Drag Queen Confidence vs. Drag Queen Protagonists

Drag has been having something of A Moment in recent years. Thanks largely to the visibility of RuPaul’s Drag Race on television, the sheer amount & variety of drag entertainment has practically exploded this decade. Just watching the pageant drag traditions of New Orleans alone mutate into fresher, weirder art in recent years has been bewildering in scale. In general, I don’t know if it’s so much that drag has fundamentally changed as an artform (at least not since the NYC Club Kids days of the 80s & 90s) so much as that society has changed around it. An increased social awareness of the nature & fabrication of gender has been a major cultural shift in the 2010s and it’s no surprise to me that an artform built on gender performance & gender subversion has increased in popularity along with it. I don’t know that this cultural change has been properly represented in our cinema yet, though, at least not through the eyes of drag queen protagonists. If anything, most of my all-time-favorite drag movies arrived in the 1990s: Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Too Wong Foo, Vegas in Space, etc. Drag movies in the decades since have seemingly focused less on the drag queens themselves, but rather on how their performance & exaggeration of gender inspires confidence in cis, hetero protagonists who use them as sources of personal inspo.

The foremost example of the Drag Queen Confidence movie I can think of was something I first discovered as a Broadway musical performance during a television broadcast of The Macy’s Day Parade (the one time of year I listen to showtunes). The 2005 Drag Confidence melodrama Kinky Boots has somehow gradually transformed from a middling Sundance Festival novelty to a beloved stage musical over the last decade, making it one of the more significant drag cinema success stories of recent years. In the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a London drag queen whose need for large, sturdy high-fashion heels saves a struggling shoe factory that’s threatening to go bankrupt. Facing the inevitable truth that traditional cobbler labor is a dying art, Joel Edgerton serves as our protagonist in this drag-adjacent story – a man who must save his (shoe fetishist) father’s struggling factory by pivoting to designing “kinky boots” for beefy drag queens. Ejiofor’s drag queen side character, Lola (presumably named after the Kinks song, right?), isn’t portrayed as trans, but never appears out of makeup—even offstage—because women’s clothes give him confidence. His fearlessness in entering the small-town North England factory while dressed to the nines even inspires confidence in the straight-cis-white-male protagonist to be his own man and forge his own path outside everyone’s expectations of him. Kinky Boots is a fun movie, especially in Ejiofor’s plethora of cabaret performances of drag standards like Marlene Dietrich & Eartha Kitt. There’s also some extremely satisfying montage footage of shoes being assembled on an old-fashioned assembly line that could be repurposed as one of those viral video supercuts of perfectly functioning machinery. When you boil its story down to its basic parts, though, it’s a movie that somehow combines “white savior” (in Edgerton rescuing Lola from back alley harassment & dangerously flimsy footwear) & “magical negro” (in Lola saving Edgerton’s factory & personal life for no gain of his own) tropes into one efficiently iffy package.

The 2018 Netflix film Dumplin’ is even more egregious in sidelining its drag queen inspo characters as afterthoughts without inner lives of their own. In the film, Patti Cake$‘s Danielle MacDonald stars as the nonplussed, plus-sized daughter of a small-town beauty queen played by Jennifer Aniston – Miss Teen 1991. Sick of quietly suffering fatphobic microaggressions in her mom’s beauty pageant social orbit and fueled by the defiant spirit of her favorite pop diva—Dolly Parton—she enters the local pageant as a vaguely defined political protest, one that dredges up a lot of personal insecurities with her own body & personality. Where does she find the confidence to follow through on this attention-grabbing political protest? At the local drag bar, of course, where a gaggle of nameless queens devoid of inner lives (including Drag Race‘s own veteran “glamor toad” Ginger Minj) teach her how to strut in heels and perform traditional femininity with pride. Dumplin’ is a cute, harmless movie that reimagines Drop Dead Gorgeous as a wholesome melodrama about the value of friendship & self-worth. If nothing else, it’s near impossible to not fall for the charms of its feel-good Dollyisms like “It’s hard being a diamond in a rhinestone world.” However, its drag queen characters are essentially props & cheerleaders that only pop in to teach our down-on-her-luck protagonist how to be a self-assured, glamorous woman. They have no wants, needs, or crises of their own. The exist only to serve her story and seemingly disappear into vapor as soon as their offscreen.

Curiously, my favorite Drag Queen Confidence movie of recent decades is the one with the most viciously negative reviews. The 2004 slapstick farce Connie & Carla effectively ruined the career of My Big Fat Greek Wedding creator Nia Vardalos, who cashed in on her surprise megahit to make a deeply silly buddy comedy opposite Toni Colette (who wouldn’t?). A cross between Sister Act & Victor Victoria, the movie follows two tragically mediocre cabaret performers with an airport lounge act who hide from the mafia by posing as dive bar drag queens, until their act becomes so popular that their cover is blown. Connie & Carla has the broad humor of a decade-stale mid90s studio comedy and its “Cis women drag queens?!?!” premise has become eyerollingly outdated in the last decade (I’ve been to several shows with all-lady queens in the past year alone). Still, I found it to be a total hoot. Toni Collette is especially fun to watch (duh) in the movie’s frequent, elaborate cabaret routines – doing increasingly blue material with the “male” privilege drag affords her and lighting up the screen with a drag version of Jesus (as a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman dressed as a man, a total gender meltdown). The movie often trips over its own feet politically—both in its eagerness to forgive homophobia and in its plastic surgery-shaming version of body positivity—but as far as Drag Queen Confidence movies go, it’s the most resoundingly successful film of this batch. It does right by its drag queen characters. Not only do the queens who help Connie & Carla learn to be confident women have their own lives & conflicts offscreen & on, but Connie & Carla themselves become actual, legitimate drag queens by the film’s end – not just beneficiaries of the artform’s confidence boost.

As much as I was tickled by Connie & Carla as a broad slapstick farce, even that enjoyment was small consolation for the general lack of quality drag cinema at large in recent years. If there are still great drag queen movies being made post 1990s (or at least post Hedwig in 2001), it’s all work that’s being done in the documentary sphere: The Sons of Tennessee Williams, The Gospel of Eureka, Drag Becomes Him, Gracefully, etc. The occasional, miniscule movies like Hurricane Bianca, Alaska is a Drag, and Holiday Heart that actually have drag queen protagonists aren’t cutting it; their limited resources don’t give them a fighting chance. If a drag-themed movie is being put together with a proper, professional budget, it’s far more likely that the queens will only pop in as quirky side characters – a dash of whimsical flavor and a selfless confidence boost to the hetero protagonists. They’re a road stop on Lady Gaga’s path to being born a star or Channing Tatum’s path to rediscovering his stripper mojo. They’re rarely, if ever, the stars themselves in professional-grade narrative cinema anymore, which is a total shame. Drag has become much more popular & varied since the 1990s, but the scope of actual drag queen movies paradoxically appears to be shrinking.

-Brandon Ledet

Knives Out (2019)

“Physical evidence can tell a clear story with a forked tongue,” Daniel Craig’s Knives Out character Benoit Blanc, “last of the gentleman sleuths,” says to Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) upon being told that all the physical evidence surrounding the death of publishing magnate Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) points to suicide. This is not the first or last of a series of surprisingly well delivered bon mots from Blanc as he doggedly pursues the truth of what happened the night of Thrombey’s 85th birthday.

All the family gathered that night: Thrombey’s eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who describes her real estate business as “self-made,” in spite of actually starting out with a million dollar loan from the family patriarch; widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette), a self-described lifestyle guru/entrepreneur and would-be influencer whose knowledge of current events comes from reading tweets about New Yorker articles; and, finally, son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Blood Like Wine Publishing, his father’s business. Each has their own family and hangers-on, as well; Linda is married to the largely useless and unfaithful Richard (Don Johnson), and their son Ransom (Chris Evans) is likewise a rootless gadabout and playboy of the Tom Buchanan mold; the delightful Riki Lindhome is given little to do other than spout Trump-era rhetoric about “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants” in her role as Walt’s wife Donna, and their son Jacob (Jaeden Lieberher) is a smartphone-addicted teen described as a “literal Nazi” who allegedly masturbates to images of dead deer; Joni is accompanied by daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), who is attending a prestigious liberal arts college and serves as the closest thing to a good person this family has, although she is not without her flaws. There’s also Greatnana, Thrombey’s elderly mother of unknown age, played by onetime Martha Kent K Callan, who I was surprised to learn was still alive. Also in the house that night are Thrombey’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), and pothead housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson, taking a break from killing it on The Righteous Gemstones). When Ransom storms out early after a heated discussion, suspicion initially falls on him, but every member of the family has a motive, as Thrombey had announced to each of them that very night that he was cutting off their individual paths of access to his wealth. And then, 33 minutes into the film’s 130 minute runtime, writer-director Rian Johnson tells you who did it. And then things get interesting.

I’ve long been a fan of comedy pastiches and homages of genres that function perfectly as examples of those genres despite humorous overtones; my go-to example is Hot Fuzz, which I always tout as having a more sophisticated murder mystery plot than most films than most straightforward criminal investigation media (our lead comes to a logical conclusion that fits all of the clues, but still turns out to be wrong). Knives Out is another rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot. Despite the big names in that cast list above, Marta is our real hero here, although to say more than that would be to give away too much of the plot–both the film’s and Harlan’s. I’m not generally a fan of Daniel Craig, but in this opportunity to play against type, his turn as a kind of Southern Hercule Poirot here is surprisingly charming, first appearing to be somewhat bumbling and ignorant in his pursuit of the truth but ultimately proving to have a sharp deductive mind. His affected drawl also helps take many of Blanc’s lines, some of the best one-liners ever committed to a movie script, and elevates them into true comedic art. From the quote at the top of the review to his description of a will reading (“You think it’ll be like a game show. No. Imagine a community theater performance of a tax return.”) to his reference to Jacob in his Sherlockian summation of the evidence near the film’s end (“What were the overheard words by the Nazi child masturbating in the bathroom?”), all are rendered hilarious in their Southern gentility. It’s a sight to behold.

The film is surprisingly political, as well, and not just in a “Communism was a red herring” way. Like Get Out before it, Knives Out mocks the occasional ignorance of the political left vis-a-vis latent and uninspected racism on the part of Joni and Meg, who profess progressive values while being, respectively, a largely uninformed buffoon and an easily corrupted intellectual. On the other side of the aisle, the fact that all of the Thrombey children and grandchildren consider themselves to be “self-made” despite succeeding only due to the generosity of their wealthy patriarch calls to mind certain statements about a “small loan” of a million dollars that a certain political figure has made. Likewise, Rian Johnson has claimed that Jacob’s character is based on blowback he received from some of the darker corners of the internet following (what some would consider to be) the mismanagement of the Star Wars franchise while helming The Last Jedi. In particular, the entirety of the wealthy white family seems completely ignorant of Marta’s country of origin, with each of them calling her a different nationality; after a few glasses of champagne, they devolve into an ugly debate about the current supposed immigration “crisis,” citing well-worn neocon talking points about “America [being] for Americans” and “millions of Mexicans” undermining American culture, as well as the purported illegality of seeking asylum. All of this is done in front of Marta, who is specifically called out as an model member of a minority group and then asked to speak to this experience, exotifying her and speaking over her (that the most useless member of this crew, Richard, does so while absentmindedly handing her his dessert plate—like one would with a server or a domestic servant—is a particularly nice detail). It comes across as rather toothless in the moment, especially given that Jacob is largely held unaccountable for his political ideology (other than Richard’s accusation that the boy spent Harlan’s party in the bathroom “Joylessly masturbating to pictures of dead deer”), but the white New England family’s desperation to hold onto property that they consider rightfully theirs despite having had no hand in building the family’s financial success is ultimately revealed to be a core part of the film’s thesis, as evinced in the film’s final frame. That having been said, there are moments when I wish that the family was a little less charming and a little more clearly depicted as being in the wrong; at one point at the screening I attended, there was a rather loud laugh when Jacob called Marta an “anchor baby,” and the effusive reaction to that line in particular chilled my blood a bit.

The first time I saw the trailer for this film was before The Farewell, and the friend with whom I saw that flick had no interest in Knives Out, asking only that I text him after I left the theater and tell him who the killer was. I initially assented, but after my screening, I texted him and told him that the movie was too clever to be spoiled that way, and I meant it. This is a movie that should be seen without as little foreknowledge as possible, and as soon as you can.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

Contemporary art galleries are some of my favorite places in the world. The shiny white floors and tall white walls sparsely decorated with bizarre, thought-provoking pieces make me feel like I’m trapped in a glorious nightmare. Dan Gilroy explores this mix of art and horror in his most recent Netflix film, Velvet Buzzsaw. It’s mysterious, stylish, and oh so very gory.

I have yet to see Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, but I’m well aware Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in the film was well received. I haven’t seen many Gyllenhaal  films, so I never really had an opinion about him. I always thought he was just okay, far from being a noteworthy actor. His performance in Velvet Buzzsaw has completely changed the way I feel about him. I never thought I would say this, but I’m officially a Jake Gyllenhaal fan! His character in the film, Morf Vandewalt, is a pretentious art critic who is extremely influential in the art world. How Gyllenhaal was able to make me fall in love with such an unlikeable character is beyond me.

In the beginning of the film, Morf leaves his boyfriend and develops a sexual relationship with his colleague, Josephina (Zawe Ashton). There aren’t nearly as many bisexual characters in cinema as there should be, so this was just another reason for me to appreciate Morf. Josephina works under Rhonda (Rene Russo), a well-known, tough-as-nails art dealer who was once a member of a punk band named Velvet Buzzsaw (the origin of the film’s title). Josephina is sweet and probably the most down-to-Earth out of the bunch, but that all starts to change when she uncovers the massive personal art collection of her deceased mysterious elderly neighbor. Josephina claims the paintings, and after she brings them to the attention of her fellow art associates, the paintings take the art world by storm. When anyone looks at the paintings, they look like they saw Jesus Christ in the flesh. It’s obvious there’s something magical about these paintings, but once those who come in contact with them begin to die in mysterious ways, the paintings go from being magical to pure evil.

Velvet Buzzsaw effortlessly balances being a satire of the highbrow art world while also being a blood-soaked slasher. The star-studded cast (including fabulous appearances by my all-time favorite actress, Toni Collette) work their magic by giving fabulous performances without allowing the film to lose its funky underground vibes. This is one of the best horror films to come out so far this year,  so 2019 is definitely off to a good start.

-Britnee Lombas

Episode #65 of The Swampflix Podcast: Art House Herstory with CeCe V DeMenthe & Cosi (1996)

Welcome to Episode #65 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-fifth episode, Brandon & Britnee are joined by local drag performer CeCe V DeMenthe to discuss the ways the New Orleans art house & repertory cinema scene has changed since the 1970s. Britnee also makes Brandon watch the Australian opera dramedy Cosi (1996) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

There’s something really satisfying about the trial & error process of songwriting that lends itself well to feel-good cinema. The recent heartfelt indie drama Heats Beat Loud recognizes the joy of building a song from scratch, where confused & frustrated emotions can start in an incoherent haze and then be better understood & emotionally processed once solidified in song. It’s nowhere near the first movie to adopt that songwriting-as-self-therapy concept as foundational thematic ground, but it does feel like part of a recent push to build on that theme by closely following the frustrated stops & starts of the songwriting process while characters figure themselves out. 2016’s Sing Street used that conceit to craft a full-on romantic fantasy piece as a band that barely knows what they’re doing become more confident & cohesive with practice. 2017’s Band Aid is much more brutally honest about the underlying emotional devastation that dives its characters’ need for musical self-therapy, supplanting fantasy with darkly humorous observations about small-time musicianship & romantic crises. Hearts Beat Loud treads water between those two extremes. It flirts with attacking raw nerves with Band Aid’s ruthlessness, but tempers that impulse with Sing Street’s tendency for wish-fulfillment fantasy. The result is still a wholly satisfying movie, even if a less distinct one.

Nick Offerman continues his career-long Grumpy Cat routine as the owner of a failing record store in a small East Coast town. Depressed about the inevitable closing of his shop, his complete lack of romantic & professional prospects, and his daughter’s impending move away to college on the opposite coast, his face only lights up when he dedicates his energy to one obsession: making music, forming a father-daughter band. Hearts Beat Loud occasionally pretends to be an ensemble drama, spreading its POV energies to character crises as wildly varied as middle-age dating anxiety, queer teen romance, senility, addiction, grief, and the list goes on. No one topic is ever explored at any thorough length or depth. That approach can sometimes be admirable, especially whenever same-gender or interracial romance is treated like no big deal, entirely unworthy of comment. For the most part, though, the potency of its emotional beats isn’t reached through any character-based drama as much as through the emotive power of music. Each relationship lightly sketched out in the film could have been more fully developed, but that time is instead dedicated to the cathartic payoff of a climactic concert where the half-formed songs that have been tinkering their way to completion over the entire film are allowed to shine in their now fully-realized glory. It helps that the music is genuinely good and easily carries the emotional weight the deliberately light narrative demands of it.

Low-key, earnest indie dramas like this often survive by the strength of their casts, which is no problem for the Hearts Beat Loud ensemble. Offerman is surrounded by such heavy lifters as Toni Collette, Ted Danson, Blythe Danner, American Honey’s Sasha Lane, and impressive newcomer Kiersey Clemons, who sings the film’s original numbers with Lorde-like emotional heft. High-Fidelity packed just as many impressive performers into a romantic drama about a failing record store, though, and that film’s caustic, self-absorbed bitterness sits on the stomach like a bout with food poisoning (not a fan). By contrast, Hearts Beat Loud approaches its own vinyl dude’s midlife crisis with a welcome dose of heartfelt sweetness to balance out the melancholy. It’s not quite as willing to interrogate its own emotional darkness as Band Aid, but its story of somewhat mediocre musicians finding immense relief in the therapeutic joys of songwriting still lands with a thundering thud when it counts: while the music plays. You can feel mediocrity creeping in from the corners of the frame in moments when the film pauses to worship at the almighty altar of Jeff Tweedy or updates the band-excitedly-hearing-their-music-on-the-radio-for-the-first-time trope with coffee shop Spotify listening, but mediocrity is oddly part of its low-key charm. This is a story about normal people finding joy in D.I.Y. song-building, a process that is infectious in its built-in satisfaction, as indicated by the increasing number of recent films in this genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Hereditary (2018)

It’s no secret that I love horror movies. Of my top ten movies of 2015, 3-5 were horror (depending on how you categorize thrillers like Cop Car and Queen of Earth); in 2016, that was a solid five out of ten, and in 2017, six of fifteen. I even did a list of my favorite horror movies by year for the past fifty years in 2017, and that’s not even getting into my months-long Dario Argento retrospective before that. So it might surprise you to learn that I’m rarely actually scared by horror movies. We’re entering a new golden age of horror (both in film and in the real world, at least here in the U.S.), but it’s rare that a film manages to induce such fear and anxiety in the animalistic part of my brain that it manages to topple the wall of critical theory that usually takes center stage in my viewings. In essence, the value, entertainment and otherwise, that I normally get from a horror film viewing, is in the dissection of its component elements and its social statements and theses. For instance, as captivating as Get Out was, the rhetorical space created in the theater between me and the text was one of intense interest in and attention to the social criticism and symbology of the film rather than making me actually afraid at least until the arrival of those flashing lights at the end, when I feared our protagonist was about to be murdered by the police, as so many young black men in our country are every day. In the past half decade, very few films have managed to actually engage with my fear response over my academic interest “in the moment”: Don’t Breathe, The Babadook, IT, The VVitch, Raw, the aforementioned Cop Car, and probably one or two others that aren’t coming to mind immediately. That pantheon now has a new member: Hereditary.

What an amazing film. I’m going to do my best not to spoil anything about it, but be forewarned: if you’re so sharp a person that discussion of foreshadowing and artistic influences can spoil something for you, you should go and see the movie now now now and come back when you’re done. Ok? Welcome back. First and foremost, I’d like to salute the marketing of this film for so thoroughly managing to disguise the premise. I can’t remember the last time a film’s trailers and TV spots threw such an opaque veil over the text’s true subject matter and so effectively obscured the content to preserve the surprise, successfully. Last year’s mother! did this by crafting a trailer that told you nothing about the movie, really, but that ended in more of a severe disconnect between audience expectations and authorial . . . let’s call it “artistry.” That same division may be coming for Hereditary too, given the disparity between the critical consensus and audience response (sitting at 92% for the former and 59% for the latter on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing). There was even a moment close to the end of the film that sent much of the auditorium agiggle, despite being one of the creepiest sequences.

I’ll refrain from making too many broad statements about the general public’s unwillingness to be shocked, but suffice it to say I’m long past being surprised when the average moviegoer expresses disproportionate outrage when something genuinely novel comes along simply because it isn’t what they would expect. This is part and parcel of the democratization of criticism, as the internet provides a platform for everyone to express their views, from that racist idiot in your office, to that guy on the bus who’s been reading the same David Foster Wallace essay collection for months, to that group of women at the next table at Phoenicia who want nothing more out of a movie than a kiss between a handsome man and the lady whose love changed him (and to lowly old me!). This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it certainly blurs the lines of discourse. I’m going off topic (surprise), but the point holds true: the film that you’ll see after you buy your ticket is going to be a different experience than you’re expecting, and that’s a good thing.

So what should you expect instead? (To allay the fears of those concerned that this is potentially spoilery information, let me advise that there are some dream sequences in which the imagery is thematically relevant and resonant but not necessarily literal.) Since you aren’t me, I can’t just say: “Remember that bizarre dream we had after watching the final segment of XX while on post-surgery painkillers last year? It’s basically the same narrative, but with Toni Collette instead of Tyne Daly.” I mean, it is almost exactly that, but that doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. Imagine a horror movie version of Ordinary People and you’re halfway there; add in some concerns about the heredity of mental illnesses and imbalances, a dash of the St. Patrick’s Day segment of 2016’s Holidays, a few handfuls of Rosemary’s Baby, a pinch of Killing of a Sacred Deer, and a dash each of Hausu, Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Ring, and Carrie, just for good measure. Admittedly, this is a jumble, but it leads to a cohesive narrative that is shocking, creepy, and depressing, all in good measure.

Annie Graham (Collette) is having a hard time dealing with the recent death of her mother, Ellen, a mentally unstable woman with dissociative identity disorder. Mental illness seems to run in her family, as her depressed father starved himself to death when she was an infant, and her schizophrenic brother committed suicide after accusing their mother of “trying to put people inside of him.” She is an artist who works in miniatures, several of which appear throughout the sumptuous but isolated home she shares with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and teenage stoner Peter (Alex Wolff). In many ways, Charlie is most like her mother, as she likewise creates miniatures and figurines, but unlike Annie’s meticulously carved, sculpted, and painted recreations of reality, Charlie’s tiny homonculi have electrical outlets instead of faces, or pigeon heads instead of humanoid ones. After further family tragedy, Annie meets Joan (Ann Dowd) outside of a grief support group, and the older woman lends her a sympathetic ear before introducing her to the occult as a way to communicate with those who have moved on. Or does she? Is there really a conduit to speak with the loved ones who have died, or is it all in Annie’s head? Or is perhaps neither of those things true? Or both?

I’m at a loss to say more without giving away some of the movie’s biggest swerves, especially given that, as noted above, I wasn’t in “critical film theory” mode while watching. From the opening moments, when we swoop in on one of Annie’s miniatures of the home in which the Grahams reside and the tiny dollhouse becomes Peter’s bedroom, the film captivates the width and breadth of your attention. I wasn’t inspecting the music to see if it mixed high and low frequencies to create tension (CW for the link: uses a jump scare from a Conjuring film); I was too concerned about the characters and what was going to happen to them to worry about any of those things, and I’ll be processing the ideas and concepts in the film for days to come, but I can’t get into those without telling you too many of the film’s secrets. Just go see it, if you dare.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

After watching Todd Haynes gradually shift towards traditionalist, Douglas Sirk-inspired dramas like Carol & Far From Heaven, it’s been fascinating to return to the wild, fractured, untamed excess of his earlier, more transgressive works. Haynes’s debut feature, Poison, was a roughly assembled, anxiously queer anthology that covered territory as widely varied as 1950s mad scientist B-pictures & Jean Genet’s masterful, poetic smut Our Lady of the Flowers. Before that debut, his name-making short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story re-imagined a high profile celebrity tragedy through hand-operated Barbie dolls. It’d be near impossible to reconcile the two disparate ends of Haynes’s beautifully improbable career, the controlled drama & the wildly fractured art film, if it weren’t for his magnum opus, Velvet Goldmine, a glam rock opera that somehow encapsulates the totality of what the director has accomplished to date in a single picture. Velvet Goldmine remains Haynes’s grandest achievement by somehow elevating his youthful passion for melodrama, disorder, and camp to the level of the Oscar-minded prestige productions he’d later settle into as he aged within the industry, all while remaining aggressively, unapologetically queer. It’s overwhelming to watch a filmmaker this ambitious throw every possible tone & technique he can achieve at the screen, but drowning in Haynes’s chaotic, yet glamorous sensibilities is a pure, intoxicating pleasure.

Christian Bale stars as an ex-Brit reporter working out of NYC on an investigative assignment about the publicity stunt “murder” of a glam rock star he had worshipped religiously as a queer teen. It had been a decade since British rocker Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) faked his own death onstage & disappeared from the public limelight. It seems as if the glam rock lifestyle, with its outrageous gender-androgynous costumes & conspicuous absence of sexual norms, had died along with that persona. Through the relatively dull framing device of watching Bale’s gloomy reporter research the missing Slade, Haynes opens up the wild world of glam rock past in a series of disjointed vignettes following Slade’s life from birth to “death”. The film is primarily concerned with Slade’s musical collaboration & bisexual affair with American proto-punk icon Curt Wilde (Ewan McGregor), an obsessive relationship that wrecked his sobriety, his closeness with his wife (Toni Collette), and his overall ambition to change the world through the transformative power of rock n’ roll. Haynes crafts a deliberately messy, loose story out of this rock n’ roll romance by employing every tool he had in his arsenal: the Barbie doll performances of Superstar, the James Bidgood tableaus & Jean Genet allusions of Poison, the Douglas Sirk melodrama of Safe & Far From Heaven, flesh on flesh pansexual erotica, etc. He also conjures glam rock’s natural mystique by allowing X-Files style record company conspiracy theories & supernatural claims that Oscar Wilde’s origins as a space alien changeling to inform his narrative without batting an eye. The only restrained-feeling aspect of the plot is Bale’s investigative framing device, but even that boasts the perverse virtue of essentially reimagining Citizen Kane as a glam rock opera.

Although narratively loose & ambiguous, Velvet Goldmine clearly evokes two real-life romances/collaborations in this patchwork plot: David Bowie’s affair with Iggy Pop & Britain’s affair with American rock. Slade is a clear Bowie stand-in, a connection deliberately referenced in the title & unappreciated by Bowie himself, who threatened to sue before the script went into rewrites. The film mostly follows the Ziggy Stardust & post-hippie eras of Bowie’s career before his romace/heroin-sharing/music collaboration with Iggy Pop unraveled those glory days. It’s a relationship that’s understood more through myth & rumor than confirmed, openly admitted fact, so Haynes is smart to abstract any 1:1 comparison, even if it was a decision inspired by threat of a lawsuit. Bowie’s life story is blended with other pop stars like Marc Bolan & Buster Poindexter to create the figure of Brian Slade, while Curt Wilde emerges as a similar blend of Iggy Pop & Lou Reed. This abstraction & democratization of their characters leads to the film feeling like a larger, more mythical tale of American & British rock n’ roll’s endless back & forth romance & collaboration than an affair between two queer men in the 70s & 80s. A childhood Little Richard drag routine Slade stages in his parents’ living room feels just as essential to his stage persona evolution as any of the film’s Oscar Wilde space alien weirdness, making this moment in time shared between British & American rock to feel like a smaller thread in much larger tapestry, albeit an essential one. Velvet Goldmine depicts glam rock as less of a craze or a passing fad than a failed revolution that very nearly topped the world in a flood of glitter & lube before it lamely succumbed to the pitfalls of heroin & romantic jealousy. Bowie & Iggy were useful figured for that story, but the overall effect is much larger than anything two men could amount to alone.

Velvet Goldmine was a box office bomb that was met with middling, confused critical response upon its initial release. It’s the exact kind of overly ambitious, insularly passionate art picture that’s doomed for cult status over wide appeal, but I selfishly wish that were the kind of art Haynes were still making today. As much as I appreciate Carol‘s intoxicating allure, it feels like a film that could have been pulled off by any number of visually skilled, queer-minded craftsmen. Velvet Goldmine, by contrast, is undeniably a Todd Haynes film. The same way Citizen Kane posits that a man’s full persona can’t be contained by a single picture, Velvet Goldmine argues the same for the spirit of glam rock at large. Haynes structures this argument around a sprawling all-inclusive clusterfuck of every weird, passionate idea he’s ever projected onto the screen in his life. It’s a magnum opus that makes room for drag queens, Barbie dolls, Bowie worship, Oscar Wilde conspiracy theories, an extended cameo from glam-revivalist band Placebo, and Ewan McGregor’s spread-open butt cheeks. It’s risky, go-for-broke cinema that doesn’t have a 100% success rate in its individual elements at play (Christian Bale’s gloomy sulking is a lot to stomach), but consistently impresses in its visual beauty & sheer audacity. It’d be a cultural tragedy if we never see Haynes working in that mode again.

-Brandon Ledet

xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017)

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three star

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Grab your cargo shorts and flash art tattoos, folks. Nu metal cinema is back in a big, dumb way. Vin Diesel has briefly stepped away from his long-time role as a Corona-swilling patriarch in the Fast & Furious franchise to resurrect his other embarrassingly dated late 90s action vehicle, xXx. Diesel selflessly returns to his role as Xander Cage, “the rebel the world doesn’t know it needs,” to save the human race with such heroic acts as collecting high-fives while skateboarding downhill, gliding across jungle dirt on snow skis, and bravely bedding entire rooms full of Nameless Babes so that he can turn to the camera and mumble, “The things I do for my country,” like a pilled-out Bugs Bunny. xXx: Return of Xander Cage may not feature a Rammstein concert like its first installment or Family Values Tour ’98 vet Ice Cube like its second, but it is comfortably seated in that same X-treme Attitude nu metal cradle. It’s as if the film acknowledges its status as a far-too-late action sequel by dialing the culture clock all the way back to the early 2000s to accommodate its own wallet chain macho inanity. The results are oddly endearing, even if persistently ugly. Its soundtrack may have been swapped out for dubstep, but Return of Xander Cage still shines as a small scale nu metal miracle, an abrasive rap rock nightmare preserved in the foulest amber.

Does it matter exactly why Xander Cage returned to the international spy game? Actual-talent Toni Collette chews scenery as a menacing G-man/humanoid IKEA monkey who drags Cage back into action by informing him that his former mentor (played by Samuel L. Jackson, naturally) has been murdered via espionage technology that can strategically down orbiting satellites. Cage reluctantly agrees to retrieve this nefarious device, but refuses to do so with the team of untrustworthy supersoldiers Collette’s Evil Bitch government stooge assembles for him. When Cage grills the G.I. Joes about their experiences with X-Treme sports like base-jumping & snowboarding, they retort “We’re soldiers, not slackers.” Wrong response. He nukes the team in what plays like a sincere version of a MacGruber spoof, but decides to forego his past life as a lone wolf, instead borrowing some of his Daddy Dom character’s obsession with “family” in the Fast & Furious franchise to build his own X-treme, rag tag crew of crazed stunt men, EDM DJs, computer geek Millennials, and lesbian snipers. Everything that follows is a loud, dumb blur of shoot-em-up action cinema inanity, with occasional touches like dirt bike/jet ski hybrids and Godsmack-reminiscent nipple tats distinguishing it from any other borderline competent example of its genre. They get the device. They save the day. They put the government in its place and walk away with their collective rebel status intact. There’s even a ludicrous last minute cameo that makes the whole thing feel like a real movie instead of a hazy, bullet-ridden nu metal daydream. It’s all in good fun.

As much as Return of Xander Cage likes to pretend that its team-building exercise is actually important to the plot, the movie is still largely just a loving prayer at the altar of Xander Cage (and, by extension, Vin Diesel himself). It’s right there in the title. No one else truly matters. Entire villages cheer his presence. Little kids look up to him in awe. He delivers every one-liner with a JCVD-style lethargic drawl, as if he’s so pleasantly relaxed in the role that he’s half asleep. When someone hands him a bomb he mumbles, “Oh boy, here we go again,” rising to twirl in a lazy circle while firing a machine gun, yawning, and literally checking his watch. His entire crew is qualified to save the day, but they’re asked to hang back as his cover. Everyone is visibly horny, but only Xander Cage gets to fuck. It’s super cool and totally worth mentioning that this dumb, spiritually-backwards action film has a mostly POC cast (including an over-qualified Donnie Yen among its ranks) and the only scene dominated by white male faces involves an evil boardroom of business pricks threatening to tear the world down. It’s just also funny that the diversity in the crew is mostly for naught, as they’re ultimately no more significant than any one of Xander Cage’s many Tough Guy clip art tattoos.

It may sound like I’m being a little tough on Return of Xander Cage, but it’s a tough customer; it can take the pressure. This is actually a pretty fun version of what it is: mindless shoot-em-up action cinema with a fetish for X-Games style stunts. It’s just impossible not to poke fun at every leering shot of tight leather mini-skirts, every dumb objective like “Get there fast and take this guy down,” and every stupid one-liner like “It’s like finding a needle in a stack of needles.” At this point in modern taste & decency, X-treme action cinema has no comfortable, legitimate home and the xXx franchise addresses that concern by bullheadedly avoiding giving a shit about taste or decency. It’s a nu metal hangover stuck so far out of time that it had to abandon its angst rock roots for an EDM soundtrack that’s also hopelessly outdated, just by a narrower margin. It’s in this overgrown bro cultural faux pas that Return of Xander Cage emerges as cute & oddly quaint in its ironically mild brand of “X-treme” entertainments.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary and Max (2009)

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fivestar

The 2009 stop motion animation indie drama Mary and Max is somewhat of a strange case. It’s ranked among the highest-rated titles of all time on IMDb, but it’s not a particularly well-known film. That disparity is readily recognizable in the film’s box office numbers, which posits it as a financial flop that only managed to earn back $1.7 million of its $8.2 million budget, despite near-universal critical acclaim. Perhaps the divide between its critical & financial accomplishments is a question of tone. The sole feature film credit of stop motion animator Adam Elliot, Mary and Max adopts the visual format & storybook narration of a children’s film, but it’s, at heart, an emotionally merciless drama that touches upon, among other things: mental illness, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy, atheism, war crimes, repressed homosexuality, obesity, and the endless cycle of poverty. It’s likely that the film didn’t do particularly well at the box office because it’s difficult to market an animated feature about heartbreaking loneliness, depression, despair, and the search for human connection among the disenfranchised. I’m getting choked up right now just mulling over the film’s themes, so easy to see why it might’ve been a difficult sell as a comedy (however black) & a fun night at the movies. All that being said, Mary and Max is a masterful work in the stop motion medium, easily one of the best examples of the format I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame it couldn’t have turned that achievement into financial success, though, or we might’ve had a few more Adam Elliot features in the six years since its release.

Detailing the strictly-epistolary friendship between two total strangers, a young Australian girl & a middle aged man in New York City, Mary and Max relies heavily on storybook-style narration to move its story along between its back & forth letter reading. This narrative structure doesn’t allow much room for complicated plot maneuvering or a fast-paced momentum. Mary and Max, as its title suggests, is more of a two-handed character study than a whirlwind of action & consequence. Mary is a young girl with an alcoholic mother & an emotionally reclusive father. Initially described as looking like mud & poo, Mary is somewhat of an outcast, self-conscious of her appearance, bored, and alone. Max is a lonely, atheist man of Jewish descent who has difficulty navigating the modern world due to his struggles with Asperger’s Syndrome. It seems at first like they might have very little in common besides the drab greys & browns that define their respective worlds & their shared love of a children’s show called The Noblets. As their friendship deepens & is challenged by decades of hard-fought battles with mental illness & life at large, though, a remarkably rewarding swell of emotion begins to elevate the film miles above the basic precociousness & impressive handmade craft stop motion automatically commands as a medium.

For a film loaded with fart jokes & gags involving bird anuses, Mary and Max is a remarkable achievement in emotional provocation. Toni Collette (who I’ve recently been binge-watching in United States of Tara) does an excellent job voicing the adult Mary & Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who, of course, everyone has been inadvertently binge-watching in quality work for the last two decades & mourning in more recent years) is even more of a treasure as the deeply-complicated Max, although neither personality is especially essential to the film’s charm. The real crux to Mary & Max‘s perfection as a small stakes drama/black comedy is in director Adam Elliot’s nuanced characterization of his titular leads & in the finely detailed visual world he made by hand (with help, I’m sure) in a painstakingly meticulous method/dying art. I like to imagine a world where Mary and Max was a wild financial success that allowed Elliot to immediately produce a long string of other feature films, the same way the success of Coraline, released the same year, launched Laika Studios. As is, I’m happy that this pitch black gem was ever produced in the first place. It’s not often that an animated feature about the importance of “real friendship” is this well constructed & this reluctant to play by the rules of its medium/genre. Just writing about the film’s emotional severity is making me tear up in the retrospection, which is a clear sign that Elliot got something significantly right here, even if that something was a difficult commodity to monetize.

Side Note: You can go ahead & include Mary and Max as yet another indication that no place in time has ever loved ABBA quite as much as 1970s Australia. The ABBA poster in Mary’s bedroom feels more significant than a mere callback to Toni Collette’s starring role in Muriel’s Wedding. It’s part of a larger Australia Loves ABBA narrative that I swear is A Thing. It makes more sense every day that ABBA: The Movie was set in Australia. It’s the band’s home away from Sweden.

-Brandon Ledet

Krampus (2015)

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fourhalfstar

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When I first became aware of Michael Dougherty’s Krampus, I was ecstatic because I absolutely love Christmas horror films (Silent Night, Deadly Night, Gremlins, Santa’s Slay, etc.). What’s not to love about a film based on what is essentially the opposite of Santa? A demon that goes around punishing little brats that misbehave sounds like a good time to me. I got even more excited when I found out that Toni Collette, my all-time favorite actress, was playing a lead role in the film. This was a movie made for me, so needless to say, I had pretty high expectations. Thankfully, Krampus did not disappoint.

Other than it being a horror film about a murderous Christmas beast, one of the weirdest things about Krampus is that it made it to the big screen. Most Christmas horror movies go straight to DVD. I can’t even remember the last time a Christmas horror film was in theaters. It may have been the 2006 remake of Black Christmas, but I’m not quite sure. Anyway, it’s always a good sign when a campy movie makes it to theaters. Krampus brought in over $16,000,000 on its opening weekend, which is pretty impressive considering its campy reputation. Bad taste is alive and well!

The film begins with a hilarious but disturbingly truthful Black Friday scene that will give you all the feels. Bing Crosby’s “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” plays as a mob of greedy customers wreak havoc on a retail store. The audience in the movie theater gave out a few good laughs for this part, but a good bit of the crowd had on their “ain’t it the truth” face. Among the people in the retail store are the film’s main characters: husband/wife duo Tom (Adam Scott) and Sara (Toni Collette) and their 10-year-old son, Max (Emjay Anthony).

Max is old enough to know that Santa is not real, but there’s a part of him that just can’t give up on believing in Santa. It’s as though his belief in Santa represents his want to have a normal, enjoyable holiday with his family. Max’s German grandmother (Krista Stadler) is very supportive of his belief, and she encourages him to write a letter to Santa. He eventually becomes upset and rips up his Santa letter, throwing the pieces out of his bedroom window. By doing this, he unintentionally summons Krampus, but Krampus does not arrive to Max’s home alone. He brings a couple of demonic toys, gingerbread men, and elves with him, and they do most of the dirty work. And by “dirty work,” I mean that they execute most of the murders. The evil elves and possessed toys were actually pretty frightening, but the demonic gingerbread men were totally unnecessary. Actually, I can honestly say that they were the only reason I didn’t give this movie five stars. They were terrible! And not even in the good way.

Something that I noticed in Krampus was the abundance of tongue action. One of the demonic toys, which is an angel doll, uses its tongue while it attacks Sarah. This really gross, super thin tongue comes out of this creepy toy’s mouth, and it’s absolutely terrifying. Also, Krampus has a weird tongue thing going on as well. When he comes face to face with Max, he has a tongue very similar to the angel doll, and he licks the poor kid’s face. While all this was going on, I couldn’t help but think of Beth Grant tonguing that mannequin in September’s Movie of the Month, The Boyfriend School.

Krampus is definitely going into my traditional Christmas watchlist, along with Home Alone, A Christmas Story, and Miracle on 34th Street. It’s got the perfect balance of comedy and horror. There are times where you’ll be crying from laughter, but there will be times that you’ll come close to peeing your pants from fear.

-Britnee Lombas