Movie Reviews - 2020 posts
Saturday January 02, 2021
Movie Review: First Cow (2020)
Writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s best-known film is probably “Wendy and Lucy,” about a girl and her dog, and this movie begins with a girl and her dog beside a wide, slow river in Oregon. The dog is sniffing and digging after something until the girl (Alia Shawkat, Maeby from “Arrested Development”) shoos it away; but by then the dog has uncovered a skull. Now it’s the girl’s turn. She digs until she uncovers two skeletons lying side by side, almost in repose, as if they’d died sunbathing. She looks up at the sky with something like wonder.
We don’t have to wonder. The movie will be about those two skeletons: who they were and how they got there. It’s a good framing device.
Not quite kindred spirits
Reichardt has set us up for the story we’re about to see in another way. The first shots in the present are of a boat making its slow way up the wide river, and it’s deliberately, glacially paced—as it is when we begin the story of Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) in the Oregon Territory in the 1820s. I immediately flashed on Stanley Kubrick giving us the soporific pace of life in 18th-century England in “Barry Lyndon.”
We first meet Cookie collecting chantarelle mushrooms in the damp woods and righting a lizard that has flipped on its back. Then he hears a noise and flees. Sliding down an embankment, he winds up in a fur traders camp. “Frying pan, fire,” I thought. Nope. These are the people he’s traveling with and cooking for. But yes, too. They are brutish men: forever complaining and threatening him.
Cookie is a gentle soul in a brutish world. The next day, or week, or month—who knows?—during one of his forages, he comes across a naked Chinese man, King-Lu, who’s running from Russian fur traders since maybe he killed one of their friends after they definitely killed one of his. And it’s like with the lizard again. Cookie rights him. He brings him a blanket, then offers him his tent, then surreptitiously brings him along on the next leg of the journey.
He hooks up with him again at a trading post. Cookie has done his job, receives his payment, and with part of the money buys himself a new pair of boots. Initially he’s proud. We see him cleaning them, and he wears them, dandyish, with the trouser legs tucked in. Then one Oregon Territory weirdo (Rene Auberjonois, in one of his final roles) comments on them. Then others do. It feels like wolves gathering. The next time Cookie cleans his boots, he leaves the trouser legs untucked to not draw attention.
It’s at a bar that he see King-Lu again. Their conversation is stilted but friendly. King offers him a drink at his shack in the woods, Cookie accepts, he winds up staying. They keep chickens, forage, fish. One flashes back on the epigraph from William Blake that begins the film: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” This is that friendship.
If the first half of the movie is identifying the two men who would become the skeletons along the river, the second half is how they died along the river.
One day, while foraging, Cookie spies the titular cow, which he’d first seen arriving at the trading post, and which is the property of Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a powerful, homesick Brit. That evening, Cookie mentions the cow in passing to King and talks about what he could cook with milk. It’s King who suggests the nighttime raid to steal some of its milk. (Yes, I thought of John Mulaney.) And after a few bites of Cookie’s biscuits, it’s King who goes from impressed to impresario: How much would trappers pay for this? Early on, I thought the two men were kindred spirits, but King is less gentle soul than opportunist, and this is that opportunity. At the trading post, the biscuits are a hit. Long lines form.
I like that Cookie keeps improving the product: now some drizzled honey; now a sprinkle of cinnamon. He’s the artist and artisan. He’s also naturally cautious and assumes the milk raids can’t last. But King, counting the profits, figures the risk is worth the reward.
I was with Cookie. The pace might have been 19th-century but the tension was overwhelming.
Butch and Sundance
The longer they go, the more entwined they become with the man they’re stealing from, Chief Factor, who loves Cookie’s oily cakes, and asks if he can’t make a clafoutis to impress a visiting captain. Shortly thereafter they’re finally caught. Ironically it’s the lookout, King, who gives them away, when the tree branch he’s sitting on cracks and falls under his weight, alerting the household.
Now it’s a chase. In a scene reminiscent of “Butch Cassidy,” King jumps off a cliff and into a river, but Cookie, either unable to swim or unable to find the courage, hides in the bushes. Another irony: He’s the one who winds up wounded when he falls in the woods and hits his head. Eventually the two men reconnect, as we know they must, and attempt to flee to San Francisco. But Cookie is obviously hurt—I almost got nauseous imagining the dizzying head wound—and when they get to the river he has to lie down. King is lookout again, and again fails; soon he’s lying next to Cookie. It’s similar to the way the skeletons were positioned. A man with a gun is pursuing them, but Reichardt, mercifully, leaves them there, in the moment before their final moment. The death we’ve fretted over for two hours is never shown.
“First Cow” was voted the best film of 2020—admittedly a small sample size—by the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle. And while I don’t think it’s that good, it is wholly atmospheric. You feel part of that time. You also feel lucky to be part of this one, where warm homes and baked goods are readily available. The movie is sparse and slow, but those are the very things that make it interesting. The movie is about the lack. I liked it for John Magaro’s kind eyes, and the kind way he talked to the cow. That made the movie for me.
Sunday December 27, 2020
Movie Review: Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
I guess Warner Bros. and DC Comics don’t need Zack Snyder to make a stupefyingly bad movie.
I’m curious how it all went down. Which Warners exec said, “Hey, we need Chris Pine for the sequel. How do we bring him back from the dead?” And instead of arguing against this inanity, instead of saying that maybe Gal Gadot can carry the fucking movie her fucking self, which hack responded, “Well, what if she just kinda wished him back?”
I don’t even know where to begin with this thing. I guess I’ll begin at the beginning.
We’re in a mall in D.C. in 1984, and some scumbags wearing Don Johnson’s castoffs rob a mall jewelry store, which is, as usual, a front for stolen antiquities. But one of the guys is a blubbery screw-up who drops his gun in the middle of the mall, and some woman screams, “GUN,” and suddenly everyone’s running every which way, including the bad guys. Then tubby panics again. This time he drops the bag of stolen antiquities in order to pick up a blonde-haired girl and dangle her over the third-floor railing, yelling “I’m not going back! I’m not going back!” Even the other crooks are like, “What are you doing?!” Dude can’t even hold onto her properly. She’s slipping. Which is when Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, xoxo) swoops in, rescues her, takes care of the bad guys, and knocks out the video cams so there’s no evidence she exists. She’ll just be a rumor that, I don’t know, a hundred people saw that day with their own eyes.
Sorry, wait, that’s not the beginning. Before that, we get a prelude on Paradise Island. Diana is a little girl competing in an X Games-like competition with grown Amazonian women, and we get this voiceover from her adult self:
Some days, my childhood feels so very far away. And others, I can almost see it. The magical land of my youth—like a beautiful dream of when the whole world felt like a promise and the lessons that lay ahead yet unseen. Looking back, I wish I’d listened. Wish I’d watched more closely and understood. But sometimes you can't see what you’re learning until you come out the other side.
Me: What’s that lesson? Don’t compete in X Games with grownups when you’re a child?
Nope. Because for most of the race, Diana is winning. (She’s the daughter of Zeus, remember?) She jumps over this, spears that, dives into the other. She’s ahead. But she keeps looking back to see if others are gaining. And one time, bam, right into a branch, which knocks her off her horse and spills her bow and arrow. The horse keeps going, while she sits there, bereft, and is passed by the others.
Me: I guess the lesson is the Satchel Paige one: Don’t look back, something might be gaining.
Nope again. Because little Diana slides down the hill, jumps back onto her horse, and rides it triumphantly into the stadium. She’s moments from wining the race, when her mother, or mentor, I mix them up (Connie Nielsen or Robin Wright), pulls her from her horse, and imparts the movie’s grand lesson: Don’t take shortcuts. Shortcuts are cheating.
As all the world in 1984 is about to find out—and then apparently forget.
Why 1984—that annus horribilis in fiction and fact? According to IMDb, director Patty Jenkins set the film in the 1980s because “it offers the opportunity to explore how Wonder Woman would deal with the types of villains that come from that era.” Meaning con men like Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who sells the American dream in his cheesy TV ads: “All you need … is to want.” OK, let’s just say it: He’s “Art of the Deal”-era Donald Trump, afraid of being called a loser, who gets rich by selling saps on their wish-fulfillment fantasies. (Cf., Hollywood.)
Wish-fulfillment is also the raison d’etre of one of those stolen antiquities, the “Dreamstone,” which winds up at the Smithsonian and in the hands of Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a recently hired, well-meaning woman everyone ignores. She’s the opposite of co-worker Diana Prince, who glides through the world tall, athletic, fashionable, gorgeous, desired. At one point, Barbara drops a folder and her papers scatter across the floor; and as she’s trying to collect them, her co-workers walk by her giving disgusted looks. The point is her haplessness, but it does make the staff at the Smithsonian seem like assholes.
Point in their favor? Barbara isn’t even good at her job. She thinks the Dreamstone is a fake, Diana suspects otherwise, and while holding it offhandedly wishes her great love from the Great War, Steve Trevor (Pine), was still alive. There’s a slight breeze, we hear chimes, and that night, at a big gala at which Diana shows up in an insane white dress with slits along the side that make the most of her long, long legs, and who is immediately pursued by every schmuck at the place, at that gala, one of her pursuers, a douchey-looking guy, says the lines that Steve Trevor said to her 60-some years before. And as the camera spins around, he suddenly turns into Steve Trevor. He’s alive again!
OK, let me pause to parse this.
So after the writers—Jenkins, Geoff Johns (DC TV) and Dave Callaham (“Godzilla”)—decided that “wishing” was the way to bring Steve back from the dead, they had to figure out how that would look. Would he claw his way out of his grave? Can’t, right? He blew up in midair. So should he take over the body of someone who recently died? Kind of like a resurrection? I’ll cut to the chase. They decided the best way for Steve to return would be for him to take over the body of someone who’s still alive. In the credits the dude is called “Handsome Man” (Kristoffer Polaha), and while everyone sees him—his face, etc.—Diana and Steve (and us) see Steve. Because it’s Steve who runs the show. His consciousness is what’s in charge. Meaning this other guy has basically been blotted out of existence. That’s what Wonder Woman’s wish did.
And she never wonders about it. Not once. She, a superhero, she snuffs out a life, then she fights the rest of the movie to keep it snuffed. Even when it becomes known that the Dreamstone also takes the wisher’s most prize possession (in WW’s case, her powers) and that you can renounce your wish at any time (which is super nice of the evil deity that set this in motion), she keeps waffling. It’s up to Steve to get her to do the right thing. And even then it’s still tied to that earlier notion that shortcuts are cheating. Of Handsome Man? Nada. Not even a: “Hey, maybe we should give this dude his life back.”
The whole movie is this. Stupidity compounding stupidity compounding stupidity.
Barbara is another unknowing wisher of the Dreamstone. Her wish it be like Diana: breeze, tinkle, poof. At first this means she dresses well, doesn’t stumble in high heels, and men notice her. Then she rips the door off the refrigerator and lifts like 1,000 pounds over her head at the local gym. In the process, she loses her humor and humanity, nearly kills a drunk rapist, and winds up despising Diana for keeping all these goodies to herself. She winds up teaming with Maxwell Lord to make sure wishes aren’t renounced; and because she also wishes to become an “apex predator,” at the 11th hour she turns into the Cheetah, a longtime Wonder Woman nemesis. Meaning, by the end, poor Kristen Wiig is dressed in a cheetah costume, tail and all. Suggestion to Warners/DC: Since Wonder Woman has the worst supervillains ever, either ignore them completely or update them smarter. This was just laughable.
Of the three principles, Max Lord is the one who knowingly wishes on the Dreamstone. His business is about to go under, investors are after him, so he steals the stone—which looks like two broken crystals welded to a rock—and does a version of the clever kid’s “I wish for a thousand more wishes” but dangerously so. He wishes to become the Dreamstone. Me: Wait, wouldn’t his soul get sucked into the rock? That would be my fear. But nope. The essence of the Dreamstone gets sucked into him and the actual Dreamstone disappears amid a cloud of dust. Which on one level might be good. The Dreamstone now has a life expectancy. On the other hand, it can now walk and talk, so it can con people into wishing for the thing it wants, or Max wants, which means more power for it/Max. And with each wish, greater havoc is created, until by the end there’s riots in the streets, the Irish are being rounded up, and both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. have started World War III.
All smiles at Bergen-Belsen
That’s the basics, but I’m still trying to fathom the stupidity. Max travels to Egypt for no real reason (oil, but c’mon; he’s wish king; that’s small potatoes now), and Diana and Steve pursue him (even though at this point they don’t know he’s become the Dreamstone). And that pursuit in itself is worth a discussion.
How can they get to Egypt?
First, Diana says they can’t fly commercial since Steve doesn’t have a passport. (But doesn’t Handsome Man? And doesn’t everyone see Steve as Handsome Man? Goes unmentioned.)
So she suggests stealing a military jet that Steve will pilot to Egypt. (Wait, she’s assuming a guy who flew Sopwith Camels can fly a 1980s military jet? Also, you’re stealing a military jet!)
But she forgets that radar can track them. (I mean she forgets. Completely. Like a bimbo.)
So she uses some bizarro Amazonian power to turn the plane invisible. (OK. All this for that.)
Even if you want to introduce the invisible plane, it would have taken about two seconds to make Wonder Woman seem like less of an idiot. One: “Don’t worry, Steve, the controls are almost the same as the planes you flew!” Two: “They can track us in the air now—it’s called radar—but I have a way around that!” Instead, she looks dreamily at him and spouts inanities.
The movie screws up even the smallest details. In the first movie, remember, Wonder Woman arrives to help fight the Great War; but in the end she decides fighting doesn’t stop hatred, only love can do that. That’s the needle the filmmakers had to thread because Zack Snyder left them in an untenable position. No one knew her at the start of “Justice League” in 2016 but he’d already placed her with doughboys in WWI. So she kept quiet for a century. And not just any century: one of world wars and cold wars and genocides. What did she do all that time? Did she just sit back and let it all happen?
“1984” gives us a clue. In her D.C. apartment, she keeps several framed photos on her designer tables. They include:
- A newspaper clipping: “THE GREAT WAR ENDS”
- A newspaper clipping: “VFW HONORS LOCAL HERO” (Steve Trevor)
- Steve Trevor next to his plane
- Diana and Etta (Lucy Davis from the first movie) escorting emaciated Holocaust victims out of extermination camps
- An older Etta with Diana in NYC circa early ’60s
First: Who frames small newspaper headlines? They’re not on the wall, they’re on her table. I’ve never seen that. And does she have no visitors? What might one of them say looking over these photos? “So … are you a world war buff or something? Is this flyboy your grandfather? Wow, this woman at the concentration camp looks just like you. But why is that other woman smiling at her? Who smiles at a concentration camp? Shouldn’t both of these women be horrified?”
We certainly should be.
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post on superhero trilogies, and how invariably they follow the same trajectory: powers revealed in I, lost in II, turned evil in III. The 2010s superhero movies got away from that, but here we are again. It’s the second movie, and Wonder Woman’s loses her powers. She doesn’t lose them completely—she can still jump like 80 feet in the air and deflect two out of three bullets—so I guess she winds up with the same power as a normal Amazonian? Maybe the movie explained it and I missed it. Anyway, a shame they’re back on this trajectory. But it’s the least of the movie’s shames.
It’s Henry Cavill’s Superman all over again. The casting is perfect, they’ve got their hero, but Warners is blowing everything else.
Monday December 14, 2020
Movie Review: Mank (2020)
For a movie on such a provocative topic (who is the true author of “Citizen Kane”?), with such a provocative director (David Fincher of “Se7en,” “Fight Club,” et al.), and starring the British version of Nicolas Cage (Gary Oldman, reformed), “Mank” is a bit limp.
It’s not really about who wrote “Citizen Kane” anyway. Early on, it puts its chips on screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Oldman) to better explore the why of it. Why would Mank write a movie that disparages his old society friends William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried)? It didn’t have to be them, after all. According to The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, the movie that Mankiewicz called “American” was only one of several projects Orson Welles (Tom Burke), radio’s boy genius, was working on at the time for RKO Studios. Most intriguing among the others? An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in which Welles would play both Marlow and Kurtz—but Marlow would never be seen. He would be the camera.
Point of view was also the point of this other film. The initial idea was to explore the life of a powerful person from different perspectives. But which powerful person? Brody writes that Welles and Mank ran through several options—including John Dillinger—before Mankiewicz. suggested Hearst. He was the one who actually knew the man and had been to his castle. “He had suffered and bitten his lip at San Simeon, trying to scrounge drinks,” writes David Thomson in “Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles.” An amusing quote for anyone who’s watched “Mank,” where lip-biting is the last thing Oldman’s Mank does.
So if not lip-biting, what reason does the movie offer for Mankiewicz’s desire to tear down Hearst? What is Mank’s “rosebud”—the thing that explains everything?
Why, the 1934 California gubernatorial race, of course.
For more on that election, see Jill Lepore’s excellent 2012 New Yorker article, “The Lie Factory,” about how political consultants Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker ended Upton Sinclair’s progressive candidacy and ushered in the age of right-wing attack ads. Worth reading and wringing your hands over. Worth making a movie about. But that’s not this movie. In “Mank,” the people we see manipulating the 1934 race for governor of California are not Baxter and Whitaker but MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and his right-hand man—and another boy genius—Irving Thalberg. They attack Sinclair with fake newsreel footage: actors playing hearty, just plain folks who calmly voice support for Republican governor Frank Merriam, while commies and Negroes talk up the radical policies of Sinclair.
All that’s apparently true. They did that. What isn’t true? That Mankiewicz gave a shit.
From Slate’s Matthew Dessem:
I couldn’t find any evidence Mankiewicz supported Sinclair, much less that he carried a grudge for years over the campaign—and it seems likely he would have opposed him on the basis of prose style alone. Still, you can’t pattern a movie after Citizen Kane unless your protagonist has an unhealable wound, so Mank seems to have made this one up.
In other words, the thing that explains everything in “Mank” explains nothing.
But that’s not the problem. It’s a film. Make up what shit you want—just make it resonate. This doesn’t.
The movie makes up more stuff. It pretends that a drunk, cynical Mank gave Thalberg the idea for the fake newsreels in the first place. “You can make the world swear King Kong is 10 stories tall and Mary Pickford a virgin at 40,” he sneers, “but you can’t convince starving voters that a turncoat socialist is a menace to everything Californians hold dear? You’re barely trying.” And the light goes on for Thalberg. It’s good scene.
The other, greater fiction is Mank’s fellow screenwriter Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane). Early on, we’re introduced to the writers room at Paramount, and it’s like a Who’s Who of great 1930s screenwriters: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, S.J. Perelman, Charlie Lederer, the Mankiewicz brothers, and Shelly Metcalf. My first reaction was to doubt that all those guys were ever in the same room at the same time. My second reaction was: Shelly Who? Yes. He’s the fictional creation—the guy to make the plot work. He wants to direct, see, and Thalberg finally lets him on the fake newsreels, and he’s so intent on the job he doesn’t realize the immorality of what he’s doing until Mank brings it up; and then he’s so distraught that he kills himself on election night. Shelly’s wife sends Mank to find him, and he does, at the studio, and talks him off the metaphoric ledge. Resigned, Shelly empties the bullets from his gun and hands them over. Mank then goes to the wife and proudly hands her the bullets. “But he had a whole box!” she cries. We can see it coming a mile away. It’s the stuff of melodrama. Not just not true: melodrama.
Here’s the awful thing: They made up all this and it still doesn’t fit. If Mank is angry over the ’34 election, why go after Hearst? Why not make “American” a thinly veiled takedown of Thalberg? Or, since Thalberg was dead by 1940, how about taking potshots at Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard)? Talk about a miserable SOB! Hearst and Davies are at least fun. They admire Algonquin Roundtable wit and Davies shows off some of her own. Mayer is just awful—frowning, knowing none of the talent, understanding zero jokes, and cutting MGM salaries by 50%.
So much of the movie seems just a little off. It opens in 1940 with an injured Mank being helped into bed by a nurse in a hotel in Victorville, Calif., where Orson and RKO have put him up so he can dry out and work on the screenplay. That’s fine. Then we get two flashbacks: the first is just before the crash, when he’s drunk and helped into bed by his wife; the other is the crash. That feels like a flashback—and a bedridden scene—too far. Why not go straight to the jazzy 1930 intro of Charlie Lederer (Joseph Cross), since he’s the through line: the fellow screenwriter who, as Marion Davies’ nephew, introduces Mank to that crowd. And while we’re on him, why repurpose Mank’s great telegram to Ben Hecht (“You must come out at once. There’s millions to be made and your only competition is idiots.”) as if he sent it to everyone, including Lederer, who, as a Hollywood resident, certainly didn’t need it?
Why fictionalize the secretary’s husband into an RAF pilot? So Mank can misread the room while she’s reading the MIA letter? It’s just another scene we see coming a mile away. Why pretend John Houseman (Sam Troughton) didn’t stick around and nurse the script? And why have him tell Mank: “Write hard. Aim low.” The whole point of “Kane” is that Welles had carte blanche at RKO. They could write as high as they wanted—and did. More, “Aim low” feels like the last thing John Houseman would ever say. Right, Mr.…Hart?
At least, we hear some great lines. After LB gets MGM staffers to cut their salaries by 50%—and to applaud their own disenfranchisement—Mank gives a drunken shrug: “Not even the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen.” I also like LB’s line on the way to the fleecing:
“This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
Or how about Thalberg’s line to Mank about how at least he believes what he’s doing. “But you, sir. How formidable people like you might be if they actually gave at the office.” Another line, similar in spirit, is Mank’s about his Hollywood career:
“I came for a few months. I don’t know how it is that you start working at something you don’t like, and before you know it, you’re an old man.”
That’s from Brody’s article but it should’ve been in the film. That’s the heart of it. Mank knew he’d wasted his life, “Kane” was redemption, but he’d agreed to keep his name off it; so he sued to get it back on. Because it was the moment he gave at the office. And he knew the office would never let him give that much again.
Tuesday July 28, 2020
Movie Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020)
Dawn Porter’s documentary, “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” is a celebration of the life of the civil rights icon and a warning that his life’s work is being undermined in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling. It chronicles his rise from an obscure farm in Troy, Alabama and onto the world stage, gives us his greatest hits from 1960 to 1965—Nashville sit-ins, Freedom Rides, March on Washington, Selma—and follows him around during the 2018 midterms as he campaigns for Democratic candidates in Texas and Georgia. Post-credits, we also get a Covid-era Q&A conducted over Zoom between Lewis and Oprah, which is like a master class in interviewing. Seriously, if you’re interested in journalism, watch it and learn it. She keeps going back, keeps politely digging, trying to find something new and deeply felt beyond the stories that have long been memorized and memorialized.
She even asks the very question that I wanted to ask Lewis, but lacked the courage to do so, when I saw him on a book tour in 2000: “After facing all of the dangers you’ve faced, what can possibly still frighten you? What are you still afraid of?”
It turns out: Nothing. Here’s the exchange:
Oprah: You talk about losing your fear at that moment on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I want to know if you lost it forever and from that day forward you became a fearless warrior for civil rights? Or have there been times when the fear was there and you just used your bravery and courage to move forward? Did you lose your fear completely or were there days where you still felt it?
Lewis: I lost my fear.
Lewis: On that bridge, I thought I was going to die.
Oprah: Can you pause right there? I’ve heard you say that before. What does that feel like? When you think you’re going to die?
Lewis: Well, Oprah, I had what you call an executive session with myself. I said, “This is it. I’m going to die on this bridge.” And I thought others was going to die. And somehow, in some way, maybe history intervened or God almighty kept me. And I’m glad he kept me.
Oprah: But in that moment, when you’re thinking you’re going to die, are you also thinking, “But this was worth it”?
Lewis: Oh, I thought, along the way, if I have to do more than shed some blood, and I must die, this is worth dying for.
Lewis: [Here gets emotional.] My own mother, my own father, my uncles and aunts, my teachers, could not register to vote. So I had to do something. I had to bear witness to what I felt was the truth.
I’ve interviewed tons of people in my career and I’ve long known that you can ask the best question in the world and get bupkis, and then some offhand comment will bring up the most fascinating vein of material. I don’t know if Oprah’s small, sympathetic “Mm” elicited that emotion from Lewis, or if it was the follow-ups she was asking, or if he was going there anyway. But he got there. I think with her help.
The boy from Troy
My wife and I watched the doc the weekend after Lewis died from pancreatic cancer. It had been released a few weeks earlier, and in better times he might have been at its premiere, thin and hobbled, but these aren’t better times. So the doc was simply released online without much fanfare; and there it was the weekend after he died.
It could’ve been tighter. I think we get too much in 2018—maybe a little too much back-and-forth with his chief of staff, Michael Collins, as they josh about Michael not knowing that Texas grew cotton, or about all the kisses Lewis received from the ladies at the local church. Sometimes the joshing veers into uncomfortable territory, as if the two are a long-married couple getting on each other’s nerves. I guess that’s kind of fascinating but it still made me uncomfortable.
I like the scene of Lewis voting in the 2018 election at his local polling place: looking around, admiring the turnout. Made me think of all the other times he voted in midterms when there were no cameras following him and the turnout wasn’t so good. Did he ever wonder, “I got my skull fractured for this?” But that wouldn’t be him. And anyway 2018 was different, 49.3% turnout, the highest for a midterm since 1914. In that campaign, we see him stumping for Colin Allred, who wound up defeating Pete Sessions 52-46, and Lizzie Fletcher, who turned Texas’ 7th district blue for the first time since 1967. The House turned blue. The Congressional black caucus wound up with a record 55 members.
We also seem him campaigning for Stacey Abrams for Georgia governor, and Beto O’Rourke for the U.S. Senate. On election night we hear him say, “I’m so sorry about Stacey and this kid.” This kid. Love that. We get about 10-15 seconds of Beto here, and it’s so electrifying it makes you wonder what might’ve been. If he’d won the Texas seat, would he be the Democratic candidate for president now? Maybe. But he lost, narrowly, and every week or so Ted Cruz’s stupid head pops up on my Twitter feed to provoke or prevaricate while the world crumbles.
The Abrams loss was worse because it points to voter suppression—the very thing Lewis spent his life fighting. The doc gives us some of the sad post-Shelby County numbers:
- 27 states adopted voter ID laws
- millions purged from voter rolls
- more than a thousand polling stations closed
I know the weak GOP arguments for the first two, but is there any argument for closing polling stations? Making people stand in line for hours and hours to participate in a constitutional right? How does that help democracy?
Interspersed with all this is black-and-white footage from the march toward those voting rights the GOP is now curtailing. A lot of the footage I’ve never seen before. A lot of the footage John Lewis had never seen before. That’s what he says to the camera: “Dawn, I’ve seen footage I’ve never seen before.” Maybe I saw some of it back on the “Eyes on the Prize” days? Did they show Rev. James Lawson’s non-violent workshops in that doc? Or Lewis and his roommate Bernard Lafayette talking by a creek about how they were involved in the protests despite the concerns and fears of their parents? Or Lewis speaking at the March on Washington, and extolling the crowd, “Wake up, America, wake up!” while Bayard Rustin, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, hangs behind him?
Lewis didn’t have Martin Luther King’s voice—who did?—nor his words. What did he have? He was a slight kid with a childhood stutter and a thick Alabama accent who had the quiet courage of his convictions. That was it; that was his superpower. He was literally willing to die for the cause. He was also handsome. I always thought so anyway. A bit of nerd, too, standing there on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with his backpack on over his tan overcoat. The other day I saw photos of Lewis at a Comicon a few years ago, after the graphic novel, “The March” came out, and cosplaying as his younger, iconic self: tan overcoat, backpack. Beautiful.
What happened after SNCC sloughed him off for rabble-rouser Stokely Carmichael in 1966? We don’t get that story much. We do here. He went to Mississippi with Julian Bond to register people to vote. He was gaining weight and losing his hair by then. He worked in the Carter administration—although doing what we never find out—then became a city councilman in Atlanta. And in 1986 he ran for the U.S. House from Georgia’s 5th District. Against Julian Bond. I had no idea. I know a lot about Lewis but I had no idea about this. (I guess I don’t know a lot about Lewis.) And though Bond was tall and handsome, and better known, Lewis won in an upset. He brought up a Reagan-era issue, drug testing, and was willing to take one, and Bond wasn’t, and maybe that tipped the scales. It probably did with their friendship. Bond never ran for public office again, while Lewis kept representing the 5th every day until July 17, 2020.
Lewis has long been my hero—I’ve written about that to the point of boredom—so it was great finding out that he was everyone’s hero—or at least that part of the public that cares an iota about our history. We get shots of him walking through an airport in 2018 and everyone stopping him to shake hands, get pictures taken. We hear stories about being in a Ghanaian marketplace and shouts being heard: “John Lewis!” Or from an Egyptian cabdriver. The director asks … one of his brothers? ... or Congressional staff? I'm not sure. I apologize. But she asks what’s it like walking through an airport with Lewis. After a pause, he deadpans, “Tedious.”
Some of the celebration of Lewis here, his indispensability, comes across as ominous in the wake of his death. Listen to these quotes knowing he’s gone:
- Hillary Clinton: His voice and his example are probably needed now as much as they’ve ever been.
- Nancy Pelosi: He challenges the conscience of the Congress every day he is here.
- Stacey Abrams: You cannot replace a John Lewis.
One of his last acts in the House was introducing and urging passage of the new voting rights act, HR1, “For the People Act,” whose purpose is to “expand Americans' access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants.” The House passed it and sent it to the U.S. Senate in March 2019. It hasn’t left Mitch McConnell’s desk. A newscaster in the doc tells us “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the Senate will not vote on HR1,” and he’s been true to his word. It's as if racists don’t need armed state troopers anymore. They have Mitch McConnell.
The title comes from Lewis’ main stump speech: “My philosophy is very simple: When you see something that is not fair, not right, not just, say something, do something! Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble!” “Good Trouble” is like that. It's a good doc, a necessary doc. We should all watch it. Listen to his words and translate them to our era. What’s going on in this country post-Shelby County? Let’s say something and do something. At the least, let's do what John Lewis’ own mother and father, and his aunts and uncles, were prevented from doing most of their lives: vote.
Monday July 13, 2020
Movie Review: Palm Springs (2020)
Could infinite time loops be their own genre? The form would be more constrained than most, of course, but maybe that would spur imaginations. It could be the villanelle of movie genres, with Harold Ramis as its Dylan Thomas.
They certainly feel appropriate to the Covid era. Who doesn't feel trapped these days? Who doesn't wake up and think: Oh right. This again. Fuuuck.
Unlike “Groundhog Day,” which begins with the first day Bill Murray gets stuck in the time loop, “Palm Springs” gives us Nyles (Andy Samberg) already stuck in it for who knows how long.
We don’t know that initially. We see him and his girlfriend, the vapid Misty (Meredith Hagner, fantastic), staying at a motel on the day of the wedding of their friends, Tala and Abe (Camila Mendes, Veronica of “Riverdale” and Tyler Hoechlin, Superman of the DC TV universe). He has sad morning sex with Misty, swims and drinks beer in the motel pool, shows up (in Hawaiian shirt and swimsuit) late to the wedding reception, where he rescues the bride’s sister, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), from having to give a speech by giving his own: a semi-profound talk about how we’re all born lost, and love and marriage is when we’re found. He’s glib, like an “Animal House” fratboy, but surprisingly meaningful, like an old soul. Like someone who’s lived countless lifetimes.
Saving Sarah from fumbling her speech is part of a plot to sleep with Sarah. It almost works. At first she’s like “What about your girlfriend, dude?” and we cut to the two of them crouched outside a motel room where another wedding guest is going down on Misty. Then it’s Nyles and Sarah in the desert, making out; then out of nowhere Nyles is shot by an arrow from a paramilitary dude named Roy (J.K. Simmons). Chased, Nyles crawls into a cave that pulses red like a beating heart. Sarah follows him in to see if he's OK. He yells at her to leave. She doesn’t.
Then it’s the next day. Or the same day. “Palm Springs” doesn’t begin with his first time-loop day but hers. The cave—which opens up during an afternoon earthquake—is where it happens.
It’s an interesting wrinkle to the formula: What happens when you have someone to share that same day with? Who won’t re-set like the rest of the world? How much better does it make it?
Not necessarily better. Turns out Roy is another wedding guest with whom Nyles once got high in the desert; and when Roy said he’d love to live out there forever, a stoned Nyles introduced him to the cave. He wasn’t happy. Every so often, he chases down and tortures Nyles.
Sarah isn't happy, either. She wants out, and immediately latches on to the “Groundhog Day” lesson: It’s karma, and to break free they need to be better people, and she needs to do a selfless act. Doesn’t work. She tries to kill herself. Ditto. Eventually she calms down and the two act like high school kids playing hooky. They goof around, waste time, prank the other guests. They go to a shooting range, steal a plane and crash it, go to a dive bar and synchronize dance. They begin to enjoy themselves. They wake up with smiles on their faces. Every day doesn’t matter but they have each other.
But then the reveals. He admits that during his solo infinite loop, they had sex maybe a thousand times. She reveals—or he finds out—that the bed she wakes up in every morning is not hers but the groom’s, her sister's betrothed, and she’s wracked with guilt. Eventually, she simply disappears every morning, leaving Nyles bereft. But she's going to the local diner to study quantum physics. To get the fuck out of Dodge. Thankfully, she's a quick study. She realizes that if they blow themselves up in the cave at the exact right moment…
I’ll cut to the chase: It works.
The movie was made for Hulu by writer Andy Siara (“Lodge 49,” shorts) and director Max Barbakow (shorts), and it's not bad. I laughed throughout. I think I laughed the hardest at that chaotic scene when the beautiful Tala falls on her face and breaks her two front teeth before the wedding. Sandberg’s got the Know-It-All’s smirk down; Milioti is smarter but not as funny. Hagner as Misty is a stand-out. Simmons is becoming our weathered wise man: Sam Elliott with anger issues.
Time-loop movies always make me wonder what I’d do in that situation. I think, initially, I'd assume I was in purgatory and paying for my moral failings. But since every day was without consequences, there would be that urge to have more moral failings. I might also do all the stuff I don’t have time to do now: become fluent in Chinese and French; research the books I want to write. Maybe I’d finally read “Ulysses” or “Remembrance" or the Bible. Would I travel? Get half- or quarter-days in Paris or Shanghai or Kauai? Eventually, I assume, I would go mad. Or does that just mean you wake up sane again?
Here, since you could bring others into the time loop with you, I was wondering if they would inundate the cave with guests—flood the zone, as it were—and hope they broke free. Or: rather than study quantum physics—good luck with that—how about bringing a quantum physicist through the cave with you? So you’d have him on your side. What would the world be like if you had a thousand or a million people restarting on the same day but retaining their memories? When would it begin to feel like you were eternal? When would it feel less like hell and more like heaven?
For all the laughs, the ending of “Palm Springs” disappointed me. He was in the loop for, what, 10 years? Twenty? So what would you do the glorious day you finally broke free? Guess what they do? The same shit they were doing in the loop: lounging in a nearby pool and drinking beer. Huge disappointment.
It does lead to a joke about the family that owns the pool. He says: “I guess they return on November 10.” Meaning the time-loop day was November 9. Which also happens to be the day after Donald Trump was elected president. What a fucking day to be stuck in. Here’s to breaking free of all that.
Sunday July 12, 2020
Movie Review: The Assistant (2020)
There’s a moment in “The Assistant” when I lost a little respect for our title character.
Jane (Julia Garner of “Ozark”) is a quiet, nervous assistant—one of three, and the only female—to a powerful unseen boss (voice: Jay O. Sanders) in a New York-based film production company. Halfway through the film, after a helluva day, she goes to see the head of HR, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), in the gloom of his small, dim office. Most of the offices in the company are small and dim. Assuming you even have an office. Everyone there feels broken. They suck up to the people above them and bully those below, but no one seems to want to leave. They want to stay close to power even as it breaks them. It’s a company of quiet desperation.
We assume we know why Jane is at HR. Her unseen boss seems like a Harvey Weinstein type and we figure she’s going to lower the boom. The movie has been called a #MeToo movie but it’s really a #PreMe movie. It’s about everything that’s suspected but isn’t said. But we figure our girl has the goods.
She doesn’t. She blows it.
This is how she begins:
“Uh, there’s this girl who arrived here today. She’s from Boise. And she’s very pretty. And she’s young.” Wilcock, taking notes, seems confused, and Jane continues. “She was waitressing in Sun Valley when she met him. And he liked her, apparently, and just gave her an assistant job.”
That’s Jane’s first salvo and we immediately know it won’t land. There’s no accusation there, just vague innuendo.
What’s her second salvo? Reiteration of the first salvo. Boise girl, no experience, he flew her in and put her up in a hotel. “She’s very young,” Jane adds, as if that seals the deal.
It doesn’t. Wilcock doesn’t even know—or pretends not to know—what’s she’s implying. He asks, “Has this girl done something to harm the company?”
Some part of the movie loosened for me there. I lost interest. I was thinking maybe Jane wasn’t a character worth following around.
Couldn’t she have said something like this? “OK, this is a film production company, and so I get that there are young, good-looking girls hanging around all the time, but I keep coming across a weird vibe with it all. I have to stock the Boss’ desk with drugs and hypodermic needles? And I find used hypodermics in the carpet? I find other things in the carpet, too. A hair tie. An earring. The girl who owned the earring came by today and she seemed despondent, broken, and I don’t know why. Maybe the interview didn’t go well? Or is it worse? I don’t know. But the vibe is not good.”
Own up to the ambiguity. Again, I was hoping she would shed light. For us. Doesn’t she look at the drugs she stocks in his desk? Is he a diabetic? It’s possible. We could be condemning a man who simply has a problem with his pancreas.
You know what the back-and-forth between her and the HR rep reminded me of? Woodward and Bernstein in “All the President’s Men.” Bernstein was forever assuming the evidence meant X, Y and Z, and Woodward was forever reining him in and sticking to the facts. Ditto Harry Rosenfeld: “I’m not interested in what you think is obvious,” he says to Bernstein early on, “I’m interested in what you know.”
Check out this dialogue from “The Assistant”:
She: What can we do?
He: Do about what?
She: About the girl.
He: OK, let’s … bear with me here. … So a new assistant arrives, from out of town, and she’s being put up at The Mark. And your boss at some point left the office.
She: To meet her at The Mark, yes.
He: Yes, according, apparently, to the jokes at the office.
She: Yeah, I guess.
He: So … that’s it? That’s why you came in?
Here’s the thing: Are we supposed to sympathize with her here? Because she annoyed me. She kept fumbling. At the same time, her most egregious error, her great missed opening, is still coming up.
L’espirit de l’escalier
By this point in the conversation, Wilcock (surely a loaded name) feels like the enemy. He turns from open and sympathetic to closed and harsh. We assume we know why. We assume he’s in on it, part of the boys club, forever talking about the New York Rangers. But we don’t really know. He could be someone who’s simply tired of vague accusations.
And he begins to ask Jane about herself. First one in in the morning, last one out at night, right? Northwestern? Smart. On the fast track. Where do you want to be in five or 10 years? Oh, a producer? He has to stifle a laugh at that. As I did. A producer is a ruthless SOB who gets things done and she’s not that. She can barely open her mouth. But he placates her. He says that we need more women producers. He tells her she’s smart. Then he begins to drop the hammer.
He: So why are you in here trying to throw it all away with this bullshit?
He: This. Whatever it is.
He makes veiled threats. He assumes (or pretends to assume?) that she was disparaging the Boise girl because she was merely a waitress. What was Jane, after all, when she first arrived five weeks ago? What was her experience? “Couple of internships, am I right? You know how many people want to work here? I’ve got 400 resumés teed up for your position alone. Ivy League grades, 4.0 GPAs. And here you are, sitting in my office, stressed out, jealous of some new assistant who’s getting more attention than you.”
Except this is the point when she nails him. “If you have 400 resumés from 4.0 Ivy League grads teed up,” she asks, calmly, but with steel suddenly showing in her eyes, “why did he hire the waitress from Boise?”
And there's silence. And … I’m kidding. She doesn’t say that. It’s what I thought she should say. Maybe it’s what she thought later in the day? Yeah, that probably would’ve been me, too. L’espirit de l’escalier, right? We think of it later, not in the moment. Even so, I wanted more from this scene. I wanted more from Jane. I wanted her to be worthy of our attention.
Instead, Wilcock of the loaded name uses the lingo of feminism to condemn Jane. Jane says she’s concerned for the girl and he snaps, “She’s a woman. She’s a grown woman. You think a grown woman can’t make her own choices? Because she’s a waitress?”
It’s not a bad scene—you could dissect it forever—but I could feel my attention wavering. I knew we would get no resolution now. “The Assistant,’ written and directed by Kitty Green, is atmospheric and ominous. A critic on IMDb says it’s like a movie about an assistant to Dracula in which we never see Dracula, just the vague evidence he leaves behind. That’s a good description. Moira Macdonald in The Seattle Times says the movie shines a light “on a malevolent shadow.” That’s a good line. Its score on IMDb, by the way, is 6.0, which is way, way low, which makes me think there's been a deliberate attack on it. It's much better than that.
Monday May 04, 2020
Movie Review: Extraction (2020)
“Extraction” premiered on Netflix on April 24, a little more than a month into our nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, but I have to wonder which is more deadly—Covid or Chris Hemsworth?
Covid is more indiscriminate but not by much. The titular extraction starts out as a gig for Tyler Rake (Hemsworth), but it quickly becomes a mission. He’s urged by his partners to abandon the asset, Ovi Mahajan (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), the sensitive, teenaged son of a ruthless, jailed Indian drug lord, who’s been kidnapped by a Bangladeshi drug lord, but he can’t do it. He couldn’t save his own son, who died from lymphona at age 6, but at least he can save Ovi. That’s his thinking. And to do so, how many young kids does he leave fatherless in Dhaka, Bangladesh? Fifty? 100? More? Most of them are cops, right? And sure, it’s a corrupt town, ruled by Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyull), but what can one man do? Frank Serpico wouldn’t last a day there.
You know which death bugged me the most? OK, so Tyler shows up in Dhaka, hangs out at a streetside café and waits to be contacted by the kidnappers. He is: van pulls up, a black hood is thrown over his head, etc. But one of his team is watching: a dude with one of those huge, hipster beards and amused eyes. He’s Gaetan, a sharpshooter, who helps Tyler extract the kid; but then they’re all betrayed by Saju (Randeep Hooda), the kid’s father’s right-hand man, who can’t afford to pay them but has to extract Ovi or lose his own son. Bam bam bam. Gaetan’s amused eyes dim forever. I was bummed. I was like, “Who’s that actor? I’d like to see him in other stuff.”
Turns out he’s the director, Sam Hargrave, and “Extraction” is a kind of spinoff of the “Avengers” movies. It stars Thor, the screenplay was written by Joe Russo, who co-directed “Civil War,” “Infinity War” and “Endgame,” while its director, Hargrave, was the longtime stunt/fight coordinator for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Avengers creators re-assemble!
This is Hargrave’s first feature-length directing credit—he’s mostly a stunt guy. He’s got 80 such credits over the last 15 years: from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies to “Atomic Blonde” to “Wolf Warrior II,” the highest-grossing film in Chinese history. That's why “Extraction” is full of great stunts, great fight scenes, great fight choreography. There’s also a lot of amazing single-tracking shots—although I assume some of them have been CGIed.
But it’s endless, brutal and a bit much. I was impressed by the expertise but bored quickly. There’s just not much there there. How do you make long flight/fight sequences interesting? You need to humanize it. And I don’t mean with blurry flashbacks of a child’s footprints on the beach. I mean the way Jackie Chan did it in the 1980s. Humor helps.
At least they humanize Saju, the ostensible villain, who becomes partners with Tyler at the ninth hour—although I didn’t quite get why they had to go across the bridge. Was there no place to land a helicopter in the city? Couldn’t it hover? I like the subplot with the “smart, lucky” kid, the one who winds up killing Tyler on the bridge, and I like that the movie is introducing a ton of Indian actors to western audiences. Then there’s the ambiguous ending: Ovi, back home, diving into a pool, meditating at the bottom as Tyler always did (how does Ovi know Tyler did this?), then emerging to see a blurry, green-jacketed westerner watching him. Did Tyler survive? Or will Ovi always see Tyler watching over him? I guess we‘ll see how popular this one is and whether anyone wants to line up for a sequel.
It’s the usual Hollywood wish-fulfillment fantasy—a strong, handsome man rescuing the weak against great odds and with great carnage—but my favorite moment was a quiet one: Tyler hanging out at that streetside café in Dhaka while life swirls around him. In the midst of the Covid pandemic, that’s the greater wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Hemsworth on location practicing social nearness last year.