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A Dream Within a Nightmare

May December and Dream Scenario

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In an era of lamentation, one that might have been defined by the extinction of boldness in American movies, we may instead have arrived at a moment of renewal. It would be specious to attribute this welcome, certainly unexpected shift to any one artist or studio or streaming service, but it is noteworthy that the movement has formed in the disparate but like-minded efforts of industry players, old and new. To call an exercise in pure commerce "grass roots" does a disservice to person-to-person activism but the business of cinema in 2023 feels like a reclamation of half-forgotten modes. In the possible ice age of the Marvel era, new growth abounds, with dinosaurs and upstarts alike treading a newly verdant landscape. The future will likely subvert my probably naive optimism but, for once, I'll try to sit with it.

MAY DECEMBER is a forward-thinking revisiting of past events, a domestic drama recast as a thriller that never promises a grand conclusion. Directed by Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, 1998; Carol, 2015), one of the great American stylists and a crafty synthesizer of sarcasm and sincerity, it takes as its jumping-off point a lightly fictionalized, ripped-from-the-headlines scandal of a quarter-century ago, wherein Mary Kay Letourneau, a woman in her 30s, had what the media then called a "sexual affair with" (read: raped) a 12-year-old-boy and was imprisoned as a result. They had children together, one of whom was born while her mother was in prison, and went on to marry, eventually separating shortly before her death.

In the movie's version of events, as scripted by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik, Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) are still, ostensibly, happily married and preparing to celebrate their twins' graduation from high school. Their older daughter is returning from college to join in the festivities, which will be observed and attended by Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a prominent television actress preparing to play Gracie in a purported independent cinematic adaptation. The family is justifiably skeptical and a little defensive about Elizabeth's presence, but welcome her nonetheless. As Elizabeth's long weekend in their company progresses, her questions and actorly investigations tease out inconsistencies, insecurities and ever-more ambiguous motivations.

As Haynes is wont to do, May December neither promises nor delivers tidiness nor convenience in the resolution of its narrative. Instead, the movie revels in the discomfiture of emotionality and motivational obscurity, with its little revelations opening more onto further questions than greater clarity. It is an examination of obfuscation, approached from a number of angles, none of which afford a clear view because, well, people lie.

The ensemble here is among the best of the year, with Moore giving an alternately raw-nerved and tightly composed performance as a person clinging to her version of control. Portman, entering as a foil and then engaging in her own immersive version of manipulation, presents Elizabeth as both investigator and usurper of the lives before her. And Melton's Joe, sweet and genuine, not quite dumb but not quite smart, maybe on the verge of realizing something about his own strange story, is a man whose adult life is unwittingly defined by victimhood.

As in any Haynes movie, the photography is gorgeous, here evoking the receding steam of an oncoming Savannah autumn. Complemented by blaring segments of Michel LeGrand's score from The Go-Between (1970), the cinematography and editing evoke the feeling of a murder mystery within a distorted tale of ersatz domestic bliss. It feels experimental and familiar at once, a quasi-traditional approach to a stranger-than story that is very much of our time. And like something we would be unlikely to have the privilege of seeing, if not for the aegis of an 800-pound gorilla like Netflix, a juggernaut that, for its faults, is still willing to invest in something like this. R. 113M. NETFLIX.

DREAM SCENARIO. And from A24 — perhaps the anti-Netflix but now something of a comrade in arms — comes another refreshing example of intra-genre exploration, this time a satire about self-image and fame in the digital world. Written, directed and edited by relative newcomer Kristoffer Borgli, Dream Scenario stars Nicolas Cage (in one of the great, self-effacing performances of his career) as Paul Matthews, a schlubby, insecure, tenured professor of evolutionary biology. For no known reason, he begins appearing in the dreams of thousands (millions?) of people around the world. His presence there is largely defined by ineffectuality, with a few notable exceptions. Still, the phenomenon is enough to garner Paul the attention of a cutting-edge new advertising firm, represented by insufferable, disingenuous, supercilious executives Trent (Michael Cera) and Mary (Kate Berlant).

As Paul attempts to parlay his notoriety into a publishing deal, his dream-self takes on an unsettlingly different aspect; fame becomes infamy and he has even less idea what to do about it.

Cutting and sweet, Dream Scenario combines cultural criticism with magical realism, while also providing an ideal playground for Cage to explore a new and exciting corridor of his formidable skillset. R. 102M. BROADWAY.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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Fortuna Theatre is temporarily closed. For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.

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