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Understanding Screenwriting #25: State of Play, Adventureland, Every Little Step, Sugar, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #25: State of Play, Adventureland, Every Little Step, Sugar, & More

Coming Up In This Column: State of Play, Adventureland, Every Little Step, Sugar, The Soloist, In Plain Sight, Two and a Half Men, but first…

Fan Mail: “Wrongshore” suspected that one of the reasons I did not find the faux documentary style as much of a problem in the second episode of Parks and Recreation was that the director, Seth Gordon, had made documentaries. Yeah, it always helps when you have a director who knows what he is doing…

State of Play (2009. Screenplay by Mathew Michael Carnahan and Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, based on the television miniseries by Paul Abbott. 127 minutes): Three screenwriters, four counting the original TV writer, but you can’t tell.

Many times when there are multiple screenwriters on a film, the result is a mess. It can also often make it easy to tell who wrote what. Only Quentin Tarantino could have written the “comic book” scene in Crimson Tide that comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere. Fortunately that is not true with State of Play. Not only does the script hold together very well, but some of my guesses as to who wrote what turned out not to be the case, according to Peter Clines’s article on the writing of the film in the March/April issue of Creative Screenwriting. The first writer to come on the project of adapting a six-hour British miniseries into a 127-minute film was Carnahan, whose 2007 film The Kingdom has the kind of narrative drive and political awareness that was useful for this film. Fortunately what we end up with in State of Play does not have the ponderous talkiness of his Lions for Lambs (2007) script. It was Carnahan who changed the villain from big oil in the British miniseries to a Blackwater type security operation, although he was working on the script before information about Blackwater came out. Unfortunately, not as much is done with the organization as he could have, and some of this may have come from the British original. In cutting it down from six hours, the focus becomes mostly plot, and the kind of political nuances that I gather the British series had are not duplicated here. One of the weaknesses of the film is that, for all of Carnahan’s interest in politics, the film never feels entirely right in its depiction of Washington politics. Everything is a little too polite for Washington. Where is the Dick Cheney character breathing fire and brimstone when you need him? Of course, everyone connected with this film probably realized that Cheney would be out by the time the film was released and a Cheney-like character would seem dated.

The second writer was Tony Gilroy, whose scripts include those for the Jason Bourne films. I assumed the narrative drive came from him, but it was there from Carnahan’s work. Gilroy of course is also good at organizational corruption, as in Michael Clayton (2007), but a lot of his work on State of Play was in developing the character of Cal, the reporter, to make it more age-appropriate for Brad Pitt, the originally announced star. I suspected the press details might have more likely come from the third writer, Billy Ray, given his script for Shattered Glass (2003), which is about a magazine writer who makes up stories for his non-fiction pieces. Gilroy’s drafts focused on getting the newspaper mechanics right, but it was Ray who changed Delia from a standard issue cub reporter to a blogger for the paper who gets involved in breaking the story. Unfortunately not as much is done with that as could be in the film. Ray told Peter Clines that in his four weeks polishing Gilroy’s draft, he was primarily concerned with consistency, making sure it all fits together, and at that he succeeded.

That does not mean there are not loose ends. A point is made that the new owner of the paper will not let them publish what they have found, but then it is never mentioned again. And the ending seems to undercut a lot of what the film seems to be about. Like the ending of Gilroy’s Duplicity, the ending turns personal when it should probably be political.

The film is still one terrific thriller, with echoes of All The President’s Men. I assume the parking garage scene is a direct homage to that film. The story line is a lot simpler than Gilroy’s Duplicity, since it is structured on what Cal, our stand-in, is discovering as he goes, rather than the filmmakers telling us stuff everybody else but us knows. The writers have written great characters for Pitt, Edward Norton, Natalie Portman and—wait a minute. They are not in this film, although they were announced for it. Pitt pulled out at the last minute, and Russell Crowe, who pulled out of Nottingham, took over the role of Cal, with no time to lose the weight he had gained for Body of Lies. There was also no time, because of the Writers’ Guild strike of 2007, to rewrite it specifically for Crowe. It is one of his best performances. Hmm, what should that tell movie stars? His face is alive on the screen every second, in a way that Pitt’s never is, especially when Pitt the Movie Star rather than Pitt the Character Actor shows up. See my book Understanding Screenwriting for the distinction, or look at my comments in US#16 on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We always want to see how Crowe’s Cal is going to react to what he is learning and whom he is dealing with. Ben Affleck takes over the part of Representative Stephen Collins from Norton and I cannot imagine Norton would have been better. Rachel McAdams is Delia instead of Portman and the part is so underwritten that it would be a draw. Jason Bateman has a spectacular cameo as a p.r. guy. I gather from Clines’s article that this role was bigger in the miniseries, but sometimes bigger is not better.

Adventureland (2009. Written by Greg Mottola. 107 minutes): Writing the silences, take one.

Sounds like a hundred other teen movies: young guy gets summer job and falls in love with cute girl co-worker. Let us count some of the ways this is different. The guy, James, is not a teenager. He just graduated from college and his parents have backed out of a deal to send him to Europe. The job is at a low-rent amusement park, which we haven’t seen before. The girl is cute, but she has problems.

Yes, Mottola did direct Superbad, but this is a more level-headed look at young people. The characterizations are much more like those in his terrific 1996 indie film The Daytrippers. James is not a standard nerd. He is bright, probably more articulate than he needs to be, and somewhat adrift. He is certainly overqualified for the job of running games at the park. Em, like Norah in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, is a real person, not just the standard issue cutie. There are more sides to the husband and wife owners of the park than we first expect.

Mottola, who worked in a park like this in his youth, is very observant about the setting. Look at the scenes of the park repairman fixing stuff. It is real stuff and we see him fix it. The customers are just as sharply drawn as the park workers. “Write what you know” is often terrible advice, but here it works.

Mottola also writes great silences. Look at James and Em’s first scene in the car. Because Mottola understands these characters, he knows that a lot of what is going on emotionally with them is going on inside. Fortunately he has Jesse Eisenberg as James and Kristen Stewart as Em. Like Russell Crowe in State of Play, their faces are constantly alive. Mottola can write quiet scenes for them that work better than louder scenes would. Mottola does it for the other actors as well. Look at James’s father after James has taken the blame for the bottle of booze the father has left in the car. Sometimes, as a screenwriter, you just have to know when to let your characters shut up.

I have quibbled over a number of endings of movies lately (see above for one quibble), but the ending to Adventureland seems to me to be perfect, with just the right weight for the rest of the material.

~

Every Little Step (2008. No writers credited. 96 minutes): James Kirkwood. Nicholas Dante. Ed Kleban.

In the early seventies the great stage director and choreographer MICHAEL BENNETT gathered around a group of dancers and asked them to tell him stories of their lives. He turned it into A Chorus Line, one of the great modern musicals. The original show ran for a record 6137 performances. In 2006 there was a revival of the show on Broadway, directed by MICHAEL BENNETT’s friend and co-choreographer Bob Avian. This film is a documentary, and structurally it runs along two tracks. The first is the audition process for the show, which in case you have been out of the country for over thirty years, is about the auditioning process for a show. From that we get a sense of how exhausting the audition process is for everyone connected with it. By the end of the film, you are so worn out you may not want to see another production of A Chorus Line for several years.

Since the film is co-produced by the lawyer for MICHAEL BENNETT’s estate, the filmmakers also have access to the original tape recordings of the sessions with the dancers that BENNETT molded into the show. BENNETT died in 1987, but there are some tapes of television interviews he and Avian gave at the time of the original show, as well as his speech accepting the Tony. There are new interviews with Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie in the show, and Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the music.

There is no mention at all in the film of James Kirkwood, one of the co-writers of the show’s book. Nicholas Dante, the other co-writer, is mentioned only as a dancer who told the story assigned to “Paul” in the show. Ed Kleban, the lyricist, is mentioned only once in passing by Hamlisch. Kirkwood, Dante and Kleban have all passed away and obviously did not have attorneys for their estates with the power of MICHAEL BENNETT’s attorney. You might have thought that among people who obviously love the theater you would not find all this Hollywood-style privileging of the director over the writers.

Oddly enough, for all the idolatry of BENNETT floating around, the creative team of the revival eliminated BENNETT’s most stunning image. At the end of the show we see the dancers who have been cast doing a dazzling dance routine to the song “One.” In the original production, the music got more relentless and mechanical and the lights came up to a white glare to emphasize how hard the work of the dancers, after they got the job, was. In the revival, the music does not become relentless and the lights fade out instead of getting brighter. You can see it in the film. The new ending sentimentalizes what the great MICHAEL BENNETT made brilliantly disturbing.

Sugar (2008. Written by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck. 120 minutes): Where is Annie Savoy when you need her?

The pitch for this one might have been El Norte meets Bull Durham. It’s the story of Miguel, nicknamed Sugar, a baseball player in the Dominican Republic. He is at a camp run by the American major leagues and is called up to the States and sent to minor league baseball. Unlike the kids in El Norte, he comes into the country in a jet rather than crawling through a dirty, smelly tunnel. He’s a pitcher, but unlike Nuke in Bull Durham, he is not a very interesting character. In fact, his teammates both at camp and on the farm team in Iowa, are all more interesting than he is. The writers have not given him anything revealing to do, say or show in his reactions. The man playing Sugar is a non-pro and unlike Crowe, Eisenberg, and Stewart his face is totally inexpressive. We have not a clue what he is thinking or feeling.

Then in the last half hour, the film goes structurally haywire. He leaves the Iowa team. Why? He is asked and he says he does not know. We do not know either. So the storylines and characters from the Iowa scenes are just completely dropped, and the film essentially starts over with the most boring character in it. We are introduced to a whole new set of characters, none of whom are particularly compelling. The final sequence is an adequate ending, but Boden and Fleck could get there a lot quicker and in a lot more interesting ways.

Ron Shelton, who wrote Bull Durham, had played in the minor leagues and it shows. In that film we get the texture of small town baseball in virtually every detail. Boden and Fleck have researched a lot, but the film feels researched rather than felt. They do not give us anything fresh about minor league baseball, the people who play it, small towns, the Midwest, or even in spite of one plot element, fundamentalist Christians.

The Soloist (2009. Screenplay by Susannah Grant, based on the book by Steve Lopez. 117 minutes): Delusions of grandeur.

This film was originally scheduled for release last winner as a potential Oscar contender, and it suffers from the assumption of apparently everyone connected with it that it was going to be a contender. The script is based on a series of columns and subsequent book by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. He became friends with a homeless, schizophrenic classical musician, Nathaniel Ayers, and the columns followed the story of his trying to help Ayers in a variety of ways. There is a nice 90- to 95-minute movie in that story. Grant’s script tends to lose focus as the relationship develops.

The film skips very quickly over one of the most interesting elements in the story. In a brief scene, Dave, the head of the Lamp organization, which provides shelter and food for the homeless, mentions that many of the people he deals with have been diagnosed many times and in many different ways and have tried a variety of medications. His point, which almost never appears in American films, is that sometimes people cannot be cured of mental illness. Usually the third act of films about the mentally ill is that the patient finds the magic doctor with the magic cure, and he, in Rita Mae Brown’s great phrase, “rubs a little therapy on it” and everybody lives happily ever after. (Brown wrote one of those for television and knows the formula.) Not enough is made of Dave’s point, although we do see that Nathaniel is never cured. The script then never really discusses what many in the mental health field have come to realize: that not only the cheapest but the best solution for the mentally ill who are homeless is to provide them with free apartments and a minimal structure. This ends up less costly than more elaborate treatment programs. The playing out of Nathaniel’s story suggests that, but it could be better articulated in the script without turning the film into a message picture.

What ends up taking the place of what could be good scenes and good discussions are efforts to pump up the “cinematic” elements of the film, leading to its overlength. Not having read the script, I am not sure how many of the repeated scenes of the homeless on skid row are in the script. There are a lot more in the film than needed, and they become very circus-like. Likewise, when Lopez takes Nathaniel to a Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsal, Nathaniel’s reaction to the music is to see a psychedelic light show that is so chintzy it looks like it came out of a sixties Roger Corman acid movie. Beethoven, the L.A. Phil and Jamie Foxx’s face is all you really need.

Grant’s script does provide the opportunity for two great performances by Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez and Foxx as Nathaniel. The best scenes in the film are simply the two of them, such as the moment when Nathaniel plays a cello that has been donated to him and Lopez realizes exactly how good a musician he is.

In Plain Sight (2009. Episodes “Gilted Lily” and “In My Humboldt Opinion” written by David Maples. Episode “A Stand Up Triple” written by Michael Angeli. 60 minutes each.): Is Mary Shannon turning into Grace Hanadarko?

Early readers of US#1 and US#3 may remember that while I like Mary McCormack in this show, I have some problems with the plotting and especially with the characters of her mother and sister. Well, they are all back in the first three episodes of this new season. “Gilted Lilly” spends most of its time working us back to normal after the big shootout at the end of last season. Mary is officially on administrative leave, although she still helps out on a case. The legalities of her sister Brandi’s involvement with the drug dealer have not been ironed out, but don’t appear yet to be sending anyone to jail, which would be one way to get rid of Brandi. Just to aggravate Mary a little, there is a new office manager, Eleanor, who keeps rearranging the office furniture, which pisses Mary off. But then Mary is a lot more fragile than she looks or pretends to be. In the first episode she has such extreme mood swings, I thought she was becoming Grace.

The second episode settled down a bit and got Mary back to handling potential witnesses. This one was one of their more interesting plots: a zoned-out pot farmer who is supposed to testify against the bad drug dealers. The problem is that the farmer has a major jones for the weed and cannot operate socially, as in testifying in court, without a little chemical help. Needless to say, the prosecutor frowns on this. So Mary has to keep him clean, as well as deal with her mother’s drunk driving case and her sister in general. The bureau has assigned a psychologist to ride along with Mary and make recommendations as to what sort of treatment she needs. The scenes with the psychologist gives some nice counterpoint to the action, and Eleanor is willing to call Mary on her rude behavior. Eleanor also has some connections higher up which turn out to be useful.

The psychologist determines that Mary is indeed stressed out, but that the job is her way of dealing with her stress. Fortunately for the series, she is not going to send Mary to the funny farm, at least not yet.

As for her mom and sister, “A Stand Up Triple” comes up with an interesting development for each of them. While Mary is dealing with another flaky witness, Jinx, Mary’s mom gets a look at the dashboard camera video from the car of the cop who arrested her on drunk driving. Like a lot of suspects in these cases (which is one reason police use video), seeing herself behaving very badly causes her to change her plea from not guilty to guilty. So she is being shipped off to rehab for 28 days. The downside is that she will lose her title role in a local stage production of Sweet Charity so that means we won’t get to see the multi-talented Lesley Ann Warren sing and dance for a while. It’s the price we have to pay.

As for Brandi, the air-head sister, Jinx had convinced her to go to the required AA meeting Jinx was supposed to attend before her case went to court. Brandi agreed in one of the best lines of dialogue she’s been given: “It must work or they wouldn’t make all those TV movies about it.” (See what I meant above about the formula?) So she goes to a meeting, pretends to be Jinx and ends up telling her version of Jinx’s life story. Which the AA members, especially Peter, buy completely. When he finds out what she did, he walks off in a huff, since he has a great loyalty to the program. What Angeli is flirting with is the possibility of dealing with the humor of AA, which most films and TV shows do not do, usually because the people who create them are in various 12 step programs themselves. They take them very seriously. On the other hand, one smart guy I know once told me that AA meetings are the greatest pickup places in the world. Everybody is very tense, because what they really want is a drink, which they know they cannot have, so they look to release their tension in sex. A former co-worker of mine who was in AA regaled us with stories of a set of meetings he went to in which everybody was deliberately and hilariously unsympathetic to anybody who got up and talked. So how about spinning Brandi off into a half-hour comedy set in AA?

You can see why they do not let me anywhere near the actual making of films and television shows.

Two and a Half Men (2009. Episode “Above Exalted Cyclops” teleplay by Don Foster & Eddie Gorodetsky, story by Chuck Lorre & Lee Aronsohn. 30 minutes): Writing the silences, take two.

In the teaser, Charlie tells Alan that his fiancee wants to set Alan up with a friend of hers. We find out the friend is Rose. And who is Rose, in case you missed the first seasons of the show? She is a woman Charlie had a one-night fling with and thereafter was always showing up. She’s a wacko stalker, brilliantly played by Melanie Lynskey. Lynskey first came to prominence in Peter Jackson’s 1994 classic Heavenly Creatures, more than holding her own in a great double act with Kate Winslet. Winslet went on to get yelled at a lot by directors who thought they were kings of the world, but Lynskey has built up an impressive resume, mostly on television. She is one of those characters actors that makes the audience smile and relax when they come onscreen because we know we will be in good hands while we are with her. And Rose is her definitive creation, so you know interesting stuff is about to happen.

So Alan and Charlie meet Chelsea and, gulp, Rose at the restaurant. Now how do you write that scene? Do Charlie and Alan make a big scene, with lots of funny lines? No, the writers have them be so gobsmacked that Rose has shown up again that they do not say much. Like Mottola in Adventureland, they know how to write the silences. Watching Alan and Charlie suffer is wonderful. By the end of Act One, Alan is in bed with Rose, although he tells her, “This is crazy,” to which she replies, “No it isn’t. We just met.”

In the morning Charlie tells Berta what happened, and then Chelsea comes in and asks Berta if she has met Rose. Remember that long silent take I told you in US#22 that Conchata Ferrell had during the shooting of “My Son’s Enormous Head”? They didn’t use it there, but they give her the long, non-verbal reaction here, after which she decides to go home early. The writers, by the way, never let Chelsea know about Rose’s backstory with the boys, probably because it would take too long to deal with.

Later in the episode, Rose decides she does not like the new “forceful” Alan and breaks it off. Needless to say, we see her peeking over the balcony in the final shot of the Tag scene at the end. We have not seen the last of Rose and Lynskey, or at least I hope not.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Review: The Overly Familiar Come Play Prioritizes Theme Over Atmosphere

The film suggests a gene splice of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake.

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Come Play
Photo: Focus Features

While it can be expected that high-concept horror movies will often be sewn together from the premises of recent genre successes, it’s much too easy to see the stitches in writer-director Jacob Chase’s Come Play. Conspicuously echoing Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake, the film tells the story of a child haunted by a monster that only he can see—one awakened by a seemingly indestructible children’s storybook, and who serves as an allegorical embodiment of childhood trauma.

Chase introduces two new wrinkles to this formula: The first is that the monster’s home dimension is the electronic realm of smartphones, tablets, and the electrical system, and the second is that the child, Oliver (Azhy Robertson), has autism and is nonverbal. Come Play approaches Oliver’s disability empathetically, if heavy-handedly, showing how easily his lack of verbal expression ostracizes him from others: A group of boys at school led by Byron (Winslow Fegley) bully the kid; Byron’s mother, Jennifer (Rachel Wilson), is quick to presume that Oliver’s occasional fits are dangerous; and even Oliver’s own mother, Sarah (Gillian Jacob), struggles to understand his lack of communication as something other than coldness.

Oliver communicates with others using a smartphone app that offers him words and phrases, rather than letters, to choose from. The monster, unassumingly named Larry, makes contact with Oliver through his phone, interrupting episodes of the boy’s beloved SpongeBob SquarePants. A children’s e-book called Misunderstood Monsters keeps appearing on the screen of Oliver’s digital devices, claiming that the monster just wants a friend, and that he’ll be loosed upon the physical world once the story has been read all the way through. However, from the very beginning, Larry seems present but invisible without the aid of a phone camera, and is able to manipulate objects in the real world and endanger people’s lives. It’s a salient enough contradiction that, in its latter half, the film has characters hurriedly sum up the rules of the mythology based on some quite impressive logical leaps—lest we start thinking that the scares were conceived apart from internal narrative consistency.

A disproportionately tall, spindly, and perpetually moist gray something or other, Larry is a gene splice of the Babadook and the monsters from A Quiet Place. Although these influences are as apparent any other element in Come Play (Oliver communicates Larry’s presence to adults through creepily scrawled crayon drawings), the look of the monster is the film’s most effective visual idea. By the time he’s revealed in all his skeletal abjectness, though, Larry’s credibility as a menacing presence has already been undercut by the escapes-by-expeditious-cut that end virtually every scene of suspense. When the big confrontation comes, Come Play has already proven, despite its monster’s prodigious chompers, to be rather toothless.

In the end, theme takes too much priority over threatening atmosphere in Come Play. It’s hard not to be concerned about a particularly vulnerable child’s welfare, and Robertson’s performance as Oliver impresses, conveying the boy’s sensitive and perceptive nature without his ever uttering a word. But the film can only get so far on Robertson’s performance and its spectator’s protective instincts. What Come Play has to say about isolation in the digital age is certainly unmissable—one could also compare certain “haunted smart technology” effects to recent horror flicks like Stephen Susco’s Unfriended: Dark Web and Rob Savage’s Host—but on its own, having a message does not an effective horror movie make.

Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Azhy Robertson, John Gallagher Jr., Winslow Fegley, Rachel Wilson Director: Jacob Chase Screenwriter: Jacob Chase Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 105 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: Madre Moodily Reflects on How the Memory of Loss Distorts Reality

Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s feature-length Madre contemplates how memories of loss linger and distort the present.

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Madre
Photo: Strand Releasing

Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s 2017 short Madre didn’t just make the most of its constraints, it embraced them. What Sorogoyen couldn’t show directly due to budgetary constraints he evoked in dialogue and mise-en-scène, while turning the inherent time limit into a narrative device: the last bar of a cellphone battery. Everything that made the film so of its type should have rendered it unfit for expansion. Counterintuitively, Sorogoyen has plunked the short, unchanged, at the start of his feature-length adaptation, which then diverges from it radically in pacing and tone without sacrificing the coherence of the feature as a whole, like an explosion followed by silence. If the short embodied panic at the prospect of loss, the feature is a more contemplative affair, about how memories of loss linger and distort the present.

The film’s first act is a torrent of dialogue. Elena (Marta Nieto) gets a call from her ex-husband’s number. It turns out to be her six-year-old son, Ivan (Álvaro Balas), abandoned on a beach somewhere in Spain or France. In a desperate bid to pinpoint his location, Elena begs her son to describe his surroundings, but what is any beach but “sand” and “water”? A stranger is approaching him, he says. Elena shouts for her son to run. He’s hiding under a tree trunk, he says, but the stranger finds him as the line goes dead. The intensity of Nieto’s performance compels us to imagine what Elena believes to be happening to her son, and like a good horror film, Madre knows that a wildly extrapolating imagination can terrorize easier than any image, no matter how ghastly. The sole detail about the stranger that Ivan relays, that he’s urinating, is more than enough to cast him as a potential threat.

The remainder of the film trades rapid-fire dialogue for quiet, painterly compositions, making it something of a spiritual successor to Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad. Its uneasy tone is established with the very next scene, which opens “10 years later” on a beach—footprints scattered across an expanse of sand muted under a leaden sky. In a long shot, the silhouettes of distant people, alone or in clusters, resemble flies crawling on a fogged-up windowpane, an unsettling hum filling the soundtrack.

Sorogoyen’s camera begins a methodical pan along the coastline, at last centering one of the tiny figures, who turns out to be Elena walking head down in a sand-colored dress. A swarm of figures in black approaches at a run from the opposite direction, seeming to envelope her as a wave crashes over the soundtrack, and it’s the straggler among this group, Jean (Jules Porier), wearing surfing gear as if coughed up by the ocean, who compels her to look up. Elena recognizes something of Ivan in this 16-year-old boy, sparking an epilogue that stretches out until it overwhelms what the viewer thought was the story proper.

This film’s landscape shots impose a filter of ambiguity that we can only puncture with speculation. Just as mist smears the borders between land, sea, and sky, it’s never clear to Elena whether Jean is really her long-lost son, though a certain affinity between them cannot be denied. Sorogoyen leaves it up to the viewer to decide if the urgency of their entanglement comes down to filial intimacy or sexual tension. Either way, its inappropriateness erodes her tepid relationship with a controlling farmer (Alex Brendemühl), as well as Jean’s bond with his (adoptive?) family. In a dream near the end of Madre, Elena finally “sees” the tree trunk Ivan hid under 10 years before and hears a snarling animal devouring the child, prompting her upon waking to rescue Jean, or abduct him from his family, depending on how you view it.

The feature-length Madre presents the aftermath of traumatic loss in all of its ambiguity—how what we lose revisits us in disguise, how from the outside this haunting can appear, as more than one character refers to Elena, “psycho.” By projecting her despair into the landscape, Sorogoyen shows us her grief inside out, where it cannot be judged, only witnessed.

Cast: Marta Nieto, Jules Porier, Alex Brendemühl, Álvaro Balas Director: Rodrigo Sorogoyen Screenwriter: Isabel Peña, Rodrigo Sorogoyen Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 128 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Wolfwalkers Vibrantly Confronts and Plays on the Fear of the Unknown

The storyline’s edges are frayed just enough to give it the gentle distance of a tale recalled though the gauze of myth and memory.

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Wolfwalkers
Photo: GKIDS

Though the world of Wolfwalkers abounds with the Celtic magic of shapeshifters and healing spells, it’s the film’s art itself that sometimes seems the most enchanted. Showcasing the same hand-drawn animation that has distinguished Cartoon Saloon’s earlier Irish mythology-inspired works (The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea), Wolfwalkers pans across still, verdant landscapes that occasionally burst with life, with creatures crawling out of trees in the otherwise frozen background. Inspired by early modern woodblock prints, filmmakers Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart play with depth and texture, their vivid characters materializing in the foreground like figures in a watercolor puppet theater.

As Wolfwalkers begins, the 17th-century Irish city of Kilkenny has a wolf problem. Outside the city’s walls, the forest is inundated with them, and the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) needs to put his farmers safely to work. Enter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), an English huntsman who’s tasked with eliminating the wolves. But as Bill scours the forest for his prey, his restless daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), sneaks off to explore the area and is promptly attacked and bitten by a wolf who’s actually a girl, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), and whose spirit takes on lupine form while her human body sleeps. Pretty quickly, Robyn is feeling the effects of that wolf bite—she’s now also a wolfwalker—and she’s eager to help Mebh find her missing mother and save their pack from Bill and the ever-angrier mob of wolf-hating citizens.

In human form, Robyn makes for a boisterously snarky hero, but she’s even more fun to follow as a wolf. The film’s most distinctive sequences depict the world from a wolf’s-eye view—or, rather, a wolf’s nose, as shimmering, colorful streaks of scent trails show how the transformed Robyn navigates the forest on all fours. While Song of the Sea dug deeply into a grief-stricken family’s healing against a background of modern Celtic myth, Wolfwalkers focuses on a different kind of reunification: the Goodfellowes becoming one with the natural world, both the fragile environment and the animals that fight for survival within it. Ecological messaging drives Will Collins’s screenplay to an inevitable, climate-centric climax, even if the film’s mystic swirls overwhelm any practical, contemporary takeaways about caring for the Earth.

Wolfwalkers growls scornfully, if imprecisely, at the herd mentality that overtakes a violent citizenry and the way that organized religion feeds this fearful frenzy. Local bullies torment Robyn, the English outsider, as they act out their fantasies of wolf slaughter, but there’s not quite enough backstory here for us to be sure whether these kids inherited their wolf anxiety unfairly or whether it’s justified by the wolves’ occasional viciousness. Moreover, the seemingly genuine piety of the anti-wolf and anti-pagan Lord Protector muddies an otherwise villainous portrait with an arc that projects neither hypocrisy nor redemption clearly.

The loveliness of Moore and Stewarts film, however, lies precisely in its reluctance to pack a punch. Just as some frames turn impressionistic, with borders of leaf patterns replacing more faithful forest scenery, the storyline’s edges are frayed just enough to give it the gentle distance of a tale recalled though the gauze of myth and memory.

Cast: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Tommy Tiernan, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jon Kenny, John Morton, Nora Twomey, Oliver McGrath, Paul Young, Niamh Moyles Director: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart Screenwriter: Will Collins Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: His House Is a Creepy Allegory About Learning to Live with Trauma

Throughout, Remi Weekes forcefully, resonantly ties the film’s terror to the inner turmoil of his characters.

3

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His House
Photo: Netflix

British writer-director Remi Weekes’s His House opens with a striking montage of refugees crossing a war-torn Sudan and dangerously cramming onto a boat that will traverse choppy waters on an unimaginably long, treacherous journey toward England. When a loud crash is heard from the back of the boat, the film cuts to a shot of the ocean, where we witness numerous people drowning, including a young girl calling out for her mother. Before this horrific event is even resolved, Weekes again cuts away to reveal that this is neither a prologue nor a flashback, but rather the vivid nightmare of a Sudanese man, Bol (Sope Dirisu), reliving the terror of a night he experienced a year earlier alongside his wife, Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), and daughter, Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba).

The unresolved trauma that strips away at this 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 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 Rial 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.

Weekes paints a rich portrait of the migrant experience, accounting for the inextricable nostalgia for home and the impulse to conform and cut ties with the past. These disparate approaches collide in a moving scene where Bol, after being confronted by spirits dwelling in his house, yet still in denial about their presence, burns his and Rial’s old belongings. It marks a rupture in their relationship, and where Rial is left feeling like she has nothing, Bol leaves to go shopping for Western-style clothes, at one point gazing helplessly at a cheerful white family in an in-store display before gathering the outfits they’re wearing in a futile attempt to replicate their appearance. It’s a blunt but potent illustration of how migrants’ feelings of displacement can emerge in different ways, often violently and self-destructively.

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.

Throughout His House, Weekes’s seamlessly blends horror with elements of kitchen-sink drama and African folklore, morphing the domestic space into an uncanny, liminal zone where the distinctions between past and present, as well as Africa and Europe, are blurred beyond recognition. It’s an unusual combination, but one that’s rendered even more forceful and emotionally resonant by the director’s ability to tie the film’s terror so precisely to the inner turmoil of his characters and the myriad psychological and social challenges they face.

Cast: Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku, Matt Smith, Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba, Javier Botet, Yvonne Campbell, Vivienne Soan, Lola May, Kevin Layne Director: Remi Weekes Screenwriter: Remi Weekes Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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The 100 Best Horror Movies of All Time

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

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

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

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

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

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


Raw

100. Raw (2016)

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


A Bay of Blood

99. A Bay of Blood (1971)

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


Alice, Sweet Alice

98. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

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


Bram Stoker’s Dracula

97. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

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


Blood for Dracula

96. Blood for Dracula (1974)

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


Martyrs

95. Martyrs (2008)

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


Night of the Demon

94. Night of the Demon (1957)

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


The Devil’s Backbone

93. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

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


Let the Right One In

92. Let the Right One In (2008)

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


Black Cat

91. Black Cat (1934)

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


Brain Damage

90. Brain Damage (1988)

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


Gremlins

89. Gremlins (1984)

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


Angst

88. Angst (1983)

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


The Devils

87. The Devils (1971)

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


The Blair Witch Project

86. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

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


Who Can Kill a Child?

85. Who Can Kill a Child? (1972)

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


The Haunting

84. The Haunting (1963)

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


Häxan

83. Häxan (1922)

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


In the Mouth of Madness

82. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

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


Near Dark

81. Near Dark (1987)

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

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

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

1.5

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The Witches
Photo: HBO Max

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is now available from Abrams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Júnior

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

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

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

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

NewFest runs from October 16—27.

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Film

Review: Synchronic Undermines Its Delightful Strangeness with Handholding

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

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Synchronic
Photo: Well Go USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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