Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Nostalgia Bait Can Get Off My Lawn — “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers”

I’m working on an article about the evolution of cyberpunk and I found myself thinking about William Gibson’s shift from cyber noir into postcyberpunk. It happened with a novel called “Pattern Recognition”, and I bring it up because the protagonist Cayce is allergic to brands. She gets sick when she sees a logo. Marketing firms hire her because she has an eye for good design – the few logos that she can physically tolerate. She feels debilitated around places like Times Square, where the number of brands overwhelms the senses. “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” would have seen her hunched over a garbage can.

Let’s get this out of the way first: most people like this movie. You might, too. My reaction to it appears to be clearly in the minority. If you like it, that’s awesome and I’m glad you do. I’m not going to super-focus on trashing it or anything. OK, maybe a line or two, but that’s it. I’ll go through what I don’t like, but for me, it opens up a far more interesting conversation about the increasing habit of brand packing such as in this or “Ready Player One”. I don’t take to it the way some do, and where that line of tolerance exists for different viewers is really interesting to me.

“Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” was a series I loved as a kid. I was way too young to remember much when I watched it. My memory of it is really just brief impressions. I couldn’t name a specific scene if you asked, so I don’t have nostalgia for it as much as I have curiosity about what it can be.

The animated series followed chipmunks Chip and Dale, riffs on Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I. They start a detective agency together and handle cases brought to them by other animals.

The new movie decides this is all a show the pair are cast in, and decades later the chipmunk actors who played those parts have gone their separate ways. It allows the film to tackle a world of human and animal actors – many of whom are 2D cartoons getting 3D surgery to appear in 3D-animated films. It’s very similar to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in terms of worldbuilding. Dale is still pursuing acting, so he’s gotten the 3D surgery, while Chip is content to work in insurance as the same old 2D version of himself.

They parted on bad terms, but the kidnapping of cartoon actors forces them to work together when their friend Monterey Jack (a mouse actor on “Rescue Rangers”) is kidnapped. The culprits are bootleggers, who redraw the kidnapped cartoon actors into similar but legally distinct characters they can then film in foreign knockoffs.

That’s clever, but “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” always seems to stop at clever. There are few punchlines, just a lot of smart set-up. One scene involves police investigating the crime and telling Chip and Dale they’re at a dead end. It combines 2D, 3D, stop-motion, puppetry, and live-action to some stunning effect. Some of these are emulated through CG rather than being the actual medium, but the scene is a successful meld of influences nonetheless. The problem is that nothing happens in it. The stop-motion detective in charge tells them several times over that he can’t do anything, and then a live-action officer just names the next plot point so they can get to it.

This highlights some big problems in the film. The script is repetitive and feels like a rough draft of concepts that need to be fleshed out with more specific dialogue later. Even a kids film (although this is a pretty adult take on it in places) needs dialogue that at least pretends it’s not the same conversation you’ve heard in a thousand movies before.

All the live-action actors come off as extremely wooden. Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, and Joanna Cassidy were anything but un-emotive in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. A hybrid animation like this is a brilliant excuse to choose certain emotional ranges for live-action characters and play them up. Although it’s a little bit different as a hybrid medium, take a look at any Muppets movie for another example of this approach. That’s completely missing here.

As for the animated characters, Chip and Dale were once a charmingly optimistic and playful odd couple. They’re just downright annoying here. John Mulaney’s fine voice-acting Chip, but Andy Samberg’s Dale comes off as Andy Samberg. He’s a great ensemble player when he has a Chelsea Peretti, Terry Crews, or Cristin Milioti to do the heavy lifting of everything else going on, but I have trouble with him as the central focus. He highlights moments in comedy rather than carrying them the whole way. That’s not a criticism; very few people can do that. It just means that I don’t think he’s used right at all here.

The biggest issue by far is probably the most divisive one. “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” has received a ton of praise for how many character brands it packs into its world. This is what reminds me of Cayce from “Pattern Recognition”. It all starts to feel less like worldbuilding and comedy, and more like an infomercial for unused discount brands.

When Ugly Sonic gets an early monologue about his plight in life, I had mixed thoughts. The human-like CG hedgehog originally advertised in the 2020 “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie was replaced with a more cartoonish version after fan backlash. The original design was no longer in the film, but survived as a meme. Yet his inclusion in this film struck me less as a nod to fans, and more as “we spent a lot of money on that original CG, let’s see if we can make a brand out of him”.

It doesn’t help that the joke centers on his human-like teeth, a major online criticism that resulted in his redesign. Ugly Sonic doesn’t make any jokes or participate in the creation of any joke; the joke is simply “remember that criticism you had once”. The content is just a quick game of Recognize the Memory. There’s a market for that out there, but I guess I’m really not part of it. What I find interesting going forward as we get more and more brand-packed films like this is where that separation occurs.

The opening of the novel “Ready Player One” lists the 1980s obsessions of a billionaire tech celebrity. Exhaustively. It even has footnotes about additional 80s details the initial list doesn’t cover. It’s grueling. It operates off of the idea that rote nostalgia is content, to the point where I found it unreadable. The book was a major hit.

I know I’m not totally alone in this reaction, though. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was widely criticized in 2021 for being a laundry list of Warner Bros. brands shoved into a movie in the hope LeBron James’s presence might reignite interest in one of them. The difference appears to be where that line is for different viewers.

I don’t think most would disagree that “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is one of the most successful approaches to folding disparate sources together into one story. Sure, Miles Morales, Peter B. Parker, and Gwen Stacy live in similar enough universes, but Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir? Kimiko Glen’s mech-operating anime Peni Parker? Spider-Ham? It shouldn’t have worked in a thousand years, but instead…it was funny, endearing, and surprisingly meaningful.

Maybe that dictates where the line gets drawn. An early joke in the “Rescue Rangers” movie is that onetime mouse co-star Gadget has married fly costar Zipper. The pair have had 42 babies, half-mouse, half-fly. I didn’t watch the entire film in one sitting, and this joke is just one example why I initially turned it off. It felt mean-spirited to take a character known primarily as an inventor – even if it’s a cartoon, cartoons can still shape us, and it was probably my first mainstream exposure as a child to the idea that women should be scientific leaders – it certainly made the argument more forcefully than what mainstream content for adults was pushing in the 90s. Yet here she’s reduced to a mother pumping out 42 half-fly babies. That’s the joke. Look at a meaningful message in a kids show about the idea women should lead in STEM, now she’s pumping out 42 babies. I guess it’s hilarious if you’re on the Supreme Court.

The characters feel like throwing a thousand brands at the wall to see which might stick and become profitable, and the jokes feel randomly applied because they’re funny to some in a vaccuum, regardless of the spirit behind them, the context, or whether they fit a character. I found it unwatchable. The movie is a major hit.

Maybe this is my get-off-my-lawn moment; I just didn’t expect it to hit in my 30s. Also, I guess I’d need to own a lawn to tell people to get off it and, you know: housing prices.

I don’t think I have answers for where each of us draws the line between finding something to be an inspired collection of sources vs. a compilation of nostalgia-bait masquerading as whole content. I’m not saying I’m right about where that line is – the whole point is it’s different for each of us. We each have different tolerances for it.

I’m not like Cayce, I’m not skipping dinner out of the nausea of it, but I’m so wary of the brand fire sale that many of these films become. I’m wary of the door that opens up into normalizing movies as dumping grounds for as many brand relaunches as can be packed in. We complain about well-thought out reboots or reinterpretations of a single source, and why doesn’t Hollywood come up with anything original, while we take an hour-and-a-half to invite 40 one-note jokes to compete for our relaunch love. The tension of the movie becomes less about anything on-screen, and more about which disused brand will find its viral moment. Maybe it’ll launch a new streaming Ugly Sonic series.

