P.S. I Love You (2007)

If you read a plot synopsis for the 2007 chick-flick oddity P.S. I Love You without any other context, you’d likely mistake the film for a heart-wrenching melodrama, a romantic weepie. This a movie in which a careerless New Yorker (Hillary Swank) loses her young, brash husband (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor before the opening credits. As a final grand romantic gesture, the husband had arranged for a series of posthumous letters to be delivered to his wife from beyond the grave, each prompting her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the past. The obvious, default tone for this narrative would be Sirkian sentimentality & heightened emotional catharsis. What makes the movie fascinatingly perverse is that it isn’t a drama at all, but rather an impossibly dark, morbid comedy that plays its tragic premise for yucks instead of tears. All its surface details convey a commercial, conventional “woman’s picture” about a young widow mending her broken heart. In practice, though, it’s a pitch-black comedy that plays the trauma of losing a romantic partner to brain cancer as an opportunity for some jovial gallows humor.

Not only does P.S. I Love You play like a subversive black comedy despite its conventional surface, it specifically plays like a morbid subversion of the romcom format. The only difference is that in this scenario The Wrong Guy that the lovelorn protagonist must get over so she can better herself happens to be her husband’s ghost. His letters from the afterlife prompt her to revisit memories & locations from their shared past as a proper last goodbye, but they also allow his sprit to re-enter the picture and comfort her as she feels his presence in these old haunts. His letters even push her to find new potential beaus (or at least one-night boytoys) in bit-role hunks Harry Connick Jr. & Jeffrey Dean Morgan (whose naked butt is ogled at length for straight-lady titillation). Like in all romcoms, the best characters are the ones with no stakes who’re only there to lighten the mood, with no real plot-related obligations; in this case it’s Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Bates as Swank’s family & gal-pals, a stellar lineup by any standard. Unlike in most romcoms, though, her personal success in the film is not defined by finding a replacement husband, but rather finding the fine art of Shoes. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s unusual for a joke-heavy romcom to open with the protagonist’s husband dying of a brain tumor.

Besides being shockingly morbid for a romcom (and borderline supernatural), P.S. I Love You is also certifiably drunk. That choice is questionable, given the harmful cliché it propagates about its characters’ Irish & Irish-American communities, but the sea-legs alcoholism of the film does afford it a distinctly human, relatable tone that’s often missing from these mainstream romcoms. Characters drink past blackout, raising their glasses to the dead while slurring along with the most vulgar Pogues songs on the jukebox. When the widow imagines in a flashback that her husband is “the only person in the room,” the number of beer bottles & plastic cups strewn about the empty bar they’re in is astronomical. The film even opens with a drunken late-night fight a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home from a party, Butler & Swank argue vehemently about children, money, careers, romance, and sex in an off-puttingly drunk communication meltdown, then immediately kiss & makeup. That’s our only taste of the husband before his untimely death. It’s like the movie itself is drunk along with its characters, which is why it’s so carefree about making light of brain cancer & young widowhood. It’s a little jarring tonally, but certainly a lot more fun than a straight-faced, sober drama with this same tragic story would be.

I don’t want to oversell P.S. I Love You as a dark subversion of commercial filmmaking. If anything, the perverse pleasures the film has to offer are in how cookie-cutter & familiar its surface details are despite the tragic humor & borderline magical realism of its premise. That means that a lot of the usual romcom shortcomings apply here: characters complaining about having no money despite living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan lofts; shockingly regressive treatment of anyone who’s not straight or white; reinforcement of Patriarchal standards of femme beauty & health, etc. Worse yet, because the film at least somewhat pretends to be a romantic drama it has the gall to stretch on for a full two hours, which is at least 20min longer than any romcom should ever dare. That’s likely because it drunkenly stumbled into functioning as a romcom by mistake. It over-corrected in lightening its pitch-black tone with proper Jokes and subsequently transformed into a bizarrely fascinating object as a result. P.S. I Love You is too long, politically muddled, and hopelessly confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. Still, it’s well worth putting up with those shortcomings just to witness the novelty of a romcom about a woman who must break up with her drunk husband’s ghost so she can find her true love in Shoes.

It’s also worth it for Lisa Kudrow. She’s very funny, no matter how morbid the context.

-Brandon Ledet

Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973)

The invaluable podcast & film blog The Rialto Report frequently argues that the hardcore pornography & dime-a-dozen smut that was made in the cheap-living days of NYC (before the city was cleaned-up & Disnified by Mayor Giuliani) has an archival value in the way it documents a specific era of history that’s largely ignored by mainstream documentaries. Usually, the archival nature of NYC’s 70s & 80s smut is an unintended symptom of underground filmmakers having free rein over the city (as long as they could avoid arrest for indecency) and assuming that their own XXX-rated material wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone after its brief, localized theatrical runs. Fleshpot on 42nd Street feels like an outlier in that way. The 1973 pornographic melodrama opens with an intentionally documentarian eye. Andy Milligan (the film’s writer, director, and cinematographer) juts his handheld camera outside the passenger window of a moving car, intentionally capturing the faces & places that lurked around its titular district of streetwalkers & porno arcades. From frame one, Milligan is clearly more interested in documenting the lowlife personalities that populate 42nd Street than he is in exploiting their bedroom activities for titillation, exemplifying the archival value of the medium that The Rialto Report so often promotes.

That documentarian impulse was likely a result of Milligan’s increasing boredom with making pornography in general. Fleshpot on 42nd Street was the shameless schlockteur’s final sexploitation film before transitioning into cheapo horror productions full-time. You can tell his heart really isn’t in the genital-grinding end of the business here. The main focus of the film is building a dirt-cheap Sirkian melodrama around the life & crimes of a low-level sex worker (Laura Cannon), not inspiring erections among the sleazy patrons of NYC grindhouses. Much of the film recalls the deranged melodramas of Russ Meyer’s collaborations with screenwriter Jack Moran – titles like Good Morning … and Goodbye! & Common Law Cabin. Characters bicker over the scraps life has left them in sweaty dive bars & public hangout spots around the city, displaying more bitter anger than horned-up libido. When they do have sex, their emotional & physical engagement with the act ranges from total boredom to inhuman cruelty. Characters violate our protagonist’s boundaries of consent in high-risk group sex and S&M scenarios. When tending to lower-maintenance johns, she yawns & rolls her eyes while receiving head, scheming on how to rip the bloke off once they tire themselves out. The few moments of passionate lovemaking she finds are with an outsider Prince Charming businessman from Long Island, who promises to set her free from a life of sex work by transforming her into a suburban housewife. During these romantic trysts, the film takes an out-of-nowhere swerve into hardcore depictions of full penetration, further underlying how different her rare moments of sex-for-pleasure are from her more frequent, tedious, and dangerous professional encounters.

I wonder how much of Milligan’s blatant disinterest in the erotic aspects of this story stem from the fact that he was openly homosexual. Fleshpot on 42nd Street details the heterosexual exploits & romances of one female sex worker as she navigates the scummiest corners of Times Square, so the amount of queer content Milligan allows to creep into the frame is continually surprising. Because the director mostly populates his cast with off (off, off) Broadway thespians he was fiends with on the theatre scene, the performers brings a lot of over-the-top gay energy to even the film’s explicitly hetero roles. Many of the protagonist’s johns are clearly disinterested in her sexually, which helps further defang the eroticism of the picture while also heightening its melodrama. Her comic relief sidekick character is a flippantly cruel trans streetwalker who quips at length in a lived-in, queer-as-fuck dialect that guides most of the film’s tone. Even the tragic hetero romance with the Long Island business prince plays with a breathy melodrama that would appeal to gay kids who’d fake sick to skip school and watch soap operas with their mothers. Fleshpot on 42nd Street may be costumed as straight porn, but it’s mostly over-the-top gay theatre in its execution, if not only through Milligan subconsciously expressing his own interests from behind the camera.

You should know by now whether this sleazy slice of NYC grime would appeal to you. And because we live in a golden age of physical media for cinephiles of all stripes, the film is now available in an ungodly pristine digital restoration of the original 16mm print on Blu-Ray via Vinegar Syndrome. There isn’t much to Fleshpot on 42nd Street content-wise that you wouldn’t be used to seeing in other sexploitation relics of its era. The only distinguishing touches to the film are where Milligan’s auteurist sensibilities happen to slither through: the queer bent, the disinterest in hetero erotica, the shameless indulgence in romantic melodrama, the documentarian eye for a horned-up era in the city’s history that was sure to shrivel up quickly. Even if Milligan was growing tired of making hetero porn, this still comes across as a hands-on, personal project. The camera tilts wildly as he literally climbs into bed with his actors or steals candid shots of NYC street life. You never forget his presence behind the camera as he lights the transactional sex, flippant cruelty, and casual racism of his home turf with a single flashlight, as if he were documenting a crime scene. I don’t know that Fleshpot on 42nd Street has made me any hungrier to track down any other Rialto Report-ready sexploitation pictures of its ilk, but it certainly has me interested in Milligan’s work. At the very least, I bet he’d make one hell of a sleazy horror picture under the right circumstances.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #85 of The Swampflix Podcast: Indecent Proposal (1993) & Adrian Lyne’s Erotic Melodramas

Welcome to Episode #85 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our eighty-fifth episode, James drags Brandon back into the sordid realm of Adrian Lyne’s erotic-thriller melodramas of the 80s & 90s, including Indecent Proposal (1993), Fatal Attraction (1987), and ​9 1⁄2 Weeks (1986). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Nancy (2018)

Andrea Riseborough was one of last year’s clear standouts as a breakthrough performer, although she’s been steadily working for years. Between her haunting presence as the titular role in Mandy and her farcical incredulousness in The Death of Stalin (combined with my personal years-late chance viewings of Oblivion & Never Let Me Go), I feel like I had been bowled over by her talent from several drastically different directions, yet had very little grasp on who she is in the real world. Riseborough is a kind of personae chameleon, always impressive but rarely recognizable in her wildly varied roles & costumes. It was wonderful, then, to find a movie where she was front & center as the POV-commanding protagonist. Mandy may be the higher profile work for the still-rising actor, but she isn’t as spotlighted in the narrative as the title might imply. In Nancy, however, we never lose sight of Riseborough’s titular character, who drifts along through a quiet personal crisis with a wide-eyed stare as the audience tags along in a similar stupor. It’s an excellent showcase for the shapeshifting actor – not only because of her uncharacteristically increased screen time, but also because Nancy herself is an unknowable, unrecognizable enigma.

Nancy is a depressive pathological liar who lives at home as a caretaker for her disabled, verbally abusive mother. We’re introduced to her as she drifts between low-level temp jobs & seemingly meaningless grifts – faking pregnancies, Photoshopping fictional vacations to North Korea, and blogging under imaginary personae. These aren’t money-hungry con jobs either (even though she could really use the money). They came across as desperately hollow attempts to form human connections with strangers, whether or not they’re hinged on complete fabrications. The central conflict of the film is in the audience’s unease with how much we’re willing to believe her motivations & her reliability as a POV anchor. The biggest meaningless grift of her life falls in her lap as she’s watching late-night TV news and a little girl who’s been missing for 30 years is aged through computer simulation to look exactly like her. Shocked, Nancy contacts the missing girl’s parents and suggests that she might be their daughter, recounting half-remembered stories of being abducted as a child. We have no idea whether to believe Nancy, whether she believes herself, or whether her presence in the still-grieving couples’ home is a positive or negative impact. Nancy mostly remains an unrecognizable, haunted-looking enigma to us – the perfect Andrea Riseborough role.

In most ways, Nancy offers little more than what you’d expect from a low-budget film festival release. Ann Down, Steve Buscemi, and John Leguizamo all put in grounded, well-considered performances in the exact kind of supporting roles that attract notable actors to these kinds of projects. Peter Raeburn (who frequently collaborates with Jonathan Glazer) fortifies the atmosphere with a chilling, otherworldly score that underlines Nancy’s permanently lost stasis with a distinct sense of menace. The plot has some strong Lifetime Original Movie energy to it, but it’s no more outlandish or sensational than real-life accounts like Three Identical Strangers. The film’s only shortcoming in quality control is the state of Riseborough’s wig, which looks as if it might spin like a helicopter blade and fly the fuck away at any second. Riseborough has no trouble putting in an excellent performance despite her terrible wig, however, singlehandedly elevating the material from standard indie film fodder to puzzling character study. By the end of Nancy I’m not sure I got any more insight into who Riseborough or Nancy are as people, but I did find their mysterious magnetism to be perfectly matched in a way that made for a great movie regardless.

-Brandon Ledet

Widows (2018)

I’m not sure what aspect of Widows’s marketing led me to expect a stylish heist thriller about vengeful women transforming into reluctant criminals in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. That version of Widows is certainly lurking somewhere in the 128-minute Prestige Picture that’s delivered instead, but it’s mostly drowned out by what I should have known to expect: an ensemble-cast melodrama packed with talented women in beautiful clothes & a world of political intrigue. Everything about 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s involvement, his collaboration with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, and the film’s Oscar-Season release date should have tipped me off that the promise of a heist genre action picture was merely a cover-up for a thoughtful, handsomely staged drama about women’s internal turmoil in the face of gendered, financial, and political oppression. Widows might still be a slight deviation from McQueen’s usual Prestige Drama fare in its isolated nods to heist genre convention, but surprise twists are becoming Gillian Flynn’s clear specialty; this entry in her modest canon includes a twist in the basic tone & genre of what you’d expect from an ensemble-cast heist picture.

Viola Davis stars as the ringleader widow, who attempts to rope three other widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and a barely- present Carrie Coon) into a heist job to help heal the financial wounds left by their dead criminal husbands. Following the detailed instructions left behind by her respective husband (Liam Neeson) in a Book of Henry-style notebook, she transforms from grieving teacher’s union organizer to criminal mastermind in the blink of a teary eye. The nature of her planned caper lands her in the middle of a hard-fought Chicago City Council’s race between brutish local politicians (Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, and Robert Duvall), which is dangerous territory for her small crew of grieving non-professional women who just want to put their lives back together. Oh yeah, and Bad Times at the El Royale’s Cynthia Erivo joins the crew as a getaway driver/muscle, just in case the cast wasn’t already overstuffed. And the dog from Game Night is also along for the ride; and Matt Walsh too. And Lukas Haas. And Jacki Weaver. If the enormity of that cast and the themes of that premise sounds like it might be overwhelming, it’s because it very much is. Widows plays a lot like an entire season of Prestige Television packed into a two-hour span – complete with the execution of the central heist acting as a self-contained episode. The economic & political backdrop of a stubbornly changing modern Chicago sets the stage for a wide range of actors (mostly playing dirtbag men and the women who love them) to patiently wait for their spotlight character moment to arrive in due time. Meanwhile, Flynn adds a new wrinkle to the plot every few beats to leave the audience salivating with anticipation for what’s going to happen next. It’s overwhelming (and a little thinly spread), but it’s also exhilarating.

Widows feels like a movie custom built for people whose all-time favorite TV show is still The Wire (and who could blame ‘em?). Its tangled web of debts, power plays, and barely-concealed vulnerabilities make for sumptuous melodrama, where lines like “We have a lot of work to do. Crying isn’t on the list,” don’t feel at all out of place or unnatural. The POV may be spread out too thin for any one character’s emotional journey to stand out as especially effective, but the performers are all so strong they manage to make an impression anyway: Davis as a once-confident woman at her wit’s end, Kaluuya as an inhuman terror, Erivo as an athletic machine, Debicki as the world’ tallest (and most tragic) punching bag, etc. I was way off-base for looking to Widows as a highly stylized heist thriller, as if it were the 2010s equivalent of Belly. Instead, it’s more of an overachieving melodrama and an actor’s showcase, the exact kind of smartly considered, midbudget adult fare Hollywood supposedly doesn’t make anymore. The action-heist element of the plot is just some deal-sweetening lagniappe for a stylish, well-performed story that would have been just as entertaining without it.

-Brandon Ledet

A Star is Born (2018)

I was almost an hour into A Star is Born when I realized Oscar Season had truly started, because it was then that a very familiar, mildly unpleasant feeling washed over me: I was pressured into watching a competently made, exceptionally performed 3-star drama opening weekend because of its value in the discourse, not because I was especially excited to see it. This fourth iteration of the classic Hollywood tale of fame, jealousy, and tragic romance is a decent movie packed with great performances, one that’s destined to sour in audiences’ collective memory as it’s over-praised in the next four months of Oscars lead-up. Great effort will be made to land Lady Gaga a (perhaps deserved) Academy Award for Best Actress and Bradley Cooper a (not at all deserved) Best Director statue; and the best possible outcome in either case is that they fall just short of winning, so that they don’t suffer significant critical blowback for being overdiscussed & overexamined. Frankly, I find this stretch of the cinematic year to be the most exhausting & unfulfilling, a feeling that hit me about halfway into this totally okay, already overpraised melodrama.

Whether you’ve seen this story play out before with Barbara Streisand, Judy Garland, or (if you’re a thousand years old) Janet Gaynor in the lead, the basic narrative structure of A Star is Born is too familiar to require recounting in a review. The most interesting creative decision Bradly Cooper makes as this version’s auteurist voice is in acknowledging that familiarity by allowing his players to color as freely as they wish within those lines. The entire film boasts an improv looseness in its performances, which are freed up by the rigid structure of its narrative to search for tossed-off, believably natural tones. Drunken (and deliberately unflattering) conversations between Cooper & Gaga’s leads in the film’s early, pre-fame stretch are especially impressive in their immediacy & cavalier looseness. Domestic home life exchanges of overlapping dialogue lovingly shouted between Gaga & Andrew Dice Clay (playing Gaga’s father) also land with a pleasant naturalism, even recalling the similar home life snapshots of the Oscar-winning Cher classic Moonstruck. Unfortunately, that exceptional-performances-contained-by-an-unexceptional-premise dynamic wears thin by the time the film demands that you emotionally commit to its melodrama, especially when Cooper pretends he has something useful to say about that authenticity instead of just letting it be.

Part of the reason I could already feel myself getting exhausted with Oscar Season discourse halfway into A Star is Born is that I was preemptively starting to have very strong, negative takes on how it handles its music industry subject matter, where the material isn’t distinct or daring enough to support that passionate of a reaction. I found the dichotomy Cooper establishes between meaningful, “Authentic” rock-country Americana vs. supposedly frivolous, high-gloss pop music to be gross, especially since the gruff nostalgia & macho guitar noodling that was supposed to stand for good, Authentic art is not at all my cup of tea. Lady Gaga’s drag bar Edith Piaf covers & high-production SNL performances of pop songs about butts struck me as far superior art when compared to the singer-songwriter ballads Cooper’s character “elevates” her to when they collab as a romantic & creative couple, which is the exact opposite of what the film was attempting to convey. I could feel myself getting increasingly angry with the movie’s macho, old-fashioned attacks on the high-gloss, traditionally femme corners of pop music (where Gaga cut her teeth as a performer in real life) for being in-Authentic, until I had a post-screening epiphany: it ultimately doesn’t matter. The movie is too modest in its artistic goals & achievements to justify any real, substantial umbrage; I was just forming a strong take on the subject because of its Importance in the discourse.

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 (including brief appearances from RuPaul’s Drag Race vets Shangela & Willam) is infectiously charming, enough so that it carries the film though much of its second-half rough patches. It’s just much easier to enjoy the film for those performance-specific touches once you divorce it from the context of Oscars talk. A Star is Born is a good movie boosted by excellent performances, but also one hindered by more than a few thematic disappointments (the pop music patronizing is where I personally fixated & soured, but there’s plenty more grossness to pick at elsewhere). The more it’s lauded as the cinematic achievement of the year, something that absolutely must be seen by all, the worse its memory will fare in the ether. That is, until this year’s Oscars statues are doled out and the merits of the performances are all we remember. And then the whole cycle starts over again next October, if not earlier, with the first high-profile melodrama of the Fall. Honestly, I’m already a little tired of that movie too.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 32: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Not all good movies are about Good People. I also like movies about Bad People who have a sense of humor. […] The heroine of The Marriage of Maria Braun does some terrible things, but because she knows some of the forces that shaped her, we understand them and can at least admire her resourcefulness.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “[Fassbinder] gave us what he saw as the rise and second fall of West Germany in the three postwar decades –considered in the context of the overwhelming American influence on his country. With the masterful epic The Marriage of Maria Braun, he made his clearest and most cynical statement of the theme, and at the same time gave us a movie dripping with period detail, with the costumes and decor he was famous for, with the elegant decadence his characters will sell their souls for in a late-1940s economy without chic retail goods.” -from his 1979 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“Fassbinder’s world was one in which sex, ego and money drove his characters to cruelty, sadism and self-destruction. It is never difficult to discover what they want, or puzzling to see how they go about it. His occasional gentle characters, like the old woman in Ali — Fear Eats the Soul (1974), are eaten alive. The suggestion is that the war years and the postwar years wounded the German psyche so profoundly that the survivors wanted what they wanted, now, on their terms. Fassbinder himself was cruel and distant to those around him, particularly those who loved him, and in Maria Braun, he created an indelible monster who is perversely fascinating because she knows exactly what she is doing and explains it to her victims while it is being done.” -from his 2005 review for his Great Movies series

It’d be easy to be fooled by the opening of The Marriage of Maria Braun into thinking that you’re watching a standard war film. A black & white portrait of Adolf Hitler explodes along with the brick wall supporting it, followed by the rich colors of a darkly humorous physical comedy bit where a solider gets married in the midst of a city siege. The notary lies on their belly in the rubble, stamping the proper documents while bombs & bullets fly. Oddly, this is the last we see of the marriage or the explosions until the film’s final, puzzling minutes. German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder is obviously interested in the havoc wreaked by World War II, especially among the people left dazed & defeated in his home country in the years immediately following the war. However, the war itself and the marriage of the film’s title are conspicuously missing from long stretches of the story he tells in one of his most widely seen & widely acclaimed films. Instead, Fassbinder follows the emotional life of the soldier’s wife as the war immediately takes her husband away, leaving her lost & drifting through a country she no longer recognizes. The Marriage of Maria Braun is more of a character study than a war film, although both its physical & emotional settings are noticably devastated by the bombs dropped in the conflict.

The most astounding marvel of this Criterion-distributed work is actor Hanna Schygulla’s performance as the titular Maria Braun. Her marriage to a German soldier depicted with cold humor at the film’s opening lasts less than two days before his duty tears him away from her and he’s eventually reported to be dead. In her husband’s absence, Maria engages in two longterm romantic affairs, one with a black American solider & one with a wealthy white German businessman, both of whom wish to possess her. She enjoys their company, but maintains that her heart belongs to the near-stranger she married at the film’s start. As the husband’s absence transitions from missing soldier to imprisoned criminal, Maria remains entirely honest with him about her affairs, planning to earn a sizable living for them both in the mean time, a life that’s to start as soon as he’s released. That goal provides her post-war drift with a sense of purpose, but mostly she just handles her personal life with the emotional distance of a businesswoman making executive decisions, a demeanor many audiences interpret as deliberate cruelty. There’s something striking about Maria’s casual, matter-of-fact reactions to sexual affairs, murders, miscarriages, and changing clothes in the presence of men that makes the film & the performance feel remarkably modern. She answers a flirt’s question, “Should we have another drink?” with a flat “No, I want to sleep with you,” and makes blanket statements like, “It’s not a good time for feelings.” It isn’t until she’s briefly reinvigorated by her role as a wife in the film’s final minutes until you realize what the war & her husband’s absence have done to her, how much joy & brightness they’ve stolen from her youth.

Fassbinder plays Schygulla’s emotionless cynicism for both tragedy & humor. He sets the melodrama of her tragic status as a soldier’s wife torn between two men (twice!) against the rich color, saccharine orchestral score, and high fashion costume design of a Douglas Sirk film. The Marriage of Maria Braun is an outright gorgeous picture. The curls, furs, and jeweled broaches that adorn each of Maria’s looks feel like the ornaments of a retro magazine fashion spread. The intense blue lighting & glistening coats of excessive post-coitus sweat telegraph much of the aesthetic of Ken Russell’s smut-slathered masterpiece Crimes of Passion. The opening minutes (with their bombastic city siege & images of shellshocked soldiers fighting over smokable cigarette butts) may promise a war film, but what Fassbinder ultimately delivers is something much more aggressively feminine. In his time, Douglas Sirk’s melodramas were often critically dismissed as “women’s pictures.” It seems as if Fassbinder were attempting to resurrect their exact perspective, except with more blatant discussions of sex & desire. Both a tragic & a comedic character, Maria’s inner life commands audience attention & empathy as the distinct historical setting & Fassbinder’s intense visual eye only function to serve & highlight her chilly point of view. It’s just as glamorous & devastating as it is over the top & relatable, an impressively rewarding set of self-contradictions.

I’m not sure that The Marriage of Maria Braun’s ambiguous ending has anything of value to say about its titular protagonist. I’m also not sure if a change in temporal setting would entirety alter her inner life or if post-war Germany was essential to her story. What I can say for sure is that Schygulla’s performance as Maria is instantly recognizable as one of the all-time greats. That striking achievement alone is worth the effort the film asks from its audience in its setting & its ambiguity, especially considering that it’s couched within Fassbinder’s distinct visual eye.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

-Brandon Ledet

Desperate Teenage Lovedolls (1984)

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Ever encounter a movie so poorly made that you’re not quite sure it even qualifies as a real film? Over a year ago Britnee pressured me to take a couple shady-looking DVDs from the trunk of her car in a NASA parking lot in New Orleans East (true story) & I’m not quite sure that either one qualifies as a “real” film. I stil haven’t forced myself to suffer through whatever Da Hip Hop Witch is (though I plan to soon), but after much procrastination I finally dove into the bargain bin depths of Desperate Teenage Lovedolls. Having now actually watched the movie, I still remain unconvinced of its validity as a feature film. Recorded on super 8 cameras in the 80s California punk scene, the “movie” has the feeling of a goofball group of kids’ backyard home video. As soon as the animated heroin needle on the DVD menu & the horrendously dubbed dialogue of the first scene grace the screen, Desperate Teenage Lovedolls at best feels like a project the Troma kids started, but never bothered to complete. It’s an effortlessly punk production for sure, but it’s the kind of half-assed, sloppily drunk punk that registers as less than endearing.

With direct references to past virgins-in-peril melodramas like Valley of the Dolls, Desperate Teenage Lovedolls is a very straightforward story of two female teen punks navigating a male-dominated world of rock & roll stardom. In their pursuit of fame, the two protagonists find themselves homeless, drug addicted, thieving, and suffering the sexual advances of record label sleazeballs before their band (The Lovedolls, duh) finally hits it big time (in a little over a month). By the time they achieve fame, of course, it’s far too late & their lives are destroyed by heroin, gang violence, and looming murder charges. Since the “movie” can’t even muster up a full hour of running time, these plot points all whiz by at a pace that should benefit what is essentially a genre spoof comedy, but no attempts at humor even come close to landing, despite the charmingly amateur “actors” constantly stifling their girlish laughter. Here’s an example of a typical “joke”: a man in drag plays one of the teen’s pesky mothers, so the teen complains, “Mom, you’re such a drag.” The mother later comes back at her, “I’ve always tried to be a mother & a father to you.” Laughing yet? I couldn’t conjur up a chuckle either. And that’s not even to mention the way the “movie” casually mines homophobic slurs & sexual assault for “humor”. Throw in some pitifully slapped-together costumes & knife fights as well as some obviously uncleared tunes from names like Hendrix, Zepplin, and The Fab Four and you’re still left wondering at the end credits, “Is this a real movie?”

Here’s where I try to say some nice things about Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, whether or not it felt like a legitimate movie. If nothing else, it’s a great historical document of 80s California punks, particularly that of teenage girls. I know many a Tumblr that would salivate over the fashion on display. I also got one genuine laugh from the deadpan exchange “Thanks for killing my mom.” “No problem.” Although the “movie” was missing more outright humor in that vein, it did have the general feeling of kids having fun, just making a movie for kicks. I’m glad they had fun, but a lot of what made it to the screen has the distinct feeling of “highdeas”: things that were probably funny while the writers/performers were stoned, but didn’t hold up to later scrutiny. There’s no way that anyone could actually believe the blurb on the cover that claims Desperate Teenage Lovedolls “rates up there with John Waters’ finest early work” (at least I hope not; those are some of my favorite movies), but you can at least feel some of Waters’ style (as well as that of his early muse Russ Meyer’s) coursing through the film’s veins. I can also say this: the film has an incredible soundtrack, headlined by the big deal punk band Redd Kross, who proved its theme song: “Ballad of a Lovedoll” & a villainous performance from bassist Steve McDonald. Some of the “movie”’s best moments were montages that let the music breathe & the failed humor dissipate. It was also amusing to watch the girls pretend that the were playing Redd Kross’ songs, despite the male lead vocals. There were some other interesting incongruities, like a melodramatic drug freakout that relied on strobe lights & paused VHS tapes as well as the fact that the girls are supposed to be homeless, but still have a place to store & practice on their band equipment.

Still, none of this adds up much in terms of a completed product. Desperate Teenage Lovedolls still feels surreally fake to me, exactly like the kind of movie a friend who usually can stomach the worst media imaginable passes off to you in perplexed defeat. There are enough real movies out there that achieve what Desperate Teenage Lovedolls vaguely attempts (drugged out weirdos having fun being drugged out weirdos on film), ranging from John Waters’ Dreamlanders era all the way to this year’s wonderful Tangerine, that you needn’t bother with this half-assed mess, yet it still exists. It exists & it was well remembered enough to reach the DVD format two decades after its release. Even stranger, this supposed “movie” even spurned a sequel titled Lovedolls Superstar in 1986. That can’t possibly be true, but there it is, existing, being a real thing, even though I remain unconvinced.

-Brandon Ledet

My Mistress (2015)

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three star
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One of the most unexpected genre revivals I’ve noticed recently is the return of the 90s style erotic thriller. From major releases like 50 Shades of Grey to trashier fare like The Boy Next Door, there seems to be a veritable resurgence of erotic thriller media. This might be a little disheartening to defenders of good taste & decency, but for cinematic trash dwellers like myself, it’s a godsend. Bring on the expensive-looking echoes of crap that used to play at 2am on Showtime & Cinemax, I say. Bring it on, ya garbage peddlers.

It’s with that attitude that I welcome, without a safe word even, the arrival of My Mistress to Netflix’s Recently Added stockpile. An Australian film that grapples with questions about grief, maternal love, and the therapeutic powers of BDSM play, My Mistress doesn’t quite match the campy heights of fare like The Boy Next Door, but it also doesn’t try to. Although its story about a dominatrix who becomes involved with her teenage neighbor sounds adventurous, the film mostly plays it safe. It’s at heart a pleasant, but low key melodrama about two people who’ve been badly hurt & find solace in each other’s company. This kind of melancholy ambition doesn’t do much for the film’s erotic thriller appeal, admittedly. If it were to be a true addition to the genre one of the two love birds would have to flip out and start threatening to murder the other, but that’s just not the kind of story told here.

That’s not to say that there aren’t trashy elements at play. My Mistress may be hinged on the devastating grief suffered by two lonely souls, but it knows exactly how tawdry the erotic elements of its BDSM subject are. While the movie never gets overly kinky outside a couple whippings, there’s enough leather bullet bras & doggy costumes to give the whole thing a campy undertone. Watching a teen boy try to seduce a grown woman by smoking cigarettes and playing tough with lines like “I’m bad. Really bad. Evil sometimes,” is the kind of playfulness the movie tries to get away with while still dealing full-on with the more tragic plot developments. There’s also some uncomfortable, Oedipal vibes in the contrast between the two central mother-son relationships that the film is smart not to push too hard, but it still adds an extra layer of tawdriness to the affair.

My Mistress is not likely to be a movie that’s going to change anyone’s life. At best, it might help you fill up an afternoon. Its worst fault might be that it somewhat plays into the typical BDSM Folks Just Need to Meet Someone Sweet to Lower Their Defenses triteness you usually encounter in these kinds of films, but that only adds to its trashy charms in some ways. It’s a pleasant movie that finds a way to have it both ways, playing with titillating 90s Skinemax erotica and exploring the sad nuance of romance & grief. I liked the balance it struck, even if it didn’t push its worst impulses into deliciously over-the-top JLo territory.

-Brandon Ledet