Capone (2020)

I’m not sure that Josh Trank bounced back from his career-imploding misfire Fant4stic (2015) with a better film, but he’s certainly returning to the scene with a more memorable & entertaining one. Trank’s misshapen Al Capone biopic stands alone in a genre defined only one other film to date: Venom (2018), by which I mean it’s a tragically bland nothing of a movie that Tom Hardy’s bizarro performance transforms into a riotous good time through sheer force of will. Trank wrote, directed, and edited Capone himself, so you think you’d be able to credit some of the film’s entertainment value to his guiding hand. Yet, his dialogue, direction, and editing choices are all so aggressively uninteresting that it’s a miracle any audience could sit through the entire picture without slipping into a coma. Tom Hardy alone is the source of that miracle, and it’s his batshit performance that transforms Capone into something truly remarkable, even if just remarkably laughable.

Capone covers only the final year of the notorious gangster’s life, which he spent under house arrest while left senile by neurosyphilis at the age of 48. Trank attempts to use this syphilitic madness as a device that allows the narrative to surreally drift through time & space as Capone’s mind wanders through his own memories, feeling immense guilt over the violence he commissioned at the height of his Chicago crime boss days. There’s no sense of purpose or immersive atmosphere to these drifts through Capone’s subconscious, though. When the movie’s over you’re left pondering if it had anything to say about violence, guilt, syphilis, Capone, or anything at all. The movie has no discernible reason to exist except in giving Tom Hardy the freedom to run wild in the titular role. Luckily for Trank, Hardy more than makes up for any & all filmmaking deficiencies by turning Capone into a one-man freak show. Against all odds, the film truly is a spectacle.

With none of the film’s stylistic or narrative elements being compelling enough to get in his way, Tom Hardy is given the greenlight to transform Capone into a series of Nic Cagian stunts. His demented vision of the titular gangster is horrifically grotesque. He mumbles incoherently in a garbled growl more appropriate for a talking trash can than a human being. He dresses in old biddy drag, fires pistols at alligators, belts out his showtunes from The Wizard of Oz, and fires a gold-plated Tommy gun at his friends & family while aimlessly wandering the grounds of his mansion in a soiled diaper. Admittedly, all these stunts were written into the screenplay, so it’s not as if Hardy ad-libbed the film’s saving graces. He’s just responsible for making them fun to watch in a bewildering sideshow act kind of way that we normally only allow Nic Cage to perform. It has got to be the most compelling, amusingly outrageous performance you’ll ever see where a main character pisses, shits, and pukes themselves for the entire runtime while staring directly at the audience with grotesquely bloodshot eyes.

I’m embarrassed by how much fun I had with Capone. By most reasonable metrics, it’s a terrible film, one that’s only dragged down by the eye-rolling decisions made by its commanding auteur. Why hire El-P to produce a score if his work is going to be so anonymous that the audience forgets that factoid immediately after seeing his name in the opening credits? Why cast eternally loveable performers like Linda Cardellini & Kyle MaClachlan just so they can sit around watching Tom Hardy do his thing? Why the fuck do you think the world needs a ~spooky~ rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “Blueberry Hill?” Who is any of this for? It ultimately doesn’t matter. All things considered, this is a much more memorable, entertaining, and overly ambitious take on the pathetic-mobster-geezer-regretting-his-evil-deeds story than the infinitely more competent The Irishman, so it really doesn’t matter how it got there. I would watch Tom Hardy shit his pants on an infinite loop if the results were always going to be this fun.

-Brandon Ledet

Butt Boy (2020)

I am saddened to report that the prestigious motion picture Butt Boy is the absolute worst new release I’ve seen so far this year. That’s right; the festival darling that’s been earning such accolades as “a constipated would-be cult comedy” & “a strained, clenched exercise in fanny fiction” didn’t turn out to be as worthwhile of an experience as I expected, by which I mean I felt like Michael Bluth opening a sandwich bag labeled “DEAD DOVE Do Not Eat!” It’s a shame too, because Butt Boy’s over-the-top premise could have easily been deployed for something delightfully, memorably absurd, only for that potential to be deflated by its lethal overdose of hipster irony & edgelord humor. Butt Boy has a great logline & title, which is a small consolation for the 100 minutes of poisonous tedium that follows that initial delight.

