Ishtar (1985), Mikey and Nicky (1976), and Elaine May’s Commercial Follies

One of the biggest head-scratchers about May’s Movie of the Month, the small stakes crime thriller Mikey and Nicky, is why it isn’t often listed among similarly energized, ramshackle crime pictures of its era like Mean Streets & The French Connection. That question extends to the entire career of its director, Elaine May, as well. May’s improvisational narrative style & slyly dark sense of humor should have landed her name among undisputed greats like Scorsese, Friedkin, De Palma, Coppola, etc. Yet, she only directed four feature films while her early creative partner Mike Nichols directed twenty. Surely, some of her struggles in the industry has to do with the Hollywood system being a stubbornly unchanging boys’ club that offers second, third, fourth, and fifth chances to male directors that it wouldn’t as readily offer to women. Elaine May’s track record doesn’t at all help shift the blame away from her own failings as a businesswoman, however. Mikey and Nicky isn’t the only financial disaster of Elaine May’s career, nor is it her worst. Of her four feature films, only one was a commercial success, The Heartbreak Kid. The other three, including both Mikey and Nicky & the Walter Matthau comedy A New Leaf, were each drastically behind schedule and wildly over budget, never really recovering their financial losses no matter how critically adored. It was May’s fourth & final feature, however, that truly sealed her fate as box office poison & a director to be readily forgotten. Even the critics had turned on May at the arrival of her final feature, seemingly eager to tear it down before it was even released. Why they were so harsh on that film in particular is a mystery.

Ishtar stars Dustin Hoffman & Warren Beatty as a pair of sub-mediocre songwriters who abandon their shared dream of making it big in New York City to make some money as a nightclub act in Morocco. Shot on location in both cities, the film boasted a lavish, out of control production budget that swelled by the day. Reports of May, an eternal perfectionist, fighting with Beatty & the film’s producers over minuscule details like the filming of vultures & camels leaked to the press during production, souring the film’s name as a disaster before it was even completed. Reviewers pounced on it, prematurely solidifying its reputation as One of the Worst Comedies of All Time. Although I do believe some of their griping was extratextually influenced by the film’s troubled production, it’s easy to see why contemporary critics may not have been able to latch onto the film’s humor even without those setbacks. In its best moments, Ishtar explores a Tim & Eric style of post-Andy Kauffman anti-humor. Beatty & Hoffman play goddawful singers & songwriters. May amplifies their awkward tension by playing Beatty against type as the neurotic nerd & Hoffman as the smooth-talking ladykiller. They’re visibly uncomfortable in the roles, which works for the film’s off-kilter humor, an aesthetic that feels like that one stretch of Boogie Nights where Dirk & his buddy are foolishly convinced they’re going to be successful rock n’ roll singers teased out to a feature length comedy. With a smaller budget and a lower profile, the movie might actually have been heralded as one of the greatest comedies of all time. Unfortunately you can feel it spinning out of May’s control onscreen as its story blows up too big to be anchored by Hoffman & Beatty’s talentless buffoons.

Part of what’s so charming about Mikey and Nicky is the intimacy of its scale. The story mostly concerns two low level gangsters as they tear through New York City streetlights in a paranoid rage, various betrayals & hurt feelings emerging in their trail of drunken destruction. Ishtar is similarly intimate in its early goings, perfectly capturing the frustration of songwriting’s improvisational stops & starts. Our two heroic buffoons write songs in real time in the movie’s opening sequences, singing the film’s opening lines “Telling the truth can be bad news. Telling the truth is a bad idea. Telling the truth is a difficult problem. Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.” The frustrated labor of pursuing their art, which ruins them both financially & romantically, leads to drunken suicide attempts and the strange business of hitting rock bottom in North Africa (at a club cutely named Cher Casablanca). There’s a lot of genuine pathos in this desperation, just as there is in Mikey and Nicky, but the movie does eventually get too big to hold onto its more intimate virtues. Beatty & Hoffman’s buffoons are gradually inducted against their will into a conflict between the CIA, leftist guerillas, and the dictator of the fictional country of Ishtar.  The movie loses a little of its proto-Tim & Eric sheen as the whole battle comes to a head in its third act slump involving a blind camel, some unfortunate detours into brown face, and the movie literally & figuratively getting lost in the desert. Despite some of that exhausting, comedy-killing bloat in the third act, however, it’s difficult to conceive of Ishtar being held up as One of the Worst Comedies of All Time. It’s doubtful it was even the worst comedy released in May of 1985. The film is largely funny in a strikingly subversive, adventurously unconventional way. It even goes as far as to include harsh criticisms of US interference with political affairs in the Middle East instead of broadly stereotyping the people of the region the way lazier 80s comedies would (for the most part).

The sad truth, though, is that limiting the scale of Ishtar would’ve helped May keep the film in control creatively, but not necessarily financially. As small & intimate as Mikey and Nicky is in scope, the film still suffered major financial setbacks that nearly had May booted from her own project. The heightened production values and exploding costs of Ishtar certainly made May’s inability to produce a film on time & on budget more of a public spectacle due to increased media scrutiny. I wouldn’t be surprised if that scrutiny lead directly to the end of her career as a director, either. May was never as skilled a businesswoman as she was an artist, which is an essential balance to strike in cinema, which is just as much commerce as it is art. If she were making films in a 2010s climate, however, her career would likely have gone much differently. May had a tendency to shoot an absurd amount of footage for each project and then later, as they say, “find the film in the editing room.” This was an extravagance in the days of celluloid, an indulgence that skyrocketed May’s budgets well beyond reason in all three of her commercial failures. In the current post-Apatow era of comedies, that style of lengthy, improv-heavy shoots & extensive editing room post production is essentially the norm. Digital photography has greatly lowered the cost of May’s production style, supposing a world where Ishtar & Mikey and Nicky might’ve had a less cost-prohibitive chance to actually turn a profit. Regardless of May’s shortcomings on the commercial end of cinema, though, it’s at least easy to acknowledge that the idea that she made One of the Worst Comedies of All Time is a silly myth at best and a vicious lie at worst. As unwieldy as Ishtar can be in its third act (a problem for most comedies, let’s be honest), it’s still a delightfully awkward character piece that in its best moments mirrors the intimate tension of Mikey and Nicky and pioneers an awkward anti-comedy aesthetic that later became an industry standard. Elaine May may be responsible for a string of commercial follies, but I’m not convinced she ever made a bad movie, not one, much less a worst of all time contender.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its closest Scorsese comparison point, Mean Streets (1973), and last week’s reflection on how its crime world paranoia stacks up to Mikey One (1965).

-Brandon Ledet

Gandahar (1988)

French animator René Laloux is well known & respected for his debut feature, Fantastic Planet, a gorgeous work of political sci-fi psychedelia, but people unfairly treat his career as if he only ever directed that one film. Laloux actually directed three feature films (along with several shorts) in the Fantastic Planet style, each tied to similar themes of anti-fascism political empathy and each visually striking in their traditionalist, but psychedelic hand drawn animation. The last of these films, Gandahar, even came close to breaking through to mainstream success in America. Dubbed by American voice actors like Glenn Close, Bridgette Fonda, and Penn Jillette & slightly edited for sexual content, Gandahar was distributed in North America under the title Light Years by the Weinstein Company. Arriving during the 80s fantasy boom of titles like Legend, Labyrinth, and Ladyhawke & guided in translation by sci-fi heavyweight Isaac Asimov, Gandahar was in the exact right position to make a lasting mark on the public consciousness. Instead, it’s faded into relative obscurity, not having nearly as much of a cultural footprint as Fantastic Planet. It’s a shame too, because the film feels just as worthwhile as that bonafide classic, even in its compromised American form.

The title Gandahar refers to a sort of space alien Eden, a matriarchal hippie paradise in the stars ruled by Nature & peace. The Counsel of Women who govern Gandahar follow a strict boobs-out-for-empowerment philosophy that affords the film a wealth of National Geographic-style desexualized nudity. Their way of life is dedicated to a preference for organic Nature over manmade technology, an ethos that is challenged when their reverie is disrupted by war-hungry robots. Black, personality-free machines invade Gandahar and zap citizens into stone, like God punishing Sodom. This threat is clearly coded as a robotic stand-in for Nazi invaders a hateful force hellbent on destroying the diversifying concept of the individual self. They rebuke a life lived for freedom & pleasure, exemplified by Gandahar, and their mindless loyalty to a single Master gives them great strength in that conviction. To save their people, The Counsel of Women deploys a single male savior, Sylvain, on a journey to find salvation outside his home world Paradise. In his adventures to save Gandahar, Sylvain discovers love, time travel, the true evils of The Master, and a community of mutants who call into question whether Gandahar was ever the utopia it was reported to be before the robots even invaded.

All in all, Gandahar plays like a mashup between an extended He-Man and the Masters of the Universe episode and animated cover art from the prog band Yes. Its central metaphor about robo-Nazi invaders and the value of the individual self never extends too far beyond the robots shooting lasers out of their Hitler salutes and talking up threatening masterplans like “The Final Annihilation.” It’s possible that some of that subtext was stronger in the unadulterated French cut of the film, but it’s not what makes Gandahar special anyway. Laloux’s visual Dungeons & Dragons-flavored fantasy, overrun with odd details like alien bugs suckling off humanoid breasts, flying manta ray dragon beasts, and Godzilla-like kaiju is the main treat in Gandahar, as it was in Laloux’s biggest hit, Fantastic Planet. Clashing the organic, Cronenbergian terrors of his alien landscapes with a then-modern 80s synth score is more than enough to justify giving Gandahar a second look. Laloux’s political metaphors may feel like an outdated hippie fantasy, but his visual style is far too fascinating on its own accord to suffer under that shortcoming. Gandahar may not offer anything terribly new that wasn’t seen before in Fantastic Planet besides a distinctly 80s soundtrack, but a more of the same proposition shouldn’t be a problem for anyone captivated by Laloux’s eternally striking visual art.

-Brandon Ledet

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Of all the wacky, scary, goofy, gory follow-ups to Ridley Scott’s space horror masterpiece Alien, it’s Scott’s own 2010s prequel Prometheus that stands as my clear favorite. Aesthetically, Prometheus is on the exact wavelength of arty pulp I crave in my genre cinema, the same gorgeous-imagery-meets-dime-store-novel-idiocy dynamic that wins me over in titles like Interstellar & The Neon Demon. I also love that film on a basic thematic level, though. The idea of human beings asking Big, Important philosophical questions about our origins & purpose to literal gods and receiving only brutal, wordless violence in response is such a killer concept, one that’s both morbidly funny & surprisingly truthful to the human condition. Alien: Covenant, also directed by Scott, picks up ten years after that Prometheus timeline, positioning itself as a sequel to a prequel (what a time to be alive). In some ways it attempts to continue those exact questions of Who We Are & Where We Come From, as if they’re the only things that matter. Humanity is once again punished for the hubris of trying to prove that its existence is no random accident, but rather a deliberate design from gods beyond our solar system. The results & significance of that query are severely downplayed in this second run-through, however. Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags these themes down to the level of a pure Roger Corman creature feature. This prequel-sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise. Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years, Covenant easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series, only middling because the Alien franchise has a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand typically has eight films into its catalog.

Alien: Covenant is, above all else, a Michael Fassbender showcase. Reprising his role as the A.I. robot David & appearing simultaneously as a second A.I. named Walter, Fassbender delivers his strangest onscreen performance going at least as far back as Frank. In the context of how Covenant fits into the Alien franchise at large, it could maybe be understood as a Jason Takes Manhattan-type eccentric outlier, if only retitled as Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot. A whole new crew of intergalactic colonists find themselves stranded on an alien planet with only one non-xenomorph related resident: David, Fassbender’s chilling A.I. robot from Prometheus. Among the crew is Fassbender’s Walter, who David takes a special liking to while the disposable human characters are picked off one by one by xenomorph teens (they’re less evolved, less “perfect” offshoots of the typical alien species). There’s a strange sexual tension between these two Fassbender bots that only gets stranger as they spend more time alone together. In the movie’s best moment there are no killer xenomorphs to be seen, no on-screen bloodbath to placate anyone looking for a straightforward body count horror. It’s a quiet moment in David’s art studio (which could easily pass for HR Geiger’s masturbatorium) where he teaches Walter how to play the flute, openly bringing any unspoken sexual tension to the surface by directly hitting on his A.I. brethren. Lines like, “Watch me, I’ll do the fingering,” & “Put gentle pressure on the holes” are almost enough to push Covenant solidly into outright camp and their relationship only gets more perverse from there. Fassbender does a mesmerizing job of differentiating between his two characters: one is a spooky robot with barely-secretive agendas and one’s a tough guy soldier with mommy issues involving his mothership. You never forget which character you’re watching, even when the plot should probably ask you to, and that kind of dramatic craft confidently carries a lot of scenes that could easily devolve into absurd inanity, like the seductive flute blowing or a brief foray into kung fu. Regardless of your thoughts on Prometheus or the collection of Alien sequels as a whole (which each seem to be individually divisive), Covenant is worth seeing for the Fassbender weirdness alone.

David & Walter aren’t the only romantic couple in Covenant, but they are the only one that matters. The titular space mission in the title references Abraham & Noah’s covenants with with God, setting up the spaceship, Mother, as a kind of Ark meant to rebuild humanity on an alien terrain. Every crew member is married in pairs and responsible for the transportation of thousands of future citizens meant to populate a distant world with human seed. Mostly, these human characters have no more personalities or purpose than the drawers full of human embryos they’re being paid to transport across the universe. Katherine Waterson does a decent job of physically emoting as she watches her crew members die at the hands(?) of the film’s teenomorphs. Billy Crudup is believably off-putting as a captain who’s in way over his head commanding a crew who doesn’t respect him because he’s a Kirk Cameron-style “man of faith.” Danny McBride never truly disappears into his role in any detectable way, but he somehow isn’t the most distracting celebrity presence in the film, against all odds (there’s a celebrity death that needs to be seen to be believed; it’s essentially a prank). None of these characters matter. Unlike in Prometheus, the questions of Faith & the Meaning of Life don’t matter here either. Only Fassbender’s Cruella De Vil levels of villainous camp & the teenomorph (and eventually straight up xenomorph) creature attacks register as memorable, worthwhile aspects of Covenant, but they’re both effective enough to save the picture from from horror film tedium, even individually. The moments of horrific monster movie gore are both plentiful & plenty fucked up. Fassbender’s weirdo characters are given plenty of screen time to warp the picture into a strange dual character study, correcting the one frequently cited Prometheus complaint I can truthfully echo. As with a lot of post-Corman creature features, the monsters & kills are exciting enough to cover up the shortcomings of the film’s basic philosophy & humanity. In fact, the human aspect of the film is so weak that it almost directly supports its own villainous arguments about the superiority of other, “perfected” beings.

I’m never really sure what audiences want from Alien sequels. Prometheus & Resurrection are my favorite follow-ups to the original film because they push its imagery & mythology into unexpected directions – goofy, gorgeous, or otherwise. They’re also both frequently cited as the worst of the franchise because they deliberately stray from a more-of-the-same horror sequel ethos, so what do I know? I can see Covenant eliciting a similar polarizing reaction from Alien devotees, as it dabbles both in the goofiness of Resurrection and the overreaching philosophy of Prometheus without ever landing convincingly on either side. I ultimately find that split a little middling in the grand scheme of the series, but the film is brutal enough in its sequel-by-numbers gore & campy enough in its Fassbender weirdness to survive as yet another entertaining entry into an increasingly trashy, but eternally mesmerizing horror franchise that’s likely the most consistently rewarding one we’ve got running.

-Brandon Ledet

Don’t Knock Twice (2017)

I’m not sure it’s always necessary for a horror film to justify the surface pleasures of its scares & thrills by linking them to a dramatic metaphor. However, it can be frustrating when one comes close to achieving that dynamic without fully following through. The recent British ghost story Don’t Knock Twice enters into the modern tradition of horror flicks with clear metaphors specifically centering on the anxieties of motherhood: The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, most of XX, We Need to Talk About Kevin, etc. The frustrating thing is that it nearly succeeds in joining those incredible ranks with an entirely​ new angle on motherhood terror its peers had not yet represented, but falls just short of hitting that target. Ultimately, its demonic scares & familial drama hang separately in the spooky air, never joining forces to drive home its significance as an individual work. That kind if strength in metaphor is not entirely necessary for a modern horror film to feel worthwhile, but without it Don’t Knock Twice struggles to feel substantial in any memorable way.

The always welcome Katee Sackhoff (Oculus, Battlestar Galactica) stars as an American sculptor and recovering drug addict who struggles to reconnect with her teenage daughter (Sing Street‘s Lucy “Riddle of the Model” Boynton) who she gave up for adoption in the British foster system. The daughter is reluctant for obvious reasons to welcome her mother, now essentially a stranger, back into her life, but finds herself in dire need of shelter from a supernatural threat. She & a fellow teen disturb a small, haunted shack near an interstate overpass where a witch’s ghost was rumored to live, knocking on the door twice (hence the title) after being told there would be urban legend-style consequences. The legend turns out to be exactly true and the teen girl finds herself haunted by a demonic witch that follows her from home to home to avenge the transgression. The monster itself (an aged, lanky, inhuman variation on the little girl from The Ring) and the film’s flashy over the top camera work make for plenty of effectively creepy moments: the witch climbing out of a kitchen sink, s ghost slitting its own throat, an Unfriended-style murder witnessed on Skype. The question of what the monster represents and how its terror communicates with the ex-addict mother’s suddenly possessive love for her estranged daughter, however, is much less effective.

There’s a distinct, nightmarish terror in this film’s teen victim being told that her parent, who has hurt her before, is now completely rehabilitated & worthy of trusting forgiveness. The vulnerability of welcoming that parent back into her life and not having her reservations for that forgiveness being taken seriously is not unlike being haunted by a literal ghost from the past that no one but she believes exists. If the demonic witch ghost that causes havoc in the film is supposed to somehow represent the mother’s past as an addict, however, Don’t Knock Twice doesn’t do much to help the metaphor along. A couple major plot twists that bring in murder mystery dynamics outside that central mother-daughter relationship suggest a mixed metaphor where the ghost also represents some kind of abusive evil in the foster system or, more likely yet, represents nothing specific at all. It’s not at all fair to burden Don’t Knock Twice with the expectation of a strong metaphor to support the presence of its demon witch antagonist, but the film comes too close to saying something freshly insightful about parental anxiety & the cycles of addiction not often depicted in horror cinema for the frustration in the shortcomings of its metaphorical potential to be ignored. When that aspect of its story doesn’t land, there’s not much left of its familial drama to hold onto and the film ultimately plays like a more visually striking version of mainstream horror titles like Lights Out & The Darkness. There’s nothing especially wrong with that distinction, but Don’t Knock Twice comes very close to being much greater than that limited ambition suggests.

-Brandon Ledet

Casting JonBenét (2017)

Watching​ the highly stylized, editorial-free documentaries The Act of Killing & Room 237 a few years ago felt like witnessing the dawn if a new era in the medium. Instead of following traditional models that pack documentaries with talking heads interviews & Wikipedia-in-motion historical summation, Oppenheimer & Ascher’s films simply record oral history-style input from their subjects, free of judgement, and match the false memories, conspiracy theories, and outright fantasies of those interviews with striking cinematic imagery. I’ve only seen the impact of those two seminal works echoed in a few projects since – including the recent docs Beware the Slenderman & Swagger and Ascher’s own The Nightmare – but I still feel that their influence can only grow exponentially from there. The Netflix-distributed documentary Casting JonBenét is a clear addition to this new post-modernist documentary landscape. Instead of a typical true crime documentation of the mysterious disappearance and murder of the six year old beauty pageant contestant JonBenét Ramsey in the 1990s, the film exists as an abstracted art piece & loose collection of conspiracy theories surrounding the case. Its humor is uncomfortable. Its dedication to a style over substance ethos may seem immediately at odds with a documentary’s function of capturing “the truth.” Yet, the film’s loose collection of unsubstantiated claims & theories surrounding the Ramsey murder case seemingly reveals much more perception & impact on its immediate community & the hive mind at large than a straightforward, Dateline NBC-style documentary on the subject ever could.

Like The Act of Killing, Casting JonBenét builds its narrative around an insular community re-enacting a past atrocity from its own history. Colorado area actors & pageant competitors audition for key roles in a fictional feature film about the JonBenét Ramsey murder case: the police, the parents, JonBenét herself, etc. Some of the people auditioning personally knew the Ramseys at the time of the murder, some happened to live nearby, and some are only familiar with the case by way of national headlines & supermarket tabloids. Everyone has a take on what happened to JonBenét, however, and the movie blends reality with speculation by recording each & every theory they give voice to between audition takes of reading actual Ramsey dialogue from press conferences & police records. The interviewees documented here will both lay extremely judgemental criticism on the Ramseys’ parenting style (even supposing that they killed their own daughter because she frequently wet her bed) and claim the only reason the mother was considered a prime suspect was because of sexist scrutiny. Wild conspiracy theories about child porn rings and child beauty pageant prostitution are discussed in hushed tones. Claims that JonBenét’s nine year old brother may have killed her are harshly juxtaposed with actual nine year old boys simply being children. The overall result is oddly humanizing. The Ramseys, guilty or not, were ultimately ordinary people, as real and mundane as the actors who dress like them for this film’s interviews. National news coverage has a way of abstracting that truth, but it hits with full impact here while young girls dressed like JonBenét giggle & eat cookies between auditioning their terrified screams. There’s no actual photographs or footage of the real life Ramseys to be found in Casting JonBenét and the more I watched different interpretations of their press conferences mimicked & picked apart by various actors the more I realized I no longer have any idea what they actually looked like. The overall effect of that abstraction both points to how dehumanizing the court of public opinion is and questions how that kind of national curiosity & speculation could ever lead the public closer to the truth of what happened to JonBenét.

The most immediately striking aspects of Casting JonBenét are its gleefully inappropriate humor and its dreamlike imagery. Because it documents the wild conspiracy theories of so many Colorado weirdos the film often plays like a Toddlers & Tiaras-inspired riff on mockumentaries like Drop Dead Gorgeous and Waiting for Guffman. The film heavily leans into that flippantly​ comedic tone too, mixing one of the actors auditioning to play a sheriff discussing the details of his work as a dom in the BDSM community with the murder case speculations of his fellow interviewees. Besides Casting JonBenét‘s general humor in blankly voicing the outlandish conspiracy theories of anyone who wants to talk for the camera, the film also interrupts questions of whether a nine year old boy could crush a six year old girl’s head with footage of actual nine year olds splitting open watermelons with a heavy flashlight. The absurdist humor of that moment immediately dives into traumatic horror once it registers exactly what the melon represents, which is indicative of how the film’s comedic tone works overall. The film’s nightmarish, almost Lynchian imagery also takes a while to fully register and doesn’t reach its full crescendo until the concluding ten minutes, a The Red Shoes-style centerpiece that retroactively brings the documentary’s entire vision into intense focus. Absolutely insane shots of multiple Ramseys impersonators dressed alike and simultaneously populating the same sound stage recreation of JonBenét’s real life house setting not only allows for the film’s myriad of theories of what happened on the night of her murder to overlap & self-contradict; it also frankly just looks cool. There’s an open admission to the public’s morbid fascination with real life murder mystery at the heart of the film’s lyrical style over substance climax that both feels incredibly honest & oddly revelatory for a film that plays fast & loose with “facts.”

Early in Casting JonBenét, a young girl auditioning to play the titular victim in the documented fictional film about her real life murder directly asks her interviewer (and the camera), “Do you know who killed JonBenét Ramsey?” I’m not convinced that anyone truly does and if this documentary does anything exceptionally well it’s in exposing the slippery, intangible nature of that truth. The curiosity & slight terror in the young girl’s eyes as she asks that question, dressed like JonBenét herself, is also both chilling & easy to relate to. For all of Casting JonBenét‘s bells & whistles as a post-modernist work that bucks the rigidity of documenting the truth by deliberately blending reality with pure speculation, it’s an ultimately humanizing work. The film indulges plenty of transgressive humor & style over substance imagery, but it also democratizes the visage of the Ramseys in a way that reclaims their personas from public curiosity to once again become everyday people. That’s especially important for JonBenét in particular and I greatly admire the way the film contextualizes her as a real life little girl again, among its other more immediate surface pleasures.

-Brandon Ledet

The Legitimacy of Paranoia in Mikey and Nicky (1976) & Mickey One (1965)

One of the most immediately striking aspects of Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky is the way the film’s in media res introduction completely disorients anyone trying to get a grip on its overall narrative. The film opens with a strung out criminal played by John Cassavetes bunkered down in a shit hole motel, deathly paranoid that someone is out to kill him. He brings in an old friend, played by Peter Falk, to help him escape this fate and to sober up enough to not die at his own hands from the side effects of nihilistic alcoholism. As time goes on in the film, the audience is gradually clued in to the fact that this fear of assassination is very much legitimate. Cassavetes’s anti-hero (emphasis on the “anti”) is indeed being hunted down by the mafia for a past offense, no matter how often his only friend in the world lies to his face by telling him everything’s going to be okay and that he’s just being paranoid. I got the feeling while watching this story unfold that I had recently seen a similar scenario play out in another ramshackle organized crime picture from the New Hollywood era, its paranoia being especially reminiscent of the early scenes in Cassavetes’s motel hideout.

Arthur Penn’s forgotten surrealist crime thriller gem Mickey One preceeds his New Hollywood kickstarter Bonnie and Clyde by a couple of years, but also stars Warren Beatty and attempts to marry French New Wave sensibilities to a new flavor of American Cinema just like that bonafide classic. In the film, Beatty plays a stand-up comedian who finds himself at odds with the organized crime syndicates who run the nightclubs that employ him as an entertainer. Convinced that he’s in immediate danger of having his life ended and his body anonymously dumped in a junkyard, Mickey changes his identity and attempts to hide out doing menial labor until the spotlight calls his name so loudly that he cannot resist and again risks being assassinated to pursue his craft. Unlike in Mikey and Nicky, however, this paranoia is never explicitly justified in the film by outright threats from the mob. We’re never even sure if Mickey is being targeted by the mob, let alone why. It could very well be all in his head, as it’s only represented onscreen through a few side glances from menacing strangers, a beating in a dark alley way, and the intense scrutiny of stage lights during an existentially terrifying audition sequence. It’s all very abstract in comparison to the real world that represented in May’s film, despite where that one starts.

A significant difference between the depiction of paranoia in Mikey and Nicky & Mickey One might be tied to their positions within the New Hollywood movement. Mickey One was a precursor to New Hollywood sensibilities, still holding on tight to the art film abstraction that guided the French New Wave films that inspired the movement’s young auteurs. Mikey and Nicky arrived a decade later, joining the New Hollywood fray long after crime films like The French Connection and Mean Streets had already mapped out what an artful organized crime picture would look like in that era. What’s interesting to me (along with the odd similarity in the films’ titles) is the way those two sentiments overlap at the beginning of Mikey and Nicky. We begin the film not fully convinced that there’s any organized threat of assassination at all, as if we’re just listening to Cassavetes’s fears like the ravings of a mad man. That intangible threat of baseless paranoia and question of legitimacy carries throughout Mickey One, which easily matches Mikey and Nicky in drunken, ramshackle energy, but feels much more adrift & untethered to the real world. Even though I heartily believe Mikey and Nicky is the better film for that sense of grounded, real world consequences. I greatly respect the way Mickey One was able to sustain that feverish paranoia for the length of an entire picture. I suspect the two titles would make for an exciting double feature if paired together, but be prepared to spend most of the evening checking over your shoulder or else you might get whacked.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its closest Scorsese comparison point, Mean Streets (1973).

-Brandon Ledet

It’s Only the End of the World (2017)

Xavier Dolan’s latest is a pitch black comedy that applies the stage play tension & confinement of a Tracy Letts work to an occasionally surreal, emotionally devastating familial blowup. It’s essentially what I imagine the ideal version of August: Osage County would be, which I’m saying as someone who’s never seen or read August: Osage County. I left the film shaken, but a little in love, confident that I had understood both what it was trying to communicate and the value of the understatement in the way it got those ideas across. Looking back now, I’m not so sure.

In his 2016 review for Vanity Fair, critic Richard Lawson called It’s Only the End of the Worldthe most disappointing film at Cannes,” mostly due to its value as an adaptation of its stage play source material, something he admits he was unfamiliar with before he saw the film version. I bring this up not because I disagree with Lawson’s evaluation of the film’s merits as a standalone work of art (which I do), but because he (along with a lot of other critics who didn’t appreciate the film, a lot who did, whoever wrote its plot synopsis on Wikipedia, and presumably everyone else in the world) interpreted the basic details of the story the film was telling wildly differently than I had while watching it alone and without context at this year’s New Orleans French Film Fest. I’m now left confused on what to believe about even the film’s basic themes & plot, since I seemed to have processed it differently from every other person in the world who’s seen it and have no one nearby I can talk to about my interpretation without potentially spoiling its subtly played narrative reveals. I would readily recommend the version of It’s Only the End of the World I saw at the festival, but it seems to be a version of the film that only exists in my own head.

A playwright returns home to confront his family after a decade-long estrangement. His mother, his siblings, and his brother’s wife struggle to keep things cordial without stirring up resentment over his absence and judgemental jabs at his homosexuality​. There’s a Krisha-like tension in this constant discord, where the prodigal son’s family can’t go two blissful minutes without viciously criticizing each other’s appearance & attempts to make naturalistic small talk or throwing out transphobic or ableist slurs in crass attempts to liven up the party. An oppressive heat wave and the mother’s frantic scrambling to prepare food & primp her makeup between everyone shouting at each other to shut up drive the story into a series of increasingly disastrous social trainwrecks. At the center of this cycle of blowups is the mystery of why, exactly, the playwright has returned in the first place and what confession or accusation he is building up the courage to reveal. Most interpretations of the story posit it as a tale of loss, one with a very specific historical context given the nature of its source material. I didn’t see it that way. For me, It’s Only the End of the World is a reflection on the cycles of abuse, both emotional & physical, and how familial relationships complicate the ways we cope with that real world evil. The fact that I could be so far off from the hegemony of how to interpret even the film’s basic story should tell you a great deal on how Dolan handles the film’s themes & narratives and how willing he is to make those defining aspects explicit.

The emotional pain at the center of It’s Only the End of the World is communicated entirely through knowing glances & music video-type dives into repressed memories. It’s a lyrical, difficult to pin down narrative style that in some ways tells us far more about the family’s past than any of their minutes-long stage play monologues. In other ways, it leaves these moments wide open for an expansive range of possible interpretations. I thought for sure I knew what a lingering shot of Marion Cotillard’s apologetic eyes or Vincent Cassel’s scraped knuckles meant in the context of the film’s final, unspoken conflict, but after encountering different takes on the film’s basic themes from Lawson’s review & other sources, I’m not nearly as confident I did. Whether that ambiguity in knowing exactly what’s being communicated in these moments is a triumph or a misstep is a question of Dolan’s intent, something I can’t speak of as an audience. I can only say that the version of the movie that played out in my mind was wonderfully balanced between viciously dark humor, poetic visual language, and genuinely devastating dramatic performances (with a fantastic turn from a beastly Ben Kingsley-mode Vincent Cassel in particular). How many people will have that same experience I cannot say, as it seems Dolan wasn’t interested in nailing down the exact details of the source of its conflict-defining emotional pain. I’d argue that disinterest actually works in the film’s favor too, even if it is leaving me to feel alienated as an audience.

If I had one complaint about It’s Only the End of the World, it’d be with some of its music choices. Some needle drops like Grimes & Blink-182 worked for me in the way a similar pop music gestalt shaped last year’s American Honey, but the film is also bookended by a couple eyeroll-worthy music choices as well, so it’s a mixed bag at best. Worse yet, there’s a tendency to overlay some dialogue & intimate close-ups with an oppressive strings score that often teeters between opera & soap opera, never convincingly landing on either side of that divide. These music cues make for an awkward experience initially, but once you find the film’s rhythm that abrasiveness can be just as effective as any of its performances or themes of abuse (or loss or however you want to interpret its overall intent). By the final half hour I was downright in love with its pop music lyricism’s violent clash against its traditional stage drama dialogue, even if it took an effort to get there. Looking back now, though, it’s difficult to focus at all on whatever faults I had with its soundtrack choices (even though the film concludes on one of its most eyerolly examples). All I can think about is how I had an intense viewing experience engaging with themes I’m now not sure were ever there. I’d recommend those not familiar with the stage play source material to go into the movie cold and see how they walk away from the film’s various understated narrative & thematic reveals. And then come talk to me about it, because I’m feeling very much alone in my interpretation & appreciation of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)

As hardwired as my brain is to only focus on pro wrestling whenever given the opportunity, the name “Rowdy” Roddy Piper doesn’t automatically take me to the ring. Piper’s kilt-wearing, Goldust-kissing, race-stereotyping gimmickry as a wrestling heel is beyond infamy, but it’s his leading role in the John Carpenter sci-fi horror They Live! that defines his career for me. From the meaningless street brawl over a pair of sunglasses to the classic line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass . . . and I’m all out of bubblegum,” Piper’s foray into Kurt Russell-esque genre film machismo was perfectly suited for his skills as a world class shit talker & in-ring performer. What I didn’t know until recently is that Piper actually headlined two outlandish sci-fi pictures in 1988. They Live! has rightfully earned its place as the one deserving cultural longevity, even seeing a recent resurgence in meme form after last year’s disastrous presidential election. Somehow, though, that film’s paranoia about space aliens brainwashing the American masses was the most grounded & plausible of Piper’s 1988 sci-fi pics. The other title was the real weirdo shit.

In the absurdly-titled Hell Comes to Frogtown, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as the titular antihero Sam Hell, a gruff loudmouth who roams a post-nuclear fallout sci-fi dystopia as the most virile man on Earth. Although he prides himself as the ultimate alpha male, Hell has to learn how to navigate what is now a decidedly matriarchal society. World War III has drastically diminished the male population of the planet and left only a few survivors with a viable sperm count, putting the human race’s longterm survival at risk. And thus, even in the rare 80s genre film where the world is run by women, the citizens of Earth still need a man to save them. Hell is essentially enslaved as a sperm donor by the government agency Med Tech and given militaristic marching orders to impregnate as many as women possible in attempt to save the human race. The only thing standing in his way of fulfilling his literal stud duties is the other lingering side effect of the nuclear fallout disaster: humanoid frogs. Described in-film as “mutant greeners,” the villains of this dystopian wasteland are frog-like scavengers who are holed up in the titular Frogtown and lead by Commander Toadie, presumably in power because he has three dicks (one of the advantages of mutation, I guess). To simplify the plot & budget, Hell Comes to Frogtown boils down this worldwide crisis into a simplistic heist scenario. Lead Commander Toadie is holding fertile women hostage at his palace/harem for ransom (and pleasure). Med Tech commands Sam Hell to free these prisoners so that he can spread his seed, explaining “We’re gonna get them out and you’re gonna get them pregnant.” All in all, it’s a fairly solid contender for silliest Road Warrior knockoff ever.

It should go without saying that there’s a deeply strange sexual energy running throughout Hell Comes to Frogtown. I’m not convinced film didn’t start as an ill-advised exercised in erotic fiction that just got way out of hand and snowballed into a screenplay. The pervasiveness of this strange sexuality extends far beyond just the weirdo details of the plot and obviously charged imagery like rhythmic rifle-polishing and the hose of a gas can being carefully inserted into a tank.  In this dystopian hell hole, condoms are effectively outlawed. The Bible verse, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the Earth, and conquer it” is treated like a national slogan. A slow pan up a stripper’s body reveals a frog’s face, the first of the mutant greeners we actually see instead of just listening to their ribbits. Then there’s the BDSM undertone of Sam Hell’s relationship with his matriarchal captors. Outfitted with a high-tech, government-issued chastity belt, Hell is kept on a very short leash. His dick is now considered government equipment and any attempts to run away with it are punished by directly-applied electric shock. His captors tease him to keep him sexually excited, though, using military-sanctioned “seduction techniques” to keep him in the mood. This intense pressure to perform (and for an audience, no less) sometimes leads Hell to embarrassing moments of erection-killing anxiety. He barks at the female scientists in control of his sexual impulses, “Maybe you oughta try making love to a complete stranger in the middle of a hostile mutant territory and see how you like it!” It also seems a little odd that every woman in the world would be begging, desperate to sleep with and be impregnated by Hell at first sight, but at least that choice keeps the mood light; I wouldn’t want to watch a version of this picture where a matriarchal government was forcing Hell to impregnate women against their will.

Of course, the bizarre nature of this film’s sexuality is at least somewhat matched by its humanoid amphibian threat. The frogs that attempt to stop Sam Hell from saving the world through his progeny are weird looking boogers, resembling a cross between the classy masquerade scene from The Abominable Dr. Phibes and the Goombas from the Super Mario Bros. movie. They have the expressionless and flapping jaws of a cheap Planet of the Apes sequel, but a kind of incredible throat-swelling effect with every ribbit that distracts from their mobile limitations. Even when the villainous frogs’ general look isn’t exactly impressive, though, there’s always an underlying absurdity to their general presence, especially when they’re doing ridiculous things like wielding a chainsaw or insulting Hell by calling him “flat lips.” Combine that visual absurdity with the film’s weirdo sexuality and the campy cult classic potential just oozes from the screen like so much nuclear waste.

I can’t say that Hell Comes to Frogtown is entirely successful in living up to its full cult classic potential. As far as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper vehicles go, it’s certainly no They Live! and it’s difficult not to compare that film’s heights like the bubblegum one-liner to this one’s much lesser, “Eat lead, froggies.” Overall, Hell Comes to Frogtown’s comedic antics gleefully command a ten year old’s sense of humor, the same maturity range that seemingly dictates its Indiana Jones-style swashbuckling & slack-jawed fascination with naked breasts. Still, it’s overloaded with enough strange energy & discomforting sexual undertone to distinguish itself as a midnight movie novelty. Every scene in the movie looks like it was lit by car headlights. Piper brings distinct pro wrestling flavor to scenes where glass bottles are smashed over his head or where his loin cloth resembles a tattered version of his signature ring gear kilt. Camo bikinis with doily-style lace trim and phone chords tethering Piper’s crotch to mysterious electronic devices sear the brain with their kinky idiocy. This is an exceedingly inane movie that dares you to ask “What in the Sam Hell?” on a scene to scene basis, but somehow abstains from vocalizing that particular line itself against all odds. Hell Comes to Frogtown may not be the outlandish 1988 sci-fi picture that defined Piper’s career as a screen presence, but it has enough bizarre energy – sexual, amphibian, and otherwise – to stand on its own as a memorable, ramshackle novelty.

-Brandon Ledet

Silent Running (1972)

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The 1972 Bruce Dern sci-fi epic Silent Running offers an interesting moral litmus test for its viewers. Depending on how you see the film it can either play like an environmentalist screed against the evils of modern Capitalism (think Ferngully set in space) or a chilling tale of crazy-eyed hippie who gets so entrenched in his ideology that he’ll murder any humans necessary to save a few trees. Either way, it’s a strange little film loaded with the kind of production detail that sci-fi cinema nerds crave in their media, the kind that only improves as it becomes more outdated. Directed by a special effects supervisor who worked on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running‘s intricate space ship models & star-filled backdrops are exceptional for a modest pre-Star Wars production. It avoids the swashbuckling-in-space thrills of George Lucas’s future game-changing franchise, however, so that it can focus on its murderous hippie philosophical dilemmas. Once Dern’s long-haired, bleeding heart astronaut murders his entire crew to Save the Forest in the film’s first act, Silent Running proves to be something of a hangout movie, just a calm drift in a vacuum enjoyed by a lonely environmentalist soul, his forest full of wild animal pets, and a few stray robot “drones.” Pesky humanity taken out of the equation, the film finds a sense of peace. The question is where you’ll land on how that peace is achieved.

The film opens on close-ups of delicate animals in a natural habitat: frogs, turtles, snails, hawks, Bruce Dern. This Garden of Eden is soon revealed to be an artificial biodome (for lack of a better term) on a near-nude American Airlines space freighter in outer space. The status quo on this spaceship & the post-apocalyptic Earth they left behind is that Nature was a fixture of the past, not something worth worrying about now that everything worthwhile can be automated & manufactured. As Dern’s resentful hippie tends his space garden, the universe’s last hope for genuine plant life, his shithead co-workers casually cause havoc, running space age go-carts over his flower beds & maliciously smashing his self-grown cantelopes as a means of joshing him. He’s already a bit unhinged at this point, prone to ranting maniacally about how his fellow astronauts are poisoning their bodies with synthesized foods & how a world without Nature is a world without beauty. It’s when the crew’s ordered to abandon their project, nuke the biodomes, and return home that our hero/villain snaps and murders his entire crew. He feels occasional remorse for his actions once the cabin fever/space madness sets in, but mostly he just chills with his dinky robot pals in his pristine space garden and enjoys a peaceful life without his fellow man mucking up his ethereal hippie paradise. The only crisis that arises is when a “rescue mission” arrives to pluck him from isolation in the abandoned freighter and he must choose whether to rejoin humanity to pay for his crimes or to nuke himself into oblivion along with anyone who dares threaten his beloved plant life.

Whether or not you’re interested in the crazed hippie moral dilemma at the center of Silent Running, the film is interesting enough in its production details alone to deserve a look. Besides the obvious care that went into constructing the space freighter models which float by in endless lingering shots of outer space majesty, the dinky drone bots Dern’s savior/killer hangs out with are a strange practical effects novelty. Operated by bilateral amputees walking on their hands in seemingly heavy robot shells, they’re cute little pre-R2D2 buggers with plenty of unwarranted AI personality useful for keeping their crazed killer master some company. They’re also notably the only actors in the film who aren’t all white men, not that you ever get to see them onscreen. I should also mention that, in true hippie fashion, Silent Running features original songs by Joan Baez, who serenades the audience with poetic lines like, “Tell them it’s not to late, cultivate one by one. Tell them to harvest in the Sun” along with some proto-Jill Stein raps about the feeling of earth between your toes. I think there’s some distinct camp value to the way the film succinctly simplifies the cause to Save the Forest by making the forest a small, manageable space that can be saved by murdering a few careless capitalists. Whether you’re a no-bridge-is-too-far hippie activist, someone who’s terrified to death of those activists, or just a sci-fi nerd who enjoy looking at toy spaceships & hand-built robots, Silent Running has plenty to offer in terms of pure entertainment. Whether you see it as a horror film or an inspiring message of hope relies entirely on you.

-Brandon Ledet

The Void (2017)

I often tout the importance of practical effects in genre filmmaking, even claiming that it saves otherwise dire tongue-in-cheek properties like Zombeavers and Stung from total tedium. The recent horror fantasy picture The Void made me question that devotion to my practical-effects-above-all-else ethos. At every turn, The Void disappoints as a feature film & a genre exercise, except that its classic, tactile 80s gore is gorgeous to behold. I left the film positive overall due to its visual artistry, but just barely. I was so close to souring on The Void from a scene to scene basis that I almost wish I had watched the movie on mute while folding the laundry & making phone calls. It was only worthwhile for its imagery.

A sort of Stranger Things cocktail of 80s-specific genre nostalgia, The Void stages a John Carpenter-style single location thriller at a small town hospital and tortures its characters within by way of a Clive Barker-style threat of otherworldly hedonism. Every character bottled up in this promising, go-nowhere plot can be boiled down to a single defining characteristic: The Cop, The Pregnant One, The Old Timer, etc. Their flat, emotionless line delivery, snarky post-Joss Whedon riffing, and dispiriting lack of character depth made me expect a twist that never came where the hospital setting would be exposed as an artificial environment, like in Southbound or Cabin in the Woods. No such luck. The only thing that opens up their hospital-set imprisonment is that one of them is some kind of occultist figurehead with access to hideous, beastly mutations and a titular realm of otherworldly horrors. Instead of playing like a threat, though, this villain is the audience’s only salvation from a bland group of inhuman forgettables, more of whom survive than I would have liked.

As bland as The Void is to listen to & absorb on a narrative level, it sure is pretty to gander at. It’s got everything: the impossible to define monstrosities of The Thing, the triangle-reverent mysticism of Beyond the Black Rainbow, the wooded threat of The Witch, the heavy metal hellscapes of Thor 2: The Dark World, the home invasion brutes of You’re Next, the personal nightmare visualizations of Event Horizon (just without the pesky outer space setting classing up the joint), etc. Just about the only thing The Void doesn’t have is an original bone in its body, getting by mostly as a Frankenfilm composed entirely from pieces-parts of horror cinema past. I frequently didn’t care about that nostalgia-baiting nature of the imagery, though, especially when it came to the Cronenbergian creature designs & Hellraiser 2: Hellbound visage of exposed muscle & nerve. The Void may borrow heavily from seemingly every movie that came before it, the reference points that comprise its feature length mixtape aren’t the easiest visual feats to pull off and the film ultimately gets by on the strength of its grotesque visual artistry, even if just barely.

I usually don’t require much, if any, verisimilitude from my practical effects-heavy gore fests about mutant beasts & alternate dimensions, but something about The Void’s detachment from reality bothered me. When an in-over-his-head sheriff from a small industrial town sees someone he’s presumably known his entire life shave off their own face & melt into an alien-looking creature, I expect at least a little bit of an emotional freakout, if not a violent puking & fainting combo. Since The Void is disinterested in that kind of recognizable humanity, its best bet would’ve been a reason or explanation why everyone was acting so oddly, even if a comically outlandish, campy one. As is, the human interactions feel like dead space placeholders between the film’s admittedly righteous horror film homages to past practical effects monstrosities. These visual achievements were enough on their own to make the film feel at least worthwhile, but not nearly enough to elicit any kind of genuine enthusiasm. If the characters within the film don’t care all that much about having their ranks torn apart by mutated beasts, why should I?

-Brandon Ledet