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Review: Maidentrip

A coming-of-age journey of self-realization, made immensely more involving by virtue of being seen through its subject’s first-person perspective.




Photo: First Run Features

Coming so soon after the release of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Maidentrip offers a much-needed riposte to Ben Stiller’s glorified vanity project. Granted, there’s certainly a level of ego that goes into the sheer act of sailing around the world solo—especially if, like Laura Dekker when she sets out on her trip, you’re only 14 years old. And yes, there’s already some narcissism built into the fact that much of the footage in Maidentrip was shot by Dekker herself, with her frequently addressing the camera and recounting her experiences, observations, and emotions. But Jillian Schlesinger’s film thankfully uses Laura’s astonishing two-year feat to tap into more universal desires: to live one’s life to the fullest, to explore this great wide world around us, to discover the things that inspire the greatest passion in us.

Laura experiences all of this on her circumnavigational journey, but she didn’t exactly set out to “find herself”—or, if she was intending to find herself, she didn’t realize it at the beginning. As Laura tells it, the trip started simply from an inchoate desire borne not only from boredom with life in Holland, but a love of sailing that developed in her earliest years, living on a boat with her parents in New Zealand before they moved inland. With a love of sailing came a desire to see the world, and in the early stages of her voyage, that’s exactly what she does: stopping to explore various destinations (the Canary and Galapagos Islands, French Polynesia, and more) and befriending locals and fellow travelers along the way.

The longer she sails, however, the more she begins to embrace the introspective solitude of simply being out in the open sea, with none of the modern-day technological creature comforts at her disposal—to the point that she even expresses open hostility at a journalist who badgers her about her interest in becoming the youngest person to sail around the world, despite Laura’s repeated claims that she was never interested in breaking records. And in fact, one of the most surprising things about Maidentrip lies in her professed disinterest in that kind of glory. When her trek comes to a close and she’s greeted with a hero’s welcome, she admits that she’s tempted to simply sail right past them all and keep on going.

Maidentrip, then, is not just the chronicle of a stunning feat, but a coming-of-age journey of self-realization, made immensely more involving by virtue of being seen through Laura’s first-person perspective, experiencing personal revelations in the moment with the same emotional immediacy with which she herself makes them. If anything, Schlesinger’s film might have even more effective if longer; at its presently brisk 81-minute running time, there’s a sense of a bunch of “eureka” moments whizzing past us rather than being allowed to fully sink in. Nevertheless, by the end of this film, the sense of inspiration this story exudes feels genuinely hard-earned, with a heartening emphasis more on personal triumph than on public glory.

Cast: Laura Dekker Director: Jillian Schlesinger Screenwriter: Jillian Schlesinger, Penelope Falk, Laura Dekker Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2013 Buy: Video



Review: Cosmic Sin Makes Battlefield Earth Look Like Citizen Kane

Every story beat is unimaginatively cribbed from better films and every tepid exchange of dialogue is unconvincingly performed.

Mark Hanson



Cosmic Sin
Photo: Saban Films

From First Kill to Acts of Violence to Survive the Night to Hard Kill, Bruce Willis’s recent string of VOD-ready curios are blunt, basic, and, well, basically interchangeable. Instead of paying homage to the action cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s—films such as Die Hard, Speed, and Face/Off, whose titles alone are giddy promises of mayhem—they settle for joyless mediocrity, with Willis sleepily reciting his lines throughout. His latest, Cosmic Sin, now blasts this aggressively lazy shtick into outer space, making it hard to imagine that at one point in the past a goofy misfire like Battlefield Earth was considered the nadir of sci-fi filmmaking.

In the year 2524, the human race has fully colonized space, with a government entity called the Alliance having been set up to rule over a number of disparate interplanetary habitats. Willis plays James Ford, nicknamed “Blood General” because of his role in launching a “Q-bomb” on a planet to wipe out a rebel faction that only wanted to break away from the Alliance’s grip. All of this information is hastily communicated within the first couple of minutes via text cards before we arrive at the now-disgraced general stoically shooting back his regrets in a roadside dive bar as hostile civilians pick fights with him. After robotically dispatching a few of them while barely moving from his barstool, Ford is promptly summoned back to a nearby military base. There has been a “first contact incident” at a mining colony, and since the survivors have returned as rabid Resident Evil-esque alien-zombies, the Alliance is in desperate need of Ford’s help before an all-out intergalactic war breaks out.

During a typically fraught backroom meeting about how to deal with this threat, the “cosmic sin” of the title is put forward by the Alliance’s behavioral biologist and Ford’s old flame, Dr. Lea Goss (Perrey Reeves), referring to the moral quandary of wiping out an entire species, hostile or not, in God-like fashion. But since this kind of terrain has already been covered sufficiently in far more entertaining sci-fi fare, from Independence Day to Starship Troopers, these thoughts barely linger, with one character’s quip that “Either way this works out, it’s going to be on the wrong side of history” serving as the glib extent of the film’s philosophical interests. Strapping on hyper suits that look like they were acquired from a Laser Tag closing sale, Ford and Goss are joined by Commanding General Eron Ryle (Frank Grillo, also on autopilot) and a host of other personality-less soldiers and scientists, and together they blast off into space with a new Q-bomb in order to lay down the hurt on some alien scum.

Back in our so-far short calendar year of 2021, Cosmic Sin is already the second sci-fi extravaganza that Willis has appeared in, following the January release of John Suits’s similarly excruciating Breach. The screenwriter of that film, Edward Drake, takes on both writing and directing duties here and almost seems to be attempting a sequel of sorts by regurgitating the same storyline about space colonization and killer alien creatures. Next to the cheap visual monotony of Breach’s spaceship hallways, Cosmic Sin’s celestial vistas are practically a triumph of visual effects wizardry, but the film doesn’t offer anything in the way of audience engagement, as each story beat is unimaginatively cribbed from better films and every tepid exchange of dialogue is unconvincingly performed.

Cosmic Sin does eventually attempt an epic climactic battle between man and alien, but since Drake and company have given us cardboard cut-outs instead of characters and no thematic meat to chew on, it’s all just a numbing cacophony of futuristic gunfire, aesthetically recalling an uncool version of Tron crossed with any number of Marvel movies. If nothing else, the gnawing boredom of the whole endeavor gives us plenty of time to discern whether Willis is actually present on screen for any shot that doesn’t explicitly show his whole face.

Cast: Frank Grillo, Bruce Willis, Brandon Thomas Lee, Corey Large, Perrey Reeves, C.J. Perry, Lochlyn Munro, Costas Mandylor, Adelaide Kane Director: Edward Drake Screenwriter: Edward Drake, Corey Large Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2021

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Review: The Inheritance Slyly Contemplates the Legacy of Black Activism

The film’s throwback nature is in sync with Ephraim Asili’s interest in wanting to keep the legacy of black activism alive.

