Netflix’s ‘Rebecca’ Is An Unremarkable Adaptation Of An Excellent Story

Netflix’s “Rebecca” is a bad dream from which audiences will quickly want to wake — not because it’s frightening (it isn’t) but because of its dreadful dullness and waste of serious potential and talent.

The film, based on the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, follows the unnamed Mrs. de Winter, the second wife of a wealthy widower, as she grapples with settling into her new marriage and the sense of being haunted by the omnipresence of her husband’s late first wife, the seemingly perfect Rebecca. There is a certain irony that a film focusing on a woman worried that she will never live up to the memory of her predecessor is a pale imitation of its source material.

How did Ben Wheatley, the director of the dark, atmospheric, and engaging “Kill List,” “Down Terrace,” and “High-Rise,” manage to suck all of the gothic elements and excitement from the classic horror romance “Rebecca”? Netflix’s new romantic mystery is a serviceable if dull adaptation of the classic novel, but it strips away any of the charm or personality that elevates the material above any of the blandly dark romances. 

The central problem with the adaptation is an identity crisis: The film does not appear to know what it wishes to be — a gothic thriller or a grand romance? In refusing to commit to either, it fails in both senses, providing only a lukewarm treatment of both. The treatment of much of the runtime as a charming love story destroys any momentum or suspense built by the scenes attempting to capture the novel’s tone, leaving a confused output. 

The cast is as variable as the tone, with both genius examples of perfect casting and actors ill-suited for their roles. The film is centered around the unnamed narrator and protagonist, Mrs. de Winter, played with charm but little substance by Lily James. James is certainly a gifted actress and has been excellent in other films and TV shows, but she brings very little to her character, leaving her as a relatively depthless black slate. 

Kristin Scott Thomas was the ideal selection for the villainous Mrs. Danvers. Her balance of stoic propriety and menace is phenomenal. The devotion to the late Rebecca is palpable in each scene. Thomas’s performance in a climactic moment of shocking evil toward the protagonist elevates the lackluster writing and direction, providing one of the few genuine moments of tension and excitement. 

Armie Hammer is likewise wonderful as the enigmatic love interest, Maxim. His dashing good looks and effortless charm give the character a natural appeal, which contrasts nicely with his bursts of cruelty. The shift of Maxim near the end is somewhat out of nowhere, but that is more the fault of the script and direction than his performance. 

It is an immense task for anyone to step into the shoes of Alfred Hitchcock, but the creative team behind this offering should have been more than up for the job, with credits on films and series that could and ought to have served as inspiration for “Rebecca.”

Director of photography Laurie Rose, who has worked on all of Wheatley’s previous films, served as cinematographer on the miniseries “London Spy,” which mixed romance, tension, and mystery in the manner which ought to have been applied to this film.

Clint Mansell, another frequent collaborator of Wheatley, wrote a fine if forgettable score. While it didn’t soar to the gorgeous heights of “Requiem for a Dream” or reach the dramatic potential of “Moon,” the music suited the tones nicely. The main problem with the score is not inherent to the music itself but rather a factor of the greater tonal issues. 

The “Rebecca” remake is perfectly enjoyable in a mindless way, if you’re just seeking an unremarkable period romance with some mystery to give the illusion of tension. If you’re seeking anything that comes close to capturing the essence of the novel, however, you’d be much better served staying with the original.

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‘Clouds’ Spotlights Catholic Family’s Struggles With Teen’s Terminal Illness

In the same week America got to know the remarkable Midwestern Catholic family of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the biggest movie release this weekend spotlights another faith-driven Midwestern family.

Premiering today on Disney Plus, “Clouds” recounts the story of Zach Sobiech, one of four siblings raised in a Catholic home in Lakeland, Minnesota. After being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer, the teenager is determined to live out his dreams no matter how long he has left.

Director Justin Baldoni (“Five Feet Apart”) helms the biopic, after having produced a documentary about Zach’s journey for his “My Last Days” online series. “I can’t think of a better time than right now to release a movie like this,” said Baldoni in a recent interview. “It gives people a chance to meet Zach, hear his music, and see the choices he made when he went through it.”

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Based on the memoir of Zach’s mother Laura Sobiech, “Clouds” highlights Christian faith in a way rarely seen in Disney films. “One of my prayers throughout this whole experience has been: ‘Lord, you open doors and we’ll walk through them,’” she said in a phone interview. “That is very much what has happened.”

Upon learning of his terminal diagnosis, Zach took up songwriting and quickly achieved cultural impact — including a No. 1 hit iTunes single in 2013. A-list actors and artists took notice. Bryan Cranston, The Lumineers, and Jason Mraz (among others) boosted the song and gave tribute to Zach.

As a consultant on the script, Laura worked to ensure it reflected reality rather than make their journey seem unattainable. “I want people to see that our lives are messy,” she said. “We didn’t do things perfectly. We fought. We wrestled. Despite us, God chose to use our family and Zach’s story in this amazing way.”

Finding Connection During Unyielding Stress

For Sobiech, it felt surreal to travel from her small hometown — on a major studio’s dime — to the movie shoot in Montreal, Canada. Before filming, actors assembled for the first time for a table read of the script grounded in her memoir.

Hollywood stars with significant past credits sat around the conference room table: Neve Campbell (“Scream” franchise) portrays Laura, Tom Everett Scott (“That Thing You Do”) her husband Rob, Fin Argus (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) their son Zach, and Sabrina Carpenter (“Adventures in Babysitting”) his best friend.

Their run-through of the draft script revealed a pivotal part of the story did not resonate. “The scene where Rob and I are arguing on the deck of the house, it just didn’t ring true,” said Laura Sobiech. “It wasn’t anything near what we would have said.” After the table read, director Baldoni huddled up with Campbell, Scott, and screenplay writer Kara Holden, all discussing how that scene between husband and wife needed work.

As a mother of four, Sobiech is used to speaking up when situations require it. “I just kind of butted in and said, ‘Well, do you want to know what we were really fighting about?’ They all looked at me and said: ‘Yeah, we do!’” she recounted.

Sobiech spent the afternoon guiding Holden as she rewrote the scene, with input from the actors. From years of personal experience, the Minnesota author said it was vital to knock down the assumption that caregivers usually choose to lean on one another.

“You’ve got two very fragile people going through a really hard thing,” she said. “When you know you are both going through the same emotions, you don’t want to burden your spouse with the heaviness you’re feeling. You end up sort of closing off and carrying it all by yourself, and you have to figure out a path back to each other.”

The Spirit and the Flesh

Following Zach’s diagnosis, the film depicts how the Catholic family sought divine intervention for his healing in addition to medical treatment. Thanks to an acquaintance who paid their way, the Sobiechs traveled to the world’s most famous healing shrine in Lourdes, France.

“Even then, I thought: We don’t really need to go to France to get a miracle,” recalled Sobiech. “We wrestled with what to expect. What are we really looking for? Are we setting ourselves up? What’s the purpose of this?”

A pilgrimage to Europe provided needed respite for the close-knit family facing trauma. “Lourdes is like coming in from a freezing cold blizzard into a warm, cozy house and getting wrapped in a blanket,” she said. “For us, it was this tranquil, peace-filled place to retreat.”

Nothing evidently supernatural occurred. Yet scenes at Lourdes are presented with remarkable reverence for a mainstream film, seeming to show some bigger story unfolding. “I did ask God to physically heal Zach,” said Sobiech. “But I also asked for his grace, that his hand would carry us through whatever would happen. And I think that was the answer we received.”

While viewers see their spirits were willing, realities of the flesh are also close at hand. The film earns its PG-13 rating through an F-bomb yelled by an exasperated parent and a romantic scene between teenagers. The faith-guided mother is sensitive to how families with young kids are vigilant about content even in an inspirational movie.

“Certainly if that’s not something you want your children to see, then they shouldn’t see it,” said Sobiech. “The scene ends before it gets too steamy, and it doesn’t go where one might think. That’s part of the teenage experience. It shows that Zach, a 17-year-old boy who was dying, was real.”

The Silver Lining of ‘Clouds’

One of few original films released thus far on Disney Plus, “Clouds” fits alongside their library of true-life biopics. His mom noted Zach “loved the spirit of Disney movies” their family watched together. “‘Remember the Titans’ was one of his favorites,” said Sobiech. “Especially at a time like this, it’s important to find something that’s uplifting.”

His legacy lives on in his music and other tangible ways. As of this week, the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund has raised more than $2 million to research better treatments and even a cure for the rare bone cancer.

“This story is about hope and love,” said director Justin Baldoni. “But as much as we want to touch peoples’ lives, we want to freakin’ end and find a cure for osteosarcoma and children’s cancer. Because we don’t need to lose another bright soul.”

Active in their community while still busy raising kids and now one grandchild, Laura and Rob Sobiech consider it providential the film is releasing during this contentious season. “I hope it does the same thing as Zach’s song ‘Clouds,’” she said, “Which is to inspire people to think about the deep things in life and leave them feeling hopeful.”

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Based on the memoir by Laura Sobiech, “Clouds” premieres today on Disney Plus.

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Netflix’s ‘The Devil All The Time’ Is A Hellish Bore

“The Devil All the Time” is not a film as much as it is an audiobook with visuals. The new Netflix film, which follows cycles of vengeance, violence, and religious fanaticism within a few families in the post-World War II Midwest, is based on Donald Ray Pollack’s novel. With a dozen central characters, a two-hour runtime, and several subplots lasting over a decade, the movie is a rushed endeavor.

The film tells the story of first disturbed veteran Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), and then his son, Arvin (Tom Holland). Throughout their path, they come across serial killers, corrupt policemen, and a wicked preacher.

The film wildly over-relies on a narrator, who explains every single action as it happens, and moves the plot along from scene to scene. Some narration can be helpful, especially in a cinematic adaptation of a dense novel with many complications, but film is predominately a visual medium. Viewers would rather watch the actions happen, rather than hear about them after the fact.

Many major plot points are described rather than shown, which gets quite boring. Further, the narrator explains nearly every emotion experienced by the central characters, which ought to be instead demonstrated through the actors’ performances and the camerawork. It is far more gripping to witness a characters’ epiphany or emotional state, rather than have a disembodied voice hold your hand through each moment.

Much of the narration problem comes from the pacing. There is simply too much plot to fit into a two-hour movie. The story would have been much better as a miniseries. This change would have allowed each important character and story to have time to be fully realized, so that when important plot points occur, the audience knows and cares about them, and has a vested interest in the story’s outcome.

The acting ranges from passable to excellent, with no awful turns, but many lacking energy. Tom Holland is fine as the protagonist, effectively capturing his anguish and weariness. However, a major driving force for Arvin is rage, something Holland seems incapable of mustering, aside from one early fistfight when protecting his sister. The final 40 minutes of the film are exclusively driven by his violent quest for vengeance, but Holland struggles to capture his character’s mental state.

Bill Skarsgård was excellent at capturing the more unhinged aspects of Willard, truly selling the desperation and fanaticism needed. However, he never allowed viewers to see the calmer, more balanced side of the character, leaving the scenes intended to be dramatic bursts of passion feeling frustratingly par-for-the-course. Even in Willard’s contented scenes, he appears to be a ticking time bomb, just waiting for the latent instability to burst through, leaving the incredible later scenes with less of an impact on viewers.

Jason Clarke and Riley Keough were disappointingly bland as the serial killer couple Carl and Sandy, though much of their problems were in the script. Most of their scenes were spent committing murders, with their differing intentions and psychologies told to viewers by the narrator, rather than allowing the two talented actors to present any motivations.

Sebastian Stan is effectively loathsome as Sheriff Lee Bodecker, a corrupt cop and Sandy’s brother. He’s frustratingly one-note as a character, identified exclusively by his ambition and greed. Stan has previously been excellent as morally dubious characters, such as the tormented antihero Bucky Barnes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tonya Harding’s abusive ex husband in “I, Tonya,” and the duplicitous Carter Baizen in lurid teen drama “Gossip Girl.” It’s clear he attempted to bring some subtlety to the role, but there is nothing upon which to build.

Robert Pattinson was excellent as minor antagonist, Reverend Preston Teagardin, a corrupt and sexually exploitative minister. Pattinson struck a perfect balance between charismatic and menacing. His performance had shades of Paul Dano in “There Will Be Blood,” but Pattinson’s overcompensation is replaced with a predatory vibe which permeates the atmosphere every time he is on camera. He’s the type of villain who you simultaneously wish was around longer, yet viscerally crave for his comeuppance.

The true standout in the cast was Eliza Scanlan as Arvin’s pious step-sister, Lenora. She was one of the only virtuous characters in the film, but rather than be a one-dimensional ingenue, Scanlan imbues Lenora with startling humanity and depth. Her deeply limited screen time is a tragedy, as she absolutely lit up each scene she was in and elevated her section of the movie.

The biggest problem with the film is that we don’t have enough time with any of the characters, and therefore have no real reason to care about them. In place of showing us who the characters are and using scenes and dialogue to explain their relationships, everything is spelled out by the narrator, which wildly harms an audience’s ability to get invested in the story.

We’re told Lee loves his sister Sandy and cares about his reputation. We’re told about the marriage between Willard and Charlotte. We’re told about the complexities in Sandy and Carl’s relationship and serial killings. However, all of this happens off camera, with only a few brief scenes to demonstrate any sort of connection.

The only relationships that actually were demonstrated rather than explained were Lenora’s with Arvin and Teagarden. However, this comes as much down to Scanlan, Pattinson, and Arvin’s performances as the somewhat increased focus they are given.

Obviously, not every character and relationship in a film can gain substantial screen time and development, while other aspects must be covered by exposition. However, it’s a problem when every relationship and character is glossed over with a few sentences of narration, rather than actually showing the action. Further, in an ensemble cast where the plot is predominately driven by the interpersonal relationships, they need to be remarkably strong or the story falls flat.

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‘Cuties’ Review: Dull and Indefensible

The Netflix release Cuties is dull and morally indefensible, an appalling act of sexual exploitation of young girls. Actually, as you’ll read below, it’s even worse than that.

You can’t judge a movie by its content. It’s not about content. It’s about what the movie has to say about the content.

The Bible’s a good example. I’m no scholar but I’ve always assumed Herod’s stepdaughter, Salome, was underage. Maybe not 11. Closer to 14. I’m not alone. So it’s right there in the Bible. In the New Testament, no less. Young girl dancing sexy. Is that child porn? Are the movies that depict what’s now known as the Dance of the Seven Veils child porn? Course not. The dance is portrayed as obscene, as a sin so dark you can hardly believe you’re a member of the same species.

Salome’s mother sells her daughter’s sex to her own husband. Herod lusts after his own stepdaughter in front of his own wife. Salome is a symbol of innocence violated beyond repair. Motivating all of it, the cold-blooded murder of John the Baptist.

There’s nothing about the moment that is not revolting.

Before we get to Cuties, let me go a bit further…

Bully (2001), Kids (1995), L.I.E. (2001), Thirteen (2003). Tough movies. R-rated movies. What you call hard Rs. All about underage kids doing all sorts of terrible stuff. I will and have defended all four. Again, not about the content. About what the movie says about the content. No one, unless they’re already corrupted, walks away from those four movies thinking any of that is okay. All you want to do afterward is take a shower.

That’s why, initially, sight unseen, I defended Cuties. I did not defend Netflix’s appalling ad campaign, which was aimed directly at the naked-guys-in-a-raincoat-named Floyd crowd. For whatever reason, Netflix is big on sexually exploiting children. Barack and Michelle Obama and Susan Rice are getting rich(er) off all those Floyds.

Okay, I didn’t exactly “defend” Cuties. Gave it the benefit of the doubt. For all the reasons mentioned above.

Now I’ve seen it and can’t defend it.

Cuties is soft-core child pornography disguised as art. Nothing less. Nothing more.

Cuties does not tell Naked Floyd to be ashamed of himself. Naked Floyd’s going to love Cuties. That’s a problem. A big problem.

Cuties does not tell 11-year-old girls that twerking and sexualization sets you on a path of self-debasement, that it destroys your self-respect and the respect others might have for you — especially in the age of the Internet. That’s a bigger problem.

For our protagonist, 11-year-old Ami, twerking is the path to enlightenment and personal growth.

The movie’s director, Maïmouna Doucouré, says the film is a critique of the sexualization of children, specifically the Internet’s role in it.

Bullshit.

The far-left fake news outlet, the New Yorker, accidentally told the truth about Cuties. But because the truth was off-message, the New Yorker deleted the tweet.

Cuties, which has angered scandal-mongers on the right, is the story of a girl’s outrage at, and defiance of, a patriarchal order,” the New Yorker tweeted accurately.

Yep, that’s precisely what Cuties is.

Where the New Yorker screwed up, though, was in saying so out loud.

Hey, if we’re going to protect Barack Obama and Susan Rice, what we’re supposed to say is that Cuties is a damning indictment of the sexualization of children. What we are not supposed to say is that the children in Cuties are sexualized to stick it to The Man. So the New Yorker deleted the tweet and the truth.

Fact: Cuties is not an indictment of the sexualization of children. Cuties sexualizes children, and not in some baby-doll Jon Benet way.

Naked Floyd holds the camera, and Naked Floyd can never get enough of prepubescent butts in tight jeans and short-shorts. Countless close-up of 11-year-old butts in tight pants. Bending, shaking, dry-humping. You won’t believe it.

What’s ironic is that if the girls were of age, Cuties’ defenders would be outraged over these close-ups, outraged over the camera’s “male gaze.”

But since Cuties is telling 11-year-old girls the path to enlightenment and growth is through humping the floor in a pair of Daisy Dukes, the “male gaze” is okay.

You see, corrupting little girls is woke, while guys enjoying a gander at a woman of legal age is the hideous patriarchy at work. Those are the rules now.

Believe it or not, Naked Floyd also digs crotch shots. No shit, 11-year-old characters in short-shorts and bikini bottoms, legs wide open punctuated with a come-hither look. Not one crotch shot. Not two. Not five. Lost count after five. Still can’t believe it.

Ami’s fighting the patriarchy, you see. Her hideous Muslim father has taken a second wife and he’s bringing her home to share a bed with Ami’s mom. Ami’s mom pretends to be okay with it. Ami’s Great Aunt orders everyone to accept tradition. The old biddy even makes Ami cook the wedding feast. Poor little girl cuts a big pile of onions. In case you miss the symbolism, there are tears. Lots of tears.

Even her bratty little brother oppresses Ami.

Ami’s oppressed mom drags poor Ami to a Muslim school that teaches women how to be obedient to their husbands, to men in general.

When Sex and the City 2 criticized Islam’s oppression of women, the same critical class gushing over Cuties blasted Sex and the City 2 as Islamophobic. But Carrie and Miranda and Charlotte and Samantha are of age, so that’s the moral difference.

How bent is Cuties?

Well, after Ami strips naked, spreads her legs wide, takes a photo, and publishes it on social media (thankfully we see nothing graphic), she’s slut-shamed. In case you don’t get the point, some bratty little boy actually calls her a “slut” — like three times.

**SPOILER ALERT**

In the end, Ami decides to stop twerking. Has a bit of a breakdown. Felt contrived. Like the movie figured it had better pull out of the child exploitation gutter at the very end. Look! Now it’s art!

Doesn’t matter, because at the end, thanks to all the sex stuff, all the butt-shaking and crotch shots, Ami is liberated, independent, and better off.

Twerking saved her from the patriarchy.

So this isn’t Salome dancing for Herod. This is a movie that says twerking at age 11 is the path to growth, to enlightenment, to liberation. This is also a movie that says you can walk away from it clean, even after publishing naked photos of yourself. It’s all good, ladies.

And that’s indefensible.

***END SPOILER***

The movie’s biggest moral flaw is that it refuses to provide Ami an alternative between doormat and twerker.

The movie’s not set in some third-world hellhole. Ami lives in Paris — as in Paris, France. You’re trying to tell me a female teacher or lawyer or small business-owner couldn’t represent a third way?

Other than being extremely uncomfortable to watch, Cuties is dull. A loooong 94 minutes. There’s just not enough plot, and the characters, especially the four central girls, aren’t all that interesting.

I need a shower.

Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC. Follow his Facebook Page here.

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Smart Satire Is All Too Rare, But ‘An American Pickle’ Pulls It Off Seamlessly

There’s a lot to like about “An American Pickle,” HBO Max’s new Seth Rogen flick, which is a surprise success on several levels. It’s both an on-demand release and a hilarious comedy, and a provocative cultural satire that resists the urge to get bogged down in anti-Trump politics.

Based on a Simon Rich novella, the movie documents the smart, absurdist tale of an Eastern European immigrant who literally gets pickled for 100 years, wakes up in modern America and meets his grandson. Both grandfather and grandson are played seamlessly by Rogen himself.

Skeptics might expect Rogen’s outspoken liberalism to hamper the topical film’s humor, but it’s actually a rich, provocative, and timely satire on cancel culture, more interested in having the conversation than insisting it’s already over. Herschel, Rogen’s likable, industrious, immigrant grandfather, proves a perfect foil for Ben, his millennial grandson, a Brooklyn-based app developer with a liberal worldview. He’s also a foil for Ben’s neighbors, whose response to Herschel makes an interesting point about generational culture clashes, and the way Americans perceive their ancestors and history.

What’s more, the jokes are on par with Rogen’s classic movies, which is impressive both for an on-demand release and, sadly, for comedies in general these days. It’s seriously funny, and not insufferably political.

With the fate of Hollywood comedies shifting increasingly to streamers, funny films have been few and far between. They just haven’t stacked up to their theatrical predecessors—although the genre’s current theatrical offerings haven’t really measured up either. From “Brittany Runs A Marathon” to “Wine Country” to “Palm Springs,” on-demand comedies always seem to underdeliver, serving up laughs every ten minutes, always with a side helping of mediocre emotional gravity.

“American Pickle” has the emotional gravity, but it goes down much more smoothly given the film’s sharp script, silly gags, and smart commentary. If future filmmakers model their on-demand (or theatrical) comedies on “American Pickle,” we could be in for a renaissance.

Good comedies are rare. Good political comedies are really rare. Good on-demand comedies are even rarer. “An American Pickle” is all of the above, and that’s pretty impressive.

Director Of Feminist Film ‘Dollhouse’: ‘I Actually Didn’t Feel As Exploited Being A Stripper As I Do As A Screenwriter’

Nicole Brending wore many hats on the set of “Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Pop Culture,” a tale of the rise and fall of fictional child pop star Junie Spoons. Brending wrote, directed, edited, and produced the film, voiced many of the characters, and designed the dolls that are used in place of actors.

Brending and I spoke about her film, its feminist messages, the mid-2000s pop culture satirized, and creating a film with dolls in place of actors.

Junie goes through not just the typical rise and fall of a child star, but through some remarkably heightened issues. What inspired you to take her story to such highs and lows?

There’s a number of things. One of the things that the film is satirizing is how the media is always topping itself. After each episode that Junie goes through, it had to get worse, or crazier, or just more extreme. That was the part of the concept of the film, but also the challenge of the film was to see, like, how much more insane can we get? How can we take it to a place that is inevitable but that’s also unexpected?

The ending of the film was a phenomenal twist. It was simultaneously shocking and yet felt like the only logical conclusion to the story. How did you decide to end her story in such a way?

That way this movie is looking at how we destroy women and dismantle them and take from them and so, like, that’s a part of it. So it was kind of like the only thing to do eventually is to discard her when she’s no longer useful, but I don’t want to give away the ending.

There are obvious practical reasons for animating this story — the sexual escapades of a 12-year-old are not something that can or should be filmed with actual actors. The stylistic choice to use the creatively designed and eerie dolls was a really interesting workaround. What made you choose the specific doll-based animation for this film? Did you ever consider other animated forms?

I worked dolls and puppets before, and one of the things that I really love about them is, more than traditional animation, people really seem to connect with them. There’s kind of a living quality to them that a regular animation wouldn’t have. I had this one film some years back called “Operated by Invisible Hands” that was this love story between these two dolls. At first, people are laughing, and they think it’s funny.

Then there’s a point at which they get quiet, and you realize it’s not because they’re not engaged; it’s because they’re so engaged with the love story. I think there’s something there’s that aspect of them that I really wanted to bring to the project. It’s important that people connect to the story.

I also think, like you said, for the purposes of satire, there’s a lot of stuff you can’t do with real people or it would be unpalatable. You could, but it would be unpalatable, like the sex tape, like literally all of the film. In order to really get across the truth of I’ve what I’m trying to explore in terms of misogyny in our perspective on women, I wanted to do it in a satirical way, and I wanted to do it in a way that people could watch and get the meaning from and really, really take some truth from it, but not feel like they were being preached to, and not feel like they were being alienated.

With static dolls, there is an added benefit of style and it contributes to the doll motif throughout the film. However, you do lose facial expressions and body language. Did you ever fear the effect of losing this form of storytelling? As a director, how did you work around that? And how did it factor into your design of the dolls?

One of the things that I enjoy doing with puppets is finding an expression that really captures the essence of that character. That came through the story, and then through the directing of them, the way that we shoot. I’ll get certain angles and certain kinds of staging. It actually really changes your perception of their expression.

And then of course there’s the voice acting, but I’ve had actors say to me, after seeing some of my puppet movies, “Yeah, it really means you don’t have to do much as an actor.” There are tricks to dealing with that, and I kind of prefer it and having the mouths move. It cheapens the effects of them being toys.

One of the other reasons I think viewers like the dolls is that they seem like toys. There’s this idea that you could maybe be doing this at home. To have things that are professionally made, or that were made for them to be on film, cheapens the effects.

For the latter third of the film, the film is hijacked by a new character from seemingly out of nowhere, and that is Trans Junie. What was the inspiration behind that character, and what were you trying to get across to audiences?

What we’re trying to get across to audiences in that part is the eradication of female subjectivity from American popular culture. One thing that I thought about just in terms of the structure of the project was that, eventually, Junie would need to be eliminated from her own story.

I thought about different ways to do it. We always hear about these rooms, you know, of white men making decisions about women’s bodies, but I think there’s another way that women are being silenced right now. And I think that’s through gender politics, actually, which is kind of surprising. Their perspectives are being eliminated. I want to look at the logic behind trans ideology, and then see how that logic was being used to silence women.

I think there’s also just an aspect of, like, looking at how we don’t really even respect women’s talents. It doesn’t matter that Junie’s talented. She just is something that we feed off of, and then we get rid of her. It’s just the image of her that Trans Junie takes on. There’s a lot going on in that.

I would say, generally speaking, when we’re talking about the controversial aspects of the film, it’s definitely this part of it. What I’m trying to really demonstrate, because it’s really happening, is how trans ideology is being used to silence women, and it’s unacceptable. I think as women, we are entitled to define what it means to be women.

The film has a clear message against the commoditization and sexualization of young women in the music industry. How do you want audiences to relate the themes of the film into their own lives?

I don’t see this movie as actually being about a pop star. I think women [have] everyday experiences like this, where they are being silenced or they are being ignored. To me, Junie’s story is very much about trying to look at various ways that we deny women their own subjective perspective. I’ve had many women come up to me after a screening and say, “This is what my life is I feel like. I relate to this, like, entirely.”

I definitely think it has broader applications than just the pop world. I’ve also been really pleased with how a lot of men have said, “You know, I really love this movie.” I feel like it’s a way that men can be a part of the conversation about the subject because it’s not vilifying them; it’s looking at how everybody’s culpable.

I think that’s a really important thing to think about, is that we’re all culpable in misogyny and the silencing of women. It’s a lens, so misogyny is a way that we perceive people. It’s not just a group of people acting upon another. I want people to be thinking about that in their daily lives. Even my manager is said, “It’s actually changed the way that I interact with my wife.” That’s really cool. I think that’s like the best thing you can hope for. It starts conversations.

When I was at Slamdance, a filmmaker came up to me in the filmmaker lounge, and he said, “So what movie did you do?” I said, “I did that one with the puppets.” He responded, “You know, I’ve been hearing conversations about that movie, just like overhearing conversations that I couldn’t stop listening to, because people are talking about that subject matter in a way that I’ve never heard people talk about it.” It’s really exciting. I mean, that’s the best you can hope for. I think it does inspire conversations. I also hope people find it funny, and they can have a laugh at the same time.

Real-life pop culture, especially mid-2000s, clearly inspired lots of the aesthetics and events of the film. What was the intention behind that choice? Was it contemporary pop culture or was it more to sort of couch it in a sense of reality, or both?

It’s a little of both. I was thinking of the Britney Spears video “…Baby One More Time.” She’s super sexualized, in a Catholic school uniform, but like she’s like 15. I mean, she’s a child. When I was working on the songs, we were trying to go through an evolution of the music, but then also how the music videos might change as well, with them based on the kind of videos that I’ve seen. To both, not mock them, but satirize them, but also to give people a sense of “this is the world that we live in and this is really happening.”

The songs they felt like music that I grew up on, that early-mid 2000s pop. I was at a party a few months ago and parties were still happening and people playing throwbacks, when we collectively realized how some of the lyrics that we would scream at age like eight, nine, ten. Things like Rihanna’s S&M, or Britney Spears lyrics, that we didn’t understand at the time. Your film did a great job with highlighting like these innocuously shocking lyrics for children…

So funny, it was like, you have that one Christina Aguilera song, “Genie in a Bottle,” and it’s so dirty. They would do interviews with her, and she’d say, “No, it’s not about sex. It’s about respect.” It’s funny how people will try to buy into the marketing even though they know deep down that the messages are there. “Genie in the Bottle” is like, “You got to rub me the right way.” Not all about sex. But you can tell people it’s a metaphor, and for some reason people buy it for a while. I find it fascinating how over and over again, the marketers with the labels try to deceive you that something blatantly sexual is not sexual.

Speaking of that era in pop culture, what is your opinion on the #freeBrittney movement? That whole story seems like something straight out of your film.

Yeah, #FreeBritney certainly feels like an episode straight out of Junie’s life. We’ve even adopted a #FreeJunie hashtag. I haven’t been following too closely, but Britney’s conservatorship certainly looks to be a way for some people to profit off of her. Conservatorships are really only for people in comas or who are so severely mentally ill, they can’t function on a daily basis. Since the conservatorship went into effect, she’s had a Vegas show and was on “The X-Factor,” working the entire time.
Again, I think we are getting back to this principle that women are a kind of property and not autonomous, conscious people. Britney has suffered from a very classic method of control, which is to permanently label a woman as crazy if she acts out. The fact that it’s led to conservatorship and control over her assets is a symptom of how little we regard women and their ability to manage their own lives, and how easily their assets can be taken from them.
If she’s so mentally ill that she needs constant care, then she shouldn’t be working. She should be getting care. But if she’s still capable of making the kind of money she makes, then it would follow that she is capable of managing her own life. Instead, she’s a cash cow for others while she has to ask permission to go to Walmart to spend her own money. It’s disturbing. But, unfortunately, not surprising.

In a film with several unsettling aspects, I found the PhD character to be the one that got under my skin the most. I didn’t really know what to make of him until the ending. What was the purpose of his character, and what did he represent?

He’s the kind of guy who says he’s a feminist but doesn’t actually respect women. He represents a man who thinks that studying feminism entitles him to certain kinds of attention from women. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the SNL skit where these guys try to pick up a woman at a bar, and when she says no, they’re like “Screw you, b-tch.”

He’s a creepy guy. I mean that’s kind of his deal, that he uses academia, he uses all of this rationalization. You see that a lot of those who commit sex crimes against women have a way of thinking, they’re treating her as if they were, you know, gentlemen.

So in the setting, I don’t think there really is a character other than him that really represents a kind of hostility towards women in deeper, sexual kind of way. He is sort of obsessive, thinking women are objects, women are things to be controlled, really in a basement dungeon kind of way.

What’s up next for you?

I have a couple projects. I’m working on a feature based on my experience when I was a stripper. I think it…ought to be a totally other debate that we have, but I read about how radical feminists tend to be really anti-sex work. I don’t consider myself a radical feminist, but I don’t disagree with that.

However, there are men who make money out of their bodies too, like as construction workers. I actually didn’t feel as exploited being a stripper as I do as a screenwriter. I also have a something in the pipeline on a woman mathematician.

Netflix’s ‘The Old Guard’ Is The Superhero Movie We Need Right Now

“The Old Guard,” Netflix’s newest superhero film based on the comic of the same name, is an engaging and clever look at immortality through fun action set pieces and interesting characters.

The film doesn’t do anything particularly special or new with its genre, but it’s a smart movie, and certainly worth watching. The most compelling superhero worlds are the ones where heroism has serious downsides and consequences.

Batman will forever be isolated by his duty to Gotham. The X-Men face rampant discrimination. Spiderman’s powers put everyone he loves into jeopardy. Likewise, the titular heroes must face the brutal problems associated with their expanded lifespans.

The concept of immortality is played with beautifully in “The Old Guard.” The film doesn’t bombard audiences with information or deep mythos surrounding their powers, as the characters themselves don’t know all that much. Bits and pieces of the film’s lore are peppered throughout the film, with hopefully more to be fleshed out in the likely upcoming sequel.

There is a profound sorrow throughout the film, but it never overindulges in bleakness to the point of banality. Director Gina Prince-Blythewood handles the tone nicely, allowing a surprising sense of hope to what could have been a boring, depressing mess.

The air of mystery surrounding the group’s powers is welcome in a genre that often attempts to over-explain the more magical aspects of their story in order to ground them in some sense of realism, only to inadvertently reduce the realism due to unforeseen plot holes. By not creating a convoluted explanation for everything, but rather create lived-in, set rules, the film can abide by its own internal logic much better than its genre compatriots.

The effects for their healing are fairly standard, nothing that hasn’t been done before and done better by cinematic portrayals of Wolverine. Nevertheless, it never gets old, watching the slow reversal of wounds as our heroes recover.

The central team is fantastic, sharing an easy and believable chemistry for a groups supposedly working together for centuries. Likewise, each character in the eponymous “Old Guard” comes from a different era, which plays into their characters and relationships.

Charlize Theron has cemented herself as a fantastic action star in recent years, turning in excellent turns in the phenomenal “Mad Max: Fury Road” and underrated “Atomic Blonde.” Here, she shines as Andromache of Scythia, or Andy, a 6,000-year-old woman who has dedicated her incredibly long life to protecting humanity. The oldest of the group, Andy is a woman wearied by seeing the worst of humanity for millennia, and, despite lifetimes of effort, evil still exists and thrives.

Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) fought for Napoleon, and primarily views his immortality as a curse. Forced to watch his wife and children age, suffer, and die in the 1800s, he knows immortality means slowly losing everyone you’ve ever loved.

Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) met while fighting against each other in the crusades, ultimately falling in love. Their relationship leaves the two of them the least resentful with their immortality, as an extended lifespan means more time together. Further, it is a nice change to see two immortal beings in a stable, committed relationship lasting centuries.

The newcomer of the group, Nile (KiKi Layne) was a marine who discovered her immortality upon being killed in the line of duty and awakening with her wounds entirely healed. It is through her eyes, as well as Andy’s, that we are primarily seeing the film. Nile serves both as an effective audience surrogate and an interesting character in her own right, as her emotional journey of dealing with newfound immortality is compellingly treated with nuance. Layne was excellent in 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “The Old Guard” cements her as a talent as someone to keep an eye.

The villains are likewise each individualized, with disparate motives and degrees of humanity. All three are after the secret behind the protagonists’ immortality, but with disparate methods and motives. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the primary antagonist, James Copley, who is likewise the most sympathetic. A former CIA agent who lost his wife to a long battle with ALS, he is desperate to understand how wounds can heal and death can be undone to make sense of his wife’s suffering.

Pharma Mogul Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) is driven by one motive – profit. He sees the potential in using the immortals’ DNA to market lifesaving drugs and make a fortune, not caring if he has to imprison and torture five people for decades to do so. Lastly, the desire for scientific discovery and helping people is worth the cost of human suffering for Dr. Kozak (Anamaria Marinca). Rather than make the villains a generically evil monolith, the trio’s respective complexities deeply enhances the story.

The action in the film is very enjoyable. Theron’s dance training allows for longer choreographed fight sequences, rather than an over-reliance on quick cuts to simulate action. Prince-Blythewood uses that to its full potential. In a film with immortal characters, it can be tough to generate high enough stakes to make anyone care about the outcome of fights aside from watching pretty movements.

Prince-Blythewood, however, leans on the immortality aspect of the story, emphasizing their ability to survive many deaths, which can be in and of itself a curse when faced with endless torture. The most horrifying sequence in the film shows one of the immortals’ former teammates stuck in an iron maiden at the bottom of the ocean for centuries, drowning over and over again in perpetuity.

I do hope that we get more films in this series. The characters are engaging and sympathetic, and there’s a lot more that can be done with them. I’m looking forward to seeing the continued adventures of Andy, Nile, Joe, Nicky, and Booker.