Film Reviews

The Beautiful, Subliminal Drama of David Fincher’s "Mank"

Among Fincher's best films, Mank handles it's subject with subtlety and style.

Lily Collins and Gary Oldman in "Mank"

Update 3/15/2021: Oscar nominations have just been announced, with Mank receiving a total of 10 — more than any other film this year — with nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (David Fincher), Best Actor in a lead role (Gary Oldman), Best Supporting Actress (Amanda Seyfried). The film also received well-deserved nominations for Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound, Score, and Makeup.

David Fincher is not a director known for pulling punches.

In movies live Seven, Fight Club, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he has demonstrated a willingness to linger on scenes of horrifying gore and violence.

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2020 was a strange and strained year in so many ways.

Every aspect of culture has had to adapt to shifting circumstances. But cinema in particular — an institution based on the idea of large groups of people sitting in a tightly-packed room for two hours — had to adjust.

Schedules for both production and release have been continually disrupted, and despite efforts to convince audiences that they can feel safe returning to theaters, most have stayed away — and they are right to. As a result, a lot of great movies fell through the cracks.

The critically acclaimed Minari, for example, only saw a limited digital release for one week, with a theatrical debut scheduled for March. And the much anticipated News of the World is currently screening in theaters — even though Tom Hanks was the first famous face of the coronavirus pandemic.

With that in mind, it was a strange year to review cinema, but these are the best movies that felt safe to see in 2020.

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Culture Feature

Amateur Codebreakers Just Solved a 50-Year-Old Zodiac Killer Mystery

The hidden message of the Z 340 cipher had remained a mystery since the killer sent it in 1969.

The zodiac killer

From 1968 to 1974, Northern California was terrorized by a mysterious killer who taunted the police and forced the press to publish his coded messages.

It's a disturbing case that was documented in David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac. But without a real resolution to the mystery, there's no telling how much the movie left out.

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Film Features

Why Tom Hooper Is the Defining Director of the 2010s

Love him or hate him, he is THE director of our generation.

"Find you a man who can do both."

A bit of advice that began life as a meme, became general relationship advice, and finally settled in the culture as an identifier of any multi-talented individual. "A man who can do both" is what this generation demands of its lovers and heroes alike. It is the embodying cry of a generation that was forced via technology to adapt to multiple circumstances, to code-switch at will between professional and text speak, to lead a meaningful life in the midst of unavoidably-publicized global crises and catastrophe. We "do both" by necessity. We have built our culture around "doing both." This duality is what made Tom Hooper the perfect director for these times.

While Tom Hooper's name isn't exactly among household names like Steven Spielberg, Greta Gerwig, or Quentin Tarantino, he has been putting out critically and commercially acclaimed work for the last decade, enough to vault him into the same category as the aforementioned by any metric. His 2010 film, The King's Speech, cleaned up at the Oscars. Nominated for an astounding 12 awards, it won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Colin Firth) and Best Screenplay. He followed that up in 2012 with the best version of Les Miserables ever put to film, an enormously expensive production in which the actors sung live during each take, something that was previously unheard of for a movie musical. He finished his winning streak with The Danish Girl in 2015, a tragically under-seen powerhouse film that showcased two little-known actors who would go on to win Oscars: Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, the latter of whom won for Danish Girl.

French poster for Tom Hooper's 2012 version of Les Miserables. Bruno Chatelin | Flickr live.staticflickr.com

Hooper became known in film circles for the performances he drew from his actors, his sweeping wide shots, his careful shot construction, and his intensely-purposeful plotting. He became quickly associated with other contemporary masters like Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher. After three consecutive films that garnered rave critical reviews and made their budgets back at the box office (Les Miserables made almost $500 million worldwide), the world waited with bated breath to see what Tom Hooper's next move would be. If you still hadn't heard of him after Danish Girl came out, you can be forgiven for your ignorance, because Hooper went into hibernation for the next four years. He emerged after all that time for one final masterwork, the film he is now most famous for, and the one he will undoubtedly be remembered for:

Cats!

In an unbelievable turn of events, Tom Hooper, who a decade earlier owned the Oscars, tried his hand again at making musicals, adapting Andrew Lloyd Webber's surrealist broadway smash-hit for the screen. It did not turn out well.

Cats!, released just last December, was an expensive disaster for a multitude of reasons. It was critically panned. It lost $25 million dollars on an estimated $100 million-dollar budget, much of which was invested in special-effects like "Digital Fur Technology" (i.e. digitally covering every actor in fur so they appeared more convincingly like anthropomorphic cats than if they were to wear costumes). Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian Mckellen, British thespians of the highest-degree, shared scenes with Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift. But weird sometimes works. It just didn't work here.

Two of the digitally-furred actors in Cats stare wistfully into the distance. Universal Pictures

At least during its wide release, it didn't. Although still under a year old, Cats is gaining new life in a cult-film scene that includes movies such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room. There is a growing contingent of the population interested in watching and re-watching the objectively awful CatsCats for the sake of its unintended hilarity and for how well it mixes with drugs or alcohol. This is the great coup of Tom Hooper. This is why he embodies this generation's defining decade better than any other director: he can do both.

Tom Hooper spent the better part of the 2010s proving he was a director of the highest caliber, who could create compelling films with varied budgets, varied casts, and in varied genres. Tom Hooper also spent the final month of the 2010s proving he could screw up almost every part of a film and still find success in it. There is an unprecedented and exciting element in his career. While it's not at all uncommon for acclaimed directors to make career missteps, none of his caliber has ever made such an appalling dud of a film after such a profound string of successes. Regardless of where his movies will eventually settle in cinematographic academia or how they will age, you can't look away from them. What does it say about his work that Cats is probably his best known film? But watch any of his three earlier hits, and one can see they're obvious masterpieces, smart and funny and often heartbreaking, well-acted and well-shot and well-written.

Defining this decade of film is a really heartening endeavor. Careers like Greta Gerwig's (Lady Bird, Little Women) and Ari Aster's (Hereditary, Midsommar) and Damian Chazelle's (Whiplash, La La Land) thundered to life. The masters like Tarantino (Django Unchained, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant) made some of their best work. Female directors were criminally under-utilized and under-recognized (only Gerwig was even nominated for Best Director this decade, joining only five women, ever), and perhaps that is the defining story of the decade.

But the defining director still must be decided, and Tom Hooper is the one with the most range, who created a classic Oscar darling, revolutionized movie-musicals, and crafted the next great midnight cult film. The defining director of the decade is the one who can and did do both. Tom Hooper may not be the best director, but his whiplashing career reflects the chaos of the 2010s, and the generation of millennials who claimed it as their own.

TV

Did Season 2 Ruin "The End of the F*cking World"?

Did the show do itself a disservice by not ending after Season 1?

If you're a fan of Charles Forsman's graphic novel, The End of the F*cking World, then you were probably at least a little pissed off to see they were making a second season of the Netflix show based on the comic.

It's impossible to discuss the second season of this Netflix dramedy without spoiling the end of the first season, so if you have yet to catch up on this highly bingeable show, we recommend you stop reading now.

Essentially, Season 1 ends the same way the graphic novel does, with Alyssa and James finally getting tracked down by the police and James subsequently getting shot while trying to save Alyssa. In the novel, that moment of supreme sacrifice is how the story ends, and it's made clear James did not survive the encounter. But, as James says flatly in a voice over at the beginning of Season 2, "It was a fitting end, a doomed love story. A perfect tragedy. And then I didn't die." Indeed, viewers soon learn that writer Charlie Covell left his source material behind completely in writing the second installment of the series and James not only survived in this version, but soon reenters Alyssa's life.

End of the F*cking world An excerpt from the original graphic novel.


This left many viewers, this writer included, feeling conflicted. On one hand, the first season of the oddball series was a nearly perfect set of episodes. Deeply moving and hyper-realistic almost to the point of surrealism, it was a triumph in the genre of coming-of-age stories. It was made all the more perfect by the seemingly definitive ending: a bold, tragic end that tied up the story neatly and, in its original form, left no room for a sequel. On the other hand, saying goodbye to the deeply alive characters of Alyssa and James seemed unimaginable. But maybe that hard goodbye was part of what made the first season so perfect.

But then, it turned out it wasn't goodbye at all. And as much as we were happy to learn we'd get a whole other season of The End of the F*cking World, the very fact of the second season cast a shadow on the excellence of the first. Summarily, the second season has a difficult task to perform: prove to its audience that its existence is worth the loss of our perfect, tragic, poetic ending.

So, the question is: Did it succeed? Well...yes and no.

First, it's impossible to overstate the brilliance of this show's script. The inclusion of the character's inner monologues combined with the sparse, direct, and deadpan interpersonal dialogue serve to immerse the audience in a story both bizarre and deeply familiar. The audience gets the feeling that, thanks to these soliloquies, they know Alyssa and James just as well as they know themselves; but, given their adolescence and various struggles, that's to say hardly at all. Indeed, the combination of impulsivity and child-like innocence with the very adult grief and trauma these young characters bear creates a heartbreakingly realistic portrait of adolescence. All of this remains true in Season 2.

But, in many ways, Season 2 explores areas Season 1 already conquered. A third central character comes in the form of Bonnie (played by Naomi Ackie), a college-aged woman determined to exact revenge against Alyssa and James for killing her "boyfriend," Clive, whom James stabbed when he tried to rape Alyssa in Season 1. Bonnie is quite obviously "strange," as Alyssa puts it, and we learn in the first episode that this is at least in part because of an abusive childhood. While Ackie's performance is brilliant, she adds little besides a central source of conflict. Much of her character seems to be an exploration of themes Season 1 already covered: generational trauma, unhealthy attachments, and anger.

Bonnie (Naomi Ackie)

Still, in the final confrontation of the season we see James and Alyssa held at gunpoint in a diner by Bonnie, and what transpires is a scene about trauma and forgiveness as effecting as anything that's ever been on TV. When it's finally revealed to Bonnie that Clive tried to rape Alyssa, and Bonnie insists that they "still need to be punished," Alyssa delivers a brief monologue that punches all the harder for her character's usually sarcastic, deadpan manner. "You think we weren't punished? I'm always in that house," Alyssa confesses. "I'm always in that room. I can't get out. Maybe I did some things I shouldn't have, but I didn't deserve that." Finally, we see Bonnie's loathing and grief turn on herself, a poignant testament to the self-loathing inherent in vengeance, and watch as Alyssa and James stop her from ending her own life. Ultimately, audiences are given a much more interesting antagonist in Bonnie than they had with Clive, a serial rapist and murderer, in Season 1. Bonnie is as much a victim of Clive's cruelty as Alyssa is, and as such, she is by no means a true villain, but rather exists in a grey area of sympathy and antagonism that is ultimately more effective in the narrative of the show.

Much like last season, there are also moments of extraordinary wisdom. When James is rhetorically asked by a police man "What can you do?" in regards to Bonnie's mental illness, James responds, simply, "Well, a bit more." It's this sense of hope in the face of overwhelming nihilism that this show captures so beautifully. Perhaps acknowledgement of just how f*cked the world is, while allowing a sneaking suspicion to creep in that maybe the sun will rise some day—that maybe holding hands is worth doing even as the world falls in around you—is exactly what we need from our art in 2019.

While the critic in me wants to argue that Season 2 should never have existed, if I'm being honest, I'm just glad I got to spend a little more time trying to figure it all out alongside James and Alyssa.

FILM

Comeback Season: How Jennifer Lopez and Brad Pitt Ruled 2019

Jenny from the Block and People's two-time Sexiest Man Alive are back.

Jennifer Lopez and Brad Pitt

Michael Stewart/WireImage | Getty Images

Two larger-than-life stars of the 1990s, Jennifer Lopez and Brad Pitt, are having the best year of their careers. 2019 has been so good to them that it might end with Oscar gold.

Thanks to the streaming era, the number of financially successful original movies has dwindled at the box office. During the summer months, it's rare for studios to put anything that's not a sequel or a superhero film in theaters. Critically acclaimed hits like Long Shot and Late Night failed to get butts in seats, and even big franchise features like Men in Black: International and Godzilla: King of the Monsters performed poorly (overall box office numbers are down 6.4% from last year).

Are superhero flicks, franchise sequels, and reboots the only films that make money? Not necessarily, but it's much harder for a an original screenplay to compete. However, the one element that counteracts this pattern is star power. Name recognition still matters; A-list stars can still sell movies.

A study in 2017 showed the two biggest age demographics of moviegoers were 25-39 and 60+. Which group of stars do these demographics identify with more easily: 20-something-year-olds like Ansel Elgort and Ashleigh Cummings or wizened Hollywood veterans like Jennifer Lopez and Brad Pitt? The resounding answer is Lopez and Pitt.

Hustlers | Official Trailer [HD] | Now In Theaters www.youtube.com

In fact, Elgort and Cummings' recent film, The Goldfinch, bombed at the box office, making just $2.6 million on a $40+ million budget. You know whose films didn't bomb? Lopez's (Hustlers) and Pitt's (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Ad Astra). Lopez and Pitt have only been in a total of five films since 2017, but if box office success serves as evidence, their names still carry weight.

Both Lopez and Pitt are experiencing a career renaissance in 2019. To be clear, neither of them has ever vanished from the public eye. As long as they are living and breathing on this Earth, their names will still have currency in celebrity gossip circles and entertainment forums. Although Lopez hasn't starred in a lot of films since the end of 2015, she's just as relevant as ever. Lopez starred on NBC's Shades of Blue, held both a Las Vegas residency and world tour, and currently judges on World of Dance. On top of that, Lopez is in a high-profile relationship with Alex Rodriguez, has over 100 million followers on Instagram, and will co-headline the 2020 Super Bowl Halftime Show with Shakira.

Now, thanks to Hustlers, J-Lo has the Oscars in her sights, too. Based on the The Cut article by Jessica Pressler titled "The Hustlers at Scores," Hustlers follows a group of New York City strippers who steal money from wealthy Wall Street executives and businessmen. Lopez stars as Ramona, a feisty veteran stripper who helps lead the scheme with her coworker, Destiny (Constance Wu). Hustlers is already Lopez's highest opening weekend of her career at the box office (for a live-action film), as well as the highest opening weekend for the film's studio, STX Entertainment. In fact, the 50-year-old actress has generated Oscar buzz in the supporting actress category, which would be her first ever nomination.

Pitt is, without a doubt, one of the best actors of the last 30 years. At the turn of the 21st century, Pitt was arguably the biggest movie star on the planet. In the 1990s, Pitt had been nominated for an Oscar, won People's Sexiest Man Alive, starred in Fight Club, and dated Jennifer Anniston. And that was before his charming character in the Ocean's series stole America's heart.

Unfortunately, Pitt doesn't act a lot anymore. Instead, he's chosen to produce more films with his company, Plan B. From 2015 to the release of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Pitt was only in four movies. Then, Pitt decided 2019 was the time to remind the world that he's "Brad Effin Pitt," one of the last movie stars we have. For the first time in almost a decade, Pitt starred in two movies in one year, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Ad Astra. Let's start with the flashy role in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, which, as of Sept. 26, has grossed over $340 million worldwide. Pitt plays Cliff Booth, a stuntman to Rick Dalton (Leonard DiCaprio) who navigates the changing landscape of Hollywood in 1969 Los Angeles. Pitt is so fantastic in the role that he's one of the favorites to win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars. Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times said Pitt killed it and "turns in one of the most memorable performances of his career."

Ad Astra | IMAX Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX www.youtube.com

However, Pitt's true powers were on full display in James Gray's Ad Astra. Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, an astronaut who goes into space to search for his father, whose experiment threatens the entire solar system. It's a father-son love story disguised as a sci-fi epic. Ad Astra is a character study in what it means to be alone and how to find the true meaning of life. Pitt successfully channels these emotions of solitude and grief and gives one of the best performances of his career (again). The film recently launched overseas and grossed $26 million.

The changing of the guard is inevitable when it comes to Hollywood. New stars will eventually surpass the old ones. Maybe the box office will eventually sway back towards original movies and away from flashy superheroes and unwanted sequels. Lopez and Pitt are much-needed reminders that the reign of superhero franchises and reboots is temporary: The Old Guard of Hollywood is still a powerful creative force. And maybe, just maybe, A-listers of the 90s are the key to scaling back the pit of recycled material that Hollywood has fallen into.