Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021)

Madman actor Nicolas Cage collaborated with madman genre filmmaker Sion Sono on a dystopian horror-Western set in the futuristic nuclear wastelands of Japan.  Everything about that team-up sounds like an easy slam dunk, but instead it’s a lazy layup that barely makes it through the hoop.  Prisoners of the Ghostland is overloaded with vivid pop art iconography, surprisingly effective creep-outs in its momentary stabs at horror, a plot bonkers enough to rival Hell Comes to Frogtown . . . and yet it’s somehow near-indistinguishable from most of Cage’s late-career goof-offs.  It’s amusing enough as a Nic Cagian novelty, but it’s shockingly inessential considering the pedigree of the director behind it (whose film Suicide Club is among my all-time personal favs).

In Hell Comes to Frogtown fashion, Nicolas Cage plays a violent criminal on a mercenary mission to retrieve a missing woman from the nuclear wastelands, locked into a security device that will explode his limbs, head, and testicles if he steps out of line.  His target for retrieval is a runaway sex slave (Sofia Boutella) who’s better off staying lost in the desert than under the thumb of the captors paying for her return.  Will the cold-hearted brute warm to his doomed captive and fight for her freedom instead of trading her in for freedom & cash?  The answer to that question is obvious, but it’s also obvious that the plot doesn’t matter as much as the vibrant comic book swordfights & gun battles that illustrate it.  They do look cool, but that’s about all they do.

Like a lot of late-career Nic Cage oddities, Prisoners of the Ghostland‘s major downfall is that it recalls too many of the actor’s previous stunt performances to stand out on its own as anything especially novel.  Between its echoes of the missing-girl mission from Wicker Man, the hotrod-revving macho posturing from Drive Angry, and the dystopian gloom of Mandy, Prisoners of the Ghostland plays like a Greatest Hits collection of Nic Cage meme movies.  The real shame about that is losing Sion Sono’s voice among the whispers-and-screams performances of Cage and his cast of fellow caricatures.  Sono’s visual iconography is gorgeously realized here—especially in the wasteland’s creepy mannequin masks and the village’s blood-spraying samurai swordfights—but it overall feels more like a Nic Cage movie than a 50/50 collaboration.  The two of them should make beautiful music together, but it ends up feeling like a solo project.

Nicolas Cage had an interesting year.  Instead of starring in a dozen DTV action snoozers and a couple genuinely interesting outliers, he appears to have been much pickier than usual when choosing his projects.  Cage only starred in three movies released in 2021.  Going into the year, Prisoners of the Ghostland promised to be his Mandy-scale knockout, but that honor ended up going to a quiet drama about the art of fine dining.  It also looked like it might be the most fun performance he’d put in all year, but even by that metric it was outdone by a single-location thriller where he fights killer Chuck E. Cheese style animatronics (a movie that appears to be very popular among furries, if my anecdotal observations mean anything).  Instead, it ended up being the mediocre middle ground between those two competing features, which is not at all what you want to feel about a Cage/Sono team-up.

For everyone playing along at home, here’s the official 2021 Nic Cage Movie Power Rankings:

-Brandon Ledet

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

When I Get Home (2019)

When I Get Home is a feature-length music video from R&B singer-songwriter Solange, who has presented the work as an “inter-disciplinary performance art film” and a companion piece to her album of the same name. As such, the film has been projected in select art museum spaces and arthouse movie theaters across the country (including NOMA and The Broad in New Orleans) instead of being quietly shoveled off to streaming platforms like so may “visual albums” have in recent years, despite their lofty cinematic ambitions. I went into my screening When I Get Home not being especially familiar with Solange’s work as a musician (despite her status as an adopted New Orleans local), but still wanting to support projects like this, Lemonade, and Dirty Computer getting the proper theatrical treatment – as they often prove to be among the best filmmaking achievements of their respective years. I’m a huge sucker for the feature-length music video as a medium; it’s a format that’s primed to reach levels of #purecinema ecstasy that traditional narrative features are often too weighed down by plot & logic to achieve, as it’s free to experiment with the basic sensory combination of visuals + sound that defines cinema in the first place without being distracted by any other concerns. When I Get Home is no exception there. It’s pure visual poetry, the exact transcendent visual lyricism we look for when we venture out for Art Movies at the cinema, which are sadly in short supply as of late (at least through proper distribution channels).

The “home” referred to in this title is not New Orleans, but rather Solange’s nearby hometown of Houston, TX. Although the film does not follow a clear plotline the way Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer video anthology project did last year, this concept of examining Houston as a homeland does serve as a unifying theme for When I Get Home. This is a kind of R&B sci-fi acid Western portrait of the Black people of Houston that reaches more for poetry than it does for clear messaging. Traditional Black cowboys & cowgirls on horseback trot through the Texan deserts that surround the city, as well as the more rural suburban environments that define its borders. The crisp, geometric lines of Houston’s downtown business district present the city as a modern space as well (albeit one somewhat stuck in the sensibilities of the 70s & 80s), and that architecture is abstracted throughout the film as a backdrop for a series of high-fashion photo shoots. We also jump from this stylish present into a peculiarly kitschy retro-futurism, where a Barbarella-type astronaut stripper drags a sparking spaceship motherboard through the desert (in heels!) and glitchy agriculture robots with giant dongs dance under a crop duster in a sports-stadium-turned-future-farm. It’s a bewildering collection of past-present-future imagery that’s most clearly tied together by Solange’s constant soundtrack – which includes Houstonian touches throughout among its melancholy vocals & synthy flourishes (like DJ Screw chops & tape-warps and lyrical references to “candy paint”) to keep the picture on-theme. This is a sprawling multimedia work that invites subjective interpretation more than straightforward communication, but it does amount to a stunning portrait of Black life in Houston across time when considered in total.

What really lands When I Get Home close to my own heart is the way it juxtaposes high-art formalism with pedestrian Digital Age media like text messages & YouTube clips – a combination that I will always be on the hook for. So much of this film operates like an ethereal art piece dedicated to seeking pristine beauty in every frame that it’s outright jarring when these sensual pleasures are interrupted with Power Point-level animation graphics and flip phone-quality online found-footage. I couldn’t get enough of it. I’ve seen dozens of feature films from 2019 so far and, yet, there’s a montage in this where Solange adjusts the webcam on her laptop over & over again that I swear is the most invigorating thing I’ve seen on the big screen all year. There are more affordable, wide-ranging means of production in filmmaking than ever before, yet most of the tech that’s available to us in our daily lives (even in just the tools we use to record & broadcast our day via social media) are often locked out of inclusion in Legitimate Cinema. Already freed from these concerns a both as a music video and as a multimedia collage, When I Get Home uses every tool at its disposal to create its surreal Houstonian dreamscape, and its most effective moments often come across when its imagery look cheapest – if not only through the virtue of contrast. There’s also a kind of overexposed photography aesthetic about its high-art vignettes that ties them into the more pedestrian online imagery, as it affords the film the patina of a well-selected Instagram filter (even though these images were mostly recorded on actual celluloid). There’s something vitally honest and comprehensive about this high-low filmmaking inclusivity that I found more daring & exciting than most Real Movies I’ve seen projected in theaters all year.

The synth-heavy, off-center musical compositions in the film are phenomenal. The fashion, sculpture, choreography, and makeup artistry on display are exquisitely composed & presented in surreal juxtaposition with their locales. Its vision of an eternally black, mystical Houston is pure cinematic poetry. Even the old-fashioned cowboy aesthetic of this Black Houston portraiture (complete with exaggerated Spaghetti Western zoom-ins) is remarkably well timed, considering “Old Town Road’s” year-long dominance of the Billboard charts. When I Get Home is not a novelty act or a meme-in-motion like that Lil Nas X hit, however, no matter how much irreverent humor and dirt-cheap online imagery it weaves into its more pristine cinematic impulses. This is a work of pure artistic ambition, unconcerned with the limitations of its medium that are usually dictated by commercial concerns (despite it effectively being an advertisement for its accompanying album, in longstanding music video tradition). My only disappointment when leaving the theater was that I didn’t get to see Dirty Computer or Lemonade presented in the same proper theatrical environment, as these visual album projects really are pushing cinema forward as an artform in a way few other modern genres even dare to attempt.

-Brandon Ledet

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The Coen Brothers’ last feature, Hail, Caesar!, was one of my very favorite films of 2016 and one of my all-time dearest favorites from the directors’ mighty catalog. It’s a testament to how little interest I have in the Western as a genre, then, that it took me so long to catch up with the Coens’ follow-up to that philosophical Old Hollywood farce. Readily available on Netflix for months, nominated for several Academy Awards, and elbowing its way to the top of many critics’ Best Films of 2018 lists (including James’s), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs should have registered as must-see-ASAP material in the scramble to catch up with the best films 2018 had to offer. Early in its runtime, I even felt foolish for having let it cool on the shelf for so long, as its opening ten minutes are an energizing, over-the-top subversion of a genre that normally bores me to tears. My appreciation quickly plummeted from there, however, as it more often participated in the standard tones & tropes of the classic Western without subversion or update – sometimes to disturbing political implication, often to by-the-numbers tedium. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t transcend genre so much as it gleefully rolls around in it.

This is an anthology of Western tales with an elegantly simple wraparound: an illustrated hardcover collection of short stories set in the Old West titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (And Other Tales of the American Frontier.” As a disembodied hand flips the pages of the book it becomes clear why the titular story was highlighted as a standout and the other tales were grouped together beneath it. Coens veteran Tim Blake Nelson stars as the eponymous Buster Scruggs, parodying the exact smiling, singing cowboy archetype from Old Hollywood Westerns that Alden Ehrenreich played in Hail, Caesar!. Against the intensely artificial desert backdrops & drunken saloon shootout settings of classic cowboy musicals, Buster Scruggs exists as a kind of Bugs Bunny anarchist – mugging directly to the audience while enacting a brutal trail of slapstick violence. The segment’s Looney Tunes-level exaggeration of the typical Western’s brutality and anarchic mockery of its usual somber adherence to a strict moral code were a welcome subversion of a genre that could use some shaking up. It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the film felt so grim & macho (and weirdly racist) in the exact ways I’m usually bored with in this genre template.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a wonderful novelty in isolation; it’s the “Other Tales of the American Frontier” that drag this anthology down into regressive tedium as a collection. The Coens’ usual fixation on the philosophy & brutality of Death are perfectly at home with the genre – to the point where they get perilously uncomfortable with its worst trappings. Tall tales of brutish men fearlessly carving out a space for themselves in harsh, untamed terrain, nary a woman in sight; tone-deaf vignettes of white celebrities playing cowboy by slaughtering the indigenous nations of the land without subversion or critique; the indignity of having to continue looking at James Franco: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is so often an unpleasant, outdated bore that by its final segments it’s difficult to remember all the way back (over two hours earlier) to the live-action cartoon subversion that opened the show. There’s something to be admired in how the Coens use the avatar of Buster Scruggs, billing him as The Misanthrope, to exaggerate the way their cruel, ironic pessimism is often interpreted by critics despite their ostensible role as singing, dancing entertainers, before then leaning into the exact prolonged misanthropy they’re too often dinged for. The problem is the contrast between those two modes – the self-parody and the business-as-usual – is unfavorable to the majority of the runtime.

As someone who’s bored by Westerns almost by default and doesn’t have the same scholarly, intensive interest in the Coens as a lot of serious Film Nerds do, I’m probably the exact wrong voice to weigh in on this film’s merits. After several unsuccessful attempts to watch their much-beloved No Country for Old Men in its entirely without falling asleep, for instance, my opinion here is likely not to be trusted. Either way, I do believe “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is worth a look. I just don’t think the “Other Tales of the American Frontier” have much to offer beyond what you’d expect from the “Coen Brothers Western” premise of the anthology.

-Brandon Ledet

Let the Corpses Tan (2018)

Let the Corpses Tan is a fascinating convergence of things I love to see on the screen and things I could not care less about. Directed by the married duo behind the psychedelic giallo freakout The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, the film is a highly stylized, hyperviolent indulgence in over-the-top depictions of sex, violence, and outsider art. It’s also a loving pastiche of the Spaghetti Western, one that details a never-ending shootout between cops & robbers fighting to the death over stolen gold. Westerns aren’t my usual genre of choice and although Let the Corpses Tan largely avoids the gruff, macho posturing and ruminations over codes of Honor that typically bore me in the Western pic, I couldn’t help but be exhausted by it all the same. This is a film that deliberately survives on the virtues of its aesthetics, so I don’t feel too bad in admitting that its choice of genre & locale was largely the only elements at play preventing me from falling in love. If these same tones & tactics were set in a haunted graveyard or a spaceship instead of the desert I would have been a lot more enraged with the gorgeous display on the screen; it’s petty but it’s true.

A small crew of boneheaded brutes take refuge at a remote artists’ retreat in the desert after stealing a truckload of solid gold bars. When a young woman kidnaps her child against a custody order and arrives at the retreat unannounced, unconnected to the robbery, she brings police scrutiny that explodes the already tense situation into a day-long shootout. The story behind the gun violence is treated like a necessary evil so that directors Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani can get to the detail-obsessive filmmaking indulgences that really excite them: biker cops in fetish gear reaching for their holstered guns; kinky fantasies involving outdoor piss play & bondage; jolts of desert-set psychedelia reminiscent of titles like Phase IV, The Velvet Vampire, and Altered States, etc. The hour by hour detailing of the cops & robbers shootout (as told & retold from various angles) can be a bit of a chore, making Let the Corpses Tan feel twice its 90min runtime. However, the detailed aesthetic Cattet & Forzani evoke between the film’s creaky black leather & gold glitter-smeared nude bodies is undeniable in its in-the-moment effect. Its blasé attitude shared between artists & thieves who think nothing of “killing all the cops on Earth” is also infectiously punk, especially considering that this is a genre I typically associate with Conservative grumps.

When Let the Corpses Tan sings it’s a gorgeous, badass free-for-all of detail-obsessed filmmaking. When it drags it plays a little like a dime-a-dozen Tarantino knockoff the world has already seen far too much of in the last two decades, Thankfully, it sings more than it drags, and the strength of its imagery – whether a highway robbery disguised by Frankenstein masks, a stream of glittery gold piss snaking through the desert sand, or the simple lighting of a cigarette – is what sticks with you longer than its overly familiar gene beats. Even beyond its debt to the Western template in general — Spaghetti or otherwise — Let the Corpses Tan has to contend with plenty of other recent highly-stylized, desert-set gore fests that threaten to dampen its novelty. It’s like Revenge, but less political; it’s like The Bad Batch, but not as boring; it’s like Bone Tomahawk, but not latently racist. The modern genre film landscape is overflowing with so many riches, both in new releases and in Blu-Ray reissues of long-lost classics, that it’s extremely difficult for any isolated title to stand out as a one-of-a-kind-novelty. Between Let the Corpses Tan, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, and their debut Amer (which I also found a little patience-testing, to be honest), Cattet & Forzani have proven that they can do so with ease, as long as their chosen genre is something that sparks your interest on its own merits. I enjoyed this one immensely at times and fought off the approach of boredom at others. Here’s to hoping they make their next one about something more my speed, like a pro wrestling tournament or a witch’s coven; I’ll be watching either way.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 36: True Grit (1969)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where True Grit (1969) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.” One of his examples includes “when John Wayne puts the reins in his teeth and gallops across the mountain meadow.” On page 226 he mentions having spotted John Wayne in costume for the film’s production during a studio lot interview with Lee Marvin. On page 250 he details a separate interview with Wayne himself, who shows off his prop rifle from the film.

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “One of the glories of True Grit is that it recognizes Wayne’s special presence. It was not directed by Ford (who in any event probably couldn’t have been objective enough about Wayne), but it was directed by another old Western hand, Hathaway, who has made the movie of his lifetime and given us a masterpiece. This is the sort of film you call a movie, instead of the kind of movie you call a film. It is one of the most delightful, joyous scary movies of all time […] It is not a work of art, but it wouldn’t be nearly as good if it were. Instead, it is the Western you should see if you only see one Western every three years (an act of denial I cannot quite comprehend in any case).” -from his 1969 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

In his original, gleefully enthusiastic review for the 1969 John Wayne Western True Grit, Ebert explains that the film “is not a work of art, but wouldn’t be nearly as good if it were.” This is just a few sentences after he dares to call it “a masterpiece.” I totally relate to the sentiment of those seemingly self-contradictory ideas, as it very much is at peace with how I watch & review movies myself. Ebert’s legacy as a film critic has always been one of subjectivity & populism, so it makes perfect sense to hear him declare a film to be genre-minded fluff in one breath and a stone-cold masterpiece in the next. Where I diverge with him on the topic at hand is in the specific genre he’s praising: Westerns. I’ve given many trashy horror & sci-fi pictures five-star raves over the three years we’ve been blogging here, but Westerns just really aren’t my genre. In fact, part of the reason the Roger Ebert Film School project has been on hold for the past six months (!!!!) is that I was dreading watching True Grit, which has a reputation for being on the best Westerns ever made. Adapted from a popular novel, inspiring a remake & a sequel, and earning John Wayne his sole Academy Award, it’s the kind of genre exercise that should appeal to even heretics like me, who’d rather watch the worst monster movie over the best cowboy thriller any day. Admittedly, True Grit did win me over despite my personal genre boundaries, but not necessarily by being a great movie first and a great Western second. It did so by side-stepping the roadblock I usually have with these Old West narratives: their traditionally macho POV.

If pressured to declare my favorite Western of all time, my answer would like likely be the recent Australian genre-bender The Dressmaker. Essentially reimagining the Western genre as a tonal mashup of Muriel’s Wedding and a 90s John Waters comedy, The Dressmaker is a classic guns-blazing revenge tale in which Kate Winslet takes out an entire town by sewing pretty dresses instead of firing a six-shooter. The Dressmaker is a genre standout to me because it’s an intoxicatingly feminine take on a traditionally masculine genre. To my surprise, despite ostensibly being a John Wayne picture, True Grit works in a similar way. Written for the screen by (McCarthy witch hunt victim) Marguerite Roberts, the film is largely about a bubbly teenage girl defiantly making her way through an intimidatingly macho world. Our plucky protagonist, Mattie (Kim Darby), has a Book of Henry-type preciousness in her willingness to steamroll adults’ wills and run the show. Her mission in the picture in an act of cold-blooded revenge, hiring two macho hard-asses (the drunkest & meanest of the pair being played by John Wayne, naturally) to kill the man who murdered her own father in an act of petty theft. She insists on accompanying the mission into Native territory herself, of course, and the movie builds a lot of tension out the danger she puts herself in by dangerously navigating “a man’s world.” Her presence isn’t nearly as aggressively femme as the energy of The Dressmaker (I likely would have been much more enthusiastic about the film at large if it were, to be honest), but it did help me adjust to the macho power fantasy of gruff Western lore instead of just mentally checking out completely, which is my usual experience with the genre.

I haven’t had many reasons or opportunities in my life to study the John Wayne Western as an artform, so it’s difficult for me to compare his Oscar-winning performance here with his more typical work. The couple times I’ve dealt with Wayne with any critical intent was in the cop thriller Brannigan (which was great) and the fire-fighting epic Hellfighters (which was terrible). But since Ebert is obviously a giddy fan of The Duke, I suspect that will drastically change soon. True Grit is likely as good of a crash course in John Wayne’s Western work as any I could have hoped for, if not only because the movie doesn’t take his heroics too seriously. A mean old US Marshall roped into a revenge mission while in a drunken stupor, you’d think Wayne’s antihero sidekick character would be all macho posturing & no levity. He’s wonderfully contrasted by Kim Darby’s authentic teenage femininity, though. The two butt heads immediately, him warning “I ought to paddle your rump!” and her spitting back that he’s “a sorry piece of trash.” The heart of True Grit is largely in watching the two partners soften to each other even more so than it is their shared revenge mission. The closing line of the film is Wayne shouting, “Come see a fat old man sometime!” jovially to Mattie, who has come to accept him as the drunk uncle she never had (when you might expect him to be closer to a replacement father figure). The drunk bastard even has a tender friendship onscreen with a house cat named General Sterling Pride, whom he snuggles with when he’s too tipsy to get out of bed. Wayne certainly plays the hardened gunfighter archetype he was famous for embodying in the film, one that’s even dangerously macho, but it somehow comes across as adorable instead of grotesque.

There’s plenty to True Grit I couldn’t identify with because of my arm’s distance relationship with the Western genre. The macho posturing, G-rated gun violence, and racist caricatures of any & all PoC that usually kill the mood for me (and, to be frank, bore me) in Westerns are all present & accounted for here. Although I could be tickled by the antiquated phrasing of “Hurry! I’m in a bad way!” when Mattie falls in a rattlesnake pit, the tension of that moment & other various gunfights never truly hit me, to the point where it’s utterly baffling that Ebert describes the film as “scary” in his review. Here’s what I’ll concede, though: if Westerns were my genre of choice, True Grit would likely be one of my favorites. It has a spark of the feminine subversion I loved so much in The Dressmaker, a glimpse into a less macho parallel universe where I wouldn’t generally find these pictures to be insufferably boring.  I suspect my experience with John Wayne Westerns can only go down from there, as Ebert’s love of the genre will probably lead me to far less hospitable territory for outsiders, but I can admit this one got past my typical defenses.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: Equinox Flower (1958)

-Brandon Ledet

Lust in the Dust (1985)

Now that Criterion has given Multiple Maniacs a restorative spit shine for a recent BluRay release, there aren’t many unsung movies left featuring a performance from Divine, the greatest drag queen who ever lived. Starring roles from Divine are especially scarce, particularly ones outside the John Waters oeuvre. That’s what makes Lust in the Dust so tempting as a potential off-road gem. Divine stars in a comedy directed by the ever-charming Paul Bartel (Eating Raul, Death Race 2000, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills) and no one ever talks about it? How could that be? The answer, obviously, is that the movie is a bit of a stinker and would likely have been forgotten by time completely if it weren’t for Divine’s name on the poster. Worse yet, it feels like a dilution & cheapening of the John Waters brand, which already suffers from being treated like ironic kitsch instead of what it truly is: a collection of the greatest films ever made. Waters was asked to direct Lust in the Dust, but declined because he did not pen the script. Frequent Waters collaborator Edith Massey was cast as a sleazy bartender (not a stretch for her) but died before filming began. Divine stars opposite Tab Hunter, her onscreen rival/lover in Waters’s Polyester. The film also arrived in the seven-year gap between Polyester & Hairspray, which makes me wonder if Divine’s departure from the Dreamlanders crew to pursue projects like Lust in the Dust & her disco career means there were other John Waters projects in the works that were derailed in the meantime. Lust in the Dust isn’t without its occasional charms, but it feels like a huge roadblock that likely prevented better art from seeing the light of day.

Speaking of daylight, Lust in the Dust is a textbook demonstration of the horrors of day drag. Shot in the sun-drenched California desert, the film is a bawdy comedy masquerading as a cheapie Western. Divine is tasked to flop sweat her way through dust-coated comedy routines as stale as the cowboy backdrop that flavors them. A thin story about buried treasure, bandits, and bar fights drags its corpse across the desert sand as playful music continually elbows the audience as a reminder that “This is fun! So funny!” A few of the gags do work, but they’re the rare exception to the rule. I was particularly tickled by Divine’s tendency to crush the head of any man that goes down on her. Her costar Lannie Kazan (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame) also gets in a few great one-liners like, “Freeze, hombre, or I’ll be wearing your asshole like a garter,” that remind you that Bartel is usually a super sharp, crass wit. Most of the bits fall dead flat, though. Divine drunkenly falling off a donkey, the small town they raise hell in being called Chile Verde, Divine bashfully pretending she doesn’t want to be gang raped: Lust in the Dust’s major failure is that it isn’t nearly funny enough to justify its own indulgences as an irreverent comedy. Waters was smart to decline the opportunity to direct the picture himself and I’d never want to see my favorite filmmaker tackle something as tired & pedestrian as a Western, but you could bet that if he did the result would be far more energetic & genuinely humorous. Here, the zaniness feels forced and Divine feels weighed down by being tied to an unfunny script instead of being let loose to cause havoc as the no-holds-barred filth monster she truly was.

Lust in the Dust is only a must-see for Divine completists & the morbidly curious. It’s difficult to imagine Western-friendly audiences getting anything more out of it than I did, coming from the perspective of a Waters devotee. Unless you desperately need to see Divine & Tab Hunter share the screen one last time and your copy of Polyester is damaged or missing, I’d advise you to stay as far away as you can manage. It’s best to keep the better memories of Divine alive in our minds than to dilute them with this labored, unfunny dreck. The same goes with the typically wonderful Paul Bartel, really, but it hurts much less to see a dilution of his divinity.

And just so this isn’t a total waste of time, let’s all smile in wonder at the only good thing that came out of this picture: this picture.

-Brandon Ledet

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)

It’s always at least a little frustrating when all a movie does is affirm things you already know. For instance, I already knew from the first film in William Beaudine’s career-concluding Weird West double bill, Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, that I wasn’t likely to enjoy its marquee mate Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Indeed, my second trip to that well was even less rewarding than the first and I had to question exactly why I even do these things to myself, especially since I already knew going in that its title was bound to be its best attribute. That wasn’t my most depressing reaffirmation watching Frankenstein’s Daughter, however. What really got to me was once again facing a truth about myself as an audience that never goes away: I will greedily gobble up any scraps of horror genre schlock put in front of me, but most Westerns put me to sleep, regardless of quality.

Of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, I wrote that the Western end of the film’s horror-Western divide felt like a Halloween-themed episode of Gunsmoke or Bonanza. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter similarly mirrors the lifeless, going-through-the-motions tedium of televised Western serials whenever its titular horror villain is offscreen. It also makes the problem worse by stretching out these gun-slinging adventures to much longer extremes than Beaudine’s other Weird West picture. At the opening of the film I was foolishly excited that it may be an improvement from Billy the Kid Versus Dracula because it begins in Lady Frankenstein’s lab as she experiments on a dead body using her grandfather’s ancient recipe. That excitement soon faded as I realized this is more so a picture about Jesse James’s travels as a pistol-shootin’ romantic.

Two scientists from Vienna, including the titular Lady Frankenstein, set up shop in a small Mexican village to take advantage of two of their most precious resources: electrical storms & disposable laborers (you know, human children). Lady Frankenstein’s experiments in the old abandoned mission she converts to a lab packed with sciency bleep bloop machines have no concern for conquering death, but rather create a strong, mind-controlled slave out of the local undead. Unfortunately, the cruelty in her preposterous form of sci-fi colonialism is abandoned for most of the film’s (very short) runtime to follow the American man who eventually does her in: Jesse James. James’s story is split between planning a bank robbery and getting stuck between the romantic intentions of a local Mexican woman & Lady Frankenstein herself. Neither end of that divide is half as interesting as Lady Frankenstein’s experiments, cheap thrills that have been better pulled off in countless films that are far more entertaining than this one.

If there’s any delight to be found in Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, it’s in the film’s disinterest in maintaining its own sense of world-building. Just like how the vampire in Billy the Kid Versus Dracula is never once referred to as Dracula, Frankenstein’s “daughter” in the film is actually the mad scientist’s granddaughter. Also, when Lady Frankenstein finally creates a successful undead mind-slave out of Jesse James’s hunky buddy, she names the monster Igor for some unknown reason. I guess the production design or the line delivery or a classic “Why? Why?! WHY?!!!!!” reaction made stray moments of the movie humorous, but it never lived up to the potential of its real life outlaw meets supernatural threat premise. I suppose my familiarity with its sister film should’ve meant I already knew that it wouldn’t. I got tricked, once again, into thinking the delights of its schlocky horror elements or its ridiculous title could outweigh the tedium of watching a tedious mid-60s Western. I sorta already knew better, but I watched it anyway and learned nothing in the process.

-Brandon Ledet

Tampopo (1985)

Hailed as the first “ramen western” (a play on the term “spaghetti Western”), Tampopo takes that designation to it’s most extremely literal end, focusing on the title character’s ramen shop as the location of metaphorical quick-draws and high noon showdowns, as well incorporating a variety of loosely connected comedy sketches about food.

The main narrative concerns the arrival of truck driver Gorō (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his sidekick Gun (a young Ken Watanabe) at the barely-afloat ramen shop, Lai Lai, that widowed single mother Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) inherited from her husband. Under Gorō’s tutelage, Tampopo resurrects her shop along with help from a motley crew of unlikely allies: Shōhei (Kinzō Sakura), a chauffeur who has a way with noodles; “The Old Master” (Yoshi Katō), a former surgeon reduced to vagrancy, but possessing a nearly-magical skill with noodle making; and Pisuken (Rikiya Yasuoka), a formerly antagonistic contractor who redesigns the interior of the shop, now renamed “Tampopo” in honor of its proprietress.

Interspersed throughout is the story of a white-clad gangster (frequent Kiyoshi Kurosawa collaborator Kōji Yakusho) and his mistress, who explore the erotic aspects of food. Other shorter one-off scenes include a salaryman upstaging his superiors at a fancy restaurant with his extensive knowledge of haute cuisine, a class of women being taught the Western way of eating spaghetti while a Western patron at a nearby table does the opposite of what their etiquette teacher instructs, a grocer pursuing a food-squeezing woman through the aisles of his market, a man dealing with an abscessed tooth, and a derelict making Tampopo’s son a rice omelette while evading detection by a security guard, among others.

Using tropes that one would normally find in Western genre films, Tampopo paints Gorō as the high plains drifter who wanders into town and saves a local homesteader, except that he does so with his cooking skills and not his guns (although his fists come in handy more than once). There are recurring Western-like themes, like the defeated enemy who becomes a friend (which plays out not just between Gorō and Pisuken but also between Tampopo’s son and the bullies who frequently harass him), the training montage straight out of the original Magnificent Seven, and even an ending scene that plays out as a virtual recreation of the end of Shane. This juxtaposition of Western archetypes and Eastern social rules and concepts make for a delightful and refreshing movie that’s sure to make you laugh and hunger.

Tampopo is available in several DVD releases, but, as always, the Criterion version is most highly recommended.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 25: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert mentions that he lacks a formal film education and that he learned a lot about filmmaking as a craft by visiting sets as a journalist. He writes, “I spent full days on sound stages during movies like Camelot and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, watching a scene being done with a master shot and then broken down into closer shots and angles. I heard lighting and sound being discussed. I didn’t always understand what I was hearing, but I absorbed the general idea. I learned to see movies in terms of individual shots, instead of being swept along by the narrative.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid must have looked like a natural on paper, but, alas, the completed film is slow and disappointing. This despite the fact that it contains several good laughs and three sound performances. The problems are two. First, the investment in superstar Paul Newman apparently inspired a bloated production that destroys the pacing. Second, William Goldman’s script is constantly too cute and never gets up the nerve, by God, to admit it’s a Western.” -from his 1969 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

I often use the “I’m just not into Westerns,” excuse to avoid having to actually engage with films in the genre, but what am I supposed to do when a Western clearly just isn’t into itself? Arriving in the strange middle ground between the big budget Western and the small, ramshackle productions of New Hollywood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is at war with its own nature. It wants to both please the old guard by revisiting a John Wayne era of Hollywood filmmaking, yet side with the existential rebelliousness of its contemporaries like Bonnie & Clyde. I suppose it found the right balance for a lot of people in consolidating those two sides, but I found it to be something of a bland compromise between two spiritually opposing filmmaking styles. Maybe if more of Butch Cassidy‘s sardonic, self-hating spirit were allowed to disrupt its outlaws-on-the-run premise I would have been won over as a modern, Western-ignoring cynic. As is, I found it to be kind of a middling choir.

Paul Newman & Robert Redford, pretty much the dual definition of Hollywood Handsome, star as two train-robbing bandits who find themselves on the run from ever-encroaching lawmen after a job gone bad. Katherine Ross (who’s been popping up in quite a few of these late 60s pictures) tags along as a lover & conspirator and the trio wind up mounting one final stand in South America. That’s a fairly reductive plot synopsis, I’ll admit, but it covers pretty much the entire arc of the film as long as you’re willing to disregard stray sequences where Katherine Ross teaches the boys rudimentary Spanish so they can rob Bolivian banks or flirts innocently with one of them on a bicycle to Bury Bacharach’s “Rain Drops Keep Falling On My Head,” (which was, bafflingly, written for the film). The real hook of Butch Cassidy, though, isn’t the strength of its story, but the then-refreshing casual banter of its two anti-hero protagonists. I’ll admit that aspect of the screenplay does help cut down on the film’s boring, idyllic tough guy Western aesthetic, but the exchanges are too few and far between to amount to much except brief reprieves from the otherwise oppressive stillness of the genre film they disrupt.

Ebert complained in his 1969 review that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid‘s production was too bloated and its pacing was too slow & labored to match the rebellious nature of the spiritually similar (but far superior) Bonnie & Clyde. I can’t disagree with either point. Just as one character remarks to Newman & Redford’s titular bandits, “It’s over. Your time is over. You’re going to die bleeding. All you can do is choose where,” the same feels true of the genre their characters are serving & lightly subverting. The Western genre is in some ways antithetical to the New Hollywood era, since it was such a routine mainstay of the old Studio System formula, especially in this film’s lavishly produced form. You can feel Butch Cassidy attempting to change with the times in its mid-gunfight quipping and its shrugging tagline, “Not that it matters, but most of it is true.” It could have pushed those tendencies a whole lot further, though. One version of the screenplay had Butch & The Kid watching a movie adaptation of their lives in a South American cinema, heckling & nitpicking its perceived inaccuracies. The idea was reportedly cut for being “too over the top,” which is a shame, because it’s the exact kind of blasphemous energy this film needed to be worthwhile as a genre update. I assume I’d get some backlash from more dedicated fans of Westerns as a genre for that stance, but that’s okay. I don’t speak their language.

Roger’s Rating: (2.5/4, 63%)

Brandon’s Rating (2.5/5, 50%)

Next Lesson: Batman (1989)

-Brandon Ledet