Episode 5: Ultrasound

“In the end, I believe all of the movie’s mysteries are resolved. Apart from one: Whether or not I was able to keep up.”

Starla and David review Ultrasound.

Ultrasound: Do You See What I See? by David Buckley

Here’s a burning question: Do you see what I see? The ocean is blue. On that, we can agree, but is your ocean bluer? More vivid? More beautiful? Are you a daily witness to an intensity of color that I have not and will never experience? And is this why you travel and I drink? It’s an age-old question that has, on more than one occasion, kept me up at night.

Rob Schroeder’s 2021 film Ultrasound takes this line of questioning even further. Ultrasound begins as a modern rendition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A bad storm (and some conspicuously placed nails) cause a car wreck instead of a shipwreck. Our survivor, Glen (played by Vincent Kartheiser), seeks shelter in a nearby home. It’s no island, but the film makes it feel just as remote.

When Glen knocks on the door, he’s pulled with a handshake into an intricate web spun by a seemingly harmless modern day Prospero named Art. But don’t let Art’s “nice guy” act fool you. This mysterious man (played by Bob Stephenson) may not use magic, but he’s a powerful sorcerer and he works wonders with“his so potent art.” 

While he doesn’t have a daughter named Miranda, Art does play matchmaker for his wife Cyndi (played by Chelsea Lopez) who is certainly young enough to be Art’s daughter. Art plucked her at 17, Cyndi later explains, when she was his student and he was her English teacher.

Art tells Glen that the nearest auto repair shop is over an hour away, which leads Glen to reluctantly accept Art’s suspiciously kind invitation to stay the night. That invitation leads to dinner, which leads to alcohol, which leads to a very uncouth proposition. I’ll paraphrase: “I saw the way you were looking at her,” says Art. Glen, of course, denies it. “Well,” Art replies, “I saw the way she was looking at you.”

In the morning, Glen wakes to an empty house, leaves and goes about his life, until months later when Art shows up at Glen’s door to inform him that Cyndi is pregnant. Naturally, Glen and Cyndi decide to shack up.

That’s when Ultrasound takes a disorienting turn. We see Cyndi and Glen playing house while two men monitor them from inside a car. An unforeseen emergency occurs and the men are forced to “extract” Glen and Cyndi before the couple can call an ambulance.

Separately, we see an unknown man in a lab coat (played by Tunde Adebimpe) and an unknown woman in a business suit (played by Breeda Wool) rehearing a very familiar piece of dialogue. It’s familiar because we’ve heard it before. It’s a conversation between Glen and Cyndi.

We also see a completely different woman (played by Rainey Qualley) walk through life totally unaware that she is pregnant. Everyone around her can see that she’s with child, and yet, when she looks in the mirror her reflection is shapely thin. When she struggles to pull her t-shirt passed her pregnant belly, she blames the dryer for shrinking her clothes.

Ultrasound presents all of this without explanation. All we really know is that Art must be behind it all. Eventually, the audience is made to question everything. It’s no longer: ”do you see what I see?” But: “do you remember what I remember?” How did we meet? Yes, I knocked on your door. On that, we can agree, but was it raining? Did I knock on the door of your hotel room or your home? Was I in distress or in pursuit of a drunken hook up?

Ultrasound untangles Art’s intricate web one silk at a time. That is, until the final act when the audience is subjected to a rapid fire of twists and turns, at which point the rest of Art’s web is unspun at a dizzying pace. In the end, I believe all of Ultrasound’s mysteries are resolved. Apart from one: Whether or not I was able to keep up.

I won’t spoil Art’s particular method of sorcery, but I will mention there’s a subplot where we see a politician employing Art’s dark magic. We also learn of Art’s ambition to use his magic on the masses. The film ends with this politician’s reelection and during his victory speech we see Art standing behind him alongside his wife, kids and closest advisors.

In an age where we can’t agree on anything – politics, history, medicine, climate, gender – one can’t help but wonder whether some modern day Prospero has cast his spell. Maybe he’s causing some of us to see a bluer blue, and others a depressing gray. Come next election, maybe you’ll see it my way and I’ll see it yours.

Episode 4: The Batman (2022) V. Boomers

“The Batman serves as superego to Generation Y’s collective conscience. He aims to carry out in society the traditional morality left by his family’s fading legacy.”

Starla and David review The Batman.

The Batman (2022) V. Boomers by David Buckley

Like it or not, the Caped Crusader tends to invite serious criticism. In 2008, Andrew Klavan argued Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight should be read as an attempt to justify the Bush Administration’s misconduct during the War on Terror. Later, Richard Brody of the New Yorker argued Zack Snyder’s Batman V. Superman was really an indictment of America’s post-9/11 cruelty.

I would argue Matt Reeves’ 2022 iteration of the Dark Knight should be read as correspondence from the front lines of the ongoing war between Millennials and the “Me” generation. Zack Snyder gave us Batman V. Superman. Now, Reeves has given us Batman V. Boomers.

In Matt Reeves’ The Batman, Gotham City is (as always) corrupt from top to bottom. But the choice to cast millennial Robert Pattinson as the titular character, and to place him just two years into his ministry as the Dark Knight, means Batman isn’t up against the corruption of his peers as usual. Batman is up against the corruption of his elders.

What is a generation to do with a hopelessly corrupt and unjust system built not by a foreign power, but by their very own parents? When staring into the abyss of this Boomer-built world, Millennials tends to react in just three ways. The Batman weighs the morality of each, and, from the beginning, we know which reaction Hollywood’s first Millennial Batman is attracted to most.

In the film, Batman doesn’t yet answer to any of his character’s traditional nicknames. In fact, the word “Batman” isn’t even uttered aloud for the first half or more of the film. Batman refers to himself instead as “Vengeance” and so do his contemporaries – including detective Jim Gordon (played by Jeffrey Wright) and Selena Kyle, also known as Catwoman (played by Zoë Kravitz). The question is: Just how far is Vengeance willing to go in order to live up to his self-professed moniker?

Vengeance is Batman’s natural inclination, but it’s not his only option. Selena Kyle’s inclination is toward self-entitled exploitation. She’s not apathetic – you would be hard pressed to find a millennial that truly is. Selena cares deeply for Annika (played by Hana Hrzic) – a sex worker who knows too much and eventually goes missing. Though Catwoman has “a thing for strays,” it doesn’t stop her from pursuing the occasional, targeted cat burglary in order to take what she believes is rightfully hers. Sure, the money she steals is ultimately blood money, but we discover that the criminal underworld she steals from does owe her something and they don’t have a single clean bill in the bank.

The Batman serves as superego to Generation Y’s collective conscience. He aims to carry out in society the traditional morality left by his family’s fading legacy. Catwoman, on the other hand, serves as Generation Y’s ego. She rejects Batman’s idealism and looks to satisfy the Millennial Generation’s strong sense of justice in more realistic ways. Gotham’s criminal justice system is broken. So, Kyle creates her own justice by way of the occasional score – although only to attain what she believes society already owes her. At least for the first half of the film.

Which brings us to The Batman’s chief antagonist: The Riddler (played by Paul Dano). The Riddler represents Generation Y’s collective Id. Batman inflicts vengeance from behind a mask, but he possesses a distinct, if not hazy, moral vision and there are clear limits to the violence he is willing to commit. As Id, the Riddler takes Generation Y’s sense of justice to the extreme. He resolves to anonymously deliver horrific and unbridled retribution to Gotham’s depraved elite both living and dead.   

The rest of the film is a therapy session in which Generation Y must mediate between its competing desires to enforce rigid order, unleash infinite punishment or to cynically check out after getting what’s yours.

That’s why Reeves’ choice to construct Batman as more detective than superhero is a fitting U-turn in the history of how Hollywood has traditionally portrayed the character. Batman spends just as much time playing moral detective as he does homicide detective. He lives in a world where the only institutions that still stand are hopelessly corrupt. As a result, it’s not just up to Batman to solve a series of murders. He also must piece together a moral fabric that his baby boomer predecessors tore into pieces, discarded and let blow in the wind.

Moral dilemma ensues when the Riddler casts shade on the Wayne family legacy – Batman’s only guiding light. At various points in the film, the soundtrack employs Ave Maria to invoke the Blessed Mother – not only because Gotham is chock full of fatherless children (including Batman, Catwoman and the Riddler), but also because she holds the answer to Bruce’s predicament: Hail Mary, full of grace! Batman discovers the only way to rise above his parents’ failings is to forgive them.

