Ghost Stories (2018)

It can be amazing how much an ambitious, go-for-broke ending can raise a horror film out of genre-faithful tedium. Every now and then a potentially so-so horror film like The Boy, Marrowbone, or The House on Sorority Row will go so deliriously off the rails in its final stretch that its conclusion will elevate the entire middling picture that unfolded before it to a retroactive artistic high. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film pull that trick off as well as the cheapo British horror anthology Ghost Stories. For most of its runtime, Ghost Stories pretends to be a very well-behaved, Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level horror anthology with open-ended, unsatisfying conclusions to its three mildly spooky vignettes. It turns out that dissatisfaction is deliberate, as it sets the film up for a supernaturally menacing prank on an unsuspecting audience. As its individual pieces start lining up into a clear, distinct gestalt, the film devolves into a playfully bizarre, sinister mindfuck. Ghost Stories had me shrugging off its minor charms as a cheekily funny horror anthology for nearly 2/3rds of its runtime, and then somehow turned the experience around in its final half hour to make me reconsider it as one of the more cleverly conceived genre films I’ve seen all year.

Adapted from a stage play by the same name, Ghost Stories is about an “arrogant & disrespectful” celebrity skeptic with “modern disregard for the spiritual life,” who’s achieved minor fame as the host of the (fictional) television show Psychic Cheats. His life’s work is called into question when his aging hero, another famous skeptic who he’s been worshiping since he was a child, reveals himself to now be a true believer in the paranormal. The older skeptic offers a challenge to the younger one in the form of three unsolved case files he could not himself prove to be hoaxes. Anchored by recognizable Brits Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, and The End of the Fucking World’s Alex Lawther, these three case files are laid out in rigidly segmented vignettes that slowly chip away at the younger skeptic’s sense of reality. Their stories of psych ward hauntings, ghostly apparitions, and woodland demons are a little too toothless in their shocks & gore to leave much of an impression individually. However, as strange, menacing details build up & recur around the skeptic as he investigates the cases, a cold undercurrent beneath the film’s deceptively well-behaved horror anthology surface begins to pick up strength & speed. By the end of the film, the individual case stories cease to matter as a much more sinister narrative builds around the details lurking at the edge of the frame.

As a genre, horror is built on the foundation of disruption. Whether supernaturally or via a real-world force, there must be a break in the daily routine of reality for a film to qualify as horror in the first place. Following titles like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound that have been playing with the structure of the horror anthology as medium in recent years, Ghost Stories presents its own disruption of reality by way of disguise. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure viewers into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith. That kind of patience is not going to work for everyone. Without the distraction-free environment of a movie theater, I can see many VOD viewers walking away from Ghost Stories mid-film or scrolling through social media throughout, feeling like they’ve already seen everything it has to offer before. The ending only works if you stick with the film’s minor visual details and moments of unexplained pause, affording it patience & attention. It’s a glorious, surprisingly heady prank of a conclusion, though, one of the best horror film turnarounds I’ve ever seen.

-Brandon Ledet

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Marrowbone (2018)

It’s difficult to gauge how wide of an appeal the straight-to-VOD sleeper Marrowbone might hold for a contemporary audience. As an obedient participation in the tropes of the Gothic horror genre as a cinematic tradition, the film starts off with a slight disadvantage in its aesthetic’s commercial appeal. As demonstrated by del Toro’s Crimson Peak, the modern Gothic horror is often dismissed & unacknowledged even when it’s done exactly right, so a much cheaper, small-scale production like Marrowbone doesn’t have much of a chance to make an impression. To make things harder on itself, the film also adopts a distinctly literary, romantic tone that invites more cynical audiences to not take its emotional core seriously, the exact same way the tragically undervalued Never Let Me Go undercut its own potential commercial appeal as a sci-fi genre picture. For fans of the Gothic horror as an onscreen tradition, Marrowbone offers a wonderful corrective to the year’s other major offering in that genre, Winchester (which I’m saying as the only person in the world who got a kick out of Winchester). It’s an oddly romantic, admirably deranged entry into the modern ghost story canon. It’s frustrating for the already-converted to know that the film’s unhinged charms will be met with more shrugs than enthusiasm on the contemporary pop culture landscape, but its choice of genre at least lends it to feeling somewhat timeless, even if not an instant modern hit.

Although it’s set in 1960s small-town America, it’d be understandable to mistake much of Marrowbone for 19th Century Europe. Its haunted house narrative and feral children aesthetic feels like the lore of 1800s peasants, which makes the occasional intrusion of recognizable modernity almost surreal. The most frequent representation of this modernity is a girl-next-door sweetheart played by Anya Taylor-Joy. In her introduction she’s teased to be a kind of woodland witch (appropriately enough), but it turns out she’s just a darling small-town librarian with an A+ 1960s wardrobe. Her calm provincial life is upturned by the arrival of a small English emigrant family (including familiar faces Charlie Heaton, George MacKay, and Mia Goth) who are obviously in the process of escaping a troubled past. This is one of those immigrant stories where American is framed as a cure-all reset button meant to heals old wounds in a battered family’s identity. The past continues to haunt them, though—at first figuratively, then literally in the form of a ghost that stalks the attic of their new home. As the hauntings worsen, the family becomes more reclusive, never leaving the house to venture into town. Only the sweetheart librarian and her petty, jealous suitor have any interest in the goings-on of the cursed home, the family’s mysterious past, and the well-being of the four children who’re left to face their demons alone within that insular space. It does not go well.

Because Marrowbone is so obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a long-familiar genre, most audiences will clue into the answers to its central mysteries long before they’re revealed. However, the details of those mysteries’ circumstances and the effect of their in-the-moment dread carry the movie through a consistently compelling continuation of a Gothic horror tradition. Creepy dolls, cursed money, miniatures, bricked-over doorways, a covered mirror, a menacing ghost, a pet raccoon named Scoundrel: Marrowbone excels in the odd specificity of its individual details and the deranged paths its story pushes to once the protective bubble of its central mystery is loudly popped. There’s also a delicately tragic sense of romance that guides the picture’s overall tone, both in the librarian’s love life and in the children-fending-for-themselves literary imagination. If you’re not especially in love with the atmospheric feel of the Gothic horror genre, these aesthetic details and the film’s bonkers third act might not be enough to carry you beyond the sense that we’ve seen this story told onscreen many times before. The tempered response to both Crimson Peak & Winchester suggest that will be the case for many viewers. More forgiving Gothic horror fans should find plenty of admirable specificity to this particular story, though, the kind of tangible detailing that allows the best ghost stories to stick to the memory despite their decades (if not centuries) of cultural familiarity. It’s a shame that tradition isn’t currently profitable, but we’ll eventually come back around to it as a culture and Marrowbone will still be oddly, wonderfully unhinged in its menacing details.

-Brandon Ledet

Tully (2018)

Diablo Cody’s work as a screenwriter is a bit of a required taste, as her dialogue often slips into overwritten self-amusement. It’s a tough stylistic choice to accommodate in a real-world drama, something she pulled off very awkwardly in Juno and with expert emotional cruelty in Young Adult. For me, Cody’s writing style is more consistently rewarding when it’s paired with an over-the-top premise that matches its eccentricity. The coming of age body horror genre beats of Jennifer’s Body and the D.I.D. multiple personality showcase of The United States of Tara frame Cody’s dialogue in its proper over-the-top context. The path to success is much easier in those works than in the grounded realism of a Young Adult, which requires more restraint. Cody’s latest project, a return to collaborating with Young Adult actor Charlize Theron & director Jason Reitman, smartly splits the difference between those two approaches. Tully is, in part, a brutally realistic drama about a woman who feels run-down & unacknowledged in the postpartum aftermath of her third childbirth. It’s also a tense fantasy piece swirling with nightmare imagery & reveries about mermaids that allows for Cody’s more batshit impulses to invade the dialogue & narrative without feeling out of place. I suspect that Tully will be as divisive as any of Cody’s other scripts, as its uncompromising dedication to both the recognizably true and the deliriously surreal are likely to leave audiences split between which side they’d wish to see more of. Personally, I found it to be one of her most substantial, rewarding works – one that fully figured out how to incorporate her eccentric artificiality into a real-world subject without feeling excessively awkward.

Tully begins with an idyllic, calm image of Theron’s protagonist playing mother in a sunlit, almost divine interaction with her son. That illusion is immediately disrupted by the harsh reality of an overworked, underpaid woman carrying her third child while wrangling her other two without much help from her eternally aloof husband (Ron Livingston). Her smug, wealthy brother (Mark Duplass, the Ron Livingston of the 2010s) offers to alleviate some of her blatantly apparent stress by hiring a “night nanny” to watch her newborn baby while she sleeps, affording her more stability in her daily routine. At first, this offer appears to be just as judgmental as every other unsolicited slice of advice about what she should be eating during pregnancy, how she should school her kids, and how much effort she’s putting into the upkeep of her home. As the horrors of daily routine mount to the piercing chaos of The Babadook, however, she breaks down and hires the night nanny anyway. A quirky eccentric with a college-age idealism that’s persisted well into her mid-20s, this Manic Pixie Dream Doula (Mackenzie Davis) completely changes the temperature of the home. The mother finally has the assistance she wasn’t getting from her tragically oblivious husband, but more importantly she has someone to acknowledge her and discuss her daily struggles instead of judging her supposed shortcomings as a homemaker. Still, although she seems more put-together on the exterior, she finds herself both jealous of & codependent on the night nanny and increasingly troubled dreams of mermaids & car crashes invade her more grounded thought patterns. The night nanny quick-fix is a life-saving miracle that completely shifts the reality of her daily routine, but it’s an Edenic dynamic that can only last for so long before the impossible obligations of modern motherhood come crashing back into the frame full-force.

Written after the birth of her own third child, Tully feels like a very personal project for Diablo Cody, who fills a somewhat delirious character study with plenty real-world detail. The way wealth determines quality of child care, the way fathers conveniently bumble their way past alleviating mothers’ daily responsibilities, and the horrifying tension built through a newborn baby’s incessant screams all feel like knowledgeable, lived experience. Cody’s overwritten dialogue tics are still present throughout, like in the mother’s description of the night nanny being like “a book of fun facts for unpopular 4th graders” or the nanny describing herself being “like Saudi Arabia” because she has “an excess of energy.” There’s also an extensive shout-out to the cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains awkwardly shoehorned into the film, exactly the way Kimya Dawson was clumsily forced into Juno’s DNA. For some audiences, Cody’s idiosyncratically overwritten style will always be a tough hurdle to clear. Her work requires a little bit of giving-in & good faith on the viewer’s end, but I personally find it to be very much worth the effort. Tully is deeply rewarding as a tense, darkly comic fantasy piece about the routine, real-life horrors of motherhood. It finds a great, delirious headspace that allows Cody’s stranger impulses to feel right at home with its more grounded character study of a woman frayed at the edges by an unfair, impossible collection of daily obligations. From the first appearance of an angelic mermaid disrupting the film’s realistic domestic drama you should be able to tell if you’re going to be onboard with the bizarre balance the film attempts to maintain between the surreal and the all-too-real. If you can accept what Cody’s doing on her own loopy terms, though, you might just find her results uniquely fascinating, even if inconsistent.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 37: Equinox Flower (1958)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Equinox Flower (1958) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.” One of his examples includes the passage, “In Equinox Flower, a Japanese film by the old master Yasujirō Ozu, there is this sequence of shots: a room with a read teapot in the foreground. Another view of the room. The mother folding clothes. A shot down a corridor with the mother crossing it at an angle, and then a daughter crossing at the back. A reverse shot in a hallway as the arriving father is greeted by the mother and daughter. A shot as the father leaves the frame, then the mother, then the daughter. A shot as the mother and father enter the room, as in the background the daughter picks up the red teapot and leaves the frame. This sequence of timed movement and cutting is as perfect as any music any written, any dance, any poem.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he does mention it as evidence in his salute to Ozu as “A Master of the Cinema.” He writes, “To love movies without loving Ozu is an impossibility. When I see his films, I am struck by his presence behind every line, every gesture. Like Shakespeare, he breathes through his characters, and when you have seen several of his films you feel as if you must have known him. What is strange, considering that his films were once considered too Japanese to even be shown in the West, is that you also feel you have known his characters–some of them for all of your life.”

I am beginning to accept that, like Andrei Tarkovsky & Terence Mallick, Yasujirō Ozu is one of those incredibly talented filmmakers I’ll never emotionally connect with. I’m too impatient, too scatterbrained to work my way up to Ozu’s quietly reflective, well-mannered wavelength, no matter how much I admire his attention to craft. With long, pensive features stitched together through meticulously arranged static shots, consciously avoiding camera movement, Ozu’s catalog is diabolically designed to make me feel like an unappreciative dolt in well-versed, patient film nerd circles. The delicate dialogue and stoic architecture that fascinates the filmmaker leave me feeling stubbornly stuck in a slow-sinking mud, praying that I don’t give up and fall asleep. This is especially true in Equinox Flower, a film that’s explicitly about stubbornness and inaction. In Ozu’s more devastating dramas like Tokyo Story, there’s at least a heart-wrenching central conflict with an undeniable emotional hook (in that particular case, the way the elderly are left behind by uncaring, selfish youth). Equinox Flower is a much tougher vibe to engage with, as its own conflict is a pensive shift towards enlightenment & understanding, something that doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama.

Marking a shift in sympathies from valuing the elderly & tradition over the new-fangled youth to a more modern perspective, Ozu’s first color film wrings its hands for two full hours over the dissolution of the arranged marriage as a social institution. Our central character is a middle-aged father fretting over his conflicting feelings on modern marriage. He’s introduced giving a speech in favor of romantic marriage at a colleague’s daughter’s wedding, disparaging the result of the practical, arranged marriage he has with his own spouse. He then later advises a family friend to disobey her mother’s wishes and marry the man she loves. These expressions are explained to be hypocrisies as his own daughter is revealed to be planning marriage with a coworker, without seeking her parents’ counsel. The father apparently prefers the tradition of arranged marriage in his own household, finding it to be a more stable foundation for a partnership, whereas passion fades. He doubles down on his opposition to his daughter’s choice by essentially imprisoning her in their home, fighting off an encroaching modernity that looks increasingly inevitable. The audience knows this impulse to be toxic, and the movie tracks his stubborn drift towards empathy for his adult daughter’s autonomous decision.

My disconnect with Ozu might boil down to just how stubbornly well-behaved he is as a filmmaker and a persona. It’s how I imagine Scorsese & Bergman’s crises-of-Faith films appear to people who weren’t raised Christian. Ozu tells this story of young women leaving home to choose their own professions & lovers with great empathy for the old men who wish to control & stifle them. Arranged marriages are explained to be in opposition to passionate ones, but here “passion” is expressed through polite & mannered conversation, never physical desire. Much like how his protagonist fights the dissolution of arranged marriage traditions, Ozu fought the transition from silent film to talkies in the 1930s and the transition to color that started with Equinox Flower. In both cases he found that new-fangled way of doing things wasn’t so bad (he never returned to black & white filmmaking), despite his stubborn, teeth-grinding resistance. It’s clear he identified with the mental anguish this film’s patriarch goes through as he comes to terms with is adult daughter’s entitlement to romantic freedom. I never shared in that fretting for one minute, so the film mostly played like watching a stubborn bully gradually decide to not be such a rigidly traditionalist brute. It’s an admirable personality shift, but also one that doesn’t earn the long, self-reflective journey it’s afforded.

I do greatly appreciate the visual arrangements of Ozu’s framing. His biggest fans fawn over how his editing room cuts find a peculiar sense of movement within that beautiful stillness. Ebert gushed in particular about a sequence in Equinox Flower that establishes a poetic domesticity through these cuts, which he describes a being one of the most joyous sequences in all of cinema. I’ve been guilty of finding that same poetic joy in the artificial domesticity of a Douglas Sirk picture or two, but Sirk’s melodramas were informed by an emotional passion Ozu had no interest in exploring. It’s likely this feeling of a well-mannered, well-behaved emotional remove is a culturally-informed one, something I should strive to look past in my appreciation for the director’s formalist achievements. I can’t deny though, that I would have been much more enthusiastic about Equinox Flower if it paired its technical craft with genuinely passionate melodrama. It could have at least told its story through the daughter’s POV instead of her stubborn, traditionalist father’s. That might be the crux of where Ozu & I differ in sensibility & temperament.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: Young at Heart (1954)

-Brandon Ledet

Dementia 13 (1963)

Before the New Hollywood movement busted up the established dinosaurs of the Studio System, one of the best ways for young outsiders to break into filmmaking was through the Roger Corman Film School. Because the maniacally frugal producer would hand off cheap, quick film shoots to anyone he suspected might be competent enough to handle the task, many young filmmakers who would later define the New Hollywood era cut their teeth with on-the-job training making films for Roger Corman & AIP: Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Fonda, Hopper, Demme, etc. There was a kind of freedom to this pedal-to-the-floor cheapo genre film production cycle, but many projects Corman handed to his de facto “students” were . . . less than ideal, considering their art cinema sensibilities. That’s how the world was gifted weird mishmash projects like Peter Bogdanovich getting his start directing Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women by smashing together scenes of over-dubbed Soviet sci-fi films with new footage of beachside bikini babes. Another future New Hollywood upstart, Frances Ford Coppola, got his foot in the door recutting & dubbing those same Russian sci-fi films alongside Bogdanovich in the editing room. Coppola also got his own start directing “mainstream” narrative features (as opposed to his earlier nudie cutie work) through a hodgepodge project Corman handed to him in a rush. Hastily slapped together on the back of $20,000 of budgetary leftovers from another AIP production, Coppola’s Dementia 13 is one of those Corman projects like Blood Bath or The Terror that are left almost entirely incomprehensible by their corner-cutting, behind the scenes shenanigans. The film afforded Coppola the opportunity to experiment with his sense of craft on the job, though, as he strived to make a more serious, artful picture than what’s usually expected from Croman fare. The results were mixed, but worthwhile.

Urged by AIP to deliver a quick, cheap riff on Psycho, Coppola filters a Hitchcockian mad-killer plot through a Gothic haunted house template. Packed with axe-murders, underwater doll parts, badly dubbed performances, and gradual descents into madness, the film often feels like a cheap black & white take on giallo surreality. Like giallo, it values imagery over narrative coherence, requiring a Wikipedia read-through of its basic plot after the end credits roll. It opens with a Psycho/Carnival of Souls-style setup of a lone woman in flight from her past crises. In this case, she’s a money-hungry schemer who pretends that her late husband is still alive so she can ingratiate herself to his mother for inheritance money. She moves in with the “not” dead husband’s family in their Gothic manor, which is lousy with hidden passageways and dark family secrets. The family is unhealthily obsessed with the drowning of their youngest daughter years in the past, a weakness the woman hopes to exploit to con them out of their money. What happens from there is up for interpretation, as the past drowning death and a series of current axe murders open the film up to hazily-defined mysteries befitting of the world’s most incomprehensible gialli. Although the producer afforded Coppola total freedom to write & direct the film he wanted, Corman was frustrated with its incomprehensible plot, which he decided to punch up with a series of changes that dampened its art film appeal: Irish accents dubbed over with unenthused American ones; Jack Hill-directed inserts of comic relief; a runtime-padding intro that administered a mental stability test to the audience in a William Castle-style gimmick. Corman didn’t clarify the plot of Coppola’s film so much as he compromised its overall artistic vision. If there’s any consolation, it’s that it’s clear the film would have would have been a total mess either way.

What an interesting mess, though! Although not as fun as similarly incomprehensible horror cheapies like Blood Bath or A Night to Dismember, Dementia 13 at the very least provides a stage for a young Coppola to test out his visual experiments to varying success, without any real stakes for them having to pay off (it wouldn’t be the first or last time someone wasted AIP money). As it opened on a double bill with the excellent sci-fi horror The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, possibly Corman’s best directorial effort outside The Masque of the Red Death, it’s clear that the student had yet to become the master. Like many other future New Hollywood film nerds, though, Coppola was better for the Roger Corman Film School having afforded him an opportunity to gain mainstream experience behind the camera, even if the immediate results weren’t as compelling as a Targets or even a Death Race 2000.

-Brandon Ledet

X-Men vs. The Avengers: Determining the Worst No-Stakes Offender

Avengers: Infinity War offers an interesting conundrum for a movie critic, as it defies consideration as an isolated piece of work. Overall, the film felt to me like the MCU in a microcosm; there were some aspects I really liked mixed with some I couldn’t care less about. Like with the MCU at large, I could’ve done without Stark & Strange, the CGI spectacle could be really numbing, and its absurd length felt paradoxically too short to fully serve its myriad of storylines & too long to maintain constant, undivided attention. The bizarre critical dilemma it presents is that it can’t be separated from the MCU at large at all. Not only does it represent both the highs & lows of its franchise, its impact is meaningless without 18 previous films informing its in-the-moment significance. Considering the merits of Infinity War as an isolated work of art would be like critically assessing a randomly selected episode of a soap opera, a single pro wrestling match from a months-long angle or, perhaps most appropriately, a mid-stream issue of a comic book series. It’s a tough thing to evaluate in isolation, as it’s built on a structure that requires both knowledge of its characters’ previous arcs and acceptance of its medium’s need to never truly wrap up a storyline. This type of storytelling’s endless self-propulsion requires always leaving a door open for The Next Big Show. The tagline for Infinity War is “An entire universe. Once and for all,” but we know as consumers that a more accurate descriptor would be “Once or thrice a year.” It’s difficult, then, to invest any emotional response in the film’s at-the-moment consequences, since they convey a kind of finality that we know will inevitably be undone in the next summer’s sequel(s). Adapting a comic book story structure to blockbuster cinema has created a never-ending franchise that can’t afford to introduce actual stakes to its everlasting gobstopper “plot.”

That’s not necessarily a bad ting, though. I love pro-wrestling. Millions of people watch soap operas every day. Comic books are at least popular enough to have justified this franchise’s launch in the first place. Like with consumers of all kinds of serialized storytelling, MCU fans are entering these films recognizing that their storylines can never fully reach a satisfying conclusion. At the very least, they can assume that the death of a major character who’s already scheduled to appear in an announced sequel will inevitably be reversed through supernatural shenanigans. There’s a surplus of dubious character deaths in Infinity War that anyone familiar enough with the film to be watching it as the 19th entry in a series is going to be skeptical of, if not outright dismissive. The one aspect of the film that helps distinguish it as an isolated work, however, is that it does not acknowledge that inevitable impermanence. It commits to its own tragic consequences by ending on a disaster of mass death & mayhem. All signals of an optimistic future for its doomed characters are extratextual, based entirely on those deranged Disney press conferences where the corporate bully claims future weekend release dates for their bottomless wealth of sequels planned centuries into the future. We can fully expect as an audience that Infinity War’s damage will be undone by the end of the next Avengers sequel, but the film ends without any indication of that impermanence. I mention this because I’ve seen plenty of comic book movies (both in the MCU and outside it) do the exact opposite in the past, to their own detriment. For instance, if Infinity War were an X-Men sequel, its mass death downer of a conclusion would have wrapped up tidily at the climax, then immediately been undone by a convenient, quick denouement. I know this because I’ve seen the X-Men movies do it more than once, most egregiously in its two most recent entries.

I’m about to vaguely spoil two recent-ish X-Men movies, but don’t worry; nothing really matters in that franchise. In just two pictures, X-Men has become the authority on the comic book Reset Button, assuring that its individual battles have no stakes in the context of franchise-wide storylines. The current trajectory of the X-Men series has been a decade-by-decade nostalgia trip. The prequel X-Men: First Class plays like a swanky 60s spy picture. Days of Future Past deals largely in 70s political thriller genre beats. Apocalypse functions as a Ready Player One-style indulgence in 1980s aesthetic. The next film on the docket will presumably push through to touch on 90s grunge or pogs or whatever. Even beyond these temporal divisions, X-Men movies typically feel more independent from each other than MCU entries, with each individual episode resetting the rotary dial for the next adventure to arrive with a mostly blank slate. The most backlash I’ve seen to this repeatedly mashed Reset Button plot structure was in the reaction to The Days of Future Past’s ending. Days is a sci-fi time travel movie that splits its efforts between a possible future reality and an alternate version of the past. The movie largely concerns preventing a grim future by nipping past evil in the bud, which the heroes inevitably accomplish to no one’s surprise. What was surprising is that, after victory, omnipresent series favorite Wolverine awakes in a timeline that ties together both the First Class prequels & the early 00s series that preceded them, undoing many major character deaths through an afterthought shrug of time travel shenanigans. I understand why this tidy conclusion rolled many viewers’ eyes when the film was first released, but I was personally much more annoyed by a smaller moment in the next picture. There’s a scene late in X-Men: Apocalypse where characters with mutant powers stand in an open field with their arms extended, palms open, while their destroyed home base magically reassembles itself. Every broken brick & board smoothly floats back to its proper assembly in a low-rent CGI spectacle, not an inch of the once-destroyed structure out of place or conveying damage. It’s maybe a 20 second clip, but there was something about its magical ease that really irked me. I’ve never seen the impermanence of consequence in comic book movie storytelling represented so succinctly in a single scene before or since.

For better or for worse, the massive, sustained success of the MCU means that more of this serialized blockbuster storytelling is on its way. I found myself watching a trailer for an upcoming Star Wars prequel this past weekend that ends on an action sequence cliffhanger teasing that Chewbacca may or may not die in the film. Everyone who’s ever seen any Star Wars movie before (read: everyone) knows that Chewbacca will not die in that prequel. That momentary crisis has no potential consequence in its larger series, but that’s just how these kinds of stories are told (including the old-timey radio serials Star Wars was originally inspired by). All we can do, if we’re going to continue to tune in for the next episodes in these ongoing series, is celebrate the examples that commit to their consequences in the moment. Avengers: Infinity War might not ultimately mean anything in the grand picture of individual characters’ fates, as it will likely be undone by its successor next summer. At least it committed to its own consequences, though, instead of undoing them on the spot. In X-Men: Infinity War, the mass character deaths would’ve been a climactic crisis immediately undone by the surviving superheroes standing in an open field, arms outstretched, putting their friends’ pieces back together again with their mysterious powers. I only mildly enjoyed Infinity War overall, the way I only moderately enjoy the MCU overall, while recognizing that there are individual elements I’m really into: Captain America, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Black Panther. I do respect that it didn’t reset its own consequences we know through extratextual means to be impermanent the way a more traditional comic book series entry would have. When I first reviewed X-Men: Apocalypse I asked, “What’s the point of any of this if it can all be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-a-Sketch?” By saving its own magical reset for a later date (which I’m sure was announced at a press conference five years ago), Infinity War sidestepped that annoyance completely, even if its in-the-long-run storytelling amounts to the same general effect as what’s undone in Apocalypse: no effect at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Neil Patrick Harris, Superhero Sidekick

Neil Patrick Harris wears a daunting number of hats in the show business racket: Broadway entertainer, game show host, sitcom star, children’s book author, etc. He’s one of these well-rounded, over-employed entertainers where you’re never sure how they fit all their various projects in a tenable schedule. One of his regular gigs is voiceover work for various animated projects wildly varying in target demographic, but often hitting that one common denominator in all age-specific marketing: superhero media. NPH has had regular voice acting gigs in the superhero pantheon over the years, even voicing the title role in a long-running animated Spiderman series. He’s only voiced characters in two animated superhero movies, though, both of which fall under the DC Comics brand. That’s maybe not that surprising to most people, as the DC Universe Animated Original Movies brand has dozens of feature-length cartoons under its belt to date. What is surprising, though is that someone as talented & recognizable as Neil Patrick Harris has only played supporting characters in both instances of his movie-length collaborations with DC. Likely a reflection of his busy, no time to dally schedule, NPH’s animated superhero movie specialty seems to be punching up a side character’s dialogue with wry, cocky wit, making them appear more fully developed than they’re written to be. As with many of the projects NPH applies his time to, he’s good at his job.

In our current Movie of the Month, 2010’s Batman: Under the Red Hood, NPH’s sidekick role plays as entirely intentional. He’s cast as just one of two ex-Robins, raised under the Caped Crusader’s tutelage in a movie that’s all about Batman’s struggle with the other. NPH appears in the film as Nightwing, an early adopter of the Robin persona who has since branched out to fighting crime on his own, but still desperately needs fatherly approval from a standoffish Batman. Nightwing is an outsider to the central plot involving a second, younger Robin, but he’s also an essential parallel of it. This requires him to be present, but without enough time to develop his persona. It’s a paradox that’s easily fixed by having NPH on hand to instantly sell the character’s sarcastic, performatively confident personality. It’s the same role he fills as The Flash in the earlier DC animated feature The Justice League: The New Frontier, through for entirely different reasons. The Flash is a sidekick to no one and his storyline is one of the driving plot threads in New Frontier, yet NPH is afforded just about the same amount of screen time & character development there as he is in Under the Red Hood. This is because the film is overstuffed with the backstories & character introductions of a long line of superheroes in the film’s cast, who all divvy up the runtime until there’s barely any left to go around. It’s a frequent problem for anyone who’s familiar with the trajectory of modern live-action superhero franchises, especially the DCEU. It’s also a telling contrast to the intimate story told in Red Hood.

