“Fever Dream” is a movie you come out of feeling weaker. You have to sense yourself under you, step deliberately, feel what’s in your arms and legs again. A word keeps repeating in my head: ‘hollowing’. “Fever Dream” hollows you. That’s not a bad thing. It’s simply patient with its urgency, lyrical in its revelations. It cradles you so you can begin to understand its staggering scale of pain.
Amanda is being dragged through the woods. She can’t move. Except that’s not right. She’s moving into her new home in Argentina. She moves with her daughter Nina on a regular basis. Her husband’s job requires it. She meets the neighbor, Carola, who brings over water because sometimes what comes out of the tap isn’t safe to drink. The two are immediate friends. Except it’s later, and Carola is confessing to Amanda a sacrifice she felt she had to make, something she fears will alienate Amanda.
“Fever Dream” is told like one, a foggy web of growing connections as it evolves. Stories are housed within stories are housed within stories. This is a magical realism tradition, an element of Latine storytelling that treats time as less important than understanding. It becomes easier to understand what’s happened, even when it’s very unclear what is or isn’t real, because we know so much by then about what it all means. As “Fever Dream” keeps reminding us, these larger moments aren’t what’s important. It’s the details that are crucial, the causes and consequences, the oversights, the inevitabilities.
The film’s based on Samanta Schweblin’s novel “Distancia de rescate”. That translates to “Rescue Distance”. It’s the sense a person has of how close they’d have to be to someone to rescue them. How far can Amanda go from the pool, and still be able to make it back in time if Nina falls in?
Director and co-writer Claudia Llosa always has a light touch with metaphor. She’s more focused on the emotional experience of the people inside those metaphors, what they see from inside them, the details they miss because they’re too busy living in them. There’s a power in this that so many directors overlook.
It’s easy to see the rescue distance also talks about communities suffering through environmental abuses, but the only reason it’s easy to see is because we’re living in that metaphor, too. We either live in the communities that are falling in quickly, the ones being poisoned or flooded or sold out from under the people who live there, or we live in the ones that have stretched the rescue distance to its breaking point, that have gone too far away to make it back in time.
“Fever Dream” never has to say it. It never even has to think it. It just has to give time to witness the people who live in and ignore the same metaphor we live in and ignore. Its horror is quiet because we’ve taught ourselves to understand it quietly.
To be blunt, when I started writing this review, I began with “There are no words”. There aren’t. It’s like trying to describe all the sensations you have in real-time. Any attempt is incomplete. To understand meaningfully, you’d have to feel it the same way.
This whole review could just be descriptions of how my body felt as I watched. It’s why it starts with how I felt as I got up after and still: hollowed. Like you could echo through me.
There’s a quiet in “Fever Dream” I recognize from being alone in the woods, when I let myself stop thinking for a moment, and I’m able to feel the wind and hear the sounds around me without intrusion or distraction.
There’s also a horror in “Fever Dream” I recognize from when I’ve worked and worked and called and asked for help and done everything I can to try to change something devastating, and still it barrels forth.
It bled tears from me, not in any overpowering moment, but in the gentleness with which it slowly, softly overwhelms, outlines what was always going to happen, because we let it happen all the time. Those tears haven’t stopped, not even as I write this. I’ll have to step away when this is done, distract myself, remember what ignoring devastation in the world feels like, the lifetime of lessons that have taught me how. We should feel hollow. We should be crying all the time. This is what I mean when I say “Fever Dream” cradles you so you can begin to understand its staggering scale of pain.
I’ve always been a fan of cosmic horror. Problematic though its roots are, the sense that there is something larger, mysterious, so unknowable it can make any human go mad at its scope…it’s thrilling when we know it’s pretend. The idea enraptures us.
The horror in “Fever Dream” is also of a scale that may be quantifiable, but that to any single person is so immense as to be unknowable, is so staggering in its scope it would make anyone who tried to grasp it in its entirety feel hollowed, lost. This idea…it doesn’t enrapture us.
I could tell you “Fever Dream” is a stunning piece of magical realism. I could tell you its story involves psychological horror, parable, even contemplative eroticism. I could tell you it intersects with motherhood, colonialism, environmental racism. The mix of layers Llosa and Schweblin find in a story that unanchors itself from reality and time, without ever losing the details of what happens and why, is astounding. The performances given by Maria Valverde and Dolores Fonzi are starkly, vulnerably human.
But what I want to tell you is that it hollows you. It gently undoes reality to remind us of the details that are important, that we overlook, that we make inevitable by the eye we turn away. It reminds us of the thread of rescue distance that we’ve snapped, and how it doesn’t come back. “Fever Dream” clarifies what so much magical realism does: that what makes its quiet, inevitable horror work so well is that we practice it every day, we quiet its presence every day, we treat it as inevitable every day.
This is a phenomenal week for surprises. It includes a new psychological horror from one of the best directors out there, Claudia Llosa. It also features one of the best reviewed horror movies of the year, the latest in a recent surge of Welsh suspense. Nineties franchise “I Know What You Did Last Summer” gets re-adapted as a series. To top it all off, Kate Beckinsale goes against type in an ego-driven dark comedy. This is where we’ll start:
Guilty Party (Paramount+) showrunner Rebecca Addelman
Kate Beckinsale stars as Beth, a discredited journalist. She tries to relaunch her career by ingratiating herself with a mother sentenced to life for murdering her husband. Beth is determined to prove herself relevant again- er, to prove the woman innocent.
Showrunner Rebecca Addelman has written and produced on “Dead to Me” and “Ghosted”.
You can watch “Guilty Party” on Paramount+, with new episodes premiering weekly.
I Know What You Did Last Summer (Amazon) showrunner Sara Goodman
“I Know What You Did Last Summer” is a new adaptation of the Lois Duncan novel. It also saw a popular 1997 film adaptation. Five teens hit someone with their car on the night of their graduation. They hide the body. A year later, someone starts killing them one by one.
This is the first series showrun by Sara Goodman.
You can watch “I know What You Did Last Summer” on Amazon.
Build Divide #000000 Code Black (Crunchyroll) directed by Komada Yuki
I really appreciate Japanese titling. From “Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon” to “Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, so I’ll Max Out My Defense”, and even “Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code”, they’re just so much braver than our surfeit of boring, old 1-3 word titles.
Anyway, in “Build Divide #000000 Code Black”, players in a trading card game attempt to defeat the king of Neo Kyoto. If they do, their wishes will be granted. (#000000 is the hex code in a spreadsheet for black, if you’re wondering what the connection is. I’m…still not sure that clarifies anything.)
Komada Yuki previously assistant directed “Mugen no Juunin: Immortal”.
“Build Divide #000000 Code Black” is simulcast as it airs in Japan, with new episodes every week. You can watch it on Crunchyroll.
Fever Dream (Netflix) directed by Claudia Llosa
“Fever Dream” is an adaptation of Samanta Schweblin’s 2014 novel of the same name. It tells a surreal tale of horror inspired by environmental abuses in Argentina.
I named writer-director Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow” my best film of the 2010s. She is a brilliant visualist and patient storyteller. You could say her sense of empathy has infused her movies with elements of cultural horror (about misogyny and colonialism), but this looks like her first crack at a film that’s housed in the horror genre. The crew she’s gathered is a stunning group, including “Loki” composer Natalie Holt, “The Orphanage” cinematographer Oscar Faura, and “A Fantastic Woman” production designer Estefania Larrain.
Enid is a film censor. She’s strict, with a specialty for censoring moments of violence. When she’s tasked with reviewing a particular film, its details spur childhood memories about her sister’s unsolved disappearance. Enid sets to work investigating the film’s origins, even as fiction and reality increasingly blur.
This is the first feature from director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond. It also marks another well-reviewed Welsh horror entry centered on family bringing to light generations-old wrongs. Welsh horror is carving an extremely unique voice with independent-styled films that focus on characters who convey different realities based on privilege. These horror metaphors tend to center on gaslighting, often of women and often in relation to long-disappeared or dead family members.
I can’t help but notice the popularity of this theme, and wonder how much it might connect to a history of English abuses and cover-ups such as the culturally defining Aberfan disaster.
I featured “Censor” when you could rent it, but this is the first time it’s been on a streaming service. “Censor” now also appears on Hulu.
The Blazing World (VOD) directed by Carlson Young
In this fairy tale horror, a woman returns to her childhood home. She’s stayed away since the accidental drowning of her twin sister. Yet as she returns, she finds access to an alternate world where her sister may survive. She’ll have to convince three demons to release her sister back into this world.
This is the first feature for director and co-writer Carlson Young.
“Maid” is a series I like, but that I feel I should love. Its strengths easily outnumber its weaknesses, but a few things hold it back. It’s anchored by Margaret Qualley as Alex, who takes her daughter Maddy and leaves her abusive boyfriend in the middle of the night. She has no plan or place to go. Since her boyfriend essentially controls her money, she has less than $20 to spend. It’s a desperate situation, handled at times with a realistic and horrifying tension.
Alex doesn’t have anyone to trust. All her friends knew her boyfriend first; he hasn’t let her lead her own life. Alex’s own mother has schizophrenia, struggles with untrustworthy boyfriends, and regularly forgets feeding and caring for Maddy when babysitting. Alex is alienated from her father, a cost sacrificed for him to make things work with his new family.
At its heart, “Maid” is a unique intersection of custody procedural, family drama, and what I like to call wallet horror. The first episode even keeps a running tab of the little money Alex has, subtracting bit by excruciating bit in the upper-right as she tries to find a job, feeds her daughter, and pays for gas a few dollars at a time. Anyone who’s ever lived in debt, close to zero balance, or paycheck to paycheck will recognize that awful running tally. The right-side of the screen it takes up may seem heavy-handed, but it is nothing compared to the amount of space it truly takes up in your head.
To its credit, “Maid” is careful to journey around the pitfalls of poverty porn. It avoids the exploitative eye that objectifies people in poverty simply to generate cheap catharsis for viewers. Qualley is given space to act, not as an icon or object of pity, but as a full, complex person.
“Maid” also treats emotional abuse seriously. While her boyfriend hasn’t hit her, he’s screamed at her, controlled her, and hit objects near her. It even takes Alex a few conversations to understand this is a form of domestic violence, even if the state she lives in doesn’t.
In its very best moments, “Maid” focuses on the horror of procedure. The systems in place to help domestic violence victims and people in poverty have been routinely gutted, sabotaged, and under-resourced. At a custody hearing, the dialogue between the commissioner and her boyfriend’s lawyer simply turns into the two saying “Legal legal legal” back and forth to each other. When a question Alex can recognize is asked of her, she’s already lost.
As she thumbs through a stack of documents she needs to fill out for that custody hearing, their official titles turn into “You’re a bad mom” and “Go fuck yourself”. There’s a stark truth to this experience, where so many fail without a chance just because they’ve missed a line on a form or didn’t get a signature. Alex takes the failures of the systems that are supposed to help and serve her, and internalizes them as her own failures.
She has to ready herself for a custody battle, apply for benefits, and work a job she has no car to drive to, sometimes all in the same hour. If she’s late to one, it’s held against her, despite those demands being physically impossible. She’s awash in catch-22s. She has to have a job to prove she needs the transitional housing that enables her to get a job. She has to spend more than she’ll make in a three-hour tryout for a job in order to stand a chance of getting it.
In its overwhelming horror of procedure and a host of metaphorical cutaways (she’s surrounded by a flurry of papers, she sees her daughter receding on a beach), “Maid” is powerful in both content and composition.
Let me be clear before I say this. For me, “Maid” is on the border between good and great. My criticisms aren’t about whether the series is good or bad. They’re about an element in “Maid” that’s noticeable and can be frustrating to some viewers:
What can sometimes unseat you from its rhythm are regular tonal inconsistencies. The first episode shovels a lot of happenstance onto the already-numbing horror Alex faces. It doesn’t really need it. The premise is already compelling, but then more happens. The series is based on a memoir by Stephanie Land. I have no clue whether extra events are added or not, or whether their time frame is condensed. Yet just like so many fictional stories can be made to feel natural, a real story can sometimes present details in a way that feels contrived.
There are so many tense moments in the first episode, “Dollar Store”. That wallet ticking down a few dollars at a time is a piece of existential dread. An impromptu job interview where Alex is essentially steamrolled is a beautiful example of the cost those in poverty can face to even get a few hours of work. A scene where Alex has to set foot in her boyfriend’s trailer again, his initially kind exterior slipping toward extracting guilt from her…there’s a sickening artistry in its unflinching precision.
This constant encroachment of tensions is where “Maid” excels. It evokes a sense of witnessing both physical and emotional realities, but in a hands-off way. Instead of telling you how to feel, it simply relies on your empathy to do the work as you watch.
This is all done superbly. Where’s the inconsistency come from? The problem is “Maid” also includes more dramatic moments and situational set-ups. Sitting right next to that deft storytelling that relies on your reaction are moments that feel like they visit from a much more dramatic adaptation.
All those building tensions are enough to send our mind reeling. By the time a car crash is added in, it doesn’t ratchet up the drama – it detracts from it. Maybe this is what really happened to Stephanie Land, in which case I’m not saying to change it. It’s not that the event doesn’t belong. The problem is that it’s handled in a way that redirects the slow and steady creep of becoming overwhelmed into something more recognizably cinematic and even melodramatic.
There are times when “Maid” presents a dramatic situation in a way that presses pause on its sense of subtlety, realism, and texture. It’s played more broadly and its sense of direction suddenly feels much more intentional. “Maid” handles the small moments like an understated character study, and some big moments like a 90s drama where characters enter and act to the nines.
Neither is done badly, and both approaches have their place. They’re just difficult to fuse together tonally. In these broader moments, there’s a loss of that very precise, nuanced, and intimately personal experience that “Maid” takes such care in building. It gets swept away, and because it’s a tone that is built scene upon scene, it can take some time to build back up to where we already were.
In those more personal spaces, we recognize how a little detail can break a person, how a frustration that might be ordinary on any other day presses on trauma because of what a person is going through. We’re witnesses of something in Alex she doesn’t let others see, that people in the world rarely let others see. You can’t just hop back into that sense right away; it does take time to build into again.
Nowhere is this more present than with Alex’s mother Paula. She’s played by Qualley’s own mother, Andie MacDowell. The relationship between the two is difficult, and one of the most intentionally frustrating elements of the show is how little Alex is heard by her mother. Her relationship to Paula is chiefly one of exchanges and leverage. Qualley and MacDowell’s ability to play off each other in a way that feels real and fraught is exceptional.
MacDowell has spoken about the role’s similarity to her relationship to her own mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and dealt with alcoholism. MacDowell does an incredible job, but at times it can feel like one that doesn’t sync up with the rest of “Maid”. She sweeps in from another genre, a 90s drama where everyone’s playing it big and MacDowell’s sure to be on an awards shortlist. This is no less true a portrayal; it’s just tailored to a different era of presentation.
Nor is this the only departure. Alex is required to go to a class where a man lectures women – many of whom are escaping domestic violence – about the stability of a two-parent home. It’s a searing point that’s an example of the systemic gaslighting of women, and this should easily hold on its own just like so many other points “Maid” makes straight-faced. Instead, he’s played like an “SNL” character. While this may add to our ability to laugh at him and it could be a moment of disempowering him in the face of a godawful act, it’s a gigantic tonal shift from everything else the series does.
I won’t get into it because it intersects with important plot points, but this sense of being thrust out of the show’s tone and reality holds most true for a subplot about stealing someone’s dog.
When these moments occur, they strain “Maid” in two different tonal directions. Sure, there are ways to use that strain in a metaphorical way, but “Maid” isn’t pursuing that kind of storytelling. It’s not some Charlie Kaufman directorial vehicle using genre dissonance-as-absurdism to step us out of the story itself. The strengths of “Maid” rely on precision within the story, a keen eye for detail, and translating criticism of systemic misogynist oppression into natural dialogue about lived experiences. “Maid” has a deep sense of its own earned knowledge and emotional realities, so when its tone suddenly shifts away from that reality into more traditional drama, it can require some conscious redirection and re-commitment on the part of the viewer.
This isn’t difficult, but it is noticeable. Moments like these don’t lack power. They don’t undermine “Maid”. They do feel consciously, intentionally situational on a series that’s fine-tuned for building tension, character, and emotional rhythm as one big flow state. When that flow state is interrupted, it’s not a big deal, but you do worry about whether you’ll sync back into it. It’s less a criticism of quality and more one of presence. “Maid” is exceptional and I absolutely recommend it. It just gets interrupted every once in a while. The interruptions are OK, but because the flow of what happened before was so precise, it’s difficult not to be especially conscious that those interruptions are there in the first place.
It’s the difference between a really good series and a great one. I’m not so sure that difference matters much, particularly when either assessment recognizes “Maid” is vitally important. Just be aware that viewers are going to fall on both sides of that good/great line, and a large part of that will be how well you take these tonal shifts in stride. This all makes “Maid” a strong choice if it’s on your radar, provided you’re in a safe and comfortable place to deal with its subject matter.
When I research this feature every week, I end up seeing the scores every movie gets. I try not to look, but they’re just too prominent to ignore. One of this week’s new films is “Mayday”. The allegorical movie about women engaged in a war against men is getting tanked on IMDB. Why?
“Mayday” is getting hammered on its score for being “part white man bad”, a “childish game of misandry”, “misandrist fantasy” and my favorite: a “femalistic flop” because “theyve invented the new version of the atomic bomb, namely the #metoo threat that hangs over each and every man every hour, minute or second of the day”. But don’t worry, “the lead was pretty and on of the other brunets but that was it”. We got some real Eberts on our hands here.
The reason I bring this up is because sometimes a film that gets tanked like this on scoring sites is actually good. It’s not a guarantee, but when I see this kind of review brigading from other men, it’s often because it’s touched on a nerve in an accurate way. I covered this phenomenon in more detail on my review for Sophia Takal’s “Black Christmas” (which just returned to HBO Max in time for the holiday season).
A lot of hidden gems lose their audiences when they go to review sites, see a low score, and figure the movie must not be good. I haven’t seen “Mayday”. I can’t tell you how it is. This article is informational and a lot of the films come out the same day this feature does. What I can tell you is that I’ve been led to a lot of incisive, often-brilliant hidden gems when I see these kinds of reactions tanking a film’s score. Some are just OK, sure, but there are also a lot of very good films that get tanked and lose their audiences simply because they’re feminist. Seeing these kinds of reviews usually puts a movie at the top of my to-watch list.
Please don’t let review averages deter you from watching a film before you look more closely at the reason for their scores. Maybe “Mayday” isn’t your thing – hell, maybe it isn’t my thing – but a lot of films out there will be much better than the score belies.
Maid (Netflix) showrunner Molly Smith Metzler
“Maid” is based on Stephanie Land’s 2019 memoir. It recounts the story of a single mother who leaves an abusive relationship. Alex balances intermittent, underpaid work as a house cleaner with caring for her daughter Maddy.
Showrunner Molly Smith Metzler has written and produced on “Shameless” and written on “Orange is the New Black” and “Casual”.
Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (MUBI) directed by Lili Horvat
Marta is a neurosurgeon. She falls in love in a whirlwind romance. She even leaves her career behind in the U.S. to move to Hungary. The only problem is when she meets her partner there, he says he’s never seen her before.
This is the second feature from Hungarian writer-director Lili Horvat after the well-received “The Wednesday Child”.
You can watch “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” on MUBI.
Stop and Go (VOD) co-directed by Mallory Everton
Two sisters set out on a road trip to rescue their grandmother from a nursing home where COVID has broken out.
Mallory Everton directs with Stephen Meek. This is her first feature.
Barbara Hershey plays Judith, just moved into a nursing home. She slowly becomes convinced that an inexplicable force is picking off the residents one by one. No one will believe an elderly stroke survivor, though.
Writer-director Axelle Carolyn once wrote on the history of horror movies, and she’s since moved onto directing in series like “American Horror Story”, “Creepshow”, and “The Haunting of Bly Manor”. This is her second feature.
What Breaks the Ice (VOD) directed by Rebecca Eskreis
Two girls form a friendship in 1998, as their vision of their place in the world is impacted by the country’s obsession with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. When they’re invited to a rave, things go wrong and they have to defend themselves. Will the culture they live in ever believe their side of the story?
This is the first feature from writer-director Rebecca Eskreis. She got her start in production design.
The thing about Mitski that I don’t get anywhere else is that her music (often with Zia Anger’s videos) feels like a safe place to just…break. To not be OK. To be exhausted. The music feels like a shelter or recognition for places we barely speak about.
We imagine avoiding these places in ourselves denies them power; as if we can’t feel depressed or anxious if we avoid talking about being depressed or anxious. We imagine this because we understand these things through relationships of power. Our culture understands everything primarily through relationships of power.
Depression and anxiety aren’t about a power struggle in ourselves, though. They’re not wresting for power, they can’t be overcome by will. They’re just there. They’re just present, like air or sunshine. Sometimes they’re present for a reason and there’s an identifiable cause. Sometimes they’re present because they’re component to how someone’s brain works and they don’t need a cause.
“Working for the Knife” feels like a scream of exhaustion, for an exhaustion it’s hard to see ever going away. Personally, culturally, globally, that’s the moment and we don’t see an end to it.
So many know that emotional explosion at the end of “Working for the Knife” – manic, joyous, angry, helpless, outsized and diminished, expansive and lonely, breathless, ragingly silent. We fruitlessly give everything we have to no audience because we’re terrified to have one: we imagine avoiding these places in ourselves denies them power, but we know existing with them and giving them some kind of space helps to manage it at all. How many express in silence, alone, and then act as if everything’s fine the minute eyes are on them?
There’s a helplessness to “Working for the Knife” because it’s hard to see each of our acts of emotional expression changing anything. There’s a helpfulness to it because that act of expression means something to us; that meaning is enough to know we might change something.
We live in a hopeless time. Part of our hopelessness is being convinced that it’s an individual shortcoming, a personal fallibility, a failure of imagination. Hopelessness is something we shouldn’t speak of, let alone share with others. Recognizing hopelessness runs directly counter to prosperity gospel, to “The Secret”, to economic materialism. Even when we identify those poisons, there are a thousand others ingrained into our media, our social media, our culture.
We’re taught to be successful, to be whole, we have to deny a major emotional state in ourselves. We’re made to believe that if someone is hopeless, it’s their fault. It must be a shortcoming, a toxin that might spread. We’re taught that someone else’s hopelessness must be disbelieved before we learn why it exists, lest it find a home in us and magically sabotage the success we’re sure we’ll have tomorrow out of…what, hope? We’re a nation and a culture feeling the last minute of this video in raging silence, and then projecting endless hope the minute we hear another voice in the room.
Hopelessness acknowledges that something is wrong in the first place, and if you’re made to avoid ever feeling hopeless, you’ve been made to avoid ever acknowledging that something is wrong.
Rebecca Solnit wrote in “Hope in the Dark” that “Hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal.”
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, climate activist Greta Thunberg chastised the gathered economists: “Adults keep saying, ‘we owe it to young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
These two ideas don’t disagree. They’re part of the very same whole. It’s the same definition. If hope is an axe and the motivation to use it, hopelessness is the recognition and understanding why. Why would you break down the door with an axe? Because our house is on fire. We’re complex enough to carry both halves of that reality within us, to realize that both are true and needed. Yet culturally, we treat hopelessness as the enemy of hope. Hope is to be spoken about, worshipped, gilded, awarded. Hopelessness is to be chased out by it, quieted, dismissed. So we have a surplus of hope we don’t know how to properly apply. We’re hopeful…and ineffective about it. We’re unguided, slapping hope on everything without the urgency of the work that supports it. How the hell are we supposed to know how to use our hope if we habitually avoid recognizing and feeling in our bones what we’re hopeless about?
We need those safe places where we can simply break. To not be OK. To be exhausted. We have to understand hopelessness is a part of ourselves that’s just as important to sit with as hope. We’re sitting in the house on fire hoping that someone will save us, but without the urgency to realize we’re the ones best situated to do the saving.
If you wonder why people gravitate to Mitski’s music, it’s because very little art in American culture allows a space to feel hopeless. Feeling that isn’t a weakness. Imagine being so afraid of an emotion that you do everything to run away from it – you’re going to tell yourself that’s a strength? If we can’t talk about hopelessness or despair, if we can’t allow a place to process anxiety safely, we become a culture that has zero training in urgency, zero real ability to communicate about it. How’s that going for us? How’s our addiction to hope at all costs working out?
The house is on fire. You’re sitting next to a pile of axes. You have a surplus of hope someone with an axe will show up. That’s the United States of America. Everyone projects hope. Very few are willing to be recognized for having the desperation to apply it. We can reject dozens of versions of prosperity gospel before this one invariably hooks us.
Find a place to accept your hopelessness, because that’s what guides your hope. Mitski and director Zia Anger or whomever it might be. This music is a way I find into it, but who it is or how is ultimately not the point. The point of the song, the music video, of the last several years of Mitski’s career is to recognize the cycles we’re convinced to participate in and that they’re untenable. The point is it’s about something bigger.
That exhaustion will only get worse. We hope it will be solved. We have so much hope. We just lack the desperation to be urgent about it. We culturally reject even feeling our hopelessness, let alone understanding it, or communicating it, and then wonder why we’re so culturally hesitant and ineffective in hopeless situations, why so many people refuse to understand hopeless situations and get angry at the idea of communicating about them. Personally, culturally, globally, who hasn’t spent their life so far working for the knife?
The day I watched “Nightbooks” was a terrible day. Work was taking longer because of internet issues that had spanned a week. I had a D&D session with friends scheduled online that night. It’s one of the few things that’s kept me grounded and de-stressed during the pandemic. Nothing worked; I couldn’t join. Try being on the phone with Comcast at 10:30 pm; it’s an awful way to end the day. I needed something exciting, uplifting, escapist, dark but…cheesy at the same time. I needed something like “Legend” or “The Goonies”, something that believes B-movies speak to our soul in ways awards contenders never can.
Well, there was that film where Krysten Ritter plays a witch. Wait, what? Yes, the movie where it looks like our goth queen chews every piece of scenery in sight. I mean, you can’t go too wrong with that, can you?
“Nightbooks” is exactly the kind of film I wanted. It’s a young adult (YA) horror movie that delivers a mix of cheese, earnest fairy tale, and horror homage to remind the kid in you that it’s not all pandemic and work delays and late-night Comcast rendezvous.
Winslow Fegley plays Alex, a child who runs away from his parents in a fit of anger and embarassment. He loves horror movies and writes scary stories, but now he wants to destroy them all. He gets off at the wrong floor and is lured into an apartment by a slice of pie and a TV playing his favorite movie: 80s horror classic “The Lost Boys”. When he wakes up, he’s confronted by a witch. How can he be useful to her? By doing the one thing he’s sworn to never do again: write scary stories. He’ll have to tell her one a night for eternity. If he misses one, he’ll be killed. It’s “One Thousand and One Nights” as YA horror.
The witch, her cat familiar, and the apartment itself all hold secrets to uncover, and secrets give Alex the hope of escape. There’s also Lidya Jewett’s Yasmin, a survivor who’s been trapped in the apartment for years. Will she help him, or has she already given up hope?
It’s all painted broadly, but as Krysten Ritter’s witch Natacha reminds Alex, every story must be based on some element of truth. So what is the truth at the core of “Nightbooks”? Why is it so successful at what it does?
The broad strokes of “Nightbooks” are familiar fairy tale territory. The details can remind you of other YA adaptations. There are notes of everything from “The Thief of Always” to “Harry Potter”. “Nightbooks” shares some DNA with those classics. Alex’s story is compelling because it’s the story of every kid who’s dealt with anxiety, self-hate, creative block, or impostor syndrome.
Natacha is a scary witch who can do terrifying things, and Ritter rides a Tim Curry-esque line of hamming it up while still nailing the point home. What truly makes her frightening isn’t her powers, though. It’s not the threat of a fate worse than death. The moments that cut most deeply are the ones where she picks apart Alex’s stories, tells him an idea is stupid or inaccurate, that he’s disappointing her.
None of us know what a scary witch can do. Few of us are familiar with fates worse than death. Yet so many know exactly what sitting in that chair can feel like as the things we care most deeply about, the futures we envision for ourselves, the passions that allow us to find value and meaning in our lives – we know what it’s like to sit there and watch them be torn down one by one. We know what it’s like when someone does that simply to remind us that they have so much power and control they can end with words our entire idea of who we want to be.
We also know what it’s like to fight back against that. We know what it’s like to decide not to believe it, to realize that they are just words spoken by someone desperate to frighten and control us. Sure, “Nightbooks” is a fairy tale about kids trying to escape a witch, tale as old as time. The truth on which it’s built is about kids realizing that who they want to be isn’t someone else’s decision.
“Nightbooks” couches this within a movie that genuinely embraces horror. There is a ceiling to the level of scary it becomes – it’s a movie for kids, too, after all. Yet it pushes the boundary and lovingly recalls a host of horror movies. It’s not just empty reference either. By repeating visual themes adults might already be familiar with, it deepens many of the emotional moments for the characters on-screen. This is absolutely a B-movie, but it’s a B-movie that fully understands how the genre disarms us. It doesn’t have to find a way around our guard when our guard’s already down. It has a deep understanding for horror, camp, and kitsch movie history.
The technical aspects are great across the board. There’s some exceptional sound editing in “Nightbooks”. That may not seem like the most exciting factor to point out, but it does so much to anchor us in its world. The cinematography and art direction also excel.
Fegley and Jewett are good as child actors go, especially in a project that asks a lot of them. I wouldn’t say they sell us on their situation in a dramatic way, but in a film like “Nightbooks”, that’s not their job. Their job is to be as much kids as they are actors, and they find that balance.
“Nightbooks” is also surprisingly funny. Alex’s stories-within-a-story are told as if they’re melodramatic, silent movies he’s narrating. They’re constantly interrupted by the witch’s criticisms, many of which make Alex change his stories on the fly. The presentation of these stories is genuinely endearing, and Ritter’s delivery has a way of both cutting deep from inside the story while making us laugh at her timing.
That may seem mean, but the way this type of B-movie communicates is to have us appreciate and love the references and performances even as we inhabit and feel its world. We can laugh at the comedy in Natacha’s delivery without laughing at Alex, and we can feel bad for what Alex is enduring while still wanting to hear more of Natacha. This is the magic B-movies can find, watching them from the outside as a performance and feeling them from the inside as a story at the same time. It’s not so different from what Charlie Kaufman’s done in films like “Being John Malkovich” or “Adaptation”, where we can feel bad for characters inside the story while still being amused at what an actor’s doing to elicit those emotions. He didn’t invent that meta-approach, he simply transported it. It’s existed in B-movies for decades.
That dual way of watching “Nightbooks” is its greatest strength. Ultimately, it’s not a perfect film. The CG elements are hit and miss. A mid-film action scene feels out of place. It could’ve cut an entire sequence out of its ending. Yet watching this kind of film, it’s hard to care about those things when it constantly recovers with another good sequence, unexpected laugh, or meaningful moment. What does work here is often a gorgeous re-purposing of the genre.
I think kids can get a lot out of the themes of “Nightbooks”. They don’t have enough stories that really deal with complex issues like impostor syndrome and anxiety. They need to see work like this because these are things that they’re already dealing with, but don’t have many stories to help them process it. It’s definitely a movie to watch alongside them, though. There are genuine scares here.
The awkward reality is that so much of “Nightbooks” speaks to horror fans who can identify and understand all the references and elements happening. These can really deepen the scenes’ themes beyond an initial sense of recognition or nostalgia. Yet the target audience for this is kids, who are pretty unlikely to have seen “Suspiria”, “Evil Dead”, or “The Lost Boys”.
For adults, I think “Nightbooks” is a lot better if you’re well-versed in horror and you’re content to put yourself in the mindset of a YA film. There’s a good amount of overlap in that Venn diagram, and you probably know if you’re in it or not. If you have any doubt, try having a terrible day first. “Nightbooks” can definitely help with that.
What if someone set out to create the most perfect bad horror movie ever made, and they hit every note? Would it be so bad it was good, or so successfully bad it was just bad? Do you need some old-fashioned, inadvertent mistakes in there to really make it sing? Is smartly designed badness enjoyable, or does the fun of watching a bad movie rely on the schadenfreude of others’ failures?
These questions join that study of philosophy that poses unanswerable dilemmas like Ship of Theseus, Yanny or Laurel, and what the hell a cat’s ever doing. Enter “Malignant”.
In its best (worst?) moments, “Malignant” can feel like a museum tour through the history of horror. Annabelle Wallis plays Madison, who witnesses a ghastly figure murder her abusive husband. She’s a suspect until that horror begins to stalk her. She boards up her windows and even resists the help of her sister Sydney.
It’s too late; a connection has been formed to whatever this horror is. Madison begins to psychically witness its murders in a sort of waking sleep paralysis, able to observe in her visions but unable to move in real life. Somehow, this all connects to a defunct lab that once experimented on children in a cliffside castle in the forests of Washington.
If you’re well versed in various horror genres, it’s a joy to see what a playground they become in director James Wan’s hands. Early scenes are reminiscent of his haunted house horrors like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”, particularly when a barely visible shadow moves in fog and the murderous horror is presaged by electronics going haywire. It’s expertly done, and an early way of showing the audience just how capable Wan can be when he wants. This early showing off is important since the rest of the film goes in the opposite direction. Wan wants the audience to know that the filmmakers and actors could make a tense horror film if they wanted, but that they’d rather go for the height of campy schlock.
Every set of characters exists in a different horror genre, with that genre taking over when they’re front and center. The early haunted house vibe that Wan has resurrected and amped up from its 50s and more violent 80s roots gives way to 90s and 00s horror. Detectives Kekoa Shaw and Regina Moss exist in that era’s world, reminiscent of “Copycat”, “Murder by Numbers”, or lord help us, “The Watcher”. These are all from a time before CBS decided the procedural should be regularized to the point of homogeneity. The police station is a direct lift from “Se7en”, just with more vibrant lighting.
Each of the murderer’s scenes takes place within a different genre as well. One borrows from 80s slashers, with the eventual murder weapon highlighted several times over before it’s actually used. Another takes place in an apartment overlooked by a glowing neon sign that basks the room in a giallo-red, Wan giving you those same close-ups and highlights as (literally) red herrings but then refusing to use them. That playfulness is ever-present.
The murderer moves unnaturally, climbing ceilings, needing a haircut, and disturbing electronics like ghosts in Japanese horror films. Then we see the murderer’s lair, an homage to 90s goth industrial art direction like you might see in Alex Proyas’s “The Crow” or “Dark City”. Of course, there needs to be at least one room with a giant wall fan because horror beasties…I don’t know, have bad allergies and need good air circulation?
Do you want an underground chase scene that references the failed 1997 adaptation of “The Relic”? Because “Malignant” is how you get it.
As Madison is terrorized by the murderer itself and her visions, she increasingly delivers her lines in that stilted style once developed in the 70s from non-English speaking actors and additional dialogue recording in European giallo films. The style’s hallmark is immediately recognizable for being both monotone and overdramatic, with deliberately misplaced stressed syllables and unexpected rising inflections that achieve an unsettling uncanny valley that doesn’t feel human. It’s so specific and it takes a huge amount of skill to get right, but it’s also something that outside of a giallo world just becomes funny and absurd.
Meanwhile, Madison’s sister Sydney is off in her own modern horror movie doing all the research and uncovering yet one more genre that we’ll watch alongside her: found footage horror.
This is such a mash, and I was guffawing in disbelief every time a character didn’t just do the obviously stupid horror movie cliché, but pushed straight past it so much that it became a deliberate performance of that cliché. There’s still enough skill behind it all – in both cast and crew – that the movie can switch into more genuine horror complete with scares at a moment’s notice.
“Malignant” is neither farce nor satire. Instead, it’s closer to a nonsense work in the literary sense. Literary nonsense, such as the kind written by Edward Lear, seeks to subvert conventions for the express reason of: nonsense. That doesn’t mean it’s directionless, it just means that the direction pulls an element of logical reasoning away from the structure of a story or its world so that we can peer in and see how nonsensical everything else becomes without it. “Alice in Wonderland” is literary nonsense. “House of Leaves” can be understood as a type of nonsense work. “Being John Malkovich” explains a little too much, but in a broad sense it can be understood as belonging to the nonsense genre.
As an intentional genre, nonsense is rare in almost every medium. The only place that might break this is performance art, where replacing logical progression with non sequiturs elicits unpredictable reactions from onlookers.
A nonsense horror movie budgeted at $40 million from an A-list director is unthinkable. It doesn’t happen. That makes me really glad “Malignant” exists. That’s a separate question from whether I like it, though.
I love “Malignant” – but only up to a point. I don’t mean a general boundary that it pushes or a metaphorical point it passes; I mean there’s a minute in the movie where I think it drops the ball and leaves it there. It’s not the much discussed 540-degree turn in the last act – I was on board with the way it embraces the most absurd aspects of 70s and 80s horror.
It wasn’t an amount of gore either. I am not a fan of torture horror like “Saw” or “Hostel”. I don’t judge someone who is; it’s just really not my thing. We all have genres we like and dislike. “Malignant” is bloody, but it actually had less gore than I was expecting. What’s there is treated with a cool distance, and where the movie does enter into body horror, it’s done in ways that evoke 80s underground films. In other words, while the gore’s there, it lacks the misanthropic notes and hyperrealism of torture horror. It’s also more cinematic than voyeuristic. It instead evokes the budget-limited creations of 80s creature horror.
The point where “Malignant” lost me – and I’ll only speak about genre to avoid spoilers here – is when it descends from its museum tour of horror and just becomes an action movie. It becomes more of a spoof here, and others might like those notes more than I do. To me, I wanted to stay in those horror lanes the film had asked me to enjoy for its first hour-and-a-half. It hadn’t been an action movie at all, and being asked to suddenly shift from all these lusciously realized horror flavors to a bloody take on “Matrix”-lite action felt like a let-down.
I would have been happier with a “watch the skies” style ending of a slasher, the emotionally abrupt cutoff of a giallo, or a lingering-too-long conclusion to character horror. Perhaps these wouldn’t have been nonsense enough, though. Maybe dropping horror and turning into an action movie is that final step of nonsense and I just wasn’t willing to take it because I was so happy with all the horror elements.
On the other hand, action offers harder genre anchors. “Malignant” meanders on such a dreamy cloud of constantly-swapping rhythms that pace is completely unimportant. Becoming an action film suddenly gives it a hard, overly familiar rhythm that abandons that floating lack of pace. That’s what I found jarring. It may be a nonsense genre switch, but the realization of it abandons other elements of nonsense I was enjoying a lot more.
What does that amount to? As much as I enjoyed most of “Malignant”, it doesn’t stick the landing for me personally. That leaves me with that initial question:
You have one extremely talented director like James Wan who wants to make a really good bad film. Everything he wants to accomplish, every element of bad movie he wants in there, it’s all achieved note-perfect.
Another director makes a bad film by succeeding in enough places to make us continue watching, but failing in notable ways. We’re tentatively invested, but the floor keeps falling out on it. The movie becomes bad unintentionally, and those failures become enjoyable.
Which one is the better bad movie? The question isn’t really important, but it highlights how “Malignant” is unique, for better or worse. “Malignant” is so intentional about its badness that it becomes a performance of badness, rather than just being bad. Both approaches are still enjoyable in many of the same ways, but from something like “Malignant”, we begin to expect perfection. If it deviates from what we want, even if it does it well, it gets shaky and leans a little bit more toward average, which isn’t as enjoyable as bad can be.
Yet with an unintentionally bad film, we expect that shakiness. We begin to welcome it. We’re not looking for perfection in its performance of anything else; we’re seeking the opposite. In fact, when it deviates from what we want, it leans more toward that badness, which is what makes us enjoy it in the first place.
This is the key difference between a perfectly achieved, intentional bad movie, and a faulty, unintentionally bad movie. One has to be perfect and exceed our expectations. It has to perform its role exceptionally. That’s “Malignant”. The other has to be faulty and fail our expectations. It has to do everything but perform its role.
“Malignant” is so good at being bad that it creates a trap for itself. It’s so perfectly done that the joy you can get out of it as a horror fan is essentially unique. Yet it lacks that looser, organic element to a bad horror movie that just lets you go with the flow and accept wherever it stumbles. “Malignant” might be the most perfect bad movie ever made, but in being so, that limits how good of a bad movie it can be.
Ship of Theseus. Prove God exists. Or doesn’t. The Munchhausen Trilemma. The Grandfather Paradox. Cats (in a box, walking through walls, etc). And now “Malignant”.
If you like those places where “Malignant” goes, you’re going to love it. It will be one of the most valuable and honest relationships to a horror movie you’ll ever make. It will be with you, whenever you need it, whenever you need to curl up under a blanket with hot cocoa and just smile and feel reassured at its ridiculousness for two hours – it will be there for you for the rest of your life.
If you can’t imagine why anyone would sit through anything I’ve described, you’re going to hate it. It’ll be like a date you realize is a mismatch in the first 20 minutes, where you’re either smart enough to get up and leave, or you will yourself to sit through it out of a misguided sense of politeness.
A lot of viewers may be like me. They may fall for it immediately and love where it goes, but feel betrayed when that horror movie fusion is traded out for another genre entirely. They may wonder where the movie they fell in love with went and why the movie wasn’t more forthright about everything from the start. Maybe it’s a commitment thing; the movie changed because it’s just not made to stay in the same place too long. That’s understandable. The viewer’s had fun and they’ve learned a lot. They’ll always treasure what really worked, but the magic has passed, and as much as it once felt right, this isn’t the movie they want to spend the rest of their life alongside. Maybe they can meet again, in a few years, once they’ve both changed a bit and can understand each other better. They’ll grab coffee. Maybe then, there’ll be comfort. Maybe they’ll just sit there out of politeness. Maybe they’ll go for it. Maybe the viewer will have moved on to James Wan’s “Malignant 2: The Patrick Wilson-Industrial-Complex”.
All three reactions are groovy. They’re just made for different viewers. People’s preferences for camp are all so specific and individualized that it may just be hard to tell whether you’ll like, love, or loathe it until you’re halfway in, giggling at its brash absurdity, wondering how humanity’s sunk this low, or both.
You can watch “Malignant” on HBO Max. Treat the movie as having content warnings for domestic abuse and miscarriage.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance in “Kate” is one of the most powerful in action movie history. Before you dismiss performances in action movies, understand that yeah – the genre is relentlessly derivative. It repeats ideas and plot formulae we can recognize a mile off. “Kate” doesn’t dodge this; it’s what works. Instead, it uses what’s familiar to focus in on Winstead’s masterful embodiment of desperation and will.
“Kate” is a ticking clock movie, and one that poses physical degradation as a complicating mechanic. An assassin by trade, Winstead’s Kate is poisoned before a job. It’s radiation poisoning, giving her less than a day to live. She uses the night she has left to doggedly pursue finishing this last job. As the hours progress, her body starts to fail her. She becomes sloppier, blunter, less finessed, more vicious.
Ticking clock movies usually don’t take themselves too seriously. As dramatic as the concept is, it tends to be recycled in action movies that incorporate satire or comedy, from “Escape from New York” to the “Crank” franchise. “Kate” plays it seriously, though, using the opportunity to create a character piece around Winstead.
Ticking clocks are also used a lot in horror, and this informs its use in “Kate” better. This film isn’t part of that genre, but it is a survival action movie. Kate doesn’t show up and utterly dominate everyone, showing how much of a badass she is. She increasingly fights her way out of corners as she wears down. That’s no less badass, but what it does is remove ego from the equation. Her impending death forces Kate to confront uncomfortable realities about how she got here, emotional truths she’s held close that no longer seem to be as true.
She ends up paired with Ani, the daughter of a Yakuza leader she assassinated. While Kate had wanted to leave the profession, this isn’t a matter of the “strength through motherhood” trope that often gets foisted onto childless women action heroes. Instead, Ani is a reset – someone at the fork in the road where Kate took the wrong path. Kate needs to use her to complete the job she started, to finish that path in the little time she has remaining, but this increasingly forces Ani down that path as well.
Miku Martineau is capable of holding the screen on her own as Ani, which means that it doesn’t come off as a typical youth role. Winstead’s performance never has to carry Martineau’s. Instead, the two performances are both incredibly strong, and enable the two characters to embody their themes in the complementary and conflicting ways the film most wants to investigate.
Understand for the review part of this, “Kate” is one of my favorite action movies. Period. Not on Netflix. Not of the year. It is one of my favorite action movies ever made. It uses what’s familiar and has been done before as the meat of something that’s deeply emotionally resonant. It does this in a complex way that heightens action that’s already superb. I expect to be talking about it at the end of the year as one of 2021’s best films.
That’s the summary, but I’d also like to get into some more precise conversations surrounding “Kate”. I’ll do this without major spoilers, since a lot of this intersects issues of theme, influence, and culture.
The major comparison “Kate” seems to be getting is to “John Wick”. I couldn’t disagree more, so let’s get into the weeds on this. The takeaway seems to be that “John Wick” is better because the fight scenes are more elegant. The real difference is that Keanu Reeves is smoother and enables the filmmakers to incorporate some longer takes because he’s done several martial arts-heavy films before. If pressed, I’d say “John Wick” incorporates a more proficient fight choreo, but not by that much. This also treats fight choreography like it’s only capable of being one thing. It’s like saying “Lawrence of Arabia” has better music than “Jaws”. Sure, I guess, but those two scores aren’t even remotely interested in doing the same thing.
“Kate” involves its title character fighting her way out of corners the whole time. When done this well, and with the kind of performance Winstead delivers, that’s deeply compelling. “John Wick” is a B-grade movie with A-grade Keanu and gun ballet. Those are compelling in campier, more meta ways.
The desperate, ferocious fights in “Kate” carry a weight, involvement, and cost. The efficiency and elegance in “John Wick” are more exploitative, worshipful, and operatic. Neither intent is better nor worse, but comparing them as if they’re reaching for the same goal requires you to ignore what one or the other is really doing.
I don’t dislike the fight choreo in “John Wick” because there are movies with even better choreography out there, so why would I judge “Kate” like that? Frankly, I actually prefer the choreography in “Kate” because even if it’s more edited, it ties into a far more ambitious emotional thread. It has more to do with the movie surrounding it. Remember, fight choreo isn’t just there to impress – the best fight scenes also act like dialogue scenes, regardless of whether actual dialogue happens in them.
What that means is that a relationship changes or the audience gains a new understanding over the course of the fight scene. Something happens in that fight scene to give us access to a new perspective in the story. The fight scenes in “John Wick” are great set-pieces, but they’re the entire point. The fight scenes in “Kate” are great set-pieces that also progress the film’s themes, our emotional understanding of the characters, and the relationships between them.
It doesn’t hurt that “Kate” is a far better movie on the whole. Winstead’s acting within these action scenes is phenomenal, and reaches places that – much as I adore him – Reeves has only ever matched in a brief scene here or there.
If you’re assessing these films on which one makes the better “John Wick” movie, then “John Wick” is obviously going to win. Like, no shit, John Wick is the ideal John Wick, way to solve that one Plato.
The better comparisons for “Kate” are films like 1998 anime actioner “Kite”, 2006 anime series “Black Lagoon”, and – thematically and psychologically – the “Alien” trilogy. “Kate” draws heavily from both anime and cyberpunk influences. There are references to series like “Tokyo Ghoul” and the cinematography and editing are clearly influenced by touchstones like “Akira”, “Ghost in the Shell”, and “Blade Runner”.
Let’s tackle the “Alien” trilogy because that’s perhaps the weirdest connection to draw here. “Kate” explicitly calls out this connection in its costuming choices for Winstead, but why the two are so connected is more thematic than stylistic. While the “Alien” trilogy is primarily about a woman forced into situations where men ignore her and everything falls apart as a result, it also carries a theme and iconography of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley as a mother. The “strength through motherhood” metaphor is both explored (in “Aliens”) as Ripley constructs an ad hoc family, and later inverted (in “Alien 3”).
That metaphor is used beautifully in many films, yet when we feel women can’t exist as action heroes without this being incorporated, it turns many films about childless action heroes (or heroes who have lost children, like Ripley) into a criticism. The character arc they go through is having their motherhood – and thus strength – fulfilled, but this means what’s missing from them at the start is having a child. The character arc in many women-led action films treats them as lacking worth or direction until a child figure comes into their life and allows them to be a mother. This treats the initial fault in a character as that of not having children, which is pretty shitty to call a fault.
Yet the “Alien” trilogy also uses this, both in “Aliens” and “Alien 3”, as a theme for what’s been ripped away from Ripley. It’s not solely about becoming a mother, and this is where David Fincher’s “Alien 3” is often underrated and misunderstood as a thematic continuation for “Aliens”. It’s about the choices that have been taken away from Ripley. It’s not just Ripley’s family that have been ripped away from her, it’s her choices as to how she wants to live her life. Her choices have been repeatedly given away by a corporation that’s relentlessly willing to sacrifice her and the lives of those around her.
“Kate” plays with a lot of the same themes. When her handler, played by Woody Harrelson, asks her if she wants to quit to have a family, she tells him that’s her business. When she becomes responsible in a way for Ani, she’s not magically getting a child in her last day of life. Instead, Kate witnesses in her own actions toward Ani the very way that she was desensitized and trained toward violence. Kate’s not mothering Ani; she’s witnessing herself as a corrupting influence that teaches and perpetuates an ongoing cycle of violence. She is taking away choices from Ani in the same way choices were taken away from her. It’s not lacking a child that she needs to fix in her last day, it’s solving the cycle of violence for someone she put down that path in the first place.
Now, films that incorporate a white hero killing countless people of color can be extremely problematic. I won’t say “Kate” entirely avoids this, but it does take a number of left turns that comment on this cycle of exploitation. The film is staunchly anti-colonialist, but it takes a while to get there.
Complicating this is that we’ve got a French director, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, making a film that takes place in Japan and intersects deeply with Japanese culture to comment on these cycles. “Kate” wasn’t entirely filmed in Japan, and little details can stand out. A scene that incorporates a vending machine doesn’t use a Japanese vending machine, for instance. Those details can be overlooked, but they’re evidence that not everything was done as cleanly as can be.
The influence of anime on “Kate” is complicated. Anime itself has undergone massive changes over the decades as it was influenced by Western cyberpunk, which was influenced by Beat literature, which was informed by Dadaism, which was also popular in Japan and gave rise to much of anime’s original look, and Dadaism was influenced by photomontage, which was influenced by Surrealism, which drew from both sub-Saharan sculpture and post-impressionism, which was partly influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e, and the list goes on.
That kind of argument often gets employed to cover over appropriation, so it’s not a cover-all. I bring it up because it’s useful within context, delineating between something having a conversation with its influences vs. appropriating them. There are a lot of fuzzy boundaries with that. I would say that “Kate” leans more heavily toward conversing with these influences and referencing them in clear ways, but I’m also not Japanese, and so not best positioned to say that for sure. I’m also unclear how well it intersects with Japanese culture, something that Western action movies have a pretty bad track record of doing.
One thing I really enjoyed is that Kate doesn’t fight like a woman or a man. She fights like a fighter. I was personally bothered by the logic behind the fight choreo in “Atomic Blonde”, for instance. While the choreography for “Atomic Blonde” is exceptionally inventive, it also includes a lot that’s unnecessary. A kick by someone trained can deliver at least 5,000 newtons of force. That’s in excess of 1,100 pounds force (lbf). A punch can deliver at least 450 lbf. Understand that both of those are on the low end for someone trained in fighting, and it takes only a few hundred lbf to break most bones. Breaking a jaw, elbow, or collarbone are all well under 100.
There’s a reason that when you watch UFC or any martial arts competition, women don’t have some completely different fighting style from the men. Weighing less and having less reach is going to change some things, just like it does for anyone fighting a taller or stronger opponent, but the fundamentals and muscle memory connecting movement and technique are not completely rewritten.
Women train in the same arts with the same fundamentals to have the same muscle memory. Winstead isn’t doing any cinematic “but I’m a woman” choreographic adjustments. She’s not gymnastically somersaulting to plant her legs either size of a dude’s head to ridiculously throw him. Why do that when she can just punch him in the neck and grab something sharp? The fight choreo here is exceptional, and it’s largely the same choreography they’d give a man in the same role. That is still disappointingly rare on film, despite being more realistic to how fighters – regardless of gender – fight. Trained is trained, and it’s nice to see a film act that way.
This has been a banner year for action movies led by women. It might be the best we’ve ever had. “Black Widow” gave us a James Bond-like thriller better than the Bond franchise manages these days. “Gunpowder Milkshake” delivered a surreal, comedic, vaporwave Western. “Jungle Cruise” hearkened back to archaeology adventure classics of yore. “Shadow in the Cloud” built one of the most dread-filled atmospheres on film. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” perfected the form of the 90s disaster action hybrid. All these have been good, some have been exceptional. “Kate” is a god damned miracle.
Every time I saw an ad for the “Nancy Drew” TV series, I thought its aesthetic looked superb. The ongoing CW adaptation of the children’s mystery series takes the concept sideways into horror with an adult Nancy Drew. After the death of her mother, Drew’s put off going to college and works at a diner. One night, a socialite is murdered in the parking lot. This makes her and her coworkers suspects in what starts as a smart distillation of late 90s teen horror. More importantly, it sparks a series of hauntings in their town.
The idea that it couldn’t be very good got stuck in my head before I’d seen it, I’m not sure why. “Supernatural” was a lot of fun, but it rarely delivered on the horror promise of its pilot episode. “Riverdale” and Netflix’s closely related “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” can have some clever episodes, but the horror backdrop of these is regularly sabotaged in favor of unwieldy, badly paced, season-long arcs. I do like those shows, but they all have a certain navel-gazing element that can wear a viewer down quickly.
Still, I’m a sucker for an intriguing aesthetic. At long last, I started watching “Nancy Drew” and it’s delivering in all the ways those other shows failed.
Let’s back up a second – what exactly am I looking for out of a show like this? When I talk about “Supernatural”, “Riverdale”, or “Sabrina”, I’m not saying I dislike them. I’m saying they all promised horror, showed a capability for it, and then chased something else. “Supernatural” initially promised a focus on horror and solving mysteries, but it very quickly became a meta action-comedy centered on world-saving heroes who moonlighted as pest control for ghosts and whatnot. Horror trappings were still there, but more as homages and scenery to recognize along the way. It was always interesting and often funny, but being frightening was a rare exception.
“Riverdale” and “Sabrina” showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has a rare talent for tapping into both the unsettling and reassuring elements within horror kitsch. He’s trailblazed a uniquely cinematic, unnervingly timeless style across both shows. There are standalone episodes in both series that belong among the best of the genre. Unfortunately, these are ultimately made to feel like diversions, trod under by larger plot arcs that feel uneven and unsupported. The superb world-building that establishes these universes is often undone by their larger arcs, where it turns out the hero knows everyone past and future already and the vast, mysterious, unpredictable world we were promised all turns out to be within walking distance.
I want one of these shows that plays with the kitsch and genre elements of horror to be frightening as well. I’d say “Evil” gets there, but as charming as the cast may be, it draws from a dire, harrowing, misanthropic side of horror that reflects a world decaying toward entropy. It’s an uncomfortable mirror that I highly recommend, but I’m not exactly going to describe it as a thrill ride.
That brings me back around to “Nancy Drew”, the show I’m disappointed “Supernatural” never became. There isn’t a shootout to be seen. Although both are filmed in British Columbia, gone is the Vancouver warehouse chic. Much like “Riverdale” and “Sabrina”, every location feels partly like an intentional set trapped in amber, but unlike those shows, they don’t feel like museum displays. It actually feels like people live here. There’s a distinct Stephen King vibe that’s appropriate for its coastal Maine setting, one that’s natural and precious, but also distinctly fragile.
“Nancy Drew” features very few murders for this type of show. Others are discovered along the way, but the first season of “Nancy Drew” focuses on the connection between only two murders. That’s even more focused of a season-long arc than any of the other shows I just criticized for their season-long arcs, but I don’t have a problem with that kind of storytelling. What I have a problem with is that kind of storytelling just being chucked into an A-plot/B-plot rotation. What I have a problem with is characters saying there’s no time to waste when the arc is an A-plot in one episode, and then wasting all their time when it’s a B-plot in the next. That rotation between standalone and arc cannot bleed into characters’ decision-making.
It’s a big part of why Kennedy McMann’s portrayal of Nancy Drew has become one of my favorite characters. If anything, the characters around her are regularly frustrated that she won’t let go of the plot arc. It needs to be solved, and she constantly excuses herself from life, work, expectations, and other cases in order to investigate. When a standalone element takes over, it’s because someone was kidnapped or there’s another impending murder to stop – delays that make sense.
One early sticking point is her boyfriend Nick wanting to prove a different murder case, but one that gets in the way of investigating the one she’s been after. There’s a right thing to do here, and she chooses wrongly. It’s intriguing and complex because there’s no easy out. Like any of these shows, the writing can occasionally deliver a revelation conveniently, but what’s unique to “Nancy Drew” is the interest in these no-win scenarios. It often becomes a show about not losing ground, mitigating damage, keeping an opportunity alive, or finding whatever the best trade-off is even if it isn’t fair. That can sound discouraging, but for all its affectations, that sense of getting through the moment so you can hit the ground running again feels very real and relevant.
It also clarifies Nancy’s laser focus not as a kind of exceptionalism, but rather as a survival mechanism. Her nose for mysteries led her to witnessing trauma as a child, she lost her mother, and she hasn’t trusted her father in a long time. Her character’s greatest strength as a tenacious investigator is never diminished or portrayed as a weakness, but there’s a surprising amount that underlies it and that the show seeks to understand.
The mystery writing here is also some of the best going. It’s difficult to stretch a mystery over the course of an entire season. Most shows end up forcing something to fit even if it’s obvious to an audience that it shouldn’t. Here, Nancy cycles through a different suspect each episode, gathering information until complications mount and the show can start unspooling more chaotic horror elements. There’s a sense of Nancy establishing a rhythm within the show that is repeatedly challenged and interrupted. As a storytelling pace, it serves as a perfect reflection of what her character is going through emotionally.
As the initially skeptical Nancy and her crew find out, hauntings usually arrive with a purpose. The ghost haunting Nancy is a murdered town parade queen from 20 years prior, Lucy Sable. The horror scenes often serve to isolate a moment when a clue is found or connected to another piece of information. This is a clever way to sear those clues into our heads and make us remember them as important, because these are the moments when we’re most attentive and our senses are heightened. That said, it would only work if the horror was done this well.
We’re not talking “The Ring” or “It Follows” level of feeling your blood suck into your core as if it’s trying to hide from your skin. Instead, it’s where I want this kind of series to land – an exciting chill of dread up your spine. Hitting that mark effectively and unexpectedly once or twice an episode and letting it sit there patiently is more than most horror shows seem to manage. Moreover, “Nancy Drew” isn’t about confronting these things aggressively; it’s about understanding why they’re there in the first place.
It’s great when you can shoot it and douse it in rock salt, but that makes ghosts about as scary as a henchman with sodium deficiency. What goes bump in the night is far more terrifying when you have to manage its escalation and risk your safety episode after episode, clawing your way slowly toward understanding why it’s acting out.
I mentioned Vancouver warehouse chic earlier and it wasn’t just a passing shot. I get it, TV in the 2000s had an unbridled passion for empty warehouses, but the reason I bring it up is because “Nancy Drew” doesn’t shift characters into “empty factory” or “abandoned hospital” or “the woods but with a blue filter” to represent other realms. Instead, it turns the sets we already know in on themselves, morphing a familiar house into a dream-horror web of stairs, or turning an apartment into a sinking ship. A lot of this is smoke and mirrors (sometimes literally), but there’s a real focus on ambitious and beautifully realized set design, practical effects, and those moments where a detail can speak volumes. Showrunner Melinda Hsu Taylor makes sure there’s nearly always something there for the actors to interact with in terms of being unsettled and displaced.
“Nancy Drew” also has some of the best staging and blocking in a series. It might seem inconsequential, but the most important hidden element in the direction of a show is good blocking. You could watch an entire episode on mute and still understand perfectly how the power dynamics between characters shift within each scene. Where characters stand in relation to each other, how they move through a scene, and how their relationship is visually depicted within a scene all feed into blocking. The shot choice in “Nancy Drew” feels built around how characters move through a space rather than that movement being built around the shot choice.
This lends a more organic feel for a show that balances layer upon layer of deceit and reveal, effective horror, a superbly written mystery, a character study, some well-implemented social commentary, and a healthy bit of kitsch and cheese. That’s too much to convey in a way that feels natural. The blocking and staging keeps the characters grounded in a way nothing else in the show does, and that gives each actor room to play off each other instead of just saying the lines on a mark.
This leads to characters moving a lot within scenes, which feels more cinematic and engaging, but also reflects the shifting power dynamics and the constant evolution of the mysteries themselves. Beyond that, every room and building seems to get an unnerving 12 hours a day of magic hour – seeing the characters move around as if they’re utterly familiar with these spaces makes them feel lived-in. That staves off the artificial, diorama effect certain other highly stylized shows in the same vein have suffered. This may all be happening in a small town with a lot of links, but it doesn’t feel as restrictive or suffocating to the viewer. Instead of worlds of possibility being limited to walking distance, the world of the small town they live in instead seems to constantly expand and encompass more possibility.
I won’t say it’s a perfect show – one or two brief ideas clunk – but it’s an intriguing, fun, and surprisingly complex one. “Nancy Drew” is the horror mystery I feel like I’ve been promised over and over again yet never turns up. It evokes that “just one more episode” feeling of needing to see what happens next and a love for how its characters react to it.
You can watch “Nancy Drew” on the CW app (which is free) or HBO Max.
“Leverage: Redemption” is a continuation of a 2008 series that followed a group of Robin Hood-esque criminals. Sick of causing harm, they band together in order to return what’s been stolen to the disempowered.
Both “Leverage: Redemption” and the original “Leverage” tell breezy heist stories that highlight real-world abuses and corruption. While they don’t go too in-depth into the mechanics of that corruption, they do often give a brief crash course on its impact. Usually this is done through a prior victim of that corruption seeking the Leverage team out.
If you’ve seen either iteration of “Leverage”, none of this is news. “Leverage: Redemption” picks up years after the original show with its cast mostly intact. Gina Bellman, Christian Kane, and Beth Riesgraf (having the time of her life) all return. So does Aldis Hodge as hacker Hardison, though he gives way to Aleyse Shannon playing his replacement Breanna. (Hodge’s film career has been taking off, most recently playing Jim Brown in “One Night in Miami”.) Noah Wyle joins as a new criminal-in-training, a lawyer who’s spent his lift protecting abusive corporations and people.
Not returning is Timothy Hutton, who played the former mastermind of the group – Hutton was accused in 2020 of raping a 14-year old in 1983. Hutton was 22 at the time. While the British Columbia Crown Counsel decided not to press charges last month, the initial report from BuzzFeed News included the statements of a woman who was with the victim that evening, and five people who confirmed the victim told them about the assault at that time. While there is no statute of limitations for this crime in Canada, the age of consent there at the time was 14. This means that statutory rape can’t legally apply. Instead, the case becomes about whether consent was given.
For one of the few series this deeply concerned with ethics and the abuses of power, Hutton had to be cast off. Frustratingly, Hutton’s last major project before this was reported was Julie Taymor’s biopic of journalist and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, “The Glorias”. His first major project afterward is ABC’s “Women of the Movement” centered on the activism of Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till. If only cancel culture really possessed the repercussions conservatives like to complain about.
“Leverage: Redemption” simply starts by acknowledging Hutton’s character Nathan Ford is no more. Since we last saw him, he died. Oh darn. His widow is Gina Bellman’s grifter Sophie. To shake her out of her funk, she’s offered the run of the Leverage team. Run a few cons, bring a few people to justice. What’s beautiful about “Leverage: Redemption” is that this is a world where it really is that simple, that straightforward. What’s apparent is that even in the “Leverage” world where it is that simple, it’s still getting worse and worse. Justice falls further and further behind.
“Leverage: Redemption” can’t cast off only Hutton’s Ford. It also has to cast off what Ford represented. The character was a genius, manipulating not just the corrupt people who were the team’s marks, but the members of his own team as well. He was often abusive, but this was excused because of his genius. The team wanted to impress him because they wanted his approval. That was a core part of the original “Leverage”.
You can’t simply replace him and act like that’s enough. The original “Leverage” concluded in 2012. The allegation against Hutton surfaced in 2020. There’s no way the cast and crew could have known about it while the original show was being made. Yet accountability isn’t just about intent. It’s also about impact. If “Leverage: Redemption” wants to be a show that genuinely embodies the ethic of the justice it pursues, it has to refute the meaning of Hutton’s place in “Leverage” as well. You have to refute that style of leadership entirely. So they do.
“Leverage” has always been about each member of the group presenting and combining ideas, but before it was under the direction of Hutton’s Nate Ford. It was a positive environment at times, but he would still quickly shut down someone’s idea. He would lie to his own team. He would play them off each other. He would keep everyone in losing positions in relation to him – he was the only one who knew the whole picture, often because he made it that way.
Now, Sophie is in charge of the cons. Wait a minute, though – at the end of “Leverage”, wasn’t Parker the one left in charge of the group? Didn’t they make a big deal in the last season about who would take over as the new mastermind? Well, Parker’s also still in charge here.
How does this work if both Sophie and Parker are in charge? Parker runs the Leverage organization, which now has teams doing this work around the world. She has final say on who’s in or out of the group, and what kind of chance they’ll have to prove themselves. Sophie is in charge of the team itself, running each con. These boundaries can obviously overlap in places, but Parker and Sophie check in with each other constantly.
Parker was one of the earliest positive representations of an autistic person in TV or film. She’s still one of the only ones. Rather than anyone trying to fix her, she’s not treated as broken in the first place. She’s supported and respected. She becomes the unquestioned leader of the team. It would’ve been horrible to retcon that. Instead, not only is her team successful, she’s grown the idea across the world and trained other teams.
This approach also avoids the only-one-woman-at-a-time trope. We have long approached women leaders, celebrities, politicians, and artists through a media lens of only one qualifying. If two women are successful in the same sphere, the media and critical industry often pit them against each other. If one is successful, the others measured against her must not be. Success can only be achieved by someone new once she topples an already successful woman.
This trope has been used to sustain a dangerous cultural norm. If there’s only one seat at the table for women, and they’re made to compete and drag each other down for it, then the only challenges taking place are for that seat. There are no challenges – and there is no focus – that there should be more seats at the table to start. It is clear here, especially coming off the original “Leverage”, that Parker and Sophie each have a seat and they each legitimize this for the other.
There’s a pretty famous corollary to this in the real world. Just look at The Squad. Largely, the group of congresspeople is most recognized as Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayana Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. Working together since 2019 has allowed them to each platform and legitimize the others’ voices. Pitting them against each other in media narratives hasn’t gained any traction because they constantly legitimize each others’ voices and positions. Even when they disagree, they argue for why each others’ positions are qualified and well-reasoned. (Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush joined The Squad this year as congresspeople who assumed office in 2021.)
Leadership in “Leverage: Redemption” follows intersectional feminist theories of leadership that prioritize collaboration, the sharing of decision-making, and the importance of understanding the perspectives of everyone involved. There’s no mastermind now; there are several qualified people who each bring strengths and weaknesses.
Far more than the original show, “Leverage: Redemption” asks team members to understand a place where they’re biased or making a risky decision. Other team members walk them through an aspect of what they aren’t seeing, and offer alternatives that rely less on the area where they’re biased or unqualified.
The original “Leverage” had those episodes where a team member was too close to a con, or identified too much with a victim – episodes where they lost perspective. Hell, significant arcs revolved around Ford’s own alcohol abuse and need for vengeance. Team members who weren’t Ford were expected to overcome their emotional involvement and get the job done. They were chastised for the occasional mistake, or frozen out as a punishment. In “Leverage: Redemption”, they’re expected to talk about it and listen to someone with different experiences. They’re expected to do the work of understanding how they came to their mistake in the first place.
When someone makes a mistake or fails, they’re not snapped at or made to feel disappointed in themselves. They’re told how others around them have failed in the past, asked to understand the nature of their mistake, and given an expectation not to repeat it. One is being scolded into fear of making a mistake, the other is a community giving you support by teaching you how to avoid it.
In the last episode of this first season of “Leverage: Redemption”, Ford’s leadership style is confronted. Don’t worry; Hutton is not brought back in any way. The way it’s done both respects the character’s place in series lore, while also making clear that his leadership could have a scarring effect. We already see a better, healthier alternative for it displayed by Parker and Sophie.
None of “Leverage” or “Leverage: Redemption” is particularly believable in terms of how a heist plays out. The show is built on cons that escalate into parallel action, wacky hijinks, and flashback reveals. “Leverage: Redemption” chooses to be fun above all else. A fun show can still make a point. A fun show still has responsibilities. There’s no magic of exceptionalism here, where one super genius can play his team like puppets when he wants. Instead, there are people who communicate, who share leadership, and who build a community.
The original “Leverage” was about a team against the world, just trying to do the right thing, but its form of leadership through exceptionalism mythology is such a large part of what feeds the world being so hijacked by corruption in the first place. Understanding this, both in our world and through Hutton’s involvement in the prior series, “Leverage: Redemption” does the work of understanding how it got here. It’s one of the only shows I’ve ever seen re-craft itself around accountability for something that – while out of its control – still had an impact.
“Leverage: Redemption” is about a team trying to change the world so that it does the right thing, which isn’t all that different…but its form of leadership offers a part of the solution that was never present in the original “Leverage”. It dismisses exceptionalism mythology and again and again offers examples of community – that lessons and expectations are built from storytelling, communicating and experience. It describes that leadership can’t truly be practiced from one perspective in the way “Leverage” was built around Ford. Leadership can only see from multiple perspectives when it’s shared and accountable. It recognizes that the very notion of a hero is itself an iconography that helps no one when anyone can make a difference, and that the primary way to empower a community is to reinforce and expand what enables it to be a community in the first place. Leaders are vessels for a community, not masterminds.