For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the psychedelic kaiju classic Godzilla vs Hedorah (aka Godzilla vs The Smog Monster, 1971).
01:20 Guy Maddin 02:30 White Rock (1977) 04:28 Ariel (1988) 07:10 Return to Oz (1985) 09:55 Logan Lucky (2017) 10:50 The New Mutants (2020) 14:40 Mr. Roosevelt (2017) 20:25 Starstruck (1982) 32:30 Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984) 36:22 Willy’s Wonderland (2021)
Our current Movie of the Month, 2016’s Chicken People, is a fluff piece documentary about eccentrics who breed chickens for Best in Show competitions, produced by Country Music Television’s filmmaking wing CMT Docs. It’s closer in quality to reality TV than it is to more hoity-toity docs like Gates of Heaven, but the volume and variety of chickens on display is borderline surreal at feature length. This is especially striking in the film’s fine-art photography shoots set against a black void, where various chickens are examined uncomfortably close-up in high definition. Chicken People does its best to highlight the personalities of the people who breed & manicure these exquisite show-chicken specimens, but those imperfect human masters cannot compete with their pampered little dinosaurs for pure entertainment value. Chickens are such an omnipresent American staple that we rarely take the time to consider how absolutely bizarre they are as a species, and it was satisfying to see a documentary take the time to examine their physical features and wider cultural footprint in intense detail.
While chickens frequently play small roles in movies like Moana, Return to Oz, Disney’s Robin Hood, and Herzog’s Stroszek, it’s rare to find a film that’s entirely about chickens, allowing the strange little beasts to take center stage. They’re largely overlooked as a worthwhile cinematic subject. However, Chicken People isn’t entirely alone in giving chickens their full due on the silver screen. Here are a few more recommended titles if you were hypnotized by the immaculately groomed birds in our Movie of the Month and want to see more movies where chickens are the star of the show.
The Natural History of the Chicken (2000)
The most obvious pairing for a chicken-themed double feature would be the made-for-TV documentary The Natural History of the Chicken, which could just as easily been titled Chicken People without any major changes to its content. Like Chicken People, The Natural History of the Chicken is a wonderfully quirky documentary about the nature and culture of chickens in America; it just happened to be produced for PBS instead of CMT. Instead of solely covering the Best-in-Show beauty pageants documented in our Movie of the Month, Natural History focuses on a wider range of domestic chicken phenomena: chickens being frozen in winter and thawed back to life, chickens with the self-sacrificing bravery of Christ on the cross, neighbors being sued for their obnoxious collection of screeching roosters, chickens intently watching opera on television, etc. The film shares the same fascination with the tiny-dino birds that makes Chicken People so hypnotic (including photographing the beasts in pitch-black voids to emphasize their strange physiques), as well as its reality-television patina as a work of art.
Because The Natural History of the Chicken was produced over two decades ago, its version of reality-TV filmmaking is more of the Rescue 911 variety, where lightly fictionalized “real” incidents are conveyed in dramatic re-enactments instead of heavy post-production editing. That quality only adds to the film’s delicate surrealism, though, which is also emphasized in its cut-and-paste green screen effects. There’s something about its low-key absurdism that reminded me heavily of David Byrne’s Americana portrait True Stories, which I mean as the highest compliment. And it even comes with its own animal-documentary pedigree behind the camera that makes that kind of lofty comparison somewhat reasonable. Director Mark Lewis is best known for his 1980s documentary about the disastrous introduction of Cane Toads to Australia (Cane Toads: An Unnatural History), but he’s also got aesthetically similar pieces on dogs, cats, cows, and rats. I’m all in on watching his entire catalog after falling in love with this chicken doc. It’s incredibly endearing, and maybe even bests Chicken People as the pinnacle of the chicken documentary genre.
Chicken Park (1994)
Speaking of repurposing the title Chicken People, I think it’d also be a great name for a horror film, like a poultry version of Alligator People. We’ve seen a horror take on humanoid chicken people before in films like Tod Browning’s Freaks and Troma’s Poultrygeist: Night of theChicken Dead, so it’s not that far outside the realm of possibility. Even in their pampered beauty-contest version, the edible little dinosaurs are just as creepy as they are oddly beautiful, and I think that imagery could easily be mined for more creature feature monstrosities – especially since the ones we’ve already got are such a weak crop. The chicken-person gag in Freaks is great, but it’s only a brief coda at the end of the film instead of the main thrust of its plot. The bad-taste musical Poultrygeist does feature some great chicken-person gore at feature length, but is outright unwatchable thanks to Lloyd Kaufman’s borderline reactionary-Conservatism as a supposed equal-opportunity-offender. So, the only genuine option for feature-length chicken horror is not a Cronenbergian creature feature about humanoid chicken hybrids but rather a straight-to-Italian-TV horror comedy that was hated even in its time by critics & audiences alike.
As you might have guessed from its title and year of release, Chicken Park is a feature-length parody of Jurassic Park, featuring chickens instead of dinosaurs. It strives to be a vulgar ZAZ knockoff but lacks the necessary energy or specificity of humor to really excel as such. Still, it’s mostly cute-bad (especially in its Night of the Lepus dino-chicken effects) as opposed to the offensive-on-purpose bad vibes of Poultrygeist (give or take a few unnecessary, unforgivable indulgences in homophobic slurs). It also earns minor bonus points for heavily featuring Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma in a bit part as a Vampira/Morticia Addams spoof (among other one-off parodies of non-dino movies of the 90s like Home Alone, Pretty Woman, and Rambo), which is some A+ casting, but not nearly enough to carry the entire film. Chicken Park is only recommendable for being the one halfway-watchable, feature-length chicken horror of note. We deserve better chicken-themed schlock. They’re terrifying! Close-up at least.
Chicken Run (2000)
It’s a little misleading to claim that there is too little chicken content across the broad cinematic landscape. There is one specific area where chickens have been allowed to run wild: children’s films. Besides being featured as comical side characters in films like Moana and Return to Oz, there are also a few high-profile kids’ movies with a main cast of animated chickens: 1991’s Rock-a-Doodle, 2005’s Chicken Little, 2015’s Huevos: Little Rooster’s Egg-cellent Adventure, etc. I’m too allergic to modern computer animation to suggest most of those titles as a Chicken People pairing, but since the majority of movies about chickens appear to be made for children, I also can’t ignore that end of the spectrum entirely. My way of meeting the criterion halfway is in finally checking out Chicken Run, a traditional stop-motion animated feature from Aardman Studios, home of Wallace & Gromit. Raking in $200mil at the box office, it’s to date the most commercially successful stop-motion film of all time. Those aren’t Minions numbers, exactly, but it’s still encouraging that a traditionally animated feature was able to succeed at all in a post-Pixar world. The popularity of chickens in children’s media is apparently just that strong.
Chicken Run is an animated homage to classic prison escape dramas like Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke and, most significantly, The Great Escape. It details a coop full of cowardly British hens being hyped up by a brash American rooster (unfortunately voiced by Mel Gibson) into escaping from their death-trap farm before they’re dismembered and packaged into meals. A children’s film about solidarity and collective action in the face of seemingly insurmountable oppression, it’s a hilariously dark and daringly political work – especially in an era when most kids’ media settles for celebrities making empty pop culture references in unenthused voiceover. Chicken Run is maybe a little too dialogue-heavy to stand out as the very best Aardman has to offer, as the studio most excels at translating Silent Era physical comedy to the stop-motion medium. Still, it’s tactile and emotionally complex in a way most post-Pixar CG animation isn’t allowed to be. Besides, it likely is the best narrative feature film entirely about chickens, regardless of medium or studio.
When the 2021 Oscar nominations were announced back in March, I put in a months-long effort to watch as many films nominated that I had genuine interest in, as long as I could access them for “free” (mostly via streaming services I already subscribed to). This meant that $20 VOD rentals of still-in-theaters titles like The Father & Minari had to simmer on the backburner, unless I could get my hands on them via a borrowed library DVD. Well, it’s June now and this year’s screwy, Soderberghian Oscars ceremony is only a hazy memory, along with any tangible critical discourse surrounding the films nominated. Even now, I’m still 23rd in line for my requested DVD copy The Father at the New Orleans Public Library, but Minari finally did arrive. The film is, to no one’s surprise, quite good. There are some big laughs, a few tears, and a heartwarming performance from the world’s cutest kid; it’s just a solid Indie Drama all around. But you already know that. It turns out there’s a price to pay if you want to participate in Online Film Discourse while it’s still fresh, and in 2021 that experience goes for about $20 a title ($30 if it’s Disney IP).
There are two main narrative tracks running parallel in Minari. In one, an enterprising Korean immigrant (Steven Yeun) moves his family from San Francisco to rural Arkansas, sacrificing their urban social life to pursue his obsession with starting a self-sufficient, profitable farm – the supposed American dream. In the other, the amateur farmer’s youngest child David (Alan S. Kim, the aforementioned cutie) struggles to connect with his grandmother, who arrives directly from Korea to live on the newfound family farm. Of those two storylines, I was much more emotionally invested in the latter. The stakes are obviously much higher in the father figure’s risk-it-all obsession with starting his own farm, but the boredom and isolation his family suffers because of that choice is given equal emotional weight. I remember what it’s like to live in the South as a kid, just far enough away from a major city that you can sense its presence but never get to enjoy its benefits; your only company is your family, whether you get along with them or not. That tension is only amplified here by the arrival of an estranged family member who doesn’t have her own place in the group dynamic yet, especially when viewed through the eyes of the shiest, most sheltered member of the household.
David’s cautious relationship with his grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung, who did take home an Oscar statue for Best Supporting Actress) is the emotional core of Minari. Her arrival on the Arkansan farm might as well be a UFO landing to him. Not only does she represent a parental home country he’s completely unfamiliar with in his short time alive (early on, he complains that she “smells like Korea”), but she also does not act like the stereotypical ideal of a grandmother he’s come to expect based on American pop media. She gambles, swears, loves pro wrestling, chugs Mountain Dew and, worst yet, she doesn’t even bake cookies. Of course, all of those qualities are rad as hell in an elderly grandmother, but it takes young David a long while to warm up to that obvious truth. Watching the two of them grow to truly know and love each other over the course of the film is a low-key kind of Movie Magic that cannot be matched by the flashier, more inevitable tragedies of the tear-jerking plot – most of which derive from the father figure’s almost entirely separate toiling on the farm.
Minari is seemingly aware that David’s inner life and personal relationship with his grandmother is its emotional anchor. At the very least, choosing to set the film in 1980s Arkansas, as opposed to current-day, affords it a kind of nostalgia-tinged remembrance that focuses on highly specific sensory details—flavors, smells, textures—that transport you back to an otherwise half-forgotten childhood. And because modern film discourse moves at such a rapid pace right now, even just thinking back to Minari‘s six Oscar nominations earlier this year is tinged with its own kind of nostalgia. The world has already moved on from discussing it, but it’s still a great film. My only real surprise in that months-late discovery is that my favorite aspect of the film was one of the few that wasn’t nominated by the Academy: Alan S. Kim’s performance as David. Cute kid.
I remember being incredibly skeptical of the sudden consensus a couple years back that 1999 was the pinnacle of modern cinema, as solidified by critic Brian Raftery’s book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. As I already rambled on about in my review of The Talented Mr. Ripley when that book was still a hot topic, I believe every Movie Year is practically the same. Most movies are bad, but a lot of them are great, and it takes time to sift through the deluge to single out the gems. All we’re experiencing now is the inevitability of critics who were young enough to first start discovering a passion for film in the late-90s now aging into a role as legitimized tastemakers, so that they’re able to collectively repeat inane phrases like “1999: Best Movie Year Ever!!!” loud & often enough that they sound halfway legit.
I am also guilty of that exact nostalgia bias myself, no matter how skeptical I am of its validity. While the critical reappraisal of 1999 as the Best Movie Year Ever wasn’t entirely convincing to me in a broad sense, it did highlight a particular facet of that era that does stand out as exceptional to me: its immaculate collection of high school-set comedies. I will never fully be able to tell if the exquisite run of high school movies from 1998-2001 really was exceptionally great or if I’m just nostalgic for the era because I was entering high school around the time. Either way, this list of titles just from 1999 seems like a staggering canon of all-time classics to my biased eye: Drop Dead Gorgeous, But I’m a Cheerleader!, 10 Things I Hate About You, Jawbreaker, Election, Cruel Intentions, Drive Me Crazy, She’s All That, etc. And then there’s the one eerie, troublesome outlier from that 1999 High School Classics canon that feels like it drifted in from another place & time altogether – the debut feature from director Sofia Coppola.
The Virgin Suicides is less the social hierarchy satire that most post-Heathers high school comedies strive for than it is a modernized, American update to the eerie Peter Weir whatsit Picnic at Hanging Rock. Unlike most 1999 High School Classics, it’s not a comedy at all, but rather a melancholy drama about Big Teenage Feelings and the uncanny nature of nostalgia. Still, the film indulges in a bemused humor at the expense of the awkwardness of teenage dating rituals in the 1970s Michigan suburbs, often conveying the domestic imprisonment of its titular teenage virgins through a tight-lipped smirk. Under the severely over-protective eye of their parents, the five young sisters become isolated and lonely to the point of suicidal depression, and the movie sincerely engages with the impact of that tragedy (as opposed to, say, the way teen deaths are handled in Drop Dead Gorgeous, the other Kirsten Dunst classic from that year). Its amusement with that tragedy is mostly centered on how the girls are perceived by their clueless, infatuated peers.
While The Virgin Suicides is technically about the suicidal sisters, the girls’ story is told through the eyes of their romantically starved neighbors – a group of inexperienced young boys who saw them mostly as a window into the supposed enigma of femininity. All the Picnic at Hanging Rock supernatural mystery surrounding the girls is an extension of their distanced male admirers’ POV, who try to solve their lives and deaths as if they were a curious puzzle and not simply victims of a neurotically repressive parenting style. By tapping into that nostalgia-tinged teenage longing, Coppola evokes something intensely powerful untouched by any other high school movie of its era. She stated in an interview, “I really didn’t know I wanted to be a director until I read The Virgin Suicides and saw so clearly how it had to be done. I immediately saw the central story about what distance and time and memory do to you, and about the extraordinary power of the unfathomable.” You’re not going to find that kind of shit in 10 Things I Hate About You, as fun as it is as a more typical literary “adaptation” from that era.
I love The Virgin Suicides. It feels more complexly funny, dreamlike, and femme every time I watch it, especially since I was a clueless, romance-starved teenage boy myself when I first rented it from a Blockbuster in the early-2000s New Orleans suburbs. There was a spoil of Teen Movie riches flooding video store shelves in that era, but none of them hit the exact dazed, Hanging Rock tone Coppola’s film did. I won’t cosign the broader 1999: Best Movie Year ever discourse (which really doesn’t matter, since I appear to be the only person still hung up on it), but if can we narrow that claim down to 1999: Best High School Movie Year Ever the argument is much, much more compelling – and this inclusion in that canon is one of the most impeccable standouts.
In recent months I’ve been enjoying floating round in the grey area between classic noir & melodrama with a few Joan Crawford classics like Mildred Pierceand The Damned Don’t Cry. While I still have a few more titles to visit before I abandon that track (I particularly look forward to traveling down Flamingo Road), the Gene Tierney psych-thriller Leave Her to Heaven was an excellent detour on the journey. I don’t want to suggest that anyone but Tierney should’ve been cast in the film’s central, villainous role, but Leave Her To Heaven is the exact kind of sinister romantic obsession story that Crawford excelled at in the best of her melodramatic noirs. The difference is that Joan would’ve gobbled up the scenery with a fiery passion, hurling cocktail glasses at the wall and clawing at her victims like a wild animal. By contrast, Tierney is ice cold in her own femme fatale villainy – passionate in her romantic obsession, yet inhumanly ruthless in eliminating that romance’s minor obstacles. Her red Technicolor lipstick is louder than she ever raises her voice, yet she leaves behind a shocking trail of dead as she inevitably gets her way. It’s an entirely different mode of femme villainy than I’m used to from the genre’s more animated, expressive titans like Crawford & Stanwyck, but it’s just as stunning to watch.
A large part of Leave Her to Heaven‘s novelty within its genre is in seeing the femme fatale archetype interpreted as a Too-Dutiful Housewife, as opposed to a Sultry Seductress. Tierney’s major crime is that she wants to spend too much time with her husband. Well, that and the murders. Her main crime is probably the murders. The first act of the film is a slow-moving courtship ritual in which a bestselling author (Cornel Wilde) is allured by the charms of a fiercely independent socialite (Tierney) whose family is quietly terrified of her. The doomed author feels compelled to position himself as her macho protector, but it’s clear from her family’s unease with the courtship that he should be protecting himself. It isn’t until their inevitable marriage that the exact nature of that threat becomes clear. Ferociously possessive of her husband’s time and attention, Tierney takes her newfound role as a housewife far too seriously. She announces early on, “I have no intention of hiring a cook, or a housekeeper, or any other servants, ever. I don’t know want anyone else but me to do anything for you.” The husband finds this proclamation sweet, but she really means it. Any possible distraction to their alone time—whether family, visitors, his writing, or their baby—is in danger of being obliterated by her possessive jealousy. In becoming The Dream Wife, she’s a total fucking nightmare.
There’s a pervasive, harmful myth in modern Western culture that your romantic partner must be your Everything, that no other relationship matters once you make that all-encompassing monogamous commitment. Leave Her To Heaven turns that expectation into something incredibly sinister, thanks largely to Tierney’s ice-queen ruthlessness. Even when she suffers her unavoidable punishment for her transgressions under the dictums of The Hays Code, she still finds a way to weaponize that punishment and continue her campaign of preemptive revenge upon her marriage’s potential distractions. Between its Academy Ratio framing and lush Technicolor sheen (something that was especially eye-searing on my shiny new Criterion Blu-ray), Leave Her to Heaven is dressed up in some remarkably classy Old Hollywood packaging. Meanwhile, Tierney’s femme fatale housewife feels like she stepped out of a trashy novel from Ira Levin or Gillian Flynn. She’s one of cinema’s greatest, most delectable monsters, and she achieves that all-timer status by dutifully following the basic tenets of modern monogamy. As much of a sucker I am for Joan Crawford’s explosive fury in her own melodrama-noirs, I was totally won over by Tierney’s more reserved, slow-simmering resentment here. I need to make a point to watch more of her own 1940s crime melodramas once I’m done chasing down all of Joan’s.
I recently corrected a major personal blindspot for an episode of The Swampflix Podcast: I finally watched Vertigo. Actually, we watched four different versions of Vertigo for that discussion, if you include its cheap-o homages Obsession, Perversion Story, and The Green Fog. While I wasn’t fully convinced by the critical consensus that Vertigo is The Greatest Film of All Time (a near-impossible standard for any movie to live up to), I found the experience of watching that same story repeated in film after film to be mildly hypnotic, to the point where I now see its influence everywhere. Thinking back to recent, unrelated movies I didn’t immediately clock as “Hitchcockian” when I first watched them—titles likePhoenix, Ismael’s Ghosts, Double Lover, and Dogs Don’t Wear Pants—all I see is Vertigo, Vertigo, Vertigo all the way down. That was also my exact experience while watching the recent Hungarian romance thriller Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time. Any of the long-simmering intrigue & dread the movie establishes with its high-concept premise can’t help but feel like a distant, hollow echo of Vertigo to me right now, while I’m still stumbling through new movies in this Hitch-hypnotized state.
At least Preparations to Be Together gender-flips the usual Vertigo dynamic, detailing the romantic & erotic obsession of a woman trailing her dream version of a man who may not exist, as opposed to the Pygmalion tropes of the story we’re used to. A Hungarian neurosurgeon returns to her home city of Budapest after decades of practicing medicine in New Jersey, stalling her prestigious career on the cutting edge of medicine technologies to chase down a man she had a brief romantic connection with at a medical conference. When she reunites with him in his hospital’s parking lot, he does not recognize her, claiming they have never met. And so, we have the ironic story of a neurosurgeon losing her mind as she obsesses over a man she’s intensely attracted to but who also may be a total stranger, a ghost, or a figment of her imagination. She’s more of a quiet observer than she is an active, charismatic protagonist – conveying most of her internal conflict through the cold intensity of actor Natasa Stork’s metallic blue eyes. Still, director Lili Horvát manages to maintain a constant tension between heartbreaking loneliness & otherworldly mystery throughout, even if her reluctance to do anything flashy or concrete with that stored-up energy can be a little frustrating once the end credits hit.
Preparations to Be Together feels like Vertigo reimagined (or maybe unimagined) as the kind of middling Euro psych-thrillers I routinely, dutifully watched as a teen, when late-night IFC broadcasts were my only access to High Brow Cinema. Its unflinching indulgences in sexual intimacy, surgical gore, and philosophical discussions of the human brain are the exact kind of thing that would’ve made me feel smarter than I really was as a mouthbreathing teenager, but I can’t say they resonate with any real heft now. It ultimately wasn’t my recent over-exposure to the apparently wide-ranging genre of Vertigo Homage that numbed me to the movie’s low-key, ethereal charms. It was more that after decades of watching so many wishy-washy Euro headscratchers on cable broadcasts, film festival screens, and borrowed library DVDs it’s hard for any one example to stand out from the others. If anything, my recent Hitchcock Homage tangent was a life raft that gave me something solid to latch onto, since so much of the film is fluid & restrained.
Even as a curmudgeonly thirty-something, I’m one of the youngest people working in my office. By a lot. Most of the staff has been haunting this building for decades, a kind of professional longevity that tends to encourage inconsequential, interpersonal resentments that have been simmering on a low flame for almost as long as I’ve been alive. Such is the joy of bureaucracy, where someone taking the wrong parking space or forgetting to remove their coffee pod from the communal Keurig machine is equivalent to a war crime. It’s an absurd dynamic to witness as a newcomer just trying to survive the daily shift so I can get back to Real Life, but Office Drama means the world to the poor souls ensnared by it, and I’m scared that I’ll inevitably be able to count myself among them.
While I was still just a middle school dweeb with delusions of one day becoming a Famous Writer (as you can guess, I eventually settled for Hobbyist Blogger), the Sundance sleeper Clockwatchers already perfectly captured the ugly, grey heart of those workplace resentments in a genuine, existential way. Clockwatchers is an absurdist, subtly heartbreaking workplace satire in which Toni Colette, Parker Posey, and Lisa Kudrow play a collective of disgruntled office temps embroiled in a meaningless scandal over stolen office supplies. It blows up petty, pointless office drama to a tragicomic extreme, wryly observing both the outsized importance of workplace resentments among the long-established people it matters to and the absurdity of it among newcomers who find it soul-crushingly inane.
In what should be a surprise to no one, it’s Toni Collette’s lead performance as a shy, lonely office clerk that affords the film most of its devastating pathos. She starts off at her temp job’s typing pool following instructions like “Sit there until someone comes and tells you what to do” with a literal-minded obedience, failing to assert or draw attention to herself at every turn. It’s exciting to see her meek demeanor corrupted and steeled by Posey & Kudrow’s more proudly obnoxious behavior as the film goes on, but she doesn’t fully transform into a who-gives-a-fuck office badass until it’s too late. To survive the petty stolen office supplies conflict that drives the plot, the temps need to operate collectively, with strength in solidarity. Watching her struggle to muster that strength is genuinely heartbreaking, especially in comparison to Posey’s loudmouth iconoclast, who has bravery to spare.
It’s probably not the most attention-grabbing achievement a movie could pull off, but Clockwatchers perfectly captures the unnatural, mind-numbing tedium of a day’s work in the life of an anonymous bureaucrat, something I can unfortunately attest to with plenty personal experience. It would make for a great double bill with Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls or Kitty Green’s The Assistant, although it’s much, much lighter in tone than either of those blood-chillers. The context of Clockwatchers’s scandalous typing pool might be less severe than either of those pairings’, but they each touch on similar themes of meaningless, soul-destroying office labor. Watching these all-time-great actors collect dust in the blank, white-void walls of their excruciatingly ordinary office—”trying to look busy while there’s nothing to do”—is a very familiar strain of existential crisis. And then someone has the nerve to make their days even more pointlessly excruciating over accusations of stolen staplers & paperweights? It’s the absolute height of human cruelty.
I wonder if anyone’s ever put together a definitive list of The Most Floridian Films of All Time. If so, I’d like to nominate Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar for inclusion in that canon. While other recent Florida-as-Fuck movies like Magic Mike, The Beach Bum, and The Florida Projecthave understandably centered their stories on the beach state’s burnout locals, Barb and Star dares to explore its function as the nation’s largest tourist trap. The hotel tiki bars, by-the-hour boat rentals, boardwalk souvenir shops, and Lisa Frank color palettes that overwhelm the screen are all hyperspecific to Floridian tourism. The authenticity of that setting includes the characterization of the titular tourists as well: two clueless but sweet rubes from the Midwest with absurdly superficial notions of what a getaway vacation adventure should look like. You could remake this entire film on a cruise ship without having to change many of its gags or locations, which is how you know it perfectly captures the tacky surrealism of the modern tourist industry. This is the fantasy version of Florida presented in all-inclusive vacation package pamphlets, and it’s wonderfully bizarre to see actual human beings navigate those flamingo pink waters.
Of course, the main concern of this absurdist buddy comedy is neither to capture the spirit of Floridian tourism nor to drum up tension in its superfluous sci-fi espionage plot. It’s simply trying to make you laugh, and it ably succeeds. Kristen Wiig and frequent collaborator Annie Mumolo co-lead as Barb & Star, a pair of middle-age, Midwest besties whose co-dependent life together has hit a spiritual rut. In search of a “soul douche” meant to rediscover their inner “shimmer”, the gals head off to the gift shop-lined beaches of Florida. There, they learn to have fun without hanging onto each other 24/7, thanks to the help of a sexy himbo staying in the same hotel (Fifty Shades of Grey‘s Jamie Dornan) and an exponentially out-of-place terrorist plot orchestrated by a James Bond villain (also played by Wiig). It’s a delightful throwback to a very specific type of absurdist buddy comedy that rarely gets made anymore, where a pair of Good Buds bounce inane in-jokes off each other, unaware of the deadly-serious crisis that orbits around them. I’m thinking of titles like Zoolander, A Night at the Roxbury, Dude Where’s My Car?, and Romy & Michelle’s High School Re-Union. Like all those previous examples of its ilk, it’s destined to gradually build a cult audience, one that will likely outlast the cultural impact of Wiig & Mumolo’s previous, more commercially successful screenplay collaboration, Bridesmaids.
If I have one complaint about Barb and Star, it’s that it’s one song performance short of being a full-blown musical. Why stop at two break-from-reality musical numbers? A third one would have really rounded out the show, especially a grand musical blowout finale. And no, Richard Cheese’s cameo as a boobies-obsessed lounge singer does not count. Otherwise, it’s a perfect, traditional buddy comedy – one bolstered by its excessively Floridian set design, which strives to outdo The Birdcage‘s commitment to that pleasure realm aesthetic in every new locale. This might even be the best vehicle yet for the normcore-parody comedic sensibilities Wiig honed on SNL, considering that most of her film work since that show has been focused on darkly funny indie dramas (give or take a MacGruber). Any minor complaints about where it falls short in its musicality or narrative structure are entirely besides the point. It’s simply fun. Or, in the movie’s own words, it’s “a real tit-flapper”.
If you’re a movie nerd of a certain age and sensibility, you’re already well aware that there’s a new Pedro Almodóvar short that recently premiered on HBO Max. Filmed during the pandemic, it’s a cramped, minor production that essentially amounts to Tilda Swinton performing a one-woman play: Jean Cocteau’s 1930s actress showcase “The Human Voice.” In the abstract, it’s surprising that the short is Almodóvar’s first collaboration with Swinton, since the two seem like a perfect pair. In practice, it makes sense that he’d want to distance himself from that casting choice’s unavoidable association with the similarly idiosyncratic works of Derek Jarman, a contemporary. The Human Voice feels like watching Almodóvar filter the basic components of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown through a Derek Jarman lens — complete with unadorned stage play theatrics & endless fascination with Tilda Swinton’s bone structure. It’s a gorgeously wrapped, bitterly funny treat the way that Almodóvar always is at his best, but it’s more of a dispassionate, abstracted work than what he normally delivers. That’s fine for a short-film experiment meant to fill in the schedule gap created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it did have me yearning for the barely coherent chaos of Almodóvar’s previous extrapolation of this same story in Women on the Verge. There’s just something about that earlier, messier draft’s manic screwball energy that speaks more directly to my garbage bin heart than this distilled Conceptual Art revision ever could.
Thankfully, the arrival of The Human Voice on HBO Max was accompanied by ten earlier works from Almodóvar’s back catalog, so it was extremely convenient to scratch that itch. We already covered many of the titles included in that package on an episode of The Swampflix Podcast last year, but a few selections were completely new to me, including Almodóvar’s debut feature Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón. Any of the chaotic Pee-wee’s Playhouse kitch-punk I was picking up on in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is amplified a thousand-fold in Pepi, Luci, Bom. Filmed over two years’ worth of spare weekends in Almodóvar’s punk-youth days in the Movida Madrileña movement, Pepi, Luci, Bom is a total fucking mess – the exact spiritual opposite of the cold arthouse abstraction of The Human Voice. It’s a grimy, post-John Waters comedy that’s more concerned with obnoxiously breaking every taboo imaginable than it is with purpose or coherence. Late in its second act, its protagonist (Pepi, played by Almodóvar regular Carmen Maura) admits she has no idea how the fictional film’s she’s making is going to end, which feels like a desperate confession to the audience from the cash-strapped man behind the camera. Like Pink Flamingos, its broad outline plotting is mostly an excuse to stage a series of barely connected, highly scatological stunts among its cast of subprofessional freaks & punks. It’s a little obnoxious, glaringly imperfect, and I love it for all its many, many faults.
Speaking of Derek Jarman, I don’t know that I’ve felt this at home with a cast & setting since I first stumbled onto Jubilee. Pepi, Luci, Bom is dragged by its hair trailing the story of a mousy housewife who’s seduced & corrupted by the local punks who despise her cop husband and conspire to ruin his life. Unfortunately, like most Almodóvar films, it falls under the queasy genre umbrella of the Rape Revenge Comedy, which makes it difficult to blanketly recommend to the uninitiated. Like in Waters’s early provocation pieces, the depictions of sexual assault are so flippant and grotesquely absurd that they’re difficult to take entirely seriously, but that transgression is still frequently repeated and frequently alienating all the same. Like in Almodóvar’s later, more refined works, the women of Pepi, Luci, Bom refuse to be dismissed as victims, no matter how much violence the macho authority figures in their lives inflict on them. The mousy housewife subverts the power imbalance suffered under her abusive cop husband’s thumb by incorporating her victimhood into her masochistic sexual kinks. Likewise, the cop’s street-punk rape victim becomes sexually aroused while watching her scumbag friends kick him half to death in the street. And just so you know not to take that vicious beating too seriously, it includes the bloodied cop shouting “Not my balls!” at his assailants as if it were a screwball comedy punchline. It’s all in bad taste, and yet it’s all in good fun.
I can’t explain exactly why, but I found all of this film’s elaborate indulgences in piss play, stoner gags, fart jokes, and literal dick measuring contests to be oddly wholesome, despite the severity of its rape-revenge premise. I was shocked, for instance, by how sweetly romantic I found Bom’s performance of her band Bonitoni’s love song “Murciana marrana”, written in ode to her maso-girlfriend Luci with the lyrics “I love you because you’re dirty, filthy, slutty, and servile. You’re Murcia’s most obscene, and you’re all mine”. Watching these three women and their knucklehead punk buddies thumb their nose at every possible taboo while modeling homemade clothing in shocking pinks & phlegmy yellows genuinely warmed my heart, even as the film’s nastier stunts turned my stomach. The only thing that holds Pepi, Luci, Bom back from fully conveying Almodóvar’s chaotic genius is the limitations of its budget. Not only did its scrappy weekend-to-weekend production derail any potential for narrative cohesion, but its 16mm to 35mm blow-up print also lacks the color saturation that makes later, better-funded works like Women on the Verge pop like a poisoned candy shop. Still, despite all its ramshackle production details and juvenile pranksterism, it’s clear that Almodóvar was already fully himself here, complete with The Human Voice-worthy pontifications about how “Cinema isn’t life; cinema is fabricated.” If anything, his usual sensibilities are just presented raw & unfiltered here, in a way that feels genuinely dangerous – a far cry from the controlled arthouse abstraction of his recent short.