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Review: On the Road

The film’s pictorial tone is one of asphalt-crunching, dawn-breaking, icicle-defrosting meditativeness.

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On the Road
Photo: Sundance Selects

Jack Kerouac’s most valuable contribution to travel literature was his conflation of God and self into flip sides of the same epiphanic currency. An undeniable existential ambiguity runs through the history of the road narrative, even as far back as the Homeric epic, wherein heroes were constantly wagged between humiliating acts of gods and emboldening episodes of experiential self-discovery. Filtering Eastern thought through the prism of his stubborn Catholicism, Kerouac instead viewed “the journey” as a continuum of anonymity from which one derives nothing, yet upon which one might glimpse (and join) the common smear behind all of creation’s avatars. This inversion is merely pseudo-Buddhist cuteness, perhaps, but it was an immaculate fit for the jazzy, automobile-laden era in which the author lived. Eschewing moralistic generational reportage, Kerouac exulted in the complete disintegration of the post-war ego by way of itinerancy’s secular spoils: petty crime, drugs, music, and promiscuity. Was not, after all, a life of bumming but an acknowledgement of the spiritual insolvency humanity has inherited from Adam’s fall, and therefore a link to the ineffable beyond?

Kerouac himself admitted the lack of visual potential in his nuttily philosophical texts; his own unrealized On the Road film would have simply fixed a dashboard-mounted camera on himself and Marlon Brando as they yakked their way across the country in a Cadillac. And yet as risky as Kerouac’s celluloid dream sounds, Walter Salles’s finished adaptation is by far the more conceptually insolent. Taking cues from 1970s road films such as Two-Lane Blacktop and Days of Heaven, the movie’s pictorial tone is one of asphalt-crunching, dawn-breaking, icicle-defrosting meditativeness. In other words, Salles emphasizes all of the silly landscape stuff that Kerouac ignored in favor of verbal joys, of the thrill of thinking and speaking and being spoken to thoughtfully. This shift often cheapens the less-than-noble tendencies of Beat culture; when the characters interpret President Truman’s call to “reduce the cost of living” as an invitation to thieve, Kerouac’s treatise on all-American skullduggery is boiled down to a piddling punchline.

Eliding the importance of reflection and inflection to the novel, Salles instead zooms out to depict time, people, and places with period pageantry, much of it fancifully superficial. (A Slim Gaillard impersonator toward the end has about an ounce of the real man’s energy.) The United States becomes a catalogue of hick imbeciles and proto-hippie thrill-seekers through which Kerouac’s stand-in, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), can’t help but browse while bouncing aimlessly between Denver, San Francisco, and New York after the death of his father. As in the book, the only semblance of plot structure is offered by Paradise’s socio-intellectual attraction to the semi-cultured crook and hustler Dean Moriarty (Neil Cassady’s pseudonym, played by Garrett Hedlund). Sal digs bull-goose-loony Dean’s knowledge of narcotics and jazz, as well as his slipperiness toward women and family. But after watching Dean seduce, betray, and alienate a host of coast-to-coast victims, many drawn from real life (Tom Sturridge’s Carlo Marx is Allan Ginsberg and Viggo Mortensen’s Old Bull Lee is William S. Burroughs), Sal comes to see his friend as a sacrificial archetype whose lack of heroism is better appreciated in theory than in practice.

Salles transcribes the novel’s events concretely, albeit with handheld extemporaneity, but ditches Sal’s running commentary, therefore disallowing Dean to win us over the way he does the protagonist’s circle of friends. Hedlund writhes around in the role like a hipster shaman, converting his arrogance and cocksmanship into social advantages while his Oedipal conflicts doom him to antisocial self-destructiveness. This extroverted self-absorption appears all the more exaggerated to us, however, because the other characters’ seem so easily duped by it—a far cry from the way the book both acknowledged and confronted Dean’s churlishness within the first few pages. Without this context, and without the ragged cadence of Kerouac’s first-person exposition (itself an attempt to emulate Dean/Neal’s rhythmic correspondence), the Beats look gullible and hedonistic rather than like the forgiveness-prone, spiritually experimental students of life they saw themselves as.

The lack of a strong expository voice further simplifies the wealth of explicit sex Salles dramatizes, much of it drawn from juicy swathes of Kerouac’s only recently published original scroll. Unexplained, these moments flick by like a costumed erotic clip show: Sal fucks a dark-haired drifter in front of her sleepy daughter; new wives get one another hip to oral sex; Sal and Dean drive nakedly across the desert with a nymphet wedged between them, her hands gripping each boy’s stick shift while the three are baptized in sunlight. Kerouac saw sex as a compulsive pastime, but it was anything but shallow; the novel describes Dean’s concupiscence as a foolhardy attempt to return to and conquer the womb. Such passages read like gussied-up chauvinism today (as well as between-the-lines homosexuality, implications into which Salles dives headfirst in a memorable scene with Steve Buscemi), but the film won’t even let them get that far. Instead, it’s awash in quietude both blissful and tragic where Kerouac insisted upon speech—dumb and smart speech, clunky and mellifluous speech, didactic and enigmatic speech. To rid On the Road of that speech is to deny our ability to relate to its poetic motivation. We become clumsy voyeurs, and Kerouac’s holy, common smear evaporates into sociological bromide.

Cast: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Danny Morgan, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen Director: Walter Salles Screenwriter: Jose Rivera Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 124 min Rating: R Year: 2012 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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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.

2.5
David Robb

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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.

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Jake Cole

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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.

3.5
Carson Lund

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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.

.5
Chuck Bowen

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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.

3.5
Chuck Bowen

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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.

1
Steven Scaife

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Boogie
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.

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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


Depraved

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


Coherence

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



Possessor

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.

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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


Snowpiercer

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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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now

These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.

Staff

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: Universal Pictures

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 Netflix. Budd Wilkins



Under the Shadow

10. Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016)

Like an Iranian take on The Babadook, writer-director Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow is an emotionally direct and realistic horror story centered around a socially isolated mother and child who are terrorized by eerie supernatural events. Living in Tehran under Ayatollah Khomeini’s reign and during Iran’s long war with Iraq, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) feels the world closing in on her, a suffocation that comes to feel almost tactile through the specificity with which Anvari details her day to day. The paranormal happenings are very likely a combination of the mother’s hallucinations and the child’s way of making sense of the violence the mother perpetrates as her sanity ebbs and flows, but Anvari keeps things creepy in part by leaving open the possibility that there really may be something supernatural gripping his milieu. Elise Nakhnikian



Cam

9. Cam (Daniel Goldhaber, 2018)

When Wilhelm Reich developed the concept of “sex economy” in 1931, he had in mind something like the way societal expectations or advertising may compel someone toward compulsory masturbation. Almost 90 years later, compulsion is but one of an array of factors informing Cam, Daniel Goldhaber’s lithely satirical and startling take on the present state of online sex work. Based on screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam model, the film is neither plainly sex positive nor outright cautionary in its depiction of Alice (Madeline Brewer), an up-and-coming streamer whose account is hacked and stolen by someone appearing to be her doppelgänger. Even as Cam gives new meaning to “ghosting” when Alice watches “herself” online, the film’s strengths come from an intimate familiarity with the anxieties that accompany a life predicated on thriving in a gig economy still owned and operated by impenetrable customer service mechanisms and corporate channels of older, sweaty white men. Cam is also one of the first American films to grapple with the realities of being doxed to family and friends, further demonstrating its primary acumen as a check on the social pulse of a particular strain of U.S. conservatism that continues to think about and patrol sex work, and those who participate in it, in even pre-Reichian terms. Clayton Dillard



The Blackcoat’s Daughter

8. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (Oz Perkins, 2015)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Chuck Bowen



His House

7. His House (Remi Weekes, 2020)

In writer-director Remi Weekes’s debut feature, His House, the unresolved trauma that strips away at an immigrant family’s defenses is horrifyingly manifested when they finally move into their designated low-income housing, and struggle to navigate a foreign culture that insists on assimilation. Bol (Sope Dirisu) is desperate to fit in, ensuring the immigration bureau that he and his family are good people and telling his wife that, in their new surroundings, they’re “born again.” But his wife, Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), doesn’t share his eagerness, as her experiences in England have been almost entirely unpleasant, from the indifference and condescension of their smarmy, burnt-out case worker, Mark (Matt Smith), to the outright xenophobic, such as when three black neighborhood kids mock her and tell her to go back to Africa. As Bol and Rial contend with their adversities, their home becomes an increasingly dangerous battleground in which they’re forced to wrestle with their inner demons and find ways to adapt without fundamentally changing who they are. This house, with its porous walls and ragged, peeling wallpaper, is eerily symbolic of its new inhabitants’ damaged psyches, their grief and guilt manifesting as ghosts—most chillingly in the form of zombified migrants who died during the perilous crossing to England that opens the film. Derek Smith



1922

6. 1922 (Zak Hilditch, 2017)

In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen



The Invitation

5. The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan



Unfriended

4. Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014)

The computer screen to which we’re exclusively moored throughout Unfriended belongs to Blaire (Shelly Hennig), a popular high school girl who likes to while away her evenings listening to Spotify while she Skypes with her oft-shirtless boyfriend. One night their video chat is intruded on by several of their classmates—along with a pictureless mystery caller. It soon transpires that the caller in question is Laura Barnes, a former friend of Blaire’s who committed suicide after an embarrassing video went viral, apparently back from the grave to take digital revenge. There’s a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to all of this, but the purpose isn’t merely to sensationalize; there are very real, very relevant contemporary anxieties coursing through this story, lending the horror a provocative charge. More impressive still is how effectively Levan Gabriadze illustrates Laura’s brutal reckoning: When the genre-film spectacle arrives, it’s in full force, and the strictures of the framing device manage to amplify, rather than suppress, the impact of the shocks and scares. The result is a staggering thing—that rare breed of horror film to invent a gimmick and perfect it all at once. Calum Marsh



Before I Wake

3. Before I Wake (Mike Flanagan, 2016)

Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen



The Guest

2. The Guest (Adam Wingard, 2014)

The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen


The Blair Witch Project

1. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 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

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Festivals

Berlinale 2021: I’m Your Man, Souad, and Ninjababy

Maria Schrader has a solution for the rom-com’s revitalization: embrace its constructs.

Pat Brown

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Berlinale 2021: I’m Your Man, Souad, and Ninjababy
Photo: Christine Fenzl/Berl

It has been widely remarked that the romantic comedy, perhaps at its peak in the 1990s, has more or less evaporated as a popular mainstream genre over the course of the last two decades. The rom-com is at least in part a casualty of studios’ devaluing of mid-budget films, but perhaps its decline, as with any genre, has to do with its formula, after generations of repetition, finally becoming recognized for their inherent artificiality.

If true, filmmaker Maria Schrader has a solution for the rom-com’s revitalization: embrace its constructs. I’m Your Man presents us with the same outline as any number of rom-coms, in that two will-be lovers must overcome some inner flaw that prevents them from being together. For Alma (Maren Eggert), that would be the restraint that she shows in all things emotional, spurred by recent heartbreak and a resulting identity crisis. For Tom (Dan Stevens), it’s that he’s literally an artificial man, a robot programmed to respond to and fulfill Alma’s every desire—which, if you think about it, would be rather aggravating with or without Alma’s ingrained self-defense mechanism of revolting at the slightest sign of happiness.

Schrader gives her high-concept comedy a light touch that Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder would appreciate, embedding most of the story’s humor in variations on the Turing test, where conversations between Tom and real people throw that whole human-machine divide into question. I’m Your Man might reasonably be described as a gender-flipped version of familiar cinematic explorations of the question of the artificial being as a projection of male desire—think Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Spike Jonze’s Her, Andrew Niccol’s S1m0ne, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and its sequel—though its foregrounding of the complex contours of a woman’s desire makes Schrader’s film more than a simple inversion.

I’m Your Man more closely resembles “In Theory,” the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Brent Spiner’s Data begins dating a fellow crewmember. Akin to Data, Tom is an ever-so-slightly too perfect human-like being who’s risible at first for his divergence from the real deal, eventually demanding, from both Alma and the viewer, recognition as a form of life. Schrader’s camera, along with Alma, likes to linger on Tom’s face, not (only) in an erotic sense, but also in the philosophical sense—for the way she ponders the invisible difference between electronic algorithm and neurotransmitter charges. At once a wry romantic comedy about the complications of sexual desire and a science-fiction allegory about the confusions that singularity may be leading us toward, I’m Your Man assembles familiar ideas into something no less pleasurable for being a plainly artificial construct.

Ayten Amin’s Souad, screening in Berlinale’s Panorama section, could hardly strike more of a contrast with Schrader’s precisely executed and polished film. Set within a conservative Muslim community in Egypt, and shot in a verité, handheld style that seems to be reacting to the story rather than making space for it. But there’s a connection between the films in that Souad, too, is about the role of technology in women’s sexuality, from the very specific standpoint of young women coming of age amid the manifold contradictions produced by the injection of smart technologies and social media into traditional societies.

When we meet Souad (played with an elusive sullenness by Bassant Ahmed), she’s telling an old woman on the bus about her fiancé, who’s stationed in Sinai with the army, and his lovely sister; a smash cut later and she’s talking to a younger woman, telling her an entirely different story about her doctor boyfriend and his disapproving sister. Both stories are fabrications. Souad turns out to be living two lives, but not in the sense that she’s actually got boys in different area codes: While in person she appears to be one of the more conservative ones among her friends, she has a long-distance lover, a budding social media star named Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem)—though she might not be his only squeeze, virtual or otherwise.

Without positioning smartphones one-dimensionally as seducers of virginal youths, Amin’s film imagines the potentially tragic results of the confluence of the expectations that conservative Islam places on women’s sexuality, young people’s intensely erotic investment in social media, and the patriarchal privileges afforded by both religious doctrine and secular, technological society. While Souad’s second half drags after a shocking turn of events, and the film’s realist, Dardenne-esque aesthetic can feel forced—occasionally the camera is abruptly shoved into actors’ faces to underline significant moments—it offers a moving examination of the sometimes-unbearable splitting of the self in our socially mediated world.

A young woman, Rakel (Kristine Kujath Thorg), also finds herself caught between worlds in the Ninjababy. However, here it’s between the world in which she has discovered to her distress that she’s pregnant with the child of a fuck buddy that she and her roommate, Ingrid (Tora Dietrichson), non-affectionately call “Dick Jesus” (Arthur Berning), and that of her idly drawn cartoons, in which the fetus has been personified as the titular masked figure.

Uncharitably, one could call Yngvild Sve Filkke’s film a Norwegian mashup of Jason Reitman’s Juno and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, as its story of accidental pregnancy (and failed trip to the abortion clinic) sets itself among a familiar-seeming set of off-kilter young hipsters, and it frequently augments its comedy with pseudo-amateur animation and effects. The latter are visible only to Rakel, the indie pregnancy’s requisite slacker with an active imagination and even more active (and sarcastic) unconscious mind.

But more charitably, Ninjababy, whatever its similarities to aughts-era films indebted to indie comics, is refreshing for its less puritanical look at women’s sexuality. It also yields plenty of yuks. The jokes spewed by the cartoon fetus who’s inserted into scenes as Rakel’s castigating super-ego don’t always land, but the chaotic love triangle that forms between Rakel, the oblivious male narcissist Dick Jesus, and Mos (Nader Kademi), the diminutive and exceedingly sweet local Aikido coach, makes for some cringe-humor gold.

Berlinale runs from March 1—5.

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