Film Review: Swan Song (dir by Todd Stephens)


Once upon a time, Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) was one of the most important citizens of Sandusky, Ohio.  He was the town’s leading hairdresser.  He was the man who the wealthy trusted with their appearance.  When he wasn’t cutting hair, he performed drag as Ms. Pat and when he wasn’t cutting or performing, he built a nice home with his partner.  He often remembers the two of them working in the garden.

All of that is in the past, though.  Pat’s partner died years ago and Pat was reminded of his place in the community when some of his wealthiest clients didn’t even bother to come to the funeral.  Pat lost his business.  He lost his home.  He’s spent the past decade or so living in a nursing home.  Pat may be the best-groomed and best-spoken resident of the nursing home but he’s still definitely a man who is waiting for death.

One day, a lawyer shows up at the home and informs Pat that one of his most faithful clients, Rita Parker Sloan (played by Linda Evans), has died.  Rita had one last request.  She wanted Pat to do her hair and makeup for the funeral.  At first, Pat is hesitant.  His memories of Rita are not particularly pleasant.  But finally, he decides to do it.  He escapes from the nursing home and starts to walk to the funeral home.  To do Rita’s makeup, he’s going to need supplies, some of which haven’t even been existed since the 80s.  Unfortunately, he has no money and, as he soon discovers, his old home no longer exists either.  The world has changed.

As quickly becomes clear, there’s more to Pat’s journey than just wanting a final chance to do Rita’s hair.  As he walks through the town, he tries to reconnect with his past, just to discover that much of his past has been torn down.  His old beauty shop is under different management.  His old house has been torn down.  Few people seem to remember or recognize him.  One of the few people who does remember Pat is his former protégé, Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge), who now basically hates his guts.  Meanwhile, Rita waits in the funeral home, her hair and makeup a mess.

Released last year, Swan Song is an imperfect but ultimately touching movie.  The shadow of death hangs over almost every scene.  It’s not just that Pat is doing one last favor for the deceased Rita.  Nor is it just that Pat is haunted by memories of his dead partner.  (The scene where Pat visits his grave is one of the most effective in the movie, thanks to Kier’s heartfelt performance.)  It’s the fact that Pat himself knows that he’s getting older and he only has a certain amount of time left.  His walk across Sandusky is not just about traveling to the funeral home.  It’s also his final chance to see the world, remember the past, and experience how things have changed (or not changed as the case may be).  The journey is about Pat coming to terms with his anger, his sadness, and his past.  It’s also about Pat’s desire to go out the same way that he’s always lived, on his own terms.

As I said, it’s not a perfect film.  There are a few scenes that threaten to get a bit mawkish.  But even the most overwritten scenes are saved by the brilliant lead performance of Udo Kier, who gives a wonderfully complex performance as Pat.  Since the 70s, Kier has been a mainstay in European exploitation cinema.  He stared in Flesh For Frankenstein and Blood For Dracula.  He had key supporting roles in two Dario Argento films.  He appeared in art films, horror films, dramas, comedies, and thrillers.  He’s appeared in blockbusters and small indie films.  At times, it can seem like Kier is one of those actors who basically accepts anything that’s offered to him, regardless of whether the material is worthy of his talents or not.  Kier has appeared in good films and bad and, perhaps because he’s been such a ubiquitous cinematic presence, he’s often been unfairly taken for granted as an actor.  In Swan Song, Udo Kier gives one of his best performances as the sometimes brutally snarky but ultimately kind-hearted Pat Pitsenbarger.  If for no other reason, watch this movie to appreciate the often underrated talent of Udo Kier.  A lesser actor would have turned Pat into a cliché.  Udo Kier transforms Pat into a complex and rather heart-breaking character.

Swan Song is currently streaming on Hulu.

Here Are The Gotham Winners!


The Gotham Awards were held last night and the big winners were CODA and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter.  The Gothams aren’t exactly the biggest or most influential of the Oscar precursors but they were are one of the first so a victory can only help!

The winners are listed in bold:

Best Feature
“The Green Knight”
“The Lost Daughter”
“Passing”
“Pig”
“Test Pattern”

Best Documentary Feature
“Ascension”
“Faya Dayi”
Flee”
“President”
“Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Best International Feature
“Azor”
“Drive My Car”
“The Souvenir Part II”
Titane
“What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?”
“The Worst Person In The World”

Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award
Maggie Gyllenhaal for “The Lost Daughter”
Edson Oda for “Nine Days”
Rebecca Hall for “Passing”
Emma Seligman for “Shiva Baby”
Shatara Michelle Ford for “Test Pattern”

Best Screenplay
“The Card Counter,” Paul Schrader
“El Planeta,” Amalia Ulman
“The Green Knight,” David Lowery
“The Lost Daughter,” Maggie Gyllenhaal
“Passing,” Rebecca Hall
“Red Rocket,” Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch

Outstanding Lead Performance
Olivia Colman in “The Lost Daughter”
Frankie Faison in “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain”
Michael Greyeyes in “Wild Indian”
Brittany S. Hall in “Test Pattern”
Oscar Isaac in “The Card Counter”
Taylour Paige in “Zola”
Joaquin Phoenix in “C’mon C’mon”
Simon Rex in “Red Rocket”
Lili Taylor in “Paper Spiders”
Tessa Thompson in “Passing”

Outstanding Supporting Performance
Reed Birney in “Mass”
Jessie Buckley in “The Lost Daughter”
Colman Domingo in “Zola”
Gaby Hoffmann in “C’mon C’mon”
Troy Kotsur in “CODA”
Marlee Matlin in “CODA”
Ruth Negga in “Passing”

Breakthrough Performer
Emilia Jones in “CODA”
Natalie Morales in “Language Lessons”
Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby”
Suzanna Son in “Red Rocket”
Amalia Ulman in “El Planeta”

Breakthrough Series – Long Format (over 40 minutes)
“The Good Lord Bird”
“It’s A Sin”
“Small Axe”
“Squid Game”
“The Underground Railroad”
“The White Lotus”

Breakthrough Series – Short Format (under 40 minutes)
“Blindspotting”
“Hacks”
“Reservation Dogs”
“Run the World”
“We Are Lady Parts”

Breakthrough Nonfiction Series
“City So Real”
“Exterminate All the Brutes”
“How To with John Wilson”
“Philly D.A.”
“Pride”

Outstanding Performance in a New Series
Jennifer Coolidge in “The White Lotus”
Michael Greyeyes in “Rutherford Falls”
Ethan Hawke in “The Good Lord Bird”
Devery Jacobs in “Reservation Dogs”
Lee Jung-jae in “Squid Game”
Thuso Mbedu in “The Underground Railroad”
Jean Smart in “Hacks”
Omar Sy in “Lupin”
Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Queen’s Gambit”
Anjana Vasan in “We Are Lady Parts”

(Incidentally, I’m probably the only person not involved with the show to have noticed the victory for Philly D.A.  I’m just going to be honest and say that is one of my least favorite results ever.  Philly D.A. was a pure propaganda, nothing more.)

What If Oscar Season Started And No One Noticed, Part 2: Here Are The Gotham Award Nominations


As a sign of how wrapped up I am in this year’s Horrorthon, consider this: the 2021 Gotham Nominations — the first precursor of Awards Season! — were announced on Thursday and I totally missed them!  This is actually not the first year that this has happened.  October is a busy month for me and sometimes, the Gotham noms get missed.

The Gothams, of course, only honor independent films and they have pretty strict rules as far as what they consider to be independent.  The budget has to come in at a certain relatively low amount, for one thing.  So, as a result, a lot of Oscar nominees are not Gotham eligible.  But, at the same time, those Gotham rules also allow some films that otherwise might get overlooked a chance to get some precursor love.  Being nominated for a Gotham is hardly a guarantee that the Academy will remember you.  But it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Better late than never, here are the 2021 Gotham Nominations!  As you’ll notice, the Gotham’s performance awards are gender neutral.  This is the first year that the Gothams have done this.  They also added categories for supporting performances and best performance in a series.

Anyway, here are the nominees:

Best Feature
“The Green Knight”
“The Lost Daughter”
“Passing”
“Pig”
“Test Pattern”

Best Documentary Feature
“Ascension”
“Faya Dayi”
“Flee”
“President”
“Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Best International Feature
“Azor”
“Drive My Car”
“The Souvenir Part II”
Titane
“What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?”
“The Worst Person In The World”

Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award
Maggie Gyllenhaal for “The Lost Daughter”
Edson Oda for “Nine Days”
Rebecca Hall for “Passing”
Emma Seligman for “Shiva Baby”
Shatara Michelle Ford for “Test Pattern”

Best Screenplay
“The Card Counter,” Paul Schrader
“El Planeta,” Amalia Ulman
“The Green Knight,” David Lowery
“The Lost Daughter,” Maggie Gyllenhaal
“Passing,” Rebecca Hall
“Red Rocket,” Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch

Outstanding Lead Performance
Olivia Colman in “The Lost Daughter”
Frankie Faison in “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain”
Michael Greyeyes in “Wild Indian”
Brittany S. Hall in “Test Pattern”
Oscar Isaac in “The Card Counter”
Taylour Paige in “Zola”
Joaquin Phoenix in “C’mon C’mon”
Simon Rex in “Red Rocket”
Lili Taylor in “Paper Spiders”
Tessa Thompson in “Passing”

Outstanding Supporting Performance
Reed Birney in “Mass”
Jessie Buckley in “The Lost Daughter”
Colman Domingo in “Zola”
Gaby Hoffmann in “C’mon C’mon”
Troy Kotsur in “CODA”
Marlee Matlin in “CODA”
Ruth Negga in “Passing”

Breakthrough Performer
Emilia Jones in “CODA”
Natalie Morales in “Language Lessons”
Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby”
Suzanna Son in “Red Rocket”
Amalia Ulman in “El Planeta”

Breakthrough Series – Long Format (over 40 minutes)
“The Good Lord Bird”
“It’s A Sin”
“Small Axe”
“Squid Game”
“The Underground Railroad”
“The White Lotus”

Breakthrough Series – Short Format (under 40 minutes)
“Blindspotting”
“Hacks”
“Reservation Dogs”
“Run the World”
“We Are Lady Parts”

Breakthrough Nonfiction Series
“City So Real”
“Exterminate All the Brutes”
“How To with John Wilson”
“Philly D.A.”
“Pride”

Outstanding Performance in a New Series
Jennifer Coolidge in “The White Lotus”
Michael Greyeyes in “Rutherford Falls”
Ethan Hawke in “The Good Lord Bird”
Devery Jacobs in “Reservation Dogs”
Lee Jung-jae in “Squid Game”
Thuso Mbedu in “The Underground Railroad”
Jean Smart in “Hacks”
Omar Sy in “Lupin”
Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Queen’s Gambit”
Anjana Vasan in “We Are Lady Parts”

New Orleans Film Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (dir by Werner Herzog)


“Do you think fish dream?”

— Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Happy Mardi Gras!

Since today is not only Fat Tuesday but also rapidly coming to a close, I think it’s time for me to share one final New Orleans film review.  Admittedly, though this film takes place and was filmed in New Orleans, it doesn’t feature any Mardi Gras scenes.  However, it does feature a lead performance that is perhaps as bizarre as anything that you’re likely to see in the French Quarter tonight.  Of course, I’m talking about Werner Herzog’s 2009 film, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans.

Whenever I mention this movie to anyone, it only takes a few minutes before they get around to saying, “What was the deal with the iguanas?”  Everyone remembers the two iguanas who would randomly show up throughout the movie.  At one point, they were sitting in a coffee table while Lt. Terrence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) and Sgt. Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) were watching a house across the street.  When McDonagh demanded to know why the iguanas were on his coffee table, Pruit replied, “There ain’t no iguanas.”  McDonagh looked down at them and grinned.  This was followed by several hand-held close-ups of the iguanas, looking around inquisitively while McDonagh kept giving them the side eye.

The iguanas show up a second time, after McDonagh has tricked one gangster into killing another gangster.  “Shoot him again,” McDonagh demands, “his soul’s still dancing!”  Herzog pans over to show us that, indeed, the man’s soul is still dancing next to his corpse.  After the soul gets shot down, an iguana wanders across the floor.

What do the iguanas represent?  Some people think that they actually are meant to be hallucinations.  As the result of a back injury that he received saving a prisoner during Hurricane Katrina, McDonagh has permanent back problems and this has led to him getting hooked on drugs.  The perpetually high McDonagh sees and does a lot of bizarre things over the course of this movie.  Perhaps the iguanas are just a part of his addiction.

Myself, I think the iguanas represent the fact that, no matter what McDonagh and anyone else in New Orleans does over the course of the film, the randomness of nature is going win out in the end.  After all, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens with Katrina, which is perhaps the ultimate example of how helpless modern society is in the face of nature’s whims.  The film takes places in neighborhoods that have yet to recover from the flooding.  Every corner of the film is full of physical, emotional, and mental debris.  McDonagh pops pills and snorts cocaine in an attempt to maintain some semblance of control but ultimately, the iguanas are going to show up regardless of how much control he thinks he has.  Just as how Klaus Kinski, at the end of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, couldn’t keep the monkeys off of his raft, Terrence McDonagh can’t keep the iguanas off of his coffee table.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans apparently started life as a reboot of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film, Bad Lieutenant.  The script (which was credited to William M. Finkelstein) is full of moments that mirror scenes from Ferrara’s film.  Once again, the protagonist is a corrupt police lieutenant who spends almost the entire film fucked up on drugs and whose only friend is a prostitute.  Again, there’s a disturbing scene in which the lieutenant harasses a young woman in a parking lot.  Again, the lieutenant has gambling debts and again, the lieutenant has to solve a horrifying crime.

While promoting his film, Herzog always said that 1) he had never seen Bad Lieutenant and 2) he didn’t even know who Abel Ferrara was.  Judging from the way Herzog directs the film, which is the complete opposite of the approach that Ferrara took to similar material, I’m inclined to believe Herzog.  Whereas Ferrara’s film was a grim and humorless plunge into the depths of Hell, Herzog takes an almost satirical approach to the story.  The running joke throughout Herzog’s film is that the bad lieutenant gets results precisely because he is so thoroughly messed up and incompetent.  The final part of Herzog’s film features so many sudden twists and turns that it’s hard not to conclude that Herzog is poking fun at how American crime films always have to wrap everything up within the final fifteen minutes, regardless of how messy or convoluted their plots may be.  Whereas Ferrara’s film featured Harvey Keitel naked and bellowing in soul-searing pain, Herzog gives us Nicolas Cage grinning, laughing, and apparently having a ball.

This has got to be one of Nicolas Cage’s wildest performances.  He yells.  He bulges his eyes.  He grins maniacally at the strangest moments.  He interrogates a suspect while taking hits off a joint.  Because his character has a bad back, Cage moves stiffly, carrying himself almost as if he were a living Golem.  McDonagh may have his demons but, at the same time, he also seems to be having a blast every time we see him.  Wisely, Herzog also allows the character some quieter moments.  When the lieutenant talks about how he used to imagine there was pirate treasure buried in his back yard or when he and an ex-con sit in front of a gigantic fish tank, Cage gets a chance to show that there actually is something going on underneath all of McDonagh’s bluster.  This not only one of Cage’s most over the top performances but also one of his best.

Herzog not only gets the best out of Cage but also the best out of New Orleans.  He may not make New Orleans look beautiful but he still captures the atmosphere that has made New Orleans one of the most legendary cities in the world.  Cage, Herzog, and New Orleans make for a great combination.

Film Review: The Emoji Movie (dir by Tony Leondis)


 

The Emoji Movie is basically Inside Out, except instead of taking place inside of an awkward teen’s head, it takes place inside of an awkward teen’s phone.  Instead of sharing a universal story about the pain of growing up, it shares a universal story about the pain of having too many lame apps on your phone.  Instead of featuring a melancholy voice performance by Richard Kind as a forgotten toy, it features an annoying voice performance from James Corden as a forgotten emoji.  Instead of being really wise, funny, and sad, the Emoji Movie is dumb, stupid, and idiotic.  Otherwise, it’s just like Inside Out.

Gene (voiced by T.J. Miller) is a Meh Emoji.  He lives in Textopolis.  His job is to look like he’s always meh but instead, he’s always full of emotion and positivity.  His boss, Smiler (Maya Rudolph), says that Gene must be a malfunction and therefore, he has to be deleted.  Gene says, “No, I must discover who I actually am!”  With the help of the forgotten hand emoji, Hi-5 (that would be James Corden), Gene flees from app to app.  (It’s kinda like The Lego Movie but not funny, touching, or clever.)  They track down a hacker named Jailbreak (Anna Faris) and, at one point, they’re all rescued by a blue bird that comes flying over from the Twitter app.  They’re all chased by a bunch of bots and I have to admit that I liked the bots just because they were trying to destroy Gene and Hi-5.  Anything that would have ended James Corden’s lameass Ricky Gervais imitation would have been fine with me.

Nobody (or, at the very least, nobody who writes for this site) is as enthusiastic a capitalist as I am but the naked commercialism of The Emoji Movie really tested my patience.  Essentially, it’s just an 86-minute advertisement with a vapid “Be yourself!” message tacked on.  (If The Emoji Movie was sincere in its message of individuality, it wouldn’t celebrate the idea of people communicating exclusively in emoji.)  Early on, when Gene and Hi-5 escaped into Candy Crush, I rolled my eyes.  Later on, when an awed Gene said, “This is Spotify?”, I nearly threw a shoe at the TV.

(I did enjoy the scene where the Just Dance app got deleted, just because the dancer — who was voiced by Christina Aguilera — let out a terrifying scream as the app collapsed around her.  I’ve always imagined that’s what happens whenever I delete anything.)

Usually, I try to force myself to come up with at least 500 words for every review that I write but the really does seem to be more effort than this movie deserves.  (I was actually tempted to write this review exclusive in emoji but then I realized I was just be playing the movie’s game.)  I will say this: children will like The Emoji Movie because children are stupid.  Ask them again in five years and this will be their response:

 

Shattered Politics #78: American Dreamz (dir by Paul Weitz)


Americandreamz

Nothing ages worse than heavy-handed satire and, if you need proof of that, just try watching the 2006 film American Dreamz.  American Dreamz is a satire of two things that are no longer exactly relevant, the presidential administration of George W. Bush and Simon Cowell-era American Idol.

Dennis Quaid plays President George W. Bush Joseph Stanton.  Stanton has just been reelected to a second term.  One morning, he impulsively decides to read a newspaper for the first time in his life and he ends up having a nervous breakdown.  “The world isn’t black-and-white,” he declares, “Instead, it’s gray.”  Sinking into a deep depression, Stanton isolates himself from the American people and his approval rating starts to plunge.  His evil Chief of Staff (William DaFoe, made up to look like Joe Biden but, I’m assuming, meant to be Dick Cheney) comes up with a plan to restore Stanton’s popularity.  President Stanton will serve as a guest judge on his favorite television show, American Idol American Dreamz!

(To be honest, I think Obama would be more likely to show up as a guest judge than Bush.)

The host of American Dreamz is a self-loathing Englishman named Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant).  Tweed hates both the show and himself.  Early on in the film, he’s literally seeing begging for American Dreamz to be canceled.  However, American Dreamz is the number one show in the country and the show must go on.

Along with President Stanton, the latest season of American Dreamz features a group of contestants who all have dramatically compelling backstories.  Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) emerges as a favorite, largely do to her ability to manipulate the camera and the fact that her well-meaning but simple-minded boyfriend (Chris Klein) was wounded in Iraq.

Oh wow — reality shows manipulate reality and contestants are rarely as innocent as they seem!?

Tell me more, American Dreamz!

Also competing on American Dreamz is Omer (Sam Golzari), a former jihadist who proved to be too clumsy to take part in the various propaganda videos being shot by his terrorist cell.  Omer was sent to America, where his love for show tunes eventually landed him on American Dreamz.  With the finale rapidly approaching, Omer has been instructed to blow both himself and the President up on national TV.

The satire of American Dreamz really wasn’t all that sharp when the film was first released and now, 9 years later, it feels even weaker.  Quaid and Grant both give good performances but the film’s attempts at humor largely fall flat because they’re all so predictable.  It’s not exactly mind-blowing to say that reality TV is fake or that politics has a lot in common with show business.  The film attempts to add some bite to its message by ending with a surprisingly dark twist but it’s just not enough.  Even a dark ending has to be earned.