As busy & overcrowded as The New Frontier can feel, it does have an excellent central gimmick. Set in the Atomic Age 1950s, the film feels like a better world where Brad Bird made his animated superhero media in traditional 2D instead of with Pixar. Telling the story of an ancient disembodied force that vows to destroy humanity because of its dangerous nuclear proliferation, The New Frontier is decorated wall to wall with the visual kitsch of a 1950s diner with a sci-fi theme. By setting the clock back to that setting, though, it also requires the Justice League to be a uniformed group of disparate superheroes who spend the entire runtime coming together as a team (and joining efforts of an untrustworthy military) for the first time. Characters like The Flash, Superman, and Wonder Woman already have detailed backstories in place, while more character development is afforded the origin stories of lesser characters like The Green Lantern & Martian Manhunter. It’s likely no accident that more seasoned, well-established voice actors are afforded to the three more static characters (NPH, Kyle McLachlan, and Lucy Lawless, respectively), since their personalities need to be more immediately recognizable than the ones who’re developed through origin stories. The Flash is key to the film’s plot, especially in establishing superheroes as McCarthy Era Others (“What’s with that red costume? Red’s for Commies,”) but he’s afforded almost the same amount of screen time as Nightwing in Under the Red Hood: very little. He’s a well-established superhero reduced here to Superman & Wonder Woman’s de facto sidekick.

From a technical standpoint, the more intimate, self-contained story of Under the Red Hood is more effective as a piece of writing, while the overly busy, origins-obsessed plotting of The New Frontier is indicative of the worst impulses of superhero media storytelling. I enjoyed both films very much, though, believing New Frontier’s narrative shortcomings to be far outweighed by the beauty & charm of its Atomic Age aesthetic. Neil Patrick Harris is employed in self-contradictory roles in both pictures. He is both central to the themes & plots and reduced to glorified cameo roles as sidekick & afterthought. NPH does a great job of making both roles memorable, informing both characters with a punchy, wry sense of humor without fully tipping them into wiseass Deadpool territory. Like The New Frontier, the man’s career is spread into an impossible number of directions and it’s impressive the amount of quality work he produces despite that myriad of obligations.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s profile of its Caped Crusader voice actor, Bruce Greenwood.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #56 of The Swampflix Podcast: New Orleans French & Overlook Film Fests 2018

Welcome to Episode #56 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our fifty-sixth episode, James & Brandon take care of some film festival-related Spring cleaning before the city hits its summer slump. They discuss the horror-themed Overlook Film Fest, which came through New Orleans for the first time this year, and then are joined by CC to discuss this year’s New Orleans French Film Fest (including in-depth discussions of the Agnès Varda oeuvre & last year’s arthouse thriller Nocturama). Enjoy!

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

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Duck Butter (2018)

One of my favorite kinds of onscreen stories are ones where characters feel compelled to remain in a cramped, increasingly violent social environment that’s obviously toxic from the start. It’s a narrative device I’ve previously defined as “The Party Out of Bounds” and it’s one that leaves a lot of room for variation in the reasons why its menacing parties never end. The cause of characters lingering in vicious environments can be practical (It’s a Disaster, The Invitation), supernatural (The Exterminating Angel, mother!, High-Rise), or just emotionally masochistic (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Bigger Splash). Rarely do the films focus on the compulsion itself though, choosing instead to explore the consequences of the tension it generates. The recent indie comedy/romantic drama Duck Butter subverts that genre expectation by constructing a toxic social scenario where characters feel compelled to dwell long after the vibe sours, then questioning the source of that compulsion & what it indicates about the characters’ emotional lives & the nature of romance at large. It also pairs quiet, awkward comedy with intimately explicit sex, making the audience feel trapped right in the room with its troubled co-leads.

Alia Shawkat (who co-wrote the film with director Miguel Arteta) stars as a prickly, Alia Shawkat-like actor struggling to find her place on the indie cinema scene. After crashing & burning on an improv-heavy film shoot with Mark & Jay Duplass (who produced this film, naturally), she turns to a woman she recently picked up at a lesbian bar for emotional support, getting more than she bargained for. Her new love interest (Victoria’s Laia Costa) is a maniacal free spirt, the unhinged Dharma to her uptight Greg. In their early hours of infatuation, they enter into an absurd sex pact in an effort to get to better know each other, speeding up wasted months of courtship. The agreement is to have sex once an hour for 24 consecutive hours, something that seems plausible when they first intensely lock eyes. The result is the couple rushing through the entire life cycle of a romantic relationship—from the lustful honeymoon period to meeting parents to decrease in sexual attraction to total emotional meltdown to personal growth at the inevitably sour end. It’s a sweetly funny story, but also a bitterly traumatic one where both characters must confront the basic reasons why their respective romances always end in ruin. Sleep deprivation amplifies both their failings & their admirable qualities and the whole night swirls into a chaotic mess of fart jokes, passionate love, deep personal confessions, and belligerent slogans shouted at the moon.

The conceit of staging an entire romance over an intimate 24-hour exchange is brilliantly simple, since the frayed mental state of staying up all night with a new romantic partner offers the film an interesting character dynamic that can be filmed quickly & cheaply (in true Duplass tradition). Shawkat, Arteta, and Costa attempted to authentically convey that sleep deprived logical looseness by staying up all night themselves, filming the entire 24-hour sex pact sequence on a 27-hour shoot with two rotating crews. The results pay off, informing the film with a loopy kind of desperation that cuts past social niceties to uncover elusive truths & hidden anxieties. That’s the exact quality that drives me to watching a good Party Out of Bounds story in the first place, since the act of lingering in a social environment long after it’s comfortable tends to lead to a spectacular breakdown in basic civility. In Duck Butter, that breakdown calls into question why we linger in a very specific kind of social experience long after it sours: romantic entanglement. The film is enjoyable enough even without that idea at its core, bringing in always-welcome players like Kumail Nanjiani & Mae Whitman for bit parts and gleefully interrupting its intimate sexual exchanges with sophomoric poop jokes, but it’s that rushed, mentally-strained examination of romantic relationships & emotionally masochistic compulsions that makes it a worthwhile experiment.

-Brandon Ledet

Flames (2018)

“I love you, but I think you’re a really terrible person.”

One of the reasons the documentary & the essay film are becoming one of the most exciting forms of cinematic expression in recent years is they’re accepting the blurred line between reality & crafted narrative as a feature instead of a bug. Recent titles like Faces Places, Rat Film, Swagger, and The World is Mine are entirely unconcerned with distinguishing documented truth from the manipulated fictions necessary to tell a linear story, which has opened the medium up to a looser, more exciting kind of creativity. Usually, though, the question of what’s reality & what’s manipulated fiction only has an effect on the film as a finished product, not on its subjects as real-life people. The incredible, heartbreaking, fascinating thing about the recent documentary Flames is how that dynamic is dangerously flipped around. A collaboration between two filmmakers & conceptual artists documenting the rise & fall of their own romance, Flames presents a scenario where not being able to tell what’s genuine & what’s performance art can have emotionally devastating effects on a real-life relationship. Instead of reality being manipulated to change the course of the documentary, the film forces its own narrative gray area on the real-life relationship of its subjects, changing their fundamental dynamic in a way that cannot be measured or reversed. Instead of merely manipulating audience perception, the filmmakers manipulate their own understanding of what’s even happening in their own lives, turning the already volatile emotional powder keg of a passionate romance into a daily terror of bruised egos, questionable motives, and petty acts of self-serving cruelty. It’s deeply fascinating, but also deeply fucked up.

Artists Josephine Decker & Jeffrey Throwell attempt to document the entirety of their romantic life together, from start to end. This mission statement and a commitment to raw honesty make the project a kind of imitate exhibitionism. Snippets of their days drifting through political protests, basketball games, relay races, and other public events are frequently interrupted by much more private activities like unglamorous, unsimulated sex and crying alone in bed. The full sexy, goofy, passionate, combative, overwhelming spectrum of young love is on full display as the couple enjoys the early honeymoon period of their romance. The editing matches the energy of that excitement with rapid-fire interjections of detail-obsessed imagery, all culminating in an impulsive getaway to series of islands in the Indian Ocean. What’s interesting about the film, structurally, is that it continues to document their relationship long after the heated breakup that concludes that trip. Even though their romance technically only lasts eight months, the film documents a full five-year process of letting go & detangling. The broken condom & marriage proposal crises of their earliest stages give way to slower, more melancholy montages of two intensely linked people gradually drifting into separate spheres. The relationship isn’t truly over until early fights are relitigated for closure in therapy & editing room sessions that try to make sense of exactly what happened between them, the result of which is the movie itself. Unsurprisingly, the very act of bringing the remove of an art project collaboration into such an intimate exchange is significant to their ruin, as the camera’s presence raises issues of trust & obscured motives that are an absurd, immeasurable strain on an already nerve-racking experience. The movie doesn’t end until both artists are so sick of each other that they can’t stand to spend another minute collaborating on the doomed thing that keeps them tethered together, long after the exciting sweetness of that early love has soured.

Questions of what’s genuine and what’s performance aside, Flames is intoxicating as a pure sensory experience. The cameras are a hodgepodge of affordable digital technology, but the disparate images they capture of swimming dolphins, raw egg, unembarrassed sex, under-the-cover sock puppetry, and galactic air plane cabins amount to an impact that far outweighs those means. The images’ juxtaposition has a cumulative spiritual effect I haven’t seen accomplished on the screen since 20th Century Women, but I’m sure there are more forgiving Terence Mallick fans who catch that feeling far more often. The overall tone is one of menace & decay, though, even when the relationship is supposedly going well. One sequence in particular that details the world’s most horrific strip poker game had me crawling out of my skin more than any recent horror film I can name. Flames’s emotional honesty is a self-deprecating one. This is a film that knows its own existence had a negative, almost evil impact on a real-life experience and that no documentation of spontaneous beauty or tragic humor could ever make up for the emotional chaos it’s caused. I’m excited about the mixture of documented truth & performative fictions in the current state of the documentary as an art form, but Flames serves as a harrowing warning of how that dynamic can cause real world damage in a subject. Even more so than documenting the full life of a romance from fresh passion to embittered rot, the film is fascinating as an indictment of its own existence as a doomed thing that should have been abandoned in its earliest stages. In a strange turnaround of our usual dynamic, the impetus isn’t on the audience to determine how we are being manipulated, but on the filmmakers to unpack how they’ve manipulated themselves.

-Brandon Ledet