In The Batman, Gotham’s perpetual rainfall is an obvious homage to David Fincher’s Se7en, but the rain also warns that a flood is imminent. In the end, there is no rainbow – no utopian resolution of radical reform. There is only the Prince of Gotham carrying a dim light in the dark as he trudges through the city’s flooded streets to lead a small group of women and children to higher ground (hopefully a higher moral ground as well).

We can only presume that when he arrives, Batman will trade in the Millennial desire for ravenous vengeance and instead dutifully clean up the mess left by his parents’ feckless generation. It’s a competent illustration of the true task before us and Reeves (a member of Generation X) should be lauded for his fair and judicious reading of two generations at war.

Episode 3: KIMI in the Window

“Soderbergh’s KIMI also depicts an extremely believable post-COVID world filled with cloth masks, digital surveillance and copious amounts of hand sanitizer.”

Starla and David review The Woman in the Window and KIMI.

KIMI in the Window by David Buckley

Here are two films with the same premise. The first is about a redhead who won’t leave her home and the second is about a blue-haired girl with the same agoraphobic condition. Each woman manages to witness a murder without being physically present at the scene. They report the crimes they witness, but their stories are met with apathy, suspicion and doubt. 

The second film works. The first one doesn’t. Why?

Let’s begin with the film that flops. Joe Wright’s The Woman in the Window stars Amy Adams as Dr. Anna Fox – an agoraphobic child psychologist who spends her free time spying on the neighbors and mixing prescription pills with glass after glass of red wine. 

Through a series of unexpected drop-ins, Anna befriends teenage neighbor Ethan (played by Fred Hechinger), and later his mother Jane (played by Julianne Moore). One night, Anna hears a commotion and looks out the window to witness Jane being brutally murdered by her husband Alistair (played by Gary Oldman). Or so we’re led to believe…

The film’s central mystery is that Jane is seen alive and well shortly after her alleged killing. Only this time, she appears, not as Julianne Moore, but as Jennifer Jason Leigh

Who did Anna really befriend? Was it conspiracy or hallucination? At the end of the day, you don’t know and you don’t care. 

When everyone dismisses Anna as an unreliable witness, we (the audience) are inclined to agree. That’s all thanks to an earlier scene in which an exasperated therapist warns Anna that mixing her pills with alcohol will cause hallucinations. In other words, the audience isn’t fully invested in discovering what happened to Jane, because we saw Jane’s murder through Anna’s eyes – a character the film sets up as totally unreliable from the start.

Every protagonist needs a flaw, but when it comes to murder mystery the audience must 100% believe the murder happened. 

Contrast Anna’s flaws in The Woman in the Window with those of Angela Childs’ in Steven Soderbergh’s new film KIMI. Angela (played by Zoë Kravitz) is by no means a picture of perfect mental health, but her flaws strengthen the plot without discrediting the character.

Angela works remotely for a tech company that manufactures a virtual assistant named KIMI. If you’ve ever used Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, surely you’ve stumped the computer at least once. In real life, virtual assistants use machine learning to optimize their interactions with us human masters. But in the film, KIMI employs human tech workers like Angela to sift through hours of flagged conversations that went awry.  The workers review the recordings and help KIMI learn by adding context to the word or phrase the computer didn’t understand. 

Agoraphobia isn’t Angela’s only flaw. Whether she’s brushing her teeth or meticulously changing the sheets after rendezvousing with a boyfriend, Angela’s OCD is on constant display. But so too is her desire to be normal.  We see Angela optimistically schedule a breakfast date, shower, dress and gather her things, only to flake last minute after experiencing a panic attack as soon as she reaches for the door knob.

Angela’s fear and her desire to overcome it make the plot all the more gripping – especially after Angela hears a recording of an unknown woman’s sexual assault and subsequent murder. Those recordings jettison Angela out the door to embark on a classic hero’s journey, which ends with a thrilling “High Tower Surprise” that’s a cross between Die Hard and Home Alone.

Soderbergh’s KIMI also depicts an extremely believable post-COVID world filled with cloth masks, digital surveillance and copious amounts of hand sanitizer.  We see C-suite executives conducting Zoom interviews in their sweatpants. We also see others like Angela who can’t quite work up the courage to let go of their COVID-era isolation. 

What catalyst moment will compel these lonesome holdouts to finally give in, return to normal and again confront the world? KIMI ends on a hopeful note that suggests it won’t be the latest protest, Marvel movie or presidential declaration that pushes them out the door, but rather mankind’s innate desire to look out for each other. 

Episode 2: Nightmare Alley

“The film attempts to paint a picture of how anyone – you, me, your doctor, boss or priest – could go from having the world and everything in it to wearing a pair of makeshift underpants fashioned out of newspaper.“

Starla and David review Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley.

Nightmare Alley Rebukes Us All by David Buckley

There’s an episode of The Sopranos where Tony’s daughter, Meadow, attempts to cheer up her manic-depressive college roommate, Caitlin, with a night out on the town. It doesn’t go well. The girls – and Meadow’s boyfriend Noah – encounter a deranged homeless woman who’s pushing a garbage-filled cart and mumbling about “the chairs, the pears, the bears” and “the social security cards.”

Despite Meadow and Noah’s protestations, the depressed Caitlin insists on offering the woman cash. Only, before Caitlin can hand it to her, the woman’s pants fall down to reveal a filthy pair of makeshift underpants fashioned out of newspaper.

The entire episode touches on the limits of human compassion – Meadow’s compassion for Caitlin; Caitlin’s compassion for the homeless woman; and, separately, Tony Soprano’s compassion for a troubled stripper who’s just about his daughter’s age.

How is it that Meadow and Noah so easily dismiss the homeless woman as a lost cause? What disorder, vice or virtue does Caitlin possess that moves her to help? Moreover, how is it that Meadow writes off the homeless woman so easily, and yet is resolute when it comes to helping her depressed roommate – who, spoiler alert, does turn out to be quite hopeless?

In other words, where do you draw the line between a fellow human being in need and a waste of effort? The Sopranos episode answers precisely none of these questions and neither does Guillermo del Toro’s new film Nightmare Alley. What del Toro does offer, however, is an origin story.

Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s horrific 1947 novel of the same name, Nightmare Alley follows Stanton Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper. A clever and ambitious young man, Stan attempts to escape his mysterious past by taking a job as a carny. 

At the carnival, Stan witnesses his first Geek Show – where a deranged, almost subhuman, performer chases a live chicken and, in a grand finale, bites the chicken’s head off.

Like Caitlin at the sight of the deranged woman, Stan reacts with pity and disgust, but also wonder – wonder at how a man could deign to perform such vulgar, animalistic feats. 

That’s one question the film does answer. The Side Show’s barker, played by Willem Dafoe, explains the process step-by-step. First, you pick up a drunk (“a bottle-a-day booze fool”). You explain you lost your geek and offer him booze – with maybe a few drops of opium – to play the part temporarily.  You show him how to fake it: Nick the chicken’s throat with a razor blade and pretend to drink the blood. As soon as he’s used to the arrangement, you tell him you need to find a real geek because he isn’t fooling anyone. Terrified by the thought of sobering up, he geeks for real.

At the carnival, Stan falls in love and learns the ins and outs of a mentalist act. He ends up leveraging those skills to escape the carny life and develop a polished spiritualist act – by which Stan varyingly exploits and is exploited by America’s gullible elite.

In Nightmare Alley, there are just three kinds of people: the geek, the greedy barker who exploits the geek and the voyeuristic audience who pays to see the geek just to feel better about themselves. 

How many of us – in the early days of the pandemic – tuned into Netflix’s Tiger King only to gawk at the freak show starring Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin? And how many TikTok users in turn debased themselves by performing the “Carole Baskin dance” for nothing more than empty likes and follows?

To bring it down to earth, how many of us have taken a temporary job only to look back, twenty years too late, and realize we had consented to an inescapable reward system we never intended to be part of?

When you think about it, the disturbing dynamic between the barker, geek and audience plays itself out all over society – from religion and politics to entertainment, pornography and even the daily grind.

In that sense, Nightmare Alley rebukes us all. And the film attempts to paint a picture of how anyone – you, me, your doctor, boss or priest – could go from having the world and everything in it to wearing a pair of makeshift underpants fashioned out of newspaper.  The journey is neither enjoyable nor easy to watch, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.