Breakfast on Pluto (2005)

I very distinctly remember going to the theater to see Breakfast on Pluto in 2005. I remember enjoying it. I even remember why I sought it out in the first place (the ads reminded me of the glam androgyny of Velvet Goldmine, a movie that meant a lot to me at the time). When I recently ran across a used DVD copy of the film in a thrift store, however, I realized I remembered almost nothing else about it. The cast, the characters, the plot, the setting, the soundtrack – the entire film, really – had all dissipated from my memory like a vapor. I didn’t even know it was directed by Neil Jordan, whose chaotically inconsistent catalog somehow also includes The Company of Wolves, Interview with a Vampire, and this year’s Greta. It all makes sense in retrospect now that I’ve revisited the film, though. Neil Jordan’s involvement tracks as a follow-up on his interest in transgender narratives via The Crying Game (for good and for bad). The Euro-glam 70s setting and gender androgyny that drew me in as a teen is strongly present throughout, even if the movie doesn’t comment on it directly. The story told therein is so vague & exhaustively obedient to the tropes of a lifelong memoir that it’s easy to quickly lose track of the details. And yet, even with its many, many faults only made more glaring in the sober light of a late-2010s revisit, I still left Breakfast on Pluto with an idiotic smile on my face (and its major details again immediately slipping away).

Cillian Murphy stars as a trans woman in this coming of age biopic about a fictional 1970s Irish community in crisis. Murphy’s vocal performance in the role can occasionally be off-putting in its exaggerated lilt; the politics of casting trans and gender-nonconforming characters has changed drastically since the film’s mid-aughts release; and the language around gender identity has evolved since its 1970s setting even more so. All of these modern discomforts are only compounded by the fact that the character was made up entirely by a cisgender author, Patrick McCabe, in the late 90s, leaving very little room for authenticity in its exploration of transgender themes & narratives despite being constructed like a birth-to-death biopic of a real person. Still, despite all these red flags, Breakfast on Pluto is immensely enjoyable to watch for the relative eternity of its 128mn runtime. It often plays like a glammed-up spiritual sequel to the Quentin Crisp biopic The Naked Civil Servant in its story of transgender identity in a time before its proper terms & borders were solidified, but its fictional source material opens it up to even more absurd, outlandish plot developments than that relatively well-behaved work. It’s also packed with always-welcome character actors who had not yet become recognizable faces to wide audiences in 2005: Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Ruth Negga, Liam “The Onion Knight” Cunningham, and Neil Jordan mascot Stephen Rea. Also, if nothing else, it’s just always wonderful to stare at Cillian Murphy’s gorgeous face for two solid hours.

This fictional trans woman’s coming-of-age story starts with a few scenes of small-town childhood crossdressing so cinematically familiar they were already cliché when they surfaced in Billy Elliott five years prior. Patricia “Kitten” Braden’s life’s story gets incrementally more distinct as she ages into her teenage & young adult years, however, since her unorthodox gender expression becomes more of a source of conflict at home, school, and church as she ages. She eventually announces, “Oh fiddly boogles, what’s the point?” and leaves her small Irish town for the metropolis of London, the city that “swallowed up” her estranged birth-mother – known to the audience as The Phantom Lady. As Kitten chases down this human MacGuffin (surviving mostly on various forms of sex work along the way), her friends back home struggle with the escalating violence of The Troubles – which encroaches closer & closer to her own life in unexpected jolts of gory brutality & rudimentary CGI explosions. With over 30 onscreen chapter titles interjecting every couple scenes, Breakfast on Pluto is a never-ending parade of period-specific details that swirl around Kitten as she searches for a family of her own: glam rock bands, penny arcades, mournful priests, milk deliveries, car bombs, etc. When she does eventually find her family, emerging miraculously unscathed from a chaotically cruel world, it’s both the least expected configuration possible and the most endearingly sweet.

This is essentially a fairy tale, complete with talking CGI birds that flutter around the screen warning you of the fantasy indulgences to come. That genre distinction helped me get over my main problem with the film, which is that it’s gushingly romantic at every turn and yet entirely sexless when it comes to genuine eroticism – as if it were unafraid to actually depict non-straight, non-cis couplings on the screen. Fairy tales (or at least the modern post-Disney variety) are largely sexless affairs, so I’m okay with overlooking that hiccup. Whether or not you’re personally okay with a cisgender male actor playing a fictional trans woman within that glam-70s fairy tale is up to you, and will likely guide your relationship with the film at large (especially when it comes to adjusting to the hushed, delirious whispers of Murphy’s vocal performance). There’s plenty to enjoy in Breakfast on Pluto otherwise, though, and even if you happen to impervious to its other charms it has a way for sprinkling fairy dust over you by the end credits so that you forget most of the movie permanently anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Il cartaio (aka The Card Player, 2004)

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Roughly ten to fifteen years ago, poker was everywhere. The boom of internet-based video poker played a huge role in the game’s rising profile, and as more people got to experience the game and hone their skills in a low-risk environment, suddenly everyone was an expert. The World Series of Poker became must-see television, or else you would be left out of the watercooler conversation the next day; at night, USA Network would force teenagers across the country to wait an interminable thirty minutes to see Strip Poker contestants in their underwear. If you could poker-ify a product, you could sell it, as obsession with the card game brought poker to a point of cultural saturation that normally only your Seinfelds and your Cosbys get to enjoy. It’s not hard to imagine why; poker is like the lovechild of lottery and sport, allowing players (and viewers, by proxy) to experience the pure adrenaline thrill of wagering on something that combines strategy with luck. Like all fads, it eventually faded away, but not before several filmmakers tried to herd gullible people into theatres by making poker a focal point; search Google for “movies about poker,” and you’ll see that most of the results come from 2003-2008. For better or worse, Dario Argento was one of those directors.

The script that would eventually become Il cartaio (The Card Player, 2004) began as an idea about a sadist challenging the police to a game of poker. He also envisioned the film as a sequel to The Stendhal Syndrome, revisiting Inspector Anna Manni (presumably rehabilitated following her psychotic break in that film). When his daughter was not available to reprise her role, Argento reworked the script; since I went into this film with that knowledge, it’s impossible for me to say how much of the narrative is a holdover from its previous incarnation and how much of it merely seems that way because I was subconsciously looking for connections, but those apparent connections, be they real or imagined, fail to make this a standout film. Despite some new ideas, The Card Player feels as if it was dated from the moment of its release, and often plays more like a television procedural than a movie from one of the great living directors.

Inspector Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) is an investigator who believes in healthy living and keeping her personal and professional lives separate, much to the chagrin of Carlo Sturni (Claudio Santamaria), a fellow officer. Mari begins to receive messages from a serial killer known as the Card Player, who challenges the department to a game of online video poker with the prize being the life of a young woman who is hooked up to a live feed, to be killed or freed, depending on whether or not the police can beat him in three hands. The police commissioner (Adalberto Maria Merli) initially refuses to play along, and the first victim is a British tourist whose murder brings in Irish-born London-detective-in-exile John Brennan (Liam Cunningham, aka Ser Davos the Onion Knight of Game of Thrones). The killer’s second victim dies when Sturni fails to beat the killer’s hand, and Brennan and Mari’s investigation brings them to young student Remo (Silvio Muccino), a poker prodigy whom Mari enlists to help them win against the murderer, or at least keep him online long enough to track. The third victim almost escapes uring the game, but is recaptured and killed. Meanwhile, Mari staves off a home invasion by the killer, which leads to her becoming romantically entangled with Brennan. then the fourth victim turns out to be the commissioner’s daughter (Fiore Argento), can she be saved in time?

The biggest problem with Cartaio is that it’s toothless and small. A contemporary New York Times review dismissively compared the film to CSI, but its focus on a culturally ubiquitous fad reminded me more of one of those tone deaf and out-of-touch episodes of Law & Order, where they try to tackle something like Bronies or Gamergate and completely fail to grasp it as a concept. Aside from Mari, who comes across as vulnerable but competent and self-assured, the characters are flat, and any personality they have is painted in the broadest of strokes. Cunningham tries his best to breathe life into the paper-thin alcoholic disgraced cop cliché with which he’s saddled, but there was only so much he could do with what was on the page. The other cops are virtually indistinguishable from one another, and it’s a testament to how irrelevant the characters are that the actor behind the killer isn’t even credited on the movie’s Wikipedia page. It’s a big step back from the best thing about Sleepless, which is a shame.

The film is not without its merits, however. As mentioned above, Rocca’s Mari leaves a distinct impression, and the sequence that revolves around her fending off the killer in her home is a tense one that calls to mind a similar sequence in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark, in which blind Audrey Hepburn extinguishes all the lights in her home and puts herself and an invader on equal footing on her terms. Muccino’s Remo is also a likable screen presence, which makes his sudden death (as well as Brennan’s) all the more shocking. That’s not to say that I would have made the same storytelling choices, but it is an effectively sudden change after the first 70% of the film’s murders were displayed in a more distanced fashion, from the other side of a small chat window (again contributing to the film’s sanitized, crime-procedural aesthetic).

Overall, the lukewarm critical response to Cartaio is commensurate to its reheated plot. There’s nothing novel about the motivations of any of the characters, and making video poker the central focus of originality in the film was a mistake. The musical composition is simply terrible in places, and even the characters agree, as Mari eventually shoots and destroys a car stereo that has been playing the electronica score diegetically (you can get a taste of it in the film’s horrible, dialogue-free trailer; now imagine that playing in roughly half of a two hour movie). The romance between Mari and Brennan feels forced, and the plot reveal of “yeah, he’s dead, but she’s pregnant now, so hooray!” is trite and reductive. Sure, the ending, in which the killer chains both himself and Mari to train tracks and forces her to play very slow video poker to save her life, makes sense thematically. That still wouldn’t make for an exciting climax to an episode of the kinds of shows that Cartaio cribs from, let alone a feature. It’s not the worst Argento, but it doesn’t hover very far above the bottom either.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond