This is not the republic of my imagination.
–Charles Dickens, letter to William Macready, from Baltimore (1842)
This is not the republic of my imagination.
–Charles Dickens, letter to William Macready, from Baltimore (1842)
It’s time to close out our month of thrills, chills, and kills in the October movie roundup for 2016. After we started with ghouls in a Western in Bone Tomahawk, Keith recommended two oldies that took us from a spooky wager in The House on Haunted Hill to the possessed Hands of Orlac. Death and un-death have occupied a central role throughout the month, and it’s no different in this week’s recommendation, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Continue Reading…
For a few years now, Keith and I have made a point of running a themed month of horror films during October. We’re kicking off horror season this year with an utterly ghoulish and gory flick that is guaranteed to leave you feeling queasy. Think Eli Roth gets lost in the Wild West, and you’ll be on track to understand S. Craig Zahler’s debut film Bone Tomahawk. Continue Reading…
I felt sadly unable to share in the joy that others voiced after Clinton’s resounding victory in the presidential debate on Monday night. I was too gripped by the candidates’ responses to the question about race and the criminal justice system. Although Trump’s answer was straightforwardly disqualifying, and I’m heartened by Clinton’s sincerity and devotion to unraveling the pathologies of penal power, she nonetheless left me dissatisfied by what felt to me like an anemic answer. I’m evidently still processing the evening. In the meantime, I wanted to re-post a review I wrote in 2013 of Fruitvale Station, which appeared before places like Ferguson, Missouri entered the national consciousness, because that film that has since crystallized in my mind as a helpful touchstone for my thinking on the subject.
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One month ago, I reviewed a fictional satire about the meteoric rise of one promising election candidate; this week, I’m recommending a nonfictional cautionary tale about the humiliating collapse of another. Elyse Steinberg’s and Josh Kriegman’s documentary about Anthony Weiner’s demise upon returning to politics in 2013 would have been serendipitous even without this week’s revelations, which extinguished altogether the glowing embers of his career.
There was a time when Weiner was set to achieve the impossible. In 2011, it appeared that he had somehow survived the ‘Carlos Danger incident’ and was set to re-surface on the political stage to launch a new phase of his political life in a bid for the New York mayoralty.
One might think the American electorate had inoculated itself three years earlier to voting for an unfortunately-named candidate. But if in 2008 a presidential candidate sharing a name with a war criminal was a vaccine, in 2011 a congressperson whose name heralds their greatest embarrassment was chemotherapy. Weiner, therefore, opens its 96 minutes with Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”
Before 2011, Weiner had catapulted himself onto the national stage by following Chuck Schumer, first to a seat on the New York City Council as its youngest ever member, and then to a seat in Congress thereafter. A man of bluster and performance, Weiner’s argumentative speeches on the House floor were a sight to behold. His loud and aggressive demeanor garnered him a reputation as a disagreeable boss, a pest to the opposition, and—in that style that means relatively little when it’s earned in a safely Democrat-owned district—a fiercely populist advocate. He was a man of posture; everyone knew it, and he knew they knew it; all the same, it worked a treat.
Then, in 2011, his career suffered a near-fatal case of nominative determinism. He had sent suggestive photos to a follower through his Twitter account. A few days of unconvincing denial didn’t help his case, and instead resulted only in awkward responses during press interviews to sanctimonious questions about whether it was, indeed, him, and whether he was, indeed, the kind of person who would do something so appalling—appalling, really!
Somehow, he weathered the storm. What’s more, he appeared to have done so only minimally scathed. At least that’s the account we’d believe if he had only himself to answer for.
Enter the documentarians Steinberg and Kriegman, who joined our besmirched antihero just as he was preparing to re-ignite the embers of his political career in 2013. Because they happen to have recorded everything from this point onward, we’re treated to three marvelous bits of film-making: first, we see just how inexhaustible Weiner’s demand for attention truly is, and how indeterminate are its effects. On one hand, Weiner tirelessly positions himself as someone eager to speak with and on behalf of his constituents, even if it means being upfront about his private life —tediously so, after the umpteenth interviewer rehearses the same tired questions about his sexual impulses. What’s more, the fact that he does it all for attention doesn’t remotely undermine that he listens to his constituents sincerely; we learn that he does respect the job, and he does want to respond to people’s concerns. On the other hand, Weiner is pathologically reckless about the toll his choices take on those close to him.
This brings us to the second great part of this film. Steinberg and Kriegman introduce us to Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin, who is by far the most interesting and inspiring character on screen. Abedin, anointed as Hillary Clinton’s number two, is clearly less drawn to the camera than is Weiner, but she absorbs every ounce of the audience’s attention whenever she’s in frame. Like her husband, she’s smart, composed, and principled. But the similarities seem to end there. She values political life, but not the spectacle; she sees herself as bound to constituents, but has to be coaxed to attend fundraisers or call donors; she is honest and precise in her language, but never reveals more than the question demands. For all her mystery, it’s in her that we vest all our sympathies and it’s on her behalf that we find Weiner infuriating.
Third, the documentary happens to have been present when the world learned that, contrary to Weiner’s assurances, he was still sending lurid pictures to fans. The first time was tragedy, the second was farce. The film interviews the recipient of Weiner’s affections, this time a 22-year old named Sydney Leathers, but not a moment longer than is necessary to prove how unimpressive she is and how tawdry were Weiner’s solicitations. What unfolds is less interesting for the deceleration of Weiner’s mayoral campaign than it is for the way he and Huma adjust to the impending humiliation they hoped to have survived.
My favorite scene in the film brings all three of these threads together at once: the morning after Weiner utterly botched an interview with an-even-more-pious-than-usual Larry O’Donnell, he wakes up to re-watch the video over, and over, and over again, until Huma just can’t handle any more of his self-flagellation. He scrolls back, repeatedly, to the moment when O’Donnell asks “What is wrong with you,” only to inspire another masochistic chuckle. He just can’t get enough of it.
On Sunday, Weiner struck out a third time. As though it really matters at this point, the photo he sent to another paramour contained an added indignity: it included his child. Both tragedy and farce, Huma had enough, and the pair have separated. I wish the both of them peace in this difficult time. For now, Weiner offers the closest insight into just how much pain they’re really going through.
As school resumes for many of us this week, I’m re-posting my review of The Paper Chase. It’s a wonderfully poignant reminder of how best—and how best not—to approach one’s studies. Enjoy!
While the opening credits roll, we watch the latest batch of first-year law students find their seats in the classroom at Harvard Law School. Rather than beginning the first lecture with some cliché about how only one person is ‘cut out’ to graduate from law school among the one in your seat and the two on either side of you, Professor Kingsfield, played by John Houseman, dives straight into Hawkins v. McGee—the infamous ‘hairy hand’ case. In Kingsfield’s contracts classroom, there are no prefatory remarks, no congenial introductions, and no easy questions. There is just the law. Those who can keep up are welcome to James Bridges’ The Paper Chase (1973). Continue Reading…
This weekend’s film recommendation, Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora, is one of those films that’s so hard to sell to people that I’ve never successfully persuaded a friend to sink two hours into it. This is a terrible shame, because it’s a wonderful film. Continue Reading…
In 1972, Watergate was little more than an arraignment hearing in an obscure court in Washington, D.C. The popularity contest of politics that made Nixon so paranoid was yet to motivate a frenzied demand for twenty-four hour news cycles that now, sadly, seem here to stay. In this weekend’s film recommendation, Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, we glimpse into the prescient fears of those who envisioned how pandering to the media can warp a political campaign, from a heartfelt plea inspired by an authentic sense of mission, to an insipid display of pablum of the lowest order. Continue Reading…
I was spurred to pick this Weekend’s Film Recommendation by a recent trip to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which, if you haven’t been, is an exceedingly difficult place to describe. Perhaps you’re built to tolerate the humidity and the sweat that sticks to your neck no matter how fervently you waft the glossy brochure they hand you at the Visitor Centre. If you are, you’ll notice sooner than I did that there aren’t actually any walls surrounding the facility. 6,300 inmates are divided among innumerable clusters, each of which houses anywhere from a dozen to many hundreds of people, scattered across the prison’s 18,000 acre territory. But aside from the barbed fence surrounding those small clusters, the entire facility has no perimeter fence, no high wall, no barbed wire. “You don’t need ‘em,” the guard informs you, “when the bushes are filled with animals that’ll get the job done.” Continue Reading…
This weekend’s movie recommendation was, for me, all the proof I’d need to know that Tom Hanks can be adorable even when he’s a jerk. In Penny Marshall’s A League of their Own, Hanks is the inebriate coach tasked with pulling together a team of misfits to compete in the country’s very first women’s baseball league in the 1940s.
Among the tired and formulaic film genres out there, sports movies usually take the cake as the most wearisome of all. When it’s a team-based game, especially, the formula is so familiar you can probably do the whole thing blindfolded, replacing only the adversity-du-jour for taste. Here, Geena Davis plays Dottie Hinson, whose preternatural gift for baseball attracts the attention of a talent scout who’s looking to recruit her for a new team (a delightfully slimy Jon Lovitz). She reluctantly joins only at the desperate urging of her younger sister Kit Keller (played by Lori Petty), who’s eager to leave small-town Midwestern America behind for something bigger.
But the world of baseball into which Dottie and Kit intrude makes the sisters’ welcome as harmonious as is to be expected for the 1940s. What could be a ripe moment for commentary that offers something a little more substantial than the usual sports comedy gets left behind in favor of rehearsing the same inoffensive and lightly sentimentalized mold as the previous installment from Marshall and Hanks, the director-star combo responsible for Big from four years earlier.
Upon arriving, the sisters meet their team-mates at tryouts. Stock characters abound, from Rosie O’Donnell’s loudmouth Doris to Madonna’s salacious Mae. Even the presence of the odd-one-out, Megan Cavanaugh’s frumpy Marla, represents the exception that proves the rule that a team of women athletes has to be caricatured, charming (and preferably attractive), and uniformly sympathetic before they’ll be considered remotely viable.
Hanks has no reservations at all about hamming up and enjoying a caricature. He plays Jimmy Dugan, a washed-out former big-leaguer who happily cashes his paycheck in exchange for showing up to games and posing as the team’s manager. The sinecure expectedly transforms into a source of redemption, as the team-mates teach him to find fulfillment again in the game rather than the bottle. Nonetheless, along the way Hanks has plenty of opportunity to show off his extraordinary gift for physical comedy – just keep an eye out for one scene in particular, where he has to learn the demands of restrained and constructive criticism.
We needn’t worry about the usual tumult in this sports yarn, though: the opposing teams are all similarly situated hopefuls, catapulting themselves through the glass ceiling; it’s not long before the team-mates click with one another; and the periodic reminders by David Strathairn’s executive Ira Lowenstein that the league depends on funding barely rise above blips on the radar. In fact, the team’s sympathy is pretty much impregnable. Neither the obstacles placed before women entering a male space nor the woes accompanying notifications about husbands lost in the war overseas consume more than a few passing moments in the team’s ascent to victory.
Unfortunately, as fun as the film is, its resolute refusal throughout to grapple with the rich themes available to it up until the final scene make the conclusion to A League of their Own a rather jarringly mawkish detour. The women rendez-vous at the Baseball Hall of Fame to commemorate the significance of the country’s first all-women’s baseball team, and to commiserate about the losses suffered in the intervening years. But in a film that so studiously maintained a light-hearted tone for almost two hours, the final eight minutes are a jarring descent into something else entirely—and it’s not even all that clear what.
Despite its weaknesses toward the end, A League of their Own hits a solid double when you need it most.* Enjoy!
*No, I really oughtn’t be trusted with hackneyed sports metaphors. I strike out every time.