Much to everyone’s shock, Tubi has proven to be of the most surprisingly substantial players in the online streaming game over the past year or so. What used to be a low-rent platform for disposable horror schlock that falls just outside the public domain is now a staggering online library of great works on the level of a Criterion Channel or an HBO Max. To solidify its legitimacy as a formidable streaming giant, Tubi is now apparently getting into the business of premiering artsy indie films from the festival circuit, a far cry from its origins as a last resort destination to watch Wishmaster 3, or whatever.
Tubi’s bold foray into prestigious festival acquisitions is Beast Beast, a very Sundancey teen drama about gun violence. Think of it as a Gen-Z update of Elephant. The lives of three average suburban teens interweave in the weeks leading up to a fatal shooting, which shockingly does not take place on a high school campus. The movie does nothing to hide the identity of the eventual shooter, making it obvious who’s going to do the killing even if their targets are obscured. You know exactly where the movie’s going until it gets there . . . and then there’s fifteen extra minutes of unexpected, pulpy denouement. This movie is the ultimate example of the dictum “It’s not what happens but how it happens,” as the hyperkinetic, youthful style entirely overpowers its afternoon-special PSA plotting.
The three youths profiled here are all distinct in their public & private personae, but like most kids born in The Internet Age, they all share a compulsion to produce online #content, building their personal brands on platforms like YouTube & Instagram. As their disparate hobbies of drumming, skateboarding, amateur filmmaking, and firing assault weapons in the woods collide in frantic montage, it’s clear that we’re living in a post-context world. One of those afterschool activities is way more sinister than the others, and it’s shocking to see it presented so casually in a teen melodrama with an inevitable tragic ending. What’s exciting about Beast Beast is how aware the kids are of their online presence’s effect on the world, allowing them to weaponize Public Perception while avenging that tragedy once it occurs. Its a film both horrified by and in reverent awe of the Internet as a creative & destructive tool, depending on who’s wielding it.
Beast Beast is the exact kind of low-budget filmmaking that earns a lot of unfair eyerolls, but it really worked for me. Its multimedia approach to photography and its exponentially intense sound design genuinely rattled me in a way few dramas have managed to in the past year, thanks to the general emotional numbness of the pandemic. Unfortunately, that’s the exact reason it’s such a poor fit for Tubi as a streaming platform. Instead of being able to fully immerse myself in that tension for that full 85 runtime, I was frequently iced down by Tubi’s randomly interjected commercial breaks, the platform’s Achilles heel. If Tubi’s going to be getting into smaller arthouse films, I’m not sure the commercial breaks are entirely worth it. Beast Beast is one of the best new releases I’ve seen so far this year, but I’d likely be even more over the moon for it if it weren’t interrupted by Verizon shills & Charmin bears.
Welcome to Episode #134 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s list-topping classic Vertigo (1958) and its varied homages from cheeky provocateurs Guy Maddin, Brian De Palma, and Lucio Fulci.
02:00 Becky (2020) 03:55 Citizen Ruth (1996) 06:36 Mortal Kombat (2021) 11:20 Clockwatchers (1997) 13:56 The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021) 16:30 Psycho Goreman (2021) 17:35 Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)
19:28 Vertigo (1958) 43:00 Perversion Story (1969) 1:01:11 Obsession (1976) 1:17:40 The Green Fog (2017)
The last time WrestleMania came through New Orleans, I indulged in a few of the smaller satellite shows that popped up around the city, including one put on by an extremely nerdy promotion out of NYC called Kaiju Big Battel. Sitting in a brightly lit auditorium after midnight, watching a kaiju-themed wrestling show with a shockingly sober, wholesome crowd, was a one-of-a-kind delight — an experience I doubt I’ll ever be able to fully replicate. The wrestlers were mostly costumed in giant plush outfits—dressed as hamburgers, 1950s robots, literal dust bunnies, and cans of soup—smashing each other into the cardboard cities that decorated the ring they used as a goofball playground. I guess it’s possible to take an unfavorable view of an American company boiling down the kaiju genre to such broadly silly terms, considering its heartbreaking origins as an expression of post-nuclear Japanese national grief in the original Godzilla. However, the further I dig into the Godzilla canon in recent months, the more I’m starting to realize just how faithful the Kaiju Big Battel brand of novelty wrestling is to its Godzilla roots; it’s just calling back to a later, decidedly kid-friendly era of Godzilla filmmaking detached from the giant lizard’s grim-as-fuck origins.
If there’s any one Godzilla movie that could be blamed for cheapening the monster’s brand with broadly silly slapstick comedy, it’s likely Godzilla vs Megalon. Thanks to an ugly pan-and-scan transfer with an English dub that was allowed to temporarily slip into the public domain, it’s the Shōwa era Godzilla film that was most widely available to the American public for decades — lurking in creature-of-the-week television broadcasts, gas station DVD bargain bins, and MST3k target practice. Godzilla vs Megalon appears to have a dire reputation as a result, diluting the larger Godzilla brand with misconceptions that the series was always dirt-cheap and aimed at little kids’ sensibilities. I can’t personally attest to the quality of that much-seen pan-and-scan edit of Godzilla vs Megalon, but the Criterion restoration that’s currently steaming online is both beautifully colorful and wonderfully goofy. It was obviously a rushed, cheap production, but the kaiju battles have a distinct pro wrestling charm to them that makes for great late-night viewing, transporting me back to that Kaiju Big Battel show in the best way possible. I can’t say the movie doesn’t deserve its reputation as the bottom of the kaiju media barrel, but now that the more important, prestigious Godzilla films are widely available in their original form, I think there’s a lot more room for audiences to appreciate the film’s delirious, Saturday Morning Cartoon silliness for what it is.
The humans-on-the-ground plot of Godzilla vs Megalon feels like repurposed scenes from a 1970s live-action Disney espionage comedy, by which I mean they’re not very memorable or worthy of discussion. What’s really worth paying attention to here is the pro wrestling booking of the monster fights. The film is a tag team match. In one corner, we have the debut (and final) match of Megalon, a profoundly idiotic beetle worshiped by the underwater occultists of Seatopia. In the other corner, we have the movie’s face: Jet Jaguar, an Ultraman rip-off robot with an insanely wide grin — also appearing in his debut (and final) match. Neither contender is enough of a draw to carry the movie on their own, so they’re paired with charismatic tag team partners to help get them over with the crowd. Megalon is paired with Gigan, a much lesser robo-Godzilla derivative than Mechagodzilla, whose non-presence essentially turns this into a squash match. Jet Jaguar, of course, is paired with Godzilla, a legitimizing tag team partner whose popularity should have been able to forever endear his new robo-friend to children everywhere. That proved to be an unsuccessful gamble in the long run (Jet Jaguar was never seen or heard from again), but Godzilla appears to have fun trying. He performs here with the broadly expressive physical language of a wrestler playing to the backseats in a packed auditorium, aiming for big laughs and even bigger wrestling maneuvers that any kid should be delighted cheer on from the crowd.
To its credit, Godzilla vs Megalon does vaguely motion towards the eco-conscious concerns of larger Godzilla lore in its early goings, pitting both the kaiju and the underwater sea cult against us surface humans after our nuclear tests pollute the atmosphere. The film isn’t earnestly about those themes, though, no more than it’s earnestly about Godzilla or Megalon. This is Jet Jaguar’s show through & through, as evidenced by the grinning robot closing out the show with his own badass theme song — the same way pro wrestlers replay their entrance music while they lift newly-won championship belts in victory. Jet Jaguar was created specifically for the film as contest entry from a small child (explaining the not-so-vague resemblance to Ultraman), which is a pretty blatant excuse to sell new kaiju toys & merch. Because the production was rushed, underfunded, and marketed specifically at little kids’ sensibilities, there isn’t much destruction of towns or cities (outside some crudely inserted stock footage from better-funded Godzilla films), so most of the monster action is staged in an open field, away from the necessity of expensive miniatures. The result is basically the movie version of Kaiju Big Battel: dudes in goofy costumes body slamming each other in fits of broad, slapstick humor. It sucks that the kaiju genre was once only associated with that kind of silly novelty entertainment, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining, especially now that the more serious end of the genre is more widely respected and readily accessible.
Between the Shōwa era Godzilla films becoming widely available for home streaming via The Criterion Channel & HBO Max and Adam Wingard finally delivering a decent MonsterVerse film in Godzilla vs Kong, I’ve caught a touch of kaiju fever this year. Whenever I’m soul-tired and not sure what to watch, I find myself throwing on a giant monster movie to blankly stare at, the same way a lot of pandemic-fatigued audiences have been looping old episodes of The Office & Friends ad infinitum. It’s hasn’t exactly been a bad or unhealthy coping mechanism as far as I can tell, but I will say I hit a new low in the indulgence recently when I watched the generically titled Ape vs Monster. A rushed, made-for-TV cash-in on the Godzilla vs Kong box office success, Ape vs Monster has absolutely no redeeming qualities worthy of discussion besides the temporary novelty of watching two more CG creatures fight for my half-interested “amusement”. I wish I could say I didn’t enjoy the experience.
A chimpanzee launched into space as a failed Cold War science experiment crash-lands back to Earth decades later, covered in a glowing green ooze that exponentially mutates it to kaiju-size. A nearby Gila monster drinks the same ooze (intercut with the same insert shots of the moon looking spooky over their shared desertscape setting) and grows to the same towering scale. They fight. Meanwhile, lady scientists and macho military men bicker at the creatures’ feet about the ethics of euthanizing them before the fight changes venue to a nearby city. One of the scientists also reconnects with her estranged father for a vague motion towards pathos, but who in the audience could possibly care?
Ape vs Monster is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a made-for-TV Asylum mockbuster “starring” Eric Roberts, at least in terms of its unenthused tone, awkwardly performed dialogue, and lingering shots of nothing that long outstay their welcome to stretch out the runtime. Still, there is something special about its slapdash kaiju creature effects. The studio’s cheap-o CGI has an absurdist cut & paste aesthetic to it that’s difficult to look at directly without your brain leaking out of your nose. The Gila monster looks like a discarded video game prototype adapted from the American Godzilla film from 1998. Meanwhile, the ape monster doesn’t look like anything in particular, and the longer you stare at its awkward magnificence the less its primatial design makes any sense. Watching the two computerized abominations struggle to make tactile, physical contact is like trying to explain the finer details of a half-remembered dream; the audience doesn’t actually care, but that doesn’t make it any less surreal.
If anything has become clear to me as I’ve been indulging in disposable kaiju novelties in recent months, it’s that I don’t need much out of a movie to enjoy myself beyond a goofy-looking onscreen monster. That’s clearly the only saving grace of Ape vs Monster, which delivers two fascinating-looking goofballs and not much else. The movie does have the gall to tease a queer-bait romance shared between lady scientists on opposite sides of an ongoing Cold War, but it’s frustratingly uninterested in following through with that impulse. I even thought I was mistaking the Russian character’s sultry accent for queer tension at first, until one of the would-be couple’s macho military-man adversaries complains “Those two seem . . . unusually chummy.” If it had committed to staging a lesbian romance at the feet of its disgraceful CG kaiju creatures, it might have had something special on its hands. As is, it’s thoroughly unremarkable beyond the accidental surrealism of its monster designs, which is only to be enjoyed by the easily amused — i.e. me.
Psycho Goreman is the movie I most desperately wanted to see made when I was ten years old. In other words, it’s an R-rated version of Power Rangers. The Astron-6-adjacent horror comedy deliberately evokes the live action Saturday morning TV programming of my youth in its tone & imagery, but ages up the humor of that vintage 90s Kids™ media with hack jokes about how believing in God is for rubes and wives are humorless nags. I can’t say that novelty lands especially sweetly in my thirties, especially since its So Random! sense of humor is poisonously self-aware, but I’m convinced I would have absolutely loved it when I was still a child obsessed with monster movies & shock comedy — the same way I’m sure the world’s biggest fans of the equally unfunny Deadpool movies are the children who are technically too young to watch them but snuck them past their parents.
At least Psycho Goreman is aware of its ideal audience, as evidenced by its explosively violent little-girl protagonist. After bullying her soft-hearted brother into digging a massive hole in their backyard for her own sadistic delight, our audience-surrogate sociopath discovers a long-buried magical amulet that unleashes an ancient evil unto the world, à la The Gate. The amulet affords her total command over the wicked monster that emerges—the titular Psycho Goreman—an intergalactic mass-murderer who’s embarrassed to be indentured to the “two brainless meat children” who discover his remote control. It’s pretty much a hangout film from there. Psycho Goreman delivers purposefully overwritten Pinhead speeches about the evil acts he’d like to commit once freed; his pint-sized girlboss makes him perform menial demeaning tasks for her own amusement instead; and an intergalactic council of outer space weirdos directly out of a Power Rangers episode plot to destroy “PG” while he’s temporarily indisposed. It’s all very cute, even if the jokes it’s in service of aren’t very funny.
I’m not opposed to this type of ironic 90s Kid™ retro-nostalgia on principle. If nothing else, I’ve enjoyed similar homages to the era’s cultural runoff in films like Brigsby Bear, Turbo Kid, and the actual Power Rangers reboot. I just didn’t connect with the self-amused meta humor of this particular specimen in that genre, something I should have expected as soon as the similarly limp WolfCop trailer preceded it on my local library’s copy of the DVD. Still, Psycho Goreman has a lot going for it visually, with enough practical gore, rubber-suit monsters, and stop-motion grotesqueries to pave over the dead silence of its jokes falling flat. More importantly, while I’m no longer a taboo-craving ten-year-old, plenty of little weirdos out there still are. If they can manage to sneak this naughty R-rated novelty past their parents while they’re still at the right age, it could birth a ton of lifelong horror nerds. I’m choosing to count that as a net good, even if I’m not as personally enthusiastic about the movie as I wanted to be.
Much like with zombies, it’s easy to convince yourself that every possible angle on vampire lore has already been covered in movies, leaving no more room for novelty or innovation. To its credit, the Irish horror comedy Boys from County Hell points to a pretty major oversight in that seemingly overworked genre, an obvious angle on the vampire movie as an artform that’s hard to believe hasn’t been covered before. In practice, it’s a fairly standard indie horror about working class joe schmoes’ war with an ancient vampire. However, its locally-sourced vampire lore predates the Bram Stoker Dracula novel that most other vampire movies pull direct influence from, clearing out the cobwebs of a now ancient genre to make its archetypal ghoul surprisingly fresh again. Too bad its chosen POV & tone feel just as tired as the vampire mythos of the least-inspired movies it’s attempting to subvert.
Boys from County Hell is not at all shy about expressing its boredom with standard vampire lore. The film is set in the small Irish town where Bram Stoker researched his genre-defining novel, using local folklore about a vampiric demon named Abhartach as inspiration for the broader details of Count Dracula. As a result, the town has become a minor vampire-themed tourist attraction, drawing the most annoying of foreign backpackers to Abhartach’s grave and to the town’s only pub, The Stoker. Local soccer & construction bros roll their eyes at the intrusion of outsiders, complaining between pints of beer that “Most people don’t even know Stoker was Irish” in thick, subtitle-necessary accents. Of course, they’re eventually confronted with the “true” version of the mythical vampire once Abhartach’s grave is inevitably disturbed, unleashing an in-the-flesh bloodsucker on the unsuspecting working-class townies who’ve long dismissed the ghoul as an old wives’ tale.
To be honest, there isn’t much innovation or novelty in the movie’s actual vampire action once Abhartach is freed from his grave. Sure, some of the long-established Rules of horror-movie vampirism are proven to be nonsense (re: sunlight, crucifixes, stakes to the heart, etc.), but much of the set pieces & iconography feel overly familiar for a movie that deliberately intends to upend its chosen genre. Even Abhartach himself is designed to look like a Nosferatu type, recalling the equivalent ancient roommate in Taika Waititi’s own horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows. The most the film really distinguishes him from Dracula is in his method of extracting victims’ blood, which is more as a kind of organic magnet than a direct suction technique. That choice does lead to some stomach-churning rivers of blood that gush out of the undeserving townies—a truly horrific sight—but I wouldn’t say it’s enough to subvert the entire vampire genre in any substantial way.
I wouldn’t need Boys from County Hell to do more to reinvigorate the vampire movie’s basic tropes & imagery if there were anything else of interest outside those defiantly traditional scares. The titular lads who guide the film’s tone & POV are total bores, the kind of one-dimensional bros that could only be worth following if they were also targets of parody. Instead, the film is clearly aligned with their macho sensibilities, as reflected in its jocky soundtrack & humor. There’s only one woman of note in the entire cast (Louisa Harland, the weirdo cousin from Derry Girls, in a minor supporting role), but there are sleazy guitar riffs a plenty. As a result, I personally struggled to connect with this on any level beyond its direct commentary on the tired tropes of the vampire genre. That academic commentary was just enough to make the film worth a one-time look, but I doubt I’ll be returning to it in the future. I’ll save all my Irish horror comedy love for Extra Ordinary, a movie wherein women exist and truck-commercial guitar licks are rightfully mocked.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the children’s fantasy film The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), a gently magical folktale about selkies from director John Sayles.
01:00 Beastly (2011) 01:40 House of the Witch (2017) 02:22 The Eagle (2011) 03:28 Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) 05:51 The Core (2003) 06:51 Deadcon (2019) 08:30 The Wretched (2019) 09:50 Death Machine (1994) 12:00 The Hidden (1987) 13:55 The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (1988) 15:00 Over the Garden Wall (2014) 15:45 The Exorcist (1973) 18:22 Candyman (1992) 20:17 Promising Young Woman (2020) 22:23 Teeth (2007) 25:25 The Power (2021)
It’s difficult to make a documentary about yourself without coming across as a narcissistic bore. Every now and then, there’s an Agnès Varda level genius who can turn their personal travel journals into god-tier masterpieces like The Gleaners and Ior a celebrity with long-buried familial skeletons in the closet to unearth for cathartic entertainment, as in Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. For the most part, though, it’s difficult for an audience to match a filmmaker’s fascination with their own everyday lives & relationships. The recent documentary/essay Madame somehow clears that hurdle with ease even without a flashy editing style or a grandly traumatic familial mystery to unearth. It’s a quiet, intimate documentary about a gay filmmaker’s loving but distanced relationship with his own grandmother, nothing more. And yet it has a lot of genuinely fascinating things to say that reach far beyond the expected navel-gazing of that subject.
Stéphane Riethauser structures Madame as a posthumous conversation with his deceased grandmother, mostly filling her in on all the things he didn’t get to say or convey in the years when they were most estranged. Those were the years when Riethauser was a closeted homosexual (at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s & 90s, no less), afraid to come out to even his most loving family members in fear that they would reject him for being himself. He starts by promising a frank discussion about gender, love, and sexuality from his own perspective, but the more he attempts to meet his grandmother on equal footing, he realizes that she was an iconoclast in her own time in a near-identical way. Ostracized by her Catholic family for divorcing young and making her own way as a businesswoman decades before Riethauser was born, his grandmother was no stranger to the alienation of being Different in a world that values conservatism & conformity. By recounting their respective, rigidly gendered upbringings, Madame sketches out a wide range of microscopic ways sexism & homophobia are reinforced in modern social structures, and how that can obstruct meaningful human connections – including the one between a loving grandmother & grandson with a shared defiant spirit.
Even beyond its prodding at larger social & philosophical ills, Madame is also just a wonderful looking film. Riethauser sequences tons of beautiful archival footage from his childhood into a gloomy diary-in-motion, with constant narration pointing out what’s rotting just under the surface of a seemingly happy family life. That molded photo album aesthetic wouldn’t be enough to fully engage an audience outside his immediate family circle, though. What really makes the film special is its exploration of homophobia as the “offspring” of sexism. It directly links the ways he & his grandmother were suppressed by their conservative, religious upbringings, and how rigid gender expectations created entirely unnecessary boundaries between them even after they broke free of those social shackles. It’s a long stare in the mirror in the way a lot of tedious, navel-gazing self-portraits can be, but it’s one of the few examples that transcends the expected limitations of that choice by making the personal universal. We all suffer under social expectations of traditional gender performance, and we’re all worse off for it.
It might be something of a Hot Take to say so, but I overall really enjoyed Soderbergh’s stripped-down, intimate Oscars broadcast – especially considering the context of this year. The general complaint in the weeks leading up to the 93rd Academy Awards was that none of the movies nominated matter/exist to most people, so it was kinda sweet to see an intimate, personalized broadcast pitched directly at the niche audience already in the know. I don’t think the streamlined, de-glitzed format would work as well in a year where people gather in groups for Oscar parties, but I had a nice pizza-on-the-couch night myself. Still, I can’t say I was especially invested in any of the night’s Big Wins, at least not as a casual movie nerd. My two least favorite films that I caught up with before the Oscars—Nomadland and Another Round—won major prizes; my two very favorite films nominated—Emma. and Pinocchio—were ignored even as technical achievements; and a lot of the awards in-between went to expensive-to-access 2021 releases that I have not yet seen: The Father and Minari. I was surprised, then, that the award that most excited me this year was the Best Original Screenplay win for Promising Young Woman, a film I only liked just Okay.
I remember listening to an interview with the executive producer of Horror Noire, Tananarive Due, a few years ago (on the now-defunct Shock Waves podcast) about the Black cinema documentary’s then-upcoming release. Due explained that the doc was greenlit the very next morning after Jordan Peele won his Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Get Out (Peele was a producer and interview subject involved in the production of Horror Noire). Then she & the Blumhouse reps in the room alluded to several other black-led genre projects in the works that got launched at that same time, ones Peele was not involved in whatsoever. That interview has stuck with me over the past few years as the noticeable uptick of mainstream Black horror films & TV shows have made their way into wide distribution, making it so that it’s almost already time for a Horror Noire sequel. Some of those projects have been great; some have been godawful. All of them directly benefited from the prestige of a Get Out Oscar win, no matter what you may think about the pageantry of Entertainment Industry Awards shows. That’s why it’s important to root for artists you like getting Oscars attention for work you appreciate, even if most of the other statues are handed out to movies you don’t care about at all.
I don’t believe Promising Young Woman is as successful or as Important of a film as Get Out by any stretch. To be honest, I can’t say I had a particularly strong reaction to it at all, either positive or negative. For such a deliberate Provocation—a bitterly funny rape revenge thriller with a music video pop art aesthetic—it’s a relatively timid film, deliberately withholding the shocking violence of its genre’s inherent trauma and catharsis. Pretty much everything I admired about it was tackled so much more fiercely & directly in films like Revenge,Felt, and Teeth, except this time with a poisoned candy coating that distinguishes it more as a stylistic flex than as a thematic discomfort. To its credit, the movie appears to be self-aware in the ways it’s sidestepping the trappings of its genre, like in the way it teases bloodshed to reveal only a leaking jelly donut, or in how it exclusively casts comedic actors as its Nice Guy villains. My personal favorite detail in that respect is the traditional Monster Movie music that hits every time Carrie Mulligan reveals herself to be stone-sober to the men taking advantage of her “drunken” state, as if there’s nothing scarier to a date rapist than a woman’s clear-eyed sobriety. I don’t believe Promising Young Woman overhauled or subverted the themes or content of the rape revenge thriller in any substantial way, but it’s at least playing with the form, which is all we usually ask of genre filmmakers.
While I’m not emphatically in love with Promising Young Woman as a film, I am totally invested in its significance as an Oscar-winner. Any time an over-stylized genre movie wins a major Academy Award—Get Out, Parasite, The Shape of Water, even Joker—I find myself celebrating the win no matter how in love I am with the movie itself outside that context. Even if I find the movie itself to be just passably Okay, I’m stoked that a hyper-femme, button-pushing genre film decorated with rainbow-pastel nail polish and Britney Spears & Paris Hilton music cues won a major Academy Award this year. That means that more, better funded genre movies tuned to my sensibilities are on their way. Hell, even Jordan Peele outdid himself after his Get Out win with the much wilder, more daringly surreal creep-out Us, so Promising Young Woman‘s win might even mean that writer-director Emerald Fennell’s next film will totally bowl me over the way I wanted Promising Young Woman to. Regardless, her win is a win for hyper-femme, discomforting genre filmmaking in general as a viable business, and that’s the victory I’m choosing to champion the loudest this Oscars cycle.
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 Britnee made Brandon, Boomer, and Hanna watch Trouble in Mind (1985).
Britnee: Director Alan Rudolph’s 1985 film Trouble in Mind is truly a one-of-a-kind classic. It’s a neo-noir that blends in 80s new wave kitsch, creating its own genre that I like to call New Wave Noir. I’m not sure there are any other movies that would fall into that genre. Maybe Cool World or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? could qualify, but they’re way more on the fantasy side. I didn’t get around to watching Trouble in Mind until a few years ago when I was obsessing over Marianne Faithfull. After reading Faithfull: An Autobiography, I was constantly listening to her music, and that’s when I came across her rendition of the blues classic “Trouble in Mind”. I discovered that it was used in a film with the same title starring Kris Kristofferson, Lori Singer, and an out-of-drag Divine. That was more than enough to draw me to the movie, and it turned out to be such a hidden gem.
In the fictional Rain City (it’s basically Seattle), an ex-cop/ex-con with the most neo-noir name ever, Hawk (Kris Kristofferson), becomes entangled in the lives of a young couple from out in the country. Coop (Keith Carradine) and Georgia (Lori Singer) drive into Rain City in their beat-up camper to build a better life for themselves and their baby named Spike. Hawk, Coop, and Georgia are all brought together by a diner owned by Hawk’s ex-lover Wanda (Geneviève Bujold). Coop gets involved in selling knockoff watches and quickly gets pulled into Rain City’s criminal underworld, run by Hilly Blue (Divine). Coop’s fashion choices become progressively more cartoonish as he sinks deeper and deeper into the world of crime. His hair becomes a growing new wave pompadour, his face becomes paler, his outfits get wilder, and his makeup becomes increasingly intense. It’s my favorite thing about this movie. He literally becomes a new wave monster. While Coop is out and about being a criminal, Hawk sets his eyes on Georgia. He gets the hots for her and becomes her “protector”, even though I find him to be pretty creepy when it comes to how he forces himself into her life.
One major aspect of Trouble in Mind that really didn’t make much sense and was completely unnecessary is that Rain City is under militia patrol and some of the characters randomly go from speaking Korean to English. The state of the city is never really explained and doesn’t add much to the story. Brandon, what did you think about Rain City’s militia and random Korean lingo? Would the film be any different if that component just didn’t exist?
Brandon: If I had to guess what they were going for with the militia patrols and American/Korean cross-culture, I’d say they were borrowing a little New Wave Noir finesse from Ridley Scott’s 1982 game-changer Blade Runner. Trouble in Mind may take production notes from Seoul instead of Hong Kong, but its retro-futurization of Seattle feels like a direct echo of Blade Runner‘s retro-future Los Angeles. The difference is that Blade Runner is explicitly set in the future (2019, to be exact), updating the familiar tropes & fashions of noir with a sci-fi bent. Trouble in Mind, by contrast, doesn’t really subvert the noir genre template in any overt ways. It’s not a parody or an homage. It’s the real deal: a noir that just happens to be made in the 1980s (which makes the influence of Blade Runner near-impossible to avoid).
Personally, I was really into the characterization of Rain City as a setting. It’s an intricately detailed, lived-in alternate reality that makes the movie feel as if it were adapted from a long-running comic book series. I loved the “fictional” city’s clash of 1940s nostalgia with intensely 1980s fashion trends, and I was tickled by the scene set in the Space Needle restaurant, acknowledging that we’re basically just running around present-day Seattle. I was much less in love with the characterization of Kris Kristofferson’s gruffly macho ex-cop. Hawk is not so much of an enigmatic anti-hero as he is a boring loser, which is maybe the film’s one miscalculation in its low-key version of 1980s noir revival. When Divine’s degenerate mobster villain looks Kristofferson dead in the eyes to snarl, “You have nothing but bad qualities,” I couldn’t help but agree. What a pathetic asshole.
Hanna, did Hawk’s anti-hero status lean a little too hard into “anti” territory for you as well? If so, were the other citizens of Rain City charismatic enough to save the movie from that misstep?
Hanna: I love a good anti-hero, and I’m a cursed sucker for a gruff neo-noir cop/PI character, even when their behavior is problematic or despicable. Unfortunately, Hawk embodies all of the worst aspects of macho authority—including possessiveness and that special type of sexual aggression that somehow eludes the label of assault—and none of the appealing qualities (e.g., smoldering charisma). On top of everything, his relationship with Georgia was totally baffling and uncomfortable. I kept holding out for Hawk to develop some humility and self-reflection, but I was foiled at every turn. Will Hawk stop stalking Georgia outside of her trailer (a moment that reminded me of that scene in Smooth Talk where Arnold Friend tries to coax teenage Connie out of her house)? No? Okay, well maybe he’ll realize that he can care about a beautiful woman without having a sexual relationship with them? No again! Well, maybe he’ll care for her in a loving, non-controlling – oh, he’s demanding total ownership of her in exchange for saving her New-Wave pompadour’ed ex-thing. I guess he’s a changed man because he asks her out for dinner?
Fortunately, the world of Trouble in Mind has more than enough splendors to enjoy apart from Hawk and Georgia, especially in the vibrant criminal underground. Coop was actually one of my favorite characters; he’s a huge creep for the majority of the film, but he shows at least a semblance of self-reflection towards the end, and his transformation into an 80s glamour criminal is indeed a glorious surprise. Just when I thought his pompadour couldn’t get more delicious, a little curl would spring up at the top, or the tips would be touched with a kiss of red. Divine was totally captivating as Hilly Blue, and I even liked Nate (John Considine), the crazed criminal that Coop accidentally robs. I found myself wishing I could spend just more time amongst the various fiends of Rain City; I sighed every time the film cut from Coop slinking around in oversaturated suits to Hawk eating his dumb eggs. If nothing else, I would have loved to see a version of Trouble in Mind without Hawk where Wanda helps Georgia leave Coop while he goes off to crime it up with Solo and Hilly.
Boomer, what did you think of the balance between the two worlds of Rain City (the Diner and Hilly’s criminal cabal)? Do you think there were more interesting depths to plumb in the criminal underworld? Are there aspects of Rain City do you wish had been more developed, or developed differently?
Boomer: I’m torn on this question. On the one hand, this movie felt very loooong to me, to the point where I had to research whether a runtime of this magnitude was normal for film noir. I was convinced that they must normally be shorter than Trouble in Mind‘s 111 minutes, but reviewing the classics, it looks like this is pretty standard, with The Maltese Falcon clocking in at 101 minutes, Double Indemnity at 107, and Touch ofEvil matching Trouble exactly at 111. Those movies don’t feel their length to me the way that this one does, and although Geneviève Bujold is giving the performance here that I like the most and she only occupies the diner and its adjacent rooms, I would have liked to see more of the criminal underworld. By having the audience experience the seedy underbelly of not-Seattle mostly through the eyes of Coop, who is the least interesting character, it hinders our ability to fully realize both this city and its criminal element. On the other hand, part of the appeal is that Hilly Blue is a figure that exists outside of the characters’ day-to-day lives for a long time, building him up as a figure of great influence and prominence among the denizens of Rain City’s underclass, before we finally meet him. So while I want to see that world fully, I also think that seeing more would mean cherishing less, and any increase to the film’s runtime would be to its detriment as a piece of media overall.
What I think we could have benefitted from seeing more of without the risk of diminishing returns was exactly what was going on with all of the fascist goose-steppers constantly breaking up rallies. Every time Georgia gets more than two blocks from the diner, she doesn’t actually seem to be all that imperiled, but she’s certainly overstimulated to the point of losing her mind (and her baby!) histrionically. What I liked about the film’s aspirations to be more noirpunk than it succeeds in achieving is the unspoken acceptance of all of the odd little futurisms that pop up throughout and how they go uncommented upon, but that doesn’t mean I’m not curious and wouldn’t have liked to understand more. Their iconography is clearly aping that of the fascism of the day—red and black, harsh angles—and they appear throughout and people are tolerant of (if not necessarily deferential to) them, and I think that drawing a comparison between a fascist force and Hawk’s need to be the ultimate authority in the lives of the women he seeks to dominate and control was an opportunity that was missed. I don’t need to know the whole genealogy of their rise to prominence (if not power), but a few hints would have been nice.
Boomer: I want to make sure that it isn’t overlooked that this is our second Movie of the Month featuring Geneviève Bujold, after Last Night. Also, as always, it’s worth mentioning that although Hawk is awful, Kris Kristofferson is a real goddamn hero.
Brandon: Of course, for degenerates like us the main draw of this film is going to be the novelty of seeing Divine play a male villain outside the context of one-off gags in John Waters classics like Hairspray & Female Trouble. To that end, I’ll just share a quick piece of trivia I picked up from a recent rewatch of the documentary I Am Divine . . . The gigantic diamond earring Hilly Blue rocks in this film was not provided by wardrobe but by Divine himself. He was super proud of saving up for that piece of jewelry (after a fabulously delinquent life funded mostly by shoplifting) and paraded it around in public as much as possible in his later years as a status symbol. It totally fits the mafioso character he’s playing, to the point where you might not even notice it, but I still love that Divine got to immortalize that obnoxious gem he was so proud of onscreen.
Britnee: The big shootout scene at Hilly Blue’s mansion is amazing. The Seattle Asian Art Museum was transformed into the unforgettable residence of Rain City’s big mob boss, and I find so much comfort in knowing that this wasn’t just a set build. The fact that I can someday visit Hilly Blue’s mansion (minus Divine and all the guns and stuff) lifts my spirits. I guess I have to pay a visit to the real-life Rain City soon!
Hanna: Whoever scouted locations for Trouble in Mind did a fantastic job. Every setting—Wanda’s lonely-heart diner, the Chinatown restaurant, the villainous mansion, etc. etc.—was the perfect version of itself in the cyber-noir/dystopian film landscape. Also, I was shocked to find out that this movie somehow only made $19,632 at the box office on a budget of $3 million! Thank you to Britnee for unearthing this gem of a financial flop.
Upcoming Movies of the Month June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016) July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982) August: Boomer presents Sneakers (1992)