Pat Brown



The Inheritance
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Writer-director Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance feels like a relic, composed as it is of representational strategies that can be traced back to the heyday of cinematic modernism. Indeed, the film owes an obvious debt to the classics of Jean Luc Godard’s most politically engaged period: 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Tout Va Bien, and, most prominently, La Chinoise. Julian (Eric Lockley), a young black Philadelphian who starts a leftist collective after he inherits a house from his grandmother, puts up an oversized poster for Godard’s 1967 fragmented political film about Parisian Maoist activists in the group’s kitchen, and his fastidiousness about keeping it from curling off the wall at one point indicates the importance of Godard’s didactic quasi-fictions both to Julian and, by extension, Asili.

The references don’t stop there, as Asili stages much of his film’s action, such as it is, against the same kind of spare, monochromatic backdrops that Godard often utilized, especially in La Chinoise. These shots, which present minimally blocked discussions between the members of the collective, as well as excerpts from lectures from civil rights activists and poets that they organize, turn Julian’s grandmother’s house into an eye-catching non-place, for barely evincing an atmosphere of domesticity or conveying a sense of people in contiguity with one another. Sure, there are bookshelves and couches, but most evident against the bright red, green, and yellow walls are the posters of historical black leaders and thinkers, or the Audre Lorde quotes and Swahili proverbs written on chalkboard paint. Throughout, scenes tend to play out in one space, framed to make such background imagery more evident.

There’s an aesthetics of clarity to the way that the flatly lit segments that make up most of The Inheritance are shot and arranged. When Julian and his girlfriend, Gwen (Nozipho Mclean), are formulating the plan for the commune, they pace back and forth in front of the camera reading from former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere’s Afro-socialist program Ujamaa; when real-life veterans of the anarchist MOVE collective, which was notoriously bombed by the Philadelphia police in 1985, address the assembled members of the collective, they speak plainly in frontal long shots, in almost direct address to the camera. While, in art-film fashion, bucking the kind of cause-and-effect-driven plot mechanics of mainstream cinema, Asili’s loose narrative distinguishes itself by being exceedingly apparent rather than obscure. This aesthetic principle is also an ethic, undermining the dissimulations of even its own somewhat stiffly acted, purposefully anemic fiction about activists learning to live together.

Given this deconstructive approach, it makes sense that The Inheritance’s attitude toward the line between fiction and documentary is best described as one of casual disregard. Indoor scenes are intercut with documentary footage of MOVE’s conflicts with the police, black-and-white interviews with the fictional house residents, and anomalous shots of empty street corners and dilapidated businesses, ostensibly in the same West Philadelphia neighborhood where Julian’s home is located. Augmenting our awareness of The Inheritance’s constructedness, as well as its reference to earlier forms of filmmaking, Asili (who also served as his own cinematographer) shot the film in 16mm, brought to our attention by the occasional miniscule scratches that mar the clarity of the image, and by movement of the grain of the emulsion readily visible against the house’s monochromatic walls.

The Inheritance’s throwback elements, like a psychedelic montage during a jazz concert in the collective’s “Revolutionary People’s Reading Room,” are in sync with Asili’s interest in wanting to keep the legacy of black activism alive. The non-place quality of the collective’s home corresponds to a sense that we’re displaced in time. From the prominence of ‘70s cultural touchstones like the works of Amiri Baraka and Angela Davis, to the use of 16mm, to the collective dubbing themselves “Ubuntu” without remarking that it’s the name of a computer operating system, there’s not much to indicate that the film is set in the present. Early on, when Julian’s friend, Rich (Chris Jarell), offhandedly mentions that the date is 2019, you may do a double take. The sense of an alternate present created within the collective forms a part of Asili’s estranging technique, not only making us reflect on the different coordinates of the world on screen, but suggesting the dream of a society built on a different basis.

The Inheritance’s channeling of the radical cinematic modernism of the ‘60s might be seen as a kind of back-to-basics approach, a simplification of a media landscape that’s grown noisier since La Chinoise’s release. Asili’s go at the classic leftist goal of uniting theory and praxis in art harkens back to an era when the cinema seemed to be on the cutting edge of political art, when a jump cut or a close-up on a non-professional actor seemed to hold revolutionary promise. The attempt here to return to this moment can sometimes feel more like looking backward than pushing forward. Nonetheless, Asili’s examination of the legacy of black activism and culture in Philadelphia proves that didactic staging and unexpected cuts retain some of their power to challenge our habits of watching—and thinking.

Cast: Eric Lockley, Nozipho Mclean, Chris Jarell, Aurielle Akerele, Michael A. Lake, Julian Rozzell Jr., Aniya Picou Director: Ephraim Asili Screenwriter: Ephraim Asili Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: The Scary of Sixty-First Gleefully and Defiantly Captures the Zeitgeist

In a way, the film feels like a true heir to the petulant, low-budget horror cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

David Robb



The Scary of Sixty-First
Photo: Stag Pictures

The directorial debut of actress and controversial leftist podcaster Dasha Nekrasova, The Scary of Sixty-First captures the zeitgeist, for better or worse. The story focuses on two twentysomething friends, Addie (Betsey Brown) and Noelle (Madeline Quinn), who reluctantly sign a lease for a suspiciously affordable apartment in New York’s Upper East Side. Turns out, the bargain is tied to the pad’s troubled past, as disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein previously used it as part of his international sex-trafficking ring, at least according to a mysterious, drug-addled conspiracy theorist (Nekrasova) who shows up out of the blue one night and soon ropes Noelle into her investigations of the case.

Shot on 16mm stock with a grimy neon hue, the film feels swallowed up by a claustrophobic haze, with frequent shots of imposing Manhattan architecture complementing its cramped interiors and ominous synth score. Though the aesthetic is undeniably reminiscent of a giallo, as well as the work of Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski, and other purveyors of New Hollywood paranoiac cool, The Scary of Sixty-First isn’t just a retro pastiche. With its heightened, allusive sense of unreality, the film gives a more accurate representation of our current cultural moment—one defined by the unending doom of a 24-hour news cycle, all-night Google binges, and isolating financial precarity—than an objective depiction could ever hope to do.

Under the influence of Nekrasova’s conspiracy theorist, Noelle plunges deeper down an internet rabbit hole in search of the truth about Epstein’s alleged suicide and the strange occult symbols they encounter in her apartment and around town, while Addie starts to exhibit some odd behavior that hints at her connections to the case. As its low-key opening devolves into lurid exploitation, The Scary of Sixty-First pulls off an interesting tonal balance, with a morbid, deadpan sense of humor occasionally peeking out to take the edge off of some of the more outlandish plot developments. The film fully indulges its trashy premise and its characters’ conspiratorial mania without losing sight of how laughable the whole affair often is, and Nekrasova in particular exudes great timing and gets in some amusing line deliveries.

In a way, The Scary of Sixty-First feels like a true heir to the petulant, low-budget horror cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s; as sloppy and ridiculous as it can be, there’s a cathartic bite to its social commentary, and it dares to cross boundaries of decorum in a way that’s alien to most contemporary prestige shockers. When one female character masturbates furiously outside Epstein’s former home, or demands that her boyfriend (Mark Rapaport) role-play as a pedophile aboard a Boeing 727 (the type of plane used as the so-called “Lolita Express,” a critical setting for Epstein’s predatory activities), the film’s transgressive absurdity more than compensates for its lack of psychological realism or narrative coherence. There’s also a hint of Trouble Every Day in the film, in the way it plays with genre tropes and privileges sensation over plot, though it never scales the heights of Claire Denis’s feverish eroticism.

The Scary of Sixty-First will feel like cheap provocation to some, what with its ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness, and it doesn’t have much of substance to say about trauma, abuse of power, or the conspiracy mindset. But there’s defiance in its gleeful excess, a potential force of resistance to a deadening, hyper-normalized cultural climate where everything is spectacle, and where something as shocking as the Epstein scandal can quickly seem passé. In certain moments, like the dramatic reveal of a commemorative spoon adorned with an image of British royal and Epstein affiliate Prince Andrew, it’s difficult to not to go along with the film’s central thesis: that the existence of a global elite pedophile network is, like so many aspects of our contemporary socio-political landscape, both horrifyingly real and a strange, sick joke.

Cast: Betsey Brown, Madeline Quinn, Dasha Nekrasova, Mark Rapaport, Stephen Gurewitz, Jason Grisell Director: Dasha Nekrasova Screenwriter: Dasha Nekrasova, Madeline Quinn Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: For Lucio Positions Lucio Dalla’s Life As a Pop Tour of Modern Italy

Pietro Marcello’s film is a portrait of an artist by way of the society that made him and against which he rebelled.

Jake Cole



For Lucio
Photo: Rai Teche

Lucio Dalla’s life and career are the perfect fodder for a traditional documentary. Coming from modest means and looking like no one’s idea of a pop star, the Italian singer spent years struggling to break through with a style considered too experimental, only to eventually become a success and, thanks to covers by the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli, a cult legend. Add to that the revelation that came to light shortly after his death in 2012 that he had lived as a closeted gay man and you can easily imagine the run-of-the-mill biopic about his life that would steadily march a Hollywood actor to Oscar glory.

Pietro Marcello, though, doesn’t take the well-worn path. Fresh off the success of his breakthrough narrative feature, Martin Eden, the Italian filmmaker approaches the late Dalla’s life in non-linear fashion, as the intimately oriented For Lucio shakes free of the leaden formulas that are widely associated with the artist biopic. Yes, there are interviews, mostly with Dalla’s manager, Umberto “Tobia” Righi, but Marcello employs talking heads less as a means of illuminating Dalla’s life than contextualizing a narrative that the filmmaker pieces together using a mix of archival clips and copious newsreel and film footage. This is a portrait of the artist by way of the society that made him and against which he rebelled.

Attuned to the sociopolitical content of Dalla’s lyrics, Marcello approaches his subject’s career as a kind of pop tour through modern Italian history. Dalla was born in Bologna, whose rapid modernization in the 20th century, from a major agricultural hub to one of Italy’s largest urban areas, was a major theme of his songwriting. Subtly, the film illustrates the esoteric means by which he charted that growth, syncing footage of countryside auto racing to music from the singer’s concept album about cars and how race culture was an attempt to preserve a fading rural culture in Italy. Eventually, the sepia-toned, silent film reels of races give way to colorized, postwar clips of assembly-line workers in an auto factory, the thrill of driving cars replaced by the dull monotony of manufacturing them. Even Dalla’s more cerebral music, like a jazzy epic based on Homer’s Odyssey, exudes a distinctly modern sense of class solidarity, which Marcello teases out by setting it to images of sailors on quays and in pubs.

By capturing so much of Dalla’s musicianship and worldview via such impressionistic means, For Lucio takes the pressure off of interviewees to simply tell the viewer why the musician mattered. This frees up Tobia to reminisce about what kind of person Dalla was as a friend and as a social presence, a viewpoint that’s further elaborated by Marcello upon inviting one of Dalla’s friends, Stefano Bonaga, to speak about the singer, only for Stefano and Tobia to converse with each other about Dalla over dinner instead of addressing the director head-on.

This off-kilter move proves to be a stroke of genius, as the jocular memories exchanged between old friends allows for a richer understanding of Dalla—from his easygoing intellectualism, to his career highs and lows, to the ludicrous figure he cut as a squat, balding, hirsute fellow in the beauty-obsessed world of pop culture—than reams of expository talking-head chatter would have. Stefano and Tobia’s unguarded chat also yields some rather intimate revelations, such as the two men remarking that they and all of Dalla’s friends still refer to him in the present as “his presence goes beyond time, somehow.”

Marcello’s oblique approach allows small moments—such as this relaxed chatter between friends where so much is left unsaid—of direct connection between the audience and Dalla. This extends to the handling of Dalla’s sexuality, which, when it came to light, caused a major re-evaluation of his art and sparked debate about attitudes toward homosexuality in Italy. That’s pretty heavy subject matter that the film succinctly processes by subtly calling attention to the occasional lyric from one of Dalla’s songs that hint at his attraction to men, as if to keep that aspect of his identity as shrouded in death as it was in life. That’s a respectful move, but it, too, speaks to how thoroughly Marcello shakes up one of the most rule-bound genres of nonfiction with one suggestive, poetic impression of a man after another.

Director: Pietro Marcello Screenwriter: Marcello Anselmo, Pietro Marcello Running Time: 79 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: Social Hygiene Drolly Unpacks Male Privilege Across Space and Time

Compellingly and surprisingly, the film doesn’t propose an entirely celebratory view of our accountability-seeking present.

Carson Lund



Social Hygiene
Photo: Lou Scamble

A man stands in the center of a lush field, his slumped, fidgety body language bringing to mind a working schlub impatiently waiting for the evening train home. He’s joined some 20 to 30 feet away by a woman whose gaze he largely avoids. He talks at length about the pesky indignities of daily life and about a screenplay he’d like to write, while she sizes up his failings and delusions and offers counsel or recrimination. The wind blows and the birds sing, and a static camera captures it all from a healthy distance.

This is the dramatic setup that recurs, with some minor variation, eight times over the course of Denis Côté’s 75-minute Social Hygiene. In every case the man is Antonin (Maxim Gaudette), a philandering, philosophizing petty criminal who’s down on his luck, while the female role is occupied at different junctures by his sister, Solveig (Larissa Corriveau); his wife, Églantine (Evelyn Rompré); his mistress, Cassiopée (Eve Duranceau); his tax collector, Rose (Kathleen Fortin); and a victim of one of his robbery schemes, Aurore (Éléonore Loiselle). In their verbosity, simplicity of staging, and plein-air settings, these elongated tête-à-têtes suggest community theater, albeit with the snap and vigor of actors in full command of the comic and tragic turns in Côté’s material—a distinction that separates Social Hygiene from the amateur-driven and superficially similar work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet.

Though these one-shot sequences comprise the majority of Côté’s film, there are also jarring detours from this established stylistic mode. In a handful of wordless scenes, well before she holds court with Antonin in Social Hygiene’s climactic exchange, Aurore is introduced wandering with seeming aimlessness through the woods. Unlike the rest of the ensemble, who wear gowns, suits, and other casual attire redolent of past eras, she’s dressed in blatantly contemporary clothing, and her crew-cut hair and penchant for dancing freely in the woods announce an unabashedly modern woman. Côté shoots these scenes with a handheld camera and employs more up-tempo editing, creating a formal disruption to match the one that Aurore will ultimately enact on Antonin’s sense of complacency.

There are references to Facebook, McDonald’s, and the Seoul Olympics, but everyone’s manner of speaking—so eloquent and musical—evokes Age of Enlightenment mores, and the verdant landscape shots recall those of Stanley Kubrick’s 18th-century-set Barry Lyndon, the margins of the frame often smeared as if to mimic the imperfections of a painting. That this classical backdrop is host to scenes in which women hold a man in check marks a distinct inversion of the power dynamics of the eras being invoked, and herein lies Côté’s satirical aim.

The modern world has, of course, done much to topple the straight white male off his ill-gotten perch, and Côté has a bit of fun imagining what it might have looked like had this social rebalancing occurred centuries earlier. In the film’s ambiguous, anachronistic flattening of time periods, Antonin’s very body language seems to sag under the contemptuous gazes of his female foils, his romantic gestures are as wilted as the rose he impotently offers to Cassiopée, and, when moved to challenge the only other man in the film to a duel, the two simply circle each other with fists raised instead of reaching for flintlock pistols.

In its droll mockery of these archaic customs, the film is burlesquing a past in which a self-serious and egotistical ne’er-do-well like Antonin might have coasted by on far less public scrutiny from the fairer sex. Such a sardonic perspective might seem to imply an embrace of our more progressive now, but what’s so compelling about Social Hygiene is that it doesn’t propose an entirely celebratory view of our accountability-seeking present either. Antonin isn’t a rotten person so much as a misguided romantic whose sense of his own failings is bound up in an inherited expectation of male greatness. And his defiance of the demands of the women in his life—to get an honest job, to be faithful, to find stability—is an assertion of independence that ultimately leaves him miserable and spiritually bereft, an emotional endpoint writ large in an unexpected, astonishing close-up late in the film.

These qualities are effortlessly embodied in Gaudette’s performance, which is as subtly physical as it is densely verbose; at times, his posture seems to defy gravity, bending against the wind in a stance that telegraphs both defensiveness and virility. Indeed, the physicality of all the actors is critical to Côté’s slow-burn comedy. In the company of Cassiopée, Antonin’s desire flows horizontally across the frame via his gazes and leans, while she, facing away, remains hesitant to the advances. But in the company of the other women, Antonin’s endless affectations of aloofness—burying his hands in his pockets, staring at the ground or the horizon as though anything is more interesting than the conversation at hand—are met with uncompromising body language. By framing these encounters at such a distance, to call attention to the way the body communicates as much as the face, Côté implies that the real social hygiene taking place in these verbal scuffles isn’t always in the words, but in the ways that people reveal themselves, and their souls, through their physical presence alone.

Cast: Maxim Gaudette, Éléonore Loiselle, Eve Duranceau, Larissa Corriveau, Kathleen Fortin, Evelyne Rompré Director: Denis Côté Screenwriter: Denis Côté Running Time: 75 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: Coming 2 America Exasperatingly Settles for a Clip-Show Vibe

Even by the woeful standards of decades-too-late comedy sequels, Coming 2 America is desperate, belabored, and thin.

Chuck Bowen



Coming 2 America
Photo: Amazon Studios

Craig Brewer’s Coming 2 America suggests a feature-length version of the blooper reel that plays alongside the final credits of some mainstream comedies. The film feels like the result of an improvisational shoot that bore little fruit, as it’s scattershot and patched together, with talented actors mugging wildly in an effort to paper over the fact that there are yards of setup with no real plot, no emotional resonance, and virtually no continuity even within individual scenes. Even by the woeful standards of decades-too-late comedy sequels, Coming 2 America is desperate, belabored, and thin.

Decades after traveling to New York to find his true love, Akeem (Eddie Murphy), once the wealthy prince of the African nation of Zamunda, must return to the city to find his illegitimate son. Akeem is now king, and though he’s produced three daughters with his queen, Lisa (Shari Headley), Zamunda requires that a man inherit the throne. This is a simple and serviceable premise for a farce that could bookend John Landis’s Coming to America, yet Brewer and the film’s screenwriters throw this idea away almost as soon as it’s introduced.

Akeem lands in New York and immediately finds his son, LaVelle (Jermaine Fowler), and returns to Zamunda with him and the young man’s mother, Mary (Leslie Jones). With these struggling African-Americans ensconced in a palace in which their relatives enjoy profound power, another more pungent setup for a farce is broached, with Akeem’s staff having to teach LaVelle how to act royal in a potentially racially charged variation of The Princess Diaries. Astonishingly, this situation is also squandered in a matter of minutes.

The creaky Coming to America is no comedy classic, but it sprung a droll and sometimes even volatile series of fish-out-water scenarios, playing the absurdity of, say, an African prince working in a McDonald’s-style chain dead and patiently straight. The film’s governing joke, which it shares with Landis’s Trading Places, is the idea of a poverty-stricken person, especially of color, having actual mobility in a realm of turbo-charged capitalism. And certain relationships in that film are memorable, especially Akeem’s camaraderie with Arsenio Hall’s Semmi, which is clearly charged by the actors’ own rapport. Brewer sporadically illustrated this sort of patience and flair for texture in Dolemite Is My Name, but he invests Coming 2 America with no such follow through, as every moment here limply exists for its own sake, fading from memory as soon as it passes, and so no collective sense of comic momentum develops.

Instead, this over-compensating film is frenetically occupied with broad and superficial outrageousness, zipping from one parody of African royal pageantry to another, offering what are essentially a variety of self-contained riffs, with footage from the first film contributing to the meager “clip show” vibe of the proceedings. The original Coming to America’s cast members are all disappointingly reduced to walk-on roles, including Murphy, and even rudimentary character beats are whiffed. For instance, we’re not allowed to get a sense of Akeem and LaVelle’s relationship until the tacked-on climax, and LaVelle and Mary’s culture shock in Zamunda is only, and predictably, acknowledged in a handful of jokes.

Throughout, a few actors almost get by on sheer force of will. Jones’s crass, anything-to-make-this-shit-funny vitality is reminiscent of Murphy when he was less remote and self-pleased as a performer, and Wesley Snipes exudes a similar electricity as General Izzi, one of Akeem’s rivals (though in another sign of this film’s inattentiveness, they somehow have no scenes together). And Hall provides Coming 2 America with surprising, and very fleeting, moments of grace, investing Semmi with resigned poignancy even though the actor has been given virtually nothing to do. In fact, Semmi’s exasperation comes to mirror the audience’s own, as this film leaves one yearning not for the original Coming to America but for the comparative classicism of that lame-duck Landis/Murphy vehicle Beverly Hills Cop III.

Cast: Eddie Murphy, Jermaine Fowler, Leslie Jones, Arsenio Hall, Wesley Snipes, KiKi Layne, Paul Bates, Shari Headley, Tracy Morgan, Louie Anderson, John Amos, Clint Smith, Teyana Taylor, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Rotimi Akinosho, Bella Murphy, James Earl Jones Director: Craig Brewer Screenwriter: Barry W. Blaustein, David Sheffield, Kenya Barris Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 110 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2021

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Review: In Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Desire and Role-Play Dance Hand in Hand

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s film is an alternately scathing, erotic, terrifying, and affirming fable of the primordial power of storytelling.

Chuck Bowen



Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
Photo: Neopa Co.

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a collection of three short films, all concerning the unmooring after-lives of faded relationships. Each episode pivots on individuals attempting elaborate reconstructions of romances and friendships, involving everything from various manipulations to outright playacting for the sake of a long-delayed catharsis. The film is a story of hauntings, then, in which the ghost looks different to each teller, and Hamaguchi exquisitely captures the agony of attempting an impossible resurrection, as well as the emotional distances between friends and lovers who, because they essentially occupy differing realities, remember events in vastly different ways.

In its very title, the first episode, “Magic (Or Something Less Assuring),” conjures the thin line between rapture and melancholia that governs Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy as a whole. Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) and Tsugumi (Hyunri) are first seen modeling, or peddling the sorts of pop-cultural illusions—namely the implication of getting what you want for looking just right—that can infect the expectations we carry into real relationships. Sharing a taxi, Tsugumi tells Meiko of a man she recently met and the intoxicating date they spent together. She describes a “storybook” night, replete with the lame in-jokes we concoct with those we love, and Meiko listens to her with an ambiguous mixture of encouragement and skepticism. Tsugumi’s story of her date isn’t mere setup, but a complete tale in itself, a blossoming of potential romance that we’re allowed to share in, enjoy, and speculate on; in the tradition of many good early dates, it suggests a fragile reality with the potential of becoming concrete. But Meiko has a secret: From Tsugumi’s story she recognizes the man to be her ex, Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima), whom she visits after dropping Tsugumi off at her home.

Meiko is incensed to hear her relationship with Kazuaki filtered through the perspective of Tsugami, who claims that he was heartbroken over his breakup with Meiko. And what follows is an intense verbal duel in which Meiko attempts to regain ownership of the story of that relationship. Throughout, Hamaguchi’s writing is sharp, intricate, merciless, and his precise compositions evoke an escalating sensation of there being no escape. Meiko becomes an avenging angel, castigating Kazuaki for his sexual incompetency, his illusion of vulnerability, his compensating success—in other words, whatever subject will grant her dominion.

In a lesser film, Meiko might have been reduced to a man’s castration fantasy, but Hamaguchi allows us to see the palpable pain underneath her bitterness. Still, you may be most sympathetic to the off-screen Tsugami, whose naïve projection of a new relationship is being sullied without her knowledge. And our empathy for her springs in part from a common anxiety: over our lovers’ romantic pasts. Most times, we aren’t the only one, or even the most memorable one and our relationships are subject to influences beyond our conception.

The seeds of romantic exploitation that exist in “Magic (Or Something Less Assuring)” reach full bloom in the film’s second and most daring episode, “Door Wide Open,” which concerns two, maybe three overlapping stories of intimate gamesmanship. Nao (Katsuki Mori) and Sasaki (Shouma Kai) are college students and friends with benefits separated by a gulf of experience. Nao is a wife and mother returning to school later in life and clearly riven with insecurity, while Sasaki is casually smug in a fashion that springs from being so young and inexperienced that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Hamaguchi viscerally establishes these contrasts within seconds, showing how Sasaki gradually lords Nao’s feelings of displacement over her, goading her into setting a “honey trap” for a professor, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), who’s recently published an acclaimed novel.

The resulting scene, a prolonged duet between Nao and Segawa in the latter’s college office, suggests how easily emotional manipulations can be become legitimate kinship only to be commodified by an outside society that has no clue as to what truly transpired between the people involved in the matter. Given the scenario—a sexual conversation between a female student and a male teacher—it’s impossible not to think of it in a #MeToo context. Yet the brilliance of the episode resides in its lack of conventional op-ed confrontationality; Hamaguchi takes an extreme situation and sees it tenderly on its own thorny and irresolvable terms, fashioning a vignette that suggests an unusually gentle Philip Roth story.

Nao visits Segawa’s office at the school where he works and reads a sexual scene from his novel to him, in which a woman carefully shaves a man’s genitals and brings him to climax. That scene, offered up in “Door Wide Open” as a mirror into Segawa’s anguished soul, is astonishing in its own right, and its resigned yet wistful evocation of male powerlessness (or feelings thereof) encourages Nao to take control with him in manner that she somehow can’t with Sasaki. Unlike Sasaki, these two have real experience and know of the perils of true intimacy. Riffing on his book, Segawa and Nao slip into a pseudo-role-play that fills missing pieces in each of their lives, fulfilling dormant fantasies and cauterizing past hurts. It’s a rapturous, nurturing, bottomless love scene of sorts—with echoes and echoes of overlapping past and present experiences—that’s redefined and defiled by outside forces such as Segawa, just as Meiko cheapens and harnesses Tsugumi’s meet cute with Kazuaki.

Reversing the bleak trajectory of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’s first two stories, “Once Again” feels like a palate cleanser, investing a role-play with comparatively sunnier and less neurotic dimensions. Two old acquaintances, Moka (Fusako Urabe) and Nana (Aoba Kawai), bump into each other in the wake of a high school reunion that the former didn’t attend. Moka invites Nana to her house for tea to talk of the old days, and it becomes clear that Nana has something on her mind. After an unexpected reveal, the women decide to play out alternate realities of themselves, so as to put certain lingering matters to bed. “Once Again” doesn’t have the intricacy of the first two episodes, but it gains in power upon reflection, enriching the rest of the film. If past relationships are such easily alterable realities in retrospect, homes to which we can never return, perhaps they can also be altered in the mind to the benefit of all involved. At its heart, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an alternately scathing, erotic, terrifying, and affirming fable of the primordial power of storytelling.

Cast: Kotone Furukawa, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Katsuki Mori, Fusako Urabe, Aoba Kawai, Ayumu Nakajima, Hyunri, Shouma Kai Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi Screenwriter: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: Boogie Botches Its Representation of Asian-American Experience

The film’s characters hardly possess a sense of a history or an interior life to adequately convey racism’s psychic toll.

Steven Scaife



Photo: Focus Features

Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi) needs an athletic scholarship. His father (Perry Yung) is an ex-con and doesn’t have a steady income, leaving his mother (Pamelyn Chee) to sit in their Queens apartment and agonize over a stack of bills that are past due. The marital strain is palpable, with the family’s hopes pinned on Boogie being scouted for college basketball. But for as much as the colleges assure him that their doors are open to him, they’re not offering to pay his way. He’s an Asian-American in a field that doesn’t take those who look like him very seriously, and the only place where they are taken seriously is also the only one that’s offering the Chins money that they wouldn’t have to borrow: China, where a league has already made him an offer and his identity wouldn’t be cause for such skepticism.

The pull between two cultures—the prospect of the only accepting place being one that’s comparatively unfamiliar—is the most potentially fraught conflict in writer-director Eddie Huang’s Boogie. But that conflict only really comes into focus late in the film, which mostly toils in routine coming-of-age terrain; in an obnoxious early scene, Boogie’s English lit teacher (Steve Coulter) even defines the term “coming of age” for the class before assigning them to read The Catcher in the Rye. There’s romance, too, with a black classmate, Eleanor (Taylour Paige), who initially thinks little of Boogie but is eventually won over by his persistence and sense of humor, which includes such come-ons as “You’ve got a pretty vagina.”

Boogie is the sort of hot-headed guy who’s good at what he does and knows it—a confidence that you may wish had rubbed off on the film. For one, Huang’s screenplay is clumsy in its bluntness, as the characters—including an uncle with irritable bowel syndrome who’s played by Huang himself—are prone to giving tidy speeches about how Asians in America are outsiders, and how they’re kept down by the roles prescribed for them. But these speeches feel disconnected from the rest of the film because Huang never gives potent or even coherent expression to that conflict. There’s little sense of Boogie as an outsider given that all the kids in his class laugh at his jokes, while girls keep remarking that he’s attractive. The most visible form of racism that Boogie faces here is when Eleanor’s friend, Alissa (Alexa Mareka), relates his body to tasty Chinese food while checking him out at the gym. He fits in just fine, ostracized only by whatever distant entity doles out athletic scholarships.

Admittedly, part of the problem with Boogie is endemic to the Asian-American experience that’s clearly on Huang’s mind. In lieu of many external expressions of racism and general alienation that would be conducive to a visual medium like film, the audience gets a lot of internal turmoil, of characters chafing against the assumptions of a “model minority” who’s seen as docile, desexualized, and, well, good at math. Prejudice in Boogie is meant to be understood predominantly as a systemic and faceless force. That’s certainly realistic, but the film’s characters hardly possess a sense of a history or an interior life to adequately convey racism’s psychic toll. We get precious little insight about Boogie’s parents beyond their squabbling over what they want for their son, whose personality doesn’t extend far beyond basketball and being a bit of a class clown. There’s simply not enough context for their stations in life or how their personal defenses developed in the face of a quiet ostracization.

The closest thing to tangible opposition is Monk (the late Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson), the best local high school player whose defeat will (somehow) clinch a scholarship for Boogie. He’s a caricature who exists to do things like make rude comments about Eleanor and cackle villainously when he, a black boy, knocks down an Asian player on the court. There’s some late drama with Mr. Chin’s parole, too, in a failed bid for urgency that only makes the film feel more contrived, for emphasizing how the scholarship conflict doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: If borrowing money for college would be such a ruinous proposition for the Chins, surely any source of money is good enough, even from a Chinese league that was hardly their first choice.

In one scene, Boogie remarks that he doesn’t see himself in The Catcher in the Rye. A film like this, then, is meant to be a corrective, a contribution to the minuscule canon of cinema portraying the underrepresented Asian-American experience. But Boogie stands little chance at resonating given its fuzzy and uncertain depiction of Asian-American identity and its accompanying anxieties. In Huang’s film, the clearest representation of feeling disconnected from one’s culture is a couple of throwaway lines about how Boogie’s IBS-stricken uncle can’t always eat the food of his homeland. In other words, the most coherent expression of inner turmoil here lies in a peripheral character’s difficulty having a bowel movement.

Cast: Taylor Takahashi, Taylour Paige, Pamelyn Chee, Perry Yung, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Mike Moh, Domenick Lombardozzi, Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson Director: Eddie Huang Screenwriter: Eddie Huang Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2021

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The Best Horror Movies on Hulu Right Now

We’re spotlighting our favorite movies currently streaming on Hulu.




The Best Horror Movies on Hulu Right Now
Photo: Neon

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Hulu. Budd Wilkins


10. Depraved (Larry Fessenden, 2019)

What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife

You’re Next

9. You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2013)

The way in which Adam Wingard is able to balance You’re Next’s tonal irony is a towering triumph all its own, the film’s precarious blend of real terror, situational comedy, abrupt shocks, and perfectly lousy deadpanning besting that of Scream and virtually anything similar that’s come since (including The Cabin in the Woods). Working from a script by frequent collaborator Simon Barrett, Wingard quickly establishes his conceit, brazenly merging the home-invasion thriller with the dysfunctional family dramedy. The approach feels novel, giving the potential victims a whole new layer of shared, messy history, and regardless of the level of humor suffusing a given scene, it keeps the stakes sky-high, as a character seeing his mother stabbed in the face with a machete is a lot different than one seeing his high school friend gutted. R. Kurt Osenlund


8. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

Beginning as a more earnest Night of the Comet before swiftly morphing into an episode of the Twilight Zone without sacrificing its you-are-there vérité, Coherence is a low-budget chamber drama that firmly puts the psychological screws to its characters. It gathers four couples at a dinner party the same evening a comet passes Earth, an occurrence that promptly severs cellular communications and cuts electricity. But when the group realizes that a house down the street still possesses power, Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Amir (Alex Manugian), adhering to standard scary-movie convention, go sleuthing. Once they return, however, the narrative, which had been building slowly into a haunted-house attraction, with menacing noises at the door and ominous stories about Siberia’s Tunguska Event of 1908, realigns and turns diabolically quizzical, reimagining Mike Cahill’s Another Earth as a taut parlor game of possible parallel lives. Nick Prigge

Mom and Dad

7. Mom and Dad (Brian Taylor, 2017)

Writer-director Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad invests a hoary conceit with disturbing and hilarious lunacy. Unfolding over the course of a long day, the film follows parents as they’re driven to kill their children in a mass outbreak of violence. Doubling down on the horror genre’s propensity for chaos, Taylor eliminates the gradual escalation that characterizes the average thriller. There’s no sense of benevolent normalcy in Mom and Dad, or of a control state that’s to be eventually restored or at least fought for. The filmmaker suggests that casual hostility within the family unit is the real normal, buried underneath an ornate series of social pretenses. Photographed by Daniel Pearl, who fashioned the sun-cracked landscapes of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film’s images have a similarly gritty sense of overexposure. The editing fuses multiple timelines while parodying the internet-surfing ADD of the modern world, propelling the narrative forward while fostering a tone of cheeky debauchment. Taylor stages violence with an unmooring sense of bodily concussion—which is rendered all the more disturbing by the film’s nasty comic streak. Chuck Bowen

A Quiet Place

6. A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018)

A Quiet Place, like John Carpenter’s The Thing before it, contributes a strikingly original monster to the genre of horror films focused exclusively on surviving an invasive threat. The big bad at the center of John Krasinski’s film is a species of flesh-eating hellion that happens to be blind, and thus its potential prey can successfully evade capture by being silent at all times. When the bonds between the Abbotts are tested by the external threat of the alien invaders, the viscerally physical ways in which they protect each other from harm are powerful, and it becomes clear that these characters have had to learn different and perhaps more subtle methods of communication due to the circumstances in which they’ve found themselves. The pleasure of the film is in Krasinski’s commitment to imagining the resourceful ways in which a family like this might survive in this kind of world, then bearing witness to the filmmaker’s skillfully constructed methods of putting them to the ultimate test, relentlessly breaking down all of the walls the family has erected to keep the monsters out. Richard Scott Larson

The Host

5. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)

Scott Wilson’s deliciously hammy presence as the American captain in the opening scene indicates that Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is, in the broadest sense, a politically charged diatribe against both American and Korean political cover-up machinations of misinformation. But that aspect is rather bland in comparison to what else the film has to offer. For, like any great monster movie, this isn’t a film strictly about a monster—or, for that matter, the monstrous countries that spawned it—but about something else: the significance of sustenance. That is, The Host is a film chiefly concerned with food: who, how, and where we get it from, what it is we choose to eat, and why we eat it at all. Ryland Walker Knight


4. Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg, 2020)

Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is obsessed with tensions between mind and body, and old and new technologies. An analog man in a digital world, Cronenberg invests a narrative along the lines of his father David’s eXistenZ and Christopher Nolan’s Inception with psychedelic imagery and jolts of gouging, bone-splitting, unambiguously in-camera body horror that rival anything in modern cinema for tactility and pure outrageousness. In the process, he imbues Possessor with a disturbing irony: The film’s violence serves as a kind of relief for its perpetrators, who’re displaced by technological doodads and come to long for tangibility, corporeal terra firma, no matter how perverse. Bowen

Unfriended: Dark Web

3. Unfriended: Dark Web (Stephen Susco, 2018)

No genre is better at processing our contemporary anxieties than horror, and perhaps no film has more fully captured the modern paranoia of living under constant surveillance by our own technology than Stephen Susco’s Unfriended: Dark Web. In ways both terrifying and ludicrous, the film explores how such essential modern tools as laptops, phones, and Skype can be turned against us by unseen forces. Like its predecessor, the film plays out in real time, only this time it drops its main character into the darkest corners of the internet, where life is cheap and everything’s a game. Susco makes full use of the restrictions of the film’s format, employing multiple windows and digital glitches to juice up the suspense. If certain plot points require some fairly significant suspension of disbelief, the film’s vision of a world in which we’re all being manipulated by our cherished products nevertheless rings chillingly true. We aren’t, as the ubiquitous Microsoft commercial would have us believe, living in the future we always dreamed of, but rather in a nightmare of our own design. Keith Watson

Let the Right One In

2. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 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. Ed Gonzalez

The Tenant

1. The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976)

The masterful final panel in Roman Polanski’s remarkable “Apartment Trilogy,” The Tenant surpasses even Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby in its portrayal of claustrophobia and dissipating sanity. Casting himself as Trelkovsky, a meek Polish wanderer whose new Paris residence comes equipped with sinister neighbors, mysterious hieroglyphs, and mystical intimations, the great director employs a comically escalating sense of dread to crystallize a worldview in which weaklings and barbarians jostle for power and everyone is an outsider, as powerless against bullying as they are to helping the suffering of others. A master class in ominous, insinuating mise-en-scène, this is the ultimate Polanski skin-crawler and one of cinema’s supreme paranoid fantasias. Fernando Croce

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The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now

These films show us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed.




The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: Universal Pictures

“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by some of the imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles below (all presently streaming on Netflix) have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson

The Endless

10. The Endless (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2017)

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless first shows the appeal of commune living—everyone eats healthy, follows their blisses, and drinks copious craft beer—so that it’s all the more unnerving when the amiable façade falls away. Throughout, there are plenty of hints that something’s up, and the filmmakers excel at crafting an unsettling atmosphere through images of multiple moons in the sky, the daylight that flickers to full-on night and back again, the flocks of birds flying in ring formations, and the fired bullets that are flattened as if by a force field of invisible brick. The Sacrament recalls Adolfo Bioy Casares’s 1940 novel The Invention of Morel (and the Emidio Greco’s 1974 film adaptation starring Anna Karina), in which a scientist records what’s meant to be a perfect weekend on a remote island, then projects it three-dimensionally on an infinite loop atop the locations where it unfolded—a vision of what cinema (and home movies) could be if untethered from the screen. But here, the characters aren’t recordings, and they’re at least partially conscious of their imprisonment, consigned to live out the same events in perpetuity. As such, knotty, unlikely philosophical issues are raised, and if there’s any disappointment here, it’s that the film settles into Spielbergian Hollywood clichés about how divided families come back together. Henry Stewart


9. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-hoo, 2014)

Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is an angry and bleak film, as well as an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes genre entry concerned with passé niceties such as atmosphere and spatial coherence. The premise also has an inviting bluntness: A few years into the future, global warming slips out of control, and humankind inadvertently initiates an ice age in its attempt to correct it. Soon after, all that remains of humanity are the passengers of an ultra-equipped, self-sustaining train that suggests Noah’s Arc as a speeding elevated bullet. Having predictably learned nothing from their travails, the train’s passengers quickly assume the flawed social structure of the first world that’s recently ended, with the entitled haves exploiting the enraged have-nots. The film is most notable for its evolving visual concept: Each car takes one closer to a representation of the world as it presently works. The first few cars are rendered in the distancing apocalyptic hobo ax-and-sword aesthetic that’s been a cinema standard since at least the Mad Max films. But the latter cars are lit in expressionistically beautiful club-rave rainbow colors that reflect the escalating social privilege of a lost generation. Chuck Bowen

Elizabeth Harvest

8. Elizabeth Harvest (Sebastian Gutierrez, 2018)

The plot convolutions of Elizabeth Harvest conjoin with director Sebastian Gutierrez’s stylistic bravura—blasts of red and blue in Cale Finot’s cinematography that connote a spiritual as well as physical sense of ultraviolence—to create an incestuous atmosphere that’s reminiscent of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Henry is a memorable monster, played by Ciarán Hinds with a bravura mixture of smug entitlement and oily needfulness that’s weirdly and unexpectedly poignant. In one of the greatest mad-scientist speeches ever delivered by a character in a horror film, Henry explains that his cloned wife (Abbey Lee) is only real to him when he destroys her. This admission chillingly crystallizes the thin line, within the male gaze, between adoration and contempt. Bowen

Safety Not Guaranteed

7. Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012)

More focused on emotion than adventure, Safety Not Guaranteed teases out the possibilities and perils of time travel without embroiling itself in the confusion inherent to the subject. It also avoids most of the usual sci-fi clichés, with a suburban mad scientist who’s part man child, part Morel, using his invention as a means to heal adolescent scars. Played by Mark Duplass with just the right mixture of oblivious eccentricity and simmering hurt, the deft handling of this potentially ridiculous character is one of the many nice touches in this surprisingly poignant comedy. The film’s ending does seem to conflict sharply with its “you can’t go back” message, with the sudden appearance of special effects signaling an abandonment of the emotional and narrative verisimilitude exhibited so far. But it’s easy to excuse the film for going for the happy ending, considering how balanced it’s been up to this point, crafting characters that aren’t defined solely by silliness or sentimentality. Jesse Cataldo

Hardcore Henry

6. Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller, 2015)

The film’s first-person perspective is so ingeniously sustained throughout the lean 96-minute running time that you’re liable to swat at your face when a man covered in steel and wielding a flamethrower sets Henry (Andrey Dementyev) on fire, or hold on to the edge of your seat when he battles the telekinetic warlord Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) atop a skyscraper from which a free fall seems inevitable. The film’s singular ambition is to immerse the viewer in the thick of a frenzied drive toward the promise of a lover’s touch and a few more minutes of life. Our aesthetic perception is linked to our perception of Henry himself, so that the film becomes a study of empathy through aesthetics. It’s not for nothing that Henry is made to have no voice, as Hardcore Henry’s unbelievably precise choreography of action seeks to tap into a universal feeling of powerlessness. Ed Gonzalez

Midnight Special

5. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016)

With Mud and Take Shelter, writer-director Jeff Nichols has already used withholding narratives to weave distinctly Southern tales about fringe believers, survivalists who could also be seen as evangelists. Nichols was forthright about the motives of his protagonists, but cagey about whether their causes were worth believing in. Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is another in Nichols’s lineage of would-be prophets, but no one here doubts the world-changing potential of the child’s visions. If in Midnight Special is, at its heart, a work of science fiction, it rolls out like a chase film. With the help of his childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Alton’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon), has kidnapped the child from captivity at a compound run by a Branch Davidian-like cult that once counted Roy as a member. Given its twilit suburban adventures and encroaching security forces, the story exudes a superficially classical sensibility, recalling Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nichols has an easy mastery of pacing and tension, employing a churning sound design (and a pulsing score by David Wingo) that allows moments of occasionally bloody action to arrive with a frightening blast or a deep, quaking rumble of bass, and the film moves with purpose to its final destination. Christopher Gray

Mad Max

4. Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)

The Mad Max trilogy is the work of a talented virtuoso who blended seemingly every trope of every movie genre into a series of punk-rock action films. The plots, which are nearly irrelevant, are always similarly primitive even by the standards of low-budget genre films: In a bombed-out future version of the outback, a vicious gang pisses off a brilliant highway daredevil, Max (Mel Gibson), and stunning vehicular mayhem ensues. Though the second film, most commonly known in America as The Road Warrior, is often cited as the masterpiece of the series, the original Mad Max is still the most ferocious and subversive. The 1979 film most explicitly riffs on delinquent racing movies and the kinds of crudely effective 1970s horror movies that would sometimes show a family being violated in a prolonged fashion, and there are sequences in Mad Max that could be edited, probably with few seams, into, say, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Mad Max also has a distinctly Australian masculine tension that’s reminiscent of other outback-set classics such as Wake in Fright, as it’s concerned with the pronounced sexual repression and frustration of a predominantly male population that’s all dressed up in tight leather with little to do apart from mounting their bikes and revving up their big noisy engines. Bowen

The End of Evangelion

3. The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno, 1997)

When Hideaki Anno ended Neon Genesis Evangelion, his elaborate analogy for his own untreated depression, with a moment of calming, redemptive group therapy, the backlash he received from fans who wanted a cataclysmic climax was overwhelming. In response, Anno crafted this theatrical alternate ending, in which he brutally and unsparingly gave fans all the nihilistic chaos they could ever want. If the anime series’s finale was a psychological breakthrough, End of Evangelion is the relapse, an implosion of self-annihilating revulsion and anger rendered in cosmic terms. Religious, sci-fi, and psychosexual imagery intersect in chaotic, kaleidoscopic visions of personal and global hell, all passing through the shattered mind of the show’s child soldier protagonist. Its finale is the most fully annihilative visualization of the Rapture ever put to screen, a mass death rendered as cathartic release from the hell of existence that, in a parting act of cruelty, leaves the broken, suicidal protagonist alive to bear witness to oblivion. Jake Cole

A Clockwork Orange

2. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is about uninspired moral negligence, and about its hero tuning into violence as entertainment and institutions using violence and brainwashing as a means of control. It’s Kubrick’s most prescient work, more astute and unsparing than any of his other films (and he had more where that came from) in putting the bleakest parts of human behavior under the microscope and laughing in disgust. It was made right after his other high watermark, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as he returns to Earth from his mind-blowing brush with the cosmic, it’s a sort of sequel about our planet rotting away from the inside. As a drunk says to Alex (Malcolm McDowell) right before taking a vicious beating: “I don’t want to live anyway! Not in a stinking world like this! Men on the moon and men spinning around the Earth, and no attention paid to earthly law and order no more!” One could say this was ripped straight from the headlines, only nowadays one could argue there’s no attention paid to anything, be it outer space or earthly matters, just an endless feeding to audiences who have developed a voracious taste for, as Alex would say, “the [good] old ultra-violence.” Jeremiah Kipp

Total Recall

1. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)

An imaginative expansion of the brisk Philip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” this film about fake memories and a real interplanetary crisis now stands redolent with nostalgia, both for its time, as well as for itself. Beneath its show of smoke and mirrors, mercenary babes, and treacherous holograms, Total Recall is a story about a man who must choose between two possible, contradictory realities. In one timeline, he’s an earthbound schmuck; in the far less likely one, he’s a hero who must save an oppressed people on a faraway planet. He can’t afford to waver, but it’s our privilege to do so. As viewers, we’re welcome to consider the persistent motif of walls collapsing, subterfuges dissolving, and rugs being pulled out from still more rugs. The film now exists in a twilight of an era in which factory-produced entertainment could still serve as a keyhole into a dimension of weird, through which we might glimpse the otherworldly, and contemplate fondling the third breast. Jaime Christley

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