Episode #52 of The Swampflix Podcast: Top 5 Spielbergs & Predestination (2015)

Welcome to Episode #52 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our fifty-second episode, James & Brandon count down their top five Steven Spielberg movies with film blogger, mixologist, and stand-up comedian Jeff Culpepper.  Also, Brandon makes James watch the Spierig Brothers’ time-travel thriller Predestination (2015) for the first time. Enjoy!

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

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn


Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2017)

I’m gradually warming up to the idea that the biopic as a genre is being reinvigorated by recent formal experiments. Besides stray outliers like Ed Wood & Kinsey, I’ve never especially cared about the traditional biopic as a storytelling medium, but there have been a few recent releases that have shaken up my prejudice against the genre’s tendency for birth-to-death, Wikipedia-synopsis biography. Last year’s woefully overlooked Tom of Finland was a lyrical, playful experiment in time & tone. The oil painting-animated Loving Vincent adapted the genre to an entirely new visual medium. Straight Outta Compton was a glorious indulgence in highly stylized spectacle. Love & Mercy recalled the experimental casting of past biopic works like Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. It’s unclear exactly where the recent French production Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge falls within this trend. Covering only the perilous five-year span between the infamous scientist’s two Nobel Prize wins, Marie Curie isn’t exactly the birth-to-death, Wikipedia-in-motion biopic cliché we’ve been trained to expect. However, it does feel line an adaptation of a singular subsection of the historical figure’s Wikipedia page: Scandals.

Opening the film with Marie Curie’s first Nobel Prize in 1903 is a convenient way of introducing the audience to the bullet points of her legacy. It’s announced up front that she’s the first woman to ever earn the prize, thanks to her discovery of & experiments with radium in tandem with her lab partner/husband. The earliest crisis in the film is in the ways this sudden fame & attention distract from the couple’s radiation research, which is essentially aimed to cure cancer. Things get much more complicated from there when the husband dies in a freak carriage accident and his absence puts the research project in peril. For the first half of the film, Marie Curie struggles to establish her right to be included & respected in a male-dominated, stubborn scientific community that sees radium research as a fad & her deceased husband as the true genius in the family. The second half of the film is concerned with a different matter entirely: Curie’s evolving love life. After proving herself worthy among her colleagues, she finds her research at risk again because of a love affair she sparks with a married man, a scandal that’s gleefully eaten up by newspaper gossip columns. The movie is unsure which Marie Curie it’s more interested in, the scientific mind or the scandalous sexual being, and feels clearly bifurcated in that uncertainty.

There’s nothing revelatory in the suggestion that sexual scandal is more inherently cinematic than scientific research, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that The Courage of Knowledge would get distracted by Marie Curie’s highly publicized adultery. Indeed, most of the fun to be had with this film is in its tabloid-friendly back half: Albert Einstein shamelessly flirting with Curie, her married lover referring to her as “my beaming radium queen,” his wife pulling a knife on her and calling her “a laboratory rat.” It’s exciting stuff. It’s also more than a little insulting to the legacy of a scientist who the movie wants you to know was the first person to earn two Nobel Prizes and still the only woman to ever do so. In a way, that exact unease is the film’s contribution to the evolution of the modern biopic. Its flowing transitions between scenes and occasional stylistic flourishes (like backwards rain) recall the art direction of a music video, but not enough to feel like any kind of unique breakthrough in form. The film is most remarkable in its willingness to avoid a traditional birth-to-death biopic narrative to instead focus on a steamy, scandalous romance that almost derailed its historical subject’s legacy.

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional trashy period piece romance and I enjoyed the movie as such. I don’t know how helpful that indulgence is in reshaping the art of the biopic, though. It’s also questionable in its level of professional respect it affords one of history’s most notable female scientists. Maybe, in this case, a more traditional Wikipedia-in-motion biography where the affair were a mere footnote would have been the more tasteful, appropriate route, but the film is still enjoyable all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Le Bonheur (1965)

My earliest exposure to Agnès Varda’s work was as an intently unfussy documentarian. Her recent films Faces Places and (my personal favorite) The Gleaners & I are heavy on ideas and light on meticulous craft. Varda has a punk, D.I.Y. sensibility to her recent docs that embrace the affordability & portability of digital camcorders, freeing her from the struggles with financing that have cramped her entire career. It was jarring, then, to see a film from Varda’s past that deliberately recalls the overproduced artifice of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor “women’s pictures.” The 2014 digital restoration of Varda’s 1965 melodrama Le Bonheur (supervised by the director herself) is a gorgeous, over-saturated indulgence in Spring & Summertime textures. The film is so rich with color that the screen is often filled with a single, opaque hue: red, green, blue, white, purple. Its idyllic Eden setting is a true immersion in Natural delights, a far cry from the sickly digital realms of Varda’s recent D.I.Y. docs. However, the political subversion & playfully abstract humor of her documentary work is still strongly represented just under that flower-carpeted surface. Le Bonheur is much closer to the Sirk-riffing bitterness of punk works like John Waters’s Polyester or Russ Meyer’s Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! than it is like Sirk’s studio lot work itself. She just happened to get there a decade before Meyer or Waters, delivering her own caustic subversion of the All That Heaven Allows era before that inspiration even had time to cool.

One of the most striking things about Le Bonheur is what it pretends to be: a judgement-free, matter-of-fact portrait of polyamory & extramarital romance. For most of the runtime, the film follows a chipper family man with the ideal wife-and-kids home life and just enough contract work as a carpenter to keep their world afloat. Without any malice or harm intended to a wife he dearly loves, he thoughtlessly slips into a sexual affair with a nearby postal worker whose childless, youthful life in the city excites him. As he describes it to his mistress, “My wife is like a hearty plant. You are like an animal set free. I love Nature.” For a while, Le Bonheur appears to agree with his naïve assertion that he can love both women equally to neither’s detriment. It initially presents itself as an idyllic French New Wave advertisement for the virtues of polyamory & the dissolution of traditional monogamous bonds of marriage. All that proto-Sexual Revolution moralizing is deliberately undone in the final fifteen-minute stretch. Seasons change. Lives are destroyed. The desire to maintain simultaneous relationships with a wife and a mistress under the blatant power imbalance of men’s freedom to skirt domestic responsibilities is exposed as an impulse of selfishness & entitlement. Is the wandering husband really so full of love that he can maintain simultaneous relationships with multiple lovers or is he merely a selfish, privileged lush who treats women as disposable, replaceable household appliances? Le Bonheur doesn’t decisively answer that question, but does allow it to hang bitterly in the air.

Although the surface details of Le Bonheur recall 1950s studio-made melodramas/”woman’s pictures,” Varda subverts that perception with experimental film editing techniques of the avant-garde. The washes of opaque color appear to mark subtle changes in relationship dynamics & mood over time, but with no concrete correlation that could be expressed in words. The pastel voids of interior domestic spaces recall the intense wall paper realms of the candy-coated musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg & Young Girls of Rochefort (both directed by Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy). Speaking of extratextual, real life romances, the married leads of Le Bonheur (Jean-Claude & Claire Drouot) were a real life couple as well, a kind of reality vs artifice tension that informs weirdo passion projects like A Woman Under the Influence or, more recently, mother!. Varda’s flair for expressionistic, art house filmmaking is most readily felt in her experiments in abrupt jump cuts. The film opens with an upsetting alternation between a symmetrical & an asymmetrical sunflower. A romantic tryst is depicted through quick shots of tangled, exposed flesh, confusing which details belong to which body. A dizzying dance scene is disoriented by partners swapped during a wedding celebration and telegraphsthe anxiety over the interchangeability of sex partners that later upends the plot. In its early honeymoon period, Le Bonheur resembles a Springtime Polaroid, a rigidly framed document of idyllic, Natural growth. Varda subtly disrupts, subverts, and rots that first impression as the film’s shifting romantic dynamics settle into a consistent groove, prepping her audience for the last-minute rug-pull that distorts any perceived advocacy for undisclosed polyamory.

Agnès Varda herself describes Le Bonheur as a “beautiful summer fruit with a worm inside.” That kind of social & political subversion lurking under the surface of what first appears to be a breezy delight seems to be consistent with the documentary work she’s buried herself in recent decades, which are way more fun to watch than their themes & subjects might suggest. What distinguishes Le Bonheur is how extreme of a delight its surface appears to be. The floral, color-soaked Eden where she stages her adultery-suspicious morality play is a Douglas Sirk-level indulgence miraculously achieved on a French New Wave scale & budget. Her protopunk subversion of that Sirk melodrama mindset is a little subtler than what you’ll find from Waters, Meyer, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, so much so that it’s plausible to miss its criticism of men taking women for granted as domestic & emotional laborers entirely if you let your mind wander before the final minutes. The subtlety of that subversion is just as potent as the film’s flair for the avant-garde, though, an apple-gnawing worm that’s all the more effective for catching you off-guard in a sun-drenched Eden.

-Brandon Ledet

The Gleaners and I (2002)

In the post-Katrina 2000s, I was an idealistic college student with a very silly (and very sloppy) punk band called Trash Trash Trash. It was kind of a concept art project involving politically absurdist songs about art & trash, hazmat suit costumes decorated with crude finger paint, and VHS cassettes of images that alternated between camcorder documents of crude art & piles of garbage we would find around New Orleans. As a group, the eight of us were a total, incohesive mess, but could passably put on a fun show while conveying a highly specific (even if abstract) political philosophy. A decade or so later, it was mind-blowing to see that exact philosophy projected back at me on the big screen, especially in a documentary that preempted Trash Trash Trash by several years.

Watching Agnès Varda’s trash-obsessed documentary The Gleaners & I was like gazing into a time-traveling mirror, back to where my mind was in the early 2000s. The French New Wave innovator gushes early in the film about the affordability & portability of digital camcorder technology. She addresses the significant overlap between trash & art and how the excess of capitalist runoff is reabsorbed as a kind of Natural bounty that can be harvested for sustenance. She dumpster dives with French crust punks, tickles herself with silly puns, and (no joke) fucking raps about the politics of trash in a key montage of broken televisions. The only component of Trash Trash Trash missing from this prophetic vision is the finger-painted hazmat suits, but I must admit I was so overwhelmed by the other similarities that I may have missed them. The punkest thing about all this philosophical overlap is that she not only beat us to it, but she did so in her 70s, not as some idealistic college student.

In a way, The Gleaners & I is more of an essay film than it is a traditional documentary. The thesis Varda posits is that modern trash-digging (whether for found art objects, rescued furniture, “expired” food, or otherwise) is just a natural extension of ancient traditions of harvesting. French law allows for people to collect left-behind fruits & vegetables after farmers’ proper harvest season, so that left-behind food does not go to waste. It’s a long-established (and traditionally feminine) practice known as “gleaning.” Varda documents the myriad of ways the practice of gleaning has evolved in modern life. She interviews the few (largely destitute) communities who still glean in a tradition sense, the farmers who either encourage or deliberately hinder their activity, lawyers who protect its legality, and so on. Once she extends these interviews to the homeless people, crust punks, and artistic weirdos who dig through urban garbage for their own modernized form of gleaning (as well as interrogating her own impulses to rescue found objects from the trash) the political point she’s laying out about modern capitalist excess becomes more esoteric & philosophical, but also much more distinct & cinematic.

Varda’s recent Oscar-nominated Faces Places is a great reminder that she’s still a playfully subversive political mind who can deliver high caliber cinema without any of the fussy snobbery associated with the art form. I loved being introduced to her aesthetic through that endearing work, but its D.I.Y. punk ancestor The Gleaners & I hit me much closer to my heart. I can’t believe that there was this succinct of a summation of my personal philosophies as a silly-ass, trash-obsessed punk idealist in my youth floating around in the ether and I completely missed it until now. I went into The Gleaners & I respecting Varda as a kind of mascot for unfussy, D.I.Y cinema with a genuine subversive streak, but left it believing her to be more of a kindred spirit, someone who truly gets what it means to live among the capitalist refuse of this trash island Earth. I’m too much in awe of her very existence to say much more.

-Brnadon Ledet

Ethereal Technophobic Horrors of the Early 2000s: Suicide Club (2002) & FearDotCom (2002)

One of my pet favorite subjects in horror cinema is the evils of technology. I’m especially tickled by internet-age technophobia, which makes me more of a sucker for titles like Nerve, Sickhouse, and #horror than most audiences tend to be. This might help explain how I made two technophobic horror selections for our Movie of the Month conversations in a row, Unfriended & Suicide Club, without even noticing the pattern until it was too late. As a pair, the two films do represent the pinnacle of the subgenre to me, though, especially in the way they simultaneously feel like a part of a cultural trend and standouts among their contemporaries. Unfriended, for its part, is a mainstream found footage horror that doesn’t stray much from the modern, Blumhouse style of dirt cheap genre filmmaking, but looks like the technophobic horror Citizen Kane when compared to its German-produced contemporary, Friend Request. It’s hard to believe with a film so aggressively bizarre, but Suicide Club was part of a trend as well, riding the technology-obsessed J-Horror wave that followed in the wake of the breakout success of Ringu & its American remake, The Ring. That tagalong formula of applying Ringu’s technophobic horror to early 00s internet culture did little to limit madman Sion Sono’s imagination, though; I’d even argue that Suicide Club far surpasses the creative heights of the haunted VHS J-horror film that helped inspire it. For a sharp point of contrast to see just how imaginative that ambitious deviation was, you need to only look to its mainstream American contemporaries that similarly adapted The Ring’s technophobic aesthetic to the Evils of the Internet. One German-American coproduction in particular feels exactly like the Friend Request equivalent to Suicide Club’s Unfriended – its dumb, ugly cousin.

2002’s FearDotCom is, objectively speaking, a terrible film. I’m still incurably tickled by it. Much like the bewildered cop who can’t crack the mystery of a haunted, suicide-inspiring website in Suicide Club, Stephen Dorff stars as an NYC detective struggling to solve the mystery of a haunted website that kills its visitors with Ebola-like symptoms after 48 hours of exposure (not unlike The Ring’s one-week cycle). The film arrived during mainstream horror’s horrendous nu-metal/torture porn period, so its plot mostly amounts to a Flash Art animation take on Videodrome, where an Internet Ghost infects viewers who watch torture for pleasure and attempts beyond-the-grave revenge on the evil doctor who killed her. Once Dorff & his supermodel Health Inspector sidekick (Natascha McElhone) accept the reality of the internet ghost & their dwindling 48 hours of relative good health, their focus shifts to taking down this wicked torture-doctor (The Crying Game’s Stephen Rea) at the industrial hideout where he webcasts his evil deeds. The movie is narratively convoluted, technically inept for a mainstream production, and laughably awkward in its poorly written, weirdly dubbed dialogue. Worse yet, it’s outright morally vile in the way it sensually frames dead & dying women’s bodies as if it were softcore pornography for teenage nu-metal shitheads (something I was personally guilty of being in 2002, sadly). Women strapped to torture devices with just their nipples covered by the leather belts; women jumping out of windows only for their bodies to appear postured for fashion model shoots upon impact; women stabbed to death to German language nu-metal as if in a music video: FearDotCom’s greatest sin is that it’s misogynist trash. It’s also hilarious trash, though, especially in its ponderings on “the secret soul of the internet,” flash art ghosts, furiously scribbled 1’s & 0’s, and cheap camcorder digital grain. You probably have to be a huge fan of ludicrous, internet-obsessed horror to get past its ugly soul and enjoy it as much as I did, but it’s a deeply silly movie that only becomes more peculiar with time.

For all its blatant, mainstream modes of horror filmmaking, FearDotCom occasionally reaches for the ethereal weirdness of Suicide Club’s similar internet-horror preoccupation. While Suicide Club provokes its audience with existential questions like “What’s your connection to yourself? Are you connected to you?,” FearDotCom attempts a similar mysterious air, but (as to be expected) does a much less impressive job of it. The torture-doctor rambles to his latest victim, “The internet offers birth, sex, commerce, seduction, proselytizing, politics, posturing. Death is a logical component.” What the fuck does that mean? Granted, the meaning of the “If you die, will you lose your connection to yourself?” line of questioning in Suicide Club is equally difficult to pin down, but it at least raises further questions & provokes thought, whereas the empty Internet philosophy of FearDotCom doesn’t linger in the mind at all. The film’s nightmare montage imagery of bugs, camcorders, albino children at play, and abandoned nuclear stacks also attempt a fractured narrative similar Sion Sono’s hyperactive vison in Suicide Club, but amounts to little substantive effect as a gestalt. Sono also had the good sense of making his (thankfully fewer) scenes of violence against women repugnant & difficult to watch, as opposed to the seductive gore & torture in FearDotCom that was seemingly aimed directly at misguided teen boners. The most essential difference may be that Sono actually had something to say about the erosion of self-identity & meaningful engagement with the physical world in the digital age, as ethereal as that point may have been, while FearDotCom merely used early 00s internet culture as a colorful backdrop for what was then by-the-numbers mainstream horror filmmaking. Either way, they both used the ethereal nature of the internet to detach their narratives from real world logic, both to entertaining effect (even if entertaining for vastly different reasons).

If you want a glimpse of how cheap & absurdly mishandled FearDotCom’s version of supernatural, technophobic horror is without actually having to, you know, watch the movie, just visit the film’s (NSFW) website. With the tagline, “What to see a killer website?” and an interactive DVD menu that directs you to visit Feardotcom.com, you’d think that Universal Pictures would bother to renew those domain rights into perpetuity. Instead, the address seems to be in use by a scammy advertisement for a British escort service. Meanwhile, the actual fear.com is currently a dummy website that reminds visitors that Donald Trump only has a 26.8% chance of winning the 2017 presidential election (there’s still hope!). This is a major studio production that has been abandoned by its major studio, now only to be found in used DVD stacks in New Orleans area thrift stores (that’s where I found my copy anyway). By contrast, Suicide Club is equally hyperkinetic & willing to come off as silly (especially in its J-Pop music videos and declarations like “I’m Charlie Manson of the Information Age!”), but is much more confident & purposeful, maintaining its reputation as a hidden gem art film from a prolific auteur. Just as I enjoyed the Facebook witchcraft idiocy of Friend Request, but found it only made Unfriended’s merits clearer in juxtaposition, I feel like the glaring faults of FearDotCom are just as entertaining for their own sake as they are illustrative of what makes Suicide Club a superior film. Both works may have been riding a technophobic horror wave in the wake of Ringu/The Ring, but their accomplishments within that aesthetic paradigm are remarkably disparate. Just compare the FearDotCom.com web address to maru.ne.jp from Suicide Club to make that distinction even clearer. The Suicide Club website has also lapsed out of studio control, but is operated by a respectable-seeming Japanese communications technology firm, with no references to British escorts or Donald Trump or anything.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s technophobic freak-out Suicide Club, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

4 Days in France (2018)

How much explicit gay sex would be reasonable to expect in a French drama bout Grindr? My answer going into 4 Days in France was “a lot,” which is likely a significant factor in why the film underwhelmed me. This is far from the dramatic-cruising exploits of Stranger by the Lake, although just as gravely serious in tone. For all the film’s fragrant Grindr-scrolling & amusement with filthy bathroom graffiti, 4 Days in France is relatively tame in its depiction of same-sex hookups, which feels disingenuous to its basic conceit. I’m not saying the movie was obligated to function as a gay porno, or even an extensive exercise in titillation, but it’s certainly reasonable to expect more sex in a movie about a seedy sex app.

A young, affluent man films his sleeping lover’s body before hitting the early morning road without saying a word (cue Fastball’s “The Way”). Armed only with a small car & the aforementioned Grindr app, he aimlessly wanders through provincial France for the following four days, racking up a series of melancholy Life Experiences. His worried partner tracks him through Grindr by pretending to be a stranger looking for a hookup. Their paths do eventually cross, but in the meantime a series of lowkey interactions with hitchhikers, small town nobodies, and potential sex partners steers his daily wanderings. There is some sex indulged in and life lessons learned long the way, but nothing too significant on either count. As with a lot of French drams, the story told is mostly just aimless & sad.

There are isolated details of 4 Days in France that work well enough in their own allotted time: the line “France is full of men, full of possibilities,” is admirably succinct as a kind of mission statement; there’s a gorgeous exterior tracking shot outside a retirement home that impresses as an exercise in craft; the humor about raunchy bathroom graffiti & the comically complex driving instructions necessary to facilitate provincial hookups land with full impact, and so on. At 140min in length, though, I’m not convinced those details are enough to make the ordeal worthwhile. 4 Days in France could likely be edited down to a satisfying enough 100min picture, but its aimless meandering is too numbing at its current length. This is a picture about anonymity, melancholy, and ennui, which aren’t exactly visually compelling subjects on their own merit. Maybe it’s simple-minded of me to posit that, because the plot is driven by a series of Grindr hookups, a More Explicit Gay Sex edict is the adrenaline shot the film needed to feel alive & worth the effort. Either way, it was certainly missing something and more gay sex in this movie about a gay sex app might’ve been worth a shot.

-Brandon Ledet

A Fantastic Woman (2018)

It was absolutely heartwarming to see A Fantastic Woman, a Chilean drama about a trans woman’s struggle to overcome the death of a long-term boyfriend, win Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars ceremony. It was even more of a godsend for the film’s lead actress, Daniela Vega, to be included in the broadcast as one of the presenters. The moment reminded me of the 2016 Independent Spirit Awards ceremony, where Mya Taylor won Best Supporting Female for her performance in the Sean Baker film Tangerine, the first trans woman to ever win an award on that show (in any category). Obviously, the Oscars have a much wider audience reach than the Independent Spirit Awards, so its boost of A Fantastic Woman‘s & Daniela Vega’s profiles is an even bigger deal. Not only did the nomination help push the film into wider distribution (I’ve been waiting for it to reach New Orleans for months), but its win was a huge victory for promoting media where trans characters are actually portrayed onscreen by trans people, a concept that should not be as novel as it is. When you think about Oscar Bait dramas about trans issues, the characters in peril are always portrayed by cisgender performers: Dallas Buyers Club, Boy’s Don’t Cry, The Danish Girl, etc. Daniela Vega’s platform as the lead of an Oscar Winning™ film about a trans woman’s romantic grief is a welcome corrective to that antiquated tradition. Unfortunately, the film itself is antiquated and phony in its own ways, not quite the transcendently lyrical or matter-of-fact authentic document of real life experience I’d hoped it would be. It’s all too easy to see how Tangerine was the punk rock political disruptor that stole the heart of the Indies, while A Fantastic Woman was more palatable to the stuffier members of the Academy.

Daniela Vega is a wonder to watch as A Fantastic Woman‘s titular lead. She’s introduced as a nightclub singer with a loving, older boyfriend and a side job waiting tables. As is necessary for a drama, this domestic stability does not last long; the boyfriend dies of a brain aneurysm in the middle of the night, a harsh end to a tender birthday celebration. This is where the authenticity of daily life is diluted with the same queer misery porn we’ve been watching onscreen for decades. Marina desires to be included in the burial & mourning of her deceased partner, but his bitterly transphobic family and an equally unjust legal system lock her out of the process. That conflict is totally believable, but the ways their disapproval of her gender expression manifest are unconvincing & relentlessly dour. Marina is misgendered, deadnamed, addressed with slurs, accused of being a sex worker, investigated for crimes she obviously didn’t commit, pressured into invading physical examinations, sexually harassed, and physically bullied. It’s tough to watch, but also frequently phony-feeling, particularly in a scene where she’s assaulted with Scotch tape instead of fists. Surely, a modern society treating Marina as if her very existence were “a perversion” feels authentic, but the way the film expresses transmisogyny through constant, blatant attacks personally aimed at her recalls the way racial discrimination is handled in Oscar Worthy dramas like Crash & Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri (poorly). It’s so overtly & recognizably evil that it more or less lets the audience off the hook for their own subtler, internalized discrimination, making us feel like better people by comparison to the monsters onscreen. By the time Marina’s singing “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” alone to herself on a midday drive, the whole thing feels too embarrassingly on-the-nose to possibly be representative of any real life experience, which wouldn’t be a problem if portraying real life experience weren’t obviously what the film was aiming for.

A Fantastic Woman works best when it breaks itself free from real life representation and enters a more lyrical realm. Waterfall mist, intense nightclub lighting, impossible gusts of wind, and the boggy voids of public saunas transcend any dramatic cliché to reach for something more memorably singular. The film’s use of mirrors is especially fascinating, whether they’re used to obscure, abstract, distort, detail, or amplify Marina’s appearance, both for herself and for the audience. Because we don’t spend much time with the couple before the boyfriend’s death, the daydreams where his visage reappears in physical spaces like Marina’s car & apartment are also essential to understanding her inner life and how devastating the loss is for her. Early on, we watch Marina and the boyfriend go on one perfect, intimate date and indulge in some sensuous lovemaking, but the way he physically haunts her daily thoughts says so much more about what he meant to her and how significant it is that she cannot formally mourn his passing. This line of dramatic conflict is more emotionally effective than most of the transphobic oppression that surrounds it, largely because it’s more specific to the character as an individual person than it is meant to be representative of a larger, daily trans woman experience. It’s also, frankly, just cooler to look at. A Fantastic Woman would have been better served by leaning into the fantasy suggested by its title. Its most breathtaking sequence is a nightclub fantasy that leaves the audience’s heads spinning in synchronized dance, glam makeup, and tinsel pompom blouses fit for Carnival, only to crash us back down to a clichéd shot of Marina crying in the rain. That harsh transition is the film in a nutshell: intoxicatingly lyrical insights into Marina’s inner psyche violently interrupted by unwelcome dwellings in the phony misery of her daily life. The character is underserved by the trials the film drags her through by the hair, but still enough of a wonder to watch that the movie feels worthwhile (largely to the credit of Daniela Vega’s performance).

A Fantastic Woman‘s Oscar win is a positive sign for the future of trans characters actually being portrayed by trans performers, but it’s also a reminder that the stories we’re telling about those characters need an update as well. It’s probably unfair to fault the film for being a part of a long-running tradition of well-respected dramas about the misery of daily queer existence, but there are too many kinds of trans stories that are just not being told onscreen in the meantime. For a start, it would be great if we could see a widely-distributed film with a trans lead that wasn’t about gender identity at all. A Fantastic Woman‘s moments of lyrical escape & romantic grief are a welcome nod in that direction, but too much of the film is familiarly miserable in the drama it pulls from queer societal oppression for it to feel like a unique breakthrough. Some of its visual language makes it a standout in the queer misery genre, but the film’s greatest accomplishment is introducing its audience to Daniela Vega’s immediately apparent talents as an onscreen presence. Let’s just hope that the next lead role she lands is more worthy of her (or, more practically, let’s hope that one will ever exist at all).

-Brandon Ledet

Ismael’s Ghosts (2018)

When I recently reviewed Alain Guiraudie’s bizarro drama Staying Vertical, I described it as a feverish plot driven by the desperation of writer’s block instead of any real-world logic. I wrote, “It seems to be solely the result of Guiraudie needing to put something, anything on the page. As with Charlie Kaufman’s similar works, that back-against-the-wall creative necessity leads to some . . . interesting choices.” Let’s go ahead and add Arnaud Desplechin’s latest feature, Ismael’s Ghosts, to that list of absurdist French dramas continuing the Kaufman tradition of writer’s block mania narratives. Like Staying Vertical, Ismael’s Ghosts follows an increasingly frazzled artist as they avoid the completion of a creative project to the point where their ever-growing list of obligations surround them like wolves (literally, in the case of Staying Vertical). Greater thematic purpose is near impossible to pinpoint in these works, as they’re driven mostly by the anxiety of being obligated to create. It’s like the filmmakers are pulling the audience into their own personal anguish of having to tell a story onscreen in the first place, making the immense pressure felt by the creator just as much of an emotional burden for the consumer. The results of these writer’s block meta experiments can be uneven (and even at times tedious), but they can also lead to fascinating, unpredictable places.

A long-successful filmmaker prolongs the process of writing & directing a feature about his estranged younger brother. He tends to his aging father-in-law, who shares the emotional pain of the filmmaker’s wife’s disappearance over two decades in the past. His current girlfriend is understanding about the ongoing emotional grief that lingers from this disappearance, but unsure of their relationship (and her own sexuality) in more general, intangible ways. The longer the screenplay & subsequent film go unfinished, the more absurdly disastrous these conflicts become. The brother becomes even more irrevocably distant as his fictional movie-within-the movie avatar strays further from the truth. The movie’s production becomes stalled & exponentially more expensive by the day. The father in law’s mental & physical health plummet at an alarming rate. Most significantly, the filmmaker’s wife, who’s been missing and presumed dead for decades, reappears in his life to blow up his current romantic relationship from the inside. The progression (or, perhaps more accurately, regression) of these events & relationships don’t make much logical sense, a fact that only becomes more increasingly obvious as their circumstances deteriorate. Somehow, though, you get the sense that everything would return to a healthy, balanced normal if our crazed, drunken antihero would just finish the damn movie he started writing. It’s his procrastination that threatens to unravel the very fabric of reality just as much as it’s his narcissistic self-absorption.

Ismael’s ghosts, as referenced in the title, are a brother, a wife, and an adopted child, all missing form his current life. These hauntings from the past aren’t a source of grief so much as a piling-on of anxiety: crazy-making sources of obligation that make his inability to complete the film he started writing even more stressful. The true conflict that drives the film is the desperation of writer’s block under the pressure of audiences waiting for a finished product. This creative desperation fractures the narrative into an array of opposing genres: spy thriller, Guy Maddin-style art piece complete with double exposure photography, melodrama about amnesia, a Persona-style psychological thriller (played out by French heavyweights Marion Cottillard & Charlotte Gainsbourg at a beach house), absurdist comedy, and so on. Ismael describes this hellish break with reality in the line, “I’m living in a nightmare and I can’t wake up,” but the truth is that he could wake up any moment if he would just finish the movie he promised his producers. In the meantime, the audience is held hostage waiting for Ismael’s Ghosts to tidily wrap up its illogical collection of disparate tones & storylines, a task that proves more impossible every passing minute. It’s as if Desplechin’s self-therapy for being tortured by his own writer’s block in the midst of familial & professional obligations was to pass that anxiety along to his audience so they can feel what it’s like. It’s a difficult mode of art to appreciate as a viewer, but one with a surprisingly rich tradition (if not only in the Charlie Kaufman oeuvre) and occasional strokes of brilliance among its expressions of creative frustration.

-Brandon Ledet

All That Divides Us (2018)

The question of how much context is appropriate to provide in a film review is just as subjective as the reviewer’s opinion itself. While some critics academically approach their reviews as if the film in question was experienced in a void outside of space & time, I tend to over-divulge extratextual information to the point where I sometimes write more about the environment surrounding the film than the work itself. This will likely be one of those instances. I can only justify my mild enjoyment of the trashy French crime thriller All That Divides Us by explaining the time & place where I saw it: a local film festival. The patrons at New Orleans French Film Fest tend to be geriatric NPR liberals looking for classy, highbrow fare like Breathless & The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is why it tickled me so much to catch a classless, violent B-movie with them gasping in horror in the same room. I doubt I would have thought much of All That Divides Us if I were watching it alone in my living room or while sipping wine at a sparsely-attended multiplex, but in the stuffy company of unsuspecting film festival olds it was a much-needed breath of nasty air.

Catherine Deneuve stars as steely mother figure struggling to maintain both her deceased husband’s shipping dock business & her adult daughter’s deteriorating life. Diane Kruger co-leads as the daughter, a still-lives-at-home brat who finds herself tragically addicted to opioids after a life-threatening car accident. This addiction brings a nearby crime world of drugs, theft, assault, and gunfire into their privileged, sheltered lives. The daughter’s drug dealer/lover is a pronounced point of connection between these opposing realms, one that results in an accidental manslaughter, a subsequent coverup, and a prolonged case of blackmail. As the title suggests, the movie is very self-serious about the divisions between the wealthy & the poor and the seedy, violent ways those barriers can be breached. The culture clash sparked by Kruger’s opioid-addicted rich girl (who feels like a faint echo of the deafening effect Jennifer Jason Leigh achieves in Good Time) is difficult to take too seriously, though, as its sentimental music cues & melodramatic drogue approaches a Lifetime quality in their overt cheese. The film is much more committed in its attempts to create an 8 Mile-style melodrama for French rapper Nekfeu (making his first-time acting debut as one of the drug-dealing hoodlums) than it is in tackling any kind of well-considered economic politics. Even so, 8 Mile never felt this much like a direct-to-DVD release.

While All That Divides Us did little to impress me narratively or thematically, I frequently found myself surprised by its willingness to get downright nasty. Characters bet on dogfights, force victims to smoke crack at gunpoint, erotically choke each other during sex, blackmail, cheat, kill, and say meanly dismissive things to their sex partners like “You were good for my prostate.” There are a couple stray moments of unintentional humor (like Kruger & Deneuve’s half-assed attempts to sink a body in water or Nekfeu proudly proclaiming “I’m a badass,”) but most of the movie’s fun is in its warped, tasteless imitation of 90s-era crime thrillers. The movie neither fully commits enough to its own reflections on economic disparity to be taken seriously nor has enough fun with its own trashiness to be truly memorable (Catherine Deneuve wielding as shotgun for most of the third act without ever firing it is especially unforgivable). If you can catch it in the right mood with the right crowd, though, it can be a mild delight. Its subject and French pedigree are deceptively highbrow enough to set expectations for something much classier than what’s delivered. If you can use that expectation to trick a room full of old people into watching B-movie trash this morally icky & grotesquely violent, that tension can make for a good time at the movies.

-Brandon Ledet

Thoroughbreds (2018)

I’m fascinated by the career Anya Taylor-Joy is building for herself fresh out of the gate as a stark, young talent. I don’t know if it’s her pale, wide-eyed look that steers her casting or a personal sensibility, but there’s a sinister streak to her project choices that reminds me a lot of the actors I grew up loving most in the 90s, people like Winona Ryder, Fairuza Balk, and Christina Ricci. Taylor-Joy’s starring role as Thomasin in (Swampflix’s favorite film of 2016) The Witch is obviously her most striking acting showcase to date, but following her career through Split and, now, Thoroughbreds has only solidified what an intriguingly dark, expressive persona she’s establishing onscreen. I’m even tempted to seek out the objectively terrible-looking pictures Morgan and Marrowbone now, just to see how they fit in the sinister genre film catalog Taylor-Joy is building for herself. She’s becoming a huge draw for me in a way few young actors are, the way I’d usually seek out releases from an auteur director. I doubt I would have rushed to see Thoroughbreds as quickly as I did if her name weren’t on the marquee.

Thoroughbreds joins past indulgences in dark humor about young girls’ bloodlust like Heathers & Heavenly Creatures to deliver the year’s first great femme thriller. Anya Taylor-Joy stars as a spoiled, but emotionally fragile rich girl who can barely contain her seething hatred for her macho brute stepfather. Olivia Cooke balances out her intensely emotive energy as a sociopath struggling to feel anything at all, while also navigating her own status as a public pariah awaiting trial for animal cruelty (it’s probably a good thing this horseriding-themed film is light on actual horse imagery). The former childhood friends & fellow “horse girls” share their dilemmas in that precarious period at the tail end of high school where it feels like every struggle will last for an eternity, but you just need to hold your breath & survive the next few months. Their initial dynamic is a dual tutorship: one learning empathy (or at least how to fake it) and the other learning how to be honest. It evolves into something much more sinister, of course, blossoming into a shared murder plot to kill the wicked stepfather. He didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. He’s just a dick & a convenient target for all their frustrations & emotional crises, a personification of the evils that rot what should be privileged life of leisure.

It’s likely somewhat burying the lede to single out Anya Taylor-Joy here, when the film features what’s presumably the final substantial role for the tragically deceased Anton Yelchin. With the greasy, panicked desperation of a drowning rat, Yelchin is perfectly cast as a small-time drug dealer the girls attempt to blackmail into committing their planned crime. As such, he’s the only external witness to the intense, morbid friendship they’ve coldly developed and is thoroughly freaked out by their communal lack of basic empathy. Oddly, Yelchin also starred in a film adaptation (that I have yet to see) of the trashy novel I’d most readily compare to Thoroughbreds: Fierce People. An anthropological study of the cut-throat social politics of the wealthy elite, Fierce People is a kissing cousin to Thoroughbreds’s tribal drum soundtrack & meditations on the selfish violence of life-long privilege. Yelchin does an excellent job (as always) of devolving this tough-guy posturing as a working-class outsider into abject horror at the coldly applied viciousness of his teen girl foils, allowing his usual aptitude for vulnerability to gradually overtake the character as he sinks further into the plot. It’s touching that the movie is dedicated to his memory, as his stopped-short career is one of modern cinema’s greater losses.

I somehow knew first-time director Cory Finley got his start as a playwright before I googled it. For a tense thriller about murderous teens, Thoroughbreds is noticeably heavy on stage play dialogue, concerning itself more with exploring the two girls’ psyches than with ramping up the tension of their violent deed. One is prim; the other is excessively laidback. One doesn’t feel anything; the other feels everything. Their re-convergence after years spent apart feels like old lovers reuniting in a moment of crisis, helping each other get past a current trauma by picking apart past wounds & unearthing deep-seated emotional issues (last year’s microbudget found footage drama Damascene is an excellent point of comparison there). Finley also impresses as a visual stylist. Tanning bed coffins, strobe light dance parties, and blank stares into the wilderness feel like they were plucked form an eerie sci-fi picture in the way they’re applied here. Guided tours of gaudy mansion hallways are paired with tense, ambient sounds that feel like they were borrowed from The Witch, affording a blank page setting a sinister mood. The girls’ wardrobes range from hip, haute teen fashion to the inherent creepiness of seeing a young girl in lipstick & pearls. The setting can often feel meticulously stylized & genuinely unsettling, but it’s ultimately all in service of Finley’s dialogue, which enters the canon of pictures like Jennifer’s Body, Ingrid Goes West, and the aforementioned Heavenly Creatures that extensively dwell in the intoxicating danger of intense female friendships.

It’s unclear if Anya Taylor-Joy is being typecast in these dark genre film experiments or if she’s actively seeking them out. Either way, I’m wholly on the hook for the trajectory of her career so far, which is seemingly typified by a defensive, vulnerable steeliness in a morbid atmosphere. Thoroughbreds transports that vibe to a affluent setting where carefully guarded secrets and the maintenance of social reputations can stir up just as much darkness on their own as a haunted house or the midnight woods. Like with most intense stage play dialogue, there’s a sinister sense of humor informing that deadly privilege & femme bloodlust set-dressing and Taylor-Joy is remarkably comfortable with the nuance of that tone. Playing off Olivia Cooke’s (intentional) emotional blankness requires Taylor-Joy to tell most of the story through her own reactionary expressions & hesitations. She’s incredible to watch, as always, and Thoroughbreds owes much of its allure & staying power to her striking screen presence.

-Brandon Ledet