Film Racket (June 2019): Plus One, Leto, and Bloodroot

(NOTE: These three reviews were all initially published on another site. Here are links to the original reviews.)

Image courtesy of RLJE Films.

Plus One

* ½ (out of 4)

Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer’s Plus One follows Ben (Jack Quaid), a 20-something college graduate who’s the vice president of a start-up. At the film’s start, Ben is not only hopelessly single, but his college friends have flooded his mailbox with wedding invitations. To lessen the pain of watching so many happy people make vows of eternal love, he and Alice (Maya Erskine), a friend who’s just suffered a nasty break-up, agree to attend all these weddings together as each other’s plus ones.

As you might expect, Ben and Alice’s arrangement quickly turns into something more serious. After the two of them get drunk one night and have sex in a graveyard, they realize that they have feelings for each other and decide to become “a thing.” But while Alice wholeheartedly throws herself into this new relationship, Ben turns out to be pickier. He’s the kind of guy who wants to be absolutely sure he’s found his “true love” before making commitments – and as he sees it, Alice just doesn’t meet that bar.

Generally speaking, the main issue with Plus One is that it claims to be something it isn’t. On the one hand, Chan and Rhymer are seemingly aware that the rom-com genre has a reputation for being soppy and cliché. As such, they pepper their script with irreverent lines that try to make Plus One seem “better than all that.” For instance, when Ben tries to make a heartfelt declaration of love towards the film’s end, Alice remarks, “I really can’t handle a big speech right now, Ben,” and Ben responds by saying that he’ll only make a “medium speech” instead.

The problem, however, is that Plus One’s irreverent attitude is just a façade. Because when it comes down to it, the film’s narrative conforms to just about every cliché in the book. The two protagonists claim to be completely uninterested in one another romantically – until they aren’t. Right before the ending, the two of them have a big argument that seems to spell the end of their relationship – until it doesn’t. And despite Alice’s admonition about “big speeches,” Ben still ends up delivering a tearful, cheesy monologue about how wonderful Alice is.

It doesn’t help Chan and Rhymer’s case, either, that Erskine’s character proves problematic. For much of the movie, Alice is portrayed as the opposite of sentimental, the kind of person who rolls her eyes at talk of “finding the one” and casually talks to strangers about her sex life. But her sassiness all but vanishes during her aforementioned argument with Ben, in which she breaks into tears and complains about Ben’s inability to see that love “is standing right in front of you.” In these and other instances, it feels like the film is falling back on the stereotype of the emotional and needy woman.

In Chan and Rhymer’s defense, however, they do get a couple of things right in Plus One. Familiar as it often is, the script does contain a lot of funny moments. More importantly, Erskine and Quaid have good chemistry. Bad performances can easily ruin rom-coms, but to their credit, Erskine and Quaid demonstrate an intimacy that feels both genuine and entertaining to watch. Even if Plus One generally fails to satisfy, Erskine and Quaid together ensure that the whole experience isn’t entirely worthless.

Image courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky.

Leto

**** (out of 4)

In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union experienced a belated version of the rock music revolution that had swept the Western world in the ’60s. Then-Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev announced the establishment of a state-sponsored rock club in Leningrad, and bands like Zoopark and Kino took advantage of that venue to perform music. Although the Leningrad Rock Club tightly regulated these bands’ performances, its mere existence spoke to an increasing openness towards Western culture, and in some ways, it presaged the major political reforms that the USSR undertook after 1986.

Broadly speaking, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto is a “time capsule” film that seeks to portray this moment in modern Russian history. Set in 1980s Leningrad, the film follows Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk) and Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo), the respective founders of Zoopark and Kino. Over the course of the film, the two of them talk about what good music looks like, repeatedly perform to enraptured crowds, and form a sort of love triangle with Mike’s wife Natalia (Irina Starshenbaum).

Although Leto might sound like other, better-known films about musicians – for instance, A Star Is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody – you should know that Leto isn’t quite as approachable as its English-language counterparts. Whereas films like A Star Is Born feature fairly dramatic narratives, not much really “happens” in Leto. To put it another way, Tsoi and Naumenko do a lot of things in the film, but they never do them for the sake of reaching an overarching “objective,” and they definitely don’t “change” all that much between the film’s beginning and end.

If you have the patience for this kind of anti-dramatic narrative, however, you’ll find that Leto is a well-made and perceptive portrait of the atmosphere in 1980s Leningrad. To begin with, the film’s cinematography elegantly illustrates Tsoi and Naumenko’s countercultural worldview. With its reliance on long takes and smooth, fluid movements, the camera speaks to their sense of freedom, depicting them as somewhat aimless individuals who’re nevertheless determined to create something new and significant.

Beyond its portrayal of counterculture, however, Leto most stands out for its depiction of what Tsoi and Naumenko were up against. Periodically, the film includes musical sequences in which the protagonists turn defiant: as rock music plays in the soundtrack, they hit mean-looking Soviet authorities, smash instruments into the ground, and generally just run wild. Eventually, however, these sequences always end with someone who says – or holds up a sign that says – “This did not happen.” In each case, the film then immediately cuts to a new, music-free sequence in which the protagonists are shown acting in a much more submissive and acquiescent manner.

These contrasting sequences aren’t exactly subtle, but they nevertheless offer insight into the political implications of Tsoi and Naumenko’s work. For both them and the other performers at the Leningrad Rock Club, music was a means of rebellion. However limited and controlled they were, musical performances served as an outlet for free expression, an escape valve that stood in total contrast to the stifling and dehumanizing misery of daily life in a totalitarian state.

In this way, Leto turns out to be much more than it seems at first glance. Far from being just another music biopic, the film is both a denunciation of authoritarianism and a vindication of art as a tool of subversion. Although the film is set in the ’80s, its political outlook feels both timeless and timely, particularly when you consider that Serebrennikov himself is currently under house arrest for his criticisms of Vladimir Putin. So while it may not advertise itself as such, Leto ultimately deserves to be appreciated and remembered as a provocative, powerful, and important work.

Image courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Bloodroot

** ½ (out of 4)

Douglas Triola’s latest documentary, Bloodroot, features Selma Miriam and Noel Furie, two lesbian feminists who run the titular bookstore-restaurant in Bridgeport, Connecticut. As we learn, the two women founded the restaurant in 1977 as a vegetarian-feminist collective, claiming that they wanted to provide a space for women to gather and bond. Now in its fourth decade of business, Bloodroot remains one of the U.S.’s few self-proclaimed feminist restaurants, and it’s received plaudits in outlets as big as The New York Times and Vice.

In Bloodroot, Triola is mainly interested in Miriam and Furie, and throughout the film, he gives them ample time to recount their life stories to the camera. In their youth, the two women were both stereotypically feminine, dabbling in professions like modeling before marrying and becoming housewives. Eventually, however, their dissatisfaction with their stay-at-home lifestyle pushed them to join the National Organization for Women. Aside from convincing them of the virtues of radical feminism, Miriam and Furie’s experience at NOW also helped them realize that they weren’t straight, and it ultimately inspired them to divorce their husbands and open Bloodroot.

On the whole, the best thing about Bloodroot is how it allows you to appreciate the tangible, day-to-day effects of historical change. Throughout the film, Triola places interview footage of Miriam and Furie alongside clips of cultural phenomena from the 60s and 70s, like TV shows, interviews with famous activists, and footage from protest marches. By making this juxtaposition, Triola remedies the fact that history can often seem impersonal, allowing us to see how larger historical movements shaped changes in Miriam and Furie’s private lives.

That said, however, Bloodroot will probably leave the politically attuned side of you feeling somewhat disappointed. By focusing solely on Miriam and Furie – namely, two elderly women – the film remains firmly in the grip of nostalgia. Save for a small sequence towards the very end, there’s nary a reference to present-day developments around feminism, be they big (e.g. #MeToo) or small (e.g. recent accusations that Miriam and Furie are transphobic). Because of these omissions, the film makes feminism look like a set doctrine that belongs to the past, whereas in reality it’s an evolving ideology that still engenders meaningful discussion, change, and debate.

Still, on the whole, Bloodroot proves worth a watch. If, like me, you weren’t around for the 50s, 60s, or 70s, the film will serve as a useful introduction to the turbulence of those decades. And if nothing else, the film also allows us to get to know Miriam and Furie, two seemingly ordinary people who turn out to be veritable fonts of wisdom. Bloodroot may not go as far as it could, but it’ll ultimately leave you quietly moved.