EncoRRRe

I first watched S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR the same way I enjoy most big-budget Indian action: alone in a near-empty AMC Elmwood theater, with no prior context and no friends to discuss it with on my exit through the lobby.  I reviewed the film with the same approach I usually take with muscles-and-explosives action flicks from Tollywood & Kollywood (films like War, Master, Karnan, Saaho, 2.0, etc.), judging it against the relatively timid payoffs of comparable Hollywood series like Fast & Furious and the MCU.  The difference is that RRR has taken off in a way none of those other films have. It’s been constantly praised in the months since that first viewing (sometimes hyperbolically, often charmingly) in every corner of online film discourse I can name.  By the time I revisited RRR for a recent episode of the podcast, I was armed with way more cultural & industrial context about what makes it so explosively entertaining, as well as what makes it politically shaky.  I still don’t fully understand why it’s the only Indian action epic that’s enjoyed such a long, prominent shelf life in Western film discourse, but I do love that one has broken through.  It would be great if others follow, at the very least so I can better understand the roided-out action media I’m used to watching alone in the dark.

The only thing that’s really helped clarify why RRR is such an international hit was seeing a more recent, mediocre entry in its genre without as much novelty or fist-pumping energy.  Shamshera is another ahistorical Indian action epic about violent rebellions against British colonizers.  That rebellion is also led by the strongest, most badass hero the world has ever seen – a man so over-praised and over-muscled he can only be compared to superheroes or gods, often in his own titular theme song.  It’s a formula you’ll see repeated dozens of times if you watch enough Indian action, and it’s one that’s always entertaining, no matter the overall quality of the film.  Watching Shamshera wield a comically huge battle axe and command an army of CGI crows against his people’s British oppressors is a familiar thrill that never loses its potency no matter how many times it scorches your eyeballs.  And yet, when compared to more deliriously over-the-top actioners like RRR & Enthiran, it’s a little lackluster.  Shamshera plays like a Bollywood studio attempting to outgun the more eccentric action coming out of South India without ever quite matching their volatile energy. It still was an entertaining trip to the movies and still highly preferable to its American contemporaries, but it’s also such a straight-forward, barebones entry in its genre that it makes RRR stand out even more in contrast.

Speaking of RRR‘s American equivalents, I continued to think a lot about the qualities I crave in Indian action flicks on my very next trip to the theater after Shamshera.  Not only is Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic just as long & loud as Shamshera (a whopping 159 minutes), it’s also yet another sprawling epic that elevates a real-life historical rebel to the status of a god-like superhero.  In this case, the proto-rockstar’s superpower is making white teenagers horny, something Luhrmann conveys through on-screen comic book panels (which are also used to illustrate Shamshera‘s prologue) and the wild shrieks of teens witnessing his pElvic thrusts for the very first time.  It’s possible I was only thinking about Indian blockbusters while watching Elvis because I had revisited RRR & Shamshera within 24 hours of that screening (accounting for 6 of those very hours, combined), but it’s just as probable that they’re all pulling inspiration from the same source.  The grandeur & spectacle of Baz Luhrmann’s cinema feels like a direct descendant of traditional Bollywood musicals, which both he and modern Indian action directors like Rajamouli are now warping into new, weird pop art.  I often struggle with that same attention to spectacle in American films, especially in CGI-heavy action franchises like Star Wars & The MCU.  Luhrmann’s Elvis transcends that mental barrier in a lot of ways though.  It’s maniacally tacky, and it has the most individual camera set-ups I’ve ever seen outside of a Russ Meyer production, playing more like a three-hour trailer than an actual movie.  I wasn’t even sure if I liked it until I heard someone complain “That is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen” on the way out, and I found myself getting defensive.  It’s also, in its own deranged way, kind of brilliant.  Elvis delivers the exact propulsive, baffling, brain-smashing entertainment I actively seek out in South Indian action movies but find questionable in Hollywood productions, to my shame.  In a roundabout way, revisiting RRR made me eager to revisit Baz Luhrmann’s back catalog of Moulin Rouge!-style spectacles to see if I’ve just been snobbish in my rejection of their shameless, spectacular cheesiness, which I suspect is the case.

All of this is just to say that I’ve been enjoying discussing & thinking about RRR for the past few months.  Usually, I can only sustain a discussion of a similar Indian action film for a few minutes, as I try to explain how that industry is matching the delirious heights of American & Hong Kong action in their own 80s & 90s heydays to someone who could not care less about the inane words flooding out of my mouth.  Nobody was around, for instance, just one month earlier than RRR to discuss Radhe Shyam, a volatile romcom about a lovelorn palm reader who essentially gets into a fistfight with the Titanic.  Not all these over-the-top action films deserve the same level of attention & adoration as RRR, which really is an exceptional specimen of its genre, but it’s been cool to see one of these wildly entertaining action flicks break through with American audiences instead of just disappearing after a single-week theatrical run.  The continued discussion not only made me appreciate RRR even more on revisit, but it’s also helped me clarify my thoughts on other films with similar, soaring payoffs.

-Brandon Ledet

Looop Lapeta (2022)

The only time I’ve ever seen the high-style, high-energy time loop thriller Run Lola Run was at a free screening for LSU students back in the early aughts.  It was a great programming choice for entertaining a crowd of stoned, Adderall-addled freshmen with a collective attention span of mere seconds, but even then it felt like an ancient artifact from another time & place, just a few years after its initial release.  Run Lola Run is tweaked-out Euro trash pop art that only could have been made in the 1990s, a rave culture video game for the MTV era.  That’s why it seemed so absurd all these decades later that a straight-to-Netflix Bollywood remake of the film would attempt to recapture that time-specific magic.  I was already out of sync with the Hackers-on-ecstasy raver energy of the light-hearted German thriller back in the early 2000s, so I wasn’t sure what Looop Lapeta was expecting to mine from it in the 2020s.

That uncertainty was cleared up in the first scene, when our heroine starts her time loop staring in a bathroom mirror, contemplating her life choices (especially her casual drug use and unexpected pregnancy) on the occasion of her birthday.  As she keeps resetting her day to that bathroom-mirror birthday epiphany, it’s quickly apparent that Looop Lapeta doubles as both a decades-late Bollywood remake of Run Lola Run and a timely Bollywood remake of Russian Doll.  Neither comparison does it any favors, really, but at least the decision to revive Run Lola Run makes more sense when you consider it in the context of all the #timeloopcontent that has been flooding Netflix & other streaming platforms in the Russian Doll era.  This is a movie obsessed with and weighed down by context too, considering all the backstory it piles on the barebones Run Lola Run plot template – from why our heroine runs so much (she’s a former Olympic athlete) to why she’s so emotionally dependent on her dirtbag boyfriend (he saved her from killing herself when her Olympic dreams were crushed).  Even the time loop she’s stuck in while attempting to stop her favorite fuckboy from ruining their lives with a botched armed robbery is stretched out from Run Lola Run‘s original 20-minute cycle to 50 minutes, indicating just how weighed down it is by extraneous narrative clutter.  It updates Run Lola Run by halfway converting it into a TV show – often a broad sitcom where the jokes rarely land.

Besides the recent popularity of high-concept time loop stories, Looop Lapeta also appears attracted to the rebellious counterculture posturing of Run Lola Run.  It takes advantage of the amoral freedom of working with Netflix as much as it can, raising a middle finger directly at the camera in bratty defiance.  Whereas most mainstream Indian films I’ve seen in recent years are slapped with moralistic warnings about the dangers of cigarettes & alcohol, Looop Lapeta goes out of its way to highlight how cool swearing, pot-smoking, and premarital sex make its heroine look.  It’s about as dangerous as an anarchy symbol scribbled on a middle schooler’s notebook, but it makes the film stand out in the context of its industry.  That kind of hedonistic behavior is more akin to Russian Doll than Run Lola Run in terms of actual on-screen content (Lola, as you will remember, mostly just runs), but it’s a juvenile version of rebelliousness that is stilly fully visible in its 1998 source material.

I’m just not convinced Looop Lapeta ever matches Run Lola Run in terms of style.  Run Lola Run is all style, no substance (gloriously so), while Looop Lapeta is all substance in search of some sense of style.  It updates the camcorder footage from Run Lola Run to its contemporary equivalent in smartphone framing, and it has occasional fun with crosslighting & low music video angles, but for the most part its style feels limp & inert.  Inviting comparisons to such a propulsive, dizzying free-for-all only undercuts its own occasional attempts at high-style filmmaking, especially since everything in-between those touches plays like a shot-for-Netflix sitcom.  The most Looop Lapeta did for me is make me want to revisit Run Lola Run, a college campus classic, and to be more selective with my straight-to-Netflix genre viewings.  It’s harmless, but it’s also inessential – especially considering how many time loop movies we’ve seen in the past few years (Edge of Tomorrow, Happy Death Day, Palm Springs, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, etc. etc. etc.).

-Brandon Ledet

Podcast #165: RRR (2022) & New Releases

Welcome to Episode #165 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of new releases from the first half of 2022, starting with S.S. Rajamouli’s ahistorical action epic RRR.

00:00 Welcome

01:00 Nope (2022)
05:00 Alexandra’s Project (2003)
08:00 Elvis (2022)
18:00 Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

23:45 RRR (2022)
52:33 Fresh (2022)
1:11:11 We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2022)
1:27:11 Vortex (2022)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Quick Takes: TV at the Movies

Sometime around the prestige TV era of shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Wire, there was a lot of inane, hyperbolic discourse about how the boundary between television & cinema had become irreversibly blurred. I never bought the argument that modern Event Television had somehow surpassed the artistry of traditional filmmaking, nor do I believe that should even be its goal. My favorite TV shows tend to be the kind of disposable, episodic entertainment that can only exist in that medium: reality competition shows like Project Runway, animated sitcoms like Tuca & Bertie, clips-of-the-week roundups like The Soup (R.I.P.), etc. I will concede that the modern straight-to-streaming movie distribution model has blurred the distinction between television & cinema, though, if only by making it so the old made-for-TV, movie-of-the-week format now outnumbers how many traditional films get theatrical distribution on a weekly basis. It’s the non-stop need for fresh streaming #content that’s making movies more like television, not some new Golden Age of high-quality TV shows that take 30 hours to tell a decent, self-contained story that could be wrapped up in 100 minutes or less.

If there’s any clear sign that the boundary between television & cinema has become blurred, it’s in the mundanity of modern “The Movie” versions of TV shows. When I was a kid, it felt like a major event when popular TV shows like Pokémon, The Simpsons, and Jackass graduated from the small screen to grander, theatrical “The Movie” versions of their formats. In 2022, the distinction feels arbitrary. In the past month, I’ve seen three “The Movie” versions of TV shows that I love, and none felt especially ceremonious, or even worthy of a standalone review. I did enjoy all three, but they all felt more like good television than great cinema. Here’s a quick review of each, with some thoughts on how they blur the line between the two mediums.

The Bob’s Burgers Movie

Unquestionably, The Bob’s Burgers Movie is the most convincing, traditional “The Movie” version of a TV show I’ve seen this year. Not only was it exclusive to theaters for months before popping up on HBO Max & Hulu (where it has since transformed from TV at the movies to regular TV), but the Loren Borchard-led creative team behind it put in great effort to make it feel like an Event. Throughout the latest season of the show, background characters have been tripping over a dislodged chunk of sidewalk in front of the titular burger restaurant, teasing the giant sinkhole that opens the main conflict of the film. A lot of money was also poured into ensuring there was more depth & detail in the actual animation of the movie to distinguish it from the show, even if most of that effort was just adding shadows to its usual look.

I expected The Bob’s Burgers Movie would escalate the show’s occasional song & dance numbers to a full-blown movie musical, but instead it stays true to their usual rhythms. Structurally, it feels just like a 100min episode of the animated sitcom, stretching the special-occasion ceremony of a season finale to a night-long Event. Everything I love about the Bob’s Burgers show is sharply pronounced in the film; it delivers rapid-fire puns & punchlines, its sprawling cast of oddball characters are universally loveable, and it can be surprisingly emotional to watch them fail & grow (especially Louise’s arc in this super-sized episode). A lot of what justifies its graduation to movie-scale pomp & circumstance is just its length and that added layer of shadows, but both really do go a long way.

Downton Abbey: A New Era

If there’s any film that challenges my snobbish distinctions between film & television, it’s Downton Abbey: A New Era, the sequel to 2019’s Downton Abbey: The Movie. While The Bob’s Burgers Movie justifies its medium jump from television to the big screen in the quality of its animation, there is absolutely nothing that visually distinguishes the Downton Abbey movies from their seven seasons of televised build-up. The main draw of these films is that you get to revisit all of the Upstairs/Downstairs characters you love for another couple episodes of wealth-porn soap opera, except now with a theater full of likeminded costume drama nerds who laugh & sniffle in unison instead of watching it under a cozy blanket (assuming, again, that you caught the latest installment in theaters instead of waiting for it to pop up on the Peacock app, where it has been downgraded to TV again).

As much as the Downton Abbey movies feel like more-of-the-same episodic television, I still have to admit that A New Era was one of my most emotionally satisfying trips to the movie theater all year. I was either laughing or crying for the entire runtime, so there’s no reason why this shouldn’t land near the top of my “Top Films of 2022” list, except that I consider it more TV than cinema, which makes me a bit of a snob. I would be fine with the series ending with A New Era, since it’s come full circle to just being Gosford Park without the murder mystery again, but I’ll keep tuning in forever if it keeps going (if not only to see the continued adventures of John Molesey, the unlikeliest of late-series MVPs). It’s good TV.

Beavis and Butthead Do the Universe

The new Beavis and Butthead movie knows exactly where it falls on television/cinema divide. It pretends to scale up its usual airheaded slacker premise with some sci-fi gimmickry at its bookends (joining the multiverse craze headlined by Everything Everywhere and the new Doctor Strange), but everything in-between those brief scenes is just more-of-the-same retreading of the original show. When it’s not a sci-fi action comedy starring the galaxy’s two unlikeliest heroes, Beavis and Butthead Do the Universe mostly plays like a less funny version of the (excellent, underrated) 2011 reboot season of the show, where our favorite knuckleheads adapt to a world of smartphones & “woke” politics. It’s still very funny, though, and its disinterest in growth or change is obviously a large part of the joke.

Beavis and Butthead already had a proper “The Movie” escalation of its premise in 1996’s Beavis & Butthead Do America, so there’s really nothing a straight-to-Paramount+ follow-up to the show needs to accomplish except to be funny. It was the least rewarding film out of this trio for me, but it’s also the one that best understands the function of movie addendums to television shows in the modern streaming era. “The Movie” versions of TV shows don’t need to elevate their medium to the holy mountain of cinematic prestige; they just need to give their fans a little more time with the characters they love, and to deliver a few solid laughs.

-Brandon Ledet

Love and Leashes (2022)

The two genres I’ve noticed thriving exclusively on Netflix in recent years have been cutesy romcoms and steamy erotica.  The erotic thriller heyday of the Verhoeven 80s and the romcom heyday of the Meg Ryan 90s have long been absent from theatrical marquees, so Netflix has stepped in to, um, fill those gaps, so to speak.  Somewhere between the quiet success of titles like 365 Days (erotic), To All the Boys I’ve Love Before (romantic), Deadly Illusions (erotic), and Always Be My Maybe (romantic), the streaming behemoth has gotten its algorithmic wires crossed and decided to split the difference with an erotic romcom set in the Korean kink scene, Love and Leashes.  Not since Gary Marshall’s Exit to Eden has kink play been treated with such a fluffy, mainstream, sexless touch (unless, of course, you include other recent Netflix properties like the kink-themed sitcom Bonding or the kink-themed home improvement show How to Build a Sex Room).  And since Netflix does not share verifiable data about their streaming numbers, we’ll never know how much demand there is for such an unlikely mix of theme & tone . . . unless they start commissioning more romcom erotica to fill out their splash page in the next couple years.  All I can say for now is that Love and Leashes is as adorable as its existence is absurd.

This is a cutesy, formulaic comedy about an unexpected BDSM office romance, essentially Secretary re-imagined as a femdom romcom.  When a new hire at a media marketing firm risks having his human dog collar shipped to work, his vanilla (but kink-curious) coworker accidentally receives the package instead. In their struggle for possession, the seedy Amazon order flies in the air as they both fall to the ground, flustered.  It’s a kinky re-imagining of the standard dog walking meet-cute of two destined-to-fuck strangers getting tangled up in leashes while trying not to spill their Starbucks orders.  Only, the rope bondage comes much later in the plot.  The man is sensitive and turned on by masochistic play; the woman is naturally bossy but uninitiated to the scene.  She finds a genuine thrill in transgressing the assumed submissiveness of her gender roles, though. She also uses the excuse of learning more about her new co-worker’s fetishes to attempt dating him in a more traditional, romantic dynamic.  Sometimes they play at work, charged by the thrill of potentially getting caught.  More often, they test the uneasy waters of their new mistress/sub dynamic in hotel rooms and in public, both pretending they’re only into the kink activities, not each other (for reasons that can only be explained as Romcom Brain).  It’s the kind of nothing conflict that could be solved by a single, honest conversation, but that’s true of most romcoms, with or without the leather gear.

Of course, there’s an inherent incompatibility in attempting a romcom/erotica genre mashup; most traditional romcoms are excessively chaste.  As a result, Love and Leashes is strangely sexless, considering all the butt plugs, harnesses, and ball gags that hang in the background as set decoration.  In terms of actual, onscreen sexual activity, the most we get is some flogging, hair-pulling, foot worship, rope bondage, and the same dripped-wax fantasy as the “Livin’ La Vida Loca” music video.  We can hear sex in the next hotel room over, but we’re in the room where a man is wearing a leash and yipping like a dog for comic effect – no insertions necessary.  This might have bothered me more if the pup’s mistress-in-training didn’t ask (in Sex and the City-style narration) “Is it weird to play this hard without having sex?”, noting the absurdity of their chaste dynamic.  She spends a lot of time online researching the standard dynamics of domme-sub relationships and chatting up anonymous kink veterans on message boards for newbie tips (setting up an obligatory, last-minute Gossip Girl reveal), totally unaware of how much sex she should be having with the sub under her “control.”  A lot of the central conflict is in the weirdly out-of-sync couple finding a way to enjoy transgressive kink play and start up a traditional, adorable romance on vanilla dates – the same conflict the movie has in its own dueling tones.

This is both my first K-drama and the first movie I’ve seen adapted from a “webtoon” (originally titled Moral Sense), so I can’t speak to how well Love and Leashes translates its source material to a new medium.  I’m an expert in scouring Netflix for low-level horny novelties, though, and it’s one of the better attempts at harmless erotica I’ve seen on the platform.  It’s a little sexually timid & cruelly overlong, but it’s a decent throwback romcom with just enough naughtiness to make the genre’s stalest tropes feel freshly amusing & cute.  The obvious next step for the platform is to get into the business of romcom softcore, but we’ll have to see how well this mashup does before they take that risk.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Summertime (1955)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss David Lean’s 1955 Venetian melodrama Summertime, starring a lovelorn Katharine Hepburn.

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

00:00 Welcome

03:17 First Blood (1982)
07:04 Dirty Dancing (1987)
08:56 Speed (1994)
10:00 Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
12:05 Angus T. Ambrose, Jr.
17:35 The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
19:40 Bad Ronald (1974)
26:00 The Sandlot (1993)
30:22 Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022)
32:40 Mothering Sunday (2022)
35:55 Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
37:45 A Room with a View (1985)

42:51 Summertime (1955)

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Incantation (2022)

There are a lot (a lot) of ways in which Netflix is one of the most frustrating, underwhelming streaming behemoths in the game, but I will give them this: they’re a useful conduit for international genre cinema.  Most of the American-market content that floods that platform’s splash page is dull, overlit, purposefully disposable dreck, but if you know what you’re looking for, there’s plenty international genre gems lurking in the search pages – Indian action epics like RRR, Korean sci-fi adventures like Space Sweepers, Indonesian martial-arts romances like Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, and now the Taiwanese found-footage horror Incantation.  Just three months after Incantation premiered to great commercial success in Taiwanese theaters, it was available to stream globally on Netflix . . . as long as you knew to look for it.  That’s a remarkable turnaround when you think back to the video store days of the aughts, when horror nerds would spend years waiting to track down bootleg copies of then-obscure J & K-horror titles that fell through the cracks of American distribution (i.e. weren’t backed by Tartan Extreme).  I don’t want to give the money-torching, art-minimizing, transphobe-enabling corporate chuds at Netflix HQ too much credit, but they can be a good resource when it comes to international genre pictures.

I honestly don’t know much about the general history of Taiwanese horror (which is partly why it’s cool to have it beamed directly into my living room like this), but it is easy to see why Incantation was such a runaway success – the biggest Taiwanese box office earner of 2022 so far and the highest-grossing Taiwanese horror film of all time.  It’s spooky as hell.  The movie does little to overcome the decades of post-Blair Witch found footage fatigue in its mood, look, or story, but it does craft some genuinely terrifying images that will soon be making guest appearances in the audience’s nightmares.  Its writhing bugs, rotting flesh, flaming demons, dental mutations, and cursed Buddhist statues should shock even the most jaded viewers.  There isn’t much to the central story of a single mother who “violated a religious taboo” in a sacred tunnel, then spent the next six years fearfully protecting her daughter from the evil “deity” that seeks revenge for the transgression.  If anything, the movie deliberately obscures the rules & specifics of its mythmaking, explaining that “the more you know about it, the more it plagues you”.  That makes watching Incantation feel like a dangerous risk in itself (à la Ringu), but it also frees it from having to fully sketch out the shape & boundaries of its central threat.  There’s just a general curse hanging over our anti-heroine in distress, represented by a wide range of fucked up, bone-chilling images that linger in your mind way longer than the narrative that justifies them.

In theory, I’m all for Incantation using a bare-bones Evil Curse premise as a broad excuse for a loose collection of ghouls & scare gags.  In practice, I was a little disappointed by how much it cheats on its own found-footage conceit, muddying its believability & narrative immersion with non-linear editing of dual timelines and preposterous camera placements that violate the basic rules of the format.  The movie isn’t interested in working within the found-footage medium, so I’m not sure why it bothered, other than camcorder, smartphone, and CCTV security footage being cheap to replicate.  At the very least, it could have shot the flashbacks to the inciting religious transgression in a found-footage format, while shooting the present-day fallout of that blunder like a Regular Movie, since it wanted to use multiple camera set-ups & professional editing techniques in those sequences so badly.  Of course, this an embarrassingly nerdy thing to complain about, since the movie is spooky enough to (mostly) get away with ignoring its own premise.  It’s just that I’m usually very forgiving to that kind of rule-bending, and even I thought it cheated a little too much to get by unnoticed.

Pedantic nitpicking aside, Incantation joins a lot of the better over-the-plate horror freak-outs of the past couple years, titles like The Medium, The Empty Man, and The Queen of Black Magic.  It’s just as cool to be spooked by its tangential scare gags as it is to watch that strand of modern horror reach into a new cultural context most international audiences don’t often see onscreen.  And those other titles were not nearly as substantial of cultural hits in their own countries (Thailand, America, and Indonesia, respectfully), while Incantation measurably resonated with its domestic audience.  In its most ambitious moments, it asks its audience to participate in Buddhist prayer, actively getting further involved in a curse that gets exponentially worse the more you learn about it.  I’ll never understand the full cultural significance of those prayers, but it’s the kind of big, abstract idea that cuts through the petty scene-to-scene concerns of its found-footage cheats.  The eeriness of those audience participation prompts combines with the shock of its individual scares to make the film worth a look for any horror audience no matter where they live on the globe, and thanks to Netflix’s international genre acquisitions the entire globe has access to it while it’s still fresh.

-Brandon Ledet

Everything is Terrible! The Movie (2009)

YouTube launched in 2005.  The found-footage meme site Everything is Terrible! launched in 2007, as if in direct response to the way YouTube mutated the internet into a new, hideous beast.  I’m sure there was some equivalent to Everything is Terrible! on 90s college campuses, where VHS compilation tapes of weirdo pop culture ephemera were passed around & red-dubbed into fuzzed-out oblivion for dorm room stoner watch parties.  There’s just something precisely post-YouTube about the Everything is Terrible! evolution of that format, where contextless clips of work-out tapes, self-help babble, Christian children’s propaganda, corporate training videos, soft-core pornography, and Z-grade Hollywood schlock all co-mingle as if they were part of the same cursed continuum.  The Everything is Terrible! project started as a way for a small collective of Los Angeles hipsters to highlight & mock the disposable media most people glance over in thrift store bins without giving it a second’s thought.  Through the timing of its launch and its incredible longevity, it’s evolved into a vivid record of American pop culture brain rot in the internet era, where everything is contextless, meaningless, cheap and, well, terrible.

Just two years into their historic run as a meme-culture institution, Everything is Terrible! branched out into making rapid-fire, feature-length compilations of their blog’s “greatest hits”, starting with Everything is Terrible! The Movie in 2009.  Their first movie is a primitive prototype for the much better mixtapes the collective has dispatched in the years since, with nine features to their name as of 2022.  Later EIT! titles like The Great Satan & Doggie Woggiez, Poochie Woochiez are much more thematically focused & purposeful than their first catch-all mixtape – the former being a frantic biopic of the titular Satan and the latter being a dog-video themed “remake” of Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain.  Even the 2010 “sequel” to the first EIT! movie, 2 Everything 2 Terrible 2: Tokyo Drift, smooths out a lot of the original film’s rough spots, including moments of edgelord hipster irony that evoke suicide imagery and the word “retarded” as punching-down punchlines.  Everything is Terrible! The Movie is very much a product of an aughts-era internet where cruel hellsites like eBaum’s World, 4chan, and People of Walmart were cornerstone content farms, an era the site has thankfully outlived.

As much as I struggled with the cruelty & aimlessness of the first Everything is Terrible! movie, it’s still impressive as an experiment in what an EIT! movie would even be, working with no previous blueprint to mimic or adjust.  Structurally (and sarcastically), it echoes the basic structure of a Real Movie by starting with direct-to-camera character intros (pulled mostly from celebrities like Bob Saget, Kathy Griffith, and Angela Lansbury introducing their self-help and workout tapes). It concludes with action set pieces from direct-to-video schlock for its climax, followed by flashback clips from earlier in the mix while a sentimental jingle drones on the soundtrack.  There’s also some early moodsetting that contextualize the medium the film is playing around with, including clips that explain how connections are made in a developing toddler’s brain and what, exactly, is a mixtape CD.  Everything in-between those guiding signposts is a chaotic mess, though, a broadcast from a post-YouTube world where images of Evangelical abstinence training, child abduction scaremongering, Angela Lansbury masturbating, toupee infomercials, magician flirting tips, and 80s comic Sinbad dressed up as a condom all mix together as if they’re fibers of the same ragged cloth.  It’s a little overwhelming, a little terrifying, and often very funny – the basic internet experience.

I watched Everything is Terrible! The Movie on a sun-faded laptop screen while loitering in a hotel lobby with a $3 Starbucks order and an hour to kill.  My other entertainment option was to absent-mindedly scroll through my Twitter feed, where a jarring, algorithmic mix of bad takes, solid jokes, celebrity gaffs, thirst traps, absurdist home videos, and protest footage would’ve given me roughly the same psychic experience as this ancient internet relic from 2009.  One of the smartest clips included in the film is a “What is the internet?” explainer where middle-aged women complain that they’re confused about “www.this” and “www.that”, framing the internet as a mystical nowhere space that cannot be fully understood.  They’re right.  Internet communication & culture is a menacing puzzle that cannot be fully understood, let alone explained.  The Everything is Terrible! project has done a great job of capturing that mystical menace over the years, ironically by dragging pre-internet video clips into a post-YouTube world.  Everything is Terrible! The Movie was an interesting early attempt to translate that project into proper cinema, and they’ve since only achieved greater & greater things in that new medium.

-Brandon Ledet

Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)

I first heard a cassette of Pink Floyd’s The Wall as a child in the 90s, long before I had developed any sense of personal taste in pop media.  In that pre-Wikipedia world, I’m not sure I knew the album was a soundtrack for a feature film, but I do remember picturing live-action movie scenes in my mind as it played, if not only because tracks like “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” included snippets of spoken dialogue in the music.  It wasn’t until I got to college in the aughts that the movie version of The Wall entered my life, but even at that time I imagined a wildly inaccurate version of it in my head instead of actually watching it.  By then, I was full-blown music snob, drawn almost exclusively to the sharp, concise pop perversions of punk instead of the loose, noodly prog of bands like Pink Floyd.  That’s likely why I didn’t participate in dorm room watch parties of The Wall, where dozens of my stoner classmates would cram into & cloud up a campus apartment to group-watch the film as if it were the psychedelic Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I had a very specific assumption of what The Wall was like based on that dorm room ritual, which turned out to be even less accurate than my childhood imagination of the film.  And since it’s one of many titles that have fallen through the distribution cracks in the modern streaming era, it wasn’t until I found a thrift-store DVD copy of my own that I finally cleared up my misconceptions. 

I have a couple questions about those freshman-year burnouts: What were they smoking, and where can I get some?  The Wall is visually playful & surreal enough to pass as stoner background fodder, but goddamn it’s grim.  It’s hard to imagine a dozen teenage dirtbags sincerely grappling with the film’s post-WWII grief & resentments while passing around a plastic bong.  They probably would’ve found a lot more “Whoa dude, far out!” entertainment value in the “Dark Side of the Rainbow” fan-edit of The Wizard of Oz . . . or just staring at an iTunes visualizer for a couple hours.  Technically, The Wall does deliver enough sex, drugs, and rock n roll imagery to fire up the imaginations of college-age thrill seekers, but it’s all conveyed through the perspective of an emotionally hollowed, terminally jaded rock star who’s lost the will to live.  This is less a psychedelic hedonist free-for-all then it is a cry for help, an outlet for Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters to lament his post-War childhood woes and his professional disappointments as an adult who barely survived the druggy haze of the 1970s.  If it has a guiding thesis, it’s that the Brits are not okay.  That S.O.S. message is only an extension of Waters’s own dwindling interest in life, love, and art, though, as pantomimed by fellow rock star Bob Geldof (of The Boomtown Rats) as his on-screen surrogate.  Fun!

In modern pop media terms, The Wall is Pink Floyd’s “visual album,” predating recent experiments in that medium like Lemonade, Dirty Computer, or When I Get Home.  It’s a feature-length music video, with little plot or spoken dialogue to distract from Waters’s lyrics.  Frankly, the songs themselves are not especially great, an assessment even most Pink Floyd fans would agree with.  They mostly just clear space for director Alan Parker (Angel Heart, Bugsy Malone, Evita) to play with the iconography of post-WWII Europe, as guided by Waters’s lyrics.  The composite character “Pink” (Geldof) is a lifeless, strung-out rock star with no remaining passion for his art and no remaining lust for his groupies.  He blankly stares at football & war movies on the TV, while reminiscing about a life where his father didn’t come home from the war, his mother was swallowed up by religion, the English school system wrung the life out of him, and everything else has been flavorless gruel in the decades since.  All the emotional walls, sexual hang-ups, and cultural rot of modern British masculinity are on full, grotesque display, while Nazi fascism slowly creeps back in to regain lost ground in the country’s schools, politics, hearts, and minds.  It’s all very loose & free-associative, but it paints a clear, deeply ugly picture of where Waters’s mind was at in the bitter afterglow of the 1970s.

If there’s any way in which The Wall delivers on the far-out, trippy, dorm room stoner experience that my knucklehead classmates were looking for, it’s in its tangents of psychedelic animation.  Gerald Scarfe’s animated sequences play like an alternate version of Wizards designed by Ralph Steadman instead of Ralph Bakshi.  Scarfe tinkers with the same post-War iconography as Parker, particularly in an early battlefield sequence when speeding war planes transform into flying crucifixes while decimating the land below.  A lot of his imagery is much freer to follow its own momentary whimsies, though.  A pair of flowers will have raunchy pistil-stamen sex, then transform into heroin needles & specters of death, then rearrange again to strings on a rubbery guitar neck.  If the entire film were just Scarfe illustrations of the images evoked by Waters’s lyrics, The Wall would still be oppressively grim, but I’d at least better understand its reputation as the thinking man’s Yellow Submarine.  As is, I mostly see an illustrated & pantomimed therapy session from a depressed loner who’s tired of the spotlight and bitter about his (admittedly shitty) childhood.  It’s a solid film on those terms, but I’m not in a rush to gawk at its bleak splendor again over pizza & bong rips with my closest, goofiest friends.

-Brandon Ledet

Good Luck to You, Dick Avery

The COVID-era two-hander Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a little self-conscious & stagebound, but it’s also an admirably thoughtful, vulnerable drama for adults.  Despite its obvious production limitations—mostly isolated to two actors verbally sparring in a single hotel room—it feels substantial enough to make you wonder why the Disney subsidiary Searchlight dumped it directly into the Hulu stream instead of giving it a proper theatrical push.  Maybe it’s because it’s the rare Nancy Meyers/Nora Ephron style romcom that’s too saucy to watch with your mom, considering how lengthy & girthy its discussions of geriatric sexual pleasure can be.  Or maybe the star power of its sole household name, Emma Thompson, wasn’t bright enough to guarantee box office success in America (as opposed to the UK, where it has been in the Top 10 box office chart for weeks).  The movie wouldn’t be much without her, though, if it would exist at all.  Screenwriter Katy Brand wrote the main role with Thompson in mind, and the actor makes herself incredibly vulnerable for the part as a widow who hires a young, ripped sex worker (Daryl McCormack, the titular Leo Grande) to help her achieve her very first orgasm.  Thompson’s commitment & fearlessness in the part are unquestionable, but I do wonder what the film might’ve been like if the lead actor wasn’t so Movie Star beautiful.  I don’t want to say that her tightly wound neuroses about her aging body came across as phony, exactly, since low self-esteem can (and does) hit anyone & everyone.  I do think the movie plays it safe by hanging those neuroses off such a gorgeous, glamorous lead, though, even when she’s standing naked in the mirror, exposing all her body’s “flaws” for the audience’s scrutiny.

The reason I’m reluctant to call Thompson’s self-esteem struggle in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande “phony” is because I happened to watch a film this week that exemplifies exactly what phoniness would look like in that context.  The 1957 Stanley Donen rom-com Funny Face has a lot of glaring faults, not least of all the fact that it’s a musical with exactly one good song (“Think Pink”, a sequence I’ve already seen parodied beautifully in Derek Jarman’s arthouse whatsit The Garden).  It’s also packed with so much high-art Technicolor fashion photography—highlighting the artistry of costume designer Edith Head & couturier Hubert de Givenchy—that those faults hardly matter at all.  It’s a film built entirely on phoniness, most notably in the preposterous romance between Audrey Hepburn as a bookworm philosopher & the much older Fred Astaire as a Richard Avedon-type fashion photographer.  Astaire negs Hepburn throughout the film, mocking her academic interests in the philosophy of “Impracticalism” (a sentiment the movie shares) and, more dubiously, for her looks (a sentiment no one shares).  It’s presented as a preposterous prospect that the “mousy,” “boyish,” “Peter Pan”-like Hepburn could become a high-price fashion model. Even the title “Funny Face” is a reference to her “unconventional” attractiveness, when that exact face has since kept the dorm room poster industry afloat for over half a century.  Funny Face is enjoyable enough as a proto-Devil Wears Prada fantasy where an unfashionable bookworm accidentally falls upward to the top of the fashion industry (I’ll let you determine where Hepburn getting forcibly stripped out of her homely bookstore clothes by a room full of rabid fashion models fits in that fantasy), but it is unquestionably, 1000% phony, mostly because of who it cast in that central role as the “homely” academic-turned-model.

The age-gap intimacy of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is much more authentic than the Old Hollywood phoniness of Funny Face.  Thompson’s lonely widow is only unattractive in her own mind, where she beats herself up as a hideous troll & a “seedy old pervert” who needs to pay for satisfying sex.  Her by-the-hour lover is shown to be similarly self-conscious, despite being a younger, gym-bodied smokeshow.  Before & during each of their hotel room trysts, the two main players are shown primping themselves in separate mirrors, nervous about how their physical bodies will be perceived by their sex partners.  I just still think there’s something weirdly cautious about casting someone as glamorous as Thompson in that central role.  Just as Hepburn did not have anything that could be reasonably called “a funny face”, Thompson meets a high Movie Industry beauty standard that prevents her from coming across as an everyday everywoman.  Surely, part of the point of Good Luck to You Leo Grande is about how badly she needs to climb out of her own head, since most of her paid-sex sessions qualify more as talk therapy than they do physical intimacy.  I just wonder if the film might’ve had more impact if someone less remarkable had been cast in Thompson’s role, someone the average audience could more closely relate to.  Considering how shallow the distribution already was for the film even with a movie star at the helm, though, it’s unlikely that it would’ve ever made it past the festival circuit under those conditions.  And, hey, Thompson is a talented actor who can carry a scene with ease, so it’s probably for the best that it was written with her in mind.

As a quick aside, I want to note that phoniness isn’t an automatic dealbreaker.  These two movies are hardly comparable, but I will admit that I’m much more likely to rewatch the glaringly flawed, intensely phony Funny Face in the future than I am to revisit the small-stakes, intimate authenticity of Good Luck to You Leo Grande.  For all of Funny Face‘s faults, watching Hepburn pose in all those gorgeous Givenchy outfits around Paris reaches momentary heights that no raw, vulnerable intimacy Thompson achieves in that closed-off hotel room set ever could.  Hollywood fantasy is a powerful drug, and I’m apparently willing to put up with a lot of phoniness to chase that high.

-Brandon Ledet