TV-PG. I really need to qualify this. This is the toughest, most raw film that I have ever seen. I don't understand the TV-PG. I need to be as clear about this as can be. This movie needs to be seen. It is incredibly upsetting. This is war footage almost uncensored. People's faces have been blurred. But this is the mass slaughter of a culture and of a people. It does not draw lines based on age. This is a movie that will show you dead children and dead babies, killed from unfathomable violence. There is language throughout because basic humanity has been stripped from people. I don't know how it got a TV-PG, but I'm glad it did. Things that have restrictions on them tend to get fewer viewings.
DIRECTOR: Mstyslav Chernov
If you think that you've seen this movie before, you can thank Vladimir Putin. Off the top of my head / a little Googling to make sure I get the names right, I am thinking about Last Men in Aleppo and The White Helmets. There was a time where I thought we were past the age of monsters. Perhaps it was just that I was a child and my parents hid me from the monsters out there. But the world has to be teetering closer and closer to a World War. With the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is just following Adolf Hitler's playbook for the inevitable conflict between superpowers.
I'm Ukrainian. My dad was Mr. Ukraine. He was so deep into the Ukrainian community that it colored everything we did. Yet, while growing up, when people saw our name, they kept asking if my name was Russian. (Once in a while, we'd get Polish. Never Ukrainian.) Since the invasion started, people now know what the Ukrainian flag looks like. I hear a lot less of "The Ukraine" and people just acknowledging that "Ukraine" is its own country. During the events of this documentary, there was footage showing the Western support for the war effort. Any kind of footage able to be extracted from Mariupol was shown to Western audience and I remember this big rise in awareness of the plight of the Ukrainian. This, by the way, isn't the first time that Russia has pulled this card with Ukraine. This is the first time that it's reached this outright scale since Putin took office a billion years ago. But it's happened before. I remember the love and outcry for Vladimir Zelensky as he fought back against this onslaught against a better funded, better weaponized military.
What I'm about to write is a criticism of humanity, but in a way that can be looked at in many ways. We live in a tragic world. We have such an outpouring of news, often tragic, that reminds us that we have to pay attention to this or that. The current bombing of Gaza is one of those moments. But 20 Days in Mariupol is a visceral reminder that Ukraine is still fighting this battle. That criticism of humanity? It's the idea that we can feel so intensely for a place, but our empathy has a hard time maintaining the long fight. I'm guilty about the same thing. Ukraine is still important to me because I'm Ukrainian. The Ukrainians I know and have known me all my life are still waving that flag in the air. It doesn't minimize the tragedies going around the world right now. But movies like 20 Days in Mariupol remind us that war isn't just a word. That's how it feels most of the time. We know it is a word that carries stigma. But 20 Days shows us the reality of war, especially a war that comes from Russia.
Based on all of the documentaries I've now watched that Putin would dismiss publicly as libel, Russia fights wars by committing war crimes. Will I acknowledge that the United States has a wealth of war crimes under its belt? Sure. Again, it is easy to throw stones at others because it is easy to see evil when distanced from the subject matter. But I also know that Vladimir Putin is a specific brand of evil. This is a documentary that lets you see exactly what level of madness the man has about him. There is a narrative here that emerges from the filming of the movie. Because the movie lies in the conceit of its title, we understand that this is a movie about escalation. Chernov is no stranger to conflict journalism. That's quickly established. He shows footage from all of the other atrocities that he's documented in the past. He has this prescient understanding of what is going to happen to this city. He's not always right. If anything, he undersells it a bit. One of the first things that Chernov does is tell a woman to hide in a basement, claiming that the Russians won't shoot civilians if they don't have to.
The film then spends the rest of the movie disproving that statement. Considering that this is a story of war that has a handful of soldiers in it, the movie isn't about a war in any traditional sense. War is about soldier versus soldier. While civilian death is always a byproduct of war, 20 Days is something different. Chernov is hunkered down with people the entire time. "Hunkered down" isn't the best term because Chernov is always running towards the violence happening in Mariupol. But when he gets there, very little of it has to do with soliders. Part of that comes from the notion that the actual Russian forces don't show up until Day 15 or 16. Instead, as horrific as the violence and the military strikes are, it's never on actual strategic targets. Instead, it seems like bombs are going for the mass extinction of Ukrainian civilians. Every strike we see, there are scores of civilian deaths and dismemberments. I know that there would be military deaths as well. In no way am I trying to dismiss the military casualities. I'm more saying that so much of Russia's efforts are there as a form of mass murder on unarmed, non-military targets.
And this is where I turn the onus on the United States. One of the key conceits of the movie is that Chernov shows longer, less cut footage to us. The cuts seem only to help tell the narrative of escalation in Mariupol. Then he sends the footage we have just seen to news sources around the world. We see how that footage is cut into news segments. The final way that we see those segments is the Russian department of propaganda manipulating those images into something that damns Ukraine, using outright lies of fabrication of tragedy. Ukraine comes across as the criminal. Okay. People will argue that all 24-hour news outlets manipulate their viewers into propaganda. Okay. I have to make peace that my outlet of choice, CNN, has done the same. But I'm now going to point the blame on Fox News with its obsession with building up the Donald Trump brand.
Trump recently claimed that he's going to give Russia everything it wants. No more support of Ukraine. That guy loves Putin. Putin thinks he's a joke, but Trump is exactly who Putin wants in the Oval Office. He's easily manipulated. I talked about those early days of the war, where American support of Ukraine was almost universal. (I know that there were isolated voices claiming that Russia isn't that bad, but whatever.) But there's no coincidence that Trump comes out and says that he's going to stop aid to Ukraine and support Russia and then Tucker Carlson does the most evil, immoral interview with Vladimir Putin himself. That kind of puff piece is sickening. Sure, Carlson isn't Fox News anymore. That isn't slowing him down one bit. I dare you to watch those clips. Even Putin can't respect Carlson in those segments. He finds him to be a joke. But that's the message that is going on right now.
The insane thing is that 20 Days in Mariupol and Tucker Carlson's interview can't exist in harmony. Sure, Russian subways look nice. It's because it is a police state where any crime is punishable by death. When I think of the great problems that America is dealing with right now, dirty subways aren't the issue. Fun grocery stores aren't the issue. (Jon Stewart pointed out that grocery stores may look cheap, but the living wage doesn't allow for most groceries to be considered affordable.) God, do you know what I want to do so much? I want to sit down Tucker Carlson and force him to watch 20 Days in Mariupol, then screen his interview. Then I want him to watch 20 Days again and defend himself. It's criminal what he did. And I'm not the first person to point that out, but he knows exactly what's going on in Ukraine. He just is that much of a sycophant of Trump that his integrity means nothing.
We don't always get things right in America. But one thing that Biden did absolutely right was to support Vladmir Zelensky in his fight against this. I hate that Ukraine looks like Syria. Syria was our red flag. It was the thing that let us know that Putin was a sociopath who relished in the death of people in an attempt to return Russia to its former place of power. Yet, here we are. People are forgetting the violence that happened. Here is documentation of the atrocities happening out there and, in a way that continues to break my heart, no one seems to care anymore.
