Cuties (2020)

This summer’s flurry of internet outrage over the French coming-of-age drama Cuties completely derailed how I engage with movie discussions online. Once upon a time, Cuties was the kind of small festival-circuit indie drama that a few professional movie nerds would kick around on their Best of the Year recommendation lists and then promptly forget among the other thousands of docu-realist provocations just like it. Instead, its wide distribution through Netflix coincided with rabid QAnon conspiracy mania at the exact wrong time and it became the Bot Target of the week: a much-discussed but little-seen work that had been boiled down only to alarmist headlines & dogwhistles. By the time the film was available to the wide public, it was impossible to view it on its own terms, as it was already buried under a sea of preloaded online complaints – some legitimate (critiques of Netflix’s misrepresentative, Dance Moms-flavored marketing and its clichéd positioning of Muslim faith as a prison of Moral Conservatism) but most cruelly disingenuous (wild claims that it was “pedo-bait” that first-time director Maïmouna Doucouré should be jailed or even executed for creating, along with the entire entertainment industry at large). Excessive online discourse preceding any film’s release is already exhausting enough, but the sensationalist, death threat-generating controversies surrounding Cuties in particular shattered my spirit, to the point where I couldn’t engage with any of the bad-faith slander against it without becoming instantly apoplectic. It’s made me reluctant to discuss any movie with anyone outside the confines of this blog – yet another moment of social, cultural heartbreak in a year of never-ending grief.

Having now seen Cuties for myself long after the QAnon C.H.U.D.s have moved onto whatever arbitrary-target-of-the-week they’re currently bombarding, I wish I could say that there was nothing to the controversial uproar and that the movie was a harmless delight. I would love to claim that the most offensive part of watching the movie was when Netflix auto-played it with an English vocal dub instead of its original French-language audio track, then move onto calling it one of the year’s most misunderstood gems. That would be just as disingenuous as the film’s pre-release backlash (pre-lash?), though. The truth is that Cuties is an intensely uncomfortable watch; it’s just uncomfortable in the exact opposite way than what its most ghoulish detractors report. This is a film in which young children obsessed with hip-hop dance squad pageantry mimic & weaponize an adult realm of sexuality that they don’t yet fully understand. They twerk & grind in skimpy Fly Girl outfits as a kind of rebellious provocation, an insistence on prematurely growing up to escape the constrictions on personal freedom that frustrate every child. However, the only way these dramatizations of deliberately bratty behavior could be seen as immoral or socially harmful would be confusing its depiction for endorsement, a common occurrence in online discourse (which deals more in clickbait headlines & out-of-context clips than its targets’ actual substance). Cuties is an intentionally uncomfortable watch – one that’s clearly, explicitly alarmist about the sexualization of children’s bodies & minds. It’s conscious of how girls’ & women’s bodies are policed by religious & social institutions, a reality that makes aggressive, sexually provocative dance a form of personal-political rebellion. Still, it’s also horrified by how early access to the internet and highly-sexualized imagery warps these kids’ minds, sending out clear “Do you know where your children are?!” fearmongering to the audience, taking the exact “Save Our Children” moralist position as the people who’ve gotten the most outraged by its existence. You know, people (and bots) who never watched it.

Growing up in New Orleans, I’ve seen children twerk before. At least as far back as Cash Money Records “taking over for the ’99 and the 2000” I’d even call it a fairly common occurrence. While those kids are mimicking a sexually provocative style of dance, they’re not purposefully engaging in sexual behavior and no one really treats it as such. It’s more a cultural rite of passage than anything obscene. The discomfort of watching Cuties is that Doucouré’s camera does sexualize its pint-sized dance troupe’s twerking & grinding, filming their movements as if they were gyrations of women twice their age. It’s a deliberate provocation meant to question what harm pop culture & premature internet access might be doing to kids’ minds, which is made explicitly clear at least by its climactic scene in which an on-screen adult audience watches the central dance troupe’s erotic routine in total, visible disgust. Personally, I didn’t get much out of that line of moralistic handwringing about children’s exposure to sexually explicit pop culture (beyond the intended cringe reactions during some of the more outrageous dance sequences). I was more engaged by the drama of the main character’s journey of self-discovery, wherein she rebels against the constrictions of her home life by joining the bratty dance troupe that routinely causes a ruckus at school. Unfortunately, there’s just so much twerk-alarmist moralizing to sift through (both in the film and online) that the coming-of-age drama feels secondary and not entirely worth the effort, especially when there are films like The Fits, The Florida Project, Girlhood, and Water Lilies that already excel at what it’s struggling to accomplish.

I wish I liked Cuties more, if not only to justify all the mental exhaustion leftover from justifying its right to exist. It’s a mostly okay movie that distinguishes itself by taking some impressively daring swings at a culturally touchy subject – the kind of thing that in a better, recently memorable world would’ve led to divisive film festival reviews not a flood of online death threats. It hasn’t revolutionized the coming-of-age docu-drama in any way, but it has completely changed the way I look at and engage with online film discourse, especially among people I don’t already know & trust.

-Brandon Ledet

Mucho Mucho Amor (2020)

I can’t be the only American philistine who wasn’t aware of Walter Mercado before he was lovingly parodied by drag queen Alexis Mateo on the most recent season of Drag Race All Stars. That’s why the timing of the Netflix Original documentary Mucho Mucho Amor mere weeks after that episode aired was such a beautiful, unexpected gift. A sexually ambiguous television astrologer with a love for modeling extravagant capes, Mercado fits snugly within the parameters of drag artistry, making Mateo’s signal boost of his legacy a perfect use of Drag Race‘s annual, wildly uneven “Snatch Game” segment. Even without a previous awareness of Mercado’s public persona, Mateo’s impersonation and costuming made Mercado immediately comparable to other enigmatic public figures who’ve skirted the edges of drag pageantry – mainly in pop music (Little Richard, Elton John, Liberace) and in pro wrestling (Gorgeous George, Goldust, Cassandro el Exótico). A breezy pop-doc arriving to provide the details of Mercado’s particular place within that familiar pop culture paradigm so soon after I had first discovered his existence was a pure delight. On a more superficial note, so was getting a closer look at his closet full of fabulous capes.

It almost seems like a willful ignorance on my part to not have heard of Walter Mercado until now (or to have forgotten him from fuzzy childhood TV broadcasts), considering that he was a celebrity of note for four decades: 1969 – 2007. After a brief career as a suave telenovela star, Mercado quickly rose to fame in Puerto Rico (and, not too soon after, internationally) for his gently flamboyant horoscope readings, wherein he would dress like a drag mystic and assure each astrology sign that peace, love, and positive changes were heading their way. In a rare candid moment of Mucho Mucho Amor, Mercado explains that the costuming, wizardly hand motions, and mystical sets from these horoscope & tarot readings were merely “Stupid Stuff” that he would use to help get his message of love & positive thinking in front of as wide of an audience as possible. He’s not wrong. That Stupid Stuff is his schtick’s main attraction, and the driving force that puts audiences under his spell. He’s much more guarded during the rest of the doc, though, making sure to not reveal too much about his age, sexuality, gender identity, or personal vendettas against former colleagues who ransacked his television fame for easy cash-outs. Mercado strives to present a kayfabe version of himself in Mucho Mucho Amor that floats freely between any strict definitions of identity, so that he is more the spirit of pure all-posi love than he is a corporeal human being, and the doc does its best to oblige him as much as possible.

I get the sense that this documentary was originally intended to be a career revival for Mercado. Unfortunately, it proved to be more of a memorial service than anything, since Mercado did not survive long enough to see its completion. It’s very fitting to his all-posi messaging to have such a sunshiny posthumous documentary about his career’s upward trajectory, though, and it thankfully gives the film something else to fixate on besides the “What Happened?” true-crime investigation of the mysterious legal troubles that derailed his career. It also helps the film that Mercado was virtually omni-present on television for decades, reading daily horoscopes to his mesmerized fans, so that there is a glorious wealth of retro footage to mine for visual fodder. The ways Mucho Mucho Amor fills the time between those vintage clips of Mercado doing his thing achieve varying levels of success. The staged reenactments of 1980s households and the out-of-nowhere Lin-Manuel Miranda vanity tour that interrupt the flow of the narrative are a little distracting, but other gambles like the animated tarot card chapter breaks and the glimpses into Mercado’s contemporary home life work beautifully. Most importantly, the film allows Mercado himself to have the final word on his own persona & legacy in a lengthy series of interviews, so that the whole thing plays more like a document of a fascinating art project than a real human being, which works perfectly for the subject at hand.

Since I didn’t know much of anything about the subject going in, Mucho Mucho Amor could have just been 90 minutes of Walter Mercado modeling extravagant capes and I would have been just as pleased with the result. Actually, looking back, I’m not sure that it wasn’t just 90 minutes of Walter Mercado modeling capes, and I’m convinced its portraiture photo shoots deserve to be converted into a coffee table look book. It was wonderful getting to know this enigmatic astrologer mystic in such an intimate, loving way so soon after discovering his existence, and the movie mostly does a great job of showcasing what made him fabulous without getting in his way with its own theatricality.

-Brandon Ledet

Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling (2019)

You hardly have any time to adjust to the updated look & feel of the 2019 reboot of Rocko’s Modern Life before the movie makes fun of you for struggling to adapt to the change. In the new series timeline, the titular cartoon wallaby has been floating in outer space with his three animal besties (a cow named Heffer, a turtle named Filbert, and his pet dog Spunky) while watching the same rerun of their favorite cartoon, The Fatheads, over and over and over again. This absurd state of preserved, perpetual stasis is clearly coded as a comment on the real-life audience’s nostalgia for an ancient, deeply silly cartoon show from the 1990s – right down to its vintage orange VHS cassette packaging that all Nickelodeon shows were immortalized on in their home video form. Rocko is perfectly happy in his rut of watching the same show on loop for decades, asking “Isn’t it great how some things never change?” Obviously, a lot has changed in the 23 years since Rocko’s Modern Life has been on the air, which is immediately apparent in the crisp digital look of its updated 2010s animation style. Acknowledging & confronting those changes head-on quickly becomes the entire point of this straight-to-Netflix sequel to the show, which smartly interrogates the necessity of its own existence in a way that justifies the entire exercise beyond its value as a nostalgia stoker.

Once their outer space hiatus inevitably ends, Rocko & crew rejoin the citizens of Earth to find that a lot of change has transpired here in their absence. While Rocko can overlook his buddies’ fascination with the food trucks, smartphones, and 3D printers that define this new normal of the 2010s, he struggles with the revelation that his favorite cartoon show has been cancelled while they were gone. Most of Static Cling concerns Rocko’s campaign to Bring Back The Fatheads as a 2010s reboot, a Sisyphean effort to preserve just one thing as it was 20 years ago instead of accepting that everything changes with time. Mishaps in bringing back the series’ original creator, fighting off corporate directives to cut corners by having it computer-animated, and preventing the original show’s central dynamic between its main characters from shifting at all drive Rocko mad as he attempts to control just one aspect of his life in a constantly changing world. Those struggles also directly reflect the effort to bring back Rocko’s Modern Life in a meaningful way, of course, so it’s for the best that the movie eventually settles on an “Embracing change is the key to happiness” message, even if it pauses to make fun of 2010s concepts like “going viral” and to adjust to modern concerns like the evolution of modern transgender identity politics before it can get there. It’s wonderful that the return of the show found a way to be about something instead of merely skating by as an empty nostalgia exercise, even if that Something was empty nostalgia exercises.

It’s worth noting that Rocko’s Modern Life hasn’t changed so drastically in this modern iteration that it’s no longer recognizable. Its proto-SpongeBob hyperactivity and grotesque dedication to gross-out details like booger jars & prehensile nipples remain intact, as do the basic character traits & vocal performances of its main cast. The movie just doesn’t pretend that the world is exactly the same as it was when we last visited the show, instead adjusting its purpose for existing to address that exact cultural shift. It works both as a 90s nostalgia generator and as a meaningful work of modern animation in its own right, which is more than anyone should have reasonably expected from this straight-to-streaming novelty.

-Brandon Ledet

The Evolution of The Lonely Island Sports Movie

It’s been three years since The Lonely Island (Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, and Andy Samberg) released their latest commercial-bomb-turned-cult–classic, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and that 2010s update to Walk Hard pop music biopic parody finally has its follow-up. While Popstar mocked the modern “concert documentaries” (read: feature length infomercials) of acts like Justin Bieber & One Direction as an excuse to stage ZAZ-style gags & The Lonely Island’s classic music video sketches, the group’s latest release adopts an even flimsier format to do the same: the visual album. Self-described as “a visual poem” and surprise-dropped on Netflix in a Beyoncé-evoking distribution strategy, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is pure Lonely Island goofballery. It’s difficult to tell if its visual album format is meant to be a joke at the expense of hubristic projects like Lemonade & Dirty Computer or more of a self-deprecating joke at the expense of The Lonely Island themselves for even attempting to pull off such a loftily minded project in the first place. Either way, its’ a brilliant move that not only updates their cinematic sensibilities to a more modern version of pop music media, but also removes two barriers that tend to stand in the way of what makes them so enjoyable to watch: the necessity of a plot to justify a feature-length film & the necessity of box office success to pay their producers’ bills. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience isn’t as successful or as substantial of a work as Popstar, but it is one that further suggests that these very silly boys have finally reached a new sense of ambition & efficiency in their craft. It’s also an accomplishment that they’ve been building towards for years, if you consider the earlier, more restrained sports mockumentaries of their past as trial runs.

Appropriately enough, The Lonely Island’s cinematic career started with a feature-length sports narrative. While still producing Digital Shorts for SNL, the trio of pop music parodists delivered their first delightful box office bomb with 2007’s Hot Rod. While not quite as formally daring or riotously funny as Popstar (or even Jorma Taccone’s other SNL-era feature, MacGruber, for that matter), Hot Rod is still pretty damn hilarious from start to finish. It was the first instance when I can recall genuinely enjoying Andy Samberg beyond his usefulness as someone who makes Joanna Newsom laugh. Playing an overgrown man-child who wants to be a daredevil just like his deceased father, Samberg’s general mode in Hot Rod is slapstick comedy and it’s classically funny on a Three Stooges level as a result. Often missing jumps on his dirtbike & puking from the pain, Samberg’s titular Rod is far from the Evel Knievel Jr. he imagines himself to be. There’s a lot of solid humor derived from the disparity between Rod’s confidence & his actual abilities, which allows you to have a good laugh at his expense even when he drowns, catches fire, or explodes. That’s an interesting subversion of the traditional underdog sports story, but it’s still one that plays its comedic beats relatively safely. The premise is mostly grounded in reality yet is careful not to resemble any real-life public figures too closely (not even Knievel). Its structure remains true to the traditional sports movie narrative too, even if its greatest strengths rely on long strings of non-sequitur gags. For instance, most of the film boasts a killer 80s synthpop soundtrack, but towards the climax when Rod’s crew has their inevitable third-act falling-out, the score suddenly switches to melodramatic string arrangements – effectively poking fun at its own necessity to transform into A Real Movie at the last minute. With more filmmaking experience under their belts & more celebrity star power backing up their audacity, their sports movies parodies only strengthened from there.

At this point in The Lonely Island’s career timeline, Hot Rod’s timid SNL Movie comedy template feels more like a one-off anomaly than an early wind-up for what Bash Brothers delivers. If anything, Bash Brothers feel like it’s the final film in a trilogy of sports parodies that Lonely Island initially produced for HBO, mostly as a creative outlet for Samberg. At a half-hour a piece, Samberg’s sports mockumentaries Tour de Pharmacy (2017) & 7 Days in Hell (2015) are the earliest telegraphs of where the Lonely Island crew would eventually go with Bash Brothers. Respectively tackling the real-life sports world controversies of doping in cycling & angry outbursts in tennis, Tour de Pharmacy & 7 Days in Hell fearlessly make fun of some of the biggest scandals in sports history (short of the O.J. Simpson murder trial) in violent jabs of ZAZ-style chaos. What’s most amazing about them is that they invite the real-life sports celebrities involved in those scandals to participate in their own mockery. John McEnroe drops by 7 Days in Hell to poke fun at a fictional “bad boy of tennis” (played by Samberg, naturally) whose antics with sex, drugs, and physical violence result in a deadly Wimbledon match that drags on for a solid week, disrupting & disgracing a once-reputable sport. Serena Williams also pops by as a talking head, even through the media’s policing of her own supposed emotional outbursts is much more unreasonable than McEnroe’s. In Tour de Pharmacy, Lance Armstrong talks at length about how every single cyclist who competes in the Tour de France is aided by illegal substances, directly recalling his own downfall in a very public doping scandal. Wrestler-turned-comedian John Cena also appears as a steroids-enraged monster in the film, tangentially poking fun at the WWE’s own history with performance-enhancing drugs. Of course, both projects are still packed with the juvenile non-sequiturs & physical comedy gags that have been constant to Samberg’s sense of humor, now emboldened to be more sexually explicit than ever before thanks to the freedom of HBO – resulting in bisexual orgies, unconventional prostate stimulation, and characters high-fiving during cunnilingus. It’s the bravery of connecting those very silly gags to very real publicity crises for sports figures who are participating along with the creators that feels new & mildly transgressive.

As daring as it may be to trivialize real-life sports controversies in such a flippantly silly way, those two HBO productions still feel somewhat formally restricted. It wasn’t until Samberg rejoined with Schaffer & Taccone post-Popstar that his sports cinema mockery really hit is pinnacle, just a few weeks ago. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience makes full use of all The Lonely Island’s best cinematic qualities: the music video sketch comedy of their SNL days, the rise-and-fall (and fall and fall) sports narrative of Hot Rod, the gross-out sex gags of MacGruber, the shameless evisceration of real-life sports scandals from Sandberg’s HBO mockumentaries and, finally, the chaotic disregard for traditional structure of Popstar. The Netflix-hosted half-hour comedy special wastes no time mocking the steroids abuse scandal that plagued the 1989 World Series run of the real-life “Bash Brothers,” Mark McGuire & Jose Conseco. The very first verse Samberg raps in this “visual poem” (read: loose collection of music videos) references steroids abuse, a theme that’s reinforced over & over again in the group’s usual 80s-era Beastie Boys cadence with lines like “I never finish sex because I’m so juiced out” and “Stab the needle in my ass until I am rich.” The genius of adapting this mockery to a visual album medium is that is allows the boys to go full-goof 100% of the time, packing in as many music video sketches as they please, unburdened by the necessity of a coherent plot. As funny as Samberg’s HBO specials were, they’re still fairly grounded mockumentaries that parody the tones & structure of many HBO Films productions of the past. Hot Rod is even more beholden to classic cinematic templates, falling well within the boundaries of a typical SNL movie even if its individual gags are specific to The Lonely Island’s sensibilities. While Bash Brothers can easily be seen as a swipe at the hubris of the visual album format, it ultimately just proves the point that it’s a genius, unrestrained medium that brings out the best #purecinema potential of any popstar who dares to utilize it – even incredibly silly parodists with a fetish for traditional sports narratives.

The Unauthorized Bash Bothers Experience feels like an epiphanic moment within The Lonely Island’s cinematic output, a culminating achievement in the sports movie template that they’ve been trying to crack open for more than a decade now. Of course, I wish that feature-length comedies like Popstar & MacGruber were more successful as theatrical gambles, but I am glad that these very silly boys have finally found a more viable niche for their sports movie parodies. I’m also glad to see these comedy nerds continue to take the piss out of our deeply flawed sports gods of yesteryear – an achievement that’s only make doubly fascinating by those gods’ participatory amusement in their own mockery.

-Brandon Ledet

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

Contemporary art galleries are some of my favorite places in the world. The shiny white floors and tall white walls sparsely decorated with bizarre, thought-provoking pieces make me feel like I’m trapped in a glorious nightmare. Dan Gilroy explores this mix of art and horror in his most recent Netflix film, Velvet Buzzsaw. It’s mysterious, stylish, and oh so very gory.

I have yet to see Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, but I’m well aware Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in the film was well received. I haven’t seen many Gyllenhaal  films, so I never really had an opinion about him. I always thought he was just okay, far from being a noteworthy actor. His performance in Velvet Buzzsaw has completely changed the way I feel about him. I never thought I would say this, but I’m officially a Jake Gyllenhaal fan! His character in the film, Morf Vandewalt, is a pretentious art critic who is extremely influential in the art world. How Gyllenhaal was able to make me fall in love with such an unlikeable character is beyond me.

In the beginning of the film, Morf leaves his boyfriend and develops a sexual relationship with his colleague, Josephina (Zawe Ashton). There aren’t nearly as many bisexual characters in cinema as there should be, so this was just another reason for me to appreciate Morf. Josephina works under Rhonda (Rene Russo), a well-known, tough-as-nails art dealer who was once a member of a punk band named Velvet Buzzsaw (the origin of the film’s title). Josephina is sweet and probably the most down-to-Earth out of the bunch, but that all starts to change when she uncovers the massive personal art collection of her deceased mysterious elderly neighbor. Josephina claims the paintings, and after she brings them to the attention of her fellow art associates, the paintings take the art world by storm. When anyone looks at the paintings, they look like they saw Jesus Christ in the flesh. It’s obvious there’s something magical about these paintings, but once those who come in contact with them begin to die in mysterious ways, the paintings go from being magical to pure evil.

Velvet Buzzsaw effortlessly balances being a satire of the highbrow art world while also being a blood-soaked slasher. The star-studded cast (including fabulous appearances by my all-time favorite actress, Toni Collette) work their magic by giving fabulous performances without allowing the film to lose its funky underground vibes. This is one of the best horror films to come out so far this year,  so 2019 is definitely off to a good start.

-Britnee Lombas

High Flying Bird (2019)

Ever since we covered his low-fi cerebral freak-out Schizopolis as a Movie of the Month, I’ve become a dutiful fan of Stephen Soderbergh. His latest post-“retirement” phase of low-key crowdpleasers that pack a vicious anti-capitalist political punch just below the surface are of particular interest to me, making recent titles like Magic Mike, Logan Lucky, and Unsane can’t-miss appointment viewing. It says a lot about how far outside my usual thematic wheelhouse High Flying Bird is then, that it took me several weeks to catch Soderbergh’s latest even though it was readily available on Netflix. A backroom business drama about a power-struggle between pro basketball players & the NBA (or at least its fictionalized equivalent), High Flying Bird is ostensibly the exact kind of “inside-baseball” sports movie I’d generally have zero interest in if someone’s name like Soderbergh’s weren’t attached. Of course, Soderbergh only uses the pretense of the pro sports drama as an excuse to explore leftist financial politics in what the movie would describe as “the game played behind the game,” as well as staging meta-narrative about his own career in filmmaking. I just didn’t personally connect with the film as much as I might have if it were instead about, say, rowdy strippers or a crazed stalker.

From a Soderberghian experiment standpoint, perhaps the most impressive feat High Flying Bird pulls off is in reflecting the director’s own career within the movie industry without at all sacrificing the voice or politics of its screenwriter Tarel Alvin McCraney (best known of penning the stage play source material for Moonlight). The dense, rapid-fire dialogue that pummels the audience throughout the film doesn’t feel too deviant from the slick-talking hucksters from Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series, but the themes discussed in those exchanges are, to be blunt, more conspicuously black than anything the director has ever handled before. As André Holland (also from Moonlight) travels from boardroom to sauna to gymnasium instigating an Ocean’s-type heist behind the backs of the mostly white (and mostly off-screen) businessmen of the NBA, he almost exclusively interacts with fellow black power-players: Bill Duke, Sonja Sohn, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, etc. The same thematic territory of the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams is elevated from college recruitment to the pro sports level, as the film tiptoes around equating its racially-caged labor dispute between NBA players & team owners to a continued form of American slavery. High Flying Bird deftly talks about race & labor without officially talking about either in explicit terms, a sly trick played by McCraney that I’m honestly a little too dimwitted to fully appreciate or even comprehend.

For any other white filmmaker I could imagine, this business of using an explicitly black story of labor relations with wealthy, white higher-ups to discuss the director’s own career in the movie industry would be disastrous. Soderbergh somehow pulls it off, though, mostly by staying out of the way of McCraney’s words and taking the backroom political drama at the film’s core deadly seriously on its own face-value terms. The most you notice Soderbergh’s presence throughout the film is in the showy digi-cinematography of his iPhone camera equipment. Shifting away from the ugly smartphone photography of Unsane to achieve a colder, HD security camera aesthetic of wide angles & oscillating pans, High Flying Bird again finds Soderbergh playing with his toys – finding new joy in the basic, evolving (devolving?) tools of filmmaking the way he has his entire career. No one shoots corporate, office-lit spaces quite like him, a sickly aesthetic that mutates slightly here though the omnipresence of HD TVs running sports news coverage 24/7 in the background of every interior setting. It isn’t until Holland’s protagonist starts negotiating deals with streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Facebook to circumvent the NBA’s usual broadcast distribution profits in the third act that the parallels between the labor struggle in the film and the director’s own fights to finance his art within a cruelly changing studio system become unignorably apparent. Still, Soderbergh is smart enough to keep those parallels extratextual and to allow the racial politics of McCraney’s screenplay to work on their own terms. Any more emphasis on the connection between those conflicts would’ve at best been an embarrassment, but it’s interesting enough in isolation as is without overpowering the story being told.

Ultimately, High Flying Bird is a smart, well-made movie that I enjoyed watching, but I feel like it was made for an entirely different audience than me. Any film nerds out there with a political or philosphical interest in the world of pro sports are likely to get much more out of the film than I ever could. As a Soderbergh fan, it was fun to see the director continue his pet interests of labor politics, smartphone cinematography, and offhand references to Baton Rouge culture while adapting the peculiar rhythms of another distinct creative voice. McCraney more than held his own in that collaboration and provides the film with an authenticity & cerebral stage play provocation it would be limp without. If I were just a little closer to the sports drama wavelength these two creative subversives collaborated on, this would likely be one of my favorite films of the year.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #78 of The Swampflix Podcast: Fyre Docs & American Movie (1999)

Welcome to Episode #78 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our seventy-eighth episode, Brandon & Britnee contrast & compare this year’s dueling Fyre Festival documentaries: Fyre Fraud & Fyre – The Greatest Party That Never Happened.  Also, Brandon makes Britnee watch the cult classic documentary American Movie (1999) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened (2019)

Not since Queen of Versailles have I taken so much delight in watching rich people having a hard time. Watching a bunch of “influencers” (gag Alice Sheldon tried to warn us and we just didn’t listen) who were willing and able to drop more than a middle class person’s annual salary just for the opportunity to party with models and Blink 182 forced to retrieve their luggage from huge trucks and rush in a panicked herd to try and claim disaster tents made me laugh for five minutes straight.

Ok, let’s back up. Fyre Festival was the brainchild of Billy McFarland, a twentysomething college dropout from an affluent unincorporated neighborhood in New Jersey who managed to accidentally pull off the greatest catalyst of schadenfreude of the new millennium through nothing other than sheer self-delusion.

Wait, let’s try again.

Ok. For those of you who missed the media blitz in 2017 and the follow up descriptions that accompanied the release of this documentary and its Hulu-hosted competitor, Fyre Festival was a planned luxury music festival to be held in late spring 2017 in the Bahamas, to promote the Fyre booking app, which was intended to function like Tinder or Uber for events and performers. So, if you were the kind of parent whose child might appear on My Super Sweet 16 and wanted to have Ja Rule or Kendall Jenner or Post Malone perform (that is, a parent who is obscenely wealthy and criminally negligent), Fyre would help you do that, and the world would get a little darker and more dreary. Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Festival that Never Happened, traces the beginning of the festival and the app back to its creator, Billy McFarland, and exposes McFarland and his cronies as the pathologically nouveau riche trendchasers that they are.

As far as this documentary is concerned, McFarland’s story begins with his creation of Magnises, identified in news archival footage in the film as “the black card for millennials” (and if you’re already sick of hearing the word “millennial” before your viewing, you should turn back now), a proxy credit card made of sheet metal that could be paired to another card and allow young go-getters to mimic their idols: money magnates with their black and platinum Amexes. This is actually the perfect place to start with the discussion of what went wrong with Fyre Festival, as it gets to the core of what allowed a group of inexperienced goofballs to defraud a willing (and deserving) vapid, wealthy public: image, artifice, performance, and prestige. Magnises’s Twitter account, which hasn’t posted anything since March 2017, boasts this description: “The community for the socially and professionally adventurous.” Essentially, it was a private club that, for $250 a year, gave members not only a “Just Like Daddy’s!” metal credit card and access to a work/playspace loft that also hosted private events. Per Forbes, “Members would gain entry to exclusive celebrity events, a concierge service to score hard-to-get concert tickets and restaurant reservations and access to a swanky, shared hangout pad. They’d also get to meet up with other wealthy young folk who like to party: entrepreneurs, businesspeople and entertainers.” So, you know, a cesspool of young money and unearned self-congratulation; I don’t think that you’ll be shocked to learn that the photos from these events are full of white faces.

From there, the documentary explores the friendship (?) between McFarland and Ja Rule, who the younger man met via Magnises events. McFarland came up with the idea for the Fyre app with Ja Rule, and the two of them leapt at the idea of using a music festival to promote the app. From the moment of inception, virtually everyone involved with the festival comes off as, if you’ll pardon my lapse into common speech, a supreme fucking douchenozzle. There’s McFarland, of course, who seems like a rich kid who just wanted to party every day of his life and got in way over his head and decided to dig further rather than admit his mistakes and come clean. There’s also the preposterously named Mdavid Low, Fyre’s Creative Director, whose Twitter laudably contains much anti-Trump, pro-Net Neutrality, pro-immigration rhetoric mixed in with the same kind of shallow “get shit done” motivational images that your former high school dudebro bully posts on his Facebook (example). There’s Samuel Krost, a twenty-three year old who seems to have somehow gotten involved because of a prior relationship with Selena Gomez and friendship with model Gigi Hadid, one of the models who was ultimately complicit in the misrepresentation of Fyre Festival on social media; his LinkedIn profile bears no mention of his involvement in the Fyre debacle, which seems both wise and deceptive. There’s Andy King, the head honcho of event production company Inward Point, a middle-aged businessman who invested time and energy into Fyre based on his belief that McFarland was a savvy businessman; he also has the best story in the entire doc, degrading though the memory may be. There’s Marc Weinstein, a music festival alum who aims to paint himself as a sympathetic whistle-blower but doesn’t quite hit the mark. There’s Grant Margolin, the Chief Marketing Officer of Fyre, who, aside from Billy, comes across as the most delusional person on the entire island. More than once, the doc shows Grant with a smartphone in each hand trying desperately to coordinate an event that was out of control from the word “go,” as his colleagues and co-workers chuckle while reminiscing about how woefully unprepared Margolin was for this kind of responsibility, painting him as McFarland’s toad. You almost feel sorry for him  a short, average looking dude surrounded by beautiful models, suitbros with expensive personal trainers, and even McFarland, who’s handsome in an I’ve-had-a-few-drinks-so-sure-I’ll-go-home-with-you kind of way, until you see the manic energy that he brings to every action and imagine how exhausting it must have been to work alongside him; there’s a scene where he’s trying to organize a bonfire for the promotional video shoot where he uses the word “big” eleven times in a row to describe what’s needed. And then there’s Ja Rule himself, acting as the imp who pushes McFarland to ludicrous extremes of reckless spending and gratuitous excess, as best expressed in his ridiculous toast to the crew: “To living like movie stars, partying like rock stars, and fucking like porn stars.” It’s a perfect storm of booze-fueled toxic immaturity coupled with the business acumen of childhood overachievers who sold the most wrapping paper at the fundraiser and now think they’re too big to fail.

McFarland, Ja Rule, and Margolin are ghosts in this documentary, appearing only in archival footage, of which there is a stunning wealth of material to supplement the talking heads provided by Weinstein, Krost, Low, and others. It’s never explicit in the text, but Fyre acts as a stunning indictment of what mainstream media likes to (inaccurately) call “millennial naivete” and (inarticulately) call “FOMO” by taking aim not only at McFarland and his cronies but also demonstrating how the need to obsessively self-document elements of daily life for the performative artifice of celebrity in exchange for the temporary but ultimately fleeting satisfaction of emoji reacts and comments from followers/subscribers. Some of the most fascinating parts of Fyre come not from the delineation of how the event was doomed to failure but from the completely shallow lack of self-reflection exhibited by the attendees of the festival when detailing their experiences, which for most of these privileged goons will be the most difficult experience of their charmed lives. Hulu’s documentary, Fyre Fraud, features a wider range of these than Fyre (stay tuned), but you’ll find yourself deeply hating almost every person who appears on screen. There’s Mark Crawford (who appears in this film exactly as he does in his LinkedIn profile, shitty haircut and all), who recounts first hearing about the festival and how he and his bros started hitting the gym in preparation for hanging out with models on Pablo Escobar’s private island (note that the promotional video was shot on Norman’s Cay, which was not the ultimate site of Fyre, nor did it go over well with the living family members of people who were killed as part of Escobar’s drug empire). There’s Justin Liao, a cryptocurrency dude who comes across as a stone cold sociopath as he smiles while recounting the fact that he and his buddies ransacked the tents next to theirs and intentionally made them even more uninhabitable on the first night so that they would not have neighbors, intercut with footage he shot himself using that most aggressively absurd of instruments, a selfie stick. Also using a selfie stick is James Ohliger of Jerry Media who, alongside Jerry Media CEO Mick Purzycki, is one of the more visually appealing participants, but other than their interviews all of the footage of them comes from self-shot phone video that is so saturated with unsubtle marketing language and envy-baiting rhetoric that it makes your libido curl up and die. Worst of all, nearly every single man in the documentary talks about the appeal of partying on a desert island with “hot,” “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” “breath-taking” women in a way that makes your brain short circuit because you’re not sure if you should vomit in disgust or just crawl out of your skin. These are certainly attractive ladies, but the undisguised piggishness that serves as the impetus to attend Fyre is so unexaminedly toxic and nakedly misogynistic, even from interviewees like Weinstein, whom I think we’re supposed to like, that it’s disgusting.

There are a few people involved for whom you can feel empathy, however. Shiyuan Deng, a developer for the Fyre app, expresses her frustration early and often, and you get a feel for what it must be like to be a cog in the development machine when the business for which you work ends up bursting their money bubble and leaving you out of a job and wasting all of the time that you put into coding and testing. Maryann Rolle, the proprietor of a restaurant that was intended to assist with the feeding of event attendees, ended up losing her entire nest egg as the result of hiring additional staff for Fyre-related business that failed to take form. The mononymous Columbo, a contractor working on the building of facilities for the festival, was unable to pay the construction staff he hired to assist him, many of whom worked for 20 hours a day in a desperate attempt to prepare for the festivities, and ended up having to flee the island to avoid reprisal from others. And then there’s Keith van der Linde, perhaps the only sane person involved with Fyre Fest, a pilot whose important questions (how are you going to move toilet facilities to an abandoned island?) were met with McFarland’s declarations that “We’re not a problems-focused group, we’re a solutions-oriented group,” which is (a) exactly the kind of startup wishy-washy language you would expect from him, and (b) not the only time that one of the involved parties recited this bit of McFarland wisdom in response to legitimate issues that needed attention while McFarland was busy jet skiing and feeding wild pigs. Notably, other than Keith, the laborers and unpaid workers were all people of color, implicitly noting the stratification of labor in the worlds of Fyre and Magnesis.

Overall, this is a pretty slick documentary, although the talking head segments notably look less professional/more VH1’s I Love the… than similar interviews in the Hulu doc, but it’s not terribly detrimental. I know that there were some concerns about the involvement of Jerry Media, who were tasked with managing the social media elements of the festival, as producers on the film, but I’m not sure it was as much of a detraction as it could have been; either they were willing to present the worst sides of themselves by sharing their own self-congratulatory footage and failing to disguise their desire to “fuck like porn stars,” or they didn’t realize how this footage made them appear, so it’s a toss up there. If you have Netflix, check this one out. Also, for further reading, take a look at Rolling Stone‘s “What Fyre Fest Docs Reveal About Tech’s Cult of Positivity”, and also revel in how prescient this decade-old Onion News Network video was in regards to this generation’s need to obsessively self-record.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Apostle (2018)

Netflix has been cranking out phenomenal original horror series and movies this year, most notably The Ritual, which is easily one of the greatest horror films to come out in 2018. Just this past Friday, Netflix also released the period horror film Apostle just in time for Halloween, and it did not disappoint. The first half of Apostle is very tame and mysterious, and the latter half spirals into blood-soaked insanity. I absolutely loved it.

It’s sometime in the early 20th century, and Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), is on a mission to save his sister from a pagan cult that kidnapped her for ransom. He travels to a remote island populated only by cult members and goes incognito as a follower. The cult elements in Apostle are a slight nod to The Wicker Man, as the cult members are seemingly average folk inhabiting an isolated island, but the cult in question is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in a horror movie. They worship a Goddess that inhabits the island, and they essentially keep her prisoner and feed her human blood to give her enough energy to produce crops from the islands tainted soil. The cult leader, Malcolm (Michael Sheen), discovered her and claims to be her prophet, and just like any narcissistic douchebag that gets a taste of power, he starts to lose his grip on reality. Everything essentially goes to hell in a handbasket when Prophet Malcolm is overthrown by a psychotic cult member, and Thomas is caught up in the brutal carnage while trying to get his sister off of the crazy cult island.

What I loved most about Apostle, other than the badass bloodthirsty Goddess, is that there is a tragic Romeo and Juliet type love story between two young cult members in the midst of all the madness. Honestly, Romeo and Juliet had it easy compared to what happens to these two. There’s just something about forbidden love within a cult that really holds my attention.

Apostle is visually stunning and just so damn unique. I truly hope it gets the recognition it so rightly deserves from the horror community and goes down in genre movie history as a “cult” classic.

-Britnee Lombas

The Ritual (2018)

It’s no mystery why a dirt-cheap horror indie would obscure the look of its killer creature for most of its runtime. If a smaller movie is careful enough with its location & casting choices, it can pour most of its financial resources into the look of its monstrous threat, leaving an outsized impact through limited means. That tactic is a huge gamble, though. The longer you keep your monsters off-screen, the more pressure there is for them to deliver the goods. After a significant enough wait, an underwhelming creature design can cause an entire picture to fall apart & fade away, only to be remembered vaguely as a disappointment. The recent indie creature feature The Ritual, a British production Netflix picked up at last year’s TIFF, boldly goes all in on obscuring the monster at its center. Staged in the cheapo horror-favorite location of The Woods and featuring Thomas from Downton Abbey (Robert James-Collier) as its most recognizable performer, the movie puts a massive amount of pressure on its mostly off-screen monster to a leave significant impact once it steps into the light. Thankfully, the movie pulls through with a deeply chilling nightmare beast, fully satisfying the demands it put on its own mysterious force of Evil.

Four British bros hike into the forests of Northern Sweden as one of the most bizarrely ill-advised college reunion festivities imaginable. The trip gradually takes on a distinctly black metal-flavored tone of ominous terror as they stray further from hiking trails into thickly wooded wilderness, but their macho sense of comradery leaves little social grace for smartly bailing on the experience. No one would blame them for backing out of their dangerous, over-confident choice recreation, except themselves as they tease each other with questions like “What’s wrong? Are you scared of the woods?” It turns out, of course, that a healthy fear of the woods may have been beneficial on this particular venture, as they become increasingly lost & surrounded by mysterious, menacing forces. Besides the aforementioned creature that patiently hunts them one at a time and the encroaching vestiges of a witchcraft culture who worship the damned beast, the men are also supernaturally tortured by visions of their own worst fears & regrets. Sometimes even more harrowing than the ritualistically arranged animal corpses, the creepy altars, and the flashes of an unfathomable beast appearing in the creases of the trees is the mental invasions of their own guilty, grief-stricken memories. Their doom is entirely inescapable, as it encroaches from the outside and from within.

The Ritual is a debut feature for American director David Bruckner, who has so far cut his teeth helming standout segments of horror anthologies like Southbound & V/H/S. Sticking to the narrative economy demanded by anthology vignettes, he relies on a number of well-worn genre tropes that burden the film with a consistent sense of familiarity. The discovery of abandoned cabins in the woods and ominous pagan symbols (which in themselves suggest a black metal Wicker Man aesthetic) recall other classic lost-in-the-wilderness horrors like The Blair Witch Project. Its story of old friends being tormented by their toxic memories & friendship dynamics (not to mention bloodthirsty monsters) feels like The Descent for British bros, except in the woods instead of a cave. Its individualized visions of internal torment recall films like Event Horizon, except in the woods instead of a spaceship. There’s no doubt that this is a straightforward genre film, even if it pulls its disparate influences from varied extremes within that genre. That familiarity puts just as much strain on the film’s creature design as its decision to delay the monster’s reveal for as long as possible. Everything that distinguishes The Ritual as a modern, indie creature feature is the look, design, and lore around that monster. What’s incredible about the film, then, is that it really pulls off the trick of making that monster count. This is a great creature feature because, and only because, its creature is great. It would have been a forgettable letdown otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet