Movie of the Month: A New Leaf (1971)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before, and we discuss it afterwards. This month Alli made Boomer, Brandon, and Britnee watch A New Leaf (1971).

Alli:  Oh, heavens! I’m so glad to finally share this movie with y’all.

Elaine May’s 1971 black comedy A New Leaf is about bachelor Henry Graham (Walter Mathau), who goes absolutely broke after squandering his fortune on his Ferrari, horses, exclusive clubs, fancy restaurants, and his impeccable art collection. After getting the idea from his butler, he decides to marry a rich woman and kill her for her money. His target is botanist Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), who is a hopelessly clumsy, gauche, and stunted adult. As their marriage and the movie progresses, Henry takes on more and more responsibility in their household in the hopes of having the opportunity to murder Henrietta and become independently wealthy again. I like to describe this movie as the “anti romcom.” There are plenty tropes of a standard romcom with none of the actual romance: a bachelor who has never considered marrying, a meet cute featuring lots of spilt tea, an impossible deadline for the wedding, and disastrous boat trip (although this one is a disastrous canoe trip). I’d even argue that there’s a sort of “opposites attract” dynamic at play.

Except they’re not exactly opposites. Henry. Henrietta. Two sides of the same coin. They’re both adults unable to handle the day to days of adult life. For Henry, it’s because he doesn’t want to. For Henrietta, she’s just so caught up in her ferns that she’s clueless. Both are unmarried and not actively searching until now. With Henrietta getting the confidence to hang off cliffs to find her ferns and Henry learning the practical logistics of household management and taxes, they find a way to—for lack of a better term—complete each other. By the end of the movie, I find them endearing together somehow. 

What did y’all think of the movie? Do you think they belong together even if they’re not lovers and—with some obvious queer subtext—Henry has no interest whatsoever in women?

Brandon: Funnily enough, when I search for “Walter Matthau A New Leaf gay subtext”, the top Google result I’m getting is Alli’s original review of the film for Swampflix in 2016.  Considering how much online movie nerds like to read into fictional characters’ “queer coding”—intentional or otherwise—you’d think we’d be in our usual spot in the double or triple digits of results pages.  All I can really confirm is that Henry’s sexuality was on my mind throughout the film. I kept trying to pin him to a specific modern queer context every time he intimately grabbed his butler’s arm or scoffed when a country club manager expressed surprise at his sudden (financial) interest in women.  Elaine May has enjoyed some recent reappraisal as an overlooked auteur in historically macho film canons (alongside other greats like Varda, Ottinger, Wertmüller, and Campion), an effort that’s intensified even since we covered Mikey & Nicky as a Movie of the Month in 2017. So, it’s a little curious that there doesn’t seem to be much consensus on how this marriage-cynical anti-romcom could be interpreted through a queer lens.

Ultimately, I settled on both Henry and Henrietta being some form of ace.  They are both so unbothered with and oblivious to physical sexual attraction that it doesn’t even occur to them that the everyday companionship of marriage might be emotionally beneficial even if they have no desire to fuck.  The entire arc of Henry’s character here is the painfully gradual realization that he enjoys & benefits from Henrietta’s company.  That delay is, of course, comically ridiculous, since no reasonable human being could watch Elaine May nervously unravel under those gigantic glasses without immediately blurting “Marry me!” (whether or not they also want to murder her for her inheritance).  Plot-wise, the two movies A New Leaf most reminded me of were Charlie Chaplin’s against-type black comedy Monsieur Verdoux and its Ealing Studios descendent Kind Hearts and Coronets, both about the convenient financial gains of murder. The difference is those predecessors have ice-cold hearts that May’s film only pretends to emulate in its earliest stretch.  This ultimately is a very romantic movie about two absolute weirdos who belong together but don’t know how to express—or even realize—their mutual fondness in a world oblivious to their asexuality.  At least, “Walter Matthau A New Leaf asexual” leads to much more credible online resources than this unpolished, self-published blog.

Boomer: I’m also going to throw my hat into the ring for Henry being asexual. There’s that scene right around the 25-minute mark where Bosley from Charlie’s Angels tries to fob Henry off on a water skier at some social event, and, when the two are alone in the night, she attempts to remove her bathing suit top and Henry bleats in terror: “No! Don’t let them out!” I laughed quite a lot at the delivery, but there’s something so bone-deep terrified in that line read that doesn’t say “gay,” to me, it says “completely and abjectly terrified at the very prospect of sex in any form.” It’s also the first time that we’ve seen Henry hit an emotional peak; he’s mostly just gruffly irascible and impatient, but he never hits a boiling point and instead stays in a low, simmering annoyance. The closest he comes before this moment to showing a positive emotion is when he surveys his favorite lunch restaurant and speaks, not to the handsome waiter but to the dining area itself, as if he is a lover bidding a final farewell. “Desire” only exists to Henry insofar as he can only tolerate the finest that life has to offer. 

To be honest, at first this felt like it was going to make me hate this viewing experience. When Henry’s attorney, Beckett, is finally able to make contact with him in order to tell him that he’s used up all of his (vast, incomprehensibly vast) funds, it follows closely on the heels of a scene in which Henry is about to go gallivanting around the skies in a fighter plane, and he doesn’t even seem like he’s having a very good time doing it. But even with all that rich assholery, it’s impossible not to love Walter Matthau in anything that he’s in; even when he’s a total jerk, you can’t help but be charmed by him and his curmudgeonliness. By the time he was wistfully bidding farewell to all of the cultural hallmarks of excessive wealth, I hadn’t come to like him necessarily, but I wasn’t taking delight in laughing at his downfall either. When it comes down to it, he’s ultimately very good with the household finances and starts plugging up holes in Henrietta’s estate budget immediately, which immediately stops her unscrupulous family lawyer from continuing to leech from her. That was the first scene where I really liked Henry, and it carried through the rest of the film. 

Britnee: I really enjoyed this! It’s the asexual “romcom” that I didn’t I needed. A New Leaf is one of the best comedies I’ve seen in a while. It reminded me of one of my favorite films of all time, What’s Up, Doc?. Both came out in the early 70s and are so comically chaotic. Walter Matthau’s performance as Henry, the spoiled middle aged man-child, completely blew me away. I’d only previously seen him in the Grumpy Old Men movies, Dennis the Menace, and Cactus Flower. He somehow looks like he’s been 70 years old forever. What a face! His emotionless delivery of back-to-back sassy lines had me howling. The scene where a child walks in on him while he’s getting dressed for the wedding is one of the best. When he yells at her to get out and repeats “I won’t have her touching my things!”, I saw so much of myself in his character. It’s very “psychobiddy,” even coming from a 50 year-old man.

I also have to mention how impressive Elaine May is. To manage such a brilliant film as her directorial debut while starring in it herself is such a major accomplishment. I’m ashamed to not have known of this sooner. This is why Movie of the Month is so great! Also, I’m dying to try one of Henrietta’s Malaga Coolers. Not only has May made her mark in the film industry, she’s also made it into the world of fragrance, as the Demeter fragrance line has a perfume based on the beverage. I’ll have to get one for my purse!

Like Boomer and Brandon, I also picked up on the asexuality of the main characters. It made sense for Henry, but I had to think a little more to figure out Henrietta. She was more into Henry than he was into her (obviously), but she was more interested in the companionship Henry offered than anything sexual or romantic. They both remind me of these old neighbors I had many moons ago. They would sit on their shared porch and nag each other constantly, but they hung out every day and appreciated each other in their own weird way. 

Lagniappe

Britnee: Renee Taylor (Sharon) is fabulous for her entire four minutes of screentime. That waterski scene is comedy gold. The character played like a younger version of her famous role in The Nanny (Fran’s mother, Sylvia Fine), which makes me wonder if that’s her true personality or just a character she’s developed. Either way, I’m so thankful for her existence. 

Alli: I’m also fascinated by the Malaga Coolers. All a quick google search on them brings up is this movie, so it was obviously the worst imaginable offense against wine snobs she could invent, which I love. BUT I actually have tried this beverage. Once, as an adult, I went to my grandma’s house, and she busted out the Mogen David and soda to whip some up.  It was … not great, as you would expect.

The Malaga Cooler: the drink of awkward botanists and crazy Grandmas everywhere. (RIP my grandma, who died this year. She was quite a lady.)

Boomer: So after having to drive my friend’s car back from the Halloween party last weekend because someone forgot to eat before drinking, I took my own car out for a midnight drive to get some fast food. Unfortunately, after passing the Whataburger because the line was insurmountable and getting halfway to Jack-in-the-Box, my check engine light came on, so I turned around and went straight home. After going to the AutoZone first thing the next morning for their free diagnostic, it turned out that there was an issue with my catalytic converter. You see, I had carbon buildup… on my valves. The man at the store asked if I took mostly small, short trips (I do), and apparently I, like Henry, simply don’t take my car out for enough long drives to “clear the throat” of my car, as it were. As a non-car-guy, I didn’t realize that this was what was happening with Henry’s car as well; I just let that whole scene float past me in the stream. Luckily, I went and got it checked out quickly enough that the AutoZone employee was able to recommend something called Cataclean, which you pour into your tank and it clears out all the carbon (from the valves). I’m happy to say that, four days later, my check engine light has gone off! (Not sponsored.) So this is my advice to all of you out there in readerland: if you take a bunch of short drives, like I do, then get you some of this stuff and use if before it becomes a problem. And if your check engine light comes on, don’t ignore it; get it checked out right away. The life you save could be your own (car’s). 

Brandon: Having now seen all four of Elaine May’s feature films, I find myself struggling with the question of whether or not she’s a “great” director.  She certainly makes great films.  Even the worst of her catalog, the misunderstood anti-comedy Ishtar, deserves more attention and praise than it gets.  At the same time, each of those movies was delivered over-schedule & over-budget, so it’s not like she was especially adept at managing her shoots.  This relatively laidback, low-budget debut stretched 40 days past its shooting schedule, with an entire hour of extraneous bits & bobs that the studio edited out of the final product despite May’s protests that it needed to be a three-hour romcom to work.  If she had delivered A New Leaf on-time, on-budget, and properly trimmed, it would’ve been considered a huge hit instead of just breaking even, and she might’ve had an easier time fighting for her cut of similarly troubled productions like Mikey & Nicky down the line.  Instead, she toiled away in the background writing screenplays for some of the most beloved Hollywood comedies of all time, poor thing.

I suppose Elaine May is a great director in the only way that should matter to audiences: her movies are sharply funny & uniquely entertaining.  How she manages time & money is more of an issue for Hollywood executives to worry about; they’ve certainly invested a lot more financial capital on projects with a lot less cultural value than May’s four modest bangers.  I only really bring up the question here to note that her management of the practical & financial aspects of filmmaking is remarkably similar to the disastrous, hands-off way she runs her inherited estate as Henrietta in A New Leaf, adorably so.

Next month: Britnee presents Peyton Place (1957)

-The Swampflix Crew

Love and Leashes (2022)

The two genres I’ve noticed thriving exclusively on Netflix in recent years have been cutesy romcoms and steamy erotica.  The erotic thriller heyday of the Verhoeven 80s and the romcom heyday of the Meg Ryan 90s have long been absent from theatrical marquees, so Netflix has stepped in to, um, fill those gaps, so to speak.  Somewhere between the quiet success of titles like 365 Days (erotic), To All the Boys I’ve Love Before (romantic), Deadly Illusions (erotic), and Always Be My Maybe (romantic), the streaming behemoth has gotten its algorithmic wires crossed and decided to split the difference with an erotic romcom set in the Korean kink scene, Love and Leashes.  Not since Gary Marshall’s Exit to Eden has kink play been treated with such a fluffy, mainstream, sexless touch (unless, of course, you include other recent Netflix properties like the kink-themed sitcom Bonding or the kink-themed home improvement show How to Build a Sex Room).  And since Netflix does not share verifiable data about their streaming numbers, we’ll never know how much demand there is for such an unlikely mix of theme & tone . . . unless they start commissioning more romcom erotica to fill out their splash page in the next couple years.  All I can say for now is that Love and Leashes is as adorable as its existence is absurd.

This is a cutesy, formulaic comedy about an unexpected BDSM office romance, essentially Secretary re-imagined as a femdom romcom.  When a new hire at a media marketing firm risks having his human dog collar shipped to work, his vanilla (but kink-curious) coworker accidentally receives the package instead. In their struggle for possession, the seedy Amazon order flies in the air as they both fall to the ground, flustered.  It’s a kinky re-imagining of the standard dog walking meet-cute of two destined-to-fuck strangers getting tangled up in leashes while trying not to spill their Starbucks orders.  Only, the rope bondage comes much later in the plot.  The man is sensitive and turned on by masochistic play; the woman is naturally bossy but uninitiated to the scene.  She finds a genuine thrill in transgressing the assumed submissiveness of her gender roles, though. She also uses the excuse of learning more about her new co-worker’s fetishes to attempt dating him in a more traditional, romantic dynamic.  Sometimes they play at work, charged by the thrill of potentially getting caught.  More often, they test the uneasy waters of their new mistress/sub dynamic in hotel rooms and in public, both pretending they’re only into the kink activities, not each other (for reasons that can only be explained as Romcom Brain).  It’s the kind of nothing conflict that could be solved by a single, honest conversation, but that’s true of most romcoms, with or without the leather gear.

Of course, there’s an inherent incompatibility in attempting a romcom/erotica genre mashup; most traditional romcoms are excessively chaste.  As a result, Love and Leashes is strangely sexless, considering all the butt plugs, harnesses, and ball gags that hang in the background as set decoration.  In terms of actual, onscreen sexual activity, the most we get is some flogging, hair-pulling, foot worship, rope bondage, and the same dripped-wax fantasy as the “Livin’ La Vida Loca” music video.  We can hear sex in the next hotel room over, but we’re in the room where a man is wearing a leash and yipping like a dog for comic effect – no insertions necessary.  This might have bothered me more if the pup’s mistress-in-training didn’t ask (in Sex and the City-style narration) “Is it weird to play this hard without having sex?”, noting the absurdity of their chaste dynamic.  She spends a lot of time online researching the standard dynamics of domme-sub relationships and chatting up anonymous kink veterans on message boards for newbie tips (setting up an obligatory, last-minute Gossip Girl reveal), totally unaware of how much sex she should be having with the sub under her “control.”  A lot of the central conflict is in the weirdly out-of-sync couple finding a way to enjoy transgressive kink play and start up a traditional, adorable romance on vanilla dates – the same conflict the movie has in its own dueling tones.

This is both my first K-drama and the first movie I’ve seen adapted from a “webtoon” (originally titled Moral Sense), so I can’t speak to how well Love and Leashes translates its source material to a new medium.  I’m an expert in scouring Netflix for low-level horny novelties, though, and it’s one of the better attempts at harmless erotica I’ve seen on the platform.  It’s a little sexually timid & cruelly overlong, but it’s a decent throwback romcom with just enough naughtiness to make the genre’s stalest tropes feel freshly amusing & cute.  The obvious next step for the platform is to get into the business of romcom softcore, but we’ll have to see how well this mashup does before they take that risk.

-Brandon Ledet

Radhe Shyam (2022)

I am often in way over my head when choosing which mainstream Indian blockbusters to attend at the local multiplex.  Since most of the Bollywood & Kollywood titles that populate on AMC Elmwood’s marquee are not covered by Western press outlets, I usually have very little context to go on besides a one-paragraph plot synopsis and an un-subtitled trailer.  Finding my footing with the recent romance epic Radhe Shyam was even more of a challenge than usual, though, and it’s one I’m not sure I fully overcame until most of the way into its runtime.

Firstly, I could not settle on which language to watch Radhe Shyam in, since it was simultaneously filmed in both Hindi & Telugu, with two entirely different music composers hired for both audio versions.  I assumed checking what region the film was produced in would help solve that puzzle, but it was shot on-location in Italy, so I just went with the most convenient start time.  Then came the confusion over the film’s price tag.  While most movies I watch at Elmwood are $8 matinees, tickets to Radhe Shyam were $20 a pop ($24 with the AMC app’s outrageous service charges), which is more than I think I’ve ever paid for a single movie ticket in my life.  The best I can figure is that the distributors had to four-wall its theatrical run, since the Amazon Prime logo in the opening credits indicates that they will not be adhering to the rigid theatrical window that AMC demands.  If I were going by myself, I would have bailed as soon as I saw that ticket price and just waited to see it on streaming in — soon, apparently.  However, since I had dragged a friend to the theater (podcast co-host James), we were too fully committed to our playdate to turn back.  Which is how we ended up paying $48 to watch Radhe Shyam at 10:45am on Saturday morning in an otherwise empty theater.

My confusion over how to best approach this film did not end with that hasty ticket purchase.  Getting a firm handle on its tone & genre was also an adventure in itself.  Pre-intermission, Radhe Shyam is a cutesy romcom with an extremely broad approach to humor (to the point where punchlines are scored by bike horns & slide whistles).  Post-intermission, it’s an epic romance melodrama of Titanic proportions — complete with explosive, fist-pumping superheroics.  Altogether, it’s a thoroughly entertaining 128 minutes of volatile fluff, worth all 4,800 pennies.

Prabhas (headliner of the over-the-top action spectacle Saaho) stars as the world’s greatest palm reader, the Einstein of Palmistry.  Reading his own palm and finding no discernible Love Line, he decides there is no romantic love in his future and can only look forward to a series of casual Flirtationships.  His resolve is challenged when he meets a beautiful doctor played by Pooja Hegde, an adrenaline junkie with a bizarre fetish for hanging out the sides of speeding trains.  After a death-defying meet cute aboard one of those trains, they enter a whirlwind Flirtationship that tests the palmist’s conviction that he will never love.  If this were a mainstream American rom-com I’d say you could predict where the story goes from there, but it’s much more explosively entertaining than that.

Radhe Shyam is thematically hung up on binaries.  Because the central romance is between a medical doctor and a palmist, most of its scene-to-scene conflicts are built around the tension between hard-facts Science and faith in Hindu religion.  More importantly to the romance, it’s a story of Love vs. Destiny, as its two central lovers are decidedly not destined to be together but rebel against their pre-determined futures to transform their Flirtationship into a proper Relationship.  The early, comedic half of the film details their adorable courtship phase.  The late, thrilling half details their violent rejection of their fates in an all-out visual spectacle you’d never see in a Julia Roberts romcom.  That jarring genre structure is itself a binary, and it’s the one that makes the film an exciting novelty instead of just a cute diversion.

It’s near impossible to not be charmed by Radhe Shyam, at least not by the time its two destined-to-separate lovers are heroically cheating death to fight their way back to their sweet, flirtatious beginnings.  This is a movie that covers both major touchstones of Celine Dion romanticism—the flowy curtains of the bodice-ripper “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” music video and the ocean-liner disaster epic of Titanic—so you cannot reasonably claim that it doesn’t deliver the goods.  Whether a $24 theatrical ticket is too steep of an admission price for those heart-soaring pleasures is subjective, but I will say this: the go-for-broke action finale looked incredible on the big screen, and my audience of two had a great time cheering it on in that empty auditorium. 

-Brandon Ledet

Golden Eighties (1986)

When reviewing movies for this blog, I often push myself to contextualize them within how they relate to my personal life or the current moment in pop culture at large.  I doubt many people are reading these webcasts into the abyss anyway, so I mostly treat these posts as diary entries that help me tether my moviewatching habits to a specific moment in time or personal headspace.  If I’m going to be entirely honest in these personal moviewatching diaries, I have to admit that there isn’t much room to contextualize my thoughts on Golden Eighties within a larger discourse, either personal or universal.  I watched Chantal Akerman’s shopping mall romcom musical simply because its screengrabs looked beautiful, and I loved it for that exact surface-level reason.  The film’s pastel cosmetic palette and soft neon blue lighting registered as a vision of 80s Shopping Mall Heaven in my mind, and my only frustration with it as a motion picture is that I can’t find a way to drink those colors through a funnel.  It’s not a movie I wanted to watch so much as it’s one I wanted to drown in, but I still greatly enjoyed the experience of firing it up on the Criterion Channel.

To put it as reductively as possible, Golden Eighties is a Young Girls of Rochefort for the Madonna era.  Besides restricting all its action to a single shopping mall, there isn’t anything especially challenging or avant-garde about its tangled web of unrequited loves – at least not on the level of what you’d expect from a Chantal Akerman film.  The drama mostly concerns three parallel tales of missed romantic connections: a lonely waitress who trades long-distance love letters with a beau who moved abroad, an elderly couple who reunite after having their flame extinguished by The Holocaust in their youth and, the main attraction, a she-loves-him-but-he-loves-the-other-one love triangle you’d find in just about any 1950s teen musical.  There are some political, often Feminist angles to how these relationships play out onscreen, especially in Akerman giving the equal space to an older, Jewish woman’s romantic & sexual desires (through her Jean Dieleman avatar Delphine Seyrig) among the vast cast of young, buxom Gentiles.  Mostly, though, the drama is kept intentionally light & swoony, and it all culminates in the declaration that falling in love with different suitors is like trying on pretty dresses: not all of them fit you, but it’s fun to explore.

Akerman’s arthouse background shows more in the surrealism of the cheap sound stage setting than it does in the romantic themes.  In real life, shopping malls are public, bustling spaces, but this deliberately frothy melodrama plays out in an insular, self-contained world consisting entirely of a clothing store, a hair salon, a movie theater, and a café.  It’s an odd effect, especially as those limited, rigid settings fill with a chaotic flood of singing, dancing, chattering, fashionable women.  I was fully convinced that the obligatory wedding climax was going to be staged right there in the food court, but it never came to that (unfortunately?).  I don’t know that the dreamlike artifice of the faux shopping mall was entirely intentional, since Akerman spent years scraping together funding for a larger production she never got to realize.  It really heightens the romance & melodrama at the film’s core in a way that makes it feel like a singular work of art, though, as evidenced by my desire to drown in the beauty of its screenshots.  Every frame is a gorgeous beaut, as long as you have an affection for pure-femme 1980s commercialism, as I apparently do.

Golden Eighties is imperfect, and I suspect Chantal Akerman would’ve been the first person to admit that.  Its shambling, let’s-put-on-a-show quality is just as charming as its playfully risqué pop music dance numbers, though, and my only real complaint at the end is that I wanted more songs and more costume changes.  I went in desperate to see more of its dreamlike mall-world imagery, and I left with that same insatiable hunger, which I’ll chalk up to it being a total success despite the shortcomings of its production.

-Brandon Ledet

Gregory’s Girl (1980)

The opening scene of Bill Forsyth’s cult-classic teen comedy Gregory’s Girl sets audience expectations for something much crasser and more irritating than what’s ultimately delivered. A group of horny high school nerds spy on a nurse via telescope as she changes out of her uniform in a hospital window. They hoot & guffaw at the shared sight of naked breasts, as if it were the opening to a Scottish version of Porky’s. It’s incredible, then, that the film that follows is such an earnestly sweet, heartwarming examination of pubescent awkwardness, not a ribald romp about bouncing boobies & lost virginities. In fact, the main thrust of Gregory’s Girl is in reforming the social & sexual awkwardness of those boys instead of drooling over women’s bodies along with them. It’s less of a teen sex comedy than it is a romantic heist film, wherein a gang of small-town Scottish girls conspire to hijack & reform the sexual attentions of the neighborhood boys so they can walk away with more charming, better socialized dates than the drooling idiots we’re introduced to.

Like with most eccentric comedies of the era, the characters who populate Gregory’s Girl are each fixated on a singular personal obsession: photography, cooking, window washing, soccer, etc. The gangly teenager Gregory’s obsession just happens to be another human being, as he develops a major crush on a girl on his soccer team who’s a much better athlete (and much better socialized) than him. The conspiratorial heist portion of the film involves a group of fellow teens breaking Gregory out of his fixation on this girl, who’s way more interested in playing soccer than she is in his goofball ass. There’s often an all-or-nothing singular obsession to hormone-addled teenage crushes, and most of the film dwells on that period of horse-blinders fixation. Watching Gregory become deprogrammed from his own romantic self-brainwashing is a major relief from the dumbass teen-boy behavior of the first hour, and it’s outright miraculous a movie this small in scope & budget taps into an observation so sweetly profound.

It’s a testament to John Gordon Sinclair’s central performance that Gregory remains an adorable goof long before he’s deprogrammed. His awkwardness in his own acne-riddled skin and unwieldy noodle body is consistently hilarious from the start, even when he’s just failing to look comfortable & confident sitting in a chair or crossing a road. He plays the part with the same energetic juvenalia as a Pee-wee Herman or Mr. Bean performance. It’s an absolutely lovely caricature of pubescent awkwardness, perfectly capturing the adorable but embarrassing stretch where you don’t know what to do with your body or your heart. The low-key absurdist humor of the world he awkwardly navigates also reminded me a lot of Better Off Dead & Rock n Roll High School—two of my all-time favorite high school comedies—in the matter-of-fact inclusion of students smoking pipes & playing chess in the boys room or aimlessly wandering the halls in a penguin costume as if it were a standard matter of course. Those subtly absurdist delights are just as difficult to convey to the uninitiated as the romantic sleight-of-hand of the film’s heist climax, but it’s movie magic alchemy all the same – turning horny teen-boy awkwardness into pure Scottish charm.

-Brandon Ledet

Is It Just Me? (2010)

When I went on my writing retreat a few months back, I didn’t come straight home after my internet-free cabin sojourn. For what was supposed to be two nights but ended up being only one, I made my way to the outlying areas near San Marcos to a separate isolated location, and that place did have internet, and a Roku TV, which I had never encountered before. I found my way to the Tubi app and was shocked by the width and breadth of its LGBTQIA content, although while scrolling through the trailers that the app featured, I realized why: 70% of them were releases from either TLA Releasing or Breaking Glass*, which both had major runs in the post-Brokeback pre-Trump era of independent filmmaking, churning out gay flicks at a rate faster than Blumhouse can pump out installments of Into the Dark. Most of them … are bad. I imagine they’re also very cheap to license, especially if you’re looking to fill out a free streaming service. Releases from these distributors are rarely just bad movies, they’re bad art not in the sense that they’re bad at being art, but in the sense that it’s a true, pure, intense look into the soul of the writers and directors (in this genre/time period, they are often one and the same), poorly made. These films are inscribed by limitations on their quality in every way, from material to performance to equipment. Most YouTubers now have better hardware than a lot of TLA releases from that time, and it shows. Sometimes, however, they manage to break through and somehow manage to be better than the sum of their parts.

I didn’t end up watching any of those movies in the hills outside of San Marcos. I happened to be driving through (and having to kill time while also following strict COVID protocol) on the day when Texas State was having their graduation. I had hoped to set up somewhere on or along the riverwalk to get some more writing done or finish reading Alias Grace, but all of the picnic tables were covered in plastic wrap to discourage congregation. After walking around the park for a while, I drove around aimlessly, seeing lots of young graduates and their families (following less strict COVID protocols) and ending up on-campus accidentally, where people who now seem impossibly young to me were leaving their dorms and loading up their cars to go home for Christmas. In that cabin just a few short hours later, I couldn’t bring myself to watch dated, ugly movies from the time when I was that same age, a time that was such a short season ago but which was nonetheless a completely different world, one without marriage equality or queer intersectionality or that extra decade of distance from the AIDS crisis. But knowing that they were out there meant that, eventually, I would be drawn back to them, moth to flame.

I recently watched three such films chosen at random. As luck would have it, the first one was a Breaking Glass film and the second was a TLA release, with the third actually coming from Wolfe Releasing, which is cut from the same cloth but seems to have a … let’s say “classier” output. All three also contained go-go dancing/dancers prominently and extensively, which was not something I sought out as a thematic throughline, but that encapsulates this era in gay cinema better than the previous two paragraphs did, doesn’t it? (Not better than the footnote, though.) The first of these, from Breaking Glass, captures what I think of when I think about their other distributions: a lead actor aiming for deadpan and missing, landing in the realm of dull surprise; a gay twist on one of the nine basic well-worn romcom templates (in this case Cyrano de Bergerac); a cast consisting mostly of actors with only two other credits and no headshot on IMDb; and one older gay delivering withering barbs and alluding to youthfully sleeping with Tennessee Williams. You know, a tale as old as time.

Is it Just Me? opens with our hero protagonist waxing fauxlosophical in his Carrie Bradshaw-esque lifestyle article/voice over about wanting more out of life than sexual liberation, although he doesn’t phrase it that way. Meet Blaine (Nicholas Downs), who writes pseudonymously as the “Invisible Man” for USA ToGay, his pen name reflecting how he feels in the gay community of L.A. Part of what makes him feel invisible is that he shares his living space with super hunky Cameron (Adam Huss), a go-go dancer who’s forever hooking up with someone, and against whom Blaine compares himself and falls short. “Is it just me,” Blaine asks his readers, “or am I the only one in this town who’s interested in more than what’s behind a man’s zipper?” Blaine has a meet cute with handsome, guitar-playing Texan Xander (David Loren) at a local cafe, and the two coincidentally start chatting online shortly thereafter, then graduate to spending hours talking on the phone. Xander reveals that, improbably, he actually reads Blaine’s column and, even more impossibly, he likes it. When Xander shares his photo after the two get to know each other better virtually, Blaine is delighted by the serendipity of the situation, until he realizes that Cameron had left himself logged into the dating site when Blaine got online, so Xander thinks Blaine is Cameron. Whoops.

This is actually a cute premise, and I wish that I could say that the movie pulls it off, but it doesn’t quite pass muster. Downs’s credits list a lot of lead performances in short films and web series and bit roles in well-known properties (I feel like, if you’re reading this site, you know exactly what I mean when I say that he’s has the credit “Bellman” on NCIS: Los Angeles and a lot of credits in the exact same vein; you know what I’m talking about). The one that stood out to me most was a short entitled Orion Slave Girls Must Die!!!, obviously about Star Trek; I watched the trailer for that and he’s not giving the same flat performance in those clips as he is in Is it Just Me? In this, he delivers every line in an inflectionless monotone, and it seems to be a deliberate character choice, but—no disrespect to the actor—it doesn’t work. When a man in a bar flirtatiously asks Blaine what his sign is and he replies “Exit” and leaves, he doesn’t seem witty or sharp; he seems like a dick. Contributing to this is Blaine’s actions and attitudes regarding his desire for a monogamous, traditional relationship; that’s a perfectly fine goal and there’s nothing wrong with wanting that (I certainly do), but Blaine expresses his frustration with his lack of a solid relationship through slut-shaming his roommate and other queer folks who are still sowing their wild oats. Consider this exchange:

Antonio: “I totally wanna write for USA ToGay. I’m working on this sample column called ‘Circuit News.’ It’s important news for, you know, circuit people in the crowd.”
Blaine: “That’s a great idea. Another guide to where you can find cheap, empty, unfulfilled, drug-induced sex.”

Blaine: “That’s a great idea. Another guide to where you can find cheap, empty, unfulfilled, drug-induced sex.”

Blaine. Dude. Just keep that shit to yourself.

Gay romances of this era always have a lady best friend for the lead, and this one is no different. I honestly can’t tell if Michelle (Michelle Laurent) is intentionally comically toxic or just utterly superfluous. Her only role in the film is to give Blaine bad advice while they’re jogging. If it’s intentionally bad because she likes drama, that’s actually pretty funny, but if the script is simply defaulting to having her give bad advice because she’s not actually allowed to affect the course of the plot, that’s less funny. Her role as Blaine’s friend and confidant is duplicated in Cameron, who’s surprisingly helpful, thoughtful, and generously patient with Blaine’s nonsense, especially given that Blaine’s internal monologue regarding Cameron is dismissive and, frankly, mean. At one point, Michelle tells Blaine explicitly that “Cameron is [his] roommate; he’s not [his] friend,” but Cameron is a better friend to Blaine than (a) Michelle is or (b) Blaine deserves.

Blaine drafts a reluctant Cameron into pretending to be him, and vice versa, in order to meet Xander IRL for the first time. Cameron warns Blaine that this is doomed to failure, but Blaine is for some reason convinced that wacky sitcom hijinx will have a better outcome than just being honest about the mix-up, because this is a romcom and there wouldn’t be a plot if there wasn’t unnecessary farce. Cameron-as-Blaine does his level best to be friendly with Xander while gently pushing him towards Blaine-as-Cameron, but the miscommunication takes another twist when Blaine overhears Cameron-as-Blaine helping a vomiting-drunk Xander navigate their apartment’s bathroom in ambiguous, offscreen dialogue that mirrors the noises Cameron makes when he’s fucking. Now Blaine thinks that Cameron broke his trust too, and when Michelle hears about it she eats that shit up with a spoon because she’s messy.

Xander has his own sounding board in Ernie (single serving sci-fi vet Bruce Gray from Cube 2: Hypercube), an elderly gay man, long-widowed but scared to re-enter the dating scene. Ernie has a popcorn machine in his movie den and I covet it. He generally wanders into a scene to cut the dramatic tension, and every time he exits the screen it’s accompanied by a line about his dog shitting in the house. He delivers little nuggets of wisdom like “Listen: writers [like Blaine] when they’re alone, they’re prophetic; when they’re with people, they’re pathetic. They’re just too in their heads.” He’s really as superfluous as Michelle, but if we didn’t cut to them from time to time, the threadbare nature of this plot would be even more exposed.

Obviously, Xander eventually realizes that he’s been lied to (from the credits of a slasher movie in which Cameron played a camp counselor, no less) and confronts Blaine, feeling betrayed and angry. But then he decides to give it a chance anyway and writes a song for Blaine, Blaine (and I cannot stress this enough impossibly) gets a job offer from the L.A. Times as a columnist, and Ernie gains the courage to start dating again. Everyone lives happily ever after, I guess.

There are cute moments scattered throughout this film, but on the whole it’s desperately lacking in critical areas. Not every narrative needs to have a main character that we empathize with or even understand, as long as we can form some kind of emotional attachment with them, but Blaine is a character that defies any attempts at empathy by virtue of being a complete dick. I don’t want to blame Downs as an actor without seeing more of his work, but although Blaine’s bon mots seem like they would work really well on the page, as delivered here, it just doesn’t work. Loren’s Texan accent is inconsistent and distracting, but Xander is so likable (if naïve) in comparison to Blaine’s bitter, jaded little pill that it’s a relief when he’s on screen. The MVP here, however, is Huss, who not only never skips chest day, he turns up the charm to distract you from some of the film’s larger, more glaring issues.

Although this happened to be the first of this loose non-trilogy that I saw and thus in a very literal sense it was my first choice, in a larger sense, this wouldn’t be my first choice. It’s a prime example of the TLA brand when it comes to its politics, style, and structure, but with the least effective love story of the lot. Even when Blaine is supposed to be hitting it off with Xander (like discovering that they like the same obscure band), he feels more like a gatekeeper than a keeper because of his monotone delivery. I’ve seen worsea lot worsebut I still can’t recommend it.

*No one ever seems to talk about this, probably because no one cares but me, but these two completely eclipsed Ariztical Entertainment, didn’t they? Ariztical’s bread and butter were a sex comedy franchise that had pretty severe sequelitis and vanity projects like Ben and Arthur (edited, produced, written, directed, scored by, and starring Sam Mraovich), but I can’t remember the last time I saw that logo in front of anything. Their website still has a New Releases section that lists a movie that came out in January, but their homepage is also full of broken Quicktime plug-ins, so take from that what you will. The catalog page for Eating Out 3 has still-visible deadlinks to the film’s Blogger, Facebook, and MySpace pages, as well as a suspended Twitter account. A lot of their films are unsearchable on JustWatch, and as much as I’m interested in seeing their adaptation of Other Voices, Other Rooms, I can’t justify paying $18 for it, especially since it could end up being in a file format that won’t play on anything I own. All TLA had to do was release their own so-so sex comedy and Ariztical basically disappeared from the marketplace. At least Eating Out will always have longevity and legacy over Another Gay Movie with regards to sequels (Another Gay Sequel featured Perez Hilton as himself and was DOA). At least we’ll always have The Gay Bed and Breakfast of Terror.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #127 of The Swampflix Podcast: Music and Lyrics (2007) & A Romcom Grab Bag

Welcome to Episode #127 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, and Brandon discuss the 80s Nostalgia romcom Music & Lyrics (2007) and other gems in the romantic comedy genre.

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

– The Podcast Crew

Locked Down (2021)

Doug Liman’s COVID-themed, straight-to-HBO romcom Locked Down has seemingly hit a raw nerve for a lot of the pro critics who were assigned to cover it. What I found to be a low-key, innocuous charmer has been burdened with tons of handwringing about what Popular Art is allowed to be made & distributed during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The collective complaint appears to be that movies should transport their audience away from the time & place we occupy, not dwell in it; or at least that being stuck in our domestic spaces for the past year has emphasized a need for pop culture escapism. Locked Down‘s major faux pas against good taste is in its desire to be of-the-moment, compromising its value as fluff entertainment by reminding us just how miserable it is to be alive in our confined, isolated worlds right now. It has critics gritting their teeth in guarded anticipation of more COVID-themed pop media to come, especially since ongoing lockdown restrictions continue to limit what can be made & distributed in the year. I just personally fail to see how any of this is intrinsically bad.

A lot of my openness to COVID-themed pop media is an extension of my interest in, of all things, social media-themed horror films. I do love a gimmicky exploitation flick that fixates on the distinctly modern evils of momentary novelties like Skype calls (Unfriended), ride-share apps (Spree), Facebook timelines (Friend Request), Instagram clout (Ingrid Goes West), camgirl chatrooms (Cam), and so on. Not only are these technophobic thrillers entertaining for their traditional genre payoffs, but they’re also culturally valuable for daring to document the particular inanities of what our lives look & feel like online in a way that the more respectable corners of Mainstream Cinema wouldn’t dare. In a way, Locked Down (along with other COVID-era productions) is a natural evolution of that kind of strike-while-the-iron’s-hot exploitation filmmaking. It’s blatantly capitalizing on the idiosyncrasies of surviving the past year by using them to flavor an otherwise superficial, well-behaved genre film. The only difference is that it’s hanging those of-the-moment details off of genres people usually take more seriously than the technophobic horror: the break-up drama, the romcom, the heist film, etc. Whether or not that kind of cynical Life During COVID documentation violates a current cultural desire for Movie Magic escapism, it will only become more valuable the further we get away from this moment.

In fact, Locked Down is already a document of a bygone era. Its version of Life During COVID is more specific to the earliest lockdown orders of last March when the world at large finally started taking the virus seriously (i.e. when it nearly assassinated Tom Hanks). Anne Hathaway & Chiwetel Ejiofor star as a bitter Londoner couple who foolishly break up just when the stay-at-home orders hit the city, confining their romantic meltdown to a single (fabulously stylish) house they’re pressured not to leave. Their isolation from the outside world and increased “alone” time triggers an avalanche of neurotic second-guessings of their life philosophies & self-mythologies. They not only reassess their relationship, but also the overall trajectory of their life together, their individual professional careers, and the world at large. Meanwhile, early-pandemic observations about empty city streets, supermarket mask etiquette, at-home breadmaking, laggy Zoom calls (a convenient excuse for Celebrity Cameos), and the introduction of pajama bottoms to “office” wear anchor those alone-time reassessments to a very specific, instantly recognizable moment in recent history. All of this anti-romantic back & forth unfolds like a lightly bitter stage play (thanks mostly to the limited setting and the screenwriting contribution from Locke-director Steven Knight) until seemingly insignificant details accumulate to present an absurd opportunity to the struggling couple: they could easily pull off a minimal-effort diamond heist. Even just the suggestion of that risky transgression is enough to reignite their lost excitement for life & each other. The major conflict of the heist is not in its planning but in the decision of whether or not to go through with it at all.

In a word, Locked Down is cute. Like with the last time Anne Hathaway starred in a frothy heist comedy (Ocean’s 8), its only major sin is that it’s decent enough but Soderbergh could’ve done something phenomenal with the same cast & resources. Its major selling point—whether or not anyone knows it yet—is that it’ll be a great fluffy time capsule for people who were too snooty or squeamish to watch last year’s Host. The promotional materials for Locked Down have claimed that it’s “one of the first and most ambitious films to be conceived and shot during the pandemic”. I know that’s bullshit for two glaring reasons: 1. Critics who are professionally assigned to watch & review pop media are apparently already sick of grappling with COVID-era cinema, indicating that it’s far from a novelty at this point. 2. The found-footage Zoom meeting horror flick Host was conceived, shot, and released last summer, when many of Locked Down‘s more zeitgiesty observations would’ve still felt fresh. Host was also way more ambitious in its genre payoffs & budget-defying stunts, whereas Locked Down is mostly just handsome celebrities exchanging cutesy monologues in a few limited locales. Even its central diamond “heist” is mostly a series of conversations. The only difference is that Host (despite being the far superior work) happens to belong to a genre that most audiences don’t take seriously as Art, whereas Locked Down echoes more widely familiar moods & rhythms of Mainstream Filmmaking, which has largely been halted for the past 10 months. Despite the cries of its COVID-era commentary being Too Soon, Too Crass, or Too Much, I think there’s immense cultural value to pop media like this directly grappling with the real-world circumstances that are limiting its scope by effectively documenting them for cultural posterity. It’s time-capsule exploitation filmmaking at its sweetest & most harmless, so I’m a little baffled as to why it’s become such a critical scapegoat.

-Brandon Ledet