SHAZAM! (2019)

Look, up in the sky! It’s Zachary Levi, and he’s buff as hell! And we’re all calling him “Shazam” instead of “Captain Marvel,” for reasons that were complicated for a long time and are even more complex now. Great!

SHAZAM! is a whole hell of a lot of fun, a modern day kid’s wish fulfillment film that harkens back to a time when it was still possible for such a thing to be dark, vulgar, and tongue-in-cheek. This is a movie in which 14-year-olds are bullied for being different, catastrophic car accidents are presented in brutal detail and have life-altering consequences, kids are interested in strip clubs despite the preponderance of internet porn, giant demon monsters bite adult heads off and capture children, and one of the first things that two underage teenage boys elect to do upon realizing that one of them appears to be an adult is buy beer. Which is not to say that there’s not a lot of sentiment here as well, though it manages to avoid being cloying for the most part, and even I was surprised at how much it was able to manipulate my emotions – I mean “move me” – in its emotional moments. It has a lot of heart, is what I’m saying, but manages to avoid getting treacly by balancing its emotionality with good jokes and the occasional supernatural murder.

In 1974, Thad Sivana is en route with his cruel and demanding father (John Glover, who looks amazing for 74) and bullying older brother to his grandfather’s house for Christmas when his Magic 8-Ball toy flashes a series of glyphs and he is transported to the Rock of Eternity, a realm from which all magic flows. He meets the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who tells of the council of wizards who safeguard magic, of which he is the last living remnant, and of the Seven Deadly Sins, trapped on the Rock in statue form. He offers the boy a chance to accept his power and take his place as the champion of magic, but Thad is more drawn to a magical object, which whispers to him. Shazam tells him that he has failed the test and transports him back to his father’s car, whereupon he freaks out and attempts to get “back” by jumping out of the moving car, causing an accident.

In the present, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a fourteen year old foster kid who has run from dozens of homes in the eleven years since his mother lost him at a carnival. After the foster system catches up with him after his most recent escape, he is placed with Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans), former foster kids themselves who run their own home now. Their eldest is Mary (Grace Fulton), who is soon to finish high school and about to start college, followed by Freddie (IT’s Jack Dylan Grazer), the same age as Billy, a disabled nerd obsessed with superheroes, which, lest we forget, exist in this world. There’s also the overweight Pedro (Jovan Armand), whose “goal is to get swole,” preteen Eugene (Ian Chen), whose schtick is being obsessed with video games, and the youngest, Darla (Faithe Herman), a sweet elementary-aged girl whose greatest desire is to show Billy the affection that he so desperately needs and get that same love in return (she also steals every scene that she’s in). Meanwhile and elsewhere, the now adult Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has an entire facility of psychologists and scientists working on the phenomenon of “mass hallucinations” by tracking down and interviewing others who were brought to the Rock of Eternity and failed to pass the test. Finding his way in, he unleashes the Sins from their captivity and becomes their magical champion.

Billy is prepared to take off again pretty much immediately, but as he’s attempting to disappear after his first day of school, he helps Freddie fight off two bullies (Carson MacCormac and Evan Marsh) who first assault him and then mock him for being motherless. Escaping, he too finds himself at the Rock of Eternity, where the now-dying Shazam chooses Billy as his champion, allowing him to turn into a magically-powered adult superhero (Zachary Levi) when he speaks the word “Shazam!” But as long as those powers exist, the Sins won’t rest … .

After all the origin stories that we’re all so sick of, one comes along that absolutely works. The obvious (and at this point  this observation is well-worn) influence is from Tom Hanks’s 1988 wish-fulfillment fantasy flick Big, which we’ll just assume that everyone has seen. The comparison almost makes itself, especially since that film, like this one, has some narrative elements that normally wouldn’t fly today in this world of sanitized children’s films – can you imagine a wide release like Return to Oz, Secret of NIMH, The Goonies, or even The NeverEnding Story coming out in theaters next week without there being a significant parental backlash? I mean, when was the last time you saw a movie that had both a teenage protagonist and a man’s head getting bitten off? But there’s also some Journey of Natty Gann thrown in there to pluck at the heartstrings, plus some imagery that could basically have been taken from The Gate thrown in for good measure. Also, Jackass.

I won’t get into what the Shazam power is or what mythological archetypes his powers are drawn from (that’s what Wikipedia is for), and this took a nice and unexpected (though in retrospect properly foreshadowed) turn toward the end that I don’t want to spoil since it genuinely took me by surprise, so I’ll be brief. This movie is genuine. It’s true to itself and has a genuine warmth that helps glaze over some of the iffier narrative choices, taking a film that verges on melodrama at points and pulls it back from that edge with a firm hand. There’s become such a delineation between “media for kids” and “media for adults” that we’re so unaccustomed to a film that is squarely in the realm of entertainment for the whole family that we’re not sure how to access it and interact with it, but this is one of those films. Kids will love it. Adults will also love it, even if they are as cynical as I am and started cringing as soon as Freddie claimed to know Shazam and immediately foresaw exactly where that plot line was headed. But all of that was balanced out by the joy of watching two kids, one of them in the body of a superpowered adult, performing Johnny Knoxville style stunts to test his limits. When almost every scene is a real gem, even something as rote for a superhero movie as stopping a mugging in a park, it encourages forgiveness of some of the more obvious story choices. This one is going to stick around.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Captain Marvel (2019)

She’s beauty, she’s grace, she can kick you into space.

Well, the first Marvel movie of 2019 is here. And, hey, it’s pretty good! Nothing that’s so exciting that it’ll melt your brain out, or anything, but Captain Marvel has finally hit our screens and damned if we aren’t glad to see her. Right? Right?

I don’t want to be down on this one. I really enjoyed myself as I sat in the theater and mindlessly absorbed a little nugget of Marvel product, which loudly and proudly is set in the 90s. Remember the 90s? There was a Democrat in office, the economy was essentially okay, we weren’t at war with anyone for a little while, and when the President got a blowjob and perjured himself about it, we all were in agreement that the office of the PotUS had been so thoroughly tarnished that no future President could ever sink lower (ha). But also, you know: AIDS, Hurricane Andrew (which goes strangely unremarked upon here despite the fact that a significant portion of the film takes place in 1995 Louisiana), Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc. Never let your nostalgia get the best of you, is all I’m saying, but it’s no crime to feel a little warm inside when you hear the opening strains of “Come As You Are,” either.

It’s 1995. Vers (Brie Larson) is a member of the Kree Defense Force, a group of interstellar “warrior heroes” who keep the peace in the Kree Empire (the blue [mostly] aliens from the Guardians movies and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) by performing various acts of apparent valor, including rooting out cells of Skrulls, a race of green reptilian shapeshifters. She herself is a woman without a memory, à la Wolverine, only getting glimpses into a past she can’t recall when dreaming of a mysterious woman (Annette Bening). Under the tutelage of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers attempts to learn more about herself using the AI ruler of the Kree, the Supreme Intelligence (Bening again, as we only see her from Vers’s point of view and it takes different forms for different people), without much success. After being taken captive by Skrulls and fighting her way free, Vers lands on C-53, better known to its inhabitants as Earth, where she immediately runs afoul of S.H.I.E.L.D., before bonding with a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and setting out to discover why the woman in her dreams seems to have had a life on C-53, including involvement with a top secret aerospace defense project. Along the way, she connects, or perhaps reconnects, with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). Opposing her is the Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), but there may be more to his motivations than meets the eye.

A lot of the internet is pretty up in arms about Captain Marvel, and for the most part, it’s just trolling and various degrees of personal toxicity. And the problem with every dudebro out there who’s angry about the injustice of Captain Marvel/Vers (as I’ll refer her to remain spoiler free, if that’s even possible at this juncture) stealing a motorcycle from a man who told her to smile, as if a microaggression warrants grand theft, is that it leaves very little room to be critical of the elements that don’t actually work from a narrative perspective. Look, I’m not MovieSins; I’m not here to ring an annoying little bell just because the final mental showdown between two characters is set to a Nirvana classic from an album that we don’t actually see Vers hearing (although she had plenty of chances offscreen). But I have to admit that even I was a little tired of some of the pablum and the unwillingness to take risks that were on display here. Sure, there was some inventiveness with the subversion of both what we’ve come to expect from films in general and this franchise specifically, especially in regard to the villainous Skrulls and their true motivations, but that doesn’t mean that the storytelling itself is inventive, and that’s the issue here. We’ve seen the fish-out-water story before in Thor, but that doesn’t mean that this is inherently derivative. I remember walking out of that film way back in 2011 and being pleasantly and refreshingly surprised by it, and there’s a part of me that wants every Marvel movie to give me an equivalent rush, but that’s not a realistic expectation to have after ten years and twenty movies. Time makes you bolder, children get older, and I’m getting older, too. It may be that these movies are just as fun as they’ve always been and I’m just too cynical to enjoy them the way that I used to.

Because, hey, this movie is fun. There are a lot of great setpieces: a sequence of dodging questionably aligned federal agents deep in the heart of a research base library, a terrific train fight sequence featuring the best Stan Lee cameo to date (I’m more of a Jack Kirby stan, if we’re being honest, but even I thought it was nice), and others. But the main one, the big finale, was just a big CGI fest that tired me more than it thrilled me. Compared to the relative viscerality of the Independence Day-esque desert dogfight that came earlier in the film’s runtime, not to mention the undetectable de-aging of Jackson to make him the Fury of yesteryear, it lacks any concreteness and feels hollow; I’m glad to hear that other people found this to be exciting, but it just didn’t work for me. Admittedly, that’s always been the case with the MCU, as all of the films peak early, going as far back as Iron Man, where the best sequence wasn’t the toe-to-toe showdown between our “hero” and Iron Monger, but the more stunning and ground-breaking sequence in which Tony finds himself flying alongside two fighter planes. But still, there’s something about this movie that doesn’t quite sit right with me, and it’s not just that they didn’t have an appearance from Peggy, even though she was totally alive at this time and, per Ant-Man, still active in S.H.I.E.L.D. a mere six years prior, although that omission is a crime.

Still, it’s hard to fault a film for having a poor finale after a lot of fun beforehand. Fitting for a movie that is at least on some level about both Girl Power and The 90s, the comparison that kept coming to my mind was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It may just be that I rewatched the 1992 film within the past six months (and also watched it about 47 times over the course of a single summer once), but the aforementioned scene in which Vers steals a guy’s motorcycle reads just like the scene in that film in which original Kristy Swanson Buffy does the same after a rude biker asks if she “wants some real power between [her] legs.” It’s a sanitization of something, to make it more palatable for you to be able to bring your kids to see the new superhero movie, but it’s almost the same scene, and I genuinely enjoyed that the film evoked that rhetorical space in the era of its birth. Further, the sequence of Vers getting up over and over again, used as a shorthand about her past and her resilience in the face of limitations placed on her by a masculine culture, included one of her as a little girl stepping up to the plate and getting ready to knock one out of the park, which once again evoked the scene from the series finale of Buffy the show, during the title character’s famous “Are you ready to be strong?” speech (believe it or not, this is the best upload I could find of the scene; sorry). I don’t know if there was a subliminal attempt to invoke the memory of disgraced Avengers and Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon by summoning relevant images from both the beginning and end of the Buffy franchise, but if so, that’s a next level of synergy, and I’m impressed by the mad genius of it.

I’m hot and cold on this one. As it’s been out for almost a month now, it’s unlikely you need me to tell you whether or not to check it out, as your decision was probably made months in advance of its original release date. Larson is a terrific actress who’s really not given as much to do characterwise as someone of her talent could, but she’s effortlessly charming and magnetic, and her chemistry with Lynch and Jackson is very good. When it comes to integrating a child as a main character and instigator of plot, it also certainly works a lot better than Iron Man 3, where the character was so blatantly an audience surrogate that it almost derailed a film that is, outside of that plot detour, the best Iron Man movie (don’t @ me). And after quietly making his bones in the mainstream as a one-dimensional villain in a lot of hyped releases the past few years (Rogue One, Ready Player One, and that Robin Hood that no one saw), Mendelson brings a pathos to a scaly monster that you wouldn’t expect to find in a movie that’s as relatively flat as this one is. There are twists and betrayals, but they all seem rather rote at this point. And yet . . . and yet . . . I enjoyed this one. And you probably will, too.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: Local Legends (2013)

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 Brandon made Britnee, Brandon, and CC watch Local Legends (2013).

Brandon: Last summer, I became unhealthily fixated on the outsider art projects of Matt Farley and his Motern Media brand. Even after reviewing a dozen or so Motern movies for Swampflix, I found myself compelled but unable to fully communicate the value of Farley’s novelty songs and horror-comedy parodies to anyone who had the misfortune of listening to me babble offline. Part of the appeal of Farley’s cinematic output in general is that it’s so aggressively localized that it feels unknowable to newcomers outside his dorkily wholesome New England community. The recurring cast of family & friends that consistently populate Farley’s backyard film productions do become gradually familiar as you sink further into his Motern catalog, but there’s also a mystique to the unfathomable consistency of that recurrence. As much as Farley is making parodically silly horror movies & Dr. Demento-style novelty songs around his new England neighborhood, he’s also documenting the evolution & aging of an insular community of people the outside world knows nothing about. There’s a vast wealth of material in the Motern catalog, but no immediate context to what you’re watching or listening to, so that the only way to fully understand what Farley is accomplishing with his buddies (most notably his frequent director-of-choice Charles Roxburgh) is to watch all of his available movies. Even though the films are generally short & hosted on easily accessible sites like YouTube, that’s a daunting recommendation, especially in an era where audiences are used to knowing practically everything about a film’s cast, plot, and production history before we experience the finished product for ourselves. Understanding Matt Farley’s work requires obsession, as it requires a hunger for small context clues spread over an untold number of film productions (I can’t even tell you exactly how many movies he’s produced, since even that information is mysteriously inconsistent depending on the source).

It turns out that attempting to piece together the mystery of Matt Farley’s decades-long dedication to microbudget film production & novelty songwriting through context clues in interviews, Motern Media’s website, and the Important Cinema Club podcast episode where I first discovered his work was essentially a waste of time. In addition to being the most self-aware man alive, Farley is also radically dedicated to existing in the public sphere as an open book; if you want any details about his life’s work, all you have to do is ask. He even frequently includes his phone number (603-644-0048) in the end credits of his films and the lyrics of his songs so that you can call him to ask questions directly. Interviewing Farley about his life & work is also a redundancy in its own way, though, because Farley has already laid out the essential details for all to see in a feature-length narrative film titled Local Legends. Without shame or apology, Local Legends is a 70min infomercial for Matt Farley’s various outsider art projects. The film states in matter-of-fact, brazenly honest terms how & why Farley makes music & movies, as well as where you can find his work & support him financially. In addition to being a feature-length commercial for the Motern Media empire, Local Legends is also an artistic masterpiece, easily my favorite Matt Farley production. Any questions I’ve asked myself about his day to day routines, the amount of outside fanfare he’s seen for his work, and the context of where his community of adorable weirdos fits in on his local arts scene are answered plainly in the movie, which triples as a narrative feature, a documentary, and an essay film on the joys & embarrassments of amateur art production in the 2010s. Even beyond the convenient insight it provides into Farley’s Warhol-esque media factory, however, Local Legends is just stunning in its bullshit-free self-awareness as a small-time regional artist’s self-portrait, something I strongly identify with as an amateur film blogger & podcaster in our own insular, localized community. Local Legends is a paradox, in that it could not exist without decades of back catalog art projects informing what Farley is saying about the nature of outsider art in the film, but it’s also a crowning achievement that feels like a philosophical breakthrough for Farley just as much an outsider’s crash course in his oeuvre. It’s a crass act of self-promotion, but the product being displayed is often about crass self-promotion & amateur hustling, which are necessary for a modern artist’s survival & longevity.

The only thing that complicates my love for this self-portrait of an outsider artist its blatant debt to known sexual abuser Woody Allen. As this is one of his select few productions not directed by career-long bestie Charles Roxburgh, Farley’s choice to write, star in, and direct Local Legends himself with an auteursist omnipresence recalls the unembarrassed narcissism of Woody Allen’s own self-indulgent oeuvre. Farley, of course, verbally acknowledges this debt to Allen (something that has aged horrifically in the last six years, for extratextual reasons you’re already aware of). He both shoots the film in a digital black & white that recalls Woody Allen‘s visual style and makes in-dialogue references to touchstones like Annie Hall just so you know that the affectation is purposeful. This high-brow aesthetic is amusing in contrast to Farley’s aggressively unpretentious novelty songs about poop & microbudget rubber-monster horror comedies, but it’s still a cringey impulse all the same. I like to think of Local Legends as the perfect Matt Farley introduction because it encapsulates so much of his peculiar personality & day-to-day amateur art production, but recommending someone watch it means asking them to think about Woody Allen, which spoils the mood at best, potentially triggers the viewer at worst.

So, Boomer, were you able to look past Local Legends’s Woody Allenisms enough to get a feel for Matt Farley as his own distinct, persona? How effective of an introduction (if not an outright infomercial) was this film to the Motern Media empire for you as a previously uninitiated viewer?

Boomer: I had never heard of Farley before watching this gem, but I found the unpretentious absence of pomp and utter lack of any kind of self-deception in his compartmentalization of his art charming and refreshing. When the first season of Star Trek: Discovery premiered a while back and I signed up for CBS All Access in order to watch it (if you think I wouldn’t pay $10 a month for Star Trek, you don’t know me), my roommate grew temporarily (thankfully) obsessed with The Bold & the Beautiful, and when I couldn’t figure out why, he explained that he was attracted to art that felt like he could have made it, and the overall cheapness of the early seasons of that soap opera made him feel better about his level of cinematic skill. Local Legends is much the same: it feels like a movie that a group of friends could have made, because it is exactly that. At first, I was a little turned off by this, as the early scenes of Farley’s non-comedic stand-up were accompanied by sparse laughter and painful silences, and I wasn’t certain if this was supposed to represent that Farley thought he was a great comedian and that he simply didn’t have the budget to project his own image of himself. Once the film starts moving along and you realize that the “legends” in the title is self-deprecating and not self-aggrandizing, it’s a more pleasant experience. It wasn’t until he’s singing the name “Theodora” repeatedly that I really got my first belly laugh, but from that point on, it was chuckles aplenty. That was the moment that I felt like I really understood Farley, both as a creator and as a persona, and perhaps as both.

I really loved Local Legends. As an introduction to Farley’s overall body of work, I assume that it gives one a pretty clear picture of his other films; I particularly liked the use of footage from Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! and the explanations of how each person in Farley’s life played a role in his productions, and what that role was. You also get a pretty clear picture of Farley, down to his habit of walking around town while listening to Red Sox games and even occasionally raising his hands in order to let the blood that’s pooled there drain back into his body, which is so specifically odd that I have to believe Farley the person shares this trait with Farley the character. My favorite scenes were those between him and his bandmate Tom in their practice space, discussing the way that Millhouse’s showcase went from museum to bar to home basement, laughing at the absurdity of it all but recognizing the familiarity and inevitability of this devolution (Millhouse himself is a great character, with his clipart promo flyers and indestructible optimism).

Overall, this is a pretty optimistic movie, and strangely uplifting in its way. I certainly felt effervescent upon completion. The Woody Allen references struck me as odd, since it’s not as if the allegations against him aren’t exactly new (as with Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Kevin Spacey, Michael Jackson, and others, concerns crop up and are well-publicized, then they recede beneath the waves as the news cycle moves on, only to reappear years later to the apparent sudden surprise of the internet, a pretty ample demonstration of our society’s pathologically—even criminally—short attention span), but it’s not really a surprise as I’ve often found that—and this isn’t intended as an insult to Farley personally—that straight white men find it easier to separate the art and the artist than people who’ve experienced marginalization in their lives. That said, I wasn’t terribly happy with the way that Abby was presented as “crazy.” As an appellation, this is so often applied to women for absolutely no reason other than behavioral double standards. Although she did ultimately demonstrate that she had a couple of screws loose, her immediate demonization for no other reason than that she misrepresented the extent of her Billy Joel collection seemed like gatekeeping gone awry, which made me side against Farley, at least at first, which may be the reason it took me longer than normal to warm up to him as a protagonist. CC, what did you think of the character of Abby? Was she deserving of the scorn she received? Does her comparison against Genevieve feel weird to you?

CC: Abby’s characterization bothered me as well. I recently saw her same overly-clingy girlfriend type included as a character on the Hulu show Pen15 and I didn’t care for the trope there either. It’s time for the stalker-ish, emotionally manipulative, “crazy bitch” stereotype to die completely (unless we’re talking about outliers like Isabelle Huppert’s role in Greta, since at least she has nuance and motive outside her relationship to a male character). I also think cultural gatekeeping and derogatory humor hinging on another person’s inability to appreciate “good” culture (which are inherently rooted in misogyny and cultural & racial chauvinism) need to end. Abby represents both of these things.

Farley portrays Abby’s intense version of attention as suffocating. At the same time, he’s releasing movies and music about himself, so he seems to crave attention. Those two impulses are self-contradictory. I don’t know why her character was included in the film in the first place, since her presence is not especially important to the plot other than for him to complain about her clinginess. If Local Legends is a parody of movie tropes and character types, it would have been better off to either poke fun at the trope instead of participating in it or to just remove Abby from the picture entirely.

I think I need to note, for transparency’s sake, that I have felt a lot of angst and anxiety writing this response. It makes me deeply uncomfortable writing anything remotely critical about Matt Farley’s work (even if my criticisms are also directed towards a larger cultural milieu) knowing that he will definitely read this, as evidenced by his admission in Local Legends that he routinely Googles himself daily, if not hourly.

Britnee, does the knowledge that Matt Farley is for sure going to read this conversation change how you respond to and write about his films?

Britnee: The fact that Matt Farley will read our conversation does linger in the back of my mind as I’m getting ready to write about my thoughts on Local Legends, but that doesn’t make me feel weird or uneasy about discussing this film in the Swampflix world. The internet is a pretty intense place to exist as a public figure and Farley really puts himself out there, so I’m certain that he’s already come across lots of praise for his work while suffering his fair share of harsh critiques as well. He honestly seems like the kind of guy who thrives on those negative comments about his art and uses them as inspiration to make even more films and songs. I’m feeling pretty chill about him creeping on our conversation at this point, even if it’s not all positive.

I remember Brandon recommending Farley’s films in a “What Have You Been Watching Lately?” segment on an old episode of The Swampflix Podcast. Even though I had no idea who or what he was talking about, his enthusiasm while discussing Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! was enough for me to add the film to my movie watchlist (and yet I still haven’t seen it yet). When I realized that Local Legends was a film about Farley’s art projects, I was interested to see what he was all about. It was not at all what I expected. I was expecting rowdy guys with long hair and rock band t-shirts (sort of like Jackass without all the stunts), and I was so wrong. The cast of Local Legends is pretty much a group of average white suburban guys doing pretty basic, ordinary things in the weirdest way possible. For example, Farley walks around his sunny, all-American town while leaving free CDs of his bizarre music in random places on the street for strangers to find. It made me laugh so damn hard. The style of humor in Local Legends is very particular. It pokes fun at the everydayness of life while exuding tons of awkward energy, and I’m totally into it.

I’m still not quite sure if the film was supposed to be a comedy, a true documentary, or a mix of the two. Brandon, did you have a hard time deciphering reality from fiction in Local Legends?

Brandon: Conveniently enough, Matt does frequently point out in real-time the few instances where he has to stretch the truth to fit the means of his budget. I’m thinking particularly of the scenes set in his rent-paying “day” job wiping old men’s butts at a nursing home; Matt informs the audience in-narration that he did not have permission from his employer to film on-site, so the scene was staged in his parents’ basement instead. A major part of the genius of Local Legends is the total lack of vanity in those types of admissions. Of course, this film is more a half-fictionalized reenactment than it is a true documentary, but I do personally believe every anecdote displayed onscreen to be blatantly honest recollections of things that actually happened. In fact, I know the self-portrait Matt Farley constructs in Local Legends is true to life, because the second we (a lowly, amateur film blog from over a thousand miles away) posted our reviews of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! & Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas last summer, he was retweeting & promoting them to his dedicated audience of Motern converts and sending us personalized thank you notes, which rings true to his confession in the film that he obsessively Googles himself for amateur reviews of his work. I also know it to be true because I recognize my own life in small-scale art projects (from this blog to long-forgotten punk bands to my dead-end college degree in Poetry) through the minor joys & embarrassments that are depicted in all their naked honesty here. The world of amateur art production on display in Local Legends is radically ordinary & relatable in a way you don’t normally see from the more glamorized, curated social media profiles of self-promoting hobbyists like myself & my small-time artist friends. No matter how shameless my self-promotion of Swampflix can get or how pointless the effort of running the site may seem to anyone outside my immediate circle, however, I’ve only experienced a microscopic taste of Farley’s commitment to building Motern by hand over the last two decades. There’s something truly refreshing & inspiring about his transparency in explanations of how he keeps that ship afloat.

As a comedy, Local Legends does filter this radical honesty through a layer of irony & self-deprecation, which can be a little difficult to read if you aren’t familiar with Farley’s very particular brand of humor. I just can’t believe that someone this self-aware doesn’t see the irony in spending every waking hour of his day scheming to make movies & music, then repeating the phrase “I hate artists,” so often that it’s effectively a personal mantra. There’s also a hilarious disconnect between Farley’s aggressive lack of pretension and his demand that people stop still when he enters a party so that he can hold court & talk about himself at length. He wants to be recognized as both a relatable everyman and The World’s Greatest Living Artist, to the point that his milquetoast appearance and his self-obsessed narcissism are both a kind of exaggerated performance. I even read a little irony & self-deprecation in his deplorable treatment of Abby in the picture. I have no doubt that sometime in Matt’s life some girl somewhere (somewhere in New England, at least) really did proclaim to have “all of Billy Joel’s albums” when she only had his Greatest Hits. Instead of the healthy “Who cares?” response most people would have in that situation, it was an encounter that frustrated Farley so much that he held onto it long enough to restage it in a fictionalized movie just to dunk on her one more time. Even within the picture, it’s a frivolous “slight” that he just can’t let go, recounting it over & over again to friends like a lunatic. It’s not something that makes him look cool or superior, not least of all because his snobby gatekeeping in the film involves the most basic-taste shallow cuts imaginable: Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, The Beatles etc. When you get to the core of what really bothers Matt about Abby, it’s not that she’s unfamiliar with Billy Joel’s discography; it’s that she’s not especially interested in his own. Abby can’t sit still through a screening of his slasher film Freaky Farley, doesn’t find any value in his novelty songs and, worse yet, dares to have her own artistic ambitions that Farley himself doesn’t understand (costumes that are designed for art gallery display, not to be worn). I totally agree that his characterization of Abby as “crazy” is gross (and uncomfortably participates in a myriad of misogynist tropes), but it culminates as an ironic, comedic bit when Matt defines that craziness to his bandmate Tom as her being obsessed with herself. All Matt Farley wants to talk about in this picture is Matt Farley; truly no one in the world is more self-obsessed. So, I can only read that complaint as a self-deprecating joke.

Beyond its function as a documentary & a comedy, Local Legends is also a straight-up informercial. Farley not only gives publishes his phone number and mailing address in the film for anyone who wants to contact him with professional prospects, but he also explains where you can order his physical media online and the exact math of how he pays his bills by streaming tens of thousands of novelty songs on Spotify. In brutal honesty about the search-optimization aspect of his songwriting process, he details how he’ll find a buzzword like “gluten” to use in a song title because it’ll get instant hits for merely existing, regardless if it’s any good. He shrugs, “People don’t care. They just want a song about gluten.” This commercial crassness is a sign of exhaustion more than anything. Farley is entirely disinterested in fretting over artistic integrity. He even builds a meta-commentary within the film where a Corporate Asshole version of himself issues executive commands to his subservient Artist’s side on how to improve the profitability of his various projects, including the very film you’re watching. It’s entirely understandable how he became cynical too, as he portrays in brutal self-cruelty all the various, barely concealed insults artists suffer from family & friends who do not understand the significance of their passion, dismissing it as a silly hobby rather than a worthwhile life’s pursuit. By crassly pandering to the sillier aspects of his work to increase his profits (and, thus, make it possible for him to continue working), Farley only intensifies outsiders’ dismissal of his art as mindless, anyone-could-do-it frivolity. They were never likely to find his backyard horror comedies and novelty songs about diarrhea worthwhile either way, though, so all he does by leaning into the more profitable aspects of his work is help ensure Motern’s longevity. It’s maybe the only example of shameless commercial cynicism I could think to call admirable, if not outright heroic.

Speaking of Farley’s Corporate Asshole doppelganger, it’s the only element of Local Legends I can recall that could be described as a break in reality. Matt continually shatters the fourth wall in his narration to the audience (which he does out of spite because a screenwriting how-to explicitly advised against it), but something about Corporate Asshole Farley feels like a fantastic outlier in the film’s general relationship with reality. Boomer, what did you make of Farley’s dual role as the businessman version of himself? Is that device justified in the context of the film, even though it is such an in-universe anomaly?

Boomer: I like it. So much of the film’s runtime is centered around an apparent lack of self-awareness: about the repeated pattern of Millhouse’s unrealistic dreams inevitably spiraling into a performance in which there are more participants than spectators and the implication that this is not the first time this has happened and certainly won’t be the last; about the marketability of his and Pete’s collaborations (which I love); about Abby’s clear inability to recognize her failings. We of Swampflix are a pretty savvy bunch, but even I find myself sometimes deciding whether I like something based upon whether or not I think the media in question is “in on it” with regards to a character’s unlikeability or its awareness of how ridiculous it is (see: Syfy’s The Magicians), and it can be a deciding factor for me. Were it not for the presence of Business Asshole Matt, I don’t think we’d be arguing over whether or not Matt Farley is self-aware, since he clearly is, but I for one would definitely have taken a little longer to be certain about that. It also allows for the most truly surreal part of the movie, when the creepy man who always asks Matt for directions and then offers him a ride apparently gets what he wants, as Business Asshole Matt rides off with him into the monochrome sunset. It textualizes the subtext of Matt’s interior monologue, and that really works for me on a comedic level, even though it makes no sense on a realistic one. It’s like the scene in which Matt’s bandmate pulls up and they joke about why there’s a woman in the backseat, and it’s clearly for continuity so that they can have the camera in the front for reverse shots, but it draws attention to itself in a way that I like.

CC, of all the odd characters who populate Matt’s town, who was your favorite? I had a fondness for the creepy man in theory, but I also really liked Soup.

CC: I was also fond of Soup. It was a pleasant surprise to discover late in the film that his name was literal after getting to know him for so long only as Matt’s basketball partner. Anytime you need soup, Soup is there to offer it for you. He has a fridge full of it just ready to go. Be warned, though. Soup is under the impression that soup is a useful thing for everyone on all occasions, when it’s actually very limited. Most people only need it when it’s cold outside or they’re sick, which makes his bottomless soup fridge an absurd service. Soup’s only negative trait was that he tells Matt to stop being so hard on Abby, even encouraging her more stalkerish behavior because Matt should find it flattering.

Millhouse was also very funny in that he is insanely optimistic, to a pathological degree. As the comedy show he is promoting is downgraded from a legitimate venue to his mother’s basement, he just continues on chipperly as if everything’s going great. He’s basically the human version of that “This is fine.” dog from the burning-house comic panel. The only time he loses his cool is when he’s shouting at his mom for doing laundry and not keeping her dog quiet during the basement comedy show. Keep in mind that he’s in his 50s. It’s pathetically funny.

Speaking of the movie’s portrait of a local stand-up comedy scene, it seems like that’s not what Local Legends is really selling as an infomercial. The amateur stand-up community is mostly just the setting, and what Matt is actually selling here is his movies and music. Britnee, which were you more enticed by after seeing the film? Did Local Legends do a better job as a commercial selling Matt Farley’s novelty music or a commercial selling his backyard movies?

Britnee: The film sold me on his music much more than his movies. The part of Local Legends that made me laugh until my face hurt was when where Matt explains his career in novelty songs. I absolutely love silly songs (Weird Al, Tim and Eric, etc.), so his music immediately grabbed my interest. I even wrote down “Look up The Toilet Bowl Cleaners!” in huge letters in my notepad to make sure I wouldn’t forget to delve into the world of Matt Farley poop songs. The Toilet Bowl Cleaners have since completely taken over my morning drives to work. Why just this morning I listened to “I Pooped in Santa’s Lap” as I pulled into the parking garage, and it was just what I needed to start the day off on the right foot.

While listening to The Toilet Bowl Cleaners, I discovered another one of his musical projects, The Singing Animal Lover. Thankfully, The Singing Animal Lover has over 80 songs about animal poop. Just when I thought there couldn’t be any more poops songs, I was blessed with poop songs at a whole new level. I just find so much comfort in knowing there’s a neverending supply of silly songs for me to listen to from Matt Farley alone.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I really connected with the whole Billy Joel situation. In the past, I used to get so annoyed with people who claimed to be superfans of an artist/band, but only had their greatest hits albums. I now know that is such an incredibly dumb way of thinking, but I was once that douchebag.

CC: I know I’ve already compared Millhouse to one meme cartoon, but besides the “This is fine.” dog he also reminds me of Milhouse Van Houten from The Simpsons. Think about it: He lives at home with his mom. He’s overly loyal to his friends. And no matter how much everything is failing around him, he always maintains that “Everything’s coming up Milhouse!” attitude.

Brandon: Since we initiated this conversation about a month ago, I’ve had my most surreal interaction with Matt Farley to date. While I was recovering from the sunshiny haze of Mardi Gras this past Ash Wednesday, Matt posted a song about me titled “Brandon Ledet Reviews Movies Excellently,” which you can listen to at any time on platforms like YouTube & Spotify. It was truly an honor, albeit a mildly terrifying one that made me briefly question reality in my dazed state. The only way I can think to repay him for the experience is to continue sharing the song in places like this so that the effort will contribute to the fractions of pennies that correlate to his streaming statistics, so that maybe more movies like Local Legends can get made in the future.

Boomer: Originally, I was going to suggest that we call Farley and see if he would write a song for us, but as it turns out, he already wrote one for Brandon, so I’m not sure what else I can contribute, other than to note that I am extremely curious about the yearlong album-a-month project that he did.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)

-The Swampflix Crew

Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991)

Well, here we are again: it’s the continuing adventures of Belial and Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck)! Like its predecessor, Basket Case 3: The Progeny replays the final minutes of the preceding film, as we once again see Duane reattach his unwilling brother to his side following the untimely death of Susan. Unlike Basket Case 2, however, we don’t pick up moments later, but instead it’s been a couple of months. Duane and Belial were once again separated, although less traumatically this time, and Duane has spent the intervening time in a padded cell at Granny Ruth’s (Annie Ross) to ensure that he doesn’t exact any further violence on the small community of “unique individuals.” But there’s a new wrinkle in the tapestry of their lives: Eve, the female counterpart to the monstrous Belial, is pregnant, and Granny Ruth doesn’t feel she has the expertise to provide a safe birthing environment, so it’s time to take this (freak)show on the road! So all of Granny Ruth’s X-Men have to load up on a school bus with blacked out windows to travel from her estate in Staten Island to Georgia, where her physician friend (and perhaps former lover?) Hal (Dan Biggers, of In the Heat of the Night fame) will assist with Eve’s birth. Since Duane can’t be left alone, he’s along for the ride as well, straightjacketed and kept apart from Belial, who hasn’t forgiven him for the events that concluded Basket Case 2. Things seem to be going well, as Granny Ruth is reunited with her multi-armed son Little Hal (Jim O’Doherty), first mentioned in the previous film as the catalyst for Ruth’s interest in and defense of “unique individuals,” and Dr. Hal has an amicable relationship with local law enforcement, as evidenced by his friendly and jovial interactions with Sheriff Griffin (Gil Roper), who even knows about and appreciates the mechanical genius of Little Hal. Duane even has a positive interaction with Opal (Tina Louise Hilbert), the sheriff’s daughter. It seems like things have finally turned a corner for the Bradley twins.

That is, of course, until the sight of Dr. Hal in his surgical outfit triggers Belial’s memories of the doctors who originally separated him from Duane, and he attacks the doctor in the middle of Eve’s procedure, mortally wounding the doc and complicating the birthing process. And what a birth it is! Thirteen monstrous little baby Belials come out of the fleshy lump that represents Eve’s womb, one after the other on the same umbilical cord like a nauseating, pulsating string of teethed pearls. They are monstrous. Further complicating matters is Duane’s escape from Hal’s estate; he seeks out Opal so that they can run away together but is recognized as one half of the infamous Times Square Freak Twins, leading two deputies to head out to Dr. Hal’s, where they mistake Eve for Belial and ultimately are responsible for her death, leading Belial on a roaring rampage of revenge, one which involves a dominatrix outfit, an overly long bit involving the alliterative names of all the deputies, and a robotic exoskeleton. And a swarm of little baby Belials, which somehow manage to be kind of cute despite being as disgusting as their father (I think it’s their little animatronic mouths that won me over).

As I said before, Basket Case 2 is my favorite of this trilogy. The original is a classic, but the first sequel expands the number of unique individuals in a way that makes sense, while keeping the majority of the focus on the Bradleys, even when they spend much of the film apart, and shows Duane accepting himself as a unique individual in his own right, separate from Belial. A traumatic event at the end of the film leads him to make a bad decision, but it all holds together. Basket Case 3 is a different animal: neither Belial nor Duane is really the central character here, Granny Ruth is. Belial and Duane’s separation is more than just physical here, as they spend most of the film not talking to each other, although both of them cause trouble for themselves and everyone else by falling back on old patterns of behavior, first when Belial attacks the doctor because his native language is violence, and when Duane exposes Granny Ruth’s cabal because he falls in love with every woman who shows him a moment’s kindness. In each instance, it falls to Granny Ruth to try and rectify the situation, but even when she is the centerpiece, nothing that she does in this film approaches the same energy level as her “Our sanctuary has been violated!” speech from BC2. The closest that we come is the “Personality” musical number, which is delightfully weird, or perhaps Ruth’s final speech to the viewers of “Renaldo” about the importance of playing nice, but neither are as riotous or have the staying power of anything in the previous films.

If anything, the film is simply too unfocused, which may be the result of editorial changes. Supposedly, the producers instructed Frank Henenlotter to make this film less gory than either previous entry and the original script, resulting in the omission of 11 pages from the shooting draft. The excision of this material likely contributed to the more rambling nature of this narrative. For instance, there’s a scene in which the entire Ruth clan appears in a fast food restaurant, freaking out the customers and generally causing annoying havoc, but there’s never a moment of menace, and we see neither Belial or Duane in the whole set piece. Compare this to, for instance, the scene in BC2 where Susan is harassed by a local about how she never comes to his bar and always seems to be buying more food than two women alone in a house could eat: neither Bradley boy is in this scene, but it does set the tone for how others view Ruth and her activities, and creates a sense of tension. We could also compare this to the scene in the previous film where Duane confronts a P.I. at a seedy bar with his fellow freaks: like the fast food restaurant scene, the freaks are in public, but there’s a purpose and an intensity to the scene, despite it being in a ridiculous film.

Still, there’s a lot to love in The Progeny. It may not measure up to the accidental(?) genius of its predecessors, but it makes up for most of its weaknesses with another strong performance from Ross (Van Hentenryck is at the same level as always), and its sudden turn into a revenge flick at the midpoint is a pleasant surprise, even if the franchise’s hallmark gore is greatly reduced for this sequel. You may even end up wanting a little baby Belial of your very own. It’s unfortunate that this us the apparent end of the Basket Case series, as it’s been 18 years since the film, enough time for all those little monsters to start thinking about college and adulthood, which would make for an interesting follow up (then again . . . maybe not), but a man can still dream that we’ll meet the Bradleys again, one day.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: Love Me If You Dare (2003)

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 CC made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer watch Love Me if You Dare (2003).

CC: When I was a culturally starved teenager, it was incredibly rare for me to program my own media intake. I desperately wanted to watch pretentious art films and feel like an intellectual, but at the time I was living in a FoxNews and Tim Allen comedy world, stifling my artsy-fartsy dreams. However, I do remember one pivotal weekend when I was around fourteen or fifteen where I got to indulge myself on those impulses. Left alone to set my own schedule, I spent an entire few days’ vacation from others’ control sunbathing and eating bagels all day, and binge-watching the Sundance & IFC movie channels all night. I don’t remember most of the movies I watched that weekend, but a few really stood out to me as gems, including the 2003 French romantic comedy Love Me If You Dare. Something about Love Me If You Dare‘s subversive tone (and bizarre ending) struck me as extraordinary and, importantly at the time, sophisticated. This is before I had even seen Amélie, so I had truly not experienced anything like this unconventional, artsy, French romcom before.

Love Me If You Dare is the story of a boy and girl duo (Guillume Canet and Marion Cotillard) who are locked in a life-long game of romantic oneupsmanship. They first meet as children when the girl is being bullied and the boy cheers her up with the gift of a cookie tin. From there they develop a mischievous game, where whoever possesses the cookie tin can issue a dare the other has to complete, no matter how outrageous. They pass the tin back and forth this way with each completed dare, with no end to the game in sight. Told from the boy’s POV, the story follows this game’s escalation from relatively harmless childhood anarchy to catastrophically destructive mayhem as they hit adulthood and sexual maturity. The film is set up like a traditional romcom, but it’s weirdly antagonistic towards its audience in a way that genre usually isn’t. Its sweet setups usually lead to sour payoffs, subverting expectations established by traditional romcom patterns.

Brandon, given this film’s devious deviations from genre, would you even consider this a romcom? Is there any other genre that would be a more apt description?

Brandon: I don’t think I would readily describe Love Me If You Dare as a romantic comedy, but I’m not exactly sure why. It’s romantic; it’s (darkly) humorous. Yet, classifying it simply as a romcom feels no more accurate than it would be to describe Heathers or Heavenly Creatures as such. This is, at heart, the story of two adrenaline junkies whose violent attraction to each other’s mischievous spirits only leads to destruction. Something about the volatile clash of their thrill-seeking energies (and overactive imaginations) is a Biblically destructive force, crushing the lives of any innocent bystanders in their vicinity who are just trying to get through the day while they are daring each other to tear the world apart. It’s like visiting a world where two Bugs Bunnies are anarchically attempting to out-Bugs Bunny each other, when one is already far more than enough. Sure, the hetero romance at its core (where two characters who are obviously made for each other eventually find a way to be together forever) is a textbook romcom dynamic, but the devilish details veer so far off the rails that its romantic beginnings are a faded memory by the time we reach the life-threatening oneupsmanship of the bonkers third act. We’ve covered romcoms for Movie of the Month before with similarly subversive escalations of unromantic danger: the Hitchcock-riffing Head Over Heels & the noirish Mrs. Winterborne, to be specific. Those examples feel like extreme outliers in the genre, however, and Love Me If You Dare‘s own maniacal self-escalation might even best them in its sheer audacity.

If I had to ascribe Love Me If You Dare to a single genre it might be this: twee mayhem. In general, twee is a much more difficult genre to recommend (or even to define) than the romantic comedy, as it was specific to a very distinct time & sentiment. As I was also a culturally-starved teenager in the early aught, I’m personally predisposed to being helpless to twee pop culture. Where more cynical audiences were revolted by the whimsical imagination, visual fussiness, and cutesy musical cues of twee, I found a desperately needed respite from the grotesque, macho muck pop culture was stuck in for the nu-metal end of the late 90s & early 00s (not knowing at the time that I was mostly watching ideas repurposed & repackaged from French New Wave artists half a century prior). I’ll concede that a lot of twee has aged horribly in the last couple decades; I’ve rolled my eyes at many a Zooey Dechanel project & Etsy store as the years have trudged along. However, I don’t think the loosely-defined genre ever got enough credit for how dark & melancholy it was just below its meticulously curated surface. Artists like Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet often handle topics like depression, abuse, dead pets, and terminal illness with childlike vulnerability & outsized emotions – crafting art that looks pretty but is often surprisingly sinister. That’s exactly where I see Love Me If You Dare fitting in. It’s a darkly romantic comedy that starts with themes like cancer, poverty, and nationalist bullying before escalating to full-blown torture, murder, and suicide. How sweet! Even considering similarly morbid twee romances like Pushing Daisies or Amélie, this film reaches a level of destructive mayhem that feels remarkable for its cutesy tone of childlike whimsy.

Boomer, how does Love Me If You Dare fit into the twee romance template for you? Does it feel at home with how you typically experience the genre or does its level of destructive mayhem make it as much of an outlier in that context as it is as a romcom?

Boomer: It’s funny that you mention Wes Anderson, a director that I love; while watching Love Me if You Dare, my roommate got up and left the room twenty minutes in, saying “This is what I see when I look at a Wes Anderson movie” (he’s not a fan). I think that I might have a slightly different idea of what comprises twee filmmaking; my go-to example of the genre is God Help the Girl, the 2014 film project of Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch starring Emily Browning, Olly Alexander (of queerpop band Years & Years), and Hannah Murray (Skins, Game of Thrones, Bridgend) – a musical featuring songs from Murdoch’s 2009 concept album of the same name. As much as I love Belle & Sebastian – they’re one of my top 5 all time bands – when I finally found a copy of God Help the Girl I hated it for the first fifteen minutes before realizing that I could just give into it and have a good time, and a good time I had indeed. I would also note that I, too, am generally disposed to be forgiving of tweeness when I find it, and for much the same reasons, and I’d add Stranger than Fiction, I ♥ Huckabees, and the most recent TV version of Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective to that canon. It’s fine to enjoy things. I even spent this last New Year’s Eve watching a Friday the 13th marathon on TV with my best friend while we listened to Françoise Hardy records she brought back from France; since those films are mostly young adults wandering through the woods, skinny dipping, and angsting about getting laid, having Le premier bonheur du jour play on while little Corey Feldman watched the horny teens next door get down to business turned the whole film series into a franchise of French coming-of-age films that just happened to have a hockey masked murderer show up from time to time (relax Mrs. Voorhees “well, actually” purists: they were only showing III-VII on a loop). So you could say that even when there is no twee, I might end up adding it in myself.

You also mentioned Heathers, and around these parts it’s no secret that it’s my favorite movie of all time. I’ve never really imagined that it fell into the “twee” category (the musical version notwithstanding) simply because it’s so weirdly and unabashedly dark (“Corn. Nuts!”) and even its lighter elements are still part of an all-encompassingly nihilistic worldview, even with Martha doing a little doughnut on the scooter in the hallway of Westerberg High at the end. I understand where you’re coming from, though, as Love Me if You Dare has a lot of the same hallmarks, and I think that the difference for me comes from the fact that, ultimately Veronica recognizes that her suburban dissatisfaction and the town-wide ignorance of parents and school administrators alike has led her to go all-in on J.D.’s menacing plans for the future. It feels right, in the same way that if Julien and Sophie had pulled back from their life-and-death game of dares it would have felt wrong. Any cutesiness that arises from their ever-escalating dare tag is belied by how utterly committed they are to the whole thing: even the first dare endangers a school bus full of children (granted, they were a bunch of racist little shits who deserved a good scare if nothing else). If that level of intensity had ever been subverted, it would be a different story, but by starting with that platform of playful malice and going from there, there’s never a moment where you really question how cute the whole thing is, until the leads are buried in concrete (or are they?). As it stands, I’d say that it’s just as much a subversion of romcom standards as it is of performative cuteness, so it’s equally an outlier for both but the gentle ribbing it gives to both genres is born out of fondness and affection, rather than something like Heathers (which specifically aims to undermine the supposed harmlessness of eighties teen romances à la John Hughes) or my dearly beloved trash masterpiece Head Over Heels (which asks the question: what if the misunderstanding that separates the two romantic leads involved a murder, maybe?).

Britnee, with regards to romances that take themselves more seriously than Love Me if You Dare, they often have a lot of the same tropes that are present here: the angelically perfect parent with vaguely defined medical problems, resentment from the remaining living parent, economic and/or social stratification between the two romantic leads, etc. Do you think these work here, or do they undercut the smirking self-awareness that the movie has? Are there any that I’ve missed or that you felt should have been present here?

Britnee: Love Me If You Dare had a way of making the basic tropes of romantic films very unsettling. Were we supposed to laugh when Julien was being an insanely rambunctious kid while his mother was dying in her hospital room? Was his relationship with his dad supposed to break our hearts or make us roll our eyes and chuckle? I’m still not sure what the answer is. I love how the film challenged my emotions and really got me to question my humor and sensitivity.

Another romance trope that the film pokes fun at is the reunited lovers living happily ever after. Both Julien and Sophie marry other people and have completely different lives with their significant others. Once the two get together for real without prolonging the game, they don’t run off to start a new life. Instead, they drown in cement at a construction site while making out with each other. It’s so wonderful and silly.

What I enjoyed the most about Love Me If You Dare is the beginning of the film that focuses on Sophie and Julien’s blossoming childhood friendship. Their childlike imagination is brought to life on the screen with whimsical visuals and slanted camera angles. Some scenes even looked like they were taking place in a lifesize pop-up book. Their innocent shenanigans (for the most part) were quirky and adorable, but once the two were pulling the same crap as teenagers and adults, they seemed like total monsters.

CC, did you find young Sophie and Julien to be more likeable than grown Sophie and Julien?

CC: Absolutely! If a teacher lectures a child and said child starts to pee themselves, it’s hilarious. If another adult pees on you, it ruins your day and both parties feel a great deal of shame. Sophie and Julian were two troubled children who used their game as a means of coping with poverty and emotional isolation, respectively. As adults we expect them to either “grow up” and stop playing the game or to get professional help. I’m not saying that children aren’t capable of daring each other to commit heinous crimes, but in the context of this film, the crimes Sophie and Julian commit as adults destroy the lives of everyone in their path. It’s one thing to utter a string of scatological expletives during class in elementary school; it’s another to frame someone for attempted murder and call the French equivalent of the SWAT team on them as a prank.

I think what is most frustrating about their relationship as adults is their refusal to admit their feelings for each other. Neither one is brave enough to declare their love and end the game so it just drags on and on, destroying everything in its path.

Brandon, this film feels very French to me, but do you think it had to be set in France to work? Would it have read as “twee” if it were set elsewhere?

Brandon: It’s more than a vague cultural sensibility or sense of morbid whimsy that makes Love Me If You Dare feel distinctly French. It’s that the film feels so in line with French Cinema of its era. The sickly green digital palette of its early 00s aesthetic is unmistakably akin to the look of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s works. The artificial hand-built theatrical sets of the early childhood fantasy sequences are pure Michel Gondry (who was mostly popular as a music video auteur at the time). It’s like a Greatest Hits collection of early aughts twee aesthetics in that way, except that the limited scope of its CGI budget and the . . . moderate visual talents of debut filmmaker Yann Samuel sometimes make it feel like the kind of Greatest Hits collection you find in a grocery store checkout line or gas station CD rack. What truly makes the film special, then, what distinguishes it among its French cinema peers, is the increasingly morbid nature of its central romance. You can see its absurdist dynamic of two volatile minds who are unavoidably drawn to each other reflected in works from other countries: Heathers, Heavenly Creatures, Thoroughbreds – films far outside the realm of twee. Clashing that inevitably tragic relationship dynamic with the overactive imagination of childhood whimsy does feel distinctly French to me, though, even beyond its adoption of twee visual tropes specifically.

Of course, twee has been exported globally to the point where it is no longer explicitly French, if it ever was. Michel Gondry made most of his iconic works in America. Wes Anderson, a hipster Texan, is a cornerstone of the aesthetic. 2010s twee devotees like the Australian dreamworld comedy Girl Asleep and the aforementioned Scottish musical God Help the Girl are twee as fuck, undeniably so. I’d like to think you could export Love Me If You Dare to practically any urban setting without losing what distinguishes it as twee. What I’d be more concerned about losing in that translation is one of the major reasons the film works as well as it does and one of the defining tropes of artsy-fartsy French cinema at large: the bleak ending. It’s almost a cliché to say that Hollywood productions are more inclined to have a happy ending than their French film counterparts, but I could very easily see an American remake of this film sidestepping or undercutting its tragic conclusion while maintaining the twee whimsy free of morbidity, zapping it of its magic.

Boomer, am I being my own worst nightmare (a pretentious art film snob) by assuming that this quirky French romance must have a tragic ending to succeed on its own terms? Is there any satisfying way you can see this story about two thrill-seeking hedonists who express their affection through torturous dares concluding without them dying in each other’s arms, locked away from the rest of the world? Would a traditional “Hollywood ending” have ruined the appeal of the film’s otherwise sinister romance dynamic?

Boomer: If I’m being completely honest, at the moment that Julien (supposedly) crashed into that truck while speeding away from the police and apparently died, I thought the film was over. When it continued and there was more to it, I thought to myself, “Oh, how French.” It’s not that the French are without morality, of course (I saw enough Earth Day demonstrations in Lyonne last year to know that there are things about which they care deeply and passionately), but their different viewpoint on the relativistic ethics of sexpolitik are pretty different from ours (or at least mine; I’m not trying to project onto anyone else in this group). For me, I kept expecting a more American moralistic standpoint to leap out of the shadows and take over this viewing experience; as a result, I expected that this purely hedonistic joy that Julien declared to be better than [insert your drug/sex position/adrenaline junkie activity of choice here] to be his last moment, and that we were being treated to a Hays-lite moralization that “This may look like fun but it is bad and you will be punished.” And to be honest, I wasn’t entirely opposed to that? Interpreting from a purely American perspective is tricky; while I was watching the scene of Julien’s mother’s death, which Britnee mentioned above, I found myself consciously thinking that this would be treated differently in an American film. Here, I think it demonstrates that Julien is deeply unaware of just how unwell his mother really is, and reflects the way that children fail to understand the articulation of the adult world, and that tragic failure to read the situation may even be the instigating factor in his inability to navigate the adult world with any kind of joy outside of his game with Sophie. That’s not explicit (although it would be in an American film), but it gets to the heart of your question: is there anything tragic in this film (like, as you asked, the ending) that is treated with the deference due to tragedy? Even if death at the bottom of a concrete pylon is a tragedy in theory, the film doesn’t treat it this way, instead acting as if living to a ripe (and ribald) old age is just as emotionally satisfying a “happy” ending as being buried alive. Honestly, seeing the elderly Julien and Sophie together is the Hollywood ending, and it’s not nearly as thematically resonant or tonally consistent as (what I assume is) the real ending. That’s not necessarily being artsy-fartsy to say so, but it does underline all of the ways that this differs from the mean.

Britnee, you mentioned above that you found the first act which took place during our leads’ respective childhoods to be more endearing than the rest of the film. I agree, although I wasn’t as cold to the rest of it as you were. How would you have preferred to see this play out? What changes would you have made?

Britnee: The romcom-loving side of me would want to see Julien and Sophie get together for good in the dinner scene when he fake proposes to her. That was probably the most upsetting scene in the entire film. The secondhand embarrassment was so bad and made me hate Julien so much. After the proposal, the rest of the film would be a quirky journey to their wedding day. Julien’s father would have a come-to-Jesus moment and embrace his son on his wedding day, letting him know how proud he is of him and how much he loves him. Sophie’s sister would give a heartfelt toast at the reception explaining how she forgives her sister for ruining her wedding cake. Their families would just come together in the comic style of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Basically, I want My Big Fat French Wedding to be a thing.

I don’t want to seem like I don’t appreciate the darkness of Love Me If You Dare, because I do. I just have to be in the right mindset to watch two people lose their minds on a path of destruction.

Lagniappe

Boomer: Man, Julien’s father is such an asshole.

Britnee: Part of me still doesn’t think that Julien and Sophie really died in the end. It’s very unlikely that they lived, but based on all the other times I thought they died when they didn’t, I just don’t trust them.

Brandon: I do think this movie’s greatest asset is the unpredictability of its storytelling, which makes it feel as if anything is possible from minute to minute, as long as that anything is emotionally cruel. What impresses me most about that unpredictability is that the storyline still manages to maintain a clear, logical progression in its tone & aesthetic; it’s not all chaos. The dreamlike pop-up book sequence Britnee described feels totally in tune with the characters’ childhood imaginations, which later give way to the visual tropes of action thrillers, romantic melodramas, and wedding ring jewelry commercials as they grow into adults. I also greatly admire the trajectory of its central romance, which does not shy away from the impossible scenario these two characters have set up for themselves where “Happily ever after” cannot be achieved without a few casualties, if not the end of the world. For all of the film’s visual showiness as an excited director’s dressed-to-impress debut, its value as an off-kilter feat in morbid, fluid storytelling is what really makes it a gem.

CC: I’m really glad this film held up! Once I saw Amélie a couple years later, it obviously replaced Love Me If You Dare as my favorite darkly whimsical French film, but this still holds up on revisit.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Brandon presents Local Legends (2013)
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

-The Swampflix Crew

Burning (2018)

It doesn’t come up here very often as this is a film review site and not a place where I brag about all the books I read, but I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami. I was 16 in 2004 when a friend recommended The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the book helped save my life in a dark time. Murakami has notoriously been reticent to hand over adaptation rights to much of his work (and if you’re a fan, imagine someone trying to turn 1Q84 or Kafka on the Shore into a movie and you can probably see why), but director Lee Chang-dong (Oasis, Secret Sunshine) did it, and the result is nothing less than spectacular. It took a little time, but Burning made its way back to Austin via the Film Society Cinema, and it was well worth the wait.

After his father runs into trouble with the law, Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), who finished college after his mandatory military service but has yet to find gainful employment, is making his way back to his father’s small farm in his hometown near the North Korean border to manage his livestock. Along the way, he runs into Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend and neighbor, whom he doesn’t recognize at first, which she attributes to plastic surgery. She demonstrates a talent for pantomime and tells him that she is planning a trip to Africa and asks him to feed her cat, Boil, while she is out of the country. The two sleep together when she gives him the tour of her tiny apartment, showing him the one spot in the single room which gets a ray of sunshine reflected off of the Seoul Tower for a few moments a day. After she leaves, he attends his father’s arraignment and attends to feeding Boil, whom he never sees, and grows more attached to Hae-mi in her absence. When Hae-mi returns from Kenya, she is accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a fellow Korean with whom she bonded when they were both trapped in the Nairobi airport for three days due to a terror warning. The three attend dinner together, where Ben plays coy about his employment and claims to have never shed a tear in his adult life as he has never experienced sadness, while Jong-su appears envious of the rapport Ben and Hae-mi have developed.

The three get together again and Ben prepares dinner (or, as he says he sometimes imagines, and offering to himself) in his home, an upscale apartment in Seoul’s expensive Gangnam neighborhood; Jong-su compares him to Jay Gatsby, a young man of great wealth whose income is obscure. Still later, Ben and Hae-mi visit Jong-su’s farm and the three get high; Hae-mi dances topless beneath a beautiful sunset, Jong-su opens up about his mother’s departure when he was a child and his father’s anger, and Ben admits to having a fascination with burning down greenhouses. Jong-su insults and shames Hae-mi, and she and Ben leave. Later, when Jong-su tries to contact her again, she doesn’t respond. Eventually her phone number is disconnected, and after a visit to the Shin family still reveals no secrets, Jong-su investigates further. But what is he chasing? A woman? A shadow? A victim? A dream? A ghost? Someone who was never there at all?

This movie is dense. It also never feels its length, moving along at a steady clip for all 150 minutes. I’d never read “Barn Burning,” the Murakami short story on which the film is loosely based (and which was in turn inspired by a Faulkner story), but there’s a 13 page PDF version floating around the internet, so I gave it a quick once-over to see how much of the film’s plot correlated to the original text, and it’s less than you would expect. Still, it’s obvious that Lee (the director, not the carrier) is a fan of Murakami’s wider body of work based on other elements that he inserted in expanding the 5000ish word piece into a sprawling film. There’s no cat in “Barn Burning,” for instance, but the presence of cats in the author’s work can’t be understated (the missing cat Noboru kicks off the plot of Wind-Up Bird, Tengo’s obsession with a short story about a town of cats is an integral part of 1Q84, and Nakata in Kafka on the Shore can communicate with cats, just to name a few). There’s also no mention in the story of the father of the unnamed narrator (who is older than Jong-su), but bad fathers are also a frequent element in Murakami’s work (the titular Kafka runs away from home because of his father, Tengo’s reminisces about his childhood that don’t involve around Aomame are all about being used as a prop by his father on his NHK fee-collecting route, etc.), and Jong-su’s father here is explicitly a man with anger issues who drove his wife away before forcing his son to burn the woman’s clothes and who can’t seem to stop fighting with local authorities. As soon as there was a cat and a shitty dad, I thought to myself, “Now all we need is a well,” and sure enough, Hae-mi ended up telling a (probably false) story about falling into a well as a child and being rescued by Jong-su about ten minutes of screentime later. It’s all the Murakami hallmarks you’ve come to know and love, even down to the fact that the song Hae-mi dances to is Miles Davis’s “Générique,” although the narrator mentions that the trio listened to Davis during the visit to his home in “Barn Burning.” All that’s missing is an internal monologue about staying in shape by swimming in the city’s public pool or a step-by-step recitation of how to take care of vinyl records and you’d hit Murakami bingo.

Not that you need to speak Murakami to love this film. I confess I’ve not seen any of Lee’s previous work, but I have to imagine that if it contains half the subtlety, the meaningful composition, the sweeping cinematic beauty, and the intensity of emotion here, it’s no wonder he’s considered one of the great living directors (just look at the list of awards and honors on his wikipedia page). It’s almost impossible to really get into the layers of composition here without giving too much away, since there’s a lot going on. Just how reliable is Jong-su’s point of view? He paints Ben as Jay Gatsby, but Ben comes across more as a Tom Buchanan type, with Hae-mi as the mercurial and flighty Daisy to Jong-su’s obsessive Gatsby (albeit lacking in the archetype’s material wealth). We dislike Ben because Jong-su does, but should we like Jong-su, really, even before he starts to suspect Ben might have had something to do with Hae-mi’s disappearance and thus stalks Ben around in the world’s most conspicuous “stealth” vehicle? But if Ben’s so innocent, what is he up to with all his mysterious riches and his gaggle of friends? Is he a sociopath, as his lack of empathy seems to imply? What’s up with his collection of women’s jewelry – is he hiding a cuckqueaned wife from his series of girlfriends? Is this his collection of trophies from sexual conquests? Something more sinister? What really happened to Hae-mi? When she returns from Kenya, she delivers a poignant monologue about watching the sunset over the desert and feeling that she was at the end of the world, citing fear of death but a desire for non-existence. Did she disappear because that’s what she really wanted? This hearkens back to her explanation of pantomiming eating a tangerine (which does come from the short story): it’s not about believing that the tangerine is there, but forgetting that it isn’t. Does she want to not exist, or does she want to forget that she ever did? We even see this void/lack when Jong-su visits Hae-mi’s mother and sister, who not only haven’t seen her but tell Jong-su that she’s not welcome to return until she repays her debts; they’re correct that Hae-mi is responsible for Jong-su’s visit despite his protests that she didn’t send him, they simply don’t realize that its Hae-mi’s absence that is driving him.

I really can’t add any more here without telling you too much. Just go watch Burning. It’s currently streaming for $3.99 (a steal, believe me) on Vudu and Amazon Prime.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Basket Case 2 (1990)

When we last saw Belial and Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck), they had fallen to their presumed deaths, but as Basket Case 2 opens, we learn that they survived their fall and are now semi-famous as the “Times Square Killer Twins.” After a brief interlude at the hospital to which the two were taken, they are collected by the kindly Granny Ruth (Annie Ross) and her lovely granddaughter Susan (Heather Rattray), who whisk the two back to Ruth’s home, a Staten Island mansion that the older woman has set up as a home for “unique individuals” like Belial, where they can live out their lives in peace, away from the prying eyes of society. These include such various freaks as Platehead, Half Moon (who looks a bit like Mac Tonight), Huge Arthur, and Frog Boy (played by none other than Tom Franco–yes, of those Francos). Belial takes to this new situation pretty quickly, even meeting a lady Belial named Eve (yes, they eventually hook up, and yes, we get to see every excruciatingly gross and hilarious moment of it), while Duane immediately falls for Susan, seeing in her the chance for a normal life that he could have now that he and Belial have finished exacting vengeance upon the doctors who originally separated them. It seems like the Bradley Brothers may have finally found peace… except that Marcie (Kathryn Meisle), a sleazy reporter for the tabloid Judge & Jury, is hot on their trail, with the backing of her editor Lou (Jason Evers) and the help of private gumshoe Phil (Ted Sorel). Before the boys can get their happily ever after, they have to make sure there are no more breadcrumbs that could lead the outside world to their new home.

Basket Case 2 is a very different animal from Basket Case, and not just because of the influx of funding, making for a movie that looks better, although its generally more balanced lighting and wider color palette also means that some of what made Basket Case the cult classic it is has been lost. There are still some pretty atmospheric moments, most notably in the bar where Phil meets Duane in an attempt to tempt him to turn in Belial or at the “freak show” where Granny Ruth lets Belial loose on a con artist, but this second film features a lot more daytime shooting than you would expect after the seemingly endless night in which the first movie seemed to take place. In general, the tone is more whimsical; Frank Henenlotter has said that he doesn’t think of himself as a horror filmmaker but as an exploitation director, and in this feature even more than Brain Damage that ethos comes through. The freaks are often horrible (although none of them reach the nauseating, pulsating grotesqueness of Belial), but they’re also pretty non-threatening, especially when they spend much of the film’s runtime comically skittering about in a state of nervous anxiety. They’re simply not scary, which is fine, actually, as it allows for Belial to continue to be a monster and gives Duane the opportunity to explore his dark side. His previous reluctant involvement in Belial’s revenge scheme evaporates, as he finds there’s a deep well of darkness within that he can tap to take action against all those who would seek to do harm to his new family. For all of its cheap thrills and corny gore, Basket Case could never be accused of having a character arc, which Basket Case 2 actually does. The extent to which Belial could be developed is pretty limited, but Duane moves from being merely Belial’s enabler/assistant to committing his own crimes and even self-identifying as a freak despite being the most normal (looking) person in the house other than Ruth and her granddaughter. This comes to a head, however, when he realizes that Susan is hiding her own freakishness and reacts… poorly, he attempts to correct his error by going way overboard, but I’ll leave the details of his overcorrection for you to discover on your own, dear viewer.

Of the Basket Case trilogy, BC2 is my favorite. Despite the eight year production gap, Van Hentenryck slides back into the role of Duane pretty easily (even if it’s impossible to ignore that he went from a young-looking 28/29 during the production of the first film to a youthful-but-obviously-older 37 by the time of BC2, despite the second film picking up moments after the end of the first), and Belial is still Belial. Duane gets some great stuff to do here, even if he’ll be completely supplanted as the star by Ross’s Granny in the final Basket Case (for better and for worse). You can see why Henenlotter chose to take that direction in this film, where Duane’s restrained madness is great, but not nearly as delightful as Ross’s utter commitment to the role, as perhaps best evinced in the scene where she counsels Belial, which contains the immortal line “I understand your pain, Belial, but ripping the faces off people may not be in your best interest.” There’s a great expansion of new freaks that also puts BC2 at the top, and it’s more restrained than BC3 will be; that film will add even more “unique individuals” but lose some of the best ones from here (alas, Frog Boy, I wish we could have known you better). Ultimately, this film also has the best individual sequence in the whole trilogy in the scene in which Marcie finds herself cornered in her own home, only to realize that there might be something unexpected in one of her own baskets . . . .

I’m proud to say it’s one of the best looking films in my VHS collection (I’m guessing it wasn’t a very popular rental, given that it plays like it’s the first time every time), but for those of you without this kind of access, Basket Case 2 is available for rent for the low, low price of $1.99 on YouTube.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2019

There are 37 feature films nominated for the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony. We here at Swampflix are conspicuously more attracted to the lowbrow & genre-minded than we are to stuffy Awards Season releases, so as usual we have reviewed little more than half of the films nominated (so far!). We’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees, though. Last year was an incredibly rare occurrence where three films from our own Top Films of 2017 list were nominated for Oscars, two of which won major awards – Get Out (our Movie of the Year) for Best Original Screenplay and The Shape of Water for Best Picture. That’s astonishing, given the Academy’s historic distaste for the weirdo genre films we passionately seek out. I doubt we’ll ever see that anomaly again (not that I wouldn’t love to be proven wrong). This year’s list of nominees, for instance, has zero overlap with Swampflix’s Top Films of 2018 list; none of our consensus picks even snuck into the technical categories where bizarre phrases like “The Academy Award-Winning Suicide Squad” are born. Still, plenty of movies we enjoyed did land some high-profile nominations, and 50% of the Best Picture nominees were reviewed with great enthusiasm on the site (the less we say about the other 50%, the better). The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually choosing winners, but the last two Best Picture victories (for The Shape of Water & Moonlight) have felt like a welcome change in the tide. Even if the statues ultimately go home with the wrong nominees, though, the list below isn’t half-bad as a representation of the cultural landscape of 2018 cinema.

Listed below are the 20 Oscar-Nominated films from 2018 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best, based on our star ratings. Each entry is accompanied by a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

1. Black Panther, nominated for Best Picture, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing

“Representation can and must transcend dramatization and metaphor-making of real world trauma; the past and the framework it created for contemporary existence cannot be denied, but looking to the future is important too. This movie may not be for you, but you will be better for having seen it, and the huge numbers of white Americans who would never pay to see a movie with an (almost) all black cast were it not a Marvel property will also be better for it. This is a film company that has become an indomitable box office powerhouse using that power for good, and that’s worth celebrating.”

2. BLacKkKlansman, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver), Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Adapted Screenplay

“It’s been a while since a movie had me ping-ponging from such extremes of pure pleasure & stomach-churning nausea. What’s brilliant about BlacKkKlansman is that it often achieves both effects using the same genre tools. Even when it’s taking the structure of an absurdist farce, its humor can be genuinely funny or caustically sickening. Racism is delivered kindly & with a wholesome American smile here, without apology; shamelessly evil bigotry is presented in the cadence & appearance of a joke, but lands with appropriate horror instead of humor. Lee only further complicates his genre subversion by mixing that horror with actual, genuine jokes, so that the film overall maintains the structure of a comedy.”

3. Roma, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio), Best Supporting Actress (Marina De Tavira), Best Cinematography, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and Best Original Screenplay

“The crisp black & white cinematography and the epic scale of its cast of extras could cynically be perceived as an empty attempt to ‘elevate’ domestic labor to the perceived prestige of Oscar Worthy filmmaking. The film is not pretentious or coldly distanced enough to fully justify that cynicism, however, as it’s packed with enough flaccid dicks, dogshit, and general pessimism about the routines & familial dynamic of this kind of labor to be dismissed as ingratiating or watered down.”

4. The Favourite, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Olivia Colman), Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, and Best Production Design

“The jokes fly faster & with a newfound, delicious bitchiness. The sex & violence veer more towards slapstick than inhuman cruelty. The Favourite is Yorgos Lanthimos seeking moments of compromise & accessibility while still staying true to his distinctly cold auteurist voice – and it’s his best film to date for it.”

5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“A shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & medium combo that should be a total drag, but instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t seen the feat achieved onscreen with my own two eyes – which are still sore from the vibrant, hyperactive swirl of interdimensional colors & spider-people that assaulted them in gloriously uninhibited 3D animation.”

6. If Beale Street Could Talk, nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Regina King), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score

“On just a basic level of aesthetic beauty, If Beale Street Could Talk is a soaring achievement. The fashion, music, and portraiture of its vision of 1970s Harlem are an overwhelming sensual experience that fully conveys the romance & heartbreak of its central couple in crisis. It’s initially difficult to gauge exactly how tonally & structurally ambitious the film will become, but by the time Tish is recounting America’s long history of Civil Rights abuses over real-life photographs from our not-too-distant past, it almost feels like an excerpt from the James Baldwin-penned essay film I Am Not Your Negro, a much more structurally radical work from start to end. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s merits as a boundary-testing art piece require patience & trust on the audience’s end, but it’s something Barry Jenkins has earned from us (and then some) with his previous work.”

7. Can You Ever Forgive Me?, nominated for Best Actress (Melissa McCarthy), Best Supporting Actor (Richard E. Grant), and Best Adapted Screenplay

“Marielle Heller’s greatest achievement in this film is in inhabiting Israel’s voice & POV, the same way the infamous forger inhabited the voices of the literary figures whose graves she robbed. No matter how prickly or destructive Israel can be in the film, we never lose sight of the fact that the world let her down first, that life is a bum deal that doesn’t deserve a single ounce of effort whether or not she’s willing to give it.”

8. Shoplifters, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film

Shoplifters is a little less patient, a little more formalist, and a lot more blatant in its themes about the unconventional shapes families form in poverty & crisis, but the overall effect is just as tenderly devastating here as it was in Kore-eda’s earlier film Nobody Knows. I think I even slightly preferred the less documentarian approach here, if not only because Nobody Knows is so punishingly somber while this one is more open to notes of sweetness & sentimentality even if both films share in the same grim themes.”

9. A Quiet Place, nominated for Best Sound Editing

“Disregarding Platinum Dunes’s shaky reputation within the horror community and Cinema Sins-style logic sticklers’ nitpicky complaints about its premise & exposition, it’s remarkable how much personality & genuine familial tension John Krasinski was able to infuse into this genre film blockbuster; it’s the most distinctive film to bear Michael Bay’s name since Pain & Gain.”

10. Isle of Dogs, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, Best Original Score

“A stop-motion animated sci-fi feature about doggos who run wild on a dystopian pile of literal garbage, the basic elevator pitch for Isle of Dogs already sounds like a Madlibs-style grab bag of the exact bullshit I love to see projected on the big screen, even without Wes Anderson’s name attached. As he already demonstrated with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director’s twee-flavored meticulousness also has a wider appeal when seen in the context of stop-motion, which generally requires a level of whimsy, melancholy, and visual fussiness to be pulled off well. That’s why it’s so frustrating that Isle of Dogs is so flawed on such a fundamental, conceptual level and that I can’t help but thoroughly enjoy it anyway, despite my better judgment.”

11. Ready Player One, nominated for Best Visual Effects

“I’m baffled by the consensus that Ready Player One is intended to be seen as a fun popcorn movie. To me, it’s a nightmare vision of a plausible near-future Hell that we’re helplessly barreling towards. Maybe that qualifies me as a hater. I wouldn’t know; you’d have to ask a fanboy. I do suspect, though, that the film’s director shares that same point of view somewhere beneath his King Nerd exterior.”

12. Hale County This Morning, This Evening, nominated for Best Documentary Feature

With the fractured, narrative-light meandering of a photojournal in motion, Hale County This Morning, This Evening plays more like a diary than a proper documentary. Ross appears to be gathering moving images to either calcify a concurrent photography project or to supplement those photographs with a curated installation piece. Either way, the experiment makes for rich raw material to pull from in the editing room when repurposed for a feature-length non-fiction piece, no matter how disjointed the result.

13. Solo: A Star Wars Story, nominated for Best Visual Effects

“The dependency upon references to past material (and presumably planting seeds to be reaped in future Star Wars stories, every year from now until you’re dead, so just shut up and give Disney your money already you pathetic fleck of lint) drags this movie down. Although it’s occasionally buoyed back up by strong performances and jokes that actually land, and it somehow manages to stick the landing, there’s just so much here that you’ll want to forget. There’s almost a good film in here, but there’s also definitely a pretty bad one. If you happen to miss the first thirty minutes, you’ll likely have a much better time, but there’s no guarantee.”

14. Cold War, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography

“As impressed as I was with the film’s storytelling efficiency, it felt like the deadly attraction at its core kept getting cut short every time it started to heat up. The result was very pretty to look at, but also frustratedly stilted in its movement.”

15. Minding the Gap, nominated for Best Documentary Feature

“We’re so used to seeing skateboarding highlights meticulously edited into the music video-cool montages that make it seem like the most transcendent sport on Earth. That informal training ground is exactly where Bing Liu cut his teeth as a filmmaker, but Minding the Gap finds him stripping all of that perceived cool away to reach for a difficultly intimate level of honesty & vulnerability.”

16. Avengers: Infinity War, nominated for Best Visual Effects

“I’m sure that future re-watches (especially at home, on a screen that’s smaller and thus better at hiding the flaws of bad computer imagery) will likely leave me with a more positive feeling (and I reserve the right to change my opinion at a later date), especially after the second half of this narrative is released next summer. For now, though, I just can’t bring myself to love this. It’s not because it’s a bummer; I think that was a good choice and I usually prefer that. It’s not because it’s popular, either; that’s never been a problem for me. Ultimately, the problem for me has nothing to do with what’s in the movie, but everything that it’s missing.”

17. A Star is Born, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Actress (Lady Gaga), Best Supporting Actor (Sam Elliott), Best Cinematography, Best Original Song, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Adapted Screenplay

“Someone with a much kinder ear for the proto-country Dad-rock Cooper & Gaga perform as a duo in the film will likely have a much easier time swallowing its attacks on the Authenticity of high-gloss pop music than I did. Even if not, the improv looseness of the film’s early, pre-popshaming stretch is infectiously charming, enough so that it carries the film though much of its second-half rough patches.”

18. Mary Queen of Scots, nominated for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup

“Had the potential to function like a one-on-one rivalry on Drag Race All Stars, but instead quietly passes the time like an especially subdued BBC miniseries. My desire for the former is certainly more a result of boisterous portrayals of Elizabeth from actors like Bette Davis, Quentin Crisp, and Judi Dench than anything to do with historical accuracy, but dutiful scholarship isn’t really this movie’s main concern anyway.”

19. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Song

“‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is a wonderful novelty in isolation; it’s the ‘Other Tales of the American Frontier’ that drag this anthology down into regressive tedium as a collection. The Coens’ usual fixation on the philosophy & brutality of Death are perfectly at home with the genre – to the point where they get perilously uncomfortable with its worst trappings.

20. First Reformed, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“Without Travis Bickle’s moral repugnance making his physical & mental decline a complexly difficult crisis to engage with, Reverend Toller’s unraveling feels like a much less interesting, less essential retread of territory Schrader has explored onscreen before, even if the political anxiety driving it this time is more relatable.”

-Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

On the Silver Globe (1988)

When Jazmin Moreno, the programmer for Austin Film Society Cinema’s “Lates” series (“the new cult film canon”) introduced the recent, sold-out screening of Andrzej Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe), she said that, if you were so fortunate as to have seen the film before its 2016 restoration by original director of photography Andrzej Jaroszewicz, you likely only saw a heavily yellowed print and not in a complete translation. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ve seen it translated now. Part of the reason for the perceived incomprehensibility of the piece is that it’s unfinished, but given what extant footage remains, I doubt that the film would have become a success even if the director had been permitted to finish it. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

In 1975, three years after leaving his native Poland in order to avoid censorship by the communist government, director Żuławski achieved financial and critical success in France helming L’important c’est d’aimer (That Most Important Thing: Love). The Polish cultural affairs office opted to invite him to come home and work on films in his native language once again. After spending two years adapting Trylogia Księżycowa (The Lunar Trilogy), science fiction novels written in the first decade of the twentieth century by his own great uncle Jerzy, Żuławski began production, but the project was halted in early 1978 by the newly appointed Deputy Minister of Culture and Art, Janusz Wilhelmi, supposedly due to the film going over its budget, but in reality because the Polish government was uncomfortable with the film’s anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian themes. Although Wilhelmi died in a plane crash shortly thereafter, it was not until the collapse of the ugly communism of that era that the film could be released, and even then only 80% of it had been completed. As completing the film as originally envisioned was essentially impossible, Żuławski filmed contemporary (late eighties) Warsaw along with some nature footage, and he recorded voice over describing the events from the screenplay that were no longer possible to bring to life on film. This was completed in 1988, and the result was screened at Cannes.

Depending upon how you look at it, the story behind the scenes of On the Silver Globe is either an ugly parable about political interference, a warning about the potential pitfalls of overreaching ambition, or a ballad of ultimate, if pyrrhic, victory against the forces of totalitarianism. Depending upon your perspective, this is also the story that happens within the film, although your mileage may vary. When I walked out of the screening and made the same joke to my friends that I made in the introduction above–that I still wasn’t sure I had seen the translated film–I wasn’t kidding. I’m far removed from the production of On the Silver Globe by space, time, philosophy, language, and politics; I honestly can’t figure out how Wilhelmi could possibly have sifted through the material and found enough of a thread of cohesion to definitively determine that any of it was seditious or subversive. To be honest, I wasn’t even entertained. Mystified, yes. Confused, yes. Engaged, also yes. And I was taken on a journey to somewhere I had never dreamed of, and saw things I could not have imagined. That is something truly astounding and deserving of commemoration, even if nothing about it makes sense.

For some context (and a pretty effective demonstration of how little anyone really understands this text), the film’s Wikipedia page identifies it as an adaptation of only the first novel, from which the title is taken. The page about the novel series on which it is based states clearly that “the film adapts the whole trilogy.” Based on the synopses: the first novel is about the initial expedition to the moon to discern whether or not the dark side of the satellite has an atmosphere that could support life, and the colonization of said orb by these pioneers; the second novel is about the coming of another terrestrial visitor who is hailed as a messianic figure by the descendants of the first group and enlisted in their war against the hostile lifeforms which seek to conquer and enslave them, with mixed success; the third novel tells the story of two lunar astronauts on an expedition to the earth. It all seems straightforward enough, right? But while the first and second novels’ plots are definitely present in the film, the third… might be?

The film opens (after an introductory narration from Żuławski) with a man in dirty but ornamented cloaks, furs, and a headdress riding a horse across a snowy wilderness against a sonic backdrop of mournful woodwinds. He bursts into some kind of dilapidated performance hall, where two men in silver suits, presumably astronauts, discuss their situation: they are here among apparently primitive humans, perhaps indigenous, whom they fend off by dispensing speed pills. The younger of the two is criticized by his elder for his apparently having gone somewhat native, including having taken on the facial markings of these tribal humans and even taken their offer of a woman, who now “belongs” to him. The rider from the opening presents them with a piece of space debris, which they identify as ancient and are skeptical that it could have only just fallen from the sky as claimed, but they discover that it is full of “old style” data discs, which they take to a laboratory and view . . . .

From here we follow the story of the first expedition to an unidentified planet (not the moon as in the novel, owing to the advance of scientific knowledge between 1903 and 1977), where a craft of five explorers has crashed, leaving one dead, one critically injured, and three relatively unharmed. Tomasz, the critically injured astronaut, dies shortly after arrival and is mourned by his pregnant lover Marta (Iwona Bielska), the only woman present. Piotr (Jerzy Grałek) becomes the default leader of the group, and Jerzy (Jerzy Trela) uses their cameras to record a history of the expedition, presumably the same one that fell to the ground and is being viewed by the aforementioned astronaut duo. The small group makes their way to a seashore, where they settle in. Marta names her newborn son Tomasz after his father, and she notes that he is growing more quickly than children on earth do; within an undefined but explicitly short period of time, he appears to be six or seven, and the mostly mute Marta begins to paint both his face and hers in the same kinds of patterns as those seen on the primitives in the prologue. Another time jump, and Marta has had several more children, all Piotr’s, and between their rapid aging and maturity, an entire small community has appeared on the shore and, despite the frequent allusions to carrying on only the best things about earth and leaving the ugliness of it behind, this group is still plagued by petty jealousies and sexual violence.

Jerzy lives largely removed from this community and becomes the “Old Man,” a kind of supernatural figure to the fledgling society, possessing a rationality and memory of their former homeworld that is seen as arcaneand perhaps dangerousknowledge. After Piotr is killed by an unknown force, Marta convinces Jerzy to give her one last child; she dies in childbirth. Some time later, Jerzy returns to the seaside and is disgusted to find that these new humans have lapsed into mythologizing their origin almost immediately, characterizing a flash flood that the landing trio endured as a religious deluge and painting Marta as a goddess: “Fertile Marta begat thunder with the moon in heaven . . . She returned swept by the flood and begat fishes,” they say. Now attended by a hunchbacked “actor” and his own mad daughter, Jerzy finds the village under the rule of the “second” Tomasz (really the third, the grandson of the original astronaut who died after the crash), where ritual sacrifice and interpersonal violence are common, women are subjugated as breeding stock, and death has no meaning. Tomasz decides to lead his people across the sea to see what lies on the other side, only to return and tell Jerzy that they found a great city there, but that it was filled with an evil presence that will soon fly across the sea to take vengeance.

Thus ends the first third of the film, as Żuławski’s narration (which runs over apparently unedited footage of Polish shoppers descending an escalator) describes the ultimate fate of the scientific duo from the prologue: taken from the underground laboratory and town limb from limb. Seeing it all on the page like this, it almost seems comprehensible, even logical, doesn’t it? But this is just the narrative; the film itself is comprised almost entirely of philosophical monologues that are delivered in a series of screams and shrieks. An example: “Wait! Do you remember a man being born? The father endows him with the seeds of every possibility. Each man must cultivate it within himself. If it is vegetal, he will be a plant. If it is sensory, he will be an animal. If it is rational, his essence will become divine; finally, if it is intellectual, he will be an angel or the son of man.” Or: “Although we have thus attempted to get an austere view of this reality whose existence may depend on a decent life, on our work, our honor which permits us to express no more than what we ourselves have seen.” Or perhaps you’d prefer this one: “There is truth in anything I say if I am capable of expressing it. Freedom exists and resides in darkness, it turns away from the lust for darkness to lean towards the lust for light. It embraces the light with its everlasting will. And darkness strives to capture the light of freedom but it cannot do that because it is centered on its own lust and turns to darkness again.” And the whole time, you as an audience member are thinking to yourself, “Is this what the Polish government was afraid of? This circular and defeatist rhetoric that makes little to no sense?” Every single line is delivered with the same intensity, which becomes exhausting, and the only time you get a break is when someone gets upset and runs into the ocean, which happens with great frequency. People are forever trying to run from their problems into the ocean, getting to waist depth, and then delivering another monologue.

From there, we take another leap forward in time to the arrival of Marek (Andrzej Seweryn), another earthman. His ship is met by an envoy from the settlement and he is borne back to them on a kind of parade float, drifting through sylvan, pastoral vistas before being met by a group of acolytes bearing massive banners and ornamented headdresses. Like everything else in this film, it is visually stunning. When he arrives at the seaside, he finds that they have grown into a veritable (if tiny) nation, complete with an underground civilization (give or take the “civil”). Believing Marek to be the prophesied savior who will lead them to victory over the Sherns, the flightless telepathic bird people Tomasz’s envoy discovered across the water and who, it can be assumed, were the ones responsible for the attack that killed Piotr. In addition to carrying out attacks on the human colonists, they have been experimenting on humans and attempting to create hybrids by raping captured women. Marek is given a woman (Krystyna Janda) to be his consort, and he commits to his role without much hesitation, first defeating a captured Shern in a telepathic battle before leading an assault on their city, which ends poorly. He returns to find that the settlement’s inhabitants have lost their faith in him, executing those who are true believers and ultimately crucifying Marek. Literally.

Again, an out-and-out summary isn’t an accurate way to convey anything about this film, but I felt obligated to share one here, if for no other reason than the fact that I haven’t been able to find a coherent one anywhere on the internet, and even claiming that this one is authoritative would be inaccurate. Some of the elements that I couldn’t parse in my viewing only made sense when taken in conjunction with others’ readings, and in some of them there are inaccuracies that I can identify, meaning that none of us has a true idea what is happening here. Writing for Film Comment, Jonathan Romney helped to clarify that much of what I perceived as unexplained warfare is in fact mass ritualistic battle, but he didn’t follow the narrative throughline “explaining” (ha!) that Marta’s first child was Tomasz’s, followed by an unknown number fathered by Piotr, and bookended by the birth of Jerzy’s child. John Coulthart’s review makes explicit that Marek defeated a Shern telepathically, which I mentioned in my summary above; at the same time, his reading of the text is that the discovery of Jerzy’s footage is what prompts Marek’s expedition, which (a) makes perfect sense but (b) I’m not sure is accurate. Given that the third novel’s narrative was about a reciprocal recon mission back to Old Earth, I think that the scenes with the two astronauts living among primitives and viewing Jerzy’s footage might have been the intended adaptation of this plotline, meaning that what we are seeing are Marta’s descendants returning to the homeworld and finding that mankind has descended into the same kind of barbarism as the tribe of Tomasz. My interpretation here is supported by the earthlike portraiture high in the eaves of the baroque performance hall in which this scene takes place, but Coulthart’s interpretation is supported by the fact that it makes more narrative sense (then again, cohesion was never this film’s intent). Only after reading Scout Tafoya’s review for RogerEbert.com did I understand the secondary narrative intercut with Marek’s story, about another scientist who is Marek’s friend; apparently, he and Marek’s girlfriend were having an affair and sent Marek off to investigate the previous expedition so that they could continue to see each other, and their incomprehensible dialogue is about their attempts to justify the fact that they sent him off to his likely death for their own selfishness. By the time that these scenes are happening, the viewer’s senses have been so thoroughly assaulted that finding meaning in the threads of this apparent chaos is an exercise in futility.

So much of this probably sounds like a complaint, and while that’s not not what’s happening here, that ignores the fact that this movie is stunning. At the intersection of ambition, melancholy, madness, and capital-A Art, there lies the Silver Globe. Sure, the dialogue vacillates between philosophical broadness and situational specificity that it induces whiplash as it bounces from meaningless to incomprehensible and back again, but the words spoken on screen are like the plot: simply background dressing. This is a film that is about the image, and spends all of its run time barreling forward (and backward, and side to side) with a frenetic energy that is never anything other than utterly captivating, disoriented but grounded, and very much alive. If by some miracle this film finds its way to you and you get the chance to experience it, don’t be put off by its 160 minute run time or the fact that you’ll be unable to wrap your head around it after one viewing (and after one viewing, you may never want to experience it again, and that’s fine), and just go and have the experience. Failing that, you could also just watch the trailer that AFS cut together for it 107 times to get an idea.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: An Unmarried Woman (1978)

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 Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and CC watch An Unmarried Woman (1978).

Boomer: Back in August I surrendered to the heat and, instead of walking down to Guadalupe Street to catch the Number 3 Cap Metro bus to the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse, I took an Uber. My driver was an older man named Buzz, who asked what I was going to see, and I told him that they were doing a special showcase called “Women Under the Influence,” and that I was going to see An Unmarried Woman. “AH!” he said. “Jill Clayburgh. I remember going to see that one back in ’78 or ’79. What a performance.”

Buzz had a bunch of other stories, too, which he shared while we took a circuitous route to the theatre (he overshot by a mile or so and we had to turn back around): he had spent lots of time growing up in New Orleans and known the family that oversaw Galatoires; he had served overseas and seen a lot of native tattoo art, and regaled me with the way that American cultural attitudes about tattoos had grown and changed; when he lived in Hawaii, he used to play tennis Lolo Soetoro (aka former President Obama’s stepfather). With a life so full, one wouldn’t think that he would have space to remember going to see a movie forty years ago, but not only did he remember the movie, he remembered Clayburgh’s performance, which was my first clue that I was in for something really special.

Inspired by one of his wife’s recently divorced friends’ identification on a mortgage application as “an unmarried woman,” Paul Mazursky penned and directed a film with that appellation as the title. Erica Benton (Clayburgh) is a modern woman who seems to have it all: a loving husband with whom she’s casual but not caustic, intimate but independent; a smart, capable, socially aware teenage daughter; a great group of friends; a huge apartment with a lovely view of New York. This all comes crashing down around her when her husband admits that he’s fallen for a younger woman that he met while running a routine errand, and he intends to leave Erica for her. Suddenly single after seventeen years, Erica emerges into the newly sexually free world of the late seventies, only to find it as confusing as it is liberating, populated by gatekeepers and horndogs, friends and lovers, creeps and honest men alike, and none of them any less complex than she is.

This is a beautiful movie, from the sweeping shots of Erica dancing around her apartment, to her poignantly singing “Baby I’m Amazed” at the piano with her daughter, to the understated elegance of a dialogue-free skate around the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. I would almost call it a perfect movie, save for one thing: I’m still a little disappointed that the film ends with Erica deciding to pursue a relationship with a man, albeit a decent and mostly likable one. In my vision of this as a perfect movie, the ending is more ambiguous about whether or not Erica will commit to a new partnership or continue to live as a single, not just unmarried, woman for a time before giving it another go, long term. Brandon, what do you think? Was this ending satisfactory for you, or would you have preferred a slightly tweaked one? How much, if any, do you think the era of this film’s production affected that ending?

Brandon: I would be in total agreement if the film ended with Erica following her new painter boyfriend to his yearly retreat into Nature with his family. She’s tempted by his offer to spend her days lounging around reading books, watching him paint, and forming a new idyllic family in the woods, but she ultimately rejects it in favor of staying behind in New York City to continue her personal work at the art gallery. That decision is a major personal crossroads for Erica, because the painter is essentially asking her to become a married woman again, to define her life by the needs & accomplishments of a husband, and she refuses. Even if she does remain romantically attached to the painter for the rest of their lives, she appears to be much more independently minded than she was when we first meet her as the dutiful wife of a business prick.

Instead of Erica caving to the painter’s relentless, childish insistence that she tag along, the ending we do get is something a little more lyrical. The boyfriend unloads a massive painting of his onto her as “a gift” and leaves her to carry it across the city to her new apartment all by herself. It starts out as a childish prank on the painter’s part, as he’s frustrated that he can’t control Erica’s behavior and finds a cheeky way to punish her for it. As the image of Erica dragging the painting through crowds & against gusts of winds develops, though, it stops being about the painter at all and starts reflecting more on Erica’s determination & resilience. Life is just as absurd & unmanageable of an obstacle as that painting, yet she carries on anyway.

That ending plays ambiguously enough for me as is. I’m not sure whether Erica’s new relationship with the painter will work out long-term, but I also don’t think it matters. Although the men in her life are certainly significant as a source of conflict, this is ostensibly a film about women. My frustration with watching Erica’s romance develop with the artist wasn’t in where they settle by the end credits, but rather in how much screen time the new boyfriend was siphoning away from the women in Erica’s life. I was fascinated by Erica’s headstrong daughter, her proto-Sex and the City gal pals, and her spellbinding therapist (played by Dr. Penelope Russianoff, a real-life NYC psychotherapist who specialized in helping women feel independent & self-sufficient outside male companionship). Any minute spent away from them in favor of profiling Erica’s relationship with a man felt a little like time wasted.

Paul Mazursky’s signature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was iconic for capturing the American sexual zeitgeist at the height of Free Love politics in the late 1960s. Nearly a decade later, An Unmarried Woman finds him attempting to do the same for the psychology of women’s liberation and its social fallout as traditional marital norms faded away. A major difference in his approaches to these works seems to be a choice of POV. While Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice spreads its POV across two couples, An Unmarried Woman is largely about Erica’s inner psyche, to the point where we’re invited to sit in on her most intimate therapy sessions & look in on her dancing alone in her underwear to Swan Lake as if no one is watching.

Britnee, do you think An Unmarried Woman benefited from focusing on Erica as our centering protagonist? Do you think Mazurksy could have said more about the state of The Woman in the late 1970s by spreading its POV around to include her daughter, her therapist, and her proto-Sex and the City crew, or were we better off anchored to a fixed, deeply personal portrait of one woman in crisis?

Britnee: Erica is such a likeable character, so I think the heavy focus on her experience as a single woman was what made this film so wonderful. However, my favorite parts of the film involved Erica’s interactions with her amazing group of friends and her fabulous therapist, Tanya. Experiencing the POV of all the wonderful women in this film sounds great, but there’s no way it would’ve turned out as cohesive as it did if the screen time was shared. I would have loved to see more focus on Erica’s relationships with the women in her life from her own POV. There was a little too much time spent focusing on her budding relationship with her boring artist lover. I wanted more fun nights out on the town with the girls and more sessions with Tanya. Having an such a prominent real-life therapist playing the role of Tanya is such a treat, and it’s a shame that we only got a few minutes worth of her advice and guidance.

I truly loved how An Unmarried Woman didn’t follow the same route as most other films that focus on women dealing with a cheating husband and failed marriage. Erica didn’t give her husband a pass on his mid-life crisis and fall into his arms when he came crawling back to her, and she didn’t seek revenge on her husband or his mistress. Erica had such an admirable attitude through it all. She invested her time and energy in herself and created a new chapter in her life.

As much as I like Erica’s character, she is a privileged white woman living in a high-end apartment in New York City, which means she has access to more resources to help her through her divorce (therapy, income, housing, etc.). In reality, most women going through a divorce don’t have it so easy, and this is especially true for the time period of this film. I think An Unmarried Woman could have benefited from incorporating some real-life struggles that newly divorced single mothers had to deal with in the late 1970s.

CC, do you think Erica’s character could have been more relatable?

CC: I thought this film was . . . fine. I loved the scene where Erica & her daughter belted “Baby I’m Amazed” together at their piano and I thought the scenes with her girlfriends and therapist were generally amusing, but overall I was just kinda . . . eh on the film as a whole. I do think that’s largely because I don’t relate to Erica or her struggles. The idea that she could go to a therapist and fully expect her ex-husband to fund her appointments is mind boggling. I’m sure we could all take the time to become happier, more independent people if we had the means, but many of us are too dependent on constant, never ceasing employment to ever take a moment just to figure out who we are and who we’d like to become.

As unrealistic as her financial situation may be, there were still several naturalistic scenes that resonated with me. The reason I loved the “Baby, I’m Amazed” scene in particular is because it felt like a genuine moment shared between real people. I found it both comical and fascinating that the two actors can’t sing especially well, but belt the entire song out with all their heart anyway. This sweet, joyous scene is as understandable as Erica’s wealth and privilege are incomprehensible.

Boomer, you also pointed out the “Baby I’m Amazed” scene as a highlight. Were there any other moments that stuck out to you as humorously or peculiarly naturalistic in the same way? Also, I assume Erica’s wealthy New Yorker life is no more relatable to yours than it is to mine, yet you seem to appreciate the film way more than I do. Was it the naturalism that stuck out to you as well or something else entirely?

Boomer: While I certainly find that Erica lived a more privilege life than most (I already mentioned the spectacular cityscape that can be seen from her apartment), I suppose that I was also primed to accept that Erica’s husband was indebted to her via their matrimonial arrangements even after their split by several seasons of Mad Men which showed Don Draper’s ex-wives receiving pretty hefty alimony payments while not working: Betty got to keep their house following their divorce and received consistent money from Don, and Megan got enough money to buy her own place in the LA hills despite not being able to make it financially as an actress. Those divorces (and the resultant alimony settlements) came in the sixties, but the seventies setting of An Unmarried Woman is closer in time to that period, when divorced women largely found themselves without any means of support post-separation due to the way society frowned on women having occupations outside of the home, and thus having huge gaps in their resumes if they were suddenly in need of employment. It’s a reflection on a particular time in American society from which we are removed by forty years of social and economic change, various movements for (and unfortunately against) wider roles for women in the workplace and in the upper echelons of management, and wider employment for women, despite continued income inequality for women and other sex- and gender-based biases that create unjust stratification in the workplace.

This was something that I found annoying when watching Mad Men as well–that Don, as much as I detested him, was so financially responsible for his former spouses despite no longer being legally joined to them–but like many things in that program, it exists as a reminder of that show’s thesis, that no matter how much we may feel the need to romanticize the past, the rampant injustices and social evils of that era (homophobia, sexism, systemic and individual racism, sexual abuse of spousal privilege, disrespect for natural resources, child abuse) must always be remembered and used to temper any nostalgic reminisces as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go. That we are so far removed from the expectation that ex-husbands should prop up their ex-wives’ finances can lend itself to us being more unkind to women like Erica (and Betty, although not really Megan) than is strictly fair. The difference is that Mad Men was an intentional demonstration of this, while An Unmarried Woman is more of an unintentional period piece in this way, capturing a snapshot of American society at the time and the expectations that would have been normal when looking at Erica’s role (or lack thereof) in society, the economy, and her own family.

That’s not to say that Erica’s privilege isn’t something that can make the audience feel removed from (and thus somewhat unsympathetic toward) her trials and tribulations, but it was nonetheless groundbreaking that this New Hollywood/New Wave film chose to put the focus of this narrative solely on Erica and her friends. Compared to other female-led films that came out that same year, it’s not surprising that the film was so different from the status quo that it stood out enough to garner nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress: we have two “women in peril” horror/thriller films in the form of the original Halloween and The Eyes of Laura Mars; the abysmal sports/romance flick Ice Castles; the extremely controversial Louis Malle film Pretty Baby; and two disco queen vehicles, Diana Ross’s The Wiz and Donna Summer’s Thank God It’s Friday. An Unmarried Woman was genuinely something unseen before as it focused so completely on Erica’s journey, even if the changes in her life are made more manageable and navigable by her relative financial freedom, opening doors for other films to explore more down-to-earth scenarios about women who are not positioned as well as Erica was to explore her post-marriage life and psyche. That having been said, you’re not alone in your dismissal of the film’s messages on the basis of Erica’s privilege: Todd Gitlin and Carol S. Wolman wrote in the Autumn 1978 publication of Film Quarterly (unfortunately, only the first few paragraphs can be read without going over to JSTOR, which I can no longer access) that An Unmarried Woman “wants to capitalize on feminism” but “is more a cartoon about the condition of life among the Manhattan chic,” and that Mazursky’s films are “something of a melange of New Yorker stories and New Yorker ads” with this one in particular having “the familiarity of a string of cliches” (ouch). And this is coming from a contemporary criticism, not one that looks back at the film after decades. I certainly can’t dismiss your criticism (and I agree with you about much of it), but that didn’t stymie my appreciation.

As far as the scenes that struck me as particularly naturalistic, we’ve already noted the “Baby I’m Amazed” scene and the final scene in which Erica is forced to carry the large painting across New York, but the one that was most noted by the friend who saw the film with me last summer was the skating scene at Rockefeller center, a lovely bit of dialogue-free exploration of Erica’s newfound freedom. On a darker note, the scene in which Erica’s (much older) physician immediately attempts to flirt with her so soon after her divorce reflects an ugly truth about men in general and especially about men in a position of authority and who approach women at their most vulnerable (in this case, as both a recent divorcee and as his patient), and the scene in which Erica fends off the advances of one of her first dates in the back of a cab. There’s a naturalness to both these scenes that reveal something ugly about human nature, in contrast to the veritable incandescence of Erica in the scenes in which she is flying free, as when she dances or skates. The best, however, is in the moment she gathers up the reminders of her ex-husband and piles it all in one place, seeing for the first time how little he has truly left behind while also observing how dense his presence is: there’s not much there, but it weighs a lot.

Brandon, even in a film with such an intense focus on a singular character, it’s unusual for a movie to have its protagonist present in every single scene, as is the case here with Clayburgh. Can you think of any other films that are so tightly focused on a single character? Do they work as well as this one does, or not? Would this film have been any stronger if, for instance, there were scenes in which she was absent, or would that have weakened the overall movie?

Brandon: Because I very recently watched all of her feature films, Josephine Decker’s work is what most immediately comes to mind. In Madeline’s Madeline, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, and Butter on the Latch, Decker also sinks her audience into the life & psyche of a single protagonist (typically a young woman on the verge of mental collapse), and wastes very little energy on the concerns of the world at large. The difference there is that Decker’s aggressively immersive filmmaking style is an overwhelming sensory experience where we filter the world outside the protagonist’s head through their own warped, disjointed interpretation of reality. Mazurksy’s approach here is more detached & academic. We exclusively follow Erica around New York City as she navigates her new post-divorce reality, but when her own inner thoughts & emotions are reluctantly dragged out of her by her therapist they’re less distinctively warped or personal. They’re more indicative of societal pressures on women in general than they are specific to one woman’s mind. I don’t think that difference in approaches indicates that either Decker or Mazursky are superior or inferior to each other as filmmakers. I think they’re just working at different goals (and in different eras). Decker’s arthouse sensory immersion style allows the audience to peer in on the very peculiar, singular POV of a character on the fringe, while Mazursky uses Erica as an indicative archetype of where The Modern Woman at large was in the late 1970s.

To that end, if Mazursky were to open this movie up to include other characters’ inner lives, the choice of where to expand is obvious. The other women in Erica’s life are all rich, nuanced characters despite their presence depending on her own narrative. Her daughter’s declaration that she will never marry because it’s a bum deal; her therapist’s quietly perceptive challenges to her self-policed desires; her friends’ own struggles with mental health, alcoholism, and casual sex (especially in the arc involving Gilmore Girls‘s Kelly Bishop): all the women in Erica’s life have scene-stealing moments that suggest the film could’ve been more of an ensemble-cast narrative while having just as much to say about the state of The Woman in late-70s NYC. That’s a massive topic to cover in under two hours, though, so the film was probably better off as a concise, cohesive product by sticking to just one character’s POV and allowing the other women to develop sharply in the periphery. Expanding on their personae without losing sight of Erica’s journey would require seasons-long efforts of TV-style writing, as in the aforementioned Manhattanite programs Mad Men & Sex in the City that this movie occasionally recalls.

Part of the reason it’s so frustrating that An Unmarried Woman wastes time detailing Erica’s relationships with the men in her life is because they aren’t nearly as richly fleshed out as the women around her, who all could have used more screentime. From her skirt-chasing husband to the taxi cab groper to the numskull artists who hit on her at the gallery, the men in Erica’s life are cartoonishly simple buffoons. The most buffoonish of them all, a knuckle-dragging sculptor named Charlie, even boils down his life philosophy to the simple explanation, “There’s work, there’s food, and there’s sex. Nothing more.” Britnee, do you think An Unmarried Woman was purposefully trying to say something about the animalistic simplicity of men versus the emotional nuance of women in these characterizations or was that an accidental result of this being a film primarily about women? Were the men in Erica’s life ever as interesting to you as the women or were they just wasting valuable space?

Britnee: The women in Erica’s life were much more interesting than the men, but I think the men in the film were purposefully meant to be terrible. Mazursky was trying to show that it’s not so easy for newly single, straight women to jump into a new relationship with a decent man. Even in this day and age, I all too often hear people give the same advice to female divorcees: “You’ll find someone before you know it!” The truth is that not every man is a gem, and women have to deal with sleazy douchebags far too often. I can’t help but think of Charlie when I say “sleazy douchebag.” At the beginning, he seems to be a harmless pain in the ass that likes to eat sandwiches in art galleries. After Erica has a one night stand with him, he insults her in front of a huge group of people at a party because he’s jealous of her more serious relationship with Saul. Charlie obviously sucked, but his character was necessary to show the ugly side of being “single and ready to mingle.”

Speaking of men in Erica’s life, I didn’t really like Saul. He wasn’t a monster or anything like that, but he was so dull (and his paintings were terrible). I wish Erica’s first boyfriend post-divorce would have had more personality. CC, how did you feel about Saul? Would this movie have been better if his character was a little more interesting?

CC: Ugh, better not call Saul, am I right? But no, seriously, Saul was terrible. The bar of human decently was set so low for the men of this film and he barely squeaked by. All he had to do was not dump her for a younger woman & immediately crawl back (check), not call her a whore in a room full of people including her new boyfriend (check), and not attempt to assault her in a cab (check). He still manages to throw a temper tantrum, smashes a mug on purpose, and passive aggressively gifts Erica an unwieldy painting he assumes she will not be able to transport on her own as punishment. His art was as mediocre as his personality. I hope Erica dumps him the following winter, outside in front of her brownstone, and after she’s left to go back into the cozy refuge she’s created for herself a cab drives by and splashes frigid, NY garbage water on Saul.

Do I want Saul to be better? Do I wish Erica had met someone else that was more charming, kind, interesting, and talented? Honestly, not really. This film is about Erica’s transformation into an independent being and putting her back into a “perfect” relationship at the end would have shifted the message of the film: from, “Women should be happy, self-sufficient people who don’t need another person to give them meaning” to “If you work hard and become a better version of yourself, you’ll find your Mr. Right in no time.” A film that’s attempting to portray the realities faced by divorcees of a specific demographic in a specific time period should not try to shift style and end as a romantic comedy. Romantic comedies aren’t realistic, and by the end of this film Erica no longer needed that type of happy ending.

Lagniappe

Boomer: I’ll also chime in here to note that my dissatisfaction with Erica ending up in a relationship may have more to do with my dislike for Saul than my disinterest in her having a relationship at all.

Brandon: I absolutely love the opening scene to this movie. We enter Manhattan through a sweeping, saxophone-heavy 70s schmaltz style that promises a very calm, adult picture about serious, mature topics. Then, on a couple’s morning jog, Erica’s husband steps in a pile of dogshit and starts raving like a lunatic, recalling Mink Stole’s hateful rants at the top of Desperate Living. He exclaims, “This city’s turning into one big pile of dogshit!,” a hilarious opening note of seething anger that completely (and intentionally) undercuts the measured, mature credits sequence that precedes it. It’s a choice that smartly assures the audience the following film will not be humorless, despite the seriousness of its subject.

Britnee: I cannot shake the scene of Erica throwing up after finding out her husband is having an affair. I didn’t expect her to spew out vomit on screen. It was just so brutal.

CC: I really liked the metallic silver wallpaper in the bathroom of Erica’s home with her husband and I accidentally stumbled across a really similar print the other day:

Upcoming Movies of the Month
March: CC presents Love Me If You Dare (2003)
April: Brandon presents Local Legends (2012)
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)

-The Swampflix Crew