Underwater (2020)

One warm night outside The Broad Theater in July of 2017, we were chatting with friends who happened to attend the same screening of the psychedelic gem Funeral Parade of Roses as us. When asked about what they’ve been up to lately, a buddy groaned that they were working on “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart” that was in production. For the longest time, I was struck by the dismissive tone of that complaint, as if they were currently working on Paul Blart: Mall Cop 3 instead of the coolest-sounding project to ever be greenlit. I immediately began salivating over the prospect of watching KStew square off against deep sea monstrosities in a schlocky creature feature, an excitement I’d have to hold onto for three years as the movie suffered a series of post-production delays. And now, having experienced the final product myself, I can look back to see that our buddy’s nonplussed attitude was probably the more appropriate level of enthusiasm. It turns out that the Kristen Stewart deep-sea monster movie is just okay, nothing to dork out about.

Like last year’s Captive State, Underwater feels like the exact kind of generic sci-fi schlock that usually goes straight to VOD streaming platforms but somehow instead broke free to wide theatrical release. Everything from its vague title, to the over-explanatory newspaper headlines that provide its opening-credits exposition (“REALLY BIG DRILL,” “DRILL REAL BIG”), to naming its corporate villain Titan Industries, feels like the bargain brand facsimile of a Real Movie. The only distinguishing factor at play that signals this is a proper Hollywood production is the presence of a few over-qualified actors. In the cases of Kristen Stewart & Vincent Cassel as the central heroic duo who wage war against invading sea monsters, the overambitious casting is a blessing that elevates the material. In the unfortunate case of human colostomy bag T.J. Miller, it’s a curse. It should be noted to all concerned that Underwater’s T.J. Miller problem is a major problem. His character’s comic “relief” is constant for the entire time that he remains alive (far too long) so that he never fades into the background enough for you to forget that you’re watching a movie that stars a known abuser. I will forever love KStew’s unshakable sense of detached cool, but it’s not enough to cover up the stench of Miller’s obnoxious presence here, no matter how gruesomely he dies when his time comes.

As with most deep-sea aquatic horrors, Underwater mostly functions the same as any post-Alien spaceship thriller. It just skips a lot of the usual atmospheric preamble to jump right into its monster action. We open in a corporate Hell-future where Stewart & crew are working at an oil facility that mines directly into the ocean floor with seemingly the world’s largest drill. This fracking experiment throws our heroes into immediate crisis before we even get to know their names. Stewart teases a pensive, jaded narration track as if we’re about to watch a calm mood piece, but her inner thoughts are immediately interrupted by the deep-sea facility being attacked from all sides by creatures unleashed from beneath the ocean floor. Using her elite hacking skills as a ship mechanic, Stewart navigates the crumbling facility by bypassing its failing computer systems to open & close jammed doors as she flees to safety. She picks up a small crew of survivors along the way (including the ship’s captain, played by Cassel) and scrambles to save as many lives as possible by trekking to a far-off bay of escape pods. This doomed mission includes walking outside of the facility across the ocean floor as the monsters swirl around them in the deep-sea darkness. Few survive.

All told, Underwater is a modestly serviceable, 3-star aquatic horror that’s only elevated by the casting of its leads, the last-minute escalation of its monster mayhem, and the novelty of giving its creatures the same fracking origin story that Monster Trucks gave Creech. Setting its crisis on the ocean floor was smart in a few ways, as the darkness allows for a few moments of surprise and conveniently hides its cheap-end CG effects. Unfortunately, it also makes the film resemble far too many deep sea & deep space creature features that precede it – ones that don’t star T.J. Miller. For the movie to truly distinguish itself in any significant way, it would’ve had to make some grand gesture to break free from its subgenre’s expectations: a found-footage framing device, a “one-shot” editing gimmick, a last-second tie-in to the Cloverfield franchise, something. Instead, its monsters just get bigger & more plentiful until it’s over, delivering exactly what you’d expect from “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart.” I thought that novelty would be more than enough to swoon over, but it turns out it’s just enough to pass the time. It’s fine.

-Brandon Ledet

Mildred Pierce (1945)

After the William Castle psychobiddy Strait-Jacket, Mildred Piece is the second five-star, all-timer Joan Crawford film I fell in love with last year that starts with a violent murder. Unlike the late-career hagsploitation camp fest where Crawford maniacally wields an axe, however, Mildred Pierce is a much classier affair. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1946—including Best Picture—and won Ms. Crawford her own first Oscar statue for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Even its opening murder is much classier: an elegantly staged shooting with a revolver at an upscale beach house, adorned with impossibly tall ceilings & drastic noir lighting. Still, even with all the Old Hollywood elegance classing up the joint, Mildred Pierce manages to land some perfectly outrageous fits of drama & dialogue that outshine even the over-the-top fervor of her post-Baby Jane psychobiddies. That combination of the refined & the obscene is exactly what makes it such a joy – an exquisite clash of violence & melodrama.

Crawford stars as the titular Mildred Piece (duh), a wealthy woman being interrogated by the police for the murder of her husband – a crime to which her ex-husband has already confessed. We cut from this noir frame story to Mildred’s past as a proto-June Cleaver housewife, dutifully keeping house & selling home-baked pies on the side to keep her family’s finances afloat. As to be expected, all the men in Mildred’s life are scoundrels & jerks: the adulterous first husband who leaves her for another woman, the family “friend” who constantly tries to talk her into bed, the new husband who exploits her go-getter work ethic for frivolities & play money, etc. What really distinguishes this melodrama, however, is that none of these selfish brutes emerge as the movie’s central villain. That dishonor belongs to a young girl, Mildred’s own brat of a daughter. The movie (and its source material novel) could have totally still been worthwhile if it had chosen any one of Mildred’s beaus to stand out as her ultimate nemesis; it can never be reinforced enough that men are awful. Opting to pit Mildred against her own daughter instead makes for a much more distinct, idiosyncratic experience, however, a memorably outrageous source of conflict.

Veda Pierce (played with expert icy cruelty by a young Anne Blythe) rivals The Bad Seed‘s Rhoda Penmark as cinema’s greatest brat. Imagine a child so spoiled that their self-serving greed has its own body count. While Mildred claws her way up from neighborhood pie saleswoman to diner waitress to Lady Boss restauranteur, her efforts are entirely focused on raising her kids above her financial means. Still, Veda’s wealth envy knows no bounds. Like the murderous fop of Kind Hearts & Coronets, she’s bitter that she wasn’t born into the immense inherited wealth of royalty, and she’s ruthless in manipulating her way to achieving as close to that ideal as possible – often at the expense of her mother’s labor & health. The resulting clashes between Mildred & Veda are some of the most outrageously violent battles to ever reach the screen, even though instead of bullets & punches they trade cruel insults like “common frump,” “It’s your fault I’m the way I am,” and complaints about the stench of fried chicken grease. It’s just as much an Oscars-caliber showcase as it is soaringly over-the-top melodrama – a pure pleasure to behold.

There are plenty of other, smaller pleasures to soak in throughout Mildred Pierce: the comic relief of Mildred’s coded-lesbian business partner; the German Expressionist maximalism of the noir set pieces’ lighting & production design; Mildred’s costuming’s transformation from housewife drag to a pile of jewels & furs, etc. Yet, the main draw of the film is clearly the outrageous conflict of its central mother-daughter rivalry. The movie touches on themes of class envy & financial desperation, but at its core it’s just as much a horror film about mothering a seemingly evil child you don’t even like as recent titles like Goodnight Mommy, The Babadook, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. If Mildred were entirely focused on the bullying & exploitation of the various shithead men in her life or if the murder mystery investigation were the sole source of intrigue, this would still be a solid Old Hollywood relic (even if a pedestrian one). By focusing on a viciously cruel mother-daughter rivalry instead, it stands out as one of the all-time greats, yet another masterwork from Ms. Crawford’s immense catalog of troubled, fierce women butting heads with their equally ambitious nemeses.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 1/16/20 – 1/22/20

Here are the movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week, including a couple major Oscar contenders.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Mädchen in Uniform (1931) – A once controversial lesbian drama about a girls’ boarding school in 1930s Germany. Made during the early rise of Nazi fascism and initially banned in the United States, it’s a miracle this film was completed in the first place, much less survived the censorship filters of its era. Screening free to the public (with donations encouraged) Thursday 1/16 via Queer Root Films, hosted at the LGBT Community Center of New Orleans.

Weathering with You Japanese animation wizard Makoto Shinkai follows up his heart-on-sleeve anime melodramas Your Name. & 5 Centimeters per Second with yet another magical-realist high school romance, this time about a teen girl who can control the weather. Playing wide.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

Little Women Greta Gerwig’s directorial follow-up to Lady Bird is an ambitious literary adaptation that scrambles the timelines & narrative structure of its source material to break free from the expectations set by its cultural familiarity. Major bonus points: yet another featured role for 2019 MVP Florence Pugh, who had a legendary year between this, Midsommar, and Fighting with my Family. Playing wide.

Parasite The latest from Bong Joon-ho (director of Okja and Swampflix’s favorite movie of 2014, Snowpiercer) is a twisty, crowd-pleasing thriller about class resentment that’s been selling out screenings & earning ecstatic critical praise for months as its distribution exponentially spreads. Don’t miss your chance to see one of 2019’s universally beloved genre gems big, loud, and with an enraptured crowd. Playing wide.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top 20 Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2019

1. Fighting With My Family This melodramatic biopic about WWE wrestler Paige does an excellent job conveying the appeal of pro wrestling as an artform, offers empathy to every character its story touches without shying away from their faults, and properly sketches out how much respect for women’s wrestling has evolved in the last decade (and how influential Paige was in that sea change). It’s also way dirtier than I expected, often playing like an R-rated Disney Channel Original.

2. Ma Octavia Spencer slums it as an unassuming small-town vet tech who parties with neighborhood teens in order to enact revenge for their parents’ past wrongs. It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Spencer devour scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.

3. Child’s Play An in-name-only, shockingly fun “remake” of the classic killer doll thriller by the same name. Much like the original, this is the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flick kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them too young on cable, and it directly pays homage to that very canon in references to titles like Killer Klowns From Outer Space & Texas Chainsaw Massacre II.

4. Paradise Hills An impressive coterie of young actors (Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle McDnonald, Eiza Gonzalez) square off against veteran badass Milla Jovovich in a near-future Patriarchal hell. It’s essentially Guillermo del Toro’s Stepford Wives staged on the set of the rose garden from the animated Alice in Wonderland. A femme fairy tale that takes its over-the-top, Literotica-ready premise refreshingly seriously despite the inherent camp of its (sumptuous) costume & production design.

5. Read or Not A list of things that make this Clue & You’re Next genre mashup immensely enjoyable: the careful attention to costume design, the Old Dark house sets, Samara Weaving, Aunt Helene, that “Hide & Seek” novelty record and, most importantly, the rapid escalation of its final ten minutes into full unrestrained delirium. Great nasty fun.

6. Saaho A Indian action blockbuster that opens as a fairly well-behaved Fast & Furious rip-off in its first hour, then pulls an outrageous twist I’ve never seen in an action film before, and finally reveals its title card and the announcement “It’s showtime!” The next two hours are then a throw-it-all-in-a-blender mix of Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious, The Matrix, John Wick, Iron Man, Fury Road and practically every other action blockbuster in recent memory you can name. Pure maximalism.

7. Pledge A nasty little VOD horror about a fraternity rush week from Hell. The dialogue and performances are alarmingly good for something on its budget level, which makes it all the more horrifying when characters you kinda like are tortured in extreme gore by frat bro monsters for a solid hour of “hazing.” It also sidesteps a lot of the usual misogyny of the torture porn genre by making both the victims & villains All-American macho types.

8. Good Boys Superbad is often praised for its final emotional grace notes shared between teen-boy BFFs who’ve struggled to maintain a tough masculine exterior throughout their entire preceding gettin’-laid adventures, to the detriment of their relationship. Here, the earnest vulnerability & emotional grace notes are constant & genuine from frame one, providing some much-needed hope for the men of the future. These are very good boys.

9. Braid Two amateur drug dealers escape police scrutiny by returning to the childhood home of a mentally unwell friend who’s trapped in a never-ending game of violent make-believe. A total mess but also a total blast. Gorgeous costumes & sets, gloriously self-indulgent film school cinematography, and genuinely shocking over-the-top turns in the “plot” every few beats. Think of it as Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era.

10. War Between this & Saaho, my two favorite action movies of the year are both big budget, Twisty blockbusters from India. This one is basically a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. It’s 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.”

11. Glass M. Night Shyamalan explodes his small-scale women-in-captivity thriller Split into an MCU-scale superhero franchise, but hilariously dodges all the accompanying genre spectacle that his budget can’t afford. I am very late to the table as a Shyamalan apologist, but by the time I was the only person in the theater cackling at his attempt to connect the mythology of his own cameos in Split & Unbreakable into a cohesive narrative arc, I was converted for life. What an adorable nerd.

12. Crawl A lean, mean, single-location creature feature in which a father-daughter duo fights off killer CG alligators during intense hurricane-related flooding. Only could have been improved by an alternate ending where they survive the storm only to discover that the entire planet has been taken over by gators while they were trapped inside. Should have ended with gators piloting the “rescue” choppers.

13. Escape Room Basically the ideal version of Saw, with all the nasty torture porn & (most of) the nu-metal removed for optimal silliness. All storytelling logic & meaningful dialogue/character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, truly preposterous gimmick: an escape room, except For Real.

14. The Head Hunter A medieval monster slayer seeks to add the head of the beast that killed his daughter to his trophy collection. An impressive feat in low-budget filmmaking that knows it can’t convincingly stage battle scenes on its production scale, so it makes up for it by leaning into what it can do well – mostly delivering grotesque creature designs & a nihilistic mood.

15. Booksmart Maybe not always the most hi-larious example of the modern femme teen sex comedy (in the recent The To Do List/Blockers/Wetlands/Slut in a Good Way tradition) but one with an unusually effective emotional core and more Gay Stuff than the genre usually makes room for. If nothing else, it felt good to know that the kids of Gen-Z are more than alright.

16. Greener Grass A warped Adult Swim-style comedy of manners about overly competitive soccer moms, featuring performances from D’arcy Carden, Mary Holland, Janicza Bravo, Beck Bennett, and similar Los Angeles comedy folks. Total illogical chaos and menacing irreverence from start to finish, with a particular debt owed to John Waters’s post-Polyester suburban invasion comedies.

17. The Breaker Upperers A New Zealand comedy about professional break-up for hire artists, a premise that’s pretty much a wholesome 2010s update to Dirty Work by way of Taika Waititi. Zings quickly & efficiently with incredibly well-defined characters, like a The Movie adaptation of a sitcom that’s already been going for years & years.

18. The Banana Splits Movie A SyFy Channel Original that’s somehow a genuine delight? It imagines a world where its eponymous Hanna-Barbera children’s show starred killer animatronic robots instead of failed actors in mascot costumes. Goofy & violent enough to be worthwhile despite how thin its character work is (with some especially nasty practical gore gags), which is more than you can say for most of the originals that network broadcasts.

19. Countdown Beyond just appreciating that there was a mainstream horror about a killer smartphone app in megaplexes this past Halloween, I admired this for adding three very distinct angles to the technophobic Killer Internet subgenre: the eerie unknown of user agreement text that no one reads; the startling menace of app notifications that unmute themselves every phone update; and car backup cam jump scares.

20. CATSTom Hooper’s deranged stage musical adaptation is the exact horned-up, ill-advised CGI nightmare that Film Twitter has been shouting about for months on end and I’m happy it’s been celebrated as such. Admittedly, though, I was absolutely exhausted by pro film critics’ competition to see who could dunk on the film online with the loudest or the funniest zingers, which tempered my enthusiasm before I got to enjoy its spectacular awfulness for myself (opening week!). As such, I suspect this is the camp gem of 2019 that will improve the most in years to come, once the hyperbolic discourse around it settles and it remains just as bizarre as ever.

-Brandon Ledet

The Rise of Smut: In Praise of Cinematic Vulgarity

More so than any other time I can think of since starting this blog, the past couple months have been a period of intense reflection and reassessment. Swampflix just reached five full years of daily posts, which has me looking back to all our various projects over the years. Of course, this includes our annual Best of the Year lists, which was the very first thing we collaborated on as a crew in January 2014. As List-Making Season is an annual ritual across all online film discourse, this five-year milestone has naturally arrived just as we’re looking back at our favorite films of 2019. This year is especially daunting, though, as these discussions have also been rolled into Best of the Decade list-making, just past the end of the 2010s. Thanks to the Swampflix project, I already have access to a record of my favorite works from over half of that decade, which has allowed me to look back at how my definition of a personal favorite film has evolved over the years, and what films have stood the test of time. The #1 change I’ve noticed in all this Best of the Year/Best of the Decade/Best of Swampflix self-reflection is that over time my standout choices have become much more aggressively vulgar, if not outright pornographic. The films I’ve been promoting & recommending to friends have doubled down on explicit sex as much as they have on political awareness or cinematic surrealism. The larger story of how cinema has changed over the last decade has been one of online distribution, political radicalization, and diversified representation (on both sides of the camera). When looking at my own personal favorites, though, it looks like the story of the 2010s was The Rise of Smut.

In my personal Top Films of 2014 list from our early days of blogging, I singled out Christopher Nolan’s space travel epic Interstellar as my favorite film of that year. It’s still a film I’m still fond of for its combination of precise filmmaking craft and over-the-top sci-fi pulp, but I doubt it would top my list if we were to rehash the Best of 2014 again. In fact, I know it wouldn’t, since I’m currently working on our Top Films of the 2010s lists (to post this February) and there are currently a few 2014 titles listed, while Interstellar is nowhere to be found. I still highly value the combination of high-art cinematic craft and low-brow genre schlock that blockbuster achieves, but it’s since been outshined in my estimation by the value of nastier, more sexually explicit works from that year like Wetlands and Stranger by the Lake. Part of this is due to the fact that we’re now living in a time when the clash of high-brow cinematic craft and low-brow genre content is a lot easier to come by, considering how the market’s been flooded by “Elevated Horror” projects in the past decade (thanks largely to the impressive marketing machine of A24). The larger issue is that this rise of well-crafted schlock has coincided with the near-total disappearance of overt sexuality from mainstream filmmaking, mostly at the hands of our corporate overlords at Walt Disney Pictures. Major studio filmmaking was remarkably less horny in the 2010s than in any previous decade (Hayes Code era included), as the takeover of sexless superhero media (with the one major exception of our collective ogling of Captain America’s ass) and easy-to-scrub blockbusters produced & sanitized for censorship-riddled foreign markets have replaced more “adult” content like the erotic thrillers of decades past. A man who earned most of his notoriety making not-so-subtly-Conservative Batman movies is simply on the wrong side of that war, no matter how much of a kick I got out of his goofy space movie.

Occasionally an overtly horny mainstream movie will break through—like the Fifty Shades of Grey or Magic Mike franchises—and they’re typically met with an appreciative, enthusiastic uproar from general audiences (especially women). These breakaways are a soul-deep relief from the Disney amusement parks that multiplexes have gradually transformed into (Magic Mike XXL especially), but they aren’t exactly the transgressive cinematic provocations I’ve been personally craving lately either. It’s hard to fathom now that there was once a time when outright pornography was threatening to cross over into the mainstream in titles like Deep Throat, Caligula, and Midnight Cowboy. Local drag queen CeCe V. DeMenthe lamented the loss of that wide audience hunger for pure, transgressive smut when she appeared on our podcast to discuss Caligula in particular. She complained that movies weren’t as weird or as vulgar as they used to be in her own heyday of trolling arthouse theaters for smut in the 70s & 80s, which is an assessment I can’t exactly agree with. I ended up making CeCe a list of recommendations for transgressive 2010s films I labeled “The New Extremity” to prove that modern filmmakers hadn’t lost their edge, and I found that most of the titles on that list were the exact works I had been championing the hardest when looking for movies to recommend to friends in general. The only real difference between this list and the films CeCe remembered from her smut-filled youth was the scope of their distribution and cultural impact. As much as I might personally love a deliriously horny cinematic bazaar like The Wild Boys or We Are the Flesh, their impact on the wider pop culture landscape has been essentially nil – to the point where a lover of explicit, bizarre cinema who’s hungry for that kind of content isn’t even aware they exist.

I don’t believe the dominance of safe, wholesome content in recent years—like Disney’s superhero sagas, made-for-Netflix Christmas romcoms, and The Great British Bake-off—is a matter of happenstance or even a corporate mandate (at least not entirely). Audiences genuinely crave this comforting, life-affirming content on a grand scale, seemingly as a reaction to what a miserable shitshow the world has become outside the cinema. Even I’m susceptible to craving wholesome pop culture figures to guide me through these dark times, especially role models of what it means to be a good, decent man in the modern world: Steven Universe, Mister Rogers, Paddington Bear, etc. It’s a necessary counterbalance to the ugly reactionary Evil that the more toxic end of masculine representation has slipped into in recent years (up to and including actual, true-blue Nazism). I even feel a little guilty when I find myself recommending depraved, explicit smut out in the open this flagrantly, as it often doesn’t feel like what the world needs right now in this exact moment. For instance, we recently threw a low-key New Year’s “party” where guests were invited to drop by for snacks & drinks as we rewatched our favorite films of 2019. As most of my favorites have been falling into the outrageous, uncomfortable smut category as of late, this led to a lot of our friends walking into selections unprepared that made them . . . squeamish – namely In Fabric, Knife+Heart, Climax and, the biggest offender of all, Violence Voyager. I stand by those choices as Best of the Year heavy-hitters and worthwhile grotesque provocations, but I still couldn’t shake a feeling of guilt for subjecting unsuspecting friends to these horny nightmares I’ve become accustomed to watching alone on the couch (not least of all because many of these titles went from festival to VOD distribution without much theatrical play). It was an epiphanic moment of clarity in which I realized just how far my tastes have been skewing away from wholesome escapism towards unrepentant smut. It felt shameful.

I’ve yet to consult with my therapist about how much of that shame is genuine concern and how much of it is just regular old social anxiety (it’s no coincidence that my version of a “party” involves everyone directing their attention towards a TV screen). I do know this, though: the novelty of seeing explicitly sexual, artistically transgressive smut through proper cinematic distribution means is a dying pastime. Yet, I believe more of it is being made now than ever before; it’s just falling outside the bounds of official distribution channels and critically legitimized media. As more of the pop culture landscape shifts towards boardroom-vetted, “morally” sanitized, Family-friendly media and corporate IPs, I find myself slinking further down these dank tunnels of cinematic depravity, finding just as much comfort in gleefully taboo titles like Double Lover & The Untamed as I do in genuinely wholesome life-affirmers like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? & Paddington 2. Maybe it’s just comforting to know they’re still out there, even though their goal is often to alienate & discomfort – like a slimy security blanket.

-Brandon Ledet

Upstream Color (2013)

Shane Carruth’s mind control sci-fi whatsit Upstream Color was my favorite film I saw in a movie theater in 2013, back when I used to only make it out to the megaplex a few times a year (as opposed to a few times a month). In an effort to encourage other people to experience the film in a proper theatrical environment, I posted the following cringe-inducing paragraph on Facebook, which I am transcribing verbatim here as a vicious self-own: “playing one last time tuesday (tomorrow) night at the chalmette movies, 7:30pm; this movie is terrifying. truly horrific. if you are irritated by expressionistic directors like miranda july, harmony korine & whoever made ‘we need to talk about kevin’ you should skip out on this one; if you find those ppl/movies exciting and you like to be scared/confused/nervous go see it.” Woof. I like to think that my writing skills and frames of reference have both expanded greatly since starting this film blog in 2015 (please don’t report that you feel otherwise) and I’ve just revisited Upstream Color for the first time since that theatrical release, so I’d like to take a second crack at praising its merits here. Maybe I can even pull it off without insulting the great Lynne Ramsay this time. We’ll see.

