Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone (2017)

Knowing the director duo Daniels from their work on projects like Swiss Army Man and the “Turn Down for What” music video, it’s immediately apparent why they would be interested in signing on as producers for Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone. Not only does the movie feature comedic actor Sunita Mari, who also features heavily in their work on “Turn Down for What,” it also plays directly into the post-Adult Swim visual excess & juvenile fart humor absurdity that’s quickly come to define their work. Later in the film, a cameo from digital era prankster Reggie Watts sets in stone the exact visual & comedic vibe the film is aiming for. What’s important about Snowy Bing Bongs, though, is not the continued joy of revisiting its more recognizable contributors, but rather the way the film works as an introduction to new talents. These newcomers arrive in the form of the Cocoon Central Dance Team: Eleanore Piente, Tallie Medel, and Sunita Mani (who has already had a great year on the screen, thanks to eye-catching turns on both GLOW & The Good Place, probably my two favorite new television comedies). The film is essentially a mid-length showcase for their various comedic styles, so your reaction to it as an overall piece will rely heavily on how much they can make you laugh.

Most stills & advertisements for Snowy Bing Bongs emphasize the look of its central tableau: a snow-covered planet where three women dressed only in bear skin rugs awkwardly dance with beach ball props. The weirdo dance sequences set on this cotton candy planet only make up a fraction of the film’s runtime as a kind of all-purpose wraparound. The majority of the film functions as a sketch comedy revue, with each member of the Cocoon Central Dance Team being afforded their own series of non sequitur vignettes in which to steal the spotlight. Weirdo characters who can’t pronounce their own names, refer to applause as “hand-slappies,” and discover that they have more internal organs than they initially suspected take turns branching off into their own sketches before the film’s rotary dial returns to the cotton candy snow planet wraparound. The whole thing feels like an extended episode of an Adult Swim sketch comedy show, only functioning like a proper movie in the tableau dance routine & moments of meta commentary on cinema, like the question, “Why do we make movies?” or a sketch that’s essentially a built-in post-screening Q&A. The movie can be very funny from gag to gag, but it’s very rare that it actually feels cinematic.

The heart of Snowy Bing Bongs definitely lies in that cotton candy snow planet, which is explained to be under attack by beach ball asteroids. There’s a slight narrative shift within that wraparound, starting with a rival planet of over-heated bikini babes whose beach balls invade the snow planet and are eventually defeated. More importantly, though, the aggressively ungraceful “choreography” of the dance routines outshines much of the traditional comedy sketches they interrupt, a point that’s driven home in the film’s best vignette: a horrifyingly amateurish pop music performance on a fictional early 2000s TRL-style variety show. Snowy Bing Bongs might have been a better film if it had stuck to a single storyline set on the icy planet of bear skin rug-wearing alien women, but I’m not even sure what that would look like. Instead, we get a mid-length introduction to a new crop of sketch comedy performers & writers that incorporates its fractured structure into their aggressively amateurish Tim & Eric aesthetic. That’s its own kind of pleasure for sure and by the end I was far more surprised than I was disappointed by the form it chose to take.

-Brandon Ledet

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The Shape of Water (2017)

Supposedly, Guillermo del Toro saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child and was disappointed that, at the film’s conclusion, the titular creature (also called Gill Man) was killed in a hail of bullets. This isn’t such an unusual reaction to have, given that the film borrowed some rhetorical resonance from the “Beauty and the Beast” archetypes, and hoping that the film would follow through on that emotional  thread and show the monster and his beloved achieving a kind of happily ever after isn’t that unreasonable. He sought out to correct that perceived mistake, and although it may have taken some time, he’s finally managed to put right what once went wrong with sci-fi/love story/1960s period piece The Shape of Water.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely, mute night janitor working for Occam Aerospace Research Center in early sixties Baltimore. She is but one face in a multitude of such women, which also includes her talkative friend Delilah (Octavia Spencer), who fills the silence between the two women with stories about her home life with Bruce, the husband who causes her no end of old-school domestic strife comedy. Elisa’s is a life of precision that’s just a step out of sync with the rest of the world: instead of rising in the morning, she wakes at precisely the same time each night after the sun has set and makes the same egg-heavy breakfast meals day after day (or, rather, night after night). She also looks after her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man in his late fifties, whose intricate and perfect illustrations for advertisements have made him an unemployed dinosaur in the time of the rise of photo ads.

Elisa and Giles share a love of the divas of old Hollywood with their elaborate dance numbers and heightened emotions, which echoes the void in both of their love lives. Elisa has never fallen for anyone, and any love that may have touched Giles in his youth has long since slipped into the abyss of time. This doesn’t stop him from developing a schoolboy crush on the counter operator of a franchise pie restaurant (Morgan Kelly), but Elisa’s loneliness seems to have come to an end when Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at Occam with the “Asset” (Doug Jones), a being that is, for lack of a better term, a fishman. Elisa meets this strange creature when it takes a bite out of Strickland’s left hand and she and Delilah are called upon to mop up the blood. The two develop a bond over music and their mutual inability to express themselves verbally, until the Army orders the Asset vivisected for science. Elisa and her compatriots (along with sympathetic scientist–and secret Russian spy–Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg) must find a way to save the fishman from the real monsters.

I’m a big fan of del Toro’s, as is likely evident from the fact that two of his films, Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, were my favorite horror films of their respective release years. He knows how to take a tired concept like European vampires or fairy tales and suffuse them with a new energy and vitality, even if he does so by looking backward through time. As such, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this isn’t exactly the most original of premises. A more dismissive reviewer or critic might call this a greatest hits compilation of plot threads from movies and TV shows like E.T. (both in the bonding between human and not, and the The government will cut you up!” angle), Hidden Figures (given that the facility is explicitly aerospace and features the presence of Spencer), Mad Men (in that both works hold a mirror up to the culture of the fifties/sixties as a reminder that to romanticize this time is to ignore many of the prevailing toxic attitudes of the time), and most heist films that you can name. That doesn’t make this film any less ambitious, however, nor does it negate the validity of the emotional reaction that the film evokes.

It’s not just the richness of the narrative text that’s laudable here, either, but the depth of the subtext as well, which even a casual del Toro viewed likely expects. I’ve been a fan of Richard Jenkins ever since his Six Feet Under days (even though it’s not one of his lines, my roommate and I quote Ruth Fischer’s “Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined” to each other every time one of us scorches something while cooking), and he tackles this role with a kind of giddy glee that fills the heart with warmth. There’s magic in his every moment on screen, even if his shallow adoration for the pie slinger comes across as a little rushed, narratively speaking, and there’s an understated desperation in his interactions with his former co-worker Bernard (Stewart Arnott). There’s enough of a hint that technological progress is not the only thing that cost Giles his position, and a nuanced tenderness to the dialogue between him and Bernard that hints that there may have been something between them in the past. It’s sweet and heartbreaking all at once.

Strickland is a villain in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Captain Vidal: a terrifyingly familiar figure of fascistic adherence to a nationalistic, ethnocentric, exploitative, and phallocentric worldview. Whereas Vidal was the embodiment of Fascist Spain and its ideals, Strickland is the ideal embodiment of sixties-era Red Pill morality: a racist, self-possessed sexual predator empowered by his workplace superiority. Strickland is a man who professes Christian values out of the left side of his mouth while joking about cheating on his wife and threatening to sexually assault his underlings out of the right side. He mansplains the biblical origins of Delilah’s name to her while, for the sake of her job and perhaps her safety, she plays along with his assumptions of her ignorance. This is above and beyond his inhumane (and pointless) torture of the Asset, an intelligent being that he cannot recognize as sentient because of his own prejudices and assumptions about the world.

Shannon is fantastic here, as he brings real, discomfiting menace to his performance in much the same way that Sergi López did as Vidal, including the arrogance of unquestioning adherence to an ideal that privileges oneself at the expense of others. This underlines the importance of this mirroring of characters as a rhetorical strategy: although Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t created with an American audience in mind, U.S. viewers could reject Vidal and his violence as being part of a different time and place, distancing themselves from his ideologies. Not so with Strickland, who lifts this veil of enforced rhetorical distance and highlights the fact that idealizing and period of the American past is nothing more than telling oneself a lie about history. It’s a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit to see such a horrible villain (admittedly/possibly a bit of a caricature, but with good reason) come undone and be overcome. It’s a further tonic to the soul to see him defeated by an alliance comprised of the “other”: a “commie,” a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, and an older queer man.

I could be undermining that thesis by ending this review here without highlighting or praising Hawkins or Spencer’s performances, but we’re over 1200 words already, and you should stop wasting time reading this and just go see the film. Let it lift your spirit as it lifted mine.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Most Beautiful Island (2017)

The intensity of your reaction to the concluding minutes of the indie thriller Most Beautiful Island is likely to determine much of your overall opinion of the film. Most Beautiful Island is less of a slow burn art piece than it is a quiet character study that incrementally builds tension as it reaches for a last minute payoff. It’s a relatively short film, but it’s still one that requires patience, as the release of that tension relies heavily on last minute reveals & the mystery of what, exactly, awaits the audience there. Personally, I enjoyed the movie overall but found the mystery of what horrors await at the conclusion to be a little unsatisfying, if not an outright disappointment. There’s a level of intensity that underlines the everyday struggles of the film’s protagonist, an undocumented immigrant woman struggling to find even medial labor on the NYC job market, that I couldn’t quite connect with in the supposedly shocking conclusion to her story. I’d normally praise a movie for filtering these political themes of subjugation *& (lack of) cultural integration through a horror or a thriller premise, but in this case the genre film element waiting in the third act isn’t nearly as horrifying as the horrors of the real world they mirror.

Ana Asensia writes, directs, and stars in this debut thriller, which she introduces as being “mostly” based on true events. As an undocumented immigrant woman running from a recent familial trauma, her protagonist is incredibly vulnerable. Unable to find steady work because of her immigration status, she barely holds onto housing in a modest NYC apartment, fearing imminent homelessness despite holding several high stress, low pay jobs: babysitting, advertising fast food, participating in medical studies, etc. A friend in a similar economic rut offers an easy way out: a one-time gig modeling at a cocktail party, where she’ll make months’ wages over a single night, no sex work required. It’s too good to be true, of course, but the movie milks a lot of tension out what terrific exploitation could possibly be waiting for her at “The Party.” A labyrinth of cab rides, warehouses, and underground bunkers leads her to an art gallery space, where guests sip wine and consider which “models to select for their mysterious evil deeds. We wait, almost in real-time, for her to be selected, but for what? A human trafficking auction? An occultist ritual? A guillotine? The answer is unexpected, but also unsatisfying.

Even though I wasn’t nearly as invested in the answer to the mystery it posits as I was in the tension of its lead up, Most Beautiful Island still found surprising ways to chill my blood before it arrives at its dubious destination. Before it ramps up as a slice of life character study, the film opens searching for our protagonist in crowded NYC streets. From a distant, voyeuristic vantage point, the camera seeks out young women walking alone in anonymity, making our lead out to be just one vulnerable face among many (and setting up characters who will not reappear until The Party). Later, as she enjoys a bath in the apartment she cannot afford, a veritable plague of cockroaches spills from a hole in the plaster walls and the bugs frantically drown in her bath water. I swear there’s more tension in that opening act of voyeurism and the underwater HD roach photography than there is in the film’s disappointingly pedestrian conclusion, but since the majority of the runtime happens outside The Party it’s not necessarily a deal breaker. I’m not sure about what it says that the real life circumstances of an undocumented American immigrants are more horrifying than an extreme fictional metaphor for their exploitation, but Most Beautiful Island isn’t done any favors by starting off at its most intense, then tapering off.

-Brandon Ledet

Wings of Fame (1990), Harmony Korine, and the Virtue of Restraint

One of the more fascinating aspects of December’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s Wings of Fame, is how delicately surreal the picture can be despite the heightened absurdity of its premise. You’d think that a movie about a fame-economy afterlife where celebrity & cultural longevity determine your post-mortem soul’s access to eternal existence would be an aggressively bizarre work, but Wings of Fame is exceedingly gentle with its own surrealist fantasy. The movie is patient with the potential absurdity of its juxtapositions of dead famous people converging in a shared afterlife, finding much more interest in poking at the existential & philosophical implications of how that fantasy realm would work. To contrast that restraint with a more aggressively bizarre version of a similar work, you’d have to look to one of the most unrestrained button-pushers working in modern cinema: habitual provocateur Harmony Korine. As a filmmaker, Korine’s grimy, crassly misshapen aesthetic is downright antithetical to the refined elegance of Wings of Fame, which calls on respectably mannered performances from actors Peter O’Toole & Colin Firth to establish its tone. That’s what makes him such an excellent point of comparison, even if an unlikely one.

Sandwiched between the unrelenting oddities Julien Donkey-Boy & Trash Humpers, it should be no surprise that Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely is an uncompromising, aggressively surreal work. Considered in the larger context of the director’s career, however, it’s much more akin to his more strictly narrative works Gummo & Spring Breakers than those looser, less accommodating titles. Diego Luna stars in Mister Lonely as a Michael Jackson impersonator struggling to make a living as a street performer in Paris. His life changes dramatically when he’s recruited by a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (Samantha Morton) to live in a Scottish commune with other celebrity impersonators. Michael Jackson did not die until a year after Mister Lonely went into wide distribution in 2008. The film also features impersonators of the still-alive Madonna and the deceased-since-2014 Shirley Temple. Still, it explores similar themes to the fame economy afterlife in Wings of Fame. In an early scene before he’s recruited for the commune, “Michael Jackson” shouts to patients he’s entertaining at an old folks home, “We can all live forever! We can all be children forever! Don’t die! Live forever!” between his iconic dance moves. The immortality he’s promoting in that speech is something he achieves in his own life through adopting Michael Jackson’s celebrity, just like the fame-envious consumers in The Congress. When Jackson boats to the Scottish castle commune with Monroe, it’s like he’s crossing over into a surrealist afterlife (much like the foggy rivers Styx access to the afterlife in Wings of Fame) where famous people like Charlie Chaplin, James Dean, Abraham Lincoln, Sammie Davis Jr., Buckwheat, and Little Red Riding Hood can cohabitate, seemingly removed from the reality of space, Death, and time.

An odd commonality shared between Wings of Fame & Mister Lonely is that they both structure their famous fantasy realms with a remove that restrains the full potential of their absurdist premises. Besides a few recognizable names line Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Lassie, Wings of Fame mostly fills its celebrity ranks with non-existent historical figures. Instead of a specific Russian political poet or psychedelic rocker, the movie substitutes an archetype placeholder. This may limit the potential absurdity of seeing famous dead people from across time share a single space, but it does leave more room for philosophical discussion of their fantastic plight instead of dwelling in the details of their individual personalities. Similarly, Mister Lonely uses the remove of gathering celebrity lookalikes instead of actual celebrities in its own fantasy realm. The image of Michael Jackson & Charlie Chaplin playing ping-pong together is absurd, but not nearly as absurd as it could be if those players were the real deal, not lookalikes. Korine’s remove through impersonators might be the one area where his film displays restraint exercised in the much more delicate Wings of Fame. It’s a choice that opens the film to the same fame-as-immortality themes as its counterpoint, although their approaches to the subject are drastically different.

It’s strange to cite any given element in a Harmony Korine film as an example of artistic restraint, since so much of his work is associated with aggressive looseness & crass self-indulgence. Indeed, the only limiting choice made in Mister Lonely is in structuring the film around dead celebrity impersonators instead of actual dead celebrities. Everything else is a free-for-all, completely detached from the subtle tone of Wings of Fame. “Abraham Lincoln” spins a basketball under a strobe light while cursing like a sailor. “Michael Jackson” tenderly says goodbye to individual pieces of his furniture in his rented room with deep sincerity before departing to his new communal home. Celebrity faces appear in clouds & painted eggs to sing to Michael and address his internal conflicts. An entire subplot unfolds, separate from the concerns of celebrity lookalikes, where Werner Herzog plays a priest who wrangles a mission of nuns who resemble The Virgin Mary; together they develop a skydiving cult that requires them to regularly leap from airplanes without parachutes. In typical Harmony Korine fashion, this all sounds very chaotic, but somehow amounts to a slow-moving, unrushed feature that’s just as willing to abandon its audience in its pacing as it is playful with its subject. It’s a challenging watch, but one that rewards in individual, absurdist moments.

The difference in the relative restraint exercised in Wings of Fame & Mister Lonely, respectively, could not be clearer. At the conclusion of the much less bombastic Wings of Fame, the audience is left with so much to ponder about what the film is trying to say about the real life implications of its fame-as-immortality premise. Mister Lonely, by contrast, exhausts its audience with an overload of frivolous (though often fascinating) indulgences, leaving very little room for spiritual or philosophical thought to linger among the flashier details. Wings of Fame can feel frustratingly incomplete & reluctant to fully push the absurdity of its fame-economy afterlife premise, but Korine’s counterpoint suggests that’s not entirely a bad thing. Its quiet, restrained surrealism leaves room for a much more extensive philosophical provocation & thought exercise. Korine’s aggressive exhaustion of his own subject leaves so much less ground to be explored in his viewer’s minds after the credits rolled, having laid all of his cards out on the table. Both films are entertainingly absurd in their own surprising ways, but patience & restraint affords one of them cinematic immortality their characters could only achieve through celebrity.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

The Best of NOFF 2017 Ranked & Reviewed

Here we are almost two months since the 28th New Orleans Film Festival has passed and I’m finally gathering all of titles I caught at the fest in one spot.  CC & I recorded a more fleshed out recap of our festival experience on Episode #45 of the podcast in case you’re interested in hearing about the weird goings-on at the handful of downtown theaters where the festival was held, the various short films that preceded some of those screenings, and the reasons why I’m wrong for hating I, Tonya. This list is more simplistic than that kind of recap: a better-late-than-never ranking from the best to . . .  the least best of the titles I managed to catch at this year’s festival.  Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. The Florida Project: “The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults.”

2. Tom of Finland:Tom of Finland excels as a kind of filmmaking alchemy that turns an unlikely tonal mashup of Cruising & Carol into the feel-good queer drama of the year. Its high class sense of style & lyrical looseness in narrative structure feels like the best aspects of Tom Ford’s features, but without his goofy storytelling shortcomings. While its sexuality isn’t quite as transgressive as the leather daddy-inspiring art of its subject, it’s still a passionate, celebratory work that sidesteps the typical pitfalls of queer misery porn dramas, yet still manages to feel truthful, dangerous, and at times genuinely erotic. It’s hard to believe the film is half as wonderful as it is, given the visual trappings of its subject & genre, but its leather & disco lyricism lifts the spirit and defies expectation.”

3. She’s Allergic to Cats: “She’s Allergic to Cats hides its emotions behind an impossibly thick wall of ironic detachment. It even goes out of its way to reference infamous so-bad-it’s-good properties like Congo, Howard the Duck, Cat People (’82, of course), and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to throw the audience of the scent of the emotional nightmare at its core. When its protective walls break down, however, and the nihilistic heartbreak that eats at its soul scrolls ‘I need help’ across the screen, there’s a genuine pathos to its post-Tim & Eric aesthetic that far surpasses its pure shock value peers. It’s a hilarious, VHS-warped mode of emotional terror.”

4. Love & Saucers: “David Huggins is entirely sincere about his reports of hundreds of encounters with space aliens, which are mostly sexual in nature. His impressionistic paintings that illustrate these encounters are more art therapy than ironic kitsch, and you could hear the terror & the sadness in his voice as he recounts the stories behind them. There’s inevitably going to be a contingent of viewers who view Lovers and Saucers as a ‘Get a load of this weirdo!’ line of humor at David’s expense, but the truth is that both the movie and the artist are tragically, horrifyingly sincere.”

5. Damascene: “Detailing a single, hour-long conversation shot on two bike helmet-mounted GoPros, Damascene boasts the bare bones storytelling of a one act stage play. It makes the best of its limited resources it can, though, reaching into the discomforting dark humor and emotional trauma typically reserved for deep-cutting stage dramas. It’s an exciting reminder that a great film doesn’t necessarily require a great budget, that a handful of people and a commercially-affordable camera are enough resources to produce top tier cinema in the 2010s.”

6. The World is Mine: “It would be easy to imagine a more traditional, informative documentary about Hatsune Miku’s history as a cultural phenomenon or Westerner cosplay as an act of cultural appropriation, but The World is Mine isn’t especially interest in either line of thought. Instead, Oren implies a simulated identity crisis performed for the camera through the guise of an already simulated character. Lines like ‘The problem with reality is that fairy tales are full of frauds,’ don’t help much in illuminating what Oren’s learned as a living doll modeled after a popular computer program. She’s just one physical copy of Hatsune Miku among many and the eeriness of her lack of a distinct personality is only amplified in the Miku fandom visually approaching a kind of ecstatic singularity.”

7. Young and Innocent: “Young and Innocent is a little stilted by its student film production values & depends heavily on audience familiarity with Hitchcock’s original film, but it plays so loosely with Psycho’s basic DNA that it generates a tense sense of mystery & dread all of its own. More clever than outright hilarious, Young and Innocent’s awkward romantic tension is endearingly cute, while still maintaining the original film’s sense of impending doom through surrealistic violence in its dream imagery and the basic vulnerability of following a runaway teen protagonist through a series of risky decisions.”

8. Mudbound: “Mudbound is at its weakest when it’s tasked to convey a sense of grand scale scope it can’t deliver on an Online Content budget. The voiceover narration and scenes of tank & airplane warfare are where the seams of the limited budget show most egregiously. Rees still delivers a powerful punch whenever she can afford to, though, making sure that the muddy & blood details of Mudbound’s smaller moments hit with full, unforgiving impact.”

9. Wallay: “Wallay feels significant in the way it adds a new wrinkle to the European housing block narrative by giving that community an external perspective. These kids really are caught halfway between two identities and I haven’t seen that cultural limbo represented onscreen quite like this before.”

10. Wexford Plaza: “At its heart, Wexford Plaza is a dark comedy about the difference between treating menial service labor as a consequence-free playground in your 20s and the way it becomes an escape-free economic rut you depend on for sustenance in your 30s & beyond. The movie can be frivolously funny in the aimless stoner comedy moments of its opening half, but evolves into a much more surprising, rewarding watch as its story unfolds onscreen.”

11. The Joneses: “I can’t recommend The Joneses as much of a transformative feat in documentary craft; if anything, the filmmaking style often gets in the way of the work’s best asset: its subject. As a work of progressive queer politics, however, it’s often endearing just for its patience in documenting a universally recognizable American family that just happens to have an adorable trans woman at the center of it. There’s a political significance to that kind of documentation the film should have been more comfortable with instead of pushing for immediate dramatic conflict.”

12. Serenade for Haiti: “There might possibly be a more informative documentary to be made about the grand scale aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but by profiling members of a single music school within Port-au-Prince before & after the event, the film offers an intimacy & a specificity a more wide-reaching documentary could not accomplish. The filmmakers behind Serenade for Haiti would have had no way of knowing the significance of what they are documenting when the film first began production, but they stumbled into a personal, up-close look at a historic tragedy in the process.”

13. Play the Devil: “Play the Devil is effective in its evocation of a spiritual & cultural atmosphere, but the story it manages to tell within that frame is a disjointed mess. I assume that the movie was aiming to be a poignant coming of age drama and not the less fun The Boy Next Door remake with #problematic queer subtext in accidentally stumbled into, which is a total shame. The Carnival imagery almost makes up for it, but not quite enough to turn the tide.”

14. As Is: “The recent small scale documentary As Is details the behind-the-scenes production of a one-time-only multimedia performance staged by visual artist Nick ‘Not That Nick Cave’ Cave in Shreveport, Louisiana in 2015. The film documents all of the artist’s intent, production logistics, and cultural context in the weeks leading up to this performance, then stops short of documenting any of the real thing once it’s executed. It’s like watching the behind the scenes footage of a concert you weren’t invited to for a band you’ve never heard of before. It’s very frustrating.”

15. I, Tonya: The violence leveled on Harding throughout I, Tonya certainly makes her more of a recognizably sympathetic figure than what you’d gather from her news coverage. However, the nonstop beatings are near impossible to rectify with the Jared Hess-style Napoleon Dynamite quirk comedy that fill in the gaps between them. The film either doesn’t understand the full impact of the violence it portrays or is just deeply hypocritical about its basic intent.”

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #45 of The Swampflix Podcast: NOFF 2017 & Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Welcome to Episode #45 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our forty-fifth episode, we dive back into the risky, exciting world of Skype recordings & guest hosts. Brandon and CC review the overwhelming list of films they caught at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, from the Oscar hopefuls to the never-to-be-properly-distributed rarities. Also, Brandon makes Pete Moran of the We Love to Watch podcast watch the classic Tim Burton debut Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) 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.

-Brandon Ledet & CC Chapman

A Cure for Wellness (2017)

Is it possible to love every frame of a motion picture and still think it amounts to a bad movie? A Cure for Wellness is a visually stunning, go-for-broke slowburner that somehow estimates a Hammer Horror by way of The Matrix aesthetic and still fails to succeed as a complete, satisfactory picture. It’s impressive that a major studio production directed by a man best know for helming the exhaustingly empty swashbuckling blockbusters The Pirates of the Caribbean could possibly be this deeply strange & willing to delve into exploitative cruelty. The problems that plague other major Gore Verbinsky projects persist here, however; A Cure for Wellness is too long, too dumb, and too disappointingly self-serious for how well crafted it is as a visual object. A filmmaker with this meticulously inventive of an eye should likely have much better taste when it comes to telling stories, instead of applying that craft to something so idiotically pointless at its best, genuinely evil at its worst.

Dane DeHaan echoes the same goofy Keanu Reeves impersonation he took to outer space in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in his lead role as a laptop-addicted Business Prick. While climbing the corporate ladder at The Big Company (I honestly have no idea what his job details outside getting visibly frustrated with incongruous graphs on various computer screens), he is deployed on a mission to recover a member of the the board who has gone AWOL. This path leads him to a Swiss spa/health retreat, where the man he’s tasked to bring back to the Corporate World has checked himself in as an AWOL permanent patient. Like the commune in the back end of [safe], this sanitarium/cult is presented as a cure-all for the ills of modern living. “Diseases” like self-doubt & the “illusion of material success” are “cured” through sensory deprivation, “water therapy,” and mysterious droppers filled with special “vitamins,” leaving all patients essentially lobotomized & stuck in a limbo. The more times DeHaan’s Business Prick upstart declares “I am not a patient!” as he struggles to complete his intended mission, the further he loses himself in the daily rituals of the spa cult, discovering long-buried secrets of incest, murder, brainwashing, collusion with the law, and immortality-seeking science experiments along the way. By the time castle fires & monstrous ancestors are introduced in the mix, the film could easily pass for a Hammer production or an entry in The Corman-Poe Cycle (if it were half as long and half as dumb).

The most immediately apparent problem in A Cure for Wellness is its gleeful cruelty in its approach to sexual assault. This starts very early with an out of nowhere racist prison rape joke and culminates in a scene involving an underage girl that goes on way longer than necessary to gets its point across, easily slipping into exploitative cruelty. It’s a mean streak that has little, if anything, to do with the film’s core themes and likely should have been edited into oblivion, but it’s also a blatant flaw that doesn’t require much deliberation. What really drags the film down is unwieldy and underdeveloped it feels for a movie that’s nearly three hours long.

A Cure for Wellness‘s greatest strength is its absurdity as an overwhelming, bat shit crazy genre picture. Marrying high production values to a low trash premise that doesn’t deserve it, the film is loaded with weirdo imagery of slithering eels, steam punk machinery, medicine bottles, eels, ballerina figurines, soft naked flesh, eels, RoboCop action figures, and even more eels, sometimes all rapidly flashing on the screen in dream sequence montage. It just doesn’t contain enough of those visual pleasures to justify the massive weight of its runtime. In some respects, the weirdest choice the movie makes is withholding the answers to mysteries that are immediately apparent to the audience for several scenes, then treating their reveals like a big deal no one saw coming. Lies, accidents, past traumas, and untold motivations are kept under wraps in see-through gauze, essentially treading water instead of making the movie shorter or pulling the trigger immediately to make room for more oddities. For instance, why make a huge deal out of the mystery of what’s making DeHaan’s toilet tank rattle for three or four scenes if the reveal is only going to be that it was eels all along? We immediately knew it was eels. Everything in the film is brimming with eels. Delaying that reveal does not build tension; it just wastes time.

The ideal version of A Cure for Wellness is probably about an hour shorter and directed by Guillermo del Toro. On some level, I do very much appreciate the taste for excess that Verbinsky brings to the project, especially when it comes to his eye for over-the-top visuals. Framing shots from the POVs of magnifying glasses, fish bowls, and taxidermy eyeballs, the film is about as tastefully overachieving as Michael Bay’s Armageddon and I love that kind of go-for-broke excess in my genre films. The eel imagery is also impressively chilling, even if employed often & never thematically justified. Equipped with that same imagery, I’d trust del Toro to deliver a much more satisfying narrative, though. Not only would the sexual assault mean streak lightly be softened or diminished, but there’s a fairy realm element to the Swiss spa (especially in how you’re not supposed to drink the water) I could see being better explored in his hands. Verbinsky’s direction works very well when setting up individual scares gags (especially ones involving eels & dentistry), but his unwieldy, unending, thematically thin blockbuster approach to the Pirates movies has bled over here in a way that poisons what makes the movie enjoyable. A Cure for Wellness is an impressive visual achievement for sure, but not impressive enough to justify the enormity of its runtime or the exploitative cruelty of its ultimate destination. The resulting experience is endlessly frustrating, as it could easily be a much better picture with the right creative push, either towards brevity, away from sexual assault exploitation, or into another director’s hands entirely.

-Brandon Ledet

Blood Bath (1966)

As a producer, Roger Corman’s tireless mission to miraculously make money out of scraps of garbage is legendary. He’d often reuse sequences from previous productions, purchase foreign films for American re-edits, rip off his own intellectual properties for self-cannibalized premises, and all other kinds of scrappy cinematic recycling imaginable just to sell a cheap genre picture for a tidy profit. I can’t argue that the 1966 Corman production Blood Bath is the pinnacle result of this kind of absurd, behind the scenes pragmatism gone mad, but it does deserve credit for gathering all of Corman’s penny-pinching schemes into a single project. Corman initially co-produced the Yugoslavian noir picture Operation: Titan with plans to reissue it as an American release. He then hired notable schlockmeister Jack Hill to direct new scenes to recontextualize the film for an American audience, which Hill did by transforming it into an oddly self-serious rip-off of the classic Corman comedy Bucket of Blood, a campy satire of beatniks & artist types. Unsatisfied with Hill’s treatment, titled Portrait in Terror, Corman then hired a third director, The Velvet Vampire’s Stephanie Rothman, who added an entirely new A-plot about a shapeshifting vampire to the mix. You’d think this cocktail of genres & premises would lead to an incoherent mess, which might partially be true, but the final version of Blood Bath Stephanie Rothman delivered is charming in the way that it’s blissfully insane. Corman threw every one of his tactics on how to cheaply scrap together a picture at the screen in a single go and the result is just as fascinating & amusing as it is creatively compromised.

The similarities between Blood Bath & Bucket of Blood’s basic plots are undeniable. A community of comically pretentious visual artists are disturbed when models form their community are reported dead or missing, then appear in the work of a colleague. Hill’s contribution to the film seems largely to be the Bucket of Blood-style humor of this arts scene drama, especially when the artists experiment with new processes for applying paint to canvas, such as shooting it out of a gun or directly applying it via a model’s face. According to Hill, Rothman “ruined” the picture with her vampirirc contribution, which shifts the work into a much more serious, psychedelic tone. If anything, she made it interesting & distinct, steering it away from a straight Bucket of Blood retread. Instead of the awkward bus boy Dick Miller plays in Bucket of Blood, Rothman crafts a villain that goes through Jekyll & Hyde transformations from passionate artist to centuries-old vampire with insatiable appetite. She maintains some of Hill’s humor, even including sequences that are essentially beach blanket parties with bikini babes. This humor is made to clash with a more serious, surreal tone, however, as her vampire/painter struggles with a classic Madonna-whore complex. He is romantically drawn to beautiful women, but transforms into a bloodthirsty monster whenever they make a pass at him, a dynamic that gives the movie a thematic point of view on top of a ridiculously fractured premise. I’m in love with the insane collage that emerges in the final draft of Blood Bath and that credit goes just as much to Rothman’s eye as it does to Corman’s machinations as a producer.

You’ll find very few films that can deliver this much movie in such a short amount of time. At just 60 minutes in length, Blood Bath is filled to the brim with seemingly incongruous, but oddly beautiful sequences: an underwater vampire kill, a rip-off of the carousel sequence from Strangers on a Train, surrealist scenes of women taunting the camera/killer from inside paintings & dreamlike desertscapes, interpretive dance, noir foot chases worthy of The Third Man, etc. Rothman & Corman’s mismatched film collage has no business even being watchable, much less as oddly fun & engaging as it feels as a “final” product (Corman later added several minutes of bikini-clad dancing to fill out more time for a TV-broadcast of the film). Jack Hill deserves some credit for lightening up the mood of the noir sequences with his own layer of beatnik-satirizing Bucket of Blood retreads, but it’s really Rothman’s surrealist eye & Corman’s insane production instincts that make Blood Bath so mesmerizing. Obviously, not all audiences are going to have a stomach for this kind of production-level incoherence, but I urge anyone interested in Corman’s weirdo decision making as a business man to give this picture an honest chance. Besides its easy-to-digest runtime and immediate appeal as an eccentric horror film, Blood Bath is also currently in the public to main and available to watch on Archive.org, so you really have no excuses to give this damned-from-conception Frankenfilm a chance.

-Brandon Ledet

Sacrilege (2017)

We’re not the most harshly critical bunch over here at Swampflix, especially when it comes to cheaply-produced genre pictures. If you’re looking for a brutal evisceration of a micro budget indie horror like Sacrilege, we just don’t have it in our hearts. Still, I cannot give the film a hearty recommendation either. This Louisiana-produced VOD cheapie is difficult to get behind, even for the most forgiving of schlock junkies, but it’s not without its merits either. The level of care that went into staging its various jump scares & haunted house-style set pieces, as well as its various homages to classic titles from horror’s past is admirable, though not enough to compensate for the lack of care paid to its characters & plotting. The recent smash hit IT proved that exact dichotomy can be successful in an above-average film, but Sacrilege doesn’t have the same resources (namely time & money) to pull that trick off. What’s left, then, are a few decent horror spooks & gags that work well enough in isolation, but do little to salvage the picture at large. It’s honestly impressive that productions this cheap ever manage to accomplish more than that.

A group of (very unconvincing) college freshmen in their early 20s (?) find themselves on the wrong end of a demonic possession when the purchase a haunted music box from a yard sale. The ghost of a little girl who “lives” in the box torments their humble rental home by forcing each too-old-for-this-shit roommate to commit suicide one by one until they’re all dead or the curse is lifted, whichever comes first. There’s also an Insidious/The Conjuring-style paranormal investigative team that invades their space in an attempt to save the day, with mixed results. There isn’t enough gore or camp in Sacrilege to cover up the blemishes of its limited production values. This is wholly sincere digital schlock, not the winking live action cartoon of a WolfCop or Zombeavers. Because of that tonal restraint and the blatant deficiencies in authentic dialogue, human behavior can come across as amusingly odd in the film. Characters vocally reminding each other that they are college students after all or angrily insulting the very notion of yard sales at top volume convey the feeling of a horror script produced by a computer algorithm or a space alien. Still, Sacrilege manages to pack a fairly thin demonic possession premise with plenty of genre-specific hallmarks you’re not used to seeing in a single picture: vampire bites, creepy children, forced suicide, paranormal investigation, Catholic iconography, ghosts, exorcism, found footage, jump scares, and do on. The craft doesn’t often match the enthusiasm, but there’s a genuine love of horror necessary to assemble that kind of hodgepodge, a sentiment I appreciate.

