Kung-Fu Master! (1988)

As I’m writing this review of a movie that’s nearly as old as I am, there are currently two prestigey Awards Season dramas from well-respected auteurs in theaters that dabble in age-gap “romances” between adults & teenagers.  In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, a 25-year-old-woman disastrously indulges a semi-romantic friendship with a 15-year-old boy.  In Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, a 40-something conman actively grooms a small-town high schooler for potential employment in the pornography industry.  Surprisingly, it’s the former film that’s taking a lot of online heat for its supposedly dangerous amorality, while the latter is enjoying a quiet, uneventful theatrical run.  Maybe the difference is that Licorice Pizza‘s friendly quasi-romance is played with a nostalgic sentimentality, while Red Rocket more aggressively interrogates the moral shortcomings of its skeezy conman protagonist.  Maybe it’s merely a symptom of Licorice Pizza reaching a wider audience, so more people are around to be offended by it.  I’m going to make no attempts to pinpoint the discrepancy, as I’ve been constantly baffled by what movies have been singled out by the sharpened knives of Age Gap Discourse™ in recent years.  Ever since Call Me By Your Name was treated like a Cuties-level provocation, I’ve struggled to figure out why we’ve completely lost our ability for nuanced discussion of morally ambiguous relationships, especially in discussion of fictional age-gap romances.  One thing I do know, though, is that if it were released in this current hyperbolic environment, Agnes Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! would make these morally righteous kids’ heads explode.

Agnès Varda’s cinematic persona has been over-simplified into a kind of wholesome meme in recent years, but she made provocative, fiercely political art in her time.  Even so, Kung-Fu Master! is one of the toughest watches I’ve seen from her, although it appears to have been made as a tossed-off afterthought mid-production on her documentary Jane B.  Made as a collaboration with that documentary’s titular subject—actor & singer Jane Birkin—Kung-Fu Master! is a sentimental romance drama about a middle-aged woman who inexplicably falls in love with a teenage boy.  The small cast includes Varda & Birkin’s own children, including Varda’s son Matthieu Demy as the snotty object of Birkin’s desire and Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg as his classmate & her romantic rival.  It doesn’t sexualize the scrawny, boyish Demy in any way – outside maybe lingering on a few closed-mouth kisses with the adult Birkin.  Still, it also doesn’t make any excuses for his adult fling’s transgressions.  She is attracted to him specifically because he is underage, visibly fascinated by his juvenile ramblings about boyish nonsense like Dungeons & Dragons and the titular arcade game Kung-Fu Master!.  Falling in love with him ruins her social life, isolating her from her own children & other adults.  The movie doesn’t make any grand gestures to demonize her for her bizarre infatuation, though.  It instead delicately interrogates the absurdism of an adult being so transfixed with a child she has nothing in common with.  It’s a premise that would not survive a minute of modern Age Gap Discourse, at least not in the morally ambiguous way it’s handled here.

Personally, I think Kung-Fu Master! more than justifies exploring this specific moral transgression.  It’s a movie that’s more about the why of its morally squicky events than it is about depicting the what; the most we ever see of Birkin & Demy consummating their onscreen fling are a few chaste little kisses and an implied sleeping bag sleepover.  Meanwhile, the film is anchored to a grim contemporary context that’s presented with much harsher tonal severity.  Kung-Fu Master! is not so much about its romance itself as it is about escaping from the grim circumstances of the AIDS epidemic by retreating into the innocence of schoolyard crushes.  Divorced & painfully lonely, Birkin’s fantasy-prone protagonist longs for the flattery & safety of flirting with a teen boy instead of a sexually mature adult.  She swoons for the smallest, scrawniest boy in her daughter’s class of brutes specifically because he is “curious & vulnerable”.  Meanwhile, the video game arcades she trails him to are crowded by AIDS pamphlets & condom dispensers, constantly reminding her of the much more dangerous, complicated logistics of adult romance.  It isn’t until the mismatched couple isolate themselves for an island vacation that they escape the havoc AIDS has wreaked on big-city living, and they enjoy a moment of interpersonal peace.  It would be very easy to dismiss this film outright for the hands-off way it approaches the immoral romantic pairing at its core, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for being too squicked out by that predatory dynamic to appreciate its larger themes.  I found it to be a tough but moving watch in more ways than I expected, though, especially the further it digs into the reasons for Birkin’s immoral predation.

Curiously, Kung-Fu Master! opens with a scene that’s perfectly tailored for today’s social media climate.  The teenage Demy, dressed in a karate uniform, mimics the stilted video-game motions of his favorite arcade game by treating his city sidewalk as a sight-scrolling button-masher.  It’s a visual gag that’s been repeated endlessly in TikToks & Vines, where teens will mimic the nonsensical body language of GTA maniacs or idle NPCs.  I don’t know that modern social media discourse would have much breathing room for discussing anything that happens after that adorable intro, though, since Varda is entirely disinterested in damning her wayward protagonist for her crimes.  I understand the inherent sensitivity of a film tackling statutory rape in its core narrative, but I still think there’s something lost when art is reductively discussed as real-life morality parables rather than a safe, fictional space to explore complicated ideas.  Despite the obvious personal connection to Varda & Birkin’s own families (including the eventual loss of Varda’s husband & Demy’s father to AIDS complications), these are fictional characters whose onscreen behavior are not being endorsed by their real-life creators.  However, the harsh circumstances of the world they occupy is very real, and their moral transgressions within it are a troubling psychological response to that circumstance.  It’s deeply fucked up, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth grappling with.

-Brandon Ledet

Rare Beasts (2021)

Rare Beasts is the directorial debut of Billie Piper, whom you might know as a nineties British pop star, the companion of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, or perhaps even from Secret Diary of a Call Girl or Penny Dreadful. It also stars the talented Piper and was written by her as well, and it’s a bizarre, barbed delight, despite the mixed reviews, which we’ll get to. 

Mandy (Piper) is a single mother to the behaviorally challenged Larch (Toby Woolf), who may be on the spectrum. She works for a TV production company where she and several others are tasked with delivering pitch ideas, and the ones which the audience is allowed to hear are universally bad. It’s here that Mandy meets her relationship interest, Pete (Leo Bill). I say “relationship interest” because I initially typed “love interest” and then gagged a little, updated it to “romantic interest” and thought that this was an inaccurate adjective as well, given that there’s very little in the way of romance either. Pete’s a horrible man who comes very close to turning red and having kettle steam jet out of the sides of his head on their first date, as he spews unprompted vitriol about how much he hates women and desires what he considers an ideal marriage (one of female subservience), and how these questionable values align with his religious identity. Like, no one ever says “MRA” or “red pilled” but there’s a very clear reason why he’s alone. 

Nonetheless, the two navigate through the stations of the canon of the romcom plot; they go to their first wedding together (where Mandy briefly flirts with a man with whom she clearly has a history, and whose eyes twitch exactly like Larch’s), have a day in the park (which ends in a scene in which Pete and Larch bond and seemingly come to some kind of understanding by way of a screeching tantrum mirror match), and Mandy meeting Pete’s family for the first time. Every situation is frighteningly familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a screaming match break out at a wedding or family dinner, but also takes comfort in the bleak humor of detachment; it’s Marge Simpson in “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield” murmuring her way into the act break after grimly telling herself “At times like this, I guess all you can do is laugh”The Movie. That’s especially true as these relationship woes play out against the scenery of her relationship with her mother (Kerry Fox), who is terminally ill and, although separated from him, is still tormented by the not-so-harmless shenanigans of Mandy’s mostly absentee father (David Thewlis). 

I’m always someone who’s more interested in a fascinating movie over one that’s “good,” but I think Rare Beasts manages to be both. There’s a hyperreality to the bizarre dialogue, which is stilted and almost impenetrable in its content at times, but always delivered in a perfect clipped cadence. It’s an experience that ends up feeling like you’re hovering halfway between an unfamiliar Shakespeare play performed with the original dialogue but in a modern setting and one of those short films or musical performances that are meant to evoke the experience of what English sounds like to non-English speakers. It’s surreal and hyperreal at the same time. 

Mandy is captivating (as is Piper). She’s struggling, and that’s life. Larch is going to be who he is, and there’s very little that can be done about it. People are horrible, meeting dates is a tragedy in slow motion, and your parents will, someday, die. My favorite detail about Mandy is that, according to her father, she would write little death threats when she was a child. He laughs this off, but when pressed for what kind of threats they were, he notes that they were the kind “that would have you thinking,” as his eyes widen. Rare Beasts is a film of subtle details in that way; in an attempt at foregoing all the potential issues with intimacy, she shows Pete every part of herself, revealing in extreme detail which parts of her body she is neurotically obsessed about (there are many, including her legs, which are “too much femur, not enough tibia.”

The camerawork here is fantastic, shockingly ambitious for a first-time director and surprisingly effective and empathetic where it needs to be. When her sexist boss insults her talent and fires her, there’s a reversal of the kind of shot that’s so frequently applied to women; she is framed though his legs, and instead of being titillating, the angle at which his legs are spread (much more than would make logical sense for a standing person not in the middle of a cheer routine) creates a sense of overall wrongness that permeates the film just as it permeates our existence. At one point after Mandy stands up for herself, there’s an immediate cut to a crane shot of Pete and Mandy running through a deserted London intersection, and it’s like something out of a coming-of-age film, but it feels wrong, long before the details set in. At one point, when Mandy is eavesdropping on her parents by sitting on the floor outside of her mother’s bedroom, her father notices here and shuts the door, but he’s looking down on her as if she were a child, shortly before a sequence in which Mandy tap dances from childhood to her present age, in line with the film’s frequent dream logic. 

I was surprised by the film’s low Rotten Tomatoes score, which is an extremely imperfect metric at best, but when looking at the reviews and the critics who provided them, I noticed a pattern, and dug in a little further. There were 50 reviews, and for 48 of them, I could identify the critic’s gender (bless Rory Doherty for putting his pronouns in his Twitter bio and keeping that from being 47). Of those, 26 (54.2%) were written by women, and 22 (45.8%) were written by men, which is pretty uncommon; normally, reviews from male critics on RT outnumber those by women 2:1. I tried to find a film with similar statistics that I could compare that to and confirm, and after taking a look at The Novice, which had 60 reviews, I realized that it was also a film with a woman helming it, as both writer and director, so that would hew too close and skew the results. Then I found Cyrano, which at the time had 51 reviews, Joe Wright’s period piece with Peter Dinklage in the title role. With roughly equivalent reviews, 12 (25.5%) were written by women, and 38 (75.5%) by men. So yeah. Of Rare Beasts‘ 48, 10 of the male critics (45.5%) gave it a negative review, as opposed to 8 (30.8%) critics who are women. So not only did this film attract disproportionately female critical attention, more men still somehow managed to dislike it than women, and with women having an internal positive/negative ratio of 2.25:1, compared to 1.2:1 for dudes. So, I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re a man, maybe this one won’t be to your liking, but that’s not a guarantee since, you know, I thought it was excellent. Then again, this film is very much Not For Everyone, so maybe that’s to be expected. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Tove (2021)

It’s totally understandable to feel burnt out on biopics as a genre.  They’re often formulaic to the point of self-parody, especially the American star-vehicle variety that seems specifically designed to generate applaudable clips for Oscar highlight reels.  The recent Finnish film Tove admittedly does little to reinvent the biopic, but it at least finds ways to make its overly familiar tropes & structure feel intimate & tactile.  It’s unlikely that anyone who wasn’t already interested in the life & art of its titular subject would get much out of the film, which likely means it does not transcend the limitations of its genre.  Still, it doesn’t waste her fans’ time by shoehorning her into the by-the-numbers clichés that sink most biopics into tedium.

It helps that Tove is not a birth-to-death recap of Moomins creator Tove Jansson’s entire life.  It covers only her creative breakthrough & troubled romance years post-WWII.  We do not watch her experience an “Aha!” discovery at her drafting table, conjuring Moomins characters directly out of the creative ether.  She’s already doodling them in the margins of her notebooks at the start of the film, as if they were idle distractions from her “real art” as a classically trained painter.  Her journey in the film is less a rise-to-success story that is a slow, reluctant acceptance of the popularity of her more “frivolous” children’s book illustrations at the expense of her Serious Art.  Her self-acceptance as an artist runs parallel to her volatile bisexual romances in that same period, where she also finds herself reluctant to accept which opportunities are fruitful vs which are dead ends.  It’s all shot with a delicate, drunken fury in up-close, handheld engagement with Jansson as a complete, self-contradicting person – not just an iconic visual artist.

Tove is nothing mind-blowing, really, but it is lovely.  I was much more impressed with the similarly styled biopic Tom of Finland a few years back, which more aggressively shakes loose the limitations of its genre.  By contrast, the rejections of biopic cliché are much subtler here, rooted in exclusion & de-emphasis.  I’m a recent Moomins reader, so I knew nothing of Jansson’s life going into the film beyond the most popular work she left behind.  It was cool to see her raising hell in post-War Europe with her fellow art-community rebels, who dreamed that they could collectively re-shape the morals of modernity in the wreckage of the Old World.  Even though the Moomins are new to my life, I likely would’ve most appreciated this film in my teens or 20s, since it presents one of those fantasy realms where every single person you know is an artist of some kind – including your browbeating parents.  Seeing it now, it really only enhances the art I already adore by fleshing out the ferocious creator behind it.

-Brandon Ledet

Jumbo (2021)

It’s that frivolous, needlessly contentious time of year when every movie I watch is being filtered through our annual listmaking process, prompting me to ask idiotic questions like “Sure, this movie is really good, but is it Best of the Year good?”  I’m especially guilty of Listmaking Brain this year, since there were only five films released in 2021 that I rated above 4 stars, leaving the rest of my usual Top 20 list open to dozens of titles that I really liked but wouldn’t exactly call personal favs.  Discerning which 4-star film is worthier of a slot on my Best of the Year list than another feels more arbitrary & meaningless than ever before, something that is not helped at all by my full knowledge that no one alive gives a shit about the final results except me.  I love listmaking season as a diary recap of the year and as a movie recommendation machine, but I am fully aware that the “catching up” cram session portion of it is unfair to the (mostly) great movies I’m watching when there’s already no room left on the lifeboat.  By this time of year, I’ve completely lost track of what qualifies a movie as “list-worthy”, and I’m mostly just looking forward to the genre-trash relief that January dumping season brings when it’s all over.  That is when I shine.

While Jumbo is a very good movie on its own terms, I’m embarrassed to admit that I most appreciated the way it helped clear up some of grey areas in that listmaking struggle.  It’s one of two French-language movies I’ve seen this year where an emotionally stunted young woman has sex with a machine, the other of which is currently my favorite new release I’ve seen all year.  Julia DuCorneau’s Titane is often referred to as a kind of novelty film where “a woman has sex with a car”, which feels insultingly reductive considering how much else is going on in that sprawling mind-fuck genre meltdown.  Meanwhile, if you referred to Jumbo as “the film where a woman has sex with an amusement park ride,” I feel like that comfortably sums up everything that’s going on with it.  It’s a very good movie where a woman has sex with an amusement park ride, drawing an oddly touching & genuine story out of a novelty premise that’s loosely “inspired by a true story.”  Still, I found it most useful as an illustration of why Titane was smart to have more going on than a simple sex-machine premise.  It’s pretty limiting at feature length, even when the emotions of that scenario are treated with full sincerity, which is why Jumbo is not the one that’s surviving the arbitrary cruelty of the listmaking process.

For some reason I assumed Jumbo was about a woman romantically falling for a Gravitron (totally understandable), but instead she falls for a Move It (an inferior ride, but to each their own).  Noémie “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” Merlant stars as a sheltered mommy’s girl whose total lack of self-confidence prevents her from being properly socialized among adults outside her house.  The amusement park rides she services as a seasonal job don’t seem to mind her awkward social tics, though, which allows her to vulnerably open up to the first gigantic inanimate object that makes a move on her.  Jumbo makes no jokes at its lovestruck amusement park brat’s expense.  It takes her first-crush romantic feelings as seriously as it can, reserving its judgement for the people in her life who make her feel like a freak for the transgression instead of just letting her be.  Beyond the ups & downs of her amusement park romance, the dramatic core of the film is in begging her community to just let her have this one thing that makes her happy, whether or not it’s “real.”  Life is lonely & cruel enough without the people closest to you shaming you for whatever small comforts get you through it – even if that small comfort happens to be fucking a Move It.

Jumbo delivers everything you’d want out of a great romance: a convincingly emotional performance from its star, some charming personality quirks from the object of her affection, a close-minded community who fails to keep them apart, etc.  It even achieves some surprisingly striking visuals for an indie comedy on its budget level, especially in the glowing lights & otherworldly voids of its star’s ecstatic trysts with her gigantic fetish object.  It just also limits itself to a relatively small, contained premise, which doesn’t really push through its initial novelty to explore anything bigger or unexpected.  Had I discovered it during its film festival run instead of during Best of the Year catch-up season, that smallness in concept likely would not have bothered me, but here we are.  This is when I’m on my worst behavior, shrugging off 4-star films for not being “good enough” because of some self-imposed bullshit metric that does not matter in the slightest.

-Brandon Ledet

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

It takes all the strength in my body & soul not to turn this blog into a total schlockfest.  My natural inclination when selecting what to watch is to reach for the shortest, trashiest genre pic available, which constantly threatens to backslide Swampflix into a bargain-bin horror blog.  I do like to challenge myself, though, especially coming out of October’s horror-binge rituals where I indulge in my preferred cinematic junk food for a month solid.  And so, I find myself contemplating and writing about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the 2010 Palme D’or.  Like previous detours into the works of Jarman, Tarkovsky, and Ozu, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a beloved arthouse auteur who I’m underqualified to assess, comprehend, or even appreciate.  Still, I crave the brain-cell alarm bells these alienating filmmakers set off in my brain; I can’t get by on a diet of Roger Corman cheapies & Chucky sequels alone.

Uncle Boonmee is the kind of calm, quiet, meditative cinema that always challenges my attention span and intellect.  Like Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, it’s a slow-cinema mood piece about a man dying in real time – in this case a Thai farmer succumbing to the gradual decline of kidney failure.  Static shots of the wealthy man’s inner circle & dialysis technicians sharing meaningful silences are scored only by whispers of waterfalls, car engines, and chirping bugs.  Harsh digital cinematography frames these exchanges with all the pomp & circumstance of a straight-to-YouTube documentary.  I am told that this is a deeply emotional film about life & the great mystery that follows it, but I don’t see the modern arthouse Ikiru in it that others are latching onto.  I mostly just felt as if Apichatpong were daring me to fall asleep with each lingering shot of meditative non-action & white noise.

To be fair to my emotionally distanced (and self-declared Communist killer) Uncle Boonmee, this movie at least met me halfway with some absurdly polite ghosts & magical creatures, who gather around the titular farmer as he approaches the gates of the spirit realm.  Death is not the end of the human spirit in this reality; Boonmee’s deceased family hold his hand through the transition into his next state of being, calmly sitting beside him along with his surviving acquaintances.  His dead wife appears as a classic, transparent ghost, materializing at the dinner table as if she had casually walked through the front door.  His dead son appears as a primate-hybrid “monkey-ghost” with glowing C.H.U.D. eyes.  I appreciated their magical-realist intrusions into the “plot”, since ghost stories typically are the kind of cinema I can comprehend.  They just did very little to disrupt the quiet calm of Boonmee’s slow demise.

I don’t know that I’ll ever revisit this film unless I can see it in a proper theater; I genuinely struggled to feel immersed & overwhelmed by it at home.  It was mostly worth the struggle, though, and it did often remind me of films I love that were likely influenced by Apichatpong’s meditative filmmaking style – namely the psychedelic ayahuasca drama Icaros: A Vision & Laurie Anderson’s memorial-doc Heart of a Dog.  There are individual images & ideas from Uncle Boonmee that will likely stick with me for a long time, especially its non-sequitur vignette in which a travelling princess makes love with a talking catfish.  If nothing else, that detour will stick with me as an all-timer of a sex scene.  My go-to horror schlock rarely reaches such glorious highs, even if they’re easier to digest en masse.

-Brandon Ledet

Rose Plays Julie (2021)

Rose Plays Julie is a subtle, well-made movie built on subtle, well-played performances.  A psychological thriller about a young veterinary student’s increasingly dark mission to uncover her place in the world as an unwanted adopted child (and, more to the point, about the generational trauma of sexual assault), it has all the potential in the world to swerve into a sensationalist rape revenge tale with a violently heightened sense of style.  Instead, it keeps its mood low-key & pained, allowing the Greek tragedy of its doomed characters’ downward trajectory to quietly unfold at its own pace.  It’s one of those thoughtful, tasteful indie chillers that I appreciate in terms of intent & craft but only help clarify my personal disinterest in subtlety & restraint.  I wish I could appreciate this quiet, finely calibrated psych-thriller on its own terms, but instead its coming-of-age fury & vet school setting just made me wish I was watching the explosive coming-of-age cannibal horror Raw instead.  That’s just the kind of audience I am, to my shame.

It’s okay that Rose Plays Julie works better as an exercise in craft than as a cathartic, stylistically expressive genre film.  It’s explicitly about performance in a lot of respects, which shines a direct spotlight on the actors in three central roles of Daughter (Ann Skelly), Mother (Orla Brady), and Rapist (Aiden Gillen).  Gillen puts in the same raspy creep performance he’s been delivering as a manner of routine since he was cast in Game of Thrones, but the drama is more centralized on the women he’s hurt anyway.  The mother is an actress by trade, shown avoiding her traumatic past by getting lost in her roles on period dramas & vampire movies.  The daughter—the surviving result of a rape—is an actress by choice, taking on her imagined persona of the name on her birth certificate (paired with an unconvincing wig) as an undetectable alias while pursuing revenge against the mother’s assailant, her “father”.  The tension between them is a feel-bad triangle of gloom that each actor ably performs through several layers of self-protective artifice.  The avenging violence that breaks that tension is just as dejectedly sad, providing little emotional catharsis for the generations of hurt at the film’s core – presumably on purpose.

To wish Rose Plays Julie was more expressive or cathartic would be wishing for a more divisive, if not outright irresponsible kind of filmmaking that it’s just not interested in indulging.  This is a very serious film about a very serious subject, and I’m sure there’s a larger audience out there who’d prefer that sober approach to genre storytelling over what’s usually offered.  Personally, I could only appreciate the craft of its individual performances rather than the larger purpose they served.  It’s a terrible thing to admit, but if it were even 10% trashier or flashier in its delivery, I’d probably be much more enthusiastic about where it fits in the modern revenge thriller canon.

-Brandon Ledet

French Exit (2021)

There was a lot going on in Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical whatsit mother!, all of it worthy of many fractured, contradictory conversations.  To us, it was both a 2.5-star misfire and one of the very best movies of 2017.  To others, it was simply an embarrassment to all involved, most notably Jennifer Lawrence as titular mother figure, who rarely leaves the screen.  In all those heated debates over mother!‘s merits, metaphors, and malice, I think we may have still overlooked one of its wildest, most deliciously fucked up ingredients: Michelle Pfeiffer.  An eternally lovable screen presence who’s been shamefully sidelined in the past couple decades, Pfeiffer pounced into mother! like a cat hunting unsuspecting prey, batting Jennifer Lawrence around with a mean-drunk indifference I found thrillingly campy & cruel.  It felt like a seismic shift in Pfeiffer’s career at the time, but then nothing really came of it – conversationally, professionally, or otherwise.

Finally, a proper career resurgence vehicle for a post-mother! Michelle Pfeiffer has arrived . . . and it’s being met with the same unenthused shrug she got back in 2017.  French Exit expands Pfeiffer’s role as a cruel, vamping drunk in mother! to a feature-length drag routine.  She delivers nothing but deliciously vicious camp from start to end here, easily putting in one of her career-best performances.  The response has been muted at worst, divided at best.  Maybe the movie would’ve earned more momentum in non-pandemic times, when word of mouth would’ve reached the exact right audience for what Pfeiffer is doing here.  Maybe the world would never be ready for Michelle Pfeiffer to star in an erudite revision of Leaving Las Vegas for pompous, affluent drag queens.  Who knows?  All I can report is that every bitchy barb, quip, and eyeroll she lands in French Exit is a precious gift to the few jaded cynics on the movie’s wavelength.

Pfeiffer stars as an heiress & former NYC It Girl who has completely depleted her dead husband’s fortune.  She decides to sell off the remainder of his estate for spending money, then fucks off to Paris with her adoring adult son (Lucas Hedges) in tow.  Her long-term plan is to kill herself when her funds run dry, something she announces in a matter-of-fact, smirking tone.  Despite the morbidity of that premise, there isn’t much grandeur or pathos to the film’s plot, as the mother-son duo aren’t especially emotional in demeanor.  Most scenes are slight, low-key episodes: a cross-Atlantic boat ride, an awkward dinner party, a search for a runaway cat, etc.  However, if you’re in tune with Pfeiffer’s scenery chewing (and Hedges’s studied impersonation of her faded, jaded glamour) there’s a dark humor to each of those episodes that will have you howling at even the slightest facial expression and casually tossed-off insult.

I’m surprised to learn that French Exit was based off a novel (adapted by author-turned-screenwriter Patrick deWitt himself), since its witty banter and for-the-back-row vamping feels so firmly rooted in stage play dialogue.  The best I can approximate its cruel, quirky tone is to imagine Wes Anderson directing an adaptation of The Boys in the Band, but even that description doesn’t cover its absurdist supernatural plot twists, which I will not spoil here.  Most importantly, French Exit is a Nic Cagian showcase for one of our greatest actors to go as big and as broad as she pleases from gag to gag.  Sometimes those payoffs are muted, finding her sharpening a kitchen knife in total darkness or absentmindedly musing about the sad nature of dildos.  At other times, she sets literal fires, slipping into full camped-up Cruella de Ville mania.  In either instance, she’s electrically, fabulously entertaining, and we all should be groveling at her feet for more performances in this vein.

-Brandon Ledet

The World to Come (2021)

It’s become something of a meme complaint over the past couple years that too much Queer Cinema is pervasively about white women longing for each other in period costumes.  Sometime between the ecstatic praise for Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the collective yawn over Ammonite, pro critics & hobbyist bloggers decided that the biggest threat to the artform of cinema wasn’t Disney’s IP-hoarding or Netflix’s refusal to license its films to libraries & universities; it was white women sharing intense eye contact in a historical setting.  Google “lesbian period drama” and you’ll find infinite hit-piece articles with titles like “Why Are All Lesbian Films Set in the Past?”, “Shoehorning Lesbian Scenes into Historical Dramas is Anything but Progressive”,  “Lesbian Period Dramas: Have We Seen Enough?”, and “Enough With The Lesbian Period Dramas” from publications high and low.  Personally, I understand this subgenre fatigue when it’s applied in broad strokes to a wide range of films, but not so much when it’s aimed at individual titles as if they were a cultural scourge.  The problem isn’t that mediocre WLW romance dramas like Ammonite exist; it just sucks that other kinds of queer stories aren’t getting greenlit in bulk beside them.

I assume the relatively tepid response to The World to Come is a result of its arrival after this particular strand of Online Film Discourse had already run its course.  It’s a great film, presuming you aren’t burnt out on the prospect of another lesbian period drama (or its pre-loaded critical baggage) at first sight.  A delicately sweet romance contrasted against a brutal, unforgiving backdrop, The World to Come is splendid & bleak in equal measure.  Its tale of secretive queer romance in a time of intense scrutiny & oppression is so familiar it’s almost regressive.  Still, its historical environment at least rings true.  It reminded me a lot of a college course I took on the literature of women’s travel writing in 19th Century America.  The women in those real-life journals and this fictional novel adaptation share the same two threats to their freedom, happiness, and well-being: the cruelty of Nature and the cruelty of their husbands.  It’s a shame how rare it is to see queer people flourishing in friendlier environments on the page & screen, but the romance & misery portrayed here still feels true to life on the American “frontier.”

Katherine Waterston stars as a hopelessly lonely housewife on an isolated, flailing New England farm.  She has a rich internal life, furiously reading & journaling in her idle hours but unable to express herself aloud when the center of attention.  While nursing her own grief over the loss of a child, she meets her exact opposite: Vanessa Kirby as a bold, brassy lush with no discernible talent for the intellectual arts.  They hit it off in ways that Waterston’s journals struggle to describe.  She confesses “There is something going on between us that I cannot unravel,” as if the concept of genuine sexual attraction is so foreign to her life that she doesn’t have the language to express it.  Eventually, the two women do find the physical language to express their attraction to each other, even if it takes longer for the words to arrive.  Unfortunately, the respective prisons of their marriages to cruel, repressed nerds and their shared prison of harsh, American wilderness prevent that romantic spark from reaching its full flame.  Waterston’s careful, whispered language & passion is in direct opposition to the cold, uncaring environment she occupies.  She finds her perfect fit in Kirby.  It does not go well.

While the broader details of The World to Come may sound blandly generic in a post-Portrait of a Lady on Fire world, I found its in-the-moment effect to be impressively distinct & chilling.  Its frontier setting might as well have been repurposed for a woodland A24 horror film, given its harsh digi cinematography and its frightfully unnerving score (which during one especially horrendous storm sounds like seagulls imitating jazz).  It’s a highly subjective film that follows the tones & moods of Waterston’s journals as she flips through the pages of her life.  There are great jumps in time when she has nothing exciting to write about, as well as loopy, unfocused entries when she self-medicates herself through depression with laudanum.  Her voiceover narration is wonderfully overwritten, with Waterston delivering pained line-readings of confessions like “We were the very picture of anguish” and “I have become my grief.”  Even when it releases the delayed flood of romantic & sexual bliss that always accompanies these films’ early stretches of pent-up longing, it’s in the most devastating possible context, undercutting the two women’s passion with a deeply felt loss & despair.  This is an unrelentingly cold, somber film, and I respect that truthful brutality even if I agree that it’s not the only kind of queer story that deserves to be told.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Loves of a Blonde (1965)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss breakout Czech New Wave director Miloš Forman’s classic romantic dramedy Loves of a Blonde (1965).

00:00 Welcome

02:30 Possessor (2021)
03:30 Millennium Actress (2001)
05:45 The Green Knight (2021)
11:22 Greener Grass (2019)
14:40 A Classic Horror Story (2021)
18:20 The Suicide Squad (2021)
28:08 Sound of Violence (2021)
31:10 In the Earth (2021)

34:30 Loves of a Blonde (1965)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Pig (2021)

I thought I knew what to expect out of a Nicolas Cage revenge thriller about a disgruntled chef’s John Wick-style fight to recover his stolen truffle pig.  Even now, I can picture exactly what that movie should look & feel like from start to end.  Pig is not that film.  It defies all expectations of its over-the-top genre premise & Cage’s late-career casting in its violence, performances, purpose, and tone.  Just about the last thing I expected was that I would be struggling to see the screen for the final third of its runtime because crying into my mask was fogging up my glasses.  It’s not any showier in its emotional beats than it is in its revenge-genre payoffs, but it still choked me up in ways I’m finding difficult to articulate.  It’s a quietly powerful, surprisingly thoughtful film about Nic Cage’s stolen truffle pig.

Nicolas Cage makes dozens of movies every year—most of which are rightfully ignored straight-to-VOD action thrillers—but there are only two kinds that typically get any wider attention: muted actor-showcase dramas like Joe and mindfuck genre-flicks like MandyPig can’t comfortably be sorted into either of those categories, since it continually flirts with being both.  Cage plays his unwashed Oregonian wildman with a quiet dignity & deeply felt sense of hurt – both for loss of his pig and for a greater loss suffered in his mysterious past as a big-city hipster chef in Portland.  His journey to recover the pig is an exaggerated, absurd caricature of the Portland culinary scene, though, complete with underground BOH fight clubs & violent mafioso food distributors.  It’s an understated execution of a preposterous premise, refusing to behave either as a sober return-to-form showcase for the often-mocked actor or as fodder for his infinite supply of so-bad-its-good YouTube highlight reels.  It’s its own uniquely beautiful, tenderly macho thing, with more to say about culinary arts than the peculiar flavors of Nic Cage’s screen presence.

Like in the high-fashion revenge Western The Dressmaker, the violence & cruelty suffered by our battered antihero in Pig is not avenged with more violence & cruelty; it is avenged with art.  Nic Cage ends the film caked in blood, as he does in Mandy, but his weapon of choice in seeking revenge are his skills as a chef.  His carefully-worded criticism of another chef’s menu choices or his own perfectly balanced, deliberately unpretentious cooking are delivered as skull-crushing blows to his enemies, undercutting the typical hyperviolence of the genre with food-culture commentary.  Pig covers a lot of ground in its food-scene philosophizing, from the cutthroat competition of food trucks to the self-aggrandized pageantry of fine dining.  I specifically got choked up by its focus on the ways passionate, authentic food preparation can trigger powerful sensory memories in us, an emotional effect deployed here like the detonation of a well-placed bomb.  I started to sorely miss sharing luxuriant meals with people I care about, an experience that’s been in short supply over the past 17 months, and one I never expected to be weaponized in Nic Cage’s pig-themed John Wick knockoff.

Nic Cage is my favorite working actor.  I know that bias makes me sound like an irony-poisoned hipster, but I genuinely find his choices in roles & performance ticks to be thrilling in a way few better-respected actors allow themselves to indugle.  Even so, I admire how Pig breaks through the expectations and boundaries typical to the modern Nic Cage Film.  At the very least, it’s his best work since Mandy, which Swampflix highlighted as our collective favorite film of the 2010s.  It’s especially worth seeing for anyone who’s ever worked a BOH position in a commercial kitchen, since its draw as restaurant-culture commentary often overpowers Cage’s consciously muted performance.  There’s a chance it’s both too restrained and too absurd to earn its place in the Nic Cage Hall of Fame, but it deserves that kind of recognition.

-Brandon Ledet