Where Has All the Millennial Pop Art Gone?

The great, wide world of popular media has done its damnedest to make sure I am nostalgic for the Power Rangers this year.  Between seeing the original mighty morphin’ Rangers resurrected for cheap nostalgia pops in Netflix’s Power Rangers: Once and Always, seeing them spoofed for laughs in Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist horror anthology Smoking Causes Coughing, and seeing the vintage television aesthetics of their Japanese source material echoed in Hideaki Anno’s recent Ultraman reboot, the Power Rangers have been on my mind all year.  Of those relentless nostalgia stokers, Once & Always felt the most accurate to the schlock TV I loved as a kid, in that it’s mostly just subprofessional actors bullshitting around in open fields until actual martial artists who know what they’re doing jump into the frame to save the day.  It rides an uneasy imbalance between rushing out more anonymous background television for children under the Power Rangers brand and comforting those children’s parents with background garbage familiar to their own Millennial youth.  If the one-off reunion special were only 20 minutes long and broken up by toy & cereal commercials it would have been perfectly in step with the way I remember the Power Rangers as my 1990s mechadino babysitters, as if the original show were never cancelled and its teen stars slowly succumbed to death & wrinkles on air week to week for decades on end.  In some ways, I suppose the special itself is the commercial, in that its entire purpose is to re-spark interest in the Power Rangers brand, which has effectively been dormant since its excellent-but-failed franchise starter in 2017.  I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Netflix currently holds the streaming rights for the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers TV series, which officially makes Once & Always, as cheap & underdeveloped as it is, the most effort they’ve ever put into advertising one of their shows to date.  And since most exhausted, world-weary Millennial parents aren’t going to have the time, patience, or awareness to seek out niche, higher quality Power Rangers-adjacent media like Smoking Causes Coughing, they’re going to scratch that nostalgic itch in the quickest, most convenient way possible – never venturing outside what’s available on Netflix.  Not me, though.  I’m different.

Because I’m first & foremost a movie nerd, I had to scratch my mighty morphin’ nostalgia itch by returning to 1995’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie.  To my shock, it was not available to stream through subscription, rental, nor library loan despite the opportunity for profit raised by Once & Always, and I had to blow the dust off my early 2000s DVD copy to watch it again.  In a way, I get why the Power Rangers movie would be allowed to slip out of general public access, since it’s getting just as old & dated as it is goofy & vapid.  I was eight years old when I first begged my parents to see Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie in the theater, and so it has always felt like a prestigious cultural event to me when compared to the more casual, tossed-off nature of the television show it was cashing in on.  Everything I loved about the show as a kid was given a high-end upgrade for the big screen, from the teenage superheroes’ regular-size power suits to their kaiju-size mechabeasts.  As a result, it remains an excellent time capsule of the niche bullshit only a 90s Kid™ could possibly care about, starting with a preposterous Star Wars scroll that quickly explains the Power Rangers’ lore as intergalactic teen crimefighters recruited by a noble space alien named Zordon.  Watching it as an adult, I was amused imagining my parents suffering through its endlessly inane babble about morphing, morphological beings, zords, megazords, ninja zords, ectomorians, and electromagnetic deadlock as if any of that means anything to anyone.  Its convoluted lore is all in service of incomprehensibly edited fight choreography, surreally dated CGI, eXtreme sports posturing, and rushed one-liner insults labeling the bad guys “Mr. Raisin Head” (because, as you will surely remember, Ivan Ooze is purple) and “dingledorks” (that one explains itself).  Power Rangers: The Movie is idiotic pop art at its finest, all sloppy live-action cartoon nonsense from top to bottom.  It’s a crowd-pleaser for a crowd of 8-year-olds and, presumably, an extreme bore for their baffled parents, a tension that only gets funnier as the decades pile on and no one age-appropriate is left around to care.  So few people care, in fact, that it’s been allowed to slip into distribution limbo so the only audience who can legally access it are the dingledorks who happened to fish it out of Wal-Mart’s $5 DVD bins two decades ago.

Because I am weak in will & intellect, my 90s nostalgia trip did not end there.  One of the major 90s-specific pleasures of the Power Rangers movie is its tie-in CD soundtrack, which includes contributions form artists as disparate as Van Halen, Devo, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Snap!.  As formidable as some of those names are in the music business, though, the soundtrack’s biggest get was “Trouble,” the international breakout hit of British pop duo Shampoo.  I vividly remember the song dominating kids’ media in the 90s, to the point where I still sing its delightfully obnoxious “Uh oh, we’re in trouble, something’s come along and it’s burst our bubble, yeah yeah” chorus to myself every time something minorly inconvenient happens in my daily life.  What I did not remember is that its initial promotion in America was tied so closely to the theatrical release of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie.  Not only does it underscore a children-only block party at the film’s emotional climax, but it was also domestically marketed through the lost artform of the tie-in music video, featuring the Shampoo singers dancing in Deee-Liteful psychedelic voids alongside the Power Rangers and their neurotic robo-sidekick Alpha5.  A proper DVD release of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie would have included that music video as a Bonus Feature, but my Wal-Mart discount bin copy instead includes a useless “Behind the Scenes” advertisement for the film where Amy Jo “Pink Ranger” Johnson bravely compares her big screen debut to the special effects spectacles of Star Wars & The Wizard of Oz.  Thankfully, the Power Rangers version of the “Trouble” music video was at least uploaded to YouTube where, as of this posting, it can be enjoyed in glorious, grainy 480p.  This indulgence, of course, led me down an entirely new 90s-tastic pop culture rabbit hole as I allowed Shampoo music videos to autoplay after the sassy Brits were done dancing alongside their new intergalactic crimefighter friends.  What I discovered was that Shampoo has a deep, rewarding catalog of post-riot grrrrl, pre-Girl Power classics that never reached the US with the same ferocity that “Trouble” managed to, partially because they could not call on the power of the mega ninja zords to boost their signal every single.

The commonly accepted narrative is that Shampoo never made it as big as they could have because they were immediately eclipsed by an intense international obsession with the Spice Girls, who smoothed out the smaller group’s rougher, punker edges into pure bubblegum pop.  The real heartbreaker there is that Shampoo even had a single called “Girl Power” that debuted only one week before the Spice Girls broke out with “Wannabe”, which is a shame since “Girl Power” opens with the lyrics “I don’t wanna be a boy, I wanna be a girl. I wanna do things that will make your hair curl.  I wanna play with knives. I wanna play with guns.  I wanna smash up a place just for fun.”  It’s wonderful.  I don’t mean to mourn Shampoo’s premature downfall at the expense of shading the Spice Girls, though, who were just as substantial superheroes in my childhood mind as the Power Rangers, thanks specifically to the strength of “Wannabe” and to the group’s own cash-in pop art movie Spice World.  Tragically, Spice World is also currently unavailable to rent or stream through legal means in the US, so I again had to blow the dust off an ancient DVD copy from my modest collection – this time presented in a luxurious Full Screen frame.  Although my DVD copy is “guaranteed” to be “packed with girl power” in a way no streaming service would dare to ensure, I still find the state of the film’s availability to the general, streaming-service-reliant public shameful.  Way more shameful than the lost-to-time Power Rangers movie, even, since Spice World is a much more competently made, purposefully goofy artifact of 90s kitsch.  It plugs the Spice Girls into a high-femme variation on A Hard Day’s Night, sending the 90s pop group on episodic, for-their-own-sake adventures where they get to be immensely charming on camera while interacting with Elton John, James Bond, Bob Hoskins, Riff Raff, and other various space aliens.  Its most pivotal scene is a montage where the girls cosplay in different cute outfits that don’t quite fit their individual vibes and then switch around personas by cosplaying as each other in a playful pop art photo shoot.  Spice World is cute, it’s joyful, and the only reason it isn’t more beloved as an MTV era pop art classic, really, is that the MTV-produced Josie and the Pussycats movie bested at its own game just a few years later.  Well, that and it’s got a shamefully shitty post-DVD distribution history in the US.

My rapid spiral into full 90s nostalgia was finally sated by the time I revisited Spice World (and then—full disclosure—rewatched all available Shampoo videos a second time through).  Although it’s heavily indebted to the pop art past of Swingin’ 60s London, it’s an aesthetic object that could have only existed in the period when I was most media obsessed as a child, which is where we all tend to retreat when we’re looking for comfort in cinematic junk food.  In the process of pulling out both my Spice Girls & Power Rangers DVDs, though, I did a quick inventory of what other childhood junk media I own that’s not currently streaming.  One title that jumped out at me was the movie version of The Worst Witch, which stars a young Fairuza Balk and features the heavily memed “Anything Can Happen on Halloween” musical number performed by Tim Curry against surreally cheap green screen effects.  You’ll likely always be able to watch that music video tangent out of context in low-res YouTube clips alongside your favorite Shampoo jams, but if you want the entire Worst Witch movie available to you at all times for a full warm bath of 90s Kid™ Nostalgia, you have to resort to illegal torrents or purchases of used physical media.  I was also reminded in this process that I ran into friends at French Quarter Fest a few weeks ago who said they had recently watched the animated Super Mario Bros movie that’s currently dominating the box office and were dismayed afterwards that they could not access the live-action adaptation of the video game that alienated the world when we were children (despite being a Power Rangers-level camp classic in my mind & household).  I, of course, offered to lend them my DVD copy, which was a service they could not even access through the public library.  Plenty of the other pop art novelties fron my youth I’m holding onto are currently streaming in higher quality than you’ll find on my used Blockbuster & thrift store DVDs: Howard the Duck & Teen Witch (Tubi), Big Time Pee-wee (Showtime), Barb Wire & Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze (VOD), etc.  Any of those statuses might change as soon as next week, though. The illusion that everything we could possibly want or need to watch will always be available to stream at home is being constantly undermined, but it’s especially absurd when titles promoted & regurgitated by contemporary nostalgia stokers like the new Power Rangers & Super Mario Bros movies aren’t conveniently offered to the consumers being targeted.

-Brandon Ledet

Giving Aster Enough Rope

I’ve been getting lazy about how & why I group films together in these self-published reviews.  My methodology boils down to comparing movies I happened to see around the same time regardless of their genuine connections, which is why I’m about to unfairly compare A24’s poster Enfant Terrible against The Master of Suspense.  I happened to watch Ari Aster’s latest crowd-troller Beau is Afraid on the same day (and the same bus line) as Hitchcock’s dinner party thriller Rope, which recently screened in The Prytania’s Classic Movies series.  Watching such a messy, sprawling odyssey so soon after seeing Hitchcock at his tightest & most controlled didn’t do Beau is Afraid many favors, but the comparison was more damning to the way the movie industry has changed in recent decades than it was to the young filmmaker working in that hellscape.  This blog post isn’t an argument in favor of returning to the clockwork Studio System that propped Hitchcock up for cinematic worship & infamy, or at least that’s not how I intend it.  What I’m more interested in is the pressure imposed on these two filmmakers by their public to deliver historic greatness with every single picture, a cultural impulse that’s become exponentially hyperbolic with the modern invention of online movie fandom – something Hitchcock was lucky to die before witnessing.  When Ari Aster makes a movie that alienates his audience, fanboy freaks vocally rage against the screen, demanding that the studio executives at A24 be “held accountable” and that no fellow patrons in the theater “better fucking clap” in appreciation.  By contrast, Hitchcock didn’t make much of a name for himself until his third feature film, the silent Jack the Ripper thriller The Lodger, which did already have some hyperbolic critics declaring it “the finest British production ever made” but didn’t inspire widespread audience obsession with the boardroom politics of the studio that greenlit it, Gainsborough Pictures. Once Hitchcock really was directing the finest thrillers ever made, he had dozens more titles behind him.  Rope was his 37th feature film; Vertigo was his 47th; my personal favorite, Psycho, was his 49th.  Ari Aster will never reach those numbers with this kind of A24 fanboy scrutiny pressuring him to outdo himself with every project, a problem I’m only compounding by comparing him to a master of the artform.  If anything, it feels as if Aster’s artistry has already imploded under the pressure just three features into his career.

I enjoyed Beau is Afraid.  Lately, I’ve been struggling to get onboard with Charlie Kaufmann-style journeys into the artist’s mind, having been disappointed by big-swing solipsism epics like I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The House That Jack Built, White Noise, and Under the Silver LakeBeau is just as guilty of tedious self-obsession as those overlong annoyances, especially as Aster uses Joaquin Phoenix’s put-opon avatar as an excuse to voice his own struggles with Anxiety, Guilt, and Mommy Issues.  The visualization of those struggles is often darkly hilarious, though, literalizing an anxious introvert’s fears so that the world looks as hellish as it feels to navigate.  I appreciated Beau is Afraid most for its big-picture statements on modern life, not its insular ruminations on life inside Ari Aster’s head.  In its most powerful form, it’s a grotesque caricature of modern American paranoia, taking a misanthropic view on everyone from violent urban maniacs to suburban security freaks to self-absorbed artists & off-the-gridders to the outlandishly cruel ultra-rich.  We’re all monstrous & unworthy of love in our own way, at least as portrayed in this elaborate Aristocrats joke at our expense.  At the same time, I’m not convinced that Aster was fully ready to make a statement that grand & all-encompassing.  He’s still finding his voice as an artist, and yet he’s already blurting out everything he has to say just in case he’s never handed a microphone this loud again.  Beau is Afraid drips with the desperation of a filmmaker who doubts he’ll ever get the opportunity to make another picture on its scale, so he better exorcise all thoughts about life inside & outside of his skull lest they be trapped forever.  And if the studio-obsessed C.H.U.D.s in the audience who are throwing literal rotten tomatoes in his direction had their way, he’d be proven right.  Aster belongs to a small class of young, instantly famous filmmakers who are carrying immense anticipation to deliver an era-defining classic with each subsequent project, joined only by the likes of Robert Eggers & Jordan Peele.  It even feels perverse to say that I enjoyed Beau is Afraid just fine; it was neither the greatest nor the worst movie I saw this past week, much less the greatest or worst movie of all time.  That kind of mixed-but-leaning-positive reaction can’t take up much real estate in modern movie discourse, though, not while violent nerds are calling for Aster’s head on a pike, acting exactly like the crazed ghouls they just watched onscreen.

In a way, Rope is just as showy & virtuosic as Aster’s latest; it’s just much less desperate.  The thing most audiences remember about Hitchcock’s real-time howcatchem is its early prototype of the single-shot stunt film, which would not be practically possible until movies went digital.  Restrained by the length of his film reels, Hitchcock cleverly “hides” his cuts to simulate the experience of one, unbroken 80-minute take.  Only, he doesn’t really.  Most of the “hidden” cuts are shamelessly blatant zoom-ins on the back of the same character’s dinner jacket, as if Hitchcock were so confident that his audience would follow along for the ride that he felt no need to impress us with variations on the gimmick.  He finds other ways to show off without ever leaving the loft, gliding the camera to expertly timed character observations and shoehorning in his trademark onscreen cameo as a neon silhouette in the apartment window.  What most impressed me watching it with an audience on the same day I watched Beau is Afraid is that it managed to provoke the exact reactions Aster was looking for without ever making a big show of it.  Hitchcock had the audience laughing at cruelty & violence against our better judgement.  Speaking personally, he also took me on a journey of immense interiority, clashing both sides of my personality against each other onscreen: the flamboyantly wicked artist Brandon & the timid, guilt-ridden Cancer who ruins all his plans.  Those two unlikely murderers strangle an acquaintance they consider intellectually beneath them in the very first screen, purely for the perverse pleasure of the act.  Then they throw a dinner party on top of his corpse, earning big laughs out of the morbid tension of their misdeeds with every bitchy academic ice-queen bon mot at his expense.  Even knowing the story could only end one glaringly obvious way, I had the time of my life riding the tension to that predetermined destination, and I’d much sooner return to the theater to rewatch that glorified stage play than I would Aster’s Herculean attempt to capture everything everywhere all at once in a single, unwieldy container.  Rope somehow really was one of the greatest films I’ve seen in my life. It was also a routine matter of course for its director, who was just trying to deliver his 3-dozenth entertaining genre picture, not a flailing attempt by an upstart youngster trying to deliver one of the all-time-greats right out the gate.

As I already acknowledged, I’m contributing to the exact problem I’m citing here by comparing Aster to such a Film Studies syllabus titan, but I can’t help that the comparison is what happened to be on my mind that sunny Sunday afternoon.  I’m an indoor kid, and I chose to hide from the beautiful weather in two different movie theaters on different sides of town, despite the hellish experience of interacting with strangers along the way.  I at least hope that this aimless, self-defeating rant is somewhat in the spirit of Beau is Afraid, a film I can’t seem to write about any more clearly or directly.  I also hope, against all logic, that Aster gets to make dozens more aimless, self-defeating rants just like it so that he fully develops his craft and—sometime in the 2040s—gets to make his batshit epic equivalent of Rope when he’s at his most confident & efficient.  It’s a lot more likely that audience pressure & hyperbole will make that ideal outcome impossible, though, so I suppose it’s for the best that he settled for making a pretty good version of that movie now while he has the chance.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Our current Movie of the Month, 1957’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, finds Jayne Mansfield at the height of her manic bimbo superpowers.  Mansfield already strutted her outrageous proportions & bubbly-ditz persona to great comedic effect in her first collaboration with Looney Tunes legend Frank Tashlin, 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It, but she wasn’t allowed to step outside her usual cultural designation as the Great Value™ Marilyn Monroe in that picture.  In Rock Hunter, Mansfield finally strayed far enough outside Marilyn’s looming shadow to pioneer her own territory in high-femme comedic vamping. Mansfield is pure bimbo mayhem in Rock Hunter, turning every inhale of breath into an orgasmic squeal and every costume change into a mind-blowing reveal.  Instead of playing an exaggeration of Monroe, she’s playing an exaggeration of herself – complete with verbal, metatextual references to her Girl Can’t Help It stardom.  It’s like watching a pro wrestler get assigned a go-nowhere, bad-vibes gimmick and then somehow win over the crowd by playing it as a ludicrous self-caricature.  It’s the film where she out-Marilyned Marilyn to such an absurd extreme that the comparison is obliterated entirely. 

No viewing of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is complete without also having seen its rock ‘n roll sister film The Girl Can’t Help It, but if you’ve already graduated from The Frank Tashlin School of Jayne Mansfield Studies, there’s still plenty more of Mansfield’s career left to explore.  Mansfield has a few dozen credits to her name on IMDb, ranging from dead-serious noirs to ribald slapstick comedies.  None that I have seen can compete with the sublime silliness of her collaborations with Tashlin, but there’s still more to Mansfield’s screen persona than those two consecutive roles.  So, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to bask in more of her weaponized bimbo glamour.

The Wayward Bus (1957)

In 1957’s The Wayward Bus, Mansfield plays a famous stripper on the run, dodging unwanted nudie magazine notoriety on a bumpy bus trip down to a Mexican hideout.  That makes the film sound a lot lighter & sillier than it is in practice, which is evident as soon as the title card announces its literary prestige as “John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus,” a serious drama for serious adults.  Mansfield stars opposite several character actors running away from their problems on the titular Sweetheart bus (including a young Joan Collins as the bus driver’s violently alcoholic wife), but much of the drama revolves around how difficult it is for her fellow passengers to avert their eyes from her striking figure.  It’s both the only movie I’ve seen where Jayne Mansfield was actually asked to Act, and the only one where her outrageous silhouette was treated as a liability instead of a superpower.  A sordid little stage drama set in motion by the magic of rear protection in the bus’s windows, The Wayward Bus suffered a long line of production delays that eventually made room for Mansfield in the cast after cycling through bigger-name actors like Marlon Brando, Gene Tierney, Joanne Woodward, Robert Mitchum, and Shelley Winters, despite being a relatively standard-issue studio picture.  That delay was a blessing in giving Mansfield some space to test out her dramatic chops, but also a curse in that it pushed its release to one year after Monroe’s similar roadside noir Bus Stop – to which it was inevitably, unfavorably compared in the press.

Too Hot to Handle (1960)

Mansfield also plays a jaded, troubled stripper in 1960’s Too Hot to Handle (alternately titled Playgirl After Dark), but she’s not asked to be as dramatically vulnerable here.  Her character has graduated from stripper to stripper-manager at the seedy nightclub The Pink Flamingo, run by her doomed gangster boyfriend (and Christopher Lee as the gangster’s disturbingly young, handsome, mustachioed right-hand man).  In genre terms, this film finds Mansfield working in the sex comedy realm that made her famous, but its British sensibilities afford it more of a dry martini-soaked sarcasm than what you’ll find in Tashlin’s sugar-addled farces.  With underplayed zingers like “That’s a very nice dress you’ve nearly got on,” it’s not a knee-slapper so much as it’s a muted chuckler, and so Mansfield gets a chance to tone down her absurd femme-caricature persona to a smokier, more detached register.  Even if not consistently hilarious, it’s shocking that this day-drunk British noir bothers to be as wryly funny as it is, since its main attraction is obviously the opportunity to watch Jayne Mansfield model outrageously tight, see-through outfits while puffing on the world’s longest cigarette holder.  Self-billed as an “expose of sexy, sordid Soho, England’s greatest shame,” the film relies heavily on her physical presence to attract an audience, going as far as to rile up censors with completely transparent gowns that got it harshly edited in America.  The fact that it manages to land a few one-liners on top of that drunken burlesque act is just lagniappe.

Promises! Promises! (1963)

It turns out see-through gowns are not enough to keep your horndog audience coming back forever.  Eventually, you’ve got to take off the gowns entirely.  While Mansfield reached her highest artistic peaks in her Frank Tashlin collaborations, she might be better known for her starring role in the mainstream nudie cutie Promises! Promises!, which delivered on its Playboy-publicized promise to become the first sound-era Hollywood film to feature a nude female star.  In the very first scene of Promises! Promises!, Mansfield is introduced taking a bubble bath, making sure to rise above the suds just enough to give the audience a full look at her outrageous, unclothed figure.  In the next, she disrobes of that pretense, going shamelessly topless as if Russ Meyer were leering behind the camera.  Unfortunately, the rest of the picture does not have the magic Russ Meyer touch.  You might wonder what this cornball sex comedy is going to do with its remaining 70 minutes after it gets Mansfield’s publicity-stunt nude scenes out of the way in the first 4.  The answer, apparently, is shamelessly repeat those same images in clunky dream sequences to milk them for all their worth.  The schticky German psychologists, sissy hairdressers, and stock footage of cruise ship shuffleboard players that pad out the rest of this farce are desperate & dire, and the only genuine fun to be found in the entire picture is in Mansfield’s two brief, breathy musical numbers.  Still, being the first actress to go nude in a mainstream, post-Hays Code Hollywood is a major distinction Mansfield could claim that her professional superior Marilyn Monroe could not (if not only because Monroe’s own attempt at that ground-breaking achievement, Something’s Got to Give, was derailed by the star’s tragic death). Unfortunately, that only helps relieve some of the sting of Marilyn’s own boat-ride farce Gentlemen Prefer Blondes being one of the most beloved comedies of all time while Promises! Promises! is mostly just a giant pile of ship.

-Brandon Ledet

Identity & Artifice @ Overlook Film Fest 2023

After I happened to spend an entire day watching horror movies about motherhood at this year’s Overlook Film Fest, I found myself searching for patterns in the festival’s programming wherein the movies were communicating with each other just as much as they were provoking the audience.  I didn’t have to squint too hard at my next double-feature to see their thematic connections, since the word “artifice” was already staring back at me in the first film’s title.  My third & final day at this year’s Overlook was all about the tension between identity & artifice, and how the latter obscures the former.  In the philosophical sci-fi horror at the top of that self-programmed double bill, the opaque surface of artifice is stripped away to reveal a complex, futuristic sense of identity underneath.  In the true crime documentary that followed, the surface of artifice is removed to uncover no discernible human identity at all, which makes for a much bleaker, scarier reveal.  Please forgive me for the inanity of reporting that this is an instance where the truth is stranger than fiction; I watched these particular movies hungover in a chilly downtown shopping mall, and I’m not sure my brain has fully recovered from watching two twisty thrillers about the complexities of human identity in that hazy state.

That morning’s theme-unlocking opener, The Artifice Girl, is a well-timed A.I. chatbot technothriller, turning just a few actors running lines in drab office spaces into a complex study of the fuzzy borders between human & artificial identity.  Approached with the same unrushed, underplayed drama as the similarly structured Marjorie Prime, The Artifice Girl jumps time frames between acts as the titular A.I. chatbot is introduced in her infancy, gains sentience, and eventually earns her autonomy.  She is initially created with queasy but altruistic intentions: designed to bait and indict online child molesters with the visage of a little girl who does not actually, physically exist.  As the technology behind her “brain” patterns exponentially evolves, the ethics of giving something with even a simulation of intelligence & emotion that horrifically shitty of a job becomes a lot murkier.  By the time she’s creating art and expressing genuine feelings, her entire purpose becomes explicitly immoral, since there’s no foolproof way to determine what counts as her identity or free will vs. what counts as her user-determined programming.  The Artifice Girl does a lot with a little, asking big questions with limited resources.  The closest it gets to feeling like a professional production is in the climactic intrusion of genre legend Lance Henriksen in the cast, whose journey as Bishop in the Alien series has already traveled these same A.I. autonomy roads on a much larger scale in the past.  It’s got enough surprisingly complex stage play dialogue to stand on its own without Henriksen’s support, but his weighty late-career presence is the exact kind of hook it needs to draw an audience’s attention.

By contrast, David Farrier’s new documentary Mister Organ desperately searches for an attention-grabbing hook but never finds one.  The New Zealand journalist drives himself mad attempting to recapture the lighting-in-a-bottle exposé he engineered in Tickled, investigating another unbelievable shit-heel subject who “earns” his living in nefarious, exploitative ways.  At first, it seems like Farrier is really onto something.  The titular Mr. Organ is an obvious conman, introduced to Farrier as a parking lot bully who “clamps” locals’ tires for daring to park in the wrong lot, then shakes them down for exorbitant piles of cash to remove the boots – making the high-end antique store he patrols a front for a much more lucrative, predatory side hustle.  With only a little digging, that parking lot thug turns out to be a much bigger news story, one with fascinating anecdotes about stolen yachts, abandoned asylums, micro cults, and forged royal bloodlines.  Or so Farrier thinks.  The more he digs into his latest subject’s past to uncover his cleverly obscured identity, the more Farrier comes away empty-handed & bewildered.  Mr. Organ is more an obnoxious Ricky Gervais caricature of a human being than he is a genuine one.  He babbles for hours on end about nothing, holding Farrier hostage on speakerphone with the promise of a gotcha breakthrough moment that will never come.  Organ is a literal ghoul, a real-life energy vampire, an artificial surface with no identity underneath.  As a result, the documentary is a creepy but frustrating journey to nowhere, one where by the end the artist behind it is just as unsure what the point of the entire exercise was as the audience. It is a document of a failure.

Normally, when I contrast & compare two similarly themed features I walk away with a clearer understanding of both.  In this case, my opinion of this unlikely pair only becomes more conflicted as I weigh them against each other.  In the controlled, clinical, fictional environment of The Artifice Girl, an identity-obscuring layer of artifice is methodically, scientifically removed to reveal a complex post-human persona underneath.  In the messy, real-world manipulations of Mister Organ, the surface-level artifice is all there is, and stripping it away reveals nothing that can be cleanly interpreted nor understood.  Of course, the fictional stage play version of that exercise is more narratively satisfying than the reality-bound mechanics of true crime storytelling, which often leads to unsolved cases & loose, frayed ends.  The Artifice Girl tells you exactly how to feel at the end of its artificially engineered drama, which is effective in the moment but leaves little room for its story to linger after the credits.  The open-ended frustration of Mister Organ is maybe worthier to dwell in as you leave the theater, then, even if its own conclusion amounts to Farrier throwing up his hands in forfeit, walking away from an opaque nothing of a subject – the abstract personification of Bad Vibes.  As a result, neither film was wholly satisfying either in comparison or in isolation, and I don’t know that I’ll ever fully make sense of my dehydrated, dispirited afternoon spent pondering them.

-Brandon Ledet

Mommy Issues @ Overlook Film Fest 2023

Film festival programming is a real-world Choose Your Own Adventure game where individual moviegoers can have wildly varied, simultaneous experiences at the exact same venue.  Overall, I had a great time at this year’s Overlook (an annual horror festival that’s quickly become the most rewarding cinematic Cultural Event on the New Orleans social calendar), but I weirdly frontloaded my personal programming choices so that the films I was most excited to see—Late Night with the Devil, The Five Devils, and Smoking Causes Coughing—were all knocked out as a rapid-fire triple feature on the very first day.  For the rest of the weekend, I wandered around Overlook in a self-induced daze, wowed by my Opening Night selections and hoping something smaller & more anonymous would match those early highs as I bounced between screening rooms at the downtown Prytania.  I can’t say I ever got there (at least not in the way other festivalgoers gushed about big-name titles like Renfield, Talk to Me, and Evil Dead Rise throughout the weekend), but I did find some clear thematic patterns in my personal program as the fest stretched on.  For instance, my entire second day at this year’s Overlook focused on the horrors of motherhood, a self-engineered happenstance I can’t imagine was the intent of the festival’s programmers, since they could not have known which exact Choose Your Own Adventure path their audience would lock ourselves into.  While nothing on Day 2 floored me the way buzzier titles had on Day 1, they collectively gave me a lot of squicky Mommy Issues to dwell on in the festival’s downtown shopping mall locale – a theme that, come to think of it, was also echoed elsewhere on the docket in Clock, The Five Devils, Give Me an A, and Evil Dead Rise.

The best of the motherhood horrors I caught that day was the prickly pregnancy story Birth/Rebirth, which will premiere on Shudder later this year.  In its simplest terms, Birth/Rebirth is a morbid little Found Family story where the family glue is composed of reanimated corpses & unethically harvested fetal tissue.  Let’s call it Women in FrankenSTEM.  It details the unlikely team-up of a brash, uncaring pathologist who experiments on reanimating dead bodies in her inner-city apartment and a warm, compassionate nurse from the same hospital who loses her young daughter to an aggressive bacterial infection.  The two women form a makeshift family when they inevitably bring the daughter back to “life” via a serum derived from prenatal tissue, harvested through a chemical process that eventually leads to desperate acts of violence to keep the experiment going.  There’s plenty of morbid humor in the film’s “Honey, I’m home,” “How was work?” domestic banter as this new family routine becomes more comfortable, but its tone & central themes are relatively heavy.  For all of its upsetting surgical imagery involving needles, spines, and wombs (sometimes made even grimier through found-footage camcorder grain), the film often just engages in a very thoughtful contrast/compare debate about the differences between science & medicine.  That debate gets especially heated when hospital staff maintain a cold, scientific distancing from their pregnant patients instead of treating them like human beings in need of compassionate care, a threshold that even the more humane nurse crosses in pursuit of keeping her daughter “alive.”  Birth/Rebirth is refreshingly honest & matter-of-fact about pregnant women’s bodily functions and the medical industry’s indifference to their wellbeing.  It’s not a great film (often lacking a pronounced sense of style or narrative momentum), but it is a satisfying, provocative one.

The worst of the motherhood horrors on my docket was the Mongolian axe-murder thriller AberranceAberrance may even be the worst feature I can remember seeing at any film festival, a self-programming mistake that became apparent as soon as its opening frames foreshadow its pregnant damsel in distress running from its axe-wielding killer under a veil of cheaply rendered digital snowfall.  Whereas Birth/Rebirth had smart, straightforward observations to make about how misogynist the medical industry can be, Aberrance instead follows a series of for-their-own sake plot twists that muddle any possible good-faith readings of its social messaging.  At the start, this vapid, cheap-o thriller pretends to be a domestic violence story about a heroic neighbor bravely standing up to the abuser next door, who keeps his pregnant wife locked away from the world in order to “protect” her from her own mental illness.  Several generic plot twists & mainstream horror tropes later, the movie appears to be asserting an extensive list of incendiary falsehoods that get more infuriating as they thoughtlessly pile up: Don’t be nosy about apparent domestic abuse conflicts in other people’s homes; don’t trust the medication prescribed to treat your mental illness; and, most importantly, if a woman is mentally ill, the best fix is for her to just have a baby.  While Birth/Rebirth has incisive things to say about women’s minds, bodies, and care, Aberrance doesn’t care at all about the pregnant victim at the center of its story.  She’s a mostly wordless vehicle for thematically inane, irresponsible plot twists and flashy, for-its-own sake camerawork that initially appears playful & inventive but quickly becomes dull & repetitive.  The only halfway interesting thing about the movie is the cultural specificity of its Mongolian setting, but that’s not nearly enough to compensate for its boneheaded qualities as a mother-in-peril story.

Lurking somewhere between the disparate quality of those two polar-opposite motherhood thrillers is the couture-culture body horror Appendage, which will premiere on Hulu sometime later this year (likely as part of their annual “Huluween” package).  Appendage‘s connections to the day’s unintentional motherhood theme are initially less apparent than the first two films’, unless you consider a woman growing a sentient, talking tumor on her hip to represent an abstract form of giving birth.  The story follows a young fashion designer whose professional stress over a highly competitive, demanding job manifests in a hateful, id-indulging tumor that grows on her body and gradually develops a life of its own.  It’s a fairly common creature feature set-up, especially in a horror comedy context.  Think Basket Case but make it fashion (or Hatching but make it fashion, or Bad Milo but make it fashion, or How to Get Ahead in Advertising but make it fashion, etc.).  The scenes featuring the rubber-puppet monster make for an adorable addition to that subgenre, but they also highlight how bland Appendage can feel when the absorbed-twin tumor is nowhere to be seen.  Except, I did find its connective-tissue drama interesting within the larger theme of the day, if only through happenstance.  By the end of the film, it’s clear that our troubled fashionista’s self-negging workplace woes are less about job stress than they are an echo of her uptight WASP mother’s overly harsh criticisms of her every decision.  As it chugs along, Appendage proves to have way more on its mind about its underlying Mommy Issues than it does about the fashion industry, which is mostly used as an arbitrary broad-comedy backdrop akin to the killer-blue-jeans novelty horror Slaxx.  The promise of the premise is that we’ll watch a young woman spar against the monstrously abnormal growth on her body, but instead we often watch her do petty, verbal battle with the abnormal monster who birthed her.

Birth/Rebirth was my favorite selection from the second day of Overlook by any metric, and it only grew in my estimation as the day’s incidental horrors-of-motherhood patterns revealed themselves.  Even so, there are brief moments of Appendage that make it recommendable as potential Halloween Season viewing, especially for anyone who’s delighted by throwback practical-effects monsters.  The same cannot be said about Aberrance, an entirely useless work as both a pregnancy narrative and as an axe-wielding slasher cheapie.  It’s admirable that Overlook programmed a low-budget no-namer from an underserved market like Mongolia but, much like me, they took a chance on a dud.  It still helped guide & flesh out my Choose Your Own Adventure programming choices for the day, though, even if only to make the other motherhood horror titles that bookended it appear even greater by comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Quick Takes: New Orleans Rep Scene Report

I’ve hit a dry spell with new releases lately.  Now that last year’s Awards Season holdovers and January’s Dumping Season genre trash have fallen off local marquees, there just isn’t that much out there for me.  I’d be in much better shape if I kept up with the annual sequels to ongoing franchises like Shazam, Creed, and John Wick, but I resent the idea that I need to do prerequisite homework before going to the movies, so I’m okay just letting them pass me by.  During this ritualistic dry spell that crops up before “Summer Blockbuster” season gets rolling mid-Spring, I find myself thinking a lot about cities like Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Chicago, and Toronto that aren’t nearly as reliant on the new release calendar for their moviegoing options.  These are cities with robust, flourishing repertory scenes where audiences seemingly get to see an older “new-to-you” title projected on the big screen every day of the week.  The New Orleans rep scene is much smaller & more scattered, to the point where it isn’t actually an organized scene at all.  You have to scrounge local listings on a weekly basis to find a couple disparate repertory titles worth getting excited about, something I become sharply aware of every time the new release calendar gets this consistently dull.  New Orleans rep screenings are out there, though, and they are easily accessible if you know where to look.

So, here are a few quick short-form reviews of the repertory screenings I happened to catch around the city over the past month, along with notes on where I found them.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

You can find the usual suspects of broad-appeal crowdpleaser rep screenings on a near-monthly basis—namely, Rocky Horror & The Room—but for the really good stuff you have to wait for annual festivals.  For instance, the upcoming Overlook Film Festival is about to bring legacy screenings of titles like Joe Dante’s Matinee, William Castle’s The Tingler, and David Cronenberg’s Dead Zone to both locations of The Prytania for one killer rep-friendly weekend we won’t see again until next Overlook.  This is happening less than a month after the most recent New Orleans French Film Festival (also staged at The Prytania) included Agnès Varda’s French New Wave classic Cléo from 5 to 7 in collaboration with the host venue’s weekly Classic Movie series.  That was also no fluke.  In the past, I’ve gotten to see French classics like Breathless, Children of the Paradise, Beauty and the Beast, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Mr. Klein, and The Nun for the first time on the big screen thanks to French Film Fest, when I’d usually have to seek that kind of artsy-fartsy fare on the Criterion Channel at home.  I’ve particularly become spoiled when it comes to Varda’s work, of which I’ve seen most of her titles that I’m familiar with (including personal favorites The Gleaners & I and Le Bonheur) for the first time at that exact venue.  In all honesty, I should have sought out Cléo from 5 to 7 a lot sooner, as it’s arguably her most iconic work, but I was convinced it would eventually play at the festival if I was patient enough . . . and the gamble paid off.

The titular Cleopatra is a young chanteuse enjoying mild notoriety for her yé-yé pop tunes in early-60s Paris.  She’s also a superstitious, narcissistic hypochondriac who’s awaiting potentially devastating news from a doctor who recently screened her for cancer.  The movie follows Cléo’s attempts to distract herself for the final two hours before those test results arrive, explaining through an observational character study how, in her mind, the anticipation is far worse than any news her doctor could deliver.  Incidentally, the film also doubles as a real-time tour of 1960s Paris, as Varda’s handheld, ground-level camera commits brazen acts of people-watching while Cléo cabs & busses from cafe to art studio to couturier.  As Cléo muses about how modeling new clothes is intoxicating and her free-spirit bestie muses the same about nude modeling for art students, that cinematic voyeurism becomes the main thematic thrust of the picture.  The camera casually observes the people of Paris.  The people of Paris intensely observe the fashionable Cléo, who in turn even more intensely observes her own reflection.  Even though not much actually happens in the film, I was thrilled by how much of its screen space was overwhelmed by reflections in mirrors & windowpanes.  Not only did those reflections underline its themes of self-obsession & strange gazes, but it also just looked cool, affording Varda even more room to chop up & alter her images from infinite angles. And just as I was putting that thought together, the movie “overhears” a café discussion of Cubism as an artform.  As always with these Varda screenings at French Film Fest, Cléo was an immensely rewarding trip to the theater, one that made me fondly remember its newfound superiority over Breathless in the most recent Sight & Sound rankings.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Besides sporadic festival offerings, the most obvious, consistent venues for rep screenings are the only venues where you can watch any movies in New Orleans proper: The Broad and The Prytania, which among them account for the only three full-time cinemas within city limits.  Luckily, they’re both well balanced & adventurous in their programming, squeezing in as a many freak-show arthouse screenings as they can between the Top Gun & Avatar behemoths that pay the bills.  Since they recently acquired the Canal Place venue, The Prytania has had more screens to play with than The Broad, so they have more room for regular repertory programming like their aforementioned Classic Movie series and their weirder, wilder Wildwood series on Thursday nights.  I check both theatres’ listings every Tuesday afternoon to survey the next week of showtimes, though, and they’ve both come through with plenty of great repertory screenings in recent months – from new-to-me genre relics like Ghost in the Shell & Calvaire to very strange, one-of-a-kind presentations of The Mothman Prophecies and Antonioni’s Blow-Up.  Even though their rep offerings are less frequent, The Broad accounts for about half of the screenings I actually make it to (not least of all because they’re a much shorter bus ride away from my house), and I very much appreciate that they make room for older titles on the few screens they have to play with.  In particular, they’ve been on a John Carpenter kick lately, screening 4K restorations of his genre-defining classics that happened to get past me in my video store youth, which is how I recently got to see both The Fog and Assault on Precinct 13 for the first time on the big screen.

I would never place a Western-inspired prison siege movie above Carpenter’s supernatural horror classics as the director’s absolute best, but Assault on Precinct 13 does have a strong case as Carpenter’s absolute coolest.  Set in the vaguely defined war zone of “a Los Angeles ghetto”, this punk-era cops vs. gangsters shootout recalls much later, grimier genre pictures like Tenement, The Warriors, and Streets of Fire than it does the gruff, traditionalist John Wayne heroics that inspired it.  That said, Darwin Joston is doing a straight-up John Wayne impersonation as the laidback Death Row inmate Napoleon Wilson, who’s temporarily set free by his jailers to fire back at the ghoulish gangsters who relentlessly invade the titular police station where he is held captive.  His uneasy, sardonic friendship & romance with the officers he fights beside make Precinct a kind of unlikely hangout film in the tradition of the similarly violent-but-laidback Rio Bravo.  It’s Carpenter’s overbearing directorial style that makes it a classic in its own right, though, especially in the way he portrays the invading gangsters as no less mysterious & otherworldly than the ghosts that emerge from The Fog.  His halfway-closed police station setting is an eerie liminal space, and the morality of who’s in “the right” in the plot’s pigs vs. civilians warfare is just as unsettled.  I’ve gotten to see a lot of John Carpenter classics for the first time theatrically (including his actual career-best, The Thing, at The Prytania), and two things are always consistent among those screenings: his signature synth scores are electrifying in that full surround-sound environment, and no matter how great the movies are I always struggle to stay awake for their entirety.  In a perfect world, I’d love for the city’s somewhat regular John Carpenter rep screenings to play as matinees instead of cult-classic Midnighters, but as is I’ve gotten used to seeing them in my own liminal halfway dream state, re-running key scenes on Tubi as soon as I get home to make sure I didn’t actually sleep through something vital.  Given its real-world setting & premise, I didn’t expect Assault on Precinct 13 to fit so well into that eerie supernatural mold, but that’s apparently the John Carpenter touch.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

When things get really desperate, you can always leave the city for the suburbs, where there are multiple AMC Theaters waiting to dazzle you with “$5 Fan Favorite” rep screenings of crowd-pleasers like E.T., Jurassic Park, The Goonies and, presumably, even a few movies not produced by Steven Spielberg.  I happened to catch AMC at an opportune moment in recent weeks, when the Awards Season afterglow of the Oscars allowed for more variety on their schedule than usual.  In particular, AMC Elmwood included Ang Lee’s international wuxia hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on its recent Fan Favorites schedule, presumably inspired by Michele Yeoh’s Oscars Moment as the lead of the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once.  Movies like Crouching Tiger returning to the big screen for their victory laps (or, often enough, getting funded in the first place) are the major reason I consider the exhausting Oscars ritual an overall net good. They’re more of a useful marketing tool than they are a signifier of artistic quality, but they are useful.  Until now, I’ve only ever experienced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as an on-the-couch Blockbuster VHS rental, and it was wonderful to see its fantastic fight choreography play out on a larger canvas for the first time.

To my taste, the classy, buttoned-up version of martial arts cinema in Crouching Tiger is not nearly as exciting as the more playful, over-the-top actioners Michele Yeoh was making in her Hong Kong heyday.  Since The Heroic Trio is unlikely to ever make its way back to the suburban multiplex, however (despite a recent co-sign from The Criterion Collection, an actual signifier of good taste), I was ecstatic to watch Yeoh clang swords & hop rooftops in this Oscars-certified historical drama.  I can’t say that the will-they-won’t-they love story Yeoh shares with Chow Yun-Fat ever landed much emotional impact with me in the few times I’ve seen this film, nor do I pay much attention to the quiet nobility of their mission to find a rightful home for a 400-year-old sword.  I’m the kind of dipshit who prefers Pearl Chang’s low-rent, goofball version of wuxia acrobatics to the headier, classier oeuvre of King Hu, though, so it’s probably best that my personal taste is not dictating what gets screened around the city.  At its best, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a visual spectacle about the beauty of tactile fight choreography and wire work, and no matter how restrained the drama is between those fights (nor how mundane a theatrical venue the AMC can be), it’s impossible to deny the power of seeing those images big & loud for the first time.

-Brandon Ledet

The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2023

There are 39 feature films nominated for the 2023 Academy Awards ceremony. For the first time ever, we here at Swampflix have reviewed over half of the films nominated (so far!) without consciously trying to keep up with the zeitgeist. 40% of our own Top Films of the Year list has been nominated for Oscars this year, with our #1 pick leading the pack with 11 nominations.  Basically, our street cred is in the trash, and we are now part of the stuffy Awards Season elite.  As such, you can count on us to tell you which films should win Oscars this year—judged simply by the metric of good taste—even if they aren’t the films that will win, as The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually distributing statues.

Listed below are the 23 Oscar-Nominated films from 2022 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best, based on our star ratings and internal voting. Each entry is accompanied by a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

Everything Everywhere All at Once, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Michelle Yeoh), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Stephanie Hsu & Jamie Lee Curtis), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Ke Huy Quan), Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song (“This is a Life”)

“Maybe we’re living in the worst possible timeline, but maybe we’re just living in the one where Michel Gondry directed The Matrix.  It’s nice here.  The absurdism, creativity, and all-out maximalism of Everything Everywhere has made it the most talked-about movie of the year, and with good reason.  Films about intergenerational trauma and poor parental relationships often come across as schmaltzy and reductive, but this one is complex in ways that you can’t predict or imagine.  You’ll even find yourself empathizing with a googly-eyed rock.”

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“In the tradition of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the Borrowers books, and the half-remembered TV show The Littles, Marcel the Shell shrinks itself down to the level of a tiny being to view the world from their perspective.  Like the original stop-motion YouTube shorts, it’s a rapid-fire joke delivery system where every punchline is “So small!”  It also has a big heart, though, acting as an emotional defibrillator to shock us back into the great wide world of familial & communal joy after a few years of intense isolation.”

RRR, nominated for Best Original Song (“Naatu Naatu”)

“An anti-colonialist epic about the power of friendship (and the power of bullets, and the power of wolves, and the power of grenades, and the power of dynamite, and the power of tigers, and the power of bears, oh my).  A real skull-cracker of a good time.”

Triangle of Sadness, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, and Best Original Screenplay

“A delightfully cruel, unsettling comedy that invites you to laugh at the grotesquely rich as they slide around in their own piss, shit, and vomit on a swaying luxury cruise ship.  It’s incredibly satisfyingand maybe even Östlund’s bestas long as you prefer catharsis & entertainment over subtlety & nuance.”

The Banshees of Inisherin, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Colin Ferrell), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Kerry Condon), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Brendan Gleeson & Barry Keoghan), Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score

“In retrospect, watching three seasons of Derry Girls feels like training wheels for immediately understanding the humor in this. Exact same cadence to the jokes, just now with more alleGORY.”

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“A stop-motion musical about how delightfully annoying & revolting children can be (and how their obnoxious misbehavior is a necessary joy in this rigid, fascist world). The pacing could be zippier, and the songs could be catchier, but overall it’s a worthwhile, gorgeous grotesquerie that easily distinguishes itself from the thousand other Pinocchio adaptations it’s competing against for screenspace.”

Fire of Love, nominated for Best Documentary Feature Film

“I very much enjoyed the twee Grizzly Man, if not only as a slideshow of gorgeous nature footage. It’s the story of two talented filmmakers just as much as it’s the story of two doomed volcanologists, seemingly just as inspired by the French New Wave as they were by the immense power of Nature. At least that’s what comes through in the edit.”

EO, nominated for Best International Feature Film

“Jerzy Skolimowski’s noble donkey tale only occasionally plays like a colorized TV edit of Au Hasard Balthasar.  More often, it takes wild detours into an energetic, dreamlike approximation of what it might look like if Gaspar Noé directed Homeward Bound.  It’s incredible that a film this vibrant & playful was made by a long-respected octogenarian, not a fresh-outta-film-school prankster with something to prove.”

The Batman, nominated for Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects

“I am philosophically opposed to this current trajectory where we’ll just keep making Batman movies increasingly “realistic” & colorless forever & ever, to the point where it already takes 90min of narrative justification for The Penguin to waddle. That said, I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to, especially as a 2020s goth-kid update for The Crow. My preference is for Batman to be as goofy & horny as possible, but I’ll settle for creepy & romantic if that’s what’s on the table.”

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay

“Every reveal makes total sense and falls perfectly in line with what we’ve already seen and what we already know while still allowing us to feel some sense of accomplishment in “figuring it out” along with the characters. It’s an effect you can only find in great examples of the genre, like Murder, She Wrote.”

Women Talking, nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay

“Crushingly powerful start to end, more than I had emotionally steeled myself for. Even the drained color palette, which looks like a fundamental flaw from the outside, completely works in the moment. Everything is grim, grey, grueling – even the stabs of humor

Babylon, nominated for Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design

“Impressive in scale and in eagerness to alienate, even if it is just a cruder, shallower Hail, Caesar! crammed into a Boogie Nights shaped box. Likely would have been better received if it was a 10-hour miniseries instead of a 3-hour montage, but the manic tempo is exactly what makes it special among the million other movies about The Movies.”

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, nominated for Best Costume Design

“Gonna add “Mrs Harris finally gets the dress she wants” to the list of scenes I can think back to when I need a quick cry; right alongside “Paddington wishes Aunt Lucy a happy birthday” and “The Girlhood girls dance to Rihanna”

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, nominated for Best Documentary Feature Film

“Half a career-spanning slideshow from Nan Goldin’s legacy as a fine art photography rock star and half a document of her current mission to deflate The Sackler Family’s tires, at least in the art world. The career-retrospective half can’t help but be more compelling than the current political activism half, since her archives are so dense with the most stunning, intimate images of Authentic City Living ever captured. Her personal history in those images and her more recent struggles with addiction more than earn her the platform to be heard about whatever she wants to say here, though, especially since the evil pharmaceutical empire she’s most pissed at has trespassed on her home turf.”

Aftersun, nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Paul Mescal)

“Intimate, small, mostly forgettable until the last 10 minutes. I appreciate it just fine, but I’m always a little confused when this kind of movie breaks out to ecstatic praise, since practically every film festival is teeming with similar titles that never land distro.”

Elvis, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Austin Butler), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Production Design, and Best Sound

“The most individual camera setups I’ve ever seen outside of a Russ Meyer film. Maniacally corny pop art; wasn’t sure whether I enjoyed it until I heard someone complain “That is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen” on the way out and I found myself getting defensive.”

Turning Red, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“The smooth-surface CG & sugar-rush hijinks were very much Not For Me, but I still appreciate it as life-lesson messaging for little kids (especially since the last couple Disney animations I watched taught kids to obey & forgive Family at their own expense).”

Causeway, nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Brian Tyree Henry)

“A serviceable, low-key drama that I would say isn’t at all noteworthy for anyone who isn’t already subscribed to Apple’s streaming service, except that CODA won Best Picture last year so what do I know.”

The Fabelmans, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Michelle Williams), Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design

“Scared to contract whatever subvariant of Film Twitter Brain Rot makes you believe this is “late-style” movie magic but Cinema Paradiso is embarrassing schmaltz. Incredible how a movie so densely packed with detailed memories and messy interpersonal conflicts can ring so generic & phony.”

Tár, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Cate Blanchett), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing

“Half arthouse Aaron Sorkin, half French Exit for the most boring people alive; I am wildly out of step with the consensus with this one, which means it must be Awards Season again.”

Top Gun: Maverick, nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Song (“Hold My Hand”), Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects

“Making this after MacGruber is exactly as embarrassing as making a by-the-numbers musician biopic after Walk Hard. Maybe even worse, considering how much more money was wasted (and for a much more insidious political purpose). Blech.”

Blonde, nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Ana de Armas)

“Fake movie.  So phony it’s uncanny. So phony it makes Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis look tasteful, poised, controlled.  So phony it gets a phony performance out of Julianne Nicholson, of all people. Embarrassing stuff.”

The Whale, nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Brendan Fraser), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Hong Chau), and Best Makeup & Hairstyling

“I love a volatile auteur who consistently swings for the fences, but sometimes that means they follow up one of their career-best with their absolute worst. The only thing that works about this, really, is that Fraser has kind, sympathetic eyes. Every choice outside that casting is cruel, miserable, disposable, nonsense.”

-The Swampflix Crew

Altered Docs

My happy place is the Altered Innocence logo card.  When I close my eyes, I’m often transported to that James Bidgoodian terrarium, which is just as often tacked to the front of the best films on the modern media landscape.  Not everything the high-style, queer distributor releases can be as transcendent as all-star titles like The Wild Boys, Knife+Heart, Arrebato, and Equation to an Unknown, though.  Like all small-operation film labels, they’re also in the business of releasing minor, low-budget festival acquisitions that would otherwise drift into the great distribution abyss.  And if you’ve ever been to a film festival, you know that distro model is going to include a lot of documentaries – a medium that’s cheap to produce but difficult to market.  I’ve run across a couple Altered Innocence documentaries before on both ends of that distribution path: I caught their couture culture documentary House of Cardin at New Orleans French Film Fest before it was certain to land proper distro, and I sought out the personal coming-out essay film Madame because it already had the Altered Innocence stamp of approval.  I love Altered Innocence most for its proud, consistent platforming of arthouse weirdos Yann Gonzalez & Bertrand Mandico, but I also respect that their stated mission to release “LGBTQ & Coming-of-Age films with an artistic edge” extends to smaller, no-name directors whose work would otherwise screen once at venues like Outfest, then fade into oblivion.  In that spirit, I’d like to highlight two recent queer-culture documentaries distributed by Altered Innocence that might not have as flashy of a premise as phantasmagorical fiction titles like After Blue: Dirty Paradise (a sci-fi acid Western in which a lesbian orgy planet cowers in fear of a demonic assassin named Kate Bush) but still deserve wide attention & distribution anyway.

The more innocuous title of this pair is 2019’s Queer Japan, a densely packed, low-budget documentary about contemporary queer culture in—you guessed it—Japan.  I’m calling it innocuous because it’s relatively soft in its political advocacy, over-explaining basic concepts that are common to most queer subcultures regardless of region.  It argues that drag is art, bisexuality is real, and lesbian spaces are too often trans-exclusionary, all while scrolling through a never-ending glossary of basic terms in onscreen text & Instagram graphics.  It’s somewhat illuminating as an update to the semi-fictional, half-century-old street interviews in Funeral Parade of Roses but, overall, the film’s queer politics are largely understated & unspecific.  Thankfully, its region-specific details are much more prominent in the “artistic edge” Altered Innocence seeks to platform.  At its best, Queer Japan is an extensive catalog of beautiful queer visual artists, ranging from avant garde drag performers to gay manga illustrators to high-fashion latex & puppy play fetishists.  It also doubles as a tourist roadmap to popular queer nightclubs & pride events in its titular country, which I suppose might be of use to travelers using the doc as a quick crash-course primer.  There’s a wide enough range of vibrant pop art footage that it’s instantly clear why director Graham Kobeins decided they had enough raw material to justify a feature length documentary here; it must’ve been daunting to edit.  If anything, though, that overabundance of subject material is almost too wide of a scope for one documentary.   I would have been a lot more enthusiastic about it as a whole if it dropped its onscreen dictionary of political terms and instead focused entirely on profiling queer Japanese artists in particular, since that’s where its heart appeared to be.

By contrast, the 2017 punk scene documentary Queer Core: How to Punk a Revolution did pull off the trick of tackling both queer art & queer politics without overextending itself.  A talking-heads nostalgia trip into the queer zine culture of punk’s hardcore & riot grrrl eras, there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the film in terms of form, but its revolutionary content more than makes up for it.  It has plenty furious things to say about assimilation politics that continue to resonate beyond its vintage punk scene infighting & self-mythology, loudly decrying assimilation a “death trap”.  It also has a stylistic upper hand over Queer Japan in its archival footage’s vintage zine aesthetics, cobbling together a loose art scene between such disparate artists as Bruce LaBruce, Vaginal Davis, Team Dresch, Tribe 8, and Bikini Kill (citing earlier provocateurs like Quentin Crisp, John Waters, and William S. Burroughs as their queer elders).  Somehow, though, its political advocacy comes across as much sharper & more specific than its corollary in Queer Japan.  It throws punches at supposed counterculture movements like hippies & punks for continuing the retrograde sexual politics of their Right Wing enemies, pointing out “punk”‘s origins as an explicitly queer term and pushing back against the macho hardcore scene & AIDS paranoia of the Reagan Era.  As soon as Queer Core opens with a cumshot title card, its goal to make straight-boy punks uncomfortable is loud & clear, and all of its hagiographic interviews of queercore, homocore, and riot grrrl artists are filtered through that viscus lens.  Director Yony Leyser’s only real misstep is an early narration track that’s quickly dropped to instead let the subjects speak for themselves, since they’re all loudly, politically opinionated enough to carry the movie on their own.  The art cataloged in Queer Japan is on par with the art cataloged in Queer Core, but only one movie makes great use of the political meaning behind its creation.

You don’t have to be a physical media collector to access these titles.  Queer Japan is currently streaming for free (with a library membership) on Kanopy, and Queer Core is streaming for free (with ad breaks) on Tubi.  As strongly as I preferred Queer Core out of the two, they’re both worth your time if you have any interest in their respective subjects.  I’d even extend that to say that I’ve yet to see an Altered Innocence release that isn’t worth your time.  They’re the best distributor of “LGBTQ & Coming-of-Age films with an artistic edge” that I can name, give or take a Strand Releasing.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Peyton Place (1957)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1957’s Peyton Place, is a sprawling epic of small-town scandal & melodrama.  It’s essentially Douglas Sirk’s “Harper Valley PTA”, an exquisite illustration of lowly gossip & pulp.  Since its source-material novel was essentially the Fifty Shades of its time, its major-studio adaptation had to put on an air of arty prestige & high-minded sexual education to justify the indulgence.  The sex education aspect is loudly pronounced, advocating for healthy sexual habits to be openly discussed and taught in schools, since the small-town sex shaming of all “dirty talk” is what causes heartbreak & tragedy in its doomed characters’ lives.  Prestige is a much trickier quality to signal to the audience, something the film prompts in its sweeping shots of artificial woodland vistas and soaring melodramatic strings.  It also signals prestige in the casting of Lana Turner as its biggest-name star, prominently advertising her performance over much meatier roles for the teens-in-crisis beneath her.  When Peyton Place hit theaters, Turner was a glamorous movie star that afforded the film an air of legitimacy. A year later, an act of domestic violence in which her daughter stabbed a mobster boyfriend in her family home would make her a magnet for tabloid scandal, dragging Turner down to the movie’s true gossipy nature.

Getting a sense of where Peyton Place fits within the restrictions & subversions of Old Hollywood’s final hours means getting familiar with how Lana Turner was understood & adored as an Old Hollywood movie star.  So, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to bask in more of her Studio Era glamour.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Since every other title on this list casts Lana Turner for her star power but doesn’t actually center her as its star, it’s imperative to include her iconic, spotlight-commanding role in this classic studio noir.  Turner plays the world’s most pragmatic femme fatale in The Postman Always Rings Twice, using her smoky sexual charisma to inspire a lovelorn drifter to kill her husband so she can run her own roadside diner, to both her and her lover’s eventual peril.  Despite a couple mid-film courtroom battles that ice their wayward momentum, it’s a great story about two lost souls who are so rottenly horny for each other that they don’t know what to do except destroy everything.  If nothing else, it’s easily 1000x sexier than its 80s erotic thriller remake, a movie that Turner dismissed as “pornographic trash” without ever actually watching it.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

The only reason the mean little Hollywood tabloid The Bad and the Beautiful can’t claim to be a proper Lana Turner showcase is that she’s outshined by an incredibly unrelenting Kirk Douglas performance that leaves no scenery in his path unchewed.  The movie itself is also somewhat outshined by its own overperforming peers in the same way, as it boldly, brashly recalls Citizen Kane & Sunset Boulevard without having any of the necessary virtuosity to back it up.  Luckily it’s bitchy & cynical enough to stand on its own as a self-hating Hollywood mythmaker, and it props Turner up as a mildly fictionalized version of herself – a powerhouse Studio System starlet with a troubled life offscreen.  She’s unusually vulnerable in the role too, plunging to rock bottom before towering over Douglas’s frantic anti-hero as his romantic foil.

Imitation of Life (1959)

Turner also plays a struggling actress who eventually makes it big in Douglas Sirk’s classic melodrama Imitation of Life, and I’d say she’s also outshined as a secondary attraction there, despite her prominence on the poster.  Like in Peyton Place, Turner’s name is used as a box office draw, but the most compelling melodrama in the film is reserved for the teens running circles at her feet.  She looks absolutely fabulous in the role as the matriarch Broadway star, though, modeling a million-dollar wardrobe that broke records for Old Hollywood productions at the time. 

By pretending to position Turner center stage, Sirk was able to get away with telling a subversive story about racial discrimination, passing, and self-hatred with Juanita Moore’s character in a way that would’ve frightened off studio execs without blinding them with Turner’s gowns & jewels.  The boldly political sex education messaging of Peyton Place is hidden behind Turner’s star wattage in a similar way, even if it’s not nearly as tasteful nor exquisitely staged as its Douglas Sirk equivalent.  By the time she “starred” in Imitation of Life, the real-life tragedy in Turner’s family had already made tabloid headlines, but she was still useful to Sirk as a signal of class & prestige, which I think says something about the inherent strength & respectability of her screen presence.

-Brandon Ledet

Krewe Divine 2023

For Carnival 2017, a few members of the Swampflix crew joined forces to pray at the altar of the almighty Divine. The greatest drag queen of all time, Divine was the frequent collaborator & long-time muse of our favorite filmmaker, John Waters. Her influence on the pop culture landscape extends far beyond the Pope of Trash’s Dreamlanders era, however, emanating to as far-reaching places as the San Franciscan performers The Cockettes, the punkification of disco, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Our intent was to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fabulously fucked-up glory by maintaining a new Mardi Gras tradition in Krewe Divine, a costuming krewe meant to masquerade in the French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday into perpetuity.

Our initial krewe was a small group of Swampflix contributors: site co-founders Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas, regular contributor CC Chapman, and repeat podcast guest Virginia Ruth. We were later joined by local drag performer Ce Ce V DeMenthe, who frequently pays tribute to Divine in her performances. There’s no telling how Krewe Divine will expand or evolve from here as we do our best to honor the Queen of Filth in the future, but for now, enjoy some pictures from our 2023 excursion, our fifth year in operation as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe (and our first year returning after the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020):

Eat Shit!

❤ Krewe Divine ❤