EO (2022)

I discovered the 1960s arthouse donkey story Au Hasard Balthazar the way a lot of modern film nerds “discover” the largest looming titles in the Cinema Canon: I saw it on the Sight and Sound Top 100 pollEO director Jerzy Skolimowski hails from an older, pre-internet world, though.  When Au Hasard Balthazar was first earning a name for itself among critical devotees as noteworthy as Andrew Sarris & Jean-Luc Godard, Skolimowski was already a twentysomething filmmaker, striving to establish his own name as a world-class auteur.  Half a century later, Skolimowski has revisited & reinterpreted Bresson’s reverent, observational tale of a noble donkey’s travels through an unjust world in his latest—and possibly last—feature film.  EO does not at all feel like an old man reminiscing about the lost artistry of Euro cinema’s golden age, though.  If anything, it only occasionally plays like a colorized TV edit of Au Hasard Balthasar.  More often, it takes wild detours into an energetic, dreamlike approximation of what it might look like if Gaspar Noé directed Homeward Bound.  It’s incredible that the film was made by a long-respected octogenarian, not a fresh-outta-film-school prankster with something to prove. 

As you might expect, the titular EO is just as stoic & unknowable of a protagonist as Balthazar, as they are both nonverbal, unmagical donkeys.  He also goes on similar one-off adventures, finding both kind-hearted animal lovers and totally heartless animal abusers on his slow trot towards death.  The drunken football hooligans & incestuous trust-fund aristocrats of modern Europe might be mixed in with the farmers & carnies of olde, but the shape of humanity has not changed much since Balthazar left his hoof-prints all over provincial France.  What has changed, though, is the exponential intrusion of human technology in the donkeys’ natural environment, confounding EO with strobe lights, lasers, and drones as he absentmindedly searches for a home.  It’s in that alien machinery where Skolimowski separates his own vision from Bresson’s, often by flashing intense red gel lights to highlight the unique terror of our modern-tech hell world.  Whether he’s mounting his camera to junkyard cranes or zooming in on a single donkey tear rolling down EO’s cheek, you can tell he’s having fun with the exercise of updating Au Hasard Balthazar as a conceptual experiment.  And every time EO is confronted by a machine you could not imagine entering the frame of a Bresson picture, the film is at its most riveting.

I don’t know that EO has too much to say about the internal lives of animals nor the existential crises of life in general.  I also don’t know that it’s trying to say anything.  EO mostly just chews, breathes, and trots his way through most scenarios without much effect on their outcome.  My biggest, most abstract question while following him around Europe was “What do donkeys dream?”  Skolimowski supposes they dream out of jealousy for horses’ freedom, agility, and beauty, but it does not matter how much he is right about that.  Waking life is a series of disconnected, emotionally taxing episodes that the immense beauty & terror of our dreams only occasionally interrupt as we steadily trot closer to death.  EO cannot expect a happy ending to his life, because no life ends on its sweetest note.  There’s plenty to wonder at & take comfort in along the way, though, as well as plenty villains & obstacles to avoid.  Observing the world beyond those simple terms is likely a young artist’s game, but that doesn’t mean an old man can’t find a youthful exuberance in how he interprets what he sees.  Since Skolimowski has nothing left to prove, you have to assume the playfulness & subversions of EO are only trotted out for the pure joy of filmmaking as an artform; I love that he’s held onto that as long as he has.

-Brandon Ledet

Girl Picture (2022)

One danger of watching too many movies is that you can become a spoiled little brat.  It’s easy to become jaded about what makes an individual picture special when you’ve seen dozens of equally great movies just like it, to the point where you overvalue novelty & surprise instead of emotional resonance & dramatic truth.  Girl Picture is a thoroughly lovely teen-girls-at-the-edge-of-adulthood drama, chronicling the messy lives & loves of three Finnish high schoolers who are figuring themselves out before they get locked into the braindead rituals of adult responsibilities.  It’s thorny, sweet, well observed, and swooningly romantic in all the exact ways you’d want a coming-of-age drama to be.  And yet, I found myself comparing it against a long line of already-established modern classics that have delivered exactly what it offers, titles like Water Lilies, Girlhood, Princess Cyd, Babyteeth; etc. That’s great company to be in, no matter where Girl Picture ultimately fits in that hierarchy, but I also can’t help but search for the few dramatic details & stylistic nuances that help it stand out in that crowded field.  The easiest solution would’ve been to, you know, just watch fewer movies to begin with.

I can really only think of two aspects of Girl Picture that distinguish it from the rest of its high-style, coming-of-age sorority.  The most obvious distinguishing factor is its setting, with trades in the genre’s typical American summer backdrop for a harsh Finnish winter.  The less obvious, less easily definable distinction is the film’s matter-of-fact approach to sex.  I’m not used to watching teens order drinks at a sweaty dance club, then doing vigorous Hand Stuff as a nightcap.  Girl Picture is very nonchalant about sex, centering its two main BFF’s paths to sexual self-discovery – one learning how to advocate for her pleasure with boys in bed, the other learning how to let girls into her heart instead of just into her sheets.  There isn’t much drama to the story beyond to those two bedroom crises, and its sexual frankness also sometimes plays as deliberately rattling, at one point harshly cutting from a cliche shot of a teen’s hand soaring through the wind outside a car window to that same hand doing something much more vulgar between a fellow teen’s legs.  It’s not at all played for shock value, though.  If anything, these youngsters are extremely polite fuckers; they always ask for verbal consent before indulging their bodies, which at least feels unique to this generation of kids even if it’s not unique to this specific picture.

Ultimately, novelty doesn’t make or break a movie like this.  These dramas are hinged on the personalities of the girls they profile, and Rönkkö, Mimmi, and (Mimmi’s love interest) Emma are all lovely to spend 100 minutes with.  It’s a relatively low-stakes winter, with only so many mistakes that can be made between house parties, gym class, and afterschool jobs at the mall.  When one girl swoons as if she’s met the love of her life, it cuts to the other playing laser tag with strangers in the woods.  It’s all sweetly innocent, even when it’s raunchy or heart-soaringly romantic.  Director Alli Haapasalo finds plenty room to flex her sense of visual style in this feature debut, too, even if it’s all decorated in the same neon crosslighting, strobelit dance parties, and pastel bedroom decor that’s typical to the genre.  No matter how familiar Girl Picture can feel frame by frame, it’s always a pleasure, and it’s headlined by a lovely group of kids who deserve the absolute best.  Rooting for these girls to get their acts together before life throws real consequences at them is more than enough to make this a satisfying teen-years drama.  Just try your best to forget that you’ve seen it all done before many times over.

-Brandon Ledet

Táriangle of Sadness

I am wildly out of sync with the consensus on the two highest profile movies making their way through arthouse theaters right now, which means it must be Awards Season again.  Both Todd Field’s Tár and Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness emerged from the festival circuit with plenty of praise & accolades, but now that they’re hitting wider audiences, the Correct Opinion to have on both has drastically split: Tár is genius, and Triangle is vapid.  I can only halfway agree.  Whereas most media-smart people I follow online see an exquisite, perversely funny treatise on #cancelculture in Tár, I only see a slightly better tailored version of Aaron Sorkin’s self-satisfied political fantasies, now shot with all the elegant refinement of a Lexus car commercial.  Meanwhile, Triangle of Sadness won this year’s Palme D’or, and it’s being received among people I generally trust as if it’s the European equivalent of Green Book.  I can at least get behind the consensus that the surface-level things Triangle of Sadness has to say about the grotesqueness of the wealth class are blunt & unsubtle.  I just also found it to be delightfully, cathartically cruel to its satirical targets to the point where subtlety & insight had nothing to do with its merits as a class-conscious comedy.  Speaking as someone who prefers entertainment to nuance, there is no doubt in my mind that Triangle of Sadness is the better film of this unlikely pair, and it’s been jarring to see that conclusion so relentlessly contradicted by every take I’m stumbling across in the wild.  I haven’t felt so out of touch with what cinema obsessives value since . . . almost exactly one year ago.

In the broadest terms, both Tár and Triangle are political provocations about how power quickly corrupts the marginalized.  Two (soon-to-be three) time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett stars as the titular orchestral composer Lydia Tár, who has risen to the top of her field despite the macho gatekeepers above her, only to use, manipulate, and discard women lower on the ladder in the exact predatory ways men in her position have for eternity.  The lesser-known character actor Dolly De Leon goes on a similar journey in Östlund’s film, when the luxury yacht she scrubs toilets on sinks into the ocean, leaving her worshipped as an abusive tyrant on the island where her privileged, unskilled employers depend on her blue-collar work ethic for food & shelter.  Neither woman wastes much time abusing their positions of power to squeeze sex & adulation out of their underlings.  In Tár, that abuse prompts provocative questions about the moral conflict between appreciating great works of art and appreciating the great pieces of shit who make them.  In contrast, Triangle of Sadness asks no questions.  It’s more a grotesque boardwalk caricature of the ultra-wealthy at their most obliviously evil, followed by a cosmic comeuppance of Titanic proportions.  Depending on a minimum-wage toilet scrubber for daily survival is just one indignity among many as their luxury-yacht voyage is disastrously derailed.  At one point, they’re made to roll around on the floor like pigs in their own puke & shit while a drunken Woody Harrelson reads Karl Marx quotes over the yacht’s loudspeaker.  We were invited onboard that yacht to point and laugh, not to ponder the complex power dynamics of modern living.  That may be the easier, cheaper route to take in this kind of Awards Season art film about wealth & prestige, but that also means it’s the quicker road to success.

These two films aren’t tethered by theme so much as they are by their dark, transgressive senses of humor.  Lydia Tár’s monstrous behavior is the same as any macho anti-hero’s; once it is narratively condemned, the audience is invited to take delight in its moral transgression.  When Tár crosses the good-taste boundaries of safe space, trigger warning, and identity politics rhetoric in her lecture to Zoomer students, the audience is supposed to find her offensive to a point . . . but then also take delight in her freedom to speak “the truth” (apolitical Gen-X nonsense) to “power” (idealistic Gen-Z children) without fear of being #cancelled (because that’s already inevitable).  It’s an Aaron Sorkin political rant coated in a couple thin layers of moral-distancing armor.  Outside the classroom, her elitist disgust with the uncultured “robots” of the world work much the same: both a stain on her personal morality and a transgressive thrill for an audience who partly agrees with her, against their better judgement.  It’s basically French Exit for the most boring people alive (i.e., subscribers to The New Yorker, which is name-checked in the first few lines of dialogue).  Triangle of Sadness has no such pretensions.  It picks out an easy, agreeable political target, strips them of their finery, slathers them in shit, and isolates them as far as it can from their bank-account safety nets.  Its humor is rooted in Jackass & John Waters-style scatology; its schadenfreude is worthy of a Femdom Island reality TV show; it’s a loud, braying joke told over one too many bottles of whisky.  I just personally found that joke much funnier than the understated musings of Tár, which aims more for droll chuckles than full belly laughs.

I know that I’m in the wrong here. I’ve seen enough intelligent people roll their eyes—in exasperation at Östlund’s film and in ecstasy at Field’s—to know that I’m just too impatient & too uncultured to “get it.”  I’ve been paying attention to The Discourse long enough to know when I’m out of my element.  So, just go ahead and disregard anything I have to say about Film Twitter’s punching bags & pet favs until, let’s say, the evil-doll horror M3GAN hits theaters in January.  Until then, I’ll be searching for the scraps of crass entertainment I can find in the arthouse darlings that eat up marquee space this time of year, which is probably why I’m overly grateful that Östlund was willing to meet me halfway.

-Brandon Ledet

Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)

I first heard a cassette of Pink Floyd’s The Wall as a child in the 90s, long before I had developed any sense of personal taste in pop media.  In that pre-Wikipedia world, I’m not sure I knew the album was a soundtrack for a feature film, but I do remember picturing live-action movie scenes in my mind as it played, if not only because tracks like “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” included snippets of spoken dialogue in the music.  It wasn’t until I got to college in the aughts that the movie version of The Wall entered my life, but even at that time I imagined a wildly inaccurate version of it in my head instead of actually watching it.  By then, I was full-blown music snob, drawn almost exclusively to the sharp, concise pop perversions of punk instead of the loose, noodly prog of bands like Pink Floyd.  That’s likely why I didn’t participate in dorm room watch parties of The Wall, where dozens of my stoner classmates would cram into & cloud up a campus apartment to group-watch the film as if it were the psychedelic Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I had a very specific assumption of what The Wall was like based on that dorm room ritual, which turned out to be even less accurate than my childhood imagination of the film.  And since it’s one of many titles that have fallen through the distribution cracks in the modern streaming era, it wasn’t until I found a thrift-store DVD copy of my own that I finally cleared up my misconceptions. 

I have a couple questions about those freshman-year burnouts: What were they smoking, and where can I get some?  The Wall is visually playful & surreal enough to pass as stoner background fodder, but goddamn it’s grim.  It’s hard to imagine a dozen teenage dirtbags sincerely grappling with the film’s post-WWII grief & resentments while passing around a plastic bong.  They probably would’ve found a lot more “Whoa dude, far out!” entertainment value in the “Dark Side of the Rainbow” fan-edit of The Wizard of Oz . . . or just staring at an iTunes visualizer for a couple hours.  Technically, The Wall does deliver enough sex, drugs, and rock n roll imagery to fire up the imaginations of college-age thrill seekers, but it’s all conveyed through the perspective of an emotionally hollowed, terminally jaded rock star who’s lost the will to live.  This is less a psychedelic hedonist free-for-all then it is a cry for help, an outlet for Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters to lament his post-War childhood woes and his professional disappointments as an adult who barely survived the druggy haze of the 1970s.  If it has a guiding thesis, it’s that the Brits are not okay.  That S.O.S. message is only an extension of Waters’s own dwindling interest in life, love, and art, though, as pantomimed by fellow rock star Bob Geldof (of The Boomtown Rats) as his on-screen surrogate.  Fun!

In modern pop media terms, The Wall is Pink Floyd’s “visual album,” predating recent experiments in that medium like Lemonade, Dirty Computer, or When I Get Home.  It’s a feature-length music video, with little plot or spoken dialogue to distract from Waters’s lyrics.  Frankly, the songs themselves are not especially great, an assessment even most Pink Floyd fans would agree with.  They mostly just clear space for director Alan Parker (Angel Heart, Bugsy Malone, Evita) to play with the iconography of post-WWII Europe, as guided by Waters’s lyrics.  The composite character “Pink” (Geldof) is a lifeless, strung-out rock star with no remaining passion for his art and no remaining lust for his groupies.  He blankly stares at football & war movies on the TV, while reminiscing about a life where his father didn’t come home from the war, his mother was swallowed up by religion, the English school system wrung the life out of him, and everything else has been flavorless gruel in the decades since.  All the emotional walls, sexual hang-ups, and cultural rot of modern British masculinity are on full, grotesque display, while Nazi fascism slowly creeps back in to regain lost ground in the country’s schools, politics, hearts, and minds.  It’s all very loose & free-associative, but it paints a clear, deeply ugly picture of where Waters’s mind was at in the bitter afterglow of the 1970s.

If there’s any way in which The Wall delivers on the far-out, trippy, dorm room stoner experience that my knucklehead classmates were looking for, it’s in its tangents of psychedelic animation.  Gerald Scarfe’s animated sequences play like an alternate version of Wizards designed by Ralph Steadman instead of Ralph Bakshi.  Scarfe tinkers with the same post-War iconography as Parker, particularly in an early battlefield sequence when speeding war planes transform into flying crucifixes while decimating the land below.  A lot of his imagery is much freer to follow its own momentary whimsies, though.  A pair of flowers will have raunchy pistil-stamen sex, then transform into heroin needles & specters of death, then rearrange again to strings on a rubbery guitar neck.  If the entire film were just Scarfe illustrations of the images evoked by Waters’s lyrics, The Wall would still be oppressively grim, but I’d at least better understand its reputation as the thinking man’s Yellow Submarine.  As is, I mostly see an illustrated & pantomimed therapy session from a depressed loner who’s tired of the spotlight and bitter about his (admittedly shitty) childhood.  It’s a solid film on those terms, but I’m not in a rush to gawk at its bleak splendor again over pizza & bong rips with my closest, goofiest friends.

-Brandon Ledet

Gagarine (2022)

In the early 1960s, the Communist Party of France funded the construction of the Cité Gagarine housing project in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine.  On a practical level, the building was intended to house low-income Parisians & immigrant communities in its near-400 units.  On a more symbolic level, it was intended as a monument to the power & possibility of Communist ideology in France.  To that end, Cité Gagarine’s opening was commemorated with the attendance of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—the first human to reach outer space—who also inspired its namesake.  To me, Gagarin is only significant as the muse for a kickass PJ Harvey song (simply titled “Yuri G“), but a half-century ago he was a much more inspiring symbol of the endless possibilities of a Communist Future, in France and beyond.

That dream apparently ended in the late 2010s, when Cité Gagarine was demolished for not keeping up with modern public health & safety standards in the decades since its construction.  As the Communist Party of France lost its financial & political sway, no other governmental power stepped in to support the Cité Gagarine residents.  First-time directors Fanny Liatard & Jérémy Trouilh are obviously fascinated by the political symbolism of Cité Gagarine’s history & demolition.  Their 2015 short Gagarine was inspired by interviews with the real-life residents of the housing project in the months before its condemnation, and they’ve since expanded the project into a debut feature of the same name.  It’s a small, intimate drama with huge, Paris-wide political implications about both the current state of European politics and what communal solidarity & resources have been lost from more hopeful eras of the past.

Newcomer Alensi Bathily stars as the aptly named Youri, the last true believer of the Yuri Gagarine dream.  As Cité Gagarine is being forcibly evacuated, the teenage Youri has nowhere to turn, so he decides to squat until the building is physically destroyed.  A lifelong astronautical obsessive, he converts the abandoned building into a kind of D.I.Y. spaceship, recruiting as many fellow teens as he can for his naive mission into the uncertain beyond (including The French Dispatch‘s Lyna Khoudri as an amused love interest).  What little community is left in the aftermath of Cité Gagarine’s closure is only held together by Youri’s stubbornness.  He inspires fellow tenants with solar eclipse watch parties and analog retro-futurist refurbishments to his living space, but it’s just not enough to overcome the cold, bureaucratic indifference of the modern world.  No matter how much beauty or community Youri finds in his home, recent history has already decided his mission is doomed.

Gagarine maintains a striking balance between grounded, pessimistic realism and the magical thinking of a young mind still awed by the possibilities of life.  It searches for a far-out middle ground between a twee version of Silent Running and a distant galaxy where the Dardenne brothers occasionally lighten up.  As often as the film slips into heart-soaring escapism, it’s also balanced by a wealth of archival footage from Cité Gagarine’s history that makes it clear that fantasies of a bigger, better life were always part of its design (including footage of Yuri Gagarine’s attendance at the building’s inauguration).  Gagarine has had a slow international roll-out since it first premiered at Cannes in 2020, which speaks to its relative anonymity as a low-budget coming-of-age indie drama, but there is something special in its heart and its historical context that merits more attention than it’s ever likely to get.

-Brandon Ledet

Maîtresse (1975)

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022)

I’ve been very slow to respond to the lulls between COVID spikes over the past couple years, waiting too long to poke my head out my turtle shell before the next variant sends me back inside.  As a result, I wasn’t fully ready to dive into the social deep end of Mardi Gras this past month, even though the gorgeous vibes and weather were making me terribly jealous of everyone out there celebrating early glimpses of a “post-COVID” life.  I’m gradually easing myself back into the world outside my living room, though, by which I mean I’ve returned to movie theaters for the first time since the lull between Delta & Omicron.  I generally appreciate the ways the theatrical environment enhances the joys of movie-watching for me, not least of all in how it forces me to ignore my phone for two-hour blocks – a near-impossible feat at home.  However, as I’ve returned to cinemas, I’ve found that the types of movies I’ve been watching on the big screen haven’t really changed.  If you ask most audiences, the only three movies of note to be released in the past year have featured Batmen, Spider-men, or Ghostbusters, and everything else has been either disposable or nonexistent.  I’m not feeling especially drawn to those big-name IPs as I’ve returned to the theater, though, whether that’s a safety precaution in avoiding indoor crowds or if I’m just out of practice in seeking out anything that’s not a low-budget indie that will soon be streaming anyway.  I’ve finally started leaving the house again, but I’m leaving it to watch the exact kinds of movies I was already watching on my couch.

The major exception to this loss of big-budget appetite is that I am ravenous for Indian blockbusters now that I’m back at the megaplex.  I enjoyed watching both Tamil-language actioners I caught at home last year—Karnan (an over-the-top blockbuster version of Bacuaru) & Master (an over-the-top blockbuster version of Dangerous Minds)—but I can’t say I loved them quite as much as I would have on the big screen, rattled by their booming sound & gargantuan visuals for their full three-hour runtimes.  So, the biggest change to my movie-going diet since I started leaving the house again is that I’m watching mainstream Indian cinema again, which I’m finding way more thoroughly entertaining (and way less conversationally exhausting) than its Hollywood equivalent.  While almost everyone I know was checking in with The Batman on its opening weekend, I sat down in a near-empty theater to gaze at another superhero of sorts: the fearless sex-worker advocate Gangubai.  The Bollywood drama Gangubai Kathiawadi is a formulaic, loose-with-the-facts biopic of its titular Indian political activist, depicted as rising to power from a victim of forced prostitution to a Mafia Queen to a populist hero of women’s rights.  As is tradition with most big-budget Indian productions, it delivers everything you could possibly want out of a movie, all at once: music, dance, laughs, danger, romance, tragedy, and shameless feel-goodery.  It’s also the rare Bollywood counterprogramming that’s actually shorter than the mainstream American blockbuster that’s currently crowding theater marquees.  Gangubai Kathiawadi is a half-hour shorter than The Batman and offers a much more impressive range of emotions & entertainment value.

For at least the first forty minutes of Gangubai Kathiawadi, I was worried I made a huge mistake in choosing which Indian crowdpleaser to return to theaters for.  The red-light Kamathipura district of Mumbai that the movie dwells in makes for a grim atmosphere.  Gangubai immediately looks cool & powerful at the start of the film, but she’s introduced in conversation with a child who’s being forced to start life as a prostitute after being sold to a brothel by her abusive, adult husband.  Asked to show the kid the ropes, Gangubai recounts her own story of being sold to a brothel by a boyfriend who promised her a career as a Bollywood actress.  Even with the rape & other violence mostly obscured offscreen, this early human-trafficking portion of the story is almost too dark to stomach, but that only makes the movie more satisfying once it starts hitting its feel-good biopic beats in the second hour.  Gangubai rescues the child from repeating that plight instead of condemning her to it, then recounts how she rose through the ranks in her own brothel to become the most powerful political voice in Kamathipura.  She essentially unionizes her fellow sex workers so they can set the terms of their employment, first as a low-level crime boss then later as a legitimate politician.  As she rose to power, I was hugely won over by the movie’s emotional stings & sex-work politics in a way that really surprised me, even if it took nearly an hour of squirming to get there.  By the time Gangubai shuts down all business in Kamathipura for a night so that her fellow sex workers can dance & celebrate instead of working for the first time in their lives, I cried.  Later, when she advocates in a radio broadcast speech that these women should be able to “Live with dignity” despite moralistic, hypocritical objections to their profession, I cried even harder.  It’s wonderful, hard-hitting schmaltz.

I am far from an expert in any of India’s varied, sprawling film industries, but I have finally seen enough of these movies to recognize a few of its main recurring players.  Gangubai is played by Alia Bhatt, who played the take-no-shit, tough-as-nails girlfriend in the “Bollywood 8-Mile” drama Gully Boy.  I was amazed by her fierce defiance in that performance, which she amplifies here to the point where she’s practically a sex-worker superhero.  Gangubai slaps anyone who disrespects her.  She openly drinks & smokes despite men’s moral objections.  She practically has a kink for making men sit on the floor to admire from below, which at one point manifests in forcing a young admirer to take her tailoring measurements in total awe of her body.  When she walks down the streets of Kamathipura, she immediately gathers a crowd of starstruck on-lookers, an effect that’s amplified by crunchy guitar riffs announcing her presence – like Gal Godot in Wonder Woman gear.  Just about the only thing she doesn’t do is lip-sync during her own musical numbers.  I have little context for how standard that is in modern Bollywood productions, but here it has an MTV-era music video effect, where she gets to strike powerful poses without worrying about emoting to the romantic lyrics.  Like an 80s action hero, Gangubai is presented as the coolest, most righteous person who ever lived, and Bhatt is incredibly adept at performing that badass self-assurance.  Between this film & Gully Boy, I’d even go as far as calling myself a fan, at least to the point where I’m looking forward to seeing her pop up as an “extended cameo appearance” in the upcoming S.S. Rajamouli film RRR.

Not everyone was impressed with the real-life Gangubai Kothewali’s portrayal in Gangubai Kathiawadi.  Her surviving family sued Bhatt, the film’s producers, and the authors of its source material for defamation, claiming that Kothewali was a social worker who was never employed by the brothels she serviced.  There are also news articles dismissing that controversy as a marketing ploy initiated by the producers themselves, so who knows.  All I can say for sure is that I don’t hold based-on-a-true-story Hollywood pictures accountable for being factually inaccurate, so I’m not sure how much that matters here.  The film was adapted from one thirty-page chapter in a much larger historical book about the Kamathipura red-light district called Mafia Queens of Mumbai, so it left itself a lot of room to build whatever story it wanted out of broad-strokes aspects of the real Gangubai’s life.  It went with the most formulaic, crowd-pleasing approach possible, typified by eye-pleasing symmetrical tableaus of vintage Mumbai street life and a romantic depiction of workers hooking by candlelight during a city-wide power outage.  It’s a big, beautiful mainstream heart-warmer with a shockingly grim opening and shockingly sharp political edge.  I’m more typically drawn to over-the-top Kollywood action thrillers than this sincere Bollywood drama, but I was fully satisfied by the movie-magic charms of Gangubai Kathiawadi in a way that I rarely am by American movies on its budgetary scale.  It was a satisfying return to a specific flavor of theatrical experience I’ve greatly missed over the past couple years.

-Brandon Ledet

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