I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

It took me a long time to learn that it’s unnecessary to force yourself to care about every movie & filmmaker that’re widely deemed Important. What I’m working on learning now is that it’s also unnecessary to broadcast the fact that you don’t care; it’s okay to just stay out of the conversation when they come up. It turns out that second lesson is much more difficult, which is why I’m reviewing a Charlie Kaufman movie even though he’s not really My Thing. After finding both Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa incredibly frustrating (even if formally interesting), I should have known better than to indulge Kaufman’s latest 135-minute mind-flattener, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Every one of his pretentious meta-crises has ecstatic defenders who find them to be the height of postmodern screenwriting and zealous buzzkills who find them to be morally repugnant drivel. By now it’s crystal clear that I’m not among either camp. Even just a few days after I’m Thinking of Ending Things premiered on Netflix, there’s already a sea of lengthy tomes praising its genius or its decrying its crimes against pop entertainment (or, more relatably, against the inner lives of women), but all I can really muster is a half-hearted “Meh.” I think that means it’s time to walk away from discussing this particular filmmaker, possibly forever.

To be totally honest, I already knew it was time to walk away. I was going to skip this film entirely until I read that Jessie Buckley (who still hasn’t earned sufficient accolades for her work in Beast) was starring in a trippy meta-horror about a psychological break with reality. That sounds like My Thing. I was on the hook for what I’m Thinking of Ending Things was up to for at least its first hour, wherein Buckley suffers a miserable, real-time road trip in a snowstorm to meet her boyfriend’s grotesquely annoying parents. The title is a refrain that Buckley repeats on loop in her constant internal monologue (hidden behind her trademark constant smirk), referring both to suicidal ideation and to her desire to break up with her pretentious asshole boyfriend (Jesse Plemons). Once they reach the horrifically awkward meet-the-parents dinner, the film shifts into an Exterminating Angel type existential crisis, where there’s no way to back out of the monogamous courtship ritual that led them there and all momentum is leading towards them aging into the same hideously uninteresting husks as the boyfriend’s parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette). That is, until it stops caring about Buckley’s character entirely and goes all in on the pretentious asshole’s inner life instead – territory that Kaufman has covered all too extensively in his past work.

There’s a lot to admire here, which is always true of Kaufman’s films to some extent and always makes them even more frustrating when considered in totality. I’m Thinking of Ending Things tackles a lot of the universally relatable indignities of romantic courtship & growing old in the most obscure, unrelatable ways possible. It has an chillingly effective way of shifting minor details like wardrobe, set design, and characters’ entire identities to disorient the audience within its nightmarishly Ordinary hellscape, which works in its favor when it’s aiming for a Lynchian horror mood (complete with closed captions that read “[wind howling]” for Twitter-ready screengrabs). I’ll even admit that I was amused by its self-hating pretentiousness at times, especially in its absurdly lengthy allusions to outside texts like poems, musicals, and Pauline Kael movie reviews. Still, as engaging as the film could be intellectually, I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to care about where it was going or what it was saying, especially once it left the hellish parental dinner of the second act.

This film is fine overall, I guess, but I personally got a lot more out of Vivarium‘s amused hatred of aging & monogamous courtship with nearly an hour less investment. It’s probably best that I walk away from the already excessively vast conversation surrounding I’m Thinking of Ending Things without saying more than that. I may not care much about what Charlie Kaufman is up to but, to quote his own screenplay (or maybe the film’s source-material novel), “It’s good to remind yourself that the world is bigger than inside your own head.” Hopefully by the next time he releases one of these self-indulgent meta-provocations I will have learned to leave the conversation to people who actually get something out of them, positive or negative.

-Brandon Ledet

Judy (2019)

The new Judy Garland biopic is exactly what you’d expect it to be: a safe, pleasant-enough novelty built entirely around highlighting its lead, titular performance. And since Renée Zellweger won all the awards she was gunning for with the role—including an Oscar and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Lead Actress in the same weekend—I suppose it’s inarguably a success. If the performance is the movie, that means Judy is too weirdly uneven to praise with any enthusiasm. In her worst moments Zellweger awkwardly apes Garland’s broadest mannerisms while wearing the same obnoxious false teeth that won Rami Malek an Oscar for Bohemian Rhapsody. At her best, she stumbles into a stupor while recreating Garland’s late-career stage performances that somehow entirely transcends the caricature of the rest of the film to approximate some kind of spiritual possession where she legitimately is Judy, however briefly. In either case, it’s effectively pointless to critique the finer points of Zellweger’s movie-defining performance at this stage, as it’s already carried off the Oscar statue in its Dorothy-replica picnic basket. All there is left to do is single out the stray points of interest that distinguish this picture from other Safe, Award-Winning biopics – of which there are only a precious few:

  • Judy’s sole distinguishing choice on a creative level is its device of setting all its flashbacks to Garland’s youth on a studio lot sets, emphasizing the disorienting artifice of her non-childhood. Instead of following a birth-to-death biopic structure, the film saves time by starting with a pilled-out, extravagant but nearly homeless Garland during a final string of London concert dates preceding her death. It periodically cuts back to the abuses of the Studio System that landed her in such a delirious state, painting her Old Hollywood teen years as a surreal, Oz-like nightmare of pure artifice. She genuinely cannot tell which foods, romances, or inner thoughts are The Real Thing and which are stage props, thank to studio ghouls who control her every movement. This all-encompassing gaslighting operation really colors how we see the ridiculous stupor she stumbles through in later in life. An entire movie set in that kind of reality-obscuring saccharine nightmare might have actually been interesting as an art object, or at least more so than the actor’s showcase we got instead.
  • It’s uncomfortable to dwell on this observation for too long, but Judy is partially fascinating in its parallels to the current professional haze of its star. At only 50 years old, Zellweger has already been effectively discarded by her industry for being too “old” & loopy to be worthy of Lead Actress status. Until this awards campaign, the most use the Hollywood star-making machine had for her in recent years was as tabloid fodder to shame her for undergoing Noticeable cosmetic surgery. Zellweger emerged from this mistreatment understandably wobbly, which is best illustrated in her loosey-goosey Oscars acceptant speech that praised Martin Scorsese, Venus & Serena Williams, firefighters, and Harriet Tubman all in the same breath. Judy Garland was only 47 years old when she died. As much as we like to think the entertainment industry has evolved for the better since that tragedy, the parallels between Zellweger’s portrayal of that fallen star and her own offscreen behavior are . . . alarming.
  • This movie had to acknowledge Judy Garland’s significance in the LGBTQ community in some way (it is on a first-name basis with the star, after all), so it was enthralling to see how it’d go about satisfying that requirement. It hurriedly decides to store al its gay eggs in one homosexual couple’s basket, making time for Garland to befriend a same-sex British couple who wait outside her concerts for autographs. This gamble works fairly well when she spends an intimate evening with the ecstatic lads in their cozy apartment, but less so when their arc is quickly resolved as a stinger of comic relief. In either case, choosing one couple as a stand-in for All Gays Everywhere makes for an interesting tension that’s worth some careful scrutiny.
  • Jessie Buckley’s in this! She’s even second billed in the end credits, despite taking on a thankless role as Judy’s befuddled assistant. It’s nowhere near her finest work, but unlike Beast & Wild Rose, it’s a movie people will actually see.

Outside these few points of interest and the idiosyncrasies of Zellweger’s weirdly uneven performance, Judy is the exact movie you’d expect it to be based on its poster & premise. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of safe-bet indulgence, really, but it does feel like the movie has already outlived its purpose now that it has its Best Lead Actress Oscar secured on Zellweger’s trophy shelf. The best it can hope for at this point is a few basic cable broadcasts & Redbox rentals before it’s forgotten forever. In that context, it’s pretty alright.

-Brandon Ledet

Wild Rose (2019)

I’m not an especially avid fan of country music, so I’m not sure that Wild Rose ever had a chance to speak directly to my soul. I did, however, recognize the universal appeal of the genre when the aspiring country music singer in the film is asked why she loves country so much and she responds, “Because it’s three chords and the truth.” That’s basically the same explanation you’ll hear about the appeal of punk and all other stripped-down mutations of rock n’ roll, and it’s one this movie conveys surprisingly well despite country’s not-for-everyone cultural barriers (to the point where “three chords and the truth” is tattooed across its protagonist’s forearm). It needs to sell that universal appeal to the audience too, since its premise relies on it being believable that a young Scottish woman who’s never been to America is singularly obsessed with making it as a country musician in Nashville. Most of Wild Rose’s tension is in how those dreams of graduating from a local sensation at a Western-themed dive bar called Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry to the real-deal half a world away conflict with her means and obligations at home. It’s easy to get swept up in that kind of underdog story no matter how much personal investment you have in country music scene in particular.

The reason I sought out this minor indie drama despite my general disinterest in its milieu is that its star, Jessie Buckley, was incredible in last year’s criminally underseen thriller Beast. She’s just as endlessly watchable here as an unlikely country singer-songwriter pursuing a career in Americana all the way from Scotland, even though that thematic territory isn’t nearly as appealing to me personally as the Wuthering Heights-flavored crime novel mystery of Beast. Wild Rose is a sort of delayed-coming-of-age picture for Buckley, as she plays an immature twentysomething petty criminal who’d much rather get sloppy dunk & sing country tunes with strangers than spend a quiet afternoon engaging with her own children, whom she treats as a burden. She relies on her increasingly frustrated mother (Julie Walters) to tend to her obligations as she storms off like an unruly teen to play pretend rockstar in a cheesy country bar. A lot of the growing up she does in the film is in realizing that she can take an active role in pursuing a career as a country singer and be a decent person to her own kids. All she really needs is encouragement (and financial support) from her local community to push her in the right direction, as she starts her journey to self-realization as an ex-convict with every little to work with and an isolating sense of selfishness.

Wild Rose does occasionally dip into a maudlin kind of Sundance-friendly inspo-drama that I don’t always have the patience for, but it at least tempers its sentimentality with a relatable layer of crude vulgarity. Buckley cusses her way through the picture in a thick Scottish accent that cuts through what could easily feel like an artificial cliché if it were a PG drama staged in Nashville instead of the drunken end of Glasgow. Buckley’s not quite as mesmerizing here as she is in Beast, but that earlier film didn’t leave room for her to exhibit what made her a star to watch in Britain in the first place: her beautiful singing voice. Even as a country music agnostic, I was thoroughly won over by all her vocal contributions to the soundtrack. It was just all the other country tunes that left me cold, give or take a brief cameo from Kasey Musgraves. I cried in the exact moments when Buckley wanted me to (usually in her character’s interactions with her mother and kids) and my heart soared in her few moments of triumph (most notably in the performance of a song inexplicably co-written by Marky heckin’ Steenburgen of all people). That’s not too bad for a film with two layers of genre skepticism for me to fight past as a perennial big-city grump – country music and saccharine melodrama. Buckley is just that good, and I’ll apparently watch her in just about anything.

-Brandon Ledet

Beast (2018)

It’s increasingly rare to walk into a modern theatrical release without any extratextual info setting expectations for what you’re about to see. Maybe it’s because I spend way too much time engaging with film criticism online (it is), but I’m usually familiar at least with a film’s critical consensus, if not its basic plot & production history, before I get to experience a movie for myself. Especially with bigger, heavily advertised blockbusters under the ever-expanding Disney umbrella, it feels as if I’m so familiar with a film’s history & early critical buzz by the time that I actually see it that there’s no possibility left for surprise or discovery, just an echo of what’s already been observed. Completely blind experiences are the stuff of local film festivals, not national theatrical releases. It was wonderful, then, to walk into the recent, darkly romantic drama Beast at a corporate multiplex with no idea what I was in for. Based on the film’s title, promotional poster, and inclusion in this year’s Overlook horror film fest I halfway expected a werewolf-type creature feature. Based on its promotional push on the MoviePass app and complete lack of critical buzz otherwise, I expected it to be a cheaply-produced frivolity. My vague expectations, based entirely on personal conjecture, were entirely wrong, something I wish could happen at the theater much more often.

Within an isolated community in the British Isles, a young, well-to-do suburban woman with an overprotective family falls in love with a wildling bad-boy who often finds himself on the wrong side of the law. Their shared physical, dangerously intense thirst for each other is apparent as soon as they first lock eyes, making it inevitable that she will have to leave the comfort of her country club lifestyle for a life of off-season rabbit hunting & menial physical labor. Part of this attraction is the pair’s capacity for & history of violence, something they sense in each other before it’s ever spoken aloud. She struggles to live down a childhood incident where she lashed out at a schoolyard bully with disproportionate vengeance. He suffers suspicion of being a serial murderer of young girls on the island, due to a similarly guarded secret from his own past. They’re mutually unsure whether to trust or fear each other after being drawn together though intense desire, as their volatile passions & separate histories with lethal violence can only mean their romance will end in bloodshed. Beast is partly a murder mystery concerning the missing young girls in this isolated community, but mostly a dark romance tale about two dangerous people who can’t help but be pulled into each other’s violent orbits. Issues of class, self-harm, domestic abuse, and never truly knowing who to trust run throughout, but the film mostly mines its intensity from the unavoidable pull of Natural impulses, whether violent, romantic, or otherwise.

What’s most immediately impressive here is the tone director Michael Pearce acheives in this debut feature. There’s a distinctly literary vibe to Beast, nearly bordering on a Gothic horror tradition, that almost makes its modern setting feel anachronistic. The intense, primal attraction at the film’s core (sold wonderfully by actors Jessie Buckley & Johnny Flynn and the seedy murder mystery that challenges that passion’s boundaries make the film feel like Wuthering Heights by way of Top of the Lake. It’s the same dark, traditionally femme side of romantic literary traditions I’ve recently fallen for in both Marrowbone & Never Let Me Go, a cinematic vibe I wish were afforded more respectful attention. Pearce makes this undercelebrated tone his own by clashing the Natural imagery of Beast’s violent instincts with the modernity of neon-lit nightclubs and the ominous soundscapes provided by Jim Williams (who also scored last year’s coming of age horror Raw). The distinct nightmare logic of its protagonist’s stress dreams also justifies the horror genre label implied by the film’s (barely existent) advertising, even if its overall tone is close to a modern take on Beauty & the Beast (except with two beasts). Beast is an overwhelming sensual terror as much as it is a twisty murder mystery with a romantic core, an incredible accomplishment for an unknown’s debut feature.

Of course, by reading this review you’re guaranteeing that you cannot replicate the going-in-blind experience I personally had with Beast. That’s the nature of engaging with this stuff on the internet. All I can do is report is that I was happy to have a relatively context-free experience with the picture, which I believe deserves to be seen as big & loud as possible based on the strength of its imagery & sound design. I want more people to experience that pleasure for themselves before it disappears from theaters entirely. The more I promote its merits the more I’m diminishing its chance for an expectation-free audience, though, which is why this entire mode of communication is so inherently imperfect & self-conflicted.

-Brandon Ledet