Captive State (2019)

I don’t know what the production or distribution history of the mid-budget alien invasion thriller Captive State indicates, but this seems to be a movie that no one really wants. Director Rupert Wyatt’s only major credit is a Planet of the Apes reboot released nearly a decade ago. The film itself feels like it wrapped production so long ago that it missed an opportunity to boost the screentime of single-scene actors who’ve blown up in the years since – Madeline Brewer (Cam) & KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) to be specific. Most damningly, it’s a film that’s near-impossible to market, as it’s an alien invasion thriller that’s more interested in the political machinations of humans surviving under intergalactic rule than it is in exploiting the commercial potential of its creature-feature payoffs. A smarter, artier movie like Arrival can get away with that kind of obfuscation, but cheap nerd-ass sci-fi like this generally needs to be more accommodating to wide audiences in its minute-to-minute payoffs. As a result, both pro-critic reviews and box office numbers have been tepid for this underdog sci-fi pic, which has essentially been orphaned by its marketing & distributor. It’s a shame too, since Captive Sate is actually a solid little sci-fi thriller for anyone with an enthusiastic interest in the alien invasion genre.

The reason I say a little sci-fi nerd cred is required to fully engage with the film is that Captive Sate is much more adept at action set pieces & world-building lore than it is at dialogue or meaningful pathos. Set nearly a decade after first contact with invading alien species, the film is set in a post-apocalypse Chicago that’s politically torn between acceptance & resistance. Few characters are allowed any nuance as the film sketches out the two warring factions: a marshal law surveillance state government (represented mostly through John Goodman as a fascist brute) and an underground resistance aiming to topple it (represented by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders as a low-level street hustler). The movie isn’t especially interested in the emotions or political maneuvers of their personal struggle, though, despite their unlikely social bond that bridges the gap between both sides of the civil war. It’s much more interested in establishing a larger “off-the-grid” future defined by analog equipment like wiretaps, reel to reel recorders, vinyl records, polaroid cameras, in-print newspapers, and carrier pigeons. Nothing typifies this old-world future better than the bird-swarm murmurations of surveillance drones that flutter throughout the city, keeping citizens in line with the threat of facial recognition tech. So much thought went into that establishment of a lived-in world and the political clash & chase scenes staged within it that very little time was left for establishing fleshed-out characters, which is something you just have to be okay with to get on its wavelength,

So what, exactly, is Captive State trying to say with all of this world-building & freshman-year Poli Sci pontification? Its major theme seems to be a contrast between active political resistance & mindless cooperation. Although the roach-like alien beasts (who feel like cousins to the space-bugs of Starship Troopers) are largely off-screen, their presence is felt in the submission & cooperation of a human government that cows to their intergalactic authority. As the film focuses on real-world issues like facial recognition software and exponential wealth disparity over defining the players in that conflict, it does appear to have a “Silence is complicity” ethos when it comes to living under the fascist rule of modern ills like The Trump Administration. It establishes a world where “You must pick a side,” having no patience for the cowardice of political apathy. More practically, the world it establishes is essentially just a playground where it can execute carefully-considered thriller sequences: the surgical body horror of tracking device removal, the heist-planning rhythms of a political assassination, a few spare moments of creature-feature confrontation, endless police chases, etc. I may have a few minor quibbles with its paper-thin characterizations (mainly, how it manages to have immensely talented women like KiKi Layne, Madeline Brewer, and Vera Farmiga on staff, but for some reason affords much more dialogue & screentime to dudes as lowly & uninteresting as Machine Gun Heckin’ Kelly than all of them combined), but I was mostly on board with the picture as a nerd-ass, overly serious sci-fi thriller. It’s just a shame it couldn’t also inspire that enthusiasm in its own distributor.

-Brandon Ledet

Captain Marvel (2019)

She’s beauty, she’s grace, she can kick you into space.

Well, the first Marvel movie of 2019 is here. And, hey, it’s pretty good! Nothing that’s so exciting that it’ll melt your brain out, or anything, but Captain Marvel has finally hit our screens and damned if we aren’t glad to see her. Right? Right?

I don’t want to be down on this one. I really enjoyed myself as I sat in the theater and mindlessly absorbed a little nugget of Marvel product, which loudly and proudly is set in the 90s. Remember the 90s? There was a Democrat in office, the economy was essentially okay, we weren’t at war with anyone for a little while, and when the President got a blowjob and perjured himself about it, we all were in agreement that the office of the PotUS had been so thoroughly tarnished that no future President could ever sink lower (ha). But also, you know: AIDS, Hurricane Andrew (which goes strangely unremarked upon here despite the fact that a significant portion of the film takes place in 1995 Louisiana), Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc. Never let your nostalgia get the best of you, is all I’m saying, but it’s no crime to feel a little warm inside when you hear the opening strains of “Come As You Are,” either.

It’s 1995. Vers (Brie Larson) is a member of the Kree Defense Force, a group of interstellar “warrior heroes” who keep the peace in the Kree Empire (the blue [mostly] aliens from the Guardians movies and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) by performing various acts of apparent valor, including rooting out cells of Skrulls, a race of green reptilian shapeshifters. She herself is a woman without a memory, à la Wolverine, only getting glimpses into a past she can’t recall when dreaming of a mysterious woman (Annette Bening). Under the tutelage of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers attempts to learn more about herself using the AI ruler of the Kree, the Supreme Intelligence (Bening again, as we only see her from Vers’s point of view and it takes different forms for different people), without much success. After being taken captive by Skrulls and fighting her way free, Vers lands on C-53, better known to its inhabitants as Earth, where she immediately runs afoul of S.H.I.E.L.D., before bonding with a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and setting out to discover why the woman in her dreams seems to have had a life on C-53, including involvement with a top secret aerospace defense project. Along the way, she connects, or perhaps reconnects, with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). Opposing her is the Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), but there may be more to his motivations than meets the eye.

A lot of the internet is pretty up in arms about Captain Marvel, and for the most part, it’s just trolling and various degrees of personal toxicity. And the problem with every dudebro out there who’s angry about the injustice of Captain Marvel/Vers (as I’ll refer her to remain spoiler free, if that’s even possible at this juncture) stealing a motorcycle from a man who told her to smile, as if a microaggression warrants grand theft, is that it leaves very little room to be critical of the elements that don’t actually work from a narrative perspective. Look, I’m not MovieSins; I’m not here to ring an annoying little bell just because the final mental showdown between two characters is set to a Nirvana classic from an album that we don’t actually see Vers hearing (although she had plenty of chances offscreen). But I have to admit that even I was a little tired of some of the pablum and the unwillingness to take risks that were on display here. Sure, there was some inventiveness with the subversion of both what we’ve come to expect from films in general and this franchise specifically, especially in regard to the villainous Skrulls and their true motivations, but that doesn’t mean that the storytelling itself is inventive, and that’s the issue here. We’ve seen the fish-out-water story before in Thor, but that doesn’t mean that this is inherently derivative. I remember walking out of that film way back in 2011 and being pleasantly and refreshingly surprised by it, and there’s a part of me that wants every Marvel movie to give me an equivalent rush, but that’s not a realistic expectation to have after ten years and twenty movies. Time makes you bolder, children get older, and I’m getting older, too. It may be that these movies are just as fun as they’ve always been and I’m just too cynical to enjoy them the way that I used to.

Because, hey, this movie is fun. There are a lot of great setpieces: a sequence of dodging questionably aligned federal agents deep in the heart of a research base library, a terrific train fight sequence featuring the best Stan Lee cameo to date (I’m more of a Jack Kirby stan, if we’re being honest, but even I thought it was nice), and others. But the main one, the big finale, was just a big CGI fest that tired me more than it thrilled me. Compared to the relative viscerality of the Independence Day-esque desert dogfight that came earlier in the film’s runtime, not to mention the undetectable de-aging of Jackson to make him the Fury of yesteryear, it lacks any concreteness and feels hollow; I’m glad to hear that other people found this to be exciting, but it just didn’t work for me. Admittedly, that’s always been the case with the MCU, as all of the films peak early, going as far back as Iron Man, where the best sequence wasn’t the toe-to-toe showdown between our “hero” and Iron Monger, but the more stunning and ground-breaking sequence in which Tony finds himself flying alongside two fighter planes. But still, there’s something about this movie that doesn’t quite sit right with me, and it’s not just that they didn’t have an appearance from Peggy, even though she was totally alive at this time and, per Ant-Man, still active in S.H.I.E.L.D. a mere six years prior, although that omission is a crime.

Still, it’s hard to fault a film for having a poor finale after a lot of fun beforehand. Fitting for a movie that is at least on some level about both Girl Power and The 90s, the comparison that kept coming to my mind was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It may just be that I rewatched the 1992 film within the past six months (and also watched it about 47 times over the course of a single summer once), but the aforementioned scene in which Vers steals a guy’s motorcycle reads just like the scene in that film in which original Kristy Swanson Buffy does the same after a rude biker asks if she “wants some real power between [her] legs.” It’s a sanitization of something, to make it more palatable for you to be able to bring your kids to see the new superhero movie, but it’s almost the same scene, and I genuinely enjoyed that the film evoked that rhetorical space in the era of its birth. Further, the sequence of Vers getting up over and over again, used as a shorthand about her past and her resilience in the face of limitations placed on her by a masculine culture, included one of her as a little girl stepping up to the plate and getting ready to knock one out of the park, which once again evoked the scene from the series finale of Buffy the show, during the title character’s famous “Are you ready to be strong?” speech (believe it or not, this is the best upload I could find of the scene; sorry). I don’t know if there was a subliminal attempt to invoke the memory of disgraced Avengers and Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon by summoning relevant images from both the beginning and end of the Buffy franchise, but if so, that’s a next level of synergy, and I’m impressed by the mad genius of it.

I’m hot and cold on this one. As it’s been out for almost a month now, it’s unlikely you need me to tell you whether or not to check it out, as your decision was probably made months in advance of its original release date. Larson is a terrific actress who’s really not given as much to do characterwise as someone of her talent could, but she’s effortlessly charming and magnetic, and her chemistry with Lynch and Jackson is very good. When it comes to integrating a child as a main character and instigator of plot, it also certainly works a lot better than Iron Man 3, where the character was so blatantly an audience surrogate that it almost derailed a film that is, outside of that plot detour, the best Iron Man movie (don’t @ me). And after quietly making his bones in the mainstream as a one-dimensional villain in a lot of hyped releases the past few years (Rogue One, Ready Player One, and that Robin Hood that no one saw), Mendelson brings a pathos to a scaly monster that you wouldn’t expect to find in a movie that’s as relatively flat as this one is. There are twists and betrayals, but they all seem rather rote at this point. And yet . . . and yet . . . I enjoyed this one. And you probably will, too.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

For the last decade solid, the superhero franchise has dominated box office receipts as a medium, to the point where hardly anything else has room to breathe. This pop culture takeover largely started with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series & the MCU kickstarter Iron Man in the late aughts, which combined to redefine the comic book adaptation as being not just kids’ stuff anymore. “Thanks” to The Dark Knight & Iron Man, nerd culture is popular culture now, where superhero comics media is expected to be taken seriously as Art for Adults, leaving the days of more over-the-top properties with Saturday Morning Cartoon energy like Sam Raimi’s Darkman or Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 far behind in the cultural dustbin. I often miss the go-for-broke zaniness of those earlier works as the MCU and the *shudder* DCEU have become such well-oiled machines that you more or less know what to expect from their individual franchise entries a year before the pictures even reach the screen. It’s tempting to look back to the early stirrings of comic book adaptations’ sea change in the late aughts, then, and imagine what might have been if culture had shifted in a different direction. What kind of gloriously fucked up world would we be living in if Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone had won the culture war instead of The Dark Knight?

As an aesthetic object, Punisher: War Zone is clearly of the same cloth as the dark, “gritty” genre filmmaking that commands The Dark Knight Trilogy & its legion of grimly macho descendants. An emotionally troubled, gruff anti-hero violently tears down webs of organized crime while bathed in dark, sickly green lighting & harsh music video edits. Questions of whether vigilante justice has gone too far plague the titular “hero’s” tirade against powerful mobsters & crooked cops, echoing the anguished ethical philosophy at the core of the Dark Knight series. And yet, Punisher: War Zone could not be further in tone from Nolan’s self-serious philosophical sobriety. Even the more jocular, brightly lit counterbalance of the MCU is no match for the places Alexander takes the superhero medium here. To put it plainly, Punisher: War Zone is goofy as fuck. For all of its gruff macho exterior & onscreen depictions of vicious hyperviolence, it reaches levels of silly delirium unseen in a comic book adaptation of its stature since the cartoon energy of Dick Tracy in the 90s. This is a superhero narrative where cops have no interest in catching the murderous anti-hero, despite having rooms full of evidence on the bodies he’s left behind, because they respect his alpha male ability to get the job done while the judicial system leaves their own hands tied. That sounds like it would be poisoned with an insufferable level of superhero machismo, but somehow it comes across onscreen as so deliciously silly that it’s almost wholesome. Almost.

Considering its hard-R exaggeration of its comic book ultraviolence, Punisher: War Zone is decidedly not for children. No opportunities for bloodshed are wasted here. Bullets rip open skulls in glorious practical effects gore. Mobsters’ faces are dragged across seas of broken glass bottles, carved to shreds. Heads cave like melons when punched. If you find yourself asking, “Why is the stem on that wine glass so long?,” it’s because it’s soon to be plunged through a victim’s throat. However grotesque, this cartoonish fascination with the violent breakdown of the human body is decidedly juvenile. Punisher: War Zone wastes no time pretending that its violent antihero tirade represents some philosophical, allegorical dilemma about right & wrong in a world without a moral center. The closest it gets to meaningful dialogue is in the hilarity of awkward one-liners like, “Let me put you out of my misery,” and, when The Punisher oversteps the bounds of justice, “Who punishes you?” Why waste time pretending any of this action spectacle actually means something when you could just as easily set up a lengthy gag where parkour-obsessed goons are swiftly destroyed with a bazooka just before they get to show off their skills? Punisher: War Zone earns its R-rating in nearly every frame, but it does so while staying true to the childish sense of humor inherent to comic books media. It’s essentially the same juvenile slapstick violence that commands Shoot Em Up, except played straight which is to say it’s 1000x better than Shoot Em Up.

Practically speaking, it’s no use wondering what might have been if Punisher: War Zone was a smash hit instead of The Dark Knight. The film made only a third of the superhero box office numbers earned by notorious flop Howard the Duck two decades earlier – no adjustment for inflation. It’s a cult object at best. Even if it had been a hit, Hollywood studios have a tendency to learn the wrong lessons from box office successes and its formula could have inspired some truly hideous art in other directors’ hands – both visually & morally. Still, there’s a certain live action cartoon energy to Punisher: War Zone that was largely AWOL in superhero media in the past decade as comic book franchises sought a grittier, more tonally sober path. You can detect that sensibility’s gradual return in recent late-franchise entries like Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Aquaman, but even those films feel overly restrained & concerned with respectability in a way that never crosses War Zone‘s delirious mind. This is an aggressively juvenile, brutally violent splatter fest that stays true to both ends of the comic book medium – the grimly macho & the unapologetically silly – in a tonal juggling act more films could benefit to emulate. If you’re going to be constantly bombarded with superhero media, there should be plenty of room for more outliers to be this wildly unpredictable & deliriously silly.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #79 of The Swampflix Podcast: New Orleans French & PATOIS Film Fests 2019

Welcome to Episode #79 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our seventy-ninth episode, James & Brandon take care of some film festival-related Spring cleaning with a diverse line-up of foreign-language cinema. They discuss selections from this year’s New Orleans French Film Fest and PATOIS: The New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival.  Also, James makes Brandon watch the absurdist French drama La Moustache (2005) for the first time. Enjoy!

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

–James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Spreading Motern Awareness at the Final NOCAZ

Once or twice a year I make zines versions of movie reviews we’ve written for Swampflix to distribute at local festivals & events (with immense help from CC in printing & tabling them). So far, we’ve never sold zines outside the festival environment, so they’re a kind of special-occasion treat for the site – a natural extension of our low-fi, high-effort movie blogging aesthetic. I was inspired to start this ritual when I attended the very first New Orleans Comics and Zines festival at the New Orleans Public Library in our own early stirrings as a blogging collective. Surveying dozens of tables of amateur & semi-professional art in the library was an inspiring, communal experience that really helped put into perspective what Swampflix was even doing as a lowly, localized movie blog. We will never be a legitimate, lucrative film criticism website (or even a self-sustaining one, to be frank; this is a money-losing hobby of an operation), so I sensed an instant kinship with the amateur art-for-art’s-sake vibe of the event. Our high-contrast black Sharpie illustrations that accompany our movie reviews even already looked like classic Xeroxed zines, something that came naturally to me from self-promoting ancient punk shows in hand-drawn flyers for long-dead bands I was in over a decade ago. That first NOCAZ had the ideal D.I.Y. punk effect on me, the exact spirit you hope to be infected with at any punk community event: it made me want to make art. We’ve been tabling handmade Swampflix zines at every NOCAZ festival since (and even branched out to distribute zines at other book fairs & library events); it’s one of the more energizing highlights of our calendar. That’s why it’s so sad that this year’s NOCAZ will be the last.

The fifth & final NOCAZ fest will be staged at the Main Branch of the New Orleans Public Library on Saturday April 6th and Sunday April 7th, 2019. I’ve already been preparing for the festival for months, making zines & buttons in my free time between writing movie reviews, producing The Swampflix Podcast, and just trying to live a normal life besides. It takes a lot of work to finish the zines on-time every year, not least of all because I make it hard on myself for no reason at all. Instead of merely printing the text & images we’ve already posted on the site, I transcribe that work by hand in careful, but microscopic Sharpie lettering. I also make sure to include bonus illustrations beyond the ones we’ve already published. It’s a needlessly labor-intensive task. Not only does it require weeks of manual labor to produce every new zine, but my handwriting is so small, uneven, and littered with delirious typos that the end result is a bit of an eyesore. I could be wrong, but I highly doubt anyone’s ever successfully read a Swampflix zine from cover to cover, no matter their level of interest in what we’re writing about. That doesn’t mean that there’s no point in making them, though, as delusional as that may sound. I get so much out of tabling at NOCAZ every year. One of the main reasons we review movies for the site is because we love to discuss & recommend films to people, which NOCAZ allows us to do tangibly, in person. It’s also the world’s most ineffective, labor-intensive form of self-promotion, but I like to think that it does make at last a new handful of locals aware that we exist every year, which is a plus. Mostly, though, the zines are worthwhile just because it feels good to make anything. The act of amateur art creation is its own reward.

According to their About page, “NOCAZ is an attempt to make a space for self-published artists and thinkers to put their work out in the public sphere and be able to reach each other without the constraints and expense of the commercial publishing industry. Zines are a participatory format and [they] hope bringing multiple perspectives together under one roof can create dialogue and inspire more people to express themselves though print.” I can report that, for us at least, the short-lived festival was a resounding success on these terms. I also suspect we were far from the only attendees who started making zines for the first time after attending the fest.

I don’t think there’s a more appropriate note to end our time with NOCAZ on than the new zine we’ve printed for this year’s fest: a collection of movie reviews I wrote about backyard filmmaker Matt Farley last summer. For the last two decades, Farley has been making microbudget horror comedies and recording tens of thousands of novelty songs with his family & friends around his New England neighborhoods to little outside fanfare. There’s nothing especially “punk” about his work or his demeanor, but Farley’s Motern Media brand is still a microcosmic D.I.Y. operation that feels entirely in-spirit with the NOCAZ tabling experience. I was thinking a lot about Matt Farley last summer when exhibiting Swampflix zines at the American Library Association’s national conference. I spent four consecutive days in a massive convention hall peddling zines to librarians from all over the country. Out of every dozen or so people who actually stopped to talk to us about our zines (or to learn about zine culture in general), there were only one or two who enthusiastically got what we were doing and found great joy in talking about movies with a stranger. It was the exact high-effort, low-payoff amateur art lifestyle Farley details in our current Movie of the Month, 2013’s Local Legends. Tripling as a narrative comedy, a documentary, and an infomercial selling Farley’s various CDs & DVDs, Local Legends is a stunningly bullshit-free, self-aware summation of the minor joys & embarrassments of amateur art production in the self-publishing digital hellscape of the 2010s. It’s Farley’s masterpiece, and I see so much of my own experiences blogging, podcasting, and making zines in its cruel self-satire. Just as much as NOCAZ opened my eyes to Swampflix already being a kind of online zine before we were ever in print, Local Legends helped clarify exactly what I was feeling putting all this effort into go-nowhere art projects with no clear goal beyond the act of their own production.

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I initially wrote a Motern Media fanzine to help spread the word that Matt Farley exists out there, making amateur art for his own amusement (and minor, self-sustaining profit). Since printing the first few copies, NOCAZ has announced that this year’s festival will be the last, which already makes me feel like I’m living out the opening scenes of a Local Legends sequel. I can’t think of a more appropriate note to close our NOCAZ experience on than trying to convince strangers to purchase a zine about a microbudget filmmaker they’ve never heard of before, so that more people might experience the amateur joys of Motern classics like Local Legends, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, and Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas. In true Local Legends sprit, we’ll also be selling older zines we printed far too many copies of years ago and could never fully get rid of at past festivals. Still, distributing the Matt Farley fanzine will be our top priority. NOCAZ & Motern are easily the two most revelatory influences I’ve had in understanding exactly what I’ve been doing with Swampflix over the last five years, so I’m glad I could find an opportunity to experience them in tandem before that window closes forever.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, Matt Farley’s satirical self-portrait Local Legends (2013), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 4/4/19 – 4/10/19

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week, including a couple dread-inducing horror flicks and some even more horrifying visions of modern Florida.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Pet Sematary An updated adaptation of the Stephen King classic helmed by the same production team behind the hugely successful 2010s update to IT. Early reviews from the film festival circuit report that it’s far wilder & gorier than what the trailers are letting on, which is an exciting tease.

Screwball Pretends to be a hard-hitting documentary about systemic steroid abuse in major-league baseball and the Miami “health professionals” who support it, but distorts that real-life story through such a deranged, humorous lens that it defies built-in expectations at every turn. Playing only at the new & improved Zeitgeist cinema in Arabi.

“A Surprise Film Screening” with The Watermelon Woman (1996)’s Cheryl Dunye – The New Orleans Film Society is hosting a free-to-the-public Q&A with legendary queer indie-scene filmmaker Cheryl Dunye and actor Yolanda Ross on Sunday 4/7 at the Ace Hotel. According to the listing, “There will be a surprise film screening after the conversation.”

Movies We Already Enjoyed

Us Jordan Peele follows up his instantly iconic debut feature Get Out (Swampflix’s favorite film of 2017) with a surreal freak-out about doppelgangers & class-disparity. From Boomer’s review: “Us is more ambitious than its predecessor, meaning that sometimes it swings a bit wider but ultimately has the same meticulous attention detail, from literal Chekovian guns to a multitude of characters being literally and metaphorically reflected in surfaces both pristine and cracked.”

The Beach Bum Harmony Korine follows up his sun-drenched nightmare Spring Breakers with yet another beachside Floridian hellscape, this time starring Matthew McConaughey as a preposterous stoner-poet. Korine always works best when he reins it in with a guiding structure, and this one does so by riffing on 90s Major Studio Comedy tropes to nightmarish success. It’s basically his Billy Madison, which I mean as a major compliment.

The Godfather (1972) – Surely, you’ve seen Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning mafia drama by now, but have you ever seen in projected on the big screen? Maybe so; I don’t know your life’s story. Screening Sunday 4/7 and Wednesday 4/10 as part of The Prytania’s Classic Movies series.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Local Legends (2013)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee, Brandon, and CC watch Local Legends (2013).

Brandon: Last summer, I became unhealthily fixated on the outsider art projects of Matt Farley and his Motern Media brand. Even after reviewing a dozen or so Motern movies for Swampflix, I found myself compelled but unable to fully communicate the value of Farley’s novelty songs and horror-comedy parodies to anyone who had the misfortune of listening to me babble offline. Part of the appeal of Farley’s cinematic output in general is that it’s so aggressively localized that it feels unknowable to newcomers outside his dorkily wholesome New England community. The recurring cast of family & friends that consistently populate Farley’s backyard film productions do become gradually familiar as you sink further into his Motern catalog, but there’s also a mystique to the unfathomable consistency of that recurrence. As much as Farley is making parodically silly horror movies & Dr. Demento-style novelty songs around his new England neighborhood, he’s also documenting the evolution & aging of an insular community of people the outside world knows nothing about. There’s a vast wealth of material in the Motern catalog, but no immediate context to what you’re watching or listening to, so that the only way to fully understand what Farley is accomplishing with his buddies (most notably his frequent director-of-choice Charles Roxburgh) is to watch all of his available movies. Even though the films are generally short & hosted on easily accessible sites like YouTube, that’s a daunting recommendation, especially in an era where audiences are used to knowing practically everything about a film’s cast, plot, and production history before we experience the finished product for ourselves. Understanding Matt Farley’s work requires obsession, as it requires a hunger for small context clues spread over an untold number of film productions (I can’t even tell you exactly how many movies he’s produced, since even that information is mysteriously inconsistent depending on the source).

It turns out that attempting to piece together the mystery of Matt Farley’s decades-long dedication to microbudget film production & novelty songwriting through context clues in interviews, Motern Media’s website, and the Important Cinema Club podcast episode where I first discovered his work was essentially a waste of time. In addition to being the most self-aware man alive, Farley is also radically dedicated to existing in the public sphere as an open book; if you want any details about his life’s work, all you have to do is ask. He even frequently includes his phone number (603-644-0048) in the end credits of his films and the lyrics of his songs so that you can call him to ask questions directly. Interviewing Farley about his life & work is also a redundancy in its own way, though, because Farley has already laid out the essential details for all to see in a feature-length narrative film titled Local Legends. Without shame or apology, Local Legends is a 70min infomercial for Matt Farley’s various outsider art projects. The film states in matter-of-fact, brazenly honest terms how & why Farley makes music & movies, as well as where you can find his work & support him financially. In addition to being a feature-length commercial for the Motern Media empire, Local Legends is also an artistic masterpiece, easily my favorite Matt Farley production. Any questions I’ve asked myself about his day to day routines, the amount of outside fanfare he’s seen for his work, and the context of where his community of adorable weirdos fits in on his local arts scene are answered plainly in the movie, which triples as a narrative feature, a documentary, and an essay film on the joys & embarrassments of amateur art production in the 2010s. Even beyond the convenient insight it provides into Farley’s Warhol-esque media factory, however, Local Legends is just stunning in its bullshit-free self-awareness as a small-time regional artist’s self-portrait, something I strongly identify with as an amateur film blogger & podcaster in our own insular, localized community. Local Legends is a paradox, in that it could not exist without decades of back catalog art projects informing what Farley is saying about the nature of outsider art in the film, but it’s also a crowning achievement that feels like a philosophical breakthrough for Farley just as much an outsider’s crash course in his oeuvre. It’s a crass act of self-promotion, but the product being displayed is often about crass self-promotion & amateur hustling, which are necessary for a modern artist’s survival & longevity.

The only thing that complicates my love for this self-portrait of an outsider artist its blatant debt to known sexual abuser Woody Allen. As this is one of his select few productions not directed by career-long bestie Charles Roxburgh, Farley’s choice to write, star in, and direct Local Legends himself with an auteursist omnipresence recalls the unembarrassed narcissism of Woody Allen’s own self-indulgent oeuvre. Farley, of course, verbally acknowledges this debt to Allen (something that has aged horrifically in the last six years, for extratextual reasons you’re already aware of). He both shoots the film in a digital black & white that recalls Woody Allen‘s visual style and makes in-dialogue references to touchstones like Annie Hall just so you know that the affectation is purposeful. This high-brow aesthetic is amusing in contrast to Farley’s aggressively unpretentious novelty songs about poop & microbudget rubber-monster horror comedies, but it’s still a cringey impulse all the same. I like to think of Local Legends as the perfect Matt Farley introduction because it encapsulates so much of his peculiar personality & day-to-day amateur art production, but recommending someone watch it means asking them to think about Woody Allen, which spoils the mood at best, potentially triggers the viewer at worst.

So, Boomer, were you able to look past Local Legends’s Woody Allenisms enough to get a feel for Matt Farley as his own distinct, persona? How effective of an introduction (if not an outright infomercial) was this film to the Motern Media empire for you as a previously uninitiated viewer?

Boomer: I had never heard of Farley before watching this gem, but I found the unpretentious absence of pomp and utter lack of any kind of self-deception in his compartmentalization of his art charming and refreshing. When the first season of Star Trek: Discovery premiered a while back and I signed up for CBS All Access in order to watch it (if you think I wouldn’t pay $10 a month for Star Trek, you don’t know me), my roommate grew temporarily (thankfully) obsessed with The Bold & the Beautiful, and when I couldn’t figure out why, he explained that he was attracted to art that felt like he could have made it, and the overall cheapness of the early seasons of that soap opera made him feel better about his level of cinematic skill. Local Legends is much the same: it feels like a movie that a group of friends could have made, because it is exactly that. At first, I was a little turned off by this, as the early scenes of Farley’s non-comedic stand-up were accompanied by sparse laughter and painful silences, and I wasn’t certain if this was supposed to represent that Farley thought he was a great comedian and that he simply didn’t have the budget to project his own image of himself. Once the film starts moving along and you realize that the “legends” in the title is self-deprecating and not self-aggrandizing, it’s a more pleasant experience. It wasn’t until he’s singing the name “Theodora” repeatedly that I really got my first belly laugh, but from that point on, it was chuckles aplenty. That was the moment that I felt like I really understood Farley, both as a creator and as a persona, and perhaps as both.

I really loved Local Legends. As an introduction to Farley’s overall body of work, I assume that it gives one a pretty clear picture of his other films; I particularly liked the use of footage from Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! and the explanations of how each person in Farley’s life played a role in his productions, and what that role was. You also get a pretty clear picture of Farley, down to his habit of walking around town while listening to Red Sox games and even occasionally raising his hands in order to let the blood that’s pooled there drain back into his body, which is so specifically odd that I have to believe Farley the person shares this trait with Farley the character. My favorite scenes were those between him and his bandmate Tom in their practice space, discussing the way that Millhouse’s showcase went from museum to bar to home basement, laughing at the absurdity of it all but recognizing the familiarity and inevitability of this devolution (Millhouse himself is a great character, with his clipart promo flyers and indestructible optimism).

Overall, this is a pretty optimistic movie, and strangely uplifting in its way. I certainly felt effervescent upon completion. The Woody Allen references struck me as odd, since it’s not as if the allegations against him aren’t exactly new (as with Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Kevin Spacey, Michael Jackson, and others, concerns crop up and are well-publicized, then they recede beneath the waves as the news cycle moves on, only to reappear years later to the apparent sudden surprise of the internet, a pretty ample demonstration of our society’s pathologically—even criminally—short attention span), but it’s not really a surprise as I’ve often found that—and this isn’t intended as an insult to Farley personally—that straight white men find it easier to separate the art and the artist than people who’ve experienced marginalization in their lives. That said, I wasn’t terribly happy with the way that Abby was presented as “crazy.” As an appellation, this is so often applied to women for absolutely no reason other than behavioral double standards. Although she did ultimately demonstrate that she had a couple of screws loose, her immediate demonization for no other reason than that she misrepresented the extent of her Billy Joel collection seemed like gatekeeping gone awry, which made me side against Farley, at least at first, which may be the reason it took me longer than normal to warm up to him as a protagonist. CC, what did you think of the character of Abby? Was she deserving of the scorn she received? Does her comparison against Genevieve feel weird to you?

CC: Abby’s characterization bothered me as well. I recently saw her same overly-clingy girlfriend type included as a character on the Hulu show Pen15 and I didn’t care for the trope there either. It’s time for the stalker-ish, emotionally manipulative, “crazy bitch” stereotype to die completely (unless we’re talking about outliers like Isabelle Huppert’s role in Greta, since at least she has nuance and motive outside her relationship to a male character). I also think cultural gatekeeping and derogatory humor hinging on another person’s inability to appreciate “good” culture (which are inherently rooted in misogyny and cultural & racial chauvinism) need to end. Abby represents both of these things.

Farley portrays Abby’s intense version of attention as suffocating. At the same time, he’s releasing movies and music about himself, so he seems to crave attention. Those two impulses are self-contradictory. I don’t know why her character was included in the film in the first place, since her presence is not especially important to the plot other than for him to complain about her clinginess. If Local Legends is a parody of movie tropes and character types, it would have been better off to either poke fun at the trope instead of participating in it or to just remove Abby from the picture entirely.

I think I need to note, for transparency’s sake, that I have felt a lot of angst and anxiety writing this response. It makes me deeply uncomfortable writing anything remotely critical about Matt Farley’s work (even if my criticisms are also directed towards a larger cultural milieu) knowing that he will definitely read this, as evidenced by his admission in Local Legends that he routinely Googles himself daily, if not hourly.

Britnee, does the knowledge that Matt Farley is for sure going to read this conversation change how you respond to and write about his films?

Britnee: The fact that Matt Farley will read our conversation does linger in the back of my mind as I’m getting ready to write about my thoughts on Local Legends, but that doesn’t make me feel weird or uneasy about discussing this film in the Swampflix world. The internet is a pretty intense place to exist as a public figure and Farley really puts himself out there, so I’m certain that he’s already come across lots of praise for his work while suffering his fair share of harsh critiques as well. He honestly seems like the kind of guy who thrives on those negative comments about his art and uses them as inspiration to make even more films and songs. I’m feeling pretty chill about him creeping on our conversation at this point, even if it’s not all positive.

I remember Brandon recommending Farley’s films in a “What Have You Been Watching Lately?” segment on an old episode of The Swampflix Podcast. Even though I had no idea who or what he was talking about, his enthusiasm while discussing Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! was enough for me to add the film to my movie watchlist (and yet I still haven’t seen it yet). When I realized that Local Legends was a film about Farley’s art projects, I was interested to see what he was all about. It was not at all what I expected. I was expecting rowdy guys with long hair and rock band t-shirts (sort of like Jackass without all the stunts), and I was so wrong. The cast of Local Legends is pretty much a group of average white suburban guys doing pretty basic, ordinary things in the weirdest way possible. For example, Farley walks around his sunny, all-American town while leaving free CDs of his bizarre music in random places on the street for strangers to find. It made me laugh so damn hard. The style of humor in Local Legends is very particular. It pokes fun at the everydayness of life while exuding tons of awkward energy, and I’m totally into it.

I’m still not quite sure if the film was supposed to be a comedy, a true documentary, or a mix of the two. Brandon, did you have a hard time deciphering reality from fiction in Local Legends?

Brandon: Conveniently enough, Matt does frequently point out in real-time the few instances where he has to stretch the truth to fit the means of his budget. I’m thinking particularly of the scenes set in his rent-paying “day” job wiping old men’s butts at a nursing home; Matt informs the audience in-narration that he did not have permission from his employer to film on-site, so the scene was staged in his parents’ basement instead. A major part of the genius of Local Legends is the total lack of vanity in those types of admissions. Of course, this film is more a half-fictionalized reenactment than it is a true documentary, but I do personally believe every anecdote displayed onscreen to be blatantly honest recollections of things that actually happened. In fact, I know the self-portrait Matt Farley constructs in Local Legends is true to life, because the second we (a lowly, amateur film blog from over a thousand miles away) posted our reviews of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! & Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas last summer, he was retweeting & promoting them to his dedicated audience of Motern converts and sending us personalized thank you notes, which rings true to his confession in the film that he obsessively Googles himself for amateur reviews of his work. I also know it to be true because I recognize my own life in small-scale art projects (from this blog to long-forgotten punk bands to my dead-end college degree in Poetry) through the minor joys & embarrassments that are depicted in all their naked honesty here. The world of amateur art production on display in Local Legends is radically ordinary & relatable in a way you don’t normally see from the more glamorized, curated social media profiles of self-promoting hobbyists like myself & my small-time artist friends. No matter how shameless my self-promotion of Swampflix can get or how pointless the effort of running the site may seem to anyone outside my immediate circle, however, I’ve only experienced a microscopic taste of Farley’s commitment to building Motern by hand over the last two decades. There’s something truly refreshing & inspiring about his transparency in explanations of how he keeps that ship afloat.

As a comedy, Local Legends does filter this radical honesty through a layer of irony & self-deprecation, which can be a little difficult to read if you aren’t familiar with Farley’s very particular brand of humor. I just can’t believe that someone this self-aware doesn’t see the irony in spending every waking hour of his day scheming to make movies & music, then repeating the phrase “I hate artists,” so often that it’s effectively a personal mantra. There’s also a hilarious disconnect between Farley’s aggressive lack of pretension and his demand that people stop still when he enters a party so that he can hold court & talk about himself at length. He wants to be recognized as both a relatable everyman and The World’s Greatest Living Artist, to the point that his milquetoast appearance and his self-obsessed narcissism are both a kind of exaggerated performance. I even read a little irony & self-deprecation in his deplorable treatment of Abby in the picture. I have no doubt that sometime in Matt’s life some girl somewhere (somewhere in New England, at least) really did proclaim to have “all of Billy Joel’s albums” when she only had his Greatest Hits. Instead of the healthy “Who cares?” response most people would have in that situation, it was an encounter that frustrated Farley so much that he held onto it long enough to restage it in a fictionalized movie just to dunk on her one more time. Even within the picture, it’s a frivolous “slight” that he just can’t let go, recounting it over & over again to friends like a lunatic. It’s not something that makes him look cool or superior, not least of all because his snobby gatekeeping in the film involves the most basic-taste shallow cuts imaginable: Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, The Beatles etc. When you get to the core of what really bothers Matt about Abby, it’s not that she’s unfamiliar with Billy Joel’s discography; it’s that she’s not especially interested in his own. Abby can’t sit still through a screening of his slasher film Freaky Farley, doesn’t find any value in his novelty songs and, worse yet, dares to have her own artistic ambitions that Farley himself doesn’t understand (costumes that are designed for art gallery display, not to be worn). I totally agree that his characterization of Abby as “crazy” is gross (and uncomfortably participates in a myriad of misogynist tropes), but it culminates as an ironic, comedic bit when Matt defines that craziness to his bandmate Tom as her being obsessed with herself. All Matt Farley wants to talk about in this picture is Matt Farley; truly no one in the world is more self-obsessed. So, I can only read that complaint as a self-deprecating joke.

Beyond its function as a documentary & a comedy, Local Legends is also a straight-up informercial. Farley not only gives publishes his phone number and mailing address in the film for anyone who wants to contact him with professional prospects, but he also explains where you can order his physical media online and the exact math of how he pays his bills by streaming tens of thousands of novelty songs on Spotify. In brutal honesty about the search-optimization aspect of his songwriting process, he details how he’ll find a buzzword like “gluten” to use in a song title because it’ll get instant hits for merely existing, regardless if it’s any good. He shrugs, “People don’t care. They just want a song about gluten.” This commercial crassness is a sign of exhaustion more than anything. Farley is entirely disinterested in fretting over artistic integrity. He even builds a meta-commentary within the film where a Corporate Asshole version of himself issues executive commands to his subservient Artist’s side on how to improve the profitability of his various projects, including the very film you’re watching. It’s entirely understandable how he became cynical too, as he portrays in brutal self-cruelty all the various, barely concealed insults artists suffer from family & friends who do not understand the significance of their passion, dismissing it as a silly hobby rather than a worthwhile life’s pursuit. By crassly pandering to the sillier aspects of his work to increase his profits (and, thus, make it possible for him to continue working), Farley only intensifies outsiders’ dismissal of his art as mindless, anyone-could-do-it frivolity. They were never likely to find his backyard horror comedies and novelty songs about diarrhea worthwhile either way, though, so all he does by leaning into the more profitable aspects of his work is help ensure Motern’s longevity. It’s maybe the only example of shameless commercial cynicism I could think to call admirable, if not outright heroic.

Speaking of Farley’s Corporate Asshole doppelganger, it’s the only element of Local Legends I can recall that could be described as a break in reality. Matt continually shatters the fourth wall in his narration to the audience (which he does out of spite because a screenwriting how-to explicitly advised against it), but something about Corporate Asshole Farley feels like a fantastic outlier in the film’s general relationship with reality. Boomer, what did you make of Farley’s dual role as the businessman version of himself? Is that device justified in the context of the film, even though it is such an in-universe anomaly?

Boomer: I like it. So much of the film’s runtime is centered around an apparent lack of self-awareness: about the repeated pattern of Millhouse’s unrealistic dreams inevitably spiraling into a performance in which there are more participants than spectators and the implication that this is not the first time this has happened and certainly won’t be the last; about the marketability of his and Pete’s collaborations (which I love); about Abby’s clear inability to recognize her failings. We of Swampflix are a pretty savvy bunch, but even I find myself sometimes deciding whether I like something based upon whether or not I think the media in question is “in on it” with regards to a character’s unlikeability or its awareness of how ridiculous it is (see: Syfy’s The Magicians), and it can be a deciding factor for me. Were it not for the presence of Business Asshole Matt, I don’t think we’d be arguing over whether or not Matt Farley is self-aware, since he clearly is, but I for one would definitely have taken a little longer to be certain about that. It also allows for the most truly surreal part of the movie, when the creepy man who always asks Matt for directions and then offers him a ride apparently gets what he wants, as Business Asshole Matt rides off with him into the monochrome sunset. It textualizes the subtext of Matt’s interior monologue, and that really works for me on a comedic level, even though it makes no sense on a realistic one. It’s like the scene in which Matt’s bandmate pulls up and they joke about why there’s a woman in the backseat, and it’s clearly for continuity so that they can have the camera in the front for reverse shots, but it draws attention to itself in a way that I like.

CC, of all the odd characters who populate Matt’s town, who was your favorite? I had a fondness for the creepy man in theory, but I also really liked Soup.

CC: I was also fond of Soup. It was a pleasant surprise to discover late in the film that his name was literal after getting to know him for so long only as Matt’s basketball partner. Anytime you need soup, Soup is there to offer it for you. He has a fridge full of it just ready to go. Be warned, though. Soup is under the impression that soup is a useful thing for everyone on all occasions, when it’s actually very limited. Most people only need it when it’s cold outside or they’re sick, which makes his bottomless soup fridge an absurd service. Soup’s only negative trait was that he tells Matt to stop being so hard on Abby, even encouraging her more stalkerish behavior because Matt should find it flattering.

Millhouse was also very funny in that he is insanely optimistic, to a pathological degree. As the comedy show he is promoting is downgraded from a legitimate venue to his mother’s basement, he just continues on chipperly as if everything’s going great. He’s basically the human version of that “This is fine.” dog from the burning-house comic panel. The only time he loses his cool is when he’s shouting at his mom for doing laundry and not keeping her dog quiet during the basement comedy show. Keep in mind that he’s in his 50s. It’s pathetically funny.

Speaking of the movie’s portrait of a local stand-up comedy scene, it seems like that’s not what Local Legends is really selling as an infomercial. The amateur stand-up community is mostly just the setting, and what Matt is actually selling here is his movies and music. Britnee, which were you more enticed by after seeing the film? Did Local Legends do a better job as a commercial selling Matt Farley’s novelty music or a commercial selling his backyard movies?

Britnee: The film sold me on his music much more than his movies. The part of Local Legends that made me laugh until my face hurt was when where Matt explains his career in novelty songs. I absolutely love silly songs (Weird Al, Tim and Eric, etc.), so his music immediately grabbed my interest. I even wrote down “Look up The Toilet Bowl Cleaners!” in huge letters in my notepad to make sure I wouldn’t forget to delve into the world of Matt Farley poop songs. The Toilet Bowl Cleaners have since completely taken over my morning drives to work. Why just this morning I listened to “I Pooped in Santa’s Lap” as I pulled into the parking garage, and it was just what I needed to start the day off on the right foot.

While listening to The Toilet Bowl Cleaners, I discovered another one of his musical projects, The Singing Animal Lover. Thankfully, The Singing Animal Lover has over 80 songs about animal poop. Just when I thought there couldn’t be any more poops songs, I was blessed with poop songs at a whole new level. I just find so much comfort in knowing there’s a neverending supply of silly songs for me to listen to from Matt Farley alone.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I really connected with the whole Billy Joel situation. In the past, I used to get so annoyed with people who claimed to be superfans of an artist/band, but only had their greatest hits albums. I now know that is such an incredibly dumb way of thinking, but I was once that douchebag.

CC: I know I’ve already compared Millhouse to one meme cartoon, but besides the “This is fine.” dog he also reminds me of Milhouse Van Houten from The Simpsons. Think about it: He lives at home with his mom. He’s overly loyal to his friends. And no matter how much everything is failing around him, he always maintains that “Everything’s coming up Milhouse!” attitude.

Brandon: Since we initiated this conversation about a month ago, I’ve had my most surreal interaction with Matt Farley to date. While I was recovering from the sunshiny haze of Mardi Gras this past Ash Wednesday, Matt posted a song about me titled “Brandon Ledet Reviews Movies Excellently,” which you can listen to at any time on platforms like YouTube & Spotify. It was truly an honor, albeit a mildly terrifying one that made me briefly question reality in my dazed state. The only way I can think to repay him for the experience is to continue sharing the song in places like this so that the effort will contribute to the fractions of pennies that correlate to his streaming statistics, so that maybe more movies like Local Legends can get made in the future.

Boomer: Originally, I was going to suggest that we call Farley and see if he would write a song for us, but as it turns out, he already wrote one for Brandon, so I’m not sure what else I can contribute, other than to note that I am extremely curious about the yearlong album-a-month project that he did.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)

-The Swampflix Crew

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

Contemporary art galleries are some of my favorite places in the world. The shiny white floors and tall white walls sparsely decorated with bizarre, thought-provoking pieces make me feel like I’m trapped in a glorious nightmare. Dan Gilroy explores this mix of art and horror in his most recent Netflix film, Velvet Buzzsaw. It’s mysterious, stylish, and oh so very gory.

I have yet to see Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, but I’m well aware Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in the film was well received. I haven’t seen many Gyllenhaal  films, so I never really had an opinion about him. I always thought he was just okay, far from being a noteworthy actor. His performance in Velvet Buzzsaw has completely changed the way I feel about him. I never thought I would say this, but I’m officially a Jake Gyllenhaal fan! His character in the film, Morf Vandewalt, is a pretentious art critic who is extremely influential in the art world. How Gyllenhaal was able to make me fall in love with such an unlikeable character is beyond me.

In the beginning of the film, Morf leaves his boyfriend and develops a sexual relationship with his colleague, Josephina (Zawe Ashton). There aren’t nearly as many bisexual characters in cinema as there should be, so this was just another reason for me to appreciate Morf. Josephina works under Rhonda (Rene Russo), a well-known, tough-as-nails art dealer who was once a member of a punk band named Velvet Buzzsaw (the origin of the film’s title). Josephina is sweet and probably the most down-to-Earth out of the bunch, but that all starts to change when she uncovers the massive personal art collection of her deceased mysterious elderly neighbor. Josephina claims the paintings, and after she brings them to the attention of her fellow art associates, the paintings take the art world by storm. When anyone looks at the paintings, they look like they saw Jesus Christ in the flesh. It’s obvious there’s something magical about these paintings, but once those who come in contact with them begin to die in mysterious ways, the paintings go from being magical to pure evil.

Velvet Buzzsaw effortlessly balances being a satire of the highbrow art world while also being a blood-soaked slasher. The star-studded cast (including fabulous appearances by my all-time favorite actress, Toni Collette) work their magic by giving fabulous performances without allowing the film to lose its funky underground vibes. This is one of the best horror films to come out so far this year,  so 2019 is definitely off to a good start.

-Britnee Lombas

Us (2019)

“I’m not very good at talking.”

He’s done it again, ladies and gentlemen (and assorted individuals of a nonbinary nature). Jordan Peele has submitted his CV for any and all who might have been foolish enough to have doubted his legacy as the heir apparent to Rod Serling (or Hitchcock, or Shyamalan if you live in a particularly uncharitable part of the internet). The second film helmed by the director who inexplicably turned Blumhouse Productions into a semi-prestige film production house because they were the only ones willing to take a chance on Get Out is more ambitious than its predecessor, meaning that sometimes it swings a bit wider but ultimately has the same meticulous attention to detail, from literal Chekovian guns to a multitude of characters being literally and metaphorically reflected in surfaces both pristine and cracked to even something so small as apparently intentionally offbeat snapping.

Us opens with a birthday outing for young Adelaide (Madison Curry) at the Santa Cruz boardwalk in 1986, where her loving but inattentive and immature father and her worried mother take her around the carnival games while arguing, obviously not for the first time. When Pops (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is distracted by a game of Whack-a-Mole, Adelaide wanders off and finds herself lost and terrified in a hall of mirrors, where her reflection stares back at her from every angle . . . except one. Later, the traumatized and speechless girl sits outside of a child psychologist’s office, who explains to the parents that Adelaide appears to be suffering from PTSD, prompting mom (Anna Diop) to declare that she just wants her daughter back, back to the way she was before. In the present, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is married to the nerdy but devoted Gabe (Winston Duke) and has two children, teenaged Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), who is considering quitting the track team, and elementary aged Jason (Evan Alex), an apparent budding horror fan who wears a Wolfman mask as much as possible. They go to Adelaide’s childhood home for summer vacation, where Gabe proudly shows off the boat (the Craw-Daddy) that he has recently purchased, and he convinces his wife to take the kids down to beach for the day to meet up with their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their two teen twin daughters Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). At the same beachfront where something unknown but traumatic happened to her as a child, odd coincidences begin to occur: a red frisbee lands on a towel covered in blue polka dots, perfectly covering one of them; a man that she recognizes from her childhood as a boardwalk vagrant is seen being loaded into a waiting ambulance, and Jason wanders off just as she herself had before he appears, none the worse for wear. Back home, Adelaide tells Gabe about the night that changed her life, moments before Jason appears in the room to tell his parents that there’s a family in their driveway. And then the real fear begins.

Us is a movie that it’s almost impossible to discuss without getting into spoilers (and not just about the ending twist, which is one of those perfect reversals in that about 5% of people are complaining about how “obvious” it was, 10% of people are complaining about how it was “spoiled” by promotional materials, 60% of people are pleasantly surprised by how it was cleverly seeded within the text and fits so perfectly that one realizes the story couldn’t actually exist in any other form, and 25% of people are vocally overemoting about it to any audience that will give them the satisfaction), but we’ll try. From the earliest moments, including the scene of little Adelaide watching an advertisement for Hands Across America (which apparently some people thought was made up for the film, which is sad because that means those people have never known the joy of watching classic Simpsons, apparently) on a television that is framed by VHS copies of the films The Goonies, The Right Stuff, and C.H.U.D. (the last of which prompted one of my friends to text me that the scene made him feel like he was at my house for a second, which warmed the cockles of my cold dead heart) before the screen goes blank to reveal the reflection of young Adelaide, soaking it all in. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, the repeated number 1111 (as a time, a Bible verse, and even evocatively in the logo for Black Flag, appearing on several characters’ clothing), Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, and the meaning of the line “We are Americans”: as with Get Out, no detail is too small to warrant inspection, even if this time around Peele is playing with audience expectation and subverting a more obvious and consistent interpretation of his symbolism for a more thoughtful and disquieting notion of significance. It doesn’t give too much of the film’s message away to say that it is about class and the way that it creates dark mirrors for ourselves everywhere, the way that getting out of the darkness of poverty is often impossible, and that those who manage to somehow embody the mythological idea of social mobility must do so at the expense of others, ultimately becoming complicit in the suffering of those who might otherwise have been your peers. Of course, with a film like this one, there are going to be other interpretations, but it’s all there.

Consider: Adelaide’s father, playing Whack-a-Mole, knocking down facsimiles of rodents as they try to rise up out of the darkness underground. Consider: that Gabe constantly finds himself trying to one-up Josh, only to find that Josh himself is imitating his own decisions, in an orobouros of attempts to keep up with the Joneses. Consider: that “I Got 5 On It” is about how one person covets an entire object despite said object being a dime bag that both parties going halves should share between the two of them (“I got some bucks on it, but it ain’t enough on it”). Consider: the power of art as the impetus to empower the recognition of interclass economic struggle and the ability to transcend (or at least ascend within) it. Consider: the repeated refrain of the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” that eternally attempts to climb and is forever pushed back down. Consider: when arriving at the beach house, the family eats fast food, except for Adelaide, who eats strawberries; why? Consider: what does a Black Flag t-shirt mean in 1986 when worn by a teenager working long hard hours versus being worn by the child of a comfortably wealthy family in 2019?

The performances here are powerful. It takes a powerful actor to be able to embody two different characters within a single work, and Nyong’o joins the ranks of Tricia Helfer and Tatiana Maslany in her performance as both Adelaide and her doppelgänger, “Red.” Red’s initial monologue that explains herself and her family in the format of a twisted fairy tale is particularly astonishing, as is her final speech. Duke is fantastic as the embarrassing dad as well, and every moment that he is on screen is a delight. As of this writing, I’m pretty sure that Brandon hasn’t gotten a chance to see this one (event though he is editing this review), so I’m choosing my words very carefully, but this movie comes with my highest recommendations, with a few caveats. I’m not a person who lets minor unresolved details derail my enjoyment of a film, but for those who are prone to pick at nits, there are . . . logistical issues that are never specifically addressed and which are ambiguous enough that I have no doubt those who require not only absolute realism but also utter explicitness in their art would consider them “plot holes.” So, you know, don’t take that friend with you (don’t worry, we all have at least one). Just get out and see this one, although from the box office numbers, you probably already have.

P.S.: My favorite joke is the fact that the “find yourself” hall of mirrors, subtly, has gotten a more socially conscious rebrand in 2019 to get rid of the Native American legends and myths motif for a more politically correct wizard.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

High Flying Bird (2019)

Ever since we covered his low-fi cerebral freak-out Schizopolis as a Movie of the Month, I’ve become a dutiful fan of Stephen Soderbergh. His latest post-“retirement” phase of low-key crowdpleasers that pack a vicious anti-capitalist political punch just below the surface are of particular interest to me, making recent titles like Magic Mike, Logan Lucky, and Unsane can’t-miss appointment viewing. It says a lot about how far outside my usual thematic wheelhouse High Flying Bird is then, that it took me several weeks to catch Soderbergh’s latest even though it was readily available on Netflix. A backroom business drama about a power-struggle between pro basketball players & the NBA (or at least its fictionalized equivalent), High Flying Bird is ostensibly the exact kind of “inside-baseball” sports movie I’d generally have zero interest in if someone’s name like Soderbergh’s weren’t attached. Of course, Soderbergh only uses the pretense of the pro sports drama as an excuse to explore leftist financial politics in what the movie would describe as “the game played behind the game,” as well as staging meta-narrative about his own career in filmmaking. I just didn’t personally connect with the film as much as I might have if it were instead about, say, rowdy strippers or a crazed stalker.

From a Soderberghian experiment standpoint, perhaps the most impressive feat High Flying Bird pulls off is in reflecting the director’s own career within the movie industry without at all sacrificing the voice or politics of its screenwriter Tarel Alvin McCraney (best known of penning the stage play source material for Moonlight). The dense, rapid-fire dialogue that pummels the audience throughout the film doesn’t feel too deviant from the slick-talking hucksters from Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series, but the themes discussed in those exchanges are, to be blunt, more conspicuously black than anything the director has ever handled before. As André Holland (also from Moonlight) travels from boardroom to sauna to gymnasium instigating an Ocean’s-type heist behind the backs of the mostly white (and mostly off-screen) businessmen of the NBA, he almost exclusively interacts with fellow black power-players: Bill Duke, Sonja Sohn, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, etc. The same thematic territory of the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams is elevated from college recruitment to the pro sports level, as the film tiptoes around equating its racially-caged labor dispute between NBA players & team owners to a continued form of American slavery. High Flying Bird deftly talks about race & labor without officially talking about either in explicit terms, a sly trick played by McCraney that I’m honestly a little too dimwitted to fully appreciate or even comprehend.

For any other white filmmaker I could imagine, this business of using an explicitly black story of labor relations with wealthy, white higher-ups to discuss the director’s own career in the movie industry would be disastrous. Soderbergh somehow pulls it off, though, mostly by staying out of the way of McCraney’s words and taking the backroom political drama at the film’s core deadly seriously on its own face-value terms. The most you notice Soderbergh’s presence throughout the film is in the showy digi-cinematography of his iPhone camera equipment. Shifting away from the ugly smartphone photography of Unsane to achieve a colder, HD security camera aesthetic of wide angles & oscillating pans, High Flying Bird again finds Soderbergh playing with his toys – finding new joy in the basic, evolving (devolving?) tools of filmmaking the way he has his entire career. No one shoots corporate, office-lit spaces quite like him, a sickly aesthetic that mutates slightly here though the omnipresence of HD TVs running sports news coverage 24/7 in the background of every interior setting. It isn’t until Holland’s protagonist starts negotiating deals with streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Facebook to circumvent the NBA’s usual broadcast distribution profits in the third act that the parallels between the labor struggle in the film and the director’s own fights to finance his art within a cruelly changing studio system become unignorably apparent. Still, Soderbergh is smart enough to keep those parallels extratextual and to allow the racial politics of McCraney’s screenplay to work on their own terms. Any more emphasis on the connection between those conflicts would’ve at best been an embarrassment, but it’s interesting enough in isolation as is without overpowering the story being told.

Ultimately, High Flying Bird is a smart, well-made movie that I enjoyed watching, but I feel like it was made for an entirely different audience than me. Any film nerds out there with a political or philosphical interest in the world of pro sports are likely to get much more out of the film than I ever could. As a Soderbergh fan, it was fun to see the director continue his pet interests of labor politics, smartphone cinematography, and offhand references to Baton Rouge culture while adapting the peculiar rhythms of another distinct creative voice. McCraney more than held his own in that collaboration and provides the film with an authenticity & cerebral stage play provocation it would be limp without. If I were just a little closer to the sports drama wavelength these two creative subversives collaborated on, this would likely be one of my favorite films of the year.

-Brandon Ledet