Terminal USA (1993)

Three cheers for the American Genre Film Archive, who are doing the heroic work of preserving & distributing vintage outsider art in an age when practically every movie over a decade old is being snuffed out of existence, no matter how mainstream.  AGFA platforms works as essential as the coming-of-age riot grrrl sex comedy Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore and as disposable as the home-movie porn parody Bat Pussy, always with respect. My latest discovery in their catalog was, as always, a real doozy.  Terminal USA is less of a feature film than it is a Cali punk’s cracked plastic ash tray that was kicked under a mildewed couch, then given a quick spit shine after decades of nihilistic neglect.  It’s shot in a sound-stage suburban home seemingly constructed out of cardboard.  Every pronunciation of letters “s” & “t” tops out its rickety mics.  The cast aren’t acting so much as they’re talk-shouting while modeling history’s cheapest wigs.  Its cheapness is its greatest asset, a juvenile middle finger shoved in the face of the American public, who were outraged that tax money paid for its production and broadcast on PBS.  Personally, I can’t think of anything worthier of public funding than weirdo D.I.Y. art projects like this.  It would almost make me patriotic, if the film weren’t specifically about the moral, cultural rot in this nation’s arrhythmic heart.  We likely won’t ever see public funding for abrasive outsider cinema like Tongues Untied, Dottie Gets Spanked, or Terminal USA ever again, thanks to Reagan-era efforts to gut the National Endowment for the Arts.  At least niche distributors like AGFA are around to preserve the truly American art we got when the getting was good, though.  That history is always under threat of being erased from the record.

It’s worth talking broadly about mainstream America here, because Terminal USA makes such a mockery of the nation’s cultural decline, as indicated by the title.  While most satirical takes on the wounds festering just below suburbia’s manicured surface tend to come from white filmmakers (think John Waters, David Lynch, Tim Burton, etc.), Jon Moritsugu offers their lesser seen, lesser discussed Asian-American counterbalance, a grainy broadcast from the immigrant communities of the West Coast.  Moritsugu “stars” in dual roles as a snotty Cali mall punk who spits in the face of his parents’ desire to assimilate and as their better-behaved son, who fits more cleanly in the Asian-American stereotype of a model student with no social life.  It quickly turns out, of course, that the bookworm brother is the more depraved of the two, jacking off to Nazi muscle mags in his bedroom when he’s pretending to be studying math.  Their sister is a bratty cheerleader who’s desperate to sleep with the family lawyer.  Their mother is addicted to their bedridden grandfather’s prescription morphine; and the most depraved of all is their stand-up citizen father figure who’s oblivious to all his family’s barely concealed sins, frequently slipping into deranged monologues about Faith, purity, and The American Dream.  Despite all its gunshots, space aliens, and leaked porno tapes, there isn’t much of a plot to Terminal USA.  It’s a moldy family portrait, where every bizarre resident of a bland suburban home de-evolve into their worst possible selves over the course of one wretched night.  Oh yeah, and a young Gregg Turkington shows up as a local skinhead.

This is the kind of microbudget, limited-location production where the background graffiti artists get their own production design credit (attributed to Twist & Reminisce, in case you’re wondering).  Moritsugu & crew spruce up their sparse, flimsy sets with neon lights and the kinds of plastic gems you’d expect to see glued to a middle-schooler’s make-up kit.  It’s all so beautifully ugly.  The performances are just as preposterous & cheap; my biggest laugh (of many) was when Moritsugu’s dirtbag mall punk is shot in the kneecap and complains “This sucks!”.  His fingerprints & personality are highly visible all over every inch of the production, making him a true trash auteur.  And he’s accomplished a lot since he first started making 16mm punk films in the late 80s, cranking out attention-grabbing titles like Mod Fuck Explosion, Hippy Porn, and My Degeneration to consistently muted acclaim.  Terminal USA is a great introduction to his catalog, both as a snapshot of how he feels his work & persona fit in American pop culture and as proof that he’s a genuine provocateur, pissing off a lot of uptight conservatives with a seething hatred for The Arts.  I have no clue how easily accessible the rest of his titles are, but I doubt many have been as lovingly restored & presented as this AGFA scan of that trashteur calling card – a pristine image of a hideous nation.

-Brandon Ledet

Podcast #166: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) & Remakes

Welcome to Episode #166 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of movie remakes, starting with the 1981 erotic thriller version of the classic noir The Postman Always Rings Twice.

00:00 Welcome

01:31 Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2022)
07:17 Menace II Society (1993)
12:45 Mad God (2022)
18:25 Gigli (2003)

25:25 The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
47:05 Scarface (1983)
1:05:00 Father of the Bride (2022)
1:28:00 The Blob (1988)

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

– The Podcast Crew

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)

A few weeks ago, there was a lot of journalistic handwringing over the Twitter bots behind the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut “movement”, following reports that at least 13% of the accounts behind that online uproar were 100% fake.  I’m not sure what part of that revelation was supposed to be a shock, except that maybe 13% feels like a low-end estimate.  Anyone who’s ever been tortured by a Twitter-feed algorithm should be well used to seeing a nonstop flood of automated, incoherent “opinions” posted by fake accounts.  That’s especially true when it comes to superhero movie discourse, which I’m convinced alone accounts for at least 13% of all non-pornographic internet traffic.  It’s much more shocking when that kind of organized bot-posting swells up around something that doesn’t involve superheroes, like the out-of-nowhere outrage over 2020’s Cuties or the more recent, even more preposterous outrage over the Jane Austen adaptation Persuasion.  When the trailer for Netflix’s cheeky, modernized version of Persuasion was released, there were plenty of sincere (even if hyperbolic) complaints about how it bungled the tone of the source material, marketing one of Austen’s most heartbreaking dramas as a Clueless-style comedy for Zoomers.  That Austen Fan Club outrage must’ve “done some numbers,” because every third post on my Twitter feed for weeks was labeled “Trending: Dakota Johnson”, with hundreds of accounts named “AustenFreak347492947” complaining that Austen didn’t know what a playlist was, so she would not have written that screenplay.  I’m not going to weigh in on whether Johnson’s flippant zingers about playlists & exes are appropriately respectful to the source material, since I have neither seen the film nor read the novel.  I just think it’s bizarre that any Austen adaptation could generate the same kind of widespread, automated online outrage as a $300mil superhero epic, much less something as insubstantial as a Netflix Original.

If there’s anything to be learned from the Austen & Snyder debacles—both real & fake—it’s that creators do not need to listen to The Fans.  Maybe the hardcore Persuasionheads out there had a genuine point about how that specific work was inappropriate for a playfully modern, Fleabag-style update.  That sentiment quickly backslid into inane, astroturfed discourse about how any straying from the tone & text of any movie’s source material is somehow shameful.  It’s the same pedantic, close-minded thinking that sends comic book nerds into belligerent rages about “faithfulness”, except this time it’s dressed up in lacy bodices instead of spandex & capes.  Worse, it leads to boring, unimaginative movies.  I happened to watch the 2015 adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel Far from the Madding Crowd around the time of the Austen Bot invasion, and it was heavily weighed down by faithfulness.  Determined to hit every plot point of the novel, Thomas Vinterberg plows through the events of the text like a video game speed run, cramming decades of love & loss into what appears to be two page turns of a calendar.  It’s a prolonged, episodic storytelling style that feels more at home in a BBC miniseries than a mid-budget Oscar contender. Bot outrage over movie adaptations taking creative liberties with their source texts feels just as juvenile as complaints about sex scenes that don’t “advance the plot”.  If that kind of indulgence bothers you, I promise you’d be much happier just watching TV instead of movies.  At its best, cinema is streamlined & poetically expressive; it also says just as much about the time when it’s made as it does about the time when it’s set.  Maybe the new Persuasion movie didn’t update & reinterpret Austen’s novel especially well, but the attempt to do so shouldn’t be an offense in itself.  At least, I found myself wishing Vinterberg had shaken up Hardy’s novel a little himself, instead of carefully coloring within the lines drawn out a century earlier.

All that said, the central conflict of Far from the Madding Crowd is compelling even without embellishment, and it’s obvious enough why it’s been adapted several times over the decades.  Usually, in these literary costume dramas our heroine has to choose between two potential beaus: one that looks good on paper and one that feels right in her heart.  Hardy explodes that template by throwing in a third wild card option that fucks everything up for everyone involved.  Carey Mulligan stars as an independently wealthy landowner who’s reluctant to become “some man’s property” through marriage.  Michael Sheen plays her potential mate who looks best on paper, proposing to merge their two adjacent estates into one enormous, profitable empire.  Matthias Schoenaerts is the beau who feels right in her heart – a once-independent farmer who falls on hard times and dedicates the rest of his life in service of her success instead of his own, patiently waiting for her to admit to herself that she loves him.  And then there’s Tom Sturridge as the toxic fuckboy military man who breaks up that classic love triangle with a sudden rush of sex & chaos, challenging Mulligan’s self-image as a strong, independent thinker by directly appealing to her libido.  It’s all very well performed and narratively engaging (especially if you aren’t already familiar with where it’s going), but it doesn’t offer much in the way of interpretation or personalization.  If anything, Vinterberg is outright stubborn in his refusal to modernize, shooting this traditionally lit & costumed drama through a modern digital grain that feels like a tug of war between form & content.  The 2015 version of Far from the Madding Crowd is perfectly serviceable if you’re looking for any old costume drama to fill up your Sunday afternoon, but there’s nothing especially urgent or unique about what it has to offer within that genre outside illustrating the scene-to-scene events of its source text.

Of course, the two most exciting elements of Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd are the ones where he does modernize the novel.  There’s something thrilling about Mulligan’s wardrobe in particular, which conveys her badass girlboss independence by toughening up her 19th Century fashions with leather, denim, and pants.  The hypegirl sidekick she adopts when she first starts running her own farm is also a distinctly modern thrill, played with flippant Gen-Z sass by The End of the Fucking World‘s Jessica Barden.  Hardy’s novel is already packed with enough sex, death, and cruelty to feel freshly modern in comparison to buttoned-up costume dramas of the past, but Mulligan’s heavy denim dress and Barden’s aggressive brattiness are really what brings the film up to date.  Personally, I’m a sucker for that kind of modern intrusion into historical settings.  When Sofia Coppola snuck some Chucks into Marie Antoinette’s shoe closet, I was cheering while the most boring nerds in the room were rolling their eyes.  The very best Austen adaptations of my lifetime have all been cheekily modern, like Autumn De Wild’s Emma., Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship and, of course, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless.  I’m sure there are plenty of very real people who had very legitimate reasons for balking at that Persuasion trailer, but I would also like to think, for my own sanity, that most of the ones complaining that Jane Austen didn’t know about playlists were the softer side of Snyder bots.  There has to be more to movies than just faithfully illustrating the literal events of their source texts as they were written.  Otherwise, we’ve completely lost the dividing line between art & content, a thought too grim to bear.

-Brandon Ledet

Gigli (2003)

So far, the most wholesome, unexpected pop culture news of the year has been the out-of-nowhere reboot of Bennifer.  In this age of division & strife, isn’t it nice that we can all gather around to celebrate two smoking hot millionaires who love boning each other?  JLo beaming in her Vegas wedding gown; a scruffy Battfleck taking dad-naps on yachts with his hand resting gracefully on his bride’s world-famous ass . . . Everything just feels right again.  It’s worth remembering, though, that even something as beautiful & pure as Bennifer was born the darkest, dankest of pop culture dungeons – just as every rose has its thorn and every cowboy sings his sad, sad song.  Jennifer Lopez & Ben Affleck first fell for each other on the set of the 2003 crime “comedy” Gigli, which lost roughly $70mil at the box office and was instantly reviled as one of the worst motion pictures of all time.  Starting off on such a sour note would have tanked most couples, but Bennifer soldiered on to collaborate on such beloved art projects as Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl, JLo’s “Jenny from the Block” music video and, of course, an endless procession of tabloid headlines.  May they never separate again.

In case you’re as morbidly curious as I am, and you also happen to find a used DVD copy of Gigli at your local thrift store, please know that it is a total “DEAD DOVE, DO NOT EAT” proposition.  There is no room for critical revisionism here.  Gigli is just as bad as originally reported.  It’s worse than bad, actually.  It’s deeply embarrassing.  It’s an early-aughts hangover from the post-Tarantino 90s, the kind of wryly overwritten gangster comedies like Get Shorty & Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag that were convinced saying “fuck” every three words was all you needed to seem funny & cool.  Affleck appears in greased hair & loose bowling shirts as the titular Gigli (a name he hates hearing pronounced “jiggly” or “giggly”, which means you should definitely go for it).   He’s a low-level gangster assigned by his higher-ups to kidnap the brother of a federal prosecutor as political leverage before a mob-busting trial.  Only, the hostage in question is an intellectually disabled horndog who acts like a toddler with the world’s biggest boner for Baywatch.  Queasy hijinks ensue as the uptight, macho Affleck butts heads with the loveable goof in his care.  Then things get even queasier when he’s forced to co-parent with a fellow low-level gangster played by Lopez – a lesbian that Gigli is determined to convert through the seductive power of unchecked machismo (positioning the film as Elmore Leonard’s Chasing Amy).

The frustrating thing about Gigli is that the sexual chemistry between Lopez & Affleck is genuinely explosive.  The basic premise of a macho gangster wooing his way into a lesbian’s bed is boneheaded, but it actually leads to some interesting sexual power dynamics between the two leads.  The meathead argues his case by expounding upon the natural marvel of dicks & dildos in faux-philosophical monologue, and his lesbian adversary shoots back that “The mouth is the twin sister of the vagina” with equally mighty inanity, giving him lots to chew on (“gobble gobble”).  She warms herself up to the idea of sleeping with the galoot by softly forcefemming him, making him question his own gender identity – a kinky undercurrent made even more arousing by how rottenly into each other Bennifer obviously are out-of-character.  It’s too bad, then, that every other aspect of the movie is so deeply unpleasant and determined to self-sabotage.  Every time their unlikely, problematic romance heats up, it’s quickly deflated by the film’s catastrophic choice of comic relief: the neurodivergent tics of its only disabled character.  Their hostage raps to old-school hip-hop tracks in a “funny” voice; he shouts random catchphrases as if he has Tourette’s; and he just won’t stop slobbering over the boobs on Baywatch.  It’s not just unfunny; it’s cruel.  And it ruins any enjoyment that could possibly be found elsewhere in the picture.

If we’re rebooting Bennifer in the 2020s, maybe it’s time we also reboot Gigli as a straight-up erotic thriller.  Drop the ableist punchlines and just stick to JLo breaking down her new husband’s gender barriers in a steamy power struggle at the outskirts of the crime world.  The only problem there is that the erotic thriller version would definitely stick to the film’s original, discarded ending, in which the lesbian character was shot dead for her moral transgressions (because of course she was).  You know what?  Scratch that.  Let’s never speak of Gigli again.  The return of Bennifer has given us all a culture-wide goofball smile, and there’s really no reason to spoil that vibe with a return to its sour beginnings.  Unless, of course, you really need to see JLo model the low-rise jeans, exposed midriffs, and gigantic belt buckles of early-aughts fashion.  It’s at least good for that.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Hatching (2022)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the coming-of-age fairy tale creature feature Hatching (2022).

00:00 Welcome

04:30 Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
11:11 Night of the Comet (1984)
17:11 Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
22:39 Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (2022)
26:34 Looop Lapeta (2022)
30:00 Incantation (2022)
34:04 Love and Leashes (2022)

37:00 Hatching (2022)

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

-The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Movie of the Month: White of the Eye (1987)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made HannaBoomer, and Brandon watch White of the Eye (1987).

Britnee: If you’ve ever wondered if a Southwestern giallo exists, I am here to tell you that it does, and it’s 1987’s White of the Eye. Its director, Donald Cammell, was a gifted painter, and his artistic eye makes every scene in White of the Eye a visual feast, the way you’d expect to see in gialli. Neon blood splattered across a white table, uncomfortable eyeball closeups, modern desert homes shot through a voyueristic lens; it’s all so mesmerizing. Also, his wife China Cammell co-wrote the screenplay (based on the novel Mrs. White by Margaret Tracy) and appears in the small role of Ruby Roy. I thought that wife/husband collaboration was sweet at first, until I realized that China was 14 when she met the 40-year-old Donald, so their relationship wasn’t really a healthy one. It turns out that Donald was a gross creep like so many other male directors (and like the villain of his own movie).  

White of the Eye stars David Keith as Paul White and Cathy Moriarty as Joan White. They’re a young married couple who live in Arizona with their daughter, a 5-year-old who looks like a 30-something kindergarten teacher. David is the town’s go-to sound system installer. He has a bizarre gift where he hums to pinpoint the exact, perfect speaker placement in every room. At least that’s what I think he’s doing. There’s a lot going on in this movie that I can’t fully make sense of. As we peek in on the family’s daily routine, there’s something sinister going on in the background: a serial killer is brutally murdering wealthy women in the area, and there’s a strong possibility the killer is Paul. Cathy has to determine if her husband is really who she thinks he is or if he’s a psychotic monster. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but just know that it descends into pure chaos by the end and it’s fascinating.

This film has one of the wildest opening scenes. A well-to-do woman returns to her home after a shopping trip and is slaughtered by a killer lurking in her kitchen. During their struggle, there’s slow-motion headbashing, blood splattering, glass shattering and, most memorably, a tiny goldfish flopping around a raw rib rack on the kitchen counter. When I first saw this movie, I thought about that scene for weeks. To me, it’s the most impressive imagery in the entire film. Brandon, what are your thoughts on the camerawork in White of the Eye? Did any particular scenes stick with you after the movie ended?

Brandon: That opening, bloodspattered tour of a Southwestern suburban kitchen is, without question, the most visually striking scene in the movie, and it’s the one that’s stuck most in my mind as well.  However, I’m not convinced it’s the camerawork that makes it such a stunner.  If we’re going to contextualize White of the Eye as an American giallo, we have to acknowledge that it looks like a giallo shot by the TV crew behind Walker, Texas Ranger.  Whether it’s a result of the sun-blazed setting or the Golan-Globus production funds, there’s a daytime TV cheapness to the look of White of the Eye that cannot be overcome through Cammell’s . . . unusual choice of imagery.  Where he overcomes that cheapness isn’t in the camerawork so much as it’s in the editing, which is what truly gives the movie its unwieldy, dreamlike tone.  There are isolated, static images in that kitchen sequence that look absolutely bizarre, but mostly because they’re presented as rapid inserts your brain doesn’t have enough time to fully interpret: flowers falling from the countertop, legs kicking in purple tights, that goldfish flopping on the raw meat, etc.  I was likewise struck by the long, aimless establishing shots of the desert outside these suburban homes, which linger just long enough to breach into Lynchian territory of moody unease.  Again, there’s nothing especially beautiful about those exterior shots’ composition or execution; they’re just edited into a flabbergasting sequence that I could never fully wrap my mind around (not least of all because they’re frequently repeated at full length).  The entire movie borders on looking & feeling mundane, and yet it’s electrifying in its off-kilter presentation.

If White of the Eye is a giallo, it’s a knockoff giallo that gets lost in the American desert for a while, then emerges as a sun-dazed erotic thriller.  It’s a high-style, low-logic murder mystery in the way most great gialli are, but it’s one that actually has something to say after the final reveal of its faceless killer, which most gialli don’t.  That’s why I think it’s important that we do spoil the third-act twists of the plot in this conversation, since it’s largely what makes the film special.  In the same year that the literal war of the sexes reached its misogynist fever pitch in Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, White of the Eye offered a much more realistic source of unhinged mayhem at the end of its erotic thriller rainbow: an entitled, woman-hating white guy.  It turns out David is not only psychotic for the way he treats tuning audio systems into a spiritual ritual & guiding way of life; he’s also a violent misogynist with some very strange, far-out theories about why all women are evil and deserve to be murdered.  Once White of the Eye fully devolves into a sunlit slasher in its final act, David starts ranting at length about the interplanetary war between Men (from Mars, duh) & Women (from Venus, obv) in a way that doesn’t sound too far off from the kind of unhinged babble you’d expect to read on modern subreddits for MRAs & “gender-critical” TERFs.  Hanna, what did you make of David’s sudden swerve into hateful, faux-philosophical gender politics?  Did it make him a scarier villain or just a more confounding one?  And how does that choice of villain communicate with other war-of-the-sexes thrillers of this era?

Hanna: I was really torn on Paul’s turn initially, but I appreciate it the more I think about it. Despite all of the glaring signs to the contrary, I was somehow expecting some other candidate to pop up and pronounce themself the killer (maybe because Paul seemed too obvious, and unfortunately I’m a sucker for the kind of guy with an obsessive relationship with sound equipment). Initially I was disappointed because it wasn’t surprising, but ultimately I don’t think the film suffers for it. Of course the hot audiophile with a primal temperament sustains a lethal, cosmo-misogynist belief system, but it still took Joan almost the entire film to get to that conclusion, partly because he’s so dang charming and partly because she’s loved him for a decade.

As far as its relationship with other “Battle of the Sexes” genre films, I appreciated the different relationships presented between and within women. Fatal Attraction set up a war against a very particular type of woman (ambitious and career-driven with an angular, gender neutral nickname), while propping Beth up as the sweet, domestic caretaker in comparison; she wins her husband’s affections in the end and Alex is killed. White of the Eye shows major and minor competition between the various women of Globe, Arizona (e.g., Ann Mason’s affair with Joan’s husband, the petty gossip Joan and her friend share about Lisa on the Globe strip), but Paul is the equalizing destructive force. Not only that, but she is the winner of Paul’s heart, and it’s a horror rather than a triumph. I think that was one of the most interesting insights from this movie – I get the feeling that the kind of guys with Paul’s obsessively hateful and lustful ideology think that women should feel lucky to be the object of love and idolatry – that it should make women feel special and superior to other women – but in reality, it’s alienating and horrifying.

I do think that the turn was a little too jarring for me, though; he really goes from mysterious seducer to all-out zealot in the span of an evening. Maybe I was also seduced by the sound equipment, but I don’t feel like I got the sense of any of his crazed personality. Maybe that was part of the point, though, since we’re hearing this story from Joan’s point of view, who can’t help but see him as her partner and father to her child (and was also blinded by his bestial charms). I loved the explosion of chaos at the back half, but it definitely caught me by surprise. Boomer, do you think ending was deserved (narratively and politically)? Was the film cohesively simmering to this point throughout the runtime, or did it come out of nowhere?

Boomer: I have to say, this movie was a stunner. Maybe it’s just that all those Argento movies warped my brain, but I genuinely felt like this was one of the best movies I’ve seen in years … until the ending. I wouldn’t say that it was cohesive up to that point, per se; it’s certainly a film that captures verisimilitude in the sense that none of this feels like characters in a narrative so much as it feels like we stepped into a desert town full of eccentric people, all of whom have relationships and communication styles that are already in play and which we, as newcomers here, have to figure out with very little in the way of exposition. It feels like we’re missing some important information here, but it’s not in a “this screenplay is underdeveloped” way (like many gialli do); it’s a hard concept to try and delineate in prose, but it’s as if we the audience are merely eavesdropping on the events of the film. In the same way that you can sit in a diner booth and hear the people at the next table—be they classmates who hate the same professor, lovers coming to the end of their time together, or a parent and adult child—and hear a fascinating narrative play out, but one which is inherently incomplete. That conversation isn’t being performed for you and therefore there are details that are left out and names that are dropped throughout and you just have to try and guess at the larger story from your small window into it, and White of the Eye feels like a film version of that. That having been said, I don’t disagree that the ending feels like a swerve. The film’s tone makes it clear that there’s an explosive confrontation that’s inevitable, but I didn’t expect that explosion to be so literal, or for things to change so suddenly. 

There’s something strange happening here with regards to race. It’s not something that European gialli can’t do necessarily, but it is something that I don’t think we’ve ever seen them do: we have a white killer appropriating indigenous American myth. The Wikipedia page for the movie states that post-Jokerfication Paul “paints his face in a form reminiscent of both Kabuki and the blood pattern of diving headfirst into a deer carcass,” but it clearly has something to do with some half-remembered legend from the previous occupants of the lands before white men came. Detective Mendoza (Art Evans was also a detective in Fright Night, which always makes me want to pretend that they’re the same character) says to his partner, “What we have here, Phil, is an ancient Indian compass. This goes back before the Vikings.” As someone who grew up around and among hunters, there’s a bizarre familiarity to Paul; my family was steadfastly and fanatically Christian, so there was never any “soul of the kill” stuff happening with them, but there were plenty of people who hung around the deer camps who did happily participate in the easy self-justification that came from “honoring” their animal prey through a muddy mixture of various lores from a dozen different tribes with just a twist of New Age mysticism. Paul is like a weed dealer you met in college who believed a bunch of crazy conspiracy nonsense and had also convinced himself he has some kind of a special, even supernatural ability to really feel the music and where it “wants” to go, maaaaaan. Given how many of those folks have fallen for #stopthesteal rhetoric or fallen under the sway of algorithm-driven ragebaiting, it shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise that Paul looks like the QAnon Shaman by the end. Then again, maybe that’s verisimilitude, too. Inevitable, but at such a strange acceleration. 

I’m going to have to say that I disagree with Brandon here, at least a little bit, and say that there’s a lot more going on with the camerawork than he’s giving credit. If you go back and watch that first kitchen-set murder scene, there are actually very few static images; there’s constant motion and change, not just in the editing, but in the composition as well. The shot that establishes the presence of a fish in the kitchen does so in a close-up that then zooms out and then takes in several other pieces of visual information: an orbiting shot of copper-bottomed pots, a pan up a refrigerator, etc. In those rare moments in which the camera stops moving, the frame is still filled with motion: glass falls into frame and shatters, a chunky tidal wave of something washes over a table and scatters the ephemera there in powerful kinetic motion, a pupil that fills the whole screen dilates. That sense of movement combined with the quick cuts is what gives this movie the overall music video aesthetic that really made it work for me. That Rick Fenn/Nick Mason collaboration on the soundtrack is an artifact that dates the movie just as much as all the customized stereo talk, but White of the Eye has the slick camera motion and quick-tempo editing that would dominate music videos of the next decade, combined with Cathy Moriarty’s performance, which is positively dripping with 70s New Hollywood energy (more on that in Lagniappe), and it renders the whole thing timeless. 

Lagniappe

Brandon:  If you want to see Donald Cammell fall even further down the erotic thriller rabbit hole, his next (and final) feature is a much more-straightforward entry in the genre.  1995’s Wild Side plays like Tommy Wiseau remaking the Wachowskis’ Bound, with a sublimely unhinged Christopher Walken in the Wiseau role, squaring off against Anne Heche & Joan Chen (Josie from Twin Peaks) as the undercover lesbians who upend his criminal empire.  Cammell started his filmmaking career collaborating with prestigious arthouse weirdo Nicolas Roeg, and he ended it making trashy thrillers for the likes of Golan-Globus.  He never lost his weird streak on that journey, though; the tonal & editing choices in White of the Eye & Wild Side are just as bizarre as anything you’ll see in the more respected Cammell titles Performance & Demon Seed.

Boomer: I love giallo, but I would also argue that this film fits into my other favorite genre: women on the verge. The desert setting called to mind 3 Women (another Britnee MotM selection), and there were moments in this where Cathy Moriarty is channeling Faye Dunaway in two of my favorites of her performances: Lou from Puzzle of a Downfall Child with her slowly unraveling peace of mind, and the title character of The Eyes of Laura Mars, in which she is confronted by the fact that (spoiler alert) the serial killer running loose in her social and professional circle is actually the man she’s taken as her lover. 

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This performance is powerful, and I loved every second that she was on screen. There’s an exhaustion that she exudes, but it’s the kind of contented tiredness of someone who’s found themselves in unexpected but nonetheless amenable circumstances, like she’s an angel who’s barely tethered to the earth. “You think I care what people think?” she asks Paul at one point, in the interrogation room. “I’m from the fucking city, I don’tgive a shit about small-town talk!” She’s like Sissy Hankshaw in Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, just this side of ethereal, who just can’t quit that dick. You know, queen shit. 

Britnee: While I’m not super familiar with desert life (I’ve only visited New Mexico for a short time), it’s obvious that the weather during the shoot was extremely hot. What’s fascinating is that there are still multiple characters wearing luxurious fur coats in that scorching desert. Joan, who has exquisite fashion taste, sports a short fox fur coat while chatting it up with Mike at the gas station. She also wears a short peacock feather coat in the flashback scenes when she’s dating Mike and meets Paul. If I’m not mistaken, she puts it on again towards the end of the film in present day. Another fur is worn by Ann, another woman who’s extremely horny for Paul. She wraps herself in this massive floor length fur coat while sipping on a cocktail. It was such a great look that Brandon made it his Facebook cover photo! 

Hanna: Every one of Cathy Moriarty’s looks is an absolute stunner, especially that peacock feathered jacket in the first flashback. I also couldn’t help being tickled by Paul’s hotdog explosive vest, one of the many outrageous fashion pieces on display.

Next month: Brandon presents All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

-The Swampflix Crew

EncoRRRe

I first watched S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR the same way I enjoy most big-budget Indian action: alone in a near-empty AMC Elmwood theater, with no prior context and no friends to discuss it with on my exit through the lobby.  I reviewed the film with the same approach I usually take with muscles-and-explosives action flicks from Tollywood & Kollywood (films like War, Master, Karnan, Saaho, 2.0, etc.), judging it against the relatively timid payoffs of comparable Hollywood series like Fast & Furious and the MCU.  The difference is that RRR has taken off in a way none of those other films have. It’s been constantly praised in the months since that first viewing (sometimes hyperbolically, often charmingly) in every corner of online film discourse I can name.  By the time I revisited RRR for a recent episode of the podcast, I was armed with way more cultural & industrial context about what makes it so explosively entertaining, as well as what makes it politically shaky.  I still don’t fully understand why it’s the only Indian action epic that’s enjoyed such a long, prominent shelf life in Western film discourse, but I do love that one has broken through.  It would be great if others follow, at the very least so I can better understand the roided-out action media I’m used to watching alone in the dark.

The only thing that’s really helped clarify why RRR is such an international hit was seeing a more recent, mediocre entry in its genre without as much novelty or fist-pumping energy.  Shamshera is another ahistorical Indian action epic about violent rebellions against British colonizers.  That rebellion is also led by the strongest, most badass hero the world has ever seen – a man so over-praised and over-muscled he can only be compared to superheroes or gods, often in his own titular theme song.  It’s a formula you’ll see repeated dozens of times if you watch enough Indian action, and it’s one that’s always entertaining, no matter the overall quality of the film.  Watching Shamshera wield a comically huge battle axe and command an army of CGI crows against his people’s British oppressors is a familiar thrill that never loses its potency no matter how many times it scorches your eyeballs.  And yet, when compared to more deliriously over-the-top actioners like RRR & Enthiran, it’s a little lackluster.  Shamshera plays like a Bollywood studio attempting to outgun the more eccentric action coming out of South India without ever quite matching their volatile energy. It still was an entertaining trip to the movies and still highly preferable to its American contemporaries, but it’s also such a straight-forward, barebones entry in its genre that it makes RRR stand out even more in contrast.

Speaking of RRR‘s American equivalents, I continued to think a lot about the qualities I crave in Indian action flicks on my very next trip to the theater after Shamshera.  Not only is Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic just as long & loud as Shamshera (a whopping 159 minutes), it’s also yet another sprawling epic that elevates a real-life historical rebel to the status of a god-like superhero.  In this case, the proto-rockstar’s superpower is making white teenagers horny, something Luhrmann conveys through on-screen comic book panels (which are also used to illustrate Shamshera‘s prologue) and the wild shrieks of teens witnessing his pElvic thrusts for the very first time.  It’s possible I was only thinking about Indian blockbusters while watching Elvis because I had revisited RRR & Shamshera within 24 hours of that screening (accounting for 6 of those very hours, combined), but it’s just as probable that they’re all pulling inspiration from the same source.  The grandeur & spectacle of Baz Luhrmann’s cinema feels like a direct descendant of traditional Bollywood musicals, which both he and modern Indian action directors like Rajamouli are now warping into new, weird pop art.  I often struggle with that same attention to spectacle in American films, especially in CGI-heavy action franchises like Star Wars & The MCU.  Luhrmann’s Elvis transcends that mental barrier in a lot of ways though.  It’s maniacally tacky, and it has the most individual camera set-ups I’ve ever seen outside of a Russ Meyer production, playing more like a three-hour trailer than an actual movie.  I wasn’t even sure if I liked it until I heard someone complain “That is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen” on the way out, and I found myself getting defensive.  It’s also, in its own deranged way, kind of brilliant.  Elvis delivers the exact propulsive, baffling, brain-smashing entertainment I actively seek out in South Indian action movies but find questionable in Hollywood productions, to my shame.  In a roundabout way, revisiting RRR made me eager to revisit Baz Luhrmann’s back catalog of Moulin Rouge!-style spectacles to see if I’ve just been snobbish in my rejection of their shameless, spectacular cheesiness, which I suspect is the case.

All of this is just to say that I’ve been enjoying discussing & thinking about RRR for the past few months.  Usually, I can only sustain a discussion of a similar Indian action film for a few minutes, as I try to explain how that industry is matching the delirious heights of American & Hong Kong action in their own 80s & 90s heydays to someone who could not care less about the inane words flooding out of my mouth.  Nobody was around, for instance, just one month earlier than RRR to discuss Radhe Shyam, a volatile romcom about a lovelorn palm reader who essentially gets into a fistfight with the Titanic.  Not all these over-the-top action films deserve the same level of attention & adoration as RRR, which really is an exceptional specimen of its genre, but it’s been cool to see one of these wildly entertaining action flicks break through with American audiences instead of just disappearing after a single-week theatrical run.  The continued discussion not only made me appreciate RRR even more on revisit, but it’s also helped me clarify my thoughts on other films with similar, soaring payoffs.

-Brandon Ledet

Looop Lapeta (2022)

The only time I’ve ever seen the high-style, high-energy time loop thriller Run Lola Run was at a free screening for LSU students back in the early aughts.  It was a great programming choice for entertaining a crowd of stoned, Adderall-addled freshmen with a collective attention span of mere seconds, but even then it felt like an ancient artifact from another time & place, just a few years after its initial release.  Run Lola Run is tweaked-out Euro trash pop art that only could have been made in the 1990s, a rave culture video game for the MTV era.  That’s why it seemed so absurd all these decades later that a straight-to-Netflix Bollywood remake of the film would attempt to recapture that time-specific magic.  I was already out of sync with the Hackers-on-ecstasy raver energy of the light-hearted German thriller back in the early 2000s, so I wasn’t sure what Looop Lapeta was expecting to mine from it in the 2020s.

That uncertainty was cleared up in the first scene, when our heroine starts her time loop staring in a bathroom mirror, contemplating her life choices (especially her casual drug use and unexpected pregnancy) on the occasion of her birthday.  As she keeps resetting her day to that bathroom-mirror birthday epiphany, it’s quickly apparent that Looop Lapeta doubles as both a decades-late Bollywood remake of Run Lola Run and a timely Bollywood remake of Russian Doll.  Neither comparison does it any favors, really, but at least the decision to revive Run Lola Run makes more sense when you consider it in the context of all the #timeloopcontent that has been flooding Netflix & other streaming platforms in the Russian Doll era.  This is a movie obsessed with and weighed down by context too, considering all the backstory it piles on the barebones Run Lola Run plot template – from why our heroine runs so much (she’s a former Olympic athlete) to why she’s so emotionally dependent on her dirtbag boyfriend (he saved her from killing herself when her Olympic dreams were crushed).  Even the time loop she’s stuck in while attempting to stop her favorite fuckboy from ruining their lives with a botched armed robbery is stretched out from Run Lola Run‘s original 20-minute cycle to 50 minutes, indicating just how weighed down it is by extraneous narrative clutter.  It updates Run Lola Run by halfway converting it into a TV show – often a broad sitcom where the jokes rarely land.

Besides the recent popularity of high-concept time loop stories, Looop Lapeta also appears attracted to the rebellious counterculture posturing of Run Lola Run.  It takes advantage of the amoral freedom of working with Netflix as much as it can, raising a middle finger directly at the camera in bratty defiance.  Whereas most mainstream Indian films I’ve seen in recent years are slapped with moralistic warnings about the dangers of cigarettes & alcohol, Looop Lapeta goes out of its way to highlight how cool swearing, pot-smoking, and premarital sex make its heroine look.  It’s about as dangerous as an anarchy symbol scribbled on a middle schooler’s notebook, but it makes the film stand out in the context of its industry.  That kind of hedonistic behavior is more akin to Russian Doll than Run Lola Run in terms of actual on-screen content (Lola, as you will remember, mostly just runs), but it’s a juvenile version of rebelliousness that is stilly fully visible in its 1998 source material.

I’m just not convinced Looop Lapeta ever matches Run Lola Run in terms of style.  Run Lola Run is all style, no substance (gloriously so), while Looop Lapeta is all substance in search of some sense of style.  It updates the camcorder footage from Run Lola Run to its contemporary equivalent in smartphone framing, and it has occasional fun with crosslighting & low music video angles, but for the most part its style feels limp & inert.  Inviting comparisons to such a propulsive, dizzying free-for-all only undercuts its own occasional attempts at high-style filmmaking, especially since everything in-between those touches plays like a shot-for-Netflix sitcom.  The most Looop Lapeta did for me is make me want to revisit Run Lola Run, a college campus classic, and to be more selective with my straight-to-Netflix genre viewings.  It’s harmless, but it’s also inessential – especially considering how many time loop movies we’ve seen in the past few years (Edge of Tomorrow, Happy Death Day, Palm Springs, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, etc. etc. etc.).

-Brandon Ledet

Podcast #165: RRR (2022) & New Releases

Welcome to Episode #165 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of new releases from the first half of 2022, starting with S.S. Rajamouli’s ahistorical action epic RRR.

00:00 Welcome

01:00 Nope (2022)
05:00 Alexandra’s Project (2003)
08:00 Elvis (2022)
18:00 Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

23:45 RRR (2022)
52:33 Fresh (2022)
1:11:11 We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2022)
1:27:11 Vortex (2022)

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

– The Podcast Crew

Quick Takes: TV at the Movies

Sometime around the prestige TV era of shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Wire, there was a lot of inane, hyperbolic discourse about how the boundary between television & cinema had become irreversibly blurred. I never bought the argument that modern Event Television had somehow surpassed the artistry of traditional filmmaking, nor do I believe that should even be its goal. My favorite TV shows tend to be the kind of disposable, episodic entertainment that can only exist in that medium: reality competition shows like Project Runway, animated sitcoms like Tuca & Bertie, clips-of-the-week roundups like The Soup (R.I.P.), etc. I will concede that the modern straight-to-streaming movie distribution model has blurred the distinction between television & cinema, though, if only by making it so the old made-for-TV, movie-of-the-week format now outnumbers how many traditional films get theatrical distribution on a weekly basis. It’s the non-stop need for fresh streaming #content that’s making movies more like television, not some new Golden Age of high-quality TV shows that take 30 hours to tell a decent, self-contained story that could be wrapped up in 100 minutes or less.

If there’s any clear sign that the boundary between television & cinema has become blurred, it’s in the mundanity of modern “The Movie” versions of TV shows. When I was a kid, it felt like a major event when popular TV shows like Pokémon, The Simpsons, and Jackass graduated from the small screen to grander, theatrical “The Movie” versions of their formats. In 2022, the distinction feels arbitrary. In the past month, I’ve seen three “The Movie” versions of TV shows that I love, and none felt especially ceremonious, or even worthy of a standalone review. I did enjoy all three, but they all felt more like good television than great cinema. Here’s a quick review of each, with some thoughts on how they blur the line between the two mediums.

The Bob’s Burgers Movie

Unquestionably, The Bob’s Burgers Movie is the most convincing, traditional “The Movie” version of a TV show I’ve seen this year. Not only was it exclusive to theaters for months before popping up on HBO Max & Hulu (where it has since transformed from TV at the movies to regular TV), but the Loren Borchard-led creative team behind it put in great effort to make it feel like an Event. Throughout the latest season of the show, background characters have been tripping over a dislodged chunk of sidewalk in front of the titular burger restaurant, teasing the giant sinkhole that opens the main conflict of the film. A lot of money was also poured into ensuring there was more depth & detail in the actual animation of the movie to distinguish it from the show, even if most of that effort was just adding shadows to its usual look.

I expected The Bob’s Burgers Movie would escalate the show’s occasional song & dance numbers to a full-blown movie musical, but instead it stays true to their usual rhythms. Structurally, it feels just like a 100min episode of the animated sitcom, stretching the special-occasion ceremony of a season finale to a night-long Event. Everything I love about the Bob’s Burgers show is sharply pronounced in the film; it delivers rapid-fire puns & punchlines, its sprawling cast of oddball characters are universally loveable, and it can be surprisingly emotional to watch them fail & grow (especially Louise’s arc in this super-sized episode). A lot of what justifies its graduation to movie-scale pomp & circumstance is just its length and that added layer of shadows, but both really do go a long way.

Downton Abbey: A New Era

If there’s any film that challenges my snobbish distinctions between film & television, it’s Downton Abbey: A New Era, the sequel to 2019’s Downton Abbey: The Movie. While The Bob’s Burgers Movie justifies its medium jump from television to the big screen in the quality of its animation, there is absolutely nothing that visually distinguishes the Downton Abbey movies from their seven seasons of televised build-up. The main draw of these films is that you get to revisit all of the Upstairs/Downstairs characters you love for another couple episodes of wealth-porn soap opera, except now with a theater full of likeminded costume drama nerds who laugh & sniffle in unison instead of watching it under a cozy blanket (assuming, again, that you caught the latest installment in theaters instead of waiting for it to pop up on the Peacock app, where it has been downgraded to TV again).

As much as the Downton Abbey movies feel like more-of-the-same episodic television, I still have to admit that A New Era was one of my most emotionally satisfying trips to the movie theater all year. I was either laughing or crying for the entire runtime, so there’s no reason why this shouldn’t land near the top of my “Top Films of 2022” list, except that I consider it more TV than cinema, which makes me a bit of a snob. I would be fine with the series ending with A New Era, since it’s come full circle to just being Gosford Park without the murder mystery again, but I’ll keep tuning in forever if it keeps going (if not only to see the continued adventures of John Molesey, the unlikeliest of late-series MVPs). It’s good TV.

Beavis and Butthead Do the Universe

The new Beavis and Butthead movie knows exactly where it falls on television/cinema divide. It pretends to scale up its usual airheaded slacker premise with some sci-fi gimmickry at its bookends (joining the multiverse craze headlined by Everything Everywhere and the new Doctor Strange), but everything in-between those brief scenes is just more-of-the-same retreading of the original show. When it’s not a sci-fi action comedy starring the galaxy’s two unlikeliest heroes, Beavis and Butthead Do the Universe mostly plays like a less funny version of the (excellent, underrated) 2011 reboot season of the show, where our favorite knuckleheads adapt to a world of smartphones & “woke” politics. It’s still very funny, though, and its disinterest in growth or change is obviously a large part of the joke.

Beavis and Butthead already had a proper “The Movie” escalation of its premise in 1996’s Beavis & Butthead Do America, so there’s really nothing a straight-to-Paramount+ follow-up to the show needs to accomplish except to be funny. It was the least rewarding film out of this trio for me, but it’s also the one that best understands the function of movie addendums to television shows in the modern streaming era. “The Movie” versions of TV shows don’t need to elevate their medium to the holy mountain of cinematic prestige; they just need to give their fans a little more time with the characters they love, and to deliver a few solid laughs.

-Brandon Ledet