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

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