Movies to Stream in New Orleans This Week 3/26/20 – 4/1/20

As you likely already know, the governor has ordered the indefinite closure of all Louisiana movie theaters in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. That decree makes our weekly What’s Playing in Town report something of a sham, but I thought I’d share some movie recommendations anyway (all in an effort to maintain the fictional veneer of Normalcy). I’ll just be shifting into Online Streaming options as a substitute for the time being.

In that spirit, here are some suggestions for movies that you can stream at home while under quarantine. It’s just a grab bag of a few movies Swampflix has rated 5-stars that are currently available for home viewing.

Streaming with Subscription

Phantasm (1979) – From my review: “Its ‘Let’s put on a show!’ communal enthusiasm & D.I.Y. approximation of nightmare-logic surrealism is the exact kind of thing I’m always looking for in low-budget genre films. Its trajectory of starting with familiar regional slather locations like suburban cul-de-sacs, dive bars, and graveyards before launching into a fully immersive nightmare realm of its own design is a perfect encapsulation of how it somehow turned low-budget scraps into cult classic gold in the real world as well.” Currently streaming on Shudder and for free (with ad breaks) on Tubi & Vudu.

Blood and Donuts (1995) – From Britnee’s review: “It’s basically a film about a vampire that frequents a local donut shop, but it’s such a beautiful movie. It takes place almost exclusively at nighttime in what appears to be a single, smoky neighborhood in a small city. The ambiance is so trashy and beautiful. It makes me feel dirty and clean at the same time.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Smithereens (1982) – From my review: “It’s the story of a scene in decline and the newly isolated punk weirdos who find themselves fading away with it. In other words, its peak No Wave.” Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Streaming VOD

Doctor Sleep (2019) – From Boomer’s review: “This film never feels its length, and the muted public reaction and mediocre box office returns are a personal disappointment; this film was never going to surpass The Shining, but it’s not far behind, and Mike Flanagan was right to mix the original film’s solemn meditative qualities with occasional frenetic setpieces. In a lifetime of watching movies, I’ve never been so invested or felt so much tension in my spine when watching a scene of a man eight years sober struggle to not take a drink, even in Kubrick’s opus; it’s powerful movie-making at its best, and I can’t recommend it more highly.” A $5 rental on all major VOD platforms.

Parasite (2019) – From Boomer’s review: “Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.” A $5 rental on all major VOD platforms.

The Cell (2000) – From my review: “On its own, the police procedural wraparound story that fames the high-fashion nightmares might have been the boring, thin genre exercise this movie has been misremembered as. I don’t understand how anyone can indulge on the exhilarating drug of those high-fashion kink hallucinations and walk away displeased with the picture, though. It sinks all its efforts into the exact sensual pleasures & dreamlike headspace that only cinema can achieve. It’s disguised as a single-idea genre film, but its ambitions reach for the furthest limits of its medium (and the medium of fashion while it’s at it, just as lagniappe).” A $3 rental on all major VOD platforms.

-Brandon Ledet

The Platform (2020)

“There are three types of people: those at the top, those at the bottom, and those who fall.”

Last December, James and I recorded a podcast episode on what we called “Vertical Class Warfare.” We discussed three genre movies that illustrated their class-based conflicts through an excessively blatant, literal metaphor in which the working class had to physically fight their way up a vertical structure to take down the upper-class oppressors who towered above them. The three movies that anchored the episode were Parasite, Us, and C.H.U.D., while High-Rise & Snowpiercer (a horizontal deviation on the theme) naturally came up in conversation. I would now like to add the Netflix-released sci-fi picture The Platform to that growing list, which is may even be more dutifully committed to its Vertical Class Warfare gimmick than any other movie mentioned. While the two films from last year that inspired the episode—Parasite & Us—invest time in developing the characters & interpersonal relationships staged in their Vertical Class Warfare scenarios, The Platform is almost singularly obsessed with the actual structure of its geographical class divide and how it is policed. It’s so into Philosophy & economic theory that there’s room for little else, ensuring that the movie is almost 100% worldbuilding – a guided tour of an already established dystopian hellscape. Luckily, it has more than enough Big Ideas & gory catharsis to pull that indulgence off.

A man with no established background or goals awakes in a concrete tower that resembles an impossibly tall prison. We learn the circumstances of this tower (“The Vertical Self-Management Center” in the official corporate-speak) along with this new resident/prisoner as he finds his own bearings. A viciously unhelpful, mysterious cellmate dodges his endless flood of questions and allows him to discover the rules of their confinement in his own time. As the stranger puts it (and as the rules of this growing subgenre dictate), there’s no need to explain these things because, “It’s obvious” – a phrase that’s repeated so often it effectively becomes the film’s self-parodic mantra. Gradually, we learn that prisoners are randomly assigned floor numbers at the start of each month, counting down from Floor #1 at the top to the seemingly bottomless number of higher-numbered floors hundreds of levels below. Every day, a platform lowers down each of these levels with an overflowing banquet that offers more than enough food to feed everyone housed in the facility. Except—and it’s obvious—the arbitrarily privileged gluttons on the upper floors gorge themselves on as much food as they can stomach, leaving little to nothing for the peasants below (despite having tasted the raw end of that deal themselves many, many months prior). Once this preposterous scenario is established, all there’s left to do is contrive a way for that cycle to be broken. How to achieve that systemic change, it turns out, is the one thing that is not Obvious.

The most rewarding thing about these kinds of movies is that they’re excellent conversation starters. The entire struggle of the movie is rooted in the frustration that the prisoners are wholly committed to their arbitrarily assigned class divides, abusing their temporary power over one another rather than seeking solidarity or inciting a prison-wide riot. It’s the same compromise most of us make every day in a rigged-to-exploit, Capitalist hierarchy: the need to comfortably survive another day outweighs the huge risks & efforts it would take to positively change the system forever. The way The Platform applies its titular metaphor to topics as wide-ranging as worker solidarity, the fallacy of “upward mobility,” and the cruel frivolity of fine dining in an age where people who cannot access it literally starve to death all serve to provoke the audience into active debate with its themes. Even the questions left by its constant worldbuilding (basically, what any aspect of society looks like outside the jail cells or the haute cuisine kitchen where the banquets are prepared) seem designed to provoke further discussion after the credits roll. Yes, the function of its central metaphor is brazenly Obvious, but the movie digs far enough into each logistic of its dystopian hierarchy that it keeps itself plenty busy after the rules of its world are initially established.

Luckily, heady ideas about economic inequality aren’t all that’s being offered on a platter here. The Platform is also committed to serving up horrific, stomach-turning violence in a full-on practical gore spectacle. The Platform pursues a “Eat or be eaten” cannibalism metaphor just as literally & extensively as it explores the logistics of its vertical food distribution contrivance. That way, your eyes are dazzled by traditional, gross-out genre payoffs in the forefront while your mind prods at the meaning & shortcomings of its Obvious political provocations in the background. This is an incredibly nasty slice of schlock with a deviously wicked sense of humor; it’s also a politically engaged provocation that’s obsessed with understanding & undermining the systemic power imbalances that keep us all stuck in place and at each other’s throats. It’s a perfect film to watch in these increasingly bizarre, dysfunctional helltimes where it seems like those very systems are crumbling before our eyes. It feels like there might be a chance that we’ll all soon break out of our own arbitrarily cruel rut and tear this prison down any day now – as long as we don’t eat each other alive before we achieve that solidarity.

-Brandon Ledet

The Invisible Man (2020)

The last movie I saw in theaters was Leigh Whannell’s reimagining of The Invisible Man. Normally, documenting the last movie I saw in theaters wouldn’t be worthwhile, since I go so often that it would be outdated information before I could publish a review. These are not normal times. I watched The Invisible Man on the big screen a few days before all Louisiana cinemas were ordered to close indefinitely by the governor, as a response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. As you already know, it’s been an incredibly long & complicated couple weeks in a way that fuzzes up the memory and distorts our relationship with time. I saw The Invisible Man a relative eternity ago. Even as a traumatizing work that tackles very real, very harmful cycles of abuse, it was a welcome distraction from the hellworld outside – a mode of cinematic escape that no longer currently exists and already feels like it’s been missing in my life forever.

Whannell reinterprets The Invisible Man’s traditional lore from Universal’s Famous Monsters era the same way a lot of horror filmmakers have been revitalizing the genre in the wake of Get Out: by reassessing who we select as the genre’s villains. Most variations of Invisible Man lore—from the original 1930s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel to its slimeball offshoot Hollow Man in 2000—dwell on the implied voyeurism & lack of criminal consequences that accompany public anonymity. Rather than avoid the most sordid implications of that power, Whannell makes it an explicit part of the text. The Invisible Man is not the hero of this story. He’s a millionaire brat who uses a self-funded invisibility suit invention to invade the privacy of and further abuse his former girlfriend, who’s been traumatized by his controlling behavior to the point of seeking shelter outside his home. It’s like a reinterpretation of Batman where billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne using his extraordinarily expensive gadgetry to beat up jobless street criminals is framed as a horrifying act – which is to say it’s a realistic, politically engaged interpretation.

The only responsible way to convey The Invisible Man’s function as an abusive villain is to tell the story from his victim’s perspective. Elizabeth Moss stars as The Invisible Man’s long-abused ex-lover, a woman desperate to move on with her life after the trauma of living with the brute but continually haunted by his presence. He is reported to be dead by his own hand, but his presence still terrorizes her in both concrete & intangible ways – including literally gaslighting her by turning up the gas on the stove while she’s cooking breakfast. No one believes her that this reported-dead man is now invisible and tormenting her in anonymity, of course, at least not until his presence is unignorable because it is outright lethal. Watching this woman suffer a series of escalating, privacy-invading microaggressions that no one else takes seriously until it’s far too late has a genuine, deeply upsetting connection to how abuse manifests in real life – as does the metaphor of her post-trauma recovery being hindered by her abuser’s lingering presence. On a pure conceptual level, the movie is brilliant.

This is a much quieter film than Whannell’s previous effort, the technophobic action thriller Upgrade. He trades out that preceding film’s exciting, body-mounted camera work & pulsating synths for the cold, oscillating sweeps of security cameras and the quiet terror of an “empty” house. Casting Elizabeth Moss in the central role was a genius move, as that eerie stylistic restraint essentially makes The Invisible Man a one-woman show – something Moss is overqualified for, considering the Olympian acting feats of titles like Her Smell & Queen of Earth. Whannell’s skill for action-horror payoffs eventually comes to the forefront in the rapid escalation of the third act, once the titular villain’s cover is blown. Until then, the entire film rests in Moss’s more-than-capable hands and it’s hard to imagine an actor who could carry that responsibility as expertly as she does. If COVID-19-delayed movie releases continue to snowball in the coming months, she might even be able to turn that reduced competition pool into Awards Attention that most early-in-the-year releases couldn’t dream of. It would be deserved, no matter the context.

The Invisible Man opens with a coldly silent prison break, wherein Moss’s traumatized victim escapes her abuser’s home while he is sleeping, terrified to make even the smallest sound. I was hyper-aware of our theatrical audience’s presence during this sequence, especially the restless teens who were tittering and playing with their phones on the far end of our row. As the movie became increasingly tense, the teens quieted down and got lost in the experience of it – something I can’t imagine would have happened if they had watched it at home. Thanks to COVID-19 closures, The Invisible Man is currently available on VOD, months before it normally would have been released outside theaters. I won’t pretend that I know when cinemas will open again or what films will be available when they are, but I very much hope this disruption does not permanently upend the theatrical experience as a viable business. There’s an undeniable immersive, communal magic to the theatrical experience and—as great as it was—I very much hope that The Invisible Man is not the last time I get to experience that escapist joy.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: True Stories (1986)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1986’s True Stories, is a one-of-a-kind oddity. David Byrne’s directorial debut is part sketch comedy, part music video, part essay film, and part experimental video art. Mostly, though, it’s just a 90-minute visit inside the Talking Heads frontman’s wonderful brain as he puzzles at the basic nature of rural Texas and—by extension—America. Only Byrne could have written & narrated the picture as it is; its worldview is fine-tuned to a frequency only his mind operates on. Watching humble, everyday Texans interact with Byrne’s exuberant, wonderstruck POV is like watching Fred Flintstone chat with The Great Gazoo. He practically functions as a figment of their imagination, which is essentially how his eternal-outsider Art Punk spirit feels in the real world too.

Because True Stories is so specific to Byrne’s idiosyncratic worldview, it’s exceedingly difficult to recommend further viewing for audiences who want to see more films like it. Luckily, it’s not the only film around that heavily involves Byrne’s peculiar input. Nor is it the only film in which a left-of-the-dial auteur attempts to construct an abstracted portrait of American culture. Here are a few suggested pairings of movies you could watch if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema on its bizarro wavelength.

Stop Making Sense (1984)

The biggest no-brainer endorsement for a True Stories double feature is to pair it with the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense. A collaboration between the band and beloved director Jonathan Demme, the concert doc covers four live dates from the Stop Making Sense tour in 1983, when Byrne & his art-punk buddies were at the height of their national popularity. While some of Byrne’s engagement with the everyday common folk of America is lost as he’s distanced from the audience on a barricaded stage, much of the visual language & thematic concerns that would later snowball into True Stories are present here. The video-art displays, consumer culture iconography, and puzzled fascination with the modern Western world that abstracts Byrne’s version of Americana in True Stories are all present in Stop Making Sense; they’re just filtered through song & dance and other collaborator artists’ POV. You even get a small taste of how Byrne’s peculiar presence clashes with the aura of Normal People in Demme’s last-minute choice to turn the camera on dancing members of the audience.

Not for nothing, Stop Making Sense is also worth a watch because it happens to be the pinnacle of the concert film as a medium – regardless of its tenuous connections to True Stories.

John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch (2019)

Until Stop Making Sense is updated with a spiritual sequel in David Byrne’s upcoming American Utopia concert tour doc (directed by the over-qualified Spike Lee, of all people), its closest substitute might be a sketch comedy showcase hosted by John Mulaney. Overall, the Netflix comedy special John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch doesn’t have much to do with Byrne’s peculiar persona in True Stories. Most of the special involves Mulaney interacting with semi-scripted children in a post-ironic spoof of Sesame Street era children’s programming – like a softer, more sincere Wonder Showzen. One of the special’s stand-out sketches just happens to feature Byrne: “Pay Attention,” a song the musician performs with a small child.

The playful number is about children’s frustrations when performing artistic songs or skits they’ve worked really hard on in private but adults ignore as frivolities when presented to “the public.” Byrne & his pint-sized bandmate chastise a living room full of dull, middle-class adults for ignoring children’s art as if it were background noise, even when it clearly means the world to the performer. Not only is the song funny & endearing on its own terms, but it’s also another chance to see Byrne interact with normal, aggressively un-special people as a kind of ethereal outsider who’s confounded by their behavior.

The Straight Story (1998)

Of course, David Byrne isn’t the only erudite Art Freak of his era to attempt an abstracted portrait of modern Americana. Laurie Anderson’s United States Live series even paralleled his New Wave video-art aesthetic while tackling roughly the same topic in the same year as the Stop Making Sense tour. What’s really hard to come by in works of this nature, however, is Byrne’s wholesome enthusiasm for the subject. While Anderson’s similar work can be often eerie or sinister, Byrne mostly comes across as genuinely fascinated with modern American culture as a curio.

The only other film I can think of that adopts that same wholesome outsider’s fascination with America as a people is a Walt Disney Pictures production . . . of a David Lynch film. The Straight Story is a simple retelling of a reportedly true anecdote about an ailing man travelling hundreds of miles to visit his dying, estranged brother via a John Deere tractor. It’s an incredibly patient film that hides away all the horror & obfuscation of Lynch’s typical nightmares until all that is left is his fascination with humbly eccentric Characters. The resulting film is just as bizarre as anything you’d see in Eraserhead, but somehow still carries the endearingly wholesome exuberance as True Stories.

Lynch’s film is not as excitingly paced nor, frankly, as good as Byrne’s Americana masterpiece. Few films are. When looking for supplemental material to approximate the heights of True Stories‘s singular accomplishments, you invariably have to settle for slightly less than the ideal.

-Brandon Ledet

Divine Art Commissions in the Time of COVID-19

As you likely already know, there are a ton of people who are currently out of work as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. You’re likely already seeing pleas from service industry folks, independent arts spaces, and all other sorts of communities in need for donations & contributions of income. If you live in New Orleans, for instance, it’s worth noting that the indefinitely-closed Broad Theater is currently donating 25% of their gift card sales to their staff, paid out weekly. It’s also a great time to reach out to individual artists you appreciate to pay direct support, as they often survive by very thin margins on a good week.

In that spirit, here’s a spotlight on two artists who could use an increase in commissions & donations in these increasingly dark helltimes. As examples of their work, I’m including portraits they’ve recently done of our Krewe Divine looks from this year and links to their personal websites where you can contact them directly. Check out their divine art, consider sending support, and let’s continue to take care of each other as best as we can.

Jennifer works as a PA in Los Angeles, where practically all productions are effectively coming to a halt. They’re currently taking commissions for digital art through their Instagram account.

Liz Yerby makes comics in Portland, Oregon, and is looking for an increase in paid work to help stay afloat. You can check out more of their art on their website and contact them directly by email for commissions.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #104 of the Swampflix Podcast: Children of Paradise (1945) & New Orleans French Film Fest 2020

Welcome to Episode #104 of The Swampflix Podcast! For this episode, the podcast crew discusses all eight features they caught at the 2020 New Orleans French Film Festival, with a particular focus on the 1945 epic melodrama Children of Paradise – which is often cited as “the greatest French film of all time”.  Enjoy!

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

-James Cohn, Hanna Räsänen, CC Chapman, and Brandon Ledet

New Orleans French Film Fest 2020, Ranked & Reviewed

Of the two local film festivals operated by the New Orleans Film Society, New Orleans Film Fest is both the longest-running and the most substantial. The 30th Annual NOFF, for instance, screened hundreds of films all over downtown New Orleans last October, of which we were able to cover 10 features (and a few shorts). We’re only seeing an insignificant fraction of the films screening NOFF every year, making a festival-wide recap something of a Sisyphean task as amateur bloggers.

NOFS’s annual New Orleans French Film Fest is a different matter entirely. The entirety of French Film Fest is located at a single, beautiful venue: The Prytania, Louisiana’s oldest operating single-screen cinema. All films are at least partially French productions, all are shown in subtitled French language, and the large majority of them never see domestic big screen distribution outside of the festival. I see some of my favorite releases of the year at French Film Fest too; 2018’s Double Lover ranked near the top of my favorite films of the 2010s . There are also typically at least two screenings a year that I’d comfortably call all-time favorites after just one viewing, especially in retrospective screenings from auteurs like Agnès Varda & Jacques Demy. New Orleans French Film Fest is the smaller, more intimate festival on the NOFS calendar, but its manageability is more of a charm than a hindrance and I’m starting to look forward to it more every year.

We will be doing a more exhaustive recap of our experience at the festival on an upcoming episode of the podcast, featuring a more fleshed out review of 1945’s Children of Paradise. For now, here’s a ranking of the few films we’ve seen that screened at the 2020 New Orleans French Film Fest. Each title includes a blurb and a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. Mr. Klein (1976) – “It’s clear from the start where the story is headed, as the movie largely functions as a Twilight Zone-style morality tale, but the point is less in the surprise of the plot than it is in the ugly depths of Klein’s authoritarian, self-serving character. This is a damn angry film about the evils of Political Apathy, and a damn great one.”

2. Deerskin (2020) – “Damn funny from start to end. Not only is the idea of a jacket being so fashionably mesmerizing that it leads to a life of crime hilarious even in the abstract, but the overqualified Jean Dujardin’s straight-faced commitment to the bit sells each gag with full inane delight.”

3. Varda by Agnès (2019) – “It may not be as kinetic or as aggressively stylistic as her career’s greatest triumphs (a contrast that’s unignorable, given those films’ presence on the screen), but it’s still incredibly playful & thoughtful in its own construction, especially considering the limitations of its structure as an academic lecture.”

4. Children of Paradise (1945) – Given this one’s accolades as one of the greatest films of all time, I expected a shift into outright Movie Magic surrealism during its stage pieces that never came. Instead, it’s just a well constructed, stately four-way melodrama with a dark sense of humor and an exceptionally grand budget considering it was partially made under Nazi occupation. It’s really good, but I was prepared to be totally floored (which is my fault, not the movie’s). Looking forward to diving further into it on the podcast.

5. Sibyl (2020) – “Its only major fault is that you could name several movies that push its basic elements way further into way wilder directions; Double Lover & Persona both come to mind. Otherwise, it’s an admirably solid Movie For Adults, the kind of thoughtfully constructed erotic menace that used to be produced by Hollywood studios at regular intervals but now only seeps quietly through European film festivals.”

6. Matthias & Maxime (2020) – “Incredibly observant about macho bonding rituals & typical group dynamics among basic bros – especially when parsing out what’s considered Normal male-on-male touching vs. what’s considered Gay. It’s just a shame that same thoughtful consideration didn’t extend to knowing how to trim the movie down to its best, most efficient shape.”

7. House of Cardin (2020) – “Not at all interested in matching the avant-garde artistry of its subject in any formal way; it’s about as forward-thinking in its filmmaking style as an I Love the 60s special on VH1. However, the vibrant, playful art of Pierre Cardin more than speaks for itself, and stepping out of that portfolio’s way read to me like a great sign of respect.”

8. Celebration (2019) – “Without any contextual info about how this late-career misery differs from YSL’s earlier, more youthful fashion shows, this behind-the-scenes glimpse fails to communicate anything coherent or concrete. Like the worst of the ‘elevated horrors’ of recent years that it stylistically emulates (if not only in its spooky score), it’s all atmosphere and no substance.”

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 3/18/20 – 3/25/20

As you likely already know, the governor has ordered the indefinite closure of all Louisiana movie theaters in response to the COVID-19 crisis. That decree makes our weekly What’s Playing in Town report something of a sham, but I thought I’d share some movie recommendations anyway (all in an effort to maintain the fictional veneer of Normalcy). I’ll just be shifting into Online Streaming options as a substitute.

In that spirit, here are some suggestions for movies that you can stream at home while under quarantine. Let’s start with the last few movies Swampflix rated 5-stars that are currently available for home viewing.

Streaming with Subscription

The Housemaid (1960) – From Britnee’s review: “I absolutely loved this movie. It kept me on the edge of my seat for its entirety, and I was surprised to see how far it pushed the envelope. I was in complete shock by how dark certain parts of the film were, and that’s a film quality that I will always have mad respect for.” Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

The Future (2011) – From my review: “The official, miserable onscreen death of Twee Whimsy. This time-obsessed breakup drama for a pair of listless thirty-somethings captures that post-youth stare in the mirror when you first realize you’re not special and that life is largely pointless & devoid of magic. It’s a painful but necessary rite of passage, one that directly mirrors my own experience with wonder & self-worth over the past ten years.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Mister America (2019) – From Britnee’s review: “Gregg Turkington has a great moment where the ‘documentary’ crew follows him hunting for VHS tapes in the actual trash (destined to become future Popcorn Classics for On Cinema), and it’s something that I personally related to way too much.” Currently streaming on Hulu.

Streaming VOD

True Stories (1986) – Our current Movie of the Month! From Boomer’s intro: “A fearless peeling back of Byrne’s public persona (as unobtrusive as it is) to lay bare the core of this being called ‘David Byrne.’ It’s truly a celebration of the specialness of the mundane, and even the specialness of something as ugly as suburban tract housing. Who can say it’s not beautiful? There ought to be a law.” A $3 rental on all major VOD platforms.

Mildred Pierce (1945) – From my review: “Even with all the Old Hollywood elegance classing up the joint, this manages to land some perfectly outrageous fits of drama & dialogue that outshine even the over-the-top fervor of Crawford’s post-Baby Jane psychobiddies. That combination of the refined & the obscene is exactly what makes it such a joy – an exquisite clash of violence & melodrama.” A $3 rental on all major VOD platforms.

Upstream Color (2013) – From my review: “A closed loop of human connection and subhuman exploitation that makes for a legendarily weird trip for as long as you allow yourself to remain under its spell. It’s just also an uninviting one that doesn’t reveal its true shape until you’ve made it all the way through the loop yourself.” A $3 rental on all major VOD platforms.

-Brandon Ledet

Emma. (2020) is a Major Work, Goddamnit

When Boomer reviewed Autumn de Wilde’s recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, he approached it from a state of deep genre fatigue. He wrote, “Its biggest weaknesses are not in the film itself, but in its timing. If it wasn’t nipping at the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I’d be spending a lot more time gushing over its color palette and period costumes, but despite the vibrancy and the spectacle of virtually every piece of clothing, I wasn’t as blown away as I would have liked to be.” This is certainly a valid POV in approaching the film. At least, it’s one I’ve seen validated by many other critics’ & audiences’ response to the movie – citing it as one of this season’s lesser specimens of its “genre” or, worse, an admirably solid adaptation of a book & character most people don’t seem to like to begin with. No matter how many times I see this sentiment repeated, though, it’s one I cannot match in my own, much more enthusiastic appreciation of Emma. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, but I found a stronger personal connection to Emma. than I did with any one of the more Prestigious films of recent years on a similar wavelength: The Favourite, Little Women, Love & Friendship, etc. I liked all those movies a great deal and understand that any one of them would be a more respectably Intellectual choice as a personal favorite, but I really can’t help it. In my eyes, Emma. is a great work of that same caliber, if not higher.

Even from Emma.’s (admittedly mild) detractors who might dismiss it as a decent 3-star frivolity, you’ll hear concessions that it looks great. Its confectionery production design and deviously playful costuming are too intoxicating to ignore, even if you find the comedy of manners they service to be a bore. That visual achievement is no small, ancillary concern in my estimation. Its confectionery aesthetic is a significant aspect of its substance as a work of art, not least of all because cinema is an inherently visual medium. Director Autumn de Wilde is primarily known as a portrait photographer – making a name for herself shooting musicians’ album covers before transitioning into filmmaking through the music video. A strong, precisely defined visual style is essential for an artist of that background (consider the stylistic hyperbole of Hype Williams’s Belly) and it’s a genuine thrill to see that crisp, modern formalism applied to a period piece (consider Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette), given how stuffy & buttoned up the costume drama can feel at its laziest. There’s a tendency to devalue the visual artistry of fashion design & carefully curated color palettes as secondary concerns in cinema, as if they only exist to serve more Important criteria like performance & plot. Personally, I often find them far more exciting than those more frequently discussed concerns – especially in the “costume drama,” where costuming is emphasized right there in the name. When, for instance, Emma wears a free-floating lace collar as if it were an S&M-inspired choker or wears an overly frilly perfumed ornament that dangles from her hair like a mace, it’s more thrilling to me than any action sequence in Fast & Furious or Mad Max: Fury Road could ever be.

Of course, Autumn de Wilde’s precise eye for visual composition extends from what her characters are wearing to how they are positioned in the frame. Emma. is largely a story about the politics of social hierarchy among wealthy 19th Century fops (dressed up as a tittering rom-com about a misguided matchmaker), so much of its minute-to-minute conflicts are hinged on microscopic social cues in both spoken dialogue & performed body language. The film dutifully allows Austen’s dialogue to speak for itself on this highly stylized stage, but it does add its own spin to the source material by paying careful attention to blocking. Characters are constantly maneuvering their bodies in private parlors & public spaces to communicate unspoken dominance & conflict with their social adversaries. Emma Woodhouse herself has more perceived adversaries than most, as someone who constantly plays with social configurations as an idle pastime, so she’s the most obvious example of this purposeful body language display. When she spies through a store window that a new person is entering the room, she prepares by positioning her body in the most advantageous position she can manage, like a war general seeking higher ground. When she greets a potential beau who she finds romantically intriguing in her private greenhouse, she shifts her position to where the glass pane with the best lighting hits her just right with an artificially warm glow. Seemingly simple conversations in the film visually play out like complicated dances as characters mechanically shift around each other in closed-off rooms, an attention to blocking that’s emphasized by an elaborate ballroom scene where those body language politics become unavoidably explicit. It’s framed as being deliberate choices made by the characters themselves, but I think it also reflects the film being the vision of a director with an eye for how figures are arranged in photographic compositions.

As sharp as de Wilde’s visual compositions are in this debut feature, I can see how detractors could believe the movie falls short as an adaptation in its unwillingness to tinker with the source material. Emma. will not win over any naysayers who were already displeased with Austen’s novel or Emma Woodhouse as a character. This is a faithful translation from page-to-screen in terms of narrative content, only asserting its own voice on the material through visual style & comedic performance. It works for me, but I was already a fan of the novel before I arrived. Emma Woodhouse is a deeply flawed brat whose lifelong idleness in comfort & wealth has trained her to treat people’s private lives like playthings. Anya Taylor-Joy was perfect casting for the role in that she’s already been walking a tightrope between quietly sinister & adorably sweet since her breakout performance in The Witch. Her dips into thoughtless cruelty at the expense of her social inferiors hit just as hard as the physical comedy of the goofier subordinates she’s adopted as pets (the MVPs in those roles being Mia Goth as her absurdly naive protégée & Bill Nighy as her hypochondriac father). Both Emma’s icy manipulations of her social circle’s hierarchy (disguised as playful “matchmaking”) and her closest family & friends’ pronounced goofiness are majorly enhanced by the buttoned-up tension of the setting, where the smallest gesture or insult can mean The World. The laughs are big; so are the gasps when Emma fucks up by allowing her games to hurt “real” people’s very real feelings. When Clueless modernized the character for the 1990s, it softened the blow of these thoughtless miscalculations by making Emma something of an oblivious Valley Girl ditz. De Wilde’s film makes no such accommodations, sketching her out as a very smart, sharply witted person who should know better (and ultimately learns from her mistakes). Continuing to like her in that context is a bigger leap than some audiences are apparently willing to make.

I really like Emma., both the movie and the character. Autumn de Wilde seemingly likes her as well, even if she can’t resist ribbing her for not being half as smart or talented as she believes herself to be (most hilariously represented in her limitations as a painter & musician). I wish I could fully hinge my appreciation for this movie on its exquisite visual artistry or its shrewdness as a page-to-screen adaptation, but the ultimate truth is that it’s a comedy that I happened to find very, very funny from start to end. Whether that’s because the physical humor hit me just right in its stuffy setting or because I just happen to generally get a kick out of Women Behaving Badly is anyone’s guess. Similarly, I wonder if critics who were underwhelmed by the film in comparison with fellow costume dramas of its artistic caliber just simply didn’t find it humorous, as there’s no rationale that can intellectually save a comedy you simply don’t find funny. No one seems willing to argue that Emma. isn’t accomplished as a visual feat, so I suspect it’s the specificity of the humor or the thorniness of Emma Woodhouse as a character that’s weighing down its initial reputation. Personally, both the quirky character humor and the thoughtless dips into ice-cold cruelty worked for me, and I consider Emma. to be a major work. I doubt I’m the only one.

-Brandon Ledet

Mr Klein (1976)

It sometimes feels as if the canon of Cinematic Classics has already been set in stone, as if there’s no major discoveries left to be found that haven’t already been exulted by cultural institutions like The Criterion Collection or The Sight & Sound Top 100 list. That’s why restorations of forgotten, discarded gems like Mr. Klein are so vital to modern cinephilia, keeping the hope alive for decades-delayed discoveries. Directed by HUAC-backlisted American ex-pat Joseph Losey in the grim, grimy days of the 1970s, Mr. Klein has been shoddily distributed in the decades since, to the point where it’s been effectively backlisted itself. Maybe some of its initial critical reluctance in France was due to its American filmmaker going exceptionally hard on targeting French authorities for cooperating with Nazis while under German occupation (still a fresh wound at the time of its initial release). Maybe the film was simply just considered not particularly great, just another vanity project for its tabloid-friendly leading man Alain Delon in the titular role; maybe its exceptional qualities only became apparent with time & distance away from Delon’s peak star wattage. Whatever the case, it’s a great work that deserves great respect, the exact kind of discarded gem that self-serious film nerds cream their jeans over when it’s rescued for the digital restoration treatment. Rialto Films isn’t only keeping Mr. Klein alive with this restoration; they’re also keeping alive the thrill of the hunt.

Delon stars as an unscrupulous art dealer who makes a fortune off the Holocaust’s slow intrusion into German-occupied France. As doomed Jewish citizens seek the road money necessary to escape Nazi rule, Mr. Klein lowballs them on the worth of their precious art collections, profiting off their terror. This unseemly business is disrupted when Klein is mistaken by French authorities to be Jewish himself, as he shares a name with a much less wealthy French citizen who’s on the path to be exported to a German concentration camp. Arrogantly convinced that his wealth & public stature will protect him, Klein decides to address this mix-up through official, administrative channels instead of fleeing France himself. His delusions that he can remain uninvolved in the plight of French Jews makes him more involved than ever. As he falls down a Kafkaesque bureaucracy rabbit hole in an attempt to clear his name, he effectively become both a Nazi and a Jew himself: hunting down the “real” Robert Klein to bring them to “justice” and being treated like a lousy criminal by the Nazi-complying French authorities because of an arbitrary criterion beyond his control. It’s clear from the start where the story is headed, as the movie largely functions as a Twilight Zone-style morality tale, but the point is less in the surprise of the plot than it is in the ugly depths of Klein’s authoritarian, self-serving character. This is a damn angry film about the evils of Political Apathy, and a damn great one.

Where Mr. Klein might frustrate some plot-obsessed viewers is in its predictability, it more than makes up for it in eerie mood. Its Kafkaesque bureaucracy nightmare and fits of uncanny horror almost suggest that Klein’s plight will tip into supernatural fantasy at any moment, as if he has a genuine doppelgänger roaming the streets of Paris in wait of a violent showdown. Mostly, though, the film operates like a grimy 1970s throwback to the heyday of noir. Klein’s late-night investigations of shadowy figures, dangerous dames, and widespread political corruption recall a wide range of classic noir tropes, right down the trench coat & fedora of his costuming. By the very first scene, he already tips the archetype of the noir anti-hero into full-fledged villainy, as he’s introduced fleecing a devastated Jewish man while dressed in an obnoxious silk bathrobe in his luxurious apartment. His villainy only worsens as he pursues the “real” Robert Klein instead of fleeing France himself, something he’s easily equipped to do. What’s his ideal success story here? That he clears his own name by condemning a Jewish man to death in a concentration camp? Klein is convinced the French authorities will clear his name through proper channels in time, yet he only becomes guiltier in the eyes of the audience and in the eyes of the Nazis the more he fights his designation as a Jewish citizen. Like all great Twilight Zone plots, it’s the story of a morally defunct man getting his cosmically just deserts, with plenty of uncanny chills along the way. It just happens to be dressed up more like a spooky noir film than an outright horror.

I hope that this restoration of Mr. Klein rescues it from its relative obscurity to present it as one of the era’s great works. If nothing else, there are isolated images from the film that continue to haunt me the way all Great Cinema does: a Nazi phrenology exam, a mansion left empty by pilfered artwork, the world’s most horrific drag brunch, etc. Whether that critical reappraisal is imminent or not, just the chance to see it projected on the big screen with a totally unprepared audience at this year’s New Orleans French Film Festival was enough of a wonder to justify Rialto Films’s restoration of this forgotten gem. Our modern-day audience was thrilled, chilled, and traumatized by the experience, which is just as validating as a proper entry in the Great Cinema canon.

-Brandon Ledet