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The Grudge Boat 

click to enlarge Seeing COVID-19 deniers pull up for the vaccine.

Let Them All Talk

Seeing COVID-19 deniers pull up for the vaccine.

LET THEM ALL TALK. It certainly wasn't the biggest (or worst) news of the year but the recent announcement by Warner Bros. that the studio would be releasing its entire 2021 slate simultaneously in theaters and on the HBOMax streaming platform has produced no small amount of hand-wringing and outcry. Prominent directors — including Christopher Nolan, whose insistence that his Tenet be released theatrically in the midst of the pandemic may well have heralded the death of the modern moviegoing experience — have mounted the battlements to decry the decision, both in the name of art and of commerce. And rightfully so, if they're being genuine about it. One wonders, though, whether the scramble to renegotiate paydays funded primarily by gross-profit percentages (back-end points) is more central to the backlash than reverence for the medium. Regardless, the movie industry, like so many others, seems to be teetering on the brink of precipitous change. To what that change will finally amount remains unknowable, at least from where I sit. It does seem abundantly clear, though, that things will be different in the not-so-distant future; a great number of people with skin in the game do not like it.

Not so Steven Soderbergh, ever the pragmatist and, increasingly, one of the clearer-eyed commentators on the business of cinema. As he has watched the market share for the stuff he wants to make — challenging, modestly-scaled movies for grown-ups — grow ever smaller within the conventional system of production and distribution, he has sought out other avenues, first in prestige television series and features, and now in the comparatively wide-open zone of streaming. Having made two movies for Netflix (High Flying Bird and The Laundromat, both 2019), he has now signed a contract with HBOMax (and whatever corporate juggernaut owns it) to direct three features for that service, Let Them All Talk being the first of them. He has also spoken quite plainly on the business of movies, most recently to the notion that huge-scale theatrical releases will not disappear; there is simply too much money to be made. But, as we've observed for years now, the top-loading of the schedule with franchise entries expected to earn a billion dollars has crushed the mid-to-low budget segment of the market, while simultaneously training audiences to crave the sugar-rush instant gratification of those tent-poles. A movie like Let Them All Talk (or really any of Soderbergh's last several) doesn't stand a chance. But, as he has sagely pointed out, just because the movie wouldn't perform at the box office doesn't mean the audience doesn't exist. Both of his Netflix releases have, by his recent estimation, been seen by at least five times as many viewers as they would have in theaters. Of course, the dollar for dollar equivalency is a false one, but at least on some level, artists would have their work accessible, or at least available, to a wider audience. And now, perhaps forever, that audience is at home.

I've long lamented the erosion of support for smaller-budget stuff, challenging experiments, genre movies and the like. Now, looking back on the wreckage of 2020, though, I can see that we are and have been in the midst of a period of adjustment, that may actually bring about some sort of renaissance for the multitudinous, sometimes unsuccessful array of movies that make the medium so compelling and vital. Soderbergh has been aware of the imminent shift for some time, probably because he spent a goodly part of a career beating his head against the walls of Hollywood conventional wisdom. And he's got the right attitude: The shift to streaming has created whole new lanes of opportunity for people interested in exploring stories and subjects not easily sold to shareholders in pitch meetings. What seems like the death of cinema to people like Christopher Nolan might actually be the advent of its new life.

Let Them All Talk is a project that wouldn't have gotten past the gate at a major studio in the last 15 years. Alice Hughes (Meryl Streep), a renowned novelist, struggles with both an unfinished manuscript and her relationship with a new, recently promoted literary agent, Karen (Gemma Chan). Alice has been selected to receive a prestigious prize in the U.K., but cannot fly. Karen arranged for her to make a comped crossing aboard the Queen Mary 2. Karen also plans to secretly tag along in hopes of catching a glimpse of the new book. Alice invites her beloved nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges), as well as her college friends Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen), who blames Alice (and one of her novels) for the dissolution of her marriage and subsequent financial hardships.

Scripted by Deborah Eisenberg, Let Them All Talk examines its characters with novelistic insight and generosity, but also the economy of a short story. Given life by the tremendous cast, the writing suggests the inner conflicts and connections forged, fostered and festering in a half century friendship turned distant. It is also, as per Soderbergh, beautifully lit, photographed and edited, so a two-hour movie comprised almost entirely of conversations is as compelling and surprising as a well-wrought murder mystery. And, because Soderbergh likes a challenge, the whole thing was filmed during a real QM2 crossing, unbeknownst to a number of the passengers. It's a neat trick, executed with great aplomb. R. 153M. HBOMAX.

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

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