I recommend a five-step approach to writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s new film, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (R, 134 minutes, Netflix):
1. Watch it. And don’t be surprised if your head explodes. This is, after all, from the writer-director of “Synecdoche, New York” and screenwriter of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” It’s a puzzle, and if you grasp everything going on with your first viewing, you’re a lot quicker than I am (not that that’s saying much).
2. Think about it. Take some time to make what you can out of it. What have you just experienced? What has happened in the movie? What is Kaufman, who based the film on a novel of the same name by Iain Reid, dealing with here, and what is he saying about it?
3. Read about it. I recommend the IndieWire piece featuring Kaufman’s explanations, which you can find at: www.indiewire.com/2020/09/charlie-kaufman-explains-im-thinking-of-ending-things-1234584492/.
4. Watch it again.
5. Think about it again. Actually, you’ll probably be thinking about it for a while.
I know, I know. Movies shouldn’t involve such a commitment of time or energy. But if you’re game for a movie that digs deep, really deep, and you’re willing to take up the challenge it presents, it can be greatly rewarding. I didn’t know what to make of Kaufman’s film at first. Now I love it.
On the surface, it’s about a young woman (Jessie Buckley of last year’s “Wild Rose”) who travels by car with her new boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to visit his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at their farm.
That’s all the details you’ll get from me, other than the four actors mentioned above are excellent in challenging roles, and that the film is unsettling, darkly funny and, ultimately, powerfully moving.
Put in the work. It’s worth it.
Rating: **** (out of four)
More home viewing
During the past week or so I’ve also seen the following (I’ve included the service on which I watched the films; check for other options):
“Shirley” (2020, R, 107 minutes, Hulu). Elisabeth Moss is super-creepy as horror writer Shirley Jackson — best known for her harrowing short story “The Lottery” — in a strange thriller that mixes facts about her life and career with fiction.
The film — directed by Josephine Decker (“Madeline’s Madeline”) and based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell — takes place in the 1950s at Bennington College in Vermont, where Jackson’s philandering husband, literary critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), works as a professor while mentally ill Jackson struggles at home with writer’s block.
Enter (fictional) newlyweds Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman). Fred has just gotten a job at Bennington, and Stanley manipulates the young couple into accepting a deal in which they can live rent-free at the Hyman-Jackson home if pregnant Rose takes on household duties, including watching over Shirley. (Stanley broaches the subject by asking Rose, “How’s your rump roast?”)
The result is a variation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in which Stanley and Shirley play mind games with Fred and Rose — and each other. During their first dinner together, for instance, Shirley looks at her guests and asks Rose, “Did you tell him (Fred) you were knocked up before the wedding?”
Yep, Shirley’s pretty awful, and Stanley’s arguably worse. But is this all part of the process of creating art? Maybe. Is it worth it? The movie suggests that it depends on whom you ask. ***
“Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon” (1995, not rated, 97 minutes, Criterion Channel). Like “Shirley,” this could be retitled “Portrait of the Artist in Hell.” Derek Jacobi plays British painter Francis Bacon, whose unsettling art reflects his dark, jaundiced view of life and the world. Daniel Craig, pre-James Bond, plays George Dyer, a working-class burglar who becomes Bacon’s real-life lover after breaking into the artist’s apartment. Writer-director John Maybury’s drama focuses on the relationship, which becomes increasingly destructive as Bacon’s artistic career continues to soar. At the same time, it asks similar questions as “Shirley,” such as: Is artistic achievement worth the pain and suffering sometimes involved? Jacobi and Craig are outstanding. ***
One of the greats
If it weren’t for the “Thin Man” movies he made with Myrna Loy, William Powell might be one of the forgotten stars of the 1930s. And that would be a shame. Fortunately, TCM shows a lot of movies featuring Powell, whose specialty was playing characters who were sophisticated, highly intelligent and very funny. Here are two:
“Jewel Robbery” (1932, not rated, 68 minutes, TCM). This is a “pre-code” comedy, meaning it was made before censors clamped down on Hollywood films starting in 1934. As a result, not only is marital infidelity played for laughs, but smoking marijuana (never mentioned by name but represented by funny cigarettes that make characters giggle uncontrollably).
Powell plays the suave leader of a gang of jewel thieves. During the titular heist, for instance, he plays music on a phonograph to ease the tension of the wealthy folks held hostage during the robbery, then has them smoke those funny cigarettes. How considerate of him to make the experience as enjoyable as possible!
A spoiled young woman (Kay Francis), married to a much older, extremely wealthy man, is charmed by the crook … and love blooms.
Powell and Francis make a likable romantic team, and, under the direction of William Dieterle (who made the 1939 Charles Laughton version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), the comedy breezes along, with one funny bit after another. If only more modern comedies were as clever. ***½
“Libeled Lady” (1936, not rated, 98 minutes, TCM). Talk about star power. Jean Harlow, Powell, Loy and Spencer Tracy join forces in this screwball comedy about a newspaper editor (Tracy) who hires a former colleague (Powell) to seduce a socialite (Loy) who’s suing the newspaper. Harlow plays the editor’s fiancee, who’s also drawn into the plot.
Powell and Loy, who worked together on 14 films in all, steal this best-picture Oscar nominee with sharp, smart performances that would stand up today. (Harlow’s and Tracy’s more over-the-top portrayals, while entertaining, haven’t aged as well.)
Powell and Harlow were a romantic duo off the screen: They were engaged to be married when Harlow died of kidney failure at age 26 in 1937. Powell previously was married to another big star, Carole Lombard, who later married Clark Gable. ***½
Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. At this point he could really use a haircut, but he’s just not in the mood. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic.
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