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. Weâ€™re kicking off horror season this yearÂ with an utterly ghoulish and gory flick that is guaranteed to leave you feeling queasy. Think Eli Roth gets lost inÂ the Wild West, and youâ€™ll be on track to understand S. Craig Zahlerâ€™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.Â I was too gripped by the candidates’ responses to the question about race and the criminal justice system. Â Although Trump’s answer was straightforwardly disqualifying, and I’m heartened byÂ Clinton’s sincerity and devotion to unraveling the pathologies of penal power, sheÂ nonetheless left me dissatisfied by what felt to me like an anemic answer.Â I’m evidently still processing the evening.Â In the meantime,Â I wanted to re-post a review I wrote in 2013 ofÂ Fruitvale Station, which appearedÂ 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 aÂ fictional satire about the meteoric rise of one promising election candidate;Â this week, Iâ€™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 McLuhanâ€™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 didnâ€™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 appallingâ€”appalling, really!
Somehow, he weathered the storm. Whatâ€™s more, he appeared to have done so only minimally scathed. At least thatâ€™s the account weâ€™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, weâ€™re treated to three marvelous bits of film-making: first, we see just how inexhaustible Weinerâ€™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 â€”tediously so, after the umpteenth interviewer rehearses the same tired questions about his sexual impulses. Whatâ€™s more, the fact that he does it all for attention doesnâ€™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 peopleâ€™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 Weinerâ€™s wife Huma Abedin, who is by far the most interesting and inspiring character on screen. Abedin, anointed as Hillary Clintonâ€™s number two, is clearly less drawn to the camera than is Weiner, but she absorbs every ounce of the audienceâ€™s attention whenever sheâ€™s in frame. Like her husband, sheâ€™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, itâ€™s in her that we vest all our sympathies and itâ€™s on her behalf that we find Weiner infuriating.
Third, the documentary happens to have been present when the world learned that, contrary to Weinerâ€™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 Weinerâ€™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 Weinerâ€™s solicitations. What unfolds is less interesting for the deceleration of Weinerâ€™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 Oâ€™Donnell, he wakes up to re-watch the video over, and over, and over again, until Huma just canâ€™t handle any more of his self-flagellation. He scrolls back, repeatedly, to the moment when Oâ€™Donnell asks â€œWhat is wrong with you,â€ only to inspire another masochistic chuckle. He just canâ€™t get enough of it.
On Sunday, Weiner struck out a third time.Â As though it really matters at this point, the photo he sent to another paramour contained an added indignity: it included his child. BothÂ 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 theyâ€™re really going through.
As school resumes for many of us this week, I’m re-posting my review ofÂ The Paper Chase. It’sÂ a wonderfully poignant reminder of how bestâ€”and how bestÂ notâ€”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 clichÃ© about how only one person is â€˜cut outâ€™ 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. McGeeâ€”the infamous â€˜hairy handâ€™ case. In Kingsfieldâ€™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 Bridgesâ€™ The Paper Chase (1973). Continue Reading…
This weekendâ€™s film recommendation, Alejandro AmenÃ¡barâ€™s Agora, is one of those films thatâ€™s so hard to sell to people that Iâ€™ve never successfully persuaded a friend to sink two hours into it. This is a terrible shame, because itâ€™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 weekendâ€™s film recommendation, Michael Ritchieâ€™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 Weekendâ€™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. PerhapsÂ youâ€™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 arenâ€™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 prisonâ€™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. â€œYou donâ€™t need â€˜em,â€ the guard informs you, â€œwhen the bushes are filled with animals thatâ€™ll get the job done.â€ Continue Reading…
This weekendâ€™s movie recommendation was, for me, all the proof I’d need to knowÂ that Tom Hanks can be adorable even when heâ€™s a jerk. In Penny Marshallâ€™s A League of their Own, Hanks is the inebriate coach tasked with pulling together a team of misfits to compete in the countryâ€™s very first womenâ€™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 itâ€™s a team-based game, especially, the formula is so familiarÂ you can probably do the whole thing blindfolded, replacing only the adversity-du-jour for taste. Here,Â Geena Davis plays Dottie Hinson, whose preternatural gift for baseball attracts the attention of a talent scout whoâ€™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), whoâ€™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 sistersâ€™ 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 ofÂ rehearsingÂ 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 Oâ€™Donnellâ€™s loudmouth Doris to Madonnaâ€™s salacious Mae. Even the presence of the odd-one-out, Megan Cavanaughâ€™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 theyâ€™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 teamâ€™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 â€“ just keep an eye out for one scene in particular, where he has to learn the demands of restrained and constructive criticism.
We neednâ€™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; itâ€™s not long before the team-mates click with one another; and the periodic reminders by David Strathairnâ€™s executive Ira Lowenstein that the league depends on funding barely rise above blips on the radar. In fact, the teamâ€™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 teamâ€™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 countryâ€™s first all-womenâ€™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 entirelyâ€”and itâ€™s not even all that clear what.
Despite its weaknesses toward the end, A League of their OwnÂ 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.