The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

Do you remember the great Bacon Craze of the early 2010s, when it was considered hilarious to burden your friends with bacon-scented candles and bacon-flavored chewing gum as novelty gifts?  Do you remember further back, in the mid-aughts, when you could buy “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts at practically any gas station?  How about “Mr. T in Your Pocket” talking keychains?  “Git-R-Done” trucker hats?  Big Mouth Billy Bass? 

Imagine someone handing you one of these ancient totems and expecting a full-bellied laugh in return, as if it were the darndest thing you’ve never seen.  The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a decade-old Nicolas Cage meme with nothing novel to say about his unique talents or celebrity.  It’s a faint but direct echo of the “Not the bees!” YouTube clip that kickstarted the massively talented actor’s meme era in the first place.  It offers nothing that Andy Samberg didn’t already accomplish with his “Get in the Cage” segments on SNL an entire decade ago, including bringing in Nicolas Cage as himself to emphasize that he’s in on the bit.  It might as well be an I Can Has Cheezburger? coffee table book or Chuck Norris Facts: The Movie; it is that outdated, that useless.

Nicolas Cage stars as two versions of himself: a has-been who can’t land a decent role & an imaginary-friend version of his younger, more successful self that occasionally swoops in for pep talks. Admittedly, it’s fun to watch these two Nic Cages make out in one of the only instant-classic Cagian stunts anyone will remember from this film after the next few months (thanks to its potential for “Not the bees!” style memeage).  The problem is that only one of those versions of Nic Cage ever existed in the real world: the imaginary one. He was a genuine Hollywood movie star in his youth; that is undeniable. It’s the positioning of the “real”, modern Nic Cage as a total loser who hasn’t been doing anything worthy of his talents since the action-blockbuster heyday of movies like Face/Off, The Rock, and Con Air that rings embarrassingly false.  While a lot of dismissive cynics consider Cage more meme than actor at this point, anyone who’s regularly engaging with his output knows he’s in his full-on auteur period, putting in consistently great, idiosyncratic work for smaller, more niche audiences that are always happy to see him. 

Pedro Pascal plays a true believer, a proud member of that niche audience who challenges Cage’s total-loser narrative.  His claim that “Mandy is a masterpiece” is the only acknowledgement that the Nicolas Cage brand is still going strong.  Most of the other references to his acting work are stuck in his 80s & 90s heyday, citing Guarding Tess & Captain Corelli’s Mandolin as Nic Cage deep cuts.  Pascal’s enthusiasm for Cage’s talents makes the film mildly affable, especially as Cage gradually bonds with his #1 fan as a genuine, cherished friend.  There’s a plot in which the real-life Nic Cage gets recruited by the CIA for a covert spy mission on Pascal’s remote island compound (again, covering territory already run into the ground by Samberg on Weekend Update), but the movie’s at its sweetest & most recommendable when it focuses on the two dudes just being good buds, talking about movies & enjoying each other’s company.  It’s too bad the premise is so outdated and the jokes are such a constant eyeroll.  When it’s not commenting on Cage’s memeability or lost celebrity, it’s halfway cute.

I will credit The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent with this: it got me thinking about Nic Cage’s Hollywood celebrity heyday in a way I haven’t engaged with much in recent years.  There was once a time when he could play Normal Guys in films like The Family Man & It Could Happen to You without raising an eyebrow.  That era has decisively come to an end and is likely worth revisiting, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been doing anything worthwhile in recent years.  Nicolas Cage is not a loser.  He is not a stale, stagnant meme.  He is our best working actor, and he gets more fascinating every year.  I likely should have looked to Keith Phipps’s new book Age of Cage for a more nuanced summation of where Cage is currently at (and where he’s already been) instead of expecting that kind of up-to-date critical analysis from a best-bros comedy about the CIA.  Still, it’s hard to laugh at a joke you’ve already heard a thousand times before, especially when the setup to the punchlines is no longer anchored to the modern world.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Copycat (1995)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss Copycat (1995), a post-Silence of the Lambs serial killer meta-thriller starring Holly Hunter & Sigourney Weaver.

00:00 Welcome

03:48 Swampboox
06:57 Murder, She Wrote
10:04 Malignant (2021)
11:27 Stories We Tell (2012)
15:48 Our Flag Means Death
17:50 The Batman (2022) & The Northman (2022)
21:55 You Won’t Be Alone (2022)
25:47 The Pink Cloud (2022)
29:02 Dual (2022)

32:20 Copycat (1995)

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

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Bonus Features: Oliver! (1968)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1968’s Oliver!, is an adorable movie-musical adaptation of the classic Dickens novel Oliver Twist.  It sweetens the bitterness of the original text as best as it can with big-budget, song-and-dance movie magic, but it never fully breaks away from the brutality of its source material.  Oliver! is an extravagant Technicolor spectacle composed entirely in a spectrum of sooty browns, stuck halfway between a feel-good crowd-pleaser and a heartbreaking tale of systemic child abuse.  I cannot tell if it’s wonderfully grim or grimly wonderful, but it’s one of the two.

There have been dozens of Oliver Twist adaptations produced in the past century, so there’s plenty more Orphan Oliver cinema to explore after checking out the wonderfully grueling musical.  Oliver! has a more distinct angle in its approach to Dickens’s novel than faithful adaptations like David Lean’s 1948 version, though.  Proper pairings for Oliver! should all attempt a similar stand-out gimmick or interpretative device beyond dramatically illustrating the source material, especially since there isn’t much value to watching the same story repeated over & over again without that variety in form.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more Oliver Twist adaptations that attempt to make the old text feel new again, often through extreme means.

Oliver Twist (2005)

Because there are so many Oliver Twist adaptations out there, Hanna got her titles confused and we ended up watching a modern version directed by Roman Polanski by mistake before meeting a second time to watch the musical.  We likely should’ve questioned the programming choice when she referenced the 2005 film as a “childhood favorite” (ouch), but it wasn’t until about 20 minutes into the runtime when Hanna realized the mistake, as it was clear there wasn’t going to be any singing or dancing in Polanski’s adaptation.  We finished the movie anyway (which is likely more time & attention than that decrepit rapist deserves) and found it to be a lot more entertaining than initially expected (which is definitely more praise than he deserves).

The Polanski adaptation of Oliver Twist is stubbornly faithful to the events of the source material, so much so that it’s the clearest outlier on this list of Oliver! pairings.  Except, the director clearly bristled at the lighter, sweeter interpretations of the novel that have become standard in the years since Oliver!.  Polanski’s Oliver Twist is absurdly grotesque, often laughably so.  The cruelty, grime, and hopelessness of 19th Century London is pitched so far over the top that you cannot help but find it comedic.  Every character wants to see the sweet, young orphan Oliver hang for the crime of existing in their eyesight.  Meanwhile, if they just wait long enough, he’d likely die naturally of starvation or infection from touching London’s shit-smeared streets with his bare, wounded feet.  It dives so far into the muck & misery of the text that it can only be viewed as a pointed rejection of the movie-musical revisions meant to brighten its narrative with a little song-and-dance sunshine – mainly Oliver!.

Twisted (1996)

Thankfully, you don’t have to watch a Roman Polanski movie if you’re looking for an appropriately grim adaptation of Dickens’s story.  The 1996 low-budget indie Twisted offers “a retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist, set in a New York City contemporary underground populated by drag queens, drug abuse, and prostitution.”  Its determination to make a dark & twizted update to Oliver Twist is likely overkill, since the source material is already plenty grim as is.  Still, it’s the only adaptation I’ve seen that goes out of its way to make the text too bitter to stomach – changing the orphan boys’ criminal enterprise from petty thievery to child prostitution and skipping the happy ending for Oliver entirely.  Twisted is impressively fucked up, stylish, and chaotic enough to make me nostalgic for the true independent filmmaking of 90s festival programs.  It also includes one-of-a-kind performances from William Hickey (as a Lynchian take on Fagin) and Billy Porter (as a transgender take on Bet), which you would think would raise its profile in pop culture nerd circles.

The 2003 film Twist also gritties up the Dickens story in a world of drug addicts and gay hustlers (that time set in Toronto), but it’s hard to imagine there was any novelty left in that approach after Twisted beat it to the punch.  Twisted‘s version of grimy NYC street life is illustrated with music video production values, to the point where you halfway expect the camera to pan past Michael Jackson dance-smashing an abandoned car.  Whereas Nancy is only implied to be a prostitute in every other version of the story—including the novel—Twisted explicitly opens with her surrogate in the act of hooking.  Then there’s the deeply upsetting decision to maintain Oliver’s age as a young minor, while aging up everyone else around him to lecherous adults, grooming the sweethearted orphan for a life of prostitution.  The backwards-letters typeface of Twisted‘s opening credits announces that it’s not your grandpappy’s Oliver Twist, and the movie delivers on that promised shock value every chance it gets.  It also features Billy Porter quipping that his barroom buddies look “as nervous as a drag queen in a shoe store,” though, so it’s not all grim, grim grime.  Just mostly.

Oliver and Company (1988)

Obviously, if you’re the world’s #1 Oliver! fan, it’s unlikely that grimness & cruelty are your top concerns in your Oliver Twist adaptations.  If you’re looking for a version of Dickens’s novel that’s even cheerier & schmaltzier than the movie musical, Disney is of course your savior.  The 1988 cartoon Oliver and Company arrived just before the Disney Renaissance, at a time when the company was still in heated competition with idealist defector Don Bluth (who beat the film at the box office with The Land Before Time).  It’s just as toothless of an Oliver Twist adaptation as you’d expect from Disney, featuring talking kittens and dogs dancing to a cornball pop soundtrack, as well as the decision to play Fagin as a desperate sweetheart voiced by Dom DeLuise.  And yet the current state of talking-animal CG animation for kids is so dire that Oliver and Company feels like a timeless masterpiece in comparison.  Call it a mehsterpiece. It’s a sweet mediocrity from a lost era of superior visual craft, putting thoughtful care into its detailed animation even while evaporating all of the thought & care out of its literary source material.

In this version, Oliver is an unadopted kitten abandoned on the streets of New York, populated entirely by faceless archetypes who yell “Hey, I’m walking here!” and “Come and get your hotdogs!”  He’s taken under the wing of a streetwise dog named Dodger (Billy Joel, who fortunately only has one song on the soundtrack) and taught how to pretend to get hit by cars to steal from distraught drivers (a solid grift!).  Voice performances from a villainous Robert Loggia and a fabulous Bette Midler (who unfortunately only has one song as well) threaten to add some substantive, mature themes to the proceedings, but the movie is pure Disney schmaltz through & through.  It’s really only worth seeking out if you wished Oliver! was even sweeter or if, like me, you’re nostalgic for a time when even the most disposable kids’ media looked nice in its visual craft, regardless of its thematic ambitions.

-Brandon Ledet

The Batman, The Northman, the Vengeance, the Romance

Between the wide theatrical release of Robert Eggers’s The Northman in American multiplexes and the streaming debut of Matt Reeves’s The Batman on HBO Max, it’s been a big week for tough-guy action movies about Vengeance.  I expected to make pithy jokes about The Batman & The Northman‘s thematic parallels as superhero origin stories about traumatized orphans growing up, getting buff, and seeking bloody revenge on the criminals who murdered their fathers.  It turns out the two films genuinely do have a lot in common, though – right down to those orphans’ childhood phases being played by the same actor: 12-year-old newcomer Oscar Novak.  What really struck me in these two sprawling epics about brute-force vigilante justice was the tender hearts beating just below their hardened, muscle-men surfaces.  Both movies announce themselves to be growling heroes’ journeys in search of “vengeance”, but in time they both lament the ways those heroes’ tunnel-vision revenge missions ruin their romantic prospects with the (equally violent, vengeance-obsessed) women in their lives.  It’s kind of sweet.

I was prepared to dismiss these films based both on their macho surface details and on their directors’ respective obsessions with realism & historical accuracy.  I am philosophically opposed to this current trajectory where we just keep making Batman movies increasingly “realistic” & colorless forever & ever, to the point where it already takes 90 minutes of narrative justification for The Penguin to waddle (after Batman & Gordon bind his legs together for a brief visual gag).  Likewise, the only thing that rubbed me the wrong way in Eggers’s calling-card debut The VVitch was its concluding title card that emphasizes its narrative was drawn “directly from period journals, diaries, and court records” from 17th Century New England, preemptively defending its more fantastic deviations from reality with the noble shield of Academic Research.  His 1st Century Icelandic tale The Northman appeared to be even more obsessed with grounding its breaks from reality in the Valhalla of “historical accuracy”, which is not something I especially value in my high-style genre films.  It’s the kind of literal, pedantic thinking that appeals to Redditor bros with years-long grievances over movies’ logistical flubs & narrative “plot holes” but little to say about how art makes them feel.  That’s why I was so pleased to discover that both The Batman & The Northman had more emotions filling their hearts than expected, considering all the real-world logic weighing on their minds.

The Batman is essentially a 2020s goth-kid update for The Crow, with Robert Pattinson eternally brooding under his emo bangs, smeared mascara, and Nirvana-blaring headphones – alone in his logically plausible inner-city Batcave (an abandoned subway station).  He stubbornly insists on living in isolation & despair as if it were a badge of honor, but when he finds a kindred goth-girl spirit in Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz, rocking the same rainbow-dyed bobs she sported in Kimi) he reluctantly warms up to a fellow human being for the first time in his miserable life.  The Northman plays out much the same, with the revenge-obsessed Viking warrior Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) declaring he has “a heart of cold iron” and a “freezing river of blood that runs in [his] veins” until he meets his romantic, dark-sided counterpart in a revenge-obsessed Pagan witch (Anya Taylor-Joy).  When the witch coos, “Your strength breaks men’s bones.  I have the cunning to break their minds,” it plays like a dual-purpose blood pact & marriage proposal.  Both the Batman & the Northman have genuine love interests that meet them on their respective levels of hedonistic bloodlust, which you might not expect from this kind of tough-guy power fantasy.

Neither the never-ending Batman franchise nor the Robert Eggers Extended Universe are strangers to lust.  Batman & Catwoman’s S&M power plays in Batman Returns are legendary and, not for nothing, the main focus of the script.  Meanwhile, the romantic chemistry of The Batman is a slow, quiet burn, taking a back seat to the creepy found-footage terror attacks & old-fashioned detective work of Batman’s search for The Riddler.  Likewise, The Lighthouse is the one Eggers film that fully succumbs to the hunger & ecstasy of sex, while The Northman is much more tender & low-key in its central romance.  It’s telling that neither the Batman nor the Northman abandon their single-minded missions for vengeance to blissfully pair up with their partners in thwarting crime; they both give up their chances for happiness to pursue vengeance at all costs.  Neither romance blooms to its full potential, but I still appreciated that these films had major soft spots in their hate-hardened hearts.  For a couple of tough-guy movies about vengeance, I was shocked that both films had genuinely romantic moments that made me go “Awwww <3” (between all the bombings & beheadings). 

My preference is for Batman movies to be as goofy & horny as possible, but I’ll settle for creepy & romantic if that’s what’s on the table.  The Northman has similar saving graces.  It’s not soft & sweet enough to be just another live-action Lion King (which, along with Hamlet, was inspired by the same Scandinavian legend as Eggers’s film), but it is at least romantic enough to be more than just a live-action Spine of Night.  It’s wonderful to feel hearts beating under these films’ rock-hard pectorals, when they just as easily could have been militant, macho bores.

-Brandon Ledet

Bill Arceneaux Appreciation Post: A Real Wet One

I was recently contacted by the enigmatic D.I.Y. filmmaker Wigwolf (who appears to be exactly what they sound like: a werewolf in a wig) about possibly reviewing their homemade gross-out comedy The Wet Ones on this blog.  I enthusiastically obliged, since we’re always on the lookout for genuine outsider art around here, and I recently had a positive experience reviewing the sub-Troma horror comedy Psycho Ape! through a similar solicitation.  The self-published DVD packaging & weirdo video-art aesthetic of The Wet Ones screamed out my name.  It turned out to be a siren call.  At 141 relentless minutes of Barbie doll savagery & video-warp psychedelia, it plays like an edgelord de-evolution of Todd Haynes’s Superstar, with 10x the shock value and none of the heart.  The Wet Ones is visually impressive as handmade serial-killer bedroom art, but it’s almost too belligerent to watch with the sound on, especially once you get to the dozenth repeated joke about female circumcision and getting “stabbed in the pussy” (which, surprisingly, does not take long).  Every cursed-doll character is voiced either like Lumpy Space Princess or Eric Cartman, with little variation between those extremes.  It recalls the similarly offensive-on-purpose Charles Manson puppet show Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, another idiosyncratic curio that’s best enjoyed projected on the wall at a party with the dialogue muted.  And I feel terrible for saying any of this; it’s such a low-profile D.I.Y. production that there’s no way to write about not enjoying it without feeling like I’m punching down.

Oddly enough, I had heard of The Wet Ones before Wigwolf reached out, thanks to coverage on local film critic Bill Arceneaux’s Moviegoing With Bill newsletter, which made it sound like one of last year’s can’t-miss oddities.  Returning to Bill’s piece on the movie, “Here’s to Those Wet and Wild Ones“, I can confidently say he did a much better job engaging with Wigwolf and Wigwolf’s art than I possibly could.  That’s because Bill thought to contact the director and ask pointed questions about their intent with this shit-smeared kaleidoscope, an interview that made me appreciate The Wet Ones more than I ever did watching it.  When ruminating on the film’s daunting length, Wigwolf explains, “The main obstacle I faced was that, since more than half the movie was improvised, the run time got really out of control. I hate to cut anything, but I did cut three full plotlines from the movie, and still ended up with a two-and-a-half-hour run time. I’m not good at editing myself and I’m also a troll so it was kind of funny to me to make something so loud, obnoxious, and unreasonably long.”  When explaining its purpose as a “challenging” provocation, they admit, “I figured the movie would be challenging, I mean you have to pay attention. There’s a lot in there about alienation and loneliness, I have strong feelings about how our society is right now and I get sad seeing so many people become alienated and disconnected. I’m obsessed with suicide and the feelings that lead to it and that runs through almost every frame of The Wet Ones. As silly as the movie is, it’s also an expression of sadness and disillusionment. […] I find all the beauty in the world through mistakes and imperfections, and distortions.”  That’s great stuff!  I highly recommend you read the full interview whether or not a tape-warp Barbie doll meltdown sounds like your kind of thing.

The Moviegoing with Bill newsletter is often where I first hear about low-budget, no-profile movies like The Wet Ones, even as someone who spends an embarrassing amount of their free time looking for bizarro new releases.  Just in the past few months, Bill has reviewed the titles Phony, Demigod, Tower Rats, The Secret Society for Slow Romance, and Straight to VHS, which I have seen covered nowhere else online.  It’s impressive.  What’s even more impressive is his enthusiasm for reaching out to D.I.Y. filmmakers & likeminded movie nerds about this kind of outsider art.  I’ve met Bill IRL and have spoken with him at length on our podcast, but only because he reached out to ask us what Swampflix is all about soon after we started publishing in 2015.  He’s a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic with paid pieces on sites like The Spool, Occupy, and Offbeat, so it’s surprising he would have any interest in our self-published digi-zine film blog.  And yet he recently nominated me for inclusion in the South Eastern Film Critics Association for my work with Swampflix, an honor I find bewildering.  Chances are that if you’ve made, screened, written about, or even just attended independent cinema in Louisiana (if not beyond), Bill Arceneaux has reached out to you online to see what you’re about, and whether you’re interested in collaboration.  And if he hasn’t, he’d probably love to hear from you.  That’s an invaluable impulse in our subcultural niche, considering how anti-social of a hobby it is to sit quietly in the dark to watch movies.  I imagine it’s even more rewarding for D.I.Y. filmmakers like Wigwolf, since self-publishing your art in our modern online hellscape is often just broadcasting into the void, with no one to answer back (or, worse yet, for some dipshit to review your self-made movie negatively even though it’s entirely harmless & avoidable).

There isn’t much of a point to this post besides encouraging anyone who engages with The Wet Ones to also read Bill Arceneaux’s interview with its creator.  It’s an essential companion piece.  And while you’re over on the Moviegoing with Bill page, go ahead and subscribe to the newsletter.  You’ll find tons of weirdo outsider art through that resource – some that will blow your mind, and some that will turn your stomach.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #158 of The Swampflix Podcast: Perfect Blue (1997) & Anime Basics

Welcome to Episode #158 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of classic anime films, starting with Satoshi Kon’s technophobic psych thriller Perfect Blue (1997).

00:00 Welcome

00:48 Ambulance (2022)
04:40 Aline (2022)
15:40 The Fear (1995)
20:40 Catwoman: Hunted (2022)

23:40 Perfect Blue (1997)

48:40 Princess Mononoke (1997)
1:04:46 Akira (1988)
1:17:50 Vampire Hunter D (1985)

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

– The Podcast Crew

Quick Takes: Spring Cleaning 2022

Between a long Easter weekend off work and being knocked off my feet by a painful gout flare-up (damn those tasty crawfish!), I have seen a lot of movies in the past few days.  Too many, even.  My normal process for this blog is to give each film a full, individualized review, but it would take me way too long to clear out this backlog before I could move onto new material. And since that sounds like more work than fun, it’s time for some spring cleaning.  So, here are a few brief, to-the-point reviews of new releases I’ve seen over the past week, ranked from best-to-least-best.

You Won’t Be Alone

Between Border, November, Tale of Tales, Field Guide to Evil, Lamb, The Other Lamb, and Hagazussa, there has been an entire industry of traditionalist folktale cinema that has emerged in the wake of The VVitch – not to mention the folk horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched that collects them all like Pokémon.  It’s easy to take You Won’t Be Alone for granted in such a crowded field of similar titles (which vary wildly both in quality and in creativity), but it still manages to be uniquely unnerving.  I’m not sure how many coming-of-age folktales about shapeshifting, bodyhopping witches (i.e., Wolf-Eateresses) you’ve seen in your lifetime, but this was my first.  I’m also willing to bet it was the first ever to be set in 19th Century Macedonia.

Over the course of the film we watch Old Maid Maria, the most feared Wolf-Eateress of all, train a child in the art of stealing life & likeness from human & animal victims alike.  Raised in a cave without much direct human contact (in a futile attempt to avoid this apprenticeship), the child learns how to relate to other people by unconvincingly pretending to be a Normal Human in variously shaped, gendered bodies.  Meanwhile, Old Maid Maria chides her for not rejecting humanity entirely and just snacking on human flesh for sustenance.  If You Won’t Be Alone is meant to be dealt with as a horror film, it is Imposter Syndrome Horror, where you never feel like you fit in with any community while everyone else seems to excel at it effortlessly.  Or maybe it’s just a nightmare scenario where Freddy Krueger is your adoptive mother.  If it is not a horror film, then it’s a confounding supernatural drama about all the various ways life can be miserable unless you luck into a well-nurtured youth.  I greatly enjoyed being perturbed by it, even its brand of eerie, back-to-basics folktale has become a matter of routine in recent years.

Dual

The clever dual-purpose title Dual refers both to human cloning and to duels to the death.  Karen Gillan stars as a woman who has herself cloned so her memory can live on past a terminal illness, then is forced to duel that clone when she unexpectedly recovers.  It is a comedy of passive aggression, wherein Original Sarah finds herself annoyed with how much shinier Clone Sarah’s hair is, or how she weighs slightly less, or how much more accommodating she is to friends & family – all great motivation for killing her.  It’s also a comedy of isolation, taking a macro view of all the commodified ways we’re supposed to maintain our bodies & our relationships in an increasingly passionless, distanced world.

Director Riley Stearns hammers away at the same flat, matter-of-fact line deliveries and overall comedic bitterness he played with in The Art of Self-Defense.  Characters speak in clipped, emotionless stabs; they text with abrupt punctuation.  Instead of satirizing the absurdity of traditional masculinity this time, though, he chisels at the absurdity of the self-care industry, from gym training to support groups to talk therapy.  Call it The Art of Self-ImprovementDual is a squirmy little black comedy about all the little ways you hate yourself and your life, with no chance for genuine change no matter how hard you try.  It’s funnier than it sounds.

The Pink Cloud

The Brazilian sci-fi chiller The Pink Cloud is also a dark film about isolation & passive aggression, but you need to get past the cosmic coincidence of its premise to contend with that.  Without reason or explanation, pink clouds rapidly appear across the globe, killing anyone who breathes them within seconds and tinting everything a pale Millennial Pink.  It’s a purely supernatural event, as the poisoned air does not pass through gaps in windows and cannot be safely filtered through masks. The clouds exist simply to force everyone inside, communicating only through social media and purchasing necessities through a system of drones & tubes.  Stuck at home for years, we watch one couple fall in and out of love after hunkering down together when the clouds interrupt what was supposed to be a one-time hookup.

I’ve seen plenty of accidentally pandemic-relevant sci-fi & horror films over the past couple years (Palm Springs, She Dies Tomorrow, Little Fish, Spontaneous, etc.), but this is the first one I’ve seen outright apologize for the coincidence.  I understand the impulse to include a title card that emphasizes the film was written & produced pre-COVID, since it includes many dead-on parallels to our last couple years of isolation & rot – from major cultural shifts like the new class system of work-from-home jobs vs. “essential” service work to the emergence of boredom-inspired fads like adult roller-skating.  The filmmakers had a lot on their minds about climate change, depression, and the general isolation of modern living, so it must be frustrating to see their work reduced to a pure-COVID metaphor.  Still, there have been enough of these accidentally-relevant genre pictures over the past couple years that it’s impossible to not be a little reductive about their collective emotional impact.  File this particular accidental-pandemic-chiller under the same anti-romantic subcategory as Vivarium, although it’s more melancholic than abrasive.

Ambulance

Michael Bay returns to basics with a retro, regressive thriller about two tough-guy criminals who steal an ambulance during a botched bank heist (one out of medical desperation, one out of greed), and enter into a wild police chase around Los Angeles in the clunky vehicle.  Ambulance is a typical 90s Bay thriller in all of the exact visual, visceral, and political ways you’d expect, except with two major updates: flamboyant exploitation of drone-camera tech and a wild-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal performance.  The cameras are piloted by young, professional drone racers, adding a nauseating velocity to even the pre-car-chase establishing shots, often for no discernible reason.  Gyllenhaal matches their gonzo energy as the ambulance heist’s main villain, playing the role as part criminal mastermind, part Nic Cagian freak show.

Gyllenhaal and the drones are enough to make Ambulance feel novel & exciting, but maybe not enough to fully justify the feeling of being bashed in the skull for 135 relentless minutes.  I was more obliterated by it than I was “entertained”, but I suppose that’s exactly what Bay’s paid to do.  He’s good at his job, the bastard.

Aline

If you are somehow unaware, Aline is an unauthorized Celine Dion biopic in which 57-year-old French comedian Valérie Lemercier plays the Québecian chanteuse from ages 12 to 54, with the aid of shoddy CGI.  I’ve been greatly anticipating Aline since professional smartasses Kyle Buchannan & Rachel Handler sang its uncanny praises at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, so it was bizarre to watch the Event Film in an otherwise empty suburban megaplex.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to stumble into it totally unprepared for Lemercier’s de-aged “transformations”, but it turns out that’s not really a valid concern, since most people don’t even know this curio exists.  Even the posters & trailers emphasize the gobsmacked blurbs from Handler & Buchannan at Cannes as its only selling point, making it clear who is likely to show up at the theater – freaks like me.

Aline is an odd mix of surrealist geek show & genuine biopic cliché.  Most movie nerds will compare it to the unconvincing early-years play acting of Walk Hard, but it reminded me more of the absurdist artificiality of Annette, sometimes slipping into the broad crowd-pleasing appeal of a My Big Fat Québecian Wedding. Questions of its sincerity & intent will linger with me for a while, but it does nail the only two things I know about Dion: she makes goofy faces, and the age she met her late manager-husband is alarming.  The movie constantly references “Aline Dieu’s” age, so we know exactly how old she is within the drama (helpful, since her face remains a static 57-years-old throughout), which only makes you dwell on the discomfort of her romance with her middle-aged divorcee manager.  When she is 12, she huffs his cologne as a private kink.  When she is 17, she lusts over a picture of him that she keeps tucked under her pillow.  When she is 20, she initiates their first, fully consensual consummation.  It was already a deeply strange, unsettling dynamic in real life, so it’s oddly appropriate that this “work of fiction freely inspired by” it is also deeply strange & unsettling.

Catwoman: Hunted

I don’t pay much attention to DC Comics’ straight-to-video animated features, but I was impressed enough with the visual imagination & propulsive energy of Batman Ninja to keep my eye out for similar releases.  Unfortunately, Catwoman: Hunted is not nearly as ambitious of an anime take on the DC brand as Batman Ninja.  It features one of the coolest comic book characters of all time doing her usual thing (jewel heists, cat puns, bisexual seductions, etc.), and it throws everything from demons to ninja assassins to mech-suit warriors in her way.  And yet the result feels tame in comparison to the last time the company dipped their toe into anime waters, which is a shame.

Thankfully, Catwoman: Hunted avoids total stylistic tedium by borrowing some jazzy cool from Cowboy Bebop.  There’s a jazz infused retro-futurism to it that makes for a fun novelty (who wouldn’t be curious to see Catwoman in a Cowboy Bebop crossover?), even if the whole thing feels pleasantly slight & forgettable.  While not exactly the cat’s pajamas, it is purrrfect viewing for a lazy afternoon (followed, of course, by a cat nap).

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Oliver! (1968)

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 Hanna made BrandonBoomer, and Britnee watch Oliver! (1968).

Hanna: My Movie of the Month pick began with a grave mistake. My intention was to introduce the crew to one of the first musicals I ever watched, which held a prized position in my family’s VHS collection: Sir Carol Reed’s Oliver! (1968), the film adaptation of the stage musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s serialized novel Oliver Twist. I’ve probably seen it at least five times, although not since I was 10 or 11. Roman Polanski made his own Oliver Twist adaptation in 2005, and for some ungodly reason, I somehow melded his version with the Reed musical; I proceeded to tell many people (including the Swampflix crew) that Polanski’s version was one of my childhood favorites. I finally picked it for the Movie of the Month, so James, Brandon, Britnee and I settled in my apartment on a rainy Tuesday to dive into Oliver. After puzzling over basic elements of the film (including the lack of musical numbers, the jarring difference in tone, the striking unfamiliarity of the lead actors, and the realization that I was only 12 when the Polanski version came out), I got the sneaking suspicion that I had picked the wrong movie; after the first fifteen minutes passed without a single song, I was finally able to admit my mistake, but everyone agreed to finish the film anyway. Two days later we settled in for Oliver!, which I (thankfully) found to be just as delightful as I remembered. I’m honored to have undergone this Oliver journey with those that accept me in spite of my absolutely awful memory and sense of time.

The musical basically follows Dickens’s serialized story, which brings the viewers on a tour of the various social classes in early 19th century England. We start off at a workhouse, where Oliver Twist (Mark Lester), a waifish orphan boy with a voice like a velvety little petal, is ousted from a workhouse after meekly requesting more gruel at dinner. The owner of the workhouse, Mr. Bumble, auctions Oliver off as an apprentice to the lowest bidder, who happens to be an undertaker. Oliver eventually escapes to London, where he immediately falls in with a dashing young pickpocket, the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild); his crew of cheerful thief children; and their adult ringleader, Fagin (Ron Moody). The child thieves have a rickety old hideout in the upper levels of an abandoned building, but their den is downright cozy; Fagin puts Oliver to bed in a torn-up basket and a couple of ratty blankets, which looked extremely inviting all things considered. It would be a child’s paradise if not for the looming presence of Bill Sikes, a horrific character played by an (unfortunately) extremely hot Oliver Reed. Bill is accompanied by the kind, ill-fated Nancy (Shani Wallis), who is responsible for 50% of my interest in this movie as a child. The bulk of the film’s tension rests on who is in possession of Oliver, and whether he’ll finally get the chance to join a happy household. At various points throughout the movie he’s sold, arrested, adopted, kidnapped, forced into burglary, and kidnapped again; apart from the stolen fineries of wealthy Londoners, he’s the hottest commodity in the film while doing basically nothing that isn’t at the behest of someone else’s will.

I think this is a great musical! The sets are big and beautiful, and a few numbers (namely “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy?”) have that old Hollywood scale of extras that makes you think, “This scene was expensive!” The majority of the songs are absolute bangers; they wormed themselves into my brain many years ago and, like little sleeper agents, unfurled themselves effortlessly as the film went on. I think the thing that struck me the most was that this film makes poverty-stricken 1820s London seem like an absolute ball; I really wanted Fagin to be my grandfather and live a little life of crime when I saw this as a child. It’s especially striking after seeing the Polanski adaptation, which is absolutely mired in the muck of that period. Police dutifully trot around the city; little chimney sweeps burn their sweet little trousers; life is pure joy! Nancy’s relationship with Bill is probably the harshest aspect of the musical, and it’s also my absolute least favorite part to watch. Brandon, do you think the cheer of the musical takes away from the point of the film? Should Reed have made me feel worse for these little orphans, or do you think the musical had a balance of glee and gruel?

Brandon: I don’t have any especially strong opinions about Oliver!‘s duty to maintain the grueling tone of the Dickens source material, but I get the sense that Polanski does.  His 2005 adaptation is not only more faithful to the narrative beats of the novel, it’s also a deliberate corrective to its feel-good interpretations like Oliver! and Oliver & Company.  If Polanski has a discernible “take” on Oliver Twist, it’s that audiences need to be reminded of how brutal the original story was, despite its recent cheery revisionism.  As a result, the 2005 version is absurdly grotesque, almost laughably so.  Every single image is aimed to discomfort & disgust, to the point where it’s just as difficult to take seriously as the song & dance numbers in the family-friendly adaptations he was bucking against.  The conflict between form & content in the 1968 musical is much more genuinely engaging.  The circumstances of orphan life in 19th Century London are just as brutal, but the song & dance numbers are a pure delight, and there’s something oddly charming about Fagin yelling “Shut up and drink your gin!” at a room full of pipsqueak children, when that should register as a horrifying act of abuse.  What’s hilarious about Polanski being bothered by that cheery incongruity is that Oliver Twist already had at least two dark & gritty updates in 1996’s Twisted and 2003’s Twist, so his 40-year-old grudge against the musical just feels like another old man complaining about nothing.  And since anything that irks that particular old man is a cosmic good, I almost wish that Oliver! was even more saccharine just to irritate him further.

I am not sure if Oliver! is wonderfully grim or grimly wonderful, but it’s certainly one of the two.  There’s something perverse about a big-budget Technicolor spectacle being composed entirely in a spectrum of sooty browns, as if the form and the narrative are too directly opposed for the movie to function in any sincere way.  When orphans sing about starving on a pure-gruel diet, or when their caretakers sing about selling those orphans away for a pittance (so as not to waste more money on precious gruel), it’s hard to resist chuckling at its self-conflicted tone, even though what you’re watching is objectively depressing.  However, as Hanna already noted, the scale of its musical set pieces is massive.  It may all be a swirl of slightly varied browns, but there are often hundreds of performers filling that sooty frame, singing & dancing their workhouse lungs out.  It’s not at all skimpy when doling out its extravagant song & dance numbers either (unlike how the orphanage doles out its servings of gruel).  The first hour is practically a sung-through musical, offering very few words of spoken dialogue between the show-stopping musical numbers before it settles into a more traditional movie-musical rhythm.  Britnee, did you have any particular favorite songs or musical moments buried in that extensive songbook?  Were you at all disappointed when the movie dropped its sung-through format to include traditional spoken dialogue between those songs?

Britnee: Our accidental watch of Polanski’s Oliver Twist had me a bit concerned about watching Oliver! a few days later. How could such a grim story be converted into an enjoyable musical? Would the songs be just as dull as the setting? I was put at ease when the opening number, “Food, Glorious Food,” kicked the film off. All those dirty little paupers lining up for gruel in the most Broadway way possible? I was immediately hooked! It was so catchy and so much fun, and thankfully, the other musical numbers followed suit. I truly enjoyed each and every one of them, but my favorites are “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” and “Who Will Buy?”.  

The catchiness and quirkiness of “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” was such a good time, and it made me really enjoy Fagin’s character. Fagin in Polanski’s Oliver Twist was horrible. He was cruel and easy to dislike, but dancing, singing Fagin was the life of the party. As for “Who Will Buy?”, that was a damn masterpiece. It almost felt like a movie within a movie, and it had me so invested in all the happenings of that neighborhood. Right when I thought the scene was wrapping up, another singing group would come in and add another layer into the number. And most importantly, as the youth would say, the song slaps.

I think there was just the right number of songs peppered throughout. Not one segment of the film was more song heavy than others, which kept me excited and really held my attention. This is the sooty brown musical of my dreams! Something else worth mentioning is the beautiful set design. How the dirty London streets and filth surrounding the characters could look so gorgeous boggled my mind. Boomer, what are your thoughts on the set design? Were you as fascinated with it as I was, or did it seem too Broadway for a film?

Boomer:  I might be the worst person to ask if something is “too Broadway,” because as someone who generally hates traditional musicals, I’m usually the first person to want to skedaddle the moment a half-pint starts warbling in a soprano—it’s been ten years since this happened, which is long enough that I’ll admit it, but I once left a live stage production of South Pacific during intermission despite being there in a professional capacity. I’ve professed before that I dislike musicals in general and often in principle as well, but that non-traditional musicals sometimes manage to pierce that veil (as demonstrated by my previous MotM nominations London Road and True Stories) in addition to a couple of traditional musicals that somehow manage to warm the cockles of my cold, dead heart. I think that this one manages to slip in under the radar a little for me for several reasons. Firstly, the music is actually pretty good, and I don’t feel secondhand embarrassment for the lyricist with regards to their being forced to craft dialog and exposition into certain meter and rhyme scheme; I was surprised to discover that “I’d Do Anything” came from Oliver!, as I’d always assumed it was just an old standard, but it’s actually rather lovely in this context. Secondly, it’s very evocative of two traditional screen musicals that I actually do enjoy: 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol and 1967’s Doctor Doolittle, both of which I loved as a child. For the former, it’s mostly that era of musical-making, where there’s a huge budget and the effects are largely practical, plus the similarity in musical styles overall; for the latter, it’s the staging. It might be a stretch to call a film that casts Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit “traditional,” but other than the presence of Muppet actors, the film takes itself fairly seriously, and that’s evident in the set design there just as it is in this movie, so I guess my answer must be “yes.” There might be something Pavlovian about my unconscious mental arithmetic of Dickens + musical = a good time because of the sheer number of times I’ve seen Michael Caine go flying through the air with Gonzo and Rizzo attached to his housecoat, but I actually enjoyed this one, and it kept my attention for almost all of its prolonged runtime.

I was not party to the fateful viewing of Polanski’s adaptation, and I won’t defend him, but I will say that I can see why there would be a desire to push back against the lyrical good times being had in this film. I’ve softened over the years with regards to my need for historical accuracy (I’d probably be more forgiving of, for instance, the Converse high tops in Marie Antoinette in 2022 than I was in 2008), but there is something to be said about the necessity of historical veracity. The thing is, Industrial Era London was horrible, possibly one of the worst times to be alive in human history outside of being directly involved in war. Poverty was rampant, the streets ran brown with human waste, sovereignty was presumed divine, and the gentry was landed. Dickens’s novels and writings were actually fundamental to encouraging empathy for the downtrodden and encouraging philanthropy in the same way that Sinclair’s The Jungle was a foundational text in the actualization of food safety (although that was not the latter author’s goal), and I can understand being annoyed at this film, which depicts chimney sweeps as just silly little dudes as opposed to children performing dangerous labor. When white supremacists prattle on about the treatment of the Irish when trying to invoke whataboutism with regards to historical injustices that continue into the present day, the inhumane circumstances of Victorian England are rarely discussed, but only because white supremacy as it exists in the contemporary United States actually exists to reinscribe current systems of power between labor and aristocracy that aren’t terribly different from their own goals (as seen by state-level Republican-led efforts to rebrand child labor as “employment of minors” and damage the laws that prevent kids from being taken advantage of by employers). When I was first reading everyone’s thoughts prior to meditating on my own response, my knee-jerk response was “Actually, depicting this with the brutal reality of that era would be the correct choice,” but the longer I sat with that idea, the more I kept thinking about “Oom-Pah-Pah” until music filled my mind so that it blotted out everything else. So for once, I’ll just enjoy the party and not be a pooper (until you get to the Lagniappe section below, I suppose). 

Lagniappe

Boomer: For my money, the best version of “I’d Do Anything” is this one by Fall On Your Sword, the same folks behind “Shatner Of The Mount.” 

I’ll also add that Oliver! is no Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind when it comes to whitewashing historical atrocities for the sake of storytelling, since not even the worst elements of life under Victorian aristocracy compare to chattel slavery, but I’ll end with a reminder that we can’t get too comfortable about such things and should always inspect them. Birth and Gone are products of their time, but we are never free of that kind of historical revisionism and it’s vital that we never get too comfortable with it, now more than ever. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice initiative is a great place to start, as it calls out lies in children’s literature, like Henry Cole’s Unspoken and Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The minimization of historical sins, like characterizing “Harriet Tubman [as] a very strong woman who left her farm without permission,” are part of the fascism playbook. Oliver! might get a pass, but there’s still work to be done. 

Brandon: This was an educational experience in several ways, but the factoid from my Oliver! research that’s haunted me most was learning it was one of Michael Jackson’s pet obsessions.  Apparently, Jackson befriended Oliver!‘s Mark Lester when they were both child-stars of the late-1960s, which led to persistent tabloid rumors that Lester was the sperm-donor biological father to Jackson’s children.  A rumor that Lester himself has confirmed in interviews!  It almost sounds too weird to be true, until you remember that Jackson was also so obsessed with the David Lynch film The Elephant Man that he attempted to purchase the real-life John Merick’s bones for his private collection (a bizarre venture that The London Hospital Medical College thankfully did not indulge).  These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night.

Britnee: Swampflix needs to declare the first week of March as Oliver Twist Week, committing to watch a different version of Oliver Twist every year to commemorate the occasion. There’s a buttload of Oliver Twist movies out there, so we could keep it going forever!

Hanna: Taking the Oliver! of my childhood and Polanski’s faithful adaptation into consideration, I’m really drawn to and impressed by the longevity of Dickens’s original story of innocence attempting to navigate a filthy, horrifying world. I didn’t even realize how many Oliver Twist interpretations there were until Brandon kindly brought them to my attention. So, cast my vote in favor of Oliver Week so we can delve into all its many permutations. I’m glad that the Swampflix crew enjoyed meeting this sweet little orphan.

Next Month: Brandon presents The Music Lovers (1971)

-The Swampflix Crew

The Heroic Trio (1993)

I recently read an encyclopedia of classic Hong Kong action movies titled Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, which is overloaded with hundreds of capsule reviews of the once-vibrant industry’s greatest hits.  Each blurb makes each title sound like the most explosively badass movie you’ve never seen, fixating on the industry’s unmatched talent for absurd plot details, tactile fight choreography, and for-their-own-sake visual gags.  It’s a daunting surplus of giddy movie recommendations, with no real guide for what to prioritize besides whatever happens to be available to access.  After being pushed to check out the bonkers Indiana Jones mutation The Seventh Curse by the We Love to Watch podcast crew, I had no clear path for where to go next.  Thankfully, that decision was taken out of my hands by happenstance.  I lucked into a small haul of Hong Kong action DVDs (some bootlegs, some official releases, all pictured below) during a recent trip to Goodwill, which included the 1993 superhero oddity The Heroic Trio.  This was the same week that Criterion announced an upcoming Blu-ray release of The Heroic Trio and the same month that one of its stars, Michele Yeoh, was gifted a career-high acting showcase in the Daniels’ own novelty superhero picture Everything Everywhere All at Once, which made it the most obvious must-see.  I’m often overwhelmed deciding what movie to watch next when I’m left to my own devices, so it’s always a pleasure when the universe steps in to program that selection for me.

I am sure that the new Criterion restoration of The Heroic Trio will lovingly highlight the film’s technical beauty and pop-art iconography in a way few audiences have seen before.  I’ll still admit that I was charmed by the tape-warp warmth of the bootleg DVD that found its way into my collection, since it plays right into the film’s vintage appeal.  The Heroic Trio is a retro superhero team-up featuring the masked & powerful heroines Thief Catcher (Maggie Cheung), Wonder Woman (Anita Mui), and Invisible Woman (Yeoh) – each a total badass.  They start disorganized & distrustful of each other as a mysterious case of 19 kidnapped babies derails Hong Kong into chaos.  Eventually, they find love & unity amongst their super selves to fight the methane-breathing sewer god responsible for those kidnappings, brutally confronting the gender-ambiguous deity in their underground lair/baby-storage facility.  Tonally, the film plays like the kind of R-rated kids’ movie that you’d normally find through American labels like Troma & Full Moon, even featuring the children’s nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” as a soundtrack motif.  It is S&M superhero cinema for the permanently immature, indulging in vintage Saturday-morning-TV cheese with far more gore, kink fashion, and shock-value baby deaths than any child should be consuming with their breakfast cereal.  It just executes that volatile immaturity with exquisite technical skill you will not find in its low-budget American equivalents, especially in the beauty of its complex, tactile fight choreography.

Michele Yeoh’s inclusion in the titular trio was my prompt to watch the film and, dramatically, she gets the most to do.  Invisible Woman is the only complex character of the bunch, starting off as the brainwashed lackey of the baby-snatching Evil Master but eventually coming around to join arms with her master’s enemies.  I still found Maggie Cheung to be the MVP of the trio as Thief Catcher, providing most of the film’s comic relief as a Bugs Bunny-style anarchist, a motorcycle-riding vigilante in dressed in bike shorts & lingerie; Tank Girl, eat your heart out.  Anita Mui is saddled with the least exciting part as Wonder Woman, who—as her name implies—is the most stereotypical comic book hero of the bunch.  Her mask & cape iconography and secret-identity shenanigans are essential in grounding the film in a recognizable superhero genre, since most of its in-the-moment indulgences are more aligned with Hong Kong action antics than with comic book tradition.  Director Johnnie To uses the superhero team-up template as a playground for martial arts chaos & Looney Tunes goofballery, playing around with as much Evil Dead POV camera movement, wuxia-style wire work, and bone-crunching brutality as his scrappy budget will allow.  He gives each heroine room to establish separate, distinct personalities in the film’s early scenes, then smashes them together like action figures during an especially sugared-up recess.  It’s the most gleeful, energizing movie experience I can think of that depicts the death of a dozen innocent babies.

Watching The Heroic Trio left me no better equipped to select my next Hong Kong action title.  Yeoh, Cheung, and Mui each have extensive careers in martial arts classics exactly like this.  To was equally prolific in his directorial career without them.  All four of those collaborators reunited for a direct sequel to The Heroic Trio titled Executioners, also released in 1993, but it is not regarded as any of their respective best.  Below, I’ll list the essential continued-viewing titles for Michelle Yeoh alone, as suggested by the authors of Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, just to demonstrate the overwhelming wealth of great, over-the-top Hong Kong action pics there are to choose from.  And she’s only one of the industry’s many, many creative geniuses.  I’ll likely just wait until another title falls directly into my lap the way The Heroic Trio did, taking the decision out of my hands.   Otherwise, I’ll browse these titles & blurbs for hours without ever settling on one, the modern movie streamer’s dilemma.

Michelle Yeoh’s “Selected Filmography,” per Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, printed 1996:
Magnificent Warriors (1986)
Royal Warriors (1986)
Yes, Madam (1986)
Police Story 3: Supercop (1993)
Project S (1993)
The Tai Chi Master (1993)
Butterfly and Sword (1993)
The Heroic Trio (1993)
Wonder 7 (1994)

-Brandon Ledet

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

I enjoyed the Daniels’ debut feature Swiss Army Man, which I categorized on my Top Films of 2016 list as “an unconventional love story, a road trip buddy comedy, and an indie pop musical about a farting corpse with a magical boner.”  Even as a fan of that understandably divisive gross-out, I still agree with the consensus that their follow-up film is a huge step up for the music video director-duo.  Everything Everywhere All at Once triples down on the Cold Stone Creamery approach to filmmaking that the Daniels toyed with in Swiss Army Man, mashing every cinematic indulgence the directors could manage—from alternate-dimension sci-fi to vaudevillian slapstick to sincere Wong Kar-Wai homage—into a massive, delectable headache.  And yet it securely anchors that chaos to a solid emotional rock in a way that Swiss Army Man could not, which left it feeling adrift.  I don’t even know that I would encourage fans of Everything Everywhere double back to check out the Daniels’ debut.  You probably already knew in 2016 whether a farting-corpse boner comedy was going to appeal to you, and that likely has not changed.  In contrast, Everything Everywhere crams in a little taste of something for absolutely everyone, so much so that you’ll find yourself recommending it to family & coworkers despite it featuring its own gross-out gags involving butt-plugs & hotdog fellatio.

The elevator pitch for this unlikely crowd-pleaser is that it offers a glimpse into an alternate reality where The Matrix was directed by Michel Gondry.  It’s nice there.  Everything Everywhere is structured around a standard-issue comic book plot in which a maniacal supervillain attempts to gain ultimate power over the infinite alternate timelines of “the Multiverse,” with only a specially equipped Chosen One hero standing in their way.  It distorts that superhero blockbuster template through the hand-crafted dream logic & heart-on-sleeve sentimentality of our twee yesteryear, bringing an earnestness & personality to the genre that’s sorely missing from its megacorporate equivalents.  The superpower that allows ordinary characters to leap between these infinite timelines is the cosmic surprise of an unexpected, improbable act, “the less it makes sense the better.” The Daniels openly dare you to roll your eyes at the “LOL! So random!” humor of that premise, packing the screen with randomly generated totems like googly eyes, talking racoons, pro wrestling finishers, lethal fanny packs, and an all-powerful, apocalyptic Everything Bagel.  However, every silly, randomsauce image is lovingly crafted and thoughtfully anchored to the film’s emotional rock, earning its place on the screen beyond a for-its-own-sake indulgence.  They somehow even make their Chosen One heroine’s Deadpool-style observations about the absurdity of her predicament (especially her stubborn mispronunciations of the villain’s name) feel well-earned & natural to her character.  It’s an incredible feat.

The aforementioned emotional rock is the lead performance from the always-solid Michelle Yeoh.  The infinite alternate timelines premise demands that Yeoh play infinite alternate versions of herself, and she excels at every turn.  Yeoh is funny.  Yeoh is frustrating.  Yeoh breaks your heart into a thousand shards, then lovingly glues them together again.  The Daniels obviously have immense respect for her range as a performer. They allow her to show off both the stern dramatic severity & classic Hong Kong action superheroics she’s already famous for, then demonstrate the thousands of possibilities in-between those extremes we’ve been robbed of seeing onscreen.  Ke Huy Quan & Stephanie Hsu are also wonderful as her husband & daughter, respectfully, exploding the boundaries of what audiences have been trained to expect from their Nice Guy side character & flamboyant Gay Villain archetypes.  It’s Yeoh who leaves you in total stunned awe, though, especially as the rare Strong Female Character who’s allowed to be a genuinely complicated person.  We’re introduced to our hero as the absolute worst version of herself across the vast multiverse.  She’s terrible at the enormous entirety of everything, most crucially in the way she relates to her family as they frantically scurry through their shared daily routine.  Watching her learn to be a better person by breaking out of her rigid-thinking patterns & emotional cowardice is inspirational, something I can’t say about most Chosen One superheroes.

It’s easy to be reductive about what makes Everything Everywhere great, since the Daniels are willing to pummel you with an infinite supply of absurdly disparate, deeply silly imagery.  Pushing past that impulse, it’s impressive that a loud, chaotic superhero movie can prompt you to evaluate how you live your daily life and how you can work towards becoming the best possible version of yourself.  Considering that I only walked away from their last picture with fond memories of laughing at farts & boners, I’m okay conceding this follow-up was a major improvement.  My own rigid, stubborn, contrarian impulses would usually have me defending their earlier, messier work against their popular break-out, but in this instance the consensus take is the correct one.

-Brandon Ledet