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

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

Jumbo (2021)

It’s that frivolous, needlessly contentious time of year when every movie I watch is being filtered through our annual listmaking process, prompting me to ask idiotic questions like “Sure, this movie is really good, but is it Best of the Year good?”  I’m especially guilty of Listmaking Brain this year, since there were only five films released in 2021 that I rated above 4 stars, leaving the rest of my usual Top 20 list open to dozens of titles that I really liked but wouldn’t exactly call personal favs.  Discerning which 4-star film is worthier of a slot on my Best of the Year list than another feels more arbitrary & meaningless than ever before, something that is not helped at all by my full knowledge that no one alive gives a shit about the final results except me.  I love listmaking season as a diary recap of the year and as a movie recommendation machine, but I am fully aware that the “catching up” cram session portion of it is unfair to the (mostly) great movies I’m watching when there’s already no room left on the lifeboat.  By this time of year, I’ve completely lost track of what qualifies a movie as “list-worthy”, and I’m mostly just looking forward to the genre-trash relief that January dumping season brings when it’s all over.  That is when I shine.

While Jumbo is a very good movie on its own terms, I’m embarrassed to admit that I most appreciated the way it helped clear up some of grey areas in that listmaking struggle.  It’s one of two French-language movies I’ve seen this year where an emotionally stunted young woman has sex with a machine, the other of which is currently my favorite new release I’ve seen all year.  Julia DuCorneau’s Titane is often referred to as a kind of novelty film where “a woman has sex with a car”, which feels insultingly reductive considering how much else is going on in that sprawling mind-fuck genre meltdown.  Meanwhile, if you referred to Jumbo as “the film where a woman has sex with an amusement park ride,” I feel like that comfortably sums up everything that’s going on with it.  It’s a very good movie where a woman has sex with an amusement park ride, drawing an oddly touching & genuine story out of a novelty premise that’s loosely “inspired by a true story.”  Still, I found it most useful as an illustration of why Titane was smart to have more going on than a simple sex-machine premise.  It’s pretty limiting at feature length, even when the emotions of that scenario are treated with full sincerity, which is why Jumbo is not the one that’s surviving the arbitrary cruelty of the listmaking process.

For some reason I assumed Jumbo was about a woman romantically falling for a Gravitron (totally understandable), but instead she falls for a Move It (an inferior ride, but to each their own).  Noémie “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” Merlant stars as a sheltered mommy’s girl whose total lack of self-confidence prevents her from being properly socialized among adults outside her house.  The amusement park rides she services as a seasonal job don’t seem to mind her awkward social tics, though, which allows her to vulnerably open up to the first gigantic inanimate object that makes a move on her.  Jumbo makes no jokes at its lovestruck amusement park brat’s expense.  It takes her first-crush romantic feelings as seriously as it can, reserving its judgement for the people in her life who make her feel like a freak for the transgression instead of just letting her be.  Beyond the ups & downs of her amusement park romance, the dramatic core of the film is in begging her community to just let her have this one thing that makes her happy, whether or not it’s “real.”  Life is lonely & cruel enough without the people closest to you shaming you for whatever small comforts get you through it – even if that small comfort happens to be fucking a Move It.

Jumbo delivers everything you’d want out of a great romance: a convincingly emotional performance from its star, some charming personality quirks from the object of her affection, a close-minded community who fails to keep them apart, etc.  It even achieves some surprisingly striking visuals for an indie comedy on its budget level, especially in the glowing lights & otherworldly voids of its star’s ecstatic trysts with her gigantic fetish object.  It just also limits itself to a relatively small, contained premise, which doesn’t really push through its initial novelty to explore anything bigger or unexpected.  Had I discovered it during its film festival run instead of during Best of the Year catch-up season, that smallness in concept likely would not have bothered me, but here we are.  This is when I’m on my worst behavior, shrugging off 4-star films for not being “good enough” because of some self-imposed bullshit metric that does not matter in the slightest.

