Bright Young Things (2003)

It’s incredible that I didn’t catch Bright Young Things when it was still fresh in the mid-aughts. I was in college at the time, and hopelessly attracted to mid-tier indie films about queer libertines who made fabulously debaucherous lives out of indulging in drugs & gender-fuckery: Party Monster, Breakfast on Pluto, The Naked Civil Servant, etc. (as well as their better-funded equivalent in titles like Velvet Goldmine and Hedwig & The Angry Inch). A portrait of wealthy 1930s socialites enjoying the lull between wars with some lavish drag parties, booze, and cocaine, the semi-historical biopic Bright Young Things would have majorly appealed to me at the time. It’s basically a slightly classier, extremely British version of Party Monster — distinguished only by its staggering cast: James McAvoy, Michael Sheen, Emily Mortimer, Stockard Channing, Dan Aykroyd, David Tennant, Jim Broadbent, Peter O’Toole, Richard E. Grant, Jim Carter, and one-time director Steven Fry. Even watching it for the first time now, I enjoyed the film far more than I should have. If I had seen it as an impressionable young lush in desperate need of fabulous, crossdressing wastoids to look up to, I almost certainly would have worn that cheap-o second-hand DVD to dust.

Smartly, the film chooses an outsider who aspirationally looks up to the Bright Young Things as its audience-surrogate protagonist, matching the wide-eyed admiration of its target audience. It’s easy to piss away your youth and inherited wealth if you’re born into affluence. It’s a much more difficult trick to pull off for a starving artist who’s living a Bohemian lifestyle because of their class rather than their whims. The best our protagonist writer in search of a steady paycheck can hope for is to be taken in as an amusing pet by his fabulously wealthy friends (while scrounging up some chump change publicizing their decadence in the tabloids under the pseudonym Mr. Chatterbox). It’s a grift that can only last so long, which works out fine since the Bright Young Things themselves could only use London as their personal playground for as long as the world was willing to sit idle between wars. It’s a brilliant POV for the film to take, since the writer’s main motivation is to tag along as his crossdressing, gin-guzzling friends quip and party-hop from one novelty amusement to the next. His “journey” as their adopted working-class pet lands close enough to the ideal audience’s POV to highlight the film’s main attractions (boozy fancy dress parties where jaded artsy types complain “I’ve never been so bored in my entire life” despite the never-ending carnival enveloping them), while also bland enough to not get in their way.

There’s probably an excellent movie to be made about how privileged, unfulfilling, and spiritually toxic the real-life Bright Young Things’ debauchery truly was, but this isn’t it. It makes some last-minute gestures towards that kind of criticism as the party inevitably ends, but its heart really isn’t in it. The movie is much more vibrantly alive in its earliest stretches where everything is champagne, cocaine, drag, and roses, which makes it more of an aspirational wealth fantasy than anything genuinely critical or introspective. And that’s okay! The cast is brimming with delightful performers, all allowed by Fry’s hands-off direction to be as exuberantly charming as they please (with only Tennant being tasked to play a slimy turd so that there’s a vague shape of a villain to feign conflict). I might have been charmed to the point of obsession had I caught this aspirational lush fantasy as a teenager, but even now I was charmed to the point of enjoying the film far more than it likely deserves. Everyone loves a good party, and unfortunately it takes a certain amount of money & lack of self-awareness to throw one. As a frivolous adult who has worn a tuxedo & lipstick combo to a party this year (pre-COVID, mind you; I’m not a monster), I was helpless to enjoying the spectatorship of these staged parties in particular, despite my better judgement.

-Brandon Ledet

Evolution (2001)

Sometimes, your heroes let you down. And sometimes, you’re not really “let down” per se, and the person’s not really a hero, he just directed some of the most formative films of your childhood. Ivan Reitman has made a lot of films, from the classic (Ghostbusters, Stripes) to the mediocre (Ghostbusters II, Twins) to the well received but essentially forgotten (Dave, Legal Eagles) to the infamously bizarre (Junior) to the simply infamous (Six Days, Seven Nights) and the simply bad (My Super Ex-Girlfriend), and even a personal favorite (Kindergarten Cop). But the truth is, as he has aged, he hasn’t grown much or matured, and nowhere it that more evident than in the 2001 flop Evolution. It’s a piece of shit.

Starring David Duchovny as Dr. Ira Kane, a disgraced former military scientist reduced to teaching biology at an Arizona community college, Evolution concerns the arrival of a meteor bearing life forms which rapidly evolve from blue ooze to worms before branching out into monstrous versions of seals, dragons, primates, and such strange beings as carnivorous trees and giant insects. His best friend is Harry Block: professor of geology, women’s volleyball coach, and deliverer of painful one-liners. They arrive at the location of the meteor crash, bluff their way into taking over the site from the local police, and meet Wayne (Seann William Scott), a firefighting cadet whose car was destroyed by the falling space rock. Of course, then the real military shows up, led by General Woodman (Ted “Buffalo Bill” Levine), with scientific advisor Dr. Alison Reed (Julianne Moore). There’s rivalry between the two groups, revelations about Kane’s past failures that resulted in his discharge, and romance! It’s terrible!

Outside of Christian propaganda, I have never in my life seen a movie that was so out of touch with its era and so obviously trapped within the sensibilities of the past. This movie is so sexist and gross, y’all. When it first surfaces, one’s initial reaction is to kind of laugh at it in how dated it is. Like: Reed’s a lady doctor, but she has to be a fucking klutz so she doesn’t come off as threatening to the fragile male audience and their avatar Kane (supposedly this was Moore’s idea, but that smells of the shit of the bull to me). Block and Kane meet her for the first time, with little interaction at all, and then Block spends the rest of the movie egging Kane on to just hit that already, sometimes in non-consecutive scenes that do not feature her appearing between them at all. She’s even subjected to listening to Kane describe her over the radio as a frigid bitch in an overlong monologue as her male colleagues stand around and laugh and make faces at each other like, “He’s right though, eh?” That’s not even getting into the appearance of poor Sarah Silverman acting as Kane’s ex-girlfriend (she’s ten years younger) in a diner where Kane belittles her in front of her new boyfriend about the shirts she never returned (haha?) that is essentially an excuse for Silverman to have to take her top off in a restaurant. And let’s not forget Block’s student Nadine, a woman whose only goal is to pass Geology so that she can get into her nursing program, not because she wants to help people but because appearing to want to help people will give her an edge in some beauty pageant, or the suburban women who find a monster in a pantry and want to make it a pet. Women, am I right? It’s unbelievable how mean-spirited the whole thing feels.

I can’t remember the first essay or article that first brought the underlying pro-Reaganomics anti-government themes of Ghostbusters to my attention; it’s been repeated and bandied about the internet for so long that it would be impossible to track down the originator of that reading (I’d wager it was someone over at Cracked though). But once you see it, you can’t unsee it. For the uninitiated: Ghostbusters can be read as a pro-capitalist text in which Our Heroes are underdogs providing a necessary service to the people of New York and collecting a fee, but the incompetent government (manifested in the goon from the EPA) won’t stop trying to keep the working man down. Also, Venkman won’t stop trying to get Dana to sleep with him, despite her repeatedly saying “no.” All of this is true, but Ghostbusters is also funny and of its time, two claims that cannot be made in defense of Evolution. Not to mention that in spite of Ghostbusters‘s contemporary mixture of misogyny and masculinity, it also had Janine, whose no-nonsense attitude served to counterbalance the boys club that she was surrounded by.

That same disdain for government is on full display here. This movie came out in the summer of 2001, making it not only probably one of the last American films to feature the military without alluding to the War on Terror but also the last American film to show the military as being full of incompetent blowhards (at least until that became one of the narratives of the War in Iraq). Every level of organized government in this film is full to brimming with nincompoops with itchy trigger fingers, from the judge who supports the ousting of Block and Kane from the meteor site, to Woodman and his cronies, to the local police, to the governor of Arizona (played by Dan Aykroyd, who had a line in Ghostbusters mocking the world of public academia in comparison to the “private sector,” which is echoed in Evolution when Reed gives up her posting with the Army to join Kane’s ragtag group of misfits citing that she “always knew the real money was in the private sector anyway”).

The jokes on display here are just so old and out of date, not just for 2018, but for 2001. Poor Orlando Jones has is anally invaded by one of the creatures and it has to be extracted using a scary-looking tool. This is a pretty good example of the level of comedy in this movie.

Doctor: It’s moving too fast! There’s no time for lubricant!

Block: There’s always time for lubricant!

Comedy!

Honestly, this movie is garbage. As with Ghostbusters, this film could have gotten some slack if it were funny, but it’s just so painful. A flying alien dragon monster ends up in a mall, where Seann William Scott sings off-key at a convenient mic stand to lure it back. Orlando Jones goes up a giant life form’s anus in a “clever” payoff to one burrowing up his own ass earlier in the film. Toward the end of the movie, Reed tells Kane that she’s going to “Rock [his] world” once this is all over, and Moore has this look on her face like she just realized that no paycheck in the world was worth the humiliation of being in this throwback. This one’s on Amazon Prime, but you’re better off just watching Ghostbusters. Or Kindergarten Cop.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Exit to Eden (1994)

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three star

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I’ve been both curious about and terrified of the Garry Marshall BDSM comedy Exit to Eden for some time now, but never worked up the nerve to actually watch it until late last week. Then there were just too many recent prompts to ignore them all. Not only did we at Swampflix cover the more questionable career choices of Exit to Eden’s stars Rosie O’Donnell & Dan Aykroyd last week, but the entire pop culture world was flooded with endless news & buzz for the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey film, the first mainstream Hollywood BDSM film since the “erotic thriller” genre’s heyday in the mid-90s. In addition to selling absurd numbers of pre-order tickets before it’s even released, 50 Shades is also receiving a huge amount of flak from the BDSM community for its portrayal of an abusive relationship that misses the point of kink entirely. I thought, “Well, it can’t miss the point any more than Exit to Eden” and finally gave the film a watch. I might be right.

Exit to Eden may not confuse kink with abuse the same way 50 Shades has been accused of, but it still manages to be insulting to the BDSM community. This is a world where people are into kink because they were spanked as children, need therapy, and can’t manage lasting, meaningful relationships. This is a world where dominatrixes go into business because they were emotionally manipulated by men, but all they really want is for the right Australian stud to seduce them so they can put down the whip forever. The film’s head dominatrix (played by Dana Delany) confesses, “I like to cuddle & giggle. After a hard day of smacking people, I like to cuddle.” This is a world where plain old cunnilingus is treated as just as outrageously adventurous as a violent flogging. When a character facetiously delivers the line, “‘Alternative lifestyle’ is just a phrase deviants use to cover up their sex lives,” you have to wonder if the film were being more sincere than it lets on.

There’s also a dismissive, above-it-all tinge to the “jokes” delivered by Rosie O’Donnell’s narrator/undercover cop that would make you think the movie wasn’t at all titillated by its kinkier proceedings, but it totally is! The shameless/outlandish erotica of the Anne Rice source material frequently pokes through O’Donnell’s snark and makes for a really uncomfortable clash of sentiments. On one hand you have O’Donnell basically shouting “Get a load of these freaks!” every few seconds and on the other there are long, leering scenes involving Dana Delany spanking a male sub & trying on bondage gear for the first time while soft rock plays in the background. It’s about as tone-deaf and self-contradictory as you would imagine a Garry Marshall BDSM comedy would be.

Marshall is essentially King of the Hokey. His Happy Days/Odd Couple/Mork & Mindy roots don’t exactly read like the perfect résumé for a sleazy Anne Rice adaptation. As fascinating as Exit to Eden is in a “I can’t believe someone actually made this” context, it’s rarely actually funny. The cheery pop music & corny gags are so violently at war with the sensuality they share space with that it’s hard to imagine who the intended audience was. There are a few jokes that pay off, like when Marshall’s own off-screen voice demands that his mistress pay him attention (if you’re familiar with his voice it’s easy to imagine why that’d be amusing). Dan Aykroyd is also surprisingly funny considering the material he’s working with. He’s in full, uptight Dragnet mode here, which makes gags involving leaf blowers, vibrators, and rumors about his impressively large penis land beautifully. Still, most jokes in Exit to Eden made me roll my eyes so hard I was afraid I’d finish the film legally blind.

It’s okay that this comedy isn’t actually funny, though, because there’s enough inherent weirdness in its clashing concepts that genuine humor might have been a distraction. Take, for instance, the fact that Aykroyd & O’Donnell both separately don bondage gear for the camera. If you were actually laughing during those scenes, it might release the emotionally-scarring tension that feels similar to walking in on your aunt & uncle’s “play-time” without knocking first. If the jokes were actually funny, you might laugh over the horrendously inaccurate New Orleans accents that plague the film’s final scenes. No, the best way to “enjoy” the horror of Garry Marshall’s & Anne Rice’s dueling personalities refusing to cohesively mix in a sex “comedy” is to experience it in abject silence, mouth agape, eyes unable to fully convince your brain that the images before you are actually a real thing that very real people brought into this unfortunately real world. Exit to Eden should not exist, but it most definitely does. It’s not a successful comedy, but it is an undeniably memorable one.

-Brandon Ledet

It’s Okay that Dan Aykroyd Isn’t Writing a Ghostbusters Sequel, Because He’s Already Living One

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The recent announcement of the cast for the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot was met with the usual flood of overblown internet outrage that accompanies nearly everything these days. Most of the objections seem to be centered on the idea that Hollywood shouldn’t have unearthed the franchise at all. Personally, I’ve resigned to compromising with what Hollywood productions are going to offer. Nostalgia is big money right now. In a time when it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get people to the cinema, producers will take the guaranteed, built-in audience every time. The best you can hope for is that somewhere in the process someone’s going to try to make these reboots interesting, because they aren’t going away. Paul Feig’s all-female approach to a Ghostbusters reboot is honestly just about the only one I could imagine that wouldn’t be completely pointless. The recent casting announcement make the idea even more promising, since it included four eccentric, boisterous personalities (Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and Melissa McCarthy) that have the potential to bring enough weird, idiosyncratic energy to the reboot to distance it from its source material in both style & tone. Feig’s Ghostbusters might just be the rare kind of reboot that can justify an existence on its own.

It at least beats the alternative. For years O.G. Ghostbuster Dan Aykroyd has been trying to get his own sequel to the franchise off the ground. Bill Murray’s resistance to reprising his role as Peter Venkman in Ghosbusters 3 was the long-time thorn in Aykroyd’s side, but Harold Ramis’ devastating passing last year was the final blow to the prospect. Admittedly, Aykroyd’s long-in-development script sounds like it had some promise. For instance, he dropped hints that the plot would somehow relate to recent advances in particle physics & the role he had written for Murray would’ve involved Venkman’s wisecracking ghost. The problem is more that Aykroyd cannot be trusted when left to his own devices. His sole director’s credit, Nothing But Trouble, which he also wrote & stars in, is one of the most bizarrely terrible movies I’ve ever seen. It’s a thoroughly unlikeable & unfathomable work that is the direct result of Aykroyd’s ego going unchecked. Similarly, his decision to write a Blues Brothers sequel more than a decade after costar John Belushi’s death was a total disaster and a detriment to the reputation of the original. Nothing But Trouble & Blues Brothers 2000 were the last two screenplays penned by Aykroyd, so it might be best that his version of a third Ghostbusters film never saw completion.

Aykroyd has publicly given his blessing to Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot and I hope that he’s sincere when he says he’s “delighted” by the casting. Ayroyd doesn’t need to write a Ghostbusters sequel because he is actually living one. In the press release where he gives his blessing to Feig’s cast he goes on to say “My great grandfather, Dr. Sam Aykroyd, the original Ghostbuster, was a man who empowered women in his day, and this is a beautiful development in the legacy of our family business.” Aykroyd’s real-life great grandfather was a dentist by trade, but he was also a spiritualist & a paranormal investigator. Ayrkoyd has claimed that his great grandfather would put on séances as a form of entertainment, which is not far from the spirit of the Ghostbusters franchise. Indeed, his family’s interest in the paranormal was passed down to him generationally & served as the basis of the original Ghostbuster’s film: to combine the “real” science of ghosts & spirits with old-fashioned ghost-themed comedies. With the first two installments of Ghostbusters, Aykroyd had achieved his goal of bringing his real-life obsession with the paranormal to the big screen. As he had continued his pursuit of infusing paranormal concepts into his work after the second film, a third installment seems redundant. He’s living Ghostbusters 3 on a daily basis.

The tactic Aykroyd employs to incorporate the paranormal in his professional life is an unlikely one, almost just as unlikely as a giant, city-destroying marshmallow or a painting come to life. He sells vodka. In an ancient (internet-wise) viral commercial for his Crystal Head Vodka, Aykroyd explains his interest in the paranormal while trying to sell you alcohol. He says things like “Since childhood I have been fascinated with the invisible world,” “There is more to life than mere material reality,” and “No one will show us the bodies from Roswell” in the same matter-of-fact tone that made him perfect for his roles in Coneheads & Dragnet. There are hours & hours of interview footage in which Aykroyd expounds upon his belief in the otherworldly like a particularly talkative caller on Coast to Coast AM, but the Crystal Head Vodka commercial is a perfect encapsulation of his worldview in an easily consumable 8min runtime. He’s so cheerful & confident in his explanations of the physical powers of positive thinking and the extraterrestrial origins of thirteen mysterious crystal heads that you can tell he really loves what he’s doing. He even encourages people who don’t share his beliefs to buy his product anyway, saying if nothing else it’s a “a luxury vodka in a cool bottle”. I can get behind that kind of honesty.

In one of his interviews about the possibility of a Ghostbusters 3, Aykroyd claimed “I’m about the future, not the past. I don’t reminisce.” Indeed, his idea of a particle physics themed Ghostbusters did sound like a somewhat fresh take on the franchise, but bringing back the old guard of actors & characters for the project doesn’t exactly sound like treading new ground. In a cinematic climate where reboots are inevitable and a new Ghostbusters will arrive in theaters, justified or not, I think Paul Feig’s approach is the best one possible for the franchise. The recent casting announcement gives the reboot a chance to stand out on its own as a unique work, even if it isn’t based on an original idea. Instead of Aykroyd giving the third installment the Ghost Brothers 2000 treatment, he gets to continue his great grandfather’s work by philosophically expounding on the existence of ghosts & extraterrestrials and filtering water through diamonds for a vodka pure in spirit. This way everyone wins.

-Brandon Ledet