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    Erika Lust's Alternative Porn Vision

    The Swedish moviemaker thinks pornography can create a society that sees sexuality as myriad and joyful, and where women’s pleasure matters.BARCELONA, Spain — When Billie Eilish called pornography “a disgrace” in a recent radio interview, the quote made headlines. The Grammy-winning musician said she had started watching at around age 11, to learn how to have sex, and that she was now angry about the way she felt porn misrepresented women.When people talk about pornography, they’re often referring, like Eilish, to its commercial, heterosexual variety, which is what most of the free porn online tends to be. On those sites, you’d be forgiven for thinking it all looks the same. But depending on the sexual politics and vision of its creator, porn can look wildly different.Take, for example, the work of the Swedish filmmaker Erika Lust. She has built her production company, Erika Lust Films, into an art-house pornography behemoth by offering something outside the porn mainstream. Most viewers watch Lust’s stylish, highly produced films by subscribing to her websites, where she also distributes videos by other like-minded directors. But her own films have also been screened in regular movie theaters in Berlin, London, Paris, Los Angeles and New York.“There’s not just one type of porn,” Lust said in an interview at her office in Barcelona, where she has lived since 2000. “People see it as one monolithic entity, but it’s not.”In the films Lust makes, she said her goal was for the female performers to have real orgasms. “When women watch porn, they need to see that women are being stimulated,” she said. “If there is a scene with penetrative sex, viewers need to see a woman using her hand or a vibrator at the same time — because that’s what works for most women.”Lust, 44, added that she had spoken with many young women who told her, “‘Something’s wrong with my body, I can’t reach an orgasm with a man,’ because they’re reproducing what they learn from online porn.”In Eilish’s radio interview, she said that the damage inflicted on her by online pornography went deeper still: In her view, it had “destroyed” her brain. The philosopher Amia Srinivasan has also recently considered porn’s effect on the mind, reviving feminist debates from the 1970s and ’80s.In “The Right to Sex,” Srinivasan’s 2021 best-selling essay collection, she argues that, “While filmed sex seemingly opens up a world of sexual possibility, all too often it shuts down the sexual imagination, making it weak, dependent, lazy, codified. The sexual imagination is transformed into a mimesis-machine, incapable of generating its own novelty.” (Srinivasan declined to be interviewed for this article.)Although in her book she argues against censoring explicit material — a move that often unfairly targets women and sexual minorities, she writes — the Oxford University academic advises young people to lay off porn if they want their sex lives to be “more joyful, more equal, freer.”“Perhaps then the sexual imagination could be coaxed, even briefly, to recall its lost power,” Srinivasan writes.“Sex is such a huge part of who we are,” Lust said, “and there are so many more stories to tell.”Monica FiguerasYet Lust said it was film’s capacity to excite the erotic imagination that first drew her to pornography. While studying political science at Lund University in Sweden, she said she read “Hard Core,” a book by Linda Williams that is regarded as a classic of feminist film criticism, and that argues that pornography is a way of communicating ideas about gender and sex.Feminist thinking led Lust to realize that porn, like many other cultural products, was mostly made by men, for men and from a narrow perspective: that of “middle-aged, heterosexual, white men,” she said. This male view of sexuality was “often misogynistic, in which women were reduced to tools for men’s orgasm,” she added. A lot of commercial porn is shot from a disembodied male perspective, and often the only part of a male performer that’s visible onscreen is his penis, Lust said.The films she directs and produces, on the other hand, show women with sexual agency, who stimulate their own clitorises and whose facial expressions communicate their emotional and psychological states. Lust’s performers have a natural, everyday look and include people of “different sexualities, skin colors and body shapes,” she said.Her films are also heavy on plot lines. Lust’s best-known series, “XConfessions,” are filmed depictions of her viewers’ real fantasies. Anyone can “confess” their imagined or real-life sex stories through the XConfessions website. If she likes the idea, she turns it into a film. The stories include classic and kinky fantasies and are sometimes made by guest directors, such as the Canadian cult queer filmmaker Bruce LaBruce. One of his “XConfessions” movies, “Valentin, Pierre and Catalina,” is a remake of François Truffaut’s classic movie “Jules and Jim,” a three-way polyamorous love story between a woman and two men.LaBruce, who just wrapped up a feature-length parody porn movie for Lust set in the fashion industry, said in a phone interview that he was not surprised by the recent resurgence of negative attitudes toward porn. “The idea that porn is a male way of controlling women — that used to be the provenance of the Christian right,” he said. “Now, the left and the right have kind of flipped.”The anthropologist Gayle Rubin, who was on the “pro-sex” feminist side of the 1970s and ’80s “sex wars,” opposing calls for censorship, said by phone that pornography was “easy to pick on” because, historically, it had been marginalized socially and legally.“You know in movies when you think the monster is dead, but it just keeps coming back?” she said. “These assumptions about porn just keep resurfacing, going back more than four decades.“Many people just don’t think as rigorously about porn as they do other topics. Porn is a special case in how it’s treated intellectually, which is badly — even among philosophers and others who should know better,” Rubin said.While the porn industry is not known for critical reflection, there are, however, events like the Berlin Porn Film Festival, an annual gathering that seeks to provide new perspectives on the genre — artistic, social and even philosophical. Paulita Pappel, a porn performer and director who is one of the event’s curators, said that porn was often “a mirror of wider problems in society.” She added that, “The more we scapegoat and stigmatize it, the less space there will be for porn to be diverse, and the less chance we have to change the bigger issues.”When Lust screened her first feature-length movie, “The Intern,” to a sold-out audience at the festival in October, many in the audience — men, women and gender nonconforming people, mostly in their 20 and 30s — said that they came to see the film in search of an alternative to traditional porn.“I’m here because my friend recommended Erika Lust, because she doesn’t make heteronormative porn,” said Levent Ekemen, 28, a graduate student. “Her films show sensuality, and they’re extremely erotic.”Lust, center, on the set of “The Intern,” her first feature-length movie, which had its premiere at the Berlin Porn Film Festival in 2021.Adriana EskenaziLust said she hoped that the movies on her websites can have an “expansive” effect on people’s sense of the erotic. “With some of LaBruce’s films with male interaction,” she said, “men tell me, ‘Erika, I’ve never watched this before, but it was on your site, and it was hot!’ People are opening up their sexual visions outside of what they might be used to seeing.”She added that she wanted to help create a society that sees sexuality as myriad and joyful, and where women’s pleasure matters. “The value filmmaking has when it comes to empathizing with other people is incredible,” she said. “Sex is such a huge part of who we are, and there are so many more stories to tell.”“I have a right to tell them,” she added. “And no one can stop me.” More

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    Mommy Is Going Away for Awhile

    The antiheroine of the moment, in movies like “The Lost Daughter” and novels like “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” commits the mother’s ultimate sin: abandoning her children.There are so many ways to do motherhood wrong, or so a mother is told. She can be overbearing or remote. She can smother or neglect. She can mother in such a specifically bad way that she is assigned a bad-mom archetype: stage mother, refrigerator mother, “cool mom.” She can hover like a helicopter mom or bully like a bulldozer mom. But the thing she cannot do — the thing that is so taboo it rivals actually murdering her offspring — is leave.The mother who abandons her children haunts our family narratives. She is made into a lurid tabloid figure, an exotic exception to the common deadbeat father. Or she is sketched into the background of a plot, her absence lending a protagonist a propulsive origin story. This figure arouses our ridicule (consider Meryl Streep’s daffy American president in “Don’t Look Up,” who forgets to save her son as she flees the apocalypse) or our pity (see “Parallel Mothers,” where an actress has ditched her daughter for lousy television parts). But lately the vanishing mother has provoked a fresh response: respect.In Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film “The Lost Daughter,” she is Leda (played, across two decades, by Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman), a promising translator who deserts her young daughters for several years to pursue her career (and a dalliance with an Auden scholar). In HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” a gender-scrambled remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 mini-series, she is Mira (Jessica Chastain), a Boston tech executive who jets to Tel Aviv for an affair disguised as a work project. And in Claire Vaye Watkins’s autofictional novel “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” she is also Claire Vaye Watkins, a novelist who leaves her infant to smoke a ton of weed, sleep with a guy who lives in a van and confront her own troubled upbringing.In each case, her children are not abandoned outright; they are left in the care of fathers and other relatives. When a man leaves in this way, he is unexceptional. When a woman does it, she becomes a monster, or perhaps an antiheroine riding out a dark maternal fantasy. Feminism has supplied women with options, but a choice also represents a foreclosure, and women, because they are people, do not always know what they want. As these protagonists thrash against their own decisions, they also bump up against the limits of that freedom, revealing how women’s choices are rarely socially supported but always thoroughly judged.A mother losing her children is a nightmare. The title of “The Lost Daughter” refers in part to such an incident, when a child disappears at the beach. But a mother leaving her children — that’s a daydream, an imagined but repressed alternate life. In the “Sex and the City” reboot “And Just Like That…,” Miranda — now the mother to a teenager — counsels a professor who is considering having children. “There are so many nights when I would love to be a judge and go home to an empty house,” she says. And on Instagram, the airbrushed mirage of mothering is being challenged by displays of raw desperation. The Not Safe for Mom Group, which surfaces confessions of anonymous mothers, pulses with idle threats of role refusal, like: “I want to be alone!!! I don’t want to make your lunch!!”Being alone: that is the mother’s reasonable and functionally impossible dream. Especially recently, when avenues of escape have been sealed off: schools closed, day care centers suspended, offices shuttered, jobs lost or abandoned in crisis. Now the house is never empty, and also you can never leave. During a pandemic, a plucky middle-class gal can still “have it all,” as long as she can manage job and children simultaneously, from the floor of a lawless living room.The ‘Sex and the City’ UniverseThe sprawling franchise revolutionized how women were portrayed on the screen. And the show isn’t over yet. A New Series: Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte return for another strut down the premium cable runway in “And Just Like That,” streaming on HBO. Off Broadway: Candace Bushnell, whose writing gave birth to the “Sex and the City” universe, stars in her one-woman show based on her life. In Carrie’s Footsteps: “Sex and the City” painted a seductive vision of Manhattan, inspiring many young women to move to the city. The Origins: For the show’s 20th anniversary in 2018, Bushnell shared how a collection of essays turned into a pathbreaking series.Cards on the table: I am struggling to draft this essay on my phone as my pantsless toddler — banished from day care for 10 days because someone got Covid — wages a tireless campaign to commandeer my device, hold it to his ear and say hewwo. I feel charmed, annoyed and implicated, as I wonder whether his neediness is attributable to some parental defect, perhaps related to my own constant phone use.Do I want to abandon my child? No, but I am newly attuned to the psychological head space of a woman who does. The Auden scholar of “The Lost Daughter” (played, in an inspired bit of casting, by Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard), entices Leda by quoting Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Attention is a loaded word: It can mean caring for another person, but also a powerful mental focus, and a parent can seldom execute both definitions at once.Leda wants to attend to her translation work, but she also wants someone to pay attention to her. To be blunt, she wants to work and to have sex. Often in these stories, the two are bound together in a hyper-individualistic fusion of romantic careerism. In “Scenes from a Marriage,” Mira plans to tell her daughter, “I have to go away for work, which is true” — only because she has arranged a professional obligation to facilitate her affair with an Israeli start-up bro. Her gateway drug to abandonment is, as is often the case, a business trip. Mira first strays at a company boat party; Leda tastes freedom at a translation conference; Claire embarks on a reading tour from which she never returns.The work trip is the Rumspringa of motherhood. Like the mama bird in “Are You My Mother?,” a woman is allowed to leave the nest to retrieve a worm, though someone, somewhere may be noting her absence with schoolmarmish disapproval. In Caitlin Flanagan’s 2012 indictment of Joan Didion, recirculated after Didion’s death, Flanagan dings Didion for taking a film job across the country, leaving her 3-year-old daughter over Christmas.Still, there is something absurd about the fashioning of work as the ultimate escape. It is only remotely plausible if our desperate mother enjoys a high-status creative position (translator, novelist, thought leader.) When other mothers of fiction leave, their fantasies are quickly revealed as delusions. In Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel “Patsy,” a Jamaican secretary abandons her daughter to pursue an American dream in New York, only to become a nanny caring for someone else’s children. And in Jessamine Chan’s dystopian novel “The School for Good Mothers,” Frida is sleep deprived and drowning in work when she leaves her toddler at home alone for two hours. Though Frida feels “a sudden pleasure” when she shuts the door behind her, her fantasy life is short and bleak: She escapes as far as her office, where she sends emails. For that, she is conscripted into a re-education camp for bad moms.Each of our absent mothers has her reasons. Leda’s academic husband has prioritized his career over hers, and this makes her decisions legible, even sympathetic. But in “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” Watkins lends her doppelgänger no exculpatory circumstances. Claire has a doula, day care, Obamacare breast pump, tenure-track job, several therapists and the world’s most understanding husband. When she starts sleeping in a hammock on campus, her husband says: “I think it’s cool you’re following your … heart, or … whatever … is happening … out there.” Nothing obvious impedes her from capable mothering, but ​​like Bartleby, the Child-bearer, she would simply prefer not to.In heaping privileges upon Claire, Watkins suggests that there are burdens of motherhood that cannot be solved with money, lifted by a co-parent or cured by a mental health professional. The trouble is motherhood itself, and its ideal of total selfless devotion. Motherhood had turned Claire into a “blank,” a figure who “didn’t seem to think much” and “had trouble completing her sentences.” As these women discover, their menu of life choices is not so expansive after all. They long to be offered a different position: dad. Claire wants to “behave like a man, a slightly bad one.” As Mira abruptly exits, she assures her husband, “Men do it all the time.”These women may leave, but they don’t quite get away with it. Mira eventually loses both job and boyfriend and begs for her old life back. Leda’s abandonment becomes a dark secret in a thriller that builds to a violent end. Only Claire is curiously impervious to consequence. She follows her selfish impulses all the way to the desert, where she spends her days crying and masturbating alone in a tent. Then she calls her husband, who flies out to her, happy tot in tow; eventually Claire claims a life where she can “read and write and nap and teach and soak and smoke” and see her daughter on breaks. By exacting no cosmic punishment on Claire, Watkins refuses to facilitate the reader’s judgment. But she also makes it harder to care.When I was pregnant, I had a fantasy, too. In it I was single, childless, still very young somehow and living out an alternate life in a van in Wyoming. Reading “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness” broke the spell. As Claire ripped bongs and circled new sexual partners, she struck me not as a monster or a hero but something perhaps worse — boring. Even as these stories work to uncover motherhood’s complex emotional truths, they indulge their own little fiction: that a mother only becomes interesting when she stops being one. More

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    Jasmila Zbanic Is Vilified in Serbia and ‘Disobedient’ at Home

    Jasmila Zbanic, named Europe’s best director for “Quo Vadis, Aida?”, insists on blaming individuals, not ethnic groups, for atrocities done as Yugoslavia imploded, a stance that can anger all sides.SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — A celebrated Bosnian film director always knew her latest movie, the harrowing drama of a mother trying unsuccessfully to save her husband and two sons from the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, would be panned by Serb nationalists.But the filmmaker, Jasmila Zbanic, was still taken aback when Serbian media invited a convicted war criminal to opine on the movie, “Quo Vadis, Aida?”, for which she recently won Europe’s best director award.The chosen critic? Veselin Sljivancanin, a former Yugoslav army officer sentenced to prison by a tribunal in The Hague for aiding and abetting the murder of prisoners in Croatia in the Vukovar massacre.While asking such a notorious figure to comment on the movie was a surprise, his reaction to it wasn’t: He denounced it as lies that “incite ethnic hatred” and smear all Serbs.“He, a war criminal, wants all Serbs, most of whom had nothing to do with his crimes, to feel attacked for his crimes,” Ms. Zbanic said in a recent interview at her production company atop a hill overlooking Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. “He is putting his guilt on all Serbs.”Ms. Zbanic speaking after the first public showing of “Quo Vadis, Aida?” in 2020 in Srebrenica, where some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in 1995.Kemal Softic/Associated PressMs. Zbanic’s unwavering belief that the guilt for the atrocities committed as the former Yugoslavia split apart belongs to individuals, not ethnic groups, has also made her a difficult cultural icon for some in her own community of Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks, to embrace.When the European Film Academy last month gave her the award of best director and selected “Quo Vadis, Aida?” as Europe’s best film of the year, a few Bosniak politicians congratulated her on their personal Facebook pages, but there were no official celebrations of the kind held whenever Bosniak athletes triumph abroad.“I did not even get any flowers,” she said.Fiercely independent and a self-declared feminist, Ms. Zbanic has for years kept her distance from Bosnia’s dominant and male-dominated political force, the Party of Democratic Action, or S.D.A., a Bosniak nationalist group. Like Serb parties on the other side of the ethnic divide, the S.D.A. now wins votes by stirring animosity toward, and fear of, other groups.“I’m very much against S.D.A., the main political party, so they know I am not theirs,” she said, noting that she had several times selected ethnic Serb actors for starring roles in her movies. “I don’t choose actors because of their nationality but because they are the best,” she said.In her most recent movie, the main role, a Bosniak translator working for the United Nations in Srebrenica, is played by Jasna Djuricic from Serbia. Ms. Djuricic, who won the best actress award from the European Film Academy, has been pilloried in Serb media as a Muslim-loving traitor.The actress Jasna Djuricic, left, with Ms. Zbanic on the set of “Quo Vadis, Aida?” Ms. Djuricic has been called a traitor in her native Serbia.Imrana Kapetanovic/DeblokadaHaris Pasovic, a prominent Bosnian theater director and Ms. Zbanic’s professor during the war years at the Sarajevo Academy of Performing Arts, said his former student’s collaboration with the Serbian actress demonstrated her faith that culture transcends nationalism.“Events were meant to separate these two people forever, but they came together to create this incredible work of art,” Mr. Pasovic said.International acclaim, he added, has made Ms. Zbanic “the most successful woman in Bosnian history” and, as a result, “she terrifies Balkan politicians,” nearly all men. “She is very careful not to be used in Balkan political trading and has never wanted to be part of anybody’s bloc,” Mr. Pasovic said.Bosnia has a long, rich history of filmmaking from when it was still part of Yugoslavia, the multiethnic socialist state that fell apart in the early 1990s and spawned Europe’s bloodiest armed conflict since World War II. More than 140,000 died in the ensuing conflicts.“What I learned during the war is that food and culture are equal,” Ms. Zbanic said. “You can’t live without either.”Like so much else in Bosnia, a patchwork of different ethnic groups and religions, the film industry has been left bitterly divided by the traumas of war. Emir Kusturica, a well-known Sarajevo-born director who has embraced Serb nationalism, is now reviled by many Bosniaks as a champion of “Greater Serbia,” the cause that tore Bosnia apart in the 1990s.Ms. Zbanic, 47, said she despised Mr. Kusturica’s politics — he is close to Milorad Dodik, the belligerent nationalist leader of Bosnia’s Serb-controlled region — but still respected his talents. “We should appreciate professionals no matter what ideology they have,” she said.Seventeen years old when Bosnian Serbs began a nearly four-year siege of Sarajevo in 1992, Ms. Zbanic said her films, which include “Grbavica,” a 2006 feature about a single mother whose daughter was conceived in a wartime rape, are her “attempt to understand what happened and how what happened during the war is still influencing our everyday life.”Ms. Zbanic speaking to cast members on the set of “Quo Vadis, Aida?”Imrana Kapetanovic/Deblokada“Grbavica” helped pressure Bosnian politicians into changing the law to give previously neglected wartime rape victims the same official recognition and allowances as former soldiers. She counts that as one of her proudest achievements, noting that “truth is always good, even if it is painful and even if it hurts, it moves things forward.”Five Movies to Watch This WinterCard 1 of 51. “The Power of the Dog”: More

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    Alec Baldwin Will Turn in Phone to Investigators This Week, Lawyer Says

    The sheriff’s office in Santa Fe said nearly a month had elapsed since a search warrant was issued for the phone, but it had not yet been surrendered.A lawyer for Alec Baldwin said on Thursday that the actor would turn over his cellphone “this week” to authorities investigating his fatal shooting of a cinematographer on the set for the film “Rust,” nearly a month after detectives secured a search warrant for the device.The pledge came hours after the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office — which is investigating the shooting — had released a statement pointedly noting that the warrant had been obtained on Dec. 16 but that “to date, the cellphone has not been turned over to authorities.”Mr. Baldwin’s lawyer, Aaron Dyer, said in a statement that he and his client had reached an agreement with officials in Santa Fe County last weekend regarding the actor’s phone and that they were finalizing logistics with the authorities in New York, where Mr. Baldwin has a home.“Ever since this tragic incident, Mr. Baldwin has continued to cooperate with the authorities, and any suggestion to the contrary is simply untrue,” Mr. Dyer said in the statement. “We requested that the authorities obtain a warrant so that we could protect his privacy on other matters unrelated to ‘Rust’ and have been working through that process.”After media outlets reported last week that investigators did not yet have Mr. Baldwin’s phone, weeks after a judge in New Mexico approved the warrant request, Mr. Baldwin posted a video of himself on Instagram saying he was complying but that the process was taking time. He suggested that he was concerned about maintaining his privacy, saying, “They can’t just go through your phone and take, you know, your photos or your love letters to your wife or what have you.”Officials in Suffolk County, New York, said last week that they were also involved in facilitating the phone’s transfer to the authorities.In a television interview last month, Mr. Baldwin fiercely insisted that he was not to blame in the shooting that killed the cinematographer of the film, Halyna Hutchins, and injured the director, Joel Souza. He said that when the gun went off, he had been practicing drawing it from his shoulder holster and that he had not pulled the trigger; he said he had not fully cocked the hammer of the gun, an old-fashioned revolver, but had pulled it back as far as he could and let it go in an action that might have set it off.Mr. Baldwin said in the TV interview that he did not know how live rounds got on the set of the western, a question at the center of the authorities’ investigation in Santa Fe. More

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    ‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America’ Review: Social Studies

    In a documentary constructed around a lecture from 2018, the lawyer Jeffery Robinson presents a persuasive look at United States history.It’s unlikely that any lecture documentary since “An Inconvenient Truth” has had the galvanizing potential of “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” — and if that sounds like faint praise, it isn’t meant that way.The film presents a talk that the lawyer Jeffery Robinson (a former deputy legal director at the A.C.L.U.) gave at Town Hall in New York on Juneteenth 2018. His subject is nothing less than the history of anti-Black racism in the United States.For Robinson’s arguments, the historical evidence is in plain sight, yet much of it, as he promises, may be new to many viewers. He shows how the text of Article V of the Constitution shielded slavery from amendments until 1808, reads from Confederate states’ secession statements and has a chorus perform the disfavored third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”The film, directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler (daughters of the Chicago Seven lawyer William Kunstler), intersperses scenes of Robinson traveling the country. He visits Charleston, where fingerprints from slave labor can still be seen; Staten Island, where he meets with Eric Garner’s mother; and his native Memphis, where his parents had to devise a workaround to buy a home as a Black family.Robinson brings nuance to topics — unconscious bias, reparations, how to deal with the fact that George Washington owned slaves — that have become flash points in society, without ever losing the core of his progressive message. It’s a confrontational film, but never an alienating one, and so much of what’s in it is persuasive.Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in AmericaRated PG-13. Discussion and imagery of racist violence, and derogatory language. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes. In theaters. More

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    ‘Belle’ Review: Soaring and Singing Over the Online Rainbow

    In this gorgeous anime, a high school student journeys into a virtual world and finds herself amid cute, kooky and menacing fellow users.Colors and hearts explode in “Belle,” and your head might too while watching this gorgeous anime. Set in the undefined future, it envisions a reality that resembles our own, with the same drab institutions and obligations, the same confusing relationships and feelings. Suzu (voiced and sung by Kaho Nakamura), a melancholic high school student, lives with her father (Koji Yakusho) and still mourns her long-dead mother. Suzu exists in a miasma of grief, one she fleetingly escapes by entering a computer simulation.Described as “the ultimate virtual community” and cleverly named U, this other-world is an entertainment but also a refuge. A dazzling phantasmagoria, it allows customers to log out of their reality by slipping into an avatar in the U space. Once inside, users — their real selves obscured by eccentric, sometimes aspirational cartoonish identities — have seemingly unfettered freedom. They can cut loose, bop around like tourists, become someone else or maybe find themselves. “You can’t start over in reality,” Suzu hears when she first fires up the program, “but you can start over in U.” The catch? Everyone is still on social media.Journeys of self-discovery dominate much of contemporary animated cinema, even if the routes and mileage vary. “It’s time to see what I can do/To test the limits and break through,” as Elsa sings in “Frozen.” Suzu’s pilgrimage is somewhat complicated — certainly visually — but she too needs to “let it go” and cut free of her past and her trauma, an agony that the story doesn’t soften. Suzu is unequivocally, openly sad. Her shoulders sag and her head bows, she blunders and shrinks from others, sighing and weeping. Even so, she also questions, searches and keeps trying to sing. She lost her voice to grief; she wants it back.Suzu is a poignant, sympathetic figure but there’s a welcome edge to her, a bit of stubborn prickliness that’s expressed through the animation, the character’s churning emotions and Nakamura’s sensitive, expansive vocal performance. The character design employs the pert nose, heart-shaped face and huge eyes that are standard in anime, but these conventions never feel static because Suzu isn’t. Delicately perched on that unstable boundary between childhood and adulthood, she slips from the comically juvenile (mouth agape) to soberly mature. She can seem younger or older than she is, but she’s never less than human.Before you meet her, though, the writer-director Mamoru Hosoda introduces U’s virtual reality, giving you a seductive eyeful. (His movies include “Mirai” and “Wolf Children.”) The first image in “Belle” is of a thin, pale horizontal line cutting across the otherwise black frame, a visual that wittily suggests the first line in a drawing. This line rapidly changes and, as it does, the contours of the U world emerge, as do its mysteries, oddities, personalities and possibilities. At first, the line seems to consist of a series of rectangular shapes that look like beads on a necklace, a design that amusingly evokes the spaceship in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — and then it explodes into the kaleidoscopic realm of science fiction and U.A rapturously beautiful expanse filled with whirling candy colors and charming character designs, U gives Suzu a virtual reality escape and gives you a great deal to go gaga over. That introductory straight line soon expands, growing evermore complex and giving way to intricate geometric forms. As the shapes shift and mutate, Hosoda uses old-fashioned perspective — differing sizes and planes, parallel edges and vanishing points — to create an illusion of movement through depth. That’s crucial for the user (and viewer) experience in U, where rectangles turn into what look like parts of a motherboard only to then transform into mazelike spaces that give way to soaring buildings in a crowded modern cityscape.Suzu enters this sphere through an app on her cellphone. With a few clicks, she is over the rainbow and flying through U, where she becomes Belle, a hyperbolic beauty with a plaintive singing voice and a billowing curtain of pretty pink hair. The U app’s “body-sharing technology” allows users to experience U alongside other revelers, to interact with an array of colorful, comical and vividly imagined beings, some borrowed and tweaked from myth (or thereabouts), others plucked from pop-culture climes. Some of these appear more human than others; more than a few look like collectible anime figurines with exaggerated features and body parts. It’s a raging party of the cute and the kooky, though with shivers of menace.Suzu continues to travel between reality and U as the story evolves and takes a detour into a fairy tale. Much of what ensues after this narrative turn is familiar, and while not everything that happens then works equally well it’s unfailingly touching. Hosoda throws drama, meanies and a couple of romantic rivals (predictable cuties with floppy hair) into the mix, but to his credit, the story remains focused on its heroine. Suzu is moving between two different, outwardly irreconcilable worlds — each with its own textures, shapes and colors — a divide that reflects and speaks to her internal struggles. And while she sets out to escape, what she finally needs is to find a sense of wholeness even when everything seems broken.BelleRated PG for mild virtual violence. In Japanese, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. In theaters. More

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    Animated Movies for Adults That Are Generating Oscar Buzz

    A handful of animated features gaining attention this awards season take a more mature approach.Since the inception of the best animated feature Oscar category in 2001, the Academy has sporadically celebrated thematically mature works alongside box-office powerhouses aimed at audiences of all ages. These more adult-oriented titles are often hand drawn productions conceived abroad in languages other than English and without the involvement of large corporations.Some of these notable candidates have included the Cuba-set romance “Chico and Rita,” the poetic, French-language drama on fate, “I Lost My Body,” and an adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel “Persepolis.”Their recognition at the Oscars helps to push beyond any assumptions that the medium’s sole virtue is to serve as a vehicle for children-oriented narratives.It also evinces that the studio-dominated American animation industry seldom finances this type of audacious filmmaking. One exception that earned an Academy nod is Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion meditation on loneliness and companionship, “Anomalisa.”The current batch of contenders vying for a slot among the final five nominees showcases multiple examples of storytelling with emotional substance tackling grown-up matters with idiosyncratic visual flair.Previously nominated for the fantastical family saga “Mirai,” the Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda plugs back into his interest in the online lives we lead — a topic he undertook in “Summer Wars” (2009) — with the soul-stirring, music-fueled, digital fairy tale “Belle” (in theaters Jan. 14).Borrowing tropes from Disney’s 1991 “Beauty and the Beast,” but repurposed to fit his vibrant aesthetic, Hosoda builds a virtual universe known as U, where people coexist in the form of bright-colored avatars tailored to their physical traits and personalities.Inside this intangible realm, the apprehensive teenager Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura) transforms into a hyper-confident pop star. But when a troubled user, an enigmatic cloaked dragon, begins wreaking havoc, reality bleeds into this seemingly idyllic escape. The rousing action, awe-inspiring world construction and entrancing soundtrack belie tougher subjects.With affecting gravitas, “Belle” confronts the lapse in communication between parents and children, as well as the neglect and abuse committed against young people by their guardians. Still, rather than demonizing the interactions we have via our internet personas, Hosoda presents this alternative mode of engagement as an avenue for sincere connection.Conversely, the fascinatingly immersive mountain climbing drama “The Summit of the Gods” (streaming on Netflix) maps a story of dual obsession that unfolds entirely in animated iterations of existing locations: Mount Everest, the Alps, Tokyo, all of which are no less remarkable in painterly renderings. The French-produced film (based on the manga by Jiro Taniguchi) portrays the strenuous and perilous activity like a spiritual pursuit.Hellbent on reaching the world’s highest peak, the reclusive climber Habu (voiced by Éric Herson-Macarel) has spent years preparing to accomplish it alone. At the same time, the photojournalist Fukamachi (Damien Boisseau) is on a quest to find the camera that belonged to the real-life mountaineer George Mallory, who died on the north face of Everest. Their separate desires soon become inextricably intertwined.A scene from “The Summit of the Gods.”NetflixBefore making “Summit,” the director Patrick Imbert had served as the animation director on hyper stylized projects such as the acclaimed fable “Ernest and Celestine.” But here, his first solo directorial effort, there’s a more austere approach to the character design to make its exploration of the human longing for the unknown, and not the stylization, the focus. Though most of us may never understand what compels people to risk it all at such altitudes, “Summit” attempts to get us as close to that zenith as possible through sensory impressions.Staying in our sufficiently complicated real world, two films this year reinforce a trend that points to animation as a route to understanding the cultural and geopolitical intricacies of Afghanistan. These entries join recent standouts like Cartoon Saloon’s Oscar nominated “The Breadwinner” and the movingly bleak French title “The Swallows of Kabul.”First, there’s the already multi-awarded refugee odyssey “Flee” by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, a nonfiction piece tracing a young man’s treacherous trajectory from 1980s Kabul in turmoil to the safety of his adoptive home in Copenhagen. The subject, Amin (a pseudonym used to protect his identity), befriended the filmmaker when they were both teenagers.Given the severity of the circumstances depicted and that they’re based on factual events, “Flee” calls to mind Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir,” an animated documentary from Israel that was nominated for the best international feature Oscar in 2009.A scene from Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film “Flee.”Final Cut for RealAnimation empowered Rasmussen and his team to materialize Amin’s hazier, most traumatic memories in lyrical fashion and let viewers into the past not only as it happened, but also as he experienced it, with a vividly resonant immediacy. Underlying his hazardous passage is Amin’s concealment of his sexual orientation.“Flee” (in theaters) would make Oscar history if it received nominations in all three categories of animation, documentary and international feature (representing Denmark).Its boundary-blurring presence this awards season, having already won the best nonfiction film award from the New York Film Critics Circle and the best animation award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, provides a prime case study for animation’s merit and effectiveness across genres and formats.A scene from “My Sunny Maad,” directed by Michaela Pavlatova.Negativ FilmThe other hard-hitting account that takes place in Afghanistan, though decades later, “My Sunny Maad,” received a surprise nomination from the embattled Golden Globes. The seasoned Czech animator Michaela Pavlatova, who was Academy Award-nominated for her 1993 short film “Words, Words, Words,” here makes her first animated feature with this domestic drama based on a novel by Petra Prochazkova.The Czech student Herra (voiced by Zuzana Stivinova) moves to Kabul after marrying an Afghan man. Unable to have children, they adopt the timid orphan Maad (Shahid Maqsoodi) to form a loving nucleus, yet the household dynamics with extended family members, as well as growing national unrest, continuously put strain on their marriage.Though so far it has only had a limited awards qualifying run in theaters, this unsparingly poignant film warrants major attention. Blending subdued magical realism with unfiltered harsh truths, Pavlatova addresses the vulnerable position of women in a strictly patriarchal society.While the previously mentioned contenders are international productions, two rare American independent titles also delve into adult themes: Dash Shaw’s zany adventure “Cryptozoo” (streaming on Hulu) and Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt’s gruesome fantasy epic “The Spine of Night” (available on demand).A scene from “Cryptozoo,” directed by Dash Shaw.Magnolia PicturesAn unassumingly profound blast of invention, “Cryptozoo” centers on numerous mythological creatures, known as cryptids, being haunted both by those who wish to exhibit them in an amusement park and by the U.S. military to deploy as weapons.Both “Cryptozoo” and “Spine” are welcome additions to the landscape of mature animated features stateside that for long has had few fiercely autonomous role models, like the veteran animator Bill Plympton and the prolific Don Hertzfeldt, who have managed to retain full creative control of their idiosyncratic comedies by working with limited resources.Whether it means benefiting from European state funds (“The Summit of the Gods, “Flee,” “My Sunny Maad”), establishing a self-sufficient company (like Hosoda’s Studio Chizu) or becoming cleverly frugal to sustain a career, the common denominator between these films appears to be that they exist outside the systems that hinder animation’s full potential. 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    ‘Scream’ Review: Kill Me Again, Again

    Neither a remake nor a sequel, this tired retread can’t move forward for looking back.Throttled by a corrosive self-awareness, the latest “Scream” is a slasher movie with resting smug face, so enamored of its own mythology that its characters speak of little else.This self-referential chatter, disguised as commentary on the franchise-within-the-franchise, “Stab,” means that there’s scarcely a line of dialogue that doesn’t land with a wink and a nudge.“There are certain rules to surviving a ‘Stab’ movie,” Dewey (David Arquette), now a disgraced former police officer and over-imbiber, tells the latest batch of potential victims. But the knowingness that was cute in Wes Craven’s original picture has, over the course of 25 years and three sequels, curdled into complacency, leaving James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick’s screenplay so marooned in the meta it feels weirdly plotless. Thus Dewey, having suffered a total of nine stabbings during the series, is now viewed as an expert to the teenagers seeking his advice when the Ghostface killer once again stalks the streets of Woodsboro.This will require Dewey to sober up, rejoin the force and reunite with his longtime crush, Gale (Courteney Cox), now a TV anchor in New York. The eventual reappearance of Sidney (Neve Campbell), possibly the slasher canon’s most repeatedly traumatized heroine, completes the original threesome. Their return to Woodsboro also fulfills one of the rules of this so-called requel — not quite a remake, and not exactly a sequel — as recited by Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown, currently knocking it out of the park on Showtime’s “Yellowjackets”), a high schooler and the script’s main receptacle of horror-movie trivia. What’s a requel without legacy characters?“Scream” may not define itself as a remake, but much of it wallows in reminders of the foundational film. From the ringing landline that introduces the opening attack, to the painstaking recreation of one infamous character’s home, the movie revels in visual and aural callbacks. Yet by designing a movie that seems solely intended to placate an avid fan base, the directors, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (two-thirds of the collective known as Radio Silence), paint themselves into a creative corner. They’re so busy looking backward, they’re unable to see a coherent way forward.Franchises, of course, have always pandered — it’s in their D.N.A. — but rarely has one groveled quite so thirstily for fan approval. The result is a picture so carelessly plotted, and so coarsely photographed, that it traps its cast in a deadening cycle of blasé snark and humdrum slaughter. This makes the touching warmth of Campbell and Arquette’s too-brief appearances feel imported from a more innocent, earnest time.Also operating on a different plane is the terrific Melissa Barrera as Sam, a fragile Woodsboro returnee hiding a terrible secret. Sam’s back story is little more than a sketch, but Barrera, who mesmerized me for weeks in the recent Starz drama “Vida,” begs us to care about her anyway. She’s a marvel.Wearyingly repetitive and entirely fright-free, “Scream” teaches us mainly that planting Easter eggs is no substitute for seeding ideas.“I’ve seen this movie before,” Sidney remarks at a critical moment. Oh girl, I hear you.ScreamRated R for stabbing, jabbing, slicing and shooting. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. In theaters. More