Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit

2020 is almost over, but the pandemic is not. For at least the next couple months, we're going to be hunkered down inside, waiting out the short days ’til spring shows up and sets us free. One key to survival? A killer content queue. Here’s the stuff we're obsessed with at Portland Monthly this week, from chess prodigies to civil war ghosts and beyond. 

Anything But Christmas on the Square

Why did Christmas on the Square, the Dolly Parton–Christine Baranski–Debbie Allen holiday film that premiered last month on Netflix, pop up on any recommended list? I could understand, perhaps, it being nominated as something to enjoy in an altered state, or with a particular strain from your corner dispensary, like 2019’s Cats. But, no, it appeared on lists with titles like “What to Watch This Weekend” and “15 Holiday Movies Feminists Should Watch This Winter.”  I don’t think these list compilers actually watched it.

Now, I will be the first to tell you Parton is a genius, a saint, a vaccine funder, a beautiful human with Baby Yoda levels of universal appeal. Stage and screen legend Baranski secured her place in my heart as the enthusiastic summer camp director in Addams Family Values. Allen, of Fame fame, is television royalty. But none of them are in the “can do no wrong” category, and they have done us wrong with this stagy, wannabe-campy, aggressively Christian mess.

Baranski is a Scrooge/Mr. Potter/Cruella de Vil figure with daddy issues, regrets, and a secret—and a plan to, on Christmas Eve, sell off an entire Kansas town that appears to have no zoning or land use regulations. Parton is an angel who wants to change her heart. Treat Williams, who pulled off the hot dad role on Everwood in the early 2000s but has now passed his Brian Keith years and turned into a cross between a Punky Brewster–era George Gaines and former Portland mayor Tom Potter, is the old flame who sings songs about memories is his sparse antique store. The townspeople are a heartwarming rainbow of humanity. There’s a child bartender. (Note to self: look up Kansas booze laws.)

There are a lot of Broadway performers getting work, which I guess is the project’s one positive. As a hate-watch, it is perhaps more tolerable than The Christmas Chronicles 2, which hides the stunt casting that made the first one charmingly passable behind a grisly amount of CGI. —Margaret Seiler, managing editor

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

As a certified stan of tricky documentaries—I have, at this point, commanded a small village of defenseless acquaintances to watch Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell—I am the primary audience for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. A Sundance darling from brothers Bill and Turner Ross, Bloody Nose shows us the final day at a bar called the Roaring 20s in Las Vegas at the dawn of the Trump era. Barflies show up and mingle from morning to night, airing private grievances and making tender connections and falling on their asses at a place they've made their second home (for better or worse). There's just one catch: the Roaring 20s is in New Orleans, still open, and the "regulars" were auditioned and preselected by the filmmakers (few of them are actors). The whole thing is, to an extent, a fake.

For its full 98 minute runtime, Bloody Nose never tips its hand. You wouldn't know for absolute certain that the setup is artificial unless you read about it independently (though there are definitely clues). What you would know, though, is that the Ross Brothers have an incredible eye for the sad intimacy of a night out, and that they've crafted a staggeringly human statement about loneliness and 21st century life from an impossibly small box of materials. For me, the conceit makes the film even more genius, turning it into a testament to the simultaneous falseness and authenticity of Vegas, of the barstool conversation, of America writ large.

However you choose to take its trickery, though, you're likely to yearn—for the touch and timbre of strangers, for impromptu singalongs, for the unexpected bursts of excitement or moments of tenderness that used to come from moving through the world. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is sad—it mostly shows us lives that have been ruined or are headed that way—but it is also profoundly cathartic, and easily one of the best things I've seen all year. Seek it out from Movie Madness, various virtual cinemas, or digital streaming platforms. —Conner Reed, arts and culture editor

El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil's Backbone)

I’ve been revisiting the works of Guillermo Del Toro lately, obsessing over his blending of fantasy and real-world violence—violence that sticks with me. Yes, for its shocking brutality, but also for the way it tells so much about Del Toro's characters, the way it shapes his antagonists. Apparently, I’m not the only one. There’s a whole video essay that examines the way Del Toro uses violence in three of his films—The Shape of WaterPan’s Labyrinth, and The Devil’s Backbone.
His 2001 horror film The Devil’s Backbone feels like a companion piece of sorts to Pan’s Labyrinth, juxtaposing the supernatural with war, particularly from the perspective of children. Set in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War (Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in Spain during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship), The Devil’s Backbone is a ghost story, following a boy named Carlos who is left at an orphanage after his father dies. We learn a few things right away: some of the adults are nasty folks, a ghost is wandering around at night, and the school has been the target of many of Franco’s troops, which explains a giant defused bomb still protruding from the grounds of the orphanage.  
As with Del Toro’s other movies, the antagonist is often not the creature, the ghost, the faun, or the fishy-man-person-thing. It’s men: men with a little too much drive and a little too much power, as is the case in The Devil’s Backbone. It’s a great precursor to Del Toro’s other works (save for his superhero, giant fighting robots movies). It’s not Halloween anymore, but you can find the movie streaming on the Criterion Channel—Gabriel Granillo, digital editor

Hades

The Nintendo Switch is my first and only console, so I’m no video game connoisseur, but I can safely say after just a couple days of playing that I love Hades, which was released on the Switch in SeptemberIn this Hellenic romp through hell, you play Zagreus, the son of Hades who’s desperately trying to escape his father’s realm of the underworld. You’re going to die and get sent right back to where you started—a lot. It’s basically the point of the game.
But along the way, various gods (surprisingly well voice-acted) descend from Mount Olympus to offer their aid, and Zagreus gradually grows stronger and stronger. (For people with bad video game instincts and thumb-eye coordination like me, you can also play in the more forgiving God Mode.) And after you’ve accepted the fact that failure is going to happen frequently, it’s surprisingly therapeutic to spend 20 minutes slashing at monsters with your sword, spear, and bow, each time leaving Hades a little better than you found it. —Katherine Chew Hamilton, food editor

The Queen's Gambit

It’s the 1950s and Beth Harmon is orphaned (ish?) traumatically and sent to the kind of grey-walled institution that you might expect, replete with stern matrons and tranquilizing pills for the young girls therein. She finds solace in the basement where she learns to play chess from the building’s custodian, Mr Shaibel, going on to become ... well, it’s hardly spoiling it to say she gets reeeeal good at the game.

This super successful Netflix miniseries has plenty to delight in—Marielle Heller’s glorious turn as Beth’s adoptive mother; the gobsmacking moment when you realize that skinny, swaggery lothario Benny Watts was Liam Neeson’s lovelorn kid in Love, Actually; the carefully crafted olden days of cocktails on airplanes and flock wallpaper—but still never quite heats the blood. Something in Anya Taylor-Joy’s cold-but-gorgeous turn as Beth wards off any real investment in her arc, and the peaks and troughs of her battles with demons become resultingly two-dimensional.  

Much of Beth’s backstory is there to build a complex sense of the show’s protagonist, and yet the deliberate layerings somehow create the opposite effect. So why am I writing about it? Because The Queen’s Gambit is such a sensory feast: the fashion, when Beth finally makes enough money to sort out her hair and ditch the pinafores, is spectacular and deliberate, from swing skirts to big-collared coats to a real hero’s journey in eyeliner; the set design is painstakingly paletted and exquisite; the clunk and click of chess pieces and clock stopping lend a pleasant ASMR element.

In truth, the opening was promising, the midgame sagged a little, and the endgame had few surprises. But The Queen’s Gambit does enough right to take us around the board and land, if not an edge-of-the-seat checkmate, then a satisfactory tip of the King. —Fiona McCann, senior editor at-large