Swampflix’s Top Films of 2015

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1. It Follows – The only movie to make three of our lists is a throwback to 80s horror classics from past greats like John Carpenter. Featuring a killer soundtrack, the highest of high-concept premises, and a fascinating visual aesthetic, It Follows is more creepy than it is frightening, but easily stands as the best horror film of the year, if not the best film overall.

2. Crimson Peak – A love letter to the Gothic Horror genre, Guillermo del Toro’s latest is a traditional ghost story loaded with the genre’s classic tropes of isolation, bloody histories, unnatural relationships, menacing architecture, Victorians, obvious symbolism, endangered virgins, and things that gibber and chitter in the night. Crimson Peak is ripe with heavy-handed visual metaphor and beautiful overwrought acting to match.

3. Magic Mike XXL – An over-the-top road trip comedy where a gaggle of male strippers act like an over-aged boy band: horny, sassy, too-old-for-this-shit, and high on drugs. One of the most unashamedly fun movie-going experiences of the year, not to mention the lagniappe of its intense cinematography. There aren’t many situations in which the sequel is better than the original, but we’re confident this one surpasses its deeply-somber predecessor. It’s pure genius!

4. Tangerine – This flick, which was filmed with an iPhone 5S, has been the talk of the town for months, and for a very good reason. Tangerine is a raucously fun, poorly behaved whirlwind of an adventure through Los Angeles’ cab rides & sex trade. It’s got a surprisingly intense cinematic eye & despite leaning hard towards over-the-top excess there’s a very touching story at its heart about the value of friendship & makeshift family.

5. Queen of Earth –  Two lifelong friends inflict terrible manipulation and emotional violence upon each other in a tense story that spans two separate summer getaways, where past secrets, petty jealousies, and personal vendettas come to light while one of the women slowly  becomes more deranged. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what does & doesn’t transpire in Queen of Earth, but the seething hatred mounting between its two leads is bound to bore a hole into your memory no matter where you land on its plot.

6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Easily the most over-complained about movie in 2015. The Force Awakens a genuinely fun, intricately detailed return to form for a franchise that hasn’t been nearly this satisfying since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. If you need insight into just how much the movie bends over backwards to please its audience, just take a look at the beyond-adorable BB-8. What a little cutie.

7. Goodnight Mommy – There’s a major twist at the core of Goodnight Mommy that most discerning folks will be able to catch onto within minutes of the film beginning, but that withheld reveal in no way cheapens the ugly brutality of its horror imagery or the delicate beauty of its art film surreality. Goodnight Mommy has been derided by its detractors as “torture porn”, but its intense moments of horror are actually quite well shot and understated in their simplicity. Don’t be fooled by reviews that refer to this as a terrible movie, or an exploitative one; it’s a gorgeous film with style to spare.

8. Turbo Kid  – A cartoonish throwback to an ultraviolent kind of 1980s futurism that probably never even existed. Turbo Kid is a smorgasbord of eccentric ideas smashed together into one glorious and beautiful assault on the senses. Moreover, each of those ideas is realized in bloody practical effects magic. It’s difficult to believe that Turbo Kid didn’t previously exist as a video game or a comic book, given the weird specificity of its world & characters. It’s a deliriously fun, surprisingly violent practical effects showcase probably best described as the cinematic equivalent of eating an entire bag of Pop Rocks at once.

9. Krampus – Director Michel Dougherty’s first film, Trick ‘r Treat, was a comedic horror anthology devoutly faithful to the traditions of Halloween. His follow-up, Krampus,  thankfully kept the October vibes rolling into December traditions in a time where so many people do it the other way around, celebrating Christmas before Halloween even gets rolling, the heathens. All hail Krampus, a soul-stealing demon who acts as “St. Nicholas’ shadow”,  for bucking the trend. A new cult classic has been born!

10. The Final Girls – Although its main goal is undoubtedly a goofy, highly-stylized comedy, this film also reaches for eerie, otherworldly horror in its central conceit, an unlikely of mix ideas from Scream & The Last Action Hero. As a send­up of campsite slashers like Friday the 13th & Sleepaway Camp that focuses almost entirely on the relationships between female friends as well as a young woman & the woman who is not quite her mother, The Final Girls is a meta horror comedy well-deserving of your attention.

Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Erin’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

Boomer’s Top Films of 2015

After much delay, here is my list of my ten favorite films of 2015. As is typical for me, it is longer than necessary and overly self­-concerned. Only two are wholly original, while six rely heavily on nostalgia and two arguably do. Before we get to it, first, the films that would probably be on this list had I seen them as planned, but I didn’t: Listen to Me, Marlon; Mommy; What We Are in the Dark; Mad Max: Fury Road; Felt; Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. Other films that I enjoyed this year but that didn’t make it onto this list were Trainwreck, Ant-­Man, and, obviously, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which should be on this list, but I saw it too late to count it here).

