Logan Lucky (2017)

I imagine a few outsiders are likely to be offended on The South’s behalf for the way the region is depicted in Steven Soderbergh’s latest heist picture. A self-described Oceans 7-11Logan Lucky stages an elaborate robbery of a NASCAR racetrack with the same technical intricacy of Soderbergh’s more lavish crime pictures, except now with the Southern-fried flavor of a Masterminds or Talladega Nights. A Louisiana native himself, Soderbergh feels intimately familiar with the Down South culture of his North Carolina & West Virginia settings, even peppering in references to LSU football as a callback to his Baton Rouge roots (which are more immediately perceptible in titles like Schizopolis & Sex, Lies, and Video Tape). Speaking as a lifelong Louisiana resident who’s familiar with the camo sweatpants & Bob Seger t-shirts country where Logan Lucky is staged, I personally found the film to be far more loving than satirical. Characters may awkwardly reference “knowing all the Twitters” or “looking it up on the Google” in their comically thick Southern accents, but the movie is genuinely invested in their emotional & financial hardships even while having a laugh at colloquialisms. Soderbergh may be making fun of his characters to an extent, but it’s in the way of an older brother ragging on their younger sibling. It’s done out of love & an unavoidable compulsion.

I’ve personally never seen an Oceans movie so I can’t directly compare Soderbergh’s sleek money-makers to Logan Lucky in terms of how they function as elaborate heist plots. I will say that there’s a laid-back, distinctly Southern vibe in the way the film builds up to its NASCAR track heist centerpiece that I doubt was integral to when he was filming beautiful movie stars robbing casinos in tuxedos. That slow Southern drawl delivery leaves a lot of room in the first two acts for character-based humor, however. Channing Tatum & Adam Driver star as two blue collar brothers who mastermind the NASCAR heist with a limited set of technical skills, but an intimate knowledge of how the facility’s money is stored & accounted for. Although Logan Lucky is a notable departure from the Oceans movies’ sleekness, it does feel like a direct continuation of Soderbergh’s previous collaboration with Tatum, Magic Mike. Both films can be wickedly fun in spurts, but also dwell on the dismal economic landscape suffered by modern American Southerners. Instead of struggling as a male stripper trying to make it out of the business, Tatum is a construction worker who’s let go for not disclosing a pre-existing medical condition, but desperately needs money to be able to afford his right to visit with his young daughter. Along with his bartender brother (Driver) & his hairdresser sister (Riley Keough), he intends to shatter a local superstition about his “family curse” by stealing a large sum of cash from an insured corporation that can stand to lose the money. As an audience, we never get the detailed plan of the heist until it’s entirely over, but rather take the time to get to know the Logan family in the weeks before they pull the trigger on their NASCAR-robbing ambitions. It’s easy to equate that kind of lead-up to traditional Southern Hospitality, which I believe to be a genuine impulse here.

Although I was often the only lunatic laughing in the theater, I do believe one of Logan Lucky‘s greatest strengths is its muted, character & setting derived sense of humor. A stranger accusing Tatum’s protagonist of being “one of them Unabomber types” because he doesn’t carry a cellphone or a smash cut from cockroaches to frying bacon had me cackling so much in the film’s first act build that I was in no rush to get to the payoff of its NASCAR heist. Admittedly, some of the humor in that build-up was in hearing ludicrously thick Southern accents attempted by big shot movie stars: Tatum, Driver, Keough, Daniel Craig, Katherine Waterson, Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank (the last two of whom were tasked with similar caricatures in Sam Raimi’s The Gift), etc. Those accents are just one facet of Soderbergh’s larger scope portrait of Everywhere, America that rests at Logan Lucky‘s core, however. There are so many distinct touchstones of Americana informing the film’s aesthetic: child beauty pageants, Katie Holmes drinking white wine in the doorway of her McMansion, off-hand references to Dr. Phil and the Fast & Furious franchise, an impassioned inclusion of John Denver music (in a year where every movie from Okja to Free Fire seems bent on honoring the long gone folk musician), and so on. It’s perfectly fitting, then, that the film pauses dead in its tracks for the National Anthem at the top of its centerpiece NASCAR race and makes frequent references to Memorial Day & American veterans. Anyone who’s made uneasy by the idea of a wealthy British actor dressing up in the guise of a poor American Southerner or the image of a pig feet dunking contest at a local fair is missing the larger picture of Soderbergh’s love for these characters and their environment. He’s having fun with them for sure, but not necessarily at their expense. The great joy of the film is watching them get one over on a larger corporation with the limited means of a discounted underdog; the movie is on their side.

-Brandon Ledet

The Psychic (1977) Goes Southern Gothic in Raimi’s The Gift (2000)

Boomer recently wrote about how August’s Movie of the Month, Lucio Fulci’s paranormal horror The Psychic, was initially confused by audiences to be a rip-off of its contemporary, Eyes of Laura Mars, despite being released in Europe before that American work. Constructing a paranormal murder mystery around a fashion photographer’s visions of crimes from the killer’s POV, Eyes of Laura Mars is widely cited as the only successful attempt to make an American giallo picture (although it’s arguable that the entire slasher genre is built on that same foundation). Eyes of Laura Mars held on tightly to European art horror aesthetics in its own version of a clairvoyance murder mystery, only serving as an American version of The Psychic in the means through which it was produced, not necessarily in its tone or aesthetic. The most fiercely American version of The Psychic wouldn’t come for another couple decades, when Sam Raimi would set a psychic visions murder mystery in the Georgian swamps of the American South. Raimi (working with a script penned by Billy Bob Thornton) would translate The Psychic‘s basic DNA from European art horror to Southern Gothic melodrama. The results aren’t necessarily a clear improvement, but they were undeniably more American.

The Gift (2000) features Cate Blanchett as a Georgian clairvoyant much more genteel in her demeanor than we’re used to from her steeled roles in works like Carol. Unlike in The Psychic (and most other media featuring a woman with psychic abilities), The Gift‘s clairvoyant protagonist is widely respected & believed within her local community, perhaps as a comment on the superstitions of American Southerners. Only a tough as nails sheriff (JK Simmons) & an incredulous lawyer (Michael Jeter) are skeptical of the psychic’s titular “gift” as she attempts to solve the mystery of a murdered local woman. Some even come to her for medical advice instead of consulting with a doctor. This psychic senses violence long before the central murder occurs, focusing on the intense energy of a pencil rolling off a table when she first meets the future-victim (Katie Holmes), much like how the protagonist of The Psychic has visions of the objects that populate a future murder scene: a lamp, an ashtray, a mirror, etc. Unlike with The Psychic, however, the visions frequently occur throughout the picture as she pieces together the image of Katie Holmes being choked to death in a nearby swamp with the other flashes of murder scene details that intrude her idle thoughts. The Gift doesn’t echo The Psychic‘s exact plot or tone, but the similarities are close enough to suggest what a Southern Gothic version of that giallo work might look like.

Something The Gift does share with The Psychic thematically, at least, is the tyranny of men. Like how the protagonist of The Psychic is isolated and made to feel insane by the skeptical men in her life, Cate Blanchett’s similar clairvoyant is surrounded by dangerous men who make her feel vulnerable for a “gift” she did not ask for. The Southern men who surround her are conspicuously abusive, threatening rape & other forms of violence in a way that extends far beyond the mystery of a single murder into a routinely monstrous way of life. This dynamic leaves plenty of suspects for the central murder: an abusive husband (Keanu Reeves) who regularly beats his mousy wife (Hillary Swank) for visiting the psychic, an on-edge mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) with a deeply fucked up familial past, the victim’s straight-laced husband (Greg Kinnear), her wealthy father, and the various men who participated in her extramarital affairs. Much like with all giallo pictures (and, I suppose, murder mysteries at large), the answer to this question is hinged on a last minute twist (or two) that disrupts the accusation of the most obvious suspect the movie sets up early on. The way The Gift manages to make the images in its protagonist’s psychic visions actually mean something in the film’s final reveal is a narrative feat, however. That’s more than you can say for Eyes of Laura Mars or Fulci‘s other clairvoyance horror, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, which use psychic visions mostly for stylistic flourish and a device that obscures the give-away details of the murder.

The Gift is an excellent little thriller, worth seeing for Raimi’s unusual displays of restraint, (not unlike Fulci’s atypically mild-mannered The Psychic) and for novel performances from actors like the surprisingly genteel Cate Blanchett or Keanu Reeves’s Southern fried preview of the monster he would later play in The Neon Demon. Some of the Southern Gothic touches to its paranormal mystery can be A Bit Much (Reeves’s threats to retaliate with Voodoo & witness stand accusations that Blanchett is a witch both border on being outright silly), but the film gets by just fine as a deadly melodrama even with those impulses. I especially believe The Gift is worth viewing as a wholly American contrast to the similar plot filtered through giallo aesthetics in The Psychic. The Gift opens with slow pans of Georgian swamp waters and incorporates lightning storms & visits from the dead into its murder-solving psychic visions in a way that feels distinctly more Southern Gothic than its European counterpart. I’d contend that The Psychic is the better film of the pair, but The Gift is very much worthwhile viewing as as an American counterpoint, maybe even moreso than the directly-linked Eyes of Laura Mars.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its American counterpart, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and last week’s comparison with its hornier Fucli predecessor, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971).

-Brandon Ledet

Disturbing Behavior (1998)

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As I watched Disturbing Behavior for the very first time yesterday evening, something about it seemed strangely familiar. It didn’t take long for me to realize that it was quite similar to The Faculty, which was also released in 1998. In The Faculty, high school students are turned into aliens by their extraterrestrial faculty members and in Disturbing Behavior, high school students are turned into robots by their human faculty members. And, of course, each film has “the new kid in town” main character (typical for 90s teen flicks). After reading a couple of articles about the film, many compare it to The Stepford Wives (1975). I’m guessing this is due to the human to robot transformations, but that’s really the only connection I noticed. Despite all of the similarities it has to other films, Disturbing Behavior does a good job of standing out on its own. It’s campy sci-fi horror with a dash of high school drama, and I really enjoyed the film.

Steve Clark (James Marsden) and his family move to the small town of Cradle Bay after the tragic suicide of his older brother. Like all new kids, he immediately connects with a couple of outcasts at his new high school, Rachel Wagner (Katie Holmes) and Gavin Strick (Nick Stahl). As the film progresses, some “disturbing behavior” begins to occur in the group known as the Blue Ribbons, a clique of popular kids decked out in letterman jackets. With the help of a wacky janitor, Steve and Rachel find out the horrific secret behind the Blue Ribbons and attempt to stop their reign of terror.

It’s always great to see Holmes in a “bad girl” role since she’s best known for being the girl next door in Dawson’s Creek. I really enjoyed her in this film because she is great at pulling off the “misunderstood teen” look and attitude, and the chemistry between her and Marsden is pretty damn hot. She starred in the music video for The Flys’ hit single, “Got You (Where I Want You),” and I always assumed she was selected to be in the video because she was a pretty big teen idol during the time it was released. It turns out that the song made its debut on the Disturbing Behavior soundtrack (it plays in the opening scene and during the credits), so that’s probably the reason she was in the video. Mystery solved!

Viewing Disturbing Behavior through a critical lens makes it a horrible viewing experience, and that’s because it’s not a film that should be taken seriously. It’s loads of mindless fun and totally worth a watch or two.

-Britnee Lombas

How to Play the Miss Meadows (2014) Drinking Game

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As I mentioned in my review for last year’s Miss Meadows, a vigilante justice head-scratcher starring Katie Holmes, the movie works a lot better as a surreally campy oddity than a straightforward moral tale about crime & the failings of the justice system. I said, “There is a moral grey area in Miss Meadows’ worldview. According to Miss Meadows herself, ‘There are bad people in the world and they shouldn’t be around the good people.’ She means that people are either wholly ‘good’ or wholly ‘bad’ with little to no further nuance in their worth as human beings. […] Judging Miss Meadows on its merits as a moral tale is a tricky proposition, one that doesn’t flatter its likeability. However, as a detached-from-reality vigilante story with a campy mean streak (and an admittedly low body count, in case that’s what you’re looking for), it’s quite pleasant.”

There’s enough bizarre tonal juxtapositions in both its images & narrative that Miss Meadows has the potential to gradually cultivate a cult following despite (or maybe even because of) its muddled moralizing. Who wouldn’t love a stark clash of aesthetics that could be described under the range of Pulp Fiction Mary Poppins, Cinderella Death Wish, Serial Mom: The Early Years, or Batman in Pretty Dresses? It’s best to approach Miss Meadows as goofy pulp in this way, as it will most certainly be a more satisfying experience than if you took its musings on vigilante justice & mental illness at face value.

To encourage this playful approach to enjoying Miss Meadows, I’d like to suggest a drinking game. It’s a real simple one that should be easy to get a grip on, much unlike the central moral to the film itself. Here’s your drinking prompt if you want to play along from home:

1) Drink every time someone says “Toodaloo”

This prompt is a perfect distillation of the film in a few ways. Not only does it reflect the central character’s antiquated, genteel personality (when she’s not murdering people she deems not worthy to live), but it also is effective for the purposes of a drinking game, as the word is repeated often within the film. “Toodaloo” is Miss Meadows’ calling card (one she learned from her controlling, not-all-there mother), a catchphrase that amplifies her comic book character personality to an absurd extent. Approach the film with armed with this drinking prompt and campy expectations and you might just enjoy yourself.

As always, play safe. Toodaloo!

-Brandon Ledet

Miss Meadows (2014)

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In the opening scene of Miss Meadows, a primly dressed Katie Holmes (as the titular Miss Meadows) tap dances down a suburban sidewalk, whistling whimsically at the CGI squirrels, birds & deer that surround her as if she were a real-life Disney princess. This reverie is interrupted by all-too-familiar street harassment as a lecherous man attempts to lure her into his dirty pick-up truck with salacious commands. In response, she shoots him in the neck. Miss Meadows describes itself as a Pulp Fiction Mary Poppins, but it plays  more like a Cinderella Death Wish, its central character acting as a no-nonsense vigilante that stands as a dividing line between decency & bloodthirsty, frothing-at-the-mouth criminals. It could also be described as Serial Mom: The Early Years and Batman in Pretty Dresses.

Much like with Death Wish & Batman there is a moral grey area in Miss Meadows’ worldview. According to Miss Meadows herself, “There are bad people in the world and they shouldn’t be around the good people.” She means that people are either wholly “good” or wholly “bad” with little to no further nuance in their worth as human beings. Miss Meadows, of course, believes herself to be one of the good ones. She tap dances, reads poetry, dresses immaculately, calls her mother regularly, dates a cop, sings in the choir, plays hopscotch, giggles during sex, knits, gardens, brings her neighbors tea & crumpets, and teaches a 1st grade class about the virtues of courage & kindness. She also, you know, murders people she doesn’t deem worthy to be alive. At one point she even admits with acidic honesty that she would rather criminals die than cost taxpayers in the penal system. That’s pretty damn cruel for someone who’s supposed to be a model citizen. Even Batman had his limits.

It’s difficult to tell exactly where Miss Meadows falls on its protagonist’s genteel brand of vigilante justice. It has the inauthentic feeling of a fairy tale or a moralizing allegory, with only children & a dog named “Frank” being honored with first names and most characters being addressed solely by handles like “Miss Meadows” & “The Sherriff”. The exact nature of the central moral, however, is more than a little muddled. A supposedly reformed criminal seems to question Miss Meadow’s good person/bad person worldview, but eventually she’s more or less proven to be right and his reformation unravels. Then again, Miss Meadows’ own mental health is quite poor and she reveals a little too much of herself in an exchange with a criminal where she shouts “I’m not crazy! You’re crazy and I’m nothing like you.” Judging Miss Meadows on its merits as a moral tale is a tricky proposition, one that doesn’t flatter its likeability. However, as a detached-from-reality vigilante story with a campy mean streak (and an admittedly low body count, in case that’s what you’re looking for), it’s quite pleasant.

-Brandon Ledet