Tag Archives: Julianne Nicholson

CAPSULE: DREAM SCENARIO (2023)

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Dream Scenario is available for pre-order to own digitally.

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DIRECTED BY: Kristoffer Borgli

FEATURING: , , Dylan Gelula, , Tim Meadows

PLOT: A mild-mannered evolutionary biology professor becomes a celebrity after appearing in the dreams of random strangers across the world.

Still from dream scenario (2023)

COMMENTS: Dream Scenario begins mid dream, as balding professor Paul Matthews, raking poolside, calmly watches his younger daughter float into the sky. This scenario is quickly revealed to be a dream: this is not a movie that plays with ambiguity between dreams and waking. Rather, it’s a magical realist fame fable about what it would be like to be a nice-enough 21st century nobody who mysteriously begins appearing in people’s dreams.

While I personally could watch 90 minutes of Nic Cage making cameo appearances in other people’s nocturnal hallucinations, Dream Scenario only enacts a smattering of the dreams themselves. One dreamer perches on a desk while a pair of crocodiles menace her and Cage watches dispassionately; another wanders through a forest with strange mushrooms growing from the trees, wearing a tux and pursued by a nightmare figure, while a distracted Paul munches on a shroom.Paul is distressed that he never takes an active part in anyone’s dream, but seems to enjoy the media attention—at first.

It’s all light comedy up until a midpoint pivot. Paul finds someone in whose dream he takes a more active part. And soon after, his mood sours, for reasons both related and unrelated to his newfound celebrity. Soon, dream-Paul starts misbehaving in dreams, in ways that turn him into a public pariah. Even if they know intellectually that Paul isn’t responsible for how he behaves inside their subconsciouses, people can’t help but be angry: his students stop attending his lectures, he’s asked to leave restaurants because he makes people uncomfortable. Of course, Paul has done nothing wrong, but every real-life mistake he makes now gets magnified and taken out of context, until he’s completely pilloried in the public mind and essentially exiled from society.

Paul’s severe change of fortune necessitates a corresponding change of tone, one that’s not quite for the better. Dream Scenario‘s second half amps up the “cancel culture” satire and critique of mob-think. It’s an obvious target that Borgli’s script handles competently, and with a few chuckles. But while it’s always fun to watch a villain, or even a charming antihero, get their comeuppance, it’s a harder ask to make us enjoy a Job scenario where we watch an innocent, generally likable character get raked over the coals repeatedly.

Dream Scenario explores the gulf between reality and public perception, a problem exponentially magnified in the TikTok era. It also posits fame as something inherently undesirable, or at least inherently dangerous, through a recurring analogy about zebra stripes: being the one who sticks out from the herd makes you into a target for predators. These are not (or at least, should not be) profound insights, which is perhaps why, by the end, the movie takes on the tone of a sad parable rather than a stern lecture. Fortunately, Cage’s balanced and committed performance buoys everything. He’s amusing in the first act, cringe-worthy in the second, and an unwilling (and unrecognized) martyr in the third. A few of the wackier dreams give him a brief chance to show off his crazy side. He’s perfect for the role. Nicolas Cage is a man who has achieved the same kind of meme-heavy, eccentric celebrity as Paul Matthews; someone who is widely known, and has been both worshiped and ridiculed, for his persona rather than his actual personality. Cage puts his soul into this one, making for a pleasant Dream.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The world has finally gotten weird enough that Nicolas Cage now makes total sense… It’s as if his movies are saying, ‘Yes, it’s bad. It’s as bad as you think. But there’s an aspect to this that’s actually funny.’ That notion that everything is both horrible and amusing all but sums up the story of ‘Dream Scenario.'”–Mick LaSalle, The San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BLONDE (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Andrew Dominik

FEATURING: , , Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, , Evan Williams

PLOT: Aspiring actress and model Norma Jeane Mortenson grows from an abused child to become the internationally famous star Marilyn Monroe, but her past demons, the heartless churn of the Hollywood system, a world of institutionalized and violent sexism, and the pressures of toxic notoriety collectively push her psyche to the brink.

Still from Blonde (2022)

COMMENTS: Shakespeare was a liar. His historical plays took extensive liberties for the sake of drama: Richard III likely didn’t kill Edward IV, the real Macbeth didn’t consult with a triumvirate of witches, and Julius Caesar never said, “Et tu, Brute?” But we’re okay with that, because they’re not intended to be rigorous historical accounts. Shakespeare used real people as a means to understand the depths of human nature, as a launching pad towards a larger truth. (To say nothing of putting a persuasive slant on history to indulge the egos of the playwright’s royal patrons.) So can we begrudge a biography of Marilyn Monroe that invents stories? That creates relationships that didn’t exist and manufactures situations based on speculation and correlation? I mean… larger truth.

The fact that Blonde plays fast and loose with history isn’t where it goes wrong. The problem is that the film has a very narrow and unilluminating notion of Marilyn’s “larger truth”: Marilyn missed never having a father. Marilyn missed never becoming a mother. Marilyn was horribly abused by everyone around her. Marilyn was sad pretty much all the time. It’s a grim account, and at nearly three hours, a pretty relentless one.

Mind you, it’s fair to question to received wisdom of Hollywood history. The film industry is legendary for the brutality it serves up to its biggest stars, and it’s a mark of Marilyn Monroe’s unique personality that her legend endures six decades after her death, despite the travails she endured. But Blonde is having none of it. As far as the film is concerned, nearly every moment of her all-too-brief life was a dreadful slog, and the film hates you for having enjoyed any of it. Are you a fan of Some Like It Hot, one of the most beloved comedies of all time? You’re a jerk, it was a miserable grind. Think the fabled subway-grate scene from The Seven-Year Itch is an iconic moment in the history of the medium? It robbed her of her very soul, you heartless bastard.

Writer/director Andrew Dominik is certain that you can’t appreciate just how much pressure Marilyn felt, how oppressive the forces against her were, and that’s how this film ends up in our bailiwick. He dramatizes crucial moments in daring and shocking ways, gleefully tossing aside Hollywood conventions or even boring standards of good taste to illustrate Marilyn’s predicament. This leads to moments that are unquestionably outrageous, but simultaneously puerile and simplistic. A sex scene takes place atop a surging waterfall that happens to be in a movie trailer that those same participants are watching (and getting off to). A fateful abortion sets up not only a dialogue between Norma Jeane and her gestating fetus but culminates in a POV shot from inside Marilyn’s vagina. Most notoriously, when Norma Jeane is forced to fellate the President of the United States, she disassociates from the event by imagining herself on a movie screen, which we get to see in the company of hundreds of fellow moviegoers, who happily stare up at the flickering image of an icon trying desperately not to gag on JFK’s ejaculate while clips from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers depict the destruction of enormous phallic structures. It’s not a staid Hollywood biopic, that’s for sure.

When he’s not trying to be audacious, Dominik’s screenplay falls back on some of the worst cliches of the form. Joe DiMaggio is never named outright, but Bobby Cannavale introduces himself as if he was quoting from the ballplayer’s Wikipedia page. The Playwright (Adrien Brody channeling Arthur Miller in one of the film’s few understated performances) is rocked to his core by a casual observation by Norma Jeane about one of his characters. And the film ends with a twist that completely recontextualizes Norma Jeane’s relationship with her absent father in an uncommonly cruel manner.

All this frustration makes what Ana de Armas is doing considerably more impressive. She’s thoroughly invested in the take on Monroe as a wide-eyed innocent who pays dearly for her guilelessness, and she manages to imbue a slavish impersonation of the actress (every line is delivered in that trademark melodically breathy tone) with genuine pathos. But at times it feels like de Armas is as much a victim of Dominik’ storytelling as Monroe was of all her tormentors. A scene where she starts to complain about her co-star being paid more threatens to unleash the strength and willpower of both actress and subject, but the fire is quickly snuffed out. Most of the time, she is asked to be a spectacular victim. To her credit, she is that.

Back to the original point: if we’re not here to delve into who Marilyn was, then what are we going for here? Primarily, it’s to make you feel bad, as bad as this version of Marilyn Monroe must have felt on an hourly basis. It’s the equivalent of those infomercials for charities that guilt you into philanthropy by showing children wallowing in the most miserable conditions imaginable. It’s undoubtedly effective, but so cynical in its execution as to undercut your sympathy. Blonde wants you to know that Marilyn Monroe was horribly exploited in her lifetime. Blonde is equally exploitative in ours.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Reductive, ghoulish and surpassingly boring, Blonde might have invented a new cinematic genre: necro-fiction… even at its most gruesome and bizarre, Blonde might be most unforgivable in what it leaves out — not regarding Monroe’s short, unhappy life but her sublime gifts.” – Ann Hornaday, Washington Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MONOS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Landes

FEATURING: Sofia Buenaventura, , Moisés Arias, Wilson Salazar

PLOT: A paramilitary squadron of teenagers guard a hostage at a remote jungle location; bad decisions by the inexperienced soldiers lead to tragedy.

Still from Monos (2019)

COMMENTS: Monos is a movie that reminds everyone of other movies, of Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now and Aguirre the Wrath of God. That’s not a knock on director Alejandro Landes; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, when existing styles are the best means to tell the story you want to tell.

A co-ed group of eight teenagers are given rifles and tasked with guarding an American hostage (and a cow) on a lonely mountaintop. To pass the time, they play blindfolded soccer and shoot automatic rounds into the air; as the story begins, their life is more like summer camp than boot camp. They have code names like “Rambo” and “Bigfoot” and work for “the Organization,” with their single point of contact with the outside world a ripped dwarf dubbed “the Messenger.” We do not know why they are fighting or who they are fighting for or against. Besides providing an ambiguous ambiance, there’s an important reason for the lack of specific context to the military campaign–it puts you in the same position as the conscripted kids, who have no ideology and show no understanding of the prospects or merits of their side of the conflict.

Monos is a worthy movie, but it’s mostly a work of psychological realism exploring the dynamics of a group of child soldiers. The kids struggle against their hormones, form internal alliances, seem to not understand why their hostage isn’t friendlier to them, and make immature decisions that lead to their numbers being whittled down over the course of the movie. Its slim claims to weirdness stem from a number of impressionistic, ritualistic montages—in particular, one where three of the team discover psychedelic mushrooms on the eve of a government ambush—which gives it that surreal fog-of-war haze found in war films like Come and See. Mica Levi (Under the Skin ) contributes a misty, atonal score that heightens the ethereal unease.

Wilson Salazar (“the Messenger”) was himself drafted into the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) at the age of thirteen. He was initially brought in to train the kids to act like soldiers, but the filmmakers liked his look and persona so much that they cast him in a prominent role.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

…surreal, wildly beautiful… Easily one of the best films of 2019.”–Tara Brady, The Irish Times (contemporaneous)