10. Jupiter Ascending – I know that everyone on earth hated this movie, except for a tiny band of rebels that has taken up hiding in small corners of the internet, making .gifs under an embargo from the rest of the web. Is the plot silly? Yes. Is Mila Kunis the wrong actress for this role? Oh my, yes. But is it the worst movie of the year? Not by a long shot. Jupiter Ascending, by simply existing, posits that there is still an audience in the world that is interested in brand new intellectual property, that there is still room in the world for movies that don’t require brand name recognition to turn a profit. As it turns out, the Wachowski Siblings seem to have been incorrect in their assumption sabout how much leeway audiences are willing to give them, or it may be that the world simply isn’t ready for a movie that states bees are capable of recognizing royalty and that life on earth was seeded for the sole purpose of eventually harvesting all organic existence to create eternal life goo. Regardless, I’ve seen virtually nothing but negative criticism about this movie and its plot holes (which I’m not here to apologize for or deny the existence of), but how much can you really hate a movie that features Channing Tatum flying around on hover skates and an extended Terry Gilliam homage sequence? I can’t bring myself to hate it at all, which is more than I could say for other films this year (*cough* Jurassic World *cough*).

9. Kingsman: The Secret Service – I first saw an “extended preview” for this movie during an airing of American Horror Story’s fourth season, and I wasn’t impressed or intrigued in the slightest. I think the problem was that the preview in question chose to focus on the action-­oriented nature of the film, neglecting to highlight that this film wasn’t simply an action movie clone but a love letter to Roger Moore’s time as James Bond (meaning that this is the first, but far from last, film on this list that traded on nostalgia for my attention). From the disfigured henchman whose physique is enhanced with deadly weapons, to the world-­takeover plans of the eccentric villain, to the huge Blofeld-­esque base hidden deep within a mountain, this movie was a delightful revisitation of spy films of yesteryear. By deconstructing the idea of the gentleman assassin by having protagonist Eggs face classist discrimination within the ranks of the secret organization by which he has been recruited and gleefully combining the camp of Moore’s Bond with the brutality of a Bourne film, Kingsman stood out as an early contender for best action movie of the year, even if it did get dumped into theatres at a bad time of year.

8. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story – This movie made me weep openly at several points throughout the film. Maybe it’s because I have a huge soft spot in my heart for all things related to the Jim Henson workshop and a particular fondness both for Sesame Street in general and Big Bird in particular (several children in this movie are seen carrying the same plush replication of the character as the one I had as a child, purchased for me by my mother when we went to see Sesame Street on Ice, one of my earliest memories). More likely, however, it’s because this is a deeply sentimental documentary, one that is lovingly crafted in a way that I would be more critical of if the subject material was more contentious. But what’s controversial about Big Bird? Nothing that I can think of. Within the structure of the contemporary documentary, there is a pattern: exposition about the subject, an exploration of the subject in its heyday, the appearance of some kind of problem that affected the subject, and projections about the potential future of the subject. Normally, that third part revolves around something controversial or contentious: a sudden death on the set of a film project, the exposure of something criminal or unethical about an individual, etc. Here, however, the dark turning point is the sudden but natural death of Jim Henson, which affected Spinney but did not destroy or devalue him. Everyone interviewed in this doc has nothing but kind things to say about Spinney and his wife, and it’s nice to see such an overwhelmingly positive doc that does not shy away from the darker elements of his life, like his first marriage and the paternal abuse he endured as a child. In the wake of the controversy surrounding the accusations made against Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash in recent years (accusations that were thrown out in court, it should be noted), it touches the heart to know that some heroes don’t have to fall in the public eye; some childhood icons can still be idolized.

7. Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh Ich seh) – In my review of this film, I expressed criticism of the directors’ choices, especially as they pertain to the foreshadowing of film’s eleventh hour revelations. However, I also noted that this was a gorgeous movie with style to spare. The tension between the twins and the woman who may be their mother or a bandaged impostor builds in an exponential but organic way. Goodnight Mommy has been derided by its detractors as “torture porn,” referring to the way that the twins ultimately turn the tables on the woman whose increasingly cruel and incomprehensible changes in behavior make them question her identity, but those moments of horror are actually quite well shot and understated in their simplicity. Don’t be fooled by reviews that refer to this as a terrible movie, or an exploitative one; it’s quite good, it just could have worked as a  master class in how to direct a contemporary thriller had the directors had a little more self control with regards to the foreshadowing and kept it as subtle as the horror that permeates much of the rest of the film.

6. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau – I expressed most of my thoughts about this documentary in my review of it, so I recommend reading that for a clearer picture of why I enjoyed it so much. Still, I’ll reiterate that the film, which explores all the ways that fate conspired to hand young indie director Richard Stanley the opportunity to create his lifelong pet project and then cruelly rip his dream from his hands through no real fault of his own, is definitely worth a watch, for artists and non-­artists alike. Stanley was standing on the cusp of a potentially great career, but hurricanes, stars’ personal tragedies, big egos, and Hollywood backroom dealing so thoroughly broke his spirit that he eventually spent months going native in Australia in order to escape from the artistic and personal trauma of it all, only for the production to find him again. A recounting of one of the most troubled productions in film history, this was definitely one of the best films of the year.

5. It Follows – “Aesthetic” has become a Tumblr buzzword of late, memetically taking on a life of its own to the point where simply posting the word under a photo of virtually anything is a joke in and of itself. I’m not some old bastard living up on a hill and complaining about this, but it has dulled the word’s meaning to the point that we are approaching a need for a new word to represent that which the word used to mean­­ in much the same way “epic” can be applied to anything from a nation-­building generation-­spanning narrative to Taco Bell meat wrapped in a giant Dorito now. While the word still means something, let’s talk about It Follows, 2015’s premiere indie horror movie that far succeeded expectations. Starring Maika Monroe (who was presumably created in a laboratory by scientists who couldn’t choose between replicating Brie Larson or Georgina Haig), David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore film is planted squarely in the aesthetics of 1988 in a way that elicits a warmness in me and takes me by surprise. I don’t necessarily think that It Follows is the best horror film in recent memory, although it is arguably the best of 2015 despite being more creepy than frightening; I simply find the tension of it to be less fascinating than its visual choices. It calls to mind other 80s­-appropriating vehicles that rely on nostalgia, but succeeds and captures more clearly that era than most despite being set in the present (or very near future): the kids watch nothing but old cartoons and B&W B­-movies on a television set with knobs (sitting atop an older console TV), they play Old Maid with cards from the 1970s, modern cars are seen only in the deep background, and, most tellingly, pornography exists only as magazines that look like they fell through a portal in time from 1978 (neighborhood boys spy on a teen girl in a bathing suit, as if any child with the internet could be so “innocent”). It’s like a product that falls just shy of being tailor­-made for me, right down to posters that would look great on the cover of a VHS box.

4. Cop Car – Saying that this film plays on nostalgia is a bit of a cheat, as it doesn’t make any direct comparisons to films of the past in the way that, say, Kingsman or It Follows does. However, in my review of the film, I mentioned that it seems directly inspired by the dark perspectives of the Coen Brothers, especially Fargo. Cop Car plays out most like that film in terms of its mostly cynical plot focusing on innocence lost because of poorly timed discoveries and seemingly harmless curiosity. There’s also a real attention to emotional honesty and investment that lend the film a verisimilitude that serves to heighten the emotional investment it solicits. I said more in my review of the film, so check that out for more.

3. Turbo Kid – Perhaps more than any other film on this list (with the possible exception of the following entry), Turbo Kid was a smorgasbord of eighties ideas smashed together into one glorious and beautiful assault on the senses. Moreover, each of those ideas is realized in bloody practical effect magic. The plot relies on a huge  narrative convenience, but it’s so much fun that it’s worth going along with.

2. The Final Girls – The nostalgia bait is particularly strong for me with this film, as it trades not only on my fondness for the slasher genre but also on my fondness  for my old hometown: Baton Rouge, here standing in for L.A. (I think). The Frost­Top shows up in this film, as does the Varsity Theatre, a building that I walked past every day for nearly a decade and which plays an important role as the location where the main “real world” characters get Last Action Hero’d into the film­-within-­the-­film Camp Bloodbath. There’s no lead-up to the moment where the crossover happens, and the fact that the film expects us to forget about the fact that Our Heroes escaped into the film while fleeing a horrible fire that likely killed dozens of others (as well as the presence of some truly terrible CGI) does some damage to the film’s credibility. Overall, however, as a send­up of Friday the 13th (et al) that focuses almost entirely on the relationships between female friends as well as a young woman and the woman who is not quite her mother, The Final Girls is well deserving of attention.

1. Queen of Earth – This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive and ultimately isn’t intended to be in ascending order of enjoyment or objective value, except in the case of this film, which I found to be, within the limited number of new films that I saw this year, the best of the bunch. I detailed all the things I loved in my review, but I’ll briefly recapitulate here: two lifelong friends visit terrible manipulation and emotional violence upon each other in a tense story that spans two separate summer getaways, where past secrets, petty jealousies, and personal vendettas come to light while one of the woman slowly  becomes more deranged. This was my favorite movie of the year, and its 1970s aesthetic makes it work all the better. Check it out!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Brandon’s Top Films of 2015

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1. The Duke of BurgundyPossibly the least commercial movie about a lesbian couple in a BDSM relationship possible. Equal parts an intentionally-obfuscated art film & a tender drama about negotiating how to balance romantic & sexual needs in a healthy relationship, The Duke of Burgundy isn’t for everyone, but it is the most beautifully-shot film of the year and a surprisingly poignant portrait of a timeless romance. If you have the patience for its languid pacing & reliance on repetition, the rewards are rich & plentiful.

2. What We Do in the Shadows In a year when a surprisingly limited number of American comedies hit the mark, this gem from New Zealand geniuses Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi was an easy pick for best comedy of the year, if not the decade. You’d think that a mockumentary about vampire roommates in modern times would be the last breath of a dying genre, but What We Do in the Shadows is readily-available proof that the stake hasn’t been driven into its heart quite yet. This is a hilarious film that only improves upon repeat viewings, with a wealth of quotes waiting to make their way into your daily vocabulary. Now leave me to do my dark bidding on the Internet.

3. Ex Machina – Just really solid, well-constructed sci-fi. I can’t think of a film from this year that got a bigger effect out of so few, subtle moving parts. A lot of what immediately stands out about Ex Machina is the incredible talent of its three lead actors, but the film also has an intense, well-curated visual language to it that can make your blood run ice cold with the most minimal of efforts.

4. Tangerine The movie from 2015 I’d most like to watch/discuss with (the greatest human being walking the Earth) John Waters. Tangerine is a raucously fun, poorly behaved whirlwind of an adventure through Los Angeles’ cab rides & sex trade. For a movie shot entirely on iPhones it’s got a surprisingly intense cinematic eye & despite leaning hard towards over-the-top excess there’s a very touching story at its heart about the value of friendship & makeshift family.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road – Probably the most intensely weird & go-for-broke action film of the past decade. George Miller may be in his 70s, but this is the work of a youthful spirit grinding the gas peddle hard to the floor, hands off the steering wheel. In a time where CGI is casting an insufferable blandness across most action properties, Fury Road is a practical effects masterwork that feels like a breath of fresh air, despite the chokehold it takes on your senses.

6. Magic Mike XXL – The first Magic Mike film is a somber, reflective drama that just happens to be centered on a gaggle of male strippers. XXL, on the other hand, is an over-the-top road trip comedy where said strippers act like an over-aged boy band: horny, sassy, and high on drugs. One of the most unashamedly fun movie-going experiences of the year, not to mention the lagniappe of its intense cinematography.

7. The Diary of a Teenage Girl – An incredibly uncomfortable coming-of-age drama about a young girl in 1970s San Fransisco exploring her sexuality in wildly dangerous ways. Its comic book art visual palette works like a major asset instead of a gimmick & relative newcomer Bel Powley delivers what might be the best lead performance of the year.

8. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Interstellar was the most hilariously over-complained about movie of 2014. The Force Awakens easily earned that distinction in 2015. It’s a genuinely fun, intricately detailed return to form for a franchise that hasn’t been nearly this satisfying since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. If you need insight into just how much the movie bends over backwards to please its audience, just take a look at the beyond-adorable BB-8. What a little cutie.

9. Straight Outta Compton – As far as its historical accuracy as an N.W.A. biopic goes, Straight Outta Compton might be shooting about 20%. All of its self-congratulating indulgence aside, it’s a 100% awesome (or “dope”, if you will) late-80s/early-90s pastiche with a killer soundtrack and some stunning visual work from regular Aronofsky-collaborator Matthew Libatique.

10. Felt – A hazy, disconnected portrait of a visual artist coping with a past, vaguely-defined (but likely sexual) trauma. Felt is an unforgivingly intense gaze into a super-specific form of art therapy, even before its meandering pace crashes in a grandly violent display at the film’s conclusion.

11. White God – As most revenge movies tend to go, the endless parade of abuse in this film’s early storylines are not nearly as fun or as easy to watch as it is when shit hits the fan. It just so happens that in this case the revenge is carried about by a massive herd of stray dogs that have a very good list of reasons to tear down an entire city. It’s an incredible, one-of-a-kind spectacle.

12. Appropriate Behavior – Writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan brings an impressive amount of authenticity to a genre that’s been a little too popular to feel truly distinct lately: the drama-comedy about the 20-something New York City woman who just can’t seem to figure her shit out. This a dark, but hilariously raunchy work & for my money its far more satisfying than its most (financially) successful comparison point from the same year – Trainwreck.

13. Spring – Part of what makes Spring so fun is that it’s such a difficult film to pin down. Is it a tender romance drama or a modern version of a natural horror? What’s more important: its central doomed-to-be-seasonal romance or the horrific nature of its shape-shifting sci-fi beast? Let’s just split the difference & call it the most interesting answer to Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset series to date.

14. It Follows – In a lot of ways it feels like John Carpenter’s entire aesthetic is making a (much deserved) cultural comeback. Weirdo action films like The Guest & Drive have at least incorporated his distinct soundtrack work into their highly-stylized worlds, but It Follows takes the homage a step further and constructs more or less what a modern John Carpenter horror would look and sound like. It isn’t as successful as Carpenter’s masterworks like Halloween or The Thing, but its haunting sexually-transmitted-curse premise & killer synth soundtrack make for some remarkably weird & memorable moments.

15. Driving While BlackPresented on the surface as a laid back stoner comedy, this film actually packs a surprisingly powerful (and unfortunately timely) political punch in its depiction of “the extra layer of bullshit on top of regular life” that black people have to face daily in modern America. Detailing the public harassment & personal violation of being constantly persecuted by the police on the receiving end of racial profiling, Driving While Black walks an impressive tightrope of feeling like an important movie, but never losing track of being consistently funny.

