Bonus Features: A New Leaf (1972)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1972’s A New Leaf, was the directorial debut of stage comedy legend Elaine May.  May reluctantly starred in the film herself opposite Walter Matthau, who plays a destitute, asexual playboy aristocrat who plans to marry her neurotic heiress character, kill her, and liquidate her fortune.  Only, his plans are thwarted when it gradually dawns on him that there is one thing in the world he enjoys more than money: his wife’s company.  A New Leaf is a darkly funny, bitterly anti-romantic romcom until, against all odds, it ends on the familiarly sweet notes of a traditional romcom.  Elaine May’s performance is a large part of its success, as the only reasonable response to watching her nervously unravel under her gigantic glasses is to immediately blurt out “Marry me,” regardless of whether you also want to kill her for her inheritance.  It’s a shame, then, that her frustrations behind the camera tripped up the film’s potential success.

Every movie Elaine May directed was delivered over-schedule & over-budget.  Even her relatively laidback, low-budget debut stretched 40 days past its shooting schedule, with an entire hour of extraneous bits & bobs the studio edited out of the final product despite May’s protests that it needed to be a three-hour romcom to work.  If she had delivered A New Leaf on-time, on-budget, and properly trimmed, it would’ve been considered a huge hit instead of just breaking even, and she might’ve had an easier time fighting for her cuts of similarly troubled productions down the line.  Instead, she toiled away in the background, writing screenplays for some of the most beloved Hollywood comedies of all time – poor thing.  She did manage to squeeze four feature films out of Hollywood producers before they took away her director’s chair, though, and luckily for audiences they’re all great movies, whether or not they lost money.  If you enjoyed A New Leaf, I recommend that you watch all three films May directed afterwards, detailed below.  And if you’re a Hollywood producer, I recommend that you spend even more money on whatever dream project the 90-year-old auteur wants to see made before she leaves this world.  Chances are high you’ve already wasted much more money on much worse films.

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

I guess it’s inaccurate to claim that every Elaine May movie was a commercial flop.  Her follow-up to A New Leaf was her one hit comedy, enough of a financial success that it inspired a major studio remake starring Ben Stiller in the aughts.  Curiously, it’s also the only film in her catalog that’s not currently available to watch at home through official means. The Heartbreak Kid has been left to rot on YouTube and Archive.org as a long-forgotten 20th Century Fox acquisition that the art-indifferent overlords at Disney have no concern for. Which is a shame, since it might very well be May’s career best as a director.  At the very least, its anti-romcom humor is even darker & more vicious than A New Leaf’s, which is impressive since that debut was about marital murder.

Charles Grodin stars as a fresh-out-of-college shit-talker who immediately realizes on a honeymoon road trip that he despises his bride.  While vacationing in Miami, he ditches her for a younger, blonder co-ed who he has no business fooling with, inevitably finding himself still deeply unhappy after another successful romantic conquest.  The Heartbreak Kid is essentially a horror film about a nightmare world where everyone has to marry the first person who makes them horny before they get to have sex, regardless of compatibility or moral deficiency.  May’s psychedelic zoom-ins on the Miami resort sunshine, Groden’s complaints that his wife is “not really his type,” and the escalating tension of the plot’s sitcom hijinks are outright maddening, whereas the similar poisonous romance humor of A New Leaf plays oddly, subtly sweet.  Together, they make a great pair, and they’re the best argument for May’s genius as a comedic auteur.

Mikey & Nicky (1976)

May’s least typical work is her all-in-one-night gangster drama Mikey & Nicky, starring Peter Falk & John Cassavetes as a pair of uneasy, paranoid friends at the bottom rung of the crime-world ladder.  Falk appears to be the kinder, more calming presence of the two, but over the course of the film both characters expose themselves as low-level scumbag criminals without a decent bone between either of their bodies.  They’re not all that different from the self-absorbed, oblivious brutes of May’s comedies, except that working in a different genre means she no longer has to ingratiate them to the audience for the story to work.  Moving away from a character-based comedy structure also expands her scope to capture a portrait of a grimy, pre-Giuliana era NYC instead of just a couple losers who occupy it.  The film’s late-night setting, 70s funk soundtrack, guerilla-style camerawork, and authentic casting of dive-bar creeps as background extras all feel like they’d be much more at home in a Scorsese picture like Taxi Driver or Mean Streets than a typical film from Elaine May.  But she’s damn good at it.

Mikey & Nicky presents the best argument that May deserves as much time to tinker around in the editing room as she desires.  The dialogue has a tight, pointed feel to it, as if the screenplay were written for the stage. So, it’s mind-blowing to read about how its narrative flow was mostly constructed after-the-fact in the editing room, like a sprawling, improv-based Apatow comedy.  Her way of putting a story together might not have been financially sound at the time (considering that her over-schedule shoots were burning through celluloid while Apatow’s only clutter up digital servers), but you can’t argue with the results. She makes great movies.

Ishtar (1987)

The only time I can feel the overcooked, under-planned sweatiness of Elaine May’s directorial style is in her final picture, the one that effectively became a punchline synonym for box office disaster.  Ishtar is not nearly as bad as its contemporary reviews suggested.  In its earliest stretch, it’s an ahead-of-its-time, Tim & Eric style anti-comedy, starring Dustin Hoffman & Warren Beatty as a pair of sub-mediocre songwriters who abandon their shared dream of making it big in New York City to instead make some quick money as a nightclub act in Morocco.  The film also isn’t as great as its modern reclaimers suggest.  Once it arrives in Morocco, May loses the personable intimacy that makes her earlier comedies so great, as Beatty & Hoffman’s buffoons are gradually drafted against their will into a conflict between the CIA, leftist guerillas, and the dictator of the fictional country of Ishtar.  The movie loses a little of its post-Andy Kauffman, proto-Tim & Eric sheen as the whole battle comes to a head in its third act slump, which involves a blind camel, some unfortunate detours into brown face, and our bumbling leads getting lost in the desert.

Despite some of that exhausting, comedy-killing bloat in the third act, Ishtar does not deserve its reputation as One of the Worst Comedies of All Time. It’s doubtful it was even the worst comedy released in the spring of 1985. The film is often funny in a strikingly subversive, adventurously unconventional way. It even goes as far as to include harsh criticisms of US interference with political affairs in the Middle East instead of broadly stereotyping the people of the region the way lazier 80s comedies would (for the most part).  Still, it ended up being the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, as it finally sealed May’s reputation as box office poison after four consecutive debacles. Even the critics had turned on May at the arrival of her final feature, seemingly eager to tear it down before it was even released.  Even if her productions were overly extravagant for what she was supposed to be delivering, I’d say that was a mistake.  After all, she was only hurting the money men.  She consistently put out great art, even when it was bad for business.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Pumpkin (2002)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the bad-taste Christina Ricci comedy Pumpkin (2002), in which a WASP sorority girl falls disastrously in love with a mentally disabled athlete.

00:00 Welcome

01:20 The Rehearsal
06:06 Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)
11:27 Death Becomes Her (1992)
21:00 True Grit (2010)
23:23 Gods of Egypt (2016)

26:46 Pumpkin (2002)

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

-The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Official Competition (2022)

As the Fall Film Festival season spills over into the Year-End Listmaking frenzy and the new year’s hangover Awards Ceremonies, it’s easy to be tricked into believing that movies are Important.  Forget all the jump-scare horrors of October and the action blockbuster bloat of what’s now a six-month summer.  This is the time of year when cinema cures all the world’s ills, from “solving” racial & economic injustice in 180 minutes or less to fortifying millionaire actors’ praise-starved egos with gold-plated statuettes.  And so, it’s the perfect time of year to catch up with the Spanish film industry satire Official Competition, which is exactly as cynical about the absurd ritual of Important Cinema Season as the ritual deserves.  Dissatisfied with merely being grotesquely wealthy, a pharmaceutical CEO decides to purchase cultural clout by funding a high-brow art film.  He employs a temperamental arthouse auteur to complete the task in his name (Penelope Cruz, sporting one of cinema’s all-time greatest wigs).  To make the most of the opportunity, she has to manage the competing egos of her two male stars (Oscar Martinez as a pretentious stage actor & Antonio Banderas as a himbo film star), and the three mismatched artists violently bicker their way into purchasing a Palme d’Or.  Hilarity ensues, with none of the pomp nor dignity of Prestige Filmmaking left intact.

As you can likely tell from the dual presence of Cruz & Banderas, Official Competition borrows a lot of aesthetic surface details from the Almodóvar playbook: ultra-modernist art gallery spaces, video-instillation digi projections, cut-and-paste magazine collages, etc.  It just repurposes those Great Value™ Almodóvar aesthetics for broad goofball schtick instead of subtly complex melodrama.  And it works!  The jokes are constant & consistently funny, always punching up at the absurd self-importance of artsy filmmaker types’ delusion that they can change the world through a millionaire producer’s vanity project.  From the himbo’s Instagram charity sponcon to the theatre snob’s practiced awards rejection speech to the auteur’s failure to master TikTok dance crazes, the movie constantly pokes fun at its three central players for being far less Genius, Important, and Uniquely Talented than they believe themselves to be.  At its core, this is a comedy about a boyish rivalry between the two actors under Cruz’s direction, and her mistaken belief that she’s the sole voice of reason on-set.  They’re all equally ridiculous and all a constant source of verbal & visual punchlines. 

Even though Official Competition is essentially a farce, it can’t help but absorb some of its own arthouse prestige through proximity.  The three main actors all put in great, nuanced performances as broad film-world archetypes, especially Cruz as the exasperated auteur who can’t fully domesticate her collaborators.  The Almodóvar set details afford it a crisp art instillation feel, especially in a lengthy gag involving a loudly mic’d lesbian makeout session.  Its icy humor at the expense of its own industry also goes subzero in the third act, when the vicious on-set rivalries become outright lethal.  It’s a very smart comedy about a very silly industry that thinks very highly of itself, an easy but worthwhile target for ridicule.  It’s around this stretch on the annual film distribution calendar—when the novelty horror titles dry up between Halloween & January dumping season—that I’m desperate for a little novelty & levity in my moviewatching diet.  Official Competition meets me halfway in that respect, finding plenty novelty & levity in Prestige Filmmaking itself.

-Brandon Ledet

Last Dance (2022)

It’s undeniable that the art of drag has changed drastically in the past decade, at least from what I can see in New Orleans.  The traditionalist dive-bar pageant drag that I grew up with in the city has been pushed out to the edges of the frame, found only in the annual Gay Easter parade in the Quarter or at spaghetti & mimosas brunches on the West Bank.  These days, most local drag acts are young cabaret weirdos who are much more interested in testing the boundaries of good taste than they are in looking pretty under a pound of pancake-batter makeup.  In most cities, drag’s recent shift towards the avant-garde might only be attributable to the popularity of television programs like Ru Paul’s Drag Race and its legion of international spinoffs.  Here, it’s more directly influenced by the New Orleans Drag Workshop, an intensive drag bootcamp that spawned most of the city’s most vital, exciting queens for the better half of the 2010s.  That’s the local legacy of drag mother Lady Vinsantos, who closed the New Orleans Drag Workshop just before the pandemic in 2019, leaving behind a glamorously mutated art scene that now sets the city apart from the Southern Pageant traditions I remember from Mardis Gras & Decadences past.

The French “dragumentary” Last Dance honors Vinsantos for recontouring the New Orleans drag scene into the vibrant freak show it is today, so it was wonderful to see it presented with ceremonial prestige at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival.  As the older, stuffier crowd attending the local premiere of the Louis Armstrong documentary Black & Blues spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of The Prytania, the drunken reprobates waiting for the Vinsantos doc rushed in, ready to cheer on & heckle the projection of their friends’ faces onto the century-old silver screen.  The movie asks, “Remember when Neon Burgundy had that gigantic beard?” as if it’s making nostalgic small talk between stage acts at The All-Ways.  It treats local drag performers like Franky, Tarah Cards, and Gayle King Kong as if they were the first wave of punk bands to perform onstage at CBGB’s, a much-deserved reverence you’ll only find in film-fest documentaries like this & To Decadence With Love.  Director Coline Albert may not be from New Orleans, but she does a great job of highlighting what makes the local drag scene special, and how much of a hand Vinsantos had in shaping that scene into what it is.

Besides, New Orleans is only one part of Vinsantos’s story, as it’s told here.  This is a documentary of thirds, split between the closure & legacy of the New Orleans Drag Workshop, Vinsantos’s youthful run as a chaos queen in San Francisco, and the character’s official retirement show in Paris – a lifelong dream realized.  The writing & production of the Paris show helps establish a narrative momentum as Vinsantos reminisces about what he’s accomplished with his drag artistry in two distanced American cities, saving the movie from devolving into pure talking-heads tedium.  Even as someone who’s attended many shows populated entirely by Workshop “draguates” (as well as Vinsantos’s horror-host screening of the San Francisco cult film All About Evil), I’ve had little direct interaction with his own work, as he’s been gradually, consciously ceding the stage to younger talent.  Last Dance operates as a fly-on-the-wall portrait of Vinsantos as a self-doubting, frustrated artist with a chaotic stop-and-start creative process.  The Paris retirement show finale and clips from past triumphs also offer a decent sketch of what the Lady Vinsantos stage persona is like in action – a volatile combo of a Strait-Jacket era Joan Crawford and a Grande Dame revision of Freddy Kreuger.  The retirement of that persona is very much worth preserving here, even if she eventually rises from the grave to terrorize yet another city.

To Last Dance‘s credit, it doesn’t attempt to cover all of Vinsantos’s various art projects from throughout the decades.  His dollmaking, songwriting, and filmmaking efforts are only captured in glimpses, sometimes frustratingly so.  The archival fragments of the D.I.Y. drag-horror films he made as a prankish youth in San Francisco were the major highlight for me, since they have a vintage texture that can’t be matched by modern digital cameras.  Even just limiting itself to the dual retirement of the Drag Workshop and the Lady Vinsantos persona, though, the movie can still feel a little narratively unfocused, frantically plane-hopping between the three cities tethered to Vinsantos’s heart.  If it’s at all meandering or overlong, though, the indulgence is clearly earned.  If anything, we should have rolled out the red carpet and handed over a Key to the City to make the ceremony of this retirement documentary even more ostentatious.  As is, getting home from the post-screening Q&A after 1a.m. at least felt appropriate to the late-night freak scene Vinsantos helped establish here; the only thing the event was missing was a crowd-hyping MC and a two-drink minimum.

-Brandon Ledet

Nanny (2022)

In Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature Nanny, a Senegalese domestic worker struggles to maintain her sanity while caring for the white child of a wealthy NYC family and scraping together money to emigrate her own son to her new home.  It’s essentially an atmospheric horror update to Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, the second one I’ve seen this year after the South African apartheid horror Good Madam.  I personally preferred Good Madam, but Nanny earned better reviews and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, so I’m out of sync with the consensus.  I suspect that’s because Nanny is less of a proper Horror Movie, landing the same accolades as an important “social thriller” that Get Out earned outside of horror circles in 2017 (in a way no other Blumhouse productions have in the years since, until now).  It’s an immigration story first & foremost, neatly containing all of its supernatural menace in its frequent nightmare & hallucination sequences in a way that the more straight-forward body possession story Good Madam does not.  Whichever spooky revision of Black Girl you prefer, it’s undeniably cool that they both exist, and remarkable that their distribution paths converged on the festival circuit this year – Nanny premiering locally at New Orleans Film Fest and Good Madam premiering at Overlook.

Comparisons aside, Nanny mostly holds together as a sharply tense, surprisingly funny domestic drama about working class exploitation, with plenty of spooky window dressing to maintain an eerie mood.  Heavily referencing African folklore figures like the arachnid trickster-god Anansi and the alluring water spirit Mami Wata, Jusu easily establishes a dense visual language in the film’s plentiful nightmare sequences & daytime hallucinations.  Spiders, mirrors, snakes, and mermaids creep into the frame at almost every turn, disrupting the labor exploitation story at the film’s core in violent jolts of surrealist imagery.  Highlighting that labor exploitation is the main point, though, and whatever supernatural scares accompany it are only there to provide texture.  With a few scattered edits, Nanny could easily be reconfigured into a standard Sundance drama about an undocumented worker’s grim daily routine sacrificing her own familial bonds to hold a wealthy family together for petty cash.  If anything, removing the supernatural horror elements might have left more room to dwell in the moments of discomfort, heartbreak, and rebirth in the film’s rushed ending, which would’ve been much more emotionally effective if the audience were allowed to fully sink into it.

Speaking generally, I’m happy that horror movies are starting to earn festival prestige & awards-season accolades instead of being siphoned off as disposable straight-to-streaming #content (which accounts for a lot of Blumhouse’s output these days).  Nanny winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance feels a little like Silence of the Lambs winning Best Picture at the Oscars, though.  Technically, it’s an industry win for horror, but it’s such a safe, cleaned-up, presentable version of horror that it doesn’t leave much room for the victory to be repeated.  I would need an actual, physical intrusion of a devious spider-god or killer mermaid into the “real world” to get excited about what this movie’s success means for the prominence of the genre on awards ballots & festival red carpets.  As is, I get the sense that Jusu is much more interested in the Dardennes-style economic drama she gets to tell outside those horror elements, which were more of a funding & marketing hook than the main purpose of her story.  Thankfully, the horror industry is booming right now with or without festival accolades, so I can find what I’m personally looking for in stories like these plenty other places: Good Madam, Good Manners, His House, Zombi Child, I Am Not a Witch, etc., etc., etc.

-Brandon Ledet

Podcast #173: Causeway (2022) & #NOFF2022

Welcome to Episode #173 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon is joined by Moviegoing with Bill‘s Bill Arceneaux to review the films they caught at the 33rd annual New Orleans Film Festival, starting with the locally-set Jennifer Lawrence drama Causeway.

00:00 #NOFF2022

14:44 Causeway

36:55 The Negro and the Cheese Knife
45:00 Signal and Noise
51:55 Really Good Friends
1:00:40 The Streets Tell a Story
1:03:03 Iron Sharpens Iron
1:15:15 Street Punx
1:17:37 In Search of … Pregame
1:26:30 Friday I’m in Love
1:29:50 Three Headed Beast
1:34:18 Last Dance
1:38:34 Nanny

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

-The Podcast Crew

Quick Takes: Virtual Cinema at #NOFF2022

I only attended two in-person screenings at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival: local premieres of the New Orleans drag scene documentary Last Dance and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning horror film Nanny.  Everything else I caught at this year’s festival was presented on its Virtual Cinema platform, streamed at home on my laptop & TV.  Logistical obstacles kept me from catching more titles in person, which is a shame, since one of the major joys of NOFF is being immersed in microbudget, niche-interest cinema alongside huge, enthusiastic audiences that those movies would not reach otherwise.  After a week of rushing from screening to screening trying to cram in as many personal, handcrafted pictures as I can before they disappear into the distribution ether, I tend to lose track of the textures & standards of professional, corporate filmmaking.  It’s a low-key, intimate headspace I never want to emerge from, and there’s something especially cool about dwelling there with the sizeable crowds that are missing from arthouse theaters every other week of the year.  I obviously couldn’t simulate that experience attending the festival’s Virtual Cinema at home, but I did still get to see some pretty great movies.

Last year, I wrote a quick-takes roundup of the higher-profile Spotlight Films I caught at NOFF, but this year I’m flipping it around.  Stay tuned for standalone reviews of Last Dance & Nanny, as well as an audio recap of the full #NOFF2022 experience on an upcoming episode of The Swampflix Podcast.  In the meantime, here’s a brief round-up of all the smaller, more esoteric NOFF titles I watched at home – the closest I could get to full immersion in indie-budget Festival Brain.

Three Headed Beast

The first film I watched on NOFF’s Virtual Cinema platform this year ended up being my clear favorite.  The intimate, largely dialogue free drama Three Headed Beast got me excited to spend a week watching nothing but microbudget indies with no commercial appeal, and I was surprised that each subsequent virtual “screening” was a case of diminishing returns.  A small, quiet dispatch from our sister city Austin (where one central Swampflix contributor currently dwells), it’s got an infectious D.I.Y. spirit that’ll convince you the only resources you need to make a great film is a few free friends & weekends and a halfway decent script.  It’s cute, it’s stylish, it’s sexy, and it’s a more emotionally involving drama than most Awards Season weepies with 1000x its budget.

In Three Headed Beast, a loving bisexual couple struggles with their open relationship when one of them catches feelings for a younger third.  The historical details of their relationship dynamic—how long they’ve been together, how long they’ve been open, who suggested the change, etc.—aren’t spelled out until late in the runtime, when the wordless montages of their various romantic trysts are put on pause for the film’s first lengthy exchange of dialogue.  It’s all clearly communicated in their body language before that late-in-the-game explainer, though, and a tryptic split screen editing technique helps pack as much of that visual information into the frame as possible in an intricate, exciting way.  The tension of who’s putting more logistical & theoretical work into their polyamory (through podcast & literature research) vs. who’s actually committing to that lifestyle with a full heart is complexly mapped out using very simple, straightforward tools of the editing room – pulling a great, low-key romance drama out of very limited resources.  Plus, it’s the only film I saw at this year’s festival that includes a tender act of analingus, which has got to count for something.

Friday I’m in Love

I’m embarrassed to admit that my two favorite selections at this proudly local film festival were both imports from Texas.  The pop culture documentary Friday I’m Love is a detailed hagiography of the locally infamous Numbers nightclub in Houston, which opened as a dinner-theatre cabaret before converting to an immensely popular gay disco, then mutating once again into a new wave & industrial music venue.  Decorated with the tape warp & pre-loaded fonts of a vintage home camcorder, the movie presents “Houston’s CBGBs” as a Totally 80s™ nostalgia pit, one filled to the brim with half-remembered anecdotes about counterculture legends as varied as Divine, Ministry, Grace Jones, Nine Inch Nails, and Siouxie Sioux.  The doc is primarily a time capsule record for people who happened to live near the gay Houston neighborhood Montrose when the club was its cultural epicenter, but anyone with a decent sense of taste in music would find something worthwhile in that hazy stroll down memory lane.

Friday I’m In Love commits the worst crimes of a low-budget pop culture doc.  It invites talking heads to endlessly daydream about the glory days; its director makes themself a part of the story for no particular reason; it could have easily been reduced to a short.  And yet it’s got so much great archival footage of the loveable freaks who ran wild in the pre-internet world that it easily transcends those petty quibbles.  It turns out I’m willing to overlook a lot of gruel & glut as long as you throw in some anecdotes about drag queens, goths, and Björk, and there’s something especially charming about seeing those beautiful freaks party in the Texas heat. It turns out I wasn’t the only one so easily charmed, either; the movie won this year’s Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Street Punx

While the one truly local film I caught on the Virtual Cinema platform wasn’t my favorite of the fest, it was maybe the best suited for the fest.  Street Punx is perfect NOFF programming in that it’s a flippant satire about the petty, logistical frustrations of making the exact kinds of movies that never make it past the film festival circuit.  You get to laugh at the ludicrous, aimless hipsters who don’t even know why they’re making art in the first place, then immediately dance with them at the afterparty.  It’s self-critical about the entire enterprise of making niche-interest, microbudget films about “the real world” instead of genuinely engaging with it, while also never taking that to-the-mirror indictment all that seriously.

In this low-key slacker comedy, a pair of directionless New Orleans filmmakers attempt to scrape together funds to make a movie about street punks in Myanmar.  Hiding behind moodboard comparisons to the unscripted No Wave influences of filmmakers like Jarmusch, they’re never straightforward to potential investors about why they want to make a movie in Myanmar, mostly because they don’t even know the reasons themselves.  The studded jackets and spiked mohawks of their potential subjects look great on camera, especially in contrast to the ceremonial Buddhist robes worn by local monks & nuns.  They’re not even really interested in those surface-level aesthetics, though; nor are they are interested in the violent military coups that give those punk-culture rebels a political purpose.  Their concerns are selfish & petty well past the point of parody (including the director using the potential location shoot as an excuse to bang her Myanmarese crush), and most of the movie is a comedy about attempts to justify the project as anything other than a grotesque personal indulgence.  It’s a funny joke too, even if Street Punx itself feels a little messy & aimless in the exact ways it’s critiquing its would-be film-within-a-film for being.

Wetiko

My least favorite film of my Virtual Cinema selections was also the one with the highest ambitions, one that has a much clearer political purpose than the fictional Myanmar punk culture film in Street Punx.  In Wetiko, an Indigenous youth gets tangled up in a spiritualist turf war between authentic Maya shamans and their phony Euro initiators in the Yucatan, since his family’s pet store supplies hallucinogenic toads needed for their rituals.  It’s sharply critical of druggy white colonizers coopting Maya shaman traditions for recreational & self-aggrandizing purposes, recalling the criticisms of ayahuasca tourism in the overlooked, underloved drama Icaros: A Vision.  Featuring performances in the English, Spanish, Mayan, Afrikaans, and (fictional) Empire of Love languages, it’s got an impressively broad scope for such a tiny production, and the New Orleans Film Festival should feel proud to have hosted its World Premiere.

I just couldn’t shake the feeling that Wetiko isn’t as great as it could have been.  It’s shot on film, so it’s automatically got a leg up over most modern festival programming in terms of texture, color, and warmth.  It’s a shame, then, that it loses some of that ground in its choppy, “trippy”, CG-laced editing techniques during its hallucination sequences, which often feel cliché when they need to feel darkly magical.  Thinking back to the way this year’s magnificent Neptune Frost updated its own ancient mystique with the string lights & glowsticks of modern urban living, it’s easy to find Wetiko lacking in comparison.  I still found plenty to enjoy about it though, from the eyeroll-worthy cult members of the Empire of Love Conscious Community Center’s awe for “the universal hum of connectedness” to their satisfying violent overthrow at the hands of true local shamans who actually know what they’re talking about.  If its stoney-baloney trip-outs had just looked a little more uniquely uncanny & nightmarish, it likely would’ve been my favorite screening on this list.  “Impressive but flawed” is far from the worst thing you could say about a film festival title, though, and it was cool to see one of these low-profile movies punch above its weight class.

-Brandon Ledet

Sissy (2022)

I saw a good number of my favorite movies of the year (so far) at Overlook Film Fest in June, which is usually the case.  The programming at that annual horror festival is unmatched by any other local fest I can name, as long as you’re a fully committed genre nerd who doesn’t pay much attention to the Awards Prestige dramas of the fall.  It’s also condensed to a single weekend in early summer, which means it’s impossible for me to catch every movie I want to see in the program. So, I often spend the half-year after Overlook catching up with titles I missed during the festival (which almost invariably pop up on the streaming platform Shudder at one time or another).  Often, I feel validated in which movies I opted to skip at the fest (i.e., She Will), but every now and then there’s a fun little novelty like Sissy that I wish I had seen with a crowd.  It’s always hard to tell how much of an enthusiasm boost I’m giving to movies based on the horror-nerd fervor of the festival, but I do suspect that Sissy killed in the room at Overlook, and I would have loved to share in that joy.

In micro-subgenre terms, Sissy offers an Australian splatstick comedy version of the modern social media thriller. Let’s call it Heavenly Tweetures, Ingrid Goes Down Under, Aussies Aussies Aussies, whatever you like.  It references cult sitcom Kath & Kim in its opening minutes, so you immediately know that it’s filling an Australia-specific niche.  At the same time, its story of a “mental health” social media influencer who becomes a homicidal maniac when she reunites with her childhood bully is a fairly standard-issue template for its genre.  Sissy only Aussifies that template in its irreverent tone & practical-effects gore.  There’s a Dead Alive tinge to its head-crunching kills that makes for a good, goofy time even when the movie is at its most brutal.  That buoyancy seeps through its ironic Disney princess musical score, its Blood Brilliant Tampons™ visual jokes, and its adoring Love Island reality TV parodies; but it’s the gore gags I most would’ve wanted to experience with a crowd.  They’re delighfully vicious, and they’re ultimately what makes the movie special.

There really isn’t much to Sissy‘s social media satire that you can’t find elsewhere.  The titular killer’s addiction to the endorphin rush of notification chimes and her sociopathic ability to alternate between self-care rhetoric & spon-con abuse of her self-appointed position as a mental health authority are familiar to anyone who’s drawn to this kind of material.  I’d even argue that the other notable social media satire at this year’s Overlook, Deadstream, did a much better job of squeezing laughs out of that exact Youtuber brain-rot persona.  There’s a sincerity to Sissy‘s central drama that you won’t find in Deadstream, though, from its nostalgia for childhood BFF kinship to the anxiety-inducing horrors of joining an established adult friend group midstream.  If there’s any incisive social commentary to be found here, it might be in the #terminallyonline understanding of morality where everyone falls into one of two categories: “A Good Person” or “Cancelled.”  It’s when Sissy desperately, violently strikes out to avoid becoming “Cancelled” that the movie evolves into its ideal form: a flippantly funny slasher, not a thoughtful social treatise.

If watching a mental wellness YouTuber become Jokerfied at the first threat of getting cancelled appeals to you, Sissy is a hoot.  That premise is very appealing to me, so I’m not sure why I didn’t prioritize it at Overlook the way I did with Deadstream.  Frankly, I should be cancelled for the offense.

-Brandon Ledet

Valentine (2001)

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that I like to talk about Scream. Like, a lot. Scre4m was my 59th favorite movie of the 2010s, I mentioned the franchise nine times in Part II of my favorite horror movies by year list, and I talked about how Sidney Prescott is my favorite final girl in my review of 5cream. I’ve mentioned it on our Lagniappe episodes of the podcast too many times to count, but in our Cherry Falls episode in particular, we talked about the 4-5 year glut of what I like to call “the post-Scream slashers,” which broadly fall into three categories: 

  • Movies that copied Scream‘s self-awareness and setting while adapting and updating classic horror: The Faculty as Invasion of the Body Snatchers – in a high school! Disturbing Behavior is The Stepford Wives – in a high school! Joy Ride is The Hitcher – on a road trip home from college (sorta)!
  • Movies that didn’t seem to understand that what made Scream different was how it commented upon the genre, and so simply copied the setting, the teen cast, the shadowy killer with an inexpensive outfit, and the non-supernatural horror, and just made slasher flicks with high school (and occasionally college) students being tracked down by someone on a mundane vengeance spree: I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, and, of course, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
  • Movies that copied the teens-in-danger trope but didn’t bother to keep it grounded and instead went all-in on the supernatural, like Final Destination and Jeepers Creepers. 

Of course, we cited Cherry Falls as the anti-Scream (and if you want more details, you can listen to the episode), but there was one movie that was accidentally left off of that list, and definitely deserves to be mentioned: Valentine, directed by Urban Legend-helmer Jamie Blanks. I won’t call myself an Urban Legend apologist because that would imply the movie needs to apologize for something (other than the presence of Jared Leto), but I will say that I find it much more entertaining that the critical consensus does, and it’s not just because Loretta Devine is divine. I always wondered if Valentine, which has the prestige of being based on a novel like I Know… and Killing Mr. Griffin, was really as bad as its reputation lets on. It breaks my heart to tell you that, unfortunately, Valentine isn’t a bad movie, it’s just … only 66.7% of a great movie. I don’t know if a lot of it ended up on the cutting room floor (as infamously happened with Disturbing Behavior, which also feels similarly disjointed) or what, but man, I’ve rarely seen a movie that feels like so much of it is missing, and I’ve seen On the Silver Globe

There’s really no other way to talk about why without getting into the entire film, so spoilers ahead, as much as something that was in theaters before 9/11 can be spoiled. 

The film opens with a promising, frenetically cut scene in a middle school Valentine’s dance in 1988, as pipsqueak Jeremy Melton (Joel Palmer) asks five different girls to dance with him: Shelley, Lily, Paige, Kate, and Dorothy. The first three are rude and cruel in the way that children often are, while Kate rejects Jeremy softly with a “maybe in a little while” and Dorothy, who is pudgier than the other girls, accepts his advances. The two of them kiss beneath the bleachers but are discovered by a pack of bullies, who mock them. Dorothy, embarrassed, quickly agrees when the bullies joke about the sixty-pound “pervert” Jeremy “attacking” her, and the bullies pour red punch over him like he’s Carrie White at the prom before stripping him out of his wet clothes and beating him up, while several of the students who are looking on wear uncanny Cupid/cherub masks . Thirteen years later, Shelley (Katherine Heigl, post-Bride of Chucky and right in the middle of Roswell) is a medical student who, after a terrible first date with a man named Jason Marquette (Adam Harrington) who continuously refers to himself in the third person and makes Shelley pay for her portion of the dinner once he realizes she’s not going to sleep with him, is pulling a midnight study session involving an autopsy.  After a jump scare, she receives a Valentine’s card with a macabre inscription before being murdered by the Cupid-masked killer. 

Elsewhere, Paige (Denise Richards) drags Kate (Marley Shelton) to a speed dating event, despite the fact that Kate hasn’t broken things off with boyfriend Adam (David Boreanaz), who is noted to have a drinking problem, hence the two of them being on the outs. they receive news of Shelley’s death and the two women, along with Lily (Jessica Cauffiel) and the now-svelte Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw), meet the detective investigating the murder, Vaughn (Fulvio Cecere). Each begins to receive creepy notes and valentines signed “J.M.,” up to and including a box of chocolates filled with maggots, and we also meet our cavalcade of other love interests/ineffective red herrings: Lily’s boyfriend Max, a video media artist who has built a maze of images of disembodied mouths and sexy torsos talking about love and sex and whatever (no one in the movie seems to like it; I think it’s terribly pretentious but I would also go and have a very good time, for what it’s worth); Dorothy’s new boyfriend Campbell, who’s wormed his way into a guest room at the giant mansion her father owns and keeps talking about NFTs his new start-up and how his money is all tied up therein; Brian, a hot guy that Kate was starting to connect with at speed dating before Paige stole him away; and Gary, Kate’s creepy neighbor, who perpetually pitches unwelcome woo at her in sentences that rhyme with her name and whom she suspects of stealing her underwear in the laundry room. 

The police remain focused on trying to locate Jason Marquette because of the “J.M.” thing and that he was the last person to see Shelley alive. There’s also a subplot about Ruthie (Hedy Burress), a woman who shows up and accuses Campbell of having bled her bank account and warning Dorothy that she’s probably being used for the same scam. The surviving women discuss whether it’s possible that any of the men in their lives could actually be Jeremy Melton, all grown up after hitting the gym and possibly getting plastic surgery, throwing around accusations and various levels of cattiness that reflect deep, unspoken grievances from childhood. Dorothy even admits to having falsely accused Jeremy, which led to him being sent to a reform school, which led to juvenile hall and so on, before he dropped off of the map. Leading up to the climactic house party at Dorothy’s, most of these are whittled away as characters are murdered: the Cupid killer shoots Lily with arrows at Max’s show (her disappearance is unremarked upon by her friends as her having simply gone on her planned business trip), Gary is discovered in Kate’s bedroom trying on her underwear by Cupid and is bludgeoned with an iron, Campbell gets an axe to the back while relighting the pilot light at Dorothy’s, etc., and Ruthie is later killed shortly after discovering his body. It’s also worth noting that in most of these scenes, the Cupid mask is seen bleeding from its right nostril, just as Jeremy did at the dance all those years ago. People leave the party in droves following a power outage that results from the method by which Cupid kills Paige—in the film’s most memorable scene, which we’ll come back to—and when Kate tries to call Lieutenant Vaughn, she discovers his corpse along with a note that she had earlier given to Adam, cementing that he’s Jeremy, come round at last to get his revenge. She goes back to the house, where Adam behaves creepily but could also just be talking about falling off of the wagon, and Kate then fights Cupid, who is unmasked as … Dorothy. However, as Adam cradles her in his arms while they wait for the police to arrive, his nose is bleeding, before we cut to credits. 

There’s a lot that’s fun and good here, but I’m more fascinated by what isn’t here than what is. Just to start us off with a visual example, one of the men that Kate meets on the speed date is a smiling goon who’s too awkward to work up the nerve to actually say something to her: 

After fifty minutes, this guy shows up again, standing in the stairwell behind Paige when she comes downstairs at Dorothy’s party: 

That’s far too long between scenes for a red herring character to appear and be effective, and so little attention is drawn to him in this second appearance. It’s hard to explain but it just makes it feel like there was or should have been an intervening scene in the film’s second act, where he reappeared briefly and the film could have hinted that he was Jeremy, but it’s simply not present. In fact, there are several large group shots at Max’s art exhibition where it would make perfect sense for him to appear in the background, but I went back and watched that sequence in its entirety and he doesn’t appear in any of the crowd shots, foregrounded or otherwise; it almost makes more sense that he did appear here and was cut. 

And that’s not the only thing that’s narratively unfulfilling or otherwise doesn’t make sense in the language of film. Cameron is one of the film’s more involved red herrings, and he’s used more effectively than some of the others as well given that he is clearly up to no good, but it’s merely criminal, not homicidal.  Unfortunately, however, he is killed mere moments after we’re given the biggest hints that he might be the killer: he is unable to sexually perform for Dorothy, indicating that he’s not as into her as his cover story requires, then he gives her a necklace with a cherubic Cupid on it as a Valentine’s/apology gift, and then he goes down to one of the house’s spa areas and unsuccessfully tries to transfer her father’s money over the phone while scratching at the right side of his nose in agitation. This would be really effective if there were a scene or two in between them that left the house, creating some tension about whether Dorothy was safe or not, then cut back to Cameron trying to transfer funds. To digress for a moment, when Vaughn questions the women about boyfriends who might be behind the scary valentines and such, Kate claims that Adam simply can’t be Jeremy since she’s known him for a couple of years and even rattles off a series of facts about where he’s from and what his parents do for a living. It’s not my practice to review the movie I wish we were presented with or give feedback like this very often (I don’t never have some armchair directing feedback, but it’s not common), but this film almost begs for it, especially because the gaps are conspicuous in their absence; it’s not just that there’s something ephemeral that’s “missing,” it’s like there’s a specific shape that’s been cut out, like when a cartoon character leaves their outline after running through a wall. Right here is the perfect place for a scene where Kate, her certainty about Adam shaken, should have tried to do a little digging about Adam’s past; maybe she’s never actually met these parents and she casually asks Adam about them in a way that makes him react oddly, or she tries to look up the law firm where his mother works only to discover it doesn’t exist or contact the school where Adam’s father supposedly works only to learn there’s no “Mr. Carr” teaching there. Instead, we get two back-to-back scenes (six minutes of screentime) with Cameron and Dorothy in which no tension is built. This is pretty basic stuff, where the audience leaves one scene now assured that Cameron is the killer, then they have that determination undermined by Adam’s behavior or the discovery of lies in his personal history. 

Let’s talk about Scream for a second. I haven’t read the book on which it was based in its entirety, only the first two chapters that are available on certain websites as a preview, but there are enough differences in what I read versus what I saw to say that there were major revisions: Kate’s character is named Jill and is a mystery writer, Paige is called Tara and is an actress, and it is Adam’s character, called Nate here, who is the artist, not Max to bring the film more in line with the Scream narrative. The book opens just after the killer has committed his first revenge murder, and it happened in a bedroom, not a medical school morgue like in the film. The first victim in the novel is already dead at the time of the first line, but Valentine the film goes out of its way to evoke the opening of Scream instead, spending a lot of time with a character getting to know her before she’s killed, and utilizing one of the bigger names in the cast for this scene for shock value. Heigl didn’t have the superstar power that Knocked Up and Grey’s Anatomy would give her in the coming years and certainly wasn’t as famous as Drew Barrymore, but she was one of the big leads in a show that was aimed at and popular with the film’s demographic, and the ongoing staying power of Wish Upon a Star says a lot about how effectively it lodged itself in viewers’ minds. As in Scream, there is police involvement, and the primary red herring (Jason Marquette/Cotton Mather) is arrested for a time while the killings continue unabated, but the killer covers his tracks sufficiently that no one realizes this. And, just like Scream, the movie ends with a giant house party, and it’s this that I want to focus on for a minute. 

Dorothy’s big Valentine’s Day house party takes up far, far too much of this film’s runtime. Valentine is 93 minutes without credits, and the last 35 minutes, nearly 40% of the run time, all take place during this party. Worse that that, remember when I mentioned that nothing happens between the scene with Cameron acting suspiciously with his limp dick and Cupid necklace and the scene of him trying to defraud Dorothy’s father’s bank and then getting murdered? Nothing happens between those two scenes and the party, meaning that we spend the last 41 minutes of the movie at Dorothy’s house. The only time we leave there is when there is a quick cutaway to Lt. Vaughn calling Kate from his car to tell her that Jason Marquette was released and that he might show up at the party. Now, compare this to Scream, which likewise spent a huge part of its runtime (48 minutes) in its final act house party, but we don’t spend that entire time in Stu’s house. There are memorable scenes in the news van and down the road where Gale and Dewey take a walk that function to break up the visual monotony of spending too much screen time in one location. Once again, the outline of something missing is just as present in the narrative as the things that are actually there. To give credit where it’s due, this is where the film’s most interesting kill happens, wherein the killer manages to trap Paige in the hot tub under a clear plastic cover and starts drilling holes in it as she swims around evading the drill bit while having to keep her mouth and nose in the very small space between the cover and the water. It lasts longer than many of the other killing sequences (more on that below) and is very tense, unlike many of the others. 

One of the major things that Valentine, like a lot of Scream imitators, is missing is the characters’ attempts to fight back and survive, which often makes these scenes very brief and lacking in audience investment. In the original, Casey Beckett tries to flee the house and call for help from her parents and Tatum throws bottles of beer at Ghostface and fights for her life before getting stuck in the garage door that breaks her back; in Scream 2, which was released four years before Valentine, Maureen begs the audience to realize she’s not acting and help her, and Cici manages to do some real damage to Ghostface before being thrown off of the sorority house’s roof. And of course, in all of them, Gale and Sidney are pretty banged up at the end because they are badasses who refuse to die. Here, the murders are brief and, insofar as the characters have any agency at all, they mostly just try to hide (ineffectively): Shelley’s is the closest to a real attempt to fight back, but she still ends up hiding in a body bag, which is where the killer finds her; creepy Gary is beaten to death while cowering, moments after being discovered in Kate’s apartment by the killer and is never mentioned again; Lily gets shot to death by arrows from a distance and then falls down the center of a stairwell into a dumpster; Campbell takes an axe to the spine without ever seeing the killer coming for him. I actually saw more of this movie while testing this: from first arrow wound to dumpster fall, Lily’s death takes up 31 seconds of screen time. In comparison, Tatum’s death scene in Scream, from the moment she sees Ghostface to the moment her spine cracks, is 94 seconds, and that’s not counting the 90 seconds before that where she enters the spooky garage, struggles with the beers, and finds herself locked out of the house while tension rises. What’s more, this is one of the few areas in the movie where it feels like the failure is in the film itself, not the editing or the ostentatiously absent footage; there’s nothing missing here, the scenes simply aren’t that good. I also want to point out that some of the murders happen offscreen and it seems like it’s an actual stylistic choice, like Lt. Vaughn’s death being kept secret until Kate discovers his body, while some threads are simply left hanging, like Brian being left tied to the bed by Paige, implying that he might still be upstairs blindfolded and naked while the climax of the movie takes place. 

One thing that Valentine has that Scream doesn’t is opening credits. Stick with me here! Valentine‘s credits are intercut with its opening scene, and like I mentioned earlier, that opening is very effective and the film’s intersplicing of it all means that Valentine can have its cake and eat it, too, having old school long credits but making them interesting enough that the audience doesn’t mind. Unfortunately, this is also the film’s drawback, as the format of the titles spoils who the killer is. David Boreanaz was four years into playing his iconic role of Angel, two seasons of which were on his own show as the title character. That may have only made him a household name in households that watched Buffy, but for those households which also tolerated network series about quirky not-quite-a-cop investigators, his—wait, this math can’t be right. 245 episodes over 12 seasons? Ok, but jeezum petes—uh so yeah, Boreanaz’s turn as Booth on over a decade of Fox’s Bones also contributed to his fame. His is also the only man’s name in the movie that appears on its own during the credits. Richards is credited first, then Boreanaz, then Shelton, Capshaw, and “with” Heigl. The other men are listed in the opening, but always with other names, so you, the audience member who presumably knows who Boreanaz is, are subtly already clued in that he will be the killer, because if it’s not him, who would it be? Surely not one of these other comparative no-names (no offense), most of which, again, don’t effectively function as red herrings because they appear too infrequently. Gary is in two scenes; Brian is in two scenes. Every red herring is only 2/3 of the way there for them to work. The grinning goober who couldn’t talk at the speed dating event is only in two scenes, and all of it feels like a lot of the middle was cut out, where we would get that second scene before the final act that would lead us to believe that any one of them might be the masked killer. There’s even the tiniest bit of a hint that Vaughn might be the killer, since he’s not present at Max’s gallery opening but does mention that he’s seen Max’s work, as well as the sinister way that he isolates Paige and is a creepy lecher about it. Instead, because something is missing about the actual language of film, the viewer spends the whole rest of the movie waiting for the other shoe to drop and Adam to be unmasked as Jeremy. Imagine if Scream had opening credits and Skeet Ulrich was listed second while the rest of the male cast, including David Arquette and Jamie Kennedy, were relegated to tenth and eleventh billing; there would never be a moment of mystery, and there isn’t here, either. 

But that’s just it. The biggest empty hole that’s identifiable here is the lack of a second killer. That’s a foundational part of what made Scream work and is also present in its sequels (other than Scream 3, where it was cut at the last minute) but not its imitators (other than I Still Know…, which almost makes it the better of the two). Except—hear me out here—I think that Valentine did have a second killer, and the removal of that was one of the linchpins that made the rest of the story work. I mentioned before that the Cupid mask has nosebleeds, just like Jeremy, but it doesn’t happen every time. After Kate struggles with the Cupid-masked killer, Adam suddenly appears and kills them, with the unmasking revealing that Dorothy was under there. The Adam-is-Jeremy bloody nose reveal would have us believe that this was all part of Adam’s plan, that he somehow attacked Kate as Cupid and then dressed the disabled Dorothy (perhaps crushing her windpipe so that she couldn’t call out to Kate and reveal the deception) as Cupid so that he could then shoot Dorothy, have her revealed as the killer, and then get back together with Kate with no one to interfere and his vengeance sated. But what if that’s not what was supposed to happen? What if Dorothy and Adam were supposed to be in on it together. Some parts of the film actually make more sense this way, as Adam seems ideologically driven but Dorothy also harbors a lot of bitterness about being the “fat girl” of the group when they were younger. Further, there are some kills that, due to the editing, only make sense if this is the case, and it feels like the fact that the Cupid mask only bleeds sometimes is supposed to be a clue to this reveal, and that re-viewings of the movie with that in mind would reveal who was behind the mask during certain scenes. Adam wants to kill the women who spurned him, but has no reason to kill Cameron, and it’s notable that we don’t see the mask bleed during that scene, and that the timeline would seem to indicate that, since this was a few hours before Dorothy’s party, it was happening at roughly the same time that Adam was across town giving Kate her lollipop valentine. Although Dorothy is the reason that Jeremy went away and took a downward turn, it’s not a completely unrealistic twist that her bitterness toward her richer, smarter, prettier (in her eyes) friends led her to team up with Jeremy to take them down, only for him to fall for Kate and end up betraying her in order to have her be the scapegoat and let him have his dream future with Kate. 

However, for whatever reason, that ending didn’t sit well with test audiences, or perhaps studio executives. Maybe someone thought it was a little dated and fatphobic (which it would have been) and decided to course correct too late to fill in the gaps with it removed. Or maybe this is just a bad movie and I’m too invested in the parts of it that are good to let it go at that and insist on finding ways to close loopholes and fix bad editing with my projected fix-fic to turn this into a better film. But I don’t think so. I think that this was a movie with great promise that fell apart under its own weight with too much supporting material removed, even if I’m wrong about Dorothy. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Mrs. Harris, Mrs. ‘Arris, and Their Trips to Paris

Even as someone who’s only casually familiar with Angela Lansbury’s career, I was saddened to hear of her recent passing.  I’ve never successfully watched an entire episode of Murder, She Wrote without drifting off to sleep or off to another channel; the most experience I have with her prestigious singing career is hearing her voice a cartoon teapot; and yet the TV interview clips memorializing Lansbury on local news broadcasts last week had me instantly crying for reasons I can’t fully articulate.  She just seemed like such a kind, thoughtful, talented person that the world was lucky to have around – a very particular, gentle flavor of sweet that’s been draining from our cultural palate.  Online posthumous praise for Lansbury has also helped me see new, nuanced shades to her persona, since I had only previously seen her typecast as a lovely old biddy for all of my life.  Between reading John Waters’s real-life anecdote of bumping into Lansbury at an NYC fetish club to watching her bratty debut in Gaslight and listening to her get gruesome in Sweeney Todd, I now have a better rounded appreciation of who she was a person & a performer; and I feel like crying all over again.

Getting acquainted with the tougher, saucier side of Angela Lansbury has only enhanced my appreciation of her frothier performances as well.  I’m particularly thinking of her turn as the Cockney-accented Mrs. ‘Arris in the 1992 made-for-television adaptation of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a novel that was adapted again for a much lusher production this year.  The 2022 version of Mrs. Harris is played by Lesley Manville, who I’m used to seeing as a heartless hardass in projects like Harlots & Phantom Thread.  She’s a big-ol’ softie in her new starring vehicle, though, leaving all of the ice-queen viciousness to her villainous co-star Isabelle Huppert.  Manville delivers the exact sugary sweet, kill-em-with-kindness defiance you’d expect from Lansbury in the role, playing Mrs. Harris as a human doormat who gradually learns to stand up for herself without ever stooping to the cruelty of the world she seeks to change.  What’s hilarious is that Lansbury’s Mrs. ‘Arris is a much tougher customer.  You get the sense that she could easily drink & swear Manville’s Harris under the table, tinging the role with a touch of the Cockney sass that kickstarted her career as a teenager in Gaslight.  She’s still a total sweetheart, but there’s a sharpened edge to her character that’s missing from the newer, higher profile adaptation.

While Lansbury got to play Mrs. ‘Arris with a little grit & gristle (reflected right there in the accented title), Manville got to be in the better movie.  Both adaptations maintain the novel’s basic premise that a kindly British housekeeper splurges her life savings on a couture Dior gown in Paris, much to the frustration of couture’s snootiest gatekeepers.  That premise is just all there is to the made-for-TV version, which wouldn’t be much of a movie without Lansbury’s loveable screen-presence babysitting the audience between commercial breaks.  Meanwhile, Manville’s Mrs. Harris essentially becomes a union organizer—inspired by an ongoing trash strike that’s only mentioned as a traffic obstacle in the Lansbury version—radicalizing both the workers at Dior and herself.  Both versions of Mrs. Harris are lauded for being kind in a cruel world, but only Manville gets to learn to prioritize herself in the face of oppressive class & gender politics; she’s in a drama, while Lansbury is in a sitcom.  The most telling difference between the two films is when a Parisian love interest warmly refers to Mrs. Harris as “Mrs. Mops” in honor of the maid that cleaned his room at British boarding school.  In the made-for-TV version, it’s played as a sweet gesture; in the theatrical version it breaks her heart, and you desperately want to see her punch the cad’s throat.

I don’t want to exalt the 2022 version of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris as some high standard of artful cinema that the made-for-TV version can’t live up to.  Both adaptations are the exact kind of passive British entertainment meant to be enjoyed under a giant blanket with an empty mind & a nice cuppa.  Only the theatrical version has a true emotional hook to it, though.  When Mrs. Harris inevitably gets the pretty dress she wants, the movie just works on a level that the 90s one can’t – joining “Paddington wishes Aunt Lucy a happy birthday” and “The Girlhood girls dance to Rhianna” on the list of scenes I can think back to when I need a quick cry.  Lansbury doesn’t need a good movie to hit that emotional trigger, though.  I can apparently watch 30 seconds of her doing a press junket interview with Entertainment Tonight and well up with tears in the same way.  Her Mrs. Harris movie didn’t need to be especially “good” to be worthwhile; her sweet-but-secretly-tough presence was enough.  All that said, there’s a much wider, brighter world of Lansbury projects out there I should have prioritized before watching her pretty-dress movie, especially now that I have a better handle on who she was.  And maybe I should start with forcing myself to fall in love with detective-novelist Jessica Fletcher, who was likely an even tougher customer than Mrs. ‘Arris; I just have to stay awake long enough to get to know her.

-Brandon Ledet