I clearly remember the November day four years ago, waiting in a line stretching around the block to vote for what would/should have been the first woman President of the United States. Very late that evening, we sat at home weeping in front of the television.
I know it amuses Trump supporters to picture “libs” being “triggered”, to use their lingo. U mad? Yes, I mad. But if Biden & Harris win this election, I do not wish for Trump supporters to weep. I hope against hope that as a competent, compassionate administration takes over and begins to undo the damage of the past several years, that Trump’s supporters will slowly notice their lives improving, and perhaps they may come to reflect on their mistake.
My wife & I are of course among the most lucky and privileged. We wish we could visit family without fearing we will sicken them, but we have not been too directly affected by the Trump administration’s actions or inactions. We had no children taken from us, we did not get sick or lose our jobs during this mismanaged pandemic, we probably won’t immediately lose our healthcare if the corrupted Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Act, and we were not beaten or teargassed. But we could literally see and hear some of these things outside our windows, and it pains me to know that our friends and neighbors are hurting. It’s all the more appalling that this administration’s many crimes were cynically disguised in false patriotism and christianity.
In my thoughts today are the state where I grew up, Pennsylvania, where the Trump campaign and administration (for they are the same thing) say they will sue to stop the vote count. The state where I went to school, North Carolina, where police teargassed voters on their way to the polls. And my now-home state of 24 years, New York, which created the disgusting parasitic charlatan that has destroyed our international standing, solicited bribes from his properties, orphaned migrant children, rejected science & expertise, mismanaged a pandemic, is a credibly accused rapist, andâ€¦ I could go on but we all know who he is.
Why am I reluctant to publicly pan one of the year’s most acclaimed films? What am I afraid of — being labelled a cinema rat, and getting whacked by a couple of film geeks?
It took me years and years of being a film buff, through film school and beyond, for me to realize that Iâ€™m just not into Scorsese. He made one of my personal all-time favorites: The Last Temptation of Christ, which led me to Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel and Peter Gabriel’s score, all of which gave my teenage self a lot to think about. But beyond that: yes, I appreciate how groundbreaking and influential works like Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas are, and the filmmaking craft is often outstanding, but I would rather not watch them again for personal edification. He’s one of those filmmakers I keep up with out of obligation to the canon, not out of any personal interest. I wouldnâ€™t call it a blind spot; more of an immunity.
There’s close to zero new ground broken in The Irishman, and I just don’t understand the praise. A psychopath rationalizing his crimes as being in defense of his family? That’s the entire premise of The Sopranos. A mobster torn between loyalty or betrayal of an unstable friend? That’s 9 out of 10 mob movies ever made (I’m specifically reminded of Donnie Brasco, which boasts a much more soulful performance by Pacino). A peek into the day-to-day operation of the mafia? I guess if you liked the money laundering sequence in Casino, and get off on montages of tough guys collecting fat envelopes, there’s plenty more of that business for you here.
And there’s a limit to how intimidating I find movie-mob dialog (you gotta do that thing, you know the thing we talked about, no not that thing, the other thing, to that guy, no not that guy, the other guy, send him to Australia, no not that Australia, the other Australia, etc). Today, it seems pitifully quaint with reality-TV-money-laundering-compromised-wannabe-gangster Donald Fucking Trump issuing the same kind of insinuating orders to his underlings and soliciting bribes every day from the goddamn White House.
Even more frustrating, Scorsese remains blind to the women in his fictional worlds. I managed to recognize Aleksa Palladino at one point despite the camera practically ignoring her. I don’t want to hear about how pivotal Anna Paquinâ€™s role was; she had about 1 minute of screen time, and maybe five words of dialogue (and that’s out of about 10 from all female characters, period). We know more about the countless male supporting characters all graced with freeze-frame epitaphs. So she recognizes her father’s criminality — so what? So did I, and I didn’t need an onscreen avatar or moral compass to do so. Yes, the mafia as an organization may be a man’s world, and men like Frank are the type to set aside the women in his life, but that doesn’t mean every gangster film has to.
Another thing that drove me nuts: Iâ€™m half-Irish and half-German, like Hoffa, and from the Philly area, like Frank, so I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for one second to imagine De Niro and Pacino dunking scrapple in their Guinness.
The most interesting part of the movie for me was when I recognized Jeff Beck playing over the end credits. I can’t find his name cited anywhere in relation to this film, but it had to be him; no one else plays guitar like that.
I appreciate that Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is not attempting to copy Dario Argento’s horror classic, per se, but the association immediately pitches a number of disappointments to get over.
First, its avoidance of the original’s vivid, lurid color is so aggressive as to be a punk rock statement. The creative choice sets up a dramatic late-film widening of the color spectrum, but perhaps the early desaturation goes too far. Even in a scene where two characters are talking during the daytime, itâ€™s so dark you can barely see their faces. Before you say “you should have seen it on the big screen”, I would counter that this and the also infamously dim Game of Thrones episode “The Long Night” were produced for small screens by Amazon and HBO respectively.
Second, it’s curious that the plot of movie made in 2018, about female artists and witches, would revolve around a male character. But again, this is a deliberate creative choice, and without spoilers, I would invite you to pay close attention to first-time actor Lutz Ebersdorf’s performance as the psychotherapist Dr. Josef Klemperer. Still, I felt the movie was trying to have it both ways: putting a feminist spin on witchcraft tropes, while still portraying them as either frequently nude beautiful young women or as shrieking cackling harpies.
Cloying, saccharine, and worst of all, painfully obvious.
Mike Mitchell’s The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part emblematizes my biggest gripe with most contemporary animated features: that perhaps the purest form of cinema is so often overwritten to the point of death. With animation, everything must be literally created from nothing, and anything is possible. There are virtually no limits to the visuals or sound. But The Lego Movie 2 is yet another animated feature heavily weighed towards the written word — a betrayal of the form.
No doubt a direct result of the extreme budget and time investments required to produce one of these monstrosities, there are business reasons for these projects to exist on paper for too long. Perhaps the financiers could not be wooed by dazzling pre-visualizations and concept art, and instead were convinced by a celebrity-heavy table read of a thick, verbose script, dumbed down a few levels below the basement of its all-ages audience. And so here we have yet another animated disappointment, drowning in oceans of dialog that repeatedly spell out didactic themes, with its biggest claim to visual spectacle probably being something like advancements in a computer algorithm to calculate the glint of magic-hour sunlight upon tiny pieces of Danish plastic.
This third entry in what has somehow become a franchise exposes how derivative of Pixar the premise is: from Toy Story comes the device of children imbuing their toys with life through play, and from Inside Out the conceit that these embodiments represent dueling facets of personalities that adapt with age. But this is to give too much credit to the sub-sitcom characterization of the parents: Will Ferrell literally phones in a voice cameo as a “honey have you seen my socks” type of husband, and Maya Rudolph is a zero-fun helicopter mom whose nuclear option punishment strategy is to take toys away.
It’s right there in the title that The Lego Movie is based on a toy line, but it’s just plain insulting that the happy ending is two kids maturing and working out their psychological issues through thousands of dollars worth of Lego product, under the gleaming smile of the parent that paid for it all. Even the subtitle is so irritatingly dumb that it barely qualifies as a pun.
Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks can’t dig themselves out of the reams of dialog, but the brightest aspect of the film is the rest of the cast: Tiffany Haddish challenges the animators to keep up with her sheer force of personality, Will Arnett’s material amusingly pierces the aura of self-seriousness around Batman, and I wouldn’t want anybody else to play the pivotal role of the cat than Alison Brie.
What an improbable treat, in an age of unasked-for sequels, that one of pop culture’s most notorious cliffhangers would receive resolution.
The HBO series Deadwood is not only one of their most acclaimed productions, but also the most lamentably unfinished. Its abrupt cancellation in 2006 was followed by persistent but vague promises of one or more movies. But as year after year passed, and practically the entire cast went on to higher asking prices, the practical matters of financing and scheduling a remount passed through the realm of the unlikely into the impossible. And yet, here it is, and we are all obligated to make some variation of a “crack open a can of peaches, hoopleheads” joke as we sit down to watch Deadwood: The Movie.
Time has found some characters grown stronger, such as a thriving Sofia (Lily Keene) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) become a successful businessman and landowner. But many are stagnating: Jane (Robin Weigert) may be a minor celebrity but still an alcoholic wreck, and Joanie (Kim Dickens) remains trapped in the Bella Union. Others are greatly diminished: Harry (Brent Sexton) is corrupted, and Al’s (Ian McShane) health is rapidly declining. As Al loses his faculties and Charlie’s lifelong righteous sense of justice blossoms to a quiet but heroic act of resistance, it’s easy to see that this is clearly deeply personal for writer/creator David Milch — the movie is all the more poignant now that he is ailing, and this may be his final work.
There are a few instances of outright fan service (flashbacks remind us of a key moments, Garret Dillahunt has a fleeting cameo as his third character, and it’s very satisfying to see Dan & Jewel bicker over canned peaches one last time), but the movie thankfully does not wallow in nostalgia. The Pinkertons are not mentioned once, and unless I’m mistaken, nobody calls anybody a hooplehead. Milch’s characteristically convoluted diction truly deserves the modifier “Shakespearean”, and is something to savor.
The original TV series was always a little — shall we say — loosely plotted, which worked mostly to its benefit. Whereas later HBO efforts like Game of Thrones were predominantly plot-driven (who lives, who dies, one battle more spectacular than the next), Deadwood was always about character and dialog, and the greater theme of modern America being born out of lawlessness and chaos. But it would be fair to criticize Milch for frequently abandoning promising storylines if he got bored or distracted. The third season in particular has numerous threads that go nowhere: the character of Joanie suffers from a lack of material, and everything involving the traveling theater troupe is superfluous, despite how delightful Brian Cox’s performance is.
The concise two-hour movie format has the benefit of focusing Milch’s attention, but there is still room for a little narrative meandering. One such seemingly extraneous subplot that at first seems to be going nowhere in Milch-ean fashion is that of a young woman coming to town with the aim of working in a brothel, turning a few heads but failing to land a job. We’ve seen her story before, from the very first episode: Deadwood was a hard place, populated by hard people. You could group its denizens into roughly two categories: those desperate to escape something (Al: wanted for murder; the Garrets: escaping bankruptcy and sexual abuse; Seth: arguably running from his own violent nature), and those there unwillingly (mostly women, as Trixie and Joanie were both sold into indentured servitude).
The girl attracts the notice of the latter, who always struck me as one of the show’s most tragic characters: Trixie (Paula Malcomson) grew into adulthood with a deep sense of self-loathing, unable to accept that she might deserve love or kindness. Even when Al, her abusive pimp, tried to push her into a legitimate free life in society (such as it was in Deadwood at the time), she rejected it. The original series ended with Trixie still caught in this conundrum, and as we see her 10 years later, she still feels unworthy, compelled to sneak around through backdoors, and resisting Sol’s (John Hawkes) unconditional love. Thankfully, the movie finally grants her a breakthrough: she accepts Sol and receives a gift from Al, and finds herself with a trade and a place in society.
When Trixie recognizes the psychology of the broken girl who came to Deadwood as a last resort, she is equipped to show her a bit of kindness, and laments that she should believe that this is all she deserves. It’s not only a breakthrough for Trixie, but a crack in the lawless, dead-end history of Deadwood: now no longer only a place for the criminal or the desperate, but now with opportunities for people to better themselves.
One other touching moment of resolution I want to highlight, conveyed perfectly without exposition. The other great dangling thread of the series was that Alma (Molly Parker) and Seth (Timothy Olyphant) never closed the door on their love affair. As they smolder one last time, face to face at Trixie and Sol’s wedding, they are interrupted by one of Seth’s children. He scoops her up, beaming with pride and love, and rejoins the party. Like Trixie, they are both also finally freed.
Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) is a fictionalized account of the 17th-century Roman Catholic priest Urbain Grandier, tried and executed in Loudon, France. Questioning the authority of the Catholic Church is a controversial provocation at any time, but consider: if today, a sober movie like Spotlight (2015) is viewed as brave, then the The Devils’ depiction of the historical Church as depraved, sex-obsessed, and corrupt must have really rankled in 1971. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a company like Warner Bros. producing anything remotely like The Devils in our current climate of resurgent Christian intolerance and fundamentalism.
Hard to find in any form, Filmstruck had what was apparently the abbreviated 109-minute US release version. I think it was part of the Warner Bros. / Turner library, and considering its still-controversial aspects, it’s probably unlikely it will reappear on Warner Bros.’ forthcoming streaming service. Perhaps it could find a home with a boutique outlet like The Criterion Collection, which has been unafraid to release other hot potatoes like The Last Temptation of Christ and SalÃ², or The 120 Days of Sodom.
If possible to set its subject matter aside, it’s also a pity The Devils has been suppressed, for it is a lavish production with truly massive outdoor sets and if not literally a cast of thousands, then at least a cast of several hundred.
Thanks to the late, lamented Filmstruck for filling another gap in my understanding of cinema history. A helpful reminder to young and old film fans approaching cinema history in non-chronological order: nothing comes out of nowhere. I had long assumed Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and The Life of Brian to be landmark satires of de-romanticized European history as crazed, filthy, ignorant, superstitious, and chaotic. But belatedly seeing The Devils now, Gilliam looks less a sudden deviation, and more part of a continuum.
I know I am not alone in Gilliam being one of the gateway drugs that sparked a love of movies — the usual suspects usually being 1970s American directors like Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, etc. I’ve since come to recognize the influences that led to so many other classics, but it’s great to know that even now, having caught up with thousands of other movies, I can still be surprised.
There is no escape from the tyranny of continuity. Like daytime soaps, superhero comics exist in a quantum state of constant churn and perpetual stasis. Characters are introduced and die and un-die, relationships form and split and reform, villains are defeated and rally and are defeated again. Excelsior, and collect your pocket change to spend at the newsstand next month, true believer!
Avengers: Infinity War (2018) was the apotheosis of comics’ perpetually open-ended narrative, in movie form. It was a painful experience for any humanities student, or indeed anybody who loves novels and cinema. How quaint to expect a classical narrative, now that popular entertainment movies have become what Martin Scorsese has called a series of sequences. Avengers: Infinity War was 2+ hours of hors d’oeuvres before a long-promised fancy dinner. At about 18 movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe series by that point, one began to wonder if we’d ever get to the main course, let alone dessert. It can’t be coincidental that the best episodes are the few that managed to wriggle free of the bonds of the larger umbrella story, particularly Black Panther, Ant-Man & The Wasp, and Thor: Ragnarok.
That Anthony & Joe Russo’s Endgame is so drastic an improvement over Infinity War that new corporate owners Disney must have issued a memo on Micky letterhead, reading “OK, good job, kids, but make sure the next one has a plot”. Its classical structure plot is so startlingly unfamiliar for anything with Captain America in it, that if anything, it’s almost too simple, like a video game. Our heroes discover they have to do five specific things to prepare for a confrontation; they do those five things; they have that confrontation; there’s a wound-licking denouement. Bingo: it’s a movie!
I loved Marvel Comics as a kid, but was more of an X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil kind of guy. I always thought The Avengers were lame, and instinctually steered away from the likes of Captain America long before I ever learned the word jingoistic, from Iron Man before I learned the word asshole, and from Thor because — I mean, come on, seriously? So it’s been a struggle for adult-me to take the cinematic Avengers characters semi-seriously enough to enjoy in live-action form.
Of the six original movie Avengers, only one is female and all are white. We can place the original whitebread Marvel Comics in the context of the 1960s, but what’s the movies’ excuse? Even years later, when the franchise has finally cultivated a deeper bench of female characters, it insultingly limits most of them to a single contrived hero shot. And to get specific with one head-scratcher I just can’t get over: when Brainy Hulk and Rocket Raccoon go on a special mission to Norway to re-recruit an incapacitated Thor, is it A) sexist, B) moronic or C) both that they ignore the last living Valkyrie warrior? She may have, you know, been useful. I mean, at least two of the official Avengers don’t even have superpowers (unless you count being really good at archery as super).
Speaking of, can we talk for a moment about how Hawkeye is totally let off the hook for going around the world summarily executing bad guys, without due process? Black Widow literally just stands there and watches him behead somebody. These are supposed to be heroes, with an aspirational moral element. That there wasn’t even a tossed-off line like “we don’t do that anymore” makes me suspect that a chunk of Hawkeye’s story was cut out of the final film, or that the filmmakers lost control over the many character arcs they had to juggle, or most worryingly, that they just thought it was super cool.
Griping aside, I have serious praise for Robert Downey Jr. for delivering some of the finest acting yet in any Marvel movie. His portrayal of a broken Tony Stark early in the film is almost uncomfortably real.
“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves”
The Gospel of Matthew
It’s difficult to divorce any analysis of the film itself from its remarkable trajectory from rejection to acclaim. Watching it for the first time is one of those shocking, startling moviegoing experiences that makes one want more, more from whomever made this — by the way, who did made this, again? And then when one finds out its director only made one film, this oneâ€¦ impossible! How could this have come out of nowhere? How can there not be more? What could have possibly happened?
Noted actor and stage director Charles Laughton sadly did not live to see his only film as director receive its complete reappraisal and entry into the canon. Luckily for history, he saved his sketches, memos, and critically, hours of rushes. Nearly five decades later, film archivist Robert Gitt assembled these materials into the feature-length documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter(available on the 2010 Criterion Collection edition). No mere making-of, compilation of deleted scenes, or blooper reel; but rather a fascinating dive into the process that led to a masterpiece.
The two-and-a-half-hour treasure trove is perhaps a bit much for the casual fan to absorb, but it’s full of revelatory moments both extraordinary and mundane. In the latter category, it’s bemusing to watch Laughton struggle to coax a performance out of the very young Sally Jane Bruce, who was perhaps better suited to a Shirley Temple-like cutesy comedy. He seems to have also struggled to communicate with Shelly Winters (who, incidentally, between this and Lolita (1962), seems typecast as the doomed, sexually frustrated widow who makes poor choices when it comes to second husbands). Robert Mitchum delivered a remarkably un-vain performance, creating one of cinema’s most terrifying monsters in the sociopathic Reverend Powell. The documentary reveals that Mitchum essentially arrived with the character fully-formed, and Laughton didn’t have to give him much direction. But the film also pierces this bubble slightly: it’s disconcerting to see him josh around after missing a cue (“I would if I could remember my line”).
The Night of the Hunter is so gorgeously designed, lit, shot, and edited that it’s tempting to suspect that perhaps Laughton was great with actors but maybe less of a singular cinema auteur. History lionizes the fabled total control of the likes of Hitchcock and Welles, but Laughton’s single film tempts the suspicion that his collaborators were the true authors. It is true that novelist Davis Grubb provided concept art, but this documentary makes clear Laughton brought the full power of his theatrical staging talent to the Expressionist-inspired visual design of the film. But he did not merely draw upon the past, for his film is ahead of its time in its employ of bold jump cuts and striking aerial shots. He also modestly declined a deserved co-writer credit, and even acted offscreen throughout.
This exhaustive examination can illuminate the remarkable making of a classic, but the finished film itself retains its aura as something special, mysteriously powerful, and certainly more than the sum of the ephemera that Laughton left behind. Like its unforgettable antagonist, The Night of the Hunter is dark, pitiless, and gruesome. The initial list of ingredients is very film noir, with shoot-first cops and desperate robbers, escaped convicts and gullible widows, and a classic macguffin in the form of literal buried treasure. But the bulk of the action quickly veers into territory uncommon for noirs: a condemnation of insincere evangelical mania, and a surreal journey into hell by two homeless orphans pursued by a primal archetype, all while slowly starving to death.
In that respect The Night of the Hunter portends the similarly harrowing Grave of the Fireflies (1988). It does, however, pull back from the brink of pure nihilism with its concluding paean to the resilience of children to abide and endure, while allowing for a hint of lasting trauma in the famous line “It’s a hard world for little things”, and in a heartbreakingly sincere exchange of gifts.
In our #metoo era in which we are more conscious than ever of male abuse and gaslighting, including reexamining classic Hollywood film plots. The Night of the Hunter holds up well in our present, and it’s hugely empowering to see Lillian Gish as a formidable woman that isn’t fooled for one moment by the villain. She is the perfect archetypal mother figure, protector and nurturer of children, to counter and negate the masculine monster. She confronts him with the most emblematically male, violent, and dare I say phallic of movie props: a gun, but defeats him in the most emasculating way of all, by revealing him as pitiful.
J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier, Netflix’s latest high-profile exclusive, aspires to be a serious Expendables. It draws surface-level inspiration from the likes of Heat and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but forgets that you need more than square jaws and gun porn.
There’s some dramatic potential in the premise of a heist orchestrated by veterans left behind by their country, fancying themselves a band of Robin Hoods robbing from criminals. Certainly none of them are Merry Men, and it fails to seriously grapple with what should have been interestingly conflicting motivations: moral duty vs. financial need vs. greed vs. vengeance. It instead becomes yet another macho gun movie where grim white dudes growl at each other and shoot Central Americans in the head for two hours.
The Incredibles 2 sure went down easy when I saw it in a theater a few months ago, but it suffers on rewatch on the small screen. And needless to say, it was shortly rendered wholly obsolete by the best animated superhero movie of all time, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
While the real (and best) story is of course the Parr family’s shifting dynamic and gender roles, the surface plot doesn’t hold together. For an animated family movie about a superpowered quintet, the stakes are weirdly low, and perhaps a little too abstract for little kids to grasp. The surest giveaway that its target audience skewed slightly older than Disney/Pixar’s wheelhouse is the subplots granted to the adult parents and teenage daughter, but no material for Dash, whom I would think little kids would most identify.
Instead, most of the narrative conflict revolves around some vague business about superheroes being outlawed, which seems inconsequential when the Parr family is nevertheless allowed to operate as a black ops team under government supervision. Public sentiment never turns against them, so there’s nobody to convince that superheroes are pretty great, actually. This plot point is likely a kid-friendly response to the story arc of the Marvel superhero movies (particularly Captain America: Civil War), but how many little kids worried about Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack’s legal status?
Rather than draw from contemporary Marvel movies for inspiration, I wish Brad Bird had instead cribbed from 1960s Marvel print comics. Forget the government or law, and instead borrow from Spider-Man the idea of a hero working for the common good even when the public distrusts him, or crib from the Fantastic Four a more cosmic setting. An adventure on an alien planet or in another dimension would be more fun than courtrooms and motels, while still allowing for the movie’s real themes: Elastigirl coming into her own, and Mr. Incredible learning to share in the nurturing and caregiving of their kids.
But of course, you can always rely on Pixar’s fine craft even when they are not at their best. The visual design and animation is superb, and the voice casting is perfection. Holly Hunter, Craig Nelson, Jonathan Banks, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sarah Vowell all fully own their characters. I just wish all of this had been in the service of a movie that would stand for generations, like the best of Disney and Pixar’s works.