Wonderstruck (2017)

I seem to be at odds with most audiences on how we as a culture enjoy our Todd Haynes. Most people seem to prefer Haynes when he’s well-behaved, heaping ecstatic praise on his most straight-forward works like Far from Heaven & Carol. I’m much more into Haynes when he gets messy & experimental, like in the multimedia freakouts Poison & Velvet Goldmine. Considering that dissonance, I should have known better than to let the muted critical response to Haynes’s latest release deter me from seeing it big & loud when I had the chance, instead of sheepishly catching up with it months later upon its quiet streaming-platform release. Adapted from a children’s book by Brian Selznick (who also penned the source material for Scorsese’s Hugo, speaking of undervalued experiments from established auteurs), Wonderstruck is a deceptively well-mannered film that appeals to a younger audience in its tone, but formally sprawls into countless, ambitious directions. This film is just as fractured & mischievous as any of Haynes’s most out-there works, yet is thematically eager-to-please enough that its total lack of Academy Awards nominations feels like a deliberate injustice more than a harmless oversight (at the very least, its tied with mother! for being most over-looked in the Best Sound Editing category). I’d even argue it’s Haynes’s most impressive, satisfying work since Velvet Goldmine, which would make it his second-best film to date. If there’s one title I’m embarrassed to have not seen before filing my Best of 2017 list, it’s Wonderstruck, which only makes it all the more baffling why it was met with a series of yawns & shrugs instead of the rapturous adoration that was showered on the much more subdued Carol.

Two children, separated by 50 years and hundreds of miles, appear to be mysteriously linked in a shared destiny. They are both deaf, but do not speak sign language. Their parents are absent, but for wildly different reasons. They run away from home and are both drawn to the NYC Museum of Natural History for refuge. Their lives are temporally & geographically disparate, but supernaturally in sync, a mystery that untangles itself in intricate, multi-faceted ways as their stories converge in an unexpected (for them) shared space & time. In the stretch leading up to that convergence, the film busies itself contrasting the two adult worlds these out-on-their-own children perilously navigate. 1920s New York is framed with a traditionalist, black & white silent film palette, poisoning touchstones of Old Hollywood glamour with a distinct sense of NYC meanness. 1970s New York is a warm, sprawling mix of vibrant sounds & colors, even directly challenging the white hegemony of the earlier timeline by flooding the screen with PoC. Perhaps the reason I’m personally drawn to Wonderstruck is because the types of spaces that remain constant in both timelines & unite the two stories are the exact building blocks I’d use to construct an ideal universe: theaters, museums, libraries, bookstores, miniatures, etc. By the time the two deaf children’s parallel narratives converge in a whimsical, minutes-long stop motion sequence staged inside a meticulous miniature model of New York City, I was just completely broken down into pieces by the gorgeous, used book store universe Haynes (and Selznick) had constructed. It was only a kindness on his part to build me back up with the awe-inspiring tenderness of the film’s impossibly satisfying climax, a sweeping, meticulously calculated convergence of worlds that tied so many ethereal narrative threads together so concisely that it left me . . . well, you know the title.

Wonderstruck is far from the first film to attempt to revise & modernize “silent” filmmaking on an epic scale. Where it departs from past works like The Artist & Singin’ in the Rain, however, is in Haynes’s deliberately messy style as a collage artist. The sound design in this film is incredible, weaving effortlessly from immersion in the deaf children’s aural POV’s to the glam rock tapestries of Velvet Goldmine to the piano-accompanied silent era when the deaf & people with functional hearing had much more in common in their shared experiences at the movies. Haynes gleefully indulges in the most obviously attractive aspects of constructing a silent-era throwback, especially in scenes where he films & photographs his long-favorite collaborator Julianne Moore as a classic Old Hollywood starlet. The “silence” in the film’s choices of medium is much more than a question of aesthetic, however, as it’s distinctly, inextricably a part of its narrative DNA. For obvious reasons, Wonderstruck details at length the array of communication breakdowns that can cause havoc in a variety of interpersonal relationships once sound is removed from the communicators’ toolbox. The modes of communication the children and their friends & family must employ to get around their sound/language barrier are almost as varied as the visual media Haynes employs to communicate with his own audience: stop-motion, 3D models, silence, monologue, intensely colored lighting, black & white filmmaking, rapid fire montage, calm children’s film hangouts, etc. He even cast a deaf actress for the film’s lead to aid in the accuracy & immersion in the fractured narrative (Millicent Simmonds, who is also scheduled to appear in the upcoming horror film A Quiet Place). The movie’s silent era throwback vibe is far from empty nostalgia feel-goodery, even if it’s just as openly celebratory of the medium as simpler, more joyful works.

My favorite review of Wonderstruck I’ve seen so far was a blurb from John Waters’s Best of 2017 list, where he recommends parents show it to their kids as a kind of intelligence test, explaining “If your small-fry like the film, they’re smart. If they don’t, they’re stupid.” It’s a glib review that flippantly disregards questions of preference & taste, but it’s one I can’t help but agree with. In fact, I’d expand that uncalled-for insult to the adults who are bored or unmoved by the film as well. Complains that Wonderstruck is emotionless or “gets lost” in the Museum of Natural History baffle me. I can’t imagine a scenario where this many people don’t fall under the spell of Hayne’s kaleidoscopic mix of New York City models made entirely out of 1920s glamour magazines, Guy Maddin-style nightmare imagery of layered wolves, glam rock daydreams about stargazing, and so on. It’s unfair to fault anyone for not emotionally connecting with Wonderstruck’s children’s film tone or its narrative about deaf, fearless children who refuse to be treated like inconveniences by their reluctant adult guardians. That kind of subjective response is obviously personal, but people understanding the film as anything less than a technical marvel in fractured, multi-media storytelling makes me question what planet I’m living on.

To be fair, though no response to Wonderstruck could possibly be as idiotic as the one it’s getting from its own distributors. Amazon Studios is making no plans to release Wonderstruck on physical media, which is tragically ironic, considering the film’s obsession with the archival & preservation of physical objects. Todd Haynes’s latest work of ambitiously sprawling genius may be obsessed with libraries & museums, but Amazon’s going out of its way to make sure it never arrives in any such collections. Given the muted critical response to the film over the last few months, I’m afraid it might be lost in time to digital rot, which makes me want to cry over its delicate, misunderstood beauty all over again.

-Brandon Ledet

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Toni Erdmann (2016)

The highly lauded German comedy Toni Erdmann has many hurdles to clear in winning over latecomers who didn’t catch it in its early festival & foreign market runs. First, selling anyone on a three hour-long foreign language comedy is a difficult task, which is largely the reason it personally took me over a year to see the film once it was available to stream at home. More importantly, though, the initial hype for Toni Erdmann’s greatness was feverishly enthusiastic. Before it was ever available for American audiences, the film already earned a spot on the BBC’s poll for the hundred greatest comedies of all time, an indication of just how in love the larger critical community is with the film. Still, despite the daunting nature of its massive runtime and the unfair expectation level set by its early critical hype, Toni Erdmann succeeds as a hilarious examination of loneliness & emotional fragility. Building its entire dramatic conflict around a single father-daughter relationship, its emotional beats are intimate in their specificity, but near-universal in their scope, especially relatable to anyone who has ever been driven mad by a barrage of dad jokes. I can’t quite match the depth of love many critics have already flooded the film’s reputation with, but it’s still very much an enjoyable, rewarding watch for anyone with enough free time to give it a chance.

The titular Toni Erdmann is a fictional persona created by a German father to prank his emotionally distant adult daughter. An aging music teacher mourning the recent loss of a pet, the father shows up unannounced for a vacation at the daughter’s work-abroad apartment in Bucharest, Romania. Stressed about an upcoming business proposal she’s preparing for her company’s contractor, she could not be less happy about the intrusion. In turn, he’s disappointed in her success as a business woman seemingly zapping the joy & adventure out of her life. Armed with hideous false dentures & a cheap wig, he creates the persona of Toni Erdmann to prank her out of her uptight doldrums, bringing his weaponized arsenal of lame dad jokes into her place of business, jeopardizing her reputation. They begin the film as opposing forces, the daughter asking her father, “Do you have ambitions in life that aren’t slipping fart cushions under people?” and the father asking her, “Are you really a human?” His pranks and the mounting pressure of her career trigger a mild nervous breakdown, releasing all the tension her emotional fragility builds throughout in a couple cathartic scenes that walk a thin border between hilarious & cruel. By the end of the film, both father & daughter are on the same page, but it’s not necessarily a happy place to be or an easy space to occupy.

As with a lot of classic comedies, the joy of Toni Erdmann is in watching traditional societal barriers break down to make room for chaos. The prankster father’s jokes aren’t especially amusing in and of themselves, but in the context of an uptight business world where any out-of-place gesture can mean loss of money or status they land with full comedic impact. The business world he’s subverting is worthy of the offense too; decisions made in fancy office buildings just outside Romanian slums are determining the future of untold families who have no power or input. The movie doesn’t dwell too much on the practical, devastating effects of unethical, exploitative business world that contrasts its titular buffoon, but that context is always lurking at the edge of the frame, informing the tension his actions disrupt. The most cathartic societal breakdowns are in more intimate social environments: a pair of climactic house parties that devolve into emotionally intense karaoke & sexual chaos. The politeness that builds the tension in those moments is superhuman, which makes its inevitable release more satisfying. The difference between Toni Erdmann & most comedies, though, is its dramatic honesty in detailing the emotional aftermath of those societal breakdowns, which helps explain why it’s so critically lauded.

There’s supposedly a planned remake of Toni Erdmann in the works starring Kristen Wiig & Jack Nicholson; this sounds like a phenomenally bad idea. Not only is the film such a critical darling that any slight changes to its formula will inevitably inspire umbrage, but its overall vibe is so inextricably European that an American context will dilute what makes it special. I’m not only talking about its international corporate culture either. The film’s casual approach to sexual transgression is likely to either be played for Farrelly Brothers-style gross-out humor or to be excised entirely, given the difference in American attitudes toward the subject. Toni Erdmann isn’t exactly Wetlands in terms of shock value sexuality, but it does treat casual nudity & out-of-context sperm-eating with a delicate comedic touch I doubt could be replicated in an American remake. I don’t exactly believe the film to be the infallible Holy Ground its critical reputation suggests; it’s too drawn out & ultimately too well-behaved to earn that distinction. However, I do think that trying to restage its very distinctive charms in another cultural context is a huge mistake, no matter how universal its father-daughter relationship themes might seem from the outside looking in. It really is a special, particular work, even if not the masterpiece suggested by its reputation.

-Brandon Ledet

Adulterers (2016)

For a time before I moved to Austin three years ago, I flirted with the idea of moving to L.A. and working as a script reader, as a dear friend had for a few years. She gave me a few different scripts to work on doing standard format reader reviews for, and while some of them were quite good (Melisa Wallack’s Manuscript, which ended up on The Black List, was my favorite of these), there were also quite a few that weren’t very good at all. The one that sticks in my mind the most was one entitled Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch, which has an IMDb page that lists it as “in development,” but doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2009 or 2010. I read enough short stories and personal essays in creative writing classes and discussion groups in both my undergrad and grad school that I developed a kind of sixth sense for when something was what could charitably called “revenge writing.” It’s basically when someone (invariably a man, almost always straight) writes out his one-sided feelings about the dissolution of a relationship, recently or distantly, painting himself as the put-upon everyman whose life is disrupted by the she-demon who broke his heart. That Guy in Your MFA didn’t emerge from a vacuum, is what I’m saying, and there’s a universality to the personality that those tweets are mocking which speaks volumes about society, literature culture, the writing world, and college campuses. Even without the laughable “Based on a True Story” caption that opens the film, or the credit that shows that the film was written, directed, and produced by one person (me, out loud, when I saw that on screen: “Oh boy”), I can smell that same malodorous desperation and entitlement all over Adulterers, and boy is it not in service of the film as a whole.

Spoilers to follow for a film you should just skip.

Samuel (Sean Faris) is an assistant manager at a hardware store in New Orleans, preparing to celebrate his one year anniversary with his wife Ashley (Danielle Savre), at the pinnacle of a record-breaking heat wave. He tells her that he won’t be able to come home as early as expected, as he’s picking up a double shift to help pay for the house and his new truck, but in fact intends to go home early and surprise her. After fending off the flirtations of his co-worker Lola (Stephanie Charles), he picks up a box “of dem dark chocklits” along with a bouquet of flowers and makes his way home to the exterior of what appears to be a shotgun house but has the interior of a two-story. While waiting for his wife to arrive from her waitressing shift, he realizes that her purse is sitting on the table, and that there are the telltale grunts of some mischief going on upstairs; he finds his wife in flagrante delicto with another man (Mehcad Brooks). Distraught, he goes downstairs to grab a couple of handguns, then goes back up and shoots them both guns akimbo. Credits!

Or not; in fact, it appears he just imagined this. He again climbs the stairs, and this time confronts Ashley and her lover at gunpoint, forcing them to answer questions about how long they’ve been seeing each other, how they met, and the frequency and content of their sexual encounters (yes: they have done it in the butt). This continues for some time, as all parties are emotionally and physically degraded. Brooks’s character’s name is given as Damien, and he admits that he, too, is married, and that his wife Jasmine (Steffinnie Phrommany) is pregnant with their second child. This is not the first time he’s cheated on her, nor is Ashley, whom he only knows as “Peaches,” the only woman with whom he is committing adultery.

We also learn that Ashley was already married when she met Samuel, but he rescued her from her abusive husband and even adopted her young daughter (whom we never see). Ashley gives a monologue about how she can’t help herself because she’s “broken,” and tells about how this brokenness emerged from being sexually assaulted several times by her father’s employer. Meanwhile, Lola continues reaching out to try and get Samuel to return to work before he loses his job, and when Jasmine calls, Samuel tells her about her husband’s infidelity, she decides to take her own revenge by coming to the house and having sex with Samuel in front of Damien, then telling Sam to dispose of the other man as he sees fit. This descends further into much absurd nonsense, with a lot of “Do you read the Bible?” and “I am God’s judgment” and “I won’t pretend to be a Christian, but my mama took me to church every Sunday” dialogue that I’m sure means you can imagine every moment of this excruciating standoff. Ultimately, it’s left up to God (in the form of Russian Roulette) to decide Damien and Ashley’s fate, and the afternoon’s events come to a conclusion with Ashley smoking a long-deserved cigarette while watching Sam bury her lover.

Except psych! Because of course it is. Samuel really did kill both Ashley and her lover at the beginning of the film, and the entire rest of the film has been his imagining of what would have happened had he not done so. Interestingly, this twist appears to have been so confusing (it really isn’t, though) that even the person who edited the film’s Wikipedia page doesn’t seem to have understood what happened, as it states (as of 02/16/18) that “Sam later finds himself back in reality, just after burying Ashley beneath the rose bed in the back yard. He realizes that he killed his wife and made up a story of her cheating in his mind.” That’s pretty clearly not what happened, as he clearly shoots them both, but you can hardly blame anyone for giving up and just making up their own ending. Unsurprisingly, this kind of “the whole thing was imagined!” plot twist was also common in a lot of the bad scripts I read, not to mention the work of fellow students. In the latter that’s almost forgivable, but in the former it’s a telltale sign that you’re an amateur. That doesn’t matter, I suppose, when you’re the writer, director, and producer, but if you’re thinking of submitting something like this to a legitimate agency or production house, take a tip from your old friend Boomer and just don’t.

There’s so much else going on here that demands to be discussed. I was actually able to track down an interview with director (writer, and producer) H.M. Coakley with the Urban Movie Channel, and it is one of the fluffiest fluff pieces I’ve ever read, and that’s coming from someone who used to do just these kinds of interviews with small name, big ego local personalities when writing for Dig in Baton Rouge. In it, when asked about the origin of the story, Coakley states “The actual idea for Adulterers was based on something that happened to a family member. I remember saying to myself, ‘Wow— what would I have done, if that was me?’” That’s not really what “based on a true story” means, I’m afraid. Just because a friend or family member caught their significant other in the act with someone else, and you imagined what you would do, and what you imagined is a character imagining an interaction with their cheating wife and her lover, that doesn’t make it “based” on anything. That barely makes it “inspired” by something that happened; by that logic, Home Alone is “based on a true story” about that time you imagined what it would be like to be a kid left alone in a mansion at Christmas, and Starship Troopers is “based on a true story” of fascist propaganda.

The worst thing about the interview, however, is this statement from the interviewer: “The story location was steamy & hot New Orleans, Louisiana and the accents, especially Sean’s, seemed quite authentic.” It’s not. It’s really, really, really not. The only authentic thing about this movie is the fact that, if someone were going to cheat on sex-on-a-stick uberbabe Sean Faris (who, in case you didn’t know, looks like this), the only other human being on earth who could possibly make your eye wander would be megahunk Mehcad Brooks (who looks like this). To be honest, either one of them would be worth getting shot. Cinematographer Ben Kufrin‘s pre-2005 C.V. consists almost entirely of titles with the word “Playboy” thrown in there, and while I’m hesitant to say that he shoots these male bodies as lovingly as (presumably) he did the women in his earlier films, this “erotic” “thriller” may at least send you off with visions of chiseled abs dancing in your head. The interview mentions that Brooks expressed interest as early as 2010, which makes sense given that this was after he stopped getting regular paychecks for The Game and True Blood and before he started being able to get paid regularly for Supergirl, where he’s been unfortunately underutilized of late. Full disclosure: Sean Faris’s presence was the only reason I watched this movie, and I’ve long felt that his turn on Life As We Know It should have led to greater market penetration and made him more of a star, but he’s never had the mainstream success that his sister has.

The long and short of it is this: even if you’re trying to find a film that’s set in a hot place to try and make up for the cold, cold winter we’ve had this year, you’re better off watching a documentary about volcanoes. If you just want the visual feast of watching hot people sweating in a stuffy room, there are other, better places to get your jollies.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Baby Face (1933)

I’ve been casually flipping through & taking notes on Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon for a few months now (even though it’s essentially a lengthy gossip rag & could easily be read in an afternoon), which really is one of the better trashy reads on cinema history out there. If even a tenth of Anger’s ancient gossip is to be believed, the early days of Hollywoodland were a reckless, anything-goes bacchanal of drugs, sex, murder, and glamor, a just-born industry living out its youthful transgressions with unfathomable lust & fervor. There’s an obvious allure to these tawdry movie industry legends that just about anyone should be able to latch onto, but for film nerds early Hollywood gossip & myths are especially intoxicating. Among its more prurient interests, Anger’s book offers a glimpse of American cinema before it was defanged by the browbeating morality of the Hays Code, a time when Major Studio filmmaking was just as wild & transgressive as any art in production. I could have easily devoured Hollywood Babylon in a single sitting, but I find myself slowing way down to take notes on as may films Anger mentions as possible, hoping to find a movie-shaped doorway into the freewheeling times when the Studio System’s tawdriest works were being produced. That’s why it was beautifully serendipitous to recently find a used copy of a Warner Archives release titled Forbidden Hollywood at a second-hand media store. Featuring pre-Code pictures from Old Hollywood’s wildest era, the modest collection found its way into my personal stash at the exact right moment of my life, not only because of the surprising modern relevance of its crown jewel: 1933’s Baby Face.

A Barbara Stanwyck vehicle released just one year before the Hays Code was first strictly enforced, Baby Face is one of the most notorious examples of pre-Code Hollywood boundary-testing. It’s a grimy, cynical work about weaponized female sexuality and corporate culture exploitation, a true wonder as a Studio System relic. What’s most incredible, though, is the way its basic premise of lifelong sexual harassment corrupting & limiting women’s professional opportunities as autonomous adults continues to be vividly relevant to the current Cultural Discourse. The solution for combating that patriarchal oppression (essentially a Fuck Your Way to the Top ethos) has drastically changed, but the circumstances have not. The Forbidden Hollywood DVD features a recently discovered “pre-release” cut of Baby Face that includes extended sequences & alternate takes that are even racier than the version of the film that ruffled feathers in 1930s theaters. The official theatrical cut is plenty shocking for its time as is, though, not only in its casual approach to aggressive female sexuality, but also in its strides towards equality for onscreen black representation. The film is by no means a prophetic reflection of 2010s political ideology, but it is an incredibly honest screed about social & institutional oppression of women in the 1930s. It’s a kind of honesty we’re not used to associating with Old Hollywood pictures, thanks to the blanket moralizing of the Hays Code that would soon neuter American Cinema until the New Hollywood movement took over decades later. Its world of casual sex, suicide, interracial friendship, untold hundreds of cigarettes, and swanky Dixieland jazz paints a picture of what Old Hollywood could’ve been, if it were only allowed to fully blossom into its flagrantly amoral ideal.

Barbara Stanwyck stars as a put-upon barmaid who’s been harassed, cat-called, and groped every day of her life since she was a teen. Her father is her employer and, without consent, her pimp, charging men by the hour to be alone in the bar with her. A grim factory smoke tableau fills the window to the world outside their lowly speakeasy. A tragic accident suddenly frees her from this imprisonment and she flees to the city with her best friend (a black servant played by Theresa Harris) to establish her own place in the world. Resourceless and encouraged by the only speakeasy customer who’s ever been nice to her to stop being a pushover for horny men’s whims, she consciously decides to use her sexuality to earn money & status. Early in the film, Stanwyck’s antihero walks up to an impossibly tall skyscraper bank with no contacts or experience necessary for employment. To put it crassly, she systematically fucks her way to the top floor over the course of the movie, leaving behind a trail of heartbroken men in her path to financial success. Stanwyck is incredible in the role, confidently delivering lines like, “I don’t owe you a thing. Whatever I do is my business,” with a nonchalance that borders on viciousness, but never enough to turn the audience against her. The tragedy of the film is not the bosses, managers, and banking associates she seduces & leaves ruined, but in a climactic decision that jeopardizes the money she’s earned though the transgression. Using her intimacy as leverage and often waiting a beat to decide how to act before claiming another “victim” (would-be-harasser), she flips the power dynamic of a corporate world stacked against women by weaponizing the one asset that’s been afforded her: sex appeal. By the time she’s holding a major bank’s entire board of directors hostage with that one minor resource, Baby Face becomes a perverted David vs Goliath story and the movie is clearly rooting for her succeed by any means necessary.

Obviously, the theatrical edits made to soften Baby Face’s sexual transgressions also weaken its modern appeal. A moralistic coda about changing her casual sexin’ ways is tacked onto the story and stands out as just as much of a sore thumb as the similar false ending to The Bad Seed. Her amoral life coach is more of a Christian finger-wagger in the theatrical cut, scolding her for doing what he encourages her to do in the original, unreleased version of the story: fucking for power. Small moments of sex & violence are more explicitly depicted in the “pre-release” cut, hammering home what’s only implied in the version that’s been publicly available for decades. No matter which cut of Baby Face you’re privileged to see, however, the movie still shines as a grimy, transgressive wonder of Old School Hollywood boundary-pushing. Pre-Code Hollywood really was an amoral Babylon of hedonistic indulgences in sex & violence, as evidenced by the fact that even Baby Face’s censored, theatrical cut is more thematically & morally risky than most modern Major Studio releases dare to be. The fact that it accomplishes this while tackling an issue that’s currently commanding our cultural zeitgeist (the exploitation & sexual degradation of women in a male-dominated workplaces) only makes it all the more astounding.

-Brandon Ledet

Morvern Callar (2002)

It’s a goddamn shame that in her two decades of directing features, Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsey has only been able to secure financing for four directorial efforts. What’s more of a personal shame for me is that I haven’t yet made a point to watch all of her available works. I’m in love with the darkly amusing, surrealist nightmare of 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and her upcoming thriller You Were Never Really Here is my most anticipated film of 2018, but I’ve been slow to pull the trigger on her two earlier features until now, a grotesque oversight on my part. Speaking of grotesque, Ramsey’s precursor to We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the grimier, more sickly features I can remember seeing in a long while. Morvern Callar feels less like an original screenplay than it does like a feature film adaptation of a crumpled-up Polaroid Ramsey found in a sewer. Along with a fearless performance from indie movie mainstay Samantha Morton, Ramsey’s direction & scum-coated visual language capture a very specific phase of soul-crushing grief: the stage where you stumble in total shock, only emerging from drunken stupors long enough to pray for the release of death. The film is nowhere near as satisfying as We Need to Talk About Kevin on a technical or narrative level, but stylistically speaking it’s just as powerful & willing to lunge directly at the audience’s throat, a visual ferociousness I can’t help but appreciate.

Morton stars as the titular Morvern Callar, a twenty-something party animal who awakes from a blackout to discover her boyfriend dead from suicide. As Morvern ponders her plight in the sad glow of their shared apartment’s blinking Christmas lights, the movie threatens to sink into the slow, grainy quiet of a Kelly Reichardt film. That quiet, reflective gloom does not last long. Morvern’s response to her boyfriend’s death is much more akin to the behavior of a raccoon or an opossum than it is to a human being. She allows his body to rot on the floor for days before deciding to chop it up & bury it, keeping the funeral money he left behind for herself & selling his novel manuscript to a publisher under her own name. She uses the resulting cash flow to fill her days with hedonistic distractions: drugs, parties, vacations with her bestie, bad sex. The whole movie dwells in a kind of desperate attempt at fun! meant to hold her grief at bay, as she keeps the opening tragedy to herself as a secret. I’m not sure this nightmare vision of grief & desperate distraction is ever as strong as it is in the first party she attends almost immediately after discovering her boyfriend’s body. A disorienting mosaic of dancing, fire, broken glass, and drug-rotted sex, the earliest party sequence dunks the audience’s head in ice cold water as an open, honest threat about the meaningless debauchery to come. Morton barrels through it all with a nasty, heartbroken fervor and Ramsey matches her feral energy with an appropriately devastating sense of grime.

I can’t honestly say that Morvern Callar sustains the brutal intensity of that initial party sequence for its entire runtime, but it’s never dull or dispirited. The film plays like an pus-infected inversion of Eat, Pray, Love, with Morvern attempting to transform into a different person through self-indulgence & travel. Instead of “finding herself,” however, she’s more attempting to lose herself. For her part, Ramsey never loses track of the grief or desperation at the center of this quest, but she does often threaten to make it look cool. An incredible soundtrack stacked with some of the greatest pop acts of all time (Broadcast, Stereolab, Velvet Underground, Ween, etc.) combines with intensely colored lights & grimy punk energy to almost estimate the dressed-down chic of a fashion shoot or a music video. Ramsey’s sensibilities are too stomach-turning & sorrowful for Morvern Callar to fully tip in that that direction, though, and the movie ultimately comes across as incredibly sad. It’s the same odd balance she struck in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a tone she collaboratively establishes through heartbreaking performances from Samantha Morton & Tilda Swinton, respectively. I’m excited to see how that tonal tightrope is managed in the rest of her work, but saddened to know it won’t take much effort for me to fully find out.

-Brandon Ledet

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007) and the Value of John Woo’s Sincerity

When John Woo jumped down from the heights of his Hong Kong action heyday in Hard Boiled to the more pedestrian American mold of action cinema in its follow-up, Hard Target, you could immediately feel a tampering of his penchant for excess. It takes Hard Target nearly an hour of contextual narrative buildup before the over-the-top excess of Jean-Claude Van Damme punching rattle snakes, gangsters shooting up Mardi Gras parade floats, and Wilford Brimely going full Crazy Cajun in the film’s third act. Hard Boiled, by contrast, starts with one of its most chaotically violent set pieces (the showdown staged at the bird-watching tea house) and mostly maintains that same intensity throughout. Hard Target plays a little like a compromise, with American studio execs only allowing Woo’s sensibilities to show at the seams instead of flying at the screen full-force at every possible opportunity, as they had in his past Hong Kong efforts. As much as the 90s action thrillers that followed in the footsteps of Hard Boiled and its Hong Kong contemporaries were highly entertaining, they were often self-aware about not coming across as silly in a way the films that inspired them weren’t. Hard Boiled is entirely unembarrassed by its indulgences in excess and cheese. Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) doesn’t play jazz clarinet or drive around to cheesy synth-pop in a convertible as a sly wink to the audience; he does it because it supposedly looks cool. Mad Dog (Philip Kwok) doesn’t wear an eye patch or ride his motorcycle through a wall of flames to distract the audience from his pro wrestling-simple villainous persona; he does it because it obviously looks cool. Oddly, one of the few American films directly influenced by Hard Boiled that nails its unembarrassed indulgence in excess & cheese is the 2007 action genre spoof Shoot ‘Em Up. Even as a loving parody, Shoot ‘Em Up feels more like a faithful carbon copy of Hong Kong excess than even Hard Target, which John Woo himself directed. Unfortunately, though, it fatally lacks Woo’s sincerity.

Shoot ‘Em Up telegraphs its nature as an ironic comedy by making the genre it’s spoofing clear in its title. It’s as if a slasher send-up were titled Horror Film or, you know, Scary Movie. Director Michael Davis was inspired to write the film after seeing Hard Boiled and being delighted/baffled by the sequence during the climactic shoot-out when Tequila teams up with a newborn baby to defeat the film’s legion of faceless baddies. Like Hard Boiled, Shoot ‘Em Up drops you into its violent, chaotic narrative with very little introductory context. Clive Owen stars as a drifter who gets caught in the crossfire of an opening gunfight, where his instinct to protect a pregnant woman in labor results in delivering the baby himself, mid-shootout. He separates the umbilical cord with a bullet from his pistol. The mother dies in the fray. The drifter finds himself carrying & the protecting the newly orphaned baby through many more over-the-top gunfights, but never any that reach the entertainment value of the film’s opening minutes. Shoot ‘Em Up’s rapid-fire, ZAZ-style spoof humor means that the jokes are abundant and any one bit doesn’t last for long. They’re also just rarely funny (which might be why the Scary Movie franchise came to mind). A rare gag like the baby being swapped out with a robo-decoy or the drifter leaving them on a filthy public bathroom floor to clean his gun on a changing table can be inspired. Mostly, though, the film is painfully unfunny & grotesquely macho, especially in its treatment of sex workers (practically the only women in sight) and in every single thing that Paul Giamatti says & does as the villain. By the time the film reaches for a second joke about how shooting a gun is like “blowing your load,” its difficult to care that one of its best gags was later blatantly ripped off in the deranged Nic Cage vehicle Drive Angry. Shoot ‘Em Up was built around a borrowed concept anyway and Drive Angry at least recognizes the value in playing the material straight/committing to the bit.

I don’t mean to suggest that Hard Boiled is unintentional in its humor. In the baby-themed shootout sequence that inspired Shoot ‘Em Up, Chow Yun-Fat delivers a great physical comedy performance, protecting the infant’s ears between gunshots & even singing it a hip-hop lullaby. The intentional humor of the sequence’s over-the-top excess is not in question. Where Hard Boiled is more successful is in its in-the-moment sincerity. Chow Yun-Fat is straight-faced & fully committed, playing the baby scene & the jazz clarinet as if they were totally typical to the action genre. Clive Owen’s drifter in Shoot ‘Em Up, by contrast, is a literal stand-in for Bugs Bunny, the king of winking at the audience. Before he even fires a gun, Owen is shown loudly gnawing on a carrot on a public bench, a habit he continues throughout the film to clue the audience in that it’s all a big joke. Unfortunately, the joke isn’t all that funny and only gets less impressive as it’s driven home with repetition. The entire film plays like the dick-shooting gag in Our RoboCop Remake, except that it runs for 90 minutes instead of 90 seconds. Its wacky! insincerity & ultimate lack of imagination (not to mention its boys-will-be-boys misogyny) are exhausting at that length. I admire Shoot ‘Em Up for capturing the spirit of the nonstop, over-the-top excess of 80s Hong Kong action cinema that most other American films failed to imitate in that movement’s wake. I just wish it had learned a lesson about the value of sincerity & playing it straight while admiring the humorous excess of films like Hard Boiled. John Woo’s comedic touches are twice as funny without trying half as hard to earn a laugh. Their unembarrassed embrace of cheese allows them to mix in with the over-the-top action seamlessly, creating a much more genuinely enjoyable product as a result.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the John Woo action cinema classic Hard Boiled, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its American follow-up, Hard Target.

-Brandon Ledet

Krewe Divine 2018

Last year, a few members of the Swampflix crew decided to finally grow up and get serious about Mardi Gras. We collectively shed our annual personal crises about what themes to include in our Fat Tuesday costuming by pooling our resources to pray at the altar of a single cinematic deity: Divine. Arguably the greatest drag queen of all time, Divine was the frequent collaborator & long-time muse of one of our favorite filmmakers, John Waters. Her influence on the pop culture landscape extends far beyond the Pope of Trash’s Dreamlanders era, however, emanating to as far-reaching places as the San Franciscan performers The Cockettes, the punkification of disco, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Our intent was to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fabulously fucked-up glory by maintaining a new Mardi Gras tradition in Krewe Divine, a costuming krewe meant to masquerade in the French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday into perpetuity.

Our initial krewe was a small group of Swampflix contributors: site co-founders Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas, podcast co-host CC Chapman, and repeat podcast guest Virginia Ruth. This year we were joined by local drag performer Ce Ce V DeMenthe, who frequently pays tribute to Divine in her performances. There’s no telling how Krewe Divine will expand or evolve from here as we do our best to honor the Queen of Filth in the future, but for now, enjoy some pictures from our 2018 excursion, our second year in operation as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:

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Eat shit!
❤ Krewe Divine ❤

Lust in the Dust (1985)

Now that Criterion has given Multiple Maniacs a restorative spit shine for a recent BluRay release, there aren’t many unsung movies left featuring a performance from Divine, the greatest drag queen who ever lived. Starring roles from Divine are especially scarce, particularly ones outside the John Waters oeuvre. That’s what makes Lust in the Dust so tempting as a potential off-road gem. Divine stars in a comedy directed by the ever-charming Paul Bartel (Eating Raul, Death Race 2000, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills) and no one ever talks about it? How could that be? The answer, obviously, is that the movie is a bit of a stinker and would likely have been forgotten by time completely if it weren’t for Divine’s name on the poster. Worse yet, it feels like a dilution & cheapening of the John Waters brand, which already suffers from being treated like ironic kitsch instead of what it truly is: a collection of the greatest films ever made. Waters was asked to direct Lust in the Dust, but declined because he did not pen the script. Frequent Waters collaborator Edith Massey was cast as a sleazy bartender (not a stretch for her) but died before filming began. Divine stars opposite Tab Hunter, her onscreen rival/lover in Waters’s Polyester. The film also arrived in the seven-year gap between Polyester & Hairspray, which makes me wonder if Divine’s departure from the Dreamlanders crew to pursue projects like Lust in the Dust & her disco career means there were other John Waters projects in the works that were derailed in the meantime. Lust in the Dust isn’t without its occasional charms, but it feels like a huge roadblock that likely prevented better art from seeing the light of day.

Speaking of daylight, Lust in the Dust is a textbook demonstration of the horrors of day drag. Shot in the sun-drenched California desert, the film is a bawdy comedy masquerading as a cheapie Western. Divine is tasked to flop sweat her way through dust-coated comedy routines as stale as the cowboy backdrop that flavors them. A thin story about buried treasure, bandits, and bar fights drags its corpse across the desert sand as playful music continually elbows the audience as a reminder that “This is fun! So funny!” A few of the gags do work, but they’re the rare exception to the rule. I was particularly tickled by Divine’s tendency to crush the head of any man that goes down on her. Her costar Lannie Kazan (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame) also gets in a few great one-liners like, “Freeze, hombre, or I’ll be wearing your asshole like a garter,” that remind you that Bartel is usually a super sharp, crass wit. Most of the bits fall dead flat, though. Divine drunkenly falling off a donkey, the small town they raise hell in being called Chile Verde, Divine bashfully pretending she doesn’t want to be gang raped: Lust in the Dust’s major failure is that it isn’t nearly funny enough to justify its own indulgences as an irreverent comedy. Waters was smart to decline the opportunity to direct the picture himself and I’d never want to see my favorite filmmaker tackle something as tired & pedestrian as a Western, but you could bet that if he did the result would be far more energetic & genuinely humorous. Here, the zaniness feels forced and Divine feels weighed down by being tied to an unfunny script instead of being let loose to cause havoc as the no-holds-barred filth monster she truly was.

Lust in the Dust is only a must-see for Divine completists & the morbidly curious. It’s difficult to imagine Western-friendly audiences getting anything more out of it than I did, coming from the perspective of a Waters devotee. Unless you desperately need to see Divine & Tab Hunter share the screen one last time and your copy of Polyester is damaged or missing, I’d advise you to stay as far away as you can manage. It’s best to keep the better memories of Divine alive in our minds than to dilute them with this labored, unfunny dreck. The same goes with the typically wonderful Paul Bartel, really, but it hurts much less to see a dilution of his divinity.

And just so this isn’t a total waste of time, let’s all smile in wonder at the only good thing that came out of this picture: this picture.

-Brandon Ledet

The Greatest Showman (2017)

“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?”
“Do these smiles look fake?”

One of my favorite recurring SNL characters in recent years was Andy Samberg’s portrayal of Hugh Jackman: The Man with Two Sides. The joke was essentially that Jackman’s public persona was bizarrely bifurcated between his gruff performances as a muscled-out action star and his more delicate, fanciful performances as a man of the stage. 2017 might have been the year when the Two Sides of Hugh Jackman both reached their most absurd extremes. Early in the year, Jackman’s long-running lone wolf/tough guy act as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise got so somber & manly in Logan that the film could easily pass as an adaptation of a late-career Johnny Cash ballad. Jackman then followed that grizzled performance up in December with the silliest, most frothy performance in his entire musical theatre career. Jackman stars in the movie musical biopic The Greatest Showman as an eternally chipper P.T. Barnum, whom the movie posits as the inventor of modern showbusiness. The Greatest Showman is less remarkable for contrasting Logan as an exercise in pure, unembarrassed musical theatre than it is for contrasting it as a disingenuous, 100-minute-long commercial where the product being sold is joy. Just as I cried a solitary, manly tear as Logan toyed with political exploitation & deep-seated daddy issues, I also totally bought into the joyful, bullshit product Jackman peddles in The Greatest Showman. He’s a very talented salesman, no matter which one of his Two Sides is doing the talking.

Calling The Greatest Showman a biopic is a little misleading. I’m not sure Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum shares much in common with the real-life showman outside a name and an affiliation with the popularization of the traveling circus. The revisionist narrative the film peddles is just as surreally artificial as its nonstop barrage of green-screened backdrops. Barnum begins the film as a working-class upstart whose belief in the American dream (and skills at lying to bank lenders) catapults his family from rags to riches as he unknowingly “invents” modern show business (think Vegas variety show). His “aha!” moment that transforms a failing wax museum packed with dusty curios to a lucrative enterprise of populist entertainment is a decision to exploit the local outcasts & physically disabled as tourist attractions, essentially inventing the profession of “circus freak.” The Greatest Showman often attempts to posit Barnum’s relationship with his disenfranchised employees as tenderly familial, but it’s much more convincing in the stretches where he profits off their labor, yet locks them out of the visibility of the high-society circles they afford him access to. The film’s moral lies somewhere in celebrating your inner (and outer) weirdness instead of desperately wanting to be accepted by the snobbish hegemony, a lesson Barnum supposedly learns several times throughout (by way of gaudy, pop-minded showtunes, of course).

There are dual romance storylines that distract from The Greatest Showman’s Let Your Freak Flag Fly messaging and overall value as a crassly populist spectacle. One involves Barnum repeatedly ignoring his wife (Michelle Williams) and children in his blind pursuit of high society respectability, something that falls a little flat if not only because his wife’s inner desires are left vague & unclear. Early on, Barnum sings passionately about his dream of creating the ultimate form of entertainment, while his wife’s only expressed desire is that he share that dream with her and allow her to tag along. A second, interracial romance among Barnum’s employees (Disney Channel vets Zack Effron & Zendaya) is a little clearer in its place in the story, though it’s ultimately just as inconsequential. Neither romance is nearly as satisfying as the time spent with Barnum’s stable of “freaks,” whose determination to be visible & respected while being themselves is the most convincing thread in the film’s overall sentimentality. I’ll admit that even as crass & silly as this movie is in every single frame, I got a little teary-eyed at the circus performers (especially the bearded lady) singing about how they’re “Not scared to be seen” in the Oscar-nominated tune “This is Me.” The characterizations of the circus performers can be just as insultingly artificial as the romances and the revision of Barnum’s exploitative history and everything else in the film (the bizarre vocal dubbing of the cast’s sole little person is especially egregious), but that’s all part of The Greatest Showman’s tacky sense of proto-Vegas fun. It also does little to distract from the endearing, all-accepting, freaks-are-people-too messaging.

The debut film from director Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman was likely a movie-by-committee proposition, very much in the tradition of blatantly commercial movie musicals like Moulin Rouge & Xanadu. It proudly wears that populism on its ruffled sleeve, though, directly calling out potential critics as “prigs & snobs” before they even have a chance to file a negative review. Barnum goes even further by calling the entire profession of entertainment criticism inherently hypocritical, as he becomes morbidly fixated on a “critic who can’t find joy in the theatre.” That insult stuck with me, not because it was especially insightful as a look into the practice of art criticism, but because it made clear exactly what product this obnoxious, crass, overlong, deeply silly advertisement was trying to sell me: joy. I greatly respect The Greatest Showman for the honesty of its populist spectacle & out-in-the-open commitment to artifice. I also believe that, besides maybe Barnum himself, there are few hucksters who could have sold its joy-product more convincingly than Jackman, even if he was outshined by the circus performers’ storyline and could only employ one of his distinct Two Sides in the task.

-Brandon Ledet

Tap (1989)

It’s tempting to say that the 1989 tap dancing revival Tap has been forgotten by time, but it might be more accurate to say it’s been consistently ignored since its release. Tap was meant to Make Tap Dancing Cool Again for a 1980s audience, but just barely broke the top ten box office grossers in its opening week before promptly disappearing forever. Even with time, as the film’s 80s Attitude™ has aged like wine, its campy pleasures as a commercial misfire are only a mild delight. Too serious in tone to be an over the top laugh riot and too silly in concept to be taken at all seriously, Tap floats in a kind of pop culture limbo that fades its already greyed-out reputation, even if a rightly forgotten one. Tap may overall be a tonal wet blanket in terms of satisfying anyone looking to its tap dancing hipness for ironic humor, but on a moment to moment basis it can be amusingly bizarre.

Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis Jr., and Savion Glover star as three generations of tap dancing legacy. Sammy Davis Jr., in his final film role, is a rusty old-timer who represents tap’s past as an experimental, badboy offshoot of jazz. Savion Glover, Hines’s real life student, is the future of tap: a young, basketball-dribbling Cool Kid with a snotty attitude that will put any of his peers in place at the suggestion that “dancing is for girls.” Hines is the ghost of tap-dancing present, a recently released ex-convict who must choose between two professional paths as a newly freed man: tap or burglary. There’s also an insane sub plot about finding ways to modernize tap by incorporating the sounds of city streets, (including construction noises, in a ludicrous Stomp-style number) or electric pickups & synths applied to the shoes so they can be amplified in a rock band. It’s all very silly, especially when it tries to make tap sexy, but never quite over the top enough to inspire fits of laughter.

Tap opens with echoing the angry, solitary dancing of the infamous warehouse scene in Footloose, then is interrupted by wailing 80s sax pop as Hines’s tap dancing badass protagonist emerges from prison to NYC streets. That’s the level of over the top cheese Tap traffics in, which can be pleasantly amusing in a self-serious, feature length drama about the art of dance. I’d be a liar if I said it were the kind of so-bad-it’s-good, unintentional comedy that deserves revival on the midnight circuit, however. It’s more of the kind of oddity you happen to watch on a middle of the afternoon TV broadcast that catches you way off guard with its lowkey absurdity. Tap failed in its mission to Make Tap Dancing Cool Again in 1989. Decades later, it also fails as ironic kitsch. There’s a kind of charm in those failures, slight as it may be, an endearing novelty that pairs well with day drinking and afternoon naps.

-Brandon Ledet