Episode #75 of The Swampflix Podcast: Enthiran (2010), Tiptoes (2003), and The Monster Club (1981)

Welcome to Episode #75 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our seventh-fifth episode, the whole crew gets back together! Britnee joins James & Brandon to celebrate a podcast milestone by doing a full round-table of Movies of the Minute selections.  Britnee presents the British horror anthology The Monster Club (1981), James presents the infamous cinematic abomination Tiptoes (2003), and Brandon presents the Indian sci-fi action spectacle Enthiran (2010). Enjoy!

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

-Britnee Lombas, James Cohn, and Brandon Ledet

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

I should admit upfront that I was hesitant to give this movie a fair chance. I missed Can You Ever Forgive Me? in its initial run because I was unsure that it was anything more than Oscar Bait. An Oscar Season actor’s showcase for a once-goofy-now-serious comedian in a tonally muted biopic will never be the kind of thing I rush out to see. The talent on-hand in this particular case was too substantial to fully ignore, however, as the comedian in question is the consistently compelling Melissa McCarthy and the director behind her Marielle Heller, whose previous feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl might just be one of the best dramas of the decade. I don’t believe my initial misgivings about Can You Ever Forgive Me? were entirely inaccurate. The film’s subdued real-life subject, its predilection for montage & voiceover narration, and its relentless mood-setting jazzy score all feel like they belong to the exact kind of well-behaved, awards-seeking picture that I actively avoid. I also only got a second chance to see it in a proper theater because of those awards; after being nominated for two acting-category Oscars (and a third for Best Screenplay) it returned for a second theatrical run in New Orleans to profit off the buzz. Make no mistake: Can You Ever Forgive Me? carries the exact look, feel, and prestige you’d expect from an Oscar Season biopic featuring a comic performer acting against type. What’s wonderful, then, is how Heller & McCarthy (along with fellow subversives Richard E. Grant & Nicole Holofcener) use that structure to deliver something much more tonally & thematically challenging than it initially appears.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is dressed up like a prestige biopic, but only in the way that a mean drunk can temporarily disguise themselves as a functional, friendly human being in short social bursts before their true colors start to show. McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, a once-successful literary biographer who turns to a life of petty crime once she finds herself near-homeless, unable to successfully pitch any new projects to her publisher. Her particular talent of getting into the heads (and voices) of her literary biography subjects comes in handy when she begins to forge personal letters in their name to sell to collectors – faking correspondence with important historical artists like Dorothy Parker, Fanny Brice, and Noel Coward for minor sums of cash. The payoffs are relatively small for a grift that lands her under investigation by the FBI, but Israel seemingly has no other means to survive, as she lives precariously without a social safety net. In a lesser film, that sense of isolation & financial doom would be blamed on some social ill or systemic pitfall that failed her. Here, it’s because Lee Israel is an asshole. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is most impressive as a balancing act of admiring & sympathizing with a character while not letting them off the hook for being a drunk & an obstinate dick. Lee Israel and her only partner in crime (a fellow poverty-line drunkard played by Richard E. Grant) live by a strict “Fuck ‘em” policy when dealing with the rest of the world, an attitude that isolates them in ways that are both dangerous to their well-being & difficult for wide-audience sensibilities. It also makes for a much more relatable, satisfying picture than what was sold in its earliest ads.

The secret success of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is that it passes itself off as a well-behaved biopic, but it’s not a biopic at all. While the film does follow a somewhat notable historical figure around a long-gone 1990s NYC, it’s less a biography of Israel’s life than it is a dual character study of two very particular, very difficult people. Crude, drunk, queer, mean, proudly unemployable, and living in squalor, Israel and her sole co-conspirator have a hostile relationship with their fellow New Yorkers (and the universe at large). McCarthy plays Israel with aggressive skepticism & a permanent scowl, deathly afraid of showing a single glimpse of emotional vulnerability or sincerity. For his part, Grant goes full Quentin Crisp as her cohort, ruthlessly squeezing every cheap hedonistic thrill out of life as he can, treating his limited time on Earth as a frivolous lark. Even if you don’t see you own personal flaws & hurt reflected in these characters, it’s easy to recognize them as kindred spirits; the shithole world we live in doesn’t deserve any more sympathy or respect than they’re already giving it. Marielle Heller’s greatest achievement in this film is in inhabiting Israel’s voice & POV, the same way the infamous forger inhabited the voices of the literary figures whose graves she robbed. No matter how prickly or destructive Israel can be in the film, we never lose sight of the fact that the world let her down first, that life is a bum deal that doesn’t deserve a single ounce of effort whether or not she’s willing to give it. Whether she’s furiously railing against the fragile egos & unearned confidence of straight white men or enjoying a brief glimmer of peace in an upscale drag bar, we feel her anger, her pain, and her displacement in a world that does not want her. You cannot fake that kind of authenticity in spiritual kinship, even if Heller, McCarthy, and Holofcener are speaking for Israel, even if the vessel that contains her forged voice carries the inauthenticity of an Awards Season melodrama.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: An Unmarried Woman (1978)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and CC watch An Unmarried Woman (1978).

Boomer: Back in August I surrendered to the heat and, instead of walking down to Guadalupe Street to catch the Number 3 Cap Metro bus to the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse, I took an Uber. My driver was an older man named Buzz, who asked what I was going to see, and I told him that they were doing a special showcase called “Women Under the Influence,” and that I was going to see An Unmarried Woman. “AH!” he said. “Jill Clayburgh. I remember going to see that one back in ’78 or ’79. What a performance.”

Buzz had a bunch of other stories, too, which he shared while we took a circuitous route to the theatre (he overshot by a mile or so and we had to turn back around): he had spent lots of time growing up in New Orleans and known the family that oversaw Galatoires; he had served overseas and seen a lot of native tattoo art, and regaled me with the way that American cultural attitudes about tattoos had grown and changed; when he lived in Hawaii, he used to play tennis Lolo Soetoro (aka former President Obama’s stepfather). With a life so full, one wouldn’t think that he would have space to remember going to see a movie forty years ago, but not only did he remember the movie, he remembered Clayburgh’s performance, which was my first clue that I was in for something really special.

Inspired by one of his wife’s recently divorced friends’ identification on a mortgage application as “an unmarried woman,” Paul Mazursky penned and directed a film with that appellation as the title. Erica Benton (Clayburgh) is a modern woman who seems to have it all: a loving husband with whom she’s casual but not caustic, intimate but independent; a smart, capable, socially aware teenage daughter; a great group of friends; a huge apartment with a lovely view of New York. This all comes crashing down around her when her husband admits that he’s fallen for a younger woman that he met while running a routine errand, and he intends to leave Erica for her. Suddenly single after seventeen years, Erica emerges into the newly sexually free world of the late seventies, only to find it as confusing as it is liberating, populated by gatekeepers and horndogs, friends and lovers, creeps and honest men alike, and none of them any less complex than she is.

This is a beautiful movie, from the sweeping shots of Erica dancing around her apartment, to her poignantly singing “Baby I’m Amazed” at the piano with her daughter, to the understated elegance of a dialogue-free skate around the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. I would almost call it a perfect movie, save for one thing: I’m still a little disappointed that the film ends with Erica deciding to pursue a relationship with a man, albeit a decent and mostly likable one. In my vision of this as a perfect movie, the ending is more ambiguous about whether or not Erica will commit to a new partnership or continue to live as a single, not just unmarried, woman for a time before giving it another go, long term. Brandon, what do you think? Was this ending satisfactory for you, or would you have preferred a slightly tweaked one? How much, if any, do you think the era of this film’s production affected that ending?

Brandon: I would be in total agreement if the film ended with Erica following her new painter boyfriend to his yearly retreat into Nature with his family. She’s tempted by his offer to spend her days lounging around reading books, watching him paint, and forming a new idyllic family in the woods, but she ultimately rejects it in favor of staying behind in New York City to continue her personal work at the art gallery. That decision is a major personal crossroads for Erica, because the painter is essentially asking her to become a married woman again, to define her life by the needs & accomplishments of a husband, and she refuses. Even if she does remain romantically attached to the painter for the rest of their lives, she appears to be much more independently minded than she was when we first meet her as the dutiful wife of a business prick.

Instead of Erica caving to the painter’s relentless, childish insistence that she tag along, the ending we do get is something a little more lyrical. The boyfriend unloads a massive painting of his onto her as “a gift” and leaves her to carry it across the city to her new apartment all by herself. It starts out as a childish prank on the painter’s part, as he’s frustrated that he can’t control Erica’s behavior and finds a cheeky way to punish her for it. As the image of Erica dragging the painting through crowds & against gusts of winds develops, though, it stops being about the painter at all and starts reflecting more on Erica’s determination & resilience. Life is just as absurd & unmanageable of an obstacle as that painting, yet she carries on anyway.

That ending plays ambiguously enough for me as is. I’m not sure whether Erica’s new relationship with the painter will work out long-term, but I also don’t think it matters. Although the men in her life are certainly significant as a source of conflict, this is ostensibly a film about women. My frustration with watching Erica’s romance develop with the artist wasn’t in where they settle by the end credits, but rather in how much screen time the new boyfriend was siphoning away from the women in Erica’s life. I was fascinated by Erica’s headstrong daughter, her proto-Sex and the City gal pals, and her spellbinding therapist (played by Dr. Penelope Russianoff, a real-life NYC psychotherapist who specialized in helping women feel independent & self-sufficient outside male companionship). Any minute spent away from them in favor of profiling Erica’s relationship with a man felt a little like time wasted.

Paul Mazursky’s signature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was iconic for capturing the American sexual zeitgeist at the height of Free Love politics in the late 1960s. Nearly a decade later, An Unmarried Woman finds him attempting to do the same for the psychology of women’s liberation and its social fallout as traditional marital norms faded away. A major difference in his approaches to these works seems to be a choice of POV. While Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice spreads its POV across two couples, An Unmarried Woman is largely about Erica’s inner psyche, to the point where we’re invited to sit in on her most intimate therapy sessions & look in on her dancing alone in her underwear to Swan Lake as if no one is watching.

Britnee, do you think An Unmarried Woman benefited from focusing on Erica as our centering protagonist? Do you think Mazurksy could have said more about the state of The Woman in the late 1970s by spreading its POV around to include her daughter, her therapist, and her proto-Sex and the City crew, or were we better off anchored to a fixed, deeply personal portrait of one woman in crisis?

Britnee: Erica is such a likeable character, so I think the heavy focus on her experience as a single woman was what made this film so wonderful. However, my favorite parts of the film involved Erica’s interactions with her amazing group of friends and her fabulous therapist, Tanya. Experiencing the POV of all the wonderful women in this film sounds great, but there’s no way it would’ve turned out as cohesive as it did if the screen time was shared. I would have loved to see more focus on Erica’s relationships with the women in her life from her own POV. There was a little too much time spent focusing on her budding relationship with her boring artist lover. I wanted more fun nights out on the town with the girls and more sessions with Tanya. Having an such a prominent real-life therapist playing the role of Tanya is such a treat, and it’s a shame that we only got a few minutes worth of her advice and guidance.

I truly loved how An Unmarried Woman didn’t follow the same route as most other films that focus on women dealing with a cheating husband and failed marriage. Erica didn’t give her husband a pass on his mid-life crisis and fall into his arms when he came crawling back to her, and she didn’t seek revenge on her husband or his mistress. Erica had such an admirable attitude through it all. She invested her time and energy in herself and created a new chapter in her life.

As much as I like Erica’s character, she is a privileged white woman living in a high-end apartment in New York City, which means she has access to more resources to help her through her divorce (therapy, income, housing, etc.). In reality, most women going through a divorce don’t have it so easy, and this is especially true for the time period of this film. I think An Unmarried Woman could have benefited from incorporating some real-life struggles that newly divorced single mothers had to deal with in the late 1970s.

CC, do you think Erica’s character could have been more relatable?

CC: I thought this film was . . . fine. I loved the scene where Erica & her daughter belted “Baby I’m Amazed” together at their piano and I thought the scenes with her girlfriends and therapist were generally amusing, but overall I was just kinda . . . eh on the film as a whole. I do think that’s largely because I don’t relate to Erica or her struggles. The idea that she could go to a therapist and fully expect her ex-husband to fund her appointments is mind boggling. I’m sure we could all take the time to become happier, more independent people if we had the means, but many of us are too dependent on constant, never ceasing employment to ever take a moment just to figure out who we are and who we’d like to become.

As unrealistic as her financial situation may be, there were still several naturalistic scenes that resonated with me. The reason I loved the “Baby, I’m Amazed” scene in particular is because it felt like a genuine moment shared between real people. I found it both comical and fascinating that the two actors can’t sing especially well, but belt the entire song out with all their heart anyway. This sweet, joyous scene is as understandable as Erica’s wealth and privilege are incomprehensible.

Boomer, you also pointed out the “Baby I’m Amazed” scene as a highlight. Were there any other moments that stuck out to you as humorously or peculiarly naturalistic in the same way? Also, I assume Erica’s wealthy New Yorker life is no more relatable to yours than it is to mine, yet you seem to appreciate the film way more than I do. Was it the naturalism that stuck out to you as well or something else entirely?

Boomer: While I certainly find that Erica lived a more privilege life than most (I already mentioned the spectacular cityscape that can be seen from her apartment), I suppose that I was also primed to accept that Erica’s husband was indebted to her via their matrimonial arrangements even after their split by several seasons of Mad Men which showed Don Draper’s ex-wives receiving pretty hefty alimony payments while not working: Betty got to keep their house following their divorce and received consistent money from Don, and Megan got enough money to buy her own place in the LA hills despite not being able to make it financially as an actress. Those divorces (and the resultant alimony settlements) came in the sixties, but the seventies setting of An Unmarried Woman is closer in time to that period, when divorced women largely found themselves without any means of support post-separation due to the way society frowned on women having occupations outside of the home, and thus having huge gaps in their resumes if they were suddenly in need of employment. It’s a reflection on a particular time in American society from which we are removed by forty years of social and economic change, various movements for (and unfortunately against) wider roles for women in the workplace and in the upper echelons of management, and wider employment for women, despite continued income inequality for women and other sex- and gender-based biases that create unjust stratification in the workplace.

This was something that I found annoying when watching Mad Men as well–that Don, as much as I detested him, was so financially responsible for his former spouses despite no longer being legally joined to them–but like many things in that program, it exists as a reminder of that show’s thesis, that no matter how much we may feel the need to romanticize the past, the rampant injustices and social evils of that era (homophobia, sexism, systemic and individual racism, sexual abuse of spousal privilege, disrespect for natural resources, child abuse) must always be remembered and used to temper any nostalgic reminisces as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go. That we are so far removed from the expectation that ex-husbands should prop up their ex-wives’ finances can lend itself to us being more unkind to women like Erica (and Betty, although not really Megan) than is strictly fair. The difference is that Mad Men was an intentional demonstration of this, while An Unmarried Woman is more of an unintentional period piece in this way, capturing a snapshot of American society at the time and the expectations that would have been normal when looking at Erica’s role (or lack thereof) in society, the economy, and her own family.

That’s not to say that Erica’s privilege isn’t something that can make the audience feel removed from (and thus somewhat unsympathetic toward) her trials and tribulations, but it was nonetheless groundbreaking that this New Hollywood/New Wave film chose to put the focus of this narrative solely on Erica and her friends. Compared to other female-led films that came out that same year, it’s not surprising that the film was so different from the status quo that it stood out enough to garner nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress: we have two “women in peril” horror/thriller films in the form of the original Halloween and The Eyes of Laura Mars; the abysmal sports/romance flick Ice Castles; the extremely controversial Louis Malle film Pretty Baby; and two disco queen vehicles, Diana Ross’s The Wiz and Donna Summer’s Thank God It’s Friday. An Unmarried Woman was genuinely something unseen before as it focused so completely on Erica’s journey, even if the changes in her life are made more manageable and navigable by her relative financial freedom, opening doors for other films to explore more down-to-earth scenarios about women who are not positioned as well as Erica was to explore her post-marriage life and psyche. That having been said, you’re not alone in your dismissal of the film’s messages on the basis of Erica’s privilege: Todd Gitlin and Carol S. Wolman wrote in the Autumn 1978 publication of Film Quarterly (unfortunately, only the first few paragraphs can be read without going over to JSTOR, which I can no longer access) that An Unmarried Woman “wants to capitalize on feminism” but “is more a cartoon about the condition of life among the Manhattan chic,” and that Mazursky’s films are “something of a melange of New Yorker stories and New Yorker ads” with this one in particular having “the familiarity of a string of cliches” (ouch). And this is coming from a contemporary criticism, not one that looks back at the film after decades. I certainly can’t dismiss your criticism (and I agree with you about much of it), but that didn’t stymie my appreciation.

As far as the scenes that struck me as particularly naturalistic, we’ve already noted the “Baby I’m Amazed” scene and the final scene in which Erica is forced to carry the large painting across New York, but the one that was most noted by the friend who saw the film with me last summer was the skating scene at Rockefeller center, a lovely bit of dialogue-free exploration of Erica’s newfound freedom. On a darker note, the scene in which Erica’s (much older) physician immediately attempts to flirt with her so soon after her divorce reflects an ugly truth about men in general and especially about men in a position of authority and who approach women at their most vulnerable (in this case, as both a recent divorcee and as his patient), and the scene in which Erica fends off the advances of one of her first dates in the back of a cab. There’s a naturalness to both these scenes that reveal something ugly about human nature, in contrast to the veritable incandescence of Erica in the scenes in which she is flying free, as when she dances or skates. The best, however, is in the moment she gathers up the reminders of her ex-husband and piles it all in one place, seeing for the first time how little he has truly left behind while also observing how dense his presence is: there’s not much there, but it weighs a lot.

Brandon, even in a film with such an intense focus on a singular character, it’s unusual for a movie to have its protagonist present in every single scene, as is the case here with Clayburgh. Can you think of any other films that are so tightly focused on a single character? Do they work as well as this one does, or not? Would this film have been any stronger if, for instance, there were scenes in which she was absent, or would that have weakened the overall movie?

Brandon: Because I very recently watched all of her feature films, Josephine Decker’s work is what most immediately comes to mind. In Madeline’s Madeline, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, and Butter on the Latch, Decker also sinks her audience into the life & psyche of a single protagonist (typically a young woman on the verge of mental collapse), and wastes very little energy on the concerns of the world at large. The difference there is that Decker’s aggressively immersive filmmaking style is an overwhelming sensory experience where we filter the world outside the protagonist’s head through their own warped, disjointed interpretation of reality. Mazurksy’s approach here is more detached & academic. We exclusively follow Erica around New York City as she navigates her new post-divorce reality, but when her own inner thoughts & emotions are reluctantly dragged out of her by her therapist they’re less distinctively warped or personal. They’re more indicative of societal pressures on women in general than they are specific to one woman’s mind. I don’t think that difference in approaches indicates that either Decker or Mazursky are superior or inferior to each other as filmmakers. I think they’re just working at different goals (and in different eras). Decker’s arthouse sensory immersion style allows the audience to peer in on the very peculiar, singular POV of a character on the fringe, while Mazursky uses Erica as an indicative archetype of where The Modern Woman at large was in the late 1970s.

To that end, if Mazursky were to open this movie up to include other characters’ inner lives, the choice of where to expand is obvious. The other women in Erica’s life are all rich, nuanced characters despite their presence depending on her own narrative. Her daughter’s declaration that she will never marry because it’s a bum deal; her therapist’s quietly perceptive challenges to her self-policed desires; her friends’ own struggles with mental health, alcoholism, and casual sex (especially in the arc involving Gilmore Girls‘s Kelly Bishop): all the women in Erica’s life have scene-stealing moments that suggest the film could’ve been more of an ensemble-cast narrative while having just as much to say about the state of The Woman in late-70s NYC. That’s a massive topic to cover in under two hours, though, so the film was probably better off as a concise, cohesive product by sticking to just one character’s POV and allowing the other women to develop sharply in the periphery. Expanding on their personae without losing sight of Erica’s journey would require seasons-long efforts of TV-style writing, as in the aforementioned Manhattanite programs Mad Men & Sex in the City that this movie occasionally recalls.

Part of the reason it’s so frustrating that An Unmarried Woman wastes time detailing Erica’s relationships with the men in her life is because they aren’t nearly as richly fleshed out as the women around her, who all could have used more screentime. From her skirt-chasing husband to the taxi cab groper to the numskull artists who hit on her at the gallery, the men in Erica’s life are cartoonishly simple buffoons. The most buffoonish of them all, a knuckle-dragging sculptor named Charlie, even boils down his life philosophy to the simple explanation, “There’s work, there’s food, and there’s sex. Nothing more.” Britnee, do you think An Unmarried Woman was purposefully trying to say something about the animalistic simplicity of men versus the emotional nuance of women in these characterizations or was that an accidental result of this being a film primarily about women? Were the men in Erica’s life ever as interesting to you as the women or were they just wasting valuable space?

Britnee: The women in Erica’s life were much more interesting than the men, but I think the men in the film were purposefully meant to be terrible. Mazursky was trying to show that it’s not so easy for newly single, straight women to jump into a new relationship with a decent man. Even in this day and age, I all too often hear people give the same advice to female divorcees: “You’ll find someone before you know it!” The truth is that not every man is a gem, and women have to deal with sleazy douchebags far too often. I can’t help but think of Charlie when I say “sleazy douchebag.” At the beginning, he seems to be a harmless pain in the ass that likes to eat sandwiches in art galleries. After Erica has a one night stand with him, he insults her in front of a huge group of people at a party because he’s jealous of her more serious relationship with Saul. Charlie obviously sucked, but his character was necessary to show the ugly side of being “single and ready to mingle.”

Speaking of men in Erica’s life, I didn’t really like Saul. He wasn’t a monster or anything like that, but he was so dull (and his paintings were terrible). I wish Erica’s first boyfriend post-divorce would have had more personality. CC, how did you feel about Saul? Would this movie have been better if his character was a little more interesting?

CC: Ugh, better not call Saul, am I right? But no, seriously, Saul was terrible. The bar of human decently was set so low for the men of this film and he barely squeaked by. All he had to do was not dump her for a younger woman & immediately crawl back (check), not call her a whore in a room full of people including her new boyfriend (check), and not attempt to assault her in a cab (check). He still manages to throw a temper tantrum, smashes a mug on purpose, and passive aggressively gifts Erica an unwieldy painting he assumes she will not be able to transport on her own as punishment. His art was as mediocre as his personality. I hope Erica dumps him the following winter, outside in front of her brownstone, and after she’s left to go back into the cozy refuge she’s created for herself a cab drives by and splashes frigid, NY garbage water on Saul.

Do I want Saul to be better? Do I wish Erica had met someone else that was more charming, kind, interesting, and talented? Honestly, not really. This film is about Erica’s transformation into an independent being and putting her back into a “perfect” relationship at the end would have shifted the message of the film: from, “Women should be happy, self-sufficient people who don’t need another person to give them meaning” to “If you work hard and become a better version of yourself, you’ll find your Mr. Right in no time.” A film that’s attempting to portray the realities faced by divorcees of a specific demographic in a specific time period should not try to shift style and end as a romantic comedy. Romantic comedies aren’t realistic, and by the end of this film Erica no longer needed that type of happy ending.

Lagniappe

Boomer: I’ll also chime in here to note that my dissatisfaction with Erica ending up in a relationship may have more to do with my dislike for Saul than my disinterest in her having a relationship at all.

Brandon: I absolutely love the opening scene to this movie. We enter Manhattan through a sweeping, saxophone-heavy 70s schmaltz style that promises a very calm, adult picture about serious, mature topics. Then, on a couple’s morning jog, Erica’s husband steps in a pile of dogshit and starts raving like a lunatic, recalling Mink Stole’s hateful rants at the top of Desperate Living. He exclaims, “This city’s turning into one big pile of dogshit!,” a hilarious opening note of seething anger that completely (and intentionally) undercuts the measured, mature credits sequence that precedes it. It’s a choice that smartly assures the audience the following film will not be humorless, despite the seriousness of its subject.

Britnee: I cannot shake the scene of Erica throwing up after finding out her husband is having an affair. I didn’t expect her to spew out vomit on screen. It was just so brutal.

CC: I really liked the metallic silver wallpaper in the bathroom of Erica’s home with her husband and I accidentally stumbled across a really similar print the other day:

Upcoming Movies of the Month
March: CC presents Love Me If You Dare (2003)
April: Brandon presents Local Legends (2012)
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)

-The Swampflix Crew

Nancy (2018)

Andrea Riseborough was one of last year’s clear standouts as a breakthrough performer, although she’s been steadily working for years. Between her haunting presence as the titular role in Mandy and her farcical incredulousness in The Death of Stalin (combined with my personal years-late chance viewings of Oblivion & Never Let Me Go), I feel like I had been bowled over by her talent from several drastically different directions, yet had very little grasp on who she is in the real world. Riseborough is a kind of personae chameleon, always impressive but rarely recognizable in her wildly varied roles & costumes. It was wonderful, then, to find a movie where she was front & center as the POV-commanding protagonist. Mandy may be the higher profile work for the still-rising actor, but she isn’t as spotlighted in the narrative as the title might imply. In Nancy, however, we never lose sight of Riseborough’s titular character, who drifts along through a quiet personal crisis with a wide-eyed stare as the audience tags along in a similar stupor. It’s an excellent showcase for the shapeshifting actor – not only because of her uncharacteristically increased screen time, but also because Nancy herself is an unknowable, unrecognizable enigma.

Nancy is a depressive pathological liar who lives at home as a caretaker for her disabled, verbally abusive mother. We’re introduced to her as she drifts between low-level temp jobs & seemingly meaningless grifts – faking pregnancies, Photoshopping fictional vacations to North Korea, and blogging under imaginary personae. These aren’t money-hungry con jobs either (even though she could really use the money). They came across as desperately hollow attempts to form human connections with strangers, whether or not they’re hinged on complete fabrications. The central conflict of the film is in the audience’s unease with how much we’re willing to believe her motivations & her reliability as a POV anchor. The biggest meaningless grift of her life falls in her lap as she’s watching late-night TV news and a little girl who’s been missing for 30 years is aged through computer simulation to look exactly like her. Shocked, Nancy contacts the missing girl’s parents and suggests that she might be their daughter, recounting half-remembered stories of being abducted as a child. We have no idea whether to believe Nancy, whether she believes herself, or whether her presence in the still-grieving couples’ home is a positive or negative impact. Nancy mostly remains an unrecognizable, haunted-looking enigma to us – the perfect Andrea Riseborough role.

In most ways, Nancy offers little more than what you’d expect from a low-budget film festival release. Ann Down, Steve Buscemi, and John Leguizamo all put in grounded, well-considered performances in the exact kind of supporting roles that attract notable actors to these kinds of projects. Peter Raeburn (who frequently collaborates with Jonathan Glazer) fortifies the atmosphere with a chilling, otherworldly score that underlines Nancy’s permanently lost stasis with a distinct sense of menace. The plot has some strong Lifetime Original Movie energy to it, but it’s no more outlandish or sensational than real-life accounts like Three Identical Strangers. The film’s only shortcoming in quality control is the state of Riseborough’s wig, which looks as if it might spin like a helicopter blade and fly the fuck away at any second. Riseborough has no trouble putting in an excellent performance despite her terrible wig, however, singlehandedly elevating the material from standard indie film fodder to puzzling character study. By the end of Nancy I’m not sure I got any more insight into who Riseborough or Nancy are as people, but I did find their mysterious magnetism to be perfectly matched in a way that made for a great movie regardless.

-Brandon Ledet

The Road Movie (2018)

Thanks to formatting outliers like prestige VOD releases, visual albums, and one-off miniseries, there’s been a lot of recent discussion about what is & what is not Cinema. The Oscilloscope-distributed documentary The Road Movie is a form-breaking bombthrower in the context of that discussion. Although it’s a feature-length document of real-life events, the film has much more in common with YouTube compilation videos, Faces of Death bootlegs, and World’s Wildest Police Chase television specials than it does with proper documentary cinema. Presented without narration or context, The Road Movie is a curated highlight reel of Russian dash cam footage, which is infamous for providing some of the internet’s wildest, most panic-inducing snapshots of real life. The Road Movie‘s assemblage of these clips is more matter-of-fact than artful, rarely slipping into curated montage when a lengthy, uninterrupted joy ride will do. Still, its raw footage presentation of surreal, hyperviolent imagery captured on Russian roadways in the 2010s feels more alive & excitingly unpredictable than what you’ll find in the typical cinematic documentary. It’s an excellent argument that the rigid definitions of what is & what is not cinema deserve to be torn down (or barreled through in a flaming 18-wheeler, your choice).

When discussing the insane, unreal footage caught on Russian dashboard cameras, it’s tempting to assume that, by extension, Russia is an insane, unreal place. It’s the same effect that Florida’s lax journalism & privacy laws have on the state’s cultural reputation, as they allow more news stories about petty crimes to leak into national headlines than other states do, making Floroda look like a post-Apocalyptic hellworld by comparison. In that way, Russia’s dash cam footage says less about how “insane” Russia is than it does about what you can capture when cameras are always rolling. The ubiquity of dashboard-mounted GoPros in Russia means that more of the country’s absurd, unbelievable road incidents happen to be documented for digital perpetuity. Much of The Road Movie‘s runtime is inane conversation from disembodied voices as cars drive around isolated, snow covered roads. Russian drivers are shown fiddling with GoPros, unsure how to properly attach them to their perches. They discuss the dash cams’ legendary online presence, fully aware of how their country is perceived because of them. They also occasionally get into accidents – wild, life-threatening incidents of automobile pandemonium that would never have been captured in the days of celluloid. The cheapness of digital photography had bestowed upon us a terrifying gift.

Of course, The Road Movie‘s main draw is going to be as a rubbernecker’s wet dream. Cars flip over, catch fire, spin out, and swerve through iced roads with total abandon of human control. Crazed drug addicts, wandering cattle, falling comets, and almost any other possible obstacle you can name invade the screen (and the roads) as simple commutes turn into unreal visions of Hell. If The Road Movie documents any one phenomenon in particular it’s not how “insane” Russia is; it’s what happens when the artifice of man-made infrastructure breaks down and driving an urban vehicle becomes a survivor’s trip through Nature at its most destructive. If there’s any question whether this dash cam compilation qualifies as proper cinema in its earliest, most conversational stretch, it’s wholly answered by the time cars are shown slowly drifting through the center of road-consuming wildfires, documenting the world’s phenomena you’d have to have a death wish to deliberately capture on camera. Thanks to these cameras’ increasing affordability, those phenomena are now open to be recorded in even the least respectable corner of documentary filmmaking: the YouTube clip; it’s a democratization of the tools of filmmaking that can only make for more wild, mesmerizing documents of real-life phenomena just like it. Like with most formal challenges to the boundaries of modern cinema, my only real complaint about The Road Movie is that I didn’t have a chance to see it projected on the big screen. It is totally cinema and also a total nightmare.

-Brandon Ledet

Fyre Fraud (2019)

Right out of the gate, Fyre Fraud has a few marks against it. Technically premiering a few days before Fyre on Netflix, there are some issues that aren’t fair to hold against it (for instance, that it’s trapped on the currently inferior platform, although one doesn’t have to read tea leaves to know that Netflix’s shrinking catalog and decreasing quality control could render this statement out of date any day now) and some that definitely are (Fyre never stoops so low that it uses stock footage to fill time in voiceover, or worse, playing out an entire scene from an episode of Family Guy as a kind of shorthand to demonstrate that, hey, sometimes lawyers are real jerks). But there are marks in its favor as well, most notably that it features an interview with Fyre founder and con man Billy McFarland, alongside its indictment not only of McFarland but larger “influencer” culture (again, gag) and makes larger statements against the kind of unethical behavior (I’d say “antics” but don’t want to minimize the impact) in which McFarland et al engaged, and how that can track to larger political movements.

To say that Fyre Fraud is constructed around its interview with McFarland isn’t quite accurate. Whereas Fyre had a narrative throughline that was largely chronological and structured its thesis around demonstrating that McFarland and company were not only woefully unprepared but inextricably crooked, Fyre Fraud is a bit more unfocused; it explicitly takes aim not only at the festival’s creators but its attendees (to a greater extent than Netflix’s film) and the larger sociocultural movements that have, as a side effect, opened up new areas of anxiety and taught us all new ways to compare our normal lives against the cultivated and curated fantasy lives of the nouvea célébrité and find ourselves lacking. As a text, it reads more like a collegiate essay in comparison to Fyre‘s performatively journalistic approach, a reach for relevance that exceeds the grasp of its vocabulary, a fact that is underlined by its aforementioned stock footage use; as a result, it would be easy to dismiss Fyre Fraud in comparison, but this would be a mistake, as it functions as a perfect companion piece to Fyre.

There’s duplication of content between both docs, as you would expect. In its early minutes, Fyre features blurry footage from a local news broadcast about McFarland’s previous failure Magnises, and from which the “black card for millennials” verbiage is drawn. The resolution of this footage was so low that I assumed it was from a webcast, but Fyre Fraud has this same footage in crystal clarity. The video of Fyre Festival attendees walking out onto the dark gravel beach to find hundreds of geodesic tents, video which perfectly encapsulates the moment when panic started to grow as they begin sprinting to claim a tent to call their own, also appears in both. But what Fyre Fraud infamously has that Fyre didn’t is an interview with McFarland himself. As NPR (and others) point out, this is ethically dubious given that McFarland demanded payment for his appearance, and Hulu apparently obliged, although no accurate figure has yet been provided. However, as Hulu noted in their own documentary, it is equally morally questionable that Jerry Media, who were involved with the marketing stunts for Fyre Festival and are potentially culpable for their participation in the scam of it all (admitting on camera in Fyre that, at the request of McFarland and Fyre CMO Grant Margolin, they deleted comments on social media posts that demanded response to issues of lack of facilities, payment issues, and other concerns), were producers on Netflix’s documentary. There are even mirrors and echoes between the two that aren’t exact but which reflect the way that all of these individual actions add up to a larger whole: Fyre saw Justin Liao extolling the virtues of destroying adjacent property to forestall having neighbors (despite his insincere, mealymouthed apologies across social media, which you can seek out if you so desire), but he manages to be outdone by “influencer” Alyssa Lynch, who may be one of the worst human beings on the planet in addition to being one of the few people who got the kind of living accommodations that they were promised. We see her self-shot phone video of her describing economy class as if she were asked to sit in steerage on a doomed ocean liner (also in Fyre) followed by her disingenuously saying that she felt “really bad” for those who ended up in tents–followed by an immediate cut to her gleefully dancing around her villa. Meanwhile, fellow festival goers were wandering around incomplete stages and unopened transport trucks.

Like Fyre, there’s much mirth to be had at the expense of all those involved (other than the unpaid laborers, both at home and abroad). Many of the attendees recall being plied with copious amounts of liquor, and we also see this on screen. One interviewee remembers stacks of unused lumber alongside pallets of alcohol, which made me chuckle. Obviously, there was a mass of spirits; alcohol usually doesn’t require any assembly, and if it does, the most complicated step is muddling. Another interviewee, when discussing McFarland’s ticketing scam that he attempted to run while released on bail, made the comment that “When you’re out on bail, that’s the time when you should be doing the least amount of crime,” which is hilarious in and of itself, but may have been an insight that McFarland needed, although it came too late. Oren Aks, a former Jerry Media employee who opened up about his experience on the inside of the media circus and criticized the company’s decision to deflect criticism, pointedly notes that the tent area at the festival was situated directly next to a 20-30 foot drop into a shallow pool of water: “They didn’t even think, ‘We need a fence’,” he says. Once you stop giggling at the ineptitude, you realize how lucky McFarland et al are to be facing jail time only fraud and not wrongful death or criminal negligence charges. And though no story shared by any participant in this documentary can top the revelation of what McFarland asked Andy King to do (as revealed in Fyre; if you’ve managed to miss the memes, I won’t be the one to spoil it for you), one of the participants here notes that there was a bulleted list of solutions (as we know, “[they’re] not a problems-focused group, [they’re] a solutions-oriented group”) that included “robbing customs,” which is about as absurd a thing as you can imagine, next to one of the blandly attractive male influencers recounting the events of the festival and ending his statement with “#rescuemission” and a frat boy chortle.

While watching Fyre with a group of friends, there was a discussion of McFarland and who he might really be, as we only see him in archival footage. A few of them noted that his actions, vacant stares, and frequent adherence to repetitive language made him seem like someone who might be on the autism spectrum; in discussion, I didn’t find this evidence particularly convincing or compelling I saw “Billy” as having an innate understanding of the intersection between the need for personal validation through online visibility and the psychosocial need for a space that reinforces ingroup/outgroup mentality along the lines of wealth and prestige. His apparent vacuousness was merely the cocktail that resulted from mixing his own internal urges for validation with his cunning ability to take advantage of this hunger in others. With Fyre Fraud, my roommate and I were again in conflict over our interpretations of McFarland (it should be noted that neither of us is really trained for this kind of diagnosis; my MA is in rhetoric and composition and he is a PhD candidate in pure mathematics, so in the interest of full disclosure I should note that our armchair psychoanalysis is utterly unscientific and bound by our independent horizons of knowledge and experience). We each saw confirmation of our hypotheses regarding McFarland’s behavior on display in McFarland’s silences and inability to properly respond to straightforward questions about his business practices. My roommate saw evidence of spectrum behavior: poor eye contact and a lack of facial expression, speaking with an abnormal rhythm, repetition of words and phrases verbatim without indication of understanding, failure to express emotion and apparent unawareness of others’ feelings, and even difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues. On the other hand, I saw a practiced deflection and proof of the codified narcissistic sociopathy of privilege: McFarland was controlling, disingenuous, dishonest, possessed of an exaggeratedly positive self-image and a sense of entitlement, manipulative, pathological lying (when confronted in a discrepancy, he just clams up like a child caught in a lie and lets the silence hang in the air as if waiting for the interviewer to forget they had asked anything), lack of remorse or shame (Michael Swaigen, the cinematographer who shot the initial promotional video, tells a story about Billy, “removed from it all by many layers of glass,” asking him to help him shoot a documentary that would reframe him as a recovering victim), and a need for stimulation (as evidenced not only in his methodology but also the anecdote from a Fyre planner about McFarland storming out of a business meeting in which the impossibility of their task was being discussed so that he could hop onto an ATV and speeding up and down the beach before returning and resuming).

One of the first things that we learn about McFarland comes in the form of a letter from his mother, read by a text-to-speech program, in which she extols young Billy’s entrepreneurship and early academic success. This is such a small moment, but it speaks volumes: when writing about her indicted criminal son, Mrs. McFarland talks about what a “special boy” he was, which is not unusual in and of itself as this is something that all parents do, but the fact that her apparent go-to piece of evidence to demonstrate his exceptionalism is how quickly he could complete his multiplication tables speaks to a certain kind of parental pathology that tells us a lot about the environment that created (and creates) Billy McFarlands. It really only gets worse from there, as young Billy’s first “business” was utterly different from what most of us had to for pocket cash: no manual labor like mowing lawns or raking leaves, no early demonstrations of responsibility like babysitting or fundraising; instead, he inserted himself as a middleman in some kind of crayon racket as when he was seven or eight. The devil really is in the details here: his first customer/victim was a girl he had a crush on, and all he did was help her with a broken crayon. So not only did he not respond the way that most children are socialized to in the U.S. (i.e., sharing), his first instinct when confronted with the opportunity to help someone in whom he had an emotional investment was to take advantage of her. Is that nature? Is that nurture? Either way, it’s fucked up and reveals a lot about the man who would grow up to perpetrate one of the most unsubtle but effective con jobs of the decade marketing what one participant called a “perfect generic fantasia” that, as another notes, “went into breach [of contract] on day one.”

One of the oddest things that crops up over and over again were the number of people who describe McFarland as charismatic, magnetic, handsome, attractive, or some combination of the above. He’s certainly not unattractive but it boggles the mind that so many people would buy into his brand of deception, both of others and, ultimately, of himself. Perhaps Fyre Fraud‘s most damning screed is not merely against Billy, but against the society that creates and encourages people like him. It’s not just what one talking head called a “tsunami of schadenfreude” that we can mock and laugh at, until you hear the influencers attempt to justify their shallow existence by talking about the importance of spreading their ideals. When asked what these ideals are, the best one can come up with is “Um … positivity. And, um … Yeah.” It’s impossible to take them seriously, and yet people do. Kendall Jenner apparently received a quarter of a million dollars just for posting the orange square that was used for Fyre’s promotional material to her Instagram. If that doesn’t make you want to burn down everything that humanity has built and salt the earth, I don’t know what will. I recently saw a post online (that I wish I could find again) which perfectly encapsulates my personal viewpoint on this: “everything I ever learned about the Kardashians I did so against my will.” It’s not 100% accurate (no one ever forced me to watch The Soup, I did that of my own free will and would do it again, every week until I die, if E! gave me the opportunity), and perhaps I’ve turned into a curmudgeonly old man against my will and without realizing it. I was certainly a part of the first generation of kids on whom this media saturation was foisted; I can still hear the Disney announcer’s voice saying “and featuring Brink‘s Erik von Detten!” in my dreams. I’ve also fallen into a spiral in dark times when looking at someone else’s social media and comparing my life to this cherry-picked, filtered snapshot of the existence of someone else, but I always managed to drag myself back with the realization that my independent thought was more important and that it was self-defeating to envy the lives of people that, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t want to be. But not everyone has those same mental defenses, especially when an online presence and the accompanying glut of monetized “self”-expression has been a part of their lives from birth. It’s a house of cards that deserves mockery, but also needs to be demolished. Otherwise we might end up with a Billy McFarland in the White House one day. Oh, wait. Shit.

Ultimately, Fyre Fraud‘s most chilling lesson comes not from anything explicit in the text, but in how it so thoroughly depicts the inherent dangers of contemporary capitalism, in which money is moved from here to there and back again as investors throw funding at one project and then another, fully formed companies appearing from the ether like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus and absorbing mountains of cashless capital from venture capitalists and employing dozens or hundreds or thousands of people under the promise of future compensation that often never materializes. Despite spending much of its runtime mocking a subset of “millennials,” Fyre Fraud fails to acknowledge that trends away from employment in fields of manual labor and toward what we loosely call “knowledge work,” and that this is a generational movement as much as it is a cultural shift. Even our language is having a difficult time keeping up: when searching for the correct terminology for the opposite of manual labor, lists of antonyms were largely words with negative connotations–laziness, indolence, sedentariness. (I won’t get into the way that language influences thought since this really isn’t the place to dig deep into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but it bears mentioning that this linguistic antipathy toward work that yields less tangible results is probably not a separate phenomenon from intergenerational employment-oriented hostility.) That the Bahamanian laborers went unpaid despite the extensive labor they contributed to Fyre Festival, coupled with the way that Fyre Fraud makes explicit the fact that McFarland was constantly seeking money from his next venture to pay off his previous one in an endless 21st Century Ponzi ouroboros, reflects the terrifying reality that all our currency is fiat and we live our lives perched on a veeeeery thin membrane of shared belief in hypothetical capital that barely covers a deep, dark abyss. And that abyss just gets deeper and darker all the way down, sped along by the exultation of celebrity culture and rampant, unchecked greed; that the two so often function as two extensions of the same ideology, coupled with the current American political climate’s demonstration of how effective those two evils can be when they walk hand in hand, sent a shiver of existential dread down my spine, and it should scare you, too.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 1/31/19 – 2/6/19

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week, including a few Oscar contenders.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Shoplifters Hirokazu Kore-eda continues the themes of makeshift families struggling to survive in the bowels of poverty that he explored in previous works like the stunning drama Nobody Knows. Awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes and recently nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, this film is an event, albeit an emotionally traumatic one. Only playing at The Broad Theater.

Burning A South Korean mystery drama about a twisty love triangle, starring Steven Yeun at peak sexiness. Widely considered by pro critics to be one of the year’s more glaring Oscar snubs and playing only at Zeitgeist, who are currently raising funds to move to a more traditional theater space.

Serenity A trashy, irresponsible thriller about domestic abuse & brutish fishermen that boasts a talented cast who all should have known better. So why am I recommending it? It apparently has the most ludicrous third act twist of all time, a shocking reveal that pushes it into so-bad-it’s-amazing territory. Read the spoiler here yourself if you need to be convinced.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

Glass M. Night Shyamalan continues the off-kilter superhero mythology he established in Unbreakable & Split (is that still considered a spoiler?) in a third, already critically divisive chapter. Split was one of Swampflix’s favorite films of 2017 and Shyamalan was already on a creative upswing with The Visit before that, so we we’re totally on board with his latest era of mid-budget Blumhouse productions.

The Favourite Yorgos Lanthimos follows up the stubbornly obscure The Killing of a Sacred Deer with his most accessible feature yet: a queer, darkly funny costume drama about a three-way power struggle between increasingly volatile women (Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz). It’s both a gorgeous laugh riot and a pitch-black howl of unending cruelty & despair. Fun!

Can You Ever Forgive Me? An impressive balancing act of admiring & sympathizing with a character while not letting them off the hook for being a difficult asshole. Much more satisfying, nuanced, and darkly comic than the early ads that sold it as an Oscar Season Biopic made it appear, which is what I should have known to expect from the director of The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

-Brandon Ledet

Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened (2019)

Not since Queen of Versailles have I taken so much delight in watching rich people having a hard time. Watching a bunch of “influencers” (gag Alice Sheldon tried to warn us and we just didn’t listen) who were willing and able to drop more than a middle class person’s annual salary just for the opportunity to party with models and Blink 182 forced to retrieve their luggage from huge trucks and rush in a panicked herd to try and claim disaster tents made me laugh for five minutes straight.

Ok, let’s back up. Fyre Festival was the brainchild of Billy McFarland, a twentysomething college dropout from an affluent unincorporated neighborhood in New Jersey who managed to accidentally pull off the greatest catalyst of schadenfreude of the new millennium through nothing other than sheer self-delusion.

Wait, let’s try again.

Ok. For those of you who missed the media blitz in 2017 and the follow up descriptions that accompanied the release of this documentary and its Hulu-hosted competitor, Fyre Festival was a planned luxury music festival to be held in late spring 2017 in the Bahamas, to promote the Fyre booking app, which was intended to function like Tinder or Uber for events and performers. So, if you were the kind of parent whose child might appear on My Super Sweet 16 and wanted to have Ja Rule or Kendall Jenner or Post Malone perform (that is, a parent who is obscenely wealthy and criminally negligent), Fyre would help you do that, and the world would get a little darker and more dreary. Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Festival that Never Happened, traces the beginning of the festival and the app back to its creator, Billy McFarland, and exposes McFarland and his cronies as the pathologically nouveau riche trendchasers that they are.

As far as this documentary is concerned, McFarland’s story begins with his creation of Magnises, identified in news archival footage in the film as “the black card for millennials” (and if you’re already sick of hearing the word “millennial” before your viewing, you should turn back now), a proxy credit card made of sheet metal that could be paired to another card and allow young go-getters to mimic their idols: money magnates with their black and platinum Amexes. This is actually the perfect place to start with the discussion of what went wrong with Fyre Festival, as it gets to the core of what allowed a group of inexperienced goofballs to defraud a willing (and deserving) vapid, wealthy public: image, artifice, performance, and prestige. Magnises’s Twitter account, which hasn’t posted anything since March 2017, boasts this description: “The community for the socially and professionally adventurous.” Essentially, it was a private club that, for $250 a year, gave members not only a “Just Like Daddy’s!” metal credit card and access to a work/playspace loft that also hosted private events. Per Forbes, “Members would gain entry to exclusive celebrity events, a concierge service to score hard-to-get concert tickets and restaurant reservations and access to a swanky, shared hangout pad. They’d also get to meet up with other wealthy young folk who like to party: entrepreneurs, businesspeople and entertainers.” So, you know, a cesspool of young money and unearned self-congratulation; I don’t think that you’ll be shocked to learn that the photos from these events are full of white faces.

From there, the documentary explores the friendship (?) between McFarland and Ja Rule, who the younger man met via Magnises events. McFarland came up with the idea for the Fyre app with Ja Rule, and the two of them leapt at the idea of using a music festival to promote the app. From the moment of inception, virtually everyone involved with the festival comes off as, if you’ll pardon my lapse into common speech, a supreme fucking douchenozzle. There’s McFarland, of course, who seems like a rich kid who just wanted to party every day of his life and got in way over his head and decided to dig further rather than admit his mistakes and come clean. There’s also the preposterously named Mdavid Low, Fyre’s Creative Director, whose Twitter laudably contains much anti-Trump, pro-Net Neutrality, pro-immigration rhetoric mixed in with the same kind of shallow “get shit done” motivational images that your former high school dudebro bully posts on his Facebook (example). There’s Samuel Krost, a twenty-three year old who seems to have somehow gotten involved because of a prior relationship with Selena Gomez and friendship with model Gigi Hadid, one of the models who was ultimately complicit in the misrepresentation of Fyre Festival on social media; his LinkedIn profile bears no mention of his involvement in the Fyre debacle, which seems both wise and deceptive. There’s Andy King, the head honcho of event production company Inward Point, a middle-aged businessman who invested time and energy into Fyre based on his belief that McFarland was a savvy businessman; he also has the best story in the entire doc, degrading though the memory may be. There’s Marc Weinstein, a music festival alum who aims to paint himself as a sympathetic whistle-blower but doesn’t quite hit the mark. There’s Grant Margolin, the Chief Marketing Officer of Fyre, who, aside from Billy, comes across as the most delusional person on the entire island. More than once, the doc shows Grant with a smartphone in each hand trying desperately to coordinate an event that was out of control from the word “go,” as his colleagues and co-workers chuckle while reminiscing about how woefully unprepared Margolin was for this kind of responsibility, painting him as McFarland’s toad. You almost feel sorry for him  a short, average looking dude surrounded by beautiful models, suitbros with expensive personal trainers, and even McFarland, who’s handsome in an I’ve-had-a-few-drinks-so-sure-I’ll-go-home-with-you kind of way, until you see the manic energy that he brings to every action and imagine how exhausting it must have been to work alongside him; there’s a scene where he’s trying to organize a bonfire for the promotional video shoot where he uses the word “big” eleven times in a row to describe what’s needed. And then there’s Ja Rule himself, acting as the imp who pushes McFarland to ludicrous extremes of reckless spending and gratuitous excess, as best expressed in his ridiculous toast to the crew: “To living like movie stars, partying like rock stars, and fucking like porn stars.” It’s a perfect storm of booze-fueled toxic immaturity coupled with the business acumen of childhood overachievers who sold the most wrapping paper at the fundraiser and now think they’re too big to fail.

McFarland, Ja Rule, and Margolin are ghosts in this documentary, appearing only in archival footage, of which there is a stunning wealth of material to supplement the talking heads provided by Weinstein, Krost, Low, and others. It’s never explicit in the text, but Fyre acts as a stunning indictment of what mainstream media likes to (inaccurately) call “millennial naivete” and (inarticulately) call “FOMO” by taking aim not only at McFarland and his cronies but also demonstrating how the need to obsessively self-document elements of daily life for the performative artifice of celebrity in exchange for the temporary but ultimately fleeting satisfaction of emoji reacts and comments from followers/subscribers. Some of the most fascinating parts of Fyre come not from the delineation of how the event was doomed to failure but from the completely shallow lack of self-reflection exhibited by the attendees of the festival when detailing their experiences, which for most of these privileged goons will be the most difficult experience of their charmed lives. Hulu’s documentary, Fyre Fraud, features a wider range of these than Fyre (stay tuned), but you’ll find yourself deeply hating almost every person who appears on screen. There’s Mark Crawford (who appears in this film exactly as he does in his LinkedIn profile, shitty haircut and all), who recounts first hearing about the festival and how he and his bros started hitting the gym in preparation for hanging out with models on Pablo Escobar’s private island (note that the promotional video was shot on Norman’s Cay, which was not the ultimate site of Fyre, nor did it go over well with the living family members of people who were killed as part of Escobar’s drug empire). There’s Justin Liao, a cryptocurrency dude who comes across as a stone cold sociopath as he smiles while recounting the fact that he and his buddies ransacked the tents next to theirs and intentionally made them even more uninhabitable on the first night so that they would not have neighbors, intercut with footage he shot himself using that most aggressively absurd of instruments, a selfie stick. Also using a selfie stick is James Ohliger of Jerry Media who, alongside Jerry Media CEO Mick Purzycki, is one of the more visually appealing participants, but other than their interviews all of the footage of them comes from self-shot phone video that is so saturated with unsubtle marketing language and envy-baiting rhetoric that it makes your libido curl up and die. Worst of all, nearly every single man in the documentary talks about the appeal of partying on a desert island with “hot,” “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” “breath-taking” women in a way that makes your brain short circuit because you’re not sure if you should vomit in disgust or just crawl out of your skin. These are certainly attractive ladies, but the undisguised piggishness that serves as the impetus to attend Fyre is so unexaminedly toxic and nakedly misogynistic, even from interviewees like Weinstein, whom I think we’re supposed to like, that it’s disgusting.

There are a few people involved for whom you can feel empathy, however. Shiyuan Deng, a developer for the Fyre app, expresses her frustration early and often, and you get a feel for what it must be like to be a cog in the development machine when the business for which you work ends up bursting their money bubble and leaving you out of a job and wasting all of the time that you put into coding and testing. Maryann Rolle, the proprietor of a restaurant that was intended to assist with the feeding of event attendees, ended up losing her entire nest egg as the result of hiring additional staff for Fyre-related business that failed to take form. The mononymous Columbo, a contractor working on the building of facilities for the festival, was unable to pay the construction staff he hired to assist him, many of whom worked for 20 hours a day in a desperate attempt to prepare for the festivities, and ended up having to flee the island to avoid reprisal from others. And then there’s Keith van der Linde, perhaps the only sane person involved with Fyre Fest, a pilot whose important questions (how are you going to move toilet facilities to an abandoned island?) were met with McFarland’s declarations that “We’re not a problems-focused group, we’re a solutions-oriented group,” which is (a) exactly the kind of startup wishy-washy language you would expect from him, and (b) not the only time that one of the involved parties recited this bit of McFarland wisdom in response to legitimate issues that needed attention while McFarland was busy jet skiing and feeding wild pigs. Notably, other than Keith, the laborers and unpaid workers were all people of color, implicitly noting the stratification of labor in the worlds of Fyre and Magnesis.

Overall, this is a pretty slick documentary, although the talking head segments notably look less professional/more VH1’s I Love the… than similar interviews in the Hulu doc, but it’s not terribly detrimental. I know that there were some concerns about the involvement of Jerry Media, who were tasked with managing the social media elements of the festival, as producers on the film, but I’m not sure it was as much of a detraction as it could have been; either they were willing to present the worst sides of themselves by sharing their own self-congratulatory footage and failing to disguise their desire to “fuck like porn stars,” or they didn’t realize how this footage made them appear, so it’s a toss up there. If you have Netflix, check this one out. Also, for further reading, take a look at Rolling Stone‘s “What Fyre Fest Docs Reveal About Tech’s Cult of Positivity”, and also revel in how prescient this decade-old Onion News Network video was in regards to this generation’s need to obsessively self-record.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Escape Room (2019)

People like to joke about January being a toxic wasteland for cinematic releases, but for all practical purposes it might genuinely be my favorite cinematic month of the year. Not only is January a notorious dumping ground for Hollywood studios to unload cheap genre trash into wide release in a gloriously uninhibited free-for-all, it’s also the time of year when prestigious Oscar Hopefuls trickle down from NYC & LA to finally reach the American South. It’s a truly jarring overlap that allows for maniacally curated double features like Silence & Monster Trucks or Mom and Dad & Call Me By Your Name, the kind of high-brow/low-brow battleground I always crave at the cinema. Even as an enthusiastic defender of January genre trash, however, I was taken aback by the entertainment quality of this year’s earliest release of note the high-concept gimmick horror Escape Room. Escape Room is the ideal specimen of January trash, where all storytelling logic & meaningful character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, preposterous gimmick. My only regret is that I didn’t think to pair it with something prestigious, like Roma or If Beale Street Could Talk, even though that was totally doable thanks to the bonkers programming choices that always kick off the calendar year.

When stripped down to its essentials, Escape Room is the ideal version of Saw – with all of its nasty torture porn impulses & (most of) its nu metal soundtrack removed for optimal silliness. A group of money & adventure hungry strangers are lured to a high-end escape room with the promise of a $10,000 payout if they solve the puzzle therein. The exposition that introduces the escape room’s contestants (and, later, combatants) is smartly kept brief – reducing the film’s characters to broad archetypes who are instantly familiar, so no time is wasted. Once the boring business of telling a story with emotional stakes is swept away, they find themselves struggling for survival, both as a team & as opponents, in a series of preposterous death traps – escape rooms except for real. As they fight their way through creepy mannequins, oversized ovens, and monstrous doses of hallucinogens, a larger conspiracy about why they were chosen as participants and who, exactly, is pulling the levers behind the curtain emerges, but the effort amounts to even less than the half-assed motions towards character development & meaningful dialogue. This movie is entirely about in-the-moment cheap thrills, which it supplies in exponentially silly delirium as its escape room gimmicks escalate towards a near-global scale.

Besides keeping its character work to a bare minimum, Escape Room is smart in its acknowledgement of the dorkiness of its own premise. When a college student receives a Hellraiser puzzlebox invitation to the titular escape room, her roommate jokes “Have fun playing with your box over break.” Later, an uptight business prick endlessly razzes the escape room’s most enthusiastic participant for his nerdy obsession with escape rooms in general, essentially brushing him off as a virginal loser. There aren’t many other flashes of intelligence to be found in the picture, unless you’re easily impressed by casually tossed off references to Satre that have no actual significance to the tone or plot. The movie acknowledges that escape rooms are inherently dorky, rushes to pack one with broad caricatures anyway, and then puts its head down to power through the most absurd applications of its gimmick that it can conjure in just 100 minutes. You can squint your eyes looking for interesting choices in neon lighting, spooky synth music, or lavish production design, but you’d be fooling yourself for trying to pump this film up for being anything more than it is: cheap January genre trash with an all-in commitment to an attention-grabbing gimmick. It’s entirely satisfying for being just that and not pretending there’s a need for more.

-Brandon Ledet

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

There’s an incredible sequence in Spike Lee’s latest provocation, BlacKkKlansman, that fills the screen with the gorgeous, rapt faces of young black attendees of a Civil Rights rally as they listen to a Black Power speech in stunned, inspired awe. The actors are framed in a formalist, lyrical manner that more closely resembles the portraiture of fine art photography than the usual methods & tones of narrative filmmaking. If Beale Street Could Talk extends the fine art portraiture of that one sequence to establish the commanding ethos of its entire runtime. The most arresting, meaningful stretches of Barry Jenkins’s latest feature are composed entirely of contemplative, black faces staring down the barrel of the camera as the (Oscar-nominated) music swells to match the beauty & tragedy of their isolated portraits. It’s an unusual storytelling tool for cinema, outside maybe art installation videos running on loop in a modern art gallery, but it’s something Jenkins also employed to great effect in his previous feature, the Oscar-winning Moonlight. It’s something that feels even more unexpected here than in Moonlight, however, as If Beale Street Could Talk is initially grounded in a much less lyrical, more narratively-bound approach to cinematic storytelling. The portraits-in-motion open the film up to more adventurous, tonally intense modes of storytelling the film initially seems too reserved to explore, the same way BlacKkKlansman’s portraits are one of the first deviations that break it free from its own buddy cop comedy & blacksploitation-throwback genre groves. It’s through those portraits’ quiet beauty & deep sense of hurt that you first get a taste of just how poetic & formally challenging If Beale Street Could Talk is willing to be in time.

The trick to fully appreciating If Beale Street Could Talk‘s poetic lyricism is patience. Whereas Moonlight‘s triptych story structure & general dreamlike stupor immediately announces its value as an Art Film, this follow-up’s own revelation of its poetic nature is more gradual & delicate, like watching a flower bloom. Adapted from an unfinished James Baldwin novel, the film profiles two young lovers in 1970s Harlem whose lives are derailed by a racist justice system when one is imprisoned for a crime he could not have possibly committed. Pregnant at 19 and struggling to fund her would-be husband’s legal defense while he withers in jail, our centering protagonist Tish (KiKi Layne) finds moments of respite & determination in recounting how their young, blossoming love was left to rot on the vine thanks to the bitter, unjust anger of white police in their community. Her voiceover narration & the rigid flashback structure initially dress the film in the appearance of something much more familiar & well-behaved than what’s ultimately delivered. As the picture develops & the petals unfold, If Beale Street Could Talk reveals itself to be a strange, circular, eerily beautiful art piece just as adventurous as the more immediately arresting Moonlight. Characters speak with a weirdly mannered stage play dialogue that stays defiantly true to the literary source material despite its newfound medium. Jazz, sculpture, fashion, and poetry swirl in the foreground to construct a portrait of black Harlem at its most beautiful & alive, while a larger American menace (mainly racist cops & white landlords) creeps in to stomp out that romantic, creative spark. Most clearly and intensely, however, it’s the weighty effect of the close-up portraits of characters at their most emotional & vulnerable that really detaches the film from standard cinematic storytelling to something much more ambitious & transcendent, a far cry from the mannered drama it initially projects.

On just a basic level of aesthetic beauty, If Beale Street Could Talk is a soaring achievement. The fashion, music, and portraiture of its vision of 1970s Harlem are an overwhelming sensual experience that fully conveys the romance & heartbreak of its central couple in crisis. It’s initially difficult to gauge exactly how tonally & structurally ambitious the film will become, but by the time Tish is recounting America’s long history of Civil Rights abuses over real-life photographs from our not-too-distant past, it almost feels like an excerpt from the James Baldwin-penned essay film I Am Not Your Negro, a much more structurally radical work from start to end. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s merits as a boundary-testing art piece require patience & trust on the audience’s end, but it’s something Jenkins has earned from us (and then some) with his previous work. And while it may take a while for our eyes to adjust to the full magnitude of what he’s attempting to accomplish here, he fills the frame with plenty of rich, immediate pleasures (and heartbreak) to see us through while the full picture blooms.

-Brandon Ledet