All posts by basilmarinerchase

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.

“Maid” is Compelling, Precise, and Inconsistent

“Maid” is a series I like, but that I feel I should love. Its strengths easily outnumber its weaknesses, but a few things hold it back. It’s anchored by Margaret Qualley as Alex, who takes her daughter Maddy and leaves her abusive boyfriend in the middle of the night. She has no plan or place to go. Since her boyfriend essentially controls her money, she has less than $20 to spend. It’s a desperate situation, handled at times with a realistic and horrifying tension.

Alex doesn’t have anyone to trust. All her friends knew her boyfriend first; he hasn’t let her lead her own life. Alex’s own mother has schizophrenia, struggles with untrustworthy boyfriends, and regularly forgets feeding and caring for Maddy when babysitting. Alex is alienated from her father, a cost sacrificed for him to make things work with his new family.

At its heart, “Maid” is a unique intersection of custody procedural, family drama, and what I like to call wallet horror. The first episode even keeps a running tab of the little money Alex has, subtracting bit by excruciating bit in the upper-right as she tries to find a job, feeds her daughter, and pays for gas a few dollars at a time. Anyone who’s ever lived in debt, close to zero balance, or paycheck to paycheck will recognize that awful running tally. The right-side of the screen it takes up may seem heavy-handed, but it is nothing compared to the amount of space it truly takes up in your head.

To its credit, “Maid” is careful to journey around the pitfalls of poverty porn. It avoids the exploitative eye that objectifies people in poverty simply to generate cheap catharsis for viewers. Qualley is given space to act, not as an icon or object of pity, but as a full, complex person.

“Maid” also treats emotional abuse seriously. While her boyfriend hasn’t hit her, he’s screamed at her, controlled her, and hit objects near her. It even takes Alex a few conversations to understand this is a form of domestic violence, even if the state she lives in doesn’t.

In its very best moments, “Maid” focuses on the horror of procedure. The systems in place to help domestic violence victims and people in poverty have been routinely gutted, sabotaged, and under-resourced. At a custody hearing, the dialogue between the commissioner and her boyfriend’s lawyer simply turns into the two saying “Legal legal legal” back and forth to each other. When a question Alex can recognize is asked of her, she’s already lost.

As she thumbs through a stack of documents she needs to fill out for that custody hearing, their official titles turn into “You’re a bad mom” and “Go fuck yourself”. There’s a stark truth to this experience, where so many fail without a chance just because they’ve missed a line on a form or didn’t get a signature. Alex takes the failures of the systems that are supposed to help and serve her, and internalizes them as her own failures.

She has to ready herself for a custody battle, apply for benefits, and work a job she has no car to drive to, sometimes all in the same hour. If she’s late to one, it’s held against her, despite those demands being physically impossible. She’s awash in catch-22s. She has to have a job to prove she needs the transitional housing that enables her to get a job. She has to spend more than she’ll make in a three-hour tryout for a job in order to stand a chance of getting it.

In its overwhelming horror of procedure and a host of metaphorical cutaways (she’s surrounded by a flurry of papers, she sees her daughter receding on a beach), “Maid” is powerful in both content and composition.

Let me be clear before I say this. For me, “Maid” is on the border between good and great. My criticisms aren’t about whether the series is good or bad. They’re about an element in “Maid” that’s noticeable and can be frustrating to some viewers:

What can sometimes unseat you from its rhythm are regular tonal inconsistencies. The first episode shovels a lot of happenstance onto the already-numbing horror Alex faces. It doesn’t really need it. The premise is already compelling, but then more happens. The series is based on a memoir by Stephanie Land. I have no clue whether extra events are added or not, or whether their time frame is condensed. Yet just like so many fictional stories can be made to feel natural, a real story can sometimes present details in a way that feels contrived.

There are so many tense moments in the first episode, “Dollar Store”. That wallet ticking down a few dollars at a time is a piece of existential dread. An impromptu job interview where Alex is essentially steamrolled is a beautiful example of the cost those in poverty can face to even get a few hours of work. A scene where Alex has to set foot in her boyfriend’s trailer again, his initially kind exterior slipping toward extracting guilt from her…there’s a sickening artistry in its unflinching precision.

This constant encroachment of tensions is where “Maid” excels. It evokes a sense of witnessing both physical and emotional realities, but in a hands-off way. Instead of telling you how to feel, it simply relies on your empathy to do the work as you watch.

This is all done superbly. Where’s the inconsistency come from? The problem is “Maid” also includes more dramatic moments and situational set-ups. Sitting right next to that deft storytelling that relies on your reaction are moments that feel like they visit from a much more dramatic adaptation.

All those building tensions are enough to send our mind reeling. By the time a car crash is added in, it doesn’t ratchet up the drama – it detracts from it. Maybe this is what really happened to Stephanie Land, in which case I’m not saying to change it. It’s not that the event doesn’t belong. The problem is that it’s handled in a way that redirects the slow and steady creep of becoming overwhelmed into something more recognizably cinematic and even melodramatic.

There are times when “Maid” presents a dramatic situation in a way that presses pause on its sense of subtlety, realism, and texture. It’s played more broadly and its sense of direction suddenly feels much more intentional. “Maid” handles the small moments like an understated character study, and some big moments like a 90s drama where characters enter and act to the nines.

Neither is done badly, and both approaches have their place. They’re just difficult to fuse together tonally. In these broader moments, there’s a loss of that very precise, nuanced, and intimately personal experience that “Maid” takes such care in building. It gets swept away, and because it’s a tone that is built scene upon scene, it can take some time to build back up to where we already were.

In those more personal spaces, we recognize how a little detail can break a person, how a frustration that might be ordinary on any other day presses on trauma because of what a person is going through. We’re witnesses of something in Alex she doesn’t let others see, that people in the world rarely let others see. You can’t just hop back into that sense right away; it does take time to build into again.

Nowhere is this more present than with Alex’s mother Paula. She’s played by Qualley’s own mother, Andie MacDowell. The relationship between the two is difficult, and one of the most intentionally frustrating elements of the show is how little Alex is heard by her mother. Her relationship to Paula is chiefly one of exchanges and leverage. Qualley and MacDowell’s ability to play off each other in a way that feels real and fraught is exceptional.

MacDowell has spoken about the role’s similarity to her relationship to her own mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and dealt with alcoholism. MacDowell does an incredible job, but at times it can feel like one that doesn’t sync up with the rest of “Maid”. She sweeps in from another genre, a 90s drama where everyone’s playing it big and MacDowell’s sure to be on an awards shortlist. This is no less true a portrayal; it’s just tailored to a different era of presentation.

Nor is this the only departure. Alex is required to go to a class where a man lectures women – many of whom are escaping domestic violence – about the stability of a two-parent home. It’s a searing point that’s an example of the systemic gaslighting of women, and this should easily hold on its own just like so many other points “Maid” makes straight-faced. Instead, he’s played like an “SNL” character. While this may add to our ability to laugh at him and it could be a moment of disempowering him in the face of a godawful act, it’s a gigantic tonal shift from everything else the series does.

I won’t get into it because it intersects with important plot points, but this sense of being thrust out of the show’s tone and reality holds most true for a subplot about stealing someone’s dog.

When these moments occur, they strain “Maid” in two different tonal directions. Sure, there are ways to use that strain in a metaphorical way, but “Maid” isn’t pursuing that kind of storytelling. It’s not some Charlie Kaufman directorial vehicle using genre dissonance-as-absurdism to step us out of the story itself. The strengths of “Maid” rely on precision within the story, a keen eye for detail, and translating criticism of systemic misogynist oppression into natural dialogue about lived experiences. “Maid” has a deep sense of its own earned knowledge and emotional realities, so when its tone suddenly shifts away from that reality into more traditional drama, it can require some conscious redirection and re-commitment on the part of the viewer.

This isn’t difficult, but it is noticeable. Moments like these don’t lack power. They don’t undermine “Maid”. They do feel consciously, intentionally situational on a series that’s fine-tuned for building tension, character, and emotional rhythm as one big flow state. When that flow state is interrupted, it’s not a big deal, but you do worry about whether you’ll sync back into it. It’s less a criticism of quality and more one of presence. “Maid” is exceptional and I absolutely recommend it. It just gets interrupted every once in a while. The interruptions are OK, but because the flow of what happened before was so precise, it’s difficult not to be especially conscious that those interruptions are there in the first place.

It’s the difference between a really good series and a great one. I’m not so sure that difference matters much, particularly when either assessment recognizes “Maid” is vitally important. Just be aware that viewers are going to fall on both sides of that good/great line, and a large part of that will be how well you take these tonal shifts in stride. This all makes “Maid” a strong choice if it’s on your radar, provided you’re in a safe and comfortable place to deal with its subject matter.

You can watch “Maid” 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 8, 2021

When I research this feature every week, I end up seeing the scores every movie gets. I try not to look, but they’re just too prominent to ignore. One of this week’s new films is “Mayday”. The allegorical movie about women engaged in a war against men is getting tanked on IMDB. Why?

“Mayday” is getting hammered on its score for being “part white man bad”, a “childish game of misandry”, “misandrist fantasy” and my favorite: a “femalistic flop” because “theyve invented the new version of the atomic bomb, namely the #metoo threat that hangs over each and every man every hour, minute or second of the day”. But don’t worry, “the lead was pretty and on of the other brunets but that was it”. We got some real Eberts on our hands here.

The reason I bring this up is because sometimes a film that gets tanked like this on scoring sites is actually good. It’s not a guarantee, but when I see this kind of review brigading from other men, it’s often because it’s touched on a nerve in an accurate way. I covered this phenomenon in more detail on my review for Sophia Takal’s “Black Christmas” (which just returned to HBO Max in time for the holiday season).

A lot of hidden gems lose their audiences when they go to review sites, see a low score, and figure the movie must not be good. I haven’t seen “Mayday”. I can’t tell you how it is. This article is informational and a lot of the films come out the same day this feature does. What I can tell you is that I’ve been led to a lot of incisive, often-brilliant hidden gems when I see these kinds of reactions tanking a film’s score. Some are just OK, sure, but there are also a lot of very good films that get tanked and lose their audiences simply because they’re feminist. Seeing these kinds of reviews usually puts a movie at the top of my to-watch list.

Please don’t let review averages deter you from watching a film before you look more closely at the reason for their scores. Maybe “Mayday” isn’t your thing – hell, maybe it isn’t my thing – but a lot of films out there will be much better than the score belies.

NEW SERIES

Maid (Netflix)
showrunner Molly Smith Metzler

“Maid” is based on Stephanie Land’s 2019 memoir. It recounts the story of a single mother who leaves an abusive relationship. Alex balances intermittent, underpaid work as a house cleaner with caring for her daughter Maddy.

Showrunner Molly Smith Metzler has written and produced on “Shameless” and written on “Orange is the New Black” and “Casual”.

You can watch “Maid” on Netflix.

NEW MOVIES

Mayday (VOD)
directed by Karen Cinorre

Ana is transported to a world that’s constantly at war. The women here are all soldiers fighting against men, but Ana can’t seem to fit in. Mia Goth and Grace Van Patten star.

This is the first feature from writer-director Karen Cinnore, who started out in set design and costume departments.

See where to rent “Mayday”.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (MUBI)
directed by Lili Horvat

Marta is a neurosurgeon. She falls in love in a whirlwind romance. She even leaves her career behind in the U.S. to move to Hungary. The only problem is when she meets her partner there, he says he’s never seen her before.

This is the second feature from Hungarian writer-director Lili Horvat after the well-received “The Wednesday Child”.

You can watch “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” on MUBI.

Stop and Go (VOD)
co-directed by Mallory Everton

Two sisters set out on a road trip to rescue their grandmother from a nursing home where COVID has broken out.

Mallory Everton directs with Stephen Meek. This is her first feature.

See where to rent “Stop and Go”.

The Manor (Amazon)
directed by Axelle Carolyn

Barbara Hershey plays Judith, just moved into a nursing home. She slowly becomes convinced that an inexplicable force is picking off the residents one by one. No one will believe an elderly stroke survivor, though.

Writer-director Axelle Carolyn once wrote on the history of horror movies, and she’s since moved onto directing in series like “American Horror Story”, “Creepshow”, and “The Haunting of Bly Manor”. This is her second feature.

You can watch “The Manor” on Amazon.

Black as Night (Amazon)
directed by Maritte Lee Go

Vampires are preying upon the disenfranchised of New Orleans. A band of friends spends their summer hunting these vampires down.

This is the first feature from Maritte Lee Go, who also directed a segment of “Phobias”.

You can watch “Black as Night” on Amazon.

Bingo Hell (Amazon)
directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero

When their beloved bingo hall is sold to the devil, Lupita and her elderly friends refuse to see it gentrified. With a vengeance.

Director and co-writer Gigi Saul Guerrero is a Mexican-Canadian director who’s helmed films, anthology entries, and series.

You can watch “Bingo Hell” on Amazon.

What Breaks the Ice (VOD)
directed by Rebecca Eskreis

Two girls form a friendship in 1998, as their vision of their place in the world is impacted by the country’s obsession with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. When they’re invited to a rave, things go wrong and they have to defend themselves. Will the culture they live in ever believe their side of the story?

This is the first feature from writer-director Rebecca Eskreis. She got her start in production design.

You can rent “What Breaks the Ice” on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, or YouTube.

Queenpins (Paramount+)
co-directed by Gita Pullapilly

Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste star as women who start a coupon fraud scam. Their operation grows faster than they can manage in this crime comedy.

Gita Pullapilly directs with Aron Gaudet as Team A + G. This is their second feature film.

You can watch “Queenpins” on Paramount Plus.

Witch Hunt (VOD)
directed by Elle Callahan

Witches and witchcraft have been made illegal in the United States. It’s up to one girl to ferry two witches to asylum in Mexico.

This is the second feature from writer-director Elle Callahan after 2018’s “Head Count”. She got her start as a sound mixer and editor.

See where to rent “Witch Hunt”.

Spring Blossom (VOD)
directed by Suzanne Lindon

A 16 year-old girl passes a theater one day. Bored with her friends, she engages an older man. She eventually becomes involved with him.

Suzanne Lindon writes, directs, and stars. She began writing the screenplay at 15 and filmed it at 20.

See where to rent “Spring Blossom”.

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.

Hope is an Incomplete Answer — Mitski’s “Working for the Knife”

The thing about Mitski that I don’t get anywhere else is that her music (often with Zia Anger’s videos) feels like a safe place to just…break. To not be OK. To be exhausted. The music feels like a shelter or recognition for places we barely speak about.

We imagine avoiding these places in ourselves denies them power; as if we can’t feel depressed or anxious if we avoid talking about being depressed or anxious. We imagine this because we understand these things through relationships of power. Our culture understands everything primarily through relationships of power.

Depression and anxiety aren’t about a power struggle in ourselves, though. They’re not wresting for power, they can’t be overcome by will. They’re just there. They’re just present, like air or sunshine. Sometimes they’re present for a reason and there’s an identifiable cause. Sometimes they’re present because they’re component to how someone’s brain works and they don’t need a cause.

“Working for the Knife” feels like a scream of exhaustion, for an exhaustion it’s hard to see ever going away. Personally, culturally, globally, that’s the moment and we don’t see an end to it.

So many know that emotional explosion at the end of “Working for the Knife” – manic, joyous, angry, helpless, outsized and diminished, expansive and lonely, breathless, ragingly silent. We fruitlessly give everything we have to no audience because we’re terrified to have one: we imagine avoiding these places in ourselves denies them power, but we know existing with them and giving them some kind of space helps to manage it at all. How many express in silence, alone, and then act as if everything’s fine the minute eyes are on them?

There’s a helplessness to “Working for the Knife” because it’s hard to see each of our acts of emotional expression changing anything. There’s a helpfulness to it because that act of expression means something to us; that meaning is enough to know we might change something.

We live in a hopeless time. Part of our hopelessness is being convinced that it’s an individual shortcoming, a personal fallibility, a failure of imagination. Hopelessness is something we shouldn’t speak of, let alone share with others. Recognizing hopelessness runs directly counter to prosperity gospel, to “The Secret”, to economic materialism. Even when we identify those poisons, there are a thousand others ingrained into our media, our social media, our culture.

We’re taught to be successful, to be whole, we have to deny a major emotional state in ourselves. We’re made to believe that if someone is hopeless, it’s their fault. It must be a shortcoming, a toxin that might spread. We’re taught that someone else’s hopelessness must be disbelieved before we learn why it exists, lest it find a home in us and magically sabotage the success we’re sure we’ll have tomorrow out of…what, hope? We’re a nation and a culture feeling the last minute of this video in raging silence, and then projecting endless hope the minute we hear another voice in the room.

Hopelessness acknowledges that something is wrong in the first place, and if you’re made to avoid ever feeling hopeless, you’ve been made to avoid ever acknowledging that something is wrong.

Rebecca Solnit wrote in “Hope in the Dark” that “Hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal.”

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, climate activist Greta Thunberg chastised the gathered economists: “Adults keep saying, ‘we owe it to young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

These two ideas don’t disagree. They’re part of the very same whole. It’s the same definition. If hope is an axe and the motivation to use it, hopelessness is the recognition and understanding why. Why would you break down the door with an axe? Because our house is on fire. We’re complex enough to carry both halves of that reality within us, to realize that both are true and needed. Yet culturally, we treat hopelessness as the enemy of hope. Hope is to be spoken about, worshipped, gilded, awarded. Hopelessness is to be chased out by it, quieted, dismissed. So we have a surplus of hope we don’t know how to properly apply. We’re hopeful…and ineffective about it. We’re unguided, slapping hope on everything without the urgency of the work that supports it. How the hell are we supposed to know how to use our hope if we habitually avoid recognizing and feeling in our bones what we’re hopeless about?

We need those safe places where we can simply break. To not be OK. To be exhausted. We have to understand hopelessness is a part of ourselves that’s just as important to sit with as hope. We’re sitting in the house on fire hoping that someone will save us, but without the urgency to realize we’re the ones best situated to do the saving.

If you wonder why people gravitate to Mitski’s music, it’s because very little art in American culture allows a space to feel hopeless. Feeling that isn’t a weakness. Imagine being so afraid of an emotion that you do everything to run away from it – you’re going to tell yourself that’s a strength? If we can’t talk about hopelessness or despair, if we can’t allow a place to process anxiety safely, we become a culture that has zero training in urgency, zero real ability to communicate about it. How’s that going for us? How’s our addiction to hope at all costs working out?

The house is on fire. You’re sitting next to a pile of axes. You have a surplus of hope someone with an axe will show up. That’s the United States of America. Everyone projects hope. Very few are willing to be recognized for having the desperation to apply it. We can reject dozens of versions of prosperity gospel before this one invariably hooks us.

Find a place to accept your hopelessness, because that’s what guides your hope. Mitski and director Zia Anger or whomever it might be. This music is a way I find into it, but who it is or how is ultimately not the point. The point of the song, the music video, of the last several years of Mitski’s career is to recognize the cycles we’re convinced to participate in and that they’re untenable. The point is it’s about something bigger.

That exhaustion will only get worse. We hope it will be solved. We have so much hope. We just lack the desperation to be urgent about it. We culturally reject even feeling our hopelessness, let alone understanding it, or communicating it, and then wonder why we’re so culturally hesitant and ineffective in hopeless situations, why so many people refuse to understand hopeless situations and get angry at the idea of communicating about them. Personally, culturally, globally, who hasn’t spent their life so far working for the knife?

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 Playful B-Movie for Terrible Days — “Nightbooks”

The day I watched “Nightbooks” was a terrible day. Work was taking longer because of internet issues that had spanned a week. I had a D&D session with friends scheduled online that night. It’s one of the few things that’s kept me grounded and de-stressed during the pandemic. Nothing worked; I couldn’t join. Try being on the phone with Comcast at 10:30 pm; it’s an awful way to end the day. I needed something exciting, uplifting, escapist, dark but…cheesy at the same time. I needed something like “Legend” or “The Goonies”, something that believes B-movies speak to our soul in ways awards contenders never can.

Well, there was that film where Krysten Ritter plays a witch. Wait, what? Yes, the movie where it looks like our goth queen chews every piece of scenery in sight. I mean, you can’t go too wrong with that, can you?

“Nightbooks” is exactly the kind of film I wanted. It’s a young adult (YA) horror movie that delivers a mix of cheese, earnest fairy tale, and horror homage to remind the kid in you that it’s not all pandemic and work delays and late-night Comcast rendezvous.

Winslow Fegley plays Alex, a child who runs away from his parents in a fit of anger and embarassment. He loves horror movies and writes scary stories, but now he wants to destroy them all. He gets off at the wrong floor and is lured into an apartment by a slice of pie and a TV playing his favorite movie: 80s horror classic “The Lost Boys”. When he wakes up, he’s confronted by a witch. How can he be useful to her? By doing the one thing he’s sworn to never do again: write scary stories. He’ll have to tell her one a night for eternity. If he misses one, he’ll be killed. It’s “One Thousand and One Nights” as YA horror.

The witch, her cat familiar, and the apartment itself all hold secrets to uncover, and secrets give Alex the hope of escape. There’s also Lidya Jewett’s Yasmin, a survivor who’s been trapped in the apartment for years. Will she help him, or has she already given up hope?

It’s all painted broadly, but as Krysten Ritter’s witch Natacha reminds Alex, every story must be based on some element of truth. So what is the truth at the core of “Nightbooks”? Why is it so successful at what it does?

The broad strokes of “Nightbooks” are familiar fairy tale territory. The details can remind you of other YA adaptations. There are notes of everything from “The Thief of Always” to “Harry Potter”. “Nightbooks” shares some DNA with those classics. Alex’s story is compelling because it’s the story of every kid who’s dealt with anxiety, self-hate, creative block, or impostor syndrome.

Natacha is a scary witch who can do terrifying things, and Ritter rides a Tim Curry-esque line of hamming it up while still nailing the point home. What truly makes her frightening isn’t her powers, though. It’s not the threat of a fate worse than death. The moments that cut most deeply are the ones where she picks apart Alex’s stories, tells him an idea is stupid or inaccurate, that he’s disappointing her.

None of us know what a scary witch can do. Few of us are familiar with fates worse than death. Yet so many know exactly what sitting in that chair can feel like as the things we care most deeply about, the futures we envision for ourselves, the passions that allow us to find value and meaning in our lives – we know what it’s like to sit there and watch them be torn down one by one. We know what it’s like when someone does that simply to remind us that they have so much power and control they can end with words our entire idea of who we want to be.

We also know what it’s like to fight back against that. We know what it’s like to decide not to believe it, to realize that they are just words spoken by someone desperate to frighten and control us. Sure, “Nightbooks” is a fairy tale about kids trying to escape a witch, tale as old as time. The truth on which it’s built is about kids realizing that who they want to be isn’t someone else’s decision.

“Nightbooks” couches this within a movie that genuinely embraces horror. There is a ceiling to the level of scary it becomes – it’s a movie for kids, too, after all. Yet it pushes the boundary and lovingly recalls a host of horror movies. It’s not just empty reference either. By repeating visual themes adults might already be familiar with, it deepens many of the emotional moments for the characters on-screen. This is absolutely a B-movie, but it’s a B-movie that fully understands how the genre disarms us. It doesn’t have to find a way around our guard when our guard’s already down. It has a deep understanding for horror, camp, and kitsch movie history.

The technical aspects are great across the board. There’s some exceptional sound editing in “Nightbooks”. That may not seem like the most exciting factor to point out, but it does so much to anchor us in its world. The cinematography and art direction also excel.

Fegley and Jewett are good as child actors go, especially in a project that asks a lot of them. I wouldn’t say they sell us on their situation in a dramatic way, but in a film like “Nightbooks”, that’s not their job. Their job is to be as much kids as they are actors, and they find that balance.

“Nightbooks” is also surprisingly funny. Alex’s stories-within-a-story are told as if they’re melodramatic, silent movies he’s narrating. They’re constantly interrupted by the witch’s criticisms, many of which make Alex change his stories on the fly. The presentation of these stories is genuinely endearing, and Ritter’s delivery has a way of both cutting deep from inside the story while making us laugh at her timing.

That may seem mean, but the way this type of B-movie communicates is to have us appreciate and love the references and performances even as we inhabit and feel its world. We can laugh at the comedy in Natacha’s delivery without laughing at Alex, and we can feel bad for what Alex is enduring while still wanting to hear more of Natacha. This is the magic B-movies can find, watching them from the outside as a performance and feeling them from the inside as a story at the same time. It’s not so different from what Charlie Kaufman’s done in films like “Being John Malkovich” or “Adaptation”, where we can feel bad for characters inside the story while still being amused at what an actor’s doing to elicit those emotions. He didn’t invent that meta-approach, he simply transported it. It’s existed in B-movies for decades.

That dual way of watching “Nightbooks” is its greatest strength. Ultimately, it’s not a perfect film. The CG elements are hit and miss. A mid-film action scene feels out of place. It could’ve cut an entire sequence out of its ending. Yet watching this kind of film, it’s hard to care about those things when it constantly recovers with another good sequence, unexpected laugh, or meaningful moment. What does work here is often a gorgeous re-purposing of the genre.

I think kids can get a lot out of the themes of “Nightbooks”. They don’t have enough stories that really deal with complex issues like impostor syndrome and anxiety. They need to see work like this because these are things that they’re already dealing with, but don’t have many stories to help them process it. It’s definitely a movie to watch alongside them, though. There are genuine scares here.

The awkward reality is that so much of “Nightbooks” speaks to horror fans who can identify and understand all the references and elements happening. These can really deepen the scenes’ themes beyond an initial sense of recognition or nostalgia. Yet the target audience for this is kids, who are pretty unlikely to have seen “Suspiria”, “Evil Dead”, or “The Lost Boys”.

For adults, I think “Nightbooks” is a lot better if you’re well-versed in horror and you’re content to put yourself in the mindset of a YA film. There’s a good amount of overlap in that Venn diagram, and you probably know if you’re in it or not. If you have any doubt, try having a terrible day first. “Nightbooks” can definitely help with that.

You can watch “Nightbooks” 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 — September 24, 2021

We’re into the Fall TV season. That means it’s the one time of year that network series get a strong showing. September tends to be the one month where networks overtake streaming services in terms of narrative television.

Major event films tend to avoid the month. Of the last 10 non-pandemic years, September has had the weakest box office in seven of them. The only thing that saved the month in two of those years was the two parts of Stephen King’s “It”.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t good films out there. With event films outside of horror clearing out of September and early October, it’s usually a great time to find indie movies, genre experiments, and character-based dramas. That holds true this week with a number of new films out on video-on-demand.

As always, let’s start with series first:

NEW SERIES

Jaguar (Netflix)
co-showrunner Gema R. Neira

Isabel is a Holocaust survivor who settles in Spain. She takes it upon herself to track down escaped Nazis during the 1960s, but it turns out she’s not the only one.

Gema R. Neira created “Jaguar” with Ramon Campos, and the two showrun it together. She’s a veteran in Spanish TV, having written on nearly 40 series.

You can watch the first season of “Jaguar” on Netflix.

The Big Leap (Fox)
showrunner Liz Heldens

“The Big Leap” is a behind-the-scenes musical-comedy about reality competitions. In this case, dancers compete to be cast in a modern remake of “Swan Lake”.

Showrunner Liz Heldens has written and produced on “Friday Night Lights”, “Boston Public”, and “The Orville”.

You can watch “The Big Leap” on Fox, with new episodes weekly.

Our Kind of People (Fox)
showrunner Karin Gist

A single mom moves her family to a vineyard in an attempt to bolster her family name. Her plan involves becoming a part of an elite African American community in the area.

Showrunner Karin Gist has written and produced on “Revenge”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, and “Mixed-ish”.

You can watch “Our Kind of People” on Fox, with new episodes weekly.

NCIS: Hawai’i (CBS)
co-showrunner Jan Nash

As one “NCIS” falls, another rises. So it is written. With the closure of “NCIS: New Orleans”, CBS fills the gap with “NCIS: Hawai’i”. This time, Vanessa Lachey leads the cast investigating a never-ending supply of naval murders.

Jan Nash showruns with Christopher Silber. She’s previously written and produced on “NCIS: New Orleans”, “Without a Trace”, “Black Lightning” and “Rizzoli & Isles”.

You can watch “NCIS: Hawai’i” on CBS, with new episodes weekly.

NEW MOVIES

Birds of Paradise (Amazon)
directed by Sarah Adina Smith

Two girls compete at an elite Parisian ballet academy. Their trust in each other, and sense of reality, will both be turned upside down.

Sarah Adina Smith has directed on “Legion”, “Hanna”, and “Looking for Alaska”. This is her first feature.

You can watch “Birds of Paradise” on Amazon.

East of the Mountains (VOD)
directed by S.J. Chiro

Tom Skerritt plays a retired surgeon who learns his cancer is terminal. He heads to his boyhood home in Eastern Washington to conclude his life, but he and his dog face an unexpected conflict once they get there. “East of the Mountains” is based on the David Guterson novel of the same name.

S.J. Chiro previously directed the well-received “Lane 1974”.

See where to rent “East of the Mountains”.

Through the Glass Darkly (VOD)
directed by Lauren Fash

A girl goes missing. The situation looks similar to the disappearance of Charlie’s daughter the year before. She attempts to find out if there’s a connection, frustrating police and locals who seem like they’re hiding a secret.

This is the first feature from writer-director Lauren Fash.

See where to rent “Through the Glass Darkly”.

Between Waves (VOD)
directed by Virginia Abramovich

A woman keeps glimpsing her missing partner. Eventually, she decides to search for him in an alternate dimension.

“Between Waves” is writer-director Virginia Abramovich’s first feature film.

See where to rent “Between Waves”.

Time is Up (VOD)
directed by Elisa Amoruso

Vivien suffers an accident, and tries to piece together what happened that night. Bella Thorne stars.

Elisa Amoruso has primarily directed Italian documentaries. “Time is Up” is her second narrative feature.

See where to rent “Time is Up”.

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.

Is a Perfect Bad Movie Good? “Malignant”

What if someone set out to create the most perfect bad horror movie ever made, and they hit every note? Would it be so bad it was good, or so successfully bad it was just bad? Do you need some old-fashioned, inadvertent mistakes in there to really make it sing? Is smartly designed badness enjoyable, or does the fun of watching a bad movie rely on the schadenfreude of others’ failures?

These questions join that study of philosophy that poses unanswerable dilemmas like Ship of Theseus, Yanny or Laurel, and what the hell a cat’s ever doing. Enter “Malignant”.

In its best (worst?) moments, “Malignant” can feel like a museum tour through the history of horror. Annabelle Wallis plays Madison, who witnesses a ghastly figure murder her abusive husband. She’s a suspect until that horror begins to stalk her. She boards up her windows and even resists the help of her sister Sydney.

It’s too late; a connection has been formed to whatever this horror is. Madison begins to psychically witness its murders in a sort of waking sleep paralysis, able to observe in her visions but unable to move in real life. Somehow, this all connects to a defunct lab that once experimented on children in a cliffside castle in the forests of Washington.

If you’re well versed in various horror genres, it’s a joy to see what a playground they become in director James Wan’s hands. Early scenes are reminiscent of his haunted house horrors like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”, particularly when a barely visible shadow moves in fog and the murderous horror is presaged by electronics going haywire. It’s expertly done, and an early way of showing the audience just how capable Wan can be when he wants. This early showing off is important since the rest of the film goes in the opposite direction. Wan wants the audience to know that the filmmakers and actors could make a tense horror film if they wanted, but that they’d rather go for the height of campy schlock.

Every set of characters exists in a different horror genre, with that genre taking over when they’re front and center. The early haunted house vibe that Wan has resurrected and amped up from its 50s and more violent 80s roots gives way to 90s and 00s horror. Detectives Kekoa Shaw and Regina Moss exist in that era’s world, reminiscent of “Copycat”, “Murder by Numbers”, or lord help us, “The Watcher”. These are all from a time before CBS decided the procedural should be regularized to the point of homogeneity. The police station is a direct lift from “Se7en”, just with more vibrant lighting.

Each of the murderer’s scenes takes place within a different genre as well. One borrows from 80s slashers, with the eventual murder weapon highlighted several times over before it’s actually used. Another takes place in an apartment overlooked by a glowing neon sign that basks the room in a giallo-red, Wan giving you those same close-ups and highlights as (literally) red herrings but then refusing to use them. That playfulness is ever-present.

The murderer moves unnaturally, climbing ceilings, needing a haircut, and disturbing electronics like ghosts in Japanese horror films. Then we see the murderer’s lair, an homage to 90s goth industrial art direction like you might see in Alex Proyas’s “The Crow” or “Dark City”. Of course, there needs to be at least one room with a giant wall fan because horror beasties…I don’t know, have bad allergies and need good air circulation?

Do you want an underground chase scene that references the failed 1997 adaptation of “The Relic”? Because “Malignant” is how you get it.

As Madison is terrorized by the murderer itself and her visions, she increasingly delivers her lines in that stilted style once developed in the 70s from non-English speaking actors and additional dialogue recording in European giallo films. The style’s hallmark is immediately recognizable for being both monotone and overdramatic, with deliberately misplaced stressed syllables and unexpected rising inflections that achieve an unsettling uncanny valley that doesn’t feel human. It’s so specific and it takes a huge amount of skill to get right, but it’s also something that outside of a giallo world just becomes funny and absurd.

Meanwhile, Madison’s sister Sydney is off in her own modern horror movie doing all the research and uncovering yet one more genre that we’ll watch alongside her: found footage horror.

This is such a mash, and I was guffawing in disbelief every time a character didn’t just do the obviously stupid horror movie cliché, but pushed straight past it so much that it became a deliberate performance of that cliché. There’s still enough skill behind it all – in both cast and crew – that the movie can switch into more genuine horror complete with scares at a moment’s notice.

“Malignant” is neither farce nor satire. Instead, it’s closer to a nonsense work in the literary sense. Literary nonsense, such as the kind written by Edward Lear, seeks to subvert conventions for the express reason of: nonsense. That doesn’t mean it’s directionless, it just means that the direction pulls an element of logical reasoning away from the structure of a story or its world so that we can peer in and see how nonsensical everything else becomes without it. “Alice in Wonderland” is literary nonsense. “House of Leaves” can be understood as a type of nonsense work. “Being John Malkovich” explains a little too much, but in a broad sense it can be understood as belonging to the nonsense genre.

As an intentional genre, nonsense is rare in almost every medium. The only place that might break this is performance art, where replacing logical progression with non sequiturs elicits unpredictable reactions from onlookers.

A nonsense horror movie budgeted at $40 million from an A-list director is unthinkable. It doesn’t happen. That makes me really glad “Malignant” exists. That’s a separate question from whether I like it, though.

I love “Malignant” – but only up to a point. I don’t mean a general boundary that it pushes or a metaphorical point it passes; I mean there’s a minute in the movie where I think it drops the ball and leaves it there. It’s not the much discussed 540-degree turn in the last act – I was on board with the way it embraces the most absurd aspects of 70s and 80s horror.

It wasn’t an amount of gore either. I am not a fan of torture horror like “Saw” or “Hostel”. I don’t judge someone who is; it’s just really not my thing. We all have genres we like and dislike. “Malignant” is bloody, but it actually had less gore than I was expecting. What’s there is treated with a cool distance, and where the movie does enter into body horror, it’s done in ways that evoke 80s underground films. In other words, while the gore’s there, it lacks the misanthropic notes and hyperrealism of torture horror. It’s also more cinematic than voyeuristic. It instead evokes the budget-limited creations of 80s creature horror.

The point where “Malignant” lost me – and I’ll only speak about genre to avoid spoilers here – is when it descends from its museum tour of horror and just becomes an action movie. It becomes more of a spoof here, and others might like those notes more than I do. To me, I wanted to stay in those horror lanes the film had asked me to enjoy for its first hour-and-a-half. It hadn’t been an action movie at all, and being asked to suddenly shift from all these lusciously realized horror flavors to a bloody take on “Matrix”-lite action felt like a let-down.

I would have been happier with a “watch the skies” style ending of a slasher, the emotionally abrupt cutoff of a giallo, or a lingering-too-long conclusion to character horror. Perhaps these wouldn’t have been nonsense enough, though. Maybe dropping horror and turning into an action movie is that final step of nonsense and I just wasn’t willing to take it because I was so happy with all the horror elements.

On the other hand, action offers harder genre anchors. “Malignant” meanders on such a dreamy cloud of constantly-swapping rhythms that pace is completely unimportant. Becoming an action film suddenly gives it a hard, overly familiar rhythm that abandons that floating lack of pace. That’s what I found jarring. It may be a nonsense genre switch, but the realization of it abandons other elements of nonsense I was enjoying a lot more.

What does that amount to? As much as I enjoyed most of “Malignant”, it doesn’t stick the landing for me personally. That leaves me with that initial question:

You have one extremely talented director like James Wan who wants to make a really good bad film. Everything he wants to accomplish, every element of bad movie he wants in there, it’s all achieved note-perfect.

Another director makes a bad film by succeeding in enough places to make us continue watching, but failing in notable ways. We’re tentatively invested, but the floor keeps falling out on it. The movie becomes bad unintentionally, and those failures become enjoyable.

Which one is the better bad movie? The question isn’t really important, but it highlights how “Malignant” is unique, for better or worse. “Malignant” is so intentional about its badness that it becomes a performance of badness, rather than just being bad. Both approaches are still enjoyable in many of the same ways, but from something like “Malignant”, we begin to expect perfection. If it deviates from what we want, even if it does it well, it gets shaky and leans a little bit more toward average, which isn’t as enjoyable as bad can be.

Yet with an unintentionally bad film, we expect that shakiness. We begin to welcome it. We’re not looking for perfection in its performance of anything else; we’re seeking the opposite. In fact, when it deviates from what we want, it leans more toward that badness, which is what makes us enjoy it in the first place.

This is the key difference between a perfectly achieved, intentional bad movie, and a faulty, unintentionally bad movie. One has to be perfect and exceed our expectations. It has to perform its role exceptionally. That’s “Malignant”. The other has to be faulty and fail our expectations. It has to do everything but perform its role.

“Malignant” is so good at being bad that it creates a trap for itself. It’s so perfectly done that the joy you can get out of it as a horror fan is essentially unique. Yet it lacks that looser, organic element to a bad horror movie that just lets you go with the flow and accept wherever it stumbles. “Malignant” might be the most perfect bad movie ever made, but in being so, that limits how good of a bad movie it can be.

Ship of Theseus. Prove God exists. Or doesn’t. The Munchhausen Trilemma. The Grandfather Paradox. Cats (in a box, walking through walls, etc). And now “Malignant”.

If you like those places where “Malignant” goes, you’re going to love it. It will be one of the most valuable and honest relationships to a horror movie you’ll ever make. It will be with you, whenever you need it, whenever you need to curl up under a blanket with hot cocoa and just smile and feel reassured at its ridiculousness for two hours – it will be there for you for the rest of your life.

If you can’t imagine why anyone would sit through anything I’ve described, you’re going to hate it. It’ll be like a date you realize is a mismatch in the first 20 minutes, where you’re either smart enough to get up and leave, or you will yourself to sit through it out of a misguided sense of politeness.

A lot of viewers may be like me. They may fall for it immediately and love where it goes, but feel betrayed when that horror movie fusion is traded out for another genre entirely. They may wonder where the movie they fell in love with went and why the movie wasn’t more forthright about everything from the start. Maybe it’s a commitment thing; the movie changed because it’s just not made to stay in the same place too long. That’s understandable. The viewer’s had fun and they’ve learned a lot. They’ll always treasure what really worked, but the magic has passed, and as much as it once felt right, this isn’t the movie they want to spend the rest of their life alongside. Maybe they can meet again, in a few years, once they’ve both changed a bit and can understand each other better. They’ll grab coffee. Maybe then, there’ll be comfort. Maybe they’ll just sit there out of politeness. Maybe they’ll go for it. Maybe the viewer will have moved on to James Wan’s “Malignant 2: The Patrick Wilson-Industrial-Complex”.

All three reactions are groovy. They’re just made for different viewers. People’s preferences for camp are all so specific and individualized that it may just be hard to tell whether you’ll like, love, or loathe it until you’re halfway in, giggling at its brash absurdity, wondering how humanity’s sunk this low, or both.

You can watch “Malignant” on HBO Max. Treat the movie as having content warnings for domestic abuse and miscarriage.

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

New Shows + Movies by Women — September 17, 2021

Closing in on October means an influx of indie horror films. It also means the very beginning of a ramp-up toward awards contenders. Beyond this, it’s interesting to see what’s getting brought in from other countries. The pandemic meant a slowdown in production, and a more deliberate pace as things get back underway. In the effort to keep the rate of new series and movies steady, streaming services have increasingly brought in projects that they might not have just a few years ago.

Netflix has been particularly good when it comes to a few countries – their curation of Filipino, Nigerian, and South Korean projects didn’t start with the pandemic, but the slowdown seems to have made them a greater priority. In addition, Amazon and Netflix have invested in India’s filmmaking industry. A number of women writers and directors have been empowered by this, as India’s sometimes misogynistic production structures and laws mean half the talent is often skipped over. I wrote last month about new Indian laws and ‘enforcements’ that are attempting to crack down on and silence women filmmakers in the wake of streaming services picking up their projects.

This week is mostly English-language projects, and there are some good ones, but please don’t skip over what comes out of other countries. When I started this weekly feature, I thought about shoving anything with subtitles to the back of every list, knowing that some readers might skip over these. I decided not to because it shouldn’t be that way. Acting as if the projects from women in the U.S. and U.K. matter more than women from other countries would just be kicking the can down the road on misogyny, and my generation has seen how dangerous that is as we come across every issue those before us declined to handle. Why repeat that? Look at non-English projects. The less of these you’ve watched, the more great work is out there just waiting for you to see it. If you feel like shows are redundant and repeating, and all you watch is English-language projects, then the explanation should be obvious – you’re only seeing things from a narrow range of perspectives. Of course they’ll repeat.

There are shows from France, Japan, and Nigeria this week. Take a look at them. Consider the list of Indian shows and movies by women from last month – if there’s enough of an audience for them, streaming services will be more likely to buck India’s crackdown on women filmmakers and continue to fund their work. Streaming services organize films from other countries pretty well. Choose a place you’ve never seen a film from, and pick what looks interesting. Watching shows and movies doesn’t become repetitive if the places you’re picking from aren’t repetitive.

NEW SERIES

Y: The Last Man (Hulu)
showrunner Eliza Clark
directed by women

Based on the comic book series, “Y: The Last Man” posits a world where every mammal with a Y chromosome suddenly dies…with the exception of a single artist. This is Yorick, and he is chased by those wanting to protect him, experiment on him, and kill him.

Both the original comic and the series base this on chromosomes – so trans women with a Y chromosome and women with androgen insensitivity are part of this. Showrunner Eliza Clark has been specific in saying what sets Yorick apart isn’t his maleness, as other men also survive. What sets him apart is simply that Y chromosome. There are updates that need to be made to the comic series – it started 20 years ago, and cultural and scientific knowledge has improved since then. The series looks promising in terms of including trans creative talent, with actor Elliot Fletcher in a role, and Hugo Award-winning writer Charlie Jane Anders in the writers room.

Showrunner Eliza Clark is a playwright and actress. All the directors on the show are women.

You can watch “Y: The Last Man” on Hulu, with new episodes weekly.

The Heike Story (Funimation)
directed by Naoko Yamada

Biwa is a blind girl with the ability to see the future. She travels as a musician to make her living. When she meets the patriarch of a powerful clan, she offers him a prophecy of bloodshed and war. The series is based on a 13th century epic about the rise and fall of the Taira clan.

Director Naoko Yamada has directed series including “K-on!” and films such as “A Silent Voice”.

You can watch “The Heike Story” on Funimation, with new episodes weekly.

Smart Money Woman (Netflix)
directed by Bunmi Ajakaiye

Zuri is living a life she can’t afford. Her four best friends each have their own problems, but they’re able to help her figure out her life step by step.

“Smart Money Woman” comes from Nigeria and is directed by Bunmi Ajakaiye. She’s a well known photographer, writer, and director who’s helmed two films and now her second series.

You can watch “Smart Money Woman” on Netflix.

Cheyenne & Lola (Sundance Now)
showrunner Virginie Brac

Lola murders the wife of the man she’s sleeping with. Ex-convict Cheyenne witnesses it, and believes she’ll be the one blamed. The two pair up to hide the crime. The series is subtitled; there just isn’t a subtitled trailer available.

Creator, showrunner, and writer Virginie Brac is a prolific French TV writer.

You can watch “Cheyenne & Lola” on Sundance Now.

NEW MOVIES

CW: sexual assault

What She Said (VOD)
directed by Amy Northup

Sam decides she’s going to drop the charges against her rapist. Her friends and siblings stage an intervention at Thanksgiving.

This is the first film from director Amy Northup, an intimacy coordinator who runs classes on consent practices for filmmakers. On her website, Northup discusses, “the same way that we have prioritized the safety of our teams in violent scenes with stunt choreographers, it’s time to normalize the safety, boundaries, and consent of everyone involved in the making of intimate scenes”.

See where to rent “What She Said”.

CW: involuntary commitment

The Mad Women’s Ball (Amazon)
directed by Melanie Laurent

A woman is forcibly institutionalized in a Paris asylum. She plans her escape with the aid of an employee there.

Director, co-writer, and star Melanie Laurent is probably most familiar to U.S. audiences as the vengeful survivor Shosanna in “Inglourious Basterds”. She’s had an extensive career acting in both French and U.S. film. “The Mad Women’s Ball” is her fifth film as director.

You can watch “The Mad Women’s Ball” (listed as “Le Bal des Folles”) on Amazon.

Best Sellers (VOD)
directed by Lina Roessler

Aubrey Plaza and Michael Caine star as a young publisher and the author she coaxes out of retirement. The polar opposites invite disaster as they mount a publicity tour for a man who resents the public. Cary Elwes also stars.

This is director Lina Roessler’s first feature. As an actress, she’s starred in “Lost Girl” and Canadian staple “Murdoch Mysteries” (aka “The Artful Detective”).

See where to rent “Best Sellers”.

CW: stalking, suicide

#Like (Shudder)
directed by Sarah Pirozek

Rosie discovers the man who bullied and harassed her sister into suicide a year earlier is still seeking new victims online. She decides to take revenge into her own hands.

This is the first narrative feature from writer-director Sarah Pirozek.

You can watch “#Like” on Shudder.

Giddy Stratospheres (VOD)
directed by Laura Jean Marsh

Life happens chaotically in the UK indie music scene of the 2000s.

This is the first feature for writer-director Laura Jean Marsh, who also stars in the film.

See where to rent “Giddy Stratospheres”.

Bad Candy (VOD)
co-directed by Desiree Connell

A range of local urban legends are recounted by two Radio DJs on Halloween in a campy horror film.

Desiree Connell directs with Scott B. Hansen. This is her first film as director.

See where to rent “Bad Candy”.

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

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