What to Watch: "Queendom"

A stark, stunning documentary portrait of a Russian rebel artist. Plus: Weekend movie recommendations for streaming platforms.

What to Watch: "Queendom"
A scene from "Queendom"

(Note: I'll be sending around this week's Washington Post movie reviews – "Kinds of Kindness," "Daddio," and Kevin Costner's "Horizon: An America Saga, Chapter 1" – in a separate posting for paid subscribers later today.)

“Queendom” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, for rent on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube and elsewhere) is an arresting portrait of an alien/artist/activist who walks among us, and I do mean arresting. Late in Agnila Galdanova’s documentary – available on streaming platforms after winning multiple festival jury and audience awards – Russia begins its invasion of Ukraine, and, amidst violent protests in Moscow, queer performance artist Gena Marvin wraps her tall, spindly body in barbed wire and goes out for a walk in public. It’s a matter of minutes before the riot police roll up to take her into custody. Even they understand what Marvin is doing as a spit in Vladimir Putin’s face.

“Queendom” is about a boy who became a girl and a girl who became an outrageously costumed affront to conformity, machismo, and everything Putin’s Russia holds sacred. On its surface, though, the movie’s a testament to a vision that finds its articulation in costume, physiology and rage. Her six-foot-plus height extended by ten-inch platform heels, Marvin wreathes herself in elaborate home-made costumes and make-up – including massive headdresses and long, branch-like “fingers” – and steps out to do her grocery shopping or to ride the subway.

The intent is not just to shock or provoke (although there’s plenty of that) but to force open a crack of liberating oddity in a paranoid lockstep society. And even more: Marvin’s costumes, looks, entire being represent a slap in the face of an enforced “normal” and hold out the possibility of a new one.

The authorities don’t take this lightly, to say the least, and neither do ordinary Russians, and the 90 minutes of “Queendom” covers four years of Marvin bashing her bald, beautiful head against her countrymens’ fear and loathing of anything different. Often she gets bashed back. There’s no way to process this art as anything but elemental and inherently political protest: A gold-lame mummy swinging through the air at a deserted amusement park; a towering Martian creature kicked out of a supermarket; a blood-red spider-being walking through a park. Marvin is showing Russians their Id – all the individuality they repress – and they hate what they see.

Out of costume, the artist is a gentle giant, an orphan raised by her grandparents in the post-gulag boonies of eastern Russia – they still call her by her deadname, Gennadiy, and can’t understand why she won’t study a trade like a normal boy. Marvin flees first to Moscow and then, as Ukraine is invaded and conscription looms, to Paris and hopeful asylum. We last see her stalking the streets of the City of Light, drenched in fake blood and keening for the state of the world. She’s our Id now, too. Next stop, the universe.

Some recent additions to streaming channels, if you subscribe and are looking for a decent night’s watch:

Netflix: “Aftersun” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, 2022) From my “Best of 2022” round-up:

A heartbreaking and nearly perfect “emotional autobiography” from first-time writer-director Charlotte Wells, it seeks to comprehend the enigma of a father from the vantage points of both an 11-year-old girl and the thirty-something woman she’ll become, with a vintage 1980s video camera the medium of transference between them. It features a restless, bruised performance by Paul Mescal as the father, a gracefully naturalistic find in Frankie Corio as the daughter, and a soundtrack of period pop madeleines that crests with Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” a song that I’ll probably never listen to again without busting into tears.

Amazon: “Skate Kitchen” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, 2018) What I said when I saw it at Sundance back then:

From director Crystal Moselle (“The Wolfpack”), a drama lightly laid atop what feels like a documentary about adolescent girl skateboarders in New York City, with Rachelle Vinberg almost translucently present as a newcomer to the scene and a gaggle of real-life boarders-turned-actresses. The movie is at its weakest when it tries to tell a story — there are boy troubles involving a mellow fellow skateboarder played by Jaden Smith, Will’s son — and at its most poignant simply observing these girls soar through the skate parks and streets of the city in the company of each other.

(Also recommended: Moselle and most of the cast went on to make the 2020-2021 HBO series “Betty,” which is still streaming on Max and available for purchase on Amazon and Apple TV.)

Apple TV+: “Master and Commander” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, 2009) One of the best fighting warships movies ever made, with a perfect cinematic partnership in stalwart British Navy captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and ship’s surgeon/naturalist/spy Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) – Kirk and Spock transported back to the Napoleonic Wars. Funny, thrilling, dramatic, epic, it’s everything a good adventure film should be and much more than the Dad Movie some family members might scorn it as.

Hulu: “Kill Your Darlings” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐, 2013) The early days of the Beats, with a real-life murder muddying the waters. Dane DeHaan is an electrifying Lucien Carr, and this is where Daniel Radcliffe, playing Allen Ginsberg, first served notice that he was much more than Harry Potter.

MAX: “Sugar” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, 2008) A quiet, beautifully observed drama about a young Dominican baseball prospect (Algenis Perez Soto) on a corn-belt minor league team, coming to terms with America and his own hopes. Written and directed with unhurried narrative confidence by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson,” “Captain Marvel”).

Paramount+: “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, 2007) Sidney Lumet’s last hurrah, a nasty little Greater New York crime drama with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers, one sleazy and one dim, and Marisa Tomei as Hoffman’s carnal lollipop of a wife. Back in the day, I summed up my Globe review thusly:

There’s no larger message to the film other than that greed gives us something to hold on to even as it kills us. Greed’s the salve that numbs the pain of all the disappointments – of life after childhood, of life after marriage, of life in New York. A dead man’s wife, one of the movie’s gallery of small, incisive character studies, mourns her husband by saying “he paid the bills,” and it’s a eulogy everyone here understands. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” peels back urban existence to pure survival instinct, and it pares Lumet’s narrative skills to the bone. Let’s pray the man has a few more like this left in him.

He didn’t – “Devil” was Lumet’s last completed film before his death in 2011 – but it wouldn’t be out of place on a shelf just below “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Verdict,” and “Serpico.”

Peacock: “Jack’s Back” (⭐ ⭐ 1/2, 1988) This is from an era when they were trying really hard to make James Spader an above-the-title star instead of a hot perv on the sidelines. It’s a convoluted murder-mystery involving ESP and identical twins and you really don’t care whodunnit, but Spader, looking like he’s genuinely trying to muster interest throughout, glides through the proceedings on a light glaze of sleaze. It’s junk, but it’s watchable junk. At least it was in 1988, which is when I last saw it.

Actually, wait, I wrote the movie up for my then-job as a “film evaluator” (honest, that was my title) at Cinemax in the late 1980s, and I still have the report, along with 1,200 other “evaluations,” in two loose-leaf binders on the top of my bookshelf. I really need to write about that gig someday, but for now, my summary comments on “Jack’s Back” included:

Witty, complex script, solid acting and moody/creepy direction make this suspenser something special up until the final ten minutes, when one more twist is piled on that really isn’t needed … First-time writer-director Rowdy Herrington scores, despite silly name … Spader is very charismatic in the lead, although pseudo-James Dean annoy. Still, he’s better than Judd Nelson.

Act of Violence” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐, 1948) – Still not available on demand anywhere, but there’s a new Blu-ray edition out this week from the Warner Archive Collection. Directed by the young Fred Zinneman, it’s a harrowing, paranoid postwar film noir, with returning hero Van Heflin stalked by a vengeful former platoon mate played by Robert Ryan in one of that actor’s most terrifying and tender performances. Featuring an absurdly young Janet Leigh in her fourth film appearance, this is a nightmare dreamscape verging on the surreal and one of the few post-WWII films to directly address frontline trauma.

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