I first watched S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR the same way I enjoy most big-budget Indian action: alone in a near-empty AMC Elmwood theater, with no prior context and no friends to discuss it with on my exit through the lobby. I reviewed the film with the same approach I usually take with muscles-and-explosives action flicks from Tollywood & Kollywood (films like War, Master, Karnan, Saaho, 2.0, etc.), judging it against the relatively timid payoffs of comparable Hollywood series like Fast & Furious and the MCU. The difference is that RRR has taken off in a way none of those other films have. It’s been constantly praised in the months since that first viewing (sometimes hyperbolically, often charmingly) in every corner of online film discourse I can name. By the time I revisited RRR for a recent episode of the podcast, I was armed with way more cultural & industrial context about what makes it so explosively entertaining, as well as what makes it politically shaky. I still don’t fully understand why it’s the only Indian action epic that’s enjoyed such a long, prominent shelf life in Western film discourse, but I do love that one has broken through. It would be great if others follow, at the very least so I can better understand the roided-out action media I’m used to watching alone in the dark.
The only thing that’s really helped clarify why RRR is such an international hit was seeing a more recent, mediocre entry in its genre without as much novelty or fist-pumping energy. Shamshera is another ahistorical Indian action epic about violent rebellions against British colonizers. That rebellion is also led by the strongest, most badass hero the world has ever seen – a man so over-praised and over-muscled he can only be compared to superheroes or gods, often in his own titular theme song. It’s a formula you’ll see repeated dozens of times if you watch enough Indian action, and it’s one that’s always entertaining, no matter the overall quality of the film. Watching Shamshera wield a comically huge battle axe and command an army of CGI crows against his people’s British oppressors is a familiar thrill that never loses its potency no matter how many times it scorches your eyeballs. And yet, when compared to more deliriously over-the-top actioners like RRR &Enthiran, it’s a little lackluster. Shamshera plays like a Bollywood studio attempting to outgun the more eccentric action coming out of South India without ever quite matching their volatile energy. It still was an entertaining trip to the movies and still highly preferable to its American contemporaries, but it’s also such a straight-forward, barebones entry in its genre that it makes RRR stand out even more in contrast.
Speaking of RRR‘s American equivalents, I continued to think a lot about the qualities I crave in Indian action flicks on my very next trip to the theater after Shamshera. Not only is Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic just as long & loud as Shamshera (a whopping 159 minutes), it’s also yet another sprawling epic that elevates a real-life historical rebel to the status of a god-like superhero. In this case, the proto-rockstar’s superpower is making white teenagers horny, something Luhrmann conveys through on-screen comic book panels (which are also used to illustrate Shamshera‘s prologue) and the wild shrieks of teens witnessing his pElvic thrusts for the very first time. It’s possible I was only thinking about Indian blockbusters while watching Elvis because I had revisited RRR & Shamshera within 24 hours of that screening (accounting for 6 of those very hours, combined), but it’s just as probable that they’re all pulling inspiration from the same source. The grandeur & spectacle of Baz Luhrmann’s cinema feels like a direct descendant of traditional Bollywood musicals, which both he and modern Indian action directors like Rajamouli are now warping into new, weird pop art. I often struggle with that same attention to spectacle in American films, especially in CGI-heavy action franchises like Star Wars & The MCU. Luhrmann’s Elvis transcends that mental barrier in a lot of ways though. It’s maniacally tacky, and it has the most individual camera set-ups I’ve ever seen outside of a Russ Meyer production, playing more like a three-hour trailer than an actual movie. I wasn’t even sure if I liked it until I heard someone complain “That is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen” on the way out, and I found myself getting defensive. It’s also, in its own deranged way, kind of brilliant. Elvis delivers the exact propulsive, baffling, brain-smashing entertainment I actively seek out in South Indian action movies but find questionable in Hollywood productions, to my shame. In a roundabout way, revisiting RRR made me eager to revisit Baz Luhrmann’s back catalog of Moulin Rouge!-style spectacles to see if I’ve just been snobbish in my rejection of their shameless, spectacular cheesiness, which I suspect is the case.
All of this is just to say that I’ve been enjoying discussing & thinking about RRR for the past few months. Usually, I can only sustain a discussion of a similar Indian action film for a few minutes, as I try to explain how that industry is matching the delirious heights of American & Hong Kong action in their own 80s & 90s heydays to someone who could not care less about the inane words flooding out of my mouth. Nobody was around, for instance, just one month earlier than RRR to discuss Radhe Shyam, a volatile romcom about a lovelorn palm reader who essentially gets into a fistfight with the Titanic. Not all these over-the-top action films deserve the same level of attention & adoration as RRR, which really is an exceptional specimen of its genre, but it’s been cool to see one of these wildly entertaining action flicks break through with American audiences instead of just disappearing after a single-week theatrical run. The continued discussion not only made me appreciate RRR even more on revisit, but it’s also helped me clarify my thoughts on other films with similar, soaring payoffs.
The COVID-era two-hander Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a little self-conscious & stagebound, but it’s also an admirably thoughtful, vulnerable drama for adults. Despite its obvious production limitations—mostly isolated to two actors verbally sparring in a single hotel room—it feels substantial enough to make you wonder why the Disney subsidiary Searchlight dumped it directly into the Hulu stream instead of giving it a proper theatrical push. Maybe it’s because it’s the rare Nancy Meyers/Nora Ephron style romcom that’s too saucy to watch with your mom, considering how lengthy & girthy its discussions of geriatric sexual pleasure can be. Or maybe the star power of its sole household name, Emma Thompson, wasn’t bright enough to guarantee box office success in America (as opposed to the UK, where it has been in the Top 10 box office chart for weeks). The movie wouldn’t be much without her, though, if it would exist at all. Screenwriter Katy Brand wrote the main role with Thompson in mind, and the actor makes herself incredibly vulnerable for the part as a widow who hires a young, ripped sex worker (Daryl McCormack, the titular Leo Grande) to help her achieve her very first orgasm. Thompson’s commitment & fearlessness in the part are unquestionable, but I do wonder what the film might’ve been like if the lead actor wasn’t so Movie Star beautiful. I don’t want to say that her tightly wound neuroses about her aging body came across as phony, exactly, since low self-esteem can (and does) hit anyone & everyone. I do think the movie plays it safe by hanging those neuroses off such a gorgeous, glamorous lead, though, even when she’s standing naked in the mirror, exposing all her body’s “flaws” for the audience’s scrutiny.
The reason I’m reluctant to call Thompson’s self-esteem struggle in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande “phony” is because I happened to watch a film this week that exemplifies exactly what phoniness would look like in that context. The 1957 Stanley Donen rom-com Funny Face has a lot of glaring faults, not least of all the fact that it’s a musical with exactly one good song (“Think Pink”, a sequence I’ve already seen parodied beautifully in Derek Jarman’s arthouse whatsit The Garden). It’s also packed with so much high-art Technicolor fashion photography—highlighting the artistry of costume designer Edith Head & couturier Hubert de Givenchy—that those faults hardly matter at all. It’s a film built entirely on phoniness, most notably in the preposterous romance between Audrey Hepburn as a bookworm philosopher & the much older Fred Astaire as a Richard Avedon-type fashion photographer. Astaire negs Hepburn throughout the film, mocking her academic interests in the philosophy of “Impracticalism” (a sentiment the movie shares) and, more dubiously, for her looks (a sentiment no one shares). It’s presented as a preposterous prospect that the “mousy,” “boyish,” “Peter Pan”-like Hepburn could become a high-price fashion model. Even the title “Funny Face” is a reference to her “unconventional” attractiveness, when that exact face has since kept the dorm room poster industry afloat for over half a century. Funny Face is enjoyable enough as a proto-Devil Wears Prada fantasy where an unfashionable bookworm accidentally falls upward to the top of the fashion industry (I’ll let you determine where Hepburn getting forcibly stripped out of her homely bookstore clothes by a room full of rabid fashion models fits in that fantasy), but it is unquestionably, 1000% phony, mostly because of who it cast in that central role as the “homely” academic-turned-model.
The age-gap intimacy of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is much more authentic than the Old Hollywood phoniness of Funny Face. Thompson’s lonely widow is only unattractive in her own mind, where she beats herself up as a hideous troll & a “seedy old pervert” who needs to pay for satisfying sex. Her by-the-hour lover is shown to be similarly self-conscious, despite being a younger, gym-bodied smokeshow. Before & during each of their hotel room trysts, the two main players are shown primping themselves in separate mirrors, nervous about how their physical bodies will be perceived by their sex partners. I just still think there’s something weirdly cautious about casting someone as glamorous as Thompson in that central role. Just as Hepburn did not have anything that could be reasonably called “a funny face”, Thompson meets a high Movie Industry beauty standard that prevents her from coming across as an everyday everywoman. Surely, part of the point of Good Luck to You Leo Grande is about how badly she needs to climb out of her own head, since most of her paid-sex sessions qualify more as talk therapy than they do physical intimacy. I just wonder if the film might’ve had more impact if someone less remarkable had been cast in Thompson’s role, someone the average audience could more closely relate to. Considering how shallow the distribution already was for the film even with a movie star at the helm, though, it’s unlikely that it would’ve ever made it past the festival circuit under those conditions. And, hey, Thompson is a talented actor who can carry a scene with ease, so it’s probably for the best that it was written with her in mind.
As a quick aside, I want to note that phoniness isn’t an automatic dealbreaker. These two movies are hardly comparable, but I will admit that I’m much more likely to rewatch the glaringly flawed, intensely phony Funny Face in the future than I am to revisit the small-stakes, intimate authenticity of Good Luck to You Leo Grande. For all of Funny Face‘s faults, watching Hepburn pose in all those gorgeous Givenchy outfits around Paris reaches momentary heights that no raw, vulnerable intimacy Thompson achieves in that closed-off hotel room set ever could. Hollywood fantasy is a powerful drug, and I’m apparently willing to put up with a lot of phoniness to chase that high.
At its best, cinema is honest artifice. At its best, cinema is fiercely provocative & political. It’s a shared dream; it’s poetry. Neptune Frost is cinema at its best. The genderfucked Afrofuturist sci-fi musical is the kind of start-to-end stunner that feels so peerless in its fury & creativity that there isn’t a clear, pre-established critical language to fully discuss what it’s doing. In genre terms, it triangulates unlikely holy ground between the communal-solidarity sci-fi of Bacurau, the dreamworld lyricism of Black Orpheus, and the “Hack the planet” online resistance culture of Hackers. Otherwise, it’s untethered to tradition, using the digital tools of internet-era filmmaking to build an entirely new cinematic sensibility from scratch. While so many genre filmmakers are stuck mining the past for retro nostalgia triggers, Saul Williams & Anizia Uzeyman are honest about the look & means of the moving image of the present, and as a result Neptune Frost feels like the future of sci-fi in the medium.
Neptune Frost‘s resistance to clear comparison or definition is integral to its design. It boldly opposes every institutional structure it can hurl a brick at, from major oppressive forces like Capitalism, Christianity, and rigid Gender boundaries to more pedestrian concerns like Plot. There are two lovers at the center of its loose, musical fantasy: a coltan miner mourning the loss of his brother and a non-binary traveler mourning their loss of place & community. They find each other in the Rwandan savanna, and their love for each other combines with their hatred of modern civilization to create a new way of engaging with spiritual life & the physical world. Other refugees & dissidents appear drawn to their subsequent political commune like a spiritual magnet, finding a way to collectively “hack” into the world’s computer systems from their remote locale through the power of their own hearts & minds. Enough characters have names like Innocence, Philosophy, and Tekno that Neptune Frost feels like it should have a clear metaphorical guide to its scene-to-scene events, but I would be lying if I could say that I can make full sense of it (or that I’m even confident about my vague overview of its big-picture premise). Since it’s all conveyed through music & poetry, though, it doesn’t have to make logical sense; it just has to be emotionally potent, and I felt every minute of it deep in my chest.
I do believe there is a clear guiding force to its political messaging, at least. As much as it sets out to methodically undermine every single institutional structure in its path, it’s all filtered through a very specific disgust with the mining of coltan in countries like Rwanda, where horrifically exploitative working conditions are treated as a necessary evil to powering the world’s smartphones. It’s openly confrontational about this trade-off, starting with a needless death in a coltan mine and referencing “Black-bodies currency” in its free-flowing song lyrics. The beauty in its political subversion is in the way its savanna hacker commune turns the tools of their oppressors against them, using the community of online connection to overpower the systems that profited from its creation. It’s a purely electronic mode of spirituality & political fury that feels more real & vital to modern life than the organized religions & pre-existing political movements it’s supplanting. I don’t know that it offers a clear, real-life solution to the exploitation of coltan miners, but it does have a clear ethos in how online political organization is necessary to create meaningful change in the physical world, despite the exploitation that makes that connection possible.
The closest I’ve seen previous experiments in form approximate Neptune Frost‘s specific mode of political-resistance sci-fi euphoria was in the feature-length music videos Dirty Computer & When I Get Home. I love both of those films for their boldness in pushing the medium to its outer limits, but I don’t think even they quite match Williams & Uzeyman’s far-out achievements here. More importantly, they’re both relatively recent works, which means Neptune Frost is at the forefront of something new, something not yet fully defined. It’s a thrill to behold, even with the uneasy balance between its political hopefulness and the real-world misery that drives its resistance to current status quo.
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 Hanna made Brandon, Boomer, and Britneewatch Oliver! (1968).
Hanna: My Movie of the Month pick began with a grave mistake. My intention was to introduce the crew to one of the first musicals I ever watched, which held a prized position in my family’s VHS collection: Sir Carol Reed’s Oliver! (1968), the film adaptation of the stage musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s serialized novel Oliver Twist. I’ve probably seen it at least five times, although not since I was 10 or 11. Roman Polanski made his own Oliver Twist adaptation in 2005, and for some ungodly reason, I somehow melded his version with the Reed musical; I proceeded to tell many people (including the Swampflix crew) that Polanski’s version was one of my childhood favorites. I finally picked it for the Movie of the Month, so James, Brandon, Britnee and I settled in my apartment on a rainy Tuesday to dive into Oliver. After puzzling over basic elements of the film (including the lack of musical numbers, the jarring difference in tone, the striking unfamiliarity of the lead actors, and the realization that I was only 12 when the Polanski version came out), I got the sneaking suspicion that I had picked the wrong movie; after the first fifteen minutes passed without a single song, I was finally able to admit my mistake, but everyone agreed to finish the film anyway. Two days later we settled in for Oliver!, which I (thankfully) found to be just as delightful as I remembered. I’m honored to have undergone this Oliver journey with those that accept me in spite of my absolutely awful memory and sense of time.
The musical basically follows Dickens’s serialized story, which brings the viewers on a tour of the various social classes in early 19th century England. We start off at a workhouse, where Oliver Twist (Mark Lester), a waifish orphan boy with a voice like a velvety little petal, is ousted from a workhouse after meekly requesting more gruel at dinner. The owner of the workhouse, Mr. Bumble, auctions Oliver off as an apprentice to the lowest bidder, who happens to be an undertaker. Oliver eventually escapes to London, where he immediately falls in with a dashing young pickpocket, the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild); his crew of cheerful thief children; and their adult ringleader, Fagin (Ron Moody). The child thieves have a rickety old hideout in the upper levels of an abandoned building, but their den is downright cozy; Fagin puts Oliver to bed in a torn-up basket and a couple of ratty blankets, which looked extremely inviting all things considered. It would be a child’s paradise if not for the looming presence of Bill Sikes, a horrific character played by an (unfortunately) extremely hot Oliver Reed. Bill is accompanied by the kind, ill-fated Nancy (Shani Wallis), who is responsible for 50% of my interest in this movie as a child. The bulk of the film’s tension rests on who is in possession of Oliver, and whether he’ll finally get the chance to join a happy household. At various points throughout the movie he’s sold, arrested, adopted, kidnapped, forced into burglary, and kidnapped again; apart from the stolen fineries of wealthy Londoners, he’s the hottest commodity in the film while doing basically nothing that isn’t at the behest of someone else’s will.
I think this is a great musical! The sets are big and beautiful, and a few numbers (namely “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy?”) have that old Hollywood scale of extras that makes you think, “This scene was expensive!” The majority of the songs are absolute bangers; they wormed themselves into my brain many years ago and, like little sleeper agents, unfurled themselves effortlessly as the film went on. I think the thing that struck me the most was that this film makes poverty-stricken 1820s London seem like an absolute ball; I really wanted Fagin to be my grandfather and live a little life of crime when I saw this as a child. It’s especially striking after seeing the Polanski adaptation, which is absolutely mired in the muck of that period. Police dutifully trot around the city; little chimney sweeps burn their sweet little trousers; life is pure joy! Nancy’s relationship with Bill is probably the harshest aspect of the musical, and it’s also my absolute least favorite part to watch. Brandon, do you think the cheer of the musical takes away from the point of the film? Should Reed have made me feel worse for these little orphans, or do you think the musical had a balance of glee and gruel?
Brandon: I don’t have any especially strong opinions about Oliver!‘s duty to maintain the grueling tone of the Dickens source material, but I get the sense that Polanski does. His 2005 adaptation is not only more faithful to the narrative beats of the novel, it’s also a deliberate corrective to its feel-good interpretations like Oliver! and Oliver & Company. If Polanski has a discernible “take” on Oliver Twist, it’s that audiences need to be reminded of how brutal the original story was, despite its recent cheery revisionism. As a result, the 2005 version is absurdly grotesque, almost laughably so. Every single image is aimed to discomfort & disgust, to the point where it’s just as difficult to take seriously as the song & dance numbers in the family-friendly adaptations he was bucking against. The conflict between form & content in the 1968 musical is much more genuinely engaging. The circumstances of orphan life in 19th Century London are just as brutal, but the song & dance numbers are a pure delight, and there’s something oddly charming about Fagin yelling “Shut up and drink your gin!” at a room full of pipsqueak children, when that should register as a horrifying act of abuse. What’s hilarious about Polanski being bothered by that cheery incongruity is that Oliver Twist already had at least two dark & gritty updates in 1996’s Twisted and 2003’s Twist, so his 40-year-old grudge against the musical just feels like another old man complaining about nothing. And since anything that irks that particular old man is a cosmic good, I almost wish that Oliver! was even more saccharine just to irritate him further.
I am not sure if Oliver! is wonderfully grim or grimly wonderful, but it’s certainly one of the two. There’s something perverse about a big-budget Technicolor spectacle being composed entirely in a spectrum of sooty browns, as if the form and the narrative are too directly opposed for the movie to function in any sincere way. When orphans sing about starving on a pure-gruel diet, or when their caretakers sing about selling those orphans away for a pittance (so as not to waste more money on precious gruel), it’s hard to resist chuckling at its self-conflicted tone, even though what you’re watching is objectively depressing. However, as Hanna already noted, the scale of its musical set pieces is massive. It may all be a swirl of slightly varied browns, but there are often hundreds of performers filling that sooty frame, singing & dancing their workhouse lungs out. It’s not at all skimpy when doling out its extravagant song & dance numbers either (unlike how the orphanage doles out its servings of gruel). The first hour is practically a sung-through musical, offering very few words of spoken dialogue between the show-stopping musical numbers before it settles into a more traditional movie-musical rhythm. Britnee, did you have any particular favorite songs or musical moments buried in that extensive songbook? Were you at all disappointed when the movie dropped its sung-through format to include traditional spoken dialogue between those songs?
Britnee: Our accidental watch of Polanski’s Oliver Twist had me a bit concerned about watching Oliver! a few days later. How could such a grim story be converted into an enjoyable musical? Would the songs be just as dull as the setting? I was put at ease when the opening number, “Food, Glorious Food,” kicked the film off. All those dirty little paupers lining up for gruel in the most Broadway way possible? I was immediately hooked! It was so catchy and so much fun, and thankfully, the other musical numbers followed suit. I truly enjoyed each and every one of them, but my favorites are “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” and “Who Will Buy?”.
The catchiness and quirkiness of “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” was such a good time, and it made me really enjoy Fagin’s character. Fagin in Polanski’s Oliver Twist was horrible. He was cruel and easy to dislike, but dancing, singing Fagin was the life of the party. As for “Who Will Buy?”, that was a damn masterpiece. It almost felt like a movie within a movie, and it had me so invested in all the happenings of that neighborhood. Right when I thought the scene was wrapping up, another singing group would come in and add another layer into the number. And most importantly, as the youth would say, the song slaps.
I think there was just the right number of songs peppered throughout. Not one segment of the film was more song heavy than others, which kept me excited and really held my attention. This is the sooty brown musical of my dreams! Something else worth mentioning is the beautiful set design. How the dirty London streets and filth surrounding the characters could look so gorgeous boggled my mind. Boomer, what are your thoughts on the set design? Were you as fascinated with it as I was, or did it seem too Broadway for a film?
Boomer: I might be the worst person to ask if something is “too Broadway,” because as someone who generally hates traditional musicals, I’m usually the first person to want to skedaddle the moment a half-pint starts warbling in a soprano—it’s been ten years since this happened, which is long enough that I’ll admit it, but I once left a live stage production of South Pacific during intermission despite being there in a professional capacity. I’ve professed before that I dislike musicals in general and often in principle as well, but that non-traditional musicals sometimes manage to pierce that veil (as demonstrated by my previous MotM nominations London Road and True Stories) in addition to a couple of traditional musicals that somehow manage to warm the cockles of my cold, dead heart. I think that this one manages to slip in under the radar a little for me for several reasons. Firstly, the music is actually pretty good, and I don’t feel secondhand embarrassment for the lyricist with regards to their being forced to craft dialog and exposition into certain meter and rhyme scheme; I was surprised to discover that “I’d Do Anything” came from Oliver!, as I’d always assumed it was just an old standard, but it’s actually rather lovely in this context. Secondly, it’s very evocative of two traditional screen musicals that I actually do enjoy: 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol and 1967’s Doctor Doolittle, both of which I loved as a child. For the former, it’s mostly that era of musical-making, where there’s a huge budget and the effects are largely practical, plus the similarity in musical styles overall; for the latter, it’s the staging. It might be a stretch to call a film that casts Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit “traditional,” but other than the presence of Muppet actors, the film takes itself fairly seriously, and that’s evident in the set design there just as it is in this movie, so I guess my answer must be “yes.” There might be something Pavlovian about my unconscious mental arithmetic of Dickens + musical = a good time because of the sheer number of times I’ve seen Michael Caine go flying through the air with Gonzo and Rizzo attached to his housecoat, but I actually enjoyed this one, and it kept my attention for almost all of its prolonged runtime.
I was not party to the fateful viewing of Polanski’s adaptation, and I won’t defend him, but I will say that I can see why there would be a desire to push back against the lyrical good times being had in this film. I’ve softened over the years with regards to my need for historical accuracy (I’d probably be more forgiving of, for instance, the Converse high tops in Marie Antoinette in 2022 than I was in 2008), but there is something to be said about the necessity of historical veracity. The thing is, Industrial Era London was horrible, possibly one of the worst times to be alive in human history outside of being directly involved in war. Poverty was rampant, the streets ran brown with human waste, sovereignty was presumed divine, and the gentry was landed. Dickens’s novels and writings were actually fundamental to encouraging empathy for the downtrodden and encouraging philanthropy in the same way that Sinclair’s The Jungle was a foundational text in the actualization of food safety (although that was not the latter author’s goal), and I can understand being annoyed at this film, which depicts chimney sweeps as just silly little dudes as opposed to children performing dangerous labor. When white supremacists prattle on about the treatment of the Irish when trying to invoke whataboutism with regards to historical injustices that continue into the present day, the inhumane circumstances of Victorian England are rarely discussed, but only because white supremacy as it exists in the contemporary United States actually exists to reinscribe current systems of power between labor and aristocracy that aren’t terribly different from their own goals (as seen by state-level Republican-led efforts to rebrand child labor as “employment of minors” and damage the laws that prevent kids from being taken advantage of by employers). When I was first reading everyone’s thoughts prior to meditating on my own response, my knee-jerk response was “Actually, depicting this with the brutal reality of that era would be the correct choice,” but the longer I sat with that idea, the more I kept thinking about “Oom-Pah-Pah” until music filled my mind so that it blotted out everything else. So for once, I’ll just enjoy the party and not be a pooper (until you get to the Lagniappe section below, I suppose).
Boomer: For my money, the best version of “I’d Do Anything” is this one by Fall On Your Sword, the same folks behind “Shatner Of The Mount.”
I’ll also add that Oliver! is no Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind when it comes to whitewashing historical atrocities for the sake of storytelling, since not even the worst elements of life under Victorian aristocracy compare to chattel slavery, but I’ll end with a reminder that we can’t get too comfortable about such things and should always inspect them. Birth and Gone are products of their time, but we are never free of that kind of historical revisionism and it’s vital that we never get too comfortable with it, now more than ever. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice initiative is a great place to start, as it calls out lies in children’s literature, like Henry Cole’s Unspoken and Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The minimization of historical sins, like characterizing “Harriet Tubman [as] a very strong woman who left her farm without permission,” are part of the fascism playbook. Oliver! might get a pass, but there’s still work to be done.
Brandon: This was an educational experience in several ways, but the factoid from my Oliver! research that’s haunted me most was learning it was one of Michael Jackson’s pet obsessions. Apparently, Jackson befriended Oliver!‘s Mark Lester when they were both child-stars of the late-1960s, which led to persistent tabloid rumors that Lester was the sperm-donor biological father to Jackson’s children. A rumor that Lester himself has confirmed in interviews! It almost sounds too weird to be true, until you remember that Jackson was also so obsessed with the David Lynch film The Elephant Man that he attempted to purchase the real-life John Merick’s bones for his private collection (a bizarre venture that The London Hospital Medical College thankfully did not indulge). These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night.
Britnee: Swampflix needs to declare the first week of March as Oliver Twist Week, committing to watch a different version of Oliver Twist every year to commemorate the occasion. There’s a buttload of Oliver Twist movies out there, so we could keep it going forever!
Hanna: Taking the Oliver! of my childhood and Polanski’s faithful adaptation into consideration, I’m really drawn to and impressed by the longevity of Dickens’s original story of innocence attempting to navigate a filthy, horrifying world. I didn’t even realize how many Oliver Twist interpretations there were until Brandon kindly brought them to my attention. So, cast my vote in favor of Oliver Week so we can delve into all its many permutations. I’m glad that the Swampflix crew enjoyed meeting this sweet little orphan.
One of the great public services in recent internet history is the Instagram account @firefitsneworleans, a “New Orleans Street Style” archive that highlights “the best looks on the streets of our beloved city documented by a group of friends.” Not only is it just a beautiful collection of D.I.Y. fashion stunts, it’s also a vital record of the incredible visual art of local Black style – especially home-made outfits designed to draw attention at second lines. Of course, New Orleans’s second line tradition is its own unique cultural niche, but I was thinking a lot about @firefitsneworleans while watching the low-budget musical Babymother, set in the dancehall reggae scene of late-90s West End, London. Babymother is a distinct work in many ways, not least of all in its billing as “the first Black British musical.” I was most impressed by it as a lookbook of dancehall fashion stunts, though, as every scene-to-scene costume change dropped my jaw. What’s most incredible about the film’s D.I.Y. Black fashion stylings is that most of the outfits would feel perfectly at home on the @firefitsneworleans page two decades later, without feeling retro or costumey. We’re in the exact sweet spot where late-90s nightclub fashion is hip again instead of feeling passé, and Babymother is itself an excellent snapshot of that moment in Black fashion history.
This is my favorite kind of musical: one with catchy pops songs I’d listen to in my free time anyway, ignoring musical theatre tradition. The titular babymother is an aspiring dancehall M.C., Anita, whose dirtbag boyfriend is already a minor celebrity on the reggae charts. Anita’s boyfriend wants her to abandon her dreams of starting her own music career so she can focus on raising their kids while he disappears on tour for months on end. She defies his demands and starts a small, all-girl reggae group with her friends, renaming themselves Neeta, Sweeta, & Nastie. The only problem is that all three members of the group are single mothers who struggle to find babysitters so they can perform at nightclubs or record singles, while their knucklehead boyfriends enjoy a much greater freedom outside the home. As wonderful as Babymother is as a vintage reggae musical and Black fashion lookbook, it’s also a surprisingly complicated drama. The movie starts with sitcom-style opening credits where every person in Anita’s life is introduced by their relationship to her: “her friend,” “her rival,” “her mother,” etc. That turns out to be a helpful guide, since the movie often swerves into shocking family secrets & betrayals that force Anita to overcome much more internal, complex conflicts than merely sneaking around a controlling boyfriend. The movie is set up to be A Reggae Star is Born, but it’s something much thornier than that. There’s a quiet exchange of glances during the inevitable battle-of-the-bands climax that genuinely choked me up, which is hard to do in a musician’s rise-to-success story this narratively familiar.
Even if Babymother weren’t an emotionally fulfilling drama, it would still be Essential Cinema just as a late-90s fashion lookbook. I love the 90s NYC club-kid relic Party Girl, but I can’t claim that its half-invested romcom story template means all that much to me emotionally. That movie’s charms rest entirely on Parker Posey “finding herself” while looking cute and modeling outrageous outfits. And it rules. Familial drama aside, Babymother is a similar pleasure, just with a different nightclub soundtrack and a different cultural context for its fashion stunts. In a better world, both films would’ve been hits, and we’d have a modern New Orleans-set indie drama following in their dance steps – this time with a bounce soundtrack, duh. As fabulous as it is, I don’t know how permanent of a local fashion archive @firefitsneworleans can be in the long-term, since the social media serververse is still untested when it comes to decades of cultural longevity. Meanwhile, even as a movie that bombed in its time, Babymother was recently restored in crisp HD detail by The BFI and presented on The Criterion Channel as part of their streaming collection “Roots & Revolution: Reggae on Film.” Cinema has a way of preserving niche pop culture iconography in a way other mediums cannot, and I am grateful that Babymother is still around as a snapshot of West End dancehall fashion even though it was not well seen or respected in its time.
When reviewing movies for this blog, I often push myself to contextualize them within how they relate to my personal life or the current moment in pop culture at large. I doubt many people are reading these webcasts into the abyss anyway, so I mostly treat these posts as diary entries that help me tether my moviewatching habits to a specific moment in time or personal headspace. If I’m going to be entirely honest in these personal moviewatching diaries, I have to admit that there isn’t much room to contextualize my thoughts on Golden Eighties within a larger discourse, either personal or universal. I watched Chantal Akerman’s shopping mall romcom musical simply because its screengrabs looked beautiful, and I loved it for that exact surface-level reason. The film’s pastel cosmetic palette and soft neon blue lighting registered as a vision of 80s Shopping Mall Heaven in my mind, and my only frustration with it as a motion picture is that I can’t find a way to drink those colors through a funnel. It’s not a movie I wanted to watch so much as it’s one I wanted to drown in, but I still greatly enjoyed the experience of firing it up on the Criterion Channel.
To put it as reductively as possible, Golden Eighties is a Young Girls of Rochefort for the Madonna era. Besides restricting all its action to a single shopping mall, there isn’t anything especially challenging or avant-garde about its tangled web of unrequited loves – at least not on the level of what you’d expect from a Chantal Akerman film. The drama mostly concerns three parallel tales of missed romantic connections: a lonely waitress who trades long-distance love letters with a beau who moved abroad, an elderly couple who reunite after having their flame extinguished by The Holocaust in their youth and, the main attraction, a she-loves-him-but-he-loves-the-other-one love triangle you’d find in just about any 1950s teen musical. There are some political, often Feminist angles to how these relationships play out onscreen, especially in Akerman giving the equal space to an older, Jewish woman’s romantic & sexual desires (through her Jean Dieleman avatar Delphine Seyrig) among the vast cast of young, buxom Gentiles. Mostly, though, the drama is kept intentionally light & swoony, and it all culminates in the declaration that falling in love with different suitors is like trying on pretty dresses: not all of them fit you, but it’s fun to explore.
Akerman’s arthouse background shows more in the surrealism of the cheap sound stage setting than it does in the romantic themes. In real life, shopping malls are public, bustling spaces, but this deliberately frothy melodrama plays out in an insular, self-contained world consisting entirely of a clothing store, a hair salon, a movie theater, and a café. It’s an odd effect, especially as those limited, rigid settings fill with a chaotic flood of singing, dancing, chattering, fashionable women. I was fully convinced that the obligatory wedding climax was going to be staged right there in the food court, but it never came to that (unfortunately?). I don’t know that the dreamlike artifice of the faux shopping mall was entirely intentional, since Akerman spent years scraping together funding for a larger production she never got to realize. It really heightens the romance & melodrama at the film’s core in a way that makes it feel like a singular work of art, though, as evidenced by my desire to drown in the beauty of its screenshots. Every frame is a gorgeous beaut, as long as you have an affection for pure-femme 1980s commercialism, as I apparently do.
Golden Eighties is imperfect, and I suspect Chantal Akerman would’ve been the first person to admit that. Its shambling, let’s-put-on-a-show quality is just as charming as its playfully risqué pop music dance numbers, though, and my only real complaint at the end is that I wanted more songs and more costume changes. I went in desperate to see more of its dreamlike mall-world imagery, and I left with that same insatiable hunger, which I’ll chalk up to it being a total success despite the shortcomings of its production.
Welcome to Episode #145 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss four classic horror movie musicals, starting with Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974).
01:00 Picture Mommy Dead (1966) 04:20 The Wicker Man (1973) 07:00 The Amityville Horror (1979) 14:00 A Cat in the Brain (1990)
18:00 Phantom of the Paradise (1974) 42:24 The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) 1:07:00 Little Shop of Horrors (1986) 1:26:40 The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)
“Is this Good-Weird or just Weird-Weird?” That nagging question never faded from my mind at any point during Leos Carax’s entertainment-industry rock opera Annette, but I’m not convinced it’s a question that needs an answer. I’m cool with the movie’s low-energy batshittery either way. It at least has a sense of humor about itself, and there’s nothing else quite like it – two qualities that cannot be undervalued in the current Prestige Filmmaking landscape. Originally composed as a concept album by the avant-garde pop group Sparks, Annette feels more like a prank than a proper musical. Every line of dialogue is written as unsubtle, declarative statements about what each character is doing & feeling in the moment, as if that information wasn’t already being illustrated onscreen; they’re also sincerely performed as pure, straight-forward melodrama. And yet the entire film feels as if it’s being conveyed with a tight, self-amused smirk, impressed with its own audacity as a go-for-broke Weird Movie with a legitimate budget & cast. I’m impressed as well, even if I can’t quite match how impressed it seems to be with itself.
Adam Driver stars as a low-effort, hacky stand-up comedian who’s earned rockstar status through his “tells it like it is” abrasiveness, which protects him from having to be vulnerable onstage. His fame skyrockets when he romantically links with a renowned opera singer played by Marion Cotillard, whose contrasting artform is high-effort & devastatingly vulnerable on a nightly basis. The comedian’s ego is threatened by the amount of oxygen his tenor-wife’s career eats up in their life together, especially once her starpower outshines his own. That resentment leads him to explosive, violent fits of anger, as well as the financial exploitation of their child, whose own singing career allows him to vicariously re-live his former professional glories. This all sounds typical enough for a star-studded, festival circuit melodrama with Awards Season ambitions, but Annette‘s wryly operatic line-deliveries & near-future visual mindfuckery abstract all its familiar narrative elements into oblivion. Its Weird-Weird weirdness is concentrated entirely in its execution, not in its premise.
My favorite aspect of Annette is how outright hostile it is towards its audience, mirroring the onstage abrasiveness of its stand-up “comedian” protagonist. Like in Soderbergh’s introduction to the difficult-to-define prank comedy Schizopolis, the movie opens with Carax issuing commands that everyone hold our breath, our farts, and our full attention for the entirety of the screening. We’re instructed to “Shut up and sit” without any distractions for the following 140min, which feels like a tall order considering that it was distributed through Amazon Prime concurrently with its theatrical release. Carax doesn’t want your absent-minded snacking or social media scrolling to compete with his quietly bizarre vision of the modern movie musical. If you grant him your full attention, he promises to treat you to a nightmarish inversion of pop-culture celebrity in a near-future Los Angeles. He mostly delivers. The film’s explicit sex, fairy tale puppetry, late-night motorcycle rides, and surrealist parodies of Entertainment Tonight broadcasts are all incredibly, uniquely eerie deviations from the mainstream-filmmaking norm. I don’t fully know what its intent or purpose are besides achieving that eeriness, but that effect was more than enough to hold my attention (if not my farts).
My only complaint about Annette, really, is that it’s obnoxiously long. I was amused by the blatant emotional declarations of the song lyrics, the absurdist intrusion of the puppet-baby, the surface-level jabs at entertainment media vanity, and all the rest. It’s just that it could have been an entire hour shorter without sacrificing any of those distinguishing details. The movie is Weird, but it is persistently Weird in the exact same way from start to end, with no detectable ebb or flow in its tone. However, as impatient as I could get with the vast ocean of Weird-Weird water-treading between its opening & closing numbers (the only genuinely catchy songs of the bunch), I recognize that obnoxious self-indulgence & self-amusement as exactly what’s endearing about the film in the first place. A movie this hubristic pretty much has to be an hour longer than needed; that’s just part of its nature. And, hey, at least it’s a more singularly entertaining waste of Amazon’s money than the rocket fuel that powers Jeff Bezos’s mid-life crisis.
Our current Movie of the Month, the new-wave musical Starstruck, plays both like a rough prototype for 90s Australian gems like Strictly Ballroom& Muriel’s Wedding and a jukebox musical adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Usual. Produced in the early days of MTV broadcasts, the film deviates from the break-from-reality song performances of the traditional movie musical by presenting them in the visual language of early 1980s music videos. It’s particularly reminiscent of the shared-storyline music videos from Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album cycle, despite being released an entire year before that landmark pop debut. There are some indulgences in record industry satire, let’s-save-the-pub community rallying, and television broadcast heists along the way, but largely the film is a fantasy-fulfillment for the same sheltered, artsy kids who saw their ideal selves blooming in Lauper’s bubbly, working-class avatar a year later. And it’s just as satisfying in the movie as it is in those more widely-seen, celebrated videos.
I’d most recommend Starstruck to people who are skeptical of movie musicals as a medium but also find themselves watching marathons of 1980s music videos on YouTube in their idle time. Its MTV-specific version of fantasy-fulfillment cinema might speak to you in a way most musical theatre can’t. The new wave music & fashion of Starstruck is pitched exactly to my tastes, anyway, and the movie only strays from those modernized music video pleasures to (lovingly) mock the traditional movie musical as outdated kitsch (most notably in a Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming sequence featuring a pool packed with oiled-up muscle boys). It’s my ideal version of its genre, and I can’t believe it’s not more routinely cited as an all-time classic. To that end, here are a few more recommended titles if you are generally skeptical of musical theatre but found yourself enchanted by our Movie of the Month’s new wave, proto-Cyndi Lauper patina.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
It’s shocking in a lot of ways that I did not wind up a genuine musical theatre nerd, considering that one of my favorite films growing up was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While the greater cultural understanding of Rocky Horror is as a communal ritual among theatre kids, I never really experienced it that way. Watching my VHS copy on loop as a kid was a solitary hobby, but it taught me everything I love about art, from B-movies to glam rock to drag. It remains an all-time fav, which I can’t say for many full-blown musicals of its ilk.
Besides a shared glam-rock sensibility in their musical numbers and costuming, Rocky Horror and Starstruck also directly share a production designer in Brian Thompson (who also worked on the Rocky Horror stage show). You can especially feel that shared DNA in Starstruck‘s opening musical number “Temper, Temper”, which is set in a music video nightclub made entirely of neon lights & 1950s kitsch furniture, resembling a new-wave update to the Rocky Horror aesthetic even more so than its spin-off sequel Shock Treatment (also designed by Thompson). The dance choreography in that scene also directly references the “pelvic thrusts” of Rocky Horror‘s “Time Warp” routine, as if to underline the connection.
Maybe recommending The Rocky Horror Picture Show at all is as obvious & redundant as recommending Citizen Kane (good movie!), but I still think it’s worth highlighting here anyway. It’s especially worth revisiting if you’re only familiar with the movie as a raucous theatrical ritual among the most annoying kids at your high school. The songs, the costumes, and the absurdist humor work much better at home than they do in that environment, and they feel like a direct influence on the punk-musical theatricality of our Movie of the Month.
Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984)
My biggest personal revelation watching Starstruck for the first time was that my ideal version of a movie musical is just a feature-length string of music videos held together by as little narrative tissue as possible. There have been plenty of great examples of that format in recent years in the form of “visual albums”: Dirty Computer, When I Get Home, Lemonade, etc. None of those modern examples overlap with the explicitly 80s-retro pleasures of Starstruck, though. For more of that vintage music video musical appeal, you have to time travel back to Voyage of the Rock Aliens. That mostly forgotten curio presents 1950s atomic sci-fi kitsch in the format of a post-MTV music video musical. It plays like a crass attempt to reverse-engineer “the next Rocky Horror” (updated with some DEVO flair among the space aliens), but it instead crash lands as its own uniquely adorable oddity.
The titular Rock Aliens are a gaggle of new-wave weirdos from outer space who comb the galaxy for rock music in a guitar-shaped spaceship. That search quickly leads them to Earth, where they engage in an intergalactic battle of the bands with some local rockabilly types. Pia Zadora stars as a young Earthling rock singer whose boyfriend won’t let her join his band. Ruth Gordon is hilariously miscast as a small-town sheriff. Jermaine Jackson, a giant octopus, and a chainsaw-wielding Michael Berryman all pop in for chaotic bit parts with barely any connection to the plot. Voyage of the Rock Aliens should be a total embarrassment along the lines of The Apple or Xanadu, but it somehow walks away with the D.I.Y.-glamour charm of a Vegas in Space. It traffics in the same early-MTV music video escapism of Starstruck, but with almost no dialogue scenes between the musical numbers and with the production budget of a small-town high school play. It’s super silly, super cute, and worthwhile for Pia Zadora’s 10,000 costume changes alone.
Since this is ostensibly a list of recommendations for people who don’t generally care for musicals, I figured I should include a movie that isn’t a musical at all. Like our Movie of the Month, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is about a young woman’s frustrating struggle to break out of her the confines of small working-class town and break into the urban punk scene, despite the macho gatekeepers determined to lock her out. Both Starstruck and The Fabulous Stains operate as cynical satires of the record industry’s embarrassing mishandling of punk counterculture as a pop media commodity, and both are extremely critical of how minimized women creatives are on both sides of that corporate/artistic divide. The only real difference is that Starstruck is a bubbly new wave musical fantasy, while The Fabulous Stains is a grittier, proto-riot-grrrl road movie with all of its musical performances grounded as realistic, on-stage concerts.
The one exception to The Fabulous Stains‘s reality-grounded stage performances is its insane filmed-after-the-fact coda that does break from reality in musical theatre tradition. Thanks to an extended period of post-production studio-notes tinkering wherein Paramount Pictures struggled to figure out what to do with a movie they fundamentally did not understand, the version of late-70s punk The Fabulous Stains thumbed its nose at had become outdated before the movie was theatrically released. That stasis inspired the producers to tack on a wildly out-of-place music video epilogue that attempts to capitalize on the in-the-mean-time invention of Music TeleVision. That temporal & tonal jump both enhances the film’s satirical themes and rapidly ages the baby-faced Stains (including Diane Lane & Lauren Dern) into fully formed adults in the blink of an eye. It also helps define the exact early music video language that Starstruck indulges in throughout, highlighting how that version of break-from-reality theatrical fantasy diverges from traditional movie musicals of the past.