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Understanding Screenwriting #59: The Town, Easy A, Going the Distance, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #59: The Town, Easy A, Going the Distance, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Town, Easy A, Going the Distance, Something’s Gonna Live, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, Hollywood: A Third Memoir (book), California Dreamin’, Captain Horatio Hornblower, White Collar, Nikita, Mad Men, but first…

Stop the Presses: On the front page of the September 13-19, 2010, issue of Weekly Variety, Jeffrey (EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE IN 3-D NOW AND FOREVER!) Katzenberg was quoted as saying, “Consumers are more and more cautious. The lure of 3D is not panning out.”

Fan Mail: “AStrayn” took exception to my notion that “The Suitcase” episode of Mad Men would work as a stand-alone episode and felt I was saying that viewers who did not have a history with the show would “understand everything.” I never claimed they would “understand everything.” In any stand-alone episode of a serialized show, obviously people who already know the show will get the most out of it. But in a good stand-alone, which I think “The Suitcase” is, knowing all the backstory of the characters and the situations is not as crucial as it is for other episodes. That’s one of the reasons shows do them—so Emmy voters who may not watch the show on a regular basis can still appreciate them.

I agree with David E. that Lord Love a Duck (1966) is one of Lola Albright’s great performances, but I have to admit that the last time I saw the film, I did not like it as much as I had the first time. The big problem with the script is that Barbara Anne’s friend and mentor Alan is so obviously her gay best friend that it is completely unbelievable when he turns out to be straight and in love with her. Well, it was 1966, after all.

The Town (2010. Screenplay by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard, based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan. 124 minutes)

The Town

Not quite The Asphalt Jungle, but still good: I mentioned in my comments on The Badlanders (1958) that I thought the 1950 film of The Asphalt Jungle had one of the best combinations of plot and character in the robbery genre. The Town almost matches it, and in one way goes a little beyond it. As in most heist movies, we are sympathetic to the robbers. We find them exciting and dangerous and when they are on-screen, stuff happens. Here, as in Jungle, the criminals are real pros. In the first robbery sequence we see the gang knows enough to rip out the security camera tapes and cook them in a microwave. The leader is Doug MacRay, and not only is he good at his job, he is handsome (he’s played by Affleck, who also directed) and shows degrees of common sense and even sensitivity. Second in command is Jem, the hot-tempered one. He ends up taking a hostage during the robbery, which was not planned. The guys were wearing masks, but they are afraid she might have seen something. So Doug arranges a cute meet with her and begins to fall in love with her. Some of their scenes are a little overwritten, especially Doug’s tale of losing his mother, but the actors make them work. The hostage, a manager of the bank, is played by Rebecca Hall, who has gotten better and better as a film actress. We care for Doug and Claire, so watching it all go south is painful. There are also some very colorful supporting crooks, including “Fergie,” the local crime boss, and Doug’s father. You write great parts, you get great actors, such as Pete Postlewaite and Chris Cooper, as those last two, respectively. Not to mention Jeremy Renner as Jem.

In The Asphalt Jungle, the police commissioner supervising the case is a standard solid citizen, even if one of his detectives is corrupt. Frawley, the F.B.I. agent in charge of this case, is a much better drawn character. He is tough, smart, occasionally funny, and not above leaning on people, such as Claire and Krista, Doug’s ex-girlfriend (Blake Lively, who has been very bland in everything else I have seen her in, is a revelation here). And, since he is played by Jon Hamm, he is just as handsome as Doug is. In the second half of the film, our sympathy also goes out to him, since the gang’s activities, or at least Jem’s, have gotten more violent. And the gang in general is losing our sympathy. The writers, whether following the novel or not, give us three heist sequences. The first is the bank and the second is an armored car, which gives us a great slow-speed chase in the narrow streets of Boston. The third is Fenway Park after a big weekend, and here we really get turned off by the gang. Hey, they love their hometown, but they are still going to rob Fenway, for Christ’s sake? Needless to say, it does not go well. The ending is satisfactory on all counts.

Easy A (2010. Written by Brent V. Royal. 93 minutes)

Easy A

You write good parts…: I’d call this one bright but not as sharp as it might be. The setup is terrific. Olive, a high school girl nobody seems to pay attention to, avoids (in a very funny scene) a weekend with her best friend Rhianna by claiming she has a date with a college boy. When Rhia bugs her for details in the rest room Monday at school, Olive makes up a story about having sex with the imaginary date. Word spreads very quickly (in a nice shot that is repeated a little more than it should be) and she has a “reputation.” Since Olive is reading The Scarlet Letter in class and is very smart, she decides to accept the reputation. She helps Brandon, a closeted gay guy, appear to be straight by pretending to have sex with him at a party (also a very funny scene). Don’t worry; Brandon gives up the pretense later on and gets a terrific payoff, which includes the tag to a line earlier in the picture that just seemed a one-off joke. Yes, Olive does get hit on by guys who really want to “do it,” but she is also asked by shy guys to pretend she did it with them. Then things get even more complicated.

The upside is that Olive is a terrific character. She is easily the smartest person in whatever room she is in, but she’s also the nicest. It’s a great starring role for Emma Stone, whom I mentioned in US#26 was “terrific” in last year’s Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. She’s got the smarts and the charm for the part and she delivers. She is also helped by the cinematographer, Michael Grady, who makes her and everybody else in the picture look really, really good. But Olive is not the only good character in the film. Her parents are odd, in the most interesting ways, and the parts attracted Stanley Tucci to play her dad and Patricia Clarkson to play her mom. They are not working at full power, but that’s not what’s required. Charm, and a light touch is. Clarkson and Stone have a scene together near the end on the hood of a car that is one of the great mother-daughter scenes in recent films. And wait, there’s more: Olive’s favorite teacher, Mr. Griffith, is Thomas Haden Church, and his wife, a guidance counselor who could use a little guidance, brings out another great performance from Lisa Kudrow. Not all the parts are that well written. The principal is standard issue huffy, but it is funny to see Malcolm McDowell, Mick Travis his ownself from If… (1968), on the other side of the barricades. Todd, the boy Olive ends up with, is rather blandly drawn. Yes, he is given a “motivation” for knowing what Olive is up to, but nothing is developed from that.

As bright as the film is, its satire is not as sharp as it could be. Olive’s nemesis is Marianne, a relentless Christian promoting abstinence. Royal could have gone a lot further with this character and the abstinence movement. And, alas, he does not give that character a payoff at the end, as he does the others. As with Georgie Minafer, we want to see her get her comeuppance. But then Orson Welles never actually showed us that comeuppance, either, so I guess Royal is in good company. Or maybe he is just thinking about a sequel: Easy A+.

Going the Distance (2010. Written by Geoff LaTulippe. 102 minutes)

Going the Distance

Why is little Gertie from E.T. talking dirty?: Having a good time, from the look of it. Judd Apatow and the girls from Sex and the City may have a lot to answer for. While visually American movies have not gotten more sexually graphic, they have certainly gotten verbally more graphic. The boys in Apatow films never seem to shut up about sex and all its permutations. Sometimes, as in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, there is a little characterization as well, and those tend to be Apatow’s better films. In Sex and the City, both the TV show and the movies, it is the girls talking among themselves. Going the Distance tries to have it both ways, with both the boys and the girls talking dirty, sometimes to each other. Given that the picture has not performed that well at the box office, LaTulippe may have gone a bridge too far in the language area. Having the guys and the girls doing it together may have turned off some members of the audience. That may be the limit beyond which, at least for now, the audience won’t let you go. Or it may just be the sound of Drew Barrymore being crude that was too much. Foul language is awfully tricky to handle in an American film, since as a writer, you never quite know where the line is. In the new semester of my screenwriting class at Los Angeles City College, we have started looking at The 40 Year-Old Virgin in ten to fifteen minute segments. I will give you a more detailed reported at the end of the semester, but it is fascinating to see what Apatow and Steve Carell left in and what they took out in the theatrical release (we are looking at the unrated version) in terms of language.

