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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+

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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

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+

Halloween Ends (2022)

If you’re a fan of the hallowed Halloween horror series, I can understand why Halloween Ends can be a disappointment, since it dramatically steers away from the formula that has carried this franchise since its beginning. However, if you are like me and find Michael Myers to be one of the most boring slasher killers, and too much of the slasher genre to be rote and repetitive, then this movie might actually be something of a welcomed surprise. Ends might be the least Halloween movie since the third film, the failed 1982 sequel that tried to establish life outside of the hulking menace that is Myers, and then the series shortly retreated back to its familiar bloody formula. Ends might be the least amount of screen time Myers has ever had in any film in the franchise, excluding the third movie; he doesn’t even get his first kill until almost an hour in.

The 2018 reboot was a mixed bag of a horror movie but it ended on the strongest note, with three generations of Strode women fighting together to end their torment. Unfortunately, the series had to continue because the 2018 movie made so much money for the studio, so we’ve been given two rather perfunctory sequels. It’s clear director David Gordon Green and his co-screenwriters, including actor Danny McBride, didn’t really have a desire to continue, and so they spent the sequels exploring other avenues of Haddonfield. I wasn’t a fan of 2021’s Halloween Kills, but the subplot about the mob of scared citizens becoming vigilantes was at least something new and added to a larger understanding of the trauma of this terrorized community. I can say the same with Halloween Ends, namely that the things that were most unexpected and tertiarily related to Myers were what I enjoyed the most. Halloween Ends is messy and disjointed but at least it’s interesting even as it strains to justify its existence and even seems slightly disdainful as well.

It’s Halloween time again in Haddonfield and the citizens are still psychologically recovering from the events of the prior year, as featured in Halloween Kills. Nobody has seen Myers since he killed Laurie’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) adult daughter. In fact the Myers’ estate has been demolished, at long last, and the town is trying to move on from yet another massacre. Laurie is trying to transition into domestic territory, watching over her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) as she works at an urgent care center. The real star of the movie isn’t Laurie but Corey (Rohan Campbell), a teenager who accidentally killed a child he was babysitting years ago. Corey is a pariah in town as he tries to get his life back on track, with the meager options that Haddonfield offers for someone with his baggage. He is befriended by Laurie, who introduces the lad to Allyson, and the two instantly connect as outsiders unfairly maligned by their town. These star-crossed lovers get more complicated when Corey begins to tap into his darker impulses and discovers the location of a recuperating Michael Myers. How far will he go?

Because Myers is such a colossal bore as a character, so readily deemed pure evil as to remove anything remotely interesting, I was grateful that Halloween Ends chooses to be something else for most of its running time, precisely the evolution of a killer. Characters that are just born as soulless evil don’t require much in the way of understanding or back-story. This movie decides to spend the majority of its time setting up a protégé figure for the big bad boogeyman, so much so that you could cut the scant Myers appearances in his subterranean lair and make the first half of this a completely different movie. It’s proof that Green and his screenwriters weren’t just coasting from creative inertia of delivering the same-old same-old. There is an actual story here that wants to explore elements of the franchise that have been dormant and chronicle how a young man can fall onto a dark path and lose himself. It’s the appeal of the dark side, and it’s personified in one young man’s journey. It’s the serial killer origin structure, and it mostly works. I was far more interested in Corey than anything else happening in Ends. The prologue establishes him as misunderstood and an outcast, blamed for an accident that nobody seems to think was actually an accident. It’s about how the ailing town treats this young man and how he tries to reform after tragedy, only to be met with suspicion and resentment. Getting to know Corey’s limited world and watching him succumb to his darker impulses, it’s like a little side story that you never would have known existed in the larger Halloween universe so often dominated by the endlessly wheel-spinning Laurie vs. Michael drama. I’m not going to say that the screenplay was nuanced and populated with three-dimensional characters, and the pacing of Corey’s descent is indeed rushed, but I appreciated the efforts to try something different.

Another issue I have is that first-half Laurie and second-half Laurie feel like two totally different characters. This version of Laurie Strode feels like a completely different character from the prior two Halloween movies that shaped her as a grizzled, obsessive, survivalist loner. This version is making awkward meet-cute small talk in grocery stores and burning pies she’s determined that her granddaughter will eat because of nascent Strode family traditions. Who is this woman? I know some time has passed from the previous movie, but where is the response or lingering grief over the loss of her daughter, the same person she spent years preparing to defend herself against the return of Myers and then was killed by him anyway. For all the weight given to this passing, it feels like an afterthought and that is bizarre. It’s as if Laurie’s daughter never existed for all the impact that her murder has on this story. Once Corey and Allyson become a romantic pair, that’s when something clicks over with Laurie and she recognizes the danger this boy represents, and then she becomes the overly protective mother (granted, her instincts are correct, but the characterization is blah). There was potential to explore the continued strained relationship between the different generations, but Allyson mostly comes across as the naïve child who just wants to run away with her dreamy new broody boy. Had the characterization for Laurie and Allyson been more coherent, and meaningfully tied to the past events in the new trilogy, I think it would have better aided the aims of the Corey examination.

Say what you will about the Halloween series stretching things out over its two lesser sequels, but Green and company add a definitive end note to their title. The degree to which the movie seeks definitive closure is almost comical. It feels like Green is saying to the studio, “Okay, this time it’s really, really over. There is absolutely no coming back from this. That’s it.” This sequence of finality goes so many steps beyond confirming its ending that I began to chuckle to myself at the absurdity of the movie telling its audience that this is the serious end. We go beyond beating-a-dead-horse territory into making the dead horse into a vase that is then shattered, and then the pieces thrown into a fire, and then the ashes launched into space. Of course, all of this will depend on the box-office viability of the movie and whether or not its parent company wants to squeeze even more money from the 40-year franchise (maybe an H50 in 2028?). After all, picking and choosing specific sequels to eliminate from franchise canon has become more popular, as evidenced by the 2018 movie blinking every sequel out of existence for its timeline, so all of these would-be definitive events can just be erased as easily by another sequel. That’s the nature of popular horror: everybody dies but nobody ever stays dead for long.

As slasher thrillers go, there’s probably not enough going on here to appeal to your baser desires, as there is no real memorable or gruesome kill. As a character study, there’s not enough careful development and plotting to reward exploring an offshoot to this universe. It’s fascinating to me, at best a middling fan of the Halloween series, how this sequel seems to simply not care about being a Halloween sequel, hence the shelving of Myers for so long, as well as the inconsistent characterization of Laurie and lack of follow-through, and the shirking of extensive gore and terror. I loved the strange detail that the friend group that bullies Corey aren’t a group of roided-out jocks but… marching band geeks (granted, with unchecked privilege). I loved how the movie goes above and beyond to persuade its conclusive ending, even closing out on the “Ends” of the title. You can almost feel certain degrees of disdain that Green and company have to create this added content, a misshapen denouement to the better climax in 2018. I guess there’s nothing stopping anyone from pretending these sequels are non-canonical, and it’s likely only a matter of years before the studio does the exact same thing to reignite the series. Halloween Ends is a strange, frustrating sequel that struggles to be a Halloween movie, for better or worse.

Nate’s Grade: C

Catherine Called Birdy (2022)/ Sharp Stick (2022)

Lena Dunham is a controversial creator, even more so since the conclusion of her hit HBO comedy Girls back in 2017. I’ve been a fan of her creative voice from the very first episode of Girls, and I appreciated how well she could write self-involved, self-destructive, myopic characters and her directing instincts as well, all at the age of 25. From her zeitgeist-tapping TV success came Lena Dunham the brand, the industry, and with that her feminist newsletter, book deals, personal appearances, and a perennial case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. It makes it more difficult to carry that fandom when the figure says cringey things like she wished she had had an abortion to better understand the plight of those who have. Some of the early criticisms against Dunham were simply mean-spirited, like gross insults regarding her body and her penchant for nudity on her own TV series, as if women don’t exist who resemble Dunham’s shape. However, with each new public example of bourgeois entitlement, I began to wonder whether Dunham’s satirical skills at sizing up self-involved characters was maybe a little less satirical. I’ve been curious what creative projects Dunham would gravitate to next. Her first was Camping, a short-lived 2018 remake of a British comedy that was cancelled after one season. But aside from producing some more HBO shows, and occasional acting appearances like in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Dunham has been relatively silent. And then in 2022, she had two new movies as writer and director. I thought it would be telling to review them both together, as they share many similarities, and as further insight into Dunham as an artist still exploring her voice.

Sharp Stick was released first, though only a couple months before Catherine Called Birdy. Both movies are coming-of-age comedies about young women finding their place in a world that is all too ready to package them into tidy offerings for male desire. Both movies are about their plucky heroines pushing social boundaries and being exploited by lustful men, but one of these films is far better developed, more charming, and with clear ideas and consistent commentary. In short, watch the delightful Catherine Called Birdy and skip the rather dulled Sharp Stick.

Catherine Called Birdy is based on the 1994 children’s book by Karen Cushman and modeled as a young girl’s diary from thirteenth century England. Catherine (Bella Ramsey) is the only child of the lord of a small village. Her mother (Billie Piper) has suffered five miscarriages or stillborn births, and her spendthrift father (Andrew Scott) is bewildered at what to do with his headstrong daughter. She’s 14 and rejecting her father’s assembly of suitors, as he tries to marry her off and recoup some money to stabilize the family’s looming debt. Catherine narrates her very important year where she starts her period, hides it, and learns about love and life and finding her place.

Right away, I was taken with the sprightly energy and strong personality of our narrator, who would prefer to go by Birdy, thank you very much. We open with her literally slinging mud with the neighborhood kids and laughing and wilding out, enjoying the thrills of being young. The contrast of the movie will hinge upon the distinction of what is childish and what is mature, as these youngin’s are thrust into adult roles because society says that as soon as they can menstruate, they are ready to be married off and become baby factories. Birdy is angry with her mother for continuing to try and have children, especially after the painful recuperation of burying sibling after sibling. She resents the idea of being a mother, and especially so early into a life that still feels bound by the stirrings of being a child. Girls should be allowed to be girls, she demands, and by that she means running around, talking with her friends, and absent the pressures and limitations of adulthood. She’s defiant against the larger Medieval system of valuing women for their fertility. Dunham is smart enough to frame the movie in credible terms. It’s not like Birdy, through her tenacity, is going to overthrow an entire centuries-old system of gender norms, but the story is positioned in more personal terms, in breaking through to her father to see her on her own terms rather than as a convenient investment portfolio. That’s more achievable and will be more gratifying for us because of what winning him over will mean.

The movie is also fast-paced and funny, with Birdy’s casual and catty observations delivered in quick succession. In some ways this reminded me of a Medieval version of 2011’s Submarine, another charming indie coming-of-age movie with an eccentric pop-culture obsessed teenage weirdo. There’s Medieval covers of contemporary pop songs strewn throughout for a youthful energy, and lots of onscreen titles and graphics that have their own jokes. The disconnect between Birdy’s viewpoints of the world and the common ways of thinking provide snarky commentary and plenty of progressive attitude. It’s a constant entertainment to watch this precocious little lady tweak the gender and social norms, riling up buffoonish and fragile male psyches. She’s an upstart, and there’s joy in watching her upset those in power and privilege, though she too is reminded of her own privilege considering she is the daughter of the lord and not merely some dirt-poor peasant. If it wasn’t for the sharp character-focused writing, Ramsey’s performance wouldn’t achieve the same comic and emotional heights.

Ramsey was a supreme scene-stealer on Game of Thrones, so much so that producers turned a one-scene part into a multi-season role, even giving her a badass death scene. Ramsey is the anchor of Catherine Called Birdy and perfectly in tune with her character’s feisty yet limited worldview. She’s such a winning character and represents our more modern worldview chaffing up against the very real reality of Medieval life. In some ways, she’s a case study in having to grow up too soon, and surely not the only woman to have done so. Ramsey is heartfelt and hilarious and headed for stardom (she’ll be co-headlining the HBO Last of Us series along with Pedro Pascal).

Attaching the audience to this character is a rewarding experience, and Dunham as screenwriter has balanced the adaptation of going from a first-person diary-based narrator into a film world where we can get outside viewpoints that complicate and challenge our perceptions. I appreciated the widened scope of the narrative. It’s not just the women who are expected to perform their social duties. Birdy’s beloved older uncle, George (Joe Alwyn), is definitely in love with Birdy’s best friend, but that marriage will not do. He’s expected to marry from an established pecking order to better protect his family. There’s a village boy who is also clearly gay but will never be allowed to marry whom he loves, again emblematic of plenty of people who would be left behind in this system. Sophie Ookonedo (Hotel Rwanda) appears as a widowed noble lady who speaks about the freedoms she enjoys having “played the game” and waiting her turn, speaking to a possibility for Birdy working within a broken system. She’s savvy but graceful, with the hint of sadness just on the outer edges of her words. Birdy’s mother, Lady Aislinn (Piper), is similar, hoping to make the best of limited options, and trying to ready her daughter for a life she knows she will be ill-prepared for. It’s what any parent feels, trying to ease your child for the reality to come while still holding onto their innocence as long as possible. She has some heart-rending moments especially during a difficult childbirth scene, and it’s that moment that really showcases Birdy’s father, Lord Rollo (Scott). Until this point, her father has been frustrated by his impetuous daughter, but it’s this moment where she, and by extension us, see the depth of his caring for his family. It’s wonderfully played by Scott, and it reminds us that even the stooges and fools of this world have their own hidden depth.

Catherine Called Birdy is also something of a Game of Thrones reunion, pairing Ramsey with David Bradley, Dean-Charles Chapman, Paul Kaye, and Ralph Ineson. It’s like Dunham used the HBO series as a quick casting cheat sheet since she’s already seen them in a Medieval setting. Special mention to Russell Brand (Death on the Nile) who also just kills it in one scene as a confused and easily swayed suitor. I would have loved more appearances from this man but having him continually foiled by Birdy and never learning from his gullibility.

Moving onto Sharp Stick, an original story from Dunham, you can see points of similarity immediately, framing the narrative around the self-discovery of Sarah Jo (Kristine Forseth). She’s 26 years old and still a virgin, a point she feels more uncomfortable about because of how open her half-sister Treina (Zola’s Taylour Paige) and mother (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) are about their own sexuality and their many paramours. Sarah Jo has her sights set on Josh (Jon Bernthal), a seemingly kind stay-at-home dad taking care of his special needs son that Sarah Jo babysits. If she’s going to lose her virginity to someone, she wants it to be him, but with this comes consequences as well as a steep learning curve for Sarah Jo on the realities of intimacy.

My issue with Sharp Stick is that it feels far more dawdling and confused about what it wants to say and explore with its brief 86-minute running time. This feels more like a handful of ideas or short story beginnings that Dunham inartly smashed together, and the proceeding movie has moments of levity and insight but is overall too messy and shambling and underdeveloped. Let’s start off with the main character who I would have assumed was a teenager by the way that she was acting. When the script tells me she is 26 years old, I was flabbergasted. She was behaving like a much less mature adult, not to say 26 is the height of maturity or that everyone matures at the same speed. Still, Sarah Jo comes across as very naïve and infantilized about adult relationships and human sexuality, which is confusing considering how open her family is about sex and pleasure. It’s not like she’s growing up in a conservative or repressive environment. She’s literally helping her sister record twerking videos for her social media account. The chief reason I think Dunham made an explicit reason for aging our protagonist 26 was to remove some of the ickier consent issues from coming-of-age stories about inappropriate relationships between underage teens and adults (American Beauty, Towelhead, The Diary of a Teenage Girl). She wanted to preemptively remove those criticisms, and so she made Sarah Jo 26, and she also had her uterus removed, something meant to make her seem more adult, at least on paper. Except this is the most childish 26-year-old I may have ever seen. The problem is that Sarah Jo’s naivete has shackled her character, so her sexual awakening feels more akin to a teenager’s than a mid-twenties adult.

Update: I did some research and discovered that Sarah Jo was originally written to be autistic, which would explain more of her social awkwardness. Dunham reached out to an expert on compassionate representations of autism and physical intimacy but then reportedly cancelled on her. I guess she just decided to make Sarah Jo neurotypical but didn’t change anything else. Needless to say, this was not the best decision and its impact is all over the oblivious sense of naivete that pervades the character and her choices.

I found it hard to take Sarah Jo that seriously as a character, as her education seemed to be obvious and a little too arch and twee in delivery for the rest of the movie. Once she has her sights set on Josh, Sarah Jo looks to Internet pornography to learn about what she may do to better please her partner. She is titillated by watching porn but less from the simple carnal activity and more from her fixation on one very commanding actor, played with nonchalant exuberance by Scott Speedman. Sarah Jo studies the annals of porn and creates a colorful construction-paper-heavy checklist of sexual acts she would like to experiment with, and she even alphabetizes it. It’s stuff like this that paints Sarah Jo as being infantilized. It’s not like we were shown her penchant for arts and crafts or taking larger tasks and breaking them down into cutesy checklists before. She even starts soliciting men online to better help her check things off her list, although this doesn’t come to any danger beyond a few lackluster men not living up to her expectations. And that’s the big takeaway here, that what porn promotes is more fantasy than reality, that actual intimacy between consenting adults is its own very different thing. This is too simple a revelation to rest the entire movie upon wuthout a more in-depth character, which Sarah Jo is not. Again, it’s confusing because this character will seem like she is ignorant to the world of sexuality and yet her family is so direct. The Sarah Jo character feels like she’s been ported from another story about a sheltered wallflower learning about her body and her pleasure versus how she’s been told to act to better turn on men.

I don’t fully understand what the entire storyline with Josh was meant to add up to. He’s her first sexual experience, and while he’s awkward and hesitant, he eventually gives in to this young woman’s ego-stroking infatuation, and then they embark on an affair behind the back of his pregnant wife (played by Dunham). I’m going to go into spoilers to better assess this storyline, so be warned dear reader. He eventually confesses to his wife about the affair and breaks down into tears, apologizing and saying he couldn’t help himself, and the moment is squarely to make us see Josh as a pathetic loser. His tears are performative, and he’s throwing around shifty excuses like that he did it for them. He admonishes himself but it’s not contrition we see but manipulation, meant to provoke forgiveness or at least mitigation of his actions by his wife. That’s when she shakes her head and talks about the many, many other women that Josh had had affairs with, proving that this tryst was not out of character. In fact, this seemingly “good guy” dad is actually a creep. Okay, but then Dunham’s character stays with him and they continue living their lives, obviously with the absence of Sarah Jo now. She even returns to them to yell to Josh that she’s getting much better at sex, like she will win him back as a lover. I suppose Dunham was setting up Sarah Jo’s object of desire being less than her expectations and instead as another scuzzy and coddled man-child. That’s fine. But then why does Sarah Jo still seem so determined to win him back? It’s like she hasn’t learned from this.

