Cellular (2004)

There was a time recently when British action star Jason Statham started poking fun at his onscreen persona in projects like The Expendables, Fast & Furious, and Spy and I realized that, despite his rapidly growing fame, I had no real idea who he is. Statham was already a brand worthy of self-satire by the time he registered on my radar at all. I obviously didn’t need to be too familiar with his oeuvre for those jokes to land (any passing knowledge of post-80s Tough Guy action stars of any stripe would do), but I still felt like I was missing out on something. It turns out that the gaps in my Statham knowledge were mostly a string of mid-00s action vehicles like The Transporter, The Bank Job, and Crank, which I’ve been gradually catching up on in recent months while parsing out the persona of this muscly mystery man. Oddly, it wasn’t any of these starring roles for Statham that solidified my understanding of his screen presence. It was instead his minor role as a Tough Guy villain in the 2004 action goof-em-around Cellular that brought home my introspective search for who Jason Statham really is.

It turns out that Jason Statham is a dick, at least onscreen. He even looks like a penis, considering his closely shaved head’s throbbing veins and his penchant for mod-style turtlenecks. Once you grasp that he’s hired to be instantly detestable as screenwriting shorthand, his typecasting become so much clearer in retrospect. In The Transporter, he’s a selfish brute of a nerd who allows his heartless, rules-obsessed professionalism to prevent him from doing the right thing (until a victim of his thuggish clients melts his icy heart). In Spy, he’s a self-aggrandizing blowhard who steamrolls women in conversation and in the workplace. In the Fast & Furious franchise he’s a self-serving, cold-hearted killer who doesn’t know the first thing about Family (until, again, his heart is melted over time). It’s a tradition that stretches back to his bit roles as a growling toughie in Guy Ritchie’s early movies. The brilliant thing about Statham’s casting in Cellular is that he’s only there because of his instant hateability as a total dick. The movie’s plot contrivances are so absurdly over the top that it has no time to invest in fleshing out the character of its central villain, so Statham’s instantly recognizable dickholery is meant to serve as a shortcut. And it mostly works.

Based on a story outline from legendary schlockteur Larry Cohen (who dared to ask, “What if I wrote Phone Booth again, but this time with cellphones?”), Cellular is the exact kind of obnoxious, high-concept nonsense that action cinema junkies are always looking for at the movies. Statham and his army of similarly dickish baddies kidnap a suburban high school biology teacher played by Kim Basinger and terrorize her in an attic for some reason or another. Desperate to call for help, Basinger uses her Science Knowledge to operate the only means of communication left in her newfound prison: a landline phone that Statham smashed to pieces. By tapping the wires of the broken device together to dial random numbers, Basinger miraculously connects to a nearby Nokia brick cellphone helmed by Chris Evans (in total bimbo dude-bro mode here). The original Cohen script was meant as a bitterly cynical social satire about the early days of cellphone obsession, but the version that actually got made is a goofball swashbuckling adventure in which Evans overcomes his carefree Beach Jock life of selfish hedonism to do something heroic for a change. As he gets involved in a series of escalating car chases, gun fights, and kidnapping crises in an effort to save a helpless stranger he has one clear mission: Don’t let the cellphone call drop or she’ll die. That’s quite a premise; classic Cohen.

I wouldn’t necessarily call this a great movie, but it can be a lot of fun as a gimmicky time capsule of quickly outdated tech. The early scenes where Evans is bragging that his brick phone can take pictures is especially amusing, as are later action set pieces where he has to rob an electronics store for a charger or hijacks a stranger’s phone when his all-important call is transferred via a cross-connection mishap. There’s also a very amusing moment where William H. Macy, playing a one-day-from-retirement cop, gets to be heroic in full slow-motion splendor, which is a rare look for him. Even if this is the least interesting execution of a deliriously fun premise possible, it’s still got that Larry Cohen touch of a fully committed gimmick that could just about carry any dead weight you pile on top of it. That might explain why a movie this culturally insignificant somehow inspired international remakes in Bollywood, Tollywood, and Hong Kong. The “Drop the cellphone call and she’ll die!” premise is just that strong. Besides, it has the added lagniappe of seeing Jason Statham’s instantly detestable dickishness being employed for its full villainous potential, which I apparently needed to see to fully understand his deal in general, even if he usually channels that persona into gruff anti-heroes.

-Brandon Ledet

Saaho (2019)

One of my favorite excursions to the theater in the last couple years was a blind-watch of the Indian sci-fi action spectacle 2.0, which I didn’t even realize was a sequel to a much bigger hit film until almost a half-hour into its runtime. The three hour onslaught of shapeshifting machines, music video interludes, and CGI-aided slapstick farce that followed was the exact kind of brain-melting spectacle I always hope for in over-the-top action blockbusters, but rarely see satisfied. The closest parallel in American cinema to the gleefully excessive cartoon lunacy of 2.0 (and its equally ludicrous predecessor Enthiran) is the ongoing Fast & Furious series, which long ago started as a street-racing flavored Point Break rip-off but at this point is a full-on Looney Tunes-scale middle finger to logic, good taste, and physics – bless its big stupid heart. That’s why it makes a lot of sense to me that the next Indian action blockbuster I’d catch in theaters would be a clear . . . homage to the Fast & Furious series’ global appeal as an obnoxious American export. The first hour of Saaho is a relatively well-behaved Telugu-language bastardization of the Fast & Furious formula, adapting the American series’ hyperactive game of cops & robbers to a different cultural backdrop while maintaining the exact look & tone of its earliest, least remarkable entries. Luckily, there are two more hours of runtime after that initial third, and that’s where that old 2.0 feeling flooded back into my theater and the movie rapidly transformed into its own beautifully ludicrous novelty – miles past its Fast & Furious starting line.

Almost as if purposefully restraining itself to American action cinema’s more conservative sensibilities for its first hour, Saaho waits until a third of the way into its colossal runtime to reveal its opening credits title card – “SAAHO” in massive block letters. That delayed announcement is then followed up with the warning “It’s showtime!,” as if the entire preceding hour were just a preamble warmup to the feature attraction. It’s not like the film shifts gears from there into being something other than a heightened Fast & Furious riff into something entirely novel, either. Instead, it tosses that series into a blender with Mission: Impossible, The Matrix, John Wick, Iron Man, Mad Max: Fury Road, and practically every other action blockbuster in recent memory you can name, all with a go-big-forget-going-home James Cameron maximalism fueling its engine. It’s fairly blatant about this post-modern collect-them-all amalgamation of American pop culture touchstones too. There’s a fictional courier company in the film named Fast & Furious Delivery Service. A key shootout tears up a living room where T2: Judgement Day is playing on a background TV. When a suspect in a heist is pressured to spill the beans on his fellow thieves, he retorts “Jon Snow, I know nothing.” Still, the film transcends merely feeling like a collection of familiar pop culture references to become its own beautifully absurd post-modern object – partly through unifying its blatant influences with a consistent hip hop music video aesthetic, partly by translating them through the highly specific cultural filter of an Indian blockbuster template, and partly by signaling its second-hour gear shift with a rules-changing character reveal that I’ve never seen in the action genre before, American or otherwise.

I wouldn’t dare spoil the genre-subverting Twist that prompts the “It’s showtime!” announcement at the top of the second hour, at least not in a proper review. It’s not like plot or characterization are the main draw for over-the-top action blockbusters on this scale anyway. Saaho doesn’t have much on its mind narrative-wise other than pulling the rug from under its audience in a constant parade of double/triple/quadruple crossings between its warring factions of corrupt cops & ambitious thieves. The thieves need a “black box” MacGuffin key to unlock a vault full of gold (that has a vague connection to a nationally beneficial Hydro Electric Power Plant project they’re embezzling from). The cops monitoring their activities need to catch them in the act of the robbery to prove that a crime is even taking place, since most of their illegal activities appear to be above board as a privately-owned corporation that does good deeds for the national public. Both sides of the cops & robbers divide have undercover operatives sabotaging the other’s missions and much of the fun of the film’s plot is trying to keep track of who’s really working for whom among the many, many characters onscreen. If all these good vs. evil espionage and secret identities shenanigans add up to any central theme, it’s that thieves are always a few steps ahead of the police, which affords them an anti-hero underdog status in the film’s hierarchy (in true Fast & Furious tradition). I’m not sure that it does add up to much thematically, though, since narrative was always going to take a back seat to the film’s value as a vehicle for over-the-top action spectacle.

Ludicrous, delirious, cartoon-level action is never in short supply here, not even in the film’s relatively well-behaved first hour. Body-mounted cameras spice up multi-level fistfights where muscle heads are beaten to a pulp with their own gym weights. Characters fly across the screen wuxia-style to emphasize the impact of a thunderous punch or kick. Slow-motion frame rates dwell on explosions & car wrecks so you can fully soak in their violent splendor. Because of the expectations of the Indian audience, these action cinema payoffs are often disrupted by romantic excursions & music video dance breaks for minutes on end. It’s not as if American action movies are devoid of extraneous romantic subplots or commercially-minded needle drops. It’s just that dispatches from Indian production hubs like Bollywood & Tollywood afford those touches extended, isolated screentime to fully play out. This can lead to some sublimely surreal cinematic moments, like when the film’s romantic leads slow-dance in a choreographed gunfight & flirt over an intense game of foosball, or when the film exaggerates action blockbusters’ propensity for product placement into a feature-length music video advertisement for Red Bull energy drinks. There is nothing subtle or nuanced about Saaho. Its boardroom of criminal thieves all look like Dick Tracey villains. Its bombshell lead’s hair is always glamorously blowing in the breeze, even when she’s indoors. It name-checks Fast & Furious in the first ten minutes to signal exactly what it’s up to. Once it’s officially “showtime,” though, and the film fully exploits its opportunities for action-packed, copyright-infringing chaos, their total disregard for subtlety becomes its greatest virtue. If you’re going to be a Big Dumb Loud action flick, you might as well be the biggest, dumbest, and loudest. I can’t help but respect these Indian action spectacles’ full-on commitment to their own emptyheaded extremity, since they make their American counterparts (and apparent sources of inspiration) seem relatively tame by comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 9/19/19 – 9/25/19

Here are the few movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week, including a couple of our favorite picks from The Overlook Film Festival.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

HustlersA surprise critical-hit thriller about a crew of strippers who embezzle money from the Wall Street bozos who frequent their club. Features performances from pop music icons Lizzo, Cardi B, Keke Palmer, and Jennifer Lopez. Playing wide.

Downton AbbeyThe world’s best-dressed soap opera is back for a theatrical victory lap! Bigger, louder, and probably just as well-behaved as ever. Playing wide.

After the Thin Man (1936) – The first of five(!!!!!) sequels to the classic pre-Code studio comedy The Thin Man, wherein a wealthy alcoholic couple down martinis & trade witty sex jokes at a rapidfire pace in-between solving crimes as private detectives. Screening at the Prytania as part of their Classic Movies series on Sunday 9/22 and Wednesday 9/25.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) – Part French New Wave, part Benny Hill, and part gore-soaked horror, Funeral Parade of Roses is a rebellious amalgamation of wildly varied styles & tones all synthesized into an aesthetically cohesive, undeniably punk energy. Shot in a stark black & white that simultaneously recalls both Goddard & Multiple Maniacs, the film approximates a portrait of queer youth culture in late-60s Japan. Screening free to the public (with donations encouraged) Thursday 9/19 at the LGBT Community Center of New Orleans as part of their ongoing Queer Root series.

One Cut of the Dead A deceptively complex crowd-pleaser that starts as a low-key experiment in staging a single-take zombie movie, but eventually evolves into a heartfelt love letter to low-budget filmmaking of all types (and all the frustrations, limitations, and unlikely scrappy successes therein). One of the best films I’ve seen all year. Screening at Zeitgeist in Arabi (ahead of its eventual streaming release on the horror platform Shudder).

Tigers Are Not Afraid A dark fairy tale ghost story about Mexican drug cartels that’s admirably committed to its own sense of brutality, threatening to destroy young children by bullet or by ghost without blinking an eye. Anyone especially in love with similar past works like The Devil’s Backbone or The City of Lost Children should find a lot worthwhile here, though there’s a specificity to the Mexican drug cartel context that saves the film from feeling strictly like an echo of former glories. Screening at Zeitgeist in Arabi (ahead of its eventual streaming release on the horror platform Shudder).

-Brandon Ledet

Donut Shop Horror

A recurring theme in the discussion of our current Movie of the Month, the Gen-X vampire slacker drama Blood & Donuts, is how unexpectedly low-key & tempered its mood was. You’d think that a mid-90s horror movie about a vampire who frequents a donut shop would be an over-the-top camp fest, but instead the film is quietly melancholy & introspective. Even the title Blood & Donuts suggests a quirky splatter comedy, but the film it’s attached to is low on both gore & guffaws. We mostly just watch a tragically sexy vampire mope around late-night Toronto hangout spots while reluctantly seducing potential victims into his orbit. He’s much more likely to scrapbook or take a long bath than he is to dispose of a victim in a comically violent spectacle, and it takes a while to adjust to that melancholy sensibility thanks to the expectations set by its genre & setting.

When poking around for other feature films set in donut shops, I did eventually stumble upon a title that delivers on the campy horror comedy payoffs Blood & Donuts only teases. 2016’s microbudget cheapie Attack of the Killer Donuts is the exact over-the-top donut shop creature feature we expected our Movie of the Month to be, although it’s one that arrived decades past its time. In the film, two teenage slacker employees of the all-night cafe Dandy Donuts find themselves defending their community against an army of mutant, bloodthirsty pastries. When a local mad scientist’s “reanimation serum” (a flourescent green liquid transported around in cartoonishly oversized syringes, Stuart Gordon style) accidentally plops into the deep fryer at Dandy Donuts, the donuts that hop out of the fry basket are sentient, poisoned, and eager to rip out customers’ throats with their fangs. The teenage employees take responsibility for the incredible event and attempt to destroy the little donut monsters before they escape to destroy the community outside their humble, sparsely decorated shop. The rest of the movie writes itself. Unlike Blood & Donuts, Attack of the Killer Donuts is exactly what you expect it to be.

Of course, in most ways, the subtler, less predictable of the donut shop horror film is the more rewarding one. For instance, the complexity of Blood & Donuts’s vampiric anti-hero struggling to make romantic connections with mortal humans without damning them to death or eternal pain is much more interesting than the standard will-they-won’t-they cliché played out between Attack of the Killer Donuts’s generic teens. When the mutant donuts are inevitably squashed at the end of that 2010s novelty but the film continues to resolve the romantic “tension” between its two leads for several meatus of denouement, all you can do is beg for mercy that it will all end soon. Conversely, the romantic fallout of Blood & Donuts after its own bowling alley mafia villains (headed by David Cronenberg, of all people) are thwarted is one of the more compelling stretches of the film, way more engaging than the conflict presented by the villains themselves. Attack of the Killer Donuts has no chance to outshine Blood & Donuts in terms of craft or pathos. It only has one weapon in its arsenal to satisfy its audience and it’s right there on the in: killer donuts.

The potential delights offered by those killer donuts are obviously limited both by the meager means of the film’s budget and by the audience’s personal patience for winking-at-the-camera, so-bad-it’s-good humor. Attack of the Killer Donuts would’ve had to have been shot on video thirty years ago to be especially worthy of a recommendation, but it’s occasionally charming it its own low-stakes way. The fanged mutant donuts themselves are eyeroll-worthy when they’re rendered in cheap CG, but when they’re shown in closeups as practical puppets, they’re adorably grotesque. The film also has enough of a sense of humor about its own inherent silliness that it’s difficult to be too hard on it, as it ultimately feels like a group of friends putting on a D.I.Y. puppet show as a goof. You can immediately tell whether or not that purposefully goofy B-movie throwback novelty will please you or annoy you, whereas Blood & Donuts’s tonal bait & switch is more open to surprise & discovery as it unfolds. The only thing I can report here is that Attack of the Killer Donuts is the exact movie I expected Blood & Donuts to be; it just arrived a few decades past its prime.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the Gen-X Canuxploitation vampire drama Blood & Donuts (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its unlikely symmetry with Tangerine (2015).

-Brandon Ledet

Don’t Stress. You’ve Already Seen the Superior Cut of Midsommar (2019)

Midsommar is my favorite 2019 release I’ve seen so far, with only a quarter of the year left to go. Its morbid humor, detailed costume & production design, and dread-inducing continuation of Wicker Man-style folk horror made for an immensely satisfying theatrical experience. Twice! Last month, A24 re-released Midsommar back into theaters for an unexpected victory lap in an extended “director’s cut,” which was an excellent excuse to revisit the film to see if I was still as high on its perverse charms as I was when it was first released. To my delight, it was even better the second time around, with plenty of winking references to the horrors to come in the film’s transcendent third act telegraphed hours earlier in plain sight (especially involving bear imagery & the Swedish cultists’ blatant honesty about the rituals they’d be performing at the violent height of the festival). However, I don’t think people need to stress too much about having missed the extended, three-hour cut of the film if it didn’t happen to play in a city nearby. You’ll be fine.

No sooner did the extended cut disappear from theaters than it was announced that its streaming rights would be exclusive to Apple TV later this year. That means physical media releases of the film will only include the original theatrical cut, which is the exact kind of thing that drives rabid Blu-ray collectors into apoplectic mania. I was already seeing some online pushback against the extended re-release of the film as an “A24 cash grab,” and those grumblings only gained intensity after the announcement of its precarious life on home video after the fact. I suppose the assumption is that there will eventually be a “Collector’s Edition” re-release of the Blu-ray with the extended cut included as an extra or that, worse yet, it will never reach physical media at all, as its exclusive streaming rights are a better commodity that way. Personally, I can’t be too mad at smaller companies like A24 for working every angle they can to turn a profit in an increasingly tight, over-crowded market dominated by big-budget, Disney-owned IPs. I also can’t be too mad because the extended cut of Midsommar is something of a fans-only novelty. The original release was far superior.

The experience of seeing the extended cut of Midsommar on the big screen was deeply rewarding as an already converted devotee, but not really in any way that could be recreated at home via physical media replay. The original cut of the film tells the exact same story as the extended one. The recovered, extraneous content of the extended cut packs in more Jokes, but narrative-wise only makes what’s already obvious about the characters onscreen more blatantly explicit. Christian is more of a jerk; Josh is more of a selfish academic; Mark is more of a dunce; Pelle is more of a liar; Dani is in more of a daze, etc. It felt like exactly what it was: hitting Play All on the Deleted Scenes menu of a DVD you already loved just as much without them. There’s nothing especially substantial about the extended cut of Midsommar that you haven’t already seen streamlined in the original; at most you missed a few extra laughs. Both cuts were also approved by Ari Aster himself, so it’s not like you could pass the newer one off as a “Director’s Cut.” They’re both director’s cuts. One is just unnecessarily longer.

Most of what I got out of seeing Midsommar on the big screen a second time would have been exactly the same as if it had been the same cut on both watches. As a fan, though, I’m still extremely grateful of A24 for re-releasing the film for a late-summer victory lap. Mostly, that’s because the crowd attracted to seeing an extended release of this already long, niche horror film were a lot savvier than the first batch. Whereas the first crowd I saw it with received the film in perplexed, frustrated silence, pretty much all the jokes landed in the exact right way the second time. No one really laughed at inappropriate moments where humor was not intended either, which feels like an even rarer treat. Plus, all the women in the room were audibly groaning in frustration anytime Christian opened his big dumb mouth throughout, which was incredibly heartwarming after months of bizarre “Christian wasn’t that bad” apologism in the months since the initial release. Maybe a few extra scenes of him being a colossal dipshit helped amplify that reaction, but for the most part the improved environment of the screening had to do more with the crowd the extended cut attracted, not the deleted scenes it recovered.

Watch Midsommar again! It plays even better the second time. Details like the summer camp vibe of the fictional excursion resembling a traditional slasher template and the ursine implications of a cultist clapping in Christian’s face to scare him will jump out at you on a revisit. Just don’t stress too much about “missing out” on the extended cut in this temporary purgatory where its availability is being limited so that A24 can better pay the bills. If you missed the extended cut in theaters you already missed what made the experience special: its ability to draw like-minded weirdos out of their hidey holes to create a better communal atmosphere for the film’s perverse sense of humor. You can totally recreate that experience at home with the original cut by just being selective about what friends you invite over to share it with you. If anything, you’re just saving everyone a half-hour of their time.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #91 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Bank Job (2008) & Who Is Jason Statham?

Welcome to Episode #91 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our ninety-first episode, James & Brandon attempt to answer the age-old question “Just who, exactly, is Jason Statham?” To solve this complex puzzle, they look back to the supposed action star’s early-aughts rise to fame[?] in films like The Transporter (2002), Crank (2006), and The Bank Job (2008). Enjoy!

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

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

The Garden (1990)

Derek Jarman’s process for creating the look of his 1990 experimental feature The Garden was to put the film through an exhausting gauntlet of format transfers. Shot on super-8, then recorded to video, before finally being printed on 35mm film, the physical shape of The Garden had been put through the ringer to achieve its deliberately scuzzy, highly color-saturated patina. The general effect of the film on the audience is much the same. Non-narrative, mostly dialogue-free, and constantly shifting in both mood & technique, the film feels more like a process meant to break its audience down than it does a piece of creative entertainment. It opens as a vibrant, playful experiment in overlapping visions of homoromantic tableaus & Biblical Christian iconography, but its titular Edenic tone is gradually soured into a somber, morbidly violent affair that loses all of its initial energy to disorganized doom & gloom. It’s exhausting, purposefully so, and it’s easy to leave the film feeling just as worn out as its imagery was by the time it reached its final form.

My assumption is that Jarman intended The Garden’s soul-deep exhaustion to be a kind of diary of his own emotional state in the early 90s. Suffering from a series of AIDS-related health crises at the time of production (a sign of declining health that would eventually end his life just a few years later), Jarman filmed this disjointed series of Biblical tableaus & scenes of homophobic violence around the bleak exteriors of his coastal home in Dungeness, England. Self-described early in the proceedings as a tour though a “wilderness of failure,” the film’s backslide from paradisiac peace into morbid atonement serves as a kind of eulogy to the loss of an entire queer generation to a single virus, one which would eventually claim the filmmaker himself. We open with James Bidgood-esque visions of queer love & harmony (similar to Todd Haynes’s contemporary work in Poison), but the onscreen couple being depicted is eventually arrested, beaten, and shamed into disorder & dissolution. Religious imagery like a lynched Judas dressed as a leather-clad punk shilling credit cards, a young Tilda Swinton appearing as a Madonna figure hounded by paparazzi, and old women playing wine glass tones as the twelve apostles at the Last Supper interrupt this reverie, until it finally sours into an official funeral for the real-life dead in Jarman’s familial circle. The film can be occasionally beautiful, but it’s pretty fucking grim on the whole.

As an aesthetic object, The Garden is wonderfully exciting in its stabs of surreal shot-on-video era imagery. Its experiments in Ken Russellian green screen fuckery in which the entire sky is supplanted with flowers & other poetic, Polaroid-grade images are especially wondrous. The film also clearly has a sense of humor, despite its overall descent into despair, often breaking for absurdist musical numbers – such as a bargain bin music video for the showtune “Think Pink” from Funny Face. I don’t know if it’s the kind of film I’d recommend watching at home, though, where smartphones & other distractions are readily available. Even seeing it digitally restored in a proper theatrical environment (thanks to Zeitgeist’s summer-long queer cinema series Wildfire), I struggled to stay awake for the final 20-minute stretch. Not only is the film deliberately draining its trajectory from Eden to funeral service, it also suffers from the same attention-level difficulty that many feature-length works from directors who mostly work in short films suffer, the same exhaustion that tanks a lot of Guy Maddin’s films. As interesting as each homoerotic image, Biblical tableau, or outbreak of bigoted violence may be in isolation, they never really congeal as a cohesive, unified collection.

Jarman was at least aware of how miserable & patience-testing The Garden would be for his audience. The opening introduction in his woefully sparse narration includes the invitation, “I want to share this emptiness with you.” By the closing sequence wherein Tilda Swinton’s Madonna figure conducts a memorial for the homoromantic Eden lost over the course of the picture (a quiet ceremony involving cheap paper lanterns), I definitely felt that emptiness to some extent. It wasn’t the most pleasant or even the most clearly decipherable feeling to leave a movie theater with, but it was effective nonetheless. If you ever find yourself braving this “wilderness of failure” to “share this emptiness” with Jarman, just go into the journey armed with patience & a willingness to feel hopelessly miserable by the end credits. An experimental art film dispatch from the grimmest days of the AIDS crisis will apparently do that to you.

-Brandon Ledet

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)

I don’t remember ever crying over a celebrity’s death before this week, when Daniel Johnston died of a heart attack at 58 years old. A singular talent as a songwriter and a cartoonist, Johnston deserved so much better than the hand that life & biology dealt him. He lived long enough to see his work respected by other outsider artists who could tune into the pained genius of his uniquely perceptive song lyrics, but he was also crushed under a life-long struggle with schizophrenic & manic-depressive episodes that could only be kept at bay with a debilitating routine of heavy medications. Johnston’s art, career, and eventually his body where cut short by a mental disorder beyond his or anyone’s control, and it fucking sucks. He deserved so much better.

The one minor consolation in his passing is that Johnston recorded hundreds of songs about death & depression while he was alive to help fans process this deeply shitty news. His low-fi recordings & confessional songwriting style established an intimacy with his audience that’s only fueled by his relative in-the-know obscurity. I first heard Daniel Johnston in the pre-file-sharing days when I got my hands on a burned copy of the Kids soundtrack (years before I saw the actual movie), which featured his song “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” It was a perfect intro to his insular world for not only reflecting his fixations on Death & pop culture iconography, but also feeling like a window into an obscure, unobtainable catalog of outsider music – the exact kind of in-the-know exclusivity you crave as a teenager. It took me years to piece together a collection of Daniel Johnston recordings in the early aughts, starting with a purchase of his sole major-label release Fun and eventually moving on to what stray mp3s I could find on file-staring platforms. That changed drastically with the arrival of The Devil and Daniel Johnston in 2006, a documentary about the fame-seeking-turned-reclusive singer that told his whole life’s story thirteen years before his death. Suddenly, Johnston’s catalog was more accessible in local pop culture media stores; I could find cassettes, CDs, and reissue LPs of his work with much greater, much appreciated ease. He also miraculously started appearing in concerts nearby, arriving as one of the first touring acts I remember seeing in New Orleans post-Katrina, and at least twice more in the decade since.

Weirdly, with this sudden wealth of Johnston material in my life after years of waiting & searching, the documentary itself became almost more of a personal favorite than the recordings it was promoting. You’d think that as a 20-year-old hipster dipshit (with all the protective “I got here first!” snobbery that comes at that age of music fandom), I would have had a chip on my shoulder about a documentary boosting Johnston’s public profile (to the point where his song “Story of an Artist” that’s prominently featured in the film was recently deployed in an Apple commercial, unfathomably). Instead, it became an obsession, the first documentary I ever truly fell in love with. We would watch this film over & over again in my college years, back when it was much cheaper & more convenient to just grind the few DVDs you owned into dust than to constantly loop back to the (rapidly disappearing) local rental stores for fresh content. Not only did The Devil and Daniel Johnston fill a need for more information about a niche musician I could previously only access through the occasional scraps that trickled down to Southeast Louisiana, but the story of his struggles with mental health really hit close to home at that time. A close college friend, like Daniel, had recently triggered an inevitable crisis with bipolar disorder in a period of recreationally experimenting with LSD. After he shed his possessions, began raving about God & The Devil, and started putting himself & others in danger in high-risk situations like moving traffic, we eventually (and conflictedly) found ourselves having him committed to a grim mental institution nearby. Unlike Daniel, that friend appears to be doing fine now, but it still meant a lot to see that same story play out on the screen at the time, even with the worse ending.

Revisiting The Devil and Daniel Johnston the night his premature death was announced, it felt great to confirm that, yes, this is an exquisite specimen of the modern documentary and that I didn’t replay it incessantly in college only because I loved and related to the subject. In the thirteen years since its release, the film’s visual & storytelling style has since become a kind of standard norm in documentary filmmaking, but it really felt emotionally & formally exceptional at the time. Talking-head interviews, still photographs, home movies, television clips, and animated illustrations of Johnston’s songs combine to create a collage portrait of an artist whose world had been fractured many times over. Seeing this template repeated for other troubled artists like Amy Winehouse, Betty Davis, and DEATH in the years since has admittedly lessened some of the film’s impact as a structurally playful piece, but there are still details to the film that make it feel unique in its musician’s portrait genre. Firstly, Johnston’s life story of recording songs in his basement while his parents yelled at him from the stairs to give up on his dreams and get a job, only for him to later make those very tapes infamous by elbowing his way onto MTV (in-between joining a traveling carnival & working at McDonald’s) is incredible. Then, the way his mental disorder disrupted what could have been a thriving career as a songwriter by making him obsess over The Devil and a “love of his life” who he hardly knew (before finally wrecking his ability to take care of himself on a daily basis) makes the film just as much of an emotional experience as it is an informative one. Finally, the wealth of documentation of Daniel’s daily life—from audio recordings, super-8 home movies, photographs, journals, etc.—afford the filmmakers a wealth of material to illustrate the story they’re telling. It’s an incredibly rich experience, one of the very best of its kind.

Much like Johnston’s countless songs about death & depression in his music catalog, this documentary is incredibly helpful in processing the heartbreaking news of his passing. Also like with his songs, that process is not necessarily easy or fun. The opening shot is of Daniel talking in a selfie pose with his super-8 camera pointed at a mirror, announcing, “Hello, I am the ghost of Daniel Johnston,” as if from beyond the grave. Much of the movie plays this way, prematurely covering his life & art as if he were already dead. The final credits play over footage of Johnston posing in a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume in what appears to be a public park, obscured & wraithlike. It hits an emotionally raw nerve, but it’s also beautifully & radically honest, perceptive work. It’s pure Daniel Johnston in that way, so that the movie feels just as essential to his body of work as any of his songs or drawings. If you’re interested in becoming familiar with the life & art of this eternally tragic entertainer or if you need a way to properly say goodbye after years of sharing an intimate connection with his deeply personal D.I.Y. recordings, I highly recommend returning to this film. It will likely fuck you up, but you might also find yourself incessantly replaying it for morbid comfort & for curious friends the way I once did. Life was incredibly shitty to Daniel Johnston, but at least this movie was worthy of him.

-Brandon Ledet

Hail Satan? (2019)

“It’s a great day to be a Satanist! It’s a great day to be a human being.”

The longer I reflect on the movie in retrospect, the more I appreciate the question mark in Hail Satan?’s title. This is a film that constantly challenges your assumptions about what it means to be a Satanist in the modern world until you start to question whether you’re a Satanist yourself, and how you can strive to be a better one. If I were still a shithead contrarian mall-goth teen with a chip on my shoulder about having been raised Catholic, I might have preferred that titular punctuation to be an explanation point. Fuck yeah, Hail Satan! And down with homework too! The surprise of this half-documentary, half propaganda piece is how it makes you wonder whether that same youthful contrarianism could be weaponized into a genuinely productive tool for political activism. I went into the film expecting to roll my eyes at close-minded Richard Dawkins types who immaturely latch onto atheism as if it’s a belief system rather than an absence of one. I left politically Fired Up and questioning my own core beliefs. Am I a Satanist? Is it moral to be anything else?

As the documentary explains, “Satanist” used to be a pejorative term that political & religious deviants were labeled with by others, not something that was chosen as a prideful belief system. That changed with Anton LaVey’s publicity carnival The Church of Satan, which openly mocked Christian piousness & ritual in a celebration of the self & selfish pleasures. The main subject of this documentary, The Satanic Temple, reconfigures LaVey’s mission into something more purposeful & coherent. The group still values the worship of the self and the fixation on Earthly existence over preparation for an unlikely afterlife that LaVey “preached,” but they take an active, overtly political role in making that Earthly world a better place to live. The entire foundation of the Temple was designed to directly, purposefully oppose the escalation of the Christian Right’s unconstitutional involvement in American politics. They’re just as drawn to troll-job media stunts as The Church of Satan, but in this case the mockery is targeting the way Christian political groups defy the Constitutional separation of Church & State by officially endorsing candidates, erecting Ten Commandments tablets at state capitals, and promoting prayer in public schools. They’re taking a clear stand against the increasingly prevalent lie that “This is a Christian nation,” by countering, “Actually, that’s factually inaccurate and to disagree would be just as un-Christian as it is un-American.”

Of course, there is a certain level of contrarian trolling afoot in this us vs. them dynamic, and that’s partly what makes the documentary such a fun watch. Members of The Satanic Temple are mostly just wholesome, politically conscious nerds who’ve dressed themselves up in Sprit Halloween Store costumes to play the part of wicked Satanists. That’s what makes it so funny when Catholics & Evangelicals take their roles as harbingers of Evil at face value, visibly terrified of the threat they pose to humanity’s collective soul. They deserve the pushback too, as all the Temple is really doing is appropriating Christian Right political tactics to expose them as hateful hypocrisy & unconstitutional bullying, merely by applying them in another religious context. The Temple only wants to install a statue of Baphomet on state capital grounds in cases where the commandments are already represented – unconstitutionally. Their satirical publicity stunts are mostly aimed to draw attention to how often Christian political pundits overstep their bounds because they represent the “dominant religion” in a secular nation. If anyone else pulled this shit, they’d be immediately shut down with an indignant fury, yet we rarely challenge the intrusion because the Christian opposition seems so insurmountable, especially in the American South. Watching their own infuriating political tactics turned back on them like the barrels of Elmer Fudd’s gun is immensely satisfying.

As a documentary, Hail Satan? has very little interest in historical context or unbiased presentation of current events. It dials the clock back to the Christian doubling-down in American politics of the Cold War 1950s and the Satanic Panic 1980s, but only to clarify that the idea that United States is “a Christian Nation” is a relatively recent lie that defies the intent of the Constitution as it was written. Mostly, this is a work of pure propaganda, promoting a single organization’s effort to fight for free speech & political secularism in the US. Some artistic representations of Satan from pop culture touchstones like Häxan, Legend, and The Devil’s Rain illustrate the political platform presented here, but the strongest case the film makes for its allegiance to The Devil is to point out that Satan Himself was a political activist in Christian lore. He dared to challenge God, which sometimes feels just as daunting as challenging the political bullying of the well-funded, over-propagandized Christian Right. It turns out that teenage mall-metal shitheads who hail Satan to annoy their parents are accidentally stumbling into a legitimate, worthwhile political stance that could only benefit modern Western society if it were taken more seriously. So yeah, it’s the kind of propaganda piece that promotes its subject rather than questioning it, unless you count questions like “How could anyone in good conscience be anything but a Satanist?” and “How could I better serve & emulate Satan in my daily life?”

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 9/12/19 – 9/18/19

Here are the few movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week, including plenty of sex & violence to lure you out of the heat and into a cool, dark movie theater.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

HustlersA surprise critical-hit thriller about a crew of strippers who embezzle money from the Wallstreet bozos who frequent their club. Features performances from pop music icons Lizzo, Cardi B, Keke Palmer, and Jennifer Lopez. Playing wide.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) – One of the few stray Friday the 13th sequels I haven’t seen, but one of the many to claim to be the final word in their never-ending series. Features performances from Cory Feldman & Crispin Glover and make-up work from gore legend Tom Savini, so it appears to be packed with trashy 80s goodness. Screening in The Prytania’s midnight slot on Friday 9/13 and Saturday 9/14.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

One Cut of the Dead A deceptively complex crowd-pleaser that starts as a low-key experiment in staging a single-take zombie movie, but eventually evolves into a heartfelt love letter to low-budget filmmaking of all types (and all the frustrations, limitations, and unlikely scrappy successes therein). One of the best films I’ve seen all year. Screening at Zeitgeist in Aribi (ahead of its eventual streaming release on the horror platform Shudder) on Tuesday 9/17.

Good BoysFar more endearing & well-written than its initial “Superbad except with cussing tweens” reputation prepared me for. This is not a one-joke movie about how funny it is to watch children do a cuss; it’s got a lot on its mind about innocence, the pain of outgrowing relationships, and what distinguishes the earnest generation of radically wholesome kids growing up beneath us from our own meaner, amoral tween-years follies. These are very good boys. Playing wide.

-Brandon Ledet