Episode #30 of The Swampflix Podcast: Pamela Anderson’s Casablanca & Troop Beverly Hills (1989)

Welcome to Episode #30 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our thirtieth episode, Britnee makes Brandon watch the Shelley Long comedy Troop Beverly Hills (1989) for the first time. Also, Britnee & Brandon are joined by self-proclaimed history nerd Jordan Campo to discuss Barb Wire (1996), a dystopian biker chick riff on the classic World War II drama Casablanca (1942) starring former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson. Enjoy!

-Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Mikey and Nicky (1976)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Alli made Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch Mikey and Nicky (1976).

Alli: Organized crime has a long history in film. The oldest surviving gangster film is from 1906. When most people think about mob movies, they probably think to films packed with explicit violence, or they think Coppola or Scorsese, whose films feature huge ensemble casts and wholly explored backstories and plots. Many of these films intricately lay out the inner workings of crime families, often with socioeconomic criticism about the treatment of immigrants in America.  But Mikey and Nicky doesn’t really do any of that. The violence is implied. The cast consists of just 20 people. It’s just a peek into a very specific event and more about betrayal than any political critique. Given that The Godfather came only 4 years before, it’s probably a better approach to break the mold entirely than covering all the same ground again.

Having two characters make a manic dash around New York is still a bold move. There’s so much potential to have it all go wrong, but I can’t think of two people better cast opposite one another.  The movie depends on their interactions. Luckily, they’re both masters. Peter Falk has his matter of fact, levelheaded manner and John Cassavetes plays a frenetic jerk. They’re just fun to watch together. Elaine May knew this. Most of the movie was improvised. She captured hours and hours of footage of just Peter Falk and John Cassavetes talking. There was 1.4 million feet of film by the end, which is nearly 3 times as much as Gone with the Wind! The result is a really great movie with an amazingly natural flow, but it took more than two years to edit, which was way over the deadline. After it was reluctantly released, she didn’t work behind the camera for over a decade. Having also had similar problems with A New Leaf, I wonder if her misunderstood genius would have fared better now in the era of digital.

May’s writing is so smart and wonderful. It’s important that dialogue in a movie like this really flows. It’s tense and fast, but also has such moments of tragic humor. Rather than solely focus on the chase and Nicky’s ploys to outsmart pursuers, the relationship between him and Mikey is really developed. I know it’s hard to like or even have empathy for an asshole like Nicky, but in a way, I was still rooting for him. Brandon, did you have sympathy for Nicky?

Brandon: The way we’re introduced to Peter Falk & John Cassavetes’s titular gangsters is unconventional for any movie, let alone a mafia piece, and completely disoriented my sympathies as an audience. The film opens with Nicky strung out & paranoid in a motel room, dying of a stomach ulcer he’s drank himself into. Mikey comes to his rescue, feeding him pills and half & half to alleviate the ulcer, doing his best to calm down what is eventually revealed to be his life long friend by assuring him that, contrary to his paranoia, there is no one out to kill him. Our relationship with Nicky is shaky at that point. Cassavetes plays Nicky with the wild-eyed abandon of a man in the middle of a days-long bender, so it’s easy to keep an emotional distance from the character while aligning sympathies with Mikey instead, a calming presence who sings lullabies, spoon-feeds medicine, and bumbles through life with Falk’s trademark feigning of adorable, cross-eyed befuddlement. Once Nicky’s paranoia of being hunted by the mob is confirmed as legitimate, however, and it’s revealed that Mikey’s helping the mafia arrange his supposed friend’s execution, our sympathies swap and we turn on Mikey for the betrayal.

Sympathy with Nicky doesn’t last long, though. He quickly turns out to be a racist, misogynist asshole who beats women & starts bar fights just to inflate his ego & stave off his boredom. By the third act, when Mikey & Nicky reach their lowpoint fighting over a broken wrist watch in the middle of a city street, I had lost any concern over either of their lives. Over the course of a single night, both characters manage to expose themselves as low-level scumbag criminals without a decent bone in either of their bodies, which is a wild ride considering where the whole mess started. I’ll even admit that Britnee & I were openly, verbally cheering for Nicky’s death by the time their story came to a close.

I’m fascinated by Elaine May’s storytelling process here, especially after hearing Alli say the film was put together in the editing room. The dialogue has such a tight, pointed feel to it, as if the screenplay were written for the stage, so it’s mind-blowing to learn that this was constructed after-the-fact like a sprawling, improv-based Apatow comedy. Besides the storytelling style, I was also struck by how well May captured the dirty, pre-Giuliani era of NYC, the type of New York we’re used to seeing in early Scorsese pictures like Mean Streets & Taxi Driver. The late-night setting, funky blaxploitation soundtrack, guerilla-style handheld camera work, and genuine background characters of real life barroom drunks & creeps all afford the film an authentic, unnerving New York City grime. The only film I can think to compare it to in terms of narrative structure & visual craft is the recent release Tangerine, which gives a whirlwind tour of L.A. sunshine similar to the way Mikey and Nicky tears through NYC streetlights. With those two films being released four decades apart and Scorsese’s most similar contemporary works being praised at the time for being the cutting edge, I think it’s fair to say May was in some ways ahead of her time, even if her basic visual aesthetic resembles a general 70s exploitation cinema aesthetic.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in our third year of organizing these Movie of the Month conversations, Elaine May is the first female director we’ve covered here. With a couple dozen titles from plenty of dudes behind us, that’s more than a little pathetic, but I do appreciate that we got the ball rolling for a corrective with someone who obviously has such a distinct, blunt filmmaking & storytelling style. Britnee, is May’s directorial work something you took particular notice of while watching Mikey and Nicky or did the two dialogue-intensive performances from Falk & Cassavetes fully distract you from what she was doing behind the camera?

Britnee: Mikey and Nicky, which I still accidentally call Mikey and Ikey or Micky and Nicky, is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. It reminded me more of an intimate play (I got some Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead vibes), so I’m not surprised to find out that improv played a huge part with our two main characters. As Alli stated earlier, the flow of Mikey and Nicky’s dialogue was so natural. Watching the two characters interact with each other was mesmerizing. At first, I thought that Nicky was hallucinating and Mikey was his lover just playing along with his “episode.” In no way did I expect this film to be a gangster flick. What a surprise! Nicky wasn’t losing his mind, he was just an complete asshole that was scared of being murdered by his mob boss.

Something that really did stick out for me was the film’s directorial style. The hazy, voyeuristic shots of Mikey and Nicky walking the dark streets of New York are so damn beautiful, but it’s the way that May captures the good, bad, and ugly of her two main characters. Mikey’s heavy heart due to betraying his life long friend and Nicky’s abrasive behavior that seems to grow with his fear of being whacked are two major elements that are highlighted by May’s directing. The audience can’t help but feel sympathy for both characters at some point, but ultimately, both are horrible people. Creating that sort of love/hate relationship with characters like Mikey and Nicky seems almost impossible, but with May’s smart directing style, she really gets the job done.

A film focused mainly on the relationship between two male friends over the course of a single night doesn’t initially sound like a recipe for success, but this is one of Mikey and Nicky‘s biggest strengths. There aren’t many distractions, except for the décor in Nellie’s fabulous apartment, so we’re able to focus on what is the most important: Mikey and Nicky’s very confusing friendship. Boomer, did you enjoy the film’s simplicity or did you find it to be boring?

Boomer: I’ve always been a big fan of “small” films, by which I mean movies that focus on the relationship between a minimal group of characters and which play out more like a stage play than big sweeping epics (although I love those too). Part of this could be borne out of my theatre background, but it more likely comes from having watched so many episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in my youth; in those early days of television, newly minted screenwriters seemed to still be stuck in a very “stage” mindset, usually writing scripts for no more than three major characters and confining the action to one set. Serendipitously, just a few nights before watching Mikey and Nicky, my roommate (coincidentally also named Nicky) and I watched a 1961 episode of AHP, “Gratitude,” starring a thirty-four-year-old Peter Falk as a gangster who is terrified of being killed by his rivals for potentially exposing their casino ring to wider police scrutiny. I’ve never really thought of Falk as typecast, but it sure is a fascinating alignment of coincidence that he played the Nicky role therein.

As such, I really did enjoy the intimate focus on these two men and their deteriorating relationship as May traced their dialogue-heavy path across the New York that exists only at night and only in the past. The film is essentially a play in motion, tracking Mikey and Nicky from one set piece to the next but not being predicated on the need for that movement; I could easily see this being adapted for the stage, with most of the discussion and conversation playing out in the relative safety of Nicky’s hotel room. The film draws you into the intimacy of the title characters’ relationship long before the rug is pulled out from beneath you with the revelation of Mikey’s true motivations, and most narratives (especially those on Alfred Hitchcock Presents) would be satisfied to reveal this twist and skip right to the violent ending, but Elaine May lets us continue on with this knowledge as the film tracks towards its sorrowful, if inevitable, conclusion.

Brandon mentioned Tangerine as a companion piece above, but this felt to me more like an inverted Girl Walk//All Day, in the sense that the latter film is a casual, daylit, dialogue-free feel-gooder that expresses itself through fluid and expressive motion and color, the opposite of Mikey and Nicky‘s languid (and stumbling) trek through the dark, in which the plot is driven largely by conversation, reminiscence, and old grudges. Both even have revelatory scenes in graveyards! This flick’s your pick, Alli, and we covered GW//AD before we were fortunate enough to have you join us. If you have seen that film, do you agree that it would serve as a decent counterpoint to M&N? What other films do you think would serve as thematically or narratively companions to this one, if you were to program such an all-night double feature?

Alli: I just watched Girl Walk//All Day, and I think it’s definitely got a lot of similarities, like you said with the graveyard, and it shows a lot of New York, but the New New York. It’s not the hazy grimy 70’s New York. It’s the glowing Times Square, people coming and going New York. If you were to take The Girl, The Gentleman, and The Creep and transport them to 70’s New York, especially the New York of Mikey and Nicky, they’d stick out like a sore thumb and probably get mugged. Another companion piece with a similar tone as GW//AD–I know this isn’t a film, but there’s an episode of Broad City where Abbi looses her phone, and she has to run around New York in search of it. It’s got the chase aspect, but it’s more about friendship than betrayal. It also has the added bonus of two lead actors with amazing chemistry together.

As far as actual movies go, I think Wings of Desire would be a good double feature with thisand not just because Peter Faulk is also in it. It’s something about the wandering through Berlin as these two angels try and figure it all out. West Berlin looks as decaying as New York City in the 70’s. It’s also a movie that was shot with a minimalist script and a lot of improvisation. Of course, Wings of Desire was heavily praised and award-winning, while Mikey and Nicky fell into obscurity.

I know part of why it fell into obscurity was due to legal battles and distribution issues, but it still puzzles me. It’s a beautiful movie. It’s also just as much ahead of its time as it is a time capsule of a dark and gritty era of New York history. On top of all of that, it’s really quotable. One of my favorite lines in all of cinema is, “You make us sound like a couple of cemetery freaks.”  I think it should stand out more. And I hate to say that it might be due to having a woman director, especially when I know about all the release problems, but I think it’s definitely a contributing factor. After all, Apocalypse Now suffered similar production problems with a much, much higher budget, and is now regarded one of the best films ever.

Brandon, do you think gender bias had an affect or is this just a case of a small movie not finding its audience? Like you said before, this is the first film by a female director for Movie of the Month. I think that’s pretty representative of the state of gender in filmmaking.

Brandon: That’s a difficult question to answer definitively. Gender bias is an issue that gets its nasty little fingerprints on everything, so it obviously has a huge effect on what films are being made, seen, and properly canonized, just like it effects nearly every other aspect of life. On the one hand, I remain thoroughly embarrassed that I had not been paying attention to highlighting female-directed films through the tiny critical platform we have here in these Movie of the Month discussions. On the other hand, the source of that problem is deeply rooted in the film industry as a system & an institution. According to this piece in the Hollywood Reporter, “Women comprised just 7 percent of all directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016.” 7 percent. I can’t imagine the numbers were any better when May was working back in the macho days of the 1970s or any other time in cinema history (2016 actually saw a significant dip from 2015’s barely-better 9 percent; thing’s aren’t consistently “getting better”) and that long-standing under-representation behind the camera is a huge blow to the kinds of voices we get exposed to as an audience.

Hollywood is simply not giving enough women (or anyone who’s not a white dude, more broadly) the opportunity to produce well-funded, well-distributed, well-promoted media, which means that when we’re making selections for conversations like these it’s important to pay attention to who we’re representing. That can mean taking extreme measures like critic Mayra E. Gates’s recent A Year With Women project, where she decided to only watch female-directed films for an entire year. It can also mean taking less drastic actions like the 52 Films by Women pledge, which only asks that you watch one film a week directed by a woman over the course of a year. I decided to take the 52 Films by Women pledge myself this year after embarrassingly realizing I watched less than 40 female-directed films in 2016, a pathetically low number considering the rate of my pop culture intake. The point of the pledge is to pay attention to who’s making the media you’re consuming and to go out of your way to seek out the filmmakers Hollywood is systemically underserving.

The question is how to reconcile that context with Elaine May’s reputation as a director. Based on Mikey and Nicky alone, May is a bold stylist who’s grimy vision of New York City rivals the likes of Scorsese, Ferrara, De Palma, and Friedkin in its palpable sense of danger & fearless desperation. Yet, her name is rarely championed among those contemporary New Hollywood rebels. May’s roots are as a comedy writer/performer alongside longtime creative partner Mike Nichols, yet Nichols managed to direct twenty feature films while May only completed four (despite enjoying a long life as a screenwriter, often uncredited). According to common wisdom, this is because May was difficult to work with and ineffective in keeping films on budget & efficiently produced. Of her four feature films, only one was a certifiable, profitable hit. The other three, Mikey and Nicky included, were all two-times over budget, delayed for endless months in the editing room, and dead on arrival at the box office. All three.

In his My World of Flops piece on the Warren Beatty comedy Ishtar, May’s most infamous and most expensive flop, critic Nathan Rabin writes, “Comic genius Elaine may has led a schizophrenic existence as both an in demand script doctor and a ferociously independent, obsessive überauteur who would rather feed her children to wolves than to let a script doctor (or studio head) tinker with her vision. […] May embodied ‘box office poison.’ She should have been unemployable as a director. She was letigious. She was expensive. She was difficult. She viewed studios as enemies rather than collaborators or benefactors. From a commercial perspective, investing in an Elaine May film made only slightly more sense than purchasing magic beans or building a bonfire out of one-hundred dollar bills.”

I honestly don’t know how to negotiate those two sides of Elaine May’s financial and critical downfall. Many male directors have been given 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances to deliver a winning picture after falling on their face, so I’m willing to chalk up at least some of her professional missteps to having to be combative with movie studios who never really had her back. Her reputation as a “control freak” and a perfectionist sounds a little ridiculous when you consider the opportunity and patience afforded people like James Cameron and David O’Russell, who also often push the limits of reasonable on-set behavior. I can’t say for sure if her films weren’t hits because they weren’t properly promoted after her less than harmonious relationships with movie studio execs soured their willingness to give her the benefit of the doubt, or if those execs (and audiences) never gave her a proper chance from day one. The truth, of course, is probably a combination of all of these factors, including both May’s personal failings as a businesswoman and the culture’s failings of women in general. It’s a depressing mess of missed opportunities and unprofessional behavior in which gender bias certainly played some sort of a role, if not a large one.

The one aspect of Elaine May’s professional downfall that really fascinates me is the idea that she would shoot way too much footage and then, as they say, slowly “find the film in the editing room,” post-production. This filmmaking style is so much more common now in the digital era, due to the lowered production cost of not shooting on physical film, and I’m wondering if her approach to the craft was just a few decades ahead of her time. Britnee, based on Mikey and Nicky & May’s reputation, is there a type or genre of film you would’ve liked to see Elaine May direct in this style, if she were afforded an unlimited budget and no restrictions on the amount of film she could shoot? Would you want to see her to go big in a large-scale production or does the small-scale nature of Mikey and Nicky seem like the perfect fit for her talents?

Britnee: I would love to see May direct a horror film. Mikey and Nicky was a pretty dark movie, but the story alone isn’t what made the film so disturbing; it’s May’s style of directing. It’s so haunting.  The uncomfortable silence, the tense yet mysterious relationship between the two main characters, and all the creepy distant camera shots from Mikey and Nicky makes me feel as though May would do an amazing job directing a horror movie that’s told through the eyes of a serial killer. She has the ability to make the audience feel like they’re lurking, so she is more than capable of creating a movie that would basically force viewers to be in the mind of a killer. Big budget movies don’t suite her style, but she would definitely be a badass low-budget horror film queen. I can’t help but imagine her directing a movie called something like Through the Eyes of Jeffrey Dahmer. Horror was definitely something she should have dabbled into, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like she would’ve ever had the chance because of all the shitheads in Hollywood.

Speaking of horror and death, I’ve been thinking a bit about Mikey’s assistance in Nicky’s death. He knew that Nicky was ultimately going to be “sleeping with the fishes,” so I’m having a hard time trying to figure out why he put himself through the pain of spending the night with him while helping the mob hunt him down. Mikey was so concerned with Nicky’s stomach ulcer and keeping him alive in the beginning of the film, but I’m not 100% sure what his intentions were.

Boomer, do you think Mikey kept Nicky alive to please the mob and save his own ass? Did he not let the stomach ulcer kill him because he couldn’t physically watch his friend die?

Boomer:  I think that his lifelong friendship with Nicky probably has a lot to do with Mikey’s attitude. One of the elements that really stood out to me was the early scene in the coffee shop, especially in retrospect. Before we learn the true nature of Mikey’s investment in getting Nicky out of the hotel (in a great reveal, by the way; I don’t think I’ve ever been as emotionally sucker-punched as I was in that scene where the phone starts ringing in the bar and the audience connects that Mikey and Ned Beatty’s assassin Kinney are in cahoots), the scene feels like a strong demonstration of Mikey’s friendship, showing that he will act outside of his pleasant and avuncular demeanor in order to take care of his dear friend. When we find out that he really wants to “take care” of him, this violent outburst becomes much more disturbing in retrospect, as it shows the menace lurking beneath the kindly façade, ready to burst forth at any time. It’s startlingly effective on both the first watch and the second, but for different reasons.

There’s an old folk story that I heard in my youth about a man who, for whatever reason, was forced to cut the tail off of his pet monkey. Rationalizing that cutting off the whole tail all at once would be too cruel, the man decides to slice off a mere inch at a time, ending up causing the monkey far more injury than if he had simply cut the whole tail off at once. In the end, Mikey is that man, as he acts as the Judas to Nicky’s shitty Christ figure, hurting him more in the long run than if he had simply taken care of business himself.

There is certainly something to be said for the ties that bind adults who were friends(?) in childhood. Although his behavior towards Mikey and everyone who crosses their path is reprehensible, Nicky is fundamentally sympathetic in that we as an audience feel empathy toward him with regards to his very real anxiety. Further, the way that Mikey trails him across the city with ulterior motives speaks to a deeply human paranoia that the people that we care for and who seem to care about us could be hiding their true feelings and intentions. On the other hand, the bullied child in all of us can recognize the complexity of sentiment one must have for a lifelong companion who is both friend and tormentor, and though we can detest Mikey for his involvement in Nicky’s ultimate fate, our sympathies lie with him also. As such, I don’t think Mikey was keeping Nicky alive to please the mob, but he might have been doing so in order to attempt to save himself on a emotional or spiritual level. Killing wiseguys is just part of the business, and he doesn’t have much of a choice in his participation in the Passion of Nicky, but he feels that if he can lessen that suffering, even a little, it will help calm the disquiet in his soul. He can’t escape it, however, as is made manifest in the film’s final moments, when his sins literally follow him all the way home.

Lagniappe

Alli: I like all the different backgrounds and settings in this movie. They all have such a unique vibe and atmosphere. The bare bones diner feels like it’s a whole world apart from Nellie’s beautiful apartment, and even more so the cemetery. It’s almost like we’re watching Nicky’s​ life flash before his eyes, each place being a separate chapter.

Britnee: I thought it was strange how calm Mikey’s wife, Annie, was throughout the film. She doesn’t have much screen time, but she is in no way the typical mob wife (I can’t help but think of my girl Big Ang). She’s so calm and collected while obviously knowing what her husband is up to. Props to her.

Boomer: There’s something deeply sad in Falk’s performance that just would not have been present in another performer. He’s not as attractive as Cassavetes, and his humble looks and charm are in great form here against the other man’s performative hedonism. Unlike the gadabout Nicky, who has a wife but can’t keep her because of his personal flaws, Mikey’s wife seems to genuinely love him, and Mikey’s darkest moment in the film comes when he tries to be Nicky and sleep with another woman. The film’s saddest moment comes when Mikey feels inferior to Nicky, plaintively and furtively seeking the approval of his bosses while reflecting on Nicky’s statements about how they really feel about him. There’s a great parallelism going on there, with Nicky telling Mikey about another party’s ulterior motives while Mikey hides his own secrets from Nicky.

Brandon: I’d like to again encourage people to consider taking the 52 Films by Women pledge. It’s not at all a difficult quota to fulfill once you actually pay attention to what you’re watching. I’ve had a lot of fun taking the pledge myself so far this year, a journey I’ve been documenting in this Letterboxd list if you’re looking for a few titles to get your own pledge started. Secondly, I’d encourage you to buy a copy of Nathan Rabin’s My World of Flops book (or borrow one from the library), which includes a much more expansive piece on Ishtar than the one I linked above (and it’s the version I was actually quoting). It’s not only worth it for the Elaine May musings. Rabin’s my favorite living critic and the entire book is a shining example of the kind of open-minded, empathetic criticism I try to emulate on this site. (He liked Ishtar a lot more than that isolated pull-quote may have implied.)

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Brandon presents Cool As Ice (1991)
July: Britnee presents Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)

-The Swampflix Crew

Episode #28 of The Swampflix Podcast: Ramen Girl (2008) & What Ever Happened to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Welcome to Episode #28 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-eighth episode, Brandon makes new co-host Britnee watch the Tampopo-riffing Brittany Murphy romcom Ramen Girl (2008) for the first time. Also, Britnee & Brandon discuss the cult classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and its much less prestigious made-for-TV remake from 1991. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet

The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970)

Big off-white machines with flashing red buttons, men with glasses wearing white lab coats, and lots of obnoxious buzzing and beeping flood the screen in the first few minutes of the British sci fi cult classic, The Mind of Mr. Soames. 1970s sci-fi is an acquired taste that I have not picked up on quite yet, and, unfortunately, Mr. Soames didn’t change my opinions on the genre at all. There were moments in the film that were so absurd that I couldn’t help but screech or laugh, but for the most part, it was very boring and plain.

The plot of the film is genius. Mr. Soames (Terence Stamp) is born into a coma and revived 30 years later after an innovative brain procedure, and a group of medical professionals attempt to cram 30 years worth of human development into a couple of weeks. Basically, Soames a baby trapped in a grown man’s body, and he is “raised” by a couple of doctors in an enclosed medical facility.  Dr. Bergen (Robert Vaughn) and Dr. Maitland (Nigel Davenport) are the two main doctors responsible for Soames’ wellbeing and development, and most of the conflict in the film exist between the two as they are not on the same page when it comes to what is best for Soames. Bergen is compassionate and sees Soames as a human being while Maitland views him as more of an experiment, allowing the press to be very invasive with Soames’ progress. Soames ends up receiving little affection, as Maitland is more in control of his development. He is kept separate from the rest of the world and doesn’t have much positive, loving human interaction, and this causes him to completely lose it.

The film was marketed to be something totally different that what it actually is. A quote on one of the main movie posters states “Can this baby kill?” while an image of Soames’ screaming face is in the background, which is very misleading as this is not really a horror flick. The funny thing is that the film would have been much more successful if it was a horror movie. A brain procedure gone wrong that turns Soames into a killing machine with childlike behavior would be a hell of a lot better than a slow moving doctor drama.

-Britnee Lombas

Movie of the Month: Head Over Heels (2001)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Alli, Britnee , and Brandon watch Head Over Heels (2001).

Boomer: Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Head Over Heels is not a good movie. Objectively, it’s actually kind of awful. It’s a nineties holdover of a specific kind of romantic comedy that paid for Meg Ryan’s house and every meal she will eat for the rest of her life. There’s a silly voice-over at the beginning about growing up in [small Midwest location] but now the protagonist lives in [major metropolitan city] with [impossibly perfect job], but gosh darn it she’s just so unlucky in love! It’s so dumb, and I love it so, so much.

I already wrote a more complete recap of the film’s plot in my review of it so I won’t go overlong with the details here, but I’d stand by my assessment of it as “Two parts standard turn of the century romcom, one part Rear Window, with just a dash of genderbent Zoolander.” Future Mean Girls helmer Mark Waters directs Monica Potter as Amanda Pierce, an art restoration expert who moves in with four supermodels after catching her fiancé in bed with another woman. With the encouragement of her newfound group of unlikely friends, Amanda reluctantly begins to open her heart to handsome neighbor Jim Winston (Freddie Prinze Jr.), upon whom the women spy through his windows. He seems perfect, until Amanda alone sees him murder a woman. Or does he?

Britnee, what did you think of the relationships between the women in this movie? The film just barely passes the Bechdel Test (when the models talk about fashion and trading clothing), but that’s not a make-or-break barometer, really. I feel like the representation of non-traditional female friendships and the presentation of the supermodels as being vain and vaguely self-centered but also powerful and accepting of their new friend was fresh, especially for 2001. What do you think?

Britnee: First off, I just have to say that I absolutely loved Head Over Heels. It has that late 1990’s vibe that I am totally addicted to (Romy and Michelle’s High School ReunionJawbreakerShe’s All That, etc.), even though the film was released in 2001. What can I say, brightly colored mismatched clothes, frosty lipstick, hair chopsticks, chunky heels, and halter tops get me jazzed. To top it all off, the movie stars Freddie Prinze Jr.! He’s such a great actor for those terrible-yet-addictive types of movies, so what a perfect choice for the lead guy in Head Over Heels. It’s a shame that he doesn’t really act anymore. If I’m not mistaken, I remember him becoming involved with WWE after he stepped away from acting, but the latest I’ve heard of Prinze is that he wrote a cookbook (with a forward by Sarah Michelle Gellar). I haven’t tried any of the recipes, but I hope that he makes references to his films in them (Spaghetti à la House of Yes).

To answer your question, Mark, I loved the relationships between the film’s female characters. Amanda’s friendship with the models and Lisa (her hilarious lesbian coworker) really shows that sisterhood comes in many forms, some more unique than others. In the beginning of the film, Amanda is harassed about not being married by her elderly coworkers, and I get it, being single wasn’t seen as an option during their youth, but it was still annoying to listen to their comments. Once she moves in with the models, they didn’t seem to be interested in her other than the $500 per month she was going to pay to live in a closet to fund their spending habits. I couldn’t help but assume that they were going to be a portrayed as the stereotypical self-absorbed group of air-headed models that were total mean girls, but thankfully, things didn’t go in that direction. The models, although very self-absorbed, did care about Amanda. They saw that she was interested (more like obsessed) with Jim, and they helped her score a date with him. Unfortunately, they covered her in makeup and dressed her up to their liking, making her look nothing like herself, but they were truly doing what they thought was best. And during Amanda’s quest to find out whether or not Jim was a murderer, they helped her break into his apartment to look for clues. They even endured Jim’s very intense poop and an absolutely disgusting septic tank shower in a public men’s room to get information for Amanda. If that’s not friendship, I don’t know what is.

What surprised me the most out of all the insanity in Head Over Heels was the incorporation of a murder mystery. I definitely didn’t see it coming, and I just about flew off my chair when Jim “murdered” Megan in his apartment. I sort of wish that Jim would’ve actually committed the murder and was part of a Russian mob or something like that because it would’ve made for a more interesting ending. Alli, what are your thoughts on the idea of Jim being an actual murderer? Or were you satisfied with him being an undercover agent?

Alli: I, too, actually kind of wish he was an actual murderer. The contrast between the bubble gum 90’s romcom aesthetic and a grim serial killer story really could have saved this movie for me. If Amanda had actually had a bad case of Hybristophilia (a crime fetish; I just looked up this word in case anyone was getting worried about me), I think the dark turn could have made for an extremely interesting and unique twist. Imagine her going to all this trouble and Rear Window-esque voyeurism to find out he actually did, only for her to realize that she doesn’t care and still loves him anyway. I thought the whole undercover agent thing was tacked on and sloppy. I understand that we’re supposed to be rooting for Amanda and want her to finally fall in love with Mr. Right, but it just seemed like a forced way to have a happy ending. It did make it possible to have that bizarre fashion show chase scene, though.

Fashion is an interesting part of this movie. The four models are dressed in perfect representation of current fashion for 2001, fashion that is now extremely dated. It seemed like, though, Head Over Heels was already acknowledging how ridiculous this all is. In the scene where the four models give Amanda a makeover, she knows it’s ridiculous. Her crush, Jim, knows it’s ridiculous.

Rather than a love letter to the fashion of the times, this movie strikes me more as a subtle satire. There’s vapid models constantly getting pointless plastic surgery done, who only care about rich men so they can continue a comfortable lifestyle (though, they do have a certain amount of Girl Power and protective instinct when it comes to Amanda), and there’s the fashion show gone wrong, but the press thinks it’s intentional. Brandon, what do you think about fashion in this film?  Do you see this movie as a satire of the industry?

Brandon: It’s clearly satire, but I think there’s a pretty distinct difference between the way this film handles its fashion industry parody and how that same attitude is executed in meaner, more pointed works of the era like Zoolander & Josie and the Pussycats. When we first encounter Amanda’s fashion model roomates, Head Over Heels clearly sets up a dichotomy between our protagonist’s supposedly more worthwhile career in fine art academia and the mindless frivolity of fashionista trend chasing. Unlike with Zoolander, however, the fashion industry and the perceived stupidity of fashion models eventually fades as a punchline and we start to see the value of their lifestyle. One of the roomates is a cunning academic who put her education on hold to take advantage of what a young, beautiful body can (temporarily) afford her. Casual nudity, aggressive catwalking, uninhibited attitudes toward sex, and blatant financial negotiations with men who want to be seen in public with them all afford these women a certain confidence & power that Amanda’s missing out on as a meek, academic shut-in. Waters (who is no stranger to dark humor in projects like Mean Girls and House of Yes) will sometimes undercut their power with somewhat tragic jokes about incest, child prostitution, and routine plastic surgery, but his script makes it clear that these are worthwhile, intelligent people who improve Amanda’s life with their specific skill set & collective life experience. There’s plenty of stray jabs aimed at the basic absurdity of fashion modeling as a profession, but the models themselves aren’t portrayed as nearly as cruel or idiotic as the people who look down on them merely for being models (especially the reoccurring police officer who won’t take their legitimate cries for help seriously until after they’re vindicated by his higher-ups).

One thing I love about the film that the modeling industry opens up to it is the incessant runway music. Gay 90s club music is just as omnipresent here as it is in the SNL comedy A Night at the Roxbury, which feels like a deliberate choice, given that this film would’ve been released a few years after the heyday of acts like La Bouche and Real McCoy. From the A*Teens’ aggressively bubbly cover of ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me” in the make-over montage to the film’s wordless, repetitive Gay 90s theme music to the choice to include The Go-Go’s titular hit song “Head Over Heels” instead of the more obvious (and more romantic) Tears for Fears option, there’s a very specific soundtrack direction to Head Over Heels that keeps it away from the detached cynicism of Zoolander and moves it toward the absurdist fantasy of films like Spice World & Teen Witch. As Head Over Heels shifts its genre gears from romcom to Farrelly brothers-style gross-out to murder mystery to action comedy, the 90s style club music remains its only real constant, a consistent runway beat that feels just as important to the fashion world setting as the actual on-the-runway debacle of its Fashion Week conclusion.

Boomer, did you at all notice the soundtrack while watching Head Over Heels or did it just feel like typical romcom tunage to you? Is the film’s 90s-hangover club music significant to its fashion world aesthetic or am I allowing my love of acts like Deee-Lite & Snap! to make it appear to be more than it is?

Boomer: I love this question, because I’ve held a longtime fascination with films that are named for song titles. Until the 1980s, most movies that followed this naming convention were about music and starred musicians: White Christmas (1954) starring Bing Crosby, Rock Around the Clock (1956) starring Bill Haley and the Comets and The Platters among others, and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) starring future Mrs. Brian De Palma Nancy Allen and focusing on four girls going to see The Beatles. Starting with John Hughes’s 1984 film Sixteen Candles, there was a boom of more romantic films taking their titles from classic love songs and contemporary pop music. Candles was followed by Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), Some Kind of Wonderful, Roxanne, and Can’t Buy Me Love (all 1987), My Girl (1991), Love Potion No. 9 (1992), When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), One Fine Day (1996), Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), Simply Irresistible (1999)Of course, the veritable apotheosis of this concept was 1990’s Pretty Woman.

This conceit started to die out around the time that Head Over Heels was released (give or take a Sweet Home Alabama here and there), but I have to admit that, minus the cover of “Take a Chance on Me,” and the inclusion of the title song, none of the music in the film stood out to me all that much. That’s odd, considering how often I find myself consciously dissecting a film’s score while watching, sometimes to my own annoyance (while at a recent screening of A Tale of Two Sisters, every time the piercing, intense strings started playing, I found myself daydreaming about Psycho). Maybe the overall generic nature of the (accurately described) “gay 90s club music” is what makes the film flow with such grace. It fits well enough that it’s beneath notice, which is a compliment, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

When I hear the phrase “head over heels,” I too first think of Tears for Fears, but looking at the lyrics of the Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels,” it’s apparent why this is the title song and not the more famous new wave track. The song includes lines like “I couldn’t see the warning signs/I must be losin’ it/Cause my mind plays tricks on me,” which is much more in line with Amanda’s state of mind than poetical waxing about talking about the weather, wasting time, or being lost in admiration. It’s more consistent with the film’s thesis of a woman who has been fooled too many times but still finds herself smitten with a handsome stranger against her better judgment, although I can almost hear her say “don’t take my heart, don’t break my heart/Don’t, don’t, don’t throw it away” (presumably while sitting on the stairs outside a dreamboat’s apartment while he explains that his work persona is a facade).

To be honest, a part of me wishes that this was less of a romcom and more about an art restorer who gets into international shenanigans with the help of her fashion model roommates. Britnee, what do you think of the espionage plot? I agree with Alli that it feels tacked on and sloppy, and I wish the intrigue of smuggled diamonds had played a larger role in the overall narrative. Do you feel the same way? What changes would you make to the screenplay if you had the chance?

Britnee: I agree that the whole secret agent twist was sloppily thrown in. To be honest, I was waiting for another plot twist to happen about 5 minutes to the end of the movie where Jim reveals himself as a murderer disguised as a federal agent who was pretending to be a murderer. Anything would have been better than the overused agent-in-disguise cop out. I get it, Amanda and Jim needed to end up together, and this was written in the script so the two love birds could have their “happily ever after.” It just felt so lazy. Thankfully, there were many other interesting events that made up for it.

Like Mark, I too would like to see the film focus more on Amanda’s career as an art restorer because that has to be one of the coolest jobs on the planet. If I could make changes to the screenplay, I would definitely make the film more of a fantasy romcom that would focus on Amanda’s art restoration skills. Amanda receives a renaissance painting in desperate need of restoration, and as she starts to restore the faces on each person in the painting, they come to life. Sort of like the street art in the movie Xanadu. The characters from her paintings are confused about the time period change, and she has to bring them home with her until she can figure out a way to get them back to their world. When Amanda leaves the medieval folk at her apartment while she attempts to research the mysterious painting, her model roommates give them makeovers and take them out clubbing. Amanda would end up falling in love with one of the painting characters and in the end, she would chose to go back with them to their time period as she doesn’t feel like she fits in with early 2000s city life. Also, I would make sure that my version of Head Over Heels would be a bit slower than the original so the audience could have time to catch their breath and comprehend what’s going on.

Alli, did you feel as though the pace of Head Over Heels was extremely fast? The moment the film begins, Amanda’s voice immediately started to describe her upbringing, and everything was moving at 100 mph from that moment on.

Alli: I did think the pace of the movie was pretty strange actually. I felt like it breezed over interesting and important things and then spent too much time on others. Like you said, there’s barely any time spent on her career, even though it’s made out to be a minor plot point eventually, but we get to see a bunch of Freddy Prince Jr. doing chin-ups. I think part of it was that there was so much stuff going on in this movie, too much even. There wasn’t enough time to make a well paced film, because there was just a lot. It’s the sort of movie that makes you think, “less is definitely more.”

I think I would have cut out the jewel heist, and made it an art related plot. The diamonds just felt thrown in there. I know it was a good vehicle for the runway sequence, though. I think it would have also helped to have the big undercover agent reveal earlier on if we’re forced to go that route, instead of Amanda investigating this murder forever. Another thing that could go is the voiceover. We can see she’s in New York. We can see that she’s unlucky in love, but has a dream job. Maybe, I’m just being a hardline film snob here, but the voiceover felt completely unnecessary.

Brandon, are there any details you find unnecessary? Am I being too hard on the voiceover?

Brandon: “So dumb,” “sloppy,” “extremely dated,” “lazy,” “not a good movie,” “actually kind of awful;” I’m being a little unfair with the pull-quotes I’m cherry picking here, but it is funny how willing we are to tear this movie down even though we seemed to have a lot of fun watching it (excluding maybe Alli). The problem there might be that the romcom fantasy is so inherently frivolous as a genre that it can’t support this kind of roundtable critical discussion without the conversation devolving into nitpicking. I don’t often excuse the use of voiceover as an easy narrative tool, but removing it from Head Over Heels would be like asking a Batman movie to skip its suiting-up montage or a slasher film to cast geriatric actors instead of hot, horny teens. Without its voiceover narration, Head Over Heels would likely be a struggle to follow as an audience, given the film’s whiplash-inducing pace & shifts in tone. More importantly, though, it would remove one of the earliest & most consistent markers that this is an exercise in romcom genre filmmaking, with all the deliriously silly bells & whistles the format implies. The voiceover is just as much a part of the territory to me as the film’s dogwalking meet cute, its Big Misunderstanding romantic mixup, or its pretty-but-not-too-pretty lead (Monica Potter looks like she was built in a lab by combining Sandra Bullock & Julia Roberts DNA into a cute, but “approachable” hybrid).

What’s most fun about Head Over Heels is how it uses this familiarity with romcom tropes to allow the film to continuously shift gears from minute to minute in terms of content & tone. The clash of Zoolander-style fashion world parody with Hitchcock homage thriller beats, diamond heist action comedy, and scatological Farrelly brothers humor amounts to a disorienting, absurdist whirlwind that in any other situation might feel like an untethered mess, but there’s always the familiar romcom structure about a clumsy academic-type with “the worst taste in men” waiting to anchor the story to something that can easily be processed & understood. I believe that method of anchoring the film was an entirely intentional decision on Waters’s part, one that allows for a lot of the film’s more absurd tangents to creep in (like its crossdressing security guard or its unexpectedly raunchy cunnilingus joke), while still making for one of the most memorable romcom plots of all time. In terms of pure absurdity, it’s right up there with Brittany Murphy learning to make a magical bowl of ramen in Ramen Girl or Aubrey Plaza falling for a delusional “time traveler” in Safety Not Guaranteed or whatever the hell’s going on in former Movie of the Month entry My Demon Lover. I’m not saying that Head Over Heels is beyond critical nitpicking because of the genre territory it willfully chooses to occupy, but I just don’t have the heart to tear it down myself. I had too much fun going to the one million and ten places the movie took me in just 90 minutes to sour on the trope-reliant methods it needed to exploit to get me there.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Candi, the Australian model, was my favorite character. Her quirky personality and constant plastic surgery procedures added a lot of humor to Head Over Heels. However, I could have done without all the creepy Uncle Pete comments. Those just made me feel super uncomfortable.

Alli: I was really not expecting the amount of poop jokes. Poop jokes are fine and all, but it just didn’t work for me. The one in the bathroom stall is nauseating even.

Brandon: It’s funny to me that everyone’s drawing a line here as to where specific gags of crude, gross-out humor didn’t work for them. While I was a little more willing to follow Head Over Heels into its nasty child abuse humor and grotesque scatological visuals than Britnee or Alli (if not solely because they were such an absurd intrusion on the typically tamer romcom reverie at the film’s center), I also had a moment where the movie pushed me a little too far: the film’s plot-instigating meet cute. Freddie Prinze Jr. is introduced walking a friend’s dog (a Great Dane named Hamlet, heh heh) that knocks over and sexually mounts our poor down-on-her-luck protagonist. My shock at this most undignified public degradation might be a result of it arriving long before any of the film’s other gross-out gags. It was still shockingly cruel either way, a moment that’s even repeated to bring the chaotic plot around full-circle in a strangely sadistic way. Although I was taken aback by the film’s bestial meet cute cruelty, however, I still ultimately respect that it could have that kind of effect on me at all. It’s not often that a traditional romcom can surprise its audience that sharply and it’s only one of many examples of Head Over Heels continually pulling the rug.

Boomer: I think that some of the aberrant elements of the screenplay were an attempt to appeal to too many people: eye-candy in the form of FPJ doing pull-ups and lady models strutting about in various states of undress to suit whatever your tastes may be; scat humor and an action plot to serve as a more stereotypically masculine counterweight to the trappings of the “chick flick” formula (i.e., makeovers and girlie talk); a little bit of gay panic with Amanda and her overly-touchy friend but also a celebration of queerness in the form of Bob’s landlord. It’s probably not the only reason this film was a commercial failure and is relegated to late-night programming on USA, but it certainly doesn’t help. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick a movie that Alli likes next time.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Alli presents Mikey and Nicky (1976)
June: Brandon presents Cool As Ice (1991)
July: Britnee presents Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Alli, Boomer, and Brandon watch What’s Up, Doc? (1972).

Britnee: As far as screwball, madcap comedies go, Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film, What’s Up, Doc? is up there with the greats. It’s also, in my opinion, the greatest Barbra Streisand film of all time. Yes, it’s even better than Yentl. Streisand was quite the “funny lady” from the late 1960’s through the 1970’s, and Judy Maxwell is by far one of her most hilarious roles. The film also stars a young Ryan O’Neal, who is Judy’s depressed and confused love interest, Dr. Howard Bannister. Both leading characters have such conflicting personalities: Judy is a free-spirit who gets off on starting trouble between strangers, and Howard is a walking zombie in an unhealthy relationship. There’s not much romantic chemistry between the two, but they are a great comedy duo.

The main plot of the film revolves around a mix-up between several identical bags that belong to completely different individuals that are staying at the same hotel in San Franscicso (Bristol Hotel). The bag mix-up is so confusing that it’s almost impossible to explain, but in all honesty, the whole film is confusing because there are loads of plot lines occurring at the same time. I’ve seen this movie at least 30 times, and I didn’t really put all the pieces together until about the 5th viewing. Strangely enough, the confusion of the film is one of the things I love most about it. You could watch What’s Up, Doc? over and over again without getting bored. There’s always something different to focus on.

Actually, after watching it for Movie of the Month, I realized how horrible Madeline Kahn’s character, Eunice Burns, was treated. Seriously, this poor woman was put through hell for this entire movie, and she’s made to look like the bad guy. She’s Howard’s fiancé, and while the two aren’t in the best relationship, Judy randomly swoops into their lives and basically steals Eunice’s identity. After Eunice is made a fool of in front of an entire banquet of people, kidnapped and most likely assaulted by a group of mobsters, etc., it’s difficult to see her as the annoying fiancé she’s portrayed to be.

Boomer, what are your thoughts on the real Eunice Burns? Did you feel any sympathy towards her? Did you feel as though she was portrayed to be a villain when she was actually a victim?

Boomer: I didn’t realize that the audience was supposed to see Eunice as unattractive until the end, when the Judge responded to Eunice’s complaints that she had been inappropriately touched by the jewel fences with “That’s . . . unbelievable.” Because, I mean, come on, Khan’s a knock-out. That unusual perception is not unique to her character, however, as Ryan O’Neal is probably the most tan, studly, and barrel-chested hunk of man to ever play a milquetoast Iowan academic.

As to whether she’s made out to be a villain or a victim, I’m less sure. It’s unusual for me to sympathize with a character like Judy, a kind of proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl who also happens to be a whirlwind of disaster, but Streisand plays her with enough aplomb and likability that Judy comes off as charming. This was a bit of a surprise for me, as someone who only really thinks of Streisand as a face on a CD cover in a stack of albums sitting next to the stereo of a deeply closeted Baton Rouge hair stylist (you know who you are). I also have nothing but love for Khan, and as such I think I might have been more inclined to sympathize with her than the producers intended, given that she was a complete unknown cast as the romantic rival to the more well-known Streisand. Eunice is certainly demanding and a poor match for Howard, but I read her as more of a Shakespearean archetype of a woman who appears to be a shrew only because of the character with whom she is paired but who will fit seamlessly with someone else, which is essentially exactly what happened with her arc.

So, I suppose I didn’t find her to be a villain or even presented as one, nor did I find Judy to be a “bad guy” either, even though her entire story resolves around falling for an engaged man and doing everything in her power to subvert Eunice in her “rightful” place as Howard’s lady love. I can’t even quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about Judy that makes her eminently likable despite her objective villainy. Alli, did you feel the same way, or not? If you agree, perhaps you’re better able to articulate why?

Alli: I also liked Judy against my better judgement. She’s entitled, disrespectful, and dangerous, but somehow still endearing. Probably because she’s free and she’s got a great sense of humor, which is able to shine through because of her stunted, immature nature. I think the thing about Judy isn’t that she’s a villain so much as she’s just chaotic, and there’s something charming about chaos. Reasonable people would never rip around the town impulsively, but we all have flashes of that instinct. Judy is the embodiment of that instinct, free from society’s pretensions and facades.

A major theme here is sort of a clash between absolute chaos and rigid order, the inner child vs “propriety.” Not to get too pretentious here, but this movie almost seems to be about the old debate over “the state of nature” vs society and reason. Eunice is order, “reason,” Judy obviously pandemonium, “savagery,” and Howard is the neutral ground that they’re fighting over. But at its heart What’s Up, Doc? is a wacky, briefcase switching comedy and I doubt that the intent was a debate about the true nature of humanity and society. It’s hard to take away any serious dramatic themes in a movie this cartoonishly bizarre.

The world it’s set in, while relatively realistic, is simultaneously surreal. There’s exaggerated sound effects, slapstick, and just a general bending of rules. One of my favorite examples of this is when they’re at the banquet underneath the table and Eunice gets dragged away, leaving skid marks and squeaking. Brandon, did any moments to you stand out as particularly cartoonish? Do you have a favorite?

Brandon: If nothing else, “cartoonish” is such a perfect word to describe what Barbara Streisand’s doing in this movie as Judy. At this early, most successful stage of Peter Bogdanovich’s career, the director scored a string of hits dripping with nostalgia for the cinema of his youth, with What’s Up, Doc? being sandwiched between fellow classics The Last Picture Show & Paper Moon. The interesting thing to me about What’s Up, Doc? that distinguishes it from those other two films is that it not only calls back to madcap mix-up comedies of the 1930s, which are traditionally staged at these grand hotels, but it also pulls influence from a much more unexpected source: Looney Tunes. Judy’s role as a benign source of comedic chaos is 100% Bugs Bunny tomfoolery and the film winds up feeling just as much equal parts Tex Avery as Bringing Up Baby. It makes this influence as explicit as possible too, with one of Judy’s first comedic moments being staged around her eating a carrot and her final exchange with her hunky Elmer Fudd (Ryan O’Neal) including the titular line, “What’s up, Doc?” The film even closes out with Porky Pig stuttering his way through “That’s all, folks!” on an airplane television. So, yeah, while we might not want Judy mucking up our lives with her literally cartoonish antics, it’s easy to see why we wouldn’t find her any more villainous than Bugs Bunny or his obvious source of inspiration, Groucho Marx.

Bogdanovich’s choice to bring in the surreal slapstick of Looney Tunes to disrupt the relatively realistic world of traditionalist screwball comedy was a brilliant move, mostly because screwball comedies are already pretty damn cartoonish in their own right. Although I found Babs’s Bugs Bunny antics as Judy to be a large part of the movie’s charm, she actually had very little involvement in my favorite gag from the film. There’s a scene about midway through What’s Up, Doc? where Howard is trying to hide Judy’s presence in his hotel room from Eunice by asking her to hang perilously off the balcony. The combination of Eunice’s interrogation, Judy’s demands to re-enter the room, other guests frantically trying to steal their desired variation of the identical luggage, and a waiter calmly preparing a meal Judy ordered as room service reaches a comedic fever pitch where Howard’s hotel room is destroyed in a fire, a moment that had me howling. Now, this visual punchline is much more closely tied to the film’s 1930s screwball roots than anything related to its cartoonish surrealism, but it’s also so absurdly over the top in its gradual escalation that it’s a great insight into why those two aesthetics were so easy to marry into one humorous feature.

Something that felt a little less natural & easy to me were the motivations for the two sides of that coin. Judy’s motivation for pursuing Howard as a romantic partner is a little muddled for most of the picture. Her instant attraction to him is oddly intense, making it unclear whether she’s genuinely into seducing him or if she’s just an opportunist who needs a place to stay and is having fun toying with a milquetoast, but handsome pushover in the meantime. The engine that drives the screwball humor was also a little confusing, as the identical cases of luggage (one containing diamonds, one containing Top Secret government documents, and one containing, I don’t know, more carrots for Judy to chew on like a cigar) were difficult to keep track of. Some of that confusion was obviously deliberate, but it didn’t help at all that the two thieves attempting to steal the luggage were both bald schlubs I couldn’t really tell apart because the film was far more interested in the machinations of the Judy-Howard-Eunice love triangle (and rightly so).

Britnee, considering that you selected the tonally similar, hotel-set 1930s throwback comedy Big Business for a Movie of the Month last year, it seems that you’re somewhat of a fan of this kind of Old Hollywood madcap humor. For you, does the exact, clear status of who’s in possession of which bag at what time and who’s trying to steal what from whom matter at all in these kinds of stories? Without the luggage mix-up and the thieves that follow, there’d be less people involved in this film’s insane, climactic car chase through the streets of San Francisco, which would definitely be a shame. Do the mix-up or the motivations of the romance need to be any more clear or necessary than that for you to find them worthwhile or is it enough that they provide a backdrop for the comedic antics of a Barbara Streisand or a Better Midler or whoever the particular film’s de facto Bugs Bunny/Groucho Marx happens to be?

Britnee: It’s never dawned on me until now that I have a thing for hotel comedies. Just yesterday, I recommended Four Rooms to a friend as a fun weekend movie. There’s just something hilarious about hotel settings, and I really think it has a lot to do with the gaudiness of hotels. All that brass, ridiculous patterned carpet, and over-the-top chandeliers are just oozing with tackiness, making it the perfect background for a comedy. Hotels are also perfect for a trashy murder mystery for the same reason (1972’s Private Parts particularly comes to mind).

As for the mystery of the bag mix-up, finding out if each bag makes it back to their owner doesn’t really matter. It’s strange because I usually find satisfaction watching belongings find their way back to their owner in a film, but I honestly could not have cared less if Judy ended up losing her underwear and became stuck with top secret documents or if Howard lost his rocks and ended up with a buttload of fancy jewels. It doesn’t really matter because the humor would still be there. The same goes with the romance between Judy and Howard. Who cares if they end up getting together in the end? The comedy wouldn’t suffer if they didn’t get together, and that’s really all that matters in films like this one. If the romance and bag mix-up were to be stripped away from What’s Up, Doc? without taking away the funny characters, shenanigans, and of course, the comedy of Streisand, the film wouldn’t suffer one bit.

Although the romance and bag mix-up are not very important to the film’s success, the San Fransisco setting is. The car chase throughout the city’s steep streets (especially Lombard Street), the run-in with the Chinese dragon during the Chinatown parade, and the cars running off the pier are just a few funny moments that wouldn’t be the same if the film wasn’t set in San Fransisco.

Boomer, do you think that the film’s San Fransisco setting was important? Would any other location have made a big difference in the film?

Boomer: I have to admit that I didn’t give much thought to the film’s setting initially. When the climactic show-stopping car chase began, I thought “Oh, it’s in San Francisco because of Bullit.” That film likewise centers around a final car chase through the famously hilly city, and I assumed that Bogdanovich had merely been inspired to make a more comedic version of said vehicular pursuit. Reading a little more about the film, it looks like that was, in fact, the reasoning: this homage is merely one of many that occur in the film, and as it relates to a contemporary piece of pop culture that is less well-known than some of the older (but more culturally revered and thus more “permanent” fixtures in our cultural landscape) references, like to Looney Tunes. For instance, there was an ad that touted the VW Bug’s real ability to float in water, as seen at the end of the film when Howard and Judy launch into the bay; the reference was more pertinent and familiar in its day, but still works as a sight gag even without that knowledge.

Of course, the placement of the film in San Francisco also allowed for some nice touches that would have been lacking had the film been set elsewhere, like New York or Los Angeles (i.e. the two places where probably 85% of American media is set). The scene with the Chinese New Year parade, and the resultant accidental theft of the parade’s crafted dragon, could only take place in SF, for instance. As noted above, the hills of the city make for a particularly interesting place for car chases, here used as they had been in Bullitt, to more comedic–if no less thrilling–effect. Larrabee himself is distinctively West Coast in that his mannerisms are unconventional and excited; he rolls with the punches. One could even argue that, since his personality clashes so strongly with the unlikable (but no less comically delightful) Hugh Simon, and since that character is a parody of New York’s most unpleasable (and most unpleasant) critic John Simon, a criticism of this artistic and individual dissonance between East and West Coast is made implicit in the text.

There’s a scene in one of the early episodes of Scream Queens in which a character is breaking into an office and uses a glass cutter to cut a hole in the in-door window, through which they attempt to reach in and unlock the door; after a protracted time of s-l-o-w-l-y cutting, the character reaches through, and the glass shatters. Every time I see it, I have to rewind because of how hard I’m laughing. It’s a great sight gag, and the build-up is great; it’s just so pure. It’s one of the best jokes in the whole series, and is inarguably the best non-quip laugh the show elicits. The two-men-carrying-a-pane-of-glass gag in What’s Up Doc? is similar but writ large, and is the best such visual joke I’ve ever seen. Alli, can you think of any other contenders for the top version of the TMCAPOG gag? And could you better put into words why this version of the cliché works so well?

Alli: I’m going to have to come clean here and say that while that gag is in everyone’s mind and feels so pervasive in popular culture this might be the only time I’ve actually seen it used in context. (It makes me wonder where it even came from and why we all know it.) Given it’s prevalence and predictability (there’s a sheet of glass therefore it will shatter inevitably), it’s impressive that What’s Up, Doc? manages to still make it so funny. The problem with this movie and its humor is that it’s very difficult to try to explain what is so funny about it. There’s so many old gags and silly one liners, but they just work. I think maybe it has to do with the pacing. It’s just spitfire. There’s just joke after joke, so if one doesn’t land the next one probably will.

Not to use the played out, “They don’t make them like they used to,” but you don’t see a lot of this sense of humor in movies anymore and I miss it. The jokes are so carefree and for the most part inoffensive, minus the jabs at Eunice. Probably why I’ve never actually seen the sheet of glass gag in action is because it’s not used as much anymore. When’s the last time a movie had an earnest pie in the face? A lot of comedy these days seems to rely on crude, gross, or vulgar humor. I don’t really have a problem with tastes changing, but there’s such a timelessness and charm to so many of the gags in this film.

Brandon, you mentioned the nostalgia aspect of What’s Up, Doc? Do you think more movies could benefit from more of the nostalgic impulse? Have you seen any recent comedies that remind you of this one in any way?

Brandon: It’d probably be a little foolish to ask for more nostalgia in our current pop culture climate, but I do believe revision & tradition has been a part of cinema as long as cinema has been around. Current comedies seem to be looking back to the absurdist gross-out humor directors would have enjoyed in their 80s & 90s youth, just as Bogdanovich would have been fondly looking back to Marx Brothers/Bringing Up Baby-type hotel mix-ups when he made What’s Up Doc? in the 1970s. I don’t think the classic screwball tradition is at all dead, though. It’s just moved away from broad, commercial films to what we’d be more likely to consider “smart” comedies. Filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and the Coen Brothers all work in various forms of comedy that draw from the same influences as Bogdanovich (and likely from Bogdanovich himself as well), but dress up their screwball antics in enough meticulous visual craft & tonal melancholy that they’re considered “art house” instead of commercial humor.

For specific examples from the last decade, I suppose Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel would be a great reference point, considering its setting & ensemble cast structure. Baumbach collaborator Rebecca Miller’s recent film Maggie’s Plan also has a sort of screwball structure to it, including a mix-up at a hotel conference between emotionally immature academics. I’ve also recently watched the British ensemble comedy Death at a Funeral for the first time, which reminded me if this kind of old-fashioned comedic tradition in that all the attendees at what should be a quiet, civil event are trying to keep their goofball antics under wraps to not draw attention to themselves, only for it all to blow up spectacularly at the climax. The Coens’ recent triumph Hail, Caesar! also makes nods to the genre (along with every other Old Hollywood genre imaginable), right down to the convoluted luggage heist.

What distinguishes these comedies from the kinds of works that would be headlined by a Melissa McCarthy, a Seth Rogen, or a Kevin Hart is that they’re just more openly conscious of their participation in cinematic tradition. What’s Up, Doc?‘s spirit, borrowed wholesale from its own set of traditional works, is still alive in our current comedic landscape. Keeping it alive is in itself a kind of scholarly, traditionalist act, though, so the films where you’d hear its echoes are often considered to be stuffy, highbrow art films, despite being as absurdly goofy in tone as the genre originally was in the 1930s.

Lagniappe

Alli: I just want to say how much I liked this movie. Immediately after watching it, I ended up recommending it to people. I think it’s been a weird, rough month for a lot of us and it was good to unwind with something charming and hilarious. It was my first Barbara Streisand movie, and now I feel like I really need to watch more. 

Brandon: Of the handful of Barbara Streisand films I’ve seen, this is the only one I’d consider to be a strict comedy, so I wasn’t at all prepared for how little singing there’d be. I have a habit of picking up her movie soundtracks long before I actually see their corresponding films (Streisand vinyl is oddly ubiquitous at thrift stores), so now I have to wonder what a What’s Up, Doc? soundtrack would even be. Besides a brief duet with Ryan O’Neal on piano, I don’t remember any other musical numbers. Is this indicative of the way her comedies usually go? I’m curious to look into it.

Britnee:  The outfits in What’s Up, Doc? are absolutely amazing! I know that they blend in well with the fashion of the time, but of all the films I’ve seen that take place in the early 1970s, nothing compares to the costume design of What’s Up, Doc? Basically, I want to own everything in Judy’s closet, no offense to Eunice.

Boomer: I also noticed the similarity between this film and Big Business, with each film having a 20th Century Diva, a hotel setting with a sardonic and world-weary desk clerk, and shenanigans that come from mistaking identical people/bags. I thought Britnee was pulling a long con on us. Further, I also was annoyed by the lack of visual differentiation between Harry and Mr. Jones, as Brandon was, given that the other characters were much more distinct in appearance. Finally, depending upon how much you hate yourself, you can find John Simon’s hold-nothing-back blog here, or just enjoy this fun batch of excerpts.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Boomer presents Head Over Heels (2001)
May: Alli presents Mikey and Nicky (1976)
June: Brandon presents Cool As Ice (1991)

-The Swampflix Crew

Krewe Divine’s Maiden Voyage

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There comes a time in your adult life when maturity & experience leads you to making tough decisions and strengthened dedication to the things that matter most. That’s why a few of us here at Swampflix have decided that it’s time to get serious about Mardi Gras. Every Carnival season there’s always some kind of personal crisis about what to wear or what themes to play off of while costuming in the Quarter, but that’s something that never seems to be a problem for krewes that stick with a consistent theme in their annual masquerading. Those revelers always seem to have their shit together. Since Swampflix was launched two years ago, we’ve tried our best to find the ways cinema is represented in Mardi Gras festivities, whether by covering the Star Wars celebrations of Chewbacchus or by costuming as the titular plague from the Vincent Price classic The Masque of the Red Death. It never quite feels like enough, though. As it’s time to get serious about how we can contribute to cinema’s presence in Mardi Gras festivities, we’ve decided to find our own sense of dedication & consistency in forming a new costuming krewe that celebrates one of our all-time favorite onscreen performers: Divine.

Arguably the greatest drag queen of all time, Divine was the frequent collaborator & long-time muse if one of our favorite filmmakers, John Waters. Her influence on the pop culture landscape extends far beyond the Pope of Trash’s Dreamlanders era, however, emanating to as far-reaching places as the San Franciscan performers The Cockettes, the punkification of disco, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. We hope to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fabulously fucked up glory by forming a new Mardi Gras tradition in Krewe Divine, a costuming krewe meant to meet in the French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday from here to eternity. Our initial krewe is a small group all made of Swampflix contributors: site co-founders Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas, podcast co-host CC Chapman, and former podcast guest Virginia Ruth. There’s no telling how Krewe Divine will expand or evolve from here as we do our best to honor the Queen of Filth in the future, but for now, enjoy some pictures from our 2017 maiden voyage as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:

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-The Swampflix Crew

The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2017

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There are 47 feature films nominated for the 2017 Academy Awards. We here at Swampflix have reviewed little more than half of the films nominated (so far!), but we’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees. The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually choosing the winners, but as a list this isn’t too shabby in terms of representing what 2016 had to offer to cinema. Listed below are the 25 Oscar-Nominated films from 2016 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best based on our star ratings. With each entry we’ve listed a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

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1. 20th Century Women, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“Although 20th Century Women is constructed on the foundation of small, intimate performances, it commands an all-encompassing scope that pulls back to cover topics as wide as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a ‘good’ man in modern times, the shifts in status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For me, this film was the transcendent, transformative cinematic experience people found in titles like Tree of Life & Boyhood that I never ‘got.’ Although it does succeed as an intimate, character-driven drama & an actors’ showcase, it means so much more than that to me on a downright spiritual level.”

2. Kubo and the Two Strings, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, Best Visual Effects

“A lot of what makes Kubo and the Two Stings such an overwhelming triumph is its attention to detail in its visual & narrative craft. As with their past titles like Coraline & ParaNorman, Laika stands out here in terms of ambition with where the studio can push the limits of stop-motion animation as a medium. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense sense of visual craft as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film also allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent.”

3. Hail, Caesar!, nominated for Best Production Design

Hail, Caesar! is not performing well financially & the reviews are somewhat mixed so it’s obvious that not everyone’s going to be into it. However, it’s loaded with beautiful tributes to every Old Hollywood genre I can think of and it’s pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly. If you need a litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy the film yourself, Barton Fink might be a good place to start. If you hold Barton Fink in high regard, I encourage you to give Hail, Caesar! a chance. You might even end up falling in love with it just as much as I did & it’ll be well worth the effort to see its beautiful visual work projected on the silver screen either way.”

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4. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, nominated for Best Costume Design, Best Production Design

“The cast of Fantastic Beasts reminds me a lot of the cast of the Harry Potter films. Their camaraderie really comes across in their acting, and there’s just good vibes all around. The film’s director, David Yates, also directed the last four Harry Potter films, and he’s known for being a pleasure to work with. This is cinema that’s made with so much passion and love, and I cannot wait to see the next four!”

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5. Silence, nominated for Best Cinematography

“It’s going to take me a few years and more than a few viewings to fully grapple with Silence. My guess is that Scorsese isn’t fully done grappling with it himself. What’s clear to me is the film’s visual majesty and its unease with the virtue of spreading gospel into cultures where it’s violently, persistently rejected. What’s unclear is whether the ultimate destination of that unease is meant to be personal or universal, redemptive or vilifying, a sign of hope or a portrait of madness. Not all audiences are going to respond well to those unanswered questions. Indeed, most audiences won’t even bother taking the journey to get there. Personally, I found Silence to be complexly magnificent, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement of paradoxically loose & masterful filmmaking craft, whether or not I got a response when I prayed to Marty for answers on What It All Means and how that’s reflected in his most sacred text.”

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6. Zootopia, nominated for Best Animated Feature

Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the animals that populate its concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. It prompts the audience to examine their own thoughts & actions for ways they can uknowingly hurt the feelings or limit the opportunities of their fellow citizens by losing sight of the ideal that “Anyone can be anything.”

7. Hidden Figures, nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer)

“As with all historical films, it’s not wholly clear how precise Hidden Figures is in its details (I must admit that I haven’t read the book on which the film is based), but that’s largely irrelevant to the film’s message. Does it matter whether or not the real-life Al Harrison took a crowbar to the ‘Colored Ladies Room’ sign and declared that ‘Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,’ after learning that his best mathematician had to run a mile to the only such lavatory on the program’s campus every time she needed to relieve herself? Not really. What matters is showing young people (especially young girls) of color that although barriers exist, they can be surmounted. It also reminds the white audience that is, unfortunately, less likely to seek this film out that the barriers that lie in place for minorities to succeed do exist despite their perception of a lack of said barriers.”

8. Moonlight, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Barry Jenkins), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Supporting Actress (Naomi Harris)

“In Moonlight, Jenkins somehow, miraculously finds a way to make a meditation on self-conflict, abuse, loneliness, addiction, and homophobic violence feel like a spiritual revelation, a cathartic release. So much of this hinges on visual abstraction. We sink into Chiron’s dreams. We share in his romantic gaze. Time & sound fall out of sync when life hits him like a ton of bricks, whether positively or negatively.”

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9. Arrival, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Denis Villeneuve), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Editing

Arrival is a film about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages. Similarly, the film has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. It’s often said that movies are about the journey, not the destination, a (cliché) sentiment I’d typically tend to agree with, but so much of Arrival‘s value as a work of art hinges on its concluding half hour that its destination matters just as much, if not more than the effort it takes to get there. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.”

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10. La La Land, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Damien Chazelle), Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Ryan Gosling), Best Actress (Emma Stone), Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Original Songs (“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, “City of Stars”), Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

La La Land manipulates its audience from both ends. It opens with a big This Is For Musical Theater Die-Hards Only spectacle to appease people already on board with its genre and then slowly works in modern modes of the medium’s potential to win over stragglers & push strict traditionalists into new, unfamiliar territory. The ultimate destination is an exciting middle ground between nostalgia & innovation and by the film’s final moments I was eating out of its hand, despite starting the journey as a hostile skeptic.”

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11. I Am Not Your Negro, nominated for Best Documentary

“It seems inevitable that I Am Not Your Negro will be employed as a classroom tool to convey the political climate of the radicalized, Civil Rights-minded 1960s, but the form-defiant documentary is something much stranger than that future purpose would imply. Through Baldwin’s intimate, loosely structured essay, the film attempts to pinpoint the exact nature of the US’s inherent racism, particularly its roots in xenophobic Fear of the Other and in the ways it unintentionally expresses itself through pop culture media. These are not easily defined topics with clear, linear narratives and your appreciation of I Am Not Your Negro might largely depend upon how much you enjoy watching the film reach, not upon what it can firmly grasp.”

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12. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, nominated for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing

Rogue One frames the rest of the series in a much darker light. It brings a revived urgency and anxiety to the franchise, which I hope was probably there when Star Wars was first released in 1977. It manages to make the Death Star not just an impractical super weapon and the Empire a floundering bureaucracy that can’t teach its Stormtroopers how to aim. No, the Empire is a real frightening threat. Despite Disney’s CEO insisting that this is not a political movie, there’s quite a bit of war imagery and themes that are being presented in a time when the threat of fascism seems to loom. I mean, the movie itself is about a rebellion.”

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13. Star Trek Beyond, nominated for Best Makeup And Hairstyling

“Although this film is being billed as a return to Star Trek’s roots or a real ‘classic style’ Star Trek story, that’s not entirely true. Of course, given that the same thing was said about Insurrection back in 1998 (and, for better or worse, that’s a more or less true description of the film’s premise if nothing else), that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is still a film that takes characters from a fifty year old television series where most problems were solved within an hour and attempts to map them onto a contemporary action film structure, which works in some places and not in others. Other reviews of the film have also stated that Beyond is a more affectionate revisitation of the original series than the previous two films, which is also mostly true. The film does suffer from the fact that the opening sequence bears more than a passing resemblance to a scene in Galaxy Quest, which is a stark reminder of the kind of fun movie that can be made when someone loves Star Trek rather than simply sees it as a commercial venture. Overall, though, you’d be hard pressed not to get some enjoyment out of this film, Trekker or no.”

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14. The Jungle Book, nominated for Best Visual Effects

The Jungle Book is a two-fold tale of revenge (one for Mowgli & one for the wicked tiger Shere Khan) as well as a classic coming of age story about a hero finding their place in the world, but those plot machinations are somewhat insignificant in comparison to the emotional core of Baloo’s close friendship with Mowgli (which develops a little quickly here; I’d like to have seen it given a little more room to breathe). So much of that impact rests on the all-too-capable shoulders of one Bill Murray, who delivers his best performance in years here (outside maybe his collaborations with Wes Anderson).”

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15. Captain Fantastic, nominated for Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen)

“Six kids wielding knives, late-night gravedigging, and skinning animals all sound like elements to a rather disturbing horror movie, but, surprisingly, all exist in Matt Ross’s latest comedy-drama, Captain Fantastic. Those with a slightly darker sense of humor will get a kick out of this film, but it really has something to offer everyone, such as family values, brief nudity, religious humor, and a heart-wrenching love story. I had no idea who Matt Ross was, and I was surprised to see that he directed less than a handful of movies because he did such a ‘fantastic’ job with this one.”

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16. The Lobster, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“There’s a fierce, biting allegory to this premise that combines the most effective aspects of sci-fi short stories & absurdist stage play black humor to skewer the surreal, predatory nature of the modern romance landscape. It takes a certain sensibility to give into The Lobster‘s many outlandish conceits, but it’s easy to see how the film could top many best of the year lists for those able to lock onto its very peculiar, particular mode of operation, despite the sour word of mouth at the post-screening urinal. It’s basically 2016’s Anomalisa, with all the positives & negatives that comparison implies.”

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17. Jackie, nominated for Best Actress (Natalie Portman), Best Costume Design, Best Original Score

“As much as I admire Jackie‘s search for small character beats over broad dramatization, I think it could have benefited from the campy touch of a drag queen in the lead role. Jackie is delicately beautiful & caustically funny as is, but I’m convinced that with a drag queen in the lead (I’m thinking specifically of Jinkx Monsoon) it could have been an all-time classic.”

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18. Manchester by the Sea, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Kenneth Lonergan), Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Casey Affleck), Best Supporting Actor (Lucas Hedges), Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams)

“What I was most impressed by in Manchester by the Sea wasn’t at all the heartbreaking drama Affleck skillfully conveys under the falsely calm surface of each scene. Rather, I was most struck by the way the film clashes a take-no-shit Boston bro attitude with devastating moments of emotional fragility to pull out something strikingly funny from the wreckage. The film works really well as a dramatic actors’ showcase, but it’s that act of black comedy alchemy that made it feel special to me.”

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19. Nocturnal Animals, nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Michael Shannon)

Nocturnal Animals feels most alive when Ford drops the pretense of trying to make a point and instead lovingly shoots his beautiful sets & impeccable costumes without any semblance of making them narratively significant. His art curator framing device works best as an instruction manual on how best to appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish in the film, rather than a participation in its thematic goals. I have very little interest in the way Ford’s narratives clash fragile artsy types against the unhinged threat of dangerously macho hicks, but any abstracted moment where he carefully posed naked bodies before blinding red fabric voids on top of a classical music score had me drooling in my chair. I’m not convinced Nocturnal Animals has anything useful or novel to say about the frivolity of revenge or the human condition, but it often works marvelously as an art gallery in motion (when it’s not hung up on watching Amy Adams think & read herself through another lonely night).”

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20. Loving, nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Ruth Negga)

Loving finds Nichols returning to the muted, sullen drama of Mud, this time with a historical bent. It isn’t my favorite mode for a director who’s proven that he can deliver much more striking, memorable work when he leaves behind the confines of grounded realism, but something Nichols does exceedingly well with these kinds of stories is provide a perfect stage for well-measured, deeply affecting performances. Actors Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga are incredibly, heartachingly sincere in their portrayals of real-life trail-blazers Richard & Mildred Loving and Nichols is smart to take a backseat to their work here, a dedication to restraint I respect greatly, even if I prefer when it’s applied to a more ambitious kind of narrative.”

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21. Hell or High Water, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Film Editing

“I totally believe people when they say Hell or High Water is their favorite movie of the year so far, but I suspect these folks are just more finely tuned to the intricacies of its genre & tone than I am. For me, the film is formally a little flat, playing like what I’d imagine a modern Showtime drama version of Walker, Texas Ranger would look like, right down to the wince-worthy music cues. However, even as an outsider I did find myself entertained, especially by the film’s showy dialogue & muted performances.”

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22. Fences, nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Denzel Washington), Best Support Actress (Viola Davis)

“Pushing aside any concerns with Fences‘s uncinematic tone, strange sense of pacing, and iffy final moments of redemption for a despicably cruel character (that seems to go even further than the source material in their cautious forgiveness), there’s a lot worth praising in what Washington & his small cast of supporting players accomplish here. Besides the obvious merit of bringing a play he greatly respects to a much wider audience who would not have had the opportunity to see he & Davis perform on stage, Washington does the quintessential thing actors-turned-directors are often accused of: crafting a work as an actor’s showcase above all other concerns. I may have some reservations about Fences being suitable for a big screen adaptation on a tonal, almost spiritual level (although I do very much appreciate the play as a text), but there’s no denying the power of the performances Washington brings to the screen with the project. The film is very much worth a look just for that virtue alone.”

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23. Suicide Squad, nominated for Best Makeup And Hairstyling

“Instead of portraying one of the few enjoyable characters in its roster suffering repetitive abuse, Suicide Squad instead re-works her love affair with Mr. J as a Bonnie & Clyde/Mickey & Mallory type outlaws-against-the-world dynamic, one with a very strong BDSM undertone. Affording Harley Quinn sexual consent isn’t the only part of the studio-notes genius of the scenario, either. The film also cuts Leto’s competent-but-forgettable meth mouth Joker down to a bit role so that he’s an occasional element of chaos at best, never fully outwearing his welcome. Not only does this editing room decision soften Leto’s potential annoyance & Ayer’s inherent nastiness; it also allows Harley Quinn to be a wisecracking murderer on her own terms, one whose most pronounced relationship in the film (with Deadshot) is friendly instead of romantic. I know you’re supposed to root for an auteur’s vision & not for the big bad studio trying to homogenize their ‘art’, but Suicide Squad was much more enjoyable in its presumably compromised form than it would have been otherwise.”

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24. Doctor Strange, nominated for Best Visual Effects

Dr. Strange is a feast for the eyes, but fails to nourish on any comedic, narrative, spiritual, philosophical, or emotional level. For a work that’s inspired over a year of think piece controversy and a few weeks of hyperbolic Best of the MCU praise, it mostly exists as a flashy, but disappointing hunk of Nothing Special.”

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25. Elle, nominated for Best Actress (Isabelle Huppert)

Elle vaguely echoes ideas about what it’s like to mentally relive a trauma once it’s ‘behind you,’ having to encounter your abuser in public social settings without acknowledging the transgression, the ineffectiveness of reporting sexual assault to police, and the misogynistic & sexually repressed aspects of modern culture that lead to rape in the first place, but all of those concepts exist in the film as indistinct whispers. Mostly, the rape is treated like a cheap murder mystery, with all of the typical red herrings & idiotic jump scares you’d expect in a whodunit. It’s a paralyzing trauma that has little effect on the story outside the scenes where it’s coldly detailed onscreen and the real shame is that it sours what is otherwise an excellently performed black comedy & character study by leaving very little room for laughter, if any.”

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Society (1992)

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

Brandon: In the post-apocalyptic eternity since the presidential election of Donald Trump there’s been bountiful articles explaining why such & such movie, say Bob Roberts or Children of Men or even Rogue One, are now more relevant than ever in our current political climate. The truth is more likely that these films never lost their political relevance in the first place. Although this country has seen a somewhat progressive swing in the last eight years, the same systemic class inequality & civil rights issues that have always plagued it haven’t budged an inch. Most political art made in the last century, particularly art that addresses our deceptively rigid class system & the often brutal ways its boundaries are enforced, is always likely to retain its significance as our presidents change, since the system they helm doesn’t change along with them. That’s why I don’t want to pose the rich-feeding-off-the-poor terrors of Brian Yuzna’s cult classic body horror Society as being more relevant than ever in the face of a Donald Trump regime, as tempting as it may be. More accurately put, Society is very much a product of its Reagan-era times that, when viewed through a modern context, can be a harrowing (and amusingly absurdist) reminder that nothing ever really changes, least of all the status quo.

For all of its continued political relevance in its hamfisted approach to satirizing rigid class structures, Society is admittedly a deeply silly film. High school senior Bill Whitney feels out of step with his Beverly Hills yuppie community, including his own family. Despite his privileged life of manicured mansions, cheerleader girlfriends, and popularity contest high school elections, Bill is intensely uncomfortable in his environment, suffering a growing unease he discusses at length with his therapist. This discomfort amounts to a spiritually crushing paranoia in which Bill hallucinates grotesque body contortions in his Reaganite peers and becomes convinced that his parents & sister are attending incestuous, murder-fueled orgies among a secret sect of Society he simply doesn’t have access to. Of course, Bill’s dead right. He doesn’t fit in with his Beverly Hills social group because he was born an entirely different species, a Poor. The wealthy members of the film’s self-described “Society” are an inhuman race who run the world by literally feeding off the poor. Bill was merely adopted into their ranks as an unworthy outsider & eventual sacrifice. The final half hour of the film is a Cronenbergian mess of melded bodies, unimaginable cruelty, and sexual taboo that exposes the heartless & wealthy ruling class for the monsters they truly are. It’s a bewildering special effects showcase from gore wizard Screaming Mad George that nearly wipes away all memory of the mostly standard horror film that precedes it by putting an outrageously grotesque face on systemic inequality in modern class politics.

What I love most about Society is its complete lack of subtlety & nuance. Once its world’s rules are revealed in its infamous “shunting” sequence in the final act, the film’s themes are spelled out in the plainest of terms. Bill is collared & walked around like a wild dog for public ridicule (before he’s subjected to a more supernatural torment). Wealthy men explain to him that their superiority comes from “good breeding” and that, since he was adopted from a non-wealthy family, “You’re a different race from us, a different species, a different class.” They even explicitly connect their evildoings to a historical tradition of class inequality, bragging that “The rich have always sucked off low class shit like you.” Society was largely panned in its time for this disinterest in thematic subtlety, struggling for three years after its initial release in 1989 to earn a proper US distribution deal. Treating its class politics as a flimsy excuse for the disturbing practical effects orgy in its final act seems like a mistake to me, though, and I’m delighted that the film has been reassessed as a cult classic in the decades since its humble beginnings. The way it explores class divisions in the most literal & grotesque terms possible is highly amusing to me in an almost cathartic way. This is especially true of these earliest days in a Donald Trump presidency, where poking fun at the inhuman cruelty of the wealthy oligarchy feels almost necessary for survival, even if their status as the ruling class hasn’t at all changed since this film’s initial release.

Boomer, do you agree that Society is well-served by its blatant class warfare themes, particularly in the cruelly grotesque way the 1% are characterized in its sledgehammer dialogue & nightmarish gore, or do you think the film would have fared better with an occasional adherence to subtlety & restraint?

Boomer: Honestly, yes and no, as I am of two minds when it comes to film’s mixed relationship with subtlety. Though the plot becomes more traditionally horrific as it plays out, the outpouring of nauseating imagery and sound that constitutes the film’s finale is a huge tonal shift from the relatively grounded story that seems to be playing out in the first act. As much as I love grue, I also love the conceit of the unreliable narrator, especially one who doubts his own mind. Take, for instance, Bill’s first scene with his therapist, in which he takes a bite of an apple only to realize it’s full of worms; he looks away, then back, and the apple is totally normal. This is a fairly obvious metaphor for the way that the presumed normalcy of Bill’s world is merely a thin facade covering inconceivable monsters beneath the surface, but it also implies that Bill’s less-than-objective interpretation of events may be the result of a diseased mind. At least until the shunting begins, anyway.

Of course, that was just my reading of the scene based on viewing the film cold. Many of the early oddities, like the squirming apple, the apparently inhuman body structure of Bill’s sister, and the changes to the audiotape, could easily be interpreted either way: as hallucinations or a They Live-style peek behind the veil of our ordered existence. Instead, of course, we learn that these are just moments in which members of the titular Society are gaslighting (another important term that has seen a resurgence in usage and discussion since the Trump ascendancy) poor Bill. Luckily, for the sake of goreheads and fans of unsubtle social satire everywhere, Society quickly descends into stomach-churning “after dark” madness.

After my viewing, I watched the trailer and looked at posters for the film, and I can only imagine that filmgoers of 1992 would have been highly disappointed if “the minds behind Re-Animator” and the gore wizard “who brought you Nightmare on Elm Street IV (um) and Predator (oh, ok)” had turned out a film about a rich Beverly Hills kid who thought his world was being turned upside-down only to learn that he was merely losing his mind. Still, I think I would like to see a film that plays out more subtly, wherein Bill becomes all-too-aware of how privileged his easy, moneyed life is and begins seeing his 1% peers as the inhuman monsters they are on the inside, without making that metaphor so literal. The film would have been a bit more nuanced if it took that road, but that doesn’t mean Society doesn’t work in the form that it does take.

What the film lacks in subtlety, it makes up for with its overt depiction of the grotesqueries of American pomp and lavishness. When the film shreds the guise of humanity to reveal its, uh, true form, the film doesn’t suffer for its straightforwardness. The rich are fundamentally different from you and me, and it is, from their point of view, a matter of class and breeding. This isn’t even arcane knowedge that I’m talking about, it’s all out there to be seen by anyone who opens their eyes. I never saw a full episode of Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, but I did see plenty of clips on the dearly departed (and sorely missed) The Soup, and have seen enough “Rich Kids of Instagram” compilations scattered around the internet to know that a life of wealth and privilege makes people rotten to their cores. A dear friend used to be a frequent babysitter for the four-year-old daughter of a rich Baton Rouge lawyer; one day, the little girl was so cruel to my friend that she cried, causing the brat to tell her that she didn’t have to be nice because she was pretty. When my friend told the parents about this incident that evening, the father didn’t apologize or even inspect the way that he was raising his child to be a monster; he just looked at my friend and said, “Well, she’s right, you know. She doesn’t have to be nice; she’s pretty.”

Anecdotal though that is, it bespeaks a systemic inhumanity on the part of the American aristocracy, and that inhumanity is on full frontal display in Society, just as it is in society. To hide that behind a veil of subtlety is to do a grave disservice to the truth of our existence. I would even go so far as to argue that the exaggeration of that idea is more important now than it was 30 years ago. After all, our society has degenerated into such frothing madness that satire can hardly find a foothold; so unable are we to discern extreme parodies of absurd political ideation from the actual extremist views held by fringe mentally ill people (whose voices are amplified by the proliferation of the internet) that there’s a plausible argument being made that “fake news” swung the election. If Jonathan Swift were to publish “A Modest Proposal” in the New York Times tomorrow morning, there would be commenters at Breitbart and TeaParty.org putting on their “All Lives Matter” aprons and getting ready to light the grill to barbecue up some Irish babies by mid-afternoon. The finale of Society may be just over-the-top enough to penetrate even the thickest skulls (and Klan hoods).

Let’s back off of that for a second though, before I work myself up too much. For me, the weakest link in the film has nothing to do with the story or the direction but with Billy Warlock’s performance. I’m sure part of my less-than-hospitable attitude towards the actor is the result of Allison Pregler’s delightful abridged series project Baywatching, but I still found Bill to be a thoroughly disinteresting lead, with no power in Warlock’s portrayal to save the character. Hell, if anything, Milo is the hero of this story, not Bill. What do you think, Britnee? Were you distracted by Billy Warlock’s lackluster presence, or was it suitable for the film? What change would you make to strengthen the film: recasting, or rewriting the character?

Britnee: I’m in agreement that Billy Warlock’s performance in Society was pretty terrible. With such an interesting last name, who would’ve guessed he’d be such a letdown? Even though his acting was shit, he didn’t really have that much of a negative impact on the movie, though. Society was absolutely insane from the opening scene to the disturbingly haunting ending, so, if anything, Warlock contributed to the insanity that made this movie such a success in the cult film community. Imagine how off-balanced the movie would be if someone decent played the role of Bill. I couldn’t even imagine such a thing.

If I could change anything about Bill’s character, I would want him to take all the strange occurrences happening around him more seriously. It was irritating to watch him be so willingly blind to what was happening around him, and it was even more annoying to know that he didn’t start questioning his place in his weird family until he was in his late teens. I’m assuming that he was adopted by the Whitney family when he was a baby since he didn’t know he was adopted, so he probably noticed their strange behavior way before he started to question it. Maybe I’m being too harsh because he was raised in that environment his entire life and probably thought it was normal, but it’s still hard to believe.

The biggest question that I have from Society (and I have many) is why did the Whitney’s adopt Bill and raise him for so long with the intention of eventually “shunting” him? They didn’t have to groom him for so long just to shunt him in the end because they shunted Blanchard, who was pretty much just an average guy. They could lure or capture any lower class individual to shunt, but I don’t understand why they put so much effort into shunting Bill.

Alli, what do you think about the Whitney’s adopting of Bill to just shunt him in the end? Would you have liked more of a background story of their motivation to adopt and raise Bill? If you could create the story for Bill’s adoption, would would it be?

Alli: I think their cruelty and extravagance has made them bored, so they need increasingly sick diversions. I’m imagining some sort of extremely twisted My Fair Lady, where they found this poor family with a child they can’t afford and just for kicks decide to groom a lower class “poor” into a false sense of security just to see the terror and confusion. It also kind of brings to mind “The Most Dangerous Game.” My main question is why now? Have any of them thought of keeping “shuntable” pets before? It’s such a hyperbole of the idea of the poor as sheep for the rich to herd and take advantage of. It’s amazing that they’re applauded and congratulated on their great achievement, because in a way this makes the Whitney’s farmers, and I imagine farmers are some sort of unimaginably lower rank.

But something more mysterious to me than any of that is Mrs. Carlyn (Pamela Matheson). I didn’t ever really figure her character out. Her doe-eyed, empty stare and tricophagia aren’t really explained. Very early on the cheerleader types reference her in disgust when talking about Bill’s infatuation with Clarissa Carlyn (Devin DeVasquez), “Have you seen her mom?!” After mentioning Clarissa’s turning tricks, I assumed her mom would be some sort of scandalous gold digger, but she’s the opposite. Instead, she’s a semi-catatonic wanderer with wild hair. She’s harmless enough as a member of Society goes, but I guess I don’t really understand why they keep her around.  The most I can make of it is that this Society even has outcasts and those who don’t fit in. They sweep them under the rug and ignore them, but is Mrs. Carlyn anymore messed up than any of the rest of them?

Brandon, what do you think about Mrs. Carlyn’s place in Society?

Brandon: I’m really glad that came up, because Mrs. Carlyn & her hot to trot daughter were the first thing that came to mind when Boomer & Britnee called out Bill for being a lackluster presence in the film. Mrs. Carlyn in particular is a sore thumb. She plays Society‘s already broad comedy a tad too far into a cartoonish territory that spoils the winking camp a little for me, recalling a Laurie Beth Denberg character from a long-forgotten All That sketch. This is more a fault of the filmmakers’ than the actor’s, though. They don’t give her much to do outside tired fatty-fall-down-make-boom lines of humor and excuses to mug crazy-eyed for the camera when she tries to eat unsuspecting victims’ hair. (In a typifying punchline, she’s confused when she attempts to eat a toupee.) If I had to justify her inclusion in the plot, I could argue, as Alli suggests, that she’s a comedic take on the way wealthy families always seem to have that one black sheep weirdo that doesn’t quite fit in, usually due to mental illness. Mrs. Carlyn & her oversexed daughter are essentially this Society’s version of Grey Gardens, their outcast mutant lives existing as a sort of bane on the more respectable slug-eating mutants of Society proper. That’s giving the film more credit than it probably deserves, though, especially since nothing else in its themes is treated with any semblance of subtlety. For a film willing to beat you over the head with lines like, “There are people who make the rules and people who follow them. You’re born into it,” and the often-repeated “You’re going to make a wonderful contribution to Society,” I think a little acknowledged justification for the Carlyns’ existence as outsiders, even as a source of embarrassment, would’ve improved the script. I also could’ve done without Mrs. Carlyn’s character entirely, to be honest.

Her daughter Clarissa is another strange outlier in the story. Clarissa seems to at first be horny for Bill in a nefarious way, as if she’s playing with her food or further trapping him in his predetermined downfall, but that attraction is later revealed to be genuine. This could possibly be a result of her identifying with his fellow outsider status as a Poor, thanks to her family’s position as the Grey Gardens black sheep. Again, the script doesn’t give us much to work with there. Clarissa’s affection for Bill honestly wouldn’t distract me too much, though, if it weren’t used as a deus ex machina (along with her mother’s trichophagia) to rescue him just before his turn to be shunted. Bill’s escape at the end & ultimate survival makes for an interesting gender-swapped version of the Final Girl trope (something telegraphed in the red herring slasher film opening), but I was honestly rooting for a much more pessimistic conclusion to the story. As far as screenwriting tradition goes, a gore-soaked Canadian horror indie just might be one of the few times when you can get away with a triumphless, dispiriting ending without gripes from producers or test audiences and it just seems weird that Society would allow its protagonist to walk away without more than a few scratches. If all these wealthy families conspired for nearly two decades to shunt Bill, why would they so easily allow their science project to escape once he’s learned all of their horrific secrets? I guess you could argue that they’re in a vulnerable, physically soft state during the shunting that would inhibit his capture, but that seems like a pretty weak excuse. Having Bill suffer the shunting and the wealthy secure an inescapable victory over their born-poor protagonist might’ve better served the film’s central metaphor and it seems as if the only reason he’s allowed to escape is to set up a sequel that never came, a lame cop-out if there ever was one. And since Clarissa’s entire existence in the plot is the machination of that escape I have to question her validity in the script just as much as I do her mother’s.

What do you think, Boomer? Would a pessimistic ending have better driven home Society’s central metaphor? Would it have been a better film if Bill had fallen victim to the shunting he was groomed for all his life?

Boomer: That’s an interesting question. More than the relative positivity/negativity of the ending, I was struck by how abrupt it was, and how odd that conclusion felt in a film that spent much of its runtime letting the story breathe. To use a comparison that is accessible for many, consider the ending of Terminator: imagine that, after Sarah Connor destroys the T-800, the film cut to black and the end credits immediately started rolling, without the follow-up scene in which she drives off into the desert as the distant thunder of a gathering storm rumbles ominously. That’s how you end this kind of movie: the hero vanquishes (or escapes) the clutches of evil, and the audience is treated to an epilogue that allows us to digest the climactic finale and imagine a future for the character or characters in whom, if the film is successful in its presentation, we have become invested. It doesn’t have to be completely optimistic or pessimistic; in fact, Terminator‘s final moments are all the more poignant for their ambiguity. James Cameron’s film is perhaps the best example of how to make this work, given that it could so easily have been yet another generic action film like so many of that era, but rose above the milieu to become iconic through strong performances, impressive VFX work, and attention to detail.

I have a feeling that director Brian Yuzna may have even thought he was endowing the ending of Society with this same feeling of bittersweet uncertainty: Billy escapes, but a member of the Beverly Hills shunt calmly tells a cohort that there is another Society… in Washington (dun dun DUN). But instead of giving the ending room to breathe, the end credits start to roll seemingly out of nowhere, without even a perfunctory denouement in which Billy, Milo, and Clarissa drive into the night as the first fingers of the sun grab at the horizon. On the other hand, I might just be making this connection between the two movies because both Sarah Connor and Bill drive sweet Jeeps; that’s for the reader to decide.

In the end, however, I think that the film’s “happy” ending is difficult to parse as either a function of its time of creation and its creative genesis. Although Yuzna was born in the Philippines, the film can be read as a clear product of anxieties about the rich that are not unique to American wealth distribution but specifically reflect that culture. As such, my initial assumption was that the optimistic ending was a result of the need to represent the hope of escaping the clutches of wealthy evil, metaphorically. As obvious as that may seem, interviews with the director indicate that the film was originally about religious cultists out to sacrifice Billy, but that this plot point was altered following discussions between Yuzna and Screaming Mad George during the pre-production process. The “shunting” was conceived by George and the plot reworked backward from there, meaning that any discussion of the relative “happiness” of the ending presupposes a premise that is supported by the text itself, but appears unintentional.

Roland Barthes would argue that this is irrelevant, however, so in the interest of not limiting the text, I declare the author dead and put forth this explanation: the ending must be optimistic in order to give the audience hope of escaping the wealth-positive cronyism of Ronald Reagan. An ending in which Billy dies at the hands (?) of the Society would be reflective of the way that this generally works in the real world (for instance, with the recent repeal of the ACA damning many Americans to a slow and painful death without affordable medical care in order to support the malevolent and uncharitable greed of a few), but wouldn’t make for very good entertainment, so a happy ending is called for.

To go back to the Terminator reference above, how would you see a potential film franchise for Society playing out, Britnee? Do you think there would be any value in confronting other Societies? Would those be better served by taking on the more pessimistic (perhaps even deterministic) tone that the Terminator franchise did?

Britnee: I would absolutely love a Society franchise! I recently read an interview that Yuzna had with Horror Channel back in 2013, and he mentions that he was actively working on a sequel to Society. I haven’t seen anything else that mentions the status of Society sequel, but I hope that it’s still in the works. Having a sequel come out over 20 years after the original film was released sounds insane, but I think that it would be great to get a modern day dose of Society while we’re living in Trump’s America. There’s actually loads of potential for a Society franchise. Think of all the Societies around the world that the films could focus on: the British royal family, Russian oligarchs, Indian billionaires, etc. Could you imagine how amazing it would be to see Queen Elizabeth II lead a shunting with Prince Charles? There’s just so much to work with, and by exploring “Societies” in other countries, viewers could be more aware of the endless supply of greedy jerks all over the world.

Honestly, it’s been at least 15 years since I’ve seen any of the Terminator films, so I only vaguely remember them. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy them, I just haven’t revisited them in a while. If there was a Society franchise, I think the films should have a more pessimistic tone. I would’ve liked to have seen Bill shunted to death and Milo as the only one who was able to escape. Then Milo would go on to be the protagonist in the sequel, where he gets a little team together to destroy all the Societies in the world. In each subsequent film, part of the team would get shunted while the others barely make it out alive (covered in that nasty shunting lubricant). Having the films take a more pessimistic approach adds so much more to the horror element. When Billy escaped in the end, it made the film so much lighter. But as Boomer mentioned earlier, the ending was so abrupt. If there was just a little two minute scene of Billy being thrown in a mental institution from suffering from some sort of shunting PTSD, the film would’ve been more of a solid horror movie.

One image that I just can’t get out of my head is when Bill’s dad becomes a butt-face and makes fart noises. It’s probably my favorite part in the movie. Alli, what where some of your favorite body morphs in the movie? Is there any body morph that you would’ve liked to have seen?

Alli: Man, all the body morphs were really great, but the ones that really stood out to me were when the story was still ambiguous and we didn’t know whether or not it was still in Bill’s head. One of my favorites is when Clarissa’s body is all twisted around. It just reminded me of some freakish nightmares I’ve had. I don’t think I would have included any more of the subtle ones though, because I think the story benefits from the quick descent into overt madness. I guess what I would have wanted more of is the fact that the Society can body morph being used as an advantage rather than a bizarre sex cult or strange clumsy hindrances. How cool would it have been for just a really long arm to try and snag Bill as he’s getting away? I think that would be a pretty simple way to fix the abrupt ending, anyway.

One thing I’d like to see explain more is Bill’s hallucinations. Is he seeing bugs in his food because the food is made of bugs, or is he seeing bugs in his food because he’s actually losing it? It would be more of an interesting statement if it were the latter. I’d like for a protagonist in a movie to be going a little loony but also be 100% completely right about something else crazy going on. Rather than being an unreliable narrator, he’d become a reliable narrator with some problems, which would be an interesting take on that trope. It’s also believable in a way; anyone would have problems if they were raised by an out-of-touch rich family of grotesque mutants.

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Alli: Britnee mentioned the butt-face morph and I feel like here’s the place to say that I really like the idea of ultra rich people literally talking out of their ass. In a movie totally lacking in subtlety, that might be my favorite in-your-face moment.

Britnee: I don’t really understand why Bill’s mom and dad were checking out slugs with their gardener at the beginning of the movie. Was it supposed the be a hint that they were up to something strange or is that really how rich people prepare to make escargot? I wish there was more explanation for it in the movie because not knowing is really killing me.

Boomer: To go back to the question of Mrs. Carlyn, I think that she represents the way that “good breeding” apparently means some kind of inbreeding here, as was often the case with aristocratic families over the course of history. Since the author is dead, I’ll put in my two cents that I interpreted her place in this group as a kind of blindness to the basics of genetics that must permeate Society, and is indicative of the way that the rich ignore that which doesn’t support their worldview. Mrs. Carlyn can’t be inbred because of how good their breeding is and because they are the elite, even when the counter-evidence is staring them in the face (and trying to eat their hair).

Brandon: I think I’ve come up with a pretty decent Society drinking game: Take a swig every time you see Bill’s Jeep, which Boomer mentioned earlier. The fancy black Jeep Bill drives is featured early on as one of the unsuspecting Final Boy’s hallmarks of privilege. The movie obsessively makes a big deal out of the vehicle long after we get the point, though. If features several scenes of Bill finding vague, prankish threats like lynched Barbies & naked blow-up dolls in the passenger seat and once the plot starts barreling toward a conclusion, the Jeep is repetitively shown as both a literal & a literary vehicle used to get Bill from one horror to the next. It started to remind me of that easy screenwriting device where expository information is dumped over phonecalls instead of cropping up naturally. Anyway, I call the game Jeep Shots. Please play responsibly and avoid operating any Jeeps until long after the credits roll.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
March: Britnee presents What’s Up Doc? (1972)
April: Boomer presents Head Over Heels (2001)
May: Alli presents Europa (1991)

-The Swampflix Crew

Swampflix’s Top Films of 2016

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1. The Witch – A cinematic masterpiece from the first frame to the last, The Witch at once acts like a newly-discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, a “Hansel & Gretel” type fairy tale about the dangers of the wild, a slice of Satanic panic folklore, and an impressively well-researched historical account of witchcraft unmatched in its eerie beauty since at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan. Despite its historical nature and Puritan setting, this film will make your skin crawl with dread. Each captured moment is elegant and haunting, transporting the audience back to the 17th Century and tempting those along for the ride to question their sanity. The Witch is a true New England American Gothic piece. It sidesteps the mushy romances and familial dramas typically set in New England, one of the most beautiful areas of the country, in favor of a spine-chilling Satanic tale that features dense layers of historical & moral subtext, an amazing soundtrack of ominous ambient sounds, and a breakout star in its scene-stealing goat, the almighty Black Phillip. It’s not the usual terror-based entertainment you’d pull from more typical horror works about haunted houses or crazed killers who can’t be stopped, but even as a beautiful, slow-building art film & a mood piece it just might be the spookiest movie of 2016.

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2. 10 Cloverfield Lane – Far better than it has any right to be, this sequel in-name-only combines elements of horror, sci-fi, and the supernatural thriller to craft an intimate, difficult-to-categorize indictment of doomsday prepper culture. In a year that saw an excess of great confined-space thrillers (Green RoomDon’t BreatheEmelie, Hush, The ShallowsThe Invitation) 10 Cloverfield Lane stands above the rest by locking its audience in the basement with a small cast of fearful apocalypse survivors and a complexly monstrous John Goodman. Relentlessly & intoxicatingly tense, this Louisiana-set woman-in-captivity horror will rattle you in a way that its 2008 found footage predecessor never even approached. It will disturb you, surprise you, and confirm your deepest fears about “survival” nuts’ ugly thirst for post-apocalyptic power grabs, largely thanks to a career-altering performance from someone we formerly knew as the cool dad from Roseanne.

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3. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – The pop music version of This Is Spinal Tap, Andy Samberg’s greatest achievement to date thoroughly skewers the totality of hedonistic excess & outsized hubris on the modern pop music landscape. In a larger sense, it also functions as an incisive & withering dissection of the dreamy pop culture star-making machine as the industrial complex that it really is. Popstar can be easily dismissed as a profoundly stupid film. In its smaller moments, it often delivers the quintessential mindless humor we all need to endure this increasingly shitty life & its throwaway consumer culture. There’s legitimate criticism lurking under its frivolously parodic mockumentary surface, though. Popstar smartly & lovingly dismantles the entirety of pop’s current state of ridiculousness, from EDM DJ laziness to Macklemore’s no-homo “activism” to the meaninglessness of hip-hop that apotheosizes empty materialism to the industry’s creepy fetishization of military action & nationalism. Do yourself a favor and at least download the song “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” to sample the film’s well-calibrated sense of pointed, yet absurd satirical humor.

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4. The Boy – There’s really no pleasure quite like a campy horror movie about a haunted evil doll. Not every scary movie is (or ought to be) the next big thing in horror, and The Boy is fairly run of the mill in its light supernatural tomfoolery. That is, until a sharp left turn in its third act completely obliterates its more generic psychological/supernatural slowburn to delve into some utterly bonkers motherfuckery that should be a crowdpleaser among all schlock junkies looking for entertainment in pure novelty. The Boy delivers both the genuinely creepy chills and the over-the-top camp that we crave in our horror flicks, ultimately feeling like two memorable genre pictures for the price of one. In its own goofy way, it completely upends what we’ve come to expect from the modern PG-13 evil doll movie as a genre in recent years, offering a surprise breath of fresh air in its last minute deviation from the norm.

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5. Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday – Our favorite Netflix Original in a year that saw many, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is essentially Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on a Big Top Pee-wee scale & budget, which is all that Pee-Wee Herman fans could really ask for in a direct-to-streaming release after a 30 year gap. Following a giant Rube Goldberg device of a plot, with each chain reaction proving to be just as kooky (or even kookier) than the last, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’s most immediately endearing aspect might be the love story of the year: a steamy bromance between Pee-wee Herman and Joe Manganiello (who are both billed as playing themselves). Manganiello enters the scene as a living embodiment of a Tom of Finland drawing on a motorcycle and the queer subtext certainly doesn’t end there, eventually blossoming into a really sweet, very romantic story about two souls who just can’t get enough of each other. We can’t get enough of those two either. In fact, we’re ready for a sequel!

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6. Tale of TalesIn a world full of fairy tale media (Once Upon a Time, Disney Princess movies, live action remakes of Disney Princess movies, etc), it’s a curious thing that more keeps getting made, and that so much of it is adapted from the same tales we already know. Adapted instead from the more rarely-seen source of 17th century Italian fairy tales that fell into obscurity, Tale of Tales is narratively unique, visually striking, morbidly funny, brutally cold: everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. The film fearlessly alternates between the grotesque & the beautiful, the darkly funny & the cruelly tragic. Its cinematography as well as its set & costume design will make you wonder how something so delicately pretty can be so willing to get so spiritually ugly at the drop of a hat (or a sea beast’s heart). There is no Disney-brand fantasy to be found here, only black magic, witches, ogres, and giant insects, each waiting to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson about the dangers & evils of self-absorption once you let your guard down in a dreamlike stupor.

7. Kubo and the Two StringsThe latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika is pure, gorgeous art. The puppetry is incredible, an overwhelming triumph in Laika’s continued attention to detail in visual & narrative craft. At heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic, Kubo and the Two Stings finds inspiration in Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics to craft an immense visual spectacle and to explore dramatic themes of past trauma & familial loss. This allows for a darkness & a danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but what Laika most deserves bragging rights for is the mind-boggling way they pulled off this awe-inspiringly beautiful innovation in the moving image, the most basic aspect of filmmaking.

8. Hail, Caesar! Would that it were so simple to sum up this movie’s charms. A smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous movie about The Movies, Hail, Caesar! might be one of the Coen Brothers’ strongest works to date. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens look back to the Old Hollywood studio system in Hail, Caesar! as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. In the process, they perfectly capture Old Hollywood’s ghost. There’s the hyperbolic threat of Communism, ancient Hollywood scandals, endlessly moody directors, a musical number featuring a tap-dancing Channing Tatum and, behind it all, an unsung hero just trying to hold everything together off-camera. Hail, Caesar! is not only worthwhile for being loaded with its stunningly beautiful tributes to Old Hollywood, however; it’s also pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that’s becoming a rare treat on the modern comedy landscape.

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9. Midnight SpecialFocused more on mood than worldbuilding, Jeff Nichols’s sci-fi chase epic mirrors the best eras of genre cinema giants Steven Spieldberg & John Carpenter. Midnight Special is surprisingly accessible for an original sci-fi property, never getting wrapped up in the complex terminologies and detached-from-reality scenarios that often alienate audiences in the genre. This may be the Nichols’s most ambitious work to date in terms of scale, but he’s smart to keep the individual parts that carry the hefty, supernatural mystery of its narrative just as small & intimate as he has in past familial dramas like Mud & Shotgun Stories. You never lose sight that these are real people struggling with an unreal situation. And, if nothing else, a world-weary Michael Shannon’s studied command of his role as the father of a child with godlike, unexplainable powers is something truly special, a grounded, believable performance that everyone should witness at least once.

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10. Hunt for the WilderpeopleThe story of a young boy going on the lam in the New Zealand bush with his reluctantly adoptive uncle after a devastating tragedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople very nearly tops Boy for Taika Waititi’s best feature to date, mixing small, endearing character beats with the large scale spectacle of a big budget action comedy. We all need a good laugh this year; we also need a good cry. Fortunately, Wilderpeople has both! It’s funny, cute, and even twee in a way that sometimes resembles a Wes Anderson movie, but there’s also a certain darkness to the film that doesn’t shy away from real life consequences or scathing political satire. Many people have rightly latched onto this adventure epic as one of the most consistently funny comedies of recent memory (with a surprisingly gruff comedic turn from Sam Neill registering as especially cherishable), but there’s so much more going on in the film than a mere assemblage of a long string of jokes.

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Honorable Mentions – Here are a few films we loved that just missed our collective Best Of list: The HandmaidenMoonlightArrivalShin Godzilla, Ghostbusters, and Keanu. They may not have made our Top Ten, but they’re each worthy of praise & attention in their own various ways.

Read Alli’s picks here.
Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew