Quick Takes: Spotlight Films at #NOFF2021

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

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

C’mon C’mon

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

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

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

Red Rocket

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

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

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

Memoria

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Money, Sex, Love, Christmas, Blood, and Donuts

The Gen-X vampire slacker drama Blood & Donuts, our current Movie of the Month, carries a lot of low-key hangout energy for a movie about a bloodsucking immortal ghoul. The film’s central vampire, Boya, is reluctant about his role as an eternal seducer & killer, appearing to be genuinely pained by the danger he poses to the vulnerable humans around him. He attempts to limit his sanguine footprint by feeding off street rats and avoiding eye contact with potential romantic partners, until the urge overpowers him or until his vampirism proves useful in saving the day for his mortal friends. One of the ways this small-budget Canuxploitation horror signals this low-key, anti-violence hangout ethos is by setting its story in a 24-hour donut shop, where Boya can hang out in wholesome solidarity with other nocturnal weirdos without frequenting the orgiastic goth nightclubs more typical to vampire cinema. That donut shop is a quirky choice that maybe suggests a livelier horror comedy than Blood & Donuts cares to deliver, but it still helps distinguish the otherwise tempered film as a singular novelty (which can only be a boon in the crowded field of vampire media).

While vampire movies are a dime a dozen, donut shop movies are more of a niche rarity. There are certainly iconic donut shops to be found scattered around pop culture –Big Donut in Steven Universe, Miss Donuts in Boogie Nights, Stan Mikita’s Donuts in Wayne’s World, Krispy Kreme in Power Rangers, etc. However, those settings are isolated diversions rather than serving as a central location like the one in Blood & Donuts. The only other significant feature film I can think of with a plot that revolves so closely around a donut shop is Sean Baker’s 2015 Los Angeles Christmas-chaos piece Tangerine, which is anchored to a real-life LA donut shop called Donut Time. The opening credits of Tangerine scroll over a yellow enamel table at Donut Time, scratched with the names of bored vandals who have visited over the years. The movie serves as a kind of whirlwind feet-on-the-ground tour of a very niche corner of LA, but it’s anchored to Donut Time as a significant landmark to establish a sense of order amidst that chaos. It opens there with its two stars (Mya Taylor & Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) splitting a single donut because they’re perilously cash-strapped. It also climaxes there in a classic Greek stage drama confrontation between all the film’s major players in a single, donut-decorated location that explodes the various hustles & schemes they’ve been struggling to keep under control throughout. Both Blood & Donuts and Tangerine wander off from their donut shops to explore the city outside (Toronto & Los Angeles, respectively), but their shared novelty locale provides the structure that allows for that indulgence

Like how Boya (Gordon Currie) awakens from a decades-long slumber at the start of Blood & Donuts, the similarly dormant Sindee (Rodriguez) emerges from prison at the start of Tangerine out of the loop on what’s been happening in her local trans sex worker microcosm since she’s been away. Over the opening shared donut, she learns from her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) that her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her while she was locked up, so she bursts out of Donut Time into the Los Angeles sunshine to enact her revenge on all parties involved. Obviously, this flood of Los Angeles sunlight distinguishes Tangerine from the late-night vampire drama of Blood & Donuts (as well as distinguishing Baker’s film as a kind of novelty within its own Christmas movie genre). Otherwise, though, the two films have a similar way of collecting oddball characters in low-income-level gathering spots—like, for instance, donut shops. Tangerine speeds through a blur of 7/11s, laundromats, dive bars, by-the-hour motels, and car washes until it finds its way back to its Donut Time starting point. It finds an unexpected symmetry within the low-rent late-night locales of Blood & Donuts’s own tour of Toronto, something that’s most readily recognizable in the films’ respective visions of impossibly filthy motel rooms. Or maybe it’s most recognizable in how David Cronenberg’s mobster runs his crime ring out of a bowling alley, while the pimp antagonist of Tangerine runs his own out of a donut shop.

You’d think that a nocturnal vampire comedy from the 90s and a sunlit 2010s trans sex worker drama would have very little in common, especially since the former is so lackadaisical and the latter is commanded by high-energy chaos. Their shared donut shops locales and commitment to exploring the character quirks of the weirdos who frequent them bridge that gap with gusto. The word “donut” may not appear in Tangerine’s title the way it does with its Gen-X predecessor, but the film is just as committed to accentuating the novelty of its central location. Despite being far too young to reasonably remember the TV commercial she’s referencing, Sindee announces, “Time to make the donuts, bitch!” to her romantic rival as they approach the climactic showdown. She also jokingly asks the Donut Time counter girl, “Do you have watermelon flavor?,” an echo of Blood & Donuts’s own bizarre inclusion of a kiwi-flavored donut. As a pair, the two films seem to be serving as two pillars of a sparsely populated Donut Movie subgenre. The longer you scrutinize how they use the novelty of that locale the more they appear to have in common despite their drastically different surface details.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the Gen-X Canuxploitation vampire drama Blood & Donuts (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

The Florida Project (2017)

Youth is the key ingredient to the court jester defiance of D.I.Y. punk as a culture & as a philosophy. There’s a defiant, punk as fuck spirit that drives Sean Baker’s breakout feature Tangerine in a way that made it an easy pick for one of my favorite films of 2015 and one of the 2010s releases I’d most want to watch with the unintentional godfather of youthful punk defiance, John Waters (Wetlands would be up there as well). Baker distills that youthful, punk defiance even further in his follow-up to that iPhone-shot whirlwind of sex workers on the war path by looking to even younger, more defiant protagonists: actual children. The Florida Project is already facing early waves of backlash for its cultural sins as poverty porn (and it’s honestly a miracle that Tangerine largely escaped the same). These accusations are understandable given the film’s children-in-peril setting in the extended-stay slum motels just outside the Disney World amusement parks in Florida, but they presume that the film’s sole goal is to merely report that these impoverished communities exist just outside the tourist industry playgrounds they surround. The Florida Project is not the miserable, poverty-exploiting drama that reading frames it to be. Rather, it captures the defiant punk spirit that laughs in the face of all authority & life obstacles among the children who run wild in those insular, run-down motel communities. The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults.

Willem Dafoe (in Willem Dafriend mode here) stars as the only recognizable face in a crowd of “nonprofessional” actors (give or take a Macon Blair or a Caleb Landy Jones), mostly children & young women. His exasperated motel manager, Bobby, is a reluctant caretaker of the single mother families that rent his rooms by the week. He attempts to maintain a professional emotional distance from these near-homeless families, whom he occasionally has to police & evict, but fails miserably due to direct contact & a soft heart. Like all adults & authority figures, however, Bobby is only a periphery presence to be mocked & subverted by the punk-as-fuck little rascals that play throughout the purple pastel stucco buildings that cater to Disney World tourist runoff. Their ring leader is our POV character, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a dangerously sharp child who runs wild around the motel as if it were a playground, with the approval of her sex worker mother. Instead of solemnly gawking at her small family’s limited means, The Florida Project celebrates the minor successes Moonee pulls off in the tropical Florida heat: scheming tourists out of ice cream money, crashing fancier hotels’ breakfast buffets, initiating newcomer kids into the joys of smashing the fragile semblance of routine normality authority figures like Bobby are tasked to maintain, spitting on cars. It’s no mistake that the opening credits are set to the disco hit “Celebration,” since the entire intent of the film is to celebrate good times, even in the face of the harsher realities at the story’s fringes. Although Moonee & her cronies are financially locked out of The Happiest Place on Earth, they defiantly turn the Magic Castle & Futureland Inn knockoffs they are allowed to occupy into a punk rock amusement park of its own.

Many reviewers are discussing The Florida Project in the same modern American poverty documentation terms used to describe last year’s (much less jubilant) American Honey. I believe the film’s vibe is much more in line with the young court jester punks of titles like We Are the Best!, Daisies, Female Trouble, etc. There’s certainly a detectable quality of documentation of hyper-specific “at risk” Floridians who live at the tourism industry’s fringes, following them with a detailed eye as they pass theme park-style gift shops & listen to trap music on smartphone speakers. Baker’s filmmaking style is much less kinetic & haphazard here than it was in the iPhone-shot sugar rush of Tangerine, but the rich 35mm colors & fixed camera precision of The Florida Project only stabilizes & beautifies the world of its children-in-peril punks enough to emphasize their exuberance & imagination. The pure, dangerous joy these kids find in the palm tree-lined parking lots of an urban Florida wasteland is infectiously genuine. The movie doesn’t ask for your pity, but rather a hearty cry of “Up the punks!” and recognition that “All Cops Are Bastards,” even well-meaning motel managers. The court jester youthfulness of punk requires you to take no authority or life challenge too seriously (even though situations are often physically & emotionally dangerous here) and the little kids who run free in The Florida Project’s miniature domain laugh in the face of it all without caution and without apology.

-Brandon Ledet

Tangerine (2015)

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Not many Christmas films dare to take you down the nightmarish, sun-soaked rabbit hole of Los Angeles sex trade, but then again not many films behave like Tangerine at all. Set on a particularly busy, but far from well-behaved Christmas Eve, Tangerine is overflowing with the visual eccentricity & moral ambiguity you’d expect from an indie director making his breakout film on a handful of iPhone 5s (he has a name & it’s Sean Baker). However, what’s so great about the film is not necessarily the behind-the-camera showiness (although that stuff’s fun too). It’s the verisimilitude of its non-actress leads being let loose to run wild across the Los Angeles cityscape, dragging the audience by the hair through a violent, but hilarious whirlwind of drug abuse, sex trade, and tender exchanges of friendship & love in a world that’s been relentlessly unkind. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the skeezy fun of the film’s cracksmoke-fueled bathroom primping & puke-drenched cab rides that when the film slows down long enough to remind you of the cruel world its protagonists inhabit (a rare recess, that) the emotional toll is all the more affecting.

Our guides to this very specific version of a L.A.’s underbelly are a pair of trans sex workers named Alexandra & Sin-Dee. Alexandra is the audience surrogate. An aspiring singer with no interest in the intense flood of drama that drives the film, Alexandra is cool, collected, and often surprisingly wise, serving almost as a one-woman Greek chorus who’s there to comment on the goings on & offer support to her friend when needed. Sin-Dee, on the other hand, is the living personification of drama. Released from a one-month prison stay on Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee immediately launches into a revenge plot to destroy the woman she’s told her lover/former-pimp Chester has been cheating on her with while she was locked up. Once she finds the cisgender sex worker in question, Sin-Dee physically drags & beats on the unsuspecting adulteress until she can stage her intentionally climactic showdown at the film’s central meeting place, Donut Time. Joining them for the shouting match in the donut shop is Razmik, an Armenian cab driver/gentle john who lives at the fringes of their lives, but opens a gateway for the audience into another side of L.A. that Alexandra & Sin-Dee have no access to.

Even with the Donut Time blowup, the plot is unlikely to be what sticks in the viewer’s memory. Tangerine is a film most likely to be remembered for the story of its inexpensive production. For a feature filmed entirely on iPhones, it has a nice visual poetry to it, drawing an impressive potency out of images like graffiti murals, Christmas lights, automated car washes and, of course, donuts. Much like with this year’s pair of Patrick Brice films, Creep & The Overnight, Tangerine is an inspiring reminder of how much a determined filmmaker can accomplish with even the smallest pool of resources (all three films were produced by the Duplass Brothers, by the way).

The true-to-life (and riotously funny) performances from actresses Mya Taylor (Alexandra) & Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee) are also likely to eat up much of the conversation surrounding the film, and deservedly so. Taylor & Rodriguez are vibrant talents with a natural, but wildly mischievous authenticity to them that’s rarely seen outside of John Waters’ films. I don’t say that lightly. John Waters is my favorite living artist. If there’s one movie I’d love to talk to him about at this very moment it would be Tangerine & all the credit for that impulse goes to Taylor & Rodriguez. The fact that they’re debuting in such a wickedly transgressive & visually impressive revenge comedy is almost secondary. Almost.

-Brandon Ledet