Episode #156 of The Swampflix Podcast: In the Cut (2003) & 2022’s Best Director Nominees

Welcome to Episode #156 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of genre films from this year’s Best Director Oscar nominees, starting with Jane Campion’s 2003 erotic thriller In the Cut. Enjoy!

00:00 Welcome

00:38 Oliver Twist (2005)
04:10 Radhe Shyam (2022)
07:00 Turning Red (2022)
10:45 Master (2022)
15:10 Deep Water (2022)
21:00 Parallel Mothers (2022)

28:25 In the Cut (2003)
46:25 Duel (1971)
1:02:30 Dead Again (1991)
1:14:45 Asako I & II (2018)
1:29:00 Hard Eight (1996)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Quick Takes: 2022 Oscars Catch-up

For the second year in a row, I found myself wildly out of sync with 2022’s announced list of Oscar nominees. Even though I watched over a hundred feature films released in 2021, only three of them were nominated in any category – even the lowly technicals. It used to be that I’d seen at least a dozen without trying. And of the three films I had seen, only one registered as anything especially praiseworthy. I like the idea of Cruella as a superhero movie for gay children, but as Disney’s attempt at “a punk film” it’s embarrassing. Dune was pretty, lavish, and competently made, but it was also my least favorite kind of literary adaptation: the kind that’s pinned down by obligation to its source material, never managing to take off as its own unique thing. Surprisingly, Power of the Dog is the one Oscar nominated title I had already seen that I was impressed by, even though I don’t usually care much for Westerns. It was one of Swampflix’s Top 10 Films of 2021, after all. Looking at the 38 feature films nominated for statues this year, I felt totally out of sync with what titles the film industry has deemed Important. Or maybe it was just another sign of the pandemic scrambling everything up to the point where there is no clear zeitgeist right now. Hard to tell.

Knowing that I’ll end up watching the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony live on TV with or without having seen any of the films nominated, I again used the Oscars an excuse to catch up with some of last year’s high-profile releases that had slipped by me. And so, here’s a ranked list of movies I recently watched because they were nominated for Oscars – each with an accompanying blurb. I only watched movies that I had a genuine interest in seeing; I would have found no pleasure watching Belfast or Don’t Look Up just to shit on them, so I didn’t bother. It was partly an excuse to check out a few titles I meant to catch up with anyway, and partly an excuse to gawk at all the sparkling evening gowns at this week’s televised ceremony. Enjoy.

Parallel Mothers

Nominated for Best Actress (Penélope Cruz) and Best Original Score

I guess you could complain that this isn’t anything new from Almodóvar, but since he’s specifically returning to the exquisite melodrama flavors of Volver & All About My Mother, it’d be like complaining about eating strawberry ice cream for a third time in two decades. It’s still delicious and a rare treat! I especially love this as an acting showcase for Cruz and as a political parable that manages to feel elusive of a 1:1 metaphor but still furious over a very specific issue. A huge step up from the muted navel-gazing of Pain & Glory in my book.

Drive My Car

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi), Best International Feature, and Best Adapted Screenplay

I’m always unclear on how critical consensus rallies so quickly around a single, seemingly arbitrary title, but it’s nice when the beneficiary turns out to be this damn good. A patient, complex drama for adults, routinely landing direct stabs to the heart without ever making a big show of it. I generally consider myself a low-brow audience, so it feels significant that the big moment that made me cry was someone performing Chekhov in sign-language.

The Worst Person in the World

Nominated for Best International Feature and Best Original Screenplay

I’m an easy sucker for a story about a woman who is an absolute mess, but even so this feels like one of the best entries in the “Girl, same” canon since Fleabag. Visually playful & morally tricky enough to avoid feeling pedestrian or overlong, even though it’s sometimes stuck halfway between a Sundancey romcom & a solid season of television.

Summer of Soul

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature

I was prepared to dismiss this for allowing contextual talking-head interviews to overpower the music festival it’s documenting, but the editing is so persistently sharp and exciting that it justifies the interruption. I’d still love a full-footage box set release, but the truth is I’d probably treat it like background noise for laundry days, and this overview is something much more pointed & emotional.

Nightmare Alley

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design

The most a movie has felt like an unofficial entry in the Tim Burton Batman canon since the 2003 Willard remake, which I mean as a compliment.  It’s easy to miss the extravagant carnival setting of the first hour once you leave it for the big city, but the pure noir pastiche that follows is grim & gorgeous enough to overcome that loss.  A lot of people seem to have retracted their love for del Toro in recent years, but I’m still buying tickets for the dark ride every time it passes through town. This one isn’t his best; it’s still pretty great.

Licorice Pizza

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Paul Thomas Anderson), and Best Original Screenplay

I’m surprisingly super conflicted about this movie depending on whose coming-of-age story it is.  As a story about the adorability of teen-boy confidence I’m intensely icked out by it.  As a story about a twenty-something’s self-destructive resistance to growing up, I find it oddly moving & dark.  And since PTA is careful to balance everything evenly between those two POVs, I didn’t walk away with any easy answers or summations about that tonal conflict, which might’ve been the point.  All I can really say with any certainty is that these images look nice but the 1970s look sad & gross.

The Lost Daughter

Nominated for Best Actress (Olivia Colman), Best Supporting Actress (Jessie Buckley), and Best Adapted Screenplay

Part of me wants to say that trimming this down a half-hour would help sharpen the tension, but you’d probably lose some of the eeriness of its beach vacation purgatory setting in the process. Either way, it works better as a thorny drama about Difficult Women than as a psychological thriller, which is totally fine (except that only one of dual genres builds to something). Great performances all around; it’s just missing a climax.

Flee

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature

Probably uncool to say, but I couldn’t get over how ugly & lazy the actual animation looked in this. As an oral-history document, its content is obviously much more important than its form, and the narration is vital, heartbreaking stuff no matter how it’s illustrated. Still, I was way more personally, emotionally engaged in the moments of archival footage than I was looking at its Flash animation style (the expressive A-ha music video flourishes were effective, though).

House of Gucci

Nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling

I regret to report that Jared Leto is the best part of this movie. It’s too silly to be so well behaved otherwise, so the overly committed excess of his Italian caricature is the only performance that feels appropriate for the occasion. Fun fashion & ridiculous accents all around, but there’s only one goofball in the cast who truly understands the assignment (or at least perfectly misunderstands it).

Spencer

Nominated for Best Actress (Kristen Stewart)

I hate to say it, because I’m generally a fan, but Stewart’s performance is the only reason this did not work for me.  The retro couture, ghostly imagery, and suffocating tension are all consistently effective, but she’s the anchor of every dramatic beat and it all just rings as phony.  It feels like a Kate McKinnon parody instead of the genuine thing, which didn’t bother me so much when Natalie Portman channeled Jinkx Monsoon in Jackie but here feels like it’s running away from the laidback cool of Stewart at her best and the gamble just didn’t pay off.

-Brandon Ledet

The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

The single-camera mockumentary has become such a common genre over the past couple decades through sitcoms like Arrested Development, The Office, and Modern Family that it’s hard to remember a time when it was more of an outlier than the norm.  We’re familiar enough with the mockumentary format now to immediately understand the way they play with our perceptions of authenticity, but there was a time (let’s clock it as pre-Best in Show) where the genre was more subversive.  There are a lot of urban legends about audiences taking early mockumentaries at face value, believing Spinal Tap to be a real band, the cannibals of Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Cannibal Holocaust to be real cannibals, the Blair Witch to be a real witch, etc.  I never really knew how sincerely to take those stories until I read that The Hellstrom Chronicle won the 1972 Oscar for “Best Documentary Feature” despite being an obvious parody of the documentary format instead of the real deal.  I assumed that factoid was a prank Wikipedia edit, but then I confirmed it on the Academy of Motion Pictures website.  A mockumentary indeed won the most prestigious industry award for documentary films, which has got to be some implication of how novel the genre used to be before Jim met Pam – novel enough, apparently, to make moviegoers believe in witchcraft & killer insects.

The Hellstrom Chronicle is a drive-in era exploitation horror about the inevitability of insects taking over the planet, recalling 1950s B-pictures like Them!, Tarantula, and The Deadly Mantis.  It just happens to be delivered in the style of a David Attenborough nature documentary, hosted by the fictitious Dr. Nils Hellstrom, PhD (credited as a performance by actor Lawrence Pressman in the final scroll).  Hellstrom lectures for the entire 90min runtime in deliriously overwritten, Ed Woodian dialogue about how bugs are “gruesome robots” and an “infectious virus” that will soon violently overthrow humanity for planetary dominance if we don’t act soon.  These rants are illustrated by hi-fi nature footage of insects eating, mating, and waging war in the wild, scored by arhythmic drums & winding strings to emphasize their gnarly brutality.  The opening credits thank well-respected universities and research institutions to feign an air of legitimacy, but by the time Hellstrom is opining about how termite mounds are primitive computers built to calculate our collective doom, it’s so outrageously over-the-top that it cannot be taken seriously.  Screenwriter David Seltzer (The Omen, Willy Wonka, Bird on a Wire) is obviously just amusing himself with how far he can push the film’s central conceit without fully tipping into comedic parody, and it’s a pure-trash joy to tag along for the indulgence.

To the Academy’s credit, The Hellstrom Chronicle did eventually prove to be prescient of where documentary filmmaking was heading, at least the version of documentary filmmaking you’ll find on basic cable.  It particularly recalls the ominous pseudoscience of Discovery Channel & History Channel programs, where facts are allowed to be fuzzy as long as they freak out the audience enough to keep them hanging on through commercial brakes.  Pair that basic-cable sensationalism with William Herzog’s deadpan rants about the cold cruelty of Nature, and you pretty much have The Hellstrom Chronicle‘s basic blueprint.  It’s not actually useful or even functional as an educational tool about the resiliency of insects, nor does it really pretend to be.  Halfway into the runtime, it gets bored with sticking to pure nature footage and takes self-amusing detours into classic horror movie clips and candid camera pranks.  It’s less appropriate for the classroom than it is for late-night “Bad Movie” parties, so you can have a laugh making your roommate paranoid about killer ants between bong rips.  Phase IV might as well have won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.  They’re working with about the same level of authentic, scientifically presented nature footage, and the one that was featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is likely the one that’s more realistic about the collective killing power of ants as a species.  Not for nothing, they’re also both great films.

-Brandon Ledet

Minari (2021)

When the 2021 Oscar nominations were announced back in March, I put in a months-long effort to watch as many films nominated that I had genuine interest in, as long as I could access them for “free” (mostly via streaming services I already subscribed to).  This meant that $20 VOD rentals of still-in-theaters titles like The Father & Minari had to simmer on the backburner, unless I could get my hands on them via a borrowed library DVD.  Well, it’s June now and this year’s screwy, Soderberghian Oscars ceremony is only a hazy memory, along with any tangible critical discourse surrounding the films nominated.  Even now, I’m still 23rd in line for my requested DVD copy The Father at the New Orleans Public Library, but Minari finally did arrive.  The film is, to no one’s surprise, quite good.  There are some big laughs, a few tears, and a heartwarming performance from the world’s cutest kid; it’s just a solid Indie Drama all around.  But you already know that.  It turns out there’s a price to pay if you want to participate in Online Film Discourse while it’s still fresh, and in 2021 that experience goes for about $20 a title ($30 if it’s Disney IP).

There are two main narrative tracks running parallel in Minari.  In one, an enterprising Korean immigrant (Steven Yeun) moves his family from San Francisco to rural Arkansas, sacrificing their urban social life to pursue his obsession with starting a self-sufficient, profitable farm – the supposed American dream.  In the other, the amateur farmer’s youngest child David (Alan S. Kim, the aforementioned cutie) struggles to connect with his grandmother, who arrives directly from Korea to live on the newfound family farm.  Of those two storylines, I was much more emotionally invested in the latter.  The stakes are obviously much higher in the father figure’s risk-it-all obsession with starting his own farm, but the boredom and isolation his family suffers because of that choice is given equal emotional weight.  I remember what it’s like to live in the South as a kid, just far enough away from a major city that you can sense its presence but never get to enjoy its benefits; your only company is your family, whether you get along with them or not.  That tension is only amplified here by the arrival of an estranged family member who doesn’t have her own place in the group dynamic yet, especially when viewed through the eyes of the shiest, most sheltered member of the household.

David’s cautious relationship with his grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung, who did take home an Oscar statue for Best Supporting Actress) is the emotional core of Minari.  Her arrival on the Arkansan farm might as well be a UFO landing to him.  Not only does she represent a parental home country he’s completely unfamiliar with in his short time alive (early on, he complains that she “smells like Korea”), but she also does not act like the stereotypical ideal of a grandmother he’s come to expect based on American pop media.  She gambles, swears, loves pro wrestling, chugs Mountain Dew and, worst yet, she doesn’t even bake cookies.  Of course, all of those qualities are rad as hell in an elderly grandmother, but it takes young David a long while to warm up to that obvious truth.  Watching the two of them grow to truly know and love each other over the course of the film is a low-key kind of Movie Magic that cannot be matched by the flashier, more inevitable tragedies of the tear-jerking plot – most of which derive from the father figure’s almost entirely separate toiling on the farm.

Minari is seemingly aware that David’s inner life and personal relationship with his grandmother is its emotional anchor.  At the very least, choosing to set the film in 1980s Arkansas, as opposed to current-day, affords it a kind of nostalgia-tinged remembrance that focuses on highly specific sensory details—flavors, smells, textures—that transport you back to an otherwise half-forgotten childhood.  And because modern film discourse moves at such a rapid pace right now, even just thinking back to Minari‘s six Oscar nominations earlier this year is tinged with its own kind of nostalgia.  The world has already moved on from discussing it, but it’s still a great film.  My only real surprise in that months-late discovery is that my favorite aspect of the film was one of the few that wasn’t nominated by the Academy: Alan S. Kim’s performance as David.  Cute kid.

-Brandon Ledet

Promising Genre Winner

It might be something of a Hot Take to say so, but I overall really enjoyed Soderbergh’s stripped-down, intimate Oscars broadcast – especially considering the context of this year. The general complaint in the weeks leading up to the 93rd Academy Awards was that none of the movies nominated matter/exist to most people, so it was kinda sweet to see an intimate, personalized broadcast pitched directly at the niche audience already in the know.  I don’t think the streamlined, de-glitzed format would work as well in a year where people gather in groups for Oscar parties, but I had a nice pizza-on-the-couch night myself.  Still, I can’t say I was especially invested in any of the night’s Big Wins, at least not as a casual movie nerd.  My two least favorite films that I caught up with before the Oscars—Nomadland and Another Round—won major prizes; my two very favorite films nominated—Emma. and Pinocchio—were ignored even as technical achievements; and a lot of the awards in-between went to expensive-to-access 2021 releases that I have not yet seen: The Father and Minari.  I was surprised, then, that the award that most excited me this year was the Best Original Screenplay win for Promising Young Woman, a film I only liked just Okay.

I remember listening to an interview with the executive producer of Horror Noire, Tananarive Due, a few years ago (on the now-defunct Shock Waves podcast) about the Black cinema documentary’s then-upcoming release.  Due explained that the doc was greenlit the very next morning after Jordan Peele won his Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Get Out (Peele was a producer and interview subject involved in the production of Horror Noire).  Then she & the Blumhouse reps in the room alluded to several other black-led genre projects in the works that got launched at that same time, ones Peele was not involved in whatsoever.  That interview has stuck with me over the past few years as the noticeable uptick of mainstream Black horror films & TV shows have made their way into wide distribution, making it so that it’s almost already time for a Horror Noire sequel.  Some of those projects have been great; some have been godawful.  All of them directly benefited from the prestige of a Get Out Oscar win, no matter what you may think about the pageantry of Entertainment Industry Awards shows.  That’s why it’s important to root for artists you like getting Oscars attention for work you appreciate, even if most of the other statues are handed out to movies you don’t care about at all.

I don’t believe Promising Young Woman is as successful or as Important of a film as Get Out by any stretch.  To be honest, I can’t say I had a particularly strong reaction to it at all, either positive or negative.  For such a deliberate Provocation—a bitterly funny rape revenge thriller with a music video pop art aesthetic—it’s a relatively timid film, deliberately withholding the shocking violence of its genre’s inherent trauma and catharsis.  Pretty much everything I admired about it was tackled so much more fiercely & directly in films like Revenge, Felt, and Teeth, except this time with a poisoned candy coating that distinguishes it more as a stylistic flex than as a thematic discomfort.  To its credit, the movie appears to be self-aware in the ways it’s sidestepping the trappings of its genre, like in the way it teases bloodshed to reveal only a leaking jelly donut, or in how it exclusively casts comedic actors as its Nice Guy villains.  My personal favorite detail in that respect is the traditional Monster Movie music that hits every time Carrie Mulligan reveals herself to be stone-sober to the men taking advantage of her “drunken” state, as if there’s nothing scarier to a date rapist than a woman’s clear-eyed sobriety.  I don’t believe Promising Young Woman overhauled or subverted the themes or content of the rape revenge thriller in any substantial way, but it’s at least playing with the form, which is all we usually ask of genre filmmakers.

While I’m not emphatically in love with Promising Young Woman as a film, I am totally invested in its significance as an Oscar-winner.  Any time an over-stylized genre movie wins a major Academy Award—Get Out, Parasite, The Shape of Water, even Joker—I find myself celebrating the win no matter how in love I am with the movie itself outside that context.  Even if I find the movie itself to be just passably Okay, I’m stoked that a hyper-femme, button-pushing genre film decorated with rainbow-pastel nail polish and Britney Spears & Paris Hilton music cues won a major Academy Award this year.  That means that more, better funded genre movies tuned to my sensibilities are on their way.  Hell, even Jordan Peele outdid himself after his Get Out win with the much wilder, more daringly surreal creep-out Us, so Promising Young Woman‘s win might even mean that writer-director Emerald Fennell’s next film will totally bowl me over the way I wanted Promising Young Woman to.  Regardless, her win is a win for hyper-femme, discomforting genre filmmaking in general as a viable business, and that’s the victory I’m choosing to champion the loudest this Oscars cycle.

-Brandon Ledet

Quick Takes: 2021 Oscars Catch-up

There’s usually very little room for surprise on the morning Oscar nominations are announced, but this year really did catch me off-guard.  I was amazed that even though I watched over 80 feature films released in 2020, only four were nominated in any category – even the lowly technicals.  Usually, I’ve seen at least a dozen without trying.  And of the four films I had seen, only one registered as anything especially praiseworthy.  Judas and the Black Messiah was decent-enough, but I honestly only watched it because I knew it would be nominated.  Meanwhile, Borat 2 was meh, Shaun the Sheep 2 was bleh, and Emma. was one of my personal favorite films of the year but was only nominated for Best Costuming & Best Makeup awards – which feels like the Academy on autopilot, treating it like a standard-issue costume drama.  Looking at the 42 feature films nominated for statues this year, I felt totally out of sync with what titles the film industry has deemed Important.  Or maybe it was just another sign of the pandemic scrambling everything up to the point where there is no clear zeitgeist right now.  Hard to tell.

Knowing that I’ll end up watching this year’s Academy Awards ceremony live on TV with or without having seen any of the films nominated, I used that moment of surprise as an excuse to catch up with some of last year’s high-profile releases that had slipped by me.  I set a couple rules for myself: only movies I could access for free or via a streaming service I already subscribe to (so no outrageous $20 rentals of films like The Father or Minari) and only movies that I had a genuine interest in seeing (so no enduring whatever the fuck is going on in Mank).  Usually on this website, we post a ranked list of films we’ve reviewed that happened to be nominated for Oscars.  This year, I have a ranked list of movies I watched because they were nominated for Oscars – each with an accompanying blurb.  It was partly an excuse to check out a few titles I meant to catch up with anyway, and partly an excuse to gawk at all the sparkling evening gowns at this week’s televised ceremony.  Enjoy.

Pinocchio

Nominated for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup & Hairstyling

Holy shit, this rules.  Matteo Garrone applies the same dark fairy tale wizardry he established in Tale of Tales to a much more widely familiar story.  The uncanny prosthetics & CG effects make the old feel new again in a deeply unsettling, uncanny nightmare that had me laughing and recoiling in horror, often in the same moment.  Shocked I loved it as much as I did; bummed it was so readily dismissed by online film nerds for ~looking weird~.  It does look weird, as more movies should.

I should confess that I have whatever defective gene makes Roberto Benigni funny, so I found his tragic-comic Geppetto wonderfully effective.  Regardless of that much-mocked casting choice, this is some deliciously dark Movie Magic.  Easily the best discovery of my Oscars Catch-up, and so far it’s the one title from last year I wish I’d seen before our Best of 2020 list-making ritual.

Sound of Metal

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Riz Ahmed), Best Supporting Actor (Paul Raci), Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Editing, and Best Sound

I really connected with this on an emotional level in a way I did not expected to, especially after a year where so few straightforward dramas cut through the constant background chaos churning around in my head and the world outside.  The disability and addiction narratives aren’t realms I personally know, but the D.I.Y. music scene and the struggles with explosive anger & codependency are definitely a world I recognize, and Riz Ahmed’s performance feels true enough to them. More importantly, it’s just a solid drama on its own merits.

For all its modern-world authenticity, it actually reminded me a lot of traditional Old Hollywood melodramas, particularly an Ida Lupino picture I reviewed recently called Never Fear about a dancer who’s rapidly paralyzed by polio.  Nothing wrong with some broadly traditional structure, though, especially when it still hits so effectively. 

Time

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Nominated for Best Documentary (Feature)

This one did help clarify why I hadn’t seen many of the major Oscar noms this year: they’re emotionally tough!  It’s not so much that they’re Homework, but most of my major blind spots tackle dead-serious subjects I would’ve been reluctant to engage with in a year that was already difficult enough to get through without filling my free time with discomfort watching.  This one’s a prison abolitionist doc about a Louisiana woman’s decades-long, uphill battle to get her husband released from Angola.  I’m glad the Awards Season ritual finally pushed me to watch it; it’s as deftly crafted as it is emotionally draining.

Listening to Fox Rich advocate both for her husband and for wider prison reform in present-day footage is powerful in itself, but it’s the poetic use of her decades of home video recordings that really weighs on the heart.  You watch her family age in her husband’s absence in a way that constantly emphasizes exactly what he’s missing out on, often directly addressing him just to fill him in on the smallest details of their day-to-day life.  Looks great, feels awful.

Tenet

Nominated for Best Production Design and Best Visual Effects

I resisted Nolan’s urging to spread a lethal virus by waiting to see this for free on a borrowed library DVD with the subtitles flipped on.  Turns out it’s a dumb-fun action movie with the absurd intellectual self-esteem of a freshman Philosophy student. I had a ton of fun with it.  Reminded me of the eerie, off-putting mutation of the modern action film in Gemini Man, in that it’s just slightly off in a way that’s compelling but difficult to pinpoint. Also reminded me of that episode of Wonder Showzen that stops halfway through to run the same gags backwards.

Its nomination for Best Visual Effects feels totally deserved, especially in a year with so few genuine blockbusters.  I was tickled by the hyper-convoluted dialogue in lines like “We’re being attacked by the future, and we’re fighting over time,” but during the backwards-fighting sequences I was genuinely wrapped up in the spectacle of it, no questions asked. At least no questions that matter more than watching stuff get blowed up real good (and then un-blowed-up even gooder).

Love and Monsters

Nominated for Best Visual Effects

An adorable creature feature about a young coward’s travels with a heroic stray dog across a post-apocalyptic wasteland to reconnect with his long-distance girlfriend. Shares a lot of weirdly pandemic-relevant dark humor with last year’s Spontaneous, although maybe without the same emotional heft. I probably should not have been surprised they also share a screenwriter.

Its coming-of-age neuroticism is cute enough on its own, but it wouldn’t be much without the inventiveness & grotesqueness of its creature designs. There are about a dozen uniquely nasty beasts spread throughout, and that variety was a smart choice in keeping the novelty alive once you settle into the rhythms of the plot. The dog could’ve also used an Oscar Nomination for Best Boy, though; quite the snub.

Crip Camp

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Nominated for Best Documentary (Feature)

A historical documentary about a hippie-run summer camp for kids with disabilities, tracking how its radically inclusive environment inspired its alumni to protest for Disability Rights in their adulthood.  Straightforward in its presentation, but in a way that’s smart to stay out of the way of the inherent power of its subject.

The overload of archival footage is the true wonder.  It has so much to work with that it can just hang out with the campers as they joke at length about a genital crabs infestation going around the bunks or debate whether they should eat lasagna for dinner. It lets the kids be kids (which is exactly what it’s praising Camp Jened for doing in the first place) then clearly demonstrates how empowering that can be as they grow into themselves. Unfortunately, its conventionality gradually overpowers its exciting first hour the further it gets away from the camp, but it’s still solid overall as both portraiture & political advocacy.

Judas and the Black Messiah

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Nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield), Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Music (Original Song), and Best Cinematography

Since The Academy is unlikely to ever change the type of movies it tends to award, the best we can apparently hope for are changes in subject & cultural representation. Enter Judas and the Black Messiah, an Awards Season historical drama about a charismatic, radical Black Panther Party leader who was assassinated by the FBI when he was only 21 years old.

If the Oscars nomination machine is only going to recognize sobering dramas & grim actors’ showcases, then at least we can celebrate that one of this year’s chosen few is a Trojan Horse for leftist, Revolutionary politics.  At least it’s not a birth-to-death biopic of Fred Hampton; it’s a snapshot of him at the height of his power, arguing for the effectiveness of Revolution over the empty promise of Gradual Reform.  Using the Awards Season movie machine to get people re-incensed over Hampton’s police-state execution is a genuine, real-world good.  The format might be a little dusty & traditional, but the politics are as relevant & vital as ever.

Da 5 Bloods

Nominated for Best Music (Original Score)

I initially avoided this because I’m generally bored by the Vietnam War Movie template to the point of total numbness. Instead of dodging the redundancy of genre, this one dives headfirst into it — directly commenting on its tropes & untruths. It’s revisiting & unpacking Vietnam War Cinema as much as it’s picking scabs leftover from the war itself.  Which means there are Apocalypse Now-themed dance parties, Rambo jokes, and deliberately corny helicopter warfare.  No CCR needle drops, though, thankfully.

Can’t say I completely overcame my genre bias here, and I’m not convinced the movie overcomes the hurdle of Netflix Flatness either.  Still, I’m always on the hook for Spike Lee’s messy multimedia jabs at all ugly corners institutional racism, and this particular topic opens up a wide range of opportunities for his deliciously unsubtle political commentary. Would’ve been much more excited by an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay over Best Original Score.

Another Round

Nominated for Best Director and Best International Feature Film

Look, I only have enough capacity to care about one self-amused film about pathetic men’s midlife crises at a time, and right now that space is occupied by Deerskin.  This one’s mildly engaging once it heats up, but it’s a chore getting there. The wonderful, much-praised ending almost felt like earning a lollipop for enduring a doctor’s visit.

To be fair, it does a good job of covering all the positives & negatives of social & antisocial alcohol consumption, but I kinda found that to be a mundane topic at this length — almost as much as the macho fears of losing virility in old age.  It’s fine overall, but considering it in the context of Awards Season doesn’t do it any favors.

Nomadland

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Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (France McDormand), Best Director, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Cinematography, Best Editing

It’s an undignified ritual, but every Oscars cycle I end up watching something mediocre solely to be in tune with The Discourse.  Everything I’ve heard about this film’s muddied labor politics, Malickian awe with the American landscape, and emphasis on rugged individualism had me convinced it’d leave me either bored or annoyed.  I watched it anyway because it’s pretty much a lock for Best Picture, like a rube.

It was mostly fine.  Not exactly for me, but I knew to expect that.  The corporate sponsorships & celebrity protagonist occasionally had me rolling my eyes, but I do think it’s critical enough about America’s complete lack of a social safety net to get by okay.  The poetry it finds in life off the grid and the vastness of the West is completely lost on me, but that’s more a personal hang-up than a fault of the movie’s.

It’ll probably win Everything, then promptly be forgotten – another ritual that happens every Oscars cycle.

-Brandon Ledet

Grand Hotel (1932)

After years of watching homages to the genre it helped name & pioneer, I thought I knew what to expect from the ensemble-cast Old Hollywood spectacle Grand Hotel. Grand hotel-set screwball throwbacks to its interweaving-characters story structure (such as What’s Up Doc?, Big Business, and The Grand Budapest Hotel) set me up to expect a straight-up farcical comedy. I gasped, then, when Grand Hotel took a shocking tragic turn seemingly out of nowhere in its third act, a tonal shift that only caught me off-guard because of the expectations set by its much goofier spiritual descendants. I guess I should have been tipped off by the film’s Best Picture Oscar, given the Academy’s long-running aversion to recognizing comedies as a legitimate artform, but I was shocked all the same. Grand Hotel acts like a standard star-packed Old Hollywood screwball comedy for most of its runtime, then floods the screen with last-minute melodrama to pump itself up with an air of prestige. I don’t know that I preferred the dramatic conclusion to the comedic build-up, but it is kinda cool that a studio picture from nine decades ago managed to surprise me in its basic story structure.

Set at “the most expensive hotel in Berlin”, Grand Hotel chronicles the overlapping lives of unlikely acquaintances who could only cross paths because they’re staying at the same hotel: a prima donna ballerina, a down-on-his-luck factory worker, a blustering business executive, a suave cat burglar, etc. It’s the kind of early Hollywood production that feels more like a filmed stage play than it does cinematic poetry, but it’s packed with enough big-name stars from the era (dressed in exquisite gowns by the always-on-point couturier Adrian) that the limited creativity in its editing & camerawork doesn’t especially detract from its prestige. The most notable starpower is a generational changing of the guard, miraculously featuring both Greta Garbo & Joan Crawford in one movie even though they feel like they belong to entirely different eras. That crossover isn’t especially highlighted onscreen; the two actors somehow never share a scene even though they’re fighting for the romantic attentions of the same man. Still, Garbo’s depressive diva ballerina & Crawford’s hot-to-trot nude model/”stenographess” offer a fascinating contrast in morals & class, echoed in the social divides of the various characters that drift through each other’s lives.

Grand Hotel is purposefully, subversively funny when it wants to be. There are a lot jaunty class-divide jabs at capitalist pigs and Hays Code-era sex jokes like (to Crawford’s sultry stenographess) “Why don’t you take a little dictation from me sometime?” that keep the mood light & celebratory for most of the runtime. As a result, when the tragedy that concludes this interwoven, ensemble-cast story stops that line of humor dead, I reflexively shouted “Oh shit!” at the screen, totally unprepared for the last-minute tonal shift. I guess that’s the kind of genre-skewing shenanigans necessary to land a Best Picture Oscar for a Comedy (which this movie won despite being nominated in no other category), but it is a little jarring if you’re more familiar with the film’s descendants than you are with its own original reputation. I expected to enjoy a light yuck-em-up with my old pals Crawford & Garbo while they modeled pretty dresses & ran around a massive studio lot set. It turns out Grand Hotel‘s teeth are a little sharper than that.

-Brandon Ledet

Judy (2019)

The new Judy Garland biopic is exactly what you’d expect it to be: a safe, pleasant-enough novelty built entirely around highlighting its lead, titular performance. And since Renée Zellweger won all the awards she was gunning for with the role—including an Oscar and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Lead Actress in the same weekend—I suppose it’s inarguably a success. If the performance is the movie, that means Judy is too weirdly uneven to praise with any enthusiasm. In her worst moments Zellweger awkwardly apes Garland’s broadest mannerisms while wearing the same obnoxious false teeth that won Rami Malek an Oscar for Bohemian Rhapsody. At her best, she stumbles into a stupor while recreating Garland’s late-career stage performances that somehow entirely transcends the caricature of the rest of the film to approximate some kind of spiritual possession where she legitimately is Judy, however briefly. In either case, it’s effectively pointless to critique the finer points of Zellweger’s movie-defining performance at this stage, as it’s already carried off the Oscar statue in its Dorothy-replica picnic basket. All there is left to do is single out the stray points of interest that distinguish this picture from other Safe, Award-Winning biopics – of which there are only a precious few:

  • Judy’s sole distinguishing choice on a creative level is its device of setting all its flashbacks to Garland’s youth on a studio lot sets, emphasizing the disorienting artifice of her non-childhood. Instead of following a birth-to-death biopic structure, the film saves time by starting with a pilled-out, extravagant but nearly homeless Garland during a final string of London concert dates preceding her death. It periodically cuts back to the abuses of the Studio System that landed her in such a delirious state, painting her Old Hollywood teen years as a surreal, Oz-like nightmare of pure artifice. She genuinely cannot tell which foods, romances, or inner thoughts are The Real Thing and which are stage props, thank to studio ghouls who control her every movement. This all-encompassing gaslighting operation really colors how we see the ridiculous stupor she stumbles through in later in life. An entire movie set in that kind of reality-obscuring saccharine nightmare might have actually been interesting as an art object, or at least more so than the actor’s showcase we got instead.
  • It’s uncomfortable to dwell on this observation for too long, but Judy is partially fascinating in its parallels to the current professional haze of its star. At only 50 years old, Zellweger has already been effectively discarded by her industry for being too “old” & loopy to be worthy of Lead Actress status. Until this awards campaign, the most use the Hollywood star-making machine had for her in recent years was as tabloid fodder to shame her for undergoing Noticeable cosmetic surgery. Zellweger emerged from this mistreatment understandably wobbly, which is best illustrated in her loosey-goosey Oscars acceptant speech that praised Martin Scorsese, Venus & Serena Williams, firefighters, and Harriet Tubman all in the same breath. Judy Garland was only 47 years old when she died. As much as we like to think the entertainment industry has evolved for the better since that tragedy, the parallels between Zellweger’s portrayal of that fallen star and her own offscreen behavior are . . . alarming.
  • This movie had to acknowledge Judy Garland’s significance in the LGBTQ community in some way (it is on a first-name basis with the star, after all), so it was enthralling to see how it’d go about satisfying that requirement. It hurriedly decides to store al its gay eggs in one homosexual couple’s basket, making time for Garland to befriend a same-sex British couple who wait outside her concerts for autographs. This gamble works fairly well when she spends an intimate evening with the ecstatic lads in their cozy apartment, but less so when their arc is quickly resolved as a stinger of comic relief. In either case, choosing one couple as a stand-in for All Gays Everywhere makes for an interesting tension that’s worth some careful scrutiny.
  • Jessie Buckley’s in this! She’s even second billed in the end credits, despite taking on a thankless role as Judy’s befuddled assistant. It’s nowhere near her finest work, but unlike Beast & Wild Rose, it’s a movie people will actually see.

Outside these few points of interest and the idiosyncrasies of Zellweger’s weirdly uneven performance, Judy is the exact movie you’d expect it to be based on its poster & premise. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of safe-bet indulgence, really, but it does feel like the movie has already outlived its purpose now that it has its Best Lead Actress Oscar secured on Zellweger’s trophy shelf. The best it can hope for at this point is a few basic cable broadcasts & Redbox rentals before it’s forgotten forever. In that context, it’s pretty alright.

-Brandon Ledet

Laura Dern’s Oscar Story

Back when we covered Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed political satire Citizen Ruth as a Movie of the Month, it occurred to me that it’s dispiritingly rare to see the great Laura Dern in a genuine leading role. Between Citizen Ruth, Rambling Rose, and Inland Empire, I could only find three feature films in which Dern was top-billed as the lead actor, despite decades of fine work on the big screen. Unfortunately, that means the full power of her consistently compelling screen presence largely goes unnoticed & unrewarded, relegated only to her value as a supporting player. Last year, Dern was at least utilized as a potent supporting actor in two major Oscar contenders: Marriage Story & Little Women – which were, interestingly enough, directed by both partners in a married couple (Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig, respectfully). Dern’s efforts have been rewarded with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Marriage Story in particular, her first nomination since she was recognized as a potential Best Supporting Actress for Wild in 2015 (a statue she lost to Patricia Arquette for Boyhood). What I find interesting about this year’s Dern nomination is how it’s been framed in some online criticism circles as a career-merit award or somehow just Industry recognition for Dern’s recent work on popular television programs like Big Little Lies & Twin Peaks: The Return. The nomination is being discussed as if Dern’s performance in Marriage Story isn’t especially awards-worthy, that she’s being recognized for her contributions to cinema at large. That’s bullshit.

Laura Dern is genuinely fantastic in Marriage Story, totally reshaping the texture of the entire film with just a few scenes of onscreen dialogue. In the film, she plays a high-priced divorce lawyer who escalates the stakes & tone of the central couple’s painful separation. As the films’ two leads, Adam Driver & Scarlet Johansson are allowed to really pick apart the emotional textures of that separation at length (for which they’ve both been nominated as Best Leads). It’s Dern’s thankless task to establish the much harsher, colder tone of the legal arena where that separation will reach its fever pitch. It’s a world that relies on calm doublespeak & practiced artifice, which clashes spectacularly against the raw, confessional emotions of the star combatants. Other lawyer characters played by Ray Liotta & Alan Alda in the film help sketch out the extreme boundaries of that legal hell world, but it’s Dern’s job to welcome Driver & Johansson’s leads through the hell’s front gates, opening up their intimate detangling to a Kafkaesque legal labyrinth that stretches the entire length of the country. Marriage Story is just as much about the cruelty & confusion inherent to navigating the legal system in the process of divorce as it is an intimate drama about a romantic meltdown. In that way, Dern’s supporting role as the first & most prominent lawyer featured onscreen greatly affects our perception of the battlefield where the central conflict unfolds.

Dern’s self-confident power lawyer enters the film by apologizing for her “schleppy” appearance, despite being dressed to the nines in designer jeans & drastic heels. We’re immediately aware that her words & her body language are expressing an entirely different sentiment than what she’s actually communicating. When she offers Johansson, a potential client, to take home cookies from her office, it’s a sly advertisement for her services, as Johansson will continue to keep her in mind long after she leaves the office as she snacks on those treats. When Dern quotes a Tom Petty song in casual conversation, it’s only so she can advertise that she negotiated his ex-wife’s divorce from the singer for a large sum. Of course, these textual subtleties are largely a result of Baumbach’s sharply written screenplay, but Dern is visibly having fun with the material onscreen, selling the full impact of the role in a way few other performers could. Her performative version of active “listening” while Johansson is recounting the details of her failing marriage is as tense as watching a snake coil in grass, waiting to strike at a potential meal. One of the film’s most outrageous moments is when Dern removes her blazer in court as if she’s overheated, entirely just to distract from the opposing counsel’s arguments by showing some skin. She warns her client that “This system rewards bad behavior,” and over time proves to exhibit most of that bad behavior herself, proudly. Laura Dern makes a spectacle out of this seemingly minor role, drawing subtle contrast between the meaning of her body language and the meaning of her spoken dialogue that only becomes more exponentially significant the longer you dwell on its details.

It might be easy to reduce Laura Dern’s Oscars attention for Marriage Story to a glib assumption that it’s a lifetime achievement award rather than recognition for this performance in particular. Between her limited screen time and her highlight-reel monologue where she rants about how “God is absent father” while the Virgin Mary is unfairly upheld as a maternal ideal, there’s plenty of fuel to feed that kind of cynicism. I just don’t think it’s fair to downplay the impact Dern’s presence has on the film at large. She is a gussied-up power lawyer who shapes audience perception on both the communal vanity of Los Angeles and the cutthroat mind games of courtroom etiquette: two major factors in how the marital drama in the forefront develops. The only truth to the argument that she would have gotten this same nomination for any role (say, her interpretation of a silently angry Marmee in Little Women) based on her career’s work at large is that Laura Dern would have killed any role Hollywood tossed her way. She always delivers. The true shame about her nomination this year is that wasn’t for a Best Leading Performance, since Hollywood so rarely affords her top-bill opportunities that she never really has a chance to earn that accolade. If we’re relegating Laura Dern’s powerful screen presence to Supporting Player status only, she might as well earn her first Oscar for her movie-stealing role in Marriage Story. Hopefully she’ll win, and more prominent lead roles will follow.

-Brandon Ledet

The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2020

There are 38 feature films nominated for the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony. We here at Swampflix are conspicuously more attracted to the lowbrow & genre-minded than we are to stuffy Awards Season releases, so as usual we have reviewed fewer than half of the films nominated (so far!). We’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees, though, including four titles from our own Top 10 Films of 2019 list. The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually choosing the winners, but as a list this isn’t too shabby in terms of representing what 2019 cinema had to offer.

Listed below are the 16 Oscar-Nominated films from 2019 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best, based on our star ratings. Each entry is accompanied by a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

1. Parasite, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best International Feature Film, and Best Production Design

“Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.”  – Boomer

2. Avengers: Endgame, nominated for Best Visual Effects

“This is the perfect capstone for this franchise. If there were never another MCU film, it would be totally fine, because as a finale, this is pitch perfect. Every important and semi-important character gets a moment to shine, as the Snap is undone (come on, you knew it would be). There’s even a moment where every living lady hero from the entire MCU is onscreen at once, and it is delightful, although I’m sure the internet is already full of comments about how it was ‘forced’ or ‘cheesy,’ but I don’t feed trolls and I try not to cross the bridges that they live under, so I wouldn’t know.” – Boomer

3. Knives Out, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“I’ve long been a fan of comedy pastiches and homages of genres that function perfectly as examples of those genres despite humorous overtones; my go-to example is Hot Fuzz, which I always tout as having a more sophisticated murder mystery plot than most films than most straightforward criminal investigation media (our lead comes to a logical conclusion that fits all of the clues, but still turns out to be wrong). Knives Out is another rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot.” – Boomer

4. Little Women, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Saiorse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Florence Pugh), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score

“This is a beautiful film, a timeless piece of literature made fresh once more with a cast overbrimming with talent and filmed with an eye for chromatic storytelling and such beautiful Northeast scenery that when I tell you I was there, I was there. This is also such a talented cast that they breathe a new life into characters that, in the original text and in previous film incarnations, were at times sullen, unlikable, or intolerable.” – Boomer

5. The Lighthouse, nominated for Best Cinematography

“Packed to the walls with more sex, violence, and broad toilet humor than you’d typically expect from high-brow Cinema. If you can push past the initial barriers of Eggers’s patient pacing & period-specific dialogue, the movie is a riot.” – Brandon

6. I Lost My Body, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“This is two films for the price of one. And it’s a very low price at that, considering its 80min runtime. As with all two-for-one bargains, however, one of the two complimentary films on this simultaneous double bill is far more satisfying & impressive than the other. To fully appreciate I Lost My Body, then, you have to appreciate its two dueling narratives as a package deal. The stronger movie in this combo pack carries the lesser, even if just by the virtue of their pairing.” – Brandon

7. Marriage Story, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Adam Driver), Best Actress (Scarlett Johannson), Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Score

“A superb breakup story about how you can love somebody so much, and create a life with them that you love, and it still has to dissolve. It specifically illustrates how hard it can be for parents when their child arbitrarily prefers one over the other. The way those formative childhood phases affect permanent legal repercussions is devastating, as is the realization that you might not actually be best parent for your own child.” – The Podcast Crew

8. Joker, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing

“None of the endless months of vitriolic complaints against its honor resonated with me in the theater, where I mostly just saw a creepy character study anchored by an effectively chilling performance. If anything, the fact that a movie this unassuming and, frankly, this trashy was somehow causing chaos in the Oscars discourse only made it more perversely amusing.” – Brandon

9. Missing Link, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“Very cute in its slapstick humor, and often stunning in its visual artistry. It’s about on par with The Boxtrolls all told, which is to say it’s mediocre by Laika standards but still on a level far above most modern children’s cinema.” – Brandon

10. 1917, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects

“The video game mission plot might not make for especially complex drama between its solider protagonists, but the way those babyfaced boys contrast against the unearthly gore, rot, and decay of the war-torn earth beneath them is viscerally upsetting. There are many ways in which the long-take gimmick is a distracting technical exercise, but it does force you to stew in that discomfort for long, uninterrupted stretches. It’s surprisingly brutal in that way.” – Brandon

11. Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Leonard Dicaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing

“I appreciate this movie most as a passionate argument for a sentiment I could not agree with less. I have no love for the traditional machismo & endless parade of cheap-o Westerns that clogged up Los Angeles in these twilight hours of the Studio Era. Still, it was entertaining to watch an idiosyncratic filmmaker with niche interests wax nostalgic about the slimy, uncool bullshit only he cares about.” – Brandon

12. The Irishman, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Al Pacino and Joe Pesci), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Production Design, and Best Visual Effects

“Finds plenty more to say about the corruption & violence of organized crime that Scorsese has not addressed in previous efforts. Unfortunately, it allows that new material to be drowned out by an overwhelming flood of the same-old-same-old.” – Brandon

13. Jojo Rabbit, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Scarlett Johannson), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, and Best Production Design

“Works best as a maternal parallel to the paternal drama of Boy. The difference is that I left Boy marveling at how he pulled off such a delicate tonal balance with such confident poise, whereas I left Jojo Rabbit wondering if I had just seen him lose his balance entirely and tumble to the floor for the first time.” – Brandon

14. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, nominated for Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“Look, Rise of Skywalker is good. It’s not great like The Force Awakens or passable like The Last Jedi, but it’s also not that spectacular either. It doesn’t take the chances that TLJ took, and I was glad that the return of JJ Abrams meant that we went back to mostly practical FX for the aliens (those stupid chihuahua horses from TLJ will haunt me to my goddamned grave) even if the resultant film felt like he was trying to railroad the ending back to his original concepts after not liking how another director played with his toys.” – Boomer

15. Ad Astra, nominated for Best Sound Mixing

“Has all the building blocks needed to achieve something great; they’re just arranged in a confoundingly dull configuration. Worse, there’s literally not one thing about its combination of vintage sci-fi pulp & faux-philosophical melodrama that Interstellar didn’t already achieve to greater success, so there’s constantly a better viewing option hanging over its head.” – Brandon

16. Rocketman, nominated for Best Original Song

“The narration continually reassures the audience that Elton John’s life was ravaged by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, but everything we see onscreen is musical theatre kids playing dress-up in squeaky clean sound stage environments.” – Brandon

-Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond