New Shows + Movies by Women — November 19, 2021

There are a number of deeply promising series this week, including one of the most anticipated fantasy adaptations, one of the most accomplished ensembles ever cast, and a new Mindy Kaling comedy. The films this week come from a range of cultures that aren’t often featured in the U.S. They’re made by filmmakers who are Salvadoran-Mexican, Cree-Metis, and Trinidadian, not to mention an Australian Aboriginal revenge western.

November and December introduce a wealth of new projects, and it can be easy to get locked into the ones that see the most marketing and are created by filmmakers with established names. Yet studios rarely invest in marketing films made by women and people of color. That means they don’t invest in establishing their names, which means most of the “awards competitors” that get pushed at us come from a narrow range of perspective.

Many films by women and directors of color will be lucky to see a push for a single nomination in major awards meant to get them on the map. Most will go without the kind of awards marketing blitzes that middling films by men will see much more easily. This means that when it comes to buzz, it’s easy to believe the films that need to be seen this time of year are mostly by white, male directors. It becomes even easier than usual for viewers to completely overlook work that comes from other voices.

Make sure you seek out the work of women and people of color, especially in these months where some of the best films you’ll see in your life get even more buried than is usual.

NEW SERIES

The Wheel of Time (Amazon)
mostly directed by women

The long, long-awaited adaptation of Robert Jordan’s fantasy novel series finally arrives. “The Wheel of Time” centers on Rosamund Pike’s Moiraine, who gathers five people for an adventurous journey. She believes one of them is the reincarnation of the Dragon, who will either save the world or destroy it.

While the showrunner is Rafe Judkins, at least five of the first season’s eight episodes are directed by women. This includes Uta Briesewitz, Sanaa Hamri, and Salli Richardson. Briesewitz has directed on “Orange is the New Black”, “Stranger Things”, “Jessica Jones”, and “UnREAL”, as well as being the cinematographer for “Hung”. Hamri has helmed on “Shameless” and directed more episodes of “Empire” than any other director. Richardson has directed on “Luke Cage”, “American Gods”, and “Dear White People”.

“The Wheel of Time” premieres today on Amazon with three episodes. The remaining five episodes will drop every Friday.

Yellowjackets (Showtime)
mostly directed by women

A plane carrying a high school soccer team once crashed into the Ontario wilderness. Not all of the girls on the team made it out alive. Years later, someone is sending them postcards that suggest they know what really happened. It’s up to a small group of survivors to piece it back together.

This is one of the best series casts ever assembled. Tawny Cypress, Juliette Lewis, Melanie Lynskey, and Christina Ricci are the big names, but Samantha Hanratty, Keeya King, Sophie Nelisse, and Ella Purnell shouldn’t be overlooked.

While Jonathan Lisco serves as showrunner, the series is mostly directed by women. Eva Sorhaug directs three episodes. She’s also directed episodes of “Witch Hunt”, “American Gods”, and “Your Honor”. “Jennifer’s Body” director Karyn Kusama helms the premiere. Deepa Mehta and Daisy von Scherler Mayer also direct.

“Yellowjackets” premiered its first episode this week on Showtime. You can also watch that first episode for free on YouTube to see if it sparks your interest. New episodes will drop on Showtime every Sunday.

The Sex Lives of College Girls (HBO Max)
co-showrunner Mindy Kaling

Freshman roommates at Evermore College navigate student life in an acidic comedy.

Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble showrun. Kaling is, of course, known as a writer, producer, and lead actress on “The Office” and “The Mindy Project”. (I’d also recommend “Never Have I Ever”, which she co-created, produces, and writes on, but doesn’t star.)

The release schedule for “The Sex Lives of College Girls” can be summed up as multiple episodes dropping on HBO Max every Thursday. Two episodes are available now, with three more on November 25, three more on December 2, and then the final two on December 9. And, you know, be careful if you Google the series.

The Madame Blanc Mysteries (Acorn TV)
showrunner Sally Lindsay

An antiques dealer loses her savings when her husband dies under mysterious circumstances. She relocates to France to begin investigating his death.

Sally Lindsay created, writes, and stars in “The Madame Blanc Mysteries”. The former “Coronation Street” actress also conceived of and starred in “Scott & Bailey”.

The first two episodes of “The Madame Blanc Mysteries” premiered on Acorn TV this week, with new episodes dropping every Monday.

Christmas Flow (Netflix)
directed by Nadege Loiseau

In this three-episode French series, a rapper and journalist fall for each other. His music is misogynist and she resents him for that. I don’t know how thoroughly the series will address that premise. Shirine Boutella and Tayc star.

Nadege Loiseau has directed on a few French series, including an episode of crime drama “Profilage”.

You can watch “Christmas Flow” on Netflix.

Hollington Drive (Sundance Now)
directed by Carolina Giammetta

Two sisters investigate the disappearance of a child in this British thriller.

Carolina Giammetta is a British series director who also helmed this year’s “The Drowning”.

All four episodes are available to watch on Sundance Now.

NEW MOVIES

Prayers for the Stolen (Netflix)
directed by Tatiana Huezo

“Prayers for the Stolen” follows the lives of three girls growing up in a town at war. Girls are stolen from the poor town by soldiers, and it’s only a matter of time before one of them is taken.

Tatiana Huezo is one of the most important directors working today. She’s chiefly worked in documentaries before this. Her “Tempestad” investigated the experiences of women who had been trafficked, and won Best Documentary, Director, Cinematography, and Sound at the Ariel Awards (Mexico’s equivalent to our Oscars). “Prayers for the Stolen” is her first dramatic feature.

You can watch “Prayers for the Stolen” on Netflix.

Freeland (VOD)
co-directed by Kate McLean

An elderly, off-the-grid pot farmer sees her business dwindle when cannabis is made legal. She considers what to do next as she harvests her final crop.

Kate McLean writes and directs with Mario Furloni. McLean has primarily worked in documentary films up till now.

See where to rent “Freeland”.

The Flood (VOD)
directed by Victoria Wharfe McIntyre

In this anachronistic western, an indigenous Australian wife and husband set out for revenge after they lose their daughter.

This is the first feature from writer-director Victoria Wharfe McIntyre.

You can rent “The Flood” on Redbox.

Hope (VOD)
directed by Maria Sodahl

Andrea Braein Hovig and Stellan Skarsgard star as Anja and Tomas, partners who have grown into their own separate worlds over the years. When she’s diagnosed with cancer, Anja needs Tomas to come back into her world and help support her.

The Norwegian film is written and directed by Maria Sodahl, who got her start in the 90s as a casting director.

See where to rent “Hope”.

Night Raiders (VOD)
directed by Danis Goulet

Blackfoot and Sami actress Elle-Maija Tailfeathers stars as a mother whose daughter is kidnapped by a war-obsessed government. She joins a band of vigilantes to rescue their children.

Danis Goulet is a Cree-Metis filmmaker. This is her debut feature. Goulet has served for several years as the artistic director for imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival, the world’s largest indigenous film festival.

See where to rent “Night Raiders”.

She Paradise (VOD)
directed by Maya Cozier

A teenager takes up with a dance crew. She’s not prepared for the world of money and predation that it opens up to her, though.

This is the first feature from writer-director Maya Cozier.

See where to rent “She Paradise”.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

New Shows + Movies by Women — November 12, 2021

Before we dive in, I want to highlight Cameroonian director Rosine Mbakam. She has three films making their U.S. debut on OVID TV. Two are short films under 20 minutes. “You Will Be My Ally” is about a woman from Gabon trying to prove her papers are real to Belgian interrogators. “Doors of the Past” looks at women refugees who fled their homes and settled in Belgium.

Mbakam’s “Delphine’s Prayers” is a feature-length documentary about a young Belgian woman from Cameroon who turned to sex work to survive. The three films join two others by Mbakam that MUBI already features.

I hope to feature documentaries by women again if there’s a time when I can regularly roll the workload in, but Mbakam’s work is worth noting for a voice that isn’t often platformed, and for so much of her work coming to bear at once. (OVID TV has been good about collecting and platforming the work of short, experimental, and documentary filmmakers in big chunks like this.)

No new series this week, so let’s jump straight to movies:

NEW MOVIES

Passing (Netflix)
directed by Rebecca Hall

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson star as Clare and Irene. They’re both Black women who can pass as white in 1920s New York, but one chooses to bask in that privilege while the other sees it as a betrayal.

Writer-director Rebecca Hall has starred in “The Prestige”, “The Town”, and “Godzilla vs. Kong”, but this is her first film as writer or director. The English actress is white-passing, and has wrestled openly about how this allows her the kind of roles rarely offered to Black women.

You can watch “Passing” on Netflix.

Schoolgirls (HBO Max)
directed by Pilar Palomero

Celia is an 11 year old who attends a convent school. She lives with her mother, and her father has passed away. When Claudia arrives at school, Celia finds herself facing a number of questions she hadn’t considered before.

This is the first feature from writer-director Pilar Palomero. She came into the industry as an electrician, before working as a camera operator and then cinematographer.

You can watch “Schoolgirls” on HBO Max.

Land (HBO Max)
directed by Robin Wright

Robin Wright stars as Edee, a woman who’s suffered loss and decides to live off the grid in Wyoming. She almost dies due to her lack of knowledge, until Miguel (Demian Bichir) decides to teach her outdoor survival.

Robin Wright is best known as an actress, and was nominated for multiple Emmy Awards in the U.S. version of “House of Cards”. She would end up directing 10 episodes of that series. “Land” is her first feature film as director.

You can watch “Land” on HBO Max.

Heart (MUBI)
directed by Jeong Ga-young

Jeong Ga-Young writes, directs, and stars in this romantic comedy about a woman caught between two married men. I couldn’t find a trailer for it, so please enjoy the scene clip.

This is the second feature helmed and the first written for the South Korean indie director.

You can watch “Heart” on MUBI.

The Accursed (VOD)
directed by Kathryn Michelle, Elizabeta Vidovic

Hana has spent her adult life suppressing a curse on her bloodline. A family member releases it knowing what it will cause, putting Hana in a situation where she’ll have to kill in order to avoid death.

This is the first feature for writer-directors Kathryn Michelle and Elizabeta Vidovic.

You can rent “The Accursed” on Redbox.

See You Next Christmas (VOD)
directed by Christine Weatherup

Natalie and Logan run into each other at the same party every year. They start wondering if this is a sign they’re meant to be together.

Writer-director Christine Weatherup is an actress who’s recently shifted into writing and directing. This is her first feature.

You can rent “See You Next Christmas” on Redbox.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

New Shows + Movies by Women — November 5, 2021

There’s a lot to get into this week. I’m going to take my time going over one film in particular, which is based on an act of Mohawk resistance in 1990. I’d encourage you to please read this, or to look up the Oka Crisis. It’s an act of First Nations resistance that illustrates colonialism isn’t a thing of the past, but something that very much continues to steal real land and livelihoods away from indigenous people.

We’ll tackle series first, as always:

NEW SERIES

The Club (Netflix)
directed by Zeynep Gunay Tan

“The Club” takes place in 1950s Istanbul. A mother works at a nightclub in order to reconnect with her orphaned daughter. She hides past secrets, in a time when East and West are mixing and conflicting.

Show creator and director Zeynep Gunay Tan has worked in Turkish film and television for the last two decades.

You can watch “The Club” on Netflix.

Dalgliesh (Acorn TV)
showrunners Helen Edmundson, Jill Robertson

“Dalgliesh” is a new adaptation of the classic P.D. James mystery novels. They follow arrogant police inspector and brooding poet Dalgliesh as he engages a range of whodunnits.

Playwright Helen Edmundson essentially serves as the lead writer, with Jill Robertson taking the role of lead director. Robertson has helmed episodes on countless British series, most recently “Harlots” and “The Feed”.

You can watch the first two episodes of “Dalgliesh” on Acorn TV, with the following four arriving weekly.

The Time it Takes (Netflix)
co-showrunners Nadia de Santiago, Ines Pintor

This experimental Spanish series follows Lina, who’s attempting to forget her former partner. Episodes are just 13 minutes apiece.

Nadia de Santiago and Ines Pintor are joined by Pablo Fernandez and Pablo Santidrian as showrunners. De Santiago stars while Fernandez, Pintor, and Santidrian direct.

You can watch all 10 episodes of “The Time it Takes” on Netflix.

Head of the Class (HBO Max)
co-showrunner Amy Pocha

HBO Max enters the coming-of-age field with their own high school comedy, a reboot of the 1986 ABC series. “One Day at a Time” lead Isabella Gomez stars as a young teacher figuring out how to talk to a group of high-achieving students.

Amy Pocha showruns with Seth Cohen. She’s written and produced on “American Vandal” and “Paradise, PD”.

You can watch “Head of the Class” on HBO Max.

NEW MOVIES

Beans (VOD)
directed by Tracey Deer

“Beans” focuses on the 78-day standoff that took place between the Mohawk and Canadian government in 1990. The Kanesatake band of Mohawk had a land claim rejected on a legal technicality in 1986. In 1989, the town’s golf club decided to expand into this claim. The town did not consult the Mohawk about this.

This was just the latest in whittling down Mohawk land from an original treaty agreeing to 165 square kilometers. By 1956, just six square kilometers of this remained. (Before this, the Mohawk had first been forced to leave their land in the Hudson Valley.)

The town of Oka eventually expanded the development plan to include the complete clearing of The Pines, including a sacred Mohawk burial ground, for expansion of the golf course and the construction of 60 condominiums.

The Mohawk erected a guarded barricade in protest. Oka Mayor Jean Ouellette called in Quebec’s provisional police, which attacked with concussion grenades and tear gas. A firefight ensued, resulting in the death of an occupying police officer. The initial 30 Mohawk saw support come in from surrounding Mohawk communities, swelling up to 600. The Mohawk seized police vehicles and used the front end loader sent to tear down their barricade to crush these vehicles and form an additional one.

Another group of Mohawk established a blockade in solidarity that cut off a main bridge to the Island of Montreal. They would be attacked by commuters, who killed a Mohawk elder.

A nearby town gathered to burn a Mohawk effigy and chant “Sauvages” (savages in French).

Federal police were called in, and the Solicitor General of Quebec circumvented the Prime Minister of Canada to deploy the military. As the Mohawk surrendered and were arrested, 14-year-old Waneek Horn-Miller ran with her four year-old sister to the media barricade for safety. She would be stabbed in the chest by a Canadian bayonet.

Many Mohawk land defenders were arrested, physically beaten, prosecuted, and convicted. A few police officers were briefly suspended as a result of their violence. None were charged.

The golf course was canceled, the Canadian government paid Oka $5.3 million for the land. Ouellette was re-elected Oka’s mayor the very next year.

Waneek Horn-Miller, the 14 year-old Mohawk girl who was stabbed, would survive. She later became a member of the Canadian women’s water polo team. She helped Canada win Gold at the 1999 Pan American Games and Bronze in the 2001 World Championships. She was then dismissed from the program for what would later be revealed as the racism of coaches and teammates who wanted the Mohawk woman gone.

“Beans” tells the story of the Oka crisis standoff through the eyes of a young Mohawk girl. If you watch “Reservation Dogs”, it co-stars Paulina Alexis and D’Pharaoh Woon-a-Tai, two of that show’s leads.

This is Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer’s first narrative feature. She’s previously written and directed several documentaries, and wrote and produced on the series “Mohawk Girls” and “Anne with an E”.

See where to rent “Beans”.

Mark, Mary & Some Other People (VOD)
directed by Hannah Marks

Newlyweds give non-monogamy a try in order to stabilize their relationship.

Writer-director Hannah Marks is better known as an actress in “Necessary Roughness” and “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”. However, she’s also written “Banana Split”, and wrote and directed “After Everything”.

You can rent “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” on Google Play.

This is Not a War Story (HBO Max)
directed by Talia Lugacy

A marine connects with a group of veterans living in New York. They attempt to cope with their experiences in war through art. The film is based on real experiences and interviews.

This is writer-director Talia Lugacy’s second film after 2007 feature “Descent”.

You can watch “This is Not a War Story” on HBO Max.

Spirit Untamed (Hulu)
co-directed by Elaine Bogan

Lucky moves to a small town and befriends a horse. Determined to see her new charge Spirit returned to their family, she and her friends set out on a journey to set the horse free.

Elaine Bogan directs with Ennio Torresan. She’s previously directed in Dreamworks’ “Dragons” and “Arcadia” TV universes.

You can watch “Spirit Untamed” on Hulu.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

New Shows + Movies by Women — October 29, 2021

This is a spectacular week for review brigading. The remake of “4400” is seeing its online scores tanked by fans of the original who are offended that the new one is centered on – gasp! – actors of color. Clutch those pearls, yo.

It’s also worth mentioning “Colin in Black & White”, based on the early life of Colin Kaepernick. While not included in this article (it’s executive produced by Ava DuVernay, but showrun by Michael Starrbury), it’s seen its scored on sites like IMDB tanked by racists. When I checked on October 28, it held a score of 2.5 out of 10. It’s worth noting that no episode premieres until today, October 29. No one had seen the show yet.

Multiple industry sites have reported that Marvel’s “Eternals”, directed by Chloe Zhao, has been bombarded with 1.0 reviews on IMDB. The site had to remove the film’s reviews for the time being. Of course, that movie doesn’t even come out for a week, on Nov. 5. What spurred the review brigading? There’s a gay character in the film, which also features a gay kiss.

Aggregated reviews and averaged review scores have gone past the point of being useful. They’re too easily manipulated or brigaded. I’ve written before that this even happens with critical aggregates. The poster child for this is “Black Christmas” (which just returned to HBO Max).

Among Metacritic’s aggregation of published critics, Sophia Takal’s feminist 2019 horror remake saw seven out of eight women score it positively, and nine out of 16 men score it negatively. Women scored the film an average of 63, men an average of 44. Yet the critical industry still employs far more men than women, which means there’s more of a weighting for that downward shift.

The point is that it’s still much more productive to find a reviewer you like to read, and who prioritizes what you find important. Find a few of them. They can be a critic, a viewer, whoever it might be. Hopefully I’m one of them, but even if not, please take to heart the idea that aggregates and averages contain a multitude of problems.

Women and people of color are still under-represented in criticism, which means men and white critics will shift scores toward their perspectives, and favor films that reinforce certain biases or fail to challenge others. Much of the time, that’s due to implicit or systematized biases rather than explicit intention, but that doesn’t change the result as much as people like to think.

On sites like IMDB that feature user scores, there isn’t so much of that implicit/explicit divide at hand. It’s a lot more explicit. Most popular feminist films and movies cast in an inclusive manner will have to make up for a deluge of low scores right out of the gate. That hauls average ratings down in a way that can’t be recovered.

Glance at these scores and you might think these films aren’t any good – that’s the purpose of review brigading. It’s also the result of the critical industry still trailing behind on inclusion. Averaged ratings can tell you something about the movie – but only insofar as they tell you who’s forming those ratings. Knowing the nature of those ratings – who’s making them and why – will tell you far more about whether you’ll like a film than whatever number is spit out at the end.

NEW SERIES

4400 (The CW)
showrunners Anne Fricke, Ariana Jackson

The reboot of the 2004 series puts an additional spin on its premise. Like the original, 4,400 people who disappeared over several decades suddenly reappear. They haven’t aged and they have no memory of where they went. The spin is that everyone who vanished is a marginalized person, often not even noticed in any public way. Obviously, this offers opportunities to contrast with the original.

Once again, ignore user scores – this one’s being brigaded by racist trolls.

Co-showrunner Anna Fricke wrote and produced on “Wayward Pines” and “Being Human”. Co-showrunner Ariana Jackson wrote and produced on “UnREAL” (one of my picks for best shows of the last decade) and “Riverdale”. Together, they showrun the new “4400.”

You can watch “4400” on The CW, with new episodes premiering on Mondays.

An Astrological Guide for Broken Hearts (Netflix)
showrunner Bindu De Stoppani

In this Italian series, Alice is fresh off a breakup. She looks to a new friend for romantic guidance: her astrology guru. Naturally in a 12-episode season, she considers a different sign every episode. The series is based on the novel by Silvia Zucca.

Showrunner Bindu De Stoppani has written and directed two features prior to this. “An Astrological Guide for Broken Hearts” is her first series.

You can watch “An Astrological Guide for Broken Hearts” in its entirety on Netflix.

The Mopes (HBO Max)
showrunner Ipek Zubert

Mat is a singer who is coping with mental illness. His depression is embodied as Monika, who only he can see and hear. Of course, she has a job to do depressing Mat, and her bosses make sure of it. “The Mopes” is a German comedy.

Writer and showrunner Ipek Zubert has directed on a few other German series before this.

You can watch “The Mopes” in its entirety on HBO Max.

NEW MOVIES

Women is Losers (HBO Max)
directed by Lissette Feliciano

Sharing its title with a Janis Joplin song, “Women is Losers” follows a pregnant, single Latina in 1970s San Francisco. She tries to make a living and build her life up in a society that’s squarely stacked against her.

This is the first feature from writer-director Lissette Feliciano.

You can watch “Women is Losers” on HBO Max.

Come Away (Hulu, Paramount+)
directed by Brenda Chapman

Nearly a year after its mid-COVID theatrical premiere, “Come Away” finally makes its way to streaming services. The film combines “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan” in a unique way. A sister and brother live out these fantasy worlds as a way of helping their parents cope with the death of their older brother and a debt they owe.

Brenda Chapman was the initial director of “Brave” (before being replaced in a horrendous decision by Pixar), and part of the directing team on “The Prince of Egypt”.

You can watch “Come Away” on Hulu or Paramount+, or see where to rent it.

Hypnotic (Netflix)
co-directed by Suzanne Coote

A woman begins seeing a hypnotherapist. She’d like to improve her life, but the sessions lead her into increasingly dangerous situations. It becomes clear her therapist is using hypnotism to control her.

Suzanne Coote directs with Matt Angel.

You can watch “Hypnotic” on Netflix.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

The First Sin of Adapting “Dune”

The following article contains spoilers for “Dune”.

Duke Leto. Ultradad. Father Knows Best in Space. Every adaptation of “Dune” lionizes the man so that we know just how much his son Paul loses when House Harkonnen massacres his family. Yet the point of Duke Leto is the opposite. We understand Paul loses a loved one, but we also must understand how Duke Leto sets the themes of “Dune”. By transforming Leto into an enlightened ruler cut short, “Dune” immediately sets fire to the foundation of the themes Frank Herbert’s novel sought to develop.

Duke Leto in the novel is a man obsessed with aristocratic convention, hierarchy, and ancestry. He’s disdainful to servants, strict with Paul and his consort Jessica, he plots just as willfully and consciously as the Harkonnens. He’s not a good man caught in the trap of taking over Arrakis because others like him too much. He’s a man who’s shrewdly gathered power, spearheaded new military technology, and developed an army meant to rival the Emperor’s.

Leto is altruistic, though often with a goal, hoping the stories of his magnanimity reach others. He’s kind in many moments, but he can be cruel in others. At times his kindness is honest, at times it’s a leverage or exchange. It’s crucial in every adaptation that Duke Leto envisions himself as being a righteous, enlightened man. It’s a foundational mistake that every adaptation sees him this way as well.

The most accurate portrayal in director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of “Dune” is Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica. I understand the idea that she’s portrayed in an overly emotional way, but Villeneuve’s mistake isn’t doing this – she’s emotional in the book, too. This guides many of her decisions, and even ways in which Leto and Jessica use each other. Ferguson maintains Jessica as both intimidating and empathetic. Villeneuve’s mistake is not making Leto and Paul just as emotional. No, they’re supermen. Even if Paul is inconsistent, unsure, and often afraid of his visions, he’s still only a scene away from calmly piloting through a storm or going full John Wick.

This directly points to the thematic failure of Villeneuve’s “Dune”. In the novel, Duke Leto envisions his actions on Arrakis as righteous no matter how colonial his presence is. Paul is torn between the keen awareness of his mother even as she tries to subvert and accelerate prophecy, and the aristocratic determinism of his father.

It’s very appropriate that House Atreides views itself as noble, enlightened, and righteous – it envisions its leadership can bring peace to Arrakis, rather than recognizing that by definition its presence is yet one more act of violence. Simply because it’s not as brutal or wholesale a violence as House Harkonnen doesn’t mean it isn’t still violent. Of course Duke Leto views himself as righteous, but it’s a major, foundational problem that the film does, too. “Dune” misses an opportunity for this to be an object of discussion between Leto and Paul. They talk about who Paul wants to be when he’s older, but the pressing matter on Paul’s mind throughout the movie is one that he never directly voices to his father.

Every adaptation of “Dune” has treated House Atreides as noble and tragic when they participated in a cycle of direct occupation. In the novel, Leto sees Arrakis as an opportunity. He might even be described as foolhardy in his willingness to engage the danger. He jumps at the chance. Yes, everyone knows the Emperor has set a trap, but Leto also views this as the culmination of his own efforts to challenge the emperor. He certainly views it as the result of generations of his ancestors building power. It’s not just a situation he falls into cause he’s just such a gosh darn good space dad. It’s one his family’s been aiming for over generations.

In the novel, Arrakis isn’t a solemn duty Leto’s willing to martyr himself for as he tries to nobly empower the indigenous Fremen. To Leto, Arrakis is his family’s manifest destiny, and the Fremen are a tool that can be useful against both House Harkonnen and the Emperor. This sets the entire thematic foundation for Jessica and Paul’s later manipulation of the Fremen.

It also sets a comparison for author Frank Herbert’s criticism of “charismatic leadership”, wherein he offers an example of its danger in antiquity and monarchic history through Leto before engaging its modern populist version through Paul. Leto illustrates that this type of marketing of a hero or messiah isn’t something new that only inhabits a strict definition that’s easy to recognize. Through Leto and Paul, Herbert argues that it will always exist, hide in new forms, and define itself through whatever evangelizes a population into believing it uniquely embodies a manifest destiny.

Paul’s struggle isn’t between the goodness and idealism of his father and the awareness and shrewdness of his mother, as in the film. His struggle is whether he lies to himself and justifies it like his father, or he holds the awareness of exactly what he does and the damages he causes like his mother. Does he justify his manipulation of the Fremen to himself as enlightened fate, or does he recognize the violence he impels are his own decisions? This is why it’s important that his visions offer multiple paths; they’re about how much he chooses to lie to himself out of his own emotional shortcomings.

Leto and Paul are both emotional, unreliable, and narcissistic. It’s crucial to both that before they market their righteousness to anyone else, they’ve sold themselves on it. As a Bene Gesserit with a broader view, Jessica has no need for this. She doesn’t need to convince herself of her own righteousness like Leto and Paul; she has awareness they lack. She sees their occupation of Arrakis is itself an act of violence. She is comfortable committing that act. The problem in the film isn’t that Jessica is emotional, it’s that Leto and Paul aren’t even moreso.

Perhaps Villeneuve fails to show Leto or Paul in this light because of a male gaze that wants them to be more stolid and stoic. Perhaps he only sees the anti-colonial and anti-populist thread in Lady Jessica, and fails to in Leto and – to this point – Paul. Those reasons are worth discussing. What they arrive at is a lionization of Leto that directly undermines and sabotages the foundation of the novel’s themes. Villeneuve could go either direction with Paul – a hero’s journey that every adaptation of “Dune” has thus far embraced, or the criticism of the hero’s journey that Herbert actually wrote. With Villeneuve’s Part Two on the horizon, I’m willing to treat the jury as still out on Paul.

Yet by failing to recognize or engage this at all with Leto, Villeneuve has already shown a lack of recognition for, or a willingness to ignore, the thematic foundation on which the rest of “Dune” is built. Paul’s entire journey is one of balancing Jessica’s awareness and long view with enough of Leto’s narcissism and self-justification to overcome his doubt. He gets the worst of both of his parents, weaknesses we often dangerously mistake for strengths. Without showing what those weaknesses and dangers are in Leto, Villeneuve fails not just Leto’s character, but Paul’s as well.

Here, Leto is just a Golly Gee Awesome Space Dad in a Bind (if Chuck Tingle uses that title, I want royalties). Oscar Isaac is very good in that role; that role just isn’t useful in “Dune” unless you’re making a hero’s journey for a Chosen One – exactly what “Dune” was written to criticize.

Changing Leto for the film adds some drama to the premise for House Atreides, but it does so at the cost of meaning in relation to the Fremen, the novel’s themes, and the very characters of Leto and Paul. Instead of viewing the Fremen as enduring one more viceroy, no matter how “soft” his colonialism acts, we now view Leto as a tragic victim.

Villeneuve’s “Dune” wants to have later conversations about colonialism, but it misses the most important opportunity to build a foundation for these. Every adaptation of “Dune” has been too preoccupied and worshipful of the classically tragic nobility of House Atreides, and that’s excused any of these adaptations from giving its leaders the more complex presentation they need.

Because the Duke is sold as enlightened, we avoid engaging him with the same critical eye “Dune” turns toward everything else. That means the very first thing Villeneuve’s “Dune” does is ignore the same ideals the rest of the film seeks to criticize. Simply because every adaptation likes the Duke too much, we fail to engage this first act of harm. Our first lesson in every “Dune” adaptation is to ignore the very conversation “Dune” wants to have. Because it’s a “softer” act of harm, or one we feel Duke Leto has no choice but to commit, we begin an anti-colonial narrative by first excusing an act of colonialism. We’re taught to treat a viceroy who sees Arrakis as an opportunity for his own advancement as the real victim of colonialism. Then those adaptations want to talk to you about colonialism as if they haven’t already started by excusing it.

“Dune” somehow manages to trick its storytellers into undermining themselves despite Herbert expressly detailing who Duke Leto is. No adaptation has actually managed this first hurdle because none of them are willing to sacrifice the hero’s journey and the justifying incident that it requires.

Every adaptation of “Dune” commits a first sin of failing world, theme, and character. We only even see half the Duke’s tragedy. By wanting to love his character so, we overlook that his fall is also the result of his self-serving nature. To be a classically tragic leader, the Duke must be capable, kind, and admirable. So we get a classically tragic Duke – but he’s also meant to be tragic in a much more modern sense. He might understand the politics of the universe beautifully, and he’s educated himself on Arrakis well. Yet in lying to himself about his role in relation to the planet and its people as an enlightened ruler who can save it – instead of as an imperial viceroy whose participation in saving it is simply a continuance of a violent colonial act – the idealism that makes us view him as noble and enlightened is itself a lie. The whole point of his character is that the narrative he holds of himself is a lie. As a novel, “Dune” is clear on this. What he sacrifices himself for lacks meaning, and first requires the sacrifice of those who follow him. That is the tragedy. The point of the Duke is that populism of any sort kills itself when it buys into its own marketing, and in doing so it will sacrifice everyone else first.

In the classical sense, the Duke is tragic because he thinks he can succeed at making things better – and this contributes to his death. In the modern sense, the Duke is tragic because his self-marketing makes him believe he is playing a role far more righteous than it is, one he can manifest, one that his aristocratic history and adherence has led him to. His surprise with the quickness that he loses is because he thought his ascension was determined, trap or no trap. He’s not an idiot; he knows the danger. He just thinks it can’t touch him. This is specifically observed by other characters in the franchise, such as Princess Irulan (who you’ll meet later).

Adaptations of the novel choose the righteous half of that description – they believe what Leto believes about himself. They forget the self-righteous half – the role Leto plays, and that his belief does not define fact. The noble act he dies for is itself a lie he believes. Missing this in “Dune” means we once more have an adaptation that fails to fully grasp the conversation on which it wants to spend hours more philosophizing.

To understand how Jessica and Paul move forward as they do, especially as manipulators of the Fremen and not just a Chosen One and his mom, we need a more complex understanding of Duke Leto. Because we don’t have it, “Dune” in adaptation after adaptation trips into becoming a heroic Chosen One narrative regardless of its intentions. Like Leto, adaptations of “Dune” have made the mistake of thinking they’re more noble than they are. Their stories employ violence as episodic set piece without a deeper grasp of “Dune” as a story about cultural acts of violence. They mistake their protagonists as heroes in these set pieces, rather than as characters who see the violence of these set pieces as markers to exceed when they get their chance.

Like the 1984 film and the 2000 miniseries, the 2021 Part One of “Dune” is an exquisite adaptation of a hero’s journey, which means it fails the very first test of whether it’s a good adaptation of the novel. “Dune” as a novel understands the hero’s journey is marketing, that in the real world it covers over atrocities and builds populist consensus for war. Perhaps the newly greenlit Part Two of “Dune” will course correct this. Perhaps “Part One” is just a set up for how it all comes crashing down.

On its own, astounding as it may be in other ways, Villeneuve’s Part One fails to confront the questions that “Dune” as a novel is built around. It’s the third time in a row an adaptation screws up out of the gate. It fails to see that its thematic conversation starts with Leto at the very beginning, and not simply with Paul as a reaction. Leto isn’t just a premise or a sacrifice that evokes Paul’s vengeance and ambition; Leto is the prototype of it. Leto is a rough draft that ultimately fails, both literally and metaphorically poisoning itself. You can only engage so much of that conversation if you completely miss its foundation. You can only recognize a very limited amount of what “Dune” entails if you miss the bulk of where it starts and what it includes. Villeneuve’s “Dune” is a really solid “Game of Thrones” in space, but it’s not a good adaptation of the novel. I don’t care if the visual and technological details are painstakingly accurate when the theme isn’t. Science-fiction can only be so high-concept when it completely misses the concept.

This is the first sin of adapting “Dune”. No one who has adapted it so far is willing to treat its “soft” colonialism as violent, or its historical populism as a rough draft of Paul’s. Leto is treated as the first step of the hero’s journey: what is lost. He’s supposed to be the first step that argues against it: what justifies vengeance. That’s the foundation on which means are justified to achieve vengeance, on which violence is justified to realize those means, on which leadership is sold to make that violence achievable, on which a messiah is marketed to achieve that leadership.

Adaptations of “Dune” don’t just miss that first step; they directly reverse it. You can no longer argue, embody, or represent the themes of the novel when you’ve inverted the foundation to mean the opposite of those themes.

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“Dune” is Great, and a Fraction of What it Could Have Been

“Dune” is good. It’s great. It also stumbles at the first hurdle of adapting Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel. No matter how artistically impressive they’ve been, no adaptation of “Dune” has managed to follow through on the convictions of its source.

At least “Dune” conveys the plot in a straightforward and compelling manner. That already sets it above the cut-to-shreds 1984 movie and the overly somber 2000 miniseries. The Emperor rules the known universe, but space travel is reliant on Spice. Spice is found on one planet: the desert world Arrakis. House Harkonnen has ruled Arrakis for centuries, abusing the indigenous Fremen while growing in wealth and power enough to challenge the Emperor. Meanwhile, House Atreides has grown in power through leadership and alliance. The solution is simple. House Atreides is put in charge of Arrakis, setting up a war between the two powerful houses that should weaken both.

We follow the royal family of House Atreides through this: the idealistic Duke Leto, his consort Lady Jessica, and their son Paul. Here, Rebecca Ferguson carries the film as Jessica. Oscar Isaac and Timothee Chalamet are solid as Leto and Paul, but for such important characters can feel too broadly defined.

“Dune” is very deliberately paced without ever feeling slow or boring. It’s constantly interesting, full of exciting ideas and imagery that conveys cultures we’re only getting to peek into for a brief time.

It often looks like what David Lean might have filmed had he ever directed a sci-fi movie. That’s appropriate, given how the writings of T.E. Lawrence – the historical subject of Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” – influenced the novel. The movie is visually brilliant, hearkening back to the mythic and philosophical scope of 70s science-fiction.

All that said, this is part one of “Dune”. It adapts the first half of the novel, with the second part just given the green light for production. It feels like it. It has the attitude of a prologue. Even though there’s plenty of meat to the story and many things change from beginning to end, it can still feel like the shortest 2 hour and 35 minute movie you’ve ever seen. It ends right as it gets going. It’s a very worthwhile experience. It’s also an inherently incomplete one.

I won’t spoil where it ends, but it concludes on a character moment, instead of the two more epic moments that precede or follow it. I like that idea, but director Denis Villeneuve maintains a certain amount of distance from his characters, and doesn’t fully enough weave the themes of “Dune” through them. This saps power from their portrayal. Ending on a character moment means less when Villeneuve has built his film around world-building and plot, with his characters sometimes coming across more like chess pieces.

I suspect that part one of “Dune” will feel like a more complete experience after the second movie comes out and concludes the adaptation. What we’re really watching is the first act and beginning of the second act of an epic. We have the first half of a five hour-plus movie, which makes the experience both astounding and incomplete.

Amidst its art-house foundation of visions, philosophy, quiet emoting, and the beginnings of a conversation about colonialism, “Dune” loses some of its strong visual fluidity to its action scenes. It feels surprising to write that “Dune” has too much action, since it really doesn’t have much at all.

The problem isn’t the quality of the action – it’s both captivating and unique. The problem is that the action elements force “Dune” toward an episodic quality. We spend plenty of time with our core cast, but we don’t get a fluid sense of their experiences in these biggest moments of “Dune”. This is when we’re most distant from them, and when they become the most inaccessible. These moments are reserved for the action set pieces rather than character experiences. We’re already at a distance from these characters, which is fine, but we’re then held back from them even more when we most want to be close to them. We want to have a better sense of how they’re living these upheavals.

I don’t need to see the fight scene happen on one side of the door if the point of it is the emotional experience of the people on the other side of that door who can’t see it. We get the set piece in detail when we should be alongside our main characters, who are fearful, sad, and angry because they don’t know what’s happening in that set piece, whether someone they care for will live or die.

A good fight scene is like a good dialogue scene – something about a character’s understanding should change from beginning to end. This is when Villeneuve leaves the characters whose understanding is changing. He brings the details of these scenes while forgetting the point of them is supposed to be their impact. These details are phenomenal, but that doesn’t change the fact that their impact is left on the cutting room floor.

I do enjoy “Dune”. It is routinely captivating, if episodic. Part of me wonders if there’s a three-and-a-half hour director’s cut that maintains a better rhythm and fluidity. I am looking forward to the second part. “Dune” is a great movie that adapts many details of the novel. I also think it’s missing the entire point of the novel. No adaptation of “Dune” has held to its convictions that the story is a subversion of the hero’s journey, showing the danger of a charismatic leader. Every adaptation has instead turned its back on that idea in favor of presenting the very hero’s journey the novel argued against and sought to dismantle.

No matter how much detail you incorporate into your adaptation, if it skips the entire point of the novel, it’s not a good adaptation. It can still be a good movie about other things, a staggeringly beautiful experience about other things, and “Dune” is both. Yet these choices inherently gut the film of the bulk of its power and meaning. What we’re left with is something that deserves to be talked about among the best films of the year, but also a movie that is only a fragment of what it could have been.

You can watch “Dune” on HBO Max.

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New Shows + Movies by Women — October 22, 2021

It’s an intriguing week for directors coming from other lanes in filmmaking. There’s “Jessica Jones” lead Krysten Ritter directing a four-episode sweep of “The Girl in the Woods”, Frida Kempff coming over from documentaries to direct a horror movie, Kim Cho-hee making her feature directing debut after a career in production, and Agata Alexander crossing over from music videos. Even experienced directors like Mia Hansen-Love and Joy Hopwood started out as actors.

As I’ve done this feature for the last year-and-a-half, I’ve tried to write a bit about each director’s prior experience. What films have they directed, might you know them as an actor, what department did they start in, that kind of thing. Most moviegoers could name countless male directors, but very few who are women. I often worry that readers may go blank as I write about names they don’t know, but the hope is that they’ll latch onto some of those names and remember them, even seek their work out.

One thing I’ve noticed is the number of actresses who become directors. Actors becoming directors is hardly a new phenomenon, but there does seem to be more fluidity in roles when it comes to women in front of and behind the camera. That could be because social mores about gender roles give women a greater flexibility or perspective that men lack.

At the same time, I worry that the technical fields in which directors work their way up are dominated by men and boys’ clubs. Cinematography has been one of the most traditional fields of training for later directors. In 2019, the L.A. Times reported that of the American Society of Cinematographers’ 390 members, only 18 were women. (And only 5% Latine, 3% Asian, 2% black.)

We can look at the Motion Picture Editors Guild to see that women are less than a third of the membership. Worse yet, only 6.1% of women in the guild feel safe in reporting discrimination. To say the road is more difficult risks understating that the road is entirely more dangerous. When I look at projects by men, directors come from across the board. They come from technical fields. When I look at projects by women, a much higher rate of directors come from acting backgrounds – at least in part because the technical fields are often shut off to women both in terms of access and safety.

The technical fields that are more open to women are set design, costuming, make-up – fields that are no less important to creating a movie, but from which it’s far more difficult to make the leap to directing. One might argue that this is based in biases that categorize these fields dismissively as “women’s work” or housekeeping – biases that first act as if this isn’t real work when it is, and that next act as if these fields don’t demand the same technical work, creativity, and leadership as any other.

It’s not a bad thing at all for actresses to become directors. Hell, I’d argue over the last few years, women have squarely been directing better movies than men – perhaps this is because their perspective is fresher and less repeated than male-driven story archetypes we’ve already seen countless times. But that starts to get into another conversation.

What is bad is that women in film do not have the same access or safety working in a variety of fields that can lead them to directing. Men can become directors making the leap from acting or from technical fields. Women tend to make the leap from acting and are largely shut out from technical fields. The technical fields women can more safely access aren’t treated as seriously when it comes time to hiring new directors, greenlighting their projects, or acquiring their films. The industry is in terrible need of change.

Let’s get into it:

NEW SERIES

More than Blue: The Series (Netflix)
directed by Hsieh Pei Ju

The history of two star-crossed lovers is traced. As one faces a terminal diagnosis, he tries to find a partner for the other. The Taiwanese series is adapted from the 2018 film, itself based on a 2009 film from South Korea.

Hsieh Pei Ju has previously directed “Heavy Craving”, a drama about how doctors often ignore women’s physical health in favor of body image.

You can watch “More than Blue: The Series” on Netflix.

CW: flashing images

The Girl in the Woods (Peacock)
half-directed by Krysten Ritter

Carrie escapes from a cultish colony that guards a hidden door in the woods. They say they guard it to keep monsters out of our world. The series is based on a pair of short films.

Krysten Ritter of “Jessica Jones” and “Breaking Bad” directs the first four episodes of the eight-episode series. This is her second time directing on a series after an episode of “Jessica Jones”.

You can watch “The Girl in the Woods” on Peacock.

NEW MOVIES

CW: imagery of suicide

Knocking (VOD)
directed by Frida Kempff

After undergoing a trauma and a stay in a psychiatric ward, Molly moves into a new apartment. Yet she keeps hearing knocking. She can’t sleep or live a normal life, and no one else hears it or believes her. “Knocking” is adapted by Emma Brostrom from the novel by Johan Theorin.

Frida Kempff is a Swedish director who’s primarily directed documentaries before this. “Knocking” is her first narrative feature.

See where you can rent “Knocking”.

Bergman Island (VOD)
directed by Mia Hansen-Love

A wife and husband travel to an island that inspired legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman to write. As they stay there, reality and fiction start to blur together.

Mia Hansen-Love quickly left acting in favor of writing and directing. She’s had success as a French filmmaker that includes a Cannes win and Cesar nomination.

See where to rent “Bergman Island”.

Lucky Chan-sil (MUBI)
directed by Kim Cho-hee

Chan-sil is a film producer, but she loses her job when a long-time directing partner dies. She’s forced to find a more affordable place to live. Yet something doesn’t seem on the up and up with her new landlady.

Kim Cho-hee is an experienced film producer, and this is the first feature film she’s written or directed.

You can watch “Lucky Chan-sil” on MUBI.

Rhapsody of Love (VOD)
directed by Joy Hopwood

A wedding planner and wedding photographer fall in love in a romantic comedy that – unlike many Australian films – puts Asian-Australian stories front and center.

Joy Hopwood comes from a background of acting in Australian TV. She quickly started writing, producing, and later directing films.

See where to rent “Rhapsody of Love”.

Sa Balik Baju (Netflix)
multiple directors

This Malaysian comedy centers on the impact of social media on the lives of six women. There isn’t a whole lot more English information out on this one, so I’m a bit in the dark on more details than that.

You can watch “Sa Balik Baju” on Netflix.

Warning (VOD)
directed by Agata Alexander

A series of sci-fi vignettes weave connections between characters that delve into life in the near future.

Director and co-writer Agata Alexander is an experienced music video director and has been a go-to director for Destructo. This is her first feature.

See where to rent “Warning”.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

Beckinsale Elevates an Unsteady but Ambitious “Guilty Party”

“Guilty Party” stars Kate Beckinsale as a tenacious journalist trying to prove a Black woman innocent of murdering her husband. A year off winning Colorado’s most prestigious investigative journalist award, Beckinsale’s Beth Burgess is now discredited. She once worked for a major newspaper. Now she toils away in a clickbait factory.

The ideas that create tension in “Guilty Party” are good ones. When she was successful and admired, Beth could count on her husband as supportive. Now that the power dynamic has shifted in their relationship, he’s pressuring her to have children she doesn’t want. He also wants to move to Wyoming, which would essentially end her career – and that’s the point. If she had no career left, she’d have to do something else. Say…raise a family.

At the same time, Beth starts out doing a shoddy job at her one opportunity for redemption. When she meets with the imprisoned Toni, convicted years prior for the shooting murder of her husband, Beth hasn’t bothered to do her research. She leans instead on her privilege, something Toni immediately recognizes and calls out.

Most series do one or the other when it comes to privilege. They don’t try to take on the complexity of someone who has privilege in one way and lacks it in another. This is the appeal of “Guilty Party”. Beth is someone who gives the right answers when questioned about her intentions: she wants to help a Black woman prove her innocence in a justice system that’s railroaded her. Yet she primarily treats the opportunity as a path to return to the limelight. It’s not Toni’s redemption story; it’s her own. It’s not someone proving that Toni is innocent. Beth doesn’t even seem to care if she is. It’s about Beth specifically owning the story and proving that she’s still relevant.

It’s a shockingly good set-up to show how a person who lacks privilege in one area will feed on their privilege in another just to stay afloat. As a premise, it immediately demonstrates how patriarchal systems make those without power re-enact oppression against others. Nobody’s fighting for space against systems of white and male privilege when they’re fighting each other for what little space they’ve retained.

Does such a good idea make “Guilty Party” a good series?

The problem is that “Guilty Party” has to land this, and it’s difficult to tell if its focused enough to do so. The first two episodes are all over the map. Beth’s relationship to Toni is manipulative, and our trust in Beth as an audience is very conditional. We don’t have a consistent tone to rely on, and we have an intentionally inconsistent lead. New episodes drop weekly, so we just don’t know yet how the series intends to engage this conversation more fully.

Let’s approach that tone issue. “Guilty Party” is a black comedy first and foremost. Before COVID, Isla Fisher was cast to star in the series. You can see how well it’s designed for an actor like her, complete with zany departures and some physical comedy. Fisher withdrew due to the pandemic, and Kate Beckinsale replaced her. Does this work? Yes and no.

Beckinsale is clearly playing against type, but she’s always been a strong actress in her action and horror career. She tends to elevate material and make it more compelling than it would be otherwise. She’s also kept up in smaller, dramatic films.

Beckinsale brings a pathos and desperation to Beth that may’ve been played a little too much for comedy in Fisher’s hands. Beckinsale adds a heft to “Guilty Party” that it badly needs. She also inhabits the role in a way that sells the physical comedy better than you might expect.

The writing has its bright spots, including some incredibly quotable lines. The dialogue is clever, with a host of effective, observational one-liners.

That said, there are absolutely places where you can see a gap, and this is primarily the writing’s fault. In one scene, Beth confronts a gun-runner who’s stalking her and goes off on a justifiably angry monologue. Because it’s written to be a comedic moment, it’s where Fisher would have shined. She’d have jumped through the monologue with a lightness and rhythm that could’ve fused the angry to the comic.

Beckinsale powers through it, without letting that pathos up. There’s an extra gear of idiosyncrasy that she can’t shift into, the exact space that tends to be Fisher’s bread and butter. Beckinsale can elevate the central themes and stakes of the show in a way Fisher might not have, but she also bumps into situational premises that were expressly designed for an actor who specializes in comedy.

Ultimately, “Guilty Party” is a show that needs elevation from its lead on both fronts. It’s watchable, and more so if you like Beckinsale. With Fisher, it might’ve been funnier. With Beckinsale, it has added edge. I tend to think the latter is the better route for “Guilty Party” because of the themes it wants to engage. It’s funny enough either way, but Beth needs to be someone we both like and dislike, trust and distrust, in order to evoke how her privilege and lack of privilege intersect. Whether the show can do this successfully is still up in the air. Beckinsale gives it a withering perspective that provides initial space for us to trust the show and see where it goes.

My first reaction was that I wish they’d have been able to land an actor who could’ve tackled both. I can’t help think of Zoey Deutch’s performance in “Buffaloed”, but she’d also have to be 20 years older for this role. She also had the benefit of a great script, Tanya Wexler’s direction, and supporting actors like Judy Greer in that film.

That makes me realize my first reaction is absolutely wrong. Isla Fisher, Kate Beckinsale…either one is wildly successful casting for a series. That the show shifted its lead from one to the other provides an opportunity to highlight the series’ design and what works and doesn’t. That’s where the comparison should stop. Beckinsale isn’t failing here; she’s squarely lifting the show up.

While Beckinsale’s approach to the dialogue might mean a zany bit here or there doesn’t work as well as it could, her shaded irreverence deepens the themes and questions at the core of the show. There’s both an idealism and vindictiveness to Beth that stretch beyond comedy and into the drama that “Guilty Party” needs to fuse its disparate parts together.

That Beckinsale does this nine times out of 10 instead of all 10 is hardly a criticism of her. That she needs to do this so often to lift the show around her is the fault of the show around her. She’s being asked to make up too much ground. That she almost does is incredibly impressive.

The truth is that “Guilty Party” needs to be more focused and edited. There are more than a few scenes that are bad ideas. For instance, at one point Beth shows up to the women’s prison on a day when visitors aren’t allowed. There’s no time pressure involved, but she antagonizes the guards trying to see Toni, stages a short-lived protest where she refuses to leave, and then tries to bribe the gate guard.

I can buy her showing up on the wrong day. It’s something reporters know to check, but Beth is a year out-of-practice and it’s hardly the first mistake she makes out of desperation. Yet a reporter who’s supposed to be as exceptional and experienced as she is wouldn’t take those next actions without a directly achievable goal. She’d simply know they wouldn’t work, that they’d risk jeopardizing her ability to return at any point in the future, and she’d come back a day later. (I’ve worked as a reporter; this is pretty straightforward).

The scene exists because it’s an opportunity for a zany comedy sequence, but it doesn’t work in the more consequential world “Guilty Party” wants to inhabit. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, it’s that it directly undercuts everything else we’ve been told about who Beth is. Trust her or not, in a space of privilege or not, the one thing we know about her is that she’s skilled and experienced. Here, she’s completely incompetent for the sake of a bit.

You can have a bit that makes no sense. “Guilty Party” makes other absurdist elements work. A wannabe Tiger King character named Wyatt who’s inches away from being a David Spade sketch helps create a sequence that’s both tense and funny. What you can’t do is stick a bit in that so thoroughly undercuts the most foundational piece of who Beth is, especially when that’s the only piece of an unreliable protagonist that anchors us to her. Beth’s attempted prison bribe is a situational premise that could have been pulled off by a Rebel Wilson or Will Ferrell in the kinds of comedies they’re best known for making. That doesn’t mean it fits here. “Guilty Party” wants to have a consistent, consequential world, so when it does something like the prison bribe scene, the comedy has zero chance of working because it doesn’t fit the world, the show, or the character.

I really do think Beckinsale saves the series, and gives a performance worth watching. That said, I have a hard time seeing “Guilty Party” work with most actors in the lead because of the show around it. The ensemble is fine – especially Jules Latimer’s imprisoned Toni, Madeleine Arthur’s editor Amber, Andre Hyland’s Wyatt, and coworkers played by Djouliet Amara and Tiya Sircar. It’s the writing that too often stumbles.

For the discussions about privilege it wants to have, it stretches too far into comedic scenes that undercut its foundation. There’s still a good comedy here without those scenes, and probably a much more pointed one. If you expand social criticism into the entire show, then the comedy needs to be a lot more precise than this is. “Guilty Party” has these themes embodied in its characters; it should trust this more and bring the comedy closer to them.

I plan to keep watching. There’s enough interesting possibility for where “Guilty Party” could go, and Beckinsale is doing a superb job of making the series work better than it should.

Enough of the dialogue and Beckinsale’s physical comedy works to still sell the comedic elements. Where Beckinsale really excels is by pinpointing the themes of the show and giving us a character who zig-zags around them so much that we won’t be surprised if she serves them or opposes them. This could be a redemptive tale about two women wronged by very different systems, a black comedy “House of Cards” about someone who plays the victim brilliantly, or half of each. Beth could be innocent and idealistic, or manipulative and egotistical. Or all of the above. This takes what would otherwise be a very watchable but unremarkable series and turns it into something genuinely intriguing.

Just like I don’t know what to think of Beth, I can’t tell whether “Guilty Party” is going to land where it wants. I won’t be surprised if it begins zeroing in on its social critiques much more effectively. I also won’t be surprised if it screws up the conversations it wants to have. I won’t be surprised if it gets more cohesive and gels around the irreverent, manipulative performance Beckinsale is giving. I won’t be surprised if it continues to undercut its themes and that performance trying to out-comedy the parts of it that are already pointed and funny.

I’m pretty sure “Guilty Party” knows what it wants to be thematically. Hiding what this is behind an unreliable protagonist doesn’t change that, but it does require some patience. That it’s so imprecise about what it wants to be tonally does give me some pause about how effective it will be about landing those thematic reveals.

I plan to keep watching, but consider it a light recommendation.

It’s a watch if that sounds intriguing, and you’re willing to let a series into your life that needs leeway before showing you what it is. It’s a watch if you’re a Beckinsale fan – it’s refreshing to see her flex her acting chops this way.

Alternately, it’s not a watch if you can’t place that kind of trust or time in a series before knowing if it’s worth it. If you couldn’t care less about Beckinsale, this is unlikely to change that.

You can watch “Guilty Party” on Paramount+. New episodes arrive every Thursday.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

A Scream in a Lullaby — “Fever Dream”

“Fever Dream” is a movie you come out of feeling weaker. You have to sense yourself under you, step deliberately, feel what’s in your arms and legs again. A word keeps repeating in my head: ‘hollowing’. “Fever Dream” hollows you. That’s not a bad thing. It’s simply patient with its urgency, lyrical in its revelations. It cradles you so you can begin to understand its staggering scale of pain.

Amanda is being dragged through the woods. She can’t move. Except that’s not right. She’s moving into her new home in Argentina. She moves with her daughter Nina on a regular basis. Her husband’s job requires it. She meets the neighbor, Carola, who brings over water because sometimes what comes out of the tap isn’t safe to drink. The two are immediate friends. Except it’s later, and Carola is confessing to Amanda a sacrifice she felt she had to make, something she fears will alienate Amanda.

“Fever Dream” is told like one, a foggy web of growing connections as it evolves. Stories are housed within stories are housed within stories. This is a magical realism tradition, an element of Latine storytelling that treats time as less important than understanding. It becomes easier to understand what’s happened, even when it’s very unclear what is or isn’t real, because we know so much by then about what it all means. As “Fever Dream” keeps reminding us, these larger moments aren’t what’s important. It’s the details that are crucial, the causes and consequences, the oversights, the inevitabilities.

The film’s based on Samanta Schweblin’s novel “Distancia de rescate”. That translates to “Rescue Distance”. It’s the sense a person has of how close they’d have to be to someone to rescue them. How far can Amanda go from the pool, and still be able to make it back in time if Nina falls in?

Director and co-writer Claudia Llosa always has a light touch with metaphor. She’s more focused on the emotional experience of the people inside those metaphors, what they see from inside them, the details they miss because they’re too busy living in them. There’s a power in this that so many directors overlook.

It’s easy to see the rescue distance also talks about communities suffering through environmental abuses, but the only reason it’s easy to see is because we’re living in that metaphor, too. We either live in the communities that are falling in quickly, the ones being poisoned or flooded or sold out from under the people who live there, or we live in the ones that have stretched the rescue distance to its breaking point, that have gone too far away to make it back in time.

“Fever Dream” never has to say it. It never even has to think it. It just has to give time to witness the people who live in and ignore the same metaphor we live in and ignore. Its horror is quiet because we’ve taught ourselves to understand it quietly.

To be blunt, when I started writing this review, I began with “There are no words”. There aren’t. It’s like trying to describe all the sensations you have in real-time. Any attempt is incomplete. To understand meaningfully, you’d have to feel it the same way.

This whole review could just be descriptions of how my body felt as I watched. It’s why it starts with how I felt as I got up after and still: hollowed. Like you could echo through me.

There’s a quiet in “Fever Dream” I recognize from being alone in the woods, when I let myself stop thinking for a moment, and I’m able to feel the wind and hear the sounds around me without intrusion or distraction.

There’s also a horror in “Fever Dream” I recognize from when I’ve worked and worked and called and asked for help and done everything I can to try to change something devastating, and still it barrels forth.

It bled tears from me, not in any overpowering moment, but in the gentleness with which it slowly, softly overwhelms, outlines what was always going to happen, because we let it happen all the time. Those tears haven’t stopped, not even as I write this. I’ll have to step away when this is done, distract myself, remember what ignoring devastation in the world feels like, the lifetime of lessons that have taught me how. We should feel hollow. We should be crying all the time. This is what I mean when I say “Fever Dream” cradles you so you can begin to understand its staggering scale of pain.

I’ve always been a fan of cosmic horror. Problematic though its roots are, the sense that there is something larger, mysterious, so unknowable it can make any human go mad at its scope…it’s thrilling when we know it’s pretend. The idea enraptures us.

The horror in “Fever Dream” is also of a scale that may be quantifiable, but that to any single person is so immense as to be unknowable, is so staggering in its scope it would make anyone who tried to grasp it in its entirety feel hollowed, lost. This idea…it doesn’t enrapture us.

I could tell you “Fever Dream” is a stunning piece of magical realism. I could tell you its story involves psychological horror, parable, even contemplative eroticism. I could tell you it intersects with motherhood, colonialism, environmental racism. The mix of layers Llosa and Schweblin find in a story that unanchors itself from reality and time, without ever losing the details of what happens and why, is astounding. The performances given by Maria Valverde and Dolores Fonzi are starkly, vulnerably human.

But what I want to tell you is that it hollows you. It gently undoes reality to remind us of the details that are important, that we overlook, that we make inevitable by the eye we turn away. It reminds us of the thread of rescue distance that we’ve snapped, and how it doesn’t come back. “Fever Dream” clarifies what so much magical realism does: that what makes its quiet, inevitable horror work so well is that we practice it every day, we quiet its presence every day, we treat it as inevitable every day.

You can watch “Fever Dream” on Netflix.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

New Shows + Movies by Women — October 15, 2021

This is a phenomenal week for surprises. It includes a new psychological horror from one of the best directors out there, Claudia Llosa. It also features one of the best reviewed horror movies of the year, the latest in a recent surge of Welsh suspense. Nineties franchise “I Know What You Did Last Summer” gets re-adapted as a series. To top it all off, Kate Beckinsale goes against type in an ego-driven dark comedy. This is where we’ll start:

NEW SERIES

Guilty Party (Paramount+)
showrunner Rebecca Addelman

Kate Beckinsale stars as Beth, a discredited journalist. She tries to relaunch her career by ingratiating herself with a mother sentenced to life for murdering her husband. Beth is determined to prove herself relevant again- er, to prove the woman innocent.

Showrunner Rebecca Addelman has written and produced on “Dead to Me” and “Ghosted”.

You can watch “Guilty Party” on Paramount+, with new episodes premiering weekly.

I Know What You Did Last Summer (Amazon)
showrunner Sara Goodman

“I Know What You Did Last Summer” is a new adaptation of the Lois Duncan novel. It also saw a popular 1997 film adaptation. Five teens hit someone with their car on the night of their graduation. They hide the body. A year later, someone starts killing them one by one.

This is the first series showrun by Sara Goodman.

You can watch “I know What You Did Last Summer” on Amazon.

Build Divide #000000 Code Black (Crunchyroll)
directed by Komada Yuki

I really appreciate Japanese titling. From “Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon” to “Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, so I’ll Max Out My Defense”, and even “Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code”, they’re just so much braver than our surfeit of boring, old 1-3 word titles.

Anyway, in “Build Divide #000000 Code Black”, players in a trading card game attempt to defeat the king of Neo Kyoto. If they do, their wishes will be granted. (#000000 is the hex code in a spreadsheet for black, if you’re wondering what the connection is. I’m…still not sure that clarifies anything.)

Komada Yuki previously assistant directed “Mugen no Juunin: Immortal”.

“Build Divide #000000 Code Black” is simulcast as it airs in Japan, with new episodes every week. You can watch it on Crunchyroll.

NEW MOVIES

Fever Dream (Netflix)
directed by Claudia Llosa

“Fever Dream” is an adaptation of Samanta Schweblin’s 2014 novel of the same name. It tells a surreal tale of horror inspired by environmental abuses in Argentina.

I named writer-director Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow” my best film of the 2010s. She is a brilliant visualist and patient storyteller. You could say her sense of empathy has infused her movies with elements of cultural horror (about misogyny and colonialism), but this looks like her first crack at a film that’s housed in the horror genre. The crew she’s gathered is a stunning group, including “Loki” composer Natalie Holt, “The Orphanage” cinematographer Oscar Faura, and “A Fantastic Woman” production designer Estefania Larrain.

You can watch “Fever Dream” on Netflix.

Censor (Hulu)
directed by Prano Bailey-Bond

Enid is a film censor. She’s strict, with a specialty for censoring moments of violence. When she’s tasked with reviewing a particular film, its details spur childhood memories about her sister’s unsolved disappearance. Enid sets to work investigating the film’s origins, even as fiction and reality increasingly blur.

This is the first feature from director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond. It also marks another well-reviewed Welsh horror entry centered on family bringing to light generations-old wrongs. Welsh horror is carving an extremely unique voice with independent-styled films that focus on characters who convey different realities based on privilege. These horror metaphors tend to center on gaslighting, often of women and often in relation to long-disappeared or dead family members.

I can’t help but notice the popularity of this theme, and wonder how much it might connect to a history of English abuses and cover-ups such as the culturally defining Aberfan disaster.

I featured “Censor” when you could rent it, but this is the first time it’s been on a streaming service. “Censor” now also appears on Hulu.

The Blazing World (VOD)
directed by Carlson Young

In this fairy tale horror, a woman returns to her childhood home. She’s stayed away since the accidental drowning of her twin sister. Yet as she returns, she finds access to an alternate world where her sister may survive. She’ll have to convince three demons to release her sister back into this world.

This is the first feature for director and co-writer Carlson Young.

See where to rent “The Blazing World”.

Moving On (MUBI)
directed by Yoon Dan-bi

In this Korean slice-of-life movie, two children move into their grandfather’s house for the summer. Their aunt soon follows, and the three generations work out how to live under the same roof.

This is the first film from writer-director Yoon Dan-bi.

You can watch “Moving On” on MUBI.

On the Fringe of Wild (VOD)
directed by Emma Catalfamo

The story of two young men falling in love in small-town Ontario is inspired by “Romeo and Juliet”.

This is the first feature-length film from director Emma Catalfamo.

See where to rent “On the Fringe of Wild”.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

Movies and how they change you.