Movie of the Month: The Psychic (1977)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made BritneeBrandon, and Alli watch The Psychic (1977).

Boomer:  Sette note in nero (literally Seven Notes in Black), marketed as The Psychic in the United States (among other missteps in the American marketing, including essentially spoiling the film with the English tag line) is a Lucio Fulci film about a woman who has a psychic vision. Jennifer O’Neill plays Virginia Ducci, a woman who has recently married a rich Italian (Francesco, played by Gianni Garko). When he leaves to go on a business trip, she decides to visit one of his unoccupied properties, intending to renovate. On her way to this farmhouse, she experiences a psychic vision detailing a red room, a tipped-over bust, a point of view of a wall being constructed “A Cask of Amontillado” style, and various other blinking lights and and images. Recognizing one of the rooms in the farmhouse from her vision, she tears down a section of the wall and discovers that there is a dead body behind it. Her husband is, naturally, arrested, but Virginia seeks to clear her husband’s name with the help of her sister-in-law Gloria (Ida Galli) and her parapsychologist friend, Luca (Marc Porel).

Unlike a great deal of Fulci’s ouevre, The Psychic is not a particularly gory or bloody film. Compare this, for instance, to The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, and the greater part of his body of work, which feature lots of gore in the Romero vein. The film’s bloodiest moment comes at the very beginning, and in fact seems like part of another Fulci film that has been grafted on to the beginning of this one, and serves only to establish that our main character has experienced a psychic vision before. The rest of the deaths that are depicted, while perhaps not bloodless, are fairly restrained in comparison to the rest of the director’s body of work. Instead, Fulci focuses on the anxiety and the terror of the drama that unfolds onscreen. There are a lot of beautiful shots, like the overhead crane shot of our protagonist and her husband riding horses, the blinking red light of a taxicab’s radio, and various shots of the Italian countryside. All of this contributes to a film that is a very different animal from most of Fulci’s work, but is nonetheless my favorite of his films.

Brandon, one of my favorite things about The Psychic it is its score. Unlike the heavily synthesized scores of Argento’s work or the tense scores of other giallo films, this film features a simple seven note leit motif (the titular seven notes in black, or, as in my preferred translation, seven notes in the dark) that is not only haunting, but integral to the narrative as well. How did you feel about this musical arrangement? Do you think that the film would work as well if the score was not so innately tied to the plot?

Brandon: The most immediately noticeable aspect of the music in The Psychic is that it often isn’t noticeable at all. The central seven note theme that intrudes whenever Virginia picks apart the crime scene from her visions is certainly memorable and helps to shape the film’s tone. Otherwise, like Boomer says, the score is not nearly as conspicuous as the aggressively proggy sounds we’re used to hearing in our giallo fare, especially in Argento’s work. Instead, there’s a softness to The Psychic‘s music that often allows it to fade into the background until the central motif, the titular seven notes, presents itself again. This softness reminds me of the swanky opening credits sequence for the last giallo picture we covered as a Movie of the Month selection, Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace. This isn’t necessarily because they sound at all similar, but because they’re more tonally at odds with a traditional horror aesthetic than, say, Goblin’s infamous (an oddly spoiler-filled) score for SuspiriaThe Psychic’s score is distinctly feminine to me in a way that matches the film’s overriding Agatha Christie soap opera tone. Blood & Black Lace deviates from giallo’s usual rock n’ roll psychedelia sounds to mirror the high class cocktail party soirees of its fashion world setting; the feminine energy of The Psychic‘s score is closely tied to Virginia’s inner life in a similar way as she mentally unravels the mystery of her visions. It presents a headspace that gets distinctly more haunting in its central motif whenever her mind returns to the details of the room where she discovers the body. It’s difficult to imagine bursts of synthy prog disrupting that insular tone in any way that wouldn’t be annoying, despite that being the traditional mode of the genre.

Speaking of giallo as a genre, it’s something we usually discuss in terms of stylized horror filmmaking, despite it earning its name from pulpy mystery novels. More often than not, the extreme violence & flashy style-over-substance filmmaking craft of giallo pictures outshine any narrative concerns with their central murder mysteries. I didn’t find that to be the case with The Psychic. Instead of flooding the screen with constant murders & psychedelic montages, The Psychic spills all of its (red acrylic) blood & incomprehensible imagery upfront in the form of Virginia’s visions. It then spends the rest of the runtime piecing them out one by one: a magazine, a lamp, a lit cigarette, a mirror, etc. This makes for a much more interesting mystery than a typical whodunnit for me, because it doesn’t only ask the identity of the killer. It also asks who is the victim, whether the crime has even happened yet, and whether it will happen at all. In a broad sense, The Psychic follows a very common horror trope of a woman sensing evil in the world and being told she’s crazy or irrational by the men around her. The structure Fulci uses to tell that story is anything but conventional, however, and I very much appreciated his patience in parsing out the details of how all the individual puzzle pieces fit snuggly together and in what order they did or will arrive.

Britnee, did you also appreciate that the psychedelic flashes of imagery slowed down after Virginia’s initial visions or would you rather that the whole movie had stuck to that exciting style-over-substance energy? Did the film’s unconventional structure & psychic visions conceit make you care about the answers to its central mystery more than you typically would with other giallo films?

Britnee: I haven’t seen many psychic movies, and I’m not even sure that there are many out there, but of those I’ve have watched (mainly The Gift), there’s usually a buttload of psychic visions from beginning to end. By keeping the psychic visions at a minimum, The Psychic really allows viewers to focus on every little detail in Virginia’s few visions. As Brandon stated earlier, the majority of the film is spent examining all these little details from Virginia’s visions and showing their connection to the murder that has yet to happen. I have a pretty short attention span, so being able to see the same visions over and over again without any change helped me really enjoy this movie, because I could keep up with piecing all the clues together. I was able to play detective, even though I completely sucked at it. I thought that her husband was a sex trafficker that would kill young women and hide them in the walls of his huge abandoned mansion. Little did I know the mystery was centered around a stolen painting. So yes, I definitely cared about piecing the puzzle together more than most other giallo films I’ve seen. Giallo films mostly deal with straight up murders, so it’s obvious that the killer will eventually surface, but with The Psychic, not only was I trying to figure out who the killer was, but I was also trying to figure out where the murder took place, if it really took place, and most importantly, what all that sludgy goo in the darkness was (it ended up being cement and bricks).

There’s no doubt that this film is a giallo, but there’s not a whole lot of bloody, slashed-up bodies like in most giallo films. Interestingly enough, the film starts out with a very violent and disturbing scene. Virginia is a schoolgirl and she has a vision of her mother committing suicide by jumping off a cliff; and when I say violent, I mean violent. Usually when someone jumps off a cliff in a movie, it’s understood that that person will die. Sometimes there’s even a shot of the body all smashed up at the bottom. The jumping-off-a-cliff scene in The Psychic was definitely one of a kind. The camera follows her mother’s body as her face chips away against the cliff’s rough, rocky edges. There’s even a fun little crunchy sound that’s made after each hit. For such an intense opening, I thought this was going to be one sick and bloody flick. To my surprise, there would only be a few other bloody scenes (the murder in the vision and the fall in the church).

While I truly enjoyed this film and can’t wait to watch it again, the ending really got under my skin. I usually like movie endings that leave unanswered questions, but I really wanted to know if Virginia would make it out of the wall alive. One would assume that her body would be found since the music of her watch could be heard, but as to whether or not she’ll be found alive or dead is really unclear.

Alli, were you disappointed with the way the movie ended? Would you have liked to see Virginia survive? Or would you rather see Virginia fulfill the prophecy in her visions?

Alli: I really liked the gradual, grim realization that she was the intended victim and watching her slow acceptance of the truth. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed when the movie ended, but I was certainly taken aback. I expected them to dig her out or for Francesco to fight his way through Luca and the ineffectual cops. I guess I was just expecting the typical giallo bloodbath to occur right there at the end, while the rest of the police force and detectives are racing to get out to the palazzo. Ending it right there was a refreshing level of restraint. Boomer already mentioned “A Cask of Amontillado”, but the end had a very “The Tell-Tale Heart” feel with the soft chimes ringing out Francesco’s guilt through the wall. Personally, I’m pro her being found too late. It adds a sense of symmetry, ending the film where it began.

That being said, for once in a giallo movie, except for Phenomena (big soft spot for Jennifer Connelly) or Suspiria, I actually really liked the main character. I feel like she wasn’t the typical blank slate female or wannabe detective male. Yes, she still turns into a bit of a damsel at the end, but she doesn’t let the other people’s skepticism invalidate her hunches. She knocks through a wall. She’s not just out to prove her husband’s innocence; she’s searching for answers. I feel like The Psychic gave its female characters more agency than other movies in this genre do in general. For instance, Bruna, Luca’s secretary, is a research beast, not Luca’s love interest. She is never put through the typical trials giallo movies throw at independent women, nor is she stalked down and killed. She gets respect and credit for her clever work and skills, and has a big part in the investigation.

Boomer, what did you think of the female characters in this movie? Would you agree that they don’t get the usual vaguely/overtly misogynistic treatment giallo movies inflict on them?

Boomer: I’m so glad you mentioned Bruna, who is a delight in this movie. She reminded me a great deal of Gianna, Daria Nicolodi’s character in Profundo Rosso. They have the same bubbly effusiveness, same insightful and inquisitive personality, and even the same haircut and fashion sense. That film is notable in Argento’s canon in that it, too, is more progressive than the usual giallo crop: one scene shows the male protagonist declaring to Gianna that men are more intelligent than women, only for her to correctly point out that she had put together the same conclusion that he had from available clues, and faster; he retorts that men are at least physically stronger. Later in the film, he is knocked unconscious and left in a burning house, only to be rescued and dragged to safety by the diminutive Gianna, showing that she possesses more strength than he credited her as well. Bruna is usually two steps ahead of Luca, who’s surprisingly disinterested in Virginia’s visions until she’s in demonstrable danger, and she has intuitive thought processes (like when she independently researched the history of radio taxis in the area) without which the plot would grind to a halt. Unlike Gianna, Bruna isn’t belittled by her male counterpart.

This unusual-for-the-genre feminism (understated and mild though it may be) is definitely one of the things that most impressed me when I first saw this film. My love for Argento is, I am sure, common knowledge to regular readers of our site; when I think of giallo, Argento’s is the work that first comes to mind. It’s interesting that you and I both went for references to Edgar Allan Poe and to Argento with our analysis of this film, as Poe was widely known influence on Argento and his work, as evidenced by his segment of Two Evil Eyes (you even mentioned Phenomena, my personal favorite!). There’s a connection there that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially with regards to certain misogynistic myths and devices that we see over over again both in Poe’s work and Argento’s work, and the larger society-enshrining machine that we call narrative, like the Madonna/Whore Complex, the sexualization of violence against women, and the infantilization of female intelligence.

Virginia’s role is unusual in that we rarely see women getting to play the everyman role in this genre, either. Genre fiction is overflowing with Neos and Harry Potters and Luke Skywalker: neutral masks unto whom the (presumed male by default) audience can project themselves with no difficulty. We usually only get to see this type of characterization for women in romance novels and rom-coms, usually to the point of insult. In horror, female protagonists are usually unique in characterization, like your Ellen Ripleys, Sidney Prescotts, and Nancy Thompsons. When the two ideals intersect, you usually end up with a Bella Swann. The Psychic is different: despite her fabulous sense of personal dress, Virginia is a bit of a blank slate. She’s recently married to a man she doesn’t know very well, meaning that all of her relationships (save her friendship with Luca) are new and thus still forming; she has no family to speak of. She’s adventurous and engaging, but she’s also generic enough that the viewer slips into the mental space of her character with great ease. It’s definitely not a standard giallo.

Also redefining what it means to be a woman in giallo is Ida Galli’s Gloria, Virginia’s sister in law. Gloria is idly rich, but her haughtiness is more detached than indifferent, and she drops her cold facade when the severity of the danger to her brother’s future becomes clear. She also genuinely cares about Virginia, and is taken aback when Virginia snaps at her and calls her a brat; I almost get the feeling that she was trying to treat this newest member of the family like one of her girlfriends, and Virginia’s interpretation was informed by some culture clash. I also appreciate the fact that Gloria’s promiscuouness is present but never commented upon; she has a lot of “friends” who give her expensive gifts, but she’s never demonized for or endangered by her lifestyle. In a way, she serves to be a mirror of Virginia. So often, when we seek a definition of what makes a Strong Female Character, we find a great deal of discussion about characterization and motivation, with the end goal being to make women on the page as well-defined as their male counterparts; rarely do we see the also important need for ladies as Tabula Rasa, embodied in Virginia here. Gloria is her opposite, a woman with clearly defined attributes and character traits, to balance Virginia onscreen.

In the same vein of unexpected progressivism, something occurred to me on this watch that hadn’t before. I was always struck by how casually Gloria mentions Luca to Francesco. Francesco himself harbors no jealousy for Luca, as if having his wife spend time with her (devilishly handsome) friend is no cause for alarm. Although he should have no compulsions about Virginia’s platonic relationship with Luca, it would be more aligned with his character as betrayed, unless he had reason to assume that Luca is completely harmless. What I’m getting at is that Luca can be read as homosexual, despite their being no confirmation of that textually. Do you think I’m grasping at straws here, Brandon, or did you get that feeling as well? Do you have any of your own extratextual character interpretations you’d like to share?

Brandon: To be honest, that reading of Luca’s sexuality never occurred to me on the first watch, but that might just have been another result of the film’s notably progressive, empathetic character work. I am so used to men who are coded as gay in giallo films (among other vintage exploitation genres) to be such over the top, cartoonish caricatures that their sexual orientation is unignorable, often to the point of being a homophobic joke. Speaking of Argento, I remember Four Flies on Grey Velvet being especially egregious on thaat front. I had interpreted Francesco’s conspicuous disinterest in Luca as an extension of his general self-absorption. This might count as an extratextual character interpretation on my part, but to me Francesco doesn’t seem at all that interested in anything his wife is up to, her friends included. That only changes when her snooping leads to him being suspected for murder. I totally buy that interpretation of Luca as a legitimate possibility, though. It would at the very least fit in with the film’s overall egalitarian, empathetic approach to characters like Gloria & Virginia. It’ll certainly be something I keep in mind in future revisits of The Psychic, as it would be a welcome variation on typical giallo homophobia, but I honestly didn’t pay that much attention to Luca as a character on the first run through. Women like the clairvoyant Virginia & the Cruella de Ville-ish Gloria were much stronger standouts than any of the men in the film, including the one who ended up being the killer.

Besides its refreshing shift away from giallo’s typically macho genre trappings, The Psychic is also notable for the way it plays with time. Virginia’s visions have an A Christmas Carol way of touching on all three sectors of time: past, present, and future. Virginia’s vision of her mother’s suicide as a child was a clairvoyant glimpse of the present (besides being an absurdly grotesque opening to a fairly muted murder mystery). Her visions of the objects in the Murder Room end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy of a future crime that hasn’t even unfolded. At the same time, the curiosity her vision sparks uncovers a victim from a past murder that had somehow gone by uninvestigated. This temporal experimentation follows a much less conventional narrative structure than what I’m used to seeing in most giallo films, which typically function as proto-slasher, body count-focused exploitation pieces, as beautiful as they are to the eye.

Britnee, how did the relationship between Time & Virginia’s visions affect your own experience with The Psychic? What do the inclusion of the opening present-tense suicide & the discovery of the past murder victim add to Virginia’s visions of her future fate?

Britnee: The way Virginia’s visions relate to the past, present, and future caused me to go a little cross-eyed from having my mind blown. Her visions initially leading her to the skeleton in the mansion walls tricked me into truly believing that those violent visions were clues that would lead to solving that poor woman’s murder. Once realizing that the visions were actually intended for Virginia’s own future demise, I began to think of what was the point of having a young woman’s skeleton stuck in wall and how it contributed to completing the puzzle. My light bulb moment in the midst of all this mystery went off at this point; Virginia was intended to find the body because it helped her come to the realization that her visions were of the future and not the past. Her fixation on determining the reason for this young woman’s brutal death led her to one of the most riveting moments in the movie: the discovery of the true date on the magazine that contained a cover photo of the woman in the wall. Poor Virginia was teased by her own visions, thinking she was solving a crime of the past, only to find herself being buried alive in the wall in the end. Having that initial vision of seeing her mother committing suicide at the film’s beginning really leads the audience to assume what Virginia sees is happening in the moment, but I guess that’s not how psychic visions work. Although I have an interest in supernatural phenomena, I don’t know much about psychic visions. How do those with psychic abilities know if they are seeing the past, present, or future? Perhaps if Virginia sought out training for her ability, she would have been able to be more in tune with her gift.

When it comes to figuring out how her vision of her mother’s suicide contributes to her visions of her own death, I’m not exactly sure how that vision contributes to her fate, but it does contribute to the fact that all her visions deal with death. There’s never any indication that she’s had a vision that led to something more positive, like a marriage, birth, etc. Maybe her gift only allowed her to see visions of deaths for those in her bloodline? I think knowing a little more about her mother’s background would have added more to the story. We’re sort of just hit with this intense death/psychic vision with little explanation right at the beginning. Just a little dialogue from the mother as she drove to the cliff would have been great.

Other than the film’s unforgettable plot, I really enjoyed all its artistic aspects, especially the psychedelic close ups of Virginia’s eyes before she has a vision. It’s almost cartoonish, but in the most tasteful way possible. Alli, what are some visuals in the film that you particularly enjoyed?

Alli: I, too, really liked the scenes where she’s about to have a vision. In fact, one of my favorite scenes is in the very beginning when she’s going through the tunnel. There’s all these quick cuts and flashes of light. It builds so much tension. After the gruesome opening suicide, it lured me into thinking her husbands plane was about to crash and that she was going to see visions of that. It wasn’t a let down for there to be an unsolved murder, though. The quick moments when the murder cryptically unfolds are really effective: the blinking red light, the mortar oozing out of the bricks, the dead woman, and the overturned bust.’

In the tunnel, she’s just plunged into darkness with a little spot of glaring light on the other side. There’s also the scene where they’re unveiling the palazzo where everything is dark until the blinding light as the shades are being lifted. The use of that contrast is really great, and maybe a not too subtle metaphor about the world being illuminated and the truth coming to light. Both sort of feel like they’re gradually revealing a new world to her, the tunnel being one where she’s seen a dark secret and the palazzo where she’s introduced to the crime scene.

One of my favorite things about any giallo is the iconic use of red. It’s a standard across the genre, but I love it every time; be it used as a warning symbol, to make it seem like the set is tinted with blood, or just because. I’m just into it. This movie is definitely no exception, and uses it in conjunction with the clues in both rooms where murders happen. The first glimpse of this all red room was gorgeous. The wall paper and chairs and drapery are just spooky and eerie enough for a dead body to fit in there, but there’s also a sense of class. I disagree with Virginia when she says, “Only an old person would live in a room like that.” There’s also the red lamp in the palazzo ex-bedroom. It casts a bit of half light on her face, and I thought that was a great shot.

Lagniappe

Boomer: For what it’s worth, I’ve always read the final scene as ambiguous, but leaned on the side of Virginia being rescued from the wall. Admittedly, I never considered the possibility that she might be discovered too late . . .

Brandon: It makes me somewhat of an asshole, but I have to admit I got a little bit of a laugh out of this film’s opening suicide. It can’t be understated how bizarre of an introduction it is to see that mannequin-esque body double Superman its way down the side of the cliff and smash its bloody face against every rock on the way down. I don’t think I was necessarily laughing at The Psychic for beginning that way, but it was such a bold, unexpected opener that my first reaction was to guffaw at its audacity. Whether or not any humor was intended in that moment, it was certainly an effective way to grab my attention as an audience. I had no idea what was coming next, but that mannequin’s bloodied face promised it would be something memorable.

If I may also briefly weigh in on Virginia’s ultimate fate at the opposite end of the film, I believed her to clearly be dead by the credits, an assumption the tagline on the film’s absurdly spoilery poster seems to support. I do love that its ambiguity has left enough room for that conclusion to be debatable, though.

Alli: I love this movie’s attention to detail. There’s just such a consistency and nothing feels ignored. Like any good murder movie or show, we the audience are expected to pick up on the clues to put things together: the red room, the broken mirror, the changed furniture, the same kind of bricks that were used in the walling, the magazine, the cigarettes, and last but not least the alarm on the watch. Those twelve revealing notes.

Britnee: Almost each time Virginia’s name was stated throughout The Psychic, that horrible yet extremely catchy radio hit, “Meet Virginia” by Train would play in my head. I think it would be so cool if one of those fake music videos on YouTube was made for that song using scenes from this film. Imagine those bloody visions flashing on the screen when the chorus hits. I completely suck at doing anything that tech-heavy, so I’m just putting the request out there hoping that someone has enough free time and talent to make this a reality.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)
October: Brandon presents Unfriended (2015)
November: Britnee presents Hearts of Fire (1987)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made BoomerBrandon, and Alli watch Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983).

Britnee: From the mid 1970s until around the mid 1980s, Walk Disney Productions dipped its toe into the darker side of cinema. Escape to Witch MountainReturn to Witch Mountain, and The Black Hole were live-action Disney films that debuted during the 1970s. Instead of the usual family-friendly Disney flick, these films fell more into the spookier side of the sci-fi genre. It was during the 1980s that this pattern of creepy live-action Disney movies became legitimately scary. It started with The Watcher in the Woods, a supernatural mystery starring Betty Davis. In 1983 came what, in my opinion, is the scariest live-action Disney film of all time: Something Wicked This Way Comes. The film is based on a Ray Bradbury novel that shares the same name. Bradbury initially wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes as a screenplay for a movie, but the movie never materialized, so he converted the screenplay into a novel. It wasn’t until many years later that Disney decided to make a movie based on the screenplay/novel. Something Wicked This Way Comes is nothing short of a beautiful masterpiece. The film takes place in a small Midwestern town during the fall in the 1950s or 1960s. The landscape mixed with the quaint neighborhoods creates a cozy feeling comparable to a cold night with a bowl of chicken noodle soup. The film follows two adolescent boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, a duo known throughout the film as “The Whisperers” because they served detention together for whispering in class. On a spooky autumn night, Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival mysteriously rolls into town, and strange things start happening to the town’s folk. The carnival, led by Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), is no regular carnival. Mr. Dark and his carnival associates, including a fortune teller played by the lovely Pam Grier, are interested in tempting the small town residents with their deepest desires in exchange for their souls. The two boys catch on to Mr. Dark’s true intentions, and it’s up to them save the town from the evil carnival.

There are quite a few popular films that seemed to be influenced by this not-so-popular movie. I couldn’t help but think of Hocus Pocus throughout. When the evil carnival crew is searching for the two boys, a cloud of green smoke enters their room, much like when the Sanderson sisters were looking for Dani in Hocus Pocus. There’s even a scene where graveyard statues have beams of light shooting through them, which is exactly what happens to the Sanderson sisters at the end of Hocus Pocus. Also, the dark train coming into town with booming orchestra music in the background immediately made me think of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies.

Brandon, were there any films that you noticed were influenced by Something Wicked This Way Comes, other than Hocus Pocus and the Harry Potter series?

Brandon: I don’t know if I could cite a direct influence for any of these films, since Something Wicked was something of a commercial flop, but there were certainly spooky titles from my own childhood that came to mind during our screening: Jumanji, The Pagemaster, Lady in White, The Monster Squad, the live action Casper, etc. Unlike Something Wicked, this kind of spooky children’s fare is typically set in or around New England, presumably because that region has the oldest cultural history in America (post-European invasion, of course). It’s also difficult to define, because it’s a kind of mystic horror carved out entirely by mood. Everything about Something Wicked and its more modern contemporaries is commanded by a creepy feeling, an atmosphere established by roaring winds and empty settings like a suburb or a carnival that makes its characters seem like they’re the only kids in the entire world, having to stage a world-saving battle between Good & Evil all on their own. Although this kind of kid-friendly creepshow is rarely as terrifying as you remember it being growing up, it’s the exact kind of film that sticks with you for life. Something Wicked made less than half of its budget back at the box office and was considered to be an embarrassing failure by Disney executives who filtered director Jack Clayton’s vision through a long line of expensive re-shoots & re-edits before its release. Yet, its reputation has been enduringly positive for people who caught it at a young enough age on the home movie market. When watching Something Wicked with Britnee, she commented that she’d never want to see a crisper, digitally restored transfer of the film, since the VHS-esque grain of her DVD copy is essential to how she’s always remembered it. I really enjoyed the first viewing of Something Wicked as an adult, but I’m kinda jealous that she has aged along with a film in that way. I would have loved to have grown up with it in my life the same way I cherished the spooky kids’ movies mentioned above.

What distinguishes Something Wicked from a lot of those kids’ horrors, though, is its dedication to remaining truly nightmarish. This is by far both the creepiest and the most deliriously horny Disney film I’ve ever seen. Mirror dimension mysticism, bloodied fists, parental anxiety, haunted carnival attractions, and Pam Grier (who plays a witch!) teasing perverted men into a fatal sexual frenzy all certainly would have kept me up at night as a young’n. The film’s central conceit about a villainous carnival ringmaster who tortures people with their innermost unspoken desires is its most disturbing & rewarding aspect, though. More so than any of the kids’ movies mentioned above, Something Wicked This Way Comes reminded me of the supernatural space horror Event Horizon, another film where unspoken wishes & desires are actualized as real-life horrors (to a much gorier effect). This conceit is established beautifully in the ringmaster’s big library speech, where he explains to his victim of the minute, “We are the hungry ones. Your torments call us like dogs in the night. And we do feed, and feed well. […] Funerals, bad marriages, lost loves, lonely beds. That is our diet. We suck that misery and find it sweet. We search for more always. We can smell young boys ulcerating to be men a thousand miles off. And hear a middle-aged fool like yourself groaning with midnight despairs from halfway around the world.” Disturbing stuff. The role of the ringmaster, Mr. Dark, was nearly cast as vampiric legends Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing (and I was fantasy casting Tim Curry as Dark in my head), but actor Jonathan Pryce more than earns his keep in that speech alone, giving me the willies even as an adult. His genuine creepiness in that exchange and the movie’s general theme of torturous desires are somehow far more disturbing than any of Something Wicked‘s specific nightmarish carnival images, which is a struggle for most horror films, made for kids or otherwise.

What’s most curious to me right now is just how much this movie was ultimately affected by studio interference. As Britnee explained in her intro, Disney wanted to intentionally take its brand into this darker, more adult territory, but its seems as if they weren’t fully committed to its implications. The re-shoots, the storied casting of Mr. Dark, Pam Grier’s relatively silenced witch, and Bradbury’s own admission of frustration with the final product all suggest a highly compromised vision, even if one that’s since proven to be enduringly beloved. Boomer, you’ve read the Bradbury novel the film is adapted from. Do you get a sense of what might have been lost or dulled in its big studio adaptation? Would this have been an even more nightmarish work if it were more faithful to its source material?

Boomer: I read an embarrassing amount of Bradbury in my youth and not so much since college. The thing about his body of work is that, although he is indisputably one of the great American writers in all genres (not just the science fiction for which he is most notable), his more grounded work has a tendency toward the saccharine. Although there’s something admirable about an old stalwart who clings to the exaltation of the majesty of youth, as a result much of his compositions end up lacking the humor, or at least the irony, of his stronger and more notable speculative fiction. That’s certainly the case with a lot of his later short stories–particularly grotesque demonstrations can be found in Driving Blind and Quicker Than the Eye–but the quasi-companion piece to Something Wicked, Dandelion Wine, is perhaps best at threading the needle of apotheosizing the magic of preadolescence without being too cloying.

Dandelion Wine, like The Martian Chronicles, was a “fix-it” novel, in that it was knocked together from shorter previously published pieces (the seams in Chronicles are much more noticable); Something Wicked was always intended to be a singularly cohesive work and thus has a clearer thesis, but it’s ultimately to the book’s detriment. The ghouls that make up Mr. Dark’s carvinal are defeated through joy, specifically those particular brands, the joy of boyhood and paternal love. Adult readers can find creepy novelty in the imagery, but the whimsy of the book means that only the youngest of readers can possibly dread the fate of the two boys. Bradbury never really had the heart to put children in truly dire straits in his stories (the nuclear shadows of two long-dead kids burned into a wall in a personal favorite “There Will Come Soft Rains” notwithstanding), so the novel’s conclusion feels foregone. By excising some of the more bathetic material for the adaptation’s finale, it works better as a climax, and there’s a more palpable sense of danger and urgency. Bradbury may have found the film to be flawed, but I found certain parts of the movie more engaging than the praise of youth that weighed down the novel. The film may not be better than the novel, but it’s as least as good as.

To add to the above discussion, I too found myself drawn to films like Something Wicked, if not that movie itself. I second The Watcher in the Woods as a pre-eminent example of this oddly specific subgenre and era, and further nominate The NeverEnding Story and especially Return to Oz. Return was likewise produced by Disney Studios in the eighties, and it has a striking cinematic resemblance to Something Wicked that I don’t think I’ve seen reproduced elsewhere. Thematically speaking, Stephen King’s Needful Things goes a bit deeper into the dramatic irony of giving people something that they want but denying them the ability to garner any happiness from it (the thematic connection is made manifest in the Rick and Morty episode “Something Ricked This Way Comes,” which takes the title pun from Bradbury’s work while more closely parodying the plot of King’s). This concept, however, is at least as old as “The Monkey’s Paw” and probably has several other premodern ur-examples that I’m overlooking. Alli, what do you think of the use of this narrative structure and device, and how do you feel Something Wicked ranks as an example of them?

Alli: I like the be-careful-what-you-wish-for thing, even though it is everywhere. The Twilight Zone covers this topic so many times and every time I just eat it up. The one that always gets me is the man with his broken glasses. The X-Files covers this humorously in the form of a literal genie. The stories I can think of it happening with kids are Coraline and Labyrinth. While they have female protagonists at the helm, it’s still kids fighting and besting this very real darkness based out of deep desires. Also, they both have super terrifying moments for family films. (There’s a strong argument to be had about whether or not Coraline is suitable for children at all.)  In those, though, it’s the kids doing the wishing; in Something Wicked, it’s the adults endangering themselves. In that way it sort of made me think of The Goonies, another dark family film, because of the kids going on an adventure to save the adults while the adults are too busy adulting.

This narrative structure is really effective as a coming of age arc. Nothing forces teens to look outside of themselves and take responsibility like a crisis caused by selfishness. It fills a very real need and anxiety of kids that age, when people are expecting you to start growing up after years of having someone there to fix your mistakes. To have these kinds of stories played out for kids and teens to see themselves onscreen tackling really big problems not only works as an escapism from their own boring real world problems, but it’s empowering to see kids beat the odds against them. I think it’s great that Something Wicked kind of put those anxieties on hold and at bay by having the message that you don’t have to grow up too fast. These kids aren’t actually forced to grow up exponentially to save a bunch of adults; a real adult actually comes through for them.  The kids are just running around being kids, which is ultimately perfect for them. Because of their child-like senses of adventure and mischief, they are equipped to take charge and save their whole town of adults living through real adult regrets.  I think the flip side of the coin is that it presents adulthood as a really depressing time where you’ve given up on all your dreams, make do with what you have, and live a life full of regrets; it doesn’t really do anything against that fear. Mr. Halloway was able to break through his regrets, which at first seem to be mainly about being too old.

What I was actually really taken aback by is the way they keep mentioning Will’s dad’s heart, his age, and how he wishes he could play baseball with his son, but what he wants to talk to his kid about the whole time is an incident when he was unable to save him from drowning. Bradbury really leads you down the old man path and then jerks the leash abruptly in another direction. It just seemed like a weird twist and strange thing to regret, especially because his kid didn’t drown and didn’t even know who saved him at all. I guess maybe that’s why he was able to break free from his regret, but for how much they talk about the old age thing, it doesn’t seem to bother him nearly as bad. I think it says a lot about his character that he cares more about his son’s childhood than his own pride. Britnee, what do you think about Mr. Halloway and his regrets? How do you think his compares to the other adults’?

Britnee: Mr. Halloway’s character is interesting indeed. At first, he sort of comes off as slightly similar to the beloved, depressing Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore. There’s just something about those big depressed eyes and all the weird death comments he made to William. I definitely agree that the audience is steered in the wrong direction when it comes to the big reveal of Mr. Halloway’s regrets because there is that focus on him being a senior citizen and the father of a very young boy for a good chunk of the film. Mr. Halloway makes uncomfortable comments about his age and heart troubles, but he isn’t obsessed with being younger or healthier. The core of him just want’s to be the best father he can be to Will, which leads to the love of a father and son being what saves the town and its people from being destroyed by the dark carnival.

The other adults in the town get royally fucked over because of their selfish desires: a horny barber’s desperate want to have relations with beautiful women, an aged teacher’s desire to be the young & beautiful woman she once was, a cigar store owner that wants to be rolling in cash, and an amputee’s desire to get his limbs back (which really isn’t as selfish as it’s supposed to be). Will’s father really doesn’t have a selfish desire other than the desire to go back in time and save his son from drowning years ago. Like Alli said earlier, he cares more about Will than he does about his own wants and desires, which makes him this film’s unlikely hero. I know many people who had elderly fathers when they were children, and it’s so rare to see a positive relation between an older father and younger son/daughter in film. It was really refreshing to have one of the main focuses of Something Wicked This Way Comes be the relationship between Mr. Halloway and Will so kids out there with the same parental situation don’t feel so alone.

A want and desire of my own for this movie would be to have more screen time given to the Dust Witch. I never read the novel in which the film is based on, so I’m unsure of how present she is in the book, but there’s always a little wiggle room for originality in book to screen adaptations. Brandon, do you think the near silence of the Dust Witch’s character made her seem more mysterious and dark or would you have liked to see a more solid presence of Ms. Grier’s amazing yet unknown character? 

Brandon: To be honest, if I had any say in how to improve cinema in general, I’d probably start by making Pam Grier a more solid presence all around. Since her earliest roles in blacksploitation action flicks like Foxy BrownFriday Foster, and (her all-time greatest) Coffy, Grier has been one of the most effortlessly cool, badass onscreen personalities in genre cinema. Just her mere presence in roles like the Dust Witch in Something Wicked or the robo-teacher with the cannon tits in former Movie of the Month Class of 1999 elevates the material tremendously, even while underserving what she could do with a bigger part. It’s wonderful to see Grier pop up in genre cinema throwbacks like Mars Attacks or Jackie Brown, but I can’t shake the feeling that she was never given her fair due. For instance, even though Hollywood couldn’t make room for the genre film icon in more serious dramatic roles she could surely handle, how sad is it that there are two Pam Grier In Space movies and they’re both miserably unwatchable? (My apologies to defenders of Ghosts of Mars and, less likely, defenders of Pluto Nash.)  It seems odd to hire someone as recognizable as Grier for a character as central as the Dust Witch and not afford her a bigger part, but she still manages to do what she always does in the role: improve every second of screentime she’s afforded. Some of the most memorable images in Something Wicked are of the Dust Witch painted gold or frozen in an ice coffin or wearing white lace while overlayed with flying shards of broken glass. Grier is endlessly watchable in the part, even without the aid of significant dialogue.

If there were an easy path to beefing up the presence of the Dust Witch, it might have been to give her characteristics and plot-related duties of Mr. Dark. It may have been a blasphemous choice to toy that heavily with Bradbury’s vision, but you’d think with all of the casting scenarios surrounding Mr. Dark, someone might have considered it a little redundant to have two distinct villains running the carnival. Again, I do think Jonathan Pryce proved himself worthy of the role of Mr. Dark throughout Something Wicked, especially in his big library speech, but my love for Pam Grier (and for witch media in general) makes me wonder how the film might have been improved if the Dust Witch had absorbed a lot of his narrative significance & dialogue.

Boomer, do you see the value in keeping the dual threats of Mr. Dark & the Dust Witch separate or do they more or less serve the same function in the film for you? Is the Dust Witch’s relative silence the only thing keeping her back from eclipsing Mr. Dark’s villainous power or is there more to their dynamic than that?

Boomer: In the novel, the ghouls who make up Dark’s carnival are more of an ensemble, so the book! Dust Witch definitely has more of a presence than in the film. This is especially notable in comparison to Mr. Cooger, whose narrative appearances remain largely unchanged, give or take a few details like the exact machinations of his ultimate fate. To me, it feels like the Almighty Pam was likely cast early on in the process, when the producers were probably expecting to translate more of her story to the screen. I agree that the world at large is better served by increasing her presence rather than decreasing it; however, from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, it makes more sense narratively to trim her appearances rather than Cooger’s. The Dust Witch is more integral to creating the atmosphere of Something Wicked, while Cooger is more necessary to the narrative. When you can use the language of film instead of the page to do the work of setting the tone, it’s a straightforward choice of what ends up on the cutting room floor. That’s not to say that the Dust Witch couldn’t have replaced Cooger altogether, but perhaps it was felt those actions would seem too inappropriate when performed by Miss Friday Foster herself.

Alli, you mentioned above that you were struck most by the illogical (and thus human) regrets that Mr. Halloway harbored for so long, and how the film subtly misleads its audience by letting him ultimately become the hero, if not the protagonist. Do you think this could be a result of affecting a child’s perspective of the archetypal hero father, balanced out by human failings, or do you see another narrative drive at work? Do you feel the film would benefit from similar inspection of the other adult characters, or no?

Alli: I definitely think there’s a certain amount of glorifying fatherhood that’s going on here, but I think there’s also the idea that only adults with imaginations, or who are in touch with their inner child, can help you as a kid. No, they’re not perfect, but they can support you. Mr. Halloway ended up not being the coolest or youngest dad, but he is the best adult role model. He believes in the power of books and stories. He saw an opportunity to use his strengths to be there for his kid and he took it. The idea that adults can make mistakes but still redeem themselves (to an extent) is an important thing for a children’s movie, no matter how scary it is, to get across. Then, there’s also the whole power of literacy thing.

The disabled barkeep could have definitely benefited from a similar arc, but every adult (who isn’t a librarian) is portrayed as dumb and selfish. Rather than these particular adults being weak minded and simple, maybe they’re just miserable? Small towns kind of suck. Of course the teacher wants to be young and beautiful again; these two boys are constantly ridiculing her for her looks. Who knows how many years, how many classes, how many children that’s gone on for. She also lives alone, so there’s probably some tragic lost love or other small town loneliness. Likewise with the barber. He could just be a very lonely man. Sure, that doesn’t excuse his casual misogyny, but that seems like it’s all an act. Jim’s mom has been a single mother for years! Of course she wants to find the man of her dreams. It’s harder to sympathize with the cigar shop owner’s need for more money, so I think he’s probably the least redeemable one.

Maybe the dark carnival can’t really tempt someone like Mr. Halloway for long, because he has a very complex reason for being regretful. Otherwise he seems to be a very happy man with a lovely family. Maybe they’re actually just not very good at doing their job and have been underestimating people and towns forever. That doesn’t make them any less spooky, though.

Lagniappe

Brandon: A lot of Something Wicked‘s charm is rooted in its old-fashioned sense of class, the kind of horror aesthetic that calls back to eras like Hammer House pictures or Universal’s Famous Monsters boom. The carnival setting, mat painting backdrops, hand-animated effects, and even the tension of swiftly approaching trains all add wonderfully to the this effect, making the film feel more like a timeless work instead of a meticulously planned early 80s production from one of the largest corporations in the world. You can feel that classy throwback aesthetic as soon as the film’s blood splatter typeface in the opening credits and it remains its greatest strength throughout.

Before we wrap up, I’d like to briefly chime in on the question of the source of Mr. Halloway’s regrets & desires. I don’t believe that his regret over not being able to save his own son from drowning is too much of a swerve from his overriding desire to be a younger, more virile father. I assume, because the man who saved his kid was likely much younger & more physically able, the pain of that memory is actually just an extension of the same desire for youth & good health that always drives his self-loathing & depression.

Alli: I couldn’t help but think throughout the whole movie, with its fall setting and pumpkins all around, about another Ray Bradbury film adaptation: The Halloween Tree. It has a similar eerie, dark tone balanced out with childhood mischief and adventure. It’s also pretty educational. I’m curious why Bradbury seemed to favor setting his children related stories in the fall. I guess it’s the amount of atmosphere and folklore surrounding the time period; or maybe his favorite holiday was Halloween.

Boomer: For a different (and in my opinion better) take on this idea in novel form, I recommend Tom Reamy’s Blind Voices. It too focuses on an evil carnival that arrives in Small Town America in the first half of the 20th Century, and there’s a pair of young boys. It further increases the number of viewpoint characters to include three teenage girls, one of whom is the older sister of the Will equivalent. It has the nostalgia factor of the original Something Wicked novel, but without the treacle (although it has a very sci-fi twist that you don’t expect, given the general magical realism tone).

Britnee:  I would love to see a Disneyworld/Disneyland ride that is based on the darker Disney films like Something Wicked This Way Comes. Could you imagine a hall of mirrors that gives you what most people desire most, and you have to find your way out before Mr. Dark gets you? Even just a backwards carousel with lots of green smoke coming out of it would be amazing.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)
October: Brandon presents Unfriended (2015)

-The Swampflix Crew

Wonder Woman (2017)

I’m going to admit up front that this movie was not made for me. I have not seen any other entries in the DC Universe other than the first two Christopher Nolan reboots of Batman. I’m not at all part of the superhero movie loving crowd, but in a world where the Dark Knight has at least twelve cinematic appearances, Superman has at least ten, and the Marvel Universe is dominated by male superheroes and small female roles in ensemble casts, it was about damn time we had a movie wholly dedicated to a female superhero. Also, in a world dominated by male directors, it was long overdue for a woman to helm a superhero film. It’s 2017 and Patty Jenkins is the first woman to direct a superhero film. Ever! It’s only fitting for that title to be Wonder Woman: an icon for women and young girls; a tough, no nonsense Amazon princess warrior; and arguably one of the best superheroes of all time. All this alone makes it a movie worth seeing and supporting; and it’s also fun, even for a superhero curmudgeon such as myself.

Wonder Woman starts with Diana’s childhood on the secret Island of the Amazons, Themyscira. Here we get a view of the culture of these women, why they exist, and how their island is eternally preserved and hidden by a veil of storm and fog. The training montages here are pretty cool, but a lot of what happens on the island (repetitive speeches about the gods and reiterations of what Diana is and is not allowed to do) just seems to drag. It’s cool to get a peak into the Amazon lifestyle, but only after so much of that do we finally get the inciting incident. A WWI era British Intelligence spy, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) manages to crash through the protective field around the island, followed by German troups. After a huge fight on the beach where we get some commentary about the destructive killing power of guns, Diana decides to leave with Trevor and save the world from war. After lots of fish out of water humor and wacky, “Oh my god, you can’t just carry a sword through turn of the century London!” hijinks, they assemble a team of misfits and go straight to the front lines.

For a tale that takes place with WWI as a backdrop, this film’s not that gritty. Thanks goodness for that, because it could have easily been another gray, dull action movie about the horrors of war. That’s not to say that the horrors of war aren’t present here, especially since World War I was a particularly savage example of carnage and loss of life. The main villains are still an evil general and his mad scientist lover/sidekick, who are developing a particularly lethal form of mustard gas. Despite this, there’s a tone of hope. We believe in our seriously scarred and flawed heroes. Diana is a source of justice and light in the darkness. War is still hell, but in the end we know Diana is going to succeed. There’s no way she can’t. She’s Wonder Woman. The movie really sells us on the idea that she can do anything, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

There’s been a lot of talk about the gender politics of Wonder Woman and what it means to finally have a female director on board for a blockbuster this big. The idea of Diana not being a piece of meat and eye candy has been floated around (oh, how our standards are so low). Other ideas I’ve seen have mentioned the design of the Amazonian armor and how it’s not run of the mill female boob armor. Both of those I have to sadly disagree with. Sure the armor isn’t Linda Carter bustier stuff, but there’s still the defined breast shapes, which has been discussed time and time again to be realistically useless except for the purpose of showing off boobs. You would think that an ancient race of warrior women would have figured that out. Also, there were many examples of Diana being presented to the audience as eye candy. In one particular scene she shows up to a gala in a stunning blue dress as Steve Trevor looks on with his jaw dropped. The real triumph as far as gender goes is that she’s allowed to be more than just eye candy. Not only is she presented as a desirable woman, she’s also given a story line with actual character development. The other refreshing thing about the way the film is written is that there’s no competition between women. She’s never given any lines implying how she’s not like the other girls or how the women outside her world are very weak, which was refreshing. Even on Themyscira, there’s a sense of camaraderie rather than oneupmanship. The other interesting catering-to-the-women-in-the-audience bit (though it’s debatable whether or not this is a win at all) is the reversal of the male gaze. Chris Pine is just there to be a handsome face and love interest, and there’s even a nude scene, albeit mostly implied, with a lot of double entendre. His character is not completely a cardboard cut-out, but compared to Diana it’s pretty darn close.

Wonder Woman is still guilty of the same sins as other superhero movies: cliché speeches about justice with nonsensical taglines (“It’s not about ‘deserve’; it’s about what you believe”), excessive slow motion (especially in the form of hair flips), and a cheesy fight sequence soundtrack. For true fans of the genre those aren’t necessarily problems, but more like charming quirks.  It manages to blend the darkness of war with the fun, superhero tone. A woman’s touch isn’t as immediately obvious to me as a lot of people believe, but where I see it I think it’s great. I’m glad the world finally has a female superhero movie, and that it’s living up to the hype and expectations.

-Alli Hobbs

Movie of the Month: Cool As Ice (1991)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and Alli watch Cool as Ice (1991).

Brandon:  “I do believe motion pictures are the significant art form of their time. And I think the main reason is they’re an art form of movement, as opposed to the static art forms of previous times. But another reason that they’re the preeminent art form is that they’re part art and part business. They are a compromised art form, and we live in a somewhat compromised time. And I do believe to be successful over the long run, unless you’re a Frederico Fellini or an Ingmar Bergman or a true genius in filmmaking, you have to understand that you’re working in both an art and a business.” – Roger Corman

I return to that Corman quote more often than any other summation of what cinema signifies & achieves as an artform. It’s even more insightful to me than Roger Ebert’s often-quoted pearl of wisdom about how the movies are “a machine that generates empathy,” because it better takes in the full spectrum of film as both a force for good and a force for commerce. Something that’s especially interesting to me about cinema’s nature as a “compromised” art form is that it’s more or less required to mask the fact that it’s partially a business, hiding its desperate need for profit from its potential customers. As Corman points out, not every filmmaker is a Bergman or a Fellini, so the main goal of most films produced in the annual cinematic cycle is to make enough money so that producers can, in turn, make more movies the next go-round. They’re not supposed to show their hand while doing so, however, and most audiences prefer to maintain the illusion that their entertainment was produced solely to tell a good story or provide a good time or achieve some kind of transcendent artistic ambition, not to make a quick buck. What’s always fascinating to me is when that illusion completely breaks down and the “art” of cinema is nakedly exposed as a simultaneously commercial enterprise. Titles like Space Jam (where the cash-in conscious brand mashup of Looney Tunes & Michael Jordan™ are injected with a wealth of unwarranted, but marketable 90s Attitude) and Mac & Me (where E.T. was shamelessly ripped off to promote a wide range of Coca-Cola & McDonalds products) make for an absurdist, deliriously silly confession of guilt where filmmaking is exposed as the compromised art form that it truly is. The Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice, produced at the heights of the white boy rapper’s marketability as a flash-in-the-pan novelty, is one such film, a nakedly honest admission to its own nature as a cynical cash grab. What’s most surprising about Cool as Ice and what makes it a memorable watch, though, is how well it fulfills cinema’s other defining function: art.

Structured as a “rap-oriented” remake of the early Marlon Brando classic The Wild OneCool as Ice finds its titular star and “Ice Ice Baby” singer stranded in a small town in Everywhere, America. His big city looks (including a leather jacket that exclaims things like “SEX!” & “YEP!” in gigantic block letters and the loudest pairs of pants this side of MC Hammer), flashy motorcycle antics, and massive overdose of hip hop flavor make him & his crew (a conspicuously black entourage that provides him visual street cred among an endless sea of white faces) out to be a target for wild accusations in the small town they unintentionally invade. While waiting for one of his buddies’ motorcycles to be repaired at a Pee-wee’s Playhouse style garage described by the soundtrack to be a literal Limbo, Ice’s protagonist, Johnny, strikes up a budding romance with the Girl Next Door and gets blamed for a string of local crimes he had nothing to do with based solely on his outlandish appearance. Unlike a young Marlon Brando, Vanilla Ice is not exactly oozing with potent sexuality & onscreen charisma. When asked to deliver raw machismo in lines like, “Words of wisdom: drop that zero and get with the hero,” he mumbles his way through the readings as if he were rehearsing them for the first time. He is, however, in his own strange way, a beautiful specimen, an object that can be easily commodified. Like a wind-up toy idly waiting on the shelf for its opportunity to entertain, Vanilla Ice mostly exists as a fascinating image, a collection of 90s fashion quirks & excellent bone structure that only comes alive when he’s prompted to do the one thing he was built for: sing & dance. He’s a talent in both regards, even if his skill set is a time capsule of a bygone era, and the movie doesn’t ask much more from him than to wait his turn until it’s time to pull his string to perform another song. Cool as Ice boils down its titular star to his most basic essence: a product.

Just because Cool as Ice is a cheap cash-in doesn’t mean it’s a lazy cash-in. Artfully shot by cinematographer Janusz Kazinski, who has since made a name for himself as a longtime collaborator with Stephen Spielberg, Cool as Ice often plays like an alternate dimension where Terrence Malick directs feature-length breakfast cereal commercials. Although a cartoonishly inane crime thriller, love story melodrama, and half-assed comedy about a doomed romance between a bad boy rapper and a spoiled Daddy’s girl, Cool as Ice is just absolutely gorgeous to behold. Gay 90s club music (not unlike the soundtrack to recent Movie of the Month Head Over Heels) pulsates while luscious camera work and over the top set design flood the screen with a meticulous craft in imagery the movie doesn’t deserve, given its pedigree: Malickian breeze blowing through tall grass, lightbulb microphones lifted from the “In Dreams” sequence of Blue Velvet, long lines of glowing globes spinning in the moonlight. In one especially stunning sequence, Vanilla Ice takes his Girl Next Door love interest (sporting a downright iconic sunflower sundress) on a daylong bike ride through the desert sands & a nearby construction site in what I’d genuinely consider one of the most visually pleasing and oddly sensual two minute stretches of pure cinema bliss I’ve ever witnessed. Given that director David Kellogg’s resume mostly consisted of “video documentaries” for Playboy until that point, I’m willing to attribute that beauty & awe entirely to Kazinski’s eye (speaking of the intersection of art & commerce). Still, it’s interesting that so much careful attention to visual craft would sneak its way into a movie that mainly exists to strike while the iron’s hot on a one hit wonder pop star. And since the movie failed as a business decision, only making a sixth of its budget back at the box office, all that’s really left to chew on at this point is its novelty as a pop culture time capsule and the artful flourishes Kazinski was able to sneak onscreen. I’d say both of these elements hold up in a 2010s context and together do a fairly decent job of being honest about the movie industry’s compromised existence as both an art and a business.

Britnee, how hyperbolic am I being in praise of Cool as Ice as an art object? Do the visuals of its summertime bike ride sequence and Limbo Garage production design actually achieve an artful aesthetic or is the film solely enjoyable for its “so bad it’s good” charms as an expensive, feature-length advertisement for Vanilla Ice, like an extended music video relic? I’m curious to know your thoughts on how the film balances art & commerce.

Britnee: I do agree that Cool as Ice is a beautiful work of art, as completely bonkers as it may sound. The fun house style camera angles, the vibrant neon colors (clothing, background, motorcycles, etc.), the fast-forward sequences that incorporate 90s hip-hop beats are just a few things that make Cool as Ice a visual treat. As Brandon mentioned, the bike ride and Limbo Garage are some of the most artistic elements in the movie, especially the Limbo Garage. Every scene that took place in the Limbo Garage was almost like stepping into another world, maybe even another movie? The garage owners, Roscoe and Mae (Blanche from Grease), act like they’re aliens disguised as humans, and that somehow really adds to the artistic flair of the garage. Their blank stares and eccentric attitudes were sort of chilling, and their ultra funky home seemed so out of place in such a white-bread town. Also, let’s not forget about the insane sandwiches the bike gang members made while in the house. Was it their personal choice to put sardines and peanut butter on a sandwich or were they under some sort of extraterrestrial spell? It’s all just so mysterious, and I love it.

As for the bike ride/construction zone love sequence, it was visually stunning, but it leaned more toward being “so bad it’s good.” Vanilla Ice popping out of unfinished walls with a childlike smile was way over the top. However, I did love the shots of the two lovebirds riding through the desert on his sweet bike while the sun was setting in the background. It was all very Purple Rain. This was the moment in the film where we should have been able to get a better glimpse into Johnny’s life. Kathy began to ask him personal questions before they started hopping over pieces of wood, but he never gave her any answers, only his signature “Yep, yep.” This scene, much like the rest of the movie, was more about the visuals instead of the story itself, and that’s not really a bad thing.

Cool as Ice was ultimately a film made to capitalize off one-hit-wonder Vanilla Ice, but in all honesty, I did not feel like the movie was trying to sell me Vanilla Ice. The incorporation of Vanilla Ice’s musical talent in real-life scenarios was surprisingly tastefully done. Yes, it’s terrible early 90s white boy rap, but his flow is pretty amazing. The film opens up with a club scene which is basically a Vanilla Ice video that incorporates Naomi Campbell’s lip syncing (I think?), but the rest of the movie, thankfully, strays away from that music video style. The next time Vanilla Ice, a.k.a. Johnny, gets a chance to show off his mad rhymes is at a teen hangout called The Sugar Shack. The performance was pretty great and sort of romantic, even though Johnny basically dry humps Kathy on The Sugar Shack’s floor. It’s so terrible, but it truly seemed like the two had a strong connection after that moment. Kathy, much like myself, was officially “Iced.”

I really enjoyed Vanilla Ice’s performance as Johnny. His acting reminded me of the kind of stuff you would find in an art house film. The way he recites his lines is so poetic and he exudes confidence. Personally, I would love to see him in another lead role because he knows how to own the screen.

Alli, were you at all impressed with Vanilla Ice’s acting skills? What other genre of movie would you like to see him act in?

Alli: More than anything else, I was actually really blown away by his dance moves, which I wasn’t aware he had somehow. I guess that one sequence in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 didn’t prepare me. Acting wise, I wasn’t really impressed with anyone in this movie. However, in this cast, he was a gem.  He carried the role of the star very strongly, even stealing away attention from the ridiculous production design. His absurd balance of white boy rapper swagger and romance movie heroics somehow works. There’s no real explaining why, other than I think he’s given a lot of good (or bad, depending on how much of a grouch you are) material to work with. “If you ain’t true to yourself then you ain’t true to nobody. Live your life for someone else, you ain’t living,” is a real stand out line for instance. The showmanship of it all just comes so easily and naturally to him, which probably explains how he was even popular in the first place.

If I had to see him in a different genre of movie, I guess I would have to go with a road trip buddy movie. I’m thinking Crossroads, except replace Britney Spears with Vanilla Ice.  He’s got that hip, laid back style, but can play the troubled bad boy as well. Just find a couple of equally nuanced and ridiculous 90’s dudes and you’ve got a hit on your hands. They could teach each other life lessons and dance moves, as they try to find themselves and the American Dream. Pun totally intended here, I think something like that would have been the perfect vehicle for him.

The Wild One was also prime for him, though. Of course Brando and V-Ice play the troubled, bad boy Johnny in different ways and Cool as Ice‘s plot quickly jumps off the rails, but I think it was a good fit. Both movies and actors play up teen crazes and parental anxieties. The Wild One, with its leather jackets, hip jazz music, and wild hats, is a movie all about style, which is something I know Vanilla Ice to also be about.

Boomer, what did you think of Vanilla Ice and his crew’s fashion? Was it a beautiful early 90’s/late 80’s hip hop time capsule or a horrifying mess that you can’t believe you watched an hour and a half of?

Boomer: The fashion was certainly atrocious at points, but it worked for me in the context of this movie. Cool as Ice is even more of a cartoon than the similarly named Cool World which followed a year later. In fact, the moment that solidified my surrender to the absurdity of the film was when the two hapless goons stopped in the middle of a sandy waste to review their map, and the sound that accompanies the taller of the two pulling his gun from his waistband is the basic cork/rubber popping sound that you can hear in animated stuff going back to Looney Tunes. It was essentially the same experience I had when I saw God Help the Girl for the first time and just absolutely hated it, until I surrendered to that film’s tweeness and accepted it for what it was, then ended up falling in love.

I’m not saying I fell in love with Cool as Ice, but I was certainly willing to overlook a good many of its flaws the more I allowed myself to be carried away by its unwavering devotion to being as aesthetically and narratively discomfiting as possible. From the way that the featureless scenery of the unnamed small town and its surrounding areas are treated like beautiful vistas by the cinematic eye, to the stylistically indulgent music video-esque speed-ups and musical accompaniment when Kat’s family is preparing dinner, there’s a distinctly tongue-in-cheek animated quality to Cool as Ice that caused me, against my better judgment, to make allowances for the portraits in sartorial horror that float through the film. Perhaps that innate zaniness is why the director’s only other feature, the awful Matthew Broderick Inspector Gadget, was (slightly) better received.

That having been said, that doesn’t mean that the, erm, fashion in the film gets a complete pass. It’s mind-boggling to me that not only does Johnny own not only one, but two pairs of short overalls; one of them is black with white stripes and one is black with blue stripes, and both are worn with the bib down and the straps hanging on his sides. Worse still, both pairs have the word “ice” stitched into the bib, meaning that they are (a) intended to be worn this way, since the word is printed to be read by others, and (b) these are presumably part of Vanilla Ice’s personal wardrobe, not just Johnny’s, since “ice” is only part of his catchphrase in the film, not his name. On the other hand, the times when he is wearing this less eye-catching apparel are not as bothersome as some of his other outfits. I absolutely hated the eye-searing harlequin pants in the first scene, but when they made their reappearance in the final musical sequence, it was a welcome relief after the film’s most heinous vestiary crime: that awful skull cap that Johnny wore at the very top of his head like Parappa the Rapper. I was willing to forgive a multitude of sins based on how bizarre this movie was, but not that hat. All of that having been said, aside from Kat’s timelessly simply dresses, all of the outfits in this movie are ridiculous, so it’s not just Ice’s personal flair that we’re seeing take the wheel here.

Of all the things that can be easily mocked about Cool as Ice, Kristin Minter’s performance is not among them. Most of the cast seems to be made up of amateur actors (not counting Michael Gross, last seen hereabouts in previous Movie of the Month Big Business, and he seems to be sleepwalking through this film), but Minter turns in a pretty solid performance, with surprising pathos. It’s a shame to think that her career hinged on the critical and financial success of this film, which never materialized. What do you think, Brandon? If Minter managed to sell her performance in this movie, why hasn’t she managed to have a more successful career?

Brandon: I totally back the praise for Kristin Minter’s performance as Kathy. Minter’s tasked with a fairly thankless, almost impossible dual duty of both existing as a blank slate so that teen girls in the audience can daydream of being in her place next to the supposedly hunky Johnny and making Johnny appear hunky in the first place. She is the literal Girl Next Door in the film, with her only defining characteristics being that she’s college bound & rides horses. In a hilarious touch of production design, the film even emphasizes this personality void by prominently hanging a framed blank sheet of white paper over her bed. Minter’s physicality and genuine mix of intelligence & sweetness makes Kathy feel like a real human being against these odds, however, which even better served her role as an audience surrogate. The actor has continually worked since the 90s, but besides a role as one of the McAllisters in Home Alone, it seems she mostly appears in single episode runs on various television series. Cool as Ice was clearly her time to break out & grab attention and I’d agree she did so admirably. My best guess as to why that didn’t lead to wider success is timing. Minter bears a striking resemblance to early 90s Lara Flynn Boyle in Cool as Ice, which was released concurrently with Boyle’s run as Donna on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series. If anyone was specifically looking to cast Minter’s type at the time, I suppose they’d be more likely to look to the actor who worked with Lynch instead of the one who worked with Vanilla Ice. That’s all speculation, of course, but when I gaze at the glory of the Cool as Ice poster (as I often do, thanks to the hilariously puzzling tagline “When a girl has a heart of stone, there’s only one way to melt it. Just add ice.”) all I see is Donna Hayward waiting to straddle the back of a white rapper’s motorcycle (which is somehow still a step up from James’s motorcycle).

Part of what’s so refreshing about Minter’s presence in the film is that she’s surrounded by so many mediocre, bitter men. Kathy’s father, the sleepwalking Michael Gross, allows his dark past to interfere with his daughter’s summertime fun & romance. The boyfriend Kathy leaves for Johnny is an alpha male shithead who slut-shames her in public for dancing with another man and obnoxiously threatens her life with drunk driving recklessness. Just about the only male character who isn’t a total monster in some way is Kathy’s kid brother, who serves as an audience surrogate for the demographic of potential Vanilla Ice fans who aren’t horny teenage girls: young children who look up to the rapper for being so cool. It’s entirely up to Minter (and Ice’s wardrobe) to sell that cool factor on Ice’s behalf, since a lot of Johnny’s actions read as bullheaded machismo. In the couple’s initial meet cute, Johnny shows off by jumping his motorcycle over a fence, scaring Kathy off the back of her horse in what could have been a paralyzing or even life-threatening fall. As payback, she kicks him in the balls. Johnny also steals Kathy’s personal property so that she’ll be obligated to talk to him again, shamelessly flirts with her in front of her boyfriend despite her obvious disinterest, and frequently sneaks into her bedroom window, uninvited, while she’s either asleep or not at home. In the film’s strangest moment (which is no small distinction) Johnny climbs into Kathy’s bed while she is sleeping and wakes her up by seductively sliding an ice cube between her lips. The frost on her breath is filmed beautifully as it rises in the early morning sunshine and the audience is left to stew in the creepiness of the moment for what feels like an eternity. Thankfully, Kathy is more turned on than creeped out and that scene leads directly to the construction site sequence I love so much. Vanilla Ice’s sex appeal can only be conveyed through so much wardrobe, dancing, and sunlit shirtlessness, so we rely on Kathy’s screen presence to sell us on its potency. She really does save the movie from just being a miserable parade of overly macho scoundrels.

Speaking of motorcycle straddling and ice cube sucking, teen horniness plays an alarmingly large role in this PG film about a white rapper and a small town kidnapping plot. It’s even been reported that a young Gwyneth Paltrow was offered the role as Kathy, but her parents made her turn it down because of the sexualized content. Britnee, you already mentioned Johnny dry humping Kathy on the Sugar Shack dancefloor. What are your thoughts on the way teenage sex & romance are handled in the film overall?

Britnee: I had no idea that this was a PG rated film. The ice cube bedroom scene alone is enough to get this film at least a PG-13 rating. Cool as Ice somehow manages to incorporate teen sexuality without making it too over-the-top. Kathy has a slight sexual awakening on the Sugar Shack dance floor, but nothing is really that hot and heavy after that. The film is trying to be sexy enough to attract horny teens to theaters, but at the same time, it’s trying to keep the main focus on Vanilla Ice’s dancing and rapping. For instance, the infamous ice cube scene could have gone much further than it actually did. Vanilla Ice is fully clothed in her bed (shoes and all) when lying beside her, while she’s fully clothed as well. This was definitely an opportunity for a sex scene, but it seems like it was intentionally avoided. Her little brother walks in on the two and asks if they were having sex, so it seems like that was done to keep the film’s sexiness on the quirky side to keep that PG rating.

Other than the surprising lack of sex scenes in Cool as Ice, I was very surprised to find that Vanilla Ice only had a few musical moments. He only raps about 3 or 4 times, and it just didn’t feel like it was enough for a film that’s supposed to be a hip-hop musical. I wanted to hear more of Vanilla Ice’s sick rhymes, so maybe this is just me being selfish. There were a couple of funky 90’s club songs thrown in here and there, and they took away opportunities for us to have more Ice.

Alli, did you find the relative lack of actual Vanilla Ice music to be strange? Do you think a love scene between Ice and Kathy that involves a rap serenade would have done well in this movie?

Alli: I did find that for something that seems so much like a vanity project there was a distinct lack of self promotion as far as music goes, but I’m glad he didn’t cram this movie with as much “Ice Ice Baby” as possible. I think that’s part of the reason why it transcends from weird vanity project to cult film art. While I’m glad his performance/seduction on the dance floor didn’t feel too, too forced, I actually would have really liked a delicate, free style serenade in the middle of that McMansion construction project (maybe a premonition of his current work on the DIY channel as a house remodeling wise guy). When they were just romping around in the emptiness would have been the perfect time to try to sell him more as a tender, troubled hunk, a role I just wasn’t buying. Overall though, yeah, I would have liked some more of his jams. I think the lack of Ice-related tunes just called more attention to everyone’s acting, and the bizarre muddled mess of a plot.

I didn’t really understand the whole crooked cop thing. Is this supposed to be a movie full of crime and intrigue or is it a teenage love story? I don’t even think anybody working on it knew for sure. I know we’ve talked about some of the similarities between Head Over Heels and Cool As Ice as far as the 90’s club jams, but I think they also have this crime narrative that happens somewhat out of nowhere that kind of hijacks the movie.

Boomer, do you think the father’s side plot took away too much attention from the love story?

Boomer: The side plot with the father’s past coming back to haunt him certainly seems to come out of nowhere, and is easily one of the least sensible elements in a film that’s already treads very close to nonsense, especially given that it’s instigated by his own foolishness. I mean, seriously, if you’re in witness protection, why on earth would you allow yourself to be filmed for a sound bite, even if it’s supposedly local? That aside, it does introduce the only real conflict in the film other than the fighting between Johnny and Katherine’s (ex)boyfriend, which is pretty tension-free after we see that Johnny alone is capable of fighting off a bunch of cornfed country boys single-handedly. Given that there’s not much other action taking place, there’s no real other way for Johnny to prove himself to Katherine’s family other than saving her little brother, but it still seems like a job that should have been left for the FBI (or whomever is in charge of the witness protection program in this bizarre universe), rather than a random rapping hottie with as much personality as an album cover.

Overall, the crime plot is the only element of the film that elevates it out of what would otherwise have been only nominally a plot. Without it, there’s not much in the way of conflict, nonsensical though it may be. It also gives the sleepwalking Gross something to do in the film, given that he’s the only real star here. I also liked the way that the two revenge-seekers were both somewhat bumbling and also credibly threatening. To go back to the above mention of Minter’s role as one of the McAllisters in Home Alone, they reminded me of the Wet Bandits from that film, in that they’re comically inept but still utterly capable of violence, as indicated when they kidnap Katherine’s younger brother. Her boyfriend is undoubtedly a “zero,” but without something to do other than stand majestically on his motorcycle in a romper, Johnny’s not much of a “hero” until the (ridiculous) rescue that serves as the meager climax of the movie. This centerpiece and the plot snags that lead up to it may seem tacked on, but without it, there’s even less of a film that what we end up with.

Lagniappe

Brandon: It seems that Vanilla Ice’s entire career has been defined by overcoming his early status as a one-hit-wonder. Ever since “Ice Ice Baby” made him a star, Ice has been struggling to reinvent himself. When gangsta rap changed the industry, he released the single “Roll Em Up,” refashioning ​himself as a hard-as-fuck street tough. When Limp Bizkit popularized rap metal, he reimagined his sole hit single as the would-be nu metal anthem “Too Cold.” In more recent years, he’s found his most appropriate home yet on reality television, where being a flash in the pan novelty act is a godsend, not a handicap. Cool as Ice is an obvious choice to me as the best of Vanilla Ice’s cynical cash grabs since his star prematurely rose and fell with his first album. It turned his blatant commercialism into pure artistic expression and an exaggerated cultural time capsule that only gets better as the years roll on, like so many motorcycles riding until dawn. That virtue entirely rests on cinema’s unique crossroads of art & commerce. If the movie has one major fault it’s that it didn’t lean into its obvious status as a commercially-minded novelty even further to conclude with a performance of “Ice Ice Baby,” which is nowhere to be found on its soundtrack. That would’ve been the icing on the cake.

Alli: I really, really would have liked more info about that Pee Wee’s Playhouse garage. It’s out of nowhere. I know Roscoe and Mae are eccentric, yet awkward geniuses, but as said above even for this universe they’re strange. Also, this house and garage are supposed to be a literal Limbo, but between what? Is the world Johnny and his friends came from in some sort of chaos? What did they go through before happening upon this innocent town?

Boomer: I also love the art design of this movie. When mentioning to a friend that I had just watched Cool As Ice, he asked if he was misremembering the film in that he remembered one location as consisting of nothing but colors and shapes, which I was happy to point out was an actual set on this film. My favorite bits were the globes and doors out front, as well as the ludicrously sized salt shakers that at first seem like a perspective trick but ended up being a gag. So fun.

Britnee: I wish Naomi Campbell had a bigger part in this movie that just a small lip sync scene in the film’s opening. She should’ve been part of the motorcycle crew! Even though I know that wish will never come true, I love the hell out of this movie.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: Britnee presents Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Mikey and Nicky (1976)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Alli made Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch Mikey and Nicky (1976).

Alli: Organized crime has a long history in film. The oldest surviving gangster film is from 1906. When most people think about mob movies, they probably think to films packed with explicit violence, or they think Coppola or Scorsese, whose films feature huge ensemble casts and wholly explored backstories and plots. Many of these films intricately lay out the inner workings of crime families, often with socioeconomic criticism about the treatment of immigrants in America.  But Mikey and Nicky doesn’t really do any of that. The violence is implied. The cast consists of just 20 people. It’s just a peek into a very specific event and more about betrayal than any political critique. Given that The Godfather came only 4 years before, it’s probably a better approach to break the mold entirely than covering all the same ground again.

Having two characters make a manic dash around New York is still a bold move. There’s so much potential to have it all go wrong, but I can’t think of two people better cast opposite one another.  The movie depends on their interactions. Luckily, they’re both masters. Peter Falk has his matter of fact, levelheaded manner and John Cassavetes plays a frenetic jerk. They’re just fun to watch together. Elaine May knew this. Most of the movie was improvised. She captured hours and hours of footage of just Peter Falk and John Cassavetes talking. There was 1.4 million feet of film by the end, which is nearly 3 times as much as Gone with the Wind! The result is a really great movie with an amazingly natural flow, but it took more than two years to edit, which was way over the deadline. After it was reluctantly released, she didn’t work behind the camera for over a decade. Having also had similar problems with A New Leaf, I wonder if her misunderstood genius would have fared better now in the era of digital.

May’s writing is so smart and wonderful. It’s important that dialogue in a movie like this really flows. It’s tense and fast, but also has such moments of tragic humor. Rather than solely focus on the chase and Nicky’s ploys to outsmart pursuers, the relationship between him and Mikey is really developed. I know it’s hard to like or even have empathy for an asshole like Nicky, but in a way, I was still rooting for him. Brandon, did you have sympathy for Nicky?

Brandon: The way we’re introduced to Peter Falk & John Cassavetes’s titular gangsters is unconventional for any movie, let alone a mafia piece, and completely disoriented my sympathies as an audience. The film opens with Nicky strung out & paranoid in a motel room, dying of a stomach ulcer he’s drank himself into. Mikey comes to his rescue, feeding him pills and half & half to alleviate the ulcer, doing his best to calm down what is eventually revealed to be his life long friend by assuring him that, contrary to his paranoia, there is no one out to kill him. Our relationship with Nicky is shaky at that point. Cassavetes plays Nicky with the wild-eyed abandon of a man in the middle of a days-long bender, so it’s easy to keep an emotional distance from the character while aligning sympathies with Mikey instead, a calming presence who sings lullabies, spoon-feeds medicine, and bumbles through life with Falk’s trademark feigning of adorable, cross-eyed befuddlement. Once Nicky’s paranoia of being hunted by the mob is confirmed as legitimate, however, and it’s revealed that Mikey’s helping the mafia arrange his supposed friend’s execution, our sympathies swap and we turn on Mikey for the betrayal.

Sympathy with Nicky doesn’t last long, though. He quickly turns out to be a racist, misogynist asshole who beats women & starts bar fights just to inflate his ego & stave off his boredom. By the third act, when Mikey & Nicky reach their lowpoint fighting over a broken wrist watch in the middle of a city street, I had lost any concern over either of their lives. Over the course of a single night, both characters manage to expose themselves as low-level scumbag criminals without a decent bone in either of their bodies, which is a wild ride considering where the whole mess started. I’ll even admit that Britnee & I were openly, verbally cheering for Nicky’s death by the time their story came to a close.

I’m fascinated by Elaine May’s storytelling process here, especially after hearing Alli say the film was put together in the editing room. The dialogue has such a tight, pointed feel to it, as if the screenplay were written for the stage, so it’s mind-blowing to learn that this was constructed after-the-fact like a sprawling, improv-based Apatow comedy. Besides the storytelling style, I was also struck by how well May captured the dirty, pre-Giuliani era of NYC, the type of New York we’re used to seeing in early Scorsese pictures like Mean Streets & Taxi Driver. The late-night setting, funky blaxploitation soundtrack, guerilla-style handheld camera work, and genuine background characters of real life barroom drunks & creeps all afford the film an authentic, unnerving New York City grime. The only film I can think to compare it to in terms of narrative structure & visual craft is the recent release Tangerine, which gives a whirlwind tour of L.A. sunshine similar to the way Mikey and Nicky tears through NYC streetlights. With those two films being released four decades apart and Scorsese’s most similar contemporary works being praised at the time for being the cutting edge, I think it’s fair to say May was in some ways ahead of her time, even if her basic visual aesthetic resembles a general 70s exploitation cinema aesthetic.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in our third year of organizing these Movie of the Month conversations, Elaine May is the first female director we’ve covered here. With a couple dozen titles from plenty of dudes behind us, that’s more than a little pathetic, but I do appreciate that we got the ball rolling for a corrective with someone who obviously has such a distinct, blunt filmmaking & storytelling style. Britnee, is May’s directorial work something you took particular notice of while watching Mikey and Nicky or did the two dialogue-intensive performances from Falk & Cassavetes fully distract you from what she was doing behind the camera?

Britnee: Mikey and Nicky, which I still accidentally call Mikey and Ikey or Micky and Nicky, is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. It reminded me more of an intimate play (I got some Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead vibes), so I’m not surprised to find out that improv played a huge part with our two main characters. As Alli stated earlier, the flow of Mikey and Nicky’s dialogue was so natural. Watching the two characters interact with each other was mesmerizing. At first, I thought that Nicky was hallucinating and Mikey was his lover just playing along with his “episode.” In no way did I expect this film to be a gangster flick. What a surprise! Nicky wasn’t losing his mind, he was just an complete asshole that was scared of being murdered by his mob boss.

Something that really did stick out for me was the film’s directorial style. The hazy, voyeuristic shots of Mikey and Nicky walking the dark streets of New York are so damn beautiful, but it’s the way that May captures the good, bad, and ugly of her two main characters. Mikey’s heavy heart due to betraying his life long friend and Nicky’s abrasive behavior that seems to grow with his fear of being whacked are two major elements that are highlighted by May’s directing. The audience can’t help but feel sympathy for both characters at some point, but ultimately, both are horrible people. Creating that sort of love/hate relationship with characters like Mikey and Nicky seems almost impossible, but with May’s smart directing style, she really gets the job done.

A film focused mainly on the relationship between two male friends over the course of a single night doesn’t initially sound like a recipe for success, but this is one of Mikey and Nicky‘s biggest strengths. There aren’t many distractions, except for the décor in Nellie’s fabulous apartment, so we’re able to focus on what is the most important: Mikey and Nicky’s very confusing friendship. Boomer, did you enjoy the film’s simplicity or did you find it to be boring?

Boomer: I’ve always been a big fan of “small” films, by which I mean movies that focus on the relationship between a minimal group of characters and which play out more like a stage play than big sweeping epics (although I love those too). Part of this could be borne out of my theatre background, but it more likely comes from having watched so many episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in my youth; in those early days of television, newly minted screenwriters seemed to still be stuck in a very “stage” mindset, usually writing scripts for no more than three major characters and confining the action to one set. Serendipitously, just a few nights before watching Mikey and Nicky, my roommate (coincidentally also named Nicky) and I watched a 1961 episode of AHP, “Gratitude,” starring a thirty-four-year-old Peter Falk as a gangster who is terrified of being killed by his rivals for potentially exposing their casino ring to wider police scrutiny. I’ve never really thought of Falk as typecast, but it sure is a fascinating alignment of coincidence that he played the Nicky role therein.

As such, I really did enjoy the intimate focus on these two men and their deteriorating relationship as May traced their dialogue-heavy path across the New York that exists only at night and only in the past. The film is essentially a play in motion, tracking Mikey and Nicky from one set piece to the next but not being predicated on the need for that movement; I could easily see this being adapted for the stage, with most of the discussion and conversation playing out in the relative safety of Nicky’s hotel room. The film draws you into the intimacy of the title characters’ relationship long before the rug is pulled out from beneath you with the revelation of Mikey’s true motivations, and most narratives (especially those on Alfred Hitchcock Presents) would be satisfied to reveal this twist and skip right to the violent ending, but Elaine May lets us continue on with this knowledge as the film tracks towards its sorrowful, if inevitable, conclusion.

Brandon mentioned Tangerine as a companion piece above, but this felt to me more like an inverted Girl Walk//All Day, in the sense that the latter film is a casual, daylit, dialogue-free feel-gooder that expresses itself through fluid and expressive motion and color, the opposite of Mikey and Nicky‘s languid (and stumbling) trek through the dark, in which the plot is driven largely by conversation, reminiscence, and old grudges. Both even have revelatory scenes in graveyards! This flick’s your pick, Alli, and we covered GW//AD before we were fortunate enough to have you join us. If you have seen that film, do you agree that it would serve as a decent counterpoint to M&N? What other films do you think would serve as thematically or narratively companions to this one, if you were to program such an all-night double feature?

Alli: I just watched Girl Walk//All Day, and I think it’s definitely got a lot of similarities, like you said with the graveyard, and it shows a lot of New York, but the New New York. It’s not the hazy grimy 70’s New York. It’s the glowing Times Square, people coming and going New York. If you were to take The Girl, The Gentleman, and The Creep and transport them to 70’s New York, especially the New York of Mikey and Nicky, they’d stick out like a sore thumb and probably get mugged. Another companion piece with a similar tone as GW//AD–I know this isn’t a film, but there’s an episode of Broad City where Abbi looses her phone, and she has to run around New York in search of it. It’s got the chase aspect, but it’s more about friendship than betrayal. It also has the added bonus of two lead actors with amazing chemistry together.

As far as actual movies go, I think Wings of Desire would be a good double feature with thisand not just because Peter Faulk is also in it. It’s something about the wandering through Berlin as these two angels try and figure it all out. West Berlin looks as decaying as New York City in the 70’s. It’s also a movie that was shot with a minimalist script and a lot of improvisation. Of course, Wings of Desire was heavily praised and award-winning, while Mikey and Nicky fell into obscurity.

I know part of why it fell into obscurity was due to legal battles and distribution issues, but it still puzzles me. It’s a beautiful movie. It’s also just as much ahead of its time as it is a time capsule of a dark and gritty era of New York history. On top of all of that, it’s really quotable. One of my favorite lines in all of cinema is, “You make us sound like a couple of cemetery freaks.”  I think it should stand out more. And I hate to say that it might be due to having a woman director, especially when I know about all the release problems, but I think it’s definitely a contributing factor. After all, Apocalypse Now suffered similar production problems with a much, much higher budget, and is now regarded one of the best films ever.

Brandon, do you think gender bias had an affect or is this just a case of a small movie not finding its audience? Like you said before, this is the first film by a female director for Movie of the Month. I think that’s pretty representative of the state of gender in filmmaking.

Brandon: That’s a difficult question to answer definitively. Gender bias is an issue that gets its nasty little fingerprints on everything, so it obviously has a huge effect on what films are being made, seen, and properly canonized, just like it effects nearly every other aspect of life. On the one hand, I remain thoroughly embarrassed that I had not been paying attention to highlighting female-directed films through the tiny critical platform we have here in these Movie of the Month discussions. On the other hand, the source of that problem is deeply rooted in the film industry as a system & an institution. According to this piece in the Hollywood Reporter, “Women comprised just 7 percent of all directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016.” 7 percent. I can’t imagine the numbers were any better when May was working back in the macho days of the 1970s or any other time in cinema history (2016 actually saw a significant dip from 2015’s barely-better 9 percent; thing’s aren’t consistently “getting better”) and that long-standing under-representation behind the camera is a huge blow to the kinds of voices we get exposed to as an audience.

Hollywood is simply not giving enough women (or anyone who’s not a white dude, more broadly) the opportunity to produce well-funded, well-distributed, well-promoted media, which means that when we’re making selections for conversations like these it’s important to pay attention to who we’re representing. That can mean taking extreme measures like critic Mayra E. Gates’s recent A Year With Women project, where she decided to only watch female-directed films for an entire year. It can also mean taking less drastic actions like the 52 Films by Women pledge, which only asks that you watch one film a week directed by a woman over the course of a year. I decided to take the 52 Films by Women pledge myself this year after embarrassingly realizing I watched less than 40 female-directed films in 2016, a pathetically low number considering the rate of my pop culture intake. The point of the pledge is to pay attention to who’s making the media you’re consuming and to go out of your way to seek out the filmmakers Hollywood is systemically underserving.

The question is how to reconcile that context with Elaine May’s reputation as a director. Based on Mikey and Nicky alone, May is a bold stylist who’s grimy vision of New York City rivals the likes of Scorsese, Ferrara, De Palma, and Friedkin in its palpable sense of danger & fearless desperation. Yet, her name is rarely championed among those contemporary New Hollywood rebels. May’s roots are as a comedy writer/performer alongside longtime creative partner Mike Nichols, yet Nichols managed to direct twenty feature films while May only completed four (despite enjoying a long life as a screenwriter, often uncredited). According to common wisdom, this is because May was difficult to work with and ineffective in keeping films on budget & efficiently produced. Of her four feature films, only one was a certifiable, profitable hit. The other three, Mikey and Nicky included, were all two-times over budget, delayed for endless months in the editing room, and dead on arrival at the box office. All three.

In his My World of Flops piece on the Warren Beatty comedy Ishtar, May’s most infamous and most expensive flop, critic Nathan Rabin writes, “Comic genius Elaine may has led a schizophrenic existence as both an in demand script doctor and a ferociously independent, obsessive überauteur who would rather feed her children to wolves than to let a script doctor (or studio head) tinker with her vision. […] May embodied ‘box office poison.’ She should have been unemployable as a director. She was letigious. She was expensive. She was difficult. She viewed studios as enemies rather than collaborators or benefactors. From a commercial perspective, investing in an Elaine May film made only slightly more sense than purchasing magic beans or building a bonfire out of one-hundred dollar bills.”

I honestly don’t know how to negotiate those two sides of Elaine May’s financial and critical downfall. Many male directors have been given 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances to deliver a winning picture after falling on their face, so I’m willing to chalk up at least some of her professional missteps to having to be combative with movie studios who never really had her back. Her reputation as a “control freak” and a perfectionist sounds a little ridiculous when you consider the opportunity and patience afforded people like James Cameron and David O’Russell, who also often push the limits of reasonable on-set behavior. I can’t say for sure if her films weren’t hits because they weren’t properly promoted after her less than harmonious relationships with movie studio execs soured their willingness to give her the benefit of the doubt, or if those execs (and audiences) never gave her a proper chance from day one. The truth, of course, is probably a combination of all of these factors, including both May’s personal failings as a businesswoman and the culture’s failings of women in general. It’s a depressing mess of missed opportunities and unprofessional behavior in which gender bias certainly played some sort of a role, if not a large one.

The one aspect of Elaine May’s professional downfall that really fascinates me is the idea that she would shoot way too much footage and then, as they say, slowly “find the film in the editing room,” post-production. This filmmaking style is so much more common now in the digital era, due to the lowered production cost of not shooting on physical film, and I’m wondering if her approach to the craft was just a few decades ahead of her time. Britnee, based on Mikey and Nicky & May’s reputation, is there a type or genre of film you would’ve liked to see Elaine May direct in this style, if she were afforded an unlimited budget and no restrictions on the amount of film she could shoot? Would you want to see her to go big in a large-scale production or does the small-scale nature of Mikey and Nicky seem like the perfect fit for her talents?

Britnee: I would love to see May direct a horror film. Mikey and Nicky was a pretty dark movie, but the story alone isn’t what made the film so disturbing; it’s May’s style of directing. It’s so haunting.  The uncomfortable silence, the tense yet mysterious relationship between the two main characters, and all the creepy distant camera shots from Mikey and Nicky makes me feel as though May would do an amazing job directing a horror movie that’s told through the eyes of a serial killer. She has the ability to make the audience feel like they’re lurking, so she is more than capable of creating a movie that would basically force viewers to be in the mind of a killer. Big budget movies don’t suite her style, but she would definitely be a badass low-budget horror film queen. I can’t help but imagine her directing a movie called something like Through the Eyes of Jeffrey Dahmer. Horror was definitely something she should have dabbled into, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like she would’ve ever had the chance because of all the shitheads in Hollywood.

Speaking of horror and death, I’ve been thinking a bit about Mikey’s assistance in Nicky’s death. He knew that Nicky was ultimately going to be “sleeping with the fishes,” so I’m having a hard time trying to figure out why he put himself through the pain of spending the night with him while helping the mob hunt him down. Mikey was so concerned with Nicky’s stomach ulcer and keeping him alive in the beginning of the film, but I’m not 100% sure what his intentions were.

Boomer, do you think Mikey kept Nicky alive to please the mob and save his own ass? Did he not let the stomach ulcer kill him because he couldn’t physically watch his friend die?

Boomer:  I think that his lifelong friendship with Nicky probably has a lot to do with Mikey’s attitude. One of the elements that really stood out to me was the early scene in the coffee shop, especially in retrospect. Before we learn the true nature of Mikey’s investment in getting Nicky out of the hotel (in a great reveal, by the way; I don’t think I’ve ever been as emotionally sucker-punched as I was in that scene where the phone starts ringing in the bar and the audience connects that Mikey and Ned Beatty’s assassin Kinney are in cahoots), the scene feels like a strong demonstration of Mikey’s friendship, showing that he will act outside of his pleasant and avuncular demeanor in order to take care of his dear friend. When we find out that he really wants to “take care” of him, this violent outburst becomes much more disturbing in retrospect, as it shows the menace lurking beneath the kindly façade, ready to burst forth at any time. It’s startlingly effective on both the first watch and the second, but for different reasons.

There’s an old folk story that I heard in my youth about a man who, for whatever reason, was forced to cut the tail off of his pet monkey. Rationalizing that cutting off the whole tail all at once would be too cruel, the man decides to slice off a mere inch at a time, ending up causing the monkey far more injury than if he had simply cut the whole tail off at once. In the end, Mikey is that man, as he acts as the Judas to Nicky’s shitty Christ figure, hurting him more in the long run than if he had simply taken care of business himself.

There is certainly something to be said for the ties that bind adults who were friends(?) in childhood. Although his behavior towards Mikey and everyone who crosses their path is reprehensible, Nicky is fundamentally sympathetic in that we as an audience feel empathy toward him with regards to his very real anxiety. Further, the way that Mikey trails him across the city with ulterior motives speaks to a deeply human paranoia that the people that we care for and who seem to care about us could be hiding their true feelings and intentions. On the other hand, the bullied child in all of us can recognize the complexity of sentiment one must have for a lifelong companion who is both friend and tormentor, and though we can detest Mikey for his involvement in Nicky’s ultimate fate, our sympathies lie with him also. As such, I don’t think Mikey was keeping Nicky alive to please the mob, but he might have been doing so in order to attempt to save himself on a emotional or spiritual level. Killing wiseguys is just part of the business, and he doesn’t have much of a choice in his participation in the Passion of Nicky, but he feels that if he can lessen that suffering, even a little, it will help calm the disquiet in his soul. He can’t escape it, however, as is made manifest in the film’s final moments, when his sins literally follow him all the way home.

Lagniappe

Alli: I like all the different backgrounds and settings in this movie. They all have such a unique vibe and atmosphere. The bare bones diner feels like it’s a whole world apart from Nellie’s beautiful apartment, and even more so the cemetery. It’s almost like we’re watching Nicky’s​ life flash before his eyes, each place being a separate chapter.

Britnee: I thought it was strange how calm Mikey’s wife, Annie, was throughout the film. She doesn’t have much screen time, but she is in no way the typical mob wife (I can’t help but think of my girl Big Ang). She’s so calm and collected while obviously knowing what her husband is up to. Props to her.

Boomer: There’s something deeply sad in Falk’s performance that just would not have been present in another performer. He’s not as attractive as Cassavetes, and his humble looks and charm are in great form here against the other man’s performative hedonism. Unlike the gadabout Nicky, who has a wife but can’t keep her because of his personal flaws, Mikey’s wife seems to genuinely love him, and Mikey’s darkest moment in the film comes when he tries to be Nicky and sleep with another woman. The film’s saddest moment comes when Mikey feels inferior to Nicky, plaintively and furtively seeking the approval of his bosses while reflecting on Nicky’s statements about how they really feel about him. There’s a great parallelism going on there, with Nicky telling Mikey about another party’s ulterior motives while Mikey hides his own secrets from Nicky.

Brandon: I’d like to again encourage people to consider taking the 52 Films by Women pledge. It’s not at all a difficult quota to fulfill once you actually pay attention to what you’re watching. I’ve had a lot of fun taking the pledge myself so far this year, a journey I’ve been documenting in this Letterboxd list if you’re looking for a few titles to get your own pledge started. Secondly, I’d encourage you to buy a copy of Nathan Rabin’s My World of Flops book (or borrow one from the library), which includes a much more expansive piece on Ishtar than the one I linked above (and it’s the version I was actually quoting). It’s not only worth it for the Elaine May musings. Rabin’s my favorite living critic and the entire book is a shining example of the kind of open-minded, empathetic criticism I try to emulate on this site. (He liked Ishtar a lot more than that isolated pull-quote may have implied.)

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Brandon presents Cool As Ice (1991)
July: Britnee presents Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)

-The Swampflix Crew

Kedi (2017)

In a lot of ways, cats are admirable role models. They roam the streets and live out their own ways of life no matter who’s judging. They go after what they want in the world and snatch it. They take naps whenever and often wherever they want to. Kedi is a celebration of cats—of their independence and embodiment of freedom. It follows seven cats as they roam through the streets of Istanbul just doing what cats do best: genuinely being themselves. Some of them are bullies. One of them is a total moocher. A couple are new mothers. All of them add meaning to and enhance the lives of the humans around them.

Kedi is also about cat people. All the interview subjects have unique relationships with the street cats around them. Some feed them, some go as far as to fund vet care, but they all have a connection with these strange little animals they love. In a lot of ways, Kedi restores my faith in humanity. All the people they talk to about these cats have a selfless understanding with them. They talk about them like old friends. When faced with the expansion and changing landscape of Istanbul, the people feel more concerned for their feline friends than for themselves.

It’s a super beautiful and vibrant movie. Istanbul is lovely as seen from a cat’s eye view. The camera follows them low to the ground as they prowl the streets looking for scraps and hiding spots. The camera also goes up to the rooftops to see the cats who have reached impossibly high perches. I’m not quite sure how they managed to really take on a cat like presence, but it is such an intimate portrait of such a foreign little world. I was amazed that they were able to follow a few of the same cats back and forth between their destinations. That also means, though, that the documentary has a cat-like sense of focus, meaning that it has a tendency to be a little meandering, shifting from subject to subject without many segues.

Kedi is a beautiful glimpse into feline world. It really puts you in the paws of these strange little creatures. You get to see the inner workings, their quirks, their street feuds, their hiding spots, the routines they stick to, and the kind-hearted people they choose. The world needed a documentary about cats. Kedi was a long time coming.

-Alli Hobbs

Movie of the Month: Head Over Heels (2001)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Alli, Britnee , and Brandon watch Head Over Heels (2001).

Boomer: Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Head Over Heels is not a good movie. Objectively, it’s actually kind of awful. It’s a nineties holdover of a specific kind of romantic comedy that paid for Meg Ryan’s house and every meal she will eat for the rest of her life. There’s a silly voice-over at the beginning about growing up in [small Midwest location] but now the protagonist lives in [major metropolitan city] with [impossibly perfect job], but gosh darn it she’s just so unlucky in love! It’s so dumb, and I love it so, so much.

I already wrote a more complete recap of the film’s plot in my review of it so I won’t go overlong with the details here, but I’d stand by my assessment of it as “Two parts standard turn of the century romcom, one part Rear Window, with just a dash of genderbent Zoolander.” Future Mean Girls helmer Mark Waters directs Monica Potter as Amanda Pierce, an art restoration expert who moves in with four supermodels after catching her fiancé in bed with another woman. With the encouragement of her newfound group of unlikely friends, Amanda reluctantly begins to open her heart to handsome neighbor Jim Winston (Freddie Prinze Jr.), upon whom the women spy through his windows. He seems perfect, until Amanda alone sees him murder a woman. Or does he?

Britnee, what did you think of the relationships between the women in this movie? The film just barely passes the Bechdel Test (when the models talk about fashion and trading clothing), but that’s not a make-or-break barometer, really. I feel like the representation of non-traditional female friendships and the presentation of the supermodels as being vain and vaguely self-centered but also powerful and accepting of their new friend was fresh, especially for 2001. What do you think?

Britnee: First off, I just have to say that I absolutely loved Head Over Heels. It has that late 1990’s vibe that I am totally addicted to (Romy and Michelle’s High School ReunionJawbreakerShe’s All That, etc.), even though the film was released in 2001. What can I say, brightly colored mismatched clothes, frosty lipstick, hair chopsticks, chunky heels, and halter tops get me jazzed. To top it all off, the movie stars Freddie Prinze Jr.! He’s such a great actor for those terrible-yet-addictive types of movies, so what a perfect choice for the lead guy in Head Over Heels. It’s a shame that he doesn’t really act anymore. If I’m not mistaken, I remember him becoming involved with WWE after he stepped away from acting, but the latest I’ve heard of Prinze is that he wrote a cookbook (with a forward by Sarah Michelle Gellar). I haven’t tried any of the recipes, but I hope that he makes references to his films in them (Spaghetti à la House of Yes).

To answer your question, Mark, I loved the relationships between the film’s female characters. Amanda’s friendship with the models and Lisa (her hilarious lesbian coworker) really shows that sisterhood comes in many forms, some more unique than others. In the beginning of the film, Amanda is harassed about not being married by her elderly coworkers, and I get it, being single wasn’t seen as an option during their youth, but it was still annoying to listen to their comments. Once she moves in with the models, they didn’t seem to be interested in her other than the $500 per month she was going to pay to live in a closet to fund their spending habits. I couldn’t help but assume that they were going to be a portrayed as the stereotypical self-absorbed group of air-headed models that were total mean girls, but thankfully, things didn’t go in that direction. The models, although very self-absorbed, did care about Amanda. They saw that she was interested (more like obsessed) with Jim, and they helped her score a date with him. Unfortunately, they covered her in makeup and dressed her up to their liking, making her look nothing like herself, but they were truly doing what they thought was best. And during Amanda’s quest to find out whether or not Jim was a murderer, they helped her break into his apartment to look for clues. They even endured Jim’s very intense poop and an absolutely disgusting septic tank shower in a public men’s room to get information for Amanda. If that’s not friendship, I don’t know what is.

What surprised me the most out of all the insanity in Head Over Heels was the incorporation of a murder mystery. I definitely didn’t see it coming, and I just about flew off my chair when Jim “murdered” Megan in his apartment. I sort of wish that Jim would’ve actually committed the murder and was part of a Russian mob or something like that because it would’ve made for a more interesting ending. Alli, what are your thoughts on the idea of Jim being an actual murderer? Or were you satisfied with him being an undercover agent?

Alli: I, too, actually kind of wish he was an actual murderer. The contrast between the bubble gum 90’s romcom aesthetic and a grim serial killer story really could have saved this movie for me. If Amanda had actually had a bad case of Hybristophilia (a crime fetish; I just looked up this word in case anyone was getting worried about me), I think the dark turn could have made for an extremely interesting and unique twist. Imagine her going to all this trouble and Rear Window-esque voyeurism to find out he actually did, only for her to realize that she doesn’t care and still loves him anyway. I thought the whole undercover agent thing was tacked on and sloppy. I understand that we’re supposed to be rooting for Amanda and want her to finally fall in love with Mr. Right, but it just seemed like a forced way to have a happy ending. It did make it possible to have that bizarre fashion show chase scene, though.

Fashion is an interesting part of this movie. The four models are dressed in perfect representation of current fashion for 2001, fashion that is now extremely dated. It seemed like, though, Head Over Heels was already acknowledging how ridiculous this all is. In the scene where the four models give Amanda a makeover, she knows it’s ridiculous. Her crush, Jim, knows it’s ridiculous.

Rather than a love letter to the fashion of the times, this movie strikes me more as a subtle satire. There’s vapid models constantly getting pointless plastic surgery done, who only care about rich men so they can continue a comfortable lifestyle (though, they do have a certain amount of Girl Power and protective instinct when it comes to Amanda), and there’s the fashion show gone wrong, but the press thinks it’s intentional. Brandon, what do you think about fashion in this film?  Do you see this movie as a satire of the industry?

Brandon: It’s clearly satire, but I think there’s a pretty distinct difference between the way this film handles its fashion industry parody and how that same attitude is executed in meaner, more pointed works of the era like Zoolander & Josie and the Pussycats. When we first encounter Amanda’s fashion model roomates, Head Over Heels clearly sets up a dichotomy between our protagonist’s supposedly more worthwhile career in fine art academia and the mindless frivolity of fashionista trend chasing. Unlike with Zoolander, however, the fashion industry and the perceived stupidity of fashion models eventually fades as a punchline and we start to see the value of their lifestyle. One of the roomates is a cunning academic who put her education on hold to take advantage of what a young, beautiful body can (temporarily) afford her. Casual nudity, aggressive catwalking, uninhibited attitudes toward sex, and blatant financial negotiations with men who want to be seen in public with them all afford these women a certain confidence & power that Amanda’s missing out on as a meek, academic shut-in. Waters (who is no stranger to dark humor in projects like Mean Girls and House of Yes) will sometimes undercut their power with somewhat tragic jokes about incest, child prostitution, and routine plastic surgery, but his script makes it clear that these are worthwhile, intelligent people who improve Amanda’s life with their specific skill set & collective life experience. There’s plenty of stray jabs aimed at the basic absurdity of fashion modeling as a profession, but the models themselves aren’t portrayed as nearly as cruel or idiotic as the people who look down on them merely for being models (especially the reoccurring police officer who won’t take their legitimate cries for help seriously until after they’re vindicated by his higher-ups).

One thing I love about the film that the modeling industry opens up to it is the incessant runway music. Gay 90s club music is just as omnipresent here as it is in the SNL comedy A Night at the Roxbury, which feels like a deliberate choice, given that this film would’ve been released a few years after the heyday of acts like La Bouche and Real McCoy. From the A*Teens’ aggressively bubbly cover of ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me” in the make-over montage to the film’s wordless, repetitive Gay 90s theme music to the choice to include The Go-Go’s titular hit song “Head Over Heels” instead of the more obvious (and more romantic) Tears for Fears option, there’s a very specific soundtrack direction to Head Over Heels that keeps it away from the detached cynicism of Zoolander and moves it toward the absurdist fantasy of films like Spice World & Teen Witch. As Head Over Heels shifts its genre gears from romcom to Farrelly brothers-style gross-out to murder mystery to action comedy, the 90s style club music remains its only real constant, a consistent runway beat that feels just as important to the fashion world setting as the actual on-the-runway debacle of its Fashion Week conclusion.

Boomer, did you at all notice the soundtrack while watching Head Over Heels or did it just feel like typical romcom tunage to you? Is the film’s 90s-hangover club music significant to its fashion world aesthetic or am I allowing my love of acts like Deee-Lite & Snap! to make it appear to be more than it is?

Boomer: I love this question, because I’ve held a longtime fascination with films that are named for song titles. Until the 1980s, most movies that followed this naming convention were about music and starred musicians: White Christmas (1954) starring Bing Crosby, Rock Around the Clock (1956) starring Bill Haley and the Comets and The Platters among others, and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) starring future Mrs. Brian De Palma Nancy Allen and focusing on four girls going to see The Beatles. Starting with John Hughes’s 1984 film Sixteen Candles, there was a boom of more romantic films taking their titles from classic love songs and contemporary pop music. Candles was followed by Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), Some Kind of Wonderful, Roxanne, and Can’t Buy Me Love (all 1987), My Girl (1991), Love Potion No. 9 (1992), When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), One Fine Day (1996), Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), Simply Irresistible (1999)Of course, the veritable apotheosis of this concept was 1990’s Pretty Woman.

This conceit started to die out around the time that Head Over Heels was released (give or take a Sweet Home Alabama here and there), but I have to admit that, minus the cover of “Take a Chance on Me,” and the inclusion of the title song, none of the music in the film stood out to me all that much. That’s odd, considering how often I find myself consciously dissecting a film’s score while watching, sometimes to my own annoyance (while at a recent screening of A Tale of Two Sisters, every time the piercing, intense strings started playing, I found myself daydreaming about Psycho). Maybe the overall generic nature of the (accurately described) “gay 90s club music” is what makes the film flow with such grace. It fits well enough that it’s beneath notice, which is a compliment, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

When I hear the phrase “head over heels,” I too first think of Tears for Fears, but looking at the lyrics of the Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels,” it’s apparent why this is the title song and not the more famous new wave track. The song includes lines like “I couldn’t see the warning signs/I must be losin’ it/Cause my mind plays tricks on me,” which is much more in line with Amanda’s state of mind than poetical waxing about talking about the weather, wasting time, or being lost in admiration. It’s more consistent with the film’s thesis of a woman who has been fooled too many times but still finds herself smitten with a handsome stranger against her better judgment, although I can almost hear her say “don’t take my heart, don’t break my heart/Don’t, don’t, don’t throw it away” (presumably while sitting on the stairs outside a dreamboat’s apartment while he explains that his work persona is a facade).

To be honest, a part of me wishes that this was less of a romcom and more about an art restorer who gets into international shenanigans with the help of her fashion model roommates. Britnee, what do you think of the espionage plot? I agree with Alli that it feels tacked on and sloppy, and I wish the intrigue of smuggled diamonds had played a larger role in the overall narrative. Do you feel the same way? What changes would you make to the screenplay if you had the chance?

Britnee: I agree that the whole secret agent twist was sloppily thrown in. To be honest, I was waiting for another plot twist to happen about 5 minutes to the end of the movie where Jim reveals himself as a murderer disguised as a federal agent who was pretending to be a murderer. Anything would have been better than the overused agent-in-disguise cop out. I get it, Amanda and Jim needed to end up together, and this was written in the script so the two love birds could have their “happily ever after.” It just felt so lazy. Thankfully, there were many other interesting events that made up for it.

Like Mark, I too would like to see the film focus more on Amanda’s career as an art restorer because that has to be one of the coolest jobs on the planet. If I could make changes to the screenplay, I would definitely make the film more of a fantasy romcom that would focus on Amanda’s art restoration skills. Amanda receives a renaissance painting in desperate need of restoration, and as she starts to restore the faces on each person in the painting, they come to life. Sort of like the street art in the movie Xanadu. The characters from her paintings are confused about the time period change, and she has to bring them home with her until she can figure out a way to get them back to their world. When Amanda leaves the medieval folk at her apartment while she attempts to research the mysterious painting, her model roommates give them makeovers and take them out clubbing. Amanda would end up falling in love with one of the painting characters and in the end, she would chose to go back with them to their time period as she doesn’t feel like she fits in with early 2000s city life. Also, I would make sure that my version of Head Over Heels would be a bit slower than the original so the audience could have time to catch their breath and comprehend what’s going on.

Alli, did you feel as though the pace of Head Over Heels was extremely fast? The moment the film begins, Amanda’s voice immediately started to describe her upbringing, and everything was moving at 100 mph from that moment on.

Alli: I did think the pace of the movie was pretty strange actually. I felt like it breezed over interesting and important things and then spent too much time on others. Like you said, there’s barely any time spent on her career, even though it’s made out to be a minor plot point eventually, but we get to see a bunch of Freddy Prince Jr. doing chin-ups. I think part of it was that there was so much stuff going on in this movie, too much even. There wasn’t enough time to make a well paced film, because there was just a lot. It’s the sort of movie that makes you think, “less is definitely more.”

I think I would have cut out the jewel heist, and made it an art related plot. The diamonds just felt thrown in there. I know it was a good vehicle for the runway sequence, though. I think it would have also helped to have the big undercover agent reveal earlier on if we’re forced to go that route, instead of Amanda investigating this murder forever. Another thing that could go is the voiceover. We can see she’s in New York. We can see that she’s unlucky in love, but has a dream job. Maybe, I’m just being a hardline film snob here, but the voiceover felt completely unnecessary.

Brandon, are there any details you find unnecessary? Am I being too hard on the voiceover?

Brandon: “So dumb,” “sloppy,” “extremely dated,” “lazy,” “not a good movie,” “actually kind of awful;” I’m being a little unfair with the pull-quotes I’m cherry picking here, but it is funny how willing we are to tear this movie down even though we seemed to have a lot of fun watching it (excluding maybe Alli). The problem there might be that the romcom fantasy is so inherently frivolous as a genre that it can’t support this kind of roundtable critical discussion without the conversation devolving into nitpicking. I don’t often excuse the use of voiceover as an easy narrative tool, but removing it from Head Over Heels would be like asking a Batman movie to skip its suiting-up montage or a slasher film to cast geriatric actors instead of hot, horny teens. Without its voiceover narration, Head Over Heels would likely be a struggle to follow as an audience, given the film’s whiplash-inducing pace & shifts in tone. More importantly, though, it would remove one of the earliest & most consistent markers that this is an exercise in romcom genre filmmaking, with all the deliriously silly bells & whistles the format implies. The voiceover is just as much a part of the territory to me as the film’s dogwalking meet cute, its Big Misunderstanding romantic mixup, or its pretty-but-not-too-pretty lead (Monica Potter looks like she was built in a lab by combining Sandra Bullock & Julia Roberts DNA into a cute, but “approachable” hybrid).

What’s most fun about Head Over Heels is how it uses this familiarity with romcom tropes to allow the film to continuously shift gears from minute to minute in terms of content & tone. The clash of Zoolander-style fashion world parody with Hitchcock homage thriller beats, diamond heist action comedy, and scatological Farrelly brothers humor amounts to a disorienting, absurdist whirlwind that in any other situation might feel like an untethered mess, but there’s always the familiar romcom structure about a clumsy academic-type with “the worst taste in men” waiting to anchor the story to something that can easily be processed & understood. I believe that method of anchoring the film was an entirely intentional decision on Waters’s part, one that allows for a lot of the film’s more absurd tangents to creep in (like its crossdressing security guard or its unexpectedly raunchy cunnilingus joke), while still making for one of the most memorable romcom plots of all time. In terms of pure absurdity, it’s right up there with Brittany Murphy learning to make a magical bowl of ramen in Ramen Girl or Aubrey Plaza falling for a delusional “time traveler” in Safety Not Guaranteed or whatever the hell’s going on in former Movie of the Month entry My Demon Lover. I’m not saying that Head Over Heels is beyond critical nitpicking because of the genre territory it willfully chooses to occupy, but I just don’t have the heart to tear it down myself. I had too much fun going to the one million and ten places the movie took me in just 90 minutes to sour on the trope-reliant methods it needed to exploit to get me there.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Candi, the Australian model, was my favorite character. Her quirky personality and constant plastic surgery procedures added a lot of humor to Head Over Heels. However, I could have done without all the creepy Uncle Pete comments. Those just made me feel super uncomfortable.

Alli: I was really not expecting the amount of poop jokes. Poop jokes are fine and all, but it just didn’t work for me. The one in the bathroom stall is nauseating even.

Brandon: It’s funny to me that everyone’s drawing a line here as to where specific gags of crude, gross-out humor didn’t work for them. While I was a little more willing to follow Head Over Heels into its nasty child abuse humor and grotesque scatological visuals than Britnee or Alli (if not solely because they were such an absurd intrusion on the typically tamer romcom reverie at the film’s center), I also had a moment where the movie pushed me a little too far: the film’s plot-instigating meet cute. Freddie Prinze Jr. is introduced walking a friend’s dog (a Great Dane named Hamlet, heh heh) that knocks over and sexually mounts our poor down-on-her-luck protagonist. My shock at this most undignified public degradation might be a result of it arriving long before any of the film’s other gross-out gags. It was still shockingly cruel either way, a moment that’s even repeated to bring the chaotic plot around full-circle in a strangely sadistic way. Although I was taken aback by the film’s bestial meet cute cruelty, however, I still ultimately respect that it could have that kind of effect on me at all. It’s not often that a traditional romcom can surprise its audience that sharply and it’s only one of many examples of Head Over Heels continually pulling the rug.

Boomer: I think that some of the aberrant elements of the screenplay were an attempt to appeal to too many people: eye-candy in the form of FPJ doing pull-ups and lady models strutting about in various states of undress to suit whatever your tastes may be; scat humor and an action plot to serve as a more stereotypically masculine counterweight to the trappings of the “chick flick” formula (i.e., makeovers and girlie talk); a little bit of gay panic with Amanda and her overly-touchy friend but also a celebration of queerness in the form of Bob’s landlord. It’s probably not the only reason this film was a commercial failure and is relegated to late-night programming on USA, but it certainly doesn’t help. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick a movie that Alli likes next time.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Alli presents Mikey and Nicky (1976)
June: Brandon presents Cool As Ice (1991)
July: Britnee presents Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)

-The Swampflix Crew

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

I think the burning question about this recent string of live action Disney remakes is: why do this at all? Is this really necessary? Why instead of coming up with new stories are they remaking “the classics”? After this rendition of Beauty and the Beast, I have fewer answers than before, and I didn’t have many then.

The main draw to this version is the all-star cast: Emma Watson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson. All the performances were fine, some even great; it’s just a shame many of them were hiding behind less than good CGI for what was basically the whole movie. That being said, Emma Watson played the role of Belle with an honest earnestness even when the rest of the cast was computerized. She’s actually made for this role, since the Disney version of Belle is as close to Princess Hermione as you’re ever going to get.

One of the ways this remake tried to freshen things up was by giving more explanation and backstory for the characters. Sadly, most of that felt like a forced afterthought. For instance, we get to hear about the Beast’s mean, old dad, but we never catch the Beast’s (the Prince of the fairy tale’s) name, nor any details of how exactly his dad was bad. Belle’s new, fleshed out history was in a few ways worse, in that it made the whole timeline of things nonsense. She quotes Romeo and Juliet, but has escaped Paris because of the plague. If you know anything about the history of the Black Plague & Shakespeare, or have access to Google, then you probably know that those two things are about 200 years apart. Sure, it’s nice to find out why exactly she’s stuck in this awful town and why she has a dead Disney mom, but I feel like it’s a little bit unnecessary. Which I guess brings us to the other character change-up, the elephant in the room: the gay stuff.

Oh, Le Fou, you poor thing. As the controversy around this movie mounted around the idea of him being gay, I already thought it was too good to be true. In my heart, I knew that there was no way Disney was going to make a fully formed human being of a gay character. At least I had no hopes to crush. He is a lovesick fool who occasionally gives catty advice to equally swooning gals. He’s the same old sniveling sidekick as he is in the original, just this time with more innuendo and a catty attitude. Having it cranked up a couple notches isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but given Disney’s track record on gay characters (Oh hey that one character in Frozen for 5 seconds and Ursula) it’s a bit tasteless. Though Le Fou is coded as a stereotypical sassy gay friend, I’m not going to lie, the dynamic between Gaston and him was what kept me sane throughout. In any other setting, their give and take would have made for a humorous cabaret type act: Gaston the slimy hypermasculine villain, Le Fou his emotional support. The musical duet between the two of them is one of the highlights of the movie.

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

The real saving factor here, though, is that no matter how bombastic the tunes, over dramatic the themes, or mediocre the animation, this movie has a light hearted laugh at itself every now and then. It’s a pleasant reminder than in the midst of everything else this is still just a family film. Still, it’s hard not to watch it and think of the beloved animated classic longingly, especially as it just keeps dragging on and getting bogged down with new superfluous details, unmemorable added songs, and an aesthetic that could have sorely benefited from practical effects.

-Alli Hobbs

Movie of the Month: What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Alli, Boomer, and Brandon watch What’s Up, Doc? (1972).

Britnee: As far as screwball, madcap comedies go, Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film, What’s Up, Doc? is up there with the greats. It’s also, in my opinion, the greatest Barbra Streisand film of all time. Yes, it’s even better than Yentl. Streisand was quite the “funny lady” from the late 1960’s through the 1970’s, and Judy Maxwell is by far one of her most hilarious roles. The film also stars a young Ryan O’Neal, who is Judy’s depressed and confused love interest, Dr. Howard Bannister. Both leading characters have such conflicting personalities: Judy is a free-spirit who gets off on starting trouble between strangers, and Howard is a walking zombie in an unhealthy relationship. There’s not much romantic chemistry between the two, but they are a great comedy duo.

The main plot of the film revolves around a mix-up between several identical bags that belong to completely different individuals that are staying at the same hotel in San Franscicso (Bristol Hotel). The bag mix-up is so confusing that it’s almost impossible to explain, but in all honesty, the whole film is confusing because there are loads of plot lines occurring at the same time. I’ve seen this movie at least 30 times, and I didn’t really put all the pieces together until about the 5th viewing. Strangely enough, the confusion of the film is one of the things I love most about it. You could watch What’s Up, Doc? over and over again without getting bored. There’s always something different to focus on.

Actually, after watching it for Movie of the Month, I realized how horrible Madeline Kahn’s character, Eunice Burns, was treated. Seriously, this poor woman was put through hell for this entire movie, and she’s made to look like the bad guy. She’s Howard’s fiancé, and while the two aren’t in the best relationship, Judy randomly swoops into their lives and basically steals Eunice’s identity. After Eunice is made a fool of in front of an entire banquet of people, kidnapped and most likely assaulted by a group of mobsters, etc., it’s difficult to see her as the annoying fiancé she’s portrayed to be.

Boomer, what are your thoughts on the real Eunice Burns? Did you feel any sympathy towards her? Did you feel as though she was portrayed to be a villain when she was actually a victim?

Boomer: I didn’t realize that the audience was supposed to see Eunice as unattractive until the end, when the Judge responded to Eunice’s complaints that she had been inappropriately touched by the jewel fences with “That’s . . . unbelievable.” Because, I mean, come on, Khan’s a knock-out. That unusual perception is not unique to her character, however, as Ryan O’Neal is probably the most tan, studly, and barrel-chested hunk of man to ever play a milquetoast Iowan academic.

As to whether she’s made out to be a villain or a victim, I’m less sure. It’s unusual for me to sympathize with a character like Judy, a kind of proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl who also happens to be a whirlwind of disaster, but Streisand plays her with enough aplomb and likability that Judy comes off as charming. This was a bit of a surprise for me, as someone who only really thinks of Streisand as a face on a CD cover in a stack of albums sitting next to the stereo of a deeply closeted Baton Rouge hair stylist (you know who you are). I also have nothing but love for Khan, and as such I think I might have been more inclined to sympathize with her than the producers intended, given that she was a complete unknown cast as the romantic rival to the more well-known Streisand. Eunice is certainly demanding and a poor match for Howard, but I read her as more of a Shakespearean archetype of a woman who appears to be a shrew only because of the character with whom she is paired but who will fit seamlessly with someone else, which is essentially exactly what happened with her arc.

So, I suppose I didn’t find her to be a villain or even presented as one, nor did I find Judy to be a “bad guy” either, even though her entire story resolves around falling for an engaged man and doing everything in her power to subvert Eunice in her “rightful” place as Howard’s lady love. I can’t even quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about Judy that makes her eminently likable despite her objective villainy. Alli, did you feel the same way, or not? If you agree, perhaps you’re better able to articulate why?

Alli: I also liked Judy against my better judgement. She’s entitled, disrespectful, and dangerous, but somehow still endearing. Probably because she’s free and she’s got a great sense of humor, which is able to shine through because of her stunted, immature nature. I think the thing about Judy isn’t that she’s a villain so much as she’s just chaotic, and there’s something charming about chaos. Reasonable people would never rip around the town impulsively, but we all have flashes of that instinct. Judy is the embodiment of that instinct, free from society’s pretensions and facades.

A major theme here is sort of a clash between absolute chaos and rigid order, the inner child vs “propriety.” Not to get too pretentious here, but this movie almost seems to be about the old debate over “the state of nature” vs society and reason. Eunice is order, “reason,” Judy obviously pandemonium, “savagery,” and Howard is the neutral ground that they’re fighting over. But at its heart What’s Up, Doc? is a wacky, briefcase switching comedy and I doubt that the intent was a debate about the true nature of humanity and society. It’s hard to take away any serious dramatic themes in a movie this cartoonishly bizarre.

The world it’s set in, while relatively realistic, is simultaneously surreal. There’s exaggerated sound effects, slapstick, and just a general bending of rules. One of my favorite examples of this is when they’re at the banquet underneath the table and Eunice gets dragged away, leaving skid marks and squeaking. Brandon, did any moments to you stand out as particularly cartoonish? Do you have a favorite?

Brandon: If nothing else, “cartoonish” is such a perfect word to describe what Barbara Streisand’s doing in this movie as Judy. At this early, most successful stage of Peter Bogdanovich’s career, the director scored a string of hits dripping with nostalgia for the cinema of his youth, with What’s Up, Doc? being sandwiched between fellow classics The Last Picture Show & Paper Moon. The interesting thing to me about What’s Up, Doc? that distinguishes it from those other two films is that it not only calls back to madcap mix-up comedies of the 1930s, which are traditionally staged at these grand hotels, but it also pulls influence from a much more unexpected source: Looney Tunes. Judy’s role as a benign source of comedic chaos is 100% Bugs Bunny tomfoolery and the film winds up feeling just as much equal parts Tex Avery as Bringing Up Baby. It makes this influence as explicit as possible too, with one of Judy’s first comedic moments being staged around her eating a carrot and her final exchange with her hunky Elmer Fudd (Ryan O’Neal) including the titular line, “What’s up, Doc?” The film even closes out with Porky Pig stuttering his way through “That’s all, folks!” on an airplane television. So, yeah, while we might not want Judy mucking up our lives with her literally cartoonish antics, it’s easy to see why we wouldn’t find her any more villainous than Bugs Bunny or his obvious source of inspiration, Groucho Marx.

Bogdanovich’s choice to bring in the surreal slapstick of Looney Tunes to disrupt the relatively realistic world of traditionalist screwball comedy was a brilliant move, mostly because screwball comedies are already pretty damn cartoonish in their own right. Although I found Babs’s Bugs Bunny antics as Judy to be a large part of the movie’s charm, she actually had very little involvement in my favorite gag from the film. There’s a scene about midway through What’s Up, Doc? where Howard is trying to hide Judy’s presence in his hotel room from Eunice by asking her to hang perilously off the balcony. The combination of Eunice’s interrogation, Judy’s demands to re-enter the room, other guests frantically trying to steal their desired variation of the identical luggage, and a waiter calmly preparing a meal Judy ordered as room service reaches a comedic fever pitch where Howard’s hotel room is destroyed in a fire, a moment that had me howling. Now, this visual punchline is much more closely tied to the film’s 1930s screwball roots than anything related to its cartoonish surrealism, but it’s also so absurdly over the top in its gradual escalation that it’s a great insight into why those two aesthetics were so easy to marry into one humorous feature.

Something that felt a little less natural & easy to me were the motivations for the two sides of that coin. Judy’s motivation for pursuing Howard as a romantic partner is a little muddled for most of the picture. Her instant attraction to him is oddly intense, making it unclear whether she’s genuinely into seducing him or if she’s just an opportunist who needs a place to stay and is having fun toying with a milquetoast, but handsome pushover in the meantime. The engine that drives the screwball humor was also a little confusing, as the identical cases of luggage (one containing diamonds, one containing Top Secret government documents, and one containing, I don’t know, more carrots for Judy to chew on like a cigar) were difficult to keep track of. Some of that confusion was obviously deliberate, but it didn’t help at all that the two thieves attempting to steal the luggage were both bald schlubs I couldn’t really tell apart because the film was far more interested in the machinations of the Judy-Howard-Eunice love triangle (and rightly so).

Britnee, considering that you selected the tonally similar, hotel-set 1930s throwback comedy Big Business for a Movie of the Month last year, it seems that you’re somewhat of a fan of this kind of Old Hollywood madcap humor. For you, does the exact, clear status of who’s in possession of which bag at what time and who’s trying to steal what from whom matter at all in these kinds of stories? Without the luggage mix-up and the thieves that follow, there’d be less people involved in this film’s insane, climactic car chase through the streets of San Francisco, which would definitely be a shame. Do the mix-up or the motivations of the romance need to be any more clear or necessary than that for you to find them worthwhile or is it enough that they provide a backdrop for the comedic antics of a Barbara Streisand or a Better Midler or whoever the particular film’s de facto Bugs Bunny/Groucho Marx happens to be?

Britnee: It’s never dawned on me until now that I have a thing for hotel comedies. Just yesterday, I recommended Four Rooms to a friend as a fun weekend movie. There’s just something hilarious about hotel settings, and I really think it has a lot to do with the gaudiness of hotels. All that brass, ridiculous patterned carpet, and over-the-top chandeliers are just oozing with tackiness, making it the perfect background for a comedy. Hotels are also perfect for a trashy murder mystery for the same reason (1972’s Private Parts particularly comes to mind).

As for the mystery of the bag mix-up, finding out if each bag makes it back to their owner doesn’t really matter. It’s strange because I usually find satisfaction watching belongings find their way back to their owner in a film, but I honestly could not have cared less if Judy ended up losing her underwear and became stuck with top secret documents or if Howard lost his rocks and ended up with a buttload of fancy jewels. It doesn’t really matter because the humor would still be there. The same goes with the romance between Judy and Howard. Who cares if they end up getting together in the end? The comedy wouldn’t suffer if they didn’t get together, and that’s really all that matters in films like this one. If the romance and bag mix-up were to be stripped away from What’s Up, Doc? without taking away the funny characters, shenanigans, and of course, the comedy of Streisand, the film wouldn’t suffer one bit.

Although the romance and bag mix-up are not very important to the film’s success, the San Fransisco setting is. The car chase throughout the city’s steep streets (especially Lombard Street), the run-in with the Chinese dragon during the Chinatown parade, and the cars running off the pier are just a few funny moments that wouldn’t be the same if the film wasn’t set in San Fransisco.

Boomer, do you think that the film’s San Fransisco setting was important? Would any other location have made a big difference in the film?

Boomer: I have to admit that I didn’t give much thought to the film’s setting initially. When the climactic show-stopping car chase began, I thought “Oh, it’s in San Francisco because of Bullit.” That film likewise centers around a final car chase through the famously hilly city, and I assumed that Bogdanovich had merely been inspired to make a more comedic version of said vehicular pursuit. Reading a little more about the film, it looks like that was, in fact, the reasoning: this homage is merely one of many that occur in the film, and as it relates to a contemporary piece of pop culture that is less well-known than some of the older (but more culturally revered and thus more “permanent” fixtures in our cultural landscape) references, like to Looney Tunes. For instance, there was an ad that touted the VW Bug’s real ability to float in water, as seen at the end of the film when Howard and Judy launch into the bay; the reference was more pertinent and familiar in its day, but still works as a sight gag even without that knowledge.

Of course, the placement of the film in San Francisco also allowed for some nice touches that would have been lacking had the film been set elsewhere, like New York or Los Angeles (i.e. the two places where probably 85% of American media is set). The scene with the Chinese New Year parade, and the resultant accidental theft of the parade’s crafted dragon, could only take place in SF, for instance. As noted above, the hills of the city make for a particularly interesting place for car chases, here used as they had been in Bullitt, to more comedic–if no less thrilling–effect. Larrabee himself is distinctively West Coast in that his mannerisms are unconventional and excited; he rolls with the punches. One could even argue that, since his personality clashes so strongly with the unlikable (but no less comically delightful) Hugh Simon, and since that character is a parody of New York’s most unpleasable (and most unpleasant) critic John Simon, a criticism of this artistic and individual dissonance between East and West Coast is made implicit in the text.

There’s a scene in one of the early episodes of Scream Queens in which a character is breaking into an office and uses a glass cutter to cut a hole in the in-door window, through which they attempt to reach in and unlock the door; after a protracted time of s-l-o-w-l-y cutting, the character reaches through, and the glass shatters. Every time I see it, I have to rewind because of how hard I’m laughing. It’s a great sight gag, and the build-up is great; it’s just so pure. It’s one of the best jokes in the whole series, and is inarguably the best non-quip laugh the show elicits. The two-men-carrying-a-pane-of-glass gag in What’s Up Doc? is similar but writ large, and is the best such visual joke I’ve ever seen. Alli, can you think of any other contenders for the top version of the TMCAPOG gag? And could you better put into words why this version of the cliché works so well?

Alli: I’m going to have to come clean here and say that while that gag is in everyone’s mind and feels so pervasive in popular culture this might be the only time I’ve actually seen it used in context. (It makes me wonder where it even came from and why we all know it.) Given it’s prevalence and predictability (there’s a sheet of glass therefore it will shatter inevitably), it’s impressive that What’s Up, Doc? manages to still make it so funny. The problem with this movie and its humor is that it’s very difficult to try to explain what is so funny about it. There’s so many old gags and silly one liners, but they just work. I think maybe it has to do with the pacing. It’s just spitfire. There’s just joke after joke, so if one doesn’t land the next one probably will.

Not to use the played out, “They don’t make them like they used to,” but you don’t see a lot of this sense of humor in movies anymore and I miss it. The jokes are so carefree and for the most part inoffensive, minus the jabs at Eunice. Probably why I’ve never actually seen the sheet of glass gag in action is because it’s not used as much anymore. When’s the last time a movie had an earnest pie in the face? A lot of comedy these days seems to rely on crude, gross, or vulgar humor. I don’t really have a problem with tastes changing, but there’s such a timelessness and charm to so many of the gags in this film.

Brandon, you mentioned the nostalgia aspect of What’s Up, Doc? Do you think more movies could benefit from more of the nostalgic impulse? Have you seen any recent comedies that remind you of this one in any way?

Brandon: It’d probably be a little foolish to ask for more nostalgia in our current pop culture climate, but I do believe revision & tradition has been a part of cinema as long as cinema has been around. Current comedies seem to be looking back to the absurdist gross-out humor directors would have enjoyed in their 80s & 90s youth, just as Bogdanovich would have been fondly looking back to Marx Brothers/Bringing Up Baby-type hotel mix-ups when he made What’s Up Doc? in the 1970s. I don’t think the classic screwball tradition is at all dead, though. It’s just moved away from broad, commercial films to what we’d be more likely to consider “smart” comedies. Filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and the Coen Brothers all work in various forms of comedy that draw from the same influences as Bogdanovich (and likely from Bogdanovich himself as well), but dress up their screwball antics in enough meticulous visual craft & tonal melancholy that they’re considered “art house” instead of commercial humor.

For specific examples from the last decade, I suppose Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel would be a great reference point, considering its setting & ensemble cast structure. Baumbach collaborator Rebecca Miller’s recent film Maggie’s Plan also has a sort of screwball structure to it, including a mix-up at a hotel conference between emotionally immature academics. I’ve also recently watched the British ensemble comedy Death at a Funeral for the first time, which reminded me if this kind of old-fashioned comedic tradition in that all the attendees at what should be a quiet, civil event are trying to keep their goofball antics under wraps to not draw attention to themselves, only for it all to blow up spectacularly at the climax. The Coens’ recent triumph Hail, Caesar! also makes nods to the genre (along with every other Old Hollywood genre imaginable), right down to the convoluted luggage heist.

What distinguishes these comedies from the kinds of works that would be headlined by a Melissa McCarthy, a Seth Rogen, or a Kevin Hart is that they’re just more openly conscious of their participation in cinematic tradition. What’s Up, Doc?‘s spirit, borrowed wholesale from its own set of traditional works, is still alive in our current comedic landscape. Keeping it alive is in itself a kind of scholarly, traditionalist act, though, so the films where you’d hear its echoes are often considered to be stuffy, highbrow art films, despite being as absurdly goofy in tone as the genre originally was in the 1930s.

Lagniappe

Alli: I just want to say how much I liked this movie. Immediately after watching it, I ended up recommending it to people. I think it’s been a weird, rough month for a lot of us and it was good to unwind with something charming and hilarious. It was my first Barbara Streisand movie, and now I feel like I really need to watch more. 

Brandon: Of the handful of Barbara Streisand films I’ve seen, this is the only one I’d consider to be a strict comedy, so I wasn’t at all prepared for how little singing there’d be. I have a habit of picking up her movie soundtracks long before I actually see their corresponding films (Streisand vinyl is oddly ubiquitous at thrift stores), so now I have to wonder what a What’s Up, Doc? soundtrack would even be. Besides a brief duet with Ryan O’Neal on piano, I don’t remember any other musical numbers. Is this indicative of the way her comedies usually go? I’m curious to look into it.

Britnee:  The outfits in What’s Up, Doc? are absolutely amazing! I know that they blend in well with the fashion of the time, but of all the films I’ve seen that take place in the early 1970s, nothing compares to the costume design of What’s Up, Doc? Basically, I want to own everything in Judy’s closet, no offense to Eunice.

Boomer: I also noticed the similarity between this film and Big Business, with each film having a 20th Century Diva, a hotel setting with a sardonic and world-weary desk clerk, and shenanigans that come from mistaking identical people/bags. I thought Britnee was pulling a long con on us. Further, I also was annoyed by the lack of visual differentiation between Harry and Mr. Jones, as Brandon was, given that the other characters were much more distinct in appearance. Finally, depending upon how much you hate yourself, you can find John Simon’s hold-nothing-back blog here, or just enjoy this fun batch of excerpts.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Boomer presents Head Over Heels (2001)
May: Alli presents Mikey and Nicky (1976)
June: Brandon presents Cool As Ice (1991)

-The Swampflix Crew

The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2017

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There are 47 feature films nominated for the 2017 Academy Awards. We here at Swampflix have reviewed little more than half of the films nominated (so far!), but we’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees. The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually choosing the winners, but as a list this isn’t too shabby in terms of representing what 2016 had to offer to cinema. Listed below are the 25 Oscar-Nominated films from 2016 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best based on our star ratings. With each entry we’ve listed a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

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1. 20th Century Women, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“Although 20th Century Women is constructed on the foundation of small, intimate performances, it commands an all-encompassing scope that pulls back to cover topics as wide as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a ‘good’ man in modern times, the shifts in status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For me, this film was the transcendent, transformative cinematic experience people found in titles like Tree of Life & Boyhood that I never ‘got.’ Although it does succeed as an intimate, character-driven drama & an actors’ showcase, it means so much more than that to me on a downright spiritual level.”

2. Kubo and the Two Strings, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, Best Visual Effects

“A lot of what makes Kubo and the Two Stings such an overwhelming triumph is its attention to detail in its visual & narrative craft. As with their past titles like Coraline & ParaNorman, Laika stands out here in terms of ambition with where the studio can push the limits of stop-motion animation as a medium. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense sense of visual craft as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film also allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent.”

3. Hail, Caesar!, nominated for Best Production Design

Hail, Caesar! is not performing well financially & the reviews are somewhat mixed so it’s obvious that not everyone’s going to be into it. However, it’s loaded with beautiful tributes to every Old Hollywood genre I can think of and it’s pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly. If you need a litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy the film yourself, Barton Fink might be a good place to start. If you hold Barton Fink in high regard, I encourage you to give Hail, Caesar! a chance. You might even end up falling in love with it just as much as I did & it’ll be well worth the effort to see its beautiful visual work projected on the silver screen either way.”

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4. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, nominated for Best Costume Design, Best Production Design

“The cast of Fantastic Beasts reminds me a lot of the cast of the Harry Potter films. Their camaraderie really comes across in their acting, and there’s just good vibes all around. The film’s director, David Yates, also directed the last four Harry Potter films, and he’s known for being a pleasure to work with. This is cinema that’s made with so much passion and love, and I cannot wait to see the next four!”

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5. Silence, nominated for Best Cinematography

“It’s going to take me a few years and more than a few viewings to fully grapple with Silence. My guess is that Scorsese isn’t fully done grappling with it himself. What’s clear to me is the film’s visual majesty and its unease with the virtue of spreading gospel into cultures where it’s violently, persistently rejected. What’s unclear is whether the ultimate destination of that unease is meant to be personal or universal, redemptive or vilifying, a sign of hope or a portrait of madness. Not all audiences are going to respond well to those unanswered questions. Indeed, most audiences won’t even bother taking the journey to get there. Personally, I found Silence to be complexly magnificent, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement of paradoxically loose & masterful filmmaking craft, whether or not I got a response when I prayed to Marty for answers on What It All Means and how that’s reflected in his most sacred text.”

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6. Zootopia, nominated for Best Animated Feature

Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the animals that populate its concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. It prompts the audience to examine their own thoughts & actions for ways they can uknowingly hurt the feelings or limit the opportunities of their fellow citizens by losing sight of the ideal that “Anyone can be anything.”

7. Hidden Figures, nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer)

“As with all historical films, it’s not wholly clear how precise Hidden Figures is in its details (I must admit that I haven’t read the book on which the film is based), but that’s largely irrelevant to the film’s message. Does it matter whether or not the real-life Al Harrison took a crowbar to the ‘Colored Ladies Room’ sign and declared that ‘Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,’ after learning that his best mathematician had to run a mile to the only such lavatory on the program’s campus every time she needed to relieve herself? Not really. What matters is showing young people (especially young girls) of color that although barriers exist, they can be surmounted. It also reminds the white audience that is, unfortunately, less likely to seek this film out that the barriers that lie in place for minorities to succeed do exist despite their perception of a lack of said barriers.”

8. Moonlight, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Barry Jenkins), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Supporting Actress (Naomi Harris)

“In Moonlight, Jenkins somehow, miraculously finds a way to make a meditation on self-conflict, abuse, loneliness, addiction, and homophobic violence feel like a spiritual revelation, a cathartic release. So much of this hinges on visual abstraction. We sink into Chiron’s dreams. We share in his romantic gaze. Time & sound fall out of sync when life hits him like a ton of bricks, whether positively or negatively.”

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9. Arrival, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Denis Villeneuve), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Editing

Arrival is a film about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages. Similarly, the film has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. It’s often said that movies are about the journey, not the destination, a (cliché) sentiment I’d typically tend to agree with, but so much of Arrival‘s value as a work of art hinges on its concluding half hour that its destination matters just as much, if not more than the effort it takes to get there. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.”

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10. La La Land, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Damien Chazelle), Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Ryan Gosling), Best Actress (Emma Stone), Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Original Songs (“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, “City of Stars”), Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

La La Land manipulates its audience from both ends. It opens with a big This Is For Musical Theater Die-Hards Only spectacle to appease people already on board with its genre and then slowly works in modern modes of the medium’s potential to win over stragglers & push strict traditionalists into new, unfamiliar territory. The ultimate destination is an exciting middle ground between nostalgia & innovation and by the film’s final moments I was eating out of its hand, despite starting the journey as a hostile skeptic.”

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11. I Am Not Your Negro, nominated for Best Documentary

“It seems inevitable that I Am Not Your Negro will be employed as a classroom tool to convey the political climate of the radicalized, Civil Rights-minded 1960s, but the form-defiant documentary is something much stranger than that future purpose would imply. Through Baldwin’s intimate, loosely structured essay, the film attempts to pinpoint the exact nature of the US’s inherent racism, particularly its roots in xenophobic Fear of the Other and in the ways it unintentionally expresses itself through pop culture media. These are not easily defined topics with clear, linear narratives and your appreciation of I Am Not Your Negro might largely depend upon how much you enjoy watching the film reach, not upon what it can firmly grasp.”

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12. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, nominated for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing

Rogue One frames the rest of the series in a much darker light. It brings a revived urgency and anxiety to the franchise, which I hope was probably there when Star Wars was first released in 1977. It manages to make the Death Star not just an impractical super weapon and the Empire a floundering bureaucracy that can’t teach its Stormtroopers how to aim. No, the Empire is a real frightening threat. Despite Disney’s CEO insisting that this is not a political movie, there’s quite a bit of war imagery and themes that are being presented in a time when the threat of fascism seems to loom. I mean, the movie itself is about a rebellion.”

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13. Star Trek Beyond, nominated for Best Makeup And Hairstyling

“Although this film is being billed as a return to Star Trek’s roots or a real ‘classic style’ Star Trek story, that’s not entirely true. Of course, given that the same thing was said about Insurrection back in 1998 (and, for better or worse, that’s a more or less true description of the film’s premise if nothing else), that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is still a film that takes characters from a fifty year old television series where most problems were solved within an hour and attempts to map them onto a contemporary action film structure, which works in some places and not in others. Other reviews of the film have also stated that Beyond is a more affectionate revisitation of the original series than the previous two films, which is also mostly true. The film does suffer from the fact that the opening sequence bears more than a passing resemblance to a scene in Galaxy Quest, which is a stark reminder of the kind of fun movie that can be made when someone loves Star Trek rather than simply sees it as a commercial venture. Overall, though, you’d be hard pressed not to get some enjoyment out of this film, Trekker or no.”

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14. The Jungle Book, nominated for Best Visual Effects

The Jungle Book is a two-fold tale of revenge (one for Mowgli & one for the wicked tiger Shere Khan) as well as a classic coming of age story about a hero finding their place in the world, but those plot machinations are somewhat insignificant in comparison to the emotional core of Baloo’s close friendship with Mowgli (which develops a little quickly here; I’d like to have seen it given a little more room to breathe). So much of that impact rests on the all-too-capable shoulders of one Bill Murray, who delivers his best performance in years here (outside maybe his collaborations with Wes Anderson).”

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15. Captain Fantastic, nominated for Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen)

“Six kids wielding knives, late-night gravedigging, and skinning animals all sound like elements to a rather disturbing horror movie, but, surprisingly, all exist in Matt Ross’s latest comedy-drama, Captain Fantastic. Those with a slightly darker sense of humor will get a kick out of this film, but it really has something to offer everyone, such as family values, brief nudity, religious humor, and a heart-wrenching love story. I had no idea who Matt Ross was, and I was surprised to see that he directed less than a handful of movies because he did such a ‘fantastic’ job with this one.”

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16. The Lobster, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“There’s a fierce, biting allegory to this premise that combines the most effective aspects of sci-fi short stories & absurdist stage play black humor to skewer the surreal, predatory nature of the modern romance landscape. It takes a certain sensibility to give into The Lobster‘s many outlandish conceits, but it’s easy to see how the film could top many best of the year lists for those able to lock onto its very peculiar, particular mode of operation, despite the sour word of mouth at the post-screening urinal. It’s basically 2016’s Anomalisa, with all the positives & negatives that comparison implies.”

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17. Jackie, nominated for Best Actress (Natalie Portman), Best Costume Design, Best Original Score

“As much as I admire Jackie‘s search for small character beats over broad dramatization, I think it could have benefited from the campy touch of a drag queen in the lead role. Jackie is delicately beautiful & caustically funny as is, but I’m convinced that with a drag queen in the lead (I’m thinking specifically of Jinkx Monsoon) it could have been an all-time classic.”

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18. Manchester by the Sea, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Kenneth Lonergan), Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Casey Affleck), Best Supporting Actor (Lucas Hedges), Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams)

“What I was most impressed by in Manchester by the Sea wasn’t at all the heartbreaking drama Affleck skillfully conveys under the falsely calm surface of each scene. Rather, I was most struck by the way the film clashes a take-no-shit Boston bro attitude with devastating moments of emotional fragility to pull out something strikingly funny from the wreckage. The film works really well as a dramatic actors’ showcase, but it’s that act of black comedy alchemy that made it feel special to me.”

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19. Nocturnal Animals, nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Michael Shannon)

Nocturnal Animals feels most alive when Ford drops the pretense of trying to make a point and instead lovingly shoots his beautiful sets & impeccable costumes without any semblance of making them narratively significant. His art curator framing device works best as an instruction manual on how best to appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish in the film, rather than a participation in its thematic goals. I have very little interest in the way Ford’s narratives clash fragile artsy types against the unhinged threat of dangerously macho hicks, but any abstracted moment where he carefully posed naked bodies before blinding red fabric voids on top of a classical music score had me drooling in my chair. I’m not convinced Nocturnal Animals has anything useful or novel to say about the frivolity of revenge or the human condition, but it often works marvelously as an art gallery in motion (when it’s not hung up on watching Amy Adams think & read herself through another lonely night).”

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20. Loving, nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Ruth Negga)

Loving finds Nichols returning to the muted, sullen drama of Mud, this time with a historical bent. It isn’t my favorite mode for a director who’s proven that he can deliver much more striking, memorable work when he leaves behind the confines of grounded realism, but something Nichols does exceedingly well with these kinds of stories is provide a perfect stage for well-measured, deeply affecting performances. Actors Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga are incredibly, heartachingly sincere in their portrayals of real-life trail-blazers Richard & Mildred Loving and Nichols is smart to take a backseat to their work here, a dedication to restraint I respect greatly, even if I prefer when it’s applied to a more ambitious kind of narrative.”

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21. Hell or High Water, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Film Editing

“I totally believe people when they say Hell or High Water is their favorite movie of the year so far, but I suspect these folks are just more finely tuned to the intricacies of its genre & tone than I am. For me, the film is formally a little flat, playing like what I’d imagine a modern Showtime drama version of Walker, Texas Ranger would look like, right down to the wince-worthy music cues. However, even as an outsider I did find myself entertained, especially by the film’s showy dialogue & muted performances.”

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22. Fences, nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Denzel Washington), Best Support Actress (Viola Davis)

“Pushing aside any concerns with Fences‘s uncinematic tone, strange sense of pacing, and iffy final moments of redemption for a despicably cruel character (that seems to go even further than the source material in their cautious forgiveness), there’s a lot worth praising in what Washington & his small cast of supporting players accomplish here. Besides the obvious merit of bringing a play he greatly respects to a much wider audience who would not have had the opportunity to see he & Davis perform on stage, Washington does the quintessential thing actors-turned-directors are often accused of: crafting a work as an actor’s showcase above all other concerns. I may have some reservations about Fences being suitable for a big screen adaptation on a tonal, almost spiritual level (although I do very much appreciate the play as a text), but there’s no denying the power of the performances Washington brings to the screen with the project. The film is very much worth a look just for that virtue alone.”

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23. Suicide Squad, nominated for Best Makeup And Hairstyling

“Instead of portraying one of the few enjoyable characters in its roster suffering repetitive abuse, Suicide Squad instead re-works her love affair with Mr. J as a Bonnie & Clyde/Mickey & Mallory type outlaws-against-the-world dynamic, one with a very strong BDSM undertone. Affording Harley Quinn sexual consent isn’t the only part of the studio-notes genius of the scenario, either. The film also cuts Leto’s competent-but-forgettable meth mouth Joker down to a bit role so that he’s an occasional element of chaos at best, never fully outwearing his welcome. Not only does this editing room decision soften Leto’s potential annoyance & Ayer’s inherent nastiness; it also allows Harley Quinn to be a wisecracking murderer on her own terms, one whose most pronounced relationship in the film (with Deadshot) is friendly instead of romantic. I know you’re supposed to root for an auteur’s vision & not for the big bad studio trying to homogenize their ‘art’, but Suicide Squad was much more enjoyable in its presumably compromised form than it would have been otherwise.”

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24. Doctor Strange, nominated for Best Visual Effects

Dr. Strange is a feast for the eyes, but fails to nourish on any comedic, narrative, spiritual, philosophical, or emotional level. For a work that’s inspired over a year of think piece controversy and a few weeks of hyperbolic Best of the MCU praise, it mostly exists as a flashy, but disappointing hunk of Nothing Special.”

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25. Elle, nominated for Best Actress (Isabelle Huppert)

Elle vaguely echoes ideas about what it’s like to mentally relive a trauma once it’s ‘behind you,’ having to encounter your abuser in public social settings without acknowledging the transgression, the ineffectiveness of reporting sexual assault to police, and the misogynistic & sexually repressed aspects of modern culture that lead to rape in the first place, but all of those concepts exist in the film as indistinct whispers. Mostly, the rape is treated like a cheap murder mystery, with all of the typical red herrings & idiotic jump scares you’d expect in a whodunit. It’s a paralyzing trauma that has little effect on the story outside the scenes where it’s coldly detailed onscreen and the real shame is that it sours what is otherwise an excellently performed black comedy & character study by leaving very little room for laughter, if any.”

-The Swampflix Crew