16. Creep/The Overnight – Writer/director Patrick Brice just had a pretty incredible year. His first two feature films, Creep & The Overnight, earned wide distribution withing months of one another and both stood as darkly funny, often hilarious reminders of how much of an impact a director can pull from a great script, a limited set, and just a handful of actors. Although one is a found footage horror (Creep) and the other is a twisted play on the traditional sex farce (The Overnight) they pair nicely in their lean towards minimalism & in their collective declaration of Brice as a talent to watch.

17. Queen of EarthThe two minute trailer for Queen of Earth might be the best short film of the year, but the movie itself is a lot more delicate & detached than the psychological horror that the ad promises. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what transpires in this film (I personally see it as a vicious, yet subtle tale of revenge through drawn out emotional torture), but the seething hatred mounting between its two leads is bound to bore a hole into your memory no matter where you land on its plot.

18. Predestination – Predestination is neither a wholly unique work nor an exercise in good taste. It is, however, an example of the virtue of sincere, traditional acting & storytelling and how those elements can elevate ludicrous material into something special. Although its major twists & reveals may occasionally be telegraphed, it’s fascinating to watch the film reach those conclusions in its own time and on its own terms. There’s a sci-fi tradition to its sincere, pulpy sense of tonal balance, but it’s a vintage tradition that’s unconcerned with the new territory that sci-fi cinema’s been exploring in recent years.

19. Goodnight Mommy – There’s a major twist at the core of Goodnight Mommy that most discerning folks will be able to catch onto within minutes of the film beginning, but that withheld reveal in no way cheapens the ugly brutality of its horror imagery or the delicate beauty of its art film surreality. Goodnight Mommy is not looking to outsmart you with its plot, but rather to tie you down & torture you with its relentless horror film intensity. As a bonus, it also functions like cinematic birth control the same way that great works like The Bad Seed, The Babadook, and We Need to Talk About Kevin have in the past. It’s a very specific genre that I’m always a sucker for.

20. Mistress America Noah Baumbach’s latest pulls an incredible trick of not only exposing the harrowing emptiness behind a know-it-all, creative-spirit Millenial’s Everything Is Perfect & So Am I facade, but also making you feel sort of bad for her when the illusion crumbles. Like the film’s protagonist who looks up to this human anomaly, we want to believe that someone so free & so in tune with The Ways of the Universe could actually exist, but by the end of the film you’re left with the feeling that the very idea of someone living that impossible lie on a daily basis is not only far from admirable, it’s also deeply sad.

H.M. Girlhood – Despite what you might expect from a film about roving packs of French girl gangs, Girlhood is far from an on-the-nose melodrama with explicit messages about the powder keg of poverty & puberty. Instead, it’s a brutally melancholy slow burner about an especially shitty youth with dwindling options for escape. It’s far more open-ended & hazy than I was anticipating, opting more for a gradual unravelling than a grand statement. It’s that aversion to closure & moralizing that makes the film special when it easily could’ve gone through the motions of rote Lifetime Movie schmaltz. Besides, its mid-film, impromptu music video for Rihanna’s “Diamonds” easily ranks among the year’s most uplifting moments in film.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

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fourhalfstar

I can’t tell if J.J. Abrams’ current career status would be a nerd’s wildest dream or their worst nightmare. Both? Simultaneously tasked with commanding sci-fi nerdom’s two most beloved properties, Star Wars & Star Trek, I’m sure he’s giddy with the power of adapting two franchises he surely grew up loving. Nerds are a tough bunch to please, though, so there’s an absurd amount of external pressure to not muck up their sacred texts, a pressure even Star Wars creator George Lucas wasn’t protected from (after he admittedly mucked them up spectacularly). One of the most delightful things I have to report about Abrams’ first Star Wars feature (of presumably many to come), The Force Awakens, is simply that it is by no means a misstep or a failure. I’m in a nice sweet spot of expectation where I grew up loving the original Star Wars trilogy, but not to a rabid, detail-obsessed degree that would leave me nitpicking whatever Abrams delivered. Coming from that perspective, I can’t exactly speak on behalf of Star Wars fanatics, but as a movie lover it’s hard to imagine that they’d be anything but pleased by The Force Awakens as a finished product. A great balance of enthusiastic fan service & promising new ideas/story threads, the latest entry in the Star Wars universe is far from the muted, just-good-enough, tragedy-averted compromise of 2015’s The Peanuts Movie (or Abrams’ own Star Trek work, for that matter). It’s an actually-great, entirely successful new birth for the franchise, sometimes feeling like it could be in contention as being nearly just as good as Episodes IV or V. The overall feeling I got while watching The Force Awakens is “What more could you ask for?” Abrams has successfully walked the Star Wars tightrope & delivered something sure to please both newcomers & skeptics and, more importantly, something that’s deliriously fun to watch when divorced from the burden of expectation.

Of course, because the film is so fresh & so highly anticipated, there’s an intense fear over the possibility of spoilers among some viewers, so I’ll try to tread lightly in this review. Even a simple roll call feels like a small betrayal, but it’s a somewhat necessary one. On the fan service end of Abrams’ well-calculated formula, the film could’ve just as easily been titled Star Wars Episode VII: The Gang’s All Here. Luke Skywalker’s importance to the universe has escalated to mythical proportions as he’s reported to be “the last Jedi.” His sister Leia has graduated from princess to general, establishing herself as the figurehead of The Resistance. Speaking of which, The Resistance is an obvious stand-in/update for The Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy, just as its The First Order big bad is a stand-in/update for the older films’ Galactic Empire. The only figure that seems to not have changed a lick is swashbuckling smuggler Han Solo, who remains as steadfast in his personality as a droid would, just as unable to evolve in his demeanour as the same-as-ever C-3PO. The characters are far from the only elements re-purposed from the franchise’s origins, though. A quest to locate Luke & the wisdom of Jedi knowledge is very much reminiscent of Luke’s quest to train with Yoda. There’s also some major theme callbacks like struggling with identity in the context of parentage and, of course, the eternal struggle of Good vs. Evil (in the succinctly-framed balance of The Force) mixed among much smaller tips of the hat to details like space chess & the infamous Cantina scene. I also had a lot of fun with the way it indulged in recreations of the older films’ exact screen wipes & Force-manipulation battles (which are essentially 100% sound cues & intense trembling). The greatest trick The Force Awakens pulls off, though, is when it finds a metaphor for its own existence in the callbacks. For instance, an almost exact replica of The Death Star is represented here, except that it’s 20 times larger, much like Abrams’ budget vs. what Lucas was originally working with. And then, of course, there’s the BB-8 “ball droid”, which is essentially a cuter, more technically impressive, surprisingly versatile version of R2-D2. It’s a modern update to a classic model, much like the film itself.

Speaking of BB-8, that little bugger has got to be the most exciting new addition to the Star Wars canon right? It’s at least the film’s breakout star, a kind of acknowledgement to the merchandising end of the franchise (in that it’s super cute & palatable for children), but also a ruthless, shrewd, determined, even dangerous character in its own right (possibly in a conscious effort to distance its cuteness from the heavily debated, somewhat purposeless existence of Ewoks). For the full year of advertising we all survived in order to get to this point, all I could think about in relation to this film was BB-8. Comedian Paul F. Tompkins’ four second delivery of “I’m Ball Droid. I gotta roll on out of here,” got me more hyped on watching The Force Awakens more than any particular ad did (and, of course, that clip continuously played through my head once I actually got to watch it). There are a lot of of other great, new characters introduced to the Star Wars universe in The Force Awakens, including a new possible future for the Jedi tradition, a rage-filled Sith-in-training prone to on-brand temper tantrums, and a Storm Trooper With a Heart of Gold, but in a lot of ways they feel like echoes of characters we’ve seen in the past films (well, except maybe for that Storm Trooper dude). There’s just something really special about the BB-8, whether or not it’s taking up the baton from a still-beloved R2-D2. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement in character design as well as exploitation of body language & subtle vocal manipulation. For new viewers entering the Star Wars universe for the first time with The Force Awakens (and they do exist) a lot of old, well-established familial ties & big concepts like The Force are going to be somewhat off-putting, since the film is not going to be able to hold their hands through the catch-up process, but BB-8 is such a great encapsulation of what makes the franchise work for so many people that it might not be a problem. It’s the perfect little tour guide for a space-set soap opera that’s only going to get more tangled & complex as these films continue to be produced (which will probably be for eternity, considering how much money this one will make at the box office). It’s instantly loveable & accessible.

I’m not going to pretend that The Force Awakens is perfect. I was a little off-put by some of the CGI reliance, particularly when it came to intimate interactions with alien faces. A lot of the CGI is nicely restrained & deftly employed, but it gets tiresome to look at (and is guaranteed to age poorly) whenever it’s used on a green-screened character with more than a line or two of dialogue. I also felt that the action sequences could sometimes go a bit long in a way that softened their impact, but that’s a small quibble, especially considering just how visceral & vicious things get in the climactic lightsaber battle. For the most part, though, it’s a remarkably difficult film to complain about. Even with lines like the racially-tinged throwaway gag “Droid, please”, which should fall flat in a very uncomfortable way, the film somehow makes it work. It’s easy to tell that Abrams & his collaborators were huge fans of the franchise doing their best to deliver a film that most people could love. He finds an immensely satisfying balance here of recreating past successes from the original trilogy, but with entirely new purpose. Much like the universe it inhabits, The Force Awakens feels old, beat up, lived in, the exact kind of world-building last year’s The Guardians of the Galaxy strained to establish in just one film, but this time with an extensive back catalog of content for support. The film’s ragtag group of heroes more or less winging it in their quest to overthrow The First Order may be very reminiscent of a similar motley crew who tried to overthrow The Galactic Empire (for instance, a female lead most certainly not in need of constantly being saved shouts “Stop taking my hand!”, which could have very easily been an old-school Leia moment), but they’re more of a refreshing evolution than a shameless retread. Sure, The Force Awakens can rely on work already put in by past films for lines like “Without the Jedi there can be no balance in the Force” to actually mean something, but it also finds its own touching moments, like in the question of when is running from a threat a form courage & when is it a submission to fear or in finding the simple goodness of people in exchanges like “Why are you helping me?” “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Most importantly, it feels like all of the ground work of pleasing fans through callbacks & establishing its own competence as a unique property are now out of the way, which is in a lot of ways a burden lifted. When the film ends, you’re genuinely excited to see where the story goes next because the future of the franchise is promised to be less self-reflective, more open-ended, uncharted territory. I’m already getting amped about Episode VIII‘s release in Spring 2017 as I type this, which I guess is a sign that Abrams did something exactly right in The Force Awakens.

Bonus points: There are a lot of great new-to-the-scene actors in this film – Adam Driver, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, etc. What really made me giddy, though, is that both Domhnall Gleeson & Oscar Isaac made the cast, which makes for just about the most unexpected Ex Machina reuninon I could possibly imagine. Those two films are so far from one another on the opposite ends of the sci-fi spectrum that it’s difficult to justify that they’re billed as being in the same genre at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Re-Edit (2001)

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Science fiction fans are a notoriously easily-riled bunch. This year’s Hugo Awards–the speculative fiction equivalent of the Oscars–was an unequivocal debacle, as a contingent of MRAs and their acolytes, impotently infuriated by what they perceived to be a rise in “SJW issues” in their genre literature, attempted to rig the voting system to prevent any work with pro-women, pro-minority, or LGBTQIA issues from being awarded the prestigious award. Considering that SF is the genre that has always been at the forefront of exploring issues of oppression and intersectionality, this is completely absurd. The machinations of these ignorant folk, who can best be referred to as “fake geek guys,” resulted in five separate categories receiving “No Award” this year, including Best Short Story and both long and short form Best Editor categories. And this was just the contentious babblings of a vocal minority of cisgender, white, heterosexual males who apparently have no concept of sci-fi history.

Much less controversial was the near-universal hatred for the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace. Although that hatred has died down in the sixteen years since the film was released (in no small part due to the fact that anyone born after 1994 doesn’t remember a world where there were only three near-perfect Star Wars movies instead of a mixed bag of six), The Phantom Menace is still widely regarded as a failure on both an artistic and a fandom level. The complaints about the film are endless, and I could never hope to create as in-depth and exhaustive exploration of the film’s flaws as RedLetterMedia did, but here’s a short summation of issues that fans and mainstream film-goers despised:

  • (Most notoriously) the introduction of original character Jar Jar Binks, a person-sized CGI space rabbit that engaged in presumably child-pleasing comedy antics throughout the film.
  • The racist caricature of Jar Jar as an ignorant simpleton who spoke in a conglomeration of Jamaican slang and antebellum slave dialects, as well as the Jewish stereotypes applied to hook-nosed greedy slave owner Watto and the Asian stereotypes (largely embodied in an accent that confuses “l” and “r” sounds) represented by the Trade Federation.
  • The pacing of the film is terrible: characters spend seemingly endless time in needlessly complicated and redundant political debate; other than in action sequences, characters simply wander around aimlessly in a (vain) attempt to give dialogue scenes some sense of motion.
  • The revelation that the mystical Force that binds all life together was caused by germs known as midi-chlorians.

I never really had much of a horse in that race; I was twelve the summer that the movie came out, and I thought it was mediocre at best then. I was always more of a Star Trek fan, and although I think the rivalry between the fandoms of those two franchises is exaggerated and instigated by the aforementioned Fake Geek Guys, I was young enough to be less discerning than others. I didn’t like Jar Jar, but I also didn’t think of Star Wars as an unimpeachable work of staggering genius the way that so many sad middle aged men with basements full of memorabilia do. I appreciate the franchise much more now than I did as a kid, although I pity people whose lives revolve around it. I mean, come on, the original trilogy is a lot of fun and has some really great ideas, but it’s still a fairy tale at its core: a farm boy meets a wizard who tells him he has a magical destiny, and he then teams with a pirate to rescue a princess from an evil wizard.

The problem of Jar Jar was expressed almost immediately, as was fan frustration regarding the Midi-chlorian concept, with complaints about the film’s pacing problems coming later. So it’s no surprise that fans of the era immediately set to work trying to “fix” it. The Phantom Edit, initially credited to “The Phantom Editor” who later revealed himself to be film editor Mike J. Nichols, was not the first fan edit of an established work, but it was one of the first to be noteworthy for its popularity in the mainstream, receiving coverage from news outlets as varied as Salon, NPR, PBS, and the BBC in 2000 and 2001. Notable changes to the source material included reduction and deletion of dialogue from the annoying battle droids, removal of the more immature dialogue from Anakin’s scenes, reduction of expository and political dialogue, and the severe trimming of Jar Jar’s appearances on screen, removing his slapstick elements. Also removed were all references to the midi-chlorians.

The Phantom Edit was later edited even further, into the more streamlined The Phantom Re-Edit, which also circulated as a bootleg tape or download; the earliest reference to it that I can find is a review released in June of 2001, meaning that it was created no later than May of that year. This edit also extensively alters other problematic features of Menace, most notably by getting rid of the English dialogue for Jar Jar and his people as well as the Trade Federation, and many conversations between characters on Tatooine are also altered to sound alien; this dialogue is then subtitled. To a large degree, this works strongly in the film’s favor. The Trade Federation are no longer as stereotypical and actually seem threatening in this version, the racist accents of Jar Jar and the other Gungans is also done away with, and the replacement subtitle dialogue presents them as being competent and politically savvy. Moreover, Jar Jar’s dialogue has been replaced completely, making him a character who is surprisingly wise and sage (although the cartoonish hand movements are still present in many scenes–can’t get around that).

So, is Star Wars: The Phantom Re-Edit a good movie? Well… not really. To use an apropos cliche, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Menace was still full of stilted dialogue and wooden acting, and no amount of editing will magically turn those dreary performances into something more watchable. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon still spend a lot of time expositing to each other over the phone in scenes that now remind me of all the times Don Draper called Betty and told her he would be late coming home. The scene in which Qui-Gon takes a blood sample from young Anakin is still present for no real reason, simply cutting away before the infamous midi-chlorian conversation. The edits are necessarily abrupt, but that doesn’t mean they’re not jarring and alienating. All told, it’s a better movie than Menace, but that’s not saying much. Hardcore fans who are still mad, fifteen years later, that George Lucas “ruined their childhood” might get some satisfaction from the re-edit, but that’s about it.

The Phantom Edit and The Phantom Re-Edit fail to address the larger problems of how the prequel trilogy relates to the franchise as a whole. In Star Wars (I’m not about that “A New Hope” nonsense), Ben Kenobi wears robes because he lives in a desert, not because that’s some kind of Jedi uniform like the prequel trilogy reinterprets it to be. Darth Vader is a lonely weirdo without much real clout; the members of the imperial military treat him with deference only because of his relationship with the Emperor, all while making fun of his religion behind his back and to his face. Vader even goes out and flies around in a tiny little fighter ship like all the cannon fodder pilots; he could have been killed pretty easily out there–which doesn’t make any sense if he was supposed to be some kind of prophesied Force savior. The glorification of his character in the prequel trilogy exists for one purpose: brand name recognition (and thus a higher profit margin).

I have no doubt that this is the reason that Vader’s corpse gets a cameo in the trailer for The Force Awakens, due out this Christmas. I have to confess my overwhelming excitement for the film, but I also hope there’s no nonsensical revisitation (or, Force forbid, a revitalization) of his character. I have my doubts; it’s been a decade and a half since we stood on the precipice of new Star Wars movies, and it remains to be seen whether or not Episode VII will also demand a fan edit. Here’s hoping the answer is “no,” but we’ll find out soon enough.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Carnival Revelry: The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus in 2015

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This past Saturday was the annual turning point for me when Mardi Gras stops being a vague concept I hear about on the radio & Facebook feeds and becomes an experience I’m living. Although the Phunny Phorty Phellows’ annual streetcar ride on Twelfth Night is the official start to Carnival season, it’s one I typically miss. Mardi Gras never feels real until I’m finally misbehaving in the thick of it & Krewe du Vieux is my usual starting point for the revelry, but I missed that parade this year as well. 2015’s Chewbacchus celebration was that magical moment when everything clicked and I thought “This is it. This is Mardi Gras.”

The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus is a relatively young parade that rolls hand-made, people-powered contraptions through the French Quarter & Marigny while the larger, gas-powered floats roll elsewhere across town. Although their nerdy umbrella has expanded to include all kinds of sci-fi goofiness, they’re the only parade I can think of that’s specifically designed to celebrate a movie franchise: Star Wars. Despite the inclusion of other sci-fi properties like Doctor Who, Star Trek, E.T. and (most recently) Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s still a mostly Star Wars-themed affair, one that lauds the “drunken Wookie” Chewbacca as its monarch. Real-life Chewbacca Peter Mayhew himself has even lorded over the parade the past couple of years, revelers treating him like nerdy royalty. The parade’s haphazard, DIY aesthetic perfectly matches the DIY practical effects of the original Star Wars trilogy. Star Wars’ endless parade of odd-looking weirdos and handmade sets & costumes serves as a fitting platform for New Orleans’ own endless parade of odd-looking weirdos & their personal creations, even if they’ve come to incorporate other fandoms as the years march on.

Wasting away a drunken afternoon in the Quarter and then capping off the night with Chewbacchus’ Imperial Stormtroopers & Jedi Knights was my personal introduction to the 2015 Carnival season. It was a great feeling to ring in my favorite time of the year while celebrating one of my other favorite activities: watching movies. Here are a few pics to help solidify the memory.

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Have a great, safe Mardi Gras, y’all! And may the Force be etc, etc.

-Brandon Ledet