MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: The Wizard of Oz, Monsters vs. Aliens and more…

PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC

The Wizard of Oz (Four Stars)
U. S.; Victor Fleming, King Vidor (Unc.), 1939 (Warner)

Some movies appeal to just about everybody — like the heart-stoppingly entertaining and wonderful 1939 musical that MGM made out of L. Frank Baum’s American fairy tale, The Wizard of Oz (now released in a deluxe 70th anniversary DVD edition by Warner).

It’s a movie most of us saw for the first time in childhood and then grew up with though the years. I was 10 when CBS televised it nationally for the first time (in 1956), and I still remember the shock of joy that came over me as I watched it in the living room on Parkhurst Place, in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, with my Grampa Axel, Gramma Marie and Mother Edna — all of whom were already very familiar with it — especially when Judy Garland, as Dorothy Gale, stared at the sky above her Hollywood-Kansas barnyard backdrop, let loose those incredible 16-year-old pipes and brought down the house once again with Harold Arlen‘s and E.Y. Harburg’s hair-raising ballad “Over the Rainbow.”

What a song! What a singer! What pure, shattering emotion wrapped in rapturous show biz kitsch and MGM bliss! For years, Esquire Magazine made fun of that ballad in their annual Dubious Achievement issues, by recounting exactly how many times Garland had now sung it. (Who was keeping track?) But in fact, I’ll bet those smart alecs were sort of knocked out by it too: The crystalline notes, Judy‘s yearning, faraway gaze toward a somber sky with a storm brewing, and lyrics like “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why, can’t I?” that should have made you snort but instead broke your heart.

Then there was her fantastic supporting trio: Ray Bolger as the flopsie-mopsie, always-resourceful Scarecrow (“I would not be just a nuffin‘, my head all full of stuffin‘…), Jack Haley, Jr. as the metal-bod, sentimental Tin Man (“I hear a beat! How sweet!”), and Bert Lahr as the boisterous scaredy-cat Cowardly Lion. (“Oh, it’s sad, believe me missy, when you’re born to be a sissy…” Meeting Dorothy one by one, Singing the three parts of another Arlen-Harburg masterpiece — “If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/the Nerve” — followed by the lusty chorus of “We’re off to see the Wizard!“ the four grand companions, instantly became the most appealing quartet of adventurous buddies since the Three Musketeers and D’Artagnan. (Hovering sadly over them all, though, is the ghostly image of their absent comrade, poor Buddy Ebsen, cast as the Scarecrow, who cheerfully switched parts with the original Tin Man, Bolger, and then lost out completely when he got poisoned and sickened by the spray powder used to make his flesh tin.)

You‘d also be stumped to find a better nasty, evil witch with a more memorable creepy cackle than Margaret Hamilton‘s supremely malicious Wicked Witch of the West, aka Miss Gulch, or a shinier good witch than Billie Burke‘s winningly sweetie-pie Glinda. Or a more spectacular piece of Midwestern humbuggery and medicine show eloquence than Frank Morgan as Professor Miracle and the Wizard himself (and three other parts too). And what can you say about the Munchkins? (Better not say too much. This is a family movie.)

Judy Garland, just plain great as Dorothy, beat out the most popular child star in America — the most popular Hollywood child movie star ever — when she took the role away from Shirley Temple. And she makes the movie of course; it’s really one of the all time best movie musical performances (and part of Garland‘s own career top three, with “Meet Me in St. Louis“ and the 1954 “A Star is Born“). Judy‘s Dorothy is a perfect centerpiece and beating heart for Oz, because she plays it with a stunning conviction, and sparkling sincerity that sets off perfectly the glorious ”Smith‘s Premium Ham” clowning and vaudeville of her three fellow travelers — and also because, at least on our second time through, we know that this is Dorothy’s dream, brought on by the cyclone and a head-bonk, and that Oz is her creation — her fairy-tale Kansas — which is why it’s both her paradise and her nightmare.

The Wizard of Oz was directed by two big studio movie masters: Victor Fleming (the Oz scenes) and the uncredited King Vidor (the Kansas prelude and coda). Their styles are not really similar — Vidor was more of a populist poet, Fleming more of a robust yarn-spinner — yet here, they fuse perfectly. Every single scene jells and works like a charm in both the movie’s Kansas and Oz, and the only times I‘ve ever gotten restive during the dozens of times I’ve seen this film, is, occasionally, during The Cowardly Lion’s florid aria, ‘F I Were King” — and I can always forgive that for every other moment of Lahr’s blow-away performance. Fleming and Vidor guided him, and all the others, and all of the movie, flawlessly.

If you’ve been reading Mike Sragow’s Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master recently — and you should– you’ve probably already bought Sragow’s main thesis that the attractively macho, underrated Fleming, one of the directorial kings of MGM in the ’30s and ’40s, is a critically neglected movie genius, and that the director who made both most of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, released the same year — not to mention The Virginian, Red Dust, Bombshell, Treasure Island, Captains Courageous, Test Pilot, and A Guy Named Joe deserves more than passing mention in any Hollywood pantheon. (My one quarrel with Sragow’s excellent book is that he aims too many potshots and brickbats at Fleming’s best friend and fellow movie ace, Howard Hawks. Some residue of the old Kael-Sarris wars?)

Fleming and Vidor together presided over one of the most charmed and charming movie ensembles ever — transforming Noel Langley’s, Florence Ryerson’s and Edgar Allan Woolf‘s marvelously playful and witty script and Arlen and Harburg‘s fantastic songs — along with that peerless cast — into the stuff of movie magic — a show that never loses its power to grip us and tickle us and make us laugh and cry — the greatest kids (plus adults) movie this side of the rainbow. I loved it when I was 10, watching it with my childhood family. I loved it last night, watching it in my incredibly brave 94-year-old Mother Edna’s hospital room with her, on a computer on her food table, as she lay dying. I love The Wizard of Oz still, and I’m not alone.

Extras: Commentary by Oz-Garland scholar John Fricke; TV Specials The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic (Jack Haley, Jr.) and Memories of Oz; Featurettes; video storybook; profiles; sing-along feature; outtakes; deleted scenes; Harold Arlen’s home movies; ztills and trailer galleries; recording sessions; radio shows.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

Monsters Vs. Aliens (Three Stars)
U.S.; Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon, 2009 (Paramount)

Monsters Vs. Aliens seemed a little better to me while I was watching it than it does in retrospect. But it’s still a pretty nifty show: a fast-paced parody horror sci-fi comedy extravaganza with an all-star cast and lots of gaudy 3D effects. If you see it in 3D (and you should), it looks great — the kind of movie where the ingenious technology takes on an added measure of delight because its handled so skillfully and playfully.

Monsters is also a love letter to some of the most entertainingly cheesy horror movies of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, with specific references to The Attacking 50-Foot Woman (who becomes voice actress Reese Witherspoon’s Ginormica/Susan Murphy), The Fly (who becomes Hugh Laurie‘s fiendishly laughing Dr. Cockroach), The Blob (who becomes Seth Rogen in the role he was born to play, laid-back, Jell-O-bodied, ultra-blobby B. O. B.), Mothra/Godzilla (who becomes Insectosaurus, a behemoth who never speaks, but whose silence, according to a hot Hollywood rumor, was dubbed by either Joaquin Phoenix, or by Ben Stiller imitating Joaquin Phoenix, or by the late Marcel Marceau) and, I guess, The Gill Man/Creature from the Black Lagoon or maybe Eeegah! (who become Will Arnett as The Missing Link).

A formidable lineup indeed — though sadly, there was apparently nothing here for Phil Tucker‘s immortal crybaby Robot Monster, which, considering the modest expenditure on R. M.’s costume (a gorilla suit and a fish bowl, as I remember), seems a shame on all concerned. How soon we forget! But there are good enough jokes about s.f. icons Steven Spielberg (“Close Encounters With an E. T.”), George Lucas (it takes place in Modesto) and Stanley Kubrick (Kiefer Sutherland as Gen. W. R. Monger apes George C. Scott’s sublime Gen. Buck Turgidson, and there’s a Strangelovian war room for President Stephen Colbert).

The plot is wickedly ingenious and ingeniously…wicked. Susan, a Modesto TV gal about to be married to her preposterously vain news anchor fiancée Derek (Paul Rudd) — who owes his career to the new masturbation fantasy strategy of selecting TV news anchors (and movie critics) — is plunged into a meteorite shower, swollen to near 50 foot proportions, dumped by disgraceful Derek, and then hurled by Gen Monger into the secret subterranean whoozits which is home to the rest of the Monster Mob,

The fearsome fivesome’s life-or-death mission: to battle and destroy the unstoppable extraterrestrial invasion of a gigantic robot and his maniacal employer, four-eyed Gallaxhar (played to nasty perfection by Rainn Wilson). Gallaxhar, like Chuck Jones’ Marvin the Martian in the Duck Dodgers cartoons, is loaded with gadgets and doesn’t go down easy. The robot utterly ignores Pres. Colbert’s touching grand gesture of intergalactic peace and love, a spirited rendition of the Close Encounters theme, segueing right into the equally throbbing theme from Beverly Hills Cop. Perhaps the next number in this thrilling Colbertian medley was “Can’t Stop the Music.” But we’ll never know; the robot rudely marched off to tear down the Golden Gate Bridge, without even a nod to Ray Harryhausen.

If you have blood in your veins and popcorn in your mitts, how could you not enjoy something like that? Especially when the filmmakers — directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon and writers Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky — immediately flex their 3D muscles by hurling meteors at us and bopping a paddleball, “House of Wax”-style right in our faces? How could you not be utterly entranced by a 50 foot tall cartoon Reese Witherspoon, in 3D yet? And how refreshing it is to see a current movie where Paul Rudd doesn’t get the girl — or the guy.

The technical ingenuity of the better contemporary cartoon features is now such a constant that its easy to ignore it and complain about something else, like the script or the 3D glasses. But Monsters vs. Aliens keeps projecting right off the screen, in ways you can’t ignore, especially when Ginormica is around.

Kids be damned. I had a good time at M.V.A. and sometimes you’re lucky to get even that. Meanwhile, we can confidently await the inevitable sequel, this time in 4D, “Destroy all Monsters! Destroy all Aliens!“ — where Colbert and fish bowl-headed Robot Monster sing “Sometimes When We Touch (The Honesty’s Too Much)” to a rampaging octopoid-android and The House Republican Glee Club does a frenzied can can cameo to “No, No, Nanette,” Anne Coulter does a Gypsy Rose Lee strip to her original song, “Destroy All Liberals,” while the MSNBC Hardball-ettes answer smartly with Chris Matthews’ “Barack Around the Clock.“

I don’t see how it can miss — especially if they have a paddleball scene.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: BLU-RAY

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (20th Anniversary edition) (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.; John McNaughton, 1986-90 (MPI Home Video)

A low-budget blood-and-guts dark side classic: McNaughton’s bone-chilling look at blue collar American pathology and murder, starring Michael Rooker as the cold-blooded Henry.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SETS

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (3 discs) (Blu-Ray) (Four Stars)
U.S.; D. A. Pennebaker & Various Other Directors, 1967-1997 (Criterion)

Rock and roll will never die. Neither will the ‘60s. Here’s the proof: all thee D. A. Pennebaker and Co. docs on the Monterey Pop festival, plus all the outtakes. Jimi, Janis, and Otis live! Did you ever doubt it?

Includes: Monterey Pop (D. A, Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, Richard Leacock, others, 1967) Four Stars. With Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Ravi Shankar, The Mamas and the Papas, Otis Redding. Jimi at Monterey (U. S.; Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, 1986) Four Stars. With Jimi Hendrix. Shake! Otis at Monterey”\ (Pennebaker, 1989). The Outtakes (Pennebaker, 1997). Many extras.

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OTHER CURRENT OR RECENT DVD RELEASES

Away We Go (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Sam Mendes, 2009 (Focus)

Away We Go is the sort of smart, nicely made, and personally-felt movie I should have gone for in a big way: a realistic contemporary comedy written by novelists/ husband-wife screenwriting team Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, and directed by the estimable Sam Mendes, about an offbeat but sweet unmarried couple, amiable doofussy Burt and earthy Verona, played by John Krasinski of The Office and Saturday Night Live’s Maya Rudolph).

As these two wander around the country in search of at least a temporary home, we see them gently coping with impending parenthood and a group of sometimes alarmingly atypical relatives and friends, some of whom want their bods.

Away We Go is well-directed, well-acted, and well-written (in a way). And it has a number of beguilingly candid, well-observed scenes between Burt and Verona, that put to shame the notions of romantic love and parenting floated our way often in the average Hollywood domestic romance/comedy.

But….

Actually, “Average” is the last word you’d conjure up in connection with Away We Go — which becomes a sophisticated road movie with blackouts, as the odd-duck couple travel from friend to relative to place to city, from Colorado to Phoenix, Tucson to Madison, Montreal to Miami –in search of not only a haven, but some kind of contentment or a clue to their up-in-the-air future.

Along the way, they interact with Burt’s laughing, irresponsible parents, Jerry and Gloria (those admirable comedians Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara), robust flirt Lily (played by Allison Janney in a piece of “over-acting” I liked), Carmen Ejogo as Verona‘s savvy sister Grace, Maggie Gyllenhaal suckling her kids as Burt’s old school pal Ellen (aka LN), Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey as the welcoming but troubled Tom and Munch, and Paul Schneider as a dumped hubby in Miami.

All this may be a bad ad for the joys of marriage. But it’s a quality job, paved with good intentions. Yet, despite my appreciation for the talent involved here, I didn’t much like Away We Go.

Why? Actually, it’s a type of ‘70s movie toward which I developed a mild resistance (after having a schoolboy crush on some examples): the “You and Me Against the World, Babe” romantic comedy. Here’s how this kind of movie works: We meet a funny, attractive often quirky couple — usually on their first encounter, though sometimes, as with Away We Go,”\ after they‘ve hooked up — and discover their superiority in brains, mores, cuteness, and so on, to almost every other character in the movie, who basically become comic butts. The model twosome weathers storms and wins out. Curtain.

There‘s often a self-congratulating smugness to all this — and though I‘m aware you could apply the same general outline to many of the great screwball comedies that are among the gems of the old studio system, what makes the “You and Me Against the World, Babe” sub-genre different, is its pretension to realism. We know that a screwball comedy is a concoction and a confection, and that the authors and actors are charmingly stacking the deck for our delight.

But the “Babe” comedies of the ’60s, ‘70s and later, like (good examples) The Graduate, Morgan! or even some Woody Allen, were allegedly a window on reality, as Away We Go obviously purports to be. Indeed, many of “Away’s” best moments are its little humane observations, like Verona‘s quiet clinch with Grace. And its most annoying are screwball-influenced antic japes like the scene allegedly set on Madison with Maggie Gyllenhall as a creepy academic sex fiend. (I knew Madison, I worked in Madison, Madison is a friend of mine — and this is no Madison.)

Krasinski and Rudolph have provided a lot of bright moments on TV, and they charge us up here too, as this funky, tender couple. But I‘m also suspicious of movies that suggest, however tongue-in-cheek that you should be in love with someone because everybody else available is a drag, a dog or a goofball. That strikes me as both elitist and a recipe for disaster, romantic, connubial and otherwise — which may be why these moves began to annoy me as views of the world — even though I still love the hilarious mad artifice of straight-up screwball comedies.

Actually, in my experience, you fall in love with somebody, because they enhance or heighten your appreciation of life, and open your sympathies toward other people, not vice versa. But that‘s another story. And another movie — clearly not the one Eggers and Vida made here.

Mendes is a very imaginative director who obviously has a somewhat dyspeptic view of American suburban life, which he also trashes in both American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. (Road is a “You and Me Against the World” romantic non-comedy that goes sour.) He’s very good with actors, and the performance level here is high. This should have been a very good movie — and maybe it would have been if the writers weren’t so locked into a sarcasm that seems to me unsimple payback. Unless you’re Bonnie and Clyde (a movie couple I adored, by the way) Mendes‘ “You and Me Better Than the World, Babe” strikes me as a dead-end road away from perdition.

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Shrink (One and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Jonas Pate, 2009 (Lionsgate)

Kevin Spacey (see above) plays an emotionally ragged, scruffy and mega-tormented Beverly Hills psychiatrist named Henry Carter, a role that seems almost too right for him. But the movie isn’t right, even though Robin Williams shows up as one of Henry’s A-list clients, a sexaholic star actor named Jack. (Coppola allusion or Nicholson allusion?) Good as Spacey and Williams always are, maybe this would have been better with Spacey, in his goombah mode, playing jack and Williams doing one of his imporov shprtizes, inserted throughout the movie at odd intervals. (This is a movie with a lot of odd intervals.)
But then again, why stick Kingsley — or Spacey or Williams — in another sub-par, sub-bad and sub-beautiful “Inside Hollywood” flick, whatever Short Cuts or Crash ensemble pretensions it might have?

Carter’s client list also includes Dallas Roberts as a wired-up agent, Saffron Burrows as a mellowing bombshell, and assorted other Hollywood stereotypes, some of whom look as if they couldn’t get past the Brett Easton Ellis club bouncer, and none of whom have been handed any surprises by screenwriter Thomas Moffett. There‘s even a scene by the Hollywood sign, which deserves better.

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The Girlfriend Experience (Two Stars)
U. S.; Steven Soderbergh, 2009 (Magnolia)

Steven Soderbergh flirts with hard core with this somewhat chic-pretentious look at an intellectual hooker (played by porn star Sasha Grey) who takes her job to a new level, playing “girlfriend” as well as “whore.” A James Toback sort of movie, without much juice. It’s no Oceans 12.

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Objectified (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Gary Hustwit, 2009

Gary Hustwit (Helvetica) interviews modern designers from all over the world, and unearths a multiplicity of approaches, theories and philosophies about the way things should look and be in the twenty-first century. Some of the interviewees struck me as maddeningly pretentious and full of it; others were more human, eloquent and persuasive. The images are beautiful throughout — both the shots of the design experts in their environments and (some of). their works. The subjects include: Paula Antonelli, Dieter Rams, Chris Bangle, Fiona Ruby and Naoto Fukasawa. (In English, French, Dutch and Japanese, with English subtitles.)

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Midsomer Murders, Vol. 13 (Four discs) (Three Stars)
U.K.: Various directors, 2008 (Acorn Media)

Midsomer Murders, now in its thirteenth volume, is still one of the best of the breed of English TV village murder mysteries. Based on the Caroline Graham mysteries, starring John Nettles as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, they’re modern stories that which preserve some of the feel of the classic Agatha Christies, while, as before, getting in lots of contemporary culture, character, sexuality, perversity and social comment. With Jane Wymark, Jason Hughes and Laura Howard.

– Michael Wilmington
September 29, 2009

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Wilmington

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin