Mardi Gras Film Review: Easy Rider (dir by Dennis Hopper)


If you are among those who wanted to celebrate Mardi Gras today but couldn’t make it down to New Orleans, fear not!  There is a solution to your problem.  You can always just watch 1969 counterculture classic, Easy Rider.

Easy Rider features one of the most famous Mardi Gras scenes of all time and adding to the scene’s authenticity is the fact that it was actually shot in New Orleans during the celebration.  If you watch the Mardi Gras sequence carefully, you’ll notice that several people on the streets of the French Quarter actually stop and stare directly at the camera.  It reminds you that you’re watching a movie but, at the same time, it also reminds you that you’re seeing something authentic.  Those weren’t just professional extras pretending to get drunk and glaring at Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.  Those were people who were actually in the French Quarter for Mardi Gras and who just happened to end up getting included in one of the biggest cult films of all time.  If you want to know what Mardi Gras was like in the late 60s, this is the film to watch.

At the same time, after watching Easy Rider, you may be find yourself happy to not be in New Orleans today.  As with almost everything else in Easy Rider, Mardi Gras starts out as something exciting and full of promise but it ends as something dark and full of death.  One minute, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Karen Black, and Toni Basil are walking down the streets of New Orleans and having what appears to be a good time.  The next thing you know, they’re in a cemetery and Peter Fonda’s sobbing and talking about his mother’s suicide while Toni Basil and Karen Black are freaking out.  Of the four of them, only Dennis Hopper appears to not be having a bad trip but then again, Hopper is so naturally spacey in Easy Rider that it’s kind of hard to tell.

The next morning, Fonda and Hopper leave New Orleans on their motorcycles and promptly get blown away by two shotgun-toting rednecks in a pickup truck.  It seems a fitting conclusion to a film that celebrates the beauty of the American landscape while, at the same time, suggesting that almost everyone who lives there is a complete and total prick.

Of course, the whole Mardi Gras sequence doesn’t occur until the very end of the film.  The majority of the film deals with the journey to New Orleans.  Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) are two motorcycle-riding drug dealers who have just made a small fortune off of selling cocaine to Phil Spector.  Billy and Wyatt are heading to New Orleans to celebrate and visit a famous brothel.  Wyatt is cool and stoic and always seems to be thinking about something.  Billy is Dennis Hopper.  Easy Rider is often referred to as being a hippie film but neither Billy nor Wyatt is really a hippie.  They’re outsiders and they like to smoke weed but they’re also largely apolitical.  They just want to enjoy the open road.  If anything, they’re beatniks who were born a year or two too late.

As they ride from California to New Mexico, Billy and Wyatt meet plenty of people along the way.  They stop off at a hippie commune and then later, they get harassed by a bunch of rednecks in a diner.  The rednecks are menacing while the hippies are annoying.  The rednecks throw Wyatt and Billy in jail for “parading without a permit.”  The hippies have a mime troupe.  The rednecks drive around with shotguns.  The hippies try to grow crops in the desert.  (I’m enough of a country girl to know that Billy’s right when he scornfully says that nothing that they’re planting is going to actually grow.)  The rednecks are ignorant.  The hippies are smug.  None of them really seem like people that you would want to spend too much time around.

Along the way, Wyatt and Billy temporarily travel with two others.  The hitchhiker is played by Luke Askew.  We never learn his name but he does play a key role in the film when he gives Wyatt the tab of acid that will eventually ruin Mardi Gras.  Meanwhile, George Hanson is an alcoholic lawyer and he’s played by Jack Nicholson.  At the time that the film was shot, Nicholson was on the verge of retiring from acting so he could concentrate on directing and writing.  He took the role and expected, as almost everyone did, that Easy Rider would just be another biker film.  Instead, Easy Rider became a hit and a cultural milestone that not only won Nicholson his first Academy Award nomination but also made him a star.

Interestingly enough, Jack Nicholson is not really that good in Easy Rider.  His attempt at a Texas accent is terrible and you never believe him as someone who has never smoked weed before.  If anything, Luke Askew gives a far better performance than Nicholson and he actually has more screen time as well.  However, I think Nicholson benefited from the fact that George is probably the most likable character in the film.  (Depending on how you feel about Billy and Wyatt, you could argue that he’s the only likable character in the film.)  He’s not a smug hippie nor is he a murderous redneck.  Unlike Wyatt and Billy, he has a job that doesn’t involve selling cocaine to Phil Spector.  Whereas Luke Askew’s Hitchhiker seems like the type of guy who would just love to lecture you about why Vietnam is all your fault, George comes across as being a gentle soul. George is a character that viewers can feel safe identifying with, even if Nicholson is never quite convincing as someone so naive that he fears he’ll freak out after taking one hit off of a joint.

Easy Rider‘s critical reputation tends to go up and down, depending on who you’re reading or talking to.  There’s a tendency, among many critics, to complain that Fonda acted too little while Hopper acted too much.  Personally, I think there’s a lot of hidden wit to be found in Hopper’s performance and I love how annoyed he gets when they’re at the hippie compound.  As for Peter Fonda, he may not have been the most expressive actor but he did capture a certain feeling of ennui.  For most of the film, it’s hard to tell whether there’s anything actually going on in Wyatt’s head.  Then, we follow Wyatt and Billy to that cemetery in New Orleans and we discover that there’s actually quite a bit going on behind Wyatt’s wall of stoicism.  After watching Wyatt curse at a statue while sobbing, we understand why he keeps so much hidden.

When it was released in 1969, Easy Rider was a huge box office success and it inspired every major studio to try to duplicate it’s success with a counter culture film of its own.  (Hopper was given several million dollars and sent down to Peru to make a follow-up to Easy Rider.  The result was The Last Movie, a legendary disaster that temporarily ended Hopper’s career as a director.)  Seen today, Easy Rider is undeniably pretentious but always watchable.  The scenery is beautiful and the Mardi Gras sequence sets the standard by which all other bad trips should be judged.  Most importantly, the film works as a historical document.  Everything about it — from the music to the cultural attitudes to even Hopper’s attempts to imitate Jean-Luc Godard in his direction — makes this film into a time capsule.  Until they invent a time machine that works, Easy Rider is as close as some of us will ever get to experiencing the end of the 60s.

And finally, it’s the ultimate Mardi Gras film, even if it’s main message seems to be that everyone needs to stay the Hell away from Mardi Gras.  Or, at the very least, don’t accept LSD from a scruffy hitchhiker before rolling into New Orleans.  Seriously, the more you know….

(Not Quite A) Mardi Gras Film Review: The Big Easy (dir by Jim McBride)


One of the more surprising things about the 1987 film, The Big Easy, is that there aren’t any big Mardi Gras scenes.

Don’t get me wrong.  Several characters in the film mention Mardi Gras, usually in a semi-mocking way.  And there is a scene in a warehouse where Ellen Barkin and Ned Beatty walk past some fearsome looking floats which Beatty says are being stored there until Mardi Gras.  But that’s pretty much it.

Despite not having any huge Mardi Gras scenes, The Big Easy is essentially a cinematic love letter to New Orleans.  (In fact, one could probably argue that the film is so in love with New Orleans that, by not including any big Mardi Gras scenes, the film is saying, “There’s more to this wonderful city than just beads, boobs, and people throwing up i the streets!”)  While the film does have a plot — technically, it’s both a romantic comedy and a crime drama — the plot is ultimately less important than the city where it takes place.  The Big Easy was shot on location in New Orleans and the camera loves every single street, building, and bridge to be found in the Crescent City.  The Big Easy loves the distinctive music and dialect of New Orleans.  Even more importantly, The Big Easy loves the attitude of New Orleans.  This is perhaps one of the most laid back and nonjudgmental crime films to have ever been made.

Dennis Quaid plays Remy McSwain, a Cajun police detective with a nonstop grin and a cheerfully corrupt nature.  Today, we tend to associate Dennis Quaid with playing grim-faced authority figures and serving as the commercial spokesman for Esurance so it’s interesting to see him here, playing a lovable, charismatic, and undeniably sexy rogue.  Remy may be corrupt but he doesn’t mean any harm.  For the most part, he just takes the occasional bribe and sometimes looks the other way when it comes to certain crimes.  He used at least some of the money to put his younger brother through college so really, how can you hold his lack of ethics against him?

Ellen Barkin plays Anne Osborne, a state district attorney who has been sent to New Orleans to investigate allegations of police corruption.  Anne is serious about doing her job and exposing corruption.  At the same time, she also finds herself falling for Remy, even when she has to prosecute him on charges of taking bribes.  It doesn’t take them long to become lovers.

Together, they have great sex and solve crimes!

Actually, in this case, they really do.  The film opens with the murder of a local mafia boss.  (“We call them wise guys,” Remy says, at one point.)  When more drug dealers start to turn up dead, Remy’s boss, Captain Kellom (Ned Beatty), suspects that a gang war has broken out.  (Two of the drug dealers are found with their hearts missing from their bodies, which leads to a lot of talk about how one of the city’s biggest drug kingpins is into voodoo.  It’s not a New Orleans films without a little voodoo.)  Remy, however, has reason to believe that the murderers could be cops!

As I said before, the film’s plot is less important than the city where it takes place and the people who live in that city.  Director Jim McBride and screenwriter Daniel Petrie, Jr. do a good enough job with the crime plot but it’s obvious that they’re most interested in taking Remy and Anne and surrounding them with a host of eccentric, identifiable New Orleans characters.  As a result, the film is full of memorable performances from character performers like Ned Beatty, John Goodman, Lisa Jane Persky, and Grace Zabriskie.  Even Jim Garrison, the former New Orleans district attorney whose attempt to frame an innocent man for the murder of John F. Kennedy inspired Oliver Stone’s JFK, makes an appearance as himself.

Even without any big Mardi Gras scenes, The Big Easy is an entertainingly laid back tribute to New Orleans.

Mardi Gras Film Review: Gothic Harvest (dir by Ashley Hamilton)


Are you currently heading to New Orleans for Mardi Gras?  Or are you already in New Orleans, getting drunk and dreaming about how many beads you’ll end up with by the end of Tuesday night?  If that’s the case, have fun but be careful.  New Orleans is a town that’s full of ghosts and voodoo.

At least, that’s what the movies would have you believe.  Whenever you see a horror film that’s set in New Orleans, you know that voodoo is going to somehow play into it.  The other thing that you can usually count on is that there will be at least one scene set during Mardi Gras.  Really, that’s not surprising.  Mardi Gras in New Orleans is not only a great party but it’s also uniquely cinematic in a way that Mardi Gras in Dallas never is.

(Yes, we celebrate Mardi Gras in Dallas.  It’s nothing to get too excited about.)

The 2018 film, Gothic Harvest, is all about Mardi Gras and voodoo.  When four college students head down to New Orleans for the party of the year, they have no idea that they’re about to get sucked into a centuries old curse.  When Hope (Abbie Gayle) meets the handsome and enigmatic Gar (Ashley Hamilton, who also directed the film), she goes off with him without bothering to tell her friends where she’s going.  That turns out to be a mistake because it turns out that Gar is a member of a cursed family.  The family is immortal but that immortality comes with a price.  Every year, they have to find and sacrifice a young woman in order to stay alive.  It’s all because the family, centuries ago, ran afoul the queen of New Orleans voodoo, Marie Laveau (Janee Michelle).

Hope’s friends are concerned about her disappearance but they can’t get anyone to help them out.  After all, it’s Mardi Gras and the entire city is full of people who are probably going to wake up in a strange bed with a hangover on Wednesday morning.  However, Hope’s friends do eventually run into an undercover cop named Detective Hollis (Bill Moseley).  Hollis has an impressive beard and brags about how his favorite band is Pantera.  He seems to be a bit strange but he agrees to help the girls look for Hope.

 

Hope, meanwhile, has now met the cursed and immortal Boudine family and, not surprisingly, they’re an interesting group of characters.  What distinguished them from other cursed immortals is that they all seem to be hate being stuck with each other but they hate the idea of dying even more.  So, they keep doing what they have to do even though it makes them all miserable.  The family matriarch is Griselda (Lin Shayne) while her daughter, Amelia (Sofia Mattson), is a self-styled dominatrix.  And then there’s Dolly (Ciara Rizzo), who is obsessed with dolls.

Gothic Harvest is a bit of a strange viewing experience.  This was Ashley Hamilton’s directorial debut and the film itself can be confusing upon first viewing.  The timeline jumps back and forth, from the past to the present, and it can often be hard to keep track of just who is doing what or why.  It’s hard not to feel that the film might have worked better if it had dropped the modern storyline and instead just concentrated on telling the story of how the family came to be cursed.  That said, Gothic Harvest does occasionally achieve a dream-like intensity and Hamilton makes good use of New Orleans’s spooky atmosphere.  This is a flawed film that doesn’t really work but I would still be interested in seeing what Hamilton directs next.

The cast is a bit of a mixed bag.  Hope and her friends are not particularly memorable but Bill Moseley and Lin Shaye are both ideally cast.  Moseley, in particular, appears to be having fun and there’s a great scene where he sits in a truck and recites some of the worst pick-up lines ever.  Finally, Janee Michelle goes totally over the top as Marie Laveau but that’s exactly the right approach to take to the character.  The Queen of New Orleans Voodoo isn’t going to be a quiet or a reserved character.

For those of you celebrating, have fun but use your common sense.  If someone says that he needs to sacrifice you so that his family can continue to live forever, don’t go off with him regardless of how many beads he offers.

 

Mardi Gras Film Review: Lady Behave! (dir by Lloyd Corrigan)


The 1938 film, Lady Behave!, begins with a woman named Clarice (Patricia Farr) getting ready to go out and celebrate Mardi Gras.  Even though Clarice invites her older sister, Paula (Sally Eilers), to come with her, Paula refuses.  Paula has work to do at home.  It’s pretty obvious that this is the way that it’s always been between the two sisters.  Clarice has fun while Paula stays home and waits for her to return.

Fortunately, Clarice does return in the morning.  As she tells Paula, she had a great time during Mardi Gras.  In fact, she had such a great time that she ended up getting married!  She married a wealthy northerner named Stephen Cormack (Neil Hamilton).  The only problem is that Clarice is already married!  She’s totally forgotten that she only recently became the wife of a dissolute playboy named Michael Andrews (Joseph Schildkraut).  By getting married a second time, Clarice has committed bigamy!  She could go to prison for 10 years!

Whatever is Paula to do?

Well, what if she arranges for Clarice to leave the country?

What if she tries to bribe Michael into accepting an annulment?

What if Paula goes up to New York and pretends to be Clarice (because, after all, Stephen was pretty drunk when he married her)?

What is she does all three!?

Of course, when Paula goes up to New York, she discovers that Stephen is out of the country.  She moves into his mansion, where she discovers that his two children — Patricia (Marcia Mae Jones) and Hank (George Ernest) — are convinced that she’s just a gold digger who only wants to steal their father’s money (and, it should be noted, also their inheritance).  When Michael shows up at Stephen’s mansion, he explains to Paula that he needs $10,000 for a horse and he’ll only agree to an annulment if he gets the money.  However, when he meets Patricia and Hank, he tells them that if they pay him $30,000, he’ll help to break up the marriage between Stephen and Paula (who, of course, everyone but Michael thinks is actually Clarice).

Eventually, Stephen shows up and he assumes that Paula actually is Clarice.  Paula and Stephen quickly fall in love and it turns out that Stephen is very serious about his new marriage.  He even wants to take Paula on a honeymoon.  Of course, he thinks Paula is Clarice and Paula is freaking out because they’re not actually married but she wishes that they were.  But, if they did actually get married, Stephen would be guilty of bigamy and then he’d have to leave the country like Clarice and….

