For a franchise as relentlessly overextended as the Friday the 13th series, it was perhaps inevitable that the installment preceding this one, Tom McLoughlinâs Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), would, in the interest of freshness, fully embrace self-parody, McLoughlin peppering his film with all sorts of self-aware jokes (“Iâve seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly,” says one character) and generally achieving a comparably lighthearted tone that took the series as far as one could imagine from its origins as a creepy low-budget shocker in Sean S. Cunninghamâs 1980 original. Thankfully, Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood reverts back, at least in part, to the graver stalk-and-slash atmosphere of earlier entries. Despite its title, though, thereâs little “new blood” to be found in John Carl Buechlerâs installmentâunless, of course, you consider, say, moments like the one in which Jason Voorhees kills a woman in a sleeping bag by smashing it/her on a tree to be the ne plus ultra of creativity.
Let me backtrack a bit here, though, because, despite its generally low reputation, the Friday the 13th films arenât entirely mindless affairs. Yes, theyâre generally vacuums of humanity, mostly content to treat its characters as cannon fodder for a series of increasingly baroque punishments, often after the characters have had sex. But if we take the films on those terms, there are moments throughout the series that achieve the kind of thematic heft that serious critics regularly attribute to, say, John Carpenterâs Halloween. Think back, for instance, on that apocalyptic dream Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) recalls involving blood-red rain at one point in Friday the 13th (heavy rain falls immediately afterward), a bit of foreshadowing that suggests an attention to ominous detail that later entries would dispense with altogether. Or recall Ginnyâs (Amy Steel) clever ruse in Friday the 13th Part 2 in which she pretends to be Jasonâs mother in an attempt to try to outsmart Jason, in a moment thatâs the closest the series has ever gotten to psychological drama. But the most interesting entry in that regard is Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (ha ha), in which Jasonâs reign of bloody terror is subtly and slyly made a projection of Tommy Jarvisâs (Corey Feldman) adolescent curiosity about a world beyond his insular horror-movie obsessions.
The script for The New Blood, by Daryl Haney and Manuel Fidello, flirts with this kind of metaphorical heft with the conception of its heroine, Tina Shepard (Lar Park Lincoln), a mentally unstable young woman with telekinetic powers still struggling from guilt feelings over her role in her fatherâs death. She, her mother (Susan Blu), and her psychiatrist (Terry Kiser) return to their old home in Crystal Lake in the doctorâs professed attempt at forcing her to confront her guilt complex and thus control her paranormal abilities. One night, though, in a desperate attempt to use her powers to bring her father back from the bottom of Crystal Lake, a frustrated Tina instead accidentally reanimates Jason, last seen chained to the bottom of the lake at the end of Part VI, thus setting up this filmâs round of homicides. The setup, though, suggests not just the “Jason vs. Carrie” angle that is the filmâs usual claim to fame, but the possibility that Jason, in this case, is an analogue for Tinaâs anxieties: her guilt run amok. Considering that Tinaâs also spent much of her childhood in a mental institution, there are also hints that, somewhat like Tommy Jarvis in The Final Chapter, sheâs never experienced the decadent adult world she glimpses in the group of oversexed young adults taking temporary residence next door; in that light, Jason once again becomes the puritanical avenger punishing this batch of ciphers for their various sexual transgressions.
None of this is ever explored to any resonant effect under Buechlerâs direction, which generally prizes efficiency over Cunninghamâs patient attention to suspense-building detail in the original. The New Blood certainly moves briskly from one violent set piece to the next; as a result of Buechlerâs emphasis on narrative momentum, however, the underlying themes, such as they are, never have an opportunity to breathe. With the victims made even more generic than usual this time around, the result is more or less the kind of slasher film the seriesâs many detractors accuse films in the genre of being as a whole: an empty-headed slaughterfest, with a bit of negligible human interest to offset the nihilism.
One minor point of interest comes in the form of Jason himselfâmore specifically, the actor playing him. Kane Hodder is considered by fans to be the best Jason of the series. This was stuntman-turned-actor Hodderâs first of four appearances in the role, and, with his formidable hulking physique, he certainly exudes a relentless menace that none of the other actors who played the iconic killer have quite managed; if nothing else, his brutal efficiency matches Buechlerâs directorial approach. On the other hand, Hodder never gets a chance to emote behind the mask like Warrington Gillette does in that weirdly affecting moment of confusion in Part 2 when Ginny fools him into believing sheâs his dead motherâbut, of course, The New Blood has no particular interest in psychology of that sort.
That leaves the gore, of course. But wait…where is the gore in The New Blood? If “sex = death” was one of the major takeaways from Halloween, the logical next step was to ramp up the on-screen gore from the near-bloodlessness of Carpenterâs film to really make the connection explicit: spurting blood as the slasher-genre equivalent of pornographyâs ejaculatory money shot. Take away those graphic displays of blood, and in some ways you destroy a Friday the 13th filmâs reason for existing. The outcry against the graphic violence in the original Friday the 13th was apparently effective enough that the MPAA cracked down severely on on-screen bloodletting in many of the films in the series since. The New Blood is, along with Part 2, the one that suffered the most severe censorship; to add insult to injury, Paramountâs Deluxe Edition DVD of the film features rough footage of the extra bits of gore forced out of the film, and some of that footage is sweetly perverse (the aforementioned sleeping-bag murder, for instance, was much longer and bloodier, with gratuitous slow-motion to boot). I canât imagine how Buechlerâonce a make-up artist for Roger Cormanâs New World Picturesâreacted to the cuts, but a Friday the 13th film trimmed down to nearly no on-screen bloodletting is the equivalent of a porn film with all the “naughty” bits elided or cut out entirely. In the end, whatâs the point, especially when, in the case of The New Blood, there isnât a whole heck of a lot in the way of human interest or wit to compensate for the lack of viscera?
Review: Corpus Christi Spins an Ambiguous Morality Tale About True Faith
Itâs within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that itâs at its most audacious and compelling.3
Using as its jumping-off point the surprisingly common phenomenon of Polish men impersonating priests, Jan Komasaâs Corpus Christi weaves an elaborate, thoughtful, and occasionally meandering morality tale about the nature of faith, grief, and community in the 21st century. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a 20-year-old juvenile delinquent, is a recently converted believer, but heâs also an opportunist. After finding himself mistaken for a man of the cloth upon arriving in a small, remote town, Daniel decides to strap on the clergy collar from a costume and play the part for real. Better that than head to the sawmill for the backbreaking work his former priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), has lined up for him.
This setup has all the makings of a blackly comic farce, but Komasa and screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz play the scenario straight, using Danielâs fish-out-of-water status as a catalyst for interrogating the shifting spiritual landscape of a Poland thatâs grown increasingly disillusioned of both its religious and political institutions. For one, a general wariness (and weariness) of the cold, impersonal ritualism of the Catholic Church helps to explain why many of the townspeople take so quickly to Danielâs irreverent approach to priesthood, particularly his emotional candidness and the genuine compassion he shows for his parish.
That is, of course, once the young man gets past his awkward stabs at learning how to offer confessionâby Googling, no lessâand reciting Father Tomaszâs prayers, discovering that itâs easier for him to preach when shooting from the hip. The convenient timing of the townâs official priest (Zdzislaw Wardejn) falling ill, thus allowing Daniel to slide comfortably into the manâs place, is a narrative gambit that certainly requires a small leap of faith. But itâs one that engenders a fascinatingly thorny conflict between a damaged imposter walking the very thin line between the sacred and the profane, a town still reeling from the trauma of a recent car wreck that left seven people dead, and a shady mayor (Leszek Lichota) yearning for a return to normalcy so that his corrupt dealings can run more smoothly.
The grieving process of the family and friends of the six teenagers lost in this tragedy is further complicated by rumors that the other driver had been drinking, leading to his widow (Barbara Kurzaj) being harassed and completely ostracized by the community. The falsity of this widely accepted bit of hearsay shrewdly mirrors Danielâs own embracing of falsehood and inability to transcend the traumatic events and mistakes of his own recent past. Yet, interestingly enough, itâs the vehement young manâs dogged pursuit of the truth in this manner, all while play-acting the role of ordained leader, that causes a necessary disruption in the quietly tortured little town. His unwavering support of the widow, despite the blowback he gets from the mayor and several of the deceased teenagersâ parents, however, appears to have less to do with a pure thirst for justice or truth than with how her mistreatment at the hands of those around her mirrors his own feelings of being rejected by society.
Itâs a topsy-turvy situation that brings into question the mindlessly placating role that the church and political figures play in returning to the status quo, even if that leaves peoplesâ sins and darkest secrets forever buried. And while Danielâs adversarial presence both shines a light on the townâs hypocrisy and their leadersâ corruption, his own duplicity isnât overlooked, preventing Corpus Christi from settling for any sweeping moral generalizations, and lending an ambiguity to the ethics of everyoneâs behavior in the film.
Whether or not the ends justify the means or fraudulence and faith can coexist in ways that are beneficial to all, possibly even on a spiritual level, are questions that Komasa leaves unanswered. Corpus Christi instead accepts the innate, inescapable ambiguities of faith and the troubling role deception can often play in both keeping the communal peace, and in achieving a true sense of closure and redemption in situations where perhaps neither are truly attainable. Although the film ends on a frightening note of retribution, itâs within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that itâs at its most audacious and compelling.
Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel, Tomasz Zietek, Barbara Karzaj, Leszek Lichota, Zdzislaw Wardejn, Lukasz Simlat Director: Jan Komasa Screenwriter: Mateusz Pacewicz Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Stella Meghieâs The Photograph Isnât Worth a Thousand Words
The film is at its best when itâs focused on the euphoria and tribulations of its central couple’s love affair.2.5
Near the middle of Stella Meghieâs The Photograph, Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) seduces Mae (Issa Rae) after dropping the needle on a vinyl copy of Al Greenâs Iâm Still In Love with You. The 1972 soul classic is a mainstay in many a foreplay-centric album rotations thanks to the smooth atmospherics set by the Reverend Alâs dulcet tones, but itâs not the aptness of the music choice that makes this encounter so strikingly sensual. Rather, itâs the leisurely, deliberate pacing with which Meghie allows the scene to unfold. As the mellow âFor the Good Timesâ smoothly transitions into the more chipper and frisky âIâm Glad Youâre Mine,â Michael and Mae engage in playful banter and subtle physical flirtations. The sly move of having one song directly spill into the next offers a strong sense of this couple falling in love, and in real time. The subtle surging of their passion occurs along with the tonal change of the songs, lending Michaelâs seduction of Mae an authentic and deeply felt intimacy.
The strength of this scene, and several others involving the new couple, is in large part due to the effortless chemistry between Rae and Stanfield. When the duo share the screen, thereâs a palpable and alluring romantic charge to their interactions, and one thatâs judiciously tempered by their charactersâ Achilles heels, be it Maeâs reluctance to allow herself to become vulnerable or Michaelâs commitment issues. As Mae and Michael struggle to balance their intensifying feelings toward one another with their professional ambitions and the lingering disappointments of former relationships, they each develop a rich, complex interiority that strengthens the filmâs portrait of them as individuals and as a couple.
The problems that arise from the clash between Mae and Michaelâs burgeoning love and their collective baggage are more than enough to carry this romantic drama. But Meghie encumbers the film with a lengthy, flashback-heavy subplot involving the brief but intense love affair that Maeâs estranged, recently deceased mother, Christina (ChantĂ© Adams), had in Louisiana before moving away to New York. These flashbacks arenât only intrusive, disrupting the forward momentum and emotional resonance of the filmâs depiction of Mae and Michaelâs relationship, but they provide only a thinly sketched-out, banal conflict between a woman who wants a career in the big city and a man content to stay put in the Deep South.
The overly deterministic manner with which Meghie weaves the two stories together adds an unnecessary gravity and turgidity to a film thatâs at its best when itâs focused on Michael and Maeâs love story. The intercutting between the two time periods is clunky, and while both narratives eventually dovetail in a manner that makes thematic sense, Meghie extends far too much effort laying out Christinaâs many mistakes and regrets for an end result that feels both overripe and overwritten. When The Photograph lingers on the euphoria and tribulations of Mae and Michaelâs love affair, itâs rich in carefully observed details, but the gratuitous flourishes in its narrative structure gives it the unsavory pomposity of a Nicholas Sparks novel.
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Issa Rae, Chelsea Peretti, Teyonah Parris, Kelvin Harrison Jr., ChantĂ© Adams, Rob Morgan, Courtney B. Vance, Lil Rel Howery, Yâlan Noel, Jasmine Cephas Jones Director: Stella Meghie Screenwriter: Stella Meghie Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
David Loweryâs The Green Knight, Starring Dev Patel, Gets Teaser Trailer
Today, A24 dropped the trailer for haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery’s latest.
Jack of all trades and haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery is currently in pre-production on the latest live-action adaptation of Peter Pan for Disney, which is bound to be full steam ahead now that The Green Knight is almost in the can. Today, A24 debuted the moody teaser trailer for the film, which stars Dev Patel as Sir Gawain on a quest to defeat the eponymous âtester of men.â Scored by Loweryâs longtime collaborator Daniel Hart, The Green Knight appears to have been shot and edited in the same minimalist mode of the filmmakerâs prior features, which include Ainât Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story. Though itâs not being billed as a horror film, itâs very easy to see from the one-and-a-half-minute clip how Loweryâs latest is of a piece with so many A24 horror films before it.
According to A24âs official description of the film:
An epic fantasy adventure based on the timeless Arthurian legend, The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, who embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men. Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers in what becomes a deeper journey to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenger. From visionary filmmaker David Lowery comes a fresh and bold spin on a classic tale from the knights of the round table.
The Green Knight is written, directed, and edited by Lowery and also stars Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, and Barry Keoghan.
See the trailer below:
A24 will release The Green Knight this summer.
Review: Onur Tukelâs The Misogynists Stagily Addresses the State of a Nation
Tukelâs film doesnât live up to the promise of its fleet-footed opening.2
Taking place on the night of the 2016 presidential election, Onur Tukelâs The Misogynists begins, fittingly, with the sound of a woman crying. Alice (Christine Campbell) explains to her concerned daughter that sheâs sad because half of the country has made the wrong decision, prompting the child to respond that her mother has herself been wrong before: âYou were wrong when you thought that black man stole your cellphone.â Defensively writing off this past instance of casual racism as nothing more than an honest mistake, Alice sends the girl back to bed, after offering a weary âprobably notâ in response to her asking if she could be elected president someday.
In just a few lines of dialogue, Tukel exposes the moral blind spots and hypocrisy of otherwise well-meaning liberals, not to mention the irresponsible vanity of outrage and despair in the face of a stinging electoral defeat. This short scene highlights the emotional vulnerabilities that often underpin, and undermine, political convictions, and it serves as a perfect encapsulation of almost all of the filmâs thematic concerns.
Unfortunately, the rest of The Misogynists doesnât live up to the promise of this fleet-footed opening. Set mostly within the confines of one hotel room and featuring sex workers, a Mexican delivery boy, wealthy businessmen, and other roughly sketched characters from the contemporary political imagination, Tukel seems to be aiming for a broad comedy of manners in the key of Whit Stillman and early Richard Linklater, but there isnât enough attention to detail, sense of place, or joie de vivre to make his scenarios come to life.
The narrative revolves around Cameron (Dylan Baker), a friendly but obnoxious Trump supporter. Holed up in the hotel room where heâs been living since breaking up with his wife, he invites various visitors to share tequila shots and lines of coke in celebration of Trumpâs victory, while he holds forth on such hot-button topics as racial hierarchies, gun control, and gender roles. Baker delivers a spirited performance as Cameron, but the character is little more than a one-dimensional stand-in for a particular reactionary attitude, especially compared to the more nuanced and conflicted figures he interacts with. As the script isnât bold enough to dig into the deeper emotional appeal of Trumpâs nationalistic fervor and old-school machismo, Cameronâs smug, pseudo-intellectual cynicism is mostly unconvincing.
Tukel realizes one of his few visual flourishes through the TV in Cameronâs hotel room, which switches itself on at random and plays footage in reverse, transfixing whoever happens to be watching. This works well as a metaphor for the re-emergence of political beliefs most people thought to be gone for good, as well as the regression that many of the characters are undergoing in the face of an uncertain future. It provides a hint of the more affecting film that The Misogynists could have been had it transcended the staginess of its setup.
Though the filmâs dialogue rarely offers enough intellectual insights to justify a general feeling of artificiality, it does effectively evoke the media-poisoned discourse-fatigue thatâs afflicted us all since before Trump even decided to run for public office. The film shows people across the political spectrum who appear to have argued themselves into a corner in an effort to make sense of their changing society, and their failure to live up to their own beliefs seems to be contributing further to their unhappiness.
Going even further than this, one of the escorts, Sasha (Ivana MiliÄeviÄ), hired by Cameron offers up whatâs perhaps the filmâs thesis statement during an argument with her Muslim cab driver, Cairo (Hemang Sharma). She insists on her right to criticize whoever she wants, claiming that âAmericans wouldnât have anything to talk aboutâ without this right. This idea of conflict being preferable to silence ties into the ambiguous denouement of The Misogynists. Tukel ultimately seems to suggest that the freedom so many Americans insist upon as the most important value is, in fact, so lonely and terrifying that even the spectacle of the world falling apart is a reassuring distraction.
Cast: Dylan Baker, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Ivana Milicevic, Lou Jay Taylor, Matt Walton, Christine Campbell, Nana Mensah, Rudy De La Cruz, Hemang Sharma, Cynthia Thomas, Darrill Rosen, Karl Jacob, Matt Hopkins Director: Onur Tukel Screenwriter: Onur Tukel Distributor: Factory 25, Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Downhill Is a Watered-Down Imitation of a True Provocation
Downhill never makes much of an impact as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next.2
Ruben Ăstlundâs 2014 film Force Majeure brims with precisely calibrated depictions of human miseryâshots that capture, with a mordant, uncompromising eye, the fragility of contemporary masculinity and the bitter resentments underlying the veneer of domestic contentment. The observations it makes about male cowardice and the stultifying effects of marriage arenât exactly new, but Ăstlund lends them an indelibly discomfiting vigor through his rigorous yet playful compositions. Given the clarity of that vision, it probably goes without saying that Nat Faxon and Jim Rashâs Downhill, an Americanized remake of Ăstlundâs film, faced an uphill battle to not seem like an act of redundancy.
Downhill not only borrows the basic outlines of Force Majeureâs plot, but also attempts to mimic its icily cynical sense of humor. The result is a pale imitation of the real thing that never builds an identity of its own. Like its predecessor, Downhill tracks the fallout from a single catastrophically gutless moment, in which Pete (Will Ferrell), the patriarch of an upper-class American family on a ski holiday in the Alps, runs away from an oncoming avalanche, leaving his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and two sons, Finn and Emerson (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford), behindâthough not before grabbing his phone.
This scene, which Ăstlund covers in a single indelible long take in Force Majeure, is broken up here into a conventional series of shots. Itâs reasonably well-constructed, and it effectively sets up the chain of events that follow, but perhaps inevitably, it doesnât carry the same weight. And the same is true of so much of Downhill as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next, never making much of an impact.
Comedy of discomfort usually depends on the willingness to linger on an awkward moment, to make it impossible for us to shake off that discomfort. But Faxon, Rash, and co-screenwriter Jesse Armstrong lack the courage of their convictions. They craft some truly cringe-inducing scenarios, such as an explosive debate between Pete and Billie as they attempt to convince a couple of friends, Rosie and Zach (Zoe Chao and Zach Woods), whose version of events about the avalanche is correct. But they donât give us enough time or space to soak in the uneasy atmosphere. During the debate, for example, Billie rouses Finn and Emerson and has them testify before Rosie and Zach that her memory is correct. But almost as soon as the sheer inappropriateness of the decision to bring her kids into the center of a brutal marital dispute hits us, the moment has passed, and the film has moved on to the next gag.
Itâs hard not to feel like Faxon and Rash are pulling their punches, perhaps anxious that going a little too dark or getting a bit too uncomfortable might upset the delicate sensitivities of an American audience. Rather than really dig into the marital strife at the heart of the filmâs premise, theyâre mostly content to step back and let Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus do their thing. And the two actors bounce off each other with a pleasantly nervous energy, Ferrellâs clammy desperation so well contraposed to Louis-Dreyfusâs rubber-faced emoting.
Ferrell plays Pete as a man terrified of his own feelings, unable to reveal his deep insecurities to anyone, including himself. Louis-Dreyfus, on the other hand, wears every emotion, however fleeting, right on her face, which is in a state of constant flux. Throughout Downhill, Billieâs emotions range from unease to anger to self-doubt to pity, often in the span of seconds. More than anything else, itâs Louis-Dreyfusâs performance that sticks with you after the film is over.
If Force Majeure was essentially a film about male cowardice, Downhill is in many ways about the lies women must tell themselves to remain sane in a manâs world. Itâs apt, then, that one of the pivotal images in Ăstlundâs film is that of the husbandâs pathetically weeping face as he breaks down in a fit of self-loathing in front of his wife, and that the most lasting image in this remake is the look of shock, confusion, and rage on Billieâs face as Pete tells her the same. Unfortunately, itâs one of the few truly striking and meaningful images in the entire film.
Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zoe Chao, Zach Woods, Julian Grey, Kristofer Hivju, Ammon Jacob Ford, Giulio Berruti Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Screenwriter: Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 86 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Wes Andersonâs The French Dispatch, a Tribute to Journalists, Gets First Trailer
Andersonâs latest is described as a âlove letter to journalists.â
Today, Searchlight Pictures debuted the trailer for The French Dispatch, Wes Andersonâs first feature since 2018âs Isle of Dogs and first live-action film since 2014âs The Grand Budapest Hotel. According to its official description, The French Dispatch âbrings to life a collection of stories from the final issue of an American magazine published in a fictional 20th-century French city.â The city is Ennui-sur-BlasĂ© and the magazine is run by Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), an American journalist based in France. The trailer, just a hair over two minutes, quickly establishes the workaday (and detail-rich) world of a magazine, a travelogue struggling with just how much politics to bring to its pages during a time of strife.
A French Dispatch is written and directed by Anderson, whose described the film as a âlove letter to journalists,â and stars Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, LĂ©a Seydoux, Frances McDormand, TimothĂ©e Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson. See the trailer below:
Searchlight Pictures will release The French Dispatch on July 24.
Review: Sonic the Hedgehog Doesnât Rock, Even After a New Paintjob
Throughout, any and all subtext is buried under the weight of Jim Carreyâs mugging.1.5
Itâs only fitting that director Jeff Fowlerâs Sonic the Hedgehog, the belated big-screen debut for the eponymous Sega mascot, feels like a blast from the 1990s. Eschewing the emphasis on world building that pervades so many contemporary blockbusters, the film remains intensely focused on the personal travails of its supersonic protagonist (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and opts for telling a single, complete story over setting up a potential franchise universe. Indeed, despite Sonic being an alien from a distant planet, we only briefly glimpse other realms besides Earth throughout the film, and we only get enough of the blue hedgehogâs backstory to know that he fled his homeworld (modeled on the original video gameâs starter level) after being hunted by other residents afraid of his superpowers.
Using rings that can allow him to pass through dimensions, Sonic ends up on Earth, settling in the woods around Green Hills, Montana. He remains hidden for his own safety but suffers from intense loneliness. This much is obvious from the way he darts around the outskirts of town, watching people from afar or spying on them through windows and pretending to have conversations with them. But Sonic the Hedgehog repeatedly makes its hero reiterate his feelings in endless monologues and voiceover narration. If the best contemporary childrenâs films trust young viewers to follow at least some of the emotional beats of a story on their own, Sonic the Hedgehog is frustratingly old-school in its condescension, as the filmmakers constantly hold the audienceâs hand in order to make sure that we understand why the hero looks so crestfallen as he, for example, plays group games all by himself.
Eventually, Sonicâs high-speed, energy-producing running causes a power surge, and after the Pentagon enlists a private drone contractor, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), to investigate the cause, the hedgehog finds himself in the governmentâs crosshairs. As originally conceived in the video game, Robotnik had little depth or motivation beyond providing a megalomaniacal impedance to the hero, but thereâs something gently unnerving about how little updating had to be done to Robotnikâs simplistic backstory to credibly present him as a mercenary in a modern military-industrial complex wielding destructive drone technology without oversight.
Of course, that subtext is rapidly buried under the weight of Carreyâs mugging. As the actor is wont to do, he lunges at each line like a starving animal, pulling rubber faces and jutting his limbs in angular motions as he says every other word with an exaggerated pronunciation. In depicting a mad scientist, Carrey over-exaggerates the madness at the expense of the rare moments in which Robotnik conveys a more compelling kind of super-genius sociopathy, a tech-libertarianâs disregard for anything outside his own advancement.
Through a series of mishaps, Sonic accidentally opens a portal to San Francisco with his rings and drops the remaining transportation devices through it, necessitating a retrieval mission to California. To do so, he enlists Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), a local Green Hills cop, to escort him. Having Sonic travel with Tom is an obvious pretense to give the former his first true friend, but the pairing comes at the expense of all narrative logic. Sonic can sprint from Montana all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back within seconds, yet he opts to tag along in a pickup truck doing 60mph for a mission where time is of the essence.
To Marsdenâs credit, thereâs a natural camaraderie between him and the computer-animated Sonic, which is impressive given that the critter was likely represented on set by a tennis ball on a stick. The jokes are almost all uniformly awful, following a formula of some zany thing happening and a character merely describing aloud what just happened in an incredulous voice. But Marsden impressively imbues Tom with a sense of pity as the man contemplates Sonicâs life on the runâone that finds the hedgehog living in the shadows and heading to new, sometimes miserable worlds to outrun forces that might exploit and harm him.
For a film that gained notoriety well before its release for how wildly Sonicâs original animation diverged from his well-established look, Sonic the Hedgehog does show a clear understanding of the source material and its essential nature. Sonic, fundamentally, is a goofy character with a specific power who just wants friends, and as exasperating as the film can be in its overbearingly clumsy humor, it at least never tries to make the character more complicated than he really is. But the lack of any greater depth to the core of the material limits the possibilities of making any of this meaningful to anyone.
Video games long ago began to reveal their cinematic aspirations, but the Sonic the Hedgehog series to this day continues to channel the old-school cool of platformers that prize gameplayâand testing the playerâs hand-eye coordinationâover matters of story. Thereâs plenty of potential for movies and games to inform one another, but perhaps the only aspect of video game culture that Sonic the Hedgehog brings to cinema is the trend of allowing preemptive fan outrage to necessitate overhauls from already overworked animators.
Cast: Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Adam Pally, Lee Majdoub, Neal McDonough Director: Jeff Fowler Screenwriter: Pat Casey, Josh Miller Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack
Interview: Angela Schanelec on I Was at Home, ButâŠ, the Berlin School, & More
The filmmaker discusses her elliptical approach to filmmaking and how she compels our active spectatorship.
One year ago at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Silver Bear for best director went to Angela Schanelec for I Was at Home, ButâŠ. The film stars Maren Eggert as Astrid, a Berlin woman recently bereaved of her husband and coping with the subsequent weeklong disappearance and reemergence of her son, Philip (Jakob Lassalle). Astridâs life in the wake of these dual traumas unfolds episodically, as her emotional duress manifests itself as displaced obstinacy and heightened passion in social interactions.
Astridâs emotional struggle is also intercut with dispersed scenes of Philipâs class neutrally reciting lines from Hamlet, of a romantic crisis in the life of one of his instructors (the omnipresent Franz Rogowski), and of a donkey and a dog living together in an abandoned schoolhouse. With this film, Schanelec crafts a portrait of grief that can be at once alienating and deeply moving, its fragmentary nature both reflecting the way Astrid and Philipâs worlds have been shattered and compelling our active spectatorship.
That latter aspect is typical of Schanelecâs body of work, as well as the film movement it has been grouped with. The so-called Berlin Schoolâoriginally consisting of Schanelec and Thomas Arslan and Christian Petzold, her fellow graduates from the Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie Berlinâwasnât the filmmakersâ intentional creation, but rather a label often applied to the slow-paced, formalist, and critically engaged art films they made. French critics and the German film magazine Revolver were the first to propagate the coming of a nouvelle vague allemande in the late â90s and early 2000s, and, as Schanelec emphasizes in our interview, particularly in the early days of the âSchool,â the grouping helped the trioâs small collection of completed works find places in film festivals.
Now, 25 years into her filmmaking career, Schanelec has an oeuvre that stands on its ownâas evidenced by the career retrospectives that have begun to crop up around the world. Last fall, the Vienna International Film Festival organized a comprehensive one. And from February 7 to 13, Film at the Lincoln Center in New York will be showing her films under the program âDreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec,â which in addition to her shorts and features also includes a program of three films by other filmmakers selected by Schanelec.
Has this retrospective given you reason to revisit earlier work that you havenât in a while, or to revisit your work as a whole? If so, what kinds of insights have stood out to you as you have considered your career up to this point?
I have to say that itâs quite exhausting to be confronted with the work of my whole life. There were other retrospectives, earlier retrospectives, and for me itâs quite hard. I mean, Iâm very happy that thereâs this interest in my work, thereâ no question. But itâs also quite hard for me.
Whatâs so difficult about it?
Because, I mean, itâs not such a big body of work. I started in the â90s, and the first long film was in 1995, so itâs 25 years. But between my films is two or three years, so I spend a lot of time with them. And when they are finished, they are finished. And then I have the deep wish to continue with something new. And I think I know my films.
Do you see, then, each film as something new youâre exploring? Or do you leave a film with an idea you want to continue working on in the next film?
Itâs not a new start. Itâs not a new beginning at all. Itâs rather a need that emerges from the work on a film, and I follow up on this need in the next film. And this is also not an intellectual or conceptual decision, and often itâs very primitive. So, when, for example, Iâve worked a lot with language, thereâs a certain fatigue, or there emerges the need to work with images again. If you look at the way my films alternate, thereâs always, I donât knowâin PlĂ€tze in StĂ€dten [Schanelecâs first feature] thereâs hardly any talking, in Passing Summer lots of talking, then in Marseille, again, hardly any. So, certain needs develop, and they come from exhaustion.
In fact, I noticed that The Dreamed Path has no subtitles on Amazon Prime, and perhaps it doesnât need them because as you said itâs one of your films thatâs so visual.
This is only one point how one film comes from another. Ah, there are lots, but it happens, as I said, not rationally, but instead it emerges from certain needs.
To what degree do you feel an affinity with something called the Berlin School? And if you did, do you feel like itâs so-last-decade, do you feel itâs over now?
To start at the beginning, it was only Thomas Arsland, Christian Petzold, and I. And Thomas and I had become friends already at the Filmhochschule. And via this concept, âBerlin School,â it was much easier to make the films visible, because we hadnât made so many films. But then under the concept âBerlin School,â one could show the whole set. Then the films were also shown abroad very often, and naturally that was good, and we were happy with that. But the concept didnât result from collaborative work, but only from a look at the finished films. And weâThomas and Iânever, though we were friends, we never worked together even at the Filmhochschule. There was no cooperation, and correspondingly, the films developed completely differently over the course of these 15 yearsâor I donât really know how long this concept has existed. If you look at the films only of the three of us, youâll see theyâre very different from one another. And mine are somewhere different entirely. In my eyes, anyway.
And therefore the concept is not relevant for me. Whatâs also positive, though, is this next generation came upâChristoph HochhĂ€user, Nicolas Wackerbarthâand the two of them are from Revolver, and are very practiced at communicating. And that was also positive, because for Thomas and I that was unaccustomed. We had much more worked each for ourselves.
Turning to I Was at Home, But …, thereâs a lot of Hamlet in the film. You translated a volume of Shakespeare plays a couple of years ago, so itâs clear why Hamlet appears in it to a certain extent, but Iâm wondering what has drawn you to Shakespeare recently, and whether your work translating him served as a kind of germ for the film.
What I can say is that I translated, between the year 2000 and five years ago, six or seven Shakespeare pieces, and Hamlet was quite long ago, but it was the one that impressed me to a very extreme point. Itâs a very intense work to translate dialogues, because in a way I try to find out how I can say something. Itâs not a text, itâs words which are spoken. And so thereâs a confrontation, an intense confrontation that belongs to me, that remains present to me. When I began to write the script, I didnât write it with Hamlet in mind. But when I considered, how will one see the students, and I thought, I want to see the students without the teacher. What could they do? They could perform. What could they perform? Hamlet. It came back to me. My confrontation as someone whoâs staging something with actorsâthe confrontation with stagingâis to be found in the Hamlet scene. That is, what does the spoken word mean in front of a camera, and in comparison to the stage, and all these questions, I could think through them. Thatâs actually it. In a moment in which language is so expressive, like in Shakespeare, that has consequences for the performance, for the expression of the play, because the children simply say the sentences, but they donât really play it. But itâs important to understand that just saying it doesnât mean emptiness, it just means to let the body work, I mean to let the body express itself without will, without position.
One thing that I was picking up on in how you use Shakespeare is that when youâre going through the kind of grief that Astrid and Philip are going throughâespecially if youâve lost a parentâthatâs an almost universal experience, and you feel like itâs something that has been played through so many times. You feel that grief intensely, but you also feel that you arenât uniqueâitâs in Hamlet, everybody goes through this.
Youâre completely right. I donât feel unique at all [laughs]. Itâs interesting that you say it. I never talk about it. Itâs just sometimes I try to describe that. But what Iâm interested in isnât what is special about the individual person. I speak much more about what unites us, about [what is] basically human, than about the individual. So, yeah, to that extent, youâre right. Thatâs somehow interesting, somehow very important, because itâs important to me that the characters you see can be anyone.
Youâve spoken of the importance of space in your filmsâof the emplacement of the characters, so to speak. I Was at Home, ButâŠ clearly takes place in Berlin. But to what extent do you see it as a âBerlin filmâ? Could this story take place somewhere else?
Yeah, for sure it could take place somewhere else. But Germany isnât so big [laughs]. Of course, this film was shot in Berlin because I live there. But thereâs also a reason why I live in Berlin. There arenât so many alternatives if you want to live in a big city. Whatâs special about Berlin is that many people live there who arenât from the city, and that shapes it. And the streets are very broad in Berlin. One notices this in particular when one wants to shoot a âbig cityâ shot showing a lot of peopleâthatâs very hard to find in Berlin. One has to go to FriedrichstraĂe, or these days Alexanderplatz. But even there, itâs simply so wide. And because, before as now, the city is so varied, the tourists arenât totally concentrated. There arenât so many alternatives when one wants to aim at explaining the big city, and a city where there are foreigners. The young man, for example, in the long dialogue scene in the middle, heâs applying to be a professor. Thatâs already complicated. So obviously itâs a city in which foreigners work at colleges and apply for professorships. There arenât many alternatives to this.
I think that audiences, when watching your films, realize how much work the standards of conventional narrative do for us. Yours have a kind of different infrastructure. They call on us to fill in more of the gaps, especially when it comes to relationships between the characters, which are established largely through implication. How conscious of structure are you when youâre writing or conceptualizing your films?
I think Iâm very aware of classic storytelling. Iâm very aware of it as everyone, as someone who sees films, also as someone who worked a long time in the theater. Iâm very aware of it, but I use it in a different way, because my interest is on the moment. For me, every moment is essential as it fĂŒr sich [âfor itselfâ], as one says in German. So, every moment I see fĂŒr sich. I donât tell any moment in order that this moment makes me able to tell another moment. So, this is a very different way to narrate. And, yes, maybe this describes it already, that also this classical narration is a narration of storytelling and not how life moves on.
I Was at Home, ButâŠ conveys a clear sense of structure. It has these bookends, the scenes with the donkey and the dog. Thereâs a sense of self-parody there: We see the donkey looking out the window, ignoring the dog, and then, soon thereafter, we see Philipâs school director doing the same thing with him. I know youâre probably sick of being asked âwhatâs with the animals,â but is self-parody part of whatâs going on here?
No, I mean, I didnât reflect on that, what youâve said. I had this character of this boy, and he came from nature, and I had this wish to show nature, but I didnât want to show him, so I noticed that I wanted to show animals instead, because they live in nature, more natural than a child can. They arenât missed, you understand what I mean? We were looking on location, scouting for a stable for the animals, and a stable normally doesnât have windows, so we saw many stables where we shot it in Croatia. And then we saw an abandoned schoolhouse, abandoned for 20 years, had a window and a small stage. I saw it and I thought immediately I want to shoot the animals here, not in a stable but in this abandoned house. So, I had the opportunity to let the donkey look out of the window, and I felt that this is good. But I didnât think, âAh, okay, then it will be a great parody of the school director, who also will look out of the window.â He looks out of the window because heâs waiting for the mother because heâs in a situation where he cannot talk to that child. So, itâs easier to look out of the window. Also, the donkey cannot talk to the dog [laughs]. So, for me it doesnât make sense to reflect on that. I just follow and trust my relation to what I want to see and tell.
Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked
Consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives.
Itâs a rare type of cinephile who wasnât introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And itâs an even rarer type of cinephile who didnât soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a filmâs artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindlerâs List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscarâs bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2018.
92. Crash (2005)
Crash is set in Archie Bunkerâs world, a nostalgic land where race is at the forefront of every consciousness during every minute of every day, where elaborately worded slurs are loaded into everyoneâs speech centers like bullets in a gun, ready to be fired at the instant that disrespect is given. The characters are anachronistic cartoons posing as symbols of contemporary distress. âI canât talk to you right now, Ma,â says Don Cheadleâs cop, pausing mid-coitus to take a phone call. âIâm fucking a white woman.â âHoly shit,â another character exclaims. âWe ran over a Chinaman!â âI canât look at you,â Matt Dillonâs cop tells a black female paper-pusher, making like Peter Boyleâs character from the 1970 white-man-on-a-rampage melodrama Joe, âwithout thinking of the five or six qualified white men who could have had your job.â Dyno-miiiiiiite! Paul Haggisâs depiction of a world where everyoneâs thoughts and words are filtered through a kind of racist translator chipâlike a Spike Lee slur montage padded out to feature lengthâand then spat into casual conversation is ungenerous, because it depicts every character as an actual or potential acid-spitting bigot, and itâs untrue to life, because it ignores the American impulse to at least pretend one isnât a racist for fear of being ostracized by oneâs peers. Matt Zoller Seitz
What Should Have Won: Munich
91. Cimarron (1931)
As pre-code spectacles go, Cimarron is something of a big-budget exercise in experimentation, though not in the sense that it actually produces anything innovative. Director Wesley Ruggles helms a script spanning 40 years to create whatâs meant to be eye-catching spectacle; the filmâs story, which spans 1889 to 1929 in Oklahoma, begins with a restaging of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, a sequence that uses 47 cameras to cover some 40 acres of land. From there, heavily theatrical acting styles and overwritten dialogue define most scenes, as Yancey (Richard Dix) and his family try to turn Osage County, Oklahoma into a tenable place to live. Certainly, if only for the fact that it was an early sound western, Cimarron would have been a new audio-visual experience for audiences at the time. Today, and not least because of its racist characterizations, itâs little more than an eye and ear sore. Clayton Dillard
What Should Have Won: The Front Page
90. Out of Africa (1985)
Out of Africa is the worst of the bloated, self-important best picture-winning pseudo-epics. It attempts to merge the sweeping visuals of Lawrence of Arabia with a Gone with the Wind-style story. But director Sydney Pollack is neither David Lean nor David O. Selznick, with the interminable result shellacked to the highest of glosses by John Barryâs syrupy score. Out of Africa depicts Danish writer Isak Dinesenâs (Meryl Streep) time growing coffee in Kenya. âI had a fahhhhhrm in Ahhh-frica,â says Dinesen seven times in the first scene, highlighting the aural act of violence that is Streepâs accent. This is one of the actressâs busiest performances, a full-tilt deployment of her entire arsenal of tics; a scene where Dinesen fends off a hungry lion with a whip sees the actress chewing as much scenery as the animal. Meanwhile, Robert Redford coasts by on his looks and Klaus Maria Brandauer smirks like a syphilitic Cheshire Cat. Whenever Pollack gets visually stuck, he cuts to a sea of dark brown African faces staring at the screen in confusionâan overused, racially suspect punchline. Out of Africaâs biggest sin is that it immediately evaporates from memory, as if oneâs brain were committing a mercy killing. Odie Henderson
What Should Have Won: The Color Purple
89. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
If the cartoonists at Hanna-Barbera wanted to quickly convey the extent of a cartoon characterâs world travels, they might cut from a shot of, say, Huckleberry Hound walking before the Eiffel Tower to a shot of the pooch prancing before Big Ben. In A Beautiful Mind, a film that doesnât lack for the laziest of short cuts, a young John Nash (Russell Crowe) sits at his desk while special effects morph the exterior of a Princeton dormitory to accentuate the changing seasons: leaves drop, snow gathers and melt, birds chirp. Throughout the film, such hacky artistry is in service not for bringing us closer to the reality of the mathematicianâs life, but for implicating us in a circus act. Imagine, for a second, the fascinating possibilities of having simply shown Nash talking to dead air for the duration of the film. Doesnât quite sound like a potential Oscar winner, and so Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman decided to articulate schizophreniaâs grip on the mind with a bunch of swirling digital numbers and cutesy imaginary encounters. The film is, through and through, quintessentially cornball. If itâs impossible in retrospect to believe that A Beautiful Mindâs first half is supposed to depict the world as hallucinated by a master mathematician, thatâs because the filmâs comprehension of mental duress is fundamentally jejune, the stuff of shock tactics as imagined by connoisseurs of Dead Poetâs Society, or the most earnest believers in a clichĂ© I always wished had made it into Roger Ebertâs Bigger Little Movie Glossary: Crying While Sliding Oneâs Back Against a Door. Ed Gonzalez
What Should Have Won: Gosford Park
88. Braveheart (1995)
Braveheart substitutes polished aesthetics, quotable speeches, and superficially bravura camerawork for a genuine examination of historical legend, while its would-be woozy romance remains trapped beneath the weight of both its unmerited running time and overly orchestrated sense of tragedy. Never have the Dark Ages appeared so plasticine and manicured as they do through Mel Gibsonâs panoramic lens, nor has any single image of the directorâs career been more encapsulating than that of William Wallace, the 13th-century warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England, his limbs outstretched in a Christ pose just before his final gutting. In this final moment of masochistic glory, Gibson and Wallace become one, a man of fire and passion ready to kick your ass into complacency. Rob Humanick
What Should Have Won: Babe
87. The Broadway Melody (1930)
Philosophically speaking, Sunrise was the first film to win the award associated with the qualities we now associate with the best picture category, in a year in which the industry tossed The Jazz Singer an honorary award rather than make the field of silents compete against it. In its second year, Oscar embraced the future with both hands, and thanks to The Broadway Melodyâs win we have a case study for how technical innovations are occasionally anathema to artistic expression. Exactly the sort of clunky apparatus that Singinâ in the Rain decades later gently mocked, the filmâs every shot announces itself as the result of a compromise made to sync image with sound, with neither of them being done any particular justice. A deluge of movie musicals would soon flourish thanks to the advent of sound: Gold Diggers of 1933, Love Me Tonight, Hallelujah, Iâm a Bum, all of them as dizzyingly innovative and effortlessly entertaining as the shallow, melodramatic The Broadway Melody is frozen. Eric Henderson
What Should Have Won: In Old Arizona
86. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Oscar has awarded expansive tedium more often than not, but even by those pitiful standards, Around the World in 80 Days is a specialized case. Adapting a Jules Verne novel but framing the entire proceedings as a reactionary pre-Space Age paean to days gone by, producer-impresario Mike Toddâs dick-swinging epic is regressive in every conceivable way. From David Nivensâs entitled superciliousness as Phileas Fogg to Cantinflasâs shameless mugging as Foggâs lackey manservant, Passepartout, from their rescue of Shirley MacLaineâs Indian princess (admittedly less cringeworthy than, say, Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed but still rough to watch) to a William S. Hart-era Wild West shootout between white folks and whooping Native Americans, the entire enterprise distills the worldâs entire history of cultural appropriation into an endless amusement-park ride. And even that would have some contemporary worth as an eye-popping reminder of shifting attitudes if it were at least watchable. But no, itâs three-plus hours of vacation slides you found in your grandparentsâ attic. Eric Henderson
What Should Have Won: Friendly Persuasion
85. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
As is true of a great deal of the films that have been adorned with the best picture Oscar in the past two decades, John Maddenâs Shakespeare in Love is a thunderous mediocrity, a beautifully costumed and designed mess, as ultimately amiable as it is nonsensical. The greatest voice the theater has ever seen, the author of an unequaled canon that serves as inspiration for nearly all narrative works in the modern age, William Shakespeare is here portrayed by Joseph Fiennes as an egotistical cadâa loathsome, unrepentant scoundrel and bum whoâs capable of uttering âDamn, Iâm good!â after finishing the first act of a play heâs weeks late on. Indeed, the screenâs contempt for its chief architects remains as potent and unyielding as it is largely thoughtless and despicable. Hollywood has never been very comfortable, or perhaps capable of, depicting great writers successfullyâor, for that matter, taking their struggles seriously and their triumphs sincerely. As Shakespeare in Love unfolds, the penning of Romeo and Juliet is seen as near-accidental, spurred by the Bardâs misguided lust for a costume girl. And yet, as the film proceeds through its weedy narrative, focused mainly on the romance between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the first production of Romeo and Juliet, the unenviable task of believing that Shakespeare was a genius of tremendous insight and imagination, despite the productionâs eager insistence that he was simply a jealous coward stricken with luck, becomes an exhausting exercise of imagination. Chris Cabin
What Should Have Won: The Thin Red Line
84. Gladiator (2000)
The â80s and â90s saw a string of duds almost inexplicably become critical and awards darlings, suggesting that mainstream cinema culture was undergoing some kind of intellectual regression. And with the release of Gladiator at the start of the millennium, it didnât appear as if such deterioration was going to slow down any time soon. Directed by Sir Ridley Scott on depressing autopilot, the film displays none of the technically nimble artistry of such classics as Alien and Blade Runner. The overstuffed production meanders through knotty character dilemmas and rote attempts at Shaekepearean esoterica in as bland a manner possible. All the better to elevate Russell Croweâs Maximus to the level of the grandiose, and in the most suspect and laughable of ways. The man is a walking vacuum of personality who the film believes to contain multitudes, and the kicker is how Gladiator, with Maximus taking a moral stand against the brutal culture of ancient Rome and his befriending of an African slave, is viewed through the lens of modern political correctness. In the filmâs key scene, a gruesome gladiator battle, Maximus righteously screams, âAre you not entertained?!â But the presentation of the scene is as unironic as a crowd-pleasing ESPN highlight reel, or a pep rally pretending at moral conviction. Wes Greene
What Should Have Won: Traffic
83. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
As far as tributes to vagrancy and animal abuse go, mid-century American cinema has done worse. But even taking into account Hollywoodâs then-emerging neo-gigantism, itâs shocking how much effort The Greatest Show on Earth goes into missing the forest for the trees. Cecil B. DeMille, then regarded as Hollywoodâs undisputedly great showman, setting his sights on the big top spectacle of P.T. Barnum ought to have been the ultimate âbest of both worldsâ proposition. But the allowances modern audiences still grant to DeMilleâs products of their timeâcrediting his ability to sustain momentum through grandiose running times, or his balanced eye for scopeâlay down and die in the face of this monstrosity, alternately leaden and corny and neither in the right moment. In the same sense that James Stewartâs mysterious clown never removes his makeup, anyone exposed to this film today will spend 152 minutes with Emmett Kellyâs expression frozen on their own face. Eric Henderson
What Should Have Won: The Quiet Man
82. American Beauty (1999)
A black comedy with a curious opinion of its charactersâ repellent behaviors, Sam Mendesâs American Beauty is also tone-deaf in its belief that the struggle is real for white, wealthy suburbanites. The Burnham clan and their neighbors arenât so much people as they are often offensive caricatures that exist only to service screenwriter Alan Ballâs anti-conformist message-mongering. American Beautyâs most famous scene, in which Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) explains to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) that a plastic bag floating in the wind is the most beautiful thing in the world, is emblematic of the jejune self-aggrandizement that, like Ballâs litany of leaden ironies, abounds throughout the film and works to dubiously sentimentalize the charactersâ pathologies. Indeed, this is a film that sees only beauty and nobility in transgression, as in Kevin Spaceyâs Lester Burnham, after yearning to bed his teenage daughterâs friend (Mena Suvari), retreating to his corner upon learning that the girl is a virgin. One walks away from American Beauty believing that if its makers could blow themselves, they would. Greene
What Should Have Won: The Insider
81. Argo (2012)
There seems to be a general, taken-for-granted assumption in criticismâor film culture more broadlyâthat the most unassuming films manage to index complex political and social truths if only by virtue of their unpretentiousness and eagerness to entertain. So it seems fair enough to assume that such cheery popcorn flicks could prove equally insidious in their inconspicuousness. Argo feels like such a film: well-acted, competently directed, and sufficiently entertaining, yet all the more troubling as a result of its breezy pleasures. The problems emerge early, with the history of Iran in the 20th century and especially the events leading to the hostage crisis of 1979 laid out in detailed storyboards. In doing so, Argo effectivelyâand, perhaps, self-consciouslyâpasses the buck of fealty to the operations of cinema. But regardless of whether or not Ben Affleckâs tone-setting meta-gestureâwhich winkingly acknowledges that this is the film version of a âdeclassified true storyâ (as the film was obnoxiously marketed)âis intentional, itâs undoubtedly irresponsible, even cowardlyâa cheap escape hatch for Argo and Affleck to tuck-roll through any time questions of the filmâs veracity come to bear. The film is a wet dream of buccaneering American foreign-policy intervention, attempting to absolve its responsibilities for accuracy (or even decency) in its slight, simple story of Affleckâs all-American hero whose pluck and gallantry would be for naught were he not also a repentant dad, eager to return home to his half-estranged son. John Semley
What Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty
Review: Buffaloed Is Wishy-Washy About the Narcotic Power of Capitalism
The filmmakers allow their characters to learn the usual humanist lessons, in the process eliding the ramifications of their scenario.2
Sustaining a tone of freewheeling, amoral zaniness is difficult for many American filmmakers, as one can often see an inevitable moral lesson approaching not too far in the horizon, rendering the anarchy moot. Such is the problem with Tanya Wexlerâs Buffaloed. Wexler and screenwriter Brian Sacca aim for an intimate comedy of American madness, in which weâre to root for a protagonist who strives to get rich by scamming poor folk, but they donât have the daring to follow that premise through to its logical conclusions, as Martin Scorsese did in The Wolf of Wall Street. Instead, they allow their characters to learn the usual humanist lessons, in the process eliding the ramifications of their scenario.
Peg (Zoey Deutch), a young spitfire living in Buffalo, New York, is from a broken, working-class home, and sheâs desperate to move up the ladder. An aspiring entrepreneur, she gets into an Ivy League college, but sheâs jailed for running a counterfeit football ticket scam to raise money for the tuition. Upon release, Peg looks for work, initially cleaning toilets for the local bar run by her earnest brother, JJ (Noah Reid), until a phone call from a collection agency inspires her to swing by the companyâs office and ingratiate herself with its ringleader, Wizz (Jai Courtney). Soon, Peg is using her hustling instincts to collect on long-ignored debts. As Wizz says in one of the filmâs many signpost lines: âDebt doesnât die.â
Like The Wolf of Wall Streetâs antihero, Peg breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience, describing debt collection as an elaborate, barely regulated framework of scams. Buffaloed is promising when itâs offering such concrete details, but Wexler too often fast-forwards through these sequences. Peg does four years in prison, and nearly goes to war with another inmate, Backer (Lorrie Odom), over the sale of black-market goods, but these incidents are glossed over in seconds, and the crushing pain that Peg might have felt as an inmate goes unexplored. When Peg forms her own collection agency, she does so seemingly with virtually no complications. And, later, when Pegâs scams later hurt her family, JJ and her mother, Kathy (Judy Greer), who both have vulnerable businesses, these developments are also eventually shrugged off so that Peg can be forgiven and allow for an obligatory happy ending.
Wexler wants it both ways: Peg is supposed to be edgy and (initially) ruthless, yet weâre also supposed to eventually accept her as an un-ironic hero. The Wolf of Wall Street and Robert Zemeckisâs 1980 film Used Cars, another probable model for Buffaloed, werenât stymied by such concerns. The characters in those films are monsters, whom we like anyway for their astonishing devotion to their own monstrosity. By encouraging this division in us, between our common moral sense and our addiction to visceral self-aggrandizement and selfishness, these films offered an inherent comment on the narcotic power of capitalism.
Wexlerâs wishy-washiness strands Deutch, whoâs in danger of being typecast as a thinly drawn, motor-mouthed hottie. Because the filmâs foundation is essentially sentimental, Deutchâs junior shark routine lacks a bite, and she seems too eager to please. Courtney is much more vivid, informing Wiz with a primordial macho oiliness thatâs both funny and dangerous; as the filmâs true villain, heâs freed from the shackles of the narrativeâs preachiness. Bit playersâas judges, crooks, and rabid Buffalo Bills fansâare also amusing, as theyâre given borderline surreal sketches that parody the tribalism of the city, such as when Pegâs lawyer loses her case for choosing the wrong Buffalo wings joint. Such moments suggest the lunatic comedy that mightâve been, had Peg not been required by the screenplay to grow a standard-issue heart.
Cast: Zoey Deutch, Jai Courtney, Judy Greer, Jermaine Fowler, Noah Reid, Lusia Strus, Lorrie Odom, Raymond Ablack, Nicholas Carella, Paulyne Wei, James M. Connor, Brian Sacca, Kate Moyer Director: Tanya Wexler Screenwriter: Brian Sacca Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked
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