Not Rated, but it the movie that established the American gory monster movie. There's some gnarly scenes of zombies (ahem...ghouls) eating people. Also, some of them zombies are straight up naked. The higher the resolution, the more you see. There's honestly a print of the movie where you probably didn't realize that there's full on nudity on screen. But the Criterion edition...?
DIRECTOR: George A. Romero
Fun story. I went to a really conservative Catholic college. We weren't allowed to watch R-rated movies in public places. Heck, it was probably frowned on to watch R-rated movies privately. We weren't even allowed to watch things based on the MPAA. We had the Bishops' List, which rated things A-I, A-II, A-III, A-IV, or O. "O" was "Offensive." You couldn't watch an O movie publicly. You also couldn't watch an A-IV. That was just to salacious. But A-I to A-III, that was fine. The thing about the Bishops' List is that it was even more chaotic than the MPAA in terms of consistency. It was really up to the whims of the individual bishops to rate these things. While the bishops tended to lean towards conservatively rating these movies, somehow NIght of the Living Dead only got an A-III at the time. Well, not only did I watch Night of the Living Dead in a common room. That was too simple. I held a fundraiser in the theater showing this movie at Halloween.
Man, people were really upset at the devouring of people scene with the naked people.
Anyway, Night of the Living Dead was one of my staple movies back in high school and college. There's something so hip about being the guy who has that on his list. It's the movie that really got me into zombies. (I mean, it is the movie that got anyone onto the zombie culture. Sure, you could look at the Giallo zombi stuff, but I don't know if anyone made a bigger cultural impact on zombies than Romero. Everything we absorb today with zombies is standing on the shoulder of that giant.) Now, Romero's Dawn of the Dead will always be my favorite ...of the Dead movie. It's just perfect. But Night of the Living Dead is in my four. That's right. Despite being kind of a zombie fan (okay, really only kinda), I only have four zombie movies that I love. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead. Besides setting the template for zombie movies to come, Night of the Living Dead is kind of a great story in itself.
Notice that I don't have Day of the Dead on the list? It's because, the bigger that the world gets, the less effective the zombie story is. Night of the Living Dead is as intimate as it gets. People are stuck in a house. It's almost arbitrary that the monsters out there are zombies / ghouls. (Note: I am going to call them zombies because it's a Romero movie. He calls them "ghouls" and that's in-universe. Either works for me.) The great thing about a good zombie movie is that the threat outside is there. But the problem shouldn't be coming from the monsters outside. It's what Robert Kirkman made as the central concept of The Walking Dead. The real problem should be coming from the survivors. Barbra (whom I realize this viewing is a lot / Romero doesn't have a high respect for women during crisis moments apparently), even in her hysteria, outruns her pursuer pretty quickly. Her entire conflict is almost internal. Because of a mental break, she can't make good decisions. Ben's problem is that he has to wrangle a lot of big / toxic personalities in a contained space. For all of the threat of zombies, the bigger problem come from people not following the script.
Now, I hate the fact that I write so much based on hearsay. I remember hearing that George Romero wasn't making this movie about race. I almost can't believe that. When I watch those Romero of the Dead movies, they all scream allegory, with different degrees of subtlety. But the first movie deals with the central conceit, "What if a Black man was given control in a situation where white people always get their ways?" Harry is as White America as you can get and Ben is a young Black man who has to smack around a white woman. My goodness, Harry is my nightmare. This is a guy who is used to yelling his way into every situation and getting his way. Now, let's talk about Harry and the weird plot dynamics of this movie.
Harry's obsession is to get everyone in the basement. Now, for years --and still kind of today --I was always gobsmacked that Harry is technically right. Ben, by the end of the film, finds himself cornered in the basement. The ghouls keep pushing on the door and the door holds, unlike the door upstairs that Harry predicted. Now, Romero defintely makes Harry the antagonist of the story. But my frustration was that Harry ends up being right about almost all of the events of the story. Harry doesn't want to go out to get gas. He wants to hunker down right there and wait for rescue. Sure enough, the car goes up in flames. Tom and Judy die a horrible death. The doors on the house eventually give to the onslaught and Ben is in the basement. And to a certain extent, Harry still does have a point. Eventually, rescue would have come. In this case, they shoot Ben in the head. But rescue would have come and freed him. Heck, the ghouls eventually gave up on the basement door and Ben was able to leave of his own accord.
The reason why I can live with it is because Harry basically made every bad thing in the movie come true. He's so obstinant and obsessed with being correct throughout the film that he stymies every plan along the way. Harry should have been the one to go with Ben to get the gas. Had Harry gone, Judy never would have run out after Tom. (Admittedly, I don't know what Judy was thinking in that scene. Again, Romero might not be writing his female characters as the most level-headed characters imaginable. Similarly, there would have been a reasonable chance that the ghouls might not have gotten into the house had Harry helped Ben shore up the house instead of going for the gun. That fight directly led to the ghouls getting in the house. Yeah, Harry was right that the door would have held. But on the other hand, had Ben gone to the basement with Harry in the first instance, Karen would have turned on them and surprised them, leaving them locked in with a handful of ghouls. (I now like writing "ghouls". Go figure.)
Again, Romero stressed that this wasn't a movie about race. I really can't wrap my head around that. The movie ends with a cop (by proxy) shooting a Black man in the head before identifying him as a threat or not. Maybe that's the read that all liberals like me see in that scene. But it is also a scene that makes the movie. It's not just tragic that Ben survives the night when no one else does. The scene is tragic because they assume that he's a threat. If the other movies are all allegory heavy, I can't imagine that Romero didn't imagine the social implications of that scene. Maybe it's because of his later movies that he gains the reputation for being something heavier than disposable horror. But the movie is made by that last shot. The fact that his body is tossed unceremoniously on the bonfire. No one questions the fact that Ben has a gun next to him. The image of a firearm next to a Black man is also incredibly powerful in terms of how people perceive threats. I don't know. I'm a firm believer that everything should be political
But the big takeaway is that Night of the Living Dead holds up. This movie is upsetting. Romero chose to make the movie black-and-white. It was probably a budget thing, but this movie learns from the language of horror from the B-movies of the '40s and '50s. But seeing the filmmaking techniques of those eras coupled with some visceral scary stuff is outstanding. Some of the performances are all over the board. Can I tell you one guy who needs MVP? Ol' Sheriff McClelland. That guy read as accurate. Everything in this movie is just a little campy except for that dude, who really seemed to believe that he was hunting killers slaughtering the population. I hope there's nothing gross about that guy or else there will be some mud on my face.
Totally worth a rewatch.
Somehow --SOMEHOW --by the grace of God, this movie scored a PG-13! I bet it's because it's a musical coupled with the fact that, despite being about a lot of questionable material, it mostly happens off-screen. This movie deals with rape, the consequences of rape, and the implication that the rape is incestual. There's violence, domestic and other, coupled with language, drinking, and all kinds of sexual behavior. This movie has a lot, but still manages to pull off a PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Blitz Bazawule
Why? Why are so many movies downplaying that they are musicals? I get the logic --assuming that there wasn't any extensive thought put to this. Musicals tend to attract the musicals crowd. The box office only gets good if there's buzz about how good the musical is. So an opening weekend may be disappointing, but a generated buzz can keep a musicals theatrical run going by repeat viewers and word of mouth. By suppressing the fact that it is a musical adaptation, you get the people who want to see prestige films, which leads to a big opening weekend box office. But then those numbers fall off because you have people a little caught off guard and the wrong audience for the film. Maybe it's the fear that there would be no box office versus some box office first weekend? I don't know. I heard The Color Purple kind of suffered after its initial weekend.
I've always had a difficult time with The Color Purple. At one point or another --college probably --I read Alice Walker's novel. It was brutal. The story is a cruel one. It is a book about misery and abuse and it gets really rough. I then bought (in an attempt to force myself to love this story) Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple movie. I still don't know why Spielberg did this movie, but I kind of love it. I don't love the movie. It was me twisting my own arm. Now I'm at my third version of the same story and...I don't know. I kind of like this one. But that's not the glowing review that I want it to be. I'll be honest. I really like a quality musical. I can tell that I'm watching a quality musical. The songs are solid. The performances of said songs are great. The dance numbers are solid. I just, unfortunately, feel a complete disconnect from the musical numbers and the subject matter being performed.
It's not like all musicals are meant to be happy and joyful. I'm one of those dopes who really likes the Les Miserables film musical. (By the way, I can't believe that I haven't written about Les Miserables. I watch it almost every year while I'm teaching The Count of Monte Cristo.) Part of the logic, I suppose, is that I consider The Color Purple to be too bleak to have some of the dance numbers. But, again, Les Miserables has some real bangers in there and that's a story that literally translates out to "The Miserables." Part of it is that I don't really know if the tone of the songs match the tone of the scene. I'm not the first person to point out this old chestnut, but there's this weird "is the music real or is it just for the audience" element to musicals. I'm thinking of the musicals I really love and the music almost feels like a natural extension to the scene. With The Color Purple, we could be watching Celie going through some absolute hell. Then, there's an abrupt stop and a music and dance number happens.
Maybe it's that there's dancing. Listen, my favorite part of musicals is the dance. What? I can be open like that. The Color Purple's dance numbers are just fantastic. I love every moment. But with something so bleak, I'm going to make that Les Miserables comparison. There really isn't traditional dance breaks in Les Miserables. The song is the telling of the story. There are things that are choreographed, but it's not really supposed to be these show stopping dance numbers. Because I really want to like The Color Purple, I'm going to give some points to the fact that Celie --because of all of her trauma --lives a good portion of the story in her head. The songs almost act as a form of escape from the misery of her real life. I like that. But that jump is always kind of abrupt and I'm not often emotionally ready for that transition from the horrors of reality to the bright nature of Celie's escapism.
Is Taraji P. Henson only going to play this type of part from here on out? Ever since Empire, she's kind of been typecast as this one kind of role. Don't get me wrong, she's pretty darn good at it. But I miss getting surprised by a Taraji P. Henson appearance. She keeps being this fast-talking, no-nonsense character who dominates every scene she's in. That's great, but it also means that we never get many levels from her. It's not to say that Shug Avery doesn't have vulnerable moments. There are bits in the story where Shug has to get her guard down. But these are softer moments, not vulnerable moments. I never really feel like Shug has much to lose with her choices. There's even a plot that is almost an afterthought about her father, the preacher, and the role of forgiveness. But it is such a B-story that it almost feels like it wasn't going to be part of the movie or it was a much larger part of the movie that was cut down to practically nothing.
Part of my dislike for The Color Purple, besides the nonstop torture of Celie until the final act, is the very muddy message of who Shug Avery is. Part of me absolutely loves Shug. After all, in such a bleak story, you need someone who is so full of life to get the film out of the doldrums. But Shug, as the moral anchor who pulls Celie out of her depression, is a really weird choice. Shug is defined by her hedonism and selfishness. The opposite side of that coin is that she's a self-defined woman who refuses to submit herself to the expectations of society, which is great. But really, Shug is making bad choices left and right. The only reason that she is even in Celie's world is because she's sleeping with Mister and keeping him obsessed with her. Part of Mister's obsession with Shug is what is making Celie's life absolute hell. (It should be stated that Mister is 100% responsible for the things that happen to Celie, but Shug's involvement simply colors the cruelty that he dispenses.) It's also really weird that Shug latches on so tightly to Celie.
Part of the reason that Shug latches onto Celie is that she's the unique thing in Shug's world. She goes from bar-to-bar, man-to-man and sees all of this evil. Celie is through-and-through, a good person. I get that Shug would want to save someone like her. But I also have to call shannigans on that a little bit too. Mister has gone through wives before. Mister doesn't become a monster because of the arrival of Celie. Mister was a monster beforehand. Shug has witnessed other Celies in the past. Now, maybe she's sick of seeing the cycle. Maybe she's warmed by Celie's sexual desire for her. It just doesn't read that Shug, the big fish in a little pond, would bond so closely to a girl who has been silent around her up to the moment of arousal. It's just something that's always bugged me. I don't see that relationship making a lot of sense. Maybe it's the power dynamic or maybe I just see a conflict of personality. That's all.
Colman Domingo's having a year, right? Man, I may not have loved this movie, but Colman Domingo is bringing that intensity to yet another charcter and I absolutely dig it.
Danielle Brooks is nominated for best supporting actress, which originally raised an eyebrow. I forgot how big a part Sofia is in this story. The second half of the film? My goodness, Danielle Brooks destroyed in that scene. Honestly, it might be my favorite part of The Color Purple. I know that the film is about how Celie, through her resilence and good nature, fixed a community of broken people. (Sure, she probably shouldn't be friends with her rapist. I'm iffy about forgiving him, let alone bringing him into your life.) But the scenes of Sofia going from this force of nature to being thrown in jail, tortured, and humiliated was such a tightrope walk for Danielle Brooks. All the points to her.
Guys, I think this is just me. There are a few stories that I really want to like out there. Every element of the plot is up my alley and these are well-made movies. The Color Purple and Blade Runner should be the stories that I'm selling to other people, but both don't stick to me like they should. I don't love the musical element of this one. I'm sorry, it's just not gelling the same way other musicals do. There are great performances, but the movie doesn't do much for me.
Passed, but this is Capra being as wholesome as he can be. While it paints journalists as inherently irresponsible with their printing standards, the worst thing that happens is that people get drunk and fight. The movie does deal with suicide both with the respect that the topic deserves, but that feeling is not consistent throughout the film. Sometimes, suicide is the worst thing imaginable. Sometimes, it's the punchline to a joke.
DIRECTOR: Frank Capra
I don't want to write. I never want to write again. I am having a rough weekend. But I got to watch a Frank Capra classic. How often does that happen? I love Capra. I love Capra too much. Having to write about a Capra that I haven't seen should be one of the highlights of my year and I'm just incredibly grouchy. That's not fair. I just know that I will fall behind if I am not constantly writing because I still have to write about The Color Purple today and that's a lot.
My biggest question is "What is going on with the rights issue to Meet John Doe?" I've been a Capra nut for ages. like, I will lose friendships if they don't like It's a Wonderful Life or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I have done that, actually. I'm a very petty and spiteful person. But I've been trying to get a copy of this movie that is watchable for a while now. It seems like every copy is a bad VHS transfer. For Christmas, I got a copy of Meet John Doe. Again, we're looking at a public domain DVD that has a VHS transfer again. I couldn't. So I found a decent print on YouTube. I try not to admit to this because it's sketchy. I'm just so sick of buying DVD after DVD that is just trash. I now know that there is a really good print out there. It was the version that showed on TCM. I know I'm not breaking any rules. It's in the public domain. But what is it going to take to get a really good print of this movie for private collections? How has Criterion not made Meet John Doe part of the Criterion Collection? I mean, we have Night of the Living Dead. Why not Meet John Doe? It's just a weird history.
I can't help but get political with this one. Meet John Doe is one of the more political movies coming out of an already political guy. My take on this is that we're living in the Dark Universe where John takes D.B. Norton's idea and runs with it. Capra knew the common man. It's why I like his movies so much. Capra, as an immigrant, had such a love for America. His America was the people who made the country something special. He had a distrust of the upper echilons of society and knew that the American Dream was a struggle worthy of fighting. Often, the consequence of extreme capitalism mean that corporate America stomped on the little guy. Guess what? He was right. But Capra also believed that people were inherently good. The rich were so blind to morals that they couldn't understand how people could be so moved by simple, New Testament ideals of being good to one another. The very notion of Meet John Doe is that the downtrodden need to be acknowledged. If the downtrodden are acknowledged and given dignity, they will listen to whomever presents them a common goal.
Donald Trump did that. By the way, he's D.B. Norton. I'm not going to hide behind that at all. He acknowledged that there was a loud, upset, and ignored working class. He gave them dignity. Like Norton does in Meet John Doe, that dignity wasn't given out of a sense of duty. It was for self-promtion. It's weird how prescient Meet John Doe is. For a good chunk of the movie, I kind of giggled how simplistic I thought the news cycle was. Ann Mitchell is about to get fired, so she writes a fake news story about a common man who is fed up with the system and about to commit suicide. I thought it was absurd that the different news agencies fought over coverage for something so small. Then I remembered Joe the Plumber. The fact that Joe the Plumber has secured real estate in my long term memory kind of shows that maybe we are easily influenced by an appeal to emotion.
Man, I miss having Capra's belief in people. There is something so touching about people finding community over a shared love of his fellow man. It's what brings me to this story. But I'll tell you what. Meet John Doe, as much as the second half of the movie really got me, took a long time to win me over. I suppose the true for the first time that I watched It's a Wonderful Life. But I'm in this place where I have a real respect for real journalism. It's kind of weird that the movie kind of washes over the yellow journalism that is the foundation of this movie. The movie starts with Henry Connell rebranding The Bulletin into The New Bulletin. Capra has this amazing exposition for this movie. The plaque, stressing the importance of honesty and truth, is replaced by a fear of modernism. Okay, Capra is accusing journalists of abandoning principles for selling papers. But Ann starts the movie as the OG Lois Lane in this. She's all about principles and the fact that Connell is downsizing his moral reporters for the flashier writers is accusatory towards journalists.
But Ann becomes this corrupted helot pretty quickly. The odd thing is that Connell is the one who represents a love for America. It's Connell's involvement in this whole plot that causes him to get drunk and confess his anger towards what the John Doe movement has become. I love that scene by the way. For all my cynicism about the state of America, the reason that I get so worked up about politics is that I have this Capra idea of America. America is what Connell is talking about. It's about going into a war you, at your heart, hate because it means the deaths of innocents. But it also means going to war because there is an authentic evil out there and it means that people will suffer. It is the idea that Americans go to war because we are altruistic. We know that the notion of suffering is terrible and that we'll do the one thing we hate doing for the sake of someone else. I'm getting worked up because I was thinking about Trump's comments about NATO. God, this man needs to stop being a turd and to start watching some Capra. He wants people to pay for their fair share in the fighting for what's right. He wants Ukraine to kowtow to Russia because it's not our fight.
But Meet John Doe lives under the assumption that Americans understand the core tenets of America. It's easy to read the John Doe Clubs springing up over America as "I am claiming what's mine." It's a rise to say that we're going to take care of each other. We're going to remind the world that we exist by how good we are, not by what we're owed. We're living in a world where the John Doe Clubs are all about who we're going to mutually hate and I can't stand that. Meet John Doe put out this message that Americans are good and we responded with this idea that Americans are the most selfish of the bunch. What happened? I honestly don't know how we got to this point. I suppose I do. Meet John Doe talks about it at length. There's this whole class of people out there that feel unseen and unheard. Meet John Doe unites these people under the banner of patriotism. Instead, the real world was told that America wasn't great anymore. Meet John Doe, a film from 1941, argued that it wasn't that America wasn't great anymore. It was a reminder that it was always great if people just cared about one another.
Like, honestly, I'm a naive sentimentalist. I find beauty in the fact that humanity should be so beyond where we are right now. Now, I am using a work of fiction created by an idealist to talk about what Americans should or shouldn't be. I don't know if this was the prevailing attitude in 1941 or if (and I just realized that the war that Connell is talking about is The Great War, not WWII, which was a war fought despite being isolationists) attitudes have changed that much. I hate that I've been in the Generational tiff that has been posted all over social media. I hear how much Gen Z hates Millennials (by my students!) and I thought that was all exaggerated. But I have a genuine frustration with a lot of Boomers, simply because they tend to be the generation who are all for the infighting. Like, when I see pro-gun bumper stickers advocating the phrase "Come and Take It", that's so anti Meet John Doe that Americans don't look like Americans. "Try that in a small town"? Meet John Doe is all about how the small town in the friendliest place on earth. If anything, the dynamics have shifted.
Meet John Doe shows the mean attitudes coming from the cities. John is going to jump off of city hall, a skyscraper. There's a general disregard for John's life shy of the headlines it would create and that's why Norton wants to stop him. But the people from the small towns are concerned about the value of the man. Instead, we're now getting messages from small towns that we're going to mess you up if you try any of that communist nonsense in these small towns. We saw it during the Civil Rights movement and we're seeing it today.
In the past few years, I've understood that the Rockwellian America never really existed. There's the message of the self-sacrificing, noble American that MAGA perverted over time. I've compartmentalized that belief with the notion that Frank Capra, an immigrant, saw the beauty of Americans and how inherently good they are. Meet John Doe is both a wonderful film, but also something that hurts my heart because the world should be like Meet John Doe. It should be based on the idea that the love of God and neighbor means sacrificing for the other, regardless of idealogy. It should be about not needing to worry about politicians because we'll do the right thing, despite race, creed, or color. Instead, we have the opposite. We've been put through the wringer and we've come out more bigotted and more like helots than I thought imaginable. I love this movie, but it makes me more sad than anything else. We've almost proven Frank Capra to be something too good for this world.
PG, which is kind of weird. I can't really fight against it, but it just feels R. At its core, Hamlet is a dark storyline. This RSC version isn't exactly shying away from some of the more upsetting content. There's murder, revenge, suicide, drinking, and a bit more sexuality than other versions of Hamlet. Maybe it's because we tend to give Shakespeare a pass, coupled with the fact that it's not like there's gore on screen.
DIRECTOR: Gregory Doran
My Doctor Who club is on its last legs. The kids I started it with during Covid are all graduating. They're kind of over it. But you should know that I teach both Much Ado about Nothing and Hamlet in my World Literature II class. Because I have a bunch of sorta-Whovians in that class, I show them the Much Ado with David Tennant and Catherine Tate. Well, they kind of enjoyed that one. But one of the reoccuring comments about it was about how much they loved David Tennant as Benedick. This was not an accident. I am a master manipulator. (Exhibit A, for the prosecution.) Well, I normally teach the Kenneth Branagh Hamlet, just because it's so complete. But I know that by the time we get to Hamlet, there's a little bit of burnout to Shakespeare. So I thought I would change things up. If they liked David Tennant in Much Ado, they'll probably like him again in Hamlet.
I didn't end up showing David Tennant's version. I started watching it and, between the cuts and the rearrangements, I thought it proved to be a bit too much. The students follow along in their plays and this version from the RSC is a bit all over the place. But even more than that, it really tries too hard. I'm going to gripe a bit. It's not all bad. David Tennant does something marvelous with the role that I haven't seen from other Hamlets and I absolutely adore it. But my English teacher from senior year of high school called me Hamlet Boy because of my devotion to this play. I invested a lot in this show. I really, really like it. I'm not a "First Folio" guy or anything. I'm just a dude who really likes Hamlet. Maybe that makes the work too precious to me, but there are choices in this version that are incredibly frustrating.
I want to talk about Tennant first as Hamlet. One of the key ideas behind Hamlet is that we have to question what is madness and what isn't madness. Often, I tend to lean towards the notion that Hamlet isn't mad in exercising control over the events of the story ("hawk and a handsaw"), but mad in his understanding of morality. The events of the ghost (which I really want to be part of madness, but I can't get past the idea that other people can testify to the ghost's presence) have skewed him into a fever of revenge. That revenge corrupts more than makes him mad, but I get that there's a wealth to debate about Hamlet's mental state. Most actors tend to play it in line with what I'm saying. Kenneth Branagh, Lawrence Olivia, and Ethan Hawke seem to be quite in control of their faculties, especially when no one else is around. David Tennant might be the first Hamlet who embraces the notion of sheer lunacy regarding the whole thing. As such, some of those lines really hit differently. While I probably wouldn't make the same choices, Tennant's choices give validity to a version that might be considered simply the TV movie version of the play.
The bigger problem I have is that the movie really tries to be the version that's different from the others. The theater community tends to be a little navel gazy when it comes to what makes amazing art. This is incredibly reductive and I apologize for lumping in all theatre artists into this category, but there's such a need to be different that we forget that our job is to service the needs of the play and the audience. I know that there are probably Shakespeare purists who think that every show must be set during the Elizabethan era or whatever era the show was intended. But I agree with most directors and producers of Shakespeare that many of the themes are so universal that these stories are easily transposed to other eras. But one of the things about dumping the show in another era, like modern day, is that we have to not make that the point of the show. Goodness gracious me, the constant reminders that surveillance cameras exist in Elsinore almost became more important that certain plot points. Honestly, this version gives more attention to the notion of the camera than the death of Polonius.
I'm literally listening to the score of Picard season three right now. I often listen to Star Trek music. This should surprise no one. The reason that I bring this up is because, for the first time in my life, I question something that they do with Sir Patrick Stewart. I think that Patrick Stewart does a fine job with Claudius. This is such an annoying fanboy thing to say, but I have to say that I love Derek Jacobi's Claudius more. Part of that is that I don't know if this version of Hamlet gives Stewart much to do besides be a spectator at his own downfall. I need to get something concrete and annoying about Stewart's Claudius out first before I go into anything else. I'm sure that this isn't the first time that the actor playing Claudius also played the Ghost of King Hamlet. It's a very Frankenstein and his monster thing. I get it. I just find it weird that sometimes the text doesn't really make sense. Thank God that Tennant is playing Hamlet with an overwhemling amount of madness because it allows certain lines to make sense when they otherwise wouldn't.
Let me be explicit. There are many instances where Hamlet refers to the fact that his father looked very different to Claudius. He's insensed at Gertrude for downgrading in her new marriage and forces her to look at the two contrasting images of these men. When Patrick Stewart plays both, it's a bit...confusing? I noticed that we don't actually look at those photos. It seemed like the movie wanted to power through those lines so that we wouldn't raise an eyebrow, but the speech comes across and disjointed and kind of silly.
Rated PG-13. In terms of content, this movie almost follows the formula of Darkest Hour. It is a war drama about being in the bunker. As such, despite the insane amount of wartime atrocities going on in the film, it's mostly discussed as opposed to seen. There is some language, as far as I remember. It's something that kids shouldn't watch because it paints the world as a bleak and miserable place, but actual content seems to be pretty light. My biggest frustration is the slight glorification of violence. I'll explain later. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Guy Nattiv
One thing that I always thought was that reading the Bible was supposed to bring you closer to God. Every Lent, I read the Bible. I've been remiss in reading the whole thing, mainly because I'm Catholic and there isn't as much pressure to read the Bible shy of the important parts. But when you make your way through the Old Testament, it really gets pretty brutal. Much of the Old Testament is about how the Jews are persecuted and the wars that ensue because of said persecution. Golda is a really poorly timed movie considering the events between Isreal and Palestine right now. I bring up the Bible because I want to make something incredibly clear. When looking at Golda, sandwiched between biblical events and current events, coupled with a litany of other events, Israel is a country and a people that have been defined by war.
I don't know if you agree with me. You probably don't, especially after what I'm about to write. It is incredibly hard to talk about Israel. That, in itself, is an incredibly political comment. Most politics are hard to talk about. You are going to burn a bridge here-or-there. For me, Israel is difficult to talk about mainly because I am not Jewish. It's weird. I often talk about race and politics in film because art should fundamentally be political. But with Israel, there are generations upon generations of stories of oppression and violence, coupled with decisions that leave people to die. Golda is a movie that tells the story of Golda Meir, the first female prime minister of Israel. It's not a biopic of her whole life, instead focusing on the events of the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt. Without mincing words, the parallel between the Yom Kippur War and the current state of Israel are too close to be ignored. Both events start with an attack from an aggressor that is fundamentally evil. With Egypt, there was an attack on Israel that was meant to be a sneak attack on a high holiday. With Palestine, it was a bombing that killed innocents. But the story that we keep hearing about is the response to such violence.
There's a scene. It's the climax of the movie. I mean, I'm not really spoiling things when things really happen. This is history. The scene I'm talking about is one of the phone calls with Kissinger. Most of the movie is Meir and the Israelis on the defensive. Hit after hit keeps hitting. The information network is less than reliable. It's the story of the Jews being pushed around and people dying because of it. But in the climax of the film, Golda Meir and her team have surrounded the Egyptians in their own land. I think it is some 3,000 soldiers completely surrounded. Meir has them right where she wants them and has the end in sight. Kissinger calls, initially congratulating her, but also a request. He's asking for a line of humanitarian aid to go to the Egyptians. For those who aren't in the know, it's not like Kissinger is a saint. He's playing his game with the Russians, who are backing the Egyptians. But to this, Meir outright refuses. She's incensed at the very notion. For those who don't know, humanitarian aid is basic. Food and water to those who have surrendered. It's part of war.
But Golda goes into this speech about how she will slaughter each and every one of those soldiers until their general acknowledges that Israel is a sovreign state. The intent behind that scene is two-fold. The first is to show that, despite being an elderly and frail woman, she's not someone to be messed with and bossed around. The second is that Israel desperately needed to have the same rights and respect as any other country, especially when it came to being acknowledged as a governmental body, not a Zionist faction. She says words to that effect. Here's the problem, especially using the two foundational sources I have in mind. Yes, she absolutely has a point about the role that Israel plays on the world stage. But people aren't messages. What she's doing is either bordering or is straight up a war crime. She has soliders who have laid down their arms. They are no longer a threat. She's holding a gun to people's heads and demanding that they say words. All of this makes a weird amount of sense when you look at the treatment of the Jews throughout history.
But how can anyone have an objective perspective on that? It is something that we keep running into and the movie almost glorifies that decision. I know. It's messy. It's incredibly messy. But it's also why we shouldn't make movies about every moment in history. Not everyone should necessarily have a biopic. It's very easy to treat Golda Meir as this person who absolutely made the right decisions. After all, the goal of the movie is to empathize with her. She was going through all of this stuff and we're supposed to agree with the choices we made. It's why we have that typical biopic ending where a bunch of text on the screen explains the legacy of Golda Meir.
In terms of a movie, it doesn't even do a great job with what it is presenting. Part of the movie is meant to make us bond with Golda. I don't. I honestly have a really hard time with Meir as a lynchpin for the movie. I don't think it has anything to do with Helen Mirren's performance. Gosh darn it, I think she does a lot with what she has. But the movie is really jibber-jabber about military strategies. I know. There are people who love that kind of stuff. My old kinda-boss from Thomas Video loved Tora! Tora! Tora!, and that movie is just Military Strategy: The Movie. Often, Golda Meir is in isolation. We don't have a lot of relationships in the movie, shy of occasionally confiding with her assistant. There are moments where she hallucinates and we see her inner turmoil. But the human story --the relatable story --is often behind the walls of the war. Honestly, I don't know how the movie doesn't achieve much emotional resonance with me considering that almost any scene that wasn't a war room scene was a cancer treatment scene. Those scenes should have gutted me. It didn't do much.
And let's be honest. This movie was boring. I'm sorry. I have to confess that I rewatched the first thirty minutes because my mind was distracted and I wanted this movie to be good. It just isn't. Sometimes I can handle boring. It's that Tora! Tora! Tora! thing. If you find discussions about military strategy interesting, maybe Golda has some weight to it. To me? This was just conceptual stuff happening off screen and an occasional reaction to success and failure. It had all the bits to make quite the emotional movie and very little of it connected.
It just isn't very good? I'm sorry to say, but that's my thoughts. Talking about war, especially when things are a little grey, isn't a great time.
Rated R for violence, language, sexuality, blasphemy, nudity, and general cruelty. It's 1973 Scorsese. It's gritty and raw. It treats the misery of the world as something commonplace. In some ways, this is quintessential R-rating, simply because it lacks all hope. R.
DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese
Truths. It's time for them. I've seen this movie. It's been checked off on my list because I remember talking about this movie two decades ago. Also true? I remembered absolutely zero parts of this movie once it started. Apparently, when you watch a billion movies, some of the good ones start disappearing. I know. It's not like I'm the guy who has seen the most movies. I am just the guy who has seen the most movies in my small biome. Mean Streets, guys. Mean Streets is one heck of a movie. It's a flawed movie, but it's still a tank of a film. Also, I'm the guy who is privileged to have seen it twice for the first time.
Because it is so on my mind, I have to talk about the end. Again, I watched this with no memory of this movie. Maybe if I watch it a third time (sometime soon, ideally) I'll have a different perspective on the movie. Part of the idea is that I thought that this was a very different character arc for Charlie. In my head, Mean Streets was an immoral Of Mice and Men. Charlie is this guy who is corrupt by the very nature of his job. But he's got this moral code. He is true to his friends and will do anything for them. He sees that the rules say that Johnny Boy can't behave the way he is. Johnny Boy's entire character is about spiraling and lashing out at those who are close to him. Charlie is in a constant state of damage control, making sure that Johnny Boy can still live the life he chooses. But Johnny Boy, and no one else, is sabotaging that life. I can't help but see Lennie when I see Johnny Boy.
Rated R for gore, sexuality, nudity, swearing, blasphemy, and other vampire-related nonsense. It's got a lot in it, but tonally it comes across as a lighthearted Wes Anderson movie. Maybe because it is monochromatic and twee, the gore in the movie never really is all that gross. Okay, there's one or two moments that are a bit upsetting.
DIRECTOR: Pablo Larrain
In a different lifetime, I would have loved this movie. It's kind of the reason that I don't revisit Bubba Ho-Tep. I have to tell you, a lot of this is my complete lack of knowledge of Augusto Pinochet. Ready for my knowledge of Pinochet? He was a dictator who played by the dictator's handbook. That's it. That's all I know. I know. That makes me not the target market for El Conde. I mean, sure, I learned a ton about Elvis and Kennedy from Bubba Ho-Tep when I was in high school. (Not everything. I know that it wasn't a documentary.) But my goodness did I have a hard time connecting to El Conde.
The worst part is that I really thought that El Conde was going to be my movie this year. I remember on Letterboxd when a bunch of people were posting about this movie. They were my favorite breed of film snobs. I aspired to be them. The sheer glut of posts about this movie meant that it was supposed to be something that i would brag to my non-film friends about. "Oh, you saw Fast X? Well, I watched El Conde." Then I would sip my wine and ride off on my burro into the sunset. But no. I'm apparently the plebian who can't really make heads or tails about El Conde. Listen, I'm about to complain about this movie that is probably just smarter than I am. Sometimes, I'll take a knee and acknowledge that a movie is just smarter than me and that's why it didn't click with me. Instead, I'm going to try to defend my lack of love for this movie, mainly because I got the root of the story.
El Conde is one of those pretty movies. It's up for cinematography, which I kind of get. The image above? It's the first one from the Google search. It was just that pretty that I didn't have to scour for anything that looked visually stimulating. But I have to make a comparison to Wes Anderson. Golly, the movie just gave me Wes Anderson vibes the entire time. Pablo Larrain seems to me to be the guy who wanted to make a twee, tongue-in-cheek horror movie. The thing is, I'm looking at Larrain's other credits. These are movies that don't look like El Conde. If anything, he's attached to two movies that I rolled my eyes at pretty hard: Spencer and Jackie. He didn't direct Spencer, but I still harbor a grudge towards that film. Jackie I kind of remember liking, but it was incredibly forgettable in retrospect. But El Conde has a look towards it that almost seems entirely manufactured. Instead of being the best way to tell the story visually, he imagined what it would be like to make an arthouse vampire film. It almost seems like an homage to a kind of filmmaker as opposed to being a method of storytelling in itself.
The funny thing is, that visual style is the most appealing element of this movie. It's very pretty to look at, even though most of the visuals are shooting for moments of irony. When Pinochet flies out the window, it almost has that plane-on-a-string thing that Anderson does with his movies. The reason that it really works with Anderson is because that is his authentic voice. Sure, there's that same tweeness that Larrain uses in this movie, but Anderson really is that person. Larrain plays it like a tribute band...
...most of the time. There are a few shots of this movie where that visual style seems really authentic and I applaud those choices. When Carmen first gains her vampiric powers, she goes flying. The joke initially is that she lacks control of her powers, making her first flight less than graceful. But then there's this moment where we just enjoy her flight. She treats flight as something comforting. She embraces her lack of control
PG-13 for superhero violence. But I'm going to give it to the movie for swearing. Man, there's a lot of swearing in this movie and it feels like it is aimed at kids. Shazam kind of pulled the same card. Maybe the use of language is simply to give it a sense of authenticity, but it really was excessive. There's some violence that gets a little dark in the movie as well, but it mostly is a family-friendly fun superhero movie with a lot of swearing.
DIRECTOR: Angel Manuel Soto
I'm not going to watch a ton of the Oscar picks with the kids. They saw all of the ones that they're allowed to see. It's actually a crime that it took me this long to see Blue Beetle. I know. I've not been a DC guy. Blue Beetle is this liminal film. In some ways, it's the death knell of the DCeU. But it also is the birth of James Gunn's DCU. I mean, we know that James Gunn probably had little to do with this movie, if anything. But I'd like to think that I was rooting for things to succeed.
But honestly, I've always kind of wanted the DCeU to die a horrible death so we'd get the kind of rebrand that we're getting right now. It's the occasional good film like Shazam or Wonder Woman that kept a dying IP on life support for a long time. So I have no reason to not want Blue Beetle from being amazing. Reviews seemed pretty pleased with Blue Beetle. I get it. It's a really fun movie that has great hispanic representation. It's got decent effects. People were comparing it to Spider-Man: Homecoming. By the way, that's the worst thing you can say to me. It is DC's Spider-Man: Homecoming? Man, that's a pretty high bar to meet. Here's the deal. It's not. It's a very good stand alone movie that has probably more in common with Shazam than it does with any of the MCU films. That's not a bad thing. It just means that I need to refocus my expectations to match those feelings. I'll say this, Blue Beetle does so much right that I'd consider it overall incredibly successful.
This will be the dumbest thing that I'll write today. I hate me for not being more astute to what I want to say, but my tea is still steeping, so I'm running on sleepiness and stress. For all of the things that Blue Beetle does right, it kind of lacks that magic. Maybe it's because I'm full on Marvel fanboy at this time, defending movies that are way better than fairweather fans (yup, I heard me say it too) are saying about the new movies. Perhaps the problem lies in the origin story elements of Blue Beetle. Origin stories are rough in an era where we have so many good superhero movies out there. I mean, as much as I leer at Marvel haters nowadays, we have been in a glut of origin stories all over again. It's often the price of admission for these new characters. It's why we're not going to get a Superman origin story in the James Gunn film. We've got it. But these smaller characters? They need to have these origin tales.
Part of the price of the origin story is a lame villain. In this case, which is really hurting the story, is the two-lame villain problem. Okay, OMAC could be awesome. When they droped OMAC, I was flummoxed. DC has been telling me that OMAC is awesome for a while now. I don't believe it. I've been trying to read DC books with OMAC in it. This OMAC didn't even have the mohawk. Give me something. But OMAC in this was just Iron Monger. If anything, that's what's hurting me a bit in this movie as a whole. Blue Beetle is just a not-as-polished Iron Man, a superhero movie from 2008. The villain, Susan Sarandon --I mean, Victoria Kord, --is Ezekiel Stane. She's trying to unlock this super suit that is out of her hands so she can keep her weapon's manufacturing corporation financially flush. It's the same plot, but Jaime didn't make the suit in this one.
I love the idea of Jamie. He should be the Miles Morales of the DC Universe. He's a guy who adopted a mantle of an established hero, only he made it his own. The distance between Jamie Reyes and Ted Kord is night and day. Ted Kord is the less successful Tony Stark, by the way. The issue is that Jamie is a reactionary character. There has to be something in the character that seems like he's actively seeking to be the best version of himself. To the movie's credit, the movie introduces Jamie as a character who is going to school and working hard to solve problems in his life. But when it comes to the Scarab that gives him his powers, he's mostly along for the ride. To continue playing both sides, that's the message of the film. It's only when Jamie takes ownership of the gift that he is given does he actually start becoming an effective superhero. But for a movie where I have to invest in this guy from moment one, Jamie seems like the entire film is a burden on him. That's a bummer.
I'm brewing an idea behind the motivation of a character in superhero tales. Some characters, like Superman or Batman, are completely self-motivated. They see this injustice in the world and they are able to sacrifice whatever needed to end injustice. With Batman, he has to give himself powers (through a glut of money that pay for inventions). Superman has powers from the word "go", but he chooses to abandon the relative safety of living on a farm to save the world. Then we have characters like Peter Parker or Miles Morales. Something happens to them outside of their control. But both of those characters are motivated to be the best versions of themselves. With Peter, he learned what it meant to reject the call and the consequences that ensue. He lost his uncle. As such, he discovered what other characters came to naturally. Miles understands the "great power, great responsibility" thing almost immediately, seeking out a mentor to help him become the best Spider-Man ever. Jamie has more in common with Peter. But the jump between Jamie and Peter is that Jamie sees the whole thing as a burden. So much of the movie is the rejection of the call.
But that is Jamie's character. That's fine. What makes Blue Beetle something that is actually worth watching is the surrounding characters. I am a little torn about Jamie's family. They're the funny part of the movie. They're pretty effective when it comes to being the comic relief for the film. The line might be crossed a few times though. The involvement of the family all the way through the movie somtimes diverts attention away from Jamie's growth as a character. George Lopez's Rudy probably dances that line the best, though. Rudy is...a lot. But that's okay. Originally, I thought that Rudy was pulling a lot of attention from the scenes that needed a moment. After all, when Jamie first turns into the Blue Beetle, he's the one who has all of the commentary that grounds what should be a larger than life moment. But the reason that I give Rudy a pass, besides being the funniest in the movie, is that he grows as a character. Rudy initially just comes across as a crazy person. But the fact that Rudy is brilliant makes him almost the ideal man-in-the-chair character.
I do like the idea of an older man-in-the-chair. We've seen Ned / Ganke for far too long now. Rudy also isn't an Alfred. Rudy is almost dismissive of Jamie. It's almost his adventure and Jamie just happens to be the guy in the suit. That's a fascinating dynamic. I mean, I don't know how long that can last as a character, especially if we see more of these movies. I actually don't quite understand what James Gunn is going to do with Jamie Reyes and the rest of the Reyes family. I want him to do something. This movie, for all of my complaints, is a good "open-the-door" for the characters. I need to see more of this character. If that's the goal of the film, mission accomplished.
It's just that, as a standalone movie, it's just kind of mid. I liked it. I didn't love it.
PG-13 for language, violence and sexuality. While nothing is overt sexually, there are fleeting images --brief flashes --of sexual activity. The real issue is the violence that Rustin was subjected to. Most of the really traumatic imagery happens in black-and-white. If the movie flashes to his past, there's probably going to be something traumatic in those moments. The other language is tied more to racial slurs, but it isn't limited to that either. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: George C. Wolfe
I teach John Lewis's graphic novel trilogy March to my American Literature class. In fact, we're starting Book One today. I always start this unit by asking for the names of the heavy hitters of the Civil Rights Movement. Without fail, I always get "Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks." I then ask for students to confirm the following. "You probably know a decent amount about king. You know Rosa Parks's one big story, and you probably know next to nothing about Malcolm X." Sorry for the script about how I teach, but I have to explain that my next question is incredibly telling. "Does anyone know John Lewis?"
