The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2007)

It’s been five years since I first saw Makoto Shinkai’s blockbuster anime Your Name. on the big screen, and it’s getting difficult to recall exactly why that movie felt so fresh & unique at the time.  That’s mostly because the years since have been flooded with shameless Your Name. knockoffs, from Fireworks to I Want to Eat Your Pancreas to the director’s very own Weathering With You.  The cost of breaking box office records is that other movie producers smell chum in the water, diluting the uniqueness of your product with countless cash-in copycats.  At least, that’s how I’ve been thinking about all the recent anime romances that combine big-teen-emotions with supernatural sci-fi & fantasy phenomena.  Maybe I’m giving Your Name. too much credit for its uniqueness in that genre.  Maybe I just haven’t seen enough teen-marketed anime in general to understand how all of these Your Name. “knockoffs” are just part of a much longer, more popular tradition that I’m just personally unaware of.

I’m mostly wondering about my genre ignorance here because I was outright shocked by the release date of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.  Its own indulgences in soaring teenage emotions and far-out time travel sci-fi make the film feel like a contemporary or direct precursor to Your Name., but it was released an entire decade earlier than Shinkai’s international hit.  The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was seemingly met with much quieter fanfare than Your Name., so it’s less likely to have inspired an entire subgenre of copycats in the same way, but its director Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children, Summer Wars, Mirai) is a big enough name in the industry that Shinkai would certainly be aware of, if not outright inspired by his work.  I’m not saying that Your Name. is a carbon copy of what Hosoda achieved in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.  If nothing else, the earlier film is working with much lower stakes and lacks the post-emo Radwimps soundtrack that makes Shinkai’s film so perfect for teen summer viewing.  Their cross-decade parallels just suggest a much larger world of romantic teen sci-fi anime that I feel completely ignorant to, an oversight I desperately want to correct.

The title The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is almost hilariously literal.  Our heroine is a high school student who stumbles onto a time machine device that allows her to physically leap through time.  More specifically, she can travel backwards through short bursts of time like a rotary dial, using her newfound supernatural power for petty, small-minded goals like acing a pop quiz, catching a missed baseball, and avoiding Mr. Bean-style slapstick mishaps.  Her “time-leap” abilities initially save her from riding her bicycle into an oncoming train, making her out to be a cutesy superhero variation on Donnie Darko.  However, she mostly uses them to repair her reputation as a forgetful, clumsy, unlucky, hopelessly tardy nerd.  That is, until the source, rules, and mechanics of her time-leap abilities are revealed in a mindfuck twist ending that ramps up the emotional, temporal, and romantic stakes of everything we’ve been watching her adorably stumble through. 

For most of its runtime, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is low-key charming & cute.  After its third-act twist, it pulls off a surprisingly powerful time-travel Teenage Romance that’s been slowly simmering until that point, to the extent where song lyrics like “Some feelings are more powerful than time” feel more appropriate & heartfelt than cloying.  I honestly have no clue how much of an anomaly the film is in the larger teen sci-fi anime canon, but I do know that the soaring emotions of that third-act romantic shift felt remarkably close to what impressed me in Your Name. so many years ago.  I like to imagine there are more films out there that pluck those same emo-teen heartstrings that I just haven’t discovered yet.  I’m pretty much guaranteed to enjoy them if so, whether or not they dilute the uniqueness of the first film that turned me onto the genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Fish Story (2009)

When I think of punk, I think fast, cheap, amateur, messy.  It’s a chaotic genre, usually delivered in short, aggressive bursts of unchecked youthful id.  That’s why I’m a little shocked by how belabored & sluggish the 2009 punk film Fish Story can feel.  A fractured anthology film about how a punk song improbably saves the world from a near-future apocalypse, Fish Story is weirdly patient & calm.  It’s guided by erratic indulgences in horror, action, and sci-fi genre tropes, but they’re all collected in a low-key, overlong journey through time – loosely sketching out the ways an unpopular, largely forgotten punk song can change the world if it falls into the right hands at the right moment.  Its pacing & story structure feel more befitting of a prog rock concept album than a punk-single 45.

In the not-too-distant future of 2012, an aloof record store owner rattles off obscure punk trivia to his few scraggly customers while a giant meteor outside the window threatens to destroy the entire planet in mere hours. His fixation on the obscure punk single “Fish Story” (which plays at least a dozen times throughout the film) turns out to be more relevant to Earth’s impending doom than the record store burnouts could possibly imagine.  The movie splits its time between seemingly unconnected characters in the decades since that single’s recording in 1975.  We meet nerdy record collectors on a sleazy road trip in 1982, a Nostradamus-worshipping death cult awaiting the apocalypse in 1999, a martial-artist “champion of justice” thwarting terrorists in 2009, as well as the band who recorded the song that improbably connects them all (and the post-WWII author who directly inspired its lyrics).  It’s all very sprawling & complicated and in no rush to connect its disparate dots until the very last minute before the meteor is supposed to strike.

If I had to guess why Fish Story feels so bogged down by its sprawling narrative, it’s because it’s adapted from a novel.  This feels like the kind of adaptation that chose to keep Everything from its source material rather than thoughtfully translating it to the more expedient, visual qualities of its new medium.  It does admittedly tie all its loose-end timelines together in a satisfying way with an uncharacteristically concise, powerful ending, but that only amounts to about five minutes of relief after two hours of mediocre build-up.  To be honest, the film works best as an advertisement for it source material.  I can totally see how its everything-is-connected story structure and pop-culture-obsessive references to media like Power Rangers, Gundam, Under Siege, and Armageddon would be a blast to read on the page, even as they feel a little too weighed down on the screen. The movie itself is fine, I guess, but I can’t imagine ever watching it again when much punchier Japanese punk films like Wild Zero & We Are Little Zombies are sitting right there.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #143 of The Swampflix Podcast: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) & Live-Action Dr. Seuss

Welcome to Episode #143 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss all four debaculous attempts to adapt Dr. Seuss’s illustrations into live-action, starting with the Technicolor musical The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953).

00:00 Welcome

04:40 United 93 (2005)
10:05 Popstar (2016)
14:30 Riders of Justice (2021)

20:58 The 5000 Fingers of Dr T (1953)
34:40 In Search of Dr. Seuss (1994)

43:43 How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
51:12 The Cat in the Hat (2003)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Bonus Features: Hello Again (1987)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1987’s Hello Again, is a fluffy romantic comedy about an undead but unflappable Shelley Long, one that sidesteps all of the possible morbidity of its zom-com premise in favor of A Modern Woman Making Her Own Way feel-goodery.  Even after she’s resurrected from the dead, Long’s status as a medical phenomenon has less impact on the film’s tone & plot than her nature as a hopeless klutz among big-city sophisticates does.  It’s a dynamic that allows her to go absurdly broad in fits of Mr. Bean-style physical comedy, often to the point where you forget there’s any supernatural shenanigans afoot in the first place.  The film is less about her being undead than it is about her being adorably ungraceful.

What most surprised me about this fairly anonymous studio comedy is that there’s some shockingly substantial talent behind the camera.  Director Frank Perry began his career as a New Hollywood troublemaker, filming excruciatingly dark, uncomfortable comedies about The Human Condition.  Whereas Hello Again actively avoids the inherent darkness of its subject, earlier Perry films seemed to revel in the discomfort of their premises.  So, I used this month’s Movie of the Month selection as an excuse to dig a little further into Perry’s back catalog to see just how dark those earlier films could get and if they had tangible connection to the mainstream studio comedies he was cranking out by the 1980s.  Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month but want to see the darker side of its director.

The Swimmer (1968)

The most bizarre aspect of Hello Again is how matter-of-fact it plays the absurdity of Shelley Long’s return from the grave.  She’s not a decaying corpse; she doesn’t have magical powers; she’s just there.  That underplayed absurdism is something Perry had done before to much more sinister effect when he was still a New Hollywood buttonpusher (along with his then-wife Eleanor Perry, who wrote the majority of his early screenplays).  In The Swimmer, Perry cast Burt Lancaster as an aging suburban playboy who, on a whim, decides to “swim home” by visiting a string of friends’ backyard pools across his wealthy neighborhood.  It’s a boldly vapid premise that’s somehow molded into a low-key mindmelter of 1960s moral rot through an eerie, matter-of-fact sense of surrealism.

Like Hello Again, The Swimmer is more of a quirky character piece than it is concerned with the internal logic of its supernatural plot.  Instead of only traveling by the “continuous” “river” of swimming pools he initially envisions over his morning cocktail, Lancaster spends a lot of runtime galloping alongside horses, leisurely walking through forests, and crossing highway traffic barefoot.  He does often emerge from one borrowed swimming pool to the next, though, and along the way we dig deeper into the ugliness of his himbo playboy lifestyle.  He starts the film as a masterful charmer, seducing the world (or at least the world’s wives and mistresses) with an infectious swinging-60s bravado.  By the time he swims his last pool, we recognize him as a miserable piece of shit who doesn’t deserve to kiss the feet of the infinite wonderful women of his past who we meet along the way.  The overall result is sinisterly ludicrous beefcake melodrama, presented in lurid Technicolor.  Sirk could never, but Perry did.

Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)

Although it’s ostensibly a back-from-the-dead zom-com, the dramatic core of Hello Again is much less about the supernatural circumstances of Shelley Long’s second chance at life than it is about her transformation from a dowdy housewife to a fully realized, fully satisfied person.  And it turns out one of Frank Perry’s earliest professional triumphs is a much darker prototype of that same basic story.  Diary of a Mad Housewife is a woman-on-the-verge black comedy about an absurdly horrid marriage that drives a put-upon housewife to a steamy, but equally toxic affair.  Her husband constantly negs her in an abusive way; her side-piece boyfriend also negs her, but in a kinky way.  She emerges from the other end completely miserable, but at least finally having done something for herself.

Most of the humor in Diary of a Mad Housewife is wrung from just how obnoxiously awful the husband character is to his “beloved.”  From the second she wakes up, he floods her with a constant stream of complaints about her body, her clothes, her hair, and her behavior.  It’s basically an early draft of Mink Stole’s ranting complaints at the start of Desperate Living – hilariously unpleasant & cruel in its never-ending barrage.  Like in Hello Again, the titular mad housewife (Carrie Snodgress) struggles to rub elbows with elite sophisticates at the stuffy society parties her husband wants to attend (not to mention the housekeeping struggle of throwing those large-scale parties to being with).  This earlier draft of that tension is just much darker than anything Hello Again offers, including a stubborn refusal to offer its put-upon protagonist a happy ending.  Other highlights include a hunky-hipster Frank Langella, the world’s most rotten children, and a chaotic pre-fame cameo from “The Alice Cooper Band”.

Mommie Dearest (1981)

Maybe Diary of a Mad Housewife‘s proto-Desperate Living opening was not happenstance at all.  The film very well may have been a direct influence on John Waters’s filmmaking style, as evidenced by Waters’s fawning commentary track on Perry’s most iconic film: the Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest.  I’ve owned my Mommie Dearest DVD for at least a decade, have watched it lots, and somehow didn’t notice until this month that it includes a full commentary track from Waters.  He does a great job of quipping throughout it MST3k style while also genuinely attempting to revamp its reputation as a “so good it’s great” melodrama.  More to the point, he recalls early in the runtime that a critic once attempted to insult him by saying he’s not “the underground Russ Meyer,” he’s “the underground Frank Perry.”  Of course, Waters took that insult as a compliment, as well he should have.  Frank Perry’s great.

I highly recommend watching Mommie Dearest with the commentary track flipped on, especially if you’re already seen it and want to spend some quality time with one of history’s greatest talkers.  Waters has some great quips about how Perry frames Crawford as “a female female-impersonator role” & a Strait-Jacket style horror villain, but I mostly just appreciated the way he tries to reclaim the film as a genuine crowd-pleaser.  Waters absolutely nails it when he explains, “There’s no better kind of movie than this kind of movie if you’re home on a Saturday afternoon with a slight hangover.”  I’d also put Hello Again in that exact same category, even if its own campy humor is much more measured & straightforward.

-Brandon Ledet

The Man in the Hat (2021)

A few months ago, a friend recommended the low-key Euro comedy The Man in the Hat to me as “stress relief/anti-anxiety medication.”  One waitlisted library DVD loan later, I totally get what he meant.  The Man in the Hat is a fluffy, distinctly French comedy of whimsies (despite its British director). It follows a mostly wordless man’s casual escape from mild-mannered gangsters, both sides traveling in teensy tiny Euro cars across the French countryside.  There’s a vague threat of violence in that chase, and a hint of sadness in the affable protagonist’s desperate grip on a black & white portrait of his wife.  Those motions towards conflict are only an excuse for a provincial road trip, though, so we can eavesdrop on the quirky characters, feral kittens, and communal parties that decorate rural France.  It all amounts to an unrushed, calming amusement, interrupted only by snack breaks and an occasional folk tune.

The most obvious comparison point for The Man in the Hat‘s gentle, largely silent storytelling style is the equally French (“and fucking proud of it”) comedy of Jacques Tati, particularly the Monsieur Hulot series.  In practice, it reminded me a lot of the low-key dark humor of Aki Kaurismaki, especially in its clash of twee whimsy with crime-world brutality and old-fashioned rock n’ roll cool.  As calming & endearing as The Man in the Hat feels for most of its runtime, its central drama is hinged on some truly bleak motivators: a dead spouse, a botched suicide attempt, an accidental witness to a body being dumped into a city canal.  In the Kaurismaki version of this story (in the tradition of The Man Without a Past or The Other Side of Hope), there would be much sharper shocks of gang violence, character-quirk humor, and political commentary than what The Man in the Hat is interested in delivering.  This French/British echo of the Finnish humorist’s work is too mild-mannered to attempt anything other than self-amused twee, but it does match Kaurismaki’s eye for low-key romance & communal joy in the harshest of circumstances – even ending at an outdoor concert that feels like a direct hat-tip to his work.

To underline its function as “anti-anxiety medication”, The Man in the Hat often looks like a TV commercial for anti-depressants (or maybe just antihistamines, depending on the set-piece).  Most of the sun-dappled road trip through lightly breezy vistas is populated by cautiously optimistic archetypes learning to have fun again in open fields, European cafes, and spontaneous block parties.  Occasionally, the mood will shift in a wistful music video interlude lit by red brake lights or sparsely placed candles, but we’re often back on the road seconds later, “walking on sunshine” on our road to recovery.  This is by no means a flashy movie, nor a challenging one.  It’s just nice.  There are likely more effective “anti-anxiety medications” out there on the market, but none that would pair this safely with a glass of wine (much less any that you could access for free through your local public library).

-Brandon Ledet

The Astrologer (1976)

I often wonder what, exactly, drives the rapid canonization of specific cult films.  Most batshit, off-the-rails midnight movies totally deserve their Cult Film status, but there are plenty of other titles that’re just as deliriously bonkers in their filmmaking but never grow the audience needed for that communal glorification.  Pinpointing what makes a cult movie like Birdemic or Troll 2 more worthy of crowded midnight screenings than underseen trash gems like Mardi Gras Massacre or The Flesh Eaters can be outright confounding. By contrast, the recent push to canonize the mysterious 1976(?) cult curio The Astrologer at least has some obvious indicators of how it so quick skyrocketed up the Cult Movie power rankings in recent years. 

As with other recently canonized Midnight Movies like Fateful Findings & The Room, The Astrologer is a self-aggrandizing vanity project from a mysterious weirdo whose life & persona only become more fascinating the longer you read (the largely unconfirmed, likely apocryphal) trivia about them.  Unlike with Breen & Wiseau, however, Craig Denney’s feature-length monument to his own ego has the added bonus of seemingly arriving out of nowhere.  Discovered by the American Genre Film Archive in a lot sale of assorted pornos, the film was first mistaken for another picture titled The Astrologer that was produced in the exact same year.  Delighted by the discovery, AGFA was frustrated to find The Astrologer unlicensable, thanks to Denney’s insane decision to use multiple tracks from the rock band The Moody Blues (and to advertise the band’s participation on the promotional poster) without ever compensating them or even asking for permission.  As a result, The Astrologer has built cult interest as an item of intrigue through its scarcity, unavailable for (legal) public screenings or home video due to the high price tag of its soundtrack.  It wasn’t until this year that the film was leaked to YouTube & torrent sites in a glorious HD scan, and by then it had enough articles written about it with titles like “1975’s The Astrologer is the Greatest Cult Classic Film You Might Never Get to See” that it carried a certain mystique as a “lost” cultural object.

Craig Denney was a so-called “self-made” millionaire astrologer who, according to his own PR, created a computer program that read the astrological charts of giant corporations to help them make crucial business decisions.  In The Astrologer, Denney plays a crook-turned-astrologer named Craig Marcus Alexander who becomes a millionaire by creating that very same computer program.  The film is, of course, all about how awesome Craig Denney is, including a third act plot development where he turns his awesome life into an awesome movie called The Astrologer that’s a runaway success, making him millions of more dollars.  The cast is populated by amateurs in Denney’s real-life social circle, including his longtime best friend (who has provided most of the available public information on the real-life Denney) and his first cousin (who plays his love interest, whom he makes out with for scenes on end).  What’s shocking about that is that it otherwise appears to have a massive budget & unusually respectable production values for outsider art of this nature.  Tommy Wiseau poured a grotesque amount of money into the production of The Room, but it looks like dog shit and makes use of three, maybe four locales.  Meanwhile, The Astrologer includes helicopter shots, underwater photography, and totally unnecessary location shoots in Kenya & Tahiti. 

Although it often looks like a legitimate production, you can feel the unchecked id of The Astrologer‘s outsider art status in its dialogue & editing.  There’s an urban legend that the film had no script, and that its daily shooting schedules & on-the-fly storyboarding were guided by Denney reading astrological charts for inspiration.  That claim has not been verified by a primary source, but it’s a great anecdote and it does seem to jive with how loosely improvised a lot of the dialogue can feel.  It’s the harsh, psychedelic editing that really makes the film sing, though.  There’s a punishing, Russ Meyer style rhythm to the way The Astrologer is structured, with jarring cuts to gunshots, picnics, and children working on chain gangs that take valuable seconds to register how they fit into the story before you’re thrown into the next thrilling chapter of Craig “Alexander’s”s life.  I get the sense that Denney believed his life was too full of adventure, cunning wit, and self-made success to fit snuggly into one movie, so he had to rush through it all with a Citizen Kane-esque gusto to make room.  It isn’t until 40 minutes into this 70min movie when Craig “Alexander” finally gets into Astrology as a profession.  By then, you’ve already seen two or three movies’ worth of swashbuckling adventurism from the conman cad, who presents himself as a carnie trickster who accidentally discovered he had a real-life gift of astrological premonition after he was already “reading” Tarot cards for local rubes.

I don’t know that I would have singled The Astrologer out as the one-of-a-kind trash gem its most passionate fans see it as, but I’m still glad it was rescued from the bottom of the bin.  This is high-budget, high-energy trash from a total weirdo who only gets more mysterious & stranger the more you read about his life.  While the scarcity of The Astrologer‘s availability has mostly been resolved, the allure of Craig Denney as an outsider filmmaker and entertaining conman remains as potent as ever.  There are even legitimate questions of whether or not he faked his own death in the 1990s, which means he very well may have lived to see his movie finally reach a wider, appreciative public all these decades later.  I like to imagine Craig Denney’s still out there, scrolling through Google alert notifications of his own name the same way his “character” Craig “Alexander” proudly watches himself on TV once he makes it big in the film.  Hi, Craig.  Thank you for making such an entertaining picture.

-Brandon Ledet

Reminiscence (2021)

I watched Reminiscence on the Friday night before Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, knocking out our power & internet service for weeks.  In any other context, the film might have landed as low-key escapist entertainment, but that particular weekend afforded it an eerie magnetic pull on my attention.  A sci-fi noir starring Hugh Jackman & Rebecca Ferguson as its incongruously gorgeous leads, Reminiscence splits its time between near-future Miami & New Orleans.  Both fictionalized versions of those cities are decorated with constant street flooding, like a modernized urban version of Vienna.  It’s like a Gulf South remake of Chinatown where there’s too much water instead of too little, a stomach-turning preview of what Climate Change will inevitably do to my beloved home city, likely within my lifetime. 

Maybe I wouldn’t have watched Reminiscence in the lead-up to a hurricane had I known about that submerged urban setting, but I’m glad I did.  It’s a surprisingly solid movie, especially considering its ice-cold reception in theaters.  Jackman stars as the owner & operator of a machine that tricks the human brain into reliving & re-experiencing memory in full sensory detail.  It was created as an interrogation tactic for police investigations, but over time became a commercial form of therapy for post-apocalypse urbanites, then a form of dwelling-on-the-past addiction.  His business gets by okay until he is hired by a mysterious femme fatale (Ferguson), who hires him to help remember where she lost her keys . . . which of course leads him to becoming entangled in a larger, lethal political conspiracy.  Luckily his partner in time (Thandiwe Newton) has his back, since he’s in way over his head, especially once he falls in love with his mysterious client . . . or at least his selective memory of her.

The biggest hurdle for most audiences to enjoy Reminiscence is going to be its shamelessness in collecting every possible trope of classic noir in its modern action sci-fi shell.  You pretty much know exactly where the film is going at all times, even if its scrambled timeline & false-memory rug-pulls confuses the path it takes to get there.  Beyond that predictability, its broad-strokes noir homage overextends itself to the point of parody in Jackman’s constant, overbearing narration, where he gruffly whispers things like “Time is no longer a one-way stream.  Memory is the boat that sails against the current,” and “Memories are just beads on the necklace of time.”  I’m going to choose to believe that the film knows how funny & outdated these overwritten turns of phrase are, the same way that a lot of classic noir could be darkly hilarious & absurdly wordy in its own day.  I half-expected Jackman to complain, “Of all the memory joints in all of Sunken City, this dame walks into mine”, but that sadly never came to be.  I wonder if the film might’ve been more immediately popular if its humor was more readily recognizable & self-aware, but I’m glad it plays it straight.  It’s funnier that way, intentional or not.

If Reminiscence feels overly familiar, it’s not necessarily because it’s paying homage to vintage 1930s noir; it’s because its exact style of homage was already hammered to death in big-budget sci-fi of the late 1990s.  Titles like Strange Days, Dark City, The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, and Gattaca have already tread this exact ground before, although maybe not with as much (suspiciously clear) water flooding their urban settings.  And even all of those movies owe a recognizable debt to Blade Runner‘s visionary estimation of sci-fi noir in the 1980s, putting yet another been-there-seen-that barrier between this genre-mashup and its 1930s source of inspiration.  Luckily, genre movies don’t have to be The First or The Best to be worthwhile; they just have to be memorably entertaining on their own terms.  I can pretty confidently say I’ll remember the experience of watching Reminiscence for a long time coming, if not only because the hurricane flooding that hit Louisiana that weekend echoed a lot of the imagery of the submerged New Orleans onscreen.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Swamp Trek

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Alli discuss all things Star Trek, seeking out new worlds, new life, and new civilizations on the final frontier of iPod broadcasts.

00:00 Hurricane Ida Relief:

Down the Bayou Mutual AidLagniappe KreweHouse of TulipImagine Water Works

02:43 Blow Out (1981)
03:41 NiNoKuni (2020)
05:50 Forest of Piano
06:50 The X-Files

09:53 Star Trek

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

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (2021)

The recent Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was a rousing success with both audiences and professional critics, so it’s natural that a subgenre of vintage television hagiographies would follow.  Chicken Soup for the Soul’s movie production wing has now entered the chat with an adaptation of the pop media history book Street Gang, which documents the early development & broadcast of the children’s education show Sesame Street.  Like Won’t You Be My Neighbor‘s museum tour through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a Wikipedia-in-motion recap of its show’s historic bullet points, underlined by a heartfelt nostalgia for its radical, politically pointed brand of Kindness in an era of constant political turmoil (the times, they aren’t a changin’ much).  As a history lesson, the film does a great job contextualizing Sesame Street‘s intent, execution, and impact through the 1970s and 80s; it efficiently packs a lot of background information into a relatively short runtime without overwhelming the audience.  As an emotional nostalgia trip, however, it never quite conjures the same magic as the Mister Rogers doc, which was largely popular because it could wring tears out of an unsuspecting audience like an old dishcloth.

As told here, Sesame Street started as a purely educational public service meant to enrich the lives of Inner-City Kids who were watching television for up to 60 hours a week, mostly alone while their parents worked.  Childhood psychology studies were conducted to parse out exactly what children paid attention to and retained from all that screentime, and how to make the most use out of that engagement.  It turned out commercial jingles for products like breakfast cereal & beer were the most resonant programming among the adolescent audience, so they designed a show that would “sell the alphabet to preschool children” as if it were a supermarket product.  Then, through the process of putting together a show aimed specifically at young urbanites, eccentric puppeteers like Jim Henson & Frank Oz were paired with Civil Rights activists & other Lefties to guide its creative vision, expanding its scope from educational jingles to an all-inclusive utopian vision of a world where “television loved people” instead of being outright hostile to them.  It’s a twisty journey from concept to screen with creative, political input from many, varied minds.  All that amounts to a fascinating history (which I assume is even more richly conveyed in the source material), but not necessarily an emotional gut punch.

Luckily, Sesame Street already has its own emotional gut punch documentary in the Carroll Spinney biography I Am Big Bird, which charts out the beloved puppeteer’s delicate psychological balance as expressed through both Big Bird & Oscar the Grouch.  If you’re looking for a good, wholesome cry, go there.  Because Steet Gang is spread out across so many collaborators and decades of backstory, it can’t possibly pack the same emotional wallop as the Fred Rogers or Caroll Spinney docs.  Between its praise for Spinney, Henson, Oz, songwriter Joe Raposo, and behind-the-scenes shot callers like Joan Ganz Cooney & Jon Stone, it’s reluctant to single out any one creative as responsible for the show’s magic, which makes for good journalism but shaky foundation for an emotional arc.  If there’s any core pathos to the story Street Gang tells, it’s in watching a group of young, fired-up artists & Leftists age into grumpy, burnt-out workaholics as the weekly workload of Sesame Street grinds their enthusiasm into dust.  For the most part, though, it’s just a warm bath of vintage television nostalgia that relies on feel-good throwback clips & behind-the-scenes insight to feel worthwhile.  And it works.  The expectation that these vintage TV docs emotionally destroy you is likely an unfair one; sometimes they’re just Nice.

-Brandon Ledet

Kid90 (2021)

The unspoken allure for documentaries as a medium is the promise that you’ll see raw, honest footage from real life that could never be captured in narrative filmmaking.  No matter how well a doc is fortified by talking-head interviews, firmly contextualized historical research, or a strong editorial POV, its main selling point to most audiences is going to be the carnival-barker promise of never-before-seen wonders you won’t find elsewhere in cinema.  I was thinking a lot about that tension between raw archival footage & carefully curated supplementary material during Soleil Moon Frye’s self-portrait documentary Kid90.  A reflection on her post-Punky Brewster years as a party-hard teenager with a constantly running camcorder among other Famous 90s Kids, Kid90 is a vintage backstage tour of teenage celebrity you’re likely to never see with such raw, intimate candor again.  Its modern talking-head interviews & narration often cheapen the impact of those video diary clips, but the camcorder footage is such a powerful clash of pop culture nostalgia & miserable decadence that it doesn’t matter much.  Kid90 delivers on the promise of unveiling raw, honest footage of its subjects that you’d never see in their carefully curated public appearances, but we’re at the mercy of how Frye chooses to contextualize (or withhold) that footage as the director/narrator.  We only get a peek into the window, but it’s a privilege to be invited into her world at all.

It makes sense that a former child celebrity would be protective of the private footage she has of herself and her friends (both alive and dead) struggling with the early-onset-adulthood of growing up in the entertainment industry.  I don’t know every Teen Beat star of her time by name, so I spent a lot of the movie asking questions like “Is that the guy who played Zach Morris?” as I failed to recognize some of her peers in their adult form.  There are some incredibly intimate glimpses of celebrities like David Arquette, Corey Feldman, and Leonardo DiCaprio in her camcorder diary footage, though, and seeing them act like actual teenagers instead of PR-polished entertainers is outright jarring.  Frye herself was lost in the 1990s, often cast as a teenage sex symbol after growing out of her sassy cutie-pie phase, to the point where name-calling taunts of “Punky Boobster” drove her to de-sexualize her body with a very public breast reduction surgery.  She fully understands the value of her video diaries of that pre-internet era, when celebrities young & old were much less conscious of their candid, off-stage footage leaking out into the world at large.  In one brief montage, clips of Famous 90s Kids like Stephen Dorff & Jenny Lewis drinking & getting high are intercut with their PSA participation in the “Just Say No” campaigns of the Reagan Era, which feels like a glimpse of what this film might’ve been at feature length if the footage had fallen out of Frye’s hands.  Instead, she’s careful what information to disclose and when, and you always feel as if there’s even more sensational footage on these tapes that we’ll never be allowed to see.

I’m glad that Kid90 is 100% the story Soleil Moon Frye wanted to tell, how she wanted to tell it.  So much of her private life was already in the public eye from such a young age that it’s surprising she’d offer even more of herself & her inner circle for wide consumption like this, instead of defensively locking it away.  The only letdown is how much of the film is comprised of modern-day footage of her famous friends all-growed-up, when those interviews cannot compete with the potency & enormity of what she captured on her camcorder as a teenager.  There are already much braver, more vulnerable versions of this kind of self-reflective filmmaking to be found in titles like Stories We Tell, Shirkers, and You Cannot Kill David Arquette.  Frye is more than candid enough about the abuse & heartache she suffered as a kid for us to understand why this project is a cathartic, therapeutic experience for her, and it would be unfair to ask for more than what she already shares.  The problem is that when we’re submerged in the vintage VHS nostalgia and cursed found-footage horror of her teenage video diaries, there’s just no denying that we’re watching something truly special & raw that you could not find anywhere else.  Being pulled out of that footage for a modern-day check-in is a constant disappointment, but I feel privileged to have seen even a minute of her home video footage in the first place.  I need to let go of the nagging thought that there’s even more of it that’s just outside my reach.

-Brandon Ledet