Scorsese’s Search for His Own Bonnie & Clyde

Arthur Penn’s 1967 free-wheeling crime thriller Bonnie & Clyde is often cited as the start of the so-called New Hollywood movement that reached its creative & cultural heights in the 1970s. An upstart director making heroes out of amoral, cop-killing bank robbers struck a chord with the youth culture of the day, especially in its gleeful depictions of shameless lust & ultraviolence. Other young directors were inspired to make their own antihero hagiographies in its wake, now with financial backing from major Hollywood studios – names like Coppola, Bogdanovich, Demme, and so on. Opera-composer-turned-filmmaker Leonard Kastle was far less inspired by the film, particularly in the ways it failed to fully subvert Hollywood glitz & glamor. With his first (and only) film The Honeymoon Killers, Kastle set out to right the wrongs of Bonnie & Clyde, explaining “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Kastle wanted grime in his true crime cinema, something much closer in aesthetic to early John Waters provocations like Multiple Maniacs than anything mainstream Hollywood would dare to produce. To help accomplish this goal, Kastle employed a fresh-out-of-film-school Martin Scorsese to direct his picture, a true life drama about the theft/murder spree of Raymond & Martha Beck, the so-called Lonely Hearts Killers of the 1940s. Scorsese previously made a huge critical splash with his vibrant, energetic, and above all grimy debut feature Who’s That Knocking at my Door?, a film that made him appear perfect for Kastle’s pet anti-Bonnie & Clyde project. The partnership was short-lived, however, with Scorsese only surviving a couple weeks of production before being replaced in the director’s chair by Kastle himself (and several other uncredited collaborators). That didn’t stop Young Marty (to refer to him by his SoundCloud rapper name) from directing his own answer to Bonnie & Clyde, however. Instead, he paid his dues as a New Hollywood brat by taking his Bonnie & Clyde-aping ambitions to a much more traditional collaborator for his contemporaries: Roger Corman.

Many New Hollywood players got their start working for Corman, from Peter Bogdanovich working on bullshit projects like Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women to Peter Fonda testing out early revisions of Easy Rider in Corman productions The Wild Angels & The Trip. Although they were both working under AIP, Kastle was much less valuable as a career-starter than Corman, as he approached The Honeymoon Killers as a singular-obsession passion project, while it was typical for Corman to juggle a dozen productions at once. It’s probably best for Scorsese’s overall career, then, that he was fired from Kastle’s picture to instead pursue his own Bonnie & Clyde romantic thriller under Corman’s wing, but the circumstances of that change-up are a little baffling. Kastle reportedly booted Scorsese from The Honeymoon Killers for taking too much time to set up, shoot, and break down individual scenes, delaying production to great cost. It’s unclear whether Scorsese had taken to heart the lesson of needing to prioritize speed over artistic fussiness by the time he worked with Corman on his next feature or if the increased budget of that production allowed for more careful preparation on a day’s shoot. Given Corman’s own notoriety for cheap, rapid-fire filmmaking, it’s most likely that Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable career lesson in the firing, one that would become much less useful by the time he was allowed the financial freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted in sprawling epics like GoodFellas, Silence, and Gangs of New York. Scorsese was capable of delivering his auteurist vision on an AIP schedule & budget, as evidenced by pictures like Who’s That Knocking? & Mean Streets, but his heart wasn’t really in it. That’s not only indicated by his firing from The Honeymoon Killers, but also by the quality of the Bonnie & Clyde knockoff he eventually completed for Corman instead: Boxcar Bertha. There’s a slickness & attention to detail in Scorsese’s best works that could not shine through under AIP’s prohibitive budgets & shooting schedules, even when he was shooting his pet-favorite subject of cool-looking antihero criminals behaving badly.

1972’s Boxcar Betha splits the difference between Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers, leaving itself a middle-of-the-road mediocrity in the process. Given the grimy, ultraviolent aesthetic he carved out in early pictures like Mean Streets & Taxi Driver, you’d assume Scorsese’s own take on the Bonnie & Clyde template would be in line with Kastle’s, but those instincts did not translate to the screen in this instance. Barbara Hersey & David Carradine star as train-hopping armed robbers in the 1930s South, never quite matching the spiritual ugliness of the Lonely Hearts Killers nor the Hollywood glamor of Bonnie & Clyde. Boxcar Bertha is listed as a “romantic crime drama” on Wikipedia (a descriptor that fits all three of these works well enough), but it mostly functions as a road trip movie, detailing a loosely connected string of anecdotes as its romantically linked antiheroes drink, rob, shoot, gamble, and prostitute their way across the 1930s railways. This ramshackle lifestyle earns them much unwanted attention (and gunfire) from the law, ultimately to predictable tragedy. It’s a rote tale of Depression Era Southern pastiche, one with far fewer distinguishing details than either The Honeymoon Killers or Bonnie & Clyde, which is surprising given that its source material is entirely fictional. While both Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers were based on true stories heavily reported on in the papers, Boxcar Bertha was an adaptation of a fictional novel from the 1930s, Sister of the Road. That didn’t stop Corman from including a “based on a real story” title card at the start of the picture, solidifying its function as a Bonnie & Clyde mockbuster. In most ways, Boxcar Bertha feels far more akin to Roger Corman’s typical output than Scorsese’s, which isn’t all that surprising considering how green the director was at the time. The film was a stepping stone to New Hollywood infamy for Scorsese, one that faithfully took the shape of New Hollywood’s own stepping stone to mass audience success.

