Shock Corridor (1963)

It’s rare to find films of a certain age that take an honest look at mental illness, racism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychiatric issues with sympathy, and fewer still that take a deft approach to the subject. Anything that predated 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest generally treated those with these illnesses as villains or obstacles, portrayed asylums as bedlams that protected society from vagrants rather than places where one could ever hope to become well again, and if the protagonist was unwell of mind, such sickness was something that could be overcome with machismo or the love of a good woman, not through medical practice or therapy. Not so in the case of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (released 1963, one year after the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest, although Fuller had been shopping the original screenplay around since the 1940s), in which mental patients are presented as objects not of derision but as people deserving empathy, not as evil madmen but as victims of society who were pushed to the psychic breaking point and beyond.

Reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) has spent the past year training with Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn) in order to accurately portray an incestuous fetishist and be committed to a local mental hospital. His goal: to earn a Pulitzer by solving the murder of a patient who was killed by meeting the three witnesses, also patients there. His editor Swanson (Bill Zuckert) is behind this plan, but his exotic dancer girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) objects, worried that Barrett’s time among the madmen will break him psychologically as well. She eventually relents and poses as Barrett’s sister in order to have him “involuntarily” committed. Once inside, Barrett must maintain his cover under the observation of Dr. Menkin (Paul Dubov) and kindly orderly Wilkes (Chuck Roberson). He is placed in a room with a patient known only as Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), whose operatic exultations occur day and night, and he sets to work making contact with the three witnesses: Stuart (James Best), Trent (Hari Rhodes), and Boden (Gene Evans).

Each man has been institutionalized after their psyches were fractured by manifestations of America’s social and political failings, representing the dark underside of the American dream. Stuart was the son of a poor, abusive, racist father. When Stuart was captured while serving in Korea, he came around to their way of thinking easily, as they showed him the first kindness he had ever experienced in his life. When he was returned to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchanged, he was denounced as a traitor and treated as a pariah; despite being brainwashed, his countrymen had no sympathy for him and instead debased and abused him. As a result, he has retreated into a delusion wherein he is Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, still fighting the war.

Trent was the first black student in a segregated university in the American South, who suffered such harassment and hatred at the hands of his classmates that his mind has broken. He is introduced as a thief of pillowcases, and we quickly learn what that means: he steals these from other patients and cuts holes in them to create a makeshift Klan hood. Trent no longer sees himself as he is but as white, and he stirs up the other patients in the ward by shouting racist, white nationalist invective, including inciting violence against other black patients. Finally, Boden was an atomic scientist who, upon realizing the earth-shattering power of the atom bomb and that he had contributed to the scientific “progress” that gave mankind the ability to wipe itself from the face of the earth, broke down and regressed to the mentality of a child. Once a talented artist, he now spends his days wandering the titular corridor, where patients are allowed to congregate and socialize, drawing crude renderings of his peers.

Barrett’s time on the inside begins to have a profound effect on him. As his own mental state begins to deteriorate, the film becomes a race against time to get to the truth before Barrett’s faculties diminish beyond the breaking point.

When looking at the release date and the subject matter, one couldn’t be blamed for jumping to the conclusion that the film would be heavy-handed or unsympathetic, but not so. And even if one knew the film was sympathetic, it would likewise be easy to assume that it would be have the moralistic and paternalistic “eye” prevalent in propaganda of the time, but that is not the case here either. Instead, the tone is like the film overall: a mixture of documentarian distance and character study, which echoes the (color video, in contrast to the B&W film that makes up the plot of the movie) documentary inserts of Japan in Stuart’s psychic break and the indigenous dances and rituals that constitute Trent’s breakdown. Although there are some dated moments, most notably the attack on Barrett by a ward full of glassy-eyed women identified only as “nymphos,” they are few and far between, and do not detract from the film’s overall thesis: mental illness may be “invisible” in ways that physical illness isn’t, but it can be no less debilitating or life-altering, and the key to healing is sympathy, not criticism. Sadly, over half a century later, this is a lesson that still needs to be reiterated, but it renders the film no less potent now than it was in its day.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Bride of the Gorilla (1951)

As monumental as the 1930s King Kong was in influencing special effects innovation in early cinema, there was a nasty undercurrent of racism that flowed from that picture & dispersed into the larger cultural pool. Many ape-themed B-pictures that followed in King Kong’s footsteps preyed on societal discomfort with interracial romance, horrifically coding their villainous primates as African or South American invaders stealing square-jawed Americans’ refined white women. It’s not a genre I tend to pay much attention to as a result, despite my bottomless appetite for schlock, unless there’s a hook like witnessing Bela Lugosi’s decline into poverty row Hell in The Ape Man. 1951’s Bride of the Gorilla is a strange exception to the rule. It’s a deeply racist picture, to be sure, but its avoidance of the usual tropes & grooves of the genre makes it a bizarre, fascinating work as an outlier. More of a melodrama than a B-grade horror and a complication of the way its villainous ape is coded as a racial Other, Bride of the Gorilla surprises & subverts in its participation in a genre that doesn’t deserve the effort. It’s a morally repugnant, but oddly compelling as a cultural artifact.

