Lagniappe Podcast: Summertime (1955)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss David Lean’s 1955 Venetian melodrama Summertime, starring a lovelorn Katharine Hepburn.

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00:00 Welcome

03:17 First Blood (1982)
07:04 Dirty Dancing (1987)
08:56 Speed (1994)
10:00 Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
12:05 Angus T. Ambrose, Jr.
17:35 The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
19:40 Bad Ronald (1974)
26:00 The Sandlot (1993)
30:22 Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022)
32:40 Mothering Sunday (2022)
35:55 Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
37:45 A Room with a View (1985)

42:51 Summertime (1955)

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Mothering Sunday (2022)

If there’s anything especially noteworthy about the post-WWI romance Mothering Sunday, it’s the sex.  By most metrics, the film is exactly what you’d expect from a BFI-funded costume drama in which a deflated Colin Firth & Olivia Colman mope around a cold, tidy estate in mourning of their young sons, lost to the horrors of war.  At the same time, it’s unusually fixated on the sexual awakening of that grieving couple’s young maid, often in raunchy detail.  Mothering Sunday features way more onscreen semen & peen than you’ll see in other stately costume dramas of its ilk (provided by The Crown‘s Josh O’Connor, in case that matters), to the point where there are multiple(!!) scenes depicting cum stains on bedsheets.  It’s not overflowing with fun, adventurous sex scenes or anything; it’s not Season 1 Bridgerton.  Instead, it lingers on one unrushed, afternoon-lit sexual encounter that reverberates loudly through the rest of the maid’s life, as told in a loose, disorienting mix of flashbacks, flashforwards, and looping images.

Shirley’s Odessa Young stars as the maid in question, a sheltered service worker who’s given a full sex-ed crash course by a family friend (O’Connor) of her employers (Firth & Colman).  In the lull between World Wars, the English village where she works is suffering one of the rare scenarios in history where dick is in short supply, which is why it’s especially risky that she crosses class lines to steal the heart of the only eligible bachelor around.  The story is mostly anchored to their final tryst, an especially sweaty, intimate afternoon avoiding the usual village conversation about how many young men are dead & missing from their lives.  Before that afternoon, the maid is a naive child who knows little of the world inside her body or out.  Long after, she’s a self-assured literary genius who’s destined to suffer way more heartache than losing her first love.  It’s during that final afternoon together when she finds a way to truly be herself for the first time, especially in moments when she’s left alone without her wealthier, more experienced lover looming over her.

The loopy, dreamy editing style is a double-edged sword.  It’s disorienting to the point where I couldn’t get a handle on the whos, whats, and whens of a very simple story for way too long, but the film would be a forgettable, standard-issue post-WWI romance without it.  As is, it gives the story a languid kind of sensuality that I appreciated, and frees it up from having to adapt every moment of the source material novel.  This is more a film of sensory details than one of linear storytelling.  It lingers & distracts, intercutting memories and losing time as if it were reminiscing through post-sex pillow talk instead of dictating a memoir.  Its attention to prurient, raunchy detail fits snugly in that editorial headspace, so much so that it’s easy to forget it’s a tragedy – several times over.  I’m honestly not sure it all comes together as anything solid or commendable, but it pairs its climax with a true stunner of a musical piece that almost convinced me it was nearing genius (or, at least something more substantial than most period romances in the same vein):

-Brandon Ledet

Cast List Power Rankings: A Room with a View (1985)

It’s not something you’ll detect as quickly as my love for horror or sci-fi, but I’m an easy sucker for costume dramas.  Other genre fans are organized & mobilized enough to throw their own conventions where oceans of nerds line up to have Elvira sign their bald spots, but there isn’t really an equivalent for the costume drama (unless there are Ren Faire booths I don’t know about; please report back, if so).  And yet, if you’ve ever found yourself sipping Pinot Grigio at an opening-weekend screening of a Downton Abbey movie, you know the fandom for costume dramas can be just as electric. One buffoonish misstep from Mr. Molelsey at a stuffy dinner party and the crowd goes wild.  In that insular, quietly fired-up subculture, the names Merchant Ivory invoke rock star adulation the same way names like Romero, Carpenter, and Cronenberg get horror nerds’ brains whirring.  Somehow, I had never seen an Merchant-produed, Ivory-directed movie myself, though, despite the phrase “Merchant Ivory” being a recognizable adjective for a type of buttoned-up, award winning costume drama that I very much enjoy.  I recently filled in that knowledge gap with the producer-director duo’s breakout hit A Room with a View, which earned them three Oscars, four BAFTAs, and decades’ worth of household name recognition. 

Predictably, I had a wonderful time with it.  For all its Awards Circuit prestige, A Room with a View is a small, sweet romcom of manners that recalls the heightened social-maneuvers humor I love in Jane Austen comedies (please do not lecture me about the century’s difference between the Regency & Edwardian eras; I assure you I do not care).  What really floored me is how stacked the cast is with genre giants of the costume drama, all working in delicious harmony like spoonfuls of honey stirred into afternoon tea.  And since there would be no practical use for fully reviewing this genre-standard award magnet that hit American shores the year I was born, I’d mostly just like to discuss each member of the main cast individually.  Here’s a quick listing of the central players in A Room with a View, ranked from most to least essential.

1. Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil Vyse – DDL plays the ultimate dipshit fop, an uptight misogynist dandy whose wealth & status make him look like great marriage material on paper . . . until you spend ten seconds in his slimy presence.  It’s incredible how easily he steals the show, considering that he doesn’t appear on-screen for at least the first third of the runtime.  Once he crashes the party, though, he delivers a sublimely hateworthy comedic performance that the movie would be hollow without.

2. Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch – HBC is even more of a costume drama heavy-hitter than DDL, and I have to assume this early role was what landed her all that steady work in the unsteady past (unless there’s a huge Lady Jane fan club out there that I’m unaware of).  She’s a perfectly furious, frustrated teen as the film’s lead, stuck between the rich idiot she should want (DDL) and the hot idiot she does want (TBA).  Her furrowed brow while concentrating on complex piano pieces conveys a rich inner life in contrast to the sheltered social one she’s allowed to live outside her head, which makes her a great audience surrogate for young costume drama nerds who can’t wait to move out of their parents’ house.  She’s also got gloriously thick, extravagant curls of hair that are enviable at any age.

3. Maggie Smith as Charlotte Bartlett – Speaking of Downton, Dame Margaret Natalie Smith brings long-established stage & screen prestige to the proceedings, even if she’s not allowed to cut as loose as she does with her withering quips as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham.  She’s in the same uptight chaperone role here as she plays in The Secret Garden, except her stiffness makes her the butt of her sister’s jokes instead of inspiring fear & good behavior in the teen she’s supposed to be keeping in check (HBC).  I’m sure it’s just a stock character Smith plucked out of her 60+ years & 80+ IMDb credits worth of experience acting on camera, but she does it well, and the punchlines at her expense are always solid (often to the refrain of “Poor, poor Charlotte”).

4. Denholm Elliott as Mr. Emerson – More of a That Guy character actor than the legendary Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott is nonetheless equally matched as her doddering comic foil.  He’s cast as a sweetheart eccentric, one whose “tactless”, “indelicate” boisterousness constantly pulls the rug out from under the rules-obsessed chaperone.  He also gets to ramble at length about the inane gender politics of who should get to have “a room with a view” at the opening hotel setting, a scene that feels like a contemporary SNL sketch written by a comedian who’s only seen the trailer, not the movie proper.

5. Fabia Drake & Joan Henley as the Misses Alan – The perpetually traveling spinster “sisters” are the closest thing the movie offers as aspirational objects of envy, especially if you read them as covert lesbians in a Boston marriage that everyone else just has to tolerate.

6. Judi Dench as Eleanor Lavish – You’d think Dame Judith Olivia Dench would rank as worthier competition to Dame Maggie Smith here, but her trash-novelist side character isn’t afforded much momentum to make a dent on-screen.  She does push Smith’s uptight nerd into her biggest fuck-ups, though (including spilling the beans on her young cousin/ward’s scandalous, unchaperoned kiss, published for all to read under a half-hearted pseudonym), which makes for some great comedy at her expense.  Poor, poor Charlotte.

7. Simon Callow as The Reverend Mr. Beebe – There are plenty of misbehaving vicars out there in cinemaland, but not many get to hang dong while roughhousing with their flock in the local swimming pond.  You’d expect it to be the bigger shock that HBC runs into her naked crush or her naked brother when she stumbles across said roughhousing on an afternoon stroll, but the naked vicar earns the biggest laugh.

8. Rupert Graves as Freddy Honeychurch – HBC’s younger, rowdier brother is exactly who you’d expect to stumble across in the throes of flagrant public nudity.  He doesn’t have much effect on the film’s tone or plot, but he is a playful, delightful source of chaos that makes HBC reluctant to graduate from childish japes to sincere adult emotions & romance.

9. Rosemary Leach as Mrs. Honeychurch – The siblings’ mother might get in a few great laughs with her passive aggressive jabs at “Poor, poor Charlotte,” but she doesn’t make much impact outside that mockery of her sister.  I also couldn’t tell if the actor looked at all familiar, or if she just had a vague resemblance to Kathy Bates.

10. Julian Sands as George Emerson – Has Julian Sands ever delivered a good performance in anything?  He’s at least laughably bad in films like Boxing Helena & Argento’s Phantom of the Opera.  I foolishly assumed he landed those jobs because he was impressive in the Merchant Ivory costume dramas that predate them, but holy shit, his overly mannered performances don’t even feel at home in the overly mannered past.  It’s a testament to DDL’s movie-making performance as the ridiculous cad Cecil Vyse that George Emerson comes across as HBC’s best option for love & marriage.  You could replace Sands with a cardboard cutout of a romance-novel cover model and the movie would be exactly the same.  He’s reliably useless.

-Brandon Ledet

The Science of Sleep (2006)

I don’t know that we’ve ever given Michel Gondry his full due as a visual stylist and an auteur.  While other Twee-era directors who came up while I was a high school art snob are still regularly working and relatively celebrated—Wes Anderson, Miranda July, Spike Jonze, etc.—Gondry’s name isn’t often referenced as one of the aughts’ absolute greats.  And yet, his combination of arts & crafts whimsy and gloomy French New Wave dramatics are so specific & idiosyncratic that I often see direct echoes of his work in titles like Dave Made a Maze, Girl Asleep, and Sorry to Bother You (which does name-check Gondry, to its credit).  You’d think that this year in particular would be the one that inspired the most breathless, fawning articles on Gondry’s post-Twee legacy, though, considering that two of the best films of the year so far—Strawberry Mansion & Everything Everywhere All at Once—are so strongly, undeniably influenced by his work.  I wonder if it’s the bitter taste of Gondry’s debut feature as a writer-director (as opposed to his more iconic music video work or his non-writing credit for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) that has tempered his legacy as one of the greats.  Beyond its surface-level cuteness, The Science of Sleep is a deeply unpleasant, emotionally troubling watch, which makes it a tough sell as the purest feature-length form of Gondry’s vision as an auteur (despite that being a fairly standard internal conflict for Twee art in the aughts).  It’s also pretty great.

Revisiting The Science of Sleep felt like reliving the best and the worst parts of my college years in the aughts: the excitement of for-its-own-sake art collaboration and the complete ineptitude at healthy romantic interaction.  I even acquired my used DVD copy of the film in the exact way I would have back in 2007: plucked it off a shelf at the Goodwill (although I just as likely would have found it on a Blockbuster Video liquidation table the first time around).  Gael García Bernal stars as a toxic indie scene fuckboy who immaturely rejects the idea of settling for an office job even though his macabre, mediocre illustrations of famous tragedies are never going to pay his bills.  He’s a dreamer in the truest sense, struggling to differentiate between his nocturnal fantasies and the doldrums of his waking life.  He’s also a selfish baby.  When he moves in with his mommy to take a dull calendar-printing job that she arranged for him, he finds himself smitten with her next-door neighbor, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.  The neighbor is delighted by the fuckboy’s crafty creativity and values him as a friend & artistic collaborator.  The fuckboy badly wants that friendship to turn into a romance and throws a feature-length temper tantrum when he doesn’t get his way.  From the outside, The Science of Sleep looks like a cute, whimsical romance between a couple of wide-eyed twentysomethings who’ve watched one too many Agnès Varda films.  On the inside, it’s a rotten little story about how inept all twentysomethings actually are at friendship & romance, especially entitled young men who don’t know how to handle rejection with grace.

Gondry offers plenty ammunition to audiences who want to treat Twee art as whimsical fluff.  The film opens with the whiny babyboy hosting a dreamworld cooking show, explaining to a delighted TV studio audience how dreams are prepared – stirring random thoughts, reminiscences of the day, memories of the past, and earworm pop songs into a giant gumbo pot, and voila.  The stop-motion, papier-mâché, cut-and-paste surrealism of the dream sequences that follow is a wholesome delight, in sharp contrast with the toxic, selfish behavior of the manic pixie fuckboy protagonist.  Gondry shoots the waking scenes in a handheld documentarian style, while the dream sequences that frequently interrupt that real-world drama directly echo his iconic D.I.Y. dreamworlds in music videos like “Everlong,” “Bachelorette,” and “Fell in Love with a Girl“.  In general, I don’t think people give the aughts era of Twee art enough credit for being emotionally challenging & bleak, likely because the romance & whimsy of its visual style is so pronounced.  Even at the time, though, The Science of Sleep tasted sourer than most of its peers, smashing the romance of its dreamworld fantasy sequences against its characters’ cruel, immature behavior in a volatile mismatch of tones (as opposed to the more subtle melancholy of most Twee art).  It’s a conflict that worked for me a lot more on this recent rewatch than it did at the time, because all I knew then was that the lead made me uncomfortable and the movie wasn’t as romantic as I wanted it to be.  That discomfort feels more purposeful & self-aware now, especially since I can see my younger self’s worst behavior reflected in the main character’s glaring faults.

Gondry continued to work well after The Science of Sleep, with plenty of highs & lows in his creative flow.  His underseen, underrated drama Mood Indigo was an excellent continuation of the bittersweet Twee of his debut; his director-for-hire work on the superhero action comedy The Green Hornet was an all-around disaster; and the quirky crowd-pleaser Be Kind Rewind falls somewhere in-between those extremes.  I’m not sure he ever recovered from the perception that his debut as a writer-director was a step down from his much more beloved work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though, which in effect made Charlie Kaufmann appear to be the true genius behind that project.  That’s a shame, since I find Gondry to be the more consistently rewarding, emotionally engaging artist of that pair, and the works that have been inspired by his distinct visual style are more often among the best new releases of their respective years (whereas I can die happy without ever seeing another Kaufmann-inspired psych drama about writer’s block, or whatever).

-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

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972)

I was recently knocked on my ass by the Japanese revenge tale Lady Snowblood when we watched it for the podcast.  If it’s not the coolest film ever made, it’s at least one of the coolest-looking, translating the graphic imagery of its manga source material to the big screen with exquisite frame-by-frame composition.  As much as I loved Lady Snowblood in isolation, though, it did zap some of my lingering appreciation for Kill Bill Vol. 1, which I would have cited as my favorite Tarantino film before seeing every one of its best ideas accomplished more beautifully & brutally in a film released four decades prior.  Normally, I can tell what Tarantino is bringing to the table in his post-modern remixes of pre-existing genre films, but his take on Lady Snowblood‘s themes & imagery were such a 1:1 carbon copy that I lost a little respect for his best-looking, most entertaining work by comparing it to the text that directly inspired it. But maybe that retroactive disappointment was a little hasty; maybe I have more genre-history homework to do before brushing off Kill Bill entirely.

Released a year before Lady Snowblood, the wuxia actioner Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan touches on the same rape-revenge catharsis & snow-brawl imagery that make its Japanese equivalent so wonderfully vivid.  It even does so while dabbling in (a less explicit version of) In the Realm of the Senses-style eroticism and subversive themes of lesbian desire that complicate the much more straightforward vengeance premise of Lady SnowbloodIntimate Confessions is a Shaw Brothers sexploitation picture about a lesbian madame who is both a fierce, misandrist defender of her brothel’s abducted women and one of their cruelest exploiters.  It’s framed as a rape-revenge tale for the brothel’s latest abductee, and all of the dramatic tension is centered between the two women.  Does our vengeful hero sincerely love the woman who holds her captive or is she using the madame’s romantic attraction as leverage for her true mission of killing all the men who’ve wronged her?  It’s a complex dynamic, but it’s also a convenient excuse for badass swordfights & tantalizing shots of naked flesh. 

Intimate Confessions alternates between feminism and exploitation just like its cruel madame, with plenty of genuine empathy & for-its-own-sake badassery to support either reading.  It’s visually gorgeous, from the high-femme, flowing pink fabrics of its brothel setting to the stark red snow contrasts of its bloodspray finale.  The brothel’s avenger is an awesome wuxia warrior, making no attempt to hide the fact that she’s murdering her abusers one by one (even using the whip that “broke her in” against them in her revenge).  Her relationship with her abusive madame also alternates between shameless exploitation & provocative power dynamics, depending on whether the captor is licking the blood from her victim’s lashings or if the two women are fighting to the death in a private moment of sexual foreplay.  There’s a nuance to their violent, semi-romantic relationship that helps save the film from feeling like a total male fantasy of faux-lesbian eroticism, but there’s certainly an aspect of eye-candy titillation that undercuts that drama.

Obviously, Lady Snowblood does not exist in a vacuum.  Between Intimate Confessions, its 1984 remake Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan, and even more recent brothel-set, rise-to-power revenge tales like Gangubai Kathiawaidi, it’s clear the film is part of a larger continuum of genre pictures that Tarantino was playing with in Kill Bill.  There are still specific images from Lady Snowblood that are copied directly over to Kill Bill without much interpretation or alteration, but they also have direct equivalents in this Shaw Brothers wuxia pic that predates it.  I should probably watch more examples of this genre to better familiarize myself with its greatest, most idiosyncratic works, but I can’t say that I’m especially looking forward to watching a bunch of rape-revenge epics in rapid succession.  So, for now, all I can say is this: Kill Bill Vol. 1 might be the best Tarantino film, but it’s at most only the third best example of its kind.

-Brandon Ledet

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2022)

In the time-honored tradition of Netflix underpromoting their film festival acquisitions in favor of front-paging their in-house Television Fad of The Week #content, we now have Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash — which premiered to positive reviews at last year’s TIFF & Locarno before being quietly dumped onto the global streaming platform this April.  I understand the difficulty in marketing this low-budget Indonesian curio; it is incredibly elusive in its genre & tone.  Vengeance is Mine is a sentimental indie romcom dressed up in the closed fists & stiff kicks of a retro martial arts bone-cruncher.  It mixes the understated, quietly morbid humor of a Kaurismäki film with the full-throttle fight choreography of vintage Hong Kong action schlock and the slowly simmering romance of a 90s festival-circuit slacker pic, topping it all off with a matter-of-fact ghost story & flashes of political satire.  In order to properly promote their product, Netflix would have to first be able to define what that product is, which is an exceedingly difficult task in this instance.  Still, it would have been worth it for them to give it a shot; they bought a very good movie, even if it’s a puzzling one.

In Vengeance is Mine, a small town fists-for-hire mercenary (Marthino Lio) starts as many bare-knuckled brawls as he can to broadcast & reinforce his masculinity, as it’s an open secret he’s been sexually impotent his entire adult life.  He meets his match in an adorable bodyguard (Ladya Cheryl), who beats him into submission and wins his bruised heart in the process.  It’s cute to watch them flirt through traded blows, sweetly smiling while kicking each other’s teeth in.  A years-spanning romance develops between the two lonely brutes, complicated of course by their inability to copulate in a traditional sense.  The film fully sidesteps the potential machismo of its street-brawl backdrop by building its central romance around male impotence & female sexual pleasure.  Ex-lovers, corrupt politicians, and meddling ghosts keep the story novel & unpredictable, even as it feels like not much is happening from scene to scene.  Director Edwin also underlines his female lead’s ties to the Cynthia Rothrock era of martial arts cinema by dialing the clock back to a late-80s setting—complete with windbreakers, dirt bikes, and rat tails—affording it a vintage cool on top of all its messy modern melodrama.

On the one hand, it’s wonderful that a movie this strange & low-key is available to a global audience on a platform as mainstream as Netflix.  It’s not enough for modern indie movies to be accessible, though.  They need to be marketed into existence, especially if they’re going to populate on streamers months after their initial festival buzz fades.  Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash might appear to be an especially difficult product to market but, I dunno, Drive My Car was a 3-hour drama about rehearsals for a staging of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, and Janus Films managed to draw a lot of eyes to the screen for that one after it premiered at Cannes.  Netflix apparently does not care about promoting their own festival acquisitions unless they have potential Oscar Buzz™, which this bitter martial arts romcom very much does not.  I’m starting to wonder why they bother buying low-budget festival movies in the first place, even though I am enjoying the benefits.

-Brandon Ledet

The Batman, The Northman, the Vengeance, the Romance

Between the wide theatrical release of Robert Eggers’s The Northman in American multiplexes and the streaming debut of Matt Reeves’s The Batman on HBO Max, it’s been a big week for tough-guy action movies about Vengeance.  I expected to make pithy jokes about The Batman & The Northman‘s thematic parallels as superhero origin stories about traumatized orphans growing up, getting buff, and seeking bloody revenge on the criminals who murdered their fathers.  It turns out the two films genuinely do have a lot in common, though – right down to those orphans’ childhood phases being played by the same actor: 12-year-old newcomer Oscar Novak.  What really struck me in these two sprawling epics about brute-force vigilante justice was the tender hearts beating just below their hardened, muscle-men surfaces.  Both movies announce themselves to be growling heroes’ journeys in search of “vengeance”, but in time they both lament the ways those heroes’ tunnel-vision revenge missions ruin their romantic prospects with the (equally violent, vengeance-obsessed) women in their lives.  It’s kind of sweet.

I was prepared to dismiss these films based both on their macho surface details and on their directors’ respective obsessions with realism & historical accuracy.  I am philosophically opposed to this current trajectory where we just keep making Batman movies increasingly “realistic” & colorless forever & ever, to the point where it already takes 90 minutes of narrative justification for The Penguin to waddle (after Batman & Gordon bind his legs together for a brief visual gag).  Likewise, the only thing that rubbed me the wrong way in Eggers’s calling-card debut The VVitch was its concluding title card that emphasizes its narrative was drawn “directly from period journals, diaries, and court records” from 17th Century New England, preemptively defending its more fantastic deviations from reality with the noble shield of Academic Research.  His 1st Century Icelandic tale The Northman appeared to be even more obsessed with grounding its breaks from reality in the Valhalla of “historical accuracy”, which is not something I especially value in my high-style genre films.  It’s the kind of literal, pedantic thinking that appeals to Redditor bros with years-long grievances over movies’ logistical flubs & narrative “plot holes” but little to say about how art makes them feel.  That’s why I was so pleased to discover that both The Batman & The Northman had more emotions filling their hearts than expected, considering all the real-world logic weighing on their minds.

The Batman is essentially a 2020s goth-kid update for The Crow, with Robert Pattinson eternally brooding under his emo bangs, smeared mascara, and Nirvana-blaring headphones – alone in his logically plausible inner-city Batcave (an abandoned subway station).  He stubbornly insists on living in isolation & despair as if it were a badge of honor, but when he finds a kindred goth-girl spirit in Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz, rocking the same rainbow-dyed bobs she sported in Kimi) he reluctantly warms up to a fellow human being for the first time in his miserable life.  The Northman plays out much the same, with the revenge-obsessed Viking warrior Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) declaring he has “a heart of cold iron” and a “freezing river of blood that runs in [his] veins” until he meets his romantic, dark-sided counterpart in a revenge-obsessed Pagan witch (Anya Taylor-Joy).  When the witch coos, “Your strength breaks men’s bones.  I have the cunning to break their minds,” it plays like a dual-purpose blood pact & marriage proposal.  Both the Batman & the Northman have genuine love interests that meet them on their respective levels of hedonistic bloodlust, which you might not expect from this kind of tough-guy power fantasy.

Neither the never-ending Batman franchise nor the Robert Eggers Extended Universe are strangers to lust.  Batman & Catwoman’s S&M power plays in Batman Returns are legendary and, not for nothing, the main focus of the script.  Meanwhile, the romantic chemistry of The Batman is a slow, quiet burn, taking a back seat to the creepy found-footage terror attacks & old-fashioned detective work of Batman’s search for The Riddler.  Likewise, The Lighthouse is the one Eggers film that fully succumbs to the hunger & ecstasy of sex, while The Northman is much more tender & low-key in its central romance.  It’s telling that neither the Batman nor the Northman abandon their single-minded missions for vengeance to blissfully pair up with their partners in thwarting crime; they both give up their chances for happiness to pursue vengeance at all costs.  Neither romance blooms to its full potential, but I still appreciated that these films had major soft spots in their hate-hardened hearts.  For a couple of tough-guy movies about vengeance, I was shocked that both films had genuinely romantic moments that made me go “Awwww <3” (between all the bombings & beheadings). 

My preference is for Batman movies to be as goofy & horny as possible, but I’ll settle for creepy & romantic if that’s what’s on the table.  The Northman has similar saving graces.  It’s not soft & sweet enough to be just another live-action Lion King (which, along with Hamlet, was inspired by the same Scandinavian legend as Eggers’s film), but it is at least romantic enough to be more than just a live-action Spine of Night.  It’s wonderful to feel hearts beating under these films’ rock-hard pectorals, when they just as easily could have been militant, macho bores.

-Brandon Ledet

Radhe Shyam (2022)

I am often in way over my head when choosing which mainstream Indian blockbusters to attend at the local multiplex.  Since most of the Bollywood & Kollywood titles that populate on AMC Elmwood’s marquee are not covered by Western press outlets, I usually have very little context to go on besides a one-paragraph plot synopsis and an un-subtitled trailer.  Finding my footing with the recent romance epic Radhe Shyam was even more of a challenge than usual, though, and it’s one I’m not sure I fully overcame until most of the way into its runtime.

Firstly, I could not settle on which language to watch Radhe Shyam in, since it was simultaneously filmed in both Hindi & Telugu, with two entirely different music composers hired for both audio versions.  I assumed checking what region the film was produced in would help solve that puzzle, but it was shot on-location in Italy, so I just went with the most convenient start time.  Then came the confusion over the film’s price tag.  While most movies I watch at Elmwood are $8 matinees, tickets to Radhe Shyam were $20 a pop ($24 with the AMC app’s outrageous service charges), which is more than I think I’ve ever paid for a single movie ticket in my life.  The best I can figure is that the distributors had to four-wall its theatrical run, since the Amazon Prime logo in the opening credits indicates that they will not be adhering to the rigid theatrical window that AMC demands.  If I were going by myself, I would have bailed as soon as I saw that ticket price and just waited to see it on streaming in — soon, apparently.  However, since I had dragged a friend to the theater (podcast co-host James), we were too fully committed to our playdate to turn back.  Which is how we ended up paying $48 to watch Radhe Shyam at 10:45am on Saturday morning in an otherwise empty theater.

My confusion over how to best approach this film did not end with that hasty ticket purchase.  Getting a firm handle on its tone & genre was also an adventure in itself.  Pre-intermission, Radhe Shyam is a cutesy romcom with an extremely broad approach to humor (to the point where punchlines are scored by bike horns & slide whistles).  Post-intermission, it’s an epic romance melodrama of Titanic proportions — complete with explosive, fist-pumping superheroics.  Altogether, it’s a thoroughly entertaining 128 minutes of volatile fluff, worth all 4,800 pennies.

Prabhas (headliner of the over-the-top action spectacle Saaho) stars as the world’s greatest palm reader, the Einstein of Palmistry.  Reading his own palm and finding no discernible Love Line, he decides there is no romantic love in his future and can only look forward to a series of casual Flirtationships.  His resolve is challenged when he meets a beautiful doctor played by Pooja Hegde, an adrenaline junkie with a bizarre fetish for hanging out the sides of speeding trains.  After a death-defying meet cute aboard one of those trains, they enter a whirlwind Flirtationship that tests the palmist’s conviction that he will never love.  If this were a mainstream American rom-com I’d say you could predict where the story goes from there, but it’s much more explosively entertaining than that.

Radhe Shyam is thematically hung up on binaries.  Because the central romance is between a medical doctor and a palmist, most of its scene-to-scene conflicts are built around the tension between hard-facts Science and faith in Hindu religion.  More importantly to the romance, it’s a story of Love vs. Destiny, as its two central lovers are decidedly not destined to be together but rebel against their pre-determined futures to transform their Flirtationship into a proper Relationship.  The early, comedic half of the film details their adorable courtship phase.  The late, thrilling half details their violent rejection of their fates in an all-out visual spectacle you’d never see in a Julia Roberts romcom.  That jarring genre structure is itself a binary, and it’s the one that makes the film an exciting novelty instead of just a cute diversion.

It’s near impossible to not be charmed by Radhe Shyam, at least not by the time its two destined-to-separate lovers are heroically cheating death to fight their way back to their sweet, flirtatious beginnings.  This is a movie that covers both major touchstones of Celine Dion romanticism—the flowy curtains of the bodice-ripper “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” music video and the ocean-liner disaster epic of Titanic—so you cannot reasonably claim that it doesn’t deliver the goods.  Whether a $24 theatrical ticket is too steep of an admission price for those heart-soaring pleasures is subjective, but I will say this: the go-for-broke action finale looked incredible on the big screen, and my audience of two had a great time cheering it on in that empty auditorium. 

-Brandon Ledet

Fresh (2022)

Is Fresh the world’s first torture-porn romcom?  I have no clue how to go about verifying that claim, but it’s the exact kind of hook this movie needs to reel in an audience.  After premiering to positive reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it was picked up for quick, wide distribution by Searchlight Pictures.  That used to entail a gradual, platformed theatrical rollout built on word-of-mouth promotion . . . when Searchlight was owned by Fox. But since Searchlight is now a Disney subsidiary, it means Fresh was unceremoniously dumped on Hulu.  It may have topped a few online publications’ “What’s New to Streaming This Week” roundups the weekend it premiered, but in a month or so it will have effectively disappeared from the public consciousness.  So, let’s go ahead and confidently call Fresh the world’s first torture-porn romcom so it has fighting chance to get noticed at all; researching that claim could only spoil the fun. 

The first half-hour of Fresh is pure romcom.  Or it’s at least the kind of “indie” romcom about messy, listless twentysomethings that regularly premiere at Sundance year after year: Obvious Child, Together Together, The Big Sick, etc.  Daisy Edgar-Jones stars as a Los Angeles transplant who’s struggling to survive the anguish of first-date awkwardness in the Tinder era.  Some of the indignities of modern dating are genuinely harrowing, like the threat of unsolicited dick pics or the threat of violent physical retaliation after even the gentlest rejection.  Mostly, though, her dates with self-absorbed losers literally named Chad are played for cutesy comical effect.  Her luck turns around when she meets an eerily handsome & charming bachelor played by Sebastian Stan, who appears both well-adjusted and genuinely interested in her as a person; he’s the only potential match who asks her questions about herself, anyway.  It’s when they officially pair up that the opening credits finally roll, and the film perverts its modern romcom trappings with some unexpected torture porn viciousness.  I won’t reveal too much of the post-twist premise, but I’ll at least advertise that it encourages Stan to chew more than just the scenery as Edgar-Jones’s romantic foil, and he is ravenous.

Fresh‘s straight-to-streaming distribution path isn’t the only reason it needs a killer hook.  This is cute, sick stuff, but it ultimately doesn’t have much to say as anything but a style exercise.  You could sum up its entire thematic scope as a morbidly literal interpretation of the idiom “Dating apps are meat markets,” which is potentially a problem for a horror comedy’s two full hours in length.  The style is substance in this case, though, not only in the tension of its competing torture-porn/romcom tones but also in how first-time director Mimi Cave relentlessly disorients the audience with twirling camera work.  It’s especially impressive as a COVID-era production, given that most scenes only involve one-to-three actors sharing the screen at any time, but it doesn’t feel dramatically constrained by pandemic precautions the way a lot of recent thrillers do.  There’s a hungry audience out there who would appreciate what Fresh is doing if they only knew it existed, which is why I’m pushing to brand it with its own unique genre-mashup superlative.  There have been plenty of other cannibal comedies & romantic horrors over the years, so let’s give this one its own title to defend as the first of its niche: the torture-porn romcom.

-Brandon Ledet