The World to Come (2021)

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

“Pinhead.” “She-Hulk.” “Sumbitch.” “Wanker.” “Bulldog Balls.” “Asshole.”

These are just a few of the lovely pet names the double-ampersand stars of Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw call each other throughout what unexpectedly turned out to be a deeply, deeply unpleasant trip to the movies. Of course, a little misguided machismo is always to be expected when venturing out to a Fast & Furious movie, but there’s usually an underlying sweetness & sincerity to the series that’s sorely missing from this scaled-down spinoff. Director David Leitch is unfortunately operating here in his Deadpool 2 shock humor mode rater than continuing the over-the-top action cinema slickness he brought to John Wick or Atomic Blonde. Fast & Furious is an absurdly melodramatic series in which global-scale action set pieces are flimsily glued together with teary-eyed speeches about what it means to be Family. It’s understandable why a spinoff from the series would operate with a smaller scale & budget in its action, but once you also substitute its Sappy Bro messaging for winking-at-the-camera meta humor there’s nothing left that feels Fast or Furious at all. It also doesn’t help that this film’s approach to “jokes” is to have its two absurdly muscly stars, The Rock & Jason Statham, insult each other for two solid hours about the size and/or existence of each other’s dicks. It’s as exhausting as it is repugnant.

The best way to encapsulate what’s so wrong-headed about this deviation from Fast & Furious tradition is to point to the godawful stunt-casting choices the movie floats as potential new members of the Family: Kevin Hart & Ryan Reynolds, two absolute clowns who believe any #haters don’t find them as funny as they believe themselves to be are #triggered #snowflakes. Their above-it-all, insincere Family Guy snark humor seeps into the rest of the film’s DNA like a fast-acting poison. In fact, the literal, potentially world-ending poison that Hobbs & Shaw are tasked to contain in this single-conflict plot is called Snowflake as a reflection of that #edgy sense of humor. You can hear it echo in a subplot wherein Hobbs & Shaw are wrongly reported by the Fake New media to be criminals instead of heroes. Worse, you’re strangled by it in every over-written one-liner insult they bitterly trade throughout, like when one describes hearing the other’s voice as feeling “like dragging my balls against shattered glass” and the other retorts, “Oh yeah, well, looking at your face is like having God projectile vomit right in my eyes.” Shut the fuck up, you cruel, unpleasant goons. The only satisfactory line of dialogue from either knucklehead is when they simultaneously point at each other and complain “This guy’s a real asshole!” I couldn’t agree more, but I don’t understand why that should entice anyone to spend 137 minutes with either of them, much less both at once.

Not everything about Hobbs & Shaw is a misstep. The third act of the film, in which our titular Heroic Assholes attend a family reunion in Samoa to overthrow their heavily armed enemies Ewok-style, is sincerely cheesy & melodramatic in a way that actually feels at home with Fast & Furious pathos. The earlier action sequences in urban spaces like London & Moscow are more aesthetically similar to the series’ past but aren’t nearly distinct enough in their goofball stunts to make much of an impression (give or take a shapeshifting motorcycle that hilariously defies all laws of physics, Transformers style). Hobbs & Shaw really finds itself in its Samoa stretch once its stars decide to get along for a common good and cool the insults for a much-needed breather. It’s too little too late, though, as the bitter taste of them flipping each other off & calling in false alarms so that security guards anally probe each other (har, har) has already poisoned the mood beyond repair. Vanessa Kirby & Idris Elba are also welcome additions to the cast who somehow shine through the winking snark humor as a badass hero and a futuristic supervillain, respectively, but both performances deserve to be in a real Fast & Furious movie instead of this Deadpool-flavored knockoff.

A lot of people complained when Statham’s character made the jump from villain to Family in this series, even starting a #JusticeForHan hashtag campaign to protest the decision. It was never really a complaint that registered with me, since the only consistent thing about the Fast & Furious series from the beginning has been its total disregard for consistency in favor of in-the-moment thrills & novelty. By the time the series had forgotten its allegiance to Coronas at its Family cookouts for crew to instead toast each other with Bud Lights or some other such blasphemy, it was clear that nothing is sacred. Apparently, that includes the one thing that has been consistent to this series up until this point: its big, stupid, dorkily sincere heart, which contrasts wonderfully with its over-the-top action. That’s a damn shame; the series is nothing special without it.

-Brandon Ledet