Red Rocket

(USA 2021)

Sean Baker has been on a roll with his last few films. He’s heavy, but he wins me over because he makes me love his characters, all of whom are fringe throwaways — illegal migrants, petty thieves, sex workers, transgenders, drug addicts, dirty little kids — getting by in an economically hostile environment. He quietly but powerfully makes his points about benevolence in contemporary America. His films have gotten progressively better, too.

Unlike what I’m used to seeing from Baker and longtime screenwriting partner Chris Bergoch, however, Red Rocket is a bona fide comedy, something that turns out to be a refreshing move. Baker still does what he does, but this time he allows us to laugh — or at least roll our eyes — at his protagonist, hustling washed up porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), who can’t seem to stop himself from making boneheaded decisions.

Out of the blue, Mikey shows up bloody and naked at the home of his estranged wife, ex costar and current meth head Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mother (Brenda Deiss) in Texas City, a dinky no-star town lodged somewhere along the Texas Gulf Coast. He moves in. He gets a job selling weed for local matriarch dealer Leondria (Judy Hill). He smokes the weed. He gets involved with a nerdy neighbor (Ethan Darbone) and an underage freckle face donut shop clerk named Strawberry (Suzanna Son).

As usual for a Baker film, the actors are great. Rex is a perfect Mikey. He delivers a kinetic performance, turning up the charm full blast to seize on the weaknesses he senses in those around him to realize his cockamamie ploys. It works out that every woman he tries to exploit ends up using him. The sex scenes are graphic but effective, best illustrating this little twist. In fact, every male character in Red Rocket is manipulated by someone.

Mikey, of course, misses it. He’s scrappy and has some streetsmarts but he’s still not very bright. He’s likable, but only to a point. Contrary to other Baker characters, he isn’t someone you ultimately care about. I didn’t. I suppose this makes sense for a dark comedy, but it’s still a noticeable departure. In a way, it’s also a relief.

Interestingly, you do care about the female characters, and they care about each other. Deiss, who has one film to her credit and apparently is a non-professional Baker is known to employ, particularly stands out. Her Lil is more complicated than her childlike and feeble appearance suggests. Shih-Ching Tsou as donut shop owner Ms. Phan, suspicious of everyone, shines in her few scenes.

As for the ending, well, according to a Deadline interview, Baker himself expects hate mail for it. I found it to be a nice peek into Mikey’s mind, so it’s appropriate even if it’s ambiguous. I take no issue. It’s the perfect money shot for cinematographer Drew Daniels’s dreamy, sunbleached lens.

In terms of narrative, Red Rocket might be a dip down from The Florida Project (https://moviebloke.com/2017/10/03/the-florida-project/) and Tangerine (https://moviebloke.com/2015/07/28/tangerine/). Regardless, I enjoyed it on its own merits. Like Baker’s other films, it left me pondering a lot of things — the story, the characters, what the point of it all is, and most importantly what I think of what he has to say.

Incidentally, Red Rocket has the distinct honor of being the first film I saw in a theater since the coronavirus pandemic blew up in March 2020. Amusingly fitting: I had a pass for the Telluride Film Festival this year but I didn’t go because of the delta variable surge, and Red Rocket opened. I guess I was destined to see this film.

With Marlon Lambert, Brittney Rodriguez, Parker Bigham, Brandy Kirl, Dustin “Hitman” Hart, Sophie

Production: FilmNation Entertainment, Cre Film

Distribution: A24

128 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B+

Suspiria

(Italy 1977)

I saw a stunning digital restoration of Dario Argenta’s weird masterpiece Suspiria back in October:

https://moviebloke.com/2017/10/18/suspiria/

It was such a sensory experience, I convinced a good friend to join me for a midnight screening. It’s no better the second time, but the visuals are decadent. Lush. I could watch it again and again with only Goblin’s soundtrack playing. Perhaps the secret is to watch it high?

98 minutes
Not rated (alternate version)

(Music Box) C+

The Handmaiden [Agassi]

(South Korea 2016)

“Where I come from, it’s illegal to be naive.”

—Sook-hee

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden [아가씨], but I’m glad I got to see it. One word: wow! A sexy, complex, and intriguing film to say the least, it’s a lavish visual and narrative cinematic experience. The trailer offers only a hint of what awaits.

Park wrote the screenplay, an adaptation of the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Welsh author Sarah Waters, with frequent collaborator Chung Seo-kyung. They change the setting from Victorian Era Britain to 1930s Korea when it was under Japanese colonial rule before the end of World War II. Confession: I did not read the book. The change is brilliant, though, resulting in something far more tense, exotic, and erotic than I imagine it would have been had they stuck to the original concept.

The Handmaiden is a cutthroat tale of power, sex, and deception in the same vein as Dangerous Liasons, though by no means is it the same story. The title refers to “Tamako” (Kim Tae-ri), a young common girl hired to serve as a maid to mysterious Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Lady Hideko’s authoritarian Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong) runs the household, which has a crazy library of antique erotica and a basement used for punishment. The atmosphere is abusive and weird. So much so, in fact, that Lady Hideko’s aunt committed suicide—and she still hears her voice at night.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

“Tamako” has a secret: she’s really Sook-hee, a master pickpocket from a long line of con artists. Sook-hee is working with Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a dashing con man, on an elaborate scam to bilk Lady Hideko out of her fortune. Fujiwara, posing as a Count, is wooing Lady Hideko into marriage, after which he plans to commit her to her an insane asylum and take off with her money. Fujiwara has a secret, too: he’s double dealing with Lady Hideko, who wants to get away from her uncle. Their plot involves getting married, cashing out her inheritance, and committing her illiterate maid under her name, after which Lady Hideko assumes the identity of “Tamako”—while keeping her money, of course.

The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and nothing here is what it seems. Things get interesting and go another route when the two women’s relationship takes a sexual turn, and they like it.

The Handmaiden is an example of near perfect execution. The beginning and end are a little slow, but what’s in between is well worth the slightly draggy bookends. Divided into three parts, it tells the story from the different perpectives of the three scammers. We get more information with each part, and just when it looks like we know what’s coming—bam!, the proverbial rug is pulled out from underneath and the narrative goes somewhere else. The characters are really complex, and the acting here is excellent. The sex scenes are sensual but often have a humorous undertone. Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography is rich and layered with thoughtful camerawork that adds a nice voyeuristic touch to the whole film, liberally using long shots and peeking through doors and around screens. This is a film you can easily get lost in.

144 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+

http://www.handmaidenmovie.com/showtimes