A desperately bored office drone finds a new, highly addictive joy in life: sticking increasingly risky objects up his butt – starting with bars of soap & television remotes and gradually escalating to entire human beings. This supernatural, rectal crime spree is disrupted when he is assigned to be the AA sponsor of an alcoholic police detective who improbably uncovers his evil supernatural deeds. It’s an unashamedly idiotic premise that the film plays straight, as if it were a very special episode of CSI: Uranus, which at least saves it from fully treading into Sharknado-infested “bad”-on-purpose waters. Still, the movie doesn’t have anything especially fresh or nuanced to say about addiction, prostate pleasure, or midlife ennui. Beyond the novelty of it functioning as a Macho counterpoint to the recent body horror chiller Swallow, the entire film is basically one joke repeated over & over again: “Isn’t it hilarious when cis men shove things up their ass?” Spoiler: it’s not.

I should have been wise enough to bail within the first ten minutes of Butt Boy. At the very least, an early scene where the titular antihero discovers the pleasures of anal play when a doctor aggressively assaults him during a prostate exam should have been a tip-off that this film was not coming from a good place. Its penchant for latent homophobia & edgelord provocation only worsens from there, as it takes cheap shots at such delightful topics as cerebral palsy, suicide, and child abduction for easy shock humor. Way to punch up, assholes. I could probably also get worked up over the way the film (unknowingly?) equates prostate play with pedophilia, considering how the protagonist moans in pleasure whenever inserting objects into himself—including multiple young boys—but fully taking offense would be giving the film more effort than it’s worth. It’s thinly considered in both its writing and its execution, so I guess my engagement with it should remain just as shallow.

Butt Boy stinks. I suppose I’m somewhat glad I watched it just to I confirm that I still have standards, as most reviews on this site tend to range from positive to ecstatic. Otherwise, it was the movie equivalent of being locked in a hot car with Dad Farts and rolled-up windows: an excruciating experience only a bully would put someone through.

-Brandon Ledet

Aquaslash (2020)

Anyone who’s deathly allergic to “bad”-on-purpose, winking-at-the-camera horror novelties like Zombeavers, Sharknado, or Hobo with a Shotgun should beware this review, because I’m about to be a lot kinder to the genre than it likely deserves.

Aquaslash is a retro novelty slasher about a killer waterpark slide that’s rigged with giant blades to chop idiot teens into pieces. The film is built entirely around setting up & executing that singular gore gag, so it has to save all of its bloodbath payoffs for the final 20 minutes. It’s cheap, it’s mean, it’s silly and, at only 70min in length, it barely registers as an actual movie. I still found myself ultimately having a great time with it despite my better judgement, though, which mostly came down to the film’s one saving grace: its central waterslide kill gimmick. The movie may be embarrassingly thin, absurdly insincere, and entirely reliant on one idea, but that idea is so impressively stupid and well-executed that it’s somehow worth the effort it takes to get there.

The setup to this film feels like any other post-Asylum exercise in ironic camp horror, but the follow-through is refreshingly sleazy in that context. Recent graduates from the fictional Valley Hills High School celebrate with a wild party weekend at the (equally goofily named) Wet Valley Water Park. This celebration is explained to be a tradition dating back to the 1980s, which allows the film to play around with Totally 80s™ nostalgia clichés in its 50-minute lead up to the waterslide gore promised in the title. That sounds like a mood-ruiner in the abstract, and it sometimes is when it comes to forced nostalgia signifiers like an abysmally shitty rock cover of Cory Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night.” However, it at least fully embraces the inherent sleaze of 80s slasher in a way that feels shockingly out of place in this kind of winking-at-the-camera novelty.

This is maybe the most enthusiastically committed illustration of Straight Guy™ sexuality I’ve seen since the hair metal music video was king. Young women’s bikini-clad breasts are used as bouncing eye-distractors, cocaine-sniffing surfaces, and splash zones for blacklight neon splooge – anything (within reason) they can get away with doing to titties to fill time before it can pull the trigger on the last-minute gore. That indulgence would be offensive if it weren’t so cornily outdated in a way that felt genuinely retro. As is, it’s overtly sexist the way an old stack of Playboys can be: quaintly so.

Bikini Babes & inane teenage drama are plentiful here; the gore is something you have to work for. The killer waterslide gag itself is truly incredible, though, and I believe the movie is short & harmless enough to get away with the delay. More importantly, it genuinely commits to the grotesque sleaze of the era it’s nostalgic for, as opposed to the Asylum style of retro novelty filmmaking that would rather pave over those unpleasantries with referential jokes & Z-list celebrity stunt casting. The sex is actually vulgar; the practical-effects violence is grotesque. All in all, this might be the best possible version of this kind of “bad”-on-purpose novelty that gives away its one original idea in its trailer & poster. My only major complaint, really, is that it should have been titled Slaughterpark.

-Brandon Ledet

Extra Ordinary (2020)

It was only a matter of time before Taika Waititi’s brand of sweet, understated humor started registering as a direct influence on other comedic media. I already felt that influence last year on the minor Kiwi comedy The Breaker Upperers (which was produced by Waititi and featured several of his regular collaborators), but this year’s Extra Ordinary feels like evidence that it’s now reaching out even further into the ether. Borrowing a humble, reserved approach to the horror comedy genre that Waititi previously explored in What We Do in the Shadows, Extra Ordinary is an absurdly polite, underplayed farce about ghost hunters in small-town Ireland. It’s not quite as comedically successful as Waititi’s modern-day vampire comedy (nor the What We Do in the Shadows TV show, nor its closest competitor Los Espookys), but it does nail the lowkey charm that made it such a success. This is an adorably sweet, character-driven comedy about relatable people dealing with a seemingly insurmountable crisis they don’t deserve to suffer; that crisis just happens to involve demons, ghosts, and other supernatural phenomena.

A meek, reclusive driving instructor with a past as a paranormal medium (Maeve Higgins) is drawn out of her shell to help stop a washed-up rock star (Will Forte) from completing a Satanic sacrifice that would revive his career. The ghosts she encounters along the way are mostly pretty mundane, taking the shape of animated electrical appliances, squawking birds, and a domestically abusive, chain-smoking housewife. She reluctantly gets back into the rhythm of interacting with these apparitions for the sake of saving her nemesis’s intended virgin sacrifice. That sounds like a heroic cause in the abstract, but the process mostly involves making her equally shy love interest vomit up a semen-like ectoplasm after briefly engaging each ghost in a polite chat. Even the Satanic ritual at the climax is undercut from achieving anything genuinely Cool or Horrific by mundane interruptions like minor traffic accidents, bickering couples, and Chinese food delivery. It’s an extremely silly, absurd movie when considered in totality, but in the moment everything is so aggressively pleasant that its cartoonish qualities don’t immediately register.

It takes a minute for Extra Ordinary’s sense of humor to fully heat up, by which I mean that it takes the audience a minute to adjust to its characters’ peculiarly muted wavelengths. The film is plenty funny once it builds that momentum, though, and it eventually stages a hugely satisfying farcical payoff in its final Satanic showdown that makes everything that preceded feel like a movie-long setup to a remarkably solid punchline. It traffics in grotesque, horrific scenarios involving demonic possessions, domestic abuse, and paranormal sex fluids, but the characters who navigate them are so quietly sweet that you hardly notice how harsh or over-the-top the whole thing feels from afar. It’s close enough to the Waititi formula that you recognize the influence, but specific enough in its own characterizations that it succeeds at being its own distinct thing. It’s also the kind of comedy that likely rewards repeat viewings, since it centers remarkably sweet characters you can’t help but want to spend more time with once you get to know them.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #113 of The Swampflix Podcast: Scream, Queen! (2020) & Mark Patton’s Nightmare on Elm Street

Welcome to Episode #113 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee revisit the most hotly debated outlier in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), with a particular focus on its homophobic & homoerotic subtext as detailed in the documentaries Scream, Queen! (2020) & Never Sleep Again (2010). Enjoy!

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

– Britnee Lombas, James Cohn, and Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Marjoe (1972)

Our current Movie of the Month, the behind-the-scenes Christian evangelist exposé Marjoe, is one of the more captivating specimens of the “Direct Cinema” movement of the 1970s. It recalls both a politically subversive, Maysles Brothers-style documentary and a subversive take on the concert film, gawking at the stage performances of a lapsed Christian preacher who doesn’t believe his own sermons but needs to keep the show on the road to in order to pay the bills. Since both the movie’s form (1970s direct-cinema documentary filmmaking) and its broader subject (financial exploitation in modern Christian evangelism) have become somewhat familiar to audiences over the decades—however powerful—the most unique factor at play here is Marjoe Gortner himself: a bizarre, charismatic creature who was trained (read: tortured) from a young age to be a kind of sideshow performer in the name of the Lord. As a result, recommending further viewing for Marjoe fans must take into account Gortner’s idiosyncratic characteristics as a screen presence more so than the circumstances of the film itself.

It’s difficult to be mindful of just how politically incendiary Marjoe would have been when it was released a half-century ago. Its peek behind the scenes of Southern-fried religious exploitation has become such familiar territory in the decades since that it now has a sitcom version in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. At the time, though, its anti-evangelism subject was considered so taboo that it wasn’t theatrically distributed anywhere in the American South. It may have taken home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, but if you lived anywhere south of De Moines, Iowa, chances are you never got a chance to see it until it hit home video decades later. Because of the film’s uniquely 1970s politics and the distinct peculiarities of Marjoe Gortner himself, it’s difficult to recommend many films that entirely overlap with its subject or mood. Unfortunately, though, Gortner is not the only sideshow attraction preacher out there with a morbid life story to tell.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema on its eccentric, politically subversive wavelength.

Jesus Camp (2006)

One of the most electrifying sequences in Marjoe is the hotel room debriefing early in the film when Gortner preps the hippie documentary crew on how to act while socializing among Evangelicals, as if they were going into war behind enemy lines. This unspoken culture war between documentarian & subject immediately reminded me of the 2006 doc Jesus Camp, which chilled me to my core when I first saw it in college. Jesus Camp is careful not to tip its hand in revealing its political POV, at least not as overtly as in Marjoe‘s hotel room debriefing. Instead, it allows the Christian Evangelists it documents to define the battle lines as they see it. In their own words, the Evangelists claim they are engaged in a genuine Culture War with secularists, declaring “We want to reclaim America for Christ.” For once, it’s not the countercultural hippie artists who are being honest about the moral combat perpetrated by well-funded Christians with a pathological persecution complex; the fascists just openly, proudly admit what they’re up to.

Much of what makes Marjoe Gortner such a fascinating subject is that he was profoundly fucked up by an abusive childhood that trained him to be a sideshow Child Preacher in order to fatten his parents’ pockets. By the time the documentary catches up with him, however, those abuses are in the distant past, represented only by a few scratchy audio recordings & still photographs. Jesus Camp documents Evangelist indoctrination of young children in real time. Threatened with eternal damnation in torturous Hellfire if they don’t speak in tongues or if they dare enjoy secular pop music (or any other minor indulgence that doesn’t directly honor God), the children of Jesus Camp are deliberately warped by the adults around who run their Christian-themed summer camp (most notably head camp pastor Becky Fischer, the most infuriating villain in the history of cinema). The adults proudly boast that they’re indoctrinating the kids to become “prayer warriors” to fight in an ideological army for George W. Bush & the Republican Party – the exact kind of militarized Christian voter devotion that now keeps Trump in office all these years later, despite him being the least Christian man alive. The children are scared out of their little minds and just follow along as best as they can, lest they burn in Hell forever for minor infractions against God’s Will.

