Movie Monster So White, Part II

All right, guys. I’m pumped. The nominees for Best Picture crushed it this year, despite the color-blindness of the Academy—which isn’t the kind of color-blindness that the late, great “Stephen Colbert” used to compliment himself for back in the Colbert Report days. (Here’s a thought: There are so many good choices, why not widen the field to 2009 levels, as a means of increasing its diversity?) I’ll start where I left off, and dive right in.

And the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2015 are . . .
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Movie Monster So White

The greatest threat to movies has always been real life. I’m not talking about cultural trends for once, I’m speaking of my own personal calendar. My tendency is to read at internet pace, but not write at it. And, though some of the clickbait and bias-greasing gallimaufry I read can make that feel smugly like a badge of honor, the tendency can be a tragic flaw, or at least a private shame, when the nominees have not only been good material to write about, but have been—well—good movies.


I’m going to drop a bombshell here. Of the seven Best Picture contenders I’ve seen, there hasn’t been a single one I didn’t like. I missed Brooklyn, but it was by no means a conscientious objection; at a time when Hollywood is working so hard to use old schmaltz to tug new heartstrings—e.g., L.G.B.T., handicapped, wolf-boy, etc.—it’s almost refreshing to see a “prestige” love story in which the wedge between lovers is that one’s Italian-American and the other Irish. Faith and begorra, they’re both good Catholics!

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind

A close encounter with some vintage Spielberg, back when he warmed the cockles of my heart rather than compelled my hand to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. Plus a stab at how he and Lucas took over the industry with an alien invasion. Courtesy of Brattle Theatre Film Notes.

Both Lucas and Spielberg are drawing on different expressions of faith . . . But evangelizing to audiences whose self-image was pulverized by collective failures to do good in this world (whether those failures were wars to contain communism or social movements to promote equality), which in turn translated into serious doubts about rewards in the next, isn’t exactly preaching to the choir. This is where Pop Art kicks in . . .

You can read the full piece here.

H/T to Comfortably Smug.


The lukewarm reception of Joy will hopefully shake David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence out of the complacency that this bric-a-brac movie is surely the product of, but I want to take a moment to give them points for their sheer, batshit audacity. It’s a pleasure to think about and a pain to write about because it’s so chocked full of nuts that it’s hard to figure out which layers are intended as bullshit and which layers aren’t intended as bullshit but really, truly are. Wading in this septic think tank can put one in touch with the sublime; it’s like listening to an interview with William Shatner. But it can also be exhausting. Joy feels suspiciously like the last few Russell-Lawrence collaborations, but they power through this one as if under a 108-degree fever. They’ve sweat off the emotional weight.

First, the good stuff: This is a movie about a mop. That’s about the best thing I can say about it. I’ve never seen a film, or engaged with any work of art intended for adults, that has put a human face on household products. The mop is a symbol of our modern-day Cinderella’s domestic oppression as well as her ticket to freedom. More importantly, Joy in Joy makes the case that the mop mod she’s invented will shave minutes off your chores. Those minutes add up, and add value to your life. What Joy represents is utopianism on a granular scale: so granular that her ilk is often unfairly overlooked. Viewed through this prism, as-seen-on-TV junk is transfigured. Who knew that one might find an unsung hero behind ped eggs and lint removers and containers of OxiClean? Look deep into the food processor or up a set of knives and one might find the traces of a human being who was trying to make the world a better place. Joy sells her mop on QVC, back when shopping from home was a novel thing, and the film makes it clear that the network stands for something other than late-capitalist malaise. For a tweaker like Joy, it’s an honest-to-goodness platform for ideas.

Russell can make these points, and Lawrence can sell them through her dimples, all while going headlong into butterscotch-and-brown late-’80s kitsch. Their contrarian impulse has swagger, and it’s essentially humane. This is a female-empowerment movie without malice, but also, perhaps, without mental toughness. When one of QVC’s most experienced on-air personalities tries to shill for it, Joy’s mop is a flop, so the inventor decides to get in front of the camera herself. Bradley Cooper, as the slick head of programming, tries to weigh her down with bangle bracelets and gallons of hairspray, but she insists on going before the lights in plainclothes, so the viewers see the aw-shucks in her eyes. Guess what? It works!

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The Peanuts Movie

Charlie Brown, stuck forever between diapers and pimples, is a symbol of unfulfilled childhood ambitions. The Charlie Brown I seem to remember, through an overabundant blur of Sunday papers and seasonally-aired TV specials, always strove for conventional happiness in a half-conscious sort of way that made him irreparably unconventional. Bill Watterson’s Calvin was a boy apart: an expat from the playground, living abroad in his own imagination. Charles Schulz’s Charlie was more like a refugee. His outcast status seems as much the result of a depressive temperament as it results in a depressive temperament—an ambiguity unresolved after 65 years.

If the blockhead were ever to grow a libido, it would probably come at the price of the thick waistline and high hairline of Louis C.K., whose FX show at its critical zenith was like a sequel to Peanuts set in the adult world. Its jazzy punctuation, and skittish tone and structure, all evoke Schulz on the surface, and it has the same heart. Yet in a sort of backhanded tribute, his legacy seems less apparent in media for children and young adults, which, both in its aspirational and apocalyptic strains, fattens its audience with the notion that each individual among it is special. Good ol’ Charlie Brown has no superpowers. He isn’t much of an athlete, or a brainiac like Linus, a musical prodigy like Schroeder, or a born leader like Lucy—say what you will, but she broke the glass ceiling of bullyhood. What he has is humility, grit, and a romantic outlook: none of which will get you into Harvard.

In a culture that panders to middle-class children—as proxies to the purse strings—the normal range of behavior, where they actually live, tends to get lost. A more vivid life is not the prize of a rich imagination—like, for instance, Snoopy’s—but a savior to be waited for, a secret gift intrinsic to our nature, an excuse to show our valor in an arena that the real world cannot provide. Unfortunately, these saviors often have ulterior motives. We have resigned ourselves to a world in which one’s fantasy life is the intellectual property of one corporation or another; that’s what The Lego Movie sought to destigmatize. Peanuts is hardly realism, but the scale of Charlie Brown’s victories and defeats is in synch with that of real kids, so it reads as a common language between generations. One never outgrows Schulz’s poignancy. And the glossed-over period that the Peanuts gang lives in—not enchanted or heroic but mythic in its simplicity—has become as much a modernist device as the elegance of Schulz’s draftsmanship.

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The Martian

The Martian, like Gravity and Interstellar before it, is a spacefaring fantasy set in a lateral present. Life on Earth, as it looks to us today, seems pretty much in tact, and yet our reach in space seems to have increased a couple million miles, give or take a light year. This isn’t a gift bestowed on us by little green di ex machina. The implication, rather scoldingly, is that this technological potential is in fact a reality that need not be postponed.

All we have to do to achieve this stellar self-actualization is get our shit together, which is what the titular Martian literally does. Marooned on the red planet, and presumed dead, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) uses feces to fertilize a potato crop to sustain him until a rescue can take place. The action commutes between planets, as Mark learns to communicate and then coordinate with NASA command on Earth and his crewmates in transit thither. Their combined brainpower is enough to light a star.

Of course, their combined starpower is enough to greenlight a $100 million spectacle. Less remarkable than the cast, though, is the luxe way that the public servants they play are tailored. I detected a hint of corruption when the head of NASA (Jeff Daniels) was introduced holding a press conference about Watney’s death decked out in a Savile Row suit; but the movie sees nothing but circumspection behind his natty bureaucratic smarm, and blithely assumes that he has the cash flow of a Silicon Valley billionaire. There is not one iota of competence missing in the rainbow of staffers who work either below him or above him—in space. Any cynicism is delegated to the press agent played by Kristen Wiig: Doubt is the comic relief.

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An appraisal of Fritz Lang’s M, courtesy of Brattle Theatre Film Notes.

M (1931) is the portrait of a city united against itself. The efficiency of Fritz Lang’s technique and the ambiguity of its implications are summed up by that lonesome letter, which Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) discovers himself branded with—seared into the back of his overcoat in stark chalk strokes. Fear swims in the bulging white glass of his eyes. Tubbier than in his early Hollywood period, the 26-year-old Lorre looks as much like a golem as a cherub. His waxen moony cheeks, snub nose, and pouting lips make him as delicate as the dolls in the toy store window where Beckert sees himself reflected, accompanied by a little girl. If Beckert doesn’t know what the mark stands for, he does know what it means. The question is no longer whether he’ll be caught, but when—and by whom. M is for murderer. M is what he’s reduced to.

You can read the full piece here.