Men (2022)

There’s been a lot of recent pushback against the suggestion that A24 has an overriding “house style.”  Younger film nerds who were raised on a cinematic diet of Disney-owned studios like Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm can go a little overboard transferring their fandom of boardroom-directed brands to auteur-driven distributors like A24 & Neon, but I don’t know that they’re entirely wrong to do so.  Some of A24’s unified “house style” is an illusion generated by their brand-conscious marketing & distribution strategies (which are truly admirable in the way they lure broad audiences into seeing niche-interest art films).  I can’t deny that their in-house productions often share common tones & tropes, though, even if that’s only a result of selecting which projects to fund, as opposed to dictating what directors deliver in the final edit.  For instance, I’m confident I would’ve guessed what studio produced the “A24 Horror” film Men before I would’ve guessed which frequent A24 employee directed it.  Alex Garland is usually reliable for a chilly sci-fi creepout (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Devs), not an atmospheric folk horror with a blatant 1:1 metaphor behind all its grotesque imagery.  That’s glaringly recognizable A24 territory, even if general praise for the studio as a corporate auteur can be a little silly.

With Men, Alex Garland updates The Wicker Man for the post-Get Out era and ends up making his version of mother! in the process.  Jessie Buckley stars as the Big City outsider intruding on the strange, insular customs of rural Brits, tethered to her London homebase only through daily Facetime calls with her sister (who provides Lil Rel-style running commentary and eventual rescue).  The small-village cult she stumbles into worships at the altar of Misogyny.  The villagers are so unified in their hatred of women that they all share the same actor’s CG-applied face (Rory Kinnear’s), making the title Men shorthand for Yes, All Men.  This is a purely allegorical exercise.  Buckley’s terrorized heroine might be from a real-world London, but the countryside village where she vacations is outright Biblical in its heavy-handed visual metaphors, complete with a first-act reference to forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  All of the men (or, more accurately, all of the man) in her vicinity blame her for their own moral & behavioral shortcomings, violently punishing her for their own sins.  Each variation of Kinnear represents a different misogynist archetype, from schoolboy mouthbreather to clueless microagressor to repressed incel to base, hateful animal.  In their sickly presence Buckley realizes that all men are the same, all men are creeps, and their pathetic, self-hating abuses against her are not actually her fault, no matter how deftly they’re excused (which is where the allegory echoes beyond the borders of the village to resonate in her real-world social life).

It’s difficult to parse out which aspects of Men are personal to Garland as an auteur vs. which aspects result from the expectations & standards of A24 Horror as a brand.  It’s a useless distinction in a lot of ways, since I appreciate both the director and the studio for consistently bringing provocative genre films to the American multiplex.  The reason I mention it at all is because Men is near impossible to discuss as a standalone work.  Most of the conversation around it focuses more on broad genre trends than it does on this movie in particular, guided by individual audiences’ personal appetite for yet another atmospheric, allegorical horror with blatant social messaging.  Regardless of the way Men participates in the macro trends of A24 productions or modern horror at large, I do think it’s clear that Garland is exploring something personal here.  It’s an anguished, pathetic expression of guilt about the misogyny lurking in all men—even the “nice” ones—that gets stunningly cathartic in its go-for-broke climax, releasing all of the film’s slow-winding tension in a slimy, disjointed fit of body horror.  If you want, you can continue to track the central metaphor in that grotesque display through the ways one form of misogyny (to borrow a term from Genesis) begets another.  It’s also just a broadcast of ugly, difficult-to-stomach impulses direct from Garland’s psyche, which is the exact kind of personal art I’m always looking for at the movies.  I find it strange that Garland stepped outside his home realm of sci-fi to exorcise these particular demons, but I hope enough people appreciate the effort that he feels it was worth the risk.  It’s a great, squirmy little horror film no matter where it fits in the larger cultural landscape or the director’s own catalog.

-Brandon Ledet

Here Before (2022)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Here Before is a psychological thriller about a depressed woman who becomes awkwardly fixated on a nearby mother/daughter duo, triggering a flood of fragmented, fraught emotions surrounding her own relationships with her children.  Like The Lost Daughter, it premiered to positive reviews in 2021, praised for the performances of its central cast and as a promising debut for its director.  Since Maggie Gyllenhaal obviously enjoys more name-recognition cachet in the industry, Stacey Gregg’s own unraveling-mom psych thriller followed a much slower, quieter distribution path, newly available on the library-subscription streamer Hoopla instead of receiving an immediate awards push from the global behemoth Netflix.  As a result, their thematic overlap plays to The Lost Daughter‘s favor, which got there first & louder, but the eerie feeling of having been . . . here before does mirror the latter film’s premise in an interesting way.

In this particular mom-on-the-verge thriller, Andrea Riseborough plays an Irish suburbanite who’s grieving the loss of her young daughter when a new couple moves in next door with a child that looks & acts remarkably like her.  The neighbor child even shares memories & daily habits with Riseborough’s child, as if she were possessed by the daughter’s ghost.  Obviously, Riseborough cannot ignore this phenomenon, which has effectively brought her daughter back to life after a year of heartbreak, and she gradually wedges herself into this young stranger’s life in a way that makes everyone around her deeply uncomfortable.  The story twists & disorients from there, teetering between supernatural horror & communal-gaslighting conspiracy depending on its scene-to-scene whims.  Like with The Lost Daughter, the movie’s strengths lie more its performances & discomforting parental dynamics than it does in its plot, but Gregg’s film concludes with a much more satisfying genre payoff than Gyllenhaal’s.

Even putting Here Before‘s coincidental Lost Daughter parallels aside, it’s not exactly unique in its purpose or tone.  There’s plenty of Atmospheric Horror About Grief out there, especially of the post-Hereditary variety.  Only this one has Andrea Riseborough at center stage, though, and she carries the genre’s tension as expertly as you’d expect.  Rebecca Hall got her own acting showcase in the genre with The Night House.  Sandra Oh got hers in Umma.  Riseborough’s been given plenty of room to show off her range in the past (especially in Possessor, Mandy, and Nancy), but it’s still incredible to see her stretch her legs here.  The way she alternates between scowling at her living, knucklehead teenage son and smiling nervously at the ghost-child who’s replaced her dead daughter is nightmarishly volatile, winding tension so tight it’s incredible her face doesn’t tear in two.  Gregg matches her efforts without outshining them, except for in a music video nightmare sequence that momentarily tips the slowly building dread into true brain-melt terror.

Here Before is a low-budget, 80-minute chiller that’s entire allure is for horror fans already familiar with Riseborough’s talents as a performer.  I’m doing it no favors by comparing it to a Hollywood adaptation of a best-selling novel, produced by three well-established actresses who each received Oscar nominations for their efforts (including Gyllenhaal for Best Adapted Screenplay).  Still, I’d say it’s a more wholly satisfying movie than The Lost Daughter, while sharing many of its themes & saving graces.  It’s a shame fewer people will see it.

-Brandon Ledet

Maîtresse (1975)

Why is it that every movie about a dominatrix follows the same trite storyline where the hardened, leather-clad woman in charge softens the moment she finds a romantic partner who can lower her defenses?  From corny, vintage domme media like Body of Evidence & Exit to Eden to more modern, thoughtfully considered dramas like Dogs Don’t Wear Pants & Pvt Chat, every feature-length depiction of a dominatrix’s love life I’ve seen is framed through a macho “I can fix her” POV.  That tradition apparently dates at least as far back as 1975’s Maîtresse, in which a young, bumbling thief (Gérard Depardieu) falls in love with an experienced dominatrix (Bulle Ogier) despite being baffled by her profession, then schemes to break her “free” from the lifestyle.  It’s up there with Basic Instinct as one of the more nuanced, subversive movies about sexually dominant women that I can name, but it still plays directly into the dominatrix romance’s most tired cliché.

What’s funny about Maîtresse‘s narrative phoniness is that director Barbet Schroeder is obviously proud of its Authenticity in every other metric.  His in-your-face, documentarian approach to Authenticity can be a little tiresome, like in moments when a horse is slaughtered & drained for butcher meat on-camera, or when the titular mistress nails one of her client’s dicks to a wooden board in full surgical detail (a stunt thankfully performed by a real-life professional, not Ogier).  It’s an incredible asset to the film’s mise-en-scène, though, especially in the dominatrix’s play dungeon.  Schroeder hired a professional domme to ensure the legitimacy of the kink scenes’ props & practices.  The camera’s awed pans over the mistress’s tools of the trade or her clients being dressed in lingerie and ridden like horses (some, apparently, clients of the sex worker hired to oversee the shoot, getting off on the humiliation of being filmed) are electric in their documentation of vintage BDSM play.  I somehow doubt that real-life dominatrix was also consulted for the story beats of the central romance, though, which is a shame.

To be fair, Maîtresse does directly challenge the macho POV of its in-over-his-head protagonist.  Depardieu plays a real mouthbreather, a thug who’s visibly intimidated by the whips & leather gear he finds in the play dungeon he burgles before wooing the dominatrix who owns it.  For her part, Ogier’s mistress character clearly explains to her new thief boyfriend that she is no damsel in distress, saying “I couldn’t do it if I didn’t like it.”  He attempts to “rescue” her from her comfortable, voluntary sex work routine anyway, and every drastic knucklehead action he takes on her behalf only makes her life worse.  Although the story is framed through the thief’s POV, he is introduced to the audience picking his nose on his motorcycle, undercutting whatever brutish cool he could possibly convey with the same dipshit goofiness that makes the thieves in Mandibles so laughably ineffectual.  Maîtresse may participate in the same “I can fix her” trope as every other dominatrix romance I’ve ever seen (Hell, for all I know it may have been responsible for creating it), but at least the central relationship in this specific example is dramatically complex.

This is essentially the story of two mismatched tops struggling to dominate each other, both barreling towards ruin because they won’t do the obvious thing and break up.  I’m always a sucker for stories where characters are compelled to repeatedly do things that are obviously going to kill them just because it makes them super horny; this version is even somehow refreshingly sentimental in its romance . . . when it wants to be.  Karl Lagerfeld’s fetish-fashion designs for the dominatrix’s wardrobe also afford it some wonderfully vivid imagery.  Genital torture & horse deaths aside, Maîtresse is commendable.  It’s only when I stop thinking about it as an individual work and consider it instead in the larger continuum of how dominatrices’ inner lives are portrayed (or ignored) on-screen that I’m disappointed it didn’t transgress in even more pointed, narrative ways.

-Brandon Ledet

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972)

I was recently knocked on my ass by the Japanese revenge tale Lady Snowblood when we watched it for the podcast.  If it’s not the coolest film ever made, it’s at least one of the coolest-looking, translating the graphic imagery of its manga source material to the big screen with exquisite frame-by-frame composition.  As much as I loved Lady Snowblood in isolation, though, it did zap some of my lingering appreciation for Kill Bill Vol. 1, which I would have cited as my favorite Tarantino film before seeing every one of its best ideas accomplished more beautifully & brutally in a film released four decades prior.  Normally, I can tell what Tarantino is bringing to the table in his post-modern remixes of pre-existing genre films, but his take on Lady Snowblood‘s themes & imagery were such a 1:1 carbon copy that I lost a little respect for his best-looking, most entertaining work by comparing it to the text that directly inspired it. But maybe that retroactive disappointment was a little hasty; maybe I have more genre-history homework to do before brushing off Kill Bill entirely.

Released a year before Lady Snowblood, the wuxia actioner Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan touches on the same rape-revenge catharsis & snow-brawl imagery that make its Japanese equivalent so wonderfully vivid.  It even does so while dabbling in (a less explicit version of) In the Realm of the Senses-style eroticism and subversive themes of lesbian desire that complicate the much more straightforward vengeance premise of Lady SnowbloodIntimate Confessions is a Shaw Brothers sexploitation picture about a lesbian madame who is both a fierce, misandrist defender of her brothel’s abducted women and one of their cruelest exploiters.  It’s framed as a rape-revenge tale for the brothel’s latest abductee, and all of the dramatic tension is centered between the two women.  Does our vengeful hero sincerely love the woman who holds her captive or is she using the madame’s romantic attraction as leverage for her true mission of killing all the men who’ve wronged her?  It’s a complex dynamic, but it’s also a convenient excuse for badass swordfights & tantalizing shots of naked flesh. 

Intimate Confessions alternates between feminism and exploitation just like its cruel madame, with plenty of genuine empathy & for-its-own-sake badassery to support either reading.  It’s visually gorgeous, from the high-femme, flowing pink fabrics of its brothel setting to the stark red snow contrasts of its bloodspray finale.  The brothel’s avenger is an awesome wuxia warrior, making no attempt to hide the fact that she’s murdering her abusers one by one (even using the whip that “broke her in” against them in her revenge).  Her relationship with her abusive madame also alternates between shameless exploitation & provocative power dynamics, depending on whether the captor is licking the blood from her victim’s lashings or if the two women are fighting to the death in a private moment of sexual foreplay.  There’s a nuance to their violent, semi-romantic relationship that helps save the film from feeling like a total male fantasy of faux-lesbian eroticism, but there’s certainly an aspect of eye-candy titillation that undercuts that drama.

Obviously, Lady Snowblood does not exist in a vacuum.  Between Intimate Confessions, its 1984 remake Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan, and even more recent brothel-set, rise-to-power revenge tales like Gangubai Kathiawaidi, it’s clear the film is part of a larger continuum of genre pictures that Tarantino was playing with in Kill Bill.  There are still specific images from Lady Snowblood that are copied directly over to Kill Bill without much interpretation or alteration, but they also have direct equivalents in this Shaw Brothers wuxia pic that predates it.  I should probably watch more examples of this genre to better familiarize myself with its greatest, most idiosyncratic works, but I can’t say that I’m especially looking forward to watching a bunch of rape-revenge epics in rapid succession.  So, for now, all I can say is this: Kill Bill Vol. 1 might be the best Tarantino film, but it’s at most only the third best example of its kind.

-Brandon Ledet

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2022)

In the time-honored tradition of Netflix underpromoting their film festival acquisitions in favor of front-paging their in-house Television Fad of The Week #content, we now have Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash — which premiered to positive reviews at last year’s TIFF & Locarno before being quietly dumped onto the global streaming platform this April.  I understand the difficulty in marketing this low-budget Indonesian curio; it is incredibly elusive in its genre & tone.  Vengeance is Mine is a sentimental indie romcom dressed up in the closed fists & stiff kicks of a retro martial arts bone-cruncher.  It mixes the understated, quietly morbid humor of a Kaurismäki film with the full-throttle fight choreography of vintage Hong Kong action schlock and the slowly simmering romance of a 90s festival-circuit slacker pic, topping it all off with a matter-of-fact ghost story & flashes of political satire.  In order to properly promote their product, Netflix would have to first be able to define what that product is, which is an exceedingly difficult task in this instance.  Still, it would have been worth it for them to give it a shot; they bought a very good movie, even if it’s a puzzling one.

In Vengeance is Mine, a small town fists-for-hire mercenary (Marthino Lio) starts as many bare-knuckled brawls as he can to broadcast & reinforce his masculinity, as it’s an open secret he’s been sexually impotent his entire adult life.  He meets his match in an adorable bodyguard (Ladya Cheryl), who beats him into submission and wins his bruised heart in the process.  It’s cute to watch them flirt through traded blows, sweetly smiling while kicking each other’s teeth in.  A years-spanning romance develops between the two lonely brutes, complicated of course by their inability to copulate in a traditional sense.  The film fully sidesteps the potential machismo of its street-brawl backdrop by building its central romance around male impotence & female sexual pleasure.  Ex-lovers, corrupt politicians, and meddling ghosts keep the story novel & unpredictable, even as it feels like not much is happening from scene to scene.  Director Edwin also underlines his female lead’s ties to the Cynthia Rothrock era of martial arts cinema by dialing the clock back to a late-80s setting—complete with windbreakers, dirt bikes, and rat tails—affording it a vintage cool on top of all its messy modern melodrama.

On the one hand, it’s wonderful that a movie this strange & low-key is available to a global audience on a platform as mainstream as Netflix.  It’s not enough for modern indie movies to be accessible, though.  They need to be marketed into existence, especially if they’re going to populate on streamers months after their initial festival buzz fades.  Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash might appear to be an especially difficult product to market but, I dunno, Drive My Car was a 3-hour drama about rehearsals for a staging of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, and Janus Films managed to draw a lot of eyes to the screen for that one after it premiered at Cannes.  Netflix apparently does not care about promoting their own festival acquisitions unless they have potential Oscar Buzz™, which this bitter martial arts romcom very much does not.  I’m starting to wonder why they bother buying low-budget festival movies in the first place, even though I am enjoying the benefits.

-Brandon Ledet

Moonfall (2022)

In Moonfall, the moon is a hollow “megastructure” that very nearly crash-lands into Earth (getting close enough to scrape a few mountain tops) before course-correcting back to its proper orbit.  It is the exact same moon-crash disaster epic that director Roland Emmerich would have made in 1998 had the script crossed his desk then, except with fewer movie stars filling out the ensemble cast; only Halle Berry & a brief Donald Sutherland cameo pass the Would Emmerich Have Cast Them in the 1990s? test.  As a genre, the over-the-top, over-budgeted CGI spectacle has continued past the 90s in the respective movie industries of India, China, and Korea, but Emmerich’s distinctly retro charms only recall pictures from its Hollywood heyday: Armageddon, Mission to Mars, The Matrix, Contact, Deep Impact and, of course, Emmerich’s own Independence Day.  Everything from the film’s shameless Lexus product placement to its astronaut hero’s anxieties over being an absent father are so distinctly 90s that it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’ve already seen half of it before on TBS, intercut with hours of commercial breaks and an unplanned afternoon nap.

Well, maybe not everything here would’ve made its way into the 90s version of MoonfallGame of Thrones‘s John Bradley is assigned the thankless task of modernizing the falling-moon disaster premise with some 2020s internet lingo.  Bradley plays a conspiracy theorist blogger & YouTuber, a self-proclaimed “megastructurist”.  We are told he is very smart, as he is the first civilian to deduce that the moon is crashing into Earth and that it is not a natural moon at all, but rather an alien-made megastructure.  Since he’s a cat-meme nerd who asks the question “What would Elon do?” for self-motivation, however, I retain that he is, in fact, very dumb.  Halle Berry & Patrick Wilson’s heroic NASA defectors agree with that assessment, and continue to poke fun at his absurd, idiotic conspiracy theories about moon lasers & the moon’s hollow core long after he’s been proven correct.  They’re right to do so.  Moonfall‘s premise is absurd & idiotic, and it was only written to set up the CGI spectacle of the film’s final act (where, spoilers, the mismatched trio stop the moon from falling). Thankfully, in the process it also sets up some beautifully asinine dialogue exchanges about the peculiar nature of our megastructure moon, a few of which I will transcribe below for your reading pleasure:

“You’re telling me that the moon was effectively the biggest cover-up in human history?”

“I told you! The moon was built by aliens.”

“You are the key to our moon’s knowledge.”

“We scanned your consciousness; you’re part of the moon now.”

Between Moonfall & Ambulance, it’s been a big year for vintage vulgar auteurs pretending it’s still the 1990s.  Michael Bay at least updated his schtick with modern drone camera tech; Emmerich simply stuck to his basics while committing to the biggest goofball premise he could find.  Sometimes, that nostalgia for Hollywood’s knucklehead disaster-epic past feels like a deliberate intent of the script, which laments several times that all of NASA’s moon shuttles are collecting dust in museums instead of standing by to heroically save the day (in case, you know, the moon decides to fall).  It’s much more likely, though, that Moonfall is just the Emmerich production machine on autopilot. Any byproduct nostalgia is an incidental result of how that rusty content mill differs from the MCU and Fast & Furious empires that have taken its place in the past couple decades.  Neither Emmerich nor Bay put in their career-best work this year, but there is still something reassuring about watching them do their usual thing in a post-superhero Hollywood.  All we need now is for Jerry Bruckheimer to produce a big-budget swashbuckler about the recovery of Atlantis to complete the cycle.

-Brandon Ledet

The King’s Daughter (2022)

I fully understand the mockery that met the mermaid fantasy movie The King’s Daughter when it was dumped into theaters this January.  Filmed at Versailles in 2014, the cursed production has been collecting dust for seven long, bizarre years, mostly waiting for the funding needed to complete its CGI.  The King’s Daughter was supposed to be released as The Moon and Sun in the spring of 2015.  Obama was president then.  Its star, Kaya Scodelario, was a hot commodity, fresh off the set of the hit TV show Skins.  Its bargain bin CGI would’ve been laughable even seven years ago, but getting displaced outside its time only makes it feel goofier than it already is.  It’s a movie made of leftover scraps, loosely stitched together with Bridgerton-style “Once upon a time” narration from Julie Andrews, turning over each scene like the brittle pages of a crumbling book.  The King’s Daughter is the exact kind of barely presentable debacle that cordially invites internet mockery; it’s more punching bag than movie.

And yet, picking on it feels unnecessarily cruel.  This is a cute, harmless (and, despite itself, gay) wish-fulfillment fantasy for little girls.  Its target audience is so young & uncynical that it mostly gets away with being outdated & uncool.  Adults might snicker at every “Meanwhile …” interjection from Andrews that clumsily lunges us towards the next disconnected scene, but young children are only going to see an aspirational tale of a rebel artist who makes friends with a magical mermaid despite her mean father’s wishes.  Pierce Brosnan stars as a highly fictionalized King Louis XIV, who commissions the capture of two very special creatures: his illegitimate, impoverished daughter (Scodelario) & a mermaid citizen of Atlantis (Fan Bingbing).  The daughter has a total blast at Versailles, celebrated by her estranged father for her musical talents & her Individuality.  The mermaid has less fun as the king’s prisoner—held captive as a potential fountain of youth—but forms a semi-romantic friendship with his daughter that almost makes her own constant suffering worthwhile; it’s a pretty thankless role.  The whole movie is in service of making the daughter’s new life seem magical & great, so little girls in the audience can live their mermaid-friend fantasies through her.

There are obviously much better mermaid movies out there, from the kid-friendly romanticism of The Little Mermaid to the disco-beat eroticism of The Lure.  Considering the wealth of better-funded, better-publicized titles between those two extremes, The King’s Daughter is harmless & anonymous enough to deserve a pass.  If there’s any reason for an adult audience to seek this film out, it’s to see Pierce Brosnan’s over-the-top, flouncy-wigged performance as King Louis XIV, but I can’t claim that he’s enough of a hoot to be worth the 90-minute mediocrity that contains him.  Otherwise, the only real draw for this film is if you’re a wide-eyed child with a long-running mermaid fixation, in which case no shoddy CGI or online dunking was ever going to stop you from seeing this anyway.  The only real shame of the picture is that it chickens out of making that mermaid-kids’ fantasy explicitly gay, choosing instead to romantically pair Scodelario with a Fabio-style hunk to de-emphasize her obvious attraction to the mermaid.  It’s not the romance novel swashbuckler whose heart-song calls out to Scodelario in the middle of the night, though, and even the youngest, naivest children in the audience will see right through that ploy.

-Brandon Ledet

Disco Dancer (1982)

I love a good copyright infringement free-for-all.  In the cheap-o Brucesploitation picture The Dragon Lives Again, “Bruce Lee” (i.e., Bruce Leong) teams up with Popeye the Sailor Man to beat up James Bond, Dracula, The Exorcist and “Clint Eastwood” in Hell.  In The Seventh Curse, a James Bond-styled super-agent goes on international Indiana Jones adventures into ancient temples, ultimately teaming up with a Rambo-knockoff sidekick to defeat a flying Xenomorph with batwings; it’s somehow just as thrilling as it sounds.  At first glance, the Bollywood Saturday Night Fever knockoff Disco Dancer doesn’t appear to share the same free-flowing creative collage approach as those post-modern Hong Kong actioners, but as its collection of “borrowed” pop culture ephemera builds (especially on its soundtrack), so does its disregard for the real-world details of its disco nightclub setting.  Disco Dancer ultimately ends up being a huge improvement on Saturday Night Fever—actually delivering the delirious, retro fun audiences misremember the somber American film as—precisely because it feels no fealty to borrowing from just one inspiration source, nor sticking to just one tone.  It’s made entirely of pre-existing building blocks, but it manages to arrange them in new, exciting configurations that out-entertain the wholly “original” (i.e., more subtly derivative) creations it resembles.

In case its Saturday Night Fever inspiration source was not crystal clear, Disco Dancer is careful to include a scene where its dancing, fighting disco hero Jimmy (Mithun Chakraborty) dance-struts across a nighttime bridge in flared pants to a rolling Bee Gees bass line.  In the very next scene, he’s shown dancing alone in his bedroom under an actual Saturday Night Fever poster to underline the connection.  Most of Disco Dancer‘s other copyright oversteps are limited to its soundtrack, give or take a rival disco gang menacingly snapping in-rhythm like extras from West Side Story.  An instrumental backing track mimics the melody of Grease‘s “You’re the One that I Want,” scrambling the film’s Travolta reference points beyond recognition.  More importantly, the first big disco number, “Auva Avua” opens the story with a spectacular discofied rip-off of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which should be all you need to know to understand that this film is great.  To be honest, most of the soundtrack’s other borrowed melodies from French disco & Indonesian rock legends soared miles over my head; it was the familiarity, recognition, and delight of that opening Buggles-inspired dance track that put me in a great mood, and the movie never let me down from that high.

If defining Disco Dancer by its collection of loose, disparate influences is making it sound creatively bankrupt, I’m doing a poor job selling its charms.  As a cultural artifact, it’s a wonderful snapshot of disco’s absurdity as an international export, with large, seated crowds watching disco performers from stadium benches as if they were watching an orchestra, not a participatory dance fad.  As a rags-to-riches, rise-to-fame story for a street musician climbing the ranks of the then-burgeoning Bombay disco scene, it’s a winning melodrama – especially in his mission to musically smite the wealthy bullies who publicly shamed his mother when he was a helpless, borderline-homeless child.  As a martial-arts action epic, it’s got plenty of deliciously over-the-top details, like the hero’s third-act development of “guitar phobia” zapping his ability to perform on stage, thanks to a guitar lethally weaponized by his enemies.  Disco Dancer was a huge international hit in its time (especially in the Soviet Union & China, oddly enough), and that success had nothing to do with its familiarity to pre-existing works.  It’s its own uniquely beautiful, deliriously unhinged novelty, often reaching a disco-scored, light-up-dancefloor euphoria you won’t find in any of the better known works it vaguely resembles.  I just also think its willingness to freely borrow from those works—totally unconcerned with accusations of theft—is an essential part of its appeal.  This kind of free-association borrowing is an artform in itself, not something to be ashamed of.

-Brandon Ledet

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

Do you remember the great Bacon Craze of the early 2010s, when it was considered hilarious to burden your friends with bacon-scented candles and bacon-flavored chewing gum as novelty gifts?  Do you remember further back, in the mid-aughts, when you could buy “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts at practically any gas station?  How about “Mr. T in Your Pocket” talking keychains?  “Git-R-Done” trucker hats?  Big Mouth Billy Bass? 

Imagine someone handing you one of these ancient totems and expecting a full-bellied laugh in return, as if it were the darndest thing you’ve never seen.  The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a decade-old Nicolas Cage meme with nothing novel to say about his unique talents or celebrity.  It’s a faint but direct echo of the “Not the bees!” YouTube clip that kickstarted the massively talented actor’s meme era in the first place.  It offers nothing that Andy Samberg didn’t already accomplish with his “Get in the Cage” segments on SNL an entire decade ago, including bringing in Nicolas Cage as himself to emphasize that he’s in on the bit.  It might as well be an I Can Has Cheezburger? coffee table book or Chuck Norris Facts: The Movie; it is that outdated, that useless.

Nicolas Cage stars as two versions of himself: a has-been who can’t land a decent role & an imaginary-friend version of his younger, more successful self that occasionally swoops in for pep talks. Admittedly, it’s fun to watch these two Nic Cages make out in one of the only instant-classic Cagian stunts anyone will remember from this film after the next few months (thanks to its potential for “Not the bees!” style memeage).  The problem is that only one of those versions of Nic Cage ever existed in the real world: the imaginary one. He was a genuine Hollywood movie star in his youth; that is undeniable. It’s the positioning of the “real”, modern Nic Cage as a total loser who hasn’t been doing anything worthy of his talents since the action-blockbuster heyday of movies like Face/Off, The Rock, and Con Air that rings embarrassingly false.  While a lot of dismissive cynics consider Cage more meme than actor at this point, anyone who’s regularly engaging with his output knows he’s in his full-on auteur period, putting in consistently great, idiosyncratic work for smaller, more niche audiences that are always happy to see him. 

Pedro Pascal plays a true believer, a proud member of that niche audience who challenges Cage’s total-loser narrative.  His claim that “Mandy is a masterpiece” is the only acknowledgement that the Nicolas Cage brand is still going strong.  Most of the other references to his acting work are stuck in his 80s & 90s heyday, citing Guarding Tess & Captain Corelli’s Mandolin as Nic Cage deep cuts.  Pascal’s enthusiasm for Cage’s talents makes the film mildly affable, especially as Cage gradually bonds with his #1 fan as a genuine, cherished friend.  There’s a plot in which the real-life Nic Cage gets recruited by the CIA for a covert spy mission on Pascal’s remote island compound (again, covering territory already run into the ground by Samberg on Weekend Update), but the movie’s at its sweetest & most recommendable when it focuses on the two dudes just being good buds, talking about movies & enjoying each other’s company.  It’s too bad the premise is so outdated and the jokes are such a constant eyeroll.  When it’s not commenting on Cage’s memeability or lost celebrity, it’s halfway cute.

I will credit The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent with this: it got me thinking about Nic Cage’s Hollywood celebrity heyday in a way I haven’t engaged with much in recent years.  There was once a time when he could play Normal Guys in films like The Family Man & It Could Happen to You without raising an eyebrow.  That era has decisively come to an end and is likely worth revisiting, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been doing anything worthwhile in recent years.  Nicolas Cage is not a loser.  He is not a stale, stagnant meme.  He is our best working actor, and he gets more fascinating every year.  I likely should have looked to Keith Phipps’s new book Age of Cage for a more nuanced summation of where Cage is currently at (and where he’s already been) instead of expecting that kind of up-to-date critical analysis from a best-bros comedy about the CIA.  Still, it’s hard to laugh at a joke you’ve already heard a thousand times before, especially when the setup to the punchlines is no longer anchored to the modern world.

-Brandon Ledet

The Heroic Trio (1993)

I recently read an encyclopedia of classic Hong Kong action movies titled Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, which is overloaded with hundreds of capsule reviews of the once-vibrant industry’s greatest hits.  Each blurb makes each title sound like the most explosively badass movie you’ve never seen, fixating on the industry’s unmatched talent for absurd plot details, tactile fight choreography, and for-their-own-sake visual gags.  It’s a daunting surplus of giddy movie recommendations, with no real guide for what to prioritize besides whatever happens to be available to access.  After being pushed to check out the bonkers Indiana Jones mutation The Seventh Curse by the We Love to Watch podcast crew, I had no clear path for where to go next.  Thankfully, that decision was taken out of my hands by happenstance.  I lucked into a small haul of Hong Kong action DVDs (some bootlegs, some official releases, all pictured below) during a recent trip to Goodwill, which included the 1993 superhero oddity The Heroic Trio.  This was the same week that Criterion announced an upcoming Blu-ray release of The Heroic Trio and the same month that one of its stars, Michele Yeoh, was gifted a career-high acting showcase in the Daniels’ own novelty superhero picture Everything Everywhere All at Once, which made it the most obvious must-see.  I’m often overwhelmed deciding what movie to watch next when I’m left to my own devices, so it’s always a pleasure when the universe steps in to program that selection for me.

I am sure that the new Criterion restoration of The Heroic Trio will lovingly highlight the film’s technical beauty and pop-art iconography in a way few audiences have seen before.  I’ll still admit that I was charmed by the tape-warp warmth of the bootleg DVD that found its way into my collection, since it plays right into the film’s vintage appeal.  The Heroic Trio is a retro superhero team-up featuring the masked & powerful heroines Thief Catcher (Maggie Cheung), Wonder Woman (Anita Mui), and Invisible Woman (Yeoh) – each a total badass.  They start disorganized & distrustful of each other as a mysterious case of 19 kidnapped babies derails Hong Kong into chaos.  Eventually, they find love & unity amongst their super selves to fight the methane-breathing sewer god responsible for those kidnappings, brutally confronting the gender-ambiguous deity in their underground lair/baby-storage facility.  Tonally, the film plays like the kind of R-rated kids’ movie that you’d normally find through American labels like Troma & Full Moon, even featuring the children’s nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” as a soundtrack motif.  It is S&M superhero cinema for the permanently immature, indulging in vintage Saturday-morning-TV cheese with far more gore, kink fashion, and shock-value baby deaths than any child should be consuming with their breakfast cereal.  It just executes that volatile immaturity with exquisite technical skill you will not find in its low-budget American equivalents, especially in the beauty of its complex, tactile fight choreography.

Michele Yeoh’s inclusion in the titular trio was my prompt to watch the film and, dramatically, she gets the most to do.  Invisible Woman is the only complex character of the bunch, starting off as the brainwashed lackey of the baby-snatching Evil Master but eventually coming around to join arms with her master’s enemies.  I still found Maggie Cheung to be the MVP of the trio as Thief Catcher, providing most of the film’s comic relief as a Bugs Bunny-style anarchist, a motorcycle-riding vigilante in dressed in bike shorts & lingerie; Tank Girl, eat your heart out.  Anita Mui is saddled with the least exciting part as Wonder Woman, who—as her name implies—is the most stereotypical comic book hero of the bunch.  Her mask & cape iconography and secret-identity shenanigans are essential in grounding the film in a recognizable superhero genre, since most of its in-the-moment indulgences are more aligned with Hong Kong action antics than with comic book tradition.  Director Johnnie To uses the superhero team-up template as a playground for martial arts chaos & Looney Tunes goofballery, playing around with as much Evil Dead POV camera movement, wuxia-style wire work, and bone-crunching brutality as his scrappy budget will allow.  He gives each heroine room to establish separate, distinct personalities in the film’s early scenes, then smashes them together like action figures during an especially sugared-up recess.  It’s the most gleeful, energizing movie experience I can think of that depicts the death of a dozen innocent babies.

Watching The Heroic Trio left me no better equipped to select my next Hong Kong action title.  Yeoh, Cheung, and Mui each have extensive careers in martial arts classics exactly like this.  To was equally prolific in his directorial career without them.  All four of those collaborators reunited for a direct sequel to The Heroic Trio titled Executioners, also released in 1993, but it is not regarded as any of their respective best.  Below, I’ll list the essential continued-viewing titles for Michelle Yeoh alone, as suggested by the authors of Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, just to demonstrate the overwhelming wealth of great, over-the-top Hong Kong action pics there are to choose from.  And she’s only one of the industry’s many, many creative geniuses.  I’ll likely just wait until another title falls directly into my lap the way The Heroic Trio did, taking the decision out of my hands.   Otherwise, I’ll browse these titles & blurbs for hours without ever settling on one, the modern movie streamer’s dilemma.

Michelle Yeoh’s “Selected Filmography,” per Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, printed 1996:
Magnificent Warriors (1986)
Royal Warriors (1986)
Yes, Madam (1986)
Police Story 3: Supercop (1993)
Project S (1993)
The Tai Chi Master (1993)
Butterfly and Sword (1993)
The Heroic Trio (1993)
Wonder 7 (1994)

-Brandon Ledet