Like most directors’ early collaborations with Roger Corman, Boxcar Bertha’s greatest asset to Scorsese was an opportunity for hands-on experience. The most he puts himself into the work (not counting the literal instance of his cameo as one of Bertha’s johns) is in the excruciatingly Catholic imagery of a character being crucified with railway spikes for their crimes. The rest of the film is a straight Corman mockbuster of Penn’s seminal film, the exact opposite of what Kastle set out to achieve in The Honeymoon Killers. I suppose Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable lesson himself in booting him from that anti-Bonnie & Clyde project, but it’s very tempting to wonder what The Honeymoon Killers might have been like if Scorsese had remained onboard throughout. Maybe Scorsese’s Honeymoon Killers would have been just as great as the film Kastle delivered on his own. Maybe the lethargic shooting schedule would have tanked the picture entirely and there never would have been a Honeymoon Killers in the first place. Either way, the result certainly would have been more interesting than the far less blasphemous Bonnie & Clyde echoes of Boxcar Bertha, easily the dullest Scorsese pic I’ve seen to date.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

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The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

I have not yet seen the latest entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise despite its soaring critical consensus, which posits the film as the greatest action epic since Fury Road. This is more a result of scheduling & MoviePass-related mishaps than it is indicative of a lack of interest, as the previous entry in the Tom Cruise series, Rogue Nation, was my favorite episode to date. Even though I’ve somehow missed out on Mission: Impossible – Fallout in its first few weeks on the big screen, it has been on my mind, something the Mila Kunis/Kate McKinnon buddy comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me was banking on as clownish mockbuster counterprogramming. Despite the Bond reference in its title, the timing of The Spy Who Dumped Me’s release is deliberately in tandem with the guaranteed Tom Cruise money-maker, possibly in hopes of offering lighter fare for audiences already in the mood for its spy thriller genre territory. This tactic is unmistakably clear in the very first sequence, where a handsome American spy (Justin Theroux) fights off an undercover contingent of international baddies in a Lithuanian open-air market, a blatant knockoff of the iconic Mission: Impossible theme music soundtracking the affair. There’s no real comedy to this mise-en-scène action set piece opening, just a violent chase through European settings that’s meant to feel like just another spy mission in a long series of international exploits that we’re joining midstream. The sequence concludes with the bang of a makeshift microwave explosive, a violent burst that propels popcorn into the frame for the title card, just to let the audience know this is an escapist summertime version of the serious stuff: a literal popcorn flick. The Spy Who Dumped Me is the light action comedy counterprogramming to Mission: Impossible’s more self-serious espionage thriller offering, and it’s totally charming for that.

As the parodic, less-than-serious version of the modern espionage thriller, The Spy Who Dumped Me doesn’t have to do much to distinguish itself from the Mission: Impossible franchise to avoid direct mockbuster territory. That hurdle it clears with ease. The more difficult task it stumbles over is distinguishing itself from the Melissa McCarthy/Paul Feig team-up Spy. In both works, everyday women are inducted into international espionage missions when the action-hero men in their lives (Theroux & Jude Law, respectively) are taken out of commission. The Spy Who Dumped Me only differs from the Spy template by affording its nobody-turned-international-spy protagonist (Mil Kumis) a lifelong bestie sidekick (Kate McKinnon). After being dumped via text message by her undercover spy boyfriend (ostensibly for her own safety), Kunis finds herself in desperate need of an adventurous shake-up to spice up her milquetoast lifestyle. The more free-wheeling McKinnon encourages this new thirst for adventurism with every opportunity she can. When the spy boyfriend is taken out of action and their own safety is compromised, she pushes Kunis to turn this opportunity into a besties’ European vacation. Instead of the usual sight-seeing, selfies, and clubbing exploits of American women traversing Europe, the pair indulge in shoot-outs, car chases, and elaborate heists. They kill people. They’re almost killed. It’s all in good fun. The overall set-up & individual gags are all very similar to Feig’s Spy picture, but the emotional core is less rooted in Kunis’s need to break out of her shell (as was the case with McCarthy’s) than it is in her friendship with McKinnon. The pair push, encourage, challenge, and genuinely love each other enough for the story to distinguish itself from Spy in its central character dynamics, even if all the background detail & overriding genre structure render the two films unavoidably comparable.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is so comfortable with admitting to its Mission: Impossible parallels that it includes the line “Your mission, should you choose to accept it . . .” in an early scene of tiki bar flirtation. I assume its parallels to Spy were much less intentional, a byproduct of the film’s overall adherence to mainstream comedy tropes (including go-to modern comedy gross-outs like flaccid male nudity & extended diarrhea gags). Formulaic comedy foundations have led to plenty enjoyable pictures in the past, tough, typically dependent on the strength of the performers involved. McKinnon does most of the heavy-lifting there are as the film’s de facto clown (a role she eventually takes very literally in a climactic Cirque du Soleil sequence). Her over-the-top SNL energy keeps the mood light & affable, even in scenes where baddies & bystanders are being torn to shreds by bullets. She’s even afforded plenty of room to bring her real-life personality quirks into the role, teaching grotesque bros about feminism & loudly broadcasting her life-long love of Gillian Anderson (playing a fantasy version of Dana Scully who eventually climbed the FBI ranks to head her own espionage bureau). Even if the excitement around Mission: Impossible – Fallout hasn’t ignited an immediate thirst for more (and sillier) espionage thriller content or the memory of Spy is too vivid for you to enjoy its comedically inferior echo, Kate McKinnon alone is well worth the price of admission for The Spy Who Dumped Me. This early in her career it’s still rare to see her afforded extensive, front & center screentime, so this movie cannot be overvalued as a McKinnon showcase. The lagniappe delight in that indulgence is that she gets to participate in a sweet, endearing action comedy about female friendship, one where the action & the friendship dynamic are both surprisingly convincing & well-staged. With that comedic & emotional core, any adherence to genre formula or parallels to more substantial works are beside the point of this self-proclaimed popcorn flick’s in-the-moment entertainment value, which is rich & plentiful throughout.

-Brandon Ledet

Red Heat (1988)

Every year for my birthday I treat myself to a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the greatest action star who ever lived. Along with Arnie’s award-winning physique and willingness to commit, I’ve always appreciated that he approached his action roles with a cartoonish sense of humor, often using the emotionless affect of his thick Austrian accent to deliver over-written one-liners in pitch-perfect deadpan. Because I’m watching these movies in self-indulgent celebration, I often choose pictures with a deliberately comedic bent: Twins, Junior, The Last Action Hero, etc. That’s likely why my expectations of this year’s indulgence, Red Heat, were way off from the tone of the actual picture, which steers away from Arnold’s deadpan goofball humor to achieve something much nastier & less fun than his usual mode. With a premise that pairs Arnold as a Soviet Moscow police officer with Jim Belushi’s red-blooded Chicago Cop, I expected Red Heat to be a fish-out-of-water buddy cop comedy along the lines of a Rush Hour, or at least a Lethal Weapon. Admittedly, there are a couple stray moments of that buddy cop action humor spread throughout Red Heat. For instance, when Arnold’s Soviet officer first arrives at his shitty Chicago hotel, he slips a quarter into a coin-operated television only for porn to appear on the screen. He shakes head in disgust and mutters in his traditional deadpan, “Capitalism.” For the most part, though, Red Heat trades in Arnold’s usual deadpan humor for a much more straightforward slice of jingoistic Cold War action schlock than what I knew to expect.

What Red Heat lacks in comic relief, it more than makes up for in shameless brutality & sleaze. Cult genre director Walter Hill (The Warriors, Streets of Fire, The Driver) brings his usual knack for style-over-taste schlock cinema sensibilities to what could have just as easily been a Shane Black-style yuck-em-up. There’s a novelty to that tonal shift, especially if you’ve seen one too many tough-guy Arnold performances before; you just have to know to expect it. The film sets the table early on for the cold, brutal sleaze it’s going to deliver throughout with a Moscow-set fight scene in a public sauna. A lurid exercise in culture-gazing, Hill shoots the scene with immense interest in the Soviet comrade’s mixed-gender nudity in the sauna, fixated particularly on Arnold’s naked ass & all nearby tits. This sexual leering quickly erupts into a violent display as Arnold attacks some drug dealing baddies, smashing them through windows into the cold Northern snow. There’s a vicious, mostly naked fistfight against that snow-white backdrop, followed by a second location shootout that leaves multiple cops dead and a drug kingpin on the run to Chicago. Arnold is tasked to escort the drug dealer back to Moscow for trial, paired with Belushi’s street-wise Chicago cop to keep tabs on his collateral damage. That chaperone duty is all for naught; a blood-soaked trail of bullet-riddled bodies is left behind in Arnold’s wake as he fights his way towards a violent showdown involving Greyhound buses at the film’s climax. There’s also a McGuffin locker key that the two factions fight for possession of throughout, but it’s an object that could easily be circumvented with a crowbar & some elbow grease. The real prize this film is chasing is cheap sex & cold-blooded violence.

Although Red Heat is not a buddy cop comedy, it does extensively play with the tropes of one, almost to the point of subversion. Belushi plays the Rob Schneider to Arnold’s Sly Stallone, functioning as the useless, wiseass sidekick no one finds especially funny. It’s difficult to gauge, but it seems the movie doesn’t find him amusing either, often playing his jokes & general demeanor as macho grotesqueries. Belushi is introduced ogling sex workers form the distant safety of his squad car, to his coworkers’ vocal disgust. He commences to hit on every woman in his path with all the charm of your average misogynist slob, only for every flirtation to be immediately shut down with fervor. When he sexually harasses a citizen on the street with a slimy “How ya doin’?,” she immediately retorts, “Blow yourself,” which the movie posits as a reasonable response. This macho blowhard caricature is in direct opposition to Arnold’s stand-up professional gentlemen of a Soviet officer who, despite having the same depth of humanity as his performance in the original The Terminator, is the film’s de facto protagonist. It’s difficult to tell how much of this cultural reversal was intended by Hill, but Red Heat often portrays Arnold’s Soviet, straight-laced demeanor as being much more palatable than Belushi’s sleaze-ball American counterpart. Then again, there’s a villainous crossdressing gag in the film that feels like an early warning shot for Hill’s most recent, flagrantly transphobic film (Re)Assignment, so I may be reading the film’s politics the wrong way. Either this is a total anomaly in the Cold War action cheapie genre in the way it contrasts Soviet & American sensibilities or my own POV is so far outside Hill’s eternal sleaze that I saw a comic relief character he meant to be charming as an irredeemable scumbag on my own volition. I know which scenario is more likely, but I also know that I found Arnold’s character vastly more tolerable than Belushi’s.

Outside the Walter Hill-level brutality of its violence, there’s nothing especially significant about Red Heat as an action cheapie. Any interest I had in its subversions of buddy cop tropes & Soviet-American cultural contrasts are so personally subjective and out of character with Hill’s larger catalog that their merit is questionable at best. The only minor historical significance achieved by Red Heat is that it was the first American production allowed to film in The Red Square in Moscow. The film only puts that location to significant use for police-marching background imagery in the opening credits (which does include the beautiful image of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name in cyrillic typeface). The majority of its Moscow-set sequences were instead filmed in Hungary. Likewise, the film boasts an incredible cast of supporting characters (Laurence Fishburne, Gina Gershon, Peter Boyle, Kurt Fuller), but all are relegated to little impact in bit roles. The best chance anyone has to enjoying Red Heat is for the cheap thrills of a straightforward, hyperviolent action thriller, one where dead cops, naked flesh, and jazzercise all mix together in schlocky 1980s excess. That excess is not at all boosted by the typical Arnold humor the way you’d see in classics like Commando & The Running Man, which is a large part of why it’s a more middling entry into the affable muscle-man’s canon, even if a remarkably sleazy one.

-Brandon Ledet

Cold Water (1994)

With both of his recent critical darlings, Personal Shopper & Clouds of Sils Maria, I’ve found myself mildly frustrated with the cinema of Olivier Assayas. Both of those films were hinged on incredible performances (especially from Kristen Stewart) and intriguing narrative conceits, but both also felt just short of greatness as completed works. In particular, I remember leaving Personal Shopper last year thinking that Assayas would one day deliver a movie I would totally fall in love with, but that he wasn’t quite there yet. What I didn’t know to consider at the time is that I shouldn’t be looking to Assayas’s future, but rather to his already rich past. While I assumed Sils Maria & Personal Shopper were the films of a young artist still honing their craft, it turns out Assayas has been directing feature films since the 1980s; they’ve just been outside my genre trash-loving radar. A recent local screening of his 1994 indie romance Cold Water has, in one picture, convinced me I’ve had Assayas all wrong. I now see his current crop of near-great films as a transitional adjustment period, the first stage of an evolution in the craft he already honed decades ago. I can’t say with certainty that Assayas’s best work is ahead of or behind him, because there is a much larger catalog of films than I was aware of to indicate that trajectory. However, I can report that he has made at least one great film before, one that relies on the same tactics & tones as the two titles that recently left me wanting.

Cold Water is a kind of 1970s rock n’ roll spin on a classic Romeo & Juliet teen tragedy. Forever understated, Assayas delivers the least commercial version of that premise imaginable, telling a slow, stubbornly quiet tale of pointless teenage rebellion & aimless romance the exact way you’d expect a 1990s French indie to. Two teenage reprobates on the outskirts of Paris seek excitement in petty vandalism & minor shoplifting, staging small-scale rebellions against their increasingly frustrated caretakers at home & school. At the threat of being quarantined in boarding school & mental institutions, they make a foolish pack to run away together to a mythical artist’s colony in the frostbitten provinces, risking their lives for a utopia that may or may not exist. Before they begin this fool’s journey, however, they pause to enjoy an out of control teenage rager where kids form their school & community party to rock records, smoke hash, and destroy everything in sight with an ever-growing fire. It’s in that chaotic centerpiece that Assayas pulls back in scope to explain that these two lovelorn teenage runaways are not at all atypical. The just happen to be their social circle’s scapegoats, the two who always get caught while everyone in their vicinity indulges in the exact same teenage depravity, undetected. Cold Water is an intimate love story between two naïve, self-destructive fools, but it’s also a larger portrait of an entire generation of aimless, frustrated rebel children itching to break free of the societal doldrums of the early 1970s.

Maybe in part because I’m used to these types of stories being told in American & British contexts, I was a little perplexed by Cold Water’s temporal setting not being six to ten years later than its early 70s hippiedom. Watching these kids smash & burn their surroundings in bratty, frustrated rebellion to a soundtrack defined by the likes of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival is a little disorienting, especially when they start pogoing & slam-dancing at the climactic bonfire party. Cold Water is so obviously a punk story to me; it just happens to be set to the sounds of pre-punk hippies. Regardless of what’s spinning on the turntable, however, Assayas achieves a blissful hedonism in that party’s nihilistic teenage chaos. It plays like a sprawling, hazy predecessor to the rager that opens Lynne Ramsay’s similarly quiet, nihilistic Morvern Callar. The majority of Cold Water is guided by hushed, conversational gloom as neither teens, their teachers, nor their guardians know what to do with their frustrated, rebellions energy. There’s no proper score to the film outside its diegetic needle drops & rock radio tune-ins, so that everything outside its loud, vibrant, destructive party sequence feels dead & hollow by comparison. Even the central romance doesn’t feel especially impassioned or life-changing to the two protagonists outside their need to feel something in the cultural, emotional void of their surroundings. Chasing the high of that emotional rush is an ultimately tragic impulse, so maybe the worn-out hippie melancholy of Woodstock-era classic rock is exactly what this film needs. In the transition from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” to Joplin’s “Me & Bobby McGee,” you can somewhat feel the tone Assayas was reaching for; it’s just difficult to shake the feeling that these kids are punks who had not yet heard the sounds that would later define them.

Something I’m coming to admire in Olivier Assayas is that every film I see from him feels like a young artist actively trying to figure themselves & their craft out on the screen. Just like how I assumed Personal Shopper & The Clouds of Sils Maria were the works of a fresh-faced filmmaker chipping away at future greatness, I could just as easily see Cold Water as being a debut feature from someone young & hungry to make Important Art. It’s not the shoplifting, vandalism, or teenage-runaway romance that makes me feel that way either. It’s more that Assayas appears open to messiness, haunting quiet, and unresolved emotional crises in his movies, having made no apparent effort to tidy up these impulses into more controlled work in the past two decades. There is a kind of coldness to that restraint in his more recent works, however. Assayas’s aimless wanderings feel much more appropriate to the pointless, frustrated teenage rebellions of Cold Water than they do to the adult ennui of his more recent work; or at least they feel more effective in that context. Heighted teenage rebellion lends itself well to his oddly youthful, consistent sense of messy, open, vulnerable gloom. As I further dig around in his decades of back-catalog features, I might make a point to seek out any titles I can find with teenage, lovelorn protagonists; it’s thematic territory that feels at home with his style. It also helps that Cold Water allows those teens a slash & burn catharsis in the bonfire party centerpiece, an emotional release he hasn’t afforded his more recent, adult protagonists.

-Brandon Ledet

Masques (1987)

Acclaimed French director Claude Chabrol is one of the founding directors of La Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave movement), which is one of the most pivotal turning points in French cinema. Chabrol is best known for his Hitchcokian thrillers, and as I have recently found myself delving into the world of French thrillers, it’s been quite difficult to avoid any of his films. His 1987 film, Masques, is a perfect example of his unique cinematic style.

Roland Wolf (Robin Renucci) is a young, eager journalist hired to ghostwrite a memoir for famous game show host Christian Legagneur (Philippe Noiret). The game show that Christian hosts involves elderly couples singing and dancing on a stage decorated with props comparable to decorations found in a kindergarten classroom, so I was obviously in love with it. Christian invites Roland to spend a couple of days with him at his mansion out in the countryside so he can gather information for the memoir. Once the film shifts to the mansion, it becomes a bit of a guessing game as the inhabitants of the mansion all seems to hold their own sinister secrets. At times, I felt like I was watching the French version of 1985’s Clue. There’s even a character that reminded me of Ms. Scarlett! She doesn’t have a name, but she’s referred to as the masseuse. Not only does she give great massages, but she reads tarot as well. In my eyes, she was the star of the show.

Masques has received a lot of negative criticism (for a Chabrol film, at least) for being a little on the boring side, but I didn’t find it to be boring at all. It’s a simple film that follows the old-fashioned “good overcomes evil” plot structure, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, what I love so much about Masques is that it has plenty of suspense and dark humor without being too over-the-top. Chabrol is smart enough to know that too much of a good thing ends up spoiling the party.

-Britnee Lombas

Episode #62 of The Swampflix Podcast: Psycho Sequels & Don’t Look Now (1973)

Welcome to Episode #62 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our sixty-second episode, James & Brandon discuss all four sequels to the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho (1960). James also makes Brandon watch Nicolas Roeg’s psychological/supernatural thriller Don’t Look Now (1973) for the first time. Enjoy!

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

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 8/9/18

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week.

New Releases We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

1. BlacKkKlansmanSpike Lee hasn’t exactly disappeared, but it feels like he’s been hiding in plain sight for the last decade or so by dedicating his efforts to small-scale, limited appeal experiments (like, for instance, a Kickstarter-funded remake of the esoteric cult classic Ganja & Hess). BlacKkKlansman appears to be a much better-funded, commercially minded picture than we’ve seen from the infamous indie auteur in a long while, one that filters satirical jabs at Trumpian racial politics through a classic buddy cop genre structure & a historical look back at the not-so-distant past of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s incredibly exciting.

2. The MegHalfway between JAWS & Sharknado, this Chinese-American co-production in which action star Jason Statham fights a mythically gigantic shark looks like exquisitely silly summertime fun. We’ve been blessed with one dumb shark movie a year on the big screen for the last few summers (including The Shallows & 47 Meters Down) and the tradition appears to be continuing with the biggest, dumbest entry yet.

3. Blindspotting Oakland is having an incredible year on the big screen. Following the city’s conspicuous presence in both Black Panther & Sorry to Bother You and preempting the return of Ryan Coogler’s Oakland-set Creed franchise this November, this intense-looking comedic drama about police shootings & gentrification has a strong chance of continuing Oakland’s trend of being heavily featured in some of the best movies of the year. It also promises to be a star-making opportunity for Daveed Diggs, currently best known as the vocalist of clipping. and cast member of Blackish & the musical Hamilton.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

1. Eighth GradeBo Burnham’s directorial debut doubles as a teen girl coming-of-age drama and an Anxiety Litmus Test. Either you find the awkwardness of its protagonist’s last week of junior high amusingly adorable or it hits you like a relentless, anxiety-driven nightmare where each minor social interaction plays out with the creeping dread of a horror film. It’s an impressively intense tonal experience either way.

2. Sorry to Bother YouThis is very likely the last week to see one of the summer’s wildest surprise gems on the big screen (it’s now only playing at The Broad Theater). From Boomer’s review: “These continue to be dark days, and though we may not know how to fix them, we must not get used to them. And if you like your social commentary candy-colored but lacking in neat, pat answers, go see Sorry to Bother You. Hell, go see it even if that’s not your bag; your comfort zone could become your noose if you don’t push your boundaries.”

3. The First Purge – I’m late to the table on singing this film’s praises in several major ways. Not only is its theatrical run on its last legs, but it’s also the fourth film in the Purge series, yet the first one I’ve ever seen. Imagine my surprise, then, that this fiercely political satire was the most fun I’ve had with a pure thriller since Nerve (high praise, I assure you). It’s down to just a couple screenings a day (only at the Elmwood AMC), so catch it before it disappears, no previous Purge experience required.

-Brandon Ledet

The First Purge (2018)

I’ve had zero experience with the Purge franchise until this fourth installment, a prequel arriving in theaters five long years after its source material. I believe I’ve fallen in love. The First Purge is the most fun I’ve had with a pure thriller since the femme cyber-terror pop of Nerve, joining that film’s rarified ranks of genuinely feeling like a thriller of the times. Where Nerve filtered its own nighttime neon thriller textures through a teen girl coming-of-age story, however, The First Purge dares to apply its surface level genre thrills to something much uglier & more politically confrontational. As fun as The First Purge can be as a cartoonishly violent summertime thriller, it’s also a deeply angry movie with a critical eye for American politics, especially regarding the ways police & military reinforce marginalization as determined by race & class. In its advertising, the Purge series has always stressed its participation in subversive political rhetoric; the last film in the franchise was even titled Purge: Election Year. Having never seen a previous installment, though, I can’t say with any certainty if they’ve ever before delivered substantial political commentary beyond lightly satirizing the iconography of the GOP. However, I can report that The First Purge’s own political imagery is far more daring & genuinely distressing than I ever assumed the franchise could be.

As the title indicates, The First Purge details the first-ever Purge Night in an alternate timeline America, which is treated in-film as a socio-political experiment. In case you’re unfamiliar with the series’ unifying conceit, Purge Night is an annual 12-hour period where all crime, including murder, is made temporarily legal. It’s a government-sanctioned tradition supposedly intended as a “societal catharsis,” but more practically functions as targeted population control. It’s no coincidence, then, that the trial run beta test version of Purge Night is staged in the predominately POC neighborhoods of Staten Island. The government exploits Staten Island’s residents’ financial desperation by bribing them to participate in the Purge “experiment,” leaving a wide cross-section of young partiers, old church-goers, power-hungry drug dealers, and community-protective protestors behind to fight for survival in the legal/lethal free-for-all. When Staten Island shrugs off the opportunity to kill their own and instead throw “Purge Parties” to celebrate the incoming cash flow, the government deploys mercenary operatives in disguise to murder the island’s citizens by their own hands, selling the story of the first Purge to the rest of the nation as a resounding success. This influx of militaristic, murderous white men into mostly black neighborhoods is where The First Purge finds its volatile political tension, a conflict it exploits for everything it’s worth.

There’s nothing subtle about The First Purge’s political messaging in its depictions of white government operatives invading helpless, economically wrecked black neighborhoods to thin out the ranks of its own citizenry, nor should there be. We do not live in subtle times. What I didn’t expect, however, was that the film would be willing to push the imagery of its volatile racial politics to the extremes it achieves as the violence reaches its third act crescendo. White militants disguise their identity with masks & costumes to obscure the government’s involvement in the massacre. This starts traditionally enough with spooky Halloween garb meant to paralyze their victims with fear. As the clear racial divisions between combatants fully comes into focus, however, the costuming’s politically charged imagery escalates so that the white militants are dressed in Nazi uniforms, KKK robes, and blackface. There might have been a time, even in recent memory, where that racist iconography may have felt like a bit much, but after Trump’s election and last year’s disastrous, racist demonstrations in Charlottesville, it feels like a nauseatingly accurate portrait of where America’s politics are seated in the late 2010s. The film’s fictional political party The New Founding Fathers falls just short of adopting “Make America Great Again” as a campaign slogan. The threat of sexual assault on Purge Night is derided as “pussy-grabbing.” Billboards advertise assault rifles with the casual attitude they’d use to advertise groceries. The political lines are clearly dawn in the text, often in its visual language, and there’s immense value to that disregard for subtlety. What’s most upsetting about the film’s rampant, over-the-top violence is the way it’s only a mild exaggeration of the violence in our current national reality.

Part of the reason I had little interest in the original Purge movie was that it was framed as a home invasion story, one where a macho protector father figure has to save his family from the moral decay of the world outside. The First Purge explodes that premise in two thrilling ways: it dares to venture outside to fully exploit the widespread mayhem indicated by its conceit and it shifts the guilt of the violence from marginalized, desperate people to the forces that keep them in place. I’m not sure the world needs another story about a white father figure with a gun protecting his home from the crazed urban masses, but there is certainly value to showing the ways those same masses are exploited & abused by a racist police state that wants them dead. What’s most admirable about The First Purge is the way it deals in that heavy-handed, sickening political allegory while still often playing as pure genre fun. There’s enough neon lighting, expertly staged jump scares, and crazed maniacs (there’s a character named Skeletor in particular who’s a nonstop goddamn nightmare) detached from any direct political commentary for the film to succeed just fine without it. Instead of being content with those surface pleasures and making light political jabs at hot, safe topics like “fake news” & drone surveillance, the movie instead picks at the nation’s most infected political scabs without fear of who it might piss off by likening the government to the Gestapo or the KKK. I greatly respect if for that, almost enough to finally give the rest of the series a chance.

-Brandon Ledet

Revenge (2018)

I’ve been hearing high praise for Coralie Fargeat’s hyperviolent gross-out Revenge for months, but have avoided following through on the recommendation out of squeamishness for its chosen genre. This is a rape revenge thriller, my least favorite corner of genre cinema & very much the reason why I’m cautious about approaching any 70s grindhouse titles without first glancing over their plots. The typical rape revenge structure is the male gaze at its most maliciously weaponized, leering at length at the violent sexual assault of a female protagonist and then hurriedly offering her supposed retribution through empowering ultraviolence of her own as an afterthought. I’m always suspicious of the rape revenge thriller, particularly in classic examples of the genre like I Spit on You Grave, for the obvious pleasure & titillation in the assault they later pretend to deplore & counterbalance. Where I find skin-crawling misogyny in the rape revenge thriller, however, some feminist genre fans have found emotional catharsis, which is where Fargeat appears to land on the subject. In its earliest stretch, Revenge shamelessly participates in the worst tropes of its chosen genre. Its teenage protagonist steps onto the scene in full Lolita drag—sunglasses, lollipop, bare skin, and all. The camera drools over her body, lingering on the leggy flesh that peeks out at the edge of her skirt’s high hem. This initial leering is a necessary evil to get to the subversive payoff of the film’s commentary on more nuanced topics like complicity, victim-blaming, and flirtation as obligation. It’s also an early source of tension before the violent fallout that follows. The worst exploitations of sexual assault in genre cinema is when it’s deployed as a cheap, easy motivator or plot catalyst (often for a male associate of the victim) when any other conflict would have done just as well in its place. It’s just as lazy as it is cruel. Revenge corrects this problem not only by rebalancing the weight of its depiction vs. the screen time afforded its fallout, but also by making sure the story is about the power dynamics of the inciting assault, fully engaging with the severity of its subject.

A millionaire playboy and his teenage mistress retreat to a romantic getaway in a remote, desert locale that can only be reached by helicopter. Their secret tryst is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his slobbish hunting buddies, who shamelessly leer at the outnumbered girl’s body. She meets this increased attention with accommodating flirtation, performing her youthful femininity for all three men’s entertainment as a kind of gracious hostess. This harmless flirtation is misunderstood for consent & invitation by the entitled male party guests, leading directly to her rape & attempted murder. Instead of fixating on the graphic details of the rape itself, Fargeat instead captures to toxic cultural forces that allow it to happen & go on unpunished: flirtation’s entitled misinterpretation as obligation, witnesses’ complicity in silence, victim-blaming, financial bribery, the threat of physical abuse, etc. The conflict established in this first act assault is all too real, even considering the way the protagonist is left for dead, powerless, and without resource. What develops from there is revenge fantasy, where she practically gets her vengeance from beyond the grave. Impaled, choking on her own blood, and eaten alive by ants, she crawls to a secluded place to repair herself in self-surgery, using peyote as an unlikely painkiller. Once that peyote kicks in, Revenge transforms from a damning exploration of the power dynamics of rape culture & masculine entitlement to a frantic, reality-detached bloodbath. There are only three potential victims to the vengeful wrath indicated by the title, but their demise is a prolonged descent into hyperviolent gore that lingers on all the explicit violence avoided in the depiction of the rape that instigated it. “Resolving” rape through gory bloodshed may be a faulty narrative impulse, but the way Revenge filters its all-out gore fest indulgences through psychedelic, sun-rotted fantasy is an especially novel mutation of a genre formula that must evolve to be sustained. The trick is having the patience in watching Fargeat participate in that genre for long enough for her to be able to explode it from the inside.

For all that’s commendable in Revenge’s pointed, angry commentary on complicity & entitlement in rape culture, the movie also excels as an exercise in pure style. The peyote & champagne-driven desert mirage of this film’s extensive indulgences in hyperviolent gore are incredibly stylish & confident, especially for a first-time director. Like last year’s blistering debuts We Are the Flesh & Raw, Revenge feels more like a surreal, distant echo of the New French Extremity movement of the early 00s than it does a subversion of 1970s schlock, at least in it its intensely gory visual cues. At times, the film also feels like as successful version of the rotted pop art sunshine horror attempted in The Bad Batch, especially in its desert-set psychedelic freak-outs. Its overall effect is entirely a vibe of its own design, however, even if it occasionally dips its toes into traditional genre markers like the base pleasures of neon & synths. There’s, of course, a moral self-contradiction in marrying these stylistic pleasures to such a grotesque narrative, a tension felt in almost all genre cinema. Personally, my favorite subversion of the rape-revenge narrative is in the much more muted Felt, where the inciting assault occurs before the movie begins and is only implied through context clues. Revenge at least does its part to match Felt’s focus on the aftermath & surrounding atmosphere of its assault, rather than the details of the event itself. It damns the macho culture that allows it to happen, then pulls out that culture’s guts to rot on public display in the desert sun. I was initially highly skeptical of how far the movie was willing to go in participating in its cursed genre’s worst tropes before launching itself into that sunlit psychedelic revenge fantasy. Once it fully reveals the scope & nuance of its cultural targets and floods the screen with a river of gore, however, I had little choice but to be overpowered by its potency. This might be the choice in genre that requires the most narrative & thematic justification for its continuation into the 2010s, but Revenge easily clears that bar in legitimizing the transgression. It’s an angry, beautiful gross-out of a debut and I’m glad I got over myself enough to give it a chance.

-Brandon Ledet

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

“This is the story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have had been yours – or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are accurate.”

In the late 2010s, it’s still depressingly rare for a female director to land a substantial Hollywood production. In 2017, only 8% of the Top 100 film productions were directed by women, a number that has been showing no improvement despite increased scrutiny on the issue. It’s always incredible to me, then, when I discover films from female directors in the distant past when men’s stranglehold on the industry wasn’t even a topic of wide discussion, but just a silently accepted inevitability. Pictures like The Red Kimona from the silent era feel like total anomalies, as it’s almost unfathomable how a woman would have been able to get her foot into the door of Hollywood’s boys’ club back then. 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker is another such anomaly, especially as it participates in the traditionally macho noir genre. Director Ida Lupino worked her way into the industry by directing movies with strong moralistic warnings, message pictures. The Hitch-Hiker finds her using that pronounced moral finger-wagging as an excuse to participate in & mutate the crime thriller genre, restricting the movie’s direct messaging to just a few minutes of screen time and busying herself for the rest with crafting nonstop tension & suspense. This picture is credited as being the first noir directed by a woman, a distinction that adds pressure for Lupino to prove herself as a creative force, something she achieves with a tight grip & gritted teeth.

Two men on what’s supposed to be an innocent fishing trip lie to their wives and change course to check out girly shows across the Mexican border. On their new route, they’re overtaken at gunpoint by a crazed hitchhiker who’s quickly revealed to be a notoriously violent escaped convict. What develops is a hostage crisis in motion (like an AIP precursor to Speed), as the three men perilously evade trigger-happy cops on the way back to California, two of them under constant threat of the hitch-hiker’s pistol. There’s a moderate amount of guilt laid on the wandering husbands for their duplicitous ways, but most of The Hitch-Hiker is instead focused on building tension in both the close quarters of the hostages’ car and the vast, isolating expanse of the desert terrain. It’s in the nighttime drives where the film most resembles a typical noir. The escaped convict is an absolute terror in the shadowy backseat, where he keeps a constant eye (and gun) on his two victims. We’re first introduced to him in a montage detailing his earlier crime spree, jumping from car to car, stolen wallet to stolen wallet, as cops discover his previous victims in flashlit crime scenes. These nighttime noir set pieces are in stark contrast with the harsh sunlit desert setting of the daytime, but Lupino finds plenty ways to terrorize her audience there as well, most spectacularly in a forced game of William Tell. The movie is light on plot & thematic soul-searching, choosing to instead strive for 70 straight minutes of pure, cruel, nightmarish tension.

The small cast and cheap locations of The Hitch-Hiker remind me a lot of Corman’s early work for AIP, even though this was a slightly more substantial RKO production. Its aptitude for Corman’s genre thrills is only part of the story, however, as the picture is much, much crueler & tenser than most of AIP’s more traditionally entertaining catalog. The audience hardly has space to breathe as Lupino maintains a stranglehold on our throats, walking us through each reluctant step toward impending freedom or death. I’m not well-versed enough to say for sure how many women-directed noirs are out there at all, only that this is reported to be the first. The film would remain significant even without that distinction, though, as its command of minute-to-minute tension and the terror of its randomly applied violence feels like a real-life threat more than most, slicker noirs could. The moral of The Hitch-Hiker seems to be less that you shouldn’t cheat on your wife by slinking off to the strip clubs than it is that this could happen to anyone at any time because life is chaotically cruel. Anyone with an affection for dark, tense genre cinema should find plenty of value in that conceit, especially anyone who wishes their noir was a little rougher around the edges or their Corman cheapies were a little more willing to go for the jugular.

-Brandon Ledet