Money, Sex, Love, Christmas, Blood, and Donuts

The Gen-X vampire slacker drama Blood & Donuts, our current Movie of the Month, carries a lot of low-key hangout energy for a movie about a bloodsucking immortal ghoul. The film’s central vampire, Boya, is reluctant about his role as an eternal seducer & killer, appearing to be genuinely pained by the danger he poses to the vulnerable humans around him. He attempts to limit his sanguine footprint by feeding off street rats and avoiding eye contact with potential romantic partners, until the urge overpowers him or until his vampirism proves useful in saving the day for his mortal friends. One of the ways this small-budget Canuxploitation horror signals this low-key, anti-violence hangout ethos is by setting its story in a 24-hour donut shop, where Boya can hang out in wholesome solidarity with other nocturnal weirdos without frequenting the orgiastic goth nightclubs more typical to vampire cinema. That donut shop is a quirky choice that maybe suggests a livelier horror comedy than Blood & Donuts cares to deliver, but it still helps distinguish the otherwise tempered film as a singular novelty (which can only be a boon in the crowded field of vampire media).

While vampire movies are a dime a dozen, donut shop movies are more of a niche rarity. There are certainly iconic donut shops to be found scattered around pop culture –Big Donut in Steven Universe, Miss Donuts in Boogie Nights, Stan Mikita’s Donuts in Wayne’s World, Krispy Kreme in Power Rangers, etc. However, those settings are isolated diversions rather than serving as a central location like the one in Blood & Donuts. The only other significant feature film I can think of with a plot that revolves so closely around a donut shop is Sean Baker’s 2015 Los Angeles Christmas-chaos piece Tangerine, which is anchored to a real-life LA donut shop called Donut Time. The opening credits of Tangerine scroll over a yellow enamel table at Donut Time, scratched with the names of bored vandals who have visited over the years. The movie serves as a kind of whirlwind feet-on-the-ground tour of a very niche corner of LA, but it’s anchored to Donut Time as a significant landmark to establish a sense of order amidst that chaos. It opens there with its two stars (Mya Taylor & Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) splitting a single donut because they’re perilously cash-strapped. It also climaxes there in a classic Greek stage drama confrontation between all the film’s major players in a single, donut-decorated location that explodes the various hustles & schemes they’ve been struggling to keep under control throughout. Both Blood & Donuts and Tangerine wander off from their donut shops to explore the city outside (Toronto & Los Angeles, respectively), but their shared novelty locale provides the structure that allows for that indulgence

Like how Boya (Gordon Currie) awakens from a decades-long slumber at the start of Blood & Donuts, the similarly dormant Sindee (Rodriguez) emerges from prison at the start of Tangerine out of the loop on what’s been happening in her local trans sex worker microcosm since she’s been away. Over the opening shared donut, she learns from her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) that her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her while she was locked up, so she bursts out of Donut Time into the Los Angeles sunshine to enact her revenge on all parties involved. Obviously, this flood of Los Angeles sunlight distinguishes Tangerine from the late-night vampire drama of Blood & Donuts (as well as distinguishing Baker’s film as a kind of novelty within its own Christmas movie genre). Otherwise, though, the two films have a similar way of collecting oddball characters in low-income-level gathering spots—like, for instance, donut shops. Tangerine speeds through a blur of 7/11s, laundromats, dive bars, by-the-hour motels, and car washes until it finds its way back to its Donut Time starting point. It finds an unexpected symmetry within the low-rent late-night locales of Blood & Donuts’s own tour of Toronto, something that’s most readily recognizable in the films’ respective visions of impossibly filthy motel rooms. Or maybe it’s most recognizable in how David Cronenberg’s mobster runs his crime ring out of a bowling alley, while the pimp antagonist of Tangerine runs his own out of a donut shop.

You’d think that a nocturnal vampire comedy from the 90s and a sunlit 2010s trans sex worker drama would have very little in common, especially since the former is so lackadaisical and the latter is commanded by high-energy chaos. Their shared donut shops locales and commitment to exploring the character quirks of the weirdos who frequent them bridge that gap with gusto. The word “donut” may not appear in Tangerine’s title the way it does with its Gen-X predecessor, but the film is just as committed to accentuating the novelty of its central location. Despite being far too young to reasonably remember the TV commercial she’s referencing, Sindee announces, “Time to make the donuts, bitch!” to her romantic rival as they approach the climactic showdown. She also jokingly asks the Donut Time counter girl, “Do you have watermelon flavor?,” an echo of Blood & Donuts’s own bizarre inclusion of a kiwi-flavored donut. As a pair, the two films seem to be serving as two pillars of a sparsely populated Donut Movie subgenre. The longer you scrutinize how they use the novelty of that locale the more they appear to have in common despite their drastically different surface details.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the Gen-X Canuxploitation vampire drama Blood & Donuts (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

In the Candyman Sequels Atmosphere Isn’t Evoked, It’s Appropriated

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Director Bernard Rose started his career off strong with a couple of deeply creepy works that evoke most of their strange horror thrills from a mood & a tone rather than explicit bursts of violence. Rose’s debut film Paperhouse, which we recently covered as a Movie of the Month feature, was especially striking in this regard, chilling me to the bone with its sparse dreamworld sets & Hans Zimmer score, despite its story more or less framing the film as a kids’ fantasy piece. I was so struck by Paperhouse that I immediately sought out Rose’s most recognizable work, Candyman (1992), to see how effective that same chilling  atmosphere could be when applied to a legitimate horror film. Candyman did not disappoint in that regard, deploying a lot of Paperhouse‘s same spooky sounds (now provided by Phillip Glass) & dreamworld settings to a bloody supernatural slasher about a murdered slave’s ghost with a hook for a hand who exists in a mirror dimension and is comprised entirely of bees. It was fascinating, one of the stranger horror films I’ve seen all year. It was so fascinating, in fact, that I was compelled to watch both of the film’s less-than-stellar sequels over the course of that same weekend, despite their dire adherence to the law of diminishing returns. Without Rose’s guiding hand the Candyman sequels tended to rely more on shocking violence and false alarm jump scares than genuine mood to evoke their genre thrills, which I suppose is to be expected. A trend they followed that did surprise me, though, was the way they continued to attempt the specificity of Rose’s atmospheric horror not through imagination in the screenplay process, but through borrowing from cultures that already had a mood-evoking atmosphere ready to go.

In the case of the first sequel, I found the atmosphere appropriation to be hilarious, because it happened to be set amidst a culture I live with daily. Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) is set entirely in New Orleans, the French Quarter specifically, and it bends over backwards to remind you of that setting every chance it gets. References to gumbo, chicory, voodoo, and hurricanes color every line of dialogue that can make room for them. A Dr. John-esque radio DJ archetype narrates the film with local turns of phrase absolutely no one will identify with like, “The banks of the mighty Mississippi are ready to spill their seed” in reference to potential flooding, and (I swear this is true) taunts the titular killer with the line, “This goes out to the man with the hook. Man, chill. Relax. Have some gumbo or something.” The film also can’t resist staging its slashings during Mardi Gras, of course, providing a colorful backdrop of weirdos in costumes to heighten the atmosphere of its bee-filled mirror realm killer’s less than seemly past time. As I tried to explain in my review of Les Blank’s wonderful documentary Always for Pleasure, the spirit of Mardi Gras is an elusive beast, one that’s frustratingly difficult to accurately capture on film. Much to my surprise, Farewell to the Flesh didn’t do all that bad of a job capturing Carnival, at least not as bad as I’ve seen it done in the past. Yes, the whole thing feels very sound-stagey and the festivities are set mostly at night instead of the daylight, which are common mistakes, but the film at the very least captures some of the puke-splattered grotesqueness & disoriented debauchery of the world’s best holiday in fleeting moments, so I’m willing to give it a pass there. What really makes me laugh about its New Orleans themed cultural markers is in the non-Mardi Gras details. For instance, the protagonist & Candyman’s blonde victim du jour at one point visits a snowball stand (which are typically housed in dirt cheap roadside shacks for those unfamiliar) that’s located blocks away from the St. Louis Cathedral in one of the most expensive-looking buildings in the Quarter. And, of course, behind a fake wall in this snowball stand, its apparent billionaire proprietor stocks a bunch of voodoo paraphernalia and information on the Candyman (who is revealed to be a local) that conveniently expands his backstory between the increasingly violent kills. It’s this kind of reliance on and misunderstanding of local color that provides atmosphere in Bernard Rose’s absence in these damned things that make the Candyman sequels such a misguided hoot.

The problem gets much worse in Candyman 3: Day of the Dead (1999). As you can likely guess from the direct-to-DVD sequel’s not-so-coy title, the film is set during a Día de Muertos celebration in Los Angeles. Farewell to the Flesh made a conscious effort to tie the Candyman’s lore into New Orleans’s slave trade history to justify its appropriation of Mardi Gras atmosphere. Day of the Dead just makes shit up as it goes along. The young girl from the last scene of the second film ages decades in a four year span and funds her adult artist’s life by collecting the paintings Candyman made while a living slave (paintings that look suspiciously like large department store prints of family portraits) and leasing them to galleries. Moving the story from New Orleans to the L.A. arts scene does little for the story except to provide excuses for setting the murders against a Latino community’s Día de Muertos celebration. The film’s depiction of that celebration looks an awful lot like the sound stage Mardi Gras of Farewell to the Flesh, except with sugar skulls and piñatas substituted for that work’s parade floats & plastic beads. The only attempt to tie it into the Candyman’s established lore is when the holiday is explained to be valuable because it “reminds us that death is sweet,” which is meant to recall the ghost killer’s cryptic catchphrase “Sweets to the sweet.” Otherwise, Day of the Dead‘s titular setting is just a shameless pilfering of atmosphere that it couldn’t create on its own, so it outsourced it from a culture where its story didn’t naturally belong. The local color of Candyman 3 is more or less a background afterthought, setting the stage for the film’s true bread & butter: ludicrous jump scares & gratuitous gore. The film was good for some occasional laughs: the goth gang that kidnaps the pouty supermodel artist protagonist is guilty of some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen in a film; when slamming back tequila, a Hispanic man shouts, “Oooh chihuahua!”; there’s a sequence where a nameless art groupie slathers her tits with honey as foreplay and is immediately swarmed by the Candyman’s killer bee army. It’s a far cry from the atmospheric horror Rose established in the first film, though, and it’s weird to think they’re at all connected.

Not much stays consistent in the Candyman franchise except Candyman himself. Actor Tony Todd portrays the titular killer in each film (it must be bittersweet to headline your own franchise and then be required to let bees crawl in your mouth every damn movie) and although his backstory expands, he largely remains consistent. By the third film, the spooky sounds of Phillip Glass and stylistic supervision of writer Clive Barker were long gone from the series, given way to soft, bargain bin hip-hop & nu-metal slasher cheapness. The Candyman continues to gaslight his prime victims by framing them for  horrific murders and I guess you could thematically tie them together by saying each entry follows an academic type who’s punished for skeptically investigating cultural superstitions in urban POC communities. Otherwise, the setting-hopping plays like novelty backdrops for the film’s increasing indulgence in shameless gore and an easy distraction from its decreasing interest in atmosphere. Personally, I found the Mardi Gras set shenanigans of Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh to be a campy delight, especially as the film tried to cram as many New Orleans-specific references as it could in dialogue where it most definitely did not belong. You’d have to ask someone who regularly celebrates Día de Muertos in L.A. if Candyman 3′s mishandling of that cultural setting is just as hilariously off (I’d be willing to bet it is), but what’s vividly clear is that both sequels traded the genuine terror of its initial atmosphere, provided by Paperhouse’s Bernard Rose, for the novelty of cultural atmosphere shoehorned into places where its story didn’t really belong. According to the Candyman sequels, when atmosphere can’t be sincerely evoked, it’s best (or at least easiest) to just borrow it from elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

Knight of Cups (2016)

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Full confession up front: I don’t “get” Terrence Malick. The filmmaker has an admirable eye for breathtaking imagery & in theory I like the idea of the way he deconstructs the very concept of narrative cinema, but I simply get no enjoyment out his work. The much-beloved Tree of Life in particular might be the single most personally disappointing trip to the theater I can remember, based on the critical hype I was riding in and the wave of dejection I rode out. As a collection of isolated images Tree of Life succeeds in provoking awe & reflection. As a two hour theatrical experience, however, it’s an extreme exercise in patience with Sean Penn whispering vague, pretentious nothings about humanity & motherhood.

I mention this here because Knight of Cups is a deliberate doubling down on Tree of Life’s worst impulses. It trades in the former film’s suburban America setting for a similar snapshot of a wealthy man’s vacuous life in Los Angeles & swaps out Sean Penn’s whispered vagueries for those of Christian Bale, but the results are mostly the same. I feel like both Tree of Life & Knight of Cups establish their best selves & all they can offer in their opening few minutes, as if they were a resume for a cinematic skillset instead of an actual product. Both films have the feeling of an art school student trying to prove their worth in an early gig car commercial, except the car never arrives & the credits never roll. What frustrates me the most about Malick is his obvious wealth of raw material. If there weren’t so much technical skill displayed in his films I’d never feel the need to return to his work, but there’s too much promise here for me to simply walk away. He’s the filmmaking Roadrunner to my critical Wile E. Coyote. I just keep returning for more punishment, never learning my lesson.

It would feel disingenuous to tack on a plot synopsis for a review of Knight of Cups. The best I can put it is that Christian Bale is sad from having casual sex with too many beautiful models & attending too many Hollywood soirees. He navigates a world of strippers, luchadores, outer space, pool parties, and nothingness. Malick constructs “fragments, pieces of a man” in a disorienting display that might be intended to mirror the emptiness of his protagonist’s existence, but ultimately feels far too exhausting & reverently celebratory in the process to resonate as meaningful. There are a few interesting moments here or there – like when a promise of stillness is interrupted by an earthquake or when you can spot a seemingly random Famous Beautiful Person, say Joe Manganiello, in the background of an L.A. party – but for the most part the film is a wash. Once it hits its hypnotic rhythm it’s extremely difficult to focus on. The voice over becomes a foreign language and the beauty in the imagery loses its initial poetry. By the end credits there’s nothing left to feel but drained, empty, and at least a little bit cheated.

The wealth, beauty and ennui of Knight of Cups feels very much akin to a music video. Imagine, if you dare, a version of Beyoncé’s Lemonade film where nearly every actor is white and all of the pop music has been replaced with more spoken word poetry. Better yet, imagine Kanye West begging on loop that there please be “No More Parties in L.A.” for two solid hours with no indication that the party will, in fact, ever stop. The opening title card of Knight of Cups suggests that the film would be best enjoyed with the volume cranked, but I felt the exact opposite way. The film is probably best enjoyed with the soundtrack muted & replaced with something more narratively exciting & cohesive, like a rap album or, honestly, dead silence while you take care of some household chores.

I would say that after this film & Inland Empire I’m proving to have a back track record with the glacial, narratively sparse high art meditations end of cinema, but that’s not necessarily true. I fell madly in love with The Neon Demon & Heart of a Dog, which while not on an exactly comparable wavelength as Knight of Cups, at least follow a similar approach to valuing imagery & cinematic hypnosis over linear storytelling. The truth is probably a lot more likely that Knight of Cups wasn’t my thing because Malick himself just doesn’t do it for me. He probably never will, but I’m too fascinated with the glimpses of brilliance lurking in his exhaustive haze of artistic pretension to walk away. Much like Wile E. Coyote, I suspect this won’t be the last time I fall off this particular cliff. I’ll just keep doing it forever.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Driving While Black (2015)

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“As a black man, I have to deal with an extra layer of bullshit on top of regular life.”

The same year the aggressively crass (and surprisingly touching) Tangerine took America on a whirlwind tour through the seedy side of Los Angeles populated by trans sex workers & drug-addled pimps, Driving While Black offers a different perspective of the city rarely seen in cinema: that of the young, black stoner. With its tape warp hiphop/Stones Throw Records-leaning soundtrack (complete with a Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf ringtone) & graffiti-flavor title cards, Driving While Black poses itself on the surface as a laid-back stoner comedy, but packs a much heftier political punch than what you’d typically expect from that genre. Detailing the public harassment & personal violation of being constantly persecuted by the police on the receiving end of racial profiling, Driving While Black walks an impressive tightrope of feeling like an important movie, but never losing track of being consistently funny. Unlike the way Dear White People softens its political provocation by focusing on the emotional stress of its college student protagonists, Driving While Black never strays from its musings about police brutality & abuse of power, but still somehow mixes that message with goofball gags like the image of its protagonist getting so high that he glides down the street like Dracula. It’s an impressive & often powerful balance in comedic tone.

Here’s the plot of Driving While Black in an over-simplified nutshell: Dimitri, an aspiring artist/overgrown pizza deliver boy, is trying to make it to a job interview at the behest of his girlfriend & mother to better himself, but on his way he is constantly derailed by a historically race-obsessed police force, the LAPD. There’s a depressing sense of routine & ritual in his run-ins with the law, which prompts him to mutter things like “Here we go again with the bullshit” whenever he’s pulled over. With direct references to milestones like the Rodney King riots & our current era of online activism in reaction to police murders of unarmed black youth, the film has a keen sense of history & knowing, hands-on experience with police abuse of power in L.A.’s black community. Establishing that it’s a cradle-to-grave problem, cops are even shown harassing children, calling them “little assholes” & “cum socks” (and then humorously over-explaining the meaning of that latter insult), and accusing them of crimes they obviously didn’t commit. In some encounters, cops lecture the protagonist on how to not look suspicious (because dressing or acting a certain way is likely to get you pulled over). In others, they overstep their authority with statements like “You’re not under arrest, but I am going to handcuff you for your safety and for mine”. There are some surreal scenes, like depictions of Ku Klux Kops (who wear a sort of police uniform, hooded robe hybrid) with glowing eyes & demonic voices, as well as just-as-surreal encounters where cops are surprisingly helpful. There are also some more believable moments where they’re portrayed as real people, however nerdy or unnecessarily aggressive. What really stands out, though, is the fact that Dimitri has to deal with police on (at least) a daily basis, completely against his will, a point hammered home by the fact that the LAPD uses his pizza place as a social meeting ground.

Speaking of Dimitri, actor Dominique Purdy should be given a lot of credit for making sure that the movie never tips too far into a didactic, political downer. He’s just a generally affable, funny guy, something that the movie is smart to exploit. Watching him go about his day, interacting with L.A. weirdos, drug dealers, street performers, and Homes to the Stars tour groups, are some of the film’s most enjoyable moments, which invites the audience to share in his frustration when his day is sidelined by police-related complications. The film is also smart to directly reference Dave Chappelle multiple times, as the comparison to his likeness & stoner-minded sense of political humor is likely to come up time & time again anyway. Since Purdy collaborated with director Paul Sapiano as a writing partner on the film’s script, he has a personal connection with the material that more or less allows him to be his effortlessly funny/charming self. It’s tempting to infer that Driving While Black is a glimpse of his Purdy’s personal Los Angeles, an affable stoner’s guide through the relentless annoyance & potential danger of a racist institution that complicates & threatens his otherwise pleasant, laid-back lifestyle. And because it’s a problem with no clear answer, the film ends that tour on a chillingly ambiguous note, a brave choice in conclusion for a screwball stoner comedy, however political. It’s a rare treat that a movie can be this consistently funny & still leave you with such a provocative feeling once the credits roll. I’m excited to see the rest of the world’s reaction as Driving While Black‘s distribution starts to gain traction. There’s surely to be a good bit of great post-screening lobby talk in the coming year as more people get to experience this gem.

-Brandon Ledet