Movie of the Month: Sneakers (1992)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made HannaBrandon, and Britnee watch Sneakers (1992).

Boomer: love the movie Sneakers. This movie has everything: government conspiracies, a villain with a praiseworthy goal, hacking, phreaking, a blind man driving a van, the creation of a voiceprint password by cobbling together pieces of recordings, two scenes with River Phoenix in a scrub top, significant anagrams, post-Cold War espionage, ancient car phones, crawlspaces, codenames, rooftop confrontations, extremely futuristic but uncomfortable looking furniture made out of wire mesh, call tracing, electronic toy dogs, complex mathematics, briefcases full of cash, intrigue, prestidigitation, and two-time Emmy, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominee Mary McDonnell. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times and I never, ever get tired of it. 

Martin Bishop (Robert Redford), some twenty years after his friend and fellow idealist Cosmo was arrested while Martin was out getting pizza to celebrate some illegal but morally admirable money transfers, now works with a tiger team of “sneakers.” There’s Crease (Sidney Poitier), ex-C.I.A. and the group’s watchtower man; conspiracy theorist and electronics whiz “Mother” (real-life conspiracy theorist Dan Aykroyd); Irwin “Whistler” Emery (David Strathairn), a blind man whose hearing is so precise that it allows him to participate in the now largely defunct form of hacking known as phreaking; and young, pretty Carl Arbogast (River Phoenix), a hacking prodigy. Only two people know that Martin is actually the still-wanted fugitive once known as Martin Brice: Cosmo, who died in prison, and his ex-girlfriend, Liz (Mary McDonnell), with whom he is still relatively friendly. His secret, and his freedom, are threatened one day when Martin is approached by two men from the NSA (Timothy Busfield and Eddie Jones) who task him with stealing a “black box” piece of decryption hardware from a mathematician named Janek (Donal Logue, in his first film role). Although they succeed in obtaining the device, their payday is complicated by the revelation that they’ve actually been duped by former NSA operatives, now working for a person or persons unknown. Now, the team, including Liz, will have to use all of their wits to avoid not just jail time, but death. 

Sneakers was a box office success. This is owed in no small part, I’m sure, to its all-star cast, which also includes James Earl Jones and Ben Kingsley in roles that are too spoilery to note in a synopsis. It’s got a great soundtrack from the late James Horner, who perfectly balances the film’s intermittent intrigue and danger with its larger comedic tone, creating something that is at turns triumphant, cautious, and playful. Director Phil Alden Robinson, who also wrote the screenplay alongside Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker (the duo who previously penned the somewhat thematically similar WarGames), seems to be seeking to correct the mistakes of 1985’s Fletch. The earlier film, on which Robinson was an uncredited screenwriter, is also one of intrigue with touches of comedy, but despite Fletch‘s modicum of success at both the box office and with audiences, I agree with Roger Ebert’s contemporary assessment of the movie’s star: “[Chevy] Chase’s performance tends to reduce all the scenes to the same level. […] Fletch needed an actor more interested in playing the character than in playing himself.” Here, Robinson banks on Robert Redford’s longtime association with the conspiracy genre (Three Days of the CondorAll The President’s Men) as well as his natural charisma as an actor to do some of the shorthand of making Sneakers work without having to do too much legwork itself. Of course, every actor is great here; Poitier could have been used more, but he’s the absolute center of every scene that he’s in, and my love of Mary McDonnell is long documented so I won’t repeat myself here. Aykroyd, bless him, makes a meal out of his proto-Mulder role as he effortlessly tosses off lines about increases in cattle mutilations and ties the (unsuccessful, he claims) assassination of JFK to the men behind the Pete Rose scandal

Since I’ve mentioned Ebert, however, it bears noting that he was lukewarm on the film, calling it “sometimes entertaining […] but thin” and claims that it “recycles” older film cliches: “Redford’s team […] is yet another version of the World War II platoon that always had one of everything. […] the black guy, the fat guy, the blind guy, the woman[,] and the Kid.” Although he found parts of Sneakers cliche at points, he also praised Robinson for directing “with skill and imagination.” Brandon, I know that I’ve forced you to watch quite a few conspiracy films over the years; you were moderately positive in our discussion of Winter Soldier but struggled to find something nice to say about Undiscovered CountryGiven that Sneakers is at its core a cyberpunk story like previous Movie of the Month Strange Days, albeit one with a cassette futurism aesthetic, and that I know how much you love The Net, I’m hoping you enjoyed this one. Did it work for you? If so (or if not), why (or what would you have preferred)? 

Brandon: Like the last Mary McDonnell film we discussed as a Movie of the Month selection, Passion Fish, Sneakers mostly landed with me as an Afternoon Movie: low-key mainstream filmmaking best enjoyed while the sun is still out on a profoundly lazy day.  It’s the kind of movie I used to catch on broadcast television as a kid, when commercial breaks would stretch the runtime out to actually take up an entire afternoon, pleasantly so.  At the risk of participating in gender binary rhetoric, I’d say the main difference is that Passion Fish is a Mom Movie, while Sneakers is solidly a Dad Movie — the perfect basic cable background fodder to passively enjoy while your grandpa snores over the soundtrack.  As a “cyberpunk” thriller about elite early-internet hackers, it is absurdly un-hip; it’s all cyber and no punk.  I’ve come to expect my movie hackers to be young, androgynous perverts dressed in glossy patent leather, not middle-aged movie stars who tuck in their shirt-tails.  However, as a big-budget Dad Movie that plays with the same 1990s cyberterror anxieties exploited in the much goofier The Net, I found it highly entertaining.  It feels like a dispatch from a bygone studio filmmaking era when movie stars actually drove ticket sales, so that their importance on the screen is stressed way more than directorial style or production design — which are slick enough here but deliberately avoid calling attention to themselves.

As a result, I was more invested in the charm of the casting and the performances than I was in the actual espionage plot, which boils down to a global-scale hacking MacGuffin that has since become standard to most modern blockbusters in the MCU and Fast & Furious vein.  We’re introduced to Redford’s motley crew of square-looking cybercriminals in two separate rollcalls: one in which NSA agents read out their respective arrest records to quickly sketch out their past, and one in which they individually dance to Motown records with Mary McDonnell to show off their personal quirks.  I found the movie to be most vibrantly alive in those two scenes because of its general commitment to highlighting the eccentricities of its cast.  Redford & Poitier squeeze in an obligatory “We’re getting too old for this shit” quip in the first ten minutes of the film, but outside of those two rollcalls it’s rare for the movie to acknowledge just how out-of-place and Ordinary its elite hackers look (at least when compared to other 90s gems like Hackers and The Matrix), when that’s the only thing I really wanted to dwell on.  I could’ve watched an entire movie about Dan Akroyd’s awkwardly past-his-prime Mall Goth conspiracy theorist, for instance, since that role could’ve been much more comfortably filled by a Janeane Garofalo or a Fairuza Balk type without any change in demeanor or costuming.  What is Mother’s deal?  I’d love to know.

Britnee, were you similarly distracted by the movie’s casting & costuming of its “cyberpunk” hackers?  Who were the highlights (or lowlights) of the film’s cast of characters for you?

Britnee: I have to admit that Sneakers took me by surprise when I realized it was a hacker movie. I’ve known about its existence for years. It was always hanging out in my local library’s VHS collection. Its cover is a sneaky look at Robert Redford with a group of middle aged pals, so I just always assumed it was about him owning a shoe store in New England or something along those lines. It turns out that I was way off.

Like Brandon, I always expect hacker films to have a cast of sexy 90s cyperpunks. Leather pants, spiky hair, and those tiny cyber sunglasses that make no sense but all the sense at the same time. The only other way I’ve seen a hacker represented in a movie is a gamer guy with a messy t-shirt or a girl with a tight black tank top and cargo pants. The group in Sneakers is far from what I’m used to seeing as hackers in film. They look like my great-uncle and his group of wacky friends. Maybe Hollywood is working with the dark web overlords to paint a false picture of what real life computer hackers look like (sexy 90s cyperpunks) so we don’t think to consider middle aged sports bar crews as real hackers. Phil Robinson and friends were probably risking everything  to go against “them” to show us a glimpse of what real hackers are. That’s my Sneakers conspiracy theory, anyway.

All that being said, Robert Redford knocked it out of the park as Marty. He always beams so much charisma on screen, and in Sneakers, he does so while balancing being a hacking genius and a hero to dads everywhere.  I actually thought the casting all around was amazing, but I would have loved to see a nerdy middle aged woman in the same garb as Mother as a member of the crew. That would be the only suggestion I would make regarding casting, and that’s just me being selfish.

Something that really fascinated me about Sneakers was the beginning and ending wraparound about taking money from Republicans to give to liberal causes. I was surprised to see that in the movie considering it being in 1992 (post-Regan and in the midst of Bush). And it did tremendously well at the box office! Hanna, was this something that surprised you as well, considering the political climate at the time in the US? 

Hanna: Actually, I think this movie was a pretty safe political bet for Hollywood at the time. Sneakers was released just two months before Clinton’s election in 1992, and Marty—played by white, charismatic, red-blooded American Redford—is, in some ways, a perfect embodiment of the Third Way, a left-center political position that Clinton championed. Marty and his adversary both agree “money’s most powerful ability is to allow bad people to continue doing bad things at the expense of those who don’t have it”; the antagonist wants (or proclaims to want) to completely destroy the binary of wealth by toppling the inherently corrupt economics systems across the globe; in his new world, billionaires will cease to exist. This is obviously an untenable solution, but at least it’s radical. Marty’s idea of economic justice, on the other hand, is moving millions of dollars from the Republican National Convention to non-profits and NGOs, which is a fun joke that doesn’t fundamentally change anything about who is able to wield power and wealth. I would love the RNC to be suddenly and inexplicably bankrupt, but I doubt that the Koch brothers would give up on their political machinations after the RNC’s funding wound up at Greenpeace in the Sneakers universe. The film seemed squarely settled in the camp of without actually challenging the circumstances fueling wealth inequality; the film’s solution isn’t to radically re-think a system that allows a few wealthy people to disproportionately control our political, social, and economic realities, but to periodically move million dollar donations from one (pretty unpopular) organization to philanthropic ones, like Robin Hood for CEOs. At the very least, I wish they had been funneling money from Unilever.

Did any of that have any impact on my opinion or enjoyment of this movie whatsoever? Absolutely not. I loved Sneakers, and crime comedies from the late 90s do not have any kind of responsibility to be politically radical. Like Boomer mentioned, Ebert was soured by Sneakers’s use of material recycled from other movies, and it does play like a movie designed identify every possible permutation of the crime comedy cliché; fortunately for Phil Alden Robinson, I was more than happy to lap it up. I love any and all heist/spy movies, but I especially appreciated the earnest absurdity of Sneakers, from the standard CSI mumbo jumbo (enhancing on the tiniest details of already blurry photos) to goofy spy nonsense involving a room fortified with temperature and motion alarms. These cliches are definitely animated by a stellar cast, and I don’t think this film would have worked quite so well for me if it weren’t for the performances, especially from Redford and Poitier. I was so tickled by Crease’s impassioned probe into the details of Janek’s secret funding at 52:42 that I had to rewind and rewatch it multiple times (“Don’t tell me you can’t do it, because I know you can! And don’t tell me you won’t do it, because I’ve got to have it! Dammit, I need to know, and I need to know now!”), and it couldn’t have worked without Poitier hamming it up. As others have mentioned, Redford perfectly captures a version of the Strong, Good-Hearted, Down-To-Earth Man with smoother edges (like Harrison Ford mixed with Alan Alda, kind of), a character that is equally irresistible to Dads and Moms alike. This is the kind of movie that should have been on annual rotation in my household, and I can’t wait to make up for lost time. 

Lagniappe

Boomer: I’ve been singing this film’s praises ever since it was first brought to my attention some 5-6 years after release, when it turned up at a sleepover. It’s the rare (perhaps the only) film with expressly leftist views that my father tolerated watching more than once, and that should tell you something about its quality, if nothing else. 

Hanna: This movie made me remember how much I enjoy anagrams. I know it’s not a practical encoding technique, but those anagrams in the opening credits really roped me in, and I was on the edge of my seat when Robert Redford started shuffling those Scrabble tiles around. Spy films need more anagrams!

Brandon: As much as I enjoyed this movie as a time capsule of mainstream 90s filmmaking, I’m convinced I would’ve fully loved it as a post-“retirement” Soderbergh heist flick.  Pairing this caliber of movie star casting with the more playful, eccentric visual style of an Ocean’s 12, Logan Lucky, or No Sudden Move would’ve pushed it much closer to the style-over-substance ethos that usually wins my heart.  As is, it’s handsomely staged, but maybe a little too well behaved.  Maybe what I’m saying is that I should finally check out Michael Mann’s Blackhat.

Britnee:  In 2016, NBC planned on making a TV series reboot of Sneakers, but to my knowledge, it looks like nothing came of it. I actually think a Sneakers TV series would be pretty great, so I hope something is still brewing.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September:
 Britnee presents Hello Again (1987)
October: 
Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973)
November:
Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)

-The Swampflix Crew

No Sudden Move (2021)

I never tire of watching Steven Soderbergh play around with celebrities and camera tech.  It’s like babysitting a little kid who’s toying around in a playroom where each dolly & gadget cost millions of dollars.  I usually prefer to see Soderbergh’s playtime sessions projected on the big screen, and I like them best when they overlap with genres I’m already in love with – which is to say that it’s going to be hard to top the experience of seeing his iPhone-shot psych horror Unsane at the shopping mall multiplex.  Still, it’s been continually fun to watch a long-established director who’s remained excited by his job fuck around with Prestige Cable TV money as if he’s still figuring out the basic elements & limitations of his medium.

The big-picture details of Soderbergh’s latest direct-to-cable effort, No Sudden Move, sound like they belong to the pilot episode of a standard-issue HBO crime drama series.  Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, and Kieran Culkin star as three low-level lackeys who’re hired to hold a business man’s family hostage in exchange for a confidential document of great political import.  The job goes horrifically wrong, and the bottom-rung gangsters find themselves scheming across 1950s Detroit to hold onto the top-secret document as a bargaining chip for their lives . . . and an exponential amount of cash.  It’s a standard heist-gone-wrong plot, styled like a spin-off series about the crime-world decades following Boardwalk Empire.  And yet, it never feels boring or unsurprising thanks to Soderbergh’s flair for wryly funny stunt casting and behind-the-camera mischief.

The biggest hurdle most audiences have to clear to enjoy No Sudden Move is how absolutely fucking bizarre it looks.  While the set & costume design resemble the usual HBO crime series, Soderbergh shoots the entire movie with an extreme wide-angle fisheye lens, often backlit.  Whenever your eye momentarily adjusts to its skateboard video framing and chiaroscuro lighting, the camera pans or glides to make the whole thing look warped again.  I have to imagine it has a lot of unsuspecting audiences scrambling to adjust the picture settings on their TV, but I was personally delighted by that clash of modern camera tech against a vintage setting.  When the cowardly businessman mark, played by David Harbour, complains into a telephone “Everything is so weird right now” I felt like I knew exactly what he meant.  The film never stops looking strange, even if it’s narratively well behaved.

Beyond that extreme fisheye effect, I was mostly just tickled by No Sudden Move’s casting choices.  From the winking, referential casting of Jon Hamm in Mad Men-style G-man suits and Ray Liotta in pistol-whipped Goodfellas mobster mode to the chaotic screen presence of Uncut Gems’s Julia Fox as a bored, pouty moll (recalling Paz de la Huerta in the Boardwalk Empire pilot, come to think of it), you can tell Soderbergh and casting director Carmen Cuba are having a ball.  Otherwise, I can’t say the film really did much for me, at least not as much as the campier, more acidic Behind the Candelabra – the most recent example I’ve seen of Soderbergh playing around in HBO’s toy chest.  If these same fisheye lens or movie star stunt casting experiments had been applied to something more my speed—like a morally queasy horror movie or something draggy like Liberace—I could have fully fallen in love with it.  Knowing Soderbergh, I’ll probably only have to wait a few weeks before that next experiment in craft arrives.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Stoker (2013)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss Korean provocateur Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut, Stoker (2013) — a high-style Gothic melodrama modeled after Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.

00:00 Welcome

03:30 The City of Lost Children (1995)
06:35 The X-Files (1998)
10:40 The Unholy (2021)
13:24 A Perfect Enemy (2021)
14:34 Stowaway (2021)
16:12 The Toll (2021)
19:27 Saint Maud (2021)
21:30 Promising Young Woman (2020)
27:56 Psycho Goreman (2021)
37:17 Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
41:48 Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021)
42:33 Pig (2021)
47:15 Hackers (1995)

49:40 Stoker (2013)

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

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Episode #139 of The Swampflix Podcast: Daughters of Darkness (1971) & Lesbian Vampires

Welcome to Episode #139 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss four stylish, retro horrors about lesbian vampires, starting with Daughters of Darkness (1971).

00:00 Welcome

03:00 Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021)
04:20 Pig (2021)
08:20 Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
10:10 Zola (2021)
15:00 Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)
22:00 The Night of the Hunter (1995)
29:30 Disclosure (1994)
33:22 French Exit (2021)

39:50 Daughters of Darkness (1971)
1:00:35 The Vampire Lovers (1970)
1:11:42 Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
1:24:55 The Hunger (1983)

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

– The Podcast Crew

Bonus Features: Starstruck (1982)

Our current Movie of the Month, the new-wave musical Starstruck, plays both like a rough prototype for 90s Australian gems like Strictly Ballroom & Muriel’s Wedding and a jukebox musical adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Usual.  Produced in the early days of MTV broadcasts, the film deviates from the break-from-reality song performances of the traditional movie musical by presenting them in the visual language of early 1980s music videos.  It’s particularly reminiscent of the shared-storyline music videos from Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album cycle, despite being released an entire year before that landmark pop debut.  There are some indulgences in record industry satire, let’s-save-the-pub community rallying, and television broadcast heists along the way, but largely the film is a fantasy-fulfillment for the same sheltered, artsy kids who saw their ideal selves blooming in Lauper’s bubbly, working-class avatar a year later.  And it’s just as satisfying in the movie as it is in those more widely-seen, celebrated videos.

I’d most recommend Starstruck to people who are skeptical of movie musicals as a medium but also find themselves watching marathons of 1980s music videos on YouTube in their idle time.  Its MTV-specific version of fantasy-fulfillment cinema might speak to you in a way most musical theatre can’t.  The new wave music & fashion of Starstruck is pitched exactly to my tastes, anyway, and the movie only strays from those modernized music video pleasures to (lovingly) mock the traditional movie musical as outdated kitsch (most notably in a Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming sequence featuring a pool packed with oiled-up muscle boys).  It’s my ideal version of its genre, and I can’t believe it’s not more routinely cited as an all-time classic.  To that end, here are a few more recommended titles if you are generally skeptical of musical theatre but found yourself enchanted by our Movie of the Month’s new wave, proto-Cyndi Lauper patina.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

It’s shocking in a lot of ways that I did not wind up a genuine musical theatre nerd, considering that one of my favorite films growing up was The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  While the greater cultural understanding of Rocky Horror is as a communal ritual among theatre kids, I never really experienced it that way. Watching my VHS copy on loop as a kid was a solitary hobby, but it taught me everything I love about art, from B-movies to glam rock to drag. It remains an all-time fav, which I can’t say for many full-blown musicals of its ilk.

Besides a shared glam-rock sensibility in their musical numbers and costuming, Rocky Horror and Starstruck also directly share a production designer in Brian Thompson (who also worked on the Rocky Horror stage show).  You can especially feel that shared DNA in Starstruck‘s opening musical number “Temper, Temper”, which is set in a music video nightclub made entirely of neon lights & 1950s kitsch furniture, resembling a new-wave update to the Rocky Horror aesthetic even more so than its spin-off sequel Shock Treatment (also designed by Thompson).  The dance choreography in that scene also directly references the “pelvic thrusts” of Rocky Horror‘s “Time Warp” routine, as if to underline the connection.

Maybe recommending The Rocky Horror Picture Show at all is as obvious & redundant as recommending Citizen Kane (good movie!), but I still think it’s worth highlighting here anyway.  It’s especially worth revisiting if you’re only familiar with the movie as a raucous theatrical ritual among the most annoying kids at your high school.  The songs, the costumes, and the absurdist humor work much better at home than they do in that environment, and they feel like a direct influence on the punk-musical theatricality of our Movie of the Month.

Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984)

My biggest personal revelation watching Starstruck for the first time was that my ideal version of a movie musical is just a feature-length string of music videos held together by as little narrative tissue as possible.  There have been plenty of great examples of that format in recent years in the form of “visual albums”: Dirty Computer, When I Get Home, Lemonade, etc.  None of those modern examples overlap with the explicitly 80s-retro pleasures of Starstruck, though.  For more of that vintage music video musical appeal, you have to time travel back to Voyage of the Rock Aliens.  That mostly forgotten curio presents 1950s atomic sci-fi kitsch in the format of a post-MTV music video musical.  It plays like a crass attempt to reverse-engineer “the next Rocky Horror” (updated with some DEVO flair among the space aliens), but it instead crash lands as its own uniquely adorable oddity.

The titular Rock Aliens are a gaggle of new-wave weirdos from outer space who comb the galaxy for rock music in a guitar-shaped spaceship.  That search quickly leads them to Earth, where they engage in an intergalactic battle of the bands with some local rockabilly types.  Pia Zadora stars as a young Earthling rock singer whose boyfriend won’t let her join his band.  Ruth Gordon is hilariously miscast as a small-town sheriff.  Jermaine Jackson, a giant octopus, and a chainsaw-wielding Michael Berryman all pop in for chaotic bit parts with barely any connection to the plot.  Voyage of the Rock Aliens should be a total embarrassment along the lines of The Apple or Xanadu, but it somehow walks away with the D.I.Y.-glamour charm of a Vegas in Space.  It traffics in the same early-MTV music video escapism of Starstruck, but with almost no dialogue scenes between the musical numbers and with the production budget of a small-town high school play.  It’s super silly, super cute, and worthwhile for Pia Zadora’s 10,000 costume changes alone.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

Since this is ostensibly a list of recommendations for people who don’t generally care for musicals, I figured I should include a movie that isn’t a musical at all.  Like our Movie of the Month, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is about a young woman’s frustrating struggle to break out of her the confines of small working-class town and break into the urban punk scene, despite the macho gatekeepers determined to lock her out.  Both Starstruck and The Fabulous Stains operate as cynical satires of the record industry’s embarrassing mishandling of punk counterculture as a pop media commodity, and both are extremely critical of how minimized women creatives are on both sides of that corporate/artistic divide.  The only real difference is that Starstruck is a bubbly new wave musical fantasy, while The Fabulous Stains is a grittier, proto-riot-grrrl road movie with all of its musical performances grounded as realistic, on-stage concerts.

The one exception to The Fabulous Stains‘s reality-grounded stage performances is its insane filmed-after-the-fact coda that does break from reality in musical theatre tradition.  Thanks to an extended period of post-production studio-notes tinkering wherein Paramount Pictures struggled to figure out what to do with a movie they fundamentally did not understand, the version of late-70s punk The Fabulous Stains thumbed its nose at had become outdated before the movie was theatrically released.  That stasis inspired the producers to tack on a wildly out-of-place music video epilogue that attempts to capitalize on the in-the-mean-time invention of Music TeleVision.  That temporal & tonal jump both enhances the film’s satirical themes and rapidly ages the baby-faced Stains (including Diane Lane & Lauren Dern) into fully formed adults in the blink of an eye.  It also helps define the exact early music video language that Starstruck indulges in throughout, highlighting how that version of break-from-reality theatrical fantasy diverges from traditional movie musicals of the past.

-Brandon Ledet

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)

Unless we’re discussing titans of the medium like Hayao Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon, I’m shamefully unfamiliar with most anime.  As the last thriving refuge for traditional hand drawn animation, I respect the artistry of anime greatly.  I’m just more of an admirer than I am a “fan,” since claiming that latter designation implies you’re extremely well versed and deeply opinionated about the medium in a way I’ll never be able to match.  Saying you’re an Anime Fan is like saying you’re a fan of superhero comics or Star Trek or any other extremely nerdy artform with a decades-spanning history; you better know your obscure, inconsequential trivia down to the last detail, or you’re in for a gatekeeping headache.  Case in point: I finally watched the landmark anime series Cowboy Bebop for the first time since it popped up on Hulu last year, over two decades after its initial run.  If I were an anime fan, that kind of blindspot would be a source of shame I’d have to hide from my cannibalistic anime nerd friends.  Since I’m a casual admirer, though, I get to walk away unscathed — the same as I did when Netflix started streaming Neon Genesis Evangelion a couple years back.

Unsurprisingly, the Cowboy Bebop series is pretty good.  A mash-up of neo-noir, neo-Western, and space travel sci-fi tropes, it’s fairly accessible to casual anime admirers with an appreciation for old-fashioned genre filmmaking.  I found it to be hit-or-miss by episode, but mostly as a matter of personal taste.  The standalone villain-of-the-week episodes were mostly fantastic—especially the ones that veered into my beloved subgenre of spaceship horror—but I was largely indifferent to the show’s overarching Spike vs. Vicious storyline: a prolonged, vague neo-noir plot with no sense of propulsion or purpose.  If I were recommending the show to a similarly anime-ignorant friend, I’d try my best to save their time with a Best Of list of standalone episodes to burn through: the ones with the killer fridge mold, the virtual reality cult, the mushroom trip, the annoying cowboy, and the deranged clown.  If you haven’t seen Cowboy Bebop by now you likely don’t need to watch all 11 hours of the series; you just need a taste, if not only for general pop culture familiarity.  I likely would’ve said the same thing about the monster-of-the-week episodes of The X-Files, though, and I watched that show religiously as it aired, so your mileage may vary.

Luckily, you don’t even have to watch those five Best Of episodes (“Toys in the Attic”, “Brain Scratch”, “Mushroom Samba”, “Cowboy Funk,” “Pierrot le Fou”) to get a proper taste of Cowboy Bebop.  The series conveniently concluded with a standalone villain-of-the-week movie that also sidesteps the energy-draining Spike vs. Vicious storyline entirely, allowing for one final ride with your new favorite spacetraveling bounty hunters.  Cowboy Bebop: The Movie dials the clock back a few episodes into the series before the bounty hunter crew is disbanded (and partially killed) to offer a taste of the show at its prime.  In this extended, posthumous episode, the crew is attempting to capture bio-terrorists on Mars (styled to look suspiciously similar to 1990s NYC) before they release a deadly virus in a densely populated crowd.  The viral outbreak is planned to be staged at a jack-o-lantern-themed variation of the Macy’s Day Parade, making the film a low-key Halloween movie of sorts.  The crew selfishly bickers among themselves, tries to score the bounty on their own, falters, then reforms at the last minute to save the day.  It’s quintessential Cowboy Bebop in that way.

The problem with recommending Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (subtitled Knocking on Heaven’s Door) as a crash course overview of the show is that it’s way too goddamn long.  You could watch all five of the Best Of episodes I mentioned in less time than it would take you to watch this one feature film, and it never hits the same highs as the series proper at its best.  You’d have to trim 30-40 minutes off this thing to make it an enticing alternative for newcomers, and I imagine even long-time fans of the show had their own patience tested with this two-hour standalone.  Cowboy Bebop: The Movie isn’t Cowboy Bebop at its most creative or most exciting.  However, it is Cowboy Bebop at its most functional.  The main draw of the film is seeing a somewhat scrappy, experimental series funded with proper time & budget to get its details in order.  The personal & professional dynamics among the space crew are never as clearly defined on the show as they are in the movie, where even lesser side characters like Ein & Edward are fully integrated into the daily business of intergalactic bountyhunting in a way that finally makes sense.  More importantly, the animation itself is afforded way more resources to flourish.  On the show, the intrusion of CG animation felt like a budget-cutting measure; here it looks purposefully surreal in a more thoughtfully mapped-out hand drawn backdrop.  Whereas most “The Movie” versions of TV shows go big with their plots, locations, and scope to justify the jump from the small screen, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie only goes big on its look.

If I had only watched Cowboy Bebop: The Movie for an overview taste of the show, I might’ve assumed the series was a lot more creatively limited than what the best bounty-of-the-week episodes had to offer.  It’s a good episode of the series, but it’s too long and too tame to be a great one.  However, I did find it to be a great “What If” illustration of how much more visually spectacular the TV show might’ve been if it had the time & money to luxuriate in production the way the movie did.  It’s fun to look back on the production limitations of the five Best Of episodes I mentioned and imagine them even more visually extravagant in their animation, since I now know what that might look like.  Regardless of that hypothetical, I very much love them as-is.  You might even call me a fan.

-Brandon Ledet

Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)

I love the 1996 sci-fi comedy film Space Jam, by which I mean I was 10 years old in 1996.  Even as an adult, I find the movie fascinating as a corporate cashgrab mash-em-up of two disparate but popular brands—Looney Tunes & Michael Jordan—that accidently stumbled into sublimely silly post-modern absurdism.  The contortions Space Jam forces itself into to highlight both a post-baseball, career-reflective Michael Jordan and a hyperviolent, physics-defying cartoon bunny are incredible to watch, both from a place of ironic detachment and as in-the-moment entertainment.  Of course, it’s impossible for me to claim that Space Jam is objectively good, considering that anyone who was not a child in the mid-90s seems to despise it as a cultural scourge rather than just a middling, studio-made kids’ film.  I just want to confess up-front that I’m a Space Jam apologist; I even prefer it to the Joe Dante Looney Tunes film that supposedly fixed all its faults (according to more respectable tastemakers).  That way I can I credibly say I went into Space Jam: A New Legacy genuinely hopeful that I would enjoy the experience.  I did not watch this long-delayed sequel just to lazily dunk on it or call it out as the death knell of modern cinema.  I thought it might be fun.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is devoid of fun.  It succeeds neither as intentional comedy nor as accidental absurdism.  It lacks the shameless commitment to its own crass commercialism that the pushed the original Space Jam to the point of post-modern delirium.  Like the worst cash-grab sequels, it does its best to retrace the steps of its predecessor while suppressing all its strangest, most exciting ideas to the margins.  A New Legacy simply subs out Michael Jordan for his modern-day equivalent in LeBron James, then hangs up the towel.  James teams up with Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters to win a cosmic game of basketball so he can get back to his family . . . except this time the game is staged in a computer server instead of outer space.  That venue change allows the new Space Jam to rope in as many background characters as it can from the full library of Warner Bros. Entertainment IP including blasphemous “cameos” from “cinematic universes” like The Matrix, The Devils, Casablanca, A Clockwork Orange, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.  That’s the kind of naked corporate-synergy flexing that has professional critics decrying the film as “an abomination”, “an apocalyptic horror movie”, and a “swirling CGI garbage tornado.”  Those layup hit-pieces were preloaded before the movie was actually screened for critics, though.  What really holds A New Legacy back is that it keeps its only new, exciting idea—that intrusion of characters from classic films outside the Looney Tunes brand—relegated to the background.  King Kong, The Penguin, and Baby Jane Hudson should have been shooting hoops alongside LeBron James and Bugs Bunny, not cheering them on from the sidelines in blurred-out crowd shots.

It’s most widely being compared to Spielberg’s post-apocalyptic VR thriller Ready Player One (which is much more critical of this kind of self-aggrandizing IP worship than it’s given credit for), but the basic premise of Space Jam: A New Legacy actually lands much closer to the underappreciated sci-fi bummer The Congress.  In a dystopian vision that only rings truer to out shithole reality every year, The Congress imagines a world where celebrities no longer physically perform in mass-distributed art, but instead are scanned-into a computer system that simulates their screen presence in AI emulations.  It’s the ultimate movie studio power grab, one we’ve seen echoed in real-life simulations of deceased performers in films like Rogue One (Peter Cushing), Furious 7 (Paul Walker) and, most recently, the ethically-shaky documentary Roadrunner (Anthony Bordain).  In Space Jam: A New Legacy, LeBron James is offered the same opportunity: being scanned into the Warner Bros. “serververse” so his likeness can be plugged into whatever intellectual property the mega-corporation can scoop up before Disney gets to it first.  A New Legacy even maintains some of the dystopian undercurrent of Ready Player One & The Congress, with human beings cheering on the Looney Tunes team on one side of the court, fictional-product characters cheering on the opposing team of villains, and Don Cheadle orchestrating the entire event from the center as an evil algorithm MC (the film’s only decent, fully committed performance).  No matter how much its pile-on of disparate IPs in a single locale is supposed to register as Fun! and Cool!, the Warner Bros. studio itself is clearly positioned as the main villain of the piece, in direct opposition to its human, terrified audience, which it literally holds captive. 

It’s a shame that idea wasn’t pushed further.  If the entire point of this movie was for Warner Bros. to show off its extensive collection of intellectual properties, it should have just flooded the screen with them to the point where the audience was crushed under their immensity. Instead, it just sweeps them to the background so LeBron James can cosplay as a late-career Michael Jordan by recreating the exact plot beats & character dynamics of the original Space Jam in a new locale.  At least doubling down on its grotesque display of corporate synergy could’ve been memorable. As is, there’s nothing offered here worth sitting through A New Legacy to see, which I’m saying even as the rare dumdum who loves the original Space Jam, The Congress and, to a lesser extent, Ready Player One.  There are technically jokes in this movie, but none of them are funny (save maybe a couple throwback Silent Cinema gags featuring Wile E. Coyote).  It’s a full half-hour longer than the original, sacrificing the breakneck pacing that makes it such a breezy watch.  LeBron James is too concerned with being lauded as both the greatest basketball player to have ever lived and the ultimate family man to do anything risky or interesting with the material.  Even with all those missteps, though, A New Legacy‘s greatest sin is that it doesn’t push its one deviation from the original Space Jam to its furthest possible extreme.  Humorless movie nerds were already going to be pissed about it dragging characters from beloved classics down to the level of a Space Jam sequel no matter what, so there’s no reason for the movie to be timid about its shameless Warner Bros. IP promotion.  Fuck it.  Show Pennywise spin-dunking in Immortan Joe’s face, then high-fiving Free Willy and planting a sloppy kiss on Lego Catwoman’s blocky lips.  If you’re going to be blasphemous, at least have fun with it.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Cube³ – Cube Cubed

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss the sequel & prequel to the high-concept Canuxploitation sci-fi thriller Cube (1997): Cube² – Hypercube (2002) & Cube Zero (2004).

00:00 Welcome

05:35 A Glitch in the Matrix (2021)
25:55 Black Widow (2021)
28:55 Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)
34:44 Karnan (2021)

37:30 Cube 2: Hypercube (2002)
57:50 Cube Zero (2004)

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

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Nobody (2021)

I’ve lost track of how we’re supposed to react to Bob Odenkirk as a screen presence.  After all the obsessive rewatches of Mr. Show DVD sets in my college years I’m trained to receive Odenkirk as a sight gag, where his very presence is meant to read as a joke.  Given the barely stifled laughter that echoed his titular line reading of “My little women!” in my theater screening of Gerwig’s Little Women, I assume I’m not the only one who reacts to him that way.  Bob Odenkirk is synonymous with sketch comedy in my mind, making any scene he’s in inherently feel like a bit.  What’s confusing about that association is that Odenkirk has been much busier and more widely popular in recent years in a medium I know very little about: Prestige Television.  His roles on shows like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and Fargo appear to be occasionally comedic in the way most TV dramas dabble in dark humor from time to time, but for the most part they’re played straight.  Bob Odenkirk is just as much of a legitimate actor now as he was a visual punchline in the past, and it’s up to the audience’s personal familiarity with specific pockets of his work to determine how he’s going to register onscreen (the same way I can’t watch Toby Huss in a serious dramatic role without first thinking of Artie, The Strongest Man in the World for at least a half-second). 

That muddled screen persona makes for an initially confusing experience in Odenkirk’s post-John Wick action vehicle Nobody.  At first glance, it’s absolutely absurd that Odenkirk would be starring in any kind of action movie at all, much less one styled after the bone-crunching ultraviolence of John Wick.  You’re not immediately invited to laugh at that casting choice, though, since Nobody plays its John Wick in the Suburbs premise entirely straight.  Odenkirk plays a self-identified “nobody”: a suburban dad with severe home invasion anxieties and an exponentially distanced relationship with his nuclear family, who’re bored by his stability.  The only early wink towards the absurdism of Odenkirk’s casting is in the brutality of its close-quarters violence.  Once a bloodlust is awakened in the milquetoast suburban dad, he over-commits to his role as a macho protector, and it’s absolutely bizarre to see Odenkirk smashing windows and crushing throats as if he were a retired, middle-age Rambo.  As that violence escalates and the suburban-America nobody’s list of enemies grows to include the entire Russian mafia, it’s clear that this is very much an intentional action-comedy; it’s just one that’s incredibly patient in paying off the set-up to the punchline.  Odenkirk starts the film in his Prestige TV Drama mode but by the end he’s a full-on sketch comedy player.

I had a lot of fun with Nobody once it fully sketched out what it’s doing.  Based on its marketing (and the involvement of producer David Leitch), I expected it to be a fish-out-of-water action comedy about suburban dad stumbling into a John Wick plot.  By the end, I was more convinced it was a direct parody of every post-Taken Liam Neeson thriller about a dad on the verge.  All the signs were there if I had known to look for them.  My borrowed library DVD started with a Liam Neeson trailer; Odenkirk grimly refers to his secretive military past, hinting at a “very particular set of skills” that could be deployed to save his family; he breaks into thieves’ apartment to retrieve his daughter’s beloved kittycat bracelet instead of, you know, his entire daughter; etc.  The opening montage is even a direct spoof of the morning-routine sequence from The Commuter (aka Taken on a Train, not to be confused with Non-Stop, aka Taken on a Plane).  The only way the Neeson spoofing could’ve been more obvious is if Odenkirk were speaking in a gravelly Irish accent, and I still didn’t catch onto what it was doing until about halfway into the runtime.  Nobody is a Mr. Show level parody of the post-Taken dad thriller; it just doesn’t make that satirical target immediately apparent.

The tonal confusion of what eventually turns out to be an over-the-top action comedy here feels both purposeful and effective.  Odenkirk’s mid-life macho fantasy of being an untapped protector of his household just waiting for a threat to quash is already funny enough when it’s played straight in the opening act.  Watching that fantasy meet the harsh reality of a suburban dad bod being pummeled by Russian mobsters mid-film is even funnier.  Then, the whole thing farcically escalates into live-action cartoon mayhem by the finale, boldly underlining the absurdism of its premise to the point where it’s unignorable.  If I were more confident on where Odenkirk is in his acting career (basically, if I watched more cable TV dramas) I might’ve caught onto that parodic sense of humor a lot sooner, but it took me a minute to get my footing on the film’s tone.  In retrospect, that makes it the perfect Bob Odenkirk vehicle despite the unlikeliness of its genre: a comedy where you’re not initially sure whether you’re supposed to treat the actor as a joke but it’s funny either way.

-Brandon Ledet

The Columnist (2021)

This is going to sound ironic coming from someone who publishes multiple paragraphs of movie opinions no one asked for on a daily basis, but I’ve been trying my best to avoid Online Film Discourse lately.  I still frequently listen to podcasts, lurk in heavily curated Facebook & Twitter circles, and refresh my Activity feed on Letterboxd—mostly looking for new movies to watch—but I’m becoming increasingly reluctant to participate in conversations with strangers online about movies, or about anything at all.  Sometime between the reactionary blowback to the Cuties trailer and the immediate Hot Take apocalypse aftermath of Bo Burnham: Inside, I’ve just lost my taste for engaging with strangers’ opinions online.  I’ll read and listen to film criticism, but I have no energy for contributing to the discussion . . . unless that discussion is contained among the half-dozen people who contribute to the Swampflix blog & podcast.  That loss of appetite for a more generalized, public form of film discourse is likely Pandemic related.  I’m just generally burnt out on the daily chore of basic existence, and having all my social interactions limited to digitally obscured strangers is not helping at all.  If anything, spending too much time scrolling my Twitter feed makes me outright misanthropic; I always end up walking away with a few sparse movie recommendations and a thousand reasons to feel worse about the nature of humanity as a species.  The tradeoff is not really worth it.

The recent Dutch black comedy The Columnist deeply understands that kind of internet-inspired misanthropy, just as much as it understands how weak I am for succumbing to it.  It’s a satirical horror film for our cursed Online Discourse times.  It treats the universal truth “Never read the comment section” with the same grave seriousness previous generations’ horror films gravely warned “Never sleep in the woods,” “Never have premarital sex”, and “Never swim on a shark-infested beach.”  Katja Herbers stars as a clickbait columnist who reads one too many anonymous sexist tweets about her work and snaps, going on a violent rampage.  It starts as a kind of writer’s block thriller, where she cannot focus on her work until her detractors are violently silenced (after she slays them in their homes, confronting them with sexist language from their tweets).  By the end, though, she’s totally Jokerfied, losing track of her familial connections and professional duty to create #content in her pursuit to destroy every last misogynist troll who antagonizes her online — of which there is an infinite supply.  The biggest red flag that she’s lost to the madness of Online Discourse is when she announces that she’s officially quitting Twitter, then spends more time obsessively checking the notifications on that message than she does writing or enjoying her life.  It’s a very familiar kind of horror, one that evokes a humor of recognition and despair rather than anything politically satirical.

The Columnist is smart enough to satirize its antiheroine for her own ideological weaknesses, so as not to entirely rely on The Internet Is Evil fearmongering.  She’s at least lightly ribbed for her amorphous neolib politics, as her strongest ideological stances are that blackface is bad (a still-sensitive subject in Holland, at least, thanks to Christmas celebrations involving the figure Black Peter) and that people with differing opinions should be nicer to each other online.  Still, it mostly backs her ultraviolent revenge on her much more grotesque right-wing trolls, gleefully indulging in a Fuck Around and Find Out ethos.  The Columnist is most fun as a pitch-black counterpoint to all those NPR & Chris Gethard human interest stories where targets of online bullying forgive and make amends with their vilest trolls.  Here, internet vitriol is literalized into physical, cartoonish violence and everyone involved is mocked for getting sucked into the pointless ritual of Online Discourse in the first place.  It’s just as cathartic as it is sharply observed, especially considering that women in particular take the most shit for daring to have opinions online (apparently even women with benign clickbait-friendly “opinions” of no real consequence).

As an illustration of why I’m losing my appetite for engaging in Online Film Discourse with unmoderated strangers, I’d like to point to the real-world clickbait article “Bizarre Dutch dark comedy film ‘The Columnist’ mocked for showing journalist on a killing spree against online critics“.  Much like the reactionary blowback to films like Cuties, Joker, and The Hunt months before they were actually released, The Columnist apparently stirred up minor right-wing vitriol for “endorsing” the murder of lefty journalists’ political opponents.  You can’t fault the anonymous right-wing commentariat (and their army of bots) for willfully misconstruing the point of a movie that satirizes the journalist herself as well as her trolls; after all, they were commenting on a movie they hadn’t seen.  It’s still a useful affirmation that the kind of aggressively inane Online Discourse that accompanies every last news item (including the release of low-budget Dutch horror comedies, apparently) is enough to make a normal, calm person violently misanthropic — proving the satirical point of The Columnist months before the movie was released.  Anyway, I should have known better than to read that comment section round-up in the first place, a mistake I hope I can avoid making again in the future.

-Brandon Ledet