Reži (2019)

The basic premise of the low-budget Serbian indie Reži (also distributed as Love Cuts and Cutting Close) is an incredible hook: a teenage brat attempts to reconcile with her ex-boyfriend while also suffering a stab wound from a local gang. I was so sold on that logline that I dragged my decrepit body out to the very last programing slot at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, a brutally unforgiving condition to see any feature film. It’s unclear how much of my exhaustion during that screening was due to the film itself vs. its late-night position at the tail end of a full week of low-budget wonders (or, most likely, a combination of both). I did feel frustrated that it didn’t fully live up to the darkly comic mayhem promised by its central hook, though, as it’s ultimately a pretty good film that’s constantly on the verge of being great.

Kristina Jovanovic stars as Aja, a tiny blonde teen with the attitude of a knuckle-dragging biker. Her brattiness borders on abuse as she stalks her long-suffering boyfriend, shouts “What the fuck is wrong with you?” at her doting mother, and just generally fills the world with nothing but combative violence & homophobic slurs. When Aja’s shit-talking bestie, Maja, starts a fight with a local gang, our loudmouth antihero is unexpectedly stabbed in the gut with a switchblade while defending her honor. Pervesely, it’s almost a relief when she’s stabbed, as the first moments of quiet & calm don’t arrive until after that act of violence. Before the stabbing, Aja moves through the world as an abusive whirlwind, unable to even eat a sandwich without appearing to be in a rage. Afterwards, there’s a sweetness & vulnerability to her character that reluctantly bubbles to the surface as she asks herself “What is it about me that makes people want to stab me?” and “How can I work on that so I don’t get stabbed again?” The tragedy of the film is that this wounded self-reflection arrives a little too late, as she’s already kickstarted a chain reaction of escalating violence with its own self-propelling momentum.

Reži feels like it’s reaching for the kind of tenderness & humor against a backdrop of constant cruelty that’s achieved to much greater effect in films like Wetlands & Tangerine, only further proving how difficult of a tone that is to balance. The chaotic, handheld camerawork & absurd dismissal of how serious stab wounds are can be enrapturing in stops & starts, but I do feel like the film overplays its acidity to the point where it can’t ever be fully endearing. Jokes about how girlfriends be crazy, threats of sexual assault, and constant barrages of ableist & homophobic slurs sour the mood too much for the bittersweet counterbalance of its repentance & romance to fully break through. Still, even if the film is overall too frustrating to merit a hearty recommendation, the combatively prankish attitude it performs in every frame is too infectious to fully ignore – like so many festering stab wounds. I may have never fully lost myself in its romantic or self-improvement drama, but I was certainly impressed by its sneering attitude & wickedly dark sense of humor.

-Brandon Ledet

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

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An offscreen narrator beckons us into a black & white underworld like a carnie ushering rubes into a mysterious tent, “Ladies & gentlemen, welcome to violence, the word & the act.” Promises of a “salacious new breed” of women whose “very existence are synonymous with violence” are followed by typical Russ Meyer rapidfire images– gogo dancers filmed from empowering low angles, jukeboxes, spinning records, leering men shouting “Go, baby! Go!”, etc. As soon as half a minute into Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! you already get the distinct feeling that Russ Meyer has finally made his masterpiece, eleven films & six years into a bizarre career still with a long way to go, baby, go. It’s a jazzy, psychedelic vibe just as much as it is a feature film, a true work of art that somehow amounts to far more than the sum of its parts. It’s also a very simple example of the “roughie” picture Meyer had been more or less tooling with since he broke away from his Immoral Mr. Teas-imitating nudie cutie work & decided to get much, much darker in his cinematic hondoggery. With Lorna & Mudhoney, Meyer was on the verge of accomplishing something truly great within the roughie genre, but fell just short. Faster, Pussycat! is that greatness.

At the center of this greatness is three larger than life superwomen: Varla (a beyond real Tura Satana), Billie (newcomer Lori Williams), and Rosie (Haji, who was the sole highlight of Meyer’s misogynistic abomination Motorpsycho!). Varla, described here as being “like a velvet glove cast in iron” is the undisputed leader of this girl gang & the undisputed highlight of the film. She runs a tight ship, leading her two cohorts to recklessly drive roadsters across a desert hellscape (Meyer’s specialty, because the perilous locations fondly reminded him of his life-threatening time spent as a WWII combat photographer) & torment any little pissant insects that have the misfortune to fall into her web along the way. While playing chicken & generally causing havoc, they encounter such insects in Linda (Sue Bernard, who is a literal baby) & her dumb-as-bricks beau Tommy (Ray Barlow). When challenged to a time trial race by Tommy, Varla barks “I don’t beat clocks, just people.” She follows up that promise by more or less karate chopping the schmuck to death while his girlfriend is held in captive horror. A lot of the dialogue in Faster, Pussycat! is delivered this way; one-liners are shouted atonally in an adversarial tone Meyer first struck in his near-likeable Mudhoney. Varla & her girls are more female impersonators than actual women, striking the image of exaggerated cartoon versions of violent femininity. When a still-alive Tommy offers Varla a soft-drink she retorts “Honey, we don’t like nothing soft. Everything we like is hard!,” a line that wouldn’t feel at all out of place in a drag show. It’s no wonder that this film turned a young weirdo John Waters into a lifelong Meyer fan.

After Tommy’s early demise, the girls move on to their next male targets: a physically crippled, thoroughly vile curmudgeon (played by a pitch perfect Stuart Lancaster) and his two sons: good cop & dumb cop (Paul Trinka & Dennis Busch, respectively). Varla & the gang arrive on the curmudgeon’s farm practically dragging the traumatized Linda by her hair and immediately start scheming to rob the three men blind. The evil, crippled paterfamilias, of course, has his own schemes, mostly involving unsavory activities targeted at the much younger, much freaked-out Linda. His youngest, simplest son is first depicted as a stuttering mess gently nuzzling a kitten, but is quickly revealed to be quite a threatening tool when manipulated by his old man. Not that any threat they could possibly pose as a pair could match the brute strength of the superhuman Varla, who always seems to be poised to take control of any situation through pure, unadulterated violence. The result of this cosy set-up is a tense, divided household. Two rival, isolated gangs grit their teeth in each other’s presence, aching for someone to make the first move so they can start to draw blood, a true testament to a war of the sexes vibe Meyer introduced to his work as early as Europe in the Raw & Lorna, a contentious atmosphere that would follow him through the end of his bizarre career.

Although Faster, Pussycat! is a brisk 83 minutes of carnage, it’s near-impossible to touch on everything that makes it great in a short-form review. Rapidfire sex jokes, transgressive (for its time) representations of homosexuality, stark black & white cinematography, incredible shots framed by flanking beautiful denim-clad rumps, a classically tragic/climactic bodycount that would make Hamlet sweat, every precious frame of Tura Satana’s performance as Varla, the list goes on. Faster, Pussycat! is the moment when the self-propelling rhythms and seething anger of Meyer’s work really start to take hold. It’s no wonder that Roger Ebert says of the film in his memoir Life Itself, “That was when it first registered that there was a filmmaker named Russ Meyer, and he was the same man who made The Immoral Mr Teas.” Meyer had arrived as an artist & his first significant work was a real doozy. There was a palpable violence to the film, especially in the scenes were Stuart Lancaster’s curmudgeon angrily mumbles to himself about passing trains and where Tura Satana manhandles underage actress Sue Bernard in a too-believable violent manner. When Linda pleads, “All I want to do is go home! Please let me go home!”, it may as well be Bernard pleading directly to Russ. There is real terror in her eyes.

Still, despite all of its brutality, the film has a compulsively fun vibe to it that makes it perfect fodder for midnight movie screenings & is a decidedly sexy picture solely to the credit of its three leads, given that there is no nudity & no fornication typical to a Meyer film (although it stops just short on both counts). All of this greatness came from a very simple idea: after filming a bunch of male brutes beating on women in the vile picture Motorpsycho!, Meyer thought, “Why don’t I have the women beat up men for a change?” Screenwriter Jack Moran (who had been with Meyer since the nudie cutie days of Erotica & Wild Gals of the Naked West) built a wonderfully strange, violently tense world from there & the rest is trash cinema history. It would be another five years or six pictures before Meyer could even come close to topping this achievement with the beyond-reason Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and some (not me) would contend that even that picture can’t match the lightning-in-a-bottle magic he captured in Pussycat!. The film is that remarkable.

-Brandon Ledet

Girlhood (2015)

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Despite what you might expect from a film about roving packs of French girl gangs, Girlhood is far from an on-the-nose melodrama with explicit messages about the powder keg of poverty & puberty. Instead, it’s a brutally melancholy slow burner about an especially shitty youth with dwindling options for escape. It’s far more open-ended & hazy than I was anticipating, opting more for a gradual unravelling than a grand statement. It’s that aversion to closure & moralizing that makes the film special when it easily could’ve gone through the motions of rote Lifetime Movie schmaltz.

That’s not to say that Girlhood is all grays, haze, and sadness. It certainly does have it’s . . . bright, shining moments. Specifically, the scene where the central gang is dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” alone in a fancy hotel room while sporting shoplifted dresses is a transcendent dream of a respite that briefly shakes the dull pastel voids of the movie’s housing projects in favor of an intense music video chic. In that moment it’s not at all difficult to see why the protagonist Marieme would choose gang life over her only other viable options: vocational school or a life of housekeeping. Besides the “Diamonds” scene & several other moments of otherworldly dance parties, Girlhood also shines in its opening sequence, in which two female football teams clash to the sounds of minimal synth in an oddly beautiful, but violent display that sets the tone for what’s to come. As the football match lets out, the girls roam in a cloud of raucous chatter.

These dreamlike escapes are always fleeting, though. The group gradually splinters & the scene shifts from an unbridled, decidedly feminine joy to a quietly fearful trip through a very literal, very dangerous-feeling male gaze. A lot of what lurks in Girlhood‘s pensive silence is an unspoken oppression & the threat of violence from the few men in Marieme’s life, particularly her older brother. Torn between fending for herself & protecting her younger siblings, Marieme finds herself in the vulnerable position of not qualifying for high school and decides, rather quickly, to trade in her makeshift football gang for a much more purposeful gang of loveable reprobates. It’s through the empowerment of her new crew that she builds the confidence to occupy traditionally male spaces: night time public streets, fistfights, sexual exploration, etc. The meek quiet of that opening football sequence is quickly supplanted by the rush of Marieme getting whatever she wants through brute force & the solidarity of her newfound sisterhood. The problem is that Marieme is too smart to play the girl gang game forever. As much fun as she has with the scene’s selfies & shoplifting, pocket knives & smart phones, she begins to plan for the future, which is about as dangerously unsure & open-ended in the film as it is in real life.

Much of the Girlhood‘s back half deliberately raises more questions than it dares to answer as its protagonist tries to figure out exactly who she is & what she wants. Due to an unfortunate (but perhaps intentional, marketing-wise) similarities in titles, Girlhood has of course suffered a lot of comparisons to Richard Linklater’s technically impressive, but (in this reviewer’s eyes) messy at best in practice Boyhood. Given Boyhood‘s never-ending need to wrap everything up tightly in a neat little package, the two films couldn’t be further apart in their approaches to capturing the essence of youth on film. Girlhood has no interest in telling a complete story, but rather indulges in soaking in the cold, grey pastels of a life drifting through housing projects and the inevitable doom of the pull between personal & familial obligations that poverty & shrinking options for escape can often inflict upon far too many young people. Girlhood’s disinterest in closure is a commendable impulse with thoroughly satisfying results, even if those results don’t include straight answers or an A to B narrative. It’s less of a complete story than it is a solemn mood piece, a melancholy tone poem with occasional dance breaks and much-needed gasps for air.

-Brandon Ledet