There are moments that work in Sharp Stick, little pieces that click together with insight or well-honed character writing. I enjoyed Sarah Jo’s mom going into full monologue mode to describe how she met and fell in love with Treina’s father. When Sarah Jo asks about her own father and her story about meeting him, her mom just shrugs and says her dad was just some guy. The disappointment is palpably felt. I also appreciated that children with special needs are presented in a straightforward and un-stigmatized fashion as just being kids. I thought the conclusion with life advice from Speedman was a great scene-stealing deluge of wisdom from the most unexpected place. I just wish it felt more earned for Sarah Jo and her awkward personal odyssey.

Dunham hasn’t directed a movie since her indie breakout in 2010, Tiny Furniture, and now she has two movies within weeks of one another. Catherine Called Birdy is the much stronger outing, allowing Dunham to adapt her voice and talents into a PG-13-firendly universe while still keeping her sharp wit and attention to character detail. Sharp Stick, in contrast, feels like several ideas that never fully coalesce, and the messy decisions with the main character makes the entire enterprise feel strange and lacking better-earned wisdom from her journey. After six seasons of Girls, I’ll always be intrigued about a new Dunham creative project, but they are not all equal. Catherine Called Birdy is Dunham flying far above the routine criticisms about her writing and her perspective, as well as showing her adaptability in an unfamiliar setting. Sharp Stick, sadly, is a reconfirmation of those criticisms and the sloppy execution of bigger ideas.

Nate’s Grades:

Catherine Called Birdy: B+

Sharp Stick: C

Blonde (2022)

After receiving such blistering and excoriating responses, I went into writer/director Andrew Dominik’s Blonde with great trepidation. The near-three-hour biopic on the iconic Marilyn Monroe, played by Ana de Armas, is the first movie to earn an NC-17 rating since 2011’s Killer Joe, and as such, there’s a natural curiosity factor to any movie receiving such hostile reactions. Fans and critics have called the movie exploitative, navel-gazing, misogynistic, and redundant misery porn. One critic even said Blonde was “the worst movie Netflix has ever made.” I was a major fan of Dominik’s verbosely titled 2007 film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and less so 2012’s Killing Them Softly, though I recognized sparing artistic merit. It’s been ten years since Dominik has directed a movie, so surely Blonde, based upon the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, had to have some merit beyond all its hype and criticism, right? Well, no. I processed my general disgust for Dominik’s three-hour slow-mo car crash. This movie is so stupendously misguided and cruel and filled with bizarre, outlandish, and maddening artistic decisions. For my movie review, I felt I needed to break my standard formula, so I decided to give voice to my analysis and criticisms by writing a pretend conversation between Dominik and a stand-in for the Netflix production. Enjoy, dear reader, and beware.

Andrew Dominick sits in front of the desk of a very concerned Netflix Producer, who fidgets uncomfortably in his seat and shuffles papers in his hands. 

Netflix Producer: So, thanks, Andrew for making time for this meeting. We’ve seen your full movie and we have some… well, concerns.

Andrew Dominik: That’s life, man. You can’t tell stories without risk. Break a few eggs.

Netflix Producer: Yes, sure, but, well, I guess one of our biggest questions is why did you need almost three hours to devote entirely to the lengthy suffering of Marilyn Monroe? This is supposed to be a biopic, but all we get, scene after scene, to a fault, is a moment of Marilyn being abused, or crying, or being generally exploited. It’s… a lot to take in, Andrew.

Andrew Dominik: Hey man, that was her life. She was this glamorous star, but behind the glamor is a lot more dirt and grime. Everyone wanted to be her, and I wanted to show the world how wrong that would be. This is a woman who was desired by the world and she was still a victim in the Old Hollywood system, which was a rape factory. I was just being honest, man.

Netflix Producer: I get that principle, but it really feels like the only version of Marilyn we get in this movie is the role of a long-suffering victim. It’s practically a passion play: The Passion of Marilyn Monroe. You’re cheapening her real-life suffering by making it so redundant to the point of self-parody, and also, if you were so concerned about creating an honest portrayal of what this woman went through, then why are you also making things up to add to her legitimate suffering?

Andrew Dominik: What d’ya mean? I adapted the book.

Netflix Producer: Yes, but you do know that Oates’ book is explicitly fictitious, right? It’s made up. Marilyn never had a throuple relationship with Charlie Chaplain Jr. and Edward G Robinson Jr. Marilyn had a positive relationship with her mother. Even worse, you’re adding fictitious suffering, like her relationship with her mother, or Marilyn being raped during an audition.

Andrew Dominik: Yeah, that might never have happened, but the rape represents the-

Netflix Producer: I’m gonna stop you there. You should refrain from sentences that include the phrase, “The rape represents [blank].” We don’t need literal sexual violence, of which we return to time and again, to stand in for a larger thematic message. Also, it’s quite disingenuous to add extra traumatic experiences when you’re purporting to tell this woman’s real trauma and conflict. 

Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, then.

Netflix Producer: No, not really, but, okay, Andrew, can you tell me any personable impression you get of Marilyn from this movie? And-and you cannot say “victim.” 

Andrew Dominik: She was…….

Netflix Producer: …Yes?

Andrew Dominik: Sexy?

Netflix Producer: Okay, sex symbol for nearly 60 years after her death, sure. What else?

Andrew Dominik: She was…. Um…. Uh… Can I look this up on my phone?

Netflix Producer: See, Andrew, this is our problem-

Andrew Dominik: Oh, she has daddy issues! There. That. 

Netflix Producer: And for an hour you have her referring to all the men in her life as “daddy,” which is very uncomfortable especially when those men are literally abusing her.

Andrew Dominik: But, y’see, she calls ‘em all “daddy” because she has-

Netflix Producer: Oh, we get it. Thank you. You have 160 minutes and you keep hitting the same point over and over, bludgeoning the viewer into submission. It’s more than a bit gratuitous, especially when you factor that you’re adding even more trauma. 

Andrew Dominik: What d’ya mean by “gratuitous?” 

Netflix Producer: I have prepared several examples. For starters, it might be a bit much within the first twenty minutes of your movie to subject your audience to a mother trying to drown her child in the bathtub and Marilyn being sexually assaulted at one of her first auditions. 

Andrew Dominik: Okay. Okay. I get that.

Netflix Producer: Then there’s the ghastly POV shot from inside Marilyn’s vagina, which by God happens twice, and both times it’s during forced abortions. Did we really need that queasy angle that is literally invading her body against her will to accomplish what exactly?

Andrew Dominik: The purpose of any true artist is to go deeper-

Netflix Producer: I’m gonna stop you there again. It’s just bad taste, Andrew. Also, speaking of bad taste, maybe we don’t need the entire sequence where JFK rapes her and then hires government goons to abduct her and force Marilyn into an abortion. And then, on top of all that, she hears the pleas of her first aborted fetus calling back to her. Yikes. Can you at any point step outside of your position, Andrew, and realize how shockingly gratuitous all of that can be?

Andrew Dominik: It’s all designed to separate the person from the icon. Marilyn Monroe never really existed beyond the fantasies of the public, man. It’s about bringing back her humanity.

Netflix Producer: Separating the legend from the person would be a natural artistic angle, but that means spending time establishing the person, building her up through multiple dimensions, multiple opportunities to flesh her out. You only spend time seeing her as a victim, that is when we’re not meant to partake in the same sexualization of her that you seem to be criticizing. I mean the 1996 HBO TV movie managed by having two different actresses portray her, with Naomi Judd as Norma Jean and Mira Sorvino as Marilyn. That literalized the differences and even had Marilyn converse with her former persona as a plot device. You have none of that. 

Andrew Dominik: I might not have that, but my movie has a cross dissolve that goes from Marilyn getting banged to the literal crest line of Niagara Falls. 

Netflix Producer: I don’t think that really makes up for a lack of character substance.

Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, man.

Netflix Producer: You really can’t keep using that as a defense. 

Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, man.

Netflix Producer: Your horror show of relentless trauma and bad taste might undercut your stated goal of humanizing this woman. She’s not a character but a symbol of abject suffering, a martyr, and you increase her suffering, and sometimes in grating, absurdly grotesque ways. Do you even care about this woman? You’ve devoted three hours to reanimating her as a powerless punching bag. 

Andrew Dominik: Well, I did say Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is about “well-dressed whores” and that Blonde is “just another movie about Marilyn Monroe. And there will be others.” I also said that the most important part of her life was that she killed herself. 

Netflix Producer: Exactly. That makes us question whether you have the passion and sensitivity for this project. Why does this movie even have to be NC-17? Will your three hour torture chamber be bereft of meaning if the audience doesn’t see two inner vaginal camera angles?

Andrew Dominik: How dare you even question my artistic integrity. If you remove those shots, you might as well be removing the soul of this movie. Why even tell this story?

Netflix Producer: Yes, why indeed?

Andrew Dominik: It’s meant to be disorienting.

Netflix Producer: Congrats. 

The Netflix producer leans back in his chair and releases an extended, wearying sigh.

Andrew Dominik: So… after everything…. Are you going to make me cut anything?

Netflix Producer: Please. We’re so hungry for Oscar recognition, we don’t care. Go for it.

I want to cite de Armas’ (The Gray Man) performance as one of the few attributes to the movie. It’s hard to watch this woman suffer and cry in literally every scene, but I also just felt so sad for not just her character but for de Armas as an actress herself. She shouldn’t have to endure everything that she does to play this character. She is undercut by Dominik’s artistic antics and avarice at every turn, like the story jumping around incoherently so every scene fails to build upon one another. There is no genuine character exploration to be found here. It’s a cycle of suffering, and the movie wants to rub your nose in the exploitation of Monroe while simultaneously exploiting her. De Armas deserves better. Marilyn Monroe deserves better. Every viewer deserves better. Spare yourself three awful hours of pointless suffering in the name of misapplied art. 

Nate’s Grade: D-

Fall (2022)

It’s no more, no less than its bald premise, but with the benefit of some nifty aerial photography to heighten viewer veritgo, some seamless special effects, and a streamlined story structure, Fall is serviceable survivor escapsism. The motivation is pretty inconsequential as to why these two young women (Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner) are climbing an old radio tower, but they do, they reach the top, and then the ladder crumbles below them, trapping them way up high. From there, it becomes a survival thriller that isn’t as dumb as its straightforward title and premise might have you believe. I recall 2010’s Frozen, not the popular Disney musical, but the small indie thriller about a group of characters stranded on an abandoned ski lift. It’s a similar scenario and becomes less of a question over whether they will get down and more how they will endure the elements and simply survive long enough to draw attention to their plight. If you have a fear of heights, there are several deft moments that draw out that anxiety-ridden tension; I even gasped a few times at the movement from teetering positions and leaps. There’s a late twist I wasn’t expecting that I think is handled well, and there’s just enough character introspection to keep things interesting without de-escalating the urgency and tension of the premise. Also, Fall originally had a lot more swearing and 30-some F-bombs and these were eliminated from the use of a Deep Fake A.I. software that swapped the actors’ mouths into contorting new PG-13-approved syllables. I didn’t even notice it, which is a sign of how remarkable the technology has become and how cost-effective (the budget for Fall was only $3 million). There’s little else to this than being a well-developed, well-executed 100-minute thrill ride (you get Jeffrey Dean Morgan for exactly two whole scenes) and when you’re looking for fleeting fun, that’s certainly agreeable disposable entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: B

Clerks III (2022)

I’m at a crossroads with writer/director Kevin Smith. Well, I might actually have already switched sides but don’t want to fully admit it yet even if it’s self-evident. I’ve written about this before but Smith was one of those major cinematic voices that helped shape my sense of indie film and even comedy during my formative teenage years. I became a diehard fan, watched every movie several times and had all their interconnected Easter eggs memorized, and I’ve seen the man in person three times, one time recorded for a college Q&A DVD release. In short, I was most definitely a Kevin Smith super fan. Then over the last five years or so, things began to change, or more accurately my perception of Smith’s movies began to change. The attempts at humor were strained, obvious, and gassed, and it felt like his biting wit and raunch had transformed into mawkish nostalgia. The man in his twenties who made comedies I identified with and loved became a man in his forties with different priorities and a different perspective. He evolved. However, I am no static creature, and I too was evolving, and my fanfare for Smith’s comedy sensibility has transformed into more of a pained grimace. I re-watched Dogma in 2019 and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in 2021, as well as its second-banana imitation Jay and Silent Bob Reboot in 2019, and my assessment was only reaffirmed with each movie: I’ve outgrown my old influence. As a big screen storyteller, Smith has become more and more insular, inaccessible, and beholden to eroding fan-service, almost like he too is trying to bid goodbye to his own universe of characters. Maybe that will be the big reveal, Smith putting all his toys back away while he still can.

Clerks III is a return to the old QuickStop convenience store in Red Bank, New Jersey, last seen in 2006 with friends and malcontents Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) as the new owners. Clerks II seemingly ended on a moment of triumph, of the guys returning to their roots but also stepping up, assuming ownership responsibilities. However, many can also view the ending as a darker indictment on what the future held for these men. Sixteen years later, what have these men accomplished? That’s the thrust of this third film, following Randal’s brush with death from a heart attack (based upon Smith’s own life-threatening experience). He re-evaluates his life at 50 and yearns to make a movie about his life and his personal experiences, which just happens to be life in service at the QuickStop. He bands together with Dante as producer and they put together a ragtag crew, including old buddies now selling their own state-approved brand of bud, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), to make their movie.

In many ways, Clerks III is like a remake of Clerks with the characters of Clerks making their own version of Clerks only thirty years removed from the actual scenes of Clerks. There’s a bit of a snake eating its own tail feeling; many scenes are re-creations of moments from the original Clerks and with the same actors. It’s slightly fun to see even the smaller non-actors come back to recreate these moments, but it also makes the movie feel like an extended high school reunion (“Oh look, that guy lost his hair.”). If you were not a fan of Clerks, well you shouldn’t really be watching the third film in the series, but if you didn’t have an attachment to these characters and this odd world, seeing older versions of former fleeting characters, from the Chewlie’s Gum rep to the angry ruse-baiting video store customer or the woman who manually masturbates caged animals, would feel like flipping through someone else’s photo album, devoid of whatever nostalgic or emotion was intended.

As a lifelong fan of Smith’s filmography, or at least a former lifelong fan now transitioning to accepting a parting of ways, it’s neat to see this reunion of sorts, but it’s also ultimately pointless from a narrative standpoint. Smith is treading the same ground now with irony and distance. Actually, the irony gives way more to sentimentality. It’s not an insult to say that Smith has gotten increasingly softer as he’s gotten older, blunting much of his comedy edge. He comes across as a sincere man who really cares for the people in his life, including these very people that contributed their time and efforts in 1992 to help make a young man’s dream come true. I understand his desire to pay back all the little people, to check back with them one more time, and to have Clerks III serve as a love letter to those who were there from the very beginning. If you’re plugged into this universe, you might smile and you might also feel some of the love.

There are famous cameos to balance out the lesser known faces from the original Clerks. You’ll see Ben Affleck hamming it up, Justin Long doing a funny voice, Fred Armisen grasping for something to do, and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s first film role since 2012 and first live-action film role since 2009’s Possession (Gellar was a voice on Smith’s Masters of the Universe animated series on Netflix). The two big additions from Clerks II also return. Trevor Fehrman, returning as the socially awkward coworker Elias, is the funniest part of the movie as his character goes through a spiritual crisis. He feels let down by Jesus and commits himself to Satan, and his runway show’s worth of crazy outfits and cosplays throughout the movie is the funniest joke that never even bears mentioning, which only makes it funnier (he too has his own Silent Bob-esque quiet sidekick played with good spirits by Austin Zajur). Elias was the voice of a younger generation of Internet fandom in Clerks II, allowing Smith his opportunity to criticize modern geek pop-culture, like the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings. That doesn’t really happen in Clerks III despite 16 years of Dante and Randal’s cinematic absence. Smith doesn’t even nibble or good-naturedly rib any pop-culture landscape. Even the jokes about NFTs feel hesitant and wishy-washy and lazy. Smith was defined by his ribald wit and hyper-literate dialogue, and now his comedy has become inane slapstick and pandering nods meant to serve as a replacement for an absent punchline. It’s disappointing how little the comedy registers now.

The biggest addition to the Clerks trilogy was Rosario Dawson, now even more popular as she’s firmly solidified in the Star Wars TV empire. I figured she would have been written out of the franchise as her availability was going to be far more limited. It’s not a spoiler considering it’s revealed within the first minute or so, but Dawson’s character, Becky, who was pregnant with Dante’s child and this presented a new route for his future, is dead. Not only is Becky gone but she died in 2006 from a drunk driver, which means that her unborn child with Dante also died, though this is never touched upon and that seems truly bizarre because much of Dante’s characterization in this movie will be his prison of grief he’s been unable to break from. It’s been 16 years and Dante has not moved on, and I wish more of this was explored thoughtfully. He views himself as a man stuck, now in his 50s, and having missed his off-ramp to another and better life. Without more careful attention, it can come across like a schlub holding onto his grief as a mistaken form of identity. Even that description could be interesting, but you’re not going to get that level of drama in something like Clerks III. Dawson does have a few appearances as a ghostly memory trying to help Dante move on, though if this is the case, I feel like she should be reaching some kind of breaking point after 16 years of effort.

By the end of Clerks III, it’s clear that Smith intends for this to be the concluding chapter, sending off these characters as reflections of his own film history. The focus of the final act is far more dramatic, as the act of retelling one’s life story as a movie becomes its own way of sharing the love and admiration of a decades-long friendship. I don’t quite think Smith gets to the dramatic heights he’s reaching for, even when some pretty significant and surprising events play out. Too much of the movie is like watching a low-budget remake of Clerks thirty years late, and while I’m a sucker for movies about the making of movies, and those fun found families of creatives banding together, the structural vehicle and conceit for Clerks III left much to be desired. If you remember the scenes of 1994’s Clerks, watching Clerks III is like reliving them as a strange Lynchian dream where the edges are smudged and everything isn’t quite as it should be. At this point, a new Kevin Smith movie is made strictly for the most diehard of fans. I can see that ever-shrinking pool of fans warmly smiling and chuckling from the movie but more in nostalgic recognition of time gone by. It’s nice to revisit these characters, as I’ve been eager to see what life has dealt them since Clerks II. You can feel Smith’s affection for these people, the ones who catapulted him into fame, but the movie is too backward-looking and uninterested in its own comedy as Smith winds down.

Nate’s Grade: C

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