Episode #121 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Hunt (2020) & 2020 Election Cycle Satires

Welcome to Episode #121 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee discuss three recent satires that lampooned the 2020 presidential election cycle: The Hunt (2020), Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020), and Mister America (2019).  Enjoy!

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– The Podcast Crew

Robin Williams’s Undervalued Restraint in The Birdcage (1996)

Usually, when we praise comedians for their acting, it’s when they Get Serious in a dramatic role. When Melissa McCarthy goes dark for a Can You Ever Forgive Me? or Bill Murray dulls down his irreverence for a Lost in Translation, it almost feels like a cynical Oscars play – because those are the roles that get prestige-circle accolades. Robin Williams’s career is an excellent sample of this pattern, since the hyperactive goofballery of his comedy and the reserved vulnerability of his dramatic performances are at such drastically opposed extremes. Williams’s dramatic turns in grounded, sober films like Dead Poets Society & Good Will Hunting are paradoxically showy in their restraint, considering how starkly different they are from the frantic, coke-rattled mania of his comedic sidekick roles and his on-stage stand-up routines. His awards attention for those more somber, restrained performances practically register as a child getting a lollipop for good behavior.

If we’re going out of our way to highlight Williams’s finest roles as the ones where he’s most restrained, there is at least one frantic screwball comedy that belongs in the conversation: 1996’s The Birdcage. A collaboration between comedy legends Nichols & May (as director & screenwriter, respectively), an early credit for overachieving cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and a remake of a popular French farce, The Birdcage has enough built-in prestige to appear Respectable in a way that other Robin Williams comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire & Death to Smoochy do not. More to the point, it’s a performance that explicitly asks Williams to tone it down and keep his flamboyance under wraps for the sake of the plot – a self-inflicted restraint that you can practically see is eating him alive as the rest of the world around him gets exponentially zanier. The Birdcage might just be the one movie where Robin Williams is the best-behaved adult in the room, and much of its humor derives from the fact that he so badly wants not to be.

The Birdcage is a traditional screwball comedy about a tense, disastrous dinner party in which a gay couple (Robin Williams & Nathan Lane) hide their true personalities from the straight Conservative parents (Gene Hackman & Dianne Wiest) of their child’s fiancée (Calista Flockhart). Ironically, Williams is cast as The Straight Man in this comedic set-up, a proud but accommodating nightclub owner who’s willing to tone down his eccentricities to appease his monstrous asshole of a son. His main job is to sweat & fret as the deception unravels from every direction. Meanwhile, other comedic performers are set loose to go as over-the-top as they please: Lane as a drag queen doing Barbara Bush schtick; Hackman as a cartoon exaggeration of Republican Party cruelty (one that’s only become closer to the truth in the past couple decades); Hank Azaria as a hot-to-trot houseboy; etc. It’s a rare instance where Williams sets aside his usual “Look at me! Look at me!” manic comedy to merely react to the buffoonery that surrounds him, and that silent frustration elevates every other performance handily.

There is one isolated moment in The Birdcage where Robin Williams is set loose to do his usual hyperactive child routine. In a scene where he’s choreographing a stage number for his drag club, he excitedly shouts the directions “You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! […] Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!” while acting out each impersonation in pantomime. It’s a brief moment where his manic stand-up persona (later repurposed for the eccentric sidekicks he voiced in kids’ movies like Aladdin & Happy Feet) is allowed to invade the screen. For the rest of the runtime, he’s asked to keep that flamboyance in check, and the act of bottling it up is visibly crushing him in a consistently hilarious way. If Robin Williams’s acting chops are mostly going to be remembered & lauded in roles where he exercises a toned-down restraint that contrasts his over-the-top comedies, I think it’s worth singling out The Birdcage as a performance where we can see that self-discipline being practiced in real time. If nothing else, it’s a lot more fun to watch than snoozers like Good Will Hunting or What Dreams May Come.

-Brandon Ledet

24 Hour Party People (2003)

Usually, historical biopics about artists & musicians are a waste of time for anyone not already in love with their work, as they’re often kids-gloves hagiographies only meant to promote their subjects’ cultural significance without any genuine interrogation or nuance. 24 Hour Party People is a major exception to that rule. A meta-historical comedy tracking the unlikely transformation of the Manchester music scene from punk to new wave to raves, 24 Hour Party People is just as impressive for its multimedia playfulness as it is for its willingness to portray its cultural icons as total buffoons who had no idea what they were doing. Its protagonist, an obnoxiously pretentious record producer played by Steve Coogan, is booed and called a “cunt” in practically every room he enters, despite being majorly responsible for fostering the U.K. punk scene’s post-punk longevity. Seemingly untouchable, tragic icons like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis are equally razzed for being music-scene dorks who’re absurdly full of themselves, despite the saintly aura cultivated over the decades since their professional flameouts or deaths. It’s easy for biopics to lose track of the recognizable humanity of long-canonized artists when attempting to capture what made them special. 24 Hour Party People pulls off an amazing trick of portraying its music-scene legends as highly fallible buffoons while also maintaining the enigmatic Cool of their art. You don’t have to already be in love with New Order, The Durutti Column, or Happy Mondays to love this movie. It’s about something much more universally relatable than those bands’ cultish fandoms suggest: how all human beings are self-centered fuckups, especially artists.

I did wonder for the first third of this film whether it was appealing to me solely because I was such a sucker for the soundtrack. I can only hear so many Siouxsie, Buzzcocks, and Joy Division needle drops before my punk-youth nostalgia outweighs my critical skepticism. That question was answered decisively by the time the punk scene melted away into new wave and then was usurped entirely by rave culture, something I personally know nothing about. While the first half of 24 Hour Party People tracks its asshole protagonist’s involvement in the recording & promotion of Joy Division—a band I very much love—its back half does the same for an ecstasy-flavored jam band called Happy Mondays — a band I frankly had never heard of despite their apparent popularity. That shift in subject did not throw off my interest at all, though, since the film was less about recounting the Wikipedia highlights of its music-scene legends than it was about the unfocused, self-destructive hubris of Coogan’s would-be record label tycoon (Tony Wilson, figurehead of Factory Records). 24 Hour Party People mixes in enough real-life archival footage, winking cameos from People Who Were There, and glowing memoirs of poorly-attended Sex Pistols shows that inspired dozens & dozens of legendary disciples to appear to be the exact kind of for-fans-only historical biopic that bores the shit out of anyone not already on the hook. With time, it proves itself to be a much sharper, more incisive peek into the kinds of high-ambition, low-empathy buffoons who drive those legendary flashes of music-scene youth culture. And it turns out that getting to know the bullies, lushes, and narcissists behind the scenes doesn’t make the music sound any less cool; it just makes the story behind it a lot more believable and relatable.

No amount of praise for this film’s radical honesty or messy multimedia formalism could fully capture what actually makes the whole thing work: it’s damn funny. Even though nearly every single character is a self-centered asshole, they also come across as charming goofs. The biggest moral conundrum at the center of the story—as defined by Coogan’s suffocatingly narcissistic narrator—is how to make a name for yourself without “selling out”. Every character wants to make it big without losing their hipster cred, which only becomes more absurdly amusing as they age out of the adolescent years where that kind of pretentiousness is acceptable (the ones who survive into adulthood, anyway). Every gag is at the expense of one of these beloved artists’ self-serving quest to become beloved. Not for nothing, every gag is also successfully hilarious. Maybe the key to making a decent historical biopic about an arts scene is having a critical sense of humor about the legends you’re trying to depict. That’s at least a good first step in the direction of acknowledging their humanity, and one I can only recall being repeated in the recent black metal satire Lords of Chaos. Even that example isn’t nearly as impressive, though, as it’s poking fun at fascist metalheads who commit literal murder, whereas 24 Hour Party People profiles seemingly affable chaps who just happened to not be as Cool as you’d expect based on their classic records.

-Brandon Ledet

Sugar & Spice (2001)

By now, Heathers has surely gotten its full due as a cult classic in terms of its delicious visual aesthetics & eternal quotability. It’s even earned its own Broadway musical adaptation, so there should be nowhere left for its “cult” legacy to go. I still don’t think we’ve fully reckoned with how well balanced the tone of Heathers is, though, especially as a feat of screenwriting. Daniel Waters’s playful, sardonic cruelty is a deceptively tricky balancing act to properly execute, which is glaringly apparent when you look at the film’s dark teen comedy imitators in the late 1990s & early 2000s. Drop Dead Gorgeous is the most accomplished imitator to the throne, with the biggest laughs & most keenly pointed satirical eye of any post-Heathers high school cruelty comedy. It’s also a film that chooses some hideously misjudged moments to punch down, particularly at the expense of anorexic teens & the mentally disabled. For its part, Jawbreaker evolves the highly stylized visual whimsy of Heathers into a candy-coated fantasy all of its own, but its callous humor about sexual assault & physical abuse leaves an unignorably sour taste. However, neither of those examples conveys the high wire balancing act of the post-Heathers teen cruelty comedy quite as succinctly as Sugar & Spice.

Sugar & Spice is an absurdly bubbly, flippantly cruel teen comedy about bank-robbing cheerleaders. Its 1960s Archie Comics stylization is infectiously fun & energizing, complete with collage-style pop art screen wipes that nearly push the film into surreal, dreamlike territory. Its story of teen sweethearts whose rosy vision of the world harshly clashes with reality when they unexpectedly become pregnant offers a great satirical core for its humor, and the transgression of high school cheerleaders robbing a bank to solve that problem is sublime. Best yet, the movie is only 81min long, cramming as many goofs, gags, and one-liners as it can into every beat without wasting the audience’s time on superfluous details like thoughts or feelings. The only problem, really, is that the film is viciously homophobic. This is a mainstream, PG-13 comedy where f-bombs are carefully avoided so as not to upset the schoolmarms at the MPAA, but homophobic slurs are tossed in every direction like confetti. The only gay character in the film is a one-note visual gag: a male cheerleader who occasionally catapults into the frame to be called a “fag” and promptly dismissed. And then come the flood of prison rape jokes as the girls research their bank heist schemes among inmates at a women’s prison. Hilarious!

At first, the film’s tonal missteps seem to result from a poor choice in narrator: a small-minded rival of the bankrobbing teens who rats them out to the FBI out of petty jealousy. Watching a room full of middle-aged men listen to a bratty child endlessly monologue about the intricacies of cheerleader squad drama is hilarious, but choosing the least likeable character in the film to narrate often tilts the tone into sour territory, especially considering that character’s raging homophobia. You can’t blame all of the film’s misfired cruelty on the villain, however. The girls we’re supposed to be cheering for eventually prove to be just as guilty, calling the film’s politics into question not the characters’. The weirdest thing about that POV is that Sugar & Spice is otherwise perfectly calibrated for a dedicated queer fandom. It’s already practically a mash-up of Point Break & Bring It On, which sounds like a mad scientist experiment to create the perfect Gay Movie Night go-to. This is a film where James Marsden is ogled as a star-quarterback himbo, Madonna lyrics are treated as literal gospel, and teenage girls commit crimes while wearing knock-off Barbie masks. It’s also a film that frequently dehumanizes the exact target audience who would find those details fabulous for the sake of a cheap gag (or ten).

So yes, Sugar & Spice gleefully shares in the Jawbreaker & Drop Dead Gorgeous problem in that it can be a little too mean in spots; it may even be the meanest picture of the three. It’s also like those movies in that I love it anyway, which only makes me cringe harder when it spectacularly fucks up the balance of its tone. It’s certainly no Heathers, although over-written one-liners like “It was like he was a piece of chocolate and the entire school was on the rag” suggest that it very much wanted to be. If I’ve learned anything from loving these flawed teen cruelty comedies over the years, it’s that Heathers, although enduringly popular, was much more singularly skillful than could ever be fully acknowledged, especially in its mastery of tone.

-Brandon Ledet

The House Bunny (2008)

The first time I ever really took note of Anna Faris was in 2009, watching the cult comedy Observe & Report with a few friends in an otherwise empty theater. Until then, I was mostly aware of Faris from the Scary Movie franchise, where she was burdened with performing a brutally unfunny parody of the Final Girl archetype from teen slashers. In Observe & Report, Faris found her sweet spot in a much darker, more incisive parody of the Dumb Blonde trope, a truly amazing, upsetting performance that haunts you long after her punchlines are supposed to relieve that tension. It felt like the delayed arrival of a formidable comedic talent, and I’ve been impatiently waiting for Hollywood to catch up and give her bigger, more complicated roles to extrapolate on that dark, chaotic humor.

It turns out I may have missed out on Observe & Report‘s closest competitor as a darkly funny Anna Faris showcase by just a year. 2008’s The House Bunny even features the underutilized actor as its titular lead, a performatively ditzy (but secretly sharp-witted) Playboy Bunny who struggles to adapt to life in The Real World once she ages out of her usefulness as eye candy at Hugh Hefner’s mansion. She quickly adapts by finding a new coven of undervalued women who need her aggressively bubbly outlook to survive life & men’s nonstop cruelties: an unpopular, poorly funded sorority house on a nearby college campus. The resulting underdog story is a classic Animal House-style college campus comedy, in which a small crew of nerdy outcasts learn self-confidence and earn their right to exist in spite of the protests of The Dean & the more popular (i.e. wealthier) kids. And Faris is dead center of this slobs vs. snobs battleground, living her full Marilyn Monroe smart-ditz fantasy.

Sounds perfect, right? How I wish it were. The House Bunny shows flashes of the dark, subversive humor I was hoping to see more of after Observe & Report – a feminist streak assumedly stirred up by screenwriters Karen McCullah & Kristen Smith, the same writing team behind Legally Blonde. Unfortunately, that sentiment is openly at war with the Bro Humor of the film’s production company, Happy Madison, which plays to the ugliest, most politically malevolent tendencies of mainstream American comedy. The very first gag of the film is Faris explaining in voiceover that she was abandoned at an orphanage’s doorstep in a basket, then her birth parents asked for the basket back. It’s a funny, concise, familiar introduction to the shitty life she’s endured since birth, conveying the exact lack of a safety net that would drive a person to survival-based sex work (even at as seemingly quaint of an institution as Playboy). Then comes a rapid series of jokes at the expense of homeless people, Latinx day workers, trans women, and the very sex worker contingent the movie initially seemed sympathetic toward.

I’m not going to exhaustively catalog the various moral or political offenses The House Bunny racks up over its 100min runtime, if not only because moral offense is the exact transgression these bro-friendly Sandler Crew productions thrive on. It’s just worth noting how deeply strange this film is in its continuous self-conflict. There’s a violent tug-of-war between it sympathizing with a ditzy blonde archetype that mainstream cinema usually treats as a passive, victimized sex doll and punching down at the expense of anyone who’s not Normal (read: straight, white, cis, attractive, able-bodied, financially stable, etc.), including that very same ditz. Ultimately, the Legally Blonde Redux undertones win that battle, if not only because Faris is funny enough to pave over the mood-killing Bro Gags that frequently interrupt her schtick. There are plenty of genuine laughs throughout. At the same time, the film often feels like a time capsule distillation of the worst impulses of the Paris Hilton 2000s and the Happy Madison brand at large (I didn’t even get to the grotesque ad placements or the bargain-bin CGI). I almost wish it were made a decade later so Faris’s darkly subversive performance could have shined without all that baggage.

Maybe now that Faris has recently freed herself from CBS Sitcom limbo (after 152 episodes of Mom) she can fulfill her obvious potential in a comedy with a lot fewer groans. It’s been a long, frustrating wait knowing she’s great and not seeing her given the proper space to shine. Although glaringly imperfect, at least The House Bunny tried.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #116 of The Swampflix Podcast: All About Almodóvar

Welcome to Episode #116 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon and Hanna continue their Movie of the Month conversation about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) by discussing the career highs of provocateur director Pedro Almodóvar. They particularly focus on his award-winning hot streak between All About My Mother (1999) and Volver (2006).

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

-Hanna Räsänen and Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Boomer,  Britnee, and Brandon watch Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).

Hanna: Sometimes the universe has to shove you into art before you’ll pay any attention to it; this was the case with me and Pedro Almodóvar. I vaguely remember my mother talking about Broken Embraces and admiring Penélope Cruz on the poppy-covered poster for Volver when I was a teenager, and The Skin I Live In floated across my radar when I was in the habit of seeking out macabre media as a protest against the Midwestern values of Minnesota, but for some reason I wasn’t compelled to watch any of those movies. I didn’t see an Almodóvar film until my first year of college, by force, in my Spanish Media class; that film was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), and it shoved me (very happily) into the Almodóvar canon.

The primary Woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown is Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura), a TV actress and film dubber. Her ex-lover and co-dubber, Ivan—an older, spineless lech with a mahogany voice—left her a week ago; he is going on a trip (with another woman), and is asking her to pack him a suitcase. Pepa is inconsolable. She wolfs down sleeping pills, spiking her gazpacho with barbiturates. She sleeps through the alarms of the 30-odd clocks littered around her apartment. She accidentally lights her bed on fire. She leaves Ivan desperate voicemails, insisting that she has something important that they need to discuss and becoming increasingly irate. No matter what Pepa does, she is always just catching up to Ivan’s ghost: finding that he left the studio a minute before she arrives, or that he called her apartment just before she walked in the door. When the phone does ring for Pepa, Ivan is never on the other line. Eventually, through a series of fraught coincidences, chaos seeps into Pepa’s apartment through her friend Candela, Ivan’s ex-wife Lucía, Ivan’s son Carlos, and Carlos’s fiancée Marisa, shattering the spell of her obsessive despair over Ivan.

Of the Almodóvar films I’ve seen, Women on the Verge is probably the lightest fare – the least political, the least subversive, and the least confessional. It never seems to bubble over in the way that madcap comedies usually do, even in its final stretch (which is still, in my opinion, a jaunty little thrill ride). Regardless, there is something about this film that totally entrances me. First of all, for being a breezy, highly stylized black-comedy melodrama, Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was confoundingly successful; it was the highest-grossing Spanish film of all time when it was released and is still Almodóvar’s 4th highest grossing film (not adjusting for inflation, which would boost it up even higher). The cinematography is characteristically gorgeous, tactile and vibrant, and some of the images are still splintered into my brain from the first watch (specifically, the scenes of Pepa and Ivan dubbing Johnny Guitar and Pepa looking out of her apartment through that huge slatted peephole). I’m consistently delighted by the film’s comic serendipity: the near-misses, close calls, and coincidental injuries (shoes and records are the universe’s guided missiles, launched unintentionally by people in fits of rage or despair). If nothing else, this movie has given me the Mambo Taxi driver, one of the purest and most absurd characters in cinema; his attention to the provisions of amenities in his taxi was genuinely touching.

One of my favorite things about Almodóvar is his embrace of multiple genres; he has touched comedy, drama, autobiography, and horror, and his films are usually a chaotic blend of two or three. In the case of Women on the Verge, I do think the comic elements could have been pushed even further. Britnee, what did you think about the balance of comedy and drama in Women on the Verge? Did the tone work for you, or do you wish the film had pushed more in one direction or the other?

Britnee: Right now, we are all living in a pretty dark world, and my primary escape from all the insanity has been reality TV and, of course, movies. For some reason, I’ve been finding myself binging old made-for-TV Lifetime films with pretty intense plots. While I thought these films were helping me unwind and relax, I was actually subconsciously adding to my already high stress levels. Women on the Verge basically got me out of this horrible funk because of it’s wonderful blend of the drama that I crave while giving me the light comedy that I so desperately needed. From the Mambo Taxi driver (“Thank You For Smoking”) to Candela’s moka pot earrings, there are many eccentricities sprinkled throughout the film that brought me so much joy and laughter. And don’t even get my started on how much I loved that kitschy apartment setup! I definitely think Women on the Verge leans more towards being a comedy than a drama, but I actually admire how it holds back from going too far in a comic direction. It somehow makes all the funny moments more special and memorable.

Pepa is constantly surrounded by the mysterious Ivan, be it through the many characters who pop up in her life who have various connections to him or through her own obsession with finding him to tell him “something.” The drama that Ivan brings into her life without him actually physically being a part of her life is the kind of drama that I find fascinating. Boomer, do you think the film would have benefited from having Ivan physically appear in more scenes? Like, if there were even more scenes that focused on what Ivan was up to while Pepa was going through all of her apartment-contained insanity?

Boomer: I prefer Ivan as—as Hanna puts it—a ghost in the film. There’s something so smarmy and gross about him, from the way he distances himself emotionally from his son and his lover by giving them autographed photos as if they were fans, to his callous movement from one lover to the next with careless disregard for the damage he leaves in his wake, to his uneven application of secrecy (Pepa clearly never knew about Lucía or Carlos, indicating that Ivan intentionally hid the fact that he was a divorced father, while Paulina Morales clearly knows who Pepa is from the moment the latter walks into the former’s office, treating her with open hostility). He’s such a cad that he has no shame about asking his former lover to pack a suitcase for him but can’t face her in order to collect it. The fact that, as you mentioned, he brings so much drama into the piece without being present for much of it is part of the fun for me. He’s mysterious: a clear heel in every way, and yet able to be such a focal point of the attention of women are all too good for him, but who find themselves caught in his wake against their better judgment. If there was one thing that I wanted more of, however, it was Pepa’s role as the mother of the Crossroads Killer in her TV show. What is that program even about?

Brandon, you and I have spoken in the past about the relationship between comedy and mystery and how they both occupy the same kind of space in the mind: the set-up of joke and punchline is not entirely dissimilar from mystery and revelation, and there’s actually a fair amount of that at play here. Although this is first and foremost a comedy, the mystery element (who is Ivan going away with?) is still omnipresent. The relationship between planting and payoff may have its most triumphant example on film here, as we first see Ivan dubbing over Sterling Hayden’s voice in Johnny Guitar while we can’t hear Joan Crawford’s dialogue at all, only to later see Pepa in the studio performing her half of the scene, not against silence as Ivan had, but against his voice. Even in this, he is a ghost. What were your two favorite planting-and-payoff revelations here, comedic and mysterious?

Brandon: I love the idea of breaking this film down into individual moments & punchlines, because it’s practically a feature-length pilot for a sitcom.  I could happily watch these characters burst into & out of Pepa’s candy-coated apartment forever, even if they were dealing with more mundane day-to-day conflicts than the high-stakes farce staged here.  It’s comforting to know that Almodóvar heavily reuses the same actors & crew for most of his pictures, because it was heartbreaking to leave these outrageous women behind just because the credits rolled.  Ivan, I could live without.  If he were made to be even more of a ghost and was only talked about but never shown, the movie would have worked just was well.

My favorite payoffs—both comedic and mysterious—resulted from the Hitchcockian tension of the poisoned gazpacho.  When Pepa first loads Chekhov’s Blender with gazpacho & sleeping pills, her intentions are opaque.  She’s distraught enough over Ivan’s infidelity that it appears she’s planning to kill herself in a deliciously complex manner, but it’s later revealed to be a long-game murder attempt (Ivan loves gazpacho).  Instead of either tragedy unfolding as planned, the gazpacho litters Pepa’s apartment with the unconscious bodies of an exponential number of hungry fools who sneak a taste: first Carlos’s bratty girlfriend (the fascinating-looking Rossy de Palma), then the meathead cops who seek to bust Pepa’s naïve bestie, then practically every other character on the cast list in a giant impromptu slumber party.  It’s a hilariously wholesome escalation of a plot point that first promised to be nastily lethal (although delicious).

My other favorite payoff is more aesthetic & superficial: the matter-of-fact presentation of this world’s surreal artificiality.  The exterior shots of Pepa’s apartment building are represented in fake, plastic miniatures, and the skyline outside her apartment is an old-school painted backdrop.  Given her work at a movie studio, you’d expect those images to be a winking joke that the movie pulls away from to reveal the “real” world behind that artifice.  Instead, they’re just allowed to exist on screen as-is, entirely matter-of-fact.  I found that choice just as rewardingly delightful as any of the madcap complexities of the plot.  There are many comedies that are just as funny as Women on the Verge, but there are very few, if any, that look this fabulous.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I had no idea who Rossy de Palma was until I watched this movie, and I am totally obsessed with her now. She is mesmerizing!  I am especially loving the photos from her modeling career. The looks she served when wearing Thierry Mugler are absolutely stunning. Also, she apparently makes an appearance in Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, which I’m pretty excited to watch now.

Boomer: My absolute favorite bit was Pepa’s laundry commercial. It’s just so perfect: the self-identification as the Crossroads Killer’s mother, her presentation of the detergent, the reaction of the cops to the lack of viscera on her son’s freshly washed clothing. Just ::chef’s kiss::.

Brandon: This might be my favorite Almodóvar movie I’ve seen to date, mostly because it’s fully immersed in the things he excels at best (Gorgeous Artifice & Complex Women) while also sidestepping a lot of the darker, more violent tones of his work (which is an odd thing to say about a movie that occasionally dabbles in murder & suicide).  It’s a perfectly constructed little screwball comedy throwback populated by wonderfully over-the-top women and set in a world so beautifully artificial it’s practically Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s perfect.

Hanna: Almodóvar has said that women make the best characters, and he absolutely delivers that here. We have deranged women, compassionate women, cruel women, calculating women, funny women, tired women, angry women, all revolving around one barely-present man who doesn’t deserve their attention. If this movie were made in the US, I think Pepa would have ended up with some doting hunk in the end; instead she burns her bed, reclaims her beautiful loft apartment, and moves on with her life. Glorious.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)
November: Boomer presents Passion Fish (1992)
December: Britnee presents Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bat Pussy (197?)

Bat Pussy has proudly earned two distinguishing titles in the annals of schlock history. It’s believed to be both the first feature-length Porn Parody film and the absolute worst porno ever made. The first claim is the most difficult to verify since no one knows exactly when Bat Pussy was made or who was involved in its production. The film was discovered in a Memphis porno theater store room in the 1990s. The only indications of its time of production are a 1970 issue of Screw Magazine featured heavily in its opening scenes and the fact that it was a contemporary spoof of the Adam West-starring Batman television show, which ended in the late 60s. Thus, the exact whos, whens, wheres, hows, and whys of Bat Pussy are likely never to be solved, other than in vague estimations like “sometime in the early 70s” and “somewhere in the American South.” What’s much easier to verify is that it is, in fact, a spectacular failure of a porno film and very likely the worst of its kind to ever achieve theatrical projection (and decades-delayed home video distribution through AGFA & Something Weird).

A bitter married couple have fumbling, non-starter sex after finding foreplay inspiration in an issue of Screw. They are aggressively Normal people working mostly unscripted, obviously just having a goof. As the couple feebly attempts to mutually perform oral sex, the man struggles to maintain an erection while the woman frets over the tussle’s damage to her beehive up-do. Unsure what to say or do as the sex is obviously going nowhere, they riff in a faux-agro banter, like a shittily improvised spoof of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where every other word is “motherfucker.” They’re incredibly Southern and likely just as drunk. The bedroom set where they’re fooling around echoes as if it were a cavernous warehouse instead of a private home. 35 minutes into the 50-minute runtime, the titular superhero Bat Pussy arrives to rescue the audience from these hostile, lazy sex acts. She’s immediately stripped of her superhero costume and joins the couple for an equally uninspired threeway, which continues until the production abruptly runs out of celluloid.

Obviously, the main attraction of this pioneering Porn Parody is Bat Pussy herself. The second she’s announced as Dora Dildo, aka The Mighty Bat Pussy, it registers as a huge relief, as her far-off Pussy Cave (later revealed to be an outhouse) is our only locational reprieve from the frustrated sex in the married couple’s “bedroom.” The hope is that Bat Pussy will break up the proceedings with some much-needed levity, but the reality is she takes her sweet time getting there. Apparently, her crime-fighting motivation is an urge to stop all citizens of Gotham from making “fucking movies” unless she is involved herself. Superpowered vaginal twitches alert her that the married couple is planning to make a porno without her involvement, so she dresses in her knockoff Batman costume (an awkward ceremony we watch in real-time), and speeds off to the couple’s “bedroom” via an exercise bouncy ball while nondescript surf rock drones in the background. It’s a hilariously vicious prank on the audience, then, that she’s immediately stripped of her costume once she arrives at the couple’s bed, joining the impossibly shitty sex instead of putting a stop to it.

Dora Dildo is too limited of a player here to totally save the movie from its aggressively unerotic tedium, so the remainder of its entertainment value lies in its Ed Woodian incompetence. The most alarming, memorable moments are when the three actors are unsure about what to do next in bed, and fearfully look to the crew behind the camera for direction (which is sometimes audibly shouted back to them mid-scene). Those frequent fourth wall breaks feel like a violation of an unspoken artist-audience agreement and add an even more sinister tone to the endlessly awkward sex that eats up most of the runtime. My favorite moment of the entire picture results from the mean-drunk husband repeatedly referring to Dora as “Batwoman” in the midst of their threeway, until his costars finally can’t take it anymore and correct him, “It’s Bat Pussy!”. Then they all laugh. It’s moments like that and the bouncy-ball Pussymobile that make me want to hail this film as classic underground schlock, but the eternal belligerent improv that fills the gaps between them are too torturous to fully forgive. Bat Pussy may very well be the worst porno film I’ve ever seen, bless its drunken Southern heart.

-Brandon Ledet

Adele Hasn’t Had Her Supper Yet (1977)

I often talk about how there’s no movie more difficult to enjoy than a comedy that isn’t funny and about how comedy is the genre that translates the least well across cultural barriers. That’s why I’m surprised to find myself so fascinated with the 1970s curio Adele Hasn’t Had Her Supper Yet – a corny, unfunny broad comedy that relies heavily on Czechoslovakian cultural tropes to sell its humor. Usually, when a comedy isn’t funny there just isn’t much else to chew on; the genre is almost entirely reliant on eliciting laughter from its audience to justify its existence. Adele Hasn’t Had Her Supper Yet is an unusual beast, though, as it pours just as much effort into its visual artistry as it does into delivering zany Jokes. Even though it isn’t the hi-larious good time it so desperately wants to be seen as, the artful visual craft of its buffoonery makes the experience totally worthwhile. The movie plays more like a comedic tangent from the tail end of the Czech New Wave than it does the Czech equivalent of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, even if its humor is on the same broad frequency.

Adele admittedly does attempt to bridge the cultural divide for American audiences by spoofing our own nationalistic sensibilities. The movie stars “America’s greatest detective from America’s greatest city” (NYC), throwing back to a macho Dick Tracy-style dime store crime novel archetype straight out of American pulp fiction. This modern Yankie cad version of Sherlock Holmes is hired by a Czech noblewoman to pursue a missing-person case in Prague. The only thing is that the missing person is her dog. And all the local Prague cops are good for is escorting him to local pubs with the best sausages and beer. Cue the Benny Hill-level musical jaunts to constantly remind the audience “This is hilarious!” at every step, even though the jokes themselves feel like Mel Brooks on one too many sleeping pills. There’s almost something adorable about the “Americans are like this, Czechs are like that” structure that guides film’s sense of humor, but the actual gags delivered through that apparatus are only really worth an occasional eye-roll and a “woof.” It’s cross-cultural Dad Humor.

Where the movie gets interesting is in the visual splendor of its mad-scientist villain’s evil deeds. You see, the noblewoman’s dog wasn’t kidnapped at all; it was eaten by a mad scientist’s carnivorous plant, which he trained to eat flesh on command to the sound of classical music. We visit the wicked doctor in his lab where he plays violin to woo mutant eyeball plants, who in turn weep at the beauty of the music. It’s all very Little Shop of Horrors, right down to the giant carnivorous plant being named Adele, which is not too far off from Audrey. It’s just so goddamn beautifully rendered, though. A mixture of traditional puppetry, hand-drawn animation, and stop-motion trickery (contributed by visual wizard Jan Švankmajer) is conjured to animate the plant-monsters as they perform the scientist’s commands, so that the central conflict feels more like it belongs in an surreal dream more than a broad, pre-ZAZ comedy. As the American detective catches onto the mad scientist’s evil deeds, he has to escalate his own crime-fighting tactics, which involves an exponentially complex array of Seussian steampunk contraptions. Their final showdown together eventually does reach the sense of comedic mania the film attempts to achieve via its Jokes throughout, and the movie ends on its strongest, funniest imagery as their rivalry gets increasingly out of hand.

The only movie I can think to compare Adele Hasn’t Had Her Supper Yet to is the Russian sci-fi comedy curio Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession. Both films suffer a little of the cultural & contemporary disconnect of being comedies out of their place & time (at least from a modern American perspective) but overcome those barriers through a surrealist sense of visual whimsy. It’s that kind of overcompensating visual artistry that makes the corny jokes it’s in service of feel more adorable than unendurable. I can’t say that the film had me genuinely laughing, but I can say that I was thoroughly amused from start to end. My only real complaint is that I would’ve preferred to spend more time with the plant-monsters than with the cunning detective, but I suppose that’s what we have Švankmajer’s directorial outings for.

-Brandon Ledet