with as someone who was comedically raised on the SNL Movie in its heyday. I haven’t quite fallen for a McCarthy-Falcone joint with full enthusiasm since Tammy, but as long as they keep making them I’ll likely keep enjoying them. I’ve got to get my SNL Movie fix somewhere and I just don’t see a Laura Parsons or Chris Kirkpatrick movie arriving anytime soon, no matter how badly I want them.

-Brandon Ledet

Hereditary (2018)

It’s no secret that I love horror movies. Of my top ten movies of 2015, 3-5 were horror (depending on how you categorize thrillers like Cop Car and Queen of Earth); in 2016, that was a solid five out of ten, and in 2017, six of fifteen. I even did a list of my favorite horror movies by year for the past fifty years in 2017, and that’s not even getting into my months-long Dario Argento retrospective before that. So it might surprise you to learn that I’m rarely actually scared by horror movies. We’re entering a new golden age of horror (both in film and in the real world, at least here in the U.S.), but it’s rare that a film manages to induce such fear and anxiety in the animalistic part of my brain that it manages to topple the wall of critical theory that usually takes center stage in my viewings. In essence, the value, entertainment and otherwise, that I normally get from a horror film viewing, is in the dissection of its component elements and its social statements and theses. For instance, as captivating as Get Out was, the rhetorical space created in the theater between me and the text was one of intense interest in and attention to the social criticism and symbology of the film rather than making me actually afraid at least until the arrival of those flashing lights at the end, when I feared our protagonist was about to be murdered by the police, as so many young black men in our country are every day. In the past half decade, very few films have managed to actually engage with my fear response over my academic interest “in the moment”: Don’t Breathe, The Babadook, IT, The VVitch, Raw, the aforementioned Cop Car, and probably one or two others that aren’t coming to mind immediately. That pantheon now has a new member: Hereditary.

What an amazing film. I’m going to do my best not to spoil anything about it, but be forewarned: if you’re so sharp a person that discussion of foreshadowing and artistic influences can spoil something for you, you should go and see the movie now now now and come back when you’re done. Ok? Welcome back. First and foremost, I’d like to salute the marketing of this film for so thoroughly managing to disguise the premise. I can’t remember the last time a film’s trailers and TV spots threw such an opaque veil over the text’s true subject matter and so effectively obscured the content to preserve the surprise, successfully. Last year’s mother! did this by crafting a trailer that told you nothing about the movie, really, but that ended in more of a severe disconnect between audience expectations and authorial . . . let’s call it “artistry.” That same division may be coming for Hereditary too, given the disparity between the critical consensus and audience response (sitting at 92% for the former and 59% for the latter on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing). There was even a moment close to the end of the film that sent much of the auditorium agiggle, despite being one of the creepiest sequences.

I’ll refrain from making too many broad statements about the general public’s unwillingness to be shocked, but suffice it to say I’m long past being surprised when the average moviegoer expresses disproportionate outrage when something genuinely novel comes along simply because it isn’t what they would expect. This is part and parcel of the democratization of criticism, as the internet provides a platform for everyone to express their views, from that racist idiot in your office, to that guy on the bus who’s been reading the same David Foster Wallace essay collection for months, to that group of women at the next table at Phoenicia who want nothing more out of a movie than a kiss between a handsome man and the lady whose love changed him (and to lowly old me!). This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it certainly blurs the lines of discourse. I’m going off topic (surprise), but the point holds true: the film that you’ll see after you buy your ticket is going to be a different experience than you’re expecting, and that’s a good thing.

So what should you expect instead? (To allay the fears of those concerned that this is potentially spoilery information, let me advise that there are some dream sequences in which the imagery is thematically relevant and resonant but not necessarily literal.) Since you aren’t me, I can’t just say: “Remember that bizarre dream we had after watching the final segment of XX while on post-surgery painkillers last year? It’s basically the same narrative, but with Toni Collette instead of Tyne Daly.” I mean, it is almost exactly that, but that doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. Imagine a horror movie version of Ordinary People and you’re halfway there; add in some concerns about the heredity of mental illnesses and imbalances, a dash of the St. Patrick’s Day segment of 2016’s Holidays, a few handfuls of Rosemary’s Baby, a pinch of Killing of a Sacred Deer, and a dash each of Hausu, Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Ring, and Carrie, just for good measure. Admittedly, this is a jumble, but it leads to a cohesive narrative that is shocking, creepy, and depressing, all in good measure.

Annie Graham (Collette) is having a hard time dealing with the recent death of her mother, Ellen, a mentally unstable woman with dissociative identity disorder. Mental illness seems to run in her family, as her depressed father starved himself to death when she was an infant, and her schizophrenic brother committed suicide after accusing their mother of “trying to put people inside of him.” She is an artist who works in miniatures, several of which appear throughout the sumptuous but isolated home she shares with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and teenage stoner Peter (Alex Wolff). In many ways, Charlie is most like her mother, as she likewise creates miniatures and figurines, but unlike Annie’s meticulously carved, sculpted, and painted recreations of reality, Charlie’s tiny homonculi have electrical outlets instead of faces, or pigeon heads instead of humanoid ones. After further family tragedy, Annie meets Joan (Ann Dowd) outside of a grief support group, and the older woman lends her a sympathetic ear before introducing her to the occult as a way to communicate with those who have moved on. Or does she? Is there really a conduit to speak with the loved ones who have died, or is it all in Annie’s head? Or is perhaps neither of those things true? Or both?

I’m at a loss to say more without giving away some of the movie’s biggest swerves, especially given that, as noted above, I wasn’t in “critical film theory” mode while watching. From the opening moments, when we swoop in on one of Annie’s miniatures of the home in which the Grahams reside and the tiny dollhouse becomes Peter’s bedroom, the film captivates the width and breadth of your attention. I wasn’t inspecting the music to see if it mixed high and low frequencies to create tension (CW for the link: uses a jump scare from a Conjuring film); I was too concerned about the characters and what was going to happen to them to worry about any of those things, and I’ll be processing the ideas and concepts in the film for days to come, but I can’t get into those without telling you too many of the film’s secrets. Just go see it, if you dare.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #58 of The Swampflix Podcast: Lynne Ramsay & Caché (2005)

Welcome to Episode #58 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our fifty-eighth episode, James & Brandon discuss all four feature films directed by the notoriously “uncompromising” Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsay, including her most recent work, You Were Never Really Here (2018). James also makes Brandon watch Michael Haneke’s surveillance footage whodunnit Caché (2005) for the first time. Enjoy!

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

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami (2018)

Both the concert movie and the musician’s hagiography are difficult to pull off with any cinematic finesse. With few exceptions like Peter Strickland’s concert footage of Bjork’s Biophilia project and the bizarre tale spun by The Devil & Daniel Johnson, the musician’s documentary is usually flatly crafted, relying on the audience’s interest in the subject to meet the filmmakers halfway. The recent Grace Jones documentary Bloodlight & Bami curiously splits its time between both troubled mediums, the concert movie and the musican’s hagiography, and opens itself up to both’s follies in the process. Its concert footage is no-frills, matter-of-fact documentation of recent Grace Jones performances in Dublin, exerting only a minimal amount of artistic energy into an occasional crane shot in-between its more static edits. Its interview footage, which comprises most of the runtime, is the exact kind of meandering, low-fi/low-effort hangout energy that can sink a musician’s profile in for-fans-only tedium. Somehow, though, the movie transcends these limitations in medium and offers something that feels like a rare, unearned blessing: Grace Jones. Jones saves Bloodlight & Bami from any potential tedium by simply being a living, breathing phenomenon. The movie requires massive patience, but her mere presence makes it frequently fascinating, if not essential viewing. We are extremely lucky to have access to Grace Jones at all, in any form, something Jones herself seems to know more than anyone else in the world.

A Jamaican-born pop singer who made huge waves in the 1970s & 80s through the androgynous sexuality of her high fashion imagery just as much as through the strange tones of her post-reggae music, Jones is a long-established legend. Early in Bloodlight & Bami, Jones is swarmed by intensely dedicated fans after a performance—strangers who greedily drink in her every word & physical motion as if she were a deity. That’s not the Grace Jones this movie is about. You can glimpse her attention-commanding power in the interspersed concert sequences, where she models various exquisite headpieces & black lingerie while singing to an appreciative crowd of hundreds, like a demonic Eartha Kitt. Most of the film, however, is an effort to humanize the pop culture icon, hanging out with her between gigs, often at home with family. The high production value of the concert footage is clashed with the serene calm of Jones’s return trips to Jamaica, framed in a cheap digital haze. The conversations captured in this off-stage downtime range from small talk with strangers & petty disputes with session musicians to deeply painful reminiscing of childhood abuse & long-dead romances. There’s no historical hagiography of Grace Jones’s top-of-the-pop-world heyday, only a document of her current art as a stage performer & her current relationships with an inner circle who knew her as a person, not an avant-garde deity. The movie is in no rush to impress you with the enormity of Jones’s achievements or legacy, relying instead on her natural charisma to hold your attention as the digicam footage gets distracted by images as inconsequential as a car mirror ornament or a flashing streetlight. It’s a gamble that takes for granted that audiences’ minds won’t wander off in its long moments of quiet, one that mostly pays off.

As entertaining as her music can be, Grace Jones is most distinctly impressive as a visual artist & a performer. It seems counterintuitive, then, to strip her of all her visual gloss in a documentary that often looks like it was filmed on a flip-phone. Jones is, to this day, still a phenomenal performer, even shown hula hooping in high heels while singing a vocal-intensive stage number, never missing a beat. Director Sophie Fiennes also has an early credit as an art department contributor for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, one of the most exquisitely staged films I can name, so it’s presumable her eye for visual craft is at least somewhat comparable to Jones’s. The aggressively low-fi, meandering aesthetic that guides most of Bloodlight & Bami must be understood as a deliberate artistic choice. Jones is stripped of the gorgeous lighting & costuming she wears like armor onstage (the headpieces are so extravagant that there’s a “hats by” credit included in the opening title cards) to demonstrate how naturally fascinating & culturally essential she remains without them. Even when she’s not making bawdy sex jokes about the mussels she’s eating for dinner or explaining to an ex-lover why all men should be penetrated (at least once), she naturally commands attention. There’s a fierce, no-bullshit way she carries herself that makes her come across like an undeniable force of Nature, even when she’s just waiting around in a recording studio for stubbornly lackadaisical musicians to arrive or lightly bickering with her mother. Even including the more immediately arresting concert footage, the most fascinating sequence of Bloodlight & Bami is a lengthy montage where Grace Jones applies her makeup in the hours leading up to a performance, oblivious to the world outside her mirror. She compels the eye.

Late in the film, Jones boasts that even without costumes or amplification or even lights, she would still be able to entertain her crowds alone, in the dark, with nothing enhancing the spectacle of her being. Bloodlight & Bami is proof of the veracity of that claim. If you want a document of Grace Jones the otherworldly icon, the 1982 concert film Grace Jones: A One Man Show is likely much more useful than the stripped down, low-fi hangout rhythms of Bloodlight & Bami. This movie is more proof that she does not need production spectacle to make her fascinating & idiosyncratic. Those qualities come to Grace Jones naturally and we should be grateful to be blessed with her existence in any form we can get it. Even when presented in the most plain, genre-burdened version of the musician’s documentary imaginable, one where she’s shown in as pedestrian of a light as possible, Grace Jones still feels like a divine gift we do not deserve.

-Brandon Ledet

Werner Herzog, Gates of Heaven (1978), and the Artistic Value of the Side Show Publicity Stunt

Werner Herzog’s entire public persona is a kind of performance art, the documentation of which has become increasingly crucial to his filmmaking projects in recent decades. A Werner Herzog “documentary,” no matter its subject, is just as much about the filmmaker’s own philosophical worldview as it is about the world outside his mind. This suits the audience just fine, since Herzog is what would classically be described as A Character, someone who’s naturally entertaining and whose mere presence is always a kind of performance. A succinct, early taste of this performance art can be found in the Les Blank short-doc Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which takes Herzog’s natural presence as a one-person side show as literally as possible. Staged as a promotion for Errol Morris’s debut feature Gates of Heaven (our current Movie of the Month), Blank & Herzog collaborate to document a blatant publicity stunt in which, as the title suggests, Herzog eats his own shoe in front of a live audience to draw attention to his friend’s work. With clips from Gates of Heaven interspersing with Blank’s Always for Pleasuremode of documenting the labor of food preparation (if you can consider a leather shoe to be food), and Herzog’s signature pontification on the nature of art & humanity, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an essential, one-of-a-kind collaboration between three of the most prestigious voices in documentary filmmaking. That’s an absurd thing to be able to say about what’s essentially a 20min infomercial for another, more substantial work.

Herzog opens this film complaining that television & talk shows are “killing” culture. He ends it confessing that filmmakers are also cheap illusionists & clowns, that his own chosen profession is embarrassing. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is self-aware of its participation in the death of culture. Just as its title is a cheap provocation, the event it documents is advertised in circus-style side show posters promising the shoe-eating stunt to a potential live audience. Herzog eating his own shoe is a stupid, pointless act designed to grab public attention for better art he believed deserved it. Supposedly, Herzog first jokingly bet that Errol Morris would never have the courage to complete a feature length documentary on a subject as inconsequential as a pet cemetery business. The story goes that he said if Gates of Heaven were ever completed & screened for an audience, he would eat his own shoe. Morris does not appear onscreen to confirm the terms of the bet in Les Blank’s short, nor is it confirmed whether the shoe Herzog eats is actually the one he was wearing when he made the bet, as he claims. The entire act is performance art born of flippant humor & male bravado, staged without apology as a publicity stunt to draw attention to Gates of Heaven, which had then yet to secure theatrical distribution. Les Blank shows an interest in the preparation of the shoe as it transforms into “food,” carefully documenting the hot sauce, duck fat, garlic, and vegetable stew used to soften & flavor it. Mostly, though, he allows Herzog to ramble on like a carnival barker throughout the stunt, pontificating as much nonsense as you’d likely encounter in a television broadcast or a talk show, yet framing it as art.

The idea that Gates of Heaven’s topic was too inconsequential for a documentary feels so foreign in a 2010s context. Some of my favorite documentaries in recent memory have been on topics as miniscule as erotic tickling, trash harvesting, and a single dead dog (as opposed to cemetery full of them). It’s also arguable that critic Roger Ebert later did much better by promoting Gates of Heaven in his own way, raising its profile by often citing it as one of the greatest films ever made. Herzog’s side show publicity stunt’s own value as a work of art is in making an even smaller film than the one he promoted with it. If Gates of Heaven’s topic was too absurdly thin to justify a documentary (something I doubt Herzog ever said or believed) then Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an even more extreme distillation of that same kind of art. This is an advertisement & an awkwardly staged performance art piece that somehow makes for compelling filmmaking thanks to Herzog’s natural charisma & gift for shit-talking. Like Gates of Heaven, it’s proof that you can make a worthy documentary on just about anything, even a frivolous bet that may or may not actually have even been real. In 2018, it likely would only have been presented to the world as a DVD extra. In 1980, it was art.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet