All That Divides Us (2018)

The question of how much context is appropriate to provide in a film review is just as subjective as the reviewer’s opinion itself. While some critics academically approach their reviews as if the film in question was experienced in a void outside of space & time, I tend to over-divulge extratextual information to the point where I sometimes write more about the environment surrounding the film than the work itself. This will likely be one of those instances. I can only justify my mild enjoyment of the trashy French crime thriller All That Divides Us by explaining the time & place where I saw it: a local film festival. The patrons at New Orleans French Film Fest tend to be geriatric NPR liberals looking for classy, highbrow fare like Breathless & The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is why it tickled me so much to catch a classless, violent B-movie with them gasping in horror in the same room. I doubt I would have thought much of All That Divides Us if I were watching it alone in my living room or while sipping wine at a sparsely-attended multiplex, but in the stuffy company of unsuspecting film festival olds it was a much-needed breath of nasty air.

Catherine Deneuve stars as steely mother figure struggling to maintain both her deceased husband’s shipping dock business & her adult daughter’s deteriorating life. Diane Kruger co-leads as the daughter, a still-lives-at-home brat who finds herself tragically addicted to opioids after a life-threatening car accident. This addiction brings a nearby crime world of drugs, theft, assault, and gunfire into their privileged, sheltered lives. The daughter’s drug dealer/lover is a pronounced point of connection between these opposing realms, one that results in an accidental manslaughter, a subsequent coverup, and a prolonged case of blackmail. As the title suggests, the movie is very self-serious about the divisions between the wealthy & the poor and the seedy, violent ways those barriers can be breached. The culture clash sparked by Kruger’s opioid-addicted rich girl (who feels like a faint echo of the deafening effect Jennifer Jason Leigh achieves in Good Time) is difficult to take too seriously, though, as its sentimental music cues & melodramatic drogue approaches a Lifetime quality in their overt cheese. The film is much more committed in its attempts to create an 8 Mile-style melodrama for French rapper Nekfeu (making his first-time acting debut as one of the drug-dealing hoodlums) than it is in tackling any kind of well-considered economic politics. Even so, 8 Mile never felt this much like a direct-to-DVD release.

While All That Divides Us did little to impress me narratively or thematically, I frequently found myself surprised by its willingness to get downright nasty. Characters bet on dogfights, force victims to smoke crack at gunpoint, erotically choke each other during sex, blackmail, cheat, kill, and say meanly dismissive things to their sex partners like “You were good for my prostate.” There are a couple stray moments of unintentional humor (like Kruger & Deneuve’s half-assed attempts to sink a body in water or Nekfeu proudly proclaiming “I’m a badass,”) but most of the movie’s fun is in its warped, tasteless imitation of 90s-era crime thrillers. The movie neither fully commits enough to its own reflections on economic disparity to be taken seriously nor has enough fun with its own trashiness to be truly memorable (Catherine Deneuve wielding as shotgun for most of the third act without ever firing it is especially unforgivable). If you can catch it in the right mood with the right crowd, though, it can be a mild delight. Its subject and French pedigree are deceptively highbrow enough to set expectations for something much classier than what’s delivered. If you can use that expectation to trick a room full of old people into watching B-movie trash this morally icky & grotesquely violent, that tension can make for a good time at the movies.

-Brandon Ledet


Thoroughbreds (2018)

I’m fascinated by the career Anya Taylor-Joy is building for herself fresh out of the gate as a stark, young talent. I don’t know if it’s her pale, wide-eyed look that steers her casting or a personal sensibility, but there’s a sinister streak to her project choices that reminds me a lot of the actors I grew up loving most in the 90s, people like Winona Ryder, Fairuza Balk, and Christina Ricci. Taylor-Joy’s starring role as Thomasin in (Swampflix’s favorite film of 2016) The Witch is obviously her most striking acting showcase to date, but following her career through Split and, now, Thoroughbreds has only solidified what an intriguingly dark, expressive persona she’s establishing onscreen. I’m even tempted to seek out the objectively terrible-looking pictures Morgan and Marrowbone now, just to see how they fit in the sinister genre film catalog Taylor-Joy is building for herself. She’s becoming a huge draw for me in a way few young actors are, the way I’d usually seek out releases from an auteur director. I doubt I would have rushed to see Thoroughbreds as quickly as I did if her name weren’t on the marquee.

Thoroughbreds joins past indulgences in dark humor about young girls’ bloodlust like Heathers & Heavenly Creatures to deliver the year’s first great femme thriller. Anya Taylor-Joy stars as a spoiled, but emotionally fragile rich girl who can barely contain her seething hatred for her macho brute stepfather. Olivia Cooke balances out her intensely emotive energy as a sociopath struggling to feel anything at all, while also navigating her own status as a public pariah awaiting trial for animal cruelty (it’s probably a good thing this horseriding-themed film is light on actual horse imagery). The former childhood friends & fellow “horse girls” share their dilemmas in that precarious period at the tail end of high school where it feels like every struggle will last for an eternity, but you just need to hold your breath & survive the next few months. Their initial dynamic is a dual tutorship: one learning empathy (or at least how to fake it) and the other learning how to be honest. It evolves into something much more sinister, of course, blossoming into a shared murder plot to kill the wicked stepfather. He didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. He’s just a dick & a convenient target for all their frustrations & emotional crises, a personification of the evils that rot what should be privileged life of leisure.

It’s likely somewhat burying the lede to single out Anya Taylor-Joy here, when the film features what’s presumably the final substantial role for the tragically deceased Anton Yelchin. With the greasy, panicked desperation of a drowning rat, Yelchin is perfectly cast as a small-time drug dealer the girls attempt to blackmail into committing their planned crime. As such, he’s the only external witness to the intense, morbid friendship they’ve coldly developed and is thoroughly freaked out by their communal lack of basic empathy. Oddly, Yelchin also starred in a film adaptation (that I have yet to see) of the trashy novel I’d most readily compare to Thoroughbreds: Fierce People. An anthropological study of the cut-throat social politics of the wealthy elite, Fierce People is a kissing cousin to Thoroughbreds’s tribal drum soundtrack & meditations on the selfish violence of life-long privilege. Yelchin does an excellent job (as always) of devolving this tough-guy posturing as a working-class outsider into abject horror at the coldly applied viciousness of his teen girl foils, allowing his usual aptitude for vulnerability to gradually overtake the character as he sinks further into the plot. It’s touching that the movie is dedicated to his memory, as his stopped-short career is one of modern cinema’s greater losses.

I somehow knew first-time director Cory Finley got his start as a playwright before I googled it. For a tense thriller about murderous teens, Thoroughbreds is noticeably heavy on stage play dialogue, concerning itself more with exploring the two girls’ psyches than with ramping up the tension of their violent deed. One is prim; the other is excessively laidback. One doesn’t feel anything; the other feels everything. Their re-convergence after years spent apart feels like old lovers reuniting in a moment of crisis, helping each other get past a current trauma by picking apart past wounds & unearthing deep-seated emotional issues (last year’s microbudget found footage drama Damascene is an excellent point of comparison there). Finley also impresses as a visual stylist. Tanning bed coffins, strobe light dance parties, and blank stares into the wilderness feel like they were plucked form an eerie sci-fi picture in the way they’re applied here. Guided tours of gaudy mansion hallways are paired with tense, ambient sounds that feel like they were borrowed from The Witch, affording a blank page setting a sinister mood. The girls’ wardrobes range from hip, haute teen fashion to the inherent creepiness of seeing a young girl in lipstick & pearls. The setting can often feel meticulously stylized & genuinely unsettling, but it’s ultimately all in service of Finley’s dialogue, which enters the canon of pictures like Jennifer’s Body, Ingrid Goes West, and the aforementioned Heavenly Creatures that extensively dwell in the intoxicating danger of intense female friendships.

It’s unclear if Anya Taylor-Joy is being typecast in these dark genre film experiments or if she’s actively seeking them out. Either way, I’m wholly on the hook for the trajectory of her career so far, which is seemingly typified by a defensive, vulnerable steeliness in a morbid atmosphere. Thoroughbreds transports that vibe to a affluent setting where carefully guarded secrets and the maintenance of social reputations can stir up just as much darkness on their own as a haunted house or the midnight woods. Like with most intense stage play dialogue, there’s a sinister sense of humor informing that deadly privilege & femme bloodlust set-dressing and Taylor-Joy is remarkably comfortable with the nuance of that tone. Playing off Olivia Cooke’s (intentional) emotional blankness requires Taylor-Joy to tell most of the story through her own reactionary expressions & hesitations. She’s incredible to watch, as always, and Thoroughbreds owes much of its allure & staying power to her striking screen presence.

-Brandon Ledet

The Loft (2015)

Man, are we still making erotic thrillers? Is there even a place for them in this post-[insert your porn aggregator of choice] world anymore? I suppose we still are making them this decade, given that Adulterers was released in 2016, one year after today’s stinker, The Loft.

Based on a 2008 Belgian film of the same name and featuring most of the same creative crew (director Erik Van Looy and writer Bart De Pauw, who is solely credited on the original film and is one of two credited writers here), The Loft is about five men who use a single loft apartment to cheat on their wives. Vincent (Karl Urban) is an architect who retained the apartment in one of the buildings he designed for him and his buddies to have their sexcapades: possible closet case Luke (Wenworth Miller), whose wife requires constant attention due to her diabetes; Marty (Eric Stonestreet), who channels all of his pent up, frustrated heterosexual energy from having to play broad gay stereotype Cam on Modern Family for the past decade into a disgusting misogynist pig; Chris (James Marsden), a successful psychiatrist who is the most reluctant to participate in this adulterous venture; and Philip Williams (Matthias Schoenaerts), Chris’s half-brother, a cokehead whose new bride is the daughter of a wealthy magnate. One of these names is not (recognizable) like the others; Schoenaerts is apparently reprising his role of Filip Willems from the original film.

The plot kicks off when a blonde woman is found dead in the bed that the men all use for their exploits. We then flash back to Philip’s wedding day, one fateful evening that all five men and their wives got together for dinner, and the evening that the building that houses the titular loft was opened. It’s established early on that Vincent caught Philip’s wealthy and powerful father-in-law in Vegas on a date with his mistress, and he intends to use this potentially damaging information to extort the older man into giving him the architectural contract for a new riverfront luxury building. Also on this trip, he and Luke meet Sarah Deakins (Isabel Lucas), and although they both find her attractive, she sleeps with Vincent (there is a strip-down from Karl Urban here that isn’t exactly a saving grace, but it does give this largely unerotic erotic thriller a little heat). We also learn that Chris, despite his original objections, has fallen for Ann Morris (Rachael Taylor) and has been having an affair with her. Who is the dead woman handcuffed to the bed: Sarah or Ann? And who killed her, and why?

There are twists a-plenty in this film; to be fair, most of them are unforeseen and unforeseeable but do make sense when they are revealed. The problem is that this is a film that prides itself on being 20 minutes ahead of its audience, but fails to realize that it’s also 15 years behind it. Belgian screenwriter De Pauw collaborated with American Wesley Strick to adapt the film for a U.S. audience, a choice that almost makes sense. After all, Strick penned the screenplays for some hit thrillers like 1998’s Return to Paradise (71% on Rotten Tomatoes), the remake of Cape Fear (75% and two Oscar nominations), and 1989’s True Believer (95%!), as well as 1990’s well-received horror comedy Arachnophobia. Those are the highlights of his career, however; 2006’s Love Is the Drug was only reviewed by 5 critics, and 1994’s Wolf was met with a mixed reception. The rest of his filmography is not only bad, but memorably so: Final Analysis is an attempt at aping Hitchcock with a director best known for U2 videos (and got only 54% on RT); The Saint (1997, 29%) featured one of my favorite bits of cinematic nonsense ever when Elisabeth Shue’s character realizes that love cured her heart condition; The Glass House (2001, 21%) pleased no one; Doom (2005, 19%) is over a decade old and still a punchline; and the Nightmare on Elm Street remake (2010, 15%) had only Jackie Earle Haley’s performance as its only redeeming feature. Only Strick’s 1995 debut feature, The Tie That Binds, was more poorly received, with a 9% positive rating. It’s a very mixed list of credits, but the fact that all of his successes were made between 1989 and 1999 tells you a lot about where his talents lie and what kind of thriller he’s capable of drafting. You take that nineties sensibility and blend it with a Belgian idea, and you get a film that almost works but falls short in ways that are difficult to pinpoint. Not even a cast of A/B-list hunks could draw in an audience, as the film only grossed 10 million dollars to its budget of 14 million.

About the only thing that makes this one interesting is that over half the cast would go on to play or had already played characters in superhero properties, largely of the Marvel vein, or another character from genre fiction. So if you ever wanted to know what it would be like to watch Cyclops (Marsden in the X-Men films) get it on with Jessica Jones’s best friend Trish Walker (Taylor, Jessica Jones), or for Dr. McCoy/Judge Dredd/Skurge (Urban, the Abrams Star Trek movies/Dredd/Thor: Ragnarok) to seduce a woman despite the charms of Captain Cold (Miller, The Flash), then you’re a weirdo like me, congrats, and you might get a modicum of fun out of this movie. Otherwise, however, there’s no real reason to check this one out. I’m hesitant to call it “chaste,” but in comparison to other films in this genre, it leaves much to be desired in the realm of eroticism, and the various twists and turns that the narrative takes are barely worth the time it takes to get through them. Skip this one.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Double Lover (2018)

The French erotic thriller Double Lover first hit L.A. & NYC theatres around Valentine’s Day this year, coinciding with the nationwide release of Fifty Shades Freed. As a result, many early American reviews had cheeky things to say about how this kink-splattered fuck fest made the final installment in the Fifty Shades franchise look embarrassingly tame by comparison. It’s a correlation that doesn’t make too much sense outside their parallel American release dates. Double Lover is erotically charged, sure, but its pronounced horniness is a ferocious, irrational indulgence in dream logic that leads to something much stranger & further outside the bounds of linear storytelling to be compared to a series of films so . . . vanilla in their estimation of kink cinema. That’s not to say the film supports no comparison to pre-existing art. In fact, it’s practically a work of pastiche. Double Lover starts as a cover version of David Cronenberg’s cult classic Dead Ringers, then works in notes of De Palma’s Sisters, Rosemary’s Baby, the 1982 Cat People remake, [safe], and the most shamelessly smutty gialli you can name until all its various influences meld into one barely cohesive, unholy erotic nightmare. It’s a narratively & thematically messy film that gleefully taps into sexual taboos to set its audience on edge, then springs a surreal horror film on them once they’re in that vulnerable state. Double Lover is not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller. It’s a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare.

A 25-year-old, gaunt ex-model becomes fed up with medical professionals dismissing a mysterious stomach pain she’s suffered her entire life. With few options left to search for a cure, she turns to psychiatry, interrogating her doctors’ claims that her symptoms are psychosomatic. Early therapy session are tame, with her doctor listening intently to her life’s story & list of ailments, offering an open ear more than any verbalized advice. The act of listening is eroticized in this early stretch and the pair become an unlikely couple, complete with a handsome shared apartment & a mischievous house cat. Reality melts around them from there. It turns out the psychiatrist is hiding the existence of a twin brother, who operates his own mental health practice nearby. Our troubled protagonist is both obsessed with the mystery of why her lover would lie about the existence of his twin and turned on by the erotic implications of there being a physical copy of the man she loves. She, of course, investigates the twin’s competing psychiatry practice and finds his . . . unconventional methods as alluring as they are taboo. In a traditional erotic thriller, her sexual affair with her lover’s twin brother and the mystery of the dual psychiatrists’ past would drive the plot home from there. Indeed, the violent confrontations you’d typically expect from that setup do arrive in due time, but the circumstances surrounding them are both too supernatural & too perverse to wholly predict. Double Lover’s basic premise is a familiar template, but as it spirals out into total madness, there’s no bounds to its erotic mania, which is communicated through an increasingly intense list of indulgences: incest, body horror, gynecological close-ups, bisexual orgies, negging, pegging, “redwings” erotic choking, and nightmarish lapses in logic that, frankly, make no goddamn sense outside their subliminal expressions of psychosexual anxiety.

Aesthetically, Double Lover filters the pseudointellectual smut of the most illogical giallo pictures in existence through the color-muted, urban visual lens of Brian De Palma (who was already heavily influenced by giallo himself). De Palma’s clinically-applied split screens are abound throughout the picture, visually echoing the theme of twins & doubles just as much as its obsession with mirrors (seriously, it feels like over half of the runtime is framed through mirrored reflections). The visual provocations are blunt & unsubtle, humorously so. The film opens with an intense, medical closeup of a gynecological exam, then dissolves into a similarly-framed eye, directly referencing Georges Bataille. The protagonist picks up part-time work at an art museum, which allows for artistically framed photography of medical gore in a clinical but abstract setting, in an exhibit seemingly titled “BLOOD, FLESH, BLOOD, FLESH.” Like many gialli, the film often resembles a fashion shoot more than a horror movie, with almost any given frame practically being able to pass for a Vogue magazine cover (minus maybe the gore and the sex). Many audiences will dismiss this handsome, cold aesthetic as pretentious drivel, but there’s a dry humor to the film’s fashionable psychosexual madness. As our protagonist enters a staring contest with her cat mid-fucking, as the frame fills with a funhouse hall of mirrors at the climax, as each sinister sex dream reveals another layer of gleefully taboo desire, it’s clear the film is having fun with its over-the-top indulgences. It’s just doing so with a straight face.

I wouldn’t exactly call Double Lover an empty provocation. Its (well-founded) paranoia over men’s control & dismissal of women within the medical field is a legitimate strand of psychological terror with a rich history in the horror genre (and in real life). Its fretting over the power dynamics of a dominant (evil?) twin and their submissive (good?) twin is outdated psychobabble, but an interesting lens for viewing the power dynamics of romantic coupling in general. These themes are conspicuously present and exhaustively explored throughout, but it would be a lie to say they’re the film’s main draw. Double Lover is a blast because it shamelessly indulges in excess. Its shots of mirrored reflections persist long after the audience catches onto their significance. Its nightmare logic makes little attempt to justify its narrative trajectory outside the fun & the discomfort of its surprise. Its horror genre indulgences are entirely unconcerned with remaining highbrow, even risking its art film pedigree on a series of jump scares in the increasingly bonkers third act. Its external influences are blatantly displayed on the surface, with a reference to “steel gynecological instruments meant for torture” directly calling attention to its similarities with Dead Ringers within the opening ten minutes. Most importantly, though, its indulgences in onscreen, kinky sex are frequent, disturbing, and often genuinely erotic. Your comfort level with deliberate shock value provocation will likely steer your experience with the film overall, even though it’s far from the only factor at play.

Given Double Lover’s willingness to indulge in kink-minded titillation and its completely disinterest in subtlety, I should probably be more forgiving of its flippant comparisons to the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. I have two major roadblocks preventing me form that accepting that, though. First, I’m deeply invested in the film being understood as a continued tradition within the dream logic surrealism of the horror genre, not just a throwback as an erotic thriller. More importantly, though, I want to single out Double Lover as being an exceptional example of my favorite type of filmmaking: Elevated Art Cinema™ techniques applied to trashy, genre-minded premises that typically aren’t afforded them. This movie is dumb, crass, exploitative, trope-laden, and more than a little silly. It’s also a gorgeous work of fine art that disarms its audience with its nonstop onslaught of inelegant indulgences as a means of crawling under their skin and rotting them from the inside. It’s so much more than a less tame Fifty Shades. Its kinks are just the surface of its bizarre sense of psychological menace, a deep well of oversexed paranoia & manicured evil. Double Lover is an over-indulgent, preposterous film and, paradoxically, a perfect one.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #51 of The Swampflix Podcast: Romy & Michele and The To Do List (2013)

Welcome to Episode #51 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our fifty-first episode, we take it easy by revisiting some fun, femme, 1990s-specific comedies. Brandon and Britnee discuss both Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion (1997) and its decade-late, made-for-TV prequel. Also, Brandon makes Britnee watch the raunchy Aubrey Plaza sex comedy The To Do List (2013) for the first time. Enjoy!

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

-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Souvenir (2018)

In Souvenir, Isabelle Huppert boinks someone a third her age and looks damn good doing it. It’s a story we’ve seen told onscreen so many times before that it could be its own genre. Still, I’m not sure it’s ever been this delightfully, delicately sweet. There are shots in Souvenir of Huppert reading on a bus & eye-fucking a young man that look like they were airlifted specifically from 2016’s somber, philosophy-minded Things to Come, but its overall tone is much closer to the tipsy glamour of a Muriel’s Wedding, complete with extensive references to ABBA. Souvenir is a delicately surreal comedy. Decades ago, it would have been referred to as “a woman’s picture.” As such, I suspect it’s unlikely to be as well-respected within the Isabelle Huppert Boinking Younger Men canon as films that strive to be Serious Art, but it’s covertly one of the best specimens of its ilk.

Huppert stars as a pâté factory worker (does it get more French than that?) with a limelit past she’d rather not be discovered. She’s drawn out of hiding when a young coworker/amateur boxer catches her eye with a sweetly innocent line of flirtation. Her young beau may be a loser who lives at home with his parents, but he has a kind of dopey charm & a fearless enthusiasm she cannot resist. He also inflates her own ego, recognizing her from her forgotten past as a finalist in the European Song Contest three decades ago (where she lost to ABBA, no shame in that). She’s terrified by his pleas to relaunch her career, but the excitement of pleasing him overpowers her desire to fade into her drab, solitary work & home life. The stakes of revitalizing her vintage career as a pop singer while initiating a love story with a (much) younger man are low, but painful: televised embarrassments, being stood up for diner, hearing herself described as “like ABBA, but not so famous,” etc. As thematically slight as the dual romance & pop star career revival stories might come across, though, the movie is never short of lovely.

Where Souvenir might feel slight in its narrative, it excels in its candy-coated imagery. The film opens in a bath of CG champagne bubbles and emerges into a freshly manicured, absurdly symmetrical world of bright colors & vintage pop music. Even Huppert’s factory job looks like a delicious dream, including countless primly-staged, bird’s-eye-view shots of pâté that should wear you down, but hypnotize instead. I was struck by the Old Hollywood glamour of certain scenes as well, typified by Huppert’s multiple (!) musical numbers & the rear projection shots of our mismatched couple’s steamy motorcycle rides. Souvenir is an inexpensive, lowkey delight, but looks far more appetizing than many films 10x its budget.

While Huppert Boinking Young’ns is almost enough of a repeated story pattern to be its own genre, the European Song Contest indie comedy is a well-established genre with a long tradition of recognizable tropes & narrative beats. Souvenir has a familiar skeleton, but its sugary exterior makes it an exceptional specimen. First off, Huppert looks incredible. Her first appearance is in the glamour photo lighting of a makeup mirror and it never diminishes form there; the camera loves her. It’s nice to see that quality applied to irreverent humor & playful eroticism for once, instead of the pitch-black descents into ennui & cruelty Huppert is usually cast in. Her gracefully unenthused dance moves, nonchalant pop music vocals, and fierce but delicate sexual humor elevate every frame she touches to the point where a movie that should be pedestrian is instead a kind of wonder. Souvenir is not the type of Huppert Boinking Youngsters picture that tends to score high critical marks or Best of The Year accolades, just like how the similarly femme irreverence of The Dressmaker is not the kind of Western that earns that kind of attention. It’s a gorgeous object & a glamorous heart-warmer, though, a subtly impressive, candy-coated dream.

-Brandon Ledet

Early Man (2018)

Aardman Animations is not the first place I look to for surprise in my stop-motion animated media. The folks behind the A Town Called Panic series thrive on chaos & comedic surprise; Laika Entertainment continually surprises in the technological advancements they bring to stop-motion as an artform in every release (most recently in the jaw-dropping Kubo and the Two Strings). Aardman, for their part, are the picture of consistency. Brands like Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep are consistently clever & adorable, but in the exact way you’d expect from Aardman, who have been adorable & clever for decades running now. That’s why I was confident that I knew exactly what to expect form Aardman’s newest release, Early Man. Advertised as the studio’s take on caveman life & follies in the Stone Age, I expected a Wallace & Gromit-style romp flavored with anachronistic jokes about volcanoes & dinosaurs. Early Man starts exactly that way, borrowing a few gags form The Flintstones where prehistoric creatures are employed as household appliances – baby gator clothes pins, buzzing beetle electric razors, etc. After that early business of place-setting, though, the movie surprised (and delighted) me in its choice of genre, unexpectedly functioning as a . . . sports movie? I did not see that coming.

Eddie Redmayne voices our protagonist caveman (the most likable he’s been outside his weirdo, pseudo-drag performance in Jupiter Ascending), a plucky go-getter named Dug. His eternal optimism comes in handy as his small tribe of cave-dwelling rabbit hunters are pushed out of their native land by an invading, more technologically advanced society (lead by another frequently unlikable Brit, Tom Hiddleston). The clash is an absurd literalization of the Bronze Age pushing the Stone Age out of existence, but not any more absurd than the battle used to determine which tribe will maintain possession of the contested land: a soccer match. Early Man immediately details the accidental invention of soccer in its prologue, then briefly drops the subject until it gradually becomes a very faithful participation in a traditional sports movie template. The film is much closer to the irreverent sports comedy antics of Shaolin Soccer than anything resembling a sports drama (as is natural from a stop-motion animated Aardman release), but its plot is a conventional underdog story about sports novices preparing for The Big Game against the best, most arrogant team in the land, with the exact results you’d expect. That genre choice might come as a surprise to any American audiences who stumble into the picture (not many, I’m guessing; the theater where I saw it on opening weekend was near-empty); I don’t think there was a single soccer ball featured in the film’s domestic advertising.

Genre & plot are obviously among the least important facets of any Aardman release. Early Man’s cavemen dolts, with their dopey pig snouts & overbites, are adorable buffoons, especially in comparison with their Bronze Age Adonis enemies. The movie even sidesteps common problems with these traditionalist, throwback kids’ movie narratives by making sure to include a race/gender-diverse cast of characters and no extraneous romance plot. The world these prehistoric goofballs occupy is also crawling with ridiculous creatures that often steal the show: a (sorta) anthropomorphic rock, a meteor crash-surviving cockroach, a hog who thinks he’s a dog, (perhaps most significantly) a fanged kaiju-sized duck, etc. Soccer is merely a backdrop for these creatures’ & cavemen’s nonstop barrage of Aardman-style goofs & gags, which are just as adorable & clever here as they always are.

Even though they rarely catch me by surprise, I love Aardman’s style just the way it is (bad pop music and all). I find it dispiriting that the studio isn’t Minions-level popular in America. There’s likely nothing that could save this film’s presumably dire domestic box office returns. Anyone willing to show up in the first place is likely only driven by leftover goodwill form the days of Wallace & Gromit, with a only a few new fans won over along the way. Still, I appreciated the unexpected genre shift in Aardman’s usual, adorable buffoonery here. Sports movies aren’t typically my genre of choice, but it was lovely to see Aardman deliver a genuine surprise while remaining true to their regular comedic tone. Keeping their consistent look & humor fresh might actually be a question of future genre experiments. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (lightly) tested horror waters for them in the past. Their upcoming Shaun the Sheep movie Armageddon looks like it dabbles in sci-fi. I likely would have enjoyed Early Man all the same if it hadn’t adapted Aardman’s style to a sports movie mold, but it might just be that exact kind of genre experimentation the studio needs to keep its loyal audience on their toes.

-Brandon Ledet

True Stories (1986)

The RedLetterMedia boys launched a new series on their youtube channel last year called Re:View, in which they discuss films that hold a special significance for them. One of the episodes I had overlooked on its original upload was their discussion of True Stories, David Byrne’s 1986 film that he wrote, produced, and directed (unlike Adulterers, this turned out to be a good thing) as well as starred in. It’s a forgotten gem, even among Talking Heads and David Byrne fans, despite being the origin of one of their hits, “Wild Wild Life,” as well as being the first major role for John Goodman and also featuring Spalding Gray and Swoosie Kurtz. I was instantly taken with the idea and searched for the movie online in the hopes of finding a cheap copy of the out of print DVD, only to discover that the Alamo Drafthouse was going to be screening it only a couple of weeks later, as part of its Essential Texas Film series. I bought tickets faster than you can say “this is not my beautiful wife.”

Byrne plays a nameless cowboy who visits the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, an eccentric place full of quirky people, like a woman who is an outrageous liar, another woman who is so rich she never gets out of bed, a conspiracy theorist preacher, and a benevolent tech tycoon who hasn’t spoken to his wife in years. The town is preparing a celebration of specialness (the final syllable is stressed by all those who speak the word) in honor of their sesquicentennial, with such features as a mall fashion show, an unusual parade, a lip-sync competition, and the final, strange performance that one could call a talent show, but probably shouldn’t. If there is a main character other than the drifting cowboy, it’s Lewis (Goodman), a clean room technician at Varicorp, the local tech company that employs most of the people of Virgil. Lewis is a man looking for “matrimony with a capital ‘M’” who loves life, country music, and women, although what he wants more than anything is a wife who will appreciate his “consistent panda bear shape” and odd fashion sense.

The lifeblood of Virgil is its motley assortment of citizens, but the town’s economy is supported by Varicorp, manufacturer of microchips and other gadgets. Earl Culver (Gray) is the CEO and a local civic leader who loves the little town, and supports its growth philosophically as well as financially, and delivers some of the more socially intriguing dialogue in the film. Throughout, various characters provide their different viewpoints on (then) modern life, all of it charmingly endearing and prescient, although some monologues (like Culver’s dinnertime speech about the changing economy as the result of technological development, including the announcement that “there’s no concept of ‘weekends’ anymore!”) have aged better than others (like the Cowboy’s musings on the way that shopping malls have replaced downtowns as the cultural and social center of modern life). Many characters lack proper names, like the Nice Lady, who interrupts the parade of newborn babies to coo and fawn over every one of them but cannot tolerate even the mildest shadow of sadness, rejecting Lewis because of the formless melancholy of the country ballad he’s composing for the Celebration. There’s also the Lying Woman, a notable town figure who claims to have been at the center of the conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy, that she rejected Burt Reynolds despite his obsessive devotion to her, and that she has psychic powers born from having spent so much of her time as a child staring at the her own surgically removed vestigial tail (her mother later sold the oddity to LBJ, who in turn sold it to the Smithsonian for a pretty penny, so she claims).

Many would read this description and feel like the film is predicated upon mocking small towns and the people who live there, but the movie is actually utterly sympathetic to every character that appears on screen, even those who are in conflict with others. Byrne has admitted that the film’s inspiration came from reading tabloids while on the road and imagining a place where all the weirdos from these pages lived in a kind of harmony, which would also lead one to think that there would be a maliciousness in the voyeuristic peeks that we get into the lives of the citizens of this town. But no; life in Virgil has a melody and a magic, and no character is ever made out to be a fool or is treated with anything other than genuine respect by other characters as well as Byrne’s lens. Even ugly and featureless housing developments are gifted with an air of mystery and treated with a gentle tenderness. As the Cowboy drives through one and the camera pans slowly past discarded newspaper billowing in the wind like a tumbleweed across several balding lawns in front of featurelessly utilitarian brown brick homes, he asks “Who’s to say it’s not beautiful?”, and the every member of the audience must admit that, when viewed this way, none of them can make such a claim.

Uproariously funny, effortlessly poignant, and endlessly quotable, True Stories is the true celebration of specialness, a time capsule of unapologetic warmth and unconditional fondness for an oft-disparaged way of life. If you can track down a copy, sink your talons into it and never let it go. Watch the trailer here.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2018

There are 44 feature films nominated for the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony. We here at Swampflix are conspicuously more attracted to the lowbrow & the genre-minded than we are to stuffy Awards Season releases, so as usual we have reviewed little more than half of the films nominated (so far!). We’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees, though. In fact, this year’s nominations include three titles from our own Top Films of 2017 list, which is an incredibly rare occurrence, given the Academy’s historic distaste for the weirdo genre films we passionately seek out. In fact, two horror films from our Top 5 for the year are nominated for the highly prestigious categories of Best Picture & Best Director, a phenomenon I doubt we’ll ever see again (not that I wouldn’t love to be proven wrong). The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually choosing the winners (Moonlight’s surprise victory last year was a heartwarming exception to the rule), but as a list this selection isn’t half-bad in terms of representing the cultural landscape of 2017 cinema.

Listed below are the 25 Oscar-Nominated films from 2017 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best, based on our star ratings and where they placed on our own Top Films of 2017 list. Each entry is accompanied by a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

1. Get Out, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Daniel Kaluuya), Best Original Screenplay

“Instead of a virginal, scantily clad blonde running from a masked killer with an explicitly phallic weapon, Get Out aligns its audience with a young black man put on constant defense by tone deaf, subtly applied racism. Part horror comedy, part racial satire, and part mind-bending sci-fi, Peele’s debut feature not only openly displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form (directly recalling works as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Under the Skin, and any number of Wes Craven titles), it also applies that knowledge to a purposeful, newly exciting variation on those past accomplishments. Get Out knows what makes horror effective as a genre and finds new avenues of cultural criticism to apply that effect to instead of just mirroring what came before, no small feat for a debut feature.”

2. The Shape of Water, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Sally Hawkins), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Octavia Spencer), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Richard Jenkins), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

“Although Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t created with an American audience in mind, U.S. viewers could reject Vidal and his violence as being part of a different time and place, distancing themselves from his ideologies. Not so with Strickland, who lifts this veil of enforced rhetorical distance and highlights the fact that idealizing and period of the American past is nothing more than telling oneself a lie about history. It’s a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit to see such a horrible villain (admittedly/possibly a bit of a caricature, but with good reason) come undone and be overcome. It’s a further tonic to the soul to see him defeated by an alliance comprised of the ‘other’: a ‘commie,’ a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, and an older queer man.”

3. Logan, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay

“The one problem I’ve never had with the film version of Wolverine is Hugh Jackman’s consistently strong performance regardless of the variable quality of the material available, and this is his best work as the character to date. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that, for once, we’re not reflecting back on his mysterious past as we have in literally every movie in which he appeared in this franchise and are instead seeing a man at the end of his career and, perhaps, his life. Logan deals with the more mundane aspects of growing old, like obsolescence in a changing world, the dementia of an elderly father (figure), and the betrayal of his own aging body and the disease thereof, despite his much-touted healing factor. This is not a character who is obsessed with learning about (or altering) his past, but one for whom the past is prologue to a slow, painful existence in an all-too-real dystopian future.”

4. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, nominated for Best Visual Effects

“There’s no Infinity Stone MacGuffin here, and it’s a real break from the MCU’s usual storytelling machine that the narrative of GotG 2 isn’t motivated by set pieces, action sequences, or even plot, but by character. The only real example of this in the franchise thus far has been Winter Soldier, which was motivated by Cap’s desires to save one friend and avenge another, but even that film was organized around the plot of a conspiracy thriller as much as (if not more than) character motivation. Here, however, every choice and conflict is about character.”

5. The Florida Project, nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Willem Dafoe)

The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults.”

6. Call Me By Your Name, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Timothée Chalamet), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Song (“Mystery of Love”)

“This is the first Guadagnino film I’ve seen, and I am immensely impressed by his ability to create an atmosphere that is so appealing to all the senses. I could taste the fresh apricot juice as it was flowing down Oliver’s throat. I could feel the warmth of the sun as it was beaming down on Elio’s face. Even the use of music in the film was phenomenal. From the memorable sequence of Oliver dancing in his high socks and Converse shoes to The Psychedelic Furs hit, ‘Love My Way’ to Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Mystery of Love’ (nominated for Best Original Song) during Elio’s heartfelt moment of self-reflection, all of the film’s musical components add emphasis to these little moments.”

7. Faces Places, nominated for Best Documentary Feature

“Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Faces Places is the way it uses its adorable surface of kittens, friendship, and shameless puns to hide its deep well of radical politics. Varda & JR are very particular about the small-village subjects they select to interview, painting a portrait of a Europe composed almost entirely of farmers, factory workers, coal miners, waitresses, shipping dock unions, and other working-class archetypes. They pay homage to these subjects by blowing their portraits up to towering proportions, then pasting them to the exteriors of spaces they’ve historically occupied. More importantly, they involve these impromptu collaborators directly in the creative process, so they can feel just as much pride as artists as they feel as subjects. The project often feels like a playful, wholesome version of graffiti, which is always a political act (even if rarely this well-considered).”

8. Lady Bird, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Saoirse Ronan), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Laurie Metcalf), Best Original Screenplay

“It’s by no means one of the flashier filmmaking feats of the year, but there’s a pretty solid chance that something (if not everything) in Lady Bird will resonate with you on a personal level. Although a massive number of people respond to the picture by insisting Gerwig made it specifically for them, they can’t all be wrong. She’s speaking to her audience on a distinctively personal level, especially on issues of teen identity exploration and familial struggles with selfishness & class. The rapid fire editing and believably genuine performances from Ronan & Metcalf only serve to drive that vision home and make room for a memorable, personalized emotional response.”

9. Phantom Thread, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Lesley Manville), Best Costume Design, Best Original Score

“If you enter Phantom Thread looking for a modernist critique of the tyrannical Troubled Artist type set against a visually interesting backdrop & a sweeping, classy score, the movie is more than happy to oblige you. If you’re not laughing through the tension of the weaponized ‘polite’ exchanges between Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril Woodcock, though, I’m not sure you’re fully appreciating what the movie is offering. This really is one of the finest comedies I’ve seen in a while. It has a wickedly peculiar, distinct sense of humor to it that you won’t find in many other features, a comedic tone Reynolds himself would likely describe as ‘a little naughty.'”

10. Dunkirk, nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

“I’m usually unable to distinguish any particular World War II battlefield picture from the long, uniformed line that marched before it, but Nolan’s auteurist interests in things like time, intense sound design, and muted performances from actors like Tom Hardy & Cillian Murphy make Dunkirk feel like a wholly new, revitalizing take on the genre. Instead of checking my pulse for signs of life at the top of the second act, I found myself holding my breath in anxious anticipation throughout, due largely to Nolan’s technical skills as a craftsman and, in a recent turn starting with Interstellar, personal passion as a storyteller.”

11. Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, nominated for Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects

“Rian Johnson disrespectfully throws all fan theories in the trash, along with the consistency in lore that made them possible in the first place. It may sting the ego to discover you can no longer ‘figure out’ the future of a franchise you’ve spent your whole life obsessively studying as if it were a riddle with concrete answer, not a fluid work of art. However, by shaking up the rules & tones of what’s come before, Johnson has created so much more space for possibility in the future, for new & exciting things to take us by surprise instead of following the trajectory of set-in-stone texts. He’s made Star Wars freshly funny, unpredictable, and awkwardly nerdy again, when it was in clear danger of becoming repetitive, by-the-books blockbuster filmmaking routine instead. It’s an admirable feat, even if not an entirely successful one.”

12. Blade Runner 2049, nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects

“Remembering details from the narratives of either Blade Runner film is like grasping sand in your palm; over time it all slips away. Blade Runner 2049 lives up to its namesake in that way just as much as it does as a visual achievement. Its surface pleasures are lastingly awe-inspiring, but the substance of the macho neo noir story they serve is ephemeral at best.”

13. Mudbound, nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Mary J. Blige), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Song (“Mighty River”)

Mudbound is at its weakest when it’s tasked to convey a sense of grand scale scope it can’t deliver on an Online Content budget. The voiceover narration and scenes of tank & airplane warfare are where the seams of the limited budget show most egregiously. Rees still delivers a powerful punch whenever she can afford to, though, making sure that the muddy & blood details of Mudbound’s smaller moments hit with full, unforgiving impact.”

14. The Big Sick, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“Real life is obviously more complicated & unwieldy than any two hour romcom plot could contain. If The Big Sick were to capture the entirety of Kumail & Emily’s bizarre story, it’d be twice as long & half as funny than it is in its current, darkly hilarious, emotionally resonant state. I do think that time constraint limited the film’s potential to be its best self, however, since it downplayed a lot of the potential romantic partners in Kumail’s life to instead fully develop his relationship with Emily’s parents, only to double back to the romantic narrative as a convenient genre tool at the last minute.”

15. Loving Vincent, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“Like Russian Ark, Loving Vincent is a stunning visual achievement that will prove useful as a classroom tool that actually holds students’ attention. Unlike Russian Ark, it could have used more imagination & lyricism in its content to match the intensity of its form. There’s a mind-blowing animated work to be made out of this oil painting rotoscoping process now that the idea’s out there, but much like how The Jazz Singer was never going to be the all-time greatest example of the talkies, Loving Vincent isn’t representative of the extremes where that technique could be pushed.”

16. The Breadwinner, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“The movie would have been vastly improved if its most striking animation style wasn’t restrained to the piecemealed story-within-a-story fantasy sequences in favor of the more flat, typical CG look that guides most of the runtime. It’s more or less on par with Loving Vincent as the strongest contenders in this year’s anemic Best Animated Feature race, though. Even with my nagging frustrations, that nomination was well-deserved.”

17. The Greatest Showman, nominated for Best Original Song (“This Is Me”)

“I’ll admit that even as crass & silly as this movie is in every single frame, I got a little teary-eyed at the circus performers (especially the bearded lady) singing about how they’re ‘Not scared to be seen’ in the Oscar-nominated tune ‘This is Me.’ The characterizations of the circus performers can be just as insultingly artificial as the romances and the revision of P.T. Barnum’s exploitative history and everything else in the film, but that’s all part of The Greatest Showman’s tacky sense of proto-Vegas fun. It also does little to distract from the endearing, all-accepting, freaks-are-people-too messaging.”

18. War for the Planet of the Apes, nominated for Best Visual Effects

“If it weren’t for the presence of CG apes in its central roles or the movie’s lengthy, silent stretches of sign language communication, War for the Planet of the Apes wouldn’t feel much different from any number of big budget war movies or grim franchise-closers. It’s competently made and visually impressive. It’s got a strikingly sorrowful brutality to it that helps distinguish it slightly from the other bombastic works of calculated studio bloat floating out there in the summertime blockbuster heat. Still, titles like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or, better yet, Okja are exciting reminders that CG spectacle can be something much more idiosyncratic, more passionate, and more memorable than that.”

19. The Disaster Artist, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay

“Without a strong thematic foundation or point of view, The Disaster Artist plays a little like its worst possible self: an excuse for famous people to play dress-up as a funny looking weirdo who made an infamously bad movie. The good news is that if anyone deserves to be mocked by famous people for their moral & artistic shortcomings, it’s Tommy Wiseau. James Franco’s impersonation of Wiseau may be more fitting of a Celebrity Family Feud sketch on SNL than a feature with Oscar-contender ambitions, but he does (occasionally) make a point to highlight his subject’s dark, abusive streak.”

20. Kong: Skull Island, nominated for Best Visual Effects

“Maybe audiences more in tune with the basic thrills of war movies as a genre will feel differently, but I struggled to find anything in Kong: Skull Island worth holding onto. Its stray stabs at silliness didn’t push hard enough to save it from self-serious tedium and its Vietnam War metaphor wasn’t strong enough to support that tonal gravity. Everything else in-between was passable as a passive form of entertainment, but nothing worth getting excited over, much less building a franchise on.”

21. Coco, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, Best Original Song (“Remember Me”)

“I’d be a liar if I said individual family-dynamic moments didn’t pull my heartstrings by the film’s ending, but I was still largely negative on Coco as an overall messaging piece. As soon as Miguel’s first guitar was smashed in front of his crying face, he should have boarded on a bus out of town to find a new, less cruel community elsewhere. The clear dichotomy the movie establishes between either a) the virtue of staying with your family no matter how shitty they are to you or b) ‘selfishly’ branching out on your own to find a more hospitable environment sat with me in the wrong way. It was a thematic hurdle that all the pretty colors, goofy skeletons, and super cute canine sidekicks in the world couldn’t help me clear.”

22. Beauty and the Beast, nominated for Best Production Design, Best Costume Design

Beauty and the Beast shines brightest when it comes to the musical numbers executed by real people. In the opening sequence the choreography is fun and mesmerizing. Belle’s iconic opening number is full of wonderfully synchronized moves. It’s fun, until it gets to the castle. It’s fun until you have to witness a bunch of 3D animated flatware execute a Busby-Berkeley style number in a movie that’s supposed to be a live action remake. It just feels like such great irony.”

23. Baby Driver, nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

“I just felt let down that Edgar Wright abandoned his central Action Movie Cherbourg concept so quickly after following it to its furthest end in the opening credits. Whenever stray gunfire or gearshifts sync to the music in later scenes, it just feels like a distant echo of a better movie that could’ve been. Without its defining gimmick commanding every moment, Baby Driver feels alternately like post-Tarantino slick action runoff & a made-for-TV mockbuster version of the equally mythic, but infinitely more stylish Drive.”

24. I, Tonya, nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Margot Robbie), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Allison Janney), Best Film Editing

“The violence leveled on Harding throughout I, Tonya certainly makes her more of a recognizably sympathetic figure than what you’d gather from her news coverage. However, the nonstop beatings are near impossible to rectify with the Jared Hess-style Napoleon Dynamite quirk comedy that fill in the gaps between them. The film either doesn’t understand the full impact of the violence it portrays or is just deeply hypocritical about its basic intent.”

25. Three Billboard outside Ebbing Missouri, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Frances McDormand), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell), Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score

“Given Three Billboards’s Oscar nominations for Best Picture & Best Original Screenplay (among others), I suspect many audiences read its ‘non-PC’ demeanor to be bravely truthful about ‘how things really are’ in the American South. I personally found it to be empty, pseudo-intellectual macho posturing, like watching an #edgy stand-up comedian get off on ‘triggering snowflakes’ in a two hour-long routine that supposedly has something revolutionary to say about life & humanity, but is covertly just a reinforcement of the status quo.”

-The Swampflix Crew

Black Panther (2018)

Oh man oh man oh man, the magic duo of people’s sexiest man alive Michael B. Jordan (not to be confused with People‘s Sexiest[?] Man Alive[?] Blake Shelton[?]) and Ryan Coogler has done it again. Black Panther is as fantastic as we were all hoping, and I’m super excited that Marvel Studios finally started using the privilege of being this generation’s premiere film franchise (for better or worse) to finally push forward with an explicit intersectional, anti-colonialism, and afro-positive message. I’m here for this, and you should be too.

It’s been a little less than two years since I wrote out my thoughts on Marvel’s race problem, which I drafted up in response to the whitewashing of the character of the Ancient One in the then-upcoming Doctor Strange film. That film was a disappointment on more levels than that (there’s a reason our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. coverage hasn’t resumed, as every time I think about rewatching Strange I get depressed) Since then, superhero broadcast and cinematic media has gotten better about addressing the ongoing issues that are shaking the foundations of our society, and even our democracy. For instance: Supergirl continuing to knock it out of the park as far as political commentary goes, from Cat Grant’s speech in the season two finale (appropriately entitled “Nevertheless She Persisted”) to the show’s episodic intro for this season (“My name is Kara Zor-El. I’m from Krypton. I’m a refugee on this planet.”). The CW also premiered Black Lightning at the beginning of this year, which I’m also finding both to be both moving and entertaining in addition to drawing more attention to issues that middle America tends to ignore. In the first episode alone, our hero Jefferson Pierce faced disproportionate police violence against communities of color, the preponderance of racial profiling in America, the bias of media when reporting on black citizens in comparison to treatment of white citizens. Our media should and must address these vitally important issues that demand attention and discussion in our culture right now, when the Attorney General is using (barely) coded language to signal to white supremacists that they have tacit approval from and are welcome to be part of law enforcement amidst dozens of other horrors.

I’m speaking out of my lane a bit here, as neither a woman or a person of color, and I’ll be the first person to admit to that. I’m not the final word on this, and I have no authority to speak to these matters. What I do have is a responsibility to do so. As Bell Hooks tells us in Homegrown: “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege” (emphasis mine), and as such I want to take a second to talk about Star Trek: Discovery (I know, I know, but hear me out). The Star Trek franchise flirted with queer themes a number of times before this most recent series with episodes like TNG‘s “The Outcast” and DS9‘s “Rejoined,” but those episodes, when they discussed queer identities and presences in society, did so with a reliance on metaphor to distance the characters from the “taint” of homosexuality in the getting-better-but-still-not-great nineties. In Discovery, when we finally see Dr. Culber and Lieutenant Stamets standing at their sink and brushing their teeth together, then stealing a quick kiss, I cried. It’s hardly important, not plot-relevant (at least at the time), and part of me wants to decry that this is barely good enough, and yet… seeing, for the very first time, a reflection of myself in the fictional universe that had meant so much to me elicited an emotional reaction for which I was not prepared. Culber and Stamets—Hugh and Paul—were not victims. They weren’t dying of AIDS or as the result of violence, neither was the butt of a joke or a sassy best friend, they weren’t having to face systemic oppression or deny their birthrights to be together; they simply were.

People of black African descent watching Black Panther will have some of the same feelings I had watching Discovery and other feelings as well. There are better and clearer thinkers out there from whom you should be getting this information, but just in case Swampflix is the only website you read and are under a cultural embargo in every other way, listen up: there’s no one-to-one correlation between the experiences of one marginalized group and another, and the history of colonialism is baked into every single facet of contemporary life. The current progressive discourse is about intersectionality and rising higher by lifting each other and standing shoulder to shoulder, but white people like myself are still the beneficiaries of a social order built virtually entirely to ensure our supremacy and maintain a status quo that keeps the reigns of power in white (or, given the current political situation, orange) hands. If you’re capable of empathy and the most basic building blocks of open-mindedness, you either already know this or are not surprised, but down here on the ground in flyover country, even in a progressive urban enclave like Austin, we’re still trying to get the White Gays™ understand intersectionality even just a little bit. Their claims of having have an “inner black woman” are misogynoir in the first degree, their vocal disgust at people of size is fascism of the body, the sexual fetishization of black men is racism, and the claim that sexual attraction to only one (or all but one) ethnicity is “just a preference” is, at its core, a statement of “I treat people differently based on the color of their skin.” Institutionalized homophobia and racism are both legacies of colonialism that (just in case the people in the back didn’t hear me the first time) is a factor in every level of Western society; we’re struggling to slough off like so much dead skin, but some people will take any small advantage that they have without a moment’s hesitation or a second thought to those whom they may be stepping over. That’s something that the alt-right is happy to take advantage of.

I’m sure that, among readers with a moral philosophy that differs from the values I hold, this will be interpreted as some bleeding heart liberal cuck virtue signaling. Maybe a review of Black Panther isn’t the place for me to air my grievances with the White Gays™ and the fact that even my beloved Supergirl anchors itself pretty solidly in the garden of white feminism; I’ve gone a bit off track, but I just wanted to point out to you, dear reader, that even if you are not a person of color, Black Panther is still a movie you ought to see, and basic empathy means that you should be able to grasp some small part of the immeasurable importance of this film, even if its message of empowerment isn’t aimed at you directly. Despite the issues within my own community, I as an individual recognize the awesome power that representation has, and moreso the power of representation that forsakes the trappings of the meager pittances of visibility that came before. Not every movie about The Gays has to be Philadelphia, not every trans* movie has to be Boys Don’t Cry, and not every movie about the black experience has to be 12 Years a Slave. Representation can and must transcend dramatization and metaphor-making of real world trauma; the past and the framework it created for contemporary existence cannot be denied, but looking to the future is important too. This movie may not be for you, but you will be better for having seen it, and the huge numbers of white Americans who would never pay to see a movie with an (almost) all black cast were it not a Marvel property will also be better for it. This is a film company that has become an indomitable box office powerhouse using that power for good, and that’s worth celebrating.

Away we go! Black Panther picks up shortly after Civil War, showing T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the technologically advanced isolationist African nation of Wakanda, preparing to take on the mantle of king after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) in that film. He retrieves his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from the mission she is on as a “war dog,” a term for Wakandan spies living in other nations, and returns home to be greeted by his mother, Queen Ramonda (actual goddess Angela Bassett), and tech wiz younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). His coronation is preceded by ceremonial combat, in which he engages M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a different tribe, for control of the throne. Filling out his coterie are: General Okoye (Danai Gurira, who steals the show), leader of the Dora Milaje, elite female warriors who serve as kingsguard; spiritual leader, tender of the garden of heart-shaped herbs that give the Black Panther his power, and overseer of the transition of power Zuri (Forest Whitaker), who also hides a shameful secret; and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), T’Challa’s confidante and Okoye’s lover. Meanwhile, a literal and figurative world away, American black operative Erik Stephens (Jordan), aka Killmonger, has teamed with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, reprising his role from Age of Ultron) to raid Wakanda in order to steal vibranium, the precious metal that fell to earth long ago and accelerated the technological advancements of Wakanda far beyond its neighbors. Stephens, however, has a greater purpose than Klaue has dreamed, and their machinations lead T’Challa to reunite with American CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). Unexpected revelations occur, the long-term reverberations of a shameful act that happened in 1992 echo through the present, and fierce debates about the potential for colonialist interventionism to arise from pure and honest intentions, the de facto violence of isolationism in a world teetering on the precipice, and the wisdom of building bridges versus the foolishness of building walls arise.

That’s a lot of discourse to wrap up in a 134 minute superhero film that has to introduce nearly a dozen heretofore unseen characters, establish vital information about the history of a fictional nation that is unlike any society in the real world, and create a stunning afro-futurism aesthetic that looks cooler than anything else we’ve seen before in this franchise (only the colorful world of Ragnarok really comes close). On top of that, the film also has to give the audience the action thrills that they’ve come to expect: a (badass) car chase, two slugfests on a waterfall outcropping, a (kind of forgettable) opening sequence under the cover of darkness, a casino shootout, and the final climactic battle. But Coogler manages to compress all of those things into that runtime, and churns out an early contender for one of the best movies of the year. Just like Get Out last year, this is a February release that I predict will continue to be part of the conversation for quite some time to come. Granted, Disney is essentially a national economy unto itself, and this is a “product” for them in the strictest sense, but Marvel Studios seems to have learned the lesson that getting out of the way and letting their directors have extensive creative control makes for better art (who could have guessed?). The only bad thing about creating a movie with so many rich layers and elements is that it’s almost impossible to decide where to begin discussion.

First things first: I can see why this movie is making racists angry, especially those who hate being called out on being the recipients of the benefits of being the descendants of colonizers. Ross is explicitly called a colonizer, and much hay is made of the fact that Wakanda has only managed to reach their staggering technological achievements because of the nation’s isolationism, made explicit in the text by showing other African states being devastated by the slave trade in the film’s opening moments. I come from a rural white family and have family members on Facebook, so I know what its like, as I assume you do, to see the same people who want to “Never Forget” incidents like 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the Alamo, and whatever else you can put a name on that involved Americans being heroic in the face of tragedy (although what defines “heroism” and “tragedy” varies from ideology to ideology, especially when talking about something like the Alamo) but are also vocally resistant to movies like the aforementioned 12 Years a Slave, saying things like “why can’t the past be the past?” I’d wager that no matter what walk of life you come from, you’ve got at least one of these people in your social network because of family or work connections; they’re probably going to hate this movie, because this ideology so often goes hand-in-hand with disliking any art made by people of color, regardless of quality (funny that), although they usually couch it in the rhetoric of “it’s not for me” or “I just don’t understand because it’s not something I know.”

And that is not to say that the film is without flaw. Of all the conspiracy nonsense out there, one that I hate the most is the “ancient astronauts” theory. Ever since Erich von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods? in 1968, the idea that various architectural wonders of the ancient world were inspired by extraterrestrial contact has gained wide acceptance among the irrational, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the History Channel’s passive approval of the idea with the launch of TV shows like Ancient Aliens. But the truth of the matter is that the “paleo contact” and “ancient astronauts” hypotheses are also part of a colonial narrative. Europeans in Africa and the New World saw the ziggurats and pyramids that had been built using rope, stone, wood, and gumption and said to themselves “Well, sure Monte d’Accoddi and the Hulbjerg Jættestue and Newgrange were ancient structures that our ancestors built with primitive tools, but how on earth did these non-white pagans do it? [Snaps] That’s it! There’s no way that they could have expressed such ingenuity… on earth. They must have had help from spacemen!” I’ll admit that I’m a huge nerd and, frankly, very little would make me happier than any sort of evidence of extraterrestrial contact, but this “theory” and all the “evidence” for it starts from the presupposition that non-whites outside of Europe were inherently savage and incapable of the same architectural feats as their European contemporaries. This concept was manufactured out of nothing based on the core idea of denying African and South American ingenuity. Again, this is a long aside, but the reason that I bring this up is that there is a smidgen of this in Black Panther, as Wakanda’s futuristic nature is only possible because of the presence of vibranium. One could argue that Black Panther devalues and undermines African inventiveness in much the same way as von Däniken and his followers by showing a nation that is only exceptional because of an external event; on the other hand, real world history often demonstrates that nations can rise and fall based upon the presence or absence of certain natural resources, and that the film treats the abundance of vibranium beneath Wakanda’s surface as such. As a potential problematic issue in the text, it’s minor, but something I expect to generate an inevitable argument about how “Black Panther isn’t as progressive as you think” in the coming weeks. There’ll probably be some complaints about the monarchic nature of Wakanda as well, despite that the potentiality of abuse of power within that method of governance is addressed pretty explicitly in the text.

Everything else is amazing. It’s beautiful. As excited as I was to see this movie, I’m glad that I waited until it was in its second weekend, and that we’re going to be pushing back the publication of this review. As I was reading Shoshana Kessock’s essay “The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman” this morning while waiting for the bus, she perfectly encapsulated my feelings about this: “[T]here are other voices than mine which should take precedent [sic] in a conversation about a film so strongly impacting people of color right now. There are so many writers of color putting out thoughtful, insightful articles about Black Panther that I felt it was important for me […] to sit back and listen without stepping in and having my say.” I have so much more that I want to say about the movie, but it’s important now for me to stop taking up your time with this writing and send you forth into the world to see the movie, read the brilliant discourse that the film has created (here, here, here, and here are good places to start, and this is a counterpoint that raises interesting issues), and be excellent to each other.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond