Soul

*Spoilers

Soul, Pixar’s newest animated feature, now on Disney+, tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), an aspiring musician who, on the day of his big break, nearly dies. His soul is transported into The Great Beyond, where he must pair up with another soul, Number 22 (Tina Fey), and try to get back to his body. 

Since this is a Pixar movie, it goes without saying that the animation is stunning and the music, character design, and voice work is excellent. Soul is beautiful to look at and enjoyable for all ages. 

Yet Soul, to me, is far from the studio’s strongest efforts, for a few reasons. 

At this point, I am sick of depicting the afterlife as a bureaucracy, a place of lines and procedures and paperwork. This has, disappointingly, become a default-characterization. Soul desperately avoids being religious, but choosing to depict the afterlife in this way is disappointing and speaks volumes of the lack of imagination we as a culture have that we can’t picture an afterlife as being any greater than our own workplaces. We hesitate to imagine what divine, beyond-Earth splendor- or horror- could actually be. 

2013’s Inside Out, the clear predecessor to Soul (both are directed by Pete Doctor) has a similar depiction. Inside Out shows the inside of the human mind as also being a place of rules and regulations. This depiction wasn’t as annoying in Inside Out, not only because it was the first film to do it but also because Inside Out was clearly a metaphor for what could be going on in someone’s brain, and, to an extent, what a person imagines their own mind to be like. It makes sense that a character like 12-year old Riley could only imagine her head as a workplace because that’s what she’s exposed to. It was an interior look, while Soul aims to explore something spiritual, something beyond us, yet can’t imagine it as anything beyond us. 

Granted, there are moments of visual imagination when it comes to the afterlife. One of my favorite sequences is the climax, where Joe goes to find 22 and discovers that she has become a “lost soul.” The visuals of this sequence are gripping and shows just how good Pixar can be when they lean into the darkness. Joe is able to rescue 22 by speaking to her compassionately, following a new (and welcomed) trend where the protagonist and antagonist do not fight, but the protagonist extends grace to the antagonist and coaxes them out of their actions (see also Moana, A Wrinkle in Time, Over the Moon, and Wonder Woman 1984).

The lost souls are depicted as people who have just lost their love of life; their “lostness” is not tied to their actions or sin or consequences. If you don’t love life enough, you are a lost soul. It’s not bad, per se. But it does feel a little flimsy, especially considering the stronger choices Soul promises but pulls back on. In this same sequence, the movie sets up Joe to be making a great sacrifice to give 22 life. But then he is immediately granted another chance at life, meaning there is no sacrifice, cutting short the possibility of real consequences and emotional stakes. The lack of strong emotional stakes tie into Soul’s likewise muted moral, which boils down to: don’t forget to stop and smell the roses, and, you’re a human be-ing, not a human do-ing. These are good messages, and there are several lovely moments of the film that call attention to everyday beauty. But these morals are not new, nor do they completely fit in with a movie that still spends more time on Joe’s musical ambitions than they do any other part of his life. Soul argues that Joe needs to care about more than his music, yet that is all that the movie fleshes out about Joe. 

This is not the only way Joe is held at a distance from the audience. Throughout the movie, his soul jumps into several different forms. As reviewer Andrew Tejahda writes for Tor.com: “it’s hard to ignore that [Soul’s] main plot can’t work unless a black man is left stranded outside his body and robbed of his identity. His drastic transformations kept creating distance between us and his true self. This left the impression that this beautiful looking Pixar film wasn’t fully connected to its main character’s…well, soul.” 

Soul is fun to watch and is certainly one of the best animated films of 2020, but it is hard to shake the feeling that it’s a missed opportunity, or could have been better with a little more direction. 

– Madeleine D.

Wonder Woman 1984

*Spoilers

“Be careful what you wish for.” 

This is one of the lessons we learn in Wonder Woman 1984, and unfortunately, may hold meaning for audiences as well. After the success of the DC heroine’s origin movie, 2017’s Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot return here for the sequel, which on the surface seems to be a striking departure. The first Wonder Woman was a muted, gritty war-themed movie. Wonder Woman 1984 has neon colors, a 1980’s setting, action scenes that play out like a comic-book panel, and whimsical homages to the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman television series. Reviewer and comic book writer Grace Randolph notes in her review of the film that Wonder Woman has two distinct personas that often divides her fanbase. She’s either the more aggressive, no-holds-barred, fierce Amazonian warrior, or she plays defense, never starting a fight and always trying to stop her enemies with words of compassion. The first film shows more of the first side, and WW84 emphasizes the second, leaning into Wonder Woman/Diana’s gentleness and flaws. 

This tonal shift for the character and franchise is just one of the risks Jenkins takes. Other risks in WW84 include not setting up any future franchise movies, having few action sequences, and a final climax that isn’t Diana fighting Maxwell Lord, but simply talking to him. And while the 80’s setting is fun, Jenkins shows restraint in not making it a nostalgia-fest of “oh look I recognize that!” and instead ties the decade’s consumerism and paranoia into the main plot. 

I also admire the choice to depict Diana as being miserable. Throughout the film, Diana is lonely and embittered. She does good deeds but never gets what she wants in return, which makes her similar to Maxwell Lord and susceptible to the same temptations as he is. In most sequels, we see the heroes at the top of their game, and over the course of the movie are humbled and then regain their strength. Starting Diana in a place of personal weakness, and then physically weakening her throughout the film, and ending her in an ambivalent place again, is a strong choice and one that I like, because it humanizes an otherwise god-like character. 

While I appreciate many of these choices and Jenkin’s confidence as a filmmaker, not all the choices work. Wonder Woman 1984 is stuffed to the brim with characters and ideas, which shortchanges everyone. Kristen Wiig is a promising Barbara Minerva/Cheetah but is pushed aside for more Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). In the comics, Barbara and Diana are friends, making Barbara’s turn into Cheetah a personal betrayal to Diana. In WW84 though, their relationship is barely above acquaintances, making the stakes less personal and Barbara less compelling than if their relationship had been given more time to develop. 

Much has also been made out of the way Steve Trevor comes back. Chris Pine is one of the best parts of the film to be sure, and his Steve Trevor continues to be the perfect partner to Diana. But he comes back in a random man’s body, and Diana… has sex with that body? She lets Steve use the body and bring him into violent situations? This man doesn’t even get a name, he’s just credited as “Handsome Man” (Kristoffer Polaha). The cartoonish tone of WW84 means this Get Out scenario isn’t dwelt on, but it’s a strange, almost reprehensible choice that is easy to latch onto as a symbol for all of the weaknesses of the film. 

Wonder Woman 1984 is admirably experimental, but always pulls back with just enough convention to never be either truly weird or easily palatable. There’s a lot to like, but it gets mixed up in the long-running time and some sequences that seem to go nowhere. I want to see Patty Jenkins get to finish her trilogy with Wonder Woman 3 and see if she can balance the approaches of both Wonder Woman films. But, I suppose I should be careful what I wish for. 

– Madeleine D.

Streaming Triple Feature: Godmothered, Run, and Time

Godmothered – Disney+

Godmothered is the spiritual sequel to 2007’s Enchanted. Remember Enchanted? Starring Amy Adams, it told the story of Giselle, a Disney animated princess who was thrown into real-world Manhattan. Similarly, Godmothered sees Jillian Bell’s Eleanor, a fairy-godmother-in-training, go to the real world to help adult single-mother Mackenzie (Isla Fisher) figure out what she needs to change her sad, cynical life. Enchanted marked the beginning of Disney’s self-referential style that can be seen prominently in films like Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph 2, which explicitly critique the Disney tropes like love at first sight and damsels in distress. Self-awareness and irony have proven to be popular for Disney, and it’s understandable why- consumers are (or, at least, we imagine ourselves to be) savvier to the Disney formula, so it seems good for the company to be in on the joke as well.

Yet these movies, especially the live-action remakes, which have followed Enchanted, tend to slap a coat of girlboss paint and incredibly shallow “wokeness” on the story in order to make their movies seem more modern and grown-up. At best, these efforts can be genuine attempts to correct the sins of the past for younger audiences. At worse, this self-deprecation/irony is a lazy attempt to match our current sensibilities towards female empowerment, but only in the ways that are most profitable and the least disruptive. And also, make no mistake, these efforts are making a point, the point being: you, adult woman, still need Disney in your life! We realize that you don’t believe in Prince Charming and talking animals anymore, which is why we’ll make fun of those things, but you still need our inspiration, our joy, our product.*  Of course there’s nothing wrong with loving Disney as an adult. But it’s difficult to reconcile the Disney magic with the way Disney is able to wield its own nostalgia- and critiques of it- for its own benefit.

Enchanted, while it started this trend, is a genuinely charming, clever, and well-made film. Is Godmothered just as good? Godmothered has its moments but replays the classic fish-out-of-water story without much variance. Bell and Fisher do a nice job, but both could play these roles in their sleep. The first twenty minutes setting up the premise is nothing short of excruciating, which makes the rest of the film much better in comparison. However, after the first twenty minutes, it is harmless fun that a family can enjoy, so if you need a holiday movie (the story takes place at Christmas) to pass the time, it’s not a bad option.

Run – Hulu

*Mild spoiler

Hulu’s Run, starring Sarah Paulson and newcomer Kiera Allen, mines some of the best tropes of horror- isolation, illness, perversion of motherhood, and actors with good “scare face”- to make an enjoyable thriller about a mother with Munchausen syndrome by proxy and her wheel-chair bound daughter who will do anything to escape. Allen is particularly excellent, especially with her daunting action sequences. Run isn’t particularly original, but it’s well-executed and very enjoyable. Especially for people like me, who are squeamish with horror films, this is a tense but not-too-scary movie to enjoy. 

Time – Amazon Prime

Time is a documentary about Sibil Fox Rich, a woman who works tirelessly to shorten the sentence of her husband Rob, who was sentenced to 60 years of prison without parole after the two of them attempted to commit armed robbery. By using traditional documentary techniques with home videos made by Sibil herself, the film paints a rich portrait of a family’s inner life. 

What’s striking about Time is that it is not interested in the typical narratives or rhetoric that go along with stories about incarceration. The specifics of the robbery are barely addressed. There is really no time spent discussing whether Sibil and Rob deserved jail time or how much of it as a consequence for their actions. And that’s off-putting at first, especially if your natural inclination is to support harsher sentencing and “if you do the crime, you do the time.” But Time is telling the story of the emotions of being separated from your husband for twenty years. It’s telling the story of a father not seeing his children grow up except through occasional visits and phone calls. It’s telling the story of a woman who hits one bureaucratic roadblock after another, who must fight tooth and nail for any opportunity to get her husband a chance. It’s a story of growing up fatherless, of trying to keep a separated family together, of realizing you’ll never get back missing time, and of trying to have hope after a hundred let-downs. It’s a film that has no *time* for the narratives we typically employ in order to separate ourselves from the incarcerated and their loved ones. If you surrender yourself to Sibil’s story, you can’t help but find yourself replacing her with yourself, and your loved ones with Rob, and feeling the frustrations, anger, and sorrow at the situation. It’s an exercise in empathy, one that I think anyone would benefit from undergoing. 

-Madeleine D.

*For more on the trend of self-examination in Disney movies, check out “Woke Disney,” a video essay by Lindsay Ellis

Hillbilly Elegy

From its initial reviews to its Thanksgiving-week release on Netflix, Hillbilly Elegy, the film adaptation of the 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D Vance, has been a polarizing film. Critics widely panned it- some of them from Appalachia, many not. The film has been received better by audiences, but still remains divisive. The movie and memoir tell the story of Vance’s upbringing in Middletown, Ohio, his family’s struggles with alcoholism, abuse, and drug use, and his escape to go on to be a Yale graduate and successful venture capitalist. The memoir (which I haven’t read) goes into Vance’s thoughts on the strengths and failures of Appalachia culture and of poor working-class white Americans. 

Director Ron Howard’s movie strips away much of Vance’s commentary to focus on just the family drama. Since the backlash to the film, he and the rest of the cast have emphasized this point, that it’s not a political story, but a personal one (and how can you argue with the authenticity of one person’s life experiences?). Yet it’s hard to view the film as only a singular family’s drama, as the book was quickly lauded as a way to “understand Trump voters” and as a broader sociological study. The movie’s focus on Vance and him “pulling himself up by his bootstraps” means that it doesn’t quite do enough to divorce from that political narrative either.  

I can’t testify to whether the book and movie are “authentic” depictions or not. But I do know this: it is impossible to give a sympathetic or humane portrait of someone or a group of people if you only show their suffering. I know this movie is depicting a family in crisis, but there are no scenes of normalcy or relative peace that serves as a contrast to when there is a crisis. Instead, the constantly traumatic events of the movie feel to me, as a viewer, like I’m continually being pummeled, and I can’t get any sense of the characters outside of their worst moments and their worst mistakes. From my understanding, the book tries to paint Appalachia as a place still worth saving. But despite platitudes about the importance of family, hard work, and tradition, Hillbilly Elegy barely presents anything worth celebrating, because it’s always about the drama and horribleness, never about the potential, promise, or beauty in the rough. 

That is probably because screenwriter Vanesa Taylor and Howard are not interested in critiquing anything about J.D Vance or how he presents his narrative of how he got out and surpassed his relatives because of his hard work. It doesn’t help that Vance is unlikeable, not only in some of his politics but, mainly, because there is an infuriating lack of curiosity on his part about the women in his life. Sure, the movie focuses on his mother Bev (Amy Adams) and Mamaw (Glenn Close). But except for a few vague references to the trauma they’ve suffered, the film doesn’t actually dig into examining their pain, their choices, their generational traumas, and into the specific, systematic ways women suffer in this community. This is all wrapped up in the character of JD’s sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), who remains in Middleton. She’s doing the brunt of the care-taking for Bev. She didn’t “get out” like J.D. All signs show that she’s headed to become just like Bev and Mawmaw- embittered, miserable older women. But she barely gets any sizable screen time, except to be plot exposition and to assure J.D that she’s fine, she’ll continue to sacrifice herself to take care of their destructive, needy mother, because he needs to live his dream! 

While watching, I kept thinking of 2017’s Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, as a solid comparison. This is a movie that, I… how do I put this delicately… really hated. Both Three Billboards and Hillbilly Elegy rely on characters screaming in every single scene to constitute Drama™. Of Frances McDormand’s performance in Three Billboards, I said “I never had to read [her] face to figure out what she was feeling, she was either saying it or destroying something.” The same can be said about Adam’s “look, I tried to look ugly because my character is real,” performance as well. (To be clear, this is not a knock to either actress, but instead to the writing, direction, and Oscar-bait-yness of the production). 

The Florida Project (2017) comes to mind as a much better example of a film that is able to depict poverty in a way that is 1) not primarily concerned with getting Oscars (and because of that humility, it didn’t) and 2) is not a non-stop pity party, but instead shows the humanity of its subject by having scenes that contrast difficulty with scenes of them finding joy, even in their circumstances. The Florida Project strikes a balance between recognizing that both personal choices and systemic failings have worked together to create the situation the characters are in, but that they aren’t to be looked at like bugs under a microscope or as New York Times profiles elites can read about to feel educated by, but instead as people who are as real and familiar as our family and friends. 

Hillbilly Elegy is not a terrible watch by any means, but it had the potential to be so much more. Instead of leaning into the convictions of the memoir, it has been neutered into something shapeless, and while becoming more personal, it does so without fully realizing the humanity of its subjects.

-Madeleine D.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Netflix Drops First Trailer for 'Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey' -  Variety

One of my family’s Christmas traditions each year is to put up our Dickens Village. The display is made up of little ceramic figurines depicting Victorian life with a literary, Charles Dicken-esque twist. Growing up (and still to this day) I enjoyed rearranging the pieces and the characters to tell stories. From the snow-covered trees to bakery windows with desserts on display to the ice-skating rink with Christmas carolers and the newspaper boy riding on a horse-drawn carriage, the Dickens Village evokes a quaint, fairytale Christmas feel. 

A Dickens Village (Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/557531628839539802/)

Netflix’s Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is like if my Dickens Village came to life, except instead of sickly malnourished pasty-white English schoolchildren singing off-key carols, there was a diverse but mostly-Black cast singing catchy broadway-style tunes, with just as much Christmas cheer. 

Jingle Jangle is an original musical written and directed by David E. Talbert about Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker), a genius toymaker who is swindled by his apprentice (Keegan Michael-Key) and ages into a real scrooge. With the help of his granddaughter (newcomer Madalen Mills), he learns to love again and share his toymaking talent once more. The family film has been compared to 2017’s The Greatest Showman by many critics, and it’s an apt comparison. While The Greatest Showman had its charms and will probably be remembered longer than Jingle Jangle for its more recognizable cast and that it’s not a seasonal movie, Jingle Jangle has the benefit of being an original story that doesn’t have to grapple with the messy history of its lead. Despite both being period pieces (Victorian-era adjacent) both films have unmistakably modern sensibilities, in their music, storytelling, and diverse casting.  

Jingle Jangle runs about thirty minutes too long, and its promising story about forgiveness is wrapped up too quickly in favor of another musical number about believing in yourself or something like that. But Jingle Jangle makes up for these weaknesses in overabundant energy and spirit. The cast is a delight, with Keegan Michael-Key making an especially strong case for why he should be the only actor considered for all fun villain roles. Forest Whittaker and Anika Noni Rose bring star power and help move the story forward when things drag. The production design, costume and hairstyling, choreography, and background dancers are all scene-stealers and absolutely stellar. 

Jingle Jangle may not reach the mainstream holiday classic status of a film like Elf, but it goes above and beyond just “doing the trick” and scratching your yearly holiday movie itch. It’s a sweet, lovingly-made film that anyone can enjoy.

-Madeleine D.

6 Netflix-Originals Recommendations

With theaters still closed, I’m relying on my Netflix subscription more than ever. Luckily, the service keeps pumping out excellent original content. Here are six of my favorite movies, shows, and limited series they have. 

  1. Unorthodox

I don’t usually talk about something being “well-directed,” since good directing often doesn’t call attention to itself. But I can’t think of a better catch-all term for how excellent Unorthodox is. The four-episode series, adapted from the book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, follows 19-year old Esther as she flees her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York City to Berlin, Germany. 

The series doesn’t coddle its audience, instead trusting that the storytelling, acting, and attention to detail will guide the audience through the probably unfamiliar world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. The story is well balanced in exploring both the beauty and horror of the world Esther leaves behind, and the realistic struggles she has as she tries to build a new life. It also provides fascinating commentary into what it is like for Jewish people in post-WW2 Germany, something I hadn’t really considered before. Actress Shira Haas as Esther and actor Amit Rahav as her husband Yanky are extraordinary. Watching Unorthodox was one of the best four hours I have spent this year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

2. Crash Landing On You

Don’t let the subtitles scare you! This cinematic South Korean melodrama is one of the most inventive, fun, and unabashedly weird tv shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. At an hour and a half per episode, it’s like getting sixteen movies that somehow are able to blend a handful of genres seamlessly: romance, comedy, action thriller, a political spy drama, fish-out-of-water shenanigans, and Succession-style family business power plays. Crash Landing on You tells the story of powerful-but-troubled South Korean businesswoman Yoon Se-Ri. A paragliding accident lands her in North Korea and into the arms of handsome soldier Ri Jung Hyuk, who tries to help her get back home. 

3. Our Planet

For a soothing, ethereal watch with a hint of existential crisis, look no further than Our Planet. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, the series has the features of all good nature documentaries- gorgeous cinematography, awe-inspiring looks at creation, and a beautiful score. But uniquely, each episode ends with a call to action that explains how humans have negatively impacted each natural habitat and what can be done about it (first by going to ourplanet.com). The inconvenient truths that end each episode are a bummer, but are also hopeful- in most cases, it’s not too late to turn things around. 

4. The Kindergarten Teacher

Based on a 2014 Israeli film of the same name, this American remake starring Maggie Gyllenhaal is an unsettling, excellently written and acted drama about a kindergarten teacher who realizes one of her students is a poetry prodigy. As a discontented artist herself, Gyllenhaal’s teacher decides to do whatever she can to foster her student’s talent, blurring the lines of appropriate behavior. It’s the kind of film that racks up the tension without you even realizing until you’re sitting on the edge of your seat in the final act.  

5. Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices

These short, 8-10 minute episodes feature Black celebrities, from Tiffany Haddish to Misty Copeland, reading children’s books that explore different parts of the Black experience. The series accomplishes several things: one, it features great books that any kid can enjoy, Black or otherwise. Two, the celebrities who read all do a great job, and it reminded me how wonderful it is to be read out loud to, at any age. And third, for white children and their families, it exposes them to Black authors and Black picture-books, which I know was sorely missing when I was growing up. I probably didn’t read a book by a Black author until I was in middle school, and none of my picture books ever had characters of color. If you are a white parent seeking to expose your child to more diversity and fight against racism early on, this is an easy and entertaining place to start. 

6. The Haunting of Hill House/ Haunting of Bly Manor

I am a wimp when it comes to horror films, but The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor (two different seasons of the same anthology series) are so well-made and more creepy than scary that even I can handle it. Hill House tells the story of the Crain family as the adult children remember their strange summer at Hill House and how it tore their family apart. Bly Manor takes place in the ‘80s and follows young Dani as she becomes a governess for two strange orphaned children in an even stranger manor. Great horror isn’t about making up scary situations, but how bravely it probes the already terrifying things in this life, and this show is a rumination on death and how we are haunted by other people and by our own previous selves and actions. In a time of extremes, both politically and socially, it is refreshing to experience a piece of entertainment that has a thoughtful, melancholic tone. Season 1’s Hill House is an epic, Genesis-style family tragedy, while season 2’s Bly Manor is a slow-burn gothic romance. 

– Madeleine D.

Streaming Quadruple Feature: Mulan, Boys State, The Devil All the Time, & Enola Holmes

Mulan – Disney+

This live-action remake of the animated classic from 1998 follows the same formula of “reinvention” as the other live-action remakes (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Cinderella, etc.). This includes making a poorer version of (or cutting out entirely) the musical numbers, a half-hearted attempt at retconning the things that were critiqued in the original while getting a whole host of new problems, making the female protagonists more “empowered” with a new Girl Boss paint job, and just overall becoming a duller film. 

This new Mulan isn’t a complete waste of time, though. The movie infuses some classic wuxia/ fantasy martial arts styling here that not only pays tribute to Chinese cinema, but makes this Mulan retelling feel more like a myth, which gets back at the story’s roots as folklore. The sets and costumes are beautiful. Mulan is given a sister who, while extremely underdeveloped, chooses a more traditionally feminine route and isn’t shamed for it, driving home the message that just because Mulan bucked traditional roles doesn’t mean she or her path is better, it just means feminism is about widening women’s choices. 

This live-action remake simply just does not use its new format to be the cool war movie we wanted (although Mulan herself does have a surprisingly high body count), and it’s hard to overcome that disappointment and not compare it to the original. But I do have to say this: I watched this with one of my best friends, who is Chinese-American (was born and raised in China until she immigrated to the US). While she had some problems with the depiction of China, she spoke to me at length about how good it made her feel to see a girl like her on-screen, in her home country, with such a powerful story. That’s not something I take lightly. Representation matters, even if there are some missteps or missed opportunities while striving for it. 

Boys State – Apple TV+

This documentary follows the 2019 Texas Boys State, an annual convention where boys (there’s a separate Girls State) from across the state are chosen to participate in an educational week where they form political parties and hold elections to learn about democracy. 

Personally, this is one of the most stressful environments I could ever imagine being in, and the documentary is at its best when it is able to catch a glimpse of the true wariness and vulnerability of the subjects. Sometimes the self-awareness of the documentary is a little too noticeable, like you can tell when the filmmakers are thinking, “This is going to draw a parallel to the 2016 election! We’re telling an important story here that reveals the declining state of American politics!” But, despite the self-awareness sometimes getting in the way, it’s true- there are parallels to both the 2016 election but also to all sorts of political discourses we continue to have about tribalism, slander, fake news, the values of a trained politician vs. a non-politician “draining the swamp,” and the intersections of race, class, and gender.

So like the discourse around those topics, the film can feel just as tiring, emotional, cyclical, and repetitive, and, at least to me, discouraging. Yet it’s insightful, and there are kids to root for, and entertaining, so I certainly recommend watching it. But, Boys State also reminds you that nothing is new under the sun, and politics and policies are not the ultimate avenue for change we should put our hopes in. 

The Devil All The Time – Netflix

The Devil All the Time, based on the book of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock (who narrates the film), has the midwest gothic aesthetic down to a T. Haunting landscape? Check. Evil religion and charismatic, wicked preachers? Check. Flat, midwest landscapes that grow more sinister as the sun goes down? Tortured women cast in a soft glow? Check and check. 

Atmosphere and aesthetics can only go so far, though, and unfortunately The Devil All The Time doesn’t have anything deeper to offer. Everyone in the all-star cast is game, but there is only so much that nice cinematography, shocking plot twists, and star power can give a movie. It can’t sustain it. The whole film ends up feeling bloated, repetitive, and less serious and important than it thinks it is. I agree with Justin Chang for NPR when he writes, “I also found the movie ultimately repetitive in its grisliness, and simplistic in some of the ways that it accuses religion of being.” Now I am fascinated by movies about religion and the way it can be corrupted, and complicated ministers. But, The Devil All The Time’s depiction of small-town faith is so repetitive and cartoonish that it never tries to dig below the surface as to why religion can breed such vileness and destructive patterns. The movie is similarly uninterested in digging deeper into the depictions of generational trauma and violence. We get it- evil is mundane. But why? The Devil shrugs. 

Enola Holmes – Netflix

Enola Holmes is mostly a star vehicle for Millie Bobby Brown (who also produces here), and it works- she’s truly a movie star. Charismatic, expressive, and immensely talented, she carries the movie effortlessly. She has some nice help from Louis Partridge, and some star power backup from the most uncharitable and unlikeable portrayals of Sherlock (a dull Henry Cavill) and Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin) I’ve ever seen- and I’ve watched Sherlock! So like Enola Holmes herself, Brown is mostly on her own as she goes from one unexpectedly brutal action scene to the next, offering a promising career in action for Brown if she wants to go down the Milla Jovovich or Charlize Theron route.  

Enola Holmes reminded me, more than anything else, of an American Girl Doll movie. Remember those movies, with the likes of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (a formative influence on me)? Unlike those movies, with sweet early-2000s optimism, this 2020 Enola Holmes has a little more bite, with rough action, some political commentary (don’t interrogate that too much), and a historical narrative jazzed up with modern features. But, while the film feels episodic (like a future Netflix streaming series???) it’s still charming and doesn’t feel like a television movie, but like big-screen fare, which we’re all a little desperate for. 

-Madeleine D.

My Strange and Magical Odyssey Through the Work of Aaron Paul

During my city’s stay-at-home order in March and April, I finally got around to watching AMC’s iconic Breaking Bad series, and later, its prequel spinoff Better Call Saul. I quickly fell in love with both shows, but especially Breaking Bad. I loved the writing and directing, the twists and turns, and the complicated characters. My favorite character, far and away, was Jesse Pinkman- junkie dealer turned tortured soul.

When I finished the show, I experienced post-show depression. Also, we were in a pandemic. To combat this sadness, I decided to chase the “high” of Breaking Bad by watching a few of the movies of Jesse Pinkman’s actor Aaron Paul. 

And then I kept watching. Once I had watched a few movies, I decided I was too far in and committed fully to going through his filmography. Now, I have watched two full TV shows (BoJack Horseman, The Truth Be Told) and almost every single movie from Aaron Paul’s post-Breaking Bad career (the exceptions being Welcome Home, Central Intelligence, and Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV). As a newly certified Aaron Paul academic, I am compelled to share my findings with you. 

This essay will examine Paul’s filmography after 2013. We will examine the trajectory of his career and the underlying themes of the roles he has played and how they have responded to Hollywood trends, and we’ll take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of his projects. 

~

It is an infamous Hollywood sentiment that most actors cannot make the jump from television to film. Only a few have been able to do it successfully and reach movie star level. While the era of prestige television has brought many stars to the small screen, it is still difficult to do the reverse. 

But if anyone would be able to do it, it should have been Aaron Paul. With the end of critically acclaimed Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season in September of 2013, Paul entered 2014 with five movies released in U.S theaters, all wildly different. The reactions to these five films set the course for the rest of his career.

Timeline

  • Breaking Bad ends in September 2013. 

  • Hellion (dir. Kat Candler) premieres at Sundance on January 17th, 2014, and gets a wide release in June. It’s an indie that doesn’t make much money, but Paul gets good reviews for his performance as an alcoholic widower struggling to keep custody of his sons. The film receives mixed to positive reviews. Hellion doesn’t quite come together as a whole but has a lot of strong elements. The film observes its characters without moralizing, full of empathy for their plights, no matter how frustrating it is to watch them self-sabotage. It’s an emotionally wrenching portrait of grief ripping a family apart. (I give it 4 out of 5 stars). 

  • Need for Speed (dir. Scott Waugh) comes out March 14th. This is obviously supposed to be Paul’s “leading man” action blockbuster debut. It’s panned by critics and makes decent box office, but not enough to get a sequel. The only thing about the film that lives in the cultural lexicon is this meme:

    So it was all worth it in the end. Paul is completely miscast as the lead here, which is probably why he’ll never be trusted with a franchise again. Lead characters in action movies are usually proactive and initiate within the story to drive the plot. Paul is great at reacting, which makes him a poor fit with a movie like this, which asks him to mostly sit and glower in front of a wheel. As Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune put it, “Paul has talent, though the actor’s idea of simmering intensity in the context of Need for Speed comes off more like serial killer in the making.'” Yikes. (1/5 stars)

  • Decoding Annie Parker (dir. Steven Bernstein) has a U.S theatrical release on May 2nd. It is a small drama that doesn’t get much publicity or box office, and it receives mixed to negative reviews. Paul’s character here is- and I mean this as respectfully as possible- a himbo. A himbohusand, until halfway through the film when his character does a complete 180. He wears a delightful array of terrible wigs that do a lot of the heavy lifting. The movie never figures out what story it wants to tell about the real-life Annie Parker and her contributions to breast cancer research, botching what could have been a moving story. But Paul’s relatively small role is entertaining, and much more so if you track his character’s moral decay by the shortening of his hair. (2/5)

  • A Long Way Down (dir. Pascal Chaumeil) gets a long, windy European rollout but eventually hits the United States in limited release on June 5th. It’s also a small film that doesn’t get a lot of attention or box office returns. Those who see it give it negative reviews. Paul plays a depressed ex-musician who tries to commit suicide on News Years Eve, but, surprise! three other people (played by Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collet, and Imogene Poots) are on the roof as well. The four of them make a pact to stay alive until Valentine’s Day and in the process become a little family. The movie is a tonally uneven “dark comedy” that refuses to sit in any kind of grief or sorrow. It’s not well written, and, as Mike D’Angelo notes for the AV Club, “Brosnan and Poots clearly believe A Long Way Down is a comedy…while Collette and Paul are convinced it’s a deadly serious portrait of despair.” But, admittedly, this movie is my kind of trash. It has plenty of tropes I hate, like “Go on vacation to find meaning in life again.” But it also has tropes I do like, such as “on the nose power ballad,” and “angstily swims in the ocean as a form of spiritual baptism” and “Aaron Paul crying,” which, in this case, are all the same scene. (3/5)

  • The 66th Primetime Emmys are on August 25th. Breaking Bad wins big, and Paul takes home his third Emmy win for best-supporting actor.

  • Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott) is released on December 12th. The movie is a box office failure and gets slammed with terrible reviews, as it deserves.(1/5)

Here is, apparently, what Aaron Paul learned from this appetizer-year of roles:

  1. I will never do a big blockbuster again, and my only leading man roles will be in B-level action flicks. (Whether this was a decision Paul came to on his own or was just what Hollywood decided post-Need for Speed, we’ll never know).
  2. I can continue to play boyfriends & husbands in supporting roles for mid-budget movies (Fathers and Daughters, American Woman, Decoding Annie Parker). 
  3. I will never ever do a period piece ala Exodus again, but I WILL work with a Scott again (he works with Ridley Scott for Exodus, works with Ridley Scott’s son Jake Scott in his 2019 film American Woman). 
  4. I will continue to play Troubled Fathers™ in indie movies (The Parts You Lose, Hellion, The 9th Life of Louis Drax)
  5. TV is my real home (BoJack Horseman, The Path, The Truth Be Told, Westworld)

So what did Aaron Paul’s career look like after 2014? Let’s go through each movie and see. The following movies are in chronological order by U.S theatrical release date.

Eye in the Sky (2016) 4/5 – This well-crafted drama explores drone warfare in a way that presents probably a more idealized version of how modern war is conducted than an accurate one. Putting realism aside, however, the film does what it set out to accomplish, which is to make the audience think about the ethics of this new frontier of combat. Paul spends most of the film sitting in front of a computer and being distraught, but he pulls it off perfectly. Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (this was his last role) co-star and are both characteristically excellent.

Fathers and Daughters (2016) 1/5 – This movie is incredibly forgettable, and so is Paul’s role as Bland Supportive Boyfriend. Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried turn in nice performances in this not-particularly-insightful drama about… well, the relationship between a father and daughter.

Triple 9 (2016) 0/5 – This is a brutal, violent film that offers no redemption in the story nor interesting filmmaking on any level. Its great cast is wasted. Paul plays a sensitive criminal whose most interesting trait is his half-shaved head, half mohawk comb-over. Absolutely nothing worth recommending here. 

The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016) 3/5 – This movie is bonkers! It’s absolutely nuts! It barely makes sense! Yet that makes it so much better than many of these other films. Paul plays the father of young Louis Drax, who falls off a cliff and into a coma on his ninth birthday. Paul also plays a sea monster. I… really can’t explain it, it has to be seen to be believed. This whimsical, dark children’s-but-is-really-for-adults-movie has a distinct vision. Is it a good vision? Debatable. But it is a wild ride nonetheless. 

Come and Find Me (2016) 0/5 – I despise how boring this movie is! Paul is again miscast playing a boyfriend trying to find his missing girlfriend in this action thriller that has neither good action nor is thrilling. You’ve seen a better version of this movie before.

American Woman (2019) 4/5 – This haunting drama follows the life of Debra (Sienna Miller), a down-on-her-luck working-class woman from a small town whose daughter goes missing. Paul plays her love interest, and while his role is small, gets to do some nice dramatic work. It’s Miller’s movie though, and although the film is a non-stop train to Sad-ville, it’s worth the ride.

The Parts You Lose (2019) 5/5 – Paul plays a nameless fugitive who is hidden and nursed back to health by a deaf child. Paul has a natural chemistry with child actors and he gets to use that here with promising newcomer Danny Murphy. Like in El Camino, he excels at expressing feral energy through a mostly silent role. It’s a perfect use of his talents, while also challenging him, and the whole movie is definitely a worthwhile watch.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) 5/5

This should have won the Emmy this year for Outstanding Television Movie! Vince and Aaron were robbed!

Paul delivers an outstanding performance that stands apart from his previous work as Jesse Pinkman. This Jesse is stripped of all of the things that made him more of a meme than a character (“yeah, science!”) and instead reminds us of the complex path towards salvation the character has been on, and the depth of his desperation when on the cusp of grasping it.

Strangely Specific Tropes in Aaron Paul’s Work

*I’m including here what I saw of his roles in TV shows BoJack Horseman, The Truth Be Told, the first two episodes of The Path, and a shoutout to the movie Smashed, which came out in 2012, which puts it before this scope of this essay.

  • His character is enslaved and gets tortured in the desert- Breaking Bad/El Camino, Exodus: Gods and Kings
  • Scene where his wife follows him in her car because she suspects he’s cheating on her and he goes to a shady motel to meet a mysterious woman: The Path, American Woman
    • Modification: Plays a husband who cheats and leaves his wife because he just can’t cope with the trauma she is undergoing: American Woman, Decoding Annie Parker
  • His character was in a band (but no musical abilities demonstrated) – Breaking Bad, American Woman, A Long Way Down, Decoding Annie Parker
  • Is a construction worker in the South with a spotty accent- American Woman, Hellion 
    • Only southern accent: Triple 9 and The Truth Be Told 
  • Wears a Beanie- The Parts You Lose, A Long Way Down, Breaking Bad/El Camino, BoJack Horseman, Triple 9.  (All these costume designers were like, “his forehead is bigger than our budget, we gotta cover it up!”
  • Interacts with Nazis/White Supremacists or the Mafia: Breaking Bad/El Camino, BoJack Horseman, Come and Find Me, Triple 9, The Truth Be Told
  • Is a junkie or alcoholic- Breaking Bad, BoJack Horseman, Hellion, Triple 9, The Truth Be Told, Smashed
  • I’m a criminal, yo: Breaking Bad, The Parts You Lose, Central Intelligence, Triple 9, Westworld, Need for Speed, The Truth Be Told
  • Does some guttural crying- Breaking Bad/El Camino, A Long Way Down, The Path, Hellion, Come and Find Me, Need for Speed, The Truth Be Told
    • Closeup as he sheds one single tear- El Camino, Need for Speed

So what’s the verdict? Aaron Paul’s filmography is uneven, to say the least, but it has some bright spots, especially as of late. If I were his manager, I would advise him to continue acting (and producing) small indie dramas that play to his strengths, stop doing mid-budget action movies, and try to befriend some prestigious directors (I could see a fit with the likes of Christopher Nolan, Kathryn Bigelow, Gina Prince-Bythewood, even Bong Joon Ho) and start edging back into big films, but not as the lead. He should also continue with prestige television, but use this as an opportunity to try different genres and be more experimental. I think with the right role he could get into better movies (and even win an Oscar one day?) but he needs to choose better projects and filmmakers need to take a chance on him.

As of right now though, Paul seems more focused on building his Dos Hombres Mezcal brand with Bryan Cranston, being a new dad, and taking responsibility for racism. And that’s pretty cool, bitch. 

– Madeleine D.

Dragging The Dead On Leashes: Generational Sin in Netflix’s “Dark”

A guest review by Kevin McGuire

“To a world without Winden”

“Winden won’t give up that easily”

-Ulrich and Hannah, 1986 (Season 1, Episode 3)

Dark’s opening scene takes place thirty-three years after this exchange, where the small town of Winden is as rotten as ever. Jonas Kahnwald has just returned to school following his father’s suicide. The nuclear plant, long a source of civic pride and economic stability, is set to be decommissioned. Half the residents seem to be involved in extramarital affairs. The police department is investigating several cases of missing children. Entire flocks of birds drop dead from the skies with no apparent explanation. Created in 2017 by director Baran bo Odar and writer Jantje Friese, this German Netflix series centers on a handful of local families, and the dark secrets in the town’s past responsible for the current problems. Time travel quickly comes into play, and as various characters attempt to change the past to fix the present, it becomes apparent how deeply the roots of their modern pain lie in their actions and those of their ancestors.

In case you haven’t picked up by now, this is not a happy show. The New York Times described it as “the show for people who thought Stranger Things was just a little too much fun”. Dark is simultaneously a technical and narrative masterpiece and a difficult show to watch. In preparation for writing, Friese read over 100 books on quantum physics, psychology, philosophy, and theology – and it shows. Direct references are made to numerous scientific concepts by name, everyone in-universe is capable of directly quoting both Freud and the book of Psalms, and quotes from a range of continental philosophers provide prologue to many episodes. It is an incredibly dense show, unwilling to leave any scientific or relational worldbuilding unexplored.

Odar’s background as a painter infuses each scene with strikingly intentional composition. The camera is unblinking as the show moves at a slow, almost dreamlike pace, whether capturing sordid affairs, brutal murders, or exposition over the physics of black holes. Indebted to the grand myth building of shows like Lost and Twin Peaks, Dark takes lessons from their oft-criticized lack of payoff. A consistent atmosphere is maintained by a steady drip of the dreadful truth replacing each piece of the central mystery, with the endgame always in sight. The solution to the puzzle is revealed early on, but the journey to that point – and what it can reveal about the human experience – remains the greater story.

A Brand New, Broken World

Dark is, at its core, as much about philosophical conflict as it is time-travel and soapy drama. While questions of time, fate, and causality form the grand theater that the show plays in, the heart of the narrative is much more human. Ultimately, Dark is about the experience of navigating generational sin, how the misdeeds of the past can bring pain and suffering through lasting scars and continuing patterns of destruction. The town of Winden is the entire universe of the show, and the most enduring monument to the crimes committed by generations of inhabitants. Beneath the nuclear plant, a system of caves acts as both the catalyst for time travel and a physical manifestation of the town’s dark underbelly. Occasionally we meet characters who have just moved to Winden, but no one escapes. Midway through season one, Katarina, mother of one of the missing children calls into a radio show, her oracle against Winden playing over scenes of small-town life now seen through a newly darkened lens:

“I want people to completely understand what’s going on here. We’re all so blind about this. There’s a murderer here among us. No one actually dares to say it. But it’s the truth. We’re all clinging to the hope that it won’t happen to us. We all know one another. And we think we know those around us. But do we really? We live right next door to people we know nothing about, and behind one of those doors is my son. It could be anyone’s door. The man behind the cash register. Someone we invite for coffee and cake on Sundays, who plays with our children. But I don’t want to look away anymore. And you shouldn’t want to either. This whole town is sick. Winden is like a festering wound, and all of us are a part of it.”  

The sins of the past directly affect every aspect of life in Winden. Fractured relationships within families echo the abuse and addictions that have haunted them for generations, while externally individuals betray the children of those their parents betrayed. Nothing changes, in pattern or substance, even as one generation replaces the next. Institutions, whether educational, political, or clerical, provide no solace for the residents as they continue to be harnessed for selfish motive just as they have throughout Winden’s history. The thin veneer of camaraderie that unites the town decays on screen as the secrets of the past emerge from whispered rumor into the light, setting neighbor against neighbor, daughter against mother, and father against son. 

Dark illustrates two types of this generational sin, the show proudly wearing its existential heritage on its sleeve. Characters moving through time fall into one of two camps. The first, represented by those like Ulrich, travel to the past in attempts to prevent present tragedies. Upon arrival, they face the realization that generations of misdeeds, both theirs and their ancestors, cannot be erased and inevitably haunt their families’ emotional and physical security. Confronted with this absurd and transcendent reality, they shrink into impotence or madness.

The second is represented by the cult-like secret societies of Sic Mundus and Erit Lux that carry out a war waged beyond time. Their founders began on the same path as the others, but answered the absurd directly. Instead of heroic courage, their actions prove to be the inciting incidents behind much of the horror plaguing their modern world. Generational sin is now cast through the lens of eternal recurrence – essentially the concept that all events in history occur repeatedly, in the same sequence, through a never-ending series of cycles. Dark makes this literal, as all of the travelers find themselves fighting the same tragedies not just at different points of time, but failing again and again to change the past and seeing their family and friends torn apart repeatedly by their actions. Trapped in this unending knot, each character operating outside of their native timeline is faced with the disharmony that arises from the apparent meaninglessness of their existence and the futility of their actions, and together represent three unique philosophical responses.

Heroes of the Absurd

As leader of Sic Mundus (which is short for Sic Mundus creatus est, which means “Thus the world was created” in Latin), Adam represents a war against God and time, viewing both as ultimately non-existent concepts which must be dethroned from the human mind. He adopts the view of eternal recurrence advanced by Friedrich Nietzsche – that only through amor fati (love of fate) can the “horrifying and paralyzing” reality of what will happen be embraced, allowing escape through the “creation of novelty”. Corrupted both physically and spiritually by countless attempts to restore order through time travel (his scars serving to conveniently obscure his identity until late in season two), Adam is the embodiment of the Nietzschean “will to power”. In his eyes, only he is strong enough to bend the universe to his will. Winden is sick, and can only be cured through destruction. In the center of the Sic Mundus lodge hangs Peter Paul Ruben’s The Fall of the Damned, Adam viewing himself as the archangel Michael, casting the damned of Winden into the abyss they deserve. For any innocents in the town, non-existence is a more merciful fate than continuing to live in such a world. Judgement and salvation, carried out in the same motion.

Eva, the leader of the Erit Lux (“There will be light” in Latin), is chiefly opposed to Adam, and seeks a different path. Her encounter with the absurd leads her instead to embrace it. There is a radical value to mere existence, any harm from generational sin largely ignored. Chief among the artifacts adorning Erit Lux’s comparatively barren lodge is a detailed mapping carved into the floor of every individual’s role which must be sustained for the cycle to continue. Eva embraces the absurdism articulated by Albert Camus, presupposing a world in which God is already dead and nothing beyond the immanent matters. To Erit Lux, both history and hope represent false idols doomed to disappoint. In this weary world, nothing is promised beyond today, and even the freedom that comes from everyone’s self-determined path to destruction is preferable to the fantasy of salvation. 

There’s an interesting contrast between the absurdism of Camus and the 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (bear with me for a second). In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus proclaims about the character that “he too concludes all is well”. This is a bitter statement acknowledging that the world has no master, and that Sisyphus must make his own meaning out of the boulder he eternally pushes. ‘All is well’ because nothing can be any different from how it currently stands. These words are a strange echo of Julian of Norwich’s famous recounting of her 13th vision:

“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion. But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”

For Julian, all is not well. But it will be. She doesn’t know how or when or why, but Christ will make all things right, and that is enough for faith. Likewise in Dark, Claudia, the last of three travelers who is outside time, accepts that there might be hope outside the knot in which Winden is stuck. She only arrives at this point through desperation, unwilling to perpetuate the cycle of parents and children wronging one another. The same mechanism which brings suffering into the world is the only way to escape it. 

In The Concept of Anxiety, Søren Kierkegaard writes that anxiety is the amoral tension between all possible actions that predates even the knowledge of good and evil in human consciousness. Anxiety made possible Adam and Eva’s leap into their original sins, yet anxiety also makes Claudia’s leap into a faith in a better world possible. Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard saw the tyranny of fate on human consciousness as a blight to be overcome. However, his solution lay in the ability of anxiety to prepare the human mind for faith “because the anxiety within him has already fashioned fate and has taken away from him absolutely all that any fate could take away”. Claudia’s recognition, that nothing she imagines can be worse than the present cycle imprisoning Winden, provides the catalyst for hope that unhitching from the origin can lead to a better world.

Out of the Caves

Three seasons of wallowing in suffering is draining. There’s a purpose to this pain though, as only in the absence of hope can the vastness of its joy be seen. In a recent interview, artist Elijah Tamu spoke about darkness as being a key to realizing spiritual transcendence, “white light is beautiful, but a world of only white light without differentiation would be no different from a world of darkness… Sometimes darkness is what makes it possible to appreciate and contemplate certain subtleties of light”. For example, the traditional candlelit tenebras service of Good Friday situates the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice alongside both spiritual and physical darkness, making a conscious attempt to draw the modern mundane into viewing a more sacred fullness. Unilluminated by the divine, the inherited suffering of this world can either lead to holding tight to past wrongs and perpetuating injustice on personal and systemic levels, or to redemptive release. 

While Dark cloyingly refuses to acknowledge whether any of the characters truly manage to outwit fate, Odar and Friese make clear that healing of even the deepest hurts begins with the extension of personal grace. Forgiveness of self and others, coupled with sacrifice, literally wipes away any trace of the show’s central sins. The generational patterns are coming undone. The final episode concludes with a dinner party, prior suspicion replaced by true community. As the guests eat by candlelight in a town without power, their final exchange illustrates a place still amid gloom, but no longer hopeless:

Regina: “If the world were to end today, and you only had one wish, what would you wish for?”

Katarina: “A world without Winden. Let’s drink to that.”

All: “A world without Winden.”

[The lights turn back on]

Peter: “Looks like Winden doesn’t want to just disappear.”

Woller: “Maybe it’s for the best.”

~

* “Dragging the Dead on Leashes” is the title of a song by Being As An Ocean

Kevin McGuire is currently a PhD student in the Price College of Business at the University of Oklahoma. In his free time, he enjoys both watching and playing basketball, spending too much time on Twitter, and continuing his quest to find the strangest music on the planet.

Exploring Time in “Tenet” and “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

*Spoilers for I’m Thinking of Ending Things

On the first weekend of September, Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited Tenet arrived to challenge the pandemic and (hopefully) save movie theaters. Meanwhile, writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things arrived on Netflix. Tenet is a sleek, imaginative, action-packed blockbuster thrill ride that has all of Nolan’s quirks: technical perfection, stiff dialogue, ponderings about reality, and Michael Caine. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is equally full of its director’s quirks: a focus on relationships, abstract, melancholy, arthouse. Both films, outside of their auteur-ness, share something in common: they are both about time, and much can be learned by comparing how the two directors approach their exploration of the subject. 

In Tenet, a character ends her explanation about the central premise of the movie (objects moving through time backward) by saying, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” Despite that instruction, Tenet is all about thinking. The entire film is completely plot-driven. Every single line of dialogue is plot-related. Every scene moves forward relentlessly. The momentum of the film is exciting, but there is no room for beauty or feeling. Tenet wants you to think about the possibility of going backward in time and it wants you to experience such a disorienting thrill (sometimes too disorienting, I spent an hour standing outside of the theater after the movie with my companions trying to parse the story out, and I’m still not sure I understand everything). 

Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is all about feeling. There is also a lot of talking, however, it’s less about what is said (which are often long monologues about art) and more about how things are said, or why. By the time the ending rolls around and there’s a ballet dance break and Jesse Plemmons sings an entire song from Oklahoma!, you’re either on board or are probably very annoyed. 

Time is warped in several ways during I’m Thinking of Ending Things. When Lucy (Jessie Buckley) gets to Jake’s (Jesse Plemmons) parents’ house, she and Jake stay the same age, but his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) begin aging backward in forward. Every time Lucy steps into a new room, both parents are at different ages. Later, Lucy notes that instead of people being stationary points that move through time, time moves through people and she watches time move through Jake’s parents. 

The scenes in the car between Jake and Lucy likewise play with continuity and time. Jake calls Lucy by several different names, she talks about being in different occupations, and her story of how she and Jake met changes multiple times. And in the ending sequence, it is revealed that Lucy wasn’t real at all, but that Jake was imagining falling in love. 

Maybe. That might be one possible interpretation. But nothing about I’m Thinking of Ending Things encourages you to “solve” the movie. It is not a logical puzzle, and there’s nothing you gain from being able to pin down the movie’s timeline or narrative tricks. What you need to know about Lucy and Jake, or their feelings and relationship, are all conveyed through the acting and visuals. The confusing, metaphysical nature of the visuals and story are supposed to only teach you one thing about time: it is our absurd enemy. Our perception of time is changed by our emotions, and the only way out is through. 

I’m Thinking of Ending Things treats time as a character within itself, as malleable as any of the other characters. Tenet treats time as a tool to play with. Neither approach- thinking or feeling- are inherently better or worse, of course. Both films have numerous explainer videos and articles on the internet to help people figure the films out, and both films prompt rich discussion through their ambiguous nature. I think, though, that the spectacle of Tenet (the big screen really is the only way to see it) will mean that the film won’t have much longevity. Some of Nolan’s other twisty puzzle-box movies have stood the test of time and remained in the cultural memory- I’m thinking of Inception and Memento– but those had stronger emotional cores than Tenet. Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things will probably also be forgotten, but less because of the film itself and more from how few people will see it and how even less will submit themselves to its oddity. Yet I think that if you do give I’m Thinking of Ending Things a chance and embrace it on its own terms, you will find it worthwhile, even if you don’t enjoy it.

-Madeleine D.