Presented as a story about “how the jungle itself took the law into its own hands”, this is a tale of adultery, guilt, and the white man’s sense of displacement in the Amazon. A rubber plantation owner’s young wife falls in love with one of his workers. The pair consummate this passion after a fight over their affections leads to the old man’s accidental death. Haunted by their own guilt and a criminal investigation from the Amazonian country’s police commissioner (?) & audience narrator (horror cheapie veteran Lon Cheney, Jr.), the new union is cursed & ultimately tragic. This is compounded by a local witch who poisons & gaslights the new husband/former employee into believing he’s turned into a gorilla. He hallucinates that his body is changing and he is losing his humanity to the jungle, where he begins to spend most of his time instead of comforting his new, wealthy bride. There isn’t a lot of gorilla action in the picture; it’s mostly colonialist melodrama. Still, the psychological horror of this transformation (which is never confirmed to be real) has interesting thematic implications & moments of dread.

Bride of the Gorilla’s thesis that white people don’t belong in the Amazonian jungle is a technically accurate conclusion derived from deeply faulty reasoning. According to the film, “White people shouldn’t live too long in the jungle,” because it “brings out their bad side.” The transformation horror at the center of the film brings into question the sexual threat of the Other that usually permeates its genre. The movie practically functions as a horror of racial transformation, where a white man loses his privilege & civility as be becomes more in tune with the “primitive” culture of the jungle. Because this is a poverty row cheapie rapidly fired off to fill out a double bill, there likely wasn’t much intentional thought put into how the film would participate in, complicate, or subvert the racist tropes of its genre, but the results are fascinatingly muddled all the same. The movie takes an unintended anti-colonialist stance and breaks down the barriers that separate its white man lead from the jungle community he fears. It even does so with an almost exclusively all-white, American cast, which makes it all the more bizarre.

For all of Bride of the Gorilla’s grotesque, Darwinist implications as a racist participation in colonialist narratives, it does have occasional moments of genuine psychological terror. Raymond Burr (of Perry Mason & Rear Window fame) sells the fear of his primitive de-evolution nicely, especially in a scene where he punches in the glass of a mirror that displays a gorilla’s reflection. Late in the film his gorilla form stalks his titular bride through the jungle and the movie takes his first-person POV. It’s a decision that’s intended to mask the truth of his transformation, but accidentally telegraphs the aesthetic of an 80s slasher in the process. Most of Bride of the Gorilla works this way. Its indulgence in prolonged melodrama is likely an effort to limit its special effects budget, but makes it an interesting B-horror outlier in the process. Its subversion & complication of racist ape movie tropes was likely a thoughtless act in the pursuit of a quick, cheap-to-shoot script, but makes for an fascinating discussion anyway. The psychological & bodily horrors of its central transformation, which likely isn’t even “real,” shines through despite the many faults holding it back. I wouldn’t normally recommend anyone explore this particular B-movie territory, but if you find yourself doing so, Bride of the Gorilla is an interesting outlier within a cursed genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Mudbound (2017)

Dee Rees’s latest feature is a perfect example of why we should mourn the death of the mid-budget Hollywood film for adults. Made for just $10 million and barely turning a profit in its sale to Netflix, Mudbound tries its best to convey an Old Hollywood epic on an “online content” scale & budget and does an admirable job of it. If it were made a few decades ago it might have had the mid-range budget needed to fully capture the literary adaptation scope of its look at race relations in the post-WWII American South (it also would almost certainly have been directed by a white man instead of a black woman, so I guess not everything is changing for the worse). Instead, Rees has to be careful about where she spends money to hit with full force even if the grand scale spectacle can’t deliver what’s promised. Mudbound is the story of two families divided by racial barriers in 1940s Mississippi, but it’s also the story of a talented director not getting the full resources needed to properly do their job in the 2010s.

Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) & Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) star as two Southern men on opposite ends of the racial divide who struggle to readjust to American life after fighting in World War II. Both soldiers suffer PTSD from the war & flirt with alcoholism to cope, but only one has to deal with what it feels like to be a second class citizen after their brief period as a war heroes, thanks to the violent racial bias of 1940s Mississippi. Their respective stories are told in the larger context of two families, one white & one black, who share the same failing farmland (with matriarchs played by Carey Mulligan & Mary J. Blige). Mudbound explores the way post-slavery servitude continued in the Jim Crow South, the tyranny of racial privilege, the weight of war atrocities on the human psyche, the routine disappointments of an old-fashioned loveless marriage, and all kinds of other issues more befitting of a novel or a movie twice its length & budget. At the foundation of this mountain of historical dramas, though, is the horrific connection made between the two ex-soldiers who shared a common traumatic past but lived in two entirely different worlds because of their race. It’s a connection that can only end in misery, a tragic inevitability the film does not shy away from when it counts most.

Mudbound is at its weakest when it’s tasked to convey a sense of grand scale scope it can’t deliver on an Online Content budget. The voiceover narration and scenes of tank & airplane warfare are where the seams of the limited budget show most egregiously. Rees still delivers a powerful punch whenever she can afford to, though, making sure that the muddy & blood details of Mudbound’s smaller moments hit with full, unforgiving impact. Both families at the heart of this story are physically & metaphorically weighed down by the oppressive terrain of 1940s Mississippi farmland. Their lives are literally sinking into the endless mud that surrounds them, inextricably molded by the violence & history of their surroundings. This becomes especially powerful in intimate moments where a flash flood nearly drowns a white man digging up an anonymous slave’s grave or where the sounds of a black man getting kicked in the ribs overpower the soundtrack with the whaps of a baseball bat driving into a punching bag. When the impact of its imagery actually matches the scope of its budget, the movie is an undeniable powerhouse.

Mudbound should have been a $30-50 million adult drama with wide theatrical distribution and a genuine Oscars push. Instead, it’s a third of its appropriate production scale and heading straight to Netflix, where it’s in danger of being promptly forgotten. Considering the resources Dee Rees was afforded to tell this historically & culturally expansive story, she did an impressive job in delivering powerful details in the small, aggressively uncomfortable moments that make the movie work better than it should. She should have never been put into that position, though, and the movie would have been so better if she were afforded the freedom of full, appropriate funding.

-Brandon Ledet

Get Out (2017)

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Although they’re often (rightly) called out for their inherent misogyny, there’s a popular reading of slasher films that claims they’re subversively, politically progressive because they ask a traditionally male audience to identify & empathize with a female victim’s POV. Aligning horror nerds’ sympathies with a Final Girl archetype might not seem like the height of radical discourse, especially considering what typically happens to those characters on-screen, but it does have a cultural value to it that might not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing sleazy 80s slashers. The directorial debut of comedian Jordan Peele recognizes this function of horror audience sympathies and shifts its culturally critical eye from feminism to racial politics. Instead of a virginal, scantily clad blonde running from a masked killer with an explicitly phallic weapon, Get Out aligns its audience with a young black man put on constant defense by tone deaf, subtly applied racism. Part horror comedy, part racial satire, and part mind-bending sci-fi, Peele’s debut feature not only openly displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form (directly recalling works as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Under the Skin, and any number of Wes Craven titles), it also applies that knowledge to a purposeful, newly exciting variation on those past accomplishments. Get Out knows what makes horror effective as a genre and finds new avenues of cultural criticism to apply that effect to instead of just mirroring what came before, no small feat for a debut feature.

Our de facto Final Girl protagonist is a young, hip photographer visiting his white girlfriend’s family home for the first time. Isolated in a secluded, wealthy suburb, he’s faced with the outnumbered, paranoid feeling of being the only black man in a sea of white, smiling faces. The only other POC in his hosts’ community are “the help”, who have an unnatural, creepily robotic way of acting (assumedly in a direct nod to The Stepford Wives). Instead of tackling the blatant, violently hateful kind of racism that would more typically be skewered in this kind of movie, however, Get Out finds horror in racism’s much subtler, more difficult to pin down forms. The girlfriend’s family is initially very cordial with our Final Boy, but in an awkward, discomforting way, plagued with a wide variety of micro-aggressions he awkwardly smiles through to avoid confrontation. By using phrases like “my man,” “thang,” and “Sup, fam?” in an attempt to make him feel welcome and at ease, the family only makes his presence feel all the more alien. They declare proudly that they can’t possibly be racist, since they enthusiastically voted for Obama. Twice! The girlfriend, in turn, makes a big show of pointing out every subtle slight in an attempt to seem cool & above it all. Nothing about the scenario is cool. Through eerie atmosphere, mood-setting jump scares, and surreal nightmare imagery, Peele slowly, steadily reveals the ugly spirit lurking under this try-hard liberalism that reduces a human being into a cultural specimen. And when the corrupt, corrosive nature of that sentiment comes violently crashing to the surface, it’s exposed to be just as cruel & terrifying as the kind of racism usually depicted through white hoods & burning crosses.

Get Out is a good, well made genre film that then becomes spectacularly great in its violent, no fucks given third act. Peele’s well-rounded screenplay brings every stray theme, from the racial discomfort to the main character’s guilt over past inaction to metaphorical motifs as small as roadkill deer, back around for a glorious, purposeful conclusion. The seemingly well-meaning, casual racism that had been lurking under the surface like a paranoid delusion is exposed as a horrifically grotesque monster that reduces black men to physical objects, targets for the white & wealthy’s fascination & possessive entitlement. Additionally, Peele filters this thinly veiled maliciousness through a surreal nightmare where reality is warped by perception-shifting hypnosis. If I had one complaint about Get Out it’d be that it could’ve spent a lot more time diving into the otherworldly imagery & paralyzing implications of its hypnotic dream-space, known in-film as The Sunken Place, instead of chasing tension-cutting meta humor with the film’s comic relief character. The Final Boy’s best friend phones in periodically to act as an audience surrogate, asking questions like, “How are you not scared right now?” & directly calling out the girlfriend’s family as the creeps they so obviously are. He’s an amusing presence in the film, but he’s one that pushes Get Out away from the more unique touches of its modern horror surrealism into a more overly familiar horror/sketch comedy tone. However, Peele still gets the most he can out of his subtle nightmare plot’s moment to moment creepiness, especially from always-welcome character actors Catherine Keener & Stephen Root, and you can tell he made this passion project from the perspective of a life-long horror fan who knows exactly how the format works most efficiently. From Get Out‘s cultural criticism to its play with Final Girl tropes to the gloriously bizarre territory of its third act reveals & Sunken Place surrealism, it’s an impressive, striking debut feature, a great first go for a filmmaker who hopefully has a long career of these horrific, satirical mind-benders ahead of him.

-Brandon Ledet

I Am Not Your Negro (2017)

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fourstar

“The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

It would be an easy feat to find a better-realized or more academically thorough documentary than I Am Not Your Negro among recent releases, given the medium’s current creativity boom, but it’d be unlikely to find one more philosophically resonant in today’s political climate. In its better moments, this critical essay by late author & political thinker James Baldwin (directed by Raoul Peck & narrated by an unusually restrained Samuel L. Jackson) feels downright necessary. It seems inevitable that I Am Not Your Negro will be employed as a classroom tool to convey the political climate of the radicalized, Civil Rights-minded 1960s, but the form-defiant documentary is something much stranger than that future purpose would imply. Through Baldwin’s intimate, loosely structured essay, the film attempts to pinpoint the exact nature of the US’s inherent racism, particularly its roots in xenophobic Fear of the Other and in the ways it unintentionally expresses itself through pop culture media. These are not easily defined topics with clear, linear narratives and your appreciation of I Am Not Your Negro might largely depend upon how much you enjoy watching the film reach, not upon what it can firmly grasp. As the film contextualizes its questions & arguments in a 2010s setting by incorporating Ferguson protest footage & surveillance videos of recent police abuses in contemporary black communities, it makes this line of philosophical probing feel essential for modern survival, even if the individual results can be frustratingly incomplete.

The incomplete, scattered nature of I Am Not Your Negro is, in many ways, unavoidable. Peck constructs this documentary around an unfinished manuscript Baldwin did not see to completion before his death in the 1980s. The initial concept of the manuscript sounds fairly straightforward: a portrait of the Civil Rights 60s told through a triptych of profiles on Baldwin’s personal and professional acquaintances Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Medgar Evers. I’ll admit up front that I’m barely, if at all familiar with Evers as a public figure and the movie does little to profile him in any significant way other than to point out that he was the first of the three men to be assassinated by angered white segregationists. Baldwin himself largely becomes the third corner of this triptych as he reflects on his own political positions of the time, mostly in how he was a perpetual outsider. Trying to find a personal balance between the indignant radicalization of Malcolm X and the measured reason of Dr. King, Baldwin would ultimately feel little more than isolation & deep resentment for the world at large. He felt alienated both by the NAACP and the Black Panthers; he recalls Malcolm X calling Dr. King an Uncle Tom on national television long before the two found their own ideological middle ground; he explores conflicted urges to both move far away from America and to maintain a connection with his community. In many ways I Am Not Your Negro stops being about King, X, and Evers at all, instead focusing entirely on Baldwin’s inner psyche (like the way Heart of a Dog is more about Laurie Anderson than it is about dogs). He recounts his lifelong troubled relationship with America by reflecting on the way its racism bubbles to the surface in its advertising, its cinema, its televised broadcasts. Baldwin himself frequently appears on television and in filmed college lectures, reaching to express something intangible, but deeply grotesque about modern race relations. He draws a line between active racism & uncaring ignorance, making a case that both are cancerous to the nation’s spiritual health. None of this is allowed to play out onscreen in a strictly historical context, despite the manuscript’s original intent. The issue is explained to be as relevant & distressing now as it’s ever been, a problem without a solution.

If I Am Not Your Negro has an Achilles heel, it’s that its subject is often more fascinating than its form. A couple cheesy Chicago blues soundtrack choices, some cheap-looking typewriter text, and Jackson’s overly gritty narration can occasionally distract from the film’s main attraction: Baldwin’s personal philosophies & political ideology. Baldwin expresses disgust & exhaustion with American racism in a deeply personal mode of cultural criticism that somehow cuts to the heart of the problem in a way that an academic history lesson on Civil Rights protest & educational desegregation never could. Peck has some interesting ideas of his own that support these explorations through post-modern montage. Images of the Space Race, Black Lives Matter protests, 1930s cinema, reality television, and Martin Luther King Jr bobbleheads all mix together in a disorienting gestalt that matches the uncertain, incomplete nature of Baldwin’s central text. Not every gamble pays off, but the documentary is often fascinating in its looseness and its attempts to reach beyond its means. If no other good came from I Am Not Your Negro than raising the public profile of someone who was obviously an immensely talented writer & profound political thinker, then the film would still be a worthwhile effort. It’s in reaching beyond that basic, biographic artist profile formula to apply James Baldwin’s theories & anxieties to a modern context where the documentary becomes something more, something truly special. It’s a work that tries to make sense of the modern world by looking back to the criticism of the past, only to take disgust in the realization that not much has changed in the decades since. It’s not a pretty story or even a complete one, but it’s one that needs to be told.

-Brandon Ledet

Hidden Figures (2016)

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Although it’s a fairly paint-by-numbers historical pic, Hidden Figures stands out as a moving and impressive film, and the Academy has taken notice: Figures has picked up multiple Oscar nods this year in both behind-the-scenes and before-the-camera categories. This is important for a number of reasons, not least of all that it demonstrates that the #OscarsSoWhite backlash has put the old guard on notice. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the current political climate is anti-science, anti-progress, anti-women, and anti-minority, and while this film doesn’t exactly stand in that gap and hold the door, it does serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go.

The film follows the story of three real black women who worked for NASA in the 1950s and 1960s as “computers,” numerical analysts who performed and checked the calculations needed to put satellites into orbit, and later to send the first men into the cold vacuum that lies between the stars and bring them down to earth again. Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, a mathematician who becomes an engineer, alongside Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn, who leads the “colored women” computing group as a de facto supervisor despite being denied the prestige, title, and remuneration of that position. The cast is largely led by Empire‘s Taraji P. Henson, who plays Katherine Goble (later Johnson), a mathematical and physics genius who is instrumental in the calculations that are used to launch John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit and save him from destruction on re-entry. Rounding out the cast are Kirsten Dunst as Dorothy’s foil, an obstructionist gatekeeper, Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, the head engineer of the Space Task Group, Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the director to whom both Stafford and Katherine Goble report, Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s love interest Jim Johnson, and Aldis Hodge (so good to see you, Aldis, I’ve missed you so much since Leverage went off the air) as Mary’s husband Levi.

As with all historical films, it’s not wholly clear how precise Hidden Figures is in its details (I must admit that I haven’t read the book on which the film is based), but that’s largely irrelevant to the film’s message. Does it matter whether or not the real-life Al Harrison took a crowbar to the “Colored Ladies Room” sign and declared that “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” after learning that his best mathematician had to run a mile to the only such lavatory on the program’s campus every time she needed to relieve herself? Not really. What matters is showing young people (especially young girls) of color that although barriers exist, they can be surmounted. It also reminds the white audience that is, unfortunately, less likely to seek this film out that the barriers that lie in place for minorities to succeed do exist despite their perception of a lack of said barriers. What Harrison initially perceives as a failure in his subordinate’s work ethic is, in reality, a fact of her existence to which he is blind because of his privilege; in fact, his position of power has rendered him so above and outside of this concern that the fact it exists is a shock to him. It’s not exactly subtle, but when the truth has to still be dropped like an anvil from the sky fifty years after the fact, there’s no room for subtlety.

Characters like Stafford and Vivian Mitchell could easily be construed as caricatures, but Hidden Figures reminds us that this same kind of oppression is still ongoing. Post-bathroom-desegregation, Vivian and Dorothy both emerge from bathroom stalls and Vivian (who at this point has blocked Dorothy from a promotion to supervisor and taken no small satisfaction in the way that the goalposts have been moved for Mary’s transition to engineer) tells Dorothy that she has “nothing against [her] kind,” she just does her job. Dorothy gives her the only answer that she can: “I know . . . that you probably believe that.” It’s a stark reminder that “following orders” to maintain an immoral status quo isn’t just used as self-justification for the enablers and perpetrators of genocide in a distant past, it’s something that happens every day, hindering progress at every half-step.

There’s a lot to parse in this film, straightforward though it may seem, certainly far more than can be contained in this review (and, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, this discourse is limited by the horizons of my privilege as a white cisman), but Hidden Figures gets a strong recommendation from me. Catch it in theaters if you can; and, if you can’t, make sure to rent it somehow to show to your ignorant friends and family next holiday. Just be prepared to admit that maybe it is hard to buy Glen “Chad Radwell” Powell as American hero John Glenn.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Loving (2016)

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threehalfstar

With his two feature film entries in 2016, Jeff Nichols has established a very clear (although probably unintentional) genre pattern in his career. The director seems to be strictly alternating between realistic familial drama & high concept sci-fi in his work (with a little of the former category seeping in to inform the latter). The sequence so far looks like this: Shotgun Stories (drama), Take Shelter (sci-fi), Mud (drama), Midnight Special (sci-fi), and now Loving (drama). Although Shotgun Stories is contrarily my favorite title from the director, I typically find myself more enamored with the sci-fi end of this divide. Loving finds Nichols returning to the muted, sullen drama of Mud, this time with a historical bent. It isn’t my favorite mode for a director who’s proven that he can deliver much more striking, memorable work when he leaves behind the confines of grounded realism, but something Nichols does exceedingly well with these kinds of stories is provide a perfect stage for well-measured, deeply affecting performances. Actors Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga are incredibly, heartachingly sincere in their portrayals of real-life trail-blazers Richard & Mildred Loving and Nichols is smart to take a backseat to their work here, a dedication to restraint I respect greatly, even if I prefer when it’s applied to a more ambitious kind of narrative.

Loving, which really does have a conveniently apt title thanks to history, is an exercise in directorial patience & discipline. A decades-spanning dramatization of a young Virginian couple as they raise children & defy a federal law banning interracial marriage in a historical Supreme Court decision, this film could have easily been an over-the-top melodrama about hard-fought courtroom battles & explosively violent racism in the South, especially in the hands of an Oscar-minded director like a Ron Howard or a Spielberg. In Nichols’s version of the story, however, the seething anger over the Loving couple’s interracial romance is just as quiet & deeply seated as their love for one another. The score can be a little imposing in its own tenderly sad way, but for the most part Nichols avoids cliché and mostly just makes room to allow his actors to quietly do their thing. Portraying a couple who were more interested in being left alone than (literally) making a federal case out of the “crime” of being married, Edgerton & Negga brilliantly use the negative space of non-reaction to convey the emotional swell of a scene. Negga is especially skilled at this maneuver, making the mute reaction to a phonecall or a shared physical intimacy with Mildred’s sister hit like a ton of bricks without ever calling attention to herself. The distracting presence of actors Nick Kroll & frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon detracts from that disciplined subtlety, but they’re also playing characters who bring publicity & legal attention to the Lovings’ case, so their sore thumb effect might’ve been deliberately intended. Either way, all of the romance, suffering, and compassion in Loving rests in Edgerton’s & Negga’s steady, capable hands and Nichols’s best moments in this traditionalist drama is in the way he harnesses their quiet energy for a subtly devastating effect.

If you wanted to be especially morbid in your reading of the film, you could say that Loving has an alarming amount of significance in a modern context, given many Western countries’ sudden far right return to horrifying ideology like “God’s law” & “racial purity.” This isn’t the metaphorical, history-minded political statement of titles like the Hitler-themed black comedy Look Who’s Back, though. If anything, Loving reminds me of the quietly measured drama of last year’s Brooklyn (sans the pretty dresses for the most part, unfortunately). It doesn’t force attention-grabbing moments of high stakes drama, but instead details a fragile romance in a perilous era that threatens to shatter it under immense social & legal pressure. Loving is less about racism than it is about, well, loving and the movie only really stumbles when outside personalities disrupt the believable romantic ideal Edgerton & Negga establish in their scenes (Nick Kroll’s presence is especially egregious on that note). Nichols finds interesting detail to signify the era: the early stirrings of rock & roll in exciting hot rod races; playful abandon in Mason jars full of moonshine; the horror movie atmosphere of small town law enforcement creeping through the night. His best impulse here, though, is in the way he backs up to allow space for Negga & Edgerton to work their magic. It’d be tempting say that any director could’ve made Loving, because of that absence of stylistic imposition, but I don’t think many directors would’ve displayed the same level of restraint in a drama about such an important Supreme Court case. Nichols puts a relatable, knowable face to history here (with his talented cast’s help, of course). Although this is far from my favorite work he’s put in so far as a director or as a stylist (Midnight Special makes sure it’s not even his most winning success this year), it’s this exact kind of discipline & restraint that sells his higher-concept work so believably & effectively.

-Brandon Ledet

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

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A body of a rich man is found on the main street of a small Mississippi town.  Bumbling local authorities luckily mistake Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) — a quick witted, sharp-dressed homicide detective from Philadelphia — for a suspect. After being taken in, he is dragged into the investigation and small town politics, butting heads with the police chief, minor rednecks, and rich good ole boys. Virgil makes his way surrounded at all times by potentially violent white supremacists, who resent him for not only being black but also for being successful, with only facts and quick reflexes as he plunges headfirst into town drama.

The setting of the South itself is as much a character as Virgil. The hot weather permeates every scene of In the Heat of the Night with its humidity. There’s squeaking air conditioners and sweat rolling off of everyone. Every backroad is dusty and treacherous. There’s fields of cotton with hunched over weather beaten pickers right before a scenic driveway to a plantation. The broken down desperation is constant. In the Heat of the Night could have simply been a crime movie (at some point I thought to myself that this movie vaguely has the same feel as a really good Columbo episode) but the setting is everything. Virgil is a successful black man in a town run by poor, angry white men. The heat is as oppressive as the prejudice and bigotry.

The setting is hostile. The people are racist. But it’s pretty satisfying to watch Sidney Poitier play a no nonsense successful detective constantly proving everyone wrong and blatantly disobeying people who order him around like a dog, calling him “boy.” One of the best moments of the movie is when a rich racist man slaps him and without hesitation he slaps back. Being from 1967, this feels like such a rallying point: that finally on film a black man can slap back.

During the opening credits, one thing I found kind of surprising is that Hal Ashby edited this film. I wasn’t aware of his editing work, so I was kind of eager to find out what the guy who directed Harold and Maude and Being There could bring to the editing table. It turns out a lot. His quick cuts and the cinematography of Haskell Wexler (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) result in a movie that’s just as moving technically as it is acting and story-wise.

In the Heat of the Night is a well paced, beautifully shot thriller. Just watching it, you can feel the humid Southern air. Poitier playing a stubborn and heroic bigotry-defying Tibbs is definitely iconic. And even if it weren’t for all of that, it would still be a good crime movie.

-Alli Hobbs

Blacksnake (1973)

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I was quick to defend Russ Meyer’s first supposed foray into territory outside the “sex film”, The Seven Minutes, but I’m afraid the good vibes died a horrific death as soon as the director’s next picture. Hollywood success may have clouded Meyer’s already inflated hubris when he struck it big with his camp masterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, (mis)leading the director to believe he had the capability within him to command complexly nuanced, important films about issues like slavery & institutional racism. He was miserably mistaken. Black Snake cost Russ Meyer hundreds of thousands of dollars, a lot of it his own money now that he was back operating outside the studio system, and stands as his worst picture since at least the wildly misogynistic Motorpsycho!. Meyer should’ve known better than to tackle a period piece about slavery and, yet, Blacksnake somehow exists, adding nothing of value to the world but unwatchably dull stretches of wretched dialogue and as yet undiscovered, fresh ways to create corrosively racist art in the guise of enlightened progressivism.

Ever since the pointlessly racist rants in Vixen!, Meyer’s films had gradually escalated the respectability of their black characters. Starting with adding the first black actress to Meyer’s bevy of babes in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! (a small step, that), the director went on to cast feature roles for black actors in both Beyond the Valley of the Dolls & The Seven Minutes, a huge improvement on the lack of diversity in his back catalog. All of that goodwill goes out the window as soon as Blacksnake‘s opening credits, which features slaves on a plantation being beaten to the sound of playfully swanky music, racial slurs, and cracking whip sound effects (the film’s title itself refers to the shape of a whip) in an assault of unwelcome irreverence. It isn’t very often that I hate a film before its first proper scene, but Blacksnake is instantly recognizable as vile garbage.

It doesn’t get much better from there. Sexual relations between slaves & their owners are played as comical instead of rape. There’s a perverse amount of whippings & racial epitaphs to the point where it feels like they’re supposed to be a source of entertainment, which is pretty much a worst-case scenario. The worst part is that the slave revolt that concludes the film is excessive in its violence to the point that it plays as if you’re supposed to feel bad for the slave-owners being hung & whipped to death (for a change). While making the film, Meyer was quoted as saying, “Sex is out, violence is in. This film will have every conceivable death you can think of – death by hanging, by double-barreled shotgun, by whipping, by machete, by crucifixion and by shark.” The problem is that the violence in the film plays as nihilistic at best, and deeply, subliminally racist at worst.

With Blacksnake, Meyer had tried to make a Big Issue film & failed miserably. Even his wild rants about the wicked nature of women & heterosexual romance in past works were more nuanced & insightful than his supposedly anti-racist sentiments in Blacksnake. If anything good at all came out of this dumpster fire, it’s that the film’s failure & resulting financial ruin drove Meyer back into the open arms & comforting bosoms of the nudie pic. Meyer may have been done with the sex film, but the sex film was far from done with him, He had no other available recourse but to return to sexploitation in his next picture, Supervixens, having fallen from grace in his two sole self-serious dramas.

-Brandon Ledet

Vixen! (1968)

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“Is she woman or animal? TOO MUCH for one man!”

While Russ Meyer was cranking out a string of vitriolic “soap operas” about couples on the verge of murdering each other – Common Law Cabin, Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!, and Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! – his career was somewhat compromised by a sudden change in the cinematic landscape. Suddenly, in the freewheeling sexual revolution of the late 1960s, films bordering on hardcore pornography were beginning to play in somewhat respectable venues instead of underground porn theaters. In order to keep his career alive & relevant, Meyer had to adapt. It was difficult to sell a picture that teased, but never delivered onscreen sex if the public could get the goods elsewhere, so Meyer’s next couple of pictures– Vixen! & Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! – took a much harder turn to match the competition. Meyer’s first “hard sex” film, Vixen!, was the first American-made release to receive the “X” rating from censorship boards, an honor Meyer initially wore like a badge. Unfortunately, the director dulled down a lot of his more outlandish eccentricities, including his vitriolic dialogue & rapidfire montage edits in order to appeal to a larger audience, so the resulting film, however financially successful, plays a little dull after the darker, more bizarre territory of its direct predecessors.

As always with Meyer’s pictures, Vixen!‘s plot is razor thin. The titular hellcat, played by Erica Gavin, is an adulteress archetype we’ve seen before in Meyer films like Lorna & Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!, but while her cuckold husband may be shamed for paying more attention to his work than his wife’s sexual needs, Vixen herself suffers no consequences from her cheating ways. The lack of punishment with Vixen’s adultery isn’t necessarily a problem for the film. It’s kind of a cool idea that she’s a sexual healer who leaves a positively-changed trail of lovers behind her. First she seduces a visiting, married stranger. Then she seduces his wife (in Meyer’s first homosexual scene, which is very much against his film’s typical, no-frills, all-American sex). And then she seduces her own brother, who’s somewhat of a biker & a reprobate (in a depiction of incest that has got to be the closest thing to kink that Meyer had filmed outside the chest-shaving scene in Finders Keepers). Nothing of consequence comes of these encounters & they’re presented more or less for pure titillation. The problem with this formula is that instead of having hateful, knockdown arguments with her unsuspecting husband, Vixen directs her vitriol into racist attacks against a young draft-dodger named Niles. In her racist rants against Niles, Vixen drops words like “boy”, “watermelon”, “spade”, “chocolate drop”, and “Sambo” with hurtfully nasty abandon. For instance, when her brother asks her, “Is there anyone you wouldn’t make it with?” she replies “Only spades & cripples.” Fuck, that’s fucked. The thing is that Vixen is mostly portrayed as a positive character & the film’s concluding conflict involves an airplane hijacking that just skips right over the central couple’s adultery issues & just barely touches on the fact that the star of the show is a raging bigot, so then what’s the point of that character trait at all? At least when Meyer was depicting romantic monogamy as a hate-filled cesspool of bruised egos, I could tell what he was getting at, even if he was off-base. Here, I’m a little more confused & uneasy.

Still, it’s impossible to brush of Vixen!‘s significance as a Russ Meyer classic altogether. Meyer’s plan to make “hard sex” films (it’s not actually that “hard”, y’all; it’s barely even softcore porn) marketable to large audiences in Vixen! payed off nicely. The film cost very little to make, but made more than $7 million in its first year alone. As Meyer himself explains it, making a porn-leaning film palatable for couples instead of lone-masturbators “was the basis for Vixen!‘s huge success. Once you have that happen your gross doubles, even triples. It’s not just the raincoat brigade.” Unfortunately a lot of the old Meyer charm was lost in the translation as he reached for a more mainstream crowd, leaving the film with a distinct made-for-TV feel that would’ve left it to fit right in with the Skinemax market that followed decades later . . . if it weren’t for the not-sexy-at-all racist rants. Still, a great deal of Meyer’s weirdness shines through. If nothing else, Erica Gaven is a knockout as the titular Vixen. She’s more rabid animal than human sexpot & it’s great to see a woman take so much command of her own sex life in a skin flick from this era. It also helps that Gavin is a gorgeous actress with particularly striking eyebrows . . . and Meyer-approved breasts.

When she’s not screwing unsuspecting couple or ranting about the inferiority of other races, Vixen also is afforded some of Meyer’s strangest details to date, including a shot of her having sex framed from under a seemingly invisible bed as she bounces on the bare springs & an all-too-memorable scene in which she flirts by sticking a dead fish between her breasts & then mocking fellatio on its little, lifeless fish head. Even when Meyer was trying to tone himself down to appeal to larger audiences, he had a hard time concealing the fact that he was a total madman. This is also evident in a scene where Vixen is making love to her husband (for a change) that’s intercut with a separate pair of characters discussing the merits of Communism as a political system & in the lesbian seduction centerpiece where Meyer obsessively focuses on the image of boobs touching boobs as if he’s working out a new fetish for himself on camera (without bothering at all to discover how two women would actually have sex in the process). In a quicker paced, less-racist film with a true narrative conflict in any sense, these strange details could’ve amounted to something special, perhaps one of Meyer’s greatest films. As is, though, Vixen! is more important because it made Meyer a shit ton of money, money that afforded him more personal projects down the road. Some of his best work was just ahead of him.

-Brandon Ledet