Monthly Archives: November 2022
Punch-Drunk Love (2002) [Review Re-View]
Originally released November 1, 2002:
So what do you get when you cross clown prince Adam Sandler and the writer/director of the lengthy epics Magnolia and Boogie Nights? Well you get the most unique romantic comedy ever, that’s what.
Barry Egan (Sandler) is a self-employed supplier of novelty toilet plungers. His seven older sisters have made it their job to torment him ever since he was young. In moments of confession of his unhappiness Barry usually prefaces by pleading with people not to tell his sisters. Barry is a timid introverted wallflower yet full of volatile rage fit to senselessly trash a restaurant bathroom. Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) pursues Barry after being introduced through one of his sisters. Lena latches onto the oddball and he finds the maternal comfort and acceptance he has missed his entire life. Somehow these two souls have crossed paths and become exactly what the other has always needed.
But Barry has trouble ahead of him. One night he called a phone sex line and innocently gave out all of his personal information over the phone. Now a sleazy Provo mattress store owner (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is extorting money from Barry and using four blond Mormon brothers as his muscle. When Barry confronts the thugs, whom have now begun to endanger Lena as well, he boldly states, ”I have a love in my life and that gives me more strength than you will ever know.” You cant help but believe it and genuinely feel for the resurgence of this character’s dignity.
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson spins an engrossing character study deconstructing the angry goofball Sandler has been so accustomed to playing in all his slapstick comedies. He plays the same character archetype but is now given new dimensions to play with and depth. The true revelation of Punch-Drunk Love is that Sandler can really act. No, really, I’m dead serious.
The direction and writing are much more restrained than with Andersons previous films. The world of Punch-Drunk Love is full of stark colors, slow camera movements and vast amounts of spatial emptiness. The scope is much narrower, focusing on a small set of characters and just allowing them to tell the story without outside interference — like a frog shower. Due to the attention paid to Barry, everyone else becomes underwritten including the stoic love interest. After being convinced of Barry’s instabilities the audience is left to assume sheer blind faith at what Lena sees in Barry.
Punch-Drunk Love gleefully ignores and plays with romantic comedy conventions. The running time is under 90 minutes, (which is still only HALF of Magnolia) but the pacing is precise. John Brion’s percussion-heavy musical score wonderfully displays the boiling anger behind Barry’s placid exterior during key moments.
The storytelling of Punch-Drunk Love is full of uneasily accessible quirks and will likely be reacted to with hostility by mainstream America. What Anderson has crafted is an arty Adam Sandler movie that few thought even possible. Next thing you’ll tell me is that David Lynch will do a G-rated Disney Film. What’s that now?
Nate’s Grade: B+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Paul Thomas Anderson said he was burnt out after the publicity tour from 1999’s Magnolia, enough so that he wanted to do something different and test himself and challenge critics that had become accustomed to his multi-character L.A. magnum opuses. When asked by a journalist what actors he would like to work with next, Anderson said, “Adam Sandler and Daniel Day-Lewis.” At the time, people mistook the answer as a joke, considering one of them is one of the greatest living actors and the other one played the Waterboy. It was Anderson who had the last laugh, as his “art house Adam Sandler movie” in 2002 was exactly that, and Punch-Drunk Love won him the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It also established the versatility of Anderson as a filmmaker and the real fact that, yes, Sandler can indeed act.
Punch-Drunk Love also stands out to me as the last PTA movie I really enjoyed for a 15-year stretch, which was a surprise considering Boogie Nights and Magnolia are two of my favorite movies of all time. It’s the beginning of his stripped down, looser, more meandering movies, a style that didn’t gel for me as much as his earlier, ambitious, plot-packed hits. I was indifferent to 2007’s There Will Be Blood (willing to re-evaluate in 2027) and worse with 2012’s The Master and 2014’s Infinite Vice. It wasn’t until 2017’s Phantom Thread where I felt like I genuinely enjoyed a PTA movie again, though this too was short-lived as I was back to indifferent with 2021’s Licorice Pizza. The movies from 2002 onward, now encompassing twenty years of art, are definitely more insular, personal, idiosyncratic, and for me, sadly, less engaging. I felt The Master was a mess and anchored around the wrong character. I felt Infinite Vice was purposely alienating. I felt Licorice Pizza was someone else’s inaccessible nostalgia. I did respond to the character study of a narcissistic fashion designer in Phantom Thread and the toxic relationships he uses as inspiration. That one was good. Sadly, with that lone exception in 2017, the ensuing two decades has established a harsh realization that modern PTA just isn’t for me. Artists grow and change, and they shouldn’t be penned in by audience demands and expectations, but it’s still a little disappointing to lose touch with an artist you admired and really connected with, like a friendship that just naturally diverted down another path. It happens. Not everything has to be curated for me. I still have the PTA movies I truly adore, and that’s more than plenty.
It’s fascinating that someone of PTA’s indie cred caliber decided not just to make an “Adam Sandler movie” but to deconstruct that growing subgenre in the late 90s/early 2000s and question how Sandler’s sweet screwups with anger management issues got to be the way they are. It’s a psychological profile while also serving as a winning romantic comedy that exists in its own more adult world but one that still has a bit of that pixie dust magic. It was conceived as an intellectual exercise but it becomes one of Anderson’s most simple pleasures, an optimistic and reassuring story that rhapsodizes the healing power of love. It’s by far the least cynical movie that Anderson has ever made and the most simplified, taking inspiration from the French New Wave in approach and style. The movie looks at Barry Egan (Sandler) like a wounded puppy, examining his insecurities and how they came to be but saying, declaratively, that even this creature deserves tenderness and happiness. Tender is really the right word for this movie, which just radiates an open-hearted compassion. Magnolia was a PTA movie with a big heart and big explosive feelings with similar lessons in empathy and agency. If Magnolia is a grandiose opera, then Punch-Drunk Love is a stripped-down acoustic version of a familiar love song.
The movie has a gentle spirit reminiscent of fables. Our hero is so innocent that he calls a phone sex line because he’s so desperately lonely and not for anything prurient. The entire opening involves a car crash that deposits a lost harmonium as if it was a displaced magical totem. It lures Barry to it and becomes a fixture of the movie, more a metaphor than an important plot point. The tiny musical instrument arrives via violence, and when Barry retrieves it Anderson gooses the audience with an unexpected jump scare, violence trying to return the instrument to splinters. It’s these moments of sudden, sharp violence or menace that creep in, unwelcomed from the more whimsical and optimistic tone pervading. The threat of the phone sex extortion ring brings real danger to Barry, first as embarrassment and then harassment and then physical harm, and this catapults Barry into taking charge of his life because, at last, he has something he treasures and is afraid of losing (“I have a love in my life. That makes me stronger than anything you can imagine”). It’s heartwarming without losing its oddball identity. Our loving pillow talk between Barry and Lena (Emily Watson) involves them making gooey-eyes faces while describing how they would destroy one another’s face. Much of the humor comes from the awkwardness of Barry trying to pretend he’s doing well, like being confronted by a restaurant manager over a bathroom he definitely destroyed, or with the many demeaning encounters with his seven overbearing sisters (most of whom are non-professional actors). The spirit of the movie doesn’t ask us to judge or make fun of Barry but rather cheer for his self-actualization, and it works.
Sandler had a successful run of slovenly comedies for decades, though his last studio movie was 2015’s Pixels. As I aged out of his comedy demo, I have found Sandler most engaging with his occasional trip into dramatic acting. It doesn’t always work (Reign Over Me, Funny People, Men, Women & Children) but it has a higher success rate than his autopilot comedies. I re-watched 2002’s Mr. Deeds last summer as a prelude for jumping back into this movie. I wrote, “…As the years progressed Sandler began to transform from the slovenly goofball provocateur to the laid-back, wisecracking family man trying to convince non-believers of his righteous old-fashioned wisdom. His once outsider status had calcified into a sentimental, middle-aged ‘these kids today don’t get it’ laziness.” The question whether Sandler can actually act has long been answered, though first with Punch-Drunk Love twenty years ago. It helps that Anderson specifically wrote the role for Sandler and in a familiar wavelength for the actor. Barry is another of Sandler’s goofballs, with anger issues and a heart of gold, but he’s no smart aleck, he doesn’t like himself but starts to when he can share his vulnerability. Sandler’s shy, awkward demeanor is endearing and his progression with reclaiming his dignity and standing up to bullying, from his pestering family to his own blackmailer, is uplifting. Sandler plays a familiar character type but with more depth and insight than ever asked of him.
I also deeply miss Phillip Seymour Hoffman every time I watch him onscreen. His villainous mattress salesman Dean Trumbull has two standout scenes demonstrating his anger. He’s not a realistically threatening villain, more along the lines of a small-time demented Daffy Duck, but it works to better establish a villain that Barry can triumph over in the end. Watson (Breaking the Waves, Chernobyl) is better known for brittle dramas, so it’s a nice change of pace to watch her actually be happy for once in a movie. Fun fact: the voice of the phone sex operator that Barry turn to is Mr. Show alum Karen Kilgariff, who I never realized up until this moment is the same woman who co-hosts the wildly popular true crime podcast series, My Favorite Murder.
This movie would not be as good if it starred anyone else rather than Adam Sandler. That’s not a sentiment that gets said often, but it’s true. Punch-Drunk Love was designed as a meta-deconstruction of the Sandler archetype, as well as a refreshing challenge in restraint for Anderson after two movies in a row of extravagance. Unbeknownst to all of us, this movie served as a crossroads for both Sandler and Anderson, who favored the looser creative approach, enough so that ditching his first couple weeks of film footage became a standard PTA practice. It was an experiment on three levels: 1) can you deconstruct a Sandler vehicle, 2) can Sandler genuinely act, and 3) can Anderson actually hold back and tell a straightforward 90-minute story? Looking back at my review in 2002, I find myself with the same response, even the mild criticisms of the supporting characters being chiefly underwritten. I don’t know if it plays with rom-com conventions but it’s definitely PTA’s most unabashed romantic movie. I’d raise the grade ever so slightly from my initial B+ to an A, especially with how mediocre this re-watch year has shaped up to be. Punch-Drunk Love is an airy treat and an analytical thesis in one.
Nate’s Grade: A
It’s been 16 years since writer/director Todd Field has helmed a movie, and if you’re a fan of his two previous efforts (2001’s In the Bedroom, 2006’s Little Children), and if you watch both it’s hard not to be, then a new Field movie is cause enough to celebrate. Tar is set up like a biopic for a brilliant yet problematic German conductor, Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett), a renowned talent in her field who also happens to have a long history of grooming her female Julliard music students into transactional sexual relationships. The movie is presented like one of those Oscar bait-ready biopics, enough so that I looked up more about Lydia Tar’s life (surprise: she’s completely fictional). It’s a character study of a flawed creative superstar in the wake of a Me Too reckoning, and in one revealing and excellently written sequence, Lydia argues for the noble separation of the art and artist and harangues an undergrad for his refusal to play the old classical masters for their centuries-old outdated perspectives. She accuses him of playing into performative identity politics, of course glossing over her own narcissistic problems. The dialogue is impressively curated, with lengthy conversations feeling authentic and packed with details of the world of classical music and composition and different ways we appreciate and interpret art. The movie unfolds at a very relaxed pace, revealing key details and connections about Lydia without underlying their significance. You have to really keep up with the movie, and the first hour is quite slow to get over. It opens with a fifteen-minute New Yorker on-stage interview with Lydia, and names will be dropped that won’t be relevant for whole acts. It’s self-indulgent but the details feel so authentic that I was still impressed even as I was beginning to lose my patience or attention. Even the opening credits last over five minutes, and that’s just white text on a black screen. The movie picks up more of a momentum as Lydia’s career starts to unravel and her past inappropriate relationships are given new attention in a post-Me Too media environment. Blanchett, as you would expect, is brilliant. She’s a complex mess of contradictions, and whether she fully acknowledges them is up to the viewer’s interpretation. Once you start recognizing her “performance” of self, every scene becomes a careful study in how many facades a person can leverage and what degree of self-awareness she may be privy to. Field’s direction is very calculated and downright Kubrickian, emphasizing long takes and cool color palates (Field had a small role in Eyes Wide Shut) to go along with its intellectual, understated, methodical approach (also in running time, and at 150 minutes in length, it’s overlong). I wasn’t as captivated with Tar as I was Field’s other movies, but there’s still much to admire, a commanding performance from Blanchett, and I hope I don’t have to wait another 16 years for Todd Field’s next able effort.
Nate’s Grade: B
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)
It’s hard to talk about Black Panther: Wakanda Forever without first discussing its missing whole, namely Chadwick Boseman. It was a shock when Boseman died during the summer of 2020 of terminal cancer, which he had kept hidden except for a small number of close confidants. I remember hearing the news and being in disbelief, figuring this must be another celebrity death hoax, but then the terrible news was confirmed. It’s one of those celebrity deaths that you remember when you found out, mostly I think because here was an actor in his prime and headlining Oscar-nominated movies and precedent-setting blockbusters. It felt too soon to be gone. It felt wrong. It’s that grief that the characters of Wakanda Forever are also wrestling over. Reflecting real life, the sequel to 2018’s hit Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) entry elects to have T’Challa (Boseman) pass away in the movie as well, off screen, and from a cause more human than super, dying from a disease. The movie is knowingly channeling our grief for the loss of Boseman into a story about characters also mourning the loss of this good man. This loss hangs over the entire movie and provides it more gravitas and emotional depth it would have had otherwise. Wakanda Forever is a suitably exciting and expansive sequel, especially following the empowering cultural model writer/director Ryan Coogler followed with the first film, but it’s hard not to feel the loss of Boseman, both in presence and in storytelling.
We open with Shuri (Letitia Wright) diligently trying to save her brother’s life only to be out of time. The nation of Wakanda is in full mourning, losing their champion and king. In the wake of this loss, the outside world sees opportunity. Having come out of hiding, Wakanda is being pressured to share its valuable vibranium mineral resources with other nations, and some are eager to take them by force if necessary. This has inadvertently created a gold rush for vibranium, and the C.I.A. has discovered traces of the rare mineral on the ocean floor. This undersea incursion has provoked a heretofore unknown underwater community into action. Namor (Tenoch Huerta) is a super-powered mere mutant, able to fly with tiny wings on his heels, and able to breathe under the sea just like the inhabitants of Talochan. Namor has declared war on the surface world and seeks Wakanda to be an ally, and if not that, then their first conquest.
This is a movie dominated by the women of Wakanda, and they bring the fury. Everyone is processing the loss of T’Challa in different ways. Shuri is rededicating herself to her scientific research, as she blames her brother’s death on her inability to solve his ailment in time. T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), has been appointed leader of Wakanda and must represent her nation’s interests while still grieving for her son. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) has retreated from the larger world of spycraft to open a school in Haiti. Okoye (Danai Gurira) is supposed to be the chief security officer for Wakanda, and she busies herself with new threats and armor rather than dwell on being unable to save her king. Each character feels the weight of the loss and opens up reflections of grief, as each knew T’Challa on a different level: mother, sister, lover, protector. The attention that Coogler allows for their and our grief allows the movie to work on a communal cathartic level (I teared up a few times myself). Wright (Death on the Nile) has some heavyweight emotional moments, and the movie is structured around her path of healing as well as the wayward detour of vengeance and hate. It’s a conclusion that hits upon the expected spectacle of superhero action but hinges upon, foremost, an emotional arc.
