Millennium Actress (2001)

Satoshi Kon may be the first of the major anime cinema legends whose filmography I’ve seen in its entirety, despite my being an eternal n00b in the genre. This is more of a deeply sad circumstance than a personal accomplishment, as the innovative director died young of pancreatic cancer in his mid-40s, just four feature films into his career (not counting his unfinished project, Dreaming Machine). Watching Millennium Actress on the big screen (via Fathom Events, in anticipation of its new digital restoration for Blu-ray) was the perfect way to wrap up this bittersweet relationship with an artist who’d left us before I fully became aware of his legacy. Although the film arrived midway through his career, it almost feels like an old, retiring auteur looking back on their own work (and the art of cinema at large) with a retrospective eye. I wouldn’t say it’s my personal favorite film of his, nor the objective pinnacle of his artistry, but Millennium Actress does feel like an amalgamation of everything Satoshi Kon accomplished in his other three features – combining the fluid cinematic dream logic of Perfect Blue & Paprika with the tender warmth of Tokyo Godfathers in one succinct, convenient package. It was wonderful to experience that full Satoshi Kon spectrum for the first time in a proper theatrical environment, watching with the same perplexed amusement I found when Paprika premiered on American big screens back in 2007 and I had no idea what I was getting into.

A linear plot synopsis of this surreally animated mind trip would almost seem disrespectful, as the film generally uses its narrative conceit only as a means of exploring a poetic crossroads between memory, fantasy, and cinema. It begins simply enough, with a movie studio executive and a young documentarian interviewing an elderly, retired actress about her life and career. As she recounts her story of growing up onscreen, however, the boundaries between memory & fiction erode beyond recognition, making the distinction pointless. The interviewer & cameraman follow the actress through the physical & temporal locations of her memory, filming the events of her past in a way that is only possible through the fluid, unrestrained logic of movie magic. All the movies the actress has starred in over her long career (whether they be samurai epics, wartime romances, kaiju action spectacles, or sci-fi space operas) blend into a single continuity as she and her two modern-day admirers run through a blur of fantasies & timelines in pursuit of an all-powerful MacGuffin: a literal key to “the most important thing in life.” Whether the most important thing in life is Memory, Passion, Art, or Love remains open for subjective interpretation. Mostly, Millennium Actress is a beautifully surreal melting pot of details from every movie genre through out the history of the artform – swordfights, monsters, ghosts, war, romance spaceships, betrayals – all propulsively animated to an early 00s techno beat.

I don’t think this film requires a familiarity with Satoshi Kon’s general filmography to be appreciated. If anything, expectations for the cruelty & despair of Paprika & Perfect Blue might be prohibitive to meeting this work on its own quietly sweet, melancholy terms. Millennium Actress should be enjoyable to anyone with an active interest in its artform – both as an exquisitely crafted anime from the dying days of hand-drawn animation and as a guided tour throughout the history of Japanese film genres. We’re treated to the full spectrum of what Movies can accomplish as we travel time throughout the most distinct eras of the artform in a lyrical, transportive version of movie-magic dream logic that’s impossible to pull off in any other medium. Similar to other movies-about-movies masterworks like Singin’ in the Rain, Cinema Paradiso, and Hail, Caesar!, Millennium Actress is readily accessible to anyone who can gush emphatically about the history & artistry of cinema as an artform. Still, it does hold a special reverence for Satoshi Kon fans in that it feels like a Greatest Hits collection of his best big-screen accomplishments. It’s absolutely tragic that we couldn’t experience even more grand visions from this late animation wizard, but this film alone is an excellent encapsulation of what made the work he was able to leave behind in his short life so special. I couldn’t imagine a better way to wrap up my precious little time with the enigmatic auteur, even if this film’s sentimentality wasn’t as geared specifically to my interests as harder-edged works like Perfect Blue

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 7/12/18

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are playing on the big screen in the New Orleans area this week. The selection is a little thin this round (in numbers, not quality), but that’s about to change with the upcoming, first-ever Filmtopia film festival launching at Prytania Theatre later this month.

New Releases We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

1. Sorry to Bother You – Although I’ve been anticipating this surrealist satire since it made a huge splash at Sundance early this year, I can’t report many details to anyone not already on the hook because I’ve been trying to go in as blind as possible myself. The trailer teases some Michel Gondry-style visual experimentation mixed with no-fucks-given social satire and a knockout cast that includes Tessa Thomson, Terry Crews, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer and, in the lead role, Get Out’s Lakeith Stanfield. This is one you want to see big, loud, and early, as it promises to be a visual spectacle & a political bomb-thrower everyone will be discussing for the rest of the year (and beyond).

3. Ant-Man and the Wasp – Just a couple months after the exhaustive spectacle of Avengers: Infinity War, it’d be understandable if MCU burnout kept most people from being too excited for another entry into the franchise. Like The Guardians of the Galaxy before it, though, the first Ant-Man film was surprisingly charming & lightweight in its allowance to play around in isolation from the more labored, franchise-wide concerns of the MCU, so this sequel could be good for some frivolous, one-off fun. Boomer & I were both positive on its predecessor in our joint Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, so I’m more than willing to return for more.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

1. Yellow Submarine (1968) – A 4k restoration of the animated Beatles classic theatrically re-released for its 50th anniversary. This movie cheats a little in dubbing in the Fab Four’s voices with impersonators (when they’re not singing, at least), but more than makes up for that faux pas with a non-stop onslaught of trippy visuals. Only screening at Prytania Theatre for a single-week engagement.

2. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – A Fred Rogers documentary that’s all but guaranteed to make you well up with both tears & awe. This film doubles as both a document of a philosophically-minded art project that aired on public television for over three decades (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) and a profile of a fascinating man who’s easy to love but difficult to fully understand. Enjoying its third week of screenings in the city, this tiny film is still miraculously gaining momentum, even joining the Yellow Submarine restoration for a week-long run at Prytania (which is apparently our MVP for the week).

-Brandon Ledet

The Well-Intentioned Letdown of When John Waters Targeted the Art World

Starting with the mid-career course correction of Polyester, cult director John Waters had a kind of creative epiphany. In his earliest works of divine genius (Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, etc.), the trash-dwelling provocateur gave life to insular freakshows of over-the-top Baltimore personalities, outsiders who were naturally exuding a punk rock nastiness when hippie feel-goodery still ruled the counterculture. Polyester and its suburban-set follow-ups (Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Serial Mom) found an even more subversive platform for his cinematic freaks, contrasting their outlandish trashiness with the supposedly more well-behaved sect of Proper Society. Hairspray & Cry-Baby were especially adept at exposing suburbia for being a sea of hateful, racist, close-minded assholes in a way that wouldn’t be apparent in more insular settings like Desperate Living‘s Mortville, where the weirdos keep to themselves. After four consecutive films exposed this suburban evil, however, Waters was in need of a new target. Mainstream commercial success had entirely changed his outsider status as a renegade filmmaker & a provocateur by the mid-90s. Waters found himself the toast of both the suburban monsters he’d lampooned for the better part of a decade and the art world snobs who enjoyed his early works for their supposed dedication to irony. With suburbia thoroughly skewered, the director fired off two successive films that targeted the ironic hipsters & mainstream moviegoers who fundamentally misunderstood his passions & his appeal. The intent was admirably calculated, but the results were . . . mixed.

It pains me to write anything even remotely negative about a director I consider to be the greatest artist, if not greatest human being, of all times forever. The nu-metal vibes of the late 90s & early 00s were just poisonous for pop culture in general, though, so it would make sense that Waters would experience the worst creative slump of his career in that era. You can feel him introspectively reaching for something to say in his 1998 comedy Pecker, which continues his childhood period piece navel-gazing in Hairspray & Cry-Baby by centering on a weirdo teen artist who accidentally makes it big just by goofing around with his nobody loved-ones in Baltimore. I think the biggest misconception of Waters’s career, particularly in his early “trash” pictures, is that his portrayals of over-the-top Baltimore caricatures are entirely rooted in a sense of irony. Those pictures are actually coming from a place of feverishly obsessive love. There’s obviously a sense of camp that informs his humor, but Waters also deeply loves & admires early regulars like Divine, Mink Stole, and Edith Massey (as well as his home city of Baltimore) and seemingly only makes his films as a way to document & broadcast their art & their obsessions. Pecker is, above all else, a film about that clash between his intent & public perception of his work. Just as Waters obsessively made movies about his weirdo friends in 1970s Baltimore, he depicts a young photographer (Edward Furlong, the titular Pecker) who obsessively documents his loved ones & their surroundings on the same city streets. That’s why it’s such a betrayal when, in the film and in life, Big City hipsters latch onto those characters only with a sense of irony, laughing at them instead of with them.

Pecker is a film about obsession & authenticity. Even beyond the titular protagonist’s bottomless passion for photography, every character in his social circle has a sitcom-esque dedication to a singular interest: candy, laundromats, shoplifting, clothing the homeless, gay men, pubic hair, ventriloquism, teabagging, etc. These damned souls stay dutifully within their own lanes, only speaking on their one respective topic of interest whenever prompted for dialogue. Pecker finds their passions endearing & documents them within his own sole interest: photography. When his art takes off to an unlikely notoriety in New York City, he assumes everyone championing his photographs is similarly celebrating the beauty of his subjects. Instead, they’re ironically laughing at his “culturally challenged” family & friends for their perceived tackiness. Once this Big City hipster irony is revealed as a real world evil, the film eventually takes the form of a good-natured revenge tale. Pecker invites his new Art World “friends” to Baltimore for his latest show, where they’re given a taste of their own medicine as the derogatory subject of his photographs, a source of mockery. They’re briefly gawked at by Baltimore weirdos as the true freaks for once, until Pecker unites both sides for a climactic party where everyone shares indulgences in each other’s obsessions & collectively cheer, “To the end of irony!” The point being made in that celebration is admirable and I love that Waters took his audience to task for looking down on his weirdo friends as inhuman curiosities instead of genuinely joining in the celebration of their obsessions. The comedy just doesn’t feel as sharp or, frankly, as dirty as it should to match the laugh riot heights of earlier triumphs. Besides a few details involving strip clubs & gay bars (of which The Fudge Palace feels like an obvious ode to New Orleans staple The Corner Pocket), the film didn’t feel very much interested in its own subjects, at least not with the same obsessive intensity they were interested in things like candy & pubic hair. It seems in making a film about art & obsessions, Waters somewhat lost track of funneling his own passionate obsessions into his art.

Cecil B. Demented, the 2000 follow-up to Pecker, feels even more creatively exhausted. Waters shifts his focus slightly from the irony of Art World assholes to the slow death of modern cinema, which he sees as being completely drained of the obsessive artistic passions of his earlier work. Here, the director sides with the artsy types he previously lampooned in order to take aim at the corporate business end of film production. In an opening credits sequence that’s only become more relevant as the years roll on, movie theater marquees are overrun by sequels, franchise titles like Star Trek & Star Wars, comedies starring disposable knuckleheads like Pauly Shore, and art films dubbed from their original languages. As Pecker toasted, “To the end of irony!,” Cecil B. Demented cries, “Death to those who support mainstream cinema!” This is essentially a heist picture where a “teenage” gang (including early appearances from Michael Shannon, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Adrian Grenier) kidnaps a famed Hollywood starlet (Melanie Griffith, who has no trouble slipping into the role of Terrible Actress) and forces her into a guerilla film production that often borders on outright terrorism. Literally wearing their influences on their sleeves in the forms of tattooed names like William Castle, David Lynch, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Kenneth Anger, they attempt to disrupt business-as-usual Hollywood filmmaking by bringing artistic obsession back to the forefront of the industry. There’s an unfortunate irony in this intense focus on authenticity, as the movie doesn’t feel nearly as dangerous or as personal as Waters’s own past in guerilla filmmaking. His murderous cinephiles are certainly silly, but you get the sense that he’s on their side, while still failing to live up to their impossible ideals. “Technique is nothing but failed style,” is a great line in isolation, but I’m not sure what it means in a work that’s Waters’s least funny, least stylish, and most obedient adherence to the mainstream technique of its time: the nu-metal Dark Ages.

By the mid-90s, John Waters’s outsider aesthetic had become an essential part of mainstream filmmaking thanks the gross-out comedy boom that followed the success of There’s Something About Mary. There’s an “Okay, what now?” quality to Pecker & Cecil B. Demented that might be a direct result of that assimilation. With a sensibility he was on the ground floor of establishing now the mainstream standard and his own personal obsessions already documented for infamy in previous works, Waters had to find new purpose for his art in a time mired in one of our worst modern pop culture slumps. I admire his ambition in tackling the commercial end of art production in Cecil B. Demented & the earnestness of the art consumer in Pecker, even if I believe those films to represent his worst creative period. Not only is it a half-assed put-down for me to call out a film or two for being the worst releases from my favorite director; this story also has a happy ending in John Waters eventually getting his groove back back in the excellent 2004 sex comedy A Dirty Shame, his most recent (and most underrated) film to date. Having proven himself in so many other titles that transcend these nu-metal era doldrums, Waters’s Art World potshots are worth having around if not only for giving voice to the director’s take on the art & commerce compromises of his industry. Characters describing Pecker’s photography persona as “a humane Diane Arbus” while Cindy Sherman (playing herself) walks around art galleries offering Valium to children or a dangerously horny Michael Shannon shouting “Tell me about Mel Gibson’s dick and balls!” are worthwhile indulgences for their own sake, even if they don’t match the obsessive passion of documenting Divine & Edith Massey’s exploits in the Dreamlanders era. I may wish that the final products were a little funnier & more artistically distinct, but I love that Waters took the time to dismantle art world pretension & empties commercialism once he was done vilifying suburban normies.

-Brandon Ledet

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

 

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Paying too close of attention to reviews & hype surrounding a film can sometimes lead you to miss out. Besides its release date coinciding a little too closely to Mardi Gras, I had put catching up with the latest Coen Brothers comedy, Hail, Caesar!, on the backburner due to the film’s somewhat tepid response at the box office. Hail, Caesar! is flopping hard right now, failing to find a significantly sized audience despite the prominence of Big Name movie stars in its advertising & the Coens’ loyal (though not gigantic) fanbase. Many major publication critics are also seemingly lukewarm on the film, often citing it an overstuffed mixed bag. That lack of enthusiasm & no basic knowledge of the film’s plot lead me to the theater with essentially no expectations, but Hail, Caesar! floored me anyway. Honestly, if I don’t see a better movie in the cinema all year I’ll still be perfectly happy. It was that much of a delight. I should have gotten to the theater a hell of a lot sooner.

Hail, Caesar! is firmly in the highly respectable medium of art about the nature of art. More specifically, it’s a movie about the movies. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens have looked back to the Old Hollywood studio system as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. Packed with theological & political debate/diatribes and a sprawling cast of both Big Name movie stars & That Guy character actors, the film sounds like a lot more effort than it actually is. The plot is, in essence, the day in the life of a “fixer” for a major Hollywood film studio in the 1950s. Imagine if Pulp Fiction was centered on Harvey Keitel’s “The Wolf” character instead of the organized crime ring he was keeping steady & his work was in major film production instead of the murder & drug trade (on top of being oddly sweet instead of quietly terrifying). Josh Brolin’s protagonist, Eddie Mannix, provides such an anchor for Hail, Caesar! as a whirlwind of film production snafus swirl around him. Rampant addiction, a kidnapped star, unwanted pregnancy, secret Communist societies, gossip column vultures, and all kinds of trouble on the studio lot’s various sets turn Mannix’s typical workday into a laughable, Kafkaesque nightmare. It’s a testament to the Coens’ screenwriting talents that the film feels so smooth & effortless while Mannix’s webs become increasingly tangled and the general tone is a mix of subtle humor & broad farce instead of plot fatigue.

A lot of movies are effortlessly funny, though. What’s special about Hail, Caesar! is the way it perfectly captures Old Hollywood’s ghost. It reminded me a lot of the feeling of seeing Georges Méliès’s work recreated so vividly in the theater during Scorcese’s Hugo, except that Hail, Caesar! covered a much wider range of genres & filmmakers from a completely different era. Every classic Old Hollywood genre I can think of makes an appearance here: noir, Westerns, musicals, synchronized swimming pictures, Roman & religious epics, tuxedo’d leading man dramas, etc. Audiences sometimes forget that these types of films weren’t always physically degraded so it’s somewhat shocking to see the beautiful costuming & set design achievements of the era recreated & blown up large in such striking clarity at a modern movie theater. Besides the breathtaking visual achievements, it’s impressive how many other aspects of Old Hollywood cinema the film manages to include, both in its “real” setting & in its fake film shoots: close attention to lighting, a briefcase MacGuffin, sets that look like backdrop paintings, the threat that television will destroy the movie business, reclusive editors who act like chain-smoking psychos, talent that’s owned by the studio in what essentially amounts to indentured servitude, a sea of white faces in a world where everyone else has been locked out, etc. Even the smallest turns of phrase like “motion picture teleplay” & character names like George Clooney’s leading man actor Baird Whitlock feel perfectly in tune with the vibe of the era whether or not they’re poking fun at its inherent quaintness.

Speaking of Clooney’s wonderful turn as Baird Whitlock, Hail, Caesar! is at heart an ensemble cast comedy. It’s difficult to pinpoint any exact MVPs among the film’s long list of cameos & supporting players (Brolin undeniably takes the honor overall). Channing Tatum continues his nonstop winning streak here, dressing like a sailor & leading one of the most wholesomely filthy song & dance numbers you’re ever likely to see. Scarlett Johansson looks peacefully at home as a classic Hollywood starlet in a mermaid costume & hilariously disrupts the illusion with a brassy performance that allows her to refer to her flipper as a “fish ass.” Following up his delicately winning performance in Grand Budapest Hotel, Ralph Fiennes continues to prove himself as a stealthily comic force to be reckoned with. Relative unknown Alden Ehrenreich threatens to steal the show with an “Aw, shucks” cowboy routine & the similarly obscure Emily Beecham is a near dead-ringer for The Red Shoes/Peeping Tom star Moira Shearer (and I mean that as the highest praise). And all that’s just scratching the surface of how attractive everyone looks in this film, how effective the smallest of roles come across, and the sheer number of recognizable faces on display here.

So what’s keeping a smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous film like Hail, Caesar! from pulling in ticket sales? Who’s to say? I was a good three or four decades younger than most members of the audience where I watched the film (although it should be noted that most young folks were probably watching Deadpool that weekend), so maybe it’s missing an appeal to key money-making demographics? Maybe the advertising didn’t sell the more gorgeous end of its visuals hard enough, so a lot of folks are calmly waiting for it to reach VOD? I have no answers, really. I will, however, defend the film against the accusation that it’s overstuffed or unfocused. Hail, Caesar! chronicles a day in the life of a world-weary man who operates in an overstuffed, unfocused industry, so the various plotlines could be perceived as overwhelming as you try to make sense of them in retrospect, but on the screen they play with the confident poise of an expert juggler.

Like I said, Hail, Caesar! is not performing well financially & the reviews are 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.

-Brandon Ledet

Introducing: The Swampflix Canon

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Although we’ve fairly easy critics (especially when it comes to trash cinema) & have reviewed hundred of films since we first launched in January, it’s been interesting to see how few & how disparate our selections have been that exceed a four star rating. Over the last eight months we’ve given only two dozen films a rating of 4.5 of 5 stars, and they’re as wildly varied as a mindless 80s slasher flick, a Paul Rudd superhero movie, a pro wrestling action comedy starring famous monsters, and a Björk concert film. We’re turning out to be a wildly goofy & oddly dissonant bunch and it’s starting to show in the movies we profess our love for.

In light of this growing list of targets for our critical gushing, we’ve begun to collect our reviews that exceed a four star rating on a page we’re calling The Swampflix Canon. All 24 reviews that have met this one criteria so far are listed in alphabetical order on the new page for easy access & I’m certain more will be added shortly. If you’re interested in a starting point for where to dive in, here’s the list of the nine titles that we have awarded a five star rating so far: Beyond the Black RainbowThe Duke of Burgundy, Monster Brawl, Paris Is Burning, Peeping Tom, Pieces, Possession, Profondo rosso (aka Deep Red), and What We Do in the ShadowsThe rest of the list can be found here.

As always, Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet