Monday, March 23, 2020

CoronaVirus CoVideo Bonanza Side Quest: SOCIAL DISTANCING MOVIES

Hey there friends.

Feeling a little cooped up? Self-quarantine and voluntary isolation getting you down? Climbing the walls like a capillary action food-coloring and paper science experiment... gone wrong?

Well, self-isolation is getting to me, too. So I'm taking a short break from my CoVideo Plague Film Bonanza for a mini-side quest to mention movies about... isolation! Ever been locked in a room, not knowing when you'd get out? Ever reached the limits of what you could do in your confined space, but you don't know when it'll be OK to leave? Ever hear people say things like "We might have to do 18 months of social distancing until there's a vaccine" and thought "Oh crap. I'm losing my grip already after twenty days!" This one's for you (and me), before we all start seeing ants.

For all the weirdos like myself, who deal with the anxiety of living in a time of plague by watching plague films, maybe you also cope with isolation and quarantine by watching movies about isolation, confinement and claustrophobia. In case that's you, here are some films about isolation and claustrophobia. I'm not going to watch new films for this because it's only a sidequest to my Plague Film Bonanza, and be warned that things are a little spoilery, but while my discussion of the film might require me to reveal that there's a twist (in order to talk about whether it was well done), I'll try not to give away what the twist is, exactly. Here are a few social distancing films I've seen, and I welcome your suggestions for further viewing in the comments.

Here is the rest of the CoVideo Corner plague film series.

Now on to the list!

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) (IMDB page)

What is it: I'm going to use this spot, and The Shawshank Redemption as my stand-in for all prison movies, and that's an entire genre of its own that would take over the whole list, unless I decide to include only one. I could have put The Green Mile, or Cool Hand Luke, or The Great Escape (though I haven't seen that one myself, would you believe?) here. Prison movies vary by theme -- some are Message Movies about capital punishment or structural injustice - but rather than Dead Man Walking, I recommend films that latch onto the other most common theme of prison films: undying hope and optimism, even in dire circumstances, 'cause lordy we need optimism right now. So give Cool Hand Luke or Shawshank Redemption a watch rather than The Deer Hunter or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Watch it Because: You know what this film is about. You've probably seen it before. Morgan Freeman submitted his application for the Movie Narrator Hall Of Fame, Tim Robbins made us root harder for a protagonist than we might have ever done before. Warden Norton was a truly despicable villain, and the reveal at the ending was pretty dang fist-punching-the-air awesome, and definitely the awesomest movie ending involving so much poop ever. If you need to remember that hope never quits and humanity is pretty dang resilient, this is the film you need. You can find lots of countdown lists of prison movies: it's an entire genre, so other than this spot, I'll save the rest of the list for other kinds of isolation and confinement movies.

Score: It's self-quarantine adjacent, not because prison isn't quite the same, but an excellent film. Five pinup posters out of five as a prison film, but as a social distancing film:

4 Pinup Posters out of 5

Cube (1997) (IMDB page)

What is it: Cube is a weird Canadian independent sci-fi/horror film where a group of six people from different backgrounds wake up in a puzzling maze of cube-shaped rooms. They find each other, and discover along the way that certain cube rooms are armed with deadly booby traps. They need to find a way out of the cube, avoiding the deadly booby traps, while also managing to come together as a team despite the kind of interpersonal friction that always comes up when people are confined together in a small space with life-or-death stakes.

If you are getting along with your siblings better than this crew, count yourself as doing well.

It's been a long time since I saw this, but it has one of the most memorable cold opens I've ever seen. It's a pretty good film for its shoestring budget: it's not slick, but it's pretty watchable, and it was successful enough to spawn a sequel and a prequel.

As always in "strangers thrown together in mysterious but deadly place" films, there is a LOT of talking about the nature of the cube and how to get out. A LOT of talking. There are a few false resolution/twists before the real resolution, and the ending is one of those arthouse endings that gives with one hand and takes away with the other, where your cheering gets kind of interrupted... but as deep teenage me observed upon first watching it, "That's what life is like though, you know?"

Watch it because: It's a high concept film that plays out its concept pretty well. It makes the most of a lickspittle tiny budget. You can see echoes of it in any movie where people wake up not knowing where they are, and have to figure out their deadly new setting, recent examples being Maze Runner and Escape Room, which was basically the exact same film, but with gimmicks and more money. You get to see a bunch of people in a new, weird, scary situation, adjusting to weird circumstances and worried about dying, while also discovering every single rough edge along which everyone in proximity to them rubs them the wrong way. So... it'll be relatable to anyone who's sharing a living space with someone in stay-at-home, self-isolation, or lockdown right now. Unfortunately, there isn't some "key" to Coronavirus that we can figure out. There's just a toxic mix of boredom, anxiety, and deprivation from many of life's usual pleasures. So organize a watch party with some friends, I guess.

Score: It's a long time since I saw it, but I think it was a bit draggy in the middle act. Excellent opening, frustrating ending, but hits the paranoia and claustrophobia of self-quarantine pretty well:

3 booby traps out of 5

The Shining (1980) (IMDB page)

What is it: You know what this is. There is a shortage of perfect films in the world, and somehow Stanley Kubrick managed to make six or seven. Few films achieve the slow burn and gradual escalation, the increasing sense that something bad is gonna happen better than this. The overly bright hotel lights, the creepy twins: this film has far more than its fair share of images seared into the pop culture consciousness, but deservedly so. The acting is all great, Jack Nicholson has fun finally going completely off his chain, the jump scares are jumpy, the tone is relentlessly disturbing, and the claustrophobia of being stuck in a hotel at the top of a snow-covered road until the spring thaw is palpable. It's a perfect horror movie, one of the scariest ever made. The only drawback is that everybody's already seen it.

Watch it because: If you manage not to swing an axe through your roommate's door, you're doing well! Holding it together is all relative, so if you set the bar at "HEEEERE'S JOHNNY!" you'll feel like you're doing fine, no matter how white-knuckled your grip on things has become.

Score: Both as a claustrophobia film and as a straight-up film, this is one of the best on the list.

5 creepy sets of twins out of 5. Ten total!

Room (2015) (IMDB page)

What is it? Well, after stealing scenes in her mini rock-star bit Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) didn't make big waves until her biggest wave in 2015, when she won the Best Actress Oscar for this film. Room is a drama about a woman who's been kidnapped and forcibly confined for years in a one-room shed, Fritzl-style (the case was an inspiration for the source text, a novel). Her captor has impregnated her, and the film begins when their child is five. In order not to have to answer questions about why they can't go out, Ma (Larson) has taught her child that the room is everything there is in the whole world, and the rest of the world is just stories from television.

I hope I'm not spoiling it to say that they escape (though how it happens is a truly nail-biting scene), and once out, she's reunited with her family, but nobody quite knows how to go forward. Her parents had already grieved her, and did not expect to suddenly have a fully-formed (but also traumatized) grandson on their hands.

Watch it because: Larson's character, "Ma" in the credits, is a study of a woman who has been her child's literal everything for his entire life, trying to cope with not being that, but still having an incredibly intense relationship with him, while also needing to be his anchor as he deals with outside-world-information overload...while also dealing with her own trauma, in a family utterly unequipped and unprepared to help her with it. It's a complex, nuanced, excellent film with solid performances from everyone, and some subtle but powerful turns and realizations in the script. The premise is one of the most horrible things that can happen to a person -- sexual violence trigger warnings up the wazoo -- but the film's sympathetic portrayal of trauma and a mother-son bond is ultimately touching and powerful.

Score: Both for the claustrophobia in the beginning, and the feeling that the entire world outside has disappeared, and also for the nuanced writing and hair-blown-back amazing acting, this film is well worth the watch, if the content isn't too much. Important trigger warning for suicide, sexual and domestic violence.

Five skylights out of five

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) (IMDB page)

What is it: Another Scott Pilgrim alumnus, this film features Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle, who wakes up to discover she's been brought to an emergency underground shelter built by John Goodman's character, Howard, who paints himself as a savior. As they spend longer and longer underground, he reveals his true colors. The film is part of the loosely connected Cloverfield films, which are an interesting franchise in the way they tell the story of a Lovecraftian invasion of earth by monsters beyond our imagination... but instead of doing the usual 2010s horror movie thing of showing and explaining everything until nothing is scary, it approaches the cataclysm through the eyes of the tiny humans who only witness tiny aspects of the entire event... and that's scary enough. In fact, by holding back the full story, it's probably scarier, and certainly more interesting, which is why, even though none of the Cloverfield series films is actually, top-to-bottom, an excellent film, I'll be there for the next one when it comes.

Watch it because: Excellent acting and some very good scene writing in the first half. John Goodman treads the "is he or isn't he a monster" line for a very long time, very well, before his teeth come out (metaphorically), and when they do... few people can be as terrifying as John Goodman with a full head of steam (Barton Fink fans know what I'm talking about). This was the film that inspired the social distancing side-quest, because I wrote about it as a plague movie for the other series, (while trapped underground, the characters don't know what is going on up above, and they take precautions as if it could be a plague, so it qualifies, just). However, the confinement, the inability to get away from the roommates, the way being close up together reveals everything about the people around you, even as you try your best to keep a veneer of politeness and a semblance of routine around your days like a sanity shield... this film gets confinement. And you'll be glad you're not trapped with John Goodman's Howard by the end of it. Your own annoying roommate with their knee-twitching and loud chewing might seem downright lovely after watching this.

Score: As a confinement film, the confinement parts are fully claustrophobic. The final half hour of the film, which is less confiney, is almost like a totally different film, which undermines the claustrophobia bit. If it had been an entire film set underground, it might have been a 5/5, but instead it gets...

Three drum barrels out of five.

Oldboy (2003) (IMDB page)

What is it: Dae-su Oh is a total scumbag. He really is. You can tell from the opening scene. But no matter how horrible he is, it's hard to say he deserves to be trapped in a hotel room for fifteen years as his sanity crumbles away. Once he escapes, he goes on a vendetta to find the person who confined him and exact terrible revenge on him, helped by Mi-do, a pretty young sushi chef who falls into his orbit. His captor toys with Dae-su as he tries to track him down for revenge, but who, how, and why this is called a revenge film becomes unclear as the film continues. It is one of the most highly acclaimed Korean films ever made, with the same twisted, dark sense of humor Parasite had, but also the violence and rage that are signifiers of the type of Korean  thrillers that often seem to make the rounds in arthouse circles worldwide. It has one of the best twists I've ever seen in a film, and one of the greatest fight scenes I've ever seen in a movie, and one of the most gut-twisting torture scenes I've ever seen in a movie. It's a movie of towering greatness...that's so bleak I have to mentally brace myself for about a week before watching it. Even after I know the twists. Of that genre of excellent, violent films starring menacing men out to get revenge on...something, while big-eyed women gaze on doing little else but being imperiled, films which always seem to make a splash at foreign film festivals - I Saw The Devil, The Chaser, and The Man From Nowhere are other examples - Oldboy is the unimpeachable best of the lot.

Watch it because: Listen, folks. Oldboy is a hard go. It is bleak as hell, and every character is awful. Every scene has the menace of violence hanging over it, and by the end, you'll want to take a shower: the scumbag protagonist somehow makes you root for him out of his sheer implacability, and you're just about to celebrate his victory... and one of the greatest cinematic stomach punches I've ever seen lands, one that hurts just as much on a rewatch when you see it coming. The pacing is perfect, the acting textured, the plotting is airtight, the twist is devastating. It is depressing AF, but also a masterpiece. The confinement part is at the beginning, when Dae-su is trapped in a hotel room for fifteen years. This sequence is harrowing, and the encroaching madness caused by his confinement looms over the entire rest of the film. We see how the time in the room sends his sanity spiraling. This might be the worst confinement film to watch, unless talking to giant ants seems like a cool thing to do for you. The only upside in this bleak film: he gets out, though only to serve some horrible purpose. If the sheer joy of watching a truly excellent film is enough to bring you joy, yeah this is excellent. But if films leave a strong emotional imprint on you, this one will bum you out for a while. Break glass only in case of emergency.

Score: if you are into bleak, boy has this film got bleak for you! It's the best bleak you'll ever get! But if you're not into bleak, this is not your movie.
If you go for bleak... five claw hammers out of five.

If you don't go for bleak... one "Run away" out of five.


Chicken Run (2000) (IMDB page)

My goodness. It's time for a film with a happy ending already!

What is it: Chicken Run is a charming, goofy film about a flock of chickens that need to escape their coop before they are turned into meat pies. Mel Gibson (remember when he was cool?) plays Rocky, a rooster who lands in a coop of hens and claims he can fly, and also teach the hens to fly away. They try some other stuff to escape, and mad shenanigans ensue.

Watch it because: It is one of the cutest, most entertaining films about confinement on this list. Aardman Entertainment, also known as the Wallace and Gromit people, are top-flight animators, and this film really showed what they could do. It's loaded with entertaining characterizations, excellent voice acting, references and homages to other films. Meanwhile, the sheer volume of throwaway jokes and sight gags will keep even careful watchers amused on multiple rewatches. Tonally, the whole film is about escaping confinement, and there are nothing but good consequences if they do, so you can safely root for the chickens to get out without having the rug pulled, unlike some of the films above, and having no goal other than waiting for our own confinement to end, it might not quite connect.

Score: It's not Aardman entertainment's best (that would be The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, but it's still excellent.

Four wattles out of five.

Groundhog Day (1993) (IMDB page)

What is it: Say, "I feel like I'm in The Age of Innocence" to your friends. Or "I feel like I'm in Much Ado About Nothing" or "I feel like I'm in The Fugitive," or any of the other most acclaimed films of 1993. You'll need to clarify what you mean. Say "I feel like I'm in Groundhog Day" and everyone will know exactly what you mean, even though the film was nowhere near the most successful or celebrated film of its year. In a career-defining performance, Bill Murray guides the audience through this incredibly high-concept film which manages to be a quality comedy, a sweet romance, a nostalgic piece of small-town Americana, a harrowing existential treatise, and a meditation on living one's best life, delivering on all levels. Bill Murray plays Phil, a cynical newsman who discovers no matter what he does, he keeps reliving the same day over and over. Hijinks ensue as he figures out what to do about his predicament, and his journey is by turns hilarious, sad, and ultimately uplifting as he tries to figure out how to break the loop. It's an all-time great film premise, executed wonderfully.

Watch it because: I'll admit, classic that it is, I haven't rewatched this film in a long, long time, yet I remember it surprisingly vividly. While this film isn't about confinement or quarantine in the way other of these films are, for those of us suddenly with vast reams of unstructured time, it is the film that most closely examines the range of emotions we are feeling when Every. Day. Is. Exactly. The. Same. as every other. I am intrigued by the way this film has gotten better and better (or at least better remembered) with age. But in the generation since it came out to slightly above average critical response and middling box office success, it has become a cherished and revered film, and vaulted past much better-regarded (at the time) films on best-of lists.

Moreover: if Bill Murray can use repetition, and the boredom of living the same day again and again, and find ways to become a better person... the most hopeful part of the film is that maybe we can, too! For such a deep film, that goes to such dark places, the end is surprisingly hopeful, but in a way that is earned, and not cheap. To be honest... this is probably the film I recommend the most out of the entire list.

Five Clock Radios out of five. It's only a single listicle, so
why waste time reviewing the bad social distancing films?

I'm giving out a lot of high scores here. What can I say? In the space of a single article, why would I waste time reviewing the crappy self-isolation, claustrophobia or confinement films?

The Descent (2005) (IMDB page)

What is it: Only one of the best horror films of the century! A close-knit group of women meet up to overcome their fears and traumas by spelunking: exploring an unmapped cave in the Appalachian mountains for a girls' weekend away. Of course, they take a wrong turn, get lost, and start to suspect something else is down there. Their effort to escape will test their bonds, and their individual limits in ways you couldn't imagine (I'm so sad the age of VHS casette boxes has passed, so I can't get a job writing the back-case summaries).

Watch it because: Holy cow. It's one of the three or four scariest movies I've ever seen, so if you need the catharsis of a good chill, or a fantastic jump scare, this one delivers. But also... the way the actors interact at the beginning sells their love and loyalty for each other, so that you care when things start to happen underground. None of the actors are well-known, which makes the film more about the group as a whole than a single protagonist or hero, and increases the sense that anything could happen, and any of them could be next, because there's no Charlize Theron character walking around with plot armor on. The horror part all happens underground, and it's lit by flares, flashlights, matches and headlamps, so that the dark becomes truly terrifying (this effect is sometimes cheesy, but it's well done here, letting the imagination do the work, but also showing enough to properly horrify). The film hits all the anxiety quadrants, with jump scares, looming dread, shadowed uncertainty, gross and painful injury, and fear borne of the love the friends have for each other, as their fear of losing each other amplifies the outright fear baked into the situation. It fits the confinement theme because they're trapped underground, in a dark place they can't escape, and the film uses claustrophobia to scarier effect than just about any movie I've seen.

Score: Like I said, I'm only reviewing the good claustrophobia and cabin fever films in this list, because it's a one-off, so don't be that surprised at all the high ratings: you're only getting the cream here. If I went down my list to the second and third tier of confinement and cramped-in ennui films, we'd see more low ratings, but why waste your time on that? This film is gut-wrenching, terrifying, intense and relentless, and it all happens to a group of characters you care about. Self-isolation might be tough, but at least you don't have as tough as this!

Five spelunking helmets out of five.
(backup choice:)
Five pairs of brown pants out of five.

Listen, folks. This is tough. We're all taking a hit for the greater good, but it ain't easy, and don't forget that if you're in a spot where finding ways to fill your time is your worst worry, you're doing a lot better off than some. Between Groundhog Day and Chicken Run, maybe take a minute to reach out to your special people who are in bad way. Send them a box of something yummy, a cash transfer if you can, something funny on their Facebook wall, or a message or a call - whatever helps them most - to let them know you're thinking of them. Look for the helpers... but moreover, be a helper.

Self-quarantine/stay-at-home/lockdown is a slog. It mixes the worst aspects of boredom and fear in the most toxic way possible. So if you cope by watching movie comfort food (ayo, Inigo Montoya!) or something highfalutin' (Palme d'Or Winner Marathon!) or if you want to go for road movies -- the exact opposite of our experience, that's fine. About this experience... well, some interesting artists have dug into the minutiae of confinement, claustrophobia and helplessness in interesting ways, and if that helps us remember that we're not alone feeling this way, not alone climbing the walls and getting twitchy and curt, maybe that'll be a balm for some of us, too. Enjoy these picks, and sound off in the comments if you think of one I missed.

Cut for length, or because we have a lot of depressing movies on this list already:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has a lot of trapped-and-can't-get-out themes. It's also one of the best-acted movies you'll ever see, and the one that made Jack Nicholson a star.

The Deer Hunter is a brilliant but quite depressing examination of post-imprisonment trauma. I hope none of your social distancing experiences are as harrowing as the men in this film, and that we all come out of this whole.

Holocaust films - there are a whole swack of films about the Holocaust that riff on themes of escape, confinement and helplessness. They are all terribly sad, and I certainly hope things don't get this bad, so Sophie's Choice, Schindler's List, The Pianist, Men Behind The Sun (about Japanese experimentation in Unit 731, and one of the toughest watches ever) and others might not be good for your mental balance if isolation is already hard enough.

Silence of the Lambs: the big baddie in this film confines his victims, and Hannibal Lecter spends all his scenes in various extreme maximum security prison cells and constraints. It's a perfect movie, with a satisfying ending, and characters who escape their different prisons, but I simply didn't want to overload the list with horror films, and everybody already knows about this film anyway.

The Hole: Another thriller (another genre that threatened to overload the list) starring Thora Birch (the daughter from American Beauty) and Keira Knightley (the sugar-plum fairy from The Nutcracker and the Four Realms). A bunch of teens go party in an underground bomb shelter... and lose the key to get out. Shit gets rough, but some interesting stuff happens with changing storylines and unreliable narrators.

I Am Legend: A lot of solitude in this film, and frankly the solitude bit is the best part of the film. I'm not writing it up because the anxiety in this film is of an entirely different kind, and I might cover it for the Plague Film series, anyway. An interesting film that could have been more than it was.

Wall-E: Another film that opens with a brilliantly spare, yet rich portrayal of solitude. Highly recommended. In fact, if I didn't have other stuff to do, I might have given it a write-up, now that I think of it, not to mention, the plot doesn't start moving until the solitude ends.

Cast Away: An iconic performance by peak Tom Hanks, a sweet romantic comedy involving a volleyball, a sad look at the possibility we can't just go back to the way things were... but the amount of time Tom Hanks spends on a beach just made me angry about those stupid spring-breakers again. Give it a look; you know what this one is about without a write-up.

Other films about isolation that came to mind:
Weirdly... Home Alone

Haven't seen it but... corner...

I think I'm going to watch "Buried" (2010) in which Ryan Reynolds wakes up trapped in a coffin.

There is a 1960 French film called The Hole (Le Trou) which I've heard is fantastic, but I haven't seen it. There is also a 2009 film with the same name whose trailer didn't really grab me.

I've heard the Japanese film Audition fits the isolation/confinement motif, thanks to a certain cloth bag, and it is a must-see if you're into body horror, which I am. I've winced away from this one basically because Japanese body horror and gore films go hard ... I've heard what happens, and I just can't quite bring myself to see it, which kind of surprises me because usually I'm all about that messed up stuff.

Final random thought: The prison movie is the exact opposite genre of the road movie. How about that.

CoVideo Corner Plague Film Bonanza Series Recap:

This is the blog series where I write review films about plagues, outbreaks and epidemics.
Go to the Table of Contents, where I explain all this in more detail.

Go to Part 1
(Carriers (2009)
Deranged (연가시) (2012)
Patient Zero (2018)
Outbreak (1995)
The Bay (2012)
Perfect Sense (2011)

Go to Part 2
감기 (The Flu)
Black Death
Extinction: The GMO Chronicles
괴물 (The Host)
Viral (2016)
The Girl With All the Gifts

Go to Part 3
And The Band Played On (1993)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Cabin Fever (2002)
Planet of the Apes Trilogy (2011-2017)
World War Z (2013)
Contagion (2011)

Go to Part 4
Antiviral (2012)
Maggie (2015)
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Pandemic (2016)
Stephen King's The Stand (1994)
28 Days Later (2002) / 28 Weeks Later (2007) duology
The Invasion (2007)

This was the CoVideo Corner sidebar: Social Distancing Edition:
This post discusses a set of films about claustrophobia, isolation, boredom and helplessness: the feelings we're all feeling during our stay-at-home quarantines and self-isolation
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Cube (1997)
The Shining (1980)
Room (2015)
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Oldboy (2003)
Chicken Run (2000)
Groundhog Day (1993)
The Descent (2005)

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