Coogler is two-for-two when it comes to creating dynamic, engaging villains who have strong perspectives that cause the heroes to better reflect upon their own roles. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is one of the MCU’s best villains, and I think it’s interesting that the first Black Panther ends with the hero realizing the villain’s perspective is right and adjusts from there. With Wakanda Forever, we get Namor protecting his people, and his reasoning sounds a lot like the Wakandan leaders who wished to remain separate from the larger world in the earlier film. The background for Namor is completely rewritten by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole and for the better. They’ve invigorated the character by attaching a rich Mesoamerican culture to Namor’s people and history. We have another hidden world of minorities that are super-powered and developed beyond the reach of colonialism. The flashback for Namor, dating back to the sixteenth century, is startlingly effective, establishing his strange origins, the great change for his tribe to being sea-dwelling, and what happens when he returns to the surface world to honor his late mother’s funeral wish. When he returns, the Spanish have built plantations and have captured the indigenous into being their chattel. Namor sees this exploitation in the name of a foreign God and swears off the surface world. This cultural angle imbues the character’s focal point but it’s also just plain neat to watch an ancient Mesoamerican culture given the big screen superhero treatment with reverence and awe. By providing a compelling villain, it also makes the emotional stakes more compelling. We’ll likely side with the women of Wakanda, but you might also be rooting for Namor too. I also think it’s fun that the underwater Atlantean prince character for DC and Marvel is portrayed by a Mexican-American actor and a Polynesian actor.
Where the movie doesn’t work as well is with its introduction of Riri Williams (Dominique Thorn, Judas and the Black Messiah) who is the human McGuffin. She’s a brilliant engineer who accidentally discovers a vibranium detection device, but why does nabbing her matter to Namor? With the device already created, the proverbial horse has left the barn. Kidnapping the inventor after her technology has already been utilized seems too late. There’s no real reason she could not be replaced with an inanimate flash drive except that this establishes the character up for her 2023 Disney Plus TV series. It’s this larger corporate portfolio push that I’ve always worried about with each new MCU edition, now 39 in total, that they will be forced to set up future movies and shows at the detriment of telling a focused and satisfying movie. The MCU movies I’ve generally liked the least are the ones that fall under this pressure the most, like Age of Ultron, Iron Man 2, and Multiverse of Madness. I found the character of Riri Williams to be fun, but her inclusion always seemed like a distraction to the larger story. I’m sure you can make thematic connections, a young brilliant black woman finding solace in Wakanda, but if you were looking to trim down an already overlong movie, I think Riri is the easiest to eliminate.
With Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Phase Four of the MCU has officially closed and Phase Five will begin shortly with Ant-Man 3 in February, 2023. In the wake of the conclusion of the multi-phase Infinity series and 2019’s Endgame, this phase felt dominated by closure and exploration. The Disney Plus series provided little conclusive offshoots for many of the original Avengers characters. It’s also been a period of experimentation, with Marvel broadening its tone and scope from martial arts movies, spy thrillers, romantic epics, and familiarizing audiences to the concept of the multiverse with good movies (Spider-Man: No Way Home) and not-so good movies (Doctor Strange 2). And of course Wakanda Forever is the biggest edition yet on fulfilling a sense of closure, though it had never been intended to be before Boseman’s passing. It’s a sturdy sequel with a palpable emotional undercurrent and an engaging villain to boot. I called 2018’s Black Panther as agreeable, mid-tier Marvel entertainment, and I’d say the same for its sequel. However, with Boseman’s passing, it’s naturally elevated. Wakanda Forever is long and overstuffed but also emotional and engrossing and satisfying.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Solaris (2002) [Review Re-View]
Originally released November 27, 2002:
A most amazing thing occurred when I sat down in my theater to watch Steven Soderbergh’s sci-fi remake, Solaris. The majority of the theater was women, no small part I’m sure to George Clooney and the promise to see his posterior not once but twice. As the film progressed I kept hearing the rattling of seats and the exit doors. When the lights came back on more than half my theater had walked out on Solaris. I have never seen this many walk outs for any film before, and if one has to hold this title Solaris certainly does not deserve this dubious honor.
Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, super future psychologist who is struggling to overcome the grief over the suicide of his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Clooney is dispatched to a space station orbiting the mysterious glowing planet Solaris. Seems strange goings on, are, well, going on. When he arrives he finds that the station head has taken his own life and the two remaining crew members on board could use more than a few hugs. Clooney goes to sleep (in a bed resembling bubble-wrap) and is startled awake when his dead wife is suddenly lying right beside him. But is it his wife? Is it merely his memories being recounted? Is it Solaris messing with his gray matter? Does Rheya have consciousness of the past or of her self? What are her thoughts on her new materialization? Good luck Steven Soderbergh, existentialist party of one.
It’s not that Solaris is necessarily a bad film, it’s just that it’s plodding, mechanical and overly ambitious. There are long periods of staring, followed by brief exposition, then more staring, sometimes earnestly but mostly slack-jawed. Solaris is attempting to be an existential meditation on identity and self, but what really occurs is a lot of nothingness. For a movie that was over three hours in its original 1971 Russian conception, and a mere 93 minutes in its slimmer Soderbergh size, I could likely get this movie done in 6 minutes. It could be argued that its arduous pacing amplifies its methodical subject matter but whatever.
Clooney has said in interviews how Solaris was the most challenging role of his career. To this I make a collective noise of disagreement. Clooney turns from grief-stricken to confusion, then back to grief-stricken with nary a line of dialogue. The effect is more dampening than emotional. Clooney’s conscience gets even worse when he banishes New Rheya into the cold vacuum of space then Another Rheya appears the next night. He just can’’t escape this dead woman.
I’m very pleased to see the glassy-eyed, apple-cheeked actress McElhone in movies again. She seemed to be on the cusp of mainstream acceptance after prominent roles in 1998’s Truman Show and Ronin, yet she just disappeared. McElhone is a wonderfully expressive actress and deserves to be a leading lady.
Soderbergh’s take on existential dread could be described as a noble failure. Solaris is the type of overreaching, underachieving film only really talented people could make. And for anyone wanting to leave after the double dose of Clooney’s derriere, they both happen in the first 30 minutes. You can go after that if you so choose.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I think Steven Soderbergh is the perfect film artist to discuss the topic of the “noble failure.” That’s what I dubbed his remake of Solaris in 2002, and having re-watched it twenty years later I would still concur. Soderbergh is the ultimate idiosyncratic indie auteur who, miraculously, found himself Hollywood success and power. Soderbergh is probably best known for the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy of slick, star-powered heist movies, or his Oscar-winning 2000 movies Traffic and Erin Brockovich. The last time a person scored two Best Director nominations in the same year was 1938 (Michael Curtiz for Angels with Dirty Faces and Four Daughters, if you are dying to know). Soderbergh has never rested on his many laurels, and every new mainstream success inevitably saw the man flirt with new narrative and technical experimentation. It seems like Soderbergh gets restless every so often and needs to find a different reason to excite him about a filmmaking challenge. He made a small indie about workers in a decaying doll factory that was released same day on DVD as it was in theaters. He made a two-movie political epic on the rise and fall of revolutionary Che Guevara to showcase the amazing capabilities RED high-definition digital camera. He created an action vehicle for MMA fighter Gina Carano because he saw a future star-in the-making in her bouts. He filmed a movie entirely on an iPhone camera because he could. He made a movie about male strippers based upon Channing Tatum’s past experiences and it became one of the most successful movies of his career.
In short, Soderbergh is a restless artist who always seems to be trying to challenge himself. However, many of those experiments don’t always work. 2018’s Unsane would have been forgettable minus its iPhone gimmick. 2006’s The Good German would have been forgettable without its pastiche to older Hollywood style. Even when his movies do not fully work, you feel Soderbergh’s passion to experiment and push his boundaries. It’s with this context that I re-watched 2002’s Solaris, based upon the 1972 meditative and melancholic sci-fi movie by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s amazing to me that Soderbergh, right after his twin Oscar noms and the box-office success of 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven gave him artistic cache, said, “I want to remake a three-hour Russian movie from thirty years ago.” And the studio said, “Oh, well, keep it under 50 million and half as long and we don’t care.” In 2002, Solaris was one of my more memorable theatergoing experiences, as I detailed in my original review. I’ve had walkouts during other divisive movies but nothing like what happened for Solaris. I’m fairly certain it was a matter of the crowd being sold a sci-fi movie with Clooney’s handsome mug, “from the director of Ocean’s Eleven,” and the promise of catching some Clooney rear nudity (12 days prior, the movie had received an R-rating before successfully appealing to a PG-13). They weren’t expecting a very minimalist, cerebral, and slow movie about grief and identity (it got a rare F grade from opening weekend Cinemascore audiences). By the end of the movie, the majority of patrons in my theater had left early. I thought maybe revisiting this movie twenty years later would perhaps allow me to find new artistic merit into this box-office dud. I have not.
There are ideas here worth exploring and unpacking, especially once the main conflict is fully established, namely Clooney’s dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Why is she coming back is less an interesting question, and thankfully the screenplay by Soderbergh ignores answering. It’s all about the effect it’s having on her husband and whether or not she is who she is. There’s an existential question of whether or not she constitutes living and what aspects do we hold onto to prove we are who we are? Is this the real Rheya, has she been plucked back from an afterlife? Is this a Rheya who has access to her earlier memories? Or is this Rheya merely a composite of her husband’s memories and personal and flawed interpretations? The mind boggles.
It’s that final question that presents the most intriguing exploration, as it presents Rheya less a fully-dimensional character and more a prisoner to her husband’s perspective. His view of Rheya can be biased, flawed, filling in gaps with assumptions and speculations, like his speculation that the real Rheya was so remorseful about aborting her child that she took her own life after being confronted by her husband. This leads the Solaris-rebooted version of Rheya to be more undone by depression and suicidal impulses. I enjoyed this portion because it shifted the criticism onto Clooney who refused to let her be gone. He even plans on taking Rheya back to Earth, even though that might not be possible. Will she evaporate if she gets too far away from the orbit of Solaris? We’ve gone beyond whether or not Rheya is a hallucination because the other crew mates (Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis) see her too. The movie flirts with the confrontation of Clooney’s character’s implicit control, that he’s literally dreaming a version of her for his emotional needs and he doesn’t care whether or not it’s the real Rheya. It begs the question of how well anyone can truly know another person. There will always be some observer distance, unable to fully delve into every hidden quarter of another person’s mind and heart. Clooney accepting his loss would have been a fine ending point, or refusing to, and Solaris does end on a similar downer ending, though with more radiant ambiguity. It’s interesting but it doesn’t really open up thematically or character-wise, keeping Clooney’s mournful space psychologist at a unsatisfying clinical distance. Just because we see moments of characters longing and looking emotionally bereft does not mean we know them. Maybe, in the end, that was Soderbergh’s meta-textual in-movie criticism.
At 93 minutes, there’s not much to Solaris beyond its intriguing questions that feel only fitfully toyed with. There is a lot of empty space here for diving deeper into the characters and the relationships and big questions, but the movie feels too weighed down with its overwrought import. Scenes don’t play out so much as escape from the ponderous atmosphere. There are intriguing questions here but there isn’t enough story material to keep me connected. As a result, I became restless myself, zoning out while I watched a person stare off into the distance for the eleventh time, this time knowing that their internal thinking had to be different, somehow, from the ten other times. It’s a sci-fi movie without big special effects or action sequences. It’s starring George Clooney in, possibly, his most insular, minimalist role of his career. It was never going to be a jaunty crowd-pleaser. I haven’t seen the 1972 Russian movie but given its lengthy running time and the fact that it’s reflective of a Russian cultural experience, I have to assume there is more substance there and an adequate foundation to tease out these questions, but I’m free to admit my assumptions, much like Clooney’s character, could be all wrong.
As for my original review in 2002, I got to hand it to my twenty-year-old self. This is a solid analysis and with some snappy wordplay to boot. I’m impressed by this review. Solaris is another of Soderbergh’s “noble failures,” a project that cannot quite grasp its reach, but I’d rather artists like Soderbergh keep trying and litter the cinema with noble failures than inundate us with the same-old same-old.
Re-View Grade: C+
The Menu (2022)
The first thing I thought about with the horror black comedy The Menu is what famous film critic and pun enthusiast Gene Shalit would do with this title and setup. He’d say, “Don’t send this one back to the chef,” or, “I’ll have seconds,” or, “Book your reservation now,” or any number of bad jokes (fun fact: Shalit is STILL alive and 96). Regardless, The Menu is an excellent main course for fans of dark comedies and biting satire. It’s not really scary or thrilling, even if it borrows liberally from the structure of contained thrillers. A dozen wealthy guests are selected for a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience from a legendary chef (Ralph Fiennes). The story is a balancing act of mysteries, with what is happening on this secluded island, each new course on the menu and what it reveals about its chef and his intentions, why each of the couples is present and what troubles they have, and why our head chef is so fixated on Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a last-second replacement date for arrogant would-be foodie, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), and who she really is and whether she belongs here or not. Part of the wicked fun is watching things escalate and the characters freak out, or try and rationalize or bargain through the experience. I was chuckling throughout the movie, tickled by its sardonic humor and the excellent heightened performances from its ensemble cast. Fiennes (The King’s Man) is locked-in as his enigmatic yet intensely dedicated chef, so much so you might admire him while also being creeped out. His annoyance and cold disdain for the guests is a constant source of entertainment, especially a scene where he insists that the know-it-all foodie put on a chef’s robe and try his hapless hand at actual cooking. Hong Chau (Downsizing) is terrific as a no-nonsense sous chef simmering with barely concealed contempt. Her pronunciation of “tortilla” is one of the movie’s biggest laughs. With The Great and now this, Hoult is finding a great stride in playing outsized egotistical buffoons. By the end, I was left wanting a little more in the way of answers or catharsis or even its class conscious commentary, but The Menu still packs plenty in its 105 minutes to be an appetizing experience.
Nate’s Grade: B+
My Son Hunter (2022)
I’ll never understand the pathological obsession people have with Hunter Biden and what may or may not be on his laptop. This fixation on President Biden’s son seems so unshakably quixotic, hoping that with each new murky examination somehow, magically, there will be impropriety and criminality if you only look right. This dogged obsession with, at best, a tertiary figure to the true target of conservative ire reminds me of the crackpot theories concerning Vince Foster, a deputy White House counsel who took his own life in 1993. It was ruled a suicide by five investigations, and yet there are still enough people that are unsatisfied with this provable reality and want to see something more nefarious, more suspect, and simply more. Surely Vince Foster must have been assassinated by the Clintons, and especially Hilary, because he knew too much. It’s nonsense but to some it’s the only thing that makes sense. Such is the same with the Hunter Biden laptop, which some have deluded themselves into thinking could have been the difference maker between a President Biden winning by eight million more votes and a second-term for Trump. It’s difficult for the rational mind to fathom how many ordinary voters would truly care about a presidential candidate’s son’s liaisons, especially when that person is a private citizen and not employed in government.
I figured it was only a matter of time before a rapacious conservative media bankrolled a Hunter Biden Laptop Movie, and it seems only natural as Breitbart’s first foray into narrative filmmaking. The movie takes a lot of style and attitude notes from the latter films of Adam McKay, borrowing liberally from the mixture of documentary and cheeky fourth-wall breaking motifs from The Big Short and Vice. I’ll admit it makes for a slightly more entertaining movie, and My Son Hunter wasn’t the complete disaster that I had dreaded. It’s still not a good movie, by far, and its points are leaden and misleading at best and downright false and speculative at worst, but I’d rather watch a conservative movie that attempts to ape better filmmakers. Trying and failing is at least better to watch for 80 minutes than simply preaching to the converted and not even trying.
Hunter Biden (Laurence Fox) is drifting through life, parties, and may be the biggest hindrance to a would-be President Joe Biden (John James). Hunter left his laptop at a repair shop but thankfully the media refuses to cover the story, instead downplaying it as a possible Russian disinformation campaign in the last weeks before the 2020 presidential election. Joe can’t have anything go wrong so close to his possible big victory, but Hunter, at least in this not-at-all biased interpretation, seems like a walking catastrophe waiting for his next landmine.
Before even discussing the filmmaking merits, let’s tackle the chief purpose of this movie, which is to defame Hunter Biden and by association Joe Biden. It’s not exactly breaking news that Hunter Biden has lived a troubled life. The man has been upfront about his own struggles with addiction; he wrote about it openly in his own 2021 memoir. Watching Hunter snort anything within reach, party with hookers, and hang out with lowlifes just feels gratuitous because it’s the same characterization over and over. That’s all the movie covers for its first 30 minutes, Hunter partying with strangers and strippers (but still in a demure way where nobody, even before passing out on the floor, removes their clothes). It feels like we’re wallowing in a man’s degradation and it’s unseemly because the intention is not meant to be empathetic. The target audience watching this won’t likely care about Hunter genuinely getting better as a person. That’s not what this expose is for, trying to better understand his humanity and vulnerability. This is merely a roundabout way to taint Joe Biden, a figure too boring by himself, so the critics have to settle for Hunter and his salacious escapades and work on grimy guilt by association.
I can hear some griping that the movie presents Hunter in a more sympathetic light, at least early, with him recognizing his own screw-up nature but feeling powerless to rise above. He also talks about the grief of losing his mother and sister at such a young age, as well as his older brother in 2015. However, any pretense of humanizing goes out the window once big daddy Joe arrives, and Hunter becomes a sniveling sycophant who shrugs his way through life, not just aware of his nepotistic privilege but fully comfortable with his participation in corruption and graft. Any introspection is abandoned and it makes any prior introspection appear phony. It’s hard to square the Hunter in the beginning who talks about the wounds of losing his mother with the Hunter who complains that his dad never supports his art, complete with cutaway to his finger painting. There’s an entire six-minute stretch where Hunter is lectured to, by his stripper named Kitty (Emma Gojkovic) who just happens to be the estranged child of Christian missionaries, about China’s concentration camps for its Uyghur population, and he stares slack-jawed, as if he hasn’t kept up with the news in years (the reprehensible concentration camps for Muslims have been well-documented by the mainstream media). This Hunter is merely a stand-in for vague political corruption, an irredeemable naif that is only meant to make his father appear worse, and that’s also why now that Republicans have won the House, you’ll see a lot more of Hunter Biden’s name in 2023 because, obviously, investigating his previous business handling as a private citizen is the cure for inflation and higher gas prices.
So what does the movie profess to expose, especially so that had this evil laptop of incriminating evidence been properly adjudicated, then Donald Trump, the most unpopular president in the modern era, would have easily won re-election? It’s a rehashing of what led to Trump’s first impeachment in 2019. Hunter Biden was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, and he most definitely got that position because of his name, and of course this is the only instance in the history of the world where that has happened before to the scions of the rich and famous. When Jared Kushner, who actually worked in Trump’s White House, was offered over two billion dollars by the Saudi royal family upon leaving his taxpayer-paid position, I’m sure it was completely for his unparalleled expertise on Mid-East diplomacy. Anyway, this Burisma position was already investigated internally by the State Department for conflicts of interest, and the Ukrainian prosecutor that Joe Biden pressured to be removed as VP was not threatening to investigate Hunter. This prosecutor was corrupt and refused to investigate Russian-backed assets; he even refused to investigate Burisma. There was no inappropriate arm-twisting to protect Hunter or Joe Biden, as thoroughly debunked during the 2019 impeachment trial. It’s all pretty established, but that doesn’t matter to its target audience, the same group who keeps desperately re-shaking a disparate collection of incorrect election anecdotes to produce a bigger picture like one of those pesky Magic Eye pictures that only “true American patriots” can properly see.
That’s really the majority of the specific accusations against Hunter. It impugns his associates, like Devon Archer who was sentenced for defrauding a Native American tribe in 2022, but too many of the accusations are broad and reaching, much like the Burisma condemnation. Biden did invest in shares of a Chinese technology company, Face++, as part of a larger portfolio, and China has reportedly used this technology to surveil citizens it’s looking to persecute. This is not great, but I wonder how many other venture capitalists have holdings with connections to other similarly sundry applications, especially with technology. I’m not excusing this, I’m just saying this “a ha!” accusation isn’t quite the deathblow the movies seems to assume. If it was, it wouldn’t need a character to literally explain the context of why this is so damning. The larger accusations of bribery and funneling ill-gotten monies back to daddy Joe are weak too, no matter how many times the movie adds titles to tell us, “This really happened” (but it didn’t). So many of these accusations are like Burisma, where it’s a purposely misconstruing of events and a deliberate ignoring of context or corroborating information that would deter their argument.
Hunter Biden isn’t the world’s greatest businessman by any measure. He’s also not the world’s most infamous criminal who fails to be held accountable because of his cushy connections. Hunter Biden hasn’t even been banned from operating a non-profit in New York state because he used a kids-with-cancer charity like a personal piggy bank (sorry, that was Trump’s children). Let it be known by this self-professed progressive, if Hunter Biden is guilty of a crime then prosecute him. Put him in jail. I don’t care. He doesn’t deserve special treatment. But at the same time, if he’s just a guy with problems, he doesn’t deserve this crazy level of unbridled antipathy.
Following the McKay model, characters will stare directly into the camera for comedic effect, to add additional commentary, like when the movie flatly states, “This is not a true story… except for all the facts.” Of course, the screenwriters have a harder grasp of those stubborn facts. These are the same writers of The Obamagate Movie, which proposes to expose the “Deep State conspiracy to undermine the Trump administration and the fake Russian collusion narrative.” Again, facts are stubborn things, especially when the end of the movie laments when, oh when, will truth matter over lies and the powerful be held responsible for their corrupt actions (were these people just willfully hibernating during the scandal-a-week Donald Trump presidency?). The attempts at humor are often juvenile and stupid, like an opening scene where Hunter has a psychic conversation with a tiny dog while he’s high on drugs, and this is after a cartoon graphic of Hunter’s heart pops onscreen. The jabs against Joe Biden are mostly of the creepy hair-smelling and loony grandpa variety with groan-inducing malapropisms (“Nothing can threaten my erection;” see instead of “election” the dumb man said “erection”). The movie also squeezes in other conservative grievances, like opening with a Black Lives Matter protest and admonishing the media for its portrayal. I think having one of the protesters working as a stripper (to pay off her college loans, she tells us) is meant to be some insult to liberal protestors or even higher education. The same with having a stripper announce her pronouns. Is this the nightmare world the liberals all demand when even the people sleazy men pay to get naked would inform us of their preferred pronouns? I’m surprised they went the entire movie without a trans joke.
I don’t know why Fox (Inspector Lewis, White Lines) would agree to portray Hunter Biden. He doesn’t exactly resemble the man. He looks like a more gaunt version of Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Girls, The Bear). Fox provides the best reason to watch the movie because he’s not acting like he’s in lazy agitprop. Give credit where it’s due, the man gives a dark journey-of-the-soul kind of desperate sheen to this man, that is, until the script just turns him into a shrugging and sulking man-baby. Gina Carano (The Mandalorian) makes a brief appearance as a Secret Service detail to the Bidens, who never missed an opportunity to snidely confide to the camera about how much she loathes these men. John James (Dynasty) doesn’t work as Joe Biden at all, but he seems like he could have been a Sopranos-style goombah goon character reference for Paulie Walnuts. Many of the Eastern European actors who the production utilized from its Serbia filming site seems to have been dubbed over, so I don’t know how much criticism to offer Golkovic as Kitty, the stripper who also happens to be a former lawyer too. She’s a Swiss army knife of uses, including the intended moral uprising the filmmakers would like to believe they can engender.
I’d like to conclude as a reminder why journalists believed that the Hunter Biden laptop story, which broke in the final weeks of the 2020 election, and was teased by none other than Rudy “Hand down my pants” Giuliani, would be met with skepticism. For an election about competency, a national COVID response, and basic human empathy, it seemed awfully strange that Hunter Biden’s name was coming up again so late, and once more from Giuliani, the man who was caught meddling in American diplomacy so that he could strong-arm Ukraine into pushing a sham investigation to slander Joe Biden. It was all just a bit too convenient, and especially when there wasn’t any corroborating evidence at the time, just one business shop’s word that, no for real, this must be Hunter Biden’s legit laptop. In the end, I doubt any voters could have been persuaded by the laptop, and those that were would have voted for Trump already. Nobody cares about Hunter Biden. And nobody should care about this silly and slimy movie trying to make him into the new conservative obsession. Go after Joe Biden for policy reasons, go after him for his age, but his son? In Joe terms, that’s baloney, man.
Nate’s Grade: D
Smile was not initially intended for a theatrical release. The $17 million-budgeted horror thriller had been intended as a streaming exclusive for Paramount Plus, but after the movie tested so well, its parent company thought why not try a theatrical run? They even hired real actors to creepy stand still grinning outside Good Morning America or behind home plate for baseball playoffs. Then the movie made over $200 million worldwide and possibly began its own franchise. Not bad. After having finally watched Smile, I can understand why it became a word-of-mouth sensation. It’s thoroughly unnerving and a horror film that just knows its fundamentals.
Dr. Rose Cutter (Sosie Bacon) is a clinical psychologist with her own trauma. As a child, she discovered her own mentally ill mother’s body after she had overdosed on pills, and this has spurned Rose to try and help others suffering from depression and mental illness as a career. She encounters one very frantic young woman, Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who fears she is in danger. She says she keeps seeing… smiling people, people that aren’t there, and she was told today was her last day to live. Sure enough, the woman struggles and then stands, eerily smiling, and casually slices her own throat in front of Rose. While she tries to shake off the disturbing burst of violence, Rose is starting to see Laura again, smiling that same eerie smile, and this propels Rose to investigate the origins of this curse that leads each victim to take their own life.
There isn’t much in the way of deeper themes or social commentary here, though I suppose you could find some pieces about how we stigmatize mental illness or that the curse has to be spread through witnesses of trauma. Smile isn’t an example of elevated horror and instead it’s just a well-constructed, well-developed horror movie that knows what to do to properly get under your skin. The premise reminded me of the indie breakout in 2014, It Follows, where there is a curse with very specific rules for passing it along, and new chains can be created or broken depending upon the duplicity of the person (see also: The Ring). I liked thinking of the curse as a puzzle, and my wife was able to jump to a conclusion before the movie as far as how to possibly break the curse, going against the assumptions of Rose and her ex-boyfriend police detective, Joel (Kyle Gallner). Much of the second half of the movie is this discovery period, untangling the longer history of the curse, implicit with this is that each new occurrence involved a violent suicide and an observer. I suppose maybe there is some theme possibly attempted about the shared nature of trauma, how it unpredictably spills out before us and is tricky to be cleanly contained. After establishing the pattern with the curse, now it’s time for our protagonist to wonder if she can beat the odds. I appreciate that writer/director Parker Finn provides plausibility to make her efforts credible. My issue with the latter part of It Follows was why the beleaguered teens would have thought that they could electrocute an invisible phantom and kill it when it was otherwise unfazed by bullets.
As a straightforward horror thriller, Smile knows what it takes to make you squirm and jump. It taps into something universal: smiling, without careful context, is often very creepy. It’s not a world-breaking observation and yet its simplicity is part of what makes it all so effective. Very often, the movie will anticipate the audience’s dread, feeling out that something is about to go off the rails or a jump scare might be approaching, and it will deliver in a different direction. Much like James Wan’s Conjuring movies, the film also has a firm handle on setups and payoffs, establishing a situation and then letting the audience simmer in dread. There was one moment where Rose was instructed to turn around and look behind her by a voice that no longer seemed so helpful, and the drawn-out response was deliciously squirm-inducing. There was another moment that I knew a jump scare was coming, it was literally walking towards Rose, and I kept thinking, “Okay, here comes the startle,” and then the movie brought it but in a way that still surprised and elated me. Given the nature of the curse messing with its victim’s mind, you might start to anticipate what Rose sees and hears is not to be trusted, and there are a few fake-outs too many. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t just rest on one spooky trick. There’s a children’s birthday party that manages to tie a few plot elements together in a masterfully traumatizing manner. When Smile does start revealing more about the design of its monster, that’s when my wife started averting her eyes more often and muttering “No no no” to herself. Some of the imagery is prime nightmare fuel, and I applaud Finn’s innate ability to scare the hell out of an audience.
Some action movies and horror flicks are best described as thrill rides, an experience that exhilarates and delights and doesn’t offer much more by the end than the experience, and that’s perfectly acceptable. Not every movie has to be one with deeper meanings or breaking the mold in a way that no filmmaker has ever achieved before. Sometimes just having a good time from a well-constructed thrill ride is sufficient for a fun and diverting viewing. Smile is that film, a horror/thriller that is cleverly focused and developed to garner every goosebump. I will also say that I incorrectly thought that this movie was PG-13, and that was quickly disproven by the intensity and disturbing nature of its violence. I can’t say why I always thought that this was a PG-13 movie, maybe because of its instant box-office success, but it definitely doesn’t soft pedal its intense atmosphere and disquieting nature. It takes a lot to scare me, and Smile made me sit on the edge of my seat and perfectly dread the next moment, that is, when I wasn’t averting my eyes like my wife and trying to forget its nightmarish imagery.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Rosaline is a new romantic comedy in the vein of the meta Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead, playfully re-imagining Shakespeare’s doomed romance in a much more light-hearted rom-com tone. For you see, dear reader, Rosaline (Kaitlyn Dever) was the young woman who Romeo (Kyle Allen) was infatuated with… until he met Juliet (Isabela Merched), and then it was all Juliet 24/7. Rosaline is the spurned lover trying to regain her former boyfriend with the help of a handsome suitor and her gay best friend, Paris (yes, the one supposed to marry Juliet away from Romeo in the end). Rosaline is a delight for several reasons, chief among them the quick-witted screenplay by the Oscar-nominated pair Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Disaster Artist, 500 Days of Summer) and the eminent charms of Dever as a forward-thinking, snarky, exasperated woman bumping against her society’s demands. Dever makes every joke that much better and is so charmingly diffident. We may know the story of Romeo and Juliet, but the fun of the movie is how it subverts our expectations or presents goofy answers around the peripheral of the main story, like how Rosaline was manipulating actions from afar, sometimes unintentionally. The tragic tone is replaced with something much more cheery and amusing, and that might irk diehard fans of the Bard. I found it to be a winning and irreverent low-stakes re-invention of a literary classic, elevated by charming performances and a beguiling and clever screenplay (I’m giving credit more to the screenwriters than the source material novel, as it had many one-star reviews on Good Reads). For fans of Shakespeare adaptations with a feminist twist, check out Rosaline and fall under its star-crossed spell.
Nate’s Grade: B
Don’t Worry Darling (2022)
By now, you’ve likely heard all about the gossip-churning headlines from behind the scenes of Don’t Worry Darling, which eclipsed everything else about the movie and is, sadly, the most interesting thing about an otherwise flawed Stepford Wives retread. There were scandalous rumors of affairs, rumors of actors uncomfortable with affairs, rumors of actors refusing to take part in publicity for the movie, which motivated legions of online super sleuths to analyze every social media missive to the finest point to discover hidden messages and meaning. There was even a point where the Internet debated for a week whether or not Harry Styles actually and actively spit upon Chris Pine at the Venice Film Festival (both actors deny this happening). Looking back, it was a wild time, a bit silly, and far out of proportion for the actual movie we eventually get with Don’t Worry Darling.
Alice (Florence Pugh) is living the perfect 1950s life – OR SO SHE THINKS. Her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), leaves with the other men for work in the desert facility owned by Frank (Chris Pine). The wives of the community diligently tend to the household chores, gossip poolside, and have a full-cooked meal and drink in hand for their returning breadwinners. Alice begins seeing disturbing visions she cannot explain, and another wife (Kiki Layne) starts acting up, trying to warn her, and men in red suits seem to pounce whenever someone steps out of line. It’s a lush suburban community designed by Frank, meant to be the sparkling, hopeful epitome of the American Dream, but it might be a nightmare instead as Alice investigates.
Don’t Worry Darling is a fleetingly entertaining movie with big ideas but it doesn’t know how to handle them and what to say beyond its obvious points. Immediately in the movie, you’ll know something is wrong with this idyllic community. The Stepford Wives is an obvious comparison point, so I kept waiting for the movie to pivot from this predicted influence, to go a separate route or go deeper, making its commentary meaningful for today’s world. Unfortunately, the movie never does move beyond this influence, nor does the movie go deeper than to easily castigate its men for wanting to control their women and remodel them as dutiful, cheerful, robotic housewife throwbacks to the halcyon age of 1950s Boomer nostalgia. It’s all too surface-level for a movie about superficial men wanting to unburden themselves of having to live up to the expectations of women. There’s plenty that could have been said about the pernicious forms of toxic masculinity festering around the darker corners of society and the Internet, the rise of fragile men in the alt-right and incels and trolls, and their angry, entitled, self-loathing feelings toward women projected into harassment. This movie only merely glances at its touchy subject. The commentary is too basic, leveling men want to dominate women and erase their agency and identity for their own satisfaction, the same points from The Stepford Wives in the 1970s, which was a direct response to the feminist movement challenging traditional gender roles in the home. I won’t spoil the exact means of what this false reality is for Alice and the others, but suffice to say, it leaves a lot more questions for me than answers (Has nobody reported any of these women missing? Their friends and family? Why have such potentially deadly stakes? Why would modern men fantasize about six-decade-old Boomer nostalgia?).
In short, this reality is false, and the screenplay by Katie Silberman (Booksmart) and Carey and Shane Van Dyke (The Silence) makes it known immediately, so the story is structured with our foreknowledge in place. It becomes a game of how long before Alice puts together her conclusion and which strings she chooses to pull and what blowback from the established order that demands ignorance and obedience. There just isn’t enough intrigue here. In The Truman Show, the protagonist gradually began to doubt his reality but each suspicious peculiarity added to a better sense of the larger picture, and since it wasn’t until halfway through that we saw “the other side” of Truman’s manufactured world, the audience too was learning about this facade and all the effort to keep it hidden. Don’t Worry Darling has a repeated motif of Alice seeing confusing images of her and the other wives in a stark Bubsy Burkeley-esque musical number, but why? What does this reveal about the inner workings of the reality behind the reality? It’s not even made clear what it relates to literally, so it must be a metaphor, but it’s again too obvious and heavy-handed. I understand all the women are learning and practicing dance, but to what end does this serve? I needed further rules established about this secret society so I had more of an understanding of what was at stake as Alice begins to test her boundaries and put others in danger. The conclusion is also ludicrously short-sighted, just a matter of crossing a magical line, like a kid touching base in tag, and that’s before a segment of self-awakening that made me wonder if Alice had miraculously become Neo. It’s the kind of conclusion that feels way too easy and unfulfilling, attempting a note of “what happens next?” ambiguity but really feeling more unsatisfyingly incomplete and empty.
Even though Don’t Worry Darling is flawed, Wilde’s directing is still an asset. She’s clearly having fun playing in a much different genre than 2019’s Booksmart, and the thriller elements are achieved by the eerie contrasts that Wilde finds to highlight of this hidden prison. The sunny cinematography and retro production design are sharp, and the musical score by John Powell (How to Train Your Dragon) has an off-kilter but electric charge to it, often working in hums and stutters to better accentuate the horror atmosphere creeping into this would-be paradise. Wilde even captures the speeding cars in the desert with a certain thrilling aplomb. Much publicity was made about the portrayal of the sex scenes within Don’t Worry Darling, namely, with a woman behind the camera, that they focus on feminine pleasure, a feature often lacking in a male-dominated field built upon the sizzle of the male gaze. I’ll agree that both scenes put more focus on Alice, also our main character so perhaps there’s that, but knowing the full context of the story, it seems more than a little misguided to purposely emphasize feminine pleasure. Also, it’s hard for me to actually believe these kinds of self-involved, parochial men would prioritize giving pleasure to their partner. This detail seems in conflict with the larger thesis.
Thank goodness for Florence Pugh, a refrain every viewer repeats with every movie co-starring the Oscar-nominated actress. Pugh (Black Widow) ably carries this movie on her back. Her performance has more nuance than the character writing provides, and it’s enjoyable to see her challenge the imposition of authority and push back. It’s yet another emotionally heavy role with several scenes of sobbing and screaming, and Pugh is one of the best actors when it comes to expressing the heights of emotional distress without overdoing it into histrionics. As my wife said by the end of the movie, Pugh deserves to star in a feel-good, chippy rom-com after all the grueling emotional work she’s endured in many of her more prominent roles.
Harry Styles (Dunkirk) doesn’t fare as well, dwarfed by his scene partner. There is one moment where he has an emotional breakdown in his car that is nicely portrayed, a mixture of pity and guilt and pure cowardice, and Styles really nails it. However, his smooth hunky husband persona works well enough, enough so that it’s hard for me to see someone like Shia LeBeouf, who Wilde originally had cast in the role, working as intended considering his more intense presence would make you doubt the man’s intentions almost immediately. I wish somebody gave Chris Pine more to do in this other than smugly smirk in the background (admittedly his “being in the background” of one scene was an uncomfortable oddity that demanded further exploration).
There are things that genuinely work with Don’t Worry Darling, moments that dazzle and excite, technical elements that elevate the material, and performances that stick, but it all comes down to a disappointing and underdeveloped script that cannot figure out what to do with its messy themes. It’s too obvious where the movie is headed given its heavy thematic similarities to The Stepford Wives, but it could have taken that familiarity and reapplied it to today’s Internet-age misogyny preying upon female autonomy, but it doesn’t. It could have also fleshed out the particulars of its fraying world-within-a-world to better feel complete and intriguing and meaningful, but it doesn’t. It could have presented a compelling hero’s journey of Alice pushing back against formidable opponents, but it doesn’t do that. It could dress down these bad men and make them account for their misdeeds, but it doesn’t really. It’s a mystery with an all-too obvious answer, with the exception of the exact circumstances behind the pretty facade, and not enough substance and commentary that pushes beyond simple social moralizing. I guess ultimately the movie is much like its own gilded reality: pretty to look at but lacking much below the surface.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Good Nurse (2022)
I was recently having a conversation about how there seems to be fewer high-profile serial killers today, at least compared to the ignoble heyday of the 1970s-1990s, the kind of men, and yes, it’s almost always men, who fascinated millions and inspire countless books, movies, podcasts to detail the heinous details of their twisted and ritualistic crimes. I recall reading an article that proposed the rise of serial killers during that time period might have had something to do with the prevalence of lead paint and lead poisoning in homes before it was finally phased out in 1978. It seems like it would be harder to be a serial killer in the modern era, where almost every person has a device to call the police, or document your behavior, and submit it for the public record. Of course, we also have far more mass shootings and spree killers, so it’s not like things are perfect. I thought about this while watching The Good Nurse on Netflix, based on true events following a nurse in Pennsylvania who may have ultimately taken 400 lives before he was finally apprehended. How does a serial killer operate in the modern world? With help from lawyers.
Amy (Jessica Chastain) is a nurse working the night shift and trying to raise two young girls on her own. She suffers from a heart defect and keeps her ailment hidden for fear she will be fired before she crosses the period where she can earn health insurance from her job. She’s stretched thin, overworked, exhausted, and anxious, and that’s when Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne) comes into her life. He’s a new nurse for their hospital, comes highly recommended, but then… patients start coding and dying and Amy can’t explain it. Somehow insulin is getting into their systems, and she begins to suspect Charlie is the culprit, and from there she works with law enforcement to investigate Charlie’s mysterious past work history and assemble a credible legal case of guilt.
It’s obvious from the start Charlie is guilty, and thankfully the movie doesn’t drag this reveal out, even choosing in its long take opening to demonstrate one of his dispassionate murders. This is less a story about whether this person is in fact the actual killer and more a story about how to nab the killer, and the methodical, detail-oriented case work reminded me especially of 2015’s Best Picture-winner, Spotlight. Likewise, we already knew the Catholic Church was covering up sexual crimes from its priests, so it was more a story about the people responsible for bringing them to justice and how they worked their case. It’s a similar and similarly engrossing formula for The Good Nurse. Uncovering Charlie’s past, his way of avoiding crimes is eerily and infuriatingly reminiscent of the Catholic Church just reshuffling its dangerous priests from parish to parish. The prior hospitals that employed Charlie will not talk about him because to do so will open them up to legal liability, so instead they simply fired him for specious reasons and allowed him to gain employment at another hospital, repeating his deadly patterns. To get more involved, or to investigate further, would be financially deleterious to the hospitals, so they looked the other way. A post-script tells us that none of the hospitals that employed Charlie Cullen were ever criminally charged for their role in perpetuating the death this man left behind. The Good Nurse smartly understands that pinning down one villain is easy, but indicting the system is an even bigger story, and one that rightfully earns every ounce of viewer condemnation and outrage. The lawyers representing these hospitals are just as culpable for these preventable murders.
Much of the movie follows Amy’s personal investigation, dovetailing with two detectives (Nnamdi Aomugha, Noah Emmerich) trying to put together the meager crumbs that the hospital is offering after its own six-week-late internal review that necessitated contacting the police about the “irregularity” in a patient’s death. Each has key pieces, Amy with the inner workings of the hospital system and nursing expertise, and the detectives with the shady background report on Charlie, and it’s an exciting turning point when they join forces. From there, the movie reminded me of Netflix’s sadly cancelled series Mindhunter, where two FBI agents profiled America’s most notorious serial killers to learn insights about the patterns of pathology. It was also a series about talking, about trying to draw these dark men into confession, and the subtle manipulations necessary to get the key pieces of information desired. Amy brings hard evidence that her co-worker is stealing insulin but it’s not enough, and she questions how far to put herself in the middle of this investigation, especially since her daughters have grown close to Charlie.
The direction by Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking, A War) is very aligned with the fact-finding tone established the screenplay by Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917, Last Night in Soho). The camera work is never flashy, preferring longer takes from unobtrusive angles, but without fully adopting the impatient edits docu-drama verisimilitude approach many directors would follow to better capture the reality. The directing is very methodical, cerebral, and restrained in the best way to enhance all of these elements from the story. It’s also not a surprise when you recall that Lindholm directed two episodes of Mindhunter’s first season. It’s the kind of assured direction that often gets ignored in award season but it’s the kind of direction this movie needed to better succeed in tandem with its slow-building, fact-finding mission. It’s not dispassionate, it’s deliberate.
Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts) is an actor I’ve been critical of with some mumbly, tic-heavy past performances, but he’s genuinely good and unnerving for how “normal” he comes across while holding back just enough in his eyes to make you want to take a cautious step back at various points. His role is the more internal one, and the character becomes an incomplete guessing game of how much of what you see is the real Charlie Cullen. Is the kind, compassionate Charlie who helps Amy’s daughter learn her lines for a school play, while encouraging her repeatedly, the real version of this man? Is the evasive man who bursts into sudden and shocking moments of emotional outburst the real version? Is it some semblance in between, and how does one square the difference? The movie’s focus isn’t on unpacking the psychology of this bad man (the title is not a reference to Charlie but of Amy) but on the hard-nosed efforts to finally bring him to justice. Because of this there aren’t as many showcase moments for Redmayne, but he genuinely made me jump during his bigger moments. His Midwestern accent also sounded a lot like (a non-Bostonian) Mark Ruffalo to my ears, further cementing the connections to Spotlight.
The real star of The Good Nurse is its story, given careful examination and worthy condemnation to the forces that allowed a mass murderer to continue his trade for years. When finally asked why, as if there can ever be a satisfying revelation for why bad people do bad things, Charlie can only shake his head and respond, “They didn’t stop me.” He kept killing because the hospital lawyers shuffled him around, protecting their own rather than innocent victims who place their faith in the hospitals and their staff to follow the Hippocratic oath and “do no harm.” The Good Nurse is an appealing movie for fans of true-crime and investigative procedurals. It stays focused on the human cost of those preying upon others, whether they be serial killers masking their misdeeds or corporate lawyers protecting profits and liability over human suffering. It’s a good movie and a good reminder that the over-worked, underpaid nurses are legit heroes.
Nate’s Grade: B+
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