With the days growing shorter and winter well and truly arriving soon, the Netflix original historical drama The Crown once again graces our screens. Now in its fourth season, The Crown follows the British Royal Family through the 1980s, while struggling to live up to the heights it reached in its first two seasons.
As always, the star studded cast is something to be admired, with Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter, Tobias Menzies and Josh O’Connor all returning, and this season introducing Gillian Anderson and Emma Corrin as Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana respectively. Unfortunately, while this is a stellar cast, it is a crowded one, and as a result many of its actors do not get the proper space to shine. Thinking specifically of Bonham Carter, who only has one episode where she is able to show the breadth of her talents, and is sidelined for the rest of the season. That said, this season is passing on the torch to the younger generation of royals, with Charles and Diana’s relationship taking centre stage, giving both O’Connor and Corrin a wonderful opportunity to step into the spotlight.
While it is classified as a historical drama, The Crown plays fast and loose with the chronology of some events while omitting others in their entirety. While a certain amount of editing is to be expected, there are too many striking absences in season 4 to ignore. Namely, as an Irish viewer, I was particularly struck by the way the season dealt with the Troubles. Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister coincided with some of the most harrowing times of that period of Irish history, yet seemingly their only impact on the narrative is for the IRA to kill Lord Mountbatten (portrayed by Charles Dance) and for Thatcher to declare a war on them, as after this they are never mentioned again. This is, in fact, not the only war that Thatcher declares that is then nearly completely omitted from the screen, as the Falklands War is declared, fought and won within the span of two episodes, nearly completely away from the eyes of the viewers. While it is a cynical position to have, I cannot overlook the use of archival footage of protests from the 80s in the advertising material for the season, which seem to be there purely for shock value, as the text itself has no interest in engaging fully with the political and historical tremors of that period.
Ultimately, season four of The Crown is a spectacle, and is well worth a watch for its production and the acting talent of its core cast, but it lacks the heart of its earlier seasons. The Crown season 4 brings us very little to distinguish itself from its past seasons, and I find myself agreeing when Margaret says “how many times can this family make the same mistake,” as it seems each season brings us more or less the same dilemmas as before, never offering any new solutions.
I am a sucker for a Christmas film – and no, I don’t think November is too early to start watching them. As a festive movie connoisseur, I know what it takes to make a film suitable for the holidays. Jingle Jangle (David E. Talbert, 2020) has it all: a grumpy old man who needs to find Christmas spirit, joyful child protagonists, a glamorous villain driven by capitalism, a damaged family relationship, and it’s a musical. What more could you want?
This film is The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey, 2017) crossed with the aesthetics of Paddington (Paul King, 2014) and the Christmas spirit of Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, 1947). Opening with a grandmother reading a story to her grandchildren, the book comes to life, creating the setting of the movie. The film takes place in a world that looks Victorian in setting and costume, but is without the constraints of historical accuracy. Instead of grey Dickensian grunge and hardship, we get the technicolour experience of a toymaker-inventor named Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker). Jangle becomes the owner of a pawn shop when his Book of Inventions is stolen by no other than a disgruntled apprentice and an arrogant, self-absorbed, manipulative matador in the form of a toy come to life. A grim (yet still colourful) banker, played by Hugh Bonneville, advises the ageing Jangle of his impending bankruptcy unless he can come up with a miraculous invention. All hope seems lost until the child of his estranged daughter comes to stay for Christmas. This little girl named Journey (Madalen Mills) injects Jeronicus’ life with inspiration and happiness it seems he forgot existed. His current apprentice, a nervous and pernickety boy named Edison, provides comic relief.
Not to spoil the film but, as all Christmas films do, this one ends with a miracle. If you love Christmas like me, I would suggest you watch this; it may not be immediately gripping but provides smiles, fun and laughter, and acts as the perfect tonic for end-of-semester stress. Now go put on Mariah Carey and indulge yourself in festivity.
“He’s only marrying you because he doesn’t want to go on living in that big old house with her ghost!” Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) screams at Lily James’ nameless heroine of Rebecca (Ben Wheatley, 2020). “I don’t believe in ghosts!” James’ character retaliates before she elopes with the dashing widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). Yet, as much as the second Madame de Winter claims she doesn’t believe in ghosts, Wheatley’s star-studded adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel certainly has a ghost looming in its shadows, that of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940).
Wheatley and his cast have insisted that they have not remade Hitchcock’s Academy Award winning film, that they focused instead on faithfully adapting du Maurier’s novel (source). The 2020 film succeeds in its glamorous cinematography, its intricate and colourful costume design (although I refuse to believe that Maxim de Winter would wear the same yellow suit two days in a row), and in Lily James’ portrayal of the young, naive, and dowdy heroine. However, Wheatley’s film fails to adapt du Maurier’s Gothic atmosphere, a key element of the 1938 bestseller. It lacks in creating a sense of the uncanny. Some of the most significant scenes of setting or suspense are rushed, those which, in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, are perfectly paced.
The opening of Hitchcock’s 1940 Rebecca– an eerie, seemingly one-shot scene– is one of the most iconic in cinema history. The slow “twisting and turning” of the camera through the thick woods up to the dark Manderley mansion lends the opening its mysterious, Gothic ambience. An entire two minutes go by before we even meet our first character, yet we understand there is an ominous history behind Manderley. Hitchcock takes his time in establishing the Gothic setting, while in Wheatley’s adaptation, the opening is hurried along, not allowing the audience an opportunity to digest. The shot of Manderley is dark and ominous, but then distracted by a fade into red. Quick cuts of other dream sequences diminish the potential power the opening shots of Manderley had. Less than a minute goes by, and we are already brought to the heroine’s memory of Monte Carlo. It feels as if in the beginning, and throughout the film, Manderley’s haunting aura is swept aside in favour of over-the-top editing and production.
Wheatley’s film fails to adapt du Maurier’s Gothic atmosphere, a key element of the 1938 bestseller…it lacks in creating a sense of the uncanny.
Mrs. Danvers is a character of the utmost importance in Rebecca. She is the Gothic villain, possessed by the spirits of Rebecca and of Manderley. The scene in which she shows the second Mrs. de Winter around Rebecca’s old bedroom is paramount. In Wheatley’s film, this scene misses some of the suspense building it requires to unsettle the audience – it’s just too quick. Kristen Scott Thomas is almost too charming and elegant as the sinister housekeeper. The piano score in the background makes the scene feel like a CSI interrogation rather than something subtle and supernatural. While the blue hues of the bedroom are icy and James’ acting does express discomfort, the audience is not chilled by an impending presence of Rebecca. In Hitchcock’s Rebecca, I am convinced that Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers is a ghost: she floats across the screen, hardly blinking. The audience can feel the dead Rebecca is there, in the shadows, in Danvers’ unblinking stares, in the non-diegetic music. The suspense of the scene is built up to Danvers leading Joan Fontaine’s heroine, who is almost in trance, to the bed to handle Rebecca’s undergarments. The eerie violins of the score reach a crescendo as we see the heroine in distress, overwhelmed by the ghostly presence of Rebecca. Hitchcock’s bedroom scene lasts a tense five minutes to let the audience soak up the Gothic, while Wheatley’s lasts a mere two.
Even if the Netflix adaptation wants to be seen as a faithful adaptation of du Maurier’s thrilling tale, and not as a revival of the 1940 Hollywood classic, it will still have to face the inevitable comparison to the classic which more successfully captures the novel’s essence.
To conclude our Beginnings series, two contributors discuss their favourite ‘firsts’ from an actor or director.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Written by Katie Lynch
TW: Racial Violence
Sidney Poitier was the first Black man to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer, 1958), and the first to win the award for his 1963 film Lilies of the Field (Ralph Nelson). He made a successful career from helping films about racism and race-relations to reach mainstream screens. One such film was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Kramer, 1967). Featuring Poitier as Dr John Wade Prentice, we follow as he meets his White fiance’s parents for the first time, only to be met with unearthed racial prejudice from self-proclaimed liberals. Although the vocabulary and attitudes portrayed are outdated, self-congratulatory for the White characters, and occasionally patronising towards the Black characters, it is a touching story; packed with powerful performances especially from an elegant Poitier and a monumental Hepburn. Bear in mind that interracial marriage had been illegal in several US states until mere months before the movie was released, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr was yet to come in 1968. Poitier was taking risks. His onscreen kiss with his White counterpart, Katharine Houghton, even incited death threats from the public.
Poitier may have been the first Black man to take home the Best Actor award for his politicised work at a time of heightened prejudice and violence, but the award has since gone to only three other Black men. Perhaps the language around race issues has changed since 1967, but the lessons from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner remain unlearned.
Written by Saoirse Mulvihill
A debut from an actor I thoroughly enjoyed is that of Edward Norton in the 1996 neo-noir film, Primal Fear (Gregory Hoblit). The story follows the morally questionable defence attorney, Martin Vail (Richard Gere), as he takes on the case of an altar boy accused of murdering the town’s beloved archbishop (Stanley Anderson). In this film, we see Edward Norton filling the shoes of said altar boy; the shy, gentle, stuttering Aaron Stampler. The film is fairly complex and occasionally intricately interwoven, and the audience will often find great enjoyment in trying to figure out what really happened before it is revealed. It is a clever, yet sometimes shallow film, driven home by the pure talents of Richard Gere, Frances McDormand and – most notably – Norton himself, who managed to snag the title for Best Supporting Actor at the 1997 Golden Globes for it – an incredibly impressive feat for anyone’s debut role.
Although I respect the attempt at a both logically and philosophically intelligent film, it does occasionally miss the mark ever so slightly – yet Edward Norton’s performance alone is undeniably impressive and utterly unforgettable (as is the 90’s saxophone soundtrack).
In the second in TFR’s Beginnings series, two contributors present us with their homages to high school.
Written by Seirce Mhac Conghail
The last few weeks of secondary school hold a distinctly unstable feeling. Structures which may have existed for years, for perhaps what has been up until then a lifetime, begin to crumble away. School authority dissipates fast, as uniforms, timetables, and general decorum seem to unspool in the face of imminent departure. Friendships are considered, tested, cherished. The world of adulthood seems more tangible than ever, beckoning with alternating menace and welcome.
It is this state that Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017) portrays so truthfully. We first meet our eponymous protagonist (Saoirse Ronan) at the start of her final year of school, desperate to leave her dull Californian town for a romantic collegiate life. Over the course of a year, she struggles with her family, with relationships, and with the shifting nature of her own identity. This film captures not only the vacillating highs and lows of life at eighteen, but also the great swathes of lethargy and boredom that intersperse it; we see Lady Bird skip class with her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), to chat and eat communion wafers. Life is shown at its loosening.
Lady Bird spends a great deal of time pitying herself and vowing to leave her seemingly drab life. But by the end of the film, she finds herself loving her hometown, realising how inextricable it is from her. Despite this, she is not compelled to stay, but that is what this film so beautifully conveys. Lady Bird crystallises the feeling of loving something exactly because you are leaving it, because of the rosy hue of hindsight.
Written by Seamus Conlon
Gia Coppola’s directorial debut, Palo Alto (2013), is an adaptation of James Franco’s Palo Alto Stories, a collection of vignettes depicting the lives of teenagers in the wealthy Californian suburb. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff) are maladjusted teenagers whose escapism hinges on drinking, engaging in impulsive outbursts, and discussing non-sequitur, hypothetical scenarios. Through these misadventures, Coppola portrays the balancing act between the trepidation and impulsiveness which is unique to the end of childhood. Emma Roberts plays April, whose romance with her coach, Mr. B (played by Franco himself), takes a manipulative turn. Franco’s real life conduct with underage fans magnifies the toxicity of the relationship on-screen. The film expresses a mistrust of adults triggered by the disillusioning realisation that their agendas are often self-serving.
Coppola captures the unique mixture of dispossession and insightfulness that often defines melancholic American teenage characters and makes one nostalgic for the surreal highs and lows of youth. Her understated filmmaking articulates the shapelessness of adolescent unease; something indefinable yet omnipresent in one’s high school years. Coppola’s protagonists exhibit the dreamlike vagueness at the end of adolescence that ironically heralds the clarity of young adulthood. Her confused, artful characters deal with both large and mundane challenges as they explore complex emotions and versions of themselves in different contexts.
In the first in TFR’s Beginnings series, two of our contributors discuss the films that inspired their love for cinema.
Lost in Translation
Written by Nina Cullen
It was the start of TY English class. I was introduced to Sofia Coppola through The Virgin Suicides (1999) and fell in love with the score by Air. With Lost in Translation (2003), every frame was a still I would pause on my laptop, softly rendered. A score with the range of Roxy Music to Squarepusher. The film fixated on the exposed shots of Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), in her ethereal and daze-like introspection against the stark backdrop of an early 00s, vibrantly emerging Tokyo.
I owe my interest in colour-grading and cinematography entirely to this film. Cinematographic feats aside, there’s understated yet accomplished character development that relies wholly on our identification with Charlotte and Bob (Bill Murray). So, when someone mentions how ‘nothing happens’ in Lost in Translation (yes, unnamed male film student in the smoking area), I tend to judge them. Did we see the same film? The magic of Lost in Translation is that, in its ambiguity, the narrative becomes something that only Johansson, Murray, and I understand. The rest of the world is simply blurred out of focus.
No one does this kind of enigmatic ambiguity like Coppola. Two characters, worlds apart in every regard, sharing one of the most powerful yet complex relationships I have ever seen on screen, all told through the director’s masterful vision. To call it a romance is too conspicuous. To call it platonic would be superficial. The intimacy of the whisper in the end sequence is fitting; speech would have felt too heavy-handed for the subtlety of Coppola.
The Hudsucker Proxy
Written by Ruby Thomas
The sheer vitality and zaniness of The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) makes it one of the Coen brothers’ best films. Packed to the brim with stunning set design, hilarious characters, and remarkable montages, it comments on the 1950s New York business world while parodying screwball comedies of the 30s.
Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) finds himself a job at the mailroom of Hudsucker Industries, just as the chairman, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), jumps from the 44th floor of the building. Vice President Sidney J Mussburger (Paul Newman) appoints Barnes as proxy CEO of the company in order to buy back their stock. But Barnes has ideas far above his station – ideas in the form of a circle. Jennifer Jason Leigh steals the show as fast-talking career girl Amy Archer, an undercover journalist determined to get a story at any cost. A battle of wills follows in which there can be only one winner.
An elegant riotousness pervades this film, as we watch the story unfold with increasing theatricality in jaw dropping backdrops – all with a rotating set of fantastical character actors. The lack of relatability with any of the characters is somehow unimportant as we witness the utter spectacle of the film and magnificence of the plot. The Hudsucker Proxy is a (kind of) modern masterpiece.
On the haunting and melancholic “Halloween,” Californian singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers sombrely whispers, “Baby, it’s Halloween / And we can be anything.” This Halloween, Adam Sandler has decided to be – you guessed it – a kindly moron with a silly voice. For Sandler, why be “anything,” when you can simply be “the same thing” – over and over again? And so, as leaves begin to fall and fireworks crack, we are presented with Hubie Halloween (Steve Brill, 2020), or The Waterboy vs. Werewolves, as the film was presumably pitched to the bigwigs at Netflix.
For someone who has forged a career playing idiotic man-children, Sandler is clearly some sort of commercial genius. His films routinely receive the kind of reviews which should end careers yet, thirty years after his first appearance on Saturday Night Live, he is arguably more popular than ever. Netflix recently extended their partnership with him in a deal worth $275 million – and who could blame them? His 2019 folly, Murder Mystery (Kyle Newacheck), was the most-viewed film on the streaming service last year and, overall, users have spent over two billion hours consuming his content since the Sandler-Netflix production line first began chugging along in 2015.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that all of Sandler’s filmography has been a total waste of time and money. Paul Thomas Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and, most recently, the Safdie brothers have all found ways to manipulate his frenetic energy and fraught charisma to coax electrifying, tour-de-force performances from the Brooklyn native. But Steve Brill is no Paul Thomas Anderson, and Hubie Halloween is no Punch-Drunk Love (2002). In fact, Sandler promised that, if he didn’t get a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars for his performance in Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie, 2019), then he would purposely follow it up with one of the worst films of his career to date.
If this was his intention with Hubie Halloween, however, then I’m afraid he must try harder. Sure, it’s 102 minutes of formulaic tedium but is it the nadir of Sandler’s chequered career? Hardly; the standard is far too low already.
The story follows the eponymous Hubie (Sandler), a deli worker with an unfortunate accent and a heart of gold who lives with his mother (June Squibb) in the infamously spooky Salem, Massachusetts. Voted “most likely to marry his pillow” in high school and nicknamed “Pubie,” Hubie is a kind, gentle soul whose propensity for being easily-scared results in the entire town terrorising him at any available opportunity. When a mysterious, new neighbour (Steve Buscemi doing a half-baked Gollum impression) moves in next door and a convict (Rob Schneider) escapes from a nearby mental institution, a suspicious Hubie takes it upon himself to keep the town safe on Halloween night – all while trying to pluck up the courage to confess his love to childhood crush, Violet Valentine (Julie Bowen, reprising the role of Sandler-love interest which she first took on in Happy Gilmore (Dennis Dugan, 1996)).
Sure, it’s 102 minutes of formulaic tedium but is it the nadir of Sandler’s chequered career? Hardly; the standard is far too low already.
The plot, as you would expect, is contrived and threadbare, and you get the impression that the performers care more about hanging out with their pals on set than safeguarding the quality of the film (the fact that Kevin James has had a long and lucrative career in Hollywood is surely proof that Sandler is the most generous friend in the industry). Indeed, far more attention is placed on superfluous cameos and unfunny slapstick than it is on creating any semblance of tension; within the first five minutes, Hubie violently pukes while riding a bicycle, then spectacularly falls off said bicycle (twice), and farts loudly in front of his werewolf-resembling neighbour. A variety of other actors who should know better (Ray Liotta, Maya Rudolph, Ben Stiller) emerge like peanuts from the bottom of a trick-or-treat sack and, inevitably, the film crams in the obligatory Shaquille O’Neal appearance (let us at least be thankful for the absence of David Spade). They all seem to be having a great time; it’s just a shame the same can’t be said of the audience. If you want to watch a film in which a hairy Steve Buscemi licks Rob Schneider’s hand while the latter wets himself, the this is the film for you (but you should probably also re-evaluate your life choices).
And yet, in spite of all this, it is hard to truly dislike Hubie Halloween. Yes, it is a film in which fart jokes unquestionably take precedence over any kind of narrative economy but it is also a film about the importance of kindness, humility, and compassion in the face of adversity. It just so happens that this message is rammed down our throats with all the subtlety of, well, an Adam Sandler film.
Mandatory mask wearing. Temperature checks. Enforced social distancing. No, this wasn’t a hospital wing, this was the 77th Venice Film Festival, the first of its kind since the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Europe and effectively ended not just film festivals but the cinema-going experience et al.
I was in a unique position, as I’d been fortunate to attend film festivals in the past. When I applied for Venice in April, September seemed so far away I couldn’t envisage a world where COVID was still as benevolent a force it was then. But low and behold my optimism was poorly as, by the time the end of August rolled around, not only was COVID still with us, but it was getting worse. As I went to Venice, I was unsure as to what to expect– my past festival experience would be of little help to me now. I was worried; was I putting my family and others in potential danger? Was I putting myself at risk? How could I be sure that I would be protected against such a malevolent force?
Well, dear reader, what quickly became apparent to me was if there were any festival to take place in person, it would be Venice. It’s practically a film haven at the best of times, but during the pandemic, it became a near sanctuary. A small island, Venice Lido is about 30 minutes from Venice mainland (the tourist trap). With the year that’s in it, tourist numbers were slashed– which meant that the only people on the island were locals and festival attendees.
It’s odd to say that I felt safer in a foreign country, arguably more affected by the pandemic than Ireland, but it really is true; everybody wore masks (properly and with no exceptions), every entrance to the festival was armed with temperature checks and hand sanitizer (and then again at the entrance to individual cinemas), seating in theatres was strictly socially distant and no way could you try switch seats at last minute. There were increased outdoor screening areas, and every theatre was aired out and ventilated after use. All this meant not only did I feel safe, but, after a day or two, it genuinely became easy to forget that COVID existed and that this was out of the ordinary– it became, in the best way possible, the new normal.
Here are few things to look out for from Venice 2020, straight off the rushes:
NOMADLAND (Chloé Zhao)
The shining gem of the festival, and the winner of the Golden Lion, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is one of the finest examples of contemporary independent American cinema from the 21st century. Zhao’s subtle camera work, coupled with Ludvico Enaudi’s captivating musical score and a career-defining performance from Frances McDormand makes for a rapturing look at the underbelly of the American Midwest and the people that have been left behind by rampant capitalism. Touching, eye-opening but above all deeply, deeply human, Nomadland is a testament not only to friendship, but to the art of filmmaking and storytelling and the power they hold to connect us through distance and time. Seeing as how it will likely make its way to the Oscars, it’s definitely not one to miss!
The Man Who Sold His Skin (Kaouther Ben Hania)
A Tunisian-French-German-Belgian-Swedish co-production, The Man Who Sold His Skin was one of the most surprising gems to be uncovered at the festival. A darkly comic satire about the artistic world, Ben Hania walks the fine line between satirical and dramatic, ultimately creating a beautifully humane story about the lives that can get lost in the pursuit of art. Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), a Syrian refugee, allows a sulfurous artist to tattoo his back in exchange for a visa and freedom, but with Ben Haria’s masterful command of pace and tone, Sam’s initial exuberance slowly descends into a nightmare as he becomes entrapped within the world that supposedly granted him his freedom. The real star of the show is feature-debut Mahayni, who becomes a fantastical blend of Hamlet, Caliban and Richard III, and took home the Orizzonti prize for best actor for his efforts.
Pieces of a Woman (Kornél Mundruczó)
Kornél Mundruczó’s stunning portrait of a couple in crisis (Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf) was one of Venice’s most lauded premiers, and landed Kirby the Volpi cup for Best Actress. Opening with a thirty minute one shot that could rival the entirety of 1917 for sheer tension, what follows is a stunning mediation on grief and love– romantic love, maternal love and all the complications that come in between. It’s packed to the gills with a star studded supporting cast to boot– Sarah Snook, Benny Safdie and Jimmy Fails to name but a few. It just got picked up by Netflix, and seeing how it will likely make its way to this years award season, you can be sure to catch it on streaming services soon.
One Night in Miami (Regina King)
Arguably one of the most hotly-anticipated feature-film directorial debuts of the festival, Regina King does not disappoint with One Night in Miami, a pressing and timely drama focusing, as you might guess, on one night in Miami. Except the night in question is the night in which Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has won a title fight– the night before he will officially convert to Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali. With his mentor, Malcom X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and friends Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), King utilizes Kemp Power’s play on which the film is based and the expert talents of her cast to dig up age-old issues that occur for Black people in America. Beautifully stylized and shot, King is not afraid to put her spin on the big screen, and is undoubtedly on her way to taking over the directorial world. As we deal with the continuing effects of the ever-mounting BLM movement spreading throughout the world, King crafts an up to the minute commentary on the Black experience, and a memorable reflection on giants of the Civil rights movement.
As the last in a series which began in the 80s, Bill & Ted Face the Music (Dean Parisot, 2020) is as goofy, whacky, and hyperactive as any of the previous movies. Yet in this idiot comedy, the idiots have to wise up. The film finds them as middle-aged, beer-bellied has-beens; their marriages are floundering and they are totally failing in their prophetic mission to unite the world through a single song. When pressed to perform the song before the imminent collapse of all reality, Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) take off through time to track down their future selves and find it, as it has never been written. Their daughters, Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Thea (Samara Weaving), concurrently rocket through time to enlist a band of the greatest musicians to help their fathers. On the way they meet Mozart (Daniel Dorr), Kid Cudi (himself), and reenlist Death himself (William Sadler) as their hooded bassist.
This film includes some good old new-fashioned values, with optimism, kindness and even – if possible – a type of delicacy.
Billie and Thea are charming additions; as near-mirrors of their clownish fathers, they nevertheless provide the freshness necessary when translating an older franchise to 2020. This film has the same writers as the original, which is impressive given its smooth adaption to a totally different era. The challenge is a particularly daunting one. For films a generation apart, slacker heroes whose speech is littered with ‘bro’, ‘dude’, and ‘Van Halen’, are merely a superficial difference. Many mainstream values have fundamentally changed since the 1980s, and the balance has been incrementally shifting over recent years with blockbusters now having a generally more liberal approach when it comes to representation and morals in films. The word incrementally should again be stressed here. Yet this film includes some good old new-fashioned values, with optimism, kindness and even – if possible – a type of delicacy.
On paper, Bill & Ted Face the Music is certainly another example of Hollywood’s obsession with franchise. The American film industry is currently churning out content aimed at ensnaring loyalty from viewers, be that from nostalgic remakes, reboots, or endless sagas. It’s a trend that bears no sign of elapsing, despite many of these films ultimately falling flat under the open desire for profit over content. Bill & Ted Face the Music is not such a film. While certainly part of a franchise, it never loses sight of its heart: adventure, absurdity, and most importantly, to “be excellent to each other.”
In a year as violently unprecedented as 2020, it is frankly absurd to note the number of films that, seemingly out of sheer coincidence, have proven to mirror the ideas, trends and imagery of this historic pandemic. Tenet (Christopher Nolan, 2020) frames its protagonists as immobile and mask-clad, trapped within a world suffering from apocalyptic regression, while The New Mutants (Josh Boone, 2020), filmed all the way back in 2017, traps its cast of super-humans within the invisible walls of an institution, suffocating their abilities for their own prescribed safety.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020) takes these inexplicably familiar parallels to new heights however, constructing over its lengthy runtime an exhausting, suffocating quarantine nightmare that will likely hit a bit too close to home for some. Based on a synonymous short story written by Iain Reid in 2016, the film uses the framing device of an extended conversation between Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley), whose name endures frequent changes as the narrative reveals more of its secrets, as they travel along an icy road to meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis, both doing their gamely best to twist Meet the Parents (Jay Roach, 2000) into something abhorrently grotesque).
The film is first and foremost a showcase for its four outgoing, off-beat stars (there is a reason why three of the four leads have starred in seasons of Fargo), essentially taking the form of a series of short plays of roughly thirty minutes a piece rather than anything more narratively conventional, and allowing them to feed off of one another’s eccentricities. Collette, Plemons and especially Thewlis are all terrific in their respective roles, but it is unmistakably Buckley who steals every scene for herself, playing an intelligent woman amongst animals who, with every beat, line and inflection, gradually unravels and descends into claustrophobic madness at their mercy.
That is not to say that Kaufman does anything but his best work from the relative comfort of his director’s chair however, with his most noteworthy achievement being the intricate, surgical skill with which he blocks his actors within these theatrical set-pieces, refusing to let so much as a single shot go to waste without revealing something unspoken about one, two or all of his key players. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is without question a horror film at its core, but rather than ever frighten his audience with tricks or bangs, Kaufman simply recognises the inherent terror of lockdown without hope of escape, and emphasises that claustrophobia with every lingering frame and sudden cut. The film’s cast are literally and figuratively trapped in one another’s company, clinging only to the faintest, most inconceivable dreams of escape. This is an upsetting, gruelling film at the best of times; a far cry from the more lyrical absurdism of Kaufman’s earlier works, but the worldly conditions surrounding its release only serve to amplify the horror.
This is an upsetting, gruelling film at the best of times; a far cry from the more lyrical absurdism of Kaufman’s earlier works.
The ending is likely to polarise viewers, straying a delicate line between empowering and criticising the toxic male perspective at its core without ever taking a definitive stance, which is all the more troubling upon learning that Kaufman’s script strays considerably from the source material. It is clear that the film has no interest in offering any sort of relief for the traumas inflicted on his audience, most of whom are likely already familiar with the pains explored in his film. It is in many regards an endurance test, turning masterful actors into torturers wielding black comedy and misogynistic condescension as their weapons of choice, and mileage will vary on whether the melancholic ending can justify the preceding two hours and thirteen minutes spent submerged in this hellish mirror-realm. That being, said, there is no question as to the impressive talent and precision with which I’m Thinking of Ending Things was crafted. This is easily one of the year’s most fascinating films, in no small part due to its impossible prescience, and for those with the stomachs for its distressing, starkly-real capacity to reflect our modern condition, I would argue that, love it or hate it, this is an experiment worth your curiosity. What else are you gonna do?
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available on Netflix now.