This should have been a winner for me. I’m a fan of mumblecore dramas that drop you into people’s ordinary lives. They’re character-driven and built upon naturalistic dialogue that can still be compelling and revealing of its participants. However, Shithouse seems to have found that middle zone between stylized dialogue and naturalistic dialogue; throughout the 100 minutes, the movie involves ordinary people sounding like they’re having real conversations, which means they are generally boring. If you were eavesdropping on these people in real life you would leave. There’s a fine difference between natural but still plot-driving and engaging dialogue and dithering dialogue that holds to the awkward starts and stops of real life but fails to keep your attention. Just because the scene feels realistic does not mean it is the same as being interesting. Writer/director Cooper Raff stars as Alex, a college freshman with a serious case of homesickness. He spends one long night with his RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula), and it feels like maybe these two will connect and become romantic. The problem with Shithouse is that it feels like each half-hour is its own different movie. The first is introducing an emotionally fragile young man having difficulty adjusting to collegiate life away from his family. The problem is that I didn’t care about Alex and I didn’t find him being mopey intriguing. It took too long to open him up. The next part is the film’s best and it’s Alex and Maggie spending hours together walking, chatting, having little adventures on the path to burying her dead turtle. It’s the best part of the film and where I felt the movie was starting to coalesce, even with a protracted setup. This is the Before Sunrise part. However, the next morning, Alex and Maggie seem to have very different views of their long night and eventual hookup. He’s overloading her with messages and she’s being distant and indifferent, and this is where the movie becomes like 500 Days of Summer, holding up for scrutiny the romantic aspirations of those grown up with the media of pop-culture happy endings. Had Raff left us in this direction, I could even argue that his structure served a larger point of condemning his protagonist’s viewpoint. I might not enjoy it but I could mildly respect it. However, Shithouse then undoes this part with a resolution set two-plus years in the future that doesn’t feel earned and is tonally disjointed from this prior section. If this was the intent, then why did Raff even prolong us with this extended morass of missed Instagram messages and angry outbursts over misreading what the night meant to both parties? Regardless, there are glimmers and moments in this gentle little movie that worked, that hit upon a deeper truth, but mostly you’re stuck with dull people having boring conversations.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Hillbilly Elegy is based upon the memoir by JD Vance and in 2016 it became a hot commodity in the wake of Trump’s surprising electoral ascent, with liberals seeing it as a Rosetta Stone to understanding just how so many working-class white people could vote for a billionaire with a gold toilet. The movie, directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and currently available on Netflix, follows an adult JD (Gabriel Basso). He’s a Yale law candidate forced to go back home to Middletown, Ohio after his mother Bev (Amy Adams) lands in the hospital for a heroin overdose. It’s 2011, and Bev has been fighting a losing battle with opioids for over a decade, costing her a string of boyfriends and jobs. JD’s homecoming isn’t quite so rosy. While he can take comfort in fried bologna sandwiches and his sister (Haley Bennett), the town is not what it once was. The factory has closed, poverty is generational, and his mother is one of many struggling to stay clean. In flashback, we watch MeeMaw (Glenn Close) take in the young JD (Owen Asztalos) and raise him on the right path. JD must decide how far the bonds of family go and how much he may be willing to forgive his mother even if she can never ask for help.
The subtitle of Vance’s novel was “A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis,” and it’s that latter part that got the most attention for the book and critical examination. Many a think piece was born from Vance’s best-selling expose on the hardscrabble beginnings of his personal story along the hills of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley and his recipe for success. Given his libertarian political leanings, it’s not a surprise that his solutions don’t involve a more interventionist government and social safety nets. According to Vance’s book, he saw poverty as self-perpetuating and conquerable. It was the “learned helplessness” of his fellow Rust Belt inhabitants that Vance saw as their downfall. For me, this seems quite lacking in basic empathy. You see these people aren’t poor because they’ve been betrayed by greedy corporations, indifferent politicians, a gutted infrastructure and educational system in rural America, pill mills flooding Appalachia with cheap opioids, and a prison system that incentivizes incarceration over rehabilitation. For Vance and his like-minded fellows, upward mobility is a matter of mind over matter, and these working-class folks have just given up or won’t work as hard as before.
Now, as should be evident, I strongly disagree with this cultural diagnosis, but at least Vance is trying to use his own story as a launching point to address larger points about a portion of America that feels forgotten. The movie strips all of this away. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) juggles multiple timelines and flashbacks within flashbacks as Vance follows the formula of prodigal son returning back to his home. The entire draw of the book, its purported insights into a culture too removed from the coastal elites, is replaced with a standard formula about a boy rediscovering his roots and assessing his dysfunctional family. At this rate, I’m surprised they didn’t even time it so that Vance was returning home for Thanksgiving.
Removed of relevant social commentary, Hillbilly Elegy becomes little more than a gauzy, awards-bait entry meant to uplift but instead can’t help itself from being overwrought poverty porn. If we’re not looking at the bigger picture of how Appalachia got to be this way, then Vance becomes less our entry point into a world and more just an escaped prisoner. Except the movie doesn’t raise Vance up as exceptional and instead just a regular guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps through will and family support. I’m not saying he is exceptional, I don’t know the man, but this approach then ignores the reality of why so many others just aren’t following his footsteps of simply trying harder. Without granting a more empathetic and careful understanding of the circumstances of poverty, Howard has made his movie the equivalent of a higher-caliber Running with Scissors, a memoir about a young man persevering through his “quirky, messed up family” to make something of himself on the outside. This reductive approach is meant to avoid the trappings of social commentary, and yet in trying to make his film studiously apolitical to be safer and more appealing, Howard has stumbled into making Hillbilly Elegy more insulting to its Appalachia roots. Systemic poverty is seen as a choice, as people that just aren’t trying as hard, that have given up and accepted their diminished fates. Never mind mitigating economic, psychotropic, and educational circumstances. I imagine Howard wanted to deliver something along the lines of Winter’s Bone, unsparing but deeply aware of its culture, but instead the movie is far more akin to a sloppy compilation of Hallmark movies and catchy self-deprecating bumper sticker slogans. Seriously, about every other line of dialogue feels like it was meant to be on a T-shirt, from “Where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become,” to, “There are three types of people in this world: good Terminators, bad Terminators, and neutral.” Well, maybe not that last one. The insights are fleeting and surface-level, with vague patronizing along the fringes.
The personal story of J.D. Vance takes the center stage and yet he’s the biggest blank of characters, and what we do get isn’t exactly that encouraging. I think we’re meant to engage with his triumph over adversity, but he has such disdain for his background while clinging to it as an identity, and this intriguing dichotomy is never explored. Vance as a character is merely there. His awkward experiences relating to the rich elites are just silly. He calls his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) in a panic over what fork to use at a fancy dinner table, as if this perceived social faux pau would be the difference between getting a law firm gig. He’s supposed to feel like an outsider, both at home and away, unable to escape his past that defines him, but the movie doesn’t even make Vance feel alive in the present. Most of the movie he is just there while big acting takes place around him. He listens to the life lessons bestowed upon him, good and bad, and it makes him the kind of man that when he grows up will join Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, so hooray? I sighed when the movie established the stakes as he needs to get back in time for his big lawyer job interview, a literal family vs. future crossroads. The movie treats its frustrating main character as a witness to history rather than an active participant, and his personal growth is what? Coming to terms with the limitations of his mother? Accepting himself? Leaving them all behind to survive? I don’t know. There is literally a montage where he gets his life back on track, starts getting better grades, ditches his no-good friends, and heads out into the world. This could have been a better articulated character study but instead Vance comes across as much a tourist to this downtrodden world and eager to return to safer confines as any morbidly curious viewer at home.
I simply felt bad for the actors. This is the kind of movie where subtlety isn’t exactly on the agenda, so I expected big showcases of big acting with all capitals and exclamation marks, and even that didn’t prepare me. I watched as Amy Adams (Vice) worked her mouth around an accent that always seemed elusive, with a character that veered wildly depending upon the timing of a scene. Almost every moment with Bev ends in some alarming escalation or outburst, like when a new puppy ends with Bev declaring she will “kill that dog in front of you,” or a ride back home descends into a high-speed promise of killing herself and child out of spite. This woman is troubled, to say the least, and her addictions and mental illness are what defines the character. With that guiding her, Adams is left unrestrained and usually screaming. There’s just so much screaming and wailing and crying and shouting. It’s an off-the-mark performance that reminded me of Julianne Moore in 2006’s Freedomland, where a usually bulletproof actress is left on her own in the deep end, and the resulting struggle leans upon histrionics. Was I supposed to feel sympathy for Bev at some point? Does the movie ever feel sympathy for this woman who terrorizes and beats her child? The broad portrayal lacks humanizing nuance, so Bev feels less like a symbolic victim of a larger rot of a society abandoned and betrayed and more a TV movie villain.
Close (The Wife) disappears into the heavy prosthetics and baggy T-shirts of MeeMaw, but you could have convinced me the character was a pile of coats come to life. Truthfully, MeeMaw is, by far, the most interesting character and the story would have greatly benefited from being re-calibrated from her painful perspective. She’s the one who bears witness to just how far Middletown has fallen since her and PawPaw ventured as young adults with the promise of a secure new life thanks to the thriving factory. She’s the one symbolizing the past and its grip as the present withers. She’s the one who has a history of abuse only to watch her daughter fall into similar patterns. Think of the guilt and torment and desire to rescue her grandson for a better life and save her family. That’s an inherently interesting perspective, but with JD Vance as our mundane lead, MeeMaw is more a slow-walking curmudgeon taken to doling out profane one-liners and grumpy life lessons. Close is easily the best part of Hillbilly Elegy and deserved more attention and consideration. A moment where she clings to JD’s high-scoring math test like a life raft is heartfelt and earned, more so than anything with JD.
Another slice of America that feels forgotten and angry is on display with the documentary Feels Good Man, a.k.a. the Pepe the Frog documentary. Who is Pepe? He’s a cartoon frog created by Matt Furie as part of a comic series of post-college ennui between four friends. The character was adopted by the commenters on the message board 4Chan as their own symbol, and as their memes spread and became more popular with mainstream suers, and that’s when the 4Chan warriors had to do something drastic to save their favorite frog. They began transforming Pepe into a symbol of hate in order to make him toxic for outside use, and then the irony of their attempts at reclamation faded away and Pepe became a real symbol for Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The character is currently listed on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of symbols of hate. The movie explores this evolution and de-evolution of Matt Furie’s creation and serves as a cautionary tale about the scary shadows of Internet culture and the nature of reclaiming meaning and intent with art.
Firstly, is there enough material here for a full-fledged documentary? We’re talking about a cartoon frog filling up the memes of Internet trolls. Is that enough? I think so, though I wish the movie shed even more critical scrutiny upon the 4Chan fringes of the Internet that have become a toxic cesspool of alienation and recrimination. These are people that self-identify and celebrate their social isolationism. The acronym N.E.E.T. stands for NOT Employed, Educated, or Trained and is adopted by many as an odd badge of honor. We even see home video footage of people sharing their personal lives in cluttered, trash-strewn basements. These are people electing not to engage with a larger functioning society and yet also feeling hostile to those that choose otherwise. Maybe it’s all a big joke to them, so why even bother; maybe it’s a defeatist mentality that plays upon social anxiety and learned helplessness. Maybe it’s just a noisy, nihilistic club that doesn’t want anything for themselves other than to disrupt others. The interview subjects from the 4Chan community are few but offer chilling peeks into this subculture. They see the world in terms of a very high school-level of social hierarchy, and the people who are pretty, successful, and having sexual relationships are the “popular kids” keeping them down. I think in terms of a Venn diagram, that incels and these NEET freaks are a flat circle. It almost feels like Vance’s cultural critiques of his poor Appalachia roots syncs up with the disenchanted 4Chan kids. This self-imposed isolation and self-persecution stews into a hateful mess of resentment. It’s not a surprise that several mass shooters have partaken in 4Chan and 8Chan communities.
This scary subsection of Internet culture has been left to fester and it went next level for the 2016 presidential election. The trolls recognized their own sensibilities in Donald Trump, a candidate whose entire presidency seemed on the precipice of being a bad joke. The alt-right celebrated the man and used Pepe as a symbol for Trump’s trolling of norms and decorum, and the 4Chan message boards became an army of meme makers to steer Internet chatter. It’s hard to say what exactly the cumulative effect of these memes and trolling efforts achieved, in addition to the successful efforts of Russian hackers and a media environment that gave Trump billions of dollars in free airtime, but the 4Chan crowd celebrated their victory. “We memed him to the White House,” they declared. From there, Pepe became a synonymous symbol of a newly emboldened white supremacist coalition and any pretenses of ironic detachment dissolved away.
The rise and mutation of Pepe makes up most of the movie, and it’s certainly the most fascinating and scary part of Feels Good Man. However, there is a larger question about the ownership of art and interpretation that the movie presents without conclusive answers. Symbols are a tricky thing. They’re not permanent. The swastika wasn’t always associated with Hitler and Nazis. A pentagram has significantly different meanings depending upon a Wiccan and conservative Christian audience. Feels Good Man examines Furie as a humble albeit slightly naïve creator. He’s a nice guy who just can’t get his head around what has happened to his creation. How far does the artist’s intent go when it comes to credible meaning? At one point, Furie tried stemming the negativity by killing off Pepe in a limited comic, but it didn’t matter. The 4Chan followers simply remade him as they desired because at that point Pepe was their own. He has been built and rebuilt over and over again, that no one person can claim interpretative supremacy. Furie’s version of Pepe might be gone but there are millions of others alive and well. This gets into the nature of art and how every creator in some regard must make amends with letting go of their creation. Once it enters the larger world for consumption, they can steer conversations but art can take on its own life. The last third of the movie follows Furie taking action to enforce his copyright law to push back against the more outlandish uses of Pepe the frog, including from InfoWars’ Alex Jones, the same man who told us the government was making frogs gay for some unexplained conspiracy. Jones makes for a pretty easy villain to enjoy seeing defeated, and the conclusion of the movie involves dueling taped depositions between Furie and Jones over intellectual trademarks and free speech. It makes for an easy to navigate victory for Furie to end the movie upon, but is this larger war winnable? I have my doubts and I don’t think the trolls of the darker reaches of the Internet are going away.
I also want to single out the beautiful animation that appears throughout Feels Good Man, giving a visual representation to Pepe in a manner that’s like trying to give him a say in his own intent.
So, dear reader, why did I pair both of these movies for a joint review? I found both of them as investigations into a sliver of America that feels forgotten, left behind, stuck in ruts outside their control, and resentful of a changing culture they see as exclusive to their hard-hit communities. I thought both Hillbilly Elegy and Feels Good Man could provide me, and others, greater insight into these subcultures and perhaps solutions that can make them feel more seen and heard. The problem is that Elegy doesn’t provide solutions other than “pull up your bootstraps” and Feels Good Man involves a destructive coalition that I don’t want better seen and heard. Both movies in their own ways deal with the nature of how very human it can be to retreat to their safe confines of people who too feel ostracized, hurt, and overwhelmed. I have pity for the people of the Rust Belt, the hillbillies experiencing generational poverty and hardships, though “economic anxiety” is not simply a regional or whites-only worry. I have less pity for the basement trolls of 4Chan trying to celebrate school shooters because it’s somehow funny. I’m amazed that so many talented people were part of Hillbilly Elegy and had such high hopes. For all of its full-tilt screaming, the movie is thoroughly boring and formulaic. Given the nature of an elegy, I was expecting Howard’s movie would be more considerate of its people, but their humanity is lost in this pared-down characterization, and the tragedy of society failing its own becomes an inauthentic Horatio Alger story of the plucky kid who went to Yale and became a real somebody. Feels Good Man might not be the best documentary but it feels more authentic and owns up to its inability to answer larger questions about human behavior, art, and interpretation. Both of these movies will prove horrifying to watch but only one is intentionally so.
Hillbilly Elegy: C-
Feels Good Man: B
With Run, now available through Hulu thanks to COVID, we follow Chloe (newcomer Kiera Allen) as she yearns to leave home for college. She was born with multiple physical maladies and has been living at home in her wheelchair. Her mother, Diane (Sarah Paulson), tends to her needs but runs a tight ship, holding Chloe to a high academic standard. One day, while looking for college returns, Chloe finds a prescription for her mother that she denies is hers. This causes Chloe to investigate the myriad of medications she’s on and her mother’s cagey behavior. She comes to one conclusion: she is being held prisoner by her own mother.
I don’t consider it a spoiler to confirm that Run is exactly the movie it assures you from its start. Because the movie was so early and upfront about its distrust with the mother, part of me began to wonder, after watching so many Hollywood thrillers over the years, if I was being set up into false complacency. I began theorizing what a late twist could be, how we’re being lulled into one perspective so maybe the final twist would be that the big bad mom is actually the hero. This is not the case at all. There are later revelations that clarify just how disturbed and committed Diane is as a doting mother, but the core relationship dynamic is the same from the get-go. That means that Run might not have much going for it other than as an escape thriller. It’s not going to give you deeper insights into life with mental illness or physical disabilities, nor is it going to channel some relatable struggles with motherhood. It’s about a crazy woman holding a teenager captive and the great obstacles that teenager must overcome to reach freedom and safety. That’s all the movie has to offer but under the guidance of its filmmakers it does so with finesse.
Let Run serve as a prime example of how you can take a simple story and create a lean, mean thriller that provides doses of satisfaction and triumph. The focus is so condensed that writer/director Aneesh Chaganty (Searching) can provide set piece after set piece to demonstrate his skills in suspense. The first act involves Chloe learning of her alarming state and getting confirmation that her medicine and ailments might not be true. From there, the next two acts are a series of planning escapes and escalating attempts at escape. There is a lovely sense of fulfillment in watching smart characters intelligently think their way through challenges. I recently re-watched 2015’s The Martian and was reminded how enjoyable it can be to just watch smart people smartly confront problems. Chloe is a formidable young woman with obvious vulnerabilities to overcome, but she has a sharp mind for science and can act like a plucky Zoomer MacGyver. It’s resolutely fun to watch her overcome her challenges. Each new set piece and setback presents a challenge and her thinking is logical and capable throughout. Even when the plot isn’t much more than a series of escape attempts, every time I wondered to myself how exactly Chloe was going to get through the next dilemma and admiring her as she persevered.
The photography, editing, and score work nicely in tandem to raise the level of suspense. The command that Chaganty has over all facets of filmmaking to serve a common purpose is impressive. It’s the same kind of assured vision he displayed with 2018’s Searching where the film screen was confined to the parameters of a computer monitor. As with that earlier inventive thriller, Chaganty has an innate understanding of how to make his moments matter, where every twist and turn has a connection to what came before it so it all feels of a whole. That is essential especially for a filmmaker working within a thriller genre. If you can tell even the simple stories well, where the pieces connect with perfect precision, and ratchet up tension efficiently no matter the scenario, then you’re already operating at an extremely high level. Given his first two entries, I would watch any movie, especially a thriller, that has Chaganty’s name attached.
This is primarily a mother-daughter two-hander in terms of acting, though Paulson is off-screen for long portions. After several Ryan Murphy TV series, including Netflix’s Ratched, I’ve come to automatically assume I should be wary of whatever character Paulson is playing. This role is well within her unstable wheelhouse and she gets to better shine in her increased desperation in the second half when Diane no longer has to pretend to be sane. Her doting manipulation and intense mood changes can be quite creepy. The real star is Allen in a very physical performance. There is much the young actress has to communicate non-verbally, from her distress and paranoia to her doubts and fears and righteous anger. Plus all the crawling. She’s great, and I fully imagine this will be the start of Allen’s promising career as she finds even more high-profile roles to demonstrate her talent.
If you’re a fan of slick, intelligent, and sneaky fun thrillers, and why wouldn’t you, then seek out Run (not to be confused with the TV series of the same name on HBO in 2020). It’s well honed, well developed, and smartly constructed to deliver enjoyable thrills and payoffs for viewers. It might not have more on its mind than entertainment but that’s fine when the movie is this well done.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Kenneth Lonergan has had quite an up and down year. He started the year co-writing the atrocious What Planet Are You From? and writing The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle to ending it with the character ensemble piece that ran away with an armful of awards at Sundance. Lonergan uses subtle moves to create a vivid mosaic of small town America and family relationships with You Can Count on Me. In film, quite often do we see the relationships of sisters or brothers (maybe too often). Rarely, though, do we see a thorough drama hinged upon the relationship of a brother and sister. Both torn by their genders yet always drawn together. You may kid, and get angry, but when danger arises you will always come to the defense of your sibling. It’s this seperational friction yet togetherness that creates the brother-sister bond.
Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo are brother and sister who years ago lost their parents to a horrible automobile accident when they were young. Forced with the battle of growing up with grief, each goes their separate way. Ruffalo is branded the “difficult” rebellious one, yet deep down he knows that his publicly deified sister is just as much the rebel. Linney is a single mother dealing with the pressures of raising her son (a Culkin kid) and working in her town’s bank branch headed by her new boss (Matthew Broderick). Her brother reappears in her life suddenly and the two learn a little form each other. With her brother she can rely on someone else to watch her child and experiences another flash of the mischief that she had to forfeit from her childhood in order to raise her younger brother. Ruffalo provides the male figure her son is lacking and begins to shed the boy’s over protection and opens him up to the world. One experiences responsibility, one experiences release. but do either learn? That is a good question.
Lonergan crafts a subtle texture that allows his characters to breathe and grow but not necessarily learn. His modest character-driven picture may make you think of Made for TV but its a slice of life that’s immersible. It’s hard to find a film that is subtle, at its own pace, and restrained when it needs to be.
Linney is fantastic as the sister that breaks loose and winds up sleeping with her boss with reckless childish rebellion. Her performance is an Oscar nomination lock as her character runs the emotional gamut. Ruffalo is amazing and establishes himself as one to surely look out for. his mannerisms and expressions are wonderful and his demeanor is reminiscent of Marlon Brando.
You Can Count On Me is a wonderfully affecting story about people who are more complicated then simple plot synopsis will allow. Lonergan has crafted something of an anomaly in modern cinema: a film that takes its time, doesn’t answer any questions, but makes us feel all the better after seeing it.
Nate’s Grade: B+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
You Can Count on Me was a breath of fresh air in 2000. It was an impressive star-making performance for Mark Ruffalo, who would go onto three Oscar nominations and be the Hulk people actually wanted to see. It was a showcase for Laura Linney, her biggest big screen role to date and earned her an Oscar nomination, her first of three. It was the first personal movie by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, a playwright who had become one of Hollywood’s popular writers for rewriting studio projects trapped in hell. Lonergan was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, losing to Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, and then finally winning the same award for 2016’s emotionally devastating Manchester by the Sea. It’s strange to recall that the biggest name involved with this small, character-driven indie wasn’t any of these three but Matthew Broderick, drafting off his mordant turn in Alexander Payne’s Election. This is one of those slice-of-life movies where the characters are the driving force of the plot, where the small connections and mistakes are the ones that resonate most. And yet, I didn’t see it back in 2000 but I did upon my re-watch, there’s a degree of broad sentimental contrivance as well, an element missing in Lonergan’s latter efforts, including possible masterpiece, 2011’s Margaret.
We follow the lives of two very different and not so different siblings coming back together. They’ve been orphans since they were children and had to rely upon one another. Sammy (Linney) is the responsible one with the good job and a young son she’s raising on her own. Terry (Ruffalo) is the irresponsible one who gets into fights, can’t keep a job, and served a little time in jail he was embarrassed to tell his sister about. He comes back initially for some quick money, to the disappointment of Sammy, and then sticks around longer and longer, bonding with his nephew and going through old and new arguments with his sister over his life decisions and direction.
It doesn’t take long to realize Lonergan’s striking ability to compose naturalistic dialogue that has pinpoint precision when it comes to characterization. Watching any pairing of characters has the wonderful effect of the best plays, where that intriguing combination of character interactions is like an exciting chemical reaction, creating something new and welcomed. Every conversation then takes on meaning to see how the character interactions change or influence the participants. It means that Lonergan is generous and judicious with his details. A dinner meant to be celebratory can become a re-airing of grievances and disappointments. A night out hustling pool can go from being a bad idea to becoming a male bonding experience that has to stay a secret. The characters are so richly observed and developed that You Can Count on Me is implicitly saying to its audience, “Hey, no matter the scene, you can count on me.”
The relationship between Sammy and Terry is the most emotionally resonant and complex, with each of them defying the easy characterization they’ve been assigned as Good Kid and Bad Kid. He’s resentful of his sister and her judgement when he thinks she can be just as irresponsible. She’s resentful of her brother and his immaturity and inability to put down roots, bumming around and getting into the same old scrapes. Coming back together, each reconnects on a personal and family level where they may be combustible but they realize how much they need and love one another. A final heartfelt goodbye between them, while waiting for a bus to take Terry away, becomes an awkward but affecting moment because they really don’t know when their paths will cross once again. Sammy sure hopes it’s sooner, as her young son has grown attached to Terry. I think deep down Terry hopes it is as well and likes the comfort and support offered from this family that has an open spot in waiting for him on call. He’s ostensibly leaving to make things right with his girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend? It’s unclear since he’s been away) and has grown as a person from the experience of being an uncle. He’s not at the end of his arc, wherever that may eventually lead, but he’s moved closer on that journey. That’s a good summation for all the characters. There aren’t clearly designated arcs but nudges along a very human path to growing and learning.
Ruffalo (Spotlight) instantly grabs your attention. His performance almost has a shy obstinance, like he doesn’t want to be seen by the viewer, tired of the judgement he knows is coming, and he’s constantly retreating inward in defense and score-settling. He’s so immersed in the character that the actor dissolves entirely. His commitment to character is immediate. There was a reason he was drawing comparisons to Marlon Brando upon release. Linney (Love Actually) is terrific as well as the flabbergasted older sibling tired of having to play parent to her rebellious brother. She has many moments of exasperation with her brother, the men of this small town, her ineffectual boss she has a short-lived affair with. She’s drifting just like Terry but doesn’t realize it; Sammy vacillates between wanting to settle down with a nice boring guy who says he loves her. She’s been stuck fulfilling responsibilities for so long that her brother’s return allows her to cut loose a little bit, to be bad again, to make careless and selfish choices. Linney serves as a strong anchor for us as well as an example that being an adult doesn’t mean being in control.
Where You Can Count on Me slightly falters, and not by much, is the inclusion of storylines that feel a bit too maudlin and TV-movie-of-the-week. There are two tracks of emotions in the movie, subtle and overt, and it’s become clearer which is which upon re-watch twenty years later. I almost feel like Lonergan included some of these parts because they made selling his indie easier to studio executives. The affair Sammy has with her boring yet sleazy boss (Broderick) offers no real insights beyond Sammy’s capacity for self-destructive whims. She keeps coming back to this weak man, maybe because there’s no future with him since he’s married and his wife is pregnant, and maybe because she knows she can drop him. I started groaning whenever her boss called again, so desperate for one more last time, and that is likely the point. It’s watching someone continue down a path we all know should be avoided. It also explains how she might have ended up with her son’s father, played by Josh Lucas (villain in 2003’s first Hulk movie). Terry decides the little kid deserves to see his father and the unannounced visit doesn’t end well. The bad dad denies he is even the father, they get into a fistfight, and the little kid gets to feel abandoned all again. These broad dramatic moments stick out amidst the more subtle and naturalistic movements throughout. It’s not enough to drag down the whole of Lonergan’s enterprise but they feel like discordant notes in an otherwise sumptuous symphony where all the players are working in impressive synchronicity.
Looking back at my original review in 2000, it hits a lot of the same observations that came to me in 2020 re-watching the movie. The complexity of the characters, the unobtrusive direction, and the naturalism of top performers is as evident back then as it is now. It’s easy to see what drew such celebrated actors to bring life to these people. Lonergan gained confidence as a writer/director and held true to his visions, including a five-year struggle with producers over his ambitious artistic intentions for Margaret that brought in none other than Martin Scorsese to play as elder statesman deal-breaker. His works have become more intimate and insular. Looking back on his first film, which Lonergan even has a small acting role as the town pastor, is like watching the first steps of an artist who would later sprint. You Can Count on Me is a funny, poignant, and engrossing character piece on sibling rivalry and small-town conformity, but it’s also got a few issues that Lonergan would shed later in his career. Come to see a young Ruffalo tear through scenes and Linney match him moment-for-moment.
Re-View Grade: B+
If you’re not familiar with quirky writer/director/performance artist Miranda July, she specializes in a special kind of weird that borders on surreal and also a surprising emotional poignancy. It’s been 9 years since her last feature film, The Future, and she’s back with what might be her most narratively focused and accessible yet still wonderfully weird movie yet. We follow a family of grifters (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger as the parents) and their day-to-day struggle to con, skim, or steal enough money to get by to the next day. Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is their only child, and her role in the family is thrown into question when a new member joins their team. Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) has connections to a raft of senior citizens so desperate for attention that, if they all pose as Melanie’s family, they should be able to con these old folks of possessions they can resell. From there, the movie becomes a push-and-pull relationship between Old Dolio and the influence of her shifty family, and she questions her place in this fringe unit and whether her parents actually love her or see her as another means to get a score. Kajillionaire is loose in plot but populated with interesting characters who feel fully realized by July’s writing. She’s so good at studying human behavior and capturing it that the quirky details all feel so genuine and meaningful. Even Old Dolio’s name is a reminder of her parents’ opportunism and problematic parenting skills. She was named after a homeless man who won the lottery under the hopes that he would be grateful and put her in his will (he ended up spending his fortune on experimental cancer drugs). That’s the difference with July. A silly name could just be a disposable oddity, but for her it’s a reflection of a character’s worth and history. There are moments in the movie that achieve a level of artistic transcendence where every piece is humming beautifully together, like one moment where a dying elderly man off-screen directs the grifter family to pretend to be like his own flesh-and-blood family. They play pretend at domesticity, each assuming a doting role, and the tranquil scene of a fake family feels beautifully attuned. The moments stand out more than the whole but July’s empathetic appreciation of human fallibility keeps her from ever condemning Old Dolio’s scheming parents too much. Even the very end finds a way to turn betrayal into a message of humility. Wood (Westworld) drops her voice several octaves, wears baggy clothing, and looks extremely awkward when it comes to human contact. Rodriguez (Annihilation) is the voice of the audience and her test of how far she’s willing to excuse the selfish behavior of this clan of cons. Her burgeoning friendship and maybe more with Old Dolio is a rewarding enterprise for the characters and the audience. Kajillionaire is a gentle little movie that plays at a low-key range of human emotions yet it can still be deftly funny and surprising and heartfelt on its own unique terms. With Miranda July, she makes weird entrancing and human.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The story behind The New Mutants is decidedly more interesting than the movie itself, the last of the twenty-year span of Fox X-Men movies. There was a three-year gap in between trailers for this movie, an adaptation of a Marvel comics series and fronted by co-writer and director Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars). It was originally supposed to come out in 2017, and then it was delayed with the rumors that Fox wanted to push for a more prevalent horror angle. There were rumors of extensive re-shoots, possibly half the movie, and then the Disney merger effectively froze the post-production process, and then the rumors were that the film was removing all the elements to tie it into the X-Men universe, to stand on its own. Apparently, all of this speculation and the talk of re-shoots was a lot of hot air and the finished film is what was originally back in 2017, before the X-Universe imploded with the great Disney takeover. Because of the many years of delays and gestating rumors, The New Mutants became a strange artifact of another time and fans began anticipating how bad it might be and whether they might ever really see it. Finally released at long last, The New Mutants is only aggressively mediocre and thoroughly boring.
Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) wakes up in a strange asylum. She’s the only survivor from her reservation where something powerful and supernatural attacked. The medical facility is run by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) and secluded in the country. It’s also kept under a force field until the mutant patients make breakthroughs on their paths to processing their trauma and controlling their volatile powers. Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams) is from Scotland and was hunted as a demon by religious extremists. Illyana Rasputin (Ana Taylor-Joy) was terrorized by Slenderman-like intruders as a young girl. Roberto de Costa (Henry Zaga) accidentally burned his girlfriend alive. Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton) lost control in his town’s coal mine and is responsible for several deaths, including his hard-working father. Together, they uncover the sinister forces keeping them trapped and confront a powerful menace from the past to gain their freedom.
Even with years of curiosity and anticipation, once it got started, I found myself nodding off during The New Mutants. This is because the script by Boone and Knate Lee (Kidnap) is predicated on predictability. Of course, you know exactly what will be revealed about this so-called helpful medical facility. Of course, you know who will be revealed to be part of that conspiracy. So then we wait for the obvious plot turns and bide our time for close to an hour with each mutant experiencing their own It-style scary encounter with a trauma of their past. Since we have four additional supporting players, each contributes a PG-13 studio spooky set piece until we reach our most obvious reveal about who is responsible for their worst nightmares coming to violent fruition. Seriously, just having read the above, I guarantee that the majority of you can figure out all the spoilers I’m dancing around. This is the kind of movie that quotes the “two wolves” metaphor (“Inside every person are two wolves…”) though the internal animal is changed into bears to align more with Danielle’s native culture. Makes me wonder if every person has two of different animals fighting for dominance within them (“Inside every person are two really irritable ducks…”). This metaphor is hammered home multiple times so you better believe it’s going to relate to our final climax. Normally, I would cite this as smart screenwriting, layering in setups and connecting theme to a personal confrontation. The showdown though is so goofy and the final villain free of personality, because ultimately the final villain is a symbol, an idea, and that is too vague and prone to basic platitudes on fear and responsibility.
The characters are also a major flaw for The New Mutants. It feels like somebody was trying to follow a formula of popular teen movies and sticks with the stereotypical stock roles but gave it a slightly modern twist. Our lead character is indigenous. There’s a chaste lesbian romance. There’s a level of diversity here even if fans of the comics also have expressed insult at possible white-washing of a Brazilian comic character’s ethnicity. At its core, the characters are still the same high school cliche roles: the Mean Girl (Illyana), the Outcast (Rahne), the Tomboy (Danielle), the Jock (Roberto), the Poor White Trash (Sam). It’s not too difficult to imagine The Breakfast Club faces being reapplied into these familiar roles onscreen. They even have a cheesy “cutting loose” montage when their authority figure is away that might remind you of that John Hughes classic. Worse, the characters just aren’t that interesting, each defined by their past that figuratively and then quite literally haunts them. This leads to some intriguing moments of them reliving horror but no sequence makes any character more interesting. The fears don’t provide further insight. Illyana might be the most annoying character of the group. She’s immediately pushy, malicious, racist, and her combination of powers just doesn’t make any sort of sense (teleportation and a disappearing arm sword, huh?). The boys are boring but Danielle is just as boring as our lead. The only character with a spark of possibility is Rahne and her push against religious harassment. If you’re going to be trapped in a contained thriller with a group of super-powered teens, could they not be more interesting than this sullen lot of underdeveloped high school cliches?
For a movie that was supposed to be something different, it’s the flashes of horror that made me wish the extensive Fox re-shoots had been real. As a mystery or an action movie, The New Mutants isn’t going to be able to compare to the highlights of its fabled franchise. The action at the end feels rushed and sloppy. However, it could have found a tidy place for itself as a more adult horror movie within the broader X-Men fold. The spooky set pieces don’t have much to them because they’re meant as passing torment, reminders of negative feelings rather than extended sequences. They can be eerie and made me wish we could dwell further with this. A horror movie in a confined space with teenagers with powers they didn’t fully understand or couldn’t control, I can see the possibilities there aplenty. That’s what makes it all the more disappointing how predictable Boone and the filmmakers go with their one-off genre riff. The creepy Slenderman creature design is actually good, though I don’t really know if they are real in this world or a figment of Illyana’s childhood imagination. I don’t really know much about the rules of The New Mutants, so when it takes its turns, I was mostly shrugging and saying to myself, “Well, okay then.” Why do these super powered and angst-ridden teenagers never attempt to overthrow the one woman who patrols this otherwise empty facility? I watched Roberto repeatedly wash a giant soup vat in the empty kitchen when he could have been plotting escape. Who is consuming that much soup on a regular basis between the six of these people?
In short, The New Mutants was not worth its unceremonious three-year wait. It’s a middling super hero movie with flashes of potential, especially when it could have been something so different and new than any of the previous X-Men flicks. The movie is so easily predictable that I’m shocked more effort wasn’t put into its scary set pieces to better compensate. There are more twisted accents in the movie than genuine twists and genuine scares (your ears may bleed). It’s barely 85 minutes long and you feel like it’s gasping for breath by even that modest run. It never quite feels like the concept of a horror movie set with super heroes was ever really well imagined. If this is the actual preferred version Josh Boone always had in mind, it still manages to feel incomplete and underwhelming in execution. It’s not exactly a good comic book movie, or a good horror movie, or even a good movie. Thus ends The X-Men. Rest in peace.
Nate’s Grade: C
Russell Crowe (The Nice Guys) plays a deranged motorist with a serious case of road rage in Unhinged, an otherwise forgettable if competent thriller only notable for Crowe’s unnerving performance and as the first widespread movie in theaters after the COVID spring shuttering. It boggles my mind that enough people would rush out and risk personal safety to see this movie but I guess people can be desperate for a return to normalcy. In Unhinged, young mother Rachel (Caren Pistorius) is late dropping off her teen son to his school. She enrages Crowe in a traffic altercation and from there he plots her abject suffering for his twisted vengeance. Crowe’s character, simply labeled “Man,” is the wrong person to anger. The opening sequence involves him popping pills and then murdering his ex-wife and setting her new home ablaze. He’s an unstable psychopath who feels wronged by women and looking to hurt them for these perceived slights. He’s irredeemable, though the movie thinks it’s making him more “complex” with its slapdash attempts at back-story. The problem here is that Crowe’s antagonist is too powerful and omnipresent and our protagonist keeps making stupid decision after stupid decision. Even after her friends and family are threatened, or worse, she doesn’t seem to be making smart decisions, like involving the police or reaching for help. There’s a contrived reason to rob her of her cell phone but then she just gets a different phone, so why even bother? Even as she’s being hunted down by a guy who is sweating toxic masculinity, it can be strangely hard to root for Rachel because of the annoying bad decision-making. Also, her own back-story is weak. She’s going through a divorce and also might be bad at meeting deadlines, which relates to what later? The thriller sequences are serviceable but uninspired. Crowe is the only real reason you should watch Unhinged. He could have gone on auto-pilot for a standard paycheck psycho villain role and instead becomes truly terrifying, settling into a twangy American accent and leaving you wondering when his anger will snap. He’s at his scariest when he’s trying to sound reasonable or thinks he’s sounding reasonable. There’s a strange coda where Rachel withholds honking her horn after she almost gets run into by a speeding driver. The movie treats the concluding moment like a learned lesson but it feels more like bizarre victim shaming. She should have honked her horn at this driver, who was in the wrong, and she deserved to honk her horn originally with “The Man” for his vehicular infraction. She shouldn’t have to withhold her response out of fear that he other driver might overreact and seek out her friends and family and murder them. What a strange lesson for Unhinged to be imparting for its audience.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I don’t know who this new 2020 Craft is intended for and I don’t think the movie knows as well. If you’re a fan of the 1996 original, which has developed quite a reputation for many millennials, then I think you’re going to be relatively disappointed with this remake/reboot/sequel, whatever Blumhouse is calling this. By that description it should be evident that The Craft: Legacy has a bit of an identity crisis. It’s not exactly a remake because it retains so little from the original except in its witchy teenage premise, it’s not exactly a reboot because it doesn’t come together on its own for a new identity, and it’s not exactly a sequel because the only tangential connection to the original is tacked on in the literal final seconds of the movie. If it was trying to please fans of the original, it’s too lacking, and if it’s trying to chart its own course for a new generation of fans, well that doesn’t work either. As a result, it’s another PG-13 remake of an R-rated move that feels like it’s playing to a different crowd.
Lily (Cailee Spaeny, Bad Times at the El Royale) is the new girl at school. Her mother (Michelle Monaghan) is remarrying Adam (David Duchovny), a popular motivational speaker with three older sons of his own. She befriends a group of diverse teenagers when they suspect Lily might have the potential for special gifts. The girls try sending Lily a psychic message and then ask her to join their fledgling coven. The four of them combine their powers and promise to use their synchronicity for good to push back against the patriarchy.
That narrative uncertainty of writer/director Zoe Lister-Jones (Band-Aid) seeps into every moment of the 97 minutes. You get a sense that Jones had a central topic she wanted to provide commentary and then a checklist of “witch stuff” to include that she wasn’t sure about. The activation of the powers in the original related to outcasts grabbing a power denied to them, getting even, going too far, learning some lessons, and then our protagonist having to topple her new friends and the danger they posed thanks to their new powers. With The Craft: Legacy, the magic feels like an afterthought to changing hearts and minds. We only really see one spell and its lengthy outcome where Lily makes her high school bully woke, and he stays that way and joins the girl group as their sensitive pal. This is, by far, the most interesting part of the movie, and yet there’s a larger implication that the movie ignores because it would place our heroines in an uncomfortable light. They’ve reformed the bully into a model citizen of a modern mature man who can admit his vulnerabilities, but they’ve also robbed him of agency and free will. Is this version of him what’s really hiding underneath, or is he simply being manipulated by their spell? This subplot gets more attention than any of the other witches combined. I don’t know anything about the other friends in the group, besides they take their witchy duties seriously and one of them is trans. They get assigned elemental powers later (Earth, Fire, Wind, Water) and that is more definite characterization than anything else. If you asked me what their names were or their defining personality traits I would be stumped.
After last year’s Black Christmas remake, it’s peculiar how closely The Craft: Legacy is following a similar formula. I applaud the diversity behind the camera and having female directors remake these stories for a new time and a new audience, and the concept of toxic masculinity as a threat to all women is potent and provides plenty to work into a horror/thriller dynamic. Yet Black Christmas had to go one step further by saying the evil fraternity that was preying upon women was secretly mind controlled by an evil magic goo of evil. It lets them off the hook. Now with The Craft: Legacy, we have an obvious villain as a symbol of toxic masculinity, and because he’s so obvious I kept waiting for him to be a more insidious foe, manipulating young men into a warped way of thinking about strength and virtue. However, this doesn’t happen. The antagonist feels like any generic abusive husband on any disposable Lifetime original TV movie. The topic doesn’t feel explored or nuanced for its big theme or cleverly matched up with the iconography of horror for extra genre commentary. What about the different sons? couldn’t they reflect different stages of his influence? Or the young and more innocent son, couldn’t he be a target of reprogramming? The movie doesn’t give us anything to really chart. It feels like much must have been left behind through several edits. If Jones and her team wanted to use their movie to make a pertinent statement on toxic masculinity, I was hoping for more than a relatively obvious, “It’s not good.” Even the Black Christmas remake gave its theme more consideration than this and talked about its generational impact.
In the original, each member of the foursome has a backstory, a personality, a central conflict before and after developing her powers. While the conclusion was like Wicca X-Men, the rest of the movie was an effective high school drama with relatable characters. They were Catholic schoolgirls rebelling against their school and their families in the 1990s by practicing witchcraft. It was a statement. Now, the girls practicing witchcraft in a regular school during modern times just feels like an accepted experimentation from a culture that has become more tolerant, and that’s fine, but that means the movie has to provide other avenues to make new statements. The lackadaisical response to the supernatural really harms the movie. It makes it feel like the hook could have been anything. If the characters are given great power, use it sparingly, and then decide they might not be responsible enough so soon after, that’s simply boring storytelling. That’s the equivalent of a man finding a wish-granting genie, and then after the first wish where he asks for new pants he decides, “Oh, too much for me.” This is what I mean by The Craft: Legacy being too timid about being a supernatural horror thriller. It’s got the feminist perspective you’d expect from the underdog characters gaining powers, but it’s lacking a fundamental understanding or appreciation of its genre. It’s mostly confined to multiple nightmares and the occasional jump scare. The concluding good powers versus evil powers face-off is so awkward and cheesy that it deflates any good will earned.
The Craft: Legacy is a perfunctory remake/reboot that doesn’t seem interested in its characters, in its supernatural horror aspects (a sleepwalking brother that’s used as a jump scare and never explained?), or even in the exploration of its major theme on toxic masculinity. There isn’t much in the movie that is outright bad but there is nothing that shines either or proves to be memorable. The 1996 original isn’t exactly a genre classic but it looks so in direct comparison to this flat rehash.
Nate’s Grade: C
Lars von Trier’s latest shaky video opus is likely the most unique movie going experience you’ll have all year. Dancer in the Dark is a clever, heartfelt, and achingly beautiful tale of sorrow and redemption. Dancer stars Iceland’s version of Madonna in the elfin Bjork. She plays Selma, quite possibly the nicest but also most stubborn person in the world. She’s an immigrant in 1960s America working long and odd hours to ensure that she can raise enough money for her son. You see Selma is slowly going blind but continuing to work so she can make sure her son will not have to suffer the same inherited illness. So she works late on heavy industrial machinery causing accidents as her condition worsens all to stop her son’s genetic curse she will give to him. Selma’s escape has always been musicals. In life she hears music in unusual places and visualizes life stopping to burst out into a vibrant fully choreographed musical number. Selma’s life continues to degenerate along with her vision as events pile on worse and worse until they all come crashing together.
Dancer in the Dark is no picnic in the park. The movie is haunting but incredibly depressing. Lars von Trier’s previous film (Breaking the Waves) was another wrenching drama with good people going through rough times with no fraction of light at any end of a tunnel. His jerky handheld video work is back capturing the life of Selma and seemingly framing it in a more realistic sense. The video images are edited to look like a documentary and the whole feel is one of raw power. You aren’t merely watching a film, it’s like you are in it witnessing the actions from the sidelines. The escapist musical numbers are shot in glorious still film to contrast the drab realism of video. The colors are bright, the faces are happy, and the cinematography is a wonder to envision.
Bjork soars and delivers what should be an Oscar-caliber performance. I never knew the queen of alt-rock had such emotive powers. Selma’s innocence is keenly expressed in Bjork and her glassy eyes. Her love for her son is no more evident then all the suffering and tragedy she goes through. All of the suffering and tragedy could be avoided – except her son would not be helped.
The ensemble around Bjork work fantastic magic as well. Peter Stormare is a sad figure trying to just get a glimpse of Selma’s attention. David Morse is a down-and-out policeman who is Selma’s landlord and in need of some cash. He’s afraid to tell his bourgeois wife they’ve run empty with money. Catherine Deneuve turns in the brightest supporting performance as Selma’s co-worker and friend Kathy. She’s torn between trying to stop Selma from continuing on her acts that could cause her harm and helping her along her determination. A great scene as example of her care for Selma is when the two of them are in a theater watching an old Hollywood musical. At this point Selma is completely blind and can’t see what’s going on, so Kathy takes Selma’s palm and dances her fingers in correlation with the actions on screen to Selma’s delight. A simple scene yet so elegant and beautiful.
Dancer in the Dark is a wonderful piece of original film making that gives us the escape of hope and the crush of despair. Selma’s love of musicals and their role in life is perfect symbolism for discussion. Dancer will leave you with a distinct feeling by the end credits. Whether it’s sorrow or bewilderment Dancer in the Dark is a film not to miss.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I knew going back to my first Lars von Trier film was not going to be a pleasant experience, and oh what an understatement that turned out to be. von Trier has compared himself to a Nazi, his intense methods have driven his actors to the brink, including Dancer in the Dark’s Bjork who swore off the entire profession of acting after her experiences working with him. I am not surprised by this response because his movies have famously followed a formula of a woman being tortured by men, by society, by forces outsider her control, and then she suffers for two hours and dies, a victim of the cruelty of the universe. Repeat. It’s a formula that I’ve since grown weary of and after 2018’s The House That Jack Built I contemplated not watching another von Trier movie again. He just can’t help himself and his nihilistic, heavy-handed impulses handicap his genuine artistic abilities and the merits of his storytelling. Back in 2000, it all felt relatively new. von Trier was the biggest name of the Dogme 95 movement, a Danish collective of filmmakers who swore to adhere to digital video and other aesthetic rules to better replicate reality as it was, ripping away the glossy artifice of Hollywood fantasy. von Trier was subversive, provocative, and exciting, and since then I’ve broken free from the von Trier spell. I was questioning whether I would share Requiem for a Dream or Dancer in the Dark with my girlfriend, who had seen neither, and in hindsight I’m glad I picked Requiem instead (think about that, yikes).
Dancer in the Dark is a powerful experience and one that is unfortunately smothered by von Trier’s heavy hand. It’s easy to root for Selma (Bjork), a Czech transplant in small-town 1960s America (the movie was filmed in Sweden because von Trier is afraid to fly). She already has so much going against her: 1) she’s a woman, 2) she’s an immigrant, 3) she’s poor, 4) she’s suffering from a degenerative disease that will rob her of her sight. Even worse, her son will suffer the same fate unless Selma raises enough money for an operation. She takes on extra work at her factory, even if she’s not exactly qualified, and she’s a hopeful yet stubborn woman who says what she means, earning friends who will champion her. She’s also a lover of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, as they presented an escape to her as a little girl growing up in poverty. America was the land of opportunity, where everyone dances all the time, sings their hearts out, and gets the girl or the guy by the conclusion of the finale. That dichotomy, between reality and fantasy, and all the cultural and psychological commentary within, is the strongest aspect of the film and a peak of ambition that von Trier never really got close to again with his later punishing dramaturgy. The first musical number doesn’t come until 45 minutes into the movie, and by that time we have had our heroine, her plight, and the first markers of a looming tragedy efficiently established.
Jeff (Peter Stormare), a lovesick co-worker who shows up every day to maybe drive Selma home, cannot understand musicals, saying people just burst out into song and how unrealistic this is, and Selma agrees, but for her it’s wonderful. She hears music in the world around her and it gives her life, especially as her vision deteriorates. As injustice after injustice falls upon her, Selma uses extravagant musicals as an escape, where everyone is a friend waiting to jump into the number and work together. A common refrain she sings is “there’s always someone to catch me,” referencing the choreography of musicals where the dancers frolic together but it’s also her request to the universe for a little help, for someone to catch her when she stumbles and provide that level support a woman of her means and background lacked in this landscape. The musical numbers staged by von Trier have a chaotic energy to them, assembled from dozens and dozens of sporadically placed cameras. They feel like a burst of imagination while keeping an improvisational feel; less drilled than managed. The first musical number “Cvalda” is a delirious daydream where Selma imagines the various sounds of the work machines creating a percussive symphony and she’s a Mary Poppins conductor. After Bill (David Morse) dies, she retreats to “Scatterheart” to make sense of her actions, with her son telling her she only did what she had to do and Bill rising from the dead to beg her forgiveness. When she’s in solitary confinement and can’t hear any sound, Selma goes into despair. She shouts the lyrics to selections from The Sound of Music to bring music back into her isolated world. Even on her march to execution, Selma copes by turning the “107 Steps” to the noose into a song. Her last words are her singing her final goodbyes to her off-screen son, so until the end musicals were how this woman chose to compensate for the rotten luck of her life. And oh boy was it ever rotten.
There’s one scene in the second half begging for symbolic unpacking where Selma is in the middle of her trial and the prosecution calls a famous Czech film actor and dancer to the stage. It’s none other than Oscar-winning theater legend Joel Grey (Cabaret) and his character doesn’t know who Selma is, even though she told the court she had been sending money to him (she listed her son’s account for his operation under a pseudonym to not risk it being derailed). This famous actor starred in movies in her native Czechoslovakia and crossed over to American cinema. He was an idol for young Selma and another figure to encapsulate the promise of America. Then as he’s testifying on the stand is when Selma drifts back into another rendition of “In the Musicals” and Grey joins her in tapping, and he confesses, “I didn’t mind it at all / That you were having a ball / at my musicals / And I was always there to catch you.” He understands and empathizes. This scene alone is just packed with so many layers of metaphor and projection and symbolic subtext and commentary and you could probably write an entire Master’s thesis on its myriad meanings. At its best, that’s Dancer in the Dark, when von Trier is using the language of musicals to subvert their form, to lay commentary on the un-reality is a rejection of the cruelty of real life, of finding order in disorder, finding community amid a nest of selfish vipers competing for dominance. It’s when von Trier uses our understanding of musicals to really make us think about the associations and contradictions that makes this movie a stirring and sometimes sensational experience.
Alas, the artistry is seriously wounded by von Trier’s heavy-handed approach to all drama. This has become even more pronounced after where von Trier has obliterated the entire world (2011’s Melancholia) and ruined a four-hour movie with a last-second dumb joke of an ending (2014’s two-part Nymphomaniac). Subtlety is not one of the tools von Trier prefers to dabble with. It’s a shame because he’s a natural storyteller when it comes to establishing vulnerable characters in fraught scenarios and slowly raising the temperature, organically transforming allies into enemies and friends into abusers. This is done very well in 2004’s Dogville as well, a movie I would argue both plays into and succeeds his tortured-woman formula of drama and political allegory. I would say Dogville is his second-best film precisely because I was expecting another unrelentingly unjust ending for another anguished woman. However, where a lighter touch could accomplish his points, von Trier instead brings out a bazooka. Selma’s deadly encounter with Bill happens at the halfway point in the film. From there there’s still another 65 minutes of her suffering to drag out to preposterous proportions. We go through the trial, her cross-examination, her willfully keeping secrets that will only make her look guilty to maintain a promise to a dead man, and then there’s her visitations in jail, her appeal, her rejection of her appeal because the costs will empty the fund’s for her son’s operation, the realization of her impending execution, the march to the execution, her being bound to a board because she cannot stand straight because she’s so scared, her rejection of the hood, her last song while she waits for the governor’s call, and then her abrupt death. There were several points where I was just pleading, “Enough already,” because it was so thoroughly exhausting.
Selma is served to be a martyr of an unjust system that looked suspiciously on immigrants, and Selma elects to accept her fate because anything less would endanger losing what she has set up for her son’s well-being. This woman takes all this punishment and that’s the story, America. That’s the story of America, America. That’s what von Trier is getting at, but the 140-minute movie is so overdone and so drawn out to obsess over the wrongs inflicted on this poor woman that it unintentionally blunts the message. The second half becomes a passion play where we watch our poor Selma elect to accept tragedy and self-sacrifice and endure all the injustices. It’s harrowing and upsetting but would still be so if we didn’t spend half of the movie dwelling on a litany of examples of her fated misery. I’m sure others will argue the crushing nature of the injustice is meant to convey for the viewer the feeling of aggravation and outrage. I would agree that outrage is sought, but when von Trier doesn’t let up, it tilts into overwrought self-parody.
Dancer in the Dark resonates as strongly as it does because Bjork gives every ounce of herself in this performance. She was originally just going to write songs but von Trier chased her for a year to convince her to also star as the lead. There are moments of awkwardness where it feels like maybe she’s confused in the scene with what her lines are supposed to be, but then her lack of polish is revealed for its true strength. It’s a deeply, deeply felt performance, stunning in how raw and empathetic she gets, subsuming herself into the character and her tribulations. You don’t see the craft so much here as you do sheer, undiluted passion and ferocious naturalism. She doesn’t hold anything back and gives the best performance in any von Trier movie. In my mind, she had been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar that year but this was not the case; she was only nominated for Best Original Song (“I’ve Seen It All”) where she wore her famous swan dress that became a go-to punchline. She was, and continues to be, an eclectic artist and a really weird person, but man could she be a tremendous actress given the right circumstances. It’s a shame that von Trier’s sadistic directing style lead her to quit the entire profession.
Looking back on my original review, I remember seeing Dancer in the Dark with my freshman pal Kat Lewis, who was just the biggest Bjork fan you could find in all of Ohio in 2000. We were both floored by the movie, and Bjork, and cited it as uniformly brilliant. With twenty years of distance, I can say some of the ironic commentary of undercutting musical escapism feels too easy now, seeking credit for daring to ask, “Hey, what if musicals weren’t so happy, huh?” It’s still a worthwhile subversion to explore but simply presenting it as a subversion isn’t enough for a satisfying thematic focus. It’s funny that the moments that stood out to me as an 18-year-old, like Catherine Deneuve dancing her fingers on Selma’s palm to communicate the onscreen dance routine she can no longer see, are the same ones that stood out to me as a 38-year-old. Good writing will still make itself known and felt. There’s plenty to admire and, paradoxically, enjoy about such a depressing movie, but von Trier’s inability to self-edit and hold back his condemnation of humanity is what truly oppresses his movie.
Re-View Grade: B
Two new movies have been released for streaming, both coincidentally starring Sacha Baron Cohen, and both are highly political, one by design and the other through fortuitous circumstances of history regrettably repeating itself, and both are simultaneously everything you would expect from their creative forces and worth watching in our tumultuous times.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a courtroom drama depicting the injustices applied to a dispirit group of anti-war activists who were charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The various men of different backgrounds and affiliations had their reasons for being there to protest, whether it was building public support to end the Vietnam War, to gain personal publicity, or to get laid, and tensions mounted inside and out the group as the police plan to send a message, harassed protesters, and in one amazingly prescient moment, remove their badges and name tags to then inflict state-sanctioned violence. This is an Aaron Sorkin movie through and through, and his second offering as a director after 2017’s Molly’s Game, and the best thing about the Oscar-winning wordsmith is that watching one of his movies feels like you’ve just downloaded a complete syllabus. The sheer audacious density of information can be overwhelming, but when Sorkin is able to get into his well-established rhythms, the actors feel like wonderful pieces in an orchestra playing to its peak. The real-life story of the activists has plenty of juicy drama and intriguing characters and intra-group conflicts breaking open, mostly between the divided poles of political leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and counter-culture prankster Abbie Hoffman (Cohen). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul Mateen, HBO’s Watchmen) could have gotten his own movie and suffers many of the worst indignities as a member of the Black Panthers who was grafted onto the case in order to make the rest of the indicted men seem scarier by association. The consistent interference by the trial judge (Frank Langella) is shocking. It’s so transparently biased, racist, and unprofessional that I have to believe that many of these anecdotes actually happened because otherwise they seem so absurdly prejudicial that nobody would believe this happened. For a movie with such a sizeable cast of trial litigants, lawyers on both sides, friends and family, and maybe every police officer in Chicago, it’s impressive that Sorkin is able to provide so many with great Sorkin moments, meaning those grandstanding speeches, cutting one-liners, and intensive cross-examination. Not everyone is on the same level of importance. Several of the Chicago 7 are merely bodies on screen, two of the guys serve as little more than a quip-peddling Greek chorus. You sense there’s more being left out to fit into a crammed yet tidy narrative that plays to our demands for satisfying character arcs, reconciliation, and a morally stirring final stand. As a director, Sorkin doesn’t distinguish himself but he lets his meaty script and the performances of his actors get all the attention. The editing, like in Molly’s Game, can be a bit jumpy but it’s to serve the sheer size of information being downloaded during the 129 minutes. The political parallels for today are remarkable and a condemnation of our modern times. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an invigorating and, at points, exhausting film going experience that can feel like a retro, overstuffed special episode of The West Wing. It’s everything you should expect and want in an Aaron Sorkin courtroom drama, so if you’re already in that anxious camp then this Netflix original will be preaching to the overly verbose choir.
Secretly filmed over the past year, Sacha Baron Cohen reprises his outlandish Borat character to once again lampoon people’s not-so-hidden prejudices, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and misogyny, which seem to have only gotten worse since the first Borat movie in 2006. The flimsy story follows international journalist Borat returning to America to help improve the standing of his home nation Kazakhstan by offering his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) to the Trump administration. It’s really just a platform for Cohen to adopt a series of disguises (his Borat is too recognizable) and dupe some rubes while exploiting their ignorance and patience. Much of the entertainment comes from the cringe-inducing interactions of how far Cohen and Bakalova will go, marveling at their improvisational skills and also dreading what lines they might cross next. I was laughing fairly consistently, though the schitck naturally won’t be as funny the second time around, even with a 14-year gap in movies. I was really impressed by Bakalova and her own commitment and quick-thinking, keeping pace with a pro like Cohen and really stealing the show because Borat can’t go out in public as before. There are some outrageous moments that work, like Cohen imitating a country singer leading an anti-masking crowd into a singalong with ridiculous verses, and some that simply don’t, like an ongoing stretch where Bakalova explains the appeal of masturbation to a gaggle of deadly silent Republican ladies. Sometimes the comedy seems so broadly caricatured that it’s questionable whether its helpful or harmful, especially the anti-Semitic tropes that Cohen embraces as means of satire. Saying something outrageous to an outraged or shocked party isn’t quite enough. When compiling these hidden camera comedies, they thrive on the oxygen given to them by the targets of the prank. If they don’t really engage, it can feel a bit tired and desperate. I’d say the ratio of hits-to-misses is about half and half but the movie has enough big moments to keep fans happy. The most notorious moment has already been widely disseminated through social media and serves as the climax of the movie, strangely both as the high-point of pranks with big names but also as the emotional catharsis. Tutar poses as a foreign journalist and interviews Trump surrogate Rudy “America’s mayor” Giuliani, who drinks, goes into a hotel bedroom alone with Bakalova, and then lays on the bed while slipping his hand down his pants (like a gentleman does). Borat realizes he doesn’t want to offer his daughter to this creepy, sleazy man and rescues her because he truly does care about her. Borat 2, or Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, takes a scattershot approach to satire and squarely aims at the science-denying MAGA crowd celebrating the excesses of their leader (who doesn’t sound that different from Borat, come to think of it). It might be more admirable in intent than execution but the new Borat can provide a few belly laughs and a more than a few groans as Cohen attempts to make American funny again.
Trial of the Chicago 7: B+
Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm: B-