Breakfast on Pluto (2005)

I very distinctly remember going to the theater to see Breakfast on Pluto in 2005. I remember enjoying it. I even remember why I sought it out in the first place (the ads reminded me of the glam androgyny of Velvet Goldmine, a movie that meant a lot to me at the time). When I recently ran across a used DVD copy of the film in a thrift store, however, I realized I remembered almost nothing else about it. The cast, the characters, the plot, the setting, the soundtrack – the entire film, really – had all dissipated from my memory like a vapor. I didn’t even know it was directed by Neil Jordan, whose chaotically inconsistent catalog somehow also includes The Company of Wolves, Interview with a Vampire, and this year’s Greta. It all makes sense in retrospect now that I’ve revisited the film, though. Neil Jordan’s involvement tracks as a follow-up on his interest in transgender narratives via The Crying Game (for good and for bad). The Euro-glam 70s setting and gender androgyny that drew me in as a teen is strongly present throughout, even if the movie doesn’t comment on it directly. The story told therein is so vague & exhaustively obedient to the tropes of a lifelong memoir that it’s easy to quickly lose track of the details. And yet, even with its many, many faults only made more glaring in the sober light of a late-2010s revisit, I still left Breakfast on Pluto with an idiotic smile on my face (and its major details again immediately slipping away).

Cillian Murphy stars as a trans woman in this coming of age biopic about a fictional 1970s Irish community in crisis. Murphy’s vocal performance in the role can occasionally be off-putting in its exaggerated lilt; the politics of casting trans and gender-nonconforming characters has changed drastically since the film’s mid-aughts release; and the language around gender identity has evolved since its 1970s setting even more so. All of these modern discomforts are only compounded by the fact that the character was made up entirely by a cisgender author, Patrick McCabe, in the late 90s, leaving very little room for authenticity in its exploration of transgender themes & narratives despite being constructed like a birth-to-death biopic of a real person. Still, despite all these red flags, Breakfast on Pluto is immensely enjoyable to watch for the relative eternity of its 128mn runtime. It often plays like a glammed-up spiritual sequel to the Quentin Crisp biopic The Naked Civil Servant in its story of transgender identity in a time before its proper terms & borders were solidified, but its fictional source material opens it up to even more absurd, outlandish plot developments than that relatively well-behaved work. It’s also packed with always-welcome character actors who had not yet become recognizable faces to wide audiences in 2005: Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Ruth Negga, Liam “The Onion Knight” Cunningham, and Neil Jordan mascot Stephen Rea. Also, if nothing else, it’s just always wonderful to stare at Cillian Murphy’s gorgeous face for two solid hours.

This fictional trans woman’s coming-of-age story starts with a few scenes of small-town childhood crossdressing so cinematically familiar they were already cliché when they surfaced in Billy Elliott five years prior. Patricia “Kitten” Braden’s life’s story gets incrementally more distinct as she ages into her teenage & young adult years, however, since her unorthodox gender expression becomes more of a source of conflict at home, school, and church as she ages. She eventually announces, “Oh fiddly boogles, what’s the point?” and leaves her small Irish town for the metropolis of London, the city that “swallowed up” her estranged birth-mother – known to the audience as The Phantom Lady. As Kitten chases down this human MacGuffin (surviving mostly on various forms of sex work along the way), her friends back home struggle with the escalating violence of The Troubles – which encroaches closer & closer to her own life in unexpected jolts of gory brutality & rudimentary CGI explosions. With over 30 onscreen chapter titles interjecting every couple scenes, Breakfast on Pluto is a never-ending parade of period-specific details that swirl around Kitten as she searches for a family of her own: glam rock bands, penny arcades, mournful priests, milk deliveries, car bombs, etc. When she does eventually find her family, emerging miraculously unscathed from a chaotically cruel world, it’s both the least expected configuration possible and the most endearingly sweet.

This is essentially a fairy tale, complete with talking CGI birds that flutter around the screen warning you of the fantasy indulgences to come. That genre distinction helped me get over my main problem with the film, which is that it’s gushingly romantic at every turn and yet entirely sexless when it comes to genuine eroticism – as if it were unafraid to actually depict non-straight, non-cis couplings on the screen. Fairy tales (or at least the modern post-Disney variety) are largely sexless affairs, so I’m okay with overlooking that hiccup. Whether or not you’re personally okay with a cisgender male actor playing a fictional trans woman within that glam-70s fairy tale is up to you, and will likely guide your relationship with the film at large (especially when it comes to adjusting to the hushed, delirious whispers of Murphy’s vocal performance). There’s plenty to enjoy in Breakfast on Pluto otherwise, though, and even if you happen to impervious to its other charms it has a way for sprinkling fairy dust over you by the end credits so that you forget most of the movie permanently anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Obsession, Whimsy, and Mayhem in the Early Aughts Romance

Our current Movie of the Month, the menacing twee romcom Love Me If You Dare, fits a story template I never tire of seeing repeated in entertainment media: the paired couple of doomed souls whose violent attraction to each other is discouraged by and dangerous to the world at large. As in other properties like Sheer Madness, Heavenly Creatures, Thoroughbreds, and Wuthering Heights, Love Me If You Dare profiles a young couple who are harmless enough in isolation but whose mutual, near-supernatural obsession with each other causes widespread mayhem. If there’s anything that distinguishes Love Me If You Dare from other examples of its ilk, it’s how it attempts to adapt this template to a cutesy romcom aesthetic. Early-aughts, Amélie-flavored twee whimsy starts the film off as a kind of romantic fairy tale, where a childhood game of escalating dares & pranks causes adorable mischief in the rigidly structured lives of adults. It isn’t until the central couple grows into adulthood themselves that the scope of their mayhem is truly alarming. For a glimpse at what that same story might look like if their dynamic were immediately off-putting from their childhood beginnings, there’s no better place to look than the 2001 stage play adaptation Disco Pigs. Featuring a young Cillian Murphy acting like a total creep in a thick Irish brogue, Disco Pigs is a little too nasty to match the twee-whimsy romance of Love Me If You Dare; it functions more as a drunken, sadistic melodrama than anything resembling a romcom. Still, it follows Love Me If You Dare’s exact story structure: introducing us to two mutually-obsessed weirdos who are menacingly inseparable until puberty hits and love complicates their peculiar relationship. The only difference is that it wastes no time making these strange creatures off-putting, whereas Love Me If You Dare holds off until they are adults.

It’s not fair to say there is no whimsy or romance to Disco Pigs’s central relationship. The film starts in the same realm of youthful fantasy as Love Me If You Dare, stretching even further back in establishing the childhood bonds of its treacherous pair. The story opens in the womb, narrated by a character we come to know as Runt. She explains that she was born in the exact same hospital at the exact same moment as her next-door neighbor & obsessive partner in crime: Pig. There’s a whimsy to the way their dual lives on opposite sides of their bedroom walls are synchronized, like a horrific Busby Berkeley routine, complete with matching pajamas. The film opens with the standard fairy tale greeting “Once Upon a time . . .” in its in-utero prologue, promising a much sweeter picture than what’s ultimately delivered. The childhood fairy tale fantasy element of their relationship continues into their adulthood, represented in mental escapes to a mystical Palace where Pig & Runt reign as The King & Queen of Everything (recalling the Kingdom of Borovnia escapes in Heavenly Creatures and the Adam & Eve pop-up book fantasy of Love Me If You Dare). As Disco Pigs opens, these unsavory twins from different mothers are 17 days away from celebrating their 17th birthday on the 17th day of the month – the most golden of birthday festivities. It all sounds as if it would be in service of a cutesy romance, but Pig & Runt’s dynamic is more grotesque than idyllic. They spend most of their teen years staging increasingly dodgy pranks, just like the lovefools of Love Me If You Dare: pantsing strangers in dance clubs, robbing liquor stores, singing British karaoke songs to the IRA, etc. As their self-given names suggest, they also develop unsavory forms of communication with uncomfortably childlike phrasings like “We man and woman now. We ain’t babbas no more,” and telepathic exchanges that don’t even require that base of a level of spoken dialogue. Much like Love Me If You Dare, Disco Pigs is the kind of fairy tale that invites you to bite into a pristine apple only to find that it’s mostly made of worms.

Besides sharing the false promise of fairy tale whimsy, Disco Pigs also uses the same device to separate its once-inseparable protagonists: the pangs of love & lust that accompany puberty. Almost as soon they reach sexual maturity, Pig crosses an unspoken boundary by kissing Runt in an alleyway behind a nightclub, mistakenly assuming that the impulse is mutual. It’s a rejection that disrupts their synchronicity permanently and the world around them is increasingly in danger the more violently Pig attempts to jolt them back into sync. The main difference between that dynamic and the trajectory of Love Me If You Dare is that the synchronized menaces of Disco Pigs are off-putting long before the pangs of lust harsh their vibes. Yes, it’s even more grotesque when they intone childlike half-English as adults in lines like “Why I kiss the honey lips of Runt?,” but even as children their privately shared language reads as deranged & unhealthy. There’s no true-life violent crime to attach to that sensation to either, like in how Heavenly Creatures ultimately results in an infamous from-the-headlines murder. It’s a more abstract, subliminal menace in this case – the way stage plays are often psychologically troubling without having to state their menace in-dialogue. The contrast of the fairy tale whimsy and unsettling romantic undertones is apparent here as soon as the characters announce themselves under the names Pig & Runt. Even their shared fantasy of ruling the world as The King & Queen of Everything feels oddly sinister, as long as you take a second to imagine what the world might be like under their rule. In Love Me If You Dare, by contrast, the central relationship doesn’t really become a menace until the couple refuses to give up their childhood game of dares once they become adults. It’s the difference between immaturity being the culprit vs. the kids themselves being a menace through the violent reaction of their chemistry.

There are some unfortunate indulgences in early-aughts aesthetics that keep Disco Pigs from joining the upper echelon of titles in its mutual-obsession genre (namely cheap techno & some unfortunate choices in choppy frame-rates). Much of the psychological menace of its stage play source material shines through in the production, though, if not only through Cillian Murphy’s slack-jawed, dead-eyed (and, honestly, still kind of hot?) portrayal of Pig – a character he originated onstage. Anyone with a fondness for stories of this ilk – Heavenly Creatures, Wuthering Heights, Love Me If You Dare, etc. – should find plenty of delicious menace in that performance, which paves over a lot of the film’s more glaring faults in craft & budget. If nothing else, we can all take solace that we don’t live in a world where Pig & Runt are crowned The King & Queen of Everything. It’s difficult to imagine many hells worse than the one we currently dwell in, but that one sounds like it might qualify.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison to the violent attractions of Heavenly Creatures (1993), and last week’s look at its prankish twee predecessor Amelie (2001).

-Brandon Ledet

The Absurdist Joys of the Villainous Pun Name

I have a running list of absurdly idiotic movie gimmicks that delight me to no end: horror films about internet-dwelling computer ghosts; plot-summarizing rap songs that play over end credits; music video dream sequences, etc. This week I may have discovered a new one: the not-so-secret villain who gives themselves away with an obviously evil pun name. Naming fictional characters is difficult business. It takes incredible skill & patience to find the right name that both says something about the character without being too blatant and feels natural on the tongue. This week I’ve been watching movies that don’t at all burden themselves with either concern, instead using their villains’ names as plain, upfront statements about where they stand in the world and how you should feel about them. It’s a tactic that’s far more often employed in the heightened realities of pro wrestling, drag, and comic books – one that sticks out like a sore thumb when it’s deployed in cinema, hilariously so.

The first of these villainous pun names to jump out at me was from the 1987 supernatural noir Angel Heart. The film joins the ranks of New Orleans-set erotic thrillers like The Big Easy, Zandalee, and Cat People ’82 in depicting our fine city as a sweaty pile of saxophones, street steam, horniness, gumbo, and Voodoo. The plot is, on the surface, a fairly standard noir riff where a young, strapping Micky Rourke ventures to investigate a missing person’s case while getting tangled up with various dangerous dames. Everything changes when a corny sex scene between Rourke & Lisa Bonet (a beautiful combination, considering the times) turns into a nightmare vision of Hell and the movie takes a supernatural turn. Anyone paying attention to the character names should see that directional shift coming from a mile away, however. Not only is Rourke’s professional sleuth named Harold Angel, but the man who hires him to investigate the crime (in “a special appearance” from Robert De Niro) is named Louis Cyphre. Turns out that long-nailed, slick haired trickster Louis Cyphre has a pure-Evil, supernatural role to play in Angel’s downfall. Who would have guessed?

The second villainous pun name I stumbled across was a much more recent, less nostalgically minded-title: Wes Craven’s 2005 airplane thriller Red Eye. A tight, gimmick-heavy thriller from the War on Terror era of Bush’s presidency, the film features Rachel McAdams being held hostage by Cillian Murphy on a late-night flight and subsequently being pressured into participating in a terrorist attack. Red Eye has a Final Destination feel to it, except with Terrorism feeling like the inescapable inevitability instead of Death. That set-up allows for over-the-top skirmishes with flight attendants, missile launches, and assassination attempts to feel at home with the overall tone, but the movie also has a stray concern with gender politics that lands far outside that thematic orbit. Murphy’s abduction & coercion of McAdams begins as extremely gendered flirtation, then erupts into domestic violence exchanges where he explains he has the upper hand because his “male-driven logic” trumps her “female-driven emotion.” That turn in the story is much more jarring than Murphy’s reveal as the villain, but the gendered violence of the film is less surprising when you consider his character name for a half-second: Jack Rippner.

After meeting Louis Cyphre & Jack Rippner by chance, I decided to revisit the most shameless villainous pun name I could recall. It’s an honor held by none other than schlock king Ed Wood Jr., who had the vision & the fortitude to name a character Dr. Acula in 1958’s Night of the Ghouls. Officially unreleased until the 1980s, cobbled together from footage pilfered form Orgy of the Dead & The Sinister Urge, and somewhat posed as a direct sequel to Bride of the Monster (at least in Tor Johnson’s resurrection of the character Lobo), Night of the Ghouls is a total mess even by Wood’s “standards”. It’s a charming mess, though, especially in sequences where Dr. Acula fleeces marks by staging fake seances in his spooky mansion for easy cash. Everything about Acula is a mystery. Actor Kenne Duncan is not at all vampiric in the role, not even vaguely. The character was obviously written for Bela Lugosi before his death, but why wasn’t it given to Criswell instead, who introduces the film while rising of a casket, then continues to operate outside the narrative? If Acula is a total fraud whose seances are staged for grifting, why would have burdened himself with such an obviously suspicious, villainous stage name? Was the character intended as an homage to Lugosi’s very similar conman in the 1940 horror comedy You’ll Find Out? I’m not sure Wood would have answers to these questions even if he were still alive, which I suppose is part of the fun.

Jack Rippner, Dr. Acula, and Louis Cyphre have better company in more well-respected films – characters like Hannibal Lecter, Cruella de Ville, and any number of James Bond or Harry Potter villains you can name. Honestly, though, I find them even more delightful as sore-thumb intruders outside of contexts like comic books or children’s literature that would excuse their over-the-top nomenclatures. Now that my eyes are open to the trope, I fully expect to notice more villainous pun names at the movies. At the very least, I hope to run across a Justin Sane or a B. Zilbub before my time on Earth is through and I fully expect to fall in love with the films that dare to exploit that gimmick. It’s consistently delightful & comfortably at home with this genre film territory.

-Brandon Ledet

Free Fire (2017)

About halfway into Free Fire, Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to last year’s excellent existential horror High-Rise, I began worry I was watching something much more pedestrian than its predecessor. In its earliest, broadest brushstrokes, Free Fire is disguised as a return to the over-written, vulgar shoot-em-ups that flooded indie cinemas with their macho mediocrity in the years immediately following Quentin Tarantino’s first few features. Thankfully, things get much stranger from there. What’s fascinating is the way Wheatley pushes a bare-bones premise, which is essentially a feature-length shoot-out, past the point of mediocre Tarantino-riffing into something much more transcendently absurd. By the film’s third act, its stubborn dedication to a single, bombastic bit becomes so punishingly relentless that it’s sublimely (and hilariously) surreal. It’s the shoot-em-up equivalent of a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. I’m not sure I ever want to see a gun fired in a movie again.

Staged “in real time,” Free Fire depicts a weapons deal gone horribly wrong in a 1970s Boston warehouse. Irish gangsters representing the IRA attempt to purchase a large quantity of assault rifles from South African crime lords with impartial American mediators maintaining order between them. The only reason the audience really has any incentive to prefer one faction’s victory over another is because one group is introduced first. Besides there being one woman in a sea of overly macho personalities hitting on her and referring to her as “Sweetheart,” “Doll,” and “Bird,” there isn’t much variation in the film’s various intergangster dynamics. Mostly, Free Fire‘s dozen or so characters are all irredeemable criminals, boys with their toys, who are attempting to get one over on each other in an exchange of funds & murder weapons. Once the familiarity of their antagonism breaks down and their vendettas transition from business to personal, the deal devolves into an hour-long shoot-out where everyone’s shot multiple times and it becomes a weird joke they there’s anyone still alive to continue the narrative. Even with exposed brains & bullet-shredded flesh, the warehouse full of bloodied-up reprobates somehow find the energy to lob witty insults at each other between the roars of gunfire. For something so horrifically violent, it’s decidedly goofy.

There’s a Walter Hill-style exploitation throwback quality to Free Fire‘s bare-bones premise and its “All guns. No control.” tagline suggests it actually has something to say about modern culture’s relationship with firearms, but the film often feels like a naked excuse to watch beautiful people (Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, etc.) model 70s fashion & fire weapons to incongruous pop songs by acts like CCR & John Denver. It’s easy to see why the marketing team felt it was appropriate to tout Martin Scorsese’s executive producer credit so prominently in its advertising. Wheatley knows exactly what genre confines he’s working within here, though, and subverts them not through joking meta-commentary, but by playing them straight to an absurdly prolonged extreme. The last time I laughed this much at a character’s improbable, strained survival was watching Leonardo DiCaprio crawl & gurgle blood for hours on end in The Revenant. The difference in Free Fire is that the humor is intentional and every character is a post-bear attack DiCaprio, functioning like dead weight zombies who barely have the strength to lift guns in each other’s directions, much less take the time to aim. The film is impressive in its simple alchemy of making a familiar premise feel fresh again by sustaining it for an absurdly prolonged stretch of screentime. You may feel as if you’ve seen this exact film before, but you’ve never seen it pushed to such a sublimely silly extreme.

-Brandon Ledet

Dunkirk (2017)

I sometimes complain about missing an essential Dad Gene that would enable me to care about certain traditional macho movie genres: Westerns, submarine thrillers, James Bond entries, etc. I’m not faced with the pressure to watch any other subcategory of these Dad Movies nearly as often as I am with The War Movie. Films about battleground warfare, especially set during WWII or The Vietnam War, tend to put me to sleep. There’s a grim, heroically macho routine to battlefield dramas & thrillers that typically makes them feel indistinguishable from one another, like a sea of uniformed soldiers solemnly marching in unison. Christopher Nolan’s recent war thriller, Dunkirk, broke that spell and made me question my Dad Movie prejudice. Dunkirk feels much more like a personal obsession with the story of a single historical event than yet another echo of the war movie genre trappings that dull down so many of its peers. I’m usually unable to distinguish any particular World War II battlefield picture from the long, uniformed line that marched before it, but Nolan’s auteurist interests in things like time, intense sound design, and muted performances from actors like Tom Hardy & Cillian Murphy make Dunkirk feel like a wholly new, revitalizing take on the genre. Instead of checking my pulse for signs of life at the top of the second act, I found myself holding my breath in anxious anticipation throughout, due largely to Nolan’s technical skills as a craftsman and, in a recent turn starting with Interstellar, personal passion as a storyteller.

Dunkirk dramatizes a colossal military disaster where 40,000 French & British heroes & cowards awaited rescue on a beach while surrounded by the German enemy in World War II. With a massive cast & sparse dialogue, Nolan does little to provide character detail for any of these thousands of soldiers, but rather tells their story as a massive unit. Even actors like Murphy, Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and pop star Harry Styles, who all should individually draw attention through the virtue of their mere presence, are but tiny gears in a larger machine that sounds & functions like clockwork, ticking away until the enemy bombs them out of existence. Nolan fractures this larger narrative through three narrow focus storylines: a two man beachside escape mission that lasts a week, a three man boat ride that lasts a day, and a two man airplane skirmish that lasts an hour. These three narratives barrel towards an inevitable point of convergence: a historical event where private vessels & fishing boats were employed to rescue soldiers from the beach, since all traditional Navy ships were being sunk by the enemy. Although Nolan tells this story through a precise, coldly technical build-up of moment to moment tension, he takes a breath to glorify this triumph of The Dunkirk Spirit in a rare stint of nationalistic pride. When the tiny pleasure yachts roll in to Bring Home the Boys under the German’s noses, Branagh admires their bravery in silence, nearly holding back a single manly tear as if it were Nolan himself watching the waters. It’s possibly the only moment of relief offered in Dunkirk‘s entire runtime, a much needed breather in an otherwise tense, relentless chokehold.

Besides Nolan’s typifying play with the film’s sense of time & a bold decision to never depict the enemy onscreen, Dunkirk also avoids war movie doldrums by echoing the structure of near-plotless obstacle course movies like Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road. All that really matters is clearing the next hurdle. Whether searching for drinkable water & smokable cigarette butts in city streets or avoiding drowning inside of a ship that is both sinking & on fire, Nolan’s camera follows his soldiers & their civilian saviors as they conquer one obstacle at a time. This makes for an entirely nerve-racking experience from opening to closing credits, an intensity amplified by Hans Zimmer’s sparse, haunting score of ticking clocks & building strings. This score is only softened when the complex sound design is overwhelmed by sudden, deafening air raids that leave all soldiers ducking & praying for survival at irregular intervals. Nolan mirrors the impossible technical feat of rescuing that large of a number of soldiers on a fleet of tiny civilian vessels by staging his own series of aurally terrifying, temporally ambitious, and brutally logical technical feats of filmmaking & narrative craft. The anticipatory feeling of seeing the film on a 70mm print opening night felt more like an Event or an Experience than a typical trip to the movies. It was something akin to a film fest vibe (although with a notably more bro-populated crowd), but it also reminded me of waiting in line for a rollercoaster. Dunkirk is a quick, dizzying trip through pure adrenaline thrills & for-their-own-sake technical marvels. It gives you little time to attach yourself to any one character or narrative in particular, but the complexities of its basic structure & overall effect are so impressive that it never really matters.

The few isolated beats where I wasn’t fully onboard with Nolan’s vision were when he did attempt to stir emotion instead of building tension. That scene where Branagh admires the civilian volunteers’ makeshift rescue efforts while the ticking clocks score gives way to triumphant orchestral strings reminded me so much of the war movies that typically do nothing for my shriveled, cynical heart. Those moments are few & far between, however. Dunkirk mostly mines tension from an increasingly complex series of moment-to-moment tasks spread out over sea, sky, beach, and several converging timelines. To deny the power of the film’s technical feats because of its lacking emotional impact or detailed character development would be asking it to be something entirely different from the story Nolan set out to tell. As someone who has an impossible time focusing on the particulars of battlefield drama in more traditional war stories, I very much appreciate Nolan’s approach here. It’s likely that he personally found much more emotional resonance in the film than most of his audience possibly could, but the experience of watching him reach for that emotion in his tightly controlled, meticulous recreation of wartime chaos is as immediately impressive as it is likely to be unforgettable.

-Brandon Ledet