-Brandon Ledet

Benedetta (2021)

Verhoeven is back, baby.  I was less than amused by the Dutch prankster’s outrageous rape comedy Elle—despite its broad critical consensus as a sharply observed satire—so it feels nice to rejoin the cheerleading squad for its nunsploitation follow-up.  Benedetta is part erotic thriller, part body-possession horror, part courtroom & political drama, and pure Paul Verhoeven.  It’s great! It’s a shame that the master provocateur has been relegated to scrappy indie budgets in his late career, though. It’d be a lot more fun to watch a mainstream audience squirm under his thumb instead of the self-selecting freaks who are already on-board with his blasphemy against good sense & good taste.  Even at 83 years old, Verhoeven is still raising neck hairs & eyebrows; he just used to be able to rile up an even wider audience with flashier budgets & celebrity stunt casting.  I mourn for a world where Benedetta would’ve been a controversial water cooler movie instead of an obscure reference that makes your coworkers think you’re a pretentious snob.  Even the small Catholic protests that have followed around the movie’s premieres in cities like Chicago & NYC like The Grateful Dead are living in a fantasy world where it will have any cultural impact beyond plumping up a few sicko film critics’ Best of the Year lists.  I enjoyed joining them in that fantasy for a couple hours during its brief theatrical run in New Orleans, but I do question the usefulness of a provocation that no one shows up to be offended by.

Like with all nunsploitation movies, whatever hoopla & headlines Benedetta will be able to generate will likely focus on its onscreen depictions of lesbian sex.  Verhoeven shamelessly indulges in that salacious aspect of his historical source material, but it’s not the main thrust of the film’s blasphemy.  The kinkiest his young nuns in love get is in fashioning a dildo out of a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, which seems more like a circumstance of convenience than anything; sometimes you just have to make do with what’s lying around.  The real button-pusher here is the political rise-to-power story of the titular Italian blasphemer: a 17th Century nun who claimed to experience miraculous visions of Jesus Christ, resulting in a powergrab takeover of her small-village convent.  Benedetta’s political rivals are other local higher-ups in the Catholic Church who are both fearful of the power she wields among the villagers (claiming to protect them from encroachment of the Bubonic Plague) and willing to humor her blasphemy as long as it brings money & attention from the religious tourism industry.  The blasphemy is in how openly the movie takes Benedetta’s side in the battle, even while questioning whether her miraculous visions are genuine.  The second she arrives at the convent as a young child, she’s taught that bodily pleasure is an affront to God, that she should live in constant agony on Earth to honor Him.  Watching her claim to have an even more intimate relationship with God than her superiors, and that He said she should be allowed as many orgasms & daily comforts as she desires is delightfully transgressive, even if she’s flat-out lying about it.  Speaking as a lapsed Catholic with long-lingering issues with guilt & self-hatred thanks to the Church’s fucked up views on pleasure & morality, Benedetta is essentially a superhero to me.  I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess who the supervillain is.

As much fun as I had with Benedetta as political theatre, I still missed the slicker Hollywood budgets Verhoeven used to be afforded in his heyday.  The closest the film gets to recalling his 80s & 90s crowdteasers is in its illustrations of Benedetta’s religious visions, in which she fantasizes in-the-flesh erotic encounters as Jesus’s bride.  I was fully prepared for the film’s sexual theatrics & religious torments, but I was blindsided by its visions of Jesus as a sword-wielding warrior from a romance novel, riding into the frame on horseback to sweep his young nun-bride off her feet.  Unfortunately, the film backs off from illustrating those visions in its second half in a ludicrous effort to “play both sides,” questioning whether Benedetta was a shameless blasphemer or a true believer.  It’s fun to root for her even when you believe her to be a liar, but I still would’ve loved to see more fantasies of Jesus as a hunky heavy-metal badass with Fabio hair & glistening abs.  No one has depicted “religious ecstasy” so erotically since Ken Russell was still kicking around, so it’s hard not to feel a little let down when Verhoeven eases off that indulgence.  It’s also just a welcome return to the high-style genre filmmaking of his Greatest Hits, while the rest of the film is shot more like a muted costume drama despite the sensationalist story it tells.

There are parts of Benedetta that outraged me, from Catholicism’s reverence for Earthly anguish to the film’s own preoccupations with sexual assault & torture.  It’s also a movie that opens with several shit & fart jokes, just so you know it’s okay to have a good time despite its many discomforts.  Verhoeven’s been incredibly adept at that exact clash between cruelty & camp for longer than I’ve been alive, so it’s honestly just nice to see that he’s still got it.  I just find it shameful that we’re not throwing more money at him to offend & titillate on a larger scale.

-Brandon Ledet

The World to Come (2021)

It’s become something of a meme complaint over the past couple years that too much Queer Cinema is pervasively about white women longing for each other in period costumes.  Sometime between the ecstatic praise for Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the collective yawn over Ammonite, pro critics & hobbyist bloggers decided that the biggest threat to the artform of cinema wasn’t Disney’s IP-hoarding or Netflix’s refusal to license its films to libraries & universities; it was white women sharing intense eye contact in a historical setting.  Google “lesbian period drama” and you’ll find infinite hit-piece articles with titles like “Why Are All Lesbian Films Set in the Past?”, “Shoehorning Lesbian Scenes into Historical Dramas is Anything but Progressive”,  “Lesbian Period Dramas: Have We Seen Enough?”, and “Enough With The Lesbian Period Dramas” from publications high and low.  Personally, I understand this subgenre fatigue when it’s applied in broad strokes to a wide range of films, but not so much when it’s aimed at individual titles as if they were a cultural scourge.  The problem isn’t that mediocre WLW romance dramas like Ammonite exist; it just sucks that other kinds of queer stories aren’t getting greenlit in bulk beside them.

I assume the relatively tepid response to The World to Come is a result of its arrival after this particular strand of Online Film Discourse had already run its course.  It’s a great film, presuming you aren’t burnt out on the prospect of another lesbian period drama (or its pre-loaded critical baggage) at first sight.  A delicately sweet romance contrasted against a brutal, unforgiving backdrop, The World to Come is splendid & bleak in equal measure.  Its tale of secretive queer romance in a time of intense scrutiny & oppression is so familiar it’s almost regressive.  Still, its historical environment at least rings true.  It reminded me a lot of a college course I took on the literature of women’s travel writing in 19th Century America.  The women in those real-life journals and this fictional novel adaptation share the same two threats to their freedom, happiness, and well-being: the cruelty of Nature and the cruelty of their husbands.  It’s a shame how rare it is to see queer people flourishing in friendlier environments on the page & screen, but the romance & misery portrayed here still feels true to life on the American “frontier.”

Katherine Waterston stars as a hopelessly lonely housewife on an isolated, flailing New England farm.  She has a rich internal life, furiously reading & journaling in her idle hours but unable to express herself aloud when the center of attention.  While nursing her own grief over the loss of a child, she meets her exact opposite: Vanessa Kirby as a bold, brassy lush with no discernible talent for the intellectual arts.  They hit it off in ways that Waterston’s journals struggle to describe.  She confesses “There is something going on between us that I cannot unravel,” as if the concept of genuine sexual attraction is so foreign to her life that she doesn’t have the language to express it.  Eventually, the two women do find the physical language to express their attraction to each other, even if it takes longer for the words to arrive.  Unfortunately, the respective prisons of their marriages to cruel, repressed nerds and their shared prison of harsh, American wilderness prevent that romantic spark from reaching its full flame.  Waterston’s careful, whispered language & passion is in direct opposition to the cold, uncaring environment she occupies.  She finds her perfect fit in Kirby.  It does not go well.

While the broader details of The World to Come may sound blandly generic in a post-Portrait of a Lady on Fire world, I found its in-the-moment effect to be impressively distinct & chilling.  Its frontier setting might as well have been repurposed for a woodland A24 horror film, given its harsh digi cinematography and its frightfully unnerving score (which during one especially horrendous storm sounds like seagulls imitating jazz).  It’s a highly subjective film that follows the tones & moods of Waterston’s journals as she flips through the pages of her life.  There are great jumps in time when she has nothing exciting to write about, as well as loopy, unfocused entries when she self-medicates herself through depression with laudanum.  Her voiceover narration is wonderfully overwritten, with Waterston delivering pained line-readings of confessions like “We were the very picture of anguish” and “I have become my grief.”  Even when it releases the delayed flood of romantic & sexual bliss that always accompanies these films’ early stretches of pent-up longing, it’s in the most devastating possible context, undercutting the two women’s passion with a deeply felt loss & despair.  This is an unrelentingly cold, somber film, and I respect that truthful brutality even if I agree that it’s not the only kind of queer story that deserves to be told.

-Brandon Ledet

Happily (2021)

There’s a certain kind of low-budget indie comedy that’s packed with the hippest, funniest comedians you know . . . who just sorta sit around with nothing to do.  They’re not so much hangout films as they are grotesque wastes of talent.  What’s frustrating about the recent “dark romantic comedy” Happily is that starts as something conceptually, visually exciting in its first act, only to devolve into one of those comedy-scene talent wasters as it quickly runs out of ideas.  Happily opens with a wicked black humor and a heightened visual style that recalls what everyone was drooling over with Game Night back in 2018.  Unfortunately, it leads with all its best gags & ideas, so after a while you’re just kinda hanging out with hip L.A. comedians in a nice house – which isn’t so bad but also isn’t so great.

Joel McHale & Kerry Bishé star as a couple whose persistent happiness and mutual lust—as if they were still newlyweds after 14 years of marriage—crazes everyone around them.  Their cutesy PDA and ease with conflict resolution is first presented as a mild annoyance to their more realistically jaded, coupled friends.  Then, Stephen Root appears at their doorstep like the mysterious G-Man in Richard Kelly’s The Box, explaining that their lovey-dovey behavior is supernaturally deranged, a cosmic defect he needs to fix with an injectable fluorescent serum.  That Twilight Zone intrusion on the otherwise formulaic plot feels like it should be the start to a wild, twisty ride.  Instead, it abruptly halts the movie’s momentum, forcing it to retreat to a low-key couple’s getaway weekend in a bland Californian mansion with its tail tucked between its legs.

In its first half-hour, Happily is incredibly stylish for such an obviously cheap production.  Red color gels, eerie dreams, disco beats, and an infinite sea of repeating office cubicles overwhelm the familiarity of the film’s genre trappings, underlining the absurdity of its main couple’s commitment to their “happily ever after” romance.  Once it gets derailed into couples’ getaway weekend limbo, all that visual style and cosmic horror just evaporates.  The talented cast of welcome faces—Paul Scheer, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Natalie Morales, Charlyne Yi, Jon Daly, Breckin Meyer, etc.—becomes the main draw instead of the dark Twilight Zone surrealism, which is a real shame.  There are plenty of other films where you could watch hipster comedians act like cruel, bitter assholes in a lavish locale.  The early style and humor of Happily promised something much more conceptually and aesthetically unique.

And since there isn’t much more to say about the toothless hangout comedy that Happily unfortunately devolves into, I’ll just point to a few recent titles on its budget level that are much more emphatically committed to the biting dark humor of their high-concept, anti-romantic premises: Cheap Thrills, The One I Love, and It’s a Disaster.  Those are good movies, and this is almost one too.

-Brandon Ledet

Humoresque (1946)

All year, I’ve been working my way through my 4-disc DVD set of Joan Crawford classics, packaged for department store sale by TCM about a decade ago . . . It’s generally been a personal goal to clear my pile of unwatched physical media from my shelf during the pandemic, and with the more daunting sets like this (as opposed to standalone horror schlock with no air of sophistication or prestige) I genuinely have no idea how long I’ve allowed it to collect dust on its still in-tact shrink wrap.  Three movies into the Joan Crawford set, I thought I had a grasp on the types of movies TCM was attempting to highlight with the collection: stylish noirs with a touch of romantic melodrama.  Then, I got to the final film of the set, a full-on melodrama with no interest in crime genre tropes and barely any interest in Joan herself.  I think I have a much better understanding of the inanely titled TCM Greatest Classic Legends Film Collection DVD set now; it’s just four movies Warner Bros would license to TCM for cheap that happened to share one of the studio’s biggest stars.  Basically, it’s the Old Hollywood equivalent of those Drive-In Classic 50 Movie Pack DVDs you’ll find haunting the bottom of every Wal-Mart bargain bin in the country.  The fact that all four of the Joan Crawford discs were stacked on top of each other in a single slot in the case should have tipped me off that this wasn’t a lovingly curated set with a clear, explicit theme.

Maybe going into Humoresque with expectations of seeing another stellar Joan Crawford Noir killed any chance I had of enjoying it for what it is.  Humoresque is a sweeping melodrama about a virtuoso violinist whose promising career is derailed by his obsession with a wealthy drunk socialite played by Crawford (and by his own runaway hubris).  While all the other films included in the TCM set have been stylish noirs with Crawford at the center, the much less charismatic John Garfield is the star of this picture as the troubled, romantically obsessed violinist.  Crawford still plays a kind of sultry femme fatale, but she’s more of a supporting character than the center of attention.  It’s at least a half-hour before she even appears onscreen.  There are also no crime thriller tropes to speak of despite Crawford’s framing as the femme fatale.  The movie is intensely fixated on the world of chamber music both as an industry and as an artistry.  We follow the violinist through a prolonged rags-to-riches uphill battle where he defiantly proves himself as the greatest living artist in his field, locking the rest of the world away as he hones his craft to an unmatched extreme . . . until Crawford derails his attentions.  As a result, the musical performances often overpower the film’s function as an actors’ showcase, with great attention paid to making it look as if Garfield were actually playing the violin (with a technique similar to how Sesame Street makes it look as if Weimaraners were actually eating spaghetti off a twirled fork).  And because of the context I encountered the film within, I couldn’t help but spend those scenes asking “Where’s Joan?” instead of simply enjoying the show.

Of course, Crawford does make great use of the diminished screen time she’s allowed here.  Her role as an adulterous socialite who wears old-lady glasses and downs way too much top-shelf liquor is a fun turn for the powerhouse actress, even if it’s one she could play in her sleep.  Her alcoholism affords her some moments of violent, wildly passionate outbursts and her exorbitant wealth affords her opportunities to model gowns by Adrian – which look gorgeous on her, as always.  She gets to be the life of the party, holding court over her socialite minions who bray at ever tossed-off quip she amuses herself with, like when she calls the violinist “a rare animal, a New Yorker from New York.”  She’s also painfully aware of the fact that this is not her story, that she’s only lurking at the periphery.  In the emotional climax of the film, she shouts in her young lover’s face that she’s “tired of playing second fiddle” to his art, and I totally got it.  I was tired of watching it too.  It’s in those drunken outbursts where the movie finally comes alive for me, especially once she punctuates her wildly jealous complaints by smashing her cocktail glasses in a fit.  No one can hurl a drink at the wall in anger like our gal Joan, and here she earns bonus points by throwing a second one through a closed window.  None of the film’s orchestral spectacle could match the pure ferocity of that drunken anger, and the movie could’ve used a lot more of it, centering her as the protagonist.

The good news is that there is a movie in this same TCM set where Joan Crawford is unhealthily obsessed with an (amateur) musician, and the story centers her story instead of the over-confident beau’s: 1947’s Possessed.  At this point, it’s near impossible for me to watch any of these films without comparing it to the other inclusions in the DVD set.  That’s especially true of Humoresque because it is such an outlier, both for falling entirely outside the confines of noir and for not featuring Crawford as its lead.  In that spirit, here’s a picture of what the TCM Greatest Classic Legends Film Collection looks like and a best-to-worst ranking of how much I enjoyed each title.

1. Mildred Pierce (1945)
2. The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)
3. Possessed (1947)
4. Humoresque (1946)

Watch this one last, if you bother to watch it at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Gregory’s Girl (1980)

The opening scene of Bill Forsyth’s cult-classic teen comedy Gregory’s Girl sets audience expectations for something much crasser and more irritating than what’s ultimately delivered. A group of horny high school nerds spy on a nurse via telescope as she changes out of her uniform in a hospital window. They hoot & guffaw at the shared sight of naked breasts, as if it were the opening to a Scottish version of Porky’s. It’s incredible, then, that the film that follows is such an earnestly sweet, heartwarming examination of pubescent awkwardness, not a ribald romp about bouncing boobies & lost virginities. In fact, the main thrust of Gregory’s Girl is in reforming the social & sexual awkwardness of those boys instead of drooling over women’s bodies along with them. It’s less of a teen sex comedy than it is a romantic heist film, wherein a gang of small-town Scottish girls conspire to hijack & reform the sexual attentions of the neighborhood boys so they can walk away with more charming, better socialized dates than the drooling idiots we’re introduced to.

Like with most eccentric comedies of the era, the characters who populate Gregory’s Girl are each fixated on a singular personal obsession: photography, cooking, window washing, soccer, etc. The gangly teenager Gregory’s obsession just happens to be another human being, as he develops a major crush on a girl on his soccer team who’s a much better athlete (and much better socialized) than him. The conspiratorial heist portion of the film involves a group of fellow teens breaking Gregory out of his fixation on this girl, who’s way more interested in playing soccer than she is in his goofball ass. There’s often an all-or-nothing singular obsession to hormone-addled teenage crushes, and most of the film dwells on that period of horse-blinders fixation. Watching Gregory become deprogrammed from his own romantic self-brainwashing is a major relief from the dumbass teen-boy behavior of the first hour, and it’s outright miraculous a movie this small in scope & budget taps into an observation so sweetly profound.

It’s a testament to John Gordon Sinclair’s central performance that Gregory remains an adorable goof long before he’s deprogrammed. His awkwardness in his own acne-riddled skin and unwieldy noodle body is consistently hilarious from the start, even when he’s just failing to look comfortable & confident sitting in a chair or crossing a road. He plays the part with the same energetic juvenalia as a Pee-wee Herman or Mr. Bean performance. It’s an absolutely lovely caricature of pubescent awkwardness, perfectly capturing the adorable but embarrassing stretch where you don’t know what to do with your body or your heart. The low-key absurdist humor of the world he awkwardly navigates also reminded me a lot of Better Off Dead & Rock n Roll High School—two of my all-time favorite high school comedies—in the matter-of-fact inclusion of students smoking pipes & playing chess in the boys room or aimlessly wandering the halls in a penguin costume as if it were a standard matter of course. Those subtly absurdist delights are just as difficult to convey to the uninitiated as the romantic sleight-of-hand of the film’s heist climax, but it’s movie magic alchemy all the same – turning horny teen-boy awkwardness into pure Scottish charm.

-Brandon Ledet

Getting Go: The Go Doc Project (2013)

The third film in my recent exploration of Tubi’s LGBTQIA+ section (following Is It Just Me? and Go Go Crazy) Getting Go, the Go Doc Project also features go-go dancing as a key part of its narrative makeup. It shares more than a few other similarities with Is It Just Me? as well, although it’s a much better film.

Our primary lead, known only as “Doc” (Tanner Cohen) is a country mouse close to finishing up his college education in New York. He has a vlog in which he talks about his life and, oddly, masturbates for the pleasure of his followers; he’s not a camboy and doesn’t seem to get any real pleasure from his exhibitionism, but as long as he’s laying his life bare for his 35ish viewers, he might as well go all the way. He’s looking for love but mostly experiencing infatuation, and the latest object of his affection is a popular go-go dancer identified only as “Go” (Matthew Camp). While drunk one night, Doc emails Go and tells him that he’s working on his final project before graduation, a documentary, and Doc wants to make it about him. Although he’s embarrassed when he recovers from his blackout and checks his outbox, Doc is pleasantly surprised to receive a response from Go, who agrees to the arrangement after very little convincing (and a promise of a 5% cut of any profits). Doc borrows a camera from a friend and starts shooting almost immediately, capturing an intimate slice of life that grows into something more as the two men start to fall for each other.

If Matthew Camp’s name sounds familiar to you, there are multiple reasons why this might be the case. It could be because you like porn (and no shame here), or because you’re familiar with his fashion brand, Daddy Couture, or from the British reality show Slag Wars. Or perhaps you heard about the recent arson of his Poughkeepsie home just a couple of months ago. Among gay porn performers, his penetration of the mainstream is possibly the deepest since Jeff Stryker appeared in Zombie 4: After Death, or that time Colby Keller showed up on EastSiders and High Maintenance. As the co-host of podcast Happie Campers, Camp shows that he’s more than just a pretty face and a hardbody, as the show aims to destigmatize sex work alongside recapitulating stories about “whirlwind[s] of lube, strip teases, and lots of nipple play” as well as “intellectual conversations about owning your sexuality.”

The last of these is an important element in Getting Go in more ways than one. Doc, for all of his book learning, is old fashioned and often ignorant. When Go asks him what his thesis for his documentary is, Doc declares that he intends to demonstrate that the ultimate goal of queer liberation must be assimilation, an idea to which Doc immediately (and rightfully) objects. Like Blaine in Is It Just Me?, what Doc wants is safe, solid monogamy, and there’s no shame in wanting that for oneself (like I said before, I do), but that doesn’t mean that any one person gets to decide that for anyone else. I was surprised to hear Go actually call Doc’s point of view “colonial,” given that films in this genre (and, as previously stated, on Tubi of all places) rarely exist in an intersectional space that even alludes to oppression as systemic and institutional. Go tells Doc that his way of thinking, that envisions a future of Polo-and-khakis normies as the end goal of the Gay Agenda, “castrates queer culture and humanity at large.”

This is foreshadowed early on, even before the two meet, when Doc finds a photo of Go online and edits it; in time lapse, he not only removes Go’s jock strap and photoshops a dick onto him, but he also airbrushes out all of the little “imperfections,” like moles and scars. For Doc, Go is nothing more than an image for his spank bank, at least at first. As the two get to know each other better and grow closer, Go challenges Doc’s preconceptions about what “love” has to look like, what it has to call itself and how it declares its presence, or what forms it can take. It’s hard for Doc to expand his internal schemas, but Go breaks through his barriers and Doc has his first time going all the wayon camera, no lessand it’s tender and sweet. Once this milestone passes, one half-expects the standard rom com plot to kick in: Go finds out that Doc has been lying this whole time, there’s an emotional confrontation, they break up, they spend some time apart, and then they get back together to live ambiguously ever after. That’s not what happens here. Instead, Doc walks in on Go with a trick, and the two argue about Go’s work, which Doc has largely ignored is sex work. Go comforts him and admits he always knew Doc’s true intentions but that he actually liked Doc from the start, so he went along with the documentary lie to spend time with him. This argument results in the two of them not seeing each other for a while, but they reunite before Doc moves out to Iowa to follow the next step on his academic journey, amicable ever after.

It’s shocking how much better this film is than either of the other two hosted-by-Tubi flicks I recently saw. It’s not a masterpiece, but like Go himself, it’s happy to be a different animal altogether, surprisingly thoughtful and ahead of its time. It doesn’t use the conventional trappings that one would expect for what is, at its core, a romance, and the choice to do it both in handheld and as a documentary not only makes sense financially but allows a clean break from the tired tropes of that genre. That documentary style also allows for the lines between fiction and reality to blur. In one scene, Go explains the meanings of several parts of his sleeve tattoo (which are of course Camp’s actual tattoos) so as he elaborates on what they represent to him, it’s almost if we’re seeing Camp here, not Go. I’d also wager that Go’s apartment is also Camp’s real place; there’s a messy verisimilitude to it, and given that Camp’s recently burned house was once the home and gathering place of Church of Satan member Joe “Netherworld” Mendillo, you know he’s into some spooky stuff, which would explain the amount of Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise scattered around. Neither Camp nor Cohen had ever played the lead in anything before or since Getting Go, and they both give mixed-to-good performances that are very strong in places and for large sections but occasionally slightly off-center; luckily, the faux documentary format covers these small sins.

The soundtrack is fantastic; that’s good news as this is a montage-heavy movie, which is its largest detraction. There are a bunch of great, frenetic electronic tracks from 3 Teens Kill 4 and s/he, as well as multiple songs from both Big Boys and The Irrepressibles, and that energy helps propel you through a lot of Go dancing and the two leads walking aimlessly around New York. If you have a tendency to space out, you’re going to have a hard time staying focused. As an example, towards the end of the movie, Patrick Wolf’s “Overture” (which clocks in at 4:43) plays in its entirety over a montage of Doc and Go making out in various places around NYC. So if this sounds like your kind of movie and you like music videos in the middle of your sex-positive lately-coming-of-age romance, you’re in for a treat.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #127 of The Swampflix Podcast: Music and Lyrics (2007) & A Romcom Grab Bag

Welcome to Episode #127 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, and Brandon discuss the 80s Nostalgia romcom Music & Lyrics (2007) and other gems in the romantic comedy genre.

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on  SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTube, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew