The Void (2017)

I often tout the importance of practical effects in genre filmmaking, even claiming that it saves otherwise dire tongue-in-cheek properties like Zombeavers and Stung from total tedium. The recent horror fantasy picture The Void made me question that devotion to my practical-effects-above-all-else ethos. At every turn, The Void disappoints as a feature film & a genre exercise, except that its classic, tactile 80s gore is gorgeous to behold. I left the film positive overall due to its visual artistry, but just barely. I was so close to souring on The Void from a scene to scene basis that I almost wish I had watched the movie on mute while folding the laundry & making phone calls. It was only worthwhile for its imagery.

A sort of Stranger Things cocktail of 80s-specific genre nostalgia, The Void stages a John Carpenter-style single location thriller at a small town hospital and tortures its characters within by way of a Clive Barker-style threat of otherworldly hedonism. Every character bottled up in this promising, go-nowhere plot can be boiled down to a single defining characteristic: The Cop, The Pregnant One, The Old Timer, etc. Their flat, emotionless line delivery, snarky post-Joss Whedon riffing, and dispiriting lack of character depth made me expect a twist that never came where the hospital setting would be exposed as an artificial environment, like in Southbound or Cabin in the Woods. No such luck. The only thing that opens up their hospital-set imprisonment is that one of them is some kind of occultist figurehead with access to hideous, beastly mutations and a titular realm of otherworldly horrors. Instead of playing like a threat, though, this villain is the audience’s only salvation from a bland group of inhuman forgettables, more of whom survive than I would have liked.

As bland as The Void is to listen to & absorb on a narrative level, it sure is pretty to gander at. It’s got everything: the impossible to define monstrosities of The Thing, the triangle-reverent mysticism of Beyond the Black Rainbow, the wooded threat of The Witch, the heavy metal hellscapes of Thor 2: The Dark World, the home invasion brutes of You’re Next, the personal nightmare visualizations of Event Horizon (just without the pesky outer space setting classing up the joint), etc. Just about the only thing The Void doesn’t have is an original bone in its body, getting by mostly as a Frankenfilm composed entirely from pieces-parts of horror cinema past. I frequently didn’t care about that nostalgia-baiting nature of the imagery, though, especially when it came to the Cronenbergian creature designs & Hellraiser 2: Hellbound visage of exposed muscle & nerve. The Void may borrow heavily from seemingly every movie that came before it, the reference points that comprise its feature length mixtape aren’t the easiest visual feats to pull off and the film ultimately gets by on the strength of its grotesque visual artistry, even if just barely.

I usually don’t require much, if any, verisimilitude from my practical effects-heavy gore fests about mutant beasts & alternate dimensions, but something about The Void’s detachment from reality bothered me. When an in-over-his-head sheriff from a small industrial town sees someone he’s presumably known his entire life shave off their own face & melt into an alien-looking creature, I expect at least a little bit of an emotional freakout, if not a violent puking & fainting combo. Since The Void is disinterested in that kind of recognizable humanity, its best bet would’ve been a reason or explanation why everyone was acting so oddly, even if a comically outlandish, campy one. As is, the human interactions feel like dead space placeholders between the film’s admittedly righteous horror film homages to past practical effects monstrosities. These visual achievements were enough on their own to make the film feel at least worthwhile, but not nearly enough to elicit any kind of genuine enthusiasm. If the characters within the film don’t care all that much about having their ranks torn apart by mutated beasts, why should I?

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #30 of The Swampflix Podcast: Pamela Anderson’s Casablanca & Troop Beverly Hills (1989)

Welcome to Episode #30 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our thirtieth episode, Britnee makes Brandon watch the Shelley Long comedy Troop Beverly Hills (1989) for the first time. Also, Britnee & Brandon are joined by self-proclaimed history nerd Jordan Campo to discuss Barb Wire (1996), a dystopian biker chick riff on the classic World War II drama Casablanca (1942) starring former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson. Enjoy!

-Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 28: Casablanca (1942)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Casablanca (1942) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] Casablanca is about people who do the right thing.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “If we identify strongly with the characters in some movies, then it is no mystery that Casablanca is one of the most popular films ever made. It is about a man and a woman who are in love, and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. This is immensely appealing; the viewer is not only able to imagine winning the love of Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series.

One of the more challenging aspects of looking back to these titans of cinematic prestige in projects like this is trying to put yourself in the mindset of the people watching them when they were first released. That was a very rewarding experience for me when I recently watched Citizen Kane for the first time, which felt like returning to the birth place of modern cinema. Orson Welles’s classic was not immediately appreciated as a game-changer, however. It took years of reappraisal and televised re-runs for that film to earn its rightful place among the all-time greats. The equally lauded Casablanca, often touted to be the greatest film of all time, had a much easier path to success. In the film’s own advertising it was reported to be, “As big and timely a picture as you’ve ever seen! You can tell by the cast it’s important! Gripping! Big!” With names like Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, and Claude Raines among its ranks it’s difficult to dispute that claim. That’s especially true once you consider that Casablanca is about the ineffectiveness of remaining neutral in the face of Nazi fascism and that it was made just a few years after America had been pressured into joining the war in spite of its Isolationist philosophies. Unlike with Citizen Kane, however, time has only faded what initially must have felt special about Casablanca. It might entirely be a question of over-familiarity. The stars of the poster no longer shine as brightly as they did in the 1940s. The film’s iconic dialogue has been echoed, referenced, and parodied to dust. I’ve seen more films about Nazis & World War II than I’ve ever wanted to sit through in my entire life. What’s left, then, is a well-shot, well-acted drama that’s undeniably good, but difficult to contextualize as the best cinema has to offer.

Bogart stars as an American who prides himself in remaining Neutral in all things, especially politics. He’s warned early & often that “Isolationism is no longer a practical policy,” a truth that becomes increasingly apparent as the nightclub/gambling den he runs in North Africa begins to see a clash of new Nazi faces with his traditionally French clientele. Sometimes this clash is literalized by both sides fervently singing their national anthems over each other’s in proud defiance and drunken bravado. More often, it’s a backroom political game where enemies to the Nazis seek secretive travel to the still-neutral USA while the Nazis attempt to keep them still in Casablanca until it’s their time to be dealt with. Bogart’s leading man finds it impossible to stay out of this conflict once a familiar face from a past Parisian romance, played by Bergman, shows up at his nightclub seeking asylum & safe passage for herself & her political refugee husband. A song that represents their past romantic fling, “As Time Goes By,” repeats endlessly on the soundtrack, both diagetically​ and otherwise, as Bogart stresses over what to do with the only woman who’s ever broken his heart. In the meantime, the dialogue is peppered with repetition of the film’s own greatest hits of line deliveries: “Play it again, Sam,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine . . .” etc. The ending of Casablanca, set at an airport, is just as much part of the public consciousness​ as any one of those lines, but I’ll leave you to discover it for yourself if, like me, you’ve somehow avoided seeing the film until now. I will say, though, that it will not likely have the impact on those uninitiated now the same way it did in 1942, which is actually fairly indicative on how the movie plays in the 2010s as a whole.

I have a strange relationship with Casablanca’s formal aspects, especially its pacing. On the one hand, I appreciate its brevity in keeping its runtime at only 100min, where I feel like most Big! Important! movies from the studio era are about twice that length, complete with overture & intermission. The movie has an absurdly fast-talking, no-nonsense energy to it that makes for a very easy watch in a modern context, but I’m not sure it’s a pace that fits the material well. In a lot of ways Casablanca intentionally traps its characters in a transitive state, a sort of real life Limbo. From the French officer who prides himself on being free from Nazi control in his own North African safe haven to the nightclub owner who foolishly believes he can make it through the war without ever choosing sides, no character is leading a life that can last forever. They’re all effectively stuck in a rut, but the movie’s rapid pace does little to match or accentuate their stasis. In particular, the sweeping, drunken montage of Bergman & Bogart’s Parisian tryst has little time to make any impact for me outside the historical revelation that disco balls have existed since at least the 40s. The performances in the film are top notch and the cinematograpy & attention to lighting match them in pure elegance. Some of the most gorgeous shots I’ve seen on film in a long while are just the glimmering tears Casablanca captures as they well up in Ingrid Bergman’s eyes. I just didn’t feel as much of a personal impact from the film as a complete product despite those images. Some of it might be my boredom with war narratives and my over-familiarity with the film’s greatest hits dialogue. A lot of it has something to do with its breakneck pace that never slows down to allow a moment to truly linger. Casablanca continues to shine as a well-made film, a quality assessment I can easily see in its basic sense of craft. What I’m failing to see as a modern audience is why it remains an important one, which is a huge distinction to make. Maybe my feeble 2010s mind, with its Twitter notifications and Instant Steaming options, was too slow to keep up with its virtues as a cinematic feat, but I was unable to feel the awe for it I might have expected from a film that’s been hyped as The Greatest of All Time for the past seven decades, as unfair as that expectation might be.

Roger Ebert concludes his Great Movies review of Casablanca by saying “Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it.” Maybe I’ll be able to catch up with all of the love that’s been heaped on the film over the decades once I also become overly-familiar with the film on its own terms instead of being overly-familiar with the references it’s inspired elsewhere in pop culture. All I can report for now is that I liked it, but I was far from in love, even though I feel like I already know every piece that makes up its basic structure.  It’ll be a while before I ask Sam to play it again, but I’m not opposed to the idea.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: The Third Man (1949)

-Brandon Ledet

Low Level Crime and New York City Grime in Mean Streets (1973) & Mikey and Nicky (1976)

In our initial conversation about May’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Elaine May mafia pic Mikey and Nicky, Alli wrote about how the modern organized crime picture as a genre typically is associated with large ensemble casts, gigantic budgets, and sweeping themes about the Italian immigrant experience in modern America. That does ring especially true if you think of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, one of my all-time favorite films, as typifiers of the genre, as you likely should. Mikey and Nicky has much smaller concerns than either of those grand, ambitious works. Instead of attempting to capture the entirety of the mafia’s rise and fall in America, from poverty to opulence to back again, May’s film focuses on the small players who are but individual pixels in that much larger picture. The titular characters of her film, played by John Cassavetes & Peter Falk, are low level nobodies, merely necessary annoyances to their mob bosses, who treat them with open contempt. Staged over the course of a single night, the film’s minor drama reaches its lowest point when the two characters, despite essentially being each other’s only friends in the world, fight over a broken wrist watch in the dimly lit, visibly disgusting streets of pre-Giuliani NYC. There’s nothing grand or glamorous about the organized crime players in May’s film. They’re the lowlifes who’re left to fight over their mob bosses’ crumbs. That sentiment wasn’t entirely absent from Scorsese’s mafia pictures, however, even if his work in Goodfellas later represented Mikey and Nicky‘s aesthetic opposite. Three years before May’s film made it out of editing room post-production Hell, Scorsese had delivered a spiritually similar gangster film, one with common themes about small players fighting over pittances and with a common New York City grime.

I often dismiss Mean Streets as a kind of trial run for what Scorsese would later achieve in Goodfellas, but there’s a distinctly punk, lowkey charm to the film that makes it a rewarding watch in its own right. Harvey Keitel stars as a low level numbers runner who struggles with then-risque topics like interracial romantic desire & atheistic religious doubt. What really creates conflict for him as a low level mafia type, however, is the idiotic proto-punk antics of a life long friend, played by Robert De Niro. Living fast & loud, De Niro’s Falstaffian foil leaves a trail of financial debts & bruised egos wherever he goes, a mess Keitel’s troubled anti-hero often finds himself having to clean up. The dynamic of Mikey and Nicky is more or less the same, with its titular, brotherly lowlife criminals finding themselves at odds because one of them brings hateful scrutiny through his bratty, bridge-burning hedonism. With minuscule budgets & then-unproven directors, both films never had much of a chance to touch the more grandiose mafia stories of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The keep their scopes as small as possible, building tension in the betrayals and petty disagreements between their individual sets of low level criminal fiends. There’s something inherently tragic & pathetic about watching these crime world nobodies butt heads over minuscule debts & mafia etiquette while the higher-ups profit off their violence offscreen. By keeping their stories small & highly specific, both films do a great job in their own way of exposing a larger truth about the world of organized crime, if only by inference. Mikey and Nicky keeps things especially focused & streamlined, playing almost like a two-man stage play for long stretches, but Mean Streets is similarly dedicated to profiling the minor tragedies of low level criminals.

Besides their shared indulgence in minor crime world tragedy, Mean Streets & Mikey and Nicky are also both great snapshots of New York City grime. Scorsese’s reputation as a master of capturing 70s NYC in all of its sleazy glory might be more closely associated with Taxi Driver, which is a film more or less about the subject, but Mean Streets feels almost more authentic for using 70s NYC as a backdrop & a playground instead or a focal point. Keitel & De Niro’s crime-ridden tour of the Old New York is a great atmospheric measurement of the underbelly sleaze and working class angst that would soon lead to the city’s punk rock boom in just a few trips around the Sun. Mikey and Nicky feels even more authentic in its grimy New York City tourism, since it pulls an all-nighter, tearing through NYC street lights past an endless parade of barroom cretins, urban graveyards, and seedy late night cinemas. The New York City portrait captured by these two films a duo is of a city that’s long gone, cleaned up & policed into oblivion. Both films almost function as historical documents in this way, but more importantly, their shared New York City grime is an essential element in their bottom of the barrel crime world tragedies. Scorsese & May’s directorial styles were noticeably disparate in pulling off their minor New York City crime stories, with Mean Streets reaching for the pop music sleekness later perfected in Goodfellas & Mikey and Nicky luxuriating in the rough exploitation film looseness off handheld cameras & improvised dialogue. Together, though, they represent a small scale version of what we’re used to seeing in our mafia media, with more individualized stakes and a decisively punk rock attitude. I believe May made the better film in this pairing, but both entries are worthwhile for very similar reasons.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Kiki (2017)

By billing itself as a “spiritual sequel” to the landmark documentary Paris is Burning, the Swiss-American co-production Kiki smartly brought a lot of attention to itself & its political cause in an overcrowded media market where most low budget documentaries slip by without notice. It also set the expectation of what it can deliver to an impossibly high standard. Kiki is not as significant of a work as Paris is Burning. It’s not even close. Not only has the initial wow factor of what Paris is Burning managed to unearth faded with time, but the switch from celluloid film to digital media has significantly hindered the quality of imagery in this distant echo of an unofficial sequel. Still, as a modern check-in on the state of the NYC ballroom and voguing scene decades after that landmark work and a document of the heights of visual art being achieved within that subculture today, it’s a worthwhile addition to the classic doc’s legacy.

Paris is Burning documented the well-established “houses” & long term history of ballroom culture in NYC, a pocket of queer society fiercely dedicated both to artistic expression (mostly through fashion & dance) and self-preserving loyalty. Kiki focuses on a much more specific subset within that larger scene. Its title not only refers to the communal act of partying or hanging out, but also defines a subset of ball culture participants who are remarkably young and, unlike the older houses profiled in the previous film, unestablished. A large population of the Kiki world are underage PoC, abused or abandoned by their parents for being homosexual or trans. The “house mothers” who take them under their wing and help them prepare for ballroom & voguing competition are barely older than them, mostly in their early 20s, and that age range is largely what separates the “Kiki” scene from traditional ballroom culture.

What’s most exciting about Kiki as a film is in knowing that the ballroom scene does have this young blood flowing through its veins, keeping it alive. In a world where there aren’t many true countercultures left untouched by homogenized pop culture at large, it’s reassuring to know that the NYC ballroom scene is still as vibrantly punk as ever. You can see reflections of what Paris is Burning first documented in mainstream outlets like Ru Paul’s Drag Race today, but for the most part the culture had been left untouched & far from normalized. The aggressively defiant fashion, death drops, and openly expressed sexuality documented in Kiki is still punk as fuck and still a wonder to behold. The best moments of the film are when it merely documents & broadcasts the fine art achievement of the in-their-infancy houses like House P.U.C.C.I., House Juicy Culture, House Unbound Cartier, etc.

Although a respectable ambition, it’s the film’s overt attempts at political statement that drag down its overall value as an art piece. Kiki rightfully has a lot to say about queer and trans identity in modern America. Since it follows a younger set of subjects, it even has terms like “triggered” and “gender fluidity” in its arsenal to discuss these issues effectively. When it dares to flash back to images pulled directly directly from Paris is Burning, however, you get the sense that these politics might have been better served if they were allowed to crop up naturally while focusing on what makes this community’s highly specific POV special in the first place: ballroom culture. The issues discussed in the film are damn important, but by splitting its time between the less visually compelling political maneuvers that take place between the ballroom competitions and actually documenting the competitions​ themselves, the film ultimately feels a little weak and diluted, especially when compared to its spiritual predecessor.

Kiki makes some admirable maneuvers to improve on the Paris is Burning formula. It updates the soundtrack to a modern pop aggression provided by Qween Beat, deliberately puts its LGBTQ politics in the foreground of its subject, and goes as far as to include one of its interviewees in the production of the doc, correcting what many perceive as an exploitative element of Paris is Burning. Even with these positive alterations and additions, however, Kiki can never shake the feeling of being little more than an addendum or an epilogue to that superior work. It shines when it focus on the priceless visual art being produced in the ballroom subculture (sometimes even playing like a voguing-themed version of Girl Walk // All Day), allowing its politics to be passionately expressed in that display. When it strays from that task, however, it starts to feel a lot more like countless works we’ve already seen before. It’s horrifically upsetting that statements like “I am a person” should feel overtly political in a 2010s context, but I can’t shake the feeling that there are more interesting ways to say it than the way it’s handled in Kiki. Take, for instance, the way it’s expressed in the film it openly pays homage to at every turn.

-Brandon Ledet

Prevenge (2017)

Actress Alice Lowe is best known as a feature player in Edgar Wright productions like Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. Her debut feature as a writer and director is notable not only for bringing that Edgar Wright-friendly sense of humor into the realm of a high-concept slasher, but for also being a Herculean feat of physicality & filmmaking efficiency. Lowe directs and stars in Prevenge herself while seven months pregnant, filming all of the project’s principal photography in just eleven days. I’d usually find that kind of microbudget production efficiency impressive in a Roger Corman kind of way no matter what, but Lowe’s very visible late-pregnancy state and dual roles on either side of the camera raises the bar on that already inherent filmmaking badassery. Lowe’s real life pregnancy also affords Prevenge an amusing sense of authenticity you don’t typically see in high concept horror comedies. Pregnancy anxiety drives a lot of the humor and the terror at work in Prevenge and there’s something transgressive about Lowe’s pouring so much of herself into that central driving force, especially once it accumulates a body count.

Lowe stars as a single mother who murders total strangers at the command of the voice in her head, a high-pitched, cartoony presence that seems to be broadcasting from the fetus growing inside her. As a tag team, the mother & her unborn, bloodthirsty daughter initially seem to be on a vigilante mission against modern culture, like in the Katie Holmes comedy Miss Meadows or the excellent psychological horror Felt. The mother slits the throats of the creepy men who hit on her and the women who systematically keep her down (including a heartless business executive played by The Witch‘s Kate Dickie) in what appears to acts of moral vigilantism. The familial pair of killers aren’t choosing their victims at random, however, and the source of the perceived wrong they strive to correct through bloodshed (almost always by knife) is gradually revealed through a series of flashbacks. This sets up two parallel races against the clock that might prevent their revenge mission from being fulfilled: the impending birth of the child and the possibility of someone discovering the connection between the victims before they’re all disposed of.

Prevenge is strongest in its first act, when it takes satirical aim at the ways we discuss the nature of pregnancy. When doctors assure the pregnant mother/ruthless killer, “Baby knows what to do. Baby will tell you what to do,” it’s doubtful they mean that a literal voice will come from the fetus with demands to stab strangers to death in their own living rooms. There’s some real-life tension seated in that dynamic too, which includes lines like, “It’s like the baby’s driving and I’m just the vehicle.” Prevenge can feel delightfully transgressive in these moments, but once it pulls away from natal care satire and settles more into a traditional slasher formula, its tone begins to soften, meander, and fade. The mystery of the absent father and the connection between the seemingly unrelated victims isn’t nearly as interesting as the more pointed critiques lobbed against the ways modern medicine treats pregnancy as well as legitimate anxieties over forfeiting your mind and body to the wants and needs of a new being growing inside you, possibly with murderous intent.

As a filmmaker, Alice Lowe shows immense promise here. There’s great specificity in the imagery of her various set pieces, from the reptile predators of a pet shop to a sparsely attended disco night at a dive bar to the fancy dress costumes of a Halloween party. Her screenplay is wickedly funny in its best moments as well, like when the foul-mouthed fetus comments on her mother’s nextdoor neighbors loudly fucking, “Listen, Mommy! That’s how I was made,” or when Kate Dickie’s heartless business executive explains, “We’ve had to make some really harsh cuts. It’s a cutthroat world.” She also, smartly, refuses to turn away from the brutality of her staged mother-daughter kills, making for a very bloody version of a modern horror comedy. I do think Prevenge loses some focus once it shifts from satirical pregnancy horror to psychological murder mystery, but I was mostly impressed here by how Lowe pulled off such a successfully slick, icily funny picture on such a miniscule budget and so late in her own pregnancy. She managed to make a no-budget horror comedy into a strikingly personal, visually memorable work, which is no small feat for a first time filmmaker.

-Brandon Ledet

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

One of my all-time favorite movies is the Roger Corman production Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, which is a delightful watch for all kinds of gleefully unhinged, Looney Tunes-type touches. Its cartoon energy isn’t entirely what makes it memorable, though. There’s a misshapen, decidedly unprofessional quality to the few scenes in the film where The Ramones, playing themselves, are asked to deliver a few lines of seemingly manageable dialogue, but can’t appear to be human while the cameras are pointed at them. I find that non-compliance with traditional screen presence to be something beyond punk, a strange ramshackle de-evolution that’s part exploitation pic fascination and part real world inebriation. Produced & directed by music industry weirdo Lou Adler (who also had a hand in Rocky Horror and some Cheech & Chong projects), Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains somehow sustains the slovenly rock n’ roller energy from those Ramones scenes for the length of an entire feature. Better yet, the movie marries that misshapen, Ramones-style presence to a decidedly feminist diatribe against the way mediocre men who are gatekeepers to both punk & pop culture at large, deliberately keeping young women from having a voice in the counterculture landscape. It’s a fascinating film in that way and I’m baffled it doesn’t have a larger cultural footprint because of it.

Unemployed, broke, and mourning the recent loss of a key family member, three teenage girls do the only thing young, working class nobodies can do in a small industrial town: channel their angst into a punk band. Going through the punk ritual of drastically changing their physical appearances and the names they go by, the three-piece musical act, The Stains of the film’s title, luck themselves into an opening slot on a touring gig with two bands packed with macho assholes: a has-been glam rock nostalgia act and an up-and-coming crew of British punks. Like a rough-around-the-edges version of The Runaways, The Stains find themselves to be incredibly popular almost immediately with young women across the country who are desperate for a voice of their own in the punk angst subculture. The problem is that this fame & notoriety hits them before they’re ready as a band and as people. Mocked & exploited by record industry execs, TV news anchors, and the men they initially supported on tour, The Stains watch as the genuine anger they funneled into their songs (especially “I’m a Waste of Time”) & personal sense of style (a sex-positive spin on new wave fashion) is commodified and destroyed as a flash-in-the-pan novelty before they are even afforded enough time to find themselves as a band. It’s a somewhat tragic story where the enemy to the group isn’t fame itself, but the opportunistic, misogynist assholes who keep their grip locked tight on the keys to the pop culture kingdom.

What’s most immediately striking about The Fabulous Stains is its punk authenticity, which is not an easy spirit to capture on film. The Stains, who only had a few practices before they risked taking their show on the road, sound genuinely unpracticed, like The Raincoats by way of The Shaggs. Their punk rock rivals are a lousy lot of Brits mostly composed of ex-members of The Sex Pistols (Steve Jones, Paul Cook) and The Clash (Paul Simonon), who wrote their own songs for the film. That kind of credibility extends into the shit hole dive bars the movie’s central tour crashes through like a slow-moving trainwreck, as it mirrors the exact small town-trolling American tour that broke up The Sex Pistols a few years before the film was made. What’s important about that authenticity​ is that it sets up a grounded, believable scenario where The Stains, mediocre talents at best, would be able to resonate with so many young women across the country​. A strong D.I.Y. punk ethos means that everyone is afforded a voice & equal opportunity. A lack of traditional musical talent can be easily overcome by a sneering, passionate attitude, as long as you can knock over the gatekeeping cretins who try to block your path.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains suffered just as much misogynist motherfuckery in the real world as the titular band did in its fictional one. The film’s writer, Nancy Dowd, reported sexist mistreatment during the production at the hands of Adler, the crew, and others. That clash of feminist ideology being filtered through a machismo-driven film industry lead to an extended period of post-production & editing room studio notes tinkering where Paramount Pictures struggled to figure out what to do with a movie they fundamentally did not understood. That stasis at least afforded the movie an insane filmed-after-the-fact epilogue that attempts to capitalize on the in-the-mean-time invention of Music Video Television and somehow both enhances the film’s themes & rapidly ages the babyfaced Stains (including Diane Lane & Lauren Dern) into fully formed adults in the blink of an eye. It didn’t help the film’s financial chances, though, since it was ultimately a strike-while-the-iron’s-hot proposition.

No matter how poorly The Fabulous Stains‘s production & distribution was handled, it did eventually make it into the right hands when it found a second life airing on television (just like Citizen Kane!). Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill cite the film as a major inspiration for their formation, which makes total sense, given the way the film is reverent of female punks inspiring other women to join the scene (which was essentially Bikini Kill’s entire ethos) and the way feminist dialogue made its way though the bullshit sex politics of the film industry to include lines like, “These girls made themselves,” “It was an old man in a young girls’ world,” and “I’m perfect, but nobody in this shit hole gets me, because I don’t put out.” The Fabulous Stains is far from a perfect, pristinely intact work (for that version of the same story I highly recommend We Are the Best!), but a large part of its power & charm is in its imperfection. It’s an authentically punk, fiercely feminist work that’s compromised production oddly mirrors the fictional band it profiles in its ramshackle story of a subculture scene & media landscape that wanted nothing to do with them or their entire gender in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet

The Death of Louis XIV (2017)

Actor Jean-Pierre Léaud has worked with a long line of Important Auteurs in his near life-long career: Cocteau, Godard, Varda, Assayas. Only one has defined him as a cultural icon, though: François Truffaut. After casting the actor as the pint-sized star of his seminal work The 400 Blows, Truffaut fashioned Léaud as a human talisman of the French New Wave by continuing the story of his same character from that film, Antoine Doinel, in several other features. Cinephiles have watched Doinel, and by extension Leaud, grow up on celluloid, a journey that’s now been effectively completed in the recent period piece The Death of Louis XIV. Where as Léaud entered the scene a young, poor schoolboy in 400 Blows, he’s leaving it a dying, old king in The Death of Louis XIV. He explained in an interview, “The line has been crossed. I went all the way. I am not acting in that film. I am someone who is waiting for the meeting [with death].” The sadness of that statement and the cultural significance of Léaud’s effective departure from cinema are both undeniable. What is up for debate, however, is if the film itself is at all worthwhile when stripped of its context.

At the start of The Death of Louis XIV, Léaud’s historical monarch is already bedridden by an injury to his leg. He indulges in small joys like playing with his beautifully groomed hounds or putting on a show of tipping his hat to the women who visit his chamber, but mostly he is immobile and in pain. Doctors are confident they can treat the king without amputating his leg to stave off encroaching gangrene. Consultants as wide ranging as university professors and common snake oil salesmen are summoned to treat the king in a variety of highly questionable methods, all while his leg continually worsens, turns black, and, as both the title and Wikipedia promise, takes his life. There’s a (very) dry sense of humor in the way these royal doctors hold onto old world superstitions & remedies. They humorously excite with any sign that the king’s condition is improving, even openly applauding when he manages to swallow a single bite of food. Even the king’s eventual death doesn’t stop them from examining his condition with an unending dedication to optimism. In a concluding autopsy, they examine his exhumed organs for signs of inflammation and abnormality. That scene somehow sticks to the same exact tone that dominated the two hours that preceded it. Even in death, nothing changes.

If there’s some kind of metaphorical correlation between the ways the dying king & Léaud ‘s career were doted on, yet left to rot, I was either too dense to understand it or too bored to fully care. The Death of Louis XIV is above all else a highfalutin bore, recommendable only to the most dedicated of French New Wave academics who have a completionist’s compulsion to watch their once-youthful mascot die. The film perfectly captures the stillness & exhaustion of waiting for death and occasionally searches for the humor of clashing the indignity of that condition with an ineffective excess of wealth. There’s a perverse joke in seeing Léaud’s upsetting little egg-shaped body slowly fail & give up while dressed in expensive fabrics & oversized wigs. The film also has a visually striking dedication to natural lighting, affording it the painting-in-motion look of something like The Witch or The Libertine. That sense of visual craft and the quiet meta humor of Léaud bowing out in such a compromised sense if indignity vs. royal reverence could’ve been captured in a series of photographs or even a short film, however. The Death of Louis XIV does very little to justify its medium as a feature film outside some occasional humor in the dialogue of unqualified medical men who watch idly as their King dies in what feels like real time. Mostly, the audience watches along with them, listening to the sound of a ticking clock. As an academic exercise, that might have some significance in helping contextualize Léaud’s​ career as an artist. As a cinematic experience, however, it feels like waiting for death, which is not an activity I’d readily recommend.

-Brandon Ledet

The Unknown Girl (2017)

Directors and brothers Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne began their collaborative career making socially conscious documentaries, forming a critical eye for class and race-based politics that has carried over to their more recent work on narrative features. Their latest film, The Unknown Girl, breaks away from the blatant deliberations on those topics in economic dramas like Two Days One Night, in which Marion Cotillard has to beg those slightly better off than her for the opportunity to keep her menial blue collar job, to mix in some genre thrills to sweeten the medicine. The Unknown Girl plays with the hallmarks of a murder mystery and a medical drama as an easy in for its short form portraits of folks struggling with the class, race, and nationality divides of modern France. It subverts the expectations of a typical mystery plot by shifting focus away from seeking the identity of the killer and instead looking to uncover the identity of their victim, raising questions about the financial and abuse of power circumstances that lead to their death in the first place. There’s still a danger in asking these questions, though, even if the intent is to properly acknowledge the life & value of the victim and not to unmask their assailant.

A young medical doctor struggles to be taken seriously by her even younger male intern and frets with her own decision to leave a somewhat charitable office as a public servant for a more lucrative career with a private practice. Her insular concerns are disrupted when two criminal investigators inform her that a young woman who rang her doorbell for help late in the night, a plea she uncharacteristically ignored, was murdered at a nearby construction site. Shaken, the doctor throws her entire life into serving the patients at her meager practice, as well as launching a vigilante investigation of the murder. Sometimes the borders between these two quests are blurred and her investigation takes the form of home visits, where she employs her medical expertise in ways like checking a patient’s pulse rate as a makeshift lie detector test. Taking no time out of her endless routine to care for her own needs, she seeks answers about the identity & home life circumstances of “the unknown girl” who rang her doorbell shortly before being killed. As she puts it, “I can’t accept the idea that they’ll bury her with no name.” This oppressive sense of self-inflicted guilt extends far beyond her initial inaction to answer her door too. That worry weighs just as heavily on her as larger issues of poverty, immigration, abuse, race, and human trafficking, even if most of those underlying issues are left unspoken.

The murder mystery aspect of The Unknown Girl rarely aims for edge-of-your-seat thriller beats. Its medical drama moments don’t extend much further than focusing on the sores, burns, and addictions of the between-the-cracks societal castoffs who can’t afford proper medical care (or fear deportation if they dare to seek it). Our medical doctor protagonist is certainly isolated & vulnerable in her quest for the truth, which leads to occasional scenes of threatened or actualized violence, but that’s not where the film’s main focus lies. You can feel the Dardenne brothers’ documentarian past in The Unknown Girl‘s quiet, music-free drift through the domestic abuse, alcoholism, sex work, social services, and immigration imagery the doctor encounters on both her medical rounds and her one-woman murder investigation. As she ignores her own needs and works on her smartphone even while traveling between patients & interviewees, you get the sense that she’s trying to solve much larger systemic problems than just the death of one nameless stranger. Of course, she cannot solve every societal wrong she comes across in her daily rounds, but by the end of the film it’s easy to see how she’s made at least some small positive change in the world by trying, even when in the face of being told to butt out and the system itself remaining hopelessly broken. That’s not the usual resolution for a typical murder mystery plot structure, but The Unknown Girl‘s central concern was never its titular mystery anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

We Are the Flesh (2017)

As much horror media as I routinely watch on an annual basis, I do tend to have a weak stomach for the so-called “extreme” end of the genre. Titles like Martyrs, Cannibal Holocaust, Inside, Salò, and so on typify a graphically cruel end of horror cinema that I tend to shy away from as I search for less emotionally scarring novelties like Frankenhooker & Ghoulies II. That’s not to say that there’s absolutely no value in “extreme” horror, a subgenre typically associated with French filmmakers in a modern context. Just a couple months ago I allowed myself to be swept up in the explicit, yet hypnotic cannibalism terror of the recent coming of age horror Raw, despite trumped up reports of the film eliciting vomiting and fainting spells during its festival run. The gimmick of distributing Raw along with accompanying barf bags to theaters around the country to play up its onscreen extremity actually did the film a disservice in a lot of ways, setting an expectation for shock value gratuitousness in a way the film, however violent, wasn’t especially focused on delivering. I’m not sure the same can be said of the recent Mexican-American co-production We Are the Flesh. We Are the Flesh is the taboo, explicitly cruel hedonism of extreme horror perversity that Raw was hinted to be in its advertising & early buzz. Its graphic, button-pushing sexuality and violence is typically the exact kind of horror cinema extremity I shy away from. I went into the film dreading the nihilistic ways it would attempt to dwell in trauma & brutality. What’s surprising is that I left it convinced it’s the best domestic release I’ve seen all year.

While both sexual & violent, We Are the Flesh never allows its extreme horror provocations to devolve into the sexual violence exploitation of most of the titles mentioned above. Instead, the terror in its sexuality commands a kind of cerebral, Cronenbergian quality that pushes its audience’s buttons through taboos like incest, necrophilia, and fucking in literal filth. While the explicit nature of its imagery is presumably intended to shock & disturb on some level, the film overall has a lot more in common with Luis Buñuel’s traditionalist surrealism than it does with Salò or Cannibal Holocaust, titles it risks being swept away with critically by choosing to deal in horrific extremes in the first place. The film lives up to the “flesh” aspect if its title, slathering the screen with writhing naked bodies, sometimes even documenting them in unsimulated acts of sexual intercourse. Unlike with something like Love or Shortbus, however, the pornographic aspect of that display is not the main focal point of its depiction. Instead, the camera (along with the dialogue) breaks down the human body to its most basic components: meat, flesh, spit, semen, menstruate, etc. Like with all worthwhile surrealist art, there’s a darkly humorous reflection of both political and existential unrest perceivable just behind the facade of these evocative images. The anxiety cannot be fully understood and is cheapened by any attempt to put it into words, but it drives the heart of the work beyond the basic effect of shock value into much stranger, more transcendent terrain.

Two siblings emerge, hungry, from a post-apocalyptic cityscape to an industrial space where a total stranger has been seemingly going mad in his isolation. His madness initially takes the form of nihilistic displays of violence that would be right at home on something like The Eric Andre Show: destruction of furniture, off-kilter beating of a drum, nonsensical experiments involving large quantities of bread & eggs. Patterns & purpose eventually coagulate in this chaos, however. He uses the bread & eggs, provided from a mysterious source behind a concrete wall, as pay meant for the brother & sister duo to aid him in his work. Together, the three create faux organic spaces that eventually look like art installations in their now-shared squat. Broken furniture is arranged in geometric lines that recall crystal formations or spider webs. Walls & ceilings are carpeted over with flattened cardboard boxes until the rooms they create resemble ancient caves. The madman describes his creation as “the ultimate memorial of a rotten society.” He condemns the siblings for not fully believing in his work, exclaiming, “You wallow in your youth, though you’re nothing but rotting flesh.” Their initial caution towards his madness gives way to militaristic & cult-like religious devotion. He encourages them to engage in acts of incest, drugs them with a mysterious chemical dropper, imbues them with a fanatical reverence for eggs, and promises that devotion to the cause will lead to a transcendent epiphany, explaining, “Your skull unfolds and blooms like a gorgeous flower.” The whole thing plays out like an extended stream of consciousness nightmare. It’s unnerving, but strangely beautiful.

I’m in love with the way We Are the Flesh disorients the eye by making its grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitals, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores (like a poetically surreal distortion of Cronenberg’s Videodrome). Within the film, the man-made, artificially “organic” environments become “real” caves without explanation, both recalling Plato’s Cave and calling into question the inherent artifice of film as a medium in the first place. The isolation of the central three characters in this space makes it seem as if they’re the only people left in the world, evoking a Waiting for Godot style stage play existentialism. Militaristic chants and national anthems conjure similar anxiety surrounding modern politics and bloodsoaked history. We Are the Flesh didn’t exactly unfold my skull so my mind could bloom like a gorgeous flower, but the overall effect wasn’t all that dissimilar. Its dedication to explicit sex & violence was a means to a much greater, more intangible end instead of being the entire point of the exercise. I greatly respect the overreach & surprising success of that ambition.

I wish I had seen We Are the Flesh in the theater with a live audience like I had with the last gratuitous cinematic provocation I’d fallen this in love with, Wetlands. Not only would it have been a joy to see its gorgeous camera work large & loud in a proper cinematic setting, but there’s also something special about squirming with discomfort in unison with strangers when confronted with taboo sexuality. I got a little tease of how that might have felt when I first saw The Neon Demon last summer, but only for fleeting moments. We Are the Flesh is a long, sustained deep dive into violence & sexual discomfort that should likely come with a laundry list of content warnings for the typically squeamish. However, speaking as someone who doesn’t usually find much value in this extreme end of horror cinema, modern or otherwise, I found it to be the exact balance of discomforting moral provocation and intellectual stimulation through abstract thought that makes the times I tried, but failed to find similar fulfillment in films like Martyrs or Baskin feel retroactively worthwhile. I can’t say in concrete terms why the film resonated with me so solidly, because it’s not the kind of work that deals in tangible, measurable absolutes. I can say that it pushed me far outside my comfort zone in a uniquely rewarding way, which is all you can really ask for from surreal art & “extreme” cinema.

-Brandon Ledet