Welcome to Episode #187 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Hanna, and Britnee discuss Terrence Malick’s signature works, starting with the brief-history-of-time family drama The Tree of Life (2011).
01:14 Missing (2023) 03:44 The Little Mermaid (2023) 10:55 The Last Laugh (1924) 14:50 Breakdown (1997) 18:30 Sibling Rivalry (1990) 21:03 Stripper (1986) 22:52 Flashdance (1983)
28:28 The Tree of Life (2011) 55:22 Badlands (1973) 1:09:35 Days of Heaven (1978) 1:23:30 The New World (2005)
If you follow enough fired-up cynics on Twitter, you’d think that queer youth culture is suddenly going soft after decades of consistent, unified radical politics. There are surely some fruitful debates to be had about the ways corporate & police presence have been welcomed into Pride celebrations recently, especially when it comes at the expense of freer, kinkier expressions of queer sexuality. However, I’m a little more skeptical about the recent in-house dogpiling on “tenderqueer” Zoomers for their generational desire to see wholesome, conflict-free Gay Representation onscreen, as if that impulse is anything new. Politically edgier queer audiences have been debating Gay Assimilationists about the value of presenting “the right kind of representation” to the public at large since at least as far back as Stonewall, which has led to much controversy over “the wrong kind of representation” in movies like Basic Instinct, Cruising, and The Boys in the Band for presenting their queer characters as flawed & villainous when they had no wholesome mainstream counterbalance. I have to wonder how much that eternal controversy has dulled the career & reputation of queer provocateur Gregg Araki, whose signature works have been left to rot in censored, out-of-print obscurity since he first made a splash in the New Queer Cinema era of the 1990s. All those decades ago, Araki got enough pushback for making hyperviolent, oversexed queer art he describes as “too punk rock for gay people” that he thought it’d be easier to sneak his edgier, more outrageous ideas into his version of a straight film. Araki’s breakout 1995 road trip flick The Doom Generation is even subtitled “A heterosexual movie by Gregg Araki,” a cheeky in-joke about how it’s easier to get away with making his provocative, overtly queer outsider art within a heterosexual dynamic, since there’s much less pressure to deliver “the right kind of representation” in that context. Or, as Araki put it in a recent interview, “I made this heterosexual movie, but in a very punk rock bratty way, made it so gay.”
That hetero cosplay may have landed Araki easier production funding, but the prudish straights in charge of mainstream movie distribution were not fooled. The Doom Generation has been heavily, viciously censored since it first premiered at Sundance, with its various R-rated home video cuts removing up to 20 minutes of footage so that what’s left onscreen is borderline incoherent. Although some of those Blockbuster Video-friendly edits removed scenes of cartoonish ultraviolence, you will not be surprised to learn that a majority of what has been removed is its queer sexual content, which drives most of the relationship dynamics between its trio of disaffected Gen-X leads. So, it’s a huge deal that The Doom Generation has been recently restored to fit Araki’s original vision nearly three decades after its film festival premiere, re-released into a post-She-Ra, post-Steven Universe tenderqueer world that’s just as squeamish about the wrong kinds of representation as it’s always been. Its theatrical victory lap is a bittersweet blessing for me personally, in that I wish it was around in my life when I was a John Waters-obsessed edgelord teen, but I also cherished getting to see it for the first time with a rowdy crowd of queer weirdos who hooted & hollered the entire screening. Laughing along with like-minded genre freaks made every horned-up, airheaded line reading hit way harder than it would have if I watched it alone on VHS in the 90s, with or without the prudish MPAA censorship. There was something heartwarming about sharing that experience with multiple generations of in-the-flesh human weirdos who might be inclined to snipe at each other for minor political differences online but can’t help but cackle & gasp in unison at campy, radical queer art when it’s presented IRL. It’s just not that often that boundary-pushing queer art survives the controversy cycle to reach queer audiences in the first place, and it turns out that costuming itself as “heterosexual” can only help it get so far.
Internal gay debates about positive representation in American media may have not changed much in the past few decades, but to be fair neither has America at large. If The Doom Generation lives up to its “heterosexual” subtitle in any authentic way, it’s in its depiction of an apocalyptic USA in cultural decline. It’s one the best movies out there about how boring, rotten, and beautifully cheap life in America can be, defining US culture as a putrid pile of junk food, junk television, fundamentalist Christians, and Nazi right-wingers. Set in an America where everything costs $6.66 and is protected by loaded gun, the film responds to the nation’s final moments before Rapture with pure Gen-X apathy, shrugging off every grotesque fascist afront with a Valley Girl “Whatever!” worthy of Cher Horowitz herself. Rose McGowan & James Duvall star as a pair of aimless, politically numb punks whose teenage puppylove is disrupted by the intrusion of Johnathon Schaech, a leather-clad agent of chaos. After the third-wheel interloper makes them accomplices in the brutal (and somewhat accidental) murder of a gas station clerk, the trio go on a cross-country, Natural Born Killers crime spree touring the nation’s cheapest fast-food joints & honeymoon motels. The reluctant throuple’s initial sexual dynamic starts as adulterous betrayal, but quickly devolves into a bisexual free-for-all that edges the audience to desperately want to see the two male leads kiss (and more). Only, Araki interrupts the gay male tension in that central threesome with a violent reminder of just how broken & violent life in America can be, concluding their road trip with a shock of strobelit Nazi brutality that fucks everything up just when it things are starting to get properly heated. The Doom Generation might feature characters exploring the boundaries of their emerging queer sexual identities, but it’s also honest about how horrific it can feel to do so among the straight Christian psychopaths who run the USA – something all generations of queer audiences can relate to, no matter how sensitive they are to onscreen sex & violence.
I could go on all day about how sexually, politically transgressive The Doom Generation is in both its modern & retro American contexts, but really its greatest strength is that it’s extremely cool. McGowan’s Gen-X punk uniform of plastic gas station sunglasses, see-through plastic raincoat, and blunt, dyed goth bob looks just as hip now as it ever did. Every motel room & dive bar interior is a gorgeously cheap fantasy realm of D.I.Y. decor & artifice, so much so that I mistook the out-of-context screengrabs I’ve seen over the years for a momentary dream sequence instead of the overall art design. Decades before anyone would think to tweet “Give Parker Posey a sword,” Gregg Araki gave Parker Posey a sword, casting her as a crazed lesbian stalker in a cheap drag queen wig. And yet Duvall’s performance stands out as the coolest detail of all, nailing the kind of puppydog himbo humor that would have made him a beloved Keanu Reeves-level cult figure if this film were given the proper, uncensored distribution it deserved. It’s not often you see a movie combine the finer points of Heathers, Freeway, Blood Diner, and Terminal U.S.A. into one toxic Gen-X gumbo, even if it’s one that crassly force-feeds the concoction to its audience through an unwashed beer funnel. I was overjoyed to gulp down The Doom Generation unfiltered with a full crowd of fellow filth-hungry weirdos, if not only for the reminder that radical queer art has always been controversial by nature, and America has always been an apocalyptic cesspool. At the same time, I also left the theater angry that the film hadn’t been funneled into my brain sooner, and that so much of Araki’s back catalog of bad-representation punk provocations are still not readily accessible to the modern public. Here’s to hoping that titles like Nowhere, Splendor, and Totally Fucked Up get this same digital-restoration victory lap soon—theatrical re-release and all—before Christian America gets the Rapture it so desperately wants.
I’ve been struggling to find much to get excited about in theaters lately, now that “Summer” Blockbuster Season has encroached well into Spring, and multiplex marquees are once again all superheroes all of the time. The general vibe among moviegoing audiences is that the superhero era is winding down post-Endgame, but it’s going to take a long time for Hollywood studios to adjust to that dwindling enthusiasm, since these billion-dollar behemoths take years to produce & market. Personally, I’m so deeply, incurably bored by American superhero media that I’m avoiding all four-quadrant crowd-pleasers out there, not just the usual suspects like the new Guardians, the new Ant-Man, and the new Shazam. If I stare at the poster or trailer for any tentpole blockbuster above a 6-figure production budget for long enough, they all appear to follow the same MCU superhero action template. Super Mario Bros, Dungeons & Dragons, and Fast X are all essentially superhero movies to me, each with their own invincible, quippy gods among men who save the day by extending their IP. I can’t hide from the new release calendar forever, though, so I need to re-learn how to enjoy a superhero movie or two until Hollywood fully moves onto the next money-printing fad. Given that there are already dozens of Marvel & DC movies slated for release over the next few summers, it’s likely going to take a long time for this lumbering industry to correct course. So, it’s somewhat fortuitous that the Italian supernatural action epic Freaks vs. The Reich finally landed a US release in this dire time of need, after years of stumbling over international distribution hurdles. It’s the most convincing evidence I’ve seen in a while that there is still some juice left in the superhero genre, despite Hollywood’s determination to squeeze it dry and pummel the rind.
If there’s anything more frustratingly slow than Hollywood’s response to public appetite, it’s the distribution of international art films, which often fall into a years-long limbo between their initial festival runs and their wide US premieres. I’ve been waiting to see Freaks vs. The Reich for so long that its earliest roadblocks were COVID related, and its original title has since been changed to give it a fresher, more recognizable appeal. I suppose rebranding the film from Freaks Out to its new, more descriptive title is a useful warning for the shocking amount of Nazi imagery you’ll find in this supernatural circus sideshow fantasy. It also helps explain why it’s so easy to cheer on the titular, superpowered freaks who take those Nazis down. I wonder if some of its distribution delays had to do with clearing song rights, since the main Nazi supervillain in question abuses ether to mentally time-travel into the future, returning to the battlefields of WWII with visions of smartphones, video game controllers, and old-timey renditions of Radiohead’s “Creep” & Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” The inclusion of “Creep” is important to note there, since the song also happens to be featured in the more traditional, straightforward superhero epic Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which is currently eating up a grotesque amount of American screen space. Whether you think it’s more interesting to hear that song played on a Spotify algorithm mixtape to evoke easy nostalgia points or performed by a drugged-out, time-traveling Nazi supervillain is a question of taste, but I can at least personally attest to appreciating a sense of variety within this oppressively omnipresent genre template.
Freaks vs. The Reich opens with a full circus sideshow act, introducing our Italian superhero freaks one at a time as they show off their individual talents – a magnetic dwarf, an electric ballerina, a real-life wolf-man, etc. Before they can bow for audience applause, however, their tent is blown to shreds by Nazi warplanes, and they spend the rest of the movie rebuilding the team so they can end the war themselves. Caught up in concentration camp processing, Italian militia resistance, and general wartime disorientation, they are all eventually reunited by the ether-huffing, time-travelling Nazi who’s convinced he can win the war for Hitler if he assembles the freaks to fight for Deutschland. This all culminates in a grand superpowers battle in an open field (the way most superhero epics do), and I will admit that the journey to get to that predetermined conclusion can be a little overlong & draining (the way most superhero epics are). There’s at least some novelty in the film’s antique circus sideshow aesthetic and WWII historical contexts, though, and novelty is a precious commodity for a genre that’s been so prevalent over the past decade. It’s like watching the cast of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children act out the plot of Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio on the leftover sets of Matteo Garrone’s live-action Pinocchio – an antique Italo horror show. You won’t find that kind of aesthetic deviance in the upcoming Flash or Captain Marvel sequels, which you can pretty much already picture start to end in your head sight-unseen. These superhero freaks are flawed, messy, and they fuck, including the wolfman archetype in what has to be the hairiest sex scene since The Howling Part II: Your Sister is a Werewolf. Meanwhile, Marvel & DC are still stubbornly stuck in a chaste, sanitized universe where “everyone is beautiful and no one is horny.” They also murder Nazis, a universally agreeable target that hasn’t been attacked with such sincere patriotism since Marvel peaked in 2011 with Captain America: The First Avenger.
I’m probably doing this movie no favors by comparing it against American superhero media, since everyone’s starting to feel the same way about the genre as we felt about zombie media 17 seasons into The Walking Dead: numbly apathetic. Within that context, though, it’s a breath of fresh ether – one of the strangest, most upsetting superhero stories since James Gunn made Super, at least five James Gunn superhero movies ago. Maybe Freaks vs. The Reich would have fared better before our culture-wide superhero fatigue fully settled (it was initially set to be released less than a year after Endgame), but I personally needed it now more than ever, just so something in this genre didn’t look like a total snooze.
Paul Schrader is a controversial figure. Once upon a time, the writer of The Last Temptation of Christ, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver was an easy person to point to as, inarguably, a man who understood how to tell a story and tell it well. A professed Christian, it’s hard to pin down what exactly he believes in. In 2016, his online outbursts about the soon-to-be-inaugurated 45th U.S. president were so vitriolic—he even invoked the name of John Brown, the famous abolitionist who was martyred following his attempts to incite slave rebellions prior to the Civil War—that they prompted an investigation from the NYPD’s Counter Terrorism unit. Last year, however, in another social media post apparently inspired by the Academy Awards sweep byEverything Everywhere All at Once, he criticized the “wokeness” of the Oscars, and the year prior, he referred to the positive critical reappraisal of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in the Sight & Sound decade-ending poll as a “landmark of distorted woke reappraisal.” With that in mind, one has to wonder what he means with his latest picture, Master Gardener, as he was both writer and director on the feature. Technically, there are spoilers ahead.
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) leads a team of groundskeepers at the historical estate of Gracewood Gardens. He is meticulous in every word and deed; his interactions with his staff and his employer include very precise word choice, his planning of the grounds and deliberate choices of which flowers should be planted in which quadrant to ensure complementary and continuous blooming demonstrate a profound punctiliousness, and his small home—which sits on the grounds just near the main house at Gracewood—is rigidly organized and maintained. In his journals and his dreams, however, we learn that his mind is not so painstakingly groomed and patterned. Early on, he refers to the moments of anticipation leading up to the blooming of a flower with the use of a violent simile: that it is like the moment leading up to the pulling of a trigger. As we learn through a series of flashbacks, Gracewood is not where Narvel was hired, but is in fact where he was placed, as part of the Witness Protection Program. A former member of a neo-Nazi militia, he turned state’s evidence and has resided at Gracewood ever since. (I know that, for some, this will constitute a spoiler, but I also feel it important to take note of this, since I went into the film with no knowledge that this would be part of the film, and this is a sensitive topic that I feel it is important to have some forewarning about.)
His world begins to change when the ancestral owner of the estate, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), informs Narvel that he will soon be responsible for the apprenticeship of her great niece, a young woman named Maya (Quintessa Swindell). Maya, the product of an interracial marriage, formerly visited the grounds with her mother, the daughter of Norma’s sister, when she was a child, but those visits came to an end with Maya’s mother took ill and died. In contrast to Narvel’s overt but distant racism, Norma’s is genteel but still very much present. She refers to Maya, derisively, as being of “mixed blood,” and in the scene in which we learn that there are elements of sexual transaction in Narvel and Norma’s relationship, we see that she regards the medley of racist tattoos that Narvel keeps hidden beneath his gardening clothes (the numbers 88 and 14, the Confederate flag, cracker bolts, and the obligatory swastika) with gratified admiration. While Narvel interacts pleasantly and respectfully with his diverse staff, Maya, and even his WitSec contact Oscar Neruda (Puerto Rican-American Esai Morales) in a way that demonstrates that he has shaken off the hatred of his past, Norma still occupies what is clearly and inarguably a former plantation house, and the way that she carries herself and interacts with both her staff and her last living relative, whom she considers tainted by her non-whiteness, demonstrates that her passive racism and white supremacy is harmful in the same way that Narvel’s past neo-Nazi activities were. Things take a turn for the worse when Norma banishes Narvel and Maya from Gracewood when she falsely assumes that the two have developed a sexual relationship. Narvel invites Maya to come with him, detox and get sober, and continue to learn to find meaning in the horticultural arts, but even though he has pruned himself in such a way that he has grown into a different person, his worries that his roots (pun intended) in violence and white supremacy may taint him and his actions forever.
I see this film being listed as a crime thriller in most postings, and while it definitely has elements of that genre (there are certain segments involving vigilante activity that feel like they could have been lifted directly from the 2014 version of The Equalizer), Master Gardener is, first and foremost, a character study, and frequently has moments of black comedy as well. Narvel is a man of contradictions, formerly a member of the worst kind of terrorist organization who now stands as the human bulwark between the aging Norma and her staff. When Maya sees his tattoos and confronts him about them, asking why he hasn’t had them covered up or removed, he has no real answer for her, only stating that he had looked into it and decided not to (which I interpret as Narvel having left them on his body for Norma’s sake but not wanting to say this outright, but that’s just my reading of the text and is by no means canonical). In an early sequence in which Narvel’s journal is presented to us in voiceover, he recounts that while it was once thought that seeds had a lifespan of less than two centuries, but that some that had been uncovered by archaeologists millennia after they were harvested were able to be sprouted, speaking to the perseverance of nature, but in the same sequence, he refers to his tattoos as seeds as well, and it’s left ambiguous what this means. Does he think that hate is eternal? What does he expect them to germinate into? We never get a clear answer.
This is a rich, beautifully photographed, and sumptuous film. Immediately after, when my viewing companion and I were discussing it over dinner, neither of us was sure if we had enjoyed it or not, and I’m still not sure, as I write this a day later. It’s certainly leagues better than the last Schrader film that I saw (The Canyons), and there’s a beauty in its ambiguity that I have to admire. It recalls Schrader’s most well-known film, Taxi Driver, insofar as it is about a man with a dark and troubled past whose obsessive devotion to a younger woman leads him to violent acts, but where it differs is that the older film is about a man who becomes a proto-incel because he can only see the ugliness of the world, while Gardener is about a man who is seeking redemption, and maybe finding it.
Ed Chilton (Steve Buscemi) is a mama’s boy; he may, in fact, be the mama’s boy to end all mama’s boys. See, her voice is still ringing in his ears, a year after her death. The late Mabel Chilton (Miriam Margolyes) went to her grave a full twelve months ago, leaving her hardware store to Ed, where he employs the kindly (Gary Farmer) and fields phone calls from the murderous Reverend Paxton (Rance Howard), who has frequent questions about what hardware would be best to kill his adulterous wife. On an otherwise normal day, Ed finds himself visited by A. J. Pattle (John Glover), a salesman peddling resurrection for the late Mabel, payable on delivery. Ed agrees, much to the chagrin of his live-in uncle, Benny (Ned Beatty), the exact kind of peeping tom horndog that pegs this movie to 1993. The object of Benny’s desire is next-door-neighbor Storm Reynolds (Sam Sorbo credited under her maiden name), who, in fairness, parades around intentionally, trying to attract attention. Uncle Benny is even further perturbed when his sister reappears in the flesh, little worse for wear. She and Ed both have something to fear from the unstable Rob Sundheimer (Jon Gries), a former employer who was convicted by Mabel’s testimony and who’s out on parole with vengeance in his mind.
There’s something very familiar about Ed and His Dead Mother. It’s very tonally inconsistent in a way that really pigeonholes it as something that could only be created at a certain time; it felt a lot like My Boyfriend’s Back and Stepmonster. And wouldn’t you just know it, all three films were released in 1993 (there’s also a little hint of 1991’s Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead). There’s some played-for-laughs not-quite-body-horror here that’s very reminiscent of Boyfriend; for one thing, a distinction is made between bringing someone back to life and bringing someone back from the dead, and as Pattle notes while upselling Ed another product, only latter was promised, not the former. As such, Mabel is forced to consume “life,” meaning living things (mostly roaches), but she isn’t above considering a neighborhood dog, or worse. We never have to see Mabel eat roaches like it’s Fear Factor, nor are we confronted with the image of a canine in distress; like Boyfriend and Don’t Tell Mom, there’s no real gore (at least until the end, where it’s still not very realistic), and there’s very little real sense of menace. Like Stepmonster, it places itself in a very specific time when someone can peep on their hot lady neighbor and the film acts like this is perfectly acceptable behavior that doesn’t soil our protagonist’s character, and here, this goes beyond simple safe-for-TV underwear shots, but a full-on bare-assed striptease and even frontal nudity, a little more than you’d expect from a PG-13 flick and especially something that you wouldn’t expect in a film where the humor feels as juvenile as the aforementioned movies. The sex factor is too high for kids in this movie, but the jokes are either too heady or too obvious for a more upper-teen demographic. It is still darker than any of those, however, as none of the end in a cemetery in which a man must bury his mother’s head in one corner and her body in another, lest she rise again.
There are a lot of bits here that are quite good. The increasingly unhinged Reverend whose rage at his wife’s infidelities (with all of the church council no less, even the women — all at once!) is a lot of fun, and when we get to see another side of Pattle, whom we’ve only seen as a hectoring salesbully with Ed, sheepishly being lectured by upper management about draining Ed of every cent that he got from his mother’s insurance instead of giving so many discounts. Margolyes is clearly having a lot of fun chewing the scenery as Mabel, especially when she’s cartoonishly grinding meat, chasing dogs, and locking herself in the fridge. Glover is always fun, especially when he’s getting to push people around, and Buscemi carries the thankless lead role of the feckless Ed effortlessly. I just wish it was funnier, that it made me laugh a little more. Maybe I’m just not in the target demographic, but then again, I don’t know who is.
Whether it’s to avoid dating itself with the rapidly evolving technology of smartphones & social media or if it’s to avoid the practical problem-solving that modern tech offers, a lot of contemporary horror drags its settings back to earlier, grimier eras of the genre’s past. Personally, I’m getting bored with how much current horror product is an echo of 1970s grindhouse & 1980s neon sleaze. That nostalgic impulse is getting really shortsighted in its avoidance of documenting & processing the world we actually live in now, if not outright cowardly & lazy. So, if most contemporary horror has to live in the past for narrative convenience, I’m going to be more excited to see movies set outside that genre heyday of the first slasher wave. For instance, the recent slasher prequel Pearl is inherently more interesting than its grimy sister film X, since its own tongue-in-cheek genre pastiche of Technicolor melodramas is way less familiar & less overmined than the grindhouse Texas Chainsaw riff it followed. The same goes for the truck stop sex worker slasher Candy Land, which is set in the grunge & grime of the mid-1990s, after the first slasher wave crested and the second, meta-comedic wave began post-Scream. As soon as the film opens with a montage of transactional sex scenes set to Porno for Pyros’ “Pets,” it already feels like a much-needed break from the digitally added 1970s grain and the Carpenter-nostalgic 1980s synths of its fellow low-budget festival horrors, which have long been a matter of routine.
What endears me most to Candy Land‘s grunge-90s setting is that it doesn’t appear to be nostalgic about past horror trends at all. It’s instead nostalgic for the film festival boom of the Sundance era that made names like Soderbergh, Araki, and Haynes stars of the indie scene. Candy Land starts as a very cool, loose hangout dramedy about the daily rituals of truck stop sex workers (or “lot lizards” in CB radio lingo) before it gradually turns into a rigidly formulaic slasher to pay the bills. The true glory days of independent filmmaking are over, and most low-budget productions that want to score wide distribution have to resort to flashy genre gimmicks to earn streaming sales on the festival market. And so, we have a workplace drama that opens with sex work and ends with murder, holding back the necessary kill rhythms of a body count slasher as long as it can until it’s time to deliver the goods. Unlike most slashers that dive headfirst into the bloodbath, that delayed payoff allows you space to care about the characters in peril: a good-girl-gone-bad played by The Deuce‘s Olivia Luccardi, a sweetheart hedonist gigolo played by X‘s Owen Campbell, a shit-heel sheriff played by Sliver‘s Billy Baldwin, etc. There’s a built-in tension & danger in the main characters’ profession that makes for a great horror setting (something it’s most frank about in an extensive, brutal scene of male-on-male rape), but writer-director John Swab appears to be more interested in making a truck stop Working Girls than a truck stop Friday the 13th. I admire his practicality. Not everyone gets to be Sean Baker; sometimes you gotta cosplay as Rob Zombie to land your funding.
Candy Land excels more in its minor character observations than in the tension release of its cathartic violence. It’s set in an insular world where all sex is transactional, all sexuality is fluid, and all cops are bastards. The truck stop brothel has a grunge-fashionista uniform of leather jackets, acrylic nails, booty shorts, and heavy metal t-shirts. The girls shower, menstruate, and parade puffs of pubic & armpit hair in defiantly casual, thoughtless exhibitionism. There’s a pronounced overlap in the rules & rituals of working the truck stop and the rules & rituals of the fundamentalist Christian cult Luccardi’s newbie abandoned to get there, both with their own built-in, complex lingo. There’s also some unmistakable political commentary in which of those two insular cults proves to be harmful to the community at large – first to the johns, then to the workers. Its Christmastime setting underlines the tension between those two warring worlds with a bitter irony that’s been present in the slasher genre as far back as its pre-Halloween landmark Black Christmas. The movie might have been more rewarding if it didn’t have to sweep aside its observations of social minutia to make room for bloody hyperviolence, but I doubt it could’ve been widely distributed or even made at all without that genre hook. At least Swab didn’t default to the industry’s current go-to setting for that horror hook; he instead recalls a brighter time in indie filmmaking when you could make a notable, low-key sex worker drama without having to hit a specific body count metric.
Welcome to Episode #186 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Hanna, and Britnee discuss a grab bag of passion projects from one-and-done directors, starting with Ester Krumbachová’s The Murder of Mr. Devil (1970).
02:02 The Doom Generation (1995) 07:13 The Black Tower (1987) 08:45 The House is Black (1963) 11:25 The Year Between (2023) 14:40 The Canyons (2013) 20:47 White Palace (1990)
25:37 The Murder of Mr. Devil (1970) 44:45 Wanda (1970) 1:03:42 Harlem Nights (1989) 1:19:25 The Evil Within (2017)
Things sure do seem awfully final these days, don’t they? There’s a part of my brain lighting up right now that hasn’t been active since my last days of high school, alongside parts of my brain that hadn’t felt this flush with fear hormones since the last time I was worried about the Rapture. Past lovers have reappeared at a rate of about one per month since last summer like my own personal Broken Flowers, a succession of insights into the me that could have been. Things are so dark and bleak sometimes that I’m not really sure what to do with myself. So much of what I’ve been seeing and writing about lately are about completion, ending, and finalizing triptychs that it feels pervasive. Then again, I’ve always had an unfortunate tendency toward apophenia, and my brain chemicals have been all over the place since, within the past two weeks, I spent days upon days expecting that I was going to have to put down my elderly cat (he rebounded, the little comeback king—he’s dying, but not today, and not this week). It’s also theorized that the human brain is wired to find patterns even where none exist, and since the smallest number of “things” in which we can find patterns is three, it’s possible there’s something innate and instinctual in humans that causes us to see triptychs and trilogies and triads and three-part godheads as complete. We’ve known this for hundreds of years, given that Aristotle wrote in Rhetoric “Omne trium perfectum”—essentially, “Everything that comes in threes is perfect,”—in the 4th century B.C.E. Brandon and I texted about this recently, as he wanted to give me the chance to write about Beau is Afraid before he took a crack at it since I had covered both Hereditary and Midsommar. Also relatively recently, and more in line with what we’re talking about today, I wrote about how I went to see the most recent Ant-Man out of a sense of obligation to close out the third and final part of something that had relevant sentimental value to me as a person and as a member of this site.
I wasn’t planning to see this movie in theaters, if at all, ever. No one’s public persona is 100% accurate to them as a person, but Chris Pratt’s bungling of the goodwill that Parks & Rec and the first film in this series bought him via (at best) poorly conceived social media posts has made me not really all that interested in seeing him in a big budget film. I don’t expect celebrities to adhere to an old-fashioned studio contract morals code, and I appreciate that people in the public eye are expected not only to tolerate the fact that they have virtually no privacy but to even use what little privacy they have to essentially buy more stock in the interest economy by posting their private moments to their verified social media accounts. I really do. But man, there was something about that post about having a healthy child with his new wife that left a really bad taste in my mouth, even if it wasn’t an intentional dig at ex-wife Anna Faris or a reference to their special needs son; it churned my stomach. On top of that, I just haven’t been able to make myself care much about the MCU, as I’ve mentioned the last few times I’ve covered it, and with that last Ant-Man being such a miss for me, I can’t work up the interest to check these things out most of the time, let alone the compulsion. But, on a night when all my friends had plans and I was facing some pretty strong writer’s block, I took my MoviePass down to the [redacted] and I got myself a hot dog and a blue ICEE and sat in a sparsely populated theater on what seems like it’s the last of these. And it was good.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 opens on a downbeat note. Peter Quill (Pratt) is still in mourning for the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in Infinity War, a situation exacerbated by the fact that a different, time-displaced version of Gamora from before the two met now exists somewhere out there, not caring at all about his existence. The Guardians have settled in on Knowhere, which you may (and are expected to) remember as the severed head of a long-dead god-adjacent being. A depressed Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is forcing an entire settlement of people to listen to Radiohead’s “Creep” over the loudspeakers and as a former radio DJ who struggled with mental health issues, I have to say: relatable. His reverie is interrupted by the arrival of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), who puts our little raccoon friend into a coma, and the Guardians are unable to use their handy automated medical equipment because there’s a kill switch on his heart. You see, the man who cyborgified Rocket in the first place, the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) left behind a failsafe to protect his proprietary interest in Rocket, whom he is attempting to recapture. Nebula (Karen Gillan) proposes that they reach out to one of her contacts who might be able to get the group inside the headquarters of the H.E.’s megacorp and get the shutdown code for the kill switch so that they can get Rocket medical help before he dies. This involves the rest of the team, including Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Drax (Dave Bautista), reuniting with the version of Gamora who does not know them. It’s not as simple as all of that, of course, as the attempted heist goes awry and requires them to track down the Evolutionary himself, with all the unusual fleshy detail that we’ve come to expect from James Gunn, a jailbreak of nice Village of the Damned kids, a telepathic dog feuding with Kirk from Gilmore Girls, an octopus man selling drugs in a back alley, bat people, and unexpected needle drops from the likes of Florence + the Machine and Flaming Lips. As this plays out, extended comatose flashbacks reveal the extent of the torturous experimentation that left Rocket the difficult, bristly, prosthetic-obsessed sapient Procyon lotor about whom we’ve all been suspending our disbelief for the past eight years.
There’s a lot more going on thematically in these movies than in the other recent products/content than this organization is creating, and as a result there’s a narrative cohesion here where all three movies are in greater communication with one another than, say, the Thor movies, which went from decent origin story to dour table-setting to wacky throwback comedy to whatever happened in Love and Thunder (I don’t know; I didn’t see it). On a very surface level, these movies, like a lot of Gunn’s work, can be described as a feature length Creepy Crawlers commercial, but there’s something that’s genuine here underneath all of that, and more moving than it really has any right to be. Personally, I think that the scenes in which we see Rocket bond with other more abominable abominations that have been experimented upon by the High Evolutionary set foot a few inches over the line into saccharine territory, but schmaltz, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a foregone conclusion that the sweet otter character voiced by Linda Cardellini at her most warm isn’t making it out of those flashbacks alive, so you’re never able to relax and appreciate the scenes that they’re in because the other shoe is always hovering just out of frame, ready to drop. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that seeing the frail and dying body of Rocket hit me personally because of the resemblance to the recent extreme health situation of my cat; it ended up pushing too far into the treacly territory for me as a result, but that won’t be the case for everyone, and hasn’t been based on the reviews I’ve seen.
These movies are about fathers, and about god, and about the fact that we (in the west at least) form our images of what constitutes “god” around the concept of “father.” In the first film, Gamora and Nebula are constantly at each other’s throats to prove themselves to their shared father, Peter viewed Yondu (Michael Rooker) as his surrogate father even though the man had actually kidnapped him as a child, and Drax’s motivation to join the team was as vengeance for his lost wife and daughter. The second film saw Peter meeting his biological father, who was also, in many ways, a living god; Yondu sacrifices himself for his surrogate sons and finds meaning in bettering himself through fatherhood, and Gamora encourages Nebula to break free from the influence of their father as she has. Peter’s father being a nigh-omnipotent living planet was a kind of apotheosizing of that father-as-god concept. Now, in this third and presumed final film, the narrative is once again focused on the relationship between one of these characters and their father/creator, but this time it’s Rocket, and it plays out as a story about a god who, in seeking an ephemeral “perfection,” created something that he didn’t understand and which threatened his ego by demonstrating the ability to exceed the creator’s own intelligence. That’s not normally the kind of story that’s told through creator and creation; that’s the story of a father and the son upon whom he heaps all of his own insecurities and coping mechanisms. Beyond that, the jailbreak mentioned above ends with Drax finding himself with the opportunity to be a father again, in a new way.
I’ve mentioned in the past that I often divide finales/endings, at least of mass media, into two broad categories: the “Everybody goes their separate ways” ending and the “The adventure continues” ending. They’re both equally valid, conceptually, and the former is frequently the right narrative choice for a broad spectrum of stories; sometimes a piece of fiction ends in a place where characters have no choice other than to separate, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not sometimes bummed out by them. They can’t all be “God bless the brick house that was! God bless the brick house that is to be!” This is a definitive finale, and I don’t think it’s a surprise that the ending, despite concluding on an optimistic note, left me a little blue. That’s not to say that there weren’t jokes aplenty here (it took me until about the halfway mark for me to reach a point where it felt right to laugh, despite many gags throughout), but there’s a surge of love for the movie that feels more like people are just happy that there’s a good Marvel movie that everyone went to see rather than interacting with the text directly, because the text is weird in a way that mainstream audiences are normally more squeamish about. There were moments that made me think of Basket Case 2, of all things, which is a strange thing to say about a movie in this larger franchise, owned and operated by a monopolistic media empire. The consensus on this one is positive, and you can count me amongst that number, but at this point, these films have to advocate for themselves or not. This one does.
As I mentioned when reviewing the Kollywood bank heist thriller Thunivu, my selection of newly released Indian action blockbusters has been severely limited in recent months, as I don’t currently have access to a car. The only theater that screens the gloriously over-the-top action cinema I’ve taken for granted in recent years is all the way out in the suburbs, far beyond a reasonable bus ride, so I have to settle for whatever titles trickle down from its distant marquees to the streaming services I pay for at home. Between Thunivu and the new Tollywood action-romance epic Dasara, Netflix has been the quickest to deliver the goods so far this year – give or take Pathaan, which I was lucky to catch on the big screen before it populated on Amazon Prime. In Dasara‘s case, Netflix even premiered the film in its original language of Telugu, which isn’t always a guarantee for home viewing (even in big-name cases like S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali & RRR, which are still primarily presented in their Hindi dubs on the same platform). As much as I appreciate Dasara making its way to my living room so quickly, though, I know in my stupid little heart that I would have enjoyed it much more had I caught it at the suburban multiplex. The immense spectacles & body-rattling sound mixes of these movies demand the theatrical experience. That environment makes a throwaway romcom like Radhe Shyam play like an action-hero riff on Cameron’s Titanic, crushing you so flat beneath its towering CG mayhem that you hardly have time to notice that the flirty jokes between its action sequences aren’t especially cute or funny. For its part, Dasara also delivers the goods when it comes to large-scale CG action spectacle, but that can only carry you so far at home, so the lengthy lulls between its explosions tend to spoil the mood. I’ve greatly enjoyed a few masala films I happened to see at home for the first time instead of the theater—Master, Karnan, Enthiran, the aforementioned Baahubali, to name a few—but they all would have been even more enjoyable & memorable had I seen them big & loud, which is an unignorable problem in more middling titles like Dasara.
Dasara details a lifelong friendship & romantic rivalry between a pair of mining-town besties. After a youth wasted stealing coal off mining trains for liquor money and pining after the same childhood friend, the two ambitionless hedonists are forced to get serious about the politicians who poison their village – both through alcohol sales and through coal-mining air pollution. The alcohol is treated as the bigger threat to local morale, in that it makes wastoid addicts out of every able-bodied man in their community (an anti-vice sentiment underlined by the opening credits’ health hazard warnings and a barn-burner monologue in the final scene). Booze is also the main driver of local politics, as the powerful positions of bar owner & cashier are essentially treated as public offices, violently contested through rigged elections. In establishing all of this big-picture conflict within the mining community, Dasara only leaves room for three major action sequences: a daring coal-train robbery, a vicious massacre of local drunks via machete militia, and a climactic act of revenge in which the evilest politician of all is decapitated via flaming machete after his goons are slaughtered one at a time. There are some incredible moments & images in those sequences that highlight how India’s various film industries are regularly producing the greatest action movies on the market today, if not the greatest since Hong Kong action’s independent heyday in the 80s & 90s. There is a lot of downtime between those moments, though, especially for a film with so thin of a moralist lesson (alcohol = bad) and with such cliché love-triangle tension. A few weddings, cricket matches, and religious festivals liven up the dead space between the action payoffs, but not enough to make the picture especially worth seeking out at home. Even when enjoying how its all-out explosive climax filled my TV screen with a wall of flames, all I could think about is how much cooler those flames would look if they were 30 feet taller and came with a bucket of popcorn.
Even though Dasara is a mixed bag overall, it’s really just one catchy composer short of being a stunner. It’s got plenty explosive imagery, but its songs are mostly duds, so the time drags heavily between fires & beheadings. To its credit, I was happy to see the musical numbers directly integrated into the narrative, when so many modern films in this genre separate them out as music video asides. Unfortunately, they do so by adopting a plodding stage-musical songwriting style that never fully meshes with the score’s rapid, relentless percussion with any coherence. Music is certainly one of the genre’s primary joys, but I’m not even sure that a louder theatrical environment would’ve helped the songs hit all that harder, even with the spectacle of dancers kicking up black coal dust in frantic choreography. However, I do suspect that the constant coal-mine blasts of fireballs & air pollution would’ve been so much more vivid at the multiplex that I wouldn’t have cared about the mediocre music they interrupt. Speaking from past experience, three great action sequences is usually more than enough to make one of these cheap-o epics worthwhile in that environment, whether or not the music is memorable. Without that boost in scale & volume, Dasara is unraveled by its own thinness, which it appears to be aware of itself by the second flashback montage of earlier, more exciting scenes. The action is too sparse for its songs to be this bland, and so the movie was only worth seeking out for the one week it screened at AMC Elmwood (or your local equivalent), when its few explosions would’ve stunned you for the longest stretches. I don’t regret watching it at home, though, and I don’t think this experience will deter me from seeking out other Indian action streamers in the future. In the past, I may have positively reviewed so-so masala films like Shamshera & Radhe Shyam for the enjoyment of the theatrical experience rather than the actual quality of the product, but that’s how they were intended to be watched. Catching up with Dasara on my couch is only the Great Value™ equivalent of the real deal, and it will have to do until I have a car again or until one of the three remaining theaters in the city catches up with how fun these crowd-pleasers can be.