I have to admit that my wife and I and the audience we saw Going the Distance with laughed a lot at the film. But then I was at Yale and in the Navy for four years each, and my wife worked with a bunch of male scientists for years, so there was nothing we have not heard before in one form or another. I was particularly taken with Erin’s (Barrymore) description of having oral sex performed on her, which has a great punchline. Nonetheless, the film has more than its share of flaws. Erin and Garrett meet just after another of his relationships breaks up and they connect very quickly. LaTulippe uses, and maybe overuses, their connections through pop culture as a fast way to establish them as a couple. He also includes a lot of generic “couple montages,” including the standard “larking about on the beach.” It’s long past time to put a moratorium on that. The first half-hour goes quickly, but then she has to leave New York City to go to Stanford, and in the second half-hour they try to deal with a long distance relationship. This includes a very funny phone sex scene. But in the third half-hour, the film gets very repetitive as they talk about what they can do about their situation. So the film slows down just when it should be speeding up. The solution they ultimately find is very much one for our time, and the final joke is nicely set up and played.

Something’s Gonna Live (2010. Written by Daniel Raim. 80 minutes)

Something’s Gonna Live

Not structuring the documentary: In US#57 I talked about the structuring of two of this year’s best documentaries, A Film Unfinished and Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. The filmmakers of both of those found intelligent ways to pull together the variety of material they had. Unfortunately Daniel Raim has not in this film.

In 2000 Raim did the highly acclaimed documentary The Man on Lincoln’s Nose. It was about the great art director Robert Boyle, who worked with Hitchcock on, as you may have guessed, North by Northwest, as well as several other of the Master’s films. In the current film Raim picks up Boyle again, as well as several of Boyle’s friends and colleagues. Mostly they all wander around Hollywood, Paramount studios (where they first met), and Bodega Bay, where Boyle and storyboard artist Harold Mickelson revisit the locations for their 1963 film The Birds. Some of this is amusing and nostalgic, but other than that there does not seem to be much point to it. Then Raim brings on two older cinematographers, Haskell Wexler and Conrad Hall, which gets us away from the discussions of art direction and production design. But Raim never finds a compelling shape for the footage he has.

On a more positive note, all of the artists talk about the importance of story to films. Although not one of them ever mentions screenwriters.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010. No writer credit. 86 minutes)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Now this is how you do it: Unlike Something’s Gonna Live, this is a beautifully structured documentary about the great British cinematographer. I have no idea how much is on the cutting room floor, but everything, and I mean everything, in here has to do with why we are interested in seeing a movie about Cardiff. We get a few personal details, but not many. We do get a few “walking around” scenes, but those tend to be with who I assume is the director, Craig McCall, as he asks Cardiff about his work. Since this is a film, we can SEE the work. Yes, the cinematography of Black Narcissus (1947), which won Cardiff an Oscar, is gorgeous, but even clips from the film show how over-the-top the melodrama was in the film. Some of Cardiff’s directing credits are discussed, but not the awful ones, although he does talk about some of the potboilers he photographed. The structure of the film is more or less chronological, although I thought McCall was shrewd to avoid discussing working with Marilyn Monroe on The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) until very late in the picture, which sets up a degree of suspense among those of us who want to hear about that troubled shoot.

Hollywood: A Third Memoir (2010. Book by Larry McMurtry. 146 pages)

Hollywood: A Third MemoirImagine that: a screenwriter who is not bitter: Well, it helps that McMurtry thinks that his screenwriting work is his tertiary career. First, he is a novelist. Second, he is a bookseller who has owned a couple of bookstores. He first dealt with Hollywood when his 1961 novel Horseman, Pass By was made into the 1963 film Hud. Since then he has had novels adapted into films and television movies and miniseries, and he has done some screenwriting himself, most notably the 2005 adaptation of the Annie Proulx story Brokeback Mountain, for which he and his writing partner Diana Ossana won the Academy Award.

This thin, delightful volume recounts his adventures in the screen trade, and he is remarkably clear-eyed about the business. He is not settling scores, or bitching at what was done to his work. He even thinks the screenwriters of Hud made a mistake by keeping the ending of the novel and not improving it. He accepts Hollywood for what it is, and he enjoys the very interesting characters he meets there. And then he goes back to Texas or wherever he is living at the moment and gets back to work. Just like all real writers should.

California Dreamin’ (2007. Written by Cristian Nemescu and Tudor Voican, additional dialogue by Catherine Linstrum. 155 minutes)

California Dreamin'

Paisan, fifty-five years later: I am not sure if this was ever released theatrically in the United States, although it did play at a couple of film festivals in this country. It caught my eye when I was browsing on Netflix. It is Romanian and sounded not unlike some of the other Romanian films I had liked. A NATO train with what is probably spy equipment is stopped by a local railroad stationmaster in a small town in Romania. The stationmaster, Doiaru, is used to holding up trains so his associates can steal from them. The American Captain in charge of the train, Doug Jones, is none too happy about all this. His soldiers don’t mind, especially given the surprising number of young ladies in the village.

What struck me almost immediately is that the writers (Nemescu also directed) are picking up on one of the themes Rossellini had in Paisan (1946), which we talked about in US#58. We see the communications problems, both linguistic and cultural, between the Romanians and the Americans. Rossellini’s second theme, of how war corrupts, is not in play here, because Doiaru is already corrupt. The connection with Paisan hit me in an early scene as the soldiers get off their ship and onto the train. The English language dialogue, probably by Linstrum, is not written by anybody who ever had any experience with the American military.

Unfortunately the writers here are not up to Rossellini and Fellini and their associates. There is very little characterization, and what there is is straight off the rack. Doiaru is a small town corrupt official. His daughter, Monica, is a sullen 17-year-old who sees the soldiers as a way to get out of town. Captain Jones bellows a lot. Even with a Romanian Elvis impersonator and a bordello run by the town mayor, there is very little that is new or observant about the film. The Concert (2009—see US#57) is a lot fresher in dealing with its clash of cultures.

The running time of the film is also a problem. Nemescu, the director, died shortly after shooting was completed. So what we have in effect here is the rough cut of the film. It could easily be condensed by a good half-hour or more. That would not improve the script, but it might help the film. You could also do what I did. I watched the first half-hour of the DVD at normal speed, then the last two hours at twice normal speed. At least on my DVD player it still lets you read the subtitles, although you do have to be quick about it.

Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951. Screenplay by Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts and Aeneas MacKenzie, adapted from his novel by C.S. Forester. 117 minutes)

Captain Horatio Hornblower

Time passes, attitudes change: I first saw this when it came out in 1951 and loved it. Well, I was nine or ten. I saw it again several years ago and it seemed rather stodgy. Then I ended up watching it one recent Saturday night on my wife’s smaller TV, since she had co-opted the wide screen one for the UCLA football game. Maybe it was the small screen, but it was not as bad as I thought the last time I saw it. Not anywhere as good as I thought it was when I first saw it, but still…

C.S. Forester started writing about the fictional Royal Navy hero Horatio Hornblower in the thirties. The Hornblower stories are set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, and are very much the forerunner of the Master and Commander novels of Patrick O’Brian. In spite of the way the credits for the film read, Forester’s adaptation includes material from the first three novels. The Happy Return (1937) deals with the South American adventure in the first half of the film. A Ship of the Line (1938) is about fighting the French fleet. Flying Colors (also 1938) has the escape from the French on the Witch of Endor. As you might guess, given the script’s genesis, dramatic structure is not its strong point. Since Hornblower rescues Lady Barbara in South America, we follow their romance, which makes the film more of a love story than it needs to be. We do get plenty of sea battles and sword fights, and you can see why Warner Brothers first thought of Errol Flynn for Hornblower. By the time the first was ready for production, Flynn was thought to be too old, and he was replaced by Gregory Peck, who may be better than Flynn would have been.

The focus in the film, as in the novels that Forester had written up to that time, was on Hornblower as an adult. Later, Forester went back and wrote several novels about Hornblower’s younger days. When this film was made, Hollywood was still looking at adults for their leading men. From 1998 to 2003, the Brits made a wonderful series of made-for-TV movies about the young Hornblower, following his rise through the ranks. The young Hornblower, beautifully played by Ioan Gruffudd, is even more befuddled by women than the adult one was, and the TV movies stick to action and life in the British Navy of the period. Generally I prefer the TV movie versions, since they have time to develop characters and relationships in ways the feature does not. Ah yes, good writing will always triumph.

