Minari (2021)

When the 2021 Oscar nominations were announced back in March, I put in a months-long effort to watch as many films nominated that I had genuine interest in, as long as I could access them for “free” (mostly via streaming services I already subscribed to).  This meant that $20 VOD rentals of still-in-theaters titles like The Father & Minari had to simmer on the backburner, unless I could get my hands on them via a borrowed library DVD.  Well, it’s June now and this year’s screwy, Soderberghian Oscars ceremony is only a hazy memory, along with any tangible critical discourse surrounding the films nominated.  Even now, I’m still 23rd in line for my requested DVD copy The Father at the New Orleans Public Library, but Minari finally did arrive.  The film is, to no one’s surprise, quite good.  There are some big laughs, a few tears, and a heartwarming performance from the world’s cutest kid; it’s just a solid Indie Drama all around.  But you already know that.  It turns out there’s a price to pay if you want to participate in Online Film Discourse while it’s still fresh, and in 2021 that experience goes for about $20 a title ($30 if it’s Disney IP).

There are two main narrative tracks running parallel in Minari.  In one, an enterprising Korean immigrant (Steven Yeun) moves his family from San Francisco to rural Arkansas, sacrificing their urban social life to pursue his obsession with starting a self-sufficient, profitable farm – the supposed American dream.  In the other, the amateur farmer’s youngest child David (Alan S. Kim, the aforementioned cutie) struggles to connect with his grandmother, who arrives directly from Korea to live on the newfound family farm.  Of those two storylines, I was much more emotionally invested in the latter.  The stakes are obviously much higher in the father figure’s risk-it-all obsession with starting his own farm, but the boredom and isolation his family suffers because of that choice is given equal emotional weight.  I remember what it’s like to live in the South as a kid, just far enough away from a major city that you can sense its presence but never get to enjoy its benefits; your only company is your family, whether you get along with them or not.  That tension is only amplified here by the arrival of an estranged family member who doesn’t have her own place in the group dynamic yet, especially when viewed through the eyes of the shiest, most sheltered member of the household.

David’s cautious relationship with his grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung, who did take home an Oscar statue for Best Supporting Actress) is the emotional core of Minari.  Her arrival on the Arkansan farm might as well be a UFO landing to him.  Not only does she represent a parental home country he’s completely unfamiliar with in his short time alive (early on, he complains that she “smells like Korea”), but she also does not act like the stereotypical ideal of a grandmother he’s come to expect based on American pop media.  She gambles, swears, loves pro wrestling, chugs Mountain Dew and, worst yet, she doesn’t even bake cookies.  Of course, all of those qualities are rad as hell in an elderly grandmother, but it takes young David a long while to warm up to that obvious truth.  Watching the two of them grow to truly know and love each other over the course of the film is a low-key kind of Movie Magic that cannot be matched by the flashier, more inevitable tragedies of the tear-jerking plot – most of which derive from the father figure’s almost entirely separate toiling on the farm.

Minari is seemingly aware that David’s inner life and personal relationship with his grandmother is its emotional anchor.  At the very least, choosing to set the film in 1980s Arkansas, as opposed to current-day, affords it a kind of nostalgia-tinged remembrance that focuses on highly specific sensory details—flavors, smells, textures—that transport you back to an otherwise half-forgotten childhood.  And because modern film discourse moves at such a rapid pace right now, even just thinking back to Minari‘s six Oscar nominations earlier this year is tinged with its own kind of nostalgia.  The world has already moved on from discussing it, but it’s still a great film.  My only real surprise in that months-late discovery is that my favorite aspect of the film was one of the few that wasn’t nominated by the Academy: Alan S. Kim’s performance as David.  Cute kid.

-Brandon Ledet

Clockwatchers (1997)

Even as a curmudgeonly thirty-something, I’m one of the youngest people working in my office.  By a lot.  Most of the staff has been haunting this building for decades, a kind of professional longevity that tends to encourage inconsequential, interpersonal resentments that have been simmering on a low flame for almost as long as I’ve been alive.  Such is the joy of bureaucracy, where someone taking the wrong parking space or forgetting to remove their coffee pod from the communal Keurig machine is equivalent to a war crime.  It’s an absurd dynamic to witness as a newcomer just trying to survive the daily shift so I can get back to Real Life, but Office Drama means the world to the poor souls ensnared by it, and I’m scared that I’ll inevitably be able to count myself among them.

While I was still just a middle school dweeb with delusions of one day becoming a Famous Writer (as you can guess, I eventually settled for Hobbyist Blogger), the Sundance sleeper Clockwatchers already perfectly captured the ugly, grey heart of those workplace resentments in a genuine, existential way.  Clockwatchers is an absurdist, subtly heartbreaking workplace satire in which Toni Colette, Parker Posey, and Lisa Kudrow play a collective of disgruntled office temps embroiled in a meaningless scandal over stolen office supplies.  It blows up petty, pointless office drama to a tragicomic extreme, wryly observing both the outsized importance of workplace resentments among the long-established people it matters to and the absurdity of it among newcomers who find it soul-crushingly inane.

In what should be a surprise to no one, it’s Toni Collette’s lead performance as a shy, lonely office clerk that affords the film most of its devastating pathos.  She starts off at her temp job’s typing pool following instructions like “Sit there until someone comes and tells you what to do” with a literal-minded obedience, failing to assert or draw attention to herself at every turn.  It’s exciting to see her meek demeanor corrupted and steeled by Posey & Kudrow’s more proudly obnoxious behavior as the film goes on, but she doesn’t fully transform into a who-gives-a-fuck office badass until it’s too late.  To survive the petty stolen office supplies conflict that drives the plot, the temps need to operate collectively, with strength in solidarity.  Watching her struggle to muster that strength is genuinely heartbreaking, especially in comparison to Posey’s loudmouth iconoclast, who has bravery to spare.

It’s probably not the most attention-grabbing achievement a movie could pull off, but Clockwatchers perfectly captures the unnatural, mind-numbing tedium of a day’s work in the life of an anonymous bureaucrat, something I can unfortunately attest to with plenty personal experience.  It would make for a great double bill with Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls or Kitty Green’s The Assistant, although it’s much, much lighter in tone than either of those blood-chillers.  The context of Clockwatchers’s scandalous typing pool might be less severe than either of those pairings’, but they each touch on similar themes of meaningless, soul-destroying office labor.  Watching these all-time-great actors collect dust in the blank, white-void walls of their excruciatingly ordinary office—”trying to look busy while there’s nothing to do”—is a very familiar strain of existential crisis.  And then someone has the nerve to make their days even more pointlessly excruciating over accusations of stolen staplers & paperweights?  It’s the absolute height of human cruelty.

-Brandon Ledet

Beast Beast (2021)

Much to everyone’s shock, Tubi has proven to be of the most surprisingly substantial players in the online streaming game over the past year or so. What used to be a low-rent platform for disposable horror schlock that falls just outside the public domain is now a staggering online library of great works on the level of a Criterion Channel or an HBO Max. To solidify its legitimacy as a formidable streaming giant, Tubi is now apparently getting into the business of premiering artsy indie films from the festival circuit, a far cry from its origins as a last resort destination to watch Wishmaster 3, or whatever.

Tubi’s bold foray into prestigious festival acquisitions is Beast Beast, a very Sundancey teen drama about gun violence.  Think of it as a Gen-Z update of Elephant.  The lives of three average suburban teens interweave in the weeks leading up to a fatal shooting, which shockingly does not take place on a high school campus.  The movie does nothing to hide the identity of the eventual shooter, making it obvious who’s going to do the killing even if their targets are obscured.  You know exactly where the movie’s going until it gets there . . . and then there’s fifteen extra minutes of unexpected, pulpy denouement.  This movie is the ultimate example of the dictum “It’s not what happens but how it happens,” as the hyperkinetic, youthful style entirely overpowers its afternoon-special PSA plotting.

The three youths profiled here are all distinct in their public & private personae, but like most kids born in The Internet Age, they all share a compulsion to produce online #content, building their personal brands on platforms like YouTube & Instagram.  As their disparate hobbies of drumming, skateboarding, amateur filmmaking, and firing assault weapons in the woods collide in frantic montage, it’s clear that we’re living in a post-context world.  One of those afterschool activities is way more sinister than the others, and it’s shocking to see it presented so casually in a teen melodrama with an inevitable tragic ending.  What’s exciting about Beast Beast is how aware the kids are of their online presence’s effect on the world, allowing them to weaponize Public Perception while avenging that tragedy once it occurs.  Its a film both horrified by and in reverent awe of the Internet as a creative & destructive tool, depending on who’s wielding it.

Beast Beast is the exact kind of low-budget filmmaking that earns a lot of unfair eyerolls, but it really worked for me.  Its multimedia approach to photography and its exponentially intense sound design genuinely rattled me in a way few dramas have managed to in the past year, thanks to the general emotional numbness of the pandemic.  Unfortunately, that’s the exact reason it’s such a poor fit for Tubi as a streaming platform.  Instead of being able to fully immerse myself in that tension for that full 85 runtime, I was frequently iced down by Tubi’s randomly interjected commercial breaks, the platform’s Achilles heel.  If Tubi’s going to be getting into smaller arthouse films, I’m not sure the commercial breaks are entirely worth it.  Beast Beast is one of the best new releases I’ve seen so far this year, but I’d likely be even more over the moon for it if it weren’t interrupted by Verizon shills & Charmin bears.

-Brandon Ledet

Rocks (2021)

The small-scale British drama Rocks appears to be standard coming-of-age docufiction at first glance. A naturalistic, mildly fictionalized portrait of kids’ lives alone in The Big City, the film invites skepticism of what could possibly set it apart from similar, contemporary works like Girlhood, Skate Kitchen, Nobody Knows, or The Florida Project. The answer is somewhat obvious: the kids themselves. Rocks mostly excels in its minor character details, platforming young performers who are authentically adorable, hilarious, and heartbreaking at every turn in their seemingly Real stories. As with a hagiographic documentary or a shamelessly formulaic mainstream comedy, the form of this kitchen-sink drama doesn’t matter nearly as much as the personalities it highlights. If anything, the movie better serves its characters & performers by stylistically staying out of their way.

The titular Rocks is a high school student in Hackney, London, and the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant. She’s a typical teenager at the start of the film, at least judging by her young Londoner peers. She’s mostly interested in dance, hip-hop, and Instagram make-up tutorials, and she pretends to be more annoyed with her absurdly adorable kid brother than she actually is. Her typical-teen life is disrupted early in the film when her mother abandons the kids in their cramped apartment with only a small stack of cash to keep them afloat until she returns (if she returns at all). Rocks quickly goes from bartering for candy in the schoolyard to being the head of her small family, lugging her brother and his pet frog all over the city in a daily struggle to survive life without income or a safety net. It’s unclear at first whether she’s just too proud to ask her circle of friends for help or if she’s fearful of what might happen if word gets out that she & her brother are going it alone. The movie is fascinated by where she belongs within Hackney as a larger community, though, and it feels most vibrant & alive when she’s figuring that question out among kids her own age.

If there’s anything especially striking about director Sarah Gavron’s filmmaking here, it’s in her attention to the artifice of social media while chasing down the grimmer details of Real Life. The movie is incredibly smart about allowing the kids’ preferred mode of communication—Instagram—to propel its visual language & drama. It shifts to a vertical smartphone aspect ratio so frequently that I have to wonder why the kids weren’t given their own “Cinematography By” credits. They check in with & lash out at each other through Instagram posts, and use the app’s Stories function as an edited-in-the-moment travelogue in the transitions between locales. The film is not as confrontationally in-your-face about that stylistic choice as genre films like Sickhouse, Assassination Nation, or Ingrid Goes West, but it is just as honest about how much of its teen subjects’ daily lives are recorded, filtered, and preserved through that very specific lens.

Speaking personally, my ideal version of this film might be one pieced together entirely through staged Instagram posts, like the tear-jerker drama equivalent of a found footage horror film. It would be dismissed as a gimmicky, attention-grabbing choice by most audiences, but to me it feels as authentic to the Kids Today™ as the cinema verité style was to the docufiction subjects of the 1960s & 70s. As is, these kids still feel authentically Real in every beat of the story, even when it’s at its most melodramatic. The movie is obviously more interested in highlighting those performers (who were credited for contributing to writing the dialogue) than it is in flaunting its own heightened sense of style or drama. That’s certainly a worthwhile goal, and the payoffs suggest it was the right way to go with this material (even if it somewhat flattens what distinguishes the film from similar works).

-Brandon Ledet

Dead Pigs (2021)

Because I don’t have the money to travel to the bigger players like Cannes or TIFF, most movies I see at film festivals are smaller, micro-budget productions with years-delayed releases or, often, no official distribution at all. It’s common for my favorite new releases at The New Orleans Film Fest—titles like Cheerleader, Pig Film, and She’s Allergic to Cats—to get lost in distribution limbo for years despite their explosive creativity & aesthetic cool. What’s a lot less common is for the filmmakers behind them to Make It Big before those calling-card films’ release. That’s exactly what happened to Cathy Yan, though. Because her debut feature Dead Pigs premiered to ecstatic reviews at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Yan landed a mainstream gig directing the pop-art superhero blockbuster Birds of Prey, one of Swampflix’s favorite films of 2020. In the meantime, Dead Pigs treaded water for two years with no means of wide distribution until Mubi picked up its streaming rights in 2021 (likely prompted by Birds of Prey). It’s Yan’s debut film but her second film released, a perfect encapsulation of the confounding labyrinth of the festival-to-wide distribution pipeline.

In Dead Pigs, Cathy Yan deploys a lot of the same candy-coated visual pleasures & chaotic irreverence that made Birds of Prey so fantabulous, except now in an entirely different genre: the everything-is-connected ensemble cast indie (sometimes referred to as “hyperlink cinema”). Think Me and You and Everyone We Know . . . except with pig corpses and neon lighting. We’re introduced to several, disparate citizens of modern Shangai who appear to be living entirely disconnected lives: a beauty salon owner, a pig farmer, a lonely waiter, a displaced white American architect, etc. As with other everything-is-connected stories like Magnolia, Traffic, and Short Cuts, their relationships with each other gradually become apparent and gradually construct a mosaic portrait of the region & community they populate — in this case Shanghai. It’s a great structural choice for a first-time director, as it allows Yan freedom to pursue many ideas at once without having to fully devote herself to a single option. It’s as if she couldn’t decide what movie to make so she made them all at once: a wealth-disparity romcom set in a hospital room, a low-level crime thriller about an unpaid debt to mobsters, an outlandish farce about a woman stubbornly refusing to sell her home to a predatory real estate corporation. They’re all individually great, and once they start directly informing each other they’re even greater.

All told, Dead Pigs is a snapshot of postmodern culture clash, a great movie about “the modern world” steamrolling the real one. The two major inciting events that link its disparate characters are the mass, city-wide death of pig-farmers’ stock and the rapid expansion of towering condos in neighborhoods that used to have distinct personalities & culture. However, describing the film that way doesn’t convey how fun & sinisterly beautiful it can feel in the moment – a tonal clash between form & content Yan would continue in her big-break blockbuster. The film is overflowing with culture-clash absurdism, broad comedic gags, and intense swirls of neons & pastels; it’s a delightful romp about the heartbreaking erasure of Shanghai’s authentic people & culture. That kind of tonal ambiguity & mosaic narrative structure is likely a tough sell marketing-wise, so it makes sense that Dead Pigs was allowed to float downstream for so long without proper distribution. I’m at least thankful that its festival-circuit buzz landed Yan such a high-profile gig and eventually got it in front of so many people. The system sometimes works, but it sure does take its time.

-Brandon Ledet

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Naively, I hoped last year’s bizarro movie distribution vortex might make for some exciting, unconventional Oscar nominations. Instead, it seems most of this season’s frontrunners are typically-awarded Prestige Dramas that weren’t available to the wide public two months into the next calendar year. It’s impressively stubborn. Since The Academy is unlikely to ever change the type of movies it tends to award, the best we can apparently hope for are changes in subject & cultural representation. Enter Judas and the Black Messiah, an Awards Season historical drama about a charismatic, radical Black Panther Party leader who was assassinated by the FBI when he was only 21 years old. If the Oscars nomination machine is only going to recognize sobering dramas & grim actors’ showcases, then at least we can celebrate that one of this year’s chosen few is a Trojan Horse for leftist, Revolutionary politics.

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Fred Hampton, the aforementioned Black Panther organizer who was murdered in his sleep by the FBI (a real-life biographical detail that recalls the recent police-state execution of Breonna Taylor). Hampton’s internal life is kept at a careful distance here, as the movie is more interested in his Political Importance, especially in his ability to captivate & motivate large, diverse crowds with passionate speeches about wealth distribution & racist police-state violence. Our POV character is the undercover FBI informant who sold Hampton out to the pigs, Bill O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield. At its most enthralling, the movie focuses on Stanfield’s self-conflicted & self-loathing inability to stop the momentum of Hampton’s assassination once he’s already pushed those events in motion. He gradually realizes how insidious of a lie it is that the FBI frames the Black Panther Party to be just as hateful & anti-American as the Ku Klux Klan (a lie that I remember being taught as a kid myself), but by then his betrayal has already snowballed out of his control, which accounts for most of the film’s dramatic tension.

Judas and the Black Messiah is caught between two extremes; it achieves neither the thrilling undercover-cop genre subversion of a BlacKkKlansman nor the exquisite art-film portraiture of a If Beale Street Could Talk. In most ways it’s a firmly middle-of-the-road actors’ showcase meant to earn Awards Season buzz for its two central performers, something the movie even directly jokes about when an FBI agent muses that Stanfield’s informant “deserve(s) an Academy Award” for his deception. Kaluuya & Stanfield both deserve awards; they’re among the best working actors we’ve got. It’s just that they most often traffic in the kinds of high-concept genre films that don’t typically get recognized by the Academy (titles like Get Out, Widows, Sorry to Bother You, and Uncut Gems). This is the kind of work they have to put in to earn mainstream accolades, so the best we can do is celebrate that they’re not being used to voice mainstream rhetoric.

Judas and the Black Messiah is at least not a birth-to-death biopic of Fred Hampton; it’s a snapshot of him at the height of his power, arguing for the effectiveness of Revolution over the empty promise of Gradual Reform. Using the Awards Season movie machine to get people re-incensed over Hampton’s execution is a genuine, real-world good. The format might be a little dusty & traditional, but the politics are as relevant & vital as ever.

-Brandon Ledet

The Maids (1975)

When thinking back on the most striking, most ferociously committed performances I saw in any new-to-me films last year, two of the clear standouts were Suzannah York in Robert Altman’s Images and Glenda Jackson in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers – underseen, underappreciated gems from otherwise beloved 1970s auteurs. Playing women driven to madness by the unsympathetic, patronizing men in their lives, both York & Jackson are wildly over-the-top in their respective roles, but in a way that fits the volatile melodrama of the material they were given. In a word, their lengthy on-screen freak-outs in those films are spectacular. I was pleased, then, to discover that York & Jackson shared the screen in a 1975 adaptation of Jean Genet’s notorious stage play The Maids – a campy, dialed-to-11 actors’ showcase that allowed the two powerful women to fully run wild without any other actors getting in their way.

Jackson & York costar as incestuous sisters/housemaids who take turns roleplaying as their wealthy employer in elaborate kink games meant to mock her & dominate each other. The Maids‘s stagey limitations prevent it from being anything too exceptional as A Movie, but the central performances & class resentment politics are deliciously over-the-top in just the right way. It would be tempting to call York & Jackson’s performances over-acted, but really they’re just matching the archly over-written source material, wherein Genet turns the pageantry of wealth & class into a grotesque joke. It’s an unignorably cheap display, limited almost entirely to a single bedroom set and the world’s most embarrassing synthetic wigs. York & Jackson are fully committed to the material, though, overpowering the limitations of the production with Theatrical performances so monstrously grandiose & vicious they would make even Ken Russell blush.

On a thematic level, I can think of a few recent films that repeat & perfect The Maids‘s bigger ideas to much more exquisite results. In particular, the way the film fetishizes the employer/servant power dynamic and sarcastically pinches its nose at the stench of poverty, it’s impossible not to recall similar class-kink humor in films like Parasite & The Duke of Burgundy. It’s easy to get wrapped up in those comparisons to superior works, and the overall effect of York & Jackson reading off Genet’s deliberately overwrought dialogue ultimately feels like attending a 90min poetry recital. Still, it’s very much worth seeking out just to witness those two women sparring for dominance in a vicious, tawdry battle. I wish I could say it’s a great Movie overall, but it’s more a showcase for two great performances from women so overwhelmingly powerful it’s amazing that any one movie could contain them both.

-Brandon Ledet

Grand Hotel (1932)

After years of watching homages to the genre it helped name & pioneer, I thought I knew what to expect from the ensemble-cast Old Hollywood spectacle Grand Hotel. Grand hotel-set screwball throwbacks to its interweaving-characters story structure (such as What’s Up Doc?, Big Business, and The Grand Budapest Hotel) set me up to expect a straight-up farcical comedy. I gasped, then, when Grand Hotel took a shocking tragic turn seemingly out of nowhere in its third act, a tonal shift that only caught me off-guard because of the expectations set by its much goofier spiritual descendants. I guess I should have been tipped off by the film’s Best Picture Oscar, given the Academy’s long-running aversion to recognizing comedies as a legitimate artform, but I was shocked all the same. Grand Hotel acts like a standard star-packed Old Hollywood screwball comedy for most of its runtime, then floods the screen with last-minute melodrama to pump itself up with an air of prestige. I don’t know that I preferred the dramatic conclusion to the comedic build-up, but it is kinda cool that a studio picture from nine decades ago managed to surprise me in its basic story structure.

Set at “the most expensive hotel in Berlin”, Grand Hotel chronicles the overlapping lives of unlikely acquaintances who could only cross paths because they’re staying at the same hotel: a prima donna ballerina, a down-on-his-luck factory worker, a blustering business executive, a suave cat burglar, etc. It’s the kind of early Hollywood production that feels more like a filmed stage play than it does cinematic poetry, but it’s packed with enough big-name stars from the era (dressed in exquisite gowns by the always-on-point couturier Adrian) that the limited creativity in its editing & camerawork doesn’t especially detract from its prestige. The most notable starpower is a generational changing of the guard, miraculously featuring both Greta Garbo & Joan Crawford in one movie even though they feel like they belong to entirely different eras. That crossover isn’t especially highlighted onscreen; the two actors somehow never share a scene even though they’re fighting for the romantic attentions of the same man. Still, Garbo’s depressive diva ballerina & Crawford’s hot-to-trot nude model/”stenographess” offer a fascinating contrast in morals & class, echoed in the social divides of the various characters that drift through each other’s lives.

Grand Hotel is purposefully, subversively funny when it wants to be. There are a lot jaunty class-divide jabs at capitalist pigs and Hays Code-era sex jokes like (to Crawford’s sultry stenographess) “Why don’t you take a little dictation from me sometime?” that keep the mood light & celebratory for most of the runtime. As a result, when the tragedy that concludes this interwoven, ensemble-cast story stops that line of humor dead, I reflexively shouted “Oh shit!” at the screen, totally unprepared for the last-minute tonal shift. I guess that’s the kind of genre-skewing shenanigans necessary to land a Best Picture Oscar for a Comedy (which this movie won despite being nominated in no other category), but it is a little jarring if you’re more familiar with the film’s descendants than you are with its own original reputation. I expected to enjoy a light yuck-em-up with my old pals Crawford & Garbo while they modeled pretty dresses & ran around a massive studio lot set. It turns out Grand Hotel‘s teeth are a little sharper than that.

-Brandon Ledet

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Stephen Soderbergh is the ultimate one-for-me-one-for-them director, but it’s still unbelievable that the final film before his (first) announced retirement was going to be a made-for-TV biopic. Seemingly fed up with the indignity of begging for funding for proper movies and the general corralling of proven auteurs to the limbo of Prestige Television, Soderbergh announced that he was bowing out of the game entirely. That “retirement” didn’t last long. If anything, he’s more prolific than ever now, having found a way to pump out a steady stream of heady low-fi genre experiments powered by smartphone cameras & celebrity actors’ goodwill. As always with Soderbergh’s career, there’s something slyly cheeky about the suggestion that he might’ve retired on a made-for-TV biopic, though; it’s as if the choice of project and the timing of the announcement were themselves a statement on the current state of the movie industry. Of course, that doesn’t mean he phoned in his work on Behind the Candelabra; it’s just as crowd-pleasing & devilishly self-amused as any of his other, better-funded films.

It helps that Behind the Candelabra isn’t so much a birth-to-death biopic as it is a chronicle of one specific, fucked-up romance that typified Liberace’s love life. Recent glammed-up biopics of outrageously costumed musicians (think Rocketman, Stardust, and Bohemian Rhapsody) have strained themselves limp trying to emphasize the Rock Star Magic of their subjects while sticking to the exact lifeless formula that Walk Hard parodied over a decade ago. Behind the Candelabra instead takes that alluring glam persona for granted, plainly presenting Liberace’s glittery hair pieces, disco-ball pianos, and on-stage limo arrivals without any stylistic embellishment behind the camera. The most the movie goes out of its way to underline the majesty of those Vegas showroom performances is in including the wide-eyed audience who ate it up with childlike wonder. It’s a glittery presentation that still mesmerizes even in its fictionalized recreations, and by the time Liberace declares “Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” at the emotional climax it’s a tough point to argue against. Of course, those performances are only a small portion of runtime, as the title invites us to witness a much uglier performance behind those glimmering stage curtains.

Beyond the curdled vintage camp, the fabulous sequin capes, and the plastic surgery gore (!!!), the film is most worthwhile for its two central performances. Michael Douglas gets to return to the sexual menace of his erotic thriller era as an already-famous, ferociously horny Liberace in his middle age years. Meanwhile, Matt Damon goes full Dirk Diggler himbo as the pianist’s naïve teenage (ha!) boyfriend, who’s taken on more as a house pet than as an equal. Once the novelty of daily champagne bubble baths with his glamorous idol wears off, Liberace’s lover starts to question just how much personal freedom he’s given up to live a lonely life of wealth. The over-decorated mansion they share is populated only by a disapproving staff who act more as prison wardens than friendly faces. The relationship rapidly declines once Liberace pressures his young ward/fucktoy to get plastic surgery to look more like his biological son (or a Dick Tracy villain, depending on your perspective); it’s an eerie undercurrent of body horror that crescendos when Damon shouts “He took my face!” in horrified acceptance of how much of himself he’s given up to accommodate the Glam God who runs his ever-shrinking world. It’s a pain that stings even worse when he realizes that he’ll eventually age out of his usefulness to the much older man, and there’s a replacement waiting in the wings to start the cycle all over again.

For the most part, Behind the Candelabra doesn’t do much to test the boundaries of the TV Movie as an artform. Soderbergh skips the pageantry of an opening credits sequence, occasionally goes meta with trips to movie sets & the Oscars, and concludes the somewhat dour drama with a show-stopping musical number, but for the most part he’s pretty well-behaved. If Behind the Candelabra is to be contextualized as a Soderbergh Experiment the way most of his movies are, it’s merely in the fact that he made a TV Movie at all. Maybe the idea of being stuck in television productions for the rest of his career was enough to make him want to retire (or at least take a break from the press), but the results are mostly as sharp & slyly playful as most of the one-for-them pictures he makes for the big screen. The performances, the costume & set design, and the jarring mix of high/low, dour/camp sensibilities are all wonderfully realized, and I’ve seen plenty of much better funded, Oscar-winning biopics about glamorous musicians do much worse with their glut than what’s accomplished here.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Match Factory Girl (1990)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch The Match Factory Girl (1990).

Hanna: For this year’s first Movie of the Month, I’m returning to the cinema of my people with a feel-good romp called The Match Factory Girl (1990), which is written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki, arguably the most famous Finnish film director. The Match Factory Girl is the last film in the Proletariat Trilogy, which includes Shadows in Paradise and Ariel. All three films detail the dull lives of working-class people in Finland; they are very Finnish, very dour, and surprisingly funny.

In The Match Factory Girl, Iris (Kati Outinen) works at a match factory. By day, she checks the boxes of matches shooting past her on a conveyor belt for labeling errors; by night, she eats potato stew in silence with her parents (Elina Salo and Esko Nikkari) while footage of the Tiananmen Square protests flickers in the background. Iris eventually finds a man (Vesa Vierikko) to take her home, who assures her that “nothing could touch [him] less than [her] affection”. Even the local nightlife is unusually dreary. In one of my favorite scenes, Iris visits a local club where the band plays a rousing rendition of “Satumaa”, a popular Finnish tango detailing a far-off paradise à la “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” In keeping with the blunt ennui pervading the Finnish population, the chorus ends, “Unlike the birds, I’m a prisoner of this earth / And only in my dreams can I see that blessed turf.” Bummer! (As a side note, “Satumaa” was one of my dad’s favorite songs, and my sisters and I used to gather together and sing it while he played the piano. I never knew the English translation until I saw this movie, and it now strikes me as a strange song to teach to children.)

I initially feared that this movie would be nothing but a character study in pain, the kind of film where the protagonist suffers and suffers until they’re finally relieved of suffering through death. Instead, the drudgery of Iris’s life is presented plainly, sometimes with comic hopelessness. For instance, I couldn’t help but laugh when Iris visits her brother (who has a very cool black mullet) at his café, and he delivers her the saddest “sandwich” I’ve ever seen: just a piece of bread covered in six cherry tomato slices. Moreover, Iris eventually finds the will to stage her own subdued version of a violent revolution, which is incredibly satisfying (even if morally dubious).

The job market has changed drastically in the last 30 years, and dreadful factory jobs like Iris’s are increasingly automated, but I think this film still captures the basic frustration of laboring for a life that isn’t even fundamentally fulfilling. Britnee, can you still identify with the dehumanization that Iris feels in the match factory? What did you think of this portrait of working-class life?

Britnee: I am so glad you asked me this question! I work in an office job, which is quite different from doing quality control in a match factory, but oh boy, I definitely identified with Iris. There are times where I will think of how I’m working to just keep up with my basic needs (rent, utilities, health insurance, etc.), and I will basically spend my life on Earth working every single day until I die. I come home after work for only a few hours of pleasure, then go to bed early so I can wake up early and do the same thing the next day. When I partake in social events (pre-pandemic of course), I’m mostly too exhausted from work to even enjoy myself. Every day’s the same and there’s little to no opportunity to get ahead. Watching Iris open and close that dreary gate to get into the apartment she shares with her parents reminded me of doing the same to get into my apartment to and from work day after day after day. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with horrible parents when I get home like poor Iris did. Coming from a working class family, I witnessed this struggle of a life of labor every single day until I was old enough to join in the hell myself. Whether in Finland or the United States, it’s all the same I guess. Thankfully, the film is able to capture that day-to-day working class dreariness while being comical and entertaining.

One of my favorite films of 2020 was Swallow, where I found myself cheering on a bored housewife who found pleasure in swallowing dangerous objects. I did the same for Iris when she secretly started poisoning everyone around her. Instead of being horrified, I was proud of her for taking some sort of control in her boring life. Iris is such a likeable character. She’s a sweet, genuinely good person who is constantly shit on, and I just wanted her to find some sort of happiness. If that meant poisoning the horrible people making her life miserable, then so be it.

Boomer, do you also find satisfaction in Iris’s rat poison rampage?

Boomer: Boy, do I! Maybe I’m just a really twisted fuck, but I was not expecting this movie to go where it did, and I loved it. Although it slots perfectly into my beloved “women on the verge” genre, when those films go on a revenge kick, they rarely do so with such understatement. Most of the time, our character who is Going Through It either manages to pull back from the edge of their cliffdissolves in upon oneself, or goes flying over the edge into vengeful Falling Down/God Bless America/I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore/Spree territory. It’s notable (and more than a little shameful) that most of the films in the last of these three categories are about men while the protagonists of the former two are universally women, but it tells you something about what the filmmakers think about women, their agency, and what warrants a breakdown. The “hero” of Falling Down is a terrible person who takes his anger about exploitation out on the victims of that exploitation (fast food workers and service station cashiers) while being performatively offended by the fact that a white supremacist recognizes a reflection of himself in the protagonist. Iris is a woman exploited by the system on every front. Her employment is dull and unfulfilling employment, and the spoils of her labor are transferred to her mother and stepfather in total. She experiences sexism at the hands of not only Aarne (who thinks she’s a prostitute) and her stepfather (who abuses and steals from her), but also by her mother, who like many trapped in the system of exploitation, becomes the oppressor in her own way (kicking Iris out of the house and only allowing her back in if she plays servant). Although Iris’s vengeance is arguably outsized, as a revenge fantasy, it’s fantastic. And who can blame her, when all the world is full of images of revolution against an oppressive state, as seen in her parents’ constant consumption of TV news.

Speaking of what I expected, I went into the film thinking it would be a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” I thought that maybe there would be a pun in the title, but looking at the Finnish title for the fairy tale (“Pieni ottelutyttö”), there doesn’t appear to be one; still, there’s something at play here, I think. Like Andersen’s little match girl, Iris fears her (step)father’s fury with regards to her earnings, all of which go to him, with the implication that the girl is supporting her lazy father’s drinking habit. The difference is that the match girl’s ultimate reward is death and ascension to heaven (it’s Hans Christian Andersen; surely you didn’t expect something different), a transition from earthly misery to paradise in the afterlife. Iris takes more agency in her life and, although the law catches up with her she moves from a prison of economic depression to one of her own choosing, at least.

What do you think, Brandon? Is there a fairy tale element to Iris’s transformation, or am I reading too much into it?

Brandon: I can’t say that fairy tales were at the forefront of my mind, since this takes place in a world so brutally devoid of magic and romance.  However, you’re in good company making that connection.  In Roger Ebert’s 2011 review for his site’s “Great Movies” column, he wrote, “Growing up in Finland Kaurismäki would certainly have heard Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Little Match Girl.’ It told the story of a waif in the cold on Christmas Eve, trying to sell matches so her father will not punish her.  To keep warm she lights one match after another, and they summon visions which give her comfort.  She finally finds happiness of a heartbreaking sort.”  The parallels are certainly there, if not only in how the two Match Girls are both punished for seeking comfort in an otherwise bitterly cruel world (one in a lonely death and the other in arrest for her crimes), but their stories both still feel like minor personal victories.  Our heartbroken factory worker is no longer a “free” woman at the end of this film, but her life before arrest didn’t seem all that pleasurable anyway.  At least her poisonous vengeance afforded her a brief moment of selfish satisfaction & comfort before she gets caught, same as her fairy tale equivalent’s brief moment of peace found in a match’s flame before death.

I experienced The Match Factory Girl more as a low-key revenge thriller and a wryly dark comedy than as a modern fairy tale, but any one of those three genre labels would have to come with a warning that it is aggressively muted in its tone.  This film is whimsically bleak, a seemingly self-contradictory descriptor that’s somewhat unique to Finnish cinema.  It’s patient, largely dialogue-free, and understated in its vintage beauty – like watching a Polaroid in motion.  And yet, it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and the third-act vengeance is just as thrilling as any rowdy big-budget action sequence despite choosing not to directly depict her body count on-screen.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed by the soundtrack of this movie. All of the music is really fun, especially all of the club music. I had a lot of head bopping moments during some really depressing scenes. Badding Rockers, Klaus Treuheit, and The Renegades have made their way into my monthly playlist thanks to The Match Factory Girl!

Brandon: I’m a little ashamed of how pleasing I found the opening footage of the matchstick factory machines doing their work.  I know its function in the film is to underline how automated factory work has made modern manual labor so impersonal & limiting (especially since the humans operating the machines are cropped out of the frame in that intro).  Still, there’s a reason that kind of footage often ends up in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood field trip segments or YouTube highlight reels with titles like “Most Satisfying Factory Machines and Ingenious Tools 12”.  It’s hypnotically beautiful, even if it facilitates a real-life evil.

Hanna: Kaurismaki has been compared to Robert Bresson for his minimalistic directorial style, and to Rainer Werner Fassbinder for his working-class melodramas (in fact, Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar and and Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul are two of his favorite films). I think it’s the combination of those influences that makes The Match Factory Girl so compelling to me: Kaurismaki captures exactly how funny, cruel, and unbearably banal it is to be alive.

Boomer: I tried to see if there was a more concise term than “Falling Down/God Bless America/I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore/Spree territory,” since they’re all “revenge” films of a kind, but that terminology calls to mind Dirty Harry and Death Wish, which are much more macho and gross than what I’m thinking about. This led me to try Letterboxd for the first time to see if I could look for lists which have those films in common, but I didn’t have any luck. In fact, if you Google those film titles in quotation to see if anyone else is exploring those films in conversation with one another, Swampflix is the fourth example. I guess that means it falls to us to name it, and I propose we call it “Match Factory Girl on the Verge.”

Upcoming Movies of the Month
March: Brandon presents Home of the Brave (1986)
April: Boomer presents London Road (2015)
May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)

-The Swampflix Crew