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Alexander Hamilton

Creaky Hagiography
For otherwise inexplicable reasons lost to history, George Arliss had much success playing UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli afore, on stage and screen, including winning a Best Actor Oscar for the second time he played the role for cameras in 1929. His "Alexander Hamilton" is one of a few such apparently derivative biopics of great European or American white men based on that play's formula. As with Arliss's Disraeli, his Hamilton outwits his opponents to achieve one significant political goal while also balancing his sex life. Maybe some thought the purchase of the Suez Canal or the federal government assuming the debts of states romantic or sexy back in the late 20s and early 30s, but it certainly isn't cogent anymore. In addition to precluding any emotional appeal, this simplification of history reduces the picture to listless hagiography, and even its biographical broad strokes may be fictitious, if not downright insulting.

Of a more minor error, like the musical "Hamilton" (2020), which I watched the night before, it conflates the roles of James Madison and James Monroe, with this one favoring Monroe and the other Madison, into one character for both the Compromise of 1790 and the Reynolds scandal. Worse, this film largely portrays Monroe and Thomas Jefferson as nefarious political neophytes who, ultimately, remain honorable by promising secrecy to Hamilton's affair with Reynolds. Never mind that, really, they were the ones who spread rumors of the scandal to undermine Hamilton's political chances--all of which had nothing actually to do with the past assumption bill and more to do with the emerging party dynamics post the Washington administration. Moreover, the play invents a fictional character, a Senator Timothy Roberts, to be baddie in exposing the tabloid fodder.

Meanwhile, the married Maria Reynolds is depicted as a vamp complicit from the start in tricking and blackmailing Hamilton, which I suppose could be historically true to some extent, but it's also a dubious and convenient narrative trope. The picture doesn't dare explicitly admit Hamilton even had sex with her, while it also under-reports the sums of money extorted from the treasury secretary. I appreciate the ambiguity and economy, as to whether they copulate, of the fade to black when Hamilton walks up Reynolds's steps to retrieve his cloak, which may've seemed necessary even for a pre-code production. But, in fact, Hamilton admitted the affair, and it wasn't a one-night stand; it lasted months.

Historical inaccuracy is the least of the picture's problems, though. There's also a stereotypical black servant with all the aggravating "yessuhs" and the rest written by white men for how they think black people acted or spoke. A creaky early talkie, it's also a dully filmed play--albeit synchronized-sound technology and practices had improved somewhat in the intervening couple years between "Disraeli" and "Alexander Hamilton." There's even a non-diegetic score during one sequence, which is maudlin, but nonetheless unusual for early talkies. Of course, there's also a scene involving diegetic music, which involves Mrs. Hamilton singing and playing the piano--a common tactic of early sound films to incorporate bits of recorded music.

Anyways, having now seen three Arliss vehicles, I'm suspecting that he had a hand in selecting his co-stars based on them being so lousy as to not upstage him. Besides the performances for the aforementioned side characters, Doris Kenyon is particularly atrocious as a withering-flower sort of depiction of a wife. It's nauseating. Too bad, too, because I still have fond memories of her from the days before Hollywood, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, when she played ingénue in the meta-film "A Girl's Folly" (1917). Consequently, Arliss has an admittedly commanding screen presence, I suppose, but caricaturizations of these historical fuddy-duddys tends to be a bore and far less interesting than the historical figures appear to have been in better-composed historical records.


Theatrically Revolutionary; Cinematically Backwards
The play is great and even a filmed version removing much of the allure of a live performance to be offered for streaming has the benefit of reaching the masses, especially during the pandemic when theatrical venues are largely closed. But, Disney's boast that the filmed version "combines the best elements of live theatre, film and streaming" is wrong. This isn't film; it's a recorded stage production.

Granted, such filmed plays, or live captures, have gotten better over the years, but besides some occasional virtuosity in an overhead view or a re-staged set-up absent an audience edited in, the multi-camera setup is basically a modest improvement on the three-camera system invented for TV sitcoms in the middle of the last century. The stage lighting isn't flat, but it's inconsistent as a result. There isn't the benefit of the single-camera style and individual lighting setups of cinema. Plus, most of the cameras are from a stationary position, and they're always of the same stage with barely altered furnishings between scenes. Even some of the actors play multiple roles. There's always the missing fourth wall; even when the camera pulls back to reveal the live audience, it's merely pushing that wall back. In short, this isn't a movie adaptation. For that, one needs to reconceive the play in cinematic terms--not just where to fit the cameras inside a theatre.

Without going through a major studio process, the gold standard for such an adaptation to my mind is Guy Maddin's "Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary" (2002), which took a ballet performance intended for TV and altered the production for cameras that rather danced in collaboration with the performers in a film that also stylistically matched the mute art form of ballet with that of silent film. Moreover, Maddin's film was actually shot on real film. The difference between these two recordings couldn't be more stark. It's like calling an episode of "I Love Lucy" and "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) both motion pictures; it may be technically true, but they're not really the same thing.

That said, the recording is sufficient enough for one to appreciate the brilliance of the theatrical musical, which does more than make founding father Alexander Hamilton cool enough to remain on the ten dollar bill. Adapting 18th and early-19th century history, as based on the book by one of the best popular biographers in the business, Ron Chernow, into a display of modern popular music and starring a largely non-white cast is aptly revolutionary and a reminder of America's multicultural history as a country of immigrants, enslaved and otherwise. That's history that continues to be lived and told. Kudos for that to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars in the titular part. It also helps, of course, that the acting and songs are uniformly excellent (although, with the slight caveat that rhyming "new," as in "New York," with "new," as in "new man" wasn't particularly creative), and that it's quite funny, to boot, especially if one is familiar with the early history of the United States. Among the supporting cast, I'm especially fond of Daveed Diggs's portrayal of Thomas Jefferson, including the cabinet meetings turned rap battles between him and Hamilton.

The narrative, too, does well to establish Hamilton's relationship with Aaron Burr, foreshadowing the fatal duel. It also does its best to feature women, who, if they're not Betsy Ross or Abigail Adams, tend to hardly be mentioned in depictions of the American Revolutionary period. The play also does some interesting stagings equivalent to cinematic techniques in camera movement, tempo and montage. Actors move as if in slow motion sometimes. The floor moves characters around in lieu of crosscutting. So, indeed, enjoy streaming "Hamilton," but let's not pretend that this is photographically brilliant as well. Hopefully, the musical will be truly transmuted cinematically someday.

Week End

"A Film Found in the Dump"
"Weekend" is artsy agitprop that seems to be, because it's a mess, interpreted in all sorts of likewise nonsense ways. For one, J. Joberman of "Village Voice" compared it to "Alice in Wonderland" and the works of Marquis de Sade. No and no. As sadistic as Godard was to spectators of this film, one weird erotic story told in an early scene and a couple suggestions of rape later on hardly make this relevant on the latter account. As for the supposed Carrollian connection, it's what brought me here, as I've been seeking a bunch of often-loosely-inspired-by movies since reading the Alice books. This isn't one of them. There's a scene where a girl is reading on the shore as other characters row a boat towards her, bringing skinned rabbits along, being about the closest "Weekend" even comes to referencing those literary classics--besides one of the many title cards that meaninglessly cite Carroll (and right after an equally pointless evocation of Emily Brontë). Unlike Carroll's stories, Godard's film isn't really nonsense, either, at least not in the literary sense, and, unlike the Alice books, it certainly contains moral lessons--in the form of characters, or figures, obnoxiously shouting Marxist propaganda. There's a clear, albeit uninteresting, narrative, too, involving a murderous bourgeois couple driving to the country seeking inheritance.

This plot inevitably falls apart by way of the constant fourth-wall breaking as a means to introduce more unhurried haranguing before devolving into a silly episode of supposed cannibalism. "Weekend" decidedly gets worse as it goes on and on and on.... The beginning plays out as a relatively inoffensive parody of the reputed aggressive and reckless driving habits of the French--before one begins to suspect that this, too, is an inept attempt at satirizing capitalism, or consumerism, fascists, or war, or whatever bogeyman. Things start getting especially bad when Godard and company begin showing off their skill in long tracking shots to record the most mundane or inane of activities, including, first, a traffic jam and, later, guys playing either the piano or drums in the middle of nowhere. The incessant flashing titles cards, which often merely tell the time, are tolerable by comparison. After all, one should expect some attempt at revolutionary filmmaking if the content is supposed to be revolutionary. The first Marxist filmmakers, of the Soviet Union, excelled in this regard with rapid montage. Godard mostly reuses his old book of meta-movie tricks and traditional filmmaking, such as those tracking shots, but the titling, at least, looks nice, colorful and with well-chosen font. And, the titles preclude shouting, which is a relief from the rest of the proceedings. The makers of "The Raspberry Reich," for one, found such text so effective as to appropriate such style for their own Marxist movie.

I'm just just happy I'm done with this trash film, and I have a newfound respect that my undergraduate teachers decided to go with screenings of "Breathless" (1960), instead, a masterpiece by comparison to "Weekend."

V for Vendetta

Artistic Allusions of Elusive Politics
How or when one views a movie matters. When I saw "V for Vendetta" upon its initial release, I wasn't impressed. I dismissed it for the generic and vague politics of violence. I still think, politically, that the picture is illiterate and its dystopian depiction of a totalitarian state yet another dull retread of George Orwell's "1984" mixed with modern stylings from "The Matrix" (1999), which was made by the same Wachowskis who wrote and produced this movie. (I'm not sure what to make, however, of John Hurt, the protagonist of the filmed version of "1984" (released, naturally, in 1984) playing führer in this one while the antagonist of "The Matrix," Hugo Waving, plays hero.) And make what you will of how a counter-reformation plot over monarchical succession involving Guy Fawkes, turned holiday in a predominantly protestant and parliamentary state, came to be tied up with a comic-book movie that features an unflattering depiction of organized religion and undemocratic institutions, among other things, and, subsequently, became inspiration for modern decentralized activist groups such as Anonymous and the Occupy (Wall Street) movement.

Reviewing "V for Vendetta" in 2020, however, I appreciate how the picture is reflexively constructed and its references to other media. It seems ever more relevant today--not so much because of the virus of the story reflecting today's real-world pandemic or the narrative's revolutionary (and overwhelmingly white) movement recalling recent Black Lives Matter protests or, seemingly more pertinent, the toppling of statues--no, it seems more relevant to me now because when current events aren't interceding, one of my studies of late has been of superhero films, with two of the most interesting precedents of the genre to my mind being the filmed swashbuckler as traced back to "The Mark of Zorro" (1920) and the novelistic revenge tale of a man of disguise from Alexandre Dumas, author of "The Count of Monte Cristo."

Besides Dumas, Fairbanks and Orwell, the final antecedent here that I want to mention and that ties into my recent reading and viewing habits is "The Phantom of the Opera." That narrative is all about the romantic architecture of art and its lifting here, with a deformed lover of art covered by mask, living in a subterranean lair only to emerge occasionally to murder and whisk his love interest to rooftops, while threatening a landmark piece of architecture in a major city and European capital, forms the basis of the picture's reflexive construction. In addition to opera or classical music, with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture especially occupying a prominent position in this one along with accompanying fireworks (which is a conspicuously American display by way of Russia for a picture set in the UK, yet which features the "former United States" on TV a lot, but political symbolism is messy as we've already established), there are the secret artistic and literary collections of V and Deitrich. Moreover, V is shaped by his favorite film, "The Count of Monte Cristo" (1934) (directed by Rowland "V." Lee, by the way), another avenging swashbuckler. He also defaces property by slicing his signature letter à la Zorro and his "Z," as did Douglas Fairbanks back in 1920, a film sometimes remarked on as influential to the development of modern superheros, what with their overlapping skills in fighting for justice, donning capes and masks and employing alter egos. Meanwhile, Evey and Deitrich work in TV, and Evey reads an autobiographical embedded narrative on toilet paper in prison from the author Valerie, a filmmaker. Even the neo-fascist dictator, despite his government's censorship of art, understands the power of such media, as he video conferences with his face plastered on a gigantic screen to scream at his underlings, and the police employ video and audio surveillance. Likewise, V hacks into the government's media transmissions to provoke revolt among the public.

Impressive this, "V for Vendetta" even presages similar reflexivity and narrative complexity amid muddled violence in the more recent superhero fare of "Joker" (2019), which recalls everything from Charlie Chaplin's Tramp, to Zorro, to Martin Scorsese films. It also gives me hope, after her two disappointing roles in the "Thor" installments of the MCU, that Natalie Portman can be effective in a comic-book movie. Of course, it also helps when the picture features the distinctive voices of Hurt and Weaving and a world-class actor such as Stephen Rea in the detective role. Besides his character's reconstruction of the past and how the dystopia came to be, by the way, I also like how his character imagines an alternative scenario for the Guy Fawkes anniversary and unrest. Even politically the picture isn't a complete loss; it's rightly acknowledged for its inclusion, especially unusual 15 years ago, of homosexual characters and their portrayal as persecuted by the state. And for its cinematic and literary reflexivity, "V for Vendetta" was a worthy successor to the Wachowskis's "The Matrix," for which I'm especially fond of its "Alice in Wonderland" allusions. All that's missing are the revolutionary visual effects--replaced here with only a bit of slow-mo and the incongruent swooshing and sounds of metal clanging for the blade twirling gimmickry--and the aspiration to, as with Baudrillard and Plato in "The Matrix," more sound philosophical doctrines.

A Single Man

Looking Fashionable
"A Single Man" seems a superficial picture to me, which I don't say because that's unusual--most movies are--or just because it was directed by a fashion designer, but because it's a stylistically compelling picture. Grand philosophical tract on death, life and love it's not, despite the story's subject matter, but, then, again, most movies aren't. Indeed, the plot is a series of bait-and-switch, steering the spectator to expect the usual resolutions and, then, subverting them. Broken man finding rebirth in a new lover, perhaps, whether the Spaniard or the student. Or in friendship with Julianne Moore's character. And, then, when he does overcome his depression and grief to the point of deciding to keep living, he dies of a heart attack. Even his lecture on Aldous Huxley's book-within-the-book that is this adaptation becomes no such thing. To meet the picture on its own merits, however, has its rewards.

It looks a lot like an episode of "Man Men" in long form, albeit with modernist tendencies towards the stream-of-consciousness style and detours of memories and dreams from the source novel. Not surprisingly, some of the same crew worked on both this movie and the TV show, including the same production and costume designers. Jon Hamm even phones in early on to lend a voice cameo. The striking similarities are only made the more conspicuous, too, by the 1960s setting and pseudo-intellectual dawdling. Regardless, everyone dresses smartly, and the colors and lighting are gorgeous. If there's any complaint to be made, it's that everything is too clean, but I suppose this was the apex of American middle-class prosperity according to nostalgia.

What I especially like about the design, however, is the emphasis on looks, mostly from the perspective of the protagonist and sometimes voiceover narrator George, as played by Colin Firth. The camera focusing and such is fine. There are a couple mirror shots of his preparing himself to be looked upon by the world and the concealment of his suicidal plans and homosexuality that entails. Shots linger on the faces of others, too, as he observes them. Great decision in this regard to give the character glasses, which is reflected architecturally in the Schaffer House he occupies. The irony of a man hiding in a glass house. A single man surrounded by other people. One of the great cinematic antecedents here of reflecting the art form's voyeurism in series of looks is Alfred Hitchcock. How appropriate, then, that "A Single Man" pay homage to his films, including a beautiful score reminiscent of "Vertigo" (1958) and a prominent poster of "Psycho" (1960) composed to perfection with Janet Leigh's image returning the gaze upon one scene.

A lot has been made of Firth's Oscar-nominated performance, and, indeed, he strikes the right balance of his character's concealment and presentation, his inner voice and what he shares with others, gazing and being gazed upon. Unfortunately, Moore is underused and seems out of place, though, like a relic of a gendered-opposite co-lead for a straight romance. I understand that in the book the female friend was a survivor of the accident befalling George's lover and so her significance was as the last living connection George had to him. The replacement in the movie that Firth and Moore's characters are both from England hardly has the same affect. Nevertheless, the real star here is the art of looking, and they all look fashionable.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

The auto-tuned songs aren't bad, whether they be melodic or parodic, but as a comedy-drama, "Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga," it's a cluttered series of miscues. Even the title is an overlong and questionable attempt at humor with both the words "story" and "saga." I can can count on one hand how many moments in the movie gave me mirth. Any attempted exploitation of cultural differences becomes a lost cause. Only the anti-American ranting from the American Will Farrell in an American production somewhat works. Trying to poke fun at homophobia in Russia, for instance, is just depressing. Besides, why every hack piece of slapstick needs a love triangle in the first place is beyond me, although, still, the drama here manages to work better than the comedy. The ghost and elves stuff is stupid (albeit, the line, "The elves went too far," is kind of funny). A lot of the rest is the usual dick jokes. Perhaps, my favorite gag is Farrell's blasé response to the beauty, leaping wales included, of Húsavík, Iceland. Indeed, "Eurovision Song Contest" is in stark contrast to the usual cinematic leveraging of nature in the better pictures set in the Nordics. This one spends more time in a pub watching TV than, say, beside snow-covered mountains, more time swirling the camera around actors lip syncing than on any battle between man and nature.

Oh well, at least, Molly Sandén can sing--providing the voice for Rachel McAdams's character. Additionally, since the real Eurovision event has been cancelled for the first time in its history due to the pandemic, streaming this movie on Netflix may offer fans a substitute, pale as it may be, to the real thing, including cameos from several past Eurovision participants.

The Happy Prince

Wilde Stories
Besides starring in another Oscar Wilde movie this time, Rupert Everett, of Wilde plays-turned-films "An Ideal Husband" (1999) and "The Importance of Being Earnest" (2002), wrote and directed this original biopic based on the playwright's final years. Wilde regulars Colin Firth (also in "The Importance of Being Earnest," as well as an adaptation of Wilde's novel, "Dorian Gray" (2009)) and Tom Wilkinson ("Wilde" (1997) and "A Good Woman" (2004)) co-star, as does the excellent Emily Watson, who's unfortunately underused here as Wilde's estranged wife. Obviously, this was a passion project and one that reportedly took years for Everett to finance and make. It probably helps if the spectator comes to it, then, with some knowledge already of Wilde and his works, his imprisonment for homosexuality and death a few years thereafter that was probably the end result of injuries originally incurred in prison. Personally, I'm more familiar with his novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," and some of his plays, especially "Lady Windermere's Fan," of which I've seen several screen adaptations of both in addition to studying the written texts. And not with the children's tale of "The Happy Prince," although the story is basically told in its entirety here in segments, employed as a framing device and as metaphor for the movie.

The story-within-the-story approach makes for some welcomed plotting, especially given that the movie focuses on Wilde's last years of poverty and illness and when he wasn't writing. I'm less fond of the inconsistently shaky camerawork and the usual slipping of Wilde's epigrams from other plays or from one work into another. "A Good Woman," for instance, bothered me because of how much it took from "The Picture of Dorian Gray." So, too, here, we get Everett as Wilde quipping about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, from "Lady Windermere's Fan," for a remark regarding his lover "Bosie" not paying a prostitute. I suppose there's some amusement to be had for aficionados to spot the liftings, but it does go a way in supporting Bosie's criticism in the movie from his quarrel with the playwright that when stripped of its prose, his plays lack significance. If Wilde is the Happy Prince, stripped of his gold to aid the public, then this picture of his final days of suffering is only the shabby rubble left to the dust heap. Not even an absinthe-induced dream can starve off such melancholy material. Nevertheless, Everett gives a fine performance, and his dedication to theatrically and cinematically adapting Wilde's works and life has been admirable.


Golden Guise
"Honeyland" looks great. I appreciate that the color of the honeycomb subject matter pervades the cinematography, including the many shots of fireplaces flickering a similar shade back upon the figures. The cliff-side views at the beginning and end of the picture are gorgeous, too. I also like that the movie was nominated for two of the best picture Academy Awards (for International Feature and Documentary); I've long thought that should be a more common occurrence. (As far as I'm concerned, they should've nominated "Waltz with Bashir" (2008), an Israeli animated documentary, for all four feature awards, but I digress.) Reportedly, "Honeyland" is supposed to contain an environmental message, and this is where I think the presentation is muddled.

Seemed to me that these inhabitants of North Macedonia--in the rural desert somewhere outside of Skopje--spend all day working, bickering at each other or doing nothing. A bit of fiddling with a radio is the closest thing to culture that they appear to partake in. That's not to say one can't or shouldn't sympathize with their evidently impoverished state of affairs, but it doesn't make for as riveting drama as the filmmakers seemed to think. As for environmental degradation, we're talking about a marginal piece of land in every sense of the word. What these two families do to this small slice of an ecosystem doesn't matter in the grand scale, so the issues here work only as parable, slight though it may be. It's the tragedy of the commons. The new neighbors try to exploit the land for more than a subsistence living, and so bees and cows die. It's nothing more egregious--indeed, likely far less so--than what many a viewer of this movie, including myself, in better economic situations will support in purchasing beef, honey or an array of other goods at grocery stores and supermarkets. I'm not saying "Honeyland" comes across as hypocritical, but what message can be taken away from it seems relatively insignificant. On the other hand, at least the observational approach to the subject negates any direct lecturing, and the landscape, as desolate as it may be, retains some beauty.


Penn Laughs!
Many great--and even not so great--actors, it at least seems to me, give arguably their best performances when playing against type. I tend not to be very fond of the comedies of, for instance, Steve Carell, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, or Robin Williams and others before them in such vein, but their more dramatic work is sometimes excellent. Conversely, Leslie Nielsen was a rather undistinguished dramatic actor before "Airplane!" (1980). The lovely Charlize Theron won an Oscar for portraying "Monster" (2003). Matthew McConaughey revealed he could act when he stepped out of rom-coms. There's Henry Fonda as the villain in "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968). Charlie Chaplin as a serial killer in "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947). Or, the rare feat as proclaimed by the tagline for "Ninotchka" (1939), "Garbo Laughs!" Well, in "Milk," Sean Penn comes across as a nice guy. That he plays the historical figure of Harvey Milk, the first openly homosexual man elected to public office in California, seems less astounding than that he appears "gay" in the dated sense of the word as cheerful.

"Milk" is a solid and well-enacted, if largely standard and by-the-numbers, biopic besides Penn, but he obviously dominates the picture. The other thing I especially like about this one, however, is the exploiting of other art forms or media to form the plot. In addition to the usual oratory found on political soap boxes, Penn's Harvey narrates an audio recording for the framing narrative, which he tellingly says is only to be heard upon his assassination. Then, there's the camera shop he opens, with the film sometimes taking on the appearance of the photography of the era in which it's set, including some 16mm film and documentary style. Finally, there's the opera, which Harvey attends and is framed in the film as akin to Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theatre. Notice that although that's not where Milk is murdered, it's the place he was shortly before and where he looks in the end.

Although that makes it sound as though "Milk" is a downer, and, indeed, it is in that it ends in tragedy and covers the politics of America's history of homophobia, overall, this is a joyful and positive picture. We see Harvey lose election after election and the gay community abused by police and bigots repeatedly while their rights are taken away city by state, but, eventually, Milk successfully leads the effort against John Briggs and Anita Bryant's discriminatory campaigns in California and establishes the LGBT movement as a political force. And, now, the marriage debate that saw setbacks in California and elsewhere around the time this film was released has become history with the legalization of gay marriage throughout the country and much of the world. "You've gotta give them hope," as Milk says. Turns out, he did.

In & Out

In Progress and Outdated
It's interesting how "In & Out" has aged. In 1997, a mainstream movie about the protagonist coming out as gay and featuring a kiss between men may've seemed progressive in itself; indeed, it doesn't take much research of historical polling or the debate over gay marriage back then to realize homophobia was rampant even in liberal Western democracies. Still is to an extent and in a lot of places, but some of the landscape has undeniably shifted in the intervening 20-plus years. Now, "In & Out" comes across as dated with its broad humor based largely in mocking the same sexuality it's supposedly celebrating and its stereotyping of effeminate, well-dressed and fastidious friends of, I guess, Streisand. (Call me old fashioned, but I think the "friends of Dorothy" had it right--anyone who prefers the 1976 "A Star Is Born" or any of the other versions over the 1954 one is simply wrong, but I digress.) Nonetheless, I still think "In & Out" has its moments as lighthearted, if lightweight, fun.

Appropriately enough, then, the comedy is mostly based in characters being oblivious. A film-within-the-film where the hero doesn't think anything of abandoning his wheelchair-bound lover atop a flight of stairs. The Hollywood star outing his old teacher without a second thought during his Oscar acceptance speech. A sexless fiancée and an entire Indiana town shocked by the revelation. A TV tabloid reporter inconsiderate of the distress his coverage might cause. And the protagonist teacher himself seemingly not even considering he might be gay until another man kisses him. There's even a bit involving Catholicism that seems oblivious to the Church's stances against homosexuality and fornication. Then again, the entire picture ignores how ingrained homophobia was and is--reducing discrimination to temporary awkward reactions and a temporary firing. The "I am Spartacus" resolution here was always cheesy, though, and the wedding bait-and-switch, indeed, seems overly insensitive at a time when gay marriage wasn't legal--certainly not in Indiana at least. To my mind, it's better to think of the movie as ending with Joan Cusack correcting Matt Dillon on the ins and outs of Shakespeare. Cusack deserved her Oscar nomination for this. She steals the show in the end.


Viral Kaiju
I've seen four movies from Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho now, and "The Host" is the closest to his subsequent Best Picture Oscar winner "Parasite" (2019). Like that international breakthrough, the main characters here are comprised of a bumbling lower-class family, with the over-achievers able to accomplish no more than be unemployed with a university degree or be so hesitant so as to only win a bronze medal in archery. Likewise, it's all over the place in its genre mixing, with this one jumping from Japanese-influenced kaiju-type giant-monster flick, family drama or sitcom and adventure in search of missing daughter, virus outbreak action, and governmental and geopolitical conspiracy thriller. Unlike some of his other pictures, too, this one isn't as drenched, although some of it's still here, in environmental or socio-economic commentary, which is good given that the comedy is too absurd and the special effects too silly to take much of the movie seriously. Moreover, "The Host," with its virus alternatively attributed to environmental pollution and either government incompetence or foreign attack, which nonetheless leads to widespread mask wearing, disinfection, contact tracing and medical, police and foreign impositions on liberties, has already become an eerie feature to view during the real-world pandemic in 2020. Best it be seen as an amusing diversion than a mirror to the actuality outside the screen.

In popular culture, kaiju began with "Gojira" (Godzilla) (1954), where the monster was a metaphor for the destruction of life by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Appropriately, then, Bong revives this genre from the dead via a morgue with the toxic ingredient from embalming fluid, formaldehyde, being poured down the drain and into the Han River, with the consequent sea creature becoming a readily visible and immediate realization of the threat to humanity from water pollution. Meanwhile, the Korean police come across an uncaring and healthcare workers as quacks. The United States military industrial complex, too, is treated as malicious and incompetent, and I suspect that the twist on "agent orange" here by being renamed for the color "yellow" is a slight against Western racism towards East and Southeast Asians. Even protesters, television and mobile-phone use receive their share of mockery here. Ordinarily, as well, I might be critical of how lousy the CGI for the creature is, but even disregarding the restraints of the production's budget compared to Hollywood blockbusters, it seems fitting that the effects not be too good, lest it be accidentally appear to be in earnest. This is a fun movie.

Brokeback Mountain

Queer Normality
It's fabulous to reflect on, writing this in 2020, how much has changed in the 15 years since "Brokeback Mountain" was released. It was singular at the time as a serious film about gayness that was mainstream, and it's the play on cinematic conventions and normality that is central to its aesthetic quality, as well as its societal influence in broadening the acceptance of homosexuality. There are no tropes of flamboyancy here. No depictions of LGBT political activity and hardly any focus on places where gay men might congregate (the entire nation of Mexico, somewhere in which Jack looks for male prostitutes, coming closest). Instead, it's set in the most iconic of American genres, of conservative rural areas and repressive past times, within heterosexual marriages and families, and at the heart of the country's cinematic formation of masculinity for over a century, the Western. Indeed, it's also part melodrama, even soap opera, and almost Shakespearean tragedy, which largely makes for the picture's emotional appeal. It's this plea to the familiar that made "Brokeback Mountain" a landmark in film history. Fifteen years later, as "Brokeback" has become slang and lines such as "I wish I knew how to quit you" have become infinitely quotable and parodied, let alone increased tolerance of sexuality in the world at large, there may be risk of losing sight of how extraordinary this ordinariness was then.

It's there in the cinematography, too. Sure, we see a well-composed cloudy, hillside vista here and there between scenes in the wilderness, but intrusion of pretty landscapes here are reserved for the other side of the postcards Ennis and Jack write to each other. These are familiar views for these cowboys and so become so for the spectator. These are men fully shaped by and belonging to this environment. It's in the populated spaces of the West where they sometimes run afoul, where Ennis fights other men out of his frustration, or where Jack suffers the emasculation by his father-in-law or tries to carefully navigate other liaisons. Probably the most conspicuously staged shot in the entire picture happens at a town fireworks show, the explosions of light and color in the background as Heath Ledger stands over a low-angle shot after he's just got into a violent altercation with two men. There doesn't seem to be any counterpoint shots in the mountains for the pun on "explosive" of this shot in town, or even, say, the contrast of Jack riding a bull at a rodeo before shortly thereafter being ridden by his soon-to-be-wife in a car.

The acting is remarkable and subtle, too. Yes, Heath Ledger is great, but so is the supporting cast, including as well as Jake Gyllenhaal, the two actresses playing the lovers' wives, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway. Just as early on, as Ledger and Gyllenhaal's exchange of looks told us all we needed to know about their attraction for each other even before their first sexual or intimate contact, we can see in the faces of Williams and Hathaway how much they know about the affair and how they've coped with it. We see this early on with Williams as a co-spectator to the unfolding romance and how she struggles to remain with us in not interfering or participating in it. Hathaway provides an opposite tract, of a wife seemingly wrapped up in the dynamics of her family business and her relationship to Jack seemingly only extending to his role in raising their son and dealing with her domineering father. But, then, we get that fantastic phone call near the end and an array of emotional indications as to how much she may have known and reacted to it. There's been a lot of discussion, legitimately, about how "Brokeback Mountain" and Ledger should've won the top prizes at the Oscars, but the biggest snub is arguably that Hathaway was the only one of the four to not even be nominated.

But, back to the men, the Western genre here is key to the picture's take on masculinity. Narrative cinema in the United States was practically founded in the Western with "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) and continued through Hollywood churning out B-picture shoot-'em-ups with stars such as Tom Mix performing riding tricks, saving damsels and gunning down other men--all before the likes of John Ford and Clint Eastwood further defined an ultra-aggressive and conservative ideology of manhood on screen, whether by slaughtering Indians, tavern stand-offs, or street duels, in the name of the politics of Manifest Destiny and the rights to and protection of the leading ladies. It's all of that familiar structure that "Brokeback Mountain" was intentionally positioned, with a short story originally written by a woman and co-adapted by another, as directed by a Taiwanese filmmaker, Ang Lee, and that is about gay cowboys, one of whom accompanies his wife to see one of those classic Westerns, "Hud" (1963), at a drive-in theatre. Sure, they're the "Marlboro Men;" smoking, fighting whisky drinkers eating beans over a campfire, the strong silent types, more John Wayne than Judy Garland. That's the point. It's how "Brokeback Mountain" upended the entire industry's treatment of homosexuality and masculinity, and it's what makes it, including through the cinematography, a beautiful piece of art.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Out of Place
I like the idea of this better than the result. I'm not talking so much about the book it's based on, which I haven't read, either. Rather, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" is a conceptually promising picture because it's about the artist inhabiting places, and that artist is an architect who designs spaces. Think of all the architecturally great films throughout history; from the production design of art cinema, often labelled, appropriately or not, as "Expressionism," from Weimar Germany; to what a trained architect and engineer like Sergei Eisenstein was able to develop with montage; Alfred Hitchcock with the camera; the weaving of architectural and narrative structure in, say, "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961) or of modernist commentary in "Playtime" (1967). Point is, there's a lot that has been and could be done architecturally with cinema--all the better when the content of the picture is reflexively about the same thing. But, alas, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" is lacking the visual and narrative artistry that its story of an artist calls for.

Although I haven't read it, the book I understand is in the epistolary form, so stylistically it reflects its own construction, its own creation. Having studied Gothic horror novels, which frequently have an epistolary plot comprised of letters, diary entries, voice recordings and so on, especially Bram Stoker's "Dracula," and, then, seeing a bunch of the filmic adaptations, I know very well how poorly such novelistic construction translates to cinema. Some alternative directions are flirted with here, though. There's the film-within-the-film that's a video documentary about the artist, Bernadette Fox (as played by Cate Blanchett). Her daughter narrates by voiceover, and Bernadette monologues for electronic messages. All techniques calling attention to the picture's artificiality.

Better yet, Bernadette's story arc revolves around the spaces she inhabits: her initial genius and ultimate set back in Los Angeles, her breakdown in Seattle (this technology hub of a metropolis doesn't come off well here), and her revival in Antarctica. All involve buildings she designs. This works best with the pettiness between her and a neighbor (an always good, but underused Kristen Wiig), which results in a mudslide breaking through the neighbor's home. At its worst, though, are scenes supposedly in Antarctica, but which were filmed in Greenland and some of which look no better than green-screen composites--especially the two-shot outside between the father and daughter. It's hideous, and it doesn't help, either, that the narrative at this point becomes incessantly cloying in its rushed and overly sanguine resolution.

Oh well, even though there's no genius with the camera here or the narrative structure, despite a director, Richard Linklater, who has a good track record otherwise, and a character in the movie who it's pointed out numerous times is an "artist" and "genius," at least the actress playing the protagonist at the center of it all is one of the best at inhabiting characters and occupying space on screen. Blanchett always raises the quality of any project she's in. This time, she's given a decent look of an eccentric recluse, and she rattles off some amusing, breathless rants with occasional five-dollar words thrown in for good measure. It's disappointing, however, that she doesn't receive the structural support she and her character deserve. It's not that this is a bad movie, per se--not entirely, at least; it's just that it could've been great, but isn't.

Prom Night

Just What "Halloween" was Missing: Disco
I feel obliged to not rate a film too low if disco music is a prominent feature of it, especially when said groovy tunes seem incongruent to the rest of the schlock on screen. Such is the case with "Prom Night," a slasher flick conspicuously in imitation of "Halloween" (1978), which also starred Jamie Lee Curtis, a police manhunt and a masked madman cutting up sexually-promiscuous teenagers. This one also has an "I Know What You Did Last Summer" sort of vibe to the plot--and that was a book, apparently, before it was a movie, so don't get any ideas about "Prom Night" having originality--but that's not important. Although the filmmakers entirely blunder the reflexive voyeurism that was central to the success of "Halloween," they, at least, understood that they needed a good soundtrack to match the pastiche. Counterintuitive to creating tension for a horror film, however, they chose disco.

The base appeal of the horror genre is in the physical reactions it induces in the audience. The jump scare and how when successful it startles the viewer, for instance. "Prom Night" creates a physical reaction, too, but it's of a toe-tapping and body-swaying variety in rhythm to Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer's score. It's fitting, I suppose, too, that as the film overall rips off "Halloween," the production was sued for its copying popular tracks that the budget couldn't afford to license. Oh well, at least, Curtis is a surprisingly good dancer, and we even get to see her cutting it up on the dance floor with an awkward Leslie Nielsen, playing her father in one of his last straight roles.


Grotesque Retread and Monstrous Dream
I skipped this small release (although it does feature recognizable actors Carrie-Anne Moss, Danny Huston and Tony Todd in supporting roles) in my survey of Frankenstein films back in 2018 during the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's novel, apparently, as I now know from seeing it, with good reason given that it's largely a retread of the same episodes we've seen in prior cinematic adaptations of the popular story--mainly, the 1931 Universal classic. There's the "It's Alive!" reiteration, the little girl being tossed in a lake, the mob attack and the monster threatening Frankenstein's white-clothed bride in her bedroom--none of which is actually from the book, but rather from the 1931 film. That's not to say these filmmakers didn't read the source, though, as they evidently did from some of the additions here: the blind man, the narrated philosophical musings and a fiery end closer to the original text than to James Whale's pictures.

The most readily apparent distinction of this version is, of course, how grotesque the monster is, but there are also a couple other oddities here--one of which makes me happy I saw the movie. First, the part I'm not keen on is the picture's Biblical allusions. Besides the creature being named "Adam," when the Frankensteins go about trying to murder him, they strap him down in a crucifixion pose, although they employ supposedly-more-civilized means to execute him with lethal injection. Little wonder, then, whether this Christ figure will be resurrected. Come to think of it, though, the 1935 sequel "Bride of Frankenstein" also included some Christ allegory with Boris Karloff being tied up by a mob--so this part isn't even that unusual.

Yet, the dreams are something else. My ranking of Frankenstein films is now over 50 entries, and I've never seen one movie that attempted to depict in any way the disturbing and intriguing nightmare from Shelley's story. This one comes closest. In the book, Victor Frankenstein's dream of kissing Elizabeth turns into one of his embracing his dead mother. The dream here, while it plays out seemingly for more bittersweet intent and from the creature's dreaming, still manages to incorporate similar suggestions of incest and necrophilia. The Elizabeth Frankenstein in this movie, after all, is both the mother figure to the creature and the focal point of his romantic and sexual desires. Each time the monster attacks Victor Frankenstein, then, to get to the mother, it becomes an Oedipus complex. That seems more frightening to me than a guy made up to appear covered in boils.

Æon Flux

Although I'm not familiar with it, "Æeon Flux" is based on an MTV cartoon show, which may help explain why this movie features such poor editing and a crass soundtrack. It looks and sounds like it was made by a bunch of TV hacks making little to no adjustments for the big screen. The CGI isn't very good, either, but that's the least of the problems here. Presumably, the tens of millions of dollars flushed down the toilet on this excrement went to the salary of star Charlize Theron, who is far too talented to be wasted this way. Go see "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015) or "Atomic Blonde" (2017) for Theron in action flicks made by filmmakers who know how to competently produce them.

Reportedly, the production history on this bomb was a dumpster fire, too, which one could probably guess from the finished product. Choppy construction and exposition so clustered it requires extensive voiceover narration and expository dialogue went through several edits you say? I'm not surprised. Regardless, what we're left with is editing and stupid slow-motion effects that work around poorly choreographed action scenes, lousy special effects and goofy production design. Every time a character swirls a blade, spins or kicks, there are whooshing sound effects for no other reason that I can discern than to appear cartoonish with the slow-motion seemingly a poor-man's substitute for the bullet-time photography of "The Matrix" (1999). Nor is the score any better with its constant obtrusion--just as in bad television where every scene seemingly must be underscored lest audiences forget that they're supposed to be feeling something about the unimaginative images accompanying the repetitive dialogue spelling everything out in painfully complete detail on screen.

Perhaps, it would be another thing, too, if the world created were of any intelligence, but it's not. Another dystopia full of conspiracies and ruled by some totalitarian high council in the wake of a disease outbreak. Science as delivered by a single genius instead of the factories of them it actually takes. Simplistic man-against-nature theme. Stupid notion of memories being cloned along with DNA and love that spans hundreds of years. And, in the end, it turns out that immortals get bored and lose their sense of identity--and so decide to die. This supposedly gives life hope somehow.

I detest all of this, but preventing me from entirely hating "Æon Flux" is that the production and costume design aren't entirely bad or, when they are, rather humorously so. I mean, futuristic clothing where men's lapels take inspiration from disco while women wear skin-tight outfits--it's kind of funny. And what sort of sleepwear does Theron have on? Is that supposed to be comfortable? Sexy in a PG-13 sort of way that fails throughout the runtime? There's some pond of memories in tears that Theron breaks into in a scene ripped-off from "Mission: Impossible" (1996), in addition to that blimp and characters sharing messages and thoughts with one another by futuristic supplements of one form or another. And the "Citadel" or whatever that Theron and her four-handed friend break into is ludicrously protected with dart-shooting fruit and blades of grass that pierce skin. The place would've been better protected by a guy watching a bunch of security cameras and with a strip search and assigned clothing for Theron when imprisoned--you know, how actual security systems and jails work. Yeah, I know there are plot twists that may give a reason for lax security--always plot twists, I know. At least, though, you'd think they'd be smart enough over the hundreds of years to include guard towers higher than any other nearby structures so as not to lose the high ground. It's a joke. Too bad the rest of the movie isn't, though; it's merely bad.


It's too rare of a feat in motion pictures when form perfectly matches content. When achieved, as in "Tangerine," it's to be celebrated. Traditional film has been increasingly undermined for years now in the digital age, with film itself no longer the primary material of the art form, as has the theatrical setting of cinema by various home screens, video and streaming services. Shot on an iPhone, "Tangerine" is a transgressive picture. It's an apt choice of media for a movie about transgender women, as well as lower-class prostitution, drug addiction and immigration--all atypical subjects to the mainstream box office. The great irony here may be that the transgender characters are themselves illustrative of form and content mismatched, identifying as of female gender and marked by male sexual organs, but it seems perfectly fitting to a movie made on a phone.

Another irony here is that the plot is invigorated by the lack of a phone, as Alexandra explains to Sin-Dee that she had to pay rent instead of for phone service. There hardly being pay phones in modern society anymore, either, Sin-Dee must hence walk the streets looking, rather than calling them, for her allegedly cheating boyfriend and the cisgender woman he's supposedly having an affair with. Yet, this is quite felicitous to the spirit of being photographed by phone, that the picture be as mobile as the mobile device it's recorded by. Although, it does seem the filmmakers go out of their way to not feature or mention mobile phones after the opening scene. Pointedly, the immigrant taxi driver doesn't work for Uber and isn't shown to be employing GPS from his phone. When he chases after Sin-Dee or his mother-in-law chases after him, they don't make calls; they take to the streets--either by foot or by cab. Just as Sin-Dee does in the wonderfully energetic opening sequence. Those shots prove how well photographed a mobile-phone movie can be. Of course, the catchy soundtrack helps.

Another striking element of "Tangerine" is how apparent it makes it that gender and sexuality are performative, whether cis or trans, prostitute, or married cab driver. It's fitting, too, then, that this picture be set in Hollywood and that Alexandra performs on stage by singing at a club. And instead of movie stars, we see prostitutes, inside automobiles hiding in alleys and car washes rather than studio backlots, but the illusion and performance of it all remains the same. Everything in "Tangerine" seems to naturally fit and yet be at odds: being transgender, paying for sex, paying to perform, cheating and monogamy, Armenian beside English, drama next to doughnuts, Christmas in sunny Los Angeles, a world absent phones inside of a phone, a film not involving actual film, cinema viewed more often on personal small screens instead of a theatre (personally, I streamed it on my laptop). There may be those who don't recognize it as such, as with the transphobia directed towards the protagonists, but "Tangerine" is a natural and felicitous motion picture regardless--even because of the media it was born by. Even the picture's central friendship and its fleeting betrayal between Alexandra and Sin-Dee works on this level. It's with them that the picture wisely begins and ends.


Pity the Executioner
Well, this one is a downer. It seems the aim of "Clemency" is more to solicit pity for its protagonist warden (Alfre Woodard in a performance some say was snubbed of an Oscar nomination) rather than be a polemic on capital punishment, although it's certainly an ugly portrait of the procedure--focusing mostly on how killing convicted men affects the warden, but also the other staff, the condemned men and those close to them, as well as a family of a man allegedly murdered by one of them (Aldis Hodge) sentenced to receive lethal injection. There are no courtroom or lawyerly heroics here (e.g. "Just Mercy," also released in 2019 and which I've recently reviewed) or last-minute-rescue by journalist investigation ("True Crime" (1999), say) or some such thing. There's only the depressing reality of the death penalty, which continues to be practiced in much of the United States.

It's easy enough to sympathize with the trauma Woodward's warden goes through, and the actress is fine in the role, although the lengthy close-up on her near the end arguably goes on for too long--albeit, as do other scenes in the movie--seemingly to tease out the tragedy of the situation. But, this character is an aging middle-class professional (you know the characters have some money when they sit down at a dinner table for the typical meal in such movies of wine and veggies) who lives only with her husband (Wendell Pierce). He speaks of the option of them retiring or moving. She angrily resists either despite the blatant psychological problems, including insomnia, she's experiencing from her career. It's hard to empathize with someone with such considerable mobility and wealth who nonetheless refuses to quit a job that's clearly harming her and her marriage--not to mention the morality of state-sanctioned executions. Another character, the lawyer (Richard Schiff), decides to retire from peddling hope, along with the fame and martyrdom promised by others, to the condemned. Heck, one of the warden's employees applies to be a warden at a prison that doesn't execute prisoners; why doesn't she do the same. As she informs hubby, she only wants him to know what pain such work causes her. The same is essentially told to the spectator with such showy filmmaking as that late long take of Woodward's face. Message received, I guess, but there are better options available, including as to what movie to see.

If Beale Street Could Talk

The intermittent lack of story in director Barry Jenkins's prior "Moonlight" (2016) was a strength to my mind, for a filmmaker whose focus tends to the formal. It helps bring the unique plot, editing and cinematography to the forefront. Somewhat, his pictures are like the wood sculptures of the artist in the movie: seemingly all form with the content rather indiscernible, if not unimportant. It seems to me, then, that this is where "If Beale Street Could Talk" struggles. Whereas it shares similar form to "Moonlight," the story, on the other hand, is more intrusive. Based on a novel by James Baldwin (the focus of the interesting 2016 documentary "I Am Not Your Negro," which I've also recently viewed), there's the addition of a narrator, novelistic eloquence and extrapolating societal significance to the place and struggles of the characters. The simplicity of the three-chapter plot of "Moonlight" gives way in "If Beale Street Could Talk" to an intricate jigsaw of flashbacks, of which the main benefit seems to be to compensate for an unconvincing central romance that's filled more with shyness and sorrow than with passion or the familiarity the characters are supposed to have from knowing each other their entire lives.

Too many portentous pauses in this one of the supposed lovers exchanging stares directly at the camera (in lieu of any conversation one would think being bred from familiarity, as well) in Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton's centered close-up compositions. Admittedly, the lighting and color of the picture is exquisite, although it could've done without the selective blurring of images and some tighter editing. The score by Nicholas Britell is fantastic, too--probably my favorite aspect of the production--but it's also relaxing, which contributes to the soporific affect the movie had on me--making it something of a chore to finish. I hoped for a title based in a place, too, that the picture would've given a good sense of locations, but it unaccountably does scant work of that. If not for the clothing style being distinctive of the era, it would be difficult to even determine when the picture was set. Ultimately, the story just isn't that engaging to hold the sufficient amount of attention that its increased role here requires. Trepid love story combined with commentary on America's system of mass incarceration, criminalization and wrongful convictions of black men. The movie doesn't deliver enough punch on either account.

The closest thing to a narrative payoff comes from Regina King's character's voyage to try to save her daughter's lover and the father of her grandchild. This Academy Award winning performance by King stands out, too, among a good supporting cast in a feature that is starved for better leads, which also wasn't the case for "Moonlight" despite its lack of a lead actor in a cast that included three separate performers playing the protagonist. The "holy-roller" other mother and the other pair of sisters part here seems it could've been cut, but, otherwise, the supporting cast of King, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry and company help lift the project.

"Moonlight" left me in awe with a narrative and themes that served form. "If Beale Street Could Talk" leaves me like King's character receiving a sculpture as a gift from the artist--impressed, perhaps, but unsure of what to make of it or even if I want to keep it.


Crashing Waves
As for character development and pull of the story, "Moonlight" may not be impressive, but structurally, which I think is arguably more important, it's masterful. The title denotes the cinematography--lighting effects traced back to a story told by Mahershala Ali's Juan in the movie, but the three-chapter plot is based in the waves. A few forceful events hit us, followed by fades to black before the next wave catches us up with Chiron days if not years later. There's a formal elegance to this focus on the protagonist's formative life moments. We watch how he's raised by his drug-addicted mother and his drug-dealing father figure (a memorable Oscar-winning performance by Ali), then it's on to his first sexual experience before his life is altered by violence and legal punishment. The motif of the breeze coming from the seas off the Miami beaches is apt, too. They mark the three happiest, if not cleansing in their symbolic connection to water, turning points in his life, from learning to swim as a child, the sexual encounter on the beech, to his pausing in a parking lot during the final episode.

I suppose the focus on African-American and gay characters, along with however that comments on issues of masculinity, is what may have garnered "Moonlight" a lot of critical praise and, ultimately, led to its surprise Best Picture Oscar, but this is less a social message picture than an exercise in reconstructing the "hood film" genre, as it's more of a mood or thematic piece rather than following the usual psychological motivations of characters out to achieve some goal or exploiting some controversy for sensationalism. In some ways, although not of the same genre, "Boyhood" (2014) was similarly impressive. In "Moonlight," though, it doesn't even really matter whether the three Chirons thoroughly resemble each other or not. It's plot and theme over story; place and atmosphere over character identification. It's not that this informs us less about the character and his journey, either, as we, instead, get a better sense, following figures from behind or bobbing in the water beside them, of how it feels to be transformed by the place beside those crashing waves and how events ripple through to determine that hero's journey. And, even if the spectator isn't likewise affected, at least there is the exquisite cinematography and editing to admire.


Slavery, Jim Crow, to Mass Incarceration
I have no doubt a documentary such as "13th" has a positive effect on the real world, perhaps educating some and contributing to debates that lead to such legislation as the prison reform bill passed subsequent to its release. Its thesis is clear: that slavery and Jim Crow have been continued in America by mass incarceration, including disproportionately of black men, whereby cheap labor is exploited, voting rights disenfranchised and racial minorities segregated and labelled negatively as "criminal," "super predator," and such--all through the slavery loophole of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which otherwise supposedly ended slavery in the U.S. Some of the editing of clips is effective, too. The matching of images of racial animus during the civil rights movement to words from now-President Donald Trump and the violent actions from some of his supporters at his political rallies works better, I think, than similar historical crosscutting in Spike Lee's later "BlacKkKlansman" (2018).

But, "13th" is also largely comprised of the usual talking heads, which is one thing when they're academics, legal experts or some other intelligent observer of or participant in the history of race, but I can do without politicians the likes of Charlie Rangel and Newt Gingrich offering half-hearted apologies for the legislation they passed that exacerbated the problem, let alone interviews from hacks like a propagandist for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The result is that "13th" appears too much like something cable news would produce, with a top-down approach heavily focused on presidential politics--oddly the opposite of the ground-up view from the same director's "Selma" (2014). Seems to me that something such as discussing former President Bill Clinton apologizing to the NAACP regarding his Crime Bill, but subsequently getting into some shouting match with "Black Lives Matter" protesters could be cut.

Compare this to "I Am Not Your Negro" (2016), also nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar that year; that picture, based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin, starts with the individual and their relationship with racism in the nation, from which the argument transitions to cultural artifacts, such as motion pictures, that influence and reflect societal biases. "13th" mentions the racist epic "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), then moves on to lengthy regurgitations on the politics of presidents from Nixon to Trump. It would bolster, too, the movie's still-stinging concluding comment by Bryan Stevenson (the lawyer portrayed by Michael B. Jordan in "Just Mercy" (2019), by the way), which does turn the focus back on us, the individual and society at large, as he cites the hypocrisy of asserting one's superiority to past atrocities when, today, we continue to tolerate new forms of slavery, lynching and segregation.


Politics of Historical Drama
"Selma" is a movie that seems will remain prominent in popular discourse on history and race for some time to come, at least if screenings of it continue to reappear every Martin Luther King Jr. Day and February during Black History Month, Paramount continues to stream it for free when racial issues are front-page news, or school teachers continue to look for something that seems both educational and a way to keep students quiet while they hardly do any work themselves. It's not as though there have been very many biopics of Martin Luther King Jr., either, or even historical pictures about the civil rights movement. As original and always timely as "Selma" may be in that regard, it otherwise seems similar to another political biopic, if not hagiography, "Lincoln" (2012). Both focus on historical figures who've reached saintly proportions in the American imagination, both for their leadership in struggles against racist legal systems, and both movies largely avoid the simplistic good-vs-evil plot of the hero squaring off against the baddie in favor of focusing on the internal politics of the movement, whether in working the votes to pass the 13th Amendment or, 100 years later, in organizing the Selma-to-Montgomery marches to raise the issue of the Voting Rights Act.

With less focus on the likes of Alabama Governor George Wallace or Sheriff Jim Clark as evil obstacles to overcome, although that is still there on the margins, "Selma," instead focuses on conflicts between King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis's branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but most prominently and controversially, there's the picture's battle of wills between King and President Lyndon Johnson. I'm not a historical expert on the matter and so won't get into the weeds on how accurate the portrayal of LBJ is here or whether the filmmakers veered too far in their avoidance of white-savior tropes towards historical inaccuracy. Indeed, it seems odd to me that a president wouldn't be eager to pass a bill that guarantees voting rights to a constituency that reliably votes upwards of over 90% for their party, but, then, this was the same administration consumed by the Vietnam War, so perhaps his priorities were at least questionable. Regardless, there've since been a couple bland biopics on Johnson since, for those interested: "All the Way" and "LBJ" (both 2016).

By focusing on the likes of King, Lewis and company, at least we get a greater sense of the grass-roots nature of the civil rights movement. One doesn't get the same view from privileging Washington, especially from a president whose FBI director was actively undermining the civil rights movement, including by attacking the marriage of the King family, as seen in "Selma." These were rights achieved by activists and civilians, by shocking TV coverage of demonstrations and calls to action from the likes of King to galvanize people of all races to support equality. So, while "Selma" does partly follow a great-man-narrative with its focus on King, the trajectory of progress is from the ground up. There's a reason King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize shares the picture's opening with the tragedy of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the everyday discrimination of Annie Lee Cooper (although casting Oprah Winfrey in this part arguably undermines the focus on common people somewhat) being denied the right to vote.

"Selma" isn't perfect. Depicting the bombing in slow motion seems tactless. And the filmmakers don't entirely escape the pitfalls of the genre for grandstanding and speechifying even when characters aren't delivering speeches or in front of cameras. Nevertheless, David Oyelowo is outstanding as King--managing to appear forceful without being showy. The backstory of the internal politics behind the marches holds interest, and I like the inclusion of archival footage of the real event at the end. "Selma" is a palatable-enough treatment of historically significant events to be worthy of its prominence.

Malcolm X

Lee Does Justice to Controversial Civil Rights Icon
It's impressive this biopic, "Malcolm X," works as well as it does given its rather difficult production, beset by outcries on all sides as to the portrayal of the controversial historical figure, and given its 3-hours-plus length by a writer and director, Spike Lee, who has been criticized for his bluntness and excessiveness, at least occasionally, and a star, Denzel Washington, who is often celebrated more the more over-the-top his performances. Yet, the film is remarkable for its relative restraint and balance. We see all sides of each, and, ultimately, I think we mostly experience the best of them.

There's the Malcolm Little born a son to a preacher harassed by the KKK and murdered, to be raised in a discriminatory system of foster care; "Red," the zoot-suit-wearing lover of a white woman who becomes a gangster; the prisoner converted to the Nation of Islam and to civil-rights minister "Malcolm X"; and, finally, the more tolerant and cooperative Muslim activist out to lead his own mosque before his assassination. Lee seems to revel in the free-flowing zoot suit and gangster parts--even casting himself as a sidekick, and he mostly reserves his usual didactic overkill this time--making sure to connect past to present racism--to the opening (including footage of the beating of Rodney King) and an ending that admittedly helps cleanse the palate from the protagonist's tragic death, as well as including images of wealthy African Americans who donated money to bring the production to completion (plus, who can say anything bad about a cameo from Nelson Mandela). For the most part, Lee lets the compelling narrative of Malcolm X be told. Arguably, even, America's history of white supremacy doesn't receive enough criticism throughout the film. In the later parts, the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad, instead, come across as the picture's main foes (which makes it all the more odd that the Fruit of Islam provided security for the film) while the FBI eavesdrops under its COINTELPRO program of undermining American civil-rights and political organizations.

As for Denzel Washington's performance, I think there's a good case for his being robbed of the Oscar. That year, as typical, the Academy awarded an actor, Al Pacino, for overblown histrionics. Likewise, it took Washington ranting and raving in "Training Day" (2002) before he was awarded the Best Actor Oscar. Despite criticisms of extremism and the natural focus on speechifying the part requires, such tactics wouldn't work for playing Malcolm X. There are moments requiring silent reflection and intelligent argumentation. In the end, it turns out that Spike Lee and Malcolm X are more moderate in their radicalism, ultimately compromising within larger systems seeking progress, whether they employ traditional filmic storytelling and hagiography or try to cooperate with other civil-rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., than some give them credit for.

Da 5 Bloods

History Now
"Da 5 Bloods" is unmistakably a Spike Lee joint, but what is with Netflix and macho action movies set in a war-torn foreign land and featuring a heist or extraction of some kind. I mean, they comprise a significant block of their original releases of late and usually include a star taking a break from superhero flicks: "6 Underground" with Deadpool, "Triple Frontier" with Batman, "The Red Sea Diving Resort" with Captain America, all 2019, "Extraction" with Thor earlier this year and, now, here's Black Panther in Vietnam where his friends, fellow veterans and "bloods" are in search of gold to plunder. Oh well, credit to Lee and company for making a better movie than those prior ones. Unlike the others, "Da 5 Bloods" doesn't have the feel of merely exploiting an exotic locale and racial others, as it largely focuses on the Black veterans detestation of having fought in a war supposedly for freedom while lacking freedom back home, while a couple of the younger characters speak of choosing careers to assuage their guilt for their respective privileges. Moreover, there's a glimpse of modernized streets in Ho Chi Minh City, McDonald's and an "Apocalypse Now" themed club included, before the brothers in arms proceed into the jungle, with more than token representation throughout of Vietnamese characters, including interracial relationships, as well as of the French, the first Western colonizer of Indochina. Yet, evidence remains that this scenario was originally a predictable action-heist screenplay (the way one character conspicuously walks backwards in one scene--telegraphing what's about to happen especially bothers me) before Lee and company rewrote it for Black protagonists and introduced some rather unpredictable social commentary.

Indeed, Lee's racial didacticism is all over the place, ranging from Crispus Attucks to Martin Luther King Jr. and the present-day Black Lives Matter movement and the inclusion of a MAGA-hat-wearing, Trump-supporting member of the Bloods, but this scattered approach is somewhat supported by the premise of the characters revisiting their pasts, as well as by the historically-minded ones played by Chadwick Boseman and Jonathan Majors. As with much of Lee's oeuvre, as well as that of others, I'm less interested in simplistic lectures than in how such morals are supported stylistically. To my mind, such was the redeeming feature of Lee's last joint, "BlacKkKlansmen" (2018), which I found more interesting as a conflict between racist epics "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) with "Gone with the Wind" (1939) against the Blaxploitation flicks of the 1970s, from which Lee paid homage with his film's style, than for any historical racial conflict or commentary on the Trump administration.

Something similar is done with the look of "Da 5 Bloods" sometimes resembling that of footage from the era of the American-Vietnam War, with images at times consequently appearing soft or colors overly saturated. Characters also use their own 8mm motion-picture and a still-photography cameras. Apropos to its subject matter, then, the style, from 8mm, to 16mm, to 35mm and still photographs, is all over the place, as are the shifting aspect ratios. Rather incongruent, however, is that the same actors play their younger selves without the sort of de-aging technology employed for Netflix's "The Irishman" (2019), although I don't much mind this otherwise if one understands the flashbacks as past episodes as remembered as opposed to being from the perspective of a hypothetical objective observer. Of course, there are also the usual Lee trademarks of raving monologues and double dolly shots (as well as the relatively new addition of casting Isiah Whitlock, Jr. to recite his catchphrase from "The Wire" HBO series). Meanwhile, the greater cinematic relfexivity of "BlackKklansmen" is replaced here in part by music and radio, with a Marvin Gaye-infused soundtrack and stinging radio propaganda from Hanoi Hannah (Veronica Ngo). While some critics will be concerned with how Lee captures some current zeitgeist, especially given the film's release during the protests currently taking place across the nation and the world as of this writing, ultimately more interesting methinks is whether this historically-minded film, as with his past work, will stand the test of time.


"Rafiki" is a lovely picture: colorful, kinetic, well-scored and about a blossoming young romance. It makes the already-repugnant plot turn to the homophobic reaction of the bigots in Nairobi all the more disheartening. There's hardly any doubt as to the human rights abuses that the movie condemns, either, as "Rafiki" was only allowed to be screened in Kenya to qualify for Oscar contention before promptly returning to being banned. But, religious and societal bigotry aren't what this picture is mostly about, nor is it the rather poorly-developed political division between the young women's two families, with its flickering semblance of feuding Montagues and Capulets. It's a love story, relatively brief and brisk, and it need not be more.

The romantic leads are likable, but the real highlights of "Rafiki" are the color schemes and production design. From the striking clothing of citizens and Ziki's braided hair, to the muted pastels of the couple's more intimate scenes, this is full of bold compositions. I also like the use of music, from the opening credits sequence played over "Suzie Noma," which sets the stage for Ziki and her circle's dancing throughout. All of which, too, stands in stark contrast to the conservatism of others in a place here that is celebrated for freedom of movement, with not only Ziki's dancing, but also the traveling of streets whether by Kena's skateboard or Blacksta's motorcycle, as well as the football, and one colored like a rainbow, which is surely no coincidence given that gay pride is represented by the rainbow flag.

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