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.
PG-13 for some strong language? I honestly don't remember any strong language. Mind you, I was completely over-emotional about the whole thing. It could have been cursing the entire time and I wouldn't have remembered it. The thing is, I wanted to show my kid this movie and now I have to question everything? Oh yeah! The f-bomb on the wall of the hot tub! Anyway, PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Matthew Heineman
I wasn't ready. Guys, I just wasn't ready. First of all, I didn't know that American Symphony was a doc, let alone a rock doc. That's all fine. I can pivot on that pretty easily. Since I knew nothing about it, I can sit down and watch a documentary. Then you give me a rock doc where the subject of the documentary seems like the sweetest dude ever and that's just bonus. But then you make it about the love story between Jon Batiste and his wife who is fighting leukemia? Yeah, you officially crushed me.
Listen, I don't know who decided that this documentary wouldn't be incuded in the Best Docs category, but shame on you. We've had some amazing music documentaries in the past and this year could have used some American Symphony. I've always been honest with my lack of knowledge when it comes to music. I know a ton about movies, TV, comic books, novels, and video games. Music has always been my weak spot. It's always been a case of taking a long time to bond with a musician. It takes me a long time to decide whether or not I like an album or not. This documentary? This documentary right here? I'm now a fan of Jon Batiste. I knew nothing about him outside of the name and now I feel like I want to attend every concert of his...ever. Is it because of the movie being so moving? Do I deal with mortality in a weird and confusing way? Sure do. But beyond that, the man is incredibly talented.
There's that fine line in artists. My wife brought this up, but I get where she's going with this. Musicians, the truly talented ones, often are a little more eccentric than your average bear. They often become incredibly hard to relate to. They are so passionate about their work that it takes a very intense person to become so granular about what they do. It's encouraged in the community. (I'm not part of the community. I'm not really a part of any artisitic community. I'm a high school teacher who lives outside of Cincinnati who likes to write.) But there is all this theory out there that encourages creatives to think beyond the immediate emotional response to artwork. A good artist needs to go to the theory and see beyond the "good" and "bad" of art. Instead, they need to live a life as a bit of an eccentric. Often, these personalities are incredibly frustrating. They are divorced from the problems of the every day. Jon Batiste, thankfully, is not this. He's got his things. I can't deny that I'm watching this man and thinking, "Well, that's a bit much."
But the big pull towards this movie is how, as weird as someone can get about music (I'd like to remind you that Jon Batiste is tame compared to a lot of artists), he's so fundamentally human. It isn't simply because he is taking care of his wife with leukemia. That would take away so much of her agency. Instead, it is only part of the tapestry that we see in this documentary. There's something so modest and so humble about Jon Batiste. He's this guy who plays music every day. It's mind blowing that he was the house band on The Late Show because he got Album of the Year. In my mind, that's like Taylor Swift agreeing to being the house band. It still blows my mind that the Roots are a house band as well. But at the same time, he's just a guy who wants to be at home with his wife. He's a guy who has a hard time getting out of bed. He has to get out of bed, like we all do. But he has to get out of bed because he has to play Carnegie Hall. That's the thing that is very odd. The cult of celebrity has been talked about so much and it often is a story of corruption and change. If anything, he's becoming more and more human as he gets bigger and bigger.
That's the role his wife plays. It's almost a little bit unfair to her to define her as the one with leukemia. Yes, that instantly tells us what Jon Batiste is focused on instead of building celebrity. But more than that, while Suleika is in remission, it is about building a healthy and loving relationship. Both of them are artists. They are very different artists, but they are artists nonetheless. They get the need to encourage each other's creativity. Golly, this makes such a good Valentine's Day watch because, the sicker that Suleika gets, the more you see his love pouring out for her. The fact that he gets married to her as things get tougher only screams to the commitment that he's always had to this woman. It's this intimate affair, with a few close friends telling stories on a floor. For all of the cool stuff that we see him do, including the finale of the Carnegie Hall performance, that's the moment I'll take away from the whole thing. He has this money and ability to make a huge hullabaloo and have the most expensive wedding of all time. Instead, the entire movie is about two people living within their means. Maybe things are a little nicer than most people could afford. But the things that they really need are paper, paints, a piano, and each other.
There's a really fascinating B-story within the narrative as well, the story of being Black and young in a world of gatekeeping. This isn't one of those stories about how racist the world is. It is, but it never has that moment that we see in a lot of films where Jon Batiste wouldn't be allowed to play in clubs. Instead, he reads about how people are so skeptical to be considered in all of these categories in the Emmys. I know. Different problems than a lot of us have. But we shouldn't complain. He's a musician. He lives in a different world, thus gatekeeping would look different to him. The thing about genre is that it is really hard to pin down. Any time we deal with genre, there's a certain spectrum with a large amount of give and take when establishing what falls into what genre. Yet, there are all these people screaming out that he shouldn't be considered a classical musician if he's a jazz musician. There's all these people who are so defensive of things that are subjectively sacred that it's telling to think that this man suffers because he created something that can't be easily pinned down.
That speech at the Emmys? What?! How do I not have that speech painted on my walls in my classroom? I was just thinking how American Symphony might be in my Top 5 for 2023 and the entire speech at the end was about how art finds people at the right time when they need it. It's such a gorgeous speech and I want that everywhere I go. And as much as I may fundamentally believe that speech, I also want to remind myself that I am guilty of not always listening to that idea that is so key to my entire philosophy. He's this guy who keeps getting criticism after criticism because people like what they like. He's just this great and honest person. Sometimes art isn't for everyone. It was made for everyone, but we bring so much of ourselves into our tastes that it is a crime to tell people what is good and what is terrible. I mean, I'm currently writing a blog unpacking movies. Part of the natural end to that is evaluative. But that speech is so important. Man, Jon Batiste is a smart guy.
This might be my favorite documentary this year. Again, super disappointed that it wasn't nominated. Now, again, since I don't know the music community, I don't know how many waves this documentary made. For all I know, it might be required reading for the music scene. But I know that I only saw it because of the Best Song nomination (which would give him two of the letters for EGOT. Too bad it's going to go to "I'm Just Ken"). I know that often film nerds don't follow my arbitrary rules for what constitutes an opinion about an Academy Award. I just think that this movie needs to be seen.
Rated R for a wealth of death, leading to cannibalism. There's a lot of upsetting imagery in this movie. To show how hungry the survivors were, there's a scene showing a character urinating a black stream. There's some language, but that pretty much takes a back seat to the upsetting death that pervades the film.
DIRECTOR: J.A. Bayona
I never saw the original Alive. I knew the story, basically. I feel most people from my generation knew this story, even if they hadn't seen Alive. It actually became a weird talking point. We all knew that it was a true story, but it almost became this urban legend. Now, because I hadn't seen Alive, I treated the story in the exact way that I wasn't supposed to. It was a scary story. It was something joked about. Now, I can't testify to Alive on its authenticity or anything. But the most important thing that J.A. Bayona did for this story is to give it gravitas for a new generation.
One of the things that my wife tends to do after watching a biopic (although it has been known to happen while watching the biopic) is that she'll Google / Wikipedia the real story. Perhaps why Society of the Snow is separating itself from its peers is that it is apparently the most accurate historical movie out there about the subject. Beat for beat, as much as could be recreated, it happens on screen. Now, normally, I would guess that real life doesn't necessarily translate out to effective narrative. With this, it is so much about character that the beats of the story just color how we perceive these characters. I won't lie. There are so many characters in this story that it is often hard to keep track of who is who. But I do know that there's a big mislead in the movie. It's so hard to make a story about an ensemble and still have us care about these characters. That's where Bayona does something kind of incredible. Because there is no one leader of this plane crash, with people stepping into the role as needed, there needed to be something to (pun that needs absolute pardoning) ground the whole piece. The fact that it is told from Numa's perspective, someone who doesn't actually survive the events, is fascinating.
Part of that comes from a whole defying of expectations. Historically and culturally, we know that there were survivors of the crash. One of the first things that my wife looked up was the number of survivors. She was doing a mental checklist of who was going to make it through these awful conditions. But the movie built Numa like he had plot armor. (My deepest apologies for writing so casually about the dead. While I acknowledge that these were real people who had real families, there still is a little disconnect with me beyond the fact that Numa, as I see him on screen, is a character.) Numa as the voice of the deceased gives agency to the departed in a way that this movie had to prove challenging. The thing that everyone waits for in this movie, beyond salvation, is the idea of "When are they going to start eating each other?" It's something so horrific that our darker insights kind of propel that thought. It's the idea that screams louder than anything else. It's not like they save that revelation for the end. They start eating each other, in the grand scheme of things, pretty early on.
But when corpses are being eaten and humanity is stripped away from people because of a horrible accident, giving voice to the dead is perhaps the most powerful a movie like this can do. Society of the Snow is, without a doubt, about the survivors. But even more than just the survivors, it is about the dead as people. The movie keeps reminding us about the constant consent that was happening in that fuselage. Now, if there was ever a thing that could be contested is whether or not they talked about permission to eat a corpse as much as the movie showed them doing. I don't know. I wasn't there. But Numa's reticence to cross that line made him the ideal voice for the movie. Outside of understanding the outrage of "some things just aren't done", that skepticism is what ultimately contributed to his death. Thus, Numa becomes us. For all of the intellectual understanding that no one could survive for approximately seventy-something days out in the frozen mountains without having to do something abhorrent, there still is the morality of the heart.
Numa, like us (ideally, chooses not to eat people. At first, there are wisps of judgment coming from him. But he also has this great empathy for others. He personally chooses to avoid eating people for as long as he can --eventually submitting against his morals --but understands that there are people that he loves that he doesn't want to see dead. There's also this reminder that this wasn't cannibalism like we imagine. This isn't Yellowjackets, where there's reverie and celebration over the discovery of an alternative food source. Instead, we see those who burdened themselves with the preparation of the bodies and how those tiny bites of food were done with chagrin and regret. No one there wants to eat the bodies. They do grow comfortable with it eventually. I don't think the movie shies away from the notion that a repeated action, done over a long period of time, eventually washes away some stigma. But the dead are always treated as people. Perhaps it makes it even grosser when one of the survivor has to vomit up a body part that thaws as he gets to warmer climates.
The scale of this movie is insane. It's one of those incredibly filmed movies. The survival movie isn't anything necessarily new. But Society of the Snow takes what is fundamentally an isolated location and makes it the most claustrophobic setting in a grand tapestry of majesty. The setting is what makes us question the events of the story. There's almost something interactive about the whole experience of watching this. I know that my students who saw this movie were doing this and I'm not guilty either. The location of the Andes and how it looked instantly caused debate on how they would handle the same events. Me? I'm in the "go one direction and try your best." After that miserable first night in the fuselage, with all of the luggage as a wall, I don't know if I would have considered the inside of the fuselage any better than the outside of the exposed nature. None of that is fair. I wasn't in that situation. For all I know, I'm talking a big game right now when realistically, I would have been one of the people cowering in the plane, hoping someone else would make the hard calls. But that's what Bayona does for the film. He makes it something that we can't divorce ourselves from. It's never just noise on screen. Those debates are the debates that we have and we invest ourselves in when watching the film.
Yet, I have a hard time giving this movie a perfect score. I don't know if I can find a fault with the film whatsoever, beyond my lazy brain that has a hard time remembering people's names. I mean, part of that comes from the notion that I don't know who to recommend this movie to. Structurally and artistically, J.A. Bayona does everything right in this movie. Part of what makes it hard to talk about is the gruesome content within. I'd love to recommend this movie to my in-laws. It's never a boring movie. The characters are great. It's well-filmed. So why am I so hesitant to say "You need to watch Society of the Snow?" I mean, that comes with the territory. I tend not to recommend horror movies either. But I also know that it isn't one of my favorite movies this year. Perhaps it goes on just a little too long? The movie demands that we understand how long seventy-something days is. If it was any shorter, the film would have detracted from the sheer magnitude of events and time. But that also means that we have to watch a lot of people rotting away in the cold.
Maybe it's the fact that it just isn't a happy movie. Maybe if I watched this at a different time, I would be swearing by this movie up and down. I think I'm in that weird place where I have a glut of great movies that are a bit more chipper. It's objectively a great movie, but I have a hard time really selling it right now.
PG-13 for language. Fun fact that I'm gleaning from reading parents' guides. Apparently, you can have three f-bombs in a PG-13 movie if they are in another language and subtitled. It's weird that methods of communication affect the severity of the language itself? This movie is extremely tame shy of language. It's people existing and talking. There's some drunkenness, but that's me really reaching for something to write about.
DIRECTOR: Celine Song
I need to stop watching interviews with respected celebrities on Instagram. Honestly, if I see a Letterboxd interview with someone about their top four, I'm going to stop and listen. Someone, maybe Emma Stone?, put Past Lives in her Top Four and said that she just saw it and it kept sticking with her. Sure, there's a thing about recency bias. But the thing about a Top Four, I have to be pretty amazed when a new movie can enter the list of best movies? I know. I'm the fool. But my expectations were so inappropriate going into this movie.
Ultimately, this is a good movie about missed opportunities.
PG-13. Be glad that I checked the parents' guide because I forgot about a ton of stuff. Nyad is firmly a PG-13, with it's one f-bomb and a spattering of mild curses. But one of the major conflicts of the movie is how Diana deals with how she was raped by a trusted person in her life as a child. The movie also is uncomfortable with how much Diana tortures herself to achieve her goal. PG-13.
DIRECTORS: Jimmy Chins and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
I don't think that there's ever been a movie that I've teased more while simultaneously unironically liking it. There are so many checks against this movie that I should absolutely hate it. I mean, you've heard me bemoan the glut of biopics around award season, right? It's not like it even breaks the mold of the sports biopic. It's incredibly paint-by-numbers. I don't like sports movies, for the most part. There's a check. Also, this is the worst kind of sports movie. It's one of those things that, while impressive, is fundamentally stupid and selfish. Somehow, through all of that, Nyad works. Let's try to figure out why.
As of right now, it might have just been the right movie at the right time. It happens. I'm wondering if my applause over Flamin' Hot was just a timing issue, based on everyone else's take on that movie. I want to break down what I was feeling during the movie, just so you can completely grasp my headspace. My wife and I kept on joking how stupid the entire notion of the film is. One of the running gags we had going was the absurd locations to swim from. The movie chief external conflict is Diana's choice to swim from Cuba to Key West. The English Channel, the previous silly distance to cross, had been done by too many people and thus, the next insane swim would be a sixty hour swim from Cuba to Key West. One of the key motifs is the phrase "It's can't be done." To some, that is a challenge. To me, I'm kind of on Team Welp. "Welp, guess that's that." I know. It makes the villain in these movies. Sometimes, "It can't be done" is a valid challenge. Sustainable energy? Can't be done? Let's try. That's pretty good for humanity. Explore space beyond our galaxy? Yes, please. That's great!
But Diana Nyad's crossing of that large stretch of distance? It's kind of just impressive. That's it. Here's me going on a limb giving it some significance. It's a commentary on dismissing the elderly. That's the big takeaway. Fundamentally, one of the elements of the movie isn't that Diana Nyad did something dangerous and stupid that no one else could do. It was that she was an old lady, way past her prime, and she still did what was impossible, mostly because she didn't give up and had a team that was willing to do whatever to make sure that she did it. I mentally and emotionally could understand what made what she did impressive. Heck, by the end of the movie, I needed her to make it to Florida. If she didn't make it to Florida, I too would have rioted. But there was this almost immediate letdown after it was all over. I had this overwhelming feeling of "Well, that's done now, isn't it?" Because nothing in the world really changed from that, did it? I know. I'm being incredibly dismissive of something that was incredibly challenging. But from a guy who doesn't like sports, it kind of is the equivalent of me spending every dollar I have and devoting my whole life to making the most unimaginably huge tin foil ball that sat in a field.
I wish I could say that the entire life story of Diana Nyad was what captivated me. This makes me a broken person, so please forgive me, but I would have preferred so much more of the story devoted to the horrors she endured. Somehow, that quintessential backstory was kind of rushed through. I get it. Diana Nyad didn't define herself by the rape and abuse she went through. She refused to let that be her story. She even goes as far, in the film, to confess that she has paradoxical feelings about her rapist's passing. That's fascinating. But I also don't know what to really talk about with these moments when they almost feel like afterthoughts to the film. The film uses her abuse as a parallel for when things go rotten in the water. When she struggles in the water, her thoughts go back to those moments when she wasn't in control and I suppsoe that it is effective. But it is also a weird narrative device because I don't know if the real Nyad would have made the connection between being stung by jellyfish and her tragic backstory. These moments were so important, but they aren't presented in a way that made me feel anything beyond "It was as painful as jellyfish stings." That's not the intention, but it often was the effect of these scenes.
No, the movie works because of a couple of cool scenes and a chemistry between two actors who are absolutely nailing it on screen. I don't think I've seen Annette Benning have as much fun as she's having in this movie in a long time. She often is given stringent and abrasive women to play. It's what Hollywood seems to give her. But this is one of these women who refuses to get pushed around and it seems charming in this one. There's something both incredibly frustrating and simultaneously joyful about the way that she portrays Nyad. There are times when I asked if Diana Nyad was supposed to be on the spectrum simply due to some quirky behavior, coupled with her failure to handle the nuance of group dynamics. I never really got an answer to that, but I didn't care by the end. Benning honestly might even deserve Best Actress for just having to be in the water that long. Before you scoff at that, we kind of gave it to Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant with the same reasoning. But even beyond that, she's just giving her all with that performance. It's quirky yet grounded and I get why she gets nominated here versus other years.
But are we about to give the MVP to Jodie Foster? I mean, it's a little bit on a curve and let me clarify that. Jodie Foster tends to play these introverted and dark characters all of the time. She's always doing dark and horrible things. When she's playing an out lesbian who cares about mental health and has friends, it's so weird! Like I'm not used to this. The weirdest part is that she's really good. Benning portrayed Nyad intentionally as someone who is a little hard to love at times. It's tough when the movie is named Nyad. But Jodie Foster? Jodie is both the avatar for the audience and the hero of the piece. She's this absolutely beautifully grounded character who seems fun, yet self-sacrificing. She's a little bit of a carpet that Nyad walks over, but has these moments where she can get in her face. It's this real portrayal of someone who just felt real. Again, not a sports guy. I don't know what the real Diana Nyad was like. I have a feeling that she probably was a bit much. But Foster plays Bonnie in the way I imagine that the real Bonnie probably acted. It's fascinating.
In a million years, shy of Silence of the Lambs, would I be lauding far-too-many words over a Jodie Foster performance. This sounds like I don't like Jodie Foster. I do. I just think that she's been turning in similar performances for decades (which lots of actors do! Anthony Hopkins fans need to be a little harder on themselves. By the way, he was also in Silence of the Lambs.)
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.