There are two major studio horror releases from 2017 Sacrilege happens to superficially resemble: Wish Upon & Polaroid. I can’t fault the film for suffering the lower financial wrung of a parallel-thinking happenstance, so my impulse is to blame the more expensive flicks for not applying their resources to a more distinctive idea. I also can’t really attack Sacrilege for its misleading cover art that promises the monstrous threat of demonic nuns who never appear or the awkwardness of its sub-professional dramatic performances; most of its faults seem like circumstances of its budget. Instead, I’ll say this: the parts of the movie where the effort feels focused & concentrated (namely the set pieces & scare gags) can often forgive the shortcomings of the much less intensely crafted dramatic & character-based beats. Drone shots & time elapse montage build tension released in moments where a bloody, demonic hand will reach out from within the evil music box to hover at the back of a character’s neck. Images in the dark are misinterpreted & reconfigured to throw off the audience’s sense of reality in the quiet lull before a jump scare. I don’t have it in me to tear down Sacrilege as viciously as the reception I’ve seen elsewhere online, because it’s (demonically possessed) heart is in the right place in that way. It’s just a shame these scare gags couldn’t be applied to a better-written, better-funded screenplay.

-Brandon Ledet

The Untamed (2017)

I am aware that two examples do not equal a trend, but if there’s a new wave of sexually explicit “extreme” horror coming out of Mexico, I am eating that shit up. After months of talking up the surrealist, incestuous button-pusher We Are the Flesh as one of the best horror gems of the year, another prurient horror rarity from Mexico has caught my attention & admiration. The slowburn sci-fi horror The Untamed is not quite as structurally sound or as thematically satisfying as We Are the Flesh, but employs a similar palette of sexual shock value tactics to jar its audience to an extreme, unfamiliar headspace. It adopts the gradual reveals & sound design terrors common to “elevated horrors” of the 2010s, but finds a mode of scare delivery all unto its own, if not only in the depiction of its movie-defining monster: a space alien that sensually fucks human beings with its tentacles. The Untamed alternates between frustration & hypnotism as its story unfolds, but one truth remains constant throughout: you’ve never seen anything quite like it before. Even We Are the Flesh cannot fully prepare you.

The Untamed opens with a slow-moving asteroid floating in the void of outer space. The movie never returns there again. Instead, it immediately cuts to two contrasting sexual acts, where the remainder of the movie will dwell. In one, a woman stares blankly while mildly tolerating a passionless bout of morning sex initiated by her husband. Later she struggles to find time to masturbate in the shower while her children noisily prepare for the day elsewhere in the house. In the other opening sex act, an isolated space alien tentacle sensually withdraws from between a human woman’s legs, leaving its interspecies partner visibly satisfied & emotionally drained. It requires patience to see the connections between these two women become clearly established, but the movie is much more interested in the difference between these two sexual events. Sexually unsatisfying, frustrated, and abusive romances leave a number of characters, men & women, stumbling without direction in their lives. These lonely souls are drawn, compelled, to a nearby barn where the tentacle space monster from the opening minutes is waiting to seduce them on a dirty mattress, penetrating every orifice. Where this creature came from, what it wants form humanity, and what happens to it after the credits roll remains a mystery. All we know is that it’s a very satisfying lover.

The exact monster movie metaphor carved out by The Untamed’s space alien tentacle sex is unclear, but mesmerizing. It’s framed as an extension of pure, primitive Nature, especially in an orgiastic Noah’s Ark sequence (that might just contain the single most stunning shot of the year). It’s also aligned with abuse & addiction to toxic romance. Space alien sex leads to more satisfying, transcendent pleasures than the alternative, but can be just as life-threatening as the domestic violence & homophobic hate crimes that its victims already broke away from. The Untamed may contain more graphic sex (straight, gay, masturbatory, extraterrestrial, and otherwise) than what you’d typically see on the screen, even in “extreme horror” fare, but there are plenty of other Lovecraftian titles its unknowable pleasurable-transcendence-through-incredible-pain themes can be compared to: From Beyond, Possession, Martyrs, Splice, etc. I only specifically mentioned We Are the Flesh as a reference point because of the excitement of seeing two films from the same country touch such similarly out-there, taboo grounds in the same year of release. Even if it’s years before another sexually explicit “extreme horror” from Mexico solidifies this coincidence as a solid trend, The Untamed has left plenty visual & thematic threads for us to untangle in the meantime. Like most slowburn, “elevated” horrors of recent years, it’s a movie that defies simple explanation & classification, which is just as satisfying of an effect as any of its moments of sexual taboo shock value. The Untamed is a gorgeous puzzle of a work just as much as it is a shock-a-minute horror.

-Brandon Ledet