Bonus Features: I Declare War (2012)

Our current Movie of the Month, 2012’s I Declare War, is a darkly comic fantasy thriller that illustrates a children’s game of Capture the Flag as a gritty war story.  Unfortunately, it’s one of our rare Movie of the Month selections that did not hit home for me, personally.  Its premise is fun enough, and I was mostly charmed by its low-budget backyard filmmaking aesthetics, but the overall vibes are just . . . off.  Specifically, I was tripped up by some of its more dire #edgelord one-liners, and I’m not sure that it ever escalates its high-concept premise beyond its initial novelty.  Then again, that novelty was in playing children’s playground imagination fantasies as a straight war film, and that’s just not my genre.  I found myself alternating between boredom and annoyance for most of its runtime, which is typically how I react to even well-respected war movies, so it might actually be successful as the genuine thing.

As disappointed as I ended up being with I Declare War as a finished product, I still think there’s a fun germ of an idea in its central conceit.  It’s just also one that you can see executed in better, earlier films.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month (or at least the idea of it) and want to see more films where children’s playtime war games are treated with the severity of a genuine war epic.

Son of Rambow (2007)

Maybe the reason I Declare War made me squeamish was that the cast of kids are so unashamedly gross.  They have the talk-shouting acting skills of a Disney Channel Original, but they also take transgressive delight in cussing and making 4-chan level jokes about blowjobs & altar boys.  It’s off-putting.  By contrast, I was thoroughly charmed by the 2007 twee comedy Son of Rambow, in which the kids are rambunctious but sweet in their fictional battlefield mischief.  Like I Declare War, Son of Rambow is guided by a childlike sense of imagination, as indicated in its tagline “Make believe, not war.”  The difference is that the kids in Son of Rambow are adorable little scamps, while the kids of I Declare War are gross little internet trolls.  It may be a less authentic depiction of childhood personalities, but it’s a lot easier to stomach at feature length.

In Son of Rambow, two mismatched British schoolboys bond while making a D.I.Y. sequel to First Blood with a camcorder in the woods.  Their bootleg Rambo sequel recalls the cutesy backyard-moviemaking aesthetics of similar comedies like Brigsby Bear & Be Kind Rewind, focusing more on the anything-can-happen chaos of a child’s imagination than the grim logistics of real-life warfare.  While the kids of I Declare War are obsessed with the traditional war-epic plot machinations of the movie Patton, the kids of Son of Rambow toss in whatever spur-of-the-moment whimsies pop up in their playtime: ninjas, flying dogs, killer scarecrows, whatever.  You’ll either find their playtime antics cloying or wonderful depending on your relationship with twee whimsy.  Either way, it offers a sweet counterpoint to the bitter battlefield grotesqueries of I Declare War.

Child’s Play 3 (1991)

Maybe it’s wrong to soften the harsh reality of warfare with twee whimsy.  Maybe a proper alternative to I Declare War would have to sweeten its bitter truths with a different kind of genre-bending novelty.  Child’s Play 3 is at least more somber in its approach to children playing soldiers in the woods, in that it’s set in a somewhat realistic military academy where young kids are forced to play make-believe that they’re adult killing-machines.  Its most direct connection to I Declare War arrives in the third act, when their traditional wargames simulation is made tragically lethal – their guns’ paintball ammo swapped with actual bullets.  Of course, the novelty in that premise is provided by the mischievous villain who supplied that live ammo: the supernatural killer doll Chucky.

To be honest, even Child’s Play 3 sticks a little too close to traditional war movie genre tropes for my tastes.  Having to spend even 90 breezy minutes in its drab military school setting feels like being punished alongside Andy for crimes I didn’t commit.  Chucky does a lot to break up the monotony of that rigidly uniform setting, though.  It’s easily my least favorite of the original Child’s Play trilogy, but it’s late enough in the series that Chucky fully comes into his own as a mainstay slasher villain, quipping his way through every kill with fun catchphrases & cheap one-liners.  Also, my boredom with its war-film tropes is rewarded with a last-minute trip to an amusement park in an incredible finale.  That’s more than I can say for I Declare War, which never leaves its D.I.Y. military bases in the woods.

3615 code Père Noël (aka Deadly Games, 1989)

The ideal neutral ground between the cutesy whimsy of Son of Rambow and the military-school machismo of Child’s Play 3 is likely the 1989 French home-invasion thriller Deadly Games, making it the perfect counterpoint to I Declare War‘s playground wargames tedium.  The problem is that it’s blasphemous to watch Deadly Games any month but December, since it’s explicitly a Christmas film.  In the movie, a spoiled rich child plays macho protector to his empty mansion against a psychotic invader who’s dressed as Santa Claus (whom the boy mistakes for the real deal).  To eliminate this threat, the boy suits up as a miniature Rambo, armed with an endless arsenal of high-tech gadgets & children’s toys to weaponize against the killer Santa.  He treats his mission with the deadly seriousness of a real-life war skirmish, which is good, because the adult Santa very well might kill him.

Director René Manzor was reportedly pissed that his film was “plagiarized” by the massive 90s hit Home Alone, and it’s easy to see the connections between the two films’ shared boobytrap defense systems & Christmas Eve home-invasion premises.  However, whereas Home Alone‘s boobytrap antics are played for broad slapstick humor, Deadly Games is deadly serious about the threat its enemy encroachment presents.  The child’s response to the invading Santa Claus is charmingly imbued with playtime imagination, especially in his plastic weapons of choice.  The severity of the resulting battle is genuinely thrilling, though, even more so than most actual Rambo movies.  It skillfully toys with the exact boundary between childhood whimsy & wartime brutality that I Declare War clumsily aims for, but no self-respecting adult should watch it any sooner in the calendar year than the day after Thanksgiving.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: I Declare War (2012)

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 Boomer made Hanna, Brandon, and Britnee watch I Declare War (2012).

Boomer: Some things are quite different now than they were just over a year ago when I first saw I Declare War, and many things are still the same. Our president is no longer a racist orange man; he’s a racist white man. Our government is in continuous perpetual danger, and the country is being ravaged by COVID-19, either again or still, depending on your point of view. And, despite promises that delivered an election to the Democrats (in spite of endless attempts to stop people from voting, attempts to stop votes from being counted, and stop the results from being ratified), we’ve all still got the same student loans that we did the first time I popped this DVD into a player. We’re living in a dying empire on a dying planet, so why not live a little? Sometimes we just have to get away using the “utility of one’s imagination,” as the creators of this film call it. 

I wrote up a more detailed plot synopsis when I watched Declare the first time, but in brief, this is a film about a dozen or so (mostly) boys playing a war game. Sticks and logs are guns and bazookas, if you’re hit you’re down for a short count that ends with either a “grenade” “kill” or with the countdown concluding and the “injured” “soldier” getting the opportunity to escape. The game ends when one team captures the other’s base. The film deliberately plays with the intermix of children and the violence of death-dealing machinery; in fact, in the commentary, writer Jason Lapeyre was specifically interested in “the violence of what they’re doing versus how innocent they look in their childhood clothes,” counterposing presumed integrity of a guileless, wholesome childhood with the bloodiness of how kids actually imagine their world and the casual cruelty that comes from the as-yet-undomesticated id and developing frontal cortex. 

Lapeyre used to play this game, essentially, during his own youth; we’re even given a specific reference to 1986, which I think tells us more about the film and its creators that it first appears to. LaPeyre cited in one of the two commentaries that he’s frequently asked where the idea for the film came from, and he confirmed that these rules are derived from his own neighborhood play. “I did this a lot as a kid,” he says, before elaborating that he grew up as an army kid who had a decommissioned bazooka in the basement. He also says that he was sick and tired of inaccurately portrayed children, and that he wanted to make a film in which kids would be seen as they really are. But I don’t know if that’s quite correct. 

Lapeyre is writing from the point of view of someone who never experienced school shootings on a massive scale the way that the kids in this movie would have (presuming they live in the U.S.; there’s a scene with an American $50 bill that actors laugh about in their commentary, since this was filmed in Toronto). I was 11 years old when Columbine happened, and that was just a few years before the beginning of the War in Afghanistan, which, hey, that ended since I first wrote about this movie 14 months ago! It only lasted 20 years of mine and everybody’s life, with production of this movie in 2011 taking place right smack in the middle of it, and the film releasing in 2012, the same year that America really and truly (if unofficially) gave up on even symbolically attempting to end that kind of mass murder. Would kids in 2012 actually see themselves in the characters of I Declare War in a way that transcended the age gap between themselves and the writer? 

For what it’s worth, kids responded well to an early cut that was shown at a local school, according to both commentaries, and the kids who participated in the actors’ commentary (which is 8 of them) share feedback that they got from classmates after the film came out. Among the students who were surveyed, they were told that male students were unhappy with the “unrealistic” nature of the dynamic between boys and girl in the movie, while the female students disagreed and advised it was “very true to life.” So we have some secondhand information about how kids in 2012 reacted. But still I wonder, what about kids in 2022? Do we even think that the response to the film from the kids in 2012 is representative? Brandon, what do you think? 

Brandon: I suspect this film’s best chance at finding a long-term audience is if it gets passed down through generations of schoolyard recommendations amongst kids.  I’ll be up-front in saying that, as an adult, it did not work for me at all, but that’s mostly because I found the humor disgustingly juvenile.  In Movie of the Month terms, I did not hate it quite as passionately as I hated Live Freaky, Die Freaky!, but its weakness for #edgelord one-liners did remind me a lot of what made that film such a miserable watch.  You’d think that I Declare War’s main focus would be the stark contrast of watching young cherubic faces launching bullets & grenades at each other.  Instead, it seems fixated on the contrast of feeding those younglings offensive quips about blowjobs, “retards,” rape, race, and God’s sexual orientation.  I believe that juxtaposition between sub-Disney Channel actors and offensive-for-its-own-sake humor was intended to be genuinely funny, and so I believe its best chance of actually landing a few chuckles would be among 12-year-olds who still think cussing is excitingly naughty.  Somebody‘s out there keeping South Park on the air in its 120th season, anyway, and I hope it’s not actual adults.

To be fair, most children do have a grotesque, offensive sense of humor, especially in this middle school age range when they’re testing the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable.  That’s at least realistic to children “as they really are”.  I just don’t think the movie has much to say about that pimply Reddit edgelord sensibility, or it at least doesn’t say enough to justify the cruelty of its one-liners.  Part of the problem might be that its central conceit of depicting a few unremarkable middle schoolers’ game of Capture the Flag as a brutal war epic is a pretty thin premise, one the movie is unsure how to escalate after the initial novelty settles.  The imagery of children operating deadly weaponry is upsetting (although, I suspect the same kids who would find its edgy humor funny would superficially find that imagery “badass”), but it doesn’t really evolve in any significant way between the first & last time it’s depicted.  All of the dead-air between the budget-torching effects shots of the actual warfare has to be filled with something, and I just don’t think the dialogue they filled it with added all that much to the larger metaphor.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh on this movie because of my larger biases against the war film as a genre, including the movie Patton that the kids idolize as the pinnacle of the artform.  I Declare War at least feels like a genuine war film in that I alternated between being bored & annoyed by it for most of its runtime, and I likely would not have finished watching it if it weren’t for the obligations of this discussion.  Hanna, I’m not sure what your relationship with war films are at large, but how well do you think this film succeeds as an example of the genre?  Since its main novelty is in playing childhood war games “straight”, how did it do?

Hanna: There are some exceptions, but I’ve subconsciously avoided the majority of movies in the canon of great war films. I hung out with a lot of guys in high school who were orgasmically obsessed with WWII and its various implements; they were (almost) exclusively the only people I knew who watched war movies, and they were also the types of guys who laughed at the “Get some!” scene from Full Metal Jacket on repeat. Their attitude instilled in me a kind of mental revulsion that surfaces every I consider watching, for instance, Saving Private Ryan (which I understand is a great film that I should have seen by now). Most of the war movies I like make me feel desperately horrified by the existence of war (Come and See) or the absurdity of geopolitical power struggles (DrStrangelove). I Declare War didn’t really do either of these things for me, but I thought it was fine. Unfortunately, I don’t think it could really speak to the modern attitude towards violence or the current state of warfare. Also, like Brandon, I was totally turned off by the shithead kid dialogue.

I did think there was something kind of interesting about the risk of harm increasing as the sophistication of the weapons de-escalated. I actually wasn’t affected much by the images of kids walking around with cannons and guns (maybe this reflects poorly on me and my generation); the carbine rounds and the bloody grenade splatters play more like video game effects, and they don’t mean much to the kids beyond the passing annoyance of being stunned or forced to trudge home. In comparison, the rocks that Skinner throws at P.K.’s spy and the stones he slowly piles on Paul’s stomach are weird, intimate weapons of torture that buck up against the pre-established order of the War rules; the other kids never retaliate in kind with the sticks they’ve bundled up into guns. I can appreciate a reckoning between splashy, cinematic war gore and the ugly impulse to injure another human out of anger or a bid for power. The issue is that young people have greater access to the types of weapons in I Declare War than they’ve ever had in concurrence with rising social isolation and violent ideologies. It’s become a non-event for modern Skippers to take out their misdirected aggression with guns instead of rocks. At the same time, modern warfare is becoming increasingly automated, which is terrifying in a completely different direction.

Like I said, I do think this film had potential, but it didn’t push in the directions I was hoping it would go, and it was really hard for me to get past the dialogue and acting. I also thought some of the character choices were really strange, especially Caleb, a “Native Guide” caricature with a beautiful husky and virtually no lines. Britnee, did these kids’ performances work better for you than they did for me? If not, did you find anything more substantial beyond these characters?

Britnee: These kids are so annoying. Some of them, specifically Quinn and Jessica, we’re way too old to be “playing pretend” at this level. It gave me so much second-hand embarrassment, especially when Jessica would talk about France. The dialogue between the cast was pretty dull, and it’s hard to tell if that’s because they suck at acting or if they suck at playing war. The only character that I thought was likeable was Kwon, but it was super hard to watch the only Asian friend get treated so terribly, both in the game and by the other kids in general. He was actually pretty funny and made me chuckle a few times with the way he delivered his over-dramatic lines. 

My lack of enthusiasm for war movies and war games (real-life, board games, video games) is most likely why I didn’t dig I Declare War all that much. I kind of wished that the boundaries of the film were pushed further. For instance, what if some of the kids would have gotten seriously injured (burned up, broken leg, etc.), but they had to finish the game before getting help? It was a little too PG and reminded me of one of those videos about the value of friendship that I used to watch in religion class (those horrible after-school classes you take when you’re raised Catholic but go to public school). I can just hear the teacher saying, “You see, P.K. wasn’t really a good friend to Kwon, now was he?”

Lagniappe

Boomer: A few notes from the commentaries that I thought were interesting: the director mentioned that the light level in the forest caused all of the kids’ eyes to dilate, making them wider and more innocent, which was purely unintentional but made for an interesting effect. If you want to recreate the blood balloons from the film, the balloon has to be filled with paint and then shellacked for that perfect burst. In the adult commentary, the directors and producers note that Eric Hanson, who played Kenny (the kid at the beginning with the paint-blackened eyes), “had a really sincere insanity about him” and that he was “clearly unhinged.” In the commentary that the child actors did, Hanson noted “Shooting that gun was the most manliest moment of my life.”

Brandon: It’s funny how ungenerous I can become as an audience once I sour on a film.  Usually, I’m charmed by the limitations of low-budget backyard movies with high-concept premises, but in this case, they only added to my annoyance.  Whenever I caught a glimpse of an adult crewmember in the blurry background or the visible lines of a child-actor’s microphone battery pack, I found myself getting angry at the filmmakers for being “lazy” instead of cutting them a break.  I can almost guarantee that those same minor mistakes in a goofy rubber-suit monster movie set in those same woods with this same budget would have made me smile instead of grimace.

Britnee: The x-ray effect that showed the lighter in Kwon’s pocket was so much more advanced than the laser eye special effects for Joker. That made me laugh a lot.

Hanna: I know this would totally defeat the purpose of the movie, but I feel like I would have actually loved it if the violence was more in line with Joker’s laser eye explosions (and if all the dialogue was rewritten). If the children were, for instance, acting out a fantasy war by hurling magical fireballs at each other rather than grenades, I would be delighted. This would be more akin to the war games I played as a child. It’s still violence, though! It’s just much more depressing to watch children acting out their violent impulses by pretending to use tools that actually exist for the purpose of killing.

Next Month: Britnee presents Tatie Danielle (1990)

-The Swampflix Crew

Shadow in the Cloud (2021)

One of my favorite films of all time is Richard Kelly’s The Box, a much-mocked sci-fi thriller that starts as a faithful adaptation of a Twilight Zone plot (Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” to be specific), then spirals out to become its own over-the-top art object once that story runs its course.  I was delighted to see that template repeated in Shadow in the Cloud, then, which starts as a copyright-infringing adaptation of the Twilight Zone classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet”, then mutates into its own monstrous beast separate from its obvious source of inspiration.  The difference is that The Box expands on its core Twilight Zone story with a flood of increasingly outlandish, convoluted Ideas that explode the initial premise into scattered, irretrievable shrapnel.  By contrast, Shadow in the Cloud reduces the initially bizarre outline of “Terror at 20,000 Feet” to the most basic, straightforward hand-to-hand combat action fluff imaginable.  It just does so with a full-on Richard Kelly level commitment to the bit, creating something truly spectacular purely out of brute force.

When Shadow in the Cloud is still limited to its “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” beginnings, it does a decent enough job at finding new sources of tension & purpose in that dusty genre template.  Chloë Grace Moretz stars as a WWII fighter pilot who’s at the mercy of an overly suspicious, grotesquely macho cargo-run crew who don’t trust her presence on their plane.  To neutralize her potential threat to their mission, the men confine her to a gun turret below the plane’s belly, where she’s isolated—and lethally armed—in a free-floating bubble.  The combination of that confined space, the radio chatter from the misogynist assholes above (who keep referring to her as a “dame” and a “broad” instead of a fellow soldier), and the eventual emergence of the Twilight Zone version of a gremlin on the plane’s wings is a wonderful tension-builder that makes full, glorious use of its seemingly limited, familiar premise.  It’s the lengthy, over-the-top release of that tension in the film’s third act that really achieves something special, though.

After listening to the men on the plane delegitimize and sexualize her for the entire ride—while also ignoring her warnings of the gremlin on the wings and enemy fighters in the clouds—Moretz explodes into action.  Once she emerges from her gun-turret prison cell, her deathmatch with the gremlin is nonstop carnage and catharsis, indulging in a Looney Tunes sense of physics & decorum that’s wildly divergent from the film’s confined-space beginnings. The 1940s setting is harshly contrasted with an 80s-synth John Carpenter score as Moretz proves herself to be the toughest solider on-board, effectively tearing the gremlin to shreds with her own bare hands as her fellow soldiers fall to their peril.  It’s the same grounded-war-narrative-to-outrageous-horror-schlock trajectory played with in 2018’s Overlord, except in this case the grotesquely monstrous enemy is American misogynists rather than Nazi combatants.

It may not be as gloriously inane as The Box (few films are), but Shadow in the Cloud is a total blast.  It’s 80 minutes of delicious, delirious pulp, settling halfway between a dumb-fun creature feature and a sincerely performed radio play.  Not for nothing, it’s also the first time I’ve ever enthusiastically enjoyed a Chloë Grace Moretz performance, as I spent the final half hour of the film cheering her on as if she were a pro wrestler taking down the ultimate heel.  I would love to live in a world where every classic Twilight Zone episode were exploited as a jumping-off point for an over-the-top sci-fi thriller that reaches beyond the outer limits of a 20min premise – especially if they all could manage to be this wonderfully absurd.

-Brandon Ledet

Wizards (1977)

As a lifelong fan of both hand-drawn animation & flippant transgression, I’ve long been curious about Ralph Bakshi’s art. However, there’s a strong whiff of edgelordism wafting from his work that’s becoming less & less enticing as a I grow older, making me wonder if I could have only ever become a true Bakshi devotee if I had caught his films on late-night cable when I was still a teenage shithead. Maybe that’s why I thought the fantasy film Wizards would be the best introduction to Bakshi in his prime, as it’s the most mainstream he was willing to go as an artist (at least before his professional nadir with the notorious flop Cool World, which I have seen before, unfortunately). Even Bakshi himself pitches Wizards as a “family picture” meant to prove that he can make good art without stirring up moral outrage as a crass provocateur. Judging only by that metric, the film is a failure. It’s just absolutely swarmed with buxom nudists, battlefield gore, and Nazi iconography, making its PG rating an absolute joke even by 1970s standards. It’s at least a gorgeously animated provocation, though, surely inspiring many margin doodles in metalhead stoners’ notebooks to come.

Wizards is set on a distant-future Earth after we’ve all nuked each other to near extinction, then mutated into grotesque beasts in the radioactive remains of our former world. The movie ascribes to a very simplistic Cute = Good, Ugly = Evil philosophy, contrasting the grotesque humanoid leftovers of humanity with adorable elves & fairies who return to our realm as an sign of Nature reclaiming the planet. This contrast is extended to a clash between magic (Good) & technology (Evil), with both sides represented by respective twin wizards who are destined to battle in the post-Apocalyptic wasteland. The Good Wizard loves Peace and is frustratingly reluctant to fight his wicked brother despite the ongoing destruction of their shared planet (and the promise of “a second Holocaust”). The Evil Wizard loves War and hypes up his mutant humanoid frog army with vintage Nazi propaganda, wielding a “dream machine” film projector as if it were a weapon of mass destruction. The resulting D&D campaign illustration is neither as obnoxiously crass as Heavy Metal nor as deliriously fun as Gandahar, falling somewhere between the two as a wonderfully animated mediocrity (although it was likely a direct influence on both).

There’s something adorable about Bakshi believing this is a family-friendly variation on his work, the same way it’s adorable that Richard Kelly believed he made a toned-down mainstream thriller in The Box. The gleeful gun violence, slack-jawed ogling at erect fairy nipples, and edgelord deployment of Nazi propaganda is all exceedingly queasy, stubbornly faithful to the confrontationally grotesque vision of Bakshi’s earlier films like Coonskin & Fritz the Cat. You could never shrug his work off as lazy provocations, though, at least not in terms of their technical artistry. Every hideous mutant, bodacious fairy babe, and Nazi war crime is wonderfully detailed in their illustration, often paired with gorgeous greenscreen backdrops of smoke & rolling clouds. Even when the budget wears thin and devolves into narrated slideshows & rotoscoped battlefield extras, Bakshi makes it appear as if it were all an intentional inclusion in his multimedia psychedelic tapestry. I didn’t fall in love with this animated prog rock album cover the way I did with René Laloux’s Gandahar, but it also didn’t quash my curiosity over Bakshi’s pricklier cult classics. He obviously deserves a closer look, even if only for the form and not the content.

-Brandon Ledet

I Declare War (2012)


I wrote previously about the DVDs-and-booze Alamo Drafthouse at home program that the Austin-based movie tavern dynasty has rolled out as part of their COVID business model. I wasn’t terribly impressed with The FP, but the second selection, I Declare War, really hit for me.

I Declare War is the story of two factions of children playing war, with shockingly high stakes and consequences that will echo far beyond this one hot afternoon. On one side, there’s longstanding champion P.K. (Gage Munroe) and his crew: P.K.’s best friend Paul (Siam Yu), hothead rule challenger Kenney (Eric Hanson), enigmatic scout Caleb (Kolton Steward), timid altar boy Wesley (Andy Reid), and brash loudmouth Joker (Spencer Howes), who has a tendency to be a little bit of a bully. On the other side is Quinn (Aidan Gouveia), the first kid that P.K. thinks has the tactical knowledge to beat him, and Quinn’s team: anger-management-challenged and budding sociopath Skinner (Michael Friend), diminutive chatterbox Frost (Alex Cardillo), thuggish but dim-witted Sikorski (Dyson Fyke), and Jessica (Mackenzie Munroe), the only girl playing the game, who’s only there because of her crush on Quinn. The game will end when the general of one team captures the opponent’s flag.

We’re introduced to the rules—both those of the game itself and the rules of the visual language of the war itself—immediately. Each child has a firearm, and after we first see it established that these weapons are actually made of sticks, tin cans, and other assorted debris, we then see them as the children see them: Jessica’s slingshot is a crossbow, P.K. carries a pistol that looks far too large for his little hands, and Frost and several others carry automatics. The rules are as follows: if you’re hit, you’re paralyzed for ten speedboats (“one speedboat, two speedboat, three speedboat …”), giving your opponent time to move in and perform the finishing/killing move with a grenade (a balloon filled with red liquid). After you’ve counted to ten, you’re able to escape. Generals can’t move their bases after the game has started, and when you’re out, you go home. The war is over when a general captures the opponent’s flag.

We get a lot of detail about the characters that we’ll be following from pretty early on, as the cast drops to a more manageable number pretty quickly, when a fully committed Kenney, complete with ‘Nam-esque camo paint, takes out one of Quinn’s men before “dying” himself. Skinner instructs Sikorski to kick Kenney around in the dirt for information about P.K.’s base, which is cheating (the dead can’t be interrogated), establishing Skinner as a bully and a cheat. Kenney likewise wants to stick around and assist P.K., but the latter insists that the rules be followed, establishing P.K. as committed to honoring the rules of engagement and to his successful victory at any cost within those parameters, although he does attempt some subterfuge of his own later on. P.K.’s own establishing character moment comes when he and Paul talk about what they’re doing after the battle: pizza and a movie at P.K.’s. Paul asks what movie, to which P.K. replies that they’ll be watching Patton, to Paul’s chagrin, as this is explicitly not for the first time P.K. has subjected him to this particular film. Wesley takes up a role as the platoon’s chaplain by default, serving as the coward who’s too afraid to stand up for himself or even shoot his “gun,” initially finding himself in conflict with Joker, whose shtick is outlandish hypothetical situations and calling Christian concepts of God’s love “gay.” One such hypothetical shows P.K. thinking outside the box to create his own resolution that gives him the best of both situations, to which Joker objects, showing us early on that P.K. doesn’t see himself as bound within the binary between options A and B, but as entitled to “winning” in every situation.

Paul is our real lead here, however, as we see much of the conflict between P.K. and Skinner (who deposes Quinn in a coup early on) through his eyes. When Paul is cornered, Skinner takes him prisoner instead of grenading him outright, under the assumption that P.K. will personally come and rescue Paul, leaving their base unguarded and enabling Skinner to steal their flag. Skinner goes into full-on Lord of the Flies mode pretty much immediately, issuing contradictory orders to Frost, Sikorski, and Jessica and quickly realizing that knocking Quinn off so soon has left them undermanned. What he really wants, however, is for the others to leave him alone with the bound Paul so he can torture the smaller boy. And not play-torture, either; as soon as they’re alone, he threatens Paul with a knife and lays a section of plywood across Paul’s prone body and starts piling rocks and cement blocks on him, calling Paul racial slurs and telling him that this was how people were put to death before hanging became the standard form of execution. It’s troubling and dark, and only slightly marred by some of the more over-the-top deliveries from the young actors (these are all extremely solid performances for child actors–shockingly so, so I’m more inclined to forgive the moments when their reach exceeds their grasp).

We learn that, before Paul and his family moved to the community, P.K. and Skinner were best friends, but that P.K. ultimately rejected him because of his issues with anger management. We also learn that Skinner is bullied at school, including a prank enacted upon him by two girl classmates who invited him to go swimming and gave him a fake address, and he also blames some of his social isolation on no longer being friends with P.K., although it’s unclear how much of this is true or is simply part of Skinner’s obsession with P.K. in general and retaking what he perceives as his rightful place next to P.K. that Paul has “usurped” from him. Paul, however, ultimately learns that P.K.’s friendship may not be all that it’s cracked up to be; it’s not just endless viewings of Patton (although that would be enough to stretch any friendship to a near-breaking point), but carelessness about their relationship. Even after Paul escapes from literal physical torture at Skinner’s hands, P.K. sends him back to be recaptured intentionally so that he can proceed with his current plan to take Skinner’s flag. When Skinner is willing to concede defeat if P.K. simply cuts Paul with the knife from earlier, it’s left ambiguous whether P.K. was willing to do so in the name of winning or not.

There’s a lot going on in the margins here: Frost and Sikorski as the Rosencrantz and Gildenstern of this private little war, Joker’s intermittent fantasies about being able to blow away annoyances with laser eyes, and Caleb using the R/C airplane that Quinn had left behind to deal a climactic blow. I’m not sure how I feel about Jessica doing her own thing and imagining fantasy conversations with Quinn, however. There’s value in noting that her internal life and how she perceives the activities of the day is different from the boys, but there’s something just a little bit… off about her characterization. At one point, Skinner suggests she use her feminine wiles to distract the enemy, and she is rightfully put out by the ignorance of this, but by reducing the number of girl characters to one and having her participation be solely for the purpose of impressing the boy on whom she has a crush, the script makes the same reductive mistake that Skinner does, in a way.

As the movie goes on, each character becomes more and more filthy and disheveled, their faces first getting dirty and then transforming into a kind of warpaint. There’s also something beautifully upsetting about the validity of Skinner’s frustration; his issues could easily stem from an undiagnosed neurodivergence or potentially treatable personality disorder, but his peers see him as simply “a spaz” and ostracize him, leading him to engage in behavior that’s not terribly dissimilar from P.K.’s own in its casual disregard for conventions of friendship but more openly antagonistic. At the film’s end, we’re left wondering if this has ended Paul and P.K.’s friendship as well, or if they can repair what P.K. and Skinner clearly cannot.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #123 of The Swampflix Podcast: Birds of Prey (2020) & Good Movies in Bad Genres

Welcome to Episode #123 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee discuss the recent superhero blockbuster Birds of Prey (2020) and several others movies we enjoy in genres that usually bore us.

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

– The Podcast Crew

1917 (2019)

I was very skeptical about the necessity of 1917’s existence, especially as someone with very little patience for War Movies in general. It’s not only that its time-obsessed, boots-on-the-ground warfare felt redundant after the technical achievements of Dunkirk or that it’s a big-budget spectacle about wartime brutality that cheekily features surprise celebrity cameos in bit roles (British celebrities, anyway). What really put me off the film initially was its “single-take” gimmick that hides all cuts between shots to look like one continuous image, à la Birdman. How could the movie possibly justify using such a flashy, attention-grabbing technical exercise for a gruesome war story that doesn’t even occur “in real time?” I still don’t know that I fully understand director Sam Mendes’s intentions in making that choice, but it did allow the movie to weigh on me heavily in the moment in a way few other war dramas ever have, which I suppose is more than enough justification for the indulgence. I dare say I even enjoyed it.

Two British soldiers in the trenches of WWI are tasked to cross enemy lines to hand-deliver a letter that calls off a sure-to-be-disastrous attack before it begins. They must evade death at the hands of German combatants to save fellow British soldiers’ lives. That’s it; that’s the plot. Everything from there is an emphasis on in-the-moment experience, which does indeed include surprise appearances from Posh British Thespians and even more distracting camera trickery from Industry legend Roger Deakins. Every time the screen goes black in the darkness of a tunnel or is temporarily obstructed by a passing object, a “hidden” cut announces itself, calling attention to the long-take gimmick, the same way vintage 3D movies would needlessly protrude objects directly at the screen to highlight the tech wizardry on display. The movie even has to work in a fade-to-black act break that allows a jump forward in time, showing a lack of faith in the “single” take gimmick you won’t see in more fully committed works like Russian Ark. It’s all very flashy & self-indulgent, so it’s no wonder its technical feats & dramatic prestige have earned it so much Oscars attention.

Putting all these distractions aside, I did find 1917’s in-the-moment experiential approach to be effectively horrific in a general War Is Hell sense. This is especially true of the film’s earliest stretch, where two sweet little boys in soldier drag are crawling through war-decimated hellscapes. The opening & concluding settings of the film are fields of wildflowers, calling attention to the Natural beauty of rural European landscapes. Every environment between those bookends are Tarkovsky-level nightmare zones, populated by shards of exploded buildings, piles of rotting corpses, discarded horse skeletons, and the only vermin willing to tread through that filth: rats. There are so many goddamn rats. The video game mission plot of 1917 might not make for especially complex drama between its solider protagonists, but the way those babyfaced boys contrast against the ghastly gore, rot, and decay of the war-torn earth beneath them is viscerally upsetting. There are many ways in which the long-take gimmick is a distracting technical exercise, but it does force you to stew in that discomfort for long, uninterrupted stretches. It’s surprisingly brutal in that way.

1917 is at its best when it’s gruesomely gross, which his never too far off from beat to beat. A few casting & editing choices can be distracting in the moment, but in a big picture sense it’s an effective portrait of how war mutates people & landscapes into hideous monstrosities. It’s a pretty good movie all in all, which is more than you can say for most years’ Oscar favorites.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top 20 Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2019

1. Fighting With My Family This melodramatic biopic about WWE wrestler Paige does an excellent job conveying the appeal of pro wrestling as an artform, offers empathy to every character its story touches without shying away from their faults, and properly sketches out how much respect for women’s wrestling has evolved in the last decade (and how influential Paige was in that sea change). It’s also way dirtier than I expected, often playing like an R-rated Disney Channel Original.

2. Ma Octavia Spencer slums it as an unassuming small-town vet tech who parties with neighborhood teens in order to enact revenge for their parents’ past wrongs. It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Spencer devour scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.

3. Child’s Play An in-name-only, shockingly fun “remake” of the classic killer doll thriller by the same name. Much like the original, this is the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flick kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them too young on cable, and it directly pays homage to that very canon in references to titles like Killer Klowns From Outer Space & Texas Chainsaw Massacre II.

4. Paradise Hills An impressive coterie of young actors (Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle McDnonald, Eiza Gonzalez) square off against veteran badass Milla Jovovich in a near-future Patriarchal hell. It’s essentially Guillermo del Toro’s Stepford Wives staged on the set of the rose garden from the animated Alice in Wonderland. A femme fairy tale that takes its over-the-top, Literotica-ready premise refreshingly seriously despite the inherent camp of its (sumptuous) costume & production design.

5. Read or Not A list of things that make this Clue & You’re Next genre mashup immensely enjoyable: the careful attention to costume design, the Old Dark house sets, Samara Weaving, Aunt Helene, that “Hide & Seek” novelty record and, most importantly, the rapid escalation of its final ten minutes into full unrestrained delirium. Great nasty fun.

6. Saaho A Indian action blockbuster that opens as a fairly well-behaved Fast & Furious rip-off in its first hour, then pulls an outrageous twist I’ve never seen in an action film before, and finally reveals its title card and the announcement “It’s showtime!” The next two hours are then a throw-it-all-in-a-blender mix of Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious, The Matrix, John Wick, Iron Man, Fury Road and practically every other action blockbuster in recent memory you can name. Pure maximalism.

7. Pledge A nasty little VOD horror about a fraternity rush week from Hell. The dialogue and performances are alarmingly good for something on its budget level, which makes it all the more horrifying when characters you kinda like are tortured in extreme gore by frat bro monsters for a solid hour of “hazing.” It also sidesteps a lot of the usual misogyny of the torture porn genre by making both the victims & villains All-American macho types.

8. Good Boys Superbad is often praised for its final emotional grace notes shared between teen-boy BFFs who’ve struggled to maintain a tough masculine exterior throughout their entire preceding gettin’-laid adventures, to the detriment of their relationship. Here, the earnest vulnerability & emotional grace notes are constant & genuine from frame one, providing some much-needed hope for the men of the future. These are very good boys.

9. Braid Two amateur drug dealers escape police scrutiny by returning to the childhood home of a mentally unwell friend who’s trapped in a never-ending game of violent make-believe. A total mess but also a total blast. Gorgeous costumes & sets, gloriously self-indulgent film school cinematography, and genuinely shocking over-the-top turns in the “plot” every few beats. Think of it as Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era.

10. War Between this & Saaho, my two favorite action movies of the year are both big budget, Twisty blockbusters from India. This one is basically a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. It’s 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.”

11. Glass M. Night Shyamalan explodes his small-scale women-in-captivity thriller Split into an MCU-scale superhero franchise, but hilariously dodges all the accompanying genre spectacle that his budget can’t afford. I am very late to the table as a Shyamalan apologist, but by the time I was the only person in the theater cackling at his attempt to connect the mythology of his own cameos in Split & Unbreakable into a cohesive narrative arc, I was converted for life. What an adorable nerd.

12. Crawl A lean, mean, single-location creature feature in which a father-daughter duo fights off killer CG alligators during intense hurricane-related flooding. Only could have been improved by an alternate ending where they survive the storm only to discover that the entire planet has been taken over by gators while they were trapped inside. Should have ended with gators piloting the “rescue” choppers.

13. Escape Room Basically the ideal version of Saw, with all the nasty torture porn & (most of) the nu-metal removed for optimal silliness. All storytelling logic & meaningful dialogue/character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, truly preposterous gimmick: an escape room, except For Real.

14. The Head Hunter A medieval monster slayer seeks to add the head of the beast that killed his daughter to his trophy collection. An impressive feat in low-budget filmmaking that knows it can’t convincingly stage battle scenes on its production scale, so it makes up for it by leaning into what it can do well – mostly delivering grotesque creature designs & a nihilistic mood.

15. Booksmart Maybe not always the most hi-larious example of the modern femme teen sex comedy (in the recent The To Do List/Blockers/Wetlands/Slut in a Good Way tradition) but one with an unusually effective emotional core and more Gay Stuff than the genre usually makes room for. If nothing else, it felt good to know that the kids of Gen-Z are more than alright.

16. Greener Grass A warped Adult Swim-style comedy of manners about overly competitive soccer moms, featuring performances from D’arcy Carden, Mary Holland, Janicza Bravo, Beck Bennett, and similar Los Angeles comedy folks. Total illogical chaos and menacing irreverence from start to finish, with a particular debt owed to John Waters’s post-Polyester suburban invasion comedies.

17. The Breaker Upperers A New Zealand comedy about professional break-up for hire artists, a premise that’s pretty much a wholesome 2010s update to Dirty Work by way of Taika Waititi. Zings quickly & efficiently with incredibly well-defined characters, like a The Movie adaptation of a sitcom that’s already been going for years & years.

18. The Banana Splits Movie A SyFy Channel Original that’s somehow a genuine delight? It imagines a world where its eponymous Hanna-Barbera children’s show starred killer animatronic robots instead of failed actors in mascot costumes. Goofy & violent enough to be worthwhile despite how thin its character work is (with some especially nasty practical gore gags), which is more than you can say for most of the originals that network broadcasts.

19. Countdown Beyond just appreciating that there was a mainstream horror about a killer smartphone app in megaplexes this past Halloween, I admired this for adding three very distinct angles to the technophobic Killer Internet subgenre: the eerie unknown of user agreement text that no one reads; the startling menace of app notifications that unmute themselves every phone update; and car backup cam jump scares.

20. CATSTom Hooper’s deranged stage musical adaptation is the exact horned-up, ill-advised CGI nightmare that Film Twitter has been shouting about for months on end and I’m happy it’s been celebrated as such. Admittedly, though, I was absolutely exhausted by pro film critics’ competition to see who could dunk on the film online with the loudest or the funniest zingers, which tempered my enthusiasm before I got to enjoy its spectacular awfulness for myself (opening week!). As such, I suspect this is the camp gem of 2019 that will improve the most in years to come, once the hyperbolic discourse around it settles and it remains just as bizarre as ever.

-Brandon Ledet

Monos (2019)

There’s a mystery at the core of Monos that has nothing to do with plot reveals or concealed identities among its characters. The mystery is mostly a matter of getting your bearings. What’s clear is that we’re spending a couple tense hours in the Amazon rainforest with a teenage militia as they struggle to maintain control over a political hostage and a sustenance-providing milk cow. The details surrounding that circumstance are continually disorienting as the whos, whys, and whens of the premise are kept deliberately vague. The temporal setting could range from thirty years in the past to thirty years into the apocalyptic future, limited only by the teen soldiers’ codenames being inspired by 80s pop culture references like Rambo & Smurf. The political ideology of The Organization that commands this baby-faced militia is never vocalized, hinted at only by the fact that the mostly POC youth are holding an adult white woman (the consistently wonderful Julianne Nicholson) hostage at gunpoint. The film doesn’t waste any time establishing the rules of the world that surround this violent, jungle-set microcosm. Instead, it chooses to convey only the unrelenting tension & brutality that defines the daily life of this isolated tentacle of a much larger, undefined political resistance. It’s maddening – purposefully so.

The reason Monos gets away with this stubborn refusal to establish a solid contextual foundation for its audience is that the sights, sounds, and performances that flood the screen are consistently, impressively intense. We’re estranged in a remote, lush jungle Where The Wild Things Go Too Far. The mountainside cliffs open to cloud formations the size of metropolises; the river rapids seemingly threaten to crush the (mostly unknown) teenage actors before our eyes. As the kids devolve from disciplined soldiers to wild animals without the watchful eye of an authority figure, they become a punishing force of Nature themselves. What starts as a jubilant celebration of freedom & autonomy—with recreational mushroom trips, fireside cunnilingus, and history’s most irresponsible gunplay—inevitably erupts into cruel, purposeless violence. They begin the film waging war on an outside, unseen enemy but eventually only wage war among themselves, almost as if they were rowdy children with guns. This constant, unrelenting mayhem is chillingly scored by Mica Levi in what very well may be her finest work to date (in film at least; I’m still a huge fan of her pop album Jewellery). The downward trajectory of Monos is from barely contained chaos to total, irrevocable chaos, which is more of a recognizable distinction than you might expect.

A lot of critical coverage of this film has understandably compared it to works like Apocalypse Now & Lord of the Flies, but to me it felt more like Nocturama of the Jungle. The clinically precise way these violently horny, prankish children (whose sexuality is just as fluid as their morals) are framed makes for a wonderfully rewarding contrast between form & content. Like in Nocturama, their innocent naivete and stylish teenage cool are somehow never lost even when they’re at their most despicably violent, even when we’re unclear what all this mayhem is meant to accomplish. Ultimately, though, I think I preferred the structure of Nocturama much better to Monos’s, as that film’s own disorienting mystery shifts & mutates in monumental ways – so that its two warring halves almost feel like entirely separate films. By contrast, Monos fully commits to one constant, unwavering tone from start to finish; we never know exactly what’s going to happen next, but we do know how each upcoming event is going to feel. The filmmaking craft & mountainsize ambition of this picture is consistently impressive from scene to scene, but its commitment to a single tonal effect—tense descent into disorder & mayhem—makes it frustrating to emotionally connect with, even after you get past the mystery of its context & purpose.

-Brandon Ledet

War (2019)

In his (excellent) collection of essays on Hawaiian-born schlockteur Albert Pyun, Radioactive Dreams, Torontonian film critic Justin Decloux speculates on why a cult-ready filmmaker he loves dearly never found their proper audience. Decloux laments, “There’s no major genre community for action films like there is for horror.” That quote has been rattling around in my head recently while watching big-budget Indian action spectacles like War, Saaho, and 2.0 on the big screen with relatively sparse audiences. Of course, the main difference there is that these Bollywood & Tollywood productions do draw sizeable crowds in their home country; they just aren’t drumming up much enthusiasm in America – unless you count “Get a load of this! LOL” viral videos of out-of-context clips being shared on social media platforms for cheap mockery. They should be getting the same attention & admiration Hong Kong martial arts films earned through VHS circulation in the 80s & 90s, as they’re pushing a corner of cinema built on pure excess to more of a delirious extreme than any Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible, or John Wick-type American franchises could dare to claim. I mean, those doesn’t even have built-in dance breaks between the gunfights.

Speaking of American action cinema and the 1990s, the latest in American-exported action offerings from Bollywood is essentially a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. War is 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium-size guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super-soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.” If Saaho played like a pastiche of 2010s action franchises of the Fast & Furious variety, this ultra-patriotic, muscled-out brodown between two secretly-in-love soldiers is very much modeled after the post-Bruckheimer 90s blockbuster. Its fetishization of missiles, biceps, and allegiance to the flag feels like a return to a bygone era of action spectacle – except now its embellished with You’ve Got Served-style dance competitions and a full-on Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming stage show. Action movies are a cinema of excess, so the mainstream Indian sensibility of mixing all genres & tones into every three-hour flood of wall-to-wall entertainment fits the genre perfectly. Intricately choregraphed martial arts sequences & acrobatic parkour chase scenes mix with handheld cinematography, incrementally preposterous plot twists, and double bass-pedal stadium rock to create a truly overwhelming wallop of action movie excess. And then the usual genre-blending touches of Bollywood Musical fantasy & romance pile on to make the whole thing feel just that much more gargantuan. It’s a wonder to behold, even as something that follows a vintage story template.

Homoeroticism always simmers under the surface in this kind of militaristic beefcake, but it really does feel like War is on the verge of vocalizing that tension outright. Its assassination stakeouts are bathed in bisexual lighting. When the younger soldier’s ability to track down his mentor without losing his cool is called into question, the commanding officer protests “You love him.” The soldier responds, “Not more than I love my country.” When he finally faces off against this rogue superior, he complains, in hurt, “You were like a god to me.” And then there’s all the staring. Whenever our two competing super-soldiers share the screen, their eyes lock with an intense, electric bond no distraction can break. When a female romantic love interest is introduced halfway into the massive runtime, she’s quickly fridged and swept out of the way – but not until after she playfully suggests her soldier beau is distracted as a lover because she has a “Wife? Girlfriend? Boyfriend?” back home. If only she knew. In all honesty, this palpable man-on-man desire isn’t that out of the ordinary for big, muscled-up action movies of this ilk. It only stands out more here because, unlike in the 90s Michael Bay vehicles it echoes, it doesn’t waste any time pretending that femme bodies are the eye candy on display. Its two dueling stars, Hrithik Roshan & Tiger Shroff, are carefully torn out of their clothes in nearly every action sequence to display the perfectly sculpted masc physiques underneath. Equally bare bikini babes are in short order and are quickly disregarded to get to the main course: abs & pecs, and everyone’s invited to dig in.

Whether or not American audiences ever catch onto how deliriously fun these Indian action blockbusters can be doesn’t matter all that much; they’re doing just find without us. If you ever find yourself wishing that a Fast & Furious sequel were just a little more excessive or that Tom Cruise would take a break from jumping out of planes to sing & dance for your entertainment, however, just know that the perfect action blockbusters are already out there – and they’re likely playing at a nearby megaplex (AMC Elmwood, if you’re reading this in New Orleans). You’re just not going to hear much American fanfare about them, because action cinema is for some reason lacking the same communal enthusiasm we afford other genre novelties like horror & sci-fi. They can also be wonderfully gay if you squint at them the right way, which is a plus for any genre.

-Brandon Ledet