While my initial “review” of the film was essentially the online equivalent of shitting my pants in public, I do maintain that a few key adjectives in that paragraph genuinely apply to Upstream Color – mainly “terrifying,” “expressionistic,” and “confused.” Shane Carruth still only has two feature films to his name but has earned great notoriety in film nerd circles for executing astonishingly complex sci-fi ideas on meager micro-budgets. His debut feature (2004’s Primer) was notoriously scraped together with a mere $7,000 behind it and yet has inspired entire websites dedicated to parsing out the A-B story of its complex time travel narrative. Although Upstream Color operated with a relatively massive $50,000 budget (still chump change even in indie filmmaking terms), it’s somehow even more stubborn in accommodating its audience narratively, especially since it opts for a sci-fi subgenre much less culturally familiar than time travel: mind control. Over time, Upstream Color sketches out in both macro & microscopic terms the life cycle of a mysterious parasite that, when ingested, leaves its hosts vulnerably suggestible (and inexplicably, inextricably connected to anyone else infected). It’s a closed loop of human connection and subhuman exploitation that makes for a legendarily weird trip for as long as you allow yourself to remain under its spell. It’s just also an uninviting one that doesn’t reveal its true shape until you’ve made it all the way through the loop yourself. And even then, you’re bound to walk away with more questions than explanations.

While their relationship to each other is deliberately obscured from scene to scene, the individual players of this sordid tale are at least distinct & well defined. We open with a nameless thief who harvests a mysterious blue chemical from orchids that he then injects into grubs and force-feeds to unsuspecting victims. This starts as a story of severe & total exploitation, with seemingly the one player with a full grasp on what these parasites can do abusing their mind-control properties for cheap financial gain. We then shift to his victims’ post-trauma haze as they try to piece together exactly what happened to them and why they feel subconsciously connected to each other. Also in play are a pig farmer, his cattle, and nearby orchid salesmen who unknowingly complete the life cycle of this phenomenal parasitic grub – each to their own selfish gain. The bulk of the story’s pathos is rooted in the search for connection & meaning among the traumatized victims of the parasite’s harvester, but making sense of exactly what they’re going through from minute to minute requires a complete understanding of how all these disparate players are connected – something you don’t fully acquire until you follow the entire life cycle to completion. Until then, the film plays like a half-remembered nightmare, with the logical reasoning of what’s happening in the moment making just enough sense to carry you through to the next disorienting crisis.

If any of the directors’ work I foolishly compared Upstream Color to in my initial “review” stands, it’s the only one I didn’t cite by name. If you’re being generous, I suppose there’s a stubborn obfuscation the film shares with Korine and its everyone-is-connected plot structure could be seen as a sci-fi mutation of July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. I don’t deserve that generosity, though. The Lynne Ramsay comparison is at least slightly interesting in retrospect, though, in that Upstream Color‘s greatest feat is surely in its editing (a task Carruth took on himself in addition to writing, directing, producing, scoring, shooting, and starring in the film as its over-achieving auteur). Upstream Color & We Need to Talk About Kevin are connected in that they’re clearly the most impressively edited films of the decade, considering how they communicate complex, internal narratives through a jumble of disjointed imagery and yet their basic outlines are crystal clear if you afforded them your full attention from start to finish. Either film would be doomed to confuse anyone who allows them to compete with a smartphone or tablet at home, as every image onscreen in an essential context clue as to what’s being communicated at large. An occasional special effect or microscopic science lab footage insert will help Upstream Color overcome its limited financial means, but its true spectacle is its editing room alchemy – a purposefully disorienting, alienating terror. In that way (and in that way only) it’s outright Ramsayesque.

Given Upstream Color‘s stubbornness to provide upfront explanations for what its isolated images, characters, and even sounds signify in the larger picture, it’s the kind of film that demands your full attention from start to end, completing its closed loop for yourself. As hard as I cringe over the word choice of my seven-years-stale plea that more people experience it in a proper theater, I can at least stand by the sentiment that full, undistracted immersion in that environment was its best shot of wholly winning over an audience. The best you can do to recreate that experience now is locking your smartphone away in another room and burying your ears in some high-end headphones. Hopefully this better-elaborated reasoning on why this film is worth that effort will convince someone new to experience this low-budget, high-ambition sci-fi chiller for themselves. Either way, I should probably cut myself some slack for my shortcomings in singing its praises – both now and in 2013. It’s an exceedingly difficult film to describe to anyone who hasn’t already fallen under its spell themselves. However, I do feel an eerie, soul-deep connection to those who’ve been a defender of it as one of the decade’s great works, as it could have easily been one of the many great 2010s indies to slip into total obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #99 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Top Films of 2019

Welcome to Episode #99 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our ninety-ninth episode, the entire podcast crew assembles to discuss their favorite films of 2019.

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

James’s Top 10 Films of 2019
1. Uncut Gems
2. The Lighthouse
3. The Beach Bum
4. Parasite
5. Knives Out
6. Midsommar
7. Dolemite is My Name
8. Marriage Story
9. The Irishman
10. Her Smell

To hear everyone else’s picks, listen to the show . . .

Enjoy!

-James Cohn, Hanna Räsänen, Britnee Lombas, and Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 1/9/20 – 1/15/20

Here are the movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Weathering with You Japanese animation wizard Makoto Shinkai follows up his heart-on-sleeve anime melodramas Your Name. & 5 Centimeters per Second with yet another magical-realist high school romance: this time about a teen girl who can control the weather. Playing in special Fan Preview Screenings on January 15 and 16 via GKids before opening wide.

Little Women Greta Gerwig’s directorial follow-up to Lady Bird is an ambitious literary adaptation that scrambles the timelines & narrative structure of its source material to break free from the expectations set by its cultural familiarity. Major bonus points: yet another featured role for 2019 MVP Florence Pugh, who had a legendary year between this, Midsommar, and Fighting with my Family. Playing wide.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

Parasite The latest from Bong Joon-ho (director of Okja and Swampflix’s favorite movie of 2014, Snowpiercer) is a twisty, crowd-pleasing thriller about class resentment that’s been selling out screenings & earning ecstatic critical praise for months as its distribution exponentially spreads. Don’t miss your chance to see one of 2019’s universally beloved genre gems big, loud, and with an enraptured crowd. Playing only at Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge.

Jezebel A dramatic memoir about a woman whose sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work in the late-90s. Thematically it falls somewhere between Cam & The Florida Project, but it’s not as stylistically aggressive as either of those titles. Wryly funny, quietly tense stuff but never in a showy way (especially considering the subject). Playing only at Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top 20 Films of 2019

1. Midsommar A humorously traumatic nightmare-comedy about a Swedish cult’s destruction of a toxic romance that’s far outstayed its welcome. Its morbid humor, detailed costume & production design, and dread-inducing continuation of Wicker Man-style folk horror made for an intensely satisfying theatrical experience. Twice! (Thanks to an extended “Director’s Cut” that packed in an extra half hour of winking Jokes at the expense of its lead’s self-absorbed idiot boyfriend.)

2. In Fabric A tongue-in-cheek anthology horror about a killer dress. I loved every creepily kinky minute of this, but also a total stranger scolded me for laughing during our Overlook Film Fest screening because it is “not a comedy” so your own mileage may vary? If an arthouse take on the Killer Inanimate Object genre of films like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats sounds enticing, then you’d probably dig it. Just go in knowing that it’s okay to laugh.

3. Knife + Heart A cheeky giallo throwback set against a gay porno shoot in late 1970s Paris. Picture Dario Argento’s Cruising. And it only improves on repeat viewings, as the disjointed imagery from the protagonist’s psychic visions gradually start to mean something once you know how they’re connected, and not being distracted by piecing together the mystery of its slasher plot allows you to soak in its intoxicating sensory pleasures.

4. When I Get Home A feature-length music video from singer-songwriter Solange, presented as an “inter-disciplinary performance art film” and a companion piece to her album of the same name. It’s an R&B sci-fi acid Western portrait of black culture in Houston, reaching more for visual poetry than clear messaging or linear storytelling.

5. Us A surreal reimagining of C.H.U.D. that reflects & refracts ugly, discomforting truths about modern American class divides. Both of Jordan Peele’s feature films are self-evidently great, but I slightly prefer the nightmare logic looseness of this one to the meticulously calibrated machinery of Get Out – if not only because it leans more heavily into The Uncanny. It’s like getting twenty extra minutes to poke around in The Sunken Place.

6. Parasite A twisty, crowd-pleasing thriller about class resentment, with a particular focus on how Capitalism forces its lowliest casualties to fight over the crumbs that fall from on high. It’s been fascinating to watch this earn sold-out screenings & ecstatic critical praise for months on end as its distribution exponentially spreads, a true success story for weirdo populist cinema.

7. Climax A deranged dance party fueled by a lethal dose of LSD, packing in more death drops in its opening half hour than you’ll see in the entirety of Paris is Burning. Pretentious, obnoxious, “French and fucking proud of it” smut that leaves you just as miserable as the tripped-out dancers who tear each other apart on the screen.

8. Violence Voyager Easily the most bizarre & brutal release of the year. A gross-out gore middle ground between animation & puppetry with a haunted amusement park plot from a vintage Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel.

9. Wounds The age-old tale of a New Orleans bartender’s battle with a haunted smartphone; also a grotesque look at a “functioning” alcoholic losing what little control he pretends to have over his life until all that’s left is rot. The low-50s aggregated ratings for this horror gem on Rotten Tomatoes & Metacritic can eat the roaches directly out of my ass. The imagery is legitimately scary, and it has a lot more going on thematically than it’s getting credit for. Clearly the most underrated film of the year.

10. Luz A lean demonic possession oddity with some real grimy 70s Euro horror throwback vibes. As a student thesis project with a small cast and just a few sparse locations, this should-be-mediocre genre exercise is the most unassuming indie gem of the year to achieve such a sublime must-see cinematic effect. A deranged, sweaty, deliriously horny nightmare that all demonic possession media strives for, but few titles ever achieve.

11. One Cut of the Dead A deceptively complex zombie comedy about a film crew who are attacked by the undead in the middle of a cheap-o horror production. This starts off quietly charming, then gets disorienting & awkward, then emerges as one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a theater in a long while. It requires a little patience, but the payoff is an incredibly successful love letter to low-budget filmmaking that makes the entire film feel retroactively brilliant.

12. Gully Boy A lengthy Indian melodrama about an aspiring street rapper in Mumbai rising to fame across class lines & familial roadblocks. It doesn’t necessarily do anything narratively or thematically that you wouldn’t expect, but it is astonishing in its refusal to pull political or emotional punches. It’s also a genuine miracle in finally allowing the world to enjoy the triumphs of 8-Mile without having to look at or listen to Eminem, something we sadly can’t always avoid.

13. Homecoming An incredibly ambitious concert film that documents both nights of Beychella, the most iconic live music performance of the 2010s. The cultural context for what Beyoncé is doing with this piece is rooted in celebrating HBCUs, but a lot of the sights & sounds are pure New Orleans Mardi Gras. The brass, the bounce, the dance troupes, the Solange of it all: I didn’t realize how much our local traditions were an extension of HBCU culture (or at least are seamlessly compatible with it) until I saw this film.

14. The Last Black Man in San Francisco A bizzaro Sundance drama about gentrification & friendship. Occupies an incredibly exciting dream space that filters anxiety & anger over housing inequality through classic stage play Absurdism touchstones like Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Wild, beautiful stuff doled out at a weirdly calming pace.

15. Aniara A surreal, existential descent into despair that processes the horrors of climate change through a space travel narrative. Initially plays as a much more conventional SyFy Channel version of High Life but eventually blossoms into its own blissfully bizarre object. Major bonus points: weirdo space cults, Gay Stuff, and a stunner of a lead performance from relative unknown Emelie Jonsson.

16. High Life Claire Denis delivers a much more divisive space travel chiller about climate change, one with a penchant for violence & abstraction. 100% feels like the director of Trouble Every Day launching her quietly fucked up little horror show into the furthest reaches of deep space – with all the narrative frustrations, ice cold cruelty, and disgust with the human body that descriptor implies.

17. The Lighthouse Willem Dafoe & Robert Pattinson costar as a lighthouse-keeper odd couple who gradually grow insane with hate & lust for each other. A black & white period drama crammed into a squared-off aspect ratio, this mostly functions as an unholy, horned-up mashup of Guy Maddin & HP Lovecraft. It’s also, somewhat unexpectedly, a total riot. Its tight frame is packed to the walls with more sex, violence, and broad toilet humor than you’d typically expect from high-brow Art Cinema.

18. The Beach Bum I was the only person laughing at my opening-weekend 4:20pm screening of this abrasive stoner-bummer, in which Matthew McConaughey plays a Florida-famous poet named Moondog. I was also the only person gasping in horror. Harmony Korine always works best when he reins his indulgences in with a little guiding structure, and this one does so by riffing on 90s Major Studio Comedy tropes to nightmarish success. It’s basically Korine’s Billy Madison, which I mean as a major compliment.

19. Diamantino Exposed to the existence of human suffering for the first time as an adult man, a sweet-sexy-idiot soccer star falls down a rabbit hole of political turmoil – like a gay porno version of Chauncey Gardner. This is a delightfully absurdist, satirical farce (taking wild, unsubtle jabs at the disasters of MAGA & Brexit in particular), bolstered by surreally cheap CGI and a peculiar sense of humor that alternates between wholesomeness & cruelty at a breakneck pace.

20. Lords of Chaos A playfully revisionist true-crime dramedy about the 1990s black metal band Mayhem, whose “breakup” story involved a spectacularly violent murder. Ruthlessly satirizes shithead metal nerds as trust fund brats with loving parents & purposeless suburban angst. Especially commendable for zapping all the supposed Cool out of the black metal scene’s infamous church burnings, bigotry, and animal cruelty by treating them as the edgelord posturing that they truly were.

-Brandon Ledet