Category Archives: Movies

Love and Friendship: Movie Review

Love and Friendship is the perfect, unlikely, sublime artistic collaboration between the director of The Last Days of Disco, and the author of Pride and Prejudice. It’s a hoot. It’s a laugh-out-loud comedy, sharply satirical, as trenchant a commentary on the patriarchy as I can remember. It is, I finally decided, after much soul-searching and trepidation, a feminist film. Bear with me.

Love and Friendship is based on Lady Susan, a Jane Austen novella, written when Austen was a teenager. You know how Jane Austen novels include some pretty incisive social commentary, but structurally are also romances? We ultimately do want Elizabeth to marry Darcy, and would find Pride and Prejudice unbearable if that didn’t happen in the end, right?  Well, Love and Friendship is Jane Austen without the romance. That’s not to say that courtship isn’t a major plot point. It’s courtship entirely without romance, without love or affection or even genuine friendship. It’s a movie about courtship seen entirely as an economic necessity. Marriage, bluntly and unapologetically, as prostitution.

Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is a recent widow, and she’s dead broke. She is, in fact, homeless. She has a teenaged daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark) she needs to get married off, and she’s aware that she needs to marry too. But she has no home base–she, of necessity, spends her time on visits to the homes of people, friends and family who will put her up for a few weeks. She also has to find various homes in which to park Frederica; perhaps a school, if she can persuade it to waive tuition fees by the simple expedient of not paying them.

She has a wardrobe, and she’s beautiful. Those are her assets. But, above all that is one huge advantage; she’s clever. She’s immensely, terrifically smart, especially about men. She’s also completely unburdened by anything like a conscience or a sense of morality. She’s perfectly willing to manipulate anyone, male or female, to get what she wants. And if she destroys their marriages or family relations, well, what’s the adage about eggs and omelettes?

And we root for her. One of the rules of drama is that we will always root for the protagonist, even if she’s awful, even if her objectives are bad. We will still, always, root for the protagonist of any story to succeed. And it helps that Lady Susan is charming, and clever. She’s fun to root for, as she sorts out which wealthy male acquaintances she’ll cull from the herd, one for her and one for Frederica–though it takes her some time to decide who will get who.

One possibility is Reginald DeCoursey (Xavier Samuel), who is decent, honorable, but perhaps a trifle too trusting for his own good. One difficulty there is his parents, who utterly abhor Lady Susan, who they suspect of having had an affair with a married friend, Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain). Which she did, but which, of course, she also denies.

Another possibility, though, is Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a very wealthy member of Lady Susan’s social circle. Sir James is amiable, kind-hearted, utterly without guile, a sweet and gentle soul, who, sadly, is also the most astonishing idiot. I don’t know Tom Bennett, though his name is wonderfully Austenian, but I take my hat off to this fine actor; Sir James is a remarkable comic creation. I rejoiced every time he appeared on screen, and laughed out loud at every one of his scenes. His delight at finding peas on his dinner plate is a triumph; he nearly walks off with the movie.

But his character is also central to the film’s social commentary. At first, Lady Susan seems to intend Sir James for Frederica, her daughter. But Frederica finds the idea appalling. She grants that Sir James has many good qualities, that he is a kind man, and a gentleman beyond reproach. But, she wails, he’s such an appalling blockhead. And we can see it. Marriage to Sir James would surely have its advantages; comfort, even luxury. But with whom would you converse? Frederica would rather teach school, she courageously declares.

But that’s not possible. It just isn’t; for a woman of Frederica’s class and upbringing, there simply is not a profession open to her. Her mother is right. In that particular iteration of the patriarchal society, women have exactly one career possibility–that of a wife, and presumably, a mother. Those are the facts; make the best of them.

And that’s why I consider this a feminist movie. It’s not that Lady Susan is a feminist heroine; frankly, she’s a bit of a monster. But if she’s a gold-digger, what else could she be? She’s the ultimate pragmatist, and if her actions hurt other women–which they unquestionably do, including the perpetually sobbing Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray)–what of it?  The point is to survive.

The movie reflects Austen’s novella, as a remarkably clear-eyed dissection of patriarchy, and the harm it does to women. Is Lady Susan wicked? Her society has made her so. And above all else, she will survive. At the end of the movie, when we see her ingenious solution to all her family problems, it’s quite deliciously appalling. And that’s where the film emerges as a strongly proto-feminist text. Susan’s a horror show. But she does win. And we put up with it, because the protagonist is so clever, and the film itself so hilarious.

Couple of final notes; Kate Beckinsale dominates the film, and she’s amazing. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a performance that has caused me to reevaluate an actor more than this performance did for her. Do you think of her as ‘hot chick in action movies?’ No longer. To think that an actress with her comic timing and wit has had so few opportunities to shine the way she shines her–well, blame sexism. And Whit Stillman’s directing of this film is quite brilliant. Lady Susan is an epistolary novella–a story told through letters–and Stillman captures that, with constant shots of various butlers and footman passing on sealed missives, the contents of which are then shared with us through titles. It gave the film a bit of the meta-cinematic vibe of the BBC TV series Sherlock; a contemporary feel for a period story. Anyway, the result is a marvelous film, not the least bit staid or formal, a brilliant satire of manners, and an incomparably funny picture. See this movie.

The Nice Guys: Movie Review

I liked The Nice Guys better than I ought to have done. In its own shambly, loose-limbed, casually violent, off-beat funny sort of way, it has the look and feel of a ’70s drive-in movie, a Roger Corman special. It’s as though one of those young directors Corman nurtured back in the day got the idea of building an action comedy on the plot of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Chinatown was about corrupt business and government forces colluding over the issue of water rights, in LA, where those rights are particularly contested and volatile. In The Nice Guys, it’s about air quality. So, again, elemental forces. In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson’s bandaged nose was the omnipresent main-character-defining feature; in TNG, it’s the cast on Ryan Gosling’s broken left hand. And in both films, an abused daughter uncovers and reveals the ultimate conspiracy. Problem is, Chinatown is one of the great films; a brilliant piece of under-your-skin-for-life cinema. The Nice Guys is a yuck-it-up cheap Roger Corman knock-off.

Here’s the difference; the villain of Chinatown was the unforgettable Noah Cross, in the greatest performance of John Huston’s life. When he says, leveling with Nicholson, “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that in the right time and in the right place, they are capable of . . . anything,” it’s completely chilling.

There’s nothing like that here, in The Nice Guys. No character that unforgettable, no line so defining. The bad guy, US attorney Judith Kuttner, is played by Kim Basinger, and while Basinger’s a fine actress, her part had little resonance; she’s just a typical movie corrupt government official. Here’s this film’s MacGuffin, and I’m totally not kidding: it’s a porn film about the need for cars to have catalytic converters. That’s what everyone’s looking for.

Okay, see, Basinger’s daughter Amelia (Margaret Qualley), is missing. LA PI Holland March (Ryan Gosling) has been hired to find her. So has thuggish thumper Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). So they partner up, helped along by March’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), who seems a good deal smarter than her Dad, and more moral than his partner. It turns out that ‘Amelia’ does exist, and that she despises her corrupt and evil Mom. She’s also an environmental protester, part of a group concerned about LA air quality, which sucked back in the 70s. As part of her protest, she has contacted the LA porn industry, and made a dirty movie, to publicize the lengths to which the auto industry has gone to avoid having to put catalytic converters in cars.

So March and Healy, the two intrepid detectives, explore the seamy underside of the Los Angeles porn world, trying, first to find Amelia, and then, when she dies, to find and screen her movie. In every scene involving Amelia, she’s portrayed as completely nuts. And Kim Basinger, playing Amelia’s Mom, seems genuinely concerned about her daughter’s mental health. But it turns out Amelia was right about everything. And when her film does actually air (we don’t see much of it), it does kick-start a local conversation about air quality. A preachy, earnest, porno.

And see, this goes to the central problem of the entire film. How seriously should we take any of it? Granted, it’s a comedy. But it’s set in the ’70s, when LA’s air quality was truly at dangerous levels. Environmentalists raising awareness over a serious health issue is not, frankly, an inherently funny issue. You can make it funny, by making environmentalists seem loony, but that’s neither fair nor accurate, and even if you laugh at it, you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth. And when the genuinely committed environmental activist, Amelia, thinks the way to bring that issue to the general public is to make a preachy porn movie about it, she looks seriously unhinged.

This relates to the other central dynamic of the movie. It’s a comedy action movie. The conventions of action movies require that the good guys win, that they prevail in physical combat with the bad guys. But the bad guy, Basinger, has the resources of the government behind her, including a hit man, called John Boy (Matt Bomer), who is scary-capable with various weapons. And there are multiple other assassins at Basinger’s disposal. Our heros (and specifically, Our Hero, Gosling), have to beat them. Good guys have to defeat the bad guys in action movies. But this is a comedy, and part of what’s funny about it is the fact that Ryan Gosling’s character, March, is NOT good at fighting, or at violence, not at all. He’s a screw-up, and, of course, watching him screw up is funny.

So how does he win? Well, his partner, Crowe’s Jack Healy, is good at violence. But ultimately, that’s unsatisfying. The conventions of the genre require that Holland March, the film’s protagonist, played by Ryan Gosling, win his fight scenes.  His pal can’t just win them all for him. There are two ways for this to happen. He could get really lucky–and the comedy could come from our recognition of how preposterous is his good fortune. Or he could suddenly reveal previously unsuspected fighting skills. Which the movie also tries, again, not very plausibly.

Ryan Gosling is a terrific actor, and an adept comedic actor. Russell Crowe’s hitman is a fascinating character, actually; with a ragged integrity and some real regrets over the acts of violence circumstances require him to perform. So at the character level, the buddies work in this buddy-comedy. And some of their repartee together is genuinely humorous, without falling into set-up/set-up/payoff rhythms.

So, the movie was certainly amusing. I laughed aloud a couple of times, and enjoyed the 70s costumes, and the fine performances from Crowe, and Gosling, and Rice and Bomer. But the action sequences were too silly to build up much genuine suspense or excitement, and the central plot was not just ridiculous, it was built on a stupid take on an important actual issue. I liked the movie okay. But then, I always did like Roger Corman films.

Captain America: Civil War. Movie Review

Captain America: Civil War is generally being lauded as one of finest comic book movies, like, ever. It’s at 90% on Rottentomatoes.com, and not only have critics embraced it, but it’s become a big popular hit. Like the best of the Marvel movies, it combines humor and well executed action sequences. More than that, it’s smart. It’s not just escapist fare. Comic book characters can be ridiculous, of course, what with all the spandex and ridiculous names, but the fact is, they’re about violence, about warfare, about terror as a tactic; they have surprising contemporary relevance. And this movie deliberately plays on that awareness.

And that’s also why I found this movie so off-putting. It’s not that I’m opposed to comic book movies paralleling contemporary politics. I think that’s great. I just find the conclusions drawn by this movie to be facile and obvious. And I found the film unwilling to interrogate the darker implications of its own narrative.

All right. Let me explain where I’m coming from here. This Captain America picks up the Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) story thread from previous Avengers’ movies, and places that story at the center of a conflict between Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). It starts with a battle in Nigeria, between what appear to be terrorists and a team involving Captain America and several other Avengers–Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). As the battle progresses, a building explodes, killing a dozen civilians. Turns out, the UN and the US governments are both getting fed up with superhero battle collateral damage, as well they might. An international conference to decide what to do about it is convened, and is likewise attacked. A peace-making king is killed. And this attack appears to have been made by Captain America’s old friend Bucky.

At one level, it makes sense that Cap would be at odds with the other Avengers over Bucky. Captain America, remember, is really a character from the 1940s, as is Bucky. Somehow Cap was frozen, his body recovered and revived. By us, Americans, good guys. Bucky, though, was also saved, but by bad guys, Hydra. Cap and Bucky are childhood friends. Of course Cap feels a tremendous loyalty to Bucky.

But this isn’t the same Bucky that he remembers. Hydra gave him enhanced powers, and also a psychological trigger, a phrase which, when spoken, causes him to surrender his ability to make decisions. At one point, Tony Stark calls him the Manchurian candidate, and that’s dead-on. Bucky’s a decent, good guy. Also a time bomb. And the one thing Cap prizes the most–his freedom, his ability to choose–Bucky does not have.

So that’s one issue in the film: what do we do about Bucky? But it relates to another, more profound one. Oversight.

The Nigerian disaster clarifies how tired the world is getting of collateral damage caused by superheroes. So the United Nations decides to form a ‘superhero oversight committee.’ That committee will decide where and how the Avengers will be deployed, and to what end. It will hold them accountable for damage caused in battle. The committee will exercise some degree of political control over superhero actions.

Initially, it seemed odd to me that rugged libertarian individualist Tony Stark would agree to political oversight, and that supersoldier Captain America would not. But we need to remember Tony’s background. The United States of America has never experienced a military coup, and I think it’s unlikely we ever will. That’s how ingrained in our military culture the idea is of a civilian heading our chain of command. The President of the United States is an elected official, and also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Our military respects that.

Well, Tony Stark is a product of America’s military-industrial complex. That’s his background. And he’s a thoughtful and intelligent man. He recognizes how essential it is that the Avengers appear legitimate; that this issue of superhero collateral damage erodes that legitimacy. And so he signs on, and agrees to sell this oversight committee–the Tribunal– to the other Avengers.

Again, it seems initially strange that Steve Rogers, super-American-military-hero, a product of American military culture, would be the one who rejects the Tribunal. But here’s the thing; he’s Captain America. He is, quite literally, the embodiment of American exceptionalism. And Americans don’t take direction from international bodies.

We just don’t. Sure, we conduct diplomacy, and we make treaties, and try to live up to our international obligations. But allow a foreign body to dictate what our soldiers do? Never.

I think I can make a case for the idea that Steve Rogers, once he realizes just what his abilities can allow him to do, decides that he and only he can be allowed to decide what and who he’ll fight for. He’s only going to be morally accountable to himself, to his own conscience. But I think I can also make a case for Captain America, superhero, representing America, the world’s only superpower. And Americans don’t allow other nations to tell us what to do militarily. And that means that he will not surrender his autonomy to an international Tribunal.

Thinking about this movie, I was reminded that last Saturday, Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed by an American strike drone, in Pakistan. Mansour was unquestionably a bad guy. Still, that’s the world we live in, one in which an Afghani political leader can be killed by Americans, in Pakistan, and we Americans applaud. And President Obama announced the killing with some grim satisfaction for a job well done. We’re Americans. We get to do that; kill people in other countries without any accountability or oversight from anyone official. I don’t doubt that President Obama, if he was in fact involved in the decision, did not make it lightly. Still, we are America. We are exceptional, and we are the one nation on earth for whom killing a foreign leader in a foreign country is considered legitimate by much if not most of the rest of the world.

This film should, I suppose, be applauded for putting a political science debate, about oversight and accountability and violence and warfare and the legitimacy of the use of force at the center of a comic book action movie. I do not applaud it, though, for, in my mind, so unquestioningly putting American exceptionalism at the center of that debate. We’re Americans. We get to kill bad guys living in other countries. No due process, no trial, our President just gets to decide to do that; kill guys we designate as terrorists (no doubt legitimately), as worth killing. Yay for us. This movie took one of the most thoughtful and interesting characters in the Marvel universe, Steve Rogers, Cap, and use him to articulate a case for American exceptionalism–not just for America as exceptionally moral, but America as exceptionally empowered. Captain America is the living embodiment of American values. And this is a movie where Cap rejects oversight, and is applauded for it by the subsequent events of the movie.

I do think that the screenplay is trying for greater nuance and complexity than my admittedly simplistic explication allows it. Early in the movie, we see the way Hydra (who pretty much has to represent International Terrorism) mistreated Bucky and also five other enhanced baddies. The main bad guy, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), looks like he’s about to free those five supergoons. I thought the movie was setting up a final confrontation between the Avengers and the five Hydra super-villains. But Zemo just kills them off, instead choosing to use Bucky to instigate a final fight between Iron Man and Captain America. That’s actually a more interesting dramatic choice than the obvious one–Avengers vs. Hydra Creations. I do think it’s a film that tries to deal with the contemporary and political complexities the creation of this oversight body suggest.

To me, though, the film fails,and to at least some degree ends up letting Cap off the hook. I’ll grant that it doesn’t quite go as triumphalist as I feared. No flag waving, no final pro-American jingoism. It still does, ultimately, defend American exceptionalism. Couldn’t it deconstruct our own tortured politics just that tiny bit more thoughtfully? Couldn’t we leave the theater feeling just that tiny bit more conflicted?

Death wish scenes: a review of A Walk in the Woods

Years ago, I noticed a phenomenon that, to my mind, spoiled otherwise fine films. I saw it first in The Other Side of Heaven, but I kept seeing examples of it, and I even wrote and presented a paper on the subject. I called it “the death wish scene.” A death wish scene is not just poorly written, or badly placed, or unnecessary. A death wish scene is a scene in a movie so poorly conceived that it ruins the picture. It’s a scene of such astounding idiocy that you wonder if the producers secretly wanted the movie to fail.

Over the years, I have developed a great fondness for death wish scenes. There aren’t many of them. Sure, lots of films have scenes that don’t work. That’s not a death wish scene. A DWS has to directly contradict everything else that you like about the film. It’s an act of deliberate, in-your-face narrative destruction.

And I saw one last night! A rare sighting, to be sure. In a major Hollywood film, a film starring big-name movie stars, a film with, like, a budget, a distribution deal in place, good craft services. That kind of film.

The film is A Walk in the Woods, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson. Directed by Ken Kwapis, written by Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman. It’s based on a book my wife and I love, Bill Bryson’s account of his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. We’re big Bill Bryson fans anyway, and looked forward to this film. Redford plays Bryson, and Nolte plays his old friend Stephen Katz, who hiked the AP with him. Thompson plays Bryson’s British wife, Catherine.

The book isn’t really about any issue of great import. It’s a gently humorous account of out-of-shape middle-aged men taking on a physical challenge that was probably a bit more than they were up for. It’s about the eccentric characters they met on the trail. And to some degree, it’s a book of self-discovery. It’s also about the AP itself, a two thousand mile hiking trail through some of the prettiest terrain on this continent. I figured that the movie would be like the book–a genial, reasonably low-stakes character-driven comedy. Robert Redford isn’t the first actor I would choose to play Bill Bryson, but he’s certainly a fine actor, and Nolte’s perfect as Katz, who, in the book, is Bryson’s grouchy, hard cussing comic foil.

But the movie makes some odd choices from the beginning. Bill Bryson is a professional travel writer. He’s also a fine historian, and a science writer of the first order, but he made his bones writing about his travels in Australia, and Europe, and the UK. Once he got the idea of writing about the Appalachian Trail, he contacted his agent and his publisher, and got an advance to pay for it. That’s all perfectly clear in the book. But the screenwriters, for some reason, decided that, in the movie, he wasn’t there to write a book. No, indeed. This was just something personal he had to do. His wife doesn’t think it’s remotely a good idea–she frankly thinks he’s gone mental–but she finally relents when Katz agrees to come along. And she loves him, and he loves her, and she’s willing to be supportive. And so, in the movie, Redford, as Bryson, consistently has to say ‘I’m not writing a book.’ Like, this hike isn’t about something as crass as mere commerce.

That’s not the death wish scene–we haven’t gotten there yet–but it is an odd choice. It’s as though the film’s producers decided that we wouldn’t care about this man’s spiritual journey of self-discovery if it were somehow sullied by him also carrying out his writerly obligations. Me, I like competent professional people trying to do a difficult job well. I think that makes for a fine conflict. If they also learn something about themselves, all the better.

But this bizarre decision makes Katz’ presence all the stranger. Stephen Katz is Bryson’s alcoholic friend, from his home town of Des Moines. He’s spent his life working a series of blue-collar jobs. In the book, it’s clear that Bryson pays Katz’s way. Bryson buys his backpack and tent, pays for the food and lodging, when they’re able to find lodging. No big deal–it all comes out of Bryson’s advance, and Katz knows from the outset that he’s going to be a character in the book. It’s perfectly clear in the movie that Katz can’t afford to be on this hike. But they sort of gloss over it. Again, we haven’t gotten to the death wish scene yet, but from the beginning, we sense how poorly the film’s director/producers/screenwriters had thought through the film’s most important character and story decisions.

But not entirely. Early in their hike, Bryson and Katz meet Mary Ellen, an astonishingly annoying woman who denigrates their equipment, appearance, and supplies, who chatters away at them incessantly. Kristen Schaal was perfectly cast as Mary Ellen, and her scenes with them are a treat. And other eccentric folks they meet on the way are equally vivid in their film incarnations.

So the film is plodding charmingly along, marching down the trail with confidence and aplomb. And then, for no reason whatsoever, it flings itself off a ledge into the waiting arms of a bear.

The AT (inevitably) crosses highways along its course, and at times, passes close to small towns, where hikers can find a restaurant, a motel, and (most important), a laundromat. Bryson and Katz arrive in such a town, and check into a motel. The motel’s proprietor is Jeannie, played by Mary Steenburgen. And the three of them make small talk. And we can see a budding, mutual attraction between Bryson and Jeannie.

Later that night, Bryson runs a shower, but before he can step in, he realizes the bathroom did not come with towels. Wearing a bathrobe, he goes into the motel office, and sees Jeannie. Wonderful Mary Steenburgen. She apologizes, and goes with him to an outdoor storage room where they keep the towels. She gets him a towel; they make small talk. And you can see, there’s a spark. And they look at each other, and they’re about to kiss. And then Katz interrupts them.

And the movie’s irretrievably ruined.

Later, Katz teasing him, asks Bryson if he’d ever cheated on Catherine. And Bryson says no, and we believe him. Katz, crass and cynical, doesn’t. He assumes, as a matter of course, that Bryson, world traveler, has had a few on the side. And this Bryson, the Bill Bryson of the towel scene, probably has. But the Bill Bryson established earlier in the movie, would never cheat. And thus is the movie ruined.

It’s not that the basic situation is implausible. Steenburgen’s Jeannie is an attractive, deeply lonely woman, stuck in a small town, running a motel. It’s not inconceivable that she would be attracted to a guy like Bryson, or that he would be attracted to her. But the whole first fifth of the movie establishes Bryson for us in terms of his family and his marriage. He and Catherine are exceptionally close. He’s a good Dad, and that’s important to him. In the book, Bill Bryson takes every possible opportunity to phone home, and those phone calls are immensely sustaining to him.

It’s as though the movie goes out of its way to establish Bryson as a decent family man. Every choice, in the early going, develops that characterization. And then, for no reason, the movie throws in, not an affair, but at least the potential for one. Even hired Mary Steenburgen to play the love interest. Nothing early in the movie sets it up, and nothing later in the movie justifies it.

It’s the very definition of a death wish scene. It’s as though someone went ‘you know what this character needs? A love interest. To attract women viewers, you know. Chicks love romance.’ I know, it’s unfair of me, to make that assumption, that the film’s director or producers are that moronically sexist. But really, it’s as though someone decided ‘this guy can’t go on a spiritual quest without being tempted by adultery.’ Whereas lots of hikers and campers go on perfectly satisfactory personal journeys without being remotely tempted to cheat.

I will say this; that scene, all by itself, ruined a movie my wife and I were enjoying up to that point. Robert Redford and Mary Steenburgen are fine actors, and attractive people. But the scene involving their characters was not just unnecessary. It was idiotic. They were making a movie about hiking the Appalachian Trail. Make that movie.

Green Room: Movie Review

As Green Room opens, we see a van in the middle of a corn field, everyone in it sound asleep. The camera pulls back, and we see the path the van followed as it swerved off the highway and into the field. A sleepy driver drove off the road; funny, though also scary. And a metaphor for the entire film, which is about a group of musicians that has veered off the road, and is trying to survive.

In the van, The Ain’t Rights, a punk band, traveling from gig to gig, siphoning gas to keep going, playing wherever they can. They’ve essentially decided to call it quits, at least short-term, but accept one more engagement, because it pays enough to get them home.

So they show up, to a log cabin-ish venue in the woods, a bar where most of the patrons are skinheads, on the walls neo-Nazi regalia for decorations. And so their lead singer, Pat (Anton Yelchin), picks what I think was a Dead Kennedys anti-skinhead song, ‘Nazi Punks F off’ to begin their set. Very punk rock; edgy and tense and real. The crowd reacts furiously, throwing things and spitting at the stage, but we don’t sense The Ain’t Rights are in actual trouble. Yet. But that will come.

When they finish their set, they’re escorted by security up some stairs to a green room. And on the floor, they can see a woman with a knife sticking out of her head. Dead.

Panicked, they pull out a cell phone and call 9-1-1, reporting ‘a stabbing’ and the address just before the phone is confiscated by security. The rest of the movie is about this punk band, fighting for survival, attacked by neo-Nazi skinheads working for the venue’s owner, Darcy, played by none other than Patrick Stewart.

Darcy’s basically trying to clean up a mess. The venue’s headline band’s lead singer, high on drugs, killed the girl, his ex-girlfriend, because she was planning to leave him, and the whole skin-head lifestyle, behind. (That mystery, about who killed the girl, isn’t particularly important, and gets resolved very quickly. This movie isn’t about who-dun-it, it’s more about who is likely to survive).

The result is a fascinating film, a horror thriller that manages to transcend the essential conventionality of its structure. The writer/director, Jeremy Saulnier, clearly knows his subject matter. The day to day interactions of the band is completely convincing. I don’t know Saulnier’s background, but the film felt like it was written by someone who toured once with a band, who then based a screenplay on the jokes they shared about some of the sketchier venues they played. ‘What if we went into the green room and there was a dead body on the floor?’ That kind of thing. And then Saulnier took it from there.

I don’t know much about the whole punk rock/skinhead death metal scene. I sense that it contains an almost infinite numbers of sub-genres, and that Saulnier knows intimately the differences between them. The details of the world of this film is so convincingly rendered, I was completely with it throughout, despite my own ignorance of the film’s background. It felt very Zola-esque, a perfectly realized simulacrum of the denizens of a demi-monde. I loved Alia Shawcat as Sam, their guitarist, her shoulders hunched over her instrument as she plays. I loved the way they started songs, with Yelchin suddenly shouting, very quickly, “2, 3, 4” and instantly a hard-driving punk beat starts up. I loved the camaraderie of the band, how quickly spats get resolved and decisions made.

Although it’s not remotely a political film–its a horror thriller, with punk rock/skinhead setting–I can’t help but see a tremendous political subtext. It’s a film, after all, about neo-Nazis terrorizing punk rockers. About skinhead death metal vs. punk–immensely political music worlds colliding lethally. All under the deceptively benevolent direction of Patrick Stewart.

Because Darcy, the film’s uber-villain, is also genial and sympathetic. We instinctively feel that we can trust him; that when he tells the band members that he wishes them no ill, that he means it. Of course, he’s lying. Of course, he’s using a gentle manner to mask an essential sociopathy. So what is that characterization intended to convey about skinheads generally?

Darcy gives orders, intending them to be obeyed, and at times his followers do just as they’re told. For example, knowing that a 9-1-1 calls has reported ‘a stabbing,’ he orders one of his followers to stab his brother. The cops show up, are given a stabbing victim and perp, and drive off, satisfied. Leaving Darcy to complete his clean-up. Including, of course, disposing of witnesses.

Those extra resonances, the film’s implicit politics and the intersection of politics and music in the genres it explores, are what moved this film from exciting and powerful to unforgettable. I don’t know what it all means, but I want to learn, and spent the morning listening to The Misfits and Fugazi, trying to understand. Green Room got under my skin, is what I’m saying, and I’m grateful. It’s very seriously R-rated, and some will find it an unpleasant viewing experience. But I loved it.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Movie Review

My wife and I wanted to see a movie last night, and the far more popular movie in town was completely sold out. So we went with The Huntsman: Winter’s War. And didn’t regret it, to be honest. It’s a lunatic movie, really, with a story that makes no sense at all, and above all, a movie where the biggest question is ‘why did this even get made?’ And in the middle of all it, there’s a sweet and tender love story, nicely acted and lovely.

Let’s see; where to start? This is the sequel to 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman. That one starred Kristen Stewart as Snow White, Chris Hemsworth as The Huntsman, and Charlize Theron as wicked Queen Ravena. It wasn’t bad, though why anyone thought we needed to see the extended backstory to the Snow White story escapes me.

Apparently, though, we didn’t just need to see the Snow White backstory, but a detailed and extensive narrative exploration of the whole other mythology on which Snow White rests. So this starts off as a sort of prequel to the earlier movie, but time passes, and we end up with a parallel story, which makes occasional passing reference to the events of SWATH. Most of which I’d forgotten. Like, didn’t Charlize Theron die in the other movie? And wasn’t it The Huntsman who killed her? Or him, with Kristen Stewart’s help? So why is Evil Queen Ravena here, in this movie? (She says she’s neither alive nor dead. Half-dead. Living in that mirror.) Getting killed, again, by Chris Hemsworth? But I thought that already happened. Or would happen, soon. These movies link how?

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. We begin with Queen Freya (Emily Blunt), Ravenna’s sister. She meets a guy, falls in love, gets pregnant, intends to marry him, has the baby. (Who? Snow White? The baby is a threat to Ravenna because she’s going to grow up to become Fairest of Them All. Snow White, right? Kristen Stewart, right? What’s going on?) But the fiancee guy sets the nursery on fire, killing the baby. Freya turns psychotic, leaves, goes into solitude, then raises an army and starts invading other neighboring ‘Northern’ kingdoms.

At which point, as my wife pointed out, the movie turns into a demented version of Frozen. I’m totally not kidding. Freya’s superpower involves ice. She can turn people into ice sculptures, and shoot ice spicules at them, and build ice walls, and she creates an entire castle made of ice. She’s Sociopath Elsa. Remember Olaf, the comic relief snowman? There’s an owl who serves the same purpose. Remember the rock people/dwarves? There are dwarfish equivalent characters in this. It’s Frozen, without Anna. Oh, wait, I forgot Jessica Chastain; there’s also a sort of Anna.

(Seriously? Frozen? Let it go.)

Freya is also, kind of, Daenarys Targaryen, building her own army by kidnapping children, who she raises to become soldiers. (And we see her army; all thirty of them). The best of her fighters she rewards, with the proviso that they never fall in love. All love is strictly forbidden. All love: Agape, Filio, Eros. Only, you know, kids will be kids, and her two favorites fall for each other: Eric (Chris Hemsworth), and Sara (Jessica Chastain). Get together in a really romantic hot spring. And Psycho Elsa/Freya finds out, and Eric is exiled. But before he leaves, both he and Sara are shown false visions; she sees him just leaving her, and he sees her dying. So they don’t look for each other much. For seven years.

But, it turns out, someone back in Snow White Land (where Snow White lives; remember? Kristen Stewart? Who is not in this movie, but whose character is constantly referred to?) has stolen the magic mirror. And Sara, now Freya’s main captain, has been tasked with finding it. As has Eric/Huntsman. And his two dwarf sidekicks, Nion and Gryff (Nick Frost and Rob Brydon).  Quest narrative! Sara and Eric are initially pretty hostile to each other, on account of their false visions, but they work through that pretty quickly. Though they do have seven years of separation issues to work through.

But it was really sweet, the developing love story between Sara and Eric. It really was the one thing in the movie that made emotional sense, and the one story element in the movie that wasn’t completely ludicrous. It didn’t hurt that it was Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain, two immensely engaging actors. Especially Hemsworth, who affects this Scottish-sounding brogue which renders a third of his lines incomprehensible, not that it ever matters. He’s charming, and self-deprecating, and he carries a ridiculous movie almost effortlessly. And Chastain is fierce and strong and Katniss-good with a bow and arrow. Wonderful physical performance.

You know that thing they always do in movies like this? They’re in a scene together, and talking, and suddenly their heads come together, and he’s about to kiss her. Only she pulls a knife, and holds it against his throat. Only he disarms her, and flings her around, so her back is against a wall. And they’re inches apart, breathing heavily. And then she breaks away. So romantic, even though it doesn’t make a particle of sense.

Anyway, in the diva-off between Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain, Jessica wins going away. She’s fierce, and intelligent, and she has Chris Hemsworth to act across from. Charlize chews the scenery in a most satisfying way, while Emily Blunt’s persona is too sane, frankly, and too bright to really work all that well in a part as hare-brained as Ice Princess/Freya/Elsa/Loony McLoonybins.

The last scene of the movie made me giggle aloud in the theater, and giggle again when I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it. I mean, it’s standard confrontation-against-bad-guy stuff; Chris Hemsworth’s trying to whack Charlize with an axe, and she fights him off by shooting black tar things out of her, which he has to block with his axe. What made me laugh is imagining how they filmed it; in a sound studio, with Charlize Theron waving her arms around menacingly, with big two-armed spell-casting gestures throughout.

And yet, at the end of the battle scene, Eric and Sara, Chris and Jess, our heroes, get to hug and kiss, and that love story, the only thing in the movie worth watching really, gets the screen time. It’s a demented movie. But two good actors made one small part of it work. How hard we work for the smallest pleasures.

Baseball advanced analytics, and movies

If you’re a fan of American team sports, you will undoubtedly have come across something called advanced analytics. I just celebrated a birthday, and my son gave me my annual present, the new Baseball Prospectus. It’s a very large paperback book filled with the names of baseball players, and lots and lots of numbers. It does include such traditional statistical measures as batting average, or runs batted in. But most of the numbers are more esoteric: WAR, FIP, TAV. I am famously bad at math. But I devour this book, for one simple reason. The numbers in it help me understand the game of baseball better.

The point of advanced analytics is to look for market inefficiencies. Let’s suppose that your careful examination of baseball statistics leads you to conclude that some particular baseball skill is more valuable than other teams think it is. You may be able to acquire players with that particular skill at a discount. This gives you a competitive advantage. Like acquiring a catcher who is good at pitch-framing. You can get those guys on the cheap.

My son and I were talking today, and we wondered if this same dynamic might be applied to movies. Obviously movie producers have certain beliefs about what qualities audiences are looking for in movies. Number one, they like movie stars. They clearly believe that audiences are attracted to movies that star actors people have heard of and liked in previous roles. If Tom Cruise approaches a studio with the script for an action movie, it’s almost certain to get funded. But the star in question generally needs to be a male, and youngish. Tom Cruise isn’t actually young–he’s 53 years old–but he looks young, and can plausibly play young action stars. Demi Moore was born the same year Cruise was, but she isn’t a legitimate star anymore, because she’s a woman. (She’s also probably a better actor than he is, but that’s also not relevant).

But is that actually true? For example, Liam Neeson is 64 years old, but has reinvented himself as an action movie star in all those Taken movies. Heck, Colin Firth, hardly an exemplar of male studliness, starred in an action movie, and was great in it. Emily Blunt, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez and Scarlett Johansson have all starred in action movies within the last year. So has Helen Mirren.

Here’s what I think; audiences are attracted to good movies, and turned off by bad ones. Tom Cruise is still an action movie hero, not because audiences still clamor to see him in movies–most audience members think he’s kind of a weirdo–but because he has a good eye for scripts that showcase his skills.

Would you go see an action movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer? I sure would, if the script was good. Would you go see a buddy cop action/comedy starring Michelle Williams and Maggie Gyllenhaal? I would love to see that movie. Would you go see a sci-fi adventure movie starring Michelle Yeoh, with Michelle Rodriguez as second lead? Absolutely! What about a mainstream revenge action film with Amanda Peet? She’s a terrific actress, and that’s the kind of role she’d rock.

And such are the realities of Hollywood that you, Mr. or Ms. Producer, would save a lot of money in salaries. I mean, it totally stinks that Jake Gyllenhaal (a wonderful, charismatic actor) gets more per picture than his frankly more talented sister Maggie gets. But for the right, savvy producer, that particular brand of sexism could also mean money in the bank. It’s a market inefficiency, and one you could exploit.

Yes, there’s tremendous sexism in Hollywood. No question about it. And it reflects a larger sexism in society generally. But in the world of television, there’s one producer who regularly casts women in action/murder/suspense TV series. Her name is Shonda Rhimes and she’s doing pretty darn well.

Drew Barrymore, action star. Make it happen. Get a pitch-framing catcher, Hollywood. Sexism is, in addition to being reprehensible, a market inefficiency. Trade on the margins, Hollywood, and give some great actresses a chance.

Brooklyn: Movie Review

I know that it’s weird to review movies months after they opened. But that’s how people watch movies nowadays. Professional critics get their reviews out in time for the movie’s opening weekend. But I don’t care about Hollywood’s hit-or-bust mentality. I watch movies when I’m able to watch them, and I’m pretty sure you do the same. And Brooklyn is an interestingly flawed film; well worth discussing.

Let me begin by saying that I liked Brooklyn a great deal, and am confident you will too. It’s beautifully filmed and acted, a treat to watch. It’s a sweet-tempered romantic comedy, in many respects almost conflict-less, if that appeals. It was, as you probably know, nominated for Best Picture in 2015, and while I’m glad it didn’t win, I also don’t mind that it was nominated.

Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, a quiet, unprepossessing, but exceptionally bright young Irish woman. As the film begins, she is about to sail to America, to Brooklyn. Arrangements for her trip were made by her beloved older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), and a priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), who had earlier made the move to Brooklyn. When Eilis arrives, she has a room waiting for her, in a women’s boarding house, run by the tart-tongued-but-kindly Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters). She has a good job, in an upscale department store. Her boss there (Jessica Pare), is patient with her, and gentle. Father Flood has enrolled her in night school, at Brooklyn College, classes in accounting, which she aces. She has to cope with seasickness on the boat, and homesickness once she’s arrived, but honestly, she’s not badly off.

We root for Eilis, in part because of Ronan’s wonderfully expressive performance. But I found myself wondering what the film’s main conflict would be. First third of the film, there honestly isn’t much of one. It’s a film about a very nice girl, bright and kind, and we root for her life to go well. Mostly, it is.

She goes to a parish dance, and meets a young Italian guy, Tony (Emory Cohen). He’s got a lovely smile and a real sweetness of character–we see that immediately. And he’s clearly as immediately smitten with her as she is with him. So they begin dating, two really nice kids falling for each other. He invites her to dinner to meet his parents; her flatmates boil up some spaghetti, and she has an ‘eating pasta’ lesson.

Okay, so that’s the second third of the film, about the courtship of this agreeable young couple. And again, it’s lovely. They’re nice kids, and they’re nuts about each other, and everything goes beautifully. The ‘conflicts,’ such as they are, deal with such matters as her getting a new (for her, daring) American swimsuit for a trip to the beach at Coney Island. Cohen, who I hadn’t seen before, is really delightfully charming as Tony. Oh, his bratty younger brother says something about how Italians don’t like the Irish, but his parents shut that down pretty quickly. Besides, Tony’s a Dodgers’ fan. The 1951 Dodgers. The Jackie Robinson Dodgers. That’s his favorite team. Of course he doesn’t take ethnic divisions at all seriously.

Okay, two thirds of the way into the film, Eilis gets word that her sister Rose has died. She decides she needs to go back to Ireland, to make what arrangements she can for her mother, Jane Brennan. Before she leaves, though, she and Tony decide to marry, and to consummate their marriage (though not quite in that order).

At this point, I’m afraid I need to spoil the plot a bit, in order to make the point I want to make. So skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens. Eilis arrives home, only to learn that her mother has made a number of arrangements for her. Rose had a job as a bookkeeper; the company she worked for hasn’t been able to find an adequate replacement, and are counting on Eilis to step in. And Eilis’ best friend, Nancy, has become engaged, so obviously Eilis needs to stay longer than she’d planned to, so she can attend the wedding. And when Nancy and her fiancee invite Eilis to join them, they’ve brought a fella for her, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). And Jim’s very nice, and, it turns out, fairly well off. And they see each other socially, the two couples do, and it becomes increasingly obvious that Jim is very taken with her. And she’s not entirely indifferent to him. With Eilis’ Mom quietly pushing all of it along–the job, the guy, the Irish life. And Eilis has to face a decision.

And I honestly found myself wondering if she would in fact stay in Ireland. Ignore her marriage, forget Tony, quit her Brooklyn job and schooling, and stay in Ireland. And, of course, we’re all rooting like crazy for her to not do any of that. We like Tony a lot. We don’t dislike Jim. But she’s married. And Tony’s a sweetheart. And. . . .

When I used to teach dramatic structure, I used to talk a lot about something called the volitional protagonist. We want the story’s main character to make the most important decisions regarding what he/she is going to do. In Brooklyn (a lovely film, and one I enjoyed very much), I wanted Eilis to actually make a decision, take control of her life. Eilis is an agreeable character, and the actress playing her couldn’t possibly be more engaging. It made for a likable film, one that was pleasant to watch, but a film that ultimately was not all that compelling. That’s why. The protagonist couldn’t be less volitional.

And because she’s not been terribly volitional up to that point, the scenes in Ireland, with Eilis and her Mom and this charming Jim guy filled me with a kind of dread. I wanted her to go back to Tony. I wanted that for her, because everything in the first two thirds of the film made that life, with Tony, in Brooklyn, seem impossibly idyllic. I spent the last twenty minutes of the film muttering under my breath about her choices, or lack thereof.

I’m not going to tell you how it ends. I do recommend the film, and I hope you’ll check it out, and I’m pretty certainly you’ll like it too. It did make for an interesting exercise. Create a non-volitional protagonist, and then put her in a position where she seems almost certain to continue not deciding things, but just allow other folks to make them for her, thus mucking up the rest of her life. We’ll be rooting like crazy for her to finally take charge of her life.

The Jungle Book: Movie Review

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In fact, I loved both Jungle Book story collections. When I was eleven, Disney’s animated Jungle Book movie came out, and I remember my reaction: ‘not as good as the books.’ Even as a child, I understood what ‘the Disney’ version of something meant: sugary sweet, and off-puttingly comedic. I remember being particularly turned off by Baloo, who went from Mowgli’s brave and wise teacher to a bumbling goofball. Still, I only had to sit through the movie once, and afterwards, I still had the books.

So when I saw the trailers for the new Disney Jungle Book, I was genuinely thrilled. Through the miracle of CGI, we had a jungle that looked like a jungle, a tiger that looked like a tiger, all surrounding a single human child actor. It looked fantastic. And I hoped, desperately hoped, that the story would return to the Kipling source. That this would be an unforgettable Jungle Book.

It’s not. It looks great. The voice actors were superbly cast, and the animal characters’ CGI popped. The action sequences, if too frequent, were at least genuinely exciting, and the jungle locations were superbly rendered. The child actor, Neel Sethi, was suitably intrepid as Mowgli, and the biggest threats to him, the tiger Shere Kahn and the snake, Kaa, were both terrifying creations. I especially appreciated how smoothly the movie handled the transitions between animal characters talking anthropomorphically and then, those same animals growling and howling and snarling.

It’s still disappointing. The images compel; the story does not. It’s just another Disney bowlderization of a classic tale. And it got worse the longer the movie went, finishing with an ending that was just a complete mess.

In fact, I found the film all the more disappointing precisely because it looks so great. For the first third of the movie, the images distract us from the weakness of the storytelling. And then Baloo shows up (wonderfully voiced by Bill Murray, to be fair), and sings “Bare Necessities” and I threw up my hands. It wasn’t going to be special after all. It really was just going to be a remake of a mediocre late-60s Disney exercise in cultural appropriation. It looks so terrific, I expected more. All I got was ‘Bare Necessities’ and King Louie (Christopher Walken voicing that annoying monkey like a half-Mafiosa/half-African warlord).

The turning point, I think, is Kaa. Scarlett Johansson gives every sibilant full value, creating a mock-sympathetic, utterly hypnotic python sociopath. Kaa’s only in one scene, but it’s terrifying and creepy and fun in equal measure. That scene, with Mowgli in Kaa’s clutches, was the high point of the movie. And then Baloo showed up and sings that dumb song, and the movie went straight to heck. Nothing after the Kaa scene really worked at all.

And it could have. With that cast, and that technological magic, and that director, and that story, this could have been lovely. I wanted it to be lovely. I cheered when it was lovely. And then the studio . . . stopped trusting the material. And it turned into just another movie. Basic Disney template.

I’m being too harsh, I think. My wife and I showed up way early, and saw at least ten trailers for other movies, all of them kids’ movies. And they all looked dopey and bad. There’s an Angry Birds movie for example that, based on the trailer, I would sooner face the electric chair than sit through. There’s a Robinson Caruso thing, told from the perspective of the animals on his island. Stunts and falls and fart jokes. Jungle Book, of course, also has anthropomorphic animals. But, as weak as I found it, it’s still way better than the movies with which it seems to be competing. That’s worth remembering.

But that doesn’t make The Jungle Book any less disappointing. It’s a movie that does some things so spectacularly well, it’s all the more discouraging that all that beauty, all that skill, is in the service of a story that’s so pedestrian. Especially since the original tale, the one Kipling wrote (probably for his dying six-year old daughter), is so magical and wise and good. What a shame.

Truth: Movie Review

This movie flew under my radar. I saw it on my Netflix DVD queue, thought I’d give it a whirl, despite the fact that it was basically a flop. And I understand why it flopped. It deals with a news story from 2004, one that I think the American public never understood all that well, and has basically stopped caring about. That issue is now called “The Killian documents scandal,” an inelegant sobriquet. And although the film deals with that scandal intelligently and with conviction, and explains everything pretty clearly, it also has a discernible point of view which it hopes we’ll agree with at the end. I did. So did my wife. Not sure how much it matters.

In the fall of 2004, Mary Mapes (beautifully played here by Cate Blanchett), a producer with CBS News, again picked up the thread of a news story she had been looking at in 2000. It had to do with the military service of George W. Bush with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war. Together with a retired Marine Lt. Colonel, Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), and two reporters, Mike Smith (Topher Grace) and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), Mapes tracked down those few documents regarding the President’s service that the Bush camp was able to produce.

Mapes was one of Dan Rather’s (Robert Redford’s) producers. In the news business, the producer writes the story, works with the on-air talent to conduct the interviews, and edits what airs. Mapes was convinced that Bush had essentially been AWOL for a substantial part of his military commitment, and that his superiors hadn’t pursued it, because Bush was the son of a Congressman. She also believed that highly placed Texas politicians had pulled strings to get Bush a cushy National Guard assignment. Most of the other National Guard recruits were, like Bush, sons of political power brokers; also in the Guard were several star players for the Dallas Cowboys football team. Some National Guard companies did serve with distinction in Vietnam. But the Texas Air National Guard never did serve overseas, and was unlikely ever to have done so. It was a cozy sinecure. And the film does a nice job of explaining all that.

While working on the story, Mapes came into the possession of photocopies of a number of memos written by Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian, since deceased. Killian was Bush’s commanding officer during his Guard service. They were given to her by an elderly retired military officer named Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach). Because they were photocopies, and because the language of the memos suggested a familiarity with the period and with military protocols from the early 70s, Mapes decided to use them. She did send them to four separate document authenticators, two of whom declared them authentic, and two of whom said they couldn’t without seeing the originals. The documents made up a small part of the overall story, and Mapes used them without hesitation.

After the story aired on Sixty Minutes, however, a number of bloggers with an expertise in the documents field questioned the documents’ authenticity. Many people suggested that the Killian documents were the clumsiest of forgeries, using proportional spacing, a feature not generally available on typewriters in 1972. The documents, they said, had probably been created on Microsoft Word. Eventually, the Killian documents, which were not really an important part of the original news story, dominated coverage of it. Eventually, Mapes was asked to resign, along with several other CBS News employees. Including, of course, Dan Rather.

This movie argues, with great clarity and passion, that the documents could have been genuine, and that the larger story, about the President’s military service, had been ignored. To the extent that anyone today cares about the Killian documents, I think it’s fair to say that the consensus opinion is that the documents were forgeries. Burkett admitted to having lied to Mapes about where he obtained them (a painful scene, with Keach splendidly elderly and humiliated).

What I suspect is that the only people who really care about this are hard-core conservatives, who see it as confirming the ‘liberal-media-out-to-get-conservatives’ narrative. I think that most folks have forgotten this was ever a thing. If we see Dan Rather on Rachel Maddow’s show, we may remember ‘wasn’t there a controversy involving him?’ And when we saw that there was a film about ‘the Dan Rather thing,’ we gave it a pass.

I liked it better than that. Not that everything in the movie works. There’s an awkward, earnest scene late in the film in which Topher Grace (who’s great in this) gives a speech outlining a conspiracy theory in which Viacom (in need of legislative support), pressured CBS to fire Mapes and Rather. That’s all possible, of course. Likewise, the chance that, upon seeing the 60 Minutes piece, that Karl Rove orchestrated a campaign to discredit the one part of the story that could most effectively be discredited, the documents. (Karl Rove! Surely not!).

In the TV miniseries, The People vs. OJ Simpson, which my daughter and I have been watching, there’s a scene where Sarah Paulson, playing Marcia Clark (the main OJ prosecutor) goes into a bar and is challenged by one patron, who says ‘the police framed OJ.’ Clark goes ‘okay, let’s talk about that,’ and then goes through all the evidence to show exactly the convolutions the cops would have had to go through to frame OJ, just how extraordinarily baroque that theory is. And the bar patrons just sit there, astonished and persuaded. There’s a similar scene in Truth, in which Mapes demonstrates just how far-fetched the idea of creating a forgery was.  I found it similarly convincing. But I cared a lot less.

And that’s weird. The one show is about a murder trial; the stakes high enough for the families of the victims, but the whole thing didn’t really affect us at all. And the situation in Truth involves the election of a President, a much more consequential thing. But I cared about the OJ scene a lot more than I cared about the analogous scene involving Bush’s military service. The one feels like political/historical esoterica. The other feels more personal. Same scene, different impact.

Bush is gone, out of office. We’re in a new political season, a much stranger one. Watch Truth, then watch the news. It’ll shock you how much things have changed. And how very little.