Last Dance (2022)

It’s undeniable that the art of drag has changed drastically in the past decade, at least from what I can see in New Orleans.  The traditionalist dive-bar pageant drag that I grew up with in the city has been pushed out to the edges of the frame, found only in the annual Gay Easter parade in the Quarter or at spaghetti & mimosas brunches on the West Bank.  These days, most local drag acts are young cabaret weirdos who are much more interested in testing the boundaries of good taste than they are in looking pretty under a pound of pancake-batter makeup.  In most cities, drag’s recent shift towards the avant-garde might only be attributable to the popularity of television programs like Ru Paul’s Drag Race and its legion of international spinoffs.  Here, it’s more directly influenced by the New Orleans Drag Workshop, an intensive drag bootcamp that spawned most of the city’s most vital, exciting queens for the better half of the 2010s.  That’s the local legacy of drag mother Lady Vinsantos, who closed the New Orleans Drag Workshop just before the pandemic in 2019, leaving behind a glamorously mutated art scene that now sets the city apart from the Southern Pageant traditions I remember from Mardis Gras & Decadences past.

The French “dragumentary” Last Dance honors Vinsantos for recontouring the New Orleans drag scene into the vibrant freak show it is today, so it was wonderful to see it presented with ceremonial prestige at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival.  As the older, stuffier crowd attending the local premiere of the Louis Armstrong documentary Black & Blues spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of The Prytania, the drunken reprobates waiting for the Vinsantos doc rushed in, ready to cheer on & heckle the projection of their friends’ faces onto the century-old silver screen.  The movie asks, “Remember when Neon Burgundy had that gigantic beard?” as if it’s making nostalgic small talk between stage acts at The All-Ways.  It treats local drag performers like Franky, Tarah Cards, and Gayle King Kong as if they were the first wave of punk bands to perform onstage at CBGB’s, a much-deserved reverence you’ll only find in film-fest documentaries like this & To Decadence With Love.  Director Coline Albert may not be from New Orleans, but she does a great job of highlighting what makes the local drag scene special, and how much of a hand Vinsantos had in shaping that scene into what it is.

Besides, New Orleans is only one part of Vinsantos’s story, as it’s told here.  This is a documentary of thirds, split between the closure & legacy of the New Orleans Drag Workshop, Vinsantos’s youthful run as a chaos queen in San Francisco, and the character’s official retirement show in Paris – a lifelong dream realized.  The writing & production of the Paris show helps establish a narrative momentum as Vinsantos reminisces about what he’s accomplished with his drag artistry in two distanced American cities, saving the movie from devolving into pure talking-heads tedium.  Even as someone who’s attended many shows populated entirely by Workshop “draguates” (as well as Vinsantos’s horror-host screening of the San Francisco cult film All About Evil), I’ve had little direct interaction with his own work, as he’s been gradually, consciously ceding the stage to younger talent.  Last Dance operates as a fly-on-the-wall portrait of Vinsantos as a self-doubting, frustrated artist with a chaotic stop-and-start creative process.  The Paris retirement show finale and clips from past triumphs also offer a decent sketch of what the Lady Vinsantos stage persona is like in action – a volatile combo of a Strait-Jacket era Joan Crawford and a Grande Dame revision of Freddy Kreuger.  The retirement of that persona is very much worth preserving here, even if she eventually rises from the grave to terrorize yet another city.

To Last Dance‘s credit, it doesn’t attempt to cover all of Vinsantos’s various art projects from throughout the decades.  His dollmaking, songwriting, and filmmaking efforts are only captured in glimpses, sometimes frustratingly so.  The archival fragments of the D.I.Y. drag-horror films he made as a prankish youth in San Francisco were the major highlight for me, since they have a vintage texture that can’t be matched by modern digital cameras.  Even just limiting itself to the dual retirement of the Drag Workshop and the Lady Vinsantos persona, though, the movie can still feel a little narratively unfocused, frantically plane-hopping between the three cities tethered to Vinsantos’s heart.  If it’s at all meandering or overlong, though, the indulgence is clearly earned.  If anything, we should have rolled out the red carpet and handed over a Key to the City to make the ceremony of this retirement documentary even more ostentatious.  As is, getting home from the post-screening Q&A after 1a.m. at least felt appropriate to the late-night freak scene Vinsantos helped establish here; the only thing the event was missing was a crowd-hyping MC and a two-drink minimum.

-Brandon Ledet

Podcast #173: Causeway (2022) & #NOFF2022

Welcome to Episode #173 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon is joined by Moviegoing with Bill‘s Bill Arceneaux to review the films they caught at the 33rd annual New Orleans Film Festival, starting with the locally-set Jennifer Lawrence drama Causeway.

00:00 #NOFF2022

14:44 Causeway

36:55 The Negro and the Cheese Knife
45:00 Signal and Noise
51:55 Really Good Friends
1:00:40 The Streets Tell a Story
1:03:03 Iron Sharpens Iron
1:15:15 Street Punx
1:17:37 In Search of … Pregame
1:26:30 Friday I’m in Love
1:29:50 Three Headed Beast
1:34:18 Last Dance
1:38:34 Nanny

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

-The Podcast Crew

Quick Takes: Virtual Cinema at #NOFF2022

I only attended two in-person screenings at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival: local premieres of the New Orleans drag scene documentary Last Dance and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning horror film Nanny.  Everything else I caught at this year’s festival was presented on its Virtual Cinema platform, streamed at home on my laptop & TV.  Logistical obstacles kept me from catching more titles in person, which is a shame, since one of the major joys of NOFF is being immersed in microbudget, niche-interest cinema alongside huge, enthusiastic audiences that those movies would not reach otherwise.  After a week of rushing from screening to screening trying to cram in as many personal, handcrafted pictures as I can before they disappear into the distribution ether, I tend to lose track of the textures & standards of professional, corporate filmmaking.  It’s a low-key, intimate headspace I never want to emerge from, and there’s something especially cool about dwelling there with the sizeable crowds that are missing from arthouse theaters every other week of the year.  I obviously couldn’t simulate that experience attending the festival’s Virtual Cinema at home, but I did still get to see some pretty great movies.

Last year, I wrote a quick-takes roundup of the higher-profile Spotlight Films I caught at NOFF, but this year I’m flipping it around.  Stay tuned for standalone reviews of Last Dance & Nanny, as well as an audio recap of the full #NOFF2022 experience on an upcoming episode of The Swampflix Podcast.  In the meantime, here’s a brief round-up of all the smaller, more esoteric NOFF titles I watched at home – the closest I could get to full immersion in indie-budget Festival Brain.

Three Headed Beast

The first film I watched on NOFF’s Virtual Cinema platform this year ended up being my clear favorite.  The intimate, largely dialogue free drama Three Headed Beast got me excited to spend a week watching nothing but microbudget indies with no commercial appeal, and I was surprised that each subsequent virtual “screening” was a case of diminishing returns.  A small, quiet dispatch from our sister city Austin (where one central Swampflix contributor currently dwells), it’s got an infectious D.I.Y. spirit that’ll convince you the only resources you need to make a great film is a few free friends & weekends and a halfway decent script.  It’s cute, it’s stylish, it’s sexy, and it’s a more emotionally involving drama than most Awards Season weepies with 1000x its budget.

In Three Headed Beast, a loving bisexual couple struggles with their open relationship when one of them catches feelings for a younger third.  The historical details of their relationship dynamic—how long they’ve been together, how long they’ve been open, who suggested the change, etc.—aren’t spelled out until late in the runtime, when the wordless montages of their various romantic trysts are put on pause for the film’s first lengthy exchange of dialogue.  It’s all clearly communicated in their body language before that late-in-the-game explainer, though, and a tryptic split screen editing technique helps pack as much of that visual information into the frame as possible in an intricate, exciting way.  The tension of who’s putting more logistical & theoretical work into their polyamory (through podcast & literature research) vs. who’s actually committing to that lifestyle with a full heart is complexly mapped out using very simple, straightforward tools of the editing room – pulling a great, low-key romance drama out of very limited resources.  Plus, it’s the only film I saw at this year’s festival that includes a tender act of analingus, which has got to count for something.

Friday I’m in Love

I’m embarrassed to admit that my two favorite selections at this proudly local film festival were both imports from Texas.  The pop culture documentary Friday I’m Love is a detailed hagiography of the locally infamous Numbers nightclub in Houston, which opened as a dinner-theatre cabaret before converting to an immensely popular gay disco, then mutating once again into a new wave & industrial music venue.  Decorated with the tape warp & pre-loaded fonts of a vintage home camcorder, the movie presents “Houston’s CBGBs” as a Totally 80s™ nostalgia pit, one filled to the brim with half-remembered anecdotes about counterculture legends as varied as Divine, Ministry, Grace Jones, Nine Inch Nails, and Siouxie Sioux.  The doc is primarily a time capsule record for people who happened to live near the gay Houston neighborhood Montrose when the club was its cultural epicenter, but anyone with a decent sense of taste in music would find something worthwhile in that hazy stroll down memory lane.

Friday I’m In Love commits the worst crimes of a low-budget pop culture doc.  It invites talking heads to endlessly daydream about the glory days; its director makes themself a part of the story for no particular reason; it could have easily been reduced to a short.  And yet it’s got so much great archival footage of the loveable freaks who ran wild in the pre-internet world that it easily transcends those petty quibbles.  It turns out I’m willing to overlook a lot of gruel & glut as long as you throw in some anecdotes about drag queens, goths, and Björk, and there’s something especially charming about seeing those beautiful freaks party in the Texas heat. It turns out I wasn’t the only one so easily charmed, either; the movie won this year’s Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Street Punx

While the one truly local film I caught on the Virtual Cinema platform wasn’t my favorite of the fest, it was maybe the best suited for the fest.  Street Punx is perfect NOFF programming in that it’s a flippant satire about the petty, logistical frustrations of making the exact kinds of movies that never make it past the film festival circuit.  You get to laugh at the ludicrous, aimless hipsters who don’t even know why they’re making art in the first place, then immediately dance with them at the afterparty.  It’s self-critical about the entire enterprise of making niche-interest, microbudget films about “the real world” instead of genuinely engaging with it, while also never taking that to-the-mirror indictment all that seriously.

In this low-key slacker comedy, a pair of directionless New Orleans filmmakers attempt to scrape together funds to make a movie about street punks in Myanmar.  Hiding behind moodboard comparisons to the unscripted No Wave influences of filmmakers like Jarmusch, they’re never straightforward to potential investors about why they want to make a movie in Myanmar, mostly because they don’t even know the reasons themselves.  The studded jackets and spiked mohawks of their potential subjects look great on camera, especially in contrast to the ceremonial Buddhist robes worn by local monks & nuns.  They’re not even really interested in those surface-level aesthetics, though; nor are they are interested in the violent military coups that give those punk-culture rebels a political purpose.  Their concerns are selfish & petty well past the point of parody (including the director using the potential location shoot as an excuse to bang her Myanmarese crush), and most of the movie is a comedy about attempts to justify the project as anything other than a grotesque personal indulgence.  It’s a funny joke too, even if Street Punx itself feels a little messy & aimless in the exact ways it’s critiquing its would-be film-within-a-film for being.

Wetiko

My least favorite film of my Virtual Cinema selections was also the one with the highest ambitions, one that has a much clearer political purpose than the fictional Myanmar punk culture film in Street Punx.  In Wetiko, an Indigenous youth gets tangled up in a spiritualist turf war between authentic Maya shamans and their phony Euro initiators in the Yucatan, since his family’s pet store supplies hallucinogenic toads needed for their rituals.  It’s sharply critical of druggy white colonizers coopting Maya shaman traditions for recreational & self-aggrandizing purposes, recalling the criticisms of ayahuasca tourism in the overlooked, underloved drama Icaros: A Vision.  Featuring performances in the English, Spanish, Mayan, Afrikaans, and (fictional) Empire of Love languages, it’s got an impressively broad scope for such a tiny production, and the New Orleans Film Festival should feel proud to have hosted its World Premiere.

I just couldn’t shake the feeling that Wetiko isn’t as great as it could have been.  It’s shot on film, so it’s automatically got a leg up over most modern festival programming in terms of texture, color, and warmth.  It’s a shame, then, that it loses some of that ground in its choppy, “trippy”, CG-laced editing techniques during its hallucination sequences, which often feel cliché when they need to feel darkly magical.  Thinking back to the way this year’s magnificent Neptune Frost updated its own ancient mystique with the string lights & glowsticks of modern urban living, it’s easy to find Wetiko lacking in comparison.  I still found plenty to enjoy about it though, from the eyeroll-worthy cult members of the Empire of Love Conscious Community Center’s awe for “the universal hum of connectedness” to their satisfying violent overthrow at the hands of true local shamans who actually know what they’re talking about.  If its stoney-baloney trip-outs had just looked a little more uniquely uncanny & nightmarish, it likely would’ve been my favorite screening on this list.  “Impressive but flawed” is far from the worst thing you could say about a film festival title, though, and it was cool to see one of these low-profile movies punch above its weight class.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: The Beyond (1981)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss Lucio Fulci’s surrealist horror whatsit The Beyond (1981), set at the gates of Hell just outside New Orleans.

0:00 Welcome

02:22 Halloween Ends (2022)
09:14 Halloween II (1981)
14:10 Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
16:22 Hellraiser (2022)
19:10 Bride of the Re-Animator (1989)
24:38 Smile (2022)
29:09 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
33:20 Dark Glasses (2022)

46:09 The Beyond (1981)

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

-The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2022)

It’s usually a meaningless cliché when people say they were born in the wrong era, but I would make an exception if I heard it from Ana Lily Amirpour.  Since her 2014 debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Amirpour has been making the exact kind of high-style, low-effort hangout indies that earned easy festival buzz in the slacker culture days of the 1990s.  Two films later, it’s getting frustrating to see her drag that proud burnout energy into the 2020s.  It makes sense that her debut was a small-scale genre picture that coasted on laidback cool, but her resources have expanded greatly since then and she’s still making low-effort slacker films with attention-grabbing premises and a snotty “Fuck you” attitude.  The only difference is she’s now armed with celebrity stunt-casting & more extravagant locales.  Her post-apocalyptic cannibal whatsit The Bad Batch remains the most frustrating waste of her Flashy Debut clout to date, but its follow-up telekinetic fairy tale Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is only a half-step up from that disappointment.  Like her previous two films, Mona Lisa leans back & hangs out in a way that makes you wonder why Amirpour is making high-concept genre films when she’d clearly have more fun making no-concept, character-driven comedies.  The marquee promises a bubblegum pop version of Scanners or The Fury, but Amirpour is more interested in making a neon-lit Clerks.

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon isn’t bad; it’s just a little underwhelming.  Imagine if Harmony Korine couldn’t afford to be choosy with his projects and settled for making a straight-to-Shudder Gen-Z update of Carrie for an easy paycheck.  The titular Mona Lisa is an escaped mental patient with violent impulses & telekinetic powers.  She’s effectively a blank slate, having grown up in a padded cell with nothing but a straitjacket & a prison cot to keep her occupied.  Like the DaVinci muse, that internal void invites strangers to project meaning & intent onto her, which says more about their worldview than it does about her own personality (especially the freaked-out cops who want to lock her back up and the scheming hustlers who exploit her powers for cash).  This is Horror of the Hassled, as all Mona Lisa really wants is to hang out, eat junk food, and watch trash TV.  Her potential for violent mayhem is only unleashed when people get in the way of those totally reasonable goals.  Instead of seeking revenge in a cathartic Carrie-on-prom-night showdown with all the jerks who hassle her, she seeks moments of calm at corner stores, laundromats, and TV-lit living room couches.  She’s an out-of-time 90s slacker hanging out in a city of desperate, scheming dirtbags who’d all be better off if they just keep their distance and let her vibe.

Although not a great film, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon was a great programming choice for opening this year’s Overlook Film Festival.  It’s steeped in plenty N’awlins Y’all flavor to acclimate tourists who traveled here for the fest – starting in the swamps outside the city during Mona Lisa’s initial escape before trudging its way down to Bourbon Street strip clubs, frog ribbits bleeding into grimy DJ beats.  It’s also commendable for offering substantial character-actor roles to Kate Hudson (as a Quarter-smart stripper) and Craig Robinson (as the only kind NOPD officer in the history of the department).  Surely there’s an audience out there hungering for Amirpour’s high-concept slacker thrillers, real freaks who’d love to see Joel Potrykus’s own no-effort comedies dressed up in dingy pop soundtracks & Rainbow Store fast fashions.  I most appreciated Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon as a collection of oddball characters in no rush to do anything in particular.  I, too, would love to live a junk-food life unhassled, downing cases of cheap bear in parking lots with metalhead burnouts and chomping my way through well-done hamburgers at the Claiborne Frostop.  I just wish Amirpour would move away from the vampires, cannibals, and telekinetic witches of her film’s flashy premises, since she doesn’t seem motivated to do anything exciting with those conceits.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #148 of The Swampflix Podcast: Shapeless (2021) & #NOFF2021

Welcome to Episode #148 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon is joined by local film critic Bill Arceneaux to review the films they caught at the 32nd annual New Orleans Film Festival (which Bill also covered for The Bayou Brief), starting with the eating disorder-themed body horror Shapeless. Enjoy!

00:00 Welcome

10:45 Shapeless

26:40 17 Year Locust
38:04 Blue Country
46:30 100 Years from Mississippi
54:15 The Laughing Man

1:07:20 Socks on Fire
1:18:05 Homebody
1:23:40 Memoria
1:30:31 C’mon C’mon
1:40:33 Red Rocket

1:49:20 Best of 2021 homework

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

– The Podcast Crew

Shapeless (2021)

A common theme among my personal selections at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival was that every single movie felt oddly low-key & unrushed.  Beyond the obvious scaling-down that all film festivals have suffered throughout the pandemic, the movies themselves just felt unusually relaxed.  I expected that lack of momentum from filmmakers on the schedule like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but even the reliably frantic Sean Baker’s latest feel-bad comedy Red Rocket felt like more of a hangout than a nonstop plummet into chaos.  There’s no way to tell if that lack of narrative urgency appealed to the festival’s programmers when making their selections for this year’s docket, whether it reflects a communal headspace the filmmakers themselves shared as a response to the rapid escalation of global collapse we’re all suffering right now, or if it was just happenstance that I selected a few movies in a languid key this year.  What I do know is that the low-key vibe of the festival at large was most sharply felt in the local low-budget horror film Shapeless, which even indicates in its title a laidback formlessness that you wouldn’t expect in its genre.

Whatever Shapeless may be lacking in narrative momentum, it makes up for with a killer hook in its premise.  Kelly Murtagh stars as Ivy, a dive-bar lounge singer & street busker struggling to catch a break on the New Orleans music scene.  Her professional stasis is partly a result of working in a city that’s overcrowded with phenomenally talented musicians vying for the same spotlight (notably, in her case, a chill-as-fuck bartender played by The Deuce‘s Jamie Neumann).  Mostly, it’s a result of her personal struggles with mental illness, namely an eating disorder that isolates her from peers who are much more at ease around public consumption of food & drink.  Whenever Ivy’s not singing for tips or working her shitty day job at the dry cleaners, she shrinks away to the privacy of her apartment where she can binge & purge in peace.  Only, the longer she spends in isolation, the more damage her disorder does to her body – shredding her vocal cords and, most notably, mutating her into a Cronenbergian monster with excess digits & eyeballs emerging all over her body.

Translating eating disorder dysmorphia through body-horror genre tropes is a genius idea for a movie, but Shapeless isn’t especially interested in pushing its narrative past that starting point.  Its flashes of body-mutation gore are upsetting & wildly varied—including lesions, swelling, and the sudden growth of extra fingers & orifices—but there’s no discernible escalation of their severity as the movie drifts along.  After the initial discomfort of Ivy’s isolation & mutation settles in, I struggled to latch onto the tension the movie was trying to generate during its long stretches of eerie silence.  We spend a lot of time hanging around Ivy’s apartment waiting for her dysmorphic horror to exponentially escalate, but instead it stagnates – par for the course, considering the unrushed quality shared among every film I saw during this year’s NOFF.  However, I will admit that Shapeless really made me squirm in those long stretches of quiet discomfort, especially in scenes when Ivy was visually repelled by food.  One thing that will always be effective for me is when movies make the sights & sounds of people eating grotesque.  It gets me every time, and in this case that particular gross-out tactic was one of the main drivers of the plot.

Oddly, most of the outright horror programming selections I’ve seen at the New Orleans Film Festival over the years have been centered around the grotesqueries of eating disorders.  I’m thinking of 2019’s Swallow, and 2016’s Are We Not Cats?, to be specific.  Again, I will not speculate on whether that programming reflects a thematic preoccupation among the festival’s programmers or just a happenstance of the movies I personally have the time & money to seek out on my schedule.  I will say, though, that Shapeless is the least vibrant & energetic movie of that trio, so it fits right at home with this year’s festival selection at large – which leaned heavily towards low-key hangouts over shocking bursts of energy.

-Brandon Ledet

Quick Takes: Spotlight Films at #NOFF2021

As you would likely assume, the COVID-19 pandemic has sabotaged my usual filmgoing routine during the New Orleans Film Society’s annual New Orleans Film Festival.  In a typical year, I fill my NOFF schedule with a dozen or more low-profile independent films that I likely wouldn’t be able to see on the big screen (or see at all) outside a festival environment.  I’ll zip around the city for a week solid, cramming in 3-4 no-budget titles a day, the more esoteric the better.  I tend to avoid most of the big-name movie premieres at NOFF every year – both because those films are likely to be widely distributed to local theater chains in a few months anyway, and because the events are time-sucks that keep me from catching the smaller, weirder titles that will not screen in any other local venue.  The pandemic shifted those priorities greatly for me, though.  As I’ve been going to the movies a lot less frequently this year, the appeal of seeing a film festival screening of a major release with a masked, vaccinated crowd instead of gambling that I might be comfortable seeing it at the multiplex in a couple months is much less resistible.  And so, my participation in the 2021 edition of the New Orleans Film Festival was most boldly defined by attending the city’s premieres of three Awards Season prestige pictures, the exact thing I usually avoid during this ritual.

I will still do my best to individually review the few smaller NOFF selections that I watched at home on the festival’s virtual platform, since those no-distro titles are the ones that can most use the attention.  Since the three Spotlight Films I attended in person will most likely be discussed to death in the coming months by professional publications, I’m okay just grouping them here in bite size quick-take reviews.  As always, we’ll also provide an audio round-up of all the films we caught at this year’s festival on an upcoming episode of The Swampflix Podcast in the coming days.  Some traditions are worth maintaining, pandemic or no.  For now, here’s a brief round-up of all the major spotlight releases I caught at this year’s NOFF.

C’mon C’mon

The most thematically on-point selection for this year’s New Orleans Film Festival was definitely C’mon C’mon, which was highlighted with a lavish red-carpet premiere at The Orpheum.  The film was an obvious programming choice for that festival-opener treatment because the city of New Orleans features prominently in its cross-generational road trip narrative, which visits—in order—Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and, finally, N.O.  Director Mike Mills was in attendance to gush about the locals who collaborated on the picture, especially the New Orleanians who trusted him to interview their children on-camera about their visions of what they expect the future will be like. 

While that choice to highlight a (partially) local production in one of the city’s most gorgeous venues makes total sense thematically, I do think the presentation clashed with the film’s low-key nature.  I walked out Mills’s previous film wowed by his concise encapsulation of subjects as wide-spanning as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be “a good man” in modern times, the shifts in the status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe.  For all of C’mon C’mon‘s interviews with real-life kids about the daunting subject of The Future, it’s mostly just a road trip movie where a socially awkward uncle (Joaquin Phoenix at his most subdued) bonds with his socially awkward son.  It’s about the same thing a lot of low-key indie dramas are about: how difficult it is to meaningfully connect with the fellow human beings in your life, which is a much smaller scope than what I’m used to from this director.

Since C’mon C’mon is a lot more contained & intimate than either Beginners or 20th Century Women, it never approaches the heights of what Mills can do at his best.   Still, it’s pretty darn charming as one of those heartfelt friendship stories where a precocious child drags a lonely grump out of their shell.  And I love that you can feel Mills falling in love with New Orleans in real time in the third act, especially in a brief sequence set during a walking parade.  He looked genuinely inspired by the city on that stage.

Red Rocket

The other two Spotlight screenings I caught at this year’s fest were staged at AMC Elmwood – a very clear vision of what it would’ve been like to see them presented outside of the fest.  Of the Elmwood screenings, the title I was most stoked to see was Sean Baker’s latest black comedy Red Rocket, since his previous film The Florida Project ranked among my personal favorite films of the 2010s (several spots below Mills’s 20th Century Women).  Red Rocket did not disappoint, but it did leave me in a worse mood than Baker’s previous two features, which are much sweeter despite dwelling in the same bottomless pits of economic desperation.

Former MTV VJ Simon Rex stars as a down-on-his-luck pornstar who returns to his hometown in rural Texas to recover from his rock-bottom fallout in Los Angeles.  From the opening seconds of the film, Rex chatters & schemes at a brutally unrelenting pace, weaponizing his conman charm (and gigantic dick) to climb the local drug-ring ladder at the expense of everyone he encounters – including his closest family members and innocent neighborhood teens.  The only moment of relief from his sociopathic motormouth is when the community joins forces to shout “Shut the fuck up” into his face in unison.  The film boasts all the D.I.Y. visual splendor & infectiously rambunctious energy that typify a Sean Baker film, but they’re re-routed into a stomach-turning, pitch-black character study of Beach Bum-level proportions.

In its broadest terms, Red Rocket is just another bleak poverty-line comedy from Baker, exactly what you’d expect from him.  It’s just that this time it’s more of a feel-bad hangout than a nonstop plummet into chaos, and the protagonist is deeply unlikeable instead of charmingly vulgar.  It’s like a goofier, laidback version of Good Time, where you feel terrible for laughing while a desperate scumbag exploits every poor soul in their path just to keep their own head slightly above water.  It really slows down to make you squirm between the punchlines.  I didn’t appreciate it as much as The Florida Project or Tangerine, where you are invited to love Baker’s protagonists for their misbehavior, but at least he’s not repeating himself, nor shrinking away from what makes his work divisive.

Memoria

While the appeal of the other two NOFF Spotlight selections I caught this year was the previous work of the creatives behind them, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was drawn to the third & final film on my schedule mainly because of its exclusivity.  I’m generally a fan of Sean Baker & Mike Mills, but the only other film I’ve seen from Apichatpong Weerasethakul left me dead cold.  What drew me to his latest slow-cinema arthouse drama, Memoria, was less the artist behind it and more the William Castle-style gimmickry of its distribution.  A large part of the appeal of film festivals is having access to movies I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.  Memoria fits that bill perfectly: a challenging head-scratcher indie film that may never play in New Orleans again.

In a publicity-generating power move, Memoria‘s distributor Neon has announced that the film will “never” be presented on a streaming service or physical media.  It will instead perpetually “travel” in a “never-ending” theatrical release that will only play on one screen in one city at a time.  Personally, I very much value the novelty of attending an Event Movie right now.  It’s been a lackluster year for me, so I appreciate a little carnival barker razzle dazzle on the arthouse calendar, luring marks like myself who don’t even enjoy the director’s previous work into the circus tent just to feel like I’m witnessing something special.  I also recognize the pretension & elitism of that release strategy, so I was proud of the NOFF audience for outright laughing at the explanation of it during the festival’s pre-recorded intro.  That moment of communal mockery turned out to be one of the precious few highlights of the experience, unfortunately.

Memoria stars Tilda Swinton as a Scottish academic who’s spiritually adrift in Colombia, haunted by her sister’s mysterious illness and an even more mysterious sound that only she can hear.  Much of the film consists of non-sequitur tangents & intentionally overlong shots of its star sitting in still silence, as seems to be Apichatpong’s M.O.  I had about the same level of engagement with this film as I had with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: short bursts of baffled awe drowning in a bottomless sea of boredom.  Both films have exactly one scene that I flat-out love (a tense family dinner at a restaurant here & the catfish encounter in Boonmee) but for the most part were decidedly Not For Me.  I was practically begging for Memoria to end by its final half-hour, cursing myself for being suckered into the theater by its “never-ending” exhibition gimmickry.  Taking chances on difficult-to-access art films that make you feel intellectually bankrupt for not “getting” them is a quintessential film festival experience, though, and it oddly felt nice to be let down in that distinctly familiar way.  Made me miss the before times, may they soon return.

-Brandon Ledet

Reminiscence (2021)

I watched Reminiscence on the Friday night before Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, knocking out our power & internet service for weeks.  In any other context, the film might have landed as low-key escapist entertainment, but that particular weekend afforded it an eerie magnetic pull on my attention.  A sci-fi noir starring Hugh Jackman & Rebecca Ferguson as its incongruously gorgeous leads, Reminiscence splits its time between near-future Miami & New Orleans.  Both fictionalized versions of those cities are decorated with constant street flooding, like a modernized urban version of Vienna.  It’s like a Gulf South remake of Chinatown where there’s too much water instead of too little, a stomach-turning preview of what Climate Change will inevitably do to my beloved home city, likely within my lifetime. 

Maybe I wouldn’t have watched Reminiscence in the lead-up to a hurricane had I known about that submerged urban setting, but I’m glad I did.  It’s a surprisingly solid movie, especially considering its ice-cold reception in theaters.  Jackman stars as the owner & operator of a machine that tricks the human brain into reliving & re-experiencing memory in full sensory detail.  It was created as an interrogation tactic for police investigations, but over time became a commercial form of therapy for post-apocalypse urbanites, then a form of dwelling-on-the-past addiction.  His business gets by okay until he is hired by a mysterious femme fatale (Ferguson), who hires him to help remember where she lost her keys . . . which of course leads him to becoming entangled in a larger, lethal political conspiracy.  Luckily his partner in time (Thandiwe Newton) has his back, since he’s in way over his head, especially once he falls in love with his mysterious client . . . or at least his selective memory of her.

The biggest hurdle for most audiences to enjoy Reminiscence is going to be its shamelessness in collecting every possible trope of classic noir in its modern action sci-fi shell.  You pretty much know exactly where the film is going at all times, even if its scrambled timeline & false-memory rug-pulls confuses the path it takes to get there.  Beyond that predictability, its broad-strokes noir homage overextends itself to the point of parody in Jackman’s constant, overbearing narration, where he gruffly whispers things like “Time is no longer a one-way stream.  Memory is the boat that sails against the current,” and “Memories are just beads on the necklace of time.”  I’m going to choose to believe that the film knows how funny & outdated these overwritten turns of phrase are, the same way that a lot of classic noir could be darkly hilarious & absurdly wordy in its own day.  I half-expected Jackman to complain, “Of all the memory joints in all of Sunken City, this dame walks into mine”, but that sadly never came to be.  I wonder if the film might’ve been more immediately popular if its humor was more readily recognizable & self-aware, but I’m glad it plays it straight.  It’s funnier that way, intentional or not.

If Reminiscence feels overly familiar, it’s not necessarily because it’s paying homage to vintage 1930s noir; it’s because its exact style of homage was already hammered to death in big-budget sci-fi of the late 1990s.  Titles like Strange Days, Dark City, The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, and Gattaca have already tread this exact ground before, although maybe not with as much (suspiciously clear) water flooding their urban settings.  And even all of those movies owe a recognizable debt to Blade Runner‘s visionary estimation of sci-fi noir in the 1980s, putting yet another been-there-seen-that barrier between this genre-mashup and its 1930s source of inspiration.  Luckily, genre movies don’t have to be The First or The Best to be worthwhile; they just have to be memorably entertaining on their own terms.  I can pretty confidently say I’ll remember the experience of watching Reminiscence for a long time coming, if not only because the hurricane flooding that hit Louisiana that weekend echoed a lot of the imagery of the submerged New Orleans onscreen.

-Brandon Ledet

Mardi Gras Massacre (1978)

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is many things: cheesy, transcendent, sleazy, cheap, goofy, sinister, magical, communally handmade. Even if it’s spiritually corrupt and technically inept in its filmmaking, the cheap-o horror curio Mardi Gras Massacre is all those things as well. Yes, Mardi Grass Massacre is locally-flavored misogynist trash about a ritualistic serial murderer who targets French Quarter sex workers. It’s also the kinky, near-pornographic New Orleans equivalent of Manos: The Hands of Fate, in that it’s wonderfully, quirkily inept to the point of being Cute despite the repulsive cruelty of its genre. Better yet, all the qualities that make it memorable as a horror novelty are the exact same qualities that make our city-wide masquerade on Fat Tuesday such an extraordinary communal experience year after year, century after century. Unfortunately, 2021’s Carnival season has been completely upended by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, leaving a parade float-shaped hole in my heart. I don’t know if it’s just because of my desperate need to experience some semblance of that ritual through the safest means possible, but I was shocked to find some genuine Mardi Gras magic in such a lowly, putrid gutter. It felt great.

The poster for Mardi Gras Massacre sells the movie as if it were a giallo murder mystery, complete with a straight razor weapon that never appears in the actual film. In practice, it’s not a mystery at all. The killer’s identity is immediately apparent, as he plainly introduces himself to a pair of prostitutes at a Bourbon Street drinking hole, asking around for “the most Evil woman” they know. Once he secures a transactional “date” with the most Evil sex worker in the bar, he brings them back to his French Quarter torture dungeon, where he ritualistically removes their organs as a sacrifice to an Aztecan goddess. So much about this murder ritual is viciously amoral & tacky, which does not at all improve the two or three times it’s repeated beat for beat with subsequent victims. From the presentation of Aztecan religious practices as Anton LaVey-styled Satanic pageantry to the eroticized dismemberment of women as if it were a mere S&M kink, Mardi Gras Massacre is repugnant in its social politics – as most 1970s grindhouse horrors are. And, yet, as scope of the film expands outside those bloody dungeon sessions, the movie gradually becomes uniquely adorable in pure N’awlins fashion. Its distinctly 1970s misogyny is entirely overpowered by its distinctly local flavor.

The heroes of this story are a crooked cop and a French Quarter prostitute who form an unlikely love connection, turning the first ritualistic murder into a morbid meet-cute. The cheery pair play tourist on cutesy dates up & down the Riverwalk, inanely grinning at each other as the Natchez rolls by in the background. Before you can get incensed at the cops for being positioned as The Good Guys, however, this romantic fling eventually breaks down as the sex worker starts to resent her pig boyfriend’s sense of superiority over her. She calls him out for being a thief & a predator, and they split up to face the killer by their lonesome. The initial performative misogyny of the murder scenes gradually breaks down in a similar way. As we spend more time away from the dungeon rituals, the movie appears to have a much less Conservative viewpoint on women & sexuality than it initially pretends. The sex worker victims are more fleshed out & humanized than the evil caricature who hunts them down. Gender-ambiguous and flamboyantly queer side characters & extras are presented as matter-of-fact members of the French Quarter community instead of the punchlines you’d expect. Meanwhile, an incessant disco soundtrack constantly reminds the audience that the show is all in good fun. It would be absurd to posit that Mardi Gras Massacre was anything more than amoral sleaze—at least in terms of its political messaging—but it’s at least amoral sleaze that feels authentic to the French Quarter lifestyle once you emerge from the murder dungeon.

Of course, the real draw here is the novelty of the murders’ Mardi Gras setting, which frames the film as an act of regional filmmaking just as much as it is generic 1970s exploitation schlock. For most of the runtime, Carnival season is only as important to the plot as the approach of the 4th of July weekend in Jaws. Occasionally, cops & newspaper men are pressured to stop reporting the sex worker serial murders out of fear that it’ll ruin business during Mardi Gras, scaring away tourists. The climactic ritual is set on Fat Tuesday, however, where the killer feels emboldened to dress in his faux-Aztecan ritual garb in public, letting his freak flag fly among the other pedestrian revelers. I love this candid street footage with all my heart, as it captures the French Quarter masquerading of Fat Tuesday that most movies set here ignore in favor of the St. Charles Ave. float parades. As the on-the-street extras swarm around our costumed, misogynist killer, it’s fascinating just how little that real-life ritual has changed over the last four decades. The haircuts are a little different, but the costumes & the atmosphere are exactly the same. It was a time-warp to the exact blissful chaos of Mardi Gras that I’ve bene missing this year in quarantine, and it could not have come from a less reputable source.

There’s plenty of unsavory New Orleans flavor flowing throughout Mardi Gras Massacre even when it’s not parting its way through the Fat Tuesday crowds. At the very least, the movie is a wonderful guided tour of the Bourbon Street strip club scene of the 1970s, including an extensive novelty act with a dancer costumed as Lucifer. My favorite N’awlins Y’all moment in the entire picture is the shot where cops discover the abandoned body of the first victim near the Riverwalk, then the camera zooms in on the Cafe Du Monde signage lurking in the background. C’est magnifique. You can likely find these same New Orleans touches in far less grotesque regional horrors; The Exotic Ones is a much lighter, sillier equivalent that immediately comes to mind. Still, there’s just something about the lurid colors, the shameless hedonism, and the sinister non-stop partying of Mardi Gras Massacre that really won me over despite my initial misgivings. I did not expect the film to earn the “Mardi Gras” portion of its title, but its gawdy sub-professional ritualism got there in a roundabout, endearing way. The kills are mind-numbingly repetitive & grotesquely amoral, but everything that surrounds them forgives the indulgence, like Wednesday-morning ashes smeared on a hungover reveler’s forehead.

-Brandon Ledet