Yes, this is one of those somewhat busy screwball comedies where almost every action is motivated by a misunderstanding and where all of the dialogue is extremely snappy.  To be honest, it’s all a bit too hyper.  Though the film originally had a running time of 70 minutes, most of the existing prints are only 57 minutes long.  This film has a lot of plot for only 57 minutes and it’s often difficult to keep track of what’s happening from one scene to the next.  That wouldn’t be a problem if this film starred someone like William Powell and Carole Lombard (or, for that matter, Cary Grant and Myrna Loy) but instead, this film features Sally Eilers and Neil Hamilton, who are likable performers but not quite likable enough to carry the film over it’s rough edges.

On the plus side, Joseph Schildkraut has some very funny scenes as the flamboyant Michael.  And Marcia Mae Jones and George Ernest both do a great work as Stephen’s paranoid children.  They consistently made me laugh.  Otherwise, Lady Behave! is a bit too frantic for its own good.

Mardi Gras Film Review: On Hostile Ground (dir by Mario Azzopardi)


Uh-oh!  New Orleans might be in trouble!

In the 2000 film, On Hostile Ground, John Corbett plays a geologist named Matt Andrews.  Matt has been asked to investigate why two giant sinkholes have suddenly opened in New Orleans.  The mayor’s press secretary, George Regan (Peter Stebbins), hopes that Matt will just do a perfunctory investigation and then declare the sinkholes to be no big deal.  After all, it’s nearly time for Mardi Gras and it would be an economic disaster to cancel this year’s celebration.  One can only assume that, like most movie bureaucrats, Regan has never seen Jaws and therefore doesn’t understand the folly of saying, “We can’t close the city during tourist season!”

However, Matt’s a geologist and he holds himself up to a higher standard.  He doesn’t care about whether or not people get to celebrate Mardi Gras or not.  In fact, just listening to him talk and watching him work, you get the feeling that Matt was probably the guy who, during previous Mardi Gras celebrations, would say, “You guys go without me.  I’ve got to get some work done.”  Anyway, Matt does some investigating and discovers that New Orleans is basically about to collapse into the Earth.  It could happen tomorrow or it could happen 3,000 years from now but it will happen.  Matt also points out that, even if the entire city manages to not sink into the Earth, the sinkholes could cause the levees to collapse and then the entire city would be flooded.  (This movie was made before Katrina.)

Regan hears Matt out and then decides to hide all of his evidence and let Mardi Gras go on as planned.

Can you guess what happens?

There’s a few things that I immediately noticed about On Hostile Ground.

First off, my family lived in Louisiana for about a year and a half.  I’ve been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras.  I can usually tell when a film has actually been shot in Louisiana as opposed to some place nearby like, say, Georgia.  Watching On Hostile Ground, I noticed that it appeared that at least a few of the Mardi Gras scenes had actually been filmed in New Orleans.  There wasn’t quite as much Mardi Gras footage as I was expecting but what there was appeared to be authentic.  However, whenever the action moved outside of the French Quarter, I couldn’t help but notice that the surroundings looked very Canadian and that very few of the extras sounded like they had ever spent any time anywhere near the Big Easy.  In short, it quickly became obvious that the majority of this made-for-television film was shot in Montreal and Toronto.  Canada really can’t pass for Louisiana, much as how they could have never shot an episode of Degrassi in New Orleans.

The other thing I noticed is that, despite New Orleans being below sea level, Matt and his fellow geologists had no trouble finding dry underground caverns underneath the city.  It reminded me a bit of that old X-Files movie where the kids find an underground cavern right outside of Dallas.  Some things just aren’t going to happen, okay?

Anyway, this is one of those low-budget disaster films where everyone refuses to listen to the scientist and disaster follows.  This is the type of film that, nowadays, would probably be made by the Asylum for the SyFy Network.  That said, the Asylum version would probably be a lot more fun because there would be probably be like a sea serpent or killer Mardi Gras floats or something.  This one is just kind of dull and spends too much time on build-up without enough pay-off.

On Hostile Ground is not really worth sacrificing any beads for.

 

Mardi Gras Film Review: Dixiana (dir by Luther Reed)


Mardi Gras in New Orleans has always been a legendary party.

If you doubt me on this, just watch the 1930 film, Dixiana.  Dixiana is all about Mardi Gras.  I mean, there is a plot of sorts but it’s pretty easy to guess that, for audiences in 1930, the promise of a spectacular Madi Gras finale (filmed in technicolor, I might add) was the main appeal of this film.  Dixiana itself takes place in the 1840s so there you have it.  90 years ago, RKO Pictures made a lavish movie about a Mardi Gras celebration that had happened nearly 100 years earlier.  That’s quite a legendary party, no?

As with many pre-Code films about the Antebellum South, it can be a bit awkward to watch Dixiana today.  This is a film that opens on a plantation, with Cornelius Van Horn (Joseph Cawthorn) and his son, Carl (Everett Marshall), discussing how much they enjoy listening to the slaves sing about the Mississippi River.  They’re amazed that the slaves can sing so beautifully about water.  (It doesn’t occur to them that the song was actually about going up the river and finding freedom.)  Cornelius and Carl, we discover, are actually from Pennsylvania.  Cornelius has recently remarried, to the snobbish Birdie (Jobnya Howland) and both he and his son have only recently moved down to her native Louisiana.  Carl and Cornelius are still getting used to life in and the customs of the South.  Cornelius, for instance, explains that he regularly frees some of his slaves and he imagines that’s why they’re always so happy.  But if he really wants them all to be happy why doesn’t he just free them all and maybe stop buying slaves all together?  Let’s just say that Dixiana is not the film to watch if you’re looking for an honest look at American life before the Civil War.

Anyway, if you’re still interested in seeing the film after reading all of that, the majority of Dixiana takes place in New Orleans.  Carl goes into town, does some gambling, and sees a show.  He is immediately smitten with a performer named Dixiana (Bebe Daniels) and he asks her to marry him.  Even though her two best friends, Peewee and Ginger (played by the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey), are weary, Dixiana accepts his proposal.  Carl takes Dixiana back to the plantation with him.  Unfortunately, he also takes Peewee and Ginger and they soon let slip that they’re all circus performers.  Birdie is scandalized.  There’s no way her stepson is going to bring shame on the family by marrying a circus performer!

So, Dixiana and her friends head back to New Orleans.  The circus no longer wants her so Dixiana is forced to work in a gambling hall that’s owned by smarmy Royal Montague (Ralf Harolde).  Montague has his own personal interest in Dixiana but she’s still in love with Carl.  So, Royal plots to not only have Dixiana crowned as the Queen of Mardi Gras but also to trick Carl into accept a duel with him.  Montague, of course, plans to pull an Aaron Burr and cheat.  Meanwhile, Peewee and Ginger steal money, kick each other in the backside, and fight a duel of their own….

And really, none of that matters.  In the end, the film’s storyline is mostly just busywork.  The main reason that anyone would want to see this film is for the final 20 minutes, which is when the grainy black-and-white cinematography is replaced by gloriously vibrant technicolor and the Mardi Gras celebrations begin.  There’s singing.  There’s dancing.  There’s even Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, making his film debut and dancing up a storm.  Seriously, 1840s Mardi Gras looked like it would have been fun to attend, even if it does sometimes seem more like a lively cotillion as opposed to the orgy of alcohol poisoning that everyone knows and loves today.

Dixiana is one of those films that’s fallen into the public domain and, as such, it tends to turn up in a lot of cheap DVD boxsets.  There’s quite a few prints out that are completely in black-and-white and which don’t feature the sudden change to color.  That’s a shame because, whatever flaws this film may have, it does make good use of that technicolor during the final 20 minutes.  It’s big and lavish and gorgeous to look at and it’s easy to imagine the valuable escape that it provided for audiences at the start of the Depression.

Today, Dixiana is probably most interesting as a historical document.  It’s not quite as racy as one might expect from a pre-code film but it’s a good example of the type of lavish musicals that were popular among audiences who, in the 30s, used the film as a way to escape from the grimness of reality.  And, if nothing else, it’s proof that Mardi Gras in New Orleans has always been a big deal.

Celebrate Mardi Gras with Louis Armstrong!


cracked rear viewer

Happy Mardi Gras Day! If you can’t get down to Bourbon Street today, here’s the next best thing – jazz great Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and his band  performing the classic “When The Saints Go Marching In”:

Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler, Mes Amies! 

 

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