Pvt Chat (2021)

I got so wrapped up in reflecting on how Adam Sandler’s career & persona reshaped the Safdie Brothers’ usual schtick in Uncut Gems that I forgot to mention the true standout discovery among its many NYC-caricature performers: Julia Fox.  As Sandler’s breathy, pouty mistress/employee, Fox softened Uncut Gems‘s acidity with a much-needed sweetness you won’t find elsewhere in the film.  At the very least, she’s the only character who finds the continuous fuck-up anti-hero adorable instead of despicable, and it’s oddly cute watching her play moll to his delusions of mafioso grandeur.  Fox felt refreshingly authentic & eccentric in the same way a lot of the Safdies’ NYC caricatures do, except with an unusual star power that had me leaning in for more, unsure that more would ever arrive.

2021 has been a pretty decent year for Julia Fox’s post-Uncut Gems career.  Not only did she land a small role in Stephen Soderbergh’s star-studded neo-noir No Sudden Move, but she also found an opportunity to co-lead a feature film that plays directly into her strengths as a screen presence (and, thus, one that’s unavoidably reminiscent of the Safdies’ grimy NYC filmmaking style).  Pvt Chat is a grim internet-age romance starring Fox as a camgirl dominatrix with the world’s wormiest fuckboy client (Peter Vack).  She spends most of her screentime domming the porn & gambling addict from the safety of a webcam, taunting him, “spanking” him, and using his tongue as a virtual ashtray.  Even when she’s playing mean in these exchanges, there’s a sweetness to her persona that leaks out of her patent leather armor.  It’s a dangerous allure for her character, whose approachability inspires her online client to become her on-the-street stalker.  It’s a huge benefit to her as an actress, though, proving that her radiant performance in Uncut Gems was not a one-time anomaly.  Julia Fox is the real deal.

Pvt Chat is not so much a Safdies photocopy as it is pulling inspiration from the same independent NYC filmmaking subcultures that inspire them.  It drags the late-night grime & mania of New York City livin’ up the fire-escape and onto the laptop computer, icing down the city’s up-all-night genre traditions with the cold isolation of life online.  It’s classic No Wave filmmaking echoed in 1’s & 0’s; it’s Smithereens for the Pornhub commentariat.  Pvt Chat declares itself to be “a romance about freedom, fantasy, death, friendship.”  In truth, it’s more about how all modern relationships have been completely drained of their intimacy through our transactional, performative online interactions.  It presents a world where intimacy is an illusion for purchase, not an authentic shared experience.  Setting that crisis in a city overflowing with genuine, in-the-flesh people only makes it more tragic (and more perverse).

There are some instances in which Pvt Chat‘s nostalgia for independent NYC filmmaking of yesteryear gets in its own way.  In particular, the way Julia Fox gradually falls for her sadboy crypto-bro client feels like the kind of pure masturbatory fantasy that would’ve been much more common on the 1980s & 90s film festival circuit than it is now.  Imagine a boneheaded version of Taxi Driver where Cybil Shepphard & Robert DeNiro genuinely hit it off after their porno theatre date on 42nd Street.  Personally, that romantic development didn’t ruin the film for me.  It arrives after so many preposterous, manic decisions made by late-night lunatics that it felt oddly at home with the movie’s M.O.  More importantly, even when the doomed lovers do physically connect, the movie does not abandon its themes of isolation & performance.  It perverts the consummation of their shared desire in a way that still leaves them physically alone & unfulfilled.  Maybe the movie is all in service of a delusional fuckboy fantasy, but it at least seems aware of how pathetic & grim that fantasy is.

Even if the unlikely central romance of Pvt Chat is a turn-off for most audiences, the movie is still a worthy vehicle for Julia Fox.  She commands the screen (and the screen within the screen) with an infectious ease that still has me leaning in for more.  It’s incredibly cool that her acting career wasn’t limited to a one-off novelty; she’s a goddamn star.

-Brandon Ledet

No Sudden Move (2021)

I never tire of watching Steven Soderbergh play around with celebrities and camera tech.  It’s like babysitting a little kid who’s toying around in a playroom where each dolly & gadget cost millions of dollars.  I usually prefer to see Soderbergh’s playtime sessions projected on the big screen, and I like them best when they overlap with genres I’m already in love with – which is to say that it’s going to be hard to top the experience of seeing his iPhone-shot psych horror Unsane at the shopping mall multiplex.  Still, it’s been continually fun to watch a long-established director who’s remained excited by his job fuck around with Prestige Cable TV money as if he’s still figuring out the basic elements & limitations of his medium.

The big-picture details of Soderbergh’s latest direct-to-cable effort, No Sudden Move, sound like they belong to the pilot episode of a standard-issue HBO crime drama series.  Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, and Kieran Culkin star as three low-level lackeys who’re hired to hold a business man’s family hostage in exchange for a confidential document of great political import.  The job goes horrifically wrong, and the bottom-rung gangsters find themselves scheming across 1950s Detroit to hold onto the top-secret document as a bargaining chip for their lives . . . and an exponential amount of cash.  It’s a standard heist-gone-wrong plot, styled like a spin-off series about the crime-world decades following Boardwalk Empire.  And yet, it never feels boring or unsurprising thanks to Soderbergh’s flair for wryly funny stunt casting and behind-the-camera mischief.

The biggest hurdle most audiences have to clear to enjoy No Sudden Move is how absolutely fucking bizarre it looks.  While the set & costume design resemble the usual HBO crime series, Soderbergh shoots the entire movie with an extreme wide-angle fisheye lens, often backlit.  Whenever your eye momentarily adjusts to its skateboard video framing and chiaroscuro lighting, the camera pans or glides to make the whole thing look warped again.  I have to imagine it has a lot of unsuspecting audiences scrambling to adjust the picture settings on their TV, but I was personally delighted by that clash of modern camera tech against a vintage setting.  When the cowardly businessman mark, played by David Harbour, complains into a telephone “Everything is so weird right now” I felt like I knew exactly what he meant.  The film never stops looking strange, even if it’s narratively well behaved.

Beyond that extreme fisheye effect, I was mostly just tickled by No Sudden Move’s casting choices.  From the winking, referential casting of Jon Hamm in Mad Men-style G-man suits and Ray Liotta in pistol-whipped Goodfellas mobster mode to the chaotic screen presence of Uncut Gems’s Julia Fox as a bored, pouty moll (recalling Paz de la Huerta in the Boardwalk Empire pilot, come to think of it), you can tell Soderbergh and casting director Carmen Cuba are having a ball.  Otherwise, I can’t say the film really did much for me, at least not as much as the campier, more acidic Behind the Candelabra – the most recent example I’ve seen of Soderbergh playing around in HBO’s toy chest.  If these same fisheye lens or movie star stunt casting experiments had been applied to something more my speed—like a morally queasy horror movie or something draggy like Liberace—I could have fully fallen in love with it.  Knowing Soderbergh, I’ll probably only have to wait a few weeks before that next experiment in craft arrives.

-Brandon Ledet