Sometimes I have people say that they've heard the name, but that's becoming more and more rare now that Lewis has passed. But the point of the question is to remind people that the Civil Rights Movement, like many of the great moments in history, was due to the sacrifice and commitment of a wealth of people, many of whom have started to be forgotten by history. It's funny, because I also have the students do mini-reseach projects about the people discussed in March. One of those names is Bayard Rustin. I'm going to tell you --as much as I tend to dislike biopics about celebrities --I tend to really like biopics about Civil Rights leaders. There is this weird result that has happened when it comes to movies about the Civil Rights Movement. There are a lot of them out there and most of them are of pretty good quality. I have to prep you. I'm about to say the most insipid thing in the world, but I ask that you stick with me. The sheer wealth of good Civil Rights movies have almost created a Civil Rights movie shared cinematic universe.
When we finish March Book Three, we then watch Selma. In Selma, the story focuses on King and Coretta as they prep for the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In that movie, John Lewis weaves in and out of King's story. Lewis was a major player at Selma, but wasn't necessarily part of King's inner circle. The same thing happens in March. It's the story of Selma from Lewis's perspective. The cool thing about Rustin is that it does the same thing. The second March book is about the Freedom Rides. Lewis is in Rustin. King is in Rustin. God, I love this so much. It's the same story from different perspectives. We kind of view history from this snapshot perspective. But these stories, when they focus on different perspectives on the same events, we see that these are symphonies where everyone is doing exactly what needs to be done to change history for the better. Also, Civil Rights history is one of my buttons so another movie about the Civil Rights Movement is going to make me happy.
But this is a movie that has only been nominated for Best Actor and no other category. There's kind of a reason for that. Colman Domingo is a fantastic actor. He's possibly the thing that's holding Fear the Walking Dead together. Listen, I like the show and Morgan definitely fixed a lot of issues with that show. But Colman Domingo is hired to act as a lynchpin for a piece. Golly, this movie probably would not work if Colman Domingo wasn't really putting everything into every scene. It's, by no means, a bad movie. It's just a lot of talking and a lot of reminders of what was going on in the Civil Rights Movement. I mean, it's based on reality. Again, as a guy who has a better-than-normal knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement, I still can't tell you, beat-for-beat, how things went down. But ultimately, this is a movie about organizing a March. As inspiring as it all is, it is about paperwork and politics. Politics is fun. This is a different kind of politics. It's a bunch of squabbling and self-serving behavior. That brings drama, but it is also incredibly frustating to watch.
If anything, that brings the movie verisimilitude. Rustin begins the story with the epiphany that there needs to be an insanely large March on Washington. (See, there's your snapshot of history.) He sees the footage that we've seen of the police spraying down children because they're Black with hoses and knows that he needs to pick up the baton again because White America isn't going to do anything about it. Fundamentally, this should be a movie without a conflict. A March on Washington is legal. Bayard Rustin is the grandfather of nonviolence. He wants to do everything by the book. He has the intellectual knowhow to put this on, coupled with the passion to keep it going at a fast pace. Technically, there shouldn't be a story here. But for anyone who has ever tried to get things done in a way that requires people to help him, there's going to be frustrations. Technically, watching Rustin should be a nightmare or bureaucracy. It should be a burden to watch. I'm not saying that the movie doesn't face the burdens of its content. There are moments where I'm just begging for people to get out of each other's ways. But that's where the story lies.
It's odd who are the antagonists in this movie. As a dirty liberal myself, I'm prepped for the Bingo card of Civil Rights movie villains. I expected the cops and White senators to be the bad guys of the movie. They're there. We hear radio and news reports about Strom Thurmond, a man who was a senator in my conscious memory before he passed. We have a handful of cops probably acting as the hidden arm of J. Edgar Hoover. But mostly, the antagonists in this movie come from inside the NAACP. It is important to note that Rustin doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater with the NAACP. It views the NAACP as the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, it focuses on big personalities. It is about people wanting to be the face of someone else's work. That's the weird insidious thing about the whole story. Again, I'm responding to the film. I don't know what was actually said behind closed doors. I'm writing about the things that Jeffrey Wright said as Adam Clayton Powell.
I mean, Adam Clayton Powell does not come across very well in this. He's the guy who is actively fighting against Rustin and stymies him every time he gets the chance. Is he homophobic? Absolutely. Every word out of his mouth reeks of disdain towards gay people and what he would consider sexual deviance. It's probably why he is so laser-focused on Bayard Rustin. It's that. But as his character progresses through the story, the Jeffrey Wright version of Powell seems to be the guy who likes his face seen at these things. If something wasn't done by him, he would rather see it not exist rather than do good without him.
Bayard Rustin's story might be a little nerfed here, though. Again, as much as I claim to know, I learn all of this through the lens of storytellers. The movie starts off with the betrayal of King to Rustin. Rustin was this heavy hitter in the Civil Rights Movement. Through his own words, he was the man who stressed nonviolence when no one else was doing the same. But the movie starts off with a montage of King and Rustin falling out. King, who was becoming the face of a movement, distanced himself from Rustin due to his homosexuality and his criminal record that stemmed from being gay. Rustin found himself trying to fight the good fight, but from a position of being broken from that emotional divorce. Rustin opens up to King and the rest of the movie is about rebuilding that bromance. I don't know if that's how it went down. I hope it is. God, I hope it is. King was an imperfect person. Everyone is, but as time goes on, we discover things that are disheartening about the man. But King's reputation when it came to seeing people as people first still has yet to be broken. I'm possibly worried that the story was presented the way it was to preserve King's legacy.
Can I be honest? I have no idea what it means to be a gay man. I can't even imagine what it would be like to be a gay man during this era. But I get frustrated with Elias Taylor. I'm watching this from my very comfortable White suburban home as I curl up with my wife, problem free. But Taylor's involvement with Rustin is so frustrating, from both perspectives. Rustin acknowledges that he needs to keep this movement controversy free. He knows that it took a lot to get people to put trust in him. Basically, he's not allowed to have a relationship for eight weeks. That's on him. That's the pledge he made. But Elias Taylor knows this, speaks out against Bayard Rustin when asked by Roy Wilkins, and still shoehorns himself into Rustin's life. I'm not saying that Rustin is free of encouraging this. He seems to be the one leading the dance in a lot of these situations. But man alive, the way that whole story ends up. Part of it comes from the fact that we should have sympathy. This is a doomed relationship from moment one. People are weak and not everything was born to thrive. I just can't deny that the whole thing is frustrating. Again, for all we know, these are two very different points in history or maybe that didn't even happen. Still...
The big takeaway is that Rustin hits the right buttons, but that's because we're speaking the same language. As a movie, it's not the best. Regardless, Colman Domingo absolutely deserves the nomination. He makes a movie that is fundamentally frustrating into something engaging.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.