In a way, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before:

You can watch “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” on Disney+.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Nicolas Cage and the Complexity of Gentleness in “Pig”

“Pig” is a story about the power of gentleness. It’s both sad and soothing. It sees humanity in the isolated, whether living alone in the woods or making deals surrounded by people. It recognizes how something as overpowering as love is stored in our memories so that its loss doesn’t break us day by day. It’s about that dam we create to stop love from overflowing us and to stop loss from overwhelming us, a cruelty and kindness to ourselves in turn.

The most fundamental bait-and-switch about “Pig” is that it stars Nicolas Cage. He plays Rob, a truffle hunter living in the backwoods with a truffle pig. High-end food suppliers prize truffles, and often pay hundreds of dollars an ounce for these mushrooms. A single find can rake in thousands; likewise a pig trained to find them. Rob’s pig is stolen, and he forms an awkward partnership with his slick buyer Amir (Alex Wolff). They head to Portland, Oregon to track down who has his pig.

That may feel like a set-up for a D-grade Nicolas Cage revenge film. I’ve heard “Pig” referred to as “John Wick with Nicolas Cage”, which is so far off-the-mark it feels like it’s intentionally trying to be the least accurate film comparison I’ve ever heard. “Pig” is a meditative drama about the precise intersection where love and memory are hollowed out by toxicity and trauma, seen through the lens of how food evokes memory. It feels much more like a vignette from “Tampopo” writ large.

This is also the best performance I’ve seen Nicolas Cage give. That may seem like faint praise, but let’s remember how remarkable he’s been in films like “Adaptation”, “Leaving Las Vegas”, “Lord of War”, and “Matchstick Men”. He makes a lot of crap, but when he really invests himself, Cage is nearly unparalleled.

I’ll avoid spoilers, but there’s a moment halfway through the film where you can see just how much anger is in his eyes. A physically imposing figure, you truly think Rob will just start pummeling someone into a pulp in front of onlookers. You can see his recognition of that anger, the struggle to quell it, and the exact moment it recedes. It turns into something else. He invokes a memory and uses it to deconstruct the man in front of him with understanding and kindness.

Plenty of films shock with violence and horror, and I love many of them. Yet when we think of films that are gentle, we tend to think of something sappy or – at best – reassuringly wholesome. Some of them are great, but they don’t necessarily shock us. There’s almost nothing out there that shocks us with its moments of gentleness and humanity. Plenty of films are empathetic, though perhaps not as many as there should be. I don’t think there are many that genuinely revere the power of understanding.

“Pig” reveres understanding to the point where it asks us to understand a protagonist who barely wants anything to do with us, an all-but-disowned son who wants nothing to do with him, his cruel and inhumane father, a restaurateur who’s turned his back to his dreams, a man who pays money to beat another, a woman willing to lend aid only because it helps her profit margin.

Writer Vanessa Block and writer-director Michael Sarnoski don’t justify these people. The film doesn’t seek to ennoble them or soften their harshness and harm. All it says is there’s something to understand here, something more than can be understood at first assumption. “Pig” doesn’t even fill in all the blanks, but in its disconnections, it provides evidence. It creates art not out of what we know, but from the shape of the spaces where what we know is missing.

There’s a line from “Doctor Who” I’ve always loved. “When something goes missing, you can always recreate it by the hole it left”. Memory fades and fails us, faces become what we know from photographs rather than the person who looked at us, a line or two of voice you can remember with clarity becomes a monument to years of conversations. It’s a desperate scramble to keep what’s real of someone who’s gone from disappearing. What’s increasingly missing is the shape of that person, and more and more their shape becomes the hole they left. Grief that they aren’t there anymore turns to guilt that you couldn’t maintain their detail in a way that matches reality – as if that’s even possible.

“Pig” not only understands how this transformation of grief to guilt motivates its characters, it offers its characters to us as half-missing shapes. We have to understand them not just by what the film tells us, but by what it specifically doesn’t. We’re asked to see people by what’s there and what isn’t, which is rare both on film and in life. What all of the characters in “Pig” share is their isolation, no matter how many others are around. What’s missing controls lives that can no longer progress and create new space.

The best thing I can say about “Pig” is that it made a part of me feel seen. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a truffle hunter or a hermit. I don’t feel like I can’t progress or create that new space. Yet the last few years have felt incredibly isolating to many people. Overwhelming bigotry, the pandemic, new disasters every day, the concept that we have less and less control by the day. Our culture has incentivized isolation, hatred, and impersonality – brand image, the bottom line, everything’s fine no matter how much of what’s missing needs to be pasted over. It doesn’t matter if it’s real, or kind.

We all have a hole where a culture we believed to be a bit kinder creates a missing shape in us. Even if it never was so kind, we all have a grief that our belief in that kindness is lost, a guilt that no matter how hard we try we can’t seem to get far in reshaping it.

“Pig” is an allegory about the power of gentleness. I just hope it isn’t its eulogy as well. It clarifies that we can’t be gentle until we recognize what isn’t there in others, and can be real about what’s missing that we paste over in ourselves. How can you be kind if you deny that kindness to yourself? How can you be gentle if you don’t understand what gentleness someone else needs?

Kindness is often treated in a reductive way. Sometimes anger is legitimate and justified. Anger at an injustice is kindness. Kindness intersects every other emotion, and I believe in the full emotional set. We’re not short on anger these days. We haven’t forgotten that or pasted it over, nor should we. What we’re encouraged to forget isn’t just kindness and gentleness, however, it’s also the understanding and empathy that lets us recognize how to use them.

That’s not the excessive, performative, infantilized sentimentality that’s attached to kindness across our media; it’s a complex set of adult emotions that is one of the most demanding ways of being to learn. That’s what “Pig” clarifies – how easy it is to forget that, how difficult it is to remember, how necessary it is yet how commonly it’s dismissed.

How strange is it to see a man embody gentleness and believe it, as an actor we know for performing the opposite, in a tale that’s set up to be the opposite, in a way that compels those around him to have to face their own gentleness with a fear of how strange it is to see it after all these years. “Pig” is the best thing Nicolas Cage has done, but if that doesn’t seem like saying much, it’s the best thing most actors could ever hope to do because it’s something we almost never see. It’s something we almost never see on-screen, it’s something we rarely see for others, and it’s something threatened in how we envision ourselves.

You can watch “Pig” on Hulu or see where to rent it.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Man is the Warmest Place to Hide — “Titane”

The following contains spoilers for “Titane”, Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood”, and light spoilers for Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing”.

“Titane” is a stab at the heart of maleness, but not in the way you might expect. As a child, Alexia was in a horrific car accident that required doctors to implant a metal plate in her head. As an adult, she’s a popular model who dances at car shows. She’s also a serial killer who has sex with cars.

After a botched murder, she goes on the run. She decides to disguise herself as someone else in the news. She becomes Adrien, a firefighter’s long lost son who’s been missing for a decade. The heartbroken Vincent accepts her as Adrien and takes her in without question.

I want to note that the pronouns I’m using are intentional. Even though Alexia disguises herself as Adrien, this isn’t a trans role. Adrien is a cover to stop from being found by police; Alexia seems to identify and refer to herself consistently as a woman. She just can’t do that in front of those around her. The opportunity here is the metaphor of a woman training within and having access to masculinity. Obviously, this is a fine line for a story to walk – more on that in a minute.

“Titane” is ratcheted as taut as it can go. Will Alexia be discovered? Surrounded by men at a fire station, is she under threat as a woman? As someone the others perceive as frail, is she under threat as a man? Since she’s a serial killer, are they under threat? Will it matter if she’s discovered? Is she safe from Vincent? Is Vincent safe from her? Is she pregnant with a Cadillac’s baby?

At the same time, “Titane” is also a film about acceptance and the artificial gender-based borders we create to deny it to ourselves and each other.

There’s a scene later in “Titane” where a room full of firemen dance. Alexia – still disguised as Adrien – helps start a mosh pit. It’s an outlet for her violence, the kind of outlet for aggression women are socially denied, but that’s treated as perfectly normal for men. She’s encouraged to the top of a fire engine to dance. At long last, she’s found a place that accepts her, and so she dances as she knows how – as a model at a car show. The dance is feminine, sexual, made to appeal to men. Yet she’s still perceived by those around her as a man, as Adrien.

The discomfort of the firemen who were celebrating her just moments ago grows palpable. They look at each other in disgust, yet don’t exactly turn away. Are the men disgusted at her, or at their own feelings in relation to someone they perceive as male?

Alexia is not allowed in both worlds. This moment of acceptance into a masculine world directly precludes and asks denial of her feminine aspects.

This speaks to two gender-based social denials. Women are denied an approved outlet for things like physical aggression. Men are denied any aspects that can be read as feminine. Both meet rejection and disgust, but are these feelings in reaction to the person who’s expressing these aspects of themselves – or are they really a projection on the part of the observer? Is it so ingrained in them to reject these aspects of themselves that witnessing them in another triggers a trained, kneejerk self-disgust? We know that inward self-rejection then translates to outward hostility.

“Titane” is a film that maintains a reality and tension while also making me turn other films over in my head. Writer-director Julia Ducournau’s themes in “Titane” parallel the work of another French writer-director, Celine Sciamma. In many of Sciamma’s films, there are underlying comparisons of how men and women treat camaraderie, acceptance, and their sense of self.

The opening of Sciamma’s “Girlhood” features her characters in a football game (American football). They’re physical, tackling, and they combine the feminine camaraderie with this physical, violent game. The game never literally happens in the movie. It’s a metaphor, but it has every bearing on the girls’ existence. They can be themselves, they can be aggressive and physically dominant without shame. They have their own space to express these aspects of themselves. In the very next scene, they walk in groups at night to protect themselves from the harassment of groups of boys.

“Girlhood” tracks Marieme as she becomes Vic. By the end of the film, she’s embraced genderfluid traits: glamourizing her presentation as a woman for the jobs she can get, and binding her breasts and presenting herself with male traits in her private life. The film doesn’t reach the point of a transition, and who knows if that was further on Vic’s path.

In many ways, it treats masculinity as a way out for women. Sciamma manages both lines of thought well in “Girlhood”. Access to masculinity grants safety and privilege to Vic that she doesn’t have when she’s perceived as feminine. At the same time, this also informs Vic’s own story in discovering who she is.

“Titane” engages the first, but not the second. Alexia is hiding out by disguising herself as a man, but there’s no suggestion that she’s becoming more genderfluid or transitioning. Her cover as a man is a necessity of the plot and its metaphor. As I mentioned, she personally maintains her identity as a woman and as Alexia throughout. She just has to hide this out of circumstance.

Needless to say, this can be problematic. Unfortunately, as a film that’s part body horror, aspects like binding are presented in a way that play to that genre. While it’s not the focus of “Titane”, it still engages in some negative and harmful trans tropes. There’s a line that could’ve been walked more finely.

I’ve read work now that argues on both sides of the intersection “Titane” makes with genderfluidity and trans tropes. Alexia’s character comments on the roles one has to play to be accepted within masculinity, and the outlets that masculinity offers men but denies women. Despite this not being a trans role, criticism that this engages negative trans tropes is legitimate. I think “Titane” can be an incredible commentary on the need to accept genderfluidity, and a successful criticism on the unhealthy restrictions of strict gender roles, while also having some issues that could’ve been handled better.

In terms of the performances, Agathe Rousselle as Alexia and Vincent Lindon as Vincent are both remarkable. They play masculine roles from opposite directions of compensation, and in so doing reveal masculinity itself as a fundamentally compensatory projection. That there were no Oscar nominations for “Titane” is a disappointment, but perhaps not surprising.

“Titane” may exist more as something to think about after the fact than as an experience that can be digested during its viewing. I find that it takes up residence alongside some of my favorite films, and ones that all engage gender dynamics and ingrained cultural violence – albeit in very different ways. Aside from Sciamma’s work, “Titane” also recalls Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow”, which engages colonialism and generational trauma from a perspective that’s similar, though through a sense of magical realism instead of body horror.

More directly, Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” follows a similar premise of a serial killer finding a place to become more human. Like “Titane”, there are questions as to whether this is done out of empathy, or finally finding a place of safety that allows her to know herself better. They take these concepts into different places and the reality of that safety is opposite in each, but they offer a perspective on some of the same questions.

Perhaps most unexpectedly, “Titane” makes me reflect on John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. In college, I found a book that analyzed “The Thing” as a parable for man’s fear of the feminine. I remember thinking it was silly when I read it. It’s one of my favorite films and I thought I knew what it meant, but the more I’ve thought about it since, the more I’ve realized it’s entirely accurate. I’ve searched for the book since, but I can’t even track down its name. It may’ve been a student thesis that was never officially published.

Regardless, “The Thing” works as an almost direct inversion of “Titane”, similar to seeing the movie from the perspective of the firemen watching Alexia dance as Adrien. “The Thing” is most fun when taken literally, but thinking of it metaphorically, it mirrors how men view the feminine in themselves. It’s a hostile threat that produces fear of being taken over, met by men who question each other and doubt each other’s masculine wholeness. It takes you over without your even realizing. The Thing itself often takes shape as a sort of vagina dentata in appearance, likening the loss of self to a castration of its cast of exceptionally manly men. Unlike the more phallic horrors of the time, it doesn’t stab or pierce or penetrate but rather absorbs and envelops. A number of analyses have been done on “The Thing” from this perspective (Tracy Moore’s rundown at Mel Magazine is a good starter).

Reflecting on these other films and their engagement with gender boundaries is my door into describing “Titane” as clarifying. It adds perspective. As taut as it is, as good as the performances are, as stunning as its visuals are, it’s one of the most unfilm-films I’ve seen. This is because it’s not really about what’s happening on screen as much as it’s about what’s happening in each of us as we watch it. I’ve mentioned this about some films before, but I think “Titane” takes it even further.

What connections do we make to “Titane” from other works of art, what questions does it spur, how does it make us look back on our discomforts and whether we’ve come away from them? The most remarkable feat of “Titane” is that the line between what it projects into us and what we project onto it isn’t a boundary. It’s a thread, the same each way. As a mirror for our projections about gender dynamics, what it ultimately clarifies to us are our own personal fables, fears, perhaps even lies – those projections we take into our lives because we decline to understand or confront where they take root in each of us.

For all its tension and body horror, “Titane” asks if our projection of who we are has enough empathy for who we really are to dismantle itself. Of course, it can’t give an answer on our behalf. All it can do is get those two pieces in the same room together. The rest is up to us.

You can watch “Titane” on Hulu, or see where to rent it.

If you find articles like these important to you, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

Our Portable Realities of Grief — “The Sky is Everywhere”

I hated “The Sky is Everywhere” until I loved it. I wanted to turn it off 20 minutes in because it was overwritten. In turn, that asks a degree of overacting to deliver it correctly. There’s so little grounding in the moment-to-moment of its opening act. What changed? Me. Stay with the film and begin to match its rhythm and pace, and it’s immensely rewarding.

I’ll give you one very early example to show what I mean: Lennie has lost her sister Bailey very suddenly. It’s her first day back at school in two months. She’s challenged for first chair clarinet. The music teacher says it’s inappropriate given the circumstances, but Lennie accepts. Setting aside that her challenger is played like a cartoon villain all but twirling a mustache, let’s just go with it.

The challenge is blind – the two girls play from behind a curtain. The challenger plays…all right, it’s not great, and the class waits for Lennie to play. When the curtain drops, it’s revealed she’s run out of the room and into the woods. The music teacher awards first chair to the challenger as a forfeit, instead of – I don’t know, saying that it’s clearly not the right time and they can run a challenge at a later date. At this point, the film is less about Lennie and more about what teacher in their right mind would go through with this.

The solution is, of course, to send another student running out of school into the woods – and not to bring her back to school, but to play guitar for her in the woods, and at this point I’m less concerned with Lennie’s grief than I am with when this dude is getting fired because he has no business being a teacher, let alone one who apparently has multiple students trying out for Juilliard because I guess the school is that good at music despite stuffing its 20-piece ensemble into a room that barely fits it.

What happens plotwise in this sequence is easy to understand, and yet nothing in it makes the slightest amount of practical sense. That’d be fine if it was the flight of symbolism “The Sky is Everywhere” makes its bread and butter. I love its departures into dance, set deconstruction, and touches of animation, but this is the plot part that’s supposed to sustain those flights. We’re made to understand that these events happen – perhaps with some added flair and style – but that they essentially happen as we’re shown.

At this point, I felt like the movie was forcing its premise to be secondary to its quirky affectations, rather than letting anything evolve naturally. And yet…. “The Sky is Everywhere” isn’t just overwritten and (perhaps) overacted, it’s also overdirected, and when something has gone that far over in so many ways, sometimes you wonder why the hell you haven’t, too.

“The Sky is Everywhere” is overdirected by Josephine Decker in the way that Michel Gondry, Julie Taymor, Baz Luhrmann, or Jean-Pierre Jeunet overdirect, which is to say that it’s directed exactly the way it needs to be, and if anyone else had directed it any other way, it would be woefully underdirected.

The film mentions “Wuthering Heights” every other scene for its first half, which quickly had me thinking, “I get it already”. It’s all Lennie reads because in mourning her sister she identifies with the characters and their obsession with misery. I was sick of the movie reminding me how much Lennie loves “Wuthering Heights” when I was also reminded five and 10 and 20 minutes ago.

But here’s the key point: I was being an idiot. Imagine watching Baz Lurhmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” and thinking it’s odd everyone’s talking like Shakespeare wrote them. Of course he wrote them, it’s “Romeo + Juliet”. Yet “Wuthering Heights” isn’t as immediately recognizable a cultural touchstone as Shakespeare is, my last Bronte kick was years ago, and “The Sky is Everywhere” is influenced by it rather than being a straight adaptation. Where Lurhmann doesn’t really need to remind anyone, “Hey, watch this like you’re watching Shakespeare” even once, “The Sky is Everywhere” apparently really did need to remind me five or six times, “Hey, watch this like you’re reading Emily Bronte”.

When I started reading the film as “Wuthering Heights”, or at least from the emotional standpoint of a gothic romance, it was like a key opening a lock. I really did need the film to remind me several times before it dawned on me to listen.

Once you turn that key and the lock falls open, an entire emotional reality comes pouring out of “The Sky is Everywhere”. It’s filled with beautiful sequences that bring emotion alive through fantastical production, choreographed dance, and a host of scenes that exist as metaphors. That incredibly self-focused, overwhelmingly internal, streaming monologue that had struck me as overwritten is the foundation for gothic romance. When I started viewing the film with that in mind, I recognized that what I had viewed as shoving the foundation aside actually was the foundation.

It does help that the supporting roles eventually get more time to develop past their heavily quirk-forward introductions. Cherry Jones, Jason Segel, Jacques Colimon, Pico Alexander, Ji-young Yoo, and Havana Rose Liu are all very good, once they’re given space to flesh out their characters.

Through it all, Grace Kaufman gives a superb performance as Lennie. This is the second time in recent weeks a Gen Z actress has delivered a rangy, realistic portrayal of grief. While Jenna Ortega in “The Fallout” concerns very different subject matter, there is something that’s resonant and modern in both their portrayals of grief that we typically haven’t seen before.

I’d suggest the reason for this is casting teenagers as teenagers, instead of casting people in their late-20s. Different generations process grief differently, especially as that processing is shaped by a world that introduces new grief on a daily basis, but also seems able to connect and communicate grief more openly than before. This allows a more accurate and relatable portrayal of grief that’s fit for the 2020s instead of the 2000s. Because of their subject matter, these two films take very different conclusions from grief, but they’re both real, accessible, timely, and they help create films that will still be relevant and speak to us a decade from now.

There’s another work that “The Sky is Everywhere” brings to mind, and this may be more personal. “What Remains of Edith Finch” is a video game that’s similarly almost overbearingly quirk-forward. Once you’re able to crest that, it uses its design and a very particular literary tone to reel you in. Because you’re expecting metaphor to come alive, you also expect a contrast that highlights it. When that contrasting foundation itself is so stylized and metaphorical, you can feel unmoored – as if the film or game can’t decide on its own tone. Yet the more you watch or play, the more you sync up to that tone and understand the movable foundation it uses – a kind of emotional reality as foundation rather than a plot-centered one.

That difference is huge because one of those foundations is inherently shifting and subjective, while the other is concrete and, from a story’s perspective, not just objective but omniscient. The former enables those stylistic, metaphorical flights to go even further, but because you’re being asked to see an entire world subjectively through a character’s eyes – instead of seeing that character in a steady world through omniscient eyes – there’s a much higher suspension of disbelief when it comes to plot and world detail.

That asks a greater level of trust be given over to a director, without knowing whether they’ll come through on it. Like “What Remains of Edith Finch”, that unmoored foundation means you have to sync up well enough with “The Sky is Everywhere” to be swept off at the same pace. If you can, it really does deliver and it does things a more tethered movie never could. At the same time, some viewers may not be able to or may not be interested in doing that.

I compare “The Sky is Everywhere” to “What Remains of Edith Finch” because they both ask you to inhabit emotional realities that shape the world around you, that shape other people’s stories. They don’t just present a situation or character going through grief, they ask you to be a part of coping with that grief and see the world from the perspective of the grief-stricken. Reality isn’t reality. Every emotion is supersaturated, idealized and romanticized until it’s rejected, the world takes the shape of your perception. It’s not so much that “The Sky is Everywhere” can’t find it’s tone or sense of reality initially, it’s that the concrete foundation we’re so used to stories providing us isn’t there from the start. Most films about grief give us that anchor, but like “What Remains of Edith Finch”, “The Sky is Everywhere” doesn’t want us to have it. To embody grief, we cannot have it, or else we would have an out from that embodiment.

We start from a place where reality is already gone, suffused in this case with gothic romance and monologues that are overwritten until you start feeling them instead of analyzing them. It’s beautiful once you can get close enough to where it’s coming from, but trekking that far out is difficult and not what everyone wants out of a film like this.

Even loving it, I still have criticisms of “The Sky is Everywhere”. The characters are initially defined by such an overwhelming level of quirk that it’s hard to read any of their relationships beyond this. Without enough of anything else, they can come off as creepy in place of caring from time to time. This means getting to know them later places them at a deficit that doesn’t feel intended.

Dialogue scenes where the characters struggle to put shape to their grief are brilliantly done, but it takes about 25 minutes to get to a single one of them. Plot aspects like whether Lennie will get into Juilliard, which are so central in the film’s opening act, become somewhat forgotten later. Of course, this becomes less important to Lennie, but I do think the film focuses a bit too much on some practical initial stakes to get you invested when it’s not really about those stakes. The opening act gives us those stakes and descriptions of grief, but it fails to let us see a character interacting at length with the film’s focus on grief until it’s shifting us into that second act. It’s important we know these details, but they shouldn’t dominate the film’s opening to the exclusion of everything else.

All that said, if you can ride out that opening act and get that key to click for you in terms of its gothic romantic storytelling, “The Sky is Everywhere” is a gorgeous, beautifully designed, well-conceived film with a strong central performance. If it never clicks for you, that’s understandable – its storytelling approach will lack enough of an anchor for many. If it drives enough curiosity to see what it wants to show you next, “The Sky is Everywhere” can ultimately be extremely rewarding.

It’s a challenging film, perhaps even off-putting, but if you can sync up with its sense of metaphors springing off the back of a metaphorical reality, it has a lot to say that’s worth hearing.

You can watch “The Sky is Everywhere” on Apple TV.

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“Nightmare Alley” is a Trip Through the American Conscience

Do you know what the “cinema of excess” is? Izzy Black once highlighted “The Wolf of Wall Street” as exemplary of a surging cinema of materialism, one that presents the excesses of its characters but declines to either glamorize or judge them. This cinematic movement includes “The Bling Ring”, “Spring Breakers”, “The Counselor”, “The Great Gatsby”, and “Pain and Gain”.

All of these are ironic films, but none of them are satire. Their characters, after all, are in on the joke – often, they’re the ones perpetuating it. As Black says, “The self-aware materialists in these new films do not undergo moral crisis or great suffering for their actions and behavior…there isn’t a secret unhappiness and disaffection lurking beneath the surface as suggested in ‘American Psycho’ or ‘Fight Club’. It’s all just a big joke, and they own it”.

In other words, there’s no catharsis. There’s no moral lesson. Characters willingly enact and enable harm according to a late capitalist system. They subscribe to a false consciousness, but they’re very aware that it’s false. They believe and perpetuate what’s false because they’re particularly good at exploiting it.

“Nightmare Alley” is not cinema of excess exactly, but it feels coupled to that genre. Guillermo del Toro’s directed a photo negative of it. A photo negative isn’t the opposite. It’s the same picture, with the parts that are normally in shadow highlighted. Or put another way, if the cinema of excess is carved out of something larger, “Nightmare Alley” is the remaining block of wood that suggests its shape.

Bradley Cooper is brilliant playing Stan Carlisle, a man who’s urgently left his life behind. He’s not on the run, but neither does he want to be found. He gets work at a traveling carnival in the late 1930s. He ingratiates himself with a few of its members, and starts learning mentalism. Its tricks include cold reads, guessing hidden objects, speaking to the dead. He has his eye on a performer, Rooney Mara’s Molly, and he dreams of running off with her to start their own show.

Past the premise, I won’t say much. What strikes most about “Nightmare Alley” is how it paints a picture of the United States through plot, dialogue, character, and symbolism: imprisonment, slavery, complicity, health care, abortion rights, lynching, gun psychology, all of it is reckoned with or commented on in what might be the best screenplay del Toro’s ever worked with – one he co-wrote with critic Kim Morgan.

The film is thick with symbolic detail, and later characters played by Cate Blanchett and Richard Jenkins read as avenging angel and devil…of a sort. Del Toro’s never been short on symbolism, but there are elements that can fasten into your mind much more stubbornly than a lot of his work. I think this is because the horror he creates is so instantly recognizable. Ghosts and monsters aren’t usually as horrible as the people in del Toro’s worlds. They’re a kind of solace, representing ways of communicating we’re only afraid of because other people teach us to be afraid of them.

What happens when you remove the monsters then? What happens when the ghosts no longer ask us to reckon with our sins? What’s left when it’s just the people, constantly teaching us fear? For all his style and the removed nature of the 1930s-40s period, what we’re dealing with in “Nightmare Alley” is instantly familiar as a horror we live inside. And we don’t just live inside it, we maintain it and teach it to others.

Through it all runs dialogue between the con artists about how willingly people give themselves up to this, wanting to believe, selling their lifetime of earned knowledge for a moment of feeling…not even good. They’ll sell it for feeling less lonely. They’ll sell it for a lie that their sins don’t even need to be excused because they’re not even worth remembering. “Nightmare Alley” reads as a trip through the American conscience.

While it looks beautiful, “Nightmare Alley” may actually be del Toro’s most toned-down film. Thick as its symbolism is, what actually happens is surprisingly matter-of-fact in its delivery. There are stylistic flourishes aplenty, but they’re necessarily grounded in a presentation that requires less of del Toro’s trademark fantasy in exchange for an unsentimental eye.

This is why I call on the cinema of excess as a comparison. “Nightmare Alley” has consequences, as much of the genre does, but most of its story happens outside the focused range of the excess genre. What it shares is that lack of catharsis, the lack of glamorization, condemnation, or any kind of judgment. What happens…happens. Even if a character here or there gets what they deserve, there’s no satisfaction to this. The system they abused keeps grinding on.

If a photo negative is the same picture highlighted differently, rather than the exact opposite of that picture, then what is that direct opposite? What is the opposite of “Nightmare Alley”? Where can we find it? We don’t even have to leave del Toro’s career to do so.

Del Toro once put the audience in a position where we had no choice but to believe in fantasy. The alternative was too horrible, too inhumane, and so we sat there as an audience when “Pan’s Labyrinth” came to a close, and we each one of us silently made the decision – as individuals and as a community – to hope. To be whole in ourselves, to choose kindness, we had to decide that the fantasy was real.

“Nightmare Alley” is del Toro’s most horrific film, which is a funny thing to say for a film that isn’t trying to be scary coming from the world’s most famous horror director. And yet…as it comes to a close, we each have to make the decision as to whether we participate in a very different kind of fantasy: the complicity and perpetuation we turn back to after the credits have run. The fantasy it highlights, the very real photo negative of the world we live in, is one that stops us from being whole, that trains us to be oblivious to kindness, or even to abuse it.

“Nightmare Alley” asks us to make no choice we haven’t already made. It just makes clear who we are for making it.

You can watch “Nightmare Alley” on HBO Max or Hulu.

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Like There’s Nothing Going Wrong — “The Fallout”

The Oxford High School shooting was two months ago. Who remembers it? How much was it talked about in the week following, when the shooter’s parents went on the run and were caught days later? How little have we talked of it, thought of it, even remembered it since then? Four died, seven were injured, and hundreds were traumatized at the hands of a 15 year-old with a semi-automatic handgun.

How quickly does each new school shooting disappear in our minds? How normal has this become, that we nod our heads and move to another day? If there’s one thing “The Fallout” makes me feel, it’s a hollowing dissonance. I remember how gutted I felt when the Columbine High School massacre happened. I was a kid. It had never occurred to me something like that was possible. I remember how the last…dozen…two dozen…more…school shootings have made me feel as they roll across the news – some echo of that original feeling. The right response, but tempered, fine-tuned so I could continue with my day. What was once a national tragedy that halted the nation is now factored into the everyday cost of education.

How do the children who survive this walk back into a world that doesn’t seem to give a shit, that wants to fix it, but has successfully numbed themselves from thinking it’s possible?

Let’s back up. “The Fallout” follows Vada, a student who hides in the bathroom with Mia during a gun massacre at their high school. The story here isn’t the shooting itself. That scene is brief, but searing. It’s not carried by an action sequence or whirling cinematography, but simply by Jenna Ortega’s Vada, Maddie Ziegler’s Mia, and an unflinching use of sound effects. It’s not a scene about two people hiding. It’s a scene about two children believing they’re going to die.

Past that 10-minute mark, “The Fallout” is simply about the aftermath. It’s about Vada’s journey into a trauma that will never fully leave her. Ortega gives one of the most natural performances I can remember seeing. There’s a fusion between her performance and Megan Park’s writing and directing that carries the film through complex territory.

Movies tend not to handle code-switching very well. Vada is nothing but code-switching, driven by anxieties to make those around her – parents, friends, a therapist – feel like she’s fine even when she’s not. This is complicated by being Latina and white, having a Latina parent and a white one, by being a girl in situations where she can talk freely and situations where she has to perform a certain social role, by being a perfect student and her little sister’s hero and a good friend and someone who can’t be any of those things anymore and desperately needs to act on her own impulses. Very rarely are any of these explicitly called out, but the writing and performance are thick with conveying how Vada’s code-switching deflects concern. I’ve…maybe never seen this handled so deftly, clearly, and naturally.

Most of the film is carried by Ortega – it’s remarkable how close we stick to her – but as Mia, Ziegler excels in what may be her first role that’s centered more on acting than dance. The cast is good all the way through, and actors like Niles Fitch, Will Ropp, Lumi Pollack, John Ortiz, Julie Bowen, and Shailene Woodley all get their moments to…I’d say their moments to shine, but really it’s their moments to come across human, which is so much more important.

“The Fallout” engages in a type of code-switching, too, alternating between more natural and cinematic sequences. There’s a pace to this that can feel like the film’s desperately trying to breathe. There’s a rhythm of tension and collapse that reflects Vada’s own struggle between meeting expectations and not wanting to participate in those expectations any more. We get the sense that the closer Vada is to Mia, the more cinematic the film becomes, but it’s not about that. It’s about Vada’s sense of control over her environment.

“The Fallout” is such a human and understanding character piece that to delve too much into what happens would be to cheapen something that’s more complex than some description could manage. I’d rather delve into what makes “The Fallout” so staggeringly special. Just go with me on the initial metaphor for a minute:

The Ship of Theseus is a philosophical question that asks what happens when a ship is kept in harbor as a museum piece. Over the years, some wood becomes worn and needs to be replaced. Other old parts wear and also need to be replaced. At a certain point, every original part of the ship will have been replaced. Is this still the original ship? What if all the original, worn pieces are reassembled on their own? If the piece-by-piece reconstruction is still the original ship, then what is the new ship that’s constructed of the original parts?

I ask this because trauma can re-write pieces of people. They’re still themselves, but in a way that changes their perspective on who they can be and their place in the world around them, on what ideas like safety and trust are. Enough trauma, over time or all at once, and the perspective they once had is replaced with one they may not recognize and can’t fuse to who they once believed they were.

Trauma applied systemically to a people, a race, a gender, an orientation, a generation…it’s allowed to happen for various reasons. Usually, it’s because it’s profitable to someone – here the gun industry, a militarized policing industry that chews through public money, and politicians who block even the mildest attempts at reform. The shock of that repeated trauma – school gun massacres nearly every week – means that shock is now the norm. What was once shocking is made normal so we can get by. That requires our being given some answer, some reality, that justifies this as normal. A reality that accepts this as normal is inherently not the right one, and so we’re willing to accept in it relationships of profit and power that we otherwise would also recognize as wrong.

As Naomi Klein writes in “The Shock Doctrine”, a person trying to make sense of an ongoing, repeated trauma will more readily accept a new norm, regardless of whether they believe it’s true or even think it’s healthy for them. Having an answer to make sense of what they don’t recognize becomes more important than having the right answer. We live in a country where one party (the Republicans) practices disaster capitalism as their central tenet. They may not have directly prompted the disaster, but if the disaster becomes the new norm, that sure is a lot of capitalism to draw out of it.

Ongoing disasters create a state of fungible reality. People constantly in a state of disaster are constantly in search of an answer, regardless of whether it’s the right one. School shootings? Conditions where they’re the norm are maintained. A pandemic? Mishandle it for the first year and create doubt for real answers like masks and vaccines, while replacing them with fake answers like bleach and horse dewormer until it becomes an ongoing endemic. The Trump administration looked the other way on hate crimes, actively sabotaged and gutted the United States Postal Service, the IRS, the EPA, and made a demented joke out of the judicial branch – not because it was an incompetent administration, but because it was extremely competent at its primary goal: creating as many ongoing disasters as possible, to create a political reality where any answer would do, regardless of whether it’s right.

What does this have to do with “The Fallout”? This is a film that intrinsically understands in its writing, directing, and performances the dissonance of a generation being raised under these conditions, in the midst of ongoing disasters, in the aftermath of one particular one, in its systemic repetition, in the helplessness of a generation looking to understand reality as every child growing up does…but now housed inside a culture where that reality is a shifting, inconsistent, and unimportant fucking mess.

In “The Fallout”, Vada is a Ship of Theseus, trying to recognize all these parts of herself that have been replaced, re-written, denying what she once found solace in as she desperately tries to create some meaning that provides her an answer, regardless of whether it’s the right one.

A person, a generation, a whole culture can be made into a Ship of Theseus, too. Enough shock, enough dulling to the shock at its repetition, enough dulling to make the shock feel normal, enough normal to make the shock expected, unchanging, a part of everyday life, and school shootings go from a national shattering that lasts years to an expected cost of education forgotten the next week.

“The Fallout” is an hour and 32 minutes. That’s relatively brief. It felt more packed, relatable, and consequential than many three hour films. I wanted it to keep going because at least in the film there’s a promise of some change, some healing, some movie magic that’s ingrained in us to hope even if it’s not really that kind of movie. But it ended, and I’m in the United States. What was once ingrained in me to hope…I’m not so sure what it’s been replaced with. “The Fallout” is a great American movie.

You can watch “The Fallout” on HBO Max.

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A Difference, but Not a Departure — “Eternals”

I like “Eternals” because it’s different. I might be more critical if it were part of another franchise, but the MCU desperately needs entries that are different. That may seem like a strange claim after the last year of fresh choices Marvel has made, but after 27 movies and 17 series, that renewed creativity can feel as much like a survival mechanism as an artistic choice. Too many of these still boil down to fistfights and fireballs. I once thought I could never get enough of those two things, but the MCU can hit the repeat button too often.

This may be one of the factors that informs whether you like “Eternals” or not. Do you want something different out of the MCU? If the answer’s yes, then this may be the place to find it. If the answer’s no, you may find “Eternals” shifts too many of the narrative priorities you’re seeking, or even tackles too many at once.

The film follows 10 alien superheroes called Eternals. They’re sent by a Celestial (a member of an ancient race) to protect Earth from Deviants, a species that feeds on sentient life. Thankfully, that’s where the homework ends. In almost all ways, the story of “Eternals” happens separately from anything having to do with the Avengers and pre-existing MCU properties. That means you can watch and understand the film without having to know the interpersonal drama of two dozen brand names.

The Eternals spend thousands of years helping humanity to advance and protecting us from Deviants, eventually wiping out Deviant presence on the planet. Without a mission the last few hundred years, they’ve gone to separate corners of the world to live. Some choose quiet, unassuming lives, others become celebrity dynasties. Some take part in society, others isolate themselves from it. That is – until a surviving Deviant attacks two of them in London.

Now the Eternals have to get the old team back together, all while unraveling a deeper mystery as to their own purpose. This last part is really the film’s core. “Eternals” has action, but at its heart it’s a conversation between these characters about whether they should fulfill a divine purpose or use their personal morality to determine their own. The contrast between the never-changing Eternals and the always-adapting Deviants highlights this.

Director and co-writer Chloe Zhao has spoken about how “Eternals” engages Taoist concepts, and in many ways the film acts as a conversation between Taoism and Buddhism. Do the Eternals trust in the path of the universe they’ve been assigned, or do they treat what they find as an opportunity for rebirth? Can these things co-exist? Can the answers be different for different characters? Both ethical and unethical decisions are shown being made out of logic, and both are shown being made out of emotion.

OMG, what’s this all doing in an MCU film? Please. Captain America is half-Jesus allegory, half a season of “Daredevil” takes place in the Confessional, and Kenneth Branagh got a cool $150 million to make Henry IV, Part 1 but with more capes. Every infusion of meaning has been a good one, so let’s not be upset something non-Western finally makes the cut.

There’s also an underlying conversation happening between feminism and toxic masculinity here. Free of their mission for hundreds of years, how have the Eternals chosen to fill that void of purpose? One chooses empathy and community. One focuses their connection to humanity on only their partner, one social link who now bears all their emotional burdens and processing for them.

Does the nature of this change when someone focuses on another by choosing sacrifice and care; rather than expecting sacrifice and care be provided them from someone else as a burden? It’s not the focus of the film, but it guides characters’ motivations in important ways.

This range of perspectives makes for a unique and intriguing personal dynamic, especially in a film featuring Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Ma Dong-seok, and more.

I’ve seen these concepts engaged more complexly, but certainly not in a superhero movie. “Eternals” has some of the most interesting conversations because it sets aside many of the MCU’s cliches. The witty banter was great for the first 30+ projects, but it’s become awfully plug-and-play. For instance: I really enjoyed “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and what it had to say, but the Sam-Bucky back-and-forth felt awfully similar to Steve Rogers-Tony Stark, Thor-Loki, Natasha-Clint, Doctor Strange-Spidey, the list goes on.

There’s a mix here of that banter alongside more deliberate jokes, a splash of prop humor, and Jolie delivering superb one-liners. Not all of it works, but all of it does help “Eternals” establish its own space instead of feeling like the Avengers rehash it could have been.

It also might be the most beautiful MCU film. Its storytelling hops around history to fill in backstories and realizations, and fuses together a history of sci-fi imagery. Zhao draws from Golden Age sci-fi, 60s B-movie, 80s horror, today’s superhero cinema, and anime. The result is pretty cohesive.

I liked the action because each Eternal has one or two superpowers and is otherwise pretty limited. They have to function as a team. When they don’t, they fail. The tension of the action scenes is less about whether they can out-punch the Deviant and more about whether they can agree on tactics when they’re otherwise not communicating well. That echoes the core conflict at the center of the film and allows these disagreements to be communicated by the action itself, without the traditional in-suit cutaways of heroes pausing fights for a debate. It also enables the action to help tell the story, rather than waiting until the set-piece is done.

Even if I thought a few of the powers are kind of silly, it still makes the action scenes smoother and better-paced when they’re chiefly about action instead of bickering. More importantly, it grounds me in the consequences of that moment.

Some of the Avengers team choreography feels like it’s made to be an impressive visual, and it succeeds at that. Because it succeeds so well at that, I’m rarely concerned about whether the Avengers will out-rocket, out-punch, and out-magic their foes. Hell, they’re doing so well they can pause for multiple team photos; they’ll get there in the end.

In the “Eternals”, we get an ebb and flow of messy vs. controlled, interspersed with one character’s ability to transform objects in ways that become a sort of fighting by way of magical realism. It’s a cool blend, albeit one that requires more suspension of disbelief. We know how rockets and shields and punching hard works. We don’t so much know how turning a bus into flower petals does.

There are also visual moments influenced by French cartoonist Moebius, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, the Wachowski sisters, Kenji Misumi, and – my personal favorite – a gorgeous homage to one of John Carpenter’s most shocking creations. This is melded within Zhao’s own meditative style, a patient and incisive visual approach that recalls Terrence Malick, Byambasuren Davaa, and Zhang Yimou.

All this put together should make “Eternals” the best film in the MCU. In some ways, it may be, but there’s also a sense that it needed to pull even further away than it has to truly become what it wanted to be. It can feel like a large number of priorities mashed together at times, and that can sabotage pace. “Eternals” is two hours and 37 minutes. What could it have been as a three hour-and-ten minute meditation? That might test an audience’s patience, but so does a film that doesn’t entirely get where it wants to go.

At some point, much like its Hal Hartley-meets-Wong Kar Wai styled Netflix shows once did – and some of its Disney+ series start to before getting scared – the MCU’s got to deliver something that’s truly of another genre and approach. “Eternals” is maybe 70% of the way. It’s a different take on the MCU aesthetic and narrative philosophy, and that’s what I love about it most. Yet what the MCU needs a film like this to be is a complete departure from the aesthetic and narrative philosophy that can still exist within that cinematic universe.

The differences in “Eternals” are its strengths, but those strengths can also feel like a limitation’s been put on them. It feels like there’s an MCU ceiling of “this is how different you can make it, but no more”, regardless of whether that’s a studio decision or Zhao’s own. The result is a film I like and place among the better MCU movies but stop short of putting in that elite few. Nonetheless, it’s one I may be more interested in revisiting than a “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, simply because “Eternals” hasn’t had a dozen semi-faded copies of it made yet.

You can watch “Eternals” on Disney+.

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The Clinical and the Expressive — “The Unforgivable”

“The Unforgivable” has a lot of plot to sell you – even more than I think is wise. That doesn’t change the fact that it does so exquisitely. Based on a British series from 2009, “The Unforgivable” stars Sandra Bullock as Ruth Slater. She’s just been released early from prison, after serving 20 years of her sentence for the murder of a police officer. Ruth tries to jump-start a new life while tracking down her sister Katie, who was five when Ruth was arrested.

This is the bare premise for what follows. I went in expecting an examination of the experience of an ex-con trying to rebuild her life and reconnect with family. The ex-con and family legal drama genres are there, but the scope of “The Unforgivable” expands well beyond that. It reaches into an investigation of trauma and sacrifice, but also into the bounds of thriller.

Director Nora Fingscheidt helmed one of the best films of 2020, “System Crasher”. That film followed a young girl with rage issues who had exhausted every resource the social system had to care for her. She became a danger within group homes and with foster families alike, so she was shunted from one place to another. As each reached its limit and passed her on, she became unable to form permanent or stable bonds.

Despite the narrative being very linear, Fingscheidt tells that film in a dual manner. She has command of a documentarian, clinical approach to depicting systems. She meets this with an eye for sensory expression: departures through visuals and syncopation in editing that draw us extremely close to the kind of protagonist we might not otherwise seek out.

That’s on show in “The Unforgivable” as well. The system Ruth navigates is bluntly, clinically depicted. As the audience, we see that story in order, but her experience within all this is a jumble of memories, tensions, and anticipations introduced out of order. In this way, Fingscheidt delivers a linear narrative and a nonlinear emotional experience.

This is merged with an incredibly internalized performance by Bullock. There are moments of explosion and outburst, sure, but for the most part Ruth is contents under pressure. The tension in the film isn’t about seeing her burst, it’s about wondering how she hasn’t yet. The tumultuous moments are well acted, but it’s all those other moments of emotional suppression that define the film.

Bullock has a rare ability to carry movies almost single-handedly (just see “Gravity”). Here, she’s constantly surrounded by people, but her performance feels no less isolated or desperate. It’s among her best performances, if not her best work altogether.

The film’s written well in terms of its moment-to-moment dialogue. It carries multiple threads efficiently. As for the direction the plot takes, it can feel like a ride that jerks you back and forth a few times too many. The amount of cushion for this is going to vary by viewer. A subplot about the children of the police officer Ruth killed – now grown up and seeking revenge – feels like it visits from a less realistic universe.

In the hands of a lesser director, or lesser actors, the number of left turn additions would collapse the whole thing. Yet Bullock is joined by Jon Bernthal, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rob Morgan, and Aisling Franciosi, among an even larger ensemble cast that more than pulls its weight.

Every revelation too far or late genre shift too many is so perfectly anchored by the performances and filmmaking that I was willing to go along. Pushing around suspension of disbelief as you go is a tricky maneuver, but there’s such an ample well of talent on tap that tension and motivation are pretty well maintained. The intrigue to know what happens next, and how it’s acted and told, outpaces the deluge of plot development.

I did find myself questioning whether these extra shifts were really needed, but I think the film ultimately pulls them off. The initial pitch can seem like “Maid” without the (admittedly well-done) sentimentality, especially when talking about the contrast between an uncaring systemic experience and the personal emotional experience. I don’t think this comparison lasts long, though.

“The Unforgivable” reminds me of a very different genre that nonetheless uses a similar narrative structure. We don’t have to look further than Ben Affleck’s early directing career in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”, or to Scott Cooper’s rustbelt noir “Out of the Furnace”, to see other good films that share a similar mentality of excess additions and twists within an otherwise deeply realized, practical, and gritty world. I’d say “The Unforgivable” is better than at least two of these.

There are some key differences. Fingscheidt’s direction doesn’t go toward noir. While all three directors have a keen interest in people screwed over by the system, Fingscheidt’s is the only one that really communicates a clear view of what that system is beyond plot impetus. Furthermore, at least in “The Town” and “Out of the Furnace”, anger at that system merely serves as an excuse for violence. I’d say in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Unforgivable”, there’s a deeper contemplation of the messy intersection between idealism, accomplishing change, and mitigating harm. Fingscheidt did the homework in substance and not just style.

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes talent at work here, too. Guillermo Navarro was Guillermo Del Toro’s go-to cinematographer for the first two-thirds of his career. This includes work like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone”, and there’s a similar visual sense of empathy for traumatized characters whose ability to express themselves is stunted and discouraged.

Hans Zimmer joins David Fleming in composing an exceptional score. Fingscheidt’s “System Crasher” editor Stephan Bechinger is joined by Denis Villeneuve’s go-to editor Joe Walker. It’s a blend of sensibilities that works beautifully to create a unique rhythm.

Fingscheidt’s vision for fusing such different approaches is what makes the unwieldy scope of “The Unforgivable” work. Bullock’s performance is spellbinding without ever letting us into this walled-off, incredibly internalized character. It’s not the sort of thing we’ve seen from her before. A performance like that needs Fingscheidt’s ability to present a narrative in two simultaneous tones: the clinical, systemic, and linear joined with the personal, chaotic, and expressive.

Putting these two elements together is what makes the film special. “The Unforgivable” constantly has to find a way to communicate what Bullock won’t, and it connects these fragments beautifully. Does it heap too much plot on and ask too much of your suspension of disbelief? Viewers will have different answers to that question, and that sheds light on the different ways we watch movies.

If your suspension of disbelief and your interest in the emotionally expressive half of the film are both pliable enough to meet, there can be a relatively smooth handover between them. For viewers who treat one or the other of these with more rigidity or definition, there’s a greater gap to cross. Instead of serving the film, that dissonance can be its breaking point for you. You probably have a very good idea which type of viewer you tend to be, and whether you like movies that cross those boundaries or stay within them.

You can watch “The Unforgivable” on Netflix.

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.

An Unmatched Film — “Passing”

There are films where a laugh can be a dagger meant for the audience, where what happens between characters takes place as much in the unsettled places in your soul as it does on the screen. There are films so precise in their complexity, with so much to say in so little a time, that they give it to you all at once as neatly as could be so that they can take days afterward unspooling in you. There are films that make you feel like you can’t take as deep a breath as you might need because the air’s let out through all the doors they’ve opened. There is Rebecca Hall’s “Passing”.

It’s 1929, midday. Irene is in a hotel dining room, wary someone might register she’s Black and doesn’t ‘belong’. Clare recognizes Irene and introduces herself. They used to go to school together. Clare is passing. Her husband thinks she’s white; everyone around her thinks she’s white. He mistakes Irene as white as well.

We’ll see Irene go back to Harlem, with a husband Brian and children who couldn’t pass as white. She’ll forget the encounter, for a time. To say anything more would be too much.

What I will say is that “Passing” has more tension loaded into its dialogue, its lingering black-and-white cinematography, its tightly wound editing, than just about any other film could dream. Wherever you think that initial premise would go only scrapes the surface. Whatever ideas you think “Passing” may engage, it spirals through so many intersecting layers – through race, feminism, socioeconomics, all without ever feeling like the film is anything other than a portal into the lives of characters who feel vitally real and consequential.

Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare give spellbinding performances that wind and wind until you’re very unsure who either really is, deep down as a person. There is so much suggestion, so much intimation in “Passing”. No word or look is wasted. A phrase might feel like a fever dream, a smile like an obscuring fog, a silence like an anchor, and yet it all comes together so naturally. “Passing” is described as a drama, but it conveys emotionally as a thriller, an old-fashioned one that requires and rewards patience.

The story in “Passing” is lean and tautly told, while the gestures of it feel like staring into the abyss and having no idea where to start measuring. If it feels like I’m being too poetic here or not pinning down what “Passing” is, it’s because it doesn’t feel like it has a limit, and something needs a limit to be described in full. If “Passing” has a limit, I haven’t reached it.

All this may make “Passing” sound experimental, and in some ways it treads there, but it’s hardly uncontained. It’s so tightly delivered, so compactly told, with no frills, not a wasted motion in sight, that it feels like a poem you can read in a minute and spend the rest of your life turning over. It contains in such an identifiable, digestible form a flood of meanings and evocations.

There’s an article rattling around in me that speaks to part of what “Passing” engages, from a Latino standpoint and context. That’s different from a Black-led conversation and context, but there are elements that are mirrored or shared. That article would tell you about the ways that whiteness can pervade. It would tell you about friends who married someone white and confessed that they breathed a sigh of relief when their children came out with light skin, when they knew their children could pass enough to dodge the bulk of abuse and violence they had known, and when they recognized the second after thinking this how completely and terrifyingly they had learned to practice the violence of racism within themselves, to hate what they are, to do the work of chasing out what little survives to make us who we are, to do the work of colonization and racism so ingrained in us that it’s half-done before racists even lift a finger. We do that work for free, willingly, echoing terror against ourselves, lessons drilled in across generations.

The number of people who have told me this makes me glad I don’t have children, makes me relieved I lack a part of my life I’ve always wanted. Look how that history of racism makes us happy to hate ourselves, that article would say. Look how they make us relieved to chase out anything that isn’t a copy of them, a begging plea to be accepted if we just commit that act of violence to self-mutilate our own image, our own value, our own uniqueness, to chase it out of mind, to eradicate it from our story.

That’s a lifetime of work to undo, and while it’s this subtle violence at the heart of “Passing”, it’s just one of many subtle violences the film speaks to, just one of the unfathomable, immeasurable violences that loom where we choose not to see them, and that “Passing” stares straight into. When a laugh feels like a dagger meant for the audience, you can’t help but wonder what it sees in you.

There are those pieces of art, those poems and paintings, those books, those films, those games that each build a house in who we are, that give us a comfort as we stare at that abyss of work knowing we’ll never see its end ourselves – there are those pieces of art that we know will accompany us from here on out. Whatever they see is something we desperately need to feel is shared, is recognized by others. It’s art that stores a piece of meaning in us, and in which we store a piece of ourselves. It opens doors in you that sometimes get jammed shut, that you need a piece of art to shake, to loose, to burst through.

I’ve said before that if you show me a perfect film, I’ll show you one that could have been more ambitious, more willing to be less than perfect in order to tackle more. I stand corrected.

You can watch “Passing” on Netflix.

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.

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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