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Indie Focus: Charlie Kaufman’s enigmatic ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

A week later, it’s still hard to believe that actor Chadwick Boseman, best known for his title role in “Black Panther,” is dead. Jen Yamato handled the obituary, including this quote from her interview with him in 2018: “The projects that I end up doing, that I want to be involved with in any way, have always been projects that will be impactful, for the most part, to my people — to Black people. To see Black people in ways which you have not seen them before.”

The shocking news of his death at 43 from colon cancer, an illness he had been battling since 2016 and kept from even many of his closest collaborators, hit hard not just in Hollywood circles but across the culture.

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As LZ Granderson wrote in his appreciation, “It could not have been easy being viewed by millions around the world as a hero simply for portraying a fictional one, but Boseman embraced that burden with the same temperament emulated on screen: with dignity and grace … In his commitment to portraying Black excellence he exemplified it while never hesitating to use his platform to encourage everyone to pursue the excellence within themselves.”

In his own tribute, Justin Chang added, “It wasn’t just inner magnetism or sterling technique that made Boseman such a gift to the movies. It was the kind of confidence that could express itself in stirring courtroom arguments and fierce action sequences, yes, but did so even more eloquently in moments of quiet reserve. He was a movie star by stealth, an actor who could dazzle us on the surface and still hold something crucial in check, as if he were in possession of some deep and mysterious inner knowledge.”

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‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

Directed and written by Charlie Kaufman, adapted from the novel of the same name by Iain Reid, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is defiantly dense, a dizzy-making portrait of a couple and a rigorous investigation of what individuals want and expect from romantic relationships. In the film Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley play a couple going to visit his parents, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, as things spin off from there, becoming increasingly unreal. Numbers from “Oklahoma!” feature prominently. The movie is streaming now on Netflix.

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Josh Rottenberg spoke to Kaufman, Collette and Buckley, but not for answers or explanations. Rather, as Buckley said, “I’d send Charlie emails, saying, ‘Oh, I get it! I totally understand what this film is about!’ And then I’d read the script again and be like, ‘What the hell was I thinking? It’s not about that — it’s about this.’ I hope that’s what happens for a lot of people. Whatever it means for anybody, I think that’s brilliant. If it starts a conversation and gets people to ask questions of themselves, I think that’s what film and art should do.”

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “More than most movies, Kaufman’s can seem possessed of a strange, unnerving self-awareness. It’s almost as if they can think for themselves. To say that he has done it again with ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things,’ his infectiously digressive and beautifully controlled new movie, is to express a sentiment that is both accurate and misleading. ‘I’m Thinking,’ as it might just as well be called, is another of Kaufman’s patented studies in the transmigration of neurons … At one point, someone makes accidental reference to ‘quantum psychics,’ a malapropism that perfectly describes Kaufman’s own field of expertise.”

New York Times critic A.O. Scott was mentioned by name in Kaufman’s recent novel “Antkind.” Which makes his uproariously inside-out review of the film all the better. As Scott wrote, “What is certain is that Kaufman (whom I’ve met a couple of times at film festivals) is living in my head, as I seem to be living in his. And so, whether I like it or not — and to be honest, I don’t really mind — I find myself ensnared in a low-key version of one of his favorite predicaments … Kaufman has explored the philosophical vertigo and emotional upset caused by the inconvenient fact that other people exist. Again and again, his movies ask: Are we even real to one another, or does each of us project inner desires and anxieties outward, turning the faces and feelings of lovers, colleagues and family members into mirrors of our own narcissism?”

For The New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote, “Kaufman, in quest of sympathy, wants more: His film elaborates both a grand imaginative scheme and a complex element of aesthetic gamesmanship around his apparently straightforward couple in crisis. If he worries about the manipulative power of art, he not only brings it to the fore but revels in it. ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ strains to evoke both humanistic tenderness and aesthetic wonder. Kaufman seeks admiration for his warmhearted and gentle humanism and also for his extravagant creativity, even when the latter gets in the way of the former — when his cleverness stands like a child’s antics in front of the screen where the movie is playing, defying viewers to pay attention to what’s going on behind him while amiably indulging or ignoring his trickery.”

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For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “And yet, in its constant asterisking of its own material, ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ feels like an artistic dead end, like the confession of someone who can only burrow deeper and deeper into himself instead of looking outward. To acknowledge the constructs of fiction may be a way of pointing out its inherent artifice, but it’s also a means of avoiding the exposure that comes with allowing those fictional creations to stand (or fail) on their own.”

David Thewlis, clockwise from left, Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons and Toni Collette in "I'm Thinking of Ending Things."
David Thewlis, clockwise from left, Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons and Toni Collette in the movie “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”
(Mary Cybulski/Netflix)

‘Mulan’

An adaptation of the 1998 animated film, “Mulan” is directed by Niki Caro and stars Yifei Liu in the title role, alongside a cast that also includes Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Rosalind Chao, Tzi Ma, Yoson An, Jason Scott Lee and Gong Li. In the film, Mulan, a young woman in ancient Imperial China, passes herself off as a man to fight with the army. Originally scheduled for a theatrical release in March, the movie is now available for streaming via Disney+ for an additional fee.

Sonaiya Kelley spoke to Caro about the challenges of having a would-be global blockbuster released during a worldwide pandemic. As Caro said, “It was a very strange, surreal and somewhat out of body experience to get to the precipice of release and then for everything to shut down … But I’m aware that it wasn’t just happening to me, it’s happened to everybody’s lives. My life just happens to revolve around a blockbuster movie.” Sonaiya also wrote this guide to the movie’s cast.

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For The Times, Justin Chang wrote of the film, “Having attended a theatrical screening back in early March, a few weeks before it was originally scheduled for worldwide release, I can attest that ‘Mulan,’ though far from a great movie, was clearly made for a great big screen, to judge by its sheer volume of silk brocades, gilded sets and mountain vistas … A smaller-screen viewing at home this week provided some useful perspective — a chance to look past the visual wonders and dramatic blunders and see the movie for the messy, admirable, unenviable tangle of cultural contradictions that it is.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “One of the lessons of Mulan’s tale is that women and men aren’t simply equals, but are finally indistinguishable when and where it counts: on the move, on the run, in the heat of the battle. Caro makes the same point in scenes that show Mulan rising to the occasion again and again, whether she’s shooting an arrow, twirling a weapon or executing some fancy riding that is so fluidly staged that it makes you long for more.”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Inkoo Kang wrote, “With a reported $200 million production budget, ‘Mulan’ is the most expensive movie ever directed by a woman filmmaker — and every last cent is visible, even on the small screen. And in theaters, the feature’s epic grandeur might have provided greater distraction from its anemic characterizations, uninvolving storyline and stunted performances … The result is a creatively squeamish, pokily paced movie by committee that has four credited screenwriters, a slew of hackneyed Disney tropes and an enervating lack of emotional resonance.”

At Polygon, Karen Han wrote, “Considered apart from the film it’s adapting, Caro’s ‘Mulan’ is still a mixed bag. It shakes off the occasional miasma cast by visuals that range from ‘historical epic’ to ‘Disney Channel Original Movie’ through well-choreographed action scenes, including a sequence that unfolds inside a grid of scaffolding. But the action is just a fraction of the film, and what remains is buoyed largely by the wealth of talent assembled to portray the film’s characters.”

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Star Yifei Liu in a scene from "Mulan."
(Film Frame/Disney)

‘Critical Thinking’

The feature directing debut of John Leguizamo, “Critical Thinking” also stars the veteran actor as Mario Martinez in the real-life story of a chess coach for a Miami high school, from a screenplay written by Dito Montiel. The movie is being released by Vertical Entertainment and is available at virtual cinemas and on VOD.

For the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “With goals as modest as the lives of its characters, ‘Critical Thinking’ follows the predictable arc of the underdog drama as the chess team overcomes troubled home situations and other setbacks on the road to a Beverly Hills-set finale. Slow and straightforward, the movie knows that a chess match is hardly a barnburner; but its lively young performers and their eventual triumph are easy to warm to.”

For Variety, Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Much of the film’s appeal lies in the way it revels in chess as a pure symbol of leveling the playing field of opportunity. As Mr. T explains, chess is ‘the great equalizer.’ It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, what Ivy League college or prison you’re in: The elemental nature of the game shears away everything but intellectual ability. So in a drama like ‘Critical Thinking,’ where five students (four Latinx and one African-American) bust out of a high school with limited resources to attend a series of tournaments, there’s a democracy-in-action, anyone-can-win-in-America spirit.”

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A scene from "Critical Thinking."
(Vertical Entertainment)


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