For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the Maysles Brothers’ door-to-door Bible salesmen documentary Salesman (1969)
29:42 Salesman (1969)
-The Lagniappe Podcast Crew
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the Maysles Brothers’ door-to-door Bible salesmen documentary Salesman (1969)
29:42 Salesman (1969)
-The Lagniappe Podcast Crew
Maybe it’s a hacky move to constantly compare Indian action blockbusters to their Hollywood equivalents, but the latest wide-release Bollywood export Pathaan doesn’t leave me much room to avoid repeating the offense. Between its global spyware espionage, military-grade streetracing warfare, and 92-floor supertower heist sequence, it’s impossible to not compare Pathaan to the soon-to-conclude Fast & Furious saga – its most obvious genre template. At least it compares favorably. I want to call Pathaan the best Fast & Furious movie since Furious 7 in 2015, but that would be inaccurate. It’s only the best Fast & Furious movie since the Tollywood actioner Saaho in 2019, further proof that India’s various film industries are outshining Hollywood action spectacle in a way that hasn’t been seen since Hong Kong’s martial arts boom in the 80s & 90s. It’s no surprise that the basic thrills of the Fast & Furious saga would be echoed & warped in its Indian equivalents, since the streetracing-turned-espionage action brand has been one of Hollywood’s more successful global exports for the past two decades. Only, as the Fast & Furious saga has become self-aware of its situational humor & blatant disregard for real-world physics, it’s also become weirdly timid about sincerely pushing itself to an over-the-top extreme. Movies like Pathaan & Saaho are outperforming their American inspiration point because they’re willing to sincerely indulge in the cartoon physics that CGI affords their car-racing superheroes without any ironic “Well, that just happened” meta-commentary. They also take the thudding fight choreography of hand-to-hand combat seriously in a way American action films were starting to lose touch with (until the success of John Wick reinvigorated the practice), perfectly balancing the uncanny computer graphics and tactile physical brutality of the genre for thoroughly entertaining blockbuster spectacle – with music video romance & dance breaks.
What makes Pathaan special within these larger, global industry concerns is that it’s gunning for a second American action franchise’s genre template, beyond its debts owed to Fast & Furious. Pathaan is an overt, unashamed bid to establish a new MCU-style interconnected universe that unites several pre-existing action epics under one behemoth brand. It’s an origin story for its titular tough-as-nails superspy Pathaan (played by the immensely popular Shah Rukh Khan), but it is somehow not a standalone action thriller. Pathaan is the fourth film in a series that previously did not exist, acting as a better-late-than-never crossover that groups together 2012’s Ek Tha Tiger, its 2017 sequel Tiger Zinda Hai, and the standalone 2019 actioner War into what will now be called YRF Spy Universe, as if that were production company Yash Raj Films’ plan all along. Of the three previous entries in this brand-new series, I had only seen War, which made the mid-film cameo from the Salman Khan character Tiger and the obligatory post-credits “Assembling The Avengers” stinger hilariously incongruous with what was otherwise a functionally independent shoot-em-up. So far, this legion of superspies is only connected through their occasional employment by the government intelligence agency RAW (India’s CIA equivalent), which they frequently disregard to serve global justice outside of legal means. Both War & Pathaan detail the on-again, off-again bromance of two unstoppable supersoldiers who find themselves falling on opposite sides of the patriot-terrorist divide. Our hero, of course, is the jingoistic patriot who will do anything to uphold the sanctity & security of Mother India – in Pathaan’s case because Mother India adopted him after a tough childhood orphaned in a poor Afghani village. Naturally, our villain is the terrorist defector who has lost his way, using his training as an Indian supersoldier to take down his own country out of selfishness & bitterness. You don’t need to know much more than that to enjoy these car chase blow-em-ups, which generally have a pro-wrestling sense of face-heel dynamics that are easy to jump into with or without three backlogged films of build-up.
If there’s anything especially disappointing about Pathaan and its retroactive YRF Spy Universe brethren, it’s that celebration of jingoistic patriotism. War pulled direct inspiration from Hollywood’s vintage Jerry Bruckheimer & Michael Bay era of the 1990s, and its own nationalistic bent was indistinguishable from the rah-rah-America rabblerousing of that action blockbuster heyday; all that changed was the colors of the flag. That ugly streak bleeds into Pathaan, despite it finding a more modern, multicultural point of inspo in the Fast & Furious saga. Say what you will about Top Gun: Maverick‘s recent revival of Reagan-era American militarism, but it was at least polite enough to not name the home country of its enemy combatants. Every time Pathaan squares off against Pakistani terrorists, Somali pirates, and Indian defectors he demands to speak his only acceptable language—Hindi—there’s a sharp reminder of why American action greats like Rambo & Commando have been neatly quarantined as a thing of the past. Of course, that political queasiness does nothing to sour the in-the-moment pleasure of watching Pathaan whoop ass. Something modern Indian blockbusters get exactly right about their vintage Hollywood equivalents is their breathless, wide-eyed celebration of their titular heroes as the coolest motherfuckers to ever walk the planet Earth. Pathaan models aviator sunglasses in front of a high-powered music video wind machine; he pilots CGI helicopters inside enemy warehouses, flying away just ahead of a whooshing fireball; he locates & defeats international terrorists in the deepest corners of “the darknet”; he eats apple slices off the tip of his knife, accompanied by hard rock guitar & soaring synths. The movie reminds you how mind-blowingly sexy & cool Pathaan is in every single scene, even when that means backing his latent xenophobia. It may not be politically conscious art, but it’s at least more honest about its gleeful militarism than the more timid approach of Top Gun: Maverick. It may hit every single pulled-out-of-retirement, assembling-the-team, tough-guy-narcissism action cliché mocked in MacGruber, but it at least appears to do so with full-hearted sincerity. It may indulge in the worst IP-conscious industry maneuvers established by American brands like Fast & Furious and the MCU, but it at least delivers the goods when it comes to its over-the-top, jaw-dropping action set pieces. Maybe I should stop comparing these Indian blockbusters to their American equivalents, or maybe I should just stop watching the American ones entirely, since they’re just not keeping up with the competition.
A lot of people are going to write off Brandon Cronenberg’s latest sci-fi horror Infinity Pool as a disappointing follow-up to Possessor, when it’s really just an ill-timed one. Cronenberg wrote Infinity Pool during the years-long lull between his debut feature Antiviral and his COVID-era breakout Possessor, and it’s only the industrial happenstance of production scheduling that determined which of his second & third projects reached the screen first. You can feel the frustration of his stop-and-start project developments seeping through the text. Alexander Skarsgård stars as a hack novelist whose privileged familial connections have kept him afloat in the six years since his debut work was critically skewered then forgotten, which positions him as a kind of self-satirical avatar for Cronenberg as a nepo-baby auteur on a long, winding road to acclaim. It doesn’t make much sense for the director to quickly follow up his greatest success to date with a Charlie Kaufmann-style writer’s block thriller—wherein a frustrated creative gets themselves into exponential cosmic trouble simply because they cannot produce—but Cronenberg doesn’t have control over which of his scripts are greenlit when, so that out-of-sync feeling is totally forgivable in context. That’s not what makes the film ill-timed; it’s how similar his Skarsgård avatar’s cosmic trouble is to other recent films & television programs that partially dulls Infinity Pool‘s sharpest edges.
While vacationing with his benefactor wife (Cleopatra Coleman) at an Eastern European luxury resort in a futile search for creative inspo, James Foster (Skarsgård) is recruited into an informal crime ring of ultra-wealthy hedonists, led by a hothead babe with a babydoll London accent (Mia Goth). These international elites have discovered a nifty loophole that allows them to get away with murdering & pillaging the impoverished locals outside the resort, suffering no consequences for their crimes outside frequent trips to the ATM for stacks of bribe money. As a diplomatic, bureaucratic measure, the local government has developed technology to clone the wealthy tourists and have their doubles suffer the consequences instead, only requiring that the wanton criminals watch justice be served in increasingly ultraviolent geek shows. The transgression of watching their own deaths proves addictive, and their crimes only become more pointless & brazen so they can return to the executioners’ theatre. James’s major mistake is assuming that he is accepted among the group as an equal, but since he married into wealth instead of “earning” it himself, his new clique treats him as just another plaything – pushing him to indulge in grotesque, humiliating acts for their amusement. On some psychosexual sublevel, he appears to enjoy this social torture, or he’s at least reluctant to put a stop to it.
I doubt Cronenberg would have timed the distribution of Infinity Pool to January 2023 if he knew how many thematic parallels it would find on the current pop culture landscape. After seeing Glass Onion, The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, and season two of White Lotus all become pop culture talking points in such a short stretch, it’s probably time to pump the brakes on skewering the ultra-wealthy for using other people’s lives as a consequence-free playground for a while. That said, I’ve enjoyed most of those tee-ball satires for their individual doses of class-politics catharsis and, although a late addition to the collection, Infinity Pool is the one that most directly panders to my fucked-up tastes. You cannot pack the frame with this many strobe lights, gore gags, hallucinatory orgies, and creepy masks without me walking away smiling. Letting Mia Goth loose to terrorize Skarsgård as a crazed domme armed with fried chicken & a handgun instead of leather whips & cuffs is also a brilliant move, as she greedily devours scenery with vicious, delirious abandon. Among all its “Eat the Rich” classmates of 2022, Infinity Pool most reminded me of Triangle of Sadness, mostly for how far it pushes its onscreen depravity for darkly comedic, cathartic release – careful to put every possible substance the human body can discharge on full, loving display (except maybe for feces, which might be included in the NC-17 cut; can’t be sure). Plenty audiences are likely to be turned off by both works for their disregard for subtlety & restraint, but that’s exactly what makes them great.
This film’s poor timing in distribution shouldn’t discount its of-the-moment merits. Extratextual concerns aside, it’s very funny, upsetting, and reluctant to be neatly categorized or understood (despite its wealth of easy comparison points). I suspect it will age well, even by time its “Unrated” cut hits VOD in the coming months, since distance from our recent wealth of anti-wealth satires can only do it favors. It also seems like Cronenberg got to work out something ugly & pathetic he wanted to exorcize from his own psyche here (often through outright self-mockery), which is the exact kind of weirdo personal touch I’m always looking for in art.
Like a lot of people, I found Kyle Edward Ball’s childhood nightmare simulator Skinamarink compelling both as an experiment in form (especially in its layering of visual & aural textures) and as a breakout success story (from microbudget outsider art to TikTok meme to wide theatrical distro). Unlike its loudest, proudest champions, however, I can’t say I was fully captivated with it as a narrative or emotional experience. I found Skinamarink effectively, impressively creepy, but I can’t say I felt the revelatory breakthrough in form that my fellow horror nerds found in its darkened corners. I suspect that’s because I’m not a regular visitor to the spooky YouTube channels and creepypasta message boards where Kyle Edward Ball cut his teeth as a short-film director before making a splash in that debut feature. In a lot of ways, Skinamarink is the exact low-fi creepypasta horror that We’re All Going to the World’s Fair was mismarketed to be, and its most ecstatic praise appears to be coming from creepypasta enthusiasts who are relieved to finally see their online obsessions projected at feature length on the big screen.
I mention all this because I recently did have a revelatory, emotional experience watching a film that shares formal similarities to Skinamarink; it just happened to be steeped in the visual art traditions of drag & genderfuckery instead of online creepypasta lore. Luminous Procuress is the sole feature film of visual artist Steven Arnold, whose own experimental short-film production & programming happened to be platformed at the legendary Nocturnal Dream Show screenings in 1960s San Francisco, not on YouTube in the 2010s. I recently purchased a DVD copy of the film’s 50th Anniversary restoration while playing tourist in San Francisco, unfamiliar with its history beyond its proud credit “introducing The Cockettes” – the genderfucked drag krewe that performed as carnival sideshow accompaniment for Arnold’s Nocturnal Dream Show programs. I was a little worried that a feature-length dose of Cockettes-era hippie drag wouldn’t be able to sustain itself, so I was oddly relieved when it turned out to be an experimental anthology of “silent”, psychedelic vignettes. Like Skinamarink, Luminous Procuress is a film composed entirely of vibes & textures; those vibes & textures are just slathered in acid & glitter instead of childhood fears & digital grain.
The titular Luminous Procuress is Arnold’s childhood friend & lifelong partner in art, Pandora, posing as a kind of drag queen sorceress in a California hippie commune. Two himbos wander into her pleasure palace looking for a good time, and the Procuress obliges by guiding them through a series of gorgeous bootleg-drag tableaus: the bejeweled-beard Cockettes posing in tropical Carmen Miranda drag and staging a Last Supper food fight; pre-Deep Throat hardcore sequences shooting straight & bisexual sex as if they were far-out geek show attractions; Kenneth Anger-inspired occultist rituals worshipping a stoic sci-fi futurelord. Their cumulative effect seeks psychedelic holy ground between the transcendent sensuality of Pink Narcissus and the thrift store glam of Vegas in Space. Besides Arnold’s auteurist vision as director, The Cockettes’ self-styled Old Hollywood wardrobe, and the glorious “hair creations by Nikki” (modeled by Pandora, naturally), the most important name among the credits is experimental musician Warner Jepson’s, whose noise music soundscapes are almost entirely comprised of synthy bird chirps & shrill baseball stadium organs. It was Jepsen who provided the film with its deliberately obscured, unintelligible Charlie Brown dialogue track, adding the texture of spoken language without any of the pesky words or meaning of traditional dialogue getting in the way of the tripped-out glam on display.
If there’s any legitimate reason to discuss Skinamarink & Luminous Procuress as a pair, it’s in their shared connections to the experimental cinema foundations of Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou. Kyle Edward Ball appears to make direct homages to that landmark surrealist short, both in Skinamarink‘s nonsensical time-passing title cards and in its ocular gore. Steven Arnold’s connections to Un Chien Andalou‘s history is much more direct, as Dalí was such a massive fan of Luminous Procuress that he took Arnold in as a protege in his Court of Miracles. In all honesty, though, any experimental, surrealist work made after 1929 owes some debt to Un Chien Andalou, so these films are likely only paired in my mind because I happened to watch them the same week. Both are largely silent, experiential pieces with only the barest of plot structures to justify their liminal-space tableaus. Of their two premises, I happened to connect much more deeply with a drag queen sorceress asking “Hey, y’all wanna see something weird?” than I did with a childhood nightmare simulation where all doors & windows disappear from a suburban home. What’s incredibly cool about the two films’ modern distribution is that they’re both widely available outside of the fringe event spaces where experimental works of this ilk would’ve been exhibited a half-century ago: art galleries, universities, and Salvador Dalí’s hotel room. Skinamarink may be a far-out, revelatory work in the context of niche internet media being projected in suburban multiplexes, but it’s also part of a long tradition of experimental filmmaking – including, apparently, 16mm footage of drag queens playing dress-up on LSD.
Swampflix readers, the internet has been essentially de-democratized. What I mean by that is that when you or I go online to look for the answer to a question or read one (1) article about a thing that we engaged with or enjoyed, we no longer get to interact with that article in a vacuum. Unless you’re VPN’d up every single time that you look for a movie review or try to purchase a replacement ice mold for the Rival snow cone maker that you purchased at an estate sale without realizing that it required a part that was not present, you’re going to start getting ads for snowball machines and your YouTube homepage is going to be flooded with think pieces and video essays about the film that you just wanted one critic’s viewpoint on. Well, that and advertisements and algorithmically driven content to make you stay on the platform longer, feel encouraged to interact with the content to drive engagement, etc. Like most Swampflix contributors, my interests are not fully in alignment with the zeitgeist, but every once in a while, they are; unfortunately, although that means that I was as excited about M3GAN as the culture at large was, discussion of her wasn’t omnipresent in the discourse of the YouTube channels that I haven’t blocked. But boy howdy did YouTube love that I loved Glass Onion. Amidst a deluge of clickbait bids titled “[Number] Things You Missed in Glass Onion!”, “All the Secret Connections between Knives Out and Glass Onion!”, and the like, I have to admit that I did encourage the algorithm just a little by watching videos that talked about the various films and TV shows that had served as inspiration for the film, because I go through periods where mysteries are all that I ever want to consume. Frequently cited as a major creative jumping-off point for the film was 1973’s The Last of Sheila.
Helmed by director Herbert Ross and scripted by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim (the only screenplay credit for each), the film tells the story of film producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) and his plan to take several of his friends on a pleasure cruise aboard his private yacht. Their voyage begins, presumably not accidentally, on the anniversary of the death of Greene’s girlfriend, Sheila, who left one of his parties in a fit and was killed by a hit-and-run driver mere blocks from his house. An avid player of games of strategy and wit, Greene has planned out a series of mystery nights where his guests will go ashore with a set of clues and split up to try and solve a mystery. Each person aboard is also given a card that is to be their “secret identity” for the game, and the first of these that we see as characters open their envelopes are things like “Alcoholic,” “Shoplifter,” and “Homosexual.” Further, each of his traveling companions was there the night of Sheila’s death: Christine (Dyan Cannon), a film talent agent who’s full of wit and flirtatiousness in that a 1970s showbiz liberated way; glamorous but troubled starlet Alice (Raquel Welch) and her current beau, another film agent named Anthony (Ian McShane), who’s forever angling to get more involved with the production side of film; faded movie star and giant of another age Philip Dexter (James Mason) who’s now stuck in undignified commercials for dog food; and Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin), a screenwriter who’s been stuck doing rewrites on spaghetti westerns while his original work remains unsold and unproduced. The only person on the cruise whom we are explicitly told wasn’t there the night Sheila died isTom’s wife Lee (Joan Hackett), a kind but idle and neurotic heiress. The first night of the mystery game is largely a success, with half of the group getting to the secret while the other half is either too late or doesn’t try at all. On the second night, however, tragedy strikes, and when not everyone comes back to the boat, our cast of characters return to the site of the previous evening’s game and discover that someone from their number has died, under mysterious circumstances.
Excited as I was to finally see this film, at a full two hours, it starts to feel its length in places. The site of the second night’s game is an abandoned monastery where the gang has to don identity-revealing robes and remain quiet until they locate the confessional in which Greene is hiding, which makes for a lot of fun as characters pass each other without we in the audience ever really knowing with whom they’re speaking or even if the characters know; unfortunately, this runabout through the monastery feels much longer than the ten minutes of screen time that it occupies and unfortunately telegraphs that a twist is coming. For the first hour of the movie, the omnipresent implication is that Greene has arranged some elaborate plan to discover which of his guests was Sheila’s killer, but a savvy viewer will know that there’s simply no time left in the runtime of the film to go through five more puzzles, and so there’s going to be a complicating factor at any moment. You’re not surprised by the second death, merely by who is the unfortunate corpse. I’ll be the first to admit that I might have been spoiled (or had a certain part of my brain atrophy while another part grew three sizes) by watching some 250+ episodes of Murder, She Wrote in the past thirteen months, so I could be stuck on that formula, but an hour in feels like an awfully late place to stick your midpoint murder twist. At the same time, there’s no fat to trim here, no extraneous beats that don’t reveal something relevant about character, motive, time, and secrecy, it’s just that the relevancy of all of these narrative moments is often revealed late in the game.
If there are two performers who stand out to me, I’d have to name Cannon and Hackett. Every performance here is good, but Cannon is delivering a wonderfully understated performance as a woman who’s committed to living life as sensually and hedonistically as possible but whose dark past she regrets; she’s stunning. A whodunit like this doesn’t require the sincerity and humanity that she brings to her delivery of a monologue in which she confesses to having furthered her career by slipping some names to the HUAC, but it certainly elevates it. “Then those people didn’t work for a while,” she says. “Now they work. Sometimes I try and get them work. Sometimes I see them on the street and sometimes … they cross the street.” She tries to play off her guilt, but no one is convinced, least of all herself, and it’s magical. Also doing great work here is Hackett, whose frantic, nervous, chain-smoking Lee is clearly having a very hard time with all of this business right from the start as the only person aboard who doesn’t belong there, since she was hundreds of miles away when Sheila died. As the only person we can be assured isn’t a killer, she seems to understand the jeopardy of being on the boat with someone willing to cover up their hand in an accident that resulted in a death. After all, someone almost kills Christine by turning on the yacht’s propellers while she’s taking a swim; who’s to say there won’t be more “accidents”? The big stars are clearly supposed to be Mason and Benjamin, the actor and the writer, who take point on trying to spin out the narrative that would lead to the things that the group has uncovered and discovered—and let there be no mistake, they are both more than satisfactory, with Mason having the upper hand over Benjamin in the charm department—but it’s Cannon and Hackett that I’ll be thinking about weeks from now.
Let’s talk humor. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, alongside the performances, the other tempering element that helps the movie feel like it’s got some pep in its step when it gets a little slow is the film’s comedic wit. Before she can even get on the boat, Christine complains about the lack of a drink in her hand by declaring “My mouth is so dry they could shoot Lawrence of Arabia in it,” which I’ve found myself saying every once in a while over the years without ever remembering its origin (it’s the pull quote used for the film in Douglas Brode’s compendium—and my longtime companion—Edge of Your Seat: The 100 Greatest Movie Thrillers, where it ranks at 88th). Even the jokes that characters make that are supposed to be either unfunny or in bad taste within the text got a chuckle out of me, especially those that poke fun at Hollywood and celebrity culture. This includes Greene’s mocking of Tom’s body of work as a second set of eyes on Westerns by asking him to read from a section of Fistful of Lasagna (“or whatever it’s called”). Even if the references are a half century old now, the core truths in play keep the film feeling fresh, despite some major dissonance in other areas that it’s important to address: one of the characters is outed as a child molestor, which is bad enough, but the other characters don’t really seem to think that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed or even has a glimmer of an idea of reporting him to the authorities. If there’s one thing in this film that hasn’t aged well, it’s the casualness with which that horrifying little tidbit is dropped and the lack of reaction to it.
Already, I’ve risked giving away too much of the plot of this one, so I’ll wrap it up. Stellar performances, creative misdirects and clues, and clever jokes stashed away in little corners more than make up for the times where the film feels like it’s dragging the bottom. Although you can rent this one streaming, I’m sure your local library has a DVD that’s probably got some fun extras and easter eggs on it, so why not visit them instead?
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
I recently talked on the podcast about my dear friend Ana Reyes’s astounding and well-deserved success surrounding her first novel, The House in the Pines (still #2 on the NYT bestseller list for hardback fiction as of this writing!). When we were all having drinks after the launch party back on January 3, her husband, who is also a writer and friend, mentioned to me that he and Ana had recently been talking about how ahead of the “cozy mystery” curve I was when I put together my pitch document/series bible for the as-yet-undiscovered project Mrs. Wintergreen. As I smiled a toothless grin that belied my bitterness that fate has not seen fit to bring Mrs. Wintergreen to life, I didn’t even point out that not only was that the case, but also that I had even included a scene in which my protagonist, 108-year-old semi-pro sleuth Constance Wintergreen, expressed an appreciation for Glass Onion star Janelle Monae:
Agatha Christie is very in vogue, as evidenced by not only the aforementioned Christe-adjacent 2022 release Glass Onion, but also the Christie-containing See How They Run, a confident first feature from director Tom George penned by Mark Chappell, who is perhaps best known for his writing for the David Cross vehicle The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. A period piece, the film begins on the night of the hundredth performance of The Mousetrap, a Christie-authored play which is infamous for two things: first, that there is a twist ending that the audience is encouraged not to reveal to others, resulting in the play’s ending remaining largely unknown to this day, and second, that the contract for the play forbids any adaptation of the source material to film (or the short story on which it was based from being published) until at least six months have passed since its final performance at London’s West End. This was a particularly long-sighted bit of legal play, as the show has run continuously (other than a COVID-caused pause) since its opening night in October of 1952, seventy years ago. In fact, I have some suspicion that this film exists solely for that reason, as it is the closest we can get to a Mousetrap adaptation for the foreseeable future.
Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) is a sleazy slimeball of an American film director (redundant, I know) who has his sights set on turning The Mousetrap into a hit motion picture. That previously noted clause about the show being forced to close before this can even be a possibility is at the forefront of the minds of many involved, but theatre producer Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) assures him that the play has already reached its 100th performance and surely it will run out of steam soon, espousing the idea that a narrative with a whodunit at its core will, by its nature, see few repeat visitors and will necessitate closure sooner than later. Although we the viewers are sufficiently distant from this event that this is an historical irony for us, the contemporary American studio system is so confident that they already have Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo) working on a screenplay. Cocker-Norris’s English sensibilities and sense of adaptational faithfulness brings him into conflict with the flashy Köpernick, although the former is not alone in his distaste for the latter: British film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) is also protecting a scandalous secret about which Köpernick is blackmailing him; Köpernick is rude to all members of waitstaff everywhere, which includes the put-upon usher Dennis Corrigan (Charlie Cooper); and, mere moments before his murder at the ten minute mark, he is decked by Richard “John ‘Spared no expense’ Hammond” Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), who portrays the lead in The Mousetrap, for flirting with his co-star and wife Ann Saville (Pippa Bennett-Warner). The investigation of his death necessitates the appearance of Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), the archetype of the drunken detective who plays fast and loose with the rules; due to a shortage of available partners, he is paired with Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), a plucky, energetic up-and-comer who is mere months away from being the first woman to take the sergeant’s exams.
This is a neat little movie that makes sense in and of itself but also functions as a love letter to Christie and to her longtime fans, a body of which I consider myself to be a member. For instance: a scene in which the excitable Stalker asks a hotelier what part of France he is from based on the fact that he speaks French only to receive a deadpan response that he is Belgian is a fun comic bit in and of itself, but it’s also a nod to fans of Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who often finds himself on the receiving end of this exact misunderstanding. There’s also a good running gag about Hamlet: Early on, Attenborough says of The Mousetrap “It’s not exactly Hamlet.” Later, Stoppard half-quotes Act II Scene II’s famous ending line “The play’s the thing” [“Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King”], spoken when Hamlet commits himself to obtaining evidence of his uncle Claudius’s guilt through an elicitation of a confession upon seeing a fictionalization of Hamlet’s father’s murder. This is itself a circular reference, as not only does it reveal that Stoddard has realized that the connection between the murder of Köpernick may actually have to do with the play’s content, not its performance as initially suspected, but the word “mousetrap” likely comes from Hamlet in the first place as Hamlet refers to the play as a mousetrap in Act III Scene II (line 2131), in what may be the invention of the term. Your mileage is likely to vary on certain comic elements, of course; whether or not you find it clever that Cocker-Norris disdains screenplays that include flashbacks as crass and artless moments before one occurs in his narration is going to be left up to the individual viewer. I find his asking of “Whatever next? A caption that says, ‘Three weeks later’?” juxtaposed with that very caption to be charming and fun, but I know that others will find it to be more of a moment of bathos.
My favorite gag, however, cribs neither from Shakespeare or Christie, but Adaptation: in a flashback, much to the chagrin of Cocker-Norris, we get to see a little bit of how Köpernick’s mind works as he shows a series of storyboards that he put together for the climax of the film version of The Mousetrap. The images are quick cuts between detailed insets: gloved hands at a power box, a revolver being cocked by an unknown person, a fire breaking out in the middle of a tense standoff with a hostage—all of it very un-Christie and extremely Hollywood. This is Köpernick’s attempt to “jazz up” the very un-Hollywood and extremely Christie ending of the play, which uses one of her most well-known and genre-defining tropes: the end-of-the-story summation gathering, in which the detective gets everyone together in a parlor to explain their investigation and conclusion. In fact, not that it matters, but it’s so very much part of the genre that a parody of this type of scene is the very first thing that happens in the script for the Mrs. Wintergreen pilot, “Mrs. Wintergreen and the Thorny Dilemma”
See How They Run turns this on its ear by playing both sides in the same way that Adaptation does, by mocking the hand that feeds it via denigrating comments about the formulaic nature of Hollywood adaptations, and then doing each and every one of the things that it mocks. The climax of the film takes place in a parlor that has the exact same layout, dimension, and decorations as the final set of the play, although this is obscured until the last possible moment to reveal it. The revolver, the fire, the standoff, the power box—the whole thing plays out in exactly the same way that Köpernick’s storyboard does. It’s a lot of fun to watch. (So would Mrs. Wintergreen be, I think, but I digress.)
I was engaging with some essay or other this week and was taken aback when the author noted that, for all of his extremely large body of literary work, Isaac Asimov’s oeuvre rarely sees film adaptations, with only a handful ever being produced: Konets Vechnosti from 1987, based on The End of Eternity, which I assume must have had a subtitled release in the U.S. at some point but I can find no evidence of; the Robin Williams vehicle Bicentennial Man; two separate adaptations of the 1941 short story “Nightfall;” and, theoretically at least, I, Robot. In general, the world does not lack for Christie adaptations; they are so numerous that films based on And Then They Were None alone have their own Wikipedia subpage. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was adapted as an episode of Miss Marple and Agatha Christie’s Marple, which are two separate television shows, as well as a film version in 1980 starring Angela Lansbury as Marple. When it comes to Christie media, we are the lilies of the field, neither toiling nor spinning, nevertheless arrayed in splendor. But we don’t have an adaptation of The Mousetrap, and we likely never will. Even if that day comes, there’s a risk it will be as dull and uninteresting as 2017’s Crooked House, which even Glenn Close and Gillian Anderson couldn’t save. What we do have is See How They Run, which is more than good enough; it’s great.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
Welcome to Episode #178 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna continue our discussion of the Top Films of 2022 with some honorable mentions, starting with the Jerrod Carmichael suicide comedy On the Count of Three.
– The Podcast Crew
1. Everything Everywhere All at Once — Maybe we’re living in the worst possible timeline, but maybe we’re just living in the one where Michel Gondry directed The Matrix. It’s nice here. The absurdism, creativity, and all-out maximalism of Everything Everywhere has made it the most talked-about movie of the year, and with good reason. Films about intergenerational trauma and poor parental relationships often come across as schmaltzy and reductive, but this one is complex in ways that you can’t predict or imagine. You’ll even find yourself empathizing with a googly-eyed rock.
2. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On — In the tradition of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the Borrowers books, and the half-remembered TV show The Littles, Marcel the Shell shrinks itself down to the level of a tiny being to view the world from their perspective. Like the original stop-motion YouTube shorts, it’s a rapid-fire joke delivery system where every punchline is “So small!” It also has a big heart, though, acting as an emotional defibrillator to shock us back into the great wide world of familial & communal joy after a few years of intense isolation.
3. Mad God — Both a for-its-own sake immersion in scatological mayhem and an oddly touching reflection on the creative process, the indifference of time, and the cruelty of everything. Phil Tippet’s stop-motion descent into Hell is meticulously designed to either delight or irritate, so count us among the awed freaks who never wanted the nightmare to end.
4. RRR — An anti-colonialist epic about the power of friendship (and the power of bullets, and the power of wolves, and the power of grenades, and the power of dynamite, and the power of tigers, and the power of bears, oh my). A real skull-cracker of a good time.
5. Neptune Frost — A post-gender Afrofuturist musical that triangulates unlikely holy ground between Space is the Place, Black Orpheus, and Hackers. This movie is gorgeous, even if it takes more than one viewing to piece together a thorough understanding of its plot, since it phrases its protests against colonialism & strip-mining in the language of dreams & poetry.
6. Men — If it weren’t for the tabloidization of Don’t Worry Darling, this would easily be the most over-complained about movie of 2022. The Discourse was not kind to Alex Garland’s shift from chilly sci-fi to atmospheric folk horror, but the spectacular MPreg climax & Rory Kinnear’s terrifying face will haunt us forever anyway.
7. Triangle of Sadness — A delightfully cruel, unsettling comedy that invites you to laugh at the grotesquely rich as they slide around in their own piss, shit, and vomit on a swaying luxury cruise ship. It’s incredibly satisfying—and maybe even Östlund’s best—as long as you prefer catharsis & entertainment over subtlety & nuance.
8. Funny Pages — Proudly wears its 2000s indie nostalgia as a grimy badge of dishonor, questioning why Ghost World and The Safdies can’t share the same marquee. You might wonder where its alt-comics slackerdom fits in the modern world, but any dipshit suburbanite poser who’s ever romanticized suffering an “authentic” life as a starving artist in The City should be able to relate.
9. Nope — After examining the horror of suburbia and neoliberalism in Get Out (our #1 film of 2017) and the horror of self and manifest destiny in Us (our #7 film of 2019), Jordan Peele’s latest is an oddly laidback, immensely scaled sci-fi thriller about a brother & sister’s fight to understand, outsmart, document, and monetize an extraterrestrial being beyond our comprehension. Consider it a Signs of the times.
10. Hatching — A great entry in the Puberty as Monstrous Transformation canon, alongside titles like Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, Teeth, and Carrie. Hatching stands out in that crowd by adding an extra layer about mothers living through their daughters in unhealthy ways. In fact, we recommend all mothers and daughters watch this twisted Finnish fairy tale together; it’s gross-out fun for the whole family.
-The Swampflix Crew
Click through the image for a full-size scan.
– Hanna Räsänen
Besides maybe the horny-old-biddies football comedy 80 For Brady being inexplicably set in 2017, the new straight-to-Peacock slasher Sick is likely to be the most conceptually bizarre period piece of the season. The COVID-19 pandemic might be waning, but it is still ongoing, which makes screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s decision to set Sick in the early-pandemic days of Spring 2020 a little confusing, if not outright immoral. COVID-themed horror that takes advantage of the pandemic’s of-the-moment novelty and finance-forgiving social isolation is now a three-year-old gimmick at this point, with early standouts like the excellent screenlife ghost story Host getting produced & released in the same timeframe when Sick is set. So, why would Williamson bother stepping outside his highly successful slasher franchise Scream to dial the clock back to those early COVID days, when that’s already such an overcrowded market? Apparently, it’s because he’s been itching to complain about people who are a little too zealous & militant about mask-wearing, social-distancing safety measures in public life, and he couldn’t be satisfied venting about it in a Facebook rant like every other Gen-X crank, so he made a feature film instead.
In its opening hour, Sick appears to take the ambient terror of COVID very seriously, likening it to the intangible menace of horrors like Final Destination, The Happening, and Skinamarink. Again, this is a period piece set in the early wiping-down-your-groceries era of the pandemic, when coherent public understanding of how COVID spreads—let alone vaccines—had yet to formulate. There’s an oppressive paranoia in all public life that’s distinct to that era, illustrated by how a single cough in a grocery store has all other shoppers shooting daggers in your direction. The tension is instantly high, and the vibes are instantly bad, which is a great start for a lean, low-budget slasher with only 80 minutes of playtime. It’s also a great excuse to isolate a slasher’s teens-in-peril victims, who plan to ride the pandemic out by self-quarantining in a cabin in the woods. The knife-wielding killer who stalks them also comes pre-masked, as was the fashion (and legitimate safety precaution) of the time. All of this COVID-based terror is cleverly considered, but once the killer’s face & motives are revealed, Williamson’s screenplay devolves from we’re-all-in-this-together societal camaraderie into bitchy “Some of you are taking this pandemic stuff a little too seriously” apathy, and all of the tension gives way to eyerolls & jerk-off motions.
As often as Williams is determined to step on rakes in the last few pages of his screenplay, a lot of Sick‘s faults are smoothed over by DTV action director John Hyams’s knack for bone-crunching impact & small-scale visual spectacle. The novelty of COVID horror is fading, and the basic tropes of the home-invasion slasher are so familiar that Williamson made a name for himself mocking them in a meta-horror franchise nearly three decades ago, but Hyams manages to make Sick feel consistently thrilling & surprising from moment to moment. Yes, we have already seen Jason Voorhees emerge from Crystal Lake as an unkillable ghoul, but have we ever seen him thrust his blade at victims from under the water, like a deadly-sharp Jaws fin? Yes, we’ve already seen teens chased around a remote cabin after enjoying a few hand-rolled joints, but rarely with such creative, dynamic blocking & fight choreography – since most independent first-wave slashers of that ilk were made by youngsters who enjoyed a few beers & joints on-set themselves. Honestly, Sick has all the hallmarks of a classic slasher: style, efficiency, brutality, novelty, and boneheaded reactionary politics that sour nearly all of those merits. According to that scorecard, Hyams has acquitted himself, Williamson has embarrassed everyone and, as is always true, Jane Adams (whose role I won’t spoil) deserves better.