White Collar (2010. “Point Blank” episode written by Jeff Eastin. 60 minutes)

White Collar

Oh my God! They killed Kenny: Or in this case, Mozzie. Well, maybe.

This was the half-season finale of White Collar, so nearly the entire episode was about Pete, Diana and Neal trying to bring former F.B.I. agent Fowler, whom they suspect of killing Kate, out into the open. This involves a plot to have Alex steal the box from Kate’s apartment safe and return it to the Russian Museum, which Neal assures Alex will take the heat off her. So she may at least temporarily be out of the series. The plan gets Fowler to show up at the Museum, but it turns out he didn’t plan to kill Kate. He bought the explosives, but his idea was that Neal and Kate would bail out of the plane before it blew up. Fowler was being blackmailed by somebody with a lot of clout, whom Fowler never met. He always met a go-between, whom we see.

And in the final scene the go-between walks up to Mozzie, who is sitting on a park bench, and shoots him. In the chest. And Mozzie appears to die. That was a shocker to me because Mozzie, as I have written about often, is a great supporting character for this show. I cannot believe they have really killed him. And of course, they probably have not, even if he looks very dead at the end of the episode. And take comfort, Mozzie lovers, he showed up in the promos that began the next week for the next mini-season of episodes in January. Well, that’s a relief. But they did give me a start.

Nikita (2010. “Pilot” episode, no writing created, but “developed by” Craig Silverstein. 60 minutes)

Nikita

Not quite the end of American television as we know it: Back when the 1990 French film La Femme Nikita was playing in New York, The New Yorker’s weekly blurb for it was: “The end of French cinema as we know it.” It was an early film written and directed by Luc Besson, and when he created the part of a young woman criminal who is turned into a professional killer, he shaped the part specifically for Anne Parillaud. It made her a star. When Robert Getchell and Alexandra Seros adapted it into the 1993 American film Point of No Return, nobody bothered to think through what it would mean to the film to have Parillaud replaced by the very American Bridget Fonda. They failed to reconceive the part for her, the picture was a flop, and Fonda’s career took a hit from which it never recovered.

I never saw the Canadian-made television series based on the film that ran from 1997 to 2001. Nikita has been resurrected yet again, this time for an American-made series. Given all that is gone on before, we cannot watch her go through her training again, so the pilot starts with Nikita coming out of hiding and telling the Division she is out to destroy them. This is intercut with Alex, a young woman bank robber, going through the training. We find out at the end of the pilot that Nikita and Alex are in cahoots, although exactly what kind of cahoots we do not yet know.

Nikita in this case is Maggie Q, a protégé of Jackie Chan, so you know she has some nifty martial arts moves. A lot of them in the pilot. I mean, a LOT of them, and they get rather repetitive. I am not sure if she can carry an entire series. Partly it is that Nikita is presented as a stoic, but Q simply does not seem very expressive, even within the limitations of the part. She is certainly striking looking, both at rest and in action, but she may need more to hold our interest. Some of this is also the writing of the pilot as well, which is incredibly humorless. Her two nemeses are Michael, her former handler, and Percy, her former boss. They are played by Shane West and Xander Berkeley, who are usually great, but here are just required to scowl a lot. I may watch the show one more time, just to see if anybody, ever, cracks a smile.

Mad Men (2010. “The Summer Man” episode written by Lisa Alpert & Janet Leahy and Matthew Weiner. 62 minutes)

Mad Men

One step forward, one step sideways: Let’s take the sideways step first: What the hell were any of them thinking by having Don write a dippy little high school journal? It makes obvious all the stuff that the writing of this show usually keeps subtle and nuanced. If they ask for my vote, it’s drop it.

The forward step comes in a great, yes subtle and nuanced, scene in the elevator between Joan and Peggy. Peggy’s “boys” having been behaving like boys, assuming that when Joan went into Lane’s office, it was to have sex. The “older” guys at the agency seem paragons of feminism compared to this gang. Joey, one of the new kids, draws a pornographic cartoon of what he thinks Joan and Lane must be doing. Peggy sees it and criticizes it, but then Joey puts it up on their window facing Joan’s office. Peggy takes the cartoon into Don, who tells her to handle it, since “You don’t want me involved in this.” He tells her to yell at the guys or fire them. Peggy talks to Joey, who refuses to apologize to Joan, and Peggy fires him.

Now Peggy and Joan meet in the elevator. How would you write that scene? Here’s what the team comes up with. Joan is pissed that Peggy took control and fired Joey. She could have talked to one of her influential men friends and got him fired. Peggy says the result is the same, but Joan says not. Peggy’s actions reduce Joan to being a powerless secretary and Peggy to being a humorless bitch. Joan is still thinking of office sexual politics the way they have always been. She knows how to navigate those waters. Peggy does not want to play those games and is willing to take charge openly. We see in this short, dense scene the clash of cultures within the world of women that is going to evolve into the women’s movement and the backlashes against it. That’s the kind of writing we love on Mad Men. More please.

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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Features

David Fincher’s Films Ranked, from Alien³ to Mank

On the occasion of Mank’s release, here’s a ranking of every Fincher feature film, from worst to best.

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The Films of David Fincher Ranked
Photo: Netflix

The controversy of authorship that continues to engulf Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane hinges on whether or not Herman J. Mankiewicz deserves primary credit for the film’s sensibility. Such insistence rests on the naïve notion that screenplays are pearls that remain unchanged and uninfluenced by other craftspeople throughout a film’s production. Mankiewicz’s acerbic wit is very alive in Citizen Kane, but so is Welles’s beautiful brio—his formal flourishes and innate instinct for lacing a punchline with ironic tragedy. These two elements combust, in fact, to yield a film that suggests a link between the fast-paced, no-bullshit American newspaper comedies of the 1930s, many of which Mankiewicz worked on, and the German expressionism of the 1920s, among other things. This irresistible union brokered a new idea of the American auteur.

David Fincher’s Mank opens in 1940 with Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) en route to a ranch in Victorville, northeast of Los Angeles. This idle has been arranged for Mank by Welles (Tom Burke) so that the former may recover from a broken leg, as well as, more pressingly, dry out from booze so as to knock out a draft of a project called American in three months, which is to be Welles’s cinematic debut after blazing a glorious trail in the worlds of theater and radio. Riffing on the flashback structure of Citizen Kane, Fincher jumps around in time throughout the ‘30s, as Mank alienates himself from Hollywood and its true, subterranean source of power, which is represented by publishing giant William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).

With his sharp tongue and profound alcoholism, Mank gradually works his way toward a fate of sitting in a cabin, ailing, essentially alone, penning a screenplay that’s probably intended as a form of revenge against those who rejected him over the years, while also serving as a Proustian expression of longing over lost days and unrealized promises. In real life, the script would be retitled, stripped down, haggled over and shot—transformed into a film that would be viciously contended with, hailed as a classic, and debated endlessly throughout the epochs of time. For cinephiles, Mank may rekindle such a debate. Chuck Bowen

On the occasion of Mank’s release, here’s a ranking of every Fincher feature film, from worst to best.


Alien³

11. Alien³ (1992)

Alien³ may be the only film ever made to peak with its logo. As the 20th Century Fox fanfare crescendos over the studio’s familiar logo, the music holds on the minor chord before the usual last note, replacing jubilant bombast with a dissonant groan of strings. The alteration produces an immediate sense of discomfort and unease, setting the tone for something ominous and fearsome. It’s an ingenious shot across the bow from Fincher, ushering in a feature career dotted with immaculately ordered, carefully scored works of blockbuster entertainment that veered from audience-pleasing major keys to their grim underbellies. The perversion of the Fox theme epitomizes a succinct grasp of horror that only occasionally surfaces in the film proper. Too often, Alien³ shows its seams, whether in its thematic arc or the design of the xenomorph, and at not even two hours it still feels weighed down by unnecessary exposition and padded suspense scenes. Jake Cole


Panic Room

10. Panic Room (2002)

In one way or another, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, and Panic Room are all about the same things: confrontations between classes in capitalistic society; the extreme measures necessary to jolt people out of complacency; the ways in which class distinctions suppress the natural instincts and morality of citizens. The most style-forward of these films, Panic Room is a violent ballet between a representative of the upper class (Jodie Foster) and the representatives of the lower classes. There’s a formalist sensibility in Fincher that often shows itself even in small or seemingly unimportant moments. But in Panic Room, his love for objects and abstract composition takes over the film, sacrificing too much of the characterization and narrative drive that have propelled his more successful work. Still, his fluid camerawork, augmented by computer tricks, is wondrous to behold, for the way it gives the impression of flowing through anything in the camera’s path, peeking inside to see how objects are assembled and how things are laid out. Ed Howard


Gone Girl

9. Gone Girl (2014)

The sea-sawing motions of the novel’s he-said-she-said structure, which so cunningly toys with our expectations of narrative and relationships, clearly appealed to Fincher, whose art has always been devoted to the enigma of personality and memory. But he catalogues the events of the novel with an elegant brusqueness that feels wiped clean of potential resonances, like the kitchen floor where Amy (Rosamund Pike) lost copious amounts of blood. Fincher’s detachment is fitting here only insofar as he’s dealing with characters who are always on guard. But there’s detachment, and then there’s disinterest. In flashbacks that punctuate the film, Amy is scrutinized with a transparency that’s laughable. Woe is Amy, a practically brick-to-the-head example of Freud’s concept of the uncanny, and woe is Nick (Ben Affleck), the prototypical nebbish who’s unlucky to have gotten caught in her crosshairs. Or any woman’s crosshairs, for that matter, which is consistent with the book’s vision of Nick being incessantly victimized by the other sex, women who are depicted only as shrill, lecherous, petty, or conniving. There’s a comic streak to the film that suggests Fincher may understand the material as trash, but it’s the kind of affectation that only reinforces, rather than dulls, its insults. Ed Gonzalez


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

While Fincher’s deliberate, rather perceptible “reimaginings, compressions and reductions” of the novel’s lurid, soap-operatic plot, which is rife with the familiar intrigue of your average mass market paperback (rape, incest, serial murder, Nazis, and a shitload of clue-solving), can’t elevate trash to art, they do give one the impression of attending the most handsome funeral procession ever mounted—which is, in the end, better than feeling like you’re the corpse lying inside the coffin. If Lisbeth’s goth armature feels less like a stunt this time around, it’s because Rooney Mara understands it as such, a calculated bit of theater that the character is only committed to in the abstract; it’s a purposeful exaggeration meant to deliberately alienate the world. Of course, that Lisbeth, in the end, is at her most vulnerable when pining for Mikael may flesh her out as a character, but it also confirms that Dragon Tattoo, in all its incarnations, is really nothing more than the story of girls running to and from their daddies, and no matter how you dress it up, it’s inherently retrograde. Gonzalez


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Fincher would seem an unlikely choice to helm The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an era-spanning epic whose sweeping, poignant romance doesn’t seem a natural fit for a digital-era auteur whose films are generally typified by cool, sleek, exacting meticulousness. And yet that measured, distant disposition is, in fact, what prevents his latest from sliding into the mawkishness for which it so often seems destined. As written by Eric Roth, the saga (adapted—and, more fundamentally, expanded—from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story) is in many ways a kindred spirit to the screenwriter’s Forrest Gump, in that its center is an especially unique individual whose life, and unflagging amour for a beauty he can only temporarily be with, plays out against the backdrop of 20th-century America. However, whereas Roth’s prior, Robert Zemeckis-helmed Oscar darling was as mushy as a box of chocolates melted by the midday sun, Fincher’s is a far more reserved portrait of everlasting love, a work whose aspirations for grandeur are, more often than not, mitigated by a controlled aesthetic and emotional rigor that situates the film in a comfortable—if nonetheless sometimes problematic—middle ground between the sentimental and the standoffish. Nick Schager


Mank

6. Mank (2020)

As he was in The Social Network, Fincher is conscious throughout Mank of the explanatory clichés of the biopic and avoids them. Penned by his late father, Jack Fincher, the film abounds in barely articulated cross-associations that suggest a bygone society driven by an infrastructure of unknowable vastness. And the opportunity to conjure such a labyrinthine and increasingly sinister impression of community is what excites Fincher throughout. Like many of his other films, especially Fight Club, Zodiac, and The Social Network, Mank is a parable on the limits of control, fashioned with rueful self-awareness by one of Hollywood’s most famous contemporary control freaks. As a cartoonist had to live with his inability to crack the riddle of the Zodiac killer, Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) must live with an existence, fashioned in part by his own self-loathing and lack of discipline, in which he’s to ineffectually bear witness to the flexing of American corruption as represented by an intersection between the press, Hollywood, and the government. Such a theme also very consciously aligns Mank with the “fallen, not-quite-great man” themes of Citizen Kane. Bowen

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Review: Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk Is an Exhilarating Comedy of Regret

Soderbergh’s formal gamesmanship enlivens what could have been a stodgy scenario.

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Let Them All Talk
Photo: HBO Max

On the surface, Let Them All Talk suggests a routine dramedy about late-life crisis, in this case concerning a successful author who reaches out to old friends in an attempt to deal with longstanding regrets. Alice (Meryl Streep) won the Pulitzer Prize long ago for a bestselling novel whose success she resents. Sparked by a suggestion from her literary agent, Rachel (Gemma Chan), who’s eager for Alice to deliver her latest manuscript, the author makes a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2 from New York to Britain, where she’s to accept a prestigious literary award. Joining Alice are two friends from college, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest), as well as her nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges), who wishes to study people who came of age before social media. With such a setup, one could normally devise a flowchart predicting when each character will learn to live out loud.

Let Them All Talk, though, is directed by the ever-adventurous Steven Soderbergh, who has a thorny relationship with formula. The filmmaker prizes genres for their iconography and sense of ritual, though he scrambles and slows them down so as to concentrate on atmosphere and suppressed emotions. Refreshingly, Soderbergh has a particular distaste for characters telling audiences what they want to hear, especially for the sake of the latter’s orientation. In the case of Let Them All Talk, scenes are often nipped in the bud just when they appear to be reaching a crescendo, forcing us to recognize that the anticipation of a climax, whether or not it’s experienced, is the film’s real subject. Alice, Roberta, and Susan are sad and conditioned by experience to guard themselves, while Tyler is on the verge of encountering the sort of disappointment and heartbreak that compel people to guard themselves in the first place.

Almost to a fault, Soderbergh resists the boisterousness that we expect from a reunion comedy, as Let Them All Talk’s central trio of characters are often separated, cordoned off into different factions that sometimes include Tyler and Rachel, and this sense of fragmentation becomes a dry running joke. Alice routinely asks Roberta to have a drink with her only to be matter-of-factly rebuffed, as there’s tension between the two women that threatens to dwarf the poignantly modest Susan, who’s often recruited as Roberta’s partner for board games over tea and coffee, where they primarily discuss Roberta’s animus and Alice’s pretension. In a sharp, surreal joke, a game of Scrabble reveals the subtext of a fraught conversation.

The film was shot over two weeks on the real Queen Mary 2 and improvised under Soderbergh and screenwriter Deborah Eisenberg’s supervision, and the actors’ sense of control is especially phenomenal given these circumstances. The dialogue isn’t shaggy in the tradition of most improvisatory comedies, but precise and finely honed in order to draw blood, accentuated by richly comic and melancholic body language. At the head of a superb cast, Streep allows one to see that Alice’s pretension is inseparable from her loneliness, serving as an expression of her insecurity, creativity, and desire for connection. These longings are made manifestly clear in one of the film’s most moving scenes, in which Alice gives a lecture on the ship, paying a tribute to an obscure author that announces her desire to be understood. Streep is too electrically brittle, too alive with inner furies, to resort to platitude, rendering her character recognizably maddening and lost in this sequence and many others.

The film inevitably invites comparison to Azazel Jacobs’s French Exit, which also stars Hedges as a young man attempting to make sense of family and friendship in a virtually identical setting. In its most vivid passages, French Exit luxuriated in the glamorous mystery of a cruise ship, which Soderbergh mines less for intrigue than for the emptiness felt by people who need to go looking for it. There’s a sense that this self-conscious artist isn’t allowing his characters to surprise themselves, and so Let Them All Talk can feel locked in a holding pattern of disappointment and miscommunication, even if that’s by design. It’s as if Soderbergh is hesitant to let his characters cut loose for fear of turning the film into something routinely uproarious, making us want for a vulgar curveball or two, or even simply a joke that’s rooted in warmth rather than detachment. As such, it’s bracing when one scene, which finds Alice transcending her myopia to comfort Tyler, disrupts Let Them All Talk’s moroseness.

That isn’t to say that Let Them All Talk lacks for the exhilaration of Soderbergh’s signature formal gamesmanship, which here enlivens what could have been a stodgy scenario. His compositions abound in characters suspended in negative space, emphasizing their sense of longing, while also suggesting the intricate bowels of a ship that’s playing host to other unseen stories. Meanwhile, Soderbergh’s editing is characteristically sharp throughout, transforming the characters’ conversations into curt and rhythmic sonatas. These techniques aren’t examples of style for its own sake, as they show Soderbergh regarding the trio of legends at the film’s center with curiosity and respect as co-conspirators, as the ferocious stars of an atmospheric comedy of regret, rather than as potential gold-watch recipients who’re headlining condescendingly life-affirming pabulum.

Cast: Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Gemma Chan, Lucas Hedges Director: Steven Soderbergh Screenwriter: Deborah Eisenberg Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 113 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now

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

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

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

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

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


Midnight Special

10. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016)

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


Mad Max

9. Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)

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


Jurassic Park

8. Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Even detached from the fuzzy flow of nostalgia, Jurassic Park’s splendor remains firmly rooted in a fixed set of attributes, particularly the way Steven Spielberg girds his high-flown fantasy within a context of concise, carefully constructed filmmaking. It’s this combination of flashy thrills and solid fundamentals that makes for what’s perhaps the most perfect distillation of the Spielberg brand, with its giddy embrace of the fringe possibilities of special effects, its blending of swashbuckling adventure with overtones of genuine terror, the fondness for small personal stories couched within impossibly large narratives. While even his best films involve a certain measure of hokey schmaltz, he should be equally noted for the precise craftsmanlike qualities that turn them into uniquely rewarding experiences, his insistent focus on assembling worlds from the ground up, accounting for visceral details, no matter how ridiculously fantastical the story may be otherwise. In Jurassic Park this means building an outlandish dream kingdom on a bedrock of scientific detail, on a narrative level, and mixing still-shaky CGI effects with more large-scale models, on a visual one, qualities which help make that grandiosity tactile. Jesse Cataldo


Her

7. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

Spike Jonze’s Her begins with a love letter—a misdirect. It’s a billet-doux by proxy, ghost-authored, dictated to a machine. We open on the wide-eyed mug of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), seeming to speak from the heart, recalling fondly a first love that proves, with the reveal of an incongruous anniversary, to belong to somebody else. So the “handwritten letters” of beautifulhandwrittenletters.com are merely approximations of the form: our near-future’s phantom memorandum. But what matters here is that the love is real. Theodore’s letters, in a sense the film’s emotional through line, are never less than deeply felt, swelling with earnest affection. That he’s talking through and to another can’t reduce the depth of feeling in the sentiments. The genius of Her is that it doesn’t ask you to believe in the truth of its speculative science fiction so much as it does the truth of its romance, which is to say that Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) means more as metaphor—for a hard-won connection, long-distance or otherwise remote—than as a prediction of future tech. Her is about “the modern condition,” but not, importantly, in the strictly satirical sense: It tells us less about how we live than how we love. Calum Marsh


Back to the Future

6. Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1986)

Long before Robert Zemeckis re-envisioned the 1960s as the era America gave itself over to stupidity (to the delight of Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads nationwide), he blasted the 1980s back into the 1950s with Back to the Future. Or, rather, he blasted the 1980s specifically for its return to a 1950s-reminiscent moral and political agenda. Looking back on it with the same sense of from-the-future assurance that informed the movie’s own creation, Back to the Future is a logistically beautiful but almost inhumanly perfect confluence of internal logic and external forces. It stands up on its own as a well-oiled, brilliantly edited example of new-school, Spielberg-cultivated thrill-craft, one that endures even now that its visual effects and haw-haw references to Pepsi Free and reruns seem as dated as full-service gas stations apparently did in 1985. Its schematic organization of what Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) need to accomplish and its steadily mounting series of mishaps demonstrating how they can go wrong represent probably the most carefully scripted blockbuster in Hollywood history, but the film’s real coup (and what separates it from the increasingly fluent pack of Spielberg knockoffs) is in how it subtly mocks the political pretensions of the era—not the 1950s, but rather the 1980s. Eric Henderson


E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

5. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)

As omniscient as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is about the bond a lonely young boy shares with the alien he all-too-briefly calls his best friend, some of the film’s most pitch-perfect moments subtly suggest how children regard the inscrutable behavior of adults, especially parents. The film, among other things, pulls grown-ups back into the vortex of feelings they’ve either repressed with age or have allowed to break toward bitter instead of sweet. Steven Spielberg in his prime was so adept at reflecting the innocent simplicity of childhood feelings that his talent seems to draw out the worst suspicions among life’s lost souls, those to whom the concepts of purity and simplicity have somehow become weapons in the mind’s battle with the heart. E.T., a visitor whose biological makeup ensures his stay on Earth won’t be for long (which he realizes when he makes the tear-jerking decision to sever the bio-rhythmic tether between him and Henry Thomas’s Elliott), is something of an abstraction for the grief Elliott feels upon his father’s abandonment. His departing aphorism, “I’ll be right here,” is sage advice for someone who understands profoundly the loss Elliott feels and the capacity for him to forgive. Henderson


The End of Evangelion

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

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


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

Introverted nice guy Joel (Jim Carrey) hears of an experimental procedure to erase troubling memories, and dives right in when his impulsive girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), washes her brain clean of their love-shattered relationship. Joel’s memories go backward in time from the last gasp of their love to their initial spark, but there are sideways detours along the way that take him to infancy and memories of his first childhood humiliation. James Joyce might have applauded this Phil Dick-caustic/Gnostic rendition of his Nighttown from Ulysses, with Clementine as Joel’s face-changing Penelope/Molly Bloom. Joel attempts to fight the erasure in his own mind, and the film admits early on that it’s a fight he cannot win. That he keeps on fighting anyway is the crux of Eternal Sunshine, and a breakthrough for Charlie Kaufman—writing about the human condition more than questioning our lives as self-made fictions. The fantasies of the film are more “real” than anything he’d written before, because they define who we think we are. Joel rediscovers his love for Clementine through fantasy, which is to say through his clouded memories of her. Such things are precious, and Gondry revels in that world in all its fleeting, flickering, ever-mutating joys. Jeremiah Kipp


A Clockwork Orange

2. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

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


Total Recall

1. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)

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

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now

These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: MGM

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

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

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



Cam

10. Cam (2018)

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


Monster

9. The Monster (2016)

In The Strangers, Bryan Bertino exhibited a masterfully lush style that owed quite a bit to the elegant camera pirouettes of John Carpenter. Here, the filmmaker utilizes his command of medium for more individualized purposes. By the time that The Monster reveals itself to be a horror film, we’re so engrossed in Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and Lizzy’s (Ella Ballentine) pain that the arrival of the titular menace strikes us as an authentic violation of normality, rather than as a ghoul arriving on demand per the dictates of the screenplay. The film has an eerily WTF arbitrariness that should be the domain of more films in the genre. Chuck Bowen



The Blackcoat’s Daughter

8. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

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


1922

7. 1922 (2017)

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


The Invitation

6. The Invitation (2015)

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


Session 9

5. Session 9 (2001)

As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins


Before I Wake

4. Before I Wake (2016)

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


The Evil Dead

3. The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez


The Guest

2. The Guest (2014)

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


Poltergeist

1. Poltergeist (1982)

Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das

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Review: Netflix’s The Prom Is the Dream Date It Wasn’t on Broadway

Ryan Murphy’s vibrant film adaptation makes a closer-to-seamless whole of the story’s disparate parts.

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The Prom
Photo: Netflix

When The Prom opened on Broadway in 2018, it wasn’t quite the dream date it might have been. Despite amassing a small, passionate following and six Tony nods, the musical—which fizzled in trying to fuse a gentle queer teen romance set in rural America with a sardonic, self-referential satire on show business—closed in less than a year.

Now, though, The Prom has found its proper soulmate in Netflix, as Ryan Murphy’s vibrant film adaptation makes a closer-to-seamless whole of the story’s disparate parts, thanks to a cast that smooths over the musical’s roughest edges. There’s still buoyancy in the backflip-saturated choreography of Casey Nicholaw (who directed the Broadway production) and in the often-charming score from Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, but it’s the newly enriched humanity of the show’s most extreme characters—both the Broadway bigwigs and the backwater bigots—that allows The Prom to soar on the screen.

After the disastrous reviews for their lousy Eleanor Roosevelt musical threaten to end their careers, Broadway has-beens Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) hatch a desperate plot to recapture the spotlight: They will become celebrity activists. But every celebrity activist needs, as Dee Dee puts it, a “cause célèbre,” and a quick Twitter search directs them to Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), a teen from Edgewater, Indiana, where the high school PTA has canceled prom to prevent Emma from attending with her girlfriend. Off Dee Dee and Barry go, along with showgirl Angie (Nicole Kidman), Juilliard-educated bartender Trent (Andrew Rannells), and a bus filled with the non-equity touring cast of Godspell, to take a stand against Edgewater’s ignorant Hoosiers and, if all goes well, go viral.

On stage, The Prom never quite managed to meld the over-the-top self-worship of the Broadway invaders with the small-town sweetness of Emma’s romance with closeted Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), daughter of PTA chair and local homophobe-in-chief Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington). As in the stage production, the richest moments are those shared between Emma and Alyssa; here, DeBose sounds especially spectacular, and Murphy sets up the loveliest song, “Dance with You,” in a tender swirl of cherry blossoms.

About halfway through, the film starts to commit the same sin as the showboating, self-involved quartet of Broadway divas by sidelining Emma, forgetting why we came to Edgewater in the first place. But while this detour largely sank the stage show, drowning the sincerity of Emma’s storyline in loud hamminess, two smart choices pull the film back from the brink. One is the deepening of Barry’s backstory: Like Emma, Barry knows what it’s like to come out to an unaccepting family, and the film adds a moving reunion with his mother (Tracey Ullman). When Barry celebrates the opportunity to finally go to prom, a rite of passage robbed from him in adolescence, Murphy shows Barry dancing triumphantly with his younger self. The visual flexibility of filmic storytelling elevates musical moments like these—and, in this case, takes the focus off Corden’s performance, which is often hampered by a shoddy American accent.

The even wiser move is casting Streep, who, even when Dee Dee is at her most vain, conveys the plausible performativeness of a woman who cloaks her imposter syndrome and fear of betrayal behind bombast that prevents anyone from getting too close. So when Emma learns that she can affect change in Indiana all on her own, the Broadway gang’s vainglorious sojourn doesn’t feel like it’s been a waste of their time or ours. Streep undergirds Dee Dee’s shift toward altruistic action, absurdly outsized as the character may be, with an awareness of her underlying fragility, as she grows stronger and more vulnerable by meeting Emma and a principal (Keegan-Michael Key) who holds Dee Dee accountable for her selfishness.

Less plausible is the en masse about-face of Emma’s intolerant classmates, but on the individual level, Washington’s taut take on a mother torn between her love for her daughter and her entrenched beliefs is less a portrait of radical transformation than a carefully calibrated redefinition of what it means to care for a child. Though her part is small, Washington packs paragraphs of meaning into each worried glance or slowly softening glare. It turns out what this big Broadway musical needed most of all was the precision of a close-up.

Cast: Meryl Streep, James Corden, Jo Ellen Pellman, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Rannells, Ariana Debose, Kerry Washington, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Chamberlin, Mary Kay Place Director: Ryan Murphy Screenwriter: Bob Martin, Chad Beguilin Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 131 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: Kill It and Leave This Town Vividly Marries the Mundane and the Dreamlike

Mariusz Wilczyński’s animation style strikes an unlikely balance between the childlike and the proficient.

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Kill It and Leave This Town
Photo: Outsider Pictures

Composed of sketches in motion, against backdrops of lined paper with the wrinkles, smudges, and tape left visible, Polish artist and performer Mariusz Wilczyński’s Kill It and Leave This Town militates against the extinction of traditional animation techniques. Not for a moment is the viewer allowed to forget that these are drawings, sequenced to create the illusion of movement. If the magic of animation is resurrected in Wilczyński’s hands, it’s a dark magic, as familiar with the grotesque as it is the lyrical.

Kill It and Leave This Town explores the industrial city in Poland where Wilczyński grew up. Among factories humming with machinery, along dreary streets lined with beer cans where the only splashes of color are the red stripe of the Polish flag or the ribbon in an old lady’s hair, Wilczyński’s mother and father stumble through their lives. Wilczyński himself makes cameos from time to time, drawn as a naked giant, at once infantile and overgrown. In one scene, the father attempts to show the family a fairy tale titled “How Fiki Miki Mouse Sailed Across the Seas and Oceans from America” on a slide projector, raving and cursing when the device gets stuck between slides. In another, the mother babbles on her deathbed to a son too busy drawing to pay her any attention. The film borrows its form from poetry as opposed to traditional narrative cinema, resulting in a loose assemblage of vignettes that loop back on one another, recreating the associative activity of memory and imagination.

The film’s animation style strikes an unlikely balance between the childlike and the proficient. Dense spirals pouring out of smokestacks, a recurring motif, resemble smoke only insofar as they cite the scribbles that stand in for it in children’s drawings, whereas the sequence of a mortician’s hands sewing up the body of Wilczyński’s mother exhibits the cold precision of a draftsman. One scene on a trolley is rendered entirely by hand except for the windows, replaced with live-action film of rain droplets streaming down glass. Such atmospheric composites recall Don Hertzfelt’s Everything Will Be Okay, as well as Soyuzmultfilm classics like Yuri Norstein’s Hedgehog in the Fog. Tadeusz Nalepa’s score, with all the charm of someone improvising songs on a guitar, echoes the animation’s off-the-cuff quality.

Wilczyński exploits his medium to bind the mundane with the dreamlike, continuing a long tradition of Eastern European surrealism. In a scene at a fishmonger, the fish floating in a barrel of water become people ready to be gutted and beheaded. Later, Wilczyński’s mother stumbles off the trolley into an ominous figure, sheathed in a trench coat, hat, and gloves, who gives her change for the fare. When she asks, “Who the devil are you,” his head swivels around to reveal a talking cat, like Behemoth from Buglakov’s Master and Margarita, who claims to be “part of that power which wills forever evil, yet does forever good.”

Only in hand-drawn animation can such fairy-tale grotesqueries convince, in part because it never aims for photorealism; Wilczyński leaves in the free-hand scribbles and the stutter between frames for our imagination to iron out. Even in a city only accessible to memory, a world of the past constrained by poverty and despair, anything is possible for Wilczyński, as it must have seemed in childhood—and yet no possibility scrubs clean of the stain of death.

Cast: Krystyna Janda, Andrzej Chyra, Maja Ostaszewska, Małgorzata Kożuchowska Director: Mariusz Wilczyński Screenwriter: Mariusz Wilczyński Distributor: Outsider Pictures Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: 76 Days Is a Harrowing Document of the Covid Outbreak in Wuhan

The documentary may be the defining portrait of the dawning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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76 Days
MTV Documentary Films

Like Ai Weiwei’s Coronation, Hao Wu and Wiexi Chen’s 76 Days—co-directed by another journalist who chose to remain anonymous—documents the early days of the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. While Ai’s film manages to slip a number of pointed critiques of China’s authoritarian tactics passed the country’s typically hawk-eyed censors, 76 Days, which takes its title from the length of Wuhan’s lockdown early in 2020, presents China in a more universally flattering light. What the film lacks in political commentary, however, it makes up for with its tight focus on the daily grind of the medical staff and countless volunteers tirelessly working at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital.

Much of the film follows doctors and nurses, clad in protective gear, as they make their rounds, reassuring patients that everything will be fine, even as they’re only just beginning to understand the virus and how to treat it. The toll this regiment of 12-plus-hour days takes on the staff is palpable in virtually every frame, with insert shots of the medical team asleep on benches or slumped over in chairs speaking to the sheer exhaustion of being a cog in a medical machine, quickly churning through patients with no light at the end of the tunnel. One nurse, while being comforted as her dying father is taken away to quarantine, is ultimately told that she needs to remain composed so she can ready herself to return to work the next day.

Although the staff’s sacrifice and composure under fire is amply documented, 76 Days never stoops to sentimentality, eschewing fawning talking-head interviews and a musical score. Throughout, we’re left brimming in the immediacy of the chaos at hand; only the glimpses we catch of patients who’ve spent weeks, sometimes months, in the hospital provide a concrete sense of time’s passage since the start of the lockdown. Most memorable of these patients is an elderly man who repeatedly leaves his room to wander around the hospital and is continually corralled by different nurses back to his room. His exploits lend the film a bit of levity even as his backstory, once revealed, makes his foibles all the more heartbreaking.

The nightmare of caring for thousands of patients during a pandemic also extends to the intake and discharge processes. This makes for a few touching and cathartic scenes once certain patients finally receive the approval to return home, such as when the aforementioned older gentleman receives applause and well wishes from many of the nursing staff as he exits the hospital. But the film’s most poignant moment comes when an endlessly patient young couple finally meets their newborn child for the first time several weeks after her birth.

These brief glimpses of joy are counterbalanced not only by the gravity of the pandemic as it’s being fought on the frontlines, but also by the cumbersome and often tragic logistical tasks that the hospital staff must perform, such as dealing with the belongings of the dead. Among said belongings is the still-functioning cellphone of one deceased patient that displays 31 missed messages, a mere hint of the suffering that even many of the healthy residents of Wuhan endured in those early days of the outbreak. 76 Days is full of small yet revelatory moments like this, and in keeping its gaze so firmly planted on both the medical staff and patients as they’re forced to navigate the uncharted territory of a deadly new virus, the film may be the defining portrait of the dawning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Director: Hao Wu, Wiexi Chen, Anonymous Distributor: MTV Documentary Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Soul More Sublimely Mediates on the Pull of Music Than It Does the Afterlife

In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.

2.5

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Soul
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), the main character of Pixar’s Soul, is a jazz pianist living in Harlem who’s desperate for music gigs alongside his part-time job directing the disengaged middle schoolers in his band class. When the school principal offers him full-time hours with benefits, it feels more like a final surrender than a lifeline. The threat of lifelong mediocrity has tightened its grasp around every corner of Joe’s life. In a brilliant stroke, even the classic “When You Wish Upon a Star” tune that plays over the logo before most Disney movies is heard here as if played by Joe’s out-of-tune student ensemble.

Soul, directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers, quickly reveals that Joe is anything but mediocre. Hearing melody in the wail of sirens and rhythm in the cacophony of a jackhammer, he has music in his, well, soul. When Joe catches his big break auditioning to play with a pro quartet, headlined by imperious jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), the film follows him into “the zone.” Not since Fantasia has a Disney film treated music with such reverence, as the seed of all the visual flowering that follows. As pinks and purples swirl around Joe and as his fingers coax unexpected harmonies from the keyboard (Jon Batiste provides the impassioned playing), Soul gives itself over fully to his music.

For these gloriously substantial few minutes, it’s jazz set to animation rather than the other way around. As such, it’s hard not to want Soul to be all about music, not just as metaphor but as the very real engine that drives the film’s characters forward. Music’s extraordinary impact is palpable when Joe’s face lights up as one of his students, Connie (Cora Champommier), leans into a trombone solo, and as Joe’s fingers escape his anxiety in their own improvisatory pursuit. Walk away 15 minutes into the film, at the end of what would make, on its own, a snazzy, sublime short, and you’ll have seen Pixar’s greatest, purest tribute to the arts.

But Joe’s joy, and soon the film’s, is cut short when he plummets down an open manhole, and finds himself—or, rather, his soul, depicted here as a blue-green turnip-shaped substance with glasses and a fedora—on the pathway to the Great Beyond. Refusing to face death, Joe hurtles into the void toward the Great Before, where not-yet-born souls obtain their personalities in a Youth Seminar. Mistaken for a celebrated psychologist, Joe’s soul is assigned a mentee, a cranky pre-human called 22 (Tina Fey) who refuses to cooperate: She’s unwilling, and, so far, unable to find the “spark” that will allow her to be born into a human body. Previous famous mentors have tried and failed (the soul of Carl Jung amusingly tells the difficult 22, “Stop talking—my unconscious mind hates you”), but Joe sees 22 as his ticket back to Earth.

It’s somewhere around here that Soul, co-written by Docter, Powers, and Mike Jones, starts to veer down its own wrong path, abandoning its accessible storytelling, along with that vitalizing jazz soundtrack, for a confusing maze of pseudo-spiritual planes of existence. Besides the Great Beyond and the Great Before, souls can also be in the Zone, where tuned-in artists like Joe sometimes find themselves while still alive, or in a desert of Lost Souls, which belong to people who’ve forgotten how to live (hedge fund managers, in particular, we’re told).

In this ever-evolving terrain occupied by 2D and 3D life forms, the film’s visual adventurousness takes off as contrasting animation styles collide. At the Youth Seminar, flat, geometric figures with transparent features direct the bulbous souls to where they can pick up personality traits (at the Excitable Pavilion, for example). Meanwhile, a New Age-inflected Mystics Without Borders subplot, with Graham Norton voicing the tripped-out Moonwind, adds a daringly vibrant psychedelic color palette to the gentle blues and greens of the Great Before. But as the categories of souls keep expanding, the rules for these overlapping worlds grow foggy, and by the time that Fey’s voice is coming out of Joe’s body in a switcheroo that’s never quite explained, it’s hard not to feel as if the film has lost track of its internal logic.

At the core of the Pixar model is an exploration of friendship within the familiar parameters of the buddy comedy—Joy and Sadness in Inside Out, Sully and Mike in Monsters, Inc., Marlin and Dory in Finding Nemo, all the way back to Toy Story’s Buzz and Woody—and Soul tries hard to plug into the transformative power of friendship in pairing Joe with 22. Despite Fey’s droll delivery, 22, who says she chooses to speak with the voice of a middle-aged white lady in order to be “annoying,” isn’t convincing enough as a fully formed character for their relationship, or Joe’s investment in 22’s decision to be born, to ever matter.

The contours of these worlds seem just hazy enough to land on the safe side of blasphemy; sometimes it seems like the film’s imprecision is a deliberate attempt to draw piecemeal from various belief systems and sidestep offending religious audiences by addressing the presence or absence of higher powers at all. But the viewers that seem most painfully left behind are the ones to which Soul should rightly matter the most: kids. Soul swirls with self-help lingo about finding your spark and seeking your purpose, but that’s almost entirely in the context of Joe’s midlife crisis, a sliver of the human experience with which children seem unlikely to resonate. In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, which magnanimously welcomed grownups along for a sophisticated ride, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.

Coco’s take on the Land of the Dead and Inside Out’s representation of depression exemplify explorations of “grownup” topics with a probing awareness of the ways they also touch kids’ lives. For a while, it seems that Soul, in its treatment of the Great Before, will have a similar capacity for digging into big, unanswerable questions with care and clarity. But while most Pixar films pride themselves on presenting rich, fantastical responses to real-world wonderings, Soul keeps conjuring up visions that don’t correspond precisely enough to anything in the real world. It’s not clear whether the film ultimately offers a call to arms to pursue a passion or a warning that creative passion alone doesn’t provide for a fulfilling life.

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi Director: Pete Docter Screenwriter: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Black Bear Is an Unnerving Look at the Baggage that Fuels Creation

Shot through with darkly existentialist humor, the film finds Aubrey Plaza throwing a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past.

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Black Bear
Photo: Momentum Pictures

Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear belongs to a long tradition of sexual psychodrama, in which a handful of frustrated and privileged characters hole up in a remote place and exorcize their resentments. This tradition is so venerable that it was parodied by Christopher Guest over 30 years ago in The Big Picture, and there’s also a dark strand of existentialist humor running through this similarly self-conscious film.

Levine casts doubt on his narrative’s sense of reality in the opening sequence, wherein a young woman (Aubrey Plaza) is sitting on a pier in a swimsuit looking out at a vast foggy lake. After a moment, she rises and proceeds into a luxurious home, ascends a flight of stairs, and sits at a desk and smokes a cigarette. Soon, she begins to write in a notebook and the narrative segues into what’s presumably a dramatization of the story she fashions. This scene will be repeated several times in Black Bear, suggesting both a leitmotif and a temporal loop.

We then see this woman, Allison, being dropped off on a road a bit away from the home. Meeting Allison at the drop-off point is Gabe (Christopher Abbott), who immediately sets about flirting with her. It’s the sort of flirtation indulged by aspiring artists and self-conscious intellectuals-in-training, rife with deflections, fake-outs, and challenges to the nature of reality that complement the suggestion that the entire situation is possibly a projection of some kind. Allison and Gabe arrive at the residence to meet Blair (Sarah Gadon), who’s pregnant with Gabe’s child, which wasn’t mentioned when Gabe was probing Allison about her career as a filmmaker and, especially, her relationship status. The trio have a long and boozy dinner and air a variety of grievances, leading to a shocking accident.

Allison, initially suggesting a prototypical Plaza character, seemingly prizes hip detachment above all else, in the process enraging the judgmental Blair, who was hoping for help in persecuting Gabe for various slights. This characterization of Allison is a purposeful trap door—a sop to expectation that Levine detonates. In Black Bear’s first half, Allison is cast as a male fantasy—a sexy, seemingly willing and wandering artist who’s uninterested in Blair’s sermonizing about gender roles. In effect, Allison gratifies the submerged feelings of men and even women who may feel that women wish to be subjugated—feelings that are perversely validated in the moment by Blair’s caustic hectoring, which is realistic of the patter of the blowhard at parties who wishes to bore everyone into submission with rigid political views. The film’s early scenes are so stacked against Blair that one may forgive Gabe’s own simplistic speechifying, though such forgiveness may prompt us to examine our own biases.

Remarkably, the film’s emotional intensity is inseparable from its parlor game-like self-consciousness, especially when Allison’s “cool girl” demeanor is unexpectedly demolished. At its halfway mark, Black Bear effectively reboots itself, switching the core identities of the women, with only Gabe tellingly gaining more power in the process. Suddenly, Allison becomes the vulnerable and rejected party, and Plaza imbues her transformed character with a raw and frenzied anguish. Plaza throws a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past, while Levine plumbs the various forms of subjugation that fuel the creative process.

In Black Bear’s second half, the remote house is now a set for an independent film with a plot that roughly re-stages the earlier clashes between Allison, Blair, and Gabe, who are now reimagined as two actresses and the director, respectively. The film thusly expands beyond the confines of a chamber play to include a micro community, with sustained, confidently intricate set pieces—reminiscent of the game-show scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—that explore the exhilaration and terror of corralling dozens of working parts and personalities to create something palatable for audiences. Both films understand such corralling to thrive in part on exploitation, and in the case of Black Bear, the film-within-a-story-within-the-film is constructed around Gabe’s gaslighting of Allison, which Levine stages with a sense of unnerving intimacy that might playfully echo his own experience working with his spouse, filmmaker and actress Sophie Takal, who’s among Black Bear’s co-producers.

Levine is hunting big game in Black Bear, as the film reflects to varying degrees the influence of dozens of self-reflective film classics, mostly notably Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. If Black Bear feels too neat, a little too resolved as a game, it may be because the framing device gives us a convenient exit, though even the conclusion isn’t without ambiguities. Given that both stories are sex triangles fueled by exploitation, you may be driven to wonder if Plaza’s writer is attempting to find a way to channel real trauma. Or, perhaps more disturbingly, she’s conjuring it out of thin air, accessing unvarnished pain out of sheer talent and for the hell of it. This coda restores the smug Plaza stereotype to an extent, while alluding to the vast emotional undertow it suppresses.

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Lindsay Burdge, Alexander Koch, Paola Lázaro, Jennifer Kim, Shannon O’Neill, Grantham Coleman, Haitao Zeng, Lou Gonzalez Director: Lawrence Michael Levine Screenwriter: Lawrence Michael Levine Distributor: Momentum Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Survival Skills Surreally Straddles the Line Between Parody and Pathos

Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014.

2.5

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Survival Skills
Photo: Cranked Up Films

Purporting to be an actual VHS-shot police training video unearthed from the last gasp of the Reagan era, Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014, sandwiched between Too Many Cooks and reruns of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Yet writer-director Quinn Armstrong’s debut feature resists indulging the easy trappings of our current cultural obsession with ‘80s-era aesthetics as it digs into some rather contentious and particularly timely subject matter.

Survival Skills opens on a training guide introducing his lesson on a stagy classroom set. Credited as the Narrator, he’s played by Stacy Keach, a recognizable enough personality to immediately break any illusion of found-footage “authenticity.” But seeing as Armstrong will continue to break the fourth wall and experiment with meta-fictional ideas throughout, Keach, with his never-failing gravitas, becomes the perfect chaperone for this cracked video project.

The Narrator’s first order of business is creating the ideal police trainee, filtering the expected qualities needed for the job through an ancient computer system to end up with Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell), an all-American goody-two-shoes who we’ll follow through his first year on the force in quaint Middletown, U.S.A. Speaking in insufferably chipper soundbites, Jim acts and sounds exactly like someone who you’d see in the kind of stilted training video that Survival Skills spoofs throughout. But as we enter Jim’s video world, the joke becomes that he’s almost the only one here who behaves this way, while his hardened partner—curiously named Allison Lohmann (Erika Kreutz), in what must be some kind of inside joke—and the people they encounter are all perplexed by his alien manner. No matter, though, as Jim continues to take his cues from the Narrator’s booming voice, which seems to be heard solely by him.

The line between the staged world and the real one blurs even further when Jim and Allison are tasked with responding to a domestic violence call involving a married couple, the Jennings. After the cops diffuse the situation, Mr. Jennings (Bradford Farwell) assures them that everything is okay while Mrs. Jennings (Emily Chisholm) sheepishly nods along, but Jim can’t shake the feeling that something is off. Defying orders from his superiors (and the natural progression of the training video), Jim begins a quixotic attempt to rescue Mrs. Jennings and her daughter (Madeline Anderson) from a situation that no one but him seems to particularly care about, while the Narrator desperately tries to steer him back on track.

Unlike many a throwback that adopts a retro look and doesn’t offer much beyond hollow non sequiturs (Jack Henry Robbins’s VHYes instantly comes to mind), the film avoids cheapening its domestic-abuse storyline by using its formal conceit to also highlight another absurdity that Jim must confront: the impossibility of positive, meaningful police work within a broken legal (and social) system. The only lesson Jim can ultimately take away from his training is how to not get too involved, while his well-meaning suggestions to Mrs. Jennings that she flee her husband and file charges provoke immediate scorn from the same person he’s trying to help, since she’s already well aware how stacked the system is against her.

While mostly pulling off this tricky balancing act of humor and real-life horror, Survival Skills doesn’t quite go far enough in its critiques, especially in a climate where police-community relations are more frayed than ever. The whimsical mechanics of Armstrong’s world occasionally take precedence over the thematic issues at play, making it strange at times that Jim, who for all intents and purposes is a glorified android (Allison tellingly nicknames him “Robocop”), becomes so obsessed with this one case when he can barely read the room in any other setting. This dichotomy is even more pronounced in scenes with Jim’s hyperbolically domesticated wife, Jenny (Tyra Colar), who, while being the only other person in the film to behave in the same pre-programmed way, is clearly undergoing a stifled breakdown of her own. In these moments, Armstrong hints at but doesn’t fully comment on the correlation between the pressures of police work and domestic violence in police families.

The final act of Survival Skills, however, still intrigues, with Jim’s impossible quandary causing his idyllic existence to come unglued at the seams. Armstrong forcefully dives headfirst into the deep end of the meta pool, staging an aptly surreal revenge climax before Keach’s narrator concludes with a blunt lesson in the futility of policing. It’s a sentiment that ultimately resonates beyond the film’s stylistic posturing.

Cast: Stacy Keach, Vayu O’Donnell, Spencer Garrett, Ericka Kreutz, Tyra Colar, Emily Chisholm, Bradford Farwell Director: Quinn Armstrong Screenwriter: Quinn Armstrong Distributor: Cranked Up Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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