The icing on the cake in this pairing is that one of the central subjects that arises in Jesus Camp is a child preacher who uses his youth as a gimmick to draw attention to his sermons. Seeing how that schtick worked out for Gortner in the long run, I sincerely hope that kid got out okay after the cameras stopped rolling.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)

Not all Evangelists are as villainous as Jesus Camp‘s Becky Fischer. If Marjoe Gortner’s any proof, they can even be weirdly lovable (even if still mildly terrifying). Case in point: Tammy Faye Bakker, former televangelist and unlikely queer icon (thanks to her public embrace of gay men during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis in the 80s & 90s). From her trademark spackled eye makeup to her Evangelist puppet shows to her former Christian water park empire, Tammy Faye Bakker is a kind of nightmarishly unreal public figure, but she’s also unexpectedly sweet & adorable once you get past her eccentric surface. Her own documentary is not as prestigious or artfully crafted as Marjoe Gortner’s, but it may function as better PR, as it allows her to charm the audience for as long as she feels like chattering.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a shamelessly trashy documentary that allows Tammy Faye Bakker to tell her rise-to-televangelist-fame story in her own words, while also openly having campy fun with the details. Made by the same production company that has since sunk all its efforts into the RuPaul’s Drag Race empire, World of Wonder, the film has a deliberately cheap, made-for-TV tone. It effectively feels like a spoof of sensationalist true-crime reporting on 90s television, right down to RuPaul living his full Behind the Music fantasy as the narrator. The movie catches Faye after the most incredible chapters of her life have closed (as opposed to Marjoe, which documents Gortner while he’s still active on the Evangelist circuit), but her bubbly, bizarro personality and her history as one of the very first televangelist celebrities more than makes up for its timing. She even offers a universally detestable villain for the audience to hiss at while describing the figures behind her professional downfall: Jerry Fucking Falwell, the devil himself.

The WOW boys have almost too much fun while playing up Tammy’s inescapable camp value. They even use her vintage puppet characters to announce the chapter titles between her rambling anecdotes. Not every documentary has to be as politically fired-up as Marjoe or Jesus Camp to be worthwhile, however, and at least this one’s puppet show goofballery appears to have been the inspiration for Drag Race‘s beloved puppet challenge (Tammy Faye offhandedly uses the phrase “Everybody loves puppets” in a scene where she’s pitching TV shows to a bewildered producer who doesn’t know what to do with her).

Starcrash (1978)

While Tammy Faye is oddly charismatic in a similar way, there’s no substitute for Marjoe Gortner himself. I was delighted to discover after watching his own documentary that Gortner was able to leverage the film’s notoriety into a modest career as a B-movie actor in the 1970s. His hammy, off-kilter charisma is perfect for cheap-o genre filmmaking, which are always benefited by eccentric oddballs who audiences would never see in better-funded, better-regulated productions. Besides, it’s fun to imagine an alternate reality where Gortner’s acting career really took off and you could buy official Marjoe® wigs at every Halloween costume store. We were so close to making that happen!

The jewel of Gortner’s B-movie repertoire seems to be the Roger Corman production Starcrash, a shameless Italian knockoff of Star Wars. Even among other eccentric personalities (and legitimate actors) like David Hasselhoff, Christopher Plummer, and Caroline Munro, Gortner stands out as a captivating oddity. There are space aliens, metallic giantesses, and retro-futuristic bikini babes all over the picture, but it’s Gortner’s Orphan Annie curls and weirdo charisma that always draws the eye whenever he’s onscreen. The movie makes as much use of his weirdo charisma as it can, casting him as a telepathic, superpowered space alien with a laser sword (not to be confused with a lightsaber). Even the booming voice that overdubs his dialogue only accentuates his unconventional screen presence. It reminded me of when Muppets in Space explained Gonzo’s origins as a space alien who crash landed to Earth; it’s the first time his presence on this planet really made sense.

While it can be a little boring in patches, Starcrash is mostly fun, delirious late-night trash. It has no original ideas or clear sense of purpose (there’s a Millennium Falcon on its official poster), but goddamn if it isn’t beautiful. It’s so cheaply, gaudily lit & costumed that it stumbles into some genuine psychedelia that any cheap-o space adventure movie should envy. Gortner’s presence only enhances that entertainment value, which I believe would be true even without knowing the backstory of his Evangelist past. Something about seeing him in space just feels right; I wish he could have travelled there more often.

-Brandon Ledet

VHYES (2020)

I’m frequently surprised by how little respect sketch comedy anthology movies get in general, but something about VHYES‘s muted reception feels especially egregious. Structurally, the film harkens back to the channel-surfing absurdism of 1970s cult classics like The Groove Tube & Kentucky Fried Movie, tying together a collection of unrelated, retro-styled comedy sketches by mimicking the uneven rhythms of a home-made VHS “mixtape”. Combining spoofs of assorted late-80s cable access garbage with a fictional home movie wraparound, the film is on its surface a shameless indulgence in retro VHS-era nostalgia. The individual gags are solid, though, and are elevated by the participation of LA comedy scene goofballs like Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenni, Charlyne Yi, John Gemberling, and Mark Proksch. What really distinguishes VHYES, however, is how it uses its wraparound structure to give those sketches a surreal, menacing sense of purpose. As a whole, the film evokes the eerie delirium of flipping channels past midnight, blurring the border between what’s onscreen and what’s an oncoming dream. It’s a loose collection of varyingly successful sketches the way most anthology comedies are, but the unexpected sincerity & deft of its wraparound story breaks through that classic structure to uncover something freshly exciting & praiseworthy that’s rarely achieved in the genre.

Filmed entirely on actual VHS & Betamax deadstock, the comedy sketches that comprise most of VHYES are a collection of parodies of late-80s ephemera: Bob Ross painting tutorials, violently paranoid Security System commercials, QVC shopping showcases, Cinemaxxx era softcore, etc. The wraparound story initially exists as an excuse for all these vintage spoofs to commingle. On Christmas Day, 1987, a child is gifted a VHS camcorder and unknowingly begins recording experiments with the format over his parents’ wedding tape. Amazed that he can record live television to watch later at his convenience, the boy sets out to make the ultimate VHS mixtape, creating a Burroughs-style cut-up montage by surfing channels late into the night, filming sub-America’s Funniest Home Videos pranks with his buddy, and unknowingly leaving blank space for his parents’ wedding to interrupt his D.I.Y. art project. The bizarre rhythm of these images alternating in a believable, disorienting cycle is outright hypnotic. And once the movie has you in a state of late-night channel-surfing delirium, it crashes all three levels of its taped reality (the “found footage” sketches, the pranks, and the wedding) into one subliminally horrifying nightmare. Early in the film, one of the sketches warns that the VHS camcorder’s ubiquity in the home will inspire a newfound, wide-scale techno-narcissism that will incite the fall of mankind. By the end, I was nearly convinced that was true and that we’re just now reaching Phase 2 of that downfall.

VHYES is post-Adult Swim filmmaking at its finest: lean, strange, and menacingly absurd. Anyone who’s spent more than ten minutes watching a Tim & Eric or PFFR project will be familiar with the kind of delirious, weaponized nostalgia on display here. If it were just a loose collection of gross-out, retro-styled sketches I wouldn’t be praising it so emphatically. (Okay, if Kuso is any indication, maybe I would be.) I really do feel like the unconventional wraparound narrative of this film transcends the conventions of its channel-surfing sketch comedy genre, if not only for feeling more sincere & purposeful than what’s typically pursued in these anarchic goof-arounds. I don’t expect that it’s enough of a revolutionary paradigm shift to warm skeptics up to the sketch comedy film as a genre, but if you do tend to skip over these films because they appear to be aimless freewheeling frivolities, this one might be worth a closer look.

-Brandon Ledet

Vivarium (2020)

In some ways, I’m a little bummed that I didn’t have the chance to see the absurdist sci-fi chiller Vivarium on the big screen (due to this year’s ongoing COVID-19 closures). Not only is the theatrical environment my preferred way of experiencing any movie for the first time, but I suspect this film’s discomforting twists & turns would have been especially fun with a gasping crowd. At the same time, discovering this film alone at home might have been a blessing. Watching it in public almost certainly would have been one of those cringy experiences where I’m the only person in the room laughing at a film’s dark, peculiar sense of humor, and it’s probably for the best that I spared fellow theater-goers that annoyance. I knew this film was going to be grim & abrasive; I just didn’t expect that it was going to be so funny. It has a very cruel but highly successful sense of humor to it (almost exclusively about resenting your own spouse & child).

Imogen Poots & Jesse Eisenberg costar as a young couple in search of a suburban starter home to begin their life together, only to get trapped in a hellishly bland eternity of supernatural imprisonment in that very abode. Their relationship here, while explicitly romantic & monogamous, is no less combative than it was when they first paired up as violent nemeses in last year’s The Art of Self-Defense. The cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood they’re trapped in is an endlessly repeating grid of identical CGI houses, resembling more of a board game or a Sims neighborhood than an irl landscape. They’re completely isolated—quarantined, if you will—in a flavorless suburban prison, interrupted only by Amazon deliveries of their daily necessities and the arrival of the world’s most annoying child, whom they are obligated to raise to adulthood. It’s all an unveiled, naked metaphor about how frustrating & unfulfilling the suburban nuclear family lifestyle can be, and it only gets ghastlier as they sink further into their excruciatingly pointless domestic routine.

I’m not surprised to discover that this film is divisive, even among horror & sci-fi nerds who’d normally be on its wavelength. The central metaphor is unashamedly blatant; the disruptive child character is 1000x more shrill & frustrating than even the kid in The Babadook; and watching a young couple become exponentially sick of each other for 97 minutes is a deliberately tough sit. All I can say is that its antiromantic misanthropy really worked for me. I was even outright delighted by it, which feels perverse to say about a film that is so relentlessly miserable in tone. Vivarium is a cartoon exaggeration of the long-simmering frustrations & resentments that accompany even the most successful of romantic partnerships. It gawks at the traditional, decades-long monogamous marriage as if it were a sideshow attraction at the county fair, amused but disgusted by the freakish unnatural behavior we’re all supposed to aspire to.

Maybe going straight to VOD this year was ultimately the perfect release strategy for this film, since months of social distancing has cranked up the heat on any & all minor annoyances couples already had simmering on the backburner in a way that should help the movie resonate with its literally captive audience. If nothing else, watching this exhausted, joyless couple stare slack-jawed at their hyperactive child as it runs screeching through their house/prison felt familiar to a COVID-specific variety of tweets where parents complain about not being able to ship their kids off to daycare for a much-needed breather. Selfishly, I’m also a little glad I was blocked from catching it on the big screen because I almost certainly would have been laughing a little too loud at the film’s cruelly antiromantic absurdism, only making the experience even more grating for my fellow moviegoers. It’s already abrasive enough without my braying contributions.

-Brandon Ledet

Palm Springs (2020)

It’s a certification that has been in motion for a few years now, but Palm Springs has officially solidified the Groundhog Day time-loop plot as its own independent movie genre. Over the past few years, we’ve seen the repeated-day time loop story pioneered in the Harold Ramis classic mutated by a wide range of genre films that have switched up its very specific high-concept premise by plugging it into outlandish sci-fi & horror scenarios: Happy Death Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Russian Doll, Triangle, etc. With Palm Springs, the genre has now come full circle, forgoing the need to alter the Groundhog Day formula in any way and instead just repeating it wholesale. This is a lightly absurdist romcom in which an SNL veteran (Andy Samberg instead of Bill Murray) plays a directionless, disillusioned grump (amusingly described in this instance as a “pretentious sadboy”) who falls in love with an unlikely suitress while learning to care about other people and life in general. And it easily manages to be its own thing, completely independent of Groundhog Day‘s own cynicism-melting loopiness, which is why this feels like the exact moment the genre became its own self-contained entity. We no longer need alien invasions or King Cake Baby slasher villains to distinguish these time-loop movies from their Groundhog Day inspiration source. There’s a wide enough playing field now that a novelty angle on the material is no longer necessary.

What I appreciated most about Palm Springs‘s participation in the Time Loop romcom formula is that it pushes the genre forward by acknowledging the audience’s familiarity with it and jumping into the flow of things way downstream. We join Samberg’s delirious supernatural rut thousands of years into the never-ending cycle, long past the point where his sanity or determination could be expected to be maintained. It’s like joining Groundhog’s Day deep into its second hour, when Murray has long gotten past any attempts to rationalize his way out of his time prison and instead entertains himself with meaningless pranks like teaching the titular groundhog how to drive. Samberg’s helped out of this maddening rut (and led through a series of escalating for-their-own-sake gags) by a love interest (Cristin Milotti) who finds herself at the start of the same go-nowhere journey, which does revert the film back to the time-loop romcom’s original narrative template in some ways. Still, by jumpstarting Samberg’s time-loop delirium thousands of cycles ahead of the opening credits, the movie allows for more bizarre & more immediate payoffs than it would if it belabored the explanation of how he got there. We’ve all seen Groundhog Day; we get it. If we’re going to keep endlessly repeating that same story into infinity, we might as well acknowledge that cultural familiarity and push the premise to its most absurd extremes.

It’s worth pondering why this such an often-repeated story template (besides the fact that Groundhog Day is often taught to future filmmakers in Screenwriting 101 courses). Palm Springs seems to believe that the time-loop scenario is an excellent metaphor for flawed, depressive characters who are stuck in a never-ending personal rut, which is more or less exactly how it was originally applied to Bill Murray’s cynical grump archetype in the first place. This is ultimately a romcom about two stuck, go-nowhere people whose self-destructive internal ruts become external & literal due to a supernatural phenomenon (until they inevitably help each other out the loop by falling in love). There’s an element of that exact metaphor in each central character of the Groundhog Day facsimiles I’ve seen to date, though. If Palm Springs really clarified anything about the time-loop premise’s metaphorical relatability, it’s in how similar this absurd supernatural scenario is to our mundane everyday lives in the real world. It might be the COVID-19 incited rut we’ve all been living through while socially distanced in our homes over recent months that has me thinking this way, but reliving the same goddamn day in the same goddamn space over & over again doesn’t sound like an outlandish sci-fi scenario right now; it just sounds like life. I have even come to a lot of the same philosophical conclusions Samberg’s time-rattled character has much further into his loopy rut than I am: nothing matters; there is no god; causing pain to others for your own amusement is spiritually unfulfilling; and you might as well find love where you can, because nothing is worse than going through this shit alone.

Given the genre’s apparent never-ending adaptability and its resonance with the mundane routines of everyday life, I doubt Palm Springs will be the last of the repeated-day time loop romcoms we’ll see this decade. If anything, the film feels like it’s normalizing the act of repeating Groundhog Day‘s formula wholesale instead of attempting to discover a fresh angle on the material, so it’s essentially opening the floodgates for other participants in the genre to rush through. It may prove to be one of the more consistently funny & surprising repetitions of the formula, though, thanks to its willingness to immediately dive into the deep end of what this outlandish premise can allow instead of just toeing the water. It may also prove to be one of the better-remembered specimens of its ilk too, since it has a literally captive audience stuck at home with nothing much else to do except watch the new Andy Samberg comedy on Hulu. Popstar was much wilder & funnier in its own participation in a much-repeated genre template, but hardly anyone actually watched it. This has a much bigger chance of actually making a cultural impact just because we’ve all been forced into a never-ending collective rut thanks to the pandemic.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Death Spa (1989)

Brandon and Boomer introduce a new bonus podcast format in hopes of making The Swampflix Podcast a weekly occurrence. This inaugural lagniappe episode includes a round-up of what movies been watching lately and a review of the over-the-top supernatural horror relic Death Spa (1989). Enjoy!

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

– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond