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Dear White People

October 21, 2014
Dear White People

If there’s one glaring problem with Dear White People, it’s that the people who desperately need to hear what it’s trying to say won’t understand the point. Scratch that; they won’t even see the film. Oh, who am I kidding; they won’t even realize that a great, smart, original Black film like this one exists.

On the surface, writer/director Justin Simien tackles the manifold experiences of being a Black face in a White space, specifically the pseudo-Ivy liberal arts Winchester University. There’s some merit to asking why tell a Black story in a Predominantly White Institution instead of a Historically Black College or University — for more, see here — but given that America is, by and large, a White space, this is kind of a more fitting microcosm.

And yes, before you even think of asking, there’s more than one “Black experience”.

Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) is a button-pusher; the film draws its name from her radio show skewering the many microaggressions that still exist in the so-called “post-racial America”. At the urging of Reggie (Marque Richardson) — more of an agitator than Sam is — she runs for head of the historically-Black Armstrong-Parker House, seeking to reverse the recent policy of random dorm assignments that stands to disperse a growing power center of Black students. And, surprisingly to even her, she beats the incumbent BMOC Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell).

Troy, for his part, is growing disillusioned with the prospect of a life in law and public service as envisioned by his father, the dean of students (Dennis Haysbert). He would rather join Pastiche — Winchester’s answer to Harvard’s Lampoon — which means winning over Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), the privileged son of the university’s president (Peter Syvartsen, doing a damn good John C. McGinley impression).

Meanwhile, Colandrea “Coco” Conners envies the notoriety Sam’s controversy brings. She wants fame and fortune, which a shot at a reality show might bring her. Egging Kurt on might lead to just the opportunity she can capitalize on.

And in the middle of everything is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a gay, black, nerdy kid who is equally bemused by everyone around him and doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere.

Technically, Dear White People is impressive work for Simien’s first time out. I might question some of his compositions, but he’s on fundamentally more solid footing than a lot of journeyman directors out there. The screenplay zips along, crackling with dry wit.

But more important than the film’s technical merits are the ideas it voices. The characters are complex and multifaceted, not yielding to simple descriptions or clichés. The experiences they embody are no less varied, and to be honest I am nowhere near the right person to even start unpacking them here. For that, I will point you first to my friend Dominic Griffin’s review — along with his whole “Dark Gable Presents” series — and suggest you seek out even more critics of color to read their opinions, each informed by their own experiences.

And please, if nothing else, don’t be surprised when they don’t all agree.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Fury

October 17, 2014
Fury

War movies have long since moved beyond the black-and-white cheering for the good guys and into moral grey areas. Even the most gung-ho leave me questioning whether it truly is as sweet and fitting as Horace thought it was to die for one’s country. Fury
is, at least, one that seems to at least raise the question itself. What it comes up with as an answer, I don’t know.

There aren’t a lot of tank-based war movies out there. They were difficult to shoot realistically before the advent of modern CGI, and they haven’t seemed particularly relevant since. To the extent tanks still serve a purpose, they seem more like armored mobile heavy artillery than anything else, and a tank battle seems almost quaint in today’s airstrike-dominated battlefield.

But, holy crap, could a tank really dish it out back in World War II. If you’re looking for the maximum damage and destruction with a minimal cast, you can pick from tanks or bombers, and bomber squads aren’t on the ground to see the results after the fact. And so, on a technical level, Fury is almost certainly one of the most impressive military action films in years. It’s also one of the ugliest, and most disturbingly graphic. But does that make it good? I don’t know.

Most of us in the audience have no experience in the battlefield. I certainly don’t. Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is our surrogate: a typist even greener than his uniform, dropped into a Sherman tank in April of 1945 to replace the bow gunner who was the squad’s first casualty since North Africa. His first task is to clean the remains of his predecessor out of the tank. The body was removed, but there’s blood and tissue over the seat, and part of a face stares back from a nearby nook.

Writer/director David Ayer doubles down on the gore when Norman fails to shoot a German he sees in the woods. The tank in front of him gets hit by a rocket, and someone climbs out, engulfed in flames. He runs and screams for more than a few seconds before he can draw his sidearm and end his own suffering, all in front of Norman’s — in front of our — eyes.

I don’t describe this to disparage the film. Indeed The Thin Red Line — which film I will defend unreservedly — has no shortage of graphic violence itself. But you should ask yourself, do you really need to see a man shooting himself in the head while still burning alive to believe that war is horrifying?

The tank’s leader, Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), takes it on himself to turn Norman into a Real Man who can and will slaughter every German he sees. And he’s right that, on the battlefield, that’s the difference between life and death not only for Norman, but for the rest of the tank’s crew (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal) as well.

Lerman portrays Norman’s arc from scared kid to shellshocked “war hero” admirably. By the end, he knows all too well what awful things men are capable of doing to each other, and I guess we’ve seen a few things ourselves. For this to play out in just a few days is unrealistic, but I have to admit that it’s kind of beside the point.

Also beside the point are the historical and technical inaccuracies a friend of mine leapt on right after the screening. Fury isn’t trying to chronicle the truth about tank combat so much as it wants to remind us of the humanity people have to sacrifice to become soldiers in wartime. The people who fight and die for us do all sorts of unconscionable things to stay alive, and it’s neither pretty nor glorious when they fail.

So, could a real Norman go from typist to war-machine in under a week? Could they find an organized SS battalion that hadn’t scattered in April 1945? Did tracer rounds really look like G.I. Joe laser fire, down to the red and blue color-coding? Do human bodies really do that when hit with high-powered machine-gun fire? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I don’t want anyone to know.

Does the fact that I found the military action depicted in Fury so profoundly disturbing to watch that I’m lying awake over the idea that anyone has to know what it’s really like mean that the film has accomplished its goals? Does that justify rendering these horrors so vividly? I don’t know.

Worth It: I’d err on the side of no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

The Best of Me

October 17, 2014
The Best of Me

There’s a point, about halfway through The Best of Me, where Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) tells her teenage sweetheart Dawson (James Marsden), “I always assumed life would just work out, and it did.” Well, of course it did, I wanted to yell. You’re rich, you’re pretty, and you’re in a Nick Sparks story. Any one of those would assure you an easy life.

Yes, this makes nine of these adaptations, and they’re not getting any better. The weak-sauce twist in Safe Haven at least added one small bit of texture in the mindless pablum, but there’s no such luck here. This is, frankly, lazy and predictable even for Sparks.

At the time she has that one, bare flicker of self-awareness, Amanda and Dawson have returned to their shared hometown where Dawson’s surrogate father-figure, Tuck (Gerald McRaney), has just died. But though they were once young and in love, unspoken circumstances have separated them.

Dawson works as a roughneck on an offshore oil rig, where he’s not only the smartest guy on board, he’s the most heroic. He proves as much when the well blows out, which is totally not a cynical move on Sparks’ part to repurpose an environmental catastrophe and the death of eleven men as cheap fodder for his bodice-rippers.

Amanda, on the other hand, is a dissatisfied housewife to a finance dudebro (Sebastian Arcelus). Which, to be honest, is where her life was always headed anyway. When we flash back to their childhood, the younger Amanda (Liana Liberato) was raised in a wealthy, Louisiana-society home, complete with white gloves at the parties. Younger Dawson (Luke Bracey) comes not only from the wrong side of the tracks, his redneck, drug-running father (Sean Bridgers) spits on the very idea of tracks.

But Dawson is somehow perfectly sweet and kind despite his entire home life, and Amanda is drawn to that kindness as an improvement over the preppy jocks she knows. And the one she will later marry because of course she won’t actually learn anything from her teenage romance with Dawson.

That’s one of the most frustrating parts of the whole exercise: watching Monaghan try to find depth in this rainpuddle of a character when we’ve just seen that she’s capable of so much more. The lack of anything worthwhile for her to say is only slightly beefed up with close-ups of high school drama exercise facial expression shifts.

But even Amanda’s wishy-washy hand-wringing is a tour-de-force next to basically any other character we see, as they’re all either angels or demons. I’m sure it’s comforting to see the world drawn in such black-and-white lines, filled in with primary colors, but it’s boring and predictable from start to finish.

I know that hit-pieces like this are the lowest form of criticism, but there is literally nothing else to say about this movie.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Kill the Messenger

October 10, 2014
Kill the Messenger

A couple weeks ago, while talking about The Equalizer, I mentioned the sorts of shady dealings the United States government carried out in our name that we started to become aware of in the ’70s and ’80s. So let me tell you a story.

Ronald Reagan, middling movie actor turned saint of the modern conservative movement, wanted to fight a war in Central America. During his own administration, we learned that the United States had arranged to sell weapons to Iran — in violation of an arms embargo — in order to raise money to secretly fund antisocialist “Contra” forces in Nicaragua. What we didn’t realize until ten years later was that the CIA also raised money in partnerships with major drug traffickers, turning the other way as they brought literally billions — with a ‘B’ — of dollars of cocaine into the country, to the point that the local distributors couldn’t drum up enough demand to meet the supply. No American lives were lost fighting in the Nicaraguan jungle, but plenty were destroyed by the crack cocaine epidemic that funded the fighting.

It’s a crazy story, and we probably wouldn’t have known about it at all except for Gary Webb. And, since the final confirmation was quietly delivered amid the chaos of the trumped-up Monica Lewinsky scandal, you may not even have heard of it except for Kill the Messenger.

Webb (Jeremy Renner) was an investigative reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, a small regional newspaper. In 1996, he wrote up a story about civil asset forfeitures — the kind John Oliver just talked about last week — that caught someone’s eye. A woman contacted him, saying her boyfriend was accused of drug trafficking, and something interesting had accidentally been disclosed by the prosecuting attorney: his confidential witness was Danilo Blandón. But while normal drug prosecutions punch up the supply chain, this one was punching down: Blandón was the supplier, and a larger player than her boyfriend could ever be. Something strange was going on.

Blandón’s name led Webb to Rick Ross (Michael K. Williams), indicted for purchasing hundreds of kilograms of cocaine. He ran a drug empire in Los Angeles, but even so he was a much smaller fish than Blandón. From there, the trail ran to Blandón’s partner, Norwin Meneses (Andy García), in Nicaragua’s Tipitapa prison. One of Meneses’ colleagues showed Webb around the old, disused airfields, and gave him the name of Fred Weil (Michael Sheen), now on the National Security Council.

Webb’s editors (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt) were nervous but excited at the prospect of breaking such a big story in their little paper, and so Webb went ahead to publish the story as Dark Alliance. It was initially acclaimed, even setting Webb up for the Journalist of the Year award from the local Society of Professional Journalists. But the CIA obviously wasn’t going to admit to their part, and even the papers of record in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC were more interested in tearing Webb down than admitting they got scooped by a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News. Of course, only someone like Webb could have broken the story, since a biger-name reporter would have known what he was getting into.

The movie plays out as a taut thriller, and Renner is excellent as Webb, steadily unraveling his composure as his career and personal life collapse around him. But the story Kill the Messenger tells about Webb is not nearly so fascinating as the story he told. And whether or not his journalism was as oversimplified as his critics suggest, the movie certainly is when it comes to Webb’s life. A speech at the SPJ awards makes for a dramatic final scene, but if Webb’s good name and career started to go down in flames by the time of the ceremony, it feels like they’d have found a way to rescind the award.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test fail.

Men, Women & Children

October 10, 2014
Men, Women & Children

I’m not sure if I was born at just the right time or just the wrong time for Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children. I’m too old to be a “digital native” millenial, but I’m younger than the solid Gen-Xers I used to help with installing software. I’ve grown up with computers and “devices”, but I clearly remember the time before they proliferated. The thing is, so is Reitman. But where I’m relatively comfortable on both sides, he seems distinctly uncomfortable with technology, or at least he’s comfortable with pandering to those who are.

The film traces a number of stories playing out within a handful of families in one Texas town. Chris Truby (Travis Trope) is burned out on internet pornography before so much as kissing a real girl. His father, Don (Adam Sandler), has slightly more moderate habits, but is heading towards hiring an escort to replace the sex he’s not having with his wife, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). She’s not happy either, but she’s looking more in the direction of Ashley Madison, the infamous dating site specifically geared towards those seeking to have affairs.

Chris harbors a crush — probably along with most other boys at the school — on Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia). She wants to be an actress; her mother, Donna (Judy Greer), didn’t quite make it. Hannah sees her beauty as key to her future career, and Donna helps blur the distinction between beauty and sexuality by helping set up a “modeling” website featuring galleries of pictures of Hannah in provocative outfits and poses that stay just this side of legal.

One of Hannah’s friends, Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris), has also confounded sexuality and the extremes of her appearance. She developed a crush on an older boy who disparaged her weight, which nudged her towards anorexia. The internet was more than helpful in supplying her with the “pro-Ana” and “thinspiration” sites and forums she uses to reinforce her eating disorder.

Tim Mooney’s (Ansel Elgort) problems, for once, aren’t sexual. His mother ran off with another man, and he’s having a bit of an existential crisis. He quit the football team — pretty much the only common ground he had with his father, Kent (Dean Norris) — and got really into World of Warcraft instead.

And Tim gets interested in Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever). Unfortunately her mother, Patricia (Jennifer Garner), has gone into a full-blown panic over the internet and put Brandy on electronic lockdown. Of course, Brandy is desperate to express herself and establish her own identity, just like all the other kids she knows, so she’s left with a secret tumblr account she accesses with a second SIM card for her phone.

Men, Women & Children isn’t quite so fear-mongery as Disconnect — there is no white slavery ring involved here, for instance — but it’s still incredibly nervous about our relationship with the internet. Both films are concerned with the irony that for all the ways the characters connect through technology, they’re all still isolated and lonely. But they miss the fundamental point that isolation and loneliness far predate the internet. Technology is just a convenient bugbear for, let’s face it, old people who are scared of change and want to place all the blame for all the world’s problems on something they refuse to understand.

Kent gets angry when he sees Tim’s guild-mates’ trash talk, as if high school football players don’t say the exact same things. Sure, cyber-bullying is a problem, but Tim is more hurt by losing his community than by some immature ribbing they dish out.

Donna’s stage mothering is highly inappropriate, but again this is nothing new. We just saw, in The Last of Robin Hood, how Florence Aadland allowed and encouraged her underaged daughter Beverly into a full-on sexual affair with Errol Flynn in order to advance her career. And that was in the late 1950s, long before the internet was a gleam in some DARPA administrator’s eye.

Don and Rachel’s marriage is in trouble, but it’s hardly the case that nobody ever hired prostitutes or had extramarital affairs before the internet. All the internet does is lower the cost and increase the speed of communication, just like it does everywhere else. This may well change the dynamics, but these two would have been headed towards a divorce just the same.

In fact, the only truly destructive internet-based phenomenon we see is the echo chamber that Allison falls into. Eating disorders, too, existed before the internet, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that communities devoted to “Ana and Mia” really began to thrive. Even the fetish communities that Chris obsesses over have their place, providing a healthy outlet for adults who share unconventional interests that might keep them isolated and ashamed without being able to communicate on a global scale.

The internet is not an unmitigated good, but it’s not nearly the evil that Reitman still tries to paint. It’s merely a tool that enables and simplifies communication, for good or ill. Yes, sometimes this exacerbates problems, but it doesn’t cause them; we were lonely long before the internet.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

The Judge

October 10, 2014
The Judge

An early entry in the mainstream prestige season starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall? that’s got to be good, right? And yet, despite an impressive cast doing their level best, The Judge manages to squander all their talent on a giant, glurgey, heavy-handed, clichéd mess of a film. It’s the Nick Sparks of daddy issues.

The core idea isn’t bad: Henry “Hank” Palmer (Downey) fled his small-town Carlinville, Indiana roots to become a high-priced defense lawyer in Chicago. He finally returns home after twenty years when his mother dies, but before he can return to the city his aging father, Judge Joseph “Joe” Palmer (Duvall) is accused of murder. Hank is the only lawyer in town capable of defending his father in court.

Now sure, we can see how Hank is following his daddy’s footsteps into law, but then defining himself in opposition to the man he impetuously hates. But that’s evidently not enough to build our story around, so let’s punch it up a bit: Hank’s marriage to his hot wife is falling apart, making him a failure all over again next to his widowed father. It also threatens his relationship with his adorable daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay), which he’d maintained as the proof he was a better father than his father was.

But wait: there’s more. There are two — count ‘em two — wife-replacements in town. One is an old flame (Vera Farmiga) and the other is a pretty young thing (Leighton Meester) Hank meets on his first night back. And then there’s psychodrama with Hank’s older brother (Vincent D’Onofrio), whose baseball career was stopped before it could start, as well as his mentally-disabled younger brother (Jeremy Strong). The brothers, by the way, are named “Glen” and “Dale”, in case the pastoral imagery wasn’t obvious enough for you. And on top of all of that, there’s a special prosecutor brought in for the case (Billy Bob Thornton), who has a bone to pick with Hank.

And all of this is delivered with the heaviest, thudding direction you could possibly imagine in a prestige season drama. Which may not be a surprise, given that it’s helmed by David “The Change-Up” Dobkin, whose previous career consists entirely of middling comedies. That’s about the level you’d expect when two female characters share a bit of business running their hair through their teeth to suggest they may be related, as if that sort of habit is genetic.

It looks, however, like it was directed by Thomas Kinkade. Dobkin loves this one shot that pans around the room with a giant, blinding flash of light behind some actor’s head. I counted six or seven of examples in the trailer alone. And when the windows aren’t flaring, they glow with an eerie translucence.

Despite this concerted effort, the leads do squeeze out some admirable character work. Downey gets to remind us that he has more talent than Iron Man let him show off, though Hank isn’t all that different from Tony Stark. And Duvall is masterful as the hard-headed, idealistic curmudgeon. But you have to wade through so much mud to find these diamonds, it’s just not worth the effort.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Gone Girl

October 3, 2014
Gone Girl

David Fincher is an artist with dark and disturbing material, and Gone Girl is no exception. It’s easy to see that Fincher was the right choice to direct an adaptation of this popular thriller; he makes an engrossing film that pulls the audience along from one twist to the next with a steady, inexorable flow. But, for all of the technical brilliance on display from cast and crew alike, it’s a great movie made from some extremely problematic subject matter.

The story starts on the fifth of July, 2012. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) leaves his house early, stopping by the bar he owns with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon). When a neighbor calls to let him know the cat’s loose outside, he returns to his house to find signs of a struggle in the living room and his wife, Amy Elliott-Dunne (Rosamund Pike), missing. He calls the police, and two detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) begin the investigation.

This story is intercut with selections from Amy’s diary. She tells about how she and Nick met, and how their relationship developed. She tells about the inferiority complex she developed as her WASPy parents published a popular series of children’s books starring an idealized “Amazing Amy”. It’s not that she’s not smart and capable; she seems to have earned her Ivy League degrees. But that sets the stage for the degeneration of the marriage.

Things get tighter when both Nick and Amy lose their jobs. When Nick’s mother is diagnosed with cancer they move back to his hometown of North Carthage, Missouri. They drain Amy’s trust fund to buy the bar, and Nick grows distant, and even violent, all documented in Amy’s journal leading up to the last entry: “This man of mine may kill me.”

When the police find this diary, they take an understandably hard look at Nick, who it seems has been having an affair with one of his college writing students (Emily Ratajkowski). The talking heads on cable (Missi Pyle and Sela Ward) — clearly patterned after Nancy Grace — go into a feeding frenzy. Nick, still insisting that he has nothing to do with his wife’s disappearance, enlists the aid of a high-powered attorney (Tyler Perry) and begins searching for the real story, starting with other men Amy has known before him (Neil Patrick Harris and Scoot McNairy).

As a film — a technical work of cinema — there’s almost nothing to complain about. The whole cast does a fantastic job. Affleck and Pike each play their part to perfection, and the tiers of supporting characters are all great. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deliver their third score in a row for a Fincher film, and it should easily get another Oscar nomination if not a win. Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography is every bit as good as his Oscar-nominated work on Fincher’s previous two films.

To discuss the huge, looming problem unfortunately requires spoiling the first of several major twists in the plot. I can’t simply not address this, but I can avoid giving too many details about this one, and assure you that there are plenty of further surprises. But this is your warning: if you want to avoid all plot spoilers, stop reading here until you’ve seen the movie; it is worth watching, though it has some hugely problematic aspects.

Everybody gone who wants to avoid the spoiler? good. Somewhere around the one-hour mark we find that Nick in fact did not have anything to do with his wife’s disappearance; Amy staged the whole thing. McNairy’s character tells us how she previously staged her allegations of rape against him, as well. And that means that the what-really-happened here hangs on the poisonous cultural myth of false report — one of the most damaging to women, especially in situations of domestic violence.

Over and over, whenever statistics on rape and domestic violence are reported we get attempts to shout them down. Date rape doesn’t really exist, we’re told; women who have regrets after the fact just cry rape in order to punish men. They say that women allege abuse in order to win divorce settlements and custody fights. It’s not just wrong, it’s actively harmful to undercut women’s stories. Not just because it blames and gaslights the victim of a crime, but also because it discourages other women of coming forward lest they too be accused of lying. As Anita Sarkeesian said at the recent XOXO Festival, “One of the most radical things you can do is to actually believe women when they talk about their experiences.”

Worse, the false-report myth highlights the gaping hole at the heart of author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn’s story: what was Amy trying to gain? In a long monologue, she speaks of how she crafted her entire relationship with Nick and formed him into a better man, and that this faked abduction is somehow intended to punish him for his infidelity. But she never really explains what she wanted from him in the first place. Nick might easily have just wanted a beautiful wife, but Amy seems to like nothing about him; why did she work so hard to land him as a husband? I can spitball possible explanations, sure, but the book and the movie never really answer this question with anything more satisfactory than “women are crazy”.

And there are other side-effects on the story. Nick isn’t a very nice guy, and does have some pretty misogynistic attitudes. But as soon as Amy’s machinations are revealed, it justifies them rather than holding them up to the light the way The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo did. This speaks to the regressive heart of every Men’s Rights Activist, telling him “you really are the victim here, constantly henpecked by a bunch of selfish harpies.”

Fincher has handled problematic material before, as in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or even Fight Club, and in those cases he’s managed to use the problematic material to highlight its own problems. But in those cases the critical light was present in the source material: for all his misguided fans, Chuck Palahniuk was calling out Tyler Durden’s fight-the-power machismo as ultimately self-destructive; Stief Larsson’s novel was originally titled “Men who hate women”.

Flynn’s novel, on the other hand, is a mere page-turner. She’s perfectly content to play on the culture-wide notion that women are crazy, vindictive liars without undercutting that poisonous myth. And Fincher, sadly, doesn’t take this opportunity to improve on the source material. Nor does he deflect it into, say, a critical analysis of a cancerous media system that produces tumors around splashy controversies. For all its technical brilliance — and I have to admit that it is brilliant — Gone Girl is the kind of story that afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comfortable.

Worth It: yes.
Behcdel Test: pass, but barely.

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