Alaska is a Drag (2018)

I have a personal pet theory that drag and pro wrestling are the two most vital modern artforms specifically because they’re opposite sides of the same gender performance coin. I’ve yet to see that exact dichotomy explored on the big screen, but I feel like we’re inching closer to it every year. A 2012 episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race featured a pro wrestling challenge (resulting in a Kenya Michaels and Latrice Royale tag team I’d kill to see weekly on WWE) but cinema is still behind the curve. 2016’s excellent The Fits established a similar masc/femme gender dichotomy between boxing & rhythmic dance, however, and the playfully titled Alaska is a Drag has now pushed that dynamic even closer to my ideal project by profiling a character caught between the worlds of boxing & drag. This microbudget indie isn’t exactly about gender performance (neither was The Fits, really), but it does allow that subject to weigh heavily on its mind as it floats effortlessly between the rigid boundaries of strictly gendered worlds. Alaska is a Drag is a delirious tale of small town brawn & glamor transcending a harshly cold environment to establish its own gender-defiant space in the world, all within the vessel of a single magnetic, instantly lovable lead performance.

Leo (newcomer Martin L. Washington, Jr.) is a factory worker at an Alaskan fish cannery who struggles to feel at home in a small industrial town without a strong, visible queer community. With more complaints about how he can’t wait to get out of this town than a mid-90s Less Than Jake album, he hangs his dreams for a better future on becoming an “international drag superstar” by way of moving to Hollywood. It’s not too difficult to see why he might want to get away. His go-nowhere job at the fish cannery is swarming with macho bullies who persecute him for being openly queer. His best friend/twin sister is dying of cancer. His dad is a compulsive gambler that keeps their household anchored to the poverty line. The only boy around with the confidence to flirt with him is a straight-identifying puzzle who gets just as dangerously black-out drunk as everyone else in town. The only refuges from these grim, isolating surroundings are a gay dive bar (operated by Margaret Cho) and an equally sparsely attended boxing gym (operated by Jason Scott Lee), spaces where he gets to express the fierceness & glamor the world stifles in him otherwise. Plot-wise, it’s a typical coming of age story that inevitably barrels toward the big boxing match & drag show climaxes you’d likely expect, but as a character study it’s exceedingly easy to fall in love with Leo, no matter what aspect of himself he’s presenting.

Director Shaz Bennett reports to have conceived the screenplay for Alaska is a Drag while working in a fish cannery herself, daydreaming about the lives of her fellow factory workers. The movie reflects that loopy daydream logic in its unashamedly cheap CGI rainbows & washes of Aurora effects that gleefully clash with Leo’s working-class surroundings, recalling the similar flights of fancy in last year’s Patti Cake$. There is both a misery & a dark humor to the repetition of monotonous routine in factory work as presented in the film, something that’s only interrupted by the disco balls & glitter of Leo’s drag superstar daydreams. As the daily rhythms of repetitive factory work begin to resemble song, Dancer in the Dark-style musical reveries mentally transport Leo to his drag-themed happy place. He doesn’t start to fully explore his own unique identity until he incorporates drag & boxing into a simultaneous, boundary-free expression of his full personality, importing golden boxing gloves into his drag-themed reveries & bringing makeup into the boxing ring at his sister’s behest. If drag & boxing are coded as opposing forces of gender expression in the film, Leo’s triumph in self-actualization is in learning to combine them to establish a well-balanced persona (which is, again, fairly similar to the central character arc in the far less gleefully silly The Fits).

Washington’s performance as Leo is the main draw here, especially in sequences where he interacts with Maya Washington, playing his sister Tristen. It’s baffling that the two actors are not related in real life, considering their lived-in chemistry & convincing familiarity. There’s nothing the movie could possibly muster to match the endlessly endearing energy of the twins voguing, mean-mugging, and playing dress-up out of small-town Alaskan boredom, not even Margo Cho performing in a drag king get-up or an ancient drag queen hissing bitchy quips through their tracheotomy hole. Alaska is a Drag struggles to create substantial drama outside the siblings’ desire to skip town, but it does excel in clashing the glamor of their international drag superstar daydreams with the harsh reality of dead fish & grim factory work. It flirts with the trappings of coming-of-age queer misery dramas, but mostly indulges in the fantasies of escaping that backdrop through the gender-exaggerated mediums of boxing & drag. Alaska is a Drag is not exactly the drag & pro wrestling gender performance daydream I’ve personally entertained while going about my own daily monotony, but it was close enough to at least partially satisfy that craving without making too much of a big deal out of it. It instead weaves its own gendered dichotomy into a character study of a put-upon young dreamer who desperately needs the mental escape both drag & boxing offer. Washington does an incredible job of making that character a thorough joy to watch, as Bennett deftly backs him up with a colorful fantasy world backdrop that emerges from between the cracks of a grim, industrial setting.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fits (2016)

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fourhalfstar

The closest I can relate to the protagonist of The Fits‘s crossroads crisis is when I’m choosing a lazy evening’s campy entertainment, a sadly frequent conundrum. Do I want the over-the-top masculine gender performance of pro wrestling or the cartoonishly feminine gender performance of drag? This is an exceedingly trivial, inconsequential choice of which lights & noises I want blasting through my TV for an hour, but it does in a way mirror The Fits‘s central character, Toni, as she floats between the rigidly separated & gendered worlds of boxing & dance. Her decision on where to fall on that divide reminds me of my outsider’s fascination with both pro wrestling & drag, except her choice of which world to explore has much more significant implications on the trajectory of her life, her identity, and her sense of autonomy. It also leads to a supernatural occurrence of divine transcendence, which is not the kind of thing I normally experience while drinking box wine on my couch.

Toni is a tomboy, or at least she’s perceived that way. Her brother trains her to be a tough-as-nails boxer at their local community center, where she silently, sternly fits in with his peers’ aggressively masculine atmosphere of blood, puke, bruises, and concussions. The gym where they train presents a literal barrier between the masculine & the feminine and Toni begins to curiously peer into the dance troupe practices that share a dividing wall with the boxers. There’s a palpable, magical magnetism to the dance team practices that draws Toni towards them (something anyone who’s enjoyed a marching dance troupe’s Mardi Gras parade routines should be able to relate to). Her brother is surprisingly supportive of her sudden interest in the dance team and sagely advises her, “The only way you can lose a fight is if you don’t get in the ring.” She eagerly accepts the encouragement & joins the team as an underling. At first she’s unsure about her assigned routines/moves except when she’s punching the air, but she eventually finds her own feet & friends within her newfound community. The problem is that as she explores this new space, that community suffers a wave of unexplained convulsions, seizures, fits. That’s when things get weird. You’d be forgiven, based on the above description, for assuming that The Fits is a fairly standard coming of age story, but the truth is it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before, a uniqueness & distinction that’s often one of cinema’s highest forms of currency.

So, if The Fits isn’t a standard coming of age drama, what is it? A medical thriller? A supernatural horror? First time writer-director Anna Rose Holmer sidesteps genre classification here and aims more for an art house tone poem than a traditional A-B story structure. The point of The Fits isn’t solving the mystery of why the seizures epidemic is happening, but more negotiating how it relate sto young Toni’s newfound identity & sense of self. As she curiously gazes at the mystic power of gold glitter paint, sequin dance uniforms, and pierced ears, a new mystic power of the uncontrollable bodily convulsion arises & develops into a strange rite of passage somewhat synonymous with puberty or menstruation, but only in the vaguest of terms. The unexplained phenomenon throws an entire community into a confused state that matches the fish-out-of-water uncertainty of our overwhelmed protagonist. All of this otherworldly disorientation is intensified by an ambient, uneasy jazz/noise score and grounded in intensely still, symmetrical camera work. Also, the film’s setting is limited to a few very specific locations — mostly the community center and a yard outside a Cincinnati housing project — that gives the whole film the dreamlike POV of a child’s imagination, like a more muted Beasts of the Southern Wild or a George Washington. The near-total lack of adults onscreen (and, even more refreshingly, white faces of any age) set up the central conflict of The Fits as something Toni & her peers have to handle on their own. At first Toni’s merely learning how to divide her time between her tomboyish & more traditionally feminine interests, but that personal bifurcation leads to a much more fascinating, vulnerable leap into the unknown where she must discover her own sense of identity entirely separate from outside influence. It’s tied to her burgeoning sense of her own femininity, but encompasses so much more than that. There’s a strange, new, self-actualized power building inside her & she’s the only one who can set it loose.

Last year’s Girlhood offered a rare cinematic glimpse into young, modern, black femininity and Creed did the same for the masculine side of that coin. In just 72 minutes The Fits breaches the barriers between them using their own respective cultural markers –dance & boxing– and pushing their collective coming of age narrative structures into quietly bizarre, seemingly supernatural territory that’s bound to leave a lasting effect on you whether or not you’re on board with its ultimate destination. Besides having what has got to be the single greatest name in Hollywood, young actor Royalty Hightower is incredibly stoic & measured in her performance as Toni, especially considering her age. Even if The Fits were a more standard coming of age drama about a young girl deciding between the rigidly divided realms of dance & boxing, Hightower’s performance & the camera’s striking sense of symmetry would make the exercise more than worthwhile. There’s something a lot more special going on here, though. As Toni becomes more sure of herself she learns to remove the arbitrary masculine-famine divides between her interests & creates her own confident space with some kind of dance-boxing hybrid (no word yet on if I’ll ever get a similar drag-wrestling hybrid in this lifetime). In these moments it looks as if she’s training for some kind of upcoming, unknowable battle, but the truth is she’s more or less ramping up for a epiphany of self-realization.

How this personal journey towards knowledge-of-self is linked to the film’s central epidemic of “the fits” is largely up to interpretation, but the two conflicts do communicate with each other nicely and I love the way Holm is comfortable with dealing in their ambiguity. A less confident work might’ve put too fine of a point on the two conflicts’ connection, but then we would’ve been cheated out of the transcendental beauty of the film’s conclusion, which will surely prove to be one of this year’s defining moments of pure cinematic pleasure. The Fits is a small production with near-limitless ambition, the exact kind of film that asks to be championed & rewards you for your full attention. Seek it out & surrender to its spell as soon as you can.

-Brandon Ledet

Creed (2015)

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fourstar

Creed is more of a sequel than a proper reboot, but writer-director Ryan Coogler is more than forgiven for not wanting to title his film Rocky VII: Creed. Following the lead of 2006’s succinctly titled Balboa, Creed keeps it simple in more than ways than just its name. It’s very much a by-the-numbers boxing movie, hitting every familiar beat you’d expect from the genre. After Southpaw‘s helpful example earlier this year of just how poorly that formula can be put to use, though, it’s downright miraculous just how effective Creed manages to be while never coloring outside the lines. As far as Stallone franchises go, I’m typically a much bigger Rambo fan (can’t help myself), but who doesn’t love a good underdog story? The pugilist protagonist (played by an all-grown-up The Wire vet Michael B. Jordan) of Creed‘s narrative may go through the motions of successes & failures the audience sees coming from miles away, but the movie is visceral enough in its brutal in-the-ring action & tender enough in its out-the-ring romance & familial strife that only the most jaded of audiences are likely to get through its runtime without once pumping a fist or shedding a tear before the end credits.

The illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, a father he never met & a boxing legend within the Rocky universe, Adonis Creed is more a child of the foster & juvenile correctional system than he is of the former Carl Weathers character. With that chip weighing heavily on his shoulder, Adonis attempts to walk the tightrope of earning a name for himself as a self-taught boxer while avoiding living his life in Apollo’s massive shadow. It’s hard to tell exactly how serious he is about ducking association with his father, though, since he adopts an elderly Rocky Balboa as his reluctant trainer & makeshift family. Balboa & Creed’s shared history is assimilated into the story expertly, made to feel real by adopting the format of high-end ESPN & HBO sports documentaries & talking heads forums. While Adonis is trying to balance his own career with his father’s legacy, he also struggles to stay connected with a mother figure who doesn’t want him to fight & falls hopelessly in love with a downstairs neighbor (played by an all-grown-up Veronica Mars vet Tessa Thompson) who records a less avant garde FKA twigs style of pop music in her bedroom in hopes of making a name for herself on her own terms.

There are Inspirational Training Montages galore in Creed, but only two proper bouts, a smart choice that not only allows the film’s familial & romantic bonds room to build, but also helps to establish Adonis as an in-over-his-head underdog. There are some fun, updating-the-franchise touches to the movie, such as a scene where a grandmotherly Sylvester Stallone perplexedly contemplates smart phones & “the cloud”, but the best thing Creed accomplishes is acknowledging the past while living firmly in the present. The two main bouts of the film are feats of pure cinematography & choreography, a brutally physical style of storytelling. There’s impressive imagery to be found elsewhere in the film’s smaller moments as well, such as a shot of Balboa & Adonis boxing duel punching bags in unison & a chilling scene where Adonis fights a projection of his dead father’s image. The sexual tension between Tessa Thompson & Michael B Jordon is also remarkably well played, both in the written dialogue & in the body language of the performances. The worst crime the film commits is occasionally functioning as a video form of Philadelphia tourism, an offense that’s more than excusable given that Balboa is now as much a part of the city’s DNA as cheesesteak & the Liberty Bell.

When Creed‘s production was first announced I’ll admit my initial reaction was a yawn & an eyeroll. Coogler’s film somehow completely turned me around on the idea of a non-Stallone-penned Rocky franchise living on in perpetuity, despite never truly deviating from the format. It’s a great example of how a strict genre film feel new & exciting when played with fully-committed earnestness. If Creed II ever makes it to a theater, I’m pretty much guaranteed to be there, which is  a sentiment I didn’t expect to leave the film with before the opening credits.

-Brandon Ledet

Southpaw (2015)

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twohalfstar
The advertisements for Southpaw have been driving me mad every time I go to the movies lately. No matter how I timed my entrance at the theater it seemed I was always just doomed to hear Eminem echo “I am PHENOMENAL PHENOMENAL PHENOMENAL” in an embarrassing fashion & I’d find myself cringing again. Much of the film’s trailer had me interested in Jake Gyllenhaal’s follow-up to his nightmarish turn in Nightcrawler, but Eminem was regrettably featured so prominently in Southpaw‘s trailer that I was expecting to take at least a half-star off my rating every time one his songs played on the soundtrack. Although Eminem’s voice is only heard twice during the film (once during a clueless in tone training montage & once during the end credits) his prominence in the trailer does point to a lack of self-awareness that prevents Southpaw from being anything too fresh or special.

It would be one thing if Eminem were something Gyellehaal’s punch drunk protagonist Billy Hope blasted in headphones to get pumped up before his boxing bouts. A down on his luck, white brute foster home survivor with a drinking problem certainly sounds like the kind of dude who might be a huge fan of the Detroit rapper, who knows a thing or two about being a down on his luck white brute with a troubled upbringing. Instead, though, Eminem’s contribution to the film amounts to little more than a business deal soundtrack tie-in, complete with an official music video. It feels like an ancient practice, dead for at least a decade, that’s much better suited for already-cynical corporate cash grabs like Juicy J’s contribution to the Ninja Turtles soundtrack or Waka Flocka Flame’s (laughably awful) collaboration with Good Charlotte meant to promote the latest Adam Sandler stinker Pixels. Instead of helping detail the character of its protagonist, Eminem’s involvement instead details the character of the film itself.

Southpaw is a mediocre film. It’s passable as a redemption story melodrama, but rarely memorable as a unique work. Even die-hard fans of boxing films in general are likely to find it difficult to distinguish its individual charms from much more distinctive examples of the genre. The story it tells is pretty easy to call from beginning to end within the first fifteen minutes or so, complete with a couple tearjerker character deaths solely meant to give Billy Hope’s inevitable final triumph some sense of meaning or purpose. Without a unique narrative or any visual touches to distinguish Southpaw (outside maybe a couple interesting 1st person POV shots in the ring), all that’s left then is the quality of the acting, which varies from Impressive, But Not Nightcrawler Impressive (Gyllenhall) to Decent (Forest Whitaker) to I’m Wearing A Hat! (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson). It’s not a terrible viewing experience (besides maybe the sequence where it tries to use an Eminem song for misguided cool points), but Gyllenhaal’s performance is the sole element in play that approaches anything near PHENOMENAL PHENOMENAL PHENOMENAL and that’s far from enough to save the whole ordeal from mediocrity. I hope the actor continues this recent trend of playing scary that started with films like Nightcrawler & Enemy, but I’d like to also like to see that talent put to much more interesting use with far fewer Enimem songs stinking up the joint.

-Brandon Ledet