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Christopher Nolan: What Are We Watching, Exactly?

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Christopher Nolan: What Are We Watching, Exactly?

“The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds.” —The Joker

Christopher Nolan is an artist. Just what kind of artist, and how much we should praise him for it, is another matter. No matter what anyone may say, he is no Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s films, despite their objectivity and reputation for coldness, were studies of characters. Nolan’s films, by contrast, are studies of plot. Indeed, you could say he’s an artist of plot.

This is both his great strength and great weakness. There is much to be frustrated about with his oeuvre: his incoherent action sequences, the endless Hans Zimmer percussion compositions, and his apparent inability to not kill his female characters. But there is no denying the extreme popularity of his films, both in box office grosses and the passion of fans. Indeed, the intense love of Nolan on the Internet is something both frightening and fascinating. Jim Emerson gives the summary of the brouhaha over Nolan’s latest film, Inception (see also Dennis Cozzalio and Roger Ebert). Essentially, a vocal group of fans believes it is wrong and ridiculous to suspect that Nolan is anything less than a genius.

It’s easy to simply write off such intense fandom as displaced Batman nostalgia (no one was up in arms when The Prestige opened to mixed reviews), but it feels like something more. Franchise films like The Dark Knight may have built-in fanbases, but Inception is being praised not because of an established property but because of Nolan himself. (Heck, it may even save the movies!) We can talk about how such hype is excessive, as much a product of Hollywood’s terribly efficient marketing machine as legitimate anticipation. We could discuss how Inception is actually just a pretty fun action movie, its importance probably elevated by the fact that decent summer action films are slowly disappearing beneath tent-pole behemoths and the rapid-fire editing styles of Michael Bay.

Instead, I want to stop and look at Nolan for what he is. I acknowledge that he is flawed. I would not place him in the pantheon of currently working directors. But he is not a hack. His films are careful and deliberate. In fact, their very “deliberateness” is the key aesthetic quality which defines him, and which makes him popular. He is a filmmaker for people who love plots.

Let’s not forget that Nolan is a major commercial filmmaker. He may have gotten his start with a low-budget 16mm independent film, but he is not Richard Linklater. That is, he is not a man working in Hollywood who retains an independent-minded aesthetic, who wants to use his films to explore the human condition. Nolan wants to entertain. Any ideas which pop up throughout his films are secondary.

With that in mind, I’m going to survey Nolan’s films, looking at what works in each of them and what they have in common. I think by both taking Nolan seriously and putting him in perspective we can see what is good about his movies, what we can take away from them, and why, perhaps, they inspire so much passion.

Batman Begins

Let’s begin with Batman Begins (2005), his first big-budget hit. (Nolan’s career can be divided into pre-Batman and post-Batman. I’m starting with the chronologically later post-Batman section, since I believe the excesses here will help to better illuminate his pre-Batman work.) The keyword in this film is “fear.” Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has lived in fear since his parents were killed and now wishes to bring that fear to the criminals of Gotham City. Not justice, mind you, but fear. This contradiction—that Batman’s crusade is less about putting away the bad guys than about his own private frustrations—would seem to lie at the heart of the character and, indeed, the Batman ethos. But this is not what Nolan does with the material. His Batman is rational and calculating. He does not, in fact, appear to be afraid of anything. If he has any flaws, it’s because he pushes himself too hard. All that “fear” business is but a means to an end, a way of rationalizing behavior. (And in the film’s last act, it turns out be the secret weapon of the enemy. Literally in the form of a poison fear gas.)

But the film is still effective because it lays this out so deliberately. The first hour shows Wayne training in Asia with the League of Shadows, an *ahem* shadowy terrorist organization. This is intercut with scenes of Wayne’s childhood and young adulthood. After deciding that the life of a terrorist is not for him, Wayne returns to Gotham and begins planning his role as Batman: building the Batcave, making the suit, buying the Batmobile.

None of this material is really all that surprising to anyone even remotely familiar with the Batman origin story, and that’s precisely the point. It feels like we’re watching the opening of a chess match, the various pieces moving into position. These opening moves are done with precision: the pace is quick as we transition from young rich kid to ninja fight training to the first appearance of “the Bat Man.” It’s like watching the the Star Wars prequels all happen in under an hour, and with more focus and clarity. Hans Zimmer’s drumming works here: it’s propulsive. The film moves.

Of course, in the second half the plot becomes way too complicated and the focus slacks. There are several bad guys, each more deadly then the rest, and nobody really knows who they’re working for. The origin story basically stops altogether so that these various villains can be dispatched. By the time we get to the dreaded poison fear gas, the film’s emotional thread is somewhat lost, and Liam Neeson has to remind us:

“Over the ages, our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham, we tried a new one: Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham’s citizens, such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself and Gotham has limped on ever since. We are back to finish the job.”

Oh, right. So now it’s personal? Or was it personal this whole time?

Despite the climax’s silliness and incoherence, the film ends with the reveal of the Joker as the next threat to Gotham. It’s a great moment, but it works for the same reason the ninja-training sequence worked: it feels part of a deliberate plan to create the legend we already know. When you step back, of course, you realize the film shows you virtually nothing about Bruce Wayne or his personal struggles. (You’re told that he’s a tortured soul, but never shown.) It becomes clear that the parts of the film that work are those where the plot is humming along with purpose. When the plot breaks down, or when the film thinks it’s developing the characters, it falls flat.

The Dark Knight

At the heart of the 2008 sequel, The Dark Knight, is a character out of control from both society’s mores and the film’s plot: Heath Ledger’s Joker. By now enough ink has been spilled on the performance that I won’t spend much time discussing it except to say that he’s magnetic and enthralling because he feels so out of control in a film that is otherwise so deliberately constructed. If the rest of the film were as crazy as the Joker (if it had been directed by, say, Tim Burton) then some of his energy may have been lost. All the other characters, Bruce Wayne chief among them, spend the film looking sad and depressed. The many shots of Gotham at night just look glittery; there’s no dirt and no danger there. The plot is ineffective, too. Without the myth-building of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight starts as a typical superhero tale, with Batman flying to Hong Kong to bring down the mob. It takes the Joker to destroy the plot before it gets interesting.

Nevertheless, as has been discussed endlessly on the Internet, the Joker appears to be the best plot-planner of them all. The Joker has back-ups plans to back-up plans, contingencies to fail-safes. Anything that goes wrong is actually right, because the Joker planned it that way. Even when the Joker loses he is actually winning. When he’s arrested halfway through the film, for example, it may seem like a mishap, but it’s not. Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes have already been kidnapped and strapped to explosives. The Joker’s henchman has already had a bomb implanted in him. Had he not been caught, would this all still have happened, even though the Joker would have lacked an audience?

The fact that none of the Joker’s plans actually make any sense can all be explained away with a simple “He’s crazy! Of course he plans for everything!” But that feels a little cheap. No, the Joker is crazy. It’s the screenplay that’s deliberate. It’s not organic at all. It has places to get to and things to accomplish, and so it goes about accomplishing them in a very matter-of-fact manner. The Joker may be unpredictable, but he’s predictable enough to allow the film to get to its next big beat. Only the insanity of Heath Ledger’s performance makes any part of the film feel unplanned. Without an origin story to hold it together, The Dark Knight lacks a propulsive energy to move it along in a way that feels fun. (Also, Christian Bale seems to have more scenes with the Batman mask on than with it off. This is never a good thing.)

The Prestige

The Prestige (2006), the film that came between Nolan’s two Batman efforts, combines the best and worst of its bigger-budget cousins. On the one hand, the film’s central premise (dueling magicians in turn-of-the-century London try to outwit each other) is compelling enough that when the script steps aside and simply lets Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman perform increasingly dangerous magical feats, it works. It moves with purpose the same way the first hour of Batman Begins moved. In the scene below, Robert Angier (Jackman) and his associates are planning a new trick. The patient explanation of how it works, the difficulty of finding a suitable double, and the final presentation are all compelling.

If this was most of the film, it could be very rewarding. However, the plot twists pile up, the non-linear storytelling becomes excessive (there are a series of lying diaries), and almost all emotional investment in the characters evaporates by the end. Angier’s rival, Alfred Borden (Bale) is, in fact, two people. Which leads to all kinds of questions about who, exactly, we’ve been watching for the previous two hours. It’s the sort of detail which, had the audience learned it in the first 10 minutes, could have been explored in much more depth. Two brothers, both so obsessed with success, that they destroy their lives and families for a chance at fame? I’d watch that. The same goes for Angier’s science-fiction teleportation device, which makes a copy of whatever you put inside of it. The fact that this is “unrealistic” doesn’t bother me so much as the fact that the implications are kept hidden until the end of the film: in order to successfully perform his trick, in which Angier appears to be teleported to the theater balcony, he must kill the “original” copy of himself. In essence, this means every time he performs the trick he must die. Again: a magician so obsessed with success that he’d actually drown himself after every trick? I’d watch that. But Nolan turns both of these into surprise “twists” at the end of the movie, thereby ensuring that they’ll go unexplored and that he has nothing of value to say about obsession or fame.

Nevertheless, the film is superbly constructed, and the ending’s “wow” factor is up there with the best of M. Night Shaymalan. The plot is ridiculous, but it’s ridiculous in such a well-done way. If you don’t care about what it means for the characters, then the film’s last shot is really striking.

Inception

The ending of Inception now seems to be headed for a similar reaction, even though its final shot is much more gimmicky and predictable. Nolan’s most recent film continues the trend of his previous three: an intriguing concept (corporate spies sneak into people’s dreams to steal their secrets) is used simply to set up cool action and plot beats. It’s all expertly done, of course. The second half of Inception, in which the team of extractors attempt to implant an idea in the subconscious of corporate heir Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), is a stellar action sequence. I was captivated the entire time. The ability to throw up to five simultaneous sequences in the air and juggle them for what must be at least an hour is certainly an accomplishment. Of course, I cared nothing about any of the characters or even the stakes of their assignment. It worked on a purely visceral level. The last shot only confirmed this. “Har, har, har…Did the top fall or not? We’ll never know!” There are easily a dozen films in the last decade with similar endings. (If you have not seen the film I will not try to tell you what the top is or what it means. It would take more words to explain than will fill the rest of this article.) Inception, in other words, is following Nolan’s trend of being a fun film when the plot is fun, but uninterested in much beyond that.

Following

Although this trend has intensified in recent years, it was always a major part of Nolan’s work. Following (1998), Nolan’s first, self-financed feature film, contains in miniature most of the elements he’s returned to since. It’s a crime story, told non-linearly, focusing on a tortured man. This unnamed protagonist is a writer, and he starts following people for no particular reason, just to see where they’ll go. He ends up catching the attention of a burglar named Cobb (also the name of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception) who brings him along on his jobs. Cobb isn’t much interested in the homes’ possessions. He just wants to scare people out of complacency: “You take it away, and you show them what they had.” He sounds more than a little like the Joker.

It turns out that Cobb is actually using the writer as a patsy. He frames him for his girlfriend’s murder (a plot his girlfriend, in another strange twist, is also a part of). This, of course, is another favorite Nolan device: the trick ending, or the revelation of something “important” in the film’s final minutes. It isn’t detrimental to Following as it is to The Prestige since it becomes clear early on that the writer is being used by Cobb for some unspecified end. Most of the film is dialogue, and Nolan lets it build slowly to the big finish. Following is by no means a game changer, but it bodes well and exemplifies Nolan’s best and most defining trait: his deliberate pacing and style. The film is not in a rush to get anywhere, but Nolan is sure that it’s going exactly where he wants it to.

Memento

Memento (2000) makes such careful plotting its mission statement. The film famously tells its story backwards, as it follows amnesiac Leonard (Guy Pearce) on a quest to find the man who killed his wife. It’s a gimmick, yes, but an effective one. On a first viewing, you’re as much in the dark as Leonard is, and you struggle to keep up with the action. On a second viewing, you’re able to take a step back and realize how Leonard is being taken advantage of by basically everyone around him, from the hotel clerk who charges him for two rooms to the police officer Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) who uses him to kill drug dealers. I think the film’s innovative (though not unique; see Harold Pinter’s Betrayal or the Seinfeld episode it inspired, “The Betrayal,” for other examples) storytelling style tends to mask that the movie is mostly just a character study of a very sad and lonely man, but it’s nevertheless Nolan’s best use of plot in the service of character. In the future, his plots will merely be used in the service of more plot.

Insomnia

I’ve saved Nolan’s Insomnia (2002) for last because it is both his best film and the least Nolan-esque. This is probably because the screenplay is not Nolan’s own: it is by Hilary Seitz, and is based on the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. The film is linear, with no complicated plot mechanics to understand or unravel. It has no pretensions to say anything about “memory,” “fear,” “free will,” or whatever other themes Nolan sprinkles throughout his filmography. It’s a fairly straightforward police procedural: L.A. detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner are called to Nightmute, Alaska to help with a murder investigation. Dormer is under investigation by Internal Affairs back home and under a lot of stress. During a stake-out where they have the killer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), cornered, Dormer accidentally shoots and kills his partner, who was set to testify against him. Dormer covers up the killing and eventually, with the help of Finch, tries to pin the case on a local teenager.

Like Ledger in The Dark Knight, Pacino elevates the material simply by showing up. He effectively conveys the torment Dormer is under. (Note to Christian Bale: Frowning is not the same thing as having inner demons.) Filmed in British Columbia, it’s also the best-looking of Nolan’s films. Furthermore, it has something that no other Nolan film besides Following seems to have: a number of quiet dialogue scenes which don’t feel rushed. No pounding music, no heavy plot exposition, no urgent story beats to hit, just characters talking and interacting. This doesn’t mean the film is slow, by any means, but it shows a consideration of story and pacing beyond merely making things complicated and tricking the viewer.

Insomnia also contains an action sequence unlike anything in Nolan’s other films. The aforementioned stake-out scene takes place on a foggy, rock-strewn beach. As Dormer chases Finch, he has to contend with the number of large rocks protruding from the ground. The many quick cuts of his feet navigating the terrain and the sound of his shoes scraping against them are surprisingly tactile. It feels physical in a way no other Nolan action sequence does. The characters are not just interacting with their environment by jumping off of it; they’re contending with their environment, forcing themselves to maneuver in unexpected ways. It’s also a key detail for the scene: because Dormer becomes distracted in the course of the chase, he mistakes his partner for the killer and shoots him.

Compare this to an early scene from The Dark Knight, in which Batman is able to travel just about anywhere and do just about anything.

Again, the defense is that The Dark Knight is fantastical, while Insomnia is not. Fair enough, but the latter scene lacks any tension, any sense of danger. What’s the point of watching Batman when there’s no chance harm will come to him?

It comes down to this: Nolan may be not a great storyteller, but he is a great constructer of moments. When Batman first appears in Batman Begins or when Leonard decides to fake evidence that Teddy is his wife’s killer in Memento the “Holy Crap” feeling is genuine. I believe this is what attracts people to Nolan. He plots his films in such a way as to give maximum exposure to the handful of “awesome” moments throughout, allowing them to feel earned in a way they probably aren’t. In an age when Michael Bay can deliver an instinctual or visceral thrill, Nolan offers something just a little bit more: the sense that it’s not all chaos, that the story at least appears to be planned. Thus, when a big moment occurs, you feel the rush of being taken for a ride. It’s not quite the same thing as being told a well-crafted story: almost all of Nolan’s films fall apart or become scrambled at the end. But it’s better than being on a roller coaster with absolutely no sense of direction. In today’s blockbuster environment, that may be enough to turn you into an auteur.

The problem is that as Nolan’s career has progressed, he’s lost sight of how to make those moments feel organic. The moments are there, but how do they connect to the larger film? Nolan’s filmography can perhaps be summed up by the iconic shot of the Joker in The Dark Knight, sticking his head out the police car window, oblivious to the dangers around him—an image of freed chaos. It’s a small, lyrical moment, and it feels like it happened by accident. The shot is surrounded by so much plot detritus that it feels like a scream from a smarter, better film. Alas, such fleeting moments are perhaps the best we can hope for from Christopher Nolan, the plot-master.

The Dark Knight

Tom Elrod is a graduate student in English Literature at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

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The 100 Best Horror Movies of All Time

The good horror film insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity.

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The 100 Greatest Horror Movies of All Time
Photo: Orion Pictures

One of the most common claims made about horror films is that they allow audiences to vicariously play with their fear of death. Inarguable, really, but that’s also too easy, as one doesn’t have to look too far into a genre often preoccupied with offering simulations of death to conclude that the genre in question is about death. That’s akin to saying that all an apple ever really symbolizes is an apple, and that symbols and subtexts essentially don’t exist. A more interesting question: Why do we flock to films that revel in what is, in all likelihood, our greatest fear? And why is death our greatest fear?

A startling commonality emerges if you look over the following films in short succession that’s revelatory of the entire horror genre: These works aren’t about the fear of dying, but the fear of dying alone, a subtlety that cuts to the bone of our fear of death anyway—of a life unlived. There’s an explicit current of self-loathing running through this amazing collection of films. What are Norman Bates and Jack Torrance besides eerily all-too-human monsters? Failures. Success also ultimately eludes Leatherface, as well as the socially stunted lost souls of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. What is the imposing creature at the dark heart of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu? He makes for quite the presence, but his hungers ultimately lead him to oblivion.

So many films, particularly American ones, tell us that we can be whatever we want to be, and that people who don’t achieve their desired self-actualization are freaks. The horror film says: Wait Jack, it ain’t that easy. This genre resents platitude (certainly, you can count the happy endings among these films on one hand), but the good horror film usually isn’t cynical, as it insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity. Which is to say there’s hope, and catharsis, offered by the horror film. It tells us bruised romantics that we’re all in this together, thus offering evidence that we may not be as alone as we may think. Chuck Bowen

Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the titles that made the original 2013 incarnation of our list.


Raw

100. Raw (2016)

As in Ginger Snaps, which Raw thematically recalls, the protagonist’s supernatural awakening is linked predominantly to sex. At the start of the film, Justine (Garance Marillier) is a virgin who’s poked and prodded relentlessly by her classmates until she evolves only to be rebuffed for being too interested in sex—a no-win hypocrisy faced by many women. High-pressure taunts casually and constantly hang in the air, such as Alexia’s (Ella Rumpf) insistence that “beauty is pain” and a song that urges a woman to be “a whore with decorum.” In this film, a bikini wax can almost get one killed, and a drunken quest to get laid can, for a female, lead to all-too-typical humiliation and ostracizing. Throughout Raw, director Julia Ducournau exhibits a clinical pitilessness that’s reminiscent of the body-horror films of David Cronenberg, often framing scenes in symmetrical tableaus that inform the various cruelties and couplings with an impersonality that’s ironically relieved by the grotesque intimacy of the violence. We’re witnessing conditioning at work, in which Justine is inoculated into conventional adulthood, learning the self-shame that comes with it as a matter of insidiously self-censorious control. By the film’s end, Ducournau has hauntingly outlined only a few possibilities for Justine: that she’ll get with the program and regulate her hunger properly, or be killed or institutionalized. Bowen


A Bay of Blood

99. A Bay of Blood (1971)

Compared to the other giallo films that comprise most of Mario Bava’s canon, A Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve) represents a more stripped-down and economic filmmaking from the Italian master. Notably absent are the supernatural undertones and fetishistic sexuality, and Bava even suppresses the vigorous impulses and desires that drive his characters to exteriorize their feelings in vicious bursts of violence by offering no valid (or convincing) psychological explanation. Despite being one of Bava’s simpler works, or perhaps because of that very reason, A Bay of Blood has proven to be the foremost progenitor of the slasher film, the one in which the Jason Voorheeses and Ghostfaces owe their blade of choice to. But it’s only the basic tenor of a psychopath slaying victims one by one that’s remained intact within the subgenre in the 40-plus years of this film’s existence. It’s in this film’s elementary plotting that Bava, by withholding information and leaning more on animalistic themes dictating bizarre character motivation, unveils a deceptive depth that the film’s acolytes can’t discern among the copious amounts of blood spilled within its frames. Wes Greene


Alice, Sweet Alice

98. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Throughout Alice, Sweet Alice, Alfred Sole paints a rich and febrile portrait of how society enables dysfunction on multiple fronts, from the domestic to the religious to the psychiatric. (The police are shown to be restorers of order, though they serve that function almost inadvertently.) The filmmaker also invests his narrative with references to classic horror films, most notably Psycho, though his own direction lacks Alfred Hitchcock’s polish, which in this case is a blessing. In the film’s best sequences, particularly the moments following Karen’s (Brooke Shields) murder, Sole allows for tonal inconsistencies that reflect the true shock of violence. In such instances, Alice, Sweet Alice turns momentarily shrill, with actors screeching their lines almost directly to the camera—a device that expresses pain and refutes the fashions with which many horror directors rush through the grief process haphazardly in order to move the narrative along. In other moments, though, Sole’s directorial control is magisterial. Annie’s (Jane Lowry) near murder, when she’s stabbed on the stairway, is framed in a prismatic image, with a mirror reflecting the assault back on itself and suggesting, once again, the intense insularity of this world. Bowen


Bram Stoker’s Dracula

97. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

“See me. See me now,” Gary Oldman’s undead vampire intones, so as to magically compel virginal Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) to turn his way on a crowded London street. The two wind up at a cinematograph, “the greatest attraction of the century.” The intersection of vampire and victim in front of a labyrinth of movie screens is telling, as Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the classic Bram Stoker material winds up collapsing history and cinema together. Coppola shunned budding CGI technology in favor of in-camera techniques such as rear projection (as when we see Dracula’s eyes fade in over the countryside, overlooking a callow Keanu Reeves) and forced perspective (such as trick shots using miniatures of castles, which seem to loom over the full-sized actors and coaches in the foreground). However flagrantly artificial and constructed, the whole film feels uniquely alive. Dracula has “crossed oceans of time” to find Mina, and Coppola shows how the cinematically preternatural similarly finds and seduces audiences—how movies offer their own sparkle of immortality. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is noteworthy for how un-scary it is, and yet Coppola’s fanciful movie tool-box conceits, in perfect sync with Oldman’s deliciously over-the-top performance, exert an overpowering sense of the uncanny. Like the vampire, the film infects us and offers an illusory respite from death. Niles Schwartz


Blood for Dracula

96. Blood for Dracula (1974)

The horror of Blood for Dracula derives in part from director Paul Morrissey’s unique ability to meld social critique, gonzo humor, and gore into a genre piece that’s ambivalent about the passing of eras. Udo Kier’s Count Dracula, unable to find virgin blood amid the sexually active women of a 19th-century Italian family, finds himself quite literally poisoned by change. As Dracula vomits up non-virgin blood like water from a fire hydrant, Morrissey films Kier’s convulsing body not for campy laughs, but to highlight its anguish and deterioration. The opening shot, set to Claudio Gizzi’s tragic score, holds on Dracula in close-up as he delicately applies make-up. The film, far too strange to be flatly interpreted as a conservative lament for lost sexual decorum, convincingly focuses on the body as the root source of all humankind’s tribulations, whether in pursuit of pleasure or gripped in pain. Clayton Dillard


Martyrs

95. Martyrs (2008)

Writer-director Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs leaves you with the scopophilic equivalent of shell shock. The gauntlet that his film’s heroine, a “final girl” who’s abducted and tortured by a religious cult straight out of a Clive Barker novel, is forced to endure is considerable. Which is like saying that King Kong is big, Vincent Price’s performances are campy, and blood is red. Laugier’s film is grueling because there’s no real way to easily get off on images of simulated violence. The film’s soul-crushing finale makes it impossible to feel good about anything Laugier has depicted. In it, Laugier suggests that there’s no way to escape from the pain of the exclusively physical reality of his film. You don’t watch Laugier’s harrowing feel-bad masterpiece—rather, you’re held in its thrall. Abandon hope all ye who watch here. Simon Abrams


Night of the Demon

94. Night of the Demon (1957)

With Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur pits logic against the boundless mysteries of the supernatural, focusing not on the fear of the unknown and unseen, but the fear of accepting and confronting the inexplicable. After asking Dana Andrews’s comically hardheaded Dr. Holden how can one differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind, Niall MacGinnis’s wily satanic cult leader conjures up a storm of epic proportions to prove to the pragmatic doctor that the power of the dark arts is no joke. But the warning doesn’t take. Later, when a man is shredded to pieces by a demon, onlookers debate whether the death was a result of a passing train or something more nefarious, to which Holden retorts, “Maybe it’s better not to know.” Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, sometimes the easiest way to deal with the devil is to pretend he doesn’t exist. Derek Smith


The Devil’s Backbone

93. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

Guillermo del Toro’s films are rabid commentaries on the suspension of time, often told through the point of view of children. A bomb is dropped from the skies above an isolated Spanish orphanage, which leaves a boy bleeding to death in its mysterious, inexplosive wake. His corpse is then tied and shoved into the orphanage’s basement pool, and when a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives at the ghostly facility some time later, he seemingly signals the arrival of Franco himself. A rich political allegory disguised as an art-house spooker, The Devil’s Backbone hauntingly ruminates on the decay of country whose living are so stuck in past as to seem like ghosts. But there’s hope in brotherhood, and in negotiating the ghostly Santi’s past and bandying together against the cruel Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the film’s children ensure their survival and that of their homeland. Ed Gonzalez


Let the Right One In

92. Let the Right One In (2008)

Not unlike Matt Reeves’s American remake, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is, in its color scheme and emotional tenor, something almost unbearably blue. When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old outcast perpetually bullied at school, meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the mysterious new girl at his apartment complex, one child’s painful coming of age is conflated with another’s insatiable bloodlust. The film treats adolescence, even a vampire’s arrested own, as a prolonged horror—life’s most vicious and unforgiving set piece. This study of human loneliness and the prickly crawlspace between adolescence and adulthood is also an unexpectedly poignant queering of the horror genre. Don’t avert your eyes from Alfredson’s gorgeously, meaningfully aestheticized vision, though you may want to cover your neck. Gonzalez


Black Cat

91. Black Cat (1934)

Based loosely on one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most disquieting tales, 1934’s The Black Cat is one of the neglected jewels in Universal Studios’s horror crown. Edgar Ulmer’s melancholy film is a confrontation between two disturbed World War I veterans, one warped by an evil faith and the other a shattered ghost of a man driven by revenge, and the young couple that becomes entangled in their twisted game. It’s a fable of modernity darkened with war, obsession, and madness. Much like the other tone poem of the Universal horror series, Karl Freund’s gorgeously mannered The Mummy, Ulmer’s deeply elegiac film is a grief-stricken work, a spiraling ode to overwhelming loss, both personal and universal. Josh Vasquez


Brain Damage

90. Brain Damage (1988)

Throughout Brain Damage, Frank Henenlotter’s images have a compact and gnarly vitality. He frequently cordons people off by themselves in individual frames, serving the low budget with pared-down shot selections while intensifying the lonely resonance of a man set adrift with his cravings. Bria’sn (Rick Herbst) degradation suggests the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the threat and alienation of AIDS lingers over the outré, sexualized set pieces, especially when Brian cruises a night club called Hell and picks up a woman, who’s murdered by Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle) just as she’s about to go down on Brian. The most hideous of this film’s images is a shot of the back of Brian’s neck after Aylmer—an eight-inch-or-so-long creature that resembles a cross between a tapeworm, a dildo, and an ambulant piece of a shit along the lines of South Park’s Mr. Hanky—has first injected him, with its cartography of blood lines that are so tactile we can nearly feel Brian’s pain as he touches it. Such moments hammer home the unnerving simplicity of the premise, likening drug addiction to volunteer parasitism, rendering self-violation relatable via its inherently paradoxical alien-ness. Bowen


Gremlins

89. Gremlins (1984)

Outlining his customary commentary on American society via an artistry informed by influences ranging from B horror films to Looney Tunes, Joe Dante satirizes our neglect of rationality under rampant commercialism through the nasty titular creatures. All raging id, the Gremlins want nothing more than to indulge in every vice that our increasingly corporatized culture has to offer. The resulting anarchy unleashed by the Gremlins during the yuletide season is appropriate, considering they were created when Zach Galligan’s Billy, like an official advocating free-market deregulation, ignored foreboding warnings that terror would occur if he had just stuck to the three simple rules of caring for Gizmo, the cutest of all Gremlins. Wes Greene


Angst

88. Angst (1983)

Gerald Kargl’s Angst is a 75-minute cinematic panic attack. Body-mounted cameras, high-angle tracking shots, amplified sound design, and a bone-chilling krautrock score swirl together to create a manic, propulsive energy that’s as disorienting to the viewer as the implacable urge to kill is for Erwin Leder’s unnamed psychopath. Angst elides all psychological trappings, instead tapping directly into this all-consuming desire for destruction on a purely physiological and experiential level. Kargl’s camera prowls around Leder’s madman like an ever-present ghost—a haunting, torturous presence that captures every bead of cold sweat, each anxiety-ridden movement, and the agony of all his facial expressions as he tracks his prey. Angst is as singular and exhausting an account of psychopathy as any put to celluloid, thrusting the viewer helplessly into discomfiting closeness with a killer without attempting to explain or forgive his heinous acts. Smith


The Devils

87. The Devils (1971)

Ken Russell brings his unique sensibility, at once resolutely iconoclastic and excessively enamored of excess, to this adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s nonfiction novel The Devils of Loudun, which concerns accusations of witchcraft and demonic possession that run rampant in an Ursuline convent in 17th-century France. Like Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General, and set in roughly the same time period, Russell’s film serves as an angry denunciation of social conformity and the arbitrary whims of the political elite that effectively disguises itself as a horror movie. By brazenly conflating religious and sexual hysteria, and depicting both with his characteristic lack of restraint, Russell pushes his already edgy material into places that are so intense and discomforting that the film was subsequently banned in several countries and is to this day still unavailable on home video in a complete and uncut version. Budd Wilkins


The Blair Witch Project

86. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Before the flourishing digital age paved the way for social-media naval-gazing, YouTube, and selfies galore, The Blair Witch Project foreshadowed the narcissism of a generation, its success unsurprisingly paving the way for an army of imitators that failed to grasp the essence of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s terrifyingly singular and effortlessly self-reflexive genre exercise. The heartbreaking fall from sanity experienced by the trio of naïve filmmakers preys with ecstatic precision on our most instinctive fears, building to a rousing crescendo of primordial terror that’s arguably unrivaled by anything the genre has seen before or since. Rob Humanick


Who Can Kill a Child?

85. Who Can Kill a Child? (1972)

Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? takes its time building a mood of palpable dread, eking menace out of every social encounter faced by a British couple, Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), vacationing on the coast of Spain. When they charter a small boat and travel out to a remote island village, the streets are curiously empty and the only residents seem to be sullen, introspective children. Ibáñez Serrador methodically draws out the waiting game, and as the kids gather their sinister forces and close in on our unsuspecting couple, a moral conflict arises. The adults are forced to contemplate the unthinkable, doing battle with the little monsters and struggling with the notion that they may have to kill or be killed. Tom manages to get his hand on a machine gun, and he carries it around with him protectively as the audience wonders to themselves how he’ll answer the question posed in the title. Whether or not the answer surprises us during these cynical times, the aftermath is as disarming as it is disturbing. The closing 10 minutes come from a different era in filmmaking, when horror movies could spit in the eye of the status quo and say that good doesn’t always prevail, no matter how much we’d like it to. Jeremiah Kipp


The Haunting

84. The Haunting (1963)

Cacophonous knocking, inexplicable coldness, and doors that have a habit of opening and closing when no one’s looking—the horrors of Hill House are almost entirely unseen in Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s famous novel The Haunting of Hill House. But they’re nonetheless chillingly tangible, brought to life by The Haunting’s supercharged production values: Elliot Scott’s dazzlingly florid interiors; Davis Boulton’s swooping, darting wide-angle cinematography; and, most of all, a quiet-loud-quiet sound design that suggests the presence of the spirit world more forcefully than some corny translucent ghost ever could. The film’s oh-so-1960s psychosexual subtext may be slightly under-baked, but that only serves to heighten the verisimilitude of its supernatural happenings. After all, there are some things in this world even Freud can’t explain. Keith Watson


Häxan

83. Häxan (1922)

Near the conclusion of Häxan, an intertitle asks: “The witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops, but isn’t superstition still rampant among us?” Such a rhetorical question is in keeping with the implications of Benjamin Christensen’s eccentric historical crawl through representations of evil. Though the film begins as something of a lecture on the topic of women’s bodies as a threat, it morphs into an array of sketches, images, and dramatizations of mankind’s fundamental inability to conceive itself outside of power and difference. Contemporary footage of insane asylums and women being treated for hysteria confirms a truth that’s still with us, nearly a century later: that the horrors of the past are never so far away. Dillard


In the Mouth of Madness

82. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

John Carpenter’s 1995 sleeper is a lot of things: a noir, a Stephen King satire, a meta-meta-horror workout, a parody of its own mechanics. Carpenter can’t quite stick the landing(s), but watching his film twist and turn and disappear inside of itself as it twists its detective thriller beats into a full-on descent into the stygian abyss proves consistently compelling. Perhaps the best tack is that of Sam Neill’s driven-mad investigator, pictured in the film’s final frames hooting at images of himself projected in an abandoned movie theater. Perhaps the best way to enjoy In the Mouth of Madness is to relinquish your sanity, losing yourself inside of its loopy, Lovecraftian logic. John Semley


Near Dark

81. Near Dark (1987)

The zenith of a career phase defined by sneakily subversive genre films, Kathryn Bigelow’s melancholic Near Dark remains a singular milestone in the evolution of the vampire myth. It’s a delirious fever dream grounded periodically by masterfully constructed scenes of carnage and the rooting of its mythology in the period’s twin boogeymen of addiction and infection. An excellent cast of pulp icons—Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen are particularly unhinged—bring restless energy to the story of itinerant vampires cruising the neon-soaked highways of a beautifully desolate Southwest. It’s Gus Van Sant through a Southern-gothic haze, thrumming with an urgency bestowed by Tangerine Dream’s score and thematic heft alike. Abhimanyu Das

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Review: Robert Zemeckis’s Take on The Witches Casts a Weak Spell

This is a sleeker-looking vehicle that’s eager to be scary but not comfortable being ugly.

1.5

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The Witches
Photo: HBO Max

For anybody arguing that the grand potential for boundary-breaking entertainment in 2020’s wide-open world of content-hungry streaming services has produced more mediocrity than anything else, Robert Zemeckis’s take on Roald Dahl’s dementedly fun short novel The Witches could serve as a key piece of evidence. While there are some elements to admire in this adaptation, particularly its being cast with mostly black performers, much of it falls into the category of Competent But Unnecessary Remake. In other words, another piece of family-friendly-ish content to fill the yawning hours of pandemic confinement.

While the setting is shifted from late-1980s Europe to 1968 Alabama, the bones of the story—scripted by Zemeckis along with Guillermo del Toro and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris—match those of Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation. An orphaned and unnamed young boy (Jahzir Bruno) is sent to live in with his kindly but starchy Grandma (Octavia Spencer). After a frightening run-in with a snake-carrying woman who eyes him like he was a tasty piece of candy, the boy is informed by Grandma that what he saw was no woman, but a witch. Knowing from personal experience that witches love to kidnap children and turn them into animals, Grandma decides it’s time for a vacation. Unfortunately, their destination also happens to be the site of an international witches’ convention (meeting under the tongue-in-cheek name of the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children).

Much of Zemeckis’s film follows the boy coming to terms with loss and trying to rediscover some sense of fun even while navigating the danger posed by the witches and the delectable chocolate bars they use as bait. Things come to a head in a showy dramatic scene roughly halfway through the film set inside a swanky hotel ballroom. That’s where the witches—who otherwise look like heavily made-up society ladies from a well-intentioned, awards-courting period film about the South—meet to remove their human camouflage and scheme about best practices for annihilating children from the planet. Trapped under the dais, the boy is treated to the spectacle of the witches removing their wigs, gloves, and shoes to reveal a sea of bald heads, claws, and monstrous, Joker-wide jaws normally hidden by pancake makeup.

While advances in the quality of special effects since 1990 should theoretically have made the ballroom scene a blockbuster showcase, the CGI deployed here is for the most part unimpressive. The rippling of the witches’ bodies as they transform is rendered almost seamlessly. But that smoothness of effect ends up achieving little of the impact delivered by the grotesque Dark Crystal-esque physical effects that Jim Henson Studios used for Roeg’s more disquieting version. This is a sleeker-looking vehicle that’s eager to be scary but not comfortable being ugly. When Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch in Roeg’s film removed her human guise, she was revealed as a long-beaked monster rippling with pustules and stray hairs. The Grand High Witch of this version, played by Anne Hathaway, has the same sashaying arrogance, but it’s more suited for a fashion show’s runway than a child’s nightmares.

More positively, this adaptation of The Witches benefits from the increased willingness of studio producers to greenlight projects with largely black casts for a “mainstream” audience. Also, Zemeckis fortunately didn’t feel a need to repeat the previous film’s coda, which tried in slapdash fashion to cast some light on a chilling Grimmsian fairy tale about murdered children. However, that coda is replaced by a non-Dahl framing device voiced by Chris Rock that brings a new wrinkle to the conclusion which would be more enjoyable if it weren’t doing double duty as the launch pad for potential sequels or spin-offs.

Cast: Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, Kristin Chenoweth, Chris Rock, Codie-Lei Eastick Director: Robert Zemeckis Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, Guillermo del Toro Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s Satire Could Use Sharper Teeth

Too often, the film teases big, wild comedic set pieces that end up deflating almost instantly.

2.5

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Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Photo: Amazon Studios

Following the massive global success of Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s most indelible comic creation became a victim of his own success. The mustachioed Kazakh journalist—whose racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and downright backwardness are leavened by his blithe optimism—became so recognizable—in part, through the ubiquity of bad impersonations and cheap Halloween costumes—that he had to be effectively retired. That’s a shame, because while Borat was always, at heart, a cartoonish stereotype, he was also a potent and surprisingly elastic embodiment of America’s deep ignorance about the rest of the world.

Though ostensibly a reflection of small-town Kazakh life, Cohen’s vision of Kazakhstan is really an elaborate amalgamation of various Warsaw Pact countries, including Russia and Poland, and though Borat himself would be loath to admit it, his incomprehensible language draws inspiration from Romani and Hebrew. In 2006, at the height of George W. Bush’s so-called war on terror, Borat was often mistaken for an Arab. In one of the original film’s most notorious scenes, rodeo producer Bobby Rowe advises Borat to shave his “dadgum mustache,” which makes him look suspiciously Muslim, so that he might even pass for an Italian. (All this before eagerly agreeing with Borat on the subject of executing gay people.)

In Borat’s much-belated follow-up feature—officially titled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, with lengthy, ever-changing subtitles such as Gift of Pornographic Monkey to Vice Premier Mikhael Pence to Make Benefit Recently Diminished Nation of Kazakhstan appearing on screen throughout—Borat is coded less as an Arab and more as an avatar of Eastern Europe, that part of the world where poverty and post-Soviet collapse have fostered a climate conducive to sex trafficking. This region is where Jeffrey Epstein allegedly outright purchased a young woman, Nadia Marcinko, and where Donald Trump’s third wife (whom Epstein claimed to have introduced to the Donald) hails from as well. It’s no surprise, then, that cracks about Epstein and jokes about Melania being Trump’s golden-caged slave are frequent in the film. An important revelation is even inspired by a TV broadcast of the infamous footage of Trump and Epstein partying together. While Cohen’s satirical targets are too diverse and the film’s structure too freeform to lock the film down to a single thematic underpinning, the use and abuse of young women by powerful men is its most persistent satirical target.

After being sentenced to a gulag for disgracing his country with his prior film, Borat is offered by former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (Dani Popescu) a chance to redeem himself by traveling to America and gifting Vice President Mike Pence with the locally famous simian porn star Johnny the Monkey. Unfortunately for Borat, Johnny is eaten on the journey over by his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who stowed away in the same shipping container as the primate. What’s Borat to do? The solution is obvious: to present Pence with his underage daughter instead—which he does, albeit from a distance, dressed as Donald Trump while Pence delivers a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. When that fails, he chooses a much more willing recipient, one whose all-too-eager response to Tutar’s advances have already made headlines: Trump’s personal consigliere, Rudy Giuliani.

The climactic confrontation with Giuliani inside the Mark Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, during which Tutar poses as a conservative journalist in order to make her move on “America’s Mayor,” is perhaps Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s most shocking and uncomfortably hilarious scene—not simply for the already-infamous hand-in-his-pants moment. The giddiness that Giuliani exhibits in response to Tutar’s sexual advances illustrates so starkly the lecherous sense of entitlement that drives such inappropriate and predacious behavior.

If only the entire film were up to the standard of that scene, Cohen might have achieved the impossible and lived up to the groundbreaking impact of Borat. And there are other individual sequences whose discomfiting rawness would not have been out of place in the first film, such as a trip to a Christian-run crisis pregnancy center after Tutar accidentally swallows a baby decoration on top of a cupcake. The staff member, thinking she’s pregnant and asking for an abortion, firmly assures her that the baby is in fact a blessing, even when he’s under the impression that it was the result of incestuous rape. An interview with an Instagram influencer who preaches the gospel of feminine weakness and subservience to men is on point as topical satire though not as cringe-inducingly funny as the best Cohen material.

More often, though, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm teases big, wild comedic set pieces that end up deflating almost instantly. A trip to the Texas State Fair—with Borat disguised, as he is for much of the film, as a grizzled hayseed with a Prince Valiant hairdo—would seem to offer endless opportunities for up-close-and-personal pranks, but instead it’s largely just the backdrop for a few sight gags. Similarly, Borat’s elaborate transformation into Donald Trump in order to infiltrate CPAC presents a golden opportunity for some bread-and-butter Cohen antics, providing unsuspecting reactionaries with the perfect opportunity to tell the president they love (and, unwittingly, the audience) what they really think. Instead, the whole affair is wasted on a stunt that gets Cohen immediately kicked out of the event.

Where Borat mined the humor of reaction—how do unsuspecting, and mostly well-meaning, people react when confronted with a ludicrous foreigner who says wildly un-PC things?—the sequel too often feels like it’s desperately struggling to shock its unwitting participants and coming up short, as evidenced by an outlandish fertility dance performed at a debutante ball. This absurd spectacle, which climaxes in Tutar flashing her menstruation-soaked panties, barely produces a whimper from the spectators. And while the film is, for the most part, no less crude than its predecessors—gleefully indulging in stereotypes about backwards foreigners—there are signs that Cohen may have lost some edge in the intervening decade and a half.

Cohen evidently wants us to feel for his subjects, to find even a bit of empathy for some Qanon conspiracy theorists and Trump cultists. That may be a noble goal in itself, but it’s not always the stuff of sharp satire. Nor is the film’s closing entreaty to the audience to get out and vote. Borat, like practically all satirically minded comedy in the Trump era, has been swallowed up into the all-consuming maw of electoral politics. If the idea of the original Borat ending with a plea to go to the polls would have seemed almost absurdly out of place, in 2020, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm doing the same feels almost inevitable.

Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova Director: Jason Woliner Screenwriter: Peter Baynham, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Swimer Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks Honors PTA’s Ambiguities

Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work.

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Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks

The title of Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is misleading, evoking what the author refers to in the book’s introduction as “…cheerleading—the stroking, in prose, of already tumescent reputations.” While Nayman clearly reveres one of the most acclaimed and mythologized of contemporary American filmmakers, he’s willing to take the piss out of his subject, sveltely moving between Anderson’s strengths, limitations, and the obsessions that bind them, fashioning an ornate and suggestive system of checks and balances. Like Glenn Kenny’s Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, Masterworks pushes back against the simplistic, bro-ish language of adulation, and attending backlash, that often obscures a major artist’s achievements. In the process, Nayman achieves one of a critic’s loftiest goals: grappling with a body of work while honoring its mystery.

Masterworks is uncomfortable with the modern iteration of auteurism, which has been corrupted from its French New Wave origins by being utilized as often macho shorthand that denies the contributions of other craftspeople involved in a film’s production. (At the end of the book are several essential interviews with key Anderson collaborators, such as producer JoAnne Sellar, cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer Jack Fisk, and composter Johnny Greenwood.) Seeking to refute the Horatio Alger element of a particular auteur worship, in which a body of work is discussed chronologically, with a filmmaker’s maturation noted with easy retrospection as a kind of manifest destiny, Nayman assembles Anderson’s films in chronological order according to the time periods in which they’re set. The book opens with 2007’s There Will Be Blood (the director’s fifth film) and penultimately concludes with 2002’s contemporary-set Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s final (to date) curdled valentine to San Fernando Valley, as well as his first psychodrama with a loner at its center. Nayman only deviates from this concept once, as 2017’s Phantom Thread, Anderson’s eighth and most recent film, is saved for last and presented as a culmination of a blossoming sensibility.

This structure creates a fascinating temporal zig-zag that mirrors the chaotic, uncertain highs and lows of creative work. Masterworks moves us forward in the timeline of Anderson’s America while the filmmaker himself leaps all over the place in terms of artistic control. The wrenching ambiguity of 2014’s Inherent Vice, in which Anderson fluidly dramatizes the psychosexual ecstasy, despair, and hilarity of corrosive commercialist annihilation, gives way in the book to Anderson’s 1997 breakthrough, Boogie Nights, which Nayman astutely sees as a virtuoso primitive work, an epic that (too) neatly bifurcates pleasure and pain into two distinct acts while disguising its sentimentality with astonishing camera movements and a tonal instability that’s probably equal parts intended and inadvertent.

Control is the theme of Masterworks. Nayman charts, again in a nearly reverse order, how Anderson reigned in his juvenilia—the self-consciousness, the overt debts to various filmmakers, the wild mood swings—to fashion a tonal fabric that still makes room for all of those qualities, only they’re buried and satirized, existing on the periphery. The essential valorizing of Jack Horner, the paternal porn director of Boogie Nights, eventually gives way to the richer, more fraught examinations of obsessive pseudo-father figures like Daniel Plainview, Lancaster Dodd, and Reynolds Woodcock, of There Will Be Blood, 2012’s The Master, and Phantom Thread, respectively. Anderson’s films toggle between valorizing and criticizing men of industry who’ve, with a few exceptions, made America in their own neurotic image.

As these characters grow in complexity, their ingenues also evolve in nuance, becoming less fantasy projections of Anderson’s own desire to prove himself than startlingly unique expressions of rootlessness and ambition. Boogie Nights, which Nayman calls a two-and-a-half-hour dick joke, even sets the stage for the ironic phallic references of the other films, with their plunging oil derricks, broken glass toilet plungers, and, well, Woodcocks.

No critic has written so perceptively about Anderson’s mutating aesthetic as Nayman does in Masterworks. Most immediately, it’s a pure, visceral pleasure simply to read Nayman’s descriptions of imagery. On There Will Be Blood, he notably writes the following: “Emerging and descending at his own methodical pace, he’s an infernal figure moving in a Sisyphean rhythm, and the trajectory of his movements—grueling ascents and sudden, punishing drops along a vertical axis, punctuating an otherwise steady horizontal forward progress—establishes the visual and narrative patterning of the film to come.”

Such “patterning” is an obsession of Nayman’s, as it should be given the films under consideration, and he shows how Anderson buried the overt psychosocial daddy and women issues of Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia into an intricate formalism that’s complemented by a new kind of instability: unconventional, unexpected ellipses in the narratives that underscore a sense that we’re missing something in the psychology of the protagonists, in the America that contains the characters, and perhaps even in Anderson’s understanding of his own work. The obsessive nature of Anderson’s bold often “lateral” imagery is also enriched by the endless twins and doppelgangers that populate his films, suggesting that he’s chewing, with increasing sophistication, a set of preoccupations over and over, gradually triumphing over his fear of women as he sees his men with escalating clarity. Nayman uncovers many twins and cross-associations that have never personally occurred to this PTA obsessive, such as the resemblance that Vicky Krieps’s Alma of Phantom Thread bears to the many dream women haunting Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in The Master, or how the mining of oil in There Will Be Blood is later echoed by the exploitive plumbing of minds in The Master.

Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses—especially the bold leap 15 years in time near the end of There Will Be Blood as well as the two-year jump near the beginning of the filmmaker’s 1996 feature directorial debut, Hard Eight—implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work. Some people believe that Anderson uses such devices to write himself out of corners, excusing himself from the task of building relationships or establishing in more detail the contours of the history informing the films, while, for his admirers, such flourishes are suggestive and freeing—excusing not only the author, but the audience from thankless exposition so as to skip to the “good parts,” the moments that cut to the heart of the protagonists’ and Anderson’s demons. Nayman understands Anderson to be fashioning a cumulative hall-of-mirror filmography that highlights an America in elusive, surreal, even daringly comic fragments. Or, per Nayman: “His later films are masterworks that don’t quite fill their own canvases, drawing power from the negative space.”

Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is now available from Abrams.

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NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil

It’s a provocative juxtaposition for Dry Wind to stage its queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.

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NewFest 2020: Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil
Photo: The Open Reel

Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior, both screening in the international section at this year’s NewFest, are refreshing in no small part because they find two Brazilian filmmakers telling stories set in regions of their country that are cinematically underrepresented and largely unknown to international audiences. Dry Wind, for one, takes place in the rustic countryside of the state of Goiás, known for its cowboy iconography, livestock music festivals, and extremely conservative politics. It is, then, a provocative juxtaposition for Nolasco to stage his queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.

Dry Wind follows the routines of a community of factory workers in the rural city of Catalão, where sex between soccer-loving men who wouldn’t hesitate to call themselves “discreet” always seems to be happening or about to happen. These torrid trysts mostly take place in the woods, on bare soil or parked motorcycles, and involve piss, ass-eating, and face-spitting. Throughout, Nolasco’s frames are also filled with much hair—hairy faces, butts, and backs, suggesting a queer sexuality cobbled together with the coarseness of the men’s local environment, despite the clearly foreign influence of Nolasco’s hyper-stylized aesthetics. The film’s drama lies in the decidedly Brazilian-ness of the arid landscape, the provincial accents, and the scruffy faces framed by a mishmash of international visual references whenever horny bodies escape to act out queer desire: from Tom of Finland to Tom de Pékin, from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle.

Nolasco alternates between explicitly sexual, neon-colored sequences that veer toward complete dreamscapes and the kind of European-film-festival-courting realism that Brazilian cinema is known for. The contrast can be quite bewildering, so much so that viewers may wish that Dry Wind would remain in the realm of reveries. Instead, Nolasco often tries to reassert Dry Wind as a film with an actual plot. In this case, it’s one that has to do with jealousy, or the impossibility of intimacy in such queer configurations where sex is public only if it’s clandestine but affection must be refused for the sake of social survival. Apart from a needless plotline involving a homophobic assault, it all makes perfect sense. But the film’s most interesting moments emerge precisely when it surrenders to the presumably illogical strangeness of erotic fantasy.

For instance, when Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo)—who regularly has sex in the woods with a co-worker, Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), after their shift at the factory—happens upon what looks like a leather bar, the place turns out to be an empty construction site where queer archetypes—the harnessed master, the puppy slave, the drag-queen hostess—are there to perform for Sandro and Sandro alone, in a mix of silent performance art and interactive pornography. In another moment of poetic-pornographic license, an evident nod to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a generically bearded hunk (Marcelo D’Avilla) with chained nipple clamps comes out of a man-made lake, ready to take Sandro into the water for an ecstatic drowning.

Significantly more comedic, Alice Júnior focuses on a trans wannabe influencer, Alice (Anne Celestino), and her perfumer of a father, Jean Genet (Emmanuel Rosset), who move from Recife to a small town in the south of Brazil. Subtlety isn’t Baroni’s aim, which is clear in the film’s social media-like sense of pace and aesthetic bells and whistles, as well as in the obvious trans metaphor built into the narrative premise. Alice and her dad have to move down south because he wants to develop a new fragrance using pine cones local to the region, whose fruit only comes out if the person blowing through the cone has discovered the pine cone’s real essence.

Alice Júnior

A scene from Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior. © Beija Flor Filmes

One becomes accustomed to the film’s initially annoying incorporation of social media language into its aesthetic, such as the emojis that pop up on the screen whenever Alice does something or other, because it mirrors the interface through which contemporary teenagers animate everyday life. But Alice Júnior visibly struggles to differentiate itself from a soap opera. The over-the-top acting (the villains speak like Cruella de Vil) is technically in line with Baroni’s animated Insta-grammar, but it becomes a problem when the film tries to tap into something other than its cute flamboyance. The film reaches for pathos only to find tinsel instead.

As fun as Alice Júnior can be, it’s at its core a typical Brazilian kids’ movie, in the vein of on-the-nose fare about enjoying life but not doing drugs that Brazilian megastar Xuxa put out in the 1980s and ‘90s, except queered by its trans protagonist and the visual language of the times. It wears its pedagogical message on its sleeve but is betrayed by a lack of substance. Alice is at once a naïve little girl yearning for her first kiss from a boy and a queer activist with an arsenal of didactic one-liners at the ready. This means some of the plot doesn’t feel credible, as Alice masters LGBTQ resistance discourse perfectly in her interactions both on and offline, but prefers pissing her pants during a class exam, which naturally becomes a viral video, than demanding her right to use the women’s restroom. At times she’s a woke warrior, and at times she’s a helpless little girl.

Alice Júnior only manages to transcend its sparkling surface in a few sequences where it pitches itself at grownups. In one, Jean Genet gets drunk with Marisa (Katia Horn), the kooky mother of one of Alice’s gay classmates, and they start being a little too honest about what they think of their own children. The social media histrionics have nothing to offer in these incredibly entertaining scenes, which finally bring the film closer to Starrbooty than Clueless. These moments are fabulous precisely because they’re unfiltered—queer in attitude, not in wardrobe. Jean Genet and Marisa don’t toast to their kids because they’re decent human beings fighting heterosexual patriarchy, but for being the “devilish bitch” and “dirty-mouthed trans” that they are.

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Review: Synchronic Undermines Its Delightful Strangeness with Handholding

About a drug that sends its users back in time for seven minutes, the film holds your hand and walks you through its chronology mazes.

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Synchronic
Photo: Well Go USA

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead built alluringly mysterious worlds in films like Resolution and The Endless. These works of horror-tinged science fiction draw the viewer in through their ambiguous relationships to traditional space and time; they’re complicated puzzles, and a good part of their fun is trying to fit the pieces together. But in their latest, Synchronic, the filmmakers do the fitting for you. About a drug that sends its users back in time for seven minutes, the film holds your hand and walks you through its chronology mazes, making what might otherwise be delightfully strange into something too pat and easy.

Steve (Anthony Mackie) is a hard-living EMT in New Orleans. It’s not unusual for him and his partner, Dennis (Jamie Dornan), to respond to drug calls, and the film opens with heroin overdoses at a flop house, shot in a long take as the camera drifts from one room or character to another, building up a sense of dizzying dread. But the calls soon start to get weirder: someone who seems to have spontaneously combusted, someone bitten at a hotel by a nonnative species of snake, and someone in pieces at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

They’re all victims of Synchronic, a designer drug that literally sends young people, with their soft pineal glands, into the past—and just how far depends randomly on where they are in the present. Soon, Dennis’s 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), pops the drug at a party and disappears, trapped in history, a damsel in distress held captive by time itself. Conveniently, Steve has brain cancer, which has made his pineal gland unusually soft for his age; nearing death, dragging his knuckles across rock bottom, he decides to unstick himself in time and rescue his friend’s daughter. But first, though, he conducts a series of experiments to see how Synchronic actually works, explaining away the surreal with narrated video excerpts and white boards, suggesting a classroom lesson via Zoom.

Synchronic echoes Richard McGuire’s 2014 graphic novel Here and David Lowery’s 2017 film A Ghost Story, exploring a physical location by journeying across time but not space. And the Quibi-sized trips to the past are the high points of Benson and Moorhead’s latest, evocative glimpses of a long and diffuse history, from the wooly mammoths and prehistoric men of the Ice Age, to the conquistadors and bayou alligators of colonization, to the racist rednecks of the early 20th century. But the filmmakers often play these seven-minute scenes as much for laughs as wonder. “The past fucking sucks!” Steve cries upon returning home from one trip. And he’s not wrong—especially for a black man in Louisiana.

Benson and Moorhead, as they did in The Endless, eventually cast off the science that sets their story in motion for the melodrama at its core. There are some gaps in logic, and some cruel manipulations (including Steve losing his dog to the vagaries of pill-induced time travel), all concessions to an underlying drama about family reunion and self-sacrifice. The film isn’t nostalgic, as it argues that the past is awful, and that the present a delicious miracle.

Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides, Katie Aselton Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead Screenwriter: Justin Benson Distributor: Well Go USA Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Sound of Metal Is a Tender, Singular Portrait of Addiction

Darius Marder’s film captures, with urgency and tenderness, just how enticing the residue of the past can be.

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The Sound of Metal
Photo: Amazon Studios

“Fucked!” That’s how Michael Gira described how his hearing is after a live show in a 2015 interview with the Guardian. Admitting to not even taking the simple precaution of wearing ear plugs while playing in one of the world’s loudest bands, the Swans frontman went on to say, “It’s a fix. It must unleash endorphins, because being inside the sound is to me the ultimate. When it’s working and we’re all psychically connected and the music’s taking us over, I can’t imagine anything more exquisite.”

At the start of Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer for a Swans-esque noise rock band, Blackgammon, is shown in such a state of euphoria, furiously pounding away at his drums and enraptured by the wall of sound filled out by distorted guitars and the screaming vocals of his girlfriend and bandmate, Lou (Olivia Cooke). It’s the sound of agony and ecstasy intertwined—a form of sonic transcendence that is, for Ruben, every bit as alluring as the heroin addiction that he kicked some four years earlier.

The aural assault of the band’s live shows stands in sharp contrast to Ruben and Lou’s personal life, which consists of quiet evenings dancing to soul music in their RV and waking up to health shakes and yoga. But it’s seemingly only during their performances that Ruben feels both truly alive and at peace with himself, getting his fix of the rhythmic noise that’s become his new drug of choice. So when the slight ringing in Ruben’s ears the night before turns into a dull roar, leaving all surrounding noises muffled beyond recognition, it’s not merely his professional livelihood that’s at stake, but his mental and spiritual well-being as well.

This newfound state of near-deafness thrusts Ruben suddenly into a transitional phase, and Sound of Metal is in lockstep with him, using intricate sound design to approximate his nightmare state and amplify the confusion, anger, and disorientation that grips him. Ruben’s life on the road, and thus his existence “inside the sound,” becomes a thing of the past when, at Lou’s request, he agrees to stay at a remote community for the deaf that specializes in helping recovering addicts. And it’s here that Ruben is again forced to confront his addictive tendencies. Only now he’s no longer chasing the dragon, but the chance to regain his hearing, whether through his impulsive desire to lose what remains of it by immediately returning to the stage or by holding out hope for a costly cochlear implant that, despite what he thinks, isn’t quite the guaranteed quick fix that he believes it to be.

As Ruben begins confronting his current predicament, Sound of Metal risks becoming a familiar, inspirational tale of overcoming one’s disability. But the filmmakers fill out the familiar framework of Ruben’s dilemma with an acutely detailed portrait of a deaf community headed by the serene and compassionate Joe (Paul Raci), a former addict who lost his hearing during Vietnam and firmly believes that deafness isn’t a handicap.

As the film traces Ruben’s integration into this community, and his increasing understanding of sign language, it becomes even more highly attuned to Ruben’s emotional and sensorial experiences, both in terms of his newfound physical impairment and his struggle to accept the uncertain future ahead of him. It’s a tumultuous time for Ruben, and Ahmed enlivens the character with a restless, bristling energy that constantly clashes with the sense of stillness and inner peace that Joe tries to instill in him every day. And this underlying tension between Joe’s calm and patient acceptance of reality, and all its complications, and Ruben’s undying need to return to “being inside the sound” colors the rest of the film.

Later on, Joe tells Ruben that “those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.” Ruben’s professed atheism deflates the religious aspect of Joe’s statement, but as the final act takes an unexpected turn and the perpetual push-pull between stillness and chaos, silence and sound that grips Ruben at every turn are pushed to their breaking point, his advice takes on a newfound eloquence. For Ruben, the song may be over, but the feedback lingers on. Sound of Metal sees the value of stillness, particularly for addicts, but it also captures, with urgency and tenderness, just how enticing the residue of the past can be. In a way, it can be an addictive drug all its own.

Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Mathieu Amalric, Lauren Ridloff, Chris Perfetti, William Xifaras, Hillary Baack, Michael Tow, Tom Kemp, Rena Maliszewski Director: Darius Marder Screenwriter: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Ham on Rye Is an Elegant, Grand Chronicle of a Chaos Foretold

The film’s purposeful archness challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.

3.5

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Ham on Rye
Photo: Factory 25

Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye, in which high school children come of age while moseying around the San Fernando Valley in anticipation of an undefined formal event, sets the audience up for a lark. Conflicting details give the impression that the film is divorced from time, with the children’s clothes—long and flowing dresses, gaudily ill-fitting suits—suggesting holdovers from the 1970s. Even the immaculately put-together mothers and Hawaiian shirt-clad fathers seem like vestiges from a different era. No cellphones are initially glimpsed, and there are no overt pop-cultural references, though other textures place the story in the present day. In other words, there’s a highly self-conscious, stylized, insulated innocence to the film that inspires distrust, as we’re invited to enjoy the sort of idyll proffered by many teen movies, yet we know we’re being played with. This archness, which isn’t without sincerity, challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.

Taormina and co-writer Eric Berger don’t offer character development in a traditional sense, instead creating a free-floating and distinctly Altmanesque tapestry as they move among dozens of characters. The elegance and control of Ham on Rye’s aesthetic is breathtaking, especially considering the film’s shoestring production. Cinematographer Carson Lund bathes the story’s neighborhood settings in a pastel light that again evokes the ‘70s—or, at least, modern pop culture’s impression of the decade. And the camera lingers on details that indicate the ecstasies and miseries lingering underneath this suburban mirage, such as a shot of trash in a yard that suggests the aftermath of either indifference or violence, or of a postcard sent to a girl from her sister in college, which is written in an unnaturally, over-compensatingly proclamatory style that implies desperation while serving as a mockery of the girls’ simplified visions of future adulthood. Such details point to the influence of many titans of the cinema, among them Brian De Palma, Peter Weir, and David Lynch.

The film comprises a string of melancholic dead ends. A group of boys talk of the importance of “porking,” setting up a familiar “trying to get laid” scenario that never materializes. Later, they see another group of boys who resemble doppelgangers, and each gang puffs their bodies up, mocking the other, priming us for a fight that doesn’t occur, as the second gang jumps a chain link fence, never to be seen again. Elsewhere, a group of men, visually coded as old-school stoner types, drive around ready to raise hell, which also doesn’t come to pass. These half-formed anecdotes, and there are many more of them, come to resemble fissures in memory. We might be seeing the fuzzy, semi-sanitized, pop-mythos-addled recollections of the adult versions of these characters as they drink away their disappointments in a bar.

Once we’re sufficiently acclimated to Ham on Rye’s foreboding, wistful atmosphere, Taormina springs a poignant and satirical surprise. The children aren’t making their way toward a formal event like the traditional prom, but a ceremonial dance at a deli, in which they eat sandwiches together before forming boys- and girls-only lines so as to evaluate one another and couple. The strangeness of this arrangement, like the general timelessness of the setting, underscores the arbitrary ornateness of real ceremonies—prom, homecoming, graduation—that insidiously serve the purpose of conditioning us to become well-behaved cogs in the social machine, like all the disappointed parents who lurk in the periphery of the film.

Underneath Ham on Rye’s mystery and grandeur, then, is a theme that’s traditional to teen movies: children’s fear of selling out like their parents. Which isn’t to say that Taormina indulges snideness, as he invests this dance with an intense visual splendor that embodies the naïve, untapped passion, laced with terror, that comes with inoculation into adult rituals. This sequence has the daring rhapsody of the prolonged prom sequence in De Palma’s Carrie.

Ham on Rye’s second half is informed with a kind of survivor’s guilt that’s also reminiscent of Carrie. Haley (Haley Bodell), the closest the film has to a protagonist, flees the deli ceremony, casting herself off as Amy Irving’s character was cast off in Carrie. After her friends seem to vanish transcendently into thin air after the dance, Haley is left behind with her despondent family, perhaps stranded in childhood or simply this town, and the film abruptly shifts atmospheres. The pastels are traded in for industrial nighttime hues, and cellphones and other modern bric-a-brac are suddenly visible, while the posh suburban neighborhoods, with their kids who can afford to go to dances that whisk them off to neverland, are traded in for strip malls with disaffected teens and working-class parents who’re pushed by their disadvantaged children to the brink of insanity. Ham on Rye first shows us a dream, with its intimations of chaos, before then showing us only chaos, with its lingering echoes of the vanished dream.

Cast: Haley Bodell, Audrey Boos, Gabriella Herrera, Adam Torres, Luke Darga, Sam Hernandez, Blake Borders, Cole Devine, Timothy Taylor, Gregory Falatek, Laura Wernette, Lori Beth Denberg, Danny Tamberelli, Clayton Snyder, Aaron Schwartz Director: Tyler Taormina Screenwriter: Tyler Taormina, Eric Berger Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Dating Amber Is a Touching Yarn About Defying Heteronormativity

David Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims.

3.5

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Dating Amber
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn films

“This place will kill you.” That’s a recurrent refrain in Dating Amber, writer-director David Freyne’s dramedy about two queer teens, Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and Amber (Lola Petticrew), who pretend to be a couple so that they can make it through high school a little less scathed. It’s one of those lines that sometimes captures a character’s plight with such biting precision, and simplicity, that the viewer is caught off guard and the film is left feeling haunted. The place that “will kill you,” as Amber warns Eddie as well as her herself multiple times in one way or another, is rural Ireland in the 1990s, where divorce is still illegal—an idyllic meadowland plagued by backward prudes and homophobic bullies.

The demands of heterosexuality are lethal to both straights and gays in County Kildare. Amber’s father, for one, took his own life, and ever since then she’s been charging her classmates to use her family’s caravan as a place to have sex, so she can save enough money and move to London and work for a punk zine. By contrast, Eddie wallows in sorrow and denial, his gait the grotesque result of him trying to mimic butchness. He plans to do exactly what’s expected of him—that is, to join the army and marry a nice girl who will probably just make him sleep on the living room couch like his mother (Sharon Horgan) does to his father (Barry Ward). Amber knows that living one’s life according to the desires of others will kill you, so her offer to fake-date Eddie so their peers will stop harassing them seems more like an act of solidarity, an attempt to spare Eddie from the violence that she herself can take in stride.

The film is initially hyper-stylized, recalling Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader. The colorfully coordinated precision of the mise-en-scène and campy over-acting all point toward satire. But there’s a gravitas to Dating Amber that keeps pricking us little by little until it completely takes over in the film. Our first warning that humor may have been only the sheen of a much more serious cinematic proposition, a cheeky red herring of sorts, comes in a sequence in which Eddie and Amber take the train to Dublin and happen upon a gay bar. Instead of lusting over male bodies or dancing the night away on drugs (that comes later), Eddie is instantly transfixed by a drag queen singing Brenda Lee’s “You Can Depend on Me.” He approaches her on stage as if, at last, untethered from the world. In a kind of communion, Eddie embraces the drag queen like a lost child re-encountering his mother. She keeps on singing, rocking Eddie as if casting a queer spell, or baptizing the “baby gay,” as she calls him.

From that scene on, Dating Amber rather seamlessly strips itself of its hyperbolic affectations to reveal a heartbreaking story of emancipation through friendship. Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims. A brief scene when Eddie’s doleful mother is, for once, alone at home and puts on a vinyl is particularly wonderful. She looks at her husband’s framed photograph and smiles, reminding us that while the fantasy of heterosexual domesticity holds many promises, in practice, it can be an exhausting hell. “Anywhere!” Amber tells Eddie when he asks her where he could escape to. And as their own faux love affair begins to crumble, they can at last embrace the queerness and messy feelings for which there is no required language, no blueprints, and as such the opportunity to actually find a place that won’t kill them.

Cast: Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew, Sharon Horgan, Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Evan O’Connor Director: David Freyne Screenwriter: David Freyne Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Bad Hair Is a Fiendish, If Tonally Uneven, Satire of Racist Beauty Norms

The film has an exciting, lived-in quality that elevates what are otherwise some markedly unsteady attempts at horror.

2.5

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Bad Hair
Photo: Hulu

The year is 1989, and while TV network Culture is considered dead weight by its parent company, its specialty in burgeoning, black-fronted music genres leaves it poised to successfully cover the sounds and styles that will dominate the next decade. Enter ex-model Zora (Vanessa Williams), the new boss with a new vision for the channel that includes rebranding it as Cult. Zora brought her own assistant, too, which puts pressure on Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), the assistant to Zora’s predecessor and an up-and-comer with ideas of her own, rent to pay, and something to prove. Her own natural hair gets her dirty looks from white co-workers in the lobby and a miniature lecture from Zora herself, so despite what her family and her other black co-workers might think, she follows Zora’s lead and gets a weave.

Justin Simien’s 2014 feature-length directorial debut, Dear White People, translated so neatly to an extended TV format in large part due to its plethora of characters and plot threads, and Bad Hair similarly evinces his keen eye for humanity. As in his earlier film, the characters all have a diverse range of relationships: with each other, with their own race, with their aspirations, and with the eyes of the world at large. Though someone like Zora could easily have been a thin antagonist, you instead feel the context of age, beauty norms, and societal pressure that shaped who she is and what she wants to do. Bad Hair can feel overstuffed at times, as Anna shares scenes with an ever-increasing range of characters, including her family, friends, an ex, and her skeevy landlord, but the details give the film an exciting, lived-in quality that elevates what are otherwise some markedly unsteady attempts at horror.

And as it turns out, the weaves are also alive, and they’re literally out for blood, at least those being offered at a mysterious salon where Anna, looking to make her mark on Cult as a VJ, is sent to by Zora. Their tendrils seek out oozing orifices, and their roots plant hunger in the brains of the afflicted while manifesting strange dreams. These scenes, with characters restrained and yanked off screen by hair-tuft tentacles, are initially promising, but their rhythm is all wrong. They’re choppily and timidly edited in ways that direct the eye away from the action, as if to obscure any hokeyness that might become apparent from close scrutiny. As such, you may find yourself wanting for the sturdy, kinetic ingenuity of Sam Raimi.

The film is also uncertain of how seriously to take its horror. The extreme close-up of the weave process, as the needle snakes through the tender landscape of Anna’s scalp while drawing blood, is brilliantly cringe-inducing. One memorable, repeated image of Anna’s family sitting at the table while clumps of hair descend from the cracks in the ceiling is so effective because it’s allowed to be eerie, rather than immediately undercut by a line about a support group for women with killer weaves. By the time the climax rolls into view, the film abandons any seriousness, even bringing in Lena Waithe, as the host of one of Culture’s newly canceled shows, to make a Friday the 13th reference while snarking about the horror-movie proceedings. Bad Hair unintentionally mirrors its characters’ own insecurities, teetering awkwardly between straight-faced camp and outright farce as it cuts the scare scenes to ribbons and makes jokes about itself, as if to preempt any disbelief from the audience.

Worse, the film is constantly overexplaining itself. Dear White People contained similarly blunt, into-the-camera messaging, but that felt appropriate for a setting where students are wrapped up in college politics and subjecting their ideas to class scrutiny. In Bad Hair, one character who confronts Zora utters a Freudian slip, accusing her of appealing to a “whiter” audience when she means to say “wider” audience, as though the film hasn’t so clearly been making that point from the very start, when the central channel got knowingly rebranded as Cult. The interactions between Bad Hair’s characters already convey the domination of white beauty standards and how the self dissipates when capitulating to them, so the extra steps taken to underline these themes only works to dilute them.

Cast: Elle Lorraine, Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Chanté Adams, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Blair Underwood, Usher Raymond IV Director: Justin Simien Screenwriter: Justin Simien Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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