Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Is it okay to admit that I genuinely don’t know what to make of this movie? After Taika Waititi’s hot streak of instant 5-star classics—Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, Boyit’s tempting to give the writer-director the benefit of the doubt in my unease with Jojo Rabbit’s tone & aesthetic. I especially wish I could celebrate Waititi’s willingness to immediately torch all the money & goodwill he earned making a crowd-pleasing Marvel movie by starring as Adolf Hitler in a pitch-black comedy with wild, deliberately alienating tonal shifts. Still, Jojo Rabbit’s mashup of Cute & Vile sentiments left me more confounded than either frustrated or moved. I suppose that discomfort & unease was largely the point, but it ultimately just didn’t feel as confident or personal as Waititi’s previous experiments in light-and-dark tonal clashes. It’s the first time I can assume one of his films didn’t fully achieve whatever it set out to accomplish.

The titular Jojo Rabbit is a 1940s German boy, Johannes, who is foolheartedly committed to his enrollment in The Hitler Youth. Already a victim to Nazi propaganda before the film starts, Jojo treats The Hitler Youth as a Weekend Fun precursor to The Boy Scouts (which it kinda was). He fully buys into the program’s antisemitic brainwashing that portrays Jewish people as magical, greedy demons with horns, scales, and forked tongues. This naïve, fanatical devotion to Nazi ideology is challenged when Jojo discovers that his own mother is secretly hiding a teenage Jewish girl from the Gestapo in the walls of their house, trapping him between the White Nationalist lies he’s been immersed in and the quiet demonstrations of kindness & charity towards Jews his mother exhibits at home. Naturally, he talks himself through this internal conflict with the help of his imaginary friend – a goofball, superheroic version of The Fuhrer himself, played by Waititi with the same vaudevillian broadness Charlie Chaplin brought to The Great Dictator.

Between the film’s Wes Andersonian visual fussiness, cutesy childhood humor, and ice-cold stares into the depths of wartime cruelty, Jojo Rabbit tosses a lot of clashing flavors into one overflowing gumbo. The not-for-everyone ingredient in that recipe (the okra, if you will) is the film’s peculiar sense of humor, which is broad enough to feel like it was intended for an audience of children despite the thematic severity it’s supposed to undercut. This film is consistently gorgeous as a meticulously tailored art object and seemingly heartfelt in its pangs of familial & genocidal drama, but it’s never quite funny enough to full earn its self-proclaimed status as “an anti-hate satire.” Making Hitler out to be a goofball lunatic who “can’t grow a full mustache” and teasing him with schoolyard names like “Shitler” registers only faintly on the satire scale, a whisper of righteous dissent. To be fair, it’s the kind of humor a school-age young’n might find darkly subversive, which fits the POV character’s mentality just fine. For an adult audience, though, the jokes rarely land with anything more than a droll chuckle of recognition, which to me means this outrageous Hitler comedy is paradoxically playing it safe.

Thankfully, it works much better as a political & familial drama, especially in Jojo’s relationships with the women in his house. Spending time with an actual, in-the-flesh Jewish girl reorients Jojo’s dehumanization of her people as horned demons in the exact ways you’d expect. His relationship with his mother (played by Scarlett Johansson with an SNL-tier “German” accent) is much more complex & capable of surprise, as she grieves for the loss of her sweet, kindhearted son to Nazi propaganda as if he had died in battle. The women’s disappointment in Jojo’s indoctrination into antisemitism and their dismissal of his burgeoning Nazi ideology as “a scared child playing dress-up” registers as the most clear-eyed satirical target in the film – one with undeniable parallels to the resurgence of Nazism among young white men online in the 2010s. The imaginary Hitler device doesn’t lead to anything nearly as poignant as that dramatic anchor (although it is satisfying to see the racist icon portrayed by a self-described “Polynesian Jew”).

If I’m unsure how successful Jojo Rabbit is overall, that unease is mostly due to its middling successes as a comedy. A few jokes land here or there with a light chuckle, but the humor peaks early with an opening credits sequence that reframes Leni Riefenstahl’s propoganda footage of Nazi crowds to play like a precursor to Beatlemania. Overall, the film’s “anti-hate satire” wasn’t nearly as pointed or as ambitious as the 2016 German comedy Look Who’s Back, which amplified tonal clashing in its parody of modern Nazism to the scale of a cosmic farce. For me, Jojo Rabbit worked best as a maternal parallel to the paternal drama of Waititi’s Boy. The difference is that I left Boy marveling at how he pulled off such a delicate tonal balance with such confident poise, whereas I left Jojo Rabbit wondering if I had just seen him lose his balance entirely and tumble to the floor for the first time. The answer remains unclear to me.

-Brandon Ledet

Cabaret (1972)

It’s incredible how effective Bob Fosse’s 1972 adaptation of the Broadway stage musical Cabaret still felt to me on a delayed introductory viewing after years of feeling over-exposed to its basic elements. The lush sets & performative androgyny of its stage performances are a tamer, Hollywood-flavored version of the same acts I’ve seen play out at New Orleans cabarets like One Eyed Jacks & The AllWays Lounge for years. Liza Minnelli’s central performance as the lovable Manic Pixie Dream Bawd extraordinaire Sally Bowles might, unfathomably, be the first time I’ve ever seen her in a proper film, but I’ve already spent plenty of time with her persona in television clips, audio recordings, and local drag impersonations. Most notably, I had seen the 1993 filmed-for-television, Sam Mendes-directed adaptation of the same stage play several times before, as it had been singled out to me as the ultimate version of the source material available (mostly thanks to Alan Cumming’s definitive performance as the menacingly horny emcee). All this pre-exposure to Cabaret’s general milieu had prepared me to feel jaded & underwhelmed by Fosse’s Oscars-sweeping, Hollywoodized take on the material, but that wasn’t my experience at all. In the earliest sequences of the picture I was totally drunk on the pansexual bacchanal on display, and by the end I genuinely felt sick to my stomach, which I mean as a huge compliment. Fosse did not clean this property up for mass appeal. If anything, he found a way to make an already powerful substance even more dangerously potent by emphasizing the tools & tones of cinema to justify the act of adapting it in the first place. This is a great film in its own right, regardless of the virtues of any other form its story has taken since it was first published in the 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, the Broadway play included.

Fosse’s fame as a dancer & a stage choreographer had me expecting a version of Cabaret somewhat close to the Mendes broadcast. Wide, static shots that value choreographed dance over camera movement & editing trickery are the norm for this kind of adaptation; at least, they were in an earlier era when Old Hollywood would regularly churn out big-budget crowd-pleasing musicals in an almost vaudevillian tradition. The 1972 Cabaret is much more aggressively cinematic than what that tradition prepares you for. Quick cuts of intricately arranged bodies captured in sweaty, leering closeups immediately excite the audience in the film’s earliest stage performances, completely blowing open the possibilities of what a stage musical can look like with the camera roaming around, under, and behind the dancers who’d normally only be viewed from a safe, fixed distance. Fosse directs the hell out of these performances, using harsh backlighting & grotesque closeups of audience reactions to completely disorient the audience into a shared drunkenness with the Berliners frequenting its central club. Gradually, though, the party sours and the cabaret performances become less energetic & less frequent as the lives of the performers and the politics of the world outside the club sink into fascism & despair. As much as this is the personal story of Sally Bowles and her latest drama-filled love affair, it’s in a larger sense the story of a sexually, morally liberal Berlin that’s lost over the course of the movie. It isn’t until we fully return to the immersive, camera-on-the-stage performances of the Kit Kat Klub in the film’s final moments that we realize just how much has changed over the course of the film and just how devastating that loss is. It’s a harsh blow to the gut, especially in how reminiscent that quiet decline into fascism is to the world outside our own pleasure-dome bubbles in the 2010s.

Cabaret builds much of its in-the-moment drama around two central romantic affairs – one in which Sally Bowles finds herself navigating a bisexual love triangle with her roommate & a financial benefactor who’s quietly bedding them both, and one in which a young Jewish couple perilously navigate the heavily policed class lines that divide them. There is some genuinely upsetting, heartfelt melodrama shared between these four friends, particularly in Bowles’s existential crisis as a freewheeling cabaret artist whose career is going nowhere. If nothing else, her self-lacerating breakdown in the line, “Maybe I’m not worth caring about, maybe I’m nothing,” is pure heartbreak. Still, the real substance of the movie is in how a larger, political drama plays out in the background, largely unnoticed by these self-absorbed libertine artists & intellectuals. Set in a 1930s Berlin, the film quietly tracks the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. At first, its members are treated as fringe lunatic bullies who aren’t welcome in the Kit Kat or any other club around Berlin, ostracized for their hateful hooliganism. By the end, the lewd, amoral performers of the Kit Kat are performing for an audience comprised entirely of Nazi scum. The war for who defines the spirit of Berlin was lost just under their noses as they minimized the Nazi threat as an ugly fad and continued about their personal dramas, unaware of the seriousness of the party’s rise to power. There’s a quiet menace to the way Swastikas become incrementally more ubiquitous as the film goes on, a gradual temperature change that Fosse expertly handles to the point where it doesn’t really hit you until you’re already boiling alive. Even being familiar with Mendes’s version of the play and knowing exactly where the movie was going, I still felt physically ill by the film’s final scenes. It’s effectively handled on a technical level but also just feels true to how Nazi ideology is currently on the rise in American politics as well. We may already be past the point where they’re just fringe hooligans who can be ignored as we go about our daily business, deliberately unaware.

This direct correlation with current events is not some unintended happenstance either. As much as the film carries a spiritual reverence for the sexual hedonism & defiant artistry of pre-War Berlin, it’s also very much a product of its own time. A few 70s-specific blouses & mirrored “disco” balls (which, admittedly, had been nightclub fixtures for decades) loudly barge their way into the production design, drawing attention to the way hippie counterculture had already been pulling aesthetic influence from the pre-War era. If the Kit Kat Klub performances were just a tad grimier (and far less artfully documented) you could almost pass them off as footage of San Francisco bohemian weirdos like The Cockettes or contemporary proto-punk glam acts like The New York Dolls or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The sickening feeling I caught from Cabaret was likely just as potent in the early 70s, which had its own gradual rise in Conservative fascism to combat in the era’s anti-War, Free Love protests. In a best-case-scenario where our current bout with Nazi ideology is stomped out before it gains any more momentum, there will still likely be a quiet fascist contingent to keep at bay as the most vulnerable among us simply try to live fulfilling lives without having to constantly fight off oppressive bullies. In that way, the themes of this film are just as evergreen as the excitement of its stage musical cinematography, the drunkenness of its rapid-fire editing, and the sartorial pleasures of its sparkle-crotch tap costumes. That might not be good news for the world at large, but it speaks well to Cabaret’s value as a feature film adaptation, a work that’s apparently remarkably effective no matter how familiar you are with its source material or its real-world thematic substance.

-Brandon Ledet

Overlord (2018)

There’s nothing especially nuanced or unique about the message “Nazis are evil & gross and must be destroyed,” but in the context of 2018’s political climate it still fees damn good to hear. This is especially true when said Nazis are shot, set aflame, and exploded in an over-the-top action spectacle that cares way more about cathartic fun than it cares about historical accuracy. Overlord opens as an immersive WWII battle demo; it operates like a dirt-cheap Dunkirk in its earliest stretch, where a group of American soldiers are deployed in France to take out a contingent of “rotten son of a bitch” Nazis occupying a local church. That introduction is just a coverup for an entirely different kind of well-budgeted schlock, however: a Nazi zombie movie with a distinct video game sensibility. Neither the WWII thriller nor the Nazi zombie action-horror descriptors fully capture how distinctly fun & cathartic Overlord can be as a middle finger to modern Nazi grotesqueries, which is always a good sign for a genre film repeating narrative patters we’ve already seen many times before. We may be living in a word where war thrillers & zombie pictures are all too plentiful, but there can never be enough condemnation of Nazi scumbaggery.

Two of the earliest introduced POV characters in Overlord are black & Jewish American soldiers preparing to parachute into German-occupied France, even more terrified of Nazis that their fellow troop members because of their ethnographic identities. They later join forces with a local French woman who has suffered Nazi tyranny in prolonged, horrific ways and skeptically aids the Americans’ mission to destroy a Nazi communication tower in her small town’s church. The demographics of those POV characters help distinguish Overlord from the doldrums of a generic war picture just as much as the supernatural phenomena they find in that church. Likewise, the church-lab’s experiments to reanimate corpses to create a “thousand-year army” for Hitler that they uncover is far from the Nazi zombie tedium of the Dead Snow series. This is partly because they’re not the typical Romero-style zombies who stumble around craving “braiiiiins,” but are instead styled after the Re-Animator tradition of botched science experiments that play loosely with the boundaries of undead lore. Neither side of this war/zombie divide should play fresh in a modern genre picture, especially one so simply structured like a video game – where each challenge feels like a level to be defeated on the way to the Final Boss (a Nazi monster so jacked on Evil-Science serum that he resembles the version of Bane from Schumacher’s Batman & Robin). Overlord pulls it off spectacularly, though, if not only in its prioritizing of modern anti-Nazi sensibilities over all logic & responsibility to history.

It’s arguable that there’s no need to reinterpret Nazi history though genre film sensibilities, since sci-fi & horror require an exaggeration of something so inherently evil that a metaphor would only cheapen it. That might be why Overlord was so cautions about anchoring the war half of its narrative to real-life atrocities – including systemic genocide, “scientific” torture, and widespread sexual assault – before moving on to the paranormal grotesqueries of its zombie half. Its horror film impulses are often kept at bay, then, but when they are allowed to flood the screen they arrive full-force. This isn’t exactly a gore fest, but it is often incredibly gross – mixing CGI & practical effects to make sure Nazis look as vile & monstrous as possible through a B-movie lens. Once-human figures dangle in fleshy sacks from the church-lab’s ceiling, filtering jars of red & black goo through their barely functioning organs while breathing heavily in pain. Severed heads gasp for air and ask for immediate relief from their mortal coil. Flesh melts; faces cave in; bullet wounds gush untold gallons of hot, sticky blood. Real-life Nazis are gross & worthy enough of destruction without the help of schlocky exaggeration, but just in case you’re not fully convinced (as seems to be the case with young Alt-Right recruits online) Overlord takes giddy pleasure in spelling it out for you.

There may be a secondary theme in Overlord about knowing when not to follow orders if it prevents you from doing what’s right (as the mission of destroying the communication tower is meant to take priority over destroying the zombie-filled church lab) but there’s nothing about that message than can trump the simple pleasure of watching gross, “rotten son of a bitch” Nazis get blowed up real good by the people they hurt the most. Overlord is not the year’s most thoughtful or nuanced genre film take on real-world evil racist institutions that have recently made an alarming comeback (that would be BlacKkKlansman). However, it does easily achieve the Herculean task of making zombies interesting again in a post-Walking Dead cultural climate by relying on a simple truth: Nazis are evil & gross and must be destroyed. In 2018, there’s immensely satisfying entertainment value to be found in watching that destruction, especially in an over-the-top action horror context.

-Brandon Ledet

The Hatred (2017)

Sometimes a movie comes along that’s so awful, you wonder why anyone even tried, or how anyone who watched the final product could have ever signed off on its release. The Hatred is such a film: a bargain basement haunted house flick about four young women and a little girl being terrorized by the apparition of the long-dead daughter of a Nazi war criminal via a mystical object that induces hatred. It’s as nonsensical as it sounds.

The film opens with an overly long sepia-drenched prologue showing the day-to-day rural “1950s” life of Samuel Sears (Andrew Divoff, aka the title character of the Wishmaster series, and definitely someone who deserved better than this), an escaped Nazi higher-up who now lives a life of simplicity on his “farm” alongside his wife Miriam (Nina Siemaszko) and daughter Alice (Darby Walker). Samuel receives an ugly iron cross talisman along with a personal letter of thanks from Hitler himself for his service, both of which he boards up inside his Nazi paraphernalia room. Alice, ignorant of her father’s past, wants to start going in to town and open herself up to being courted by local boys, but Samuel keeps her locked away in their home. One day, however, his anger is so great that he drowns Alice in a water trough and hides her body. The local police are unable to locate her body and assume that she has run away. Miriam eventually kills Samuel and leaves the home herself, never to appear in the film again.

In the present day, Regan (Sarah Davenport) is en route to the home of a family friend/professor, to babysit his daughter Irene (Shae Smolik) for a period of time. My apologies if this is vague, but so is the screenplay. Along for the weekend (?) are her friends (Gabrielle Bourne, Bayley Corman, and Alisha Wainwright). After a couple of run-of-the-mill scares and the occasional bump in the night, the ghost of Ashley enacts revenge and picks the girls off one by one until the film concludes with Generic Horror Ending 3.01A: Final Girl™ and Precocious Innocent Child™ escape from Haunted House™.

This feels like a movie that fell through a portal to a parallel dimension where David Decoteau makes films for a straight male audience. Decoteau, for those not in the know, earned his stripes directing B-horror fare like Creepazoids! and sequels to various Full Moon properties, like Puppet Master and Prehysteria. In the late nineties and continuing into the new millennium, however, he took up directing direct-to-video in-name-only horror flicks starring young actors and underwear models looking to break into the industry. His filmography is largely composed of fare like The Brotherhood and its five (!) sequels, Boy Crazies, Haunted Frat, and other homoerotic “movies” that exist primarily as vehicles for long, static scenes of nubile white twinks with only one film credit showering and running around the woods in their briefs. Also, sometimes Alexandra Paul is there.

With the rise and spread (no pun intended) of the internet, the demand for softcore not-quite-porn subsided, leading Decoteau to new heights of laziness, churning out family fare like A Talking Cat?! and An Easter Bunny Puppy. This isn’t meant to be a dig at Decoteau; the man got his start working for Roger Corman after all, and movies like Beastly Boyz are an important part of DTV film history even if they’re no longer relevant. And the man obviously learned a lot from Corman, seeing as he managed to release seven films in 2011 alone. The problem is that it’s painfully apparent that he’s not even trying anymore. He just shoots all of his movies in and around his house now, with no attempt to hide his apathetic approach to cinema (there’s a couch made out of the back of a VW Beetle that appears in every single film).

The Hatred is in this same vein. The midcentury “farmhouse” that is the setting for the introduction (which takes up over a quarter of the film’s runtime and is, despite its laziness, still the best part of the film) is obviously a modern home, in spite of the half-assed attempts to disguise this with set dressing. It’s not out of the question that the Sears family would have a wicker loveseat or ornamental mirrors, but they probably wouldn’t have been the kind you can see at your nearest Target, or have been awkwardly placed in the background in such a way that it was obviously covering a modern electrical outlet. The sepia is so omnipresent that you get the feeling you’re watching a film set in the 1800s, not the 1950s, and the dissonance of that visual rhetoric makes it impossible to take it seriously, even when Divoff, Siemaszko, and Walker are giving decent performances (regardless of truly atrocious dialogue).

This is a movie that’s coming apart at its (very visible) seams at all times. The location is never established in the dialogue; there’s a shot of the North Carolina flag early in the film, but when Regan’s gaggle of gal pals is giving her a hard time about her decision to move to “the country” from “the city,” we’re never given a clear picture of where either of these places are supposed to be. Is “the city” Raleigh? Is “the country” Louisburg? The lines as written and recited paint a picture of Regan as a NYC gal moving to some distant backwater. There’s an ineffable haziness to the whole film that would be notable if the filmmaker was creating a timeless dreamlike Everywhere, but it’s not–it’s just lazy. As further illustration, in the same scene where this “expository” dialogue is spoken, the girls express appreciation for “hot cowboys.” The audience does not see these cowboys in a reverse shot, nor did the director stick an extra in a flannel shirt and jeans and have him pass between the women and the camera; it’s just the four of them looking off-camera and exaggeratedly waggling their eyebrows. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

What separates this from being a true alternate universe Decoteau film, however, is the overall lack of any impropriety. One of the girls (Stock Character 40A.4™) is killed by the vengeful spirit while talking her boyfriend out of phone sex, which is so scandal-free it’s almost laughable. There are no shower scenes or long tracking shots of Regan and a friend slowly walking down a hallway in their bleach-white undergarments. All of the girls are quite pretty and are perfectly suitable as the gender-bent equivalents of Decoteau’s stable of twunks. In fact, I would dare say that they’re all far more talented than any of the one-and-done “actors” from Decoteau’s films, giving performances that range from passable to decent, although the lead actress feels a little insincere, like an overly-kind waitress that you recognize is being nice to you because she has to (here’s a tip, boys: she’s never flirting with you; she’s working).

Normally, even if a film is objectively bad, we here at Swampflix can still find something nice to say about it, or advise that there could be a specific audience who could glean some nugget of joy from a mess. Not this time, I’m afraid. To call this film “half-assed” is to betray an ignorance of fractions; I’d be surprised if even a quarter of an ass was used in the making of this film. There’re too many great movies, streaming and not, to waste your precious time on this stinker.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Gandahar (1988)

French animator René Laloux is well known & respected for his debut feature, Fantastic Planet, a gorgeous work of political sci-fi psychedelia, but people unfairly treat his career as if he only ever directed that one film. Laloux actually directed three feature films (along with several shorts) in the Fantastic Planet style, each tied to similar themes of anti-fascism political empathy and each visually striking in their traditionalist, but psychedelic hand drawn animation. The last of these films, Gandahar, even came close to breaking through to mainstream success in America. Dubbed by American voice actors like Glenn Close, Bridgette Fonda, and Penn Jillette & slightly edited for sexual content, Gandahar was distributed in North America under the title Light Years by the Weinstein Company. Arriving during the 80s fantasy boom of titles like Legend, Labyrinth, and Ladyhawke & guided in translation by sci-fi heavyweight Isaac Asimov, Gandahar was in the exact right position to make a lasting mark on the public consciousness. Instead, it’s faded into relative obscurity, not having nearly as much of a cultural footprint as Fantastic Planet. It’s a shame too, because the film feels just as worthwhile as that bonafide classic, even in its compromised American form.

The title Gandahar refers to a sort of space alien Eden, a matriarchal hippie paradise in the stars ruled by Nature & peace. The Counsel of Women who govern Gandahar follow a strict boobs-out-for-empowerment philosophy that affords the film a wealth of National Geographic-style desexualized nudity. Their way of life is dedicated to a preference for organic Nature over manmade technology, an ethos that is challenged when their reverie is disrupted by war-hungry robots. Black, personality-free machines invade Gandahar and zap citizens into stone, like God punishing Sodom. This threat is clearly coded as a robotic stand-in for Nazi invaders a hateful force hellbent on destroying the diversifying concept of the individual self. They rebuke a life lived for freedom & pleasure, exemplified by Gandahar, and their mindless loyalty to a single Master gives them great strength in that conviction. To save their people, The Counsel of Women deploys a single male savior, Sylvain, on a journey to find salvation outside his home world Paradise. In his adventures to save Gandahar, Sylvain discovers love, time travel, the true evils of The Master, and a community of mutants who call into question whether Gandahar was ever the utopia it was reported to be before the robots even invaded.

All in all, Gandahar plays like a mashup between an extended He-Man and the Masters of the Universe episode and animated cover art from the prog band Yes. Its central metaphor about robo-Nazi invaders and the value of the individual self never extends too far beyond the robots shooting lasers out of their Hitler salutes and talking up threatening masterplans like “The Final Annihilation.” It’s possible that some of that subtext was stronger in the unadulterated French cut of the film, but it’s not what makes Gandahar special anyway. Laloux’s visual Dungeons & Dragons-flavored fantasy, overrun with odd details like alien bugs suckling off humanoid breasts, flying manta ray dragon beasts, and Godzilla-like kaiju is the main treat in Gandahar, as it was in Laloux’s biggest hit, Fantastic Planet. Clashing the organic, Cronenbergian terrors of his alien landscapes with a then-modern 80s synth score is more than enough to justify giving Gandahar a second look. Laloux’s political metaphors may feel like an outdated hippie fantasy, but his visual style is far too fascinating on its own accord to suffer under that shortcoming. Gandahar may not offer anything terribly new that wasn’t seen before in Fantastic Planet besides a distinctly 80s soundtrack, but a more of the same proposition shouldn’t be a problem for anyone captivated by Laloux’s eternally striking visual art.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 28: Casablanca (1942)

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 Casablanca (1942) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] Casablanca is about people who do the right thing.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “If we identify strongly with the characters in some movies, then it is no mystery that Casablanca is one of the most popular films ever made. It is about a man and a woman who are in love, and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. This is immensely appealing; the viewer is not only able to imagine winning the love of Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series.

One of the more challenging aspects of looking back to these titans of cinematic prestige in projects like this is trying to put yourself in the mindset of the people watching them when they were first released. That was a very rewarding experience for me when I recently watched Citizen Kane for the first time, which felt like returning to the birth place of modern cinema. Orson Welles’s classic was not immediately appreciated as a game-changer, however. It took years of reappraisal and televised re-runs for that film to earn its rightful place among the all-time greats. The equally lauded Casablanca, often touted to be the greatest film of all time, had a much easier path to success. In the film’s own advertising it was reported to be, “As big and timely a picture as you’ve ever seen! You can tell by the cast it’s important! Gripping! Big!” With names like Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, and Claude Raines among its ranks it’s difficult to dispute that claim. That’s especially true once you consider that Casablanca is about the ineffectiveness of remaining neutral in the face of Nazi fascism and that it was made just a few years after America had been pressured into joining the war in spite of its Isolationist philosophies. Unlike with Citizen Kane, however, time has only faded what initially must have felt special about Casablanca. It might entirely be a question of over-familiarity. The stars of the poster no longer shine as brightly as they did in the 1940s. The film’s iconic dialogue has been echoed, referenced, and parodied to dust. I’ve seen more films about Nazis & World War II than I’ve ever wanted to sit through in my entire life. What’s left, then, is a well-shot, well-acted drama that’s undeniably good, but difficult to contextualize as the best cinema has to offer.

Bogart stars as an American who prides himself in remaining Neutral in all things, especially politics. He’s warned early & often that “Isolationism is no longer a practical policy,” a truth that becomes increasingly apparent as the nightclub/gambling den he runs in North Africa begins to see a clash of new Nazi faces with his traditionally French clientele. Sometimes this clash is literalized by both sides fervently singing their national anthems over each other’s in proud defiance and drunken bravado. More often, it’s a backroom political game where enemies to the Nazis seek secretive travel to the still-neutral USA while the Nazis attempt to keep them still in Casablanca until it’s their time to be dealt with. Bogart’s leading man finds it impossible to stay out of this conflict once a familiar face from a past Parisian romance, played by Bergman, shows up at his nightclub seeking asylum & safe passage for herself & her political refugee husband. A song that represents their past romantic fling, “As Time Goes By,” repeats endlessly on the soundtrack, both diagetically​ and otherwise, as Bogart stresses over what to do with the only woman who’s ever broken his heart. In the meantime, the dialogue is peppered with repetition of the film’s own greatest hits of line deliveries: “Play it again, Sam,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine . . .” etc. The ending of Casablanca, set at an airport, is just as much part of the public consciousness​ as any one of those lines, but I’ll leave you to discover it for yourself if, like me, you’ve somehow avoided seeing the film until now. I will say, though, that it will not likely have the impact on those uninitiated now the same way it did in 1942, which is actually fairly indicative on how the movie plays in the 2010s as a whole.

I have a strange relationship with Casablanca’s formal aspects, especially its pacing. On the one hand, I appreciate its brevity in keeping its runtime at only 100min, where I feel like most Big! Important! movies from the studio era are about twice that length, complete with overture & intermission. The movie has an absurdly fast-talking, no-nonsense energy to it that makes for a very easy watch in a modern context, but I’m not sure it’s a pace that fits the material well. In a lot of ways Casablanca intentionally traps its characters in a transitive state, a sort of real life Limbo. From the French officer who prides himself on being free from Nazi control in his own North African safe haven to the nightclub owner who foolishly believes he can make it through the war without ever choosing sides, no character is leading a life that can last forever. They’re all effectively stuck in a rut, but the movie’s rapid pace does little to match or accentuate their stasis. In particular, the sweeping, drunken montage of Bergman & Bogart’s Parisian tryst has little time to make any impact for me outside the historical revelation that disco balls have existed since at least the 40s. The performances in the film are top notch and the cinematograpy & attention to lighting match them in pure elegance. Some of the most gorgeous shots I’ve seen on film in a long while are just the glimmering tears Casablanca captures as they well up in Ingrid Bergman’s eyes. I just didn’t feel as much of a personal impact from the film as a complete product despite those images. Some of it might be my boredom with war narratives and my over-familiarity with the film’s greatest hits dialogue. A lot of it has something to do with its breakneck pace that never slows down to allow a moment to truly linger. Casablanca continues to shine as a well-made film, a quality assessment I can easily see in its basic sense of craft. What I’m failing to see as a modern audience is why it remains an important one, which is a huge distinction to make. Maybe my feeble 2010s mind, with its Twitter notifications and Instant Steaming options, was too slow to keep up with its virtues as a cinematic feat, but I was unable to feel the awe for it I might have expected from a film that’s been hyped as The Greatest of All Time for the past seven decades, as unfair as that expectation might be.

Roger Ebert concludes his Great Movies review of Casablanca by saying “Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it.” Maybe I’ll be able to catch up with all of the love that’s been heaped on the film over the decades once I also become overly-familiar with the film on its own terms instead of being overly-familiar with the references it’s inspired elsewhere in pop culture. All I can report for now is that I liked it, but I was far from in love, even though I feel like I already know every piece that makes up its basic structure.  It’ll be a while before I ask Sam to play it again, but I’m not opposed to the idea.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: The Third Man (1949)

-Brandon Ledet

Death Ship (1980)

trianglethreehalfstar

campstamp

A cruise liner is minding its own business when suddenly an empty, ghostly freighter rams it. The wreck leaves only a handful of survivors, including a hard-ass Captain Ashland played by George Kennedy. The survivors drift on a raft until the freighter appears again. Like every group of protagonists in every haunted location based movie, they willingly enter a situation despite the obvious red flags. They board the Death Ship. We learn that the boat is a “Nazi interrogation vessel,” still on its mission to kill. In fact, it needs blood to keep running. Eventually the Death Ship possesses captain Ashland, and generally terrorizes the lot, killing off a few of them.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that makes Death Ship engaging. It’s a disappointment in most regards. The acting is terrible, the characters are under-developed (to the point of wondering if anyone even tried at all), and the premise is never really fully explained. There are some shocks, but they’re too hokey to be convincing or effective. In fact, there’s almost nothing redeemable about this film at all. Yet, I still enjoyed it. Maybe not as a spooky Shining-esque boat horror I assume they intended, but as a campy masterpiece.

One of Death Ship‘s many enjoyable flaws is the unexplained nature of, well, everything. A lot of strange things happen and have strange consequences. For example: a woman writhes around in a blood shower in one sequence and in the next we just get the information that she’s dead. How did she die? Why does a ship that needs blood waste so much blood on a shower? You don’t get answers, but do you really need them after watching someone squirm around under a shower head oozing fake blood? There are so many moments like this.

Death Ship is great, but it is also bad. Unlike cult films like Troll 2 — which is tone-wise the best movie to compare it to, where unknowns deliver the best performances they can muster under bizarre direction and bad writing — Death Ship manages to get a similar style of performance with actual actor, and actual Oscar winner, George Kennedy. The idea of a Nazi Interrogation vessel still sailing back and forth on the atlantic looking for victims isn’t developed much more than this one sentence. I think the strongest thing it’s got genuinely going is the ominous synth-y soundtrack.

-Alli Hobbs

This Must Be the Place (2012)

EPSON MFP image

twostar

Like a lot of thrifty New Orleans music nerds, I recently stumbled across an opportunity to see goth legends The Cure perform for cheap at my alma mater’s lake shore campus. It was a wonderful experience that unfortunately inspired me to embark on a disappointing one immediately after. I’ve been curious about the Sean Penn indie dramedy This Must Be the Place since it was first released four years ago and the option of it conveniently streaming on Netflix combined with my post-bargain bin Cure show glow to finally push me into pulling the trigger. The gun backfired. On paper, a movie starring an aging Sean Penn as a Robert Smith stand-in on a quest to murder his father’s concentration camp Nazi tormentor sounds fascinating, if not mind-blowingly incredible. Throw in some cameos from the always-welcome David Byrne & Harry Dean Stanton (with only the former portraying himself, unfortunately) and you have a must-see proposition. Like a lot of The Cure lyrics will explain to you, though, the reality is a much gloomier, more depressing experience than that romantic ideal. This Must Be the Place is one of those thorough letdowns that teases you with all the puzzle pieces required to make a great film, but leaves them messily scattered across the kitchen table, never bothering to carefully slap them together.

It’s possible the most important missing or ill-fitting piece in this particular production is Sean Penn’s lead performance. Although Penn is dressed in Robert Smith’s hairspray, make-up, and legacy, he plays the part with the quietly obnoxious energy he brought to the ill-advised mental handicap melodrama I am Sam. Every weird, lispy, half deaf sound Penn makes in this film is a singularly bizarre choice that just doesn’t pay off. The most enjoyable moment in his performance is the opening credits sequence of him wordlessly applying make-up in a mirror. It’s all downhill from there. The performance is even more baffling if you’re familiar with the real Robert Smith’s speaking voice. In interviews the aging goth rocker sounds like a perfectly normal British man, just as he always has. Penn instead sounds like David Sedaris made faint by a bout with pneumonia. He gives a delicately odd, grandmotherly performance that’s arrestingly bizarre, but never recommendable the same way, say a Nic Cage train wreck might’ve been. There’s no pleasure to be had in it, only confusion.

The real shame is that Penn’s distinct awfulness feels completely out of sync with what everyone else is doing on camera. As mentioned, Harry Dean Stanton & David Byrne are their usual wonderful selves in trumped up cameo roles that serve as desperately needed breaths of fresh air in a film that could use a little more charisma along the same lines. Byrne is especially welcome here, bringing some much-appreciated Lynchian energy into a scene where plays a bizarre musical instrument of his own invention an an entirely unearned, but pleasant moment when he sings the Talking Heads song the film borrows its title from. Frances McDormand is also wonderful as always, playing an entirely thankless role as Not Robert Smith’s divinely patient wife whom he doesn’t deserve. Only Penn stands out as a sore thumb annoyance here and a lot of the film’s faults lie squarely on his apparently incapable shoulders.

It’s really no wonder this film bombed so miserably at the box office, but I guess it’s not entirely Penn’s fault that it failed to find an audience. Much like its soft-spoken weirdo protagonist, This Must Be the Place is entirely unsure of itself. It floats between so many tones & genres that it’s difficult to pin down exactly why it feels so off other than it has no idea what it’s doing or what it wants to be from minute to minute. This is a first draft work in need of a severe revision, either swinging hard to the character-based indie dramedy or the Nazi-hunter revenge thriller directions it flirts with or, hell, swinging to both. It instead hovers like a Ouija board reader hesitating to decide on a path. There’s some really interesting imagery on display, finding surreal details in unlikely sources like an above ground swimming pool, a buffalo, and a naked old man roaming the desert. There’s also some interesting sources of internal conflict, like Penn’s retired musician’s guilty over two dedicated fans’ suicides or his quest to avenge the tormentor of a father who disowned him due to his gender androgyny.

These individual pieces, again, never amount to a cohesive whole. Even if they did, though, Penn’s choices in his lead performance might’ve been enough to sink the ship on their own. Everything feels half-cooked & out of place here, just as self-opposed as Penn’s Robert Smith image vs. his non-Robert Smith demeanor. I’d even argue that the parenthetical half of the title of its Talking Heads source material, “Naive Melody”, would’ve made for a better choice in moniker. Everything at play is just exactly off & ill-advised in that way, except maybe David Byrne. He can do no wrong.

-Brandon Ledet

Green Room (2016)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

With his last two features writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has carved out a nice, little niche for himself in constructing intimate, terrifying thrillers about folks who are in way over their heads (in blood & viscera). His last film, Blue Ruin, was a tightly-wound revenge thriller in which a doomed, ordinary man took on an organized criminal syndicate despite his ineptitude for violence in a private war he instigates (or avenges, depending on your perspective). His attempts at violence are ugly & disastrous, as he fucks up constantly, but the inertia of the plot doesn’t allow him any viable options but to continue on anyway. There isn’t much of a difference in Saulnier’s follow-up, The Green Room, except a change in scenery and a shift in perspective from revenge to survival in its central plot concerns. The Green Room somehow feels less special & more pared down than Blue Ruin, but it’s still an effective thriller that never loosens its chokehold on the audience’s throat throughout its runtime thanks to an increasingly limited set of options for a positive outcome for any one of its characters, protagonist or otherwise.

Fictional hardcore punk band The Ain’t Rights (featuring Burying the Ex‘s Anton Yelchin & The Final Girls‘s Alia Shawkat among its members) are struggling to make it home from a disastrous road tour, resorting to siphoning gas & camping roadside to ease their financial desperation. Keeping their punk band ethics D.I.Y. & internet presence free, the band finds themselves in the fragile situation of playing one last gig for an isolated skinhead (ne0-Nazi) community (run by a no-nonsense, ice-cold Patrick Stewart). As soon as The Ain’t Rights open their set with a cover of the Dead Kennedys’s classic diddy “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” the vulnerability of their situation becomes terrifyingly apparent & only gets worse as the plot thickens & the chokehold tightens. After their set The Ain’t Rights accidentally uncover a couple nasty secrets their racist/militaristic punk show hosts are hiding at their concert venue/compound and the situation snowballs into a total nightmare where they’re locked in a small, windowless dressing room with no hope for escape except an all-out bloodbath where the ill-prepared youngsters aren’t likely to survive. Spoiler alert for those unfamiliar with this kind of genre fare: most of them don’t.

If there’s a prevailing concern that drives every scene of The Green Room it’s authenticity. Scenes of D.I.Y. punk kids drinking beers, listening to records, getting dead serious about their biggest artistic influences during college radio interviews, and having out-of-body religious experiences while thrashing around in a mosh pit all feel true to the punk scene as I know/remember it, albeit without the stench of body odor that would seal the deal. Apparently The Thermals frontman Hutch Harris was brought in as a coach for this aspect of the film, which is about the cutest thing I’ve heard of since Deb Harry handed out “punk rock merit badges” to the Frog Scouts on The Muppet Show. I only have to assume that the skinhead scene is represented with the same level of authenticity, as I’ve thankfully had very few experiences with their presence at New Orleans D.I.Y. shows. I’d like to see a version of this kind of punk scene thriller without these white power monsters’ involvement, but the movie seems well-researched in their representation. At the very least it gives the same fetishistic attention to the various designations of their bootlace colors as Friedkin gave to the gay S&M scene’s handkerchief coding in Cruising.

The Green Room‘s authenticity doesn’t stop at its depictions of D.I.Y. punk culture, either. The violence is some of the most horrifically brutal, gruesome gore I’ve seen in a long while, not least of all because it’s treated with the real life severity that’s often missing in the cheap horror films that misuse it. Each disgusting kill hits with full force, never feeling like a frivolous indulgence, and the resulting tone is an oppressive cloud of unending dread. From the Dead Kennedys cover to the end credits my veins were pulsing so hard they felt as if they might explode. That’s a sign of a highly effective thriller, but it wasn’t necessarily a feeling I’d wish to return to at any point.

The Green Room amplifies the hopeless situation of Blue Ruin by confining its action to an extremely limited space & uping the potential number of lives at stake, but I couldn’t help but find the plight of Saulnier’s in-over-their-heads protagonists a little repetitive here. There are some truly great, small moments in the film (the religious experience in the mosh pit especially stands out), but in a larger context I felt it was mostly delivering a heart-racing sensation of fear & apprehension. It was intense in the moment, but felt like somewhat of a cheap thrill once I reached the relief of the end credits. As a genre picture I think The Green Room checks off all the right boxes & delivers everything you could ask for as an audience looking to cower & sweat. However, I’d love to see Saulnier switch gears in the future & push where else he can take that intensity/authenticity with an entirely different set of genre expectations.

-Brandon Ledet

Phoenix (2015)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

I’ve been putting off watching Phoenix, despite it appearing on many Best of 2015 lists, due to the grim nature of its pedigree as a Holocaust survivor’s tale. Its recent appearance on Netflix’s streaming service made watching the film too convenient to avoid, though, so I finally bit the bullet. It turns out my apprehension was far from unfounded. Phoenix is a rather grim slowburner about an Auschwitz survivor trying to piece her life back together in a post-war Germany. It’s a frustrating film & not a fun watch by any means, but it is most certainly worth the emotional effort. By telling a very specific, limited-scope story about a handful of people trying to recreate a way of life that’s been lost forever, Phoenix captures an aspect of war’s toll that a lot of films often overlook. Instead of portraying the heroes & villains who fight it out on the battlefield, it’s much more concerned with the men & women who are left to sift through the rubble, both literal & metaphorical.

Despite loved ones’ insistence that she move to Palestine to help establish a Jewish state, a Holocaust survivor moves back to Germany to find her husband. Left horrifically scarred by concentration camp atrocities (and initially wearing a bandage that recalls the women of Goodnight Mommy & Eyes Without a Face), she undergoes plastic surgery that normalizes, but forever alters her appearance. She looks similar, but not quite identical, to her pre-war self, just as the state of her homeland has been forever transformed. With her entire family dead or missing, she tries to re-establish her relationship with a husband who treats her like a total stranger due to her change in appearance. Instead of telling him outright who she is, she allows him to slowly get the picture, perhaps in a bid to prove to herself that her pre-war self still exists in some way, that her identity didn’t perish forever in Auschwitz. The problem is that her husband has also been forever altered by the war & the romance she’s trying to recapture is no different from the bombed-out buildings & ripped to shreds Germany that serve as haunting reminders of their past.

Again, Phoenix is far from light entertainment. My own Best of 2015 list doesn’t include anything too comparable to the film in terms of emotional severity (except maybe The Diary of a Teenage Girl or Felt), but that’s more an indication of my personal inclination for over-the-top absurdity than it is of Phoenix’s quality. This is a really tight, surprisingly understated drama with one of the most satisfying final scenes in recent memory. Its use of the song “Speak Low”, which includes the haunting lyrics “Love is a spark lost in the dark too soon,” is especially commendable, as it’s incorporated several times throughout the film with great tonal & narrative consequence. If you’re looking for a solid, grim drama with an emotionally tender gut punch at its conclusion, this film is highly recommendable. It’s not the kind of experience I put myself through often, but I’m glad I put in the effort here.

-Brandon Ledet