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I CARE A LOT reveals Netflix’s care for algorithms

It’s a good day to be alive Queens and Kings, because today we’re going to do a quick review of I Care A Lot.

I Care a Lot is a dark comedy thriller directed by J Blakeson and released exclusively on Netflix.

I had some mixed thoughts on this movie, but I mainly wanted to talk about it because it’s the third Netflix original film I’ve seen in the past month and surprisingly I feel the exact same way about this movie as I do the other two. Those other two being White Tiger and The Dig, which could not be more different than I Care a Lot… so what’s going on here? There are three things I wanted to talk about this movie.

I want to talk about the strange creative decisions around the beginning of this movie. I want to talk about deranging depiction of this amoral character. Then I want to muse a bit about how this movie was made in the first place.

Premise

I Care a Lot is about a professional legal guardian who manipulates U.S. Courts to take advantage of seniors. The justice system in America allows judges to declare seniors unfit to make their own decisions if accompanied by a diagnosis from a doctor. The main character of this movie — Marla Grayson, played by an excellent Rosamund Pike — has created a racket between a local doctor, a nursing home director and herself. The way it works is the doctor identifies mentally unfit seniors with a lot of money and declares them unfit to make decisions. The doctor then tells Marla who becomes the senior’s legal guardian and possesses all their stuff. Then Marla puts the senior in a nursing home with no way of contacting the outside world and sells all their stuff for personal profit. It’s a pretty despicable thing to do, but potentially an interesting character to explore. One day, Marla does this scheme to a senior who’s connected to the mob and a very angry Peter Dinklage arrives to settle the score but Marla will not back down. It’s kind of a whacky premise and that’s a lot of what I want to talk about in this movie.

Strange Creative Decisions

After watching three Netflix movies in a month, I am convinced they have some internal list of production requirements for every movie they make. This list undoubtedly includes every movie needing to begin with some kind of summary of what’s going to happen. I imagine this is because they have terabytes of data showing most people drop out of a movie within the first ten minutes. With the competitions of the attention economy, Netflix of course needs to do everything it can to prevent people from doing anything but watching their content all day. So this company — seemingly a celebration of the arts by making film more accessible to more people — it uses its multibillion dollar resources to force all creatives to shoehorn in an extended trailer in the first 10 minutes of their movie. It goes without saying, this makes the movie worse.

I Care a Lot opens with a monologue from Marla justifying her amoral worldview intercut with a montage of one of her victims attempting to retrieve their mother from her scheme. This is a pretty fine introduction on its own, showing the chaos and anger created by her work although she likely never sees that up close. It’s a good way to give the audience the full perspective on her character. She may be the main character of this movie, and we may come to root for her in some way because that’s how stories work, but she’s not a sympathetic hero. That’s what this introduction establishes. That’s all fine, but immediately afterward we get an uninspired courtroom scene where Marla basically reiterates the specifics of her character, her scheme, and the plot of the movie.

Now, there’s a compelling counterpoint here. This movie has a lot of complicated moving parts and you could argue the audiences needs a way to know what’s actually happening in plain English because not everyone can intuitively understand how a doctor’s office could conspire with a legal guardian and a nursing home. And I might agree with you most of the time. But what’s so bizarre about I Care a Lot’s handling of this type of introduction is it flatly redundant. The scenes after this bad introduction show Marla putting together her latest scheme. She calls the nursing home director about a vacancy in his institution that she gets first dibs to fill. She meets with the doctor who explains why one particular senior is a “cherry” because they have no living family so Marla can easily manipulate them. And best of all, we get to see Marla make her case to her own victim when she shows up to her house and applies thinly veiled threats while still pretending to appear as the good guy in the situation. All of this builds an intriguing main character while giving us all the context we need for her story. If you watch this movie and you skip the entire courtroom scene, it not only still makes sense — it is a significantly better movie.

The reason it’s a better movie is because that opening monologue influences every subsequent scene we see with the character. The monologue acts as the “real Marla” and in every scene we see her in afterward we are always searching for her real Marla — the ruthless capitalist who’s willing to extort the disadvantaged for profit. When we watch her interact with medical professionals or justify her actions to her victims, there’s a tension for the audience because we have reason to believe she’s putting on an act and we’re waiting for her to have a crack in the façade.

But we don’t get that experience, because in the first ten minutes Marla makes a very see-through case for her career so audience members barely paying attention will get the memo even if the movie’s playing in the background while they’re cooking mac and cheese. And that courtroom scene not only serves as exposition, but it also blatantly establishes the extent of Marla’s ruthlessness. She has this super aggressive confrontation with a victim outside the courtroom where she makes it very clear she’s a sociopathic bitch.

Personally, I think this detracts from the movie because we don’t see that side of Marla’s ruthlessness until maybe halfway through the movie. It’s almost like the movie was written without this bullshit 10-minute opener and would’ve been way better without it.

And I want to throw in here, this is also true for the other two movies I mentioned earlier. White Tiger opens with its story in media res, so you get a random scene from the end of the story and spend the entire film leading up to that moment. The Dig also gives a broad overview of the purpose of the movie and leaves nothing to be surprised by later. In all three instances the same thing can be said: these creative decisions may have hooked in some viewers to watch past the first ten minutes, but those decisions also flatten the emotional weight of the narrative beats later in the movie. As a result, all three movies feel really by-the-numbers. There’s no tonal or emotional weaving of the story. It feels like something made through focus-testing.

Strange depiction of amoral character

That leads me to my next point which is the strange characterization of Marla, which — yeah — seems like the result of focus testing in the most pessimistic way possible.

There’s a school of thought that screenwriting is actually the art of manipulation. This is best expressed through a bible for screenwriters called “Save the Cat,” by Blake Snyder. This book gets its title from a recommendation made within it to make your main character likable before you progress with the plot so the audience is invested in their story. The book explains how this is relatively simple to do and references an older movie where the opening scene shows the main character saving a cat from getting run over by a car. This is an inside joke for some screenwriters now, for example the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis opens with its main character saving a cat, and that’s actually the only driver for the narrative for 30 minutes or so. Anyway, I’ve read Save the Cat and I thought it was a bullshit book. Maybe a great way to make formulaic movies with no emotion, but nothing earth shattering in terms of advice. The most memorable thing about that book is its many examples of manipulative filmmaking techniques to trick audiences into unearned emotional attachments. Like if the fact a character saves a cat dramatically changes your view on if they’re a good person or not, you’re probably not watching a very complicated film.  

What’s so upsetting about I Care a Lot’s variant of Marla saving a cat is it does so by making her a feminist. Here’s the scene:

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Ok, this guy just had his mother stolen from him by a parasitic purveyor of the worst sins of corrupt capitalism. She has extorted a vulnerable elderly person, sold all of her belongings, liquidated all her assets, and irrevocably devastated this person’s family. She did this on-purpose, it’s not a side effect of some other goal she had, the goal is to manipulate to extort these people into bankruptcy until they are dead. If the word “bitch” is meant for anything, it is used to describe people like Marla. It is deranging to me that some Netflix producer did the calculus of “man, our main character is a rotten amoral villain, how can we turn that around for the audience?” And the answer they came up with was “Let’s make her a boss ass bitch too. That’ll make it ok.” She’s also gay. Fill out that spot on the Netflix writing bingo.

Just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being a feminist. There’s nothing wrong with being gay. But obviously neither of those things make you immune to being an asshole, which Marla undoubtedly is. And whenever the movie feels like it needs to re-up its sympathy for her character it plays on those two points. “People don’t like me because I’m a woman” and “Oh no my poor girlfriend was hurt.” If people don’t like this character, it’s because she belongs in one of the deepest layers of hell. Honestly, she makes the murderers in this movie seem likable by comparison. And it’s not because she’s a woman or gay, it’s because she sucks. As maddening as this was, I should acknowledge the movie does leave a window of potential irony near the end. Which would suggest the people who made the movie may know Marla is a bad actor by using this argument… but I’m not confident that’s the case so it still left me shook.

Movie as Mad Libs

That whole thing was so disturbing to me because it was emblematic of a general problem with this movie which is it doesn’t feel like a creative work, it feels like a movie made with mad libs. What if an amoral gay woman with legal expertise tried to kidnap a mob boss’ mother? There’s nothing inherently wrong about that, but every part of this movie seemed guided by some strange algorithm for audience retention rather than any real storytelling. Like despite themes about morality and perseverance, it’s not really about either of those things. It’s about the next plot beat. It’s about getting you to the end of this movie by dangling bite-sized conflicts until you get to the credits.

I may be making huge assumptions about how this movie was made, but it doesn’t seem implausible given the end product — which is what it is, it’s not really a movie it’s a product to waste your time on. Not unlike a really long doom scrolling session on Twitter or Tik Tok. This movie is just something to do.

And can I say I don’t understand that business model for companies like Netflix. Wouldn’t you rather put out a movie that gets genuine recommendations, rather than trick people into watching something mediocre? Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. They must be happy with the results though because I can’t think of a single Netflix move I’ve liked. Some of the TV shows are ok, but they all seem like generic filler.

And that’s what this movie is.

I give I Care a Lot a 2/5. It’s not terrible. If you skip the first ten minutes it’s actually close to an average movie overall, but by the second half it really loses anything it had going for it and you’re just finishing it because, it’s just something to do.

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Movies

10 Years Later… THE RAID is the most influential action film of the modern era

It’s a good day to be alive Kings and Queens because we’re talking about a very important film called The Raid.

The Raid is a 2011 Indonesian martial-arts action film directed by Gareth Evans. The Raid turns 10-years-old this year, and I am specifically talking about it today because of a vote from my supporters for what I should review next. If you’d like to vote on the next movie I review, feel free to check out the details in the description or watch this video until the end.

The Raid is a movie that made a splash to the few people who saw it when it was first released, but it has grown in renown through spirited word-of-mouth in the action genre community. The status of The Raid is raised every time a new film comes out that has clearly taken inspiration from it — which at this point might be every action movie made. The Raid may not be the best action film, but it is easily one of the most influential.

I haven’t seen this movie since it came out, and returning to it a decade later was an interesting experience. It remains a movie that’s clear-eyed about its identity and what it does best, but so much of the movie has been absorbed into the mainstream filmmaking it doesn’t have the same spark of magic in once did. If you haven’t seen The Raid already, but you’ve seen movies inspired by it — you may not be able to experience it in the same way that made it so influential when it was first released. But it is undoubtedly a movie that deserves to be preserved in history for the impact it made on action filmmaking.

There are three things I want to talk about with this movie:

I want to talk about its minimalist or nonexistent storytelling. I want to talk about the action choreography which will make up the bulk of this video. Then I want to talk a little bit about the production of this movie and how it may have impacted its original critical reception.

Background

Before we talk about this movie though, it’s really vital to understand the context of the action genre when The Raid was released. To put it bluntly: action movies were in a bad place.

In 2011, the defining action style was the infamous shaky-cam — the shorthand phrase for a handheld operated camera with shakiness applied intentionally. Originally seared into audiences’ minds by the Blair Witch Project, shaky cam was later embraced by director Paul Greengrass who heavily relied on it throughout the Bourne trilogy. The Bourne series showed even Matt Damon could look cool if you shook the camera enough. It also had the added benefit of making the fictional world seem “realistic.” Shaky cam sequences didn’t have the distinct shine of planned-out big-budget set pieces. Therefore it was a technique that was not only an innovation in camera operating but conveyed a sense of chaotic realism that defined this era of cinema. Throughout the mid-2000s there was a trend of gritty realism in film largely due to the prevalence of shaky cam. You can see some very appropriate usages of this style in movies like 28 Weeks Later, Children of Men, or I Am Legend. But the shaky cam went from popular to parody when it became a crutch for filmmakers who didn’t understand why it was used in the first place. Shaky cam is great at setting a chaotic mood or intentionally disorienting the audience, so if you don’t want to do either of those things… it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use it. Yet during this era there were many movies where more-than-capable action stars had their talent squandered by a style meant to obscure what the audience could see. Movies like The Expendables, Quantum of Solace, and Transporter 3. Of course, the reason these movies used shaky cam was because it was something new to liven up a genre that had largely stayed the same for decades.

Prior to the gritty realism of the 2000s, action movies were defined by a glossy professionalism, often carried by charismatic stars cracking jokes and skulls in equal measure. This was such an established formula, Hollywood had practically engineered the perfect action star and copy/pasted them three separate times. That’s how we got Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Sylvester Stallone — among others. Each had their own claim to fame in Conan the Barbarian, Die Hard, and Rambo. These movies are still celebrated as genre classics, but like any trend it eventually fell out of favor. These stars from the 1980s were forced to experiment in the 1990s with various degrees of success. I think the story of each of these actors speaks to the stagnating appeal of the action genre. Schwarzenegger was the most willing to court more cerebral filmmakers and found a lot of artistic and commercial success in movies like Total Recall, Terminator 2, and Last Action Hero. In fact, Last Action Hero was very much an ironic criticism of the genre that hadn’t changed in years and even that movie was more than a decade old by the time The Raid came out. Bruce Willis seemed to abandon the action genre entirely, instead transitioning to the film equivalent of a pop star. He seemed to take whatever role was handed to him — which may have worked well enough, but the point being his career wasn’t flourishing because of an innovation in action movies but rather his decision to leave them behind. It wasn’t until later in his career he went back to the genre with significantly diminished returns. Meanwhile Stallone’s career most embodied someone sticking to their guns as he continued to release very traditional action movies like Judge Dredd, Rocky V, and Demolition Man. All of these are footnotes though his declining career… though I actually like Demolition Man.

All of this is to say, by the 2000s the laurels of big explosions, one-liners, and muscular dudes weren’t something the genre could rest on any longer. It also couldn’t recreate these stars no matter how hard they tried to replicate them in The Rock, Vin Diesel, or Jason Statham. Because like many American trends, the commercialization of the action genre had become so much about the branding that it lost its soul. And the soul of the action genre has always been in Asian martial arts. 

Today we see martial arts as a stylish version of violence, but the precursor to the modern action film was the martial arts film. These movies were not necessarily violent so much as showcasing an artform. The concept of an action movie came out of films marveling at the incredible feats of people like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. The true appeal of martial arts is witnessing a beautifully choreographed display of human strength and agility. Of course, it helps it culminates with someone getting kicked in the face. It was ultimately the artistry of martial arts that created a sense of awe for viewers and inspired a fandom for the genre. Hollywood discovered the awe of martial arts could be replicated with stunt work, special effects, and whatever else money could buy. This worked for a little while, but by the late 90s movies like Con Air and The Rock were still trading in the cheap currency of explosions and corny jokes. Meanwhile movies like Face/Off or even Rush Hour managed to inspire some sincere appreciation among audiences. It’s also why martial arts stars like Jet Li, Donnie Yen or Tony Jaa could be celebrated as successors to the legacy of martial arts — but the same could not be said for American action stars active in the same time period. Even the de facto Western action hero — James Bones — had gotten so dull that series was outdone by the Bourne trilogy.

The genre had become so hollow and derivative, any tiny bit of innovation had the potential to influence the entire industry. This is why the Bourne series’ approach — with its very specific gimmick — was misapplied to a bunch of movies which had no business utilizing shaky cam. Filmmakers were willing to try new things because knew they needed to rejuvenate the genre, but it was more than that. The reality was the genre had needed saving for a long time.

And that is when The Raid came out.

Premise / Minimalist storytelling

Typically, I give a premise of the movie I’m talking about instead of going through its story because I think too many reviews just mindlessly recite narrative beats as if that conveys some judgement on the quality of a movie. The Raid is unique because there is no story. There is only a premise. The main character is named Rama — not that you’d ever know that by watching it — and he is a member of a special forces unit sent to raid a tenement owned by a drug lord. The raid on this building goes bad and he has to fight his way to the top to take out the drug lord. By the way, the drug lord has two associates: Andi and Mad Dog. Mad Dog is the more apparent antagonist in the story and Andi is Rama’s brother, not that that matters.

I’ve always believed the narrative of an action movie should exist to serve the action of the movie. This is a point that often gets lost whenever there is something I liked disproportionately more than general audiences. For example, I have a very high opinion of movies like Crank, Desperado, and Lucy. You might say you don’t like those movies because they are idiotic. I would not argue against that, but they are all movies that have a clear understanding of their purpose. You want a movie with constant action? Ok here’s a guy who has to keep his heartrate up or else he dies. You want a movie about a badass guitar player who shoots guns? Ok, we put a gun inside this man’s guitar. You want a power fantasy? Ok, here’s a lady who gets exponentially more powerful until she… whatever happens at the end of that movie. These movies have a purity to them. More importantly they never slow down for an asinine narrative no one cares about. Does anyone really care about the romantic interest or is that a cheap attempt to attract female audience members? Does anyone really care about saving the world or is that an excuse to make an action movie in the first place? The Raid has no sense of obligation to the tropes of the genre and it is better for it. It is a movie about cops and robbers shooting each other and that’s all you need to know.

I like that this movie doesn’t waste its time on unnecessary plot details, but it’s worth noting this was the prevailing criticism of the movie at the time. Roger Ebert was one of the critics who said the movie doesn’t have a plot but only “plot markers.” He also said The Raid was more comparable to a video game — which anyone who knows Ebert’s views on video games will interpret that as a slight on The Raid’s legitimacy as art. If you’re one of those people who see action movies as all mindless violence, I can understand how the lack of narrative elements may lead you to believe The Raid is some gross fetishization of violence. However, that reductionist view of The Raid misses its greatest accomplishment which is innovating on cinematic action.

Action choreography

The Raid’s biggest innovation in action filmmaking is such an obvious creative decision that you wonder why it took so long for someone to figure it out. Although, you could argue it’s how the genre started and it took this long to go back to the roots. Rather than cast a charming lead actor and sending them to stunt boot camp for months, The Raid casts established martial artists with a lot of experience doing action choreography. This is what the action genre did originally when they took advantage of the talent of Bruce Lee and put him in film. The main character of The Raid is played by Iko Uwais and prior to working in film, Uwais was a delivery driver for a company not unlike Fedex but for South East Asia. He practiced martial arts as a hobby and was by no means an aspiring actor. Director Gareth Evans met Uwais when he was working on a documentary about martial arts in Indonesia. This is also true for Yayan Ruhian, the actor who plays Mad Dog. Ruhian was a martial artist by trade, working as a trainer and referee before he was brought on to The Raid. While the Director Gareth Evans is the person who put together the entire production, a lot of the fight choreography was done by Uwais and Ruhian — including scenes with neither of their characters.

The martial arts background of the cast and production is what gives The Raid’s action such a unique feel. It was a style that was antithetical to the action genre’s obsession with shaky cam at that time. The camera shots in The Raid show very clearly what is happening in the fights. The movie can do this because the stars don’t need a handicap to sell the action. The Raid doesn’t have any of the classic tricks of working with stunt professionals like exclusively showing a character from the back, or intercutting close-ups on their face to distract the audience from recognizing there’s a body double being used. These are conventions that were in place for so long, I’m not certain filmmakers or audiences realized just how limiting they were to the action genre’s potential. The Raid executes its action without these limitations providing a spectacle many people had never seen before. You’re not suspending your disbelief and imagining a fight taking place, you’re seeing one happen in real time.  

The action choreography does the heavy lifting but the camera work and editing play a significant role in The Raid’s success. I said before The Raid was antithetical to shaky cam, but it’s worth addressing the movie does have a lot of shaky cam. There are some production reasons for this — mainly to create the chaotic atmosphere of a mission going bad — but a key difference between The Raid and other movies is its willingness to string together its stunts into a cohesive fight. You never get lost in what I refer to as “the geometry of the scene,” which is a way of saying: am I getting lost in what’s happening? Getting lost in the geometry of the scene means you have no sense of place, you’re confused by what’s happening and you don’t understand how characters get from one shot to the next. Geometric challenges are not exclusive to action movies. Amateur filmmakers often get this wrong because they don’t know about basic continuity like the 180 degree rule. If you compare two movies with different views on the geometry of the scene, any viewer can feel the difference even if they can’t articulate what it is.

Take this bank robbery scene from Michael Mann’s Heat. There are multiple characters in a huge open room but there are several shots designed to give you your bearings. You have a clear sense of the size of the room. You know where each character is standing. You can see how far away they are from each other. You have a general sense of who is in the scene and the film editing is practically invisible. You’re watching to see what will happen next.

Compare that to the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time which uses long lenses and a lot of close-ups so you don’t get anywhere near the level of familiarity of the scene as you do in Heat. This constriction is very obvious to the viewer — even if you can’t describe it how I just did. As a result, you’re yearning for additional information from the movie. Where are these characters? What does the room look like? How many people are there? The Safdie Brothers are doing this intentionally because they want the audience to feel uncomfortable in this scene. The point is — intentional or not — the filmmaking makes it difficult to understand the geometry of the scene. Many action filmmakers create the same effect in their movies, but it’s not intentional it’s just sloppy.

The Raid goes out of its way to maintain the geometry of the scene. One of the most effective ways it does this through consistent transition shots between one stunt to the next. In traditional Hollywood action, the filmmaking is driven by obscuring the magic of filmmaking — specifically the presence of stunt professionals. You’ll have a shot of an actor approaching someone they are about to fight, then a hard cut to the actual fight performed by a stunt double, and then another shot after the fight is over. Obviously that’s a huge simplification, but you get the idea. There is a practical reason for this, but it makes it easy to lose track of what’s going on if you have an inexperienced filmmaker or editor. Some of the decisions that lead to losing the geometry of the scene are in service to hiding stunt professionals. In fact, after shaky cam became popular, some action films took the approach of drowning the action in an avalanche of quick cuts so you’re never certain when a stunt begins or ends. The Raid does not take that approach. Since the stars are capable martial artists, you don’t need to fool the audience through a lot of cutting. There’s actually more cuts during a stunt than in between them. This may not be obvious to the ordinary viewer, but try paying specific attention to this one detail: count the times the film shows an uninterrupted flow of Rama finishing with one foe and beginning with another. It’s pretty frequent and as a result you always know what’s going on. You can always see where he’s coming from and where he’s going next.

Not only does The Raid keep the geometry of the scene, but it’s uniquely aware of the fact these stunts take place in an actual world with characters who want to use everything they can to their advantage. I can’t count the number of times an action movie explains why a character can’t just shoot everyone or why they’re fighting with their fists instead of using a weapon of some kind. The real reason is the people designing the choreography on these films aren’t necessarily afforded the luxury of incorporating props or expanding the budget for flashier maneuvers. They have to contain their stunt work to the bare essentials and that’s evident in a lot of action movies. Whereas The Raid’s fights use the environment quite a lot, tossing guys into walls, using shards of glass from broken lights, or — in what is one of the more memorable moments of the movie — performing a finishing move on a broken doorway. The action of The Raid understands the potency of short-term gimmicks like incorporating a unique weapon in a fight or responding to the floor falling apart. It uses enough of these gimmicks to liven up the stunts beyond constant fisticuffs and it makes sense given the world of the film. Random thugs would use whatever advantage they can to get one over on a trained commando. The prevalence of unpredictable elements contribute to the believability of the world while providing an extra spectacle of danger to all the action.

The achievements of The Raid’s action go beyond above-average competency in camerawork and choreography, there are also some fun shots throughout the film. A lot of these more memorable shots are a result of the cameras utilizing fig rigs — a kind of circular piece of metal where the camera is placed in the center of the rig and operators hold on the outside. This rig allows operators to whip the camera or rotate it with a lot of accuracy. The most common fun shot is when Rama or someone else does a spinning kick and the camera movement adds a greater sense of inertia by following that movement in sync. Another fun shot is when the camera passes through a hole in the floor, which is actually a practical effect rather than an editing trick. One camera crew is lowering the rig to another. This is only possible because the rig is small enough to allow for that type of transfer.

The Raid’s chief interest in serving the action of the film results in a movie cast by capable martial artists, with the support of a production crew that knows how to get the most out of that talent. It was this keen understanding of how to maximize the return of the movie’s best elements that made it such a groundbreaking film. With all that said, I do want to take a minute to address some elements of the movie that haven’t held up as well as its main draw.

Production elements

One of the weaknesses of The Raid is its uninspiring post-production work. Most notably its dull gray color grading that saps any personality from the movie. I want to be clear and say this is not a criticism of setting the movie in a location that’s supposed to be depressing and gross. I understand the desire to portray a drug lord’s headquarters as an undesirable location, but there’s a way to do that without making the movie look like shit. On this very channel I have reviewed movies like Leviathan, which are all about drenching the audience in a sense of hopelessness and some of that comes from the drab environments of the story. And I can think of plenty of other movies that portray locations like the one in The Raid but they don’t look anywhere near as bad. Hell, even Dredd — the movie people claim is basically an adaptation of The Raid for American audiences — that movie uses high contrast and selective bright colors to effectively portray the grimy ugliness of the slums. Whereas The Raid is defined by low contrast and washed-out colors… honestly this movie might as well be in black and white.

I think this lifeless visual style is what attracted so much negativity around The Raid’s violence. It’s not just that the movie is violent, but it creates an atmosphere of coldness that makes it easy to assume the filmmakers are masochistic and revel in the dark cruelty of violence. Personally, I believe this was simply the result of new filmmakers experimenting with their style. Unfortunately for them, this particular style is a detriment to what the movie wanted to accomplish.  

I’m also not a huge fan of the music in this movie. I had a joke in here saying it sounded like imitation Linkin Park instrumentals, but I looked up the composer and discovered it was Mike Shinoda. Who is… literally the guy from Linkin Park. I guess that’s why it sounds like that.

Closing thoughts

Anyway, like any truly groundbreaking work, The Raid has a collection of flaws that may make it difficult to enjoy for normie audience members but make no mistake — it is the movie that changed action for modern filmmaking. Even though I can probably make an argument that whatever The Raid accomplished was also accomplished a decade earlier in The Matrix… that would be overlooking how The Raid had a fraction of the budget, no star power whatsoever, foreign language barriers, and literal “guy off the street” choreographers advising the stunt work and yet it was still incredibly successful.

I don’t think The Raid’s influence on the industry can be understated. If it were not for The Raid the identity of some of the best movies in the past decade would be remarkably different. Movies like Mad Max Fury Road, Kingsman, Fast and Furious, or Alita Battle Angel would not have the technical proficiency and visceral action that The Raid paved the way for. This is without even acknowledging the existence of the John Wick franchise — which is almost certainly an extension of what The Raid accomplished. I think I can even argue someone at Disney saw The Raid because the action sequences in Captain America Civil War and Iron Man 3 are incredibly different from the first installment of both of those franchises. The latter installments have clear inspiration from The Raid’s focus on coherent technical stunt work rather than the smoke and mirrors superhero movies typically relied on.

Of course, the greatest legacy of The Raid is its sequel The Raid 2 — which is frankly a better movie by every possible metric. The cinematography is beautiful, the action choreography is just as visceral, there’s actually a story with memorable villains, and it crafts an epic tale rather than a 90 minute distraction. Since the first movie had no meaningful story, it’s reasonable to skip it and go straight to the sequel if you’re just looking for something good to watch. But as someone who loves movies — specifically as someone who loves action movies when they are done well — The Raid deserves historic recognition for basically saving the genre from irrelevancy.

It helps that the production crew of The Raid are so humbled by its success. Gareth Evans is actually a Welsh director — he’s not from Indonesia or anything, he just happened to be shooting a documentary there. And it’s not like he had a pedigree of films before making The Raid. He saw an opportunity to work with some talented people and pursued it. In kind, the stars of this movie saw an opportunity to make something fun and they just went with it. And now they’re scattered across Hollywood with Iko Uwais appearing in other Hollywood action movies, and Yayan Ruhian is now active in Asian cinema. So not only is the purpose of The Raid relatively pure, but it’s creators have a similar purity.

These creators weren’t descendants of famed martial artists or renowned Hollywood directors. They’re just regular guys. This may not be obvious to people watching this, but if you’re making martial arts documentaries in Indonesia — that’s like the film industry equivalent or working an office job. You get assigned a project and by the time it’s done you may have enough to file for unemployment until the next mercenary job is assigned to you. And some of these guys were literally working in the gig economy before they got the opportunity to work on something cool. Each creator had their own interest in the project and they brought their passion and ideas to the film. Some of them wanted to distill action to its core essentials and some of them wanted to showcase the martial arts they had performed all their life. They worked well together because they were all in it to make something they were proud of.

And as a result, they changed the action genre forever.  

Categories
Movies

2020: Top Films of the Year

Hello to all you beautiful queens and kings of kino. It’s the end of December and time to rank my top 10 favorite films of the year. 2020 was a weird year for movies. A lot of stuff was pushed back but more importantly without the theater industry driven to fill its screens with new and relevant movies — I found it way more difficult to hear about new worth-seeing films. This was exacerbated by a lot of distributors flatly rejecting the option to make new movies available on video on-demand services like Netflix, HBO, or even Amazon.

This continues the long legacy of corporations refusing to respond to market innovations until they are practically forced to. It only took a global pandemic for Warner Brothers to bring all movies to streaming services that have existed for half a decade. But this has always been the case. I think about how it wasn’t until season 4 of Game of Thrones – in the year 2014 – that HBO shifted to a strategy of offering the show on streaming services rather than their previous strategy of bragging about how frequently their content was stolen. It really is incredible the lengths Hollywood executives will go to keep things the same. Which is another way of saying shout out to Searchlight Pictures the distributor of Nomadland. Apparently it’s the greatest film of the year — I wouldn’t know because I can’t buy it anywhere and don’t live in Los Angeles.

Anyway, this problem led me to watch a lot of the movies I saw this year within the past two weeks. I caught up after all the other end-of-year lists started coming out. I have not seen absolutely everything — I didn’t see Borat or Sonic or the concert movie people claim is more than a concert movie — but anything I think was in my wheelhouse I gave a shot. So here’s the list

10. The Queen’s Gambit

We’re actually going to start this list in the classic fashion of naming a piece of work that doesn’t meet the qualifications for this list. It’s the Queen’s Gambit. I’m not generally a television fan but I can make an exception for miniseries that are very much intended to be a tightly defined story with a beginning and end with no opportunities for a sequel of any kind.

The Queen’s Gambit is a 9-part adaptation of a novel by the same name following the story of Beth Harmon. Beth is forced to restart her life at a young age after her mother commits suicide, leaving her to an orphanage where she picks up an uncanny ability for chess. It is accurate to say Queen’s Gambit is “the chess show,” but the story goes beyond the limits of what you might expect from a sports drama about chess. It is just as much about pursing passion, the true definition of family, the loneliness that comes with being truly gifted, and the obvious challenges of being an intelligent woman in the late 50s and early 60s.

Of course many shows are about many things, but Queen’s Gambit felt unique in its ability to draw a through line between so many seemingly disconnected aspects of life. Beth Harmon feels like a person that actually existed, which I think is the reason why so many people are surprised and disappointed Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction. In a way, the fact your audience believed it was a true story is the greatest compliment that can be made about a character study. It’s a story that literally feels real.

And the show creates such an excellent sense of time and place. I really felt like I could connect to Beth regardless of if she was a pre-teen, figuring our adolescent romance, or struggling with a quarter-life crisis. I also loved that this show comes as close to saying “it’s not about the destination, it’s the friends you make along the way,” without actually saying it. And even more surprisingly when that moment lands it feels genuine and endearing. I really loved this series and considering Netflix has some revulsion to shows going on longer than 4 seasons, I hope they consider the miniseries format for their future projects.

9. Devs

Another miniseries that doesn’t technically fit this list. If you’ve talked to me about movies for any length of time I’ve probably shared my deep love for the work of Alex Garland, the writer and director of Ex Machina and Annihilation. This year Garland continued his self-prescribed habit of departing as much as he can from his previous work by taking up writing a miniseries instead of another feature-length film. Devs has absolutely everything I love about Alex Garland.

The premise is cerebral and on the cutting edge of science fiction and philosophy. Devs is a secret organization within a Silicon Valley megacorporation attempting to create a reliable simulation of the future. The concept of this project begs many questions posed by the philosophical concept of determinism. Determinism is the idea our cells and DNA make up complicated personalities that interact with a phenomenally complex world… but ultimately our decisions can be understood by a complex algorithm and therefore mapped out and predicted by a powerful enough supercomputer. If this is too dense for you already, it may be helpful to know the viewpoint of determinism is typically countered by the view of free will. So the question is basically: you there, the sense of consciousness you feel inside your head while you’re watching this video right now — do you have control over your body and its fate or are you merely a pilot bringing yourself to a predefined end. There’s even a specific scene in one of Devs’ later episodes where you have a proponent of determinism argue against a proponent of free will and it’s not a conversation that pulls any punches for general audience. Both of the characters in that scene make pretty coherent and nuanced arguments for their respective viewpoint.

I really loved that scene, but Garland isn’t making movies for just me. That’s probably why the first four or five episodes of Devs really have nothing to do with any of the philosophizing I just mentioned. Garland may be a sci-fi and philosophy geek but he’s not an idiot. He knows he can’t just plunge people into these conversations and expect to keep their interest. Devs is really just as much a stress-inducing espionage thriller as it is a cerebral musing about the nature of existence.

Garland’s movies get a lot of press for their intelligence, but its really his characters that carry you through these stories and Devs is no exception. I think the main character of Devs is the most believable average person I’ve ever seen in a thriller like this. Lily is a smart person, but she is clearly outgunned by nefarious megacorporations and the sinister intent of reality itself. She really gets her shit rocked throughout this series, and I think it takes some humility to recognize if you were in her shoes that’s pretty much what would’ve happened to you too. There are some other great characters, although I will say the one weakness is Nick Offerman who honestly looks so god damn retarded in this series I never took him seriously, but anyway.

As someone who is a fan of Garland, I really loved watching him work in the miniseries format because it was a true display of his full ability in filmmaking beyond his writing that’s so frequently commended. There’s really only so much you can accomplish in a movie without diluting your vision for a project. Garland’s first movie Ex Machina was intellectual, witty, and subversive but mostly a very narrative-driven story. His second movie — Annihilation — had a premise that allowed him to do a lot more with visual storytelling, ambitious computer graphics, and genre-blending. But Devs’ concept and its miniseries format let him go far beyond anything he’s done before. Since he has 10 hours to work with he can set aside 3-5 minutes at the beginning of every episode experimenting with bizarre montages, which is something he wouldn’t necessarily be able to do with any movie. Of these sequences, the one that plays before episode 3 is honestly one of the most unnerving things I’ve seen and despite the overwhelmingly discomfort I felt during it, I went back and rewatched it three or four times just to get a true sense of what I was looking at. That moment of rewatching the same sequence multiple times, really defined my whole experience with Devs. It was truly captivating — to such an extent that I regret all the other times I’ve used the word captivating because this time I really mean it.

That said, the problem with making a show about determinism is you can see the ending from a mile away. The show writes itself into a corner in that way. That’s obviously disappointing, but everything before the final pair of episodes is really unique and easily one of my favorite filmic experiences this year — and if I was allowing miniseries to go anywhere on this list Devs would have easily been my #1.

8. Corpus Christi

One last rule-breaking entry. Corpus Christi is a Polish language film that was technically released in 2019 but it didn’t hit wider Western audiences until earlier this year — and a bunch of other year-end lists are using it so I am too.

Corpus Christi is about a troubled teen named Daniel who is released from juvenile detention and sent to work at a sawmill as part of his parole. Before leaving juvey, he’s shown having an appreciation for religion and a good relationship with the detention center’s priest Father Tomas. Once Daniel arrives to his assigned town, instead of going to the sawmill he decides to go to a church where he tells a half-assed lie to a cute girl that he is not some punk kid but actually a priest. This lie escalates into a full-on performance as Daniel finds himself impersonating a priest, but he’s pretty happy to be avoiding life at the sawmill so he keeps up the ruse.

Daniel hosts a variety of sermons and his interpretation of religious teachings is progressive to say the least. His liveliness reinvigorates locals in the town who have struggled with their faith after a tragedy took the lives of several teenagers in the community. He enjoys some early success, but things get complicated as his past comes back to haunt him.

Priest impersonators have been a thing for a long time, but the details of this story really hit at a good time for where we are in history right now. There are record numbers of people abandoning traditional religions but still maintaining a sense of “spirituality” with loose definitions. In the United States specifically, some 43 percent of Americans identify as “spiritual but not religious.” The implications of that have been extensively talked about in a book that also came out this year called Strange Rites — which I also highly recommend. Corpus Christi doesn’t quite reach the potential of its concept, but it is an intriguing look at the religious rules we hold firm to and the ones we’re more willing to relax.

It is a movie that takes a bit to get going, and I will say the ending doesn’t do anything interesting with its story, but it’s a thought-provoking concept that allows the film to persevere through its weaknesses.

7. Another Round / Druk

Ok let’s talk about actual movies from this year. Druk, or “Another Round” as it has been marketed in the West, is a Danish-language film starring Mads Mikkelsen. It’s about four high school teachers who decide to test a philosopher’s theory that human beings are meant to maintain a .05 blood alcohol level at all times because that level of toxicity unleashes our true self.

This is obviously a very silly premise for a movie but it does well to have fun with its concept. It is surprising how effective this movie is at portraying the fun of day-drinking since it’s literally an ancient pastime. Stories like Druk have always been about providing the audience with a vicarious experience of what would happen if you finally let loose like you were in college. This appeal is a big part of what made rated R comedies like American Pie so successful — especially following a largely conservative monoculture that dominated the 80s and early 90s in the United States. Druk succeeds at holding its own when compared to other raucous comedies, but it really distinguishes itself by presenting an honest examination of the appeal of drug abuse, while maintaining the inevitable pitfalls of such a lifestyle. Obviously if there was no upside to this drug abuse, no one would do it. But Druk is clear-eyed about the short-term gains of relaxing your stodginess, and even moreso about the problems that arise from lying to yourself about your own bad habits.

The second half of Druk takes a darker turn and exemplifies how any party-hard personality trait is typically hiding some deeper depression. Whether that is a midlife crisis, chronic loneliness, abdication of adult responsibilities, or marital concerns. I liked that this movie could show both sides of the issue and gracefully transition from the comedic elements to the more dramatic ones without any tonal issues.

Mikkelsen adds a lot to this movie, most of all to its ending where he drunkenly dances for a solid five minutes. I imagine the filmmakers believed was the climax — and to their credit it was the best part of it. Druk may be a bit of retread for some people who’ve seen this kind of thing before, but it is well-made and one of my favorites from the year.

6. A Sun

I still don’t quite know what to make of the Taiwanese epic drama film A Sun. This movie follows a family whose son gets into trouble during the opening sequence —one of the more startling examples of contrapuntal music I’ve seen in recent memory — and follows their lives for the subsequent years that follow after that event. I would describe A Sun as a “slice of life” movie which is a term that comes with a lot of baggage in my mind. On one hand, A Sun accomplishes what the best slice of life movies excel at. It does a phenomenal job dropping you into the world of these characters and giving you a wide scope of their lives throughout multiple events and tragedies. It also has a lot of excellent understated moments of tenderness that you wouldn’t otherwise get in a film with a more determined narrative. On the other hand, it is incredibly long, there’s a bunch of filler, and it’s not really “about” anything. So maybe not for everyone, and at times it wasn’t even for me. There were moments where I wanted to give up, but there are other moments that I’m still thinking about now.

Not necessarily because the scenes were so impactful, but they just resonate so strongly like a good novel. To name a few, I really liked the scene where the aggrieved father shows up to the guy’s job with a septic truck and sprays sewage everywhere. Something about that is insane enough to believe it could happen. I remember the dream sequence — that isn’t a flashy dream sequence it’s shot like any other scene — but it shows two family members in a moment of intimacy that’s not present anywhere else in the film, which really expresses the sadness of their interaction that’s exclusive to the dreamworld. And the ending scene is similar where a mother and son just ride a bike through town, which really has no further subtext or meaning, but in the context of the rest of this two and a half hour journey, it just hits differently.

And this whole movie is backed by this nostalgic or idyllic score that adds to the emotional impact of every beat it lands on. Or at least it did for me. So much of your response to this movie is emotional and it either works for you or it doesn’t. It’s a film that escapes description but it has the potential to land some devastating emotional weight on you if it works. There are definitely some issues with how it tells its story, like there are a lot of monologues. But I think it’d be a mistake to discount the quality of its best moments which make it one of the best films this year.

5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

I feel like I owe an apology to this next movie: Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a movie that was pilloried by user ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, which made me erroneously assume this was some nanny activist filmmaking telling me how I should think. Instead, this movie is a very raw and realistic depiction of what it’s like for a teenager to get an abortion in the United States. You can say a movie with that premise is inherently arguing a political point, but I’m someone who is fairly resistant to that type of filmmaking and I did not get that impression from this movie. This movie is closer to being an interesting footnote in a history textbook than a traditional movie.

The story of this movie is so barebones that you can summarize it in maybe two sentences — there’s not a lot there — but knowing what happens in this movie is not a substitute for experiencing it. One of the great strengths of cinema is its ability to transport you to another place or witness the world through the eyes of someone else to better understand their experience. This movie shows just how terrifying it is to be stuck in some middle-of-nowhere town with unsupportive parents and a carousel of juvenile boys joking about blowjobs all the time. It’s not an atmosphere that can handle a conversation about abortion. It is incapable of talking about the incredible responsibility of childbirth or the long-term considerations of getting an abortion. So unsurprisingly, people like the main character Autumn are left to address this monumental decision on their own.

What I really liked about this movie was its intentional lack of commentary to any of the events. There’s not a lot of dialogue in this movie beyond the necessary interactions. There’s no character acting as a stand-in for all the talking points of pro-choice feminism. All you get is Autumn, her experience, and exactly what it entails. Many of things are pedestrian in nature, like booking appointments or pamphlets about adoption. Other things are more unique to her situation but speak to the terror thousands of teenagers experience every year. For example when Autumn is told her abortion is a two-day procedure, she has to find out some way to stay overnight in New York City without any money or alarming her parents. Regardless of your views on abortion, I don’t think the solutions she’s forced to consider are very humane or by design.

I respected this movie because it isn’t ideological or interested in changing your mind. It just wants to show you reality and maybe seeing that reality will make you think differently. Maybe your takeaway from this movie is: oh my god, I can’t believe we terrify teenagers with this messed up system. Or maybe your takeaway is, wow it’s way too easy to get an abortion. Whatever your view may be, the movie is a starting point for the rest of that conversation.

Personally, I’ve always identified as pro-choice — although I have become increasingly disillusioned by that viewpoint to the extent that I don’t have an opinion anymore (but I’m a guy so I get to have no opinion) — and this movie only furthered my belief abortion is a phenomenally complicated topic often confused by political talking points. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is not a talking point, it’s a practical depiction of reality that really captures American life in our current moment. I think it is a unique film for that reason and one of the best for the year.

4. Bad Boys for Life

Number four is Bad Boys for Life. Maybe the placement of this movie will lower your expectations for all the other movies I just talked about, but really it should elevate your expectations for Bad Boys for Life. I talked about this in my original review back in January — but I cannot understate how insane it is this movie is so good.

And I should say I don’t have any love for the Bad Boys franchise. I saw Bad Boys 1 and 2 for the first time in their entirety a mere 24 hours before I saw Bad Boys for Life. There was an Alamo Drafthouse triple feature of all the movies leading up to the new one at midnight. There was a problem with the projector so the third one wouldn’t play and we had to come back the next day. I was very grateful for that because those first two movies might provide ironic enjoyment but watching them back-to-back wasn’t something I enjoyed. So I came back the next day and was pleasantly surprised this movie was so good.

On the most basic level, it is a successful action movie. It has clearly defined characters who not only feel like real people but their personality actually impacts how they perform in the action set pieces. Will Smith’s character is the reckless hotshot who goes in guns blazing, whereas Martin Lawrence in the stodgy old guy that just wants to get back to his wife alive. There’s an obvious conflict and tension between those two approaches which keeps the action in this movie engaging and entertaining.

But this movie is not just limited to the character who’s doing the action and the other character who’s the comedic relief, because this movie introduces a squad of younger characters who not only allow for flashier set pieces, but have a tangible impact on the story too. That squad is led by a former romantic interest to one of the main characters, and their prevalence in the film brings into question the relevancy of the Bad Boys, which is part of the whole theme of the movie. The intermingling of personalities and action style shows the filmmakers knew one of the most basic principles of action filmmaking which is to make every element of the story serve the action. If you were to grade this movie for its ability to work as an action movie, Bad Boys for Life is one of the best.

What really makes this movie so good is it reuses throwaway lines from Bad Boys 1 and 2 to suggest there is some coherent storyline across the entire franchise. They redeploy all the jokes including the teenager they grilled in Bad Boys 2 or the captain’s incompetence at basketball started in Bad Boys 1. More importantly they develop the families of these characters and use them as a source of motivation for both main characters in different ways. Martin Lawrence is scared of dying and wants to get back to his wife. Will Smith has a hidden past that contributes to the antagonist of this story. All of this stuff feels so natural and obvious, you wonder why previous Bad Boys movies weren’t as good. Maybe that speaks to the genius of the writers and director of this movie, or maybe Bad Boys was always good and it took this movie for me to recognize the potential its fans have seen all along.

Either way, easily the best action movie of the year — and I did see many others. I think I would’ve had good things to say about this movie in any year, but since this year is so whacky I do think it’s hilarious this made it into the top 5, but it really is that good.  

3. The Trial of the Chicago 7

Number three is the Trial of the Chicago 7, which is a movie I actually avoided for most of the year. This movie is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin and before I saw this movie I really thought Sorkin had overstayed his welcome. I think his most interesting work in the past few years has been with directors who neuter his smarmy tone. Movies like The Social Network and Moneyball have clear Sorkin influence without being overbearing with the witticisms that I’m just kind of tired of after seeing all the television shows he’s worked on for two decades.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I finally gave Trial of the Chicago 7 an honest shot and it quickly became one of my favorites for the year. The biggest criticism of Sorkin’s style is he tends to use the same type of dialogue no matter who the character is supposed to be. Whether you’re the President of the United States, the CEO of Facebook, a 70-year baseball scout, or just a teenager — everyone talks the same in a Sorkin script. With this movie, it’s not that Sorkin adapted his style but he found a setting that makes the dialogue appropriate. His sarcastic subversive dialogue works very naturally for a group of anti-establishment activists during the height of the Vietnam War protests. All of these characters are either very well-read activists or established lawyers, so they can keep up with conversations about obscure political movements or legal arguments that would be unbelievable for an ordinary person. Additionally, the fact this trial was seen as a sham trial creates the smart and comedic tone Sorkin has been writing for his entire career.

That tone is accomplished because of the diverse and combative characters in the entire cast. The most notable is Sasha Baron Cohen’s performance of Abbie Hoffman, a radical activist who was a borderline performance artist due to his adamant disregard for the system and his knack for media stunts. I’ve been familiar with Hoffman for a while and I think his character is hammed up a little bit for this movie, but it is a generally accurate portrayal of one of the more unique figures in history. Surrounding Hoffman are various degrees of other types of activists like the buttoned-up Tom Hayden played by Eddie Redmayne, the comically passive David Dellinger played by John Carroll Lynch, and the kinda stoner bro Jerry Rubin played by Jeremy Strong. All of these characters are real people in history and their stories have surprisingly resonant allegories to the modern day. You have a group of people who have the “radical” views of: not supporting foreign wars, universal healthcare, and legalizing weed. Within that group you have strong disagreements about the best way to accomplish their shared goals. Hoffman representing the performative mockery of the system and Hayden representing the strait-laced work within the system. It’s an argument that you could argue divided the movement then, and continues to divide it now, but there has not been a final word on which approach is the best.

The beauty of Sorkin directing this story is he gives each of the characters a moment to dunk on the others, which means even the viewpoint you’re most sympathetic to gets dunked on as well. It works because every character is so charismatic, mostly due to the confidence imbued in all of them through the script. I need to point our Mark Rylance specifically, who carries much of the film due to his central role in it.

It’s a really fun movie with some significance due to its allegories to the modern day. All of those things are right up my alley. Assuming you care at all about politics or history, this is easily one of the best movies of the year but it may not be for everyone.

2. Run

My number two pick was very close to being number one: Run. Run is follow-up to 2018’s Searching. If you’ve been following my work for a while you might remember me naming Searching as the biggest surprise of that year. Directed by first-time filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty, Searching was a thriller shot entirely from the perspective of a computer screen. It sounded like a dumb ass gimmick, which is probably why I had such low expectations but that movie not only proved the gimmick could be done well, but it was also a genuinely excellent nail-biting thriller unlike anything I had seen in a while.

Run is Chaganty’s follow-up to his debut and I think it firmly establishes him as one of the most exciting young directors working today. There is no gimmick with Run, but it does have a great premise. The movie stars a mother and daughter. The daughter Chloe is bound to a wheelchair due to a variety of medical complications. She is cared for by her mother Diane who is so familiar with taking care of Chloe there’s a new tension that arises when Chloe is finally set to go to college. Chloe detects this concern and begins to believe her mother isn’t being totally honest about the status of her college acceptance. The nature of that tension and the whole history of their relationship unravels across the rest of the movie.

To explain why this movie made such an impact on me, I need to do a quick story about myself. I started doing movie reviews and video game reviews when I was in High School. I fell into journalism out of that natural interest, and there was a brief period of time where I wanted to get into filmmaking. I took film studies courses and I did film production. This was before I realized writing was really what I was good at and movies just tend to have a lot of writing in them. Somewhere in those classes I stopped watching movies the way everyone else does. When normal people watch movies, they see the story and the characters and the spectacle. When I watch movies, I see the camera angle, and the writing, and the production. When I discovered this was how I saw movies, I got a little depressed. It was like I had taught myself to not believe in magic, because I was no longer swept away by cinema like I used to be when I was younger. And there was a hole in my life because that awe and wonder that motivated me to express my own ideas through writing was now gone. But I have come to discover there are a handful of films that are so good, I can suspend my thinking brain and feel entranced by the magic of filmmaking again. That happened to me when I watched Run.

The building of tension in this movie is simply masterclass. It does a phenomenal job of teasing out information to the audience. One of the very first scenes is a classroom and there’s a close-up of a tissue box being passed around the room. It’s natural for the audience to seek answers, so immediately you’re thinking: where are we, who’s talking, what’s happening, why are they here? You’re engaging with the movie because you’re looking for something to reward your attention. This movie knows how much to give you and how much to withhold. Which is what happens in that first scene. You find out you’re getting reintroduced to Diane who says something publicly and the audience has to decide if they believe her or not. It’s inviting the audience to interpret the movie as it’s happening. Even when there is a straight-forward scene of dialogue, it’s the kind of dialogue that’s true to life. It’s messy, imprecise, and contains lapse of attention or detail. People don’t approach conversations like chess matches, so it’s believable two characters talking to one another will miss something that you caught. And the tension that comes from you discovering something becomes anticipation for when the character will discover it, or what will happen if they never discover it. This is relatively basic stuff in building tension, but it’s clear in this movie Chaganty is a student of tension and knows how to wield it with expertise. That’s pretty much all I can say about the movie, because it’s a story best experienced blindly.

I also thought the concept of this movie was very smart. It shows how a wheelchair-bound character makes every element of life so much more stressful. Something as simple as grabbing something from the top shelf or going to the store around the corner is now an opportunity for tension. And I also thought it was super cool that the person who plays Chloe — Kiera Allen — is actually someone who uses a wheelchair in real life. Despite this concept being kind of obvious, she’s apparently one of the first actors to get a starring role as a character who uses a wheelchair.

Which goes back to why I’m so excited for whatever Chaganty makes next. He’s proven his ability to be an inventive writer and an immensely skilled filmmaker. I will say the one thing his movies are missing are that extra bit of weight that comes from truly great cinema. This is one of those situations where this is a movie I’d give a 5 out of 5, but it could be eclipsed by a lower-rated movie that had more of an impact on me. Which is what’s happening right now…

1. Horse Girl

This year was immensely stressful for a lot of people, not just because of the pandemic but because we’ve been subsisting under a generation-long trend of increased depression, anxiety, social isolation, and paralyzing loneliness. This has been exacerbated by social media, cancel culture, and inaccessible healthcare specifically for mental health. With all this in mind, the movie that made the most impact on me was Horse Girl. Horse Girl has a ridiculous title and the fact it stars Alison Brie — who most people know from Community — may create the false impression this is some sort of comedy. While there are comedic moments in Horse Girl, it is really meant to be a harrowing depiction of the onset of schizophrenia.

This movie had such an impact on me because a lot of the influencing factors on the main character’s mental state are very relatable realities of being a young person in the modern day. Sarah has a passion for horses, but she’s barred from partaking in this hobby due to a tragic accident that’s only hinted at. Beyond her love for animals, she is shown to be socially isolated. We initially believe this is because she’s kind of dorky. She seems to only watch the same television show for hours and hours and she maintains this awkward cheerfulness that’s more unsettling then it is reassuring. So we assume the reason she’s lonely is because she’s kind of lame.

As we get to know Sarah more and see the various tragedies of her life, the audience discovers she is suffering from early indications of mental illness. She experiences memory loss — sometimes in the form of sleepwalking, other times portions of her recent past are missing. She’ll find herself in places without knowing how she got there or people she’s interacted with many times will suddenly look different. All of these things can be explained as something other than what it actually is — maybe she’s just tired, or she got too drunk, or some other explanation. The human mind has a way of rejecting explanations it doesn’t like and accepting ludicrous explanations that provide a sense of comfort.

Sarah doesn’t believe she’s mentally ill, instead she believes some combination of conspiracy theories like she’s actually a clone of her late-mother or potentially being abducted by aliens because of her similarities to her mother. You can tell these conspiracies are intrinsically linked to some lost individual she never truly knew. It is a common expression of the depressed to believe the person who would have understood them did exist, but now they are separated somehow and that is the source of their unhappiness. Sarah is content to pursue these theories and tell people about them because the alternative is far more terrifying. That alternative is something we all consider but never truly want to believe.

What is the answer to the question: Why don’t I have a job? Why am I single? Why don’t I have friends? Why am I lonely? Why am I depressed? Why aren’t other people like this? The answer to these questions can be very simple but we are never tempted to accept that simple answer because we’re scared of what it might mean: Maybe, there’s just something wrong with me.

I think we all experience this level of self-doubt at some point. It’s why “imposter syndrome” has become such a big thing as people in our generation are finally moving into roles of responsibility and the shift feels so dramatic it feels like an act. But more commonly, we never get a position of responsibility and we flounder in this undefined state of irrelevancy wondering why we’re stuck. Horse Girl may be about someone who has a medically-prescribed mental disorder, but Sarah’s response to these otherwise very normal sources of discomfort and doubt are as resonate as they are heartbreaking — even if you don’t have mental illness.

I really need to take a moment and laud Alison Brie’s performance as a troubled young person that seems to know she’s fucked up but doesn’t want to admit it. Her feigned enthusiasm never betrays the undeniable sadness of her character. I really connected to this aspect of her character. That attempt to match other people’s mood so there’s no reason for them to discard you. See, I’m normal. I’m enjoying this awkward event just like you. I think a lot of people attempt to do this before they ultimately discover it’s a fake mask that doesn’t fool everyone, in the same way it doesn’t fool us when we see Sarah act this way and still detect her discomfort. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but one she maintains the entire movie. It’s easy to take for granted her performance and enjoy the movie without really locating where the empathy of the film comes from, but that performance is really what makes this movie so relatable. 

I don’t know what it’s like to have schizophrenia, but I did appreciate the depiction of this illness wasn’t a bombastic science fiction allegory as we often see in Hollywood storytelling — although there is a little bit of that. The movie doesn’t use its premise as an excuse to make crazy montages, it uses the strengths of filmmaking to express the life of Sarah’s mental state. The film uses noncontinuous editing and special effects to disorient the audience to match the disorientation Sarah feels when she’s coming out of a psychotic episode. These creative decisions are to get the audience to relate to Sarah’s experience. And all of these tools are used in the context of a grounded portrayal of reality. You can almost simultaneously see Sarah’s unreliable interpretation of the world but still figure out what literally happened. Which is another way of saying it’s a movie that uses its stylization in service to the story its trying to tell. It’s not simply artsy for the sake of being artsy, it’s using the craft to tell a story that couldn’t otherwise be accomplished through another medium.

Though I will say the movie ends in kind of a disappointingly ambiguous note. Which is part of the reason I gave it a 4 out of 5 when it first came out, but it’s not enough to detract from what else is accomplished in this movie. Horse Girl offered something new to me this year. A unique portrayal of a specific segment of the human experience that’s usually only done in service to some other goal. Movies use mental illness to ramp up their whacky sci-fi thriller or to give film students an excuse to go avant garde. Horse Girl is a sincere depiction of a topic we so frequently reference without ever actually addressing. When I see a movie, I want to feel like it made an impact on my life. Horse Girl is not a pleasant movie to watch. It only offers pain and sadness, but I consider it the most impactful experience you can have, which is why it’s my favorite movie for 2020.

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Movies

MANK is an outdated relic of an irrelevant past

It’s a good day to be alive Kings and Queens because today we’re going to talk about a new movie called Mank.

Mank is a 2020 drama film directed by David Fincher, available exclusively on Netflix. It tells the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, a washed up writer who gets the opportunity to work with famed director Orson Welles on a project that ended up being known as Citizen Kane — often cited as one of the greatest films of all-time.

I did not like this movie, and it’s overwhelming critical acclaim has inspired a hatred for this film that I wanted to talk about for a little bit. I’d like to think I don’t revel in my ability to criticize, and I don’t intend to pick this movie apart, but it’s representative of a few different trends that really drive me crazy. Specifically critics who are up their own ass and people who try to valorize the past.

The things I want to talk about in this review are: The film’s assumption the audience cares about Citizen Kane. I want to talk about the indulgence of this movie. And I want to talk about how it’s purpose is flat and unearned.

Premise

The premise of this movie requires some knowledge of film history — so I want to take a moment to talk about that film history to better serve the rest of this review.

Citizen Kane is one of those cultural touchstones everyone “knows” about even without seeing it. You might assume you’ve captured all of its significance just through the osmosis of existing in a culture that has — apparently — been influenced by it so much. Alternatively, you’ve never heard of about the movie and don’t care. I actually think it’s ok to not know all of film history and still love the medium and talk about it critically. I think the mindset you need to know everything about the past is elitist gatekeeping. Even with that in mind, Citizen Kane is one of the few classic films I like. It is a surprisingly timeless film — even its editing and pacing are engaging for modern audiences — and that speaks to why it was so significant at the time of its release.

If I could summarize the importance of Citizen Kane: it was a movie that showed what movies could be. Prior to Citizen Kane, a lot of movies were — for lack of a better description — treated like an elaborate play. The camera was separated from the action, acting like an observer of a staged performance, rather than being part of a fictional world made specifically for film. It wasn’t until Citizen Kane the concept of a more active camera, and the use of montage, or framing could express ideas in a way totally unique to the film medium. It’s worth noting Citizen Kane popularized these artistic methods, but it was not the first one to do this. The most obvious example being Battleship Potemkin made in 1925 — a full sixteen years before Citizen Kane. I should also note, the director and star of Citizen Kane — Orson Welles — was famous BECAUSE of his inventive view on the art of performance. Prior to this movie he was already fairly famous for a radioplay based on H. G. Wells’ book War of Worlds. In that radioplay he made the decision to present the broadcast as if it were a REAL broadcast. There was no real effort to remind the audience this was a work of fiction — resulting in famous examples of ordinary people calling the police because they thought aliens were invading earth. The War of Worlds example ended up being a one-off — it didn’t redefine radio — but it gave Orson Welles a reputation that set the stage for the glowing reception to Citizen Kane that led many to claim it had set a new standard for film.

The technical marvel of Citizen Kane was enough to launch it into film history, but it became a true moment in American culture because of its story. Citizen Kane is about a troubled boy who grows up to become a self-made millionaire pursuing political power and status, ultimately dying dissatisfied with his life and unable to achieve true happiness. The story of “money and power won’t make you happy,” is such a cliché in today’s world, but the reason that sentiment is so well-known is partly because of Citizen Kane. I’m certain that wisdom predates the film but it was the movie that took that story and weaved it into the story of American life. And what made it even more impactful was the story was based on real life. Charles Foster Kane is an allegorical character for William Randolph Hearst, the billionaire newspaper tycoon who has a lot of similarities to the character — such as owning an elaborate castle, being active in American politics, and being generally seen as a depressive and power-hungry individual. As a character study, Citizen Kane isn’t meant to simply criticize people like Hearst, but really understand who they are and how they got that way. All of this made Citizen Kane incredibly affecting on general audiences back when it was released, and it’s ability to synthesize with greater American lore is why it’s still so relevant and watchable in the modern day. Of course the question of “who wrote Citizen Kane” is hotly disputed with some parties claiming it was all Mankewicz while others credit Orson Welles. There’s actually another movie called RKO 281 which is entirely about this writing dispute whereas in Mank it’s more of an afterthought.

Anyway that’s an abridged summary of why Citizen Kane is so highly regarded. For some amount of people, it’s impact can never be matched by any other creative work which is why those people still consider it the greatest film of all-time. And it’s more than that because to them it is something so noteworthy it’s impossible to imagine a person who hasn’t seen it. It’d be like finding a human being that doesn’t know what the Mona Lisa looks like or what All-Star sounds like.

Mank is very much a movie made for those people who idolize Citizen Kane enough to watch an aimless two-hour movie about how it was written. I can understand that these people exist but one of the reasons Mank is such a weird movie is because it is directed by David Fincher. I’ve come to see David Fincher as a director who represents rejecting… everything about the generation of people who like Citizen Kane.

Fincher is technically a boomer, but culturally I think he’s one of the defining voices of Generation X — largely in-part for his work on movies like Seven and Fight Club — two movies about the evaporation of a moral society and the rejection of traditional societal roles. In both Seven and Fight Club you see different violent responses to a culture that believed it gets to have the final word on every topic of conversation like how you should live your life, what’s considered moral, and even what art is considered “the best,” whatever that means. This mindset came from the Baby Boomer generation that grew up under unprecedented circumstances of wealth and prosperity, along with a resurgence in American individualism — which I personally believe became corrupted as a type of low-level psychosis. And Generation X was the first generation that experienced the mundane misery of constantly being told you’re wrong by this era of people who thought all problems were resolved because they didn’t have them and therefore its everyone else’s fault for not being like them. The oppression of opposing viewpoints was so widespread it gave birth to the postmodern movement — which largely derided the assumptions of prior eras in the only way that was allowed: with a detached sense of irony, functioning as a way to say what they really believed while providing a shield from criticism by claiming they were simply being ironic. Fincher’s greatest contributions to film were providing a mythos of what happens to people when they become disillusioned with the worldview that everything is so great and there’s nothing more fulfilling than corporate America. The people who left the theater thinking Fight Club was the greatest movie ever were quickly lectured about the importance of movies like Citizen Kane and a bunch of other shit that wasn’t relevant to their experience.  

This is why it’s so bizarre Fincher is the director of Mank — a movie that assumes YOU are one of these people who hold Citizen Kane to such mythic esteem. If you are not one of those people — and there’s really no reason to assume anyone is — this movie is a total failure.

Need to know Citizen Kane

I think it’s very telling the movie’s only prologue to the story is some brief text that says “Orson Welles was lured to Hollywood by a struggling RKO Pictures to make any movie he wanted.” I think the obvious question is: Who the fuck is Orson Welles? Orson Welles died 35 years ago and it’s not like his work gets regularly trotted out in the mainstream so it seems like a stretch to assume people know the name at all — and it’s even more of a stretch to assume they know he directed Citizen Kane. Which by the way, I don’t think the words “Citizen Kane” are spoken until the epilogue of the film. So all that backstory you got from me about why this movie was made at all, nothing like that is in the movie. So there’s nothing to fill in people who don’t recreationally watch movies from 70 years ago.

Also Orson Welles is named in the opener but the movie isn’t actually about Orson Welles — it’s about Mankewicz — and we never really meet Mankewicz directly or get any explanation of who he is. To me, that speaks to the film’s assumption of who is watching this movie and who the movie was made for. If you’re lost in the first 30 minutes of the movie, that’s the creators choosing to filter you because they’re not interested in sharing this work with you. More on that later.

Even if you’ve seen Citizen Kane and know who Orson Welles and Herman Mankewicz are, the first act of this film drowns you in excessive nonvital information. For one, I think it’s fair to say we never get a real introduction to Mankiewicz. You can presume he’s important because he’s played by Gary Oldman in a cast otherwise made-up of nobodies, but there’s no pitch for why he’s a significant character in this story. It also doesn’t help the film has one of the most ineffective first 20 minutes I can think of.

The first scene of this movie shows Mank with a broken leg settling into a villa to write a script for Orson Welles. After that, we see a flashback of Mank and his wife — which I think is meant to set-up their relationship but the dialogue is so dense it’s not clear what’s being conveyed. Then the story flashes back again to a week prior to the opening scene to show how Mank broke his leg in the first scene. After that we get a quick scene at the villa again, but then the movie takes a huge departure from everything it’s set up so far to establish a congruent timeline of Mank’s experience in the Hollywood studio system, some number of years before he began writing for Welles. We get introduced to this congruent timeline and the studio world through a character that acts as the newcomer to the industry. This is typically a great way to invite the audience into a strange new world of characters. As they meet new people, we meet new people, and as they get explanations about the world, the audience gets explanations about the world. But this newcomer character isn’t significant at all and doesn’t exist for this function. He’s just a way to bring us back to Mank and once we meet Mank, that newcomer character is disposed of and the film resettles on its focus on Mank and acts like we’ve been with him the whole time. The subsequent scene is Mank and company pitching some unheard of movie while referencing a bunch of other classical Hollywood landmark films and filmmakers and it kinda goes from there. Now this summary I’m giving doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I just want to say it doesn’t get any better if you watch the fucking thing. It’s a film with a weak opener. I’d say it takes maybe a full hour — if not the entire duration of the movie — to realize what it’s supposed to be about.

Indulgence into film history

Which begs the question: What is this movie about? It doesn’t seem interested in setting up any character, or conflict, or plot of any kind. And the movie has a pretty capable crew behind it, so you know if they wanted to do any of those things they could have. It’s not like no one working on this movie didn’t know the first act was confusing. They just didn’t care.

Because the movie isn’t playing by the rules of other movies. If you view Mank as a film with the goal of providing a vicarious fantasy of being a fly on the wall in old Hollywood, all of its creative decisions make sense. It’s not interested in setting up the world, because it assumes you’re deeply familiar with this world and you just want to go there. It’s not interested in establishing the main character, because having a main character isn’t important to the goal of saturating in that world. And it really doesn’t care about your experience with the movie, because it’s not about serving the audience it’s about serving the filmmakers’ own indulgence. That’s why it so brazenly drops historical reference after historical reference, in a script loaded with dense dialogue that’d be impossible to follow without an accompanying textbook. I’m even pretty certain they went out of their way to replicate the tinny muddled audio that defined the early eras of film just for the sake of “authenticity,” never mind the fact it adds nothing but inconvenience to the viewer. They might as well have thrown in an intermission in the middle of this movie made exclusively for a platform you can pause at any time.

If you’re someone that has no love for this era of filmmaking, then the movie feels lifeless. And I’ve been thinking of a good metaphor for what watching this movie feels like. This is what I’ve come up with. It’s not unlike those scenes writers do sometimes. Where two characters are introduced and the writer wants to show you these two characters have a long history and like each other. So they have Character A tell Character B this nonsensical story and it ends with both of them laughing. The audience is not in on the joke they’re laughing at, but it’s ok because the point is not to tell an entertaining story. It’s to establish the relationship between these characters. This movie feels like the awkwardness that settles in as you’re waiting for a stupid story to be told so we can move on. Except nothing comes after that. You’re stuck in this perennial state of disinterest for the entire movie.

What’s so frustrating about this is it is a galling example of the gatekeeping elitism that I despise so much about film history buffs and the boomer generation in general. Oh, you don’t like watching movies from 70 years ago to augment your experience in the modern day? Well, when I was young and retarded like you I didn’t appreciate my elders either but once you achieve total parity with my views and opinions then you’ll really appreciate art for what it is. And I’ve never bought that argument. It has always seemed condescending. I think if I need to do work to understand why art is so important, then maybe it’s just not that important anymore. I don’t think I should need any supplemental work to enjoy a film. And if you don’t do that supplemental work or have that context, Mank is a dull bore of a movie about nothing.

Unearned purpose

If Mank is about anything it is an attempt to valorize the writer Herman Mankiewicz as an overlooked hero fighting against the evils of his era. The problem with that is I cannot think of anything more indulgent then portraying the story of heroics and valor from someone who just so happens to have the same job as you. It’s like when young journalists talk about how they’re giving the people a voice or writing the first draft of history. You work at Patch.com. You’re writing the first draft of my spam folder. It’s the same thing with filmmakers who believe there’s nothing more heroic than making movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love movies and many of my favorite movies have changed my life. If there is any pride to have over artistic creation it is knowing you can change an individual’s life by providing them an expression of a feeling or thought they couldn’t express on their own. There is something very beautiful about that, but it’s distinctly different from what this movie suggests about Mankiewicz’ impact. 

Pretty far into this movie Mank finds himself in the inner circle of union bosses and political figures — as well as William Randolph Hearst — where he partakes in a variety of political discussions about socialism. There’s a subplot about Upton Sinclair running for Governor of California as a socialist — in fact the character is played by Bill Nye the Science Guy. Part of this subplot includes a friend of Mank admitting he’s taken contract work developing propaganda films discrediting Sinclair as a communist. This friend has some misgivings about his complicity in destroying Sinclair, but he’s struggling for work. Through this we see Mank develop a lot of sympathy for Sinclair, though he doesn’t do much to promote his candidacy other than making a bet during election night. You could say Mank’s experience watching Sinclair lose that election is part of what motivated him to write Citizen Kane in a way that pillories moneyed interests and power-hungry individuals.

And the film suggests this is why Mankiewicz has been forgotten to history. Clearly, the reason he was so discredited as the writer of the film is because he was ahead of the curve for fearlessly biting the hand that fed him. And I just don’t buy it that revision of history.

Film historians have revealed the early criticisms of Mankiewicz’ script was it was too complicated for general audiences with multiple timelines and nonlinear storytelling. As for his credit as writer — the dispute between him and Orson Welles had to do with a variety of on-set edits made by Orson Welles — and pushback from the studio marketing that wanted to suggest Orson Welles was a wunderkid who wrote, directed, and starred in a masterpiece. Either way, whatever valorizing you want to do for Mank you can easily apply to Orson Welles. But everybody already loves Orson Welles, so there’d never be a movie about that because it’d be kind of a no-brainer.

Instead this movie wants to suggest the alcoholic deadbeat who burned every bridge he ever made throughout his career truly had a heart of gold we just never knew about. And even that flawed individual had the power to change the world through his writing and his contributions to filmmaking. And I’m just not buying it.

Maybe if the film was any good then I wouldn’t care if it was ahistorical. Which is to say if this movie is historical, it’s still boring and confusing. But I see this potentially revisionist story as an extension of the indulgence that defines this entire movie.

At the same time, I feel bad hating the movie so much because it’s very easy for me to say David Fincher is one of my favorite directors. And it is obvious this was an intensely personal film for him because it was written by Jack Fincher — his father who died nearly 20 years ago. Jack Fincher — as far as I can tell — was kind of an unremarkable writer who never had a notable work that gained any real attention. I can imagine how making this movie was as much about respecting his father as it was valorizing Mankiewicz. Two writers who never really got the recognition they might have deserved. I can see the sentimentality and earnestness in those intentions, but when it comes to art your intent doesn’t really matter. What’s there to be experienced is beyond the scope of most people’s relationship with film and the movie makes no effort to invite them into that world and share why these people made an impact.

And it’s cringeworthy to see these critics pat each other on the back for being able to keep up with the obtuse storytelling in this film. It is as if they’re trying to convince one another they’re all in this exclusive club giving higher and higher accolades to a movie that’s just bad.

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Movies

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HEREDITARY transcends the horror genre, a new modern classic

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Movies

SHITHOUSE encapsulates everything wrong with how some men view relationships

What score would you give a movie with competent production, excellent writing, good acting, and emblematic of one of the most damaging trends in the modern era? I don’t know either, but I put a lot of my thoughts on Shithouse (or “Sh!thouse” as seen on Amazon) in this video.

